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!

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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.

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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…

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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 

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

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

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Cover art by Michelle McNally, cover design by Maryann Brown

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

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

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

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‘Saki in her ‘Cover pose.’

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

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

Love Anyway,

Jason

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

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

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‘Saki and John Adams – BFFs

A Boy and His Cat(s)

I have written a lot about my son lately (My Son, The Train and My Son, The Birthday Train), but there are many other good things going on in my life, and in the world all around. I’m going to focus on some of those events next post, but for now I need to spend a few lines chewing on the special and unique relationship that my son, John Adams, has with his second best friend – his best friend after all is his blanket known as Best Friend Blankie or BFB for short – that black and white whirlwind of chaos with which he is growing up: his kid sister, Criseyde, or as we call her mostly, ‘Seyde. (Pronounced: “Say-duh”)

John Adams, who just turned three on September 11, has grown up surrounded by cats. The day he came home from the hospital he was sniffed, looked over, avoided at all costs, and given ‘the stink eye’ by any and all of the three cats that resided with us at his birth. Two of our cats, Duke and The Nix, chose to be wary of the little tyke upon arrival and, though each has mellowed some in their affections toward his rambunctiousness, maintain to this day a respectful distance when Bup (as we call John Adams) chooses to assert himself in their direction. The fact that he now assists in their nightly feeding has softened their attitudes considerably, but the guard is still up. Our third cat – the elderly, perennially irritated by everything tuxedo cat known as Kisaki – was far more inquisitive and hands on.

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Infant John Adams watched over by “Mama” ‘Saki on their changing table

‘Saki, you see, was Nancy’s cat from kitten to grave, and dearly possessive of her mama. In fact, it was ‘Saki that firstly and correctly predicted Nancy’s pregnancy by climbing onto Nancy’s belly (an unheard of move for Her Curmudgeonliness), and staring into Nancy’s heart with the look of ‘What the hell have you done to us now?’ upon her face. When Bup arrived, she would be the last one to concede that he had earned a place in the family. Far from avoiding Bup, she went out of her way to maintain her status as Nancy’s Number One Child, as numerous family photos attest. And as the year they spent together went on (for ‘Saki eventually succumbed to illness and old age), we watched the jealousy morph into a grudging respect, then love, then finally a kind of beautiful maternal bond before the end. It was obvious to us that ‘Saki, perhaps sensing her own mortality, chose to put her last best efforts of love into the custody of her baby brother, and right before the end they seemed inseparable. Somehow this bond of love has never been forgotten, for two years later there remains on John Adams’s bed a prized little black and white stuffed cat with beautiful eyes that, if you ask him who that is, he holds her up and beams, “That’s ‘Saki!” Children sense love when they don’t understand words, and these two earned a love that remains unexplainably in his memory, if transferred to a stuffed likeness. ‘Saki was gone shortly after Bup turned one, but she’s never been forgotten. How is that possible?

Enter Criseyde.

In so many ways, ‘Seyde came into our lives as a therapeutic rebound from the loss of ‘Saki. Nancy was adamant almost immediately upon ‘Saki’s death that we needed to find a new “tuxy” to succeed the beloved ‘Saki, so that she could pour the attentions of her heart into a newfound love, rather than wallow in the long night of remorse. We went up to King George Animal Control the day after ‘Saki’s death, and there was this loudmouthed, pushy, affectionate tuxedo kitten that seemed to call deliberately and adamantly to Nancy from the room next to where we were. She also immediately took to the infant John Adams’s squealish advances, and a second visit a few days later produced similar results. Criseyde entered our lives just a few short days later, as if she had chosen Nancy and John Adams for her own, and I was along for the ride to feed her voracious appetite. Little of that has changed in the ensuing two years.

'Ceyde upon arrival and 1 year later

‘Ceyde upon arrival and 1 year later

But what has grown considerably is the bond that John Adams and ‘Seyde share as siblings growing up together, both babies turned toddlers. She desires to be with him, sleep with him, and race about the house with him with abandon, till his own 3-year old boyish tendencies prove to be too wild. Then she heads for high ground to let him cool down. He won’t let her sleep with him (yet), but he must constantly know her whereabouts, beams when she comes near him, feeds her nightly, insists she come up on the bed and sit with him when he wakes up, and romps about the house chasing after her after announcing, “I’m gonna go play with my cat!” He loves her, if sometimes a bit too roughly, but her tolerance of his energetic affection is quite remarkable.

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‘Ceyde and Bup on the sofa with Best Friend Blankie between them

And, yes, like all siblings they have their share of spats, mostly as I said, because of Bup not understanding yet how to properly channel his affections in her direction. When he gets too rough with her, or scares her in any way, she consistently gives him at least two warning meows before proceeding to more corporal means of admonishment. In one now infamous family incident, Nancy and I from another room heard the meows, then Bup’s yelp of pain. When we arrived in the living room he was standing holding his arm while less than 2 feet away ‘Seyde sat on a small hassock glaring back at him. As we entered he pointed at her and bellowed, “No. You not gonna cut me! Ever again!” And Nancy and I, bemused and dismayed, could hear the sounds of Social Services knocking about our ears. He had gotten too rough, she had educated him, and ten minutes later they were the best of friends again on the sofa. Such is the almost daily dynamic in our household.

As a boy, I grew up surrounded by dogs, big and little. I love that about my upbringing and want to add dogs into our home as soon as we have a fenced in yard and a home that doesn’t restrict pets. I always think of dogs as ‘man’s best friend’ as the saying goes, but in the instance of my son, circumstances and serendipity have proven otherwise. In his case – Best Friend Blankie excepted, of course – his best friends have proven to be two black and white beauties. One that grew to love and nurture him as a baby before she crossed over, and one to grow up with and educate him in the ways of gentleness, play, and affection. What little boy could ask for more?

Namaste,

Jason

Kisaki, the Empress

Kisaki, the Empress. Remember me.

Onward and Upward (My 100th Blog Post)

I can’t believe this milestone has arrived. 100 posts! Back in April of 2015, I decided to revitalize my blog with the announcement “I’m Still Here.” I had been inactive for months, what with the care and maintenance of John Adams plus life, and I hadn’t done much writing. But after months of inactivity, I decided to jump back in the saddle and try to kick start my blog. There have been fits and starts of creativity and exhaustion, but after months of sticking it out, here it is: 100.

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“What’s that you said? 100 Blog posts! You have got to be kidding me!!!”

Over the last year I’ve renewed my passion for writing, for poetry, for blogging, and for reaching out. I love to write things that make people think , that informs them of the good in the world, that shares something of my life in a way that might illuminate something in someone else’s. To that end, I’m re-branding my blog as of today. No longer “An introspective journal for spiritual growth,” but rather “A Journal of Joy, the Arts, Wellness, Parenting, and Personal Growth.” I want to inspire people, raise them up, and give them hope. I want to be a light in the dark, not the latest rant on Facebook. I want to make people laugh, cry, and think. I want to help people lead better lives, not remind them of the problems we all face. We already know.

Going forward I will continue to write about my personal experiences, my son John Adams, and my family. It’s what I know. I will include poetry, especially haiku of course, and I want to start including recipes, guest blogs, and other pieces of wisdom that promote better living. No extensive change here, just expansion. I want to stress that this will be the same Reflections from Shangri-La that you have read. I just want to expand the scope, hopefully net wider readership, and in turn, help more people any way that I can.

This last year has been one of some wonderful successes and milestones for my life and my family. My wife did a one-month teacher training fellowship in Kalamazoo on Beowulf through the National Endowment of the Humanities. My son has just turned three. I was a guest blogger for the first time on www.businessinrhyme.com . I just learned that one of my favorite poems, “My Greatest Treasure,” will be included in the Fall issue of Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review (more on this as it develops). I’m participating in the First Annual Fredericksburg Independent Book Festival this weekend, and reading both Daddy Doesn’t Purr (But I Love Him Anyway)and our forthcoming book Mommy Made a Beastie (But I Love Her Anyway) in their Kid’s Corner. And my arrangement, “God Rest Ye Jazzy Gentlemen” is being premiered by the area choral ensemble The Spotsylvanians. Much to be proud of, much to blog about, and much to inspire with, and bring hope to others. My life is far from perfect, with many struggles and woes, but there is also much to be thankful for. And that it what I wish to focus on here and share with you. This year alone, Reflections has had over 1,000 views from some 750 people. Two posts—“The Boy Who Lived” and “Still Wild About Hank”—have had over 100 views each. If you are still reading this, you are among those numbers and I can’t thank you enough for supporting my efforts, reading my thoughts, liking my posts, and being a part of my online life.

So here’s looking ahead to 2017, to post 200, and to all of the good things we can share and accomplish together.

Thank you again and see you next post.

Namaste,

Jason

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My son, father-in-law, and I celebrating 100 Blog posts…Not!

My Son, the Birthday Train

It’s a unique and wonderful experience raising a train: The constant coupling up and getting dragged around the house by your shirt (because you have to be the caboose); the “Woo wooing” that goes on till way past midnight from the bedroom, to say nothing of the ‘saying goodnight to every train in the bed/shed routine’ of which there are easily over forty (FORTY!); the ‘train farts’ that sound like a loud “chush,” need to be announced proudly, and always come with a giggle. It’s unique, wonderful, noisy, and exhausting. These days my cow-catcher is always sagging a bit if you know what I mean. Don’t know? Don’t worry. He’ll tell you. It’s a train thing.

On Sunday, September 11, my son John Adams, the train, turned three years old. There were vestiges of speeches, red, white, and blue bunting, fireworks, and “Never forget” signs everywhere. He’s quite sure these were reminders about his birthday. After all, Thomas is blue and James is red, and it all must connect back to him somehow. His day started bright and early at the church where Nancy and I work. My choir was singing, and his grandparents decided to attend so we could be together. In the midpoint of the service is a congregational offering called Joys and Concerns, where parishioners can get up and share their…well, you get the idea. Nanny decided to bring John Adams up to announce his birthday into the microphone. Instead, he squawked loudly into it, got an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd, beamed like an idiot, and smacked the mike on its boom stand till it spun in a circle. He was then led away in amusement and mock horror by Nanny. He had his center stage spotlight, his public birthday moment of glory, and he relished it like a fiend.

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A boy and his train carpet. Photo Credit: Mary Anne Furey

His afternoon visit to the indoor play area at the Spotsylvania Towne Center Mall was surprisingly festive and uneventful, and wiped him out for the late afternoon/early evening, but by 6 PM the ‘little engine that could and will’ was raring for presents and playtime at home with his extended family. A full-size train table from sitter Miss Susan, a train carpet from his “Uncle” Mary Anne, a 40-piece Thomas puzzle, more train minis (some of which glowed), plus other puzzles, matching games, Play-doh play sets, and train spirals were a huge hit with the candied-up toddler-train. And then the cake and cupcakes piled in courtesy of Nanny, and decorated by both Nanny and John Adams himself, to look just like (mostly) Thomas. In his words, “It smells delicious.”    We blew out our candles several times, sang Happy ‘Bursday’ more than once, ate messily, and ran around uncontrollably as only a sugared up three-year old can.

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Thomas Cake and Cupcakes, as decorated by Nanny and “The Bup.” Photo Credit: Mary Anne Furey

When the party was over and bed was upon him, John Adams placed more than a dozen trains into his Clifford backpack, carried it into his room, and dumped his new and old friends onto his bed to settle into an hour’s worth of regaling them with adventures from his big day. Nancy and I, in bed and amused, listened quietly as he spoke to each of his trains – Old Ninety, 475, 89, “Sugar Day”, and many others. There was “woo wooing” and coupling up, dumping trains out of the Charlie Brown lunchbox and replacing others back in the same. About forty-five minutes after crawling into bed the sugar train started to crash, the shed-bed started to get quiet for the night, and each little steamie settled itself down to dream of new adventures, candy, bacon, Play-doh, puzzles, and what it’s like to be a big diesel versus a little steamie.

Such is the life of my three-year old who fancies himself a train.

Happy Birthday, my boy, my train, my John Adams.

Here’s to many, many more days hitting the tracks and riding the rails.

Love,

Daddy

P.S. In case you missed it, my first ever Guest Blog Post, “The Healing Power of Haiku,” was published on September 12 on www.businessinrhyme.com. I’m deeply grateful to Maja Todorovic for this wonderful new opportunity. Please check it out, and check out all the other wonderful content and guest posts on her site.

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Third Birthday Selfie. Photo Credit: Nancy Michael

My Son, the Train

My son is a train. I know how it happened. I know when it happened. I know who did it to him. But none of that changes the fact that my son is a train. More than a year ago, his grandparents – Nancy’s parents – took our sweet, blond-haired, blue-eyed baby human boy to the Strasberg Railroad in Lancaster County, PA. They left him ride in a car coupled up to an old black steam engine called Old Ninety. They took him in the Thomas the Train Gift Shop and got him a present. Then they took him home to their place, and thought it had been a nice day. A cute, once in a lifetime (or every few years) experience for a small boy. They thought nothing more of it. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

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John Adams and Pop Pop posing with beloved Old 90 at Strasberg Railroad

It’s been going on two years now, and my son is a train. He “woo woos” and “chugga chuggas” around the house. He couples up with his parents and grandparents with a resounding “da-doom!” He watches (for hours) videos of trains – steamies and diesels – on the Nabi, or kids iPad, that his grandparents got for him whenever we go in the car. We have at least six motorized Thomas and Friends engines and their respective coal cars that zip under our sofa in fear and despair. He has at least thirty Steam Team “minis” that he plays with religiously and knows all, ALL, their names! Not a day goes by that Thomas isn’t on our TV, learning how to be “really useful” and getting smacked around by railroad owner-manager and iron-fisted mob boss Sir Topham Hat. Occasionally, it’s Chuggington or Dino-Trains, but most days, hours, minutes. It’s THOMAS!!! Making tracks to new destinations.

Mr. Perkins, the live-action engine driver that serves as a comic relief pitcher between Thomas episodes, feels like an old family friend that comes over for a visit, but never leaves. He’s constantly on the phone with Sir Topham Hatt, (and always shocked by this) sweeps up the Engine Driver’s Common Room, washes dishes, can’t get a vacation, works on his days off (Thanks, Boss Hatt) and makes cakes that look like Thomas the Train. John Adams’s Nanny has already bought the cake pan and, rest assured, next week when our son-turned-train turns three on Sept. 11, he will do so with a Thomas shaped cake as well as Thomas cupcakes. John Adams decided this mind you, and Nanny willingly complied.

We sleep in Thomas jammies, we wear Thomas shirts, we pee in Thomas pull-ups, we eat from Thomas plates. I am reminded of my own stint with Under-roos, but I was more culturally diverse, you see. I ranged from Spider-Man to Yoda  proudly and without irony. I could wear a Superman sleep shirt with Batman underwear and not feel conflicted. Not so my son. And as for Strasberg, well, he’s there again today for his umpteenth time. We have all lost count. He has been to “Day Out with Thomas” there three times! He visits Old Ninety like an old friend. He watches eagerly as the trains couple up. He names the parts – boiler, cow catcher, funnel – with ease. His grandparents lament that they didn’t purchase a season pass. The people that work at Strasberg recognize him and call him by name, like Norm from Cheers. That’s how frequently he is there. He fancies himself to be Sir Topham Hat, and at two years old no one can tell him different. He is the boss of the place.

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Astride Thomas at Strasberg Railroad

All kidding aside, my son, not quite three, has a tremendous imagination. He talks in first person both to and as his trains. He has voices for each one of them, and holds real if simple conversations. We hear him in his bed rallying the team before slumber, and sometimes stifle the heartiest of laughs while eavesdropping. Nancy and I have voices that we must do when we are his trains – Old 90 is a wise Southern-drawled streamie from Strasburg, Charlie of Thomas fame must laugh before each sentence, Gordon sounds a bit like pompous Stan Smith from American Dad – and the list goes on. As the child of actor parents he has picked up our gift of voices and when he does his trains they often have distinct dialects of their own from out of his head. The whole thing is as wonderful as it is exhausting. Sit on a hard wood floor for hours at a time, trying to second guess the hyper-imaginative needs of a two-year old and you’ll see what I mean.

Next Sunday my little steamie will turn three. I couldn’t be prouder of him. He is handsome and headstrong; intelligent and healthy. He has gifted me with his love for almost three years, and with that gift have come the additional presents of play and imagination.  I didn’t play much in the years prior to his arrival. And I pretty much saved my imagination for onstage, where I liked to be paid for its usage. My little man has changed all that, at least for the time being. And I’ve laughed and loved a lot more as a result.

Yes, my son is a train. Nancy gave birth to a 7 pound steamie that day, complete with coal car, and pink tiny, shiny caboose.  Maybe someday, like Pinocchio, he’ll have aspirations of turning into a Real Boy. But I don’t see that day coming anytime soon. So if you happen to see my son next week for his birthday, make sure to give him a hearty Happy Birthday Woo Woo from you. And as for me, I’ll probably be hovering somewhere near the edge of the tracks trying to make myself “Really Useful.”

Oh, the indignity!!!

Jason

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John Adams with his idol, Sir Topham Hat, at Day Out with Thomas at Strasberg Railroad.

Okay, I’ll Hold Your Dinosaur

Last Saturday afternoon, after my third book signing through the Central Rappahannock Library System, I decided to treat myself and go to see Independence Day: Resurgence. You might say that’s not much of a treat, but in truth the movie wasn’t as bad as critics have made it out to be, and it was nice to revisit some fond acquaintances after a twenty-year gap. Ah, the power of franchise. Anyway, when the movie got out around 8 PM, I stepped into the men’s room for a moment of relief, and on my way out heard the following reply uttered by a slightly frazzled father tailing his young son as they were entering the Gents:

“Okay, I’ll hold your dinosaur.”

I caught the hand-off (without stopping) between the 7 to 9-year-old and his dad and headed out of the movie theater. I made the 1,000 or so foot walk to my car, opened the car door, sat down, turned on the AC, and started weeping.

For the last several weeks, I’ve seen relatively little of my son, John Adams. It was agreed that after Nancy accepted her NEH Fellowship to go to Kalamazoo, MI for a month to study Beowulf and Viking Sagas, that her parents and I would split the time into four one week stays, alternating who was caring for the little guy, so that the pressures of managing a feisty two-year old wouldn’t become overwhelming. I was to have weeks 2 and 4, my in-laws 1 and 3. This would also allow me to get some writing and composition work done in their absence. It was the ideal plan, and now nearing the end of it I know was the right thing to do for us all.

In practice, however, the split didn’t work out as evenly as expected, and each time he went north to Philly he didn’t actually come home over the weekend, but rather – due to best available travel arrangements – on the Tuesday afterward. This meant that instead of me spending a week with him, we only spent four days together before he headed north again. And during Week 2, with our shortened period together, I pushed so hard to get in as many good times for he and I as possible that I made myself sick, and spent the following week alone, at home, and in bed with a cold.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining about the way things worked out. His grandparents love him dearly and are hungry for as much time with him as possible, and I, in turn, appreciated the extra time to write, compose, and recover from illness, but I guess, sitting in my car at that moment, after hearing those words from that exhausted dad, I realized that in a month I was only spending eight days around my little man, only getting eight days of playtime, and dirty diapers, and pounces, and chicken legs, and naps, and “no, don’t do that’s,” and it just made me sad. We all have to make sacrifices sometimes for our careers, and by far, Nancy’s is the greatest sacrifice of all – not seeing her family for a month – but the moment also made me hyper-aware that special moments with our families are fleeting and, once gone, can never be recovered. It’s easy to forget that when you’re on a schedule and your son blows out his diaper with the car running and the clock ticking.

I’m writing this on the morning of Weds. July 12, and John Adams is still sound asleep in bed. I picked him up last evening at Maryland House on I-95 from his loving grandparents. By the time we got home last night, he was tired and wired. He needed to play drums, watch Thomas the Train, eat fruit snacks, sit on “Mama’s bed,” pounce on Daddy, FaceTime Nancy, and then it was off to sleep at midnight no less. Nancy comes home Saturday evening, and today is Day Six of the total of eight days that John Adams and I will spend together this month before our entire family is reunited at last. I want it to be special, to be memorable, to be full of love between father and son. At the very least, I know that if he asks (and I hope he will) there’s at least one answer that I can give with all the love in my heart:

“Okay, I’ll hold your dinosaur.”

Submitted with Love,

Jason

Bup and Daddy at Lake Anna

John Adams and I at Lake Anna during Week Two

Slugging It Out At Susquehanna

“A person’s a person, no matter how small. ” – Dr. Seuss

            At some point of the fall of 1990, in the moonlight at Susquehanna University, outside the front steps of Degenstein Dining Hall, I was bent down over the sidewalk watching a newfound friend make his way across the concrete. I had been watching him for more than fifteen minutes as he slowly, laboriously, bravely made his way from one patch of manicured lawn to the other divided by the exposed, cold, gray expanse of man-made construction, and was utterly fascinated by his journey. As he proceeded on his little odyssey of exploration he left a well-defined, glisteningly beautiful breadcrumb trail…of slime. Yes, I am talking about a slug that measured all of four inches in length, who happened to cross a three-foot stretch of sidewalk on a cool fall night. And, yes, it was magical.

The moonlight caught the little trail of slime and lit it up not unlike the lunar runic alphabet hidden in Thorin’s map that can only be viewed on Durin’s Day by the same light…you get the idea. Point is, the slime trail glowed and glistened on the sidewalk behind this little fellow. It was his artistic legacy, and it was magical, personal, and ephemeral. My “newish” girlfriend, L, stood hunched over me as I sat transfixed watching this little miracle of creation break new ground for all slug kind. She was skeptical and a wee bit squeamish, but also gracious as she could see how captivated I was.  Truth be told, I think she thought  I was a little bit crazy laying down on the ground to watch a slug crawl across a sidewalk when there were other things we could be doing. But we hadn’t been dating that long, she was inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, and I was in Theatre. And “theatre people” just do crazy things, right?

After watching this little miracle for about ten minutes, my freshman year roommate of a few weeks staggered up to us to see what all the fuss was. I don’t even remember his name. He had been assigned to be my roommate when we arrived at Susquehanna, but had moved out after only a few days, deciding instead to seek lodging with one of the fraternities on campus that he was later planning to pledge. Now in our mutual sophomore year, he was a recent brother of his fraternity of choice, more than a little cocky from his new association, and buzzed more often than sober. Such was social frat life at SU on the weekends (and some weekdays) in the 1990s. Ah, well.

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After a few moments of asking us what we were doing, scoffing at the answers, and squinting at the sidewalk through his booze haze, my former roommate did the unthinkable: he stepped forward and with one harsh motion of one foot deliberately and maliciously smashed the little trailblazer into the sidewalk, spreading his exposed guts everywhere and branding the sidewalk with the luminous blotch of a murder scene that I’ve never been fully able to get out of my head. My girlfriend L yelped abruptly, I lay on the grass next to the sidewalk in stunned silence and, after muttering something about the shit guts on his shoe, my ex-roommate started…to laugh. Whether he laughed due to the power he felt from taking a life that did him no harm, or whether it was because I looked about to cry I’ll never know. I suspect it was both. He looked to her and me for some measure of appreciation or admiration for his kill and finding none gutturally resorted to the classic American teenage rebuke: “You’re weird,” and unfulfilled and unrepentant stumbled off into the darkness. In the remainder of my time at Susquehanna University he and I never spoke again.

Lying on the grass next to the remains of my little friend I was a stir of emotions: shock, sadness, and rage. I wanted my ex-roommate to pay for what he had done. I wanted someone to smash him for no reason the way he had smashed my friend. I wanted to mourn my friend and give him a proper burial, but there was nothing left of him but luminous sludge. I wanted him alive again creating glow-in-the dark art on the sidewalks by moonlight on a fine fall night, but that was not meant to be. Instead, I did the only thing that I could do at the moment: I walked L home to her dorm sullenly and silently, and then went home myself, quietly mourning my friend and lamenting the random cruelty of the world.

It’s been 26 years since my little friend’s death. I feel certain that the event made no lasting impression on my former roommate; he may not even have remembered doing it the next day. But I remember the event vividly and it did change me for the better. Not to say that my parents didn’t instill a love of animals in me, for they most certainly did, but that random, cruel death for sport triggered an instinct in me that has never abated. I made a vow that night to never stand by again and watch as one of Creation’s “Lesser” Creatures is tortured or snuffed out for pleasure and, to the best of my ability I have kept that vow for twenty-six years. And I am a better person for it.

Today, I value all life and only kill bugs, vermin, or what have you when absolutely necessary, and only when I can’t safely remove them from my house or they threaten the safety of my wife or son. Nancy can attest to this of course as I have names for most of the Daddy Long Legs that inhabit our home and have on more than a few occasions rescued mice, lizards and spiders from the clutches of our disappointed and puzzled cats. I am not a zealot, I do eat meat, and I do freely acknowledge that there are times when the killing of bugs, pests, and vermin is a necessity in the maintenance of a healthy and clean home or society. But killing for pleasure, killing for sport rather than for food, is out for me, and in many ways it all stems back to a harmless, little, slimy, artist that made the wrong choice to paint a sidewalk by moonlight and paid the price of his art with his life at the hands of a sadistic sophomore that had been taught that killing is cool or “makes you a man.” I learned the lesson he gave his life for and plan on instilling in my son John Adams the same “All life is precious” point of view. He is in a phase right now where stepping on ants is fun, so there’s no time like the present to begin the lesson. And maybe, just maybe, by writing this blog, and sharing my values with you and my boy, I can bring some meaning to my little friend’s senseless death twenty-six years ago. He, like all of us, was created with purpose. Perhaps his purpose was to die that night so that others would learn a better way to live, a way of kindness, and tolerance, and respect for all life.

Well, it’s a start.

Namaste,

Jason

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The Boy Who Lived

The killing of Harambe over Memorial Day Week (May 28), the male Lowland Silverback Gorilla who refused to vacate his facility after being summoned by his handlers when a four-year-old boy climbed into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo has, as usual, brought out the best and worst in us as Americans. Collectively, we have breathed a sigh of relief that the little boy has escaped unharmed. Had he been killed, maimed, crushed to death, it would have been a national tragedy caught on numerous cell phones and iPads for the entire world to mourn. We thankfully avoided that and the boy is safe. That done, we have turned to “armchair quarter-backing” the zoo officials for their decision to kill a beloved fixture at the zoo, and even more so, looking to vilify the mother of the boy who, through some measure of distraction, incompetence, irresponsibility, or inexperience, let her son wander far enough from her care that he could enter a gorilla pen, and as a result, Harambe had to be sacrificed. That the family is African-American, the father was not present, and the father has a criminal record, have all become fuel for a disturbing racial fever dream, and the mother has received numerous death threats as the dark underbelly of America attempts to hold her accountable and make her pay for the death of beloved Harambe. Where we should be celebrating the rescue of the child and reverently mourning the sacrifice of Harambe, we are more preoccupied with blaming, judging, and race-hating. Sadly, this is just status quo in 21st century USA.

The story has some extra special meaning for me because when I was growing up my family owned two monkeys. Yes, that’s right, monkeys. Most people nowadays don’t remember a time in America when primates were household pets, but I do. When I was growing up in the early 1970s we owned two monkeys: Dottie and Cheetah. Many people don’t even believe me when I tell them that, but I have the pictures to prove it.

Dottie was a Spider Monkey and, truly, I don’t remember much about her; I was very young. My parents loved her, she got big, unwieldy, and a touch unpredictable – read fierce – and as a precaution and with great sadness, my parents gave her to a local PA zoo to live out her life, protected and in peace. Cheetah I remember much better. Cheetah had a place of honor in our house, a giant elevated cage smack in the middle of the dining room. She wore a little cloth diaper when she was out of the cage, which was frequent; she climbed gleefully up and down my Mom’s blue curtains; and she loved to steal and eat everyone’s maraschino cherries off their ice cream sundaes on the dining room table. She was gentle, intelligent, childlike, almost human. When she passed away after a good life, my parents inquired about getting another monkey, but the laws had changed. Primates were no longer pets; my parents were outraged, and thus ended monkeys (kinda) in my family tree.

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Cheetah and me, 1974

As a parent of a two-year old, I can’t help but agree with the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to put Harambe down. Jane Goodall, Jack Hanna, and many other experts have supported the decision and I believe I must also, but like them I don’t have to like the sacrifice. I know that if John Adams had gotten away from me and somehow gotten into a dangerous animal’s cage, I would want the authorities to do everything they could to protect his life, whether he or I was at fault or not. And from the moment that little boy entered that enclosure and Harambe disobeyed the command to vacate, the gorilla was doomed. Had the zookeepers hesitated and the child had been killed, it would have been a public relations nightmare: the zoo’s reputation would’ve been ruined, a human family destroyed and outraged, jobs would’ve been lost, lawsuits enacted, revenue lost, and on and on. There was no other choice available: a human child, knowingly or unknowingly, broke the rules, and a gorilla was going to make the ultimate sacrifice.

To date, I’ve seen little credible journalism on the attending mother, so it’s hard to comment knowledgeably on what happened there, though many are doing so anyway. Was she on her cell phone as many have speculated? Was she using the confines of the zoo as a babysitting service rather than managing her child? To what extent was she negligent? It’s hard to say at this point without all the facts; however, I do feel confident  – while acknowledging that accidents happen – saying that there was at least some fault on her part. Unless she was dealing with another emergency and he just slipped away, it would seem that she simply overestimated her ability to manage the child, and that hubris cost Harambe his life. Let’s hope she has learned something from this.

All through Memorial Day Weekend I’ve been reminded of that beautiful penultimate scene in Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks, as he’s dying, looks at Matt Damon’s character and says, “Earn this.” So many people died to bring Damon’s character, Ryan, safely home. His life was deemed important enough that many others sacrificed theirs for his. The metaphor is unfortunate, clear, burdensome, and disturbing. The Four-Year-Old-Who-Lived has no clear idea at this point in his life what just was done to save him, but he will be made aware of it someday, the media will see to that, and his life will be called into account. The burden of national recompense can’t really fall to the parents. They’ve been turned on, shamed, vilified, and threatened by the public. That kind of societal contempt doesn’t breed lasting gratitude. So, unfairly or not, the burden has fallen to the child to make Harambe’s sacrifice of his own life worthwhile, and to heal the national wound that has been Harambe’s loss.

I truly hope when the child grows up he is healthy and strong, wise and kind, and knows what one beloved animal gave in the summer of 2016 so that he might live, and makes some effort to make redress. We as a nation need this. Our national soul requires healing and cries out for a meaningful happy ending that places Harambe’s sacrifice in a positive context beyond, I’m sorry to say, the fact that he had to die so a human boy might live. That’s not the boy’s fault necessarily, but it is now, I fear, his burden to bear.

So I say to him: Accidents happen. No blame, no punishment, no judgment; truly. Only love. We are all happy and lucky you are alive. But when you grow up – and we all hope you will – please, PLEASE do the right and kind thing by the men and women who saved you, and by Harambe who died for you:

Earn This.

With Love and Light,

Jason

Harambe

Harambe RIP

Adventures in Fatherhood

Being the father of an active 2-year old at the age of 45 has its challenges. For one thing, there are simply times when I can’t keep up with him as well as I want to or should, and the results are usually unexpected and hilarious. This past weekend, John Adams and I, at the request of his grandparents – my in-laws – went north to Upper Darby, PA to cat sit their elderly boy, Patch, while they were living the high life in Walt Disney World. I decided to connect with some family and friends for lunch and dinner, because we don’t see our “Philly Family” as much as we’d like, and it would also pass the time more smoothly with an active toddler, keeping me sane.

We met up with John Adams’s uncle, Father John, for lunch on Thursday, and with our friends Chuck, Diane, Louise, and Joe for dinner at Applebees later that night. Both visits were wonderful. I can’t even begin to say how much I miss all those faces. John Adams was passably behaved for a rammy 2-year old in restaurants all day, but by Friday all he wanted to do was run and play. Go figure, right?

On Friday we met up with my mother – 86 with early onset dementia – basically sitting at Wendy’s and having the same conversation every five minutes. John Adams was good with grandma. I think he sensed the illness and was suitably reverent. But then for supper I took him to visit his Uncle Todd’s and Aunt Deana’s, and there was this pool, and a lot of land, and it was Toddler Time!

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John Adams at play

From the moment we arrived (and for the subsequent three hours) he never stopped moving. First, it was the pool: anything we could throw in it – toys, noodles, balls – was fair game. Off came the shoes, off came the socks, the shirt, and finally the pants. Soon my little boy was racing ecstatically in his partially pool-soaked wet diaper around and around their in-ground pool. I hadn’t brought his suit assuming it was pre-Memorial Day and it would be too cold for him. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He splashed, he kicked, he giggled, he ran, he stubbed his toes, he fell, he got up, he cursed the ground for daring to trip him; he did it all over again. He was the proverbial pig in poop.

About an hour and a half into our playfest he spied a squirrel on the lawn – Todd and Deana have a large, rural, secluded property with lots of room for running – and took off after it. He is part dog I’m fairly certain. Clad in only a partially clinging wet diaper he treed the beast while I somewhat helplessly tried to keep up. When the squirrel proved a non-event he whirled around to notice a basketball court with about ten basketballs lying in the bushes around the court. He got to work acquiring each one and throwing it on the court for his bouncing pleasure. About this time, I decided it was time to bring Nancy into the hi-jinks, so I started to FaceTime her on my phone so she could witness her crazy son rummaging in the bushes in a desperately clinging diaper. As the gods would have it, she connected and her face appeared on screen just as John Adams’s diaper gave up the ghost and dropped off him to reveal a gleaming white set of heiny cheeks bent over in the scrub. Nancy exclaimed somewhat shocked and amused, “John Adams! What are you doing?” He whirled around, buck naked, basketball in hand, delighted to hear and see his mother on screen.

“Mommy! I’m just playing with my ball-ees!”

This moment has been brought to you by Fatherhood: Doing the best we can for millions of years.

Namaste,

Jason

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It’s been a long day, Daddy!