Archive for May, 2010


Does Summer Have To Wait Until Memorial Day?

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Today is Memorial Day, the holiday where we remember and honor those who have served in the armed forces of our country and made the ultimate sacrifice. I don’t know about you, but I tend to choke up and get teary-eyed when I think about how those soldiers, sailors, and airmen gave their lives to defend the liberty and freedoms we so often take for granted. I give grateful and humble thanks to those families who have lost loved ones.

Many towns across America have parades in which bands play patriotic tunes, and local veterans dress in their uniforms and march down the parade route or ride in vintage military vehicles. My older son marched with his high school band in our town’s parade today, just as his sister did in years past, and next year his younger brother will join him (he’ll be an upcoming freshmen, and they are required to participate in the parade).

Many families get together and celebrate the day, usually with a cookout. Our family is no exception; the dinner menu today is grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, and bratwursts with all the trimmings, as well as baked beans and potato salad. I’m the one who works the grill, as most of the husbands/fathers do for cookouts, and usually I prepare much more than we can eat at one sitting. Our plan for tomorrow’s dinner is to simply have today’s leftovers, and we’ll pick at the rest of it for the remainder of the coming week. Nothing will be wasted; our sons will see to that!

Another significance of today is that (at least here in the U.S.) it marks the unofficial start of the summer season. Temperatures starting in late May are typically warming up to summer levels, which for our area means highs in the 90s and lows in the 70s. This year, though, we’ve had those temperatures with us for almost the entire month of May. We could have declared the start of summer three weeks ago! I’m sure the same could be said for the end of summer as well; it’s usually very warm here on Labor Day in September, and we could probably have another two or three weeks of summer after that before the temperatures start to cool down. When you add those up, that’s an extra month and a half of summer! It sounds great at first, but I’m not sure everyone would be happy with a longer summer. Would you?

I don’t think I would mind. It would give us more time for having summer cookouts!


Feelings Of Loss

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

We’ve always had dogs as a part of our family. My wife had a small house dog when we were first married, and over the years we’ve had several others come in an go out of our lives. Earlier this spring, we were compelled to send all of our Great Pyrenees dogs away to other homes (one of them had attacked a neighbor’s dog and almost ripped its ear off; the choices we had were to restrain our dogs or send them away, and anyone who has owned a Pyr will tell you that restraining them is almost impossible). That left us with our one house dog, a 9-year-old blue merle collie named Duke. We got him as a puppy the summer after we moved from Georgia to Texas, and unlike most collies he was not quite the brightest star in the sky. We knew he wasn’t the pick of the litter, but he was loved and accepted by all of us just the same.

Almost two weeks ago, Duke went to the vet for his monthly allergy shot (this dog has had a problem with allergies that’s been so bad he’d scratch and chew all the hair off his backside). He seemed okay after the shot, but during the following week he started having problems, first with eating and then with drinking water. He would eat his food as always, but sometimes it didn’t stay down for very long and next thing we knew we were cleaning up a mess somewhere in the house (usually on one of our carpets). The vet offered the suggestion that he was dealing with a stomach bug of some type, and to give him Kaopectate to settle his stomach and help him keep his food down. That didn’t work, and the random messes continued. Then this past Monday we noticed he wasn’t drinking as much water as usual (normally he’d go through as much as a half gallon at a time). By Tuesday morning he had stopped drinking and eating altogether, and also didn’t want to get up and walk around, even to go outside (which he has always loved to do).

My wife took Duke back to the vet that morning and they did some blood work. The news wasn’t good – his kidneys were failing. They pushed IV fluids into him for most of the day to see if it would help, but he didn’t seem to be improving. They kept him overnight and told us to check back in the morning. After a fitful night for us, we called the next morning and he was still no better. A couple of hours later, we got the news we had been dreading – Duke had died.

My wife was in tears, and I was simply stunned. He had gone downhill so quickly…just 11 days after a routine visit and all was well, and now he was dead. The vet asked us what we wanted to do with the body. I’m usually able to step in and deal with situations like this, having had other animals that have died on our ranch over the years, but this is one time I simply couldn’t do it…I couldn’t muster the courage within myself to go there and bring his cold and lifeless body back to bury him. We took the vet’s suggestion and had them cremate him. At least that way, we could remember him as he was and not as he had become.

My thoughts turned to our children; they had literally grown up together with Duke. I sent a text message to our daughter in San Antonio to break the news to her, and we told the boys when they got home from school. We were all hurting from the loss, but I surmised that it would hit the two older children harder because they had been able to play and spend more time with him than their younger brother had (Duke also liked to sleep in our daughter’s bedroom at night, and we liked to say that he was “her” dog). My wife talked about it over the phone with our daughter, the first time either of us had heard from her in several weeks; meanwhile, our older son asked about the body, and I explained what the vet was doing with it. I think he was somewhat disappointed that we weren’t going to bury him ourselves, and equally bummed out because Duke was “the last dog”.

As for our youngest son, he was generally quiet about the whole situation; much like me at that age, he looks at the world with an analytical eye and tends to keep his emotions to himself. His heart seems to be more attuned to the great cycle of life as well, possibly from having tried to maintain an aquarium in his room for several years and experiencing a sometimes regular loss of fish in the process.

It’s been a couple of days since this tragic event, and the pain is still very fresh on our minds. My wife and I are trying to look ahead through the pain and decide whether or not to get another dog. If we do, it would most likely be an adult so it can get out and play with the boys right away, rather than a puppy they would have to wait on to grow up (after all, our older son will be with us for only two more years before he heads off to college). I think we will, but it’s still too early to make that sort of decision. We need some time to mourn, and to heal a little, before we take that next step. Hopefully the long Memorial Day weekend ahead will give that process a chance to start rolling.

Needless to say, this isn’t the best way to end a week. Rest in peace, Duke.


Musical Children

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Our local middle school bands held their Spring Concert this evening. It was a great show, filled with wonderful music and performances by a lot of really talented kids.

I was blessed to be given three musically gifted children. All of them have played in the school bands – my daughter on the clarinet, my older son on the trumpet, and my younger son on the saxophone. They have all done very well; the two older ones stepped into positions as section leaders in the high school marching band, while the youngest is first chair in the middle school’s top band, the Wind Ensemble (if you or your child have been in band, you’ll understand everything I just said; if not, all you have to really understand is that it’s all good news). My wife and I have received many glowing reports from the band directors over the years, and each of our kids has shown improved skills with each passing year (my daughter even started playing in her college band, but dropped out due to her class workload).

Where did all this musical talent come from? It certainly wasn’t from me; I can’t play any instrument more complicated than a triangle, and it’s highly likely I wouldn’t even get that right. I’m sure it all came from my wife; she played the clarinet in her school band. In fact, she still had her old clarinets when our daughter went into band; so, getting her started was pretty much a no-brainer…we took one of the horns down to the local music shop for a quick checkup, and she was all set. It was a little more difficult to get the boys started on their instruments; we got the trumpet on the rent-to-buy plan, and found a used saxophone in a local pawn shop (as it turned out, the salesman happened to have played in the same school band, and he helped with picking out the right one for my son to use).

Not a day seems to go by in my house without some sort of music playing, whether it’s selections from an online band music library, to someone practicing their music pieces, to listening to music and trying to pick out the instruments used. Sometimes my older son will play the same piece of music over and over again for seemingly hours at a time, to the point when it becomes obnoxious to my ears. But, I let him continue; that’s his way of learning right now – simple repetition – and I’m sure it will change as he grows older.

Will any of them continue to play after they leave school? That’s a tough question to answer. When my daughter left school earlier this year, her clarinet was among the things she sent home. Both of the boys are very enthusiastic about playing, so it’s possible one or both of them may continue. I hope they will consider it, if for nothing more than their own personal benefit, like having a hobby. Perhaps in doing so they can bring out more of their creative abilities, which is something I am just now re-learning how to do with the help of several friends in our writer’s group (follow the “Shared Words” link on this blog to visit our group and read some of our writings).

One thing is certain: my house will be a lot quieter once my children have all moved on. I might have to get out my triangle and start practicing again…


Pac-Man Is 30, And I Still Can’t Play It

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Yesterday's Memories

The video game Pac-Man celebrated its 30th anniversary today. Do you remember the game? It’s the one where you move your character (the Pac-Man) through a maze of dots, trying to accumulate points by “eating” them all without getting caught by one of four ghosts chasing you (named Inky, Pinky, Blinky, and Clyde). You could turn the tables on the ghosts by eating one of four “power pills” placed at each corner of the maze, which allowed you to chase down and catch each ghost for extra points. If you cleared the maze of dots you would move on to the next level, where the ghosts were faster and it was harder to keep away from them. This continued until you lost all three of your “lives” and the game ended.

Pac-Man may seem too simple in this age of the PlayStation, Wii, Xbox, and MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, but back in 1980 it was a state-of-the-art game. People of all ages would line up for a chance to play it, crowding around the screen to watch as someone else played. It was really big news when someone learned the best way to move around the maze to clear it and accumulate the most points. I tried it a few times, but only enough to determine I was not very good at playing video games, and from then on I usually stayed to one side and watched others as they played.

Over the ensuing years, video games evolved into more sophisticated packages with higher resolution graphics, orchestrated soundtracks, and elaborate storylines. I would periodically give them a try, just to see if I could handle the new games any better than the previous generation. In some cases I was able to do fairly well at the beginner levels, but most of the time I was usually dispatched fairly quickly, sparing onlookers from having to watch me die a slow and lingering “death” at the hands of the game console. My curiosity thusly satisfied, I would then hand the controls to someone else to play for several hours while I watched or moved on to something else.

(Google honored this anniversary by changing the logo on their website into a working Pac-Man game anyone could play for free. I tried it a couple of times, and I still died off quickly. Some things never change…)

I know that with practice I would likely get better at playing video games, but it’s never been something I’ve had a strong desire to do. I’ve sometimes wondered why that is. I may never really know the answer to that, but my guess is that it had a little to do with being somewhat clumsy back in elementary school, which isn’t a good thing when you’re trying to play a game such as softball. After enough times of being picked last for a team, of never getting a hit, and of missing enough balls hit my way, discouragement set in. Eventually I learned it was easier to simply do something else rather than go through the ordeal. The desire to play was gradually driven out of me, through no fault of anyone else, and by the time I reached college the word “play” was not part of my regular vocabulary.

To this day, I have difficulty in playing any sort of game. I actually had to teach myself how to play all over again when my children were younger so that I could be more active in their lives; but, video games is an area where they have always outstripped my abilities, and I’ve had to stand to the side once again as they make a modern first-person-shooter look all too easy.

Is this something I regret? Sometimes.

I wonder how different my life would have been if I had played more while growing up, or if I had been able to play with my children more. I usually don’t dwell on it for very long; nowadays, I’m usually called upon to fix a problem with a game when it stops playing, rather than being invited to play. I’m okay with that; there’s less of a chance of suffering a slow and lingering “death” that way.


Sibling Parity, Take Three

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

In the great rush of things that usually comprises my Mondays, I further continued the saga of my sons’ computers, which started back in March. As you may recall, there has been spirited rounds of “one upmanship” between the two of them over who has the most capable computer. First it was a shared machine, then I built up a computer for the younger son, and finally I tried to upgrade the older son’s machine yet again but it didn’t work out. It seemed we had reached an impasse, and that perhaps everyone would be satisfied at least by all the work I had done to make things even between them.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t satisfied, and looked for a better solution. Without going through a lot of details, three weeks ago my wife and I worked out a way to purchase a newer machine that would give our older son more capabilities, and once again it appeared that the universe was in balance.

But it was not to be.

Both of my sons know their way around computers pretty well, but the younger one is more tech-savvy. He has been fascinated with the newer Windows Vista and Windows 7 operating systems; his machine has been running the older Windows XP, which is very solid and dependable. When the older son’s newer machine came in, it had Win 7 on it…and by now I’m sure you the reader can see where this story is going. The younger son checked his machine and found it was capable of running Vista, and petitioned me to upgrade it with a copy I had available after upgrading my own machine from Vista to Win 7 earlier this year (thanks to a gift from my daughter). After several requests, I relented on Sunday afternoon and agreed to upgrade it.

I wish I hadn’t been so easy to convince.

Upgrading from XP to Vista is not for the faint-hearted. My son understood the risks and still wanted to do it anyway. So, I made him back up all of his files, and when he was satisfied that he had everything he needed I began the upgrade process. Two hours later, it appeared to have finished successfully, but there were a lot of adjustments to be made and well over 100 updates to be added. I worked on those long into Sunday night, then took a break to sleep and started on them again early this morning.

Because today was also a work day for me, I spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth between my office work and his machine, making changes and downloading updates. By 2pm, it appeared to finally be ready for him to use. I decided to leave it running to “burn in” a little, and when he got home from school at 4:30 he jumped on it and start installing all of his software. By his bedtime, it appeared he had most of his programs reinstalled, with nary a whimper or complaint.

Have I finally achieved a balance between these two? Maybe.

I’m certainly not holding my breath for it.


A Thought For The Weekend

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality, Tomorrow's Dreams, Yesterday's Memories

If you were looking for something long and detailed today, I apologize for letting you down. It was a very quiet day, a fitting end to an otherwise noisy week filled with work and family. The relative peacefulness allowed me to reflect on other things, in particular the following thought I had written down several months ago which I would like to share with you:

“Today is the tomorrow of yesterday, and it is the yesterday of tomorrow. Make the most of each today, for it is the only time when tomorrow’s dreams can come true and yesterday’s memories can be made.”

I will explain how I came up with that thought sometime in the future. In the meantime, have a great weekend!


Playing Chess In A House Of Cards

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality, Yesterday's Memories

You know the announcement that television networks always seem to use when they break into a show to report some sort of news event? It goes something like, “We interrupt our regularly scheduled program for a special report from XYZ News.” I was about to do something similar tonight with this blog, only it would have gone more like, “I interrupt posting my regularly scheduled blog entry tonight due to a possible tornado bearing down on my house.”

The region of north Texas where I live (along with the region of southern Oklahoma just across the river from my home) is nicknamed “Tornado Alley.” It didn’t get that name by accident. This is a well-known area for having violent storms in the springtime, including a fair number of tornadoes. There have been small storms that popped up seemingly out of nowhere and destroyed one or two buildings, and huge storms like the one that practically wiped out an entire town up in Oklahoma just over a year ago.

A line of storms blew through the area throughout the afternoon and into the late evening. Whenever that happens, I’m usually tuning in to the local news channel to get the latest weather reports and to find out if we need to prepare for the worst. For years, I’ve been doing the same thing – watching, waiting, wondering, and praying. Fortunately, the worst that has ever happened to us has been catching some strong winds (over 50 miles per hour) and getting some small hail that wasn’t enough to cause any significant damage.

When these storms come up, the rest of the family gets excited and somewhat anxious, and the questions inevitably come: “Are we going to be hit by a tornado?” “How will we protect ourselves when the tornado comes?” “Will the animals outside be okay?” I’ve learned to take them all in stride, as most parents do; I try to maintain a calm voice as I answer each one for the umpteenth time, and explain in plain language what the meteorologist is saying. That usually maintains order about the house, and everyone gets through the event fairly calmly.

But, just because I sound calm about what’s going on doesn’t mean that I am calm about it. No, it’s usually quite the contrary: I may look the vision of confidence on the outside, but inside I’m shaking like a leaf. I get just as anxious as the rest of my family does when storms approach, and wonder in my mind if I will make the right decisions at the right times to keep them safe from harm.

The scene is almost like playing a macabre chess game in the middle of a house of cards. I study the radar images on the screen with as much intent as the meteorologists, trying to follow the storm tracks and projecting where each one goes, as well as interpreting the changes in intensity to determine whether or not a particular storm heading toward us is going to be troublesome. All the while I maintain my cool, providing updates to everyone in that same calm and steady voice, knowing that if I make the wrong move and they sense me starting to panic they will panic as well, and the entire household would collapse into chaos. I can usually get everyone to follow their normal routines and even have them turn in for the night, safe in knowing that I’m keeping an eye on the weather for them. What they don’t see is how I stay transfixed to the screen long after they’re asleep, sometimes watching until the wee hours of the morning to make sure we’re not in the bull’s-eye for a storm.

I have always felt I had no other choice but to keep my fears hidden from everyone, lest they cause a general panic through the house. Now that the kids are older and can understand more, I show them how to read the screens and draw their own conclusions from what they see; they still get anxious about it sometimes, and in my mind that’s okay because I do too! I’ve just had more practice in keeping it hidden from view.

Tonight’s storms were no different. By late evening the major cells had mostly broken up, and for a while it looked like we were going to be in the clear. Then, just before the last storm cell was due to pass through the area, a funnel cloud (possible tornado) was spotted forming along one edge of it about seven to eight miles to the west of our house.  The radar track showed that while part of the cell would pass directly over the house, the funnel cloud was most likely to pass to the south. Watching and waiting, I got even more nervous as the radar slowly updated, showing the movement of the storm. Luckily for us, it did exactly what it was expected to do; it roared through the area to the south, missing us by 10 miles. We had a spectacular thunder and lightning show and a heavy dousing of rain, but no damage. I breathed a sigh of relief, and all is now calm again, both in body and mind.

All calm, that is, until the next storm comes along…


Of Mothers Day And Daughters

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality, Yesterday's Memories

Mothers Day is coming up this weekend, and like many dutiful sons and daughters I will be calling my mother sometime during that day. She lives about 1,000 miles away, so it would be difficult at best to hop in the car and drive over for a visit. I’ve made the trip back and forth several times, and the best one-way time I marked was about 15 hours. It might be possible to do the round trip in a weekend, but it’s not very practical.

I’ll also be spending time with my wife, who as I’ve mentioned in other posts is herself a mother of three. She will be calling her mother just as I will, but she will also be looking to receive a call for the first time from one child who no longer lives at home – our 19-year-old daughter. We aren’t really sure if she will call; we haven’t heard from her since before her birthday almost a month ago. We send e-mails and text messages, and we forward her regular mail periodically, but we have neither seen nor heard anything in return (her last message said she was mailing a letter to us, but we still haven’t received it). It makes both her mother and me very anxious at times, but I have come to realize that my parents probably felt the same way when I left home, since I also didn’t call or visit very often.

My wife hasn’t talked much about it to me, but I’m sure it’s a strange feeling for her, just as it was for our own mothers when we first moved away from home.  It certainly feels strange to me! I never really appreciated that before, and I suppose you can’t until it actually happens to you – it’s one of those rites of passage that every parent goes through at some point, and I have come to one very definite conclusion that I’d like to share.

We spend eighteen years or so preparing our children to go out on their own, teaching them how to tell good from bad and right from wrong, and hoping we can pass along at least some of the experiences we’ve had so they won’t be quite so naive as we were when we left home. I didn’t listen to half of what my parents tried to warn me about, and I learned it the hard way. Only then did I realize what they were trying to tell me, and I vowed to not let my children make the same mistakes.

Now that I’ve seen it from both sides, I’ve come to the conclusion that a parent’s attempts to pass along those experiences to their teenage children is mostly a lost cause; try as we might to help them avoid it, they’re still going to make similar mistakes, and they’re going to have to deal with the consequences just as we did. All we can do in the meantime is take a deep breath and say a small prayer that they will use at least a little bit of what we tried to teach them.

One of those teachings we hope our daughter will remember is the one that says she should call her mother on Mothers Day. And if your mother is still around, I hope you will remember to call or visit her this weekend as well.

Happy Mothers Day to all you moms out there!


First Hike

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Last week I posted a short history of my photographic prowess, or lack thereof. Toward the end, I mentioned I had a revived interest in taking pictures, and was trying to decide whether to use a digital or a film camera. Although I didn’t say it, I was also trying to figure out where and when I would have an opportunity to get out and shoot. All of those questions and more were answered over this past weekend, courtesy of my wife.

She had the idea for the two of us to visit a local wildlife refuge on Sunday afternoon to “try a short hike and see what we could see.” I agreed, and packed both of my cameras for the trip. When we arrived shortly after lunch, we drove around for a while just looking at what was where (it’s not a small place; the refuge is some 8,000 acres in size, with a mixture of grasslands, forests, and wetlands all bordering a huge lake).

We made our way to the Visitor’s Center, where two volunteers cheerfully answered our questions and offered several suggestions for hiking trails. The Visitor’s Center also had a neat little exhibit area with native wildflowers, and bushes of aromatic wild roses nearby that reminded me of the Cherokee Rose bush my mother had in the backyard of the house where I grew up. My wife grabbed the digital camera and started shooting, so that pretty much decided what I would be using for the day! I picked up the film camera and took a few shots as well, hoping that I wouldn’t mess up too many frames on the roll.

We left the Visitor’s Center and drove over to one of the nearby hiking trails. According to the maps, it had several ponds and trail loops of varying distances from one to two miles. Given that my cameras do not have long zoom lenses to photograph wildlife without getting too close and scaring them, we decided to photograph whatever local flora we found. And, since neither of us has been out hiking in years, we decided the distance would be short enough for us to make it a good first effort.

We started down the trail by crossing a small footbridge, and made our way through a tree-shrouded grove past our first pond. We moved along past that and out of the grove into a grassland area, snapping photos of assorted flowers along the way.

The trail led us to another large pond with a wooden pier that had the sign “Crawfish Pond” on its side. After exploring the pier and looking out over the pond, we continued on the trail to a rest area in a shady spot on the opposite end of the pond. We stopped there for a little while, commenting on how pretty and peaceful the hike had been – we had only seen three other people the entire time we were there and they were back at the head of the trail, leaving the entire area just to us.

We left the rest stop and continued down the trail, which branched off in different directions at different points depending on how far one wanted to hike. We chose a shorter route that led us between Crawfish Pond and a smaller one called “Frog Pond”, where we also stopped to explore for a few minutes. It wasn’t quite as pretty, so we didn’t spend as much time there before moving on.

We gradually made our way along the trail, passing several bluebird houses set up along the way. These are mounted on posts with large cones under them to deter squirrels from climbing up and taking over the birdhouses for themselves.

We made it back to our starting point safe and sound, later learning we had traveled about a mile or so. Again, we had not been on a hike in years, so it worked out well for us.

We left the trail area and followed a “driving trail” through some of the wetland areas. The refuge is a rest stop for migrating birds, and we had hoped to see some of them. Unfortunately, we found only a few egrets and geese, and a couple of large birds which I believe were herons, all out of camera range, but we enjoyed the drive around the relaxing scenery.

After the driving tour, we decided to call it a day and headed for home. Next, I had to get my film developed – something I had not needed to do for several years! Amazingly, very few places are left in town that will develop 35mm film, CVS Pharmacy being one of them. So, I took my completed roll (I had started another that was still in the camera) over to CVS and had them process it. An hour later, slightly anxious with anticipation, I went back and picked up my prints and photo CD.

How did they look? See for yourself; several of them are posted with this blog entry. I did find some problems with several shots, and I think I know what happened; to be sure, I’ll have to do some testing with another roll of film. But all in all, I was pleased with my work.

Now that I’ve gotten the ball rolling, I wonder where I’ll be going and what I’ll be shooting next? I guess we’ll all have to wait and see!