Monday, July 26, 2021

Smiles and Miles

During one of my several rare and always ill-fated attempts to work indoors, a female co-worker said to the group around us that I always had a smile on my mug when talking to people, and as a European it made her wonder if I was simple-minded at first. 

    Cultures vary widely on how to get along in forced social interactions, I get that. Generally, I am someone who appreciates a positive atmosphere, so I tend to try to start off that way when dealing with people. Be friendly, you know?  Apparently, for certain cultures, that is off-putting. Someone who smiles too much is creepy in every culture, but 'too much' is a YMMV definition. 

       When I arrived at the Weed Palace, the rent-by-the-hour Brooklyn hotel that we use for crew change, I said hello to a prostitute and her pimp who were ahead of me in line, while we waited at the front desk for the woman behind the bulletproof glass to process their check-in. After dumping my bag in the room, I headed back downstairs to walk to a store for my caffeine fix, and ran into a very good friend and coworker, one of my former crew, in fact. D couldn't stay long as my 2nd man because he was too good at the job and was all ready for promotion when we met. That was 10 years ago, and we've been good friends since. In D's truck was a young guy with the same Mississippi accent, his nephew in fact, and introductions were passed. Turns out, D's nephew was getting ready for his first job on a boat, and day one was the next day. He was to be paired with an experienced deckhand who I know pretty well, and was excited to start.

   The next afternoon we sailed for our first load in Bayonne, NJ, a short hop, and our assist tug made up to us, and there was D's nephew on deck. We both grinned at each other. Me, for my part out of happiness for the guy, and also because I know full well that a friendly face and a few kind words on day one at a job make all the difference in the world career-wise. 

     The job itself was uneventful, except that it made me reflect on a few things I said. At some point I had to explain that we had no good heaving lines on board, as I got tired of making them after the first hundred or so got stolen. At this point I think I am known well enough as a somewhat curmudgeonly sailor when pressed, so it's rare that I hear much griping when I tell someone that I don't have the things they want.  As I do, I quickly made up a heaving line by tying a Franciscan Friar's Knot in the end of a length of rope, and performing an underhand throw like a softball pitcher, threw it with precision. 

 Experience counts. Years ago, during my first transit through the Panama Canal, I bought a switchblade knife with a mother-of-pearl handle from a linehandler, and overpaid him to teach me how they threw heaving lines with precision. The softball-fastball pitch for medium-distance throwing was the result. The Franciscan Friar's Knot is a makeshift workaround suggested by the WWII-era Merchant Seaman's manual. Worth reading even today. 

 Now, compare that with an interaction I had with a hardheaded deckhand a few weeks ago. A young and green-as-grass Ordinary Seaman of about 9-months experience. Fairly rugged, quiet kid. Reserved. 

     When I meet deckhands, we're on my barge, but when a tugboat is made up, for multiple smart reasons, the man on watch on the tug has to call the shots. Barring safety concerns, I am required to defer to the guy with his hands on the throttles and the TOAR in his little red book. My first concern, speaking honestly, is that the job go safely for all of us. My second concern is that the job goes smoothly and efficiently FOR ME, because the tugboat is only relevant for 10-15 minutes, the time  we're relying on his skillset and knowledge, and I will have the next 6-12 hours to do my job, which does not include the tug or any of the people on it. 

         I know what I am and what I'm not. My M.O. tends to be that I observe a lot, and tend to use the tug's deckhand like an extension of my own hands while I'm thinking about what I'm doing. The deckhand works for the tug, not for me, although ideally we all work as a team, and 95+ % of the time that is what we do. For that reason, and hopefully because I try not to be a prick, I am often given a bit of leeway when it comes to asking deckhands to do things that I am capable of doing myself while I'm thinking over what I want to do. I'm also not a 19-year old anymore, too. That's a hard truth.

  So, occasionally, all the smiles and goodwill in the world won't help with an obstinate, surly or unseamanlike tugboat deckhand, or one that just plain doesn't like me. 

   The kid I had an issue with hadn't yet picked up the ability to listen and talk at the same time. He wasn't someone I knew, and wasn't regular crew on the tug. He wasn't very polite, either. I really try to leave my ego at home, but politeness is important when strange men have to work together. In an environment where you can punch someone for pissing you off,  it's not as important, but my job is not one of those environments. Throwing a punch gets you fired and if unlucky, gets you referred to the Coast Guard. So no dispensing Great Justice in situ

Right away he had a habit of ignoring me, which while rude isn't a big deal, until it is. I mean, the job's not done until we're all fast and in the right place to my satisfaction.  After failing twice to listen to me (which was frustrating and irritating) when we were trying to pass a line to a ship  with a tricky current making the tug mate's life hell, the kid finally acknowledged my existence and said "I have to listen to  the mate, I don't have to listen to you." I had been speaking with the mate and I was OK with his plan for what we need to do, so I felt the kid was being rude unnecessarily. Well, no more smiles from me.

  I said something mild about needing to work as a team, which felt weak  to me, as I really wanted to kick him into the water. Not being a hardo in that case left me feeling pretty dissatisfied. Then the kid cussed out the Filipino AB's on the ship. Already feeling like I wanted to throw my weight around, I told him to be respectful of the poor pricks on the ship, as they were perfectly capable of throwing a shackle at either of us and caving in our skulls, and to satisfy the shameful little part of me that wanted to be shitty, I said that the ship's AB's knew twenty times more than he did anyhow. 

 When we finally did get a line up to the ship, the kid immediately went the wrong way with it. I don't know if he was being contrary or just got turned around. Doesn't really matter, I guess.  I called out, probably too sharply, that I didn't want the line running that way, and the kid said 'that's not what we're going to do.'  This being something simple that I've done thousands of times, the kid's rudeness coupled with poor seamanship finally made my cup runneth over. The whole time I was thinking, however, that if I said or did anything out of ego, rather than professionalism, I was going to get called up short or end up feeling bad over it, as kicking someone off your deck almost always ends up getting back to the office, and new hires don't always weather that well. 

       I'd like to tell you that I kicked his ass, or said something smart and pithy. I will occasionally swallow when given a mouthful of shit, though. Instead I just said "OK, get off my deck and go back to your tug, right now." He said something quietly about that being fine by him and I was an asshole anyways. I didn't even swear; I was that put out. Talking to the mate on the handheld radio, I worked alone to get us all fast, and the mate, to his credit, said nothing about my kicking the kid off. I can handle people being rude when it's just their nature. I am less able to handle disrespect. 

    The cool part of this was that when it came time to cast off the tug, the mate and I, who are on good terms, bantered back and forth briefly, ignoring the deckhand. He never came up at all. I'd like to think that the office never got wind of what happened and maybe the tug's mate or captain could get through to the kid that pissing off someone who gets along with almost everyone is a bad thing. Of the few people I truly don't like that I have to deal with, almost all of them are hated near universally, so it's not just me. It does make me wonder about who thinks of me in the same way I think of that small number of people, though, and that I've never been made to feel unwelcome when on someone else's deck. Is that a sign that not too many folks find me an asshole or that others are more professional than I? Hmmmm. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Dread

 Well, it was another fantastic time home, but today I fly out to New York for crew change tomorrow. 

 Usually by the weekend, I start getting a touch maudlin, but this time I was pretty happy, right up until 11pm last night, when I suddenly felt like somebody pissed in my cheerios. 

 It's a weird one today. I usually fly out around noontime, so I can get up a little late, have a couple of hours at home, and then I start the journey north. Today I have a late afternoon flight, and Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife is at work, so it's really quiet. I'm not used to my house being so quiet. It's a touch depressing, and by a touch I mean it's awful. 

    Some crew changes are like that. I mean, nobody is joyful at the prospect of leaving home, but sometimes it hits particularly hard. Still, it's time to cowboy up and get paid for it, and after 2 weeks of eating and drinking to repletion far too often, the more austere and health-conscious diet I follow at work will perhaps stifle the screams I hear coming from my liver, whose criminal treatment has earned a respite. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

HAWSEPIPER COOKS! Which it is an Syllabub

  Having recently completed Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin series of novels (AKA the "Master And Commander' series, made (more) popular by the movie of the same name), and being at home with Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife out for the day, I thought I'd destroy her kitchen and do a little historically-inspired dessert-making. This is the third time I have finished the series, and as it was last time, it is still my all-time favorite read. 

 Syllabub is a relatively easy to make dessert from the 18th to the 19th century, but has fallen into obscurity, or at least I hadn't heard of it until reading O'Brien's works. It's a wine-based dessert, which made me doubt that I'd like it, wine being somewhat wasted on my working-class palate... but nope, it has a simple, refreshing and complex flavor that makes the wine very difficult to discern, but when discerned, it adds to the dish considerably.

 With my claim to be a true Triple Threat of a husband (The greatest and most powerful in the kitchen, in the bathroom AND in the bedroom!), I felt my kitchen game could use a little support. And, so, we have an obscure treat that would be found on a King's table. 

1 pint heavy whipping cream

1/4 pint of WHITE port wine

5-6 oz of powdered sugar

3/4 tsp orange blossom water

juice of 1 orange

zest of one large or 2 small lemons. 

   Put the cream and the sugar and mix them with a beater until the sugar is dissolved. I  use slightly less than 5 oz because Brazilians don't like refined sugar, preferring the sweetness from fruit, but the recipe calls for 6oz.   Add the rest of the ingredients and whisk until a meringue- like foam forms, with hard peaks. Takes about 5 minutes with a stand mixer, and like a meringue, probably about 30 mins if you don't have a little electric mixer of some form or want to go old-school and whisk by hand.  Portion it out, and refrigerate.  

    Seriously, that's it. I could probably have bullshitted my way through talking about this, and you can if you want. The flavors are complex and very pleasant and subtle. It doesn't taste like the ingredients above.  The dish as I make it is sweet, but not cloying, which to be fair, many American cakes and baked treats are to me now. The orange blossom water I had to order off Amazon, but you can get it at an Arab or Indian ethnic market.  It's bitter on it's own. I think it worth repeating, and luckily Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife, who is a real bear to please in the kitchen, was suitably impressed. Although she somehow managed to contain herself, I absolutely could feel her undressing me with her eyes, despite her denials and also her telling me I had put my shirt on inside-out again. 


Friday, July 2, 2021

On sympathy, and gratitude

  Although I mostly use this blog as a place for my id to go potty during the course of my time at work, I'm self-aware enough that I mostly just talk about myself and the blog probably resembles my ego whacking off in front of a full-length mirror on a weekly basis. 

        My world has shrunk a lot in the past few years. I work, and we have our company work culture, and I have real, true friends at work, who are 75% of the reason why I still do what I do for a living. When I leave work, I go home, and as I age, and as my marriage and nuclear family matures, I find I value and cherish my home life and my marriage, specifically, more and more. I'm fortunate there. My parents were the same, in fact, and I had wondered in the early years of marriage, if I'd ever have what they did, where their marriage was their world, the not-so-secret but private joy that defined the course of their lives. 

 I have that. For someone to ask me 'Who are you?' over the years, I'd probably first talk about my job, which was my identity. It's not that anymore. Hasn't been for a while. To explain the gratitude I have, gratitude to God, my parents, my family, and my nuclear family, I am completely unequal to. 

 *       *      *      *      *

 If you don't know who Elizabeth Simenstad is, she's a mariner who is also a blogger, one of the few people I follow on Instagram, with my VERY limited diet of social media. She's a better writer than I am, or at least certainly more inclined to write in correct detail whereas I am intellectually lazy; having not written professionally for almost 20 years now, tending to skim, shame, and generally use my writing skills to make dick and fart jokes.. I prefer the world to see me as an overgrown 12-year old rather than share my private life authentically. Shit's private, and while I absolutely am someone who values dick and fart jokes down deep, I'm not someone who shares the private pains we all experience, for fear of intruding into my most treasured place, my marriage and nuclear family.  When I do share something deeply personal, it's either something I need to share for catharsis or for a specific point.  

     I have that luxury. I have a centuries-old Old Boy network that has a niche for someone who camouflages himself, or who uses humor as a weapon while performing work at a high level. 

    The flipside of that is that it also allows for high performing skilled mariners who are utter scum, genuine plain villainous bastards, and supports them too. That is the Old Boy Network too, although any asshole can recognize that a mariner employed by a large organization will also  have the same protections in exchange for job security, regardless of positives OR negatives to their personality and to a lesser but significant extent, regardless of their ability to perform, at least beyond satisfying ancillary metrics like paperwork. We all know people who are utter soup sandwiches at work who can pencil whip their way to job security. 

*      *     *      *      *       *

     Female mariners don't have an Old Girl network, and aren't welcome in the Old Boy network. While I personally have always enjoyed the impact of an all-male work environment on my personal sense of morale and job performance, I have also, with ONE exception, long ago, always had positive experiences working with women on the water. I've worked with some really great female mariners, and I recognize that in going from wanting to be there to actually being there, few women have been able to get into the industry without a fair bit of bumps and bruises and all without the degree of bonhomie that is how men find support. 

   To add to that challenge, I have no idea what it is like for a woman to have to go from the maritime environment to the home environment. Sure as hell, though, the things that women may want in terms of work-life balance are a damn sight harder to have.

        I had my parents' example, my father being a mariner as well, and my mother being a sailor's wife, and having had experience with the life, was able to warn Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife beforehand about it, back when she was just Disproportionally Hot Foreign Girlfriend. I had some restraints on my choices, sure. I left sailing deep draught ships so my wife wouldn't have to raise a kid and have 4-6 months alone every year. My mom said it sucked, mostly, so I made that change, but I got to stay in my trade. 

         What happens when you want to be a sailor and a parent, when you're female?  Choices. Hard Choices. 

         So, Ms. Simenstad shared some personal information on Instagram that shows the difference between what we all can experience out here. She miscarried for the second time, in trying to have her first child with her husband. 

   There's no words to explain how awful that is. Of all the panoply of tragedies that we encounter as mariners working in somewhat isolated conditions, we are not equipped with experience to empathize with a lady who has gone through that. We can be sympathetic, and I'm sure that everyone is, at least I hope so, but as mariners, as men, we tend to seek out advice or comfort in empathy on board. Divorce, death, tragedy, we often end up growing close to a shipmate who has some experience with our particular hurt. That avenue, though, it not available for women in that situation. Sympathy is the best we can offer, for the most part, though hopefully that will be enough to be helpful. The ancillary challenges to mental health that such things bring may be worse than the moment itself, though. For that reason, I very much applaud Ms. Simenstad's willingness to talk about the negatives, the pain and challenges she faces, while at the same time, I asked my wife to include her in her prayers, as I will too. Writing about it, in a trade that isn't always sympathetic to differences in what we need for support, is very brave. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Swerve in the road

 As things always seem to go, there was a flurry of phone calls from home right at watch change. You know, watch change, when you're supposed to start winding down in preparation for blessed rest? 

 Yeah. Always, big things happen at home either when I want to sleep, when I want to use the bathroom or when I have only 20 minutes to cook my only hot meal of the day. 

  At any rate, my plans for my time home (a week from tomorrow!) just got changed utterly. Not in a bad way. Or in a good way, really. Just... life intervened. 

 I'm being deliberately vague, yes. Not a big deal, just a private one... and anyhow, as I tend to do a little more these days now that I don't do social media, I'm looking at the positives as much as possible. 

 So, suddenly, I have a whole week that I no longer have commitments made. That's awesome. In exchange for a bunch of logistical legwork for me to do today, to undo a long-term planned process, I will have 6 days that were originally planned to be busy doing something else. Hot damn. I'm annoyed at the last-minute nature of the changes, but dang, I have time to do something. 

     Now, being, well, me, I don't like last minute changes to long-lead projects and plans. But who does, really? I guess I just dwell and ruminate over such things more than I should. What's the word? Hidebound? Yes. I am hidebound perhaps more than I should be. 

 Well, annoyance aside, what to do with my time? I'm going to have more time with my wife and kid, and my son and I will surely go to the gun range. Inappropriately Hot Foreign Wife is mulling getting a Concealed Carry permit, I think more in a show of solidarity with her adopted culture and also to be a nine-days' wonder among her 100+ cousins and their insane online community. But that might be fun, and now we have time maybe to knock that out. 

I REALLY want to build a ladder-style planter for an indoor herb garden that she also wants, but I don't want to have to take out a mortgage for the 4 2x4's and sheet of 3/4" plywood it would require. And for the first time in years, almost decades, I'm performing daily exercise and eating healthy on a daily basis, so days of swimming, drinking booze and eating comfort food, AKA my weekends, are also no longer an option. 

     I have an idea in my head for a little wooden rowboat. I think I have a sheet of 1/8" plywood somewhere. I might work on that, see if I can make something without a plan, try to work by eye, like the old school skiff builders when I was a kid. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

painting season!

 Of the many, many weird things about me, the fact that I enjoy painting at work is certainly one of them. 

 It's painting season, the time when, until my employer went supersized, the port captains inquired just how much paint we wanted for the year. They allowed us to set goals, and then in our idle time, we'd paint for a few hours when we had an off watch, to pass the time. 

   Well, idle time until recently was nonexistent, and morale being in the toilet generally as we older mariners adapt to a more corporate employee structure with management, painting became something we didn't do, one, for lack of time, and two, for lack of interest. The era of taking pride in your barge ended when... when it ended. Frog, warming water. 

    last winter was a 6-month flurry of jobs the likes of which I've never seen, but we're having a little summer lull compared to that. In fact, we're working on a schedule reminiscent of my early days bunkering 10+ years ago, which is to say, we have work, we have cargo, but we have idle time too, not so much that we're bored, but enough to think more than 6 hours ahead. Morale for our little crew has rebounded. Without the constant pressure of jobs stacked back to back for days on end, this little interregnum has been very, very welcome. We have maintenance done, we have identified some medium-and long-lead projects we'd like to do on board, and I get to paint. 

Photo taken this morning

 I enjoy painting on deck. I always have. It's mindless work, and I tend to get some things worked out in my head while I'm doing it. Being a type A personality, mindless work that doesn't bore me to shit is soothing, and painting isn't a daily task for me, and the rewards, well, nobody likes working on a deck that calls to mind a junkyard. So I like to put my tall socks on, an old pair of dad shoes (New Balance 4lyfe, yo), and my last (and treasured) pair of Jorts, and get down with a roller, a man-helper (one of those extension stick broomhandle things) and some International one-part topcoat. 

       So, for example, while we have a job at midnight tonight, today is hot and sunny, and so I can hit the ladders over my fuel manifold with some yellow, and it'll have more than enough time to bake on before dark and be hard enough to withstand foot traffic. And honestly, I enjoy being out on deck without my 10lb Red Wing boots on. 

 I'm going to get out there now. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Exam Day

 Well, today was our 5-year renewal inspection for our Certificate of Inspection, the master document that the Coast Guard issues to say what we can do, who we can do it with, and what we need to do it. This is the big certificate, and the big exam, too. 

 We actually did really well. Always, always always the Coast Guard finds ONE THING if they can't find anything important as a material deficiency, something that we need to fix but that isn't a big deal. It's an unwritten rule. Usually I put a box in front of the emergency escape hatch in the generator room to block the hatch. This gives the inspector an out, and presumably a warm feeling, knowing that he issued a correction. 

 Seriously, I've been doing the box trick for the past 10 years. I actually forgot it today, in the rush. And we didn't get ANY corrections and of course, no deficiencies were noted, because we don't play that shit around here. So that's a first. 

        The rush I'm speaking about is the rechecks and detailed examination of absolutely everything that happens before an inspection, because they can and do look at everything. Today, for example, the inspector took a moment to look at our little air compressor, a model you'd find in any amateur handyman's garage, and had us test the pressure relief valve on it, to see the PSI range where it would open from overpressure. Dude had us overpressurize the tank by shutting down the shutoff, and watched when the valve popped out. Took like 5 minutes. I didn't even know that was a criterion. 

       We actually have a good preventative maintenance and safety inspection program companywide, and I do my best to keep us in compliance, so little stuff like the condition of our survival suit emergency lights, a verbal quiz about the communication chain for oil spills, stuff like that all went down as part of the inspection. Now, at 6am today, little maintenance items that had popped up on the pre-inspection prep got sorted out, and I spent breakfast splicing a line rather than reading a book, but all is well. 

       We even have shore access tomorrow. I mean, we have it today, too, but it's raining, and I hate being rained on. Good thing I always chose outdoor jobs, I guess.