I’m Not a Pollyanna (I just play one on social media)

From time to time I get accused – usually lightly and by dear friends – of being a Pollyanna, i.e. in this case, a person who somewhat vacuously only sees the good in people and not the bad; a person removed from the news of the world, ignorant of the struggles of those around me; determined to believe that it will all work out for the best and as it should. My social media presence perhaps reflects this. I rarely ever post political comments, critiques, or articles, and I always make an attempt at posting in the realm of the positive: news and pics of my family, our adventures together, stories about John Adams’s latest verbal revelations, and lots and lots of positive quotes from varied sources. It is who I am, who I would like to be, and how I would like to be perceived. Some astute person once criticized Facebook for being everyone’s “highlight reel” and to some extent I must own that. I do try to showcase the best my family has to offer: the best pictures, stories, etc., and to minimize our woes. I don’t share personal failures, blurry or unflattering pics (like some family members), illnesses, and, generally speaking, personal or national, public misfortunes. I have my reasons for this and I’m happy to share those reasons with you. I’m glad you asked.

  1. For me, Facebook, Instagram, my blog, my twitter account, are records of my personal history. When I access them I want to see my smiling son, my beautiful wife, myself in periods of joy, quotes by great minds better than mine own that remind me of the value and purpose of living one’s best life. I want to read humorous stories I’d forgotten, personal and not, and, frankly, I want to be uplifted by accessing the record of my past. If that sounds selfish, well so be it. They’re my social media accounts, and I choose to record and read the ‘happy past’ not the ‘tragic present.’
  2. I have many people – friends and family – that are on all sides of the political spectrum. I love them all, not always equally and not at the same time, but I do nonetheless. 100% of the time I became friends with someone before knowing their politics, and at the end of the debate I would prefer to attempt to maintain a friendship across a political or social divide than just give up, unfriend, offend, or defend my rightness in any given situation. I am of course right in all my political opinions. Aren’t you? Of course you think you are. Wayne Dyer, my spiritual mentor, stated “Given the choice between being right and being kind, be kind.” So I have made my choice. I can be privately right, but publicly kind. And in case you think that’s easy, it’s not. It’s damn hard. But it might just preserve a friendship, keep a mind open to new ideas, and keep the dialogue going. And that’s worth more than righteousness.
  3. I also see many friends and family who post on the news of the day and get drawn in to needless arguments on social media that serve no purpose, change no minds, harm the integrity of all engaged, and ultimately contribute to a culture of hyper-partisan ugliness that seems to be the driver of the day. Rarely do I see people talking the high ground. Michelle Obama’s quote, “When they go low, we go high,” goes unheeded and falls largely on deaf, angry ears. Whether it’s twitter rants, Facebook wars, unseemly marcher signs, or what have you, few people want to model, most want to attack, and the big loser to our society is the children who see the adults behaving like toddlers and conclude that ‘when I grow up, I want to be just like that.’
  4. There is so much ugliness in the world, when people visit my sites/platforms etc. I want them to be able to take a break from it. To see smiling faces, great inspirational quotes, a dancing cow or two, and lots of love for the world. An oft referred to quote by me is Einstein’s, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” When people visit my sites I want the universe to be friendly, to be kind, to be receptive, and forgiving. I know where they’ve been and it’s anything but.

So that’s it. Believe me, I see the ugliness, the fear, the concern, the corruption, the manipulation, the greed, the ignorance, the evil. I’m concerned for my wife, my child, for all our children’s safeties and futures; for the stranger who needs a leg up, the adult who can’t afford healthcare, the environment, public education, PBS, animal welfare, the National Park Service, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the minimum wage, women’s rights, income inequality, gerrymandering, and the list goes on.

I see it all. I feel it all. I just choose to not make Facebook my private daily battleground or all my views public. In the days before social media, we were taught never discuss religion or politics. Now we discuss nothing else. Perhaps we could use a little old world wisdom and Aristotelian moderation now and then.

I don’t promise to never express a partisan opinion. But generally speaking, I’d rather lift up than tear down; elevate than agitate; raise up not run down.

We need more love in the world, and I’m just trying to do my part.

I hope this finds you well.

Namaste,

Jason

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Why I get up each day.

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Late March Haiku/Such a Long Week!

This week was a long, LONG week! On Friday, Nancy and I drove to her parents home outside of Philly and had dinner. On Saturday, Nancy and I went to our 15th consecutive Philadelphia Flower Show to celebrate our First Date Anniversary.

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Me and a Flower Show cow

On Sunday, I drove to Stafford, VA to conduct a three-hour rehearsal for the choir of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. On Monday, I went to the First Dress Rehearsal for Hunchback. On Tuesday, I had unsuccessful blood work done, taught lessons, and went to the Final Dress Rehearsal of Hunchback. (Hunchback opened successfully on Weds at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts in Fredericksburg and I’m very proud of all the choir’s hard work and our involvement in the production, but I wasn’t in attendance.) On Weds., I had successful blood work done, a doctor’s appointment, taught piano, and conducted two handbell rehearsals. On Thursday, I taught voice and took our cat, Duke, for enema surgery to remove the impacted feces from his swollen colon. On Friday, Nancy and I went to Black Panther. On Saturday, I received the lab results from the blood draw, which were fine, but a stressful wait, and then I drove to the West Virginia border to perform in a murder mystery with Murder Mysteries Will Travel. Sunday morning, my Adult Choir performed two pieces and then Nancy and I drove to Baltimore to have dinner with my in-laws and collect my wayward, vacationing son.We drove home Sunday night and I pretty much collapsed.

It’s Monday and I’m exhausted. But if I could do all that, surely you can do anything.

Enjoy the haiku and hopefully I’ll essay again soon.

Namaste,

Jason

4720
No life is perfect.
Handling the imperfections
Defines character.

4721
You have the power.
You can make a difference.
You can change the world.

4722
Wake up each morning
Determined to make the world
A little better.

4723
Being a success
Starts with a good attitude.
This is no secret.

4724
Make a difference.
I can’t tell you what or how.
That’s yours to decide.

4725
How can you deny
The interconnectedness
Of all existence?

4727
Time’s always fleeting.
So many untraveled roads.
Make quick, wise choices.

4728
Live in gratitude.
Whatever you possess you
Could always have less.

4729
In every way
Take responsibility
For your life and health.

4730
Just hold your head high,
Forgive them their trespasses,
And keep on smiling.

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Rows of spring flowers – my favorites – at the Flower Show

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

Nazis I Have Known

As a wave of overt hatred and prejudice is rising in America like the polluted Jersey shore tide, fueled by white nationalists, the Alt-Right, and of all things Neo-Nazis, I’ve been reminiscing back to the simpler times of my childhood, when all of the U.S. of A. could agree that Nazis were bad, and that that conflict fought and won – WWII for the historically challenged – had put an end to that question. We had defeated the Krauts, Hitler, the Nazis, and then, having beaten them, took a victory lap at Nuremberg mostly for moral show, and then hired their best scientists to work for us, put their civic officials back in place (for they did know best how to ‘make their own trains run on time’), and considered the matter finished. Wasn’t it a simpler time?

Growing up outside Reading, PA with a music studio in our basement gave me an opportunity to meet some ‘interesting people’ as Bugs Bunny used to say. I’ve remarked previously about the high priest of a satanic cult (Mom and the Satan Worshiper). In this case, I want to briefly introduce you to Mrs. Schubert: Nazi Apologist. Mrs. Schubert either brought her children or grandchildren for lessons in our basement; those details are a blur and irrelevant. What is important is that Mrs. Schubert had been in Germany throughout World War II and had emigrated to the U.S. after the war with her family to seek new opportunities and economic advantage. She was (to my young mind) an elderly, pulled-back-grey-haired-harsh-voiced-bespectacled matron type that was neither nice nor naughty—just brusque, taut, and imposing. She was never anything but civil to me, and my memories of her are scant and few. However, I do remember one conversation vividly she had with my mother when I was a pre-teen. My mother, rarely afraid to ask the hard questions, inquired of Mrs. Schubert how much she actually knew of what was happening in Germany during Hitler: to the Jews, the gays, the minorities etc.? Mrs. Schubert stiffened and drew herself up, and spoke with an icy and almost comic defensiveness reminiscent of Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes.

“We knew nothing of it. Nothing. There were rumors of course, but nothing that we knew for certain.”

And then she added with venomous emphasis…

“You think you know what your government does, but you don’t! Your government does vicious things all around the world too, but you don’t know about it, do you? We knew nothing!”

And that ended the interrogation, and she left, and it was never spoken of again. After all, business is business and Mrs. Schubert was a loyal customer. Right, Mom?

What Mrs. Schubert did or didn’t know will never be known, but her defensiveness, and her deflection, spoke volumes. Either she knew absolutely nothing and was ashamed after the fact (which is somewhat unlikely given what we know from history); or she knew something and supported it; or she knew something, but like so many was afraid to speak out. My vote, perhaps naively, will remain on the latter. One thing that is certain: she was an opportunist that found the first available transport to come to America and make a better life for herself and her family, and leave that pesky Nazi-business behind.

But wait! There’s more. Lest you think this a falsely advertised blog post, I want to introduce you to Erwin “the German,” a gym buddy of mine. I don’t remember Erwin’s last name (if I ever knew it). We used to work out together at the Wyomissing Sheraton fitness center when hotels used to have open memberships. This was in the early ‘90s and Erwin was much older than me. That’s because he was a real-life-honest-to-goodness/evilness Nazi. By the time I knew Erwin he was a tall, loud, rugged, portly, slow-moving and half-blind, jovial joy. He made no secret of his past, and his contemporaries often teased him about his past by calling him “Erwin the German” loudly from the other side of the pool. It was meant, oddly, endearingly, and he took it as such. He had joined the Hitler Youth as a boy, and later been stationed on the Eastern Front to counter the Ruskie incursion. He implied he had been in the Battle of Stalingrad. He implied he had killed Russians. But he always talked about his past briefly, somewhat romantically, and without passion. The war had happened, he was an American citizen (still with a thick German accent, as was Mrs. Schubert), and he had moved to the States to become a plumber. He had had a good life in America and seemed to have no regrets.

Erwin died while I still frequented the gym and was mourned by all who knew him as a kind and generous friend. I have no doubt that Mrs. Shubert is also gone. I say Nazis – plural – in this blog title because, whatever Mrs. Schubert’s feeling on the subject of Nazism, it was evident that she was there, was not the target of their evil, and did little to nothing to stop their spread. Guilty by association perhaps. But I’ve written none of this to condemn either individual, but rather to draw a gentle parallel from the past to the present. Both of my Nazi acquaintances had been caught in something both unfortunate and larger than themselves – partly through fear, ignorance, disadvantage, youth or the combination, but when that something larger was defeated, they reverted back to being decent, productive citizens of a free society, and went on to lead fine and benign lives.  I look at all the young men and women in Charlottesville and elsewhere, that have been caught up in the wave of hatred, ignorance, fake news, and economic instability, and as much as I know we need to stop the spread of their ideology and terror, I also know that they are our friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and colleagues, and we’re going to have to work together to bring them back into a basic understanding of what it really means to be an American, to live in a free and equal society. And that, of course, will require some punching of Nazis at the outset. But it will also require some measure of reaching out to those who can be reached, forgiving, and modeling a better way to be. Repaying hatred with hatred is not the answer. It will only perpetuate the resentment and violence. Hatred must be met with strength, firstly yes, but then needs to be listening, compassion, and healing. Perhaps if we try this we’ll find ourselves forty years from now with a few more Erwin’s than David Duke’s. It’s just a thought.

Auf wiedersehen,

Jason

A Visit with Amma the Hugging Saint

“You cannot taste the sweetness of honey by licking a piece of paper on which the word ‘honey’ has been written. Likewise, the principles described in the religious texts must be contemplated, meditated upon, and finally realized.” – Amma the “hugging” saint

On July 5, at 6:30 AM, I arrived at my church to pick up two dear friends, Laura and Elaine, for a ‘wacky adventure’ to the congested streets of Arlington, VA. We were going to visit Amma the Hindu “Hugging Saint” on her world tour (possibly her last), and had gotten up extra early to make sure that we were assured of a good place in line so that our efforts were not in vain. For various reasons, each of us really felt we needed our hug, and we didn’t want to be left out.

To be bluntly honest, I had never heard of Amma. Facebook (FACEBOOK!!!) advertised her to me repeatedly, and as a result, I became intrigued and ultimately interested in going. I am somewhat obsessed with spiritual experiences, books, movies, and the like, and am always looking for an opportunity to expand my awareness of cultures, world religions, and thought systems, so my becoming interested was not much of a stretch. And I love events. Hay House Publishing used to do events with their spiritual authors called I Can Do It! and Nancy and I drove to Atlanta for one years ago. When the Dalai Lama was in D.C. in 2010 for the Kalachakra, we were in attendance for a day. Nancy attended Pope Francis’s D.C. Mass, but Catholic U only had enough tickets for students and faculty, so I missed that one, but I wasn’t going to miss this! And that is why I was up at 4:45 AM on July 5, and picking up my friends at 6:30 AM.

Our drive up to Arlington was friendly and uneventful. Spitty rain and D.C. traffic slowed us a bit, but nothing serious. We arrived at the Marriott Crystal City just after 8 AM and struggled despairingly to find a parking space in their labyrinth of an underground parking garage, until keen-eyed Laura spied a solitary overlooked space behind a pole, boxed in by other cars, that may have been used by staff but bore no designated markings. We maneuvered the car into the hidden gem, struggled further to find the elevators, and finally, with some effort and agitation, found an escalator marked “Amma – this way” – and knew we had arrived.

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Amma the “Hugging Saint” Image courtesy of Pintarest; no copyright info available

The next unexpected hurdle in our spiritual odyssey occurred almost immediately as we were confronted with hotel security bearing the Peanuts-gang-like message of “No Dogs Allowed” in variously hushed if vehement tones. My one friend, Elaine, had brought her licensed therapy dog along (a choice she had made after exhaustingly researching Amma’s website and deeming it acceptable), but Amma’s people had apparently not communicated their desires to the hotel management, the result being a serious conflict of protocol. I’m not going to dwell on this incident further out of discretion and respect for my friend, but suffice it to say, Elaine was wholly in the right, justice prevailed, a beautiful person named Victoria became the dog’s best friend (and ours) for the next few hours, and the Marriott needs to seriously rethink its customer service. For my part, I watched my friend repeatedly attempt to resolve the matter with Herculean strength, grace, and some frazzled charm, and my respect for her grew immensely as she fiercely protected her legal rights and those of her little charge. No adventure occurs without obstacles. But back to Amma.

“The aim of devotion and prayer is to develop love for everyone.”   – Amma the “hugging” saint

We were seated in one of several ballrooms, equipped with a stage at one end and an exhaustive gift shop at the other. We waited for more than an hour, watching a video scroll of Amma’s good works both here and abroad. She arrived on time at 10 AM, conducted a mostly silent – if loudly amplified – meditation, and by 10:40 AM the “hugging queue” was formed and the hugs began. My friends and I were in the first hour of the line and were moved swiftly barefoot from chair to chair, up onto the stage, and eventually into Amma’s waiting arms. It is not my place to retell how my friends felt about their experience, but each of us responded positively if differently. When it was my turn, I was hoisted before Amma on my knees and bent towards her at the waist. My body, for some inexplicable reason, became rigid. She gripped me, pulled me away from her body, gripped me tighter, and started whispering a Hindu prayer into my right ear. The world fell away, and for a few moments it was only she and I. Then she pulled me away from her body, looked me full in the face, handed me a present, and I was lifted by handlers emotionally to my feet and away from her embrace. I was dazed and unsteady and the handlers escorted me to a nearby seat, where I observed my friends have similar, but vastly different interactions with the woman known as “Mother.”

The three of us, satisfied that we had accomplished our goals, toured the gift shop, went to retrieve the car and dog, and headed out of Arlington for lunch and eventually a drop off at the church. We talked incessantly about the adventure, our various acutely emotional experiences with Amma, and the pros and cons of the day. The ballroom was exceedingly noisy throughout the event, even during the meditation to a degree, and Amma’s handlers were a swirl of activity throughout her hugging sessions. Amma was constantly talking to them, advising them, etc. while she was hugging participants, and that did diminish the intimacy and interpersonal communication one may have expected from the moment. She was also sweating profusely, it seemed, and constantly dabbing herself with a white towel, which made us wonder what was making her so hot. Was she ill, or was it just the intensity of her being? On the other hand, the thousands of devout participants at the event were staggering in their devotion, kindness, and compassion. Without the efforts of Victoria (truly living Amma’s message), our visit may have ended very differently and sadly. People in attendance were very open and receptive to being engaged in conversation and were exceedingly kind. All three of us felt the power of Amma’s energy/soul/compassion/what have you, coming off her and it was dizzying, enabling, and awe-inspiring. Laura quipped it best, and I paraphrase, “She seems to be in a perpetual state of happiness.” As little as I know about her even now, I know she is the real deal. Sorry fundamentalists of any faith, sainthood is about character and action, not about belief system. I’ve been in the presence of at least three “saints” in my life, and their aura of love is so palpable that it’s almost a narcotic “high.”

“The sun shines down, and its image reflects in a thousand different pots filled with water. The reflections are many, but they are each reflecting the same sun. Similarly, when we come to know who we truly are, we will see ourselves in all people.” – Amma the “hugging” saint

Five days since the event, I still don’t know a great deal about Amma. I watched the videos, read her Wikipedia article, and was hugged by her for heaven’s sake, but don’t know much else. I had never heard of her before, which I don’t understand, since she’s been touring the world for more than thirty years, hugging, raising millions for disaster relief here and abroad, building hospitals, advocating for the rights of women and children, and preaching a message of universal compassion. How is it we get so fixated on other lesser things that even when people do high-profile-good works for decades, it can still be lost to us until it’s advertised on Facebook? What does it take to put that which is truly important – peace, love, charity, compassion, kindness – front and center in the minds of the masses and the media? I honestly don’t know. But for what it’s worth, I’m grateful to Facebook for their targeted ads, I’m grateful to my friends for accompanying me on this adventure, and I’m grateful to Amma for the hug and for being who she is: a light in a dark world. May all such beings (and rest assured there are more and I’ll meet them) continue to shine, even in social media anonymity. We need you. We really need you.

Namaste,

Jason

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Three merry adventurers – Laura, myself, and Elaine – after our day of hugs, joy, and self-discovery

Haiku in Bloom

A busy week, a trip to the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D. C., and the first day of spring made for good memories and the necessity of sharing some more haiku this month. Whatever your needs are, I hope they are being met. Whatever ails you – mental, physical, spiritual – I hope it is being managed. Know that you are not alone. Know that you are loved. Know that whatever your present state, it can be bettered.

Peace, Love, Spring, and Cherry Blossoms to You,

Jason

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The Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin in D.C.

4627
Your authentic voice
Is what people want to hear.
Let them hear your heart

4628
Your priorities
Must be kept in order if
You wish to succeed.

4629
When others succeed,
That doesn’t mean you have failed.
Stop comparing lives.

4630
It is your duty
To give your life to the world,
Serving its best needs.

4635
Focus heavenward.
The sun is beaming brightly
Above the storm clouds

At the Cherry Blossom Festival

Me and My Gal in the Blossoms

4637
How should you respond
To the hatred in the world?
Why, with love, of course.

4639
Give up all judgment.
Be a Citizen of Peace,
Enemy to none.

4640
You are on the verge
Of an explosion of Art,
Thought, and Abundance.

4641
Believe in yourself
And your ability to
Make a difference.

4642
Be the example
You want your children to love,
Follow, and become.

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Our own backyard.

The Aim of the Art

My very first paying Vocal Director job was for Governor Mifflin High School’s production of Babes in Arms in 1994. Ironically, the male lead made state swimming and left the production a week before it opened, so it was also the first time I, as a high school graduate, stepped into a role in a rival high school show out of desperation. And, yes, there was a second time too. As a Music Director, over 21 years, I have worked largely in three distinct environments: professional theatrical, scholastic education, and worship. Each has its challenges, its strengths and weaknesses, its headaches and heartbreaks. I was asked recently by a member of our congregation (at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg) who has seen me work in a different setting ‘how I tailor my style to the environment,’ since their experience of me there was different from at UU. The answer is really a question of the aim of the art being collaborated upon. And while those aims are always the same, their positions of prominence shift.

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The UUFF Adult Choir from this past February

When one music directs in a professional theatre setting, there is usually a very limited window at the beginning of the process where the Music Director gets to be ‘in charge’ and teach the music. The director and the choreographer are anxiously awaiting their turn to take over and teach their material, sometimes patiently, frequently not so much. Music direction is treated (by many, not all) as a necessary nuisance, something to get through quickly so we can get the actors up on their feet and start teaching them the show. Once that period ends touch ups are rare, at the discretion of the director, and often done on the fly. The need is real because most musical theatre performers can barely read music, but the music and its upkeep are often subject to the constraints of time, money, and ego. There is barely enough time to teach the music, let alone terminology, support, context, or what have you. And your investment in people (at least initially) is minimal. Management wants a short rehearsal period and the best product so that ticket sales and reviews are good. The health, well being, and education of the singers are very low priorities. Do they know their music? Do they sound good? Moving on.

Educational music, both choral and theatrical, is mostly about the repetitive learning process, and the gradual team and spirit building that is required to inspire young people to pursue the arts either as a vocation or avocation. In school choral music, one is often working on the same pieces for months, MONTHS!, leading up to the big holiday or spring concert. The music must be challenging, but not too challenging; it must hold their interest and give the student a sense of musical accomplishment. It must also build a pride in belonging to the organization. Marching and jazz bands are still best at this. Product is important, but what really matters is nurturing a lifelong love for music, learning, and belonging. Students will join the choir to find their place, but they’ll only stay if you inspire them to be their best selves. And at most, you have them for four years, so you teach them to believe in themselves, to love music and the arts, and hope that they’ll remember you fondly.

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Someone’s never far from the action!

Worship music directing, especially at UU, (given that it is a non-textual faith, and stresses principles over dogma or creed) involves a synthesis of both the aforementioned environments, but it’s also much more than that.  In a worship setting like ours, the lyrics, the context in which the song is being sung, and the degree to which a choir member can invest in the song’s message becomes pivotal to success. Singers are neither students nor employees; they are peers of both the congregation and the Music Director. Their love of singing either has a long history, or is something that they are exploring after a long absence, a career change, retirement, or a courageous moment to join the choir. These singers are sharing their gifts out of love of singing, love of their community, and love of their faith tradition. As a music director, these are often the people you get to know the best, sing with you the longest, and share many of the deepest experiences. A show singer comes and goes in weeks (unless you can rehire multiple times), a student a few years; a church singer has an open-ended relationship with the Music Director to stay as long as the singing is fun and fulfilling.  For many of these singers, it is the sharing and the community building that creates the best choir experiences. The product is important, but what really matters is the sense of joy and family shared. This same approach applies to our hand bell and youth choir programs.

To sum it all up, in professional theatre the product comes first, no question. In education, the process and the sense of belonging to something special comes first. In our worship setting, our relationships – to text, to community, to our faith traditions – take precedence. While always striving for the best musical experience, the foci change and, as Music Director, it’s my job to adapt my demeanor, expectations, and repertoire to give each choir (or other musical organization) the best experience possible.  The environment really does determine the aim of the art.

Peace and Almond Milk,

Jason

Note: This post is reprinted from an article I wrote recently for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg March Newsletter. Additions to this post have been added in parentheses for clarity.

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Members of the UUFF Hand chime ensemble, before we expanded and added bells!

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.

SU friends reunited

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!

Before the World Went Mad

Bup (John Adams) and I arrived at the King George Elementary School polling station on Tuesday, November 8, at around 11:45 AM. The local media had been advising that ‘after people got to work and before they headed home’ were good times to vote, that the polls would be light. Like many projections of the day, the media could not have been more wrong. We walked toward the line that stretched out the door and into the courtyard and saw a young woman handing out orange pieces of paper. We approached her, inquiring if she was the sign-up line? No, that was inside, she replied cordially, but she was handing out sample ballots. Bup wanted an orange paper, so we took one, thanked her, and moved on. The orange sample ballot was paid for by the local Republican Party and informed its base how to vote by filling in sample choices as best case examples. Now at least we knew what the ballot looked like, so we could make decisions on how to or how not to vote. We sought out the tail of the line and queued up.

For the next almost ninety minutes I stood while Bup stood, sat, ran off, came back, laid on the ground, rolled on Best Friend Blankie, ran circles around the orange cones marking the line, got held, got put down, hurt his knees falling, chased after a pollster with cookies, and made all manner of spectacles of himself. We stood in three lines total – 1 to check in, 1 to vote, 1 to feed our ballot to the machine – and each new line brought Bup new hope that we were finished and crushed his spirit a little more when he realized that we weren’t. When we voted, he sat on my lap in the little makeshift booth and helped me guide the Sharpie to its desired ovals. When we submitted our ballot, I held him while he pushed the paper into the machine, then it spit back out to be turned over, then we pushed in the other side. At the end of the three lines was a beautiful disabled black boy nicknamed William Floyd handing out I Voted stickers with an eagle on it. He presented Bup with one proudly, which he accepted graciously, but Bup was spent and his face was drawn and frustrated with the restrictive and slow-moving process. Outside the site, a King George science class had set up a Krispy Kreme doughnut stand to fund their class trip. I bought Bup a doughnut and supported tasty science education. We snapped a few selfies and a few more shots with the help of passersby, and we headed home. I was tired and spent from managing a capricious toddler through a three-lined serious gathering of such importance, but we were all done, and I was more than proud of Bup that he had voted (more or less) in his very first Presidential Election.

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November 8, 2016 Election Day selfie

It needs to be said that for the two hour ordeal that was our voting experience, people were on their best behavior and then some. I had deliberately worn green and yellow so as to not inadvertently show support visibly for any one candidate. At 45, I remain of the mindset that my vote is my own and nobody has the right to know my intentions, except Nancy. Bup was dressed in a red shirt with a blue dinosaur to be both non-partisan and patriotic. I had expected to be assaulted out front with last minute appeals for my vote, and I was prepared to make my stock evasive answer that I was voting for Gracie Allen on the Surprise Party ticket, but nobody asked, thankfully. In line, few people were wearing red or blue, though many wore a sticker showing their political leanings. There were far more Trump supporters than Hillarys (this is King George after all), but both were present and pleasant. A family of Trump supporters right behind us – white, middle-aged father, mother, and grandmother – took an active interest in Bup’s antics and tried to occupy his time a bit with chatter and attention. They were dressed in Harley shirts and hunting attire, and were apparently well-known and of high standing in the community. More than a few people (black, white, and disabled) broke from their places in lines to pay their respects to our ‘line buddies.’ When all was over, they were also the family who saw me snapping selfies outside with Bup and offered to take our picture. Whatever their, my, or your leanings, upon a brief meeting, they made a pleasant impression.

Inside the polling station the elderly and infirmed were shunted to the front of each line so they didn’t have to wait as long as the rest of us. This made the line wait times longer, but no one complained; it was just the right thing to do. First time voters were announced and cheered, as were the elderly. An 87-year-old Navy veteran was met with enthusiastic applause after submitting his ballot. In so many ways, people were on their best behavior and had brought their best selves to the polling station, and it showed. Bup and I left the school tired but feeling satisfied and accomplished. We had done our part, voted our conscience, and played a minor but important role in the furtherance of American democracy.  The next day there would be chaos, tears, fears, riots, and all manner of recriminations. But that’s not this story. The world is full of vicissitudes, both ups and downs. Overall, our voting experience was a success, and one that my son is still talking about a week later. I hope it makes a lasting impression, and as he grows he chooses to take a more active role in steering the ship that is our fraying and fraught republic. But for now that’s where I choose to stop typing – to focus on the good. I wish for you all this day an opportunity in which you can do the same.

Namaste,

Jason

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I Voted, Daddy, and I’m so over it!

Still Wild About Hank (And Damned Proud of It!)

On Sunday, August 14, Nancy and I attended the Virginia/US Premiere of the new documentary, Wild About Hank, the true story of the cat that ran for US Senate in 2012. Hank’s story holds a very special place in both our hearts. We learned about his bid for Congress shortly after it started. We bought bumper stickers and a lawn sign. We followed him on Facebook, liked his campaign messages, and even drove to meet him at Felix and Oscar’s pet store on Backlick Rd. in Northern Virginia when he was on the campaign trail. On Election Day, in the race between George Allen and now Vice-Presidential Democratic nominee Tim Kaine, we proudly wrote his name in and voted for him. Though he came in third, Hank received just shy of 7,000 votes statewide. Yes, Hank was a cat, but to many of us he was more than that: he was a movement. One we proudly supported.

Nancy and I posing before the Wild About Hank movie sign

Nancy and I posing before the Wild About Hank movie sign

Now, four years later, much has changed, much has stayed the same, and, generally speaking politically, things are worse than ever. Hank passed away in 2014 due to declining health complications so there’s no comeback possible. The 2016 Presidential Election is made up of two candidates who are arguably the two most distrusted and/or despised people in America, all the while other candidates are either denied or manipulated out of having a voice by the two big machines, and everyone is bracing for the potential violent response that could be the day after Election Day. It’s not hard to despair in such times, and I’ve written about some of my feelings on this previously in another post, “Primary Colors,” so there’s no further need to dwell here. Needless to say, sitting in the Cinema Arts Theater in Fairfax, VA when the movie finally started around 7 PM, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia and sadness for the good old days…from just four years ago.

The documentary, Wild About Hank, is a short and sweet 30 minute reminiscence of the late beloved feline visionary. Utilizing Facebook quotes, stock footage from the campaign, and seven primary interviews – including Republican challenger George Allen (Tim Kaine was unavailable for some reason) – the documentary briskly recounts owners Matthew O’Leary and Anthony Roberts’s reasons for Hank’s run, the process of getting him on (or not on) the ballot, the campaign itself, and the post-campaign life and eventual death of their beloved boy. Very lovingly crafted by director Emma Kouguell, who was on hand to introduce the film and be a part of the post-screening panel Q and A, the film is a valentine to those fans who took part in Hank’s rise, run, and decline. On a very personal level, when the stock BBC footage surfaced about halfway through the film that included both Nancy and I snapping photos of Hank, only to be followed by a still photo of he and I discussing his campaign finance reform policies, we nearly leaped out of our seats with joy.  But the real substance of the documentary lies in the interviews of a few of his biggest fans, and in their responses as to why they would ever vote for a cat.

Hank the Cat for U.S. Senate, March 2012

Hank the Cat for U.S. Senate, March 2012

In one very emotional and poignant response toward the end of the film, one of the interviewees is recalling Hank’s run for Senate and discussing it with a mix of pride and deep-felt sadness. She recounts how her own district was so close to call that before she cast her ballot, she was pressured by friends out of voting for Hank, being told she was throwing her vote away on a third party write-in, and that it was her civic duty to vote for a particular candidate. She caved, didn’t vote for Hank, and through tears has regretted it ever since. She recounts emotionally how supporting Hank made her feel a part of the democratic process, and how proud she was to be supporting a clean-run campaign where due to Hank’s presence, candidates “would have to show up and be kind,” and where she knew the intentions of her candidate were noble. She then, to paraphrase, asks the question of us all, “What does it say about the state of American politics that a cat can win the hearts and minds of disaffected voters in a way that the humans we run for office can’t?”

What indeed.

With almost 7,000 votes, and over sixteen thousand dollars raised for animal charities in Virginia, to say nothing of the intangible amount of good his campaign did to raise awareness on animal rights and spay and neuter issues, I proudly supported Hank in 2012, and will gladly do so again when the right cat comes along.

Till then, we’re stuck with the Fat Cats. Lucky us.

Long Live Hank,

Jason

 

P.S. Here is the link to the official Wild About Hank website where you can view the trailer. http://www.wildabouthank.com/ We were told the film will be available for streaming later this year, so check back regularly.

Here is the BBC stock footage that includes Nancy and I: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-17348212

Here is Hank’s Wikipedia Page:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hank_the_Cat

Happy Exploring!

Ciao and Meow.

The cake at the Virginia Premiere of Wild About Hank

The cake at the Virginia Premiere of Wild About Hank