Two-Thing Story

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I sat with my kids and played “two-thing story” as I tucked them into bed. This was a game where my kid picked two nouns out of the air and I had to come up with a story that included the two things. Then we swapped and I picked the two nouns and the kid would come up with a story. It was simple. Two kids, two things, and lots of laughs.

I like to make complex things simpler. I usually view my fellow man through a simple, digital filter. Ones or zeroes. Happy Shmo or Angry Shmo. Here’s an example: “There are two kinds of people: Those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.” (Aren’t I clever?)

Here are some of the filters I use.

The first is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted studies and wrote a paper called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (1999).” They published it in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. I gather we live in a post-fact world, but this is science if you still care. This is what it says in the paper’s abstract: “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

In a nutshell, stupid people view themselves as smart. Smart people view themselves as stupid. I’m sure you’re already coming up with dozens of examples.

Here’s the next filter I use. It’s called Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. Jerry Pournelle was a science fiction writer who split the world into two groups of people, thank you very much. The first group is people who are devoted to the goals of the organization. The second group is dedicated to the organization itself. The Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that, in every case, the second group will gain control of the organization.

This is the filter that I recite to myself when I’m staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night wondering why my “career” didn’t go any further with Uncle Sam. It was because I was naively devoted to preparing for combat (the organization’s goal) and got shown the door by the bureaucracy. (Could it be because I was kind of a douchebag who got angry too often? Nah.) Yet again, I’m sure you can find examples in the newspapers of people who care about the ideals of our government (the Constitution and Bill of Rights; “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) vs. those who care about the machinery of government and their ever-climbing role in it.

Here’s a third and mildly profane filter. I just finished reading a book by Sherman Alexie called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In it, the young protagonist realizes something: “The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.” I agree with this view. I think a lot of my fellow citizens do also, but too much. I fear that one half of the country thinks that the other half of the country is filled with assholes. Simultaneously, the other half of the country thinks the same thing right back. Well, in the immortal words of Dire Straits in the song “Industrial Disease”: Two men say they’re Jesus. / One of them must be wrong. I don’t believe we’re an entire nation of assholes.

I’m not saying that everybody’s great and we should all smile and hold hands. There is evil in the world. Some people in the world are beheading other people. Some people are killing other people by dipping them in nitric acid until their organs dissolve. Some of that evil is even on our own soil. So maybe, just maybe, when we’re inside our own borders, we can focus our rage like a laser on genuine assholes: Bigots. Vandals. Misogynists. Let’s make sure we include all the overseas genuine assholes on the targeting list, too.

But at home, can we stop spraying bile on whole groups of people over policy disagreements? Don’t forget what Elmore Leonard wrote: “If you meet an asshole in the morning, you met an asshole. If you meet assholes all day long, you’re the asshole.”

And here’s one last, two-thing thought that I try to teach my kids. I ask them, “What are the only two things that matter?” They answer, “What’s in your heart and what’s in your head.” Hey, look at that guy with one leg. What matters about that guy? What’s in his heart and what’s in his head. Hey, that person doesn’t look like me. What matters about her? Her heart and her head. You don’t have to remember a wicked long list about what not to care about. You only have to remember two things.

It’s the two-thing story I hope my kids remember long after their unrecognized genius of a father is taking his dirt nap.

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Dear Cross Country Skier,

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Dear Cross-Country Skier,

This is not my idea. It’s a darn good one though, so I stole it from Scott Kylander-Johnson. Shelley and I just donated $1000 to the Duluth Cross Country Ski Club (DXC) Capital Campaign.

I might be the last guy you should listen to. I ran a marathon and raised money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Then they had a doping scandal. I ran the Superior Hiking Trail in 41 sections over a 5-month period to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project. Then their leadership got fired for throwing million-dollar parties. So, I’m a little sour on national-level charities right now.

That’s why giving locally is great. We’ll see the result of our gift. We’ll sit and warm up in the Lester-Amity Chalet. We’ll ski at the Grand Avenue Nordic Center (no matter what) because of the manmade snow. I’ve been skiing since I could walk. My kids have, too. We love this sport. We have the luxury of being able to do something tangible for cross-country skiing. So, we did.

Shelley and I have lived in Utah, Alaska, Korea, New Hampshire, California, Arizona, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. We’ve been around the block. We’ve never lived in a better place than Duluth, Minnesota. We don’t exaggerate when we use this word about this city: Love. This gift is our way of showing it in a meaningful way.

I’m going to put on my fancy pants now so I can quote a French writer and philosopher named Voltaire. He wrote a book called Candide. In the very last line of the book, the main character sums up his philosophy of life by saying, “We must cultivate our garden.” I recently read something by Adam Gopnik that explains that line: “The force of that last great injunction, “We must cultivate our garden,” is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action.”

Local. Immediate action. That sings to me, especially when I accidentally watch the national news.

Please consider the DXC Capital Campaign as part of your charitable donation plan. You’ll be able to ski on the results.

Eric and Shelley Chandler

For details on how to donate, click here.

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Crater in Mosul

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Balad AB, Iraq, 2005.

[This story first appeared in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors (Volume 3)]

Kingpin told me that we had a TIC (Troops in Contact) in Mosul. Fozz and I were on the tanker already. I told the tanker to start heading north. Mosul was about three hundred miles north of our current position in Iraq.

If you go fast for three hundred miles, your F-16 runs out of gas before you get there. Hurrying, in a normal sense, meant we wouldn’t even arrive. So, we took our gas and asked the tanker to cap directly over Mosul. Fozz and I pressed on ahead. It’s excruciating to travel at a middling speed when you know somebody needs your help.

The city was nestled in the brown hills to the northeast. The sun was setting over Syria and Turkey to the west. We were the only air in town except for a couple of helicopters.

We checked onto the frequency and the chopper guy fed us some coordinates. We plugged them into our jets and plotted an intersection on the southern edge of town.

We said we didn’t have contact with anything unusual at those coordinates.

The helicopter dude sounded a little exasperated as he tried to get our eyes onto where the action was. We just couldn’t find it. I gave up looking through the targeting pod and just “looked out the window.” No luck.

The chopper pilot said something like, “Dude. Do you see the huge crater?”

I looked around as the darkness increased. City lights. Car headlights. I was feeling pretty useless after coming so far. I apologized and told the choppers I’d keep searching. The helicopters begged off and said they had to go to get fuel at the FARP (Forward Air Refueling Point). We kept looking and finally, there it was, a few miles north of where we initially plotted it.

Flames flickered out of a giant gaping hole in the city. It was a crater the size of my house. It was in the middle of what used to be a street. I felt like a dumbass for not being able to see this enormous scar in the earth.

The helicopters returned from their refueling and asked us to look around the perimeter of the explosion for snipers. We scanned with our targeting pods. The chopper pilots said that our opponents liked to torch off bombs and then start shooting at the people who show up to help. It seems odd to know a pattern of behavior about something so awful.

There was a bulldozer working inside the crater. I’m not sure what it was doing. I just remember that bulldozer pushing piles of debris around in the dark, surrounded by little flaming piles of wreckage. We didn’t find any snipers. As the darkness fell, I watched in infrared as the ambulances came and hauled people away.

We got word that this was a VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) in a truck. They suspected another truck was supposed to participate, but it was leaving the scene. We needed to find it. We expanded our search and found a big truck, like a gasoline tanker, driving out of town to the west. We reported it. They said the bomb builders were based on a road near where the truck was headed. We circled over that truck and followed it to an encampment to the west, so far that we had to modify our orbit for the Syrian border. We were excited. We expected to do something about it.

And then, like so many other times in Iraq, nothing came of it. The interest in the target petered out. It wasn’t a TIC anymore. We left to do other things.

I used to pick up the free copy of Stars and Stripes every day as I left the chow hall. I would often find details about what I did in the air a few days prior. Sure enough, I read about the explosion in Mosul. It was a deuce and a half, loaded with bags of wheat. And explosives. It drove into the market and got people to line up.

I imagine the guy on the bed of the truck saying, “Come get your wheat here! Great prices!” I picture mothers and little children walking closer to buy some food. And then I see them engulfed in flame.

 

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