Hunting The Beast

I’m stalking The Beast with an all-consuming focus that’s almost manic in its intensity. The Beast is a disgusting, vile creature, and I’m merciless in my quest for its death. An outside observer would doubtlessly question my sanity, and a miniscule part of my mind concurs that I may very well have lost a touch of my grip on reality as I hover motionless, still as the vacuum of space that yawns beneath my precarious perch. The Beast eyes me, warily. It knows I’m there. It knows that I deign for its demise, and it waits, ever so cautiously for my next move.

We’re in a standoff, The Beast and I. We’ve gone several rounds already, and the score is Beast 6, Rick 0. It’s an embarrassing tally, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’m losing in such horrendous fashion. This is how Eli Manning felt every time he faced Tom Brady, and it’s not a good feeling. The Beast has a mottled gray body sprouting six legs and bulbous eyes, and I can see my reflection in those hideous eyes as it waits just out of my reach. As if to mock me, it rubs two of its legs together, defying gravity, hanging from the side of a sheer and smooth cliff by some magical means. I have no such magical ability. I perch on the impugnable edge of the rickety ladder knowing that a sudden sharp move will mean serious injury or worse. The Beast seems to know this too, and it waits for me to make my play. It knows it has all the time it needs, that I’m the one who desires its demise. It has no such ill intent for me.

There’s motion below me. My dog, Malibu, walks by. She’s aware of The Beast, of course. She’s ferocious in normal circumstances, but eerily ignorant of the danger the disgusting beast poses right now. It’s as if The Beast has cast a spell over her with the same wicked sorcery that allows it to grasp nothingness without even using all of its legs. Malibu walks on. She has her own beasts to chase and harass. We are normally on the same page, but not today. I call her beasts chipmunks, and I care as much about her beasts as she does about mine.

I’m like Walter White in my mania with The Beast. This vile thing is a major contaminant, and, although I don’t have the sanctity of an illicit lab to protect, this beast is screwing with the venerability of my very sanity. It must die, and I must be its vanquisher.

It moves suddenly, away from me, and, much like Malibu who waits patiently at the bottom of a tree for her own beast before jumping far too soon, allowing it to escape into the upper branches, I react toward mine. I swing my weapon with all my might, the flimsy, plastic bludgeoner making a mighty “thwack” on the window where The Beast stands with such sorcery. It can fly, of course, and it does so now, nonchalant, unhurried, seemingly and painfully aware that I’ve now dropped the ineffectual weapon in my effort to grab frantically at the ladder, the force of my stalwart swat throwing off my balance and nearly causing me to fall to the hard ground below. The Beast disappears, and I hang my head in shame. The score is now Beast 7, Rick 0, but I’m undeterred. I shall vanquish this evil, disgusting foe. With shaky legs, I descend the ladder and retrieve my weapon.

Back on the hunt I go.

The Courage of 9/11

Next week marks the twentieth anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack to ever take place on American soil. Muslim fundamentalists became terrorists and planes became missiles, filling the skies with terror and carnage that would forever change the course of history for the entire world. While the death and destruction from that day is an immutable memory seared in our heads, we should remember that there was more to those incidents than the havoc and devastation that dominated our screens. On that day, twenty years ago, courage and heroism were in abundance across the gamut of attacks that took place, and, while some of that courage has been documented and acknowledged, other examples have been mostly overlooked, or the courageous aspect of the deed ignored. Next week, while a splurge of articles and media reports will no doubt fill our synapses with memories of that history-changing day, I want to take a moment to talk about the courage of 9/11.

Courage is defined as action in the face of fear. There are many people who think that they aren’t courageous simply because they’re scared, but courage actually requires fear. Courage is being scared but acting anyway. Fighting your base instinct to take no action, or to remove yourself from the action that is necessary, wanting to turn back, to run, to hide, but moving forward regardless. Not everyone is capable of courage. There are many who freeze with fear, paralyzed by the magnitude of the event or the decision. When people push through that paralysis and act, we marvel at that action, and we acknowledge it. Not all courage is equal, and not all that we call courageous is actually courage. Too often that term is thrown around in situations where it doesn’t apply, diminishing the word and weakening the actions of those who truly earned that brand. The courage on display on 9/11 was pure and it was undeniable, though not all of it resulted in good. I think it’s important to recognize the courage both pure and impure, both heroic and anti-heroic, on that day, for reasons that I hope will be clear.

We’ve all discussed and acknowledged the courage of the first responders—the police officers, firefighters, and others who ran toward the towers that day. The shock of seeing a jumbo jet slam into a skyscraper that before this day had seemed indomitable, an everlasting symbol of not just our nation, but the entire world of capitalism and finance, could have, should have, and, in many cases probably did cause many to freeze, to stand in shock, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds, their bodies immobile with gut-wrenching fear. When the second plane, United Airlines flight 175, crashed into the south tower, the majority of us were watching from home, safely in our living rooms while the scenario played out on our televisions. It was shocking even from there. From the ground, the ear-splitting scream of the turbofan engines as the hijackers shoved them to full throttle, the gut-wrenching explosion above your head which would have rained glass, steel, concrete, and debris across the entire World Trade Center complex, the smell of jet fuel permeating the air, the shaking of the very ground you stood on, and the visceral screams of all those around you, the stumbling, shell-shocked walking wounded with blood pouring from them, the thumps as bodies splashed onto the ground around you, and the knowledge—no longer in any doubt—that this was not an accident, that this was intentional, an attack on America, and that your country, your city, the very patch of concrete that you stood on right now was ground zero of a warzone…this could have and should have been immobilizing.

And still, they ran into the buildings. Toward the fire and the screams and the carnage. This is courage.

There was much more courage on display than just the rescuers who ran into the doomed buildings. When the planes smashed into the towers, the twisted metal and blazing flames blocked off all access points to escape routes for the majority of those trapped on the floors above the wreckage. They had nowhere to go, imprisoned in their offices as smoke and heat rose to greet them. So many of them made heart-wrenching calls to loved ones. Calls to tell their families that they were trapped and they didn’t know if they would be able to escape. In so many of these calls, the speaker is calm and collected, saying goodbye in their own unique way, their voices shaky but confident as they leave messages of love. The courage to overcome the near panic of being trapped to be able to leave a message of hope and love, and to say goodbye in a calm voice should not be overlooked.

On the floors below those leaving messages for their loved ones, the floors that were just above or just below the wreckage of the planes, things were much more desperate. The heat and smoke and noxious fumes of burning steel and debris were overpowering. Fear exploded in these helpless beings as they broke windows and hung themselves out over the void, grasping to ledges for dear life as they prayed and shouted for rescue to the responders who were tiny dots a thousand feet below them. Rescue was impossible, and the situation for these poor souls was unimaginable. Many of them took an extraordinary step to escape the inferno.

The Falling Man – Richard Drew/AP

This picture is known as The Falling Man. It’s an everlasting image that was captured by photographer Richard Drew of the Associated Press, and it probably should have won him a Pulitzer. Instead, it won him scorn and derision. It represents, without words, so much of the fear and devastation of that day. This is a jumper. One of approximately 200 people who chose to jump to their deaths from the hellscape in which they were trapped. The decision to loose yourself from the burning building and plummet for 10 to 15 seconds to a certain death on the pavement 1000 feet below is hard to imagine. It’s a decision that takes incredible courage.

If you’ve never seen this picture of the falling man, there’s a simple explanation. Many news agencies refused to show it. Many showed it once and received such backlash from citizen complaints that they never showed it again. There’s a good chance that something in you recoiled from looking at it here. And there’s a simple explanation for that.

It shows a man committing suicide, and our society shuns that stigma as morally wrong.

It doesn’t matter that this man was doomed to die in one of the most painful ways imaginable. It doesn’t matter that there was no escape for him, that he was hanging by a thread with flames licking at his body when he gave up. We can not acknowledge his decision because in so many of our minds, he made the wrong decision. He jumped. He committed suicide, and we can’t accept that.

I’m here to tell you, not only do I accept it, I consider this an act of extreme courage.

When Peter Cheney, a reporter for the Globe and Mail, set out to determine the identity of The Falling Man, he started with his clothing. It was the clothing of a chef, he realized, and that led him to the famous north tower restaurant, Windows on the World. By tracking down all of the employees who were present that day and those who’s bodies were identified, along with the locations of their remains, he was able to figure out that there was a very distinct likelihood that The Falling Man was Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef at Windows on the World. When he contacted Hernandez’s family to show them his evidence that he may have identified their loved one, he was met with incredible backlash. Hernandez’s daughter went so far as to make a statement, saying,

“That piece of shit is not my father.”

That piece of shit. The family of one of the victims of the World Trade Center attack was so fearful of the stigma of suicide that they could not bear the idea that this jumper may have been their loved one. There was no way that their Norberto would have jumped to his death. Only a “piece of shit” would choose his own death in that way.

Such is the stigma of this action in our society that the medical examiner responsible for identifying the bodies didn’t even refer to them as “jumpers.” The picture is titled The “Falling” Man, not The Jumper. On the official report of the deaths of 9/11, the 200 jumpers are referred to as “fallers.” No doubt this is partially accurate. Unquestionably with all of the people hanging from the broken windows, many of them precariously leaning with most of their body over the gulf, some accidentally fell. There’s also no doubt though, that many of them jumped. And I think those jumpers showed enormous courage.

There is courage in making any tough decision in the face of fear, particularly a decision that guarantees your death. Humans have a strong desire to live, and none of the 200 from that day thought they might have a chance at life by jumping or falling. There was no doubt that they were making a decision that was going to be their last. It is so tough to imagine the hell on Earth that they were experiencing in that tower that made jumping a better option than staying. There was no way for them to know if rescue was coming, or if the fire suppression system would somehow kick on, or if the wind would shift and push the flames away from them. And yet, they knew that none of those things were likely, and that staying meant a continuation of the incredible pain and suffering as the devastating inferno raged through their former offices. And so, they jumped. Or let go. And by doing so, they chose 10 seconds of cool, rushing air, followed by a painless eternal blackness. The fear of jumping had to be overwhelming, and yet they made that decision, and I think that makes them incredibly courageous. I can not fathom calling them cowards, or “pieces of shit” for that choice. Yet, our society is such a moral backwater that this is what we do.

When Mohamed Atta, the hijacker piloting American Flight 11, banked that 767 onto the collision course with the North Tower and then jammed the throttles forward as the building loomed and his own death became certain, he still had a choice. He could have veered off the collision course at any time. He could have changed his mind and decided that what he’d agreed to do, what he’d trained to do was madness. There’s no doubt that his heart was racing. There’s no doubt that he was terrified as he and his copilot confronted their own deaths. The hijackers of the second plane, United Flight 175, had a great view of the smoking hole that used to be their friends and co-conspirators. They saw first-hand what happened to their comrades and they still turned their own jet inbound and powered into the skyscraper. It’s one thing to imagine your own glorious demise. It’s quite another to see exactly what will happen to you and to still proceed. There’s no doubt that following through with the slamming of those two jumbo jets into the two towers and the one into the side of the Pentagon took prodigious amounts of courage.

The hijackers deserve our scorn and derision of course. They were homicidal terrorists who murdered thousands. But we can both disparage them and, at the same time, acknowledge that what they did took incredible courage. In fact, we need to acknowledge their courage in order to ascertain what it was that gave them such courage. What was it that allowed these men to turn those jets onto a collision course with concrete and steel, push the throttles forward to their stops, and immolate themselves into the fire of oblivion? When we acknowledge that these actions took true and pure courage, we can begin to figure out where that courage came from, and we can try to take steps to ensure that this type of courage, this homicidal courage that is indoctrinated into these men doesn’t happen again.

What is it that causes men to become radicalized suicide (or homicide) bombers? Is it the same courage that causes a soldier to jump on a grenade, or is it something different? When a soldier jumps on a grenade, he’s committing suicide, there’s no doubt about it. Even when he somehow lives, his actions were still suicidal. And yet, we call him hero. We award him with our highest honors and medals. We do this in spite of the fact that he committed suicide, and we don’t call it suicide, even though it very clearly is. We do this because his suicidal action was done with the intent of saving others. When a man straps on a suicide vest and blows himself to smithereens in a crowded market, we call him coward. We call him a murderer and a terrorist. The act though, is the same. In both cases the men are making the decision to blow themselves up. So shouldn’t we acknowledge that both actions require the same level of courage? In fact, can’t we posit that the suicide bomber, who has all day to think about his decision and the consequences of his decision and still goes through with it may be even more courageous than the soldier who jumps on a grenade and may not have even considered the consequences of his actions? Some of the survivors of such actions have said that they, “didn’t even think, they just acted.” This shows that these types of actions may not involve courage at all. They may actually just be indicative of an inability to think through the consequences of your actions, something we despise in everyday life.

Once we acknowledge the courage of the 9/11 hijackers, then we can figure out the source of that courage. We can track that courage back to one basic concept. The same source that gives suicide bombers their courage. The courage of both comes from exactly one source: religion. The type of religious courage that can only arise from the surety that your place at God’s side is secure, that the action you’re taking, this homicidal maelstrom that you’re unleashing is exactly what will secure you the grace of your God. It’s this kind of religious zealotry that has caused more pain and suffering in the history of humanity than any other source. From paganism and polytheism and their human sacrifices, to the Crusades of Christianity and their witch hunts and heretic burnings, to the terrorism of Muslim fundamentalists with their suicide murderers, extreme religious beliefs have caused incalculable death and anguish throughout time. Religious certainty leaves no room for opposition, it elevates its believers to the status of the pious and the righteous, and it excuses literally any act that can be justified as furtherance of God’s will. The 19 hijackers that day showed astounding courage, and that courage was born of religious fervor and righteous certainty, and that is something we should all be striving to vanquish from our society.

The first responders, the trapped, the jumpers, the passengers on the flights who called authorities in defiance of their hijackers to report the hijackings, and those on United flight 93 who attempted to take back their airplane, causing it to crash into a field in Pennsylvania instead of its intended target in Washington D.C., and, yes, even the hijackers of those four flights all showed incredible courage that day. Some of the courage was admirable. Some of it was despicable. All of it was unquestionable. The courage of 9/11 presented itself in many different aspects, and, as we look back to that fateful day twenty years ago, we can both admire and learn from all who showed it that day.

*Cover photo credit Seth McAllister/AFB

Bringing Gavin’s Harley home to Vegas

“Debris! Bobo, we have debris!” I shouted.

He couldn’t hear my movie quote, of course. I was safely nestled in the luxurious comfort of Matt Russell’s brand-new BMW X6 SUV. The driving rain, large hail, gusty winds, and occasional chunks and bits of refuse that zipped hither and thither across the highway as if they were animatedly playing some real-life version of Frogger, were of no real concern to me. Bobo, on the other hand, was riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle. The recently deceased Gavin Smith’s Harley Davidson motorcycle, to be more accurate.

And we were heading directly into tornado-spawning thunderclouds.

When our good friend Gavin had died unexpectedly three months earlier, his family made the decision to sell his belongings to support his two young children. It was decided that the best option for selling his Harley Davidson was to leverage his fame in the poker world by auctioning the bike at a charity event in Las Vegas that would be coinciding with the kick-off of the 50th annual World Series of Poker. The bike was being stored by Matt Russell in Houston, Texas, and we needed to get it up to Las Vegas, so Bobo and I jumped at the chance to make the ride. Matt, who wanted to get his SUV to Las Vegas for the WSOP anyway, volunteered to let us use the BMW as a support vehicle for the ride so that Bobo and I could switch back and forth between the two vehicles. We caught a Southwest Airlines flight into Houston on a Sunday evening, spent the night at Matt’s condo, and departed early the next morning for the planned two-day trip. Now, here we were seven hours out of Houston, just crossing into the Texas panhandle near the town of Memphis, and heading right into some serious storms.

And, gloriously, it was my turn to be in the SUV.

As rain followed by hail pelted the windshield of the X6 and the outside temperature gauge showed a plummet of twenty degrees in a matter of minutes, Bobo, dressed in only camouflage cargo shorts, a thin, olive-colored t-shirt that was plastered tightly to his Michelin Man body like one of OJ’s Isotoners, and a pair of red and white Vans low-tops that I’m guessing he stole from a teenage girl at a Venice Beach skateboarding park, finally whipped the Harley to the shoulder of the highway and sloshed his way through standing water back to the SUV.

In the previous ten miles, we had passed thirty to forty “storm chasers” jockeying about in jacked-up pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans adorned with flashing yellow strobe lights, twirling antennas and satellite dishes, and rapidly spinning wind gauges. This hodgepodge of amateur, semi-professional, and professional tornado enthusiasts had flooded the area we were traversing, presumably in anticipation of the tornados that would surely be spawning from the heavy, darkly brooding, funnel clouds that hung low over the flat purple-hewed landscape. The farmhouses and fields that dotted the terrain seemed ripe for victimization as the occupants no doubt kept one ear tuned to their emergency radios and prepared to evacuate to the ever-present storm shelters that are a necessity in this part of the country.

I have never seen a tornado. Part of me ecstacized at the ominous tone of the sky which was so reminiscent of the numerous movies I’ve seen where a twister comes screeching and roaring through a town’s trailer park. The part of me that was a loyal friend to the motorcycle-bound Bobo was less thrilled, particularly when we entered Memphis, Texas and the town’s tornado sirens suddenly began wailing in an ear-splittingly spooky, surreal warbling that sent chills down my arms. I scanned the sky with wide-eyes and took video to document the distinct possibility of a motorcycle becoming an airplane as Bobo, stoically undeterred and seemingly unimpressed, rode on, dodging the debris that littered the roadway, hunching his rotund body into the driving hail, and soldiering through conditions that would have made lessor men curl up into a ball in the back seat of the SUV.

When lightning and thunder began shaking the earth with sizzling smells of ozone and soul-rattling booms, and standing water on the road had reached the foot petals of the motorcycle, Bobo finally pulled into a gas station and parked under the portico. We took shelter inside the small convenience store and watched the raging storm as an early afternoon darkness brought on by the thick clouds descended over us and the store clerk listened to an emergency storm radio that would hopefully provide us with enough warning to cover our bodies in softly cushioning Hostess cupcakes before the tornados arrived.

After several cups of coffee, hot chocolate, and some hot-case gas station burritos, the storm subsided without even a single tornado ripping up the roof of our refuge. The sky lightened into a second dawn as the clouds began to break. The pelting rain slowed and then quit completely, and the weather warmed several degrees. I told Bobo that I figured it was now my turn on the bike. He gave me a wry look but handed over the still soggy helmet and climbed into the BMW to turn on the heater and finish drying his clothes. We left the storms behind us, never even having seen a tornado, much to my dismay.

Crossing into New Mexico, we hit Interstate 40 and headed due west into the setting sun toward Albuquerque. As it got dark for the second time that day, we stopped in Santa Rosa, New Mexico on historic Route 66 and checked into the Route 66 Inn. This was a simple but decent motel with a community firepit, and we grabbed some dinner-to-go and a few beers, enjoying the fire for a couple of hours before heading to bed.

The next morning, we toured the Route 66 auto museum which was probably the most interesting thing in Santa Rosa, but still definitely skippable unless you’re a real classic car buff. We got back on the road before 10 o’clock and made our way west to Albuquerque. By the time we arrived, the wind had stiffened from an annoying headwind that was blasting us around on the Interstate, into a truly treacherous gale that constantly threatened to upend us, regularly sending us careening across the lane divider or onto the shoulder of the highway in spite of our best efforts to stay safely in one lane. It was a clear, sunny, otherwise beautiful day that would have been perfect for riding had the wind speeds not topped fifty miles per hour. To make things worse, the winds were directly in our face and the Harley had no windshield, which meant that even at a modest 60 mile per hour speed—which was much slower than the posted limit of 70 and 75, and almost dangerously slower than the average speed of the normal vehicle which was 80 to 85—we were still experiencing a direct wind in our chest and face of 110 miles per hour, a thrashing wind that left us beaten and exhausted like we’d spent the day breaking a bull.

We stopped for gas in Albuquerque and then hit the highway again with me on the Harley. After fifteen minutes of riding, my neck was aching from the pure strain of holding it upright in the 110 to 120 mile per hour winds that blasted the heavy, full-face helmet I wore. I tried lying flat against the tank of the bike and tipping my head down to let the wind press on only the top of the helmet, and that helped some, but looking at the ground while riding a bike isn’t very conducive to safe operations, and I realized this wasn’t going to be a good permanent solution. To make matters worse, we had no leather chaps to protect our legs, and small rocks were ripping into us constantly from the driving wind and the semi-trucks that would get blown onto the shoulder of the road releasing a maelstrom of dust and debris from the dormant shoulder, each of those grains of sand feeling like shotgun pellets as they blasted our denim-clad legs. It was nightmarish, and Bobo and I started switching rides every twenty to thirty minutes from our previous switching times of every two hours. At one point early on, I tried to convince Bobo that the conditions were just too hideous and dangerous to continue, and that we should spend the night in Albuquerque and finish the ride the next day, but he was insistent that he wanted to be back in Vegas that night. Knowing my misery, and making me feel like a complete wuss, he powered through a 1.5-hour straight ride that had me shaking my head in awe. He could hardly speak when he stumbled off the bike at the next stop, his ghoulish face conveying his misery with nary a word as we switched spots. It had been a Herculean effort that pushed us through the worst of the hellish wind, and I was grateful for his selfless stamina.

Once we’d left the wind behind, the rest of the ride went smoothly. We made quick work of Arizona, flying along the macadam in perfect riding weather, and crossing the top of the state at speeds that must have averaged more than 90 miles per hour. As we approached the Nevada border, Bobo asked for the honor of taking the final stage of the ride, bringing Gavin’s Harley back home to Las Vegas, and I gladly ceded him that honor. We crossed the Pat Tillman bridge over the Colorado River as the sun was dropping toward the horizon, painting the sky in dazzling brush strokes of reds and golds shining through heavy clouds, our journey ending in a magnificent display that so well represented the end of the era of Gavin Smith. Twenty minutes later, we eased over Railroad Pass and the expansive desert valley spread out before us, the vividly blazing lights of Las Vegas welcoming us home.

The ride had been objectively one of the most hazardous and despairing motorcycle rides I’ve ever been on, and yet, it seemed that the very things that made it such a tough ride were the things that made it so worthwhile. We spent three days with the spirit of our good friend Gavin riding beside us, and the toils of the ride ensured that it would be one we would never forget. Two weeks later, I would ride Gavin’s motorcycle to the charity auction where it would sell for significantly more than its true value, and the money would go to the pool of donations contributed by the poker community to ensure that his children, now effectively orphans, would be well-taken care of. Although Bobo and I had lost a close friend, we will forever have the story of the incredible journey we made bringing Ol’ G Smith’s Harley Davidson home to Las Vegas.

The Memorial

The room is already busy when we walk through the door, the steady din that mutters ceaselessly just under the threshold of consciousness in every bar amplified by the murmuring of more voices than usual. The voices are muted and somber, the typical joy that underlies the normal conversations of friends meeting for drinks conspicuously missing. The occasional laugh rings out above the din, but the expression behind the laugh is rarely anything but hollow and pained. Memorials are like that. We give them names like “celebration of life” because we want them to be joyous events full of mirth and memories, but they so often don’t start out that way. The sadness is an undercurrent that’s present in every face, even the ones that are smiling. I nod at friends and acquaintances. Hands stretch out toward me as I pass tables. I stop to shake, fist bump, and hug, muttering “good to see you” to those who I haven’t seen in too long. So many of them are friends who float in and out of my life with varying amounts of time and importance. I know little about their current lives, and they know little about mine, and there’s a sadness in that as well. I’ve spent too little time nurturing and cultivating these relationships, and the recent deaths of so many mutual friends are a stark and stabbing reminder that I need to do better.

In addition to the normal melancholy of any wake, there’s also the underlying fear of the times in which we live, the knowledge that in any gathering as large as this, Covid is likely to be present, a stalking menace for those who are unvaccinated or have immune system issues, or those like myself who have international travel coming up and can’t test positive. The handshakes are quicker than normal, the hugs given with held breaths. Like so many of the things we do these days, the virus rules over our actions and our exuberance, to the great detriment of the purpose of our gathering.

The room is filled with personalities, poker players and industry personnel, many of whom are known mainly by their monikers. People with nicknames like Chip, Savage, Weez, World, JRB, JDN, Miami, and Erik123. We’ve gathered to mourn the passing of our friend, Layne Flack. Known as “Back-to-back” Flack, a moniker given to him when he won two poker tournaments in a row on two different occasions, Layne was a scion of the poker community. Quick to smile and slow to anger, he seemed ever-present, his huge white teeth gleaming as his laugh rang out over every gathering of players. It’s hard to fathom the death of someone who shined as brightly as Layne Flack. No matter the size of the event, you always knew when Layne was present.

We all know people who command attention every time they enter a room. Layne was one of those people. If you didn’t notice him before he noticed you, you were likely to be a victim of one of his sneak attacks or one of his jokes. His quick, sharp wit endeared him to so many, his infectious laugh and beaming personality quickly winning over those who were so often the target of that rapier-like wit.

Layne was a legend. He made a life out of reading people’s faces. If Kenny Rogers had known Layne prior to writing “The Gambler,” I have no doubt the lyrics would have been rewritten to incorporate Layne’s endearing quirks. As Matt Savage so astutely points out, Layne was the best no-limit hold’em player in the world around the turn of the century, and there wasn’t a close second.

Layne was not without fault, as none of us are. He had problems with drugs, alcohol, women, and gambling. He borrowed quickly, and too often paid back slowly. He gambled big with no ability to pay if he lost, and he left this world with some debts unpaid. There’s little doubt that he was one of those rainbow addicts who are susceptible to so many of life’s vices. Layne had an insatiable appetite for fun, and his captivating presence along with his vivacious and immutable personality led to so many of his friends unwittingly becoming his enablers. It was hard to say no to a guy like Layne. Nobody wanted to be the one to dim the bright bulb that accompanied his every appearance. There are only so many watts in a human lifetime though, and when a bulb shines as bright as Layne’s, it tends to use up its life too quickly.

The celebration of life starts with a slideshow set to music, as so many of them do. These shows are supposed to make us smile, and laugh, and remember the great times with a great friend, but so often they just make us cry. And that’s okay. In fact, I think that’s probably good. Tears allow us to feel more connected, to shed the bottled grief, and when we smile and laugh through the tears, we know we’ll all be okay. Maybe not today, but someday soon.

In my experience, people tend to be reticent to pick up the microphone and tell stories. Sometimes it’s because the stories aren’t appropriate to tell to a room full of strangers, although, that doesn’t seem to dissuade several of tonight’s orators. Other times it’s because the stories involve some level of embarrassment to the speaker. More often though, it’s because people just simply have a fear of public speaking. My speech is written with the goal not of telling my own stories about Layne, but rather to encourage others to come tell their stories, stories that would certainly be more interesting than the few unique times that I experienced with the legend. My speech is less about Layne and more about life and death in general. The poker world has lost a terrible number of people in the last couple of years. A painful number of deaths that have left a gaping hole in the community, and those losses have weighed on me. I recently read an article about death by a great writer named Sean Dietrich, and some of his words and thoughts have found their way into my speech. I’ve attached my speech below in the hopes that the words may give comfort, not just to the friends of Layne, but to friends of Gavin, Mike, Joy, Matt, and anybody else who has experienced loss.

My speech starts off rocky. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken publicly. I used to be comfortable with these things, but tonight I’m a little nervous and it shows. The microphone cuts out just after I get started and I have to shout over the rumbling of the bar at large, the majority of which is open to the public who have little interest in the wake being held behind the curtains. Karina Jett finds me a new microphone and I unintentionally skip several lines of my planned speech. It’s probably unnoticed by the crowd, even though it means that one of my points isn’t driven home. I make a call for those who are hesitant to tell their stories and then I hand the microphone back to Matt Savage. Layne’s sister reaches out as I pass her booth. She has never met me, but her eyes are glimmering as she nods at me and mouths, “Thank you.” I smile through my own glimmering eyes and nod warmly to her.

There are no breaks in the action as attendees tell their stories. Nobody uses notes, speaking from their hearts, and many of the stories are great, drying up the tears as the laughter gets louder and louder. And it’s here, in this moment, when the purpose of these gatherings shines through. Smiles and laughter pervade, and people forget their grief for the moment as they listen to the stories and remember that though he may be gone, Layne left us all with a lifetime of memories that will allow him to live forever in our hearts.

Layne Flack

I first met Layne in 2004 at a WPT event in Reno. I had just made the final table of the main event there and I won a little bit of money and I was hanging out having drinks with a few players when he walked up. He struck up a conversation and he found out I’d just won some money so he asked me if no-limit hold’em was my favorite game. I told him my favorite game was actually limit hold’em and he replied, “Step into my office, young man.” He just happened to know of a nice 75-150 limit hold’em game that was starting in the poker room. Somehow when we got there, there was a dealer sitting at an empty table with one plaque that said “75-150 limit hold’em” and another that said “reserved.” To this day I don’t know how he managed to set that up on the walk to the poker room, but we became friends right then and there. You wouldn’t be incorrect if you said that I bought my way into our friendship.

Many of you here knew Layne longer than I did, and no doubt many of you here knew him better than I did. I don’t want to take a lot of time up here to tell stories about Layne because I know that so many of you have such great stories, and I’d like to hear them. So, I just want to take a moment to talk about life and death.

As humans, it’s in our nature to try so hard to find deeper meaning in events which just simply have no meaning. We want to know why, and we want to know how, and we want answers, and those answers are just so often complicated and impure and unsatisfying. The truth is, that life is like embroidery. You know, when someone is stitching a piece of embroidery, when you watch them, it just looks like a completely tangled web of knots, an utter mess with no sense of organization. It’s only when they flip it over that you see the true beauty of their creation.

Layne Flack had a vibrancy about him, an energy and joie de vivre that were incomparable. But he showed only that beautiful side of his life to most of us. If you saw the complicated side of his life, the tangled web of knots that makes up all of our lives, then you know that you were a close friend of his, a true friend.

Most people wander through life with their eyes closed. Layne may have been the most open-eyed person I’ve ever known. He was a complete pragmatist. He was worldly. He never walked, he glided, or he strutted. He had more confidence—not false confidence but completely merited confidence—than anybody you’ve ever seen. Others, I’m sure, will come up here and tell you stories about how quick-witted he was, the quickest wit I’ve ever known. They’ll tell you stories about how fun it was to be around him. How good he was at making and nurturing friendships. Listen to those stories because they’re important. Layne made the world brighter, and we need to all strive to brighten our own lights to make up for the one that has dimmed.

Isaac Newton and Emilie du Chatelet taught us about the first law of thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy. This law says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, made nor unmade. It can only be transformed from one form to another. Water falls to Earth as rain and lands in rivers and lakes. We use that water in our swimming pools and in our showers and in our beers. The water is expelled and evaporates once more where it condenses into clouds and then falls to Earth again, in a cycle that has continued since the dawn of time.

Conservation of energy.

Life falls under these same laws. We say that Layne is dead. We gather tonight to celebrate his life and to mourn his passing, but he’s not dead. He lives here (heart) and here (head) and he lives in all of us gathered here. As long as you’re alive, Layne is alive. As long as you’re alive, he’s alive and Layne is alive. As long as I’m alive, you’re alive. We may not be able to pick up the phone and call Layne right now, but he’s here in this room with us, and he always will be. Because Layne, though he may have argued that he was above it, was indeed quite susceptible to the law of conservation of energy. He is not gone; he cannot be unmade. He can only be transformed, from one form to another. He will always live on, in our hearts, in our memories, and in our stories.

So come up here and tell your stories of Layne. Even if you think they’re stupid, because I promise you, there are no stories of Layne that don’t involve at least some level of stupidity. We all want to hear them. Come up here and tell your stories about Layne, and help him live on in all of us.

The Fire

The thick, noxious smoke hangs low and heavy over the Okanogan valley, an oppressive hand that is felt in the trepidation of the three weary travelers in the speeding truck and trailer. My dad, my brother, and I are racing to our cabin which lies in the path of a hungry fire that’s feeding voraciously on the hot, dry forest. The reports have been grim: The Fire had been growing slowly, 10,000 acres a few days ago, 12,000 acres today. The beast eagerly awaits what it seems to somehow know is arriving in a few short hours…a weather front carrying twenty mile-per-hour winds, winds forecast to blow from south to north, pushing The Fire directly to our family spread of vacation property and cabins just outside the town of Chesaw.

The news came the night before. Level Three evacuation for all residents in the area, including my aunts who live on the neighboring property. Get Out Now. They had been sitting on a level one alert and the jump to level three came suddenly, frighteningly. We got the news as we sat on the patio of my sister’s house on the west side of the Cascades. Hasty plans were made. I called a friend and borrowed a trailer. My dad, brother, and I would leave at 4 a.m. My brother-in-law would head out four hours later, grabbing another borrowed trailer on the way. We would rescue as much as we could from the cabin and bring it back to safety. We would hope that we were making a completely unnecessary trip. Hope for the best, plan for the worst as they say.

Our little familial enclave was raw land when we cumulatively acquired it forty years ago. Our cabins were all built by our own hands, the blood, sweat, and tears of all of us poured into their creation. We have saved and scrimped and added to our cabin as we could spare the money to do so. Their safety has been threatened many times over the years, but never so directly and direly as this. The last few years has seen a colossal increase in the fire danger of the northeast Washington forest. Many of us have put fire safety precautions into work across the property over the last few years, thinning the forest around our cabins, removing and burning dead trees and underbrush, making strides to hopefully eliminate the majority of the fuel that would nurture the dreaded fire. It has always seemed inevitable that The Fire will one day arrive, and now it seems that formidable day is here.

As we pass through the towns of Okanogan, Omak, and Tonasket, men clad in yellow shirts and green pants loiter in the parking lots and stores. Their vehicles are green and white, light bars of red adorn the cabs, water tanks and diamond-plate bins clutter the beds. A ragtag band of firefighters fueling their vehicles and their bodies, petrol in the former, donuts and hot-case gut bombs of gas station delights in the latter. They are in no hurry, laughing and slouching lazily against their trucks. “Get to the fire!” we shout at them. They can’t hear us through the glass of the speeding truck. Nor do we actually want them to hear our pleas. Unlike most urban firefighters, these wildland heroes work their asses off in a palpably demanding and dangerous job, willingly putting themselves into the path of peril and hazard to protect the property of strangers. We know they’re preparing themselves for the battle that will be coming later today or tomorrow. Right now, The Fire is still in the National Forest. It’s a lightning-strike fire, a natural calamity that must be allowed to burn. The health of the forest requires the cleansing effect of the burn, and these men, and presumably women, though we see none, know this. They’ll begin their assault when it spreads out of the boundaries of the forest and into the adjoining land. Our land.

As we crest the tops of the hills, we get our first view of the beast. Smoke rises and spreads across the sky from numerous hot spots. We watch as The Fire consumes tall trees, the swirling smoke and flame hungrily thrusting toward the sky like a beacon, The Fire letting all know that it is alive and on the move. We take a moment to watch, to marvel at the enemy and all the power that rumbles hungrily under the gray-brown clouds of its anger. We move on.

Arriving at the cabin, we load machines and tools. People tend to think that when a fire consumes a house or cabin, the owners will be made whole by insurance. I have no idea how often this is true, but I know that none of us have insurance against fire. We’ve tried, but no company will insure us. The danger of forest fire in this area is too great. It’s inevitable, and insurance companies don’t wager money on guaranteed losers. We’re on our own. Our insurance company is the group of men currently stuffing donuts down their throats twenty miles down the hill. It isn’t a comfortable feeling.

We load our most expensive equipment and tools into the trailer and the back of my truck. We gather irreplaceable mementos from inside the cabin. We take a moment to marvel at the hubris that caused us to pile a collection of fuel cans and propane tanks around the cabin. We’ve created a bomb in the forest, and we disarm it, laughing at ourselves. We place spare roofing—tin panels that represent our only passive defense against the raging flames around our beloved structure, hoping that if The Fire gets close, the tin will keep flying sparks from grasping a purchase on the wood siding.   

The rancher who runs the cattle on our land is loading his herd into trailers to be evacuated. They normally graze their cattle here from May to October. They’re pulling them two months early, and the reason is obvious. The rancher is nonchalant and relaxed as he works to gather the herd. The Fire stirs two miles away, but he has time. He lives in this area. He knows the enemy well, dealing with it in one form or another every year. He’ll move his cattle to safety, and next year, if The Fire has made our property unfit for grazing, he’ll find another place. He has no vested long-term interest here but he wishes us luck nonetheless. We’ll need it.

A National Forest fire truck drives down the dusty gravel road checking on residents, marking those who’ve ignored the order to evacuate. It stops just down the road from our property and we watch as the driver speaks to the isolated hermit who lives there. The man’s dog runs around the truck excitedly. The man’s donkey brays at the strangers who have interrupted its routine. They all seem completely oblivious to the looming danger. One could forgive the dog and the donkey. It’s harder to fathom the man who won’t leave, but it is a free country, and it is his decision, and the firefighters move on.

Finished loading the truck and trailer, we move out, my brother driving the side-by-side. It isn’t street-legal, but this is an evacuation—the normal rules don’t apply. We’ll meet my brother-in-law in Tonasket and readjust our load so we can get all the machines on trailers. We make another stop at the viewpoint to marvel at The Fire once more. It has moved, inching closer, and, as we watch it, the first bit of wind tickles at our clothes, the tickle becoming a push as it increases in strength. We mark its direction. Not due north as we most feared, but northeast. It’s only a few degrees on the compass, but it’s just enough to give us a vestige of hope. Of course, a benevolent course for us is a malevolent course for someone else. We hope that this year will not be the year that anybody has to suffer a loss to the grumbling beast in front of us, but we pray that the wind direction will remain unchanged.

We know that if The Fire doesn’t get its due today, it doesn’t care. It has all the time in the world, and its day will come. As long as the average summer temperature keeps increasing, the forest will keep drying and getting more perilous. One day, if not today, The Fire will arrive at our doorstep. We can only hope that our problems lie in the future. We say very little as we drive off without another look back.

Canoeing the Everglades (part six) Hell’s Bay to the end.

This is part six of a six-part travel series. If you missed part one and want to start at the beginning, you can find it here: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/

Two things had to meld together perfectly for our plans for the last day of our adventure to change so drastically. The first was that I had to spot that peculiar white pole sticking out of the mud and be bored and intrigued enough to check it out further. The second was that we had to have cell phone service from the Hell’s Bay Chickee, something that had been spotty and unreliable throughout our Everglades excursion.

Using binoculars, I tried to ascertain the purpose of the white pole that stuck jauntily from the bay at an angle like a flagpole that had drunkenly tipped over and lost its flag, but for the life of me, I was unable to figure it out. Not one to allow a mystery to go unsolved, I hopped into the canoe and paddled out to the pole. It turned out to be a PVC pipe with a couple of black-fading-to-brown lines painted around the top and the number 173 stenciled upon it like it was an escapee from a PVC prison. Curious. I paddled back to the chickee and decided to Google it since we had service. It turned out that this pole is the last of 173 marking poles that identifies the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail. I’d seen signs for the trail on the road into Flamingo five days earlier so I knew that the trail would end on that road, making it a possible exit point for us. The only question was, how would we get our copious amounts of gear, along with the canoe back to the visitor center? I mentioned the idea I had of altering our plan and taking the trail out instead, and Tracy was down with it. The fact that it was only a reported 5.5 miles of paddling to get out, that we’d be protected from the wind and not as susceptible to the tides in the deep backwaters, that we’d be able to avoid another excursion onto Whitewater Bay, and the fact that we’d yet to see a single alligator save the baby one during the first hour of the trip, and that a canoe trail winding through the heart of the mangrove-choked swamp seemed like our best chance of seeing one, all collaborated in our decision to go for it.

I called up the Flamingo Visitor Center and got connected to the canoe rental kiosk where they told me they would be happy to send a truck to pick us up at the launch point for the Hell’s Bay trail on the highway. We scheduled a pickup for noon, and, figuring that it probably wouldn’t take us more than 2 or 3 hours to work our way down the trail, we planned to take our time in the morning and make a leisurely half-day out of the trip.

We probably should have taken note that there was a reason they called this Hell’s Bay, and a reason that it was the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail. We probably should have Googled the origin of the name, which would have clued us to the fact that the name comes from the old-timers’ saying that the bay was, “Hell to get into, and hell to get out of.” Of course, I likely would have dismissed this as nothing but a fable or parable, but either way, we remained blissfully ignorant.

We enjoyed yet another spookily calm and quiet evening, the water of Hell’s Bay in glass-like perfection as the sun set behind us.

As we crawled into the tent that night, Tracy sat on her air-filled sleeping pad and prepared to crawl into her sleeping bag. Suddenly, with a loud popping noise, her pad deflated and she was sitting on the hard planks with a despondent look on her face. Glad that it had at least happened on our last night there, she took a sleeping pill, put our extra sleeping bag under her, and prepared for an even more uncomfortable night. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have much higher quality sleeping pads for multiple nights on the hard platforms of the chickees. These backpacking type pads might be fine for sleeping in the dirt or grass, but they were terrible here. Of course, they were better than nothing, which is what Tracy was looking forward to this last night. Thankfully, the sleeping pill would make her mostly oblivious to the misery, though she would wake up the next morning stiff and sore.

Late that night, or perhaps early the next morning, we were shocked to once again hear dolphins in the weed-choked bay, floundering in the shallow waters and breathing in a raucous cacophony of deep, guttural rasps and gasps as their tails thrashed the water, echoing through the silent gloom as they rutted through the weeds to herd and trap their dinner. It was amazing to us that no matter how far back into the Everglades we went, out of the deeper harbors and safer waters of the big bays, we never managed to escape the hunting grounds of the dolphins.

The next morning, the mosquitos were out in full force, the worst of our journey thanks to the warming weather and the calm conditions, and that caused us to rush out of there, something for which we would turn out to be grateful. We were off the chickee at seven o’clock on the nose, heading directly into the fiery sun as it cleared the horizon, towering clouds all around it appearing like ephemeral skyscrapers against the deep azure sky. We paddled to the first PVC pipe and then spotted the next one against the shoreline, positioned exactly as far away as you could see, the first couple of breadcrumbs that would guide us merrily and blithely along, a naïve Hansel and Gretel, skipping to our fate with joy and glee. As we paddled across the bay, through the still, clear water we could see the evidence of the dolphins’ excursions from that night in the form of newly-cut trails through the underwater weeds. The trails swerved and veered through and around the beds of underwater weeds, marking the passages of the hard-working dolphins. The only logical explanation for their presence in this dangerously shallow bay was that the weeds underneath us must have been choked with fish seeking refuge from the sun.

The start of the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail.

We paddled through a few narrow canals and into a huge, unnamed bay, strangely unnamed because it was larger than Pearl Bay for sure, and nearly as large as Hell’s Bay. I was able to get a great panoramic shot in this beautifully reflective water before we continued on to Pearl Bay.

Popping out onto Pearl Bay, the sun glinted off the blue water, beams of reflected light dancing in our eyes. In the distance we could see a structure, the Pearl Bay Chickee, vibrant colors flashing from its platforms indicating the presence of fellow travelers. Tracy had to use the bathroom, and so we deviated from the canoe trail and headed that way.

Hell’s Bay and vicinity. The large lake between Hell’s Bay and Pearl Bay is where I took the panorama shot.

Since this is part six of this lengthy blog, and since you’ve read this far into the story, I think it’s finally time to discuss something you’ve doubtlessly been on the edge of your seats to hear, and that is the status of the bathroom situation in the deep, wild Everglades. I’ll start by saying that the Everglades is an ancient and remote place, as I’ve mentioned before, but on top of that, though you’re surrounded by what is technically “land,” it’s not really anything like you’re probably thinking. The vast majority of the land in the Everglades is not terra firma, but rather a mucky mess of rotting shellfish mired in primordial sludge and covered in a thick layer of mangrove roots that stick up out of the sludge in a crisscross pattern that looks much like a bowl of spaghetti if that spaghetti was covered in spider webs, ants, bugs, blue and red crabs, and occasionally an alligator that might possibly be lying in wait under the top layer or a twenty-foot Burmese python hanging above your head. There is, quite simply, no easy place to just pull over and go to the bathroom. This applies to more than 99% of the terrain that makes up this part of the Everglades National Park.

The typical quagmire of a mangrove island

Now, for a guy, it’s pretty easy when you have to pee. You tell your girlfriend to hold still, you stand and wedge your feet into the gunwales of the canoe and then lean precariously over the edge and do your thing. For women, it takes a touch more creativity.

When you need to relieve yourself of the more solid version of your bodily rejections, things become a bit trickier. I’ll first note that if you’re clever, and if the strange food-in-a-pouch or yellowish-brown marina potable water hasn’t created havoc with the daily timing of your toilet necessities, then you simply make sure you know where the nearest chickee is located and when you think you’ll need to use it and then make those two things come together. Of course, the pure and near complete silence of the greatest river on Earth combined with the approximate two-foot drop between the toilet seat of the Porta-Potty and the blue liquid that sloshes in the tank means that the privacy you get when you need to do your daily deed is visual only. The audible spash of that two-foot drop leads to a prompt dissolution of any mystery you may have remaining in your relationship.

Now, if you time things poorly, or the edibles and drinkables are indeed throwing off your schedule, you’re left with no option but to ram your canoe into the mangrove roots, climb precariously out onto the limbs, work your way back stepping gingerly onto the trees as your eyes dart nervously for any sort of insect, dinosaur, or man-eating snake, and then hang over the edge with one fistful of bark and the other of toilet paper, and do your thing while your partner turns away. Again, if you aren’t quite comfortable with your partner knowing way too much about you, you aren’t going to do well on a multi-day Everglades excursion.

On this occasion, Tracy was quite non-specific when she said she needed to use the restroom, so with the Pearl Bay Chickee in close proximity, we paddled that way. There was no sign of movement on the sleepy platform so we approached quietly, not wanting to wake our fellow travelers. Unfortunately, the bumping and scraping of our boat against the structure, and the noise of Tracy climbing out of the boat and up onto the dock caused their tent to unzip and a guy to come stumbling out, blinking and stretching like a cartoon owl. We told him we were just stopping to use the restroom and he smiled and gave us a wave and dipped back into the tent.

Done with the restroom, we beat feet south, traversing the length of Pearl Bay and then through a very narrow, very shallow canal and into another large, unnamed bay, following our PVC breadcrumbs which were occasionally tricky to locate. As we came out of the canal and into the bay, rounding the corner we heard a great thrashing noise in the water and saw the surface of the formerly smooth lake churning and boiling. My heart raced as I thought I was about to see an alligator fighting with some other animal, but it turned out to be yet another pod of dolphins that had herded up some fish and gone into a feeding frenzy in the shallow waters, dorsal fins and tails slapping the water into a bubbling cauldron as their panicked breath loudly echoed through the still morning. I was able to get a short video of just the end of the fight before the dolphins headed out of that bay and into the canal we had just exited. It was amazing to think that if we’d been just five minutes later, we would have encountered those five dolphins in that narrow—probably only four to five feet wide and less than three feet deep through most of it—canal. That would have been rather exciting, and I was sorry our timing hadn’t been just slightly better. Tracy, however, thought our timing was perfect.

We paddled on and stopped at Lard Can, an aptly named ground camping site that occupies one of the very few patches of actual solid ground in the entire southern Everglades. During the planning stages, I’d considered this as one of our stopping points for the night, and I’m telling you right now that if we’d arrived at this campsite for the night, I would be a single man writing my breakup story to you. Dismal, murky, muddy, buggy, and depressing, with a pungent, musky aroma of earthen rot and mold, this site, while almost certainly a fantastic breeding ground for mosquitos, is not fit for human habitation. We did enjoy getting out of the canoe and stretching our legs a bit, me walking the trails behind the camp while Tracy nervously waited on the mossy old dock. Ten minutes there was more than enough, and we gladly put Lard Can in our rearview mirrors.

A bad pic of a bad, bad place called Lard Can

At this point, we veered south again and left the open water behind, entering the thick, narrow mangrove swamps and canals that is the Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail proper. How do I describe this trail? First, if you’re in a single kayak or small canoe, this trail is probably great. When you’re in a 3-person behemoth, this trail is brutal. A constant stream of tight switchbacks, tumultuous turns, intersections where you can’t figure out which way to go until you are committed to what usually ends up being the wrong direction and then finally spot the hidden PVC pipe behind you, a narrow maze of channels with overhanging mangrove branches that require you to duck and weave all while trying to slow your progress to avoid crashing into the shore, or to back-blade feverishly to cut 180 degrees in the opposite direction while the sun beats down on your head and mosquitos and biting flies swarm your face…it was a truly miserable experience. We saw no animals in this hellscape, but what we did encounter were quite a few day paddlers, all headed in the opposite direction which forced us to grab onto mangrove roots and pull our canoe to the side to allow them to pass.

Any time we would find a straightaway and start to build up some momentum, the path would suddenly come to an end, a 150-180 degree turn forcing us to backpaddle furiously, usually slamming our canoe into the bank like a bumper car before bouncing off and making the turn as our bow scraped one side and our stern the opposite. In the front of the canoe, for at least the first few miles, Tracy was experiencing her own challenges in the myriad of spider webs that crisscrossed the canals right at head level, many of which, based on the screeching, sputtering, and scratching at her hair and face that I was forced to bear witness to, she was unable to spot in time to get her paddle up. The only good thing about finally beginning to encounter the day-paddlers was that the spider web fiasco came to a merciful close.

Squiggles may not be to scale, but they’re pretty representative of our path!

We paddled harder this day than we ever had, searching futilely for the veteran canoers’ special balance between speed and maneuverability, sweating copiously under the unrelenting sun with no breaks as branches scratched us and clawed us and we tried desperately to stay on the right path and not become lost in Hell’s abyss which awaited any wrong turn with alluringly clear and appealing canals that beckoned to the unvigilant rower. The PVC pipes became our beacons of hope, their descending numbers encouraging us as we marked the milestones of #50, then #40, then #20. We found ourselves getting copious feelings of elation when we would see three PVC poles in one visible stretch, the daffy joy of ticking thrice in a short distance toward our goal of PVC #1 undeniable.

At post #10, we passed a rather plump couple in a small canoe who were having an even more miserable time than us, quarreling loudly and bitterly without a care in the world for our presence in their little spat. When they’d passed, we both laughed and smiled at each other, completely unembarrassed at our blatant display of schadenfreude, gleeful that we were at least keeping our composure after a long and tough journey. This couple must have turned around shortly after we passed them, because they would show up at the launch point still arguing just five minutes after us, a nice Everglades excursion for them that lasted all of a half hour.

When we finally reached the end of the aptly named Hell’s Bay Canoe Trail it was just fifteen minutes before noon. It took us almost five hours to make the journey, much longer than the three to four hours I’d anticipated, though we had stopped a few times and been leisurely with the paddling at the start. We hauled the canoe out of the water, high-fived and hugged each other, and rejoiced in the end of an extremely challenging, extraordinarily rewarding journey. The guy from the canoe rental place showed up just a few minutes late and we loaded the canoe into the truck and helped him tie it down. I jumped in the cab for the ride back to our car, leaving Tracy to wait with our gear. On the drive back to the marina, he asked me how the trip had been.

“It was great until that very last part,” I said to him. “That trail was really tough in this big canoe. You guys probably shouldn’t even allow people to take that trail in your 3-person canoes.”

He gave me a sideways glance and a smirk. “We don’t,” he replied, simply. I guess when I’d made the call the night before and asked if we could be picked up at the canoe trail launch, the clerk hadn’t realized that the dockmaster from five days earlier had upgraded us to a 3-person canoe from our reserved 2-person one.

I dropped off the canoe and popped into the small convenience store to pick up a treat that I knew would be much appreciated. It had been a tough, challenging journey, but one that we’d thoroughly and Truly enjoyed!

A welcome treat after a tough, hot day

Canoeing the Everglades (part five) North River to Hell’s Bay.

This is part five of a multi-part travel blog. If you’d like to start at the beginning, check out part one here: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/

The Everglades are a vast and mostly inhospitable landscape of impenetrable mangroves, swamps, and lakes. It is a labyrinth of channels, rivers, inlets, and hidden bays, many of which are so remote and inaccessible that they’re rarely, if ever, seen by humans at surface level. On our third night, the rain came in sweeping sheets carried on the wind, a storm that, by the standards of a land used to tropical storms and hurricanes, was hardly a blip on its collective conscious, but to the two of us, really amplified the isolation and reality of where we were. There are no campers in the Everglades other than at the designated chickees and ground sites. There are no hikers, no wandering travelers. It is the one place in this country where you can be absolutely sure that there is no other human within miles of you, at least at night and in a storm that no boaters would brave. The North River Chickee is far from any of the main channels, and our isolation was palpable and primal. This might have been the worst night of sleep yet, but somehow at the same time, there’s something incredibly satisfying about being woken up by rain pounding on the roof of your shelter knowing that you’re safe and dry.

The rain held off until about 7:45pm the night before, by which time we were ready to close down our LED lanterns and go to sleep anyway. It rained through the night, hard enough at times to wake us from our slumber. At 3:00am, a different sound woke us…the sound of a pod of dolphins fishing in the river right in front of our chickee, breaching and blowing, the rain having diminished completely, allowing the dolphin trumpets to echo through the still night air. By five o’clock, I’d slept enough. I slipped from the tent and gazed out at a clear sky filled with stars. The river was smooth and calm, broken only by the breaching of the shadowy bodies of the frenetically fishing dolphins, their pale skin glistening in the starlight.

As the sky began to lighten, we made coffee and then took down our tent and heaved our canoe onto the chickee so we could dump several inches of accumulated rain water out of the bottom of it. We cast off at seven o’clock and paddled into the heart of the rising sun. The gleaming flat water gave rise to a light mist, shadowing the horizon and mirroring the sky so perfectly and almost unbelievably that I had to stop paddling for a couple of amazing pictures.

A dizzyingly perfect mirror

The paddling was smooth and easy for the first time the entire trip, and I told Tracy that it was about to get even easier. We were headed for The Cutoff, a section of river that joins together the North River and the Roberts River. The Cutoff flows southeast, and with the tide slack and the natural flow of the Everglades southerly, I told her The Cutoff should have a nice current that we could ride like emperors on the backs of our slaves, relaxing and letting the nature perform the heavy lifting for once. Boy was I wrong. Somehow, inexplicably, the current in The Cutoff flowed northwest, and not a nice, gentle flow, but rather fast enough to make strong ripples around each protruding stick from the bank. What in the actual hell?

We buckled down and dug in, with surprisingly little complaint from the front of the canoe, though I was certain I heard some mumbling and perhaps even a few curse words muttered on the calm air. It was tough to be certain. It didn’t take us too long to reach the Roberts River where we suddenly heard the puttering of a boat motor. We stopped paddling and listened, letting the current bring us to a stop and then gently push us backwards. The motor noise seemed to echo and come from every direction at once, and then we heard voices muttering faintly over the rumble of the motor. A boat suddenly appeared from the mist on the Roberts River, headed south and moving at a brisk walking pace. We were still on The Cutoff, and we held still as the boat passed. It was a sleek, newer-model, expensive, bass fishing boat with a smooth deck and no sidewalls, the large outboard propelling the occupants along at idle speed. Inside the boat were three rough-looking men, bearded and bulky, with tough expressions and palpably bad attitudes that could be felt from where we were, just about a hundred feet away. They spoke in hushed tones, their voices just carrying without the actual words. I was certain they were nothing but fishermen…of course, the lack of a single fishing line in the water gave some voice of doubt to that hypothesis. For the first time on the entire trip, we were glad to have the current working against us as we allowed it to drag our canoe silently backwards into the mist, widening the gap between us.

It was a real Deliverance moment, and neither of us had to say a word or share a glance to convey the message that we should make no movement or sound to draw their attention. They slid by the mouth of The Cutoff without a glance and continued southward on the Roberts River.

“That was weird,” Tracy commented with raised eyebrows when they’d disappeared from view.

“Not really, they were probably just dumping a body,” I replied with a shrug.

Neither of us laughed.

We resumed our paddling, turning right at the Roberts River and following the trail of the three banditos, carefully watching for any sign they had stopped, or any floating object that might have been a body, or possibly a bundle of cocaine. We never saw them again, and at 9:00am exactly, we reached the Roberts River Chickee, a newly rebuilt chickee of Trex and plastic that was secure, stable, and quite comfortable, and that I somehow neglected to take a picture of. You’ll have to take my word for it that it was the best chickee we’d seen thus far. We tied up and brought up our chairs, stretching out and enjoying a relaxing breakfast along with some more coffee. The sun was out in full and the day was perfect, with no bugs and only a light breeze.

At 11 o’clock, with the day warming up, we reluctantly cast off and resumed our paddle down the gently flowing Roberts River. As usual, the wind had picked up and was blowing right in our faces. It was bizarre how this seemed to happen every single day, regardless of which direction we were paddling. The first two days when we were traveling in a northerly direction, the wind was coming from the north, and now that we’d turned south, the wind had likewise shifted direction.

We were aiming for a tiny channel that seemed to cutoff a chunk of distance between the Roberts River and the Lane River, but somehow I missed it and we ended up having to paddle around a wide isthmus and hit the mouth of the Lane River, a wide, fast-flowing body of water with a stiff current that we had to dig in hard and paddle relentlessly to overcome. Luckily, it was only a short distance to a canal where we turned back north, out of the main body of the Lane and into a deep, complex labyrinth of backwaters, creeks, tight, twisting canals, and marshes. I kept a close eye on the map as we navigated the intricate entanglement of waterways, matching the unsteady shoreline with the dimples on the map, something at which I’d become significantly more adept in the preceding days. When we reached the channel that we were supposed to have taken from the Roberts River, it was wide and vacuous, and my bewilderment as to how I’d possibly missed it grew. We turned away from that waterway and wandered back into the maze, and the mystery would remain unsolved.

Arrow pointing to the channel that I somehow missed, adding a mile of tough paddling to our journey.

I somehow managed to navigate us through the expansive morass without error, and Tracy was lavish in her praise of my navigation skills, lovingly leaving out my failure to locate the space-shuttle-sized cutoff that had cost us a mile of very tough paddling. Re-entering the Lane at a narrower, much softer-flowing part, we continued up it, paddling once more against both the current, albeit slackened, and the wind, which was stiffening reciprocally, as if in a conspiracy with the river to assure that we earned every mile of this trip.

After a few miles, we reached the Lane Bay Chickee where we stopped once more to rest and have lunch. So far on this entire journey, through the course of five different chickees, we’d yet to have to share space with any other kayakers, something we attributed to the Pandemic, and for which we were very grateful. Lane Bay is an older chickee with just a single platform, so had there been other campers here, we wouldn’t have been able to stop. Hundreds of fish swarmed in the shallow water under the chickee, using the shadow of the wooden platform to protect themselves from the sun.

Lane Bay, day four and still smiling!

We relaxed on the Lane Bay Chickee for an hour and a half, eating lunch and snoozing occasionally in our camp chairs as we watched birds fly around and clouds begin to gather and build in the distance. At 1:30pm, we noticed that the clouds had stretched upwards into billowing towers blotting out the sun and stiffening the breeze. Fearing some impending rain, we scooted out of there, determined to pound out the final two-and-a-half miles and beat the rain to our destination for the night, the Hell’s Bay Chickee. We paddled south down the length of Lane Bay, found the canal we needed to cut through the mangroves into an unnamed bay, across that, through another tight and winding canal and into the large, smooth, and very shallow Hell’s Bay. It did rain on us for about fifteen minutes, but the cooling effect on the hot, humid day made it actually quite enjoyable.

Hell’s Bay is spacious, picturesque, and strangely shallow, the ground covered in thick beds of weeds that stick out of the water in numerous places, and grabbed at the bottom of our canoe quite a few times, forcing us to dig our paddles into the soft mud of the bottom of the bay to propel us forward. I was quite sure this would be the first night we wouldn’t be awakened by dolphins, as the water was clearly too shallow for them. I would turn out to be very wrong about this.

We arrived at Hell’s Bay Chickee, another of the platforms that isn’t quite where the map indicates. My best guess for this inconsistency is that the chickees sometimes get destroyed by hurricanes and the park service decides to rebuild them in a slightly different spot without notifying the cartographers. It only took us about ten additional minutes of paddling to find it, which wasn’t too bad, but it is slightly unnerving when seeds of doubt begin to grow and you think you might be in the wrong bay entirely, a scenario that would be a very real disaster in a maze like this if true.

Hell’s Bay, a very comfortable chickee, though not quite located where the map says it is!

It was not quite three o’clock, and this day had somehow felt relatively easy and relaxing, with plenty of stops and no sensation of needing to rush. In spite of our continued struggles with the winds, currents, and tides, we’d covered approximately 16.5 miles this day, and our muscles were definitely acclimating to the rigors of canoe life. We set up camp and then relaxed, enjoying the views of the expansive and beautiful bay that smoothed completely as evening approached. Birds fished in the distance, and the silence was deep and palpable in the Jurassic-like wilderness. The plan for tomorrow was to paddle due east, through the remainder of the labyrinth and back out to Whitewater Bay where we would turn south and retrace our path from day one, back through the Buttonwood canal to our starting point at the Flamingo Visitor Center.

This was the plan anyway, but that carefully laid plan for our last day would change drastically when, while enjoying the vistas through my binoculars, I spotted a peculiar white pole with black stripes and numbers at the top protruding from the mud of the bay on the far side of a small, thin copse of mangrove trees.

A well-earned dinner
Tired, but still smiling
Goodnight!

Canoeing the Everglades (part four) Joe River to North River.

This is part four of a multi-part travel series. If you missed part one and want to start at the beginning, you can find it here: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/

On morning three, we were once again up before the dawn. A thin, waxing crescent moon was rising in the east with Venus trailing in its wake, both illuminated by the yet unseen sun and shining brightly against the backdrop of the morning stars that I rarely see. We’d both slept poorly, the hard wooden planks of the Everglades chickees rendering the thin single air pads that were so highly rated by backpackers utterly useless. Despite our lack of sleep, the brisk air of the Florida morning and the pot of coffee boiled on our propane stove cleared out the cobwebs, and we got an early start to the morning’s journey.

The moon and Venus
Heading off at daybreak

By 7:30am which was just after daybreak, we were on the water, pulling hard against the still, calm bay, a deep vee from the bow of our canoe creating the only disturbance on the water’s surface. We turned right onto the Joe River and followed it upstream, turning right again and heading due east through a (relatively) narrow channel that eventually spilled out into the vast and daunting Whitewater Bay. Setting a landmark of a mangrove island far away on the horizon, I told Tracy to row for the north side of it. Of course, as soon as we entered the bay itself, the wind kicked up, once more directly in our faces, and the tide started to pour in, creating a current from left to right that we had to angle into and pull against. I have no idea how we had managed to have both the wind and the tide going against us on every day of this trip thus far, but here we were again, battling both. The wide-open bay and the unblocked wind meant that we had waves…large enough waves that they were breaking on themselves, and it was hard to even tell if we were making any progress. Eventually, our landmark inched closer and loomed larger, and before too long we had pulled into the leeward side, happy to have a break from the wind.

Resting on a convenient mangrove tree.

After our break, we paddled hard across wide-open rough water, headed for a large group of mangrove islands that marked the halfway point of our journey across Whitewater Bay. When we finally reached them, more than an hour later, we took some time on the calm and smooth leeward side to watch about five dolphins chasing fish. I mentioned in the first blog that our drinking water supply hadn’t been the clean, crisp water a thirsty traveler might have hoped for, but rather a yellowish-brown sickly color that was not appealing in any way. The water tasted as bad as it looked, and we were saved by Tracy who had brought along a couple of small packets of powdered lemonade. Just adding a dash of the powder to a large bottle prior to pouring water from the bags eliminated the terrible taste and made it easy to convince ourselves that the yellow color was from the lemonade rather than some kind of contaminate. Either way, the heavy exertion and warm air had us drinking copious amounts of it and neither of us became ill, so I guess it was all good in the end.

Water bottles full and arms as rested as they were going to get, we pulled out of our leeward oasis and back into the tempest as it were. The tide had ceased creating a current for us to battle, but the wind, as if it were not ambivalent to our trials but rather a malevolent force set against us, had increased to compensate. Having come halfway across the gargantuan bay, we were refreshed by the idea of an impending finish line, and we pulled with renewed fervor for the now visible shoreline. The storm that was building on the horizon helped to incentive our extra energy expenditure.

An hour later we found ourselves in shallower water, protected once more from the most extreme facets of the wind by a steady wall of mangrove islands. The shallow water stymied the waves, and we rested once more, gathering our strength and our wills for the last several miles of paddling we still had to do. The section of the Wilderness Waterway we were now seeing was a thick maze of channels, rivers, islands of mangrove trees, and backwater bays large and small. Keeping one eye on the map and scouring the shoreline for identifiable landmarks, I navigated us through the tricky turns and twists of the cluttered landscape and we turned up what I hoped was the tributary of the North River where the map showed the chickee to be located. The unnamed tributary was narrow but slow moving, and despite the current moving against us, (of course) we pulled our way along it with ease. As the storm built behind us, we approached the end of the long day of paddling.

Happy to be out of the wind and waves, but annoyed that she was taking pictures instead of paddling away from the storm.

There was a moment of concern when the North River chickee did not appear where the map showed it to be, but we eventually located it just a few hundred yards away. Breathing a sigh of relief, our canoe bumped against the planks of the chickee at 4:30pm, a total journey of nine-hours, our longest paddle of the trip. Exhausted once more, we sprawled out on the wooden planks of the chickee and both fell promptly asleep.

Our day three paddle, 18.5 miles across Whitewater Bay and up to the North River chickee.
Navigating the narrow and identical-appearing canals and marshes of this mangrove area can get a little tricky.

Awakened a half-hour later by the rumble of thunder, we noticed the storm brewing on the horizon had reached us. Hurriedly, we strung our tarp across the posts of the platform as a windbreak and then piled our gear on the protected side of it. The North River chickee is a single platform, so we knew that we’d have no company for this night, which meant that we would be somewhat cramped once we’d pitched our rather large tent, so we held off on that until it was time to go to bed. Dinner was once again the just-add-water meals from REI which we’d found to be both delicious and filling. We’d splurged with space by bringing a box of red wine in our gear, and we both enjoyed our well-earned dinner and wine as rain began to fall, pattering against our tarp by the wind. We were glad to be ensconced in our shelter as we celebrated another tough but thoroughly enjoyable day. As darkness fell and the mosquitos began to swarm, we slapped up the tent and scurried inside with our lanterns, enjoying a pleasant evening protected from the rain and thunder that pounded the Everglades on the other side of the fabric.

Protected from the wind and rain.
The North River Chickee is a single, hidden on the north side of a mangrove island in the middle of the river.

Canoeing the Everglades (part three) South Joe River to Joe River.

This is part three of a multi-part travel series. If you missed part one and want to start at the beginning, you can find it here: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/

The guttural, echoing trumpet of air woke me from a troubled, freezing, uncomfortable sleep. I opened my eyes to darkness and shivered in the frigid air. I’d neglected to bring a sweatshirt or a wool hat, thinking that it couldn’t possibly get cold enough to need them. Our sleeping bags were the summer-weight type, and I’d shivered all night trying to stay warm. Beside me, Tracy slept soundly in her sweatshirt, knit cap, and gloves.

The sharp blast of air echoed through the night once again, a swishing of water as a body sliced expertly through the small, shallow bay. A dolphin hunting its breakfast, I realized. I got up and stretched my sore joints and muscles, and then quietly opened the tent, slipping out into the chilly pre-dawn morning. The dolphin continued its hunt in the otherwise still and supreme quiet of the pending sunrise. I sat in one of the chairs and listened, hoping the hunter might come close enough to see. He roamed the bay for ten more minutes, and then, as darkness slipped away and the sky began to slowly lighten, he slid quietly out of the backwater and out through the narrow canal to the deeper waters of the Joe River.

I set up the stove to make coffee and watched as the sun, an orange billiard ball of flame, quietly rose into view, fingerpainting the sky with streaks of gold and burnt amber. The water, now sans dolphin, was completely still, a near perfect mirror of the sky that was incredible to see.

A beautiful sunrise to start our time in the Everglades.

The water on the propane stove came to a boil, and I added coffee to a stainless-steel French press, pouring the water over it and stirring the grounds. A few birds flew over, and a fish jumped, briefly disturbing the perfect mirror with symmetrical rings as I sipped the brew and enjoyed an absolutely exquisite Everglades morning. After about an hour, I stepped into the canoe and untied it, quietly paddling out into the bay to take a few pictures of the South Joe River chickee. Designed for two parties, one on each of the platforms, it’s a tight fit, but with us as the sole occupants, with room to spread out with our tent on one side and our living room on the other, it was more than enough room. The chickees are built out over the water on purpose, providing relief from the mosquitos and no-see-ums that swarm closer to the mangrove shores. We were fully prepared for the insect hordes, but had been thoroughly blessed by an almost complete absence of them the night before and again so far this morning.

South Joe River is a great chickee, far enough from the mangrove forest to keep away the hordes of mosquitos.

Eventually, Tracy woke up and stumbled out of the tent blinking like an owl in the sunlight and looking for coffee.

Finally awake
Me in the bay, the entrance canal in the distance. The Joe River is on the other side of the mangroves behind me.

After a leisurely breakfast, the wind began to pick up and we loaded the canoe and pushed off, heading back through the canal and turning left at the Joe River. Here, the wind was gusting right in our face, and the tide, incoming for the last hour, caused the river to flow noticeably against us. We hunkered into the wind and began to paddle hard. We only had 5.5 miles to go today to reach the Joe River chickee, the destination we’d originally reserved for this night, with our original plan of leaving this morning. Our decision to leave the day before and knock out the bulk of the mileage was sure starting to feel like a good one. The wind and current made conditions so difficult for paddling that it was impossible to take even a quick break. Setting the paddle down for even ten seconds stopped all our forward momentum and pushed us backward. Even when just Tracy took a break and I kept paddling, I could barely keep us moving north. If I took a break, Tracy alone couldn’t even hold us still.

It was misery and agony. It took us four hours of non-stop paddling before the Joe River chickee finally came into sight. Our tired muscles groaned as we pulled the final half mile and turned right into an inlet, finally finding a lee from the wind. We stopped and rested our paddles on the sides of the canoe, breathing hard and stretching our sore backs, relieved to finally be done with what had been a torturous four hours of constant and strenuous exertion. We tied up to the chickee, unloaded a few things, and then collapse with exhaustion.

This is what exhaustion looks like.

Eventually we recovered and discussed setting up our camp. I had booked the Oyster Bay chickee as a backup in case we wanted to do more than 5.5 miles today, but we both agreed that paddling another 5 miles was not in the cards. It was officially settled when we saw another canoe approaching our chickee, our first sighting of another human since dusk the day before. Bill, a solo traveler stopped to use the porta-potty and told us he was heading up to Oyster Bay for the night. He’d crossed Whitewater Bay from the North River chickee, which was our destination tomorrow. With him headed to Oyster Bay and us not wanting to share our solitude with anyone, the decision was made. We saw Bill off and then set up camp.

The Joe River Chickee…adequate but not much more than that.

In the early afternoon, I talked Tracy into taking an excursion behind the chickee where a canoe trail led back into a swamp that appeared to open up into some small lakes. The mangroves were dense and the path was difficult in our large canoe. After about a quarter mile of bumping, ducking, and spider webs in Tracy’s face as we futilely looked for alligators or other wildlife, we gave up and backed our way out of there, returning to the chickee. We spent the rest of the evening just relaxing and watching a pod of dolphins fishing and breaching right where the Joe River and the small inlet we were camping on met. Toward dusk, a few mosquitos showed up, our proximity to land allowing them to sense us. We covered up with our head nets and sprayed ourselves down with Deet, and that was enough to keep them at bay. That night was another uncomfortable one where we both suffered on our thin, almost useless blow-up mats, and I stove off freezing by putting on all my clothes and stealing Tracy’s wool hat.

The next day we would be venturing across the vast Whitewater Bay, an endeavor about which we were both very apprehensive.

Before we knew the hellish paddle we were about to endure.
Our day two paddle up the Joe River.

Canoeing the Everglades (part two) Flamingo to South Joe River.

This is part two of a multi-part travel series. If you missed part one, you can find it here: https://authorrickfuller.com/2021/08/08/canoeing-the-everglades-part-one/

“Would you like to purchase a SunPass for use on the toll roads?” the callously disinterested rental car clerk had asked the previous day when I’d picked up our car at Fort Lauderdale International.

“How much is that?”

“Eight dollars a day plus the cost of the tolls,” she droned.

Pffft. The car would be sitting in a parking lot for at least four days. Why would I pay for that when I could just avoid the toll roads or pay cash at a booth?

“No thanks,” I said, smugly sure that I’d avoided a rental car tourist trap. The rental agent one-eyed me with a knowing smirk.

“Okay. If you do use any toll road then, it will automatically bill your account along with an added convenience fee.”

“Fine,” I replied, not bothering to ask what the “convenience fee” would be.

I’ve spent a good amount of time in south Florida, but what I’d forgotten is that it is nearly impossible to drive around the Miami-Dade area without wandering intentionally or accidentally onto a toll road. And, the vast majority of these toll plazas that guard the coveted expressways are unmanned. Once you make that fateful turn onto the ramp, there’s no turning back. You’re going to pass through an automatic toll booth, and in a rental car without a SunPass, you’re screwed. And this is what happened on the way out to Homestead the next morning.

After sleeping in and then enjoying a casual late-morning breakfast at an outdoor café in the beautifully warm breeze of a perfect Miami Beach December morning, Tracy and I checked out of our hotel and hit the road for the town of Homestead, our staging point for the journey. Avoiding toll roads adds about an extra thirty minutes to the drive, which is an annoyance, but we were in no rush. Unfortunately, I made one wrong turn and we found ourselves whizzing through the toll plaza of a pay-for-play highway with the rest of the drivers who seemed not at all perturbed by the situation.

“Hmmm. I wonder how much that’s going to cost?” I mused to Tracy who just shook her head as the cameras winked and captured our license plates. This wouldn’t be the only time on the trip that we would zip through a toll plaza, and I wouldn’t find out the cost for several weeks. I’ll just say this…if you’re going to be driving around the south Florida area, get a SunPass. The rental company “convenience fee” may be convenient, but it sure ain’t cheap.

The small city of Homestead sits just outside the entrance to Everglades National Park, and we had a hotel reservation there, planning to gather a few last-minute items before getting a good night’s sleep and an early start the next morning. That was the initial plan.

“Hey, why don’t we get the last few things we need here, and then drive out to the Flamingo Visitor Center and see if we can just start our trip today instead of tomorrow?” I said to Tracy. Somehow, I managed to convince her that this would be a great idea, despite a small part of me that wanted her to talk me out of this lunacy. We stopped at Walmart to grab two folding camp chairs, swung into a Subway for some lunch to go, and drove an hour south to the Flamingo Visitor Center at the southernmost tip of mainland Florida. Knowing that if we were to get started on this journey at such a late hour—already approaching 3:00pm—an 18-plus mile paddle to the Joe River chickee would be a monumental undertaking, we swung in to the ranger station next to the marina and inquired about an opening for the night at South Joe River chickee, another of the wooden platforms that was only about 12 miles away.

The nice thing about Covid was that the vast majority of the Everglades was wide open, including the South Joe River chickee, and we booked it for the night and then scurried over to the marina to see if we could pick up our reserved canoe a day early. The dockmaster looked at us like we were idiots when we told him our plan, then flat-out told us that it was a bad idea, then warned us that the wind was getting bad and it would be in our faces, then told us that the open water ahead would be much worse than the protected and screened canal of the marina—“There’s a reason it’s called ‘Whitewater Bay,’” he said, with an ominous tone, then tried to give us alternative options, then finally relented and slid a two-person canoe into the water for us with a look on his face as if he was calculating his potential liability. When we unloaded the car and piled our gear onto the dock, he took one look at it and then upgraded us to a three-person canoe, something we were very thankful for later. I tipped him well, then found a water spigot to fill our four 2.5-gallon collapsible water bags. The water came out a sickly yellowish-brown color, but I was assured that it would be fine to drink by the “potable” sign next to the spigot. What could go wrong?

Our load of gear, including ten gallons of yellow-tinged drinking water.

Loading the canoe to the oar-wells, we slid into the Buttonwood Canal at 3:40pm and pushed off for the first stage of the journey, the three-mile paddle up the canal to Coot Bay.

The first stage of our journey, up the calm Buttonwood Canal and into the surprisingly large Coot Bay. The narrow canal at the north end of Coot Bay was our self-imposed point of no return.

The breeze, though in our face, was manageable and actually quite enjoyable. We got quickly into a rhythm with the paddling, Tracy in the front of the boat and me in the back, her switching from right side to left at her whim, and me switching as necessary to counter her strokes and keep us moving straight ahead. We passed numerous day-paddlers coming in from the bay with smiles and sunburns, saw turtles, numerous birds, and one baby alligator resting on a log as we paddled out. Along the way, we marked a few key spots on the shoreline where we could return to pitch a tent and camp should the bay be as rough as the dockmaster had feared.

We both felt good when we rounded the final bend of the canal and entered Coot Bay, a small bay on the map but a surprisingly large body of water in real life. I was actually a bit dismayed at the real-life size of the bay…if this tiny, almost insignificant bay on the map was this large in person, Whitewater Bay—which we had to cross several times in the next few days—was going to look like an ocean. Nevertheless, with the wind quite a bit stronger here, we hunched our backs, dug the paddles into the water, and propelled our way across it, making for the far end where we would need to find the small canal that connects Coot Bay with its granddaddy, Whitewater Bay. Our heading was true, and the canal opened up, once more providing a windbreak for us. This was what I figured to be the point of no return, where if we pushed on we would be committed to making it all the way to South Joe regardless of the conditions on Whitewater Bay. Tracy agreed that we should continue, and we hurriedly paddled through the short connector with its sharp turns and overhanging mangroves, ever alert for wildlife as the sun marched its way to the horizon.

We entered Whitewater Bay as dusk neared. The bay was every bit as massive as I’d feared after seeing the size of Coot Bay, and we took a moment to marvel at the flat vistas of open water dotted with mangrove islands. There were very few people anywhere in sight, just a couple of faint dots toward the horizon, speedboats too far away even to hear their motors making their way across the bay or getting in some late-day fishing. I took a compass heading and pulled out flashlights and headlamps. Darkness was approaching and we were now certain to be paddling well after sundown. Tracy became somewhat apprehensive about our position, and we stopped for a moment to discuss the situation. At my urging, she let go of her fears and put her trust in me, something I wasn’t too sure was earned. Luckily, as the sun dipped lower, the wind suddenly ceased and the bay grew calm. We took a short rest, letting our canoe drift with the mild current, and then we dug in again, making our way up the vast Joe River.

The Joe River appears on this map to be small and manageable. It’s actually over a mile wide at the mouth, and in the darkness, the shores are indistinguishable from the water.

Darkness descended on us and the stars popped out, lighting up the sky in a brilliant show that was headlined by Jupiter and Saturn. As it grew full dark, we continued to paddle, the deep vee cut by the bow of our boat on the still water of the flat bay the only sign of our passage, the shores of the river too far off to mark our progress. Those shores faded out of sight with the passing of the last light, and I kept us straight by keeping Jupiter and Saturn at our 11:00 position, as well as occasionally turning to mark the bubble of light pollution from the far-away lights of Miami directly at our back.

As we grew more and more comfortable with the idea of paddling into the inky blackness of the Everglades, far from any other people, an island of human life in the midst of a vast area of wilderness and wild animals, we both relaxed, speaking softly and enjoying the solitude and the calmness of the isolation in which we found ourselves immersed. Several meteors streaked overhead, and the silence of the night was broken only by the sounds of our paddles digging into the water and the occasional fish jumping at an insect.

After about an hour, the river narrowed and turned north, and I marked our position on the map as we pulled for the western shore, prepared to search for the canal that led to the small, unnamed bay where the South Joe River chickee would be located. As our headlamps splayed over the mangroves, the river narrowed further, much more than I thought it should based on the map. We pushed on and discovered we’d paddled into a dead-end bay. Slightly unnerved, I scoured the map, searching for answers and trying to figure out our exact location. Tracy asked me where to go next, and I calmly told her to take a quick break as chills of dismay arched down my back and I realized I had no idea where we were.

There’s something deeply unsettling about being lost at night in the Everglades, but I told myself that the worst-case scenario would be that we’d have to find a way to spend the long winter night in the cramped canoe. We weren’t going to die, and we weren’t going to sink in the perfectly calm and smooth water, so I forced myself to relax and think through the problem. As my eyes searched for where we’d gone wrong, I realized what the problem was. I’d been looking for the river to make a turn to the north, and so when the opening appeared on the north bank, I assumed that was the actual turn, instead of the small bay that was clearly marked on the map. The scale of the map had fooled me again, the darkness and identicality of the shoreline of nothing but never-ending mangroves tricking me into thinking we’d reached our turn when we hadn’t. We paddled back out of the bay, staying close to the inhospitable shoreline in order to avoid being tricked again.

Inlet that, in the darkness, I mistook for the river turning north. It would take a good deal of time and paddling as my fear grew before I realized my mistake.

I soon realized that this map, as high-quality as it was, was going to be a problem for detailed navigation. Large inlets and bays in real-life appeared as nothing more than a squiggle on the map, and every one had to be explored before we could be confident we were not missing the turn of the Joe River to the north. A light mist began to rise eerily out of the mangrove forests, spreading across the calm water like groping fingers, diffusing the light from our headlamps, chilling the air, and giving a spooky, ethereal feel to the night that caused us both to shiver. This was beginning to feel like a scene in a horror movie where the audience wonders how the protagonists could have possibly ended up in such a terrible situation.

Eventually, we paddled all the way across the river, keeping the left shore close to us like lost children in a blind maze, who keep their left hands on the wall to find their way out. As it became quite clear that we had finally made the correct turn to the north, I began to breathe easier, and when the canal leading to the South Joe chickee bay eventually opened up out of the mist to our left, my heart began to settle down slightly. We navigated through the turns of the tight, stygian canal with the ghostly mangroves scratching the walls of our canoe. Finally, the small bay opened up before us and the mist cleared suddenly, as if obeying a heavenly command. Pointing the bow of the canoe to where I thought the chickee should be, I told Tracy to focus her flashlight across the small inlet to the far shore. As the beam of light hit the other side of the inlet, a reflective sign bounced the light back to us and we both breathed a sigh of relief at the first sign of civilization we’d seen in hours. We’d found the South Joe River chickee.

We pulled up to the empty chickee at just before 8:00pm. We’d only paddled for less than 4.5 hours, but we were relieved to be done. Tying up to the chickee, we quickly unloaded the canoe, set up our tent, and cooked dinner. We’d covered 13.5 miles, several of which had been hard miles hampered by wind, waves, and the incoming tide. We’d earned a hearty dinner and a good night’s sleep. We sat in our chairs enjoying the perfect stillness, the bright stars, and the calm, temperate evening before eventually climbing into the tent and falling fast asleep.

Canoeing the Everglades (part one)

Fifteen years ago, I spent four days solo kayaking the Everglades on the northwest portion of the Wilderness Waterway, and since that trip, I’ve often felt the siren-call of that vast river of grass beckoning me to return. In December, 2020, while the global Covid-19 pandemic raged, the empty and lonely wilderness of mangroves and prehistoric beasts seemed like a great place to escape the troubled world at large.

My experience during the solo kayak trip from a decade-and-a-half earlier had been amazing, but I really wanted to share this country with someone else, and luckily, I was able to cajole Tracy into coming with me. We spent a good amount of time planning the trip in the months prior to our departure. I’m not a planner by nature, preferring with nearly every trip to just get out there and wing things, dealing with changing circumstances by being adaptable and flexible, but the Everglades is not a place where you want to allow chance or misfortune a handhold. We would be taking a canoe for this journey and exploring the southeastern portion of the Wilderness Waterway, a one-hundred-mile path that skirts through the tidal rivers, lakes, and marshes of the southern coast of Florida. Mangrove forests permeate the land, their vast root systems choking every square inch of solid ground, making unscheduled stops along the way difficult to impossible. Camping is done on chickees—wooden platforms constructed on pilings over the water, usually in small bays or backwaters. Reservations are required, and each chickee can take only one or two small parties of travelers. There are no sources of fresh water in this portion of the Everglades backcountry, the tidal nature of the low-lying swamp making every bit of the vast wetlands brackish. With few unique or distinguishing characteristics of the land and terrain everything looks the same and it’s easy to get lost and difficult to describe your location to any would-be rescuer…if you can even find a cell signal to call for help. Other travelers, particularly during a pandemic when people tend to avoid leaving their homes, would be few and far between, another source of possible assistance that would be non-existent. With all of these factors, careful planning of this trip was imperative.

In the weeks prior to our departure, we ordered a ton of gear that would be necessary for a successful and stress-free trip. I got a large, foldable, waterproof map of the area, several compasses, an astrolabe, and a sextant for navigation. Okay, maybe not the last two, but the waterproof map I ordered would prove to be invaluable for navigating the difficult turns and small, hidden passages along our route. We bought a free-standing tent, a required item for the chickees where tie downs are unavailable. LED lanterns, flashlights, a propane stove, packaged just-add-water meals from REI, waterproof gear bags, collapsible water containers, hats, gloves, ponchos, mosquito nets, sleeping bags and pads for the hard wooden planks of the chickees we’d be sleeping on, first-aid kits, lighters, waterproof matches, chargers, stackable pots and pans, eating utensils, a French press, and numerous other items for safety and comfort all had to be ordered or acquired. By the time we were finished gathering and packing all the gear, it looked like we could have outfitted Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition to find the missing Doctor Livingstone in the dark heart of Africa, but knowing we’d be well-prepared for anything that might go wrong was helpful to Tracy’s continued enthusiasm for this excursion.

Setting up and testing some of the equipment

On December 8th, I packed all our gear into a plastic bin and a large suitcase and flew from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale where I rented a car and then met Tracy’s flight in from Las Vegas. We drove down to South Beach where my perpetually single and devastatingly rakish buddy, Will Riedlinger had just recently moved. The three of us had a fantastic dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab, followed by drinks at a nearby hole-in-the-wall bar that just happened to have a small amount of fifteen-year Pappy Van Winkle gathering dust on the top shelf. Pappy makes Rick happy, so Will and I polished off the remainder of the bottle which garnered us the attention of the bar owner who generously gave us the last half-shot of the precious liquid gold for free. Feeling warmed and full, Tracy and I said goodnight to Will and walked back to our room at the Kimpton Hotel.

Our plan for the next day was to sleep in and then make the long drive out to Homestead where we would gather our last few necessities and spend another night, getting up early the following day to get started on our first day of paddling, an ambitious seventeen miles from the Flamingo Visitor Center up to the Joe River Chickee. Of course, even a well-planned trip doesn’t always work out the way you expect, and our trip would end up taking a much different turn that next day.

Covid can’t get through a Pappy barrier
Fueling up before the big trip

The Man Who Sowed Irrational Fear and Created MORAL PANIC

On August 12, 1958, Congress passed Public Law 85-623, an “act to prohibit the introduction…into interstate commerce of switchblade knives…” This law became commonly known as the “Federal Switchblade Act,” and it was the culmination of a concerted effort by lawmakers backed by an outpouring of public support that can all be traced back to an article published in Woman’s Home Companion in November, 1950. The author of this article, titled, “The Toy that Kills,” was Jack Harrison Pollack, and he was well-known for his overtly inflammatory articles that preyed on the emotions of his readers, mostly women, tugging at their maternal instincts and unashamedly feeding their base fears.

Jack Harrison Pollack wrote and published more than a thousand articles for numerous magazines and periodicals in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them with inflaming titles like “They’ll Steal Your Vote,” “The Shame of our Local Health Departments,” “Six Ways Your Vote Can Be Stolen,” “Do Drinking Fountains Spread Disease?” and “Too Many Babies Die.”

The Toy that Kills was not written to espouse the dangers of children carrying knives. In fact, Pollack doesn’t seem to have a problem with kids carrying knives in general. He only has an issue with the “threat to our children’s safety,” the switchblade knife. He acknowledges that knives have utility and that society shouldn’t try to stop kids from carrying them. He writes, “(Authorities) don’t want to deny boys their pocket knives. They know that a knife to a growing boy is as important as a lipstick to a young lady.” In just one of the many quotes in the article that are attributed to some vague, unidentified figure, such as this one that he says is from “one of the nation’s top law-enforcement officers,” (whatever that means) he writes, “In a person’s pocket, a switchblade knife is a deadly concealed weapon—as dangerous as a dagger and at close quarters as lethal as a loaded revolver.” The article, which is filled with unsourced, vaguely attributed, unidentifiable quotes like the one above, was clearly meant to inflame its readers and to drive them to action.

In one paragraph Pollack claims to have witnessed an actual switchblade murder on the mean streets of Philly:

“I had no idea myself until I saw a youth stabbed with one on a Philadelphia street. Two young men were fighting with their fists. Suddenly one of them reached into his pocket. A second later his hand held an open knife. He jabbed the gleaming blade into his opponent’s chest. As the blood flowed, women onlookers screamed.”

In another, he has a direct quote from a deceased victim of knife violence:

“Recently—in more innocent spirits—two teen-age boys at a high school dance in a Newark, New Jersey, suburb were playfully showing off with a three-inch switchblade. Accidentally one was shoved against the tip of the knife, which pierced his heart. “You punctured me, Jim, please take me to a drugstore,” the wounded youth moaned and collapsed. His seventeen-year-old companion was aghast. But his sorrow couldn’t bring his best friend back to life.”

The article is filled with anecdotal stories from all over the country that are completely unsourced with no names attached and no references listed. Stories that have direct quotes from one subject to another as if the author witnessed the interaction first-hand. Stories that are quite obviously completely fabricated by Pollack who knows there is no way for his 1950s readers to verify or dispute these stories.

“At almost the same time, in Newark, New Jersey, a thirty-five-year-old woman accused her husband of being unfaithful. Before he had a chance to explain, she angrily yanked a switchblade from her stocking and stabbed her husband in the heart. The next day he died. “If she had only hit her husband with a dish or a rolling pin instead!” mused a police official. “A switchblade isn’t something for anybody with a temper to have.””

Immediately after publication of the article, with nobody of intelligence able to discern the obvious lies and fabrications throughout it, U.S. states began to take action, with New York becoming the first to ban these dangerous weapons. Other states followed suit, and after the federal ban against importation in 1958, the mass hysteria spread around the globe, with countries all through Europe, Asia, and the Americas taking their own steps to pass laws banning switchblade knives. And none of it was based on any sort of reality, data, science, or even logic.

In case you haven’t seen an actual switchblade knife before, I happen to own one. Here is a regular, modern pocket knife, completely legal throughout the country, side-by-side with a dangerous and scary switchblade knife:

And here is a video where I show the difference in the way these knives open:

Warning: Graphic content not suitable to the faint of heart!

As you can see, these two knives are nearly indistinguishable. Why did Pollack feel the need to fabricate his way through a story attempting to rouse his readers to take action against switchblade knives? It’s hard to say. Perhaps he was simply inspired to grow his readership in any way possible, or maybe the editors of Woman’s Home Companion preferred sensationalism to journalism. It’s quite obvious from this article that there was a clear and shocking lack of journalistic integrity in those days, at least in the magazines where Pollack’s articles flourished, his audience apparently enraptured by his histrionic prose. Whatever his intent, the article worked. After its publication, and with the release of films like Rebel Without a Cause, 12 Angry Men, and the musical, Westside Story, the public had seen enough of switchblade knives to know that they were a menace to society. Driven with fear by Pollack’s closing statement, “…don’t wait, either, until a youngster—it could be yours—is murdered with a “toy” pocketknife” the entire world went crazy.

Representative Sidney R. Yates, speaking to Congress before passing the switchblade act, was clearly taken in by the national hysteria surrounding the “deadly” knives:

“Vicious fantasies of omnipotence, idolatry… barbaric and sadistic atrocities, and monstrous violations of the accepted values spring from the cult of the weapon, and the switchblade knife is included in this. Minus switchblade knives and distorted feeling of power they beget – power that is swaggering, reckless, and itching to express itself in violence – our delinquent adolescents would be shorn of one of their most potent means of incitement to crime.” 

There’s no doubt that youth violence was a problem in the fifties, however, the switchblade knife was nothing more than a symbolism of that violence, a simple tool embodied in bloodshed by the media, and as such, it was targeted by activists who reacted on emotion rather than common sense.

When considering the Moral Panic created by Pollack against switchblade knives, it’s rather difficult to not draw comparisons to the current state of affairs with society’s Moral Panic about AR-15s. The AR-15 has become the weapon of choice for many of the most heinous mass shootings our country has witnessed in the last couple of decades, and as such, it has become bastardized by society. And yet, the AR-15 is nothing more than a symbol of gun violence. It’s not even the best choice of weapon if you want to create the most bloodshed, death, fear, and violence. A typical AR-15 shoots a tiny .223 round that, in many of its iterations, causes little damage when it strikes a human body. However, because the AR-15 has been used by so many shooters, it has become the target of activists and politicians who think that the murder problem of our country will disappear if the AR-15 is banned. They seem to have lost sight of the same logic missing in society in the 1950s. Banning switchblades didn’t curb youth violence, youths just continued to carry what were now illegal knives, or they just switched to similar knives that were legal. Banning AR-15s will just mean that shooters will choose a different type of weapon for their killing sprees. If I was writing this article sixty years in the future, I might write the previous paragraph this way:

There’s no doubt that gun violence was a problem during the turn of the century, however, the AR-15 was nothing more than a symbolism of that violence, a simple tool embodied in bloodshed by the media, and as such, it was targeted by activists who reacted on emotion rather than common sense.

Gersh Kuntzman is today’s version of Jack Harrison Pollack. In an article in the New York Daily News a few years ago titled, What is it like to fire an AR-15? It’s horrifying, menacing, and very, very loud, he writes the following lines:

The recoil bruised my shoulder, which can happen if you don’t know what you’re doing. The brass shell casings disoriented me as they flew past my face. The smell of sulfur and destruction made me sick. The explosions — loud like a bomb — gave me a temporary form of PTSD. For at least an hour after firing the gun just a few times, I was anxious and irritable.

Even in semi-automatic mode, it is very simple to squeeze off two dozen rounds before you even know what has happened. If illegally modified to fully automatic mode, it doesn’t take any imagination to see dozens of bodies falling in front of your barrel.

If you’ve ever fired an AR-15 you know what complete and utter nonsense this is. Squeezing off two dozen rounds requires a high-capacity magazine and 24 distinct and separate trigger pulls along with the corresponding “bruising” shoulder kicks, “disorienting” brass casings “flying past your face,” and “bomb-like” explosions. I’m pretty sure you can’t accomplish that “before you even know what has happened.” The AR-15 has one of the lightest kicks—a gentle tap to the shoulder—of any rifle you’ll ever fire. Youtube is full of videos of girls and boys under the age of 10 firing AR-15s with smiles on their faces, apparently unperturbed by this alleged bruising this full-grown man suffered from. The AR-15 is almost certainly quieter than every one of the handguns he claims to have fired, (loud like a bomb???) and definitely quieter than most other rifles, and his theatrical, melodramatic claim that he suffered PTSD after firing the weapon…let’s just say that did not sit well with members of our armed forces who took some issue with that, as seen in his retraction statement that was added to the bottom of the article.

Kuntzman’s attempt to summon the spirit of Pollack’s malicious writings through his hammy, histrionically contrived description of his experience firing the AR-15 have only one goal…to raise the ire of the ignorant readers of the New York Daily News by creating an emotionally distorted Moral Panic that will drive them to take action to ban these types of weapons that he sees as unnecessary and dangerous. His efforts to instill the image of “dozens of bodies falling in front of your barrel” should be completely transparent, yet a constant flow of disinformation and fear mongering about AR-15s by journalists and politicians alike would seem to indicate that it is not.

Magazines that publish articles like those by Pollack in the 1950s and Kuntzman today are blurring the lines between established and respected periodicals and sensationalist tabloids by their lack of editorial oversight or journalistic integrity. They care about nothing more than readership, and sensationalism-driven clicks and sales.

Moral Panic has reared its ugly head in numerous examples of legislation since Pollack started the trend. In the 1950s, Dr. Frederic Wertham went on a crusade to warn America about the dangers of comic book violence. He penned numerous articles, including “Seduction of the Innocent,” and “What Parents Don’t Know about Comic Books” in Ladies Home Journal. His completely unbased and unscientific, speculative assertions that comic books were a corrupting influence on youth, a public health problem, and a leading cause of juvenile delinquency created a Moral Panic that spread across the country. The Senate convened a special subcommittee to explore the matter, and legislation was enacted that forced government comic book censorship and “approval” stickers before they could be legally sold. At no time were any serious, scientific studies conducted; the subcommittee members relied almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence and “expert” testimony before coming to their conclusions.

In recent times, the media narrative that police kill minorities, particularly black men, at a higher rate than others, even that they have set out to intentionally murder black men as part of a racist crusade, has created a massive Moral Panic that is currently inflaming the public and dividing the country. This is a narrative that has been thoroughly and completely debunked by numerous scientific studies, and yet groups like Black Lives Matter and far-left media outlets continue to spew it, intentionally keeping America in internal strife as a means of forwarding their own nefarious agenda.  

Most of the Moral Panic in society today seems driven by the political left, however, the right is just as guilty. After the 1 October shooting at the Route 91 festival in Las Vegas, bump stocks became the new Moral Panic of society. A device designed to help disabled veterans and target shooters enjoy their passion was bastardized by a murderer and society reacted in sadly typical fashion. President Trump quickly blamed Obama for the legalization of such a deadly and dangerous device, and ordered the Department of Justice to ban them. This ban was issued in 2018 and went into effect in 2019, requiring owners to destroy them or turn them in to the ATF under penalty of ten years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. And why? Because one person misusing something that was designed to be simply a tool created a nation-wide hysterical Moral Panic and politicians reacted. This ban was only struck down as unconstitutional a few months ago by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the legal battle is still ongoing.

Is there a difference between a spring-assisted-opening knife and a switchblade? Sure. The blade on a switchblade deploys a small fraction of a second quicker. The switchblade requires a very slightly less dexterous movement to open. And, it makes a slightly louder and scarier “snap” when it opens. (I get a form of PTSD every time I open mine, as well as visions of dozens of bodies falling under my deftly slashing hand as I cut my way through a crowd while the song, “Gee, Officer Krupke” plays in my head.) But are these differences great enough to justify one of the knives being completely legal while possessing the other one gets you sent to jail? That is quite hard to fathom yet that is our reality, thanks to the moral panic riled up by Jack Pollack’s article.

It’s really not until recently, more than 60 years later, that this fugue of nonsensical hysteria has finally begun to unravel. Although switchblades are still federally illegal to import or sell over state lines, most states have now repealed laws against them and made them completely legal to own and carry. I believe they are still illegal to own in 11 states (including Washington) with a couple others having some restrictions on blade length or concealed carry.

Moral Panic causes our society to react emotionally rather than logically to problems our nation faces. It causes us to legislate by fear, to act impetuously and impulsively when confronted with real, germane and critical issues. Whenever we make hasty, impassioned decisions based on an emotional reaction rather than a well-thought-out, logical, data-driven response to an issue, we are much more likely to get the solution wrong, and quite possibly to exacerbate the problem. So, what can we do about the detrimental effects of our emotional reaction to Moral Panic? The first step is recognizing and crushing the driving force behind this plague, namely the media and their incessant drive to generate clicks at any cost. By calling out and demanding an end to the nonsense of histrionic articles like the ones by Pollack and Kuntzman, we can calm the fear they’re attempting to inseminate in our psyche.

The second step is by electing more logical, intelligent leaders to Congress and the Presidency. Political media whores like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Marjorie Taylor Green, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump who thrive on bombastic speech and the susceptibility of their audience to Moral Panic need to be soundly defeated. We need a Congress that passes laws and reacts to situations by using logic, data, and a careful evaluation of facts rather than legislating through Moral Panic. Emotional reactiveness has been a massive detriment to our society and our country. It is the malevolent fiend that has fatefully led us through things like the Red Scare, wars on drugs and in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the implication of a stolen election and widespread voter fraud, and uncountable examples of unnecessary and detrimental Congressional legislation.

It’s time we defeated the sixty-year-old demon known as Moral Panic that was summoned by Pollack and nourished by panicky, emotional simpletons through the decades. It’s time we moved on from the era of reactionary politics and to an era of logic, science, and data helping us drive all of our laws and our decisions.

Pollack, Jack, “The Toy that Kills,” Woman’s Home Companion, November, 1950. https://docplayer.net/209786811-The-toy-that-kills-woman-s-home-companion-november-1950.html 

The New York Times, Obituaries, October 2, 1984 https://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/02/obituaries/jack-h-pollack-69-author-of-books-and-1000-articles.html

Whitmore, Zac, “Why are Switchblades Illegal?” Blade Magazine. https://blademag.com/knife-history/why-are-switchblades-illegal

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ncr.4110450704

Kuntzman, Gersh, “What is it like to fire an AR-15? It’s horrifying, menacing, and very very loud.” New York Daily News July 14, 2016 https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/firing-ar-15-horrifying-dangerous-loud-article-1.2673201

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bump_stock

History of Comics Censorship, Part 1

Who Wants to be a Cop?

There’s never been a better time to be a criminal in America than right now.

There’s never been a more challenging time to be a police officer in America than right now.

Police departments around the country are facing a crisis like they’ve never before faced in their history. An existential crisis in some ways. For most of the recorded history of policing, the enemy of the profession has been those who pursue harm upon the innocent. Today, that has all changed. The greatest enemy to police today is the vocal, bombastic, often good-intentioned, mostly naïve and simplistic, ordinary citizen. This is a terrible statement, and it pains me to write it, but it’s true, more now than ever before. And while police departments are fantastic at addressing their traditional adversary, the lawbreaker, they are terrible at addressing this new, perilously slippery enemy who shouts from the pulpits, rouses the masses through histrionics and illusory ethereal information, and then fades into the shadows to watch the seeds of their discontent blossom.

Ask somebody if they think it would be a good idea for you to pursue a profession in police work right now and the most likely answer you’ll receive is, “You’d have to be a complete idiot to want to be a cop right now.” Ask a police officer if you should join their ranks, and the most likely answer you’ll receive is a hearty laugh before they turn back to their calculations of the earliest possible time they can retire and still afford to feed their families.

Despite this, police departments need new officers in record numbers, and they have no end to the number of candidates lining up for a chance to spend a few hundred hours at a rigid, demanding, stringent academy, followed by months of on-the-job training where they’ll be baptized in the fire of a brutally grim society filled with heinous actors who will force them into split-second life or death decisions while their own departmental representatives criticize every error, the community they’re trying to protect attacks them verbally, physically, and emotionally at every opportunity, and an honest, good-intentioned mistake can lead to civil lawsuits and prison time. And they’ll put themselves willingly into this hellscape for about the same starting salary as an apprentice plumber makes. 

Take a look at this body camera video released recently by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QR-Q_qvNiTg

This woman is a teacher, and her child was in the car. Let that sink in for a moment.

What does this type of video, along with all the others showing the citizenry bombarding police officers with physical and verbal abuse tell you about the quality of the candidates who must be lining up in the hopes of earning a coveted spot on the firing line for this masochistic wretchedness?

And if physical, verbal, and emotional abuse from the citizenry they’re sworn to protect wasn’t bad enough, those responsible for their oversite and well-being seem to be continuously attacking them as well. Diana Morales is a candidate for mayor of New York, and she’s running and campaigning on a platform of “defund the police.” Cities across the nation, from Minneapolis, to Oak Park, Illinois, to San Francisco are either seriously considering massive cuts to their police departments, or they’ve already begun them. And the problem keeps growing.

An article last month in Cosmopolitan by Paige Fernandez, the ACLU’s policing policy adviser called, “Defunding the Police isn’t Punishment—It Will Actually Make Us Safer,” in which she pushes for a reallocation of funds from police departments to social programs has gone mainstream, her dangerous and naïve ideas reaching millions. Two months ago, and then again just a week ago, the New York City Council passed sweeping police reforms, some of which were okay, but some of which were horribly ignorant. One of those reforms criminalizes—actually criminalizes—a police officer from putting pressure on a suspect’s chest or back in a way that restricts their airflow. Since many of the grappling techniques police officers learn for controlling a combative subject when the fight moves to the ground rely on exactly these types of control methods, this is a really big problem and has the effect of being completely counter to its intent, that being fewer injuries to suspects. This law not only incentives police to use more violent, more dangerous tools and tactics, it actually mandates it under criminal penalty! Police officers need more training in hand-to-hand combat control techniques, not having these tools removed and criminalized by legislators. Take a look at this video from the Gracie brothers where they do a good job of breaking down exactly why this is so awful and why it will almost certainly result in more suspect and officer injuries and deaths, along with an even greater torrent of resignations from officers who’ve just had enough of the nonsense.

The actions of the NYC council are being echoed around the country, and police officers have had enough. In Minneapolis, since the murder of George Floyd, more than 200 officers have quit or have taken extended leaves of absence. Take a read of this article where a former MPD officer describes why he decided to leave after just four years on the job. https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2021/05/16/former-minneapolis-police-officer-talks-about-his-decision-to-leave/

What happens when good officers like the one in the article above decide to leave a department? They get replaced, often by officers who are not as good. As the pool of quality candidates declines, the quality of the police department declines, more officers decide to leave, and the cycle goes on and on. How do we stop it?

It’s actually a bit shocking that the LASO released that video of the woman spewing venom at the deputy who pulled her over. Police have historically been extremely unwilling to publicly defend themselves from abuse and hate. Police departments have always adopted a stoic approach to the abuse they absorb on a daily basis, and I think this needs to change. When 100% of the police incidents where an officer looks bad or unprofessional are being disseminated on every public platform imaginable, and next to zero of the incidents where police absorb unrequited abuse and castigation like in the video above—a scene that has become depressingly common-place, then the story is incredibly one-sided and unfair. Public records disclosures don’t have to go in just one direction. The public needs to see what is really happening out there on the streets so that they can actually begin to get a grasp of the entire picture.

Police departments are finally beginning to understand that they’re going to have to take a more active role in their own defense. They also need to find a way to reverse the tidal wave of departures from departments around the country. This is not easily accomplished though. Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the police executive research forum recently had this to say:

“The American policing profession may be facing the most fundamental questioning of its legitimacy in decades. The very essence of policing is being debated in many cities, often because of controversial video recordings of police officers’ actions…The country is facing a looming crisis in the hiring of police officers. Agencies continue to rely on hiring standards that were created decades ago, for a different philosophy of policing and a different generation of police officer candidates—even while many cities are having trouble finding enough suitable candidates to keep up with retirements and fill vacant positions…—and for many young people, especially in minority communities, policing is not seen as an appealing career choice in the current climate.”

A recent publication from the U.S. Department of Justice also suggests that police departments are facing a looming crisis with regard to their ability to recruit and hire quality candidates to fill the exploding number of available positions. Here’s a snip from this publication:

There was broad agreement among participants at the Hiring Forum that the process for hiring police officers in the United States is often plagued by inefficiency and a lack of urgency. Compared with most other professions, the police hiring process is slow, cumbersome, overly bureaucratic, and not very user friendly for the applicant. In some jurisdictions, it can be a year or more from the time an individual submits an application to when a successful candidate begins police academy training.

For decades, police agencies have used largely the same process, and there has been little incentive to change, because traditionally, there were more applicants than there were vacant officer positions. Many of the people entering the policing profession came from families of officers who went through the same process themselves, so there was little expectation that things would be done any differently. Agencies were able to fill their ranks using protocols that had served them well for years. Recently, however, those dynamics have shifted dramatically. Police officer vacancies have risen, with some large departments suddenly looking to fill several hundred positions. At the same time, the candidate pool has diversified beyond the core group of applicants who joined the profession over generations. Fewer candidates are coming from traditional “police families.” More are coming with college degrees that provide them with greater flexibility to consider other careers, especially if those professions can complete the hiring process more efficiently and get recent graduates on the payroll more quickly.

Perhaps the biggest change has been generational. Candidates entering the workforce today are largely Millennials and, now, members of Generation Z as well. These individuals grew up with technology that allows them to obtain information on almost any subject in seconds, or to purchase goods and obtain them overnight, rather than waiting days or weeks for delivery. Participants at the hiring forum said that these younger generations can be impatient, making them less likely to tolerate a police hiring process that can last months, is largely paper-driven, and can be frustratingly opaque to the applicant.

So, what do we need to reverse what is surely about to become a dramatic slide in the quality of police departments at a time when they need, more than ever, solid, intelligent, motivated, quality cops with pure motives and unimpeachable ethics? We need you to join the police force. Who? You. The reader. I’m speaking to you. If you would have to be an absolute idiot to want to go into the policing profession right now, that is precisely why the profession needs you. If you’ve read this far, you have either incredible patience, a high tolerance for suffering, or an insatiable thirst for growth and knowledge, and all of those things are critical virtues for a police officer to possess. If, like me, you’ve seen the dangers of a degrading candidate pool for a public position where the actions of one bad cop can taint the motives and accomplishments of thousands, then your local police department needs you. This is the time when you can give back to society. If you’re intelligent, successful, good under pressure, and have a solid moral compass, why not consider leaving whatever your current profession is and giving back to your community by joining the police force?

I know this may sound absolutely ridiculous, but the best way to help right the ship and contribute to the health of a critical piece of the infrastructure of a stable society is to bring in those who don’t really want to do the job. Those who are overqualified for the job. Those who think the job is probably beneath them. You can sit comfortably at home and criticize the mistakes and decisions of police officers. You can complain about their performance, their attitudes, their motives, their education, and their abilities, or you can get out of your easy chair and help make things better. There are, of course, many ways to help your society and to contribute your time to worthy causes. But anybody can go serve meals at the homeless shelter. It takes a truly dedicated, selfless hero to set aside their life and to serve their community as a police officer when they don’t actually want to do the job, and when taking the job means accepting a massive pay cut, putting themselves through a hellish year of training in high-pressure situations, and putting their lives on the line for the greater good. Can you be this person? Can you be one of the ones who decides that they want to be a part of the solution instead of just complaining about the problem?

Police departments across the country are trying to hire quality candidates like you, and they’re struggling mightily at every turn. Will you consider joining them?

An Analysis of the Police Shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo.

An analysis of the police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo

On March, 29th, 2021, at about 2:36 a.m., Chicago police responded to a report of two males firing a gun, the first report of which apparently came from Shotspotter, an AI technology that detects and automatically targets gunshots fired in the city. Two minutes later, Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old boy was dead, shot in the chest by one of the responding officers.

Today, COPA, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, released the BWC (body-worn camera) footage from the unnamed officer who fired the fatal shot.

The thing that is immediately striking about the video, and in fact about the majority of videos of this nature, is how incredibly quick everything happens. There is no audio at the start of the BWC footage, as the officer is responding to the scene. He pulls into an alley at 2:38 a.m., and gets out of his vehicle. You see him immediately begin running, pausing only to apparently shove a civilian out of the way of danger, before pursuing a shadowy fleeing subject whose shape is only barely discernible in the dark alley and heavily bobbing camera of the pursuing officer.

The foot pursuit starts at the timestamp of 1:47 on the video. A few seconds later, the audio kicks in, and the officer can be heard yelling at the fleeing suspect to stop running. At 2:03, the suspect stops near a break in the wooden fence that lines the alley, and at 2:04 the officer yells, “Drop it, drop it!” which is immediately followed by the officer firing a single shot from his weapon at the timestamp of 2:05.

This is the picture that has been widely circulated by the media, grabbed from the BWC footage at the exact moment of the shot:

Now, some analysis:

On the surface, and to much of the population of a world that has grown accustomed to making resolute, immutable judgements with the most minute quantity of data or information, this looks like just another case of a police officer shooting an unarmed minority, and, even worse, a child this time. Because of that collective predication, there will undoubtedly be rioting in the streets of Chicago tonight.

But is it warranted?

I scanned the video closely to determine what it was that made the officer fire the shot. When you run the video in full motion, it looks like Toledo is complying. He stops running, turns, and puts his hands up. What bothers me, and should bother a prudent person, is why the officer yells, “Drop it, drop it!”

Let’s look at a couple of screen grabs I was able to procure from the video.

Here we have the moment that Adam Toledo stops running, timestamp of 2:03 on the BWC footage, 02:38:38 a.m. Adam’s back is to the officer and his hands are hidden from view. The officer moves to Toledo’s left in an obvious attempt to get a better angle and to see his hands.

The very next second, 02:38:39 on the video, timestamp of 2:04 on the BWC recording, the officer is turning his body toward Toledo who has been out of the frame of the video for just under one second as the officer positions himself.

In this screen grab you can see Toledo’s left hand has come up near his face and his right hand is holding what we can safely presume (based on what I’ll show you shortly) to be a firearm. The police officer is employing a strobing flashlight, a tool used to disorient a suspect. As Toledo is intermittently illuminated / darkened in the strobing light, it becomes evident that the alleyway is dark and isolated. At this point, there is clearly no way for the officer to ascertain that Adam Toledo is a child just 13 years of age. Toledo is wearing a black hoodie, carrying a gun, in a dark alley at 2:30 in the morning, matching the description of one of two suspects who has just fired multiple shots at people or vehicles in the area. When you hear hoofbeats around the corner you don’t think you’re about to see zebras, and when you see a running suspect carrying a gun in an alley at 2:30 a.m., you don’t think it might be a 13-year-old.

At 02:38:39 still, and still at 02:04 on the BWC recording timestamp—so less than a second later—Toledo has turned his face toward the officer. His right hand, which the officer knows is holding a firearm, is now concealed from view. Adam has moved his hand in an effort to conceal the firearm from the positioning officer. We can speculate that this is the moment that Toledo has decided to toss the firearm behind the fence, although there is no way for the officer to know that that is what his intention is. The officer yells, “Drop it!”

The very next moment, now 02:38:39 and 02:05 on the timestamp, Toledo tosses the gun in one motion, taking care to use his body to conceal what he’s doing as he turns fully toward the officer and rapidly brings his right hand into view.

The hand that a fraction of a second earlier was holding a firearm. The motion is quick, smooth, and it’s far too late for Adam Toledo because the officer has almost certainly already made the decision to shoot, the electrical impulse from the officer’s brain is on its way to his trigger finger, and in this fraction of a second that Toledo’s hand comes into view having just tossed the firearm behind the fence, it is too late to recall the order from the brain. This kid is swinging his weapon up to fire it, and the officer has no way of knowing that he’s thrown the gun away with this motion. As the officer yells, “Drop it!” a second time, he pulls the trigger, firing one shot that strikes Toledo in the chest and will turn out to be fatal. In the still shot above, that trigger is already being pulled.

From the moment that Toledo stops running to the moment the officer shoots him, two seconds elapse. From the moment the officer sees the gun in his hand and yells, “Drop it!” to the moment he fires the shot, one second elapses. From the moment Toledo conceals the gun from the officer’s view, to the moment he swings around and raises his hands, less than a second has elapsed.

In a dark alleyway, as the suspect is alternately illuminated and darkened in the strobing flashlight. An officer all by himself. His heart racing as he confronts an armed individual who he knows has already fired this weapon at others. An armed individual who has just intentionally concealed the firearm in his right hand from view and is now spinning rapidly toward the officer.

Less than one second.

Could you do better? Could you avoid pulling the trigger as his hands come into view? Unless you’ve been in this situation, I hope you aren’t even going to consider giving a definitive answer. Or judging the decision made by this officer.

After firing the shot, the officer immediately runs up to Toledo, calling for an ambulance over his radio and assessing Toledo’s injury. You can tell at this point that the officer has realized that Toledo is a kid, and the distress in his voice and his actions comes across clearly. Within ten seconds he is stretching Toledo out on the ground and lifting his hoodie up, searching for the gunshot wound, and yelling for Toledo to stay with him. Other officers arrive and the officer who fired the shot yells for someone to bring a medical kit for a sucking chest wound. His anguish and panic is heartbreaking, as is the look of shock on the face of the child who is dying. The officer begins chest compressions and doesn’t stop until the 5:00 timestamp where he asks another officer to take over. He stumbles away, in shock over the knowledge that not only has he killed someone, but that it was clearly a child. A child who never should have been in a dark alley at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, carrying a firearm that he never should have had access to.

At timestamp 5:33, the officer who fired the shot and another officer step behind the wall and the officer turns on his light, illuminating the gun that Toledo has tossed behind the wall in a vain and hopeless effort to not be caught in the middle of the crime spree that he’s just been on with 21-year-old convicted felon Ruben Roman who was arrested shortly after this.

At the 8:00 mark of the video, the officer sits with his back to the wall, his hands hanging over his knees, shaking. He seems unable to speak, undoubtedly in shock, his whole life now changed. This is a tragedy for everyone involved, there is no question of that. A 13-year-old boy is dead. A police officer and his family have some incredibly difficult times coming up, and, as I said earlier, the officer will be judged by nearly everyone who watches the video. Judged, tried, and convicted in the court of public opinion, undoubtedly found guilty in that courtroom, though it’s highly unlikely there will be any actual criminal charges filed against him for this incident. What will almost certainly happen though, is that an officer’s career will be ruined. It has to be very difficult to return to duty after an incident like this, and very difficult to live with yourself knowing that although you made the correct choice, you still killed a child. An impossible situation. Two lives utterly ruined in a split second.

Here is the full video if you’d like to see it. Just a warning: it’s graphic and heartbreaking to watch.

***Adam Toledo’s right hand later tested positive for gunshot residue, indicating he likely fired this weapon at some point that night, along with the other suspect, Ruben Roman, who has been charged in this case.

The seven shell casings recovered from the shooting scene were matched to the firearm that Toledo tossed behind the fence.

Adam Toledo’s mother said that she thought he was home in bed. She said he had been missing for several days but that she thought she’d heard him come home some time earlier that day and didn’t realize he’d left again. She apparently didn’t bother to check on her son that was missing for several days. She’s currently soliciting donations through GoFundMe.

The officer involved is on paid administrative leave. Here’s hoping he makes it through this difficult time.

A brief history of headboards

A brief history of headboards

The first headboard in recorded history comes to us from hieroglyphics in the Great Pyramid of Giza. The ancient Egyptians didn’t originally use headboards, however, when the Pharaoh Khufu’s wife Henutsen found out that he was building this massive pyramid replete with extravagant his and hers burial chambers, she insisted that the rough, oblique stone slabs were not conducive to a good night’s rest, and she demanded matching headboards. Below is the hieroglyph found in the burial passage of Khufu installing the headboard on Henutsen’s bed. It’s lost to history whether that is an ancient prying tool in his hand, a pry bar of course being an absolutely critical headboard installation/removal tool, or whether it represents a stream of blood coming from his head, a result of the nearly universal injuries sustained in all headboard installations.

Of course, we now know from ancient Arabic translations of the scrolls of Turin, that it was indeed the headboard that caused Khufu to kick Henutsen out of the Great Pyramid and have her buried in a much smaller, mostly unknown pyramid called G1.

We next find mention of the use of headboards with the emperors of Rome, starting with Julius Caesar. Caesar, of course, never used a headboard in his royal villa until Cleopatra started coming over from Egypt to visit. On her first visit, she was dismayed to find that Julius slept on a simple platform elevated off the floor on goat milk crates, and on her next visit, she brought from Cairo not just a headboard, but a full sleigh-style bedframe, much to Caesars dismay. It was this bedframe that caused Caesar to not really care about the consequences, throw caution to the wind, and cross the Rubicon, going to war with his compatriots.

Shortly before Caesars death, we know that Cleopatra began having an affair with Mark Antony, and that she also insisted that a headboard be added to his bedchamber. It was, in fact, this headboard that caused Mark Antony to rule that Cleopatra and Julius’ son, Caesarion would not take over as Julius’ heir after his assassination. When Cleopatra fled back to Egypt after the ascension of Octavion, she took both headboards with her. However, the damage the headboards caused to the Roman Empire was irreversible, and, as we know, it eventually fell from glory.

The next time a headboard was used was in England in 1327. Here’s what we know from this dark period in European history:

Edward II was deposed by his wife Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, after Edward II refused to install a headboard on the Royal Mattress, and Mortimer promised Isabella a headboard if they could rule England together. This of course, led to Edward II’s son, Edward III leading a successful coup against Mortimer in the Hundred Years War, and to eventually lock both Mortimer and the headboard in the Tower of London where he starved to death after eating as much of the headboard as he could stomach. History lessons are short-lived however, as upon Edward III’s return from the brutal fighting of the Hundred Years War, he discovered that his wife, Philippa of Hainault had also installed a headboard on their bed. Edward III died of a stroke in 1377 while attempting to get the headboard to stop squeaking every time he shifted in his sleep.

The next Monarch to experience his lover’s insistence upon a headboard, was Henry VIII. Henry was perfectly content to sleep on a mattress pushed against the wall, and his first (and best) wife, Catherine of Aragon, was fine with that. It wasn’t until Henry shoved her to the countryside so he could hook up with Anne Boleyn, that things began to fall apart for him. Not only would the Catholic Church not allow him to divorce Catherine so he could marry Anne, Anne insisted on installing a headboard and a FULL BEDFRAME on Henry’s perfectly acceptable, completely comfortable mattress that was on the floor and shoved against the wall of the Royal Bedroom in Windsor Castle. Henry thought he was fine with it, but, like all men, he soon realized what a completely unnecessary pain in the ass it was to have to deal with a headboard and a bedframe, particularly when one has to move around to various castles and towers, so, with obvious necessity, Henry had Anne beheaded.

Obviously there are numerous other people in history who have fallen victim to their wife’s insistence on using a completely unnecessary headboard. Emperor Hirohito created a legion of Kamikaze bombers by making pilots remove and install headboards over and over until they lost the will to live. Hitler’s hatred of the Jews stemmed from the fact that they introduced the headboard to Bavaria, headboards being very useful for hiding their bags of gold. In Salem, Massachusetts, witches were identified by entering women’s bedrooms and arresting any who had a headboard on their bed. Joseph Stalin so hated headboards that he had murdered or sent to Siberia every general and politician in the Soviet Union who used a headboard, in what was originally known as The Great Purge of the Headboard Users, though it’s been shortened by historians to just The Great Purge. Osama bin Laden’s hatred of the United States and the western world in general, was not an effect of a difference of religious beliefs, but rather the United States’ insistence on exporting headboards to Muslim countries. In fact, the reason that Navy Seals were able to get the drop on Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad was because the CIA secretly dropped headboards around Pakistan with a note to please deliver to several of bin Laden’s wives, one of whom accepted delivery and had it installed without bin Laden’s knowledge. That headboard had a GPS tracker that led the Seals right to the compound.

As I sit here in frustration after the arduous task of removing the headboard from my own bed in preparation for a move, a task that has led me to have numerous malignant thoughts, I can’t help but wonder when we’ll learn the lessons of history and finally rid this society of the evils of the headboard. We know that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, and I worry for future generations of men who will have to install and remove these unnecessary and burdensome beasts.

Can’t we just end the madness, once and for all?

An open letter to Conservatives – from one of your own

It’s hard to be a Conservative sometimes. This is one of those times, and in reflecting on the status and future of the Republican Party, I think things are only going to get worse. The Republican Party and conservative values seem to be standing on a vast and crumbling precipice.

And, it’s all our own fault.

I’m a right-leaning centrist who was raised with conservative values. Not only do I like the things typically associated with conservatism, I like the idea of those things. I love the Second Amendment. I love the concepts of duty, patriotism, and love of God and Country. I love the idea of teaching our children and our grandchildren how to shoot guns, how to hunt, how to split wood, and how to farm. I like the idea of an honest day’s work for an honest buck. And, even though I’ve personally stepped away from nearly all of these conservative fundamentalisms, my heart and my soul are still instilled in their conceptions.

Nearly half the country holds the values I’ve mentioned above, and yet, these values, this way of life is in big trouble. It’s dying, and that impending death can be easily traced to just one person.

Donald Trump.

Now, I will accept that it’s possible that many conservative values were doomed for history’s scrap heap of failed ideals even without the influence of Donald Trump. The evolution of humanity is something that can be fought only in vain, and conservatives seem to be uniquely adept at disregarding this truism. Traditionalist notions that marriage is a covenant between God, a man, and a woman, or that a woman’s right to choose is nullified by creationism, or that America is divinely inspired and protected are all very clearly destined to fail. And conservatives seem very loathe to accept the defeat of these “ideals.” The rigidity of this type of thinking was always going to be a problem for the Republican party. These ideas are just simply not compatible with an evolving society. One need only look to Islam, a religion that is a bastion of ultra-conservatism doomed for failure, to see the bleak future of conservative Christianity. Those Imams who propagate Muslim fundamentalist ideas such as the stoning of rape victims, forced marriage, and death to infidels and sodomites are appropriately the targets of unremittent scorn and derision, and they’re not that far behind, evolutionarily speaking, ultra-conservative Christians.  

So, Trump doesn’t necessarily hold full responsibility for the downfall of the Republican party, however, his elevation to the highest office in the land will almost certainly be viewed by historians as an accelerant to our inevitable fall.

When Donald Trump stormed into politics in the 2016 elections, he seemed to be a compelling and enticing alternative to the stuffed-shirt candidates normally thrown to the top of the Republican ticket. Trump held many conservative values such as strict border control and immigration policies, a strong military, a vocal opposition to appeasement of aggressive world leaders, and a deep respect for law and order. He showed strength and conviction in his values, both good and bad, he unhesitantly tossed aside traditional notions of presidentialism and decorum. At the same time, he seemed to be somewhat a centrist on liberal ideals like gay rights and abortion. He promised to “Drain the Swamp,” and to “Make America Great Again,” slogans that were objectively amazing from a marketing perspective, even if they were lacking in substance. The tempering appointment of the more conservative traditionalist Mike Pence to the ticket, along with the anointment of arguably the most irredeemably flawed and despicable candidate to ever ascend to the top of the Democratic ticket, Hillary Clinton, made a Trump presidency an assurance.

And, like nearly half the country, I voted for him. I believed in him. I bought in to the enticing idea of a magnanimous and benevolent billionaire who would make decisions that would be for the good of the country, decisions that were business-oriented, immune to the malignant influence of corporate and foreign lobbyists. There were warning signs…plenty of them, and though I had some deep concerns, I was desperate for a candidate who was outside of the establishment, shunned even by that very establishment, and one who was quite vocal about fighting the status quo and stoppering the whirlpool of decrepit swill that Washington politics had become. Like so many of you, I hoped for change and eagerly anticipated the draining of the swamp. And, like so many of you, I was disgusted by the end result. The grifting conman, the charlatan who showed up to the pillar of democracy flashing a beautifully enticing game of three-card monte and convinced us to wager our dignity, our respect, and our future.

The Donald Trump presidency will be remembered as a massive failure, quite possibly the worst presidency in history. Right up until the election in November, Trump had a chance to cement a decent legacy. Liberals will not agree, of course, because they’re blinded by their hatred of the man they call, “The Orange Buffoon,” but Trump actually accomplished some great things in his presidency. For starters, he kept us out of any new wars, and even ended or greatly reduced the engagements of current wars, and this is something that none of his predecessors for the last few decades can lay claim to. He was successful in implementing criminal justice reform, softening the Justice Department’s stand on drug enforcement, tightening and shoring up illegal immigration, strengthening our borders, and rebuilding and refurbishing our military. However, these accomplishments will eventually be forgotten by the categorical disgrace of the last few months of his presidency.

When Trump lost the election to Biden and immediately declared that there was massive fraud, it was a first step in a dangerous direction, but not surprising in any way. He had been saying and implying for years that he would not accept a loss, and that the only way he could ever lose the election would be due to massive voter fraud. His legal team would go on to file sixty-five lawsuits trying to overturn the election. They would lose sixty-four of those cases, their one victory being overturned by the appeals court and affirmed by the state supreme court. Along the way, Trump would claim that the losses didn’t matter, that losses were necessary in order for the cases to reach the United States Supreme Court where he would win a massive victory. With six of the nine USSC Justices conservatives, three of whom were appointed by Trump himself, this didn’t seem like an impossible goal. Trump’s attorneys, consisting of a powerhouse of far-right lunatics like Lin Wood, Sidney Powell, and Rudy Giuliani, made numerous overtures that they were privy to a secret horde of stunning evidence of wrong-doing, information that would shock the world and prove that Donald Trump was the actual victor. Sidney Powell went so far as to state that she was getting ready to, “release the Kraken,” indicating she was in possession of irrefutable evidence the magnitude of which would forever tarnish the Democratic party and completely vindicate Donald Trump.

Cue the crickets.

She went on to make unfounded and easily refutable claims that the voting machines were rigged by their builders, Dominion Voting Systems, which, she claimed, was founded in Venezuela to rig votes for Hugo Chavez. Her further claims that Dominion bribed the Georgia Governor and Secretary of State (both Republicans) landed her with a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit.

Lin Wood has claimed that Georgia Governor Kemp and SecState Raffensperger colluded and conspired with the Chinese to rig the vote for Joe Biden. He called for their imprisonment, claiming that a secret cabal of international communists, Chinese intelligence agents, and rogue Republican “never Trumper” officials contrived to steal the election from Trump whom he claims garnered a full 70% of the popular vote. Just a month ago, Wood claimed that SCOTUS Chief Justice John Roberts was involved in the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, that Roberts was a child trafficker, and that Jeffrey Epstein—who he says is still alive—can confirm all of these facts. After January 6th, when Vice President Pence certified the election results, Wood called him a child molester and called for his execution. (These comments have since been removed by Parler where they were posted.)

Why do I have to even mention these formerly fringe lunatics? Because the President of the United States listens to these dangerous fools. He believes them, encourages them, and supports them. And that fact alone is incredibly scary.

No evidence was ever presented to any court in any state that even remotely approached proof or even that of the low bar of reasonable doubt of voter fraud or election tampering. Zero credible evidence–not a shred–was ever presented, despite the pompous blustering of Trump’s high-priced legal eagles. The Supreme Court went so far as to refuse to even hear the cases, so lacking in merit that they were. In a 7-2 decision nonetheless, where the two dissenting judges, Thomas and Alito only dissented because they thought the case should have at least been allowed to be filed. Even in their dissent, they stated they would have rejected the claims and granted no relief had they heard the arguments. It was a resounding defeat of epic proportions. And this from the most conservative SCOTUS in more than 70 years!

And still, Trump carried on, shouting from every virtual and electronic rooftop that he had been wronged and defrauded, that he had won the election “by a landslide,” and that the Democrats had stolen it from him. He tweeted the following after the Supreme Court decision:

“The Supreme Court really let us down. No Wisdom! No Courage!”

Tweet after Tweet after Tweet followed, with Trump begging anybody to act illegally and find a way to overturn the results of the election. Vicious attacks against former supporters followed, and he continued his Twitter rampage by making hundreds of unfounded accusations and by repeatedly, maliciously, and intentionally lying over and over and over to the American people and to his supporters.

And, many of them started to believe it all.

If you’re one of those who fell for his con, it’s okay. It’s kind of hard to blame you. Many of you believe that Trump was anointed by God, and that his victory was actually prophesied. And if that’s true, then how else could he have lost other than the devil stepping in to interfere? The devil in this case is, of course, the Democrats. If you think I’m maybe just talking about a few fringe right-wing lunatics, I’m sorry to inform you that this is a movement in the Right that is frighteningly large, and growing. People like Anna Khait with 300,000 Twitter followers, Matt Couch with 500,000, and Jack Posobiec with over a million are preaching this and other far right nonsense to their wide audiences. Anna Khait, as I write this today, has just indicated that Trump is STILL GOING TO WIN THE ELECTION AND BE INAUGURATED TOMORROW BECAUSE GOD HAS DECLARED THIS TO BE A CERTAINTY! Her tweets have had tens of thousands of likes and thousands of retweets reaching many times her actual Twitter follower count. (Which dropped by about 50,000 after the Twitter purges last week.) Memes and images like this one are making the rounds of Twitter, being shared and retweeted over and over:

The very idea that Donald Trump is such a paragon of virtue that he is God’s chosen representative to lead the United States for two terms is so beyond comprehension that it leaves me flabbergasted. Donald Trump is, in the words of Sam Harris, “a walking bundle of sin and gore.” He’s uncouth, immoral, vain, arrogant, and a dozen other adjectives that embody the very definition of sinner. How he became the true north of the Far Right will be forever beyond my grasp.

I’ve often been worried that by voting for Democrats I’m aligning myself with the party that contains what I’ve always considered to be the most dangerous fringe group in the country, the Radical Left. People like Representative AOC who claimed that looters during the BLM riots simply wanted loaves of bread to feed their families, and Representative Ayanna Pressley who claimed that GOP congressmen who didn’t wear a mask were committing chemical warfare. The party of those who believe in diversity of all types save opinion, where intolerance reigns supreme and Cancel Culture via Critical Race Theory is the guiding light. The party that gave power to the fringe and fraudulent group, Black Lives Matter, and gave Antifa permission to rouse the rioters. The party that was just fine with mob violence until it arrived on their doorstep, spearheaded by conservatives. The party that has an insatiable appetite for division and violence—provided such violence meets its unilateral objectives. This element of the left is disgusting and frightening. However, after seeing the awakening and rising of the Quacks of the Fringe Right, I’m far more terrified of them. Raving lunatics like the attorney, Brian, who had tens of thousands of followers before Twitter finally yanked his account, who believed that Trump’s Space Force was going to activate a satellite on inauguration day and black out all communications so security forces could arrest every democrat in Washington D.C. are reigning disinformation upon feeble-minded conservatives, and they’re attracting followers in droves. QAnon and OAN driven fake news is being sourced by millions as of higher worth than true, legitimate news agencies.

These quacks of the far right are the truly scary ones. It would seem to be a no-brainer to disavow and suppress these people, yet mainstream Republicans have capitulated to them—and to their Supreme Leader, Donald Trump—at unfathomable levels.

It’s okay if you voted for Trump in 2016. It’s even okay if you voted for him in 2020, in spite of the woke telling you it’s not. We have reasons for voting the way we do. Maybe you didn’t like Joe Biden, or you believed he’s in cognitive decline. Maybe you’re sick of the left and their judgmental condemnations of all dissenting opinions. Maybe you’re afraid of leftist policies and higher taxes. If you voted for Trump, you had a reason, and that’s perfectly okay. But if you’re not at least a little bit relieved that he didn’t win, if you’re not at least a little bit glad that we won’t have an objectively dangerous and divisive lunatic at the head of the most powerful country on Earth, then you’re in a cult, unable to see through the fog that surrounds you.

Donald Trump has made a concerted effort to overthrow our democracy and burn our Constitution. There are reports that he had Oval Office meetings in the last few weeks where he considered declaring Martial Law in an effort to stop the Biden inauguration. His call to the State of Georgia trying to get them to find enough votes to give him a victory was almost certainly a violation of the law. His efforts to get Mike Pence to withhold certification of the votes in Congress, and his turning on Pence and calling him a coward when Pence refused to violate his constitutional mandate were reprehensible, unforgiveable, and beyond the pale. He is an insurrectionist by any definition of the term, and that alone is enough reason for us conservatives to band together in disgust and outrage and to disavow this man forever.

What do we stand for as Americans in our current environment? What do we stand for as conservatives, as Republicans, as decent humans with our current belief system? Trump has desecrated our entire system of government. He sent a mob to the Capitol armed with months of lies and misinformation. The sitting President of the United States inflamed a mob of his supporters and sent them storming down Constitution Avenue as insurrectionists to disrupt the democratic process and the certifying of the vote of an election that he lost. What does that say about our democracy? What does that say to the enemies and detractors of democracy in communist countries? What does it say to suppressed people globally who might one day wish to fight for their own freedom, and might look to democracy and to the United States as an answer?

On January 6th, a shirtless Viking, a tactical guerilla with a bundle of flex cuffs, an Auschwitz emblazoned cast-off from Orange County Choppers, and a Confederate flag-waving suppressionist stalked the hallowed halls of the seat of our democracy hunting down the Vice President of the United States and the Speaker of the House of Representatives like some crazed, Stephen King inspired, dystopian version of The Village People, and the President of the United States implicitly and explicitly encouraged and supported this. You can sit and rightfully make claims of the left’s hypocrisy, but you can’t compare these acts to the degeneration of a BLM protest that resulted in the looting and burning of retail stores. This was completely different. This was an inspired, driven, and meticulously planned assault on our democracy and our constitution. This was an act of insurrection. It was an act of war, perpetrated on the American people by the President of the United States.

This was premeditated in every definition of the word. For years, Trump had refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. On at least half a dozen occasions he flat-out said that the only way he could lose the election of 2020 would be through fraud. He verbally freerolled his way to this result in a meticulously planned operation. He knew that his words held power and sway over his legion of cultists in a way perhaps never before seen in the history of our democracy. And he never backed down, he never swayed in his insistency that it was impossible for him to lose legitimately despite losing every court case. The court record alone is a thoroughly resounding quashing of any insinuation of fraud and impropriety, and yet, his cult remains entranced by his lies, his deceit, and his rhetoric. If you think that Twitter was wrong to revoke the platform he used to inspire this insurrectionist, seditious mob of lunatics, then you’re just not thinking this through. With tens of millions of rabid followers who believe his every word, many of whom are knowingly deranged, he has intentionally destabilized our society for years now. Trump used Twitter to summon a mob of his followers to Washington D.C. on January 6th, and then he inflamed them and turned them loose. The ramifications of Trump’s continued access to such a powerful platform are unthinkably severe.

The lies that Trump has disseminated and the poison that he has spread will long outlive him. Trump is maybe the kind of guy you want to hang out with. Have at your hunting camp. Shoot a game of pool and drink whiskey with. Have over to your private island filled with underage girls. He’s Bill Clinton after a traumatic brain injury. But there has never been a man so ill-suited to serve as President of the United States.

According to this new poll by the Pew Research Center, 57% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters want to see Trump remain a major political figure for many years to come. You have got to be out of your mind, Republicans. Whatever level of conviction you’re going to hold to your values, it has to be clear at this point that Trump is not the standard-bearer of your way of life. Unless you’re a billionaire who wants to play golf 250 days a year, Donald Trump cannot be the man to whom you will pin your hopes, your dreams, and your future. He will be the death of the Republican party, and like an apocalyptic King Midas, anything he touches will be forever inundated with his putrid stank.

We should want Trump to be convicted in his upcoming Senate impeachment trial. Otherwise he will permanently rend apart the Republican party. Should he run again in 2024 and lose in the primaries, there is literally nothing in the history of his life, or his term in office that would indicate he will take that loss gracefully and fade silently into the night. Among allegations of further voter fraud and tampering by the RNC, he will surely splinter the GOP and strike out as an independent, a move that will assure a fractured base of conservatives for decades to come. The future of the Republican party depends on Trump disappearing from the limelight forever.

Conservatives created the monster that is Donald Trump. And then we lost control of that monster. We have been manipulated by a madman, a cretin of the most vile kind. It’s up to us to reign him in by disavowing him, by admitting that we were wrong, and by accepting the punishment that is Democratic governance of our country for the foreseeable future. We took our chance, loaded up on the pass line, and rolled snake eyes. And now, the marker has come due, and it’s time to pay it with a smile on our faces. Tomorrow, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. Donald Trump will be at his home in Florida when it happens, his petty, petulant vindictiveness shining through brightly in his refusal to meet Biden at the White House and welcome him to his new home like tradition and civility demands. Trump is a disgusting human being, and it’s time we rise up and make sure that America knows that we acknowledge it.

Our country is shattered. Our division has never been wider. It’s up to us to bring it back. On our current trajectory, we are headed toward civil war, and that serves no greater good.

A case for invoking the 25th amendment

In the early afternoon hours of December 23rd, 2020, President Trump held a meeting in the Oval Office with Vice President Mike Pence. The meeting lasted for just over an hour and, shortly thereafter, President Trump departed the White House to head to Florida for the holidays. What was said in that private shadowy meeting is unknown, but it’s not too difficult to speculate on the nature of what could have been so vital for Trump to have spent the hour prior to his vacation in a hastily convened and unscheduled meeting with the vice president. After all, the president had been almost maniacally focused for the past two months on absolutely nothing but overturning the results of the election.

Whatever was discussed between the two during that long meeting, and whether or not Trump spent that hour pressuring Mike Pence to engineer a coup, only the vice president knows, however, we do know that shortly after that meeting Trump became focused on the path to victory running through Mike Pence’s role as President of the Senate. Trump’s earlier efforts that included scores of court challenges in numerous states had failed. So had his seditious call with Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia Secretary of State, the audio of which was recorded and publicly released. (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/03/us/politics/trump-raffensperger-georgia-call-transcript.html)

Aboard Air Force One, just after his meeting with Pence, Trump retweeted a message from one of his supporters—since deleted—stating that Pence had the power to unilaterally refuse to certify the electoral college results. At a rally in Georgia on January 3rd, Trump gave the following comments:

“I hope Mike Pence comes through for us, I have to tell you. I hope that our great vice president, our great vice president comes through for us. He’s a great guy, because if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much.”

Trump continuously pressured Pence to act during his more than 75-minute speech to his crowd of supporters, saying, “If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election. All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify and we become president and you are the happiest people.” He later stated it again: “Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us. And if he doesn’t, it’s a sad day for our country.”

He also, of course, sent several implicit Tweets with the same desperate and extreme pressuring message:

Trump’s statements and the underlying threats, both implied and explicit, and likely the long meeting in the Oval Office clearly resulted in the vice president holding deep and ponderous meetings with his staff and attorneys. On January 6th, just moments before calling the joint session of congress to order to begin the certification process, Pence released this three-page letter to his fellow lawmakers: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/read-pences-full-letter-saying-he-cant-claim-unilateral-authority-to-reject-electoral-votes I’ve pulled a few of the relevant passages from the letter where Pence clearly implies that he was pressured by Trump to act unilaterally and illegally:

“Vesting the Vice President with unilateral authority to decide presidential contests would be entirely antithetical to that design. As a student of history who loves the Constitution and reveres its Framers, I do not believe that the Founders of our country intended to invest the Vice President with unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted during the Joint Session of Congress, and no Vice President in American history has ever asserted such authority…It is my considered judgement that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not…Four years ago, surrounded by my family, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which ended with the words, “So help me God.” Today I want to assure the American people that I will keep the oath I made to them and I will keep the oath I made to the Almighty God. When the Joint Session of Congress convenes today, I will do my duty to see to it that we open the certificates of the Electors of the several states, we hear objections raised by Senators and Representatives, and we count the votes of the Electoral College for President and Vice President in a manner consistent with our Constitution, laws, and history. So Help Me God.”

What drives the Vice President of the United States to pen a letter such as this one, a letter no vice president in the history of our country has ever felt a need to write? Again, we can only speculate, but you’d have to be a complete moron to think that Pence’s motivation was anything but a response to the considerable pressure being applied from above.

Shortly after the Vice President gave his speech and opened proceedings and the letter to congress was made public, Trump tweeted the following:

“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”

Trump then, in a petulant, revenge-driven storm of anger and pettiness, proceeded to ban Mike Pence’s Chief of Staff, Marc Short from stepping foot into the West Wing. Twitter has since deleted the above Tweet, claiming that it was used to incite violence, namely the angry mob that stormed down Constitution Avenue and breached the Capitol—something that hasn’t been done since the British army managed it in 1814—in an attempt to halt the constitutional process and to forcibly interfere in our revered democracy, rioting and causing destruction that resulted in one rioter being trampled to death and another being killed by the Capitol Police.

And this death and destruction lies at the feet of the President of the United States, who urged this angry mob forward on their mission with a speech outside the White House minutes before.

“We are going to walk down…to the Capitol…You’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength, you have to be strong.”

Trump shoved these protestors—minions and puppets whom he has been inflaming for the last two months by plying them with lies about treachery, theft, and deceit in the election—down the street to the Capitol, inciting them into a mob and turning them into insurgents before their march toward their destiny with death and destruction.

Even afterwards, when Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and even the previously ardent Trump supporter, Lindsay Graham were hastily distancing themselves from the mayhem of this horror of a presidency, denouncing the actions of Trump and the mob, and world leaders were issuing statements of outrage and disgust, Trump still couldn’t find it in himself to show even a reflection of remorse. He gave a televised statement outside the White House urging the protestors to quit and to go home, ending it with a message that he feels their pain, that the election was fraudulent. “Go home. We love you. You’re very special. I know how you feel.” This was in stark contrast to his message to rioters from this summer whom he called “dangerous scum” and upon whom he urged the Justice Department to convict with mandatory sentences of ten years in prison. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sma-oAJv91o

Former presidents leant their voices in disgust of the deplorable mayhem orchestrated by their successor. Obama said, “History will rightly remember today’s violence at the Capitol, incited by a sitting president who has continued to baselessly lie about the outcome of a lawful election, as a moment of great dishonor and shame for our nation. But we’d be kidding ourselves if we treated it as a total surprise.”

George W. Bush, the only living former Republican president showed his disgust as well: “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic…I am appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election and by the lack of respect shown today for our institutions, our traditions, and our law enforcement. The violent assault on the Capitol — and disruption of a Constitutionally-mandated meeting of Congress — was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes.”

Since his reckless and seditious actions, and the subsequent banning by Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram of his ability to post, Trump’s administration seems to be falling apart. Trump’s aide, Dan Scavino, had to send a message via Twitter from the president in the very early hours of this morning, a Tweet that wasn’t even sent from his public account, but rather from his personal account. White House staffers were caught off-guard, completely unaware of the statement that Trump had made through Scavino.

The President of the United States pressured his vice president to subvert our democracy and orchestrate an illegal coup to overturn the results of a fair and free election. When that didn’t work, he gathered an army of supporters, incited them into an angry mob, and sent them marching down Constitution Avenue in a seditious and riotous horde. These actions are treasonous and deplorable, and although the proof of Trump’s criminal malfeasance may not be enough for a court of law, the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming, and that is maddening and terrifying.

Luckily, the constitution doesn’t require proof in a court of law. Mike Pence needs only suspect Donald Trump of perpetrating these crimes. And Pence has the lawful authority vested by the Constitution to act on these suspicions.

The 25th amendment provides for the president to be removed from power. Although the 25th amendment has been invoked several times in the history of our country, most recently by George W. Bush on two occasions when he was undergoing a surgical procedure, section four of the amendment has never been invoked.  Section four of the 25th amendment reads as follows:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

Section four requires only that the vice president and the majority of the president’s cabinet (currently 15 members, pending resignations that are coming fast and furious as the inner circle flees the floundering ship) to agree that the president is unfit to lead. If Mike Pence can convince just eight cabinet members that Trump isn’t fit to serve the remainder of his term, they need only deliver a signed letter stating that to the President pro tempore of the Senate (currently Chuck Grassley) and the Speaker of the House (currently Nancy Pelosi), and the vice president is immediately vested with the power of the presidency.

That’s it.

Trump can fight it, but the Senate wouldn’t even have to hold a vote. They have 21 days to even assemble and vote on the matter, and by that time, Biden will have been inaugurated and Pence will have turned over the reins of power.

President Trump was the architect and orchestrator of one of the most notorious days in the history of our country. It’s time for Mike Pence and the Trump cabinet to step forward and take a stand. It’s time for them to say enough is enough.

It’s time to invoke section four of the twenty-fifth amendment.

Book Review – A Promised Land by Barack Obama

In A Promised Land, the first volume of his highly anticipated presidential memoirs, Barack Obama provides a sweeping and vivid portrait of his life leading up to his entry into politics as an Illinois State Senator, and concluding in the midst of the third year of his presidency with Operation Neptune’s Spear, the mission to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. Mercifully, the memoir spends very little time on his early life, a mistake often made by long-winded memoirists who tend to reflect on their early years with something approaching myopic nostalgia. Obama limits the story of his early years to just a few pages, a mere setup to a long-lingering questioning of his early and murky career motives and the true objective of his decisions during that time. He quickly moves to his decision to run for office, first in the Illinois state senate, then rapidly to the U.S. Senate, followed by his run for the presidency. All along the way, he seems surprisingly and somewhat comfortingly irresolute, a shocking admission for a career politician. He also reflects on how Washington changes a person, worrying about being drawn into the muck of politics:

I questioned what might happen to me the longer I stayed in Washington, the more embedded and comfortable I became. I saw now how it could happen—how the incrementalism and decorum, the endless positioning for the next election, and the groupthink of cable news panels all conspired to chip away at your best instincts and wear down your independence, until whatever you once believed was utterly lost.  

Throughout the book, Barack Obama shows some real insight into his thoughts on partisanship. When reflecting on one of the big scandals of his election run where, in regard to why working class voters tend to elect Republicans, he made the comment, “So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” He expresses a deep desire to recant that sentence and replace it with what he claims were his actual convictions as below:

“So it’s not surprising then that they get frustrated,” I would say in my revised version, “and they look to the traditions and way of life that have been constants in their lives, whether it’s their faith, or hunting, or blue-collar work, or more traditional notions of family and community. And when Republicans tell them we Democrats despise these things—or when we give these folks reason to believe that we do—then the best policies in the world don’t matter to them.”

Although this is obviously the rumination of a man who’s had a long opportunity to reflect on his mistakes, this comes across as earnest and believable. Obama’s writing seems to convey a true and pure desire to be a solid and equitable president who brings the country together. Although I had plenty of problems with his decisions and actions while he was president, when he reflects on many of those decisions, his earnestness is unambiguous and authentic, his motives plausibly benign.

I voted for Obama in 2008, only the second time I had ever voted for a Democrat for president. (Clinton in 1996 was the first.) I didn’t vote for Obama because of his policies, or because of his messaging, both of which I mostly disagreed with at the time. I also didn’t vote for him because of his charisma or his oratory skills, or because of his message of “Hope.” In fact, I didn’t even vote for him again in 2012, choosing to return to my right-leaning views and vote for Mitt Romney. In 2008, I liked John McCain, and I thought that McCain would make a much better president than Barack Obama. And yet, I voted for Obama for one reason: Sarah Palin. Obama himself shares some interesting insight into the drama within his own campaign on hearing the news that McCain had chosen Palin, starting with Joe Biden turning to him and saying, “Who the hell is Sarah Palin?” After a deep dive by his team into her biography and background, Obama says this:

But from the day McCain chose her and through the heights of Palin-mania, I felt certain the decision would not serve him well. For all of Palin’s performative gifts, a vice president’s most important qualification was the ability, if necessary, to assume the presidency. Given John’s age and history of melanoma, this wasn’t an idle concern. And what became abundantly clear as soon as Sarah Palin stepped into the spotlight was that on just about every subject relevant to governing the country she had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about. The financial system. The Supreme Court. The Russian invasion of Georgia. It didn’t matter what the topic was or what form the question took—the Alaskan governor appeared lost, stringing words together like a kid trying to bluff her way through a test for which she had failed to study.

Although this is an easy thing to state after the fact, I have to believe and agree with his assessment. This is after all the primary reason why I chose to vote for the candidate I felt at the time was the worst of the two choices.

The book goes through the campaign and the race at a good pace, and he doesn’t dwell for too long on the election itself, getting quickly into the meat of his first year in office and the complex and challenging problems he inherited with a country and a world immersed in a financial crisis not seen since the Great Depression. Although both the House and the Senate were controlled by the Democrats, the Senate’s somewhat recent fixation and enthusiasm for the Filibuster made futile and exasperating his attempts at meaningful legislation. He spends a great deal of time reflecting on the confrontational nature of the Republican caucus toward any legislation put forth by his administration:

You might think that for a political party that had just suffered two cycles of resounding defeat, the GOP strategy of pugnacious, all-out obstruction would carry big risks. And during a time of genuine crisis, it sure wasn’t responsible.

But if, like McConnell and Boehner, your primary concern was clawing your way back to power, recent history suggested that such a strategy made sense. For all their talk about wanting politicians to get along, American voters rarely reward the opposition for cooperating with the governing party.

He goes into a short history lesson of the failures of both parties to win the house or senate via cooperation with the president through the last twenty years or so, a real but depressing look into how our government actually functions, with bitter infighting and iron-grip partisanship that puts personal power objectives well in front of the good of the country. Although he complains about this on numerous occasions, disappointingly he doesn’t cast blame on his own party for their own commensurate tactics with his Republican predecessors, nor does he offer a mediated solution to such deliberately damaging and abhorrent strategies. Admittedly, such a solution may be non-existent beyond congressional term-limits, which seems to be yet another idea that most Americans desire but will never be realized.  

The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 caused by the sub-prime mortgage bubble was Obama’s immersion in fire, and it was a doozy, a real threat of an global economic depression that consumed the first part of his presidency. To this day, his administration’s handling of that crisis is still fiercely debated but, regardless of choices he could have made differently, there’s no doubt that his decisions did work in the end, and the U.S. banking industry certainly stabilized much quicker than any of its counterparts around the world. Obama certainly spends some time reflecting on what choices he could have made differently, as he states:

For many thoughtful critics, though, the fact that I had engineered a return to pre-crisis normalcy is precisely the problem—a missed opportunity, if not a flat-out betrayal. According to this view, the financial crisis offered me a once-in-a-generation chance to reset the standards for normalcy, remaking not just the financial system but the American economy overall. If only I had broken up the big banks and sent some white-collar culprits to jail; if only I had put an end to outsized pay packages and Wall Street’s heads-I-win, tails-you-lose culture, then maybe today we’d have a more equitable system that served the interests of working families rather than a handful of billionaires.

I understand such frustrations. In many ways, I share them. To this day, I survey reports of America’s escalating inequality, its reduced upward mobility and still-stagnant wages, with all the consequent anger and distortions such trends stir in our democracy, and I wonder whether I should have been bolder in those early months, willing to exact more economic pain in the short term in pursuit of a permanently altered and more just economic order.

The thought nags at me. And yet even if it were possible for me to go back in time and get a do-over, I can’t say that I would make different choices.

I’m not qualified to judge the choices he made during this crisis—I’ll let the economists do that—but his insight into the thoughts that went behind those decisions is interesting, and his reasoning is certainly compelling.

Obama adds just a small amount of humor to the book, such as this statement about German Chancellor, Angela Merkel:

She was famously suspicious of emotional outbursts or overblown rhetoric, and her team would later confess that she’d been initially skeptical of me precisely because of my oratorical skills. I took no offense, figuring that in a German leader, an aversion to possible demagoguery was probably a healthy thing.

Obama also does a great job of describing and recognizing the bubble in which the American president sits, and his efforts to expand that bubble, from his visits to military hospitals or his attendance at the solemn return and transfer of American soldiers’ remains in an effort to understand the true cost of war, to his meeting with fifteen top American bankers during the financial crisis in an effort to understand their points of view, to his order to his Chief of Staff, Rahm, to have ten letters a day from citizens, good and bad, sent to him to read and reply to. He discusses his desire to take action on numerous occasions, desire that is tempered by his advisors, all of who’s expertise he respected and heeded. When talking about the Iranian revolts, the “Green Movement” of 2009 that posed one of the most significant challenges to the Islamic Republic in recent history, he stews over the merciless recriminations enacted by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Publicly, he gives a series of bland, bureaucratic statements like, “We continue to monitor the entire situation closely,” but privately he balked at such passive action:

As the violence escalated, so did my condemnation. Still, such a passive approach didn’t sit well with me—and not just because I had to listen to Republicans howl that I was coddling a murderous regime. I was learning yet another difficult lesson about the presidency: that my heart was now chained to strategic considerations and tactical analysis, my convictions subject to counterintuitive arguments; that in the most powerful office on earth, I had less freedom to say what I meant and act on what I felt than I’d had as a senator—or as an ordinary citizen disgusted by the sight of a young woman gunned down by her own government.

He also talks about the requisite tempering of his own ambitions and expectations with policy:

The presidency changes your time horizons. Rarely do your efforts bear fruit right away; the scale of most problems coming across your desk is too big for that, the factors at play too varied. You learn to measure progress in smaller steps—each of which may take months to accomplish, none of which merit much public notice—and to reconcile yourself to the knowledge that your ultimate goal, if ever achieved, may take a year or two or even a full term to realize. Nowhere is this truer than in the conduct of foreign policy.

Although he doesn’t spend much more time on that concept, I can only imagine the frustration that someone with the temperament to run for the office of President of the United States must feel as such chafing and arduous delays. For example, the book ends shortly after the killing of Osama bin Laden, and Obama talks about the intelligence that led to the discovery of OBL’s hideout in Pakistan. That information was brought to him six months before Operation Neptune’s Spear was executed, and it’s hard to imagine learning that information and then compartmentalizing it for six months while it’s confirmed and a mission is drawn up. I have a hard time waiting a week or two for something I’m personally excited about like a vacation or a holiday, and the effort to control a natural impulsiveness to immediately take action regarding something as dramatic as intelligence that might lead to the execution or capture of bin Laden seems Herculean.

Some of Obama’s candor and the bluntness with which he approaches his problems come through clearly in the opening of chapter 22:

It’s in the nature of politics, and certainly the presidency, to go through rough patches—times when, because of a boneheaded mistake, an unforeseen circumstance, a sound but unpopular decision, or a failure to communicate, the headlines turn sour and the public finds you wanting. Usually this lasts for a couple of weeks, maybe a month, before the press loses interest in smacking you around, either because you fixed the problem, or you expressed contrition, or you chalked up a win, or something deemed more important pushes you off the front page.

If the rough patch lasts long enough though, you may find yourself in a dreaded situation in which problems compound, then congeal into a broader narrative about you and your presidency. The negative stories don’t let up, which leads to a drop in your popularity. Your political adversaries, smelling blood in the water, go after you harder, and allies aren’t as quick to defend you. The press starts digging for additional problems in your administration, to confirm the impression that you’re in political trouble. Until—like the daredevils and fools of old at Niagara Falls—you find yourself trapped in the proverbial barrel, tumbling through the crashing waters, bruised and disoriented, no longer sure which way is up, powerless to arrest your descent, waiting to hit bottom and hoping, without evidence, that you’ll survive the impact.

For most of my second year in office, we were in the barrel.

Obama’s team decides to arrest this descent into oblivion by pushing for Wall Street reform, culminating in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, legislation that should have been completely bi-partisan, but because of what Obama claims was Republican obstinance toward anything he supported, was only able to clear Congress when Mitch McConnell secretly conveyed to him that he would allow the act to barely pass, their obstructionism working well for them and in full force. Once again, Obama takes the opportunity to disparage, or at least to show his frustration with Republicans and their backroom deals and insincere approach to political gamesmanship without acknowledging that this is a massive problem on both sides of the aisle, the muck and the “swamp” that would culminate in the election of Donald Trump eight years later.

The book goes through the Deepwater Horizon incident, unrest in the middle east, the Arab Spring uprisings, our military intervention as part of the UN operation against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, and Obama’s interactions with Russian puppet president Medvedev and his string-puller Putin. All of this is well-written, insightful, and a fascinating look behind the scenes that kept me mostly spellbound. Obama is not shy about self-criticism and acknowledgement of his own failings and errors throughout those early years of his presidency, and the humility is refreshing, gratifying, and relatable. He even reflects on the meaning of any of the choices he might have made with this statement toward the conclusion of the book:

Looking back, I sometimes ponder the age-old question of how much difference the particular characteristics of individual leaders make in the sweep of history—whether those of us who rise to power are mere conduits for the deep, relentless currents of the times or whether we’re at least partly the authors of what’s to come. I wonder whether our insecurities and our hopes, our childhood traumas or memories of unexpected kindness carry as much force as any technological shift or socioeconomic trend.

This type of reflection is sporadically inserted throughout the book, the genuine thoughts of a man who had a clear, altruistic vision of what he wanted to accomplish as president. Whether he succeeded with this mission is certainly up for debate, but his motives are unquestionably not.

A Promised Land was an enjoyable and enlightening read, and I highly recommend it. Although I was disappointed that it ended prior to what I feel was one of the biggest failures of his administration—Benghazi—I certainly understand the desire to end the book on a high note with the killing of Osama bin Laden. I’m eagerly looking forward to a similar level of authenticity and verisimilitude in volume two, hopefully sometime in the near future!

Trump’s subversion of our democracy

There is an account on Twitter that has millions of followers, and that, since the election, has sent out 355 Tweets and Retweets regarding the election — more than twenty per day, or nearly one per hour. Of those 355 Tweets and Retweets, more than 200 of them insinuate or flat-out declare that the election was rigged or fraudulent. Victory for President Trump has been declared more than twenty times, about once per day, and these Tweets have been censured and blocked by Twitter on more than a dozen occasions for distribution of false information.

Whose Twitter account is it?

You’ve probably guessed. President Donald Trump’s, of course.

The first Tweet that Donald Trump sent out following the close of the polls on election day came at 12:45 a.m. on election night, and it read this:

“I will be making a statement tonight. A big WIN!”

Four minutes later, at 12:49 a.m., he sent out this Tweet:

“We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!”

It’s not that this should have been a surprise to anybody. Despite what has become a clear victory for Joe Biden, Trump refuses to concede that he’s lost the election, turning to more and more frantic and dramatic assertions of fraud and theft. His allegations are fully in keeping with his declarations all along that he would be a victim of tremendous fraud and that he would not commit to a peaceful transfer of power. At a rally August 20th, in Pennsylvania, Trump declared:

“So, this is just a way they’re trying to steal the election, and everybody knows that. Because the only way they’re going to win is by a rigged election.”

At a rally September 13th, in Henderson, Nevada, Trump said this:

“The Democrats are trying to rig this election because that’s the only way they’re going to win.”

The harm that Trump is causing to America and our democracy is intentional and systematic. He is deliberately eroding American’s trust in our institutions through the spreading of lies, misinformation, and conspiracy theories. Trump is essentially a QAnon conspiracist spewing misinformation while he is the sitting President of the United States.

Let’s be clear about one thing: there is no widespread, significant voter fraud. There will probably be fraud on a greater scale in this election than ever before, but that is simply because more people voted in this election than ever before. The fact is, that our system doesn’t allow for the possibility for significant fraud to that extent claimed by a madman and his cult of lie-spewing sycophants.

Donald Trump is a charlatan. He’s an entertainer. He’s a conman. He has no interest in the health and viability of our democracy. He’s acting in bad faith by pretending that he’s the victim of massive election fraud when he himself doesn’t actually believe that. This stand allows him to walk away a winner in the eyes of his core supporter group.

He’s making a concerted effort to undermine our democracy, and the endgame is difficult to see. He may be attempting to hold on to power illegitimately. He may be setting up a future run at the presidency. He may be attempting to create a media conglomerate for the far right upon vacating the office. He may be simply fund-raising for the Republican party.

Trump hates to lose. He is incapable of admitting defeat, of admitting failure, of admitting he was wrong. He’s pathetically and irredeemably ego-centric. His casino bankruptcies were not failures at operating money printing machines, but just simply the best path forward in exploitation of the tax laws available to him. These actions he is taking are his only path to winning, and he set this entire scenario up months ago. In fact, he set up more than this attempt to subvert our democracy through claims of voter fraud, he also attempted to set up the potential path for him to not only win this election, but to earn an additional four years in 2024! Here are a couple of quotes from him where he lays out this path to a constitutional challenge of his term limits:

August 17 rally in Oshkosh, WI: “We are going to win four more years. And then after that, we’ll go for another four years because they spied on my campaign. We should get a redo of four years,” he said.

September 13 rally in Henderson, NV: “And 52 days from now we’re going to win Nevada, and we’re going to win four more years in the White House. And then after that, we’ll negotiate, right? Because we’re probably — based on the way we were treated — we are probably entitled to another four after that,” he said.

This behavior is illegal, it’s subversive, and it’s reprehensible, and those adjectives would describe behavior of this type from a normal person. I’m not sure the right adjectives to use when the sitting President of the United States makes statements of this nature. It’s totalitarian and dictatorial for a start, and downright terrifying as well.  

All I know is, as a voter who was marginally concerned about not voting for Trump, I can now say with certainty that I’m thankful I didn’t. The man’s actions these last three weeks have been a complete and utter embarrassment to our nation.

Let’s make one thing very clear here. Trump and his team know they lost the election. They are fully aware that they’ve been beat, and by a pretty clear margin. In fact, when the dust finally settles, the numbers will make this appear to have been an electoral landslide for Biden. It wasn’t, and we know just how close some of the key state races were, but the electoral vote is going to look like Biden won handily. So, since Trump is a massively egocentric narcissist, his only path forward is to try to subvert our democracy and hold on to power. His team marches out their puppets, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell to spew forth a random string of never-ending conspiracy theory buzz words that would give a QAnon Tweet writer a hard-on.

Here’s a Tweet from Sidney Powell, a raging conspiracist and QAnon supporter who is also one of Trump’s attorneys: – “We are not going to be intimidated. We are not going to back down. We are going to clean this mess up. President Trump won by a landslide and we are going to prove it. We are going to reclaim the United States of America.”

Sidney is sticking to her word and not backing down either, not even with the Trump legal team running a resounding 0 for 30 on their court challenges in the various states they are claiming they lost due to fraud. Less than a week ago, (November 14th) on Lou Dobbs, Sidney claimed to have a mountain of evidence that would be a bombshell that would wreck the Biden team. She said that she couldn’t wait to, “Release the kraken.” Here’s the clip if you’d like to take a listen: https://youtu.be/SFCXPw1t17o?t=401

This entire mess is dangerous, it’s intentional, and it really probably falls into the category of seditious. Although Trump has every right to challenge the results of the election in court, and although he has every right to decide to not concede the election, his actions are not those of a man who has any desire whatsoever to protect our democracy at the risk of a hit to his own personal ego. Trump has become a deranged maniac who currently, and for the next 60 days, sits in the most powerful seat in the world.

And this is a problem of epic proportions.

How the Liberal Left created Donald Trump.

In the novel, Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko, we meet Anton Gorodetsky, an agent for the Light, the powers of good who patrol the streets of Moscow during the darkness to combat the forces of Dark. Lukyanenko spends a lot of time describing a concept of a balance of power between good and evil. In the novel, a motley collection of magicians, shape-shifters, werewolves, and vampires on both sides of the line between good and evil try to maintain and preserve that balance in keeping with an ancient treaty between the forces of Light and Dark. The main character, Anton, is a magician in the titular Night Watch, responsible for keeping the forces of evil at bay through the long, cold Moscow nights. Despite the treaty that demands balance, each side consistently searches for loopholes that will allow them to gain an upper hand against the other. When the strength of one side threatens to shift the balance of power, an unknown, magical and omnipotent force creates a powerful character on the other side called a “mirror” designed to shift the balance of power back to the center.

If you’re a Democrat, you probably think that Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren are like the guardians of the Night Watch, responsible for keeping the forces of evil at bay. In your version of this story, Donald Trump and his “basket of deplorables,” the red hat wearing, flag waving, bible thumping, big truck driving, MAGA crowd would be the evil characters, the Others who seek to do harm and create chaos. And, if you’re a Republican, you likely think that Trump is like the leader of the Night Watch, a good, pious man whose sole mission is to fight the evil ambitions of AOC, Crazy Nancy, Hidin’ Joe Biden, Pocahontas, and the rest of the lazy, capricious, “Do Nothin’ Democrats” who want nothing more than to undermine your proud democracy, give everybody everything for free, and thrust us all into a Socialist state.

When Barack Obama beat John McCain in the presidential election of 2008, for many Republicans, this was their worst nightmare. In their view, Obama was a black man with unknown, uncertain qualities who very well might erode the foundation of everything they stood for. He was a Muslim who would seek to bring down Christianity and in fact, his birth country and eligibility to even run for the presidency was in serious doubt. He was weak, and not only wouldn’t stand up to terrorism, he likely secretly sympathized with their cause. All of this in addition to the fact that he was a liberal Democrat who planned to take away their guns, open the borders to foreigners who would seek to change the official language of America from English to Spanish, or maybe Arabic, install free abortion clinics next to the Chick-Fil-A on every other corner, and remove God from their currency and Jesus from their hearts. From the perspective of many Republicans, it’s maybe not a surprise that Obama was considered to be the anti-Christ.

Donald Trump was, if not the first, then definitely one of the most prominent and vocal proponents of the “Birther” movement that sought to question the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate and his eligibility for the office. Trump was quickly elevated to hero status to the masses of Republicans centered in the south, the bible belt foundationalists who not only created and enforced “Blue Laws,” but fervently believed in the moral righteousness of their purpose.

As Trump became more and more vocal with his criticism of Obama and his policies, liberals sank further into the morass of woke liberalism in what seemed to become a competition to prove who could be the most enlightened, least racist person in America. Every single issue, every single statement, every single cause became about racism, and sexism, and transphobia, and homophobia. Liberals could no longer hold back their disdain and contempt for the right, for conservatives who wanted to be left alone and in peace to worship their God, hunt for their food, and to protect the sanctity of marriage. As conservatives dug in their heals and pushed back against the ideals of their woke enemies, liberals pushed even harder, insisting that gender was fluid, that early assignation of gender identity was tantamount to child abuse, and that even a hint of Obama critique was racially motivated and driven. As the left stiffened their backs and refused to budge, Trump’s following became even larger, his calls to patriotism more ardent and more persuasive. This resulted in further scorn from the left, further arrogance, unrepentant derision toward anybody who would question the things they knew to be true, all culminating in the now infamous statement from Hillary Clinton about Trump’s “basket of deplorables,” one of the most conceited, divisive, insulting, ill-advised statements ever made by a presidential candidate in reference to nearly half of the electorate.

And, all of this widened the gulf even further, creating a vast chasm of indeterminate depth, a colossal gap that seems unbridgeable at this point in time.

There is nothing redeemable or laudable about Donald Trump. And yet, nearly half the country loves him. Despite what was arguably one of the worst, most contentious, most divisive first terms in presidential history, by the time the counting is done he will have received more votes than any president running for re-election has ever received, and somewhere north of 49% of all voters will have cast their ballot for Donald Trump. And why is that? How is that even possible?

This is a question that seems to have stumped the vast majority of intellectuals on the liberal left and has led them to believe that this country in general, and the middle to southern states in particular, are completely lost and unredeemable. They think (and often state) this with no regard to the further divide that this creates. Without thought to the idea that they themselves are the root cause of the divisiveness.

I voted for Donald Trump in 2016. I voted for him because I believed that the government needed a shakeup. I believed that a businessman would be good for the country. I believed that he would indeed drain the swamp that folks on both sides of the aisle agree has become a despairingly wretched ocean of putrefaction. Unfortunately, President Trump did none of the things I hoped he would do. He divided instead of healed. He showed himself to be a person of low intellect who was filled with hatred, vindictiveness, and a complete lack of social civility. His stratospheric ego and his utter disdain for dissenting opinion combined with his actual power as President of the United States was a real danger to humanity on a global scale. His arrogance, his chronic, almost pathological lying, his charlatanic statements of his own worth and abilities made the United States a laughingstock. His unpresidential, callous, cruel, petty Tweets and statements at rallies were not just uncouth and embarrassing, but dangerous in this unstable world.

And, despite all of this, I nearly voted for him again in 2020. I didn’t, couldn’t actually bring myself to cast a vote for a man of his immoral stock, but I admit, I wanted to find a reason to do so. I was soul-searching and somewhat undecided up until just a few days before the election, in spite of scornful, derisive statements and Tweets from my friends on the left that it was impossible to be undecided at this point, and that, by extension, indecisiveness could only be indicative of racism, homophobia, or xenophobia.

Why was I indecisive and searching for a way to justify casting a vote for Donald Trump, a man I absolutely hate in his role as president? Man, what a good question. The answer to that question can be found in a brilliant podcast by Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, philosopher, and PhD. Here is an excerpt from his podcast, “Making Sense” episode #224, titled, “The Key to Trump’s Appeal.”

A significant part of Trump’s appeal is that he has flaws. Despicable flaws. Obvious, blatant flaws. Flaws of character that cross the spectrum of every aspect of character that we have a word for. He lacks virtue in nearly every aspect of life. While he demands loyalty, he’s an incredibly disloyal person. He’s a paragon of greed, narcissism, pettiness, and malice.

So, what is his appeal?

Trump can only be understood by comparing him with the messaging of his opponents on the liberal left.

One thing that Trump never communicates, and cannot possibly communicate, is a sense of his moral superiority. The man is totally without sanctimony. Even when his every utterance is purposed toward self-aggrandizement. Even when he appears to be denigrating his supporters. Even when he’s calling himself a genius, he is never actually communicating that he is better than you, more enlightened, more decent. Because he’s not, and everyone knows it. The man is just a bundle of sin and gore. And, he never pretends to be anything more. Perhaps more importantly, he never even aspires to be anything more. And, because of this…because he is never really judging you…he can’t possibly judge you, he offers a truly safe space for human frailty, and hypocrisy, and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer; a total expiation of shame. His personal shamelessness is a kind of spiritual balm.

Trump is fat Jesus. He’s “grab them by the pussy,” Jesus. He’s, “I’ll eat nothing but cheeseburgers if I want to,” Jesus. He’s, “I want to punch them in the face,” Jesus. He’s, “Go back to your shithole countries,” Jesus. He’s no apologies Jesus.

And now consider the other half of this image. What are we getting from the left? We’re getting exactly the opposite message. Pure sanctimony. Pure judgement. You are not good enough. You’re guilty not only for your own sins, but for the sins of your fathers. The crimes of slavery and colonialism are on your head. And if you’re a Cis, white, heterosexual male—which we know is the absolute core of Trump’s support—you’re a racist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, sexist barbarian. Tear down those statues and bend the fucking knee.

It’s the juxtaposition of those two messages that is so powerful.

President Donald Trump would have never been possible in the Ronald Reagan era of Republican politics. President Trump would have never been possible in the George H.W. Bush era, nor even in the George W. Bush era, and really not even as a result of the Bill Clinton era of democratic governance. President Trump became possible only because of the Barack Obama era. To be clearer, President Trump only became possible because of the rise of the far left.

Now, it might be asserted that racism and Islamophobia were the seeds of a Trump rise to power, and it’s at least credible that this is true. However, it was the actions of the far left, the sanctimonious, hubristic judgement that caused the right to rebel. It was the ridiculous revolution against capitalism, reason, and common sense that created Donald Trump. The fraudulent, malicious, opportunistic dogma of groups like Black Lives Matter and Antifa that led to Trump’s rise to power. The dangerous echo-chamber rantings and ravings of far-left Socialists like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that continue to instill fear into moderate conservatives and liberals alike that continues to give power to Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is a mirror. He’s the right’s answer to the far left. He’s the extremist that the right needs to combat the extremism of the social justice warriors.

Vindictive, belligerent, bullying, and petty. Who am I describing? Donald Trump, certainly, but also the far left. The vast majority of people in this country don’t agree with or even like ultra-liberalism. We don’t like Donald Trump but we have a hard time bringing ourselves to vote for those of you who align yourselves with those ideals. The reason that I almost voted for Donald Trump despite my hatred of that man in that office is because a vote for Biden meant aligning myself with those on the far-left. And that was despicable.

Defund the Police is killing the Democratic party. Black Lives Matter, Antifa, the riots, the rhetoric, the cancellation of anybody who says anything deemed racist, sexist, or whateveraphobic by those enlightened few is killing the Democratic party. Voters in the middle of the political spectrum have a very difficult time allowing people like this to take over the country. And that means that Donald Trump will continue to have power, even though he has lost this election. Unless Democrats recognize that Donald Trump is nothing but a mirror and that they need to tone down the far-left rhetoric, disavow themselves of those dangerous ideals, and separate the core of their party from that ridiculous nonsense and abhorrent behavior, then you can expect to see Trump or another of his ilk in 2024.

And centrists like myself might be forced to cast our vote that way. Because far-left liberalism is one of the most dangerous, most existential threats this country has ever faced. The current leaders of the Democratic party need to seize back control from the lunatics. Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Nancy Pelosi need to disavow the dangerous ideals being pushed by their compatriots or else they will once again lose to someone like Trump.

Sometimes we need a mirror to restore balance and sanity.