Stuff I Write, Stuff I Like

Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

Stuff I Write: My Pittsburgh

In Uncategorized on February 20, 2013 at 3:35 am

A little while ago, the beautiful writer Jane Bernstein asked me to write a description of what Pittsburgh meant to me. This was for an anthology Jane was editing with Rodge Glass of Scotland’s Cargo Publishing house.

The anthology, Second Lives: Tales from Two Cities, brings together writers from Pittsburgh and Glasgow. It’s a fine project.


The book includes National Book Award winners and best-selling authors like Terence Hayes, Jane McCafferty, Gerald Stern, Ewan Morrison, Hilary Masters and many more. I’m grateful to be a part of it.

I wrote this short piece in response to Jane’s request. It made me realize that Pittsburgh is as much part of my DNA as it is my home-place.

It also gave me a chance to talk about The Westinghouse Bridge, which is where I get my title for my almost-here memoir, The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press, Spring 2013).

Here’s a drawing of the bridge (thank you to Born of Fire for this):



When I was a kid, I traveled with my father every weekend to see my grandfather in Braddock, a mill town outside of Pittsburgh proper. My grandfather, an immigrant, spoke only Polish. My father believed in America, the dream of it.

“We speak American in my house,” he said.

We had a Chrysler Newport, a car as big as a meat locker. We bought our meat at a slaughterhouse, where the floor was sticky with blood and the butcher with the thick accent would offer me a pretzel from a jar on the counter. The butcher’s hands were scabbed over, the moons of his nails black with dried blood. He’d pull out a pretzel and hand it to me.

“Say thank you,” my father would say and I would.

“Don’t waste food,” my father would say, and I’d eat the pretzel in the car and try not to think about it.

We vacationed in Florida. My father played the lottery and had a bookie and tucked instant-win lottery tickets into my stocking at Christmas.

“We speak American,” he said.

He kept to that until just before he died. Then his brain turned on him and went back to its first language and my father spent his last conscious hours trying to tell me something I couldn’t understand. “Nonsense,” my uncle said, and refused to translate.

I still don’t believe my uncle. I think my father was trying to tell me something that would make the world and everything in it make sense.

On those drives to Braddock, we passed under the George Westinghouse Bridge, a massive span that rose above The Electric Valley. Westinghouse had an electric plant there. From the bridge, you could see the fire of the Edgar Thompson Works, the mill where the men from my father’s family worked at one time or another.

“That’s the bridge to take when things get serious,” my mother, a nurse who worked for years in Braddock, used to say, a joke, meaning that was the bridge most chosen by suicides for its height, its lack of water underneath. There were bodies in the concrete, workers buried in the bridge itself. People died there.

“In service to mankind,” the message on the bridge’s monument reads.

That bridge to take when things get serious.

That’s my Pittsburgh, my way of seeing.

Stuff I Like: Pittsburgh Ducky Tours, Brownies in Peril, Myron Cope on Venice

In Uncategorized on February 20, 2013 at 3:15 am

I love my hometown, Pittsburgh, but I didn’t know a lot of things about it. Then a few months ago I went with my daughter’s Brownie Troop on a Ducky Tour.

If you haven’t been on a Ducky Tour, I recommend it, especially if you can go with a group of cookied-up Brownies, especially if you’ve ever had the desire to, you know, just drive off the road into the Monongahela River. (Traffic’s bad in Pittsburgh. It could happen.)

And Ducky Tours are coming back in season, just in time for Easter. How perfect is that?

Duckies (DUKW, in military speak) are amphibious trucks, usually seen in films about World War II. In Pittsburgh, peaceable Duckies help tourists (and natives like me) get a waterfowl’s-eye view of things.

These things used to look like this:

Now they look like this:

The bonus: When you take a Ducky Tour, you get to quack at people.

On the day of our Ducky Tour, it was raining hard, more like a tropical storm. My daughter and a pod of Brownies huddled into my seat and held onto my arms and legs. One of them looked up at me, her hair rain-stuck to her little round face, and said, “I don’t want to die like this.”

“Maybe we’ll earn the hurricane survival badge, too,” I said, just as the Ducky slipped off the dock and into the river. Nobody laughed.

Oh, we were just fine. Don’t worry. These things made it through World War II. They’re very safe. Although visitors do get to drive. Brownies, driving, you get the idea.

As our Ducky made its way through downtown and beyond, here are some new-to-me facts Captain Al from Just Ducky Tours of Pittsburgh shared about this beautiful city, this top world-class travel destination, this amazing livable place.


Pittsburghers like fun. Pittsburgh was the home of the first Ferris Wheel (1893) and the first Ice Capades (1940).

Of course, the polio vaccine was invented here. Knew that one. Thanks, Dr. Salk.

But if a polio vaccine’s not enough, we invented the first emoticon, too. That would be Carnegie Mellon University, circa 1982. The primal emoticon: the smiley.

Pittsburgh is home to two inclines, the Duquesne and the Monongahela. Built in 1870, the Monongahela is the oldest operating funicular in the U.S.

What would you do for a Klondike Bar? Nothing, if it wasn’t invented here first. By Isaly’s in 1929. Isaly’s also brought the world chipped ham in 1933. Sloppy, sloppy joe.

The Big Mac was invented near Pittsburgh in 1967.

Pittsburgh’s William Penn Hotel is the resting place of the official Lawrence Welk Bubble Machine. It was the birthplace, too. The hotel staff invented it. Isn’t that wunnerful!

Pittsburghers love our native Heinz Ketchup. We also love The Big Fish Sandwich. The Diocese of Pittsburgh’s Map of Fish Fries is very popular this time of year. I have a friend from South Africa who doesn’t understand this. “What is it with you people and big fish?” he says. “What is this big fish? This great fish? This biggest fish?” It’s not just a Pittsburgh thing, but maybe we’re just more passionate about it.

And finally, at last count, Pittsburgh had 446 bridges. That’s three more than Venice, Italy.

As the great Pittsburgher Myron Cope would say, okie dokie double yoi. Take that, Venice.

Stuff I Write: Love Saves the Day

In Uncategorized on February 14, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Happy Valentine’s Day! Here’s a story about my daughter, who’s been hotwired for joy since birth, and her unrestrained love of every small and beautiful thing. Musical Valentines Day cards, for instance. It’s also about  hope and having faith in people. It’s the season for that, too.


Thanks very much to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and editor Greg Victor who first published this a few years back and who first reminded me I need to lighten up. I’m still working on that.


Love Saves the Day


I love you!” my daughter Phelan yells at the woman in the bath aisle at Target.

Phelan is four. She’s in the cart and bundled in her down jacket and fuzzy scarf. It’s February. Outside it’s snowing and the snowflakes have melted into her hair. This makes her hair curl, and her blonde pigtails bounce like springs.

She dangles one fluffy arm over the side of the cart and waves like a beauty queen. “I love you!” she yells again, louder, and this time the woman looks up from the bath mats she’s holding, two heavy slices of lime green shag, and seems confused.

I had come in with a list — double-A batteries, socks, Star Wars boxer shorts for my son Locklin, Phelan’s brother, who opted out of this trip so he could go on playing “Battalion Wars II” on his Wii.

“It’s not real,” Locklin tells me, because he knows I don’t like war games. Sometimes, when he catches me watching the news, he’ll put his 8-year-old hand on my back and tell me “Mom, lighten up. You worry too much.” Maybe he’s just repeating lines he’s learned from TV. Maybe it’s more. These days, there are so many things to worry about — wars, recessions, the way my son with his serious green eyes is too much like me.

But the list. I had it in my pocket and had to keep reminding myself to check it. Target confuses me the way Vegas casinos confuse me. There’s something about the lights. In Vegas, I go into casinos at night and when I come out it’s morning. In Target, I go in with a list that says batteries, socks and boxers, and come out with a bookshelf, a lava lamp and 30 rolls of toilet paper.

Phelan gets distracted, too — Target has toys and dollar bins and pop-up books. It has hot dogs and Slurpees. Her favorite aisle, though, is the greeting card section. She loves cards, especially the musical kind that play cheesy hits from the ’70s and ’80s. These are the kind of cards my daughter calls “invitations.” She thinks they’re magic.

On this day there was a Valentine’s Day display. There were the usual heart-shaped cards and cards featuring sad-eyed puppies and nuns. There were cards with cartoon cows on them and, for cynics, cards with pictures of dead and stomped-on roses. Phelan bounced and pointed and I forgot about my list and pulled up next to a row of cards that looked like half-eaten boxes of chocolates.

Phelan plucked a card and opened it.

“I love you!” it yelled. She laughed. She squealed. She closed the card. She opened it again. “I love you!” it yelled. She held the card up over her head and waved it. She brought it back down and kissed it. She closed the card. She opened it. She shook it like she was waiting for something, fairies maybe, to tumble out. She closed the card and opened it again and this time, she yelled back “I love you!”

And so it goes.

I put the card back on the shelf, but Phelan couldn’t help herself.

“I love you,” she yelled to the slit-mouthed security guard checking receipts, to the sad couple with their basket of air fresheners, to the flop-haired kid in Digital Cameras.

“Shh,” I said at first, but then I gave up and let myself enjoy my daughter’s rubber-ball voice bouncing off everything and everyone it touched.

“I love you,” she yelled to the woman at the concession stand where the wrinkled hot dogs lolled around like sunbathers. “I love you,” she yelled to the red-vested manager price-checking tennis shoes, and now, to this woman in the brown tweed coat, her arms laden down with bath mats.

Everyone else had been at a distance, but this woman is close. I’m afraid Phelan might reach out and try to touch her. The woman stares as we push past. She doesn’t smile or laugh. She seems, maybe, horrified that I’ve let my daughter act out like this, and she may be right. Maybe I should have stopped it. I look past her and half-smile as if to say sorry.

Back home, my son is blowing things up with his digital Terror Tanks. The game’s sound-track plays Taps over a smoking battlefield. Here in a store called Target, my daughter’s face is flushed with misplaced joy. I feel the pull of the world, what’s right and good, what I can change and what I can’t.

My son’s right, I know. I need to lighten up.

But like my daughter and her joy, I can’t help it.

I push Phelan faster and we turn into the next aisle. Plastic shower curtains covered with superheroes and angelfish. Toothbrush holders shaped like cities. And towels. So many towels. I reach into my pocket for my list. Batteries, socks. All around us, there’s a rainbow of fluff and colors, the promise of what won’t save us — three shades of purple, bubblegum pinks, blues if you want.

I’m touching them, the blues, when I hear a voice from one aisle over. It’s the woman with the bath mats. She doesn’t quite yell, but she says it loud enough to feel it. “Love you, too.”

Sometimes the world can change, just like that. And I know now, for these few seconds, under these bright and almost beautiful, believable lights, we’ll all be fine.

Stuff I Like: A.J. Jacobs’ Year of Living Biblically, Boxing Sharks, and The Practice of Active Gratitude

In Uncategorized on February 9, 2013 at 8:18 pm

I love A.J. Jacobs’ book, The Year of Living Biblically. It’s an amazing example of immersion journalism and one man’s inspiring quest to be a slightly better person.


Jacobs is an agnostic who grew up in a Jewish family where religion meant putting the Star of David on top of their Christmas tree.

star of david

In a quest to understand his own spirituality, as well as the rise of religious fundamentalism in the world, he spends a year taking the rules of the bible literally. He grows a beard that gets him stopped at airport security, ties curtain-y tassels to all his clothes, and carries his own port-a-chair on the subway to be sure he doesn’t sit anywhere unclean — as in, where a menstruating woman sat first.


This last part doesn’t go over well with the women in his life, especially his wife.

The book is funny, moving and, for Jacobs and his readers, a bit of a life changer.

As Jacobs walks through Manhattan, dressed in biblical garb, gently stoning adulterers with pebbles and herding sheep in Times Square, he realizes that changing his behavior has changed the way he thinks.  In the book and in interviews, he talks about the way he started to be actively thankful for everything that didn’t go wrong each day.

He’s thankful he made it to a destination without getting run over. He’s thankful he didn’t fall down the stairs on his way to work.  He’s thankful he didn’t get food poisoning from a lunch truck.  He’s thankful for his sons and his wife, who resisted the urge for 365 days to hit him with his port-a-chair.


After reading Jacobs’ book, I’ve been trying to practice a little active gratitude every day.

When I think about all the things there are to be thankful for, it helps me focus a little less on everything that’s not going well, though I’ve always been the kind of person who’s done just the opposite.

Back when I was a flight attendant, I figure I worked about 1,248 flights and flew well over a million miles. I’m not great at math, but I had help, and this help figured that over my airline career, I had approximately 249,600 encounters with passengers.


That’s 249,600 “Hi, Welcome Aboards,” and 249,600 times I’ve said, “Would you like ice?” and 249,600 times I asked someone to choose Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Diet Sprite.

In all that time, what I remember most are the people who behaved badly – the guy who threw a salad at my butt, the guy who licked my neck during a beverage service, the kid who projectile vomited in my hair, the lady who took off all her clothes because she said the people around her smelled. (I still don’t get that one.)

Today I’m trying to remember instead all the kindnesses that people shared with me back then.

The man who gave me chocolates from Poland because he could tell my last name is Polish.

The little boy who told me I was beautiful as a princess and he was going to marry me when he grew up.

A pilot named Tony Tripodi from Brooklyn, who walked me around an airplane and pointed out the science, every flap and gear, then said, “Screw all this. I’m still amazed as a kid every time we get off the ground.”

The passenger who, through a bad bout of turbulence, held onto me and kept me from hitting the ceiling, then asked me out on a date.

My flight attendant buddy Carol who would sit in her jumpseat and pull up her uniform pants to show me her old-lady knee high pantyhose, because this was the one sure thing that would crack me up.

knee high

I’m trying to think about all the tiny kindnesses and joys that are around me every day now, too. Right now as I type this, my daughter and her friends are playing music. One’s on the keyboard, another’s on the guitar. They’re making up a song about a shark that likes bananas and boxing.


The sound is coming up from our basement, where we still haven’t taken our Christmas tree down.

The fact that our Christmas tree is up and it’s almost Valentine’s Day should make me feel awful, a complete domestic failure, but it doesn’t.  The tree’s beautiful, even out of season. It makes a nice night light.

And besides, we’ve all been busy living, you see, and I’m grateful for the fullness of this life.

Stuff I Write: Parenting, Pediatricians and The Fine Art of Puking

In Uncategorized on February 2, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Parenting can be tricky business. Every day can feel like a heart-punch  of guilt and love and longing. youngboxer-9d164932aa68af3c99b891156c74da3fb8185b5c-s6-c10

Here’s an essay I wrote about that. It’s an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, Virtual Mother.  Thanks to Hippocampus Magazine for featuring it in their February 2013 issue.



 My son throws up a lot. He throws up when he’s sick. He throws up when he’s tired. He throws up from motion sickness and from boredom and whenever things haven’t gone his way. Mornings before day care, he throws up because he doesn’t want to go. He always throws up in exactly the same spot, right under a train trestle one mile away.

It took me a while to figure this out. Now I pack extra clothes and change him in the back of the car. Then I go to work, knowing how I must smell, all curdled milk and guilt and vomit.

“Some kids are gifted like that,” the pediatrician says when I bring my son in for a check-up.

The pediatrician wears cartoon ties. His hair is spiked. His eyes are big and round. He looks like a boy-man. He looks like a character from one of his ties. I can see why kids love him, but I’ve always felt uncomfortable around doctors, and this one is so nice and perky that his questions seem veiled, an interrogation.

“Is mommy a good cook?” he asks my son.

“Are you a good sleeper?”

“Do you like T.V. or sports better?”

“What’s your favorite snack – carrots or apples?”

I grow small in the orange plastic chair while my son shifts back and forth on the exam table, the paper tearing beneath his bare legs. All around us, cartoon animals peer out from the wallpaper – rainbow-colored snakes and zebras, lions and giraffes hidden in the design like a seek-and-find game.

We’ve been coming to this doctor since my son was born. We’ve waited in this room a lot. I know where every zebra is hiding. I can point out the lions without looking.

I think the doctor can see me like that, too, his big anime eyes taking everything in.

I am a bad, bad mother.

My son does not eat vegetables. He does not eat fruit unless juice boxes count. He fights bed time. He loves TV and doesn’t get outside enough and thinks sports are things kids do to entertain their parents.

My son is a gifted puker.

I feel all of this come down, a fault line.

If I didn’t work so much, if I kept him on a better schedule, if I were a better cook, if there were more carrots, more attention, if I were selfless, if.

“He looks good,” the doctor says, and pats my son’s leg, then my leg. He hands me paperwork and a list of parenting guidelines, inoculation schedules. “Good job, mom.”

This doctor always calls me mom. His nurses do, too.


My own mother, a nurse, hated doctors, but she was afraid of them, their judging. My parents adopted me when I was a year old. I’d been born with clubbed feet and had many surgeries.

“She’ll require a special kind of care,” the Catholic Charities social worker who handled my adoption told my mother. “With your medical background, I think you’re a good fit.”

My mother fussed over me a lot. When I’d wake up in the hospital, her face would be the first I’d see. She’d spend the night on a cot next to my hospital bed and keep one hand on me as she slept so she could feel me breathing.

“Not flesh of my flesh but heart of my heart,” my mother would tell me. She’d recite it like a mantra before I went into surgery and in the minutes after I woke up. It was a line she’d memorized from a poem in a Dear Abby column. The column offered advice for mothers with adopted children, something about love being a nurture-over-nature thing.

In my adoption records, there are medical reports and reports from social workers, accounts of house visits. My mother worried she’d be seen as a bad mother, though for her there was another fear. She could be labeled unfit. I could be taken away. I could be sent back.  And so before doctors’ visits, my mother used to change the banged-up bandages on my casts. She brought home supplies from the hospital where she worked. She scrubbed me and re-bandaged the casts, then coated them in Sani-White so they shined. She dressed me like we were going to church. She dressed herself to match. We smelled blameless, all Ivory soap and baby powder.

“Good job, mom,” the doctors said.

“Doctors,” my mother said, and clicked her tongue against her teeth like a deadbolt.

“Thank you,” I say now to the pediatrician. I make a show of reading his guidelines. Use a car seat. Childproof outlets. Be careful around stairs.

“No one knows how I worry,” my mother would say as she wrapped the plaster gauze around my bent and broken legs, ribbons around May poles.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t a better mother,” my mother said as she was dying. “I’m sorry I wasn’t more patient. I’m sorry I yelled so much. I’m sorry I was nervous all the time.”

My mother was a good mother.

“You’re a good mother,” she often said to me, knowing what it meant to hear it.

I look at my son perched on the pediatrician’s paper-covered table. All I can think about is how often I fail him.

“There are two kinds of people,” my friend Gerry Locklin says. “People with kids and people without them.”

mall play

One time I saw my son’s pediatrician at the mall. He looked smaller there. He was chasing his own kids, one boy and one girl, around the mall’s padded play area. His kids had crawled into the trunk of a play tree and refused to get out.

“Come on now,” he said. “Time to go.”

His kids wedged themselves tighter into the tree as he began counting backwards from ten.

In the mall’s florescent light, his shoes seemed less shiny, his pants cheaper, wrinkled. His hair had gone flat. His cartoon smile looked forced and he seemed very tired.

This made me like him more.


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