Marble Drop

A man is lying on his back on a surfboard far out on a dead calm sea. He is a bug on a glass mirror. He is tired, and looking vacantly at the sky. His arms are by his side and he grasps the edges of the board on either side near his waist, and his balance is precarious enough that the merest wave will begin to tip him.

He is thinking. There is an ocean above him and an ocean below. He arrived here as through a carnival Marble Drop game; every time he hit a pin in life he could have gone left or right on the way down.

He hears again the marble hitting the pins and closes his eyes to mute it but the sound only gets louder. He wants it to stop and slides his hips slowly to one side. The board tilts along its long axis. He turns his head, opens his eyes, looks at the water and sees himself looking back. He has seen enough. He tilts further, and slides into the water.

The cool water shocks him into tension and it is with effort that he exhales fully, makes himself limp and descends. He sinks. He rolls slowly as he falls and gets a last look up at the diamonds on the surface of the water in the sun. He turns again to the dark and the deep.

He inhales, and there is a great stab to his lungs and a peculiar desperation makes him bicycle and flail his arms for a moment. He screams one loud long burning scream and then it is over. He sinks further and the quiet embraces him, the dark embraces him, and the cold begins to take away the pain.

Now he feels the pressure of the water and it pushes upon him a feeling of safety like an infant swaddled in a blanket. He feels sleepy, heavy and warm in the arms of the dark; a calm overtakes him as he spirals slowly down and down and down.

In the black calm, his vision becomes spotty and he begins to hallucinate. He sees that he is skydiving at night and instinctively assumes a freefall arched position. As he reaches terminal velocity, he experiments with languidly dropping an elbow, bending his knees or straightening his legs. He is delighted at the turns, spins and movement he can control and learns that by bending his knees up he can even go backwards.

He continues to spin, tumble and play as he falls through the thick black night, utterly content. However, after a short while he notices far beneath him a lightening in the water. He has come to love the dark and is curious how this could be and stabilizes his position to watch the light grow more and more as he falls. The vague sense of light develops into a whole sky of light at the other end of the black. Finally, to his surprise, he punches through the bottom and drops into the surface of the ocean, furious and foamy, with the light of the sky above him once again.

He instinctively gasps and pulls in oxygen as fast as he can while he struggles to tread water in the white foam and he is lashed by the power, howling, and weight of the wind and the waves and the light of the sun; all his senses are attacked and in the confusion he is drowning. But the air has given him strength and he composes himself, slows his movements, and begins to float with less effort. The storm abates, and he waits.

After a while, a large boat picks him up, and he is on deck, being given water, food, and a blanket by the crew. He suddenly sees his surfboard on the deck and gives a cry of recognition.

The crew notices and one says “We found it a ways back in the water. Is it yours?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want it back?”

The Truth About Being Wrong

I think we can all agree that people ought “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (If you don’t agree with this famous premise, you may stop reading now and you might want to go back to an earlier century where you’ll be more comfortable.) We’ll get back to the word ‘all’ shortly.

Given this premise, the presence of racism in the United States is vexatious–to say the least.

I was listening this morning to two prominent black Conservatives/Republicans on a radio talk show bemoan that so many blacks mistrust Republicans more and more even though less than 30% of blacks characterize themselves as ‘liberal’ while moderates and conservatives make up over 50% of the black population. The subtext of the conversation seemed to question why the Republican Party is viewed as being on the wrong side of so many issues that affect blacks/minorities and that they care deeply about. Further, they seemed to try to explain the behavior of the Republican Party as misunderstood, or even that the Republican Party has lost the ability to differentiate between right and wrong–due to a complicated political situation.

I think they’re missing the boat. Racism comes from a few different sources, and none of them is about being politically confused. People learn about others by drawing upon direct experience, or interpreting data, or are taught at home about other people (other races of people). All three of these input streams are reliably problematic, and, for some people, problematically reliable, indices of character.

Direct experience would be reliable, if only one could meet a class of people as a whole instead of in necessarily unrepresentative samples, and if one could use direct experience in lieu of data and other ‘teachings’ and not in addition to such indirect experience. However, look at this map of the US in 2010 which color-codes minorities in counties that have minority representation above the national average and are therefore ‘highly represented’:

If someone is not living in the Southeast (orange) or in a relatively few Northern urban centers, then it is difficult for most of the country to get significant direct experience of blacks since most people are living where blacks are not ‘highly represented’, or represented at all. Accordingly, most of us only get the occasional experience of interaction. (Incidentally, I spent most of my adult life in the military where minorities are ‘highly represented’, and in my experience all manner of decent character and also human quirks and foibles are represented roughly the same proportionally among all peoples. I found this experience encouraging and, though I realize I was only exposed to a population that self-selected for military service, the experience felt genuinely representative.) Even living in the Southeast outright, where presumably direct experience would be a much more reliable indicator of character due to sheer volume of direct experience, is problematic in that now you are living within an area stained by generations of slavery, prejudice and the institutionalized view that non-whites are inferior. So, direct experience is not the panacea for enlightenment that it ought to be-but it is still the best path to understanding if filtered for historical context.

Data seems to be the largest information stream that many people cite to support their prejudices. Two examples: Look how many are in prison! Look how many are on welfare and have children out of wedlock! But I would argue that the statistics cited are often chosen with a confirmation bias. For example, who cites the fact that the crack epidemic was met with a war on drugs-resulting in mass incarceration-while the (largely white) opioid epidemic is being met with prevention and rehabilitation efforts? For the former, a prison sentence places felons returning to society at a great disadvantage while, for the latter, a trip to ‘rehab’ is becoming de rigueur. And this is before factoring in the socioeconomic factors that might drive certain populations more to drugs than others. As for children out of wedlock, how many people factor in the acceptance of contraception and abortion in society? By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father. Shotgun weddings are gone, and women who want children can no longer count on pressuring the biological father into marriage under these circumstances; concurrently, the stigma of unwed motherhood has declined. And, welfare is not as related to out of wedlock births as people might choose to believe: welfare benefits could not have played a major role in the rise of out-of-wedlock births because benefits rose sharply in the 1960s and then fell in the 1970s and 1980s, when out-of-wedlock births rose most.

Finally, the weakest argument I have ever heard trotted out to support any position is “That’s how I was raised.” (Amazingly, it is often used to support one’s religious orientation-that incredibly important choice!) Unfortunately, many people are raised in households of prejudice, and don’t question it very much; it is as if supporting the beliefs of your parents is honorable, despite the dishonor of their beliefs. I always respond to hearing this with “Why don’t you do some independent analysis of all religions (or other home-taught beliefs, such as the disparaging of another race) and see if you arrive at the same conclusion?”

It seems like the thread running through all of these ways to arrive at opinion is the overt choice as to whether to indulge the instinctive pull toward cherry-picking beliefs that support one’s inclinations- whether they be beautiful or ugly. Why are we inclined to prejudice? Maybe it is as simple as fear of the different, or the primitive human impulse to feel superior to another.

Or, put another way, maybe it is because we won’t all agree that people ought “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Many of us choose not to. For them, the color of the skin is enough to judge character.

And if you find yourself in a pickup truck with shotguns chasing a black man down the street while he is jogging, your analysis might be lacking. And that is wrong. Truthfully.

Take This With You

(The devolution of don’t-leave-home-without-it.)

The earliest people probably never left the cave without a weapon. A club, a spear, eventually a sword, etc. -this was the first essential. There were enemies out there, and some of them were your neighbors! Next came some form of carrying one’s valuables. The oldest wallet was found on Otzi the Iceman who lived in 3300BC; this leather wallet contained flints, and some tinder, but no money! (How would you like to have been living in the Copper Age, and also been broke?) So, as society evolved and the weapon requirement dropped off, everyone still had some kind of wallet, or purse essential to grab before leaving the house. Millennia ensued. Then came keys. OK: wallet and keys, -check. Then came the cell phone. My god, the cell phone. OK: wallet, keys, phone -check, double-check, let’s go. Then came the pandemic and the requirement for face-coverings/masks. OK: wallet, keys, phone, mask -let’s go. Then came the armed protests against this mask requirement and the divide over how much inconvenience one should endure for the safety of another. Whoops! Time to bring the weapon back. OK, -going somewhere? Wallet, keys, phone, mask, and gun. There are enemies out there and some of them are your neighbors.

A Tale of Two Mutinies

President Trump today tweeted “Tell the Democratic Governors that ‘Mutiny On The Bounty’ was one of my all time favorite movies. A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!” The not-even-slightly-veiled threat was meant to tell Democratic Governors that he, Trump, would withhold Federal resources from Governors if they held the position that the Governors of the states will themselves control the ‘reopening’ of their respective states’ economies, rather than be influenced by any uninformed and cavalier declaration by the President. Trump’s tone says bring it on!

So much to unpack here. In short, Trump has heretofore attempted to shed responsibility for his inaction during the coronavirus onset and subsequent devastation by pointing to states’ rights in mitigation decisions within their states. (In the glaring absence of unified coordination from the top, Governors are acting as best they can to protect their constituents from the pandemic by imposing various social distancing and business shut-down measures.) Consequently, and unavoidably, the economy has since crashed. In an obvious effort to resuscitate the stock-market, and to keep his own reelection bid off of a ventilator, Trump is now saying that states must adhere to his ‘total authority’ as President, and his notion of when to reopen the economy–which he is wanting to do ahead of science, data, and Governors. Trump then will presumably reap the credit for ‘saving’ the economy. Of course, beside the garish hypocrisy leaping out of his trying to have it both ways, Trump is constitutionally, ethically, and morally incorrect and his pronouncements will not induce Governors to sacrifice their citizens’ lives at the altar of Trump’s transparently juvenile political machinations.

But, let’s get to the mutiny movies! First: Mutiny on the Bounty. Trump is either shockingly ignorant as to what the movie is all about and is arrogantly trotting out that ignorance while addressing a nation during a horrific disaster, or he is publicly confessing to his own inadequacies by way of a brilliantly apt metaphor. Captain Bligh, the Commander of the H.M.S. Bounty, was high-handed, imperious, and demanded that his subordinates obey his every command. He was tempestuous, he regarded subordinates as disposable, and his name has become synonymous with paranoia and despotism. Captain Bligh is, in short, a loser and the villain of the movie. His men eventually mutinied. But, Trump purports to love the movie, publicly invoked its dynamic as a threat, and I guess he either 1.) lied about seeing the movie and/or is too stupid to understand or remember its implications or 2.) he is confessing, by way of brilliant analogy, to his horrible character flaws by identifying with Captain Bligh. I’m betting on 1.): lying and stupid. We’ve seen plenty of that, daily, and we haven’t yet seen even trace amounts of humility or integrity. It’s been three years.

Interestingly, the only other ‘mutiny’ movie that the public might remember is The Caine Mutiny. In this movie, Captain Queeg, commander of an obsolete WWI era destroyer, loses the respect of the crew and loyalty of his staff through a series of incidents that expose him as cowardly and unworthy of his position. (Don’t get ahead of me.) Queeg slowly comes undone in plain sight as the movie progresses, and key staff begin to question his mental health. Finally, at the height of a storm, Queeg’s paralysis of action leads his second in command to relieve him of his position in order to save the ship.

I don’t care what movies Trump watches. But I do wish Pence would watch The Caine Mutiny.

Cruise Ship Earth

We are born on this ship called Earth. This is one of many planets that colonize space as we know it, and it sails through the deep black ocean quiet and slow, as day turns to night, night to day, and things live and they die. That is the way. It never docks. We stand on the deck and watch with wonder the lights in the sky.

We live in the United States. This is one of many countries that colonize Earth as it sails through space, quiet and slow, as day turns to night, night to day, and things live and they die. It is the aggregate of all the states within its boundaries. We are in some of the better rooms of the ship, and enjoy a comfortable life while other countries change our linen, serve us food, and provide entertainment. We can afford to indulge the many activites of the ship, but still, sometimes, at night, we watch the lights in the sky and wonder when we’ll die.

We live in Massachusetts. This is one of the many states that colonize our United States as it sails through space, quiet and slow, as day turns to night, night to day, and things live and they die. It is the aggregate of everything within our boundaries and Massachusetts has its own room onboard the ship. Everything is arranged just so: birth, friends, college, jobs, marriage, and kids. And in retirement, we sit on the porch, look at the lights in the sky and wonder why.

We are people. We are one of the many things that colonize this state as it sails through space, quiet and slow, as day turns to night, night to day, and things live and they die. Within our bodily boundaries, we are the aggregate of all the microbiota that reside on or within our human tissues and biofluids along with the corresponding anatomical sites in which they reside. Types of human microbiota include bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Microorganisms are unaware of lights, or the sky, or the lights in the sky.

We are the viruses. We are not human. You are my host as we sail through space, quiet and slow, as day turns to night, night to day, and things live and they die. We colonize your body in order to replicate. We viruses are, in the aggregate, the most abundant biological entity onboard this ship, and we have no boundaries. When we replicate inside you, you may live, or you may die. We don’t know the difference between night and day. We don’t look at the sky and wonder why. That is the way.

“Our” Stockpile

There is a familiar and old joke about certain Supply Sergeants in the Army that Commanders at all levels have experience with: When a Supply Sergeant evinces reluctance, or flat-out refusal, to distribute supplies to the troops, we all say “Why would they give it out? Then they’d have less on the shelf.”

Then a Commander gets involved, and, in my experience, that Supply Sergeant quickly is made to understand who paid for ‘his’ stockpile (taxpayers) and who is entitled to it (troops). And if he doesn’t do a 180 on the spot, he is negatively counseled, demoted and/or fired. This is because we all know the large degree of truth behind German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s comment: “Battles are decided by the quartermasters [supply guys] before the first shot is fired.” Rommel again? It’s Rommel month!

That’s one type of Supply Sergeant, encountered frequently enough for us to all know the occasional juvenile human impulse to husband resources and blur the lines between possession and ownership once things are under one’s control. Fortunately, this is not a frequent occurrence, and Army supply experts are usually of another type:

This second type are those that take enormous pride in using all of the resources under their control and their logistics training and acquisition skills to make their units the best supplied units in training or on the battlefield. And when I say ‘acquisition skills’ for this second type of logistician, I can tell you that we’ve all been amazed by the creativity and tireless effort that often surfaces when these guys try to make things happen to benefit their Commander and the troops. I saw this in action everywhere and can still remember specific efforts and results of logisticians from the National Training Center in California, to Katrina in New Orleans, and in Afghanistan. I remember countless ‘situations’ saved by logisticians and have great respect for them to this day ̶̶ and I’m delighted to give these Supply Sergeants a shout-out in this obscure blog post today.

Jared Kushner said on camera yesterday that “The notion of the Federal Stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.” Well . . . he’s that first type of Supply Sergeant, ain’t he? If he gives it out to the states, he’ll have less in ‘his’ stockpile. And he resents it. You could see it in his face; you could see him straining to be polite about it when in his heart he wanted to really shout “Don’t take my stuff!”

If an Army Commander had heard that said by a Supply Sergeant in their presence, everything would stop. People in the room would all look around with knowing ‘uh-oh!’ glances and then the senior guy would ask most of the people in the room to leave. Then, the slap in the the head (I mean the ‘re-training’) would happen: that guy would be given one chance to re-learn who pays for the stuff and who it belongs to.

So. What type of re-training should Kushner receive? It didn’t help that his administration tried to back up his thinking by changing the purpose of the National Stockpile in their website. But, the media is helping to course-correct his notion of who owns the stuff and what it is for. And, there is of course the statute that his comment violates, and there is the logic question I’d personally ask him: “Who are the people you reference by ‘our’ that don’t live in the states?”

But a good Commander would also go to the training records to see what Kushner’s training record is, how he became qualified to manage the greatest and most important logistical asset in the country. Was he the Quartermaster General of the United States Military prior to this post? Was he the Chief Logistician for Boeing, or IBM, or GM?

No. There is one document in his training file: a marriage certificate. He married the President’s daughter.

A Message from General Rommel

There is a story taught in Army Officer leadership schools about Oberleutnant Erwin Rommel as a junior Commander in World War I. (Rommel is largely considered by Western leadership as Germany’s best General during World War II, though Germany itself lessens his place in history.)

One night, Rommel ordered his unit to ‘dig in’ for the night on the side of a steep hill overlooking an apple orchard valley. The troops weren’t happy about it due to the fatigue of marching all day, the fact that they soon discovered they were digging into somewhat rocky ground, and the general feeling of lack of danger at the moment. As they dug, their disgruntlement was further heightened as another German unit entered the valley below and, directly in sight, prepared to happily bivouac in the orchards without digging in. Nevertheless, in any Army–let alone a German Army–orders are obeyed and Rommel’s men dug in. Later that night, his men were awakened by the screaming of the other men in the valley who were being ripped apart by artillery fire as the whole area was pounded. Rommel’s unit went relatively unscathed.

On its face, the lesson is simple but powerful: something akin to ‘better safe than sorry’ and ‘always do what is right.’ It was ‘right’ for Rommel to make his men dig in in order for them to be ‘better safe than sorry.’ However, as a former Private doing the digging, and a former Commander giving the orders, I think there is also a deeper lesson here.

I think not about the risk that Rommel was mitigating, but instead about the risk he was taking. He was willing to wake up with his men the next morning in a valley and hillside that had been quiet. It was probable that this would happen. His men would have looked to the valley and seen the other unit luxuriating in wakefulness after a longer and better night’s sleep, and probably enjoying fresh apples for breakfast. It is no small thing for a Commander to risk being seen as wrong, as the unit ‘climate’, often referred to as morale, is a precious and vulnerable commodity. Beyond the Commander’s own ego, he must look to preserve morale, largely influenced by how his men perceive him as a Commander, as a valuable combat tool, a ‘force multiplier’, if you will.

In another context, with less visibly at stake, parents today struggle to make the right decisions for their children, especially their teenagers. Strict implementation of social distancing for teenagers risks disgruntlement, and a perception that their leader is not ‘cool’, or is overreacting and it can be uncomfortable in the household. I say ‘especially teenagers due to the vital role that socializing plays at that age. Fortunately, most teenagers still obey their parents. And those parents must give orders that will keep their children safe, regardless of perception. Parents must be willing to risk that the virus will be less than projected, and that their prior decisions will appear to have been too much. But remember, the lens should be on the moment of the decision, and not the aftermath of that decision. Rommel was right to order his troops to dig in, when he did, regardless. And parents today are right to place their children under strict social distancing and virus prevention rules, regardless. We are indeed at war with the Coronavirus and it is hitting many communities like artillery fire. Dig in.

By the way, most of Rommel’s troops were teenagers.