Living in the Happy/Sad

I have not blogged in more than two months. There was no concerted plan behind this choice. Life gets busy, inspiration doesn’t strike, the reader stats leave me disappointed, my hands hurt, I choose not to share my thoughts, any and all the above. So much has happened since August when I wrote my last post. The world has gone up and down, awash in political and socio-cultural turmoil. Where will it lead? Who knows.  My life has felt like it’s been on a similar roller coaster, emotional and otherwise. Every perceived good has a down side; every happy moment is laced with the dewy-eyed veneer of sadness. Here are three examples from recent memory:

One:Our house had two trees crash into it in April. Many readers, friends, and family know this. The trees tore the front parts of the roof and siding off, ruined the storm door, iron railings, and shrubbery. For the six months that followed I went into our property management office (we rent) and politely requested that something be done, and for the better part of six months I was told that there was nothing that could be done until the owner chose to do something. He had the trees removed two weeks after the storm, but everything else waited for five months: waited for him to settle with his insurance, collect a fat check, and then repair our rental as cheaply as possible. When the repairs were finally completed two weeks ago, his handymen left trash and building materials all over our lawn. Again I requested, politely, that this long nightmare be finished. Come get your trash and let’s be done with it. Last week they did, and the repairs were completed and the ordeal was over. Happy, right? And then this week he had the rental office send a strongly worded letter to us complete with “spy” photos, wherein someone came on the property to document all the things he didn’t like about the way we were maintaining his property. Maintenance of our grounds had fallen by the wayside while we waited for repairs to be completed, it’s true, and he seized on every detail. Including some furniture we had moved out of the house after being gifted new pieces by a relative. To be fair, the maintenance requests are not unreasonable, and they are our responsibility. But the timing could only be interpreted one way: we had forced his hand  – albeit politely – to complete necessary repairs before winter, and so, purely out of spite, he was going to throw his weight around to show us whose property it is. Oh, and he raised our rent, before beginning repairs! We are happy the long process of repairs is complete. However, despite our best efforts to be gracious and patient, we still evoked the wrath of our elderly cheap ass miser of an owner, and we now need to contend with that.

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James the Tank Engine goes Halloweening

Two: Once again, I was unable to be with my son on Halloween. This is three years running that he has gone trick-or-treating without me. It’s not that I didn’t have a choice in the matter; Nancy and I were home on Halloween. But our home, along route 301, has no neighborhood to take him into. So every year, we farm him up to his grandparents outside Philly to maximize his candy quotient. Photos and video come back to us of our little boy being Halloween Boss, running up and down the street, knocking on doors, exclaiming, “Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat!” in one deliciously semi-incoherent sentence chain of candied ecstasy. He has the time of his life while we sit at a distance watching him make a ‘best’ memory. I begrudge neither him nor his grandparents anything, and we wouldn’t send him unless we knew he would have a better time up north, which he does. It makes me happy to see he and his grandparents create such a joyous memory. And sad that Nancy and I are not a part of the experience..

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Halloween 2017. Goodbye, til tomorrow

Three: Mary Anne, Nancy’s sister, got in her little red car on November 1 and drove to Florida to begin a new life there. For six years she lived in and around Fredericksburg, the only family we had in the area. But a few weeks, ago the last of the ties holding her to this area were severed, and it became apparent that it was time for her to move her life forward in new ways in a new location. We helped her pack her goods. We housed her off and on for two weeks. Fed her. Oh, we fed her. And then the last night came, and she and Nancy cried. And then that morning, with Nancy off to work, it was my goodbye, and a hug, and a stoic I Love You, and I silent stance at the door, and then she drove off to new horizons as our house fell silent. The time was right, and we couldn’t be prouder of her that she’s finally going off on her own in pursuit of her dreams. Only time will tell if Florida is the right fit, but the intent is on target, and we back her 100%. Still, watching her drive off, knowing how much my son loves her, knowing she’ll be alone, knowing we won’t be in contact near as much, is bittersweet, you know. Happy/Sad.

Yeah, that’s the way the last few months have gone. Here’s hoping in the weeks ahead there’s more of the former and less of the latter.

And I wish that for you too as well.

Namaste,

Jason

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My Son, the Brit

It’s been more than a month since I posted anything. What a slacker I am! Life has offered my family many changes, and at the same time stayed remarkably similar. Since the Comparative Drama Conference in April, I’ve worked steadily as Music Director on Christian Youth Theatre (CYT) of Fredericksburg’s production of Shrek; I’ve co-moderated a World Religions class at church; I’ve done several performances with Murder Mysteries Will Travel; I’ve rehearsed my Unitarian Universalist choirs and handbell ensemble closer and closer to our culminating performances on June 11 and 17; oh, and two trees fell on our house that, after a month, the landlord or owner have yet to do anything about! There are many things in the world to talk about and on my mind – Star Trek: Discovery, Season 10 of Doctor Who, the Trump presidency, the 2017 Hay House World Summit, my wife’s upcoming trip to London, my own future career plans, new music to compose, the third book in the Love Anyway Series, finishing that 5,000th haiku, my health etc. I think (for today, for this post anyway) I’ll concentrate on my son, the Bup or John Adams, who at the moment talks like he walked off the set of Downton Abbey. Which isn’t really a bad thing when you think about it.

For more than two months now, Bup has been obsessed with the British children’s show, Peppa Pig. For those keeping score, that means we’ve gone through (though still like) our Thomas the Train phase, into a British-dubbed show from Grenada called Pocoyo (narrated by Stephen Fry), into Peppa Pig. All three shows feature incredible diction, relatively good manners, limited sass, and of course lots and lots of British colloquialisms and variations of speech from American to British. The little sponge that Bup is, he is absorbing them all. And it’s often hilarious.

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Rockin’ his shades and Thomas jammies

At present we don’t take a nap. We take ‘a lie in.’ We don’t get gas. We check to see if ‘we’re out of petrol.’ And when the GPS is talking we ask ‘if the SAT-NAV knows where we are?’It’s also true that, compared to many three-year- olds, his diction is impeccable by comparison. When he is ‘cross’ with either me or Mummy, he hits his final consonants with a venom that could only make the Queen Mum proud. None of this was deliberately planned on my part. However, from little on up I’ve made it a point to police what he watches to make certain that his viewing is not too adversely affecting his behavior, and the harsh reality is that American children’s programming is often (with the exception of things like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers reruns) wise-cracky, mildly profane, mildly sexualized, full of burp and fart jokes, and often features imbecilic oblivious parents with slick, fast-talking children that outsmart them and disrespect them at every turn. And that’s pretty much any channel up to and including Disney Jr.

The best programs that we’ve been able to find for him (after Baby First TV when he was very little) or that he’s discovered on his own, have been either on PBS Kids, like Super WHYY, Nature Cat, and Peg + Cat, or have been British imports like Thomas, Pocoyo, or Peppa Pig. It is also true that we do watch live action shows with Bup like Star Trek, Once Upon a Time, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but we do try to contextualize the violence and fighting between the good and bad guys , and try to explain to him what’s good and bad behavior when given the opportunity. I don’t think we totally live in a bubble, but at least where his cartoons are concerned, the bubble has a distinctly European sensibility, and that brings with it better than average manners. And that is something I can live with.

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Sporting his “Peppa Pig” George and his dinosaur T-shirt

And so, for the moment, I will continue to watch and rewatch the 208 episodes of Peppa Pig, enduring her family fascination with muddy puddles and living on hillsides, until Bup tires of her and decides to move on. At present, he pulls up Calliou on his Ipad (a show Nancy hates) and Ryan Toy’s Review (a show with little to no value whatsoever), but those are minor occurrences in our otherwise well-mannered and well-ordered world of more appropriate viewing. And when his tastes change, I will be the one to have to roll with it. For now, I just love my little Brit, and his ‘please, thank you, and it would be my pleasure’ ways. Case in point: the other day, driving home from Nanny and Pop Pop’s house in Philly I spied a large cross on the side of a church that I knew Bup could see from his car seat.

“Look at the big cross, Bup. There’s no Jesus on it. Where did Jesus go?” I asked.
He thought for a moment and then replied in his best aristocratic tone, “I don’t know, Daddy. Maybe he went on holiday.”

Kids do say the darnedest things.

Peace,
Jason

One Crazy Week/You’ll Never Walk Alone

After the Philadelphia Flower Show last weekend (see Bicycles, Bridges, and Bulbs. Oh, My), John Adams stayed in Upper Darby to be with his grandparents. He occupied his week by helping Pop Pop with his physical therapy exercises, playing with his new glow in the dark racetrack, and going to his favorite place: The Strasburg Railroad. When he finally came home this past Sunday he was wiped out. Nancy and I know how he feels.

This past week for us was no less jam-packed and, for she and I, life changing. With the little guy up north we availed ourselves of a little ‘adult time’ by taking in a movie, watching two additional ones at home, and going out to eat as a couple, quietly and without diaper bag, antsy child, or small entourage of stuffed cats in tow. She passed a milestone this week, and I started two other jobs. We closed the weekend out with a magnificent set of choral performances in church and a wraparound trip to Maryland House on I-95 to reclaim our son. Yes, it was a busy week for all of us.

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Inferno movie poster

On Monday evening, I cooked and we watched Dan Brown’s Inferno on DVD from the Redbox. It was – as you might guess from the reviews – nowhere near as good as the book. Three films in, Angels and Demons still remains the best. The book, Inferno, was a fun read with lots of back story on Dante, the creation of the Divine Comedy, and the art and concepts of hell it inspired. The film gives precious little of this, just what is needed to get from plot point to plot point. It’s worth a watch for the scenes of Europe, but otherwise read the book. You’ll get far more from it.

On Tuesday, Nancy found out that her dissertation proposal had passed the English Department at Catholic University without any revisions. This is nearly unheard of. Revisions are almost always required, and it is a testament to her writing and to her faculty mentors that it went through without incident. The Dean and an outside reader still need to pass on it, but she’s nearly home free. When it’s finally approved she can begin to write her dissertation: one step closer to her doctorate.

On Wednesday, I solidified details to join the artistic team of Christian Youth Theatre (CYT) Fredericksburg to be the music director for their production of Shrek. The production opens in June, I start rehearsals in April, but the agreement is in place. It’s been a year since I MDd a show, let alone for a new company, and on a show I’ve never done before. The gig came through a friend, Todd P., who is directing the show. He requested me, and so they hired me. Such an honor.

Thursday, I taught a voice lesson, cooked, and crammed like the devil for the show I was performing in on St. Paddy’s Day…Friday!

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The St. Patrick’s Day 2017 cast of Murder Mysteries Will Travel’s production of When Irish Eyes Are Crying

On Friday, I spent much of the morning and afternoon reviewing the script for When Irish Eyes Are Crying, a murder mystery in which I was playing the detective that night! I was recommended by my sister-in-law, Mary Anne, to join the company of Murder Mysteries Will Travel, and, after a meeting a few weeks ago, I was hired on.  So Friday, late afternoon, I trucked it up to the Bristow Country Club in Manassas to perform in my first show with the company. I was nervous – I had a lot of lines and improv – but the company of actors was amazing, professional, and empathetic to work with. The country club put out an scrumptious buffet of corned beef, cabbage, bangers, mash, and rum cake that we dined on between acts. The show itself came off well, and the company was already invited back for the summer. And I only blew a few lines toward the end that the others actors covered for me. Success.

On Saturday, Nancy and I went to Logan, the X-Men movie, and the final one for Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman. Nancy and I had totally opposite reactions to the picture. I found it disturbing and depressing, she found it to be a poignant farewell for Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, who are both retiring from the X-Men franchise. I won’t say more about the plot at this time because it’s still running, but I will say it’s well made, beautifully acted, and not, not, NOT for children. Depressed, I asked Nancy if we could rent a movie that night and she agreed. I picked Snowden. Again, we had opposite reactions. I found the movie empowering, she found it disturbing. As you can tell, both pictures have the ability to elicit multiple layers of divergent emotion. Go see both and decide for yourself. They are both thoughtful pieces and worth your time, but I can’t guarantee how you’ll feel about your country afterward.

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Logan movie poster

Sunday morning, my Unitarian Universalist Adult Choir gathered to sing “The Impossible Dream” (from Man of La Mancha) and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (from Carousel) at our Sunday service. We were joined by two extraordinary dancers – Kendall M. and Anthony W. – for “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”  The resultant magic is hard to describe, but their choreography and its execution were moving, beautiful, and inspiring, and the congregation greeted our collective efforts with a standing ovation. There were more than a few tears in the eyes of choristers and parishioners alike. After church, I monologue coached a talented young lady for an hour on an upcoming audition, and then Nancy and I headed north to Maryland House to collect our son from his grandparents.

It was a rough, busy week, and those are just the big ticket items, scratching the surface of life. But I am reminded that the two new jobs I started this week came as a result of other dear people looking out for me and thinking of me when I needed help and employment. Logan, Inferno, and Snowden are all at their core about one person making a difference in the lives of others, either one on one, or on a global scale. And “The Impossible Dream” is about one person’s idealism, and doing the right thing by others. The week kinda summed itself up on Sunday morning as Kendall and Anthony danced in the sunlight of our circular church window to one of the greatest songs of all time. Whatever you’re dealing with, struggling with, pained by, missing, or needing, know this, as I had affirmed for me again this week. KNOW THIS:

You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Namaste,

Jason

Bicycles, Bridges, and Bulbs. Oh, my!

This past Saturday, March 11, Nancy and I went to the Philadelphia Flower Show for the 14th consecutive time. Our first date was at the 2004 Flower Show on March 8. I proposed at the 2011 Flower Show (it was Paris year after all). It has become a long-running beloved tradition for us. It’s hard to believe next year we will celebrate our 15th time going together. How time flies.

Enter the Haggis

The night before the show, we arrived in Upper Darby, dropped off the little man, and then continued on to Bethlehem, PA’s beautiful arts complex down by the renovated “steel stack” district to see our favorite Celtic band, Enter the Haggis, perform. From 8 to 10:30 PM ETH played in the third floor lounge while we drank Woodchuck and sampled bleu cheese chips and bread pudding. Their two sets – consisting entirely of up tempo familiar songs – were rousing and fun. John Adams listens relentlessly to a lot of their new music, so we got a lot of laughs out of hearing live many songs that we are bombarded with daily by him. We had a great experience, drove home to Nancy’s parents’ house, and went to bed sometime after midnight.

At the 2017 Flower Show

The next day we got up late, had breakfast, and went downtown to the Flower Show by early afternoon. This year’s theme, Holland, truly was a breath of spring as compared to the last few years’ themes, which were good unto themselves, but executed with sometimes mixed results. This year it seemed every exhibitor took the theme to heart, but also had the same impressions in mind. That might sound like a dig, but it’s not. The resulting displays were largely all gorgeous. They were almost all decorated with bulbs, bridges over water features, and lots and lots of bicycles. There were big bridges and small foot paths. There were functioning bicycles, rusted bicycles, bicycles as fountains, artsy bicycle sculptures, and whatever else you can think of. And the bulbs were every color of the rainbow and everywhere. One stunning blue tulip was actually a white one that had been fed water with blue dye. The dye travels through the petals and colors the flower. Gorgeous. In addition to the floral displays, there were themed food vendors, both a Legoland and a butterfly pavilion (neither of which we did this year), and lots of shopping. We brought back a few herbs for John Adams to plant and Nancy bought a dandelion seed necklace that she’s been eyeing for several years.

The plaque at our table.

We capped our downtown experience off with a visit to the incomparable 4th and Bainbridge Deli for soup and a pastrami cheese steak. Their meats (and portions) are out of this world, and we could only eat so much, as we were heading back to Nancy’s parents’ house for cheeseburgers with the family that evening. After we were seated at the deli, we noticed a plaque indicating that President Obama and Senator Bob Casey Jr. had dined at our same table back in 2010 when they visited; just one more fun little memory to commemorate our experience.

The next day we all gathered at Wron and Sara’s for a mega-ham dinner with lots of delicious sides before heading back to King George, VA. We were full and tired, happy and wired. It had been a beautiful event-filled weekend to celebrate our “dating anniversary.”  If you are so inclined, I highly recommend the Philly Flower Show. Every year is different and it’s always worth seeing. And eating at the 4th Street Deli is like nothing else. Both events are pricey, but ultimately worth it. Enter the Haggis is a rollicking good time and not expensive. I also recommend eating at Nancy’s parents’ house, but call ahead in case my in-laws have plans. 🙂

I wish you all a little bit of winter joy as well.

Namaste,

Jason

Blue tulips

Saying Hello

About a week after The Nix’s death (the subject of my last blog post, “Saying Goodbye,”) I received a series of compassionate texts from a friend of mine in Fredericksburg. Their daughter had adopted a cat, a one-year-old snow white named Aaron, who was being repeatedly bullied by their much older cat named Hillary, so they were looking to find him a new home. Since we had just lost a cat, would we consider taking Aaron in? I was reluctant. My little girl had just died, I was still dealing with those emotions, she hadn’t even come home from the crematorium at this point, and now I was being asked to consider taking in another life. I felt guilty and sad. I was also intrigued by the pictures being sent to me of a healthy all-white robust boy with a bent ear whom I was assured was good with kids and just wanted a home. I hemmed and hawed, waited a week, and then decided that John Adams and I would pay Aaron a house call.

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The White Shadow, lounging on his divan in Nancy’s office

We stayed at my friend’s house for almost two hours while John Adams chased Aaron about the house. Aaron was friendly but cautious, tolerant but quick to hide if John Adams got too exuberant; and our son was more than exuberant the entire time we were there. We learned that Aaron had an ear mite problem that was being treated, was neutered, and was caught up on all his shots. He favored my friend’s mother, but seemed to just like attention overall. We left for home, with a good feeling, to discuss him with Nancy, and to potentially make room in our home and hearts for another member of the family.

The following Monday afternoon we brought Aaron home. That evening coincided with the first time that John Adams had ever had a friend over to play with him. He and his friend, Leah, darted about the house periodically with John Adams desperate to show off his new cat. Things went smoothly but cautiously…and then around 7 PM Nancy arrived home. Almost as if to say, “You! You’re the one I’ve been waiting for!” Aaron took one look at Nancy and fell in love. Bear in mind they had never met before. John Adams and I had made two trips to Aaron’s former home, but neither time was Nancy present. He saw her, he climbed up on her lap, he head rubbed, drooled, fluffed her belly, gave her “sniffies,” and followed her all around the house the remainder of the night. John Adams and I may have picked up a cat, but it was quickly evident who had really won his heart in a manner of seconds. This pattern has not changed.

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“What are you lookin’ at? I got Mama!”

In the two weeks since he has joined our family Aaron – rechristened White Shadow or Shadowfax – has more than made our home his own. He is perhaps the most chill, tolerant, overly affectionate cat I’ve ever owned or seen. He quickly made friends with his brother, Duke, and they romp and play throughout the night. He has slept twice with John Adams in his bed, and endures endless “squeezy” hugs, kisses, pettings, loud squeals, bed jumps, and all manner of toddler affections, only rarely shielding himself from the line of fire when it really is getting out of control. He sleeps on the bed, on Nancy whenever possible, seeks out company, and has yet to hiss or spit at any member of the family, two or four-legged. His sister, ‘Seyde, is still acclimating to her new brother. She has gone from very jealous, to mildly jealous, to somewhat impertinently perturbed in two weeks. Our hope is in another few weeks he will have won her over too.

Just as the wand chooses the wizard, it would seem that Aaron and fate chose us to be the parents of a walking snowball of chill love. He truly has been an absolute joy since he joined the family, and has in every way helped to heal the wound that was left by The Nix’s passing. She was unique and is never far from our minds, but like it or not, life is change, and life has truly blessed us with another furred family member to bring us joy, grow up with John Adams, and allow us to share our love with. We welcome him with open arms, hearts and tuna cans. We are very lucky, and we’d like to believe he feels the same.

Namaste,

Jason

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A boy and his cat.

Saying Goodbye

To those of you who didn’t know her and don’t know (and that’s most of you) The Nix – our ten-year old female Manx cat – died a few weeks ago. She was suffering from a resurgence of bladder stones, a condition that had developed a year ago and been resolved with surgery. But the stones grew back, in large part due to our inability to correct her diet due to its cost. And before I could get her back in for surgery again, a relapse of some sort occurred. She died in the car racing to the mobile veterinary unit where the surgery scheduled for a few hours later would have once again saved her life.

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Posing atop her beloved water tank

It’s a terrible burden to bear feeling partially responsible for the death of a loved one. I’ve borne it before over the death of my own father, believing that I should have done more to combat his addiction to smoking. It took years for me to reconcile emotionally with the simple phrase, “Never overestimate your ability to change others. Never underestimate your ability to change yourself.” I ultimately made peace with his death, and after a time I’m sure I’ll make peace with hers, too. But right now the wounds are fresh, the mistakes were honest, and the guilt is real.

For what it’s worth, the choices made that led to her passing were all made based on cost. We had spent over $1500 to have the initial stones removed. After that surgery, we were told she would have to live on a special diet for the rest of her life that was also expensive and way above our budget. I dragged my feet for a year, hoping the stones wouldn’t resurface, but they did. The veterinarian identified the stones in December, but didn’t feel they were life-threatening. We were given the option of electing for surgery or trying to shrink them with a one month new diet of special food. If the stones hadn’t shrunk by late January, we were prepared for the surgery. The Nix hated the new food and regularly raided the other cat’s dishes in the cover of darkness, which only aggravated her condition. When, two nights before her death, it became evident that something was definitely wrong beyond the norm, I called and arranged for the surgery, but didn’t race her there after hours, trying to avoid emergency fees. It was this final financial decision that was too much to endure for The Nix. She lay moaning under our Christmas tree with me by her side until 3 AM assuring her that she would have surgery in the morning. I went to bed and got up again at 7 AM, and she was nearing her death. I laid her in a towel and placed her on our bed, begged her to hang on, and grabbed a shower, since the vet didn’t open until 9 AM. By the time I returned to her, she was either going or gone, and the car chase to the vet seemed a study in futility. I presented a corpse to an astonished vet that just kept muttering, “I don’t understand.”

I hate the fact that I believe The Nix lost her life prematurely because I couldn’t afford to do what was necessary for her health in a timely way to take care of her. I hate the fact that her life was subject to our financial bottom line. I hate that in this country we put profit over the public health and general welfare of ALL our citizens. Some would say she was just an animal; to us, she was family, and I should’ve been able to care for her properly. But when you consider that we can’t even agree in this country that all humans deserve to have health coverage without putting a sticker price on their life and worth, it gives me a small measure of teeth-grinding comfort. People lose their human family members everyday because of greed. I suppose I can bear the death of our cat, but I don’t have to like either. But back to my little girl’s life.

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Nancy and The Nix

The Nix was a member of our family from the time she was six months old. Originally christened Abby, her first family found that their older male cat was regularly abusing her and sought my Mom out as a short term refuge for their little girl until she got bigger and better able to handle herself. As is often the case, short term solutions become long term life changes, and The Nix never left our family once she joined it. When Nancy and I moved to Virginia, she was one of four cats to make the journey: Ivan, ‘Saki, Scoutie, and The Nix. Now all four are gone. The Nix was the youngest of the last six cats my mother owned, and with her passing, an era in my life has also been left behind. In a weird way, her passing also marks the passing of my adolescence, my time spent home with my mother, my less responsible days.

There are many wonderful family stories about The Nix and not enough time to share. She was a skittish bat-eared baby who used to eat on my Mom’s bathroom floor keeping one eye out for food raiders. She used to go outside regularly, climb the wooden lattice of my Mom’s back patio, and sun herself for the afternoon on the roof. She would then cling to and cry at a second story window till I let her in as the sun went down. She was sung goodnight to every evening here in Virginia, a tradition she both grudgingly tolerated and actively looked forward to. That dichotomy of expression is all cat, and she was that: all cat, complete with cattitude.

The Nix was only ten when she passed and she will never be forgotten. She was, in every sense of the word, our baby, and I cannot express how much we miss her, her empty perch, her endless front paw climbing, her gorgeous face, her dancing hind legs, her chirpy meow, her occasionally imperious demeanor. Nancy still has something of an aversion to going into the back room where The Nix spent most of her days perched upon either a cat Christmas afghan or upon the water tank, because it’s too empty. And every time she does, she still instinctively checks the perch to say hello, but no one’s there. Many dear friends contributed funds to her first round of operations that ultimately gave The Nix one extra year of life, and I can’t thank them enough for their generosity. I only wish it had been longer lived. As of this writing, The Nix has been cremated and her ashes have been returned to us. My baby girl has returned home, albeit in a different, sadder form, and has taken her place of honor on our mantle with her other siblings that have crossed over the Rainbow Bridge.

A few days ago, John Adams awoke in his bed and the subject of his cats was foremost on his mind. “I gotta see ‘Seyde and Duke” he said. “Yes,” I replied. “But not The Nix. She died,” he added quietly.  “Yes,” I said again cautiously. “She went to heaven, Daddy.” Then after a thoughtful moment he added, “Maybe someday heaven will send her back to us.” Through tears I smiled, “I think it just did.”

Rest in Peace The Nix (2006-2017)

Namaste,

Jason

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The Nix at 6 months old.

Mom and the Satan Worshiper

Someone this week – I honestly don’t remember who or when (I think I blocked it out) – walked up to me and started to extol the virtues of Satan worshiping. Yes, you read that right. They started very politely to tell me that most modern perceptions of Satanists are wrong, that some Satanists don’t even really worship Satan…and by that point I had pretty much rudely tuned them out. With all the problems of the world – right is wrong, in is out, and the hotly contested debate of whether or not one can punch an American Nazi in the face – I just wasn’t in the mood to have my opinion of Satanism challenged. Maybe someday. Not that day. It did, however, get my thinking about the good old days at my birth home in West Lawn, PA when once a week a Satanist swung by our home on his badass Harley for guitar lessons.

For those who don’t know, I grew up in a home filled with music. Our basement had been converted into six fully functional music studios, a waiting room, counter for supplies, and bathroom. My parents’ business, Michael’s Music, operated in our basement from before my birth until the late ‘90s when they simultaneously operated a storefront as well as a second set of studios across town. By the time my mother sold the business in 2001, at least several dozen teachers with thousands of students had gone through our doors.  Time spent in our basement with the teachers and students had an enormous impact on my upbringing. I remember the elderly German woman who was a passive aggressive Nazi sympathizer, the quiet Mormon man, the bow-tie clad gentleman, the child named Sherlock Holmes by his parents. Ah, memories. But I digress. This is about the Satan worshiper, specifically, the high priest of the local Satanic cult, who called our place home once a week.

Every week Rev. ­­_________ would swing by our home on his giant hog, park out front of our house, and descend the outside steps to enter the studio. He would take guitar lessons (usually from the Mormon who was an excellent traditional guitarist), pay his bill, say his ‘thank yous,’ and leave. He was always polite and courteous, had salt and pepper hair with a beard and mustache, often wore a leather jacket, and was by all accounts a good student. He did not have a lot of money (I guess Satanic church jobs don’t pay well), so he had worked out a deal with my mother to pay his lessons…in candles that the Satanists had made for worship. I remember the little pinkish figurines for years, vaguely strewn about our home upstairs, little cats and horses—no goats I’m afraid. We would light them in the evenings or in a rain storm and just laugh about their origins. It was not every child that had his home lit by the Prince of Darkness. Thanks for the memory, Mom.

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Mom and I at the Fredericksbuirg Fair in 2012

That really is the entirety of the story. He visited for many years, took his lessons, and lit our world. My Mom, ever the businesswoman first and moralist third, remembers none of this amusing little anecdote from my childhood, but I happily do. Her signature slogan for doing business was, “If you’ve got money, we’re open!” and this story illustrates her fiscal pragmatism and led to a warmly lit home of many melted down, dusty and pinkish, half-headed sculptures in all their romanticized, grotesque glory. And having said that…

I’m still not really interested in Satanism, thanks anyway…

So go back to debating Nazi-punching…

But they were some nice candles.

Namaste,

Jason

2016 – A Personal Review

I haven’t done a retrospective on the year that just happened yet, and now more than a week into the New Year that is 2017 I’m not sure how much I care. Life is about living forward and for the moment. My eyes are focused on what this year will bring, not what was left behind. Still, I’m grateful for what 2016 brought to me and my family, and I feel that it’s important to honor the past, so here goes.

For many, 2016 is remembered as not a good year. This assessment is made mostly on two criteria: the number of celebrity deaths, and a very divisive presidential election. I can mourn (and have) for the many celebs that touched my life, but I must still go on. The effects of the election are soon to be felt, so we’ll save those feelings – bad, good, indifferent – for another day. What is left, then, is my life and my family’s, our accomplishments, sorrows, and successes. That is what I must focus on. Viewed thus, 2016 was a good year for the Michaels overall, and I will remember it so for the here and now.

Most importantly, our beautiful boy, John Adams Tiberius enjoyed excellent health throughout the year. We lost no furred family this year, and though I experienced bouts of ill health that linger and Nancy’s autoimmune disorder was upgraded from “okay” to “moderately severe”, we are still kicking. John Adams came into 2016 with three grandparents, and left with the same. That’s a success right there.

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Nancy and i, Christmas 2016

At the beginning of the year we self-published A Haiku a Day. At the end of the year we did the same for Mommy Made a Beastie. That’s not likely to happen again for a while anyway, so that’s something. My choral piece, “We’re Gonna Shovel the Snow” was premiered by the sixth grade chorus at Freedom Middle School under the direction of Ms. Susan Dane. They were wonderful and I was so proud. Another composition, “The Colors of Christmas” was premiered by my own Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg Adult Choir, and was submitted and accepted for radio airplay on 95.9 Hometown Holiday Spotlight. Simultaneously, our other two UU music groups – UUth Choir and Hand Bells – were also accepted for air time, so all three groups received regular listening locally throughout the holiday season. Very cool. Another piece, “God Rest Ye Jazzy Gentlemen,” scheduled for premiere by the community chorus The Spotsylvanians was back benched until next December, but that just gives me something to look forward to at the end of this year, right? And my UU Adult Choir premiered it on Christmas Eve anyway, and did a superb job with it.

I did four book signings through the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, thanks to friend and goat enthusiast Lee C., and sold something at each signing.  I participated in the First Annual Fredericksburg Independent Book Festival and shared a spiritually uplifting table with dear friend and author, Lynda A. Her book, The Rules of Creation, is beautiful. Check it out at:http://therulesofcreation.com/

Together Nancy and I attended the 40th Annual Comparative Drama Conference in Baltimore and both presented papers. I‘m happy to report I have another paper accepted to present this April in Orlando, so I’ll be going again. Nancy is too busy with that pesky dissertation thingy. Locally, we were also both accepted for inclusion in the Fall 2016 Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review. Nancy was profiled for her work in costume design. My poem, “The Greatest Treasure” was accepted for publication. Nancy’s biggest success was receiving a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to one of their Summer Institutes so she could go study Beowulf in Kalamazoo, MI through June/July. For one month she studied with notable scholars in her field while living in the home of one of my oldest and dearest friends, Dusti. They got to know one another and become friends in ways geography never would have otherwise allowed, so this proved a double-blessing.

Capping the year off, I got to sing the Susquehanna University 50th Annual Christmas Candlelight Service under the direction of my former professor turned friend and colleague, Cyril Stretansky. I sang, saw Cy and his wife Lee, and many other friends (Meg, Jen, Stacy, Cory, Robb, Eric) I’ve been in only loose touch with since 1993. I also had time for lunch with dear friend, Margaret, and we have rekindled our correspondence. Nancy, John Adams, and I also found time for lunch with old friends Peter, Kelly, Mark, Jane, and their kids over the holiday break. Good laughs, food, fun, and memories.

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Our active son, The Bup

John Adams aka The Bup had a wonderful year. He spent lengthy weeks at Vacation Cottage having bacon every day, ‘ronies and meatballs, and visiting the trains at Strasberg Railroad with Nanny and Pop Pop more times than one can count. He saw Santa several times, and got two drum sets, an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, a kids’ violin, Hungry Hungry Hippos, lots of trains and puzzles and more for Christmas. He got to play with his cousins, Dante and baby Bobby, got invited to his friend Teddy’s birthday party, and was lavishly doted upon by a blonde Dane whenever he played with his very dear friends Miss Susan and Leah. He also tore it up regularly at the YMCA KidZone and at Wiggle Worms at the Towne Center Mall, so he was one active kid.

No lavish vacations or major life changes this year, but on the other hand, no immediate family deaths or major tragedies. 2016 was a “building year,” full of ups and downs, little accomplishments and setbacks. It wasn’t the worst year for us. It wasn’t the best. But it happened, what’s done is done, and it’s time to start focusing on 2017. Whatever didn’t work out for you in 2016 – money, health, accomplishment, the election – I sincerely hope 2017 showers you with love, good health, happiness, prosperity, and opportunity, and, if I may ask, I hope you wish my family the same.

Namaste,

Jason

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The family gathered over the holidays. Wishing you a joyous 2017.

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 

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