August 8, 2014

Finding the cabin

me and the sisters: pond mermaids
  That cabin. Weekends as a child with my family spent roaming in the woods, swimming in the pond, tobogganing down a woodland path...When I got older, sometimes I was allowed to take friends out to the cabin and we'd scare ourselves silly thinking there was a vampire in the woods. In one of those nebulous, dream-like memories, I remember taking my first boyfriend out there one afternoon....and  there are specific memories, such as Margaret getting drunk and sending us into hysterics when we found her passed out on the toilet: NUH! And the night we girls went with our babysitter Annie Ziegler, we sat in her car, while she sang along with "Angel of the Morning" on the radio.....Jerry Stern and his sea monster act in the pond, slithering around in the mud and pond scum to our delighted disgust. 
Then there is This cabin. The one where I returned to live full time in June 1977 with my husband Jay and 3 month old Phoebe. So many long walks in those woods with Doodah the bloodhound and sometimes Porker the pig, Phoebe slung snugly against me. There were no paths; we would
phoebe on moving day 
follow the beautiful little creek for awhile, and then find something else to follow. Mostly good days. There was the terrible storm, and some other not great things, but I loved that little cabin. It's where we celebrated Phoebe's first Christmas with a tiny little tree we cut down on Christmas Eve at sundown. It's also where Doodah is  buried.

Soon after we moved out of the cabin, my dad sold the cabin to the people who owned the neighboring cabins.

I wanted so much to find it but I couldn't remember how to get there. I stared at the Penn  Run area on mapquest for a long time before I drove out there yesterday; one of those remarkable breezy, perfectly sunny August mornings. I realized there weren't that many roads around Penn Run, and if I just drove around a bit, something would feel familiar. I did remember some things: a stretch of road with pine trees growing at perfectly spaced intervals. I remember thinking as I drove past it  so many times, that, with the sunlight just right, an epileptic would probably have a seizure because of the strobe effect of the resulting pattern of sunlight and shadow. And I remembered there was an unmarked intersection. Arriving in Penn Run, I first drove nearly all the way to Clymer before realizing no, this wasn't right, and turned around. After a few more rather aimless tries, something started clicking. I thought I found the trees, and wasn't sure until, yep, there was the intersection. As I drove on, it looked different enough to make me doubt myself again: the road seemed more narrow, because all the trees are so much bigger. There are a few new homes there, I think mostly weekenders. Then I remembered to also look for fishing creeks, and all of a sudden it was all in front of me: that beautiful little creek, and my lane. "Cool Waters: established 1966" The sign is still there. I had forgotten about that until I saw it today. I drove up the lane very slowly, wanting it to unroll so my mind could absorb as many details as possible. There's a new home on the right, close to the road. They might live there full-time; there were cars parked. The A-frame is still there where a  nice older man used to stay. I visited with him a few times and talked about wildflowers and what wild animal had been heard the night before; I think he felt sorry for me because I was often alone out there. Anyway, the other cabins are still there too... And then there it was. I actually saw the pond first, because it was so sparkling.
When I got out of the car I ran right over to the pond.... I was feeling so many emotions that I practically felt dizzy. For some reason, Loss was the big one. Loss of what? Being that young girl swimming lazily in the pond? The teenager who brought her first boyfriend out here? Or the young mama with her baby or, realizing that the man you shared it with is no longer on the Earth, although you were lost from each other long before that? I don't know, but it was there. At the same time, I felt happy, too, seeing that the land was well taken care of. I walked up the muddy lane to the stream, remembering how, in the spring, hundreds of little peepers emerge all at once, crossing the lane into the woods. I got a rock from the stream to take home with me.
that is not a snake! it's a hose fyi
 I felt enveloped in green, lush, sultry green everywhere. I love the house I live in now for the same reason I love the cabin: The trees surround us in an almost protective circle. The grass was soft and lush. It was absolutely quiet except for some birds and crickets and the air smelled sweet.  It felt like paradise. I enjoyed it for a few more minutes, trying not to dwell on memories, just to simply be with the cabin as it is now. 
 I decided to leave a note saying "Hey, I used to live here, and thanks for taking care of this place " on the door. And got back in my car and drove back down that lane, slowly. 

August 5, 2014

The most ignorant bumper sticker ever

"Work harder. Millions on welfare are depending on you."

That's what I saw on my way to work today. Yes, I am planning on working hard today. But am I begrudging of those who might be eating tonight because my tax dollars are funding a food stamp program?NO

When I was 20, I became pregnant. This was 1976, during one of the worst recessions Western Pennsylvania had ever seen. My husband (now ex), a Vietnam Veteran, had a job but fell off a ladder and hurt his back. His less-than-scrupulous employer didn't offer workers compensation or even unemployment: he must have been paying under the table. There were very few jobs available, but he finally found one working at a mental health day care facility, but it paid barely enough. I found out that we were probably eligible for Medicaid and food stamps, so we applied. We were also eligible for a small monthly stipend. It was a relief to be able to take my baby to regular medical checkups, get her immunizations on time, and have good food to eat. We were very poor, but had enough to scrape by until I could go back to work or my husband got a better job.

As relieved as I was, I was also embarassed to be in this situation. I was raised in an upper-middle class home; my mother was a school teacher and my dad was a university professor. Growing up, I wanted for very little. I am an intelligent person. I didn't like the way cashiers looked at me when I used our food stamps, and I felt like the people in the doctor's office were judging me. I told my mother how I felt. She said this to me: "Honey, I've been paying taxes almost all my life. It's about time that I see that money helping something I believe in."

Through the next couple of years, things did get financially a lot better for us. My ex-husband went to computer school under the veterans bill and got a good job in DC as a computer programmer, and I learned all I could about the emerging PC industry and got a good job on Capitol Hill. We eventually broke up, but it wasn't over money. When I thought back to my other, past life, I felt little of the shame I had before: now I felt incredibly grateful that the help had been there for us and we had used it to make ourselves better.

I am not naive. I know, especially in my current job as a family practice office manager, that there are some people who would rather sit around on their butts all day and do nothing, just collect their unemployment, or disability, or welfare or live off their parents. But I truly believe those people are in the minority. Disability and welfare pay very little. I would think a person who was content living on that tiny income would have to be truly needy. Then there are those square pegs that will never ever fit into the neat round holes of society. Are they bad people? Are they stupid or lazy? Most of the time, no, they are not. They're just different. Maybe for whatever reason, they can't hold a regular job. Perhaps they suffer from agoraphobia, or they're mildly schizophrenic. Who am I, or anyone else, to judge? There are truly people who will never make it our current framework, for whatever reason. Should they die of hunger, or illness? The fact that you are born into a world that you can't manage shouldn't be a death sentence. Yes, there should be intensive work programs to get people back to work. But for those still in the midst of getting that help, or who still can't earn a living, there should be at least a minimal support system, paid for by the taxpayers. It makes us all better people. Do we really want to live in a place where it's each person for themselves? I for one am glad that we do not.

August 3, 2014

Andrew Bernat

In answer to a friend's query about my father's father, upon finding out that an in-law had Bernats in their family tree:
Andrew Bernat, my grandfather, was of Polish descent (I thought). He was born in Johnstown and worked as a postman.  I know very little about him, since he and my dad were pretty much estranged most of his adult life. I remember meeting him a few times as a small child.  Once while visiting a restaurant with a friend years later, I recognized him while he was eating there. I had to introduce myself to him, perhaps making things awkward for the lady friend he was with. Ironically enough, this old man outlived both his kids. I found out he had died because now and then I'd google him and last time, I found his obit. That son-of-a-bitch didn't even mention either of his children (my dad, Robert Bernat, or Elizabeth Morin, his daughter), and certainly none of the grandchildren.  Curiously, it doesn't mention either of his wives - my father's mother Pearl Willey, or the one he married after she died. Maybe the family was worried that my sisters and me would come after Pop-pop's enormous fortune. Ha!

July 8, 2014

Nights in White Satin

Some people are transported back in time by a smell or a food. For me, it's music. When a song like "Nights in White Satin" comes on, I am once again a moody, melancholy teenager full of questions about life. Why are we here? What will I do when I'm a grown-up?  Why doesn't that boy like me?

Lindsay Ryder Myers introduced me to the Moody Blues when I was at the George School. She's probably responsible for my nocturnal habits. Lindsay and I would stay up all night. Sometimes we'd sneak out of our dorm and hike over to the railroad tracks. We'd smoke stale cigarettes, talking about love and life. She was poetic and bohemian, and she was adventurous. Besides the midnight forays, we'd often take the train into Philly to Reading Market and get some old bum to buy us a bottle of Boones Farm wine. Then we'd sit on a curb, and drink the wine with our bread and cheese. She seemed to have no fear. I wonder what ever happened to her. I wish I could thank her for all those wild times.

Later on, when I came back home for school, I used to stay up all night long working on art projects, listening to my favorite LPs. The next day I'd get up and drag my ass to school. God, I hated school. Not only was it boring, but most of the kids were mean. I was regularly shoved into lockers and subjected to verbal abuse by the jocks, which far outnumbered us "freaks" as we were called. "HEY BERNAT, WHY DON'T YOU EVER WEAR A BRA?" I guess I asked for some of it.... then go into a classroom and listen to a teacher drone on and on about something I really did not care about. I'd daydream, imagining the finishing touches I'd put on the woven rug I was making, or the cool macrame swing I was working on. I'd doodle song lyrics on my notebooks -- "breathe deep the gathering gloom.... " "excuse me while I kiss the sky...." I just wanted to be back in my room with the darkness all around me. I can remember staring out my window into the street below for hours, smelling the rain, or listening to the crickets. Sometimes I'd be in a state of... altered consciousness ... an escape from boredom, surely, and the moments would stretch into eternity. Feeling like time stood still sometimes. I'd try to do magic. My favorite magical fantasy was that I could put myself into other people's dreams and make them really scary if I didn't like them, or really wonderful if I did. I'd still like to do that, actually. Or I'd try to send messages to someone I loved by focusing on a thought for them. Things like that seemed possible. I guess they still do, I just don't do them as much anymore.

I sit out in the dark most nights, trying to retrieve that rare creative, pensive energy I had as a teenager, when music could fill me like a bottomless well with emotion.. I stare at the trees, the black lace against a black sky, wondering if I'm just too jaded for that to happen again. Is it just that when you're young, you have nothing to measure your experience on, and now, it's always being compared to something else that happened? The fireflies blink, the heat lightning pulses, but it's been doing that for years, hasn't it?

Addicted to Technology?

I'll admit it, I love my iPhone. I also love my iPad, my Mac, and my FitBit. I use them for everything from waking up to my iPhone's alarm, to falling asleep with earbuds firmly planted, listening to an audiobook.I love imagining what kind of crazy gadgets there will be in the next 10 or so years, and am in awe thinking about how far it's come in just the last 20 years.

But yesterday was ridiculous. Actually, beginning very late Tuesday night, when I realized my new iPhone was not allowing me to text -- every time I tried to send a text, I got the dreaded Not delivered message. It didn't make sense! Everything had been fine for the past 48 since I'd booted up and installed my phone. Something was wrong!

I'm the kind of person who hates when anything isn't working -- the plug in the bathtub, the TV, the car. It gives me a sense of unease, paranoia. If I have even the vaguest notion that I can fix it, I obsess. I trawl the internet for solutions, scour user manuals. I'll try the same thing over a few times, convinced that I did something backwards the first time. I'm a good troubleshooter, actually, but some things are beyond my grasp.

But when something I depend on everyday isn't working -- especially the one thing that keeps me in touch with my girls, one in Costa Rica, the other in upper state New York -- I go bonkers. I was up until 2 reading with growing horror, stories of people with iPhones who were having exactly the same issue I was -- and no solution! Some blamed their cell carrier, others blamed Apple. There were some things to try, so I carefully went through the steps to no avail.... tried to backtrack to remember something I had changed to make things misbehave. Nada.

I woke yesterday morning with a sense of impending doom. I picked up my phone and tried to text Willa. It worked! It worked! I felt happy. An hour later, I was right back to where I was at 2:00 a.m. Not delivered.  Rather than fiddling around on the internet again, I called Sprint and was on the phone for at least an hour and a half. While I was on the phone with the patient representative, we got a text or two to go through. The minute I hung up, there it was. Not delivered.

I tried to be brave. This wasn't the end of the world. But the fact that this situation made almost no sense was driving me insane. If things like this could happen, with no explanation, what would be next? Would trees come out of their rooted homes and start dancing down the street? Would dinosaurs come back to life? Would birds start flying upside down? I was having reality issues. I went and sat on the deck for awhile, realizing I had wasted most of my day worrying about this silly little thing while there were kids in Sudan looking for a safe place to sleep. I chided myself for the work that had gone undone. I tried to make myself feel better by admiring the flowers I'd planted, and how well they were doing. I really felt like I was going nuts.

I called Sprint again, and went through several of the same troubleshooting procedures, but nothing was happening. The nice representative told me I should call Apple. So I did. This representative wanted me to backup my phone and completely reset it. My phone was still backed up from the install that I did the day before, so I was fine with that -- but when I chose the re-set option with the iPhone connected to my mac, my mac started to download a software update - the same software update that I'd had to install when I got my phone. I was resolved to let it do its thing, however, so I left it alone. When I came back an hour later, I saw with much chagrin that the download was going to take SIX HOURS. I called Apple back, and explained to the techie that I didn't think this was necessary at all. He agreed with me and told me to cancel it. We ran through a few procedures, when all of a sudden, I noticed a message popping up on my phone that my phone number was being added to my Apple ID. Wasn't it there before? I could've sworn it was. In any case, the next thing I knew, I was receiving about a million texts all at once. I asked the technie to wait for a minute, and sent a text to Willa. WIN! The rest of the day was technologically uneventful. I went to Zumba. I came home. I made dinner. I worked for awhile. All was well.

This morning when I woke up I was instantly happy and content as I got ready for work. It didn't hit me until the middle of the afternoon how tied up my emotions were with the state of my technology. It was almost embarrassing, realizing how connected my happiness was to how well "things" were working. And now, a week later, I find myself angrier and angrier when things -- my password, a website, a phone -- don't work. I want to go live in a cave! (No, I don't). I am really going to try to react better when things don't work. Maybe say "THE HELL WITH IT. I'm going to go sit outside with a nice cold drink." Or go work on a hobby.

June 18, 2014

Perfectly magical night

6/17/14 12:30 am
Listening to: Telesma O(h)m Eating: 80% dark chocolate with chiles Drinking: A spot of absinthe

What a perfectly magical night. The sky was alive with different kinds of light. The heat lightning was strobing; the lightning bugs were flashing secret code from the tops of the trees to the dark lawn; the stars were winking out from the clouds. And in the east, the glow of a waxing moon against those same clouds, like a gauze gown flung casually across a glowing goddess you couldn’t quite see. And lots of other things out there, too, that you couldn’t quite see. In the spasms of lightning, wispy bugs flew in and out of peripheral vision, becoming something else. For sure I saw a being at the edge of the woods, gliding along the tree-line, and unlike myself on that same walk, seemed to avoid easily all the prickly undergrowth. And the biophony of the night was quite unlike most. What drew me outside while letting the cat in was actually this sound, this thrumming sound, almost like a bullfrog but more regular and subtle. I thought maybe it was frogs, frightened by the lightning. The thrumming formed the low end of the percussion section of this orchestra. On top were the regular amphibian-type sounds, in several octaves. A nearby cricket joined in, slightly off beat from the cricket chorus further away. Now and then the barking of a lonely dog interrupted, but not in a distracting, alarming kind of way. I was distracted, however, by trying to identify a sound in the woods, like a small thing going through the trees. Nattie the cat didn’t seem concerned, but I was starting to feel overwhelmed by the mystic quality of the night. That, combined with the Effexor finally leaving my body, drove me inside. Yes, the Effexor is leaving. All weekend I felt like my head was filled with shifting sand, and when I moved my head it was like a landslide in there. I had vertigo for three days straight. Finally during Zumba (yay, Zumba!) I started to feel more like my old self than I had for months. Getting the edge back, baby!

I love when a perfectly mundane day ends in such an enchanted way. As soon as I got up I got ready for work and got there – no fooling around with Facebook or walking around, looking at the flowers today. Worked, worked, and worked some more, then came home and prepped dinner. Oh, ok, Zumba is not mundane, that’s true – so yeah, then, Zumba. And then Osman came over and told us all the wonderful things he’s going to do on our latest round of big house maintenance: replace all the wooden trim with composite, fix the leak in the roof, prep the outside of the house for paint, tear down the old gutters, replace a bunch of windows, close up the old A/C wall unit space, and replace a patio door. He stayed around and chatted for a while – he is such a great guy in all ways – friendly, funny, smart, and honest. And he’s an amazing home project contractor! And then, dinner. No internet tonight! Wonder what Frontier is managing to fuck up this time. I’m feeling pretty smart about not bringing home my laptop tonight. I don’t really miss it, but it would’ve been nice to be able to download another Telesma CD and look for some photos online to go with this blog post.

June 15, 2014

Fathers Day

I don't really remember much about anything special I did for my dad on Father's Day. That kind of makes me sad. My absence of memories certainly pales in comparison to the memory Phoebe must have of a particular Father's Day a few years ago. After years of being more or less estranged from her dad, Jay, she got a phone message from him. Her initial reaction of confusion, fear, and suspicion was well earned. Her dad had fallen into a deep well of drug addiction during her early teen years. His journey from being an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam, to a civilian life where he never really found his fit, to a person who lost everything from his wife, his house, his dog, and finally, his daughter and nearly, his soul, was a long one. We were married for 10 years before the battle claimed our marriage; from there it was a steep decline. He fell out of sight for 16 years (I think). We had no idea where he was. We assumed he was still alive, but that was about it.
Phoebe got up the nerve to call him back, and she and her then-husband Jonathan arranged to visit Jay. It turned out he was living just 2 hours from them in West Haven Connecticut, close to the VA Hospital where he had been sent for drug rehabilitation after being arrested. He had been put on some pretty powerful drugs such as lithium, and nearly died from lithium poisoning. When he emerged from the fog, he decided to go off all the medication and joined AA. Gradually he returned to the world, and longed to reach out for Phoebe. And did. On Father's Day.
Their reunion ended up being a happy one, and he and Phoebe had several happy years. I was able to join in the reunion several times, and so many issues were laid to rest. I saw the man that I once knew, much older, vulnerable, but for the first time ever, happy, truly happy. Unfortunately, Jay passed away last year suddenly from a heart attack. This story could have been so much more sad, had he not made that Father's Day phone call.