Republicans in Congress: This is what you asked for

To the Republicans in Congress,

This is what you asked for.

Four years of enabling an autocratic, anti-democratic, narcissistic and deranged man has now led to where we are now.

On January 6th, you and Vice President Pence were huddled in secure locations inside the US Capitol as a horde of Trump loyalists broke through measly security protocols and took control of the building, the first time it had been done so by an alternate entity since 1814. Many of them were reportedly there to kill and/or capture members of Congress, and perhaps even the Vice President.

And I will remind you, they did so at Trump’s behest.

“We’re going to march down to the Capitol,” he said.

“You have to be strong,” he said. “You can’t show weakness.”

And, of course, it wasn’t just him. His lunatic lawyer, the formerly loved and now disgraced Rudy Guliani, added gasoline to the fire. “Let’s have trial by combat.”

And we did. A policeman died. A dozen others injured. Why?

Because a violent mob stormed the US Capitol in an insurrectionist move to try to change the course of a free and fair election, one which had no conspiratorial voter fraud, no dead people voting, no double voting, no undocumented immigrant voting, and no fake people voting.

If there was evidence of this, the courts would have listened. But judges across the country threw out these cases because there was no evidence. And some of these judges were appointed by Trump himself.

For months you let Trump build his powderkeg of lies about election fraud and claiming of only agreeing to the election results if he won the election.

You shrugged it off. It’s okay, you thought, it’s just Trump being Trump. Everything will be fine.

And that’s the issue, right? Let Trump be Trump.

And that’s the problem, right?

Lindsay Graham knew. “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s unfit for office.”

Ted Cruz knew, especially when Trump called him a liar, called his wife ugly, and implicated Cruz’s father in the JFK assassination.

Mitch McConnell knew. They all knew. And they stood by, putting politics over principle.

And you stood by for the last four years, as Trump lied, and lied, and lied, more than any other president in history. You watched as he directed children be put in cages, phoned the Ukrainian president to put his political ambition ahead of US national security interests, order thousands of federal police officers to snatch protesters off the streets and put them in unmarked white vans, meet with Kim Jung Un without any concessions, share highly sensitive Israeli intelligence with Russia, and most recently downplay a deadly virus that has killed about 400,000 Americans…when he knew how deadly it was.

Every day, the pillars of democracy were crumbling at his will.

America was dying. And you were in the front row, watching it all burn down.

“Let’s get back to work,” Pence said from the Senate floor after followers of his boss sat in his very chair a few hours before.

Pence, you could have…should have…been telling your boss to get back to work a long time ago. But, no, you let him stew in his binging of Fox News, One America News Network, Breitbart, and whatever other garbage was on television that day.

Congressional Republicans, you could have…should have…been exercising your ability to check the president when he went on his tirades. But you didn’t.

Now, there are death threats against you for not voting to object to states’ electoral college votes. Lindsay Graham is being heckled and threatened by Trump supporters as he tries to board an airplane. Other Republican members of Congress are receiving the same, especially those 10 who voted to impeach the president for inciting an insurrection. QAnon conspiracy theorists now walk the halls of the House of Representatives as elected officials.

But that’s where we are. And that’s how you wanted it right?

The warning signs were there…day after day…month after month…year after year. Many of us said it. Most Americans agreed. But you didn’t. Because Trump was giving you your judges, signing laws that restricted immigration, reduced benefits for people of color, pulled us away from our international allies, reversed climate policy, etc.

Trump was doing his bidding and getting you what you wanted. And you felt good.

But like any drug abuser. You took a little more Trump each day. And by the time you realized it, you were a full blown addict along with 10% of the American people who are full blown Trump addicts.

You still refuse to recognize yourselves as Trump addicts. “No, I don’t have a problem,” you say. “You can count me out,” said Lindsay Graham, and only a few days later, he was back on his Trump addiction flying with him to Florida.

Just like it took only a few hours to knock down the Twin Towers after taking years to build. Our democracy, which has taken more than 200 years to build, has been eviscerated to its core. Even during the Civil War, American democracy was not threatened like it is today.

Civil War. That’s what many of the insurrectionists wanted right? They wanted a revolution. They wanted a new civil war.

Law enforcement intelligence indicates that every state capitol is under threat of attack on or around inauguration day. The presidential inauguration itself will have no public participation because of the fear of assassination of new members of the administration. Washington DC, my former home, is almost entirely locked down with a green zone and a red zone.

The last time I was in a city with those restrictions was in 2011 in Baghdad, Iraq. Why? Because there were terrorists and insurrectionists who would kill Americans at a moments notice if they could.

And now that is my backyard. This is America.

And that’s what you get. Because this is what you asked for.

The eerily relevant comparison between Donald Trump and the Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Their name accurately depicts what they are–pizza-eating, somewhat immature, overgrown turtles with incredible fighting abilities.

With their master Splinter, an overgrown rat with ninja skills, they fight the Shredder and his Foot Clam as they terrorize New York as a dangerous criminal syndicate.

In the first ninja turtles movie, the Shredder appears in a dark and dimly lit warehouse, surrounded by the members of the Foot. He calls out to them:

Money cannot buy the honor which you have earned tonight. You make us all proud. Only effort, discipline, loyalty will earn you the right to wear [our symbol]. You are here because the outside world rejects you. This is your family. I am your father. I want you all to become full members of The Foot. There is a new enemy…freaks of nature who interfere with our business. You are my eyes and ears. Find them. Together we will punish these creatures! These turtles!

Pride. Loyalty. The call of rejection. Family. Enemy.

Then it hit me. These are all tactics that Donald Trump has used to secure his following. Pride in America. Loyalty to him. Rejection by people not like them. A family of supporters. The media, immigrants, liberals as enemies.

It was a shocking, yet appropriate relation.

Toward the end of the movie, one of the Foot Clan members, a red-headed teenager named Danny, has a change of heart and decides to help free Splinter, who had been held captive in the Foot’s hideout.

As Splinter is freed, one of the teens blurts out: “Let’s get him! We have a loyalty to The Shredder!”

Splinter looks up at him.

“The Shredder uses you. He poisons your minds to obtain that which he desires. He cares nothing for you or the people you hurt.”

“We’re a family,” the boy says in response.

“Family? Is that what you said? You call this here and that down there family?” he asks rhetorically, pointing to the Foot Clan hangout, where the teen boys learned to fight, steal, smoke cigarettes, and gamble.

In the end, the truth was in our own society, just as Splinter had said: Donald Trump uses you. He poisons your minds to obtain that which he desires. He cares nothing for you or the people you hurt.”

“We’re a family,” the Proud Boys member says in response, as he prepares to march on Washington.

Counterproductive pride: The story of how the US Army refused to adjust, ending the careers of two top brass

In September 2011, I was at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq and we were in the middle of negotiating with the Iraqi government about extending the US military presence there. Brett McGurk, who negotiated the 2008 status of forces agreement, was back in the country as a senior adviser to Ambassador Jim Jeffrey and was working with the Iraqis to try to find a way to strike a deal.

Our plan was to keep about 10,000 troops in the country to provide a massive training and advice mission to Iraqi military commanders and their units. The plan placed all US forces in Iraq under Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, a former division commander of combat troops in Iraq in a previous assignment. Within that 10,000 would be an undisclosed number of special operations forces, which would be led by a two-star admiral named Ed Winters, a Navy SEAL and former commander of DEVGRU. And finally, there would be a large foreign military sales program led by an air force one-star general who was an expert in contracts, acquisitions, and military sales.

In mid-to-late September, Caslen and his staff arrived in the country, taking the reins of the US advising and training mission from LTG Michael Ferriter and waited for us at the embassy to do our work and get the status of forces agreement passed through the Iraqi government.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki expressed to us on numerous occasions his desire to keep a large number of US troops in the country but repeatedly told us that he did not see how he could get the agreement passed through the Iraqi parliament. In short, Iraq found a lot of value in having the US military in the country, but it was just time to move on.

As September turned to October, General Lloyd Austin, the US military commander in Iraq, and other generals were growing concerned about their ability to get all of the military equipment and personnel out of the country before the end of the year when the agreement expired.

The clock kept ticking until October 18th and with no movement by the Iraqi government, we received the order from the White House: bring the troops home. There would be no new agreement. No 10,000 troops. No special operations forces. No training mission. The only thing that would remain would be a staff of about 150 senior military officers who would conduct the United States’ largest foreign military sales program in the world and be officially attached to the embassy as diplomatic personnel. It was called the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I).

At this point, the Pentagon had a choice to make: keep LTG Caslen, RADM Winters, and the others in those positions, putting them in charge of the security cooperation mission or recall them and replace them with others who would be more fitting for these roles.

For context, most OSC programs, like the large ones in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Israel and other countries to whom we sell a lot of equipment, usually are run by one-star generals or perhaps even a colonel. In Iraq, we had, at this point, three officers with stars on their shoulders, plus even a few civilians of equivalent rank. And beneath them was a horde of colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors. This was in addition to the official US defense attache, a US Army colonel.

As the US military began a two-month endeavor to move tens of thousands of people and tons and tons of equipment out of the country and across the border into Kuwait, every day I would receive a situation report from our military counterparts that showed fewer and fewer troops in the country.

While the US military is certainly the world’s greatest logistics machine, it was not the most flexible organization. It was a proud bunch who didn’t like to admit defeat or error, and they stuck to their guns regarding the team that would remain. And then the news came: the army held firm that Caslen and his team would lead the way for a successful security cooperation relationship between the US and Iraq. Caslen and Winters, the army said, were the right people for the job.

But even as a 27-year-old one-time diplomat and junior navy reserve intelligence officer, I knew their backgrounds didn’t align to their new mission, and I had a feeling this was going to be rough.

As the year turned, and LTG Caslen became the official head of the security cooperation mission, he continued to do things like he was leading a combat mission. He ran his joint operations briefings twice a day, getting updates from each of his joint staff section heads on the status of their operations. As the weeks passed, I could see the futility (and in many cases absurdity) of the entire situation.

One day, Caslen was being briefed by his J-6, the officer in charge of communications, who reported that US personnel who were located at one of the Iraqi military bases didn’t have enough cell phones. Then ensued a 15-minute discussion in front of the entire group about how to get them more cell phones. I just kept thinking: Caslen is a three-star general and he has to figure out how to get a few cell phones to a base in the middle of the desert? This should be handled by a sergeant. Caslen shouldn’t be involved in this. The army screwed him. Caslen, to his credit, was doing the best he could with the shit sandwich he was given.

It wasn’t any better for Winters. He was originally selected to lead special operations forces and continue the hunt for the handful of guys who were leading the suicide bombs and rocket attacks that still plagued the country. But he couldn’t. He was left to shake hands with Iraqi generals at dinner parties and visit some Iraqi army bases to view their tank training. For a guy who was the former commander of Naval Special Warfare Command and one who was awarded a Legion of Merit and not one, not two, but three Bronze Stars, the army screwed him, too. Winters never directly stated to me in any of our discussions that he was unhappy with how things turned out, but my gut told me otherwise.

Caslen and Winters were guys who had led thousands of people in combat and now they were relegated to selling military equipment, while their counterparts of equal rank had far more high-profile positions.

When I left Iraq in August 2012, Rear Admiral Winters had already departed the country. Caslen stayed another year until 2013, when he took an assignment as the Commandant of West Point, of which he was an alumnus.

And that ended up being Caslen’s swan song. He retired from West Point in 2018 with three stars, never earning his fourth, which I always felt was his ultimate goal. Caslen is now serving as the president of the University of South Carolina, a fitting assignment considering his recent experience. We recently connected on LinkedIn, and he offered the opportunity to catch up and show me around his campus if I ever visited the Columbia area.

Winters retired with two stars a year after returning from Baghdad. Interestingly, his official navy biography page doesn’t even list his assignment in Iraq. He settled on the Florida gulf coast, near where he grew up, with his wife and kids, and he began working a number of security-related consulting positions. As he wrote to me in an email: “Security and assessment missions are the best because you run into old friends.” I was just glad he was back doing what he did best.

And that’s the story of how the US military screwed two very capable flag officers out of further advancement. The Army had the chance to pivot, but it remained firm in its counterproductive pride. And that pride is what ended the careers of two very fine combat veterans.

A song for Greta Thunberg, for her bravery and maturity in the face of Trump the bully

It was an iconic moment for me.

I was sitting in our locker room, having just returned from wearing one of the Washington Nationals Racing Presidents costumes at the center field plaza, welcoming in fans as they attended that night’s game.

One of the other staff members sitting near me started laughing.

“What’s up?”

“Oh, you won’t like it,” he responded.

I shrugged. He showed me the video anyway.

It was the video of President Trump walking by Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, while giving her the side-eye and a smirk.

My coworker loved it. I did not.

“She’s just a kid, man.”

Several months later, Trump tweeted that she needed to work on her “anger management” and directing her to “chill.” The tweet came in response to Thunberg being named Time Magazine’s person of the year for 2019.

That moment pushed me over the edge.

She’s just a kid, I thought again. How could he say those things? She wasn’t a politician…or even an adult. She was a 16-year-old child with Asperger’s Syndrome.

And so, my own anger formed into a new song called Just in Time.

When I was developing the song, I found inspiration in two of my favorite punk songs, Too Close to See by Strung Out and Bullion by Millencolin. The former had a lyrical structure and tone that resonated with me and I absolutely loved the closing guitar riff of the latter. When I put both together, I had something I was really proud of.

And that’s how it happened.

The song starts off with a slow drum beat and the first set of calm lyrics:

She comes to haunt you to stand up with the truth that the world is up on fire

She stands there waiting, you walk on by taking your pompous strides, so dire

And the chorus grows a bit of intensity:

She’s just a kid, man! What the hell is wrong with you?

She’s just a kid, man! How could you say those things?

She’s just a kid, man! You know her presence stings…

I wanted to continue the ending lyrics from the first chorus, so I go right back into them with this:

…you right where it hurts most, prevents you from the boast that you’re not worth the bother

Lucky for Greta, more adult than you are, and now she’s on the cover

Then back to the chorus, with the last line changed to this:

She’s just a kid, man! You know her presence rings…

Here, the song shifts to the chord progression I mentioned above with a drum roll that eventually explodes in sync with a cymbal crash, hard guitars and vocals that resonate:

Around the world!

As the guitar riff is being played, the vocals fade and end, and I added two harmonizing guitar riffs of four single notes that complement each other quite well. I don’t know much music theory, but I try to use the knowledge I do have to get riffs like this. And I will say that it’s my favorite few seconds on the entire album.

At the end of the song, I end with the lyrics:

Greta’s just in time

Of course, referring to her feature in Time Magazine.

Looking back, although this song is slower (in general) than the other songs on the album, it might be my favorite. It means a lot to me because it’s so touching to me.

Now that I am a parent of a daughter, I can’t imagine anyone, let alone a septuagenarian leader of a democratic country, talking about my daughter like that.

Like I said in the lyrics: She’s just a kid, man. What the hell is wrong with you?

A Tribute to LTC Vindman: The Wrong Side of the Right

In November 2019, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He was there to provide information he knew as the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert.

In short, he was listening in on the July 2019 phone call President Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the one where Trump asked for “a favor.”

That phrasing by Trump is what triggered the inquiry that led to the eventual impeachment of President Trump on December 18, 2019.

Vindman testified that he was “concerned” by the call and that he “did not think it was appropriate to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen” because it would “undermine U.S. national security.”

During his testimony, he was asked why he felt confident that he could testify, he said: “Congressman, because this is America. This is a country I have served and defended, that all of my brothers have served, and here, right matters.”

Shortly after this testimony, Vindman was fired by Trump and removed from the NSC. Trump also fired Vindman’s brother, who also worked at the NSC.

In the summer of 2020, Vindman was up for promotion to colonel, and Senator Duckworth demanded that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper confirm in writing that the Trump administration would not block Vindman’s promotion or she would hold up the promotions of 1,000 other officers.

In response, Vindman announced his retirement.

Having served as an officer in the navy reserve myself, this story struck me. He was a second-generation American, who joined the army, fought in combat, and served, seemingly, with distinction and honor. When compelled to testify because of a subpoena, he answered questions honestly and was fired for doing so. Then, putting others before himself, he retired rather than receiving a promotion he duly deserved.

So I decided to write a song…

The lyrics came quite easily, as I used the reports I link above to write the song

Purple heart, ranger tab, combat vet with a CIB (combat infantryman badge)

Never a problem, never a pest, just a lite colonel with a Harvard degree

And then the bridge:

Sacked himself so the others move on…no regrets just a new day’s dawn

And the chorus:

You know we gotta fight back, this time

Rise on up and take back what’s right

In America, what’s right matters

Unless you’re on the wrong side of the right

The last line stuck with me. It was clear that Vindman’s testimony was a partisan affair, but it was clear to me that he was just doing his job. He spoke “truth to power” and did it confidently and clearly.

To him (and me) right matters, unless you were a Republican on the committee, and therefore “on the right side of the right.”

Then I wrote the second set of verse lyrics:

Job on the line with his Class As on and he answers you as you look to Don

Hoping he sees you grill the guy who speaks his truth but it does no use

When I was composing the guitar, bass, and drum tracks, I wanted to emulate a military marching cadence, so I developed a guitar riff that matched that rhythm and style. The introduction of the song builds and gets slightly faster and even more punchy.

I decided to add a guitar solo before the transition to the first set of lyrics, and I had my engineer, Ben Schwartz, add a solo at the end of the song providing a bookend guitar riff.

I’m proud of the song, and consider it my minor tribute to LTC Vindman for his bravery, courage, and ultimate sacrifice.

You can listen on the:

Truth Assassin Bandcamp page or Truth Assassin Spotify page.

Song two: Yes, America is dying

In early September, I read an article on Medium entitled We Don’t Know How to Warn You Any Harder. America is Dying. The article was written by Umair Haque and describes how he and a number of people he knows are children of parents who fled authoritarian regimes. He has a dire warning:

This is how authoritarianism happens…and it’s happening here.

I read the article, and despite some of its hyperbolic tendencies, I happened to agree with much of it. As a CIA military analyst for many years, I studied dictatorships and autocratic regimes, and I saw many similar trends happening here in America. We have seem armed young men willing to take violence to the streets on behalf of their leader (think Kyle Rittenhouse). Trump used federal agents, many (but not all) of whom were unidentified, under the control of an acting DHS secretary, whom OPM said is illegally serving in that role.

The list goes on…

Then something in the article resonated with me:

This is not a joke. This is not a drill.

It was something I had been preaching for some time…the pillars of American democracy seemed to be crumbling in what could be our biggest test of the structure of our country since the Civil War.

So I started to write lyrics based off of inspiration from the article:

No names. No rank. No common sense.

Just throw them in the van and then remind them it’s just happenstance.

No crime. No charge. No writ of proof.

Just roll up in the unmarked van and realize they’re coming for you.

Of course, I am referencing the federal agents, many of whom are unnamed who were snatching up people off the streets in Portland, putting them into unmarked vans and detaining them without any evidence or investigation. Part of the lyrics come from first-hand accounts of people who were detained by these agents in Portland that I watched in a Washington Post video.

Then I kept writing more lyrics that fit the same style:

No face. No place. No history.

Just line up there in Lafayette and watch him in his tyranny.

No love. No care. No empathy.

Just standing there to break their bones, with sticks and shields to make them bleed.

This, of course, is another reference to the incident in Lafayette Square when the president ordered peaceful protesters to be violently cleared by federal officers. Video evidence shows there was no warning, just shield and batons used to hit the demonstrators as they were forced backward. All for a photo op…

When I was conceptualizing the chorus, I went back to the original article I read:

This is not a joke. This is not a drill.

White and armed, they march the streets to kill.

This is not a joke. This is not a drill.

The pillars of democracy are crumbling at his will.

America is dying.

And I meant it, I really did (and do) think our country is dying. The pillars of democracy, a free press, the freedom to organize and demonstrate…these ideals were being attacked relentlessly.

I feared the future.

The song ends up being the longest I’ve ever written, thanks to a repetition of the chorus three times and an outro that is fast and hard-hitting. There is also a solo in the middle of the song, after the second chorus, something I rarely do.

But I’m not great at solos, so I brought in some help: Adil Qureshi, the lead guitarist from a Megadeth tribute band called Dethstrike. I met Adil through my band Spirit in Black, as we had played a show together in 2019, and all of us from the three bands (including NFT an Anthrax tribute band) were on the same group chat.

Adil wrote an incredible solo and I’m glad to have him participate in the song.

Ben Schwartz, the engineer for the album, told me he liked this song the best out of all the songs on the new album. “You should make this a single,” he said.

Maybe he was right, but now that’s for you to decide.

Let me know what you think. Click the picture below to listen to the song.

https://truthassassin.bandcamp.com/track/unmasked-america-is-dying

How I wrote my new song called “Law and Order”: Calling out Trump’s hypocrisy

The first song on my new Truth Assassin album is called Law and Order. It’s about 1:40 long, a good and typical length for a punk song. The song was inspired by Trump’s continual usage of “law and order” on his Twitter feed and his public statements about the protests following the death of George Floyd. The basis of the song is the irony I found that a man who promotes “law and order” has had no less than eight close associates charged and/or convicted of crimes and is under investigation for crimes himself. If you want to listen to the song first before reading the rest of my explanation, visit the Truth Assassin Bandcamp page.

The hypocrisy makes me cringe, so I wanted to build a song around the idea that the president’s talk is cheap, and that he only cares about “law and order” when it putting himself in a good light, but never those close to him or even himself.

So I began to put the song together…

One of the ways songwriters come up with new riffs is by playing around on a guitar while recording it. You put different chords together and see if you can come up with some unique rhythms. With Law and Order, I felt like I had a head-bopping, grooving, four-chord riff, using the A, D, C, and G chords in succession.

As I played around more with the riff, it seemed like it would fit as a good intro to the song but the more I played it, I thought it would work as the rhythm guitar to the verses, as well, so I laid down several measures and started to write lyrics that fit the rhythm and the atmosphere of the song.

The lyrics of the first verse went like this:

Law and order? It’s all for cover, weekly trips to your tax shelters

Never a trust, just sidestep by it emoluments are flying by, yeah

FBI in the same location, stifling all competition

Welcoming the interference leads the way to your impeachment

I was making the point that the president’s comments about “law and order” was a ruse, based on how much his company has made by his continual visits to his own personal properties paid for by taxpayer dollars, the fact that he never put his interest in his company in a trust like previous presidents had done, and that he was receiving emoluments from foreign government officials who were staying at his properties. The part about the FBI references his direction for the FBI to stay in its rundown headquarters building in Washington DC, as he was not interested in having that space turned over to a developer to build a hotel so close to his hotel in the old post office building. The last line, of course, refers to his several statements welcoming election interference, which was the basis of his impeachment by the House of Representatives.

At the end of the first verse, I change the rhythm guitar riff and add in a two-string guitar fill that is in the same scale as the supporting riff. Then, I decided to go right back into the second verse:

Law and order? It’s chaos out there all because of Black men shot dead

Fires rage across the heartland, women and men with fists raised shout, yeah

Thousands line up at your doorstep, picketing lines won’t move for the feds

Launch the gas at calm protesters, clear the way for the new dear leader

The lyrics in this verse refer to the protests that erupted following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. It was quite a chaotic scene across the country as some of the protests descended into riots, though it is important to note, most protests were peaceful. The second half of the lyrics again refer to the incident at Lafayette Square. I chose to use the term “dear leader” because of Trump’s seeming infatuation with dictators, autocrats, and other tyrants, many of whom command cults of personality, similar to Trump.

At the end of this verse, I added a bridge that used a variation of the first guitar fill to provide continuity between the first and second verses.

Then, as I was contemplating how the rest of the song would go, something hit me. Trump seemed invincible vis-a-vis the law and I didn’t know what we could do about it. That led to this lyric:

Laws don’t apply to you and we don’t know what to do

I began to play around with the different notes and rhythms for how I could incorporate it into the song, I settled on going from a high to low pitch to evoke a sense of helplessness. But one of my favorite things to do with vocals is to harmonize when I can, similar to how the quintessential hardcore political punk band Bad Religion does.

I’m not trained vocalist by any means, but I do what I can. So I worked on it and came up with two vocal tracks that harmonized in the right places.

From here, I wanted to build up the song to a powerful ending, so I brought back the guitar riff from the verse, palm muted it, and added a different drum beat. Then, I had a build up of drums and guitar until the ending of the song explodes with the lyrics:

Laws do apply to you and we’re coming after you

The song speeds up at the end continuing the guitar riff and fast drums that use the crash cymbal instead of the standard hi-hat, which adds to the crescendo effect as the song ends.

This song is one of my favorite songs on the new album, called The Downfall of Democracy, and that’s why I put it first. I think it has an intriguing and eventually explosive beginning, has a good message, and some cool guitar fills and harmonizing vocals. It also seemed fitting to have the first song on an album called The Downfall of Democracy be titled Law and Order…

You can check out my new album by clicking the images below, which will take you to Truth Assassin’s Bandcamp page. Click the image below to listen to the song for free.

https://truthassassin.bandcamp.com/track/law-and-order

Surprise! Yes, for two years, I was a Washington Nationals Racing President

It is true. For the 2018 and 2019 baseball seasons, I was a member of the Washington Nationals entertainment staff, specifically one of the people who wore the famous Racing Presidents costumes. I am no longer on the staff, so I felt I could share my story of how and why I joined the Racing Presidents and some of the experiences I had as a mascot. It is the story of some incredible experiences—many things I will never forget and an incredible group of people, most of whom remain secret to this day.

Prior to this, I hadn’t publicly admitted my status as a Racing President for two reasons. First, my original employment agreement stated that my employment was governed by various rules and procedures, one of which concerned my obligation to keep confidential the proprietary, non-public, and confidential information that I was given as Nationals employee. As I am no longer an employee, I am no longer bound by that agreement (nor did I sign a nondisclosure agreement). Second, the world of mascoting has an unwritten code of secrecy. While it’s no secret to anyone above the age of an elementary school child that there is a human being behind the costume, there is still a clandestineness to it that should be kept sacred.

As a former mascot, I will continue to respect the secrecy of mascoting, and in my story I neither identify the names of anyone involved with the Racing Presidents or entertainment staff nor disclose the inner workings of the Racing Presidents or the races. Those are secrets that should be kept to protect the future work of my former teammates and keep alive the mystery of mascoting. What I describe is only my perspective of what fans could witness by watching the races.

This story has not been reviewed by the Nationals organization or any of my former teammates from the entertainment staff. The first time they read it—if they do read it—will be because they viewed this page.

Trying out for the Racing Presidents

Following the move to Nationals Park for the 2008 season, my grandparents purchased a partial season ticket plan and I would regularly go to games with them. My family grew attached—to some degree—to the Nationals and we were all upset when the Nationals seemed to lose every playoff series they had. I personally had been to all three game five losses by the Nationals in the National League Division Series (2012, 2016, and 2017).

Despite the playoff blunders, I really enjoyed going to games, my favorite part of which was the Presidents Race. In the middle of the fourth inning, four larger-than-life mascots who resembled the four presidents engraved in Mount Rushmore darted out from behind the center field gate and raced around the warning track to the finish line near first base. Sometimes it was an all-out race, other times they would put on a skit, or one of the Racing Presidents would get taken out by another.

In late 2017, I was waiting for my wife Abby to return home from a night out with friends, when I saw a posting on a popular DC blog that said the Nationals were accepting applications to join the Racing Presidents. Applications were due by midnight. When Abby got home, I asked for her thoughts. “You’d be perfect,” she said. I thought I would be, too. I submitted my online application before the deadline was eventually invited to the Racing Presidents tryout in January 2018.

The morning of the tryout was one of the coldest days of the year, with the temperature in the single digits upon my arrival to the site of the tryout at around 8 a.m. Nevertheless, I was determined to see what would happen and hoped that the bitter cold my body was sustaining would be worth it. Every few minutes, groups of three would be taken behind a curtain and soon after would emerge wearing the costumes. Each person had to complete a 40-yard dash and two simulated races, as well as showing off their dance moves and a victory pose.

I waited almost three hours before my name was finally called. I was put in the Thomas “Tom” Jefferson costume and somehow made it through all of the races and poses without falling. After I took off the costume, my three-person group was directed to wait in line inside the training center for an in-person interview. I waited another three hours until finally, around 3 p.m., I had my opportunity. My group of five interviewees were asked questions about our motivations, our availability for games and events, and some ideas that we had for potential race skits. I was honest in my answers and hoped that they would be good enough for the staff to offer me a position.

A few days later, I received a phone call from the director of the entertainment staff, who had run the tryout and conducted the interviews, offering me a spot to join the entertainment staff as a Racing President. I wanted to burst with joy and excitement, but I was at work, surrounded by coworkers in cubicles next to mine and knew I needed to keep my news secret. As I had learned at the tryout, there was a secrecy involved in mascoting, and I wanted to respect that.

I told him how excited I was and that I was grateful for the opportunity.

Learning to mascot

During the next few months, between January and the start of the baseball season, I learned from veteran Racing Presidents about mascoting, including the rules, the dos and don’ts, the mannerisms, and the tricks of the trade. I received a tour of the inside of the stadium, the part underneath the stands that fans don’t get to see. I was shown our locker room, the center field area where the Racing Presidents started their races, and various other places that were necessary for me to know as a new employee.

The underbelly of Nationals Park. I’m eating a sandwich on the way to the locker room.

Within a few weeks, I attended practice sessions where I donned one of the costumes and ran simulated races over and over again. The more practice I had with the 50-pound monstrosity that was attached to my body, the better I would be when the season started.

My grandmother’s last wish: watching me race

In mid-March, a few weeks before opening day, I received an email indicating that I was going to be racing in the preseason exhibition game between the Nationals and the Minnesota Twins. I put it on my calendar and eagerly awaited the day.

At the same time I spent February and March learning to be a mascot, my grandmother was slowly dying of stomach and colon cancer, and her condition was deteriorating each day, and we didn’t know how long she had to live. As her body shut down, her memory became worse and worse, although she never forgot that I was one of the Racing Presidents and continued to ask me when she could watch me in a game. When I told her that I would be racing in the exhibition game, she wanted to be there.

Normally, my grandparents took the metro from Gaithersburg to Nationals Park, but with my grandmother doing so poorly, I decided to spend whatever money was necessary to get them to the park as easily and carefree as possible. I pre-ordered a private car service to pick up my grandparents from their condo and drive them directly to the game. Upon their arrival, Abby would be waiting for them at the center field entrance. She would escort them to their seats and be with them until my grandmother needed to go home.

The morning of the exhibition game I emailed my boss and confirmed that my grandparents would be in the stands. He knew that my grandmother was dying, so when I requested that he allow me to take pictures with them in costume during the game, he immediately agreed.

A few hours later, Abby drove to the game and arrived about 30 minutes before the 4:05 start time so she could take pictures of me as I interacted with fans at the center field gate plaza while she waited for my grandparents to arrive.

While I didn’t know she was there, I was roaming the plaza entertaining the few fans who entered the stadium. Little children lit up when they saw me and ran up to me asking for a high five or a picture or even a hug. I had the opportunity to entertain people, make them laugh and feel good, from young babies to the elderly, and that was an incredible feeling.

After about 45 minutes, the four of us in the Racing Presidents costumes returned to the locker room a few minutes before the game started. After I took off the costume, I looked at my phone and saw a message from Abby saying that she and my grandparents were in their seats. I reconfirmed the plan with Tom, and he assigned one of the Secret Service handlers to help me get to their section in the sixth inning. I texted Abby letting her know when and where I would be.

In the middle of the second inning, we put the costumes back on and made our way through the bowels of the stadium to the grounds crew area where we waited for the race to begin.

Our boss gave us a pep talk and reminded us of the four rules of the Racing Presidents: run fast, don’t fall, stay off the grass, and get off the field.

He then walked from the grounds crew area toward the center field gate, which he would open for us to use as the entrance onto the warning track. “Three to go!” he yelled, indicating the fourth inning had started. We lined up with Teddy first, Abe second, me in the Tom costume in third, and George fourth. My heart started pounding. I was about to run a 200-yard dash with a 50-pound costume attached to my body, where the center of gravity was six feet above my head. I had carried heavy military backpacks before, but they were nothing compared to this.

“Two to go!” I once more ensured the costume was tight, ensuring I had as much control over it as possible. But I made it so tight it was difficult to breathe. I’d be fine, I thought, I would breathe when the race was over.

“One to go!” This was it. Only a few more moments to go. Then, we heard the crowd cheer as the Nationals got the last out of the top of the inning. “Get ready!” he yelled as he looked up at the jumbotron waiting for the Racing Presidents intro video to finish.

Then, we heard the signal:

“GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!”

One by one, we all started running toward the gate. There wasn’t a lot of room for us to fit through, so we had to be careful. If I clipped the side of the wall, I’d definitely fall and might even trip George who was right behind me. But I made it through still standing, making a quick turn to the left so I could start my sprint. Teddy and Abe were already ahead of me, but I soon caught up and passed them. Then, I saw George run past me, taking the inside lane. As we turned the corner from the warning track to the first base line, I could see the finish line ahead. George and I were neck and neck. I wanted to win for Grandma! As I gave all my energy and crossed the finish line, I heard the PA announcer:

“And the winner is….George!”

Disappointed and out of breath, I joined the other Racing Presidents and clapped and cheered for George while he waved the checkered flag.

After resting in the bottom of the fourth inning and taking pictures with other families in the fifth, the four Racing Presidents split up in groups of two and went to each baseline to wait for the seventh inning stretch. During this break, along with a Secret Service mascot handler, I crammed myself and costume into an elevator which took us from the belly of the stadium to the concourse right outside section 113 where my family was sitting.

I came out of the elevator and saw Abby waiting for me. I ran up to her giving her a hug for the first time while in costume. Then, I saw my grandmother walking up the steps of the aisle, one by one, to the concourse. She paused at the top, looked at me, and smiled wide. She shuffled her feet as she walked up to me, then gave me a hug. “Hi, Grandma,” I said softly so no passersby would hear me speaking in costume. “Hi, Parker,” she whispered back. I began to cry as I embraced her. A few moments later, my grandfather was walked up from the seats and joined me, Abby, and my grandmother for a few quick pictures. Before I knew it, I was back in the elevator heading down to prepare for the seventh inning stretch.

My grandparents and Abby left shortly after and didn’t stay to watch me in the seventh inning. Abby drove them to Maryland before returning to our home in Washington, DC. Later that night, Abby told me how all my grandmother could do on the ride home was talk about the race and how I almost won.

While we didn’t know it at the time, that baseball game was the last thing my grandmother did outside of her apartment community. Three weeks later, she was on her deathbed.

My first game results in an injury that plagues me the rest of the season

My first real game, as timing would have it, was a Sunday, and my grandmother had spent the last two days gasping for air as her body continued to shut down. The hospice staff we hired to take care of her informed us that she probably would be dead before the weekend was over. As a result of that news, family had begun to fly in from across the country, and we began congregating at my grandparents’ condo, doing our best to support my grandfather, as he was about to lose his spouse of 61 years.

My family knew that I was a Racing President and they all tuned into watch the game from the condo living room, as it might be a nice distraction from the terrible inevitability that was coming at any moment. We knew that MASN, the network that broadcasts Nationals games, usually showed highlights of the Presidents Race as the network returned from the mid-4th inning commercial break. If the race was good, perhaps my family could see highlights and be entertained for a respite, however brief.

As I rode a bicycle from my home to Nationals Park, I joined up with another Racing President also working the game for the ride down. “I think I have a good chance of winning,” I told her.

“Yeah, could be,” she responded.

“I think it would be great if I could win this one for my grandmother.”

In the locker room, I suited up in the Tom costume and began to stretch and mentally prepare for the race.

“Presidents!” Our boss yelled to us in the locker room before the game started. “Another thing. NOBODY FALLS TODAY. The warning track is crappy because of the rain and falling and it will ruin the costumes. Okay? Nobody falls!” His direction seemed clear. While I knew not falling was one of the major four rules, it seemed especially important today.

“Three to go!”

As the top of the fourth inning came, we lined up in our pre-race position, directly under the center field seats. Teddy was first, George was second, Abe was third, and I was coming out last.

“Two to go!” our boss yelled.

I started to get excited. My heart started to beat faster as I realized that I was about to run my first real race in front of thousands of people. I thought about my grandmother and how much she would have loved to have been at the game, eating chicken tenders and fries, eating ice cream, and watching me run, yelling “Go, Tom! Go!”

“One to go!”

The race could start at any moment. The next pitch could be it. A few moments later, the crowd, albeit a small one because of the dreary and misty weather, cheered as the Nationals made the last out.

“Get ready!”

The introduction video played on the jumbotron. This was it. Run fast. Don’t fall. Stay off the grass. Get off the field.

“GO! GO! GO! GO!”

Here is the video to watch the race.

As you can tell from the video, as we were approaching the turn to head down to the third base line, I made my move outside George and tried to increase my speed and pass the others before we crossed the finish line.

Then I felt something. One of the other Racing Presidents had run into me. My costume started to jostle. I started to stumble and felt like I was going to fall. The momentum of the costume moved my body to the right and sent me into the wall. The costume bounced off the wall and I began to lose my footing and again I thought I was going to fall. Then, our boss’s direction flashed in my mind.

“NOBODY FALLS TODAY!”

I had to do whatever I could to stay upright but having a 50-pound costume with much of the weight five or six feet above my head was making it quite difficult. Out of the small area I used to see, I noticed there was the railing that prevented fans from coming (or falling) on to the field. It had thin metal bars that ran vertically between the wall and the top of the railing, so I grabbed at them, thinking that if I could hold on, maybe I could stay upright, and most importantly, not fall.

As I grabbed at the bars, the fingers on my right hand got caught between the rails, and I felt a sharp pain in my hand. Despite the pain, I continued to grab at the bars until I was able to regain my balance and continue running through the finish line. After the post-race celebration, we exited the field and made our way up the tunnel and into the underbelly of the stadium.

Once we were underneath the stadium, we pulled our heads out of the costumes to take a breath and talk about the race.

“I told George to take you out!” our boss yelled. “You were supposed to fall!”

“You told us today,” I responded, “‘under no circumstances does anybody fall,’ so when I got hit, I was doing everything I possibly could to stay up. That’s why my hand is in pain. I might have broken a finger trying to grab ahold of the railing to not fall. All I kept thinking was, don’t fall or you’ll get fired!”

We all had a good laugh as I eventually realized my fingers weren”t broken, but sprained.

Doing my best, while broken

As I worked more games, the entertainment staff director and the other veteran Racing Presidents would secretly talk behind my back, giving me the impression that I was going to be taken out again and that I would surely fall because of it.

“Parker, if you fall, you’re fired,” he would joke with me each race.

I was nervous about being taken out by surprise, especially because of the pain that I felt in my left shoulder. In addition to the pain in my fingers, I damaged my shoulder in that fateful Sunday race and was in a lot of pain. My primary care physician suggested a shoulder brace and Advil, but that did no good as the pain continued. After a visit to an orthopedic surgeon and a few x-rays, he determined that I had sprained my AC joint. He sent me to eight weeks of physical therapy, which helped, albeit only a little. I fought through the pain and continued to race in games and work external events.

But every time I did, my shoulder would throb. My teammates watched me don a special t-shirt with sewn-in foam padding that I wore to take some of the pressure off my shoulder. It didn’t work much, and the pain persisted.

Sitting in the locker room with my padded shirt, which many football players use underneath their shoulder pads.

Each game I worked through the spring and summer, I was nervous about further injuring myself, perhaps even suffering a permanent injury, either by getting taken out by another Racing President or just tripping on something and falling. I ran as Tom in the May 3rd race, which was a lot of fun because we had a very elaborate skit related to the Washington Capitals playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the game on May 6th. In June, I raced as Tom again on the 6th and had my first win as a Racing President. I raced again on the 22nd, again as Tom.

I continued to be the brunt of lots of jokes in July and August, but I never complained and always played along. I had pretty thick skin for those sorts of things, and I’m confident that they only singled me out because I played along with it. I’m sure if I had said something, they would have stopped. Nevertheless, I was lucky to be assigned as the GEICO Gecko for some of the All-Star festivities, which I very much appreciated being a part of. Then I raced again as Tom on July 20th earning my second victory, then on August 1st and August 23rd.

As the season wound down, the Nationals weren’t in the hunt for the playoffs and the excitement for the season started to fade. I worked the games on September 2nd and the double header on the 8th. My body was hurting. The physical therapy wasn’t doing much, so I had resorted to getting bi-weekly full-body massages and attending yoga classes to try to stretch out the muscles around my shoulder so the entire joint would loosen up and eventually heal.

As 2018 ended, I reflected on the games and the other events I had worked, including the White House Easter Egg Roll, an Air Force retirement ceremony, a company softball game in the outfield of Nationals Park, the Nationals Dream gala, and the new intro video for the Racing Presidents. It was a good year and I knew that if I could heal up, completely, that I’d be set to go for 2019. I just hoped they would bring me back.

Invited to return, I’m ready for a great 2019 season

In January 2019, I once again tried out for the Racing Presidents and was offered a spot back on the squad. During the phone call in which I was offered to return, my boss told me that he expected me to work more external events as I had not done my fair share the previous year. I shared, for the first time in detail, my injuries that lingered throughout 2018, and that I was now fully healed and would be ready to exceed the minimum expectations for games and external events.

I was now a veteran Racing President, and I felt infinitely more comfortable in the costume and running races. I wasn’t overcome with nervousness and I could actually take in the moments as I was in them. The race skits I was a part of went well and according to plan, and my boss always seemed happy with my performance.

I worked as many games and external events as I could, everything from weddings to trade shows, from elementary school events to summer camps, from public appearances to private parties. I even worked a Congressional event and was one of the Racing Presidents in the NBC4 “Hand it to Handly” video featured on the local NBC affiliate. (And yes, I wore the George costume and won the race.)

I raced in the games on April 14, April 18 (as George), April 27 (as Tom…and a victory), May 2 (as Teddy), May 16 (as Tom), June 19 (as George), June 20 (as Tom), July 4 (as Tom), July 26 (as George), July 31 (as Tom), August 13 (as George), and August 14 (as Teddy).

The most exciting race I participated in was the Sunday Night Baseball game on May 19th. That night’s game, was featured on ESPN and the only baseball game to be played on Sunday night, which meant every baseball fan had the game on.

Because of that, the Presidents Race was going to be huge and shown on live television. Usually, MASN would broadcast a few seconds of highlights as they returned from a commercial break. But our boss told us that for this game, it would be live on television, and it was going to be a relay race between the Racing Presidents and four new mascots resembling the four announcers for ESPN’s Sunday night baseball crew.

I was in the caricature-like bobble-head mascot of Matt Vasgersian, the play-by-play announcer. Some of my teammates were in the others, Jessica Mendoza, Alex Rodriquez, and Buster Olney.

Here is the video of the race, in which you can see that my Racing President teammate, Abe got to me late, but I did everything I could to catch up to Buster. I needed just a few more feet and I would have made it.

That was definitely the fastest I have ever run in my life.

This is a screenshot from Alex Rodriguez’ Twitter account. Technically, I got to meet him, though I was wearing a costume.

I was trying to do as much as I could that season, not only to meet my requirements and expectations, but also because my wife was pregnant, and we were expecting our first child in late August or early September. I knew the first few weeks (or even months) would be hectic.

But within a few weeks after my daughter’s birth, I was racing again, working the game on September 4 and another one on September 24.

I was doing my part to help the team as best I could, keeping the fans engaged, and maybe bringing some vigor to the team so they stayed energized, and maybe that might help them pull off a much-needed late-season victory.

Suddenly, the Nationals won eight games in a row to end the season and secured a spot in the National League Wild Card Game. Then, in front of 43,000 fans, the Nationals scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to secure the victory and move on to the NL Division Series.

Then the entertainment staff got an email asking for a Racing President who was available for four hours the next morning to do a local television circuit the next morning. As I was on paternity leave from work, I was available for the whole morning and was selected for the shift. On Thursday, October 3rd, the day the series against the Dodgers started, I donned the Teddy costume and joined the Nationals mascot Screech for three television appearances at the local ABC, Fox, and NBC affiliates. Bouncing from studio to studio, I found myself in the middle of weather updates, sports reports, and general broadcasts…on live television. Once again, I was doing my part, as best I could.

Screech is helping deliver the weather report, and yes, it appears as if I’m brushing his feathers…

I was excited, as the rest of the entertainment staff was, but the Nationals had never won that series before. The Dodgers won. They always had.

Later that night, the entertainment staff reserved a bar in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC to watch the game. Despite the newborn at home, I still managed to watch the game with the crew for a few innings before relieving my wife and giving her a break. The Nationals lost that first game in Los Angeles, but won the second game, tying the series as it returned to Washington, DC.

The series went to five games and the Nationals, miraculously, beat the Dodgers to move on to the National League Championship Series. Then, the Nationals kept winning and swept the Cardinals in game four of the series to win the pennant and head to the World Series for the first time since 1928.

As the Nationals never had home field advantage, the games the entertainment staff worked were limited, and I didn’t get an opportunity to race in any of the games.

Instead, my wife and I drove to New Jersey to give her parents some time with our daughter. We were watching game seven of the World Series with the Astros up 2-0 as my father-in-law turned to me: “I think the Astros will pull it out.” In the top of the seventh inning, the Nationals scored three runs, adding another in the eighth, and two more in the ninth. The Astros were down by four runs in the bottom of the ninth, and that was how it ended. The Nationals had won the World Series!

The Washington Capitals had won the Stanley Cup in 2018, the Washington Mystics won their first WNBA Championship in 2019 and the Nationals won the World Series. Washington D.C. was starting to be called Washington, District of Champions.

Several weeks later, I received an email from the Nationals that indicated that all full-time and part-time employees would receive a World Series ring. “We truly appreciate everyone’s hard work and commitment to the organization over the years,” the email read.

I didn’t return to the entertainment staff in 2020 and looking back it seems fitting to end my short tenure on a World Series championship. Nevertheless, after waiting for many months, in mid-June, I finally received a follow-up email that said that the rings would be available soon, and four days later they were.

On Wednesday, June 24th, I rode my motorcycle from my apartment in Arlington, Virginia to Nationals Park and was directed to one of three Nationals employees who were handing out ring boxes. I gave my name to the attendant and she found my name on the list.

“Just sign and date,” she said, pointing to the empty boxes next to my name.

A moment later, a person behind her handed me a white cardboard box that was about 9 inches by 12 inches. A sticker on the outside had my name on it.

“Have a great day,” the woman said to me.

“Thanks,” I replied with a smile. “Thank you very much.” I put the box in my backpack and rode back home. I waited until Abby got home from work to open it. When she walked in the front door, she immediately saw the white box sitting on our television console.

“So,” she said looking at me with wide eyes, “do you want to open it up?”

I nodded and slowly opened the box, reading the information inside before opening the ring box. There was a letter from the Lerner family, the owners of the Nationals. There was a story about the ring, the meaning behind its components, and how it was designed.

Then, nuzzled in some paper confetti was a blue ring box with the word Jostens, the ringmaker, on the top.

I opened it up and saw the sparkle of the crystals, the red curly W, and the words “World Champion.” SCHAFFEL was engraved on the side. I would always have this ring to show that I was part of something special, especially because, up until the posting of this story, very few people knew of my affiliation with the Nationals. Only close friends, family, and work supervisors knew that I was one of the Racing Presidents.

Even though I’m no longer a part of the entertainment staff, I’ll always be able to look at my ring and think back to my tiny role in something historic and think of the memories of when I was part of an elite, secretive group that entertained millions. At least I can think that Grandma would have been proud.

I ran fast. I didn’t fall. I stayed off the grass. I got off the field.

To my former teammates, LFG and keep doing great things and entertaining tens of thousands. To the Nationals, thanks for an incredible opportunity.

The Oddities of a Bar Mitzvah

It’s the Jewish rite of passage that is thousands of years old. It’s the entrance into adulthood. It’s the time when, biblically speaking, when a boy would rise up and (figuratively) say, “I am man! Hear me roar!”

And thousands of years ago, when life expectancy probably was around 40 years old, that made a lot of sense. Teenage years brought about puberty and the start of menstrual cycles. Families could be formed with children galore.

But times change. And so do expectations. Yet traditions stay the same. “This is the way we’ve always done it,” they said. “So we have to keep doing it this way,” they add, despite the fact that the traditions are rooted in a language that hasn’t been spoken in 5,000 years and has been translated an umpteen number of times and many messages get lost in that translation…

But, I digress.

I grew up in a Jewish family with a grandmother who was the youth adviser for a regional reform Jewish youth group that spanned from Delaware to the northern half of North Carolina. I went to the Jewish Day school for kindergarten until I attended public school in first grade. My family celebrated Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hannukah. I attended Hebrew school and participated in events at the synagogues of which we were members.

As I got older, my Hebrew school lessons, which were on Tuesday nights, if I remember correctly, consisted of learning how to read Hebrew and studying various Hebrew texts, mostly in preparation for our bar miztvot (the plural of mitzvah). It was what we all looked forward to because it meant a big party…and usually lots of money in gifts.

My bar mitzvah was scheduled for June 14th, 1997, and everything I did in the preceding year (at least everything that was related to Judaism) prepared me for that momentous event. As I have recently become a father and have agreed with my wife to raise our child with an openness toward all religious beliefs (letting her choose her own when she and we feel that she is ready to embark on a journey), I have reflected on my upbringing and am intrigued at many of the oddities about the situation.

The Torah is a weird book

First is the selection of the Torah portion. As the Torah, the five books of the Old Testament, is read from the beginning every year starting at Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year), a child’s birthday determines the approximate book and verses to be read during that service. In the initial preparation sessions, which happen anywhere between six months and one year prior to the scheduled bar mitzvah date, the rabbi works with the child and parents to determine the passages that correspond to the selected date. For me, I was in the book of Numbers, the fourth book. According to the online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica, the book is basically the sacred history of the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness following the departure from Sinai and before their occupation of Canaan, the Promised Land. It describes their sufferings and their numerous complaints against God. Yep. Wandering in the desert bitching about stuff. Definitely not the riveting tales of the creation of the world or the fight against the Pharoah. There’s no burning bush or anything exciting like that.

You’re not really entering adulthood

When I was 13, I was still a child, in so many ways…it’s not even worth getting into. There was nothing about “entering adulthood” that the rite presumed to preach. And don’t even try to pull the “Well, I had a bar mitzvah, so now I’m a man!” line with your parents. That will end poorly for you.

Why the insanely large party?

When I was 13, my family didn’t have a lot of money, but they still managed to throw a party at a local Holiday Inn. We had more than 100 people, half of whom I didn’t know. I invited my male friends, and the girls we invited were from the temple youth group, because again, at 13, I was a boy and hadn’t even had my first kiss yet.

We had a giant cake with 13 candles, and each candle was lit by someone important to me. It was, by far, the longest candle lighting I’ve ever had.

And don’t forget the gift you gave everyone for coming and giving you money. For the $50 or so you got from each attendees, you gave them a crappy t-shirt with “Adam’s Bar Mitzvah” on it that obviously nobody ever wore. My part was “sports themed” and we gave everyone a gym bag as their gift. I still shake my head at that.

You actually have multiple bar mitzvahs…kind of

A bar/bat mitzvah is supposed to be the first time that a young person reads from the Torah. But that’s not actually the case. Before the actual date, I practiced about five or six times out of the Torah from which I would read for my service. So wasn’t the first time I read it during the practice my actual bar mitzvah?

As a 13-year-old, you’re expected to provide a sermon. And yes, it’s terrible.

Asking a child to interpret a story that was written 6,000 years ago that has been translated in and out of multiple languages is like asking a sloth to run a race. It’s not going to go well. The idea behind the rite is that you’re supposed to learn from the passage and convey its meaning to the congregants. But as I mentioned above, the Torah is a weird book. Here are the 22 verses I read:

1The Lord spoke to Moses saying: אוַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
2Command the children of Israel to banish from the camp all those afflicted with tzara’ath or with a male discharge, and all those unclean through [contact with] the dead. בצַ֚ו אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וִֽישַׁלְּחוּ֙ מִן־הַמַּֽחֲנֶ֔ה כָּל־צָר֖וּעַ וְכָל־זָ֑ב וְכֹ֖ל טָמֵ֥א לָנָֽפֶשׁ:
3Both male and female you shall banish; you shall send them outside the camp, and they not defile their camps, in which I dwell among them. גמִזָּכָ֤ר עַד־נְקֵבָה֙ תְּשַׁלֵּ֔חוּ אֶל־מִח֥וּץ לַמַּֽחֲנֶ֖ה תְּשַׁלְּח֑וּם וְלֹ֤א יְטַמְּאוּ֙ אֶת־מַ֣חֲנֵיהֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֖י שֹׁכֵ֥ן בְּתוֹכָֽם:
4The children of Israel did so: they sent them outside the camp; as the Lord had spoken to Moses, so did the children of Israel do. דוַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ־כֵן֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיְשַׁלְּח֣וּ אוֹתָ֔ם אֶל־מִח֖וּץ לַמַּֽחֲנֶ֑ה כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה כֵּ֥ן עָשׂ֖וּ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
5The Lord then spoke to Moses saying: הוַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
6Tell the children of Israel: When a man or woman commits any of the sins against man to act treacherously against God, and that person is [found] guilty, ודַּבֵּר֘ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ אִ֣ישׁ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה כִּ֤י יַֽעֲשׂוּ֙ מִכָּל־חַטֹּ֣את הָֽאָדָ֔ם לִמְעֹ֥ל מַ֖עַל בַּֽיהוָֹ֑ה וְאָֽשְׁמָ֖ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִֽוא:
7they shall confess the sin they committed, and make restitution for the principal amount of his guilt, add its fifth to it, and give it to the one against whom he was guilty. זוְהִתְוַדּ֗וּ אֶת־חַטָּאתָם֘ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשׂוּ֒ וְהֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־אֲשָׁמוֹ֙ בְּרֹאשׁ֔וֹ וַֽחֲמִֽישִׁת֖וֹ יֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֑יו וְנָתַ֕ן לַֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר אָשַׁ֥ם לֽוֹ:
8But if the man has no kinsman to whom to make restitution, the debt which is restored to the Lord, [is to be given] to the kohen. [This is] besides the atonement ram through which expiation is made for him. חוְאִם־אֵ֨ין לָאִ֜ישׁ גֹּאֵ֗ל לְהָשִׁ֤יב הָֽאָשָׁם֙ אֵלָ֔יו הָֽאָשָׁ֛ם הַמּוּשָׁ֥ב לַֽיהוָֹ֖ה לַכֹּהֵ֑ן מִלְּבַ֗ד אֵ֚יל הַכִּפֻּרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְכַפֶּר־בּ֖וֹ עָלָֽיו:
9Every offering of all the children of Israel’s holy things which is brought to the kohen, shall be his. טוְכָל־תְּרוּמָ֞ה לְכָל־קָדְשֵׁ֧י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־יַקְרִ֥יבוּ לַכֹּהֵ֖ן ל֥וֹ יִֽהְיֶֽה:
10Everyone’s holy things shall belong to him; whatever a man gives to the kohen shall be his. יוְאִ֥ישׁ אֶת־קֳדָשָׁ֖יו ל֣וֹ יִֽהְי֑וּ אִ֛ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִתֵּ֥ן לַכֹּהֵ֖ן ל֥וֹ יִֽהְיֶֽה:
11The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: יאוַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
12Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: Should any man’s wife go astray and deal treacherously with him, יבדַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אִ֥ישׁ אִישׁ֙ כִּֽי־תִשְׂטֶ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וּמָֽעֲלָ֥ה ב֖וֹ מָֽעַל:
13and a man lie with her carnally, but it was hidden from her husband’s eyes, but she was secluded [with the suspected adulterer] and there was no witness against her, and she was not seized. יגוְשָׁכַ֨ב אִ֣ישׁ אֹתָהּ֘ שִׁכְבַת־זֶ֒רַע֒ וְנֶעְלַם֙ מֵֽעֵינֵ֣י אִישָׁ֔הּ וְנִסְתְּרָ֖ה וְהִ֣יא נִטְמָ֑אָה וְעֵד֙ אֵ֣ין בָּ֔הּ וְהִ֖וא לֹ֥א נִתְפָּֽשָׂה:
14But a spirit of jealousy had come upon him and he became jealous of his wife, and she was defiled, or, a spirit of jealousy had come upon him and he was jealous of his wife, and she was not defiled. ידוְעָבַ֨ר עָלָ֧יו רֽוּחַ־קִנְאָ֛ה וְקִנֵּ֥א אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ וְהִ֣וא נִטְמָ֑אָה אֽוֹ־עָבַ֨ר עָלָ֤יו רֽוּחַ־קִנְאָה֙ וְקִנֵּ֣א אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהִ֖יא לֹ֥א נִטְמָֽאָה:
15Then the man shall bring his wife to the kohen and bring her offering for her, one tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall neither pour oil over it nor put frankincense on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousies, a meal offering of remembrance, recalling iniquity. טווְהֵבִ֨יא הָאִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אִשְׁתּוֹ֘ אֶל־הַכֹּהֵן֒ וְהֵבִ֤יא אֶת־קָרְבָּנָהּ֙ עָלֶ֔יהָ עֲשִׂירִ֥ת הָֽאֵיפָ֖ה קֶ֣מַח שְׂעֹרִ֑ים לֹֽא־יִצֹ֨ק עָלָ֜יו שֶׁ֗מֶן וְלֹֽא־יִתֵּ֤ן עָלָיו֙ לְבֹנָ֔ה כִּֽי־מִנְחַ֤ת קְנָאֹת֙ ה֔וּא מִנְחַ֥ת זִכָּר֖וֹן מַזְכֶּ֥רֶת עָוֹֽן:
16The kohen shall bring her forth and present her before the Lord. טזוְהִקְרִ֥יב אֹתָ֖הּ הַכֹּהֵ֑ן וְהֶֽעֱמִדָ֖הּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֹֽה:
17The kohen shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and some earth from the Mishkan floor, the kohen shall take and put it into the water. יזוְלָקַ֧ח הַכֹּהֵ֛ן מַ֥יִם קְדשִׁ֖ים בִּכְלִי־חָ֑רֶשׂ וּמִן־הֶֽעָפָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִֽהְיֶה֙ בְּקַרְקַ֣ע הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן יִקַּ֥ח הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְנָתַ֥ן אֶל־הַמָּֽיִם:
18Then the kohen shall stand the woman up before the Lord and expose the [hair on the] head of the woman; he shall place into her hands the remembrance meal offering, which is a meal offering of jealousies, while the bitter curse bearing waters are in the kohen’s hand. יחוְהֶֽעֱמִ֨יד הַכֹּהֵ֥ן אֶֽת־הָֽאִשָּׁה֘ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָֹה֒ וּפָרַע֙ אֶת־רֹ֣אשׁ הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וְנָתַ֣ן עַל־כַּפֶּ֗יהָ אֵ֚ת מִנְחַ֣ת הַזִּכָּר֔וֹן מִנְחַ֥ת קְנָאֹ֖ת הִ֑וא וּבְיַ֤ד הַכֹּהֵן֙ יִֽהְי֔וּ מֵ֥י הַמָּרִ֖ים הַֽמְאָֽרְרִֽים:
19The kohen shall then place her under oath, and say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you and you have not gone astray to become defiled [to another] in place of your husband, then [you will] be absolved through these bitter waters which cause the curse. יטוְהִשְׁבִּ֨יעַ אֹתָ֜הּ הַכֹּהֵ֗ן וְאָמַ֤ר אֶל־הָֽאִשָּׁה֙ אִם־לֹ֨א שָׁכַ֥ב אִישׁ֙ אֹתָ֔ךְ וְאִם־לֹ֥א שָׂטִ֛ית טֻמְאָ֖ה תַּ֣חַת אִישֵׁ֑ךְ הִנָּקִ֕י מִמֵּ֛י הַמָּרִ֥ים הַֽמְאָֽרְרִ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה:
20But as for you, if you have gone astray [to another] instead of your husband and have become defiled, and another man besides your husband has lain with you…” כוְאַ֗תְּ כִּ֥י שָׂטִ֛ית תַּ֥חַת אִישֵׁ֖ךְ וְכִ֣י נִטְמֵ֑את וַיִּתֵּ֨ן אִ֥ישׁ בָּךְ֙ אֶת־שְׁכָבְתּ֔וֹ מִבַּלְעֲדֵ֖י אִישֵֽׁךְ:
21The kohen shall now adjure the woman with the oath of the curse, and the kohen shall say to the woman, “May the Lord make you for a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord causes your thigh to rupture and your belly to swell. כאוְהִשְׁבִּ֨יעַ הַכֹּהֵ֥ן אֶת־הָֽאִשָּׁה֘ בִּשְׁבֻעַ֣ת הָֽאָלָה֒ וְאָמַ֤ר הַכֹּהֵן֙ לָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה יִתֵּ֨ן יְהוָֹ֥ה אוֹתָ֛ךְ לְאָלָ֥ה וְלִשְׁבֻעָ֖ה בְּת֣וֹךְ עַמֵּ֑ךְ בְּתֵ֨ת יְהוָֹ֤ה אֶת־יְרֵכֵךְ֙ נֹפֶ֔לֶת וְאֶת־בִּטְנֵ֖ךְ צָבָֽה:
22For these curse bearing waters shall enter your innards, causing the belly to swell and the thigh to rupture,” and the woman shall say, “Amen, amen.” כבוּבָ֠אוּ הַמַּ֨יִם הַֽמְאָֽרְרִ֤ים הָאֵ֨לֶּה֙ בְּמֵעַ֔יִךְ לַצְבּ֥וֹת בֶּ֖טֶן וְלַנְפִּ֣ל יָרֵ֑ךְ וְאָֽמְרָ֥ה הָֽאִשָּׁ֖ה אָמֵ֥ן | אָמֵֽן:

Even today, I have a hard time understanding what this is about, but it seems like I was reading the ancient Jewish rules of adultery and what happens to a woman when she lays with another man. The last two verses speak to something about a sort of potion made of water than will cause pain and suffering. And I don’t want to guess at what the writing refers to when it says “causes a woman’s belly to swell and thigh to rupture”…

A new age development: a social cause/donations

As my younger cousins started to have their rites of passage into adulthood, a new trend had taken over the Jewish community: social action. Most of the other Jewish kids I knew came from well-to-do households and the fact that they threw parties to get thousands of dollars from other kids and their families seemed a bit absurd. So someone came up with the idea to support a social cause. My cousin’s, for instance, was genocide in Africa. Others have been homelessness, LGBTQ rights…really anything you can think of.

In the end, I haven’t been to a bar/bat mitzvah in some time, and I’m not sure when I will again the future, and I’m sure things will continue to change. Looking back, it is a memorable experience, but I don’t know if the rite was as impactful as some of the other things I did at that age. If anything, it brought a lot of family and friends together for a seemingly important day. And for that, I am grateful. It’s still an odd experience…

Here are some pictures of my endeavor.

For more on my heritage and history, check out the blogs I wrote on my family trees:

Ancestral Recall: Tracing My European Jewish Heritage to Poland, Moldova, and Russia

Ancestral Recall: Explaining My Genealogical Ties to 15th Century Germany (and a Dash of France)

Ancestral Recall: Discovering My English Heritage and My Ancestors from Colonial Maryland and Virginia

Ancestral Recall: Learning That One (and Probably More) of My 4,096 10th-Great-Grandparents Owned Slaves

Ancestral Recall: Yes, My 7th-Great-Grandfather, Colonel Joseph Belt, Has a Historical Marker in DC

Ancestral Recall: The Extensive Military History of Service of My Ancestors From the French and Indian War to the Present Day

Two days with Mad Dog: My short yet memorable time with General Jim Mattis in Iraq

As former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recently released a scathing article about President Donald Trump, there has been much back-and-forth about Mattis from political pundits, and the president, who wrote on Twitter, that Mattis is “the world’s most overrated General.”

In the summer of 2012, General Jim Mattis was the head of US Central Command, meaning that he was the four-star general in charge of all US forces in the Middle East and South Asia. When I learned that he was going to be visiting Baghdad and that I was going to be leading his visit, I was thrilled and a bit unnerved because I didn’t want to make a mistake around the guy who was called Mad Dog and Chaos.

It was my job, working with my US military counterparts to put together the visit, which was only two days, each packed full of meetings with representatives from the US Embassy and Iraqi government officials. I won’t bore you with the details of what we did or with whom he met, but I want to tell you the highlights of the things that were most special and memorable to me. I wanted to share my side, albeit however small, of my experiences with him and why I was so impressed.

He’s extremely cordial and respectful.

When General Mattis arrived in Baghdad, I greeted him upon his arrival to the US Embassy. As I was walking him to his accommodations, I shook his hand and introduced myself, saying that I was going to make his visit as impactful and as smooth as possible. “Thank you very much, Parker,” he said, repeating my first name. “I’m looking forward to it.” Just the fact that he immediately said my name back to me let me know that he was listening and his second comment affirmed his readiness to participate in our scheduled events.

He trusted us and was on our team.

When I sat with General Mattis through his numerous meetings (all but his meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister), he stuck to the talking points we had written for him, which showed two things: first, that he studied the material in advance, and second, that he trusted our advice. Meeting after meeting he vocalized the talking points, which helped us send a clear message to the Iraqis about how we wanted to work with them on various security-related topics.

He showed a deep interest in people.

I’ll never forget the morning of the second day of General Mattis’ visit. I met him and his team outside his accommodations on our way to the chancery for our first meeting of the day. “Good morning, Parker,” he said as he walked out of the building. Again, that he remembered my name meant a lot. As our conversation continued, he asked about me and my background, where I had come from, how I got the assignment to Baghdad, and more. When I told him that I was a reserve intelligence officer in the US Navy, he beamed a smile. “Glad to have you on the team, Parker.”

He loved his Marines.

As the second day of his trip came to an end, General Mattis asked us to assemble the Marine Security Guard detachment so he could speak with them. I had dealt with generals and senior government officials plenty of times, but for these marines, many of whom were in their early 20s, this was something really special. These marines were some of the lowest ranks in the entire service, and here was a guy who was the highest rank, and a man they revered. He spoke to them like he cared about each one, giving them advice on their careers and how hard work, perseverance, and dedication to their mission would take them far in life. He then posed for a picture with the entire unit.

There is probably more I could say, but eight years later, this is what I remember, and what I still remember, because those two days were very impactful and showed the true character of General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, call sign Chaos.

You can read more about my experiences at the US Embassy in Iraq.