Sunday, October 28, 2018

Close to Home

Photo Credit: Chris Preksta

When I was a kid in Swissvale, I always wanted to move to Squirrel Hill when I grew up.  
Even though fate led me to live in other neighborhoods in and around Pittsburgh, I never
stopped thinking of Squirrel Hill as the city neighborhood where I felt most at home, where I “fit.”

My life is full of beautiful memories of this lovely neighborhood.

The Sunday afternoon drives with my dad and mom and my three sisters and I piled into our
little Dodge Dart to look at beautiful homes in neighborhoods around ours because my dad
was an architect and an appreciator of beautiful homes.

We didn’t eat out a lot, but when my parents wanted to splurge Poli’s was the “good restaurant”
they chose.  Going there was a special event. I remember dressing up to eat there, and that
I had my first Shirley Temple there.

The Manor Theatre and the Squirrel Hill Theatre were the movie theaters closest to us with
the first run movies.  I still go back to the Manor often to see those slightly off-the-beaten-track
movies that don’t make it to the local cineplex.

Squirrel Hill was also home to Heads Together, the coolest little head shop in the city.  They
sold drug paraphernalia, record albums and waterbeds. The little hippie wannabe in me loved
hanging out there, even though I had little need of anything they sold but the albums.  It was
one of the few establishments anywhere at the time that was open all night, and I remember
going there with my co-workers from Winky’s Drive-In Restaurant at midnight on Friday and
Saturday nights after our shifts, still dressed in our uniforms reeking of hamburger grease.

Gullifty’s was one of my all-time favorite restaurants.  I went back there whenever I could
until they sadly closed a few years ago.

When I was in my 40’s I met the love of my life.  He was many things - a chef, a musician,
kind and funny and intelligent.  He was also Jewish.

I didn’t know a lot about Judaism when we started dating.  I met his entire extended family
for the first time when we attended his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, which was also my very first
Bar Mitzvah.  No matter. His family warmly welcomed me into the fold and became my family.

For many years I attended services with him at Congregation Bet Tikvah which held services
at Rodef Shalom in Oakland, just a few miles from Squirrel HIll.  Through this liberal,
welcoming, warm congregation I learned to appreciate and love Judaism and they became
my spiritual community.

When we heard the horrific breaking news yesterday that an active shooter had entered the
Tree of LIfe Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, and as we watched the unfolding events and learned
that 11 people had died, six more were fighting for their lives, and that it was an anti-Semitic
act, you can believe that it hit close to home.  This was my city, my neighborhood, my spiritual community. It literally could have been us, and may have been people we knew and loved.

The larger truth is that any time a group of people living in our nation is targeted and murdered senselessly, it happens to all of us.  We must fight hate, by living with loving intentions and by casting our votes for leaders who value all life, and do nor perpetuate hatred and violence. But until and unless we elect leaders who are willing to address the common denominator in all these mass murders - the availability of assault weapons and high capacity magazines to the average citizen - the carnage will continue.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

And I am Telling You I'm Not Going

I understand that some Facebook users’ data (including mine) may have been accessed
by Cambridge Analytics through quizzes we take and used to attempt to influence us in
the 2016 presidential election.

Facebook is taking a huge amount of heat for this, culminating in Mark Zuckerberg’s two-day
appearance before Congress, who are presuming to pass judgement on something they clearly
do not comprehend. Even I, as old and out-of-touch as I am with advances in modern
technology, understand more about how the internet and social media platforms work than
some of these legislators.

I honestly don’t understand the extent of the outrage leveled at Facebook, given the level of
privacy it allows its users, who pay nothing to use the service.  You essentially need two pieces
of information to open a Facebook account - your name and an e-mail address. You can keep
your profile and accessibility of your information as private as you wish.  You can literally hand-
select who sees any individual post of yours. As for those quizzes, you will get a list of what
information they can access before you can start taking the quiz and you can choose whether
or not to allow them to access your information.

And if Cambridge Analytics did get my name and e-mail somehow, nothing they did worked to
influence me toward their candidate in the election.  In my opinion, there was only one qualified
candidate who ran in the primaries or the general election, and that’s who got my vote.

Lots of companies sell your contact information to other companies who then use that
information to market their products to you. This has been going on for years, long before
social media made its debut.Facebook actually uses your information - your likes, and clicks
and such- to tailor the ads you receive to match your tastes and interests. And you can give
feedback on ads and they will stop sending you ads that you don’t wish to receive.  Do you
understand how wonderful this is as most advertisers stop caring about me as a potential
customer the year I turned 50? I welcome advertisements that pay for a service I use free
of charge, and it is a bonus to get ads for products I might actually use.

While getting unwanted marketing e-mail or snail mail is annoying, what really makes me feel
violated is when real identifying information - like my social security number and home address-
get compromised and accessed by hackers with nefarious intentions.  That’s what happened
with Equifax who automatically had access to every bit of identifying information about me and
just about every major financial transaction I’ve ever made. Unlike Facebook, they didn’t ask
for my permission to have my information. And why do they have it to begin with?  Because the
credit review companies are “necessary” so we can receive credit scores that companies can
use to decide whether or not to grant us credit.

Do you know what Mark Zuckerberg did when they realized what had happened? He admitted
that it had happened, showed real remorse, and took steps to improve the privacy of his site.  
He readily agreed to appear before Congress, and when he did so he was deferential and
respectful to the legislators and the process. This was a refreshing change from the denial of
wrongdoing (even when said wrongdoing is on tape) from some people in power these days,
or the way Equifax just hid the compromise to their site.  

Does anyone see what an all-around win the Facebook model is? We keep in touch, share the
information we choose to share and get advertisements about products we use.  Facebook runs
a profitable business. Advertisers reach their target markets.

So I am telling you I’m not going. I want to stay in touch with family and friends from throughout
my life who live all over the country (and sometimes the world).  I want to see pictures of their
children and grandchildren and pets. I want to share in their lives in a way that only Facebook
makes possible. I am going to stay on Facebook.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Pittsburgher in Paris: Parlez-vous Francais?

As we prepared for our trip to Paris we heard all kinds of warnings about The French People.

The French have a reputation for being unfriendly and in some cases downright hostile, especially towards tiresome American tourists. Well, we couldn’t promise that we wouldn’t be tiresome tourists, but we certainly didn’t have to dress like tiresome tourists.  After reading up on the acceptable dress of the country, we headed to the airport armed with our dark clothing and colorful scarves, and left our Steeler shirts and flip-flops behind.  

As it turns out, when interaction was necessary the people of Paris were actually very friendly.  When it was not they left you alone. They don’t chat with strangers, share personal details of their lives or ask you questions about your life unless they’re a pickpocket or a tour guide.  I presume everyday Parisians don’t really care about strangers’ lives.  Unlike New Yorkers who walk down the street looking angry, Parisians walk down the street looking bored.   

This is just exactly the way I want people to act!  I don’t care about strangers’ lives either. It made me want to move to Paris, language barriers be damned, or at least send some of the people at the gym there for a field trip so they could learn how not to talk to strangers.

Rumor also had it that the French expect you to attempt to speak French when you are in their country. I know, the nerve of these people, right?  If you give it the old college try, they will then be happy to speak to you in English.

I don’t want to brag, but I studied French in school for 13 consecutive years without ever mastering the language or even figuring out verb tenses, and I had forgotten everything I had learned in the many years since graduation. I brushed up courtesy of Duolingo which was surprisingly no more helpful than those four semesters of college French classes in teaching me the language.

As it turns out, we managed to communicate well enough while we were there.   We mastered some key words and phrases. Bonjour (hello).  Au revoir (good-bye).  S’il vous plait (please).  Merci (thank you).  Ou est la toilette? (where is the bathroom?)  You know, the important stuff. 

Perhaps the most useful question was one posed by Mr. Rip to two policemen in Montmartre after we wandered down the streets from Sacre Coeur after a walking tour trying to find our way back to the Moulin Rouge where the tour began. “Ou sommes nous?”  (“Where are we?”), he asked.

The policemen look puzzled even though it was a simple enough question delivered in flawless French. Finally, they used their crackerjack detective skills to assess the situation and pointed down the street and said, simply, “Moulin Rouge.”  I guess that’s where all the Montmartre walking tours start.

Mr. Rip was more adventurous than I was in using the language.  One night at dinner, he asked the waiter a question in French about one of the menu items.  The waiter responded to his question in fluent French.   We don’t really understand fluent French spoken by a native.  After that, Mr. Rip added the French phrase for “I am going to ask you a question in French but I will not understand your response” to his repertoire.

As it turned out, not only did French people speak to us in English after we said “Bonjour!” in our glaringly American accents, sometimes they just greeted us in English before we had a chance to speak because somehow they knew at first glance we were Americans.  We probably didn’t look bored enough to be French.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

On This Day My Child Was Born

It was February 13th.  I was 8 ½ months pregnant and returning to work after my weekly gynecologist appointment.

My doctor said he thought I may come a little earlier than my February 28th due date.  That was okay with me. I had had enough of the whole pregnancy thing- the tremendous weight gain, the sharp pain in my abdomen they called “heartburn,” the inability to sit, stand or sleep comfortably.  I really did Ache All Over. I was more than ready to have my baby.

Snow was beginning to fall as I headed back to work, but I wasn’t worried.  The roads weren’t bad yet, and my workplace was just four miles from my house.  Nonetheless, I was pretty happy when I arrived at work safely, just in time for lunch.

When I stood up after lunch, I felt an unfamiliar sensation.  I realized with a shock that my water was beginning to break.  I calmly called the doctor’s office, and they advised me to return to the hospital immediately.  I wasn’t able to reach my husband, who was making deliveries for his family’s business in a time before cell phones.  I left the message with his mother that I would go home and pack my bag and he could just meet me at the house.

I let my boss and my friend and co-worker Joan know what was going on and left.  I got in the car, turned the key and…the car wouldn’t start.  I had turned the headlights on when I was on my way back to work in the snowstorm and left them on.  My car battery was dead.

Okay, so now I was beginning to panic.
I found Paul, my co-worker with jumper cables.  Paul felt strongly that a woman in labor should not be driving herself anywhere, especially in the snow.  He refused to jump my car.  I explained that I just planned to drive the few miles to my house, and probably wasn’t even technically in labor.  Paul didn’t care.  He offered to drive me anywhere I needed to go.  I explained to him that this was my only car, and I could not leave it there, dead, especially if I actually had the baby.  Paul was adamant.  We argued for several minutes.  I was getting desperate.  I begged.  I cajoled.  I cannot swear that I didn’t at one point grab Paul by the lapels and yell “Jump the damn car, Paul!”   Finally, Joan,  a very persuasive person, intervened and Paul grudgingly agreed to jump my car.

I drove home and packed my suitcase but hadn’t heard from my husband.  I called the doctor’s office.  “WHAT??!!!,”  the nurse said, “You mean you haven’t even LEFT yet?”  The last professional I saw get this excited was the whitewater rafting guide after I fell into the Youghigheny River.  I thought better than to mention the dead car battery.  She asked how long it would take me to get to the hospital.  About 30 minutes when it wasn’t snowing, I told her.   “Oh honey,” she said, “You need to get here RIGHT NOW!”

I called my mother-in-law to tell her that I was leaving for the hospital and to tell my husband to meet me there.  She offered to come pick me up, but after my conversation with the nurse I didn’t think I should wait. 

My mother also offered to drive me, which was very sweet but not really feasible.  My mother was terrified of driving in the snow, and lived in Swissvale, which was just about an hour away from my home in Washington, PA.  It would have taken my Mom 2 hours or more to pick me up and take me to the hospital in the snow, and I was certain that Mom would not want to drive in the snow and deliver her grandchild herself, at least not on the same day.

It was snowing a lot harder now.  When I finally arrived at the hospital, I told the doctor that aside from my water breaking and driving 30 miles in the snow, I was feeling fine.  He examined me and informed me that I was indeed having contractions and I was “officially” in labor.  Perhaps I was in shock as I drove to the hospital in the snow, and therefore numb to the contractions, or perhaps I had unknowingly been employing those breathing exercises they taught us in Lamaze class.

Meanwhile my husband had arrived back at the shop.  He arrived in the birthing room about an hour after I got there, in plenty of time for the birth.

I will not share all the minute details of the labor and delivery, because I hate when women do that.  However, I will tell you that I had to have a Caesarian section because the baby was large, and my birth canal was small.  I only mention this because I want everyone to know that there is actually a body part of mine that is too small, ironically located inside my body where nobody can see it.

At 10:15 p.m. on February 13, 1985, my beautiful, brown-haired, brown-eyed baby boy was born, 8 pounds and 9 ounces despite coming 15 days early.  When they put him into my arms, I was smitten- crazy about the kid from the start.  Every bit of the pregnancy and that day had been worth it.

That baby turns 33 today, and is the father of a beautiful, happy, active 14-month-old brown-haired, brown-eyed son of his own.  Here’s wishing my son a wonderful birthday full of celebrations with his family, and better weather than the day he was born.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Pittsburgher in Paris - Escape from Charles DeGaulle

Getting to Paris was kind of like pregnancy- you had to suffer for a while before realizing the ultimate reward you were seeking.  

First of all, we had to fly to get there.  We didn’t seriously consider the alternative of of a week-long cruise ship journey across the Atlantic, so a 7-hour direct flight from Pittsburgh it was.

Things started off pretty well.  We arrived at the airport in plenty of time, got through security, found our gate and settled in to wait to board the plane. And wait we would as we were main cabin section 3 passengers.  We would be the last to board.

While we waited the flight attendants kept making regular announcements asking for volunteers to check their baggage because there would not be enough room in the overhead compartments. Our baggage was already checked so we couldn't help them out.  At the end of their announcement, they always added, rather ominously, “If we do not get enough volunteers we will be checking baggage of section 3 passengers.  So if you are in Section 3, be prepared to part with your luggage.”

So that was how it was going to be, huh?  I suddenly knew what those class 3 passengers on the Titanic felt like - stuck in steerage without the amenities of the higher class passengers.

When we finally boarded the plane we found our seats only to discover that the third person in our row had her 20-month-old daughter on her lap, and they were sitting on the aisle.  

“I apologize in advance,” said the young mother, sweetly.

It turns out that little Eva was a much more seasoned traveler than either of we were.  She’d been to and from France numerous times, including when she was in utero, her mother explained.  She was nonetheless one more extraordinarily well-behaved little body in our row.

I have to give the airline a lot of credit.  They provided a small pillow and blankets, eye masks, ear plugs, and earbuds for listening to free movies, TV shows or music that they provided, even to those of us in steerage, er, I mean section 3 main cabin seats.  They also provided 2 meals, a snack and lots of beverages.  This was fabulous. I couldn't remember being on a flight long enough to get more than one drink and a bag of peanuts.

All was copacetic until you tried to move.  There would be none of that.  By the time we were getting close to our destination, both of us were getting pretty tired of the close quarters.  

Shortly before we were ready to land, we heard some commotion coming from the seat behind us. The man sitting there started to buzz and yell for the flight attendants repeatedly.  We couldn’t see what was going on because we were immobile, but basically this man’s wife had some kind of condition that causes her to pass out when dealing with atmospheric changes.  She was semi-conscious.
The flight attendant then shouted, “Is there a doctor on the plane?”  And there was, and she was a rock star.  She knew exactly what to do.  The women had to lay across the row and elevate her feet above the rest of her body.  

I had questions.  If this woman had this condition, and she had experienced this difficulty on a few flights before that day, why didn’t they alert the airline ahead of time?  And even more importantly,  WHAT IF THERE WERE NO DOCTORS ON THE PLANE?

Thankfully, she recovered fully and walked off the plane under her own power, at least as well as I did after being in the same position for 7 ½ hours.  

We were pretty excited to be landing and heading into Paris. It won't be long now, we thought.

Oh, how naive we were!  In the end, it took us  FOUR hours to get out of Charles De Gaulle Airport. Most of that time was spent waiting in line to get our passport checked before we could even pick up our baggage.  

I applaud their vigilance, really I do, but maybe they could have had a few more clerks on duty.  

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Pittsburgher in Paris - Preparing for the Trip

This is the first of a series of blogs detailing my recent trip to Paris.  I got so much out of the trip, so I might as well get a few blogs out of it too!

So it finally happened - I made it out of the continental United States and Canada. Mr. Rip and I took our vacation in Paris this year.

Yes, I said Paris.  I couldn’t believe we were going there before we went, and I still am shocked to hear myself say it now, after spending a glorious week there.  

Was it wonderful?  Mais oui.  But first we had to get there. This was so much more complicated than the time we threw some stuff in the trunk and drove the two hours to vacation in Cleveland.
Getting ready was a study in crisis management - imagining the worst possible scenarios and preparing for them all.

First came the deciding to actually go through with it, despite the increased terrorist incidents throughout Europe.  Mr. Rip never wavered, but I did.  To humor me, he consulted with a friend who works for the State Department.  He reported back to me, “John says it’s okay!”

I eagerly read John’s message, which started out with “Well, that’s a tough call…,”  went on to outline the myriad of threats to American travelers in France and other foreign countries, and then concluded with something along the lines of “I cannot in all good conscience tell you to go - only you can make that decision, but if we don’t travel, then the terrorists win.”  Not terribly encouraging, but far be it from me to let the terrorists win.  He also recommended that we register with the State Department, so they knew how to identify us and notify our loved ones back home in the event that we fell victim to a terrorist attack.

So we registered with the State Department, so that they could regularly send us friendly if terrifying updates that basically told us that we traveled to our Europe at our own risk.  We also notified banks, credit card companies, scheduled excursions ahead, got some euros, and made copies of our important papers and lists of medications.  

Next step was extensive research to prepare ourselves for traveling to Paris.  What would the weather be?  How to dress?  How to avoid confrontations with Parisians angry with Americans? Stuff like that.

Because I have more than one of every conceivable wardrobe item in black, lots of dark shirts and a handful of scarves in my closet, it seemed I was set for roaming the streets of Paris. It was scheduled to be cool and rainy when we were there (just like home!) so I bought a packable rain jacket for good measure.  I memorized a few stock French phrases to indicate my solidarity with the French people just in case it came up.

My research also showed that the most immediate threat to tourists in Paris came in the form of pickpockets.  Reportedly, they are everywhere but especially around places that tourists like to hang out, and they are particularly ruthless.  They will pick your pocket without you ever knowing, read your credit cards through your purse, and actually slash your purse and run away with the contents.  

Aha!  Now here’s where I have some experience.  I’ve been to Times Square on Black Friday.  The bad guys could shoot me or blow me up or run me over, but I would be damned if they were going to get my purse!  I bought a slash-proof, RFD-blocking, crossbody bag with locking zippers, and  a neck wallet, to complement my typical paranoid vigilance in holding my purse close to my body when in crowds or on city streets, and sometimes in remote rural areas.

As it turns out none of these things happened, but I do love that purse.

Next up:  “Escape from Charles DeGaulle”  - getting there.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Walk This Way

Last year I was forced to get a new car and a new computer, because the old models were obsolete and no longer functioning.  Little did I know that neither my new car nor my new computer, which are exceptional in every other way, came equipped with a CD player.  CD’s are also obsolete, the salesmen explained to me.

“But, but, I listen to music and audiobooks on CD’s in my car,” I explained, trembling a little.  “But, but I have all these CDs, and no way to save them on my computer, because it no longer has a CD drive either.”   They told me I just had to use Bluetooth to listen to music or books.

Here we go again, I thought.  I’ve lived through vinyl records, 8-tracks (a trend I missed completely before it was over), cassette tapes, CD’s and now I have to figure out how to use Bluetooth.

Mostly it’s been okay.  I have stumbled my way through downloading music and books, and even borrowed them from the library.  There have been some missteps.  “Missing” audio books I thought I had successfully borrowed, an entire U2 album that I “accidentally” downloaded that I can’t figure out how to delete. Hopefully I will master this before Bluetooth becomes obsolete.

Somehow, in spite of myself, I have managed to build a respectable library of music at little or no cost to me that I decided to put to use when I do my walking at the gym.  I set about putting together a Walk Tape, an eclectic mix of pop, classic and folk rock and Broadway showtunes.  It is a musical world where Bruce Springsteen and the good folks of Price and Sons live together in harmony.  Literally.

I had a few hours of music but really needed about 19 minutes so I created my Primo Walk Tape, 18.60 minutes of the best music I had for walking.  The songs?

“Born This Way” by Lady Gaga
“Firework” by Katy Perry
“Footloose” by Kenny Loggins
“Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson
“Shut Up and Dance with Me” by Walk the Moon

I was pretty pleased with myself that four of these five songs were released since 2010, with only “Footloose” being a retro choice from the 80’s.  And in addition to driving beats good for walking, these songs turned out to be positively inspirational, pumping daily aspirations directly into my head.

“Born This Way” tells us to accept and celebrate ourselves just as we are, because “baby you were born this way.”  “Firework” tells us that we are not worthless, saying “You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine, Just own the night…”  Even though it’s been years since I’ve felt like a plastic bag blowing in the wind, I can still appreciate all this daily affirmation and self esteem boost.
“Footloose” of course is all about “cutting loose, footloose,” and expressing yourself and breaking through unreasonable societal restraints by, you know, throwing a dance.

“Shut Up and Dance” is about how an assertive lady takes charge of the situation when a guy is obviously interested but clearly overthinking it.   Honestly this guy would prattle on all night about how she was his destiny if she didn’t finally just tell him to “shut up and dance.”

And finally, there is “Uptown Funk.” So, how is Uptown Funk inspirational?  Well, I’ve given this a lot of thought.  The narrator is certainly a confident young man (“kiss myself, I’m so pretty) and encourages those around him to be confident as well (“if you’re sexy then flaunt it”)...oh, okay, I have absolutely no idea what this song is even about.  I actually looked it up and NO ONE knows what it is about. One author theorized that each section of the song taken separately has meaning, but as a whole it means absolutely nothing.

Oh, it doesn’t matter.  It has a good beat and I can walk to it.

Close to Home

Photo Credit: Chris Preksta When I was a kid in Swissvale, I always wanted to move to Squirrel Hill when I grew up.   Even though...