2016 – A Personal Review

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

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

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

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Nancy and i, Christmas 2016

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

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

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

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

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Our active son, The Bup

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

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

Namaste,

Jason

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

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Going Home

On Tuesday, December 6, I made the three hour plus journey from Upper Darby, PA to Selinsgrove, PA to take part in the 50th Annual Christmas Candlelight Service at my primary undergrad institution, Susquehanna University. In the almost 25 years since I graduated in 1993, I have only been back to campus to the best of my knowledge three times, the last of those being more than ten years ago (I think). I did have a brief connection back to SU in 2007 when the University Choir performed in Carnegie Hall and alumni of the choir were offered the opportunity to participate. But we rehearsed (I think) in New York briefly, not on campus. Whatever the case, Susquehanna feels more now like a distant remembrance than anything else, and going back there for a day felt more like a road trip into my happy past, a past that’s more vague impressions than concrete memories.

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The program cover juxtaposed with our listing at the bottom.

That said, when the invitation came to be a part of the alumni choir singing in the candlelight service, once more (perhaps for the last time) under the baton of Maestro Cyril M. Stretansky, I was determined that my RSVP would be a firm nonnegotiable “yes.” For so many of us, Cy was and is more than a conductor.  He is variously a music mentor, friend, mercurial uncle, somewhat distant paternalistic judgmental father figure, and above all a seeker and maintainer of the highest musical standards. To sing under him meant to have no higher commitment than to the choral art. To offer less meant that you didn’t remain in the University Choir.  And believe me, you wanted to be in U. Choir, and working under his baton. To do so allowed you a badge of pride that you could take out and shine when you weren’t too fatigued by sitting straight, silent, and focused for long, long periods of time. I guess I do remember some things, fondly too.

I had driven up to my in-laws on Monday to break up the trip to Central PA, but VA to Upper Darby, PA is 3 ½ hours, and then setting out the following morning for another 3 ½ hour trip through PA’s coal regions in rain and sleet is wearying no matter how you break it up. I drove up the PA turnpike, got off at exit 298 and headed up I-176 to 422 to 61 N, my primary route up to the region. My GPS hated me for taking 61 as there were faster routes, but 61 N had been my route to SU for my entire time there and I wanted the day to be as nostalgic as possible. For much of the next two hours, I drove and gaped at the poverty. Towns like Ashland, St. Clair, and Mt. Carmel, that had been hanging on in the late 80s/early 90s, looked somewhat like post-apocalyptic wastelands. One town (that I won’t name) I came through was almost completely abandoned except for the Wal-Mart and Burger King at the north end, where any and all life seemed to sustain itself. The whole region had an atmosphere of decay and despair, and I couldn’t help feeling saddened by it. Many of these people were the same ones that had desperately opted for a new kind of politics in this most recent presidential election, as was evidenced by numerous lawn signs. This is not a political post and, regardless of one’s point of view, I hope some relief someday comes to this region; it is desperately and obviously needed.

At the northern end of bleakest America is Sunbury, PA, and just around the bridge is dear old SU. Between Sunbury and Selinsgrove is “the strip,” a stretch of highway that serves as the commercial hub outside of small town USA. Many familiar businesses were still hanging on: the skating rink and the motel students went to for “privacy.” Many new businesses and a new mall had become the new normal, and SU and environs no longer felt like the sleepy rural expanse with a Perkins and a tiny mall to while away one’s  weekends, but it was still familiar enough nonetheless. I ventured off the bypass and into the heart of Selinsgrove which (to my eyes) looked relatively calm and the same as it had between 1989 and 1993.

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The massed alumni choir onstage at Weber Chapel. If you can see the person up front looking the wrong way, that’s me! (Photo credit: Emily Scaturo)

I pulled up at the Kind Café, a trendy coffee shop on Market St., and spent the next 90 minutes catching up with one of my dearest friends from the area: Margaret W. Margaret and I had probably not seen one another in twenty years, and she just hasn’t changed. We had sung together in the Susquehanna Valley Chorale and become fast friends. We chatted puppies and politics, music and Colonial Williamsburg, and had a grand re-acquaintance. When it was time to depart the café around 4:30 PM, I was heading to the candlelight service, and she was heading to the SVC tech for their weekend holiday concert. Some things wonderfully truly do not change.

I arrived on SU’s campus just before 5 PM and parked behind Weber Chapel (a place now reserved for faculty and staff, but it was dark and I didn’t see the signs) and headed into Degenstein Center. I had helped to dedicate the theatre in 1993 and it still smelled the same: a combination of claustrophobia and cantankerousness. The first face I saw welcoming me was Meg “Boofer” F. P. The second I saw was Cy’s. I really had come home. Over the next several hours I reacquainted with old friends (Jen, Eric, Meg, Stacy, Rob, Cori) and made some new ones (Arissa, Jack, Judy). I dined on bacon-wrapped figs and roast beef, and sat up front to rehearse O God Beyond All Praising, arr. by alumni Wayne Dietterick, who got caught in New Jersey and couldn’t make it in. When we were ushered into Weber Chapel for our 3 minutes of fame, I stood onstage and gaped and smiled at all the happy memories I had had on that stage. Most of the time, from 7 PM till almost 10 PM, we were seated in the audience for the service. Since it was being taped for local PBS, Susquehanna had pulled out all its finest musical groups, and they all took time to assemble, which made the service run long. But when all was said and done, it was beautiful, moving, and very professional, and I can be very proud of the few intimate moments that I and my fellow alums were allowed to partake in from the stage with our beloved Cyril.

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SU friends reunited (Photo credit: Robb Whitmoyer)

When I got back to the car, gassed up, and headed back to Upper Darby, I was awash in conflicting emotions. I was sad it was over. I was so proud to have participated. I was so grateful to have seen so many old friends. I was fearful that at 81 this was Cy’s musical swansong. Driving back through the desolation of 61, I was awestruck by how beautiful each of the broken coal towns had decorated for the Christmas season. Street lights, full size nativities, seemingly abandoned houses were all aglow in holiday cheer. The grey despair of day had given way to the most beautiful light displays by night. It made me realize how much these people, though feeling abandoned by their country, were still alive in their hope and faith for something better to come. I smiled, I teared up, and I wished them all a Merry Christmas. My time at Susquehanna University had come and gone (again), and while I was saddened by its end, what was most important from my whirlwind experience were the good memories, the rekindled friendships, and the ever-present holding on to hope that somehow SU and its vicinity always seemed to embody and remind me of.  I had gone home; home to SU, home to my past, home to hope.

I wish you all such a place to visit when you need it as well.

Namaste,

Jason

P.S. If you didn’t read my last post, our new book, Mommy Made a Beastie (But I Love Her Anyway) is now available on Amazon! Here’s the link information: https://www.amazon.com/Mommy-Made-Beastie-Love-Anyway/dp/153932723X/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Happy Holidays!

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