Nazis I Have Known

As a wave of overt hatred and prejudice is rising in America like the polluted Jersey shore tide, fueled by white nationalists, the Alt-Right, and of all things Neo-Nazis, I’ve been reminiscing back to the simpler times of my childhood, when all of the U.S. of A. could agree that Nazis were bad, and that that conflict fought and won – WWII for the historically challenged – had put an end to that question. We had defeated the Krauts, Hitler, the Nazis, and then, having beaten them, took a victory lap at Nuremberg mostly for moral show, and then hired their best scientists to work for us, put their civic officials back in place (for they did know best how to ‘make their own trains run on time’), and considered the matter finished. Wasn’t it a simpler time?

Growing up outside Reading, PA with a music studio in our basement gave me an opportunity to meet some ‘interesting people’ as Bugs Bunny used to say. I’ve remarked previously about the high priest of a satanic cult (Mom and the Satan Worshiper). In this case, I want to briefly introduce you to Mrs. Schubert: Nazi Apologist. Mrs. Schubert either brought her children or grandchildren for lessons in our basement; those details are a blur and irrelevant. What is important is that Mrs. Schubert had been in Germany throughout World War II and had emigrated to the U.S. after the war with her family to seek new opportunities and economic advantage. She was (to my young mind) an elderly, pulled-back-grey-haired-harsh-voiced-bespectacled matron type that was neither nice nor naughty—just brusque, taut, and imposing. She was never anything but civil to me, and my memories of her are scant and few. However, I do remember one conversation vividly she had with my mother when I was a pre-teen. My mother, rarely afraid to ask the hard questions, inquired of Mrs. Schubert how much she actually knew of what was happening in Germany during Hitler: to the Jews, the gays, the minorities etc.? Mrs. Schubert stiffened and drew herself up, and spoke with an icy and almost comic defensiveness reminiscent of Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes.

“We knew nothing of it. Nothing. There were rumors of course, but nothing that we knew for certain.”

And then she added with venomous emphasis…

“You think you know what your government does, but you don’t! Your government does vicious things all around the world too, but you don’t know about it, do you? We knew nothing!”

And that ended the interrogation, and she left, and it was never spoken of again. After all, business is business and Mrs. Schubert was a loyal customer. Right, Mom?

What Mrs. Schubert did or didn’t know will never be known, but her defensiveness, and her deflection, spoke volumes. Either she knew absolutely nothing and was ashamed after the fact (which is somewhat unlikely given what we know from history); or she knew something and supported it; or she knew something, but like so many was afraid to speak out. My vote, perhaps naively, will remain on the latter. One thing that is certain: she was an opportunist that found the first available transport to come to America and make a better life for herself and her family, and leave that pesky Nazi-business behind.

But wait! There’s more. Lest you think this a falsely advertised blog post, I want to introduce you to Erwin “the German,” a gym buddy of mine. I don’t remember Erwin’s last name (if I ever knew it). We used to work out together at the Wyomissing Sheraton fitness center when hotels used to have open memberships. This was in the early ‘90s and Erwin was much older than me. That’s because he was a real-life-honest-to-goodness/evilness Nazi. By the time I knew Erwin he was a tall, loud, rugged, portly, slow-moving and half-blind, jovial joy. He made no secret of his past, and his contemporaries often teased him about his past by calling him “Erwin the German” loudly from the other side of the pool. It was meant, oddly, endearingly, and he took it as such. He had joined the Hitler Youth as a boy, and later been stationed on the Eastern Front to counter the Ruskie incursion. He implied he had been in the Battle of Stalingrad. He implied he had killed Russians. But he always talked about his past briefly, somewhat romantically, and without passion. The war had happened, he was an American citizen (still with a thick German accent, as was Mrs. Schubert), and he had moved to the States to become a plumber. He had had a good life in America and seemed to have no regrets.

Erwin died while I still frequented the gym and was mourned by all who knew him as a kind and generous friend. I have no doubt that Mrs. Shubert is also gone. I say Nazis – plural – in this blog title because, whatever Mrs. Schubert’s feeling on the subject of Nazism, it was evident that she was there, was not the target of their evil, and did little to nothing to stop their spread. Guilty by association perhaps. But I’ve written none of this to condemn either individual, but rather to draw a gentle parallel from the past to the present. Both of my Nazi acquaintances had been caught in something both unfortunate and larger than themselves – partly through fear, ignorance, disadvantage, youth or the combination, but when that something larger was defeated, they reverted back to being decent, productive citizens of a free society, and went on to lead fine and benign lives.  I look at all the young men and women in Charlottesville and elsewhere, that have been caught up in the wave of hatred, ignorance, fake news, and economic instability, and as much as I know we need to stop the spread of their ideology and terror, I also know that they are our friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and colleagues, and we’re going to have to work together to bring them back into a basic understanding of what it really means to be an American, to live in a free and equal society. And that, of course, will require some punching of Nazis at the outset. But it will also require some measure of reaching out to those who can be reached, forgiving, and modeling a better way to be. Repaying hatred with hatred is not the answer. It will only perpetuate the resentment and violence. Hatred must be met with strength, firstly yes, but then needs to be listening, compassion, and healing. Perhaps if we try this we’ll find ourselves forty years from now with a few more Erwin’s than David Duke’s. It’s just a thought.

Auf wiedersehen,

Jason

Advertisements

A Visit with Amma the Hugging Saint

“You cannot taste the sweetness of honey by licking a piece of paper on which the word ‘honey’ has been written. Likewise, the principles described in the religious texts must be contemplated, meditated upon, and finally realized.” – Amma the “hugging” saint

On July 5, at 6:30 AM, I arrived at my church to pick up two dear friends, Laura and Elaine, for a ‘wacky adventure’ to the congested streets of Arlington, VA. We were going to visit Amma the Hindu “Hugging Saint” on her world tour (possibly her last), and had gotten up extra early to make sure that we were assured of a good place in line so that our efforts were not in vain. For various reasons, each of us really felt we needed our hug, and we didn’t want to be left out.

To be bluntly honest, I had never heard of Amma. Facebook (FACEBOOK!!!) advertised her to me repeatedly, and as a result, I became intrigued and ultimately interested in going. I am somewhat obsessed with spiritual experiences, books, movies, and the like, and am always looking for an opportunity to expand my awareness of cultures, world religions, and thought systems, so my becoming interested was not much of a stretch. And I love events. Hay House Publishing used to do events with their spiritual authors called I Can Do It! and Nancy and I drove to Atlanta for one years ago. When the Dalai Lama was in D.C. in 2010 for the Kalachakra, we were in attendance for a day. Nancy attended Pope Francis’s D.C. Mass, but Catholic U only had enough tickets for students and faculty, so I missed that one, but I wasn’t going to miss this! And that is why I was up at 4:45 AM on July 5, and picking up my friends at 6:30 AM.

Our drive up to Arlington was friendly and uneventful. Spitty rain and D.C. traffic slowed us a bit, but nothing serious. We arrived at the Marriott Crystal City just after 8 AM and struggled despairingly to find a parking space in their labyrinth of an underground parking garage, until keen-eyed Laura spied a solitary overlooked space behind a pole, boxed in by other cars, that may have been used by staff but bore no designated markings. We maneuvered the car into the hidden gem, struggled further to find the elevators, and finally, with some effort and agitation, found an escalator marked “Amma – this way” – and knew we had arrived.

Amma_6

Amma the “Hugging Saint” Image courtesy of Pintarest; no copyright info available

The next unexpected hurdle in our spiritual odyssey occurred almost immediately as we were confronted with hotel security bearing the Peanuts-gang-like message of “No Dogs Allowed” in variously hushed if vehement tones. My one friend, Elaine, had brought her licensed therapy dog along (a choice she had made after exhaustingly researching Amma’s website and deeming it acceptable), but Amma’s people had apparently not communicated their desires to the hotel management, the result being a serious conflict of protocol. I’m not going to dwell on this incident further out of discretion and respect for my friend, but suffice it to say, Elaine was wholly in the right, justice prevailed, a beautiful person named Victoria became the dog’s best friend (and ours) for the next few hours, and the Marriott needs to seriously rethink its customer service. For my part, I watched my friend repeatedly attempt to resolve the matter with Herculean strength, grace, and some frazzled charm, and my respect for her grew immensely as she fiercely protected her legal rights and those of her little charge. No adventure occurs without obstacles. But back to Amma.

“The aim of devotion and prayer is to develop love for everyone.”   – Amma the “hugging” saint

We were seated in one of several ballrooms, equipped with a stage at one end and an exhaustive gift shop at the other. We waited for more than an hour, watching a video scroll of Amma’s good works both here and abroad. She arrived on time at 10 AM, conducted a mostly silent – if loudly amplified – meditation, and by 10:40 AM the “hugging queue” was formed and the hugs began. My friends and I were in the first hour of the line and were moved swiftly barefoot from chair to chair, up onto the stage, and eventually into Amma’s waiting arms. It is not my place to retell how my friends felt about their experience, but each of us responded positively if differently. When it was my turn, I was hoisted before Amma on my knees and bent towards her at the waist. My body, for some inexplicable reason, became rigid. She gripped me, pulled me away from her body, gripped me tighter, and started whispering a Hindu prayer into my right ear. The world fell away, and for a few moments it was only she and I. Then she pulled me away from her body, looked me full in the face, handed me a present, and I was lifted by handlers emotionally to my feet and away from her embrace. I was dazed and unsteady and the handlers escorted me to a nearby seat, where I observed my friends have similar, but vastly different interactions with the woman known as “Mother.”

The three of us, satisfied that we had accomplished our goals, toured the gift shop, went to retrieve the car and dog, and headed out of Arlington for lunch and eventually a drop off at the church. We talked incessantly about the adventure, our various acutely emotional experiences with Amma, and the pros and cons of the day. The ballroom was exceedingly noisy throughout the event, even during the meditation to a degree, and Amma’s handlers were a swirl of activity throughout her hugging sessions. Amma was constantly talking to them, advising them, etc. while she was hugging participants, and that did diminish the intimacy and interpersonal communication one may have expected from the moment. She was also sweating profusely, it seemed, and constantly dabbing herself with a white towel, which made us wonder what was making her so hot. Was she ill, or was it just the intensity of her being? On the other hand, the thousands of devout participants at the event were staggering in their devotion, kindness, and compassion. Without the efforts of Victoria (truly living Amma’s message), our visit may have ended very differently and sadly. People in attendance were very open and receptive to being engaged in conversation and were exceedingly kind. All three of us felt the power of Amma’s energy/soul/compassion/what have you, coming off her and it was dizzying, enabling, and awe-inspiring. Laura quipped it best, and I paraphrase, “She seems to be in a perpetual state of happiness.” As little as I know about her even now, I know she is the real deal. Sorry fundamentalists of any faith, sainthood is about character and action, not about belief system. I’ve been in the presence of at least three “saints” in my life, and their aura of love is so palpable that it’s almost a narcotic “high.”

“The sun shines down, and its image reflects in a thousand different pots filled with water. The reflections are many, but they are each reflecting the same sun. Similarly, when we come to know who we truly are, we will see ourselves in all people.” – Amma the “hugging” saint

Five days since the event, I still don’t know a great deal about Amma. I watched the videos, read her Wikipedia article, and was hugged by her for heaven’s sake, but don’t know much else. I had never heard of her before, which I don’t understand, since she’s been touring the world for more than thirty years, hugging, raising millions for disaster relief here and abroad, building hospitals, advocating for the rights of women and children, and preaching a message of universal compassion. How is it we get so fixated on other lesser things that even when people do high-profile-good works for decades, it can still be lost to us until it’s advertised on Facebook? What does it take to put that which is truly important – peace, love, charity, compassion, kindness – front and center in the minds of the masses and the media? I honestly don’t know. But for what it’s worth, I’m grateful to Facebook for their targeted ads, I’m grateful to my friends for accompanying me on this adventure, and I’m grateful to Amma for the hug and for being who she is: a light in a dark world. May all such beings (and rest assured there are more and I’ll meet them) continue to shine, even in social media anonymity. We need you. We really need you.

Namaste,

Jason

19732046_10212660851170751_2812502088956998160_n

Three merry adventurers – Laura, myself, and Elaine – after our day of hugs, joy, and self-discovery

Haiku in Bloom

A busy week, a trip to the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D. C., and the first day of spring made for good memories and the necessity of sharing some more haiku this month. Whatever your needs are, I hope they are being met. Whatever ails you – mental, physical, spiritual – I hope it is being managed. Know that you are not alone. Know that you are loved. Know that whatever your present state, it can be bettered.

Peace, Love, Spring, and Cherry Blossoms to You,

Jason

IMG_0863

The Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin in D.C.

4627
Your authentic voice
Is what people want to hear.
Let them hear your heart

4628
Your priorities
Must be kept in order if
You wish to succeed.

4629
When others succeed,
That doesn’t mean you have failed.
Stop comparing lives.

4630
It is your duty
To give your life to the world,
Serving its best needs.

4635
Focus heavenward.
The sun is beaming brightly
Above the storm clouds

At the Cherry Blossom Festival

Me and My Gal in the Blossoms

4637
How should you respond
To the hatred in the world?
Why, with love, of course.

4639
Give up all judgment.
Be a Citizen of Peace,
Enemy to none.

4640
You are on the verge
Of an explosion of Art,
Thought, and Abundance.

4641
Believe in yourself
And your ability to
Make a difference.

4642
Be the example
You want your children to love,
Follow, and become.

photo

Our own backyard.

The Aim of the Art

My very first paying Vocal Director job was for Governor Mifflin High School’s production of Babes in Arms in 1994. Ironically, the male lead made state swimming and left the production a week before it opened, so it was also the first time I, as a high school graduate, stepped into a role in a rival high school show out of desperation. And, yes, there was a second time too. As a Music Director, over 21 years, I have worked largely in three distinct environments: professional theatrical, scholastic education, and worship. Each has its challenges, its strengths and weaknesses, its headaches and heartbreaks. I was asked recently by a member of our congregation (at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg) who has seen me work in a different setting ‘how I tailor my style to the environment,’ since their experience of me there was different from at UU. The answer is really a question of the aim of the art being collaborated upon. And while those aims are always the same, their positions of prominence shift.

img_0190

The UUFF Adult Choir from this past February

When one music directs in a professional theatre setting, there is usually a very limited window at the beginning of the process where the Music Director gets to be ‘in charge’ and teach the music. The director and the choreographer are anxiously awaiting their turn to take over and teach their material, sometimes patiently, frequently not so much. Music direction is treated (by many, not all) as a necessary nuisance, something to get through quickly so we can get the actors up on their feet and start teaching them the show. Once that period ends touch ups are rare, at the discretion of the director, and often done on the fly. The need is real because most musical theatre performers can barely read music, but the music and its upkeep are often subject to the constraints of time, money, and ego. There is barely enough time to teach the music, let alone terminology, support, context, or what have you. And your investment in people (at least initially) is minimal. Management wants a short rehearsal period and the best product so that ticket sales and reviews are good. The health, well being, and education of the singers are very low priorities. Do they know their music? Do they sound good? Moving on.

Educational music, both choral and theatrical, is mostly about the repetitive learning process, and the gradual team and spirit building that is required to inspire young people to pursue the arts either as a vocation or avocation. In school choral music, one is often working on the same pieces for months, MONTHS!, leading up to the big holiday or spring concert. The music must be challenging, but not too challenging; it must hold their interest and give the student a sense of musical accomplishment. It must also build a pride in belonging to the organization. Marching and jazz bands are still best at this. Product is important, but what really matters is nurturing a lifelong love for music, learning, and belonging. Students will join the choir to find their place, but they’ll only stay if you inspire them to be their best selves. And at most, you have them for four years, so you teach them to believe in themselves, to love music and the arts, and hope that they’ll remember you fondly.

img_0134

Someone’s never far from the action!

Worship music directing, especially at UU, (given that it is a non-textual faith, and stresses principles over dogma or creed) involves a synthesis of both the aforementioned environments, but it’s also much more than that.  In a worship setting like ours, the lyrics, the context in which the song is being sung, and the degree to which a choir member can invest in the song’s message becomes pivotal to success. Singers are neither students nor employees; they are peers of both the congregation and the Music Director. Their love of singing either has a long history, or is something that they are exploring after a long absence, a career change, retirement, or a courageous moment to join the choir. These singers are sharing their gifts out of love of singing, love of their community, and love of their faith tradition. As a music director, these are often the people you get to know the best, sing with you the longest, and share many of the deepest experiences. A show singer comes and goes in weeks (unless you can rehire multiple times), a student a few years; a church singer has an open-ended relationship with the Music Director to stay as long as the singing is fun and fulfilling.  For many of these singers, it is the sharing and the community building that creates the best choir experiences. The product is important, but what really matters is the sense of joy and family shared. This same approach applies to our hand bell and youth choir programs.

To sum it all up, in professional theatre the product comes first, no question. In education, the process and the sense of belonging to something special comes first. In our worship setting, our relationships – to text, to community, to our faith traditions – take precedence. While always striving for the best musical experience, the foci change and, as Music Director, it’s my job to adapt my demeanor, expectations, and repertoire to give each choir (or other musical organization) the best experience possible.  The environment really does determine the aim of the art.

Peace and Almond Milk,

Jason

Note: This post is reprinted from an article I wrote recently for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg March Newsletter. Additions to this post have been added in parentheses for clarity.

hand-chimes-1

Members of the UUFF Hand chime ensemble, before we expanded and added bells!

Going Home

On Tuesday, December 6, I made the three hour plus journey from Upper Darby, PA to Selinsgrove, PA to take part in the 50th Annual Christmas Candlelight Service at my primary undergrad institution, Susquehanna University. In the almost 25 years since I graduated in 1993, I have only been back to campus to the best of my knowledge three times, the last of those being more than ten years ago (I think). I did have a brief connection back to SU in 2007 when the University Choir performed in Carnegie Hall and alumni of the choir were offered the opportunity to participate. But we rehearsed (I think) in New York briefly, not on campus. Whatever the case, Susquehanna feels more now like a distant remembrance than anything else, and going back there for a day felt more like a road trip into my happy past, a past that’s more vague impressions than concrete memories.

photo

The program cover juxtaposed with our listing at the bottom.

That said, when the invitation came to be a part of the alumni choir singing in the candlelight service, once more (perhaps for the last time) under the baton of Maestro Cyril M. Stretansky, I was determined that my RSVP would be a firm nonnegotiable “yes.” For so many of us, Cy was and is more than a conductor.  He is variously a music mentor, friend, mercurial uncle, somewhat distant paternalistic judgmental father figure, and above all a seeker and maintainer of the highest musical standards. To sing under him meant to have no higher commitment than to the choral art. To offer less meant that you didn’t remain in the University Choir.  And believe me, you wanted to be in U. Choir, and working under his baton. To do so allowed you a badge of pride that you could take out and shine when you weren’t too fatigued by sitting straight, silent, and focused for long, long periods of time. I guess I do remember some things, fondly too.

I had driven up to my in-laws on Monday to break up the trip to Central PA, but VA to Upper Darby, PA is 3 ½ hours, and then setting out the following morning for another 3 ½ hour trip through PA’s coal regions in rain and sleet is wearying no matter how you break it up. I drove up the PA turnpike, got off at exit 298 and headed up I-176 to 422 to 61 N, my primary route up to the region. My GPS hated me for taking 61 as there were faster routes, but 61 N had been my route to SU for my entire time there and I wanted the day to be as nostalgic as possible. For much of the next two hours, I drove and gaped at the poverty. Towns like Ashland, St. Clair, and Mt. Carmel, that had been hanging on in the late 80s/early 90s, looked somewhat like post-apocalyptic wastelands. One town (that I won’t name) I came through was almost completely abandoned except for the Wal-Mart and Burger King at the north end, where any and all life seemed to sustain itself. The whole region had an atmosphere of decay and despair, and I couldn’t help feeling saddened by it. Many of these people were the same ones that had desperately opted for a new kind of politics in this most recent presidential election, as was evidenced by numerous lawn signs. This is not a political post and, regardless of one’s point of view, I hope some relief someday comes to this region; it is desperately and obviously needed.

At the northern end of bleakest America is Sunbury, PA, and just around the bridge is dear old SU. Between Sunbury and Selinsgrove is “the strip,” a stretch of highway that serves as the commercial hub outside of small town USA. Many familiar businesses were still hanging on: the skating rink and the motel students went to for “privacy.” Many new businesses and a new mall had become the new normal, and SU and environs no longer felt like the sleepy rural expanse with a Perkins and a tiny mall to while away one’s  weekends, but it was still familiar enough nonetheless. I ventured off the bypass and into the heart of Selinsgrove which (to my eyes) looked relatively calm and the same as it had between 1989 and 1993.

15393004_10210572973135105_4286184170042730044_o

The massed alumni choir onstage at Weber Chapel. If you can see the person up front looking the wrong way, that’s me! (Photo credit: Emily Scaturo)

I pulled up at the Kind Café, a trendy coffee shop on Market St., and spent the next 90 minutes catching up with one of my dearest friends from the area: Margaret W. Margaret and I had probably not seen one another in twenty years, and she just hasn’t changed. We had sung together in the Susquehanna Valley Chorale and become fast friends. We chatted puppies and politics, music and Colonial Williamsburg, and had a grand re-acquaintance. When it was time to depart the café around 4:30 PM, I was heading to the candlelight service, and she was heading to the SVC tech for their weekend holiday concert. Some things wonderfully truly do not change.

I arrived on SU’s campus just before 5 PM and parked behind Weber Chapel (a place now reserved for faculty and staff, but it was dark and I didn’t see the signs) and headed into Degenstein Center. I had helped to dedicate the theatre in 1993 and it still smelled the same: a combination of claustrophobia and cantankerousness. The first face I saw welcoming me was Meg “Boofer” F. P. The second I saw was Cy’s. I really had come home. Over the next several hours I reacquainted with old friends (Jen, Eric, Meg, Stacy, Rob, Cori) and made some new ones (Arissa, Jack, Judy). I dined on bacon-wrapped figs and roast beef, and sat up front to rehearse O God Beyond All Praising, arr. by alumni Wayne Dietterick, who got caught in New Jersey and couldn’t make it in. When we were ushered into Weber Chapel for our 3 minutes of fame, I stood onstage and gaped and smiled at all the happy memories I had had on that stage. Most of the time, from 7 PM till almost 10 PM, we were seated in the audience for the service. Since it was being taped for local PBS, Susquehanna had pulled out all its finest musical groups, and they all took time to assemble, which made the service run long. But when all was said and done, it was beautiful, moving, and very professional, and I can be very proud of the few intimate moments that I and my fellow alums were allowed to partake in from the stage with our beloved Cyril.

SU friends reunited

SU friends reunited (Photo credit: Robb Whitmoyer)

When I got back to the car, gassed up, and headed back to Upper Darby, I was awash in conflicting emotions. I was sad it was over. I was so proud to have participated. I was so grateful to have seen so many old friends. I was fearful that at 81 this was Cy’s musical swansong. Driving back through the desolation of 61, I was awestruck by how beautiful each of the broken coal towns had decorated for the Christmas season. Street lights, full size nativities, seemingly abandoned houses were all aglow in holiday cheer. The grey despair of day had given way to the most beautiful light displays by night. It made me realize how much these people, though feeling abandoned by their country, were still alive in their hope and faith for something better to come. I smiled, I teared up, and I wished them all a Merry Christmas. My time at Susquehanna University had come and gone (again), and while I was saddened by its end, what was most important from my whirlwind experience were the good memories, the rekindled friendships, and the ever-present holding on to hope that somehow SU and its vicinity always seemed to embody and remind me of.  I had gone home; home to SU, home to my past, home to hope.

I wish you all such a place to visit when you need it as well.

Namaste,

Jason

P.S. If you didn’t read my last post, our new book, Mommy Made a Beastie (But I Love Her Anyway) is now available on Amazon! Here’s the link information: https://www.amazon.com/Mommy-Made-Beastie-Love-Anyway/dp/153932723X/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Happy Holidays!

Before the World Went Mad

Bup (John Adams) and I arrived at the King George Elementary School polling station on Tuesday, November 8, at around 11:45 AM. The local media had been advising that ‘after people got to work and before they headed home’ were good times to vote, that the polls would be light. Like many projections of the day, the media could not have been more wrong. We walked toward the line that stretched out the door and into the courtyard and saw a young woman handing out orange pieces of paper. We approached her, inquiring if she was the sign-up line? No, that was inside, she replied cordially, but she was handing out sample ballots. Bup wanted an orange paper, so we took one, thanked her, and moved on. The orange sample ballot was paid for by the local Republican Party and informed its base how to vote by filling in sample choices as best case examples. Now at least we knew what the ballot looked like, so we could make decisions on how to or how not to vote. We sought out the tail of the line and queued up.

For the next almost ninety minutes I stood while Bup stood, sat, ran off, came back, laid on the ground, rolled on Best Friend Blankie, ran circles around the orange cones marking the line, got held, got put down, hurt his knees falling, chased after a pollster with cookies, and made all manner of spectacles of himself. We stood in three lines total – 1 to check in, 1 to vote, 1 to feed our ballot to the machine – and each new line brought Bup new hope that we were finished and crushed his spirit a little more when he realized that we weren’t. When we voted, he sat on my lap in the little makeshift booth and helped me guide the Sharpie to its desired ovals. When we submitted our ballot, I held him while he pushed the paper into the machine, then it spit back out to be turned over, then we pushed in the other side. At the end of the three lines was a beautiful disabled black boy nicknamed William Floyd handing out I Voted stickers with an eagle on it. He presented Bup with one proudly, which he accepted graciously, but Bup was spent and his face was drawn and frustrated with the restrictive and slow-moving process. Outside the site, a King George science class had set up a Krispy Kreme doughnut stand to fund their class trip. I bought Bup a doughnut and supported tasty science education. We snapped a few selfies and a few more shots with the help of passersby, and we headed home. I was tired and spent from managing a capricious toddler through a three-lined serious gathering of such importance, but we were all done, and I was more than proud of Bup that he had voted (more or less) in his very first Presidential Election.

voting-selfie

November 8, 2016 Election Day selfie

It needs to be said that for the two hour ordeal that was our voting experience, people were on their best behavior and then some. I had deliberately worn green and yellow so as to not inadvertently show support visibly for any one candidate. At 45, I remain of the mindset that my vote is my own and nobody has the right to know my intentions, except Nancy. Bup was dressed in a red shirt with a blue dinosaur to be both non-partisan and patriotic. I had expected to be assaulted out front with last minute appeals for my vote, and I was prepared to make my stock evasive answer that I was voting for Gracie Allen on the Surprise Party ticket, but nobody asked, thankfully. In line, few people were wearing red or blue, though many wore a sticker showing their political leanings. There were far more Trump supporters than Hillarys (this is King George after all), but both were present and pleasant. A family of Trump supporters right behind us – white, middle-aged father, mother, and grandmother – took an active interest in Bup’s antics and tried to occupy his time a bit with chatter and attention. They were dressed in Harley shirts and hunting attire, and were apparently well-known and of high standing in the community. More than a few people (black, white, and disabled) broke from their places in lines to pay their respects to our ‘line buddies.’ When all was over, they were also the family who saw me snapping selfies outside with Bup and offered to take our picture. Whatever their, my, or your leanings, upon a brief meeting, they made a pleasant impression.

Inside the polling station the elderly and infirmed were shunted to the front of each line so they didn’t have to wait as long as the rest of us. This made the line wait times longer, but no one complained; it was just the right thing to do. First time voters were announced and cheered, as were the elderly. An 87-year-old Navy veteran was met with enthusiastic applause after submitting his ballot. In so many ways, people were on their best behavior and had brought their best selves to the polling station, and it showed. Bup and I left the school tired but feeling satisfied and accomplished. We had done our part, voted our conscience, and played a minor but important role in the furtherance of American democracy.  The next day there would be chaos, tears, fears, riots, and all manner of recriminations. But that’s not this story. The world is full of vicissitudes, both ups and downs. Overall, our voting experience was a success, and one that my son is still talking about a week later. I hope it makes a lasting impression, and as he grows he chooses to take a more active role in steering the ship that is our fraying and fraught republic. But for now that’s where I choose to stop typing – to focus on the good. I wish for you all this day an opportunity in which you can do the same.

Namaste,

Jason

election-day-nov-8

I Voted, Daddy, and I’m so over it!

Still Wild About Hank (And Damned Proud of It!)

On Sunday, August 14, Nancy and I attended the Virginia/US Premiere of the new documentary, Wild About Hank, the true story of the cat that ran for US Senate in 2012. Hank’s story holds a very special place in both our hearts. We learned about his bid for Congress shortly after it started. We bought bumper stickers and a lawn sign. We followed him on Facebook, liked his campaign messages, and even drove to meet him at Felix and Oscar’s pet store on Backlick Rd. in Northern Virginia when he was on the campaign trail. On Election Day, in the race between George Allen and now Vice-Presidential Democratic nominee Tim Kaine, we proudly wrote his name in and voted for him. Though he came in third, Hank received just shy of 7,000 votes statewide. Yes, Hank was a cat, but to many of us he was more than that: he was a movement. One we proudly supported.

Nancy and I posing before the Wild About Hank movie sign

Nancy and I posing before the Wild About Hank movie sign

Now, four years later, much has changed, much has stayed the same, and, generally speaking politically, things are worse than ever. Hank passed away in 2014 due to declining health complications so there’s no comeback possible. The 2016 Presidential Election is made up of two candidates who are arguably the two most distrusted and/or despised people in America, all the while other candidates are either denied or manipulated out of having a voice by the two big machines, and everyone is bracing for the potential violent response that could be the day after Election Day. It’s not hard to despair in such times, and I’ve written about some of my feelings on this previously in another post, “Primary Colors,” so there’s no further need to dwell here. Needless to say, sitting in the Cinema Arts Theater in Fairfax, VA when the movie finally started around 7 PM, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia and sadness for the good old days…from just four years ago.

The documentary, Wild About Hank, is a short and sweet 30 minute reminiscence of the late beloved feline visionary. Utilizing Facebook quotes, stock footage from the campaign, and seven primary interviews – including Republican challenger George Allen (Tim Kaine was unavailable for some reason) – the documentary briskly recounts owners Matthew O’Leary and Anthony Roberts’s reasons for Hank’s run, the process of getting him on (or not on) the ballot, the campaign itself, and the post-campaign life and eventual death of their beloved boy. Very lovingly crafted by director Emma Kouguell, who was on hand to introduce the film and be a part of the post-screening panel Q and A, the film is a valentine to those fans who took part in Hank’s rise, run, and decline. On a very personal level, when the stock BBC footage surfaced about halfway through the film that included both Nancy and I snapping photos of Hank, only to be followed by a still photo of he and I discussing his campaign finance reform policies, we nearly leaped out of our seats with joy.  But the real substance of the documentary lies in the interviews of a few of his biggest fans, and in their responses as to why they would ever vote for a cat.

Hank the Cat for U.S. Senate, March 2012

Hank the Cat for U.S. Senate, March 2012

In one very emotional and poignant response toward the end of the film, one of the interviewees is recalling Hank’s run for Senate and discussing it with a mix of pride and deep-felt sadness. She recounts how her own district was so close to call that before she cast her ballot, she was pressured by friends out of voting for Hank, being told she was throwing her vote away on a third party write-in, and that it was her civic duty to vote for a particular candidate. She caved, didn’t vote for Hank, and through tears has regretted it ever since. She recounts emotionally how supporting Hank made her feel a part of the democratic process, and how proud she was to be supporting a clean-run campaign where due to Hank’s presence, candidates “would have to show up and be kind,” and where she knew the intentions of her candidate were noble. She then, to paraphrase, asks the question of us all, “What does it say about the state of American politics that a cat can win the hearts and minds of disaffected voters in a way that the humans we run for office can’t?”

What indeed.

With almost 7,000 votes, and over sixteen thousand dollars raised for animal charities in Virginia, to say nothing of the intangible amount of good his campaign did to raise awareness on animal rights and spay and neuter issues, I proudly supported Hank in 2012, and will gladly do so again when the right cat comes along.

Till then, we’re stuck with the Fat Cats. Lucky us.

Long Live Hank,

Jason

 

P.S. Here is the link to the official Wild About Hank website where you can view the trailer. http://www.wildabouthank.com/ We were told the film will be available for streaming later this year, so check back regularly.

Here is the BBC stock footage that includes Nancy and I: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-17348212

Here is Hank’s Wikipedia Page:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hank_the_Cat

Happy Exploring!

Ciao and Meow.

The cake at the Virginia Premiere of Wild About Hank

The cake at the Virginia Premiere of Wild About Hank

 

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.

SU 2

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

SU Logo

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

13428569_10208010781845750_3159243240336456203_n