Seeing America

I drove fourteen hours one way, each way, to Orlando, FL this week. I left from Fredericksburg, VA in a little Hertz rental on Weds around noon to arrive at the Quality Inn, where I was staying, on International Drive around 4 AM. On Saturday, I left the Doubletree Hilton, where the conference was held, in Orlando and arrived back to my wife and my bed around 4 AM Sunday morning. I went to the Comparative Drama Conference to present a paper on tracing the tragic rhythm in the major musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. And, no, that is not the subject of this blog. No worries.


After the conference, getting ready to drive home.

Driving alone gives you lots of time to think, to listen, to observe. I’m an avid podcast listener and almost never put on music in the car; it puts me to sleep. My business is often music, so listening to music can sometimes feel like work. No, I like the spoken word: podcasts, NPR, even talk radio in a pinch. Down and back I listened to several episodes of The Thomas Jefferson Hour (my favorite podcast) as well as podcast episodes of The Charged Life, Star Talk, Zig Ziglar, Wayne Dyer, The Tolkien Professor, Ben Franklin’s World, Back Story and NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t tell Me. I like to listen, I like to learn, I like to engage my mind. I recommend them all.

Most of my time was spent on I-95. It was congested in the southern middle states. It was often calm and clear from South Carolina downward. I was struck by how beautiful America’s landscape truly is; the trees changed, their beauty didn’t. I was dismayed by how many chain restaurants and fast food stops absorb the horizon. Mom and Pop stores, restaurants and the like, make up a very small percentage of the advertised businesses, and their signs often seem old, weathered, or downright archaic compared to the slickness that is the Whopper, the Arches, the Wal-Whathaveyou. I ate at a struggling Mom and Pop buffet called the Robbin’s Nest in mid-North Carolina. The food was amazing, and the price was dirt cheap: $8.75. The place was 9/10s empty, and the wait staff polite if rurally despairing. Once I got to Orlando, the prospects of eating simply and outside of chains practically dried up, and those that were there were largely out of my price range.

I-95, when you get away from the exit ramps, is littered with barns, silos, busted-up car garages, impound lots, go go bars, and lots of flat space in between. Don’t get me wrong, the landscaping is pretty and often custom-tailored to the weary traveler ‘just passing through’, but I was struck by how, well, poor hundreds and hundreds of miles of our great country looks, and along the scenic route no less! To see America, away from the clusters of chain shops by the exits, is to see a country wrestling with poverty, poor wages, and limited opportunities. It reminded me of the almost euphoric fervor people seemed to have around King George when the Wal-Mart started to go up. Now, five years later, over half of the existing family businesses pre-Wal-Mart have closed around town. What have we gained? What have we lost? I can’t imagine how I would feel if my highest aspiration for my son would be as a cashier at KFC, but I could sense that for many folks as I passed through, that would be ‘living the dream.’ Not really.


At South of the Border, in South Carolina, just off I-95

I don’t mean to be dour or a downer in my post this week, but I do mean to suggest that as a country we need to do better…by everyone. State legislatures across the country over the last several weeks have announced plans to fund education or healthcare or both for their in-state residents. This is in response to what they see as a national government not tending to the needs of all citizens. If this trend continues, I predict we’ll see a flight from states that don’t adopt similar policies to aid their constituents, effectively making some of the poorest states even poorer and the richer states richer. As one Virginia friend said to me this week, after the announcement that New York was going to start offering free tuition to its state universities for residents, “It’s time to move home.” I understand and sympathize with her position. But in a larger sense, the problem is contained within the statement. Too many Americans (not my friend) have been weaned on state’s rights rhetoric – the kind that nearly destroyed our country 150 years ago and is verged to do so again – and it’s time to put that failed ideology behind us. We are all Americans and together, not separate, we can all do better: better healthcare, better education, better opportunities, better infrastructure, better as human beings.

We just have to start caring about each other, and start seeing America both for what it has become, and what it can be.

Respectfully Submitted,



Bink and I (I’m on the left) poolside at the Quality Inn


Putting a Price on Love?

This was a very stressful week in the Michael household. Early in the week our eldest cat, The Nix, started upon a peeing spree around the house that hit several pieces of furniture that heretofore had not been sprayed on by any of our cats. We thought that the ongoing turf war that exists between her and our newer, younger female cat, Criseyde, had temporarily escalated and, after cleaning the furniture we assumed (and hoped) it was little more than an isolated incident. By Wednesday, when I got The Nix to stand up on her perch only to discover that her whole back end and legs were soaked in her own pee, it had become apparent that there was a more serious problem in the works. I called her veterinarian, Dr. Pauline Knowles, owner of a mobile veterinary unit, and asked her to make a house call on Thursday morning. I was hopeful it was a bladder infection and was easily and cheaply rectifiable. I could not have been more wrong.

The Nix

The Nix

By 9:30 A.M. on Thursday morning Dr. Knowles, to her credit, had easily diagnosed The Nix with bladder stones but, feeling ill-equipped to treat or diagnose the full extent of the problem with x-rays and the like, passed us along to King George Veterinary Clinic for an emergency appointment. At K.G.V.C. our little girl’s x-rays revealed a blockage in the urethra as well as the bladder stones but they, like Dr. Knowles before them, felt ill prepared to do the surgery. To quote the attending veterinarian:”If she doesn’t have the surgery to remove the stones today or by early tomorrow she will die.” So once again we were passed along, this time to VCA Waldorf, MD. By mid afternoon I had to cancel work, I had yet to eat or feed my son, and now he and I and his sister were making an unscheduled emergency trip to Maryland.

In Maryland, VCA Waldorf couldn’t have been more helpful. They could do the surgery. They could save our 9-year old little girl’s life. It would only cost around $4,000! Prior to being handed that expense I had already racked up two other bills from the other two vets that already totaled over $600. Now I was being presented with a bill that the only way I could pay (since with uninsured pets you have to pay in full up front) was to draw out of my IRA at a penalty. I didn’t know what to do.

The Nix defiantly awaiting surgery

The Nix defiantly awaiting surgery

What a terrible question to have to ask oneself: Is my child’s life worth the money? The Nix is only nine; she could have many more years of life left if she undergoes the surgery. On the other hand, our disposable obsessive society sends very mixed and denigrating signals to its citizens on pets. Is the life of any pet worth almost $5,000? Do I just put her down and get another? Do I just buy more love somewhere else? She’s a pet, not a person, right? I’ve only raised her since she was six months old. She and I are only the last surviving inhabitants of my mother’s home in PA. I’d had to fight with a dear friend for possession of her after my mom accidentally gave The Nix away as she was vacating our house. She trusts me as her father to care for her. Does that trust mean anything? Fortunately, an alternative was waiting to be found.

VCA Waldorf, sensing that we just didn’t have the money they required to save our girl, suggested that we take her to a low cost clinic in Richmond called Helping Hands. H.H. could do the same surgery for us for only $650 if we could get her there by 9 AM tomorrow morning. The appointment was made, her records were faxed, and by 4 PM Friday afternoon Helping Hands of Richmond had discharged our little girl back into our care, her surgery a success. As I write this on Sunday afternoon, two days later, The Nix is resting comfortably, eating and drinking again, and to the best of our knowledge poised to make a recovery.

I can’t begin to thank enough all the vets and staff that were involved in the saving of our little girl’s life: Dr. Pauline Knowles and Beth Johnson, Mrs. Niznik of K.G.V.C. and their vets, the staff of VCA Waldorf, and finally and most importantly the veterinary staff of Helping Hands that ultimately did the surgery and saved our little girl’s life. So many wonderful people worked together to allow us to bring our little girl home and to all of them we are grateful.

That said, so far I’ve put out over $1300 in medical bills for the surgery and there are follow up appointments for a urinalysis, stitches removal, and the like looming on the horizon, and I can’t help but wonder what someone else would have done when faced with a similar dilemma. Why was the cost of the same surgery so vastly disparate at two different clinics: $650 vs. $4,000; just because one was in-patient and one was out-patient? Really? I realize there are economic factors to consider, the likes of which I’m not qualified to comment on, but what I do know is that because we can’t afford pet insurance we were put in the position of putting a price tag on our little girl’s life, and that’s a position that I personally don’t believe any parent should ever be put in.

At home after surgery in our cone of shame

At home after surgery in our cone of shame

Then again, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to me, since we can’t even agree as a nation that all human lives have value. There is certainly a segment of our society that is fine with letting people die if the price tag just doesn’t suit. I don’t count myself among them, and I know deep down that if Helping Hands didn’t exist I would’ve paid the $4,000 despite the hardship to my family. But this debate is just part of a larger conversation about the value of all life on our planet and, at the end of all this, I did the right thing by my child because I could afford to, and because there are good people who are willing to work at reduced cost because they love animals. Hopefully, at some point in the future of this country we’ll be able to agree that all life is precious and has value, and that money should not be the determinant of the quality and availability of care. Till then I fear we will continue to put price tags on our love and our loved ones. I’m just glad I was blessed to have enough in the bank to bring my little girl home.