My Chair

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This isn’t any chair, this is my chair. It took me nearly a year to get this seat but last Monday I claimed it as my own on my first day as WildAid’s US Communications Director.

This chair is not just mine though. It belongs to the many of you who supported me with your well wishes, network opportunities, edits to my writing, and encouragement since May 2012. That’s when I relocated to San Francisco with my newly promoted wife and jumped into the deep end of a poor job market.

San Francisco is a constant reminder of life’s extremes. Office buildings are filled with startup dollars while the sidewalks and underpasses are crammed with homelessness. While I hadn’t really connected with the new money crowd I was sympathetic to those who were cast aside and passed by during the rush hours every day.

I don’t mean to say that I in any way can appreciate the true horrors of homelessness, but I can thank my lucky stars that I have a support network that kept me afloat. So here’s to:

The human resources representatives, who kept the rollercoaster of emotion moving forward with every email and call to update me on my application status.

The interviewers who helped me sharpen my pitch and learn how to better present myself.

To old friends who introduced me to new friends with leads on job openings.

To the editors who chose my work to post on their sites and keep my name in front of my peers.

To the nonprofits that thought they were getting me for free when they were really keeping my motor primed and ready for work.

To former colleagues and better friends who edited my resume, reviewed my cover letters, sent me links to job openings, set up meetings to network, and kept asking me back to the east coast.

To my new colleagues who saw something in me to bring me on board.

To my family who always listened, never judged, and only provided support.

And last but not least to my wife, who works tirelessly at her job while encouraging me to only move forward when the fit is right.

For so long I felt like a statistic in the quarterly unemployment updates, now I fill another graph. It’s a subtle switch that means the world to each number who is subtracted or added.

This chair belongs to all of you. I hope that someday if you ever find yourself out of work, and I truly do not wish this on anyone, that I can provide you with as much support. It makes all the difference.

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Cartoons for Boston

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Boston

MarathonToday was my first day of work since relocating from Boston to San Francisco last May. It had been a tough journey and I awoke excited and a little nervous to meet my new colleagues and begin this new chapter in my career.

After spending the morning settling in and enjoying lunch with my workmates I received a text from my wife.

“2 bombs exploded at BosMarathon finish line L dozens v hurt.”

My heart dropped. I had just mentioned to a co-worker the excitement that comes every Patriots Day to Boston with the running of “the marathon”. It’s Boston’s happiest day when everyone comes together to cheer on each runner that trots, jogs, or limps along the route. I have never experienced anything so inviting in my entire life.

I clicked online and the story began to unravel quickly via Twitter and the local news stations. The videos were horrific, the photos graphic. My wife and I lived along the marathon route for 7 years in Brookline and Boston’s Back Bay, cheering on those who were strong enough physically and of spirit to push themselves to the finish line. The explosions were blocks from our last home, across the street from the hotel that employed my wife since it opened several years ago.

I texted friends who were sure to be watching the race. They had been heading to the finish line like many others as the crowd always swells after the first few hours when friends and family usually finish. They were safe. A photographer friend luckily turned down the Finish Line assignment.

Even though many of the spectators are strangers, I know those people from these short clips, not personally but I know them. Each year we shared Marathon Monday, ringing cow bells, encouraging runners, and congratulating finishers brandishing their medals later that night.

I know that sidewalk. I bought my running shoes at Marathon Sports and my candy from the shop next door. I checked out my books from the library across the street and waited for my wife after work on that sidewalk.

Like so many Bostonians, I know every square inch of that exploded space and the joy that was erupting up to the moment of those horrific blasts. Every year this day brings out the best in people but it also allowed someone to show their worst.

I know Boston and they will come together like they always do. Bostonians endure; it’s in their history and will be in their future.

All I have to do is watch the clips and see the police, the pedestrians, and the race officials, running towards the explosion to help. One of my wife’s friends sent this telling email, showing how much these few seconds of destruction called for strength and heroism today and in the future when the shock wears off.

“We heard the bombs and people just started running. I ran through all the rooms to get the guests away from the windows and close the drapes. The public came pouring through to escape Boylston Street. We evacuated everyone to Huntington Ave. The street was full of bloody debris and everyone was sobbing. It’s horrific.”

Downloading Your Mom

RosieLet me just begin by saying that I love apps. I use many of them every day to feed my insatiable appetite for information. Apps alert me to breaking news, help me file feature stories to read later, enjoy my downtime with a few games, and find my way around cities when I travel. But that doesn’t change my view on how apps are hurting our lives.

Last week I received an email from Path with the subject line ‘Search Your Memories’. When I clicked it open I was greeted with a simple phrase: Remember life. The email asked me to “import my life from other networks to find any moment on Path.”

Import my life? Was life importable? Where was my life that it could be moved around from one spot to another? Was there more than the content I had imported? (Because I hadn’t updated anything in quite some time.)

I am not naïve. I understand that much of what we do in our lives is captured online either through our own posts or those from family, friends, or work colleagues. It was the phrasing that struck me. This app promised that it would help me reminisce, all one click away.

To be honest, it angered me a bit. Who did this app think it was? More importantly, who was the copywriter that dreamed up this email that was overstating its importance in my life? Path really only possessed as much of my life as I had contributed, leaving out the glue, the time in between moments that I captured and to be honest many weren’t captured because I was enjoying them too much to type anything into my phone.

I began to rethink my online life. It’s true that I had been spending more time online since I relocated to San Francisco. My job search has kept me bouncing around sites, scanning social networks for any hint of an opening that might interest me. I signed up for webinars and trudged through articles that would replace the on-the-job experiences of which I was no longer a part. I grew my network, writing daily posts to my blog, submitting articles that were published by virtual newsrooms, even being published in three books…well, e-books.

My life had become virtual, slowly and systematically I was an online entity with conversations springing from my fingertips far more often than my lips. That’s why this email pissed me off.

My mind raced for blame as it does during these moments of fault finding within myself. I blamed this culture that had sprung up within the last few years, steering us to the web more than out our doors. I looked at apps like Lift (I understand it yet it hasn’t clicked with me yet) and its popularity in my Twitter feed. People I followed rejoiced that the app told them how close they had come that week to their goals.

I remember when I used to journal my goals with a pen and paper. Throughout high school I tracked my caloric consumption as part of my athletic ventures. I noted my workouts by sets and reps. The act of writing kept me accountable because it was not in my memory, it was tangible and I had to own up to any failures on my own, through my journal.

Now there was this app that tells us if we are on the right track to being our best. Have we become a generation of grown-ups with online nannies? Have these app developers, in their efforts to make our lives easier really just invented virtual moms? Are these apps a false sense of self-reliance?

I remember when calendar reminders were new. The email alerts would remind us that we were about to miss a meeting or to prepare for tomorrow’s presentation. These were actionable items to be checked off of a list as we met requirements. Now it seems that these items are replaced with morals. How much have we read this week? Did we meditate enough hours? Are we becoming better?

How can an app measure our moral growth? Even to suggest so seems outlandish. Accomplishing and tracking daily tasks does not improve our inner being.

Is self-sufficiency and moral growth now accomplished by being smart enough to create or use an app that replaces our parents?

A San Francisco Day in Tweets

On my way to get my hair cut:

A quick stop at City Target:

Walking around the Mission:

Grabbing a bite to eat:

Taking the dog for a walk:

How to Photograph a Dog’s Brain

Feral kittens

I figured the brain photo was not appropriate. Enjoy this photo of some feral foster kittens.

The surgical mask channeled each breath up and under my glasses, steaming the rims with each exhalation. The surgeon stepped back as I leaned forward, over the drapes, careful to keep my gown from touching the table. A bright light shone over the small rectangle, pulled back with several metal forceps.

I extended the camera out over the patient and just above my own eyelevel, shifting slightly to remove any shadow from the frame. Click, click. I pulled back the camera, scrolled through the photos, checking for focus. The surgeon pushed back in, taking and replacing tools next to the saw and piece of skull already on the tray.

When he pulled back to review the MRI capture hanging on the wall I slipped forward again. Click, click. Checking the focus again. The brain was clear and the edges of the hole were sharp. Nobody beside myself would see these photos but I needed the practice, plus it was an amazing opportunity.


Very few of us will ever photograph a living dog’s brain while at work. So why am I writing about such a rare occurrence? Because it holds several lessons, the first of which is to never pass up an opportunity to learn.

Everything Has a Purpose

The 30 minutes I spent dressing for surgery, watching the surgeon saw open the dog’s skull, and photographing the resulting hole is not why I was standing in that surgical suite. I was there because I was looking for a story. It’s true that these photos were deemed too gory to share with our audience. I made the decision not to share them among our donors or send them to the press. How would they ever help a nonprofit gain more support? There wasn’t a story there.

I did put myself in that room though. I wanted to see the surgery firsthand, practice my photography, and chat with the surgeon. He’d been taking on increasingly aggressive procedures and if I was going to be there when a story was needed, then I needed to build a repertoire with him.

It was a teaching hospital so chatting with me was never a distraction. He had The Grateful Dead playing in the background as he placed orders for more tools with his assistants. We were getting along and that was exactly what I needed.

Practice

I needed to practice my photography as well. I’d been capturing close-ups of surgeons’ hands for the past few weeks, working on detailed focus as the trained fingers swooped and arced as sutures were tied. Lighting was crucial in surgery and I made adjustments between shots, working now so that when an emergency came in instinct would take over, switching to the best settings without much thought.

Get Out of the Office

I had a great office. I had a sink, closet, mini-fridge, teapot, wrap around desk, and enough room for visitors. Best of all, I had a door. People make the mistake of thinking a door’s purpose is separation when it’s really connection. The most powerful use of a door is to always keep it open.

That said, my door was closed about half of the day because I wasn’t in my office, I was walking and talking, like some reproduction of “The West Wing” without the perfection of Sorkenese.

The more I was out of the office the less I depended on people to come to me. Each minute that I spent poking around meant that I spent about half of the time in front of my computer writing up press releases, speeches, or forcing the creation of poor ideas to pitch to my colleagues. When you’re surrounded by news, and at work you really are if you just tune in to the right channel, you can draft everything in your head as you walk and quickly pour out a near-finished copy in record time when you sit down.

Get Your Hands and Your Brain Dirty

I’ve helped intubate animals, shaved bellies for sterilization procedures, assisted in necropsies, and herded feral cats. It’s easier than you think to use your hands; that’s why they invented soap. The hardest part is making sure that you experience the world you don’t know so that you can tell the best story possible.

Keep Going

The more you put yourself in the middle of things the harder it will be to look away. You need to keep moving, keep observing, and take notes. Some things you will be able to share and other moments will be only for you and the people in the room. After awhile photographing a dog’s brain won’t seem that strange.

Hey Whole Foods*, Is There Horse Meat in My Cupcake?

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My wife said that she had a present for me when she returned home from a work event last night. She placed the chocolate cupcake in front of me as I typed away on the keyboard.

“It’s vegan,” she said, knowing that I would check the ingredients. “They printed the wrong label, but it’s vegan.”

IMG_5377The Whole Foods label listed my dietary nemeses including the stalwarts of baked goods: eggs and milk. I used to drink milk by the gallon daily, actually mixed with at least half a dozen raw eggs among other protein rich ingredients.

“But the label says…,” I drifted off. Edwina never took the vegan leap with me but she eats much healthier than I do. Did you know that at least one type of Doritos does not contain real cheese?

“Well, I’ll eat it if you prefer,” she countered.

Who was I to trust? It was in black and white. Labels don’t lie, right? On the other hand, my wife is the one who interrogates the poor unfortunate that answers the phone at our local Chinese take-away to ensure the egg rolls contain no egg and that the fried rice is pork-free. When they try to dodge her questions she slips into Cantonese and even Mandarin if they retreat further into their dialectic fortress.

It’s a question that needs not be asked. Of course I trust my wife over a label. But it raised an interesting point. Who do we trust when our allies are not around? The writing on the box has always held its vagaries for all to see: “natural ingredients”, “flavors”, etc. I studied enough nutrition over the years to identify the loopholes on the packaging.

So I grabbed the fork Edwina brought, then put it down, and dug in with my fingers. I cared for four horses as a kid and I’m pretty sure they never tasted this good.

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*While this cupcake was bought at Whole Foods, I have no reason to believe that it actually contained horse meat. It was actually rather delicious.

The Graduation Myth: A Closer Look at Animal Cruelty and Human Violence

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Emaciated Pit Bull puppies rescued in 2010 / PHOTO by Brian Adams

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS WRITTEN DEPICTIONS OF ANIMAL CRUELTY.

The Shift
I wanted a career change. Publicizing small hi-tech companies for the past two years at a PR agency in Boston had lost its luster long ago. It was time to take a chance.

I debated future careers for weeks. Should I stay in PR or go back to reporting? Is there an entirely new career out there waiting for me?

I soon found my answer when my wife came home from a career fair and told me about a local animal welfare organization. I grew up surrounded by animals on a small, non-working farm and connected with our pets, understanding their motivations. The position was paid hourly in exchange for helping find owners for homeless pets. I hadn’t worked for hourly wages since my days in retail but I knew this was the job for me from the feeling in my chest.

During the interview process I was told about a recent opening in the Marketing department for a salaried PR Manager. I jumped at the chance and landed the job. I was warned about the hardships I would encounter – neglected and abused animals on a daily basis. I thought I could improve things, care for the unwanted, recuperate the injured, and generally become a young St. Francis with my first press release.

I witnessed the results of countless acts of animal cruelty during my nearly six years at the second oldest animal welfare organization in America. I grew the PR Manager role during this time to become head of Media and Community Relations and as the lead spokesman for the Massachusetts SPCA, I frequently provided comment on horrific cases that required extensive research on my part.

Story Gathering
My daily rounds of the organization could take hours. I usually began by touring one of the largest and most advanced veterinary hospitals in the world. During my time there, the nonprofit employed nearly 100 veterinarians in specialties including surgery, neurology, pain management, ophthalmology, and gene therapy. This team treated more than 50,000 animals annually and I spent most of my time in the Emergency Room looking for “miracle cases” of recovery.

I was an embedded reporter clicking away on my digital camera and scribbling notes. I interviewed colleagues, probing further than a member of the media would be allowed because of our shared mission. These Q&A’s helped me understand as much about the medicine as the people in the white coats. Every day was a study on human behavior.

About one third of the building housed an adoption center. When I came aboard in 2006, the MSPCA operated seven adoption centers, four after the recession hit in 2008. We also lost 2 hospitals when $11M+ of our endowment vanished. The human casualties were the hardest to bear.

Walking by the cages and kennels I viewed the animals in our care, searching for a story as strongly as they sniffed out a new home. I swung by the morgue, a smell I never got used to, as I made my way to the stairs and up to the fourth floor where I caught up with the head of our Advocacy department. After discussing legislation I crossed the hallway to the Law Enforcement offices.

The Officers
The structure of the MSPCA provided direct contact with animals that survived abuse and those unfortunate souls who died through neglect or extreme brutality. The nonprofit employed a handful of specially trained state police officers, charged solely with investigating allegations of animal cruelty. When describing them to the media I frequently mentioned that they were armed officers to ensure that it was understood that these were not dogcatchers.

Each year these officers would investigate nearly 3,000 allegations of animal cruelty and inspect tens of thousands of animals. It’s important to note that that these figures were only for our officers and did not include the many cases that were investigated by local and state law enforcement as well.

Inside I would chat with the dispatcher, one of any number of officers traveling through Boston or visiting the city for a court date, the affable Deputy Director, and eventually the Director. We would make small talk before winding our way to the cases that were under investigation. To gain a better perspective on the crimes being discussed I would view photos, video, and statements. This was necessary given the bombardment of questions that made their way from the newsrooms to my desk.

Perspective and Fatigue
Over the years I went out on some calls, helped rescue a few of the abused, participated in necropsies, viewed countless depictions of violence towards animals, and met the survivors, human and animal. In all I spent more than five years watching over a constant flow of graphic animal cruelty.

I frequently recounted one story to the press involving a dog and a chainsaw. That one wasn’t even that bad but it got the point across. Neglect was the most difficult to convey unless you had pictures. The barbarity of withholding care or nourishment, among other necessities, degraded one’s spirit. The cruelty was in the time it took to turn a healthy dog into skin and bones or to allow a cat’s sores to fester until maggots made homes under the fur.

From the many stories that stay with me I was most horrified by a German Shepherd whose “elbows” had been allowed to deteriorate. The bones pushed through the skin due to lack of muscle and time spent on a hard floor. When we hoisted the poor dog from our refrigeration unit for examination and opened the body bag, the exposed joints were as white and dry as a turkey carcass forgotten after a Thanksgiving meal.

Your perspective changes when you deal with severe cruelty on a regular basis. In our orientation we were told about compassion fatigue. We were told that we would either burn out in two years or become “lifers”. A friend once told me that many of us were emotionally spent after the first few weeks and only toughed it out given our empathy for the animals. You learn that empathy is a double-edged sword fairly quickly.

The Study
Members of the press possessed private notions of animal cruelty, commonly fueled by Hollywood’s depiction of serial killers with a penchant for torturing animals from a young age. The more severe cases that went public invited speculation of having stopped future Dahmers or Bundys. That’s when I started promoting the study.

The study had not been featured in the press for years so I dusted it off and gave it a read. It was extensive to say the least. The MSPCA partnered with Northeastern University to review the records of more than 80,000 animal cruelty complaints between 1975 and 1996. The cases focused mainly on men (97%) and individuals mainly under the age of 30 (56%).

“Beating, shooting, and stabbing were the most common methods of abuse. Adolescents were almost twice as likely as adults to beat their animal victims, and adults were almost twice as likely as adolescents to shoot animals.”

These statistics could catch he odd headline but I was after more. I needed to understand why people did what they did.

Motivation
Two researchers searched for answers amongst the aftermath of violence. They interviewed inmates at federal penitentiaries and battered women in a shelter but left no closer to their goal. The question remained: What is the relationship between animal abuse and violence towards humans? The study soon focused on individuals convicted for acts of animal cruelty.

“The criminal records of 153 individuals prosecuted by the MSPCA between 1975 and 1986 for intentional physical cruelty to animals were tracked for 20 years – 10 years before the abuse and 10 years after. A control group was established of ‘next door neighbors,’ people of identical gender and age who lived in the same neighborhood at the same time as the abusers. The criminal history of control group members was compiled for the same 20-year time period.”

The results were staggering and changed the way we looked at the relationship between animal cruelty and violence against humans.

“Seventy percent of the people who committed violent crimes against animals also had criminal records for violent, property, drug, or disorder crimes. When compared to their next-door neighbors, people who abused animals were five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people, four times more likely to commit property crimes, and three times more likely to have a record for drug or disorderly conduct offenses.”

The findings also challenged a longstanding belief that animal cruelty was a gateway to committing human violence. The study stated:

“The hypothesis that people first commit acts of cruelty to animals and then ‘graduate’ to crimes against people was not supported by the findings of this study. More than half (59%) of the 106 animal abusers who committed other crimes committed those crimes prior to the animal offense.”

It was now clear that the flow of violence towards animals or other humans starts with either classification of victim. Years later I discovered that this was still news to the press while the animal welfare world also remained skeptical of the findings.

These were hard facts for many to swallow. They showed a disconnect with empathy that allowed humans to treat the lives of animals and people as the same. Therefore we pushed for similar laws. If the abusers would not distinguish in their acts then why should the courts?

Results?
Over the years, my colleagues strengthened the animal cruelty laws although they still remain weak in the eyes of many advocates. It is a difficult case to make when you look at the victims, weighing animal life against those of humans. This is a mistake and misses the point of the findings. The commonality lies in the abuser and behavior that allows an individual to harm animals as easily as humans.

As the study concludes:

“…this research should serve as a wake-up call for parents, teachers, social service providers, law enforcement, the judiciary, veterinarians—indeed, for all of us—that cruelty to animals is a warning sign that deserves our attention and demands intervention.”

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Emaciated Pit Bull puppies rescued in 2010 / PHOTO by Brian Adams

Read “Cruelty to Animals and Other Crimes” in its entirety. If you wish to make a difference please contact your local animal welfare organization or reach out to your legislative representative.

More information regarding the Pit Bull puppies pictured above can be found here.

Related post: Cheering for Vick

Dear Future Employer

WillWorkForMilkCatThe dialogue between job seekers and hiring managers is changing. It’s easy for candidates to slightly alter a cover letter, attach a résumé, and apply for any job posted online. The initial vetting process by companies can then take ages, no thanks to the mounds of unqualified applicants who thought, “Why not?” when sending in their application. This process is causing many applicants to dig deeper, create customized documents for each position (as it should be), and research the heck out of each company.

Researching potential colleagues and senior team members is easy thanks to social media platforms and digital media however it can quickly lead to a loss of individualism when a paycheck is at stake. (I’ll speak more about this in a future post so stay tuned.) In the meantime, I took a whack at producing slightly more honest recreations of correspondence between job seekers and hiring managers. I hope that your experiences in no way look like this and I would like to point out that I have had some incredible conversations with hiring mangers and their colleagues over the years.

(It’s best to listen to “Brand New Key” by Melanie when reading this post.)

Dear Future Employer,

I am writing to convey my excitement and qualifications for the incredibly vague job description you posted. I like your company/organization and attached my résumé with a photo. I understand that your POS-5000 Résumé Reader does not look kindly on photos but I thought you should know that I am a living breathing person. Please respond, I’m desperate.

Sincerely,

Job Applicant

*      *      *

Dear Job Applicant,

We received your non-descript résumé and cover letter. Please await further details.

POS5000 Résumé Reader

*      *      *

Dear Future Employer,

It’s been three weeks and I’m nervous. Are you still considering me? I emailed my prospective supervisor and they said to await further details too.

JA

*      *      *

Hello JA,

It’s been two months since your application, however we assume that you want to work with us so badly that you never applied anywhere else and certainly have not found a job you would like as much as working here. What are your salary requirements?

Thanks,

Hiring Manager

*      *      *

Hello Hiring Manager,

I really don’t want to discuss salary requirements yet since you haven’t shown any interest in me and will only use this information to either disqualify me or lowball a salary later on.

Best,

JA

*      *      *

Hi JA,

We can discuss it later. Can you have a call with us in 10 minutes? Any information you can share such as your online portfolio, urine sample, or photo of you hugging our building would be appreciated.

HM

*      *      *

Hello Hiring Manager,

What? I’m taking a shower. Yes, yes. I’ll hurry.

JA

*      *      *

Hiya JA,

Thank you for speaking with us. We’ll be in touch. Please hold the next month open in case we call again.

HM

*      *      *

Hello Hiring Manager,

Sounds great! I’ll start cyberstalking your senior team now. I hope you will all follow me back on Twitter or RT my posts that will now only focus on your mission/product.

JA

*      *      *

Wassup JA?

Much of this position will require writing. Please translate the Gutenberg Bible into Japanese. This should show us that you will do anything to work here.

Besties,

HM

*      *      *

Hello HM,

Really? Well just this once. Attached is the translated text. I stayed up all night to get this to you ASAP.

JA

*      *      *

JA my man,

Thank you for sending us the translation two months ago. My sincerest apologies but we decided not to hire for the position anymore and then sort of, kind of decided to open the search again. We assume you have put your life on hold until now. Please fill out this background check so we may begin the interview process.

HM

*      *      *

Hello HM,

Happy Thanksgiving! Attached is the completed background check. Please let me know if you want some blood. I have quite a bit.

JA

*      *      *

JA!

We hope you had a lovely Easter:) No need for the blood. We hired someone a few months ago and decided to keep them on board after their review. We have your DNA from the tears you wept over the bible translation you sent us. We will keep these on file somewhere but never look at them again. All the best in your job search!

HM

*      *      *

Dear HM,

Thank you for this opportunity to mold myself to your image, produce work free of charge, and never meet you in person. I enjoyed rearranging my life and researching your interviews/blogs/tweets/FB posts/videos/etc. trying to guess what might get your attention since you never once provided any feedback. Please keep me in mind should you want to put my life on hold again for several months.

Yours forever,

JA

A few related posts:
8 Pitfalls to Avoid When Job-Hunting from Home

6 Inspirational Quotes For…Job Seekers

Monday, April 19, 1993

St. Joseph’s Askew / Photo jbutsky

St. Joseph’s Askew / Photo jbutsky

I was raised Roman Catholic. Most Sundays my father drove my sister and I south, across the Massachusetts border, to Connecticut. The trip took slightly over 30 minutes and ended at St. Joseph’s, the nearest Catholic Church. The three of us filed quietly up the stone steps, walked to a pew near the back where my father let us in ahead of him before kneeling and crossing himself.

For many years the church provided routine. Over the course of 50 minutes I marked up my mental checklist. Kneeling. Check. Standing. Check. Sitting. Check. Communion. Check. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Check. I followed my father’s lead and never moved before he leaned forward, knelt down, or stood up. I bowed my head next to his and prayed for our pets. The basket came around twice and my father made sure that we each had a crisp dollar bill to drop in amongst the checks and coins. It was just about time to go once we all started shaking hands with strangers. Soon the two men who collected our temporary funds walked backwards down the aisles, the signal to rise from the pews and make our way to the front doors.


I stared at the Stations of the Cross. They hung along the walls, sculpted in three dimensions. The detail was graphic and mesmerized me as the priest read Corinthians. He started strong, powerful and the end He was hunched, beaten, and struggling. I followed His journey, partially blocked by the columns lining either side of the nave, ending at the transepts. It was agonizing and destined to be relived each Sunday.


We crowded towards the exits where the priest waited, shook hands, and wished us well. I once heard him speak to someone about a mundane topic. I don’t remember what was said, maybe the day’s football game. It unnerved me that he knew of such things. My image of him studying the bible in the monastery at the back of the church gave way to images of priests crowding around the television cheering on the Patriots.


My mother, a Lutheran, so rarely accompanied us to church that I considered switching religions from an early age. We always sat closer to the exit when she came to church. I thought it was born out of a need to flee should the congregation learn of her presence. I later considered that she might not have wanted the parishioners sitting behind her to notice the solitary woman as her family received communion.


I lived in a small town with a population of less than 900 and children were a rarity. Five or six of us attended catechism at the local library. We sat in a circle amongst the tales of Twain, Potter, and Seuss and discussed bible passages. For the first time in my life the rituals began to take on meaning. They were fantastic and suited the environment where we learned.


My hand clutched the action figure in my jacket pocket. It was Man-At-Arms from the He-Man collection, a collectible I liberated from a Caldor on our way to the late morning mass. The congregation faced forward, dead eyes absorbing the priest’s sermon. The light shining through the stained glass outline of Judas seemed to spotlight my place amongst the pews. I refused my father’s requests to take my jacket off as sweat beaded on my forehead. My wet palms slid across the sculpted plastic figure hidden from view.


Once I was out of grammar school I rarely attended church. My father woke early and drove to Connecticut for the early mass. He sometimes returned before I made it out of bed. He ate breakfast in near silence and spent the remainder of his mornings in the garage, replacing air filters, draining oil, and blowing on spark plugs.


By high school my excuses for not accompanying my father had lost believability. Stomachaches were for toddlers and “playing deaf” hadn’t worked in years. My sister went to college and took with her a near perfect attendance record of churchgoing. I hated myself for not keeping my father company on those Sunday mornings. I imagined his drives, a solitary pilgrim making his way across the border to sit alone among the families. He spoke sparingly to strangers so I wondered if those sitting near him thought he lost his wife and children to some horrific highway accident.


Guilt occasionally provided the fuel to propel me to the car and make the early drive to St. Joe’s. He smiled a bit more those mornings and peppered me with questions about school and my friends. He was downright chatty some Sundays. I followed him to the garage on those days and held a steady flashlight as he worked away under the hood.


I sat in the back of the church with my father and mother on Sunday, April 25, 1993. I don’t remember the sermon however the theme was familiar. The priest discussed the disciples, the Romans, persecution by the government, and faith. Suddenly I had a revelation. It was completely unexpected.

I remembered the previous Monday. I had spent the day watching the reports from Texas. The compound was burning and reports said dozens were presumed dead, many of them children. The government defended its actions and his photos were splashed across the newscasts.

I was not aware of his politics or his messages. To say I was naïve at the time would be an understatement, but I was impressionable. I saw the basic facts. A small group listened to Koresh, placed their faith in him, believed him to be a spiritual leader, and were persecuted for their beliefs.

Then the question came: why Jesus and not Koresh?

It was as clear as day. Why had history chosen Jesus to rise above other religious leaders and join the ranks of major religions? Would monuments be built to Koresh hundreds of years from this day?

I sat next to my mother when my dad went to receive communion and never followed Him again.

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