Captain Phillips and the Mystery of the Missing Commander

Captain Phillips and the Mystery of the Missing Commander

Every once in a while I have weird coincidences, and this past week was one of them. A story in my Facebook newsfeed popped up about Michelle Howard.090707-N-5345W-083

Doesn’t ring a bell?

Didn’t to me either.

It turns out that Michelle Howard just became the Navy’s first female 4 Star Admiral. That’s pretty cool, particularly because she’s a minority on multiple counts — and she’s short, so yeah, I’m cheering for her.

I got a wee bit curious about Admiral Howard so I did a little poking around and discovered she’s a native of Colorado (gorgeous state) and that her childhood dream was to have a distinguished service record in the US military (I love it when kids dream big!).

I also discovered that within three days of her taking command of the Navy’s counterpiracy task force in the Arabian Sea aboard the USS Boxer (an amphibious assault ship of the US Navy), she was presented with the hijacking of the US-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, who took the Alabama’s captain, Richard Phillips, hostage aboard a lifeboat and headed at speed toward the Somali Coast.

Howard devised the plan to rescue Captain Phillips, a dramatic mission that Hollywood turned into fantastic movie, a satisfying conflation of just the right amount of truth and fiction. (Cinematic imperative aside, it appears that it took 19 shots by our Navy SEALS to dispatch the pirates on to their Maker, as opposed to the 3 rounds decisively fired in the movie).

Here’s the coincidence: about two days later, I wandered into the family room and David is watching Captain Phillips. I had never seen the film, and my interest was piqued because of my new connection to Michelle Howard, so I sat down to watch for a spell, and Lo And Behold, Commander Howard Is Not In The Movie.

Well, technically she is: a scratchy (female) voice on the other end of the comms can be heard barking generic instructions to the Commander aboard the USS Bainbridge (the Navy Destroyer from which the physical confrontation with the Somalis and rescue of Phillips takes place), a dashing fellow who, along with the negotiator, delivers to us our right and proper sense of What People In Charge Look Like. The chiseled jaws in this movie are a sight to behold.

The movie is all men, all the time, and honestly, I’d be fine with that (remember, I love men!), except that the person in charge was Michelle Howard.

I’m thinking that had Howard been a male-shaped person, the movie would have included the requisite “back at headquarters” shots with men tensely rubbing their (chiseled) jaws as they huddle around technicolor maps displayed horizontally in the center of the room, playing a grown-up version of BattleShip, and, ultimately, high-fiving and wiping their brows when word arrived that the mission they masterminded had been successful.

What we routinely see affects our understanding of what is normal, acceptable, probable. I’m not asking for a fiction here. In no way am I suggesting that the leadership, bravery, creativity and brilliance of the Commanding officer aboard the Bainbridge, and the SEAL team that put their own lives at risk be diminished or downplayed in any way. I’m simply asking for a fuller truth to be told.

That Commander Howard was there. That she was ultimately in charge. That her ideas, her leadership, her bravery, her creativity were part of why the mission was successful.  We need to aggressively terminate this dominant narrative in American pop culture, that Men With Chiseled Jaws save the day.

Because, honestly, not all men have chiseled jaws.

And because men and women work together, all the time, whether or not their collaboration is portrayed on the Silver Screen. Sometimes, women lead.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, probably, Captain Phillips, bound and gagged in the back of that lifeboat, held at gunpoint by madmen, could not have cared less what gender, color or — it must said — height was possessed by the person who was responsible for getting him off that boat alive. He just wanted whomever it was to be competent, determined, empowered, brave.

Michelle Howard is all those things, and she’s got 4 stars to prove it.  Which is 4 more than any of us have.

From what I’ve read about her, those 4 stars don’t prove anything to her though. She’s too busy doing her job to care.

Harold Fry, Walter Mitty and Me

I am a pilgrim at heart.

One of my earliest memories is of my dad coming to say goodbye to 4 or 5 year old me in the dark hours of the morning as he headed off on a business trip to a magical, faraway place called Switzerland. That seemed to me to be a lot like Disneyland but for grownups.

I can still smell his cologne, feel his freshly shaven face on mine as he whispered his love and promised soon to return, and I knew the black fancy car was already out front waiting to whisk him away to the airport and off to his adventure. More than anything in the world, I wanted to go too.

The urge to travel, or more specifically, to journey, I am sure is etched deep in my DNA, and throughout the years of my life I have traveled as time, opportunity and good fortune have permitted.books

I have been transported by the requisite trains, planes and automobiles. I have traveled on foot, by bike, by boat and, dare I admit it, even in my imagination, but some of my favorite journeys have been by way of books and the millisecond frames of provocative films. My own story seemed best told as a pilgrimage, a travelogue of interior places, even though physically I rarely left the confines of my living room. The Spirit, however, seems uniquely undeterred by what we think of as boundaries of time and space. The world of the psalms, I discovered, was a place where past, present and future were all accessible, where physical space dissipated in ways that defied explanation, where the longest, most arduous portions of my journey were mysteriously begun and completed in the span of a few silent, still, knee-bent hours.

And so it should come as no great surprise that when my family made a bee-line for the Waterstone bookstore that was a mere stones throw from our Trafalgar flat last week, I hiked up my skirts and joined the mad dash. It should come as no further surprise that the book I selected and started thumbing through on the walk back, nose book-ward and thus running into people and trees, was aptly titled, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. The book tells the story of a simple English man, a few years into retirement, who sets out one day — in yachting shoes and a slight jacket — to walk down the lane and post a letter to a dying friend, and ends up walking the entire way across England to deliver the letter in person. His motivations are breathtaking — simple, painful, archetypal — and like most motivations for most of us, they are inaccessible to him until he actually begins to walk. It is in the walking, in the hunger of journeying, the leaving behind and the stepping forward one foot after the other, that he matures, a process that begins with a wrenching self-knowledge and ends with self-offering and joyful abandon.

I finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage somewhere over Greenland. The plane was dark, most were asleep, and I felt an exquisite sadness that there was no one else on that plane who knew Harold Fry, no one with whom I could reflect upon his well-traveled road. I blew my nose and dried my tears, sat for a spell in the dark, and pondered it all. Finally, feeling somewhat blue at having to say goodbye to Harold, I decided to see if there were any movies worth watching.secret_life_of_walter_mitty_ver7

My sister-in-law had posted on Facebook a few days earlier that she and my brother had immensely enjoyed the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and seeing it there on the console I pushed ‘select’ and settled in to see what it was that captured Joe and Camille’s affection.

To my surprise and delight, Walter Mitty — like Harold Fry, like me — is a pilgrim.   I won’t spoil the movie for anyone interested, but suffice it to say that Walter, like Harold, can’t entirely figure out exactly how he ended up in the life he’s got. In his imagination, Walter is a different sort of person living a different sort of life, a life diametrically opposed to the real one he finds himself occupying. In the beginning, his journeying is all in his imagination, but as the film unfolds we realize that Walter’s imaginary life has imperceptibly done a deep work in Walter, enabling him to take an actual journey in the real world — a pilgrimage by plane and helicopter, by skateboard and bicycle, in the company of drunks and gurus and in the end, entirely alone. He traverses continents, runs toward active volcanoes, travels backwards in time to his childhood, and forward into an unknown future by way of relationships. In the end, Walter — like Harold, like me — is made new by his quest which began in imagination, was fueled by hope and hunger, and resolved ultimately in a quiet assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

Perhaps all pilgrimages are ultimately about faith.

Where Dead Poets and faith meet

MV5BMzA5MTE0NTUwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTgyMDUxMDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

This quote is from an early scene in the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society. I first saw this film when I was in college and loved it. At the time I thought my future involved a PhD in rhetoric, a small liberal arts classroom and a lifetime of teaching, so Robin Williams’ character was more than just momentarily inspiring.

Last night, happily ensconced in our flat with the chatter from the Sherlock Holmes pub providing the perfect city din below, I watched it again, and it was just as captivating.

More than 20 years have passed since I first saw the movie, and although it is exactly the same, I am not. Those intervening years have altered my perspective in much the same way as climbing up on their desks’ critically and forever altered those school boys’ point of view. Once you climb up, there’s simply no going back.

What struck me in this viewing was the sympathy I had for Neil’s father, the antagonist in the film, pitch-perfectly played by Kurtwood Smith. When I first saw the film so many years ago, I read him quite flatly as the villainous, domineering parent who refused to nurture even the slightest hint of passion in his son.

But now I am a parent.

Every day I think about the future my children will have, and even if I try not to, there’s always Facebook and the Mommy Wars to remind me that other parents are making wildly different choices — in school choice, in extracurricular activities, in priorities — that throw shade on my own.

Neil’s father was doing the best he could. He loved his son, and he envisioned his son’s future unfolding in a particular, certain way — ripe with meaningful achievement, financial security, social acceptance.

The fatal flaw in Mr. Perry, of course, is not what he wishes for his son; it is that he lacks all self-awareness. Having (conveniently) fixated on Neil, he excuses himself from doing the hard work of understanding where he ends and his son begins, where his own fears and lusts, forged in the crucible of “real” life, threaten to overwhelm the adolescent hopes and dreams of his child. Controlled by dark, unexamined emotions, Mr. Perry will not — indeed cannot — let Neil make his own choices; the consequences are perceived as life-threatening. Mr. Perry’s self-ignorance is so oppressive it robs Neil of his future, backing him into a corner from which he will not escape.

I empathize with Mr. Perry now in a way I didn’t before. But I don’t want to be like him. I want to parent my daughters the way my mom and dad parented me.

They gave me my life and let me live it, let me choose it, knowing fully well the risk they were taking. They flooded my world with all sorts of ideas, even ones they disagreed with, to teach me ideas matter and to train me to be unafraid in a world much larger than my own. Our home was flush with literature, poetry and all sorts of music. And we dreamed. Big dreams, together dreams.

Even still I made naive choices in my adolescence that would impact me for decades to come, choices that would eventually break my heart and my spirit too, almost to the point of no return.

But they didn’t just let me choose my life and then stand at a distance and watch it unfold. They walked every step of the way with me and still do. They accompany me on my journey even when they disagree with the road I choose. And they pray a lot, entrusting me — oh what faith! — to the God who promises to make all things brand new.

As I lay awake in the dark hours of the morning, thinking about Mr. Perry and his spirited, doomed son, thinking about my parents and the scars they carry, my daughters and the wounds that surely wait for them, I come back to the same thing John Keating did, but with a God-shaped twist:

Carpe diem, my sweet little girls, as you daily place all your faith, all your hope, all your love in I AM. Live life large and unafraid, for there is no road you can take that will not lead you further up and further in, no suffering He will not redeem, no locust that can forever steal the years. Find the voice God gave you and write the poem of your life for His great Kingdom play. Here: take my hand, hold it when you wish and let go when you must. I promise you will never walk alone.