Wednesday, August 20, 2014


August 20, 2014: I get on the ship and they tell me to go away until they have time for me :)

all is good.

late and uncertain

Late getting into Muskegon, on top of last night's excitement, and the town's only cab is MIA, and noone ever bothered to tell me the departure time for the ship.

This blog may be ending sooner than anticipated.

Update: I am late, but the ship is even later thanks to fog on the lake. Now I am sitting on the dock of a bay, waiting for my ship to come in. I cant see it, but I hear the foghorn, so it wont be long now.

Crisis Averted.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Airport employee hard at work

Usually lazy people irritate me, but this night shift worker has been putting more effort into avoiding work than most of his co workers have been putting into thier jobs. Here I sit, having had maybe 4 hours of sleep in the last 48, amused by a man who has demonstrated greater skill at sleeping than I.

I hope this doesnt go viral and get anyone fired. Though he might have it coming for sleeping on the job?

New Discovery: I should not consider ethicalissues whilesleep deprived because I think I mightbe really bad at it.

Also someone tell me if thepicture shows up because am blogging from phone.

Crashing and Burning.

My flight to Chicago, which I needed to get to Muskegan, which I needed to board the ship, is delayed pretty much indefinitely. The good news is that the American Steamship company has at least one really nice employee who got me sorted with no problem on a flight tomorrow morning. The bad news is that, for some unfathomable reason, I had to leave the secure area to deal with a checked bag, and may have to spend the night in the baggage claim instead of the more comfortable gate area.

Oh well. At least I have a flight lined up.

Learning something new every day

The Baltimore airport, in which I am spending the morning, is probably the best airport, of all those I have been in, to have the runs. Obviously, it would be best to avoid intestinal distress while travelling, or at any phase of life for that matter, but barring that, the Baltimore airport eschews the usual airport pattern of huge restrooms in favor of many smaller restrooms, some as close as one gate apart, meaning that there is always one in sight. All this means that someone with a lot of time and a lot of shit has plenty of options to find the cleanest and least busy facility.

I think, perhaps, Baltimore should consider making this their tourism slogan, in light of the general lack of merit otherwise. "BWI: The least bad place to experience diorrhea!"

BONUS: I think, perhaps, the worst part of any day is that time right between10AM and whenever mcdonalds starts serving lunch instead of breakfast.

I think the best indicator of how fantastically well off I am just to be an American is how trivial the things I have to complain about are. Though I still want a hamburger.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In Which I Come Out On Top Of Having Been Fucked Over By Piney Point

So it turns out that they were just fucking with me. I never lost my ship and was shipping out the exact day I was supposed to. Thanks, Piney Point. Coming back for third phase is going to be the hardest thing I do all year.

I leave tonight at 2AM for Baltimore Airport, where I fly to Chicago at 2PM, and then to some hellhole in Michigan, where I go to the docks and wait until 2AM for the MV Sam Laud, a Bulk Cargo carrier, to pull in and let me on. I have my documents and money and no idea what is going to happen next but secure (-ish) in the conviction that the people at the airport, dock, and ship are professionals who know what they are doing and capable of helping people far stupider and more ignorant than I.

Time to pack, then will come time to sleep. To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.

Friday, August 15, 2014


I was on my way to write a post about how my whole itinerary has changed twice in the last two days, but on my way over here I got pulled back into the fishbowl and told that my itinerary has changed again. I am, as of now, shipping on the SS Who The Hell Knows, leaving at I-Don't-Know-Check-Back-On-Tuesday o'clock.

Seneca would say that nothing should be grasped until it is held in the hand. Buddha would say that even once a thing is had, it will someday end, causing suffering to those who grow too attached.

In any case, yesterday a real, live navy man came into the library, all decked out in the blue camo, spine straight and voice barking. He was looking for a buddy, but using all the discipline of the USN to do it and I suddenly realized that, no matter how shitty the ship they end up sticking me on, my quality of life is going to be way better than it would have been if the Navy had let me join up.

This weekend I think I will finally watch all of the Count of Monte Cristo TV show from a few years back. Also, this gives me more time to enjoy the sandwich bar they recently installed in the galley.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Good News and Bad News from Piney Point

Just as the title says, I have good news and bad news.

  • Good News: I have a ship! Well, I don't actually have it, but I will be going to work on the ship! Sure, they guarantee employment somewhere, but actually having a place to go after August 15th sure feels a lot better than a vague promise made by people who visibly don't care about my welfare.
  • Good News: It is a good ship! Bulk Carrier Sam Laud on the Great Lakes carries iron, limestone, coal, and similar cargo in the US and Canada on the lakes. Update: Still no shipping orders, but my reporting date is next Monday, Aug 18th.
  • Good News: The person shipping with me to the Sam Laud is the single best person in class; personable, competent, hard working, and sharing similar interests. I really could not have hoped for better luck. Update: He got transferred to another ship. I will be the only one from my class on the Sam Laud. Oh well.
  • Good News: I have a test tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday, all of which I must pass to get on this ship, but I did just fine on all the practice exams and am not worried at all.
  • Good News: We had a fantastic rainstorm today, it just came straight down hard for a few hours.
  • Good News: Bulkers have long shore leave, so when we stop I will have (schedule permitting) time to enjoy myself in some quality cities. Also, it will be autumn, so the coastline will be all pretty. If we have an early winter, I may get to see the lakes freeze :)
  • Bad News: Morning inspection ran long on the other floors, so by the time I got downstairs all the pancakes had been eaten this morning.

Union Education at Piney Point

Union Indoctrination class ended today, test on Thursday. This is the first actually bad class I have had, partly because of the material designed to fool morons and leave everyone else no less ignorant than they walked in, but also because the instructor possesses a fantastic arrogance wholly unjustified by her demonstrated competency in the material. Today, she informed a student that he was "just wrong" about his ethnicity and told me to shut up because I was answering too many questions correctly.

On the first day we were asked to learn the names of the current union executive officers. None of us questioned this, because it seems like a reasonable topic for "Union Education" class. Today, however, we were informed that the reason we learned that is so that we can show these people "proper deference" if we happen to see them in a hiring hall, because "you wouldn't talk to an executive like you would a fellow seaman".

I considered tearing apart her history lecture, but the truth was that it was so content-less that there wasn't any point.

I don't really want to think about that class anymore, because it was terrible, frustrating, and bad for my blood pressure.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Oh no! Is he dead?

Not dead. I would have written something this week, but there hasn't been much to tell.

Started the last two classes last week, vessel ops and union education. Vessel ops is very interesting, but very practical as well, without much wisdom to impart on anyone. The first day we went over all the different types of hand tools, most of which I had seen before, but learned the proper names and intended functions of each wrench, hammer and screwdriver variation. Tuesday we learned knots and splicing. Wednesday we moored and cast off the decrepit tug boat the school keeps in harbor. Thursday we learned about the sea project we all have to do on our phase 2 vessel in order to make it to phase 3. Friday we studied valves.

So far, it is the most interesting and useful class, but not much to share with anyone.

The other class is union education, which I have divided in my head into two parts. Last week was the easy part, going over the structure of the union, the benefits of union membership, and what the union requires of us in order to fund those benefits. Next week is going to be the high blood pressure week, in which I will practice keeping my mouth shut as a fantastically arrogant administrator lectures us on the history of trade unionism in America with a focus on the SIU. The little taste we have already gotten suggests that the story is, "evil corporations exploit, oppress, and enslave workers, but our union leaders served as Jesus analogues to suffer for our 40 hour workweek". Not that sailors get a 40 hour workweek.

I can assure everyone who is, apparently, worried about it that as soon as I know what I am shipping I will post details. Nothing happened this week, but it all happens next week. The new class comes in on Monday, we should get our shipping information (or an idle notice) around Tuesday or midweek, then on Wednesday we have the physical fitness test and we all go to Walmart to buy whatever extras we may need for the journey and have our unofficial farewell dinner at a genuine fast food restaurant, Thursday we take the union ed final, Friday morning is the Final Final exam covering the whole last three months, and Friday afternoon we go around getting all our paperwork and settling any accounts.

As for where I will be shipping, I have no idea. We have a pair of pathological liars in the class who keep claiming that commandant said this or that, every one of which has been complete bunk. Some say that we will be going to the cruise ship because the last few classes have all gone to the cruise ship. Some say we will all get cargo ships because it is "shipping season", but as far as I am concerned, I worry about what needs to be done today and am perfectly content to deal with tomorrow tomorrow.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Bullshit of Piney Point, and How Little it Matters

Piney Point is just a place. A whole bunch of buildings carefully designed to be neither attractive nor ugly in which no one (or no one in the UA program) is allowed to form any connection with or personal affinity over. Even after all this time I have no sense of place in this utterly sterile facility. Most of the people are anonymous strangers cycling rapidly and irregularly through to keep any of the background faces from becoming anything more than background. I can only say that I know the ten people in my class, maybe a third of the class immediately behind mine, and a handful of "important" people, mostly administrators and instructors.

It is in this environment that we are given a whole lot of instructions and restrictions, but very little guidance. Trainees get the core function of Piney Point accomplished quite well as a general rule, we make it to class, study, and become certified in an assortment of things. But for everything else, from the institution of a boot camp lifestyle to the various work details around the base, we are expected first to simply know what is wanted of us, then to know how it should be accomplished, then to juggle it with all the competing expectations. Oversight is minimal, so if we do the wrong thing we are often completely unaware of it, causing problems both when the mistake is caught and in the interim when the mistaken solution crowds out other possible solutions and unrelated priorities. Rules are changed weekly, nothing is announced earlier than the day before it happens, there are no communication channels between us and the hands that move us from place to place, and the entire program reeks of patchwork upon patchwork with the original purposes and motivations for each patch obscuring the others and completely covering up what was once a well designed regimen.

What is worse is that the administrators, the people who have absolute power over my career, only intermittently care, and then only about the things directly visible to them in their administrative capacities. It is said that years and years ago when the program first began in the 1950's, it was run by a former Navy Marine drill instructor who firmly believed in a program that broke men down and then built them back up better than before. This fabled drill instructor was universally hailed as one of the best men that those who met him ever met, tough, fair, and competent. Those who replaced him are salarymen who may have once been fine seamen but are now out for nothing more than a steady income. The trainees are no one's priority, so the easy part of the boot camp program, the breaking down, remains in place while the much harder building back up has fallen by the wayside. And with a recent spate of lawsuit threats (or perhaps actual lawsuits-- we don't get much information down here in the trenches), even that breaking down section has started to be stripped away starting with class 789, though I am not qualified to say what Piney Point is left with in the absence of even that.

It is from this combination of distracted administrators desiring a micro level of control without the micro level of oversight necessary to understand what controls are necessary that makes this place a seething swamp of bullshit. It is a purposelessly unpleasant dystopia endured for vague promises of future riches delivered by distant others.

But none of that really matters. "Hell is other people", but those other people can't do anything to hurt you if you don't let them. Nothing they have made me do put me at any risk of losing a limb, and most of the tasks I have been asked to do were tasks that needed to be done in some form or fashion at some point. The notion of something being a waste of time exists only in my head, as does the concept of unfairness. None of the bullshit matters because none of it lasts. I have just traded three months of my life for the beginning of a career, and I think I am right to be offended by some of the crap they have used those three months for, but it doesn't actually matter if I am right or not, if I am offended or not, because they are going to uphold their end of the bargain and this phase of life will just end without consequence or lingering effects.

If you are looking at going to the UA program at Piney Point, the only thing you need to know is the thing they tell you over and over again in the first week; keep your head down, your nose clean, and your mouth shut. If you walk out of here and the administrators don't know your name, you win a fantastic new life. It isn't free because nothing is free, but the price is one that I have been able to afford, and maybe you can, too.

Morale Boosting

Life isn't always bad at Piney Point. In fact, there is a whole spectrum from terrible all the way up to merely unpleasant.

But seriously, for all my bitching, it could be a lot worse. I never have to worry about basic life needs, except sleep, and even then there isn't a worry that I will start having serious health complications just from the sleep deprivation they put us through here. And, also, every now and then (about once a month) the administration funds a moral boosting activity.

Two months ago we didn't get to participate because of first galley, but they bought a pay-per-view boxing match and a bunch of pizza. Last month they got the big UFC fight, including the women's division championship (very popular among the target demographic here) and pizza. This weekend, after manning the staff appreciation festival all day, we were allowed to run our own little dodgeball tournament, complete with pizza and chicken wings. Sailors are not complicated folk-- if intoxicants and hookers are off the table, recreational violence and comfort food are a strong second best.

I can never tell how much of what goes on here is the product of some plan or merely the emergent order of a system with a short institutional memory and frequently negligent administrators, but I almost hope that the curriculum symmetry is the product of design. The very first class, vessel familiarization, is during the most boot camp-like two weeks at Piney Point, where a trainee is brought in and is assumed to know absolutely nothing about the direct environment of Piney Point nor about shipping and sailing. It is, in a certain way, an overview from a thousand feet, covering the whole spectrum of the industry in very broad brushstrokes. After that is two weeks in galley, followed by a month of safety training (lifeboat/ water survival/ firefighting/ first aid), followed by two more weeks in galley that mirror the first, followed by vessel operations class which, in many ways, mirrors the original vessel familiarization class. Instead, however, of the thousand foot view, we look at the same topics in minute detail with particular applications for our phase two work. So today we covered painting and hand tools.

Returning to the exact same classroom to cover much of the same material serves to emphasize those things that have changed over the last two months. Most noticeably, the lifestyle has loosened up dramatically, though is still much tighter than it will be anywhere but on a Navy ship. Relationships among classmates has, of course, changed over two months. And I keep talking about the change over the last two months, but with that continuity of place it feels as if far more time has passed. I can barely remember the interminable months of unemployment from before I got here; that time is well and truly dead. And with all the unpleasantness of being here, nearly everyone is pushed to keep their gaze fixed on next week when the shipping orders arrive, and to the start of phase three when we get our specialized ratings.

And on the subject of changes, the most visible change in my mind is the geese. When I got here there were perhaps 250 geese, including just hatched goslings who would follow their mothers all in a row. Whenever I got stressed or bored I could watch the geese, the adults fighting and the children stumbling and growing up. They were all so pretty and animated that it brightened every day. For two months, the slow growth of these goslings was another marker of the passage of time.

Then, sometime while I was trapped in galley, during the week that I didn't set foot outdoors, they all left for wherever it is that geese fly off to around this time of year. Having walked back out of galley and into a gooseless facility, I feel quite strongly that the time has come for me, too, to fly off to wherever it is trainees go.

A silly metaphor, perhaps, but one that resonates within me with unexpected power.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Things I learned in Galley

I have finally started, after two and a half months of being in the bubble of Piney Point Penitentiary, to discover various forums where merchant mariners hang out. You would think this would have been the sort of thing I should have done before coming here, or even before applying, but I didn't. In any case, it is probably for the best, because the sort of people who write things on the internet tend to be angry people. I, for example, am not an angry person, but I think that might be hard to tell for someone who only read this blog.

But one of the things I found was that the people who didn't like Piney Point would always bring up the galley month. This is not completely unjustified, because galley objectively sucks. Eighteen hour days for two weeks straight (used to be done all at once instead of in two two week chunks, for twenty eight days of fun) in a highly regimented environment (can't even use headphones at work) doing a job you probably don't enjoy (unless you are going into the steward department or have a restaurant background) to the orders of five separate head chefs who don't get along very well is really hard, and a fair number of people quit because they can't handle it or think they are too good (which they aren't) for this bullshit (which it definitely is).

On the other hand, it isn't a completely purposeless exercise. It is certainly a process for weeding out the people enamored more of the idea of being merchant seaman than of the work involved in being merchant seamen, and fourteen hour days packed with work are not uncommon aboard a ship. But it is also a learning experience.

  • I learned about how to wash dishes. Obviously, I understood the idea of soap, scrub and rinse, but I certainly have much more experience with washing all manner of scum off all manner of pot. More importantly, I learned how to wash dishes for hour upon interminable hour which requires a different sort of patience than waiting for hours in a waiting room or doing hours of yard work and brush clearing. I can hardly claim to have mastered either the washing itself or the mental act of tolerating the job, but I feel like these basics will stick with me in the event that I must return to a similar position. Holy crap I hope I never do.
  • I learned about just how little sleep I can function on, and discovered how much of my function goes away when sleep deprived. In the real world, I am one of those people who needs about nine hours of sleep to feel good, and have been making do here with somewhere between seven and eight. At six hours I definitely start to feel sleep deprived, and those nights when it went all the way down to five hours really, really hurt. As I sit here at 1830 in my library job where I am not allowed to fall asleep I can feel the sleep debt behind my eyes and in my fingers. I am nominally off as of lunch shift, but it turns out that the special snowflakes in the new class need extra pampering (I haven't mentioned it much, but the newest class is operating under a new, much more lenient set of rules) so I still get to wake up at 0430 tomorrow morning, then work all weekend for the 500 person picnic we are hosting on the hotel side. Just like last time, the weekend of sleeping I so desperately need right now has been snatched away from me.
  • I learned that adding more people doesn't always make a job easier. We had twelve people the first go around, but two of them were so unbelievably lazy and unhelpful that we found that things went faster and smoother the second time around after they had been kicked out. For all my fear that we would hurt from being understaffed (and we did hurt), it really was better only having people who pulled their weight, as well as a few people who pulled far more than their weight.
  • Speaking of weight, I saw an example of how weight loss is all about motivation. One of the men in class came in at 5'9" and 280 lbs. He was so fat he could not do a sit up because his gut kept him from bending that far. He has been dieting severely and managed to lose just under 20 lbs a month and is now at 240 and falling. He is still big, but the transformation really is amazing, accomplished all through the willpower required to simply not eat so much. I, on the other hand, was 165 lbs five years ago, 165 lbs when I came in, and 165 lbs today, so it would seem that I keep the same weight no matter what exercise or food environment I find myself in.
  • I learned that it can be absolutely terrifying when your only source of information about what is going on is rumors. It has been a good month and a half of these arbitrary rule changes, but the worst part is that most of them are communicated not at morning colors, nor afternoon muster, nor evening colors, nor nighttime inspection, when the administration has all or nearly all trainees present to announce things to, but they usually get communicated through rumor. It has gotten to the point that I think I could make up my own rules change just by spreading a plausible sounding rumor to the right people, and if it spread quickly enough people might not even go asking for confirmation. In any case, the worst part of rule by rumor is that the rumors aren't terribly specific. I know there is some new rule about getting permission before going in to restock on toiletries, but I have no idea who to ask, why we now have to ask, or what restrictions there might be on that.
  • I learned that the faux boot camp environment of Piney Point is widely regarded by everyone except the three people in charge of perpetuating it as complete bullshit, wholly beside the point of the industry, and damaging to trainees insofar as it instills really negative habits that aren't tolerated on a ship. I heard a story about why we have it like this, but that will have to wait for a more comprehensive post reviewing the good and bad of Phase one.
  • I learned a joke. At King's Point (the academy for merchant marine officer cadets) they teach the cadets to wash their hands after using the restroom. At Piney Point they teach us not to piss on our hands.
  • I learned that being a whiner in an organization with someone powerful who responds to whining is basically a superpower, second only to having genuine connections in high places. I learned that being a whiner on a ship is a good way to have captains refuse to take you on board.
  • I learned that if you spill a lot of shrimp juice on your jeans and then have to wait a few days for your laundry day to come up, that smell is never, ever coming out of those jeans.
  • I learned that union members are encouraged to scam the unemployment insurance system, and in fact we had an hour of class time on Thursday set aside in the curriculum to teach us exactly how we go about it and how to scam the most money out of states.
  • I learned, or more specifically reinforced, that a day itself or an instant itself has no emotional component or moral value. The thing "a good day" exists only within the thousand cubic centimeters of the human brain, and can be completely controlled therein.
As before, there is plenty more I have learned, like when you have a shitty job every shift can feel like weeks, and that in a place with very hard water and thick cream slathered on every meal, being constipated all the time starts to feel less like a terrible ailment and more of just a divine curse that must be lived with.

Next week I have Union Education with the daughter of the union president, which should be a great way to practice keeping my idiot mouth shut. Then we have our final class, vessel operations, which is the only class in phase one where we are taught anything in the way of practical job skills.

So only about a week and a half until I get my shipping orders, and only two more weeks of putting up with Piney Point bullshit. But every day is its own day and every minute its own minute. What will come will come, and until then I will blog and read and watch TV and occasionally, when ordered, do work and study for Piney Point.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Rainbow of Unreliability

Here is something I have known and never really thought about until now-- there is a whole rainbow of different kinds of unreliable people. There are a thousand ways of being unreliable, from literally hiding until the hard part of a job has been finished to simply not waking up on time. Right now I have time to write this because my co-library monitor, a man whom I thought to be extremely punctual, smart, and hard working, has decided to grab on to any communicative ambiguity he can in order to get out of an easy job that interferes with his ability to hang out with his friends. This, in turn, is making me unreliable, since we only have seven people working that galley right now, and I have been detained on my library watch without relief through the second hardest part of the day, the dinner rush. I put a call in, but everyone is so busy that we can't spare anyone to hunt down my relief.

Frankly, there is a part of me that is relieved, because I get to sit and recover a bit. The last few days have been extra exciting because, just as the congressional caucus leaves, I lost a big chunk of my library time. My co-monitor entered a class that runs late, so I have to open the library for him, an arrangement I agreed to only on the condition that he hurries down and takes over as soon as he can, with the understanding that I would make those extra hours up to him later. This means that I haven't even had enough time in the library to sit down, so no break for me at all. But I also worry. My classmates are in there right now, even more understaffed than usual on a busy night, probably muttering about that lazy bastard over in the library. I don't worry about getting officially called out for this, because no one is allowed to leave a watch without someone there to hand the watch off to, but everyone knows who works and who doesn't. I just got pulled off the hard job for an easy job and now I don't even show up?

Above and beyond all the other rules at Piney Point, the main rule is that everyone does their share. Here I am, unable to pull my weight, making others pick up my slack. Until now, I have always been able to retort to anyone who gave me shit for anything that at least I pulled my weight and worked as hard as I could. I don't know what I can do now that this defense is lost to me.

I have fought really hard to stay in the present, to take each day one at a time, and not count the time like everyone else here, because obsessing over the future is poisonous. But now it is very difficult not to think to myself that I will only have to look these people in the eye for another two and a half weeks as a consolation. The worst part is, when I get back they won't give me shit, they will just remember this and move me over from the mental category of people who pull into the category of people who slack.

I had other stories, but they flee from the mind at the moment. This weekend or on Monday I will have time to post more.

Vignettes in Ailment

As is probably often the case, I am currently experiencing so many stories that I haven't the time to write about many. Basically, I got sick Monday afternoon, spent all day yesterday dead on my feet, and then today am dealing with the aftershocks of fatigue and soreness. The good/bad news is that one of the head chefs got sick of looking at me in the dishwashing pit and sent me to the nurse. The nurse called me a pansy and said to get back to work, even though I protested (honestly!) that I never said anything about feeling poorly to anyone, mostly out of fear that I would get kicked out of here. Turns out that the rumors were wrong, they don't kick you out of Piney Point for mild illnesses; really they just don't care as long as you keep working. I have a lingering suspicion that the chef is creating a paper trail if he decides to pursue me for malingering (I am not, but don't have any real way to prove it), but the good news is that I finally, after 28 days alone in the shittiest job in galley, got put in a better job. Still uncertain as to whether or not I have enough sympathy for working in the shit job to overcome the extent to which I am generally despised among my classmates to keep the good job for the next two days or if I will get sent back to the dish pit.

I have time, so here is another tale. Monday night, I lay in bed feeling quite ill when the smoke detector starts beeping, one beep every thirty seconds or so. A few people shout at the smoke detector, without effect, but then try to go back to sleep. And this thing is loud, like a little spike in the ear each time it goes off, and the interval is long enough that the brain can't predict, anticipate, and get ready for the sound, so each time it hits unexpectedly. So the faulty alarm is port side forward of the room, and I am starboard side aft, literally as far away from the alarm as I can be, utterly fatigued from both illness and sleep deprivation. I think, but don't say because my throat hurts too much to talk, why don't any of these guys even try to get up there and investigate it. I feel like shit and I know these guys don't feel as bad and are just laying there waiting for someone else to fix it. So eventually I shamble across the room in a bathrobe, past every single other person in that room who could have showed some fucking initiative, and try to climb up the locker under the alarm. My arms give out and slam my face into the locker, splitting my upper lip (no one noticed me fucking up, fortunately, because this is all after lights out), but then I heave myself up and onto the locker. I take a few deep breaths to recover from what has become an exertion in my exhausted state and look up at the smoke detector. As I watch it, it beeps back at me. I unscrew it from the mounting thinking to take out the battery just to shut it up and deal with the consequences later, but it is plugged in and the wiring is hard sealed into both the ceiling and the detector unit. I look around for buttons, but there is only one button that says "Push and hold to test, push to silence". I push it, to no effect. I push and hold and everyone swears at me until I push it again, to no effect. I push it again, just in case, and it continues beeping. I search again for buttons or switches of any sort, to no avail. I check the wires again to see if any might come out, but they clearly will not come out without damaging the unit. So I climb down from the locker, lick blood off of my upper lip, and settle in for a fitful night of inconstent sleep.

The maintenance people fixed it in the morning.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Empiricism at its finest

Our story today features the trash man, the classmate whose job it is to go around taking trash out around campus, and one tall man, a classmate who is kind of lazy and gets bounced between jobs. Yesterday morning the trash man pulled his back trying to lift a particularly heavy load of trash and asked tall man to switch jobs for the day. A bit later, while I am assisting trash man in doing tall man's job, tall man walks in and, hoping for guidance as to when to go on a trash run, tells trash man that the trash truck is half full.

I ask if the trash truck is half full or half empty, which tall man doesn't hear so trash man repeats it.

Tall man says, "I don't know, let me go check", walks out the door, looks at the truck for a minute, comes back in, and says, "Sorry, you were right. It was half empty."

The reference to the famous glass half full personality test was missed so profoundly that I think some wholly new insight has been reached. The thought that the glass could be double checked had honestly never occurred to me. The thought that someone could hear that and not immediately recognize the equivalence of the two cases shows just how much we imagine to be automatic and instinctual arithmetic processing is actually learned.

Tall man is undenibly ignorant, a high school drop out only now getting his GED as part of the Piney Point program, and while I do find an inappropriate level of amusement in his poor vocabulary and lack of historical and geographical knowledge, he is doing a fine job of bettering himself, having moved visibly from a lazy, arrogant punk to something rapidly approaching a contributing member of society. In fact, out of the twelve in this class, he is the only one to respond positively to the faux military discipline and general bullshit of Piney Point, proof that the boot camp method of education does work for some people. Of course, it does nothing for the rest of us, and he has, despite his personal forward movement become the laziest person in class by virtue of the two lazier people getting kicked out.

Today as well we had our class on sexual harassment. We watched a badly acted video in which a racially diverse cast sexually harassed each other in hilariously inappropriate ways and then became rule citing robots who dealt with each harasser according to the procedures laid out in company policies. This was followed by a lively debate between the instructor (who believes that sexual harassment is a bad thing)  and three particularly outspoken classmates offended by the notion that women aboard a ship are to be treated as real people, not "fuckmeat". I stayed well out of the conversation out of profound shame.

On the plus side, we were told that sexual harassment, out of all crimes and failings, is punished most harshly aboard a modern ship, subjecting a convicted harasser to firing by the company, suspension and punishment by the union, substantial civil lawsuit awards, and federal prison time. Despite this, it remains the third most common reason for firings aboard a ship. Talking to an upgrader who confirmed that that shit just isnt tolerated nowadays. The three who can't seem to get that are, in his opinion, not long for this industry.

With today's conversation in mind as well as the work ethic of my classmates, I can definitely see only four or five of us sailing still five years from now. It warms my heart to think that those bastards are going through all this bullshit and getting nothing for it but impoverishment and pain.

Edited: Posted this from my phone. Looks like I should avoid long phone posts.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A view from the air

Piney Point has a lot of bullshit. A whole steaming pile of it, and I can (and probably will) go on for many a post detailing all of it. But it seems I have not just family but also strangers visiting the blog who may need a bit of context, a birds eye view of my experience starting the final month of phase 1 in the SIU.

Yes, the working galley blows, and working from 0500 until 2130 blows as well. But (and this might be Stockholm Syndrome settling in), washing dishes in the galley is not a bad job; it is boring and bad smelling and unpleasant and goes on for way, way too long and seems pointless for someone hoping for an engineering career, but it isn't hazardous or difficult and no one treats me badly or belittles the job as "just dishwashing" and it is certainly honest work that needs doing, so if I wasn't doing it someone else would be, and who the hell am I to say to someone else that they should be washing dishes because I am somehow too good for it. Similarly, the social responsibility class is necessary for the coast guard certifications and taught by a good man. Mandatory gym class is unadulterated bullshit, but I seem to be the only one in the class who doesn't believe pointless, sweaty physical exertion to be a valid form of entertainment. At least we finally prevailed upon the capricious administrator to allow us to wear headphones on the treadmill like everyone else got to do until last weekend.

But I have seen no better place that serves as a living example of the Buddha's teachings than Piney Point. Everything is temporary, and clinging to anything can only bring suffering. Those in student leadership positions are often warned that those positions don't follow them onto the ship and horror stories are told of apprentices who said to actual bosuns with decades of experience that they weren't going to do something because they had been Piney Point bosuns. No class in phase 1 lasts longer than two weeks, with each change completely upending our daily schedule. Even galley only lasts for two weeks at a time, and the program as a whole comes to a close in only six months of class time (and 210 days shipboard as entry level ratings). No one but administrators and instructors stay longer than three months under any but the strangest of circumstances. In such an environment, there is a certain calm within the chaos. There are no long term consequences here-- there is only passing and expulsion. Even the advice they give you on the first day, to keep your head down and lose yourself in your work, is a fine secular approximation of mindfulness, which is, of course, the Buddha's prescribed response to impermanence and suffering.

And the trainees come in two distinct flavors. There are those who have SIU or former SIU family, some of whom went to Piney Point years and years ago. These people are basically normal, do the best job of keeping their heads down, and treat this as another job, with both the dignity and distancing that implies. The rest of them are people like me, people who had trouble shopping their resumes in the real world and selling themselves and only heard of the SIU through mad, baffling circumstance. These people are, bar none, fucking weirdos. One guy talks enough for seven people and asks the most absurd, pointless, rambling and inappropriate questions. One guy seems physically incapable of existing without making loud noises and shouting. One guy believes himself to be an NBA level basketball player, devotes all his spare time to the court and his work time to talking about his skills on the court, and proves himself only of middling talent. One guy believes himself to be a successful con man and possesses a creepy sort of charisma that exudes both charm and slime in equal measure. I write a blog, though I don't whine nearly as often in real life. We were pretty damn desperate before coming here, and while there probably were, in fact, other options than Piney Point, for a lot of us there certainly weren't better options in our field of view.

On the administration side, I can say that some of my complaints have been met, though not because I complained about them. In fact, the political campaigning mentioned yesterday found a certain measure of success. Specifically, I gave my petition to the man at the top of our little food chain, the commandant, who said it came from a higher power than he, so he passed the letter on to the student president who is slated to have a meeting next week. Having heard none of our anger or pleas for help, the rule was reversed just as arbitrarily as it was enacted. That night, however, I was congratulated by two classmates for a successful petition. I tried explaining to them that my petition had no effect whatsoever, to no avail. This is, of course, how politicians become arrogant, so I am renewing my vow to keep my head down and, while at Piney Point where nothing matters and no one cares to do no more and no less than is required of me. Similarly, the two people I have mentioned before as being the laziest people in class and some of the most astonishingly lazy I have ever met were both kicked out for offenses related to their immorality.

And, of course, I eat every day. I even have the option of eating a healthy, balanced diet, though it will surprise absolutely no one that I go out of my way to avoid that dark outcome. I am guaranteed, for really the first time in my life, that if I do what is required of me I will, 100% certain, get a job in mid August and then, if I continue to work hard and not be a dick, another job after phase three as well as all the certification, experience, and support to continue working afterwards. The air is not poisoned, the water does not have to be boiled before drinking, and the living quarters are air conditioned (and heated, though not this month) and generally not uncomfortable. I have only spend one weekend and one week taking it in the ass because of politicians. There are those doing far worse in the world than I am doing right now, and my position today is vastly superior to the period of crippling anxiety and uncertainty I experienced around Christmas time.

 There is good in every day, beauty in every detail, and I have had a whole lot of time for recreational pondering as my hands scrub. For all that I am bitching on the internet, for all the bullshit that defines this instution, I am doing pretty well for myself in Piney Point.

Man on a mountain

There was once a man who lived on top of a mountain. This man was famous throughout the region for his exceptional wisdom and people would come from all over to climb the mountain and hear his words. A traveler came to the region one day and heard about the man atop the mountain, so he got his bags repacked for climbing and set out one morning. The climb was hot and and difficult, but never perilous and bore the markings of a well traveled path.

There he saw a thin man in ragged clothes, his beard and hair grown out untamed. Clearly this was the wise man he had been told about. As the traveler approached he saw that the wise man's leg was trapped under a large stone.

"Do you have any wisdom for me?" Asked the traveler, but the wise man did not appear to hear him. Coming closer, the traveler spoke up and repeated his query. The wise man now looked up and in a thin, pained voice he said, "I have been stuck here for years and no one will help me. Can you please just hold that rock up for a moment?"

The traveler did as he was bid, helping the wise man free his leg from beneath the stone. Taking the wise man under his shoulder, at the wise man's further request, he helped the wise man hobble down the mountain to the local hospital. The wise man suffered serious complications from exposure and the leg had to be amputated, but given recent advancements in medical science, the prosthetic was much better than either of them, both laymen to the medical field, had expected.

While in rehab the wise man wrote a short book about his experiences which more than paid for his hospital bills and may get him invited on Oprah someday. As soon as he got out of the hospital he went down to KFC for a bucket of fried chicken because he had been craving fried chicken for the past two days.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Aphorisms and Congressjackals

The reward for hard work is more work.

Only the squeaky wheel gets greased.

If you aren't paying for something, then you aren't the customer, you are the product.

If you were wondering, I put down a bunch of money for my licensing, but am paying no direct tuition to the SIU for the training they give me, nor, indeed, am I strictly obligated to remain in the union after getting my rating. Instead, the shipping companies pay at some point down the line $50,000 per male entry level worker and $60,000 per female entry level worker to the union. I may take pictures at some point of the parking lot to give you a sense of where that money goes, because it sure as hell isn't funneled into quality of life (though the simulator rooms and machine shop is fantastic as well). We are, and are rarely allowed to forget, not the priority in either the union or on the base.

I, out of a class full of people with very good reasons to be suspicious and mistrustful of authority, hate politics and politicians more than any of them. My parents have taken me to political events since I was very small, I worked my first campaign at 16, and the major clients for my previous job were politicians. From a much smaller scale I got involved in campus politics at college and ended up in charge of a quarter million dollar budget and various campus rule making disputes. I have seen that even good people (of which I am not one) will, in all cases, with long enough exposure become terrible people by gaining power and playing the political game, a game which attracts few enough good people in any case. I came to Piney Point in large part to get into something honest.

So how the hell did I spend this morning passing around a petition for improved working conditions and coaching classmates on how to canvas for support among administration figures? I blame the Congressional Black Caucus.

Piney Point features a large hotel that sometimes plays host to various conferences and conventions. This week the Congressional Black Caucus (mostly staffers and activists; I haven't seen anyone I might recognize from my blighted former life) has sixty people here holding events that I am not invited to and eating off of plates that I have to clean up. This has made our already understaffed galley experience pretty difficult, and we have not been getting out "on time", a problem in particular because getting out on time was the pet cause of some administrator or another for a few days a month ago. This has made us late to the nighttime room inspection. Now, I am not the UA program VP, from whom the rules change eminated, and no one is really certain what made him give the order, but yesterday afternoon an announcement was posted pushing back room inspection for everyone until 2200 on weekdays and all the way to an absurd 2300 on weekends. Bear in mind that the galley class has to wake up between 0400 and 0430 every day regardless, inspection takes about 15-30 minutes to get to our class, and a certain amount of hygiene is required for everyone. This means that six hours of sleep a night (in theory 6 and a half, but that is an unattainable phantasm) quite suddenly became five in an intensely busy week for an understaffed galley class. We knew today was going to suck and, perhaps due to that foreknowledge and perhaps due to sleep deprivation, it did. Another week and a half of this was unacceptable.

Running out of time but the short of it is that I ended up writing a letter which somehow became a petition by virtue of people grabbing at it and signing it, a debate began about how to canvas and campaign (without using those words exactly) among administration figures, and this morning after much frustration but with no actual input from the classes having made it to the top brass, the situation was reversed without any explanation.

When the CBC members walk around the base, I hear them talking about their messaging and arguing which talking points should be emphasized and figuring out how to worm themselves into new hollow political friendships and I hate myself for ever having thought that the political game was fun and that power was sexy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Quick notes before exhaustion overtakes me

So the class we take in galley instead of having nap time is "Social Responsibility", which is a combination of lessons on shipboard life and etiquette, the social hazards of the nautical life (drugs, women, and booze), and anti-bigotry preaching. I am particularly looking forward to seeing how the instructor manages the anti-homophobia part of the syllabus in a class with the two most strident and violent homophobes I have ever met.

Our instructor himself is a fantastically personable fellow and the man who runs the union rehabilitation program, so he has all sorts of stories about the trouble he has gotten into before he got all the way clean and the trouble he has seen his friends and patients get into. He told us today about the dangers of common law marriages for sailors coming out of certain states, and how a man can find himself common law married without even realizing it, thus losing half his pension claim and possibly ending up having a genuine future marriage voided for bigamy.

He told us that, going strictly by the statistics, out of the ten of us left in the class, one of us will get fired on our first ship in phase two, probably rather quickly, one or two will not make it into phase three, probably because of a failed drug test, and five years from now only 3 - 5 will still be in the industry. He makes it very clear that the industry takes a certain kind of person, and especially now that kind of person is different than who they used to look for.

The image held of seamen by most of you was certainly accurate up into the 1980's-90's, and continues to be true thanks to older men who have yet to trickle out of the industry. But today the biggest three reasons seamen are fired are, in order, 1) Drugs and Alcohol (no drugs, no booze, not ever), 2) Fighting (and they will fire everyone who raises a fist, attacker or defender), and 3) sexual harassment (in an industry with maybe 5% women, so there aren't even that many targets to harass). In the old days, the stereotype in your head was absolutely true that these three things weren't fire-able offenses so much as they were descriptions of a good shore leave, but those attitudes don't sail anymore, and the seamen who couldn't moderate themselves have mostly left, voluntarily or otherwise. The flipside to that is that these jobs pay a whole lot more, are substantially more comfortable living conditions, and are more interesting and demanding jobs. Assuming we aren't being fed a line of shit, I see myself and three others being the definite three capable simply of not getting fired, and two more who could do so as well if they don't fall off any wagons. For the other five, it is just a matter of time until they throw the wrong punch or start making moves or fail a urine test, though I wouldn't mind being surprised

The other "break" from galley is a return of mandatory gym hour. A month ago we were told that this time around we would at least be allowed to bring in headphones to listen while on the machines, but the rule changed the day before we came in, so I haven't even that consolation. Aside from that, I count today as the first sleep deprived day of many following an eighteen hour day of bullshit with a brief moment of calm (though no sleeping) in the library.

Speaking of bullshit, I don't think I have told the story of how, exactly, I got stuck in the worst position in the galley. At first (i.e., most of the last round) I thought I just drew the wrong straw, until I realized that the dishwashing pit is where they put people who piss off the chefs or break rules. I, of course, was in there from day one and only recently realized who it was I pissed off. Before the first day of galley, in our hour of pre-galley training, I was working a much better position when the man who was then detail bosun (and has since left for phase two) came up and asked how I was doing. I felt pretty good about everything and wanted to keep a positive attitude both for myself and to not look like a trouble maker, so I told him that everything was fantastic, and that we were having a big old work party back here. A sneer grew on his face as he informed me that no one has fun in galley, that it breaks everybody, and that he was going to see just how positive my attitude was after I got out. For the record, I am the only one in our class of ten (which is about three or four people short of a fully manned galley, meaning we are overworked beyond the scheduled overworking) who dislike the job itself as opposed to the long hours (not that I enjoy the hours), and have had people who enjoy dishwashing offer to switch, which I can't take up because my job is a punishment station. Galley hasn't broken me, but I am certainly the one who has allowed himself to get beaten down the most.

I take two morals from this. First is that some people are assholes and nothing bad will happen to them no matter how much they fuck you over. Second, because he credibly professed to have forgotten when someone else brought it up to him, be very careful what you do when you have power over someone, because you can screw them over far more drastically than you intend to. My only consolation is that someday I may see him in the industry (or even at Piney Point) and be in a position to screw him over, and if the opportunity presents itself I have every intention of taking it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Some depart, I remain

Starting to feel less generally oppressed here in Piney Point. I have a routine, with quiet time and sufficient sleep. Still plenty of things to complain about, but honestly I have fallen into a pattern not terribly different from home. I wake up at 6:35, and from 7:15 to 16:30 I am working and learning. After that I have my library job, but honestly I would be in here anyway, since this is the only place that has internet access and air conditioning (though the AC went out this week and the building became heavy and oppressive), so it is basically free time with occasional duties. I hope dearly to get out of this place and into a life with vastly superior routines, but there is tremendous comfort in having been able to become comfortable.

Too bad it goes away next week.

Gave blood for the first time today. I have always avoided it, mostly on the grounds that it would require effort on my part but also thanks to a crippling fear of needles. The Red Cross came to the base today, and I got shamed into it by a fellow who said "I don't like needles either, but I am going to do it and save a life". Said fellow didn't show up, but I sure did, and had a decidedly adverse reaction. I came in with a book (one of the ones my father was kind enough to send up here this week) with the hopes that the book could keep my mind off the pain and anxiety of the needle.

The needle, which is huge, went in with a sharp pain, and stayed in painfully. Then, and very quickly, numbness set in in the arms and legs, and I started drifting into sleep until I got shouted at. My breathing became very labored, requiring substantial effort to draw each breath and I began sweating profusely. When the lady came up and asked if I was ok, I had every intention of saying that I was, but without any input on my part my mouth said that I was not. And then it kept going. I babbled incoherently just to stay awake, which only made me have to breath harder. Throughout the whole thing, there was a damn needle stuck in my arm. The nurse must have gone through seven or eight cold cloths on my head, and I warmed the ice pack she put under my neck noticeably.

Then I finished, and once the numbness subsided enough that I could stand I got some cookies and got better so fast I could scarcely believe it. I had expected, given my fear of needles, that I would act like a huge pussy, but I astounded even myself with my weakness.

Oh well. I expect to have visited enough foreign countries the next time the blood drive rolls around that I won't be eligible to give anymore.

The last month has been filled with departures. The class two classes above me all left on their ships, except for my fellow library monitor. Poor fellow was waiting in uncertainty for almost a month, but he finally got his orders yesterday to ship out today to Seattle for an oil tanker that goes from Alaska to wherever the most profitable terminal on the West Coast is at the time. This is widely agreed to be a good job, and when he walked into night lunch yesterday he was greeted with spontaneous applause.

The other fellow who had been on idle, meaning he had completed three months of bullshit and was ready to ship out, got caught with five others (three men, three women) in a sex scandal that ended with someone having a positive pregnancy test. All six were kicked out, including one of our two laziest people. A win for rules and a win for bad people getting what was coming to them, but a huge loss for the rest of us, stuck in a substantial crackdown on every little thing and massive rule changes that have been coming nearly daily from on high. Being jerked around finally got to me this week and I was driven to write a three page letter to administration, which was resoundingly ignored.

Today was another round of good news and good news. On one hand, the class above us got their shipping orders today. They finish their last exam on Friday and, assuming they pass, are all going to Norwegian Cruise Line's "Pride of America" that sails around Hawaii. This is commonly regarded as the worst of the commonly assigned jobs, but isn't that bad at all. And the will avoid the specter of idle time which eats away at your confidence and the amount of time remaining in your credentials.

On the other hand, the other laziest person in class got kicked out today for a pattern of laziness and incompetence, the last straw being the falsification of his watch records in an attempt to hide the fact that he sleeps through watch. He was an embarrassment to the union and the class, and we are all glad to see him go. And, I took his empty locker after he cleaned it out, so now I have two lockers, one for clothes and one for everything else! Win!

The second round of galley starts Monday, so don't expect too many posts until I get out. It is going to suck substantially more since A) the stupid and arbitrary policy changes mean I am losing my library monitor position this weekend to a third phase student, B) afternoon nap time is being replaced by afternoon class time through which we are most definitely not allowed to sleep and C) the lazy person who left was the other guy who worked in the dishwashing pit, and as unreliable as he was he at least showed up occasionally. Holding down the pit all alone in a galley that has even fewer and more exhausted hands than it did last time is going to be tremendously unpleasant. I am practicing my Zen exercises well in advance this time.

Some people seem to think that this blog is now my personal private bitching chamber, which it absolutely is, but are also laboring under the false impression that the things I write here are secret. There is nothing that appears on these pages that I would not or do not speak aloud to the faces of those involved. Ethics is really hard, and in lieu of a well developed ethical system, I have opted to instead judge my actions based on a shame principle (making sure concurrently that I am keeping tabs of what is and is not appropriate to be ashamed of). Basically, if I wouldn't tell a relevant party about the things I am doing, then those things are not things I should do. Conversely, I refused to be ashamed when I have done nothing wrong.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Burning Desires

When I first arrived and discovered the intellectual caliber of some of my classmates, I projected that I would be learning how to become more tolerant of stupidity. That projection was incorrect.

This week was the Basic Firefighting course. The three days in which we went over the firefighting textbook were mostly unexceptional, except to note the near illiteracy of our anonymous textbook author (all our textbooks are Piney Point exclusive materials written by instructors) and the frustratingly patronizing attitude of the instructor, who seemed to think that he was teaching third graders inherently excited by FIREFIGHTERS! and frightened off by a solid understanding of the mechanics, prevention, and procedures of fire, safety, and firefighting. The first instructor here that I had to seriously ask myself if he really did know his shit. Turns out he did, he just fell into the trap of simplifying everything to the point of being incorrect.

I have yet to hear anyone state the opinion that women are actual people entitled to their own opinions, as opposed to objects which attach to men for the purposes of protection and sex. Of course, I haven't said anything either out of equal parts cowardice and exhaustion, but it really does seem to be the general opinion that (and these are actual quotes), "no woman is smart enough to work in an engine room", "women are too weak to work" and "women are too emotional to trust on board the ship". This is evidence, of course, of my sheltered upbringing that allowed me to think that no one really thinks that shit nowadays.

Some of the objectification of women is doubtlessly the sexless sausage party that we are stuck in, lacking even the minimal amount of private spaces that would enable solo fulfillment of certain urges. I am told that no group of third monthers can rightly be considered to be well adjusted, and the groups I have seen go through bear that out. The rest of it appears to be a genuine obsession with the idea of masculinity far deeper than MTV and Jersey Shore ideals of "macho". I was asked during a conversation about the ancient Spartans if I, a known repository of assorted trivia, knew anything cool about the Spartans. I mentioned that they ritualistically raped their wives, a practice generally agreed to be completely awesome and manly, if a bit kinky. I went on to mention that they did this mostly because they had most of their sex with other men, because homosexuality as understood in modernity was not a concept which existed in antiquity (or really, before the early-modern period). After a bit of debate ("not true"; "is too"; "nuh-uh"; "here, let me pull it up on wikipedia") it was the general consensus of the stupid people in a class that has been idolizing the Spartans to the point of incorporating them into our marching cadences that Spartans are "faggots" and that even the much loved movie 300 was no longer allowed to be quoted, watched, or admired any more. "In Yemen", went a related testimonial, "we kill faggots". "Why," I responded, with more curiosity than temperance, "are you so afraid of gay people?" "I am not afraid of faggots, because I can kill them before they come rape me." Of course, fellow sheltered people are free to believe, as I would have a few months ago, that I was either inventing these conversations for the sake of attention on the internet or that I was taking the actions of one extreme person out of context, but for all that there may be silent non-morons in the crowd at Piney Point, the most extreme and unrepentant sexism and homophobia is the voiced consensus.

Humorously, as I write this I am overhearing a conversation from one of the men who recently came back from his first ship, is complaining about an out of the closet homosexual on his journey and how much it bothered him when he objectified men on the television is the exact same way I have heard this complainer objectify women on the common area television. His interlocutor responded that you just have to "smack those faggots until they figure out that that shit just aint acceptable".

Racism, interestingly, is highly vocalized but never acted on in my sight. Work groups, leadership, bunks, and the mess hall are all effortlessly integrated, excepting only the small clusters of men who prefer speaking Spanish. These unconsciously integrated clusters are not a result of the sort of colorblindness that the progressives in college would sometimes champion, since a perennial topic of conversation is just how profoundly true all racial stereotypes are, but rather a completely unconcious acceptance that the man in front of you, for all that he may posses a race, is firstly a man, comrade, and coworker. "How many police officers does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, they just beat the room for being black."

After three days of applied sociology combined with textbook study of firefighting, it came time to apply these skills. I used all the main types of fire extinguishers to extinguish small fires of the appropriate types and properly put on and put away an assortment of fire gear. Then we put on full gear, including breathing masks, and went through a pitch black maze hunting for "survivors" to rescue. We sat inside a confined steel box, set the wall on fire, and stood there as the smoke filled the room and the ambient temperature rose to 500 degrees (a third of the rated maximum of the suits). Finally, they set a model engine on fire in a steel engine room for us to put out. Taking our air masks off in either of the latter situations was strictly prohibited, but the punishment was not demerits or expulsion. Rather, any exposed skin would immediately burn, causing a sharp instinctual intake of breath in superheated air. I assumed that this would result in cooked lungs, but was informed instead that your airways would be destroyed before they could convey the air into your lungs and instead you would suffocate as your skin, mouth, and throat began to ignite. And fires in a real engine room can be much larger and hotter than these simulated fires. In any case, I put the fire out too efficiently to entertain notions of extreme environment experimentation.

At the end of it, a lot of the crew was very pumped, thinking the experience was awesome (despite complaining about the heat, stress, and effort required just to carry the equipment around) and that they had accomplished something (despite the fact that these were artificial propane fires that did not go out when sprayed, only extinguishing when the man controlling the simulation decided we had performed the fire dance to his satisfaction). Expecting far worse, I had begun a calming technique I had read about in which you try to see the world not for the labels you put on things (i.e., fire, engine, room, etc.) but rather as mere physical objects with as little perception applied to the sensing as possible. As a result, it was impossible for me not to note the artificiality of the training room. The heat stress was not perceptibly worse than mowing lawns on a hot Texas summer day thanks to the very efficient entry suits, and while the equipment was heavy, I was standing around holding heavy equipment before walking into the room. With all that, I found it hard to get quite as elated as the rest of the group.

There is a branch of casual stoicism that says one must trade joy at the up times in life to be able to deal with pain in the down side. I have always thought that this was a bullshit philosophy, and that a properly disciplined mind could have both joy on the ups and calm on the downs. I still believe that, though I chalk up today's stillness to the same techniques that will help two weeks from now when I return to galley.

In any case, fire training is probably the most practical course we have had, since only rarely must one survive in a lifeboat, but engine fires are not uncommon at all.

And, before stepping out, here is another perspective on the anthropology of Piney Point Penitentiary.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Misery in the world

Whenever someone is complaining about how hard their life is, I like to bring up starving Ethiopian children as a sort of shorthand that it could, in fact, get worse. I have always sort of assumed that the human condition doesn't sink too much lower than that, however, only to find out this morning that I was wildly incorrect in that assumption.

There are people who have never had breakfast tacos, and to whom the idea of Mexican food in the morning is wholly alien.

There is one fantastically lazy person in our class; one person who successfully breaks through my meditative practices to make me fantasize about his gruesome and painful death. I hope he never enjoys a breakfast taco.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Water Survival for Passengers

Just finished the second week of Lifeboat class, focused on launching and water survival. Some tips for if you ever find yourself stranded in the ocean:

  • You will likely have oars or an engine on your survival craft. This is for getting out of the way of immediate hazards, not for going anywhere. Stay as close to your crash site as you can by deploying your anchor once you are away from hazards like fire and debris.
  • Unless you are in site of shore, do not expect any sort of rescue in the first 24 hours. You should have rations for 5-9 days, which is about how long you can be out there if you sink in the middle of the ocean.
  • If it is below 60 degrees outside, hypothermia is what will kill you. Otherwise you should be able to survive to the end of your rations and beyond with only the smallest bit of common sense.
  • Your contribution to your survival is about 5%. The contribution of your coxswain and the others on the lifeboat is about 10%. The other 85% of your survival is completely out of your hands and dependent on weather and rescue efforts.
  • That said, if it is over 60 degrees, you survive whatever disaster sank the ship, and are on a trafficked shipping or cruise lane, and do what your coxswain tells you to, then your chance of survival in a lifeboat is very high.
Next two weeks is firefighting, which is supposed to be hot and exhausting work. 

This holiday weekend is occupied by special detail, to which I was assigned the task of pulling weeds out of the parking lot. Not a bad task, especially since it isn't too hot out today, and it leaves me wondering why it is that I hate working in the galley so much. It isn't just the hours, though that is part of it, since I hated cleaning dishes on the very first shift of the very first day. My working hypotheses have been:
  1. I don't like doing things I am told to do.
  2. I don't like getting dirty
  3. I don't like wet jobs
  4. I don't like working indoors
  5. I don't like working around people
  6. I don't like working in food service
Number 1 seems implausible, since I haven't minded the other work I have been given (and, in fact, been bothered less than I expected to be by it). Number 2 is similarly implausible, since there aren't too many jobs apart from watchstanding that don't require a shower at the end of the day. Number 3 seems plausible, but since galley has been my only wet task, it remains untested. Number 4 is almost certainly wrong, since I dislike being in the sun and having wind pushing at me all the time. Number 5 is absolutely part of it, though not all, since most work here involves other people. Number 6 is strongly plausible and has definite information value for my future career choices, but is unsatisfying to the extent that it isn't fundamental; what part of food service is intrinsically displeasing? Further thought is necessary.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Repairs and Discretion

Today was a busy day. I fixed two things and allowed one thing to remain broken.

Today we moved on from the old fashioned open air lifeboats to the newer sort of enclosed lifeboats. These newer sort are much more expensive, but are fireproof, weatherproof, and waterproofed to a substantial degree so that the occupants can spend much less time fighting the elements and more time bemoaning their hunger and stranding. As a point of reference, the old sort of lifeboat looks like a large canoe, but these new sort look like the orange lifeboat from Captain Phillips, though ours here at Piney Point Penitentiary is much smaller and more cramped.

A lifeboat sits on a crane, scaffold and track structure called a davit that allows it to be easily loaded and deployed in an emergency. Ours looks like this:
For a sense of scale, that white box is about chest high, and that concrete part of the support pillar is 2.5 times taller than me.
The last few classes haven't been able to play with our full scale modern davit because the lines which secure the lifeboat in place while at rest, the gripes, were broken. If you had to guess who fixed them today, would you guess that it was me? If so, you would be wrong. This is serious heavy equipment with multiple moving parts each capable of maiming and killing an untrained or incautious user and should only be fixed or used at all by trained professionals. I, however, worked at the top of that platform halfway up the right side atop the ladder, under full supervision, completely replacing the hooks and shackles at the end of the forward gripe line, essentially rebuilding everything except the steel wire itself, and then installed it onto the davit. All under supervision and with instruction, of course, but for all that blather in the last post about daydreaming of wealth and leisure, this is really why I quit my office job-- for a chance to work with machinery substantially larger than I and make it perform superhuman functions flawlessly. I am still all hopped up from the excitement, though, curiously, I wasn't excited at the time, just interested, happy, and completely focused. It was only after finally climbing back down that ladder that the inexplicable excitement hit.

Then, in the library, disaster struck. While making my monitoring rounds, I walked into the men's restroom to find that one of the urinals was overflowing badly and still running. I searched desperately for a shutoff valve, but none was accessible to me. I fiddled with the handle, to no avail. I tried prying off the pipe cap in hopes that a shutoff valve would be forthcoming, but without tools the task defeated me. Then, with wet shoes and frustrated mind, I smacked the upper piping with the meat of my palm and swore, and whatever part was too loose or too tight or had fallen into the wrong position righted itself at my command. The flow of water stopped and drained quickly both down the toilet drain and the floor drain. No plumbing was done on my part, since I am a mere layman to the science, but lo, for I have transcended plumbing into the higher realm of magic. With a mere caustic vocalization and flick of the arm I have made myself the victor over the trials of porcelain.

The third trial of the day, the one by which I was defeated, involved not machines but the affairs of men. The lifeboat instructor, a retired captain of great competency and odd opinions, decided to begin pontificating about all that was wrong with the world. In his tale he wove a grand fabric of villains (mostly republicans) plotting for nebulous reasons to oppress and enervate our fair republic and causing through legislation and symbolic acts of speech the collapse of our economy and the impoverishment of all good people (the "middle class") and opposed themselves only through the valiant rearguard actions of our heroes, Labor and the Democratic Party (and Bill Clinton. In fact, mostly Bill Clinton). It wasn't so much that his story was wrong as that it was completely nonsensical and filled with nonsequiturs. There were things with which I could agree, mostly regarding the general perfidy of politicians, but the things with which I could even have attempted to push back on were no more than the merest of statements, wholly unsupported and merely taken as priors by all men of good thinking. To even begin to get at the root of his mistakes would require going deep into his rational faculties to demonstrate how to think about a topic in a structured and self-consistent fashion. And when the madness began to feed off the similar madness of two very talkative, likeminded students I found every fibre of my being screaming out that someone is saying something that is inconsistent with both itself and readily observable facts of reality.

But what would be the point? These are not men who argue for the sake of truth but for the sake of victory. A good argument for them is one in which the opponent shuts up first. And bring the subject over to something in which they have genuine expertise, like basketball, line handling, or automobiles and they will demonstrate astonishing powers of recall and processing. The mental capability is clearly there, and so equally clearly not applied to political or spiritual topics (he also likes fortune tellers, spirit mediums, and the like). Agreeing to disagree is nice in theory, but much less so in practice for someone as neurotic about consistency in thought as I. At the end of the day (or, in this case, as class began), I kept my mouth shut because, for all that a hypothetical course in clear thinking might have benefited both the instructor and my classmates, what would I be getting out of the arrangement? A little bit, to be sure, both in terms of a more informed populace and in terms of my own ego, but hardly enough to justify the effort even if I thought it unlikely to be aborted at the first sign of difficulty.

People suck. Machines are fantastic.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dreaming the Dream

At Piney Point, you hear a lot about people's plans for the future, usually phrased as "when I get all that money, I'm gonna...". There isn't anyone here unmotivated by money, and it is the promise of that money (plus the benefits package, but even the older guys aren't really old enough to get excited by a fully funded pension plan) that keeps us going during the shitty parts of the program.

I have learned that the much bemoaned lost weekend right after the first galley rotation was not, in fact, merely poor timing, but something that happens to every class. Apparently, it is imagined by some administrator that allowing us a fully free day after two weeks of 18 hour days generates discipline problems both for that weekend and spilling over into the next week of class. I will defer judgement on that aspect, but in my mind what it really did is remind us that there is a scale of work, not just working/not working but a whole spectrum related to effort and enjoyability of a task. Having this weekend completely free after the last week of "cool-down" and finally eliminating my sleep debt is perhaps analogous in miniature to the schedule of a ship. After all, even if we have two disastrous weeks on a ship, we don't at the end of that get a day off if we are still in the middle of the ocean. Days off come when the ship reaches port and not a day earlier.

This is part of why the seafaring life is so very unique, and why there is so much room for so varied dreams. I know of no other industry in which the trade-off between income and leisure is so direct. In most industries, there is a standard hours and compensation package; different companies can offer more or less of the other, but variance is typically pretty low. At sea, a rated seaman earns $10,000 - $15,000 a month, and officers even more. This means that a four month journey (the standard minimum one can sign on for) drops you back in port with more than the mean annual salary and only eight months in which to spend it. And seeing that money all at once instead of trickling in every two weeks has an undeniable psychological effect on a person. For example, I have never seen so many fancy cars as the ones in our upgrader parking lot.

Generally speaking, people talk about three employment paradigms; standard packages of income and leisure available to anyone at any rating based on how they feel that year.

At the most leisurely are the people who want to work four months out of the year. This should give an AB, Cook or Oiler around or a bit over $40,000 at the end of the trip, plenty enough to live off of and even to indulge in an inexpensive hobby. An experienced AB, Steward, or QMED can come back with closer to $50,000 or more off if they get on the right ship. Some of these people also take seasonal work for the other eight months, though I don't understand that impulse on a visceral level. Though from a modeling standpoint, they are just trying to fine tune the leisure/income ratio to a moderate value not provided for in the industry.

The "Standard" package is four on and two off. This is the ideal that the union assumes a good seaman should strive for. You take a ship in the first half of the year, take two months off, then get on another four month voyage followed by two months off. This is not infrequently stated as getting summer and Christmas off, though I am sure some take the spring and fall off instead. Working eight months as a rated seaman means you can expect between $80,000 and $100,000, depending on rating and voyage, with only four months out of the year to spend it all, and, indeed, only four months in which to worry about paying bills and rent. This is where people buy really silly cars and other silly items, but many of the union benefits are predicated on shipping X days in the last year and X days in the last six months before they lapse.

The really hard workers work ten months out of the year or more. It is hard to work all the way year round just because shipping schedules rarely match up that well, but a real go-getter or someone without anything to come home to can get ten or eleven months of shipping, with a month back in port to keep continuing education and licensing up to date. Even an entry level rating on a pretty crappy ship has a good shot at making six figures (and for, at that level, being nothing more than a fancy janitor) when putting in that many hours, and basically no living expenses for the whole year. Additionally, working that many days at sea will increase your earning potential, since the key factor in rating upgrades (and, therefore, pay increases) is accumulated sea time. Just one year with 10 months at sea puts someone pretty damn close to the next rating in the deck department, and the jump from rated to licensed (officer) is only three years of sea time (which would take a four month-er nine years to reach).

There are people in my class who want to buy fancy cars and one who wants to buy every "Jordan" branded sneaker ever produced and some who want to use the shipping money to open a business or get into real estate. I have never wanted many expensive things other than a top of the line computer, but as I have talked with others in and around the industry and it is hard not to think of what sort of things I imagine doing once I am a real person again. Obviously, I am a long way from being a real person, so this may all change.

Once I get out I will be an Oiler in the engine department (technically a Fireman/Oilman/Water Tender) with a chunk of sea time at that rating. The first goal is to ship as much as possible to hit the 360 days required to reach QMED (Qualified Man of the Engineering Department), and come back to Piney Point for my first 4-week specialization class. Electricians make the most money, but pumpmen are needed on oil tankers, but they aren't mutually exclusive paths. From there, my plan is to ship eight months a year and spend two months a year upgrading, with only two months vacation. After every four month trip I am (I believe) eligible to add another QMED certification, and by the end of that I should be able to take any rated job in the engine department, at which point the only restriction on where and what I can ship will be my schedule and preferences (and the general state of the market).

That plan should take around five years, at which point I should have a good bit of money saved. That money will go towards an RV into which I can move permanently. People buy RV's thinking they can live anywhere, but for a seaman it really is true. I can spend two months at a time driving to any part of the country as long as I end up at any US port by the time I need money again. While I intend to be based in Houston for the most part to make contacts among tanker captains, there is no reason in the world to restrict myself. Additionally, I find that possessions typically cause stress, and most people are well past the point that they have more things than they need. An RV and the packing restrictions on a ship inherently limit the amount of crap I can keep and allow me to pre-commit to a less material lifestyle, hopefully with both pecuniary and spiritual benefits.

Of course, I anticipate that my main leisure activities will continue to revolve around portable screens-- reading, TV and gaming, which can be done in any environment. I cannot be picking up any drug or alcohol habits, given how strongly the anti-intoxication measures are enforced aboard ship. I cannot have much in the way of community, given how I will be disappearing for months at a time. I cannot have too much in terms of onshore assets, because I will feel absolutely ridiculous paying for things year round that I only have access to for a few months out of the year (which is another reason why an RV is superior to renting an apartment, and cheaper and more mobile than purchasing a home). Basically, I hope to live pretty much how I have been living, but while getting paid to travel the world at the same time.

Small addendum: If I make it to a million dollars and still project that I have ten good working years left, I will trade in the RV for a houseboat and small motorcycle and instead of driving around the country, I will move to the west coast, and spend a summer boating from Alaska to Baja California.

Basically, the only thing that motivates anyone in this shithole is dreams of the future, and as I keep my head down, mouth shut, and hands busy, this is what I am doing it for.

Friday, June 27, 2014


This week was the first week of lifeboating class, focusing on the older style of lifeboats, the open lifeboat (looks like a canoe). The assessment was literally getting out on the water and taking turns rowing or acting as coxswain (the order shouting guy) and getting graded on rowing and shouting. As promised, I return here to share the things I have learned.

  • I always thought "homophobia" was the wrong term, because 'phobia' indicates fear, but I always thought homophobes hated homosexuals, not feared them, in the way that racists hate people of different skin colors and sexists hate the other gender. It turns out that there actually are people who are absolutely terrified of homosexuals and lose their shit when someone makes a gay joke. I have had a lot of new experiences, but having "don't rape me, faggot" shouted in a squeaky voice at me by a black man twice my size in response to a (wholly inappropriate) joke will definitely stick with me.
  • This school apparently has basically zero institutional memory. According to the teachers, the living standards, militarization, and hazing swing back and forth wildly within the space of a few months. The teachers are constant(-ish) and the commandant has been there forever, but because leadership turns over every month and the longest stay on the base is the three months of phase 1, what is and is not acceptable changes to such an unbelievable amount that even the upgraders who were here five years ago call it unrecognizable-- and I get the sense that the five years before that could have said the same.
  • Some people simply have no intention of making an effort when things get difficult. They will quit, and then be surprised when they remain incompetent and resentful of all the people who put in the effort and got better. I had always thought that these people who resent the wealth and achievements of others just didn't see the hard work people put in to get to that level, but even when that hard work happens right in front of them they still don't seem to understand.
  • Similarly, in college I always was baffled by how my professor would write basically the same article over and over in popular press about really basic facts like "more population is on net a benefit to society", "free trade makes a nation stronger", "big businesses don't actually have power in the way that police and politicians do", and "businesses lowering prices is good for consumers". But the ignorance of otherwise clever people who simply have never thought to examine their opinions systematically is truly astounding. As is the fact that, when confronted on these and other abstract issues, people don't seem interested in hearing that they may be wrong or even in nuancing their present understanding and will shout you down the moment they find out you disagree in the slightest. Having shouted you down, they will present themselves as having won a moral and intellectual victory. I simply do not understand these people who are so threatened and ruled by the opinions of others.
  • When in a lifeboat out at sea, do not eat or drink for the first 24 hours unless someone is very ill. Since your body already has stores of food and water, allow yourself to excrete that and then when you do eat you will get more benefit out of it. 
  • Nearly all fish can be eaten raw unless it has spines or puffs up. For a change of pace, throw fish guts in the air with your fishing hook attached to catch a diving seagull.
  • According to best procedures, the first things a coxswain should do to in a life raft out at sea are, in order:
    • Row or use the motor to get a safe distance away from a sinking ship
    • Distribute anti-seasickness tablets to everyone
    • Scan for and row towards useful wreckage or survivors
    • Collect all knives, weapons and sharp objects from the other passengers to prevent mutiny
    • Then open up the survival manual included in the life raft and read a much longer checklist.
  • Power corrupts. Every time. 
  • The smaller the stakes, the more viciously those who think themselves important will fight over it.
Also learned a bunch of technical aspects of lifeboating, but you, dear reader, need only concern yourself with rule #1: if you are in my lifeboat, do what I tell you to do and don't complain.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Politics; Union Style

So the horrible event that consumed what was meant to be my first relaxing weekend after a very difficult month turned out not to be so horrible, just dull, villainous, and time consuming. A MD State Assembly candidate, Connie Dejuliis, is apparently important enough to load 20 people on a bus to drive 3 hours to a northern suburb of Baltimore both Saturday and Sunday to put door hangers on people's houses. Pleasant walks through boring neighborhoods in pairs bookended by three hours of music and reading in the back of a bus, plus free pizza. Not what I would have chosen, but far better than scrubbing pots.

When we met the candidate she said, "You all know why you are here, right?" and I suppressed a groan, expecting some pro-worker pro-democracy nonsense. Her actual answer to this rhetorical question was, "Because have been friends with Mike Sacco [the SIU president] for a long time, and I take care of people that take care of me". Having actually seen it, I am not sure I prefer honesty in a politician as much as I thought I did.

In any case, I have returned and officially begun my second month (actually, my second of three four week periods). My uniform has changed from "galley blues", a T-shirt and jeans, to "Prison blues", a button up shirt and jeans. I have gotten the full spectrum of privileges, which basically means my free time is free, so long as I stay on base. I come to you live from my own laptop, which my father sent up, from the little lighthouse park that is the only place with quality internet.

This second month is widely agreed to be the easiest. The main task will be classes on lifeboating, water survival, and firefighting, with practical experience in all three areas. Aside from that, everyone is assigned an indoor and outdoor "detail", common areas we are responsible for keeping clean twice a day (takes about 20 minutes each time). This leaves plenty of time for studying, of which I intend to do basically none of, plus two hours in the library to which I can take this very laptop (and probably do the exact same things I was doing on the much older and slower library desktop).

The port and downtown skyline of Baltimore is very pretty, not because it is very big but because it is all right next to each other at the very end of the Chesapeake. Posting should slow down as life becomes routine and falls closer to a normal existence.

I finally have my schedule sorted for the next few months-- I leave phase 1 in mid-August, but cannot leave the base until I go straight to my ship. If that doesn't take too long, I should get off the phase 2 ship and finally go home somewhere between mid-November and mid-December, meaning I will probably be in Carolina for Christmas. Classes will start up again at the earliest in January, and every eight weeks after if that one is full.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Like living in a storybook

This is me learning my limits. I make no promises to being exceptionally coherent or rational here, since I have gotten 4-5 hours of sleep every day for the last 2 weeks and it is starting to catch up to me. I kept my Zen until Wednesday, and it is probably not a coincidence that problems began then.

I don't particularly want to tell this story, because it sounds even to me like me bitching about how hard I have it without any proper perspective. I don't have any perspective right now, which as much as I am able to recognize that as a serious moral failing, I find myself unhappy and unable to fix it. Rest of the post after the jump.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The SIU Seafaring Museum

As promised; photos of the little model ships in the SIU Maritime Museum. Click to make them bigger.

A view from the huge back wall window-- Lots of geese and a pond.

Here are ships. Not sure why they picked these ships to display. There are a lot more than I got pictures of.

 A single piston engine
 2-piston engine

This model ship is taller than me.

The famous Delta Queen

There is also a special exhibition WW2 propaganda posters. Let me know if you want a closer picture of any of them.

Also, I hear Whole Foods has a fancy energy drink called Guru. Maybe get some next time you stop in and let me know if it is any good?