Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Picture post: Thanksgiving Family Time

I didn't actually get a picture of the full Thanksgiving feast, but the kids chowed down on appetizers as dinner was being prepared.  Everybody loves Bugles.
Niece Sydney helped Grandma put out the ceramic turkey napkin rings that Grandma made in the 1970s.  It wouldn't be our family's Thanksgiving without them.
On Friday, we walked over to Grandma and Grandpa's new apartment, stopping for a cousins picture on the concrete turtle in the little park halfway between our house and their apartment.

The retirees in their partially-unpacked domain.

Unbidden, the kids started decorating Grandma & Grandpa's Christmas tree.  Hard to get a good photo with all of the light streaming in the windows.  It was done in about 10 minutes; we had to keep encouraging the taller cousins to hang ornament up high so they wouldn't all be in the lower third of the tree.
As the visit wore on, the kids got really into making paper airplanes.  They named them things like Blue Bay Blade and Double Crasher and Rainbow Spinner.  They had a flyoff in the balmy driveway.  Don't ask me why Charlie is wearing shoulder pads under his shirt in this photo and the one above.  Also, don't ask me what Cousin Sydney is doing with her hand on her head there.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday Haiku: Interstitial Season

Another season
falls between Thanksgiving and 
Christmas: It's Advent.
Handprint Advent wreath
Flickr: oddharmonic

Friday, November 25, 2011

Essential Pittsburgh Reading List

A long time ago, I drafted a list of essential books to read to understand Pittsburgh.  The list has sat in a folder on my desk for a long time, waiting.  Today, shazam!  Here it is.  We were talking about this list at Thanksgiving dinner yesterday because my parents have just retired and will summer in Pittsburgh and winter in Maine.

Out of this Furnace, Bell, Thomas, 1941
This is one of those books that every Pittsburgher (and everyone who has reason to care about the 'Burgh) should read. It helps to understand the psyche of the people and neighborhoods of the region, derived as they still are from the immigrant labor experience. Bell's story traces three generations of an immigrant family in the upper Monongah
ela Valley - Homestead, Munhall, Braddock and in the steel mills. Along the way, we view the development of a community in a new, foreign and sometimes-hostile milieu. We see the promise of prosperity maintain its near-but-unattainable distance. Along the way, there is also love and friendship, betrayal and despair. It's a gripping story with a useful dose of sociology/anthropology thrown in as a bonus.

Meet you in Hell; Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America, Standiford, Les, 2006
This book was recommended to me by a work colleague who is a self-proclaimed history geek.  She spoke about it in ecstatic terms, and the book did not disappoint.  A close history of the relationships between Carnegie and Frick as both rose to baron-dom and became two of the richest men in the world through Pittsburgh's steel industry, the book had all the drama of a novel.  The title comes from Frick's retort to Carnegie's death-bed plea that Frick visit him and that they bury the hatched before Carnegie dies.  Frick tells Carnegie's courier something to the effect of "Tell Andrew I'll meet him; tell him I'll see him in hell where we're both going."  The decision to focus in on the two men and their close circle is a smart one.  So many histories that cover a period as long as the 50 years this book covers get too sprawling to be able to follow.  I never found myself trying to remember who the players were while reading this book.  Reading it and learning more about the early history of steel-making has made walking around Pittsburgh a richer experience.

And the Wolf Finally Came, Hoerr, John, 1988
This book makes a fine winter project. This 620-page history of the demise of the steel industry in the Mon Valley is, um, exhaustive.  Make that exhausting.  It's good to know all of this stuff, and it helps me to understand the region I live in a lot better.  Some aspects of Pittsburgh's culture even today feel like they derive from the workers waiting for someone else to make the big decisions that affect their lives.  The book just gets a little slow in the middle 200 pages.  Hoerr is at his best when he steps back from journalistic analysis of the negotiations between management and the union to paint slice-of-life pictures of the region through the hundred year heyday of steel.  His business analysis is generally solid and useful, although it seems quaint at times.  He didn't get many predictions for the future of industry, labor and the region wrong, though.

An American Childhood, Dillard, Annie, 1987
Readers revere Dillard for her writing skills.  This short book appeals because it's well-written but also because Dillard's narrative bristles with interesting facts for people who know at least something about the Pittsburgh region.  Frankly, it's been too long since I've read the book to say anything very specific about it.  I do remember enjoying it and enjoyed reading its origin story about Sewickley, my in-laws' town.

The Pittsburgh Cycle, Wilson, August, 1982-2005
While it's better to see these plays performed, reading them would make a decent start.  Wilson, a Pittsburgh native, wrote ten plays with a play covering each decade of the 20th century.  With the exception of Ma Rainey, they're set in Pittsburgh, mostly in the dynamic Hill District neighborhood.  We've had the privilege of seeing Gem of the Ocean, Seven Guitars, Fences, Jitney, King Hedley II and Radio Golf at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon, Michael, 1988
This is a gripping, often enchanting coming of age story of the son of a Jewish gangster in (duh) Pittsburgh.  Mysteries got a second life with the release of a mediocre movie version.  Our hero drifts through the summer after college encountering more mysteries about himself than about the city.  The terrain - Oakland, Squirrel Hill, Shadyside - is so familiar for an East End resident as to be sometimes spooky.  It's hard to accept that the events are fictional in places that are so real to me.  Chabon's descriptions of Pittsburgh are at once familiar and loving.  The cast of characters here is small but well-developed.  The narrative is filled with tension that kept me turning the pages; some might not enjoy the fact that some of that tension is generated by the protagonist's sexual exploring and his ambiguous orientation in the summer described.

Sam McCool's New Pittsburghese : how to speak like a Pittsburgher, McCool, Sam, 1982
At once cheesy and a classic, when most people invoke Pittsburghese, they are (wittingly or unwittingly) reciting this dictionary.  People actually use many of these words, but I've never encountered others at all.  It's a novelty and will at least help newbies understand the references other people are making to this colloquial dialect.

American Rust, Meyer, Philip, 2009

When this book was published, I heard about it on Fresh Air and in the Atlantic and maybe also in One of America's Great Newspapers.  When that many of my favored media outlets focus on one book, I pay attention.  Against all odds, Meyer, a Baltimorean by birth and upbringing has written a book of extremely local Monongahela Valley texture.  I don't understand why he's set this book in the Mon Valley, but he's captured the place extremely well.  It is not giving away too much to say that a person dies early in this book and that the events surrounding that death drive the rest of the action.  Chapters alternate between each of several key characters and their responses to the recent event and the events and relationships that lead up to it (albeit indirectly).  Pretty good read.  Good for the beach.

By writing an "essential" list, I invite the criticism that this list misses other titles.  I'd welcome that, actually.  I haven't read a solidly Pittsburgh book in a while.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Early Reading

A few months into Kindergarten, Teddy is armed with a few sight words. He's really strong on "the". Here he "reads" a book with Paige. What I find the funniest is him pretending to read words that he knows by memory. He's known "Fly...Guy" since he was two, but here he performs those words like he's sounding them out. Family reading night - my long held dream - will arrive soon. That's when all four of us will sit in the living room and each read our own thing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sweet Sixteen

Today, Paige and I celebrate 16 years of marital bliss.  I feel like the occasion calls for something other than a list, but for some reason, the list keeps coming back into my mind.  

In 16 years, we've had four cars:
A 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera (Brougham Package), given to us by George & Martha Smith, God rest their generous souls.
A 1984 Volvo 240 DL wagon (aka the Blue Goose), given to us by Dave & Anne Hennessey, God bless their generous souls.
A 1990 Honda Accord (aka the Golden Dragon), purchased in 2000 from Marshall & Lottie Bracewell (age 80) of Tonowanda, New York
A 1997 Honda Accord (aka the Blue Car), purchased in 2004 at Frenchy's Auto, "The Home of Affordable Transportation"

We've lived in three apartments and two houses:
Our first apartment was a barely-insulated, converted one-bedroom attic in Bellevue, PA.  Our ratio of money to time was such that we occasionally shopped the specials at all three grocery stores in that little borough in the same week.  We liked walking to the dentist and the barber shop.  We loved never paying more than $5 for a large pizza due to the intense competition in Bellevue and its adjacent municipalities.  We roasted in the summer and froze in the winter.  We felt the cold especially in the claw foot tub with a wand shower head in the slanted-ceiling bathroom.  When we hosted dinner, we'd extend our kitchen table with an end table.  Seated at the table, one could reach the stove, microwave and sink.  Rent: $325/mo. utilities included.

Our second one-bedroom apartment was on the first floor of a rather similar house across town.  We consolidated our work, social and church lives in the East End.  A garage on the alley seriously upgraded our car storage over the steep driveway on a blind curve in Bellevue.  Some of the stained glass windows remained there, in the living room (the original dining room) and our bedroom (an original parlor).  One human fit in the bathroom, barely.  We loved giving directions to that apartment by telling people that they'd know the place on our street because of the golden dragons over the door.  That's why we named our first Honda the Golden Dragon, actually.

In our third apartment, we upgraded to two bedrooms in a top & bottom duplex.  We liked having a dining room, a sunroom and lovely arts & crafts details.  It was a lot easier to entertain there.  We missed the garage and the dishwasher, but enjoyed the space and charm we traded for them.  We found that apartment under miraculous circumstances, needing a new place in February in Pittsburgh because the House of the Golden Dragons had sold to new owners that wanted to convert it back into a single family home.  I happened to look online on the first day the ad went online at the dawn of the time when people put ads online.  We signed a lease that day. Then we moved just two blocks to our new place.

The third apartment positioned us to buy the first house.  Our across-the-street neighbor asked if a car parked in front of her house was ours.  She was trying to make space for the moving truck.  Moving truck?  We were just towing into house-buying territory.  We got an agent on the double, went to the open house on Sunday, the first time anyone had seen the house.  We walked back across the street, wrote up an offer and delivered it at the end of the open house at 4.  We had a verbal agreement that night at 10.  We crammed so much stuff and experience into 10 years in those three bedrooms.  We stripped wallpaper from every wall and some ceilings.  We could put guests in an actual bed, given to us (possibly by generous accident) by Paige's aunt & uncle.

Then, of course, 10 years later, we moved back across the street to our current house.  It didn't take long to feel like home, and we keep piling up the experiences, even as we try to shed stuff.  A guest room rocks.  A coat closet rocks harder.  Two bathrooms changed our entire existence.  Commodious attic & basement playspaces revolutionized having children.

Speaking of which, we've made two children in these 16 years of marriage:
We had a nice long start by ourselves.  The fact that it was slightly longer than we wanted feels like a distant memory now, but we had some time there when it was all we thought and felt about.  Both of our boys are as extroverted and sports-minded as their daddy and as precise as their mommy.  Charlie is sweet and encyclopedic and dreams big dreams.  Teddy hurls energy wherever he goes and has a great imagination and makes definite plans.  They both brought into our lives, individually and as a couple, a kind of love we'd never known before.  At the same time, we've pursued a shared goal to maintain our relationship as husband and wife as the one from which those lives sprung.  We don't really believe in being so kid-focuses that we don't look across the table at each other anymore.

That was really the climax of the post.   We've also in this marriage earned two professional degrees with very little debt (a massive blessing), baked over 800 loaves of bread, thrown some really fun parties, visited Canada, Hong Kong, Thailand, England, France, Vietnam and Cambodia.  Not to mention California, which feels like a foreign country for Pennsylvanians.  We've endured the deaths of four grandparents and an uncle.  We've also gotten to aunt and uncle five cool nieces and nephews.

Gosh, this post got long, but we're just blessed like crazy.  It's good every once in a while to use an occasion like an anniversary to pause and recognize that.  We usually write in people's wedding cards "Marriage is fun!"  We believe that.  Marriage gets a bad rap today, but the real thing - not the sitcom thing, played for laughs - is mostly awesome.  Paige doesn't have a blog, so you're getting my side here.  We've had our hard times, certainly, and we've had to work on this relationship, but that work has paid off.  Today is A happy anniversary indeed. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Prayer for my Sons' Wives

For some reason, one of the things I think about often when I stop into the boys' room after they're asleep is who they'll marry when they get older.  Sometimes I pray something like this for each of them:

Dear Lord,
One day, this boy is (hopefully) going to marry someone.
Please make her smart.
Please help him love her because she makes him a better person.
It will really help if she knows and follows you, Lord.
For everyone's sake, please make sure she has a sense of humor.
Please give her a generous spirit and patience.
Please make her practical and ready to work hard.
I know he'll think she's cute, so I don't need to ask for that.
Please give her a long life and good health.
Please let them agree on how they spend, save and donate money.
This may be selfish, Lord, but please make him choose for life someone with cool, well-adjusted parents.
Please make her the kind who will call him on his [bleep]. Gently.
Please forgive my language.
Finally, Lord, it's a lot to ask in this crazy, mixed up world, but:
Please make her like baseball.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Friday, November 11, 2011

How do you know she's the one?

Younger people in love have (very occasionally) asked me how one knows when one's current partner is " the one".  This complicated question with a complicated answer too often gets distilled to the unsatisfying answer "you just know".  As unsatisfying as that answer is, it may be the only legitimate summation. 

One indicator that I've identified, however, is this: does working on some project with this person make you like him/her more? We spend the highest volume of time together in marriage trying to get things accomplished.  It's awesome if he/she is fun at parties, but if moving furniture or making a meal or traveling together (a specific but important subset of the working together genre) with your significant other drives you bats and makes you think about breaking up, you're in trouble for the long haul. 

The One, stripping wallpaper in our first house
June 2000

I've been thinking about this post for a long time (said the blogger who went missing for the month of October), and when we raked the first of many bags of leaves we'll rake this fall, Paige and I worked quickly and efficiently. And had a great time doing it.  And even flirted a little.  We've also been on several family trips this month, and that affirmed that we're a good team for packing the bags and the car, managing the boys on the road and navigating to a destination. 

We had a helpful headstart on this important relationship attribute in that we helped each other move in and out of dorm rooms, oh, seven times in college.  We also traveled together in a singing group on tour and found that we kept each other sane no matter what was going on.

As much as I enjoy the time we get to relax and have fun together, it's the time when we're achieving something together that reminds me why she was and still is the one.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Circus Ignorance

This is probably more of a status update than a blog post, but someone who's posted as infrequently as I have in the last month shouldn't impose arbitrary, self-defined filters on content. 

When Charlie saw a picture of Barnum & Bailey elephants in the newspaper and asked what it was, I said "That's the circus. We're going there on Saturday night." "So," he asked "Teddy and I are going to have a babysitter?" I was shocked that my nine-year-old didn't know that the circus is a family event. Then while I was drafting this post, Paige told Teddy that we'd be going, and he burst into tears and said he hates the circus. When I asked what he knew about the circus, he said he'd seen something on TV about it. 

What has happened in our culture when school-age kids don't know about the circus and aren't dying to go?

[Update: apparently the boys got pretty excited watching this video of the elephants walking through downtown Pittsburgh.]