Never Heard of It

Today is my birthday, and last night my division had a farewell dinner for someone who’s going to Forecaster School. Nobody wants to hang out with their co-workers outside of work. For me it’s right at the bottom alongside Mandatory Fun with things I want to spend my limited free time doing.

And I mean limited free time. One can be forgiven for thinking that shore duty means you have more time to yourself and what you want to do, but our schedule nixes that idea. Right now we work six days in a row, off three days, on three nights, and off three more days before the cycle starts anew. We went from twelve hour days to six, but the trade-off is that we are there more days a month, and if there is something going on that requires all hands (uniform inspection, for instance), then that’s another day you won’t have. Combine that with any collateral duties (extra duties you aren’t compensated for) that take place on your off-days, the extra work and less manpower, and it’s no wonder some people are dropping chits to return to sea duty six months early.

The dinners themselves can be awkward affairs. Sometimes it depends on the choice of venue. In the Navy, we call the dinner a Hail and Farewell: you hail the new people aboard and say farewell to the people who are leaving. The trouble starts when not everyone shows up — the first three I went two, one guy just didn’t come — and it gets no better when you’re sitting around the table, wishing you were elsewhere. Nothing to talk about except work.

I’ve been to four so far in San Diego, and I’m happy to report this is the least awkward division I’ve ever worked with. For instance, we actually talk to each other. Isn’t it great how sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest difference?

Last night I skipped beer and stuck with water, and I ended up chatting with my co-worker’s son, who is 12.

Co-Worker’s Son: Do you like to play any online games?

Me: Not in a long time. When I was your age, I played this game called Starcraft.

Co-Worker’s Son: Never heard of it.

Oh man. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to ring in my 32nd birthday.

One benefit of joining the Navy: working with kids fresh out of high school means I have to stop bullshitting myself about my youth.

When Using a Squat Toilet Goes Wrong: A Two-Part Confessional

Part 1:

don’t often write about my life— there is a reason — but I feel like getting this off my chest.

I lived in China for two and a half years. In that time I did everything I could to avoid using squat toilets, including running all the way back to my apartment when my stomach had an argument with one of Wuhan’s streetside offerings, and lost. Always thankful for the Western toilet in my apartment, I never went as far as to worship it, but I did kneel before it a few times, the mornings after an unfortunate dance with baijiu. Hard days and blurry nights.

I was taking morning Chinese classes at Wuhan University while teaching English. The university where I worked was on the outskirts of Wuhan and the bus ride to Wu Da took an hour on a good day, the bus lurching from traffic jam to traffic jam. The best you could say about it was that since you were so close to the starting point, you didn’t have to push or shove with a lot of people to get a seat. Just kids, and I had my pick of the best seats each morning.

One of my apartment’s perks was the huge marketplace right down the road. Merchants were up frying food at the crack of dawn. Usually I bought hot dry noodles but one morning I decided to brave some jiaozi.

A woman sold it from a tiny alcove next to the noodle place. I’m not sure if her presence there was even legal. She fried them on a cast-iron pan and as you’d expect, this wasn’t gourmet jiaozi.

This was the greasy, gritty jiaozi you find in “real” China. The kind that doesn’t demand a bowl; she handed all six to me wrapped in plastic with a pair of disposable chopsticks.

I broke the chopsticks apart and grabbed a jiaozi. The grease nearly made it slip off my sticks, and I cranked my iPod to my Chinese podcast playlist. A few stops later I’d wolfed down the whole bag, leaving only a puddle of greenish leftover cooking oil in the bottom of the bag.

My stomach buzzed.

I felt movement. Like the turning of a great gear in my stomach. It started out slow, but as the bus lurched on through Wuhan’s early morning traffic, I hoped I could wait. Preferably all morning and the bus ride back to my apartment.

But the gear had no pity: it turned faster and faster, until it became one throbbing, shaking entity.

The bus was stalled in traffic. I got up and shoved my way through the people and pounded on the doors. They opened and I stumbled onto the sidewalk.

I took off running with little idea where I was going. The gear had ceased moving and I knew it was coming, ready or not.

I spotted the characters for netbar.

I rushed past the girl sitting at the front desk and through the nicotine web of overworked college students and neglectful parents. I pushed through a doorway of plastic flaps into a courtyard, and there it was: a porcelain bowl laid in the ground, a waist-high wall for privacy.

I squatted and did my business. But of course, I’m not used to squatting flat on my feet. When I tried, I nearly fell back. I managed to steady myself with my hands, my palms covered in something wet with an odd smell.

A woman came in, grabbed a mop from the sinkbasin and left.

After finishing and vowing never to eat gritty jiaozi again, I had to perform part 2 of this act. I checked my pockets. I checked my backpack.

I had no tissue. I looked around.

Neither did the restroom.

I could could tell you about how it had no soap either, but why make things worse?

I’m sure you get the unfortunate picture.

Part 2:

This story isn’t complete without the following confession:

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson after the jiaozi fiasco. If so, you give me too much credit. While on a nightly walk with my wife, I ended up eating some backstreet offering or another, and the gear began to turn. I ignored it as best I could.

Then it sped up.

Me: We need to find a bathroom.

My wife pointed at a building. All the lights were on and students were shuffling in and out.

Me: I’ll be right back.

I hurried inside, and after a few false turns I finally found the sign for restroom. Salvation, yet again. I tried the door.

It wouldn’t budge.

I tried again, pounding on it as the gear stopping turning and became one great throbbing entity. No time to ask for a key. No time to find another restroom. Like before, it was coming ready or not, so I did what I could. The only thing I could do, really.

I let it out by the sink.

When it was over, I sat there for a few minutes, thinking about what I’d just done. This had never been on my list, but I guess I could still put it on there and cross it out. I thought over my life, what had led me to this moment. Of all the things I could be doing, here I was.

I stood, said a quick prayer for the cleaning lady, and hurried back to my apartment. I never went back to that building.

So yeah, there’s a reason I don’t often write about my life.

If you liked this story, you’ll like Expat Jimmy, a tale of James’s first day in China, and the jaded teacher determined to crush his spirit.

For more, follow me on Facebook or Twitter. Or both, if you feel daring.

Boat Goggles: Porn Star and The Mole

First, the clinical definition:

The American Medical Association defines Boat Goggles as the condition in which men and women find attractive people they ordinarily wouldn’t spare a second look. A result of confined spaces and a limited selection pool, Boat Goggles has been known to turn ‘fat’ into ‘plump’, ‘big’ into ‘curvy’ and it has also been known to turn split-second decisions into lifelong regret. (See also: Drunk Goggles)


Porn Star came to the library tonight.

She’s part of a squadron, a red jersey, Crash & Salvage. Up until now our mighty warship USS Theodore Roosevelt has held 2,000 people. The squadrons — pilots, people who work on the planes — they bump that number to 5,000. It’s had a wonderful effect on the chow lines, not to mention our six working washers.

Porn Star has blonde hair, unkempt and surely out of regs. She wears her sleeves up, showing arms covered in tattoos, and she walks with a twitch, a deliberate twitch, so deliberate it might be comical.

Were it not for the Boat Goggles.

I see signs of her passage in advance. Heads turn. At the start of the cruise, they turned slightly. Yep, that’s how it starts. The Boat Goggles don’t fit well at first. They’re uncomfortable, the frames too tight.

Then a week passes.

Two weeks, three, marching through this labyrinth of pipes and steel walls, and the Boat Goggles feel more comfortable. Pretty soon, you don’t even notice them.

So you turn your head too. You have no subtlety, but that’s okay. Neither does she.

In she comes. There’s a logbook on the desk where you sign in, and she takes her time, bending over despite the desk reaching her neck. She devotes so much time to ensuring that her letters fit perfectly in between the lines. Attention to Detail.

From there she twitches into the TV room.

Another morning, you’re transiting the mess decks, and you see Porn Star sitting at a table with a bunch of guys. She’s showing them her tattoos.

She has a lot.


Before I get out of here, let’s talk about The Mole.

She had a mole on her cheek. Short, chubby full-figured, she was a CTI ((Cryptologic Technician Interpretive. They do foreign languages.)) temporarily assigned to the TR, to gain an understanding of the “real” Navy life she’d undoubtedly picked CTI to avoid.

She was working with the CTTs ((Cryptologic Technician Technical)). Curious about ship life, she asks, The fanrooms are where people go on the ship to get busy, huh?

The guys talk about this at night in the berthing. She said that, yeah dude, she actually said that! No, she’s okay fucking hot.

Who can fuck her first? It doesn’t matter.

This long at sea, you’ll gladly go last.


Throughout this feverish tangle of sheetmetal, swabbed decks and wet paint, men and women work together twelve hours or more a day.

The Boat Goggles fit so well. Human nature will reign as the long days continue, as the last of the recruiter’s lies die for the new Seamen checking in to operate multi-million dollar equipment and sent to do a commander’s laundry, as the mighty warship USS Theodore Roosevelt qualifies to deploy, 90,000 tons of bottled lust.

A little episode at O’Hare Customs…

The customs agent was taking his time, and my wife and I knew that was a bad sign.

Then he pointed. A worse sign. And he spoke — the worst.

“You need to go over there. There’s a problem with her biometrics.”

Problems, you can count on those with US customs, and so can the fifteen or so people in this room.

Including the Chinese farmer.

From the countryside, he had come to visit his son. This was his first time out of China, first time on a plane, he speaks no English, and for his inauguration to the US, customs has sent him to this room, with no explanation. (( I know they explained it, but since he doesn’t understand English, I doubt hand gestures are adequate ))

He’s walking around, wondering what’s going on. A customs agent approaches him.

“Go sit down.”

But jet-lagged, 12,000 miles from home, the farmer is going tharn.

So our customs agent, well-trained in the subtle art of cross-cultural communication, digs deep.


Fantastic. I never imagined that simply RAISING MY VOICE was all it took to break the language barrier.

Guess that’s why I’m don’t work for US customs.

It fell on my wife to calm him down. Soon — in comparison to say, geologic ages, not the lives of mortal men — they gave my wife back her passport, having fixed whatever problem was keeping us here. We left, not without an encouraging word to the farmer, getting his paperwork straigtened out, his biometrics corrected…

Or a fucking typo, for all we know.