Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Echoes Of an Abandoned Era

We sat in a circle in my basement, sleeping bags spread out. Someone held a flashlight under her chin and told a ghostly story. “She was sent to Mayview after she got in trouble. The police brought her home, but she was never seen again. They say,” the story teller paused dramatically, “she killed herself in her room. But it is said she still walks the halls every night, crying.”

I listened with rapt horror, picturing the brick edifice barely seen beyond the trees and gate with the big sign, “Mayview State Hospital”.  Everyone knew the place was real, and in the ignorance of our age and the times, it was the place where you were made to go if you were crazy or criminal.

Mayview was originally a poorhouse erected along the Monongehela River in downtown Pittsburgh in the mid- 1800s. In 1893 the poorhouse was renamed the Marshalsea Poorhouse, after the famous London debtor’s prison where Charles Dicken’s father is said to have been held. A plummeting economy soon forced the overcrowding of Marshalsea  and sometime in the late 1800s acreage in Bridgeville, PA, near where I grew up, was founded as a new location. The facility was eventually renamed Mayview in an effort to change its poorhouse reputation. Mayview not only housed the poor, but unwed mothers, those with tuberculosis and the mentally retarded and later, through a forensics unit, criminals.

According to one report in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, old films from the 1930s depict primitive techniques of mental care including cold packing, thermal baths and steam cabinets. All this, of course, long before psychiatric drugs were known or available. It was believed isolation from society was best for these patients. 

Often babies were born in the hospital to unwed mothers or possibly as a result of relations within the walls. The hospital records labeled the babies’ records as “mater amentes” (mother insane) or “illigitimus”.  One commenter of an online article wrote her grandmother was there for 16 years between 1929 and 1945 and believed to have got pregnant while at the facility. The commenter writes, "Rumor has it that a MD at Mayview was the father."

As kids, we’d drive by the brick building with its turrets and try to see inside the gates. In hushed tones we might speculate on some absent student’s demise within the walls or the story of the crazy girl locked in the tower or the leak of a rumored suicide in the corridors of the building. Our ignorance, both because of our youth and because of the lack of known information about mental illness at the time, elaborated and spread the stories and myths hidden within Mayview.

The building finally closed its doors and philosophy in 2008. While it’s easy to say thank goodness for progress, it didn’t shut without controversy. Within the gates were a coal mine that supplied electricity to the facility, pastures and barns for cows that provided milk, gardens and kitchens where vegetables were canned providing over 60% of the patient’s food. It was reported that many people living in the facility and made to work in the garden, barns and laundry found purpose and meaning in the daily tasks, while others, in the burgeoning field of psychiatric care, accused the facility of cruel work programs for the patients.

As recent as 2007, as patients were being released in preparation for the closing of the hospital, stories of tragedy surfaced. Two patients, Anthony Fallert and Ahson J. Abdullah met untimely and violent deaths shortly after being released. Mr. Fallert was said to have jumped off a bridge ending his life, and Mr. Abdullah was struck by a train as he walked the tracks near his home. Tragic cases such as these highlighted the need for transitional care for the patients in light of their release and perpetuated the stories of horror and haunting within Mayview's walls. One person leaving a comment on a post said, “I don’t remember any [deaths] when I was a patient there in 1969, but there was a lobotomy. pretty much the same thing. allot shock treatments too.”

The buildings have been torn down. Even a milk barn first built in 1917, which historians and preservationists in the area fought to preserve, was destroyed. I imagine the area has been bought and will find a new use. But as I looked through the pictures of the abandon buildings, I feel a haunting of the souls who lived there and wonder at the stories that only a few who lived and worked within the walls will ever, truly know.


For pictures and more information check out a few of these Youtube videos:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Jogging Thread

If life is a tapestry with many, varied threads, jogging is the errant fiber that runs through my fabric, never quite blending in. I grew up with athletic siblings—they were both involved in track and cross country activities, fit, in-shape and earning their letter jackets. I was the somewhat fluffy younger sister who loved reading, singing, playing piano or guitar and an occasional game of Scrabble with my mom. I was not athletic.

I took up jogging in college, along with an eating disorder, and while my body slimmed down, my self-esteem plummeted. I eventually quit the eating weirdness, but jogging stuck with me. Somehow, through bearing babies, weight-gains and losses, jogging remained an activity in my workout repertoire. When I turned 40, I decided to tackle the decade with a commitment to participate in a half-marathon. You note I didn’t say compete. My goal was merely to complete the entire race without collapsing.

I learned a whole host of new terms like fartleks, intervals, lactate threshold, negative splits and other foreign sounding words. I bought expensive shoes to help my natural foot pronation, and clothing made of wicking fabric to keep sweat off my skin. I started visiting a local outdoor gear shop and talking running with the owner, an avid and, in my opinion, somewhat crazed runner. He loved talking running lingo with me. And for this brief six month period of my life, I was no longer a jogger. I was a runner.

It was amazing to me the number of people who suddenly wanted to talk about my recovery runs and split times. I always felt a bit like a fraud, like they would discover I wasn't really a part of their club. I was just a woman trying to defy my 40th birthday. You may be thinking, sounds like you were a real runner to me. But that’s the beauty of deception and here’s how I knew I was a fake, a wannabe: Every time I talked to one of those crazed-runner-types, they’d get this far-away look in their eyes and a slight smile on their wind-chapped lips and ask me in a dreamy tone, “Don’t you just love that runner’s high? The endorphins… man, I’m addicted.” 

I’d stare at them with complete lack of comprehension, my mind racing to come up with a response. The truth is, in all my years of jogging and even racing 5ks, 10ks and the infamous half-marathon, I never felt a runner’s high. I had no concept of what it was like to feel addicted to working out.  Each and every run was an act of discipline, a goal to be achieved.  

Now I’m not saying I never derived pleasure from a run. I liked getting lost in my head, listening to my footsteps and breathing, a hypnotic syncopation keeping me company on a long outing. I liked that I could train my body to move intensely for 13 miles. But I never really liked running. I was a fraud.

Years after I completed the race (and I did complete it within my goal time and earned my t-shirt), I quit running quite so much and following the strict diet. I could almost see the disappointment in the shop owner’s face as he asked me if I still ran, probably noting the ten pounds that had since crept back on my body. “I jog,” I told him. He nodded and dismissed me. Eventually he quit asking.

I still jog a couple times a week, three slow miles. I savor the time outside with my dog, enjoying the lovely scenery. I still have to talk myself into going each and every time. But I do it because it’s good for me, good for the Dog-Dog and it’s still a great head-clearing time to think and process. 

I may not be in the company of running enthusiasts anymore, but I have a feeling I’m in the very fine and friendly company of people like me fighting the middle-aged bulge, trying to stay healthy without knee replacements. That’ll do just fine.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Confessions Of A Dog Sniffer

I'll be writing or trying to write when suddenly, I just get stuck. The words won't come. My mind grows mute. Usually, when this happens I get up from my chair and just walk away from my desk and the computer.

Sometimes I wander out to the kitchen, which is never a good solution for a woman in constant battle with the scale. Mostly, though, what I like to do is wander to my bedroom where I know Dog-Dog is curled up on the bed, probably with his head tucked in so his neck is bunched up, which means he's probably also snoring to wake the dead.

I like to stick my head in that little space between his face and the front of his body and snuggle in. He usually sighs loudly, as if he's putting up with yet another interruption from his human-- as if it's really not his problem I'm avoiding writing again, and why must I insist on disturbing his nap for my lack of creativity? Occasionally, however, he'll act happy to see me and thump his stubby, little tail.

But here's where it gets kind of weird. With my face buried in his neck, I take a big long sniff. He stinks. He always smells like a dog, even after a bath. And then I tell him, my voice muffled by fur and the folds in his crooked neck, "You are a tinky dog!"  Yes, "tinky". It's, um, baby-talk for "stinky".

Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of cutsie-speak. I roll my eyes at parents who use baby-talk with their...well.. babies. I'm quite sure I never spoke like that with my children! How would they ever learn correct English? But it's different with Dog-Dog. I'm positive, as demonstrated by his lack of obedience, he doesn't understand English at all. In fact, I'm not even sure he speaks Dog all that well. So I make my voice little and replace or eliminate letters in my words and with my face stuffed in his smelly folds ask him, "Are you my baby? Are you my tinky, tinky baby?"

If he's not totally exasperated with me by now and struggling to get up and jump off the bed and away from me--if he's in a snugging mood--his tale will wag very fast at my tone of voice, which makes me speak like that even more. It's an insidious and somewhat pathetic cycle I'm really glad no one actually ever witnesses, and until now, was my own dirty little secret.

But here's where it gets worse. Worse than muffled baby-talk to your dog? Yes. I sniff him again and sigh with full contentment. His stink is his own unique smell and when I breathe it in, I smell my Dog-Dog, and I have to tell him I love him, "I wuvs you! I wuvs my tinky dog-dog!" And I sniff again.

I'm not sure if cats have the same unique smell and maybe a cat owner is reading this right now feeling a bit superior about their cleaner animal who would never, ever put up with the indignation of sniffing humans and people who refuse to add proper consonants to their words. Or maybe a non-pet owner is reading this feeling affirmed by their gut instinct to never, ever be an animal owner and degrade into a pitiful baby-talking, animal-sniffing human being. But I have compassion for those folks. They'll never know the joy of an animal glad to see them or keep them company during a long writing day. They'll never experience the deeply satisfying feeling of animal-cuddles that slow the heart rate and calm the mind.

It's okay, though. The rest of us cooing, sniffing messes can form a club. All you have to do is sign beneath the following statement:

I pwomise to wuv and snuggle and snuffle my wittle animal and tell him (or her) that he (or she) is the best wittle dog-dog (or cat-cat) in the whole world, several times a day.

Signature here: ___________________________________________________

I feel much better having come clean. I don't feel silly at all anymore now that there is an official club of such fine, animal-loving company.

Official Badge

Friday, May 3, 2013

When The Lake Recedes And Brigadoon is Revealed

Gunnison River normally not seen beneath the lake.
This past weekend, my husband and I, along with our dog, Blue, took a walk on the lake bed of Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest body of water in Colorado. Blue Mesa is fed by the Gunnison River which eventually flows into the spectacular and dramatic Black Canyon. Once, fifty years ago, farm and ranch lands thrived in the area where the lake now resides. In the early 60's, the state of Colorado began plans to dam up the river, creating the huge reservoir. But this meant displacing homesteads in the valley. By 1965, the deed was complete and houses and ranches that once stood were razed, their trees cut down and foundations left.

The water line can reach as high as the widest part of the top of the pylons. 
Unfortunately, due to drought conditions this past year, the lake is at 40% capacity, which means it is frightfully low, down to the river that originally fed it in some places. But it also means we get to walk along the bed that would normally be covered by water well above our heads. Embedded in the silt are old tires, buckets, shoes and beer cans—all modern artifacts telling stories of boaters and fishermen who, in better water level summers, enjoyed the lake in this area. As we walked, we saw a small, pink shoe wedged in a log. I wondered about the child tubing or perhaps on the nearby shore who might have lost her little shoe. A few feet beyond, we found the matching shoe wedged in yet another log. At least she lost them both.
The matching shoe was stuck just a few feet away.

A bit further on, we discovered a foundation for a house and what looked like a building that was once a shed. There were still old rusty nails and a large rusty pulley laying on the cement foundation. A partial stone walk looked like it led up to a larger cement pad that was probably the house foundation. I scanned the shore to get my bearings. Last summer, when the water wasn’t yet quite this low, I had taken a walk along the shore directly in front of this house and found shards of pottery and crockery. They might have washed up from remnants left behind at this very house. An eerie feeling settled on me, imagining the lives who once inhabited this home.
Brown, roundish object in the foreground is a pulley. You can see the foundation's corner in back.

House foundation. And beyond, evenly spaced posts-- probably the remains of fence posts.
Large tree trunks lined what I imagined was once the yard and driveway. Maybe they had towered and provided welcomed shade, a secluded spot for a child to play under. Fence posts, now shaved close to the ground, were evenly spaced showing where the yard may have been. We walked on behind the house, closer to the river. What an ideal location this had probably been for ranching with a ready water source nearby. Sure enough, we came to cement structures that looked like they were once irrigation canal gates. We could even still see the barriers someone had raised and lowered to control the flow of water.
All that is left of once large shade trees.

Blue is happily lost in smells; the cement remains of an irrigation gate are behind him.
I wondered about the family who once lived here. Did they leave willingly? Was the wife secretly glad to leave this large and lonely patch of land? Did the children finally get to live closer to town, the schools and their friends? Did the rancher feel displaced and lost without the land he, and probably his father before him, had toiled over?  Did the kids ever miss playing under the shade of those big trees? I felt haunted by their stories, the part they played in the history in our town. 

Walking around in the shadows and ghosts of their lives, I couldn’t help thinking about this family and feeling folks like them were the backbone and foundation of our valley's development. I felt a little like uninvited company as I picked up and examined a piece of brick or corner of siding from their home, long buried under water. Like Brigadoon, I couldn't help feeling as if we were rare and privileged visitors of a place that only shows itself in years of drought, when the water recedes revealing the lives of fine folks who one lived, slept, and raised children on this land.