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.

16708691_10101429916093542_8492689647889377077_n

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.

16711897_10101429621429052_5006493244878917242_n

“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

16711907_10101437504296722_5400415159369005668_n

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.

the-nix-at-rest

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.

img_2711

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

picture-103a

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.

peanut-soup

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

red-pepper-bisque

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

img_2872

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.

dsc01442

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

A Toddler’s Guide to Manifesting

Some time ago John Adams was given a green balloon. He loved his balloon and kept it on his bed every night for safe keeping. He and I would bat it back and forth as a preliminary way to learn how to play catch. A helium-filled balloon is not going to move fast through the air, a slowly deflating one even less so. But its slow speed was just right for a three-year old learning how to catch a ball, or throw. We spent literally hours batting the deflating green balloon back and forth while sitting on his bed while he giggled ecstatically at his ability to catch his green, airborne, slo-mo ball.

When the green balloon finally deflated beyond repair he insisted on keeping it on his bed for several weeks thereafter. He openly wept several times over its inability to fly, or our inability to play with it anymore (although he refused to allow either of us to reinflate it). A long piece of ribbon with a deflated bulbous husk, he would pull it off the bed, twirl the ribbon, but the balloon didn’t refill. It would plop unsatisfying-ly onto the bed, and a frustrated toddler would well up, and a daddy would have to console the survivor that a new balloon could be found and order would be restored again to the galaxy.

A few weeks went by, and the green death was finally forgotten. Nancy and I seized the opportunity to discard the corpse. Then out of the blue – or wherever toddlers get their notions – John Adams looked at us one Sunday and stated that he wanted another balloon. He was earnest. We were going to church, but promised him we would try to find him one thereafter. We did the church thing, and then decided on a whim to go to IHO P for breakfast. Our young waitress, Jamie, was taken with the little guy, and they exchanged more than a few playful moments. He did his “bag of tricks” for her; she was enchanted, and headed off to do her work. She then returned quite abruptly and looked at us semi-seriously and said, “Don’t forget to get him his balloon on the way out.” In hindsight, I was less stunned than I should have been.

manifesting-silliness

John Adams and I manifesting silliness.

Behind the front counter where we paid the check was a cache of variously colored balloons from a previous promotion. They were giving them away to children upon request, and John Adams was requesting. It took him only a moment to blurt out that his new friend was to be “Yellow, please!” The well-meaning host tried unsuccessfully to tie it several times to his wrist, but he likes to “hoed it,” so with Mommy’s guidance his new yellow friend made it safely to our car and home to his bed for batting practice where it presently, lovingly resides.

The late Dr. Wayne Dyer repeatedly said a few things about the art of manifesting. 1) You have to let go of the past. 2) You have to leave your ego and insecurities behind and know that you are worthy of abundance. 3) You have to have a “knowing” of what you want, and hold that vision without fear of failure. 4) You have to detach yourself from outcome. Many of these lessons resonated with me over the incident of the balloons. Only when John Adams had made peace with the loss of the green balloon was he ready to receive a new one. Like most toddlers, he doesn’t know what an ego is yet, but he knows he is the Center of the Universe and worthy of his heart’s desire. He knew exactly what he wanted and was prepared for its arrival in his world. And he didn’t know the manner of its arrival, but he knew it would show up. And show up it did.

manifest-your-destiny

Dr. Wayne Dyer’s book, Manifest Your Destiny

Dr. Dyer and his family reportedly used the art of manifesting with great success. I believe – in this instance at least – my son did too. I believe we’re all capable of bringing that which we desire into our lives through letting go of the past, ego-less love, detachment, and persistence of vision. So whatever green husk of hot air has blustered into your life today, know that it will deflate and, once released and forgotten, it can be replaced by something even better. Through the powers of a selfless knowing love, detachment, and persistence, peace can be restored to your galaxy too.

You just gotta believe.

Namaste,

Jason

2016 – A Personal Review

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

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

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

15697717_917941850535_8857444136354162883_n

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.

13726623_886732738845_372323461180148667_n

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

15697605_918166804725_7636965722685145877_n

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

But I Repeat Myself aka “I Love Repetition!”

I have errands to run, places to go, things to do. I usher my son John Adams out of the house into “Daddy’s Car.” He has Best Friend Blankie in one hand and his cherished blue juice cup in the other. I open the door for him and hold his stash while he climbs in. I strap him in, hand him juice cup and BFB and go around to my side to get in and drive. I start the car and a voice from the back seat commands, “I want my Nabi!” A cold chill runs down my spine. “How do we ask?” I say simply, wearily. “I want my Nabi please,” comes the response, a touch contrite, but no less an edict from the authorities. I reach next to me on the passenger’s seat and reluctantly hand back the red and white children’s iPad that contains all of John Adams’s videos and learning games. “No innernet in the car,” he says as a reminder mantra to us both. “That’s right. No internet in the car,” I say. With that, conversation ceases, and as I’m backing the car out of our driveway I get my last moment of silence before I’m slammed with the raucous sound of “coustic” guitars, bagpipes, and seemingly angry Celtic vocals. No longer a jaunty adventure mobile shared between Bup and Daddy, the car has been transformed into a Groundhog Day-esque hellscape where only two songs by my son’s currently favorite band, Enter the Haggis, are played over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again!!! My son is three and we like repetition. Loudly!

img_2271

Playing the “violin” is serious business guys!

In fact, we took the train ride to Repetition Station over a year and a half ago when he discovered Thomas the Tank Engine. There were other cartoons before that – Tillie Knock Knock, Color Crew, Sesame Street – but when Thomas pulled into his life it was love at first chuff, and we have yet to let the boiler grow cold. And so, since that time I have been deluged in Thomas lore, repeating episode collections like Curious Cargo and Thomas and the Runaway Kite over ad nauseum until both Nancy and I can do the dialogue in our sleep. And it’s an interesting and curious thing how the mind works. I find that, one, since I have had to watch it to make him happy, over the long haul I’ve started to appreciate and even like it despite having no initial interest in the cartoon. And, two, again because of the repetition, I’ve found myself curiously drawn to the nuances of the show, often speculating on the timeline of episodes, and of certain island practices that occur with either regularity or normalcy. I confess I have looked up “Thomas the Tank Engine” and related articles on Wikipedia to deepen my experience of the show. (blush) I have – in the comfort of my own home – asked questions like:

  1. Why does Sir Topham Hatt always have two cronies flanking him that never speak, but always seem to be on the lookout for trouble?
  2. What really is the geography of the Island of Sodor?
  3. Why do the train engineers have no authority over their engines? Are they even necessary? They never speak either? Are they enslaved?
  4. Why are diesels generally considered “bad” except for a couple of token “good ones?” What’s that about?
  5. Who really owns the train line? Variously Sir Topham Hatt, Sir Percival, and the Earl of Sodor have all claimed vague ownership in episodes? Do they have a monopoly on transportation that prevents competition?

You get the point.

img_2309

John Adams posing with his dear friend, Percy.

Well, actually, my larger point is that, like it or not and often in spite of our selves, repetition is a powerful learning tool that can create both interest and an awareness of the depth of the subject that is not perceived by cursory experience. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, considering the lambasting and de-emphasis that repetition is taking in current educational theory. When I was in school we repeated patterns all the time: word lists, clock faces, multiplication tables, state capitals and the like. True, these were often boring exercises, but I can’t argue with the results. Drilling something actually works. I know it’s not fun, but I’m not sure how the children of tomorrow are supposed to deeply and critically think about a subject for which they have no previous knowledge committed to memory. Unless, of course, we assume that every conversation is connected to the Internet at all times, and we all know how reliable that is for providing only accurate information! Many young people I meet  – not all – can’t spell (“Spell check will do it for me.”), can’t do simple math (“We use calculators in class.”), don’t know the history or geography of their own country (“Well, if I need to know that stuff, I just look it up on my phone!”), and the list goes on.

I’m reminded of the story of naturalist John Muir, how he had the entire New Testament committed to memory, chapter and verse, and large portions of the Old Testament as well. It’s true his father forced him to do so, often with the threat of physical violence, but that aside, the stories of the way he could juxtapose the beauty of nature with his knowledge of the Bible are legendary; that wellspring of memorized verse gave him a unique, unrivaled, educated perspective that served him for his entire life and made him an intellectual force to be reckoned with. I don’t advocate the beatings, but I do see the merit to the memorization, and I worry that without even basic memorized knowledge, a person can’t really think deeply and critically about a subject, even if they think they can.  For myself, I maintain five poems that I have committed to memory and I’m very proud of that fact. And, yes, it was hard work, and was not fun to do. But the pride I feel at being able to rattle off a Frost or a Dickinson offsets the time spent in the rote learning. And that takes me back to my son playing “Turn it Up” and “King’s Daughters” over and over again in the car.

He sits in the car seat and watches the instrumentalists and sings along, and plays his “air guitar” and his “air violin” and he wants a “white ‘lectric guitar” for Christmas because “they do loud, right?” His interest, his repetition of the same, is driving me insane, but it’s stirring and cultivating something deep inside him. His three-year-old mind knows what’s best for its learning process. Now isn’t that a curious notion? I wonder at what age we lose that insight; puberty maybe? But for now he’s learning, he’s deepening his appreciation for the subject, be it Thomas or Haggis or what have you, and who knows where that will lead next. And my job as Daddy is to support and nurture his interest in all things, even if that means repetitively. (sigh) So my car drives on, and I’m slowly losing my mind to a Celtic beat, but at least I’ll go insane with a smile on my face.

The road goes ever on and on…and on…and on…

img_24001

Caught in the act of playing his “violin.” The Nabi sits on the sofa streaming Enter the Haggis videos!

Namaste,

Jason

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

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.

photo

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.

15393004_10210572973135105_4286184170042730044_o

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

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

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

SU friends reunited

SU friends reunited (Photo credit: Robb Whitmoyer)

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

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

Namaste,

Jason

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

Happy Holidays!

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.

beastie-cover

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.

saki-and-her-cover

‘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

bup-and-saki-cropped

‘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.

img_2013

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.

img_2030

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.

img_2092

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