Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Story of My Boat

My little patio

Of all of the places I've ever been to in Japan, perhaps my most favorite was simply the patio of my apartment.

Not only was it a great place to catch some glorious, pollution-fueled sunsets, but I used to love just sitting out there on a deck chair with a cup of hot tea, watching the ships roll in (and, for the sake of Otis Redding, watching them roll away again).

Even though I grew up in Florida, I never really got to see the big boats. We just didn't have them on the Gulf Coast side. Which was fine with me. I like my beaches with clean sand and an empty horizon, neither of which go hand in hand with an active shipping lane.

But, in a foreign country, looking out from a high vantage point over a river whose water quality would actually be improved by an oil spill, I couldn't help but be fascinated by these giant boats floating silently by. They reminded me of toppled skyscrapers being carried by an army of ants. (A mental image that seemed a lot cooler until I typed it out.)

Anyway, during one of my long-distance calls back to Florida, I mentioned my new "ship-spotting" hobby to my dad and we got to talking about the time he worked at Sparrows Point Shipyard, run by former American giant Bethlehem Steel (you can read of its demise here).

My dad wasn't there to witness the end of Bethlehem steel. He left the shipyard shortly after I was born so he could move his growing family to Florida and pursue a career in accounting. This, in retrospect, was a wise decision, especially considering that any books written about his former place of employment inevitably had titles like "Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might".

(Also, in the field of accounting, there's a lot less falling debris that can kill you.)

Despite my dad being full of stories that ended with lines like "...and that was how he lost his other hand", my favorite of his shipyard tales was the one about the time he had pounded my initials into the boat he was working on. It wasn't much of a story, really. More a statement of fact. But it was always nice to be reminded. And I loved to hear about it.

Anyway, a few days after our phone call, my dad sent me a packet. Inside, mixed in with some junk mail from home and few papers I had to sign, was the following color photocopy of a postcard:

(Sorry about the quality. It's actually a scan of a color photocopy of a postcard from the 70s so I'd be grading on a curve if I were you.)

Below the picture he wrote:
This is the ship with your initials in the rudder.
He then recreated the series of dots that formed the six letters which make my initials. (Yes, I have a long name. No, it's not essential to the story.)

He also included a copy of the information printed on the back of the postcard:

Now, for as long as I'd known about his little act of well-intentioned rudder vandalism, it wasn't until that moment - looking at that picture and reading that info, combined with months of watching similar big boats glide past my windows - that it hit me just how cool it really was.

On the back of THAT boat was a rudder with my initials on it.

I immediately Googled "S.S. Massachusetts" to find some more info about the ship. Was it still at sea? Could I see it? What are the logistics of being able to view a rudder?

That first search proved fruitless. As did subsequent others (using every combination of words I could think of). The boat's name was just too vague. Aside from Massachusetts being a state, there was another boat with the exact same name, an American battleship built in the late-1800s. (And my dad would have only been in his teens back then. I kid, I kid.)

Anyway, while going through my big box of Japan files today for my book, I came across the photocopies he had sent me. Naturally, when presented with a choice between continuing to work diligently on my book and, well... anything else, it's not a tough decision. So, I gave the search another shot. The best I could do was find this PDF file with a copy of a copy of a bad photograph of the Massachusetts in dock (pg. 21).

Finally, in a last ditch effort, I just did a search for "tankers built at Bethlehem steel" and that's where I found this page listing tankers build in U.S. shipyards since WWII.

Halfway down the list was the following entry:

My dad's boat! At the end of the row was the following information:

No wonder I couldn't find any information on it, they renamed it! While I was sad to see that it had been scrapped, I was thrilled to find it had been renamed something a bit more search-engine-friendly. Armed with this new information, I had no trouble uncovering the interesting history of the S.S. Massachusetts.

It had actually once been renamed "Ocean Runner" in 1988. But, if I thought searching using it's old name was tough, it was nothing compared to Googling "Ocean Runner", which brought up everything from powerboat rentals and aquarium pumps to shoes. Thankfully, in 1993, it was renamed the "Astro Gamma".

Two years after that, it had a bit of an oil spill:
The master of the Astro Gamma (Greek-registry 268,310-dwt tanker built in 1975, operated by Kristen Navigation Inc.) was fined U.S.$20,800 22 Jan. for spilling oil in Malaysian waters and failing to inform the country. Georgantas Dimitros pleaded innocent 20 Nov. but changed his plea during the trial. Judge Mohamed K. Abdul Rahman of the Malaysian Sessions Court at Kuantan fined Dimitros U.S.$20,000 for the first charge and U.S.$8,000 for the second. At 0905 3 July, 1995, the ship spilled oil sludge that formed a 20-kilometer/12-mile slick.

Also, a few years later, a small fire:
3.] 26 June. M/T Astro Gamma (Greek-registry 268,310-dwt tanker) suffered an engine room fire as it loaded fuel at Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The fire was extinguished by local firefighters and no one was injured. The Astro Gamma has 42 crew;
Fires in the Netherlands!
Oil spills in Malaysian waters!

Adventure on the high seas. This was my kind of boat!

As I continued exploring the search results, I finally stumbled upon a more recent picture of the Astro Gamma:


It didn't age too well, huh? And I do miss the green but, hot damn... that's the boat my dad worked on! (I even found a few aerial shots over at Fotoflight.com. Just do a search for "Astro Gamma".)

In 2001, the Astro Gamma was sold one last time. This time, for demolition. (And for the low, low price of $135 per light displacement ton! Plus, thanks to Amazon's Super Saver Discount, FREE delivery to India!)

Alas, 27 years after it left the Sparrow's Point shipyard in Maryland, the Astro Gamma was dismantled by hand at the shipyard in Alang, India.

Travel writer Mark Moxon describes Alang as follows:
The word 'platform' when applied to Alang is a euphemism: the platforms are simply beach. When a new ship is about to be broken up, the beach in the relevant yard is totally cleaned, even down to the last nut and bolt (nothing is wasted in this recycling operation), and then the ship is driven straight at the beach at breakneck speed so that it quite literally beaches itself. This part is finely tuned and has been done so many times that the ships are rarely more than a few metres off the desired position, which is a relief when you think of what would happen if they applied Indian bus logic to beaching a supertanker.

Alang is a suitable place for such crazy antics because it has a pretty eccentric tidal system. The tide is high only twice a month, which is when the sea covers the yards and new ships are beached; then for two weeks at a time the tide recedes, leaving the ships out of the water and easy to work on. And what work it is: everything that is detachable that can be sold is removed from the inside, all the engines are gutted and removed and then the ship's body itself is dismantled, chunk by chunk.

A less flattering portrayal about what takes place at Alang can be found here, fittingly enough, in an article by the Baltimore Sun (as part of a series for which it won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1997).

Had this boat not been scrapped, it's the kind of thing I would have made a pilgrimage to, but it looks like I'm a few years late.

I try to imagine the chilly day in December of 2001 when the rudder with my initials on it helped to steer the boat once known as the S.S. Massachusetts for it's final journey through the waters of the Gulf of Khambhat and, eventually, up onto the shore of an Indian beach.

I imagine the workers standing on the beach in front of it's massive red hull (the boat was once the largest ship ever built by the U.S.) and hacking open a coconut while offering a prayer for protection to the elephant god, Lord Ganesh.

I try not to think about the workers who would be killed dismantling that boat. I try not to think about the environmental damage this boat may have caused.

Instead, I wonder if anyone noticed the series of block letters pounded into the rudder. If somebody did, I hope it made them smile. Because, while I'm not sure of the exact details, I like to picture my dad as a brand-new father - just a few years younger than I am now - giving a quick glance over each shoulder before pounding his newborn son's initials into the rudder of a really big boat.

How could that not make me smile?

If there's anyone out there who has ever worked on, took pictures of, or happens to have the rudder of the S.S. Massachusetts (aka "Ocean Runner" aka "Astro Gamma" aka IMO#7390038), get in touch with me in the comments or via the email address in the sidebar. I'd love to chat!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Schmap Is Using One of my Pictures

Seattle Cherry Blossom Festival

Look what I just found in my Flickr inbox:
"Hi Matt,

I am delighted to let you know that your submitted photo has been selected for inclusion in the newly released seventh edition of our Schmap Seattle Guide:

Science Fiction Museum & Hall of Fame

If you use an iPhone or iPod touch, then this same link will take you directly to your photo in the iPhone version of our guide. On a desktop computer, you can still see exactly how your photo is displayed and credited in the iPhone version of our guide at:

Science Fiction Museum & Hall of Fame

Finally, if you have a blog, you might also like to check out the customizable widgetized version of our Schmap Seattle Guide, complete with your published photo:


Thanks so much for letting us include your photo - please enjoy the guide!

Best regards,

Emma Williams,
Managing Editor, Schmap Guides
Very cool.

Here's a widget of the area with my photo:

Monday, April 20, 2009

Book Update

Well, hello everybody! Been a while, huh? Did you all have a good Easter? A good April Fools' Day? A good any-other-holidays-I-missed-since-my-last-substantial-update?

Mine weren’t bad, I guess. Nothing remarkable.

(Side note: I was originally going to write some sort of April Fools' Day-themed post wherein I would joke that I had given up on the book and decided to look for a real job, perhaps use my remaining savings to go back to school, after which I’d find a nice non-Asian wife, settle down, have a couple of 2.3 kids, etc. but I realized it all sounded much too sensible and my intention was to be funny, not make my grandparents proud.)

I hadn't noticed how bad my posting had been lately until about 2 (3?) weeks ago when, for the first time in ages, I checked my Google reader (which, thanks to neglect, has now started grow and become self-aware. I fear it may join up with my Remember the Milk to-do lists and revolt).

Sadly, the only folder in my Google Reader that wasn't 1000+ full of unread feeds was my Narcissism folder (the one containing feeds by and/or about yours truly). I clicked on it and, before I even had a chance to relive the delight of some of my most recent Tweets, I saw that it had been over a month since I’d last posted here.

My bad.

So I'm currently using today to write this as-promised update and, hopefully, even polish up a few old posts that I never got around to hitting the submit button on.

And just why haven't I been blogging much recently, you ask? Why have Matt’s Tweets been reduced to a twickle watewy? (Why does everyone who uses Twitter start to sound like Jonathan Ross?)

I'd love to say my little hiatus was because the book had sold or because I was out on another fantastic adventure somewhere on the other side of the planet but, sadly, the truth is that March was just a really busy month for me.

On top of spending a lot of time working on my book proposal, there were also the weeks of obligatory panic as I approached yet another birthday. (Usually this involved repeating "what the hell am I doing with my life??" while sobbing, curled up in a ball in my shower. Hey, at least I haven’t bought a sports car, right?)

Anyway, despite the age-related panic, I'd been making a ton of progress on the book proposal. Now, why am I spending so much time on a proposal for a book that I haven't even finished? Well, every book on publishing that I’ve read lately talks about how it's possible to attract an agent for a nonfiction book without having completed that book. Having not completed my book, this appealed to me. Besides, I work better with a deadline. Also, it would be great to finally have some professional input, someone in the business to say to me “more of this”, “less of that” and “you should consider therapy”.

So, the plan was to write the proposal and then find an agent, who would then offer feedback and perhaps suggest an editor. Then, once the book is done, the agent would start proposing it to publishing houses. Hopefully, one of the publishing houses likes the book enough to publish it. Hopefully, the public likes the book enough to buy lots of copies. Hopefully, an A-list Hollywood motion picture director buys the rights and asks me to star in the movie version. Hopefully, fame and fortune result. Hopefully, I get asked to write a follow-up book. Wash, rinse, repeat. (Told you I had all this planned out.)

Well, I've got some good news and some bad news (which actually is really good news, I guess, but I didn’t really feel like it was at the time).

The good news is that I talked with a literary agent!

Now, not THE literary agent I’m hoping to attract. And not even one that represents narrative nonfiction. But, an agent nonetheless.

OK, yeah… and by "talked to” I meant “we Tweeted”.

Still. Progress!

I had stumbled across a literary agent named Colleen Lindsay when she started something called “Query Fail Day” on Twitter. All day, she and her fellow literary agent friends twote about some of the more unprofessional book queries that had recently landed on their desks. (A nice summary of some of the lessons learned that first Query Fail day can be found here.)

I found the whole thing fascinating and thoroughly terrifying. I ended up following a bunch of the agents on Twitter that day, including Colleen who, a few days later, held an “Ask an Agent Night”. Taking full advantage of this opportunity, I sent her the following Tweet:

question to colleen

(A close second: "What the frack am I doing trying to write a book?")

Her first reply was informative and heartbreaking (and is the bad news):

narrative non-fiction


After fighting to keep my head from exploding, I thanked her and told her I’d better get back to work. Her next reply was unexpected, brief and brutally honest:


Short of say "we should amputate" or "let's get married", those were the last three words I want to hear from anyone.

Now, as great as it was to finally have some honesty from someone inside The Business (for which I am extremely thankful), I was bummed because I was really hoping to have snagged an agent (and, while we're dreaming, an advance) sometime in the near future.

And now, thanks to three little words, I was back to finishing the damn thing on my own again. Suddenly, the light at the end of the tunnel seemed a whole hell of a lot further away.

Fortunately, I was about to make a huge revelation that would change my attitude and my approach as well as give me a burst of much-needed enthusiasm. A revelation which I owe, in large part, to the most unlikely of places: Microsoft.

(As a result of my polishing up chapters lately, I've been getting in the habit of stopping things with a little bit of a cliffhanger. You know, to keep the kids reading.)

More soon!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Charlie Chaplin!

This one goes out to all of the Charlie Chaplins in my life...

(via men.style.com):
"That is when I was approached by a grown man pretending to be Charlie Chaplin.

Now, I guess it is some people’s dream to meet Charlie Chaplin, or just someone dressed as him. But even as a 10-year-old, I found Chaplin’s work to be pretty maudlin and cheap. He was no Buster Keaton, in any case. And as “Chaplin” approached, I considered saying so to his face.

But there was a problem. At this time in my life, I had very long hair. It was an affectation, and an awful one at that. But it was a better affectation, I would argue, than the affectation of dressing up as Charlie Chaplin, even if you are doing it for money.

But this wasn’t the problem. The problem was that because I was a small child without a beard or moustache, people routinely thought I was a girl. And this would lead to occasional embarrassing situations. Double takes as I entered the men’s room, for example, or being referred to as “Joan,” or being expected to kiss Charlie Chaplin on his white powdered cheek. All of these things happened, all of the time.

And so the moment came, after some predictable cane-and-bowler-hat shenanigans, that Charlie Chaplin sat next to me and indicated that he was ready for me to kiss him. For obvious reasons, his expectations were unspoken, just as mine were quite clear: I did not wish to kiss the fake Charlie Chaplin. But let’s just say that they didn’t call him the Little Tramp for nothing. He waited me out. It was clear that I was powerless. It was clear what was going to happen, and I let it happen."

Hard Rock Cafe... Seattle

Took them long enough.

(via Hard Rock Cafe):
"Hard Rock International today announced it will open a Hard Rock Cafe in the heart of downtown Seattle. Scheduled to open in July 2009, Hard Rock Cafe Seattle will be located on 116 Pike Street, less than one mile away from the Seattle Center Arena, where rock legend Jimi Hendrix performed at his first headlining gig. The Seattle cafe, situated near the famous Pike Place Market, will be one of the city’s premier dining and entertainment destinations, with two floors and more than 14,000-square feet of space, including spacious seating, a unique open-air rooftop deck and Rock Shop featuring Hard Rock’s limited-edition merchandise. In addition to a state-of-the-art facility, the cafe will also feature rock 'n' roll memorabilia from Hard Rock's iconic collection."
I used to tend bar at the (2) Hard Rock Cafe(s) in Orlando and was a huge fan of the one at Citywalk in Osaka so I'm happy to see they're finally making out here to the birthplace of some great music.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dear. God. No.

Did You Know That Zac Efron is Obsessed with 'Back to the Future'? (via Cinematical):
"So he's obviously a huge Back to the Future nut, which, honestly, makes me like him a little bit more now -- but does that mean he'd also jump to play McFly if a studio presented it to him? Or, like a true fan, would he yell, scream, hiss and throw flaming piles of monkey poop at any studio henchman who does so little as hold a conversation about taking on the role in either a sequel or a remake?"
Let's hope he's a true fan.

Disney Borrowing From Itself

Nice to know that even Walt got lazy.

(via Cinematical)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

You Say It's Your Birthday?

Well, it's my birthday too, yeah.

Geez, has it really been a month since I last posted??

Wow, sorry about the massive gap everybody. That past few weeks have been really busy. Had a few revelations with the book and, alas, the whole of my very limited attention span has been focused in that direction ever since then.

But fear not, loyal reader, I should hopefully have a nice, fat, rambling update posted in the next few days to get you all caught up on what's been going on on my end of the keyboard. I would write more now but I plan on spending the rest of today aging.


Christ... 35. That's half of 70.

How depressing...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Japan to start embracing the Segway?

Via CrunchGear:
"Segway Japan and the city of Yokohama will jointly try to convince the Japanese government to allow people to use Segways on designated public roads in the city. With a population of 3.6 million, Yokohama is Japan’s second biggest city.

The move is highly unusual, but can explained by Yokohama’s efforts to boost the local economy and promote the use of environmentally friendly vehicles in the city. Japan’s road traffic law currently proscribes the use of Segways or Segway-like vehicles (such as Toyota’s Winglet). However, Segway has sold about 1,000 vehicles so far in Japan, where they are used in exhibition centers and similar public facilities.

The average price for a Segway in Japan is $10,000 (the picture above shows former Prime Minister Koizumi riding one, which was given to him as a present in 2005 by then president Bush)."
I can't imagine what could have made it so popular...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Disney Slashes 1,900 Jobs at Domestic Parks

Scary stuff.

(via Los Angeles Times):
"In a sign that the recession is cutting into the Walt Disney Co.'s park business even deeper than originally thought, Disney today said it eliminated about 1,900 jobs at its domestic theme parks through job cuts and attrition.

The entertainment giant in February announced a reorganization of its parks and resorts operation, which it acknowledged would set the stage for job cuts. But it didn't say at the time how many positions would be eliminated. The changes were announced amid falling attendance and expectations that the recession has many more months to run its course. But today's announcement signals that Disney is bracing for an extended downturn in its business as consumers continue to keep their wallets closed."
I'd love to be back performing at a theme park right now but it's not exactly the best time to audition, huh? The good news is that my brother and all of my friends at Disney have survived this round of cuts.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Seven Cups of Coffee a Day May Lead to Hallucinations

(via Buzztimes):
"According to research in the UK, consuming the caffeine in seven cups of instant coffee a day may leave you more likely to see, hear and smell things that aren’t there.

Durham University researchers found in a study of 219 college students published today in Personality and Individual Differences, that people who drink at least 330 milligrams of the stimulant a day were three times as likely to have hallucinations as those who consumed less than 10 milligrams a day."
I have trouble believing this. As does the pirate and his pet giraffe standing next to me.

The good news is that I'm still far, far from the 77.66 cups of drip coffee that would be required to kill me.