Thursday, November 22, 2018

New Website:

Followers of Father, Sailor, Citizen:

I have moved the blog to a new website:   Please see my latest post, "We Deserve Better"

Thanks for reading.   Have a Happy Thanksgiving!


Saturday, November 10, 2018

Familiarity Breeds Tolerance

In a previous post, I wrote about the type of adults my wife and I want our children to be when they grow up.  One of the desired characteristics we hope to instill is cultural and spiritual understanding.  We want our children introduced to as much of the world as possible, including its various religions.  Such familiarity we hope will breed tolerance vice contempt.

Of course, it's all well and good to have such a goal.  But how do you get there?   We have taken a number of approaches, including the types of conversations we have with our children, the books we have on our shelves, and the experiences we provide them.   One concrete example, easily replicated in your own home, is our monthly "Culture Night."   Every month, on a Saturday or Sunday evening, we explore a different country through its food, music, geography and language.  

The cornerstone of this event is our "Universal Yums" monthly subscription box.   (We have received no compensation, monetary or otherwise, for mentioning this company).    The box provides around a dozen typical snacks (chips, candy, etc) from a chosen country.  Instead of diving into the box and snacking at will, we use it in a deliberate and educational fashion.   As we gather around the table, I will first pull up an interactive map on the computer for a quick geography discussion, showing our children where the country is in relation to our home in the United States, and what other countries it neighbors.   I will show them pictures of landmarks and street life, and then we will introduce some basic words in the language, such as hello, please and thank you.

As we sample each snack, one at a time, one of us will read the description, which often includes fun cultural tidbits.  For example, this month one of the snacks from Thailand was coconut-flavored, and the accompanying paragraph discussed how monkeys harvest 99% of Thailand's coconuts, as they are much faster than humans. After each snack, my wife will take a quick poll of who liked the snack and who thought otherwise.   The accompanying pamphlet in the box also includes trivia questions, games, and other cultural information such as descriptions of annual traditions and festivals.   On weekends where we are especially prepared, we will also enjoy a full meal from the country.   Sometimes we'll make it from scratch (often using the suggested recipe from the pamphlet) like when we enjoyed traditional "bangers and mash" from the UK, other times it was as as simple as buying frozen pierogis when we explored Poland, and this month we simply got takeout from our favorite local Thai restaurant.

As we eat and discuss, we will also listen to music from the country.  Universal Yums makes it easy, with curated playlists providing YouTube videos of classical, folk, and modern selections, adding another level of entertainment for the kids.   Throughout, we'll encourage the kids to use some of the basic words we learned in the language.

"Culture Night" won't make them experts, and in some ways it represents a superficial exposure, but at our children's current ages, our regular event is a great first step toward familiarity: introducing them to the food, language and music of numerous countries, in a much more cost-effective way than buying six round-trip plane tickets every month. 

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Books I Haven't Read

"My library was dukedom large enough"  William Shakespeare

There must be a word, in a language somewhere, to describe the conflicting feelings a bibliophile experiences in a large bookstore or library:  joy in the ready availability of knowledge and wisdom that the shelves upon shelves of volumes contain, combined with despair in knowing that one individual cannot possibly ever read all of the books that are of interest to them.   It can be an overwhelming - and downright existential - thought to know that you will die before you read all the books on your reading list.

Such dismay then turns to indecision, as you recognize that each time you choose a book to read, there is a near-infinite opportunity cost to your choice.   "I hope this is a great bookbecause think of all the other ones you are forsaking to read this one."

As my collection of books has grown over time, the way I view my personal library has evolved. 

Originally, it was mostly ego-driven.  I filled my shelves as a source of pride, to demonstrate to guests (and myself) all the books I have read, and therefore all the knowledge I had presumably acquired.  It was through that lens that I considered which books to buy, and which to keep.   Under this thought process, any volume in my bookcase or on my reading list not yet read was a task not completed, and therefore a source of anxiety.

As I aged and became somewhat wiser, I learned to appreciate Umberto Eco's concept of the anti-library: the idea that unread books are far more valuable than read books, and that one's library should be proportioned accordingly.  Such a thought simultaneously humbles and liberates, as it reminds us of all that we still don't know, yet helps absolve us of that gnawing guilt of books not yet tackled.

In the last few years, I have come to view our modest office library in an even more valuable light: as the legacy it will represent.  I may not read all of the books I have bought, but they will be there for my children as they grow older.   Now as I consider which books to acquire,  I focus on our goal of developing them into culturally and spiritually literate adults.  I  think in terms of the reference materials (beyond wikipedia) they will need at their fingertips in high school and beyond:  Bartlett's Quotations, the Oxford History of the United States, biographies of world-changing men and women.   I imagine idle afternoons as they peruse the shelves in the office and grow acquainted with names that will serve them well throughout their lives:  Austen and Tolstoy, Lao Tzu and Emerson, Steinbeck and Morrison.  And I grow content with the scores of unread books I will leave behind...

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Ground Beneath Us

We’d made it.  After a long day of driving from Phoenix, a quick dip in the hotel pool at the insistence of my son, and eating hotel lobby cookies instead of a proper dinner, we had arrived at the amphitheater in front of Carlsbad Caverns in time to watch thousands of bats depart the cave in search of their evening meal.   When I was a child, I had the opportunity to see this spectacle during a cross-country road trip with my parents and sister.   The magnificence of it – on par with the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall of China – had stayed with me throughout my life.   I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to share it with my two oldest children.
As soon as we sat down, I could tell my eight-year-old son was antsy.   The amphitheater was crowded and noisy with sounds of conversation and a Park Ranger attempting to lecture over the din.   He kept asking to go back to the hotel, not understanding what brought us to this place in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  Soon he was standing up and speaking loudly, insistent that he didn’t want to be there. 
When we embarked on this 4500-mile trip to our new home on the east coast, I was uncertain how the challenges of autism would manifest themselves. He had struggled to understand why we didn’t arrive at our ultimate destination in “The Virginia” within 49 hours after departing our home, since that was how long Google Maps said the trip would take.   During our drives, he would randomly ask “Time?” and I would dutifully show him how much longer the to the next hotel.  “Three more hours, champ.”  Invariably, he would seek to negotiate a faster arrival.  “Two hours?”   “Sorry, buddy.  I can’t alter the time-distance equation that significantly.”   But all in all, my son had done quite well to this point.  Despite the hectic pace of our journey and the constant change in environment, we had managed to maintain rudimentary routines to provide an adequate sense of constancy for him.  He was content.
Until we got to Carlsbad Caverns.  The Park Ranger had just finished explaining the importance of being quiet while viewing the bats, and requested that parents take any noisy children outside the amphitheater to avoid disturbing the animal’s echo-location.  Judging by some of the looks I was getting, I’m guessing some of our fellow visitors were disturbed as well.   Now I was caught in a dilemma.  If I took my son out of the amphitheater, would my daughter be all right on her own?  It was going to get dark during the viewing, and ultimately be night by the time the event finished.   Was it fair to deny her the opportunity to see the bats because her brother was being obstinate?  Didn’t her life already have enough limitations due to her sibling with special needs?
I checked with her that she would be ok sitting by herself, explained to her where she could find us after the show, and led my son up the steps and out of the theater. Our purgatory for the next hour was the landscaped walking paths between the parking lot and the amphitheater, which he explored and re-explored with abandon as I hustled to keep up with him.   I was hoping to be able to at least sit on a curb with him and catch a glimpse of the bats, but he wasn’t giving me even that.   
I hadn’t been so frustrated with my son in a long time.  Most days, the fact that we have a child with autism is just something that lurks in the background of our more quotidian struggles.  But his behavior on this day brought things into stark relief, combined with the fact that the stress of my self-imposed timelines on the trip was catching up with me.   I wished he was able to sit still for an hour.  I wished that he could understand when I said “be patient, it will be worth it.”  I wished my son could be as captivated by nature as he was with the videos on his iPad.   I wanted to scream, “Why can’t I just have a normal son?” and I knew right then I had reached a breaking point, indicated by my use of that blasphemous adjective in blatant violation of autism parenting orthodoxy.
And in that instant, my son gave me what I needed.  I suddenly heard him say, “Hello friend!”   He was on all fours, giggling as he inspected a centipede that was crossing the path.  The insect zigzagged on the sidewalk, much to my son’s delight.  I crouched down and watched my son watching his new discovery.  He was totally captivated, and even after the centipede left the path and crawled into the dirt and shrubbery, he followed his friend’s journey with rapt attention and encouragement.  “Go to your home, friend!”    Overhead, thousands of bats swarmed overhead, leaving the caves in search of their evening food, but my son and I stayed focused on the ground beneath us.   

Every day of fatherhood is a much-needed lesson in patience, selflessness, and perspective.  My son had done such an amazing job handling the demands of the trip on my terms.   And the one time that he needed me to approach things on his terms, I failed him and got frustrated.   Those five minutes on our hands and knees in the New Mexico desert, watching a centipede scramble home, turned into one of the best moments in my life.  That was when I learned to see and appreciate things from my son’s vantage point.   I am so incredibly grateful for him and the journey he has taken me on as a father.  My only hope is that I’m somehow able to return the favor, and teach him as much as he has taught me.   

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.