But I Repeat Myself aka “I Love Repetition!”

I have errands to run, places to go, things to do. I usher my son John Adams out of the house into “Daddy’s Car.” He has Best Friend Blankie in one hand and his cherished blue juice cup in the other. I open the door for him and hold his stash while he climbs in. I strap him in, hand him juice cup and BFB and go around to my side to get in and drive. I start the car and a voice from the back seat commands, “I want my Nabi!” A cold chill runs down my spine. “How do we ask?” I say simply, wearily. “I want my Nabi please,” comes the response, a touch contrite, but no less an edict from the authorities. I reach next to me on the passenger’s seat and reluctantly hand back the red and white children’s iPad that contains all of John Adams’s videos and learning games. “No innernet in the car,” he says as a reminder mantra to us both. “That’s right. No internet in the car,” I say. With that, conversation ceases, and as I’m backing the car out of our driveway I get my last moment of silence before I’m slammed with the raucous sound of “coustic” guitars, bagpipes, and seemingly angry Celtic vocals. No longer a jaunty adventure mobile shared between Bup and Daddy, the car has been transformed into a Groundhog Day-esque hellscape where only two songs by my son’s currently favorite band, Enter the Haggis, are played over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again!!! My son is three and we like repetition. Loudly!

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Playing the “violin” is serious business guys!

In fact, we took the train ride to Repetition Station over a year and a half ago when he discovered Thomas the Tank Engine. There were other cartoons before that – Tillie Knock Knock, Color Crew, Sesame Street – but when Thomas pulled into his life it was love at first chuff, and we have yet to let the boiler grow cold. And so, since that time I have been deluged in Thomas lore, repeating episode collections like Curious Cargo and Thomas and the Runaway Kite over ad nauseum until both Nancy and I can do the dialogue in our sleep. And it’s an interesting and curious thing how the mind works. I find that, one, since I have had to watch it to make him happy, over the long haul I’ve started to appreciate and even like it despite having no initial interest in the cartoon. And, two, again because of the repetition, I’ve found myself curiously drawn to the nuances of the show, often speculating on the timeline of episodes, and of certain island practices that occur with either regularity or normalcy. I confess I have looked up “Thomas the Tank Engine” and related articles on Wikipedia to deepen my experience of the show. (blush) I have – in the comfort of my own home – asked questions like:

  1. Why does Sir Topham Hatt always have two cronies flanking him that never speak, but always seem to be on the lookout for trouble?
  2. What really is the geography of the Island of Sodor?
  3. Why do the train engineers have no authority over their engines? Are they even necessary? They never speak either? Are they enslaved?
  4. Why are diesels generally considered “bad” except for a couple of token “good ones?” What’s that about?
  5. Who really owns the train line? Variously Sir Topham Hatt, Sir Percival, and the Earl of Sodor have all claimed vague ownership in episodes? Do they have a monopoly on transportation that prevents competition?

You get the point.

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John Adams posing with his dear friend, Percy.

Well, actually, my larger point is that, like it or not and often in spite of our selves, repetition is a powerful learning tool that can create both interest and an awareness of the depth of the subject that is not perceived by cursory experience. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, considering the lambasting and de-emphasis that repetition is taking in current educational theory. When I was in school we repeated patterns all the time: word lists, clock faces, multiplication tables, state capitals and the like. True, these were often boring exercises, but I can’t argue with the results. Drilling something actually works. I know it’s not fun, but I’m not sure how the children of tomorrow are supposed to deeply and critically think about a subject for which they have no previous knowledge committed to memory. Unless, of course, we assume that every conversation is connected to the Internet at all times, and we all know how reliable that is for providing only accurate information! Many young people I meet  – not all – can’t spell (“Spell check will do it for me.”), can’t do simple math (“We use calculators in class.”), don’t know the history or geography of their own country (“Well, if I need to know that stuff, I just look it up on my phone!”), and the list goes on.

I’m reminded of the story of naturalist John Muir, how he had the entire New Testament committed to memory, chapter and verse, and large portions of the Old Testament as well. It’s true his father forced him to do so, often with the threat of physical violence, but that aside, the stories of the way he could juxtapose the beauty of nature with his knowledge of the Bible are legendary; that wellspring of memorized verse gave him a unique, unrivaled, educated perspective that served him for his entire life and made him an intellectual force to be reckoned with. I don’t advocate the beatings, but I do see the merit to the memorization, and I worry that without even basic memorized knowledge, a person can’t really think deeply and critically about a subject, even if they think they can.  For myself, I maintain five poems that I have committed to memory and I’m very proud of that fact. And, yes, it was hard work, and was not fun to do. But the pride I feel at being able to rattle off a Frost or a Dickinson offsets the time spent in the rote learning. And that takes me back to my son playing “Turn it Up” and “King’s Daughters” over and over again in the car.

He sits in the car seat and watches the instrumentalists and sings along, and plays his “air guitar” and his “air violin” and he wants a “white ‘lectric guitar” for Christmas because “they do loud, right?” His interest, his repetition of the same, is driving me insane, but it’s stirring and cultivating something deep inside him. His three-year-old mind knows what’s best for its learning process. Now isn’t that a curious notion? I wonder at what age we lose that insight; puberty maybe? But for now he’s learning, he’s deepening his appreciation for the subject, be it Thomas or Haggis or what have you, and who knows where that will lead next. And my job as Daddy is to support and nurture his interest in all things, even if that means repetitively. (sigh) So my car drives on, and I’m slowly losing my mind to a Celtic beat, but at least I’ll go insane with a smile on my face.

The road goes ever on and on…and on…and on…

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Caught in the act of playing his “violin.” The Nabi sits on the sofa streaming Enter the Haggis videos!

Namaste,

Jason

P.S. If you don’t read my posts regularly, 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 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Children’s Book Announcement – Mommy Made a Beastie (But I Love Her Anyway)

Today, our new children’s book, Mommy Made a Beastie (But I Love Her Anyway), is available on Amazon. Two years ago, after the success of our first children’s book, Daddy Doesn’t Purr (But I Love Him Anyway), I set about working on the sequel. After several months of brainstorming with Kisaki – the elder cat authoress of the book that became Beastie – we hit upon the idea of telling the story of John Adams’s birth from her point of view. ‘Saki was the first person to know that Nancy was pregnant. She climbed upon Nancy’s belly while she slept (something she never normally would do) and scowled disapprovingly at her mommy with this look of, “What the hell have you done to us?” That sentiment lingered long after John Adams was born.

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Cover art by Michelle McNally, cover design by Maryann Brown

The events of the book are all true. Kisaki loathed her baby brother at first and went out of her way to muscle him off Nancy’s lap, take focus from him and put it back on herself where she felt it belonged. When John Adams moved and then talked, hers was one of the first faces he saw (due to her constant proximity to Nancy), and he instantly fell in love with her. She did not return the sentiment. He would see her and light up, giggle, smile, wriggle, and all manner of verbal and non-verbal gestures to get her approval. She was not amused.

When nothing that ‘Saki tried gained her exclusive access to Nancy, she became visibly irritable and despondent for a time. Like so many children, she just didn’t want to share her favored parent’s affections with any other child. Finally, in either desperation or conciliation, Kisaki sidled up to her brother, plopped her butt against him and claimed him for her own. It seemed that if she couldn’t have exclusive access to Mommy, the next best thing was to make peace with the Beastie who had her attention. From that point forward, grudging acceptance turned to icy affection, and with a little help from her overly zealous brother, that affection turned into love. Until the end of her life, the two became inseparable.

Yes, I did drop that bomb here: Kisaki has since passed away. She died two years ago due to complications of mouth cancer. Despite his age (he was only fifteen months old when she passed), John Adams has not forgotten about her. It would seem he imbued a little stuffed black and white cat that rests on his bed with his best memories of his sister. The cat was given to him by a friend of ours, “so that he would always remember his sister”, and it seems to have worked. He refers to the stuffed animal as ‘Saki, and we often talk about her joy-riding in Daddy’s White Car, my car that broke down a few months ago. Daddy’s White Car has become the “Farm Upstate” metaphor of the Michael Family. It includes ‘Saki, Snaky, Annie and Dorothy (two goldfish), and a particularly favored and contentious piece of orange cake Nancy threw out. But I digress.

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‘Saki in her ‘Cover pose.’

Mommy Made a Beastie is now the second book in a planned three book ‘Love Anyway’ series. In Daddy Doesn’t Purr, Duke is shown to love me despite our differences. In Beastie, ‘Saki learns to love and accept John Adams despite her jealousy. In the planned third and final (?) book, The Nix, our Manx cat born genetically without a tail, learns to love herself despite being born different from the norm. In all three, embracing love as your primary motivational guide is the key to a happier existence. Love anyway, despite differences, emotional insecurities, and unexpected life changes; despite self-doubt and outward ridicule from others. Out of this notion the happy accident of the ‘Love Anyway’ series was born.

Both books retail for under $12 on Amazon and can be bought both there and on CreateSpace where we receive a better share of the royalties. As added incentive, roughly 1/3 of the sales price of each book is donated to either animal charities in Virginia, or to another as of yet un-chosen animal charity in the U.S. If you’re looking for a Christmas or Holiday present that also benefits animals in a small way, please consider checking out our books. If you’ve read Daddy Doesn’t Purr and you enjoyed it, please consider leaving us a review on Amazon. These books have been labors of love for me, Francie and Michelle McNally, Nancy, Maryann Brown, and, of course, Duke and ‘Saki. Please check them out if you have a moment. And remember: when all else fails…

Love Anyway,

Jason

Here’s the Amazon link to the book: Mommy Made a Beastie

Here’s a link to my Amazon Author page: Jason on Amazon

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‘Saki and John Adams – BFFs

The Best of Times

On the afternoon of Wednesday, November 23, around 1:30 PM, Nancy, John Adams, and I, the car finally packed, headed north to Upper Darby, PA. We were traveling to see Nancy’s parents at their home, dubbed Vacation Cottage in honor of John Adams’s (aka Bup’s) lavish stays while he’s with his grandparents. Nancy and I had cleaned up the house, as is customary when we’re going away for a few days, and had taken a bit longer than anticipated. Bup, excited to go and getting increasingly frustrated with the delay, had strolled out to the car, climbed in, strapped himself in, and proceeded to sit there and talk to himself about his plans for his week. Toward the end of his wait as we were packing the car he told Nancy to “go feed the cats and let’s go.” The kid has a pushy character and knows what he wants, I’ll say that.

The trip north was bumper to bumper and took twice as long as is customary, but we all remained in relatively good spirits. There was a lot of aggressive driving on the road, and I was reminded of a recent conversation on the podcast I religiously listen to, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, where the hosts discussed the question of “How mean are Americans getting?”My internal response to this is, “What do you mean getting?” but I digress. We made three stops total – drinks, gas, and potty  – and made it to Home North in about six plus hours. My in-laws, Sara and Wron (aka Nanny and Pop Pop), were waiting for us (especially their grandson) and were hungry to boot, so in no short time we were whisked off to Pat’s Pizza. Once there, we dined on pizza and wings, and Bup (now Bump, his PA name) helped himself to the bowl of free lollipops on the store counter through his charisma, and the generosity and general unawareness of the teenage girls manning the store. He’s a smoothie, what can I say. We left there with leftovers and an armful of lollipops; his vacation had officially begun.

The next day, Thanksgiving, we each got up early-ish, had our separate breakfasts, watched some of the several parades on TV, and headed up the PA Turnpike to my niece and nephew, Deana and Todd’s, house for conversation and the Thanksgiving meal itself. Staying about four hours, we ate, drank, socialized, and watched Bump entangle himself in the hijinks of a family of kittens recently adopted by my family. Together they raced through the house, in and out of a pup tent, and over the furniture. He had a grand time. He also got to bond with his cousin Viviana – not quite one-year-old – who viewed him with both fascination and suspicion. A highlight for me was seeing my mom. Now nearly 87, shaky and largely deaf, there wasn’t much to do but be with her, hug her, and repeatedly answer the same questions over and over like, “When are Nancy and I getting married?” and “How old is [my grandson] now?”  But to my great happiness she knew all of us – even my in-laws – and didn’t confuse me with my father as she had on previous occasions. She was having a good, lucid day, and that ‘good’ was good for all of us.

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Bump playing with his cousin, Viviana

A little after 7 PM, we said our goodbyes, bundled back into the car, and headed to the other side of Blue Marsh Lake to see the electric light display that is Koziar’s Christmas Village.  Bump is coming to love Christmas lights and all things Christmas (especially candy and presents) and, though he was initially tired and crabby from his kitten party, he soon perked up and got in the spirit of the season.  Christmas Village is nothing more nor less than what the name suggests: a farm complex strung with thousands of outdoor lights, decorated with cheesy wooden cutouts of cartoon characters and famous Christmas stories like the Grinch and A Christmas Carol. They have a huge indoor train display, an on-site Santa, hot chocolate, popcorn, and lots of rustic and nostalgic goodwill. I grew up on the place and I’m glad it’s fast becoming a part of John Adams’s holiday traditions too. We got Bump’s photo with Santa there, had our overly hot cocoa, and headed back to Upper Darby for the night. It was a near perfect Thanksgiving all around.

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Fascinated by the lights of Christmas Village.

Friday, or Black Friday, we slept in for the early part of the day, and then bundled Bump off to another outdoor display, this one called Creamy Acres Presents ‘Night of Lights Country Christmas Hayride.’ Whew! We arrived too early for the gates to open, so we diverted back to the Swedesboro Diner for delicious sandwiches and conversation with our waitress, another woman smitten with Bump’s charisma. When we arrived back at Creamy Acres, the place had filled up and we wound up standing in two chilly lines for over an hour to get on the hayride. Another outdoor display, this one featured maybe a hundred framed and free-standing light displays of Santas, angels, toy soldiers, cats, dinosaurs – you know, the usual Christmas stuff – set to coordinated music. The promise of a living nativity at the end was a bit of a letdown due to a dearth of live animals, but that aside, the display was terrific and held Bump’s attention both with and without the 3-D glasses that created candy canes around the lights. We disembarked, got more cocoa, hit the gift shop, saw a second Santa (better than the first), and called it another night. More magic and good times with my son.

By Saturday we were all in need of a slow down so we mostly stayed around Vacation Cottage. This was our promised home-cooked second Thanksgiving courtesy of Sara, Nanny, Sare, or Ma depending on your perspective, and it never disappoints. An amazing turkey, sausage stuffing, turkey stuffing, corn casserole, creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, biscuits, and wine! All over-the-top delicious. Nancy made a homemade pumpkin pie, pumpkin stuffing, and pumpkin dessert cups that contributed to the abundance of tastiness that was our meal. We were stuffed again, exhausted, and suffering from food comas en masse. We started decorating their house and tree, but only got so far, as we were just too overwhelmed by good eating. The evening concluded  – like so many lately – with Bump giving a concert on pots and pans to various Enter the Haggis songs, interspersed with bouts of alternating between watching what new silliness the Hallmark Channel’s Holiday Lineup would provide and the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special on repeat for Bump. We all, again, went to sleep stuffed and satisfied, but our trip was nearing its end.

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The feast laid out before him, Bump is ready to stuff himself.

On Sunday we got up, had breakfast, did some shopping at Shop Rite, and a bit more decorating around the house—John Adams led the charge to put ornaments on the tree, and if there are more decorations than usual on the lower branches, you know why. We ate leftovers, packed, and discussed what a wonderful few days it had been. Bump was staying with his grandparents another week while Nancy and I made the trip home to resume our regular lives of work and housework. He knew it and was only too happy to oblige, even asking toward the end if he could stay there longer. Lots of hugs and handshakes were exchanged and Nancy and I loved and lingered on our son longer than he would’ve liked until we were ready to head back to Virginia. Nancy had developed a bit of a cold during the visit so conversation was a bit intermittent and stilted as she and I journeyed home, but one thing we could both agree on was that it had been a jam-packed five days full of food, love, and adventure. Our focus stayed throughout the week very much on the moment. Counter to most media pundit’s predictions for this year’s holiday experiences, there was little drama and almost no talk of politics. It was a beautiful five-day bubble from the turmoil of the outside world and in every way it was truly the best of times.

I hope your Thanksgiving was equally magical, love-filled, and stress free.

If not, keep believing. It’ll happen.

Namaste,

Jason