On the far shore

Rand Paul announced his candidacy for the Presidency today, and I wish him well. I even agree with his basic approach of smaller, less intrusive government at all levels, domestically as well as internationally. It fits well with my worldview of more freedom for everyone.

But that doesn’t mean he has a snowball’s chance of achieving his goal.

The Candidate > The Philosophy

Rand Paul is a very smart man – a medical doctor – and you don’t find too many intellectually deficient folks with an M.D. appended to their names. So my contention of the hopelessness of his campaign is not due to a lack of smarts on his part. Not at all.

I believe that it comes down to the fact that, today at least, the candidate is far more important than the philosophies for which they stand.  And Candidate Rand Paul does not stand in a good place for a national audience.

During the upcoming campaign, in which he will surely be pitted against HRC if he survives the Republican free-for-all, he will already have three strikes tallied against him before he even steps up to the plate.

  • He is a white, southern, Republican male. Even with the “Republican” label set aside, what remains is that he is culturally isolated from the deep-blue coasts and north of this nation. Deserved or not, the fact that Rand is a southerner means that, as he dives into a political pool that stretches far beyond his homeland, he will have a huge cultural mill-stone around his neck. Additionally, he isn’t helped by the demographic tides shifting against the party nationally.
  • He is philosphically a Libertarian, but in the real world? It is unclear how staunchly Rand really adheres to those philosophies, and no matter where he falls on the line from Republican to Libertarian, he will inevitably be tarred with labels like “pro-business”, “trickle down economics” and “elitist”.  This, even if he trumpets a return to classical Liberalism or truly Libertarian ideals. I believe that this is in part because so few really understand Libertarian philosophies (including most Libertarians themselves), and in part because if he attempts to reinvent the Republican party or pull a Bull Moose, he will inevitably fail.
  • He is a real Constitutionalist. The challenge for a modern Constitutionalist is simply this: the nation no longer knows the document, or adheres to its principles in any fundamental way. The legalisms, yes, but the philosophy behind it? It’s simply Terra Incognita to most voters today. You can’t believe what you don’t know, and among the many topics that the American electorate has rarely studied, is the political trifecta of Constitution, Federalist Papers and the philosophical underpinnings of the Enlightenment.

Whether you love or hate his beliefs, just set it all aside for a moment, and focus on the other major reason that Rand Paul doesn’t stand a chance on the national level: the media simply doesn’t take this guy seriously.

During his Senate filibuster, nearly-universal mockery (ex-Fox) drove him almost irretrievably into the penalty box marked “not to be taken seriously”. For many, he is seen as being far enough out on the lunatic fringe to disbar him permanently from consideration for national office.

Love > Hatred

Hatred can motivate, but it doesn’t inspire. And this where it gets worse for Rand, because the media loves his opponent more than it disdains him. Love’s power is that it forgives, and it forgets. Love turns a blind eye to nearly every fault.

So it really doesn’t matter what the right accuses, because Hillary is even more thickly coated in political Teflon than her husband was 20 years ago. As often as her political opponents raise accusations of Benghazi and mail servers, in the end it’s all undercut by echoes of the media’s silence in response to her now-famous question.

“What difference, at this point, does it make?”

None at all, apparently.

When love runs that deep, both sides will remain as entrenched in the resulting mire as the armies on the Western Front a century ago. Those who hated her then, always will. Those who loved her then, also will.  The lines have long since been drawn.

I believe that due to the changing outlook of the American electorate, the greater number is now comprised of those who either (a) admire her politics, or (b) view the concept of a Madam President as inherently good in itself.  Combined, they stand firmly in the majority.

Therefore, 2016 is not going to be a competition among differing political philosophies, as Dr. Paul good-naturedly but rather naively assumes. This will not be a fight about Liberty, or smaller government, or Republicanism vs. Socialism.

No, 2016 will be a largely cultural election.

The Right Side of History

My grandmother is a life-long Democrat. Now over 95 years old, she once voted for FDR in her 20s, JFK in her 40s and the first President Clinton as she entered retirement. Therefore, in her mind at least, she helped to win WW2, founded the Great Society and played a pivotal role in inventing the Internet.

It should come as no surprise that she was an early supporter of President Obama, and remains a tearfully staunch devotee of him today.  She views the President as the end point of the Selma marches and MLK speeches of the 1960s.  In her eyes, racism has been defeated: it’s sexism’s turn next.

So it doesn’t matter whether it’s Hillary, or her true favorite, Elizabeth Warren: my grandmother’s walker is doing wheelies right now at the prospect of a woman President. And that fits perfectly with her view that the federal government serves best as an agent of dynamic social change, driving the culture forward, often despite itself.

In talking about her lifetime voting record, she is fiercely proud of having been “on the right side of history throughout it all”. Today, she sees a female President as simply being the next logical step in the evolution of mankind from the mud puddle to the stars.

For her, the “who” matters this time, not the “what” or the “how”.

And that is precisely why Rand Paul, no matter how convincing his philosophical arguments, or eloquent their presentation in the upcoming months, has so little chance of winning in 2016.

Because he is standing on the far shore of that cultural river.

A320 Down: Speculation

We all saw the news this morning. A 24 year old A320 flying for a Lufthansa-run budget airline flew straight into a mountainside in the French Alps.  It looks like, in the cryptic language of aviation, a CFIT event – Controlled Flight Into Terrain.

And of course, the overriding question is “why”.

Let’s speculate.

It could’ve been in-plane terrorism.

If Abu Jihad got into the cockpit, he could’ve flown the plane well enough to crash it. That’s not hard to do: anyone with a handful of hours on a flight sim could achieve that limited goal.  But why crash into a mountain – why not turn around and pull a 9/11 on any of the many cities along the Med coast?

It could’ve been terrorism from outside of the plane.

Perhaps as it overflew Marseilles, a person on the ground was able to damage (or take control of) the autopilot system and force it to initiate a descent.  This is where fantasy technology meets conspiracy theories, so I’ll leave it to the black helicopter crowd.

It could’ve been poor maintenance.

The plane came out of the shop yesterday. As we all know from experience with our cars, the best way to get something to break is to fix or replace a part connected to it. This was, after all, a 24 year old aircraft.  And Murphy’s law clearly states that if something can go wrong, it probably will.

So maybe it was just that – old plane, MX uncovered something marginal or broke something, which lead to sudden decompression with the predictable results.

It also could have been a software glitch.

This is much more interesting, and I think, more likely.  The A320 famously crashed when unveiled, as its “fly-by-wire” system ignored pilot inputs during a low pass over a French airfield, and calmly flew the aircraft straight into the tree tops.

Again, this is an old aircraft, and its software was developed in the 1980s. We’ve all experienced strange, impossible-to-duplicate (but nonetheless very real) events with our PCs, like when the machine suddenly decides to format a drive or delete a document or engage in some other unanticipated antics, apparently entirely at random. With all computers, but especially older computers, the bizarre is uncommon, but not impossible.

So, perhaps the avionics suddenly blue-screened, locked up the control systems by ignoring cockpit inputs, and left the pilots with no options other than riding out the inevitable.  Horrible scenario, but easily imagined.

My strange theory – unintended auto-land

I’ve got a theory, which is a variant of the “software glitch” scenario – that this airplane’s glitch caused it to initiate an “auto land” mode, and the crew was unable to override it in time.

I’m suggesting that the flight control computer decided, for an at the moment unknown reason, (but probably something in the electricals and avionics went sideways), that it was damaged and/or uncontrollable, so it chose to select its last-ditch backup option – attempt to auto-land at the nearest airfield.

Except that the avionics were damaged enough to be wrong about the location of that nearest airfield, so it flew into the mountainside that it didn’t know was there.

For me, that kind of an avionics-related event is the best explanation of why it descended, slowed to less than 200 kts, then leveled out and flew into a mountainside.

Now let’s get the facts.

I’m publishing this before 9 in the morning west coast time, and will not do any edits – not even to fix obvious typos, which is death to my inner editor.  Instead, I’ll just let it stand and see how this lines up with what those in the know will eventually tell us in the next few days.

Cruzin’ for a Bruisin’

Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for President today, and I cringed. It’s not that I have succumbed to the mantra of Hillary’s inevitability, or that of the Tea Party’s unelectability.

It’s simply because the guy is a geek.

Americans like winners. Patton’s famous speech to the 3rd Army in 1944 exemplifies this, and although his words sound dated, his point remains patently true: America loves a winner, hates a loser, and has little enthusiasm for leaders who are less than heroic.

Ted Cruz, I’m sorry to say this, but he’s a lot less than heroic. He’s the kid in the front of the class with the right answers, but all the wrong moves. He’s the one who shares his lunch and gets punched in the nose for his generosity. He makes the cool girls at the dance look for another girl to dance with – even the wallflowers give him the back.

Ted Cruz, whatever you think of his philosophies or his Cuban version of the Horatio Alger story, is hopelessly geeky. And not endearingly so. This guy is geeky in a “hey don’t talk to my kid” kind of way. I see him on TV and it’s “please turn the channel or mute that weirdo”.

Yes, Ted Cruz embodies a truly broad-spectrum kind of creepiness.  Which means that he’s unelectable.  Like Romney.

At least Romney understood the camera and never seemed to set a foot wrong.  But Cruz, with his limp-wristed wave like a rodeo queen, his chinless profile and disturbing half-smile lacking all warmth, this guy seems unable to set a foot right.

If Romney, whose looks, résumé, flawless family and shiny-bright Colgate smile sprang straight from central casting as “The Ultimate Conservative Candidate”… if Romney brought all that and was still unelectable, how unelectable is the Tea Party’s darling?

Almost infinitely.

Demographics

Imagine for a moment how unlikely it would be for an urban Democrat from say, the Bronx, to get excited about this guy. Or even listen to him.  Try sketching out a scenario in your mind where a Jewish retiree in Miami Beach is swayed by Cruz’s vaguely Randite economic arguments.  Or try to imagine the emotional response of an urban 27 year old barista who lives with her tattooed boyfriend, when told by Cruz that she needs to get married and start having babies in order to “preserve America’s moral future”.

As they say in the west… “it’s gonna be a train wreck”.

Anyone but an R

No matter what they do, the Republicans are almost sure to lose in 2016. The tides are running too strongly against them – they’ve never had much of a foothold in the cities, they’ve lost the young, they lost the Hispanics with their opposition to amnesty and naturalization, and among the technically-savvy born after 1975, they have almost zero footprint.

It goes without saying that among intellectuals and those under the rainbow banner, they have about as much success as a bacon salesman offering free samples in Mecca.

And finally, the Republicans have never had traction among blacks, either north or south. Today, because of their staunch opposition to Obama and siding with the police during the recent controversial shootings, they will never win black support again. Not in fifty generations.

All they have now are the farmers, the veterans and the evangelicals. Mostly white, aging and cruising past the peak of their historical and demographic dominance – Nixon’s “silent majority”.  Their decline into minority status is already well underway, like a 1960s Buick cresting a long and suddenly quite steep hill.  Without brakes.

What Matters Now

The Dems will run a woman next, and will enjoy a similar victory on that first Tuesday of November 2016, just as they did in 2008 when a largely unknown black intellectual stormed onto the national stage and simply blew John McCain away.

The argument has been made that Democrats learned how to turn the nation’s history of racism and sexism on its head, by encouraging millions to prove that they are neither racists nor sexists by voting for candidates on the basis of race and sex.

That sounds catchy in an Ann Coulterish sort of way, but I don’t think it offers the key to understanding Republican losses at the presidential level.  I believe that candiates with a D appended to their names will continue to dominate.  Not because Democrats are so well loved, but because Republicans are so well hated.

Thoroughly hated.

This is an outgrowth of a long-term cultural conflict, a philosophical war contested daily on CNN and Fox, the never-ending debates reminiscent of the pre-1861 tensions leading to the breakaway of the Confederacy. It’s symptomatic of a cultural divide unbridgeable in the short term, unless one side or the other changes radically.

And I believe that it is the Republicans who must change, that the only future for them is to become largely Libertarians, if they are to have any significant role in future presidential races, other than as perennial spoilers.

Progressive or Regressive?

The America which Republicans long for, no longer exists. The story of America has always been about progress, and the left, firmly in possession of the “Progressive” label, has placed the Republicans on the opposite bank of the political river – as the Regressive party.

“God, guns and guts” might have made America great a century ago, but theirs is becoming a song of nostalgia, a sad turning backwards towards a 1950s vision of America, like Archie Bunker fondly watching reruns of Gunsmoke and muttering, “those were the days”.

During the Cold War, this was still a winning pitch.  But we are decades past those bygone days.  This is neither Saudi Arabia where church and state are one, nor is it the USA of 1941, when a great moral crusade unified the nation. World War Two and the Cold War are equally dusty and distant.  Shockingly so for those who remember them, but history has moved on, conclusively.

Today we live in a modern, technical and highly secularized world where Fifty Shades of Grey applies to affairs of politics as much as those of the heart.  Trying to lead an increasingly secular and internationally-focused nation as ours, by being sexual moralists, social traditionalists and gun rights advocates will gain Tribe R little ground in the future.

The question of whether the Republicans rally behind Ted Cruz or another tie-wearing traditionalist doesn’t really matter, because they are rallying behind ideas that have slid into a minority position on not just a societal, but a global scale.  How can they expect to move forward with eyes  so firmly fixed on a sepia-toned past?

Liberty or Irrelevance

What does matter at this juncture, is whether the Republicans can reconstitute themselves and draw in new passion for the timeless ideals of real liberty, rather than preaching moralism, traditionalism and the dream of trickle-down prosperity.

Truly revolutionary political, economic and social freedoms remain perenially appealing, and although this philosophical river carries with it many dangers, it also offers the greatest benefits to those who dive into it fearlessly.

It is simple, pure and compelling – liberty’s arguments (I’m referring to those of a 1776 vintage) are instantly understood around the globe, and have been the envy of the planet for centuries.  Why did those huddled masses risk it all to cross the Atlantic a century ago, or the Rio Grande today?  For greater freedom.

If politicians with an R after their names can make that pitch, genuinely arguing for more liberty rather than less, there might be a chance for their party to remain in meaningful contention for leadership in the marketplace of ideas.

But I believe that the chances of this happening are slim, and if Brand R is to succeed, its message must be delivered by new blood, by inspired and inspiring candidates whose passion and leadership reinforce a new liberty-centric message delivered with genuine, broad-spectrum appeal.  This doesn’t require candidates of a certain gender or race, but instead it demands better ideas and vastly greater content of character on the part of their candidates.

So, the final question for me comes down to this – is there any real Republican vision on a presidential level, championed by a cringe-free candidate, all wrapped up in a shade of GOP red appealing to the average voter?  If Ted Cruz embodies the most innovative and precedent-breaking candidate they’ve got to offer, that answer is now (and for the foreseeable future, barring a philosophical tsunami at their next convention), all too obvious.

Even to Archie Bunker.

 

 

Looking ahead, reluctantly

Recently, I was asked for “my take” on the future. After apologizing that my crystal ball was down for maintenance, I skirted away from the question – the surest way to look a fool is to try to paint an accurate picture of events that will be driven by the unpredictable actions of millions of individuals.

Yet there’s a paradoxical truth – although individual actions can’t be predicted, the movements of the herd in which they live can be.  So, I figure that if I stick to broad strokes and squint with as blurred a vision as an Impressionist, I might be able to paint a passable picture of the future.

But which future to discuss?  Technology?  Art?  Economics?  For me, the most interesting extracurricular topics generally revolve around religious philosophy and war.  But as we all know, religion is the third rail of the intelligentsia, a topic few today take seriously for fear of mockery, so let’s stick to war, mankind’s second-favorite obsession.

Wars…

ISIS will continue making steady progress, in part because of such fabulous marketing. They understand the cinematic power of their message. Especially in the eyes of a generation raised on hyper-violent gaming and movies.

I’m sure Tarantino would approve of their artistically-filmed beheadings and public immolations: maybe they’ll take a page from his playbook and start knocking off the heads of Christians with baseball bats or better yet, crucifixes.  That would play well among the downloaders.

Our society certainly loves its gory violence, a poison gulped down guiltlessly as mere entertainment, and that is precisely what ISIS is giving its audience of wide-eyed Internet junkies. By the bloodily overflowing bucketful. And all heralded as “news” with impeccable timing by their proxy press offices in CNN and Fox.

But it’s not just the (blood-) slick messaging that is working for the men holding the black banners and the bayonets. Their ranks will continue to grow because the west can’t figure out the counter argument.

There is no contradictory message, no hearts-and-minds campaign coming out of either Washington or Riyadh to inspire our generations raised on war games and slasher movies.  The young men who fall for ISIS aren’t just isolated Algerians in France, they are part of a generation ignoring their own nations’ political heritage of doing good in the world, because the western ideal of “all it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to fail to oppose it”, now sounds so old-fashioned in their millenial ears.

And that is a tragedy, because without that simple truth, the West has zero message to rally our own in opposition to the atrocities committed in the shadow of the Black Flag. Many watching online tonight in Holland or Italy probably think (and maybe without much guilt) that the ISIS message is appealing in a strangely retro way: Lawrence of Arabia meets Inglourious Basterds.

So, ISIS will grow, and they will eventually deliver their content to the West via more effective campaigns, much closer to home. They have already outgrown standing in a line to gun down their cowering co-religionists, and surely they will find something more repulsive than cutting off the heads of a few dozen Coptic Christians along the seashore, or live-roasting a captured pilot.

By “more effective campaigns” I mean that they will show up in Europe, or America, or a seaside resort in Indonesia filled with half-drunken Europeans on vacation, grinning behind their balaclavas, an AK in one hand and a cheap knife in the other.  Why the grins?  Because, like wolves, they know they’re ready for the slaughter,  while the sheep never are.  This predator/prey relationship is being established today, and will play out on tomorrow’s headlines if we remain frozen in the headlights of our indecision.

And rumors of war

But ISIS isn’t the real threat, not to more than our sense of well-being. In cold reality, they’re a sideshow, a chance for the Fox and CNN “analysts” to shout for 60 seconds and earn a thousand bucks pretending to think independently, while actually parroting their respective networks’ political agendas.

The greater threat in my mind is Russia, while in my Israeli friends’ minds, it is Iran.

And you know what?  We’re both right.

As I’ve written before, the Russians are a threat to regional stability in Europe, with their constant nibbling away at Ukraine, eating a slice of it each year, until eventually it will all be gone, and the West will have done nothing. Realistically, what’s to hold them back from continuing the banquet with other former members of the Soviet empire on next year’s menu?  More sanctions?  Once we stop selling them Chevys and iPads, what’s left in our arsenal of democracy?

Oh, but surely the sanctions will hurt the Russians.  That’s precisely the point we’re missing – there’s nothing a Russian does with greater instinctive fervor than suffering for Mother Russia.  Putin is exploiting nationalism while demonizing the West, because we, with our sanctions, play straight into his hands.  While we play checkers, the Russians are playing chess.

Yes, the Russians are a real threat, just not to us – they’re a threat to regional stability in the Mideast, as the Israelis know. With their support for Iran and enablement of the inevitable Iranian achievement of nuclear capability, they are helping to gently place a noose around Israel’s neck. Just as they have during centuries of pogroms.

So, the Israelis have to face facts – Iran will be a nuclear power in the next five years, there’s no negotiating a way around that one – and the only question remaining is whether the Israelis want to let the Mullahs build five bombs or five hundred, before someone gets impatient and pulls the trigger. Because the Iranian regime really wants to pull that trigger and usher in a brave new post-apocalyptic world.  And Israel’s best chance for survival is to fulfill its worst fear, by pulling it first.

But all of those threats pale in comparison to China. While we print paper debt, they are quietly stockpiling enormous quantities of gold. What is their end-game? Why invest so heavily in something that the West views as being antiquated, a symbol of wealth from another era? If the Chinese are wrong, the Bitcoin crowd will snicker, but if they’re not, the West will be the indentured servants of the Chinese in decades to come, after our own house of paper printed by the Fed and spent into oblivion by the Congress has finally collapsed under its own demographic and mathematical weight.

In a world beyond, or fated to rise from the ruins of, the next war

While we twitter and tweet and follow each other in spirals of momentary popularity, the Chinese are amassing the world’s greatest manufacturing capabilities: who builds, rules. They are steadily growing their military. They are reinforcing their economy against financial collapse. They are playing the long game, not just chess to our checkers as are the Russians, but a multi-century game for millennial domination.

What will the US’s role be in 50 years? If we’re lucky, peace will have broken out and the Chinese will be treating us with smirking tolerance like Sweden – a society of technically clever folks idling quietly on the fringes of history, a politically irrelevant nation of has-beens inventing electronic gadgets for the Chinese to sell to the rest of the planet. Hopefully they won’t demand too high of a percentage on our bail-out payments.

If we’re not lucky, we’ll be coming out of the tail-end of a world war that will have started in the Middle East after the Mullahs decided to trade Tehran for Tel-Aviv and hasten the return of the 12th Imam, a war whose conclusion might find  NATO staring down Russia over the smoking ruins.  That is, if the Chinese remain politely on the sidelines, instead of seizing the moment to join the winning side late in the game and spring to world dominance, just as the US did in Europe a century ago.

Either way, it’s a big “If”.  And that’s why my crystal ball will remain in the shop for the (un) forseeable future.  Except on the economic front, where I have a hard time seeing a way for us not to be spending a good chunk of the 21st century on a long hard slog out of national insolvency.

So, as above, I see this as a time of wars and rumors of war, yet laced with the chance that the storm might still miss us. Whatever comes, this will remain a time of accelerating change and increasingly greater reliance on ever-more complex technologies that we understand ever less.  We rely far too deeply on a national infrastructure inherited from generations in the past, and we are living through a time of the abandonment of the morals and philosophies that helped our ancestors hold the darkness at bay over the course of many centuries.

But those before us have overcome worse.  And we are their sons and daughters – we can do the same.

Yet on the fringes of my imagination, I still see the black flag fluttering defiantly: that banner of the death cult, that standard of violence as entertainment and inhumanity as virtue.  And in the shadows beneath the black flag, I see a reflection of our own darkest natures.

In other words, whether we want it or not, this is a conflict of good and evil, and if we can’t muster the willpower and moral certitude to stamp out evil now… well, there’s an old saying: those who ignore a small evil today, will surely face a greater evil tomorrow.

Half in light, half in darkness

I awoke before dawn this morning, and went outside with my coffee to watch the sky as it lightened. As is typical for this part of the world, it was a cloudless sky, a sheer and perfect continuum of subtle shades ranging from light orange in the east, to deep blue above, then down to midnight black in the west, where stars still shone.

Directly overhead, the moon mirrored this earthly distinction, but without its subtle interplay of light and dark – instead, the moon was starkly divided, right down the middle, into two hemispheres: a world of bright day contrasting with one of deepest night.

The previous evening, I had watched with millions of others as the family of the American aid worker wept over her murder in the mid-east. Kayla Mueller had attempted to shed some light onto the land under the black flag, that land of moral darkness now illuminated redly, like a volcanic caldera, by the fire of those burned alive in cages, by tracer fire arcing over desert hills, and by the red-black blood pouring from the severed necks of the innocent.

Shutting off the monitor filled with images of weeping relatives, I had walked outside in the night, and looked upwards. Whether at dawn or during the evening, the sky here is nearly identical to that over the land of ISIS. It is clear, cloudless, and at this time of the year, Orion the Hunter hangs directly overhead. The Egyptians modeled the arrangement of the pyramids of Giza on the stars in Orion’s belt: in 4,500 years, neither have shifted perceptibly.

The same sky overhangs us both – Orion rides high above the heads of the merciful and compassionate, such as Kayla, as well as above the heads of those who murder in the name of the All-Merciful and Compassionate, such as her executioners.

It is both light and dark, ever-changing yet never-changing, this eternal sky that looks down upon us all, mirroring in its subtle shadings and sharp contrasts, the complex interplay of good and evil that tugs back and forth in every human heart. Like all of us below, the desert sky is neither all darkness nor all light: it is an ever-changing mixture of both, overshadowing every subtle variation from the saintly to the satanic among us mortals below.

So as I looked up into the sky again this morning, I became starkly aware of the bright dividing line on the face of the moon standing between night and day, goodness and evil. It perfectly bisected the moon hanging directly over my head. I stared at this stark contrast and remembered that scientists call that dividing line “the terminator”. And I thought, how apt a metaphor it is for this moment in human history.

Like the edge of the sword of Damocles, the terminator divides. It forces a choice – this side or that – and we weak human beings who like to dawdle in the twilight between good and evil, choosing one side or another as our moods dictate – we cannot delay our choice forever.

Eventually we must decide – do we want to live in the light, or in the darkness? Do we want to be a ray of mercy to those who invoke the name of the All-Merciful, or do we prefer to hide our broken natures in the shadows of violence and intolerance for those of a different creed?

Like nature itself, the changing cycles of light and darkness are inevitable and inexorable: we cannot delay them or bend them to our will. We cannot hold them back for a second. They operate with complete disregard for our preferences. Like blindfolded Justice with her sword and her scales, they are concerned only with what is, not what we would wish it to be.

So as much as we flit about like fish in the shallows of our moral twilight where good and evil intermix, we must eventually turn our eyes to the truth, and choose to either rise towards the light shining down upon us, or dive deeper into the darkness so as to escape its awful, relentless power to show us the truth about ourselves.

And it is in our response to this inevitable change from night to day that we learn something profound about our own hearts. When we look across this great sea of humanity into the hearts of our brothers and sisters, Kayla and ISIS, we see reflections of our own inclinations towards evil or nobility, towards compassion or murder, as each of our souls is either rising towards the light, or diving away from it into the cold comfort of the shadows.

Yet the terminator is moving relentlessly across the landscape of each of our hearts. Every one of us must choose to dwell in the light or in the darkness, because no person can remain in the moral twilight forever.

So, standing there in my backyard, I turned my back towards the darkness and decided to face towards the east. With great consciousness of my own inner shadows, I managed still to smile at the dawn shining back at me.

I smiled because I realized that this tear-filled night through which the world is groaning is now already passing away, already yielding to the inevitable power of the light that we can choose to embrace.

As the sun broke over the mountains, it warmed me.  I stood there sipping the coffee and soaked up the light.

It felt good. It felt really, really good.

We sent our lawyer!?

Yesterday’s rallies for unity across Paris and around the nation drew something like 3.5 million French citizens, the largest outpouring of faith in the victory of good over evil since the end of World War II.

They also drew an incredible collection of international leaders, who by their mere presence, expressed deep solidarity with the nation. More significantly, the crowds and the politicians shared a spirit of stirring defiance against the forces of evil who perpetrated and supported two awful terror attacks that have become a defining event of the year, if not the decade and perhaps the century.

Spontaneous international events like this are hugely symbolic, and incredibly rare.  Think of JFK’s speech in West Berlin, or Reagan’s similar call to “tear down this wall!” more than 20 years later.  These moments are written directly into the highlights of history, they become part of our collective memory, part of our language and knowledge of who we are, what we stand for, what makes us truly human.

This weekend, history offered us an opportunity to deliver an equally pivotal, historical statement.  To define the future by bold and profound insight, to declare the way forward.  The free world held its collective breath, waiting for its leader to speak.

Silence.

Despite this epic gaffe, the march of the world leaders was stunning.  Dozens of nations were represented by their equivalents of our President, arms linked in physical as well as metaphorical solidarity, representative of the additional unseen millions watching on TV and participating online.

It was a march for humanity, for civilization, for the humanism pioneered by the French Enlightenment.  It was a march for peace, an expression of the deepest defiance of violence.  It was a march expressing the power of the pen, the power of our great civilization, in contrast to the barbarism, the intolerance for diversity, and the blind hatred embodied by those under the black banner.

This opportunity for the President, and for the United States as a nation, to rally the world against terrorism was unparalleled, perhaps unique in human history.  It was truly a pivotal moment, when a well-conceived and charismatically-delivered speech by our President would have made global history, in addition to securing his own honored place within it.

But it was not to be.  The moment passed, and history moved on.

The United States failed to send her President.  Or her Vice President.  Or even the Secretary of State, fluent in French.  We even failed to send a smattering of Senate or House leaders. To a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of global leaders in the capital of our oldest and most faithful ally, we sent none of those dignitaries.

We sent our lawyer.

Imagine a death in a close friend’s family, a terrible tragedy suffered by an old and dear companion from your youth.  Even if the trip was long and dangerous, you would go to the ceremony.  You would stand beside her in her moment of grief and trial. You wouldn’t send your lawyer to offer cold condolences and scripted formalities. That’s worse than sending nobody at all.

What an insult this was to the French people, to the one nation who stood with us in those crucial years of the late 18th century when our own existence was very much in question.  Without France’s help and solidarity, we would still be drinking tea and curtesying to the Queen.

France’s soil has been soaked with more American blood than any other foreign nation.  France is our singularly honored ally, the trusted caretaker of the hallowed ground where more fallen American servicemen rest than any other beyond our borders.

It is our national bond as blood brothers with France that deepens the tragedy of our absence from Sunday’s pivotal events.

The failure of the United States to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with France and the rest of the civilized word was not only an insult to the French people, but equally disrespectful to our NATO allies.  Not to mention the damage it did to key players in the middle east like King Abdullah of Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority’s President Abbas, both of whom risked so much political capital, perhaps even their lives, by daring to link arms with the leaders of the west, marching mere feet from Israel’s Netanyahu.

In regard to middle eastern peace in particular, what a heart-breakingly beautiful opportunity was squandered yesterday.  Not since the Clinton administration has there been a similar chance to bring Israel and Palestine together in a public and emotional way, for the three to stand together and be seen by the world talking about peace at last.

Imagine the power of such a moment, so starkly in contrast to the black flag that flutters ominously in the background of our global consciousness.  With heroic courage and humanity, Israel and the PA could have been brought together by our President, with a handshake or a spontaneous embrace refuting the dark forces of war and violence.

Imagine the enduring impact of such a precious moment of respect and tolerance flooding the global press, its simple eloquence powerfully countering the global jihad against civilized humanity.

But it was not to be.  None of these great moments were allowed to blossom.

All because we sent our lawyer.

Nous Somme Tous Charlie, but who are they?

In Paris tonight, crowds are holding up signs saying “Je suis Charlie”.  They’re right.  We are all Charlie – Nous somme tous Charlie.

The principles of this awful event don’t need to be discussed – it’s a clear case of radicals who share nothing of the West’s respect for freedom of expression using the barrel of a gun to place their veto.

What’s interesting to me is the apparent professionalism of the attack, and what that says for the future of Europe, where so many radicalized young Muslim men have European passports and are able to return relatively easily to the EU after having spent time abroad, learning the skills of war.

When I saw the video clips, it took me only a few moments to understand what had happened, while (of course) the media continues to get the details wrong, for example calling it a terrorist attack using “Kalashnikov submachine guns”.

Here’s what I surmise might’ve happened

A small group of French-nationality Muslims had a “semester abroad” in the school of war with one of the dozens of factions duking it out in Syria these past couple of years. In that cauldron of blood and violence, they learned how to use small arms and RPGs. They gained real-world combat experience.

Afterward, they returned to France on their French passports. They probably didn’t go to ISIS, as the norm there is to destroy western passports.  Upon their return to the EU, they might’ve had exit stamps from Turkey or Cyprus in their passports, possibly not even that.  If they had taken a boat from Greece to Syria, and back through Greece, whose seaside border is utterly porous, they might not even be on the records as having left the EU at all.  In which case, their being ISIS alumni remains a possibility.

Tools of the attack – what can we learn?

They used AK-47 assault rifles, clearly in 7.62x39mm caliber. This is the older model, the kind that is lying around in warehouses throughout the world by the millions – the weapons might have been circulating in the underworld for decades.  This makes tracking the men via their suppliers a very big challenge, probably futile.

Their other equipment speaks to equally antiquated origin. They carried spare mags in chest pouches, almost certainly 3-mag fabric pouches, a very old style we’ve seen since Vietnam, one which is still quite popular in Syria today.  Their mags look like standard steel 30-rounders.  This means that each of them brought about 120 rounds to the fight: not enough to weigh you down excessively or prevent you from running quickly, but more than enough to accomplish their goal and give them a reserve in case they got pinned down.

In other words, they weren’t overly-armed amateurs.  They brought just enough firepower for the task at hand, so they could hit hard, move fast, and escape.

Outgunned and out-maneuvered

When the police bravely tried confronting them with their Sig SP2022 9mm pistols, they got hammered. They had little chance against the vastly superior firepower they were facing. These two soldier/terrorists formed into a rough skirmish line and moved aggressively up the street, seeking cover and working smoothly together as they cleared the opposition. Like they had done this many times before.

The one cop who is shown on the video being murdered was down because he was already hit, and was rolling away, attempting to raise his hands in surrender when one of the Islamic soldiers finished him off at nearly muzzle contact distance with his AK.  This horrific image will become the icon of the attack. It shows a cold-heartedness, a ruthlessness that comes from the battlefield: no prisoners, no threats left alive.

Deliberate

During the engagement, you can see these terrorists/soldiers aiming their weapons carefully.  The tightly-clustered holes through the windshield of the police car say that this was no spray-and-pray job.

You can also see their deliberate approach when they confronted the cop(s) up the street: they didn’t duck and shoot wildly, firing randomly from cover. No, instead they moved forward confidently, advancing towards contact, not trying to break it. Like professionals.

Again, this cool-headedness, the almost casual way one of them stopped to retrieve the sneaker, speaks volumes about their prior experience under fire.  As cowboys say: “this ain’t their first rodeo”.

Relentless

During combat, they called out “God is greater” during their volleys of fire, exactly as is done in Syria and Iraq. I am certain that while inside the target building, they made doubly sure of their primary kills – the cartoonists and the editor of the magazine.  I expect that those people were shot many times, and finished off quite deliberately with a shot to the head each.  We hear that some witnesses describe them as saying in French that they were doing this in vengeance for an affront to their God.

I expect that we will learn that these two attackers were not acting in a panic while inside the building – but instead, that their murderous attack was deliberately and enthusiastically carried out.

Planned

It’s obvious that they planned it carefully: this was not a spontaneous event by any means. One photo shows their vehicle parked up a one-way street, facing the wrong way, blocking all traffic flow with its open doors at a kink in the street, using a natural choke-point where even the sidewalk is blocked by traffic bollards.

That wasn’t a random choice: they needed to ensure that nobody drove into their AO, especially not the police, so they blocked the street at the best spot.  This speaks of planning, prior recons of the area, maybe even dry runs.  Perhaps CCTV footage from the past will come into play here, helping us to discover their identities.

Alone?

They probably had accomplices who were helping  by ensuring that their escape vehicle remained unmolested while they made the assault: there is talk about hand-signals to people in other vehicle(s).  There is also the possibility that the attackers were given inside information about the timing and attendees to the staff meeting: I’d look carefully at every person with access to that building, including cleaning staff and anyone who was conveniently absent during the attack.

Timing

They also clearly knew about the exact timing and attendees of this staff meeting well in advance, planning their attack for precisely the moment when all of the cartoonists (who normally work at home) would be gathered together in one room with their editor, like fish in a barrel.  Who was the source of their intel?

Escape

After almost casually clearing the street of any remaining police, they escaped, ditching the car after or (maybe before) switching into street clothes brought with them to better blend into society. This change of clothes says to me that they were planning on travelling in the open during at least part of their escape.

This is also why they concealed their identities during the attack, because they counted on being filmed – they knew that it was impossible to avoid CCTV or cell phone cams, so they dealt with it in a predictable way: balaclavas.

Still Armed?

What’s surprising to me is that they might have still had their AKs with them after abandoning their vehicle, the black Citroën. I suggest this because, if there had been weapons inside of it, the police would’ve handled the vehicle much differently.  There would be video of the guns being removed or bagged separately or the vehicle might’ve been screened off – in any event, the police would never have left guns in the car as it was being craned onto the flatbed.

Hidden Weapons

This is why I believe that it’s logical to assume that they made off with their weapons in gym bags or backpacks, unless they had ditched them or handed them off to their accomplices at that first rally point, where they ditched the Citroën.

The AKs were probably folding stock guns, which would make them much more easily concealable in such a bag.  The guns almost certainly came into their hands via the blackmarket. There was talk of an RPG: if true, this would confirm non-commercial sourcing.

Neither Amateurs nor Suicidal

The overall theme of the assault that comes through to me is professionalism, planning and a real determination to escape. This is not what a suicide attacker does – this is what a soldier does.

From where and how they parked the vehicle (at least twice), to the precise timing of the assault on the building, and through their apparent escape, this whole operation feels well-planned, and seems to have played out almost glitch-free.  If their goal was to live to fight another day, then it was a goal at least temporarily achieved.

Where Now?

My gut says that they are probably hunkered down somewhere within a couple of hours’ driving time of Paris, still armed, still ready.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they got away in the back of a commercial vehicle, moving to some remote location where they’ve “gone to the mattresses” as the Mafia used to say.

Finally, I’d bet that if they did take that route, they’re probably prepared to remain hidden (with the help of accomplices) in some rural basement or forgotten loft for weeks to come.

What might of…

I’m trying to read a new book, but it’s slow going.

It’s called One Second After, by Dr. William R. Forstchen, and the basic premise – survival in America, following an EMP attack – is compelling. At least, that is, until you start reading the book.

I was sold by the preface, written by Newt Gingrich. Whatever you might think of his politics, it’s hard to deny that he’s an educated, reasonably literate man who is trying to be a serious person. So it was based largely on his endorsement that I took the plunge.

What a mistake.

I’m about a third of the way through, and so far, it’s been nothing but sophomoric, naïve and predictable. The characters are painfully cardboard, their dialog is stilted, and there’s nothing terribly compelling about any of their interactions.

Early on, the author admits that he’s writing about a town that seems a bit too much like a Norman Rockwell painting, and his self-consciousness is well-founded. The entire cast of characters is straight out of the 1950s. Think Barney Fife meets Stephen King’s The Stand, with a little standard right-wing patriotic fluff thrown in for good measure.

The action centers on the emotionally wounded father, an unsung hero with a military background as yet unproven (but soon, yawn, soon to be proven, you just know it’s coming), a man who is a widower with a couple of daughters, one a diabetic, one a 16 year old dating a boy who acts so much like a boy scout that we’re reminded of the author’s early years spent writing for Boy’s Life.

We’ve got the predictable love interest for our hero, the sexy nurse who is quite a bit younger than him, but not creepily so. He’s already shown her his heroic side, thereby proving that he’s not yet part of the “I need Cialis to be ready for when the moment is right” crowd. This achievement came with a wound that she tends for him while calling him “sir”, a noble scar that he earned by fighting for proper southern behavior while in line at the local CVS.

Finally, he seals the deal by demonstrating his emotional accessibility, breaking down in front of the nurse because of his fatherly concern for his diabetic daughter’s insulin supply, which he just secured by whacking someone over the head with a beer bottle.

It gets better.

There’s a moment when the hero hands a few cans of Ensure to a WW2 vet (stranded in a nursing home without electricity, staff members, food or even running water) before snapping to attention and saluting the old guy. I kept waiting for the  hackneyed “Thank you for your service, sir!”

But all pretensions of one warrior’s respect for another are dashed, because our hero turns tail and abandons the poor old guy to a lonely death, stealing the rest home’s remaining supply of Ensure and running for the hills.

Not just here, but overall, his behavior is a mixture of schoolboy sentimentality offset by angry, chain-smoking, combative selfishness.  And it is in this toxic mix that our hero completely loses the reader’s sympathy, while what remains of our interest in his fate dims even darker than the lights in his electricity-starved world.

At this point, the only reason that I’m sticking with the book (skimming it would be truer) is for the remaining EMP-related disaster scenarios, which are interesting and thought-provoking. But the clumsy plot, laughably cartoonish characters and saccharine dialog are so cringe-worthy that even skimming brings too much sap over the gunwales.

And yes, as hard as it might be to believe, it gets even better.

Apparently, nobody ever mentioned to the author, a man with a PhD in history from Purdue, that the phrase “might of thought” is not quite English. Unless you’re referring to the intellectual fecundity necessary to spawn a particularly mighty thought, an animal which I doubt has often crossed this author’s inner savannah.

I found myself dumbfounded as I ran across variations of this glaring, grade school error.  Amazingly, he doesn’t seem to realize that phrases like “might have thought” are commonly contracted to “might’ve thought”.

Yes, that sounds a lot like “might of thought” when spoken, but both the author and his illiterate editor prove their striking lack of might in their own thought by (in the author’s case) making and then (in the editor’s) missing this type of error, something that would’ve knocked me out of my socks as a 5th grader.

And sadly, this is neither a one-time mistake, nor a typo. I’ve run across many examples of Dr. Forstchen’s profound misunderstanding of written English in this book. Throughout it, he writes no better than the author of some choice graffiti on a truck stop restroom wall.

How is it possible that mastery of middle school English is not simply a given for Purdue’s doctoral candidates? For those in the sciences, I could see an exception or two, but for those seeking a doctorate in history, where the meat and potatoes of the entire program is nothing but writing?  How was this kind of an error suffered to exist at all during his candidacy, or more to the point, how does it endure today in this professor of history at Montreat College?

Apparently it isn’t just Purdue or Montreat that spawn such literary genius. Although I can’t fathom how the publisher, Tor Books, is able to employ editors illiterate enough to miss them, the book contains stunning clunkers like these:

    “We might of lost the fight.”
    “We might of gotten even.”
    “You might of seen that as too forward of me.”

Garbage like this isn’t a question of my being overly grammatical or failing to cut the author some slack for an honest mistake. This kind of thing is ignorance, plain and simple. It is ugly.  Writing this poor is an insult to the reader.  It drags the author’s work into the slush of amateurish, self-published trivia.

And that’s the sad part, because as I skim through the remaining pages, I find myself thinking “Oh, if only it had lived up to Newt’s hype, how great a book this might of been”.

Thank you for choosing Thrifty

It’s really odd: I used to have to choose Thrifty Car Rental when I worked as a full-time contractor for a Bay Area technology start-up. The start-up was playing the usual games (usual for the tech industry, at least) of pretending that all of its employees were actually not employees, despite issuing them business cards and employing them exclusively, full-time, for years on end, isicro-managing their every step, and requiring their daily presence at remote locations at the far ends of the civilized world.

But that wasn’t the problem.

The annoying thing was that, during the years I spent working for them (as the aforementioned full time yet magically independent contractor), I was compelled to choose Thrifty Car Rental while travelling on business. Exclusively Thrifty.

This was because their accountant wouldn’t reimburse for any other pricier brand, or even a portion of a pricier brand. Whether or not I covered the difference, didn’t seem to matter, it was a philosophical thing, apparently. I wanted Hertz, but I would’ve settled for Avis, or even Budget, for crying out loud.  Anything to avoid the stink of smoke, or to have a window that actually rolled up.

But no, she was as adamant as New Hampshire’s state motto on this point. She even said it to me outright: “Andrew, you will choose Thrifty, or you will die.”

But justice prevails, sometimes in the most oddly poetic ways. One afternoon, while processing my expense report, fate turned the tables on her “Thrifty-or-Die” motto, when she suffered a sudden and sadly fatal heart attack. Found face-down on my latest expense report, with her pen poised for approval on my Thrifty receipt, she clearly died a happy accountant, thrifty to the end.

Anyway, I had won the battle, at least in a karmic sense, but in the longer term, I ended up losing the war. This is because once in place, corporate standards are effectively immutable, and so it went with the accountant’s legacy, which was adopted by her successor and enforced with, if anything, an even greater enthusiasm for corporate thriftiness.

So, although (or paradoxically, because) I hated driving Thrifty’s filthy, high-mileage rent-a-wrecks, fate offered me no other choice: I had to rent from them, or walk. Especially after Thrifty-or-Die’s untimely yet somehow noble demise.

And so it was that I went on to become one of Thrifty’s most valued members, a “Blue Chip”, although I often felt like a blue chump, waiting in miserable lines with the other victims, dumped by a wheezing little bus in off- off- off-airport locations, all of us hoping for something with less than 50,000 miles on it and a working radio.

But time moves on, as do employees misclassified as consultants, and eventually I stopped working for that particular Bay Area high tech company, swapping it out for another. At least I didn’t have to travel nearly so much, which meant that my relationship with Thrifty entered an extended, blissful hiatus.

You can imagine my joy when Thrifty unexpectedly sent me an email today, plaintively whining that my Black Friday spending spree hadn’t included renting a 4 year old Ford Fiesta with a broken windshield.

Reflexively, I unsubscribed.  As I have been doing with a lot of other things, lately. But that’s also another story.

Anyway, the oddest thing happened.

After clicking unsubscribe, I found myself in an extended dialog with their website. I’ve learned that in many cases, you have to run this kind of gauntlet to escape from spam-Hell, but this was something of an entirely different caliber.

In most cases, unsubscribing is kind of like breaking up with a stalker: you can’t just respond with a “piss off, we’re through”. Like the stalker, the company ignores your attempt at dialog by shunting your responses to an “unattended mail box”, which is the corporate version of returning your cease-and-desist letters unopened. This way, they can keep on spamming you without guilt, or at least legal ramification.

So, accepting my fate, I dove into Thrifty’s monumental customer survey, working my way through page after page of check-boxes and “share here” dialogues, until the progress bar showed that I was finally nearing the end of what had turned into a minor death march.

And it was at this point, bathed in the light from the end of the tunnel that would surely lead me to everlasting freedom from their spam, that the website told me, simply: “Thank you for choosing Thrifty”.

Which is exactly my point.

I wasn’t choosing Thrifty – I had never chosen Thrifty.  I had been forced to it, driven unwillingly into their dank blue reception areas more times than I could ever recall. Even under hypnosis.

No, instead I had thought that I had finally achieved my shining moment, my opportunity to un-choose Thrifty at least.  I had just gotten done plowing through page after page, unchoosing Thrifty again and again, with liberal doses of “great vengeance and furious anger” worthy of Samuel L. Jackson.

But all to no avail: Thank you for choosing Thrifty

I’m sure you can understand why that canned response, thanking me for doing precisely the opposite of what I had just done, stung as such an insult.

I mean, hadn’t we just engaged in “a productive dialog to improve our customer experience”?  And if so, hadn’t that customer experience software noted any telling trends in my responses, like maybe that I had just been giving them zeroes on a scale of 1 to 10?

Anybody listening in Thriftyland?

Not getting the written responses, that I can understand, as I was dealing with a machine.  But not even paying attention to the check-marks?  What part of “lowest possible customer rating” does not compute?

I guess it’s interactions like this that we all must endure, if only for sanity’s sake. Over and over and painfully over again, we are forced to listen to insincere sincerity and impolite politeness in these corporate interactions, whether online or (worst of all), on the phone.

You know, normally, I try to go with the flow, just clicking, deleting, unsubscribing, spam-trashing, or listening to the blather before saying “No thanks, it’s nice of you to offer it for the 14th time, but I’d really rather not renew my subscription, given that the purpose of this entire phone call is to cancel it. ”

This assault on our patience and the trivialization of our responses has become part of everyone’s normal day. Like dealing with junk mail in the physical world once was, now junk content in every electronic venue imaginable assaults us from all sides.

I guess today was just one of those those times when I found myself enraged by another tedious slog through the double-speak, yearning to slash my way with a machete of truth through the dense jungle of politely meaningless interactions that clutter and waste our days.

Annoyances such as having to fill out lengthy surveys merely to be freed from a “community update” (read, corporate marketing database), or having to listen to diatribes about online security when simply trying to find out why your cable is down, once again… these are things that anger people out of all proportion, because for many of us, they are the 998th of a thousand little cuts dealt out by a depersonalized yet technologically-empowered world, every day.

So sure, in my little rant you can see that I’m climbing a mountain made of many molehills. This was, after all, a singular example from a regular, daily stream of email annoyances.

But I guess that for me, it was the combination of insincerity and time-wasting pedantry that inspired this post. I fell for the bait, I tried to share the truth with a company about my experiences with them. But why did I even bother?

In the end, it was like talking with HAL in the movie 2001: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.  But thank you for choosing Thrifty.”

What if…?

What if it were all true?

You know, the ghosts, the demons, the dead walking among us. All of the spiritual realities in which at least a portion of mankind has professed belief for all of recorded history, and likely many long millennia in the forgotten recesses of our cultural past: what if they weren’t just a cultural legacy, but instead a spiritual reality?

Tonight is Halloween. In centuries past, long after it had ceased to be the Celtic day of the dead known as Samhain, this was a hallowed evening, being the night before an important holiday (holy day): the solemnity of all souls, a.k.a., the memorial of the faithful departed. Every November the 1st, Catholics around the world would attend Mass in order to pray for their beloved dead, that they might complete the process of post-mortem purification through which all had to pass, before achieving the unblemished spiritual perfection that Christ taught was absolutely required for entry into Heaven.

For most of us, Death is an infrequent visitor to our daily lives. For me, it had been almost unknown for over four decades, at least in terms of close friends or relatives. Then, this past April, Death came for my father.

The experience, this entire process, is something that is still unfolding for me. I’m poorly prepared to write about it in any depth, or at least with any depth of insight. At this point, it’s still a cascade of impressions, unfamiliar experiences, new routines and different perspectives, all centered on a topic and an experience about which I had thought so little, until so very recently.

Eventually, I will write more, or more completely, but for this moment, I will write just enough to convey the core of the idea that’s plaguing me tonight.

My father was one of the millions of post-Vatican II Catholics for whom the Church remained a badge of cultural identity, but for whom it was no longer an unquestioned source of spiritual insight. Maybe in his case, it never really had been.

Taking my cue from his lukewarm example of passion for the faith, I too dropped away in my 20s, fully embracing the secular lifestyle of the 1980s. When a life-changing metaphysical experience brought me back to Catholicism in a very powerful way, I was over 40, newly single, and really ready to change my life.

My father’s life had never really changed – he had just droned comfortably along, attending church every Saturday evening (one of the few changes in the post Vatican II Church that he liked), but never fully participating in either the parish life, or the spiritual life that is part of any fruitful journey of faith, Catholic or otherwise.

I remember taking him to a special place for me, where this spiritual conversion or mystical (some might say miraculous) experience of mine had struck me like a bolt out of the blue. It was a Father’s Day, and he had agreed to come with me on a mini-pilgrimage to a place of great sanctity, a monastery hidden among the pines and the rolling hills of northern Alabama like a chunk of Assisi come hurtling out of the sky to land in the middle of the Baptist Bible Belt with meteoritic improbability.

We sat there, on the cool stone of a medieval-looking niche set into a quiet corner of the magnificently quiet monastic enclosure, after we had attended Mass and then spent time in a contemplative spiritual exercise called Eucharistic Adoration, and we talked about God.

He stunned me that afternoon. He said that his faith in God was based on two things: first, a belief that because God was supposed to be so good, it was unlikely that whatever sins he had committed in his life were of any consequence to God; and second, that he didn’t really believe too strongly in a God who would allow so much suffering to exist in the world.

Coming from the man who had dragged me unwillingly to church every Saturday afternoon for much of my life, this was pretty shocking stuff. All I could do was talk about my own experiences, my own newly-found passion for God and for all things religious, and although my Dad smiled and nodded and made encouraging noises, I could see that each of my points, however passionately delivered, were bouncing off the armor of his indifference like a handful of pebbles hurled against the cold, hard steel of a tank. He just didn’t really care. He didn’t hate God, but he sure didn’t love Him, either. He was just sort of along for the ride, in case all this religious stuff turned out to be true, in the end. And at that stage of his life, the end seemed pretty distant.

Well, life has a funny way of determining its own timelines, and they often run directly contrary to our expectations. Plan to marry at 25, and you might find your spouse at 19, or at 47. Map out your career to peak at 55, and you might find yourself retiring a decade early, or unable to do so, two decades late. And so it was with my father, who had predicted his death at 40, then 50, then 60… only to have a triple bypass and yet ascend to better health afterwards than he had enjoyed in the decades previously.

I had that crucial talk with him at the monastery when he was 77, a more vigorous and confident man than I had known him to be thirty years earlier, and it seemed like he would go on forever.

Until I got that call in early April, about his fall, and that he was in the hospital. My Dad and I talked every afternoon: 7 days a week, at precisely 4:44 p.m., my phone would ring and he’d say “Check in time! I’m still alive: how’re you doing?” And we’d talk. Sometimes for 30 minutes, sometimes for 30 seconds. He always sounded the same, ageless, just as vigorous and sharp as ever.

So you can imagine my shock as I stood there in the hospital hallway outside his room, talking with his doctors after getting off the plane in Atlanta only hours before.

“Mr. Brennan, your Dad is between a rock and a hard place. We can’t do surgery” (he had injured his leg in a fall) “…until his cardiovascular health improves, and that won’t improve until his leg is better and he can exercise more.”

I knew there was something more. I waited.

“But the real problem is his kidneys. His function is declining, and renal failure is a likely outcome.”

I asked what they recommended.

“Hospice.”

I was stunned. I had flown out in the expectation of visiting him for a few days until they got him back on his feet again, then returning home. It was with an icy feeling in my gut that I heard them out.

They concluded with words that hammered my disbelief. “He’s not coming home. This is an unrecoverable situation.”

I signed the paperwork, and they moved him into the hospice. My life changed at that moment, but with nothing of the drama that my father’s did, of course. He accepted his lot with surprising equanimity, telling me that he had already been to Confession with a priest, for the first time in over 50 years.

That was when I really believed that the doctors were right. For my entire life, my father had refused to “confess his sins to another man” as he had put it with an almost atheistic derision. But yet he had, and the peace that had come over him is what eased him into the hospice without a complaint.

The next few days, he seemed to improve. The attention from the hospice nurses, the quiet, private room in a corner of the facility, and the endless supply of chocolate pudding delivered with sincere smiles all cooperated to improve his condition. Although the glum-faced doctors continued to look at his charts and prod the catheter bag, shaking their heads solemnly.

My life was a sudden maelstrom of lawyer’s visits, afternoons spent digging through mountains of unsorted paperwork, evenings drinking my way to the bottom of a pitcher of cheap beer with my newly-found best friend, one of my Dad’s neighbors who I had never met in 20 years of visits, but who immediately proved to be the guardian angel that I was so desperately needing during those blurred, frantic days.

Easter was rapidly approaching, and I remembered with a premonition that both his older brother and a close cousin who was essentially another brother, had both died on Easter Sunday.

Holy week started, and his condition began suddenly to deteriorate. Monday afternoon, I had snuck away from his bedside to run some errands, when I was driving back on I-185 and I got a call from a 706 area code that I didn’t recognize.

“Mr. Brennan – this is the Columbus Hospice.”

Oh great, I think, I just missed it: he died, and now I’m the bad son forever because I wasn’t there for the big moment. A lifetime of regrets stretched out before me.

“Your father wants to talk with you, he said it was critical.”

Oh, this is even worse. Now he’s dying and woke up and I wasn’t there, so we have say goodbye on the phone. Another lifetime of regrets.

“Andrew? I want to tell you something.”

“I love you too, Dad.”

“No, this is important. Something you don’t know about.”

Maybe there was something I hadn’t found in the train-wreck of his office after all. A cigar box full of Krugerrands, a sheaf of Coca Cola stock from the ‘50s, maybe an unlisted bank account or IRA.

“Just hang on, I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

I was dying of a guilt mixed with sudden anticipation, a strange horror at not being there, brightening with greedy joy at what treasures might be revealed in the next few seconds.

“I wanted to ask you… to bring more chocolate pudding.”  Click.

I laughed, hung up the phone, then sat with him the rest of that afternoon while he dozed.

But the next day he got worse.

The decline was slow but steady, and although I didn’t see a major change hour to hour, I started to see it from day to day.

He had been sleeping a lot, not going through the usual delusional stuff one expects with the dying, but just sleeping like he was very, very tired. Sometimes, he’d come out of those long naps and tell me things about himself that I never knew, or just to ask me my thoughts on religious topics.

In many ways, it was like being back at the monastery in Alabama on that Father’s Day, except that now he was the one bringing the topic back around to God, not me. It was good to talk then, and his insights into things were strangely penetrating. He was very calm, and smiled more than I remembered in many years.

But still, he worsened on Thursday. The neighbor who had become my friend and staunch supporter, Jeff… he was there when I arrived at 7 that morning, a worried look on his face, a lukewarm coffee in his hand.

“He’s gettin’ real bad, Drew. I don’t think that boy’s gonna make it.”

I thanked him for doing the vigil, then took up a chair in the darkened room. Being with a dying person is an exercise of running from crisis to crisis, panic and boredom mixing together into an exhausting cocktail of tension and stress. You don’t know what’s coming up next – you’ve never done this before – and everyone’s standing around with sad eyes asking you what to do next.

That morning, the glum-faced doctor and the worried-looking chaplain both hovered around, seeking guidance from me, which struck me as perverse and puzzling.

“You tell me, you’re the professionals. I’ve never done this before.”

And the answer I got was just “we want to respect the family’s wishes”.

What wishes, I wondered. He wishes he were dead. I wish he won’t suffer.

But you guys won’t euthanize, and the Church won’t allow me to, so we’re all stuck sitting around in sad little circles in a darkened and overly-warm room, waiting for his body to give up the ghost while we’re doing our best to medicate him into a living a little while longer.

They left, and the chocolate pudding sat uneaten on his bedside table. I closed the door behind them, and stood at the windowed door to the garden outside, suddenly noticing the little angel sculpture that sat on the grass next to some struggling flowers.

Which was when he woke up again.

“Andrew” It was whispered, urgent but faint. I was at his bedside without being aware of moving. “I want to tell you something. Something important.”

I nodded. His eyes were open, piercingly blue and suddenly passionately intense, yet his demeanor was oddly humble, almost regretful. “You were right, you know. Right about everything.”

He looked sad, yet comforted and peaceful as said the crucial words. “It’s all true. I can hardly believe it, but it’s all true.”

I was deeply moved by my own realization of what he was saying. “You mean the spiritual realities that we talked about back then, at the monastery?”

He rested his head back on the pillow, nodded heavily, looking into my eyes with regret, regret for a lifetime spent wavering on the lukewarm fringes of the beautiful mysteries of the afterlife, then closed his eyes, and fell into a deep sleep.

I stood there and let his words sink in. My Dad was an executive, an engineer, trained as a tool and die maker, he went to MIT and graduated from Boston University with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering after serving in the Korean War. There was nothing of the religious fanatic about him. He was always scientific, rational, logical and fact-driven his whole life through.

Yet he had just said the most fundamentally earth-shattering thing when it came to his worldview.

He died four days later, on Easter Monday. And those were the last words he ever said.

“I can hardly believe it, but it’s all true.”