Monday, April 17, 2017

A Letter to My Younger Self

This post is inspired by Bryan Trottier's "Letter to Myself"  Although I've never met him, I had the privilege of serving with his son-in-law on a previous tour.   His well-written letter got me thinking about my life and career so far, and what advice I'd want to give to my younger self.  

Hey bud,

You're about to celebrate your tenth birthday while in the process of moving for the fifth time in your life. I wish I could tell you these relocations get easier as you grow older, but I can't.   All I can tell you is to enjoy the journey and all the friendships you'll make along the way.

Later this year, you’ll want to quit the Boy Scouts.  Fortunately, your mother convinces you to stick with it.  Everything you later accomplish in life you will be able to trace back to the lessons you learned in Scouting.  Also, you should listen to your mother a lot more.  She’s incredibly smart.

In junior high, your father will help you with your homework.  He will chide you for the sloppy way you write out the answers, always saying, “Neatness counts, son.”  You will roll your eyes every time, but it turns out he’s absolutely right.

When you are fifteen, you’ll kiss a girl from Philadelphia, and then move halfway across the world a few days later.   You should write more letters to her while you’re away.  She’s going to be back in your life again, I promise.

Throughout your childhood, you constantly have the need to make your parents proud of you.  I’ll let you in on a little secret: you will always have that need.
Here’s another: you’ve succeeded. 

In college, certain professors will tell you that the great books of the past, especially those written by deceased white European men, aren’t worth reading.  Don’t listen to them.  Read as many of the classics as you possibly can.

But don’t go to so many concerts.  They are rarely as much fun as you think they’ll be.  Except for Radiohead at the Gorge.   That one was incredible.

At the end of flight school, you won’t be assigned the aircraft you originally wanted.  That’s all right, because you’ll move to an amazing part of the country, where you get to fly through the some of the most gorgeous landscape you’ve ever seen, and most importantly, you will work with people who are incredibly smart, funny, and courageous.
(Oh, and you should probably pay more attention to your Physics class in college, especially the lectures on electromagnetic energy.)

When you are twenty-five and on your first deployment, you’ll have a Commanding Officer who makes the job look easy and fun.   Fifteen years later, you’ll find out that he wasn’t acting.  And his example will influence almost every decision you make as a Skipper.

Every chance you get to talk to your grandparents, ask them to tell you a story:  about when they were young; about their parents; about their children.  All too soon, you’ll lose the opportunity.

2001 will somehow be both the best and the worst year of your life. 

This near-constant anxiety that you feel will never go away, but you will learn to tame it, and it will serve you well, keeping you on your toes, helping you anticipate what needs to be done, and ensuring you show the attention to detail necessary to succeed in your chosen profession.

You’ll read a line from the Baghavad Gita that sticks with you: “Perform all acts as worship.”   Try harder to follow that advice.

Often your job will put you into situations that you were never trained nor prepared for.   Think for a second, and then take your best shot.  Even when you miss, you’ll learn what you needed to.

You will eventually figure out the difference between being intelligent and being educated.   Some of the smartest people you’ll know will be the former without being the latter.

Every romantic relationship you have between the ages of fifteen and twenty-six will fail.   It’s a painful process, but it has to be that way so that you ultimately marry the woman who is perfect for you. 

At some point, you’ll find yourself in Baghdad during the hottest summer you can possibly imagine.  When the mortars and rockets start landing near you, try to act a little less scared.

Being a father will be ten times harder than you thought it would be.  And a hundred times better.  

At many points in your career, you’ll compare your occupation to those of your college classmates and wonder if chasing your childhood dream was worth the low pay, the limited perks, and all the time spent away from home.   Eventually you will understand that they are doing what they’re meant to do, and you are doing the same.  It’s a liberating thought.  

When your children ask you to read just one more book before bedtime, read them the book.

Even at forty, you will still seek out your father for advice.  And he will always know the right thing to say, even if it’s as simple as “follow your instincts, son.”

You have this vision of how your life will turn out.   Keep that idea in your head, if only so you can someday realize how much better it actually did.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Transition Home

At the dinner table the other night, our three-year-old reported that her class had cupcakes at preschool that day, to celebrate the birthday of one of her schoolmates.  "And Goosta sang happy birthday to her."
"Gustav?  Who's Gustav?"
"No, Goosta!"
"Goopta? What's a Goopta?"
"It's Goosta"
"No, Goosta"
It went on like this for quite a while.  We still don't know much about "Goosta."  Apparently he/she/it has no discernible shape, with orange fur, legs, and no arms but still manages to give hugs.  And clearly can sing happy birthday, but otherwise lacks the ability the speak.
Part of me wants to get to the bottom of this and ask her preschool teacher.  Is this a puppet or stuffed animal?  Computer animation?  Figment of my daughter's imagination?
But I'd rather keep the mystery alive.   It has become an ongoing joke between the ten-year-old and I as we speculate about The Most Interesting Fictional Character in the World.
"Did you know Goosta fought in the Civil War?"
"I heard she worked at the White House when John F. Kennedy was President."
"Goosta is the result of a laboratory accident involving Grimace and a glass of Tang."

The shared laughter at the dinner table reminded me what I had missed so dearly over the past six months.  If you have never experienced coming home from deployment, it can be indescribable. Think back to your childhood, and remember the feelings you had on Christmas morning, or going to Disney World, or the day you got your driver's license.  Combine them all.  It has been a joyous week of reuniting with my family.

But I must be honest.  It is not all celebration and smiles.  Even after my sixth deployment, I am finding that the transition home can still be challenging.  It has been a week of getting re-oriented:  To a new time zone.  To driving on the right side of the road.  To changes in the family's routines.  To the different foods, clothes, and TV shows that my kids now like.   For me, I was starting a mini-vacation.  For my wife and the children, this was still a school week, despite all the excitement.

This is all combined with the stress of an upcoming move, and the gentle let-down that comes from finishing the most rewarding and challenging tour of my career.

I find myself getting impatient with the kids.   Growing annoyed when told, "That's not the way we do ______ anymore."    I still look at my phone way to often when I should be present in the moment.  
As I finished my fourth deployment, I left Bagram, Afghanistan for an isolated base in Kuwait.  I had to wait there for three days, as part of the Warrior Transition Program.  I chafed at those three days, which seemed to stretch on forever.  I didn't need to decompress, I told anyone who would listen, I needed to get home and see my family, including my three-month-old son who I had never held before.

Yet those three days in Kuwait were essential.   They allowed me the time I needed to reflect on what I had accomplished in Afghanistan, the challenges that I faced, and what awaited me at home:  a family that loved me and needed my full attention.

No matter what the circumstances and timing of your homecoming, find some time to reflect.  Attend a "Return and Reunion" seminar if available.    Talk to your loved ones ahead of time about what lays ahead.  Not just the fun of the reunion, but the more mundane aspects of the transition home.   Above all, remember that your family worked hard to get through the deployment.   Just like while you were out there and had to change your routines, habits, and preferences in order to get by, your family was doing the same in your absence.  Make allowance for that, and strive to meet them on their terms.  


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 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.     

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

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