Wednesday, December 2, 2015

No thanks, King Neptune

Although I am a fan of most nautical traditions I have to admit that some of them were rather unpleasant and atavistic.  With a nod - or better still a tug of the forelock - to tradition, some should now fade into history.

For instance, the long standing tradition of ceremonies when a ship crosses the equator.  You can read up on it if you are interested but it was essentially an elaborate and often unpleasant hazing where veteran sailors got to pick on those newer swabs who were crossing this arbitrary line for the first time. People dressing up in drag, a kangaroo court presided over by King Neptune, you get the general drift of it.

It is hard to see much benefit in it other than relieving ship board tedium.  The "polliwogs", as they called the newbies, were really no different from the day before they crossed into the other hemisphere. Nor was the ship really.  There were still decks to swab, watches to be stood, weevily biscuits to be eaten.

I doubt these little pageants provided anything more than a brief boost in morale.

We still do this sort of thing.  Oh, not the equator crossing stuff, that has been phased out of pretty much all the navies on earth.  Cruise lines still do a very watered down, sanitized version.

But there are other arbitrary lines to be crossed.  When people turn 50, or 60.  Or get married.  Or most emphatically, when they retire, there are odd rituals that seem to be expected.

At least the bachelor/hen parties have a bit of fun to them.  Rather like a last burst of unfettered exuberance before the presumptive long slog of married life.

But high denomination birthdays?  Unwanted gifts of black balloons, dead flowers and worse. Bad taste generally in my opinion, and working in a field where I often have to deal with the reality of disability, decline and demise.....suffice it to say I find this kind of humor to be very thin gruel.

And even odder is the response to retirements.

In the modern economy very few people work their entire career in one place.  New hires arrive, stay a while and move on.  In larger organizations they are simply people with ID badges you pass in the hallway.  And even in a smaller, more personal setting...the feelings about someone leaving can be complex.

Some will be genuinely sad to see you go.  Others might be happy, either for you or that they will be rid of you.  Some will look longingly at your escaping the confines of the daily grind while others, perhaps closer to retirement themselves, get the unsettling sense of themselves approaching an unknown abyss.

And of course "retirement" is a vague concept.  No gold watch and pension these days.  Most people who are standing down in the neighborhood of 60 are not doing so to go play golf, or wind surf,  or to do the other silly things you see in happy commercials from investment companies.  We don't step down so much as step sideways.  A different employer, a different schedule, a different locale.

So.  No cake, no candles, no balloons.  The ER has been a great gig, one that I consider the most fun phase of my career to date.  But the ship sails on with a different crew.  The decks will still be scrubbed, watches (not the gold kind) stood, biscuits and weevils eaten by someone else.

The business of making a big deal out of crossing arbitrary lines is nonsense.  You feel the same a few miles north or south of the equator and if the navigator had not pointed it out you would never have noted the transition.


jon spencer said...

Spoken like someone who has not kissed the Royal Baby.
And I did get the olive.

Bruce Henson said...

Did you know there are other ceremonies, not just for the equator? Arctic Circle, Antarctic Circle, the 180th Meridian, and the International Date Line. Cross them all and you're a Square Knot Sailor. All crazy, as you have indicated. You could call it hazing, depending on your definition of the word, but nobody participates who doesn't volunteer. Men in drag? Yes, one or two. But it's pure theater, nothing lewd or licentious. And yes, these ancient rituals do dispel some of the tedium of shipboard life, mostly by distracting us from what we're missing back at home port. Weddings. Funerals. Births and birthdays. Not to mention the pleasures of daily life. Those that go down to the sea, and do business in great ships, see the wonders of creation. You have to experience it to know it.

Tacitus2 said...


Thank you for the insights.
We humans do some silly things.
Very human of us.


next door Laura said...

Crossing the equator is not an accurate analogy for a the life transition of leaving a long-held job. Walking from one side of the ER hallway to the other yes, or maybe to moving to a different department in the hospital, but you are not now in the same waters just a few knots farther out to sea, you have become a landlubber and now have to navigate life without a rudder. Uncharted territory rather than uncharted waters. The obstacles and perils are very different. Sharing a living space 24-7 with a crew-mate who doesn't take orders well and figuring out how to usefully occupy an unknown number of years ahead without being bored are only two of the new, huge challenges you will face.

If this were merely a crossing of an imaginary line you wouldn't be thinking and writing about it. This is a real sea change. And it is okay to let others acknowledge that change and show some appreciation for the time you have spent with them. Some of us need rituals to make transitions more easily. You think and write about them, others need to give a send off and eat cake. Let them.

Tacitus2 said...

Should be fine. Just don't cut the rum ration or have me keel hauled without clear evidence of insubordination.

Tugs the fore lock