When I lived in Japan, I didn’t own a car. I had a bike, but it got stolen on base (naturally), and with less than a year left before returning to the US, I started walking instead.
A walking commute is really easy in a place like Japan, where public transportation is robust and accessible. I had my walk to work down to a science:
1. Leave the house for a twelve-minute walk to the train station; 2. Five minutes on the train; 3. A ten-minute walk from the train station to the base gate; 4. Ten minutes from the gate to the gym’s locker room, where I stashed my uniforms; 5. A quick costume change, then, depending on where it was parked, a five- or ten-minute walk to the ship.
After a few weeks, I could predict to the minute what time I would cross the brow in the morning, and I was always on time.
The combination of walking to work and running around the ship often resulted in jubilant vibration on my wrist sometime before lunch: “Congrats!” my fitness watch would say. “You met your step goal of 10,000 steps!”
I took for granted how easy it was to be active when it was organically built in to the day. Coming back to the US was a rude awakening.
I recently read Thing Explainerby 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.”
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.
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?
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.