Tag Archives: navy

Hawaii, First Impressions

Those of you who have been on the island for a while might find this funny. Maybe I will look back on this in three years and laugh, too. But here it is anyway: my first impressions of Oahu, having been here for almost three weeks.

rainbow

The beaches here are lovely, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the beauty of the terrain itself: the mountains which encircle Kaneohe Bay rake the clouds like teeth and are lush with vegetation and have some of the most intense drop-offs I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to start hiking all over.

Sometimes native islanders treat servicemembers badly.

The people I work with now are very different than the people I used to work with. Not a criticism, just an observation. They seem like a family.

The food is very, very good. I had a poke bowl for the first time today. If it was up to me, I would eat it every day.

I knew that leis looked pretty, but I had no idea how good they smelled too. I thought the air would smell better, though, like it did in Coronado. (California is fine, I guess.)

There is more of a Japanese influence here than I had anticipated, and I had anticipated a lot.

There is so much to do, all the time! I’m really excited about how many social events seem to be going on all over the island. I’m looking forward to meeting a lot of new people.

The climate is a tough adjustment, which was a surprise. The wind and heat are taking their toll on my run times. I’m doing my best to be patient with myself. It’s good enough to get through the upcoming PRT.

Air conditioning is a luxury here, despite it being 85 degrees every day. Electricity – well, everything – is very, very expensive.

I picked an apartment that is a mile walk to the beach and to one of the most beautiful and welcoming churches I’ve ever attended. My apartment is two bedrooms, which is one more than I need, but I want my friends and family to be able to stay with me and save money if they visit. One of my greatest disappointments from three years in Japan – and I still have feelings of resentment about this – is that no one did.

The library on base is very good and very underutilized.

Trying to register my car and get BAH here are two of the most administratively asinine and frustrating experiences I’ve ever had.

I’m on the “good” side of the island, according to friends closer to Pearl Harbor.

I’m still highly suspicious of how I managed to get such good orders. I’m going to do my best to make the most of these three years.

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Memory Palace

I’ve often wondered if my poor memory is just a narrative I’ve told myself about something I’ve never committed much effort to improving. For the past eight weeks, I’ve been in a class that is notorious for its demand on exhaustive memorization, and it presented me with a opportunity: why not try something different than the standard flash cards and repetition?

I think I first heard about memory palaces in BBC’s Sherlock. The name makes it sound silly and, at the time, I didn’t take it very seriously, chalking it up to a quirk of the fictional character. But the idea returned to me while preparing for this class, and after watching a few instructional youtube videos, I decided to give it a try. Would using a memory palace be easier and more successful than simple rote memorization at retaining random sets of information?

The class was divided into four units. We were tested daily on all of the numbers we had received so far, culminating in the overall unit test. When we started a new unit, some previous numbers carried over, but some did not. New sets were added as well.

I “set” each unit in a place I was very familiar with. Each group of numbers represented something I was “looking” at, in my mind’s eye, in that space. Recalling the numbers meant moving through the space in my imagination and systematically focusing on each object which represented a set of numbers. Here is an example:

Three hawks circle overhead. The oldest one is the bully hawk. He comes to steal food from the critters on the deck during certain hours of the afternoon. His brothers have to scout the place out in the morning before animal control tries to capture them all.

Weird, right? But it stuck out in my memory. Even when I couldn’t remember the particular numbers attached to these ideas, I always remembered the images themselves: hawks, bully, critters, deck, animal control. The rest was just details.

This method did demand effort. Thinking up with ways to apply numbers to an imaginary physical object took a surprising amount of creativity. In fact, after we got each new set of numbers, my classmates would usually go to lunch while I stayed behind for a while. I needed quiet to concentrate, scribbling down a nonsense story to tie the numbers together. This was probably the hardest part of the whole process, but it paid off: once I had some context in my head which united seemingly random data, it stuck. After returning from lunch, I found that I remembered a lot of it even without a committed effort to studying. I filled in the blanks for a few hours and left each day with a clear picture in my head.

For the first two weeks, that was all well and good. One unit, one location. When we started the second unit, though, I had a decision to make: do I put everything all in the same place, or do I separate each unit by location? Each choice, I think, had its own benefits and limitations. I ended up going with the latter and put the new unit in a new place.

I think the memory palace method would be extremely useful for someone who is trying to memorize something that will always be in the same order: the digits in pi or a chapter of a book, like in the video above. The route through the memory location will always be the same. When I was able to systematically move through the space I had imagined, my recall was very good. It became much more challenging when I had to jump from object to object out of order as we dropped and gained numbers for each new unit. This would be like asking someone for the eighteenth digit of pi, or the fourth word in the ninth sentence of a particular chapter of a book. It’s in their brain somewhere, but it might take them a minute to maneuver around mentally to where they can retrieve that information.

Ultimately, with this method, I wanted to know three things:

  1. Would it result in a good grade?
  2. Would it require less effort to memorize and recall than rote memorization?
  3. How much of the information would I retain after two months?

On the first point, I never scored below a 98% on any test, and almost all of those errors were the result of my complacency! I was getting so confident that I was making stupid mistakes!

Second, it took some effort in creating the context, but once I had it, I had it. The hardest part was reorganizing everything in my head for each new unit, as only some known numbers were carried over to the next. More importantly, though everyone performed very well on all of the tests, I experienced substantially less stress than my classmates. As much as I would like to chalk that up to my personality, that would be really, really dishonest; everything stresses me out. I went to optional night study only once, and all it did was remind me that I did, in fact, remember everything.

Third, I can easily recite the stories for each set of numbers, even from the very beginning. I can describe each object in each location without much effort. The images really stand out. Retaining all of the details, though, requires some regular refreshing. Many of the particulars fade with time. If I had reviewed everything everyday, even for a few minutes, I think I could remember an enormous amount of information indefinitely. I feel confident about that. (The same could probably be said for other memorization techniques, though.)

In fact, this whole experiment made me feel much more positively about my memory as a whole. I could have struggled with this class but I didn’t. Finding a better method made a huge difference.

(An unexpected, possibly coincidental, side effect of cramming so much into my memory at once – or maybe because of inventing so much imagery – for the first few weeks, I had nightmares almost every night. It made me feel more curiosity than fear, but it was definitely strange.)

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ADVICE TO MY YOUNGER SELF

In April 2007 – ten years ago – I was getting ready to graduate from high school and start college. What an exciting time! I had so much ahead of me and I didn’t even realize it. I knew I was on the cusp of something huge and important, but it was all obscured in a fog, and the unknown can be scary.

When I felt insecure as a teenager, I would imagine talking to an older, cooler version of myself, someone who had been there and done that and came out on the other side. It sounds silly but it gave me a lot of hope.

Well, here I am: “Older and not at all wiser,” my Chief from the ship told me once on my birthday. Ten years of life and learning definitely provide a wider perspective, and although I still have a long way to go, here is some advice that I would give to 18-year-old me. (I like to imagine future-me rolling up to younger-me on light-up heelys, wearing shutter shades and drinking a smoothie – because those things are both Indisputably Cool and also Relatable to 2007.)


(In lieu of a meaningful coming-of-age song, please enjoy my unironic favorite jam of 2007.)

It’s okay to do stuff alone. You feel very ashamed about your love of solitude. You will feel judged and weird. You will put yourself out there out of obligation when you’d rather be rolling solo. It’s normal to feel that way; extroverts tend to dictate the rules of the social sphere. You’re going to deal with that insecurity for a long time. But doing things by yourself is so important to who you are fundamentally that you will stop caring what other people think. Your favorite person to spend time with will always, always be yourself.

Making new friends is hard. Your first year at college is going to be the loneliest of your life. But you will make new friends, some of them best friends, and your love for your high school friends will only increase as you get older.

Appreciate your family. Right now, you’re relieved to be away from them, but that novelty will wear off. It won’t be long before you only see them once a year, and it won’t be a guarantee. You’ll think about them every day.

Get help. You’re going to experience depression without understanding what it is that you’re going through. You could talk to someone, or get more sleep, or manage stress, but you won’t do any of these things, and as a result you will spend more than a year not feeling anything at all. You will remember this period of your life in as an empty grey haze. As it turns out, you can’t “cure” depression, but you can minimize its interference in your life so much that it is barely there at all. It gets better with practice.

No one else is to blame for your feelings but you. It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to take away your sadness. It’s not fair to put that expectation on them. Learn to find happiness from within yourself – easier said than done, I know, but once you figure it out, no one can take it away from you. Take care of yourself so that others don’t have to.

Walk away from things that make you unhappy. So much of your life right now is comprised of first experiences, and you worry that each one will also be the last. It won’t. Life is full of new and interesting surprises, but you have to be open to them.

You’re still going to struggle with body issues, even after you lose weight. These struggles get easier with age, and even as your body weight fluctuates up and down, you will learn to love yourself for reasons apart from your appearance.

Stop telling yourself that you’re not as smart as your friends. Everyone is smart in their own ways. You’re going to learn some very hard lessons by categorizing people as “smart” or “stupid.” Figure out what you’re good at and maximize it in your life. Pay attention to how the people around you excel at different things, too.

Get comfortable with failure. Once you get out of school, you’re going to fail a lot. It gets less uncomfortable each time. It makes you more resilient and, most importantly, it makes it easier to…

Take risks. They usually pay off, sometimes in ways you don’t expect, and when they don’t, the fallout is rarely severe enough to alter your trajectory.

Listen to your parents. It won’t be long before you call them for advice before you make any big decision. They’ve done it all before. It makes them happy to help you. They are unbelievably smart and resourceful.

Stop thinking about settling down. The world is full of interesting and wonderful and terrible people. Get to know more of them. You’re going to limit your opportunities by trying to align someone else’s priorities with your own – and you’re not going to meet someone who will do the same for you for a long, long time.

Treat people better. Happiness is not a zero-sum game. Treating someone with kindness makes both of you happy. Be good to people even – especially – when they don’t deserve it; it says more about your character than theirs. In a culture that equates offensiveness with authenticity, being nice will be a radical act.

I can’t wait to see what 38-year-old me has to say, ten years from now!

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ANOTHER BROKEN BONE

Whenever I go home on leave, I have to figure out how to tell my family and friends what I’ve been up to. This process is worthy of a post in and of itself, but when I went home for Christmas last year, I told everyone that the training was hard but the worst was over and soon I would move on to the next thing! Smooth sailing!

Then I went back to Pensacola and, three days in to the next phase of training, I broke my foot.

It was mostly my pride that was injured. We had to jump off of a platform and crumple up on the landing to simulate a parachute fall. Sounds straightforward enough – until you’re standing on top of that platform and suddenly a mere four feet to the ground looks very very high and they want you to jump off backwards. So I was nervous and I did it wrong – clearly, since the whole purpose of the exercise was to prevent injury in the event that we would have to do this for real. I knew something was wrong immediately, laying there in the gravel, but it didn’t hurt, exactly. It just felt not quite right. So I did it five or six more times until I got it right. Then I did it again with a zipline. Then the Marines pulled us over the grass and dirt so we could practice escaping from a parachute that was getting dragged! All in all, good fun. Then, after switching boots for sneakers, I tried to jog into formation – and couldn’t. Putting pressure on my foot was increasingly difficult and, soon, painful. An x-ray showed two broken bones. My foot got so swollen that socks left deep indents. When they handed me crutches, I wanted to die of shame.

I hopped around on crutches for a month, then spent another three weeks in a walking boot. Crutches were exhausting beyond what I might have imagined, but there was no joy in the chore; it wasn’t the same as being able to walk and run and swim and lift weights. I spent a lot of time sitting and a lot of time being sad.

Not everything was a bummer, though. Here are some of the positive aspects of being off my feet for a while.

  1. I didn’t lose my orders! They told me I would, but I didn’t, and it was a good lesson in the uselessness of worrying. I could have spared myself a few days of misery if I had postponed an emotional reaction until I had a definite answer.
  2. I broke my left foot. I could still drive with my right. I ended up buying a car during my extended stay in Pensacola, and it proved to be indispensable for getting around and staying entertained.
  3. My healthcare is free. Not only am I going to make a full recovery without surgery, but my x-rays and doctor visits and physical therapy won’t saddle me with a decade of debt! Thanks, Uncle Sam!
  4. I learned firsthand the daily accessibility struggles for people with actual disabilities. When you’re on crutches, something as simple as opening a door – something you wouldn’t think twice about when you’ve got two functional hands and feet – is a huge challenge. Getting in and out of a car on one foot. Stairs. Bathing. Cooking. Carrying anything – forget it! The palms of my hands developed blisters, which broke and bled painfully with friction; I still have the callouses. It is hard to express in words the feelings of dread and frustration I felt when arriving back at my building late at night and finding the parking lot totally full – of having to park in another lot and crutch a long distance slowly, painfully in the dark. It is a testament to my tremendous ignorance and lack of basic empathy that I didn’t understand or appreciate these small but pervasive struggles that people with disabilities have to surmount every single day. I have a newfound sense of awe for their capacity to adapt and overcome.
  5. Friends and strangers alike jumped at opportunities to make my life a little easier. People were nicer to me while I was on crutches than at any other time in my life. They carried things for me, opened doors for me, brought me food and coffee, got up to hand me my crutches so I wouldn’t have to hop around to get them – one breakfast restaurant even kept a particular seat at the counter open for me on Sunday mornings with a chair nearby to prop my foot up. How cool is that? Even the passing comments cheered me up. One woman whispered to me confidentially when our paths crossed in the mall parking lot, “Your shoes don’t match.” I had to stop and lean heavily into my crutches because I was laughing so hard. Good, nice, thoughtful, generous people – you are my sunshine!

Today makes eight weeks since my injury, and I managed to run for a short time with only minor discomfort! I am very optimistic that I can build my strength with each new day and, slowly and carefully, get back to where I was before. Breaking a bone is tough, and there were many days that felt dark and hopeless, but when I look back on the experience, I will remember only the positive parts and lessons learned.

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BOAT JOB THING EXPLAINER

I recently read Thing Explainer by Randall Monroe of the xkcd/What If? fame. It’s interesting (and often hilarious) that using simple terms does not always lead to clearer understanding. Specificity can be pretty important, especially technically speaking. But the book is a lot of fun. As Monroe says in the introduction, using only the most common words in the English language eliminates the fear of sounding stupid.

So, in the spirit of Thing Explainer and sounding stupid, here is a description of my job in the Navy using xkcd’s simple writer and only the most common 10,000 words in English.

I fix the boat’s kill stick-blocker system. The system has computers with a lot of boxes. Each side of the boat has a box way up high for listening to things that send out radio waves. These listening-boxes can send out radio waves too but that might break the thing out there that we’re listening to. We can look at the numbers from the radio waves on the looking-box in the dark control room. The looking-box shows us where the radio wave sender is and what it might be. People who aren’t kill stick-blockers aren’t supposed to know these numbers, but it’s not hard to find them if you really want to.

Kill sticks move very fast. If one of these hits the boat, there would be fire and a lot of people would die and it would be a very bad day. The listening-box looks for radio waves from the kill sticks and uses computers to send those numbers to the looking-box. If we see those numbers, we have to do something about it. This might mean sending radio waves back at it, or hiding in light metal clouds, or sending off another stick with its own radio waves. There are people on the boat who can use special guns to shoot down the kill stick when it is very close, but this is hard to do when the kill stick is moving two or three times faster than sound.

Once in a while, the smaller computers turn off for some reason or the listening-box has a problem. It’s my job to find out why. Sometimes this means going outside when it is very dark and the boat is moving side to side a lot. Sometimes this means sitting in front of the looking-box for a very long time. Sometimes it means being outside in the sun and looking at all of the computer-boxes inside the listening-box. It is usually on these days that the old coffee-drinking man yells at us a lot and shows us what we’re doing wrong. I like these days the best. Most of the time, though, my job is to keep the boxes clean and check them to make sure they’re ready.

Thank you to DW (very smart kill stick-blocker friend) for thinking of “fast kill stick” when I was having trouble simplifying “missile.”

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2015 IN REVIEW

On New Years Eve 2014, my friends and I went tubing in the snow, and on the way back, the car got a flat tire. We spent hours in the cold waiting for AAA, talking and teasing each other and reminiscing about the year that was quickly coming to a close. 2014 tried to stick it to us for the last time, but we made it home just before the big countdown. After that, everyone agreed that we wanted an easy year for 2015. “Please, please just be chill.”

For me, things turned out very well. Welcome to a really long post about a really great year!

PHYSICAL
When I came home for holiday leave, I kept hearing about how skinny I had gotten. This is very confusing to me because I’m the heaviest I’ve been since 2012. (It’s also a little baffling how easily people offer commentary on my body, but that’s probably for another post.) My focus on running this year has changed my physique a little. It’s not better or worse, I think, just different.

I ran up “the hill” in Busan and around the harbor in Sydney. I set new race records (26:40 for 5k, 53:40 for 10k) and ran a half-marathon for the first time. I started training for a marathon but recently lost motivation for the longer runs. It is really hard to want to spend more than an hour on the treadmill after the workday. Plus, that kind of training demands a sacrifice from strength work. Going forward, I think I’m going to try a more balanced approach. I’m getting a little blasé about fitness because I’m sort of on autopilot now, and other hobbies have been dominating my time and attention. (Read: Fallout 4 came out.)

PSYCHOLOGICAL
I haven’t seen my counselor since the week before the court-martial (more on this another time). Not professionally, at least. I bought her a little glass kangaroo in Sydney to put on her desk, and we chatted for a while when I dropped in to give it to her. She reminded me of how far I’ve come in 18 months. She also told me what I didn’t need to be in a crisis to come see her.

My counselor is one of the best things to happen to me in a long time. If you have ever considered going to counseling but have some reservations holding you back, please give it a try! I know it can be scary, but there is nothing wrong with talking to another person to make sense of things. We do it with each other all the time! But a professional gives you a sympathetic but unbiased perspective, which is invaluable.

With the exception of a few difficult times, I’ve been consistently happy. I’m learning to manage my anxiety in a constructive way. I’m really lucky to have the Navy and my family and friends as support systems. I couldn’t have done it without them. Thank you all for being there for me, especially when it wasn’t easy and I was difficult to love.

INTELLECTUAL
My goal was to read two books a month this year, one physical and one audio. I ended up reading 41! I’m proud of this. A 45-minute walk to and from work made this pretty easy. Here are my top five faves from what I read this year:

  1. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  2. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
  3. Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
  4. Bag of Bones by Stephen King
  5. Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

I did two online classes on edx as well and both were challenging and fun! If you want to learn about something new but don’t want to spend money or, really, deal with rigorous academic demands, I highly recommend this website.

SPIRITUAL
Still going to church, still trying to be a good Catholic. I got the chance to visit cathedrals in Nagasaki and Sydney and Zhangjiang, and while the differences were fascinating, it was the similarities that resonated most strongly with me.

I went to Christmas midnight Mass at home in an area that was mostly wealthy and white. The church and the choir were incredible, but I couldn’t help but notice how miserable the other parishioners looked. Maybe they were tired because it was so late. But, despite the beauty of the place and the joy of the celebration, the people around me made it feel like a funeral. It made me grateful for the joy and kindness that I see at the chapel on base. I’m going to miss it when I leave.

ROMANTIC
I made pretty poor decisions in terms of romantic partners this year. Fortunately, I can look back at them with only mild embarrassment instead of hurt or despair. It warrants serious reflection, though. Why do I find myself attracted to vacant, trifling people? Why do I give so much to people who give so little in return?

I don’t have the answers yet. Until I do, I think I need to be a little more choosy about in whom I invest any emotional energy.

WORK
We had a number of big certifications this year, including one for the system for which I’m responsible (which also involved a coworker and I desperately troubleshooting at the eleventh hour): TMI/MCI, 3M, ATFP, DC. We got the Battle E! I went to a few great schools, including the SAPR VA school, which was one of the most positive and useful experiences I’ve had in the Navy to date. I began my Reign of Terror as workcenter supervisor. We went to China, Singapore, Korea, Australia, Hong Kong, and Guam. I got my second warfare pin and got recognized as JSOQ, which, for some reason, doesn’t seem to happen often for my department. A big thank you to my chain of command for advocating for me!

There have been a lot of changes to my own division this year and most of them have been very positive. We got a bunch of motivated, hard-working, cheerful booters, and I adore each one of them. Our upper chain of command have been almost entirely replaced, and I’m learning a lot from our new leadership. I don’t dread going to work as much as I used to.  I’m happy and grateful to be a part of my division. I don’t think I could have said that last year. (Actually, I know I wouldn’t have – I went TAD to engineering to get away from them.)

PLAY
After coming home from one of our underways, I picked up the ukulele that had been sitting, neglected, in my closet. The challenges that frustrated me to the point of quitting seemed to fall away. I’m not good at it, but I love singing and making music, and it makes me happy even when it sounds like trash. No one has to listen to it but me! (And maybe my neighbors.)

I got a PS4 and have played The Last of Us, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Destiny, and Fallout 4, and if you’ve interacted with me for more than 30 seconds you know which of those takes the cake.

I didn’t see many movies this year, but of those that I did see, Mad Max: Fury Road was the best, and probably one of my favorite movies of all time. Honorable mentions to Jurassic World, The Martian, Spectre, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I started writing a novel but was quickly reminded how much I struggle with writing fiction. I quit soon after. Oh well. I tried. Shout out to my friends who are still writing their stories! I see you!

Other adventures: I tried pole-dancing for the first time in Tokyo. The Patriots won the Super Bowl, and I cried about it at work. I went to Japan’s bizarre fertility festival. One of my friends made all of my favorite foods for my birthday, including a cheesecake. I bought a living room set! I went to the hot springs in Hakone. I also went to Kyoto via bullet train, where we got to dress up like ninja and samurai! I shot a bunch of guns for work (including M-16 full auto and a laser gun) and for fun (bird shoot while home on leave). I was reunited with a dear friend in Guam. I spent a day with Aboriginal people in Australia. I developed a taste for whiskey. I dressed up as Yuffie from FFVII for Halloween and spent the night in Tokyo. I hit $10k in savings. I cried at the airport on holiday leave when my friends showed up to greet me. Lots of crying this year, but, as opposed to 2014, most of it was happy tears!

GOALS FOR 2016
All in all, the best parts of this year came from my family and friends, old and new. It’s not just the big stuff, either. It’s the little moments that matter, and they most easily come to mind when I slide into one of those dark places. You guys make my world better just by being a part of it. Thank you for sharing your kindness, joy, humor, and passions with me. Thank you for being exactly who you are. And thank you for reading my blog!

Here are some things I’d like to do in the coming year:

  • Climb Mt. Fuji! The ship will finally be around during climbing season. No excuses!
  • Stay single. This will be challenging because I love to love. But I’ve been a serial monogamist since 2008, and it’s time for a break.
  • Read 48 books, or more! (I may have a problem.)
  • PCS. I guess this is inevitable but I’m still excited about it! I love Japan but I’m ready to start the next chapter of my Navy life.
  • Be more diligent about journaling. Day-to-day events seem boring and unremarkable until time passes and you realize those things were actually very special!

I’ll finish with a story:

When I was home for the holidays, my dad and I were arguing about my Life Choices. We both agreed that the Navy is not a long-term situation for me. His perspective is economical: for each year that I spend in the Navy, I’m losing money that I would make at a better-salaried job. I argued that I was living comfortably and had opportunities from the Navy that I wouldn’t get any place else, and that I was going to enjoy it until it no longer served me. Things got a little tense.

After he left the room, I complained to my brother about the argument. “What if I look back on this fight in 30 years and realize that he was right?” I worried. My dad’s girlfriend, with whom I don’t have much of a relationship, told me, very seriously, “Don’t listen to him. Follow your heart.”

She didn’t have to support me. She didn’t have to weigh in at all. She had no dog in the fight; if anything, it was in her best interest to agree, at least outwardly, with my dad. But that simple vote of confidence reminded me that it’s okay to trust my instincts, that I have the support of good people, and most of all, that things in my life are going pretty well. I’m a very lucky lady.

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I AM A NARCISSIST

According to the Washington Post, a 40-question psychological survey used to determine whether an individual is a narcissist was recently replaced by a single question. I’m going to spoil it for you. The question is, “Are you a narcissist?”

“It’s pretty cool actually, because narcissists aren’t afraid to tell you they’re narcissistic,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University. “If you ask people whether they have casual sex or take drugs, they’re not likely to be honest with you. But narcissists just aren’t ashamed of their narcissism,” he said, “And they’ll tell you so.”

My first impulse was to think about myself, so I was off to a great start. I thought about my self-confidence, which is rapidly approaching excess. I remembered that I’m often criticized for arrogance and told that I’m hard to work with. I have high expectations and a sense of entitlement. I recognize, shamelessly, the excellence in what I do. I boast about my achievements and I love attention. Look at me! Look at me!

Am I a narcissist? Well, sure. And, true to the Brad Bushman’s assessment, I don’t see it as a problem, either. At least, I don’t see it as being any more of a problem than anyone else’s worst personality trait, though perhaps that is my own deluded rationalization, or I am using uncommonly lousy people as a basis for comparison.

I haven’t always been this way. For the first 20+ years of my life, I felt crippled by self-loathing. Even the slightest hint of negativity against my work or my character left me paralyzed, incapable of functioning. I felt worthless, like a burden, a waste of space. Also, during my sophomore and junior years in college, I was very depressed. I treated myself and other people horrendously. It was the rigorous demands of my professors which began to shake me out of that funk, an effort that endured through my chains of command in the Navy. They deliberately set me up for failure through unreasonable expectations and made me deal with it. I saw that falling short wasn’t a big deal – I looked around and no one besides me even cared that much – especially when I began to understand that these failures tended to be out of my control.  Messing up wasn’t the end of the world. I could be decent without being perfect. So I failed and embarrassed myself and bumbled along through my last years of college and then my first years of the military. It would seem like this might turn someone bitter and complacent, but, for a Type-A asshole like me, it made me persistent and resilient and, in time, proud.

It makes sense that, with the swinging of the pendulum, I’ve found myself on the other side of the self-esteem spectrum. I have faith that time, experience, and maturity will eventually slow me down to a respectable median of jaded adult complacency balanced out by nagging Catholic guilt.

But I think there are a few important ways in which I depart from the standard DSM definition of a narcissist. For one, I am very empathetic. I care deeply about the wellbeing and happiness of others, especially those close to me. I am thoughtful and find a lot of joy in making other people feel good about themselves, sometimes to the point of being annoying and overbearing. In that vein, I’m also a pretty positive person. I try to make complaints into jokes. I’m still terrified of being a burden to someone else, especially professionally, which I think is the source of my need to over-achieve. I learned some hard lessons in two decades of being way too critical of myself and others. Now I do my best to withhold judgement and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I want others to do the same for me, but it would be pretty naive to expect them to.

So whatever qualms you have with my personality – and most are totally valid and not at all lost on me – consider this: self-esteem is not a zero-sum game. I don’t take away from your own self-confidence by having confidence in myself. I see this a lot when someone compliments me and I agree with them. I get accused of being full of myself. First of all, thank you for being nice – really! It makes me happy, but I don’t need another person to be the arbiter of my self-worth, and if I don’t respond to a compliment in a way that meets your expectations, maybe you should take some time to think about your true motivation behind giving a compliment. Was it to make me feel good, or to make yourself feel good about making me feel good? Second, I think people assume that recognizing a positive trait in yourself is a comparative assessment. But it’s not! If I say that I look cute today, I’m not saying that I’m cuter than everyone else. You’re putting words in my mouth. My head is so far up my own ass that I’m not even thinking about anyone else’s cuteness. I can be cute and they can be cute at the same time. Great! But right now I’m talking about me, not them, so stop making it about someone else! Me me me!

Am I really hurting anyone by being such an insufferable narcissist? I don’t think so. It seems like most criticisms of my personality are actually reflections of other people’s own insecurities. There will always be those who hate me simply because I don’t hate myself. I can’t change what they think about me. I can only change how I think about myself, and for now, I’m doing more or less okay with being frustratingly, obnoxiously confident.

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FEAR AND IMAGINATION

I came home after dark last night. A flat tire turned a 30-minute bike ride into an hour-long walk. Sweaty, hungry, I kicked off my shoes at the door, eager to shower and make dinner. I was still listening to my audio book when I flipped on the bathroom light and leaped backward in surprise. A beetle or cockroach – I didn’t get a good look – scampered under the sink.

I poked my head out from behind the door, using it as a shield. The insect didn’t reemerge. I skirted the edge of the bathroom, practically pressing myself against the wall to get as far away from the sink as possible. I undressed quickly and conducted a ten-point search before entering the shower. My gaze never left the bottom of the shower door, lest the bug try to sneak up on me while I was slippery and naked and vulnerable. What if it had friends, poised and ready to attack when given the signal? What if it took flight and launched itself at me like a creepy little missile? What if it crawled on me?

The evening transpired as usual: cooked dinner, watched Netflix, folded laundry, and no tiny trespasser to be seen. I was, however, extra careful when making my way up to the bedroom, shaking out my sheets and peeking under the mattress. I awoke with no evidence of having been devoured while I slept.

This morning, when I continued to tread cautiously around my own house, I realized I was being ridiculous. This little bug could have been under the sink the entire time I’ve lived here and I never worried about it. I see a single insect one time and suddenly no part of my house is safe? What was I so scared of?

We might be able to cohabitate peacefully. I gave him a name: what else but Kafka? Now that he had an identity, I started to imagine him with sentience, and then with a life of his own.

Kafka, wearing a police hat and wielding a baton, patroling the darkened house, shining a little flashlight into the house’s tiniest nooks and crannies and, snapping his mandibles, telling the spiders to scram! (I wish he wouldn’t do this. The spiders and I are now on fair terms.) After his rounds, he sits at his post by my front door, drinking a steaming cup of coffee and unfolding yesterday’s paper. Occasionally, he looks down at his wristwatch, ensuring he is ready at the top of the hour for his next round. Time moves slowly through the dark and cool and quiet of the night.

Kafka, sensing that he has overstayed his welcome, packing a tiny knapsack. He takes one last look at my house before crawling to the train station in the light of a humid September dawn. He is on a journey around Japan to discover himself, but he takes the time to put photos in the mail: at the peak of Mt. Fuji, leaning against his walking stick; dressed in a samurai costume and brandishing a little katana with historic Kyoto in the background; holding up a cup of sake in a Sapporo onsen, surrounded by steam and mist. He returns to my house, almost a year later, and realizes there is nothing left for him here. Wordlessly, he turns to leave. Though there is a tear in his eye, it is not enough to extinguish the spark of hope in his heart.

Kafka, transforming into a human. He becomes handsome senator with a passion for justice and equality. He is immediately captivated by my charm and intelligence and begs to take me away from this life. One morning, he strides into the White House and demands that I be released from the military. The president, of course, has heard of my daring naval exploits and is hesitant to terminate my contract. Eventually, after much negotiating, he relents. I go on to become a brilliant and well-published professor of philosophy. Meanwhile, Kafka balances his political career with raising half a dozen foster children. Not once do I suspect that he was once a creepy little bug. In our twilight years, he, too, forgets, recalling only the enormous joys and miseries of a thoroughly human life.

Is this silly? Yes, clearly. But so is sleeping with one eye open and tip-toeing around my own house because of an insect the size of a tootsie roll. His little presence hasn’t affected my life at all. I can’t control under whose sink he decides to hide. So, in my own imaginings, why not choose laughter over fear?

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DUTIES DIVIDED

Sunday duty at home is usually quiet. Very seldom is the brass onboard. No contractor work or major evolutions means that watchstanding is more relaxed. We have no choice but to be on the ship, so those on duty try to make the best of it by catching up on work, getting ready for the week ahead, or just doing whatever activities they would have done at home. One of my coworkers, anticipating an easy day, brought his guitar. I had a book.

In this mindset, on my last Sunday duty day, I asked my duty department head if I could go to Church. Technically, we’re not supposed to leave the ship on duty, but as long as it doesn’t interfere with watchstanding or other responsibilities, DHs usually let their sailors take off for a short time. So, when I asked, I had my arguments all ready.

“Ma’am, can I go to Church this morning at 8?”

I braced myself. I was revving up for a fight.

“Yes, of course,” she said, gently, kindly. “Go.”

“I’ll only be gone an hour and I’m not on IET or – oh,” I stopped, awkwardly, realizing that she wasn’t giving me even the slightest bit of trouble. That’s it? Just like that? I can go? A wave of relief washed over me. I thanked her (twice) and left. No one stopped me.

Ash Wednesday Mass in Busan, South Korea, 2014. A holy day. A duty day.

Ash Wednesday Mass in Busan, South Korea, 2014. A holy day. A duty day.

Joining the military necessarily means a loss of one’s autonomy. The needs of the ship often come before the needs of individuals. Personal plans that require time away from work, even on weekends, are never a guarantee. In many ways, you forfeit control over your ability to manage your own time and make decisions. A recall, ship’s movement, major evolutions, duty – all of these take priority. Those with families have it especially hard, and a supportive spouse is more or less essential.

I also understand very well when it’s simply not possible to attend Church: underway, an all-day watch, a major event, a casualty – all of these would understandably, from a professional and, I think, moral perspective, would take precedence over a Sunday Mass. I have a commitment to the ship that goes beyond any other civilian job responsibilities. Sometimes the ship needs me in a way that nothing else could.

In a conflict, though, which takes priority: your ship or your faith?

I have had a few negative experiences at my command when it came to balancing the needs of the ship and my own need to practice my religion. Specifically, the conflict was that I had no demands that would have prevented me from attending Mass, but I was reprimanded or outright forbidden from doing so anyway.

One of these situations was a duty day. It was a holy day of obligation. I asked to go, citing the lack of responsibilities (late night watch, no team membership, work done, no drills), and was told the following: “If I let you go, I have to let everyone else go, and that’s not realistic or fair.” This argument was both fallacious and insulting, a great example of the rules being read too literally to the point of being nonsensical. Besides, on the same day, this person also allowed a number of duty personnel to attend two separate events off the ship – a mando-fun picnic and a Captain’s Cup game – because they were “command functions.” The hypocrisy was overwhelming and still continues to trouble me, more than a year later. I was scolded for having a bad attitude (true) and for not taking my duties seriously (not true). I was not allowed to leave the ship. And, according to the duty status instruction, he wasn’t wrong for preventing me from doing so.

The other situation wasn’t a duty day. I was in engineering. We were getting ready to light off after a long SRA, which meant working weekends. My chief openly admitted that our work was done and we were coming in on Sunday just for show, since the rest of the department had to work. With that in mind, I asked to come in an hour late so I could go to Mass before work. I offered to stay an hour later to make up for the lost time. Chief said no, citing the same reason as above: “If I let you come in late, I have to let everyone come in late.” This time, I lost it. It wasn’t that there was some tasking that was preventing me from going. There was no work to be done, especially during that one hour. We all knew that we would just be standing by all day until they let us go – one of the many infuriating aspects of ship life. The fact that I couldn’t fulfill this moral obligation for absolutely no reason made me totally break down. My division officer, seeing me clearly upset, told me, with agitation, “Just go.” It was humiliating that it had to come to that. This time, I got to go, but it was at the expense of my professionalism and military bearing. My chief and division officer thought I was using Church as an excuse to not work. That hurt me.

Given these two negative experiences, it’s pretty clear why it was such a relief to be given that one hour for Church without any drama. My DH didn’t have to let me go, but she did, and it made a huge difference in my attitude. I was engaged and involved in the demands of the day. I was eager to be supportive of the duty section, as though in return for a favor. I was positive and attentive on watch. My morale was great, even on weekend duty, and it cost the duty section nothing at all. Isn’t that a good example of the correct balance of priorities? In the absence of necessary or urgent professional demands, why not allow personnel to address their personal, human needs? It makes for less resentment and more productive, reliable sailors.

It actually doesn’t matter how many personnel are onboard the ship at any time if they’re all bitter and vindictive, showing up late for watch or not at all, hiding when duty section gets called away, not responding to casualties. We’ve all seen the creative ways that sailors get into trouble after their liberty has been curtailed for a while. After being told “no” to their needs for so long, even the strongest willed person will eventually break, turning around and telling the Navy “no” in response. A healthy balance of personal and professional priorities keeps everything (and everyone) going.

For better or worse, the ship is rarely the most important thing in a sailor’s life. When I think about whether or not to stay in the Navy, it’s those negative experiences – those restrictions on my autonomy, particularly being needlessly prevented from doing something that is very important to me – that come to mind first. It is difficult to belong to an organization which prioritizes strict (“strict”) adherence to rules at the expense of practicality and of their personnel’s non-professional wellbeing. Sometimes, shit happens. I know. You can’t always get what you want, especially as another cog in the wheel. But, repeatedly, in the long run, is it worth it?

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ON BEING (BIG) ENOUGH

The idea of getting “too big” is probably pretty hilarious to most male gym rats. Growth is the goal, always the goal, sometimes defined in inches or pounds but always striving toward bigger. Strength is an accessory to the fact. Cutting fat, an addendum, often remembered last minute before spring break after months of eating in excess. Most men, at least, recognize that putting on mass takes a tremendous amount of effort and focus. Very rarely does it happen by accident. Imagine: the skinniest dude you know goes to the gym a few times and wakes up one morning to find himself suddenly, inexplicably massive. “I didn’t want to get huge,” he’d lament, reaching a veined, bulging forearm into the microwave to retrieve his taquitos. “But my buddy made me do leg day once and now none of my pants fit my thighs.” A tragedy.

The opposite is true for women. It took two decades of myth deconstruction, especially after the heroin-chic look of the 90s, to get a casual female gym-goer to approach the weight room. Why did it take us so long to figure out that showing muscle tone requires muscle mass? (Probably because of folks like Tracy Anderson espousing that women should lift no more than 3-pound weights.*) Now, in 2015, a lean, athletic appearance is in vogue. Women throwing around some serious weight at the gym – once an oddity, later a “cool girl, one-of-the-guys” quality – is, wonderfully, from my experience, a regularity. Lady lifters tend to enjoy better health and self-esteem. Guys be like, dat squat booty. Everyone’s happy.

So what happens when you do get big enough?

When I started exercising, I didn’t have a particular aesthetic goal in mind. I figured I might like myself better if I cut back on mac and cheese and World of Warcraft and made myself sweat a few times per week, I guess? So discovering and actually enjoying weight lifting was a happy accident. I was extremely uncomfortable at first, especially sharing the weight room with, you know, the real athletes at my school, but time and research made things feel more and more natural. Soon I was strutting in there with my head held high. I wasn’t strong or fast but I was committed, and if gym rats respect anything, it’s persistence. Hitting a new PR made me feel invincible, unstoppable. “I never thought I could lift that,” I’d think, “but I did it. So what else have I been telling myself that I can’t do?” And, in time, I also bought in to the indefinite-growth, gains-for-gains’-sake mentality; with hard work, I would keep getting stronger, to infinity and beyond. Appearance and body weight were irrelevant, as long as my lifts were going up.

Ship life changed that. Maintaining a serious gym schedule underway can be a challenge. Slowly, over the course of a year, lifting sank lower and lower on my list of priorities. Gym time itself often felt like a luxury; I was happy just to jump on whatever equipment was immediately available and get out in less than an hour. I gained a few pounds – nothing too noticeable, nothing to feel bad about – and also a bit of complacency, which was worse than the extra body fat.

And then I started running.

Running, for the record, is the worst. Every step is pain, each mile an exploration into new and exciting dimensions of torture. Thighs slapping together, chafing. Gasping, lungs aching – am I voluntarily trying to suffocate myself? My glasses slide down my face and sweat rolls into my eyes, my mouth, and my shirt lands with a wet plop on the floor before I hobble into the shower. So I’m not a fan. Or, at least, I wasn’t. I ran underway more or less out of necessity, since, with limited resources, it’s the simplest and most accessible form of exercise. At some point this year, though, something changed. I was running more often than I was lifting. I stopped dreading cardio. Sometimes, I even looked forward to a run, particularly those on the main deck in view of the setting sun. For a once-devout disciple of the iron, this was a terrifying development. So much of my identity, I thought, had centered around my strength and my gainz. Lifting, at one time, had made me different, made people respect me, admire me, my PRs, my ass, and – wait, who was I doing this for again?

Maybe scaling back on the weights wouldn’t be the end of the world. Maybe running – becoming one of “those people” – wouldn’t prompt an identity crisis. Maybe athleticism falls across a broad spectrum and isn’t limited to brute strength – shocking, I know. These were new perspectives, ones I had only considered theoretically, detached from myself and my goals. I remember trying on new swimsuits recently – strapless bandeau tops, perfect for correcting those crew-neck tan-lines – and observing my body as though for the first time. My lats and chest and shoulders exploded out of the top of the suit. I looked ridiculous, somehow big and small at the same time. But I was also bursting with pride. This mass is me, all me, all mine. I made this. This is physical, visual evidence of years of hard work and commitment, of trying and failing, of stepping outside of my comfort zone and pushing myself past my limits. I am, in fact, “big enough” – strong enough, fast enough, good enough.

You’ll see me by the pool in those swimsuits. You’ll still see me in the gym, too, and running around base. It’s okay to let your priorities change. Sometimes you have to sacrifice one goal for the sake of another. “Good enough” is not an appeal for mediocrity or complacence. It’s not a rallying cry to abandon your goals. But it’s not quitting or failure, either. It’s a realistic assessment of your accomplishments and recognition of  your achievements. It’s about self-acceptance and pride in self-creation. Most of all, it’s about allowing yourself to experience the peace that comes from completion. And it’s nice to move on.

* In a spectacular demonstration of thoughtlessness, Gwenyth says in this very same video that the arm she uses to carry her 30-pound son is less flabby than the other.

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