Slugging It Out At Susquehanna

“A person’s a person, no matter how small. ” – Dr. Seuss

            At some point of the fall of 1990, in the moonlight at Susquehanna University, outside the front steps of Degenstein Dining Hall, I was bent down over the sidewalk watching a newfound friend make his way across the concrete. I had been watching him for more than fifteen minutes as he slowly, laboriously, bravely made his way from one patch of manicured lawn to the other divided by the exposed, cold, gray expanse of man-made construction, and was utterly fascinated by his journey. As he proceeded on his little odyssey of exploration he left a well-defined, glisteningly beautiful breadcrumb trail…of slime. Yes, I am talking about a slug that measured all of four inches in length, who happened to cross a three-foot stretch of sidewalk on a cool fall night. And, yes, it was magical.

The moonlight caught the little trail of slime and lit it up not unlike the lunar runic alphabet hidden in Thorin’s map that can only be viewed on Durin’s Day by the same light…you get the idea. Point is, the slime trail glowed and glistened on the sidewalk behind this little fellow. It was his artistic legacy, and it was magical, personal, and ephemeral. My “newish” girlfriend, L, stood hunched over me as I sat transfixed watching this little miracle of creation break new ground for all slug kind. She was skeptical and a wee bit squeamish, but also gracious as she could see how captivated I was.  Truth be told, I think she thought  I was a little bit crazy laying down on the ground to watch a slug crawl across a sidewalk when there were other things we could be doing. But we hadn’t been dating that long, she was inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, and I was in Theatre. And “theatre people” just do crazy things, right?

After watching this little miracle for about ten minutes, my freshman year roommate of a few weeks staggered up to us to see what all the fuss was. I don’t even remember his name. He had been assigned to be my roommate when we arrived at Susquehanna, but had moved out after only a few days, deciding instead to seek lodging with one of the fraternities on campus that he was later planning to pledge. Now in our mutual sophomore year, he was a recent brother of his fraternity of choice, more than a little cocky from his new association, and buzzed more often than sober. Such was social frat life at SU on the weekends (and some weekdays) in the 1990s. Ah, well.

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After a few moments of asking us what we were doing, scoffing at the answers, and squinting at the sidewalk through his booze haze, my former roommate did the unthinkable: he stepped forward and with one harsh motion of one foot deliberately and maliciously smashed the little trailblazer into the sidewalk, spreading his exposed guts everywhere and branding the sidewalk with the luminous blotch of a murder scene that I’ve never been fully able to get out of my head. My girlfriend L yelped abruptly, I lay on the grass next to the sidewalk in stunned silence and, after muttering something about the shit guts on his shoe, my ex-roommate started…to laugh. Whether he laughed due to the power he felt from taking a life that did him no harm, or whether it was because I looked about to cry I’ll never know. I suspect it was both. He looked to her and me for some measure of appreciation or admiration for his kill and finding none gutturally resorted to the classic American teenage rebuke: “You’re weird,” and unfulfilled and unrepentant stumbled off into the darkness. In the remainder of my time at Susquehanna University he and I never spoke again.

Lying on the grass next to the remains of my little friend I was a stir of emotions: shock, sadness, and rage. I wanted my ex-roommate to pay for what he had done. I wanted someone to smash him for no reason the way he had smashed my friend. I wanted to mourn my friend and give him a proper burial, but there was nothing left of him but luminous sludge. I wanted him alive again creating glow-in-the dark art on the sidewalks by moonlight on a fine fall night, but that was not meant to be. Instead, I did the only thing that I could do at the moment: I walked L home to her dorm sullenly and silently, and then went home myself, quietly mourning my friend and lamenting the random cruelty of the world.

It’s been 26 years since my little friend’s death. I feel certain that the event made no lasting impression on my former roommate; he may not even have remembered doing it the next day. But I remember the event vividly and it did change me for the better. Not to say that my parents didn’t instill a love of animals in me, for they most certainly did, but that random, cruel death for sport triggered an instinct in me that has never abated. I made a vow that night to never stand by again and watch as one of Creation’s “Lesser” Creatures is tortured or snuffed out for pleasure and, to the best of my ability I have kept that vow for twenty-six years. And I am a better person for it.

Today, I value all life and only kill bugs, vermin, or what have you when absolutely necessary, and only when I can’t safely remove them from my house or they threaten the safety of my wife or son. Nancy can attest to this of course as I have names for most of the Daddy Long Legs that inhabit our home and have on more than a few occasions rescued mice, lizards and spiders from the clutches of our disappointed and puzzled cats. I am not a zealot, I do eat meat, and I do freely acknowledge that there are times when the killing of bugs, pests, and vermin is a necessity in the maintenance of a healthy and clean home or society. But killing for pleasure, killing for sport rather than for food, is out for me, and in many ways it all stems back to a harmless, little, slimy, artist that made the wrong choice to paint a sidewalk by moonlight and paid the price of his art with his life at the hands of a sadistic sophomore that had been taught that killing is cool or “makes you a man.” I learned the lesson he gave his life for and plan on instilling in my son John Adams the same “All life is precious” point of view. He is in a phase right now where stepping on ants is fun, so there’s no time like the present to begin the lesson. And maybe, just maybe, by writing this blog, and sharing my values with you and my boy, I can bring some meaning to my little friend’s senseless death twenty-six years ago. He, like all of us, was created with purpose. Perhaps his purpose was to die that night so that others would learn a better way to live, a way of kindness, and tolerance, and respect for all life.

Well, it’s a start.

Namaste,

Jason

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The Night My Dad Released Me

For seven years, in Philadelphia, I worked as what is known as a Barrymore Nominator.  Nominators were sent to see area theatre by the now defunct Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. If we saw something in a show that we found outstanding we were to nominate that show for further scrutiny. If enough nominators independently voted for the same things in a show the show would proceed to the next round up. That next round of judges would see the nominated shows and ultimately decide who would win the coveted Barrymore Award, Philly’s answer to the Tony Awards. All of that is totally irrelevant to my story, but it does explain why on a spring night in March of 2003 I was sitting in the audience at the Arden Theatre Co., watching a performance of Northeast Local by playwright Tom Donaghy when I got an unexpected visitation, and my life slowly started to improve.

My dad, James F. Michael, had been dead for the better part of two and a half years by the time I found myself at the Arden. He had died on September 3, 2000 from a combination of emphysema, congestive heart failure, and lung cancer. He had smoked himself to death, and despite a triple bypass at age fifty, a bout with throat cancer, and a loving family desperate to see him quit, he just didn’t have the willpower to kick a habit that was ingrained in him as a teenager. He had died at age seventy at Reading Hospital and Medical Center. My mother and I were by his side when his heart stopped for the last time. Those are the facts, but that wasn’t necessarily how I viewed the situation in 2000.

The night he crossed over my mother and I had gone to visit him in the hospital. He was alert, but weak, and a bit chatty. He told me he loved me and told the nurse that my mother was a good cook. He looked at my mother and said something to her that haunted her for years until her memory started to fade. Holding her hand he said to her, “I think I love you,” and then went on about how much he missed her cooking. He was a complicated man. My mother and I were hungry, so we told him we were going to get something to eat at the West Reading Tavern but we would be back before visiting hours ended.

While at the tavern she got a call that he had slipped into a coma and was only being kept alive by life support. I had argued with his doctors who had tried vigorously to pressure my mother into signing a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) and had prevailed. They didn’t want to spend the money trying to save a man they never thought would leave the hospital again. I wanted them to spare no expense in trying to save my father’s life. I had won out, but the decision would have lasting consequences for me.

We arrived back at the hospital to the bedside of a brain dead man whose heart and lungs were still functioning if supported. We tried to gather family members to our side to say goodbye before his heart stopped, but thunderstorms had knocked out some phone lines, and I couldn’t reach my brother Jeff. The moment came for him to be removed from the machine and my mother choked. “I can’t do it,” she cried. “You have to do it,” and she refused to take further action. I was twenty-nine, and had had a loving if tumultuous relationship with him for most of our life – in many ways due to the smoking – and now it was left to me (from my point of view) to kill him.

I lay across his stomach and talked to him awhile. I held his hand, told him I loved him, and cried a lot. Finally, I nodded and the machine was shut off. I was shocked that his heart and lung functions continued for sometime thereafter. I felt the pulse in his hand get weaker, but remain steady to the end. I remarked wryly how even in death this musician’s musician knew how to keep a beat. And then it stopped. And it was over. And he was dead. And I had killed him.

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Mom, Pop, and me at the beach, circa mid-1970s

The next year was a blur of sleeping, depression, and working when necessary, but nothing more. I did shows, directed, and music directed, but couldn’t compose. He had been my musical muse. With him gone, the music inside me ceased. A year after his death – literally to the day, September 3, 2001 – I started my first day as Director of Choral Activities at La Salle College High School outside Philadelphia, now in a full-time teaching position, the kind of which he had always wanted for me. The date was creepy and poignant. I felt guided by him to the position, and I stayed in it, in his dream for my life, for three academic years. At La Salle I met two men named Dennis and Joe who introduced me to TAGP and encouraged me to apply to be a Barrymore nominator. By fall of 2002 I was one, and that leads me back to Northeast Local at the Arden.

Midway through the Second Act while sitting in the darkened theatre my father’s voice rang through my head. “I release you,” he said. I was shocked. I could hear my father clear as anything. Couldn’t anyone else hear that? “I release you,” he said again. “Don’t mourn me anymore and move on with your life.” He was louder than the actors. “Goodbye.” The voice dissipated. I sat there stunned and tingling and warm. I had thought about him every day since his death, guilt-ridden by the fact that I had been the one to “pull the plug.” I had blamed myself, I had considered suicide, I had written healing haiku, I had isolated myself from friends and family, I had stopped composing. No matter what I did I considered him while I did it. Now he had released me, come to me, given me absolution and farewell. I didn’t know what to think, but somehow, in some way I felt lighter.

The show ended (it was good, but I was preoccupied thereafter) and I strolled down 2nd St. and made a right turn onto Market St. to head back to Market East Station and an outbound train toward home in Lansdale. There was a warm breeze in the air and I strolled buoyantly almost to the point of dancing. I talked to him in the air and thanked him for coming back to release me, to let me know that I should choose my life over a preoccupation with his death. I thanked him, told him I loved him, and said goodbye again and again. I knew at that moment two and a half years after his death that my period of mourning was ending and that my healing and moving on was about to start. I was right.

He visits me every so often, but has never spoken to me since. A room will suddenly smell of his signature cigar and I’ll know he’s about. Nancy has smelled it too on occasion, so I know it’s not just me. I know my son will never get to know his grandfather the way I knew him as a son. But it’s nice to know that every so often, especially when times are really good or really bad, he will make his presence felt, fill the room with smoke, and let me know that he is watching over me, and that he loves me.

 Happy Belated Father’s Day, Dad

And I love you too,

Jason

Dad with Max and Snoopy at the Pagoda

Pop with Max and Snoopy outside the Pagoda

The Collateral Damaged (An Open Letter for the Cultivation of Universal Compassion)

My dear friend,

You are special to me. And you know who you are. We have grown up together, and we have just met. We have worked together, played together, dined together, and worshiped together. We have eaten the same foods, watched some of the same TV and movies, read fewer of the same books, and don’t listen to the same music. But I am dear to you and you are dear to me. And for that I thank you.

I understand that you are having trouble coming to terms with your feelings over the Orlando Massacre this past Sunday morning. Forty-nine mostly presumably gay men and women gunned down in a gay nightclub, the worst mass shooting in US history. A troubled, disgruntled ISIS sympathizer was to blame, ISIS has taken credit (or at least wanted to share the spotlight), and now you’re scared for your safety, angry that this could happen on American soil, looking to lay blame on something larger than one shooter, and feeling simultaneously, distressingly both compassion for and dispassionate toward the victims. As a person who doesn’t really support marriage equality and is leery of homosexuality in general, some of your feelings seem a bit at odds with your politics and your faith. By Sunday morning’s news the event had already become heavily polarizing and politicized, and a young Sacramento-based Baptist minister had gone viral saying that the massacre was God’s will, and you shouldn’t mourn for the gay dead because they are “all pedophiles,” and that they all “should be rounded up and shot.” That’s not your faith as you understand it, but you’re still confused by the contradictory faith-based messages you’re hearing. I get it. I have been there and I have been you.

As a suburban white child born to parents who were both born in 1929, even though we were a seemingly liberal-minded performing arts household, we had little to no discussion about gay people in our home. My father would never discuss such things, and my mother believed in treating everyone kindly (even if they were “odd”). She wasn’t sure if homosexuality was genetic or a choice, and mostly kept an open mind toward everyone since vocal opinions were “bad for business.” In hindsight, I’d say that, just like you, my upbringing was passively homophobic, based upon the agreed upon social conventions of suburbia in the 1970s. I had a best friend with a gay mother, my mother had a high school classmate who had been in the road company of The Pajama Game that lived over the beer distributor with another man, and I had a school music teacher who was closeted, but they were the exception, not the rule. They were odd and we were normal. We didn’t persecute, but we did subconsciously, politely judge. My parents were taught right and wrong by their parents, both born in the 1800s, and they passed that value system onto me: simple, honest, and always with the belief that what they were doing was for my own good and through love. So, my friend, I hear, I understand, and I have no right to judge you; only love you for who you are, and who you could become.

My passed-on parental beliefs went unchallenged until early on in my college years and didn’t start to shift until I had almost graduated. Change is hard after all, and changing one’s mind is often hardest of all. Decades of programming and experiences had to be sifted through before I could be who I am today. And I’m happy to say that I am more open-minded, compassionate, loving, and non-judgmental than I’ve ever been….but not always. I have my bad days, my blind spots, my old grudges, and my lazy moments when I fall back on old programming. I’m better than before, but far from perfect, and I know you love me as I am, and I love you too, even though we’re both still growing beyond our programming. That’s life right? Growth and change.

So, as I said at the beginning of this letter, I know you’re having trouble sorting out your feelings, your own programming regarding this “gay tragedy.” Perhaps I can, with love and compassion, give you a different perspective to consider, one that transcends the boundaries of the minority group for whom you hold mixed feelings. To date…

 Fifty people lost their lives in this tragedy, including the shooter. That said:

  • 100 Moms and Dads lost a child
  • Moms and Dads who were struggling to accept their child
  • Moms and Dads who had
  • Moms and Dads who fought with their child when they last spoke
  • Moms and Dads who parted with an “I love you”

None of them, none of them, thought that that would be the last time they would speak, or argue, or hug, or say “I love you.”

  • 200 Grandmothers, grandfathers, Nanas, and Pop Pops lost their grandchildren. What are they to think? What has happened to our world? Why would anyone do that to their little love?
  • Untold siblings lost their big or little brother, big or little sister, their playmate, their helpmate, their bunkmate, the only one who ever understood them.
  • Untold co-workers woke up to find their friend, their colleague, their secret crush, their ex, their “thorn in their side” would never be seen at work anymore; would never make them laugh, or smile, or brighten their day.
  • Hundreds of ex-boyfriends and girlfriends learned they had run out of time to heal the past, make amends, or reconnect. A wound shall remain a wound.
  • And hundreds of current boyfriends, girlfriends, and spouses just had their world shattered and their other half ripped away.
  • 1000s of teachers, elementary, middle-school, high school, and college, woke up to find that their star or underperforming pupil, the one they rooted so hard for, invested in, believed in, went to bat for…was no more. What a waste. What a loss.
  • Hundreds of pets – cats, dogs, birds, fish, exotics – just lost their best friend, their sleep buddy, their food friend, their reason for being, their Forever Home.
  • And then, of course, there’s always the possibility that some of the dead had human children of their own, both genetic and adopted. What of them? What of them? What of them?
  • And just in case it needs to be said, most of those left behind, suffering, grieving, coping, questioning, are heterosexual like you and me.

 You see, my friend, my dear friend, no tragedy like this ever occurs in its own bubble. There is no such thing as an isolated tragedy, and this was not just a gay tragedy, or not even a human tragedy, but rather a global one. When you consider all the lives each of us touches simply by being, then magnify that by 50, then multiply that again by another 50 for the survivors, the impact is unfathomable. And if, as you scanned the list above, you felt your heart break open for those left behind, let me tell you that it’s only one short nonjudgmental step till you find compassion for the victims – all of them – those that were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and those whose childhood programming left them damaged and full of hate. I’m just up ahead around the bend on Compassion’s Road because, like you, I started from behind without knowing it.

But I know you can catch me up and even surpass me.

I have faith in you.

And I love you.

See you on the road.

Jason

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The View from Haiku

I haven’t posted any haiku for several weeks, and I thought it was time for a break from essaying and for sharing some poetry. In a related update, my first book signing at England Run Library through the Central Rappahannock Regional Library System went very well (yes, I did sell something, thank you), and I’m looking forward to the next one on June 25th. Until my next blog post, here’s some inspirational haiku to get you through the week.

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When you’re living life
According to your own rules
Doubt not, you’ll know it.

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Muster the courage
To take your first fearful steps
Into the unknown.

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Have faith in yourself.
God lies within each of us.
Trust yourself, trust God.

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Changes always come.
They are inevitable.
Your reaction’s not.

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The you you once knew
Isn’t the you you are now.
Be the you you are.

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Rainbow over Route 3 outside Fredericksburg, taken through my windshield

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It’s time for changes,
Changes in outlook, manner,
And life’s direction.

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Wallaby babies:
Just think about them playing.
Pure bliss, pure laughter.

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You can do better.
Whatever level you’re on,
You can step it up.

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What is your purpose –
Have you any sense of it?
Any directives?

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There’s always a way
To make all your dreams come true.
You must just find it.

 Namaste,

Jason

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The Boy Who Lived

The killing of Harambe over Memorial Day Week (May 28), the male Lowland Silverback Gorilla who refused to vacate his facility after being summoned by his handlers when a four-year-old boy climbed into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo has, as usual, brought out the best and worst in us as Americans. Collectively, we have breathed a sigh of relief that the little boy has escaped unharmed. Had he been killed, maimed, crushed to death, it would have been a national tragedy caught on numerous cell phones and iPads for the entire world to mourn. We thankfully avoided that and the boy is safe. That done, we have turned to “armchair quarter-backing” the zoo officials for their decision to kill a beloved fixture at the zoo, and even more so, looking to vilify the mother of the boy who, through some measure of distraction, incompetence, irresponsibility, or inexperience, let her son wander far enough from her care that he could enter a gorilla pen, and as a result, Harambe had to be sacrificed. That the family is African-American, the father was not present, and the father has a criminal record, have all become fuel for a disturbing racial fever dream, and the mother has received numerous death threats as the dark underbelly of America attempts to hold her accountable and make her pay for the death of beloved Harambe. Where we should be celebrating the rescue of the child and reverently mourning the sacrifice of Harambe, we are more preoccupied with blaming, judging, and race-hating. Sadly, this is just status quo in 21st century USA.

The story has some extra special meaning for me because when I was growing up my family owned two monkeys. Yes, that’s right, monkeys. Most people nowadays don’t remember a time in America when primates were household pets, but I do. When I was growing up in the early 1970s we owned two monkeys: Dottie and Cheetah. Many people don’t even believe me when I tell them that, but I have the pictures to prove it.

Dottie was a Spider Monkey and, truly, I don’t remember much about her; I was very young. My parents loved her, she got big, unwieldy, and a touch unpredictable – read fierce – and as a precaution and with great sadness, my parents gave her to a local PA zoo to live out her life, protected and in peace. Cheetah I remember much better. Cheetah had a place of honor in our house, a giant elevated cage smack in the middle of the dining room. She wore a little cloth diaper when she was out of the cage, which was frequent; she climbed gleefully up and down my Mom’s blue curtains; and she loved to steal and eat everyone’s maraschino cherries off their ice cream sundaes on the dining room table. She was gentle, intelligent, childlike, almost human. When she passed away after a good life, my parents inquired about getting another monkey, but the laws had changed. Primates were no longer pets; my parents were outraged, and thus ended monkeys (kinda) in my family tree.

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Cheetah and me, 1974

As a parent of a two-year old, I can’t help but agree with the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to put Harambe down. Jane Goodall, Jack Hanna, and many other experts have supported the decision and I believe I must also, but like them I don’t have to like the sacrifice. I know that if John Adams had gotten away from me and somehow gotten into a dangerous animal’s cage, I would want the authorities to do everything they could to protect his life, whether he or I was at fault or not. And from the moment that little boy entered that enclosure and Harambe disobeyed the command to vacate, the gorilla was doomed. Had the zookeepers hesitated and the child had been killed, it would have been a public relations nightmare: the zoo’s reputation would’ve been ruined, a human family destroyed and outraged, jobs would’ve been lost, lawsuits enacted, revenue lost, and on and on. There was no other choice available: a human child, knowingly or unknowingly, broke the rules, and a gorilla was going to make the ultimate sacrifice.

To date, I’ve seen little credible journalism on the attending mother, so it’s hard to comment knowledgeably on what happened there, though many are doing so anyway. Was she on her cell phone as many have speculated? Was she using the confines of the zoo as a babysitting service rather than managing her child? To what extent was she negligent? It’s hard to say at this point without all the facts; however, I do feel confident  – while acknowledging that accidents happen – saying that there was at least some fault on her part. Unless she was dealing with another emergency and he just slipped away, it would seem that she simply overestimated her ability to manage the child, and that hubris cost Harambe his life. Let’s hope she has learned something from this.

All through Memorial Day Weekend I’ve been reminded of that beautiful penultimate scene in Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks, as he’s dying, looks at Matt Damon’s character and says, “Earn this.” So many people died to bring Damon’s character, Ryan, safely home. His life was deemed important enough that many others sacrificed theirs for his. The metaphor is unfortunate, clear, burdensome, and disturbing. The Four-Year-Old-Who-Lived has no clear idea at this point in his life what just was done to save him, but he will be made aware of it someday, the media will see to that, and his life will be called into account. The burden of national recompense can’t really fall to the parents. They’ve been turned on, shamed, vilified, and threatened by the public. That kind of societal contempt doesn’t breed lasting gratitude. So, unfairly or not, the burden has fallen to the child to make Harambe’s sacrifice of his own life worthwhile, and to heal the national wound that has been Harambe’s loss.

I truly hope when the child grows up he is healthy and strong, wise and kind, and knows what one beloved animal gave in the summer of 2016 so that he might live, and makes some effort to make redress. We as a nation need this. Our national soul requires healing and cries out for a meaningful happy ending that places Harambe’s sacrifice in a positive context beyond, I’m sorry to say, the fact that he had to die so a human boy might live. That’s not the boy’s fault necessarily, but it is now, I fear, his burden to bear.

So I say to him: Accidents happen. No blame, no punishment, no judgment; truly. Only love. We are all happy and lucky you are alive. But when you grow up – and we all hope you will – please, PLEASE do the right and kind thing by the men and women who saved you, and by Harambe who died for you:

Earn This.

With Love and Light,

Jason

Harambe

Harambe RIP