Indentured Servitude in the Time of COVID-19

Two years passed, and then all of a sudden I went from no updates on my status as an applicant in the electrical workers’ union to working four 10-hour shifts and either one or two full 8-hour days of overtime per week. With brand new steel toe boots strapped on to my feet, I stuffed the tools that I was told to bring into a cheap, old backpack that would last a month under heavy strain and use. To be fair, the seams of the shoulder straps held on longer than expected for the thin, single-stitched nylon and resembled a fully spent inquisition participant after being put to the rack for heresy, blasphemy, and farting in a general direction.

The following tools contributed to backpack strap failure:
Old, beat up wood handled hammer

Large Channellocks, blue handle

Crescent wrench, 10″ with red plastic comfort handle

Beater slot headed screwdrivers, one small and one large

Klein 10-in-1 screwdriverKlein electrician snips and knife

Large Kleen Canteen, dents from bopping ling cods on the head


Google gives me a little information about the company I will be working for. They automate buildings and specialize in setting up massive HVAC systems on industrial scales. I will be working as a Low Voltage Electrician, also known as an “06”, or as a tech, or technician. We make less money than “Electricians” or “01’s”, however the work is less physically demanding and employment is less of a feast or famine situation. Also, the field is expected to continue expanding as more low voltage is utilized with modern infrastructure needs. Also, it is shared with me, 06’s are a more diverse pool of humans and tend to have a higher ratio of minorities and women (whom are yet to be seen by me).


I will come to find out that we play the specific role of installing low-voltage devices, such as temperature probes, thermostats, air pressure probes, CO2 monitors, occupancy sensors, light sensors and other devices, to networks that allow the HVAC processes to be automated. We basically turn buildings into giant computers. I will come to find out that building a PC or tinkering with a Raspberry Pi and linking peripherals up is not too different than what I will do. The main difference is big, namely the scale of the project. I will walk, climb, scamper, crawl, sit, crouch, and strain all day within the giant computer. It will take close to 10 minutes to briskly walk the perimeter of my first computer…But I’m getting ahead of myself.


Training consisted of being issued a hard hat with a heavy duty face shield, rubber-coated gloves, safety vest, and safety glasses. I got refreshed on basic scene safety on construction sites and how not to get seriously hurt by using the powers of observation with a liberal application of “common sense” (Thomas Paine, you had no idea the ironic combination of words that would become, did you?).


Summary of training: Gravity is dangerous, use tools properly, and use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to prevent injury

Day 1: I show up to a busy construction site off of a windy country road that bypasses new housing projects intermingled with nicely maintained older houses surrounded by hilly woodlands, wide open parks and a lake, with a smattering of small businesses that benefit from the ebb and flow of tourists. 


As I pull in 30 minutes early, my tires crunch over fresh base rock, basalt ranging from grapefruit to orange in size, that feels like it might high-center my Prius. Thankfully, I pass over it without touching my undercarriage. I park next to a heaping dumpster, and pallets of large quantities of construction material.

I meet my foreman, who immediately sends me to orientation, mandatory for those setting foot for the first time on site. We are working on building a new elementary school, consisting of five interconnected areas, with services areas in mezzanines above. They go over basic safety, and give a talk about the importance of using face masks on site. “Use of masks is mandatory, so wear one. Don’t show up to work if you feel sick, or else this site could get shut down and put a lot of guys out of work”. We are issued stickers for our hard hats to put on, my first piece of flair that shows that I am now Safety Trained.


Next I go to the COVID-19 Screening Area, have my name and company recorded along with the answers to the questions “are you feeling ill?” and “have you been around anyone recently who has tested positive for COVID-19 or had any of its symptoms?”. After a “No” and “No”, I get my forehead temperature taken, and am cleared to work for the day.

Walking to meet my team for the first time, I realize that the simple task of walking is somehow taking more–much more mental bandwidth than usual. Wearing a helmet, mask, and safety glasses that fog up due to my breath are messing with my perception. Extra momentum from the heavy boots makes the nature of my stride feel a bit different. Gloves are providing and shielding tactile input, and my baggy safety vest is also part of the noise that is impeding the signal I am trying to prioritize. The act of walking safely, weaving in between workers who are working on things and especially paying attention to heavy machinery and making sure I’m not in anyone’s way is actually a minor challenge that will become second nature within the end of the week. But not before I trip over an exposed sprinkler head in front of an amused crowd of Pacific Islanders, who delight in giving a greenhorn some morning shit. I reflect that I’m kind of glad that a minor fuck up has spread cheer and joy, and ponder the irony of good-natured schadenfreude.


My team is small, consisting of my foreman and a fresh journeyman who recently joined the company. The lessons of the day include simple tasks that will lay the foundation for the following weeks.


Insulated plenum-rated wire – these range from 18-22 gauge, and CAT-6, and come in large boxes. There will be other wires, but these will be less common. We ID cable by jacket color. Pink and purple wire are the same hues as grape and strawberry flavored Nerds, orange is Starburst, brown is a Hershey’s bar, white is mint Tic-Tac. Green and burgundy wire are not dissimilar from the colors favored by Subaru during the 90’s, and the Blue Cat-6 is a dead ringer for FJ-Cruiser.

Wires are used to provide power, some to facilitate signals. They will link devices to the network, being run in J-hooks affixed to the walls, grid-wire, and other structural supports above the drop-panel ceiling, using “bat wings”. To pass through walls and between floors, wires are routed through rigid EMC (Electrical Metal Conduit) sleeves that are secured by “Florida Bobs” with easy anchors, and other fixtures. Lengths of EMC and flexible conduit are joined by junction boxes, either 4″ or 4-11’s, with flexible conduit joined by “straights” or “90’s”. 


We will have to quickly calculate lengths using what is readily available, doing arithmetic by knowing that an average arm length is about 5 feet, and the standard dimensions of materials. Standard grid tiles are 2’x4′. Electrical Metal Conduit (EMC) comes in 10 foot lengths, and the drop from ceiling to floor is usually about 8 feet. My coworkers are used to calculating footages quickly in their heads, even with long runs that have convoluted pathways. I will start out drawing out the path, and writing down my equations rather than keeping it all in my head. This will turn out to be a good habit to cultivate.


We start pulling a wire between rooms through a sleeve above the ceiling grid, standing on 8′ Lean-safe ladders. The tension required to pull a bundle of cables proves to be more than expected, and is similar to doing balance yoga and pilates or pulling in a big rockfish with a handline. Wearing the mask and glasses while exerting myself makes me focus on maintaining balance and equilibrium. It doesn’t feel particularly dangerous, but then again I remember that ladders are the tool that people hurt themselves the most seriously and frequently with. Some mental hot sauce flavors an otherwise mundane task.

Sharpies – These are used to write on the wire, a potentially difficult task if you have to hold the wire and support it in space while wearing gloves. They are also used to write on face tape(light colored electrical tape used to create reference tags for temporary use or as a final label). Tag location, legibility, terminology, and syntax in some cases are things that must be known. Also, tags are written in the spirit of the standard measurement system, which is to say that they are not a standardized set of words. 

A “different strokes for different folks” approach results in a confusing patois that lends itself to taking up unnecessary bandwidth. It’s interesting that the trades use confusing sets of terms that could be standardized, but isn’t due to tradition, habit, an aversion to conform, or just the satisfaction of using a larger vocabulary or whatever other reason. This is reminiscent of how fishermen like to name fish. Olive rockfish = Johnny Bass = Sebastes sp.. Orange 18-2 Non-insulated cable = Start/Stop (S/S) = Enable (Enab) = Run, etc…

I have a lot to learn, but I relax a bit remembering that as an apprentice, I have two things going for me. Right now is my opportunity to learn a lot, and I have a drive to do so quickly. Reason number two ties directly into reason number one: I am expected to make mistakes. This is great, because I learn the best from my mistakes. I am going to make the most of my mistakes, and I will strive to make them less frequently by using observation and sense.

A political slogan crosses my mind and mutates into something else that doesn’t induce nausea or fire up the ol’ amygdala. I wish, to my imaginary genie, to “Make sense common again”. Was it ever? Could it be within the foreseeable future? Dunno, I’ll probably have to revise it to make it a wish that won’t have negative intended consequences. But I like the sound of it.

Mindfulness and merde

Is it possible to develop the awareness of dog shit in your path, and also enjoy the good stuff around you in the same moment? I’m pretty good at avoiding stuff on the street or on grass, but on a leafy hiking path I will be practicing because somehow I managed to get both feet deep in the merde. As I was using a twig for purposes of remediation, I was fully able to appreciate the new, knobby Vibram tread on my Hanwags.

And then I reflected on the irony of appreciating something new AFTER an encounter with dog poo.

After this, I decided to see if the hive brain had yet come up with a better method than scraping, rinsing and scrubbing shoes to remove fecal material, and came upon this from Lifehacker:

  1. Stick your shoe in a plastic bag and toss it in the freezer for several hours.
  2. Come back later, grab a pencil, take the show outside, and use it to pick that frozen dog doo out of your shoe’s treads. Because the poop is less of a mushy substance and more like an ice cube, it won’t stick to the rubber. You’ll be able to get it out easily and go on with your day.
  3. If you want to really clean the shoe thoroughly, get yourself a toothbrush specifically for this occasion and brush the bottom of the shoe with soapy water. The tiny bristles well help remove any residue.
  4. When you’re done, spray the bottom of the show with a stream of water and let it dry. (The truly paranoid with non-leather shoes can toss them in the washing machine, too.

I may try this method out if it gets really cold and leave my shoes outside. Another question, who would be OK with putting a duke in their freezer, unless it was used for other non-food/beverage storage?

Ranier at Dusk

The elusive mountain and its setting have a Tokaido vibe going on.

On a formatting note, this was posted as a Featured Photo. I’ll be playing with settings to see what they do.

Is this thing still on?

A decade ago. That’s how long it feels like it’s been since I signed in, typed words into the title and body fields, uploaded pictures, and hit [Publish]. Nothing really took over the place of Higo Blog. Posting on Facebook just wasn’t the same, and actually started feeling like a fax of a xeroxed picture.

Every once in a while I take a look at old posts, enjoying them like the sweet, earthy smell of old, treasured, well-maintained books. It feels like I’ve picked up an especially significant book, one that I haven’t read in ages, that has benefited from a long, undisturbed rest. Much feels familiar, and I’ll be interested to see if it’s much the same as it used to be, or to note how it’s different.

One big setting that I changed a few years back was to disable comments. This was due to the overwhelming amount of spam comments that vied for attention. Spam seems no more in control now than it was when it first appeared, and continues to thrive despite being one of the few things that 99% of people can agree to hate. For now, I think I’ll leave comments off, though I used to really enjoy the discourse that they provided.

Side story: I was excitedly offered food at a party near Gilroy. The hostess exclaimed, “It’s really good sushi – try some. It has meat!”

It was Spam musubi. Which is always good. And it was culture shock. Which, in this case, was amusing. What does this have to do with the main narrative? Very little, but it’s about Spam.

And so with these rambling thoughts about what the blog was, and thinking about what I want it to be, I’ll let this post settle in. As a work in progress, as a relatively invisible stream of untargeted, non-fodderized social media. Sounds good to me.

Time to Fish

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to get on a boat, to challenge my sea legs and to test the tensile strength of the combination of rod + reel + spectra / mono / flouro lines + swivel + barbless hook on a (approximately) 20 pound king salmon. Though the bite wasn’t hot in Avila Beach last Friday, we manged to snag one using a black and white apex, down 60 feet (for some reason, not many people mooch this far south, preferring to troll instead). As there were few birds to indicate where the bait balls were hanging out, we had to rely on the location of other recreational boats and fish finder to put the lure in front of this:

adam.chinookKohei and I split the fish, and ended up with a decent amount of ruby red fillets and collars to grill up. We did a misoyaki prep for the collar, letting it sit for 3 days. For the fillets, we used salt, pepper, butter, oil, garlic and lemon juice and cooked them on cast iron for 5 minutes on high heat, then for 6 minutes in the oven at 450 degrees. I don’t think there’s much better than a cast iron skillet for evenly distributing heat, and for imparting a nice seared crust that is hard to beat.

Hopefully the bite up in Monterey picks up, and I can go get some more sustainably caught wild Chinook salmon. Fish that you catch yourself is, by definition, the best you can get because it is so fresh that you can literally still eat it when it’s alive (if that’s your thing- I wouldn’t because I would want to put it out of its misery first, and salmon have parasites that easily take up residence in us unless properly prepared), you can release any non-targeted species quickly and give them a reasonable chance to survive, its fun (though expensive), you get a nice tan and get a little exercise to boot. The only problem is that it’s hard to eat store or restaurant bought fish after successfully catching and eating fresh fish.

There’s only one solution: I need to catch more fish, which means that I have to go fishing more. I guess that I’m willing to make that sacrifice, for health and ocean conservation!

Sharpie Art

 

 

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This past weekend I got a chance to bust out my markers on my dive float as Alex Norton (very talented artist and tuna whisperer) burned a boar’s skeleton into a wooden sheath that pairs with a bone handled hunting knife. I started with the outline of the suction cups on the arm and the eye. I decided to just depict five of the octopus’ arms, as I’ve noticed that you don’t frequently get a good view of all eight of them at one time. Or maybe it’s a newly discovered species of cephalopod–the magnificent pentapus!

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As you can see from the next shot, I decided to get rid of the siphon because of the orientation of the body. the panel between the zippers acts as a nice frame–an unintended result that I’m quite pleased with.IMG_0353At one point, I was going to have the octopus descending while holding an ab iron, but couldn’t get the proportions to work. Nevertheless, I’m happy with my progress thus far, and plan on adding more critters to fill up the negative spaces on the sides. Not bad for a humble sharpie on top of ballistic nylon, huh?

Big Sur River: After Rain


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On days when there is threat of rain, when you exhale steam, and when it hurts to get out from under the covers, it is often rewarding to push all reservations aside and to go play outside. On this particular day, I was rewarded for my efforts with almost complete solitude on my walk through the woods.

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Though the sky was gloomy for much of the day, and drizzle sifted down through the trees, the water was all sorts of beautiful shades ranging from pale blue to dark green. Colors that you might associate more with tropical beaches than a riparian surrounding.

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Shrooms are sprouting all over the place right now. I bet those who are knowledgeable (or people who think they are) about mushrooms are having some pretty epic feasts this season.

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I don’t know what etches these lines into the trees beneath the bark (beetles?). Reminds me of an episode of X-Files where bugs hidden in the trees are unleashed upon humans and eat them alive.

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It’s amazing how high on the shoreline the river deposited all of the crap that built up after the previous flush.

Also, the density of signage led me to half-expect Yosemite Sam to jump out from the trees and tell me to “back off” when I got close.

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I wonder how high the water level has reached on this bridge.

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The wet weather has given the moss everything that shampoo/conditioner commercials promise to give to your hair.

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This moss, too, looks X-File-esque.

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Up close, it looks like a Chia-pet, huh? On a side note, the iPhone 5 takes better macro shots than the stock 18-55mm D50 lens in many situations.

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Given enough time, water wins.

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I bet there’s some nice fish hiding in some of these spots along the river. Not all of them are easy to get to, and I hope it stays that way.

Hammer Time! Making Mochi

Once upon a time in Japan, the making of mochi was not performed by automated machines, but rather by people using large wooden mallets/hammers to pound rice in heavy-duty granite bowls. Pounding was performed to a rhythm, pulverizing the rice into delicious submission. Though mochi machines now exist, my family continues the old tradition with the start of each new year because pounding your food with huge wooden hammers is awesome. And besides, as any rice cake connoisseur worth his shoyu will attest, mochi tastes better with a bit of sweat and little wooden slivers in it.

DSC_8523The hammers are made of wood, and soaked beforehand, though if they make contact with the granite bowl, they will splinter. Breaking the handle is also easy to do, if it strikes the bowl. You can see the rice steaming in an old school wooden box in the background. Doneness is ascertained by smooshing a grain of rice between the fingers to check hardness.
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Pounding must be done in coordination with your partners, and usually the tempo is controlled by he who wields the shamoji.

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In olden days, the maidens of rural Japanese households were expected to take up arms against any enemies who threatened the village while the men were away. It is said that blood ingrained into the mochi hammer helps to impart a desirable quality found only in the highest grade of rice cake.

 

 

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She missed the bowl completely shortly after this was taken.

 

 

 

 

 

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This is a chance for fathers to show their sons how manly they are. Loud grunts and smacks = good parenting.

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I have no idea how my aunt was able to swing the hammer so hard while laughing. For some reason, I find this terrifying.

 

 

 

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My dad putting the smack down.

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Yumi and Kohei making the big wad of rice cake into smaller cakes.

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This is the son’s chance to play whack-a-mole with the father’s thumbs!

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Maybe we should give the little ones quarter sledge-sized mallets, but until that time a tandem session will have to do.

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Here’s Wes, about to bring down the wrath.

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These brothers efficiently assault the mochi. As Sean bludgeons away at it, Susumu taunts the rice cake. Susumu’s other job in this process is to reach in the bowl and position the bolus of smashed rice in such a way that it is exposed to maximum blunt force impact from the hammer. As the cadence of the blows can reach a fevered pitch, I am amazed that his hands remain unblemished, and the mochi white.

And as the last of rice is dispatched of, we all head in and pig out on amazing food and share in good company. Happy 2013, everybody!