2016 – A Personal Review

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

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

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

15697717_917941850535_8857444136354162883_n

Nancy and i, Christmas 2016

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

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

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

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

13726623_886732738845_372323461180148667_n

Our active son, The Bup

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

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

Namaste,

Jason

15697605_918166804725_7636965722685145877_n

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

Advertisements

Going Home

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

photo

The program cover juxtaposed with our listing at the bottom.

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

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

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

15393004_10210572973135105_4286184170042730044_o

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

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

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

SU friends reunited

SU friends reunited (Photo credit: Robb Whitmoyer)

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

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

Namaste,

Jason

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

Happy Holidays!

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.

SU 2

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

SU Logo