Normandy: Paying Our Respects

I wish every American could visit the D-Day Beaches in Normandy and pay tribute to the servicemen who risked or sacrificed their lives there.  We were privileged to do so on our recent trip to France and it was one of the most unforgettable parts of our journey.

Prior to leaving Paris for Normandy, my husband and I watched “Saving Private Ryan” on DVD.  I previously eschewed this movie; afraid I would be unable to stomach the gristly D-Day battle scenes.  However, in preparation for our D-Day tour, I felt it important to watch to gain a small measure of appreciation for what the troops braved.

We took a 2-hour train from Paris on Friday evening and spent the weekend at the Hotel Churchill (reputed to have been Eisenhower’s favorite hotel during the war) in Bayeux, which was the closest village to the D-Day beaches that was left untouched during the conflict.  On Saturday, we toured the American D-Day beaches.

Our guide was Dominique, a French woman whose family resided in the area for generations.  She was extremely knowledgeable, spoke excellent English due to a stint in Santa Barbara, CA, and gave us a local perspective on historical events.  She peppered her commentary with personal stories of relatives who participated in the French Resistance and their involvement with the occupation and liberation, which was fascinating.

What I learned, from a historical perspective, was that the D-Day beaches were code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah, for purposes of the Allied invasion on June 6, 1944. The Americans were responsible for Omaha and Utah and these were the beaches we visited.   Young soldiers (many of them 18 – 20 years old with no previous combat experience) carrying 70 libs of battle gear apiece were transported in flat bottom boats in rough waters to the shore (many becoming seasick) and dropped into the cold water, several drowning under the weight of their gear even before reaching shore.

The first units, taking advantage of surprise, made their way quickly to farmland at Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches.  Americans at Omaha were not that lucky.  There, in the center of the battlefront, soldiers walked into a wall of German gunfire.  Earlier bombing raids had been largely ineffective in taking out the heavy German armaments.  Attempting to scale a bluff well covered by German defenders, more than 2,000 GIs were killed or wounded.   After penetrating corpse-laden beaches, the soldiers ran into a maze of hedgerows in which the Germans had stationed machine gunners, invisible to the Allies until they were virtually on top of them. But by nightfall, they had secured the bluff and later proceeded to join troops enroute to liberating France.

No one is certain of the exact numbers, but there were probably around 4,500 American and Allied casualties the first day, horrific yet considerably less than the 75,000 some planners had feared. That more troops were not killed is testimony to the planning, training and weaponry of the Allies.

My husband wading into the waters at Omaha Beach

My husband wading into the waters at Omaha Beach

Watching “Saving Private Ryan” beforehand helped to personalized the story of Omaha Beach.  The movie conveys the terror, anxiety, sadness and horror felt by the young men who participated in D-Day.  During our tour, even though the weather was blustery and cold (but warmer than the actual D-Day), my husband (himself a military veteran) wore shorts and sandals, and he walked down the beach and into the water so he could feel what the troops felt and, looking back at the shore, see what they saw.  We observed the immense width of the beaches (which were not as low tide as on the actual D-Day) GIs were required to traverse in the face of withering enemy fire, remnants of the heavily fortified German bunkers and weaponry, the craters still visible from Allied bombing, the lethal hedgerows; all combined to leave us overcome with a profound sense of sadness for the loss of so many and a deep gratitude for their courage. We were heartened to witness the gratitude still felt and exhibited by the French in Normandy toward Americans.

The American Cemetery in Normandy

The American Cemetery in Normandy

The next stop after Omaha Beach was the American Cemetery, overlooking Omaha, where 9,300 U.S. service men and women are buried, representing only a third of the total U.S. casualties in Normandy (the remaining two-thirds were returned home at their families’ request).   Half of those killed in Normandy had no previous combat experience.  This I found the most emotional part of the visit.   Rows and rows of marble crosses and Stars of David stretched as far as the eye could see.  As I walked through these sacred grounds, with tears streaming down my face, I read the names and ages and hometowns of those resting there.  Age 19, age 20, age 18—– it was heartbreaking and I considered my anguish if one of these were my own 20-year-old son.   I said quiet prayers of gratitude for them and prayers of comfort for their families.

The British Cemetery in Bayeux

The British Cemetery in Bayeux

The next day, after we returned to Bayeux, we visited the British Cemetery, where 4,650 are buried (including some Germans).  It was a lovely cemetery with rows of stone markers decorated with colorful flowers.   I again felt overcome with emotion, particularly as I read the personal messages on the gravestones.  One in particular caught my eye and tugged at my heartstrings:



"He was so young to give so much"

“He was so young to give so much”

We should always remember the sacrifices made by these young men and remember that they were just that – young men.  Each had a story and a future and a family and hopes and dreams.  No matter how terrified, they said “yes” to the call, and the result was the preservation of life and freedom for others.  I am grateful that I was able to travel to this awful, beautiful, and blessed place to personally say thank you to these valiant heroes of the “Greatest Generation”.

Paris: The Highlight Reel

After spending over 2 weeks in Paris recently, I’ve been repeatedly asked what I enjoyed most about the trip.  Rather than show the 30-minute slide show (with music!) that I’ve been subjecting my friends to, I’ll do a quick run-down. Note that my opinions are completely based on this, my one and only, trip to Paris, but here goes:

A typical view on our night-time walk back to our apartment

A typical view on our night-time walks back to our apartment

The nights – The city is at its absolute magical and romantic best at night.  With the lights illuminating the buildings, monuments and the Seine, Paris by night is spectacularly beautiful.  My husband and I would find a restaurant each night, where we would enjoy a magnificent. 3-hour dinner with a bottle of wine (we never had a bad meal) and then walk back to our apartment hand-in-hand, completely mesmerized with the city and each other.  It was as if we were under Paris’s spell.

Me and my "vela" across from Notre DameBike riding – We went on two bike tours in Paris.  One was a day tour with Bike About Tours and the other a night tour with Fat Tire Bike Tours.  Both cater to English-speaking tourists and provide young spunky guides to steer their charges through the perils of Paris boulevards and provide some commentary along the way.  We were at first skeptical of the wisdom of taking on Paris by bike, but the tours came highly recommended so we decided to chance it…and loved it!    We found biking an easier and faster way to cover more ground than walking. For our day tour, we rode all over the city with a lovely young Swedish guide named Angelica.  She gave us historical commentary as well as her personal perspective as a young student immigrant to Paris.   For our night tour, we had a young burly German-American guide named Nick who was in Paris working on a master’s degree in information technology.  His main goal was to keep us all alive.  I have never been more terrified (and more euphoric) than on our ride down Boulevard St Germaine at night in heavy traffic.  Nick’s often-repeated survival strategy was for us to all stay together in a block and when faced with oncoming traffic use “The Power of the Palm” (i.e., holding the hand in a bold gesture toward the oncoming vehicle.)  My gratitude at outliving that stretch turned to wonderment when we crossed the Seine and biked into the courtyard of the Louvre.  I was overcome with emotion at the beauty of the scene.  I remember thinking to myself “I can’t friggin’ believe that I am actually here at the Louvre… at night…on a bike!”  It was beyond cool.

Seine River cruise – I signed us up for the evening of the first full day we were in Paris, thinking it would be a nice introduction to the city.  But we couldn’t find the boat launch and it was one frustrating experience walking around the docks dressed up trying to find the right spot and not able to ask for directions (see my previous post about my issues with French).  Later in the week, after I read the instructions more carefully and realized we actually walked right by the launch twice, we did the cruise on what proved to be a much better, clearer night.   We saw a dramatic sunset onboard during dinner, and then the lights of the city. The waiter was kind enough to move us to a window seat.  And by this time, having spent a little time walking around the city, it was enjoyable to see familiar sights from the water.

Musee D’Orsay – This was by far my favorite museum.  It is housed in a former train station, which itself is stunning.  The D’Orsay holds mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1915, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography. It houses the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world, by painters including Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh.  It was also where the seemingly meek museum security guard suddenly shouted “Madame!” at me from across the lobby when I took an unauthorized photo (I couldn’t help myself).  My second favorite museum was the Musee de l’Orangerie, which contains the famous water lilies paintings by Monet.  This was a quick 20-minute stop but one of the most unforgettable.

Luxembourg Gardens – I’ve been to several famous parks and gardens in the U.S., including New York’s Central Park, but I have never seen anything like Luxembourg Gardens.  The flowers!  The lake!  The fountains!  We strolled through during the middle of a weekday afternoon and it was bustling with Parisians soaking up sun, children on the playground, tennis matches and bocce ball games in progress.  It was an explosion of color and beauty and activity.  I later read that the French equivalent CIA has it headquarters under the park, which only added to its appeal.

Waiting at the "Midnight in Paris" stairs for the Magic Cab to pick me up!

Waiting at the “Midnight in Paris” stairs for the Magic Cab to pick me up!

Walking  – We loved exploring the neighborhoods of Paris.  One day on a whim we did a “Midnight in Paris” treasure hunt.  We re-watched the Woody Allen movie before we left home and decided to find the scene locations.  We found a self-tour someone had posted on-line and set off on our quest. We found two of Hemingway’s apartments, Gertrude Stein’s salon, homes of Cole Porter and Ezra Pound, and the famous “stairs,” where the character played by Owen Wilson stops and rests after getting lost in Paris one evening.  Around the corner comes a vintage 1920s cab, which picks him up and transports him back in time, where he meets Hemingway, Porter, Stein and others.  The actual stairs used in the movie are at the Church of St Etienne du Mont near the Pantheon. We also did a self-tour of the Montmartre area, and found an eclectic mix of sites including Picasso’s studio, Renoir’s apartment, Van Gogh’s house, the café from the French film Amelie and the last remaining vineyard in Paris.

The Jupiter Fountain Water Show

The Jupiter Fountain Water Show

The Gardens of Versailles – I didn’t care much for the Chateau (palace) of the Louis’ (XIV – XVI).  It was definitely worth seeing — beautiful in an ostentatious, over-the-top sort of way.  But the crowds were horrific and I was happy to be spilled out the back door to what I found most spectacular and memorable about the visit – the gardens.  It was a stunningly gorgeous day and we were fortunate to visit on a day when the water fountains were flowing.  The last thing we saw before leaving was a 15-minute water display at the “Jupiter Fountain” made up of at least 40 individual fountains.  It was not high-tech, with lights or lasers or gadgetry,  but rather a lovely and graceful water display on a beautiful day with period music playing in the background.  At the conclusion, I noticed a young worker who carried what proved to be an enormous ancient metal sprinkler key (not unlike a gigantic version of ours before we installed automatic timers) open a cap in the pavement, turn a valve with the key, and off went the water!  Just as they’ve been doing since the 1790s no doubt.

Normandy and Giverny – We took two side-trips, one to Normandy to tour the D-day Beaches and Mont St Michel, and the other to Giverny to see Monet’s house and garden.  Both were highlights of the trip and warrant posts of their own to describe.

My first night-time viewof the Eiffel Tower, doing its sparkle show!

My first night-time view of the Eiffel Tower, doing its sparkle show!

Eiffel Tower – Even though I’d seen a zillion pictures my entire life, the Eiffel Tower in person is still hands down the most spectacular sight in Paris.  I’d already been to Epcot Center and Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casinso (with its scale model of the Tower) so I thought I’d already pretty much seen it.  But the sight of the real thing in person at night takes your breath away. The night of our ill-fated dinner cruise (when we couldn’t find the launch spot) we instead went to dinner at a restaurant nearby.  As we rounded a corner, I caught my first sight of the Eiffel Tower all lit up.  Not only that…every hour on the hour for five minutes there is a sparkly light display on the Tower……and that was my first view.   I immediately burst into tears at the sight.   I realized that, even though we missed our dinner cruise and I was initially terribly disappointed, in this city there are countless other splendors just waiting around the corner.

Paris: Pahr-Lay Voo?

I always thought French was such a beautiful language…until I got in a wrestling match with it.  Some people have a knack for languages.  That group would not include me. In addition to English, I struggled through four years of Spanish in school.  Although I’m not great at it, if I find myself in a foreign country, any foreign country, I for some reason reflexively revert to random Spanish.  I once greeted (Hola!”)  and tried to give instructions in Spanish to a cab driver in Japan.  My brain evidently divides the world into English-speaking and Everything Else.

My husband was no help – he took German in school. In anticipation of our trip to Paris, we had every intention of learning some French.  I looked into potentially taking a community college course but couldn’t find one that fit my schedule.  Then I downloaded a French app on my iPhone that proved to be useless (“the cat is black”) and with which I developed a weird love-hate relationship.  (A bell would ring when a correct answer was given and an obnoxious gong would sound when I messed up.) We still have the “Quick and Easy” French language CDs that someone lent us sitting, un-cracked, on the kitchen counter.   And, I got busy with other preparations.

Everyone assured us, however, that “Parisians all speak English” and “you only need to know a few key phrases.”  I listened to Rick Steves podcasts which I interpreted as saying that as long as you start any communication with pleasantries such as “Bonjour Madame,” (to create some goodwill) you would then be forgiven for either not speaking or butchering the language.

I never left the apartment without my key tools of communication

I never left the apartment without my key tools of communication

So off we headed to France, having memorized about 3 key phrases, most of which we already knew from movies and It’s a Small World. Just to be safe, I downloaded iTranslate on my iPhone, and a friend lent me a little Berlitz “French for Travelers” book.

On the flight over, I pulled out the Berlitz and glanced over the special rules of French.  For example, a “G” is pronounced “J” or “Z,”  the last consonant in a syllable is usually silent or picked up at the beginning of the next, and an “R” is a weird throat sound.  I was starting to get nervous.   The phrases were listed phonetically and I noticed that they were pronounced much differently than they were spelled.  The French seem to disregard whole chunks of letters in a word and add or mispronounce others.  I spent much of the flight repeating over and over to myself “pahrlay voo ahnggleh” (do you speak English?) and  “zher ner pahrlpah frahngsseh”  (I don’t speak French.).  How stupid was that – learning how to say you can’t speak a language…in that language?!

Our language troubles in France began almost immediately.  When we arrived at our apartment, a young fellow named Leandro met us.   He spoke no English.   He gave us the keys and explained everything we needed to know in French…. and pantomime.  When it came time to agree on a time for check-out, we pulled out our iPhones and negotiated via iTranslate, When he left I wasn’t completely sure how anything worked or what I had just agreed to.  Then we walked to the Metro station to buy either a weekly pass or a carnet (I wasn’t sure which was best or how to buy).  We found the Information Desk, as Rick Steves advised to get help, and I did my best “Bonjour Madame, pahrlay voo ahnggleh” and she looked at me, unimpressed, and said (in perfect English I might add) “No”.  The next trial was finding supplies at the market.  Everything was in French! (And why did that surprise me?) I found a friendly young Parisian who admitted to speaking a “little” English but “soy milk” wasn’t in her vocabulary.  By the end of the first day, we were mentally exhausted.

Over the course of our visit, I found the language barrier more problematic than anticipated.  English was not as widely spoken as I had expected. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t learned more French and that I probably epitomized the stereotypical ignorant American who expects everyone to speak English.  When I did attempt French, I’m sure I bungled it horribly.  The French word for “where” is pronounced “oo-ay” so when I asked for directions I’d try to say “oo-ay  toilet or oo-ay metro.”  One entire day, I got puzzled looks with my requests for directions—- since I couldn’t remember, I was alternating between “ee-ay” or “i-ay” or “oy-vay”.  When a proper response to a question was “oui” I often said “si” (back to my random Spanish).  My husband, despite my frequent coaching, never quite mastered the “Bonjour Madame” lead-in, and charged into every conversation in English without any pleasantries either in French or English.  We became accustomed to that Look of Disdain that Parisians do so well.  While on a train to Normandy, it came to a halt, an announcement was made in French only, and many people got off.  Some time later, another announcement in French, and everyone got back on.  We still have no idea what happened.  At that point, I mentioned to my husband that not speaking or understanding the language gave me the sense of being deaf and dumb.

But more importantly, not speaking the language impeded our ability to connect with the locals.  One thing I enjoy about traveling is meeting people in the places we visit.  Since we stayed in an apartment rather than a hotel, locals rather than English-speaking support staff and fellow guests surrounded us. I shared my frustration with an Australian woman we met in Normandy and she told me she had taken French lessons but it didn’t help that much.  So, I’m not sure I could’ve learned enough French to have the level of engagement I enjoy, but I think next time I visit a non-English speaking country I would like to make more of an effort to learn the language.  At least so I could say “I speak a little of your language” in their language.

Paris: Mort de Musee (Death by Museum)

I can now cross a major item off my Bucket List – my husband and I just returned from a 15-day dream trip to Paris.  The first five days of our trip, however, nearly contributed to an Early Bucket, triggered equally by fatigue and a husband-led revolt.

Since we weren’t going on an organized tour, I spent an inordinate amount of time working on the itinerary in the four weeks following my retirement and before we left.  (I had hoped to use my last days in the office to plan my trip but I was kept busy until the bitter end.)  I used the Rick Steves “Paris” book as my Bible and received numerous tips from almost everyone I know who heard I was going to Paris and had been there before.   Of course I didn’t want to miss anything, so it was a challenge putting an itinerary together.   I’m the planner in our family and due to both choice and circumstances my husband was completely uninvolved until he started packing.

The Four-Day Museum Passes seemed like a good idea

The Four-Day Museum Passes seemed like a good idea

The Rick Steves book recommended the purchase of Paris Museum Passes, which cover many of the major museums and sites in Paris.  The passes both save money and allow holders to bypass long lines, and come in two, four or six day versions (but must be used on consecutive days).   The strategy I decided to employ (based on Rick Steves advice) was to list all the Museum Pass attractions I wanted to see, add up how much they would cost without the pass, and then assess which version would be most cost- and time-effective.   Based on this analysis, I decided on 4-day passes (5-day passes would have been ideal but they don’t exist).  Since the various sites are open different hours and days, the next puzzle was to identify the four consecutive days that would work for the sites identified.  Unfortunately, the only four-consecutive-day block that would work was right smack at the beginning of our trip.  We would have one day to get settled and then, BAM!, we’d start our Museum Pass days.  I thought it would be aggressive in terms of slightly grueling days at the beginning of our trip, but hey, we could do it!

We arrived in Paris at 6:00 AM on a Tuesday morning.  It was cold and rainy and we were severely jet-lagged and tired.   We spent most of Tuesday sleeping and getting oriented to our apartment and neighborhood.  Then Wednesday dawned and it was time to buy our Museum Passes and start ticking off the list.  Here was our itinerary for Wed – Sat:


Historic Paris Walk (Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Conciergerie, Deportation Memorial, Ile St Louis, Latin Quarater, Pont Neuf)


Orsay Museum, Rodin Museum, Napoleon’s Tomb and Army Museum, Rue Cler Walk and “relax” at Cafe


Champs Elysees Walk (starting at Arc de Triomph and ending at Tuileries Garden for lunch), Orangerie Museum, Louvre


Versailles (Château, Gardens,  Trianon Palaces, and Domaine de Marie Antoinette)

My husband at the end of one of our Museum Pass days

My husband at the end of one of our Museum Pass days

I approached the days like a drill sergeant with special orders. My husband was doing his best to be a good sport and would dutifully ask “What’s Next?” after finishing each site, but he soon began to resemble a prisoner on a death march. The real trouble began somewhere between Napoleon’s Tomb and the Arc de Triomph when his mood turned suddenly foul.  It got so bad on the Champs Elysees (not even a hot chocolate and pastries at Laduree broke the mood) that I briefly considered waving the white flag and declaring a Free Day (Museum Pass be damned!)   Luckily, there was some relief when we met an American couple from Davis, CA, at the café for lunch who turned out to be SF Giants fans.  I looked to the heavens in the Tuilleries Garden and said a prayer of thankfulness. Talking about the World Series last year lifted my husband’s spirits and gave him that extra boost he needed to get up and attack the Louvre.

A moment I will never forget came around 4:30 pm near the end of our last Museum Pass Day, at Versailles (which was an entire day trip in itself and a 30-minute train ride from Paris).  My husband looked at me with the most pathetic disoriented look in his eyes and asked “Are We Going to Giverny today, too?”

In hindsight, we might have either stretched out the museums, broken them up or done them after we got our Paris legs under us.  On the other hand, we both felt like we got the “work” out of the way early, saw the Things You Must See When You Go To Paris and were now free to wander freely…and THAT was fun!  More on that later.

Ethics at the Naval Academy

Now that I got some vitriol off my chest (see previous post) regarding our last Annapolis weekend, I’d like to do some gushing about President’s Circle Weekend at the Naval Academy.   Specifically, one of my favorite experiences was attending a seminar entitled “Ethics at the Naval Academy.”

The US Naval Academy Seal

The US Naval Academy Seal

I had the option of 3 seminars, the other two being (1) Project Based Learning and (2) Athletic Excellence.  Both sounded interesting but less thought provoking. The topic of Ethics appeals to me for several reasons.  I have always been fascinated by the discussion of ethics, whether in the legal profession or the business world, and by how people apply ethical principles to difficult situations.  I was especially interested in how ethics is applied in military situations and what principles and frameworks are being taught to the Midshipmen. In order to obtain my law license, I was required to take a supplemental section of the Bar Exam on Legal Ethics  (no, that is not an oxymoron).   Ethics can be a rigorous form of mental gymnastics, trying to apply black and white principles to gray situations.  And where else are the situations as gray as the life or death decisions in the ambiguous modern world and our War on Terror?

The seminar was being held in the Planetarium in Luce Hall, which was cause for concern, since I always fall asleep in planetariums.   Inside was a distinguished looking professor and a panel of 4 midshipmen, 2 female and 2 male.  The professor introduced himself as CAPT Bill Rubel, USN (Ret), Distinguished Military Professor (which explains why he was distinguished looking). The Professor explained that the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law delivers a curriculum of over 35 core and elective courses in leadership, ethics, character and law that allow Midshipmen to better conceptualize military leadership and develop the skills critical to Officers in the Navy and Marine Corps, such as the ability to:

  • Understand human behavior as it pertains to leaders in military organizations.
  • Demonstrate increasingly complex applications of leader skills related to human behavior, character, ethics and military law.
  • Integrate, analyze, and evaluate acquired knowledge and experience, and effectively use it in the decision-making process.

OK, all sounds great, I thought, but is this something that’s really taken seriously (back to ethics in the law or in the business world)?  What followed was a freewheeling participative discussion by both the PC attendees and the panel of Midshipmen, led by the Distinguished Professor that absolutely blew my socks off.  The Professor rarely stated an opinion but kept us all talking and THINKING. We discussed the following topics, among others:

  • What is right?   What is wrong?
  • Can we teach ethics?
  • Why is there a disconnect between our thoughts about ethics and our actions?
  • Why do we do wrong when we know it is wrong?
  • Why do we do right?

At one point, one of the Mids (I wrote her name down because I was so impressed and I expect to see great things from her in the future) made an observation that really blew the entire room away.  After much discussion from the audience about how unprincipled young people are today, the Mid calmly and tactfully observed that her generation was raised by parents who would condone or at least tolerate cheating if it meant getting A’s and getting into the Ivy League school.

The Professor also showed a triangle to illustrate the 3 main, often competing, objectives in a military operation:

  • Complete the Mission
  • Protect Own Troops
  • Protect Innocent Non-Combatants

One of the other Mids shared that he and his company and room mates, based on the framework for ethical decisions that are taught at the Academy, often stay up until wee hours of the morning discussing different military and political scenarios and arguing what would be the right approaches and outcomes.

The last point the Professor made that I found impactful was a chart that demonstrated the components of effective leadership.  I didn’t snap a picture of it with my iPhone (I thought that might be unethical) so I don’t remember the specifics, but it listed the relative importance of the parties (e.g., country, team, etc.) and on the bottom was “self”.  The point being that an effective leader puts his or her self-interest last.  The Professor observed that this was what was so difficult about Plebe Summer.  Recently-graduated high school seniors, who were mostly hot-shots and superstars in their high school careers, show up at the Academy and the “self” gets knocked from first to last place, fairly abruptly and dramatically.  There was further discussion from the Mids about how, even though there is tremendous pressure at the Academy to succeed, there is also a leadership environment that encourages team rather than individual success.

I left the planetarium wide awake,  with that familiar mental gymnastics fatigue associated with ethical discussions, but a deep sense of hope that we have an upcoming generation of leaders who are schooled not only in technical aspects of military operations but the ethical and leadership facets as well.   It also made me wonder whether some of our country’s leadership problems stem from having fewer elected officials with military backgrounds, given that only 2% of the population is now serving in the military.  How about compulsory military service for politicians?

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Our Trip to Washington, D.C.

We just returned from a weekend in the Washington, D.C., area, specifically Annapolis, MD, where we experienced some of the best and the worst of our country.  The purpose of the trip was threefold, to: (1) visit our son, a Midshipman at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis; (2) attend the Navy-Air Force football game; and (3) participate in President’s Circle Weekend at USNA.  The Presidents Circle is comprised of donors to the USNA and the weekend is intended to honor, entertain and provide information to PC members.

The Tuesday before our trip to Annapolis, the federal government shut down due to the inability of elected officials to agree on a funding bill.   Subsequently, it was announced that all service academy sports would be suspended and civilian employees (including instructors) at the service academies would be part of a larger federal government employee furlough.

There have been government shutdowns in the past, but never have the service academy sporting events been affected.  I also learned that Navy uses no appropriated funds and Army and Air Force only minimal amounts to support their football programs.  Basically, some of America’s finest student-athletes who are under already enormous pressure to fulfill their academic, physical, athletic and military obligations were being used as a political football (literally and figuratively) to impose additional pressure on the partisan process. After 36-48 hours of wrangling, it was announced that the Navy-Air Force as well as the Army-Boston College games would be played.  Future academies’ sporting events, however, are still in limbo.

With all this as a backdrop, we landed late Thursday evening at Dulles airport and drove through Washington, D.C.  I was reminded of how beautiful the city is, particularly at night with all the floodlit monuments.  I feel very proud and patriotic when I visit Washington and see the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, but this time I felt a profound sense of shame and sadness as I considered the resident stupidity superimposed on a city resplendent with beautiful tributes to our democracy.

On Friday, we participated in a full day of President’s Circle meetings.   The Superintendent of the Academy addressed us, barely containing his anger and frustration with the shutdown beneath his usual impenetrable and optimistic cheerfulness.  He reported that, for the first week of the shutdown, the military instructors were pulling double-duty shifts, covering as best they could for furloughed civilian professors. Even so, about 20% of classes were cancelled, and that number would rise to 50% if the furlough extended into the second week.  Midshipmen (who must finish their schooling in four years) that are majoring in certain areas where departments were hit especially hard by the shutdown, including Chemistry, are in danger of not qualifying for specialized degrees if the shutdown continues much longer.  It was clear that the Superintendent had spent a significant portion of his week not focused on strategic direction, but instead at the Pentagon negotiating for a football game and resources and throwing together contingency plans to provide basic needs to the Brigade of Midshipmen.  In fact, the technical crew that should have been at Alumni Hall to run the sound and media had been furloughed, so members of the Navy band were filling in.

In contrast to our experience of the bad and the ugly, we also experienced the good.   I had lunch with two female Midshipmen who refused to be discouraged by the shutdown.  They shrugged it off, expressing confidence that things would work out and, in the meantime, described how the entire USNA community was banding together to help each other, including tutoring, coaching, and mentoring.  In larger terms, they spoke of their excitement and pride at being at the Naval Academy and their desire to serve their country.  I asked about their experience being female at the Naval Academy and both found the Academy to be a more supportive environment than they had anticipated.

Saturday was game day and, as usual, my husband and I attended his USNA Class tailgate before the game.  At the tailgate I met two gentlemen – one a USNA classmate of my husband’s who had been a Blue Angel, and the other, an USAFA graduate who had been a Thunderbird.   They had met during their concurrent Blues/T-Bird tours of duty and have been fast friends ever since.  Unexpected encounters like this are what I love about visiting Annapolis. As a bookend to the Mids with their whole career in front of them, I love hearing the veterans describe with love, sadness, excitement, wistfulness, regret, but always pride, their military careers.

We put cares aside and foam ships hats on our heads and enjoyed a great game

We put cares aside and foam ships on our heads and enjoyed a great game

And then it was time for the Game That Almost Didn’t Happen.   A sellout crowd, setting a home game record, poured into Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on a beautiful balmy day in Annapolis.  We took a break from partisan bickering and all of us, Democrats, Republicans and Independents, watched the young men from Navy and Air Force play a game of football.  A game that means a lot to them and to service members around the world.  A game that likely will determine which Academy wins the Commander in Chief Trophy and a trip to the White House.  A game that should not have been used as a bargaining chip by warring factions in Washington. We watched the Midshipmen; wearing goofy yellow foam ship hats, jump for joy as their team defeated Air Force 28-10.  And in the end, I resolved that I’d like to find a way to use my time and talents to provide constructive reform to the political process in our country.  I want to support our young people in the military who are putting their lives on the line every day to protect us, and I want to support the future leaders of our country to whom we are handing a very broken world, and, mostly,  I want to feel proud again when I drive back from Annapolis through Washington, D.C., to Dulles airport.

Please Stand By…..I Am Currently Experiencing Technical Difficulties..Potentially Forever

OK, I admit, besides my friends, there are a few things I miss about the job.   In no particular order:

  • My office
  • My Administrative Assistant (who counts double since I consider him a friend)
  • IT Support

Up until I was getting close to retirement, I primarily used my work laptop to store files, my company email address for all correspondence, and my office phone number and my company BlackBerry to communicate.   We have an iMac at home for my husband that I rarely used.  At work, I had a great office, one down from the corner on the outside, with a great view of the city from the 20th floor.

I was the Queen of my technology.  I had my email organized in archives by year and subject matter. My laptop files were organized such that I could find almost anything from any client, any topic, any year, within a matter of minutes.  Just try me! I had the best Administrative Assistant in the office, and he took care of all my travel arrangements, created kick-ass PowerPoint, Word and Excel documents for me, finished tasks with minimal direction (because I’m convinced he is part gypsy mind-reader), and was always calm, kind and patient.  When I had a computer problem that Mel couldn’t handle, we had an IT department and a help desk that I could call 24/7.

In anticipation of retirement, my husband and I bought iPhones. an iPad and a Mac Book Pro laptop.  Then I started transitioning files and contacts to all our various devices.

And that’s when the trouble began.  First, I tried to download scores of personal documents onto a flash drive and then transfer them to my home laptop.  On first blush, everything looked copacetic and I marveled at how easy this transition was going to be.  A week before my last day in the office, however, on a whim I tried to actually open one of these files and got an ominous error message.   I then spent half a day furiously emailing documents from the office to home.

A few days AFTER I surrendered my company laptop, I noticed that messages in my personal email inbox (including the personal file attachments I so valiantly saved) were mysteriously disappearing after 7 days. All this occurring from my new base of operations: the den at home, with no desk, no view, with its own weather system of 85 – 90 degrees in the summer even with the A/C on and the ceiling fan that routinely blows all of my papers off the coffee table and under the futon couch causing me to constantly think I have lost my mind because I can never find anything.


As part of his lecture to me at the Apple Store, the Genius drew this chart because he could tell I had no clue what he was talking about

As part of his really annoying lecture to me at the Apple Store, the Genius drew this chart to illustrate his points. I just wanted to know why my emails were disappearing.

By this time, the closest thing I had to an IT helpdesk was my husband.  I approached him at what was apparently an inconvenient moment about my disappearing email problem and he suggested I leave him alone and make an appointment with the Genius at the Apple Store.  The next day I met with Sean O’Twentysomething, the Apple Genius, who really irritated me when he didn’t just push a button and fix my problem immediately but instead schooled me about IMAP and POP and the CLOUD (as if I really cared).  But not half as much as I irritated my husband when I showed him Sean’s IMAP/POP/ICLOUD  drawings and told him that Sean O’Twentysomething said I should delete all our emails and start over.  My husband muttered something about multiple devices and iCloud and how much easier it was with just him on the home computer.

A series of further technical crises ensued, including a need to determine how to print from the laptop in the den to the computer in the family room, my inability to print attachments from an email, trouble deciphering how Apple mail organizes emails by “conversation” (causing me to shriek “HELP ME….THE EMAILS ARE DISAPPEARING AGAIN!!!), and messing up both of our shared calendars. One morning, after I marched into the kitchen a third or fourth time to have a word with the IT department (my husband) who was in the middle of slicing apples, he said, “You sure are demanding.  Were you like this at work?”  And then he went back to slicing apples. My reply that I was only being about a third as demanding as I was at work and that I missed Mel who was always patient and helpful with me certainly didn’t help the situation.

In my minds eye, I saw flashbacks of my father, who retired as a Navy captain after a distinguished 30-year career.  The first thing my mom did when he retired was to assign him chores around the house.  Mainly to send a clear message as to who was in charge. The two chores I clearly remember were vacuuming the stairs and cleaning the toilets.  My father instinctively knew that he would never issue orders again.  In this moment of clarity, I too, realized that I have lost my clout in my new world order.  I’m going to just have to wait my turn with the IT department, until he’s good and ready to help me, or just get used to a life of technical difficulties…or, horrors!…..start to figure things out myself.