My main man when it comes to movie reviews is Bill Gibron. Back around the time that the internet first came to be there was a website called filmcritic.com. I discovered him there, I think. Anyhow, I have always appreciated his reviews and found them to be helpful in deciding whether or not to shell out the big bucks for a movie ticket. Over time I have noticed that he has had a particular love affair with Darren Aronofsky. Because of my esteem of Mr. Gibron, I have desperately sought the same love affair, but never quite saw the “genius” that Mr. Gibron did. I really enjoyed Mr. Aronofsky’s films, I just didn’t fall in love with the man like Mr. Gibron seemed to. All that has changed.
H- just began to learn Peter Tchaikovsky’s epic Swan Lake theme on the piano. It is a force of nature even when played with just one note at a time. In any case, this event taken together with a real desire to give Mr. Gibron’s passion one more go led to me viewing Black Swan for a second time. This time around I finally see the genius. Black Swan is the story of a ballet dancer who is trying to be the best as would be indicated by her dancing the role of the swan queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in some hot shot’s revision of Swan Lake. So it’s a movie about a revision of a very famous ballet that includes themes of sacrifice and pressure to perform etc. But it’s not! It, Black Swan itself, is the revision of Swan Lake for movie-going audiences! And that’s why Mr. Aronofsky is a genius and deserves our attention. He cuts through all our defenses and serves up Tchaikovsky’s timeless story in a new way that forces us to reckon with all of our notions of love and happiness and truth and sacrifice. It’s an amazing film. Watch it. Watch it again.
Perhaps some of you think I am too hard on public school teachers. Here’s something to consider. A public school teacher with an amazing (if any divorce blog can attain such a title) blog mentioned that she finds herself teaching “frustration management” to her students. At this point, I would like to call my roughneck friends to the discussion. You see, when I was working in the oil fields, there was work to be done. Manly work. And yes, I mean that in the gender specific way. Work that men and only men can accomplish. For instance, every time we finished drilling a well, we had to move the rig to a new well. One of the things that this move required was the tightening of nuts onto bolts. The nuts were about the size of a woman’s fist, and the bolts were just over a foot long. The way we tightened these nuts was by swinging a sledge hammer as hard as we possibly could against a hammer wrench which was placed around the nut. Out of a twelve hour shift, how many minutes do you think we were given to not swinging the sledge hammer in favor of discussing how to deal with how frustrating the task was?
Do not hear me say that learning is not frustrating. And remember that I am the one who quit being a “teacher” because I refused to buy into the “be the change” mantra that schools with poor performing students chant. Instead, hear me calling public school teachers to realize that they are making the weather that they are complaining about. No other group–no other group–who controls their destiny does it in such a poor fashion as public school teachers. That’s what frustrates me (and I think most non-public educators).
By way of example, guess which specialty runs the Air Force? Pilots. Guess what pilots do for each other in the Air Force? Take care of each other. They ensure the flying is safe and smart and everyone is compensated well. Public school teachers, on the other hand, cite chapter and verse about all the limitations and massive time requirements etc. that they have to operate within and never once consider that just like Air Force pilots they are the one’s who write the book. Spending time teaching kids how to deal with the fact that learning takes effort? That cannot but be a disservice to the child–and I think teachers know that. So stop doing it. Kids need to learn to hit the hammer wrench as hard as they can and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment after the task is completed and completed well. And the only way to learn this is for teachers to tell the kids that the nuts must be tightened by a sledge hammer. As it stands, the only thing kids are learning is that the nuts don’t need to be tightened. Maybe teachers agree.
Men fall into one of two categories. There are those who-can-swing-a-sledge-hammer-effectively–and those who cannot. Those who-cannot-swing-a-sledge-hammer-effectively can be subdivided further into two groups: those who-cannot-swing-a-sledge-hammer-effectively because they are weak and those who-cannot-swing-a-sledge-hammer-effectively because they over-think it; whereas those who-can-swing-a-sledge-hammer-effectively remain united. Being fairly strong, Pete found himself in the category of unable-to-swing-a-sledge-hammer-effectively because of over-thinking it. Roughnecks nicknamed some variation of Thor seem to limit their thoughts about the task at hand to “object needs to be struck; strike object.” To his detriment, Pete, on the other hand, took a more studied approach. To him, the task included thoughts such as, “Is this really the only way to accomplish the task? How many people are watching? I hope they’re standing far away, because once I begin there is no telling how this will end.” And, “While I realize that I am supposed to be swinging this 12-pound piece of metal as hard as I possibly can at this other piece of metal, is it possible to unintentionally break anything? Follow-up: If so, will someone be mad at me for breaking it?”
There is another nuance of sledge-hammer use that rarely surfaces in white papers. Men like Pete have full awareness of what happens at that moment–the moment the back-swing ends and the forward-swing begins. Despite increasing his effective swinging average from .500 to .734 in seven months time, Pete couldn’t forget about the remaining .266 that was unpredictably divided between missing completely and striking the object in such a way as to cause his muscles to have to transition from “HIT THAT MOTHERFUCKER!” to “PROTECT THE MASTER!” in an instant. Lucky for his face and feet, an instant was plenty of time.
“Want a break?” one of them asked him.
It was night. It was always night. They were in the middle of rig move and in the process of hammering up one of the mud-line’s hammer unions. A hammer union is a particularly fiendish way of connecting two pieces of pipe–several inches in diameter themselves–which must not leak under pressure. A thick metal ring with three or four gear-type knobs protruding at even intervals, the hammer union (permanently affixed around the male end of the connection) is first twisted onto the female end’s threads by hand. Upon reaching the limitation of its human’s tool-less ability, a hammer is then lifted by a gloved hand and proceeds to strike the knobs in an effort to seamlessly seal the union.
“Na, I’m good,” he answered in the middle of his quick breather.
After a few more solid swings, the tone of the metal-on-metal contact lowered several octaves until the four men heard the deep sound of the hammer hitting the entire mud-line that signals the job is complete, rather than the high-pitched sound that informs all that more swings are necessary.
“Peter, I bet you one hundred dollars I can get one more full turn out of it,” Becki volunteered.
Breathing hard, Pete peered into Becki’s soul, saw innocence, and said, “Whatever man. There is no way. No way. That one is not moving anymore. It’s good.”
“If you think so, then bet me,” Becki rejoined.
“You bet me one hundred dollars that you can get a full turn on that union?” Pete asked, his winnings already spent.
“Okay. That’s a bet,” said Pete, offering his hand.
Glee filled the other two men’s eyes as they each claimed witness to the bet and excitedly awaited the outcome. But not as much glee as filled Becki’s eyes.
“That’s the wrong way Becki,” Pete said, shaking his head that even the fastest roughneck messes up righty-tighty lefty-loosey sometimes.
“Wrong way!” yelled an onlooker to the unceasing Becki.
The twinkle in Becki’s eyes could be seen for miles. It spoke so loud that he needn’t put his voice to use until the loosening turn was completed at which point he asserted, “Like I said, one full turn. Pay up.”
A very sad Pete put up one volley in a futile argument concerning unstated betting assumptions.
At the young age of twenty-two, Becki had waited a full tenth of his life to put to use one of the oldest oil-field bets on an unsuspecting worm. Suffice it to say, Becki got more than one hundred dollars. He made a friend.
“Alright guys, gather round, gather round,” he began with a slight amount of force to his voice. “Gather round. Christmas came early this year.”
The men formed a natural circle and tried their best to hide their interest with looks of confusion. Gatherings like this did not normally happen. They did see, however, that Pete had a full bag in his hands.
“Okay. I want to tell you guys something. A few days into this hitch I was laying in bed thinking about how I, like you, have to work over the big three upcoming holidays. And that sucks. I then remembered that I have some cash on hand as a result of the home selling/home buying fiasco you guys know about. Because the only reason I work these days is for money and because I have some money, I told Richard a week or so ago that this will be my last hitch. I am quitting,” Pete announced.
Short Brush chuckled, thinking it was a joke.
“I’m not kidding. And to prove I’m not kidding, I got you all something as a going away gift. I also want to take a minute to talk to you differently than I normally have. I know I’m just a floorhand here, but in my past life I was a leader and had more of an instructor/speaking role. Since I’m leaving, I figure I might as well say what’s on my mind about you guys.
“John, I got you an iTunes gift card. It’s got twenty bucks on it. What I want to say to you is that after I leave, you’ll officially be the most considerate roughneck. Keep it up. Also, I respect the zeal with which you and your fiancé live out your Christian beliefs. At the same time, you sometimes seem like you are two sermons away from strapping on a suicide vest. I’m just saying.
“Short Brush, despite the fact that I’ve told you how to get movies for free, I also got you an iTunes gift card. Enjoy. What I want to say to you is that you’re fat and lazy. Everyone knows it. Everyone knows you hide in the stairwell behind the drawworks. I don’t know who you think you’re fooling. That said, I don’t believe that you’re fat because you’re lazy, I believe you’re lazy because you’re fat. So here’s a deal I’m willing to make with you. Lose forty pounds and if by the time you’ve lost the weight plus three months you’re not a motorhand, I’ll pay the difference in your salary for a year. It’s not much, so don’t get too excited, but I’m serious. You saw how I paid Becki when I lost that bet. As you lose the weight, you’ll get more respect, and the work will become easier. There’s no reason you can know so much about fantasy football and not this job. Who knows. You might get promoted as you are. But, nothing to actually do with the weight, I’m sure you will if you lose the weight. Lose the weight.
“Chris, I’m giving your gift to you kinda backwards. Here’s some batteries. You’ll also get my flashlight and crescent and pliers before I leave. What I want to say to you is that you’re tall and not just for a Mexican. I’ve seen tall men get promoted my whole life for simply being tall. People want to follow tall men. But you work for a company which values character above all else. So take advantage of that. In the Air Force we said that Integrity First means doing the right thing when no one is looking. I’ve seen you not do the right thing occasionally. We’ve all done it. But I challenge you to do better. Recently you have been and it made me proud every time no matter my reaction in the moment. Everyone will follow a tall man with character.
“Becki, as you know it was love at first sight. I got you not one, not two, not three, not four, but five cans of snuff. They didn’t have it in a log. I’m sorry if that takes away some of the thrill of opening it. What I want to say to you is that you have to tell the women you’re sleeping with that you have an STD. If it’s not against the law not to, it’s at least unethical. I also want you to know that you have limitless potential. You can do anything you want. I mean it.
“Richard, iTunes for you too. What I want to say to you is thank you for keeping us safe. Thank you for keeping me safe. Nobody needs to get hurt on this job. You keep us safe by your professionalism and the fact that you stick to the rules. More than that, you keep all the other crews on this rig safe by having a reputation for sticking to the rules. Other drillers know you’re out here doing it right and that helps tip the scales when they are uncertain how to act. Regarding your marriage, one time while I was in Iraq my mom told me to “hold her like a butterfly.” I never did figure out what that means, but maybe you will and maybe it’ll keep you married.
“That’s it. Let’s finish out these last two days safely and go home.”
His name is Becky. I mean Becki.
“See how fast I did that, Peter?” was one of the first things he ever said to me. Then settling down to a serious mood, he continued, “You gotta be fast out here, Peter.”
I could see in his eyes that he cared. That he took extra time to teach me (he’d probably say being fast creates extra time) made me care. Effort is contagious.
“People are always watching out here, Peter. Anytime something needs to be done you gotta do it as fast as you can. I’m twenty-one and going to be a driller soon. It’s ’cause I’m so fast.” Then he would smile and say, “I just love saying your name, Peter.”
Becki should’ve been named a word that means “potential” or maybe “talent.” He was raw potential. His memory was uncanny; his attitude, without burden. He loved his mom and his daughter. And he could swing a sledge hammer as fast as any man. He was not a large man, which meant you had to look close to see that he was all heart.
One of this lightening bolt’s favorite jokes was: “After I’m done I always tell her, ‘I don’t know what the problem is. I mean we started at the same time’.” Like I said, he was fast.
A member of a generation struggling to find their purpose in life, Becki knows he was born for the oil fields. I don’t think Becki’s vocabulary bank accepted struggle currency. Carrying on the binary communication tradition began by previous roughnecks, Becki only recognized the concepts “done” and “one more second.”
In the end, a man like Becki hails from a long tradition of makers. Cormac McCarthy would say these men carry the fire. I say they are the ones who attract our attention, deserve our admiration, and win our affection. Becki just does it faster.
For the pilots. (And Greeny.)
Raccoons might be taking over the world. That is, unless roughnecks hear about the story.
To a roughneck nothing is impossible. So when I heard that the raccoons that Japan imported for fun have multiplied out-of-control and are about to destroy thousand-year old buildings and that there’s nothing that can be done about it, I pictured a roughneck. Clear as day I saw the same face I see on the rig every time I express doubt that something can be done. The face has eyes that are lit with excitement and a mouth whose left-half is pursed together while its right half is barely open in a smirk. And though a still image, I can see that the face is mid-nod and I know that the next words that come out of that face will be a confident, “We’ll get ‘er done.” And they do.
Since day one on the job I have been nothing but amazed at what roughnecks can accomplish. And you know me, I thought I had seen mountains move while serving in the Air Force. So that got me thinking. Who is more capable? Pilots or roughnecks?
It hardly seemed a fair comparison at first, what with pilots winning wars in hours and making ladies swoon by simply getting dressed in the morning and all; but the more I witnessed roughnecks at work, the more I thought back to a lot of pilots I knew that might not make the cut as a roughneck–I know most days I fall short.
Here’s the thing. I love that I get to say that I’ve done both–love it. But there’s something else. The other day I brought the paperback copy of this blog to the rig to prove to the fellas that it existed. Now, these men are not Luddites, so they’d read the posts about them. But one of them, you’ll read about him soon, was very excited to share the stories with a man who didn’t know about the blog. And so this young man started to read aloud in the change house (locker room). I had to hold back tears of joy. The pilots that are reading know why. Most of you know why. And that makes pilots more capable. But hey, even if I’m wrong and roughnecks actually are more capable, I still win. I love that type of competition.
Lance wore sunglasses inside. That was the first thing I noticed about him. Second, he had the ability to achieve perfect clarity in directions. He destroyed meetings. Management guru Peter Drucker would’ve been proud. Who hasn’t been in meetings whose end is marked by the sound of shuffling fabric accompanied by whispers containing sentiments like, “So, what are we doing now?” Lance was a meeting destroyer. It really was something to behold.
He was also a man who loved to laugh. I’m talking about joy here people! When the man wasn’t modeling the art of focusing a group of men on a singular action, behind those sunglasses Lance was just itching to break out in laughter. He embodied these qualities in a way that was generally reserved for the most likable characters in great novels.
Now, history is full of men who have tried to categorize men like Lance, their point being to take away or re-allocate the credit. Their efforts proceed to pigeonhole men like Lance into being nothing more than the result of their circumstances, but I refuse to believe it. There was only one source, one natural spring from whence flowed the strength and skill, the judgement and wisdom that Lance displayed day-in and day-out. That source, of course, was Lance. The casual observer had no claim on Lance. Lance was the one who had to wake up every morning. He was the one who sat for a moment on the edge of a bed and stared out at the same equal-parts-bleak-and-bright world as he pulled his pants on one leg at a time. He was the one who reached for his boots as he decided what kind of man he wanted to be; what kind of father, what kind of leader. He was the one who everyone looked to for direction during the meeting before work began, and rather than buckling under the pressure or taking the road more traveled, which is paved with pride and foolhardiness, he was the one who on cue said, “Guys, today we’re going to run waa’d effin’ op’n.” He was the one whose example ensured the work got done. He was Lance.
I’ve been wanting to write to you directly for some time now, and finally an event at work caused me to put pen to paper. I don’t know how old you’ll be when you read this, but hopefully you’ll be old enough to understand it. If you don’t understand it, ask me or another adult about it.
The reason I decided to write to you today is that I wanted to tell you that I cried at work yesterday.
Now, I know you’ve seen me cry once, but you probably don’t remember it. And I’m sure you don’t remember why. I never saw my dad cry, but I have to believe that he did–at least once. Sometimes I think it would’ve been nice to have seen it with my own eyes as a boy. So in case you never see me cry again, I’m telling you now that I cry.
I cried yesterday because I found out that a guy who works for the same company as me was killed on the job, by the job. And in a separate incident, another guy was really badly injured and might die as well. As the group of us walked out of the noisily air conditioned trailer where we were handed this news and into the hot sun in order to get back to the dangerous work, I could only think of you. I could only think of how you look when you look at me, which is to say look up at me. Your chin sticks out; your eyes are at attention; your hair falls freely off the back of your head. You’re such a good listener. Well, it’s time to listen up again. Sad things happen in life. Really sad things. One of the appropriate responses to these sad things, even for dads, is to cry. But just because sad things happen doesn’t mean you stop living life. Sad things are a part of life–just like happy things and boring things. You have to move forward, move past them. Even though I was sad, I went back to work.
Okay. I think that’s it. I don’t have any big finale. I love you.
PS – I do have one more thing. You’re a beautiful girl H-, never doubt that.
“So R-, you’re officially a father now, how’s that going?” Pete asked R- as R- walked through the door to the trailer.
R- didn’t waste time setting down his cooler and slipping off his tennis shoes in favor of house shoes. The blue cooler with a white lid and handle was bigger than the lunch pails previous oil men likely brought to work, but, then again, so was the man.
“This place is a mess. Don’t worry, we’ll fix that,” R- noted. Then, ignoring Pete’s initial greeting and question in favor of following a just-launched pinball’s unexpected path, R- asked, “You get a girlfriend over days-off Pete?”
“Na,” said Pete with little effort. “I think I told you I was planning on bowling a lot. Well, one night there was a pretty good looking brunette, but she was with some guys. I couldn’t tell if one was her boyfriend. In any case, I was too much of a chicken to attempt to chat her up.”
“Bowling?” R- said, with no small confusion shaping his face. “You need to go to the clubs. There is nothing like chicks that want dick.”
“Man, that’s what I missed these last two weeks,” Pete began. “Hold that thought, let me get my phone. I need to write this down,” Pete said, smiling as he shuffled sideways past the deep freezer that took up most of the already narrow hallway that led to his room. Returning in a jiff, his movements were a little awkward as he attempted to walk and type on his phone. “Okay, I’m back. So how’d you say it? You said, ‘There’s nothing like chicks that want dick,’ is that right?”
“What? You’re going to blog this?” R- smirked.
“The people need to know. I don’t meet too many people who can surprise me every time they talk. You, my friend, are one of the lucky few,” Pete flattered.
“You know what your blog needs?” asked R-.
Despite his previous positive sentiment, Pete’s disdain for unsolicited advice regarding his blog, in addition to his being tired, caused his mood to take a turn for the worst. “No. What does my blog need?” he asked.
“Pictures,” R- pronounced.
“No. My blog is simply a writing blog. I think pictures are too easy,” Pete retorted.
“Like one of me holding heads–like Taliban style,” R- added, arms extended, hands clenching the imaginary hair of just beheaded infidels.
Shaking his head while attempting to look past R-‘s eyes and into his soul, Pete twisted his tongue between his teeth in a last ditch effort to resist the smile he knew would form no matter what. Fishing his phone out of his pocket once more, he could only say, “You are out of control.”
Well, that’s not entirely true. One movie came to mind on about day four as I was beginning to realize that a lot of family, not to mention my one friend, would want to know what exactly it was like to work on a rig. Maybe even you are curious to know. Here’s my best effort to convey understanding and feeling of the job, and why it appeals to me.
It’s a lot like Lord of the Rings. Like the quest to destroy the Precious, in which all participants agree that there is no value in attempting any action that does not assist in accomplishing that invaluable end, the oil fields have one goal. One. Every single activity supports that goal. In other words, the concept ‘efficiency’ has yet to be developed as there is no need to distinguish efficient action from inefficient action.
Also like LOTR, meals are on the go. And every once in a while a Legolas shows up with a food whose calorie content is such that “one small bite will fill the stomach of a grown man.” Naturally, the food is consumed with little regard for this fact. And in similar fashion to Samwise’s indefatigably loving disposition towards food, all conclude that it tastes great.
Moreover, there is a comedic relief at every turn, and something about the nature of being part of such a singular mission attracts people with fully-developed personalities. Put simply, characters abound.
Lastly, just as no one but Frodo can carry the ring to Mount Doom, in the oil fields there is no one else coming to do the work. If something heavy must be lifted, if something stuck must be unstuck, if something dirty must be cleaned, if someone clean must get dirty, that’s what must happen. Nothing stops the mission. Not the clock, not the weather, not the calendar. Not past performance, not best intentions, not relationships, not feelings. Nothing.
The ring must be destroyed.
“What are they calling you?” he asked, both because everything was loud and also because the words seemed so close to that other slightly politically incorrect phrase.
Looking up from the task, Short Brush shouted, “What? Oh. Short brush.”
“Short bus?” he guessed, yelling in attempt to inch closer to a conclusion.
“No. Short brush.”
“I don’t get it.”
The two men silently went about their work for awhile before Pete began again. He asked, “Is it a some kind of play on short bus? They didn’t seem to use it to flatter you.”
Exhaling in an only slightly annoyed fashion, Short Brush began a practiced recitation. “It’s short brush. When we clean the rig, there is a normal sized deck brush type brush, and then there is a shorter brush. Everyone thinks I’m a little slow, so they call me short brush.”
“Oh,” he said, pausing for the same reason one does when securing his footing in order to prepare to handle a heavy load. Attempting to not betray his thoughts, he quickly continued, “I see.”
“But I’m not slow. You married, Pete? My wife had divorce papers written up on my last ‘days off.’ We’re going to counseling now and it seems to be helping, but when she told me, I kinda felt like a failure.”
“Yeah, she says I’m not the man she married. She says that when I’m home, I never want to do anything anymore, and that I have no friends. I just don’t like people. I don’t like to hang out with her friends and their husbands.”
“Yeah. I hate when you’re supposed to enjoy yourself. I don’t go out much either. Never really have.”
“Sounds like you may be like me then. You’re alright Pete.”
“Thanks Short Brush.”