Today is a Day for Goodbyes

Today I did something rather unexpected, something that I haven’t necessarily done before and something that I would have initially thought to be a little strange. Today, I shed very real tears over the death of a celebrity… a man who I never once met, exchanged a word with or embraced personally. Yet, for some reason I found myself overcome with emotions.

As a child, I was (like nearly every other child of my generation) infatuated with Michael Jackson. Frankly, it was impossible not to be charmed by a performer electric enough to captivate the world in the way that he did on such a constant basis. I clearly recall hearing Thriller for the first time, injuring myself on two separate occasions imitating dance moves (the roller skate-collar-lift in Bad and of course the lean in Smooth Criminal), and at one point so thoroughly exhausting my cassette of Bad that I began listening to the Weird Al version just to get some semblance of a fix. However, while all of those events still remain fresh in my mind, none of them seemed significant enough to have such an effect on me today, as a rather cynical 29 year-old.

Then came this afternoon, when things began to become more clear. Like over one billion other residents of this turbulent, warring world, I paused my life for two hours to pay tribute to a man who stood taller and larger than any entertainer before him. A man whose contribution to society was so much greater than himself that his passing was met with governments in silence, with mourning in every imaginable language and tears from the eyes of every race on earth. A man whose societal impact warranted sympathies from presidents and kings, from world leaders and common people, a great equalizer that left the same sense of sorrow and loss in the heart of Nelson Mandella that it did someone like myself. While I spent the morning questioning exactly why I felt so moved by this day, the afternoon and the ceremony that followed seemed to put things in perspective.

When I was in the sixth grade, Black or White was simulcast on four different networks (earning Fox its highest ratings share in network history). This move was clearly unprecedented in the history of music video, and as a result, Black or White was the talk of the entire nation on the following Monday morning. Like offices and construction yards worldwide, sixth grade classrooms were certainly not oblivious to discussion of the video, the event, and the surrounding controversy. The next day, during a break in Ms. Whisman’s class, a conversation began in my small corner of the room. I can’t recall the exact group in question, but I do know that one of the involved parties was a young man named Jeffrey, a good friend of mine and somewhat surprisingly (to anyone reading this outside of rural Eastern Kentucky) the only African-American friend I had ever encountered. Jeffrey and I were fast friends upon being thrown into the same classroom in middle school, but throughout my elementary school years I had never actually encountered anyone of a different race.

As the conversation swirled over the video, many of my fellow sixth-graders began to chime in with the standard sixth-grade responses. Michael Jackson was “a queer,” Michael Jackson was “weird,” but even at that age I could understand that there seemed to be something more being said. Finally, as I tried in vain to explain (in the best way that a sixth-grader can) that Michael Jackson was awesome, Jeffrey finally burst into conversation. All of these years later I can still see his face yelling, “You just don’t understand Michael Jackson! When Diana Ross found him he was eating out of a dumpster in Gary, Indiana! If you wonder why he might want to look more like her it’s because she saved his life! You just CAN’T understand Michael Jackson!” At that moment I realized that I clearly didn’t understand that part of Michael Jackson, and as my classmates dismissed the outburst I began to feel something that I couldn’t quite describe. While I was too young to understand it at the time, looking back on the occasion I now realize that I was experiencing my first incident of soft-racism and racial tension on display.

Years later I found myself in a rather tumultuous relationship with what would become my first “real” girlfriend. She was a few years younger than me, and I had gone on to high school and longed for a career as a DJ. My first (and only) actual party gig came in the form of a middle school dance, which I eagerly embraced not only as an actual “gig,” but as a chance to spend some time with a girl I was certain that I loved, but whose parents were rather determined to keep me at a distance. As the dance wound down, and slow dances became a necessity, I decided to play what was then a rather unknown hit from HIStory, the future single You Are Not Alone. As the evening closed, realizing  that she had grown tired of sitting next to me at a table (and not dancing), I threw a bit of caution to the wind and took her hand to dance (remember, this was my first and LAST gig as a DJ). As we danced one of the very few dances we would ever dance as a couple, a feeling of genuine happiness came across both of our faces… and for one moment in time we were perfectly happy. Not just happy, mind you, but that special kind of happy that can only come between the ages of 14-16, and only then if you’re truly lucky.

For years thereafter, Michael Jackson was a constant background player in my life, whether I realized it or whether I didn’t. Whether it was a song on the radio, a sample in a popular song or a cover by some obscure rock band, I was always delighted to hear Michael’s music. However, like most of the rest of my generation, I became jaded and dismissive of his talents, falling under the spell of the tabloid media. I allowed myself to lose focus on the man and the music which had so shaped my life, eagerly gobbling up the latest “news” story about strange behavior. I made every joke, spewed every crass remark and rabidly participated in the machine that worked so tirelessly to destroy the life of a man who had given so much of himself to the world around me.

Then something happened.

Somewhere around 2005, I began to lose a great deal of my cynicism. I had begun a relationship with a new woman, one who I was certain was to be the absolute love of my life. Whether real or imagined, that love caused me to part ways with much of what had defined my character for the better part of a decade, and through that process I began to rekindle my love of Michael Jackson. As I would make trips to and from Lexington, I would frequently listen to my personal collection of his “greatest hits,” a mix I had dubbed C’mon, You Know You Love Mike. As those days evolved into this day, Michael Jackson once again became part of my life… years later and countless sagas after he first entered my life as a zombie (and first as a werewolf, who scared the fuck out of me as a small child).

So, today I sat quietly and observed for the final time a man who has defined my life in ways that I never really understood. As I watched more than one billion people worldwide gather together to celebrate his life and share stories of their own, I felt an incredible sense of guilt. I felt guilt deep in the pit of my stomach. I realized that, without proof or provocation, I had joined the great salivating mob. I realized that I had been an ungrateful consumer of his genius, quick to mock his inner turmoil for the sake of a cheap laugh. I realized that for many years of my life I had repaid the man who provided so much growth for me personally and so much goodwill for the world at large with scorn and disapproval. As I sat watching his oldest daughter fall to pieces, describing her wonderful father, that guilt became an incredible shame.

And at that moment, with a heart filled with memories, guilt, love and shame, I began to cry.

I shed a few tears today, not for Michael Jackson, but for what we have all become. From his birth until his death, Michael Jackson represented a type of child-like innocence. His world was void of the cynicism and heartlessness of modern society, insulating himself from what the rest of the world had become in the only ways that he could. To the rest of the world this behavior seemed so astounding, that it could only be described as “weird,” or something to be mocked as openly and frequently as the ordering of a Coke at your local restaurant. As these thoughts came over me I realized that while I’d often thought of myself as somehow superior to this “freak,” I was actually the freak in the equation. Michael Jackson was, aside from the most astounding entertainer in the history of the world, perhaps the last good soul left among us. Unfortunately, we did the only thing we seem to do well in this society… we worked triple shifts in an unstoppable effort to destroy him.

So, tonight as I lay me down to sleep, I’m making myself a promise. While I will undoubtedly fail from time to time, I am going to make a conscious effort to cast off the needless shell that surrounds so many of us. I will approach people more openly, be more tolerant, be more accepting and above all else, reserve judgment at all costs. I can’t help but feel that if Michael Jackson could leave one legacy in this world, it would be that very idea.  As I say goodbye to Michael Jackson, I say goodbye not only to his legacy but to what was left of my childhood, and hopefully to what was left of my early 20’s.

Oh, and for the record, Barbara Walters just informed the audience of 20/20 of a “little known fact: Michael Jackson was actually discovered by Diana Ross while living in Gary, Indiana.” Thanks Jeffrey, wherever you are tonight, you helped me almost scoop Barbara Walters.

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