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.

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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.

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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,

Jason

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

Living in Bump’s America

Whatever my personal feelings or biases on the recent presidential election, barring an electoral upset, unforeseen indictment, or revolutionary uprising, Donald J. Trump is going to be the next President of the United States of America. If not the popular vote, the Electoral College is likely to seal the deal. Across our country there is a great deal of concern, unrest, vitriol, Monday Morning Quarterbacking, celebration, and what have you as to how this may have come about. I have my own theories on this matter which I will touch upon at a later time. What is occupying my thoughts at the present is the impact he will have on my three-year old son, John Adams, or as we call him Bup, or as his grandparents (for perhaps reasons of regional distinctiveness) call him Bump. I’m 45, and while any new president’s policies will impact me directly and immediately, they are certain to affect my son much longer and more viscerally.

As a child, I remember growing up under and idolizing Ronald Reagan. He was an actor turned president, so we had career kinship. He brought the hostages home from Iran. He stood up to Russia. He was the Great (charismatic) Communicator. He sang the “Song of America” very well. Children live their lives in emotional broad strokes, and whatever may be known or suspected now concerning his presidency and policies due to disclosure, time, distance, and perspective, it’s hard to shake the childhood notion that growing up under Reagan as a PA suburbanite was to live in a more hope-filled era.

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My Bump envisioning a better tomorrow.

In sharp contrast, I vividly recall the sense of betrayal I felt when Bill Clinton went on national television denied his illicit Oval Office affair with Monica Lewinsky, and then later infamously uttered those words that began with, “Indeed I did…” I remember being in college and feeling that his actions (again regardless of one’s political bias) dishonored the Office of the President. And I wondered whether, as a result of his actions, future generations of Americans would value the presidency less highly because he had lied to the American people. These were my examples from childhood and adolescence. If you prefer, you may fill in Nixon and Watergate, JFK and Marilyn; it makes no difference to me. Point being: how the president, any president, comports himself (for now) makes a lasting impression on the generation growing up under him. Those two men left lasting impressions on me that to date still filter, compare, and contrast with my adult perceptions and, as anyone alive knows, behavior learned in one’s youth is the hardest to change. So I’m left again wondering, how will Donald Trump’s presidency inform my son’s life and worldview?

Mother Teresa in an interview famously said that she would not march against the war in Vietnam, but if someone threw a march for peace she would be there. Likewise, rather than listing what I may be opposed to in a Trump presidency, I would rather concentrate on what I want for my son; what world I would like him to inherit. Here then is my list of “Fors” that I want for my son, my Bump. I can only hope that Trump can offer Bump something of this. Otherwise, Trump is a chump, and not worthy of my Bump.

  • I am for clean air, and clean water for all.
  • I am for putting an end to starvation and malnutrition.
  • I am for investing in America’s roads and bridges.
  • I am for Universal Healthcare and affordable medicine for all Americans.
  • I am for free undergraduate college tuition for all Americans or equivalent preferred trade school programs.
  • I am for stricter gun control laws, rigid background checks, appropriate waiting periods, and closing all the gun show and other loopholes.
  • Except in special circumstances, I am for the restoration of full voting rights to all citizens who have served their sentences.
  • I am for a minimum wage that also serves as a minimum living wage.
  • I am pro business when that business demonstrates that it is both pro consumer and pro employee, and not just pro profit and pro exploitation.
  • I am for regulation of Wall Street and accountability for all crimes committed there. No one, NO ONE is too big to fail or jail. Period.
  • I am for strengthening our borders, and for appropriate immigration reform that does not target, deport, or inter people based on race, creed, color, or orientation.
  • I am for America’s public lands and national parks.
  • I am for the Endangered Species Act.
  • I am for putting an end to income inequality in all forms.
  • I am for gender equality and for women to have final say on their own bodies.
  • I am for pro choice.
  • I am for overturning Citizens United. Corporations aren’t people. Get real.
  • I am for campaign finance reform.
  • I am for marriage equality. Everyone has the same right to be happy or miserable in love.
  • I am for distributing school taxes equally among state-run districts so that all children have a fighting chance for a quality education.
  • I am for textbooks that are based in science not scripture.
  • I am for a rigorously scrutinized merit-based hiring environment.
  • I am for our space program and sending humanity to Mars and beyond. We have become too complacent and lost our way. It’s time to reach for the stars again.
  • I am for all faiths and all religions that seek no harm to others to flourish and be honored and given equal protection under our secular Constitution.
  • I am for calling out and prosecuting media bias, censorship, and spin that does not fall under First Amendment protections. Give us the facts, not lies and manipulation.
  • I am for the exploration of clean technologies, and for the gradual phasing out of fuels that no longer serve the best interests of our environment.
  • I am for taking the threat of Global Warming seriously.
  • I am for judging people, “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Thanks MLK.
  • I am pro child, pro education, pro arts, pro sciences, pro biodiversity, pro peace and pro love.
  • And lastly, and most strenuously, I am pro my son.

     

    I doubt I’ll get to see much of this come to pass, but I can only hope my son will. And that’s my vision for Bump’s America, where all are welcome to live, love, and flourish.

    May it be so someday.

    Namaste,

    Jason

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    My Bup, My Bump, My Little Love

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.

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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

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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

 

Primary Colors

I went to the poll yesterday to cast my vote in the Virginia primary. It isn’t important who I voted for, and I’m not telling anyway. I arrived at 9:11 AM at the school, and the parking lot was virtually vacant. There were few to no signs advocating for particular candidates, and only one elderly man sitting at a makeshift table setup outside the entryway. He was talking to another couple and noticed me and smiled, but couldn’t hook my attention enough to beckon me over to his table. I don’t like to be lobbied for any reason, least of all for who I might want to run for President.

When I entered the school, and by extension the room where voting was taking place, I was instantly struck by two thoughts: there was hardly anyone else in the room voting, and everyone manning the polls was wearing either red or blue, but not both combined. For a workday just after 9 AM I understood that there might be some slowing at the polls. But where were the elderly, the retired, the people who work later hours like myself, the stay-at-home moms and dads, the diehard patriots, the people who have charge of their schedule, the college graduates living at home and off mom and dad, the unemployed, the sick but not sick enough to not vote, and on and on? No, the room, save the poll workers, was nearly empty, and they were all staring at me. I presented my license for identification at a table manned by two women, one red and one blue. I was then directed to a second table where before two other women (again in contrasting red and blue), I was to declare which primary I wished to vote in. After I spoke the name of the party for which I wished to vote, one woman out of two became visibly friendlier, while the other became dismissive. I moved off to a voting booth quickly.

In the little voting station I looked at my ballot. It clearly said to mark my choice with a #2 pencil, but no such pencil was provided for me. There was a pen on a chain with a little sign up to my left in the booth that said more or less “Use the pen.” I wondered how many elderly or simple people became confused by the contradictory instructions and in some way botched or negated the assigned task. Was this deliberate, I wondered? Is this a veiled way to weed out voters? I just don’t know. I used the pen. I darkened my choice. I moved out of the booth and to the scanning machine at the end of the room.

Not knowing which way to insert my ballot, I inquired as much from a poll worker. I was told amiably that it didn’t matter. Such an important process, but the exact details of the process didn’t matter. Hmmm.… A young college student assisting at the polls – one of the only two people in the room to not have on polarizing colors – slapped a “My Vote Counts” sticker in my hand idealistically and I was done.

I walked out of the building and started to walk past the elderly booth worker. He earnestly called to me, knowing that I had already voted in the primary. “Come learn about my man, Ben Carson. Let me give you a book on him.” I hurried past him thanking him abruptly, but he had my attention. Dressed in a retired Navy jacket, this elderly white man was the only constituent invested enough to show up at the voting station to advocate for his candidate – an accomplished if awkward black Republican that arguably had zero percent chance of winning today. It challenged logic, it challenged the divisive race dialogue that is ubiquitous in America right now, it made Trump and Hillary and Cruz and Sanders supporters look lazy or without hope. Or perhaps it made the latter look smarter, since with the advent of super-delegates it seemed to me like the candidates for each party were a foregone conclusion, and my vote was little more than a hopeful exercise in a sea of futility. I admired the man, and he frustrated and puzzled me, but he did make me think.

As I drove to work I truly pondered whether or not my vote counted for anything. Knowing that 2/3 of Americans don’t exercise their Constitutional right, but I had, gave me little comfort, counter-armed with the belief that the political machines are bigger, more powerful, and more corrupt than ever. I wondered why each of the poll workers had dressed as they had? Was it to empower, or to intimidate, or to keep an eye on each other, or all of the above? Was this what we had become – a nation of red and blue, where purple only existed in the blustering faces of our politicians? I smiled as I thought back to the one political race I had voted in where I truly believed in the candidate, where what he had said had made sense, had mattered, and had been said with civility and charm. I had met that candidate back then, even been seen on the BBC talking to him, and even now it’s one of the proudest votes I’ve ever cast.

It was the U.S. Senate race of 2012, and my candidate had lost, but came in a solid third place, and had since passed away, but none of that mattered. He was still the most honest politician I had ever voted for.

And he was a cat.

Love Live Hank! May his dream of a better tomorrow live on.
Namaste,
Jason

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Hank and I meeting at a campaign rally in 2012

 

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Hank the Cat. Photo credit: Wild About Hank on Facebook

 

For more information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hank_the_Cat