Hi Ho the Glamorous Life (Celebrating 40 “Happy” Years in the Theatre)

This weekend, as I sat in rehearsal for Shrek, the musical that I am currently music directing for Christian Youth Theatre of Fredericksburg, it occurred to me that, with the opening of this production, I will be celebrating forty years of involvement in show business. My first play was at the age of six around Christmastime. I played Santa Claus, and the play revolved around Santa considering putting jet packs on his sleigh to replace the reindeer. I remember almost nothing of the experience, save for the fact that it ended with me (pack over back) walking off the stage, stage left, to the cafeteria door and uttering before I exited, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” A star was born. Oh, well, that and throwing up all over my beard once, due to only having eaten a mayonnaise sandwich for lunch before rehearsal.

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Me as Santa, with Karen Zimmerman as Mrs. Claus, in our first-grade play.

Forty years later, I’m on “the opposite side of the table,” just as much as acting, i.e. directing, music directing, composing, and the like, but after forty years I can honestly say that I still love the grand old pursuit or the Fabulous Invalid, but it goes without saying that there are lengthy periods where I hate the business just as much, wish I’d never gotten involved in the first place, and, without question, strongly dislike many of the negative and narcissistic personality types the business attracts. But with that aside, I want to focus on the good times, the special memories, and the unique experiences that being involved in Theatre has given me.

So in celebration of forty years of memories, here are a few of the most…uh…memorable. Almost every one of the following anecdotes is a blog post unto itself, but needless to say, after a forty year run, I’ve seen a few things. Here are a few selected highlights from the long strange trip, all good. I’ll save the not so good, bad, and bitchy memories for another day.

  1. Thanks to the now defunct American Family Theatre, I had the chance to tour parts of our grand country four times. I was to New Orleans before and after Mardi Gras in 1999, put my feet in the Gulf of Mexico, saw Addams Family in Chicago, visited lots of the southern Midwest, and went up and down the East Coast numerous times. With several cast mates from these tours I’m celebrating almost twenty years of friendship. How time flies.
  1. I have performed alongside or worked with a few Broadway veterans, some as acquaintances, others as friends. I have been blessed to work with Sally Struthers, Jonathan Groff, James Lane, Forrest McClendon, Milton Craig Nealy, and Celeste Holm, as well as a few lesser known luminaries. All have taught me something, and I couldn’t be prouder of my time spent with them. And I promise no more name-dropping.
  1. During my high school’s rehearsal period and run of Oklahoma! in 1986, both myself (playing Curly), and the boy playing Jud carried real guns to school in our backpacks, loaded with blanks made in our basement by our parents. The principal knew, and trusted us, and it was a non-issue. My how times have changed.
  1. I have played a Jewish father (Tevye in Fiddler), a woman (Edna in Hairspray), several priests, a movie mogul, a major-general, and lots of “loud-mouthed little guys.” I have been in not one but two productions of Dreamgirls, The Wiz, and Purlie, all with amazingly talented African-American casts. I was the youngest pit conductor to ever make his debut at the Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, PA and once had a production of Annie I directed reviewed favorably by Greenwich Village’s newspaper, The Village Voice.
  1. I choked once on stage while drinking and stopped the show for nearly five minutes while I recovered my voice. Another time, while shooting trap onstage the gun fell apart in my hands. On another occasion my cast of pranksters Vaseline-d all my props so that I couldn’t pick any of them up. Theatre is unpredictable.
  1. When my father played in the onstage pit for Cabaret, a pit done entirely in drag, I had to take him shopping! I can still remember his ugly black sack dress, old lady earrings, and gray wig, all worn while playing his sax. Somewhere there’s a picture. Someday I’ll find it and post it.
  1. I have been in productions where “showmances” escalated into both on and offstage public displays of affection that skirted the boundaries of propriety and decency. And that said, I’m not telling you about any of them, but at the time they were scandalous and fun.
  1. I’ve had a song I wrote sung back to me with affection ten years later by an actor who didn’t realize I was the composer of the song he was singing. That led to my contributing songs to a New York fringe festival musical.
  1. I can name all the Signers of the Declaration of Independence thanks to my love of the musical 1776, and I know the names of more passengers on the Titanic than most people. My general knowledge of world history, cultures and customs, dates and events, has been greatly enhanced by all the plays and theatre history I’ve had to read over many years.
  1. Lastly, and most importantly, my wife Nancy and I met in an acting class at Villanova University. We were paired up for a scene from David Mamet’s Oleanna. I threw a chair at her, and said some horrible things I would never otherwise say to anyone…and she fell in love with me! Life is funny and wonderful that way.

So for all the above reasons and more I say, “Thanks, World of Theatre, for forty wonderful, terrible, illuminating, frustrating years. Here’s to many more together.”

Namaste,

Jason

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The next project – come see it!

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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.

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

March Into Haiku

It has been awhile since I’ve done a purely haiku post. But spring is around the corner, and I’m feeling like I need a real dose of inspiration to get me through the last of the winter woes.Whatever you may be struggling with, I hope you find some measure of assistance, uplift, guidance, or what have you in the next 10 poems. Hang in there, keep the faith, assist, resist, persist, and God bless.

Namaste,

Jason

4610
Whatever happens
You must never surrender
To hatred and fear.

4612
While you sit around
Complaining about the job,
Someone’s doing it.

4613
Rise with the dawn and
Offer sincere gratitude
For the day ahead.

4614
You cannot give thanks,
Too sincerely or too much,
But be one who tries.

4615
Put yourself out there.
Without risk there is no life,
Only stagnation.

4617
When you’ve been knocked down,
Look for anything to grab
That will help you up.

4618
You want my advice?
Whatever you want from life
Go out and get it!

4619
If you have a dream,
You can acquire the skill set
To make it happen.

4625
How can you improve
The lives of those around you
Just by showing up?

4626
Look for ways in which
You can make someone happy.
Seek joy for others.

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Two Contemplative Cats

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.

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

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

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

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Cover art by Michelle McNally, cover design by Maryann Brown

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

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

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

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‘Saki in her ‘Cover pose.’

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

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

Love Anyway,

Jason

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

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

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‘Saki and John Adams – BFFs

The Best of Times

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

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

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

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Bump playing with his cousin, Viviana

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

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Fascinated by the lights of Christmas Village.

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

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

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

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

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

If not, keep believing. It’ll happen.

Namaste,

Jason

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!

Something Wicked and Wonderful

I started reading Ray Bradbury’s 1962 highly acclaimed dark fantasy novel Something Wicked This Way Comes at the beginning of this summer. Previously, I’d finished his The Martian Chronicles, The illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451, so, to my way of thinking, I was rounding out my knowledge of his most celebrated and familiar works. I had had mostly positive experiences with the three previous works; Martian and Illustrated are short story collections woven together with loose framing devices, and Fahrenheit is short and considered a “must-read” on many lists. All three were taut and accessible with frequent payoffs and didn’t put much pressure on the reader to enjoy or engage in them. I also had a faint positive memory of the 1983 Disney film of the same name that I had seen in the theater but not since, and of Jason Robards being great at something in it, but I couldn’t remember what exactly. Disney has announced plans in the future to re-shoot Something Wicked for the screen, so there’s no time like the present to read this significant novel. So I began…and it was like landing in some kind of literary bizarro hell right from the start.

Archaic, muddled, or just absent grammar; metaphors that seemed to run for pages; a muddied narrative that left me wondering “what the hell just happened?” and a loose story that seemed to never get started for chapter after chapter. I could make out that there were two boys; a salesman; a spinster teacher; and a kindly, wise, and weary father of one of the boys. I gathered that a carnival of freaks came to the Midwestern town, led by the ominous Mr. Dark, who was also their Illustrated Man (and may or may not be the same man from the eponymous novel), and people started disappearing. There was also a carousel that if run forward made one age rapidly, and if run backward made its passengers “youth-en” to fetal stage. The story slowly, joltingly, almost grudgingly un-spun itself in page after page of vivid, obtuse imagery that left me uncertain and angry as to what Bradbury was trying to say. I read each chapter and put the book down in frustration and apathy. ‘This feels like a short story strung out to novel length,’ I would lament to Nancy (which indeed is true). ‘I feel like Bradbury is just padding his prose to hit a word count. I don’t know what the Dust Witch is? Is she dead? What just happened?’ And on and on and on.

My relationship with the book soured early, and I turned to reading other things rather than grind through its flummoxing narrative. I never gave up on it. I just set an agenda that I would read one chapter at a setting and then set it down and pick up something else that I was truly enjoying. I rewarded myself for stomaching it and for keeping my promise to myself that I would read this mess? trash? critically praised opus? And so almost five months went by with me every couple of days peering back into the arcane head of Ray Bradbury, unsure of what would come out. Now finished, I can honestly say I’m glad I did.

Great literature makes us no promises. And I don’t know if Something Wicked This Way Comes is great literature. But it certainly is difficult in places, good, and meaningful.  Once the story had all but played itself out, the villains vanquished, the heroes triumphant, Bradbury in an eloquent, quiet denouement breathed the following exchange into his characters:

“Dad, will they ever come back?”
“No. And yes.” Dad tucked away his harmonica. “No not them. But yes, other people like    them. Not in a carnival. God knows what shape they’ll come in next. But sunrise, noon, or at the latest, sunset tomorrow they’ll show. They’re on the road.”
“Oh, no,” said Will.
“Oh, yes, said Dad. “We got to watch out the rest of our lives. The fight’s just begun.”
They moved around the carousel slowly.
“What will they look like? How will we know them?”
“Why,” said Dad, quietly, “maybe they’re already here.”
Both boys looked around swiftly.
But there was only the meadow, the machine, and themselves.
Will looked at Jim, at his father, and then down at his own body and hands. He glanced up at Dad.
Dad nodded, once, gravely, and then nodded at the carousel, and stepped up on it, and touched a brass pole.
Will stepped up beside him. Jim stepped up beside Will.
Jim stroked a horse’s mane. Will patted a horse’s shoulders.
The great machine softly tilted in the tides of night.
Just three times around, ahead, thought Will. Hey.
Just four times around, ahead, thought Jim. Boy.
Just ten times around, back, thought Charles Halloway. Lord.
Each read the thoughts in the other’s eyes.
How easy, thought Will.
Just this once, thought Jim.
But then, thought Charles Halloway, once you start, you’d always come back. One more ride and one more ride. And, after awhile, you’d offer rides to friends, and more friends until finally…
The thought hit them all in the same quiet moment.
…finally you wind up owner of the carousel, keeper of the freaks…
proprietor for some small part of eternity of the traveling dark carnival shows….
Maybe, said their eyes, they’re already here.”

― Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1962

I was blown away. The elegance, the simplicity, the profoundness of the allegorical novel hit me all at once in one great rush. The novel was a cautionary tale about the gradual creep of evil into our lives; how we allow it through laziness, through neediness, through caving to addiction, through apathy, through ethical and moral ambiguity through not exercising our agency and industry. The novel is deliberately obtuse, for only through patience and diligence can we separate the wheat from the chaff, find the diamond in the rough, find the light at the end of a sea of darkness. Evil clouds our mind with extraneous questions and temptations that take us away from our charted endeavors. I found that my experience of the novel was no different. Bradbury made me work for the payoff, and I balked and bitched and hesitated for months because it was hard, because it wasn’t instant gratification, because it wasn’t “The Real Housewives of Ray Bradbury!” I was elated and ashamed, victorious though it be hollow, battle scarred but alive to live and learn another day. I had, in fact, experienced the greatness in good literature.

I am reminded of those memes that show up on social media every so often about how Lord of the Flies or Huck Finn or The Good Earth ruined someone’s summer. The implication is that the reader struggled through the book and got nothing but pain and lost pleasure out of it. It makes me wonder how many people of that opinion finish but don’t really listen or let it in, or skim, or read the Wiki entry, or just give up and glaze over while turning pages. I was right there with this novel until the carousel stopped and confronted me with my own wickedness, held the mirror up to nature, and made me dislike what I saw. We only grow in adversity. And the road less traveled makes all the difference. Only one in ten Americans actually read a book after high school, and even fewer attempt to crack truly worthwhile works of literature. Do me a favor: help me raise that percentage. It’s worth it. Really. You’ll see.

Now off to crack open Walden….again.

Namaste,

Jason