January 30, 2016

Fear of flying

I have what some would call an irrational fear of heights, acrophobia. I've had it since my oldest daughter was about 4. I remember the exact moment it hit me for the first time. I was probably around 23. My then-husband, Phoebe and I were at a dam, on the bridge going across the dam. It was a beautiful day and we were having a picnic. Jay was holding Phoebe, but I noticed he was standing a bit close to the edge of the bridge and I felt myself getting nervous, nervous that she would suddenly leap out his arms and plummet over the side of the bridge into the massive dam below. Ridiculous, right?
From NPS Grand Canyon website

My dad had the same problem. I'm not sure it was as severe as mine. I remember distinctly our trip to
the Grand Canyon when I was a teenager. I believe dad had to wait in the car rather than watch my sister and me start walking down the crooked, rocky path that hair-pinned its way down the canyon. We didn't even go that far. I remember the sheer joy of that place - the blue sky over that mighty crack in the earth, a river far below snaking its way through the canyon. The path was treacherous - one mistake at the wrong place, and surely it would all be over. I don't remember being afraid; I just remember the beauty of it all and the exertion upon climbing back up.

Johnstown's Incline Plane/Visit Johnstown photo
Apparently my father and I, and my middle sister Becky, shared a terrifying incident when the two of us sisters were very young. He loved to take us on hikes all through our young lives, at least until we got too snotty to admit we enjoyed them. When I was around 4, and Becky was 2, we lived in Johnstown, a gritty city surrounded by majestic hills, cliffs, and caves. On this particular day, he somehow got us onto a cliff and couldn't get us down. He only told me about this once, and that was enough to realize how truly horrible it must have been for him: his two tiny daughters perilously perched on a cliff with no seeming way to get down. The details of how he finally got us down
escape me, but I believe that incident has stuck in the back of my head, waiting to come out when I had my own small children to protect.

my picture
So now I am limited by this fear. And I have to admit, some of it is totally irrational. For example, after anticipating for months the Bruce Springsteen concert at the Verizon Center, I was chagrined when I realized our seats were in the Upper Concourse. As we were led to our seats, I felt the familiar vertigo, the churning of my stomach. I tried to breathe deeply, tell myself it was all in my head, that nothing bad could happen at a Bruce concert. I tried to imagine the tiny people I saw below, the dollhouse sized-stage set was actually a movie that I was watching. For two solid hours nothing helped. I tried meditating my way through Bruce's River set, pushing thoughts of crashing through the meager guard rail four rows ahead of me out of my head every time they popped up. But it was too much concentration for too little reward. For every good thought I had, I had 5 thoughts of falling. Unimaginable horrors became real:  the seats ahead of me became a solid, slippery surface that I would trip onto, and I'd slide, clinging like a cat to anything to slow me down, faster and faster until I went over the edge into a bloody mess as a horrified audience watched my descent. Or, a spin on a modern horror: a gunman, or maybe multiple gunmen, opening up on the audience, which would panic, rushing to the exits, and I would be the one pushed over the edge. I finally realized, into the third hour (yes, Bruce is still doing that!) I hadn't thought of falling in at least... oh, five minutes.

Photo from Wikimedia
So many other things: The first fight my husband and I had as a married couple was on our Masada, the ancient fort in Israel that sits atop a rock plateau. I've forgone at least several beautiful hikes, or ditched out; my poor husband has had to rescue me several times, when, unbeknown to me, a hike had taken us much higher than I was comfortable. He practically had to carry me off a mountain in the Canadian rockies when a path, up til then disguising the sheer drop with thick trees, we suddenly came upon a waterfall going straight down the cliff we had ascended.
honeymoon in Israel, when I refused to ride up the cable car to see

Jaco Transfers photo. Not me, but similar to the view I enjoyed
I am happy to say that I've conquered part of my fear, though it wasn't conscious, I wasn't trying. It just kind of evolved.  It's only when I'm "in charge" that my fear of falling overcomes me, In other words, airplanes don't bother me, in fact, I covet the window seat so I can enjoy the clouds, map out zipline and dangled there for a few minutes until I figured out how to get going again - and I marveled at the view of the far off ocean and the verdant canopy of trees beneath me rather than panicking.
the scene below. Incline planes and gondolas are fun! The really only horrible part of a zip line for me is waiting on top of the platform for my turn. In fact, a couple of years ago in Costa Rica, I got stuck in the middle of one of the longest, highest sections of a

I realize what some of my fear is, besides whatever primal fear was left from the experience with my dad. A crazy part of me actually wants to jump. Well, maybe not 'wants" to, but there is a sick curiosity of what it would feel like. We've all had those dreams where we're falling - and it feels pretty liberating, at least in the dream, and it's harmless, because we usually wake up before we land. I remember parasailing in Jamaica, the gentle currents guiding my wing far above the bay. I really felt like a bird and I want that. My head knows that if I jump I'll die, but something in my heart wants that soaring feeling.

Have I tried anything to cure my fear? No, not really. There's the part of me that's in every phobic, that my phobia is based on something real, and I'm the smart one for fearing it. Will I ever be like Jimmy Stewart in "Vertigo," forced to face my fear in the face of real danger? God I hope not. If I am, I will probably just.... jump.

November 29, 2015

getting older

I recently turned 60.
That just sounds wrong. I remember when my mom turned 60 and it wasn't that long ago. My sisters and I took all my parents' old movies of us kids and turned them into a VHS tape. On the other hand, maybe it was awhile ago.
I looked at my 38 year old daughter recently and reminded myself that when I was her age, I was pregnant with Willa. I looked at my 21 year old daughter and reminded myself that when I was her age, I was pregnant with Phoebe.
Also: turning 60 means I've been with Matt for half my life! 

November 2, 2015


I love this woman.
Seeing her in Amsterdam was magic. She performed in a club that was formerly an ancient church. We all went on a trip to 40 years ago when "Horses" was released, playing it all the way through. "Bird land" was really special, transformative. She ended with a few of her old favorites, "Dancing Barefoot," "People Have the Power" (which really should be #Bernie's anthem), "Because the Night." As always, with her usual charming banter in between songs. I can't even count the number of times we've seen her, but this time was really intense. This picture was taken at her concert in Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh. My father was the founding director of the River City Brass Band. The band had a concert in this very hall every month. I saw Patti Smith perform in the very spot my dad stood with his baton, directing the band. We had VIP tickets to meet Patti and the rest of the band after the show. Patti was so sweet to Willa; when she found out it was Willa's birthday, she dug into the pocket of that black jacket she always wears and pulled out a bootlace. She gave it to Willa, saying, "I know it's not much, but that lace has been with me all over the world." Her performance last week was every bit as fierce and shamanic as any I'd seen years ago.

And I love her writing. Every high school kid should be required to read "Just Kids" to inspire them, open their eyes. Patti started with nothing, but she believed in herself and developed a good network of friends, all of them involved in the arts. They lived close to the edge but they were all doing what they wanted. They dared! I think people are too scared now to dare doing what she did. What a shame. This new book, M Train, is totally different. It's autobiographical, but dreamier, with lots of insight into what she was feeling throughout. Amazing stories, sad stories all strung together on a meandering web.

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!!!!!!!