September 6, 2015

The Red Hemorrhoid and a Starry Night

This is for Phoebe, who needs stories about her dad because he's not here to tell them. 
The first summer I lived with Jay I was 20. - 40 years ago, can you believe that? had just finished my first mediocre year of college, and he had swept me off my rebellious, impulsive feet halfway through that year. I was sick of school, hated it, really. I wanted to live life! Jay, usually showing up at my dorm at some unreasonable hour, ZZ Top blaring from the 8-track player, reeking of pot, was living life. He was going to school on the GI Bill, he'd been to Vietnam, he had stories.
Anyway, that summer was magical. We spent our afternoons at swimming holes, taking the canoe out on the Conewago-our house had a riverfront. Some nights, we'd drive around in his red Comet convertible-such a sweet little car, but Jay called it the Red Hemorrhoid. We'd drive all over the country with the top down, of course. Sometimes he'd turn off the headlights and drive really slowly. The night was velvet, Sky meeting road seamlessly, it was like we were flying. I remember feeling so free, so grown-up. Apples, cow manure, freshly mown grass wafted in currents, healthy smells. It was midsummer, the air heavy and ripe. We just drove and drove, so in the moment, not looking forward or backward.

August 19, 2015

More memories, mostly about my dad

So, more memories. For myself and for my daughters. For the memories that will sharpen and come to the surface like little fish to the sun.
My dad loved nature and the outdoors. We camped all through the United States, in the desert, by the ocean, high in the Rockies. And this was tent camping, mind you, not some fancy motor home. All I can say is, my mother sure was a good sport, packing, unpacking, packing, unpacking, cooking every night, every morning, on the campstove, rain or shine, with three kids. When we were little, we thought it was great, sleeping outside, listening for bears. When we were teenagers, it was a great opportunity to sneak off and meet boys in campgrounds. We have a home movie of the day we spent hiking the White Mountains, spending the night in a hostel at the top of a waterfall. Anywhere we went, he and my mother would mention the names of trees, the calls of birds, what those clouds were called and what they meant for the weather to us kids. We went for long drives in the country, "getting lost," allowing us to tell him which way to turn when we came to a crossroads, the classical music blasting from his FM radio. Those were great family times.
But some of my best memories of him are of the times he'd plan a special outing for just the two of us. One summer morning we got up before the sun and drove out to the College Lodge, just outside of our town. It's a retreat for the Indiana University of Pennsylvania where my dad taught music, but lots of people used it for picnics and get-togethers: it has a ski lift and a pond. It's surrounded by acres and acres of old forest. The mist was still rising when we got there, and it looked like it was going to be another overcast day in Indiana anyway. But I love mist, I always have. I love how it feels on my face, so refreshing and balmy at the same time, and the atmosphere is moody and mysterious, heavy but not ponderous. We didn't talk much, because we wanted to find animals, but he did his thing of pointing out leaves and telling me the name of the tree, quietly. We did see a deer, I remember. We hiked for a bit. I don't remember really how I felt. Did I think it was a drag to have to get up early so my dad could hang out with me? Was I excited that I got to spend the morning with him? Was I anxious because I thought he was going to yell at me for something? I don't know. I was rather an anxious child, but I seem to remember a content feeling. We passed the pond on the way to the car and I caught some tadpoles in a jar I had -- I guess I had been planning to do that. My dad showed me how to steer the tadpoles toward the edge of the pond with my jar so they'd be trapped. So we took the tadpoles home. I'm pretty sure most of them turned into frogs and jumped out of the container we had them in, and poor things probably died.
I know this isn't one of those big exciting memories, but it's one that I come back to often when I think of him. I can still picture the two of us there, him, still young and healthy and full of ideas and ways to live, and me, around 12, bewildered by the world but happy to be with my dad.

August 10, 2015

Funny sounds from my childhood

I decided to start writing more memories, maybe because I thought my kids would enjoy reading them someday, maybe because I thought if I started writing about things I remember now, I'll remember more. I really do love time traveling. I try to imagine myself back in a previous situation, wondering what I'd do now that I supposedly know so much more about life. I think about time being fluid, alternative planes of reality, the seconds in the minutes purely a human invention.

I have two younger sisters. Admittedly, I got the best deal of all three of us. I was the oldest, which gave me privileges, at least before the other two got them. My parents' rather tumultuous marriage finally ended after I was pretty much out of the house, so I suffered none of the rather horrible post-breakup stuff that kids can't help but be involved in. My memories are all really really good, idyllic, actually. Both my parents were teachers, my dad a music professor at Indiana University of PA and my mom, a fifth grade teacher where we lived. This assured us of always having great summer vacations since both of them had that time off. It also meant that we had enough money to send my sister and me to boarding school if we wanted to go, nice clothes, etc. My parents were both very politically active and our dinner table discussions were anything but boring. We always had interesting people popping into our house.

The Bernat Family on one of our fabulous vacations. Betsy,
Dad,Becky, Me, Mom. Probably 1968.
There was this thing my dad did. My father had a way of staring at his victim that made that unfortunate being feel like laser beams were going through their head. His icy blue eyes could cut through infinite layers of bullshit if it didn't just scare you speechless. One night, Betsy wouldn't finish her dinner or some other thing that pissed off my dad. (He could have really dark moods). She was probably around 5 or 6, and she was a cutie pie, the baby of the family. My dad fixed her with his look. He kept it up and she was kind of squirming but not eating her dinner. Then, after I swear he hadn't blinked for about 5 minutes, she got real still. She sat there with this nervous goofy grin on her face, the kind kids get when they're about to pee themselves. Then, all of a sudden, out of that crazy little smile and a wild look in her eye, she yelled "WINNNNNGGGGGGGGG!" And that man -- he tried to hold it but he just couldn't, and he just kind of exhaled this repressed laugh. I don't know if she ever finished her dinner but that was hysterical.

Speaking of people making a funny noise. I mentioned we had interesting people in our lives: artists, writers, musicians, the banker and his hippie wife, other faculty, graduate students who needed a place to crash, it was always exciting there at 208 South 11th Street, although I would never say that then! One of our family friends was Margaret, a professor at a small college in West Virginia where my dad had been in the late fifties when I was just a toddler. She was a bohemian, living by herself, smoking cigars, taking mysterious trips to Denmark, we all loved her. Margaret was much older than my parents -- they were in their late 30's, she was probably well into her 50's. We would see Margaret occasionally. One famous time, after claiming parenting didn't have to be an ordeal (she had no kids of her own), she packed me and my sisters up for a trip to Chincoteague Island to see the ponies. Probably the last time I saw Margaret was when I was about 13 I think, in the late 60's. At the time my dad had a cute little cabin in Penn Run, PA where he would retreat to compose music and god knows what else. My mom, Margaret, my sisters, some of our friends and I were going to the cabin to spend the weekend. I think it may have been Becky's friends from Cambridge now that I think of it. Anyway, we girls were in one room with the door shut, giggling, and probably eating chips and onion dip and drinking Coke. Talking about boys, whatever. I suppose Margaret was in the other bedroom, and maybe my mom was sleeping on the couch, I don't know. Anyway, I had to pee (as usual). The bathroom was this tiny little closet with just a toilet and little sink, and when I opened the door there was Margaret, sitting on the toilet, hunched over so her nose almost touched the floor. She looked up at me from this position and uttered "NUH." Well, I was already giddy from all the silliness and the Coke. I stood there for a second, wondering if I was going to pee myself, and I just lost it. I spun around, my hand over my mouth and flew into the bedroom, giggling uncontrollably. My roommates stared at me and asked me what was so funny -- I couldn't stop laughing, only long enough to take a nice deep breath so I could NUH! at them, pointing to the bathroom, babbling. And then of course, they broke into their own form of hysteria, falling to the floor clutching their ribs, another flailing about on the bed. I somehow conveyed to them the image that was now burned onto my eyelids, that sound that would be forever etched in my eardrums!  I can't remember if I peed myself or not. I just remember we were all dying of laughter.My poor mom came in to see what all the ruckus was about, and we all looked at her and said NUH! and pointed to the bathroom. Then of course we learned about Margaret's alcohol problem.

July 27, 2015

Can You Hear Death Singing

...One of my favorite Patti songs.

Two sweet souls left the world this past week. The first, my old boss from the Office of Technology Assessment, our "supernatural, extra brilliant, intelligent, kindest of souls (to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg).Executive Director John Gibbons passed away on July 17th. I loved working there with so many intellectual, scientific, technical people. They weren't all nice, but they were at least really interesting. Most of them, though, were great. And I believe he had a lot to do with that. He encouraged open offices, lots of staff activities, and he showed up. I'll never forget the Christmas we really went overhoard. The whole agency had some kind of carnival, maybe to raise money for something. I led a mini-aerobics class, and there was Dr Gibbons, dancing away! He frequently attended the computer classes when I instructed everyone else. He left us to become the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy when President Clinton was elected, and he took a lot of key staff with him. It really never was the same after he left. And then Gingrich got his revenge and killed OTA. That's all besides the point now. Dr. Gibbons had that rare combination of high intelligence, kindness, ability to relate to anyone, and the drive to make the world a better place for generations to come. So he's gone now. The second person, I barely knew. He and his brother together were Amingo Glass. Ed's health had been declining. I admired Henry's tenderness with his brother when he brought him to doctor appointments. Their art is a testament to the best of brothers. I didn't know him well, but any time an artist passes, it's just different to me somehow. Here's a video about the brothers. Henry is the bespectacled one.

But the whole death thing. I think it started with my dad, and now, twenty years later, it seems like more and more people I know die every year. And I suppose that's the way it's supposed to be. But it makes me want to get comfortable with the idea. Intimately comfortable. I want DMT. I want to meditate on it. I want to sink into it. See it, not to control it, but to anticipate it well, like one would a vacation.

My dream death? I would be lying comfortably on my deck chair, late at night after a really hot day. Just now a cool breeze is washing over me. Heat lightening and fireflies break up the night. The clouds are playing over a full moon. The forest creatures are having a tribal jam but not so loud as they could be. It's peaceful. I'll have adjusted my attitude, calmly surveying the familiar silhouette of my trees, and I'll notice a glow coming through what looks like a green tunnel within the forest. It will seem perfectly natural to get up from my chair and walk down a glistening pebble path that wasn't there before towards the glow.... the heat lightening will intensify. The biophony will reach a crescendo. I'll feel a gentle suuuuuuccccccckkkkkkk and I'll be pulled through the tunnel, It really is green. I imagine it will take my eyes some time to adjust, my shock to subside. But when I'm centered, I'll look around and see people I used to know. I'll see some really old souls that I'd only heard about. I'll be on the Other Side and it'll be ok. It'll be sort of like going to the Fairie Festival every year and seeing those people I only see once a year, maybe, like a reunion. A permanent reunion.

Anyway, I feel very comfortable with that scenario. I just don't want it to happen real soon. I'm going to see Patti Smith in fuckin' AMSTERDAM in OCTOBER for my BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!

July 11, 2015

Beauty queens

IPageant girls. Why do they do it? I personally can't fathom what would motivate a young lady to put countless hours and energy into presenting herself to a panel of 5 judges' subjective say nothing of the nerve it takes to don a tiny bikini and parade around a stage, smiling the whole time like it's perfectly natural! It sounds like the makings of a nightmare to me. Until a few years ago, my only experience with Miss America was watching the show once a year on TV, picking out a favorite, and then making not-always-flattering comments about the contestants (and now I feel embarrassed about that last part!). I can't speak for other pageants, but here's a little bit about my experiences with the Miss America Scholarship Organization, at least on the local/state level.

My education began in 2013, when my younger daughter decided she wanted to compete in a regional Miss West Virginia pageant.  Ironically, she decided this while watching that year's competition on TV.

I quickly learned that Miss America contestants, even at the most local level, have many responsibilities even before winning a title. Each young woman must develop and support a platform, beg their friends and family to donate over and over again to the Children's Miracle Network, and of course, polish their interview and talent skills. Once a title is won, the demands increase; now on top of everything else, she must attend events on behalf of her local organization as a representative of the Miss America organization. And now of course, each title holder has her eyes on the big prize: the state title!

Willa competed in her first regional pageant in West Virginia, and she placed runner up. I was skeptical of her desire to compete again. I thought that her senior year of high school would be full of enough activities, along with looking forward to college! But no. Instead, she and Pageant Dad were soon strategizing, traveling to pageant shops for dresses, practicing her walk, watching YouTube videos. And before I knew it, she was crowned Miss Potomac Highlands and she was off to Morgantown to compete in the Miss West Virginia pageant. She won the Preliminary Talent award, and was one of the semi-finalists. Again, I thought (maybe, this time) it was over. She was going to college in New York after all, a new adventure all itself.

And she didn't compete that first year of college, but she told us she missed it. She was following all the New York pageant news. It's an especially exciting era for these girls, now that the third NY girl in a row has taken the Miss America crown! Again, almost before I knew it, she and Pageant Dad were discussing workouts, gowns, and platforms.

By this time, my mostly cynical attitude towards the Miss America system had turned into cautious optimism. It certainly wasn't because of the scholarships available. I don't care how carefully you shop, money spent on pageants can quickly cancel anything won. No, it was the non-tangibles that convinced me it's all worth it.  As a teen, her distrust of girls ran pretty deep, for good reason. I was worried she'd run into the same cattiness from pageant girls as she'd experienced growing up in a small town where one girl could make another's pretty miserable. Happily, I hear far more stories of girls helping each other backstage, see them post encouraging words on each other's Facebook pages, hear them bonding over disaster instead of using them to make someone feel bad.  Sure, there are a few bitchy ones, but they tend to be in the minority, and unlike middle school where girls flock around the bully to avoid being bullied, these girls are shunned. I've actually been more concerned about a couple of the pageant directors than the girls under their charge (think "Dance Moms"), but that's another story (where is Christopher Guest when you need a mockumentary director?!)

So she won a regional title, Miss Erie Canal in November 2014. She had a busy year, with college in full swing, and now a title to support. She worked hard, did well in school, as well as fitting in voice and other coaching, supporting her new platform (Involving Young People in Politics), and making appearances as Miss Erie Canal. And of course, prepping for Miss New York!!!!

This past June, she did make it into the Top Ten out of 29 girls, a pretty big deal in a competitive state like New York. Of course we all all hoped she'd make it into the Final Five, but that was not to be; mostly we were just happy she'd progressed, and she got to participate in the entire pageant (only the Top Ten girls get to compete on the final night).

By now, my attitude towards Miss America has taken a 180 degree turn from where it was in 2013. The Miss America pageants have changed my daughter from a girl unsure of how she fits with the rest of the world into a young woman with real confidence. It's driven her to perfect her talent (classical voice), and made her more socially aware as she has worked to support her platforms. She's made some pretty cool connections, both in the pageant world and outside.

So the next time you hear about some local girl competing in a Miss America pageant, please don't roll your eyes and by all means, get that picture of her in a bathing suit out of your head! You don't know what you're looking at. Ask her, instead, what her platform is all about. Wish her good luck! And look for Willa next year (and/or check out her blog). She's coming back!

July 6, 2015

some nights... and a serious question for you wordsmiths

i could swear i was up all night dancing
but i know i was home, on my deck, staring into the woods.
i can almost feel the motion of the dancers near me but can't see their faces, almost know the music that was playing.
one morning i awoke, remembering that the night before i thought had discovered that the ink night sky was actually shiny black gift wrap that you could float up and punch holes in with your embroidery needle. and it made stars, from the light behind it. the moon was really just a hole someone had cut into it.
sitting on the deck tonight, heavy air, dark sky except for the fireflies. some asshole who can't give up the 4th of July still exploding fireworks. then he stopped and the usual suspects started jamming in the woods again. i think i could recognize the aroma of my yard from any other: petunias, honey locust, freshly cut lawn, honeysuckle.... and it changes with the season. i think i like its summer smell best, especially at night.
so last night i was writing about food. i can't figure out what the word analogous to smell/aroma, vision/visual/, hear/aural, touch/tactile is for taste? comment.

July 5, 2015

My old dog

Tonight the 12 year old love of my life
Refused to come sleep on the bed.
He's down there on the floor.
I like him to Keep my feet warm down there
And i like to touch him with my foot when I wake up in the middle of the night.
And of course I worry: is he trying to get me used to him not being there someday? 
He is a very wise, sensitive creature. 
I wouldn't put it past him.