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

Lifeboating

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.