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!

My Son, the Brit

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

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

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Rockin’ his shades and Thomas jammies

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

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

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

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

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

Kids do say the darnedest things.

Peace,
Jason

Seeing America

I drove fourteen hours one way, each way, to Orlando, FL this week. I left from Fredericksburg, VA in a little Hertz rental on Weds around noon to arrive at the Quality Inn, where I was staying, on International Drive around 4 AM. On Saturday, I left the Doubletree Hilton, where the conference was held, in Orlando and arrived back to my wife and my bed around 4 AM Sunday morning. I went to the Comparative Drama Conference to present a paper on tracing the tragic rhythm in the major musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. And, no, that is not the subject of this blog. No worries.

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After the conference, getting ready to drive home.

Driving alone gives you lots of time to think, to listen, to observe. I’m an avid podcast listener and almost never put on music in the car; it puts me to sleep. My business is often music, so listening to music can sometimes feel like work. No, I like the spoken word: podcasts, NPR, even talk radio in a pinch. Down and back I listened to several episodes of The Thomas Jefferson Hour (my favorite podcast) as well as podcast episodes of The Charged Life, Star Talk, Zig Ziglar, Wayne Dyer, The Tolkien Professor, Ben Franklin’s World, Back Story and NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t tell Me. I like to listen, I like to learn, I like to engage my mind. I recommend them all.

Most of my time was spent on I-95. It was congested in the southern middle states. It was often calm and clear from South Carolina downward. I was struck by how beautiful America’s landscape truly is; the trees changed, their beauty didn’t. I was dismayed by how many chain restaurants and fast food stops absorb the horizon. Mom and Pop stores, restaurants and the like, make up a very small percentage of the advertised businesses, and their signs often seem old, weathered, or downright archaic compared to the slickness that is the Whopper, the Arches, the Wal-Whathaveyou. I ate at a struggling Mom and Pop buffet called the Robbin’s Nest in mid-North Carolina. The food was amazing, and the price was dirt cheap: $8.75. The place was 9/10s empty, and the wait staff polite if rurally despairing. Once I got to Orlando, the prospects of eating simply and outside of chains practically dried up, and those that were there were largely out of my price range.

I-95, when you get away from the exit ramps, is littered with barns, silos, busted-up car garages, impound lots, go go bars, and lots of flat space in between. Don’t get me wrong, the landscaping is pretty and often custom-tailored to the weary traveler ‘just passing through’, but I was struck by how, well, poor hundreds and hundreds of miles of our great country looks, and along the scenic route no less! To see America, away from the clusters of chain shops by the exits, is to see a country wrestling with poverty, poor wages, and limited opportunities. It reminded me of the almost euphoric fervor people seemed to have around King George when the Wal-Mart started to go up. Now, five years later, over half of the existing family businesses pre-Wal-Mart have closed around town. What have we gained? What have we lost? I can’t imagine how I would feel if my highest aspiration for my son would be as a cashier at KFC, but I could sense that for many folks as I passed through, that would be ‘living the dream.’ Not really.

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At South of the Border, in South Carolina, just off I-95

I don’t mean to be dour or a downer in my post this week, but I do mean to suggest that as a country we need to do better…by everyone. State legislatures across the country over the last several weeks have announced plans to fund education or healthcare or both for their in-state residents. This is in response to what they see as a national government not tending to the needs of all citizens. If this trend continues, I predict we’ll see a flight from states that don’t adopt similar policies to aid their constituents, effectively making some of the poorest states even poorer and the richer states richer. As one Virginia friend said to me this week, after the announcement that New York was going to start offering free tuition to its state universities for residents, “It’s time to move home.” I understand and sympathize with her position. But in a larger sense, the problem is contained within the statement. Too many Americans (not my friend) have been weaned on state’s rights rhetoric – the kind that nearly destroyed our country 150 years ago and is verged to do so again – and it’s time to put that failed ideology behind us. We are all Americans and together, not separate, we can all do better: better healthcare, better education, better opportunities, better infrastructure, better as human beings.

We just have to start caring about each other, and start seeing America both for what it has become, and what it can be.

Respectfully Submitted,

Jason

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Bink and I (I’m on the left) poolside at the Quality Inn

One Crazy Week/You’ll Never Walk Alone

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

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

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Inferno movie poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Logan movie poster

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

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

You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Namaste,

Jason

Bicycles, Bridges, and Bulbs. Oh, my!

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

Enter the Haggis

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

At the 2017 Flower Show

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

The plaque at our table.

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

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

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

Namaste,

Jason

Blue tulips

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!

Saying Hello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namaste,

Jason

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A boy and his cat.

Saying Goodbye

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

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Posing atop her beloved water tank

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

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

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

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Nancy and The Nix

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

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

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

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

Rest in Peace The Nix (2006-2017)

Namaste,

Jason

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The Nix at 6 months old.

A Juicy Week

This past week, 1/30 to 2/4, Nancy and I tried something we haven’t attempted in years…and it was very successful. We wanted to do a juice fast, or juice cleanse if you will, of five or six days, while the little guy was up north visiting his grandparents. We agreed that the week would be vegetarian and consist of fresh juice, smoothies, and soups. As background to this, Nancy and I attempted a stricter juice fast a few years ago and, though it was successful, it was also very nerve-wracking for me. Last time we dove in, only drank juice and smoothies, didn’t really account for the lack of protein or my mind’s psychological desire to chew something, and by midweek I was feeling healthy, energized, and manically nervous and cranky. We cut that fast short by a day; I overate the next day and got violently sick. We wanted to avoid at all costs a repeat of that experience.

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Colonial Williamsburg Cream of Peanut Soup

This time, we agreed to do vegetarian soups in the evening, but keep them fairly pureed, so as to honor the basic idea of it being a juicing week. On Sunday, I made a batch of apple/carrot/strawberry juice that served as a base for different smoothie recipes over the course of the week. Nancy made all the smoothies. I made the evening’s soup course with the exception of Monday. Here were the soups:

Monday – Butternut Squash Soup
Tuesday – Colonial Williamsburg Cream of Peanut Soup
Wednesday – Split Pea
Thursday – Roasted Red Pepper Bisque
Friday – Autumn Carrot Bisque

Here’s a sampling of some of the smoothies:

Green Dream Smoothie
Jet Lag Juice
Oh Berry Smoothie
Raspberry Coconut Smoothie
Chia Pina Colada Smoothie

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Roasted Red Pepper Bisque

As we wrapped the fast up Saturday afternoon by driving to Williamsburg to eat and celebrate with cheese steaks at Rick’s Cheese Steak Shop (because it’s still me after all and they are delicious. Check them out: http://rickscheesesteakshop.webs.com/), we both agreed that the week had been very successful, that we felt we could fold more vegetarian cooking into our diets, and that we might try to do a week every quarter, so Jan., April, July, and Oct., or something like that. We felt healthier and more energetic, while not experiencing the deprivation that I felt with the first experience. We agreed to try Meatless Mondays again, so this past Monday I made a vegetarian gumbo, also out of the Colonial Williamsburg cookbook we own. Next week we plan on doing something with portabella mushrooms. I would be happy to share any of the recipes we used. All were either found online, in the CW cookbook, or in Nancy’s Tara Stiles cookbook. Just ask.

If I can do it, you can do it. This was a successful and delicious step toward a healthier lifestyle.

Good eating and  namaste,

Jason

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At Colonial Williamsburg, Feb. 4 AC, that’s After Cheese Steaks!

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