Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Charles M. Schulz, The AstroBeagle, and Me - UPDATED 8-21-19

In 1989 I wrote a short article for a tiny publication about being thankful. My article, “Why I am Grateful for Charlie Brown” detailed how I had carried around a tiny book of Peanuts comic strips entitled “Everything I Do Makes Me Feel Guilty.” I thanked Charles M. Schulz for creating in Peanuts, an assembly of characters that not only entertained me, but spoke to my troubled teenage years as well as my (at that time) young motherhood.

I treasure the letter I received in return, and his wish for me: “I am pleased to know that the Peanuts family has been helpful to you down through the years, and hope they will continue to have a place in your home in the future.” Those who know me, know how true those words were, and still are, to this day, 40 years later.

This weekend I will be traveling to the Midwest, to be with my son, his wife, and their children, to provides support and love as their youngest undergoes brain surgery. There was no doubt what I would bring with me for this baby full of smiles and laughter — a Peanuts gift. The choice was apparent the moment I saw it, a stuffed Astrobeagle commemorating Snoopy’s role as NASA’s safety mascot. Astronauts and ground crew would even “beep” Snoopy’s nose for luck, and carry a silver Astrobeagle medal on their journey, to be gifted to a special ground crew person on the return. I’ll be carrying the stuffed Astrobeagle on the plane and on the train, asking strangers to pose with him and smile, so he can bring all their good vibes to the one who needs them most next week.

And while I am at it, I’d like to thank Charles M. Schulz again – he probably never realized how his words would come true like this – that Peanuts has had a place in my home and my heart in all the intervening years since his letter.

And so, I posthumously award Charles M. Schulz a Smile Starter Award for all the smiles he has brought to the world. I know, somewhere in the great beyond, he is beeping Snoopy’s nose for all of us.

UPDATE: 8-21-19

I opened up the plastic frame with my Schulz letter in it, and found ANOTHER LETTER, from 1991 - in this letter he says "When a person sits in a room by himself day after day trying to draw something funny, and sometimes meaningful, he has no idea as to the affect it might be having on his readers." What a wonderful thing to find after all these years! Also in there, a 1995 postcard from Dave Barry when I thanked him for the "eyes" of his audience that fell on something I wrote that was published next to his column.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

August is Supposed to be Happiness Happens Month

Image by HOerwin56 from Pixabay
I am posting this on a day that is full of horror and sorrow. A day which once again finds families making preparations to bury victims of violence. Violence that is happening too frequently to chalk it up to a homicidal sociopath with motives that cannot be explained. Homicidal sociopaths have always existed among us. However, they have now been joined by homicidal ideologues who have been emboldened by hateful rhetoric. Rhetoric that aims to normalize divisive tribalism in order to centralize power, control and the money that goes with it.

Today, as I feel almost without hope, I remind myself, as did Anne Frank, that there IS good in the world. Good that is not owned by one group or another, but that lives in the hearts and minds of many people. People who must now, as we did after 9-11, bind together to keep the darkness at bay. 

Once I wrote "we will laugh again" during a time we never thought we could. Since that time I have learned how necessary laughter is to human survival. From primitive times when a smile or laugh between two neolithic strangers was a sign of harmless intentions, and a willingness to
"all get along," to the survival-enhancing and bonding purpose of the laughter of a baby; laughter has sustained humanity.

On the evening of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January, 2015, I was scheduled to give a presentation on laughter. I was despondent, I could not imagine asking people to laugh on such a horrific day. But after expressing my concern to other members of the Association for Applied & Therapeutic Humor, I understood how very important it was to go on with the program. Not only to share laughter in a safe space to ease stress and release endorphins, but to help the attendees build resilience to help them through the difficult days. Difficult days, that now, in 2019, are still being repeated.

My wish for those in mourning is that happy memories — times of laughter and smiling — will help sustain them in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. That they may gather with others who loved the persons lost; to weep together, grieve together, share memories together, and eventually laugh together.

And I will continue to look for those people who help us build our resilience through their smiles, laughter, hopefulness and giving spirits. And I will be thanking those near me in Central New Jersey, who share this gift with others. Not just because it is a nice thing to do, but because we need it for our survival.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

There's A Funny Story in Here Somewhere - Water, Wasps & Mosquitoes

There has been a little break in action here at Swamp Central. By that I mean, there are no workers under my house, performing inscrutable procedures. I’ve had the time to re-examine what has gone on, and how, quite possibly, my own distress taken advantage of. First of all, standing water under one’s house is no joke. Specters of mold, mosquitoes, collapsing foundation walls and dollar bills being sucked down the drain at hyper speed are not crazy panic-induced illusions. They are all possible. However, they are not inevitable.

I realize now that the word “mold” was used by a man purposely wearing a for-real, I-mean-business respirator. I realize now, that the workers who spent hours in that same environment wore the same kind of mask I wear to clean out the bottom of my birdcage. I realize now, that the people I hired did not have proper equipment for removing the water, despite " flood clean-up" being their business. I realize now, that two dehumidifiers, left running under my house for more than a week, were not discharging water to the outside of the house, or the sump pump pit. Quite possibly, they were just discharging the water right back into. the crawl space. And, I realize now, that I know where the abundance of mosquitoes around my deck is coming from.

A correction is needed for sure, and no independent inspectors seem to exist. So, decided to get at least three estimates from local water proofers chosen by an online web service that purports to list reputable companies. I arranged appointments over a day and a half, looking to make a decision immediately following. I gave very detailed information about wanting an inspection and quote. For a crawl space. With a three-foot clearance. And standing water. I purposefully did not mention the “m” word, now convinced, that if you mention it as a concern, they will play on that and tell you it exists, whether it does or not.

Contractor/salesman #1 arrives. He pauses as I open the hatch. “Oh, this is a crawl space,” he says. “Oh, it has water in it?” he asks. “Nobody told me, and, anyway, I am not dressed for that,” he concludes. “How about I come back tomorrow, or first thing Saturday morning?” He had been at my house about 3 minutes.

He left, and I immediately went on the online web service, and gave his outfit a poor review, indicating that they were being dinged for wasting my time (time I had taken off from work) and that they lost my business no matter how many good reviews they had.

Then I decided I better call the other two bidders to make sure they were coming prepared. Contractor #2 put me on hold. Then another person came on the line and said, “Oh, our inspector just called out sick for tomorrow. Can we reschedule for next week?” No second chance for them.

Contractor #3 was almost surprised when I asked if their representative would be prepared to go under my house. They assured me he would be. But, actually, he wasn’t. However, he at least jumped down into the pit, shone a flashlight into the crawlspace, took measurements with a laser ruler, and examined the sump pump system and new pump that had been improperly installed. We walked around the outside of the house and he determined that grading was NOT contributing to the water. I felt a little better about taking a quote from him. This was the only place that I had an actual personal recommendation for, and I made sure to name drop. However, I think they need to come again, with a clean suit and a mask, to crawl around down there and give me a better assessment.

Of course all things halted for the Independence Day weekend. But that didn’t mean things got quiet here. The LOML was mowing the grass in the front yard and I was inside the house. I heard him cry out and the lawnmower stop. All the DuPont Safety Magazine gory articles about lawn mower accidents ran through my head, and I ran outside – running into the LOML heading into the house, pulling off his shirt. Apparently, he brushed up against the yews in the front yard, and had gotten attacked by wasps. After finding all the stings and administering AfterBite and Benadryl, I went to peek at the bush. A fairly large amount of angry wasps were flying around. From behind the safety of the living room window, I could see a paper wasp nest – not as big as the basketball-sized ones I have seen in trees – but bigger than a softball for sure.

Friends had all sorts of ideas, from burning them, to sneak stomping the nest after dark. I decided that discretion is the better part of valor, and we called in a professional. 

And he never once mentioned mold.
The real WaspMan at work in my front yard.

Monday, July 1, 2019

There's a Funny Story in Here Somewhere - Part 4 Back to Square One

Welcome Back to Square One! Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to Square One! Tonight we have a breathtaking show for you! Hair-raising feats sure to take your breath away! Comedy to leave you rolling on the floor! Tonight, at great expense we present the comedy stylings of Jersey Girl, warming you up for the grand finale — the daredevil only known by the initials, LOML."

(applause and cheering)

Jersey Girl: Hello Jamesburg! Glad to be with you tonight! Especially because it isn’t raining! Because it has been raining a long time in Jersey!

Crowd: How long has it been raining?

Jersey Girl: It’s been raining so long; the dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark have gone extinct!

Crowd: Laughter

Jersey Girl: And in addition to that, it’s been raining so hard!

Crowd: How hard has it been raining?

Jersey Girl: It’s been raining so hard my house is “underwater" — both literally and figuratively!

Crowd: Groans

Heckler: Hope you had some liquid assets to bail you out!

"Thanks Jersey Girl. Looks like LOML is ready to perform his feat of unmitigated strength and bravery. Please, we need complete silence as he dons his protective facemask, safety gloves and boots. Notice the headlamp — this could go out at any time, leaving LOML in complete darkness during is descent. I direct your attention to the trap door being opened by our lovely assistant."

(hushed attention)

After the trap door is opened fully, LOML gazes down into the chasm. He adjusts his mask, and flicks on his headlamp. With a wave to the crowd, he begins to slowly lower himself into the darkness. The crowd gasps as his feet hover close to the gaping Pit of Sump, just missing it at the last second. He takes a deep breath, drops to his hands and knees and begins to crawl. As he disappears into the void, the crowd holds their breath.

“Yes!” comes the muffled voice. I’ve reached the Pool of Groundwater, and I can see the Hanging Wires of Electricity.”  There is a sound of splashing. “I’m ok! It’s clean water!” Then the voice goes silent.

Jersey Girl hovers over the chasm opening. The crowd begins to murmur. “Pull him out!” someone shouts. Then suddenly, a light appears, and LOML crawls back into the chasm, waving his cellphone triumphantly. “I have pictures!” he shouts. He hoists himself out of the hole, tosses his mask aside, and is greeted by a relieved Jersey Girl who looks as if she wants to hug him, but then remembers where he has been. “To the showers!” she proclaims.

(The crowd goes wild.)

Tonight’s show is brought to you courtesy of Rising Water Tables, Inc. Tune in tomorrow for the next exciting installment.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

There's a Funny Story in Here Somewhere - Part 3 - The Remediator Problem

Not the actual "Inspector" but close. Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay
At first, it appeared that remediation was the solution. The sump pump in my crawl space had failed — it was ancient, after all — and all that was needed was a pump out and clean up. The Inspector for the Remediation Company donned a head-to-toe clean suit, complete with a respirator and a hood, then descended into the crawl space. When he resurfaced, the news was dire. The entire crawl space was flooded, wet insulation was hanging from the rafters, and the place was rife with bacteria and mold. I wasn’t to worry, they had all the certifications to do the work, and they would commence pumping out the water right away. They’d spray a “harmless” solution into the air to kill mold and bacteria, and no, I didn’t need to have a mold test. They explained that cleanup was Phase 1, and that Phase 2 would involve removing the waterlogged insulation and replacing it, and other unspecified work they would only know about after the cleanup.They gave me a price, which made me feel like vomiting, and said Phase 2 would "probably" be less. With all my resolve to control the situation, the mention of the trigger word “mold” pushed my skeptism away, and I signed the clean up contract, ran up my credit card to the limit for the down payment, and started the process to withdraw money from the only source in which I had “liquidity.” (no, it wasn't selling a kidney.)

Red flags appeared immediately. Instead of running a hose to the street to pump the floodwater into the storm drain, they put the hose in the middle of my back yard. It would take several days for this action to become significant. I heard the workers — who only wore surgical masks, not respirators like The Inspector — talking about they could not reach all the areas of flooding. I heard them tell each other to pull down the insulation that was hanging down. No one told me, no one showed me what they were removing (water logged? moldy? I saw no evidence of this), no one admitted that they couldn’t reach all of the water. They pumped water for two days to the back of my already saturated yard, then set up a fan to "dry things out." In the meantime, I had to get a plumber to replace the sump pump. While I was waiting for that, the crawl space filled up with water again. More pumping. This time, I came home to find them pumping the water over the side of my deck, and directly against the foundation of the house. I told him the water had to go to the street, not right back into my crawl space. He said that wouldn't happen(as if I was saying something stupid) and that he was done for the day anyway. The next day, I caught a different worker doing the same thing. Pumping water over the side of my deck. When I told him to stop, he and his coworker said they would pump it into the back of the yard then. That was someone saying something stupid — but I was not having any more pouring water onto everyone's waterlogged properties. Needless to say, they were soon scurrying to find enough hose to reach the street. The pumping ended with the end of their work day and when I asked if all the water was gone, they said "no."

They again left me with two fans running to “dry things out.” It kept raining, and raining. Water came back in. Or so they said. After all, they never said they had gotten all the water out to begin with, shown me any pictures, etc. At this point it became obvious they were relying on a 64 year old woman not climbing down into the crawlspace herself. That fear of exposure to mold would also keep her from allowing anyone else without a cleansuit and a respirator down there either.

The Remediators continued to say they couldn’t figure out where the water was coming from, and it was still coming in. They were, after all, a clean up crew, not a waterproofing company. Then, they came to my house to announce that Phase 1 was finished. They proceeded to propose Phase 2—treating for mold, the existence of which had yet to be shown to me. Fees were added in for the “extra work” already performed. This included the removal of all insulation, and the disposal fees incurred. Again, nothing had been shown to me, I did not authorize any "extra" work. They stated the weren’t “even” charging me for the multiple time they came to pump out the water.

I asked where in the contract it said they would only come once to pump water. I asked at what point was the crawlspace free of water, especially since I had heard that there wasn’t enough hose to reach all areas. Then I told them that they may be a contributory factor in the re-flooding, as they pumped the water into my yard and against my foundation instead of into the street. This they denied doing. To my face. Suddenly they "knew" where the water was coming from. The mainline to my house, under my driveway, was broken, and my responsibility to fix. I told them we were done. 

Without batting an eye, they said my floors were going to collapse because of the moisture issue. They said they needed to “encapsulate” the crawl space with plastic. I asked them where the water, which was still coming in, would go. They told me, with no sense of irony, “under the plastic.”

I again said we were done. They continued to protest. I thanked them for telling me I now had a $20,000 main line replacement to finance. I’ll give them credit, they still continued to try and sell themselves. I think it was because one of them was driving a big, black, shiny, Mercedes van. (Who knew there were such vehicles?) A van, into which, he was not going to put all that dirty equipment I told him to take with him. He also wasn’t getting any more van payments out of me. Because now, I had to Start from Square One, and nothing was funny yet.

… to be continued

Saturday, June 29, 2019

There’s a Funny Story in Here Somewhere – part 2 My Parents Vs. the Waterproofing Company

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay
One of the exciting things that attracted my parents to buying the house in East Brunswick, New Jersey, was the existence of a “finished basement.” The basement of our Brooklyn home was a dark, musty space. It was also the location of the self-inflicted demise of the previous owner, which inspired my parents’ dark humor. Any odd noise or misplaced item was blamed on Mr. Berkquist, who they insisted was still “hanging around.”

In contrast, the new basement had knotty pine paneling, a bar made of the same wood, cool accent lighting, a workshop, a laundry room, and a space heater to keep us toasty in the winter. It was used for family parties and decorated with a couple of Christmas trees before the “underground river,” that the realtor forgot to disclose, began to rise.

The house had come with a sump pump installed at the low point of the basement, but as the water table rose, rivulets of water began to flow from multiple places behind the knotty pine paneling. My dad came up with a unique system. He hammered some kind of tap or thin pipe into the foundation at regular intervals, inserted the ends of those taps into the side of a garden hose, which he ran around the entire basement. He put the end of the hose into the sump pump, and put the paneling back up.  And that worked well.

Some time later, the idea of “French drains” began to circulate in the neighborhood (one house actually fell into its own basement when its soggy foundation gave way). Soon, the sales people knocked on our door, and my parents were sold on the selling point used: “you’ll never need a sump pump again.” Our finished basement became a construction zone to dig a channel all around the foundation, for water to drain into. Instead of something like, I don’t know – a garden hose? A lid was affixed to the sump pump hole and my parents were convinced that our finished basement’s water problems were over.

And they were, until that time we went away on vacation, during which there was a horrendous storm at home. We came back to find water covering some of the basement steps. Apparently, the power had gone out, and the French drains had overflowed because, THE SUMP PUMP WAS NOT DRAINING THE WATER. You know, that sump pump that wasn’t even supposed to be there anymore.

What ensued was a fight of legendary proportions – my parents taking the position that the waterproofing company had misled them, and they were responsible for the ruination of our finished basement.

The waterproofing company said it was “an act of God” that the power went out, they couldn’t explain why the sump pump that wasn’t supposed to be there didn’t kick back on when the power was restored, and they were not responsible. And to boot, my parents still had a balance due.

The entire drama took a heavy toll on my mother, and problems she already had became much worse. Eventually, there was a settlement. The basement and our lives, however, were never the same. To this day – 31 years after we lost our parents, the word “waterproofing” and the name of the company involved (which is still in business) invoke bad memories.

So, my panicky reaction to a crawlspace full of water was understandable. But I was determined that no waterproofing company was going to give me a nervous breakdown. I was going to call the shots, control the situation, and fix the mess. And, to “practice what I preach,” I would come out at the end with a funny story.  But first, I’d have to deal with The Remediator Problem.

… to be continued

Friday, June 28, 2019

There's a Funny Story in Here Somewhere (This could take awhile)

Image by roegger from Pixabay

Things were going along swimmingly. The start of summer was on the horizon, my Jersey tomatoes were planted, and I was planning to bring my Laughter Wellness class back in July. I had a wonderful time presenting The Smile Side of Life to a group of lawyers in a lakefront park, spent a weekend at a Wellness Conference at Rutgers University, and GE was about to deliver a new laundry unit to replace the defective one delivered a week earlier. 

For reasons that may never be understood, I became uncomfortable about the route the delivery had to take to get into my house. Up the driveway, into the yard, onto the deck, around the gazebo corner, and over the crawl space trap door. I knew it was possible, after all the old one had been delivered that way, and the new defective one also. But something was bothering me.

It may have been the overabundance of rain we had been experiencing. It may have been the fact that the temporary crawl space trap door plywood seemed a bit too “flexy” and wet. It could have been the never-far-from-my-mind anxiety that just likes to conjure up worry about things that are very unlikely to happen.

Convinced that the trap door was going to collapse just as the laundry center was being delivered (during the delivery window time period torrential rains were predicted, again), I asked the LOML if he could unscrew the wood, and affix some 2x4 crossbars on the underside, to firm up the hatch.

While I went off to the conference, he got the wood, gathered his tools, donned his safety glasses and work gloves, then opened the portal to … crawlspace hell.

Now, whomever built this series of houses on my block, built them on 3 foot crawl spaces, with dirt floors. Plumbing and electrical lines snake through the overhead area, and the water shut off and water meter are both located in secret locations requiring poking through insulation in pitch darkness. Basically, not a maintenance-friendly area.

There is also a water table issue. Actually, all of New Jersey has a water table issue, except perhaps the Watchung Mountains. Flooded basements, swampy yards and extreme high tides are daily occurrences. (See my book, “Treading Water”). So it wasn’t unusual that my house came with the traditional New Jersey sump pump. The unusual thing about it, is that it is situated in its own cinderblock pit, adjacent to the foundation of the house, with a gaping hole in the foundation allowing access to the crawl space. And just to make it interesting, this pit, and the trap door for access, are located directly outside the back door of the house. You will only forget to close that trap door one time.

So, the LOML removed the hatch, intending to shore up the “flexy” wood. However, upon looking straight down into the pit, where the infamous Jersey sump pump lived in its watery grave, he could see that the pump was indeed deceased, and water in the neighborhood of 6 or more inches was gently lapping at the walls. Not having hip waders or scuba equipment, he proceeded to add the supports to the door, then put it back in place, and called me at the Conference. I heard nothing else after he said “water in the crawlspace” as I was immediately transported back to a watershed moment of my childhood — My Parents Vs. The Waterproofing Company

to be continued...