Monday, April 21, 2008

Laying Pipe

"You-a see that? Be-a careful near it, it-a can kill you."

These were the first words of advice my Bosun, Sal Piscneri, gave me on my orientation tour of the drill ship I would be working on for the summer. Amidst all of the pipes and, machinery, and endless noise, I wasn't quite sure what he was nodding toward, but I didn't have time to clear things up because he was already moving on to the next death trap.

"That-a thing over there? It-a can kill you. Keep-a your eyes up."

His heavy Italian accent added to the unfamiliarity of my new workplace and the short, terse sentences he employed left me wondering if perhaps something was being lost in translation. Like, how, exactly, I would meet my demise if I was ever caught on deck and unaware.

"You see that-a rope ova there?"

"Can it kill me?"

"Absolutley. Don't-a get-a caught between it and the railing. It'll cut-a you in half."

Finally some detail, although now I wasn't sure if I had really wanted it. Our tour continued in this macabre manner moving aft down the entire port side of the ship and then back forward up the starboard side, a journey that even at a brisk pace with no stops would easily have taken fifteen minutes. Everything could kill me and there were certain areas I was absolutely forbidden to go unless I was accompanied by a senior crew member, my very presence alone in those areas enough to result in sudden, gruesome death.

It was the summer after my first year in grad school and as all of my classmates were spending their time doing research in libraries and foreign countries, I was floating in 9,000 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico trying not to get killed. My father has made a career of negotiating the perils of various drilling installations and the previous summer had offered to try and get me hired on as a summer hand but retracted his offer when another summer worker was, you guessed it, killed. A year later his faith in the safety of the profession had been reestablished - or at least he thought I was no longer dumb enough to get myself killed - and after a few phone calls to old buddies, I was on my way to Houston to complete paperwork and pass a pre-employment physical.

The paperwork hinted at the possible dangers of the job, but in a much more officious way than Sal would once I got on the ship. The physical was comprised of the usual hurdles - a drug test, a blood test, and a health screening - but it also required that I spend a day in a Houston office park lifting all manner of bulky equipment while climbing up and down stairs and crawling up and over and through various obstacles while my heart rate was monitored and I tried to look unstrained by the heat and the weight. There was even mechanism that tested my back strength and required me to strap into a contraption that most closely resembled the crazy forklift suit Ripley from Aliens uses to fight the queen alien at the end of the movie. I managed to look not nearly as tough. After all of this, I had no idea what I was getting myself into until I met Sal and we embarked on our journey around the ship.

The Discoverer Spirit was huge and floated over an hour by helicopter off the coast of Louisiana. Looking down at the water at the beginning of the flight, I could see hundreds of drilling platforms, pipelines, and gas wells. The depth of the water was clearly visible as one shelf dropped onto another and the gulf changed from a sandy brown to a chocolate brown to an earthy green and finally a deep and radiant blue. Gradually, there was nothing but water in every direction, the depth and the distance too large an obstacle for all but the most advanced operations. The helicopter droned on over the shimmering expanse until I could finally make out a ship looming in the distance. As we neared, the ship grew larger and larger until our helicopter lit upon it like a fly on a horse's back, it's full scale dwarfed only by the flat desert of the gulf.

I followed the other crew members out of the helicopter, grabbed my duffle bag off the deck from beneath the whirring blades above my head, and hustled my way into the heliport's waiting room where I would be logged in and given instruction on what the hell I was supposed to do next. Oil field workers are an interesting put it mildly. They come from all over. Some are educated. Some are not. Some have families. Some don't. Most have nicknames and all can curse more creatively than anyone you'll ever meet.

I expected a lively bunch, as I had grown up hearing about guys with names like Bigfoot and Bama. I'd heard stories of macho smartasses eating roaches in the galley of the rig to get a laugh and piss and vinegar Scotsman climbing towering derricks in gale force winds singing "I'm From Glasgow" as if it were a summer day. There were other stories about sharks, practical jokes, fights, and storms.

One of my favorite stories came from a work buddy of my dad's, a burly ass-kicker of a man named David Arp. David lives in Colorado and once walked up to a buddy of mine who had just moved there, having never met him but intending to invite him to dinner as a mutual friend, and said, "You Ross?"

When my friend answered that he was, David responded, "I know a guy in Texas thinks you're a big pussy."

And that's David Arp.

David's story has as it's main character a guy called The Liar. This story allegedly occurred in Saudi Arabia as a crew of workers was waiting for a helicopter to take them out to a rig located in a particularly remote corner of the country. A helicopter safety video was playing on a TV nearby and The Liar started to tell everyone that he was on the helicopter the day the video was made. Used to his antics, everyone humored him as the helicopter weaved through the desert terrain and a voice-over related the specs and safety information of the helicopter shown. As The Liar was really hitting his stride, the chopper on the video slammed into the side of a cliff and disintegrated into a roaring ball of fire. There was a one beat pause and The Liar said, "Yup. I was the sole survivor."

Having heard these stories, having worked construction jobs before, and having met guys like David Arp, I assumed I would be ready for the characters who were about to enter my life, but I really wasn't. In most jobs, one works with maybe three or four truly interesting people. In this job, everyone had a story. Everyone was a story. After a few nights spent not getting myself killed, I began to relax enough to start actually listening to the conversations happening around me in the break room. Drilling is a 24 hour a day operation. Each hitch I worked was comprised of two weeks on, 14 days of work, 12 hours a day. During each shift, we had two fifteen minute breaks and one thirty minute lunch. The break time is really all the time anyone has to catch up on the two weeks spent not on the rig, and catch up they do. There were stories of benders, strip club fights, and cheating wives. Tool boxes, cars, and livestock were discussed along with an ongoing and incredibly well-reasoned debate about whether the Big XII or the SEC was the better football conference. All of these stories were punctuated by the word "fuck" in all of its forms.

"You know what scares the fuck outta me?"

"What's that?"

"Motherfucking spiders, man! Them motherfuckers are fuckin' sneaky little fuckers. I can't motherfuckin' stand the motherfuckin' thought of those motherfuckers climbing all fuckin' over me!"

"Yup. Spiders are fuckin' scary motherfuckers."

"Fuck yeah, they are!"

"One time I was driving my truck down 85 at about harvest time and one of them big motherfuckers - you know the kind I'm talking about? - Those sumbitches with the green on 'em and those big motherfuckin' legs?"

"Fuck yeah, I do! Those motherfuckers are motherfuckin' huge!"

"So I'm driving and notice one of them motherfuckers climbing on my motherfuckin' windshield. I just about fuckin' shit myself!"

"You stop and smash that fucker?"

"Fuck no! I started swerving and swatting at that motherfucker, but I couldn't hit the motherfucker! I ended up pulling the motherfuckin' truck into the motherfuckin' ditch and jumping the fuck out! The bitch of it is I hate motherfuckin' spiders so motherfuckin' much, I didn't even put the motherfuckin' truck in park. Bent up my front end!"

"Holy fuck! What happened to the motherfuckin' spider?"

"Motherfucker was actually on the outside of the motherfuckin' windshield."

I couldn't make this up and I apologize for the profanity, but that's just about as accurate as I can make it. The best part is that the two guys having this conversation were both well over six feet tall and also muscle bound from years of manual labor. Just as they finished their conversation, another massive rough neck of a man sitting across the room chimed in with, "You know what I motherfuckin' hate? Snakes."

After the summer was over, I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying "motherfucker" in polite company. My girlfriend, not qualifying as polite company, wanted to sew my mouth shut.

"Hey Baby, want to cook a motherfuckin' meal tonight or motherfuckin' eat out?"

The work was actually not that difficult. My job title was Ordinary Seaman (yes, that joke's been made) and I was responsible for all of the odds and ends on the whatever anyone happened to need me for at the moment I was walking by. There was a lot of painting, inspecting life boats, inspecting fire extinguishers, inspecting fire hoses, helping the welders, tying up supply boats, untying supply boats, and, on one particularly unlucky night, cleaning out the shaker room.

*****MORE LATER******

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Fainter

My family is prone to embarrassment in glorious and impossible ways. I'm not talking about the crushing, public humiliations of a nasty divorce or a DUI or an out-of-control gambling addiction that results in bankruptcy and foreclosures, but the comic opportunities for embarrassment that present themselves on a daily basis and that most people are able to avoid. My mother has mooned an Easter procession in England and an entire upscale French restaurant in Chicago, both accidentally (she is adept at this, the mooning thing). She also wrote, distracted and flustered, on a disciplinary referral in her first year of teaching, "Student asked repeatedly to spit out cum," when she meant to write "gum". My father has fainted in a Subway sandwich shop and at a driving range, the second time requiring stitches from the fall, and my sister and I have managed to expose our asses AND faint in public on multiple occasions, thankfully not at the same time...yet. Come to think of it, our public embarrassments seem to revolve around either faintings or moonings.

My first brush with this family proclivity occurred when I was in sixth grade. We had just moved to a small town in Central Texas and I was having my first experience as The New Kid. Students in this town attended one of two middle schools and there weren't a great number of new kids in any given year. I was a novelty and attracted the attention of everyone simply because I was a fresh face in a social landscape that had remained largely unchanged since kindergarten. It was the second day of school and our teacher, Mr. Catlin and nurse, Mrs. Zenner, thought it would be a good idea if Elsie, the token diabetic, demonstrated to the class how she checked her insulin level and gave herself injections. Sixth graders are cruel and I'm sure it seemed a good idea to them to educate us all on Elsie and her condition so we didn't turn her into the Piggy of the sixth grade.

Elsie stood bravely in front of the whole class and began to explain diabetes to us and how it effected her life as we huddled around and looked on with morbid curiosity. She pulled out her small kit of syringes, vials, and blood testing equipment and launched in to her daily routine. She had a small and timid voice and it was obvious she was nervous, perhaps sensing the speed with which sixth graders can become monsters to the unfamiliar.

"First, I have to prick my finger," she said as she pulled out what looked like a small desk stapler. She positioned the lancet over her index finger.

THWACK. A small bead of blood rose to the surface of her finger as she continued.

"Then I have to dab the blood onto the insulin meter." As she said this, the small bead of blood transformed into the LARGEST TORRENT OF GORE I have ever seen flowing from someone's finger.

"Oooh. Sometimes this happens. I need a tissue please," she blushed in her tiny pixy voice.

The gathered crowd pressed closer as Mrs. Zenner and Mr. Catlin explained to us how often Elsie had to prick her finger during the day and rhetorically asked us how much we would like it if we had to do what she had to do on a never-ending basis. I started to feel odd. I imagine I was like most 12 year old boys in that blood and guts didn't really bug me. In fact, I had spent the majority of my childhood enthralled by war movies and Indiana Jones movies and all manner of other things in which people met with untimely and gruesome deaths. Moreover, through years of soccer and bike riding and general rambunctiousness I had experienced many cuts and scrapes and busted teeth and was often more impressed with battle wounds than disgusted. Lightheadedness was not in my experiential context. I pushed closer, ignoring the spreading weirdness in my head.

Now the blood was dripping all over Elsie's diabetes kit, arm, and desk. The room started to narrow and the voices of the other kids sounded like an old recording, tinny and distant. I began to realize what was going on. I was going down. I was torn though. Should I return to my desk at the back of the classroom and appear as though I was shunning Elsie and her diabetes? Should I announce, as the new kid no one knew, that I was going to faint and needed to lay down? Or should I soldier on, flex my legs, and hope like hell that I was able to hold on? I managed to do none of these things. By the time I realized there was no escape, it was too late to make it to my desk.

I came to pressed uncomfortably against the wall with a lump on my head. The crowd that had encircled Elsie and focused all of its sixth grade judgement on her and her bleeding finger was now hovering over me with a bemused look of incredulity. As it was the second day of school and I was the new kid, no one knew my name, not even Mr. Catlin. Mrs. Zenner was gently tapping my cheek to bring me back around and warmly repeating, "New kid. New kid." I was mortified. My eyes finally focused on Elsie peering over the backs of the other students with an expression I can only describe as victory. There was a kid weirder than her. I tried to explain it away by saying that I had not eaten breakfast that morning, but the damage was done.

The rest of my sixth grade experience did not fair much better. The very next day at lunch, sitting by myself and trying to ignore the hushed whispers and stares of my classmates, I pierced a stubborn packet of taco sauce with my fork and succeeded only in having it spray me directly in the eye. The laughter was deafening. I also got braces that year, tried unsuccessfully to fake my way through a Christmas band concert because I had not practiced my instrument and, for the first time, had to shower in a shared locker room as one of the later bloomers. Oh, and I was The Fainter. Elsie flirted with popularity.

It should come as no surprise then that, when the following year my mom and dad told my sister and me we would be moving to Saudi Arabia, I greeted the move with anticipation. A fresh start! The day I fainted I had made a fantastical wish to move as far away as possible and now it seemed like that wish was coming true. Yes, I was nervous about being the new kid all over again, but I had learned from my first new kid experience and I was reasonably confident that I could negotiate the discomfort and carve a niche for myself that did not involve being one of the pariah. How much worse could it be?

We arrived in Saudi Arabia in the middle of the summer and had a couple of weeks to try to acclimate to the ridiculous heat, harsh sunlight, and utter unlikeness of the new culture we found ourselves in. The American school my sister and I were to attend operated on a trimester system and classes were set to begin in early August. Eighth grade. New beginnings.

I remember walking to school that first day drunk on an exciting mixture of anxiety, hope, and reservation. I coolly made my way into Mrs. Snakenberg's English class and immediately the room went silent. Our small town in Central Texas didn't get many newcomers, but Dhahran, Saudi Arabia was positively starved for fresh blood. My face did nothing to betray the nervousness I was feeling as I made my way to a desk and sat down. I was a cagey veteran at the new kid game and I was not going to wind up in the same position I had found myself in back in Texas. Namely, I was not going to wind up pale, clammy, and prone on the floor.

I took notes and ignored the curious stares of my classmates as Mrs. Snakenberg explained the interdisciplinary project with which we were going to begin the year. We were charged with inventing a product that would benefit us in our daily pursuits and we would be required to complete a portion of the project specific to each of our core classes. In addition, we would be given time at the beginning of each English class to be devoted to the actual construction of whichever product we decided to create. This was already a better start than witnessing the self-mutilation of the class diabetic and I walked home after a catastrophe free first day of school hopeful and excited about my new social potential on the other side of the world.

That evening at home I decided I would invent a headlight system for my skateboard ( I was a skate punk, replete with long, shaggy hair and baggy pants. Sue me.), and I marched off to school the next day, skateboard in hand, geared up for day two of the new me. I settled down in the corner of Mrs. Snakenberg's classroom and began cutting strips of Velcro in an effort to determine the best way to attach two small flashlights to the sides of the skateboard's deck. A couple of other kids strolled in just before the bell, sat down at the table with me, and started to ask me questions about where I was from and what my dad did for the company. This was good. This was normal. I easily fielded their questions, made a few jokes, and felt genuinely comfortable in my new school. I was easing into what I imagined would become a good time. Then Brad, the Canadian kid across from me, poked one of the wheels of my skateboard with the Exact-O Knife he was wielding and asked, "What's that made of?"

I reflexively swatted at his hand, fearful of him cutting the wheel, and wound up making direct and forceful contact on the tip of my middle finger with the tip of the ridiculously sharp knife he was holding. The resulting slice was surgical and deep and began bleeding profusely. Fuck. I gripped my finger and ran out into the hall to a water fountain to survey the damage. The inch long cut on my finger was pulsing blood with my increasing heart-rate and the warm water of the drinking fountain only caused it to bleed more. The sickening feeling of queasy faintness began to creep up on me.

I collected myself and walked back into the classroom to Mrs. Snakenberg's desk where she was answering a question from another student. Whatever the student had asked, the answer was taking forever and I began to dance nervously from foot to foot as the situation crept closer and closer my nightmare scenario. Finally, the student accepted whatever had been explained to her and Mrs. Snakenberg turned to me. She must have realized something was wrong because her expression changed from a gentle and open smile to poorly concealed alarm.

"Mrs. Snakenberg, I....".

I came to on the floor gazing up at a ring of students eerily reminiscent of the ring that had gathered around me back in Texas. My head hurt and as I sat up I felt something hanging from the mop of sweaty hair on my head. As my classmates chuckled, I realized it was a hot glue gun. I had fallen over backwards and landed directly on top of the Egyptian girl who was sitting Indian style behind me. My dead weight had pinned her upper body across her lap and onto the floor. In some pain, and quite rightly more than a little perturbed, she had forcefully rolled my limp body off her back causing my head to crash into the hot glue gun she was using to construct her project.

As Mrs. Snakenberg set to work cutting a chunk of gluey hair from the back of my head, she ordered a student to go get a glass of water and began to ask me what happened. I was relieved this time to have a gruesome injury to blame for my fainting and I held up my hand sure that the gaping wound on my finger would be more than enough to explain why I was in my current position. I was surprised, therefore, when the displaying of my hideous, gushing stab wound did not produce the squeamishness I expected among the gathered crowd. I looked down at my finger to see what now looked like a completely bloodless paper cut. Shell/core effect had withdrawn all available blood to my vital organs and my hands were now pale, cold, and, to my disappointment, bloodless. No evidence of the carnage existed.

As the other students snickered and made their way back to their projects, I leaned against Mrs. Snakenberg's desk and tried to disappear. It was sixth grade all over again. I was The Fainter. I was sipping on a box of fruit juice the Assistant Principle had stopped in to give me (I had tried again, in an effort to mitigate my embarrassment, to use the old 'I didn't eat breakfast this morning' excuse), when a beautiful blonde-haired classmate with infinite blue oceans for eyes crouched down next to me and put a wet towel on my forehead.

"Are you OK," she asked as she stroked my forehead.

"Um, yeah. I'll be OK. I'm just embarrassed," I responded.

"Oh, don't be embarrassed. I saw the cut when you walked out of the room. It looked really bad. I would have burst into tears. It really must have hurt."

Wait a moment! This was different! In spite of myself, I had managed to parlay my unmanly and highly embarrassing fainting habit into an intimate and tender moment with the hottest girl in the eighth grade. My luck was changing. I could see it now, we would fall madly and deeply in love and my time in Saudi Arabia would be spent in the delirious throes of teenage romance with this gentle and angelic being of God's perfection!

I started to smile and say something else, and then, in keeping with millions of years of evolution and survival instinct, my body decided that the contents of my stomach were no longer important to digest and that the devotion of energy thereto could be better utilized in facilitating my recovery.

I threw up into the trash can next to us.

I heard a chorus of "ewwws" from the rest of the classroom and, through watery eyes, I saw the calm and caring expression of my desert angel transform into a contorted face of disgust as she dry-heaved, dropped the wet towel on my forehead, and retreated back to her project. I was no longer just The Fainter. Now I was The Vomiter too.

The rest of eighth grade was largely forgettable, which, given the standard I had set for myself in sixth grade was probably a good thing. I kept my head down and escaped into soccer, skating, and the knowledge that I would leave Saudi Arabia for boarding school after ninth grade anyway (all western teens were required to do this). Mostly though, I learned to laugh at myself, which I have discovered is an essential component of maturity. Sixth and eighth graders are more than adept at laughing at other people, but it's an older person's ability to laugh at himself that makes him tolerable. Ninth grade was much better. I wasn't the only one who developed a more philosophical outlook on life's embarrassments and the shared burden of knowing that my classmates and I would soon be shipped away from our family's and each other softened the edges and cultivated genuine camaraderie. I'm still in touch with some of the people who saw me faint and vomit on that day.

Still though, it would have been nice to stop at fainting. I could have done without the glue gun and vomit.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Pain In My Ass

It's time for baseball and there's nothing I can do to stop it. Even now the TV echoes in the other room with the squawks and bleats of Baseball Tonight. The summations of today's games, the tiny sprouts of season making and breaking story lines, and the way-too-soon speculations on October are all blasting forth from my television. I join in out of habit more than anything else. I have already called my father a thousand miles away to discuss the Astros' first game and the brush with which it has painted the next six months of our lives'.

Baseball is like a girlfriend I can't break up with and can't bring myself to marry. Baseball is my common law. Whether I like it or not; whether I secretly watch the NFL draft; whether I will always and forever lust after and cherish my first love, soccer, she owns a part of me. I typically roll my eyes at sports pundits and legitimate writers who wax philosophical about baseball and its place in American lore. I tire of the sepia-toned nostalgia that is invoked to lionize America's Pastime as if there was an age when things were perfect and simple and pure. If baseball ever inhabited the realm of perfection, it was only in the minds of kids who didn't know any better when a dad coached your Little League team and your biggest concern was not catching a fly ball with your eye.

For me, the opening of this season has been welcomed with what I can only characterize as reluctance. I did not follow spring training. I did not follow the Astros' roster moves or rotation adjustments or farm team development the way I used to. I woke up yesterday wishing the Astros weren't opening their season for another few months. This is partly due to geography. Away from the local press coverage and easy familiarity of scores of fellow fans, I have been able to view the sport and my team from a perspective I have never before experienced. But why reluctance and not pleasant surprise? Why uneasiness and not excitement?

Baseball has all the same problems of every other major world sport. The athletes are spoiled. The owners are greedy. The advertisers drive and buy and pervert anything organic. Drugs cast doubt over the legitimacy of the whole thing. These are givens in modern sport. They are the laws of the land and no amount of wishing will bring back the smell of freshly cut grass and the mystery of a pack of unopened baseball cards. What has me down is the information, the constant, infinite barrage of information.

Baseball, more than any other sport, is driven by information. There are percentages to calculate, averages to be mindful of, and tendencies to consider. There are streaks and match-ups, from the pertinent to the ridiculous. There always have been. This off-season the information, usually delivered in tight jabs and crisp hooks, was composed of massive upper-cuts and wild hay-makers. Did Roger Clemens knowingly use performance enhancing drugs? Did Andy Pettitte sell him out? Is Miguel Tejada in serious trouble? What is the legacy of Barry Bonds? Is baseball doomed? Is ______ a Hall of Famer? It left me punch-drunk and weary and led me to view the whole American Spectacle with bemused disgust. Still though, I checked on my Astros, albeit with considerable less frequency, on the internet and in the newspaper.

And then it caught my eye: Anal fissures. Kaz Matsui, the Astros new second baseman, was going to miss the first part of the season after undergoing surgery for anal fissures. Seriously? The indignity! I checked multiple sources just to be sure I had read correctly, and there it was on every website and in every newspaper. Kaz Matsui - 15 day DL Reason: anal fissures. Of all the things the whole world could know about Kaz Matsui, the thing that has launched his career as an Astro is the unhealthy state of his anus. It finally hit me. I do not need to know this. Moreover, I do not need to know 90% of what is written or speculated about in the world of sport. Call it voluntary ignorance or delusional naivete, but our sports culture suffers from a disease of information. We care deeply - too deeply - about our athletes and their lives. Sportscenter is Us Magazine and People for jocks and has-beens. It intrudes on the perfection of our memory and the sanctity of our youth and diminishes the beauty of human competition with updates and soundbites and anal fissures. Goodbye to all of that.

I'll continue to follow my teams in whichever sport they compete and I'll celebrate their wins and bemoan their losses with the same passion I always have, but this season will be a season of rehabilitation for me. It's back to simplicity. Not the simplicity of a time that never existed or a veneration that borders on obsession, but a stream-lining of information and a perspective that extends no further than the lines that mark the field. I'm trying to cure the malaise. Get well baseball. And get well Kaz Matsui.