Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Letter To My Ten-Year-Old Daughter

My sweet girl,

I want you to know that your mother and I see everything you do. 

We see you helping with little things around the house:  running upstairs to get a change of clothes for your sister, or giving your younger siblings a bath.   Not because we’ve promised you a reward, or even asked you do it.   You saw it needed to be done, so you did it. 

We see that no matter how many times your brother annoys you or ignores you, you keep trying to engage him.  You’ve never been anything but affectionate and kind. Before you knew what autism was, you realized your brother was special, different, and gifted.

We saw you recognize, even before we did, that Donald Trump represents something you have never tolerated:  a self-centered bully who never has anything nice to say.

We see you rising above the drama of fifth grade.   When a classmate badmouthed a mutual friend with a hyperbolic statement, you drolly replied, “That’s a bit of an overstatement.”   When the classmate then got upset, you refused to apologize for sticking up for a friend.  You have a maturity that we never had at your age.

We see you notice the affection and respect that your mother and I have for each other, and hope that we are somehow setting the standard for how you expect your future partners to treat you.  

We saw that on the day that your brother went missing and your parents were losing their heads, you were calmly finding a picture of him and scanning it in the printer, in order to make flyers to help people find him.

We see that you are equally comfortable with art and science.   You can talk to me about Greek mythology while you build a robot.   That precious balance will pay rich intellectual dividends for you in the future.  

We have so many hopes for you.  Sometimes I worry you fear you might not be able to live up to them.  But here's the secret:  you already have.   At your relatively young age, you recognize that that the struggle to deepen the soul is more important than the climb to success. [1]  

You are on your way to being the best possible version of yourself, and we are so proud of you.


Your loving Father






[1] David Brooks, “The Road to Character”, Random House 2015.

Friday, September 9, 2016

No Small Parts

"Your daughter is upset."   A few months back, my wife greeted me with these words as I came home from work.   "She didn't get the part she wanted in the school play."

Oh man.  All too often as parents we don't get a chance to recognize the opportunities to help our children build character.  They become lost in the mundane clutter of life, or we simply impart our lessons through the power of example, not necessarily realizing it at the time.

But here it was right in front of me.  A chance to impart an important life lesson.  A fastball right down the middle.  I needed to hit this one out of the park.

It wouldn't be enough to simply preach, "There are no small parts, only small actors."   I would have to build the case in a way that resonated.

She was sullen as I came in the room and even less inclined toward small talk than usual.  We danced around the subject for a bit until I cut to the chase.  "Your mom says you're upset because of the play."   My daughter, with less anguish than I expected, explained it all to me.  In a play about witches, she had to play the old witch.  It was not the part she wanted.  Not because she was old, but because she didn't have many lines.

I tried a few different tacts.   I began with a discussion of "earning your stripes."   The bigger parts, with more lines, were given to the older students, who had more experience being in plays.   If she kept a positive attitude and did well at the parts given to her, in another year or two the director would see she's ready for the bigger parts.   I got a blank stare on this one.

Maybe I needed make it more personal and relate a story from my own life.   I told her about the time in high school I wanted the lead role in "The War on Tatem."  Instead, I had to play Murray Moskowitz, the annoying, wimpy kid with glasses.   She giggled at this, and I explained that one reason I didn't want to play the part was that the nerdy-looking glasses kept making my co-stars laugh and break character.   I ultimately refused to wear them.  But since it was an ensemble cast and we all worked hard to make our characters memorable, we ultimately won an award at the annual drama competition.   And although the "old witch" might not have many lines, it was probably one of the more challenging parts, since my daughter would have to totally change her voice and her mannerisms.   It would require no-kidding acting, and maybe that's why the director wanted her to have that part, because she had faith in my daughter's ability.  By the look on her face, I could tell I was making progress now.

I attempted to follow-up with another story, from when I was adult, about when I found myself side-lined during a deployment just as major combat operations were starting.   It was one of those defining moments that I ultimately learned incredible lessons from, but I could tell that I wasn't making a connection.  (Who knew that a combat story wouldn't resonate with a nine year old?)

So instead I shifted to the story that helped get me through that time in my life:  Apollo 11. She was already familiar with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and how they walked on the moon.   But I reminded her of all the supporting cast members, in mission control and on the launch pad, in the classroom and on the factory floor, all of whom played an integral part to get them there.  If any one of them had given less than their very best, it could have meant failure for the crew.  And even Michael Collins, though one of only 24 human beings to have flown to the moon, didn't get the lead part he probably wanted on that mission.  But he made sure he performed his role flawlessly.

Boom.  I made the connection.   Her face brightened as she began to see her "old witch" role in a new light.   Certainly she'll face many similar challenges in her life, when she is given a supporting role and must decide how she'll approach it.  I hope some of what we talked about sank it, and manages to resurface when she needs it.

Some may protest here, and say, "Wait, aren't you trying to raise a strong, confident woman?  But didn't you just teach her to settle for a lesser role?  A supporting one?"   To be sure, there will be times when she and the rest of my children will need to stand up for themselves, demand to be taken seriously and given an opportunity to succeed, and ensure they are rewarded equitably for it.   This was not that lesson.   This was the pre-requisite lesson, teaching her that opportunities must first be earned: by showing up prepared, with a positive attitude, and demonstrating a willingness to work hard and learn.

I know that at least part of the talk resonated with her.  A few days later, my wife said she spoke to the director.  Our daughter was doing really well and responding well to instruction.  But she was being stubborn about one thing: the director asked her to wear a pair of prop glasses to make her look older, but my daughter refused.   "Hmm," I murmured pensively in reply.  "I wonder where she got that idea..."    





  


 


Sunday, August 28, 2016

What So Proudly We Hailed


Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, chose to deliberately sit while the National Anthem was played at the start of a preseason game on Friday.   After the game, he stated that he didn't want to "show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color....this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.  There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

I have numerous, sometimes conflicting thoughts on this one, so bear with me...

First, kudos to him for taking a stand for something he believes in.   I'm not going to tackle  the validity of his statement on racial oppression.   Ultimately, it doesn't matter if I agree with his position or not.  He is taking a principled stand on an issue he feels strongly about, an issue that he might be somewhat insulated from given his wealth and success, yet he is willing to risk at least some of that prosperity and popularity to make his point.

And I say that as someone who truly loves our National Anthem.   I get chills every time I hear it.   I get annoyed (and offended) when I see someone sitting, or leaving their hat on, or talking and laughing while it's being played.  In college, I would take great umbrage at basketball games when students who were Baltimore Orioles fans, when the song says "Oh, say does that star spangled banner yet wave," would emphasize the first syllable of the line and make an "O" with their arms. Such actions trivialize what to me is a solemn ritual that commemorates the spirit and resolve our nation has exhibited throughout our history.

So I understand the anger that Kaepernick's protest evokes.  And I think choosing the National Anthem as the means to elevate the issue of civil rights winds up being counter-productive because the motive gets lost in the noise of the reaction to the act.   You can't open people's minds right after you've made them viscerally angry by disrespecting what they hold dear.  A far more effective use of sports celebrity status to raise awareness to the state of race relations in this country was the statement made by Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Paul during the cold open to the Espy broadcast in July.

But the anger is misplaced.  Kaepernick was not trivializing the anthem like those Orioles fans who annoyed me in college.  He is making a deliberate protest.  I found great irony in the articles this weekend touting how the New York Giants made a point to have every player and every staff member standing for the anthem during their game yesterday.   If what Kaepernick did by not standing is so unusual, so against the norm, why would it be such a big deal for ALL of the Giants to be standing yesterday?  Shouldn't they be doing that EVERY game?  What the articles inherently imply is that during the anthem before a typical game, at least some players and staff are too busy or apathetic to stand.   How is that not worse than what Kaepernick did?

Ultimately, the symbol of our country is not a flag, or a song about a flag.  Neither of those things make our nation great.   Our freedoms make us who we are, and what better symbol of that freedom than a citizen taking a deliberate stand, no matter how unpopular?  The National Anthem is indeed a solemn ritual that commemorates our national spirit and resolve.  Not just our courage in war, but also our steadfastness in seeking solutions for our many great problems, including racial division and inequity.     

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Citizen's Dilemma

As an active-duty naval officer, writing a blog that discusses citizenship and politics during an election year can be fraught with peril.   It is certainly contrary to my oath of office and Department of Defense guidance to publicly endorse a particular candidate.   As military professionals, we are expected to be apolitical, loyal only to the constitution in the execution of our duties.   Yet unlike some countries, we do allow our uniformed service members to participate in the electoral process, and although I will keep my own counsel as to who I ultimately choose to mark on my ballot, it is certainly within the bounds of propriety for me to discuss the dynamics of the election and provide a few morsels for thought.

Quite frankly, in the big picture, there is very little in this election year worthy of endorsement.     This is an election in which many of the established rules and norms have been thrown out the window, including a sitting Supreme Court Justice making public comments disparaging a presidential candidate.  An election campaign during which a major party candidate has encouraged a foreign country to hack the emails of his competitor, who in turn chastised him for putting national security at risk, while at the same time denying that her careless use of an ad-hoc IT infrastructure was ever cause for similar concern, despite comments to the contrary by the Director of the FBI.

Cognitive dissonance, thy name is Election 2016.

And then we have the recent spectacle of a presidential candidate making disparaging comments about a gold-star family.  To be fair, the Khan family willingly entered the vicious arena of public discourse and therefore some observers may conclude they are fair game for criticism.   But it should go without saying that callously attacking the parents of a man who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country shows incredibly poor judgment, discretion, and wisdom.   Yes, the Democrats set a trap for the Republican candidate.   And he walked right into it.

It may very well be an apocryphal story, but I seem to remember during the 1996 election, Bob Dole's campaign strategy was publicly criticized by John McCain in a rare (at the time) display of intra-party fratricide.  When asked about it at a press conference, Bob Dole replied something to the effect of, "That man spent seven years in a box for his country.  He's earned the right to say whatever he wants to about me."   Bob Dole is a true statesman, a man who himself suffered greatly for his country, and a former athlete who never forgot that one doesn't need to swing at every pitch that comes their way.

When I studied government and public policy as an undergrad in the mid-nineties, the overarching concern at the time was the dearth of political participation and voter turnout.   Countless academics and intellectuals feared that our fragile democracy was going to wither due to neglect.   Now we face a far different problem, in which the centrifugal forces of rabid partisanship and unwillingness to compromise threaten to spin apart the machinery of our democratic process. Although it is a recurring lament in the modern media age that our elections lack any substantive discussion of the issues, we are definitely at a new low in this particular cycle.  Have we as a society made the presidential election so vapid, so difficult, such a marathon slog through meaningless appearances and posturing, focusing more on avoiding the errant gaffe than providing anything remotely resembling vision and leadership, that we are finally getting the candidates we deserve?  Have we driven out the true servant leaders, leaving only the vain and self-entitled to vie for public office?  As Plato, quoting Socrates, wrote in The Republic"He who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself."  Quite possibly we are in for a string of one-term presidents, much like during the pre-Civil War period, until we get ourselves sorted out politically.  (Although I believe that such a "sorting" will be done without the violence of that previous era.)

So what is a citizen to do, in such an election when many voters find themselves opposed to a particular candidate more than they are inspired by another?

One option is to not vote at all.  In general this is something I would discourage.  Voting is not only the right of a citizenship, it is one of its most sacred obligations.  Yet there is a powerful statement sent by not voting, in withholding a mandate and making it clear through low voter turnout that no matter who wins, he or she does not speak for a vast portion of the American electorate.  My only advice, if one chooses to not vote for a presidential candidate, is to not ignore the state and local elections further down the ballot.

Voting for a third party candidate, or a write-in nominee, is another obvious choice for those dissatisfied with the major party nominees and sends a similar, yet more focused message, than not voting at all.  However, third party voting presents a sort of prisoner's dilemma in that you are relying on the cooperation of numerous other voters to vote the same way in order to break the monopoly of our two-party system.   For better or worse, the design of our political ecosystem is one in which there is only enough oxygen to viably sustain two parties of consequence.  Sometimes the perfect can be the enemy of the good, and third-party voting risks allowing the election of the greater of two perceived evils.

In a political election, there are four characteristics a voter should look for in a candidate:  issue alignment, character, experience, and competence.   When none of the available options meets all (or even most) of the criteria, you have to prioritize.  Which leads to the final option, what I would describe in game theory parlance as a "minimax" strategy, that is to vote for the candidate that will do the least damage.  Or put more colloquially, if you don't like the direction any of them are driving, pick the one least likely to run the car into a ditch.

Regardless, you have an important choice to make this November.  Good luck.  We're all counting on you.

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Pokemon and the Future of Reality

This week, for the first and I hope only time, I stood in front of my Sailors at an all-hands call and talked about Pokemon Go.  If you had asked me during Command Leadership School to make a list of all the things I might discuss at quarters with my squadron, the topic of Pokemon would certainly not have crossed my mind.

For those unfamiliar, Pokemon Go is a game played via smartphone.  Using the camera, geo-location, and gyro-scope functionality of the phone, players walk around collecting Pokemon characters that "appear" at various real-world locations.   The more characters you collect, the higher you get in the game.  (And, of course, there are in-app purchases)

I raised the topic to the Sailors I work with in order to lay some ground-rules on when and where the game can and cannot be played.  As you might imagine, there are concerns about an app that takes control of the camera and geo-location features of someone's phone for a game that might potentially be played in restricted or sensitive areas.  The app collects a ton of data; the security and application of such information is not fully understood.   In an age where ISIS is creating hit-lists from harvested open-source social media, and we in turn are targeting them via their own geo-tagged twitter posts, Pokemon Go becomes one more vulnerable aperture in the cyber domain.  Additionally, individuals playing Pokemon Go can lose situational awareness of the world around them, creating significant safety concerns.  And then there is the effect it can have on professional behavior in the workplace.

Despite my concerns as a military commander for the potential risks and vulnerabilities, I am also struck by the incredible potential of such augmented reality.  When paired with a more advanced viewing apparatus, the ability to overlay virtual threats or situations onto actual locations during live training events represents the direction we need to be headed with military training, provided we address the previously discussed operational security concerns.    The technology demonstrated by Pokemon Go brings scalability and efficiency that must be explored as we seek to better leverage the full spectrum of live, virtual and constructive training.

Beyond the military application of such technology, imagine the educational and cultural potential. You could visit Gettysburg, climb Little Round Top, and instead of trying to visualize the 20th Maine's audacious bayonet charge, you could watch virtual soldiers overlaid on the actual landscape you are standing on.  When touring a new city, the downtown area could "come alive" with cultural facts and historical characters.   Or when taking in a sporting event, you might be able to see scores, statistics and other relevant info without taking your eyes off the action.

I love the full-circle nature of this.  It was government that drove the innovation and development of the internet and GPS, the infrastructure and framework that Pokemon Go is built upon.  Now the public sector can benefit from the advances in augmented reality made by private industry.  We are seeing similar effects of this symbiotic synergy in the transportation field, whether it's space travel, high-speed mass transit, or self-driving cars.   Despite what we are continually told by our presidential candidates and my own concerns about societal unraveling, we truly live in an amazing time.  Fraught with peril, to be sure, but also full of incredible possibility.  I can't wait to see what the next few decades will bring.

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Play Your Heart Out

A little over a year ago, I celebrated Independence Day at Osan Air Base in South Korea.  The  51st Fighter Wing put on a terrific 4th of July Celebration, with food booths, informative displays, and live entertainment.  One of the performing acts was Alien Ant Farm, a nΓΌ-metal band best known for their 2001 cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”

Although Alien Ant Farm’s type of music is not particularly in my wheelhouse, I enjoyed the show.  The band put forth a ton of energy and clearly enjoyed performing for the crowd.  At some point, it struck me: they didn’t have to play to that level.   This was a USO show for a relatively small crowd.   They most likely were going to pick up only a handful of new fans (if any) and have no real measurable increase in album sales due to this gig.

But none of that mattered.   Alien Ant Farm meet the definition of true professionals. They approach their work with a level of focus, energy and enthusiasm that does not vary based on the payoff or who is watching.  They performed in Osan as if this it was the Grammys or a Super Bowl halftime show. And they constantly seek to hone their craft, no matter where they are in the arc of their career. 

As leaders, we seek inspiration from a variety of sources.  The experience of watching Alien Ant Farm play their hearts out for us, and execute a flawless set, resonated with me.   Like the band, I get paid to do the job I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid.  Yet sometimes complacency slips in, the urge do the minimum required to fly safely and log the hours instead of ensuring we’re executing the most realistic and demanding training possible that day.   Or in my daily interactions with Sailors, I don’t always bring forth the enthusiasm I could and miss another chance to motivate and inspire.      


It shouldn’t matter if it’s a local training hop, a Red Flag event, or a combat sortie.  It shouldn’t matter if it’s a conversation in the passageway, a five-minute talk at squadron quarters, or a Change of Command speech.   I can always do better.   Fifteen months is a short amount of time to make an impact on an organization.  Every day, every flight, every conversation matters.  

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Week Like This

After FBI Director James Comey's announcement on Tuesday, I had planned on writing a post about classified emails on unclassified servers.

But then the rest of the week unfolded.  On July 5th, the same day as Comey's press conference, Alton Sterling was shot and killed in Louisiana by Baton Rogue police as they had him pinned to the ground.   The next day police in St. Paul, Minnesota shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop.   On July 7th, at an event in Dallas protesting the two killings, a man systematically targeted and killed five police officers, in addition to wounding seven other officers and two civilians.  It was the deadliest single-day for American law enforcement since September 11th, 2001.

I'm not sure there is a way to "make sense" of a week like this.

I want to first start by making clear that there is no moral equivalency to the events I just outlined. The attack in Dallas was cold-blooded murder by a man intentionally targeting law enforcement officials.  His despicable actions took the lives of five public servants and endangered dozens of peaceful protestors.   The shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota are incredibly tragic and it will be some time before we know all the facts, but I approach it from the assumption that the police involved acted with the intention of protecting themselves and bystanders.  In that assumption, I admittedly bring forward the bias of my own perspective and experience.

Law enforcement, like military service, is an incredibly demanding job that requires great sacrifice in terms of hours worked, exposure to dangerous conditions, and a level of compensation not commensurate with the demands and risks involved.  I have the greatest respect for those brave men and women that choose this line of work, a group that includes close friends and family members.

But saying that the police may have felt they had need and reason to protect themselves does not by itself justify the killings or absolve them of responsibility.  High levels of risk do not mean you can shrug your shoulders and say, "Tragic events will happen in high-stress situations." Although we must wait for the investigations for these particular incidents before we pass judgement, we should always remember that in these situations, the onus is on the police to remain calm, clearly communicate instructions, and only escalate force to a level appropriate to the assessed threat.  Recent trends indicate that numerous local law enforcement agencies must make greater strides toward better training and greater professionalism within their ranks, such as those outlined by retired Detective Mike Conti of the Massachusetts State Police in a recent BBC interview (starts at the 7:15 mark).  It's a demanding job, and not everyone is going to have the character traits to be poised in extreme circumstances.  Better to find that out during the qualification process than on the streets.

Ultimately, we must reduce the level of violence in this country.  It runs a spectrum, from mass shootings and the assassination of police officers to tension-filled traffic stops and Walmart brawls. We are a long way from Alexis de Tocqueville's America.  Our civil society is unraveling.  Despite unprecedented levels of connectedness thanks to personal technology and social media, we are stove-piped and vacuum-sealed into the comfort zones of our own perspective.  We are hyper-partisan and have lost the ability to seek and find compromise:  on gun control, on criminal justice approaches, on combatting poverty, on education reform...on a whole host of policy questions that could help us become the best possible version of our great nation.

How do we reach such compromise?  I have some thoughts, but that's a whole other post...

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense