Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Rainbow of Unreliability

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

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

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

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

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

Vignettes in Ailment

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

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

The maintenance people fixed it in the morning.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Empiricism at its finest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 25, 2014

A view from the air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Man on a mountain

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Aphorisms and Congressjackals

The reward for hard work is more work.

Only the squeaky wheel gets greased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Quick notes before exhaustion overtakes me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Some depart, I remain

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

Too bad it goes away next week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

Burning Desires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 7, 2014

Misery in the world

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

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

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

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Water Survival for Passengers

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

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

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