Looking west with eastern Eyes

I first came to the purpose-built city of Prince Rupert, and British Columbia generally, in July 2017.

Yesterday in my Facebook memories, I found this picture I took on Haida Gwaii three years ago to the day:

This is a link to the entire set of albums, including trips to Rennell Sound and the south island. The funny thing is, I originally captioned the memory like this: “From the NE corner of the north island of Haida Gwaii, looking east. I am disappointed that I could only visit once, but of course COVID not to mention BC Ferries.”

Those in the know might know that I was looking west, not east, and luckily I caught that myself after a few moments. One funny thing that was always happening to me in BC was that, being from the Maritimes, I conceptualize east as the way that is seawards. So I would instinctively say the Pacific is to the east, but luckily I allowed myself to read it back over and correct it.

This was just another thing that made things more difficult when I was working in Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS). I received my basic national training at the Canadian Coast Guard College in Westmount, which lies along the shores between North Sydney and Sydney, not far from where I am now in Bras d’Or.

Since I was looking at the coast literally upside down to my intuitions, I couldn’t use them. I had to think. Slows things down, and you have to check yourself for errors. Even something as banal as the area code being 250 instead of 902 would throw me for a loop every time I needed to say the station phone number.

Another thing about MCTS is that the nature of the work is operational, so there’s a lot of do it this way, do it now, do this other thing, and how come you didn’t notice this sixteenth thing? It simply must be that way, although as the stations were consolidated the workload increased, as well as the breadth of knowledge needed by any given operator, at least on paper. (I heard one operator remark, “If we were given a snap geography quiz on west coast Haida Gwaii we’d all flunk it.”) Of course if you complain about workload you are making the same complaint that ‘lazy’ people make, so they tend to either think you are lazy if they don’t know, or they can actually maliciously sweep you under the rug if they do.

Also, when they brought Tofino Traffic and safety to Prince Rupert, they successfully obliterated the wisdom of the operators when the operators did not leave their homes there to go to Prince Rupert. It’s almost as if you shouldn’t bottom-line absolutely everything. Out of desperation they brought one person up and kept him on travel status for months on end. And he was brilliant. I loved working with him and we were able to understand one another. But he only worked on what was Tofino Traffic and safety – they tried to cross-train him on the north zone, but it was a disaster, because you’re making a wise old man learn an alien system rather than using his instincts. So he couldn’t be my on-the-job instructor, and I went through several of those. One in particular quit training me after a week and quit entirely thereafter. Before he left, he said to me, “You overthink1Charitably, he could mean that I had insufficient trust in my surroundings and instincts, but the thing is is that my instincts weren’t working in the new setting, at least not to the satisfaction of the people watching me, nor did most people give me enough breathing space to grow them. things, and that’s your biggest problem.”2Another is that I couldn’t hide that I enjoyed the job so little. It’s my nature to be ‘excessively’ honest. Even when I’m saying the dogmatically correct things, my body language won’t agree, and it will freak people out.

Now as you may know, I like to think, it’s kind of what I do, even if I’m not a professional. I think because I, well, love it. Like I have to do it, it’s a motivating force within me.

But I’ve never been super mathy, but that could just be because I couldn’t cooperate with math classroom instruction. In summer 2010, a wonderful Chinese-born calculus instructor3His exasperated catchphrase was “It’s elementary!” at Dalhousie said I had a good sense of logic, but by my inserting ‘summer’, you see the situation. Still, doing the pre-calculus review at Dalhousie the summer before that, able to avail myself of help from the MSc (or Honours?) students, really helped me learn problem-solving skills, which I then took into my IT program after I dropped out of the BSc program at Saint Mary’s. (If you want to do three pages of math you barely understand just to find the uncertainty function for such-and-such a thing, you’re a better fit for it than I was.)

Over the years I have come to care deeply about how we know about things. I won’t go so far as to title myself an amateur philosopher, though. That might imply more reading of primary sources from Aristotle to Zarathustra than I in fact have done. What I do is more syncretistic than canonical. I find it hard to actually talk about how I absorb information. It just happens. I was never one for lists of things to have to read.

Anyway, this job didn’t suit my temperament and about the only work-related thing I liked other than working with the fellow from Tofino was picking up the phone when the Yankees did their test calls on a joint system for the west coast and saying “Prince Rupert MCTS”.

Of course my former colleagues are people and not monsters and there were some moments of genuine enjoyment. For example, seeing the Northern Lights once on a backshift. Or long conversations about random things when things were quiet.

After a year, I had failed my second checkout attempt (this involved being monitored for an entire shift and being asked random questions), and since behind the scenes I’d gotten another job, I let them CT (cease training) me.

That other job was to be the tech specialist at the Prince Rupert Library. It was a little funny how I got it – I went to their website to renew a book and instead of the website I saw a message saying that the site was offline and that they were looking for a technical assistant.

So over the next couple of days I updated my resume and customized a cover letter and then came back to the website to apply but by then the site had come back online and there was no sign of a posting.

Having gotten ready to apply, I figured I’d send an email just in case. The Librarian said he figured I was worth interviewing, and so on a lovely sunny May morning (in Prince Rupert?!) I came in for an interview and then I went directly to Prince George for a French test for another civil service job, and I saw Jerry Seinfeld perform at the arena there that same weekend. I got an A on the test (written expression) when I needed a B, but I was still glad to have made the trip.

Meanwhile, back in MCTS land the gears were turning about CTing me – during one conference call someone asked if I might seek some kind of therapy. I ended up with some kind of pills from the GP. I did go through an intake interview with a psychiatrist’s office but I got spooked and didn’t go further along. Probably dodged a bullet. Anyway, the pills didn’t help much if at all, and they told me I would “freeze” when things happened, well that is when I would think about what to do, but they second guessed everything I ever chose. There was no pleasure in anything, only coercive force. I did much better on the simulated tests at the College because while they were monitoring me they weren’t breathing down my neck ready to pounce.

So as I said, once I had the library offer I just let them CT me.

It felt like a miracle to get the library job. (Of course I immediately stopped taking the pills.) Like the phone would ring and maybe I would panic for a second but then realize it’s not a marine safety incident. Instead it’s about renewing books. In person, most patrons could wait a few seconds while I got up to help them.

Probably the greatest artifact of my time there is the newspaper archives, which I rebuilt from scratch after the old one had crashed and several of my predecessors tried and failed to bring it back.

The library was vitalizing, for a while. There were obvious things to set in order. One thing led to another. But two things happened: 1) You eventually run out of easy, near-free, permissionless, straightforward things to do. 2) COVID. I don’t mind saying that masks sucked what remaining joy there was out of the job, necessary though they may be if you’re going to force everyone to keep Moloch going, although I would debate the necessity of wearing them when we’re minding our own business away from people. Of course we couldn’t tolerate that. So there was a lot of novel conflict among staff and patrons, which was profoundly disturbing. You think you know people, and, well, they probably thought the same about me. Although one did say I was “weird”, meaning no hurt of course. But I was accepted for utilitarian reasons. And to be fair to them, I of course was concealing parts of myself, as we all have been.

But now that what we took for meaning has essentially crashed and burned, I’m very thankful the condo-apartment I was renting sold for the low, low price of $250,000 (auto body shop view included!) and essentially forced my hand. I did eventually get to the top of a waiting list to rent a decent apartment for about what I had been paying, but by then I and my then-partner were already on the road, in the midst of our escape.

Sometime I’ll have to edit the rest of the driving videos, but thanks in part to my video editor struggling to perform on this first-gen Ryzen with 16GB of RAM, it takes almost as long as the driving! But I have parts for an upgrade, which I’ll do soon. Anyway, the first two days are up as part of the overall journey playlist.

Will Matheson out.

This article has been edited a few times, for example to elaborate on the MCTS -> Library transition.

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