When I was in my early 60’s, an age I considered somewhat old, yet still somewhat young, I had decided that ocean cruises didn’t fit my personality. Sharing a ship with a few thousand strangers and risking seasickness had no appeal. My swimming abilities were limited to a dog paddle, a side stroke and a back float, each of which I could sustain for only about five minutes. (This is still true.)
However, after my husband Bill and I were offered a free Alaskan cruise, something neither one of us wished to pass up, I worked on readjusting my attitude and focused on the possibility of lovely scenarios.
I imagined Bill and me sitting on our ship’s stateroom balcony, wearing appropriate clothing, perhaps even winter hats, because of the Alaskan cold. I thought of delightful conversations we might experience as we sipped morning coffee delivered to our room. I saw us standing on the deck admiring the expansive ocean and stunning sunsets or stretched out on lounge chairs at the ship’s pool wrapped in warm blankets, drinking hot chocolate.
I thought how we might meet interesting people and try out new foods. No doubt we would listen to informative lectures and enjoy scenic shore excursions.
Wild with possibilities, I decided it might also be fun to do a little experiment during the trip. Since no one but Bill would know me, I could try on a variety of personas and observe the results. Depending on my choice of personality, I would take note how people, even Bill, responded.
Several weeks later, when packing, I considered my wardrobe carefully and determined which clothes and accessories would fit my different identities. I pulled out my suitcase and began packing my ‘costumes,' allowing for practicalities as well. For the most part, I chose wrinkle-resistant, casual clothes, but I added a slinky black dress and an assortment of hats, shoes, jewelry and scarves. Accessories would be key to my changing appearance. Perhaps if I wore sunglasses and acted mysterious, I might even be mistaken for someone rich or famous.
Packing completed, Bill and I left our northern Wisconsin home and drove to Minneapolis where we would stay one night before flying to Alaska in the morning. The minute I fastened my seatbelt, I began my experiment. I chose to become Enthusiastic Ellen. Mile after mile, I shared a variety of comments, “Nice day for a drive!... Look at those cows over there! Do you think they are Holsteins? … Such a beautiful blue sky! …Doesn’t the Mississippi River look magnificent today? …Life is good, don’t you think, honey?”
If Bill thought I was a little manic, he didn’t say so. For all I knew, he might have tuned me out after a few miles.
Once settled at the hotel, we read the hotel guide and learned that we were only a five-minute shuttle ride away from the Mall of America. Switching into Adventurous Alice mode, I said, “Let’s check it out.” Luckily, Bill was curious about the mall and in an exploratory mood as well.
The mall reminded me of an indoor Las Vegas without casinos. Everything about the place seemed to shout, “Spend money! Buy! Buy! Buy” Shops competed for attention with neon signs and window displays. The smell of fast food and perfume filled the air and the place hummed with the sound of water fountains, muffled voices and dull background music.
I really didn’t want to buy anything, but I saw the mall as a perfect environment for the experiment “Who Do I Want to Be Today?”
Bill walked a few steps ahead of me, unaware of what I was up to. Morphing into Sophisticated Sophia, I strutted along the mall walkway, attempting to move like a model. I threw my shoulders back and held my head high so I would appear taller than my 5’ 2” frame. I walked as casually and as gracefully as I could and, to my delight, I attracted the attention of a young saleswoman working at a kiosk. Approaching me with a big smile, the woman tossed back her long black hair and asked me for just five minutes of my time. I didn’t realize I was her prey. My Sophia must have looked like a sucker.
The woman’s accent made her difficult to understand. Mostly, I just nodded at whatever she said. Twenty minutes later, I walked away with moisturized fingernails, greasy hands and a purchase that I never intended to make. Bill wondered what had possessed me. After I realized the persona research game might cost me money, my ambition began to waver.
Back at the hotel, both thinking we should grab a bite before bed, we fast-tracked through the wheelchair accessible short-cut entrance inside the building and entered the adjoining restaurant.
There Bill and I ordered our first senior citizen meals. The waitress delivered pathetically small cheeseburgers on child-size plates, then asked me, “Do you have everything you need, dear?” Bill looked at me waiting for my reaction. I give him "the look" whenever he says, “Yes, dear”. In this case, I managed not to glare at the waitress. The miniature dinners took us all of five minutes to eat. I felt much older than my years and finally said, “Let’s get out of here and go to bed.” Sophisticated Sophia had dissolved into Grandma Gertie.
The next morning there was not enough time to shower and wash my hair before going to the airport. I didn’t have the luxury to think too hard about what to wear either so I resorted to my emergency "grab and go" method. I slipped into baggy cargo pants and well-worn hiking boots and threw on the now-mustard-stained white sweater I had worn at dinner. Examining myself in the mirror, I saw my eyes were puffy with fatigue and my fine hair looked poof-less, greasy, separated and stringy. My enthusiasm for research had lost its poof too. I decided to quit the game I had hardly begun.
A shuttle took us to the airport and, after checking in, we entered the security checkpoint. I no sooner placed my bags onto the conveyor belt and watched them go through the scanner when an agent pulled me aside. Stone-faced, she seemed to assess my dirty hair and outfit before searching my fanny pack and asking, “Could anything have been placed in your baggage without your knowledge? Has anyone given you anything to take on board the aircraft? Are you traveling with any prohibited items?” I felt guilty even though I had done nothing wrong.
The agent concluded that I wasn’t dangerous. The mystery item in my bag was no more than a little cylinder flashlight attached to my car keys.
As we walked through the airport, Bill must have felt sorry for me. He bought me an army green Fidel Castro type hat (there wasn’t much of a selection) so that I could cover my hair. All my other hats were in my checked bag.
My spirit visibly dampened, Bill held my hand and squeezed it as we headed to the gate. I maintained a low profile, kept silent, straight-faced. No one smiled or even tried to talk to me. I wondered if it was the hat. Feeling the sting of a what I imagined were a few disapproving glances, I became a bit paranoid. Even though I had quit the persona game, the game hadn’t quit me. I had become Misfit Maxine.
Once on the ship, I kept changing personas. Freshly scrubbed and rested, adorned with one of my smart casual outfits complete with matching scarf, I unknowingly slipped into Curious Cathy. I couldn’t seem to ignore the people around me and bombarded strangers with questions. “So, where are you from? What brought you here? What do you do when you’re not traveling?” My interrogation skills were at their finest. I learned a lot.
Later, on one of our excursions into the Alaskan wilderness, I wore my white baseball cap and red raincoat and became Molly Mingler, a woman at ease with everyone, bantering with an NBC producer, schmoozing with a Manhattan attorney and discussing digital cameras with a general contractor from Kansas. New acquaintances seemed to want to hang out with me and yes, my husband found my personality attractive.
My unintentional persona variations kept emerging throughout the trip. I was Kayak Kitty paddling the waters outside Juneau and Cocktail Carolyn enjoying a toasted almond martini at one of the cruise ship bars. Dancing Donna presented herself on the ship’s dance floor and Sled Dog Susie emerged while I cradled an Alaskan husky pup on a side trip to the Yukon. I became Beguiling Barbara in my slinky black dress and Bill’s romantic attentiveness was all I had hoped for.
My persona experiment, something only meant for fun, turned out to be worthwhile. It dumped any narrow idea of "who I was" right out of my tidy drawer of assumptions. I learned there are many versions of myself although there are some personalities that will never be me. I’ve learned I’m my best self when I don’t try to be someone I’m not. I even discovered I’m part Cruiser Chick after all.