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...




Wednesday, June 12, 2019

A Blast of Water From the Past (while I deal with the blast of water in the present)

This week, I am dealing with a fairly serious flooding situation. It is nowhere near the experiences of some people in the Midwest recently, for that I am both grateful and saddened. I wish strength to everyone dealing with the damage done by the catastrophic flooding, tornadoes, and other disasters, and hope they get assistance from FEMA soon.

For me,  the situation is not that dire. But it is a continuation of what I'd like to call my "watery" adventures, and the reason for the title of my book "Treading Water." (Available here, and also on Amazon.) And yes, this is a shameful plug for that book, new sales of which might assist me with my less serious flooding situation. Below is a little tale that happened after the publication. And perhaps, once all the clean up and repairs are done for this recent "adventure" I will find a funny story in there somewhere.


Another Watery Adventure


Yesterday, an appliance malfunction reminded me that water-related events continue to haunt me. I thought I was safe when the 100-year flood in Jamesburg only brought water into my yard and right up to my deck, but not into my crawlspace or house. For the past several winters I have scrupulously avoided frozen, burst water pipes by always remembering to let the kitchen faucet trickle, just a tiny bit. And the Atlantic Ocean has allowed me to maintain my dignity by not knocking me down or removing my swimwear during my summer visits. But, the water may be still, but it is running deep. I have a toilet that refuses to be fixed, and will run water incessantly if not closely monitored. The way the little chain manages to knot itself up, despite numerous adjustments, points to more at work than faulty parts. Which brings me to this week's adventure, in which two elements conspired against me, water AND fire — or at least smoke.

In preparation for a seminar in NYC, I threw in a load of laundry that included just about every seminar-suitable piece of clothing I own. I also included the only jeans that fit me comfortably. Basically, I left out formal wear, outfits that require panty hose, and sweats. As the washer filled up, I filled the teakettle (with what else, water). When the teakettle whistled I came back into the kitchen and noticed an odd smell. The air seemed to have a lot of teakettle steam in it. As I poured the water into the teacup, I realized that the smell was more smoky than steamy, that it was getting worse and that the washer had stopped. As soon as I got near the washer, I realized the smoky stink was coming from it, and my first thought was that the motor was burning up. I tried to pull the washer out so I could pull the plug, but of course, true to the way my life goes, the washer was full of water. I turned it off, but the stink was growing and I expected to see flames behind the washer at any minute. A fireman's brigade was quickly formed to empty the water from the washer and dump it in the sink, using a bucket, a pot and some water bottles. My eyes burned and my throat hurt as we bailed and bailed until finally the washer was light enough to move. Thankfully, the plug was not hot, no wires were burning, at least on the outside of the washer. No flames were evident, and with no power, the washer cooled down. The smoky stink clung to everything in the house.

My mind flashed back to the apartment I lived in when I was 18. A basement apartment. An apartment that might not have been legal due to the insufficient plumbing. The way I learned about that was the day I came home to find sewer water spewing up out of my toilet and my kitchen sink. It was 4 inches deep in the kitchen. Luckily, at that time, I had a portable washer, and I spent a long evening with a bucket, dumping the water into the washer, and then putting the drain hose out the window to get rid of the fouls smelling stuff. I was able to break my lease shortly after that. Getting the smell out of my belongings took a lot longer.

Today, I hauled all the sopping wet clothes from this recent washer adventure outside and hung them to drip dry. I skipped the seminar (having nothing to wear) and began the "waiting for the repairman" ritual. While waiting, I counted all the pennies I could find to try and determine if I could replace the stackable washer and dryer if indeed the motor was fried.  It was looking more and more like I would be patronizing the disgusting, expensive laundromat in town.

I greeted the repairman like a teenager meeting a pop star, and hovered nearby as he began to take apart the washer. Taking off the cover let out a last gasp of choking stink, and we both coughed. The repairman did his thing while I tried not to overwhelm him with anxious questions. Finally, his head came out from under the washer. In his hand was what looked like a giant seal from a mason jar. It was black and crunchy. It was a "belt" and it had slipped out of wherever it was supposed to be, and it had burned the only way rubber knows how to burn — by stinking up the place. He replaced the belt, we ran the washer through its paces, and to my great relief, it worked fine! The specter of the laundromat faded from my brain. I could hear my checkbook actually sigh with relief.

Later, as I reloaded the washer with the original load of clothes, I thought, maybe the water stuck in the washer when it stopped wasn't again the universe's damp way of compounding a problem for me. Maybe the water was there to protect me, in case the overheated belt actually did start some flames. Maybe water is finally my friend. I may have to stop torturing it in the teakettle.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Father's Day 2019 - I had a Father, and a Daddy, and I Miss Them Both

(L) Robert Allen Serjeant (R) William Johnston Braman

William Johnston Braman died on May 2, 1955. I got to visit him in the hospital once, and according to my mother, I cried the whole time. I was, after all, less than one month old. With no memory of him, it may sound strange to say that I miss him, but I do. Not the sound of his voice, not the familiarity of his face, not the wonderful experiences we had together. No, I had none of those things. No, knowledge of him is based in some photos, some rare stories from relatives, my mother’s even rarer mentions of him, and a long, detailed ancestral history thanks to my cousin’s wife. I carry with me his DNA, and so do my children and grandchildren. We have all inherited his genetics, and whatever ways it manifests itself in our bodies.  My pointed nose, and a grandchild’s blue eyes may be his influence. And that leads to what I miss about him. I have the “nature” part of him in shaping me, but not the “nurture.”  That part of me formed completely without him, as happens to anyone who grew up without one or both biological parents.



Robert Allen Serjeant came into my life when I was two years old, and became my “Daddy” on April 12, 1958. I was so happy about this, that I announced, at the top of my lungs, “I have a Daddy now!” in the middle of a subway car. My “aunt,” who was taking care of me while the newly-weds honeymooned, felt the need to explain to a group of strangers about my father’s death and my mother’s remarriage. It was the 50s after all.



“Daddy” was the only father I knew, and his was the “nurture” role. Pretty soon he had two more little girls to raise. He wasn’t always easy to live with, sometimes meting out tough discipline. He was the source of an unpleasant nickname that still haunts me today. The older I got, the more we clashed. My mother’s alcoholism and his own problem drinking didn’t help any of us.  Yet, I never once felt that I wasn’t his daughter. Despite tempestuous times, I always went back to mend fences for the sake of “family.” And when grandchildren came into the picture, we saw a man softened by life whose strong hands were the only ones that could soothe those gassy babies. He and my mother died within months of each other when both were in their early 50s. It was a devastating loss – not the least of which was knowing that there were many things left unresolved. In the ensuing years, I have had more than one occasion to think, “Daddy would not have let this (whatever was happening to me) happen.” This was the “nurture” part of my life. A complicated, unresolved mix of experiences and feelings.  And another presence in my life gone too soon. He has missed a lot since then, and I miss him for that.



On Father’s Day, we reflect on what, or who, a father is and what they mean to us. It is a personal exploration, and no one can, or should, try to tell us how to feel. It has taken me many years to work through the legacies of my parents – all of them. And I have come to make peace with the fact that the Father and the Daddy that I had, shaped me into the person I am.  In loving myself, I love them and all that we pass down to the next generations, through both “nature” and “nurture.” Including how to say "Semper Fi" to the two Marines I lost too soon.

EDIT June 14, 2019
Had a good cry in the car this morning, as CBS-FM played Mike and the Mechanics' "In the Living Years." A song that goes right to the heart of what growing up in a dysfunctional family is like. And in the end, we grieve for what never was, and what will never be.


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Regarding Things, Thoughts, and Time


There is a reality hanging over my head that I cannot escape. It is the same reality that we all face, some sooner than others. My father’s reality was that his life ended at age 23. My mother’s reality was that her life ended at age 56. I don’t think either one of them thought about their mortality or worried about legacy, memory, or flummery.

But here I am, way closer to fatality than puberty, and wondering about the things. I’ve recently read about Swedish Death Cleaning, and the practical idea of cleaning up one’s own mess instead of leaving it behind. I am constantly replaying the emptying of my parent’s house in my head – and the difficult notion that one day there will be nothing left of me but the stuff. The stuff to put out for garage sale. The stuff to donate. The stuff to trash. And in this time in history, the electronic data—and its widespread path across the internet—as well as the phones, tablets, computers, memory cards and household appliances with their apps and digitized functions.

In fact, it appears that “settling my affairs” without me could be a huge task. Oh, there are books and notebooks, and computer apps —“Things my children should know.” Facebook allows you to designate someone to take over the reins of your page once you are gone. But your digital trail remains.

I wonder how, I, a once very organized person, have let all this get out of hand. I used to have a cabinet strictly for storing bought-ahead birthday gifts for my kids’ friends. My writing work was filed away in file cabinets – file cabinets that stand today in my shed, where they have been since the day I moved to this too small house 20 years ago.

It could have been the maelstrom of divorce, and all the destruction that caused, both physically and mentally. My kids and I moved to a townhouse in which my bedroom was the basement. Boxes of all our “stuff” filled the one car garage. From the day we moved in there, I felt like there was no room for me, and that those boxes were not only filled with toys, baby memories and holiday decorations, they were also full of me.

When we had to move again to an even smaller place, a backyard shed took the hoard. Over the years I have sporadically attempted to tame this storage. I pulled out my entire Barbie doll collection, refused to look at it, and sent it off to auction. Only later would I realize that there were some things in those boxes I really wanted to keep.

I gathered up many years’ worth of midcentury glass collecting and sent them off too. The money I got for it was embarrassingly little. So, I offered some of my “stuff” to my children. However, as many baby boomers are finding out, our children don’t want these things. Where I once wished my mother had left me a set of china, my Christmas dishes and Blue Willow set languish unwanted. And in the meantime, that which I could not unpack got replaced in my house and in my mind.

Even things that really belong to my children are left with me. School rings, yearbooks, photos. Every so often I am cautioned to not get rid of these things. We may all be in a type of denial, not recognizing that time is marching forward and I need to do something with my things, and with my thoughts.

Because when I’m gone, some of that will vanish instantly, and some of it will go to the garage sale, the donation box, or the trash. Whether I am finished with it or not.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Only in the movies can you break the time travel rule.


Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

People often write letters to their younger selves, in a kind of “if I knew then what I know now,” moment. The desire to go back and change things is strong, and for some, creates unhappiness and regret that overshadows whatever goodness and happiness they have today.

I have done things I regret, and also lived through a large share of trauma and drama. I’ve spent my time in “if only” daydreams, thinking about all the “could-a, would-a, should-a” moments. But, as is often reinforced in many, many, sci fi movies, time travel to change things can cause unintended consequences. Even The Avengers would agree with me. Only in the movies can you break the time travel rule.

I realize that if I could wish away certain decisions and events, many things in my life today would be different. I might have more money, I might have pursued an entirely different career path – my life would probably look vastly different than it does today. And most likely, if I had children, they would not be the ones I would give my life for today, I would not have the “love of my life” relationship I have today – in fact, most likely everyone I know and everything I am familiar with would be gone. In the snap of my own fingers.

Yes, maybe other children, other loves, other living conditions. Maybe more “happiness” and “success,” maybe not. But that uncertain roll of the dice isn’t even the real reason I gave up the time travel daydreams years ago.

When I look into the eyes of my children, my grandchildren, the love of my life and all my relative and friends — even with all their flaws and drama—I could never take the chance of losing them. So that means I must accept my own flaws and drama as well as the good, bad, and ugly things I have lived through.

I’ll save time travel for “going down memory lane”— which seems to be a neighborhood I’m visiting a little more frequently as I get older. And I’ll leave the rest to the comic book superheroes.

Friday, May 3, 2019

On Being a Storyteller (and why I always stay for the credits)

A pile of research books with notes hangin out of them, pencils used as bookmarks.
photo from pixabay

I am a storyteller — admittedly, not in the best-selling novelist or award-winning investigative journalist realm, but a storyteller just the same. Perhaps thousands of years ago, I would have been the person charged with retaining and passing on oral history. As I aged into the “wise crone” part of life, maybe I would have been sought out for healing, peacemaking and problem solving. But in today’s world of Public Relations, Public Information and Strategic Communications I’ve mostly been telling the stories of the entities I worked for. Some of those stories can still bring a smile to my face or a tear to my eye. But, even if you are convincing customers that they need your company’s newly-design gizmo, you too, are a storyteller.

Being a storyteller requires research skills, and the ability to phrase what you find in a way that others can understand. You have the power to educate, inform, and touch emotions. It is a powerful responsibility and an often-rewarding profession. Sometimes the stories are bad news or controversial. Research may reveal scientific and social disagreements. You, your client or employer may have a specific point of view to present. But perhaps the worst thing you can do is present opinion as fact without identifying it as such. Again, research becomes the key.

It is not my intent to discuss what constitutes good or bad research sources. I will advise that it can be problematic to rely on a single point of research in some cases. Most often, I research myself into a pile of other people’s work. Scientists, doctors, lawyers, economists, teachers, humorists – and a whole host of those I will call well-being experts and practitioners. I’ve gone on web-based scavenger hunts tracking down an original research paper that was mentioned in a news story. Because I am a storyteller, looking to educate and inform, not the person or group actually hitting the ground to produce the supporting work pertaining to the subject I am writing about.

I am the person who just read all the credits at the back of the presentation materials at a recent conference. I am the person who may post a reaction to a social media post and include a link to a source I respect. I am also that person, still sitting in the theater as the cleaning crew comes in, watching the movie credits that are too tiny and pass by too fast to actually read.

Researchers, I salute you, and thank you. I am about to join your ranks, in a fashion, for a project about the weaponization of laughter. My intention is to speak directly with people who have been the victim or the user of weaponized laughter, to highlight how powerful laughter is, why it is a survival tool that has the power to both heal and harm. And, to follow the advice of my friend Carol, who I hope is looking down at me and smiling, "It's time to stop making everyone else look good." So, as the Daughter of Laughter and Chaos, I will be telling my own story too.

If you have a story, I’d love to hear from you.

(and yes, with the abundant use of "I" here, this IS an Opinion Piece, the sole source of research being me. 😁)