A ‘Mary’ Ride with Polio

On April 12 I posted a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to my Facebook account. For those that don’t know, Roosevelt, or FDR, died on April 12, 1945. I tend to honor his “death day” every year as he is personal hero. FDR, it was thought until recently where it’s become something of a debate, was stricken with polio or infantile paralysis in early mid-life and lived the remainder of his life in heavy braces or a wheelchair. What I did not know until this year (thanks Wikipedia) is that Jonas Salk’s treatment for polio was deemed ‘safe and effective’ on April 12, 1955, ten years to the day after FDR passed. At this moment, we live in a world of quarantine, where plague stalks the land, social distancing is the norm, and there is, to date, no certain cure or vaccine for the dreaded Coronavirus that floods our news day and haunts our nightmares. We also live in a world of misinformation, both accidental and intentional, where once thought of common sense practices like vaccinations are hotly contested, and everyone  seems to have a polarized opinion, whether well-informed or not. It makes me wonder what FDR would think of our current crisis. It makes me wonder whether he would have welcomed Salk’s vaccine or eyed it skeptically and dismissively. Sorry, just kidding. I have no doubt, given FDR’s documented struggle with his illness that he would have welcomed and preferred a cure, any cure to being wheelchair bound. Still, his struggle, inching toward a century old, feels like something from the murky past that we can’t touch. Polio is gone and feels almost mythic now doesn’t it? Except when I was growing up I witnessed its effects firsthand.

FDR in braces

FDR in braces

Her name was Mary, and she was one of my Nana’s bingo buddies. In the 1970s from around when I was six to ten years old, Mary, along with a motley assortment of other ‘golden girls’ would pull up in front of my house and whisk my grandmother and I away in a beat up Nova whose color can only be described as vomited forth avocado that someone mixed with glitter. The interior was maroon and torn, the backseat had no seatbelts (safety? Psshaw!), pick up was choppy, and the weight of the car sagged it toward the ground like an overburdened tank. In the back were variously me and my Nana, and Ethel, a woman who looked like her name sounds and who famously if absentmindedly ate plastic fork tines without realizing; and Alice, a red-haired raincloud whose language was loud and salty, and who vaguely resembled Heat Miser. Bertha, the kindly heart of the bunch rode shotgun, except when she drove the group in her own midnight blue Nova. I don’t know what was with the Novas back then; it was a thing. In the driver’s seat was Mary, a pistol of a woman who barely stood 5 feet tall. Mary’s legs were bowed way out and then turned back in on themselves, the result of the aforementioned polio. When she stood and walked she was bowlegged in the extreme and relied on a multi-footed black cane that made the macadam tremble when she lowered its boom. She was kindly, but her face bore the scars of a lifetime of struggling with affliction. At her age she sported what we used to call a ‘bread and butter’ perm. The total effect was one of a stooped, scowling, scrawny wishbone staggering quickly if determinedly towards you wearing a Q-tip on its head. As a driver, looking back she was no less terrifying. Her legs bent in as she sat, the side of one foot worked the brake, the side of the other worked the clutch, and she drove one-handed so she could pound the cane down to slam the accelerator into action. Every week, several nights a week in fact, we took our lives in our hands with her as we drove to bingo halls in Lebanon, Womelsdorf, Robesonia, and Myerstown, PA. We always arrived, though I confess I smashed my face more than a few times into the front seats in an effort to not fly through the windshield. It was the 1970s; that was considered a successful trip. Minor concussions were the price of flight.

It might sound like I’m making fun of Mary, but I promise I’m not. Quite the contrary. I look back on my time in that car, with those gals and my Nana as some of the most happiest of times. I think on Mary, especially of late, and all I see is admiration. This woman had lived a life of struggle and disfigurement, and she was unstoppable. She had lived to see her illness cured, thought eradicated, in those that came after her, but had to live with the knowledge that it had just been too late for her. To my knowledge Mary had married and been widowed, had worked in a factory and retired. She had done it all, and done it with polio; done it with grit, determination, and a cranky perseverance.  What a tough broad. When my Nana died in 1981 my excursions with the gals ended. No more bingo halls, no more Mary. There’s no question in my mind that she’s long dead; doing donuts in the New Jerusalem strip mall parking lot with St. Michael nervously smiling on.

I see people nowadays questioning the best available science. They thwart social-distancing, risk the lives of others with their erratic and self-serving behavior, and just rebelliously want to lead their “normal” public lives regardless of costs to themselves or others. I’m picking on no one in particular here; from ‘millennials’ on a Florida beach to picketers by a Michigan courthouse the mantra is always the same: I know better, I’ll do what I want, I don’t care who I hurt. Me is more important than we.

I wonder how some of these folks would react if they could see a lifetime’s lasting effects  from an illness for which there is (or was at the time) no cure play out on a loved one. Maybe they have, but missed the lesson. I wonder if they could learn to trust science and scientists, medicine and doctors, or would they still know better? I wish no one ill, but I can wish them wisdom. I had Mary. She was a good teacher. I count myself lucky.

Mary was a small, but significant part of my life. She is a window for me into a world long gone but one which could resurface if we don’t learn from the past. She was tough and unlimited. And she drove the country roads like Andretti after a few stiff ones.

I’m glad I knew her. I’m glad I could learn from her.

Thanks, Mary! On the ride of my lifetime, I’m glad you were in my pit crew.

Peace and Pennzoil,

Jason

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Not Mary’s car, but a good approximation, minus the sparkles

The “Best” Dad in the World

My son, John Adams, makes us art all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. He just turned six. We get pictures of trees, flowers, rocks, birds, us, him, our families. You get the idea. It’s all somewhere between beautiful, heartfelt scribble, what is it?, and “now what the hell do I do with this?” We put some on the fridge. We lay away a lot in a box. We get overrun and start the process over. It is quite simply one of the joyous-griefs of parenting.

Recently, I reached for my yellow legal pad and realized I had inserted two of his more current drawings between the pages. I’m certain I did it in a moment of unconscious decluttering desperation. This time I stopped and looked at the pictures. The first picture was a lopsided heart with the inscription, “You are the best dad ever.” The second picture is of him and me walking outside on a sunny day with the words “Dad” and “Beeny” variously strewn about the page. I call him Beanie Bug at home or Beanie for short.  I really looked at his work this time, what he wrote, how he meant it. And I felt loved. And sad. Beanie Art20001

I’m not the best dad. I love him. I care for him often. I am usually the first face he sees in the morning and the second to last face before bedtime. I feed him, clothe him, and shuttle him back and forth to school. And he is with me for almost all of my work commitments. But I do frustrate easily at his unceasing chatter, his imperious self-righteousness, his inability to do for himself, his laziness, his petulance. And I let him know it, often, and in no uncertain terms. “You’re six, long hair. Get a job!”

Beanie Art10001

And yet, he still loves me. I’m the best dad ever. At least, in his eyes, on that day, at that moment. And he drew me a picture to tell me so. I couldn’t love him more, and I am unworthy.

So to all the rest of you out there, in the spirit of Paying it Forward, if you are feeling down about yourself, feeling unworthy of love, here’s some affirmations from our family vernacular to you, to lift your spirits a bit; to remind you that you are worthy of love and affection, even when you’re not meeting your own standard.

You are:

The best piece of chicken…

The longest game of UNO…

The warmest, fuzziest blanket…

The funniest animal video on YouTube…

The last lick of a Tootsie Pop, right before the chewy center, when the candy and Tootsie Roll are blended in your mouth just right…

The bestest hug…

The mightiest superhero…

The softest fur on the friendliest cat…

The kindest face when I first open my eyes in the morning…

And, of course, you are:

Bacon

 

Love and Hugs from the “best” dad,

Jason

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Beanie and I at the Caledon Butterfly release

My Once and Future Passion?

I don’t think any of us really know where it is we’re going to wind up in life, but it’s certainly not where we think we will. When I was 18 I was sure I would be working on Broadway by the age of 25. Then I graduated. And again and again and again. Got married, had a child, moved several times, started various jobs, and…you get the idea. I never got to Broadway. At least not yet.

My relationship with Broadway has been a love/hate one over the years. When I was performing more, had more money to see shows, felt in some way connected to the NY theatre scene, I’ve taken more of an interest in its “doings.’ When I felt dispirited, broke, sick, or just plain didn’t like what I was finding, I would put my interest unconsciously away, just forgetting that it even existed for years at a time.

In 2014, after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with my Theatre MFA, I was full of excitement and hope about my prospects in the business. It didn’t last long. The job market wasn’t great (is it ever for the arts?) and I didn’t find my place in academia (again, at least not yet). I lost interest in Theatre, perhaps due to its lack of immediate interest in me, put my scripts and cast albums away, and turned my attention to my son, my family, my stable church gig, and the education of my students. Through all that time, I’ve felt incomplete somehow, but it somehow seemed in my best interest to turn my attention elsewhere. Cue the last few weeks…

Flower Drum Song

The 1961 movie of Flower Drum Song

For the last few weeks I’ve had a renewed interest in my old love, Broadway, especially musical theatre. I don’t know why it came on. It just did. It started with me deciding to watch Flower Drum Song, the last of the big Rodgers and Hammerstein successes that I was mostly unfamiliar with. That led me to listen to both its cast albums, and then turn my attention to the other lesser known scores of R and H: Allegro, Pipe Dream, and Me and Juliet. I’m currently reading the script for Pipe Dream and I’m sure the other two aren’t far behind. They’re in the pipe line so to speak.

As of this writing, Spotify has become my best friend. I’ve listened to cast albums that I’d never heard before from Brigadoon, The King and I, Pipe Dream, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And I’ve turned my attention further back to the operettas that were never part of my education, but should have been: Babes in Toyland, The Student Prince, and The Desert Song. I’m learning a lot, and hearing a lot I’d never heard before. It’s frankly, thrilling.

Pipe Dream

City Center Encores sings Pipe Dream

I don’t know what brought it on. I don’t know where it’s going or where it will end. But for this moment, this “brief, shining moment” (now I have to listen to Camelot) it’s nice to be in a mental place where I can appreciate the music I once and always loved; the music of my childhood; the music my father and I especially shared. It’s like hearing from an old friend you’ve been mad at but can’t remember why.

Now please excuse me, I’ve got listening to do.

Musically Yours,

Jason

Brigadoon

Kelli O’Hara as Fiona in Brigadoon

New Year, New Haiku (2019 Edition)

Dear Reader,

Happy New Year, 2019. It has been over 5 months since I connected with you. So much in my, and my family’s life, has changed. We live in a new house; we’re closer to our work; I have started a new job with the Stafford Regional Choral Society; Nancy is two chapter revisions away from defending her dissertation; John Adams is in Kindergarten; and there are many smaller, subtler changes and adjustments that have altered our lives since last writing. We are still packing and unpacking. We are still finding our footing in a new home. There has been less than a little time to be creative with the move, and then  into the holidays. But I am still here; we are still here. And I am still dedicated to my blog and my writing. So with that said, please enjoy these new haiku, written over the last few days; the first new writing I’ve done in awhile, and certainly the first writing I’ve done in 2019. Until, next time, thanks for reading, thanks for noticing me, and thanks for being a part of my life, online or other, in 2019.

Blessings, Bounty, and Bacon,

Jason

The New Year’s begun.
Will it bring big surprises,
Or more of the same?

We are our actions.
Inaction is an action,
A choice of no choice.

Character matters.
Your actions and words matter.
Children are watching.

Model behavior
You wish to come back to you,
For it will return.

We have adopted
A white lump of fat some say
Used to be a cat.

Shadow set to spin

The road up is hard.
The road down all too easy.
Which road are you on?

No resolution
Can survive January
Without discipline.

I love New Year’s Day:
We resolve, renewed, hopeful;
Tabula rasa.

A cool blast of change
Blows with a wintry crispness
Across our country.

 

Pray for each other.
Listen to each other.
Love one another.

The family on Christmas Eve, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope this finds you well.

Namaste,

Jason

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Why I get up each day.

Living in the Happy/Sad

I have not blogged in more than two months. There was no concerted plan behind this choice. Life gets busy, inspiration doesn’t strike, the reader stats leave me disappointed, my hands hurt, I choose not to share my thoughts, any and all the above. So much has happened since August when I wrote my last post. The world has gone up and down, awash in political and socio-cultural turmoil. Where will it lead? Who knows.  My life has felt like it’s been on a similar roller coaster, emotional and otherwise. Every perceived good has a down side; every happy moment is laced with the dewy-eyed veneer of sadness. Here are three examples from recent memory:

One:Our house had two trees crash into it in April. Many readers, friends, and family know this. The trees tore the front parts of the roof and siding off, ruined the storm door, iron railings, and shrubbery. For the six months that followed I went into our property management office (we rent) and politely requested that something be done, and for the better part of six months I was told that there was nothing that could be done until the owner chose to do something. He had the trees removed two weeks after the storm, but everything else waited for five months: waited for him to settle with his insurance, collect a fat check, and then repair our rental as cheaply as possible. When the repairs were finally completed two weeks ago, his handymen left trash and building materials all over our lawn. Again I requested, politely, that this long nightmare be finished. Come get your trash and let’s be done with it. Last week they did, and the repairs were completed and the ordeal was over. Happy, right? And then this week he had the rental office send a strongly worded letter to us complete with “spy” photos, wherein someone came on the property to document all the things he didn’t like about the way we were maintaining his property. Maintenance of our grounds had fallen by the wayside while we waited for repairs to be completed, it’s true, and he seized on every detail. Including some furniture we had moved out of the house after being gifted new pieces by a relative. To be fair, the maintenance requests are not unreasonable, and they are our responsibility. But the timing could only be interpreted one way: we had forced his hand  – albeit politely – to complete necessary repairs before winter, and so, purely out of spite, he was going to throw his weight around to show us whose property it is. Oh, and he raised our rent, before beginning repairs! We are happy the long process of repairs is complete. However, despite our best efforts to be gracious and patient, we still evoked the wrath of our elderly cheap ass miser of an owner, and we now need to contend with that.

James the Train 2017

James the Tank Engine goes Halloweening

Two: Once again, I was unable to be with my son on Halloween. This is three years running that he has gone trick-or-treating without me. It’s not that I didn’t have a choice in the matter; Nancy and I were home on Halloween. But our home, along route 301, has no neighborhood to take him into. So every year, we farm him up to his grandparents outside Philly to maximize his candy quotient. Photos and video come back to us of our little boy being Halloween Boss, running up and down the street, knocking on doors, exclaiming, “Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat!” in one deliciously semi-incoherent sentence chain of candied ecstasy. He has the time of his life while we sit at a distance watching him make a ‘best’ memory. I begrudge neither him nor his grandparents anything, and we wouldn’t send him unless we knew he would have a better time up north, which he does. It makes me happy to see he and his grandparents create such a joyous memory. And sad that Nancy and I are not a part of the experience..

Halloween 2017

Halloween 2017. Goodbye, til tomorrow

Three: Mary Anne, Nancy’s sister, got in her little red car on November 1 and drove to Florida to begin a new life there. For six years she lived in and around Fredericksburg, the only family we had in the area. But a few weeks, ago the last of the ties holding her to this area were severed, and it became apparent that it was time for her to move her life forward in new ways in a new location. We helped her pack her goods. We housed her off and on for two weeks. Fed her. Oh, we fed her. And then the last night came, and she and Nancy cried. And then that morning, with Nancy off to work, it was my goodbye, and a hug, and a stoic I Love You, and I silent stance at the door, and then she drove off to new horizons as our house fell silent. The time was right, and we couldn’t be prouder of her that she’s finally going off on her own in pursuit of her dreams. Only time will tell if Florida is the right fit, but the intent is on target, and we back her 100%. Still, watching her drive off, knowing how much my son loves her, knowing she’ll be alone, knowing we won’t be in contact near as much, is bittersweet, you know. Happy/Sad.

Yeah, that’s the way the last few months have gone. Here’s hoping in the weeks ahead there’s more of the former and less of the latter.

And I wish that for you too as well.

Namaste,

Jason

Nazis I Have Known

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

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

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

And then she added with venomous emphasis…

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

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

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

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

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

Auf wiedersehen,

Jason

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.

Me as Santa

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!

Going Home

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

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The program cover juxtaposed with our listing at the bottom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SU friends reunited

SU friends reunited (Photo credit: Robb Whitmoyer)

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

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

Namaste,

Jason

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

Happy Holidays!

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