That time I almost died…

One sunny day not very long ago I found myself scheduled for a BFM flight. In these days of aging aircraft, such flights are rare indeed. Something about the heavy sustained G-forces and dynamic maneuvering strains the airframe, apparently…and when a certain strain threshold is reached, well, the nerdy engineer chaps say we can’t fly the airplane safely. Perhaps the wings will fall off. Or an engine will break from it’s mounting and depart the aircraft. Catastrophic failures like that would NOT be conducive to continued flight, so with much sighing and private gnashing of teeth we obey said engineers and only fly high-strain flights in order to be proficient for an impending battle. Should the worst happen, and all.

In any case, the world being what it is, the only really fun flights are those that strain the jets, so when it comes time to “maintain proficiency” by flying one, well, there are plenty of volunteers. I was among the lucky ones this time and so was quite excited for the day. There was, it seemed, an extra rich flavor in the squadron coffee, usually so vile. Instead of dragging on, the brief flew by while touching on old, well-learned lessons about how to handle one’s aircraft in the thick of the fight with an unyielding adversary. I couldn’t help dwelling on the glorious sunshine as I stepped from the squadron, my G-Suit, harness, and survival gear each attentively donned, tightened, and adjusted for comfort.

Takeoff, as usual, pressed me back in my seat with acceleration. As our flight of two climbed out into the achingly blue Southern California sky, we noted appreciatively the utter clarity of that day. No haze, no dust, no smog–just an unimpeded view in each direction. It was breathtaking.

And we were going to fight.

Our adversaries that day were F-5 aircraft from the Marine professional adversary squadron, the “Snipers.” A fighter much inferior to the Hornet in performance and avionics, it nevertheless had one significant advantage: the pilot. Sniper pilots have, on average, three thousand or more hours flying over something like fifteen years in the cockpit. They also practice fighting exclusively, being undistracted by other missions such air-to-ground sorties. And they fight Hornets a lot. All in all, our contest could be pretty evenly matched.

Which just made us more eager.

What fleet captain or major wouldn’t want to bring back gun footage of a hopelessly defensive senior adversary?

Checking into our working area, each of our two Hornets paired up with a Sniper and separated for individual fights. The setting was perfect. Farm fields and the Salton Sea below, clear blue sky above, the sun glowing in the south, and the air so clear that our Sniper’s camouflage paint job was nearly useless. We would shortly be locked in a close struggle, the proverbial “knife-fight in a phone booth” of two fighters so close in proximity that the slightest mistake could offer the other a chance to kill, and end the engagement.

There is something compelling about BFM. The acronym stands for “Basic Fighter Maneuvers” and applies to fights that occur with both opponents within visual range. Normally, of course, if we can deal with our enemies beyond visual range, so much the better. Even more so if we can kill them before they can kill us. But once we’re within visual range, all bets are off. It’s pure airmanship. Both players try to maneuver their aircraft through 3-dimensional space so as to be too close or in the wrong piece of sky for their enemy to shoot them, while simultaneously attempting to set up their own shot. Doing so requires careful–even delicate!–flying in order to get the most aerodynamic performance out of the jet; it also requires the strength to fight against the centrifugal forces of an airplane arcing through the sky, measured in units of gravitational force (Gs). At the Hornet’s limit of 7.5 Gs, every finger, limb, even our heads weigh 7.5 times their normal weight. Flipping switches, moving the stick and throttle, and especially moving one’s head around to keep eyes on your adversary become quite difficult. And there is the ever-present threat of the ground to worry about, too –flying into that will end the engagement as definitively as a missile shot.

What glorious combat! Our mettle as fighter aircrew at stake, we sweated and strained against the Gs as we sought to find, maneuver upon, and kill the enemy. The ultimate challenge, an airborne cage-match, and behind the pride and reckless fun lies the haunting knowledge that one day, just maybe, our lives will depend on these skills we practiced that day. Defeat, if it comes, is sobering and frustrating. Victory is sweet.

The propitious mood of the flight continued through our engagements. We fought three sets against our Sniper, getting the best of him each time. Then he called “min fuel” and headed for home. We cheerily confirmed we’d debrief after landing, and, flushed with exertion and success, we climbed up to watch our wingman. Him a newer guy, we had some friendly concern with how he’d handle his wily bandit. We were pleased, my pilot and I, to see him acquitting himself quite respectably. And when his opponent also bowed out for fuel reasons, we decided to have a fourth fight right then there–you know, just because we could. And it also went well (for us).

Hard to beat a day flying like that. One finds himself idly wondering who would be crazy enough to actually pay someone to have so much fun.

The flight back was easy as pie. In that weather, visibility extended beyond a hundred miles, so we had the field long before coming up approach. Gliding gracefully into the overhead break pattern back home in Miramar, I thought to myself, that was the perfect flight.

And it was.

But one in the flying business does not say that, even to him or herself, without feeling a suspicious twinge. And suddenly I remembered another seemingly perfect flight, scarce months earlier.

March 23, 2009 found me six days deep in Hawaii. Now, I was ever so happy to enjoy such an exotic spring break on the dime of the Marine Corps except for the fact that I was headed home from a six-month deployment just then. When we had attempted that task five days earlier, a fellow Hornet broke it’s refueling probe and had to return to Hawaii for repairs. It was my luck, of course, that the fellow Hornet’s wingman was my own, and so I found myself returning as well.

Which, the repairs being completed quickly, left us waiting on the Air Force.

Now the Hornet is designed for fighting and attacking. Highly maneuverable and passably fast (in the order of Mach 1+ and/or 800 kts), it achieves all this by being mostly wing, engine, and fuel tank. The engines are quite powerful (36,000 pounds of thrust total) and eat up the fuel at an alarming rate, even when the aircraft is just cruising. So in order to make it more than several hundreds of miles, much less the 2,300 miles of ocean separating us from home, we need to nurse at a Tanker.

And also you should know that the raison d’etre, partially, of the Air Force–specifically the Air Mobility Command–is to help military units deploy. For this purpose they own tankers, which carry required hundreds of thousand pounds of fuel required to see two Hornets across those 2,300 miles of ocean. But they like their banker’s hours in the Air Force. They do not move quickly, or easily deviate from their schedule. So we waited for them to task a tanker to us so we could finally return home.

Pleasant and relaxing as it was, Hawaii couldn’t quite make us forget our desire to get back. Though the presence of spring break tourists on Waikiki did dull the pain a bit. As did the nightlife.

But finally, on the morning of March 23, we sat looking at Honolulu and Diamondhead from the runways at Hickam Air Force Base, with a single KC-135 tanker already taken off and waiting for us airborne. The KC-135 is affectionately called “The Iron Maiden” by Hornet pilots because its refueling basket is a solid metal contraption, suspended from the end of the boom by an eight-foot hose. It’s weight makes it easy to hit with the refueling probe, but in order to get fuel, the pilot has to drive his airplane (with the basket on the probe) in towards the boom in order to create a 90-degree “knuckle” in the bearing connecting the hose and basket. When the “knuckle” rotated past 90 degrees, the valve opens to let fuel in. Pretty dicey work holding a heavy steel basket steady next to a solid airplane, it is. Add in windstream pushing the basket around and the high-pressure fuel pressing against the probe itself, and you have a stressful little task for Hornet pilots.

But, being as it was a reliable refueling system, and we were experienced aircrew with many TransPac flights under our belt, we were not worried about tanking overmuch.

Yet I must caveat the prior statement with this: TransPacs are worrisome. Flying over large stretches of water with limited fuel reserves is always a little nerve-wracking. So many things can go wrong, like weather. And if something breaks and an airplane can’t take fuel, then does it have enough left to get to a runway? If not, aircrew might find themselves forced into a most unwelcome swim, riding on the rockets attached to their ejection seats, and hopefully close enough to land (or other ships) that they can be rescued before the sharks get them. I never liked the movie Jaws, anyway.

But any risk can be mitigated with much planning, and so we do. Or more truthfully the Air Force does it for us. They provide us with handy little packets describing our route and scheduled refueling points, chosen so at no point while airborne does any aircraft have insufficient fuel to make at least one divert. Theoretically. We pay close attention to such things on this type of flight, and that day was no exception. As it happens the TransPac leg between Hawaii and California is the most dangerous of all, because there are literally no intermediary diverts–no friendly little islands (or even atolls) on which a runway exists to rescue a fuel-starved Hornet. One checkpoint, poetically named “FEARR,” is the midpoint of the trip: nearly 1200 miles from land in any direction. In order to fly that far, a typical Hornet would need 14,500 pounds of fuel…and our max load is only 16,500 pounds. That’s a very small margin of safety.

But we weren’t worried. We’d done this before. On the “Iron Maiden,” too. And what a nice day it was!

It was a nice day. Clear, sunny, with (as I noted earlier) Honolulu bathed in sulight across the bay and Diamondhead rising majestically behind her. At one point, airport ground control held up a commercial liner to let us pass–a commercial liner, no doubt, with several hundred paying passengers. It just didn’t seem fair, I tell you, thinking of them passengers packed liked sardines in their uncomfortable seats while we luxuriated in the unlimited visibility and raw power of a fighter aircraft, but it sure did seem right. And with that little surge of pleasure and satisfaction we blasted off into pellucid Hawaiian air for the long trip to Miramar.

We rendezvoused with the Tanker a hundred miles east of of Hawaii and formed up for the flight. TransPac flying is boring, mostly. Once you get used to the endless span of trackless ocean, the horizon sharp and clear amid the scattered puffy clouds floating just above the water, well, then you only have the other aircrew for company and whatever entertainment is on hand. Periodically, of course, everyone snuggles up to the Tanker and takes fuel when it’s their turn, and that takes some concentration and attention. Otherwise, though, you’re just waiting. Feeling that parachute harness dig into your gluteal muscles. Squinting to keep the rising sun out of your eyes. Updating the nearest divert as you pass every navigational waypoint, on the off chance something goes wrong. And possibly reading, or listening to music, or eating. It’s a lot like a road trip.

But our high spirits that day made it all quite bearable. Kith and kin lay ahead, and a warm welcome after six months (and Thanksgiving and Christmas) spent abroad. We were, in a word, cheerful. Time after time we eased in behind the tanker, carefully and smoothly refueled, and re-assumed our relaxed position in the formation. The miles grew between us and Hawaii, shrunk between us and California. Dancing in our heads were visions of our triumphant overhead break at the field after six months’ absence. It was going to be good.

Closing in on Point FEARR we snuggled back up to the Tanker for Aerial Refueling number six. This was the first of several scheduled refuelings one after the other, designed to keep our fuel tanks full in case of divert. Realistically, we would alternate on the basket with our wingman, keeping our tanks as full as possible. We watch as our lead moved up behind the KC-135 basket and began taking gas. As he was doing so, he commented over the radio, “we’re going to California, boys!” And we rejoiced, for we had just passed the half-way point and were actually closer to home than to Hawaii.

Our lead took a full load of gas. Sixteen-thousand-and-five-hundred pounds. He moved off the tanker to the right side, exactly as he had done for the last five refuelings, and we moved in from the left. We stabilized about 15 feet behind the basket, and my pilot informed the tanker of this fact by calling “Pre-contact” on the radio. The tanker issued the expected “Cleared to contact” in reply. Moving forward at the prescribed 2 knots of closure, my pilot inserted the probe in the center of the basket with characteristic accuracy. It locked. Then he smoothly pushed the basket forward toward the boom, creating slack in the hose that would cause it to bend and eventually make a “knuckle” to allow.

It was a skilled approach, well befitting a fighter pilot and professional aviator. It was a nearly identical repeat of all the previous tanker approaches thus far.

But, suddenly before our wondering eyes the hose performed a funny little jink and, instead of rotating smoothly around the basket on its bearing, it jerked the wrong way, hesitated, then violently spun to the accustomed position.

And exploded in our faces.

Our canopy was suddenly rendered nearly opaque by gallons of high-pressure jet fuel cascading over it and back along our aircraft. In a sliver of vision I caught a view of the hose flailing wildly at the end of the boom with no basket attached. Ominously, there was a large shadow on the right side of the windscreen indicating that the fuel basket was still attached. “Get back” I said forcefully, a mere instant after I heard the engines spool to idle and felt the deceleration of the airplane. In a flash I comprehended: we weren’t getting fuel; we were in an emergency; we would have to Bingo all the way home, and even so we might not make it.

Adrenaline is a funny thing. The whole event took probably two seconds or less from the time our probe touched the basket and the time we pulled away from the tanker. But already I had the awful comprehension that the trip was changed, and that it was suddenly very dangerous, and amazingly enough I couldn’t muster any emotion. No disappointment at all. Just, what happens next?

Away from the Tanker, with our canopy clearing in the windstream, I felt the engines come back up to military power. We were climbing to a higher altitude where the lower concentration of oxygen would lessen drag and make our engines more fuel-efficient. I had our nearest divert, San Francisco International, as the selected waypoint already, and we were heading direct. The Tanker began to fall behind us, and I heard my flight lead declare an emergency. He named our destination as Moffett, a military airfield as close to San Francisco as makes no difference. It was a better choice than SFO.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a friend handy.

At this point, I confirmed that we were on a max-efficiency climb, and advised my pilot of the navigation setup: “You have steering to Moffett with 1150 miles to go.” I then looked at the fuel: thirteen-thousand-some pounds.

That was below our intended Bingo. That was alarming.

I knew that some fuel had been burned as we maneuvered away from the Tanker, and began our military power climb out. I knew also that Air Force Bingos were very conservative, including some 40-minutes of loiter time over the airfield in case of weather, or something. But still, I knew it was going to be close. Especially with a large metal basket hanging off our jet. How much drag did that add to our aircraft?

My lead interrupted my depressing little reverie. “Engine look OK?” he asked. Suddenly really worried, I quickly pulled up the engine monitor page, remembering how close the probe was to the right intake, fearing for a horrible instant that some shard of the basket assembly had been ingested into our right engine. Even a small piece of metal would tear the engine apart, at best causing us to shut it down and proceed single-engine, at worst causing more extensive damage. I scanned both columns on the page, looking for tell-tale discrepancies which might indicate an engine problem. I found that the right engine was running a little hotter the left, with higher RPM and Oil Pressure. I mentioned this, but my pilot confirmed that our right engine had been that way the entire flight. So we were relieved.

And yet with Murphy’s Law and all, who knew what might happen next?

About this time we started having difficulty getting any higher. We had reached our optimum cruise altitude, 33,000 feet. Now pointed straight at our divert airfield–albeit with more than a thousand miles to go–and stabilized at altitude, we painstakingly set the our max-efficiency throttle setting. Our lead told us to fly the best jet we could; he would simply follow us. No problem, buddy! We weren’t going to deviate from the precise settings calculated for peak efficiency, not for all the tea in China.

Our on-board computers showed us landing with about 1300 pounds of fuel, adjusted. That was scary. The minimum landing fuel in the Hornet for us is two thousand pounds, which provides roughly two missed approaches in visual flying conditions, or one missed approach in instrument conditions. We were below even that safety margin. If there was weather, we might not make the runway. If we had to go missed approach (for any number of reasons), we might not make the runway. Heck, if we had a headwind, we might not make the runway! Besides, nobody really knows when the hornet runs out of fuel–is it when the meter reads zero? It’s bad form to test that, especially if the price of guessing wrong is ejection and the loss of a $38 million jet. Or would we flame out with several hundred pounds visible on the fuel gauge? We might have even less than 1300 pounds to work with. I settled in for a very anxious couple of hours.

Now no reasonable man is going to trust his airplane and perhaps his life entirely to a computer, if he can help it. The computer said 1300 pounds of fuel on deck, but I could calculate myself based on our airspeed, distance-to-go, and fuel burn exactly what we’d get to Moffett with. And I did. Constantly. I filled sheets of paper from my kneeboard pad with calculations. At first, my calculations agreed with the dismal computer projections. With that basket staring at us through the windscreen, those were indeed the worst moments of the flight.

Clearing out the cockpit for a possible ejection? Not much fun. Especially if you can anticipate waiting until the last possible minute, then pulling the handle when the engines have flamed out and the aircraft is about to fall out of the sky, all the while truusting your life to a rocket motor, a parachute, and a life jacket (the latter two of which were packed unknown hands, unknown years ago). Scary.

But as fuel burned off and we pulled back the throttle a bit to maintain the same airspeed with a lighter aircraft, the fuel-on-deck numbers crept up. It looked rosier both on computer-generated and the manually calculated projection. Looking suddenly at about 1700 pounds on deck, we decided not to jettison our tanks (now that they were empty) because we figured we could make it. Maybe. Providentially, with about four hundred miles to the coast, a tailwind picked up and grew to about 40 knots. Suddenly we were looking fat, anticipating 2100 pounds on deck! It was a relief, I tell you. And, we reminded ourselves, it didn’t count the fuel we’d save in the descent.

Nearer the coast, we flew into radio contact with Oakland Center. The tanker had radioed ahead to them our situation, so when we checked in as “an emergency flight direct Moffett” we got a cool response and no instructions. Which is exactly what we wanted. We weren’t out of the woods yet. Any excessive maneuvers off course would eat up precious fuel, and we were still hundreds of miles from the coast. But encouraging was the weather information from Moffett, which called skies clear and unlimited visibility, landing to the north. So we decided to aim south of the field and make a nice easy turn north on a six-mile final approach path that would allow us to coast into the runway using as little gas as possible. Things were starting to feel a little more manageable.

I can’t describe what it was like seeing the coast that day. The sight of California, after two hours of wondering whether we’d make it at all, after five hours of endless ocean horizons, and after six months gone was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen (until I saw my wife again after 9 years’ absence, but, well, that’s a different story).

Shortly after sighting of the coast we saw the field–easily fifty miles away, but clearly visible on that beautiful day–and took a slight cut right to facilitate our easy turn to final. As a result of our gradual descent we were looking now at a veritable surfeit of fuel: 2500 pounds on deck. Our lead, however, reminded us that we still had a heavy metal basket tenuously attached to our aircraft, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t do anything to accidentally drop it on some unsuspecting Californian. It was the right call. Generally, if something is going to fall off the jet, it will do so when the landing gear and flaps come down, for the new protuberances on the airplane tend to disturb the airflow a bit. With the recent crash of a stateside Hornet into a house in San Diego, we were especially worried. We didn’t want to do anything stupid.

So we lowered the gear just after crossing the coast, right over the unpopulated coastal hills that separate San Francisco Bay from the Pacific. It was with trepidation that my pilot reached up for the gear handle, and for my part I kept my finger hovering over the button that would mark our position and padlocked it with my eyes (the better to follow it’s trajectory), all in case the basket decided to depart our aircraft suddenly. As the gear doors slammed open and the gear began descending, I felt keenly each and every airframe buffet from the windstream, my eyes glued to our unwelcome guest and willing it to stay on.

Fortunately, it did. The gear came down smoothly with nary a vibration from the basket.

Which made for quite a relief. At least, until we saw more clearly what lay beneath our flight path to the field, which was nothing but houses. Pretty little houses, with picket fences, in pleasant suburban neighborhoods. Where you could imagine the basket, if it came off, landing in someone’s bedroom or kitchen. Where you could imagine some family crushed by the thing. Granted, it has survived putting down the landing gear. But it wasn’t like we’d had all good luck. We were a bit tense about it all.

At this point, Approach Control began squawking at us on the radio. They wanted us to take a vector south to get out of the way of northbound airplane passing to the east of us. We refused forcefully, citing (again) our emergency status and worrying again about fuel if we had to fly too far off course. Not to mention the gnawing concern of that basket perched precariously on a stubby fuel probe, flying over perfect suburban neighborhoods. Approach would not stop talking, however, and and as soon as we got the northbound airplane on our radar, we told them shortly we’d maintain separation ourselves and switched tower.

My lead turned toward the field first, and once we had sufficient separation from his aircraft, we followed suit. My pilot then began slowing the airplane for a normal touchdown. The, horrified, we noticed the basket vibrating. Vibrating significantly. Acutely conscious of the unsuspecting suburban residents living peacefully beneath us, we quickly accelerated to stop the basket from shaking. Not now! I thought. Not this close!

As we accelerated past 200 knots, the basket settled back. OK, then, we’ll fly it in at 200 knots.

Now our problem is landing too fast.

At that speed, the nose tire would probably burst on touchdown, which might causing us to lose control on the runway (or even flip over, which is a death sentence). But we had a little space past the neighborhoods, once we crossed the airfield boundary, in which to slow down, and a nice long runway use. It would just take a little touch from the pilot.

My pilot skillfully brought the throttles back once we cleared the house and, with barely a quarter mile to touch down, aerodynamically braked the aircraft for a gentle, 150-knot touchdown. Perfect. The basket vibrated again, true, but it stayed on…all the way through the rollout.

As our airspeed meter bottomed out on the runway, I relaxed suddenly in a slump. It was over. We had made it. Nothing dropped, nobody hurt, back to the good old contiguous U S of A. Pulling off the runway, I called for taxi, responding halfheartedly to the gibe over the radio as we taxied past the tower: “hey, is that thing supposed to be on there?” I just wanted to get out of that jet.

As I tried to negotiate the ladder down, I noticed my hands and legs were shaking. Once on the ground, I stared in disbelief at the large, heavy metal basket we brought 1150 frightening miles. I was drained, but not tired–just eerily aware of all that had happened. Mustering up as much bravado as I could, I snapped some pictures and traded some jokes with my pilot and the lead aircrew. We weren’t home yet, but we were safe, and suddenly it was all that mattered.

The Epilogue is a story in and of itself. After landing, we contacted Oakland Center to have them send the cargo plane with our Trail Maintenance element to Moffett, so we could get the basket off our aircraft. They complied, and we enjoyed a surreal dinner in the posh environment of the Bay Area while we waited for the maintainers to arrive. We greeted them awkwardly when they landed–we knew that they wanted to be home too and felt guilty that we broke to the point of needing their help. But they greeted us with powerful hugs. They had heard about the emergency were very concerned–and relieved that we had made it. It was somehow a great comfort to see them.

With characteristic Marine efficiency, they took off the basket and readied us for flight the next morning. They did it quickly enough that the could continue back to San Diego later that evening. So we made it to dry land; and they made it home. Happy evening for everyone.

As for us, we slept well in Navy housing, woke early, and made our belated return to Miramar at about 10:00. The wonder of California hadn’t left me since that first miraculous view from the Pacific less than a day prior, and I spent as much of the flight as my tasks would allow with my eyes glued to the window, looking from coast to mountain to desert. Finally we saw beloved home field, and as we entered the break I saw the rest of the squadron out to welcome us home. Not a perfect return, by any means, but a good one for sure.

Sometimes, getting home is all that matters.

So on that recent beautiful June day, returning victorious from simulated battle against a worthy adversary, I remembered that a perfect flight is, perhaps, overrated. Getting home is really all that matters. Getting you home, and your jet home. Preferably both working. And in that exact order.

On Robin Williams, Tragedy, and Thumper’s Mommy’s Rule

Since the actor and comedian Robin Williams died two days ago, there have been a multitude of tributes aired on television networks and posted online. Mostly they extol his quick wit, his devastatingly satirical humor, and his dramatic presence onscreen. As of this writing, his death has been attributed to suicide resulting from depression, so others have used this opportunity to focus on that mental disease. Also, given that his death occurred during a time of violent conflict in the Middle East and heightened tensions with Russia, not to mention anticipation of an ideologically charged election a few months hence, other less complimentary media has blown off Mr. Williams’ suicide as insignificant compared to larger events, or characterized it as cowardly, selfish, and particularly reprehensible considering his immense wealth and prestige. This latter vein of commentary is disturbing.

I understand the motivation to pay tribute to a popular figure. Through his movies and other public appearance, Mr. Williams has influenced a lot of people–chiefly by making them laugh. Many of his jokes and one-liners have entered into our common lexicon. People admired him, I guess, because his comedy uplifted their spirits. We sympathized with his confusedly righteous entertainer in Good Morning, Vietnam, we laughed at his comically entertaining everyman in Mrs. Doubtfire, and we drew wisdom from his portrayal as a counselor in Good Will Hunting. It’s no surprise that we should be shocked by his death, at his own hands, and apparently because of the omnipresent sadness, hurt, and anger of depression. The very nature of the event–popular and widely-reported–gives us the opportunity to reflect on the role laughter, sadness, and death play in our own perception of our lives. I confess that his comedy seemed a little wacky to me, so I am (unfortunately) not as affected by his death as others. But why spit on those who do, in fact, grieve?

Demeaning his death, or the attention lavished on it, sends a clear message that any grief felt for it is worthless. That is manifestly not true. Grief is the product of tragedy; any event which shocks us and provokes us to contemplate our own mortality, even vicariously, is tragedy. Mr. Williams’ death is one of many which happen every day, and perhaps one of the least gruesome. Certainly he did not die due to indiscriminate rocket fire, or beheading for being something other than a Muslim. The fate of nation-states does not hang in the balance because of his suicide. But his death is no less tragic for seeming lack of context. Christian doctrine, to which I subscribe, teaches that every person has inherent dignity because they are intimately created, loved, and valued by God, and therefore Mr. Williams’ death, even at his own hands, and even if he is rich and famous, is objectively a diminution of all of us–equally so as the death of a non-Christian in Iraq, or a Palestinian in Gaza, or a Ukrainian Soldier. The loss of a life is certainly much worse than a disliked piece of legislation or an unfavorable election result. As to his depression, I’ll be the first to agree that there are more immediately threatening issues than depression before us–but the relative importance, for whatever reason, of other issues does not diminish the cause of eradicating or mitigating depression (or any other mental illness). I personally grieve for Mr. Williams, more so because I have known his contributions to our culture and laughed with him. That makes the tragedy of his death more present to me than the death of others, and so it has a greater impact on me. There’s no question that Mr. Williams’ death is a tragedy, and he–along with those who loved him, which include his family and his fans–deserves our pity and compassion by virtue of the humanity he shares with us.

The negative reactions to this event raises the question of why we sometimes disbelieve people when they tell us about themselves. I don’t mean when people boast, or curry sympathy, or otherwise seek attention–I mean when they tell us their experiences. Many people who suffer from depression have written about it, and psychologists and psychiatrists alike have documented a pattern of symptoms and results leading of this clearly defined mental disease. Apparently Mr. Williams suffered from it. It is ludicrous to contradict that diagnosis on the barest speculation, as some have done by pointing out that he was a comic, or that he was wealthy, or that he was influential. Those things, nice as they are to be, do not have relevance on mental illness any more than they do on cancer or the common cold. I won’t conjecture whether there’s a connection between comedians and depression, but I do question why some angrily reject that such mental illness can occur in certain people. Can’t they imagine anyone being depressed if they’re rich?

Whatever the reality, second-guessing the experience of others is odious. To use a well-documented issue as an example, some question whether homosexuals really experience same-sex attraction as part of their nature. Why wouldn’t we believe someone who says that about him- or herself? Unless we have a similar frame of reference–i.e. we’ve experienced same-sex attraction ourselves–then we literally cannot understand what that’s like, and cannot judge the truth or falsehood of it. Any glib, ideologically-aligned causes we propose for homosexuality are mere speculation. In rejecting that aspect about another person, we are essentially demeaning them and all who share that experience by denying them personal agency and self-knowledge. Similarly, if one does not suffer depression, then rejecting Mr. William’s mental illness or that it could cause suicide is demeaning to him and all who suffer the same disease. That’s especially true for the self-styled academics who comfortably theorize that suicide is a selfish act and (if they’re religious) a sin. While the experiences of those afflicted with depression attest to both a physical aspect (i.e. a physical defect in the brain, or the operation of the brain) and a mental/spiritual element, scientists and theologians both admit they are very far from understanding the human mind. Therefore commentary on whether Mr. Williams’ suicide was a poor choice or an inevitable result of the disease is only more speculation. On top of that, who among us could say he or she knew Mr. Williams’ conscience, which seems more the point? God alone knows that. And finally, anecdotal evidence about someone falsely claiming depression–or any other sort of identity–in order to get attention is absolutely not sufficient reason to lack compassion. Any number of people who play the martyr by claiming depression, or who whine about the pressures of a life of fame, do not diminish the real thing. The only creditable source about Mr. Williams’ depression is Mr. Williams himself, and those who were close to him. It seems logical we would trust them.

No doubt those profess themselves offended by this suicide, or by all the attention spent on it, will respond to this post (if they read it) by asserting their right to believe and whatever they want. I don’t contradict that right. For my part, I’m certainly aware that I’m a poor source for information: I have no first-hand knowledge of Mr. Williams, nor could I improve upon the tributes written about him by better writers than I. I only remind the participants in this discussion that Mr. Williams had humanity and therefore dignity, as do all those saddened by his death. For that alone he and they are worthy of consideration and compassion. So please remember the rule of Thumper’s Mommy in Disney’s Bambi: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all–and leave those who grieve Mr. Williams’ death and reflect on their own mortality in respectful peace.

Reflections on the proper age of marriage

In all the many relationship discussions I’ve had and/or observed, it seems that age is considered one of the biggest factors in the decision or advisability of the relationship–especially if the relationship is marriage. Whenever people talk about someone else’s marriage make the age of the two married people a central issue. Maybe the commentary is positive–they married at the right time. Maybe the commentary is negative–they married too young, or (increasingly) they were too set in their ways; the second of which is a way of saying they waited too long, or maybe that they got too old.

Regarding age as a critical ingredient in marriage success (or relationship compatibility) has always ‘stuck in my craw’ a bit. It feels like one of the many blithe assumptions that come easy to us when explaining our own superiority, like a conventional belief that relationships in the 1950s and 1960s were all loveless, patriarchal shells of a family with an absent and philandering father. All right, maybe I exaggerate a bit there. Certainly few believe that all 1950s relationships (or any historical relationships) were loveless. Yet I suspect that many of us feel just a little bit lucky that we don’t live in the bad old days of arranged marriages, commercial exchanges to accompany weddings, and 14-year-old brides. Despite all that, however, I just can’t believe that the majority of relationships were unhappy or stilted. People loved each other back then, too. I’ll be careful here: I’m not saying that the bad old marriage conventions should be revived; I’m proud to live in an age where spouses choose each other freely and where either can be the breadwinner or caretaker as their fancy (and economic realities) take them. Even if we’ve made improvements socially since then, it doesn’t follow that our forbearers were unhappy. In fact, there are reasons to believe people might have been happier in those benighted old days of crusty tradition, sexual repression (or, depending on who you ask, aggression) and male dominance. They worked shorter hours on average, and slept more, than we do–both of which cause us increased stress and health problems.

In any case, I’m unconvinced that we are better off socially in the 2010s than we were in the in the past. That’s the nice thing about the past, if you have a point to prove: it is easily molded into a structure fitting your preferred narrative. Its easy to make a sweeping assertion that families were stronger back then, or that women were more repressed back then; both are true. Some things have improved; others have degraded. Comparisons are dangerous, because they are usually in the service of prejudices, like our particular prejudice about marrying young.

Statistics tell us that rural and/or less educated people marry younger than their urban, educated brethren; also the average age of marriage has risen from those terrible (but healthier!) olden days. And I often hear (maybe I sense?) a high degree of self-congratulation about that fact, which is funny, because up until about the last 10 years, marriages were becoming steadily less successful, indicated by a rising divorce rate. So we’re doing better because we’re marrying later, but our marriages are less successful? I’m not following. Certainly, some have argued that the rising divorce rate was a good thing, believing most marriages were unhappy because they were essentially coerced. Yet however went the marriage, a divorce is the breaking of a strong relationship that carried a lot of hope and promise, and so it seems likely that many (or most) divorces were bitter and painful. Maybe the practice of marrying older isn’t the social victory we think.

But wait! It would be ridiculous to go back to marrying upon graduation from high school. That is beyond doubt. Who is ready for something that after high school? I was certainly not ‘ready’ for marriage by the time I completed high school? If I’m honest with myself, I think it’s better to say that I was not even ‘capable’ of marriage. I was shockingly self-absorbed and my thoughts were consumed with a) whether I had the right friends and/or girlfriend, b) how I could get the most out of college (and we’re not just talking academically here), and c) agonizing about who I was. You know, the important things. Should I listen to Guster? Can I get away with just a T-Shirt and jeans, because I think it’s so much more chill? Is it ok if I enjoy my classes, or should I make myself enjoy partying more? There was barely enough room in my life for myself, let alone a life partner.

Ridiculous indeed. I doubt anyone would argue that. But by historical standards I was pretty immature for my age. I was 17 years old, able to drive, and almost able to vote. Do you think I was ready to select the most powerful person in the world in an election? I can scarcely believe they let me vote, considering my mental state. But I was not alone. Nearly everyone I know was at a similar maturity level upon their high school graduation. We had been kids for a long time, whose only real responsibilities were…nothing. Homework? Please. Most of us found ways out of it. Summer jobs? Doesn’t count, really–we were usually only making money to finance our weekend plans. For our entire lives thus far, in classes and sports teams and music and school plays, we were totally isolated in a world made for kids. And we weren’t done yet: we still had college to attend. Most of us were big kids, intellectually adults but emotionally (and socially) very young.

By comparison, children who grow up in rural areas, or who grew up in a culture which emphasized community and family, such as the socially backwards past, were probably much more mature than we were at the same age. It’s more likely they were vital contributors to their families, either by helping out the breadwinner with his/her business, or caring for siblings, or doing serious chores (like home maintenance or farm work). They lived in smaller communities, and had more relationships with adults (friends’ parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighbors, etc.). Those 18-year-olds occupied a much less striated society, where they had to have become adults socially by the time they were in their mid teens. Upon the age of high school graduation they were actively part of a community, certainly deserved the right to vote. More importantly, they could also be a good partner in the community of a marriage.

There are great structural advantages to marrying at that tender age. Neurological studies have shown that one’s brain continues to develop until their mid-20s. More importantly, the cognitive functions of the brain usually finish development by about 16-18 (adulthood!), and the moral values and judgment functions of the brain develop after, finishing between the ages of 24-26. In fact, the reason teenagers believe they are invincible has been shown to be linked to the fact that their brains have not fully developed the capacity of judgment, which makes it harder for them to comprehend the risks they take. And while some, if not most, will argue that it’s irresponsible to marry when you haven’t even finished developing your personalities, I will turn the argument on its head and suggest that the best foundation for a lasting relationship is to develop similar values together by shaping each other’s moral growth.

Biologically, people between the ages of 18 and 25 are at their most fertile. Males produce the most testosterone, and therefore the most sperm at that age; females at the same age produce the most estrogen, and have the easiest time conceiving–which seems like a cruel joke, considering that we view that period in our lives as the most undesirable for marriage and starting a family. That age is for exploration, we say, it’s for discovering yourself! Partying! Traveling! There’s no doubt about it–all of those things are easy and fun when we’re in our early twenties. Do you remember how we thought nothing of going on little to no sleep, had no idea what a hangover was, and couldn’t understand the need to diet. We were beautiful, invincible, unstoppable; the world was our oyster. But as a parent in my 30s I will note wistfully that those physical advantages would be very helpful when dealing with children. When I’m chasing my toddler around, or when I have to get up to comfort the baby, I yearn for the energy I had in my 20s.

But of course it’s not a good idea to marry young these days. A college diploma (or at least a tech school certification) is more or less required to find work, and I can’t even imagine what college would be like as a newly-married person (and not just the social aspect; think about beginning a marriage with that kind of debt). But more practically–for the marriage part, anyway–is the fact that no high school graduate I’ve ever known is emotionally capable of marriage. The schooling process, along with popular media, has kept them from any sort of social or real responsibility and instilled in them the fervent, insidious belief that hedonism and wanton self-discovery are the essential components to a happy youth. Have fun! Enjoy college! Date many people! The expected result, of course, is that by a fun process of elimination these 20somethings will find the perfect job and partner, and settle down happily and much later.

These are generalizations, of course. And I am not trying to write a “kids these days,” fist-shaking rant. It’s long been fashionable to blame society for these developments, as if society were some kind of entity with intentions on us. Unfortunately, however, society does not make us (or our kids) do things. It has no intentions or opinions. It just is. And it is made up of us. It is merely the institutions formed out of our cultural perspectives. We think it’s important for kids to be kids, so we have created institutions which keep our kids in a school until they are 18, and take up their free time with sports and music and drama extracurriculars. We as a culture value self-discovery and self-actualization, so we institutionally establish these things in the emphasis on college, or the explosion of self-help books, or our worship of adventures and extreme sports. We value sexual actualization, too, so institutionally we accept more present sexuality and eroticism in things like television, music, and advertisements. The effect of these cultural perspectives is not the fault of our institutions (schools, media, etc.) any more than it’s the fault of a piece of wood that it was made into a chair. We share cultural perspectives; society results.

But frankly we needed our 20s. From my own experience, marriage requires contribution and unselfishness. I’m pretty sure the majority of my peers (and I) did not possess those virtues sufficiently in our 20s to have successful marriages. We still had to learn to support ourselves in the ‘real world,’ to be a part of a work team, to rely on others. Until then, we had parents and teachers and college staff to back us up. We also had to learn by trial and error how to take care of another person, because the school pipeline insulated us somewhat from observing other successful marriages by keeping us in our own age groups. It’s certainly plausible that our parents and grandparents, or kids growing up in rural areas learned all these things during their childhood, in more integrated social groups. But not today. Today, we have our 20s for that.

The fact remains that to be successful in a relationship, we must develop a certain maturity. So those who argue the doctrine of waiting for a bit, in order to mature, are wise. But maturity is not tied to a certain age. One may be less mature at 30 than some are at 18 (watch The Bachelor and see what I mean). And though everyone knows that maturity is only one piece of a great marriage–I’m not sure anyone has adequately explained the romantic longing, or fierce desire, or deep contentment with and for one other person that characterizes the love which leads to and sustains marriage without invoking Grace–I am concerned here with practicalities. Practically, marriages require partnership and respect. Maybe it would be nice to learn those things fully in our first 18 years, for we could happily and successfully marry then, deal with exhausting young children at the peak of our physical capabilities, and skip off to travel the world in our forties (which, at this day and age, practically constitute our healthiest decade of life!). Not an unpleasant prospect.

But our culture makes this near-impossible. So the point of all this rambling is: carry on. We all need a little growing before we marry (successfully). But from someone who has taken that step into marriage, I’ll tell you that it is much better than my early 20s. I’m glad I made it.

Aurora, Santa Barbara, and Waseca as an invitation to reflect

Last night my wife’s friend joined a news show panel a big TV network, so of course we tuned in to “cheer her on” through the screen. The subject was John LaDue, the upper-middle-class, never-been-bullied, no-reason-to-ever-go-wrong, almost-perpetrator of yet another violent, tragic school shooting.

He, of course, is only the latest in a line of demographically similar young men who have, for reasons yet under debate, become violent. The Aurora shootings shocked us because the location and event seemed vaguely symbolic: a movie theater, at the premier of a much-anticipated movie claiming to delve into the darkness of the human soul. The Santa Barbara killings angered us because the killer wrote elaborate fantasies about being violent, especially toward the women who unfairly denied him sex and the men who received in his stead. John LaDue’s planned violence stands out because the police stopped it–and because his matter-of-fact assertion that he felt mentally ill, that he wanted to kill his peers and hold out until taken down by SWAT, is a chilling glimpse into psychopathy.

The talking heads of the panel were all very unsympathetic towards young Mr. LaDue. The talked about how he was “simply evil,” “beyond rehabilitation” and the like, while the host sagely agreed. They may be right, of course, though I hesitate on principle to presume what someone might do out of respect for certain legal protections on which the United States are founded, but by and large I agree with them: Mr. LaDue ought to be charged with all the crimes associated with planning such a terrible deed (conspiracy to commit murder comes to mind).

It was interesting that they referred to previous, similar crimes–which actually took place–almost as aggravating circumstances. As if the fact that similar spree killings in the recent past somehow made his planned attack worse. It might just have been a trick of phrase; I’m fairly sure the commentators simply wanted to draw attention tangentially to this mystery of young men, from what we collectively consider to be “good” homes, who slowly and without concealment develop a rage and desire to kill, and then execute that desire despite a host of teachers, counselors, and peers who warn against them. I think it’s wonderful that the police caught Mr. LaDue, and if that was the result of a greater awareness of such crimes, then bravo to the talking heads. But the whole exercise in condemnation seemed to be dodging the main issue.

I suppose it’s natural to vent frustration on Mr. LaDue. He did, after all, plan to murder as many of his classmates as he could and (he hoped) some cops sent after him as well. And as a large portion of spree killers end up dead by their own hand, it’s satisfying to finally have someone to punish–especially if he is a better receptacle of our anger than James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora Theater shooter, who presented convincingly as a complete psychopath, and who showed all amusement and no remorse for the court proceedings against him.

Yet I wonder how much of the anger directed at people like Mr. LaDue and Mr. Holmes is to assuage our own consciences. I wonder how much of the condemnation and indignation, however superficially righteous, serves to draw a distinction between us and them; to say in essence, “the spree killer is evil and I am not, therefore get him away from me into jail and then death.” Perhaps shock and anger sometimes mask the relief people feel that they know what is “bad” when they see these spree killers, and it is not them. Perhaps too much of the talk about such men–easy laments about the decline of our society, titillated surprise that the scions of upper-middle-class stability, satisfying outrage at expressions of psychopathy and misogyny–is disassociation.

This bears some discussion. After all, the young men in question grew up among us. They received the same stimuli from media and from our pervasive culture as we have, and they had all the material things they needed. Clutching our pearls and wondering in bemusement how such criminals and terrible crimes could occur is the easy way out, a safe way to avoid hard questions about our own behavior–or at least our participation in a social behavior–which may have (at least) set the stage for a spree killing. Worse is to use these events to forward a philosophical or socio-political agenda, like the opposing crusades of the NRA (which seems to want to arm all teachers) and those who advocate total gun control. It’s ludicrous to think that arming teachers or taking away all guns would somehow solve the problem. The problem isn’t the weapons or lack thereof, it’s that young men decide to spree kill and then do it. They can do it with sticks, steak knives, home-made explosives, or bows and arrows. The problem is that they do it, and it’s our problem because in important ways the perpetrators are similar to us.

At this point I’m sure many readers have rejected this train of thought. They angrily proclaim that bad people exist, and that bad people will always exist, and that there’s absolutely no similarity between the sickoes that spree kill in schools and the rest of us law-abiding Americans. They may angrily point out that only young men have ever committed spree killings, and so it’s not a problem for women in our society. They may passionately argue that if nobody had access to guns, nobody would be able to kill so randomly. Or they may simply brindle at the suggestion that they are anything like the monsters that kill, and decide they don’t really want to discuss it any further. But if so, these readers are taking the easy way out. They are disassociating. They are saying that the problem of spree killing is not their problem, because spree killers are wholly alien. They would rather be right, ultimately, than make the sacrifice of compassion to see if there is any way such killers could be reduced.

Nearly every recent spree killer has come from the same demographic makes a mockery of coincidence. Nearly every spree killer has come from, and targeted, the influential middle class. Nearly every spree killer has evinced rage, most notably the Santa Barbara killer who (horrifyingly) seemed to actually believe that mere fact of others having sexual relationships was a violation of his rights. And nearly every spree killer seems to want attention–they choose schools and movie theaters and prominent universities as their tableau, knowing that they will earn headlines and time on “The Situation Room” and endless panels of talking heads like the one I saw last night.

That, actually, may hold the key to the problem. Attention. Why do spree killers want attention? Attributing it to their generation, as many do, is doubtful–otherwise more entitled millennials (in full disclosure, I’m a millennial too) would turn to violence. No, I would guess that spree killers want attention for the same reason that normal people develop a need for attention: some kind of fundamental, developmental neglect.

Now before people break out the mocking tears and sneer about mommies and daddies not loving their children enough, consider: first, numerous studies have shown that young girls without a close relationship to their parents are statistically more like to engage in promiscuity, drug use, and other risky behaviors; and second, studies into gang membership/affiliation (male and female) cite lack of dedicated parents as a prime causal. It’s not about whining on a daytime talk show, it has been studied and proved that neglected children have a higher propensity towards clinically anti-social behavior. And I have unfortunately met too many middle-class or wealthy parents who are more interested in the next vacation destination, or the new episodes of Mad Men, or in their own jobs, than in their children. Though it looks like stay-at-home-parenting is on the rise, the teenagers and young adults of today are perhaps the generation most commonly dumped into daycare so that parents could have satisfying careers and social lives.

Where it comes to males in all of this, to young men, is a sort of generalized neglect. Wait, hear me out. I know that across the board, women make less than men for similar work. I know that there exists an insidious “motherhood” penalty in the workplace. I think that as the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us has grown, life across that gap on the wealthy side has preserved and protected the old male-dominated social architecture. But back here, in real life, important changes are taking place: compared to men, women collectively get better grades in school, participate in more extracurricular activities (including sports), attend college at higher rates, and in many cases are more readily hired. These are all very good things, and hopefully a harbinger of true equality in the workplace.

Other investigative journalism indicates, however, that laudable attempts to push women to higher social achievements have unintentionally marginalized men. “Socially acceptable” extracurriculars in high school have shrunk to a few high-profile sports in order to spend equally on women’s teams. Universities faced with a majority of female students have invested money in programs of study and student life infrastructure which cater specifically to women. Companies hoping to achieve a certain diversity actively pursue female employees. And I wonder if maybe developmental authority figures like teachers have become mostly female, and less interested (understandably) in focusing on traditionally male interests like war. None of this is to blame the system, but rather to suggest that the intersection of parental neglect and social neglect may be a place frighteningly devoid of normal social obstacles to psychopathy, narcissism, and spree killing.

Obviously not all neglected children turn to violence. And women almost never turn to violence, perhaps because they usually have less aggression due to lower testosterone (though there are exceptions, of course). But I think it no accident that most spree killers commit their deed(s) after puberty, and they all seem to be seeking attention and revenge. Attention, maybe because they never got it; revenge, likely against those who refused to pay attention to them (or suitable surrogates). And I also think it telling that spree killers are usually characterized as loners, and notably lack the comfort and restraint of a social group–a family or a team–to draw them towards good social relationships. Maybe they aren’t necessarily born loners, but possibly are made loners by their development. I wonder if the anger and hatred that many women sense, in catcalls (check out #NotJustHello on twitter) and sexual dominance (#YesAllWomen), isn’t rooted in this cauldron of socially marginalized young men. And I wonder whether a parent, a mentor, a teacher, a friend who cared about [insert name of spree killer] might not have made the difference.

I don’t advocate sympathy for any spree killer. It is for the good of society that they be charged and punished to the full extent of the law. I also don’t advocate some kind of large-scale enterprise or campaign to remedy social wrongs. I suspect that by the time spree killers start exhibiting the signs (posting YouTube rants, rage-filled blogs, and so on) it’s too late for intervention and time for police involvement. But I invite us all to not wring our hands, spit out righteous rhetoric, and go about our daily business, comfortably believing these events have nothing to do with us. I invite us to take the hard road and try to see the killers with compassion, and hopefully to see a way that we can, in the future, make a difference.

Some thoughts on the words “Faith” and “Religion”

I recently saw an article that claimed Islam wasn’t a religion. There have been high-profile debates between religious leaders and scientists about which perspective contains more truth. There have even been debates within faith communities, as between Christian sects who acknowledge gay marriage, and those who don’t. It seems that somewhere in the diatribes we’ve collectively lost an understanding of what it means to have “faith” or how to define a “religion.”

Religion indeed seems a difficult thing to define. Christians, by and large, regard it as a free exercise of will to believe. No matter where you come from, if you believe what’s written in the Gospels regarding Jesus Christ, you are a Christian. Certain more conservative groupings, however, treat Christianity as a sort of ‘social contract,’ binding those within the group to act and value certain things. My extremely limited experience with Judaism indicates that certain conservative Jews have exclusionary believes about their religion–namely, that it accrues only to the children of Jewish mothers. Less conservative Jewish sects appear to regard Judaism as more of an ethnic identity than a belief system, happily accepting agnosticism or downright atheism among their peers as long as the overarching identity remains.

If my understanding of Judaism is “extremely limited,” then my understanding of Islam is not even worth mentioning. The so-called “fundamentalists” (a charged word, in that it implies that the fundamental tenets of a religion are bad, instead of perhaps a tangential tenet of the religion) treat Islam as a socio-political system, in which laws protecting the status quo are given legitimacy by (it is believed) divine approbation. The status quo in many Islamic countries in the Middle East is, at least regarding the dignity and attendant rights of women and children, oppressive and even barbaric in light of our liberal ideals. Opposition to that system strikes me as more akin to opposing Communism or Fascism insofar as it’s a political system. Islam in that sense is very different than Christianity and Judaism, and rightly condemned.

In the sense of religion, on the other hand, the issue is murky precisely because we use the word “religion” to describe different things. There are Muslims who practice Islam as a free exercise of the will to believe in Allah and the teachings of the Koran. I’ve never read the Koran, so I don’t know if it is filled to the brim with hateful writings, loving writings, or (as is the case with the Jewish and Christian scriptures) a mixture of both. There are other Muslims who probably practice Islam as a social contract, a way of distinguishing their group from others. But using religion to describe the entire practice of Islam, Judaism, or Christianity confuses things, and probably lets unlawful behavior proceed under the First Amendment while simultaneously restricting legitimate religious practice.

By and large, the test for “freedom of religion” ought be simple. If a behavior is lawful in a non-religious context, then it should be permitted as a religious practice. If I may display statues on my lawn, then I may display a Nativity scene at Christmas. If I may wear as much clothing as I’d like, as long as I’m not indecent, then I may wear a hijab or burkha. As a side note, Middle Eastern Christian (some of which who subordinate themselves to either the Pope or the Patriarch) and Jewish sects direct that female adherents wear hijabs. If assaulting someone is illegal, then I should not be able to stone or otherwise injure a person for engaging in lawful sexual behavior. It’s more difficult when trying to decide whether a person should be forced into religious participation, even tangentially. But that sort of question is why we have legislatures and courts.

The word “faith” seems misused as well. The dictionary defines faith as, “1) confidence or trust in a person or thing; 2) belief that is not based on truth; 3) belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion; 4) belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards, or merit.” I think the first definition hits closest to the mark on the intent of the word. A religious person, you might say, has confidence and trust in the tenets of his/her religion. The thing is, that attitude seems to apply to a lot of non-religious people too.

There are many voices trying to put faith and/or religion in the same category as ignorance and barbarism. That saddens me because I happen to be religious, of course, but it also strikes me as disingenuous and dishonest. As a Catholic I believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and that He emptied Himself to become like us and share in our struggles on this earth, and that as He was killed He offered Himself as reparation for all our sins (past, present, and future), and that His offer was worthy because of His own perfection, and so I believe that if I follow Him I will be free of this earth and with Him in paradise. In analyzing that long narrative sentence it is immediately obvious that I could offer no empirical evidence of this. Even if I had a time machine and could record video of Jesus becoming incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, then record all of His miracles, then record His crucifixion and leave the camera in the tomb recording the moment of His resurrection, there is still no way to see and record the thoughts of God, nor attach the camera to Jesus during His ascension into heaven and remotely view the video. My senses are unable to even gather that ‘behind the scenes’ evidence, even if I could prove by two chemical tests on controlled samples of water (for example) that it turned into wine. Therefore I must either have confidence that the narrative is true, or not.

This is not all that different, say, than belief in the Theory of Evolution. Nobody has a time machine that would enable them to bring back irrefutable evidence of evolution, perhaps by filming the birth and maturation of the first Cro-Magnon person with two Neanderthal parents (complete with genetic testing to compare to the remains of both species already cataloged). All we do have is snapshots of evidence, which we believe to be of a certain age, based on the belief that we can tell the age by extrapolating chemical deterioration, which only a few of us have ever observed with our eyes in a microscope (and I’m not sure it’s even possible to observe radiation decay). There is a narrative suggested by these snapshots of evidence–the oldest remains being more ape-like, the newer ones more human-like–but it is the invention of scientists and authors. Therefore I must either have confidence that the narrative is true, or not.

We’ve so far ignored the question of the chicken or the egg. Certain scientists, for example, claim that emotion is merely the work of certain hormones in a human brain. Feelings of arousal are due to release of sex hormones, which (it is theorized) are triggered when presented with a set of conditions, like say a procreatively attractive human of the gender which the subject of arousal finds attractive. Feelings of affection are due to the hormone Oxytocin, which is triggered in certain situations as a hardwired social response, which our genes have developed to increase our rate of survival by causing us to work together. But that is a hypothesis. It is plausible, too. But it is also unprovable. It’s equally plausible (and possible) that such hormone activity is the result of emotions–the mechanism or vehicle by which feelings manifest themselves physically (as arousal or tears). None of us can go inside our brains to determine the exact causal order of whether the emotion is received first, or whether the hormones are released first. Therefore I must have confidence that either one narrative is true, or the other.

The scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously noted, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe in it or not.” With respect, I beg to differ. There were a great many scientists who believed in Eugenics between 1880 and 1945 (including Margaret Sanger) along with luminaries like H.G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Bernard Shaw. Eugenic research was funded by the Carnegie Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.* By “believe in Eugenics,” I mean its proponents believed that there was a genetic cause which disposed certain people toward poverty, retardation, sexual deviance (i.e. homosexuality), and antisocial behavior. Science was not true in that case, and we shouldn’t be so quick to conveniently compartmentalize that into the “the funny old days when we had silly theories” and “the evil things Nazis did, from which we saved the world.” Science is only as true as the ethics and character of the people who do it, much like religion. One commonality between the two ‘sides’ is that authority figures in both realms–scientists and priests–are only human, and subject to the same propensity to self-deceive and enjoy attention as the worst Hollywood celebrities or politicians.

Ultimately, faith comes down to what inspires confidence. My experience has taught me confidence both in the religious salvation narrative and in the scientific narrative of the world. As another author pointed out, there is not much difference between the big bang theory and the Christian explanation that God said, “Let there be light.” In both cases, our fantastically complicated universe exploded into something without warning or apparent material cause. What does it matter whether one believes it happened randomly or at the will of an entity too big to imagine?

Understanding and meaningful engagement with others demands a certain rigor of thought. Proponents of rational explanations fall into hypocrisy when they succumb to the “blind faith” that others who disagree with their perspective are somehow less important because they are “religious,” and proponents of religious-faith-based explanations fall into hypocrisy when they fail to acknowledge the faith that rationalists have in science-based narratives. It might advance both sides of this odd little culture struggle if we all recognized our own “religious” and “faith” tendencies, including those with no affinity towards and/or opposition to an established religion.

Memorial Day Remembrance, 2014

I wrote this speech to deliver to the Village of Kohler, Wisconsin, as part of their 2014 Memorial Day parade and ceremony.

Memorial Day is dear to Americans because it isn’t about us. Simply put, if we are here to celebrate it, then it isn’t about us — because we are alive to remember. It honors the achievement and sacrifice of our countrymen and women whose service required their very life.

As a Marine, the stories of my forbearers who gave their lives in service are legendary to me. Nearly any Marine can tell you the story of Lieutenant Bobo. Quoting from his Medal of Honor citation: “When an exploding enemy mortar round severed Second Lieutenant Bobo’s right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position to cover the movement of the command group to a better location. With a web belt around his leg serving as a tourniquet and with his leg jammed into the dirt to curtail the bleeding, he remained in this position and delivered devastating fire into the ranks of the enemy attempting to overrun the Marines.” That occurred in Viet Nam in 1967.

A more recent example is Corporal Dunham. His Medal of Honor citation relates, “…[A]n insurgent leaped out and attacked Corporal Dunham. Corporal Dunham wrestled the insurgent to the ground and in the ensuing struggle saw the insurgent release a grenade. Corporal Dunham immediately alerted his fellow Marines to the threat. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast.” This occurred in Iraq in 2004.

These young Marines, and their sacrifice, live on in the institutional memory of the service. I first encountered Lieutanant Bobo’s name in 2003, when I underwent Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. It was the name of our Chow Hall, a place of great importance to us candidates, and our Drill Instructors never wasted an opportunity to tell us the story of the hall’s namesake (usually as part of a larger diatribe regarding our worthlessness and general incapacity to become Marines. Ah, the sweet nurturing environment of Basic Training!). Enlisted Marines also learn about Lieutenant Bobo in their Boot Camp. I know that in time, buildings and roads on bases throughout the Marine Corps will bear the name of Corporal Dunham, and newer generations of Marines will learn about — and be inspired by — his heroic deeds as well.

These two stories from different wars show us that the decision to give what President Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” at Gettysburg (arguably the first Memorial Day celebrated by this nation) is not made in the moment of stress. Lieutenant Bobo would not have had the fortitude to resist evacuation and direct the fight after losing his leg unless he had already decided, in some deep unconscious center of his soul, that he would give his all for his country. Corporal Dunham could not have jumped on that grenade “without hesitation” and within the five-second fuse of such weapons, had he not already chosen — in the months and years of training and operations prior to that moment –that the success and integrity of his mission and his team were more important than his own life.

This day is set aside to celebrate our nation’s fallen, but not only their final heroic deed of service. It celebrates also their lives, for each of them had the character and courage to dedicate themselves wholly to the rest of us long before we collectively asked them to sacrifice themselves. They represent the best of these United States, the ones who have made our existence and prosperity possible: the Minutemen who faced British cannon and muskets in 1775; the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiments who as part of the famed Iron Brigade defended the high ground west of Gettysburg on the first day of that battle, enabling the rest of the Union Army to emplace and finally score a victory which led to the preservation our nation whole; the Soldiers and Marines who faced the unprecedented peril of amphibious landings at Normandy and throughout the Pacific; the heroes of Viet Nam and recent conflicts in the Middle East.

Today I remember the Marines I knew personally who died in service. Some, like Lieutenant Blue, died in Battle. He was as an outstanding officer, who routinely aced physical and tactical tests at The Basic School where we were classmates. He was also known as a “good dude” (in our lingo), which meant he was the kind of guy who would give up weekends to help his fellow students master testable skills, like marksmanship and compass navigation. He already had what the rest of us recent college graduates were struggling to develop: outstanding character. In training, he had all the talent and drive to graduate as the number one student, but chose instead to use his gifts to help his fellow students (and even so he graduated in the top 10% of our class). Our success was more important to him than his own. If anyone understood the importance of character and service at the tender age of 25, when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq (2007), it was Lieutenant Blue. Word of his death spread quickly among his classmates, even to those like me who had limited interaction with him during our short time in school together. I believe he was the first of our class to die in the conflict, and he proved the old adage “the good die young.”

I also remember Marines who died in Training. A fellow fighter jock of mine, Reid Nannen, died this year [2014] when his F/A-18 Hornet crashed into the mountains of Nevada, where he was training at the Naval Fighter Weapons School (otherwise known as “Top Gun”). His callsign, or nickname, was “Eyore” because he was always comically pessimistic, but it under-laid his solemn unwavering dedication to the craft of aerial combat and aviation ground support, which had earned him the rare and coveted spot at Top Gun in the first place. He was also known for his dedication to his family, and was survived by his pregnant wife and three children. Although he was only training, it’s easy to forget that  our service members assume serious risk beyond what most non-military folks ever encounter in just training for combat. And it’s important to note that his family served our country in a way as well, suffering his absence when the country needed him to get ready for war as well as execute it, as he did in Afghanistan, and suffering his loss in the deepest way. Memorial Day is for them, too.

We celebrate the men and women who have died for us because we recognize that the highest and best use of freedom is in the service of others. Some wars we fought to carve out and preserve a spot of freedom on the earth to call home, these United States, and some wars we fought to bring freedom to others. But the men and women who died in our wars swore their lives to protect that freedom, firstly for us, but also for others less fortunate. I ask you all, as I would ask any of our countrymen, to enjoy this day as Americans — enjoy our freedom, our happiness, and our prosperity at the dawn of summer. Enjoy barbecues, enjoy some pick-up basketball games, and enjoy this time with your families. Enjoying our blessings is how I believe fallen service members want us to remember them.

But while enjoying this Memorial Day holiday, I will also honor the fallen with a quiet personal toast of my beer. I invite all of you to do the same.

Faith, Reason, and Debating the Existential “Big Questions”

I’m past college, and with those years has passed the incidence of earnest debate about things like religion and the meaning of life. That I attended a Catholic university and majored in a “Great Books” meant that I fielded my share of challenges from those who believed something different than I did, and one of the most pressing questions that came up at that time was why.

Why do you believe?

There is something fantastic and mythological, certainly, about the story of a God coming to earth in order to offer Himself up as a perfect, spotless sacrifice in order to atone for every human sin, past and future, and reconcile the human race to Himself as God. The particulars of the story are indeed quaint and uncomfortably sentimental: a sweet young woman chosen to miraculously conceive God’s child; archetypal authority figures hatching dastardly plots and darkly scheming to stop this bright young hero; a set of bumbling accomplices; an impossibly evil death; and the most mythical and unbelievable thing of all: that he was killed and then came back to life.

To my friends, well-educated and mostly liberal humanists, the tale of Christ bears too many similarities to the quaint myths of many other cultures, and is only the biggest myth in a child-like narrative of the world with a stylized creation story and a lot of horrible barbarities. Compared to sophisticated promise of modern disciplines like sociology, psychology, and specialized sciences, a primitive culture’s myth seems plainly archaic. How could anyone believe this, much less someone college-educated?

The challenge about answering this question is that it is ideological rather than academic. Those who ask it have a certain perspective which I don’t understand, but which seems to preclude the idea of a supernatural. Some profess to be humanists, who believe that continued enlightenment in sciences will eventually conquer our social and personal afflictions. Others profess to be rationalists, believing only in those things that science has proved or theorized.

Such alternative belief systems are not, in and of themselves, ideological. They fall more truly into the existential category, defining who we are and why we exist. But they seem to come with a lot of ideological baggage these days. After all, elements of our society today are unabashed and even aggressive apologists for faith (professing the Christian doctrine of sola scriptura) and many of them speak in terms of condemnation, specifically condemnation of those who disagree with them, to hell. They often stand for uncomfortably traditional values as well, like maintaining traditional gender and socio-economic roles. Now all of a sudden we aren’t talking about a different moral and existential perspective, we’re talking about an ideological opponent. And, to be fair, there are fundamentalist Christians who are offensive and judgmental in proselytizing their beliefs.

But to turn the tables, many so-called rationalists and/or humanists can be just as aggressive, and I am skeptical that their explanations of the world are actually more ‘rational’ than a faith-based one. It’s easy to talk about gravity or astronomical relations and say that we can “prove” real science empirically, but I doubt that many of us have empirically viewed the behavior of a virus, or the release of certain brain hormones causing affection or depression. We accept that viruses and brain hormones work a certain way because we have studied the effect of those things and measured them in actual humans, so we know they exist and they affect, somehow, our health or mental state. We also believe people called “scientists” when those people tell us about viruses and brain hormones (and the behavior of chemical elements, and many other things), because we have faith that their education and certification makes them intrinsically trustworthy on certain issues.

Whether or not you trust a scientist or a theologian (or a priest) is really the question, unless on. An Op-Ed in the Washington Post recently pointed out very thoroughly that the two sides are not mutually exclusive. I have little to add to the writer’s argument because I agree with him — I believe in the story of the Christ and yet also pursue understanding of scientific matters, because I want to know more about us and this world we inhabit. He ends with a marvelous paragraph worth quoting in full:

The problem comes when materialism, claiming the authority of science, denies the possibility of all other types of knowledge — reducing human beings to a bag of chemicals and all their hopes and loves to the firing of neurons. Or when religion exceeds its bounds and declares the Earth to be 6,000 years old. In both cases, the besetting sin is the same: the arrogant exclusive claim to know reality.

The answer to the question of why I believe the entirety of the Christian story, with it’s quaint mythological narratives about paradisiacal gardens and apples of knowledge of good and evil and floods and prophets and whales and the Son of God is that I find it more plausible than any of the alternatives. It really makes more sense to me. Not necessarily in they physical particulars (“do you really believe that some prophet actually parted water to create a passage?”), but in the tale it tells of how humanity became prone to doing bad things and how God then came Himself to redeem humanity from its sinful nature.

The Christian tale is plausible to me mostly because of my own experiences in sin and redemption. The vast majority of these experiences are with my own sins and redemptions in my life so far, and a few of them are observations of other peoples’ sins and redemptions. On a precious few occasions I recall witnessing a miracle, or experiencing a beatific presence I attribute to the Christian God. These things are open to interpretation in an academic sense, of course. Rationalists might argue that my experiences of good and bad in myself and others are filtered through a strong inculcated Catholic belief system. They might doubt that I, in fact, saw or experienced so-called “supernatural” things, and point to the demonstrated phenomenon of humans to manufacture memories that suit their subconscious perspectives. And as far as that goes, they may be right. I can’t transmit my experiences to others, so therefore I can’t expect anyone else to believe my conclusions. And yet I can no more forget them than an astronaut could forget his view of a round earth from space, or an astronomer could forget the sightings and calculations that the earth and nearer bodies revolved around the sun in elliptical trajectories.

My point here is not to convince anyone in my beliefs. I don’t think that’s possible — neither a rationalist nor a faith-based belief system can be truly transmitted via dialectic. Any belief system has to be experienced to be believed, personally and deeply experienced. And for a human, that means engaging both the intellect and whatever part of the brain controls belief.

Someone who believes that human emotions like love and depression are a combination of neuron activity and chemical activity in the brain has probably actively engaged the subject: he or she likely wondered why people experience love and other emotions, and pursued the answer until they found an explanation. That’s the activity of his or her intellect. He or she also had to exclude other explanations for emotions (presuming they found others), such as activity of a metaphysical soul, or instinctual behavior bred in by evolution, which is primarily a decision of faith. Does he or she trust neurologists who measure neuron activity and brain chemicals? Priests, philosophers, and/or wise men and women, who have reached a supernatural explanation due to their long experience in considering and/or observing human behavior? What about sociologists and/or biologists who study behavioral patterns and instinct activity?

Personally, I don’t believe that a scientist is intrinsically a better person than a priest or a philosopher. All three are human, which means they are subject to the same ideological myopia and vices, as well as the same inspiration and virtue, as the rest of us. No single person knows everything, and experience teaches that even if a person did, he or she would forget part of it, or hide part of it, or even use it to his/her advantage. Positing that it’s possible to know everything, and use that knowledge correctly, is coming dangerously close to positing God. Whether we follow to that conclusion, or stop short — and who/what we decide to trust and therefore believe — well, that’s just our obligation as rational beings. We each must individually decide what to believe.

It’s natural that each of us would seek like-minded friends in the world, and so it’s easy to see how we would gravitate towards those who believe the same things. So begins ideology, or the pursuit of actualizing an ideal, which carried to the extreme ends up forgetting that ideas are not more important than people — or so I argue as a Christian: that individuals have the highest intrinsic value; ideas may be valuable but they’re not worth more than life itself.

I plead that we don’t let this social instinct push us into prejudice. I and many people I know believe in the teachings of Christianity and yet also follow the progress of scientific knowledge. Many of these people are scientists or doctors themselves. And likewise, I know that people who religious faith (Christian or other) is irrational do not reduce the human experience to the peculiar behavior of a peculiar animal, enslaved to instinct and evolutionary imperative.

So let’s not discuss these existential issues of faith, science, reason, and belief with a desire to win, especially to win by painting other belief systems in pejorative colors. Rather let’s do it to better understand ourselves and each other.