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.

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?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Things I Have Learned

I have learned an number of new things in the last month, chief among them that any novel experience and situation can be a learning moment, even if that situation is a hellish nightmare realm of steel wool and diswashing liquid.

  • I have learned that I shouldn't promise what the next blog post will be, since that seems to almost guarantee that something else will come up first.
  • If all you do for 16 hours a day is wash dishes, you will start to have engaging dreams about dishwashing that feel far superior to the real experience of dishwashing. This despite it being exactly the same activity. A Zen master once asked if he was a butterfly who dreams that he was a man, or a man who dreams that he was a butterfly; Am I a dishwasher who dreams himself to be a dishwasher, or vice versa?
  • After a good inspection, we are often warned against complacency, and after a bad inspection we are usually told that we are getting complacent (and the complainant is typically correct in that assessment). I found out why those warnings had no apparent effect on the troublemakers-- only four of the twelve crewmen in this class know what the word "complacency" means, the rest having no idea, and some believing the word to have been made up by our administrators as a catch all term for things they don't like.
  • A task you undertake yourself is always more enjoyable than one you are ordered into. Either that or polishing copper pipes is an intrinsically more enjoyable task than dishwashing. I am genuinely undecided as to which hypothesis is more correct.
  • There appear to be two types of people who perform poorly in the academic setting (a third, those with disabilities, is discounted here). There are people who are generally clever but fall short in one or more academic areas due to lack of motivation, talent, or a poor foundation. These people often consider themselves "dumb", even though they can be perfectly competant and otherwise well rounded individuals. Then there are people who are just stupid, seemingly incapable of functioning appropriately in modern life who fall short academically as part of a pattern of falling short in all aspects of civilized life. These people seem to consider themselves great and brilliant people and expect what is owed them for their talents to find its way to them any day now. The fact that they have managed to escape what is due to them for 20+ years baffles me as well, though perhaps there is a selection effect in my sample.
  • For all that they insist that we as a crew must be self policing and clamp down on laziness and conflict, the system the union has put us in rewards carrying the slack of the lazy people far more than it punishes laziness itself. It having become clear exactly who the lazy people are and to what extent they are afflicted with moral turpitude, we have come to the general conclusion that if we point out and punish the lazy or allow the lazy to be noticed by an instructor or administrator (the course of action represented by the words of the union) then we will be punished as a class through extra work and delayed transition out of the boot camp mode of living. If we let them slide until they get on their first ship and get fired (the course of action that the union is adamantly opposed to, since it endangers union funding for the trainee program, union reputation with shipping companies, and entry level slots for future trainees), then we get to coast through the program without drawing negative attention, and then get the extra satisfaction of watching the lazy people waste difficult months of their life, build a huge resume hole, and possibly get stranded in a third world hellhole to catch a hopefully painful disease and die slowly away from anyone who speaks a language they can communicate in. I consider this bad mostly on a theoretical level.
  • At the union-wide meeting, I learned that there are people who will promote their own self-interest through government plunder without the slightest bit of shame. At issue were $20 million of the $180 million Maritime Security Program scheduled to be cut in a recent House bill. This, we were told by our valiant union officers, was a bad idea because A) it could cost up to 120 union jobs when those seven ships leave government service and either get scrapped to sold of to a non-union purpose, B) $20 million is basically nothing in compared to the huge federal government, and C) "Congress promised us the full $180 million" with an implied in exchange for your votes "and now they are breaking their promise". No mention was made of the strategic value or lack thereof of those seven ships on the chopping block (a point on which I am genuinely agnostic; it is an active program but whether the best number of ships held on lease is 60 or 53 is more than I know), nor of competing budget priorities even among the maritime and defense interests. I had not thought to see such a display of arrogant, selfish plundering outside an Ayn Rand novel.
I have, of course, learned much more than these things, like if you only each chicken, rice, and potatoes for every meal then you can stop pooping completely for almost a whole week, but my peaceful sojorn within the library draws nearer to a close. Tomorrow the new class comes in, which should change my living situation in the 15 minutes I spend each day neither working nor sleeping, as well as a contingent of CIA officers, for whom we will be busting our ass extra hard so that they can be comfortable as they undermine American freedoms and international stability.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Galley Slaves and The Library Monitor

I remember a time when I did something other than sleep and work, but those memories are getting dimmer and dimmer. Today marks the seventh day of the longest damn week of my life. This week was my first week in the galley, or kitchen, working at the pot and pan washing station for the dual purposes of helping offset the costs of me being in Piney Point and to make sure none of us are afraid of hard work.

I actually don't mind the work itself. I have two stations each with a three basin sink, used cookware piles up on one side and I pile it up clean on the other. I am always wet, my hands hurt from the steel wool and cleaning agents, but the task is not beyond my abilities. If we were just working one meal a day (one 4-5 hour shift), I probably wouldn't even mention it except in passing. But I wake up at 0400 and go to sleep at 2200. Wake up at 0400 and get in the galley by 0430 (in uniform, shaven and maintained to an unnecessarily high standard), then work with a quick breakfast break until 0900. Then we get a "break" in which we are required to go to the gym, stretch, do calisthenics, and then run a damn treadmill until 1030. Then we are on lunch shift, working again without pause, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing until 1400, when we get another "break" that affords us the opportunity to clean the bathroom and common areas. This is followed by the 1530 dinner shift that nominally runs until 1930, but usually takes an hour longer. Then we have inspection, where every little (and big) mistake is pointed out in great detail and corrected, making us lucky to get back out of uniform by 2130 and asleep by 2200. I am seven days in, with seven more to go, each shift stretching out to feel like its own day and before you ask, no, we do not get the weekends off.

And this is only the first of the two galley rotations.

They do it to make you hurt and to make you tired and to make you reevaluate why you ever left that desk job in the first place. The older classes and administrators say that the galley is what breaks people, where you find out who is lazy and who is an asshole and who can't cut long hours of hard labor, so that they can be kicked out before they get on a ship and make the union look bad. And, indeed, after an altercation yesterday we have four clowns (from a class of twelve, remember) on the knife's edge from being cut, who may be cut in any case once the regular administrators show up and take their hands to the situation. People are stressed, people are tired, people are complaining and starting to hate each other, except, of course, for your humble correspondent. I have three advantages over everyone else that make my job, acknowledged as the shittiest in the kitchen, easier than everyone else's.

The first is that I am awesome. Just being awesome can carry you pretty far in life, and I have never regretted the decision to be great.

The second is that before I came up here I was studying Buddhism and the old Stoic philosophers. What was initially only an intellectual exploration has been so fantastically applicable to a boring and stressful job that I am in danger of converting. While the two have very different takes on a lot of things, one common teaching in particular is allowing me to endure much better than anyone else in the class. To paraphrase in modern terms, the idea is that the person who I am is only the mind. The body exists only carry the mind around and anything external to the mind is just that, external. The external world is full of chaos and suffering and all sorts of problems (though these problems vary depending on who you talk to) and often completely beyond my control. The mind, however, can be wholly within my control. The key, then, is to simply allow the external world to remain external, and keep the mind disciplined.

A Buddhist parable tells of two traveling monks from an order that prohibited contact with women. They come to a river and a young, beautiful woman is standing on the side and asks for their help in fording the river. The older monk invites her onto his shoulders, though the younger monk disapproves, and together the three of them cross the river, then go on their separate ways. Once out of earshot, the younger monk begins to protest that they should not have helped that woman, since they can be a burden on the path to enlightenment. The older monk says "I set her down at the far side of the river, but it seems to me that you still carry her on your shoulders".

The Buddha was once insulted and shouted at by a competing guru, and he sat there without reacting. After the angry guru left, a follower of the Buddha asked him how he could stay so calm in the face of such hostility. Buddha asked, "If I give you a present, to whom does it belong?" and the follower said "it would belong to me". He then asked, "If I give you a present, and you refuse to accept it, to whom does it belong?" "Then it would remain in your possession", the follower replied. "I have refused to accept his anger, thus it cannot be mine, and remains his anger" was the conclusion of the Buddha.

The Roman Senator Seneca taught that to call Christmas a happy day is wrong. A day simply is. The sun moves through the sky (this was the Roman era, remember) without joy or sadness or even the capacity of thought, being a wholly unsentient thing. It is the mind which becomes happy on Christmas day, and indeed it is only the mind which has the capacity for happiness. Similarly, to be a grave digger is not a sad job, for the job simply is. The shovels, dirt, caskets and corpses have no thoughts and assign no values of sadness to anything. It is only the mind with becomes sad at the graveside, and only the mind which has the capacity for sadness. A mind can allow these external things to affect it, and thus be forever at the whims of fate, or the mind can be controlled wholly within itself, realizing that the sadness felt at a funeral is not ultimately caused by the funeral, but from a choice made within the mind to be sad. Simply by changing the choice you make to be happy (or calm, as Seneca would prefer you be) instead of sad, a disciplined mind can adopt that thought.

My third advantage is the reason I can write these at all despite having no free time on the schedule and no internet or cell reception in the main building. A large chunk of Piney Point is run by us trainees to save on costs, and I got a job in the library as the library monitor. I got this sweet gig by going up to the library monitor the first day we were brought into the library and I asked, "How can I become a library monitor?" "I will pick someone who has asked to be library monitor when I leave" was his response. I asked him to please keep me in mind when he leaves. He got his shipping orders the next day, and kept me in mind. Now I sit here on a computer at the front desk looking over the seafaring museum (very pretty, I will get pictures when things calm down) and over the study spaces in front of rows of books (mostly technical manuals and airport bookstore fiction from the 1980's). No one ever causes problems, and rarely does anyone need any help, so I just sit here for two hours a day on the internet and taking a break from the hell that is galley. Other people have jobs, but most of their jobs suck, like the gate guards who have to get up in the middle of the night and sit in a booth for four hours. So now you know why, in such a regimented environment, I am able to correspond here at all.

On Monday the new class arrives, along with an unrelated CIA team here to take some sort of class on maritime something or another, so today is the calm before the storm (not that it is very calm at all). After next Monday (the one after the CIA arrives), thought, I will be out of galley and into the easy classes for a month. They say that I will be taking a huge step down towards the more civilian attitudes of the merchant marine, with expanded privileges and free time to use them in. As the Stoics would say, the future doesn't exist, so I shouldn't waste time thinking about it, particularly when the week between will be so damn long, but even with a week of intensive mindfulness practice, I remain a novice ;)

Next post will be next week, after I get said liberties and can take pictures of the museum.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Estuary at Piney Point

Finally got to use my cell phone, though I can't take it outside. Here is the view from the window outside my dorm. That flat bit in the middle is the chesapeake, the bit on the far right is the Piney Point, and to the right of that is the Potomac. The main body of water is St. George's Creek, an utterly insignificant brackish waterway, reputed to be so full of jellyfish as to be unswimmable. The park is usually full of goose families with baby geese swarming (and pooping) everywhere). Click to embiggen.

Stepping outside and looking out at the flat bit of horizon is what keeps me going. I tell myself that I will be sailing out over that horizon, which isn't true because there is no working port on this waterway, but it feels good in any case.

It is my intention to have a photo of every port I dock in and every ship I step on. When we have lifeboat class next month, I am going to try to sneak a proper skyline style photo of the base.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Culture Shock and Social Class

I had a mind last week to write up something approximating the main points of each class (there are only five or six, each lasting two weeks) with an application for both seamen and landlubbers, but the first two weeks of class did not lend themselves well to summary. We were given a book at the start of our first class, "Vessel Familiarization" that had a 28 page glossary at the end of nautical terms both modern and archaic, which we proceeded to memorize while getting an overview of the parts and functions of a ship. No real moral here, just a catalog of facts. That said, I have learned why I did so badly as a substitute teacher.

I have always been called smart. I don't say that to brag, and indeed have always felt quite awkward about it. After all, I don't notice when I solve some puzzle that someone else might struggle with, and I don't notice that reading isn't difficult or that when I pay attention I remember things. These just happen. I remember the things I forget, the puzzles that stump me, the skills other have that I lack either through practice or ability. I don't feel smart, I feel normal, and maybe a little dumb, so when I hear someone go "Oh, you are so smart", I have always thought to myself shit, how stupid must you be to be looking up at me? Then my eyebrows get furrowed and the sarcasm starts to leak.

But on Friday I finished my first class at Piney Point and realized that I have never, ever been in a normal education environment. I like most of the people in my class and consider more than half of them to be reasonably intelligent people that I would be proud to have in my engine room, and that assessment hasn't changed too terribly much. But it takes them so... oh my god... so... long to grasp even the simplest of facts. My studying consisted of paying attention in class and reading the associated book once through, at which point I had mastered the material and got a 96 on the final exam. I didn't consider this to be a feat even worthy of thought, let alone of comment, since even by the reckoning of the rest of the class the material was not particularly difficult. But I was the only one who seemed capable of understanding and remembering information the first time it was presented. In class people would ask the same questions over and over, requesting endless clarification and repetition and then managing (in good faith) to repeat the information just presented a third or fourth time incorrectly. They would read through the book over and over and over (at least everyone here is motivated to succeed, unlike the schools I was teaching at) and in their eyes the act of getting a question correct after having heard the answer was not the bare minimum expectation at which they were miserably failing, but some fantastic hyper-competency.

I never went to school with people like this, not in private middle school, not in magnet program high school, and not at expensive liberal arts college. Studying (which I never did much of) was for really hard things and straight A's, not a days long struggle to eke out the bare minimum passing grade. I went up the other night to one of the men I thought was particularly intelligent and would have time to mess around while everyone else studied. I said hey, put that book down and come outside. He said no, he would be studying until bedtime, then again in the morning, and he was as good as his word, and still failed the next days quiz. I am ashamed to admit that I exclaimed shock over this result, and his response was that not everybody can be "a super genius like you". Others claimed that I must have a "photogenic" memory (I have yet to correct them on either aspect of that statement).

Basically, I have been told that these people exist, that the mere act of knowing is a struggle for many, but I had always assumed that this is what people meant by special education students. But no, these are 100% normal people, not even stupid people (well, we do have two stupid people, but otherwise...). To not know, to not be able to know, and to not particularly desire to know is a perfectly normal mode of existence. I still haven't processed this enough to know how I feel about it.

I still don't feel smart, even when they say it, I just feel normal, but I will stop sassing them until I can figure out how, exactly, a man who prides himself in living the life of the mind is supposed to convey an intellectual pursuit to someone who is genuinely and doggedly non-intellectual. I have some philosophizing to do, and a whole lot of time to do it in, though I won't say why until the next post.

Of course, the other reason I was a terrible substitute is that I lack authority and presence. Also, I realized that I don't actually care about other people's success or welfare.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

First Crew: The Seafarer's Apprenticeship Program

It will be two weeks on Monday since starting my adventure. For those who haven’t been following my life with the same detail that I have been following it, I left my polling analysis job in August and searched frantically for something better, and then merely for something else. A stray comment on Reddit.com and four months of government licensing later and here I sit in Piney Point, Maryland at the Seafarer’s Union’s Harry Lundeberg Seamanship School.

The apprenticeship program is a five phase course. Phase 1 is 13 weeks of classroom study and long hours of working for the union hall at Piney Point, followed by Phase 2, 90 days (or more) aboard a ship in an entry level position. For Phase 3 we come back to the classroom, affectionately called Piney Point Penitentiary, and begin seven weeks of specialized training to rate as a Able Bodied Seaman of the Deck Department (throwing ropes, driving the ship, swabbing the deck), a Oiler and eventually a Qualified Man of the Engineering Department (fixing things), or a Steward and Cook (Cooking and Cleaning). After that we go back out to sea in our new rating for 120+ days (the length of a normal deep sea contract runs 4-9 months), then come back briefly for 4 weeks to finish up our rating.

When our class came in (a class comes into phase 1 every month), we were told that 380 people had applied to this particular class, and everyone who hadn’t made the cut for whatever reason was forbidden from every re-applying. From that, they built a class of 20, having judged that 20 American Seamen had left the industry in some average monthly calculation of the last two years, a calculation they make with very high precision, since nearly every US flagged deep sea and coastal freight ship hires through the union and one man here on this campus is ultimately responsible for matching corporate vacancies with union members for the entire industry. That said, 3 failed drug tests, 2 ran out of money to get through the licensing, and 2 didn’t show up for personal reasons, leaving me in a class of 12.

Those twelve members of my phase 1 class are my first crew, and the school does everything in their power to emphasize that. We eat together and sleep together and bathe together and smoke together and work together and go to class together. If any one person screws up on a ship, they can sink the whole boat, and if anyone screws up here, the school comes down hard. I don’t know why everyone asks me if there are any women in the merchant marine, because the answer has been absolutely not for the last thousand+ years, and even today the answer is still pretty much no. Our class of 11 men (aged 21 to 33) and 1 woman appears to be very demographically close to the average of the other classes. Two of us have finished college, me and a former seminarian who had second thoughts about his calling. Three are married (two with children) and one is engaged. Three African Americans, two Muslims (both from Yemen by way of Detroit) and, unusually, no Hispanics, makes us a bit whiter than normal for both the class and the industry. About half of them never moved out of their parent’s house (including the 32 year old), and two of us moved back before coming here. Two of us came out of desk jobs to come here, four or five from grocery/retail, one former security guard (not the largest and most imposing member of the class), one former metal scrapper, one small business owner who built and repaired small boats, and one guy with a hundred different stories from the hundred different places he has worked. They are generally a good crew who, with a few exceptions, understands and values hard work and keeping your head down as ends of themselves.

Overall, the “trick” to the school is that on one hand the classes go through everything needed for an entry level rating, and on the other hand they work us long hours (4:00AM to 7:30PM, then more cleaning until 9PM) for weeks at a time in the kitchen, plus night watches and other assorted tasks to keep us awake and active, partly because the school needs these tasks done to function properly, but mostly to make sure we aren’t whiners, shirkers, or grossly incompetent. To be completely honest, most of the people in my crew have more experience with long hours and menial jobs than I do, and I seem to be the cutoff point where the four people with less work ethic than I have are really struggling. As for me, the whole experience is demanding in the sense that I do need to pay attention to novel information and work without enough sleep, but I have yet to have it be as difficult as it is reputed to be. They say that this first month is the hardest, thanks to the restricted living style (no TV, cell phones, restricted movement etc.), the least engaging classes, the culture shock, and the hardest working weeks, and everything falls down to a more civilian pace as you get closer to working on real ships.

Back in the old days (which was, apparently, as recently as 20 years ago), someone could sign on to a ship with minimal fuss or hassle as an entry level something or another, as had been the case all the way back to the Roman era. But the present set-up of this school and the stories of every single experience mariner that we run across says that the maritime industry is changing radically and rapidly. Cargo ships that used to take crews of 40-60 as recently as the 1980s are down to a standard size of 20-21, and may fall to a minimum of 12-13 before they become 100% robot ships. With all this automation on one hand and piles of new national and international regulations on the other, even an entry level seaman is expected to be a highly trained unit nowadays, and a lot of older men are having trouble or are unable to climb up to the new standard. As of right now, and for the last few years, Piney Point has been pretty much the only route through which it is possible to become an entry level seaman, grudgingly doling out 10-25 new seamen per month. I will leave the economic implications of a highly regulated, union dominated, key strategic industry as an exercise for the reader, though I fear my own answers show up on my face whenever the bosses come to class to cheerlead for the union. Can’t complain too much (not yet at least), because I am on track to get mine and don’t rightly care who can’t get theirs as a result.

In any case, the maritime industry is rich with history and suffused with technological genius. There is lots to do and lots of downtime (though not at the moment). It is good, honest work at the foundation of the global economy that is both steady and well compensated. I have found myself in a good place.

Feel free to post questions in the comments, and I will check them as I have internet access (pretty infrequently, cell reception is poor and available computers are scarce). As has been suggested by multiple people, I will post every vessel I work and every port I stop in, as well as any noteworthy adventures. My studies have been completely interrupted and I am too tired for much philosophizing, so don’t expect too much of that.