Tilting at Windmills

You know the joke: How do you know someone is vegan/gluten-free/atheist/GUE/sidemount/cross-fitter/really into Harry Potter/whatever… Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. I am several of those things, but I resolved a long time ago to not be a missionary dick about it. To not contribute to the (sometimes deserved) negative image that people retain about some of those things by demanding that the world around me conform to my personal ethical principles. Here’s an example. Some years ago I was teaching a weekend-long Rescue class to some of the NYAquarium volunteers. As the DSO (and simply as an instructor) I felt strongly that such training was important for the safety of the team and would schedule every season for any divers who had been with the NYA for more than a year. They were always fun classes. Not only were they always full, but there were a bunch of DMs and instructors on the dive team who would come to help out — enough that there was usually one professional per three students. So we could create some complex scenarios. One of the assistant instructors that often helped was Spanish. And this one year he brings along a dish that his town is famous for; it’s a sort of frittata. “Traditionally it’s made with chicken and sausage, but I made it vegan for you,” he proudly proclaimed. It’s a frittata… made of almost all eggs, milk, and butter. “Thanks so much, man!” I said as I accepted a slice. I ate it. I told him it was delicious (it was). And I excused myself from a second slice, claiming fullness, though in reality my stomach was already churning from the now-unfamiliar ingredients. Two weeks later, when he came into the Aquarium for a work-shift he looked like he’d seen the ghost of lunches past and was all apologies. “I only just learned what vegan means! I’m so, so sorry!” I told him he had absolutely nothing to apologise for. Veganism is not like vampirism: we don’t burst into flames if we eat animal ingredients. We’re allowed to eat whateverthehell we like, but for a variety of reasons we simply choose to eat a certain way.


What’s more, he had thought specifically of accommodating me when making this dish, which was both thoughtful and charming. Perhaps if he’d offered me a lamb-chop I would have said “No thank you,” but a frittata fell perfectly within my personal comfort zone. That’s one of only a single-digit number of times I’ve either chosen to (or, more frequently, accidentally) eaten any animal anything for more than a decade… but politeness trumped doctrine in my mind at the time. The ethical purity card is not one I value. Not in much of anything. And the people that demand ascription to it tend to weird me the fuck out. I was a vegan working at an Aquarium, which is one of the big vegan no-nos. I would never discuss my job around other vegans, because I found the predictably consequent debate about how I was letting down the cause by “exploiting” animals was tedious. Sure, bigger picture, there are some pretty hard and fast ethical lines. I’m not about to take up the hobby of serial murder… or killing anyone, for that matter. Rape, kidnapping, bank robbery, inciting riots, white supremacy, and telemarketing are, similarly, all totally off the table. Yeah, the world is full of shades of grey… but black and white do still exist, too. And so it is in diving. (You didn’t think I was just going to talk about food, did you? That’s Nelly’s department.)


There are things you just don’t do. Don’t hold your breath when you ascend. Don’t dive without confirmed, functioning kit. Don’t exceed the levels of your training. And there are things you do do. Maintain neutral buoyancy. Keep an eye on your buddy. Watch your gas supply. Then there’s a whole lot of in-between. How precise do trim and stability need to be? What gradient factors? Do you really need to have your gear configured in this one specific way? Jacket BC or a BP/W? Wetsuit or drysuit. Danglies or pockets? Reefs or caves or wrecks? And on and on and on and on. When it comes to a lot of those “in-betweens” most every diver has some clear image in their head of precisely the correct answer. And since they know the correct answer, it follows that all other answers are wrong, (I blame standardised testing for creating this mindset.) Whether it’s dictated by an agency, created by trial-and-error, taught by a favourite instructor… somehow or another we’ve all selected our style of diving. And many divers will argue with the passion of a street-corner religious zealot that their way is the only way.


But is it, though? Is it really? There are millions of dives performed every year by people with wildly different experience levels, in every corner of the world, wearing every manner of kit. For all that, the overall safety record of the sport is pretty goddamn good. I’d acknowledge that near-misses, or even minor accidents, are widely under-reported. But a broad-scope incident rate of 2 in 100,000 is a pretty solid safety record. Can we make it better? Can we learn more and evolve? Can we try to focus, as a community, on thinking more carefully about those near-misses or minor accidents to try to get the number even lower? Of course we can and should. But to accredit the belief that there is a single, unified answer to all things diving is to deny that every system in the infinite universe has strengths and weaknesses. For my part, I teach how I teach. It’s all cobbled together by years of watching a variety of instructors I respect (and even some that I don’t, to learn what not to do). I tell every student that the things that I value most and will help them work towards personal mastery of are stability, control, and team problem solving. I feel that with those things squared away, no matter what level of the sport you’re approaching, everything else underwater becomes very easy. The way I teach is not for everyone. All my obsession with techie and cave diving is certainly not for everyone. My answers are not THE answer. While we can pretty universally agree that the state of entry-level dive training is pretty seriously lacking, the truth is that a quality Open Water instructor is all many divers will ever need. Since that’s not how or what I teach, if I tried at this point the class would probably be ridiculously superfluous.


Like every diver you’ve ever met, I’ve got some quirky ideas about how those things should manifest. I’ve got favourite kit and configurations. Yeah, I’ll walk you through the reasons why I feel a skill should be done like this, or that a hose should be run like that. And in my classes there are lots of things which I will insist on. The truly important, and I will stress why this or that point is actually critical. But there’s plenty that I’ll shrug and let slide. Maybe I’ll poke gentle fun. Maybe it’s a good idea and I’ll steal it. Maybe after a few days I’ll persuade you around to my perspective. Maybe not. As long as it’s safe, not embarrassing, and doesn’t interfere with stability, control, or team problem solving… why should I give a shit? Also, by allowing prioritisation of importance, it creates a gravity around the ideas that really must be taken seriously. On the other hand: dogma, no matter how seemingly well-reasoned, is still dogma. And tedious. Even if you can’t or won’t recognise it as dogma. Just because your famous instructor told you something doesn’t make it incontrovertible truth. And demanding that absolutely everything is priority one is exhausting.


I’m not going to be the one vegan in a group of ten diners who is going to be all, “No, we can’t go to that restaurant because there’s nothing for me on the menu.” Nor the sort of tree-hugger who believes that we’re ever going to reduce our carbon footprint to zero (because the computer I’m typing this on requires power). Nor the sort of pacifist who believes we should just disband the military or the police. I’m not going to be the type of diver who refuses to get in the water with someone because they aren’t wearing the same drysuit brand. And I’m certainly not going to be the type of instructor who insists that unless you dive the way I dive, then you are an obvious danger to yourself and others or a flailing idiot. Unwavering ethical purity seems like a lovely idea. But it’s quixotic and impractical. We do our best with all things in life, frequently having to pick the least bad solution without a good one available. We roll with the punches, don’t kill anybody, and sometimes just say thank you for a slice of frittata.

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