Author Archives: lmctaggart2013

What is Wrong – and Right – With the Navy?

Since January, four warships in the US Navy’s 7th Fleet have been involved in serious accidents. The most recent occurred this week when the destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker near Singapore; the USS Fitzgerald experienced a fatal collision in June. In both cases, sleeping sailors (no doubt exhausted from the daily grind of life at sea) awoke suddenly to the sound of tearing metal and the rush of seawater. These incidents have many wondering: what on earth is wrong with the navy?

As a former Surface Warfare Officer who spent hundreds of hours standing watch on the bridge of a warship, I know that many things have to go wrong for collisions to occur at sea.  Nearly all of them involve human error by the officers in charge.  Whatever else is going on, it appears the navy has a serious leadership problem.

New reports suggest that the John S. McCain suffered a “steering malfunction” prior to its accident. But navy ships are designed with system redundancy, and well-trained watch teams practice and prepare for such emergencies. When I was a young junior officer, we constantly trained for potential loss of steering, man overboard, and engine room fires. We’d cover the bridge windows with old nautical charts to practice navigating in low-visibility. Our senior officers purposely created training opportunities designed to prepare us for anything. 

That the commanding officer of the Fitzgerald was in his stateroom at the time of the accident is a huge red flag. All watch standers should be familiar with the captain’s “Standing Orders,” which require him to be notified when other vessels get within close range. Were they afraid to tell the boss they’d let another ship get so near? Did they completely lose basic situational awareness? Both are bad; the investigation will eventually determine the truth.

Meanwhile, the responses by the enlisted crew members in both accidents demonstrate what the navy is doing right.  In each instance, berthing compartments flooded in mere minutes – another emergency for which sailors prepare. I will never forget that training simulator, in a dark compartment with cold, high-pressure water spraying in our faces.  As the water quickly rose over our boots, above our waists, and to our armpits, we struggled to stay calm while working to contain the flooding and get everyone out safely.

It’s no wonder the sailors who did just that, after waking suddenly upon impact, are being called heroes for saving so many lives. In the case of the Fitzgerald, they have been commended for keeping the entire ship afloat.

Early investigation results specifically highlight the bravery of Gary Leo Rehm, Jr., who was posthumously advanced to Chief Petty Officer based on his actions. Survivors report that he personally evacuated many shipmates from the flooding compartment. Men like Chief Rehm represent what’s “right” with the navy.

Something else the navy gets right is accountability. To date, the three senior leaders on the Fitzgerald have been removed, and several junior officers were relieved of their duties by the U.S. 7th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin. Ironically, Vice Adm. Aucoin himself was relieved after the John S. McCain accident.  More firings are sure to come.

Holding leadership accountable, however important, feels “too little, too late.” In these recent tragedies, the officers paid with their careers but the enlisted sailors paid with their lives.

The upcoming operational pause – also known as a “safety stand-down” – is an important first step, but I am concerned about restoring trust. The navy today needs the kind of leaders I remember, who demand exceptional performance and ensure they get it by relentlessly training their teams.

Our sailors deserve nothing less. They deserve to hit the rack after a long day at sea with confidence that their ship is in well-trained, capable hands. The only thing jarring them awake should be the too-early call of “Reveille.”

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Is the College Admissions Process Unfair?

This is the question everyone is buzzing about, especially after recent reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears poised to challenge affirmative action policies in university admissions.  The move is a nod to President Trump’s base, which, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, believes that white Americans are “losing out” because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics.  The news follows years of legal battles on the subject, including cases involving University of Texas and University of Michigan that have been decided by the US Supreme Court.

 The debate is not going away anytime soon, for two reasons. First of all, universities and their applicants have completely different expectations from the admissions process; and second, it’s so hard to agree what “fair” really means.

 Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the University of Texas case, used a common argument against affirmative action – she claimed that her achievements were better than those of others who were accepted. “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference…was the color of our skin” she says in a YouTube video discussing her case.

 Obviously high school achievements matter to colleges. But a close look at their missions reveals that other things matter, too.

 University of Texas says its core purpose is “to transform lives for the benefit of society.” The mission of Harvard College is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Yale “is committed to improving the world today and for future generations…” through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.”

 None of these statements brags about the exceptional resumes of the 17-year-olds these colleges admit. Rather, they believe in “educating citizen leaders for our society” and “improving the world…for future generations” and “transforming lives.”

 In short, the obsession with comparing test scores and extracurricular activities misses the point: that the mission of many colleges is to select and prepare students for a promising future, not to reward students for an impressive past.

 So how can colleges “fairly” select the young people they want to educate and send out into the world to make a difference? And what would that mean?

 However hard we try, it’s impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons of people. Even standardized tests, arguably the most objective of the metrics, have limitations. Let’s say one kid takes an SAT prep class, works with an SAT tutor, takes the test 3 times, and eventually scores a personal best of 1350. Another kid can barely afford to take the test once; prep classes and tutors are out of the question. That kid gets a 1340. Who is smarter?

 Other metrics are even more subjective. GPA, sports, and clubs? High schools offer very different levels of academic rigor and options for extracurricular activities. Hobbies? Applicants’ choices about how to spend personal time are impacted by geography, disposable income, and family particulars.  Harvard just admitted 2,038 people into its next freshman class, but are they the “best” or “most qualified” of the 39,506 applicants? How can anyone know?

 Obviously Harvard believes they chose the right 2,038 people to become “citizen leaders for our society.” And by “our society,” Harvard certainly means our diverse society. The class of 2021 comes from all the regions of the US and from around the world; some are “legacies” and others are the first in their families to attend college. For the first time, fewer than 50% are white.

 Certainly their test scores and grades are impressive. But Harvard probably could have admitted only applicants from private schools in the Northeast and formed a class with even higher test scores and grades. Would that be fairer? Would anyone want to go to such a school?

 The college application process will never be “fair” because people are not numbers, and numbers are not everything. My advice (unsolicited) to Jeff Sessions is to stop worrying about how unfair life is for white Americans.  When they become scarce at elite universities – or in the President’s cabinet – he can consider affirmative action policies to address those disparities. 

Are You Giving Up Something for Lent?

Today is Ash Wednesday. If you’re a “planning ahead” type of Christian, you may have over-indulged yesterday on whatever delicacy or vice you seek to avoid until Easter. Or maybe you don’t observe Lent that way and wonder what all this “giving up something” is about. Personally, I have always marveled at this relationship between behaviors and beliefs. Would giving up potato chips for 40 days make me a better Christian?

When I was a kid, I noticed that all my little friends carefully considered what treat they planned to give up for Lent. As the lone (it seemed) Presbyterian in a Catholic neighborhood, the concept was foreign to me. I mean, Lent was a thing, of course, but no Sunday school teacher ever implied we should observe it by giving up anything.

My friends, however, were deadly serious about it – they solemnly selected a favorite thing (usually sweets) and then abstained. Friday school lunches were meatless and desserts went un-touched. The collective willpower was impressive.

Despite the prevalence of Lenten sacrifice throughout my childhood, I didn’t get the reason for it until I was an adult. The behavior alone was significant enough to make an impression on me, so I never wondered about the beliefs behind it. Now, anyone can Google it: Lent is associated with penance and abstinence to reflect the 40 days and nights that Jesus fasted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2).

I don’t know how much my young friends really understood about Lent while they fastidiously avoided temptation for 40 days. So much of their religious behavior perplexed me: all the kneeling and sitting in church, making the sign of the cross, and most of all their descriptions of how priests would assign them repetitions of the “Hail Mary” during Confession.

Does participation in rituals and strict observation of rules make faith more meaningful? Does behavior equal belief?

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Fun Fact: To satisfy Venezuelans’ appetite for capybara meat during Lent, the Catholic Church classified this oversized rodent as a fish.

Not always. I know Catholics whose children are being schooled in all the rituals my childhood friends observed, but the parents definitely don’t believe in all the values of the Catholic Church. A friend of mine who’s an Orthodox Jew (observes Shabbat, keeps a kosher home, threw a huge party for his son’s bar mitzvah) told me matter-of-factly that he considers himself an atheist.

And yet…traditional behaviors can be comforting. They connect us to others in our faith community and if performed thoughtfully, can remind us of the beliefs behind them.

I am partial to Lenten behaviors that are additive. Any daily activity – like prayer or Bible study or reading a devotional – is a perfectly acceptable way to practice Lenten self-discipline. But after missing out on all that “giving up something” as a kid, I admit that I feel drawn to consider the practice now.

That’s why I had a spectacularly huge bowl of potato chips last night. It was divine. After getting the most out of my own personal Fat Tuesday, I am now ready for Lent.

Tell Me About Your First Car

Was it a brand-new Dodge Shadow, because your dad worked for Chrysler? Did you inherit your mom’s old Volvo with 200,000 miles on it? Or did you hand over $100 to some stranger and drive off in his old jalopy? Whatever your answer, it reveals something about you and probably stirs up a memory or two. That’s why asking about that first car is my new favorite icebreaker.

I wish I could take credit for this one, but it wasn’t my idea. I was sitting around with my team of fellow volunteer consultants (we’re working with a local nonprofit to develop a strategic plan) and we were trying to come up with a good icebreaker to use with our client in an upcoming workshop. Josh tossed out this idea, and we test drove it.

For a group of people that is not particularly diverse (we were all born within 10-15 years of each other, all have masters degrees from Harvard, all live in Boston, all work in similar white collar fields), our answers were all over the map. One of us remembered a little stick shift coupe she got in college (and the treacherous hill on campus that was the source of many anxious driving moments). One of us never owned a car until he bought a Nissan Leaf about a month ago, having lived mainly in cities. Oddly enough, two of us learned to drive in 1970’s-era Buicks that were so enormous an adult could stretch out and sleep comfortably in the back seat.

I grew up in what’s now known as “flyover country,” a place where most teens got their hands on some kind of vehicle as soon as was humanly possible. In addition to reminiscing about our own cars, we remember our friends’ first wheels. One girl’s dad worked for GM and she had an enviable red Chevy Cavalier, brand new. My two close girlfriends had really cute cars with lots of mileage: a little Honda CRX and green Pacer. The Pacer driver eventually upgraded to a Nissan Sentra hatchback because she played the harp, which actually fit in the back when the seats were laid flat.

Playing a large instrument warranted a special kind of vehicle, so a cello-playing friend got his mom’s old green van (not a minivan – this was pre-the invention of the minivan) with limited seating but plenty of cargo room; anyway, no one cared about seat belts back then because we were teenagers and therefore invincible. One guy even drove an old station wagon which he spray-painted matte black (including some of the windows). It probably wasn’t legal but it made a statement. I’m sure he remembers that car.

Over the course of my adult years, I’ve owned a series of forgettable cars. For a time, anything with four doors that could handle car seats sufficed. I shed no tears saying goodbye to a couple of Honda Accords, an Infinity G-35, and my last Subaru Forester (which was actually pretty great but come on – a leaky head gasket at 70,000 miles? Not OK). I’m now in another Subaru Forester, which is totally fine and great in snow but doesn’t turn any heads. Probably because EVERYONE ELSE IN NEW ENGLAND has the exact same car.

The automotive ‘love of my life’ was my 1990 Mazda Miata, black with tan leather interior, with a manual transmission (of course). I drove it home from the dealership (which was CarMax, my employer at the time) on a cold January day with the top down and the heat blasting. I drove that car as long as possible, but in my eighth month of pregnancy I could no longer justify a car with only two seats. As soon as I’m an empty nester, I’m going Miata shopping. Four years, seven months to go. Not that I’m counting.

What was your first car?

Be Gone, Ye Last Five Pounds!

I didn’t ask for this for Christmas, but I got it – an extra five pounds. Now I have to get rid of it.

To clarify: I’m not whining about being overweight. If you know me, you know that I’m a healthy weight. A fit person. I am satisfied with how I look and feel, despite the extra five pounds, but they must Be Gone.

I pledge this not for the Laura of today, but for the five-years-from-now Laura. Because this Five Pounds of 2016 wants to settle in and become permanent, so that it can later be a foundation for the Five Pounds of 2017. Which in turn would host a welcoming party for the Five Pounds of 2018. And so on. Before you know it I’ll need that seatbelt extender when I fly.

Do I regret gaining them? No, I can’t honestly say that I do. The Christmas season and its many delights were wonderful to consume. The holiday parties with their festive punchbowls and platters of mini egg rolls, pigs-in-blankets, and Cheese Glorious Cheese. The movie nights with popcorn and potato chips and my famous baked Mexican dip. The football games with beer and nachos and more nachos. Yum.

The memories of Christmas dinner itself will last me until next year (they might have to, if it takes until then to lose this weight). We always start with champagne and Southern Living’s famous Crab Cakes with Caper Dill Sauce. We burn the tips of our fingers eating them as they come off the buttery skillet. Then we roll to the table, already full, and enjoy mushroom saffron risotto and homemade gnocchi with Nonna’s sauce (not my Nonna – my best friend’s real Italian Nonna). This starchy extravaganza is but a warm up for the filet mignon and the grilled herbed shrimp. We soak up the juices with fresh baked breads.

Nobody saves room for dessert but we eat it anyway – chocolate cream pie and this concoction called Oatmeal Cake which sounds healthy but is mostly butter. And caramel and coconut and pecans and eggs and maybe a teaspoon of oatmeal somewhere in there, to satisfy the letter of the law.

I forgot to mention the wine and the coffee with real cream (the Bailey’s Irish kind). It’s a wonder that the damage was limited to only five pounds.

But the damage was done, so now comes the time of reckoning. What am I willing to do – or not do – to kick this five pounds to the curb?

I’m willing to:

  • Add an extra mile or two to my runs.
  • Exercise almost every day, even when I don’t fee like it.
  • Walk past the potato chips in the grocery store without so much as a glance in their delicious direction.

I’m not willing to:

  • Skip meals. That’s uncivilized.
  • Ignore my favorite stocking stuffer, the Trader Joe’s One Pound Chocolate Bar with Almonds. I get a few squares a day until it’s all gone – that’s my tradition.
  • Eliminate entire food categories like sugar, dairy, gluten, carbs, alcohol, or caffeine. A balanced diet is important, and coffee is especially important.

All of the above starts today, so wish me luck. As always, I’m guided by the wise philosophy of a very dear friend:

Everything in moderation. Including moderation.

 

 

 

 

Swimming With Ray

When my fellow middle-aged, amateur swimmers and I came up for air after a particularly hard workout, the last thing we wanted to hear was “swim an easy 50 to cool down.”  We wanted to rest and recover. But Coach Ray believed in recovering while we swam. He said it would boost our stamina and endurance.  This turned out to be a brilliant foresight. 

 The first time I met Ray, he made me feel right at home even though I was a nervous wreck on the inside. I came to him because I wanted help leaving my comfort zone.  I feared I had reached a point in my life where I might never again learn a new skill, which was depressing. I was an old dog in search of a new trick.

 That’s why, in my mid-40’s, I finally mustered the courage to sign up for the Masters Swim team at my local YMCA. I was shivering but determined as I walked gingerly across the wet tiles toward the edge of the pool. I admitted to Ray that I was a total novice with no swimming experience. He was nonplussed.  

 He told me to get in the pool and start swimming.

 I soon realized what Ray’s other swimmers already knew – the guy was a genius when it came to coaching.  He knew exactly what to say to get a better result out of each of us. With the patience of a saint, he tried to correct my lifetime of bad habits.  Pretty soon, this former-band-geek-with-absolutely-NO-athletic-ability started to think of herself as a swimmer (I’m still not sure about the “master” part).

 As we gazed up at Ray between sets, he flailed his arms and swung his hips from side to side in surprisingly helpful demonstrations of perfect technique. He shared anecdotes about other swimmers he’d coached; he was especially proud of the youngest ones. He could not hide his love for the sport, and for his swimmers of all ages.

 In the moments between our drills, we also got to know one another.  Relationships formed gradually as we exchanged breathless tidbits of personal information during our 30-second rests between laps. We all had different reasons for being in the pool, but Ray was absolutely determined that we’d all get faster. He was our biggest champion and an eternal optimist about our swimming abilities.

 One of his favorite drills allowed for no rest at all, but rather an ‘easy lap’ between one set and the next. “Recover while you swim!” he bellowed.   He knew we could do this because to Ray, our hodgepodge collection of lawyers and professors and consultants were real athletes.  Because he believed this wholeheartedly, eventually we believed it, too. We swam, we recovered, and we swam some more.  

 But then Ray didn’t show up one morning, or the next. Worries were shared; inquiries were made, until our absolute worst fears were confirmed. Ray had passed away at home. He was only 57.

 Sometimes when I swim, I let my mind lapse into a gentle rhythmic complacence as I stare at the black line on the pool bottom for lap after endless lap, focusing only on my next breath.  Like that black line, Ray was always there to provide direction and guidance.  His presence was as certain as the rising sun, until it wasn’t.

 I am devastated that my coach is gone, but I’m not alone in my grief. I have my team.  We are strong; we are athletes now. At our first practice after Ray’s funeral (standing room only and overflowing with his young swimmers), we traded memories of the sets and drills he had taught us over the years.  With no choice but to get back in the pool, we mustered the stamina and endurance Ray had built within us. 

 We recovered while we swam.

 

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Ray (in red) with members of our Masters team. In his memory, we re-named our team “the Rays.”

 

 

 

 

All I Want For Christmas

Some women want jewelry; others want designer bags. Not me. I want to play Jedi mind tricks on American political leaders. According to the official Star Wars website, “the Force can have a powerful effect on the weak-minded, a phenomenon Jedi sometimes take advantage of in pursuing their missions.”

Perfect.

What’s my mission? To make 2017 better than 2016. It’s a low bar. If I could just harness the Force, I’d point it directly at our “weak-minded” lawmakers so they would…

  1. …Stop worrying so much about where other people go to the bathroom.

I’m looking at you, North Carolina. When the most well-known piece of legislation to come out of your statehouse is called the Bathroom Bill, it’s time to reflect upon your governing priorities. This panic over public bathrooms is the very definition of a First World Problem, and I use the word “problem” loosely. If you are really that concerned about bathroom habits, consider focusing your time and resources a little further away from home.

Fun Fact: nearly 2.4 billion people in the world don’t have proper toilets (according to the World Health Organization.) So instead of demanding that we show our birth certificates to the ‘potty police’ every time nature calls, consider writing a check to UNICEF.

  1. Remember that America asks the world to “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” even when those huddled masses come from Syria.

Half the population of Syria has been displaced and a generation of children is growing up in refugee camps without education or security or hope. Why isn’t our government doing more about it? I’ll tell you why: because we can never be 100% sure that a terrorist won’t slip in among those refugees!

I can’t argue that, but let’s unpack the threat. Suppose 1 of every 1000 refugees is a terrorist (a totally absurd assumption since in fiscal year 2016 we admitted over 6,726 Syrian refugees, of whom exactly zero were terrorists). Canada had welcomed over 25,000 refugees as of last February, and none of them is on Santa’s naughty list.

If we welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees and if 1 of every 1000 was not only a terrorist but also successfully committed a terrorist act, approximately 44 Americans would die in those attacks (fatality assumptions based on 2016 data).

That means we won’t risk the chance that 44 Americans might die, in order to save 25,000 people. Either this great country is filled with cowards, or we are bad at math. Or possibly both (given the falling regard for all things scientific or fact-based, and the tiny percent of us who serve in the military).

  1. …Act like decent humans.

It doesn’t seem that hard, does it? Yet time after time, our elected leaders behave like babies (at best) or heartless bastards (at worst). I am tired of turning on the news and hearing about a certain someone grabbing women by the privates, whining about his press coverage, and threatening to create a Muslim registry. I don’t know what’s more exhausting: keeping track of it all, or sustaining an appropriate level of outrage. But what can I do about it?

If I get the Force for Christmas. I will play my Jedi mind tricks. And by this time next year, the 24-hour cable news cycle will go dark for lack of material because our president will actually be presidential. We’ll have some new Americans with whom to celebrate the holidays. North Carolina will no longer be the butt (ha ha) of much bathroom humor.

If my stocking is empty, however, I fear 2017 may be even worse than 2016. In which case, I will seriously consider relocating. To a galaxy far, far away.