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.

1 comment:

  1. Great post -- very interesting this new life of yours! Glad you are writing and congrats on the library gig! Very cool. -Samantha (Missy's office =))