Sunday, September 11, 2011

Never Forget

“The worst times, as we see, separate the civilized of the world from the uncivilized.  This is the moment of clarity.  Let the civilized toughen up, and let the uncivilized take their chances in the game they started.”  Lance Morrow

Ten years ago, my friend and I arrived in Milan by train from Florence on the last day of a long-planned Tuscan vacation. As we checked into our hotel, an old man sitting in the lobby said to us in halting English, “You are American?”   I initially hesitated.  Even prior to the attacks, the military had trained me not to advertise my nationality overseas.   I was already fully aware that the world was a dangerous place for Americans.

But even though I was not wearing a Yankees cap or a Texas belt-buckle, I knew that once I began talking, our identity would quickly become obvious.  “Yes,” I replied, “We’re from the States.”

He nodded grimly.  “They attack your building in New York. The big one.”

“The Empire State building?” I asked incredulously.

“No, with the two…” he did not know the word for “towers”, so he made them with his two index fingers.

“The World Trade Center?”  He nodded.  “No, they attacked that years ago.”

He shook his head furiously.  “No, they attack today.  And in Washington, your military building.” 

“The Pentagon? What?  Really?  Who?”  He merely shrugged.  We quickly finished the check-in process and hurried up to our room, turning on the television in time to see the second tower coming down.

The next day we knew we could not fly home, but decided to at lease make our connection to Frankfurt and wait there.  During every step of our journey, we experienced an outpouring of sympathy for the United States.  Countless Germans at the airport offered to let us sleep in their homes instead of in the terminal. On our last day in Frankfurt, we had to make our way to the U.S. consulate to handle a passport issue.  The taxi could only take us so far because the Germans cordoned off a large area around the building.  After identifying myself and passing through the checkpoint, we walked down sidewalks that were covered with flowers, candles, and messages for blocks and blocks.

Despite the fact that the attacks were conducted inside the United States, I felt more vulnerable being overseas than I would have sitting at home.  In those fearful days, I was comforted by many things:  the companionship of my close friend, the presence of heavily armed guards at the airport, the knowledge that the rest of the civilized world was on our side, and my faith that the United States would make it through the tragedy and soon confront the animals that did us harm.

Today is not the day to pass judgment on what we have done correctly and what we have done wrong over the last decade. There are 364 other days in the year for such discussions and debates.

Today we remember the sacrifices made by so many on that tragic day and to be thankful such dedicated firefighters, police officers, and paramedics protect us every day in our communities.  If we never forget, if we never lose the spirit of solidarity and selflessness demonstrated that day ten years ago, we will never be defeated.

God bless the USA.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

No, the other Doctor Spock...

When I found out my new job would involve the Caribbean, my first step was to pull up Amazon to find books on the region's history and politics.  Two years ago I was supposed to go to Japan to work as a political-military planner, and I read at least half a dozen books on East Asia security issues.  All for a ten-day exercise. This week I even bought a reference book for Windows Office 2010 after realizing that my Microsoft skills are not quite up to the level I need to work efficiently as a staff officer.  

I mention all of this because the other day it dawned on me that since I became a father, I have not read a single parenting book.  Of course, I read "What to Expect When You're Expecting" before my daughter was born.  And I will occasionally thumb through my wife's parenting magazines.  But beyond that, I have sadly made little effort to educate myself as a father.

This bothers me.  Raising my children is the most important thing I will ever do in my life.   So why haven't I conducted at least the same level of preparation that I would for a six month deployment? I came up with a handful of semi-plausible but ultimately insufficient justifications:

My wife is the parenting expert in our team.  She worked as a nanny and ran a day-care center before we were married.  She has read as many books on parenting as I have read about airplanes.  Other mothers often seek her out for advice and recommendations.  But this shouldn’t excuse my ignorance.  Sure, it often makes sense for a couple to divide up household responsibilities based on knowledge and expertise:  I change the oil in the car, and she tells me why my shirt doesn't match my pants.  But when it comes to raising our children, it’s a team effort.

Parenting is primarily instinctive.  Children are unique, developing at their own pace with their own personality.  No book could possibly capture all the nuances of our family's situation.  There is some definite truth here, but leadership is also primarily instinctive, and yet I read countless books and articles on that topic in the hopes of gleaning new insights.    I should approach parenting the same way.

Parenting books often provide contradictory advice.   Of course they do.  So do the books I have bought on financial management, auto maintenance, and religion.  Oliver Wendell Holmes said he valued “the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”  Only after considering all the relevant facts, reading from a variety of experts and thinking critically can we reach our own solid and straightforward conclusions.  This applies to every subject one might ever hope to master. 

A friend of mine once told me, “Parenting is easy.  You turned out fine. So just do what your parents did and your kids will be fine too.”  I completely agree with the last two sentences of that statement.  The fault lies in the first, which assumes the ease that I might replicate my parents’ efforts.  Parenting is tough, and I need all the help I can get.   I just downloaded “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters” by Margaret Meeker on the advice of a good friend.   A good first step, I think.

If you have a good parenting book or article to recommend, please post in the comments section.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Turning Corners

As a father, I am often relieved when a corner is turned in the development of my children.   When the baby finally sleeps through the night, my son becomes potty trained, or the kitchen no longer requires baby-proofing, these are milestones that call for minor celebration.  Each event represents progress, and an easing (albeit slight) of the demands and anxiety that parenthood brings.

My wife holds the opposite view.  She resists every such hint of her babies growing older.  If she could, she would freeze our children in their current stages of development so that we always have a five-year old princess, a three-year old daredevil, and a six-month old giggle machine.

We turn corners throughout life.  For me, finishing college is a particularly salient example, because graduation meant that I would no longer have to toil over research papers and midterm exams.  I very much enjoyed my college experience, but I was anxious to start my naval career and go to flight school.  Surely life at 20,000 feet while making $3,000 a month would be far preferable to nights spent in the library while struggling to get by on $300 a month.  And it many ways, it was.  (Living in a beach-front condo on Perdido Key didn’t hurt either…)

Yet I spent flight school waiting to turn another corner: earning my wings and joining the operational fleet.  Learning navigation and basic airmanship was all well and good, but the whole point of flight school was training to be a combat aviator, and I couldn’t wait to take the fight to the enemy.  (Didn’t matter who that enemy was.  In the late 90’s most likely it would be Serbia or Iraq, although Iran and North Korea were possibilities as well.)   More prosaically, I couldn’t wait until I could fly without being graded, judged, and critiqued.  Yet once I completed flight school, another corner waited to be turned:  I had to complete initial training in my fleet aircraft, the EA-6B Prowler, which meant another year of graded flights before I would be assigned to an operational squadron and go on deployment.

Predictably, once I finally made it to my fleet squadron, the Zappers of Electronic Attack Squadron 130, I had many more corners to turn: first flight from the carrier, first combat mission over Iraq, mission commander qualification and tactics instructor training.  In many ways, my progress made life easier. Each corner turned brought more trust and freedom of action.  Every flight still had its debrief, but the critiques became more collegial and less pedantic.  Soon I was the one providing the instruction and my responsibilities grew commensurate with my qualifications.   It was not long before I was wistfully remembering those halcyon days in Pensacola when all I had to do was navigate from point A to point B, or those four years in Durham when all I had to do was read books and write what I thought about them.

And so it is with fatherhood.  The infant that becomes a toddler no longer needs to be held all day, but instead has to be chased on foot as he follows his natural curiosity.  The daughter that learns to speak and tell me what she needs is now very vocal and persistent in telling me what she wants.  Each milestone brings more complexity and more responsibility to my roles as a father.

The one immutable fact of life is the passage of time.  As Heraclitus said, you cannot put your feet in the same river twice.  In the same way, each day and each year, you raise a different child, the ongoing product of your genes, your guidance, and your love.  You can no more stop the progress of their aging than you can put it in fast forward until the day of their own college graduation.

Somewhere in between my relish and my wife’s dread of each corner turned lies the answer: taking each day and each child on their own terms, and working to savor each moment, both the joyous and the frustrating, as they occur.      


To paraphrase the scene in the hospital chapel from "We Were Soldiers," I truly believe that when it comes to being a father and a naval officer, being good at one makes me better at the other.   As its title implies, this blog will be a chronicle of my efforts to be a better father, a better naval officer, and a better citizen.  (Hopefully in the process, I will also become a better writer and thinker, but no promises.)

Some entries will focus exclusively on fatherhood.  Others will discuss the latest issues relating to the navy and national security, or my thoughts on national and global politics.   Still more will seek to find connections between the various roles in my life.  There is always the danger of trying to make this blog too many things for too many people, but I am hopeful that many will be able to relate to the experiences and thoughts that I share.

Comments and insights are welcome.  
Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.