All posts by Syd Boyle

About Syd Boyle

The meat and potatoes of my life? Writing, science, music, and the insatiable curiosity that drives it all.

Boy (doesn’t) Meet Girl

It really wasn’t until the fourth grade at Crowell Elementary that Doug began to pay attention to girls. Until that point they had been more or less something to put up with, if anything. There were always girls his age around the house growing up; his mother, after all, ran a full-time daycare out of their home. And at his father’s place on the weekends he had his stepsister Jaime and her friends to deal with, all just a couple years younger than himself.

Romantically speaking, though, none of these counted. It wasn’t until he laid eyes on the new girl at school, Melissa, that Doug could truthfully tell himself he had found love, at long last. Not that his affections were in any way returned, though. Indeed, he was fairly certain she was unaware of his existence. This inconvenience, though, he was determined to remedy.

For a new kid, Doug marveled at just how quickly Melissa was able to make friends.  It seemed within weeks of her transfer from some town he’d never heard of, she had an entire retinue of girls, not just to play with, but to do her bidding. It wasn’t uncommon to see one of her friends make extra trips to the cafeteria to fetch her whatever entree or dessert she fancied. On more than one occasion, Doug even witnessed a few girls giving up items from their bag lunches. These were usually filled with such coveted items one could never get in the cafeteria; treasures like Pop Tarts and Fruit Rollups. Melissa would take a little of it all. The funny thing was, though, he rarely witnessed her actually eating any of it. She’d stick the booty in her backpack and, as far as he could tell, there it would remain the rest of the day.

Doug was bewitched.

Despite being a Crowell Cougar for only a few short months, Melissa had already far surpassed Doug in popularity. Not that this was a tremendous feat in itself; he was largely considered a nerd among all but a few students who were, naturally, just as (or more so) nerdy than himself. This lowly status was largely because he spent much of his time with his nose stuck in books. The cool kids, such as his nemesis Garret, were good at football, baseball, boring stuff like that. When they’d be out throwing a ball around, he’d be in the library. Needless to say, this situation did not work any wonders for his social life.

So Doug decided, with Melissa as his objective, not to stop reading, but rather to do so on the sly. Going to the library was now out of the question. He needed to be spotted, if not on the field, at least on the playground during recess. It was crucial he at least appear as if he fitted in with the majority of other boys.

This charade turned out to be much easier said than done. For one thing, aside from his own small group of fellow nerds, nobody had any interest in even speaking with him, much less becoming his friend. The sad fact was that nobody had any interest in getting to know anyone who wasn’t considered cool. 

Doug could remember a time when he had been cool. It had been way back in the second grade when his father had visited the school in his police uniform for a demonstration during Bring Your Parent to School Day. In the immediate aftermath of his father’s impressive display, Doug’s star had burned bright but it had also burned brief. Within just two weeks, the kids had more or less forgotten about his dad’s police uniform, gun, and badge. Accordingly, he had been promptly returned to nerd status. Truth be told, though, he hadn’t really enjoyed this newfound esteem, short as it was. He had discovered that being popular involved talking to a lot of people you’d really rather not, being extra attentive about how you looked, taking care about such things as what clothes you wore or how you styled your hair. You even had to be ever conscious about how you talked, what you talked about, who you were seen with, and all kinds of stuff that, as far as Doug was concerned, didn’t really amount to much of a pay off, considering the amount of effort involved. His friends might be dorky but they’d never turn on him over something as stupid as the ever-shifting winds of fads, trends, and overall ranking in popularity among his peers. 

Still, unlike before, he now had a higher purpose, one with beautiful green eyes and long brown hair. So Doug set about trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the girl he was certain he loved. Someday, if all went well, he might even muster enough nerve to actually speak with her. But, before that milestone, he had to first build up his image. He didn’t kid himself that this would in any way be an easy feat. But, if nothing else, he was stubborn.

Unfortunately, Doug had not anticipated the difficulty involved in fooling this girl. It turned out to be an extremely delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he had to stand near a group of popular kids, placing himself just near enough to seem as if he were part of the conversation if viewed from a distance but far enough away that the boys would take no notice of his lurking presence. Had anyone taken the time to actually scrutinize his behavior, the entire ruse would crumble and he would  come off a complete and total jackass. Caution and diligence were of utmost importance.

So it was that day after day, during every recess and lunch period, Doug would strategically place himself just close enough to Garret and his friends, all popular boys who, in reality, he had nothing in common with. From what he could tell, the only subjects these buffoons were interested in were sports and girls. Sure, he could relate to the latter (that was, after all, the entire purpose of his charade) but not in the way they did. It was as if every female on the school grounds was only as good as their physical appearance and/or flirtatiousness. If they had too many freckles, or a mouth full of braces, forget about it. If they didn’t blush and giggle when addressed, they were scarcely worth mentioning and, at times, even ridiculed. 

Doug was, of course, not oblivious to the fact that his love for Melissa was based solely on her physical appearance. He had nothing else to go on. She was a grade higher than him and thus, to his profound frustration, not in a single one of his classes. In fact, he’d only heard her speak a small handful of times when he’d ‘happened’ to pass her in the hall. Despite knowing little to nothing about her, though, Doug didn’t regard the girl as simply a pair of legs to be ogled at by the likes of Garret and his pack of cretins. He had genuine curiosity about her as a person. What was her favorite cereal, movie, TV show (was she a Three’s Company kind of girl or did she prefer less risqué fare such as Alf)? There was so much to know, to learn. Sure, he was attracted to her physically, but at the same time was confident there was so much more beneath the surface for anyone possessing the patience and willpower to find out. He knew without a shred of doubt that he was that person. Once she noticed he was more or less a normal kid, maybe even a marginally popular one, all that would be left to do was strike up a conversation.

Simple. In theory, at least.

Doug soon discovered that the single largest obstacle in winning over Melissa was getting her to even look in his general direction. His ruse to appear popular was not having the desired effect. The reason soon became clear. Unlike most other girls at school, she didn’t seem at all impressed with Garret and his circle of dumb friends. Therefore, she wasn’t constantly stealing glimpses of him and his group. This negated Doug’s entire strategy of hanging around on the periphery of their social circle. With no apparent interest in them, he rarely even appeared in her line of sight. Clearly, a new tactic to gain her attention was in order, something bolder.

Soon after abandoning his make-believe friendship scheme with Garret and crew, a new plan began to form in Doug’s mind. His new strategy involved ingratiating himself with those girls he knew to be friends of Melissa. Eventually, if he played his cards right, their paths would cross by way of simply knowing many of the same people. They would be brought together by what would seem, to the outside eye, an inevitable encounter between two people with mutual friends or acquaintances. 

It seemed like a solid enough plan, at least in theory. Unfortunately, though, the execution proved much more problematic. For one thing, all of Melissa’s friends were, of course, girls. This wouldn’t be a major obstacle in and of itself if not for the fact that girls, generally speaking, had no interest in him whatsoever. And, to complicate matters, those girls Melissa did know were among the most obnoxious and snooty of the entire student body at Crowell Elementary.

Regardless, without a better plan, he was determined to see this one through. The first stage would be to cut into the lunch line at an opportune moment, placing himself directly behind a girl he knew to be in Melissa’s circle. Ideally, he would do this toward the end of the line. The reason for this was twofold. First, the line fanned out toward the rear, making it easier to ease himself into position without drawing undue attention. Second, doing so would provide more time to work his charm. This latter point was of particular importance. Once the line reached the point where they retrieved their food trays, all speaking would, by necessity, cease. They would be preoccupied with the lunch lady, choosing their veggies and mystery meat from the limited selection. Once the food had been plopped onto their trays, any social interaction was finished and they would head to their respective tables.

Any attempt to continue the conversation beyond this point would be fruitless. The girl would head to her table and he would head to his. It was that simple. Should he try and sit at the girl’s table, he would make a spectacle of himself, one that would be a terrible blow to the image he was trying to build. Though he was never sure why, a boy sitting alone amongst girls was just something that was just not done. It would be tantamount to social suicide.

This self-imposed segregation of the sexes wasn’t a problem, however, provided the lunch line was long enough to give him the time needed to strike up a friendly conversation, one he could build on over time, ultimately ingratiating himself with Melissa’s different friends, slowly infiltrating her social circle.  Fortunately, the lunch line was always long. Before this Melissa business, this had always been an annoyance. Now, it was an asset.

Or so he believed.

His first mark, a stuck up little blond with enormous hair named Megan, stood, not at the very end of the line, but fairly close. She was one of Melissa’s lesser acquaintances. Admittedly, not ideal. Still, just because she wasn’t privy to the coveted inner circle, she had access to those who did. It would have to do.

He approached at a casual stroll, hands stuffed in his pockets, doing his level best to put on a careless air. Silent as a ninja, he slipped in line behind Megan. Behind him stood Todd, an insecure red head who, like himself, was somewhat of a loner. Doug knew such a kid would be less apt to protest and, fortunately, in this case, he was correct. Aside from a frown and disdainful shake of the head, Todd kept his mouth shut. The few kids further back didn’t seem to notice that their line had just increased by one.

So far, so good. His luck was holding.

Ever aware of his limited time to work, Doug dove right in. “Hey, what’s up Megan,” he began, with a forced nonchalance that made him feel ill.  She looked over her shoulder at him, one eyebrow cocked, as if trying to figure out who was addressing her. He soldiered on. “Fish sticks, again,” he moaned with exaggerated weariness, nodding toward the menu board.

“It’s Mindy, you dork,” she said with a sneer, turning back around.

Doug closed his eyes, silently cursing himself. God damnit, right out of the gate and he was in trouble. He had been certain her name was Megan. He had to think fast. The line was moving right along. Soon they would arrive at the counter.

“Oh, right…Mindy,” he said cooly to the back of her head. “Hi, I’m Mork.” 

Silence. This time she didn’t even bother turning around to acknowledge him. Clearly, his joke had failed to land. Or perhaps this girl simply had no sense of humor. He tried to recall what he had ever overheard her talking about. He was in desperate need of some common ground.

Meanwhile, the line inched ever forward.

Nothing came to him. Screwing up her name had filled him with self doubt. Now he couldn’t even be sure which of Melissa’s friends this was, much less what he might have overheard her speaking about. After all, if this was Mindy, then who was Megan? Or had there never been a Megan in the first place? His new strategy, so brilliant in theory, was already floundering, and only after a single attempt.

Still, he had a few precious moments remaining before they reached the counter. He’d already embarrassed himself so, at this point, there wasn’t a whole lot to lose. Going with the first thing to pop into his head, he found himself telling her a particularly bad joke he’d heard earlier that week.

“What’s green and red and spins around and around all day long?”

Mindy released an unnecessarily loud sigh and turned to face him. Doug cocked his head to one side, confident she’d at least want to know the punchline, however dumb it might be.

She stared at him for an uncomfortably long moment. Her eyes were unblinking and he found himself thinking of a National Geographic article about reptiles he had recently read.  He was just starting to get a little creeped out when she finally broke into a smile. It wasn’t a friendly smile. It was rather the kind one might use when addressing a small child. “Kermit the frog in a blender,” she replied. “I have two kid brothers, you know.”

They had arrived at the counter. Mindy grabbed a pastel green plastic tray from the rack and slapped it on the metal runner, waiting for the lunch lady to take her order.

Doug, having humiliated himself for the second time in under a minute, knew he was out of time and, in desperation, determined to take things up a notch. He had recently overheard a sixth-grader telling some of his friends a dirty joke. Though Doug didn’t understand it, the older boys had found it hilarious. He decided to go for it. At least it was one her damned kid brothers weren’t likely to know. “Hey, Mindy,” he said. “What do you call that yellowish-brown crusty stuff smeared all over the crotch of a girl’s panties at the end of a hot day?”

Mindy whirled around to face him, furious before he had even had the opportunity to deliver the punchline. “What did you say?” she sputtered.

Clitty litter,” he said quickly, hoping she would at least find enough humor in the incomprehensible joke that he could avoid being slapped across the face.

For a moment he thought she really was going to smack him. He recalled the time, a few years earlier, when he had learned from some boys at school that women bleed out of their butts once every month. He had gone home and, laughing uncontrollably, informed his mother of this newly acquired nugget of wisdom. She had slapped him across the face; the only time she had ever laid a hand on him, before or since. Standing there looking at him, Mindy had that same sort of look in her eye as his mother had that day. She was harder to read, though. Honestly, it could go either way.

She continued to stare at him with that maddeningly inscrutable expression until, finally, the corner of her lip turned up, and she flashed him a crooked smile. “That’s a good one,” she said. Chuckling lightly, she turned back toward the lunch lady and held out her tray.

Doug was, of course, elated. He had taken a disastrous situation that was quickly going nowhere and turned it around with some dumb joke he didn’t understand, aside from the fact that it was dirty. Mindy got it, though, and that’s all that mattered. Maybe she’d go to her lunch table and retell the joke, letting all her friends know what a funny guy he was. And, who knows, maybe one friend in particular might show a spark of interest in this budding comedian.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. Within the week, girls he didn’t even know began calling him “perv” and “sicko” as they’d pass him in the hall. As for Melissa, she was oblivious to his presence as always.

Only once did they actually make eye contact. It was some weeks following the cafeteria incident. Doug had rounded a corner and, by chance, found himself facing the object of his affections as she walked toward him in the opposite direction. None of her bothersome friends were around. It was just him and her.

They were alone, together.

Realizing at once that such an ideal situation would almost certainly never happen again, he quickly decided he’d toss her a casual ‘hello’ as they passed; not exactly the pickup line of the year but far better than nothing at all, which, up to this point, was all he had achieved toward his goal of winning her heart.

It would have to do.

The hall was not wide. As the distance between them narrowed, Melissa veered to her left. At the same instant, Doug veered to his right. To avoid a potential collision, Melissa then leaned back to her right at the same time that Doug, with the same intention, leaned back to his left. This happened three more times, resulting in what amounted to a ridiculous little shuffle between the two of them. By the time they worked out their respective positions relative to one another, it was too late and she passed him by.

Doug tried to think of something witty to say, some kind of ice breaker to make light of the awkward situation. Before he could do so, though, Melissa muttered something over her shoulder at him that he didn’t quite catch. These were the first words she had ever spoken to him, albeit facing the opposite way. And, just his luck, he’d missed it. Determined not to let this fateful moment slip out of his grasp forever, he turned around and, heart in his throat, asked her what she’d said.

She stopped and turned to face him, wearing a smile so sweet and beautiful it made him feel as if he were made of butter. “You didn’t hear me?” she said.

Doug felt his throat go dry as he dumbly shook his head.

“I said, you walk like a drunken retard.”

She looked at him for a few more agonizing seconds, The smile he had found so endearing just moments before now seemed much more like a malicious grin. Then, without a further word, she turned back around and continued on her way.

Doug stood there in the hall, frozen in place, watching her until she disappeared around the corner. He wasn’t sure how long he remained that way, just standing there like that. For him, time had stopped. The distant ringing of the bell eventually startled him back to the present and he hurried to class.

That night, he didn’t toss and turn, thinking about her, as he had for the past several months. The following morning, he didn’t waste the precious free time between classes or at recess and lunch in a pathetic attempt to attract her eye. He stopped trying to ingratiate himself with her snooty friends.

By the end of the week, he had resumed his long neglected trips to the library. His old friends were happy to see him return, and they asked no questions and made no judgements. Doug was back where he belonged, with his own kind of people, where he could be a nerd, where he could be himself.

Yes, we really did land on the Moon.

The moon landing was faked. Everybody has heard this one. It is arguably the single most popular grand conspiracy ever dreamed up. Let’s take a closer look and see if it holds any water (spoiler: it doesn’t).

From the day in late spring 1961 when President Kennedy announced his goal of landing an American on the Moon within the decade to the day in early summer 1969 when it was accomplished, NASA culled men and women from 20,000 companies and universities to eventually muster a truly astounding 400,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians for the task. This number doesn’t even include the untold number of support staff; janitors, caterers, couriers, secretaries, and about every other menial position imaginable that would be necessary to support what, at the time, was the single largest feat of engineering in the history of the world.

And, of course, one must not forget the thousands of people who watched the enormous Saturn V rocket blast into the heavens from its pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, followed in a few short days by the estimated 600 million people around the world who watched the actual landing on their television sets.

Yet, there are those who, to this day, insist that the moon landing did not occur, that it was shot in a studio. To accomplish such a massive subterfuge, every single person, from top NASA officials down to the guy scrubbing facility toilets, would necessarily have been an invention. They wouldn’t exist for the simple reason that their jobs would not have.

So, let’s say they did exist but merely went through the motions, showing up to work every day for nearly a decade simply to maintain the appearance of working on this massive project. If that were the case, then every last person involved would have been privy to a hoax staggering in size and complexity. In essence, every high level employee of the 20,000 companies and universities who provided the manpower would necessarily have been sworn to secrecy about said hoax, since they were, quite publicly, alleged to have provided their very best and brightest for the project. And, of course, every last one of these would have had to keep the secret from all of their own families, friends, and loved ones, somehow accounting for their absence during the work week for, in some cases, nearly a decade.

And, oh yes, the film crew, the one that allegedly shot the landing itself (some have pegged Stanley Kubrick as the culprit). In addition, three presidential administrations would have been in on the ruse. First Kennedy, followed by Johnson, and, finally, Nixon. In fact, old Tricky Dick himself was alleged to have spoken to the astronauts themselves while they were on the lunar surface. What a sham!

And, of course, there is the little matter of the cost of the project itself. If there is one thing human beings are sticklers about, it is money. For Christ’s sake, the first writing in known history is thought to be a record of financial transactions. And the Apollo program was hardly a nickel and dime affair. In 1973, the total cost was reported to Congress at a staggering $25.4 billion dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that would be the 2019 equivalent of roughly $146 billion. If the whole thing was a hoax, where did that money go? To reallocate, launder, or simply make such an amount disappear, every Congressman, Representative, accountant, assemblyman, and, frankly, every last one of the thousands of people involved in allocating the nation’s budget (under three separate administrations, no less) would necessarily be in on the joke as well.

What strikes me as odd is that many of the same people who would likely agree with the premise that a secret shared by 1,000 people is untenable still persist in believing in large-scale conspiracies such as a faked lunar landing which involves more people than this by several orders of magnitude.

I am not suggesting that no conspiracies exist. Smaller and more manageable ones most certainly do. For instance, those types involving the top brass of intelligence agencies, government spy networks, and the like. At most, a few hundred people might be in the know. But even these eventually become exposed by some whistle-blower, and the hard evidence usually is found sooner or later to back up the allegations. Cases such as this include many of the secret CIA missions of past decades that have since come to light, such as the shady support the U.S. gave to right-wing authoritarian regimes over democratically elected leaders. The 1976 coup by the military dictator Jorge Videla against President Isabel Peron of Argentina is an example of this.

The point is this: people just aren’t good at keeping secrets. We are natural storytellers. As a species, keeping our mouths shut is simply not one of our strong suits. Conspiracy theories are fun to believe. Sometimes, even sexy. But none of that makes them true, or, in most cases, even remotely probable.

Conspiratorial thinking is, in fact, the antithesis of critical thinking. We see conspiratorial nonsense spewed upon the masses by relatively unknown schemers from the lowly YouTuber hack all the way up to those holding the highest positions of public office. All one need do is take a look at the digital diarrhea that is the current U.S. President’s Twitter feed to see this unfortunate truth.

Conspiracy theories are everywhere, especially in this digital age where everyone has an audience via the internet, which can function as a digital megaphone to convert the gullible.

Like the fake moon landing, many of these conspiracies are mind-numbingly stupid, though relatively harmless. For example, recently the world has witnessed what most would have thought impossible; the resurgence of the flat earth movement. Others believe the condensed water vapor left in the wake of jet engines are actually so-called “chemtrails,” some nefarious and mysterious substance meant to psychologically control the masses and/or control the human population.

Some grand conspiracies are political in nature, such as Donald Trump’s ‘deep state,’ or his evidence-free claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal citizens in California.

Others can actually cause harm, such as (again) Donald Trump’s stated belief that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese government, which lead to delays or actual refusals to enact legislation to address the issue. Far right nut jobs like Alex Jones have promoted the conspiracy that a tragedy such as the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre was a false flag operation by the U.S. government, leading to a lawsuit by the grieving parents of the murdered children.  A pizza joint in Washington, D.C. was the target of a gunman who bought into some online rumor that it was the secret base of some pedophile sex ring run by high ranking Democrats. Then, of course, there are the “9/11 truthers,” who never seem to go away and continue to dishonor all who perished in the aftermath of this terrorist attack. Others that fit in this more nefarious category of conspiracy theorists are the “anti-vaxxers,” who shamelessly promote the gibberish of the disgraced (and now unlicensed) British doctor Andrew Wakefield who made the false claim that vaccines are linked to autism (and later went on to cash in on his ill-gotten fame with a few popular films to this effect). As a result, in recent months, measles outbreaks in the United States, formerly almost non-existent, have broken out across the nation in areas where parents refuse to vaccinate their own children.

This list of conspiracy theories is hardly a complete one. In fact, it barely scratches the surface. There are many others and more are thought up every day. The one thing that all conspiracy theories seem to have in common, though, is this: there is never a shred of evidence to support them. Yet millions continue to be converted, sold on this or that bullshit based on nothing more than the homemade video of a YouTube fanatic or the mindless tweet from the most powerful man in the world.

And, of course, their own willingness to embrace what they want to be rather than what actually is.

 

 

Observations of a Cruise Ship Worker

In the spring of 2019 I was hired by a major cruise line as an onboard naturalist. I qualified due to my work experience and, more importantly, my B.S. in Aquatic & Fishery Sciences from the University of Washington. For the previous four years I had not been using my insanely expensive education to make a living. Instead, I had been working at a small independently owned musical instrument shop/school. Though I loved the job (great people, conscientious business, fair treatment and pay), it obviously did not utilize my hard earned knowledge of the natural world.

So when I was offered a job with the cruise line, I jumped at the opportunity. Well, sort of. In truth, I was somewhat reluctant to give up my position with the music shop, where I ran the school in the evenings. I had gotten to know the students and teachers extremely well over the years and thoroughly enjoyed the work. So the decision to leave was not as easy as it might have been otherwise. But the naturalist job, in the end, was simply too good to pass up.

The application process was fairly grueling, but seemed well worth the effort. I had to take an extensive medical exam to prove my fitness for life at sea that put me back nearly $500 (to be partly reimbursed by my employer). I had to renew my expired passport (since we would pass through Canadian waters), fill out countless reams of paperwork,  pass all the background checks, and also write and memorize my own Powerpoint presentations for the season, which ran from mid-May thru the end of September. And, of course, I spent the four months prior to boarding doing extensive research on everything Alaska. This was primarily because, though my education was thorough, it was broad in scope. I needed to familiarize myself with the natural history of very specific regions, both in and out of the water.

The ship, a 900-odd foot long behemoth, was to make bi-weekly runs between Vancouver, B.C. and Glacier Bay, Alaska, stopping at towns like Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan along the way. As naturalist, it was my job to give a couple of brief presentations about the local wildlife once or twice a day, covering everything from whales to bears to trees. Sometimes I would be expected to lead wildlife spotting sessions from on deck if we sailed past areas of high animal traffic. The majority of the day, though, I would spend just sort of hanging around the ship, making myself available to answer any questions posed by curious guests, should they have any.

All of these duties, though, were conducted only on “sea days.” When in port, other than performing gangway duty early in the morning, there was nothing to do but go on various land or sea based excursions such as whale watching tours or nature hikes. Even these, which guests would pay anywhere from $100-$800 to book, were, for me, free of charge. Since these excursions were not mandatory, if I was in the mood, I could spend the day alone wandering the towns, entertaining myself at the local taverns or finding my own trail to explore. In short, port days were my own.

The whole gig seemed perfect. It ticked off all the checkboxes of what I considered the perfect  job. As an officer, I received great pay, medical/dental benefits, free room and board, and the chance to wake up somewhere different every morning and see sights in remote areas glimpsed by relatively few people on Earth. And, most importantly, I was able to work in my actual field, something I had not done in years.

The ship itself was an enormous floating luxury hotel. I had access to the same food as the guests, which is to say an assortment of food that rivaled in quality the best I could ever hope to find onshore, even in my own big city of Seattle. And, of course, it was all free, as much as I could eat. To stave off potential obesity, there was a gym for officers to use whenever they wished, as well as two pools (one beneath an enormous retractable roof). For entertainment, there were several hot tubs, saunas, a casino, a varied selection of bars, large theaters with live shows, and even a basketball court. If I wanted to get away from guests, I had access to the Officer’s Bar (OB), which sat directly behind the enormous open bow, a massive uncluttered space with the best view of the whole ship, and, most importantly, was completely off-limits to all guests.

Though my cabin was small and modest, it did have a porthole and I didn’t have to share it with anyone. There was a TV with some free pre-loaded movies on it, along with a tiny desk and nightstand. The bathroom was little more than an indentation in the wall. The toilet was virtually identical to those found in business class airplanes, complete with the deafening roar that accompanied every flush. The shower was a tiny stall. Stepping inside, my face would be inches from the wall and the curtain would be practically sticking to my ass. How anyone over, say, 200 pounds could possibly bathe themselves in such a cramped space remains a mystery to me.

Overall, though, my cabin was a comfortable enough space. Like all crew cabins, it was located belowdecks. In my case, A-Deck. Most of the non-officer crew cabins were below mine on B and C-Deck, and in much smaller spaces than my own, nearly all equipped with bunk beds and without portholes.

The vast majority of the crew, some 900 or so souls as I recall, were, of course, not officers but rather housekeeping, kitchen, servers, and the like. In other words, the most essential part of the ship, at least in terms of making the guests happy. Nearly every last one of them were recruited from the Philippines and a few other areas of Southeast Asia. When interfacing with the guests, they were the picture of hospitality; soft-spoken, extremely polite and deferential, and always eager to be of assistance.

This behavior did not just extend to the guests, however. Quite often I would find myself passing Filipino men or women a good twenty years my senior, calling me “sir,” and treating me with what I began to suspect was caution. I found this to be uncomfortable and would often make a point of calling them by their first names in an attempt to cultivate a sense of familiarity and, more importantly, equality.

There were a couple of the Filipino workers who I ended up getting to know on a first name basis, though. One in particular, I’ll call her Stephanie, was in her forties and was from just outside Manila. She worked longer hours than some commercial fishermen I know. Working as a beverage server, it was her task to  walk around whatever bar she was assigned to for the evening and take drink orders from guests, which would then be charged to their ship accounts (there are no cash transactions onboard).

The hours Stephanie worked were brutal. One night she closed down a bar at 4:00am and was back at work directing disembarking passengers in port just three hours later. Over a two week period she worked approximately 150 hours but made only $360 U.S. dollars for her time. Worked out to an hourly wage, that is a measly $2.40 per hour, a wage that would have been unacceptable to most people even clear back in the 1980s.

But to work it out to an hourly wage would be irrelevant because that wasn’t how she was compensated. Nor was she salaried. Instead, she, and others like her, worked solely on commission, receiving a small percentage of every drink order she took from a guest. With the absence of cash, there were no tips. Even the slip of paper the guest signed authorizing the charges to their ship account had no place for gratuity. To make matters worse, because Stephanie was in her forties, she had to compete against other younger women for drink orders.

She didn’t stand a chance.

This, to me, was shocking. For working a mere fraction of the hours Stephanie did, I received roughly $3,500 per month. And, unlike Stephanie, I wasn’t packed like a sardine with others in a cramped cabin.

The Filipino workers were also not allowed above deck unless they were on duty. If they were caught anywhere above A-Deck, which is where the crew area began, they had better have a good reason. I, on the other hand, was free to wander the ship at will, frequenting any area the guests could, in addition to the aforementioned bar reserved solely for officers.

I was aware beforehand of the segregation onboard between the officers and Filipino crew. What completely took me off guard, though, was just how poorly they were treated. Any notion of ‘separate but equal’ would be an absurdity.

Because most of their positions were service-related (cooks, housekeeping, etc), they rarely got much time, if any, to leave the ship. Though we would dock in some of the larger Alaskan towns such as Juneau for the entire day, most of the Filipino crew could consider themselves lucky if they got an hour or two ashore. If they did, their time was invariably spent making runs to WalMart, purchasing items to send back home to their families in the Philippines, items that were either beyond their financial reach or simply unavailable there.

Whereas I enjoyed a buffet of exquisite and diverse items coupled with a scenic view, their mess hall resembled a dilapidated public school cafeteria. The last time I went down there they had only brown and oily fish heads, rice, and fruit to choose from. And, to spice things up, a vending machine.

Incidentally, it was these same Filipinos who cooked and prepared all the rich and delicious food only one deck above. Yet they were forbidden to eat a single bite, despite a stupendous amount of it ending up as waste at the end of each day.

Sensing a financial opportunity, a number of officers would even smuggle some of this food below deck, selling it to the Filipino crew at 100% profit. This was part of a larger network known, tongue in cheek, as the ‘Filipino Mafia.’ And this particular black market didn’t deal merely in food. Though I never witnessed it directly, I heard rumors of certain services being rendered by some female crew members to those officers with more cash than they knew what to do with.

Even more revolting than the greasy fish heads (which I never saw make it to anybody’s actual plate) was the smoking area for the Filipino crew. Now, I’m not a smoker. Still, it was difficult not to feel a bit of sympathy when observing the striking difference between the designated areas for officers and those of regular crew.

Whenever an officer wanted to light up, they would do so on the open bow, out in the fresh air, free to lean on the rail and gaze out at the picturesque mountains and sea. The Filipinos smoking section, on the other hand, was down below on A-Deck in a cramped room. I only caught a glimpse inside once, as someone opened the door to leave. As he did so, a dense cloud of toxic smoke billowed out into the hall. Whatever fans they had running in that small space were clearly taxed beyond their capacity.

Most egregious of all, though, was the sexual harassment endured by an untold number of female Filipino women at the hands of the officers and/or their superiors. I was aware of at least one case in which Stephanie had reported an incident of sexual harassment on behalf of one of her co-workers who could not speak English very well. Rather than go to her supervisor, however, she chose to go to someone else. Since the complaint was now out of his hands, he could no longer squash it.

Apparently not happy about this, he first tried to tell Stephanie that the incident in question should not in fact be viewed as sexual harassment at all. The woman had simply been embarrassed, he said (clearly a judgement that was not his to make). At any rate, to demonstrate his displeasure with my friend, he began randomly calling her in for what she termed ‘bananas.’ 

A banana, it turns out, is not a delicious fruit, at least in this context. Rather, it is the Filipino term for a reprimand. He began to do this often, and for no apparent reason. It became so commonplace, in fact, that she got called away to one in my presence not long after I first learned what it was. She returned fifteen minutes or so later visibly upset. It was pretty clear his whole aim was to harass her until she quit.

The abuse was not limited to these bananas, either. A day after Stephanie filed her complaint, her cabin was ‘randomly’ searched. Nobody else’s rooms were bothered, just hers. And she was totally and completely powerless to do a thing about it.  For all I know, the abuse continues.

At this point I should be clear about one thing.  I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a social justice warrior. In fact, I generally will avoid going out of my way to help a group of people struggling with any type of societal ill-will or abuse, despicable as I find it. I care much more about individuals than humanity writ large. Essentially, I’m a people person that hates people. But that doesn’t mean I feel comfortable surrounding myself with such inequality and injustice on a daily basis. Particularly in the confined space of a ship at sea.

But the human rights abuses were not the only problem I had with my employer.

Another issue, one that was, in my opinion, much more far-reaching and impactful, was the pollution of the air and sea by these behemoth vessels. Soon after boarding I discovered that the company I worked for was actually on probation for illegally dumping over half a million gallons of gray water, sewage, oil, and food waste into the sea and then lying to regulators about it. Later, after some digging, I learned that this was hardly an isolated incident. The company continued to violate the terms of its probation. As a result, a federal judge released to the public a 205-page report detailing over 800 incidents of environmental negligence in the space of a single year (April 2017-April 2018). Even my own ship was on the list of offenders.

I knew none of this going in to the job. I was not so naive, of course, to believe that cruise ships were a green industry. I knew they would have at least some negative impacts on the environment in which they sailed. They are, after all, huge floating luxury hotels. How could they not have an impact? But I didn’t think the company would risk its global reputation by intentionally and systematically polluting the water.

I was hired as a naturalist. My job was to get up in front of large groups of passengers and talk about wildlife and the importance of conservation. For all I knew, while I was standing at the bow reminding folks not to toss their trash or food over the railing, the company I worked for was discharging waste out the stern.

Such hypocrisy was too much, even for me. And that’s saying something.

So, I quit.

I did so not because I disliked the job. On the contrary, I was treated well and the work itself, along with the unparalleled perks that came with it, were second to none. As far as those things are concerned, I will almost certainly never again find their equal in a job.

But, rightly or wrongly, I let my principles get the better of me. This isn’t the first time I have allowed this to happen.

Hopefully, though, it will be the last.

 

 

 

Fuck Off, Facebook.

I knew the world was in trouble the first time I realized that “Facebook” had become a verb.  Social media, I think, is an addiction for attention.  I have friends who have vowed to take a break from it.  Some even disabled their profiles.  But they always come back. Some make it a full 24 hours.  Others up to six months or so.  And everything in between.

I do not exempt myself from this affliction.  As of this writing, four months of being Facebook-free is my current record.  Of course, I have excuses.  Everyone does.  Mine is that, as a filmmaker, I need social media as a resource to network and connect with others in a professional capacity.  Okay, that’s fine as far as it goes but then I catch myself posting funny Trump photos and memes that I just cannot resist sharing with the world.

If I were to guess, I would say about 5% of my “friends” on Facebook I actually know outside of the computer.  Communication by social media is the modern equivalent of striking up a conversation with a stranger on a bus that you think you might just have the tiniest bit in common with.

As far as I am aware, there is no support group for social media as there is for other aberrant behavior like substance abuse or gambling, for instance.  Perhaps somebody should start one.  I fear, though, that it would devolve into a large circle of people busily checking their phones and posting the experience online.

Facebook is killing the art of conversation.  It is devaluing the meaning of the very word ‘friend.’ Though I will not deny that it has its merits (reconnecting with loved ones, sharing events, etc) I cannot help but wonder if the bad does not outweigh the good by a considerable margin.

So…yeah.

Fuck you, Facebook.

disclaimer.

I’m pretty sure that I am writing this blog for no other reason than to preserve my thoughts, mostly because I tend to lose things on my cluttered hard drive. Cyberspace at least seems like the sort of place I can retrieve my words, should I desire.

That said, I don’t mind sharing.  Read on if you wish .

As it happens, I do not at this moment have anything to say.

Until next time, then.