Category Archives: Pittsburgh

Things that are “uniquely Yinz”

Detour ahead

Life throws detours at you. Might as well just get used to that fact.

This morning we tried to get from Lawrenceville to the South Side for church. A few blocks away, we came to a barricade on Butler Street.

No problem for this yinzer. We’ll just zip down to Smallman and get around it. Another barricade on Smallman.

DIgging deep into my yinzer GPS, I decided to go old school and try the little alleys and backways. Barricades, barricades, barricades.

Eventually, our car ended up here.

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As any Pittsburgher knows, there are times you just have to say, “Yeah, you can’t get there from here.” All you can do is say, “Well played, 10K race!” Then you turn around and retrace your path back home.

Yesterday was another detour day. Got a call from my dad saying that my mom was about to go in for brain surgery.

That’s strange, I thought. I don’t remember hearing anything about this.

It was my dad’s stoic way of telling me that he had found my mom on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood that morning. She has bleeding on her brain and they are going in. Oh, and the doctor said it’s a pretty risky surgery that could result in paralysis or death. Talk about burying the lead.

Mom’s health has been deteriorating recently, but not in an easily diagnosable way. She’s had dizzy spells, falling, insomnia at night and sleeping all day, and just seeming out of it. She’s passed stroke tests with flying colors. And it seems more physical than an Alzheimer’s mental thing. They had an appointment to see both a sleep specialist and a neurologist. Then, Saturday happened.

The surgery was successful. Mom will be in the hospital for a week to 10 days. Then she’ll go to a rehab center. Beyond that, it’s all wait and see.

At first, I thought I’d go down later in the week, so I could use the weekend instead of vacation days. I also have a big sales presentation on Monday. I really wanted to vote in a key election on Tuesday. But a couple “mom friends” of mine both said, “As a mother, if you are not on a plane on Sunday, I’d be pissed!”

Jean also helped in my shock-and-awe state of decision making. “You only have one Mom. She could still get worse this week. Your dad wouldn’t ask for help if he lost both arms and legs. You should be there.”

detourLife throws detours at you. You have to roll with it. All your firm plans can change in one phone call. One moment, you are at the mall on a Saturday morning, with your whole week planned out; Sunday afternoon, you are on an airplane to Phoenix. Thanks for any thoughts and prayers you can send my way. I’ll update from the desert next week.

A summer fling

21Pittsburgh’s summer Bromance with the boys of summer has gloriously extended into October. Nobody saw this coming. Nobody.

Last spring, we were putting our shaky hopes into the winning-record-basket, but we certainly weren’t betting the mortgage on it. Even yours truly, who has looked at the Pirates through rose-tinted glasses the past few years, even I thought the Pirates might take a small step backward this year. I didn’t believe that Burnett could bring it again at his age. I didn’t believe in Francisco Liriano, a post-Tommy John surgery free agent who broke his arm at home in the off-season. I didn’t believe a new .240-hitting catcher would make that big a difference. I didn’t believe in Jason Grilli as a closer to replace Hanrahan. And I was beginning to think that Pedro Alvarez might just be a bust.

Then, summer happened. And as the calendar turned to September, the Pirates refused to turn into pumpkins, as they had in seasons past. They just kept on winning. And this city revealed itself to be a true baseball town, waking up after a two-decade-long hibernation. And you know what happens after you wake up from hibernation? You are ravenously hungry.

I have been a baseball fan since 1969, when Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins, Billy Williams and the rest of the Chicago Cubs were in first place for 155 games before losing 17 of their last 25 and allowing the Miracle Mets to pass them by. You never forget your first heartbreak, even at age 7. Especially at age 7. Since then, I can count on one hand the number of times a baseball team I cheered for has played in the postseason. And for the most part, those postseasons have been houses of horror.

Gack!

Gack!

There was 1984, when Leon Durham let a dribbler through his legs and the Padres (the frigging Padres!) came back from down 0-2 to win the last 3 games and go on to the World Series. I still have a gag reflex whenever I see Steve Garvey or those brown, gold, and red uniforms that made their players look like Taco Bell employees.

There were other brief and failed appearances by the Cubs against the Giants and Braves. And then came 2003, when the Cubs were 6 outs away from the World Series and fan-boy Steve Bartman interfered with Moises Alou’s attempt to catch a foul ball. The Cubs proceeded to lose their water, the game, and the next game, and the Marlins (the frigging Marlins!) went on to the World Series.

My baseball playoff history is the stuff of nightmares. My World Series history is non-existent. Oh, I went to a World Series game between the Diamondbacks and Yankees in 2001 (one month after 9/11), but I really didn’t have a horse in that race. I watched the White Sox (the frigging White Sox!) win the 2005 World Series by sweeping the Astros. It was all just salt in the long-festering wound.

But this year is different. I can honestly say that this is my favorite baseball season ever. Mostly because it was unexpected. But also because of the way Pittsburgh fell back in love with baseball and the Buccos. We nonchalantly passed the 82-win mark in early September. We battled for the division lead before settling for a Wild Card spot. We entered the dreaded one-game playoff and all the critics said that the Pirates were just happy to be here. And we won. Decisively.

We entered the divisional round and got killed in the first game 9-1. Once again, the critics said the Pirates were just happy to be here. That this was as far as it would go. Then we came back and won game 2 just as decisively… in St. Louis. Then we came home and won game 3.

I headed out to game 4 hoping for some real baseball magic. I was pretty confident that the Buccos would wrap this up at home and win the series and I would be there.

It was a beautiful fall day. The temps had dropped around 30 degrees from game 3 the day before. This was fall baseball.

PNC playoffs

The crowd was huge. It would set an attendance record by four people. I think they are dribbling out a few more SRO tickets each game to set a new record each time. That’s cool. I’m assuming we were 2 of the four that set the record. The only tickets I could get were standing room only. On the plus side, they were cheap. I didn’t have to plunk down $75 per seat. As soon as I got there, I paid homage to the statue of Willie Stargell and began to look for a good place to camp out.

stargell

I could tell that getting a good spot to watch the game was going to be rough. The rotunda was already filling up and about 3 people deep. I knew that Jean wouldn’t be able to see. The crowd was ready for a heavy weight bout, or a rock concert. Forty thousand-plus were absolutely out of their minds. I think it was the closest I will ever come to experiencing what an English soccer game must be like. They were ready to explode at any moment and were hanging on every pitch.

PNC crowd

Lucky for me, Jean had a stroke of Jean-ius! She came from work and proceeded directly to the Rivertowne Brewing restaurant directly below the scoreboard. They have an outside observation deck where Jean had grabbed a table. She called me and I hauled my booty there. Again, genius. We had seats and they brought food and beer directly to us! No waiting in line. And how about the view!

PNC view

We stayed there the entire game, although we were still standing with everyone else for most of the game. It was chilly. There was a stiff and constant gale blowing from home plate straight at us. But we were bundled up and comfortable. Jean even had her own personal heater, which looks a lot warmer than it actually was.

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Of course, the magic never quite materialized. But the crowd never gave up hope. They cheered. They sang. They beat the shit out of that stadium as a rhythm section to the cheering. As I said before, they were locked and loaded to go completely bonkers. They had one opportunity when Pedro homered. And the ninth inning was deafening. All we wanted was a chance, which we got when McCutchen came to the plate with two outs and the tying run on first. A part of me truly thought he was going to jack a walk-off blast that would break the stadium. But, alas, his bat was just an inch too low and he popped it up. With that, the crowd went from totally insane to “let’s go home” in a matter of seconds.

But here’s the thing about my favorite baseball season ever… there’s no heartbreak this year. Sure, we could lose tonight. Sure, it will be sad to see it end. But it doesn’t diminish from the epic ride it has been. And this team tends to come up big just when you think they can’t. It would be just like this team to pull one out tonight and keep this fling going a couple more weeks. Isn’t it something for it to be the second week of October, and people for the most part couldn’t care less about football? It’s all about the Buccos!

So don’t give up hope for tonight. The sun hasn’t yet set on the Pirates’ season. If this is as far as it goes, it’s been a magical summer. If they keep it going tonight, my favorite baseball season ever will have gone to a whole new level. Let’s go Bucs!

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Are you handling it well?

Life’s been pretty heavy lately. Not for me directly, but for people around me, and sometimes that makes it worse.

My own problems are more like what birthday boy Louis CK would call “White People Problems.”

louis CK white people

Love me some Louis CK. His comedy is brilliant, though it never fails to cross the cringe line at some point. I think he feels he hasn’t done his job if he hasn’t offended everyone listening at some point in his act.

My problems at this point would definitely fall under the “white people problems” category. Why do I have to keep resetting my WiFi signal? Why doesn’t it just stay on? Why do they keep putting dumpsters on my street so that I have to park a block away from my house? Do you know how hard it is to walk a block!? Why, when it gets hot, does my front entryway smell like cat piss when cats haven’t lived in my house for a good seven-and-a-half years? Why do I have to extend every show I record on my DVR by a minute or else it cuts off the final 30 seconds, which can be disastrous? My favorite coffee shop closed down for 6 weeks and it is throwing off my entire commute!

Nobody knows the trouble I seen….

But seriously. There are people around me going through heartache and trial. My friend at work, Bethany, is 27. She’s worked at our company for 10 years. She’s just this bubbly Korean girl who was adopted into a great family. Five weeks ago, she was fine. Four weeks ago, she had abdominal pains. Three weeks ago, they told her that she is full of cancer. Everywhere. Yesterday, she was moved to hospice, because there’s really nothing more they can do. They’ve turned her pain meds all the way up. She probably has a few weeks left, if that. Oh, and earlier this year, her parents lost their home to mine subsidence and they are living with friends as they start to rebuild.

And the whole Tammy saga has been a roller coaster with more downs than ups. Turns out, it is surprisingly hard to get a bartending job. They are few and most bars either hire people they know or they have a specific “type” they are looking for — young, pretty, hot, hipster, punk, etc.  She’s gone for some waitress jobs but she doesn’t have much experience with that on her resume. I also have this feeling that as soon as any job hits Craigslist, there are fifty people going for it that day. There are tons of jobs out there for cooks. She had one bite but the people kind of lied to her about what she would make. They only paid her $2 an hour and the tips were way less than she was led to believe. It was almost costing her money to work there. She’s having to revert to jobs she was trying to get out of. Life doesn’t always have Disney-esque happy endings, and not every problem has a “solution.”

Patti works around the corner from me. This past August, her daughter died. Last weekend, her son-in-law, a cop on disability leave, shot and killed a guy in a Bloomfield bar. “He’s going away for life,” she told me, matter-of-factly. The guy is married to her other daughter and has two grade-school-aged kids. Patti has that thousand-yard stare of a Vietnam vet.

handleWhen you see people go through stuff like that, inevitably you hear a common phrase: “God will never give you more than you can handle.”

I think that’s a bunch of crap. It’s not from the Bible and it’s not true. I think it comes from a verse claiming that God will never tempt you beyond what you can endure (1 Cor. 10:13). But that’s about overcoming temptation; it’s not about facing the slog of trial and struggle that life throws at you. It sure seems like all bets are off when it comes to the heartbreak of life. And statements like that are damaging for two reasons.

  1. If we could handle everything thrown at us on our own, we’d never have a need for God, or anybody else.
  2. It shames people who are struggling and not “handling” it. To them, it says, “Well, if you can’t handle your struggles, there must be something wrong with you, because you’re supposed to be able to handle it.”

I’ve heard it said that “White Privilege” is assuming that your experience of the world applies to everybody else. In other words, if you’ve never been discriminated against in applying for a job, you probably don’t think that discrimination is that big of a problem. If you’ve never struggled to put food on the table, you probably don’t think that hunger is that big of a problem. If you’ve never been laid off or unemployed for long stretches of time, you probably think that it’s pretty easy to get a job. If you’ve never been openly judged because of your race or gender or age or disability or sexual orientation or whatever, you probably don’t think that those things are big problems, either. Those are just some of the ways we project our own experience of the world onto others. And it keeps us from empathizing with them. It keeps us from being as compassionate as we could be.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum are those of us who have become so cynical about life’s problems that we’ve given up hope. You don’t want to go there, either.

louis CK nice

I choose to remain an optimist, but not so much of one that I fail to recognize life falling apart around me.

So. if your life is mainly filled with “white people problems” that make you grumble about little things, because that’s all there is… thank your lucky stars. Be grateful. Breathe deep, because someday you may (will) face some real issues. And keep your eyes open with compassion for those around you who are in valley of despair today. I promise you, they are all around you, but you can’t see them because of your disastrous DVR problems.

82. It matters.

champagne-pittsburgh1I know I’m about 24 hours late here, but I was surprised at how satisfying it felt to see the Buccos nail down their 82nd W yesterday. I’ve only been here for about 40 percent of the record setting (in all 4 sports!) 21-year losing streak. but in the past 8 years, the curse has seemed to settle heavier and heavier over Pirate baseball each year.

And after the near misses caused by August and September the past two seasons, I was beginning to have my doubts that this group would do it. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Hurdle and Cutch and Marte, but I was doubting the development of Alvarez and Burnett wasn’t getting any younger and our big off-season move was a catcher?

That’s why I don’t make a living in baseball. The Pirates took over baseball this year to such an extent that the winning season became inevitable in June. As we watch the standings and try to remember how to calculate a magic number and what it means, all we can think of is making the playoffs — something that seemed a pipe dream last Spring. The winning season just wasn’t that big a deal.

Then, last night, we hit it and you could almost feel the weight lifting off this baseball city. For perspective, let’s remember what was going on the last time the Pirates finished above .500 — the day this happened.

sidbreambobblehead

It was October 14, 1992.

George H. W. Bush was in his final month as President.

Gerrit Cole was four days old.

This was on the newsstand…

who_1992

This was the top movie:

UnderSiege_cover

Ross Perot was running for President. A week earlier, Dan Quayle and Al Gore faced off in a presidential debate.

Howard Stern’s TV show premiered that week.

Madonna, who was promoting a coffee table sex book, criticized Sinead O’Connor for ripping up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live.

The three highest-rated TV shows were Roseanne, Murphy Brown, and Coach.

Garth Brooks had the best-selling album, but Boyz II Men had the #1 song.

The was the Dream Team that year.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

Charles Barkley was skinny, y’all.

And the Steelers would go 11-5 with Neil O’Donnell at QB and leading rusher Barry Foster.

That’s a lot of water under the bridge. But now it’s done.

82 wins matters, after all. The losing is over.

The monkey is off our back.

The curse is buried. Good riddance.

Now, it’s World Series or bust.

tombstone

The future is happening in Pittsburgh

bttfBack in the 1970s, I think we all assumed that certainly there’d be flying cars by 2013, if soylent green hadn’t taken over. Okay, so innovation has not really kept up with the imagination of Back to the Future. The improvements in automobile technology in the past 40 years has mainly been in the areas of gas mileage, GPS, anti-lock breaking, air bags, and mini-van movie screens. Oh, and advanced cup holder technology? We haz it.

While most of the futuristic movies (from Back to the Future to Blade Runner to The Fifth Element to Total Recall to The Jetsons) all assumed that cars would fly one day, what they missed on was their assumption that a human being would still have to be behind the wheel. The real future is not in flying cars (well, maybe long after we’re all gone) but in driverless cars. No more drunk drivers. No more texting while driving. No turning the wrong way down a one-way street. No more high-speed police chases. You just get in your car, kick back, and read a book or watch a movie or take a nap, while a computer does all the heavy lifting. And it turns out that this kind of innovation is not coming from Detroit or Tokyo or Berlin or even Silicon Valley. No, it’s coming from Pittsburgh, and faster than you think.

srxcaddy_300x250Yesterday was sort of the Kitty Hawk moment for driverless cars, as the brainiac mad scientists from Carnegie Mellon demonstrated that their driverless car — a very normal looking 2011 Cadillac SRX — could negotiate congestion and highway traffic while safely changing lanes and merging during a challenging 33-mile drive from Cranberry, Pa., to Pittsburgh International Airport. And there were no crash test dummies riding inside. The white-knuckled passengers were U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Barry Schoch, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. A human was in the driver’s seat as a safety precaution, but all of the driving was done by Carnegie Mellon’s innovative software, relying on inputs from radars, lidars (is that a thing?), and infrared cameras.

srxinterior_350x200In addition to controlling the steering, speed and braking, the computers also detect and avoid obstacles in the road, including traffic cones and barrels, as well as pedestrians and bicyclists, pausing until they are safely out of the way. The systems provide audible warnings of obstacles and communicate vehicle status to its passengers using a “human-like” voice. This Cadillac SRX also can communicate with instrumented traffic lights and other vehicles equipped with wireless communication devices to enable cooperation.

No word on whether it can lay on the horn, ride the bumpers of cars that cut it off, or flip the occasional bird to moronic driverless cars around it with sub-par operating systems.

Raj Rajkumar, who directs CMU’s U.S. Department of Transportation-funded transportation research center, says the main goal of CMU’s driverless car is to reduce accidents, thereby decreasing injuries and fatalities. “The car’s electronics are simply more reliable than people and will protect drivers from their own bad behavior as well as those of others, such as drinking or texting,” More than 40,000 Americans lose their lives each year in traffic accidents. Rajkumar suggests that self-driving vehicles will begin to be commercially available around 2020 as near-term costs as well as social and legal concerns are addressed. In other words, the insurance companies have to decide who will be liable when a car’s computer gets a virus and plows into a house. Details, details….

I know there are a lot of people out there who actually enjoy the activity of driving. I imagine that there will be the opportunity for human override as this technology is unveiled. But doesn’t that defeat their purpose? And can you imagine those cross-country trips where the people are sleeping in every car you pass? How weird is that going to be? motorolabagphone2I guess it will be no weirder than it was in the 1980s to see someone talking on phones in their cars. Ah yes, that there Motorola bag phone was some pretty freaky Buck Rogers shit in its day.

So what do you think? Do you embrace the future? Bring on the computers! I can play Words with Friends all the way to work!

Or are you going to go there kicking and screaming and demanding your right to be able to change lanes abruptly and without signaling…? Because this is America, damn it!

My Pittsburgh

Today’s run felt like running through a greenhouse. But as I pounded the pavement (and I pound the pavement!), it occurred to me that it was eight years ago today that I first drove into Pittsburgh to stay. I was all by myself in a big empty house and I knew only one person in the city. It was a lonely and confusing time, but today I know hundreds of people here and I love my neighborhood of Lawrenceville. So I decided to take some pics along my run/walk today.

IMG_1150 This is my main running track — a long trucking lot along the tracks and the Carnegie Robotics Lab (in blue).

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I have a special place in my heart for the houses that survived while all of those around them fell to the wrecking ball. They are like hardened pioneers ready to meet a new century.

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As I run, I like to imagine all the hard working immigrant factory workers who used to live in these buildings. They’d take their turns sleeping after the three shifts they worked. Llittle homes with little rooms. Everything really was smaller back then…

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Lots of urban renewal happening around “Larryville.” I can’t tell if this is an improvement, or not. I guess it is, considering the dilapidated structures and empty lots these homes replaced. But still, they seem to lack a certain amount of character…

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Now we’re talking. Of course, I prefer the renovated structures that keep the old architecture intact. I love seeing an old, neglected property spruced up and reimagined.

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Anything that can maintain the old craftsmanship with a modern flair.

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And provide a palette for local artists, like the Kaleidoscope restaurant.

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While some structures still patiently await their turn to be turned into something more useful.

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While other long dormant structures remind us that even though the neighborhood is filled with hipsters, artists, and yuppies, there were once men with hard hats and lunch buckets who used to climb stuff, so we shouldn’t be such uppity jagoffs.

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And other structures bode to the future. That whole Terminator apocalypse. That’s on us. Our bad.

IMG_1158Especially with cars like this sitting in front of the Carnegie Robotics Lab. It’s a Fisker Karma — whatever that is. Nothing good can come of this. Some millionaire is in there developing his future army, right? This is Bond villain stuff.

IMG_1164I fear that someone in our neighborhood has lost the concept of the “missing” flier. You don’t “find” cats. You find dogs. I can stumble outside my house and “find” nine cats hiding beneath the parked cars and shrubbery. No one “finds” a cat.

IMG_1165And finally, in week 4 of my new workout regimen, I bought myself new pair of shoes. It’s time to retire the old cross trainers on the left with the modern running shoe on the right. Cross trainers were really worthless. They weren’t running shoes. They weren’t walking shoes. They weren’t basketball, climbing, biking, or tennis shoes. They were really good for nothing. Today’s workout was like running on spongy cushions of awesomeness. Thanks, New Balance!

Something smells

As you can probably tell, I’m in the midst of the end-of-summer doldrums. I have no kids to drop off at college or get ready to go back to school. Thus, it’s just that weird period where summer is over but no one has told the weatherman. Football and my beloved Fall temperatures are a few weeks off yet. This September will feature something new for Pittsburgh: baseball relevance. The Pirates seem like they have turned onto Liberty Ave. in the marathon that is the 162-game baseball season. With only 35 games left, they are 8 wins away from their first winning season in 21 years, and 10.5 games ahead of the Diamondbacks for a playoff spot. Not even the Three Stooges could screw this one up. (See me tempting the fates there?) But those things, too, are a few weeks off.

corpseI think it was apropos that the big attraction in Pittsburgh this week was the rare and sudden blooming of the corpse flower at the Phipps Conservatory. I don’t care if it only blooms once a decade. I took a pass at joining the hordes of people who plunked down $15 to go see the phallic flower that smells like rotting flesh. Only at the end of August could something like that become the city’s star attraction. Feed me, Seymour! If I wanted to pay $15 to see something stink, I would have taken somebody to see R.I.P.D. At least that way, I would have gotten some popcorn out of the deal.

Funny, it’s the same thing I thought when I read about UPS blaming Obamacare for dropping health coverage of employee spouses. Actually, the story isn’t bad as it seems. The exclusion is only for spouses who have jobs that offer their own health coverage. Those spouses just aren’t going to be able to choose the UPS plan if it’s better than their company plan. No one here is being denied health coverage.

But still, I thought, Hmmm. Something stinks. Hey, at least it didn’t cost me $15. I suspect that there are going to be a lot of businesses in the next few years that take advantage of Obamacare implementation by doing something they’ve wanted to do for a long time… drop or decrease expensive healthcare benefits. In the past, the company would have taken a hit and morale would have plunged. Now, they can just blame Obama… and save a bundle along the way. Oh, they might pay a penalty if they employ more than 50 people, but I’ll bet the penalty is cheaper than healthcare coverage for employees and their spouses.

Hey, these struggling corporations need the money. As a percentage of national income, corporate profits in the third quarter of 2012 (during the national disaster of an Obama presidency) stood at 14.2 percent, the largest share at any time since 1950. Meanwhile, the portion of income that went to employees fell to 61.7 percent, near its lowest point since 1966. Productivity is up. Unemployment is down. It’s just that the profits are not trickling down to the workers. Something is trickling, all right; it’s just not wages.

Meanwhile, Republicans are said to be meeting daily during the recess to scheme of ways to scuttle Obamacare before people actually begin enjoying the coverage next year. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Time’s a wasting. This fall is going to be a cage match. Maybe Republicans would be more cooperative if Obama had proposed the plan of their candidate for the president in 2012… wait, oh yeah…

endwelfareJust a reminder that the stink of politics will be blooming again this fall. There will be fights over debt ceilings, Obamacare, voter suppression, immigration, food stamps, women’s rights, surveillance, and much more. Unfortunately, this is a constantly blooming stink plant. And it will probably cost us more than $15.

There, I just talked myself into enjoying the quiet of late August, as well as the sweet aroma of Congressional recess.

christianleft

 

 

Three score and three years ago.

This post is partly a Sunday stroll through history, and partly a love letter to my city…

I find it remarkable what the city of Pittsburgh has done in the past 60 years. Like Detroit, the industry that supported it collapsed in short order. It decimated both the city’s work force and tax base.

In 1950, Pittsburgh’s population was just over 676,000 (1.5 mil. in the metro area). It was the 12th largest city in the U.S. Sure, the air was smoky and the rivers resembled an open sewer, but in 1946, Mayor David Lawrence began to enforce the Smoke Control Ordinance of 1941 because he knew that smoke abatement was crucial for the city’s future economic development. This was not a popular move. Smoky bituminous coal was much less expensive than smokeless fuels. Italian-American organizations vigorously protested the move, because enforcement raised the cost of living of working class families and threatened the jobs of their relatives in nearby bituminous coal mines. Still, here was the point in 1950.

1950point

By 1953, many of those buildings near the point would be gone to make room for the construction of Gateway Center.

Today, Pittsburgh’s population is 307,000 (2.6 million in the metro area). We are No. 61 in the nation, slightly smaller than Corpus Christi, Texas, but bigger than Lexington, Kentucky. But we’re #20 in the U.S. in metro population.

And here’s our glamor shot just 63 years later…

2013point

Interestingly, the only building in both shots is the Ft. Pitt Block House, one of the first buildings ever built here. (Small brick building by the evergreens.) While we’re at it, here’s the point and Ft. Pitt in 1776.

1776 point

Those settlers on Mt. Washington are trying to decide where to put the sports stadium.

Now, after sixty years of steady decline, the city’s population has actually increased in the past two years. Why did Pittsburgh not go the way of Detroit? Part of it is due to our many vibrant universities, which bring in bright minds (students and faculty), keep the arts alive, and produce grads who stick around. Also, Pittsburgh never experienced the near complete white flight that Detroit did. A hearty and resilient group stuck it out through the tough times and worked with all the residents to reinvent the city. I know a few of them, who call themselves “urban pioneers.” They tell stories of having dinner parties on tables made of a door on a saw horse as they rehabbed properties while still maintaining a sense of community. They never gave up on Pittsburgh through some very lean and scary years, and today they are reaping the benefits of renaissance.

I love the spirit of Pittsburgh.

Life can be soul crushing

So obviously I’m not writing or Internet browsing as much these days. Part of it is due to the fact that I’m working out like a fiend at night. I’m two weeks in on a months long (years long?) journey to lose a LOT of weight. That means everything hurts. There’s a certain amount of humiliation even in trying to exercise. I used to be an avid athlete, and now even a little bit of running makes my knees ache and my gigantic calves seize up in swelling pain. I can’t even always recognize if it is the type of pain to push through with great determination, or the kind of pain that leads to injury and delay and discouragement.

fat_guys_runningThis week, I started on the Couch-to-5K program. It’s three days a week that alternates your workout between running and walking in short bursts and over time, gradually lengthening the amount of running. Literally, you start running for thirty seconds and walking for 90 seconds… for a half hour. I think by week 4 or 5, you are running all the time. They have a pretty awesome app that syncs with your iTunes and tells you what to do… “start running…” “start walking…” “you’re halfway done…” etc. On off days, I do an hour-long walk. Plus 300 sit-ups, every day. So far, so good. I would say that my weight problem is 80 percent lack of exercise related and 20 percent food related. Maybe even 90/10. I don’t eat poorly during the day. The only thing I really need to work on is shutting down the pie-hole after 8 p.m. Nothing good goes in after 8 p.m. I need to regulate the alcohol intake, but I’m not going Baptist or anything. Life is still to be lived. I may do occasional updates on my progress, but I’m not going to make this a weight loss and health blog.

The other thing that has swamped my life has been my attempts to find a friend a job.

I met my friend (let’s call her Tammy) as a customer at the bar right around the corner where she is a bartender. She caught my attention when she knew my name and my drink the second time I went in there. And not because I’m such eye-candy; she just does that. I’ve seen her competently handle a full bar at high volume times without losing a beat. I also noticed the way she treats a lot of the Lawrenceville “characters” — the old codgers on scooters and the down-on-their-luck locals who get ignored at the hip bars, don’t order much, and rarely leave a tip. She knows each one of their names, too, and treats them with kindness and respect. I would visit her bar maybe once or twice a week, but sometimes once every other week, usually on slow nights. On Fridays and Saturdays, there’s DJs and a club atmosphere and that’s just not my scene anymore.

Couple of weeks ago, I went in and Tammy was in tears. Her life was falling apart. She spilled out her story like I was a priest in a confessional. Her best friend had just been murdered in Homestead. Another friend had accidentally O.D.’d. Her boss was cutting her back from 5 days a week to 1. She has a 13-year-old son. She looked at me through tears and said, “I’m a 48-year-old mom with a high school education. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m afraid I’m going to be homeless.”

rejected-300x287I could best describe Tammy as sort of a yinzer version of Erin Brockovich in dress, in attitude, in heart, in work ethic, and in her unwillingness to take shit. Yet these last few weeks have beaten her down and sapped her confidence.

I quickly brought Jean into the picture, because I don’t want to cross any inappropriate lines and I ain’t no dummy. We had Tammy over for dinner. She can text on her smart phone but doesn’t know the Internet or even have an e-mail address. I started feeding her job postings from Craigslist, but many of them want resumes. She’s was all “Why does a bartender need a resume? I’m not going for a job in high finance.” I was a bit surprised by this, too. But now we’ve designed her a resume.

And she’s hitting it. Yesterday, she told me that she gave out all the resumes and needed more. So I dropped off 15 more copies this morning. And yet, through it all, she’s only had one job call her back for an interview. She doesn’t know if it’s because of her age (at 48, she looks more like 35, but won’t pass for 25), or because of her education, or because her current boss is bad mouthing her to others. I told her that finding a job these days is just a slog. You may have to see 50 people to find one job. I’m encouraging like that.

The more I’ve gotten to know Tammy, the more her real story has poured out. Her mom gave her up for adoption, then went back to get her when the grandparents told the mom she couldn’t live with them if she did that. So her life began with her mom using her in order to have shelter. Her father was a drug addict. Her mother dealt drugs and brought a parade of “step-fathers” and boyfriends into the home. As an older teen, her mother was arrested on a third strike offense, meaning a long jail term. Tammy was forced into some unpleasant and degrading circumstances in order to have the charges against her mom withdrawn. Throughout her life, she has been used and degraded by other people. Her husband is near the end of a lengthy jail term for beating her and breaking her arm. She has had to be the single provider and parent to a son with some degree of ADHD and autism. He’s been a handful. Yet she never got into drugs or became an addict or turned to illegal activities as a means of escape. She still carries herself with respect and dignity. Her back is straight and her head is high.

Another part of the scarlet letter she carries is a felony conviction in 1989, more than 20 years ago. It was for aggravated assault because of her involvement in a fight. I don’t know much about it. She says she was trying to break it up and got caught up in it. Who really knows or cares at this point? No one was hurt. No one lost money or possessions. It was 24 years ago! But Tammy has to tell every employer that asks that she is a felon. That never goes away. Can you imagine having to constantly come face-to-face with some stupid thing you did 24 years ago when you were young and impulsive? There but for the grace of God….

emotional_baggage2I know that Tammy is not my problem. I just couldn’t stand to see her used up and thrown out again without trying to help. But it’s so hard. I tend to see the world through the eyes of a college-educated man with a good track record who was born into an upper middle-class family in which I lacked for nothing in the way of opportunity and preparation. Through any door I enter, I am treated with respect and deference. That’s all I know. Tammy had none of those advantages. What if I had been born into her situation? What if I had to go looking for a job as a 48-year-old mother with a high school diploma and a vocabulary that includes more Pittsburghese than the Queen’s English? What if I had to endure all the looks and the fake, disdainful smiles and the polite refusals and the “we just filled that position” responses, even though they still post the job the next day?

Tammy has had soul-crushing and degrading jobs before (legal, but incredibly demeaning and not the kind of thing you put on a resume). She doesn’t want to go back to that. But day after day of rejection has her wondering how she will keep food on the table, pay for rent, and make her car payment. She says that despite all she’s been through, this is the most discouraged she has ever felt. It would just kill me to see her go backward. Yet, even with my knowledge and connections, I still haven’t been able to be of much help to her other than as an encourager, resume builder, email monitor, and Internet job searcher.

Tammy’s not looking for handout. Just a job. She’ll work hard. She’ll work whenever.

In the evening, as I do my run/walks, I do a lot of soul-searching. How many of us are one catastrophe away from being in a situation much like Tammy’s? How many people around us are feeling naked and alone and thinking, I have no idea what to do next? How many times do we judge a person who is merely the product of the environment into which they were born? Where would I be today if I were born into Tammy’s situation? Probably in a cell somewhere near her husband.

Say a prayer for Tammy today. She’s really due for a break in life.

In the bag for the NFL

Full disclosure: I’ve not attended many NFL games. I’ve been to maybe three Bears games at the old Soldier Field. (Not Soldiers!!!!!) It was pretty much a horrible experience. You had to walk for miles. And the stadium was built like in the 1920s, so it was low to the ground and went back instead of up. So if you didn’t have great seats, it felt like you were a half-mile from the action on the field. No video scoreboard. You really had to bring a radio to know what was going on.

old soldierLocated right on the lakeshore, more times than not, the weather was horrible, with brutal winter winds knifing right off the lake. Or fog for a playoff game…

fog_bowl_eagles_bears_1988That’s for real, ladies and gents. And in the Loop, a few blocks away, it was clear and sunny. People at that game said you could hear various sections cheering as players zipped by them. Other than that, nobody knew what was going on for much of the game, which was never halted.

Besides that, I’ve been to an Arizona Cardinals game in old Sun Devil Stadium. The only thing I remember was some pre-game filming of a guy in a Cardinals uniform lying down in the end zone. The crowd was told to remain silent. Then he got up and started doing gyrations while they told the crowd to cheer. Came to find out later that it was Cuba Gooding Jr. doing a scene for Jerry Maguire.

The last NFL game I attended was a Bengals-Saints game at the Superdome. One of my best friends from high school was doing play-by-play for Bengals’ radio broadcasts and he set me up with tickets. Once again, I was in the nose bleeds and the game was more like a rumor. At least we had video screens with replays there.

So I’ll admit that I’ve never had really good seats to an NFL game in a nice stadium. Still, let’s face it. NFL games are much better to watch at home, where you can see all the replays, hear the commentary, see what’s going on elsewhere, enjoy some lovely game day snacks, and not sit in traffic for two hours on your way home. Pittsburgh seems a bit different. There’s ample parking a short walk from the stadium, and a college-like atmosphere, from tailgating to the towels to “Renegade.” But in my almost eight years in Pittsburgh, I’ve never been to a Stiller game, so I can’t really speak to that.

But I was rather shocked to hear of the rather draconian bag policy the NFL is instituting this year. No fanny packs, which really should be a rule everywhere and at all times. I have no problems with that. But ladies…. no purses. What the wha!?!?!?!? That’s right, ladies. You have two choices in accessories for your next Steeler game. One is a clutch purse that will fit in your hand…

bag hand nflStylish, but not entirely practical.

Or you can swallow your pride and carry all your lady belongings for all the world to see in vinyl or PVC bags that do not exceed 12″ x 6″ x 12″…

bag_image_v3a_1371166608The league says this is “to improve public safety.” I may have missed it, but has there been a rash of incidents in which people were killed or maimed at NFL games because of items hidden in purses? There must have been, because how else would this “improve” public safety? Improve on what?

Another line of reasoning from the league is an effort to get people into the stadium faster by speeding up bag checks, They’d rather have people buying expensive stadium  beer than the cheap ones they consume in the parking lot.

Of course, the cynical part of me thinks they also want to sell a crapload of those plastic bags with team logos on them. Imagine the fulfillment company that inked that deal with the NFL. Cha-ching!

I’ve also been rather surprised that there hasn’t been an explosion of outrage about this. Oh, I’ve seen a couple of articles about it. But so far, no huge backlash. Are most fans still unaware? Or are they willing to do about anything to avoid that Heinz Field terrorism disaster we had during the Batman movie? Perhaps this is a small price to pay to ensure that something like that never happens again. Never forget.

Hines-Ward-TDKR

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