Up Close: Geoff Speicher

Up Close: Geoff Speicher

Brains and Brass

There has been considerable debate in the academic community regarding the connection (or lack thereof) between musical ability and mathematical aptitude. While the results remain inconclusive, Geoff Speicher certainly confirms the hypothesis. As the chief software architect of Software Engineering Associates, an Archbald-based company he co-founded in 1999, Speicher is an accomplished software engineer who has designed a host of databases for a variety of industries and has bundled many of the tools he has created over the years into an application called Pario, a “mature application development environment and framework that allows you to quickly create online database applications that are easy to adapt to changing business requirements” (Quoted from http://www.getpario.com/features.html) As a trombonist, Speicher has played with jazz legends Wynton Marsalis and Wycliffe Gordon and can be heard everywhere from St. Peter’s Cathedral in Scranton to Gene Dempsey’s Orchestra to Scranton Preparatory School’s upcoming production of The Music Man. Meet Geoff Speicher …

How did you get into music?
I started at Valley View Elementary School. I went through the general music courses there and my brother, who is a year older than me, started playing trombone when he was in fifth grade. The band director, George Robinson, thought “Let’s try you on trumpet. We normally don’t start kids until fifth grade, but I want to see how you’d make out on trumpet.” He gave me a trumpet, and it didn’t work out. Then he said, “Forget about the trumpet — you’ll probably get it next year on trombone.” (Laughs.) That’s really what got me into it. Even as a little kid, I was always around music in one way or another. My father was always putzing around on a piano or a guitar, or my mother or somebody was always singing somewhere. I grew up around it — the love of music was always there.

When you play out, is there a network of musicians you normally play with?
Yes. There’s not much solo trombone work anywhere, so I play with a lot of different groups — whether it’s a pit orchestra for a show; or a brass quartet, like the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral; or Gene Dempsey’s Orchestra, the swing band/big band that’s been around for 55 years or so. There’s an orchestra, a similar big band at Skytop, and while they don’t play a ton of gigs, I’ll be playing with them in May. I’ve done performances of The Nutcracker at Lehigh University. I don’t play many of the bar gigs anymore, but I’ve done the rock band “10 p.m. to 2 a.m. go-home-smelling-like-smoke” thing. Ron Leas, the former mayor of Dalton, has what he calls The Ron Leas Brass Band, and he picks up all kinds of odd gigs — lots of fun stuff.

EC17UPC_2_WEBDo you have a favorite genre or style?
I don’t. Anything that I play, I love playing, and I listen to the same music that I like to play. I don’t listen to much pop music on the radio.

You’re not missing anything.
(Laughs.) No, if that’s all that’s on, I’ll just turn it down.

Who are your influences?
That’s a hard question for me to answer because, when I was younger, I didn’t take it [music] as seriously as I probably should have. They say, if you want to grow as a musician, you have to listen, but I’ve always been bad at listening. In high school and college, I never had anybody that I listened to and said, “I want to sound like him,” or, “I want to play like him.” That started changing the first time I heard Wycliffe Gordon play at Lincoln Center for Wynton Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields. He was on the stage playing the trombone, and I was like, “Holy crap, what is he doing? He’s just insane!” That started making me realize there’s a lot of individual talent, even at that level, that goes into a performance. There’s only one Wycliffe Gordon in the world. Wycliffe is a source of inspiration. I don’t have any chance of ever touching him with a 10-foot pole in terms of talent but, when he plays, and you’re sitting there listening to him, you can’t help but be happy. He exudes happiness through his trombone, and that’s what I’m trying to do at some level for people. I’ll never succeed the way that he does — I’d probably make some people happier if I put it away — but he is definitely an influence there.

What do you love about music the most? What keeps you moving as a musician?
It’s a great escape from the software engineering (Laughs). It gets me out from in front of my computer, and it’s the only creative outlet that I have. That’s what I like about it —  it’s cathartic for the soul. If I have a bad day at work, I can go to a gig and after I get the trombone in my hand for long enough, that all disappears. If I come home and sit on the couch, that stuff doesn’t disappear so easily.

It tends to stew around a bit.
Yes. Just blow it out the horn, and it’s all good.

Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about the software engineering. What led you into that field?
I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but it was when my father brought our first computer into the house — it was an Apple 2E or 2C — and it had Apple BASIC built into the ROM. I started playing around with programming in BASIC and I just took to it. Programming computers suited something about the way that I think, and it was always appealing to me to be able to write commands, save them, and tell the computer, “Here, I want you to do this,” and have the computer do it.

How did you decide to start Software Engineering Associates?
By the time I was graduating high school and was toying around with the idea of going to school for music, I got some great advice from my high school band director. He said, “You can always play the trombone, and if you graduate with a performance degree and audition for the New York Philharmonic and play, great! You might get the spot. But if the next guy comes in without any formal training and plays that audition better than you do, he’s getting the gig.” That’s what put me into my computer science major at the University of Scranton, and I stuck around for another two years to get my master’s in software engineering. When I graduated in ‘99, my family already had T-R Associates, which had been selling and supporting computer hardware and off-the-shelf software since the early ‘80s. They always took phone calls from people asking, “Hey, can you write me a database?,” and they’d say, “No, we don’t really do that,” so we knew there was a market in the region. My father was gracious enough to give us a good deal on rent in the building and some seed money to get started, so it made a lot of sense to create that partnership with the existing business.

What is Pario?
It’s a tool that we use internally that I’ve been developing over the last 10 or 12 years a little at a time to write the kind of software that we write. You can use it to build database applications, you can interface with that database, it creates a user interface for you, and you get an API (application programming interface) that can create a completely separate interface that can connect to the database. We think, with the right team and the right resources, it can be much more than just a tool we use internally or that we sell and support as an inexpensive developer tool. “What is Pario?” is the question we have been trying to answer for people for several years because how you answer that question determines who your market is. We’ve never really been sure about who is the best audience to go after for this, but we’re getting closer. There is no question that it solves a problem — it solves a problem we face on a daily basis — that’s why we’re still using it. We can be more productive writing software with Pario than with anything else that I’ve ever seen. We know it solves a lot of different problems for a lot of different people, but I guess marketing is all about identifying which of those problems is the most lucrative one. (Laughs)

Did the idea for it come to you at once?
God no. I had been writing software for a few years and I started to notice patterns in what I was doing. You see these patterns and you start wrapping them up and say, “I’m going to write this small tool that will solve this problem for this one pattern I have identified so I won’t have to do it again. I have this tool in my toolbox now, this one little thing for this one pattern, and it’s done.” And then, you find another pattern, and another, and after a while, you realize you have this thing that has started to take on a life of its own. Then, the patterns aren’t  necessarily coming from a need: they’re emerging from the existing body of work, so now we see the patterns within the work we’ve done already, and we find a way to take this thing that’s grown organically and extract formal concepts out of it. Software is like that — it’s an evolution. No software is ever really done, because every time you’re done writing something, there is always some idea you can build onto it to make it more robust, scalable or efficient.

Would you say there’s a connection between your work as a musician and your work as a software engineer?
I think there’s a connection, but I’m not sure where it stems from. Some people think it’s the math. In music, if you look at the notation, it’s all about subdivisions and the music is logically structured. It’s also a trap, because you can’t look at music as a logical structure or the music disappears. As so many great musicians say when they hold up a piece of sheet music, “This isn’t music — this is paper with a bunch of dots on it.” Music is the sound you hear, and if you bury your head in the sand and read it like an engineer, it doesn’t sound like music anymore. So, there is a connection, but there is also a disconnect somewhere where you have to let go of the rigid, structured mentality in order to really, truly make music.
— tom salitsky

Up Close: Christy Smith

Up Close: Christy Smith

Up Close and Personal
A leap of taste

Christy Smith knew she was taking a risk when she bought a dilapidated building in Scranton. After being laid off from a pharmacy job, she decided it was time to take the jump. That building for sale at the corner of Capouse Avenue and Ash Street seemed like the perfect outlet for her love of food. Six months later, it has been transformed into the quaint, cozy restaurant that is Capouse Café. The menu brings together familiar dishes — with a twist — combining Smith’s favorite flavors and fresh produce. The Dunmore native wanted to bring a city flair straight from Philadelphia to Lackawanna County. She’s always had a passion for cooking new meals for family and friends, but, without culinary training, she was intimidated by the kitchen at first. Going from the pharmaceutical industry to the restaurant business is a big switch, but she got a lot of help from family to make her vision a reality. Meet Christy Smith …

Can you describe Capouse Café?
I made it so it was a warm and comfortable atmosphere for people. I wanted it to be inviting. My food is kind of regular, but everything has some kind of twist. I have a turkey club, but my turkey club has avocado mayo — things like that. I just took traditional things and put a spin on them. My crab cakes have a homemade Sriracha tartar sauce. It’s just a little bit of something different. I lived in Philadelphia for 10 years and I wanted to take things I ate down there, the flavors that I love, the things that I’ve had in different places and bring it to our area, because we don’t necessarily have a lot of places that have city influence.

EC10UPC_5_WEBHow did you get into cooking?
I always had a passion for food.— going places and trying new things and flavors. I love the Italian market, farmers’ markets and fresh produce. I love Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and watching the Food Network. They bring to light that anyone can cook if they have a passion for it. I love entertaining and going to parties so I could bring something different.

Tell me about how you got started. It sounds like it was kind of on a whim?
Definitely. It was super exciting. It was, like you said, on a whim. I went to Temple University in Philadelphia. I graduated and then throughout my career I’ve been a pharmaceutical rep for a few different companies. I ended up back in the area because I took a position in Scranton with a pharmaceutical company. And then I ended up being laid off. So I was in between jobs and I was interviewing for other pharmaceutical positions. It was funny because I go to Uno Fitness and I would drive down Ash Street, and this building was for sale. So I was consistently looking at it, but it was really not in great shape. So I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ I was procrastinating, but I had my eye on the building.

So it was something you drove by every day?
Yes, exactly. So one day I was at the red light, I took down the number. The owner of the building said, ‘I could meet you tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock.’ I was really taken aback by how bad it was inside. Then I thought ‘this is a bad idea.’ I went back and forth, but I told myself if I didn’t get the position I was interviewing for then, that I was just going to take a leap of faith and buy the building. They chose someone else for the position, so I made an offer on the building, and two weeks later we closed on the building. And that was it.  We did two solid months of renovations and I opened Sept. 9, 2013. I pretty much spent the summer gutting it. We installed new walls, new floors, new ceilings, we had the whole place painted and I had the kitchen professionally cleaned. Everything is pretty much new compared to what it was. It was a lot of work.

EC10UPC_2_WEBWould you say it was all worth it?
Absolutely. I’ve been very fortunate for friends and family, just customers spreading the word, coming in and enjoying the food and giving me positive feedback. I’m very happy with my decision. I didn’t know I was going to be. Who knows? You never know. But I did it, I was willing to take the risk and hopefully it will continue to grow and I’ll do well.

Was it a big adjustment going from a pharmaceutical job to owning a café?
It’s definitely two different worlds. I’m always very social, I love talking to people, so talking to customers — that part is easy for me. In college, I worked at restaurants as a waitress and later as a bartender, and I also managed a restaurant in Philadelphia, so it wasn’t as foreign or scary. The kitchen was on the larger scale. I could cook at home for my family and my friends and I enjoyed it. But definitely coming into the kitchen and knowing that I had to produce good quality food for people that I didn’t know and that we’re going to be judge on how it tasted, it made me very nervous because you never know. You don’t want someone to take time out of their day and spend money to come and have lunch and then say they didn’t like something. But it worked. It gets less scary in the kitchen every day. We’ve had such great feedback that it gives you that confidence boost that someone liked their food today, and then I think ‘Well, what other specials can I do?’ or ‘What other things can I add that would make it more interesting?’

I understand your mom came to work for you at the café?
She did. My mother actually worked for the Dunmore Elementary Center for close to 15 years. When I decided to open, I thought, ‘It can’t just be me.’ And, obviously you want someone here you can trust and my mother was completely on board. It was great to know she was giving up basically everything she’s been doing for the past however many years to come with me to start this whole new chapter of my life. But it’s really cool because we started it together. My mother was here tearing walls down with me. My mother was here picking out paint. There’s no one better to have with you in your corner than your mom. My mom is my best friend. No matter what, she would have been part of it. She would have been here and checking in. That was super important to me. I had the full support of my family, my father, my two younger sisters and all of my extended family. Everyone’s been super supportive. Especially all of my friends, whether they were from Philadelphia or from here. It’s a great network of people from Scranton — including small business owners who really do help each other out— and I think that is something that is really important. It matters here.
— kirstin cook

Up Close: Allan Souza

Up Close: Allan Souza

Up Close & Personal

Fitness with a Smile
Zumba and fitness instructor Allan Souza comes to NEPA by way of Brazil and uses his seemingly boundless energy to teach fitness, attend business marketing classes at Penn State, support charity events in the area, travel, shop and keep a positive attitude. You can’t help but smile when you talk to him — and he says that’s the point. Also, if you can make it through his new training class without stopping, you just might get $100 out of the deal. Meet the effervescent Allan Souza …

So you’re from Rio de Janeiro. What brought you to Scranton? Give us you mini-biography, in terms of where you’ve lived.
I was born in Brazil. I actually came from there when I was 11 and lived in Virginia. Then my parents got a job in this area and we moved to Scranton in 2000. Ever since then, I’ve stayed here.

How do you like Northeastern Pa.? Any changes you’d like to see?
I love it! Growing up in Brazil was a very poor life — a very rough upbringing. The chance to come to America — cliché as it may sound — was an opportunity to have a better life. For me, coming from where I came from, it’s an upgrade. I love it! I love living in the area and I love making a difference doing what I do during the past three years. As far as changes, I’d like to see more involvement in art and music which are two things I’m very passionate about. I wish our town had more places to advertise that and show off what we have. There are so many talented people who need to express themselves.

When and how did you get started in Zumba? Were you always interested in physical fitness?
About seven years ago, I lost more than 100 pounds just through lifestyle changes. I lost all the weight and I started falling in love with fitness. Then three years ago, I took my first Zumba class with my friend Talia Walsh and I fell in love with it. Taking classes made me realize how much I could do in that field. Two months after taking classes with Talia, she recommended I get certified. From there, it took off. I was teaching at all the gyms in the area — every gym you could think of. I was teaching classes and had a dream of making my own. Last August, I had the opportunity to open my own studio and I did, Studio LA, with my partner Lisa Lavelle. She’s the “L” and I’m the “A,” hence the name. A lot of people don’t know that. They say, “We’re in Scranton. Why’s it called Studio LA?’” (Laughs)

How has the studio worked out for you?
It’s been going great. We have more than 300 members at the studio already. It’s a very different atmosphere — I think there’s nothing like it. When you walk into it, it’s like a club, with beautiful surround sound, bright colors, things you don’t expect when you’re at a gym. I want you to take whatever’s going on your everyday life, leave it at the door and have fun for an hour. So many moms don’t have a chance to go out and enjoy themselves, but once a day for an hour, they get to just shrug it off and dance. We see anywhere from 60 to 90 people per day.

Zumba is a very musical form of exercise, and there’s a lot of room for creativity in the routines. How do you create your dances? What’s your process like?
My thing is that even though I do teach Zumba, all of my choreography is original or most of it. I make it all myself. I do use some Zumba dances, but 98 percent are originally mine. Usually I hear a song I love and it takes me a good two hours to make up a dance. I like to make my dances very dance-oriented instead of the same steps over and over. I like to make them challenging, but not impossible, so when you try it for the first time you think, “I need to do this a few more times to get it down.”

EC03UPC_2_WEBAnd speaking of music, what sort of music pumps you up for Zumba? And then what do you listen to on, say, a Sunday morning when you’re at home relaxing?
I love Latin music, and my favorite music is pop and hip hop for Zumba. I do use some Top 40, but most of the music I like to find is unique. If someone comes to me and wants a routine to “Baby Got Back,” I say “That’s been done a million times.” I try to find a unique way. I found the Baltimore club mix for “Baby Got Back,” and it’s not what you expected at all. I make people think it’s going to be one thing and then it’s not. It’s definitely my idea of making up good music. As for when I’m at home, my favorite kind of music is country music. When I’m at home, I don’t actually listen to any fast music at all. I love country, piano music, instrumental music, listening to lyrics and I grew up Baptist so I listen to a lot of Gospel music, too. I enjoy dance music, but I do it Monday through Saturday. I always say my neighbors probably think I’m depressed (laughs), because I listen to the most mellow, most depressing music ever. (Laughs)

Outside of Zumba and fitness, what are your other interests? What do you do to unwind?
One of my favorite quotes is, “Empty fridge, full closet.” I love shopping (laughs). I can’t cook for my life, but love shopping. One of my favorite things to do with friends is to Google towns with small boutiques, interesting shops, fun places to see and then go there. I’m a very hyper person. I don’t like to sit. I like to be on the go, so I like to travel a lot. My family lives in Connecticut so I get there as much as I possibly can.

I understand you’re in college. I’ve done the adult student routine before, too, so I understand what it’s like to balance work and school as an adult. It’s a totally different experience than when you’re younger, in my opinion. Would you agree or disagree?
I agree 100 percent. Until six months ago, I was living on a work visa and I just got my green card. I couldn’t go to school on my work visa, so the very day after I got it I went straight to Penn State and applied for college. Right after this interview, I’ll be studying for a test tomorrow. Through all these years, I partied hard, because I couldn’t go to school. Now I’m OK with spending Saturday nights at home, and I’m OK with not going out on weeknights. I appreciate it more. This is my first semester of my first year of school and I’m 28 years old, sitting in class with young students. Some of them do not take it seriously. They’re here because their parents made them, and it’s frustrating to see them make fun of the teachers or not take it seriously.

You seem to have a deep philosophical view of the world. Can you expound upon that a bit?
One of the things that I love the most about my job is my interaction with people. I’m really proud of my classes, where I teach people of every age, gender and sexual orientation. One student is a doctor in the area and another is a stay-at-home mom. I get all kinds of people who — in a normal scenario — would never relate to each other, but in that area, it brings everybody together. It makes me so proud to know that I am a minority from Brazil, I’m a gay man and I can make a difference in people who are totally opposite from me. It’s been a blessing the past three years in this fitness world. I try to do as much charity work as I can and help raise money. I competed in “Dancing with NEPA Stars” this year. God has blessed me, so why not use my talent and the opportunity I’ve been given to give back? People always ask me, ‘You’re always happy, always smiling. Are you even human?’ (Laughs) I think the important thing in life is to remember that we’re all here for a purpose. So many times we take people and situations for granted and we become too focused on issues and what brings us down. I believe in karma and that what you give is what you get back. If you give your best, God will bless you with the same thing.

What’s next for you?
I have this class that I created called Brazilian Fit at our studio. It’s the opposite of Zumba. Zumba is dancing and this is training, like a mixture of P90X but way crazier. I have a challenge that if anyone can come to class and make it through the hour without stopping, they get $100. So far no one has been able to do it. So it’s a way to motivate. So many guys come and it’s not what they expected, These guys are strong, but their endurance and cardio isn’t there. When it comes time to do it, they can’t. It keeps people coming back to push themselves.
— andrea mcguigan

Up Close: Evan Hughes

Up Close: Evan Hughes

Writing on the Wall
Evan Hughes is still painting walls. The difference is, he has moved from the streets of Scranton to the inside of PNC field. As a teen, Hughes got in trouble for painting his art in public. Since then, he has found a positive outlet for creativity. Born and raised in Scranton, he has established himself as a self-motivated illustrator. Now, he’s making his artwork larger than life. Hughes was selected by the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders to paint a mural at the entrance of the Mohegan Sun Club. Before he won the mural competition, most of his cartoon-influenced, whimsical creations have been confined to pages of magazines. His surreal-influenced characters often times look like they’re made of out of rubber, as you can see on his website evanhughesart.com. Evan is excited about more people seeing his design at the big reveal during the Meet the RailRiders event on Wednesday, April 2 at PNC Field. There’s something he always liked about public art. It’s a flashback to his graffiti days, but this is larger than anything he’s done before. Meet Evan Hughes …

Why did you decide to enter the competition?
I got the call for artists from a friend. He said “You might be interested in this.” One of the requirements was basically you had to be a professional mural artist. I am a professional artist, I’m an illustrator — that’s what I do for a living — but I haven’t done a mural in years, especially something this size. I saw the size of it, at its biggest point it’s almost 40 feet, and it’s almost 20 feet high. So I wasn’t going to enter, but my studio mate said “I think you have a good shot at it.” So I submitted a design. I waited until the last minute — I put the whole thing together in probably two nights. I didn’t think it was going to turn into anything. I heard I won by a pretty good margin, so I was happy to hear that. It was crazy though. Once I heard I won, I had a couple days to get started. The thing that was freaking me out is I had less than a month to do it. I started on March 3 or 4 and I have until April 1.

Are you excited for people to see the mural?
Yeah, I hope people enjoy it. It’d be cool to see people taking their pictures in front of it on Instagram — I’d love that. I like that aspect of having something so public. That’s what I do my artwork for. Some people do their art for a subset of people who are kind of in-the-know, that’s what the fine art world kind of is. That’s why I like illustration and doing a mural because this is reaching people, the average person, who may be like “Oh, I don’t care about art.” Hopefully they will enjoy something like (the mural) and it’ll brighten the room. I like the fact that it’ll be out there in such a high traffic area.

EC27UPC_3_WEBYou got your start doing graffiti. Tell us about that.
You have to put down mural experience when you entered this competition, so I kind of put in my younger years. I was a misled youth and doing graffiti on walls around Scranton. I was actually put on probation, I got in trouble with my school and with my parents. That was the way I was going, — it was a bad way. There’s a whole other side of graffiti that’s not vandalism, it’s street art, so that’s more of what I was into. My art teachers would tell me, “You have talent, put it to good use.” There were some legal walls, so after I got into trouble I still continued to do murals. I just found a more positive outlet for it, and there was a club where we’d do that in Moosic. So that’s kind of my roots. I said, “‘OK, how can I apply this and make a career out of it?” I have people in my family who did graphic design, so I started to see that, “Wow, I can actually do this for a living.”

Was the family connection something that inspired you to pursue art?
For sure. My aunt and uncle lived in New York City and when I was 11, I visited them. They own their own freelance business. That was the first time I realized you can be creative for a living. I wanted the life they had. They got to work from home, to be their own boss basically. I’m kind of doing it now, working my way up. People say, “You must have been born with this talent.” That’s part of it, but it’s more that I liked doing it so much that I kept doing it, and I got the crazy idea that I could do it for a living. It is difficult. There’s this whole cliché about the starving artist and it’s true, you have to fight your way. I’m not like the typical artist, I’m married with three kids and another one on the way. My wife is due any day now. I have mouths to feed and that’s a motivator for me. I wake up and say, “I have to make this work — there’s no other option.”

What brought you back to Scranton?
Number one, I couldn’t afford to live in New York City anymore. I came home and married my high school sweetheart. When I first came back, I couldn’t wait to get back to New York City. But I’ve come to love it here. You have to appreciate the area for what it is, rather than try make it like New York City or California. There’s so much beauty here, even just the landscape. That’s kind of what this piece is. The call said try to represent Northeast Pennsylvania and the best of the area, and that’s what I tried to do.

EC27UPC_1_WEBHow long have you been in design?
After I left college, I got a job in graphic design, pretty boring design work, nothing really exciting. I did that for almost seven years. The office I worked at was closing down, I got a notice that I had nine months. It was the push I needed because now I’m doing what I love. It’s been working so far. It’s weird getting used to after having a steady job and the security of a paycheck. In art school you think, ‘I’m going to be an artist and people are going to love my work and come contact me,” but I didn’t realize I had to be a salesman, also. I have to promote myself. But it’s been working out and I’m very happy with where it’s going.

What is it like to have your work displayed on such a huge scale?
It’s kind of cool. I’m getting feedback already from it being there. I’ve done a lot of artwork for magazines and editorials, that’s what I’ve been focusing on. I’ve done some book covers. But I’ve never really tried to get work locally because there’s often not a budget for it. (The mural) is almost like validating me to my mother and people who wonder “What does he do with his time?” This is something very concrete. I can say “Hey! This is what I do. Go check it out.” And the cool thing is I’m going to be able to put my name on there, my website and hopefully this turns into other murals. It’s cool to get back and do something this big and get into the paint again because most of my work is digital, so it’s good to be working with my hands.
— kirstin cook

Up Close: Alexis Johnson

Up Close: Alexis Johnson

Up Close & Personal

Running and Recovery

Alexis Johnson isn’t very different from most of us. There’s nothing about talking to her that would give the impression that she’s got a story unlike most people, and definitely nothing that conjures up images of prison, hospitals and the depths of addiction. After struggling with difficult times, Johnson has used her past two years of sobriety to focus energy on being positive and helping others. She will celebrate those two years running the inaugural Scranton Half-Marathon on April 6. In addition, Johnson is raising funds for her “Running for Timmy” organization which will assist the family of a close friend who took his own life in February. We spoke with her about these difficult subjects, and throughout discussions of tragedy and hardship, Johnson’s positive message shined through: there’s always a choice to turn your life around and help is always there for those willing to ask.

Tell us a little about your background.
I’m 31 and I live in Jessup. I graduated from Bishop O’Hara High School in 2000, and went to Penn State. I have a BS in Criminology, double minors, and did a study abroad program in London in 2005. I traveled all throughout Europe. To be brief, I fell on some hard times — I battled through an addiction that got pretty heavy. I have some DUIs, and have been in and out of jail. On April 7, I’ll be two years sober. I try to do a lot of giving back. I work for Gibbons Ford and I do a lot of volunteer work. I’m running a fundraiser, a charity for my one of my best friends who recently committed suicide, and left behind his wife and two little girls.

Where would we start to get to know you better?
Well, I had a normal childhood. I went away to school and was a model student and athlete. I went to Penn State, joined a sorority and it was all downhill from there. I got my first DUI at 18 and fell apart after that. I got my second one in 2006. I didn’t know what was going on — I couldn’t stop. I was in a bad car accident in 2008 and two weeks later, I lost my sister to cancer. That was a really dark period in my life. Unfortunately, that’s when things started to get really bad for me. I’ve had a couple of overdoses, and I’ve been in and out of jail. My wake up call was when I actually woke up in state prison, with no felonies, no idea how I got there — it was strictly from being an alcoholic and an addict. It was mostly with my own prescriptions, which is happening now with a lot of young people. They’re getting hooked on painkillers, it’s leading to harder drugs, and I’ve watched a lot of people die or go to jail. I’ve lost my three best friends to addiction, and I myself have had four overdoses. I’m very grateful to be alive, and I don’t waste a second of any day.
I really try to give back, especially to younger women who may not have had the upbringing that I had, where I was grateful and very lucky with my childhood. I know a lot of people who grew up “on the other side of the tracks,” and for me to turn out the way that I did having my kind of upbringing kind of shocked a lot of people. I shocked myself. I had full scholarships to every college I applied to; I had the world at my feet. It just goes to show that addiction and that lifestyle really has no barriers on who it attracts. I unfortunately lost 12 years of my life. Some people take a cup of coffee for granted, or the ability to wear your own clothes and sleep in your own bed at night — I’m grateful for all of that, because I lost all of it. It’s taken me a while to get it all back. And now it’s been two years sober from everything — closer to five since I’ve had a drink. I don’t have a lot of friends today because a lot of them are dead. The ones I do have, I hold on to and try to make good decisions in life today, and be a better, sober person on a daily basis.
Within the last two years, my life has made a complete 180. I just want to do the next right thing and give back, that’s what I’m trying to do with the fundraiser.

EC20UPC_1_WEBHas it helped you to work with other people who are struggling with addiction?
Absolutely. They help me more than I help them. I see people who come in a week or 10 days sober with the shakes and they can’t deal with reality. It reminds me of where I came from. My first five and a half months sober were in prison, and I came back out and had to deal with everyday life. I’m sure some people didn’t have that drying out period. They’re just trying to wing it or maybe the courts force them to. And then you have to deal with that stigma of being an alcoholic, or a junkie — the perception is you’re no good. It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. “You’re going to keep calling me these names, I’m going to keep doing what it is you say I am.” It took this long for me to actually be OK with who I am. I don’t dwell on the past, but I don’t forget about it either. I can’t forget about where I came from. I can’t forget how bad it got. Prison, rehab, near death, — it was bad. Some people don’t feel like young, professional people can have these problems. There’s a stereotype that goes along with being an alcoholic that I don’t think people want to believe. They don’t want to think it’s so common. Someone can look at me and think, “wow, she’s got a great job and she’s in recovery — maybe it’s not so bad.” It is a better way of life. If my story can help one person open their eyes or do something different with their life and not lead the same life I led in terms of addiction, then what I went through was worth it.

Thanks for sharing your story. It has to be tough to be so candid about all of this.
Thank you. It’s not always easy. I can’t sit here and tell you that reliving my story is a good time, because it’s not. It’s a dark past and I’m not proud of the things I’ve done, but what I can say is I’m proud of who I am today and I will not make those mistakes again.

Tell us more about the half-marathon and the fundraiser you’re organizing.
It’s the first ever Scranton Half-Marathon on April 6. I don’t even know the course yet, other than it starts and ends at Memorial Stadium, it’s a standard 13.1 miles. On Valentine’s Day, a very dear friend of mine ended up taking his life. He left behind a wife and two little girls — the youngest just turned one in November. Unfortunately, life insurance policies don’t cover suicide. So the family is in a little bit of tough times. Once the initial shock wore off, I went into “what can I do” mode to find out what I could do to help out. She’s a nurse and she works crazy hours, and even getting a second job wouldn’t be enough. I thought with some of the contacts and support I’ve gained through recovery, why not see if I could do something to help with that financial burden? A couple years ago, I lost another friend to suicide. He was also an addict, and wound up taking his own life. This was the second time I had to go through this. I know there’s a lot of awareness out there from groups like Out of the Darkness, and maybe if we continue to get out the message that it’s such a permanent “solution.” It’s not like taking a vacation for a week — you’re not coming back.

Right, it’s not a “solution” to anything.
No. That person might think that their problem is solved, but the people they left behind are the ones who have to deal with the pain and the repercussions. My goal is to raise between five and $10,000. I’m doing it to get sponsors just to finish the 13.1 miles. There’s also going to be a basket raffle the day of the race. I’ve already been on the horn with businesses to donate gift cards, services, or other baskets to be raffled off. I have an account set up at PNC bank. Anybody can make donations at any PNC bank in the country: the organization name is Running for Timmy. It’s located in Region 30. I also have an online donation site set up through my Facebook account through Pay it Square. On the day of the race, whatever money has been raised through the basket raffles, online and through PNC bank, I’m going to combine the total into one check and give it to (Timmy’s family). Hopefully, this can help ease what she’s going through.

After the run, do you plan to continue to raise awareness?
Probably. I don’t know what I’ll do yet. I’m not entirely sure. I’ll probably take it a day at a time and see what comes out of it. I’ll probably sleep for one or two days, then head back to work. I would like to make this a yearly event. I have some talented friends — one does magic, one does comedy — maybe set up fundraising show. I haven’t really considered it yet — I’m trying to make it through this without dying!

What has training been like? It’s not an insignificant amount of preparation to run a half-marathon a couple weeks from now.
I can’t even lie, I haven’t run in a while. I’ve been doing a lot of Crossfit and high-intensity cardio training. Some of the sessions are over an hour. I used to run cross-country in high school, so I’ve run distances before. It’s just that high school was 14 years ago. I’m heading to Florida for a few days, it’s my first vacation in eight years. When I get back from that I’ll have exactly two weeks, and I’m going to start pounding the pavement — literally — for those two weeks to get my legs used to the constant pace. I’m going to say a lot of prayers!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We have choices in life. We can always wallow in what we’ve been dealt, and pray for things we don’t have and wish our life was different. — but it’s the one we’ve got. The only thing I can’t do today is drink and use drugs. I can do anything else in this world that I want to do. For anybody who’s struggling with an addiction, there’s help out there and it’s OK to ask for it. I heard a quote in a meeting once that went something like, “The only time an addict or an alcoholic should look down on another is when they’re reaching out their hand to help them up.” That’s how I try to live my life. I’m grateful to be in recovery.
— tucker hottes

Up Close: Aja Wentum

Up Close: Aja Wentum

Up Close & Personal

The Grass is Green

For many people migrating to the 570, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre are “the big cities” compared to smaller towns throughout the region. Others, like Aja Wentum, come from bigger cities and farther away locations. It’s not always the first stop on someone’s journey, but Wentum told us first impressions can often be misleading. After hopping around the globe following his childhood years in Ghana, high school in Oregon and years spent in London, Wentum wound up in Scranton and is embarking on a new chapter of life. Hot yoga entered his life as a professional interest, but it has also helped refocus his career, mind, body and spirit. We spoke to Wentum about his life and how Scranton, of all places, led him to work with one of the premiere hot yoga instructors and studio designers in the world. Meet Aja Wentum …

Give us a little information about your background, the two-minute life story.
I was born in Ghana, West Africa. I moved to Oregon to attend high school, then afterward I went back to Ghana for a little bit, and returned to the States for a bit. In 2001, I visited my dad’s little sister in London and ended up staying there until 2004. At the end of 2004, I was kind of fed up with all the fast-paced lifestyle of London — wasting money and going out partying. So I decided to come back to the U.S. I was going back to Oregon and my sister — who lives in Scranton — said “Why are you going back to Oregon? Why don’t you just come visit me?” I didn’t really know anybody in Scranton — I didn’t even know where Scranton was located. She said it’s close to Philadelphia, so I thought I’d give it a shot. At first, I thought, “What, are you serious?” I had the same reaction a lot of people have when they come here from big cities. I lived in big cities my whole life; I’m a total city boy. To come to Scranton was a little bit of culture shock, but it has been really, really good to me. All the things I wanted to do when I came back to the States — get away from that fast-paced life I was in that wasn’t really leading me anywhere — Scranton was the place to do it. It’s quiet and I could focus and do the things I wanted to do. One of the first things I did was start looking for schools, and I saw that the University of Scranton was a good fit for me. I got my undergrad as a nontraditional student, and I ended up finishing in three years with three concentrations. I studied Communications, Information Technology,and a minor in Economics. I worked for the Times-Tribune for a while, then Harper-Collins for a few years. I went back and got my MBA in marketing and finance to help start up my own business or help run others as well.

What did you do next?
After finishing my MBA, I saw that Scranton was a great place for me to give back to the community. I started looking at ways to get involved and joined a lot of the networking groups in Scranton. I became the treasurer of Power! Scranton, I wanted to give back to help develop Scranton and let people know there are young professionals who aren’t just going to come here and get a great education and leave. I wanted to show you can get a great education and stay.

EC13UPC_1_WEBThat turned out to be a great networking opportunity.
That’s how I ran into Chad Clark — one of the Yoga gurus who brought hot yoga to Scranton. I met up with Clark through a friend while doing my MBA, and Clark said he had a book he was coming up with about how to build a hot yoga studio. He asked if I would mind helping in the effort to get the book out and I said of course not. We sat down and talked about the book, where he’d been, the things he was doing and I was blown away. I was blown away to have someone with this much talent here in Scranton — someone who’s worshipped in other communities in America and around the world, and yet he’s in Scranton and nobody knows about him. I decided I wanted to help him not only get the book out, but to help him grow his business. I saw a great product and a great opportunity. I put two and two together and decided this was a way forward. I was partnering with someone who has core competence and skills nobody else does in the hot yoga industry in the whole of North America.

It was lucky to find someone so well regarded.
Clark is a guy who’s traveled all over the world building hot yoga studios. Recently, he was in Iowa building a studio for someone. They had flown in to look at the studios we built on Moosic Street, Scranton, and they loved it. He went out there to build one and now he’s heading to Texas to build another studio. For his book, I did almost everything — from designing, photography, editing, all the things that need to go into the production of a book. It came out really well and people have commented how good the partnership is and how lucky we are on this project. I came to Scranton originally thinking, “This is a crappy town, I don’t even know what I’m doing here with my experience and the things that I’ve done. I’ve lived in cities all my life — what am I doing here?” And then sometime in 2010 or 2011, I woke up and realized the grass is actually green here (if I water my grass). I met with all these people trying to re-route my life here, and it’s really worked out.

Give us a little more information about hot yoga.
Hot yoga is more for the physical body than traditional yoga. It’s great for athletes and for people who have physically challenging problems like chronic back pain or arthritis. If you heat up the room, the heat adds a therapeutic element. When people come in and the room is at a certain temperature, it heats up the body and warms up the joints. People are able to stretch and breathe and exercise to the point where it helps them restructure torn ligaments and muscles. There are a lot of other types of yoga, but hot yoga is more for the physical aspect of it. It’s to help you regain flexibility, help you gain balance. You’re doing breathing postures, balance postures and spinal postures, so it’s strengthening your spine and your core. That’s why the NFL and NBA are pushing athletes to start doing hot yoga. The heat helps, because it helps warm up the body and loosen you up faster and you’re able to push yourself farther than when your body isn’t warmed up. You’re able to do more, and in the end it can help with chronic back pain, chronic arthritis and diabetes. It helps in lots of ways. Our main style is Bikram style — which is different from other styles like Vinyasa. We’re trying to slowly introduce heat into the other styles of yoga as well. They’re not as hot as the Bikram style we practice, which is done in a room at 105 or sometimes up to 108 degrees. One of the things I’m trying to do is introduce heat into Pilates and other things as well, but that’s not going to be heated up to 108 degrees — probably more like 90 degrees for now, so people can warm up. Vinyasa is not as hot as Bikram — it’s only 60 minutes and goes up to 88, maybe 90 degrees.

That sounds like a really unique experience.
The other thing that separates us from many other hot yoga studios in the country — and I say “in the country” because Clark has built maybe 70 to 80 percent of some of the top hot yoga studios in the country — is we don’t use radiant heat. That heat isn’t as good for the body. Clark has a system in which he’s able to combine heat with humidity and the energy recovery ventilator (ERV). Basically, it’s like forced air and the heat is all over the room. It’s not like radiant heat where the heat comes from one panel; it’s multidirectional. The heat isn’t just hitting your body from one direction. In lots of places, the radiant panels are up on top — when you’re standing up, it’s heating up your head and nothing else. When you lay down or change posture, it’s heating up your face, or your foot. The way we have it, the heat is all over your body. You have the right setting of humidity, we normally set it to about 40-45 percent. Then you have the ERV, which brings in fresh air. It takes out the bad air in the room and brings in fresh air. You’re standing in the room, and your whole body is warm — not just one part of your body. It’s not sweaty, it’s breathable, it’s amazing — you should come try it!

What’s it like for a beginner, even if you’re out of shape?
It is so welcoming. Most of our classes are not upper level classes. We call it ability-centric. Anybody can just walk in and take a class. The instructors are going to pay as much attention as necessary to you, and coach you and reposition you. Yoga is all about positioning, the posture and how you do it. If you’re supposed to do a Standing Bull, there’s a way you’re supposed to stand — they all have different effects. The Standing Bull helps with your back and your spinal cord. For instance, if you’re supposed to have part of your body facing forward and you’re facing to the right, or up, or down, they will adjust you to make sure you have the right posture. Nobody forces you. One of the things I tell everybody when they come in is not to have any fears — just focus on yourself and what you’re able to do. Don’t worry about the rest. Yoga will meet you at whatever level you are. If you can’t even touch your toes, it’s OK! Just do what you can do — touch your knees, just do it. The next time you come into class, you’ll be surprised. You’ll go from touching your knees to touching your shins, then your toes.
I had never done yoga until I met Clark. I had back problems from playing basketball. I had problems driving long distance and I used to drive 15 hours to Atlanta with no problem. I got to the point where I couldn’t drive two hours to Philadelphia. I started practicing yoga more seriously, and I’m not kidding, my back problems went away. I was seeing people doing this crazy stuff and I couldn’t even touch my toes. But I built up the courage, went in and did what I could. In two or three weeks, I had made amazing progression and change in my postures, and my back pain started to go away — now it’s gone! It helps people with sciatic nerve problems, all kinds of things. Hot yoga will help you repair a lot of damage you’ve done to your body. Yoga is not going to judge you.

Anything else you’d like to add?
Just come try Electric City Hot Yoga! We have Clark — someone who’s one of the most sought-after instructors in the whole country. He’s been featured in articles in the New York Times, the New York Post, engineering journals, and things like that about his knowledge. He has such an amazing amount of knowledge about yoga, designing studios and creating a great space. The technology is just amazing. We try to give back to the community as well. We offer free passes now and then, sometimes we’ll give people trials, we just want people to see the benefit and to create a healthy culture here in Scranton. When people are healthy, that goes into the economy and the community as well. It’s a cycle, and the better people feel the more they want to come in and practice. It uplifts everybody.
— tucker hottes