To the lifeboats

It may be tempting to think the end of our political crisis is in sight, but the current problems run deep. Our leaders, institutions, and basic assumptions about how the world is supposed to work are all failing us. The problem is so yuge that our brains can’t grok what’s going on. The complexity. The scale. And the constant noise! Who can make sense of it all?

So, let’s talk in parables. Our brains are shite at understanding complicated things but brilliant at understanding metaphors.

Imagine we have booked a cruise on the SS Normalcy. Well, actually, our parents booked it for us. They bought it for us as a present. They thought we’d like it and we ended up going along with it because we didn’t want to be rude and make a fuss. They meant well, after all.

The SS Normalcy is an enormous cruise ship. It’s what’s know as an “Ideology” class ship — ships that are big because bigger is better. The competition to be the biggest has gone on for years, pushing the envelop on naval engineering. No one even understands how they’ve managed to do what they’ve done. To be honest, the things are so big it’s hard to see how they even float, but somehow they do it. Of course, for safety reasons, the “Ideology” ships can only sail in extremely calm waters. Even as they’ve been getting bigger and bigger, they’ve been sailing to fewer and fewer ports of call. And only in good weather.

The SS Normalcy is the biggest, most luxurious ship ever built in its class. Of course, a lot of the “luxury” is only veneer. The gold isn’t real. The mirrors create a false impression of abundance. And the buffet is more about quantity than quality. But it looks impressive on screen. When you actually experience it, it leaves you feeling a little nauseated and disoriented. But, still, it’s very impressive.

And to pay for all the glitz, the company skimped on structure. After all, passengers aren’t going to examine the rivets to make sure they are tight enough. How could they even know? Sure, the engineers warned management that the boat would leak, but what do engineers know anyhow?

On the early runs, the company discovered that, OK, there’s a bit of leakage, but upper management figured out that it was cheaper to install a bigger bilge pump than replace the rivets. At this point, upper management consisted of a former Soviet state agency that had been privatized and “sold” to some Russian oligarchs who had figured out a long time ago that you don’t get rich by providing good service; you get rich by controlling the rules of the game.

So, that’s what they did. They installed bigger pumps. But then the vibration from the new pumps started to stress the rivets more and that caused more leaking than the pumps could handle.

So they installed bigger pumps.

This put even more pressure on the joints and the leaks grew, but by that time, they had poured so much effort into pumps that they didn’t want to lose all that investment. Pumps saved us before, they’ll save us again! The only thing that mattered were bigger pumps. Bigger pumps are the only option!

Soon, they were at the upper limit of pump technology, but by diverting all the money they would have spent on any other routine maintenance they were 90% confident that they could invent an even bigger pump that might be able to keep up with current leaks.

Flushed with new “pump” money, their PR departments figured out a brilliant stunt and made pumps the latest fad. They provided huge scholarships to kids willing to go for degrees in pump engineering and they paid for professorships and buildings and research centers dedicated to the advancement of pump technology. Much ado was made about the announcement of the next generation of pumps, with artists’ renderings of how beautiful the new pumps would be and how everything would be hunky-dory then. Soon. 10 years, tops.

It was the hottest topic. There was even a reality TV show about it.

Anyway, we didn’t know any of that when we got on board. We just thought we would try to enjoy this gift from our parents as best we could. After all, it would be nice to vegetate for a while. Do nothing. Just eat, drink, and be merry. Work was for chumps!

Things seemed fine for a while, even though the “fun" seemed a little forced and the endless food, booze and sun we’re leaving everyone feeling a bit worse for wear. Just a little while ago, though, we heard a lot of noise and felt a shudder. All the passengers looked around at each other, but no one wanted to make a fool of themselves or look panicky, so we waited. For something. An official announcement. Maybe a siren.


But there’s been only official silence. The staff have been running around with pasted on smiles, looking decidedly uncomfortable, and sticking mainly to small talk or the dinner specials. If you ask them if everything is OK, they give an enthusiastic “yes” but if you ask for any details, they get flustered, mumble something about needing to check on things in the kitchen, then rush off.

So, here we sit at the strangest dinner theater we’ve ever experienced; sat at tables with a bunch of strangers all wondering what the hell is going on. There has been a parade of strange incidents. Just for a second, there was the smell of smoke. At another point, there was a rumbling from below decks. And most upsetting of all, one time the captain ran into the dining hall and shouted at the top of his lungs “everything is completely fine. Absolutely nothing is wrong.” And then ran out again.

But before you could make sense of what had happened or start to talk to your neighbors about it, it was time for another show. Every 15 minutes, it seemed! Half-naked dancers or a hypnotist that embarrassed people in the audience or a lip-sync competition with laser light show. Loud. Garish. Tasteless, yet hard to ignore.

Just now, though, you can feel things listing. Things aren’t level anymore.

I closed the bar the other day, so it was just me and the bartender. The guy was a little drunk and depressed as hell. In a classic reversal, I provided the shoulder to cry on for the bartender. He told me that there’s a strict division on board. They have public space and “crew space.” And staff are similarly divided between so-called “public” staff and “functionals.” The crew that actually make the boat run — the ones who cook and clean, keep the engines running and load in the supplies — are mostly kept below decks and out of the way. The conditions there are horrible.

The staff that you interact with as a passenger are all performers, hired for their ability to play a role. The cruise ship is currently owned by a theme park company and their highest goal is to create a complete fantasy for you, the passenger.

As the president of the company said, “people are tired of reality. We are here to provide them with an alternative. The cruise may not last long, but while it lasts, we are committed to creating the perfect illusion, no matter the cost.”

Over the years, the company found that the people with the actual skills didn’t “look right” to the passengers. Focus groups discovered that passengers felt more comfortable with an actor who looked the part — even when they were told he was just an actor!

As a result, the company decided on a new “strategic initiative” to make the command staff more “optic-friendly.” Appearance and the ability to act like you know what you’re doing have been the main hiring criteria for years. Apparently, computers handle all the day-to-day operations and as long as everything is predictable, it runs smoother than with a person in control.

Those same focus groups also found that the appearance of safety systems made passengers uncomfortable and spoiled the illusion. So they scrapped any emergency systems that were publicly visible, but corporate spokespeople assured the press on numerous occasions that the behind the scenes systems are super; top-notch — but, of course, they can’t let you see them for security reasons. (The suggestion that it has anything to do with a financial analysis the company conducted that revealed that it was cheaper to pay damages to the families of victims of disasters than to try to prevent them is just more “fake news.”)

Funny, when you saw that interview with the president before your cruise, the part about creating the perfect illusion seemed like such an cool idea. How fun! To create a perfect illusion if only for a brief moment. And they were so open about it; telling you how they do it even as they are doing it.

Unfortunately, it isn’t a perfect illusion. Even though the crew aren’t allowed to mingle with the passengers, you still have those chance encounters: closing time at the bar; those little moments when you see backstage; when the door swings and you see the mess in the kitchen.

We can all tell that conditions below decks are horrible but you would never know it when you interact with the staff. The reason is simple; if they complain or fail to smile they are sacked on the spot. But you can still see it in their eyes. That’s why most of the passengers try so hard to avoid eye contact. There’s a truth there that makes us a bit uncomfortable.

But now things are starting to get surreal. The “below decks” staff have started sending messages — notes hidden under plates or tucked in the mirrors in the bathroom. They all say the same thing: “to the lifeboats.”

The public crew, even the captain, are in completely over their heads. That’s obvious. They weren’t hired to actually run a ship. They were hired to look like the kind of people who could run a ship. They know it, too, and you can see the panic sweat. Their eyes keep darting around looking for someone with a teleprompter to tell them what to say. But the teleprompter is connected to the corporate head office and all it says now is “so long, suckers.”

The ones who actually makes the engines run and pump out the bilge hold have been sleeping four to a bunk in the lowest deck. They are the ones who actually know how things work. And they are telling you to head to the lifeboats. Now.

There is some good news. In an ironic twist of fate, trying to save money the cruise ship company salvaged a bunch of old life boats from the golden age of seafaring. These boats were built before the days of the lowest bidder. They were built by people who fully understood that one day, this boat may save their lives. They might look a bit shabby due to lack of attention over the years, but they are still rock solid and practically unsinkable.

Now is the time to make your way to the nearest lifeboat and prepare for launching. Proceed calmly, but quickly. Don’t panic, but don’t dally, either. Make sure your lifeboat is well provisioned. Take only the possessions that hold personal meaning or survival value. Remember that those old lifeboats require multiple people to make them work. Recruit fellow passengers who look like they are up to the task at hand.

Unfortunately, there will be no official alarm to tell you when to launch your lifeboat. The warning systems have all been dismantled to save money and the captain and his crew wouldn’t know how to work them even if they were still in place. You are best to set out as soon as you have a full lifeboat ready to go. Remember: the undertow that a large ship creates when it sinks can draw in small boats around it. Make sure you have launched in ample time and clear the undertow zone.

Convince as many fellow passengers to head for the lifeboats as you can, but don’t dawdle. Time is of the essence. Everyone is always surprised at how fast a big ship sinks.

Who knows? In the end, this might turn out to be a false alarm, but right now the SS Normalcy is dead in the water and leaning dangerously to the right. If they get things sorted out, I’m sure you’ll be able to return to the main ship. But frankly, I was getting sick of that floating circus. It seems to me like a fine time to set out on a different course and see what new lands we might discover.



Changing the way you feel about work.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store