Sunday, August 26, 2018

"Wow, I Never Thought About It That Way" (Sheriff's Course, Week 2)

Remember this meme that was floating around a while back? It's a lot what I felt like, driving home from my second class, afraid to turn my head too fast because it was crammed so full of new thoughts, some might fall out.
 "Most problems in government," explained Undersheriff Matt Cline, stem from the same root as many of our personal problems -- they come from lack of effective communication. His talk was the kickoff to a three-hour class that had lots of enlightening facts and figures ... and several powerful "Wow, I never thought about it that way" moments.

First, just a few stats to give you a feel for the magnitude of the endeavor. We're talking about an organization with about 800 people plus voluteers (full- and part-time; both sworn and civilian). About 2/3 of their $75 million dollar per year budget goes for law enforcement, but there are also people and activities in the background who support the deputies on patrol (the guys you actually see on the street): you need a jail so you have a place to take anyone you arrest, and the bailiff at the courts, and admin and finance and dispatch. You need investigators, and forensics, and equipment and bomb-and-drug-sniffing dogs and training and worker's comp. You need to pay to keep the lights on in the building, and keep the vehicles maintained. That was the first "wow I never thought about it that way" moment. To equip a new deputy costs more than his first-year salary, when you figure the cost of a car, uniforms, gun, radio, bulletproof vest, taser, the list went on. And training -- lots and lots of training and continuing education in crisis intervention, defensive tactics, firearms qualifications, driving, CPR, juvenile law, hazardous materials (hazmat) response ... that list went on and on also. All this stuff below the surface, the base of the iceberg so to speak, costs about three times their actual salary, not even counting the original issued equipment. That number seems large but it's in line with the number I used when managing environmental cleanup contracts for the Army back in Colorado or managing research scientists in Michigan.

The behind-the-scenes class that I'm in, and "ride-alongs" with officers on patrol is one way the office is trying to help communication, and help ordinary people understand the range and complexities and nuances of what law enforcement does. One of my classmates, a local author, first went on a ride-along to help get information for a previous novel. And I found out why they had to do a background check before any of us could be accepted into the class. You see, if a bad guy attended, he would get a little bit too much insights into the inner workings of the sheriff's office and could use that knowledge against them...not good! (And that was my second "wow I never thought about it that way" moment of the evening, courtesy of Brian Lee, chief(?) of the law enforcement division, who has had the responsibility to sign off on those background checks.)

The most powerful anecdote of the evening was about the wearing of body cams, or, in the case of our county, the not-wearing. Let's admit it, there have been some really egregious past abuses of police power. So a bit of public accountability should be a very good thing, and arguably has been, in several cases that have been in the news in recent years. Of course everyone's got a cell phone now, so police actions are a bit more visible anyway, body cams or no. But still, if department policy is to refuse to wear cams, the first place your mind goes is to ask what nefarious behavior they're trying to cover up, right? And to wonder if we'll be on the front page of the Washington Post any time soon. But now, imagine this hypothetical (but extremely plausible) situation as described by Undersheriff Cline.

Seventeen-year-old high school student, a cheerleader, where someone serves her too much alcohol. She comes home, not feeling well, and proceeds to throw up in the bathroom while her parents try to help. Then she lays for a while against the cool of the tile floor.  Soon her breathing becomes a little labored and the parents call 911. The officer arrives and with his hypothetical body cam, not intentionally but just while he's walking to her, films the interior of their house and the sick girl on the floor.

Next day, the nosy next door neighbor goes to the office and requests a copy of the video, under the State of Florida's equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, which he is entitled to because all these police body cam videos are a public record and can't be withheld. And then the girl in her very vulnerable moment, and possible the interior of the house, are all over the internet forever. Unintended consequence of a law that, as written, does a terrible job of balancing public right to know with individual right to privacy -- in this situation there is really no vested public interest in knowing details, but there is also no good mechanism for redacting portions to protect individual privacy. So until the law is modified, until judgement is allowed to handle stuff like this with a bit more sensitivity, the department is adamant that this particular can of worms remain unopened. Not as a cover-up, but as a protection.

"Wow I never thought about it that way,"indeed.

Monday, August 20, 2018

And Now For Something Completely Different

When we talk about our El Galeon time, people often ask us how we managed to get our positions aboard. I tell them I lucked out - I was in the right place at the right time. I was picking up my mail, and chatting with the person next to me...who turned out to be the ship's business manager. Who invited us to see the ship; then to come back for a photo shoot; then next thing we knew, it was "bring your passport, you're in bunk #10 on the starboard side, we're going sailing."

Just because we couldn't spend this summer on El Galeon due to Dan's hip issue doesn't mean I won't be having adventures and learning new things and having a novel answer if I were to write a "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" essay in adult life the way we used to on our first day back in school every September. And once again, I was at the right place at the right time to learn about a cool opportunity. For the next 12 weeks I'll be going behind the scenes at the St John's County Sheriff's office, learning everything from driving a cop car in the rain, to how interrogations of suspects really work, processing a crime scene, and how they make a split-second shoot/don't shoot decision. (Is that guy pointing an iPhone at you, or a gun? Do you assume a different answer if he's black or if he's white?) I'll ride along with an officer on a patrol shift, and sit in the 911 call center.

Last night was our first class, orientation. It was mostly introductions and logistics, but there were also several inspiring stories. The course coordinator told us that he was fourth-generation law enforcement in Florida -- his great-grandfather was the sheriff in neighboring Palatka, Putnam County; grandfather, father, and uncles were variously police and firefighters, and then here he was, a 20+ year veteran with the sheriff's office in St Augustine in St John's County. His career, he said, spanned the wide range of activities the office is associated with, from the adrenaline rush of the S.W.A.T. team, and what he called the "hard-charging" bomb squad and dive team, to the warm fuzziness of handing out teddy bears to traumatized children. The stories he told spanned an equally wide range. He told us about the time he was part of a team that staged a "bank robbery" as part of a training, and how none of the eye witnesses were able to provide reliable accounts of pretty much anything they saw. He told the sad story of one arrest gone wrong with the best of intentions as the arresting officer tried to treat the woman he was arresting with respect; she had soiled herself in the stress of the moment, and the deputy gave her the chance to keep her dignity and go clean herself up before she was taken to the holding area, but she shot herself instead. 

The 35 attendees introduced themselves and their reasons for being in the class. A few were ex-military or contemplating careers in law enforcement, others were members of neighborhood HOAs, still others were just curious. I was particularly touched by one woman's story. She was the mother of three adopted African-American kids who were just coming into their rebellious years, distrusting police and concerned about being judged more harshly because of their skin color. Me, I can't exactly say why I was so intrigued to be in the course. I grew up very insulated in an upper-middle-class bubble. (Did you? Check out this interesting quiz.) So this was going to give me exposure to a world I knew nothing about except in novels, and characters I wouldn't otherwise have any chance to meet other than in the stories of the district court judge who was my carpool-mate during my Washington, DC days. We'd entertain each other on the long traffic-filled ride home with stories from our respective work days. He'd tell me about the most outrageous delinquents he saw in the courtroom, and I'd tell him about what was really in his drinking water. My other reason for interest in the class is that I'm an engineer, I love to know how things work. The cool analytical aspects of processing a crime scene will appeal to my science background. I'm curious about the detective work that investigates internet crimes or child porn, and there's even a session on the shooting range. I've shot a shotgun at an empty beer can a friend placed on a fence post for me, but that's about it so far. But I'm also fascinated with the tensions that my classmate listed as her reason for participating. People, on both sides, are not monolithic blocs, and I'm anticipating learning that many situations are more complex than our sound-bitey media portray. I think it's going to be enlightening. Oh, and fun --admittedly I also want to drive a car really fast, and play with the sirens and flashing lights.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

First Week in Our New (Temporary) Town, Jacksonville

 After a very sound night's sleep, we started getting our bearings, meeting our dock-neighbors, investigating marina amenities, and finding out what was within walking distance. A short, pleasant stroll through residential neighborhoods brought us to a large strip mall with a Publix grocery store, several restaurants, and a West Marine. We were disproportionately excited by this, and added "recreational cooking" to our planned activities for the next few months. Carless in St Aug, groceries had taken about half a day, given the bus schedules. So we only went once per week, and the trip involved lists and substantial planning -- no spontaneity here! The idea of deciding what we felt like eating on the spur of the moment, and then going out to get the ingredients, was a new luxury we intended to take advantage of. Yes, it was part of the calculus of living downtown where parking was unbearable, and on the whole we were happy with the tradeoffs. But few regrets doesn't mean no regrets.

Our dock-neighbors were uniformly pleasant. We met a group for sundowners one evening, and asked for local knowledge. We learned that the best margaritas within walking distance were at the Japanese grill house (not what I'd expect, especially with a decent Mexican restaurant just 1 mile up the road). We learned that the marina is having a "dress like a pirate" party later this month. Yeah, we can do that. But the most delightful piece of advice, forcefully repeated, was that we simply must check out the local used book store.  I was happy not only to have a great independent bookstore nearby, but also that this seemed to be a priority for our new neighbors.

Fifty-plus loooong aisles of assorted books, floor to ceiling and almost too many to fit on the shelves. We found some obscure stuff, and some great bargains. While I was browsing math & science I overheard (but never saw) two young women in the next aisle over (literature). One was telling the other that she just didn't enjoy reading male authors, and the conversation made me sad. It seemed such a wild overgeneralization. I could have understood it if she said she liked a specific genre that tended to attract mostly women authors (cozy mysteries, maybe, or home organization how-tos). Or maybe if she was making a conscious effort to support female authors because they had been underrepresented in the past. But just in general to dismiss 50% of the population as having nothing important to say? Not cool.

During that first week, we made it to the bookstore (where I spent entirely too much money on some intriguing, and obscure, math & science titles). We figured out the bus system and went to a farmer's market nestled in shade of an overpass on the interstate, by the river. Way cool, by the way, the bus has an app that shows you the route on a map, and your location. There's even a tiny animated icon representing the position of the bus, that moves along the route in real time and tells you how many minutes until it arrives at the location you are standing at. Seniors ride free with an id card you can get at the main bus terminal downtown (which we promptly did). We soaked in the marina's pool and hot tub after dark and gazed at the sky looking for the Perseids meteor shower, but it was too cloudy. We drove around the downtown area just looking at the lovely old buildings, and stumbled upon some outrageous murals -- apparently the city is known for these. It's also known for having the youngest average population of all major Florida cities, so we are counting on having some fun while we're here. There's lots of museums and lots of microbreweries in the city; we will try to visit as many as possible during the next months. But probably not too many in August, just too darn hot.

Farmer's market, in the comfortable shade of the I-95 overpass.

I'm learning to love the city's street art!  (This is just one of my favorites, the link takes you to pictures of 20 of the murals downtown.)

And another favorite.  (Again, the link will take you to the other murals.)
We started our beer tour here, Hyperion Brewing in Springfield (a historic, sketchy but now gentrifying part of town). It was a slow night so we had some time to chat with one of the owner/investors - he's also from Michigan! We also met the young woman who is the visionary behind the place; she is profiled on the brewery's web page. Our conversations ranged from Greek mythology to  . Along the way we mentioned the bus route app, and she was absolutely amazed and delighted that people as old as us were hip enough to know how to use a smartphone. Really? Didn't seem so odd a juxtaposition as all that to me. (But then, my brain doesn't feel old, it's just my body that reminds me...) Then I remembered one evening on the Galeon, when one of our crewmates was startled that we'd want to go for a beer. He said he expected that old folks would want to just sit in a rocking chair with tea and the telly. Well, if nothing else, we can shake up some preconceived notions about aging! 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Best Place to Be for a Hurricane Is ... Elsewhere!

Big city time! We sailed under this lift bridge. It looked low even in its raised position, but the bridgetender assured me we had almost 70 feet (we only need 50).  Image from here

Is it three strikes you're out? Or, three times is the charm? After the last two summers with hurricanes in St Aug, we didn't want to learn the answer! So we made arrangements to spend the peak of hurricane season in a more sheltered marina, only 2 or 3 easy days' travel by boat to Jacksonville. We were ready to try some "big city living" for a bit.

The combination of tides and weather was not cooperating as well as it might. My best estimate had us making a lovely, easy two-hour trip the first day to a favorite anchorage, Pine Island, a quiet natural area in an oxbow off the ICW north of St Augustine. We left our home marina in the morning, and by about 11 AM we were settled in a cove surrounded by marsh grass and egrets, enjoying warm sun and a pleasant breeze. We spent a lazy day reading books, organizing a few lockers, cooking a nice dinner, and later, watching distant lightning. Idyllic.

Except that later in the evening, the breeze died and the humidity reasserted itself and the mosquitoes came out as we were getting ready to go to sleep; planning an early start for the next morning. Nothing really major happened, except that we had poor and broken sleep. Sometime during the night, Dan brushed at a mosquito that was buzzing around his head and shattered the glass on the barometer. Luckily the shards stayed in the frame and didn't cut him. That was the start of a day full of things that weren't disasters, but could have been.

Traveling on weekends isn't my preferred, because waterways are crowded with inexperienced boaters, but that was what we had. We had the anchor up before sunrise, timing ourselves to reach a particularly constricted bridge at slack tide, because we could barely fight our way through at maximum current of 4 or 5 knots that was possible at that location. Well, we arrived just in time and the passage was glassy smooth...but then 5 miles and an hour down river we reached the next constriction, which was flowing with a foul current against us, and even a few boils and whirlpools. It felt like it took us forever to go those few hundred meters/yards or so, and we were at maximum throttle. Apparently it's impossible to hit both of those two bridges at easy current. I feel good with my navigation, getting us to what I thought the trouble spot was at a good time, but hadn't understood there was more to come, and a boat of our speed just couldn't be two places at once!  We survived unscathed, however, there was one white-knuckle moment when a boil in the current tried to grab the bow and push it into the bridge pier. Glad we hadn't come through any later when the current was even stronger; we would have had no choice but to simply wait several hours for it to slack off.

After the adrenaline dissipated we entered into the main St John's River. It's a big-ship channel so the navigation was easier, though we were dodging lots of small pleasure boats and their wakes. Ironically, now we were too early, ahead of schedule, and the current had not yet turned in our favor. It was a slow, hot slog upriver for about 15 miles. I should have been enjoying the scenery and the new experiences, but already crabby from last night's poor sleep, dehydrated from the heat, and grumpy from what I considered a navigation fail at the last bridge, I was just not in a receptive frame of mind. I just wanted the trip to be over, to be safely tucked in our new slip, before anything else could go (almost) wrong. The dialog in my head said we were too old for this. That voice scared me. What if it was, in fact, the beginning of the end of our cruising? We talked a little about getting an RV, or converting a van and road tripping. We'd done two build outs of empty vans before, during the time we lived in Colorado, and had many wonderful road trip memories. Maybe we'd do that again? Then I realized what that inner voice was really saying. Not, "I am done with cruising" but "I am done with working this hard, it's way too hot, surely I'm smart enough to find a better way." Although we've lived in St Augustine for almost 5 years now, we'd always been gone during the summers, either on El Galeon or cruising in Cinderella. This was my first summer living on the boat in Florida, and we agreed it would be our last.

We made it through the city without further incident, although it took forever coming up on the lovely lift bridge in the above photo before we got there. I had hailed the bridgetender too soon -- the bridge was both larger, and farther away, than I had understood.  Soon we were through the city and headed off the main river into a shallow side channel to the Ortega River and our destination. The buoys were not marked on our older chart, but I had added them manually during my nav prep. But as we turned off, I couldn't find a thing. Thank goodness I had planned this part of the passage to happen during high tide to give us a little more room for error! Finally in desperation I pointed to a blank spot on the map. "Steer for here," I told Dan.

There was nothing there, but it was about the right spot for passage over a shallow bit of the mouth of the river.  From there, we finally found the first of the markers -- not a standard post with daymark as we were used to seeing, but a small simple rod sticking up out of the water, whose red color was indistinguishable against the late afternoon sun.

The last bridge was the worst bridgetender experience I have ever had, in 20 years and 20+ thousand miles of boating. We called for an opening; they were doing maintenance work on the bridge so only one side was available. No problem, we have done that in many other places before. So the bridge goes up, and she tells us to come on through ... "Uh, ma'am? There seems to be a sailboat between us and you, pointing into the wind to drop their sails; we'll come as soon as they pass." (Can you see them, there from the office you're sitting in? It's designed to have a view of the waterway approaching.)  When the sailboat passed, there was a view of ... the construction barge, which was repositioning and now taking up the entire span. "Uh, ma'am? Your construction barge is blocking passage." (Situational awareness? Surely you know they are working on your bridge, and moving about.) Finally they barge moved, and we accelerated toward the finally clear opening ... and the bridgetender sounded five blasts on the horn to indicate the bridge was closing! Before we got there? She was tired of waiting? Good thing our maxprop gave us a strong reverse, or our mast would have been crushed in the closing bridge! Wow. This person was the exact opposite of the excellent bridgetender in St Aug who spoke to our group in the spring telling wonderful bridgetender tales.

Annnnyyyyyway, after that last experience, we had no further issues; 10 minutes later the bridge opened (both spans this time as the work barge was now clear) and we found our lovely new slip based on a map the dockmaster had emailed beforehand. It was calm and easy to tie up unassisted. Honestly, we were so tired that we didn't even leave the boat that evening, although next day we explored the marina grounds (free laundry! swimming pool! community lounge!). New adventures await ... after a solid sleep. In air conditioning. Without mosquitoes.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Scared of Silence?

What thoughts go through my head, watching sunset at sea? No distractions -- no cellphone, no internet, no other people, just little tiny us and the ship in the big uncaring Universe. Ocean makes you feel introspective, salty, elated, and humble, all at once. And depending on the weather, either bored or terrified; there is no in between.

A good friend of mine has booked a silent retreat at a monastery at the end of her summer work gig.  She has spent time in monasteries or convents before, but always doing some sort of program where there would be quite a bit of interaction with people. This time would be a first for her; one week of silence. "There will be one meeting a day with a, what would you call it, a spiritual guide? Counselor? And that’s it," she explained. "Looking forward to it, a wee bit scared, and most of all curious...... It’s not so much the silence in itself that I find challenging but the letting go of distractions."

What does my friend's vacation plan have to do with sailing? Her confrontation with silence will happen within the structure of the monastery, where the bells define the rhythm of the day, with morning prayers, coffee, chores, noon prayers, lunch, ... etc. That's really not very different, in many ways, from our time at sea, with days broken up into watches and chores and staying alert for navigation hazards. We don't have enforced silence, but once we're far enough from shore, cellphone signal fades. No more bopping around the internet looking for soundbites or checking friends' Facebook statuses. Without those distractions, time shifts to a slower pace. We can read, or write, or draw or daydream, or whatever creative pursuits we choose. Or, simply watch the waves and the clouds.

At sea, we are alone, not lonely. The silence isn't static. (Silence? It seems such a living breathing thing that its name should be capitalized.)  When your head isn't filled with busy-ness as it is non-stop in ordinary land-based life, thoughts that you haven't really had the time to think will bubble up to the surface to be examined. My friend is looking forward to this. "Something may just pop up from inside of you, from deeper layers, if that makes sense." You never know what that "something" is going to be until it happens, though. Occasionally profound, often mundane, or sad, or sometimes frightening, the thoughts come.

For some of our younger El Galeon crewmates, or for the midshipmen that Dan trained when he was a sailing coach at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, out at sea was the first time in their lives they had ever been disconnected from the internet and cell phone service and experienced that Silence. For some people, that might not be a good thing. I knew one person who had witnessed some truly horrific things when they were in middle school. I'll spare us all the graphic details, but let's just say he was entitled to all the slack you could cut him. Smart kid and straight-A student ... he tried very hard to always be busy and never be alone. On land, there were people, and parties, and alcohol, and the internet. And when he was alone he was playing on his phone. So when we were at sea (his first time!) for too long it was devastating. Without the distractions there was time to confront all those memories, no choice but to confront them really, and he totally fell apart.  He was smart enough to know what was happening to him and why, but he couldn't figure out how to escape it. As far as I know, he never went to sea again; got a job doing two-hour day tours in the Bay. That too I guess is the power of silence without distractions. My friend said that there was a mental-health questionnaire she had to fill out before she could go on her silent monastery retreat; I guess they must have had some bad experiences with people in the past, similar to the kid I've described.

For us, the Silence has never been threatening. I think we've had lucky lives so far. For us, it's deeply introspective, and powerful, and revealing, and also very refreshing. We head out in a few days for an easy two-day trip to our temporary hurricane-season marina, and I'm looking forward to seeing what thoughts come up!