Travel (mis) Adventures

Sometimes I think I am living under a travel curse–at least for that last trip. I haven’t been happy about flying since they first made me take off my shoes. The TSA doesn’t understand how important shoes are to old ladies, especially on hard floors. So I’ve been taking the train or bus–no security, no problems. Having more time than anything else I bought a ticket on the Megabus to go to New York the day before I had to be there. I chose Megabus over Greyhound Express because they had an 11am departure, in addition to the ghastly early and not-quite-overnight trips. On December 15 I made a reservation to go to New York on January 4 at 11am. I got to the departure point about 10:30 with a few people in front of me and about 20 or 25 people finally lined up after me. It was a bitter cold day. The bus from Harrisburg arrived and passengers dispersed. The bus to Washington D.C. came and went. The bus to Philly came and went. About 11:10 a Megabus employee asked us which bus we were waiting for, then told us there was no 11am bus; we would have to wait until 12. Megabus, which does most of its business online, never notified us the schedule had changed. We walked off to find someplace warm and came back a half hour later. The employee told us we could call and complain, which I did, but never heard from Megabus again. Needless to say, except for this public complaint, they won’t hear from me again.

Coming back to Pittsburgh I flew with Robin. She could not have taken the bus and I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to do it again. She had a huge, heavy suitcase and a heavy backpack for her laptop and other technology. She isn’t supposed to lift anything over 5 lbs. and I probably can’t lift much over 10 lbs. We got lots of help. A skycap took care of the heavy suitcase and someone from the airline walked us over to security. We took a bunch of those trays and put our stuff into them: my coat and shoes, Robin’s coat and shoes, her backpack, her laptop, her jacket, my jacket, my suitcase, etc. Etc. because I know there were more than six trays. I started to move the trays toward the scanner and suddenly realized I would have to move everything to another table next to the first but not connected to it. So everything had to be lifted over. This was obviously a tour de force of design and efficiency. I finally got everything going through the machine, then a little nervous about having it piling up on the other side without me, I walked through the metal detector and set it off.

I don’t know what did it. I had on my watch (plastic, but who knows what’s inside), my hearing aids (ditto), pants with a metal zipper, and of course, my pacemaker. I’ve walked through other times with same and no consequences, but I mentioned it and the TSA turned white. She literally did not know what to do with me. Finally, still in stocking feet, she patted me down. The advantage to being my age is that I’ve been to so many doctors and had so many other nasty experiences, I just didn’t care. The only really annoying part was being shoeless. She found nothing, but, surprise, something in my possessions set of an alarm somewhere. Another TSA (all female; a man would have been more fun) took me, shoeless, to another place and did another pat down. She discovered the dirty tissues in my pocket; the other one ignored them. They finally concluded I wasn’t a terrorist, then Robin and I got a ride of one of those electric carts over to the gate. We had help going down the jetway steps and up the plane steps with our stuff; by now just the coats, backpack and my carryon. In Pittsburgh we were met with a wheel chair. Neither of us needed it, so we piled all the stuff on, now including my suitcase, and walked with the attendant to the baggage claim where Steve met us. More about New York next time.

Two days in Scranton

We came to Scranton for a family reunion for Steve's family, of which I am part. They adopted me. Visiting with the family has been great. In addition to spending time together we went to a coal mine tour–really fascinating in a gruesome way. This is the second coal mine tour I've taken. Both times I have constantly wondered about the conditions in Ireland and Eastern Europe that made people come here and take jobs in those mines. How horrible could those conditions have been, when it is preferable to work in an occupation where you would most certainly become ill for the rest of your life if you were not rescued by an early death. Children, as young as seven were sent to work in life-risking situations. Mules used to move the coal filled train cars were more valuable than the children. We forget the terrible working conditions that prevailed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and how much labor unions have done to improve things for workers, although, as mine explosions in Chile and West Virginia have shown during the last year, the unions have not done enough.

Going down into the mine and watching the light disappear.

Coming out of the train in the mine.

Our tour guide telling us about conditions in the mine. 

Think about walking around down here with only the light from a lantern attached to a hat you were wearing. Then drill into the coal, set black powder or dynamite and run away before the charge explodes. 


I’m tired of “liberal” being a dirty word


My friend, The Subversive Librarian, has a great post based on another great post at Cuppa with Candace. Both are replies to a typical conservative email making the rounds about being tired of "how terrible it is that conservatives have to pay their fair share in taxes while we lefties undermine the American way of life and Completely Ruin Things For All Future Generations." If you want to know more about the email author, go to one of those other blogs. I don't want to write his name.

Here is Candace's post, with permission:

“I’m 57, and I’m Tired, Too”

By Candace Van Auken

     I’m 57. Until I became disabled in 2001, I worked hard at different jobs, routinely putting in 50 to 70-hour weeks. I did call in sick some days as my inflammatory arthritis worsened, but my employers just patched me through to meetings via telephone — there being no rest for the weary white-collar employee. For years, I made a very good salary, and I didn’t inherit my job or my income. In fact I had to work twice as hard to make 3/4 the salary of the average male employee. Now, given the economy and my disability, I’m probably going to end up living under a bridge, and that thought makes me feel both scared and tired. Very tired.

     I’m tired of being told that I’m a parasite when I spent many years paying taxes and Social Security. (I noticed, one year, that according to a newspaper article, I was paying three times the amount in taxes as a politician who earned twice what I did. Unlike him, I paid my fair share.) I was told by the government that I had worked for my Disability insurance, but according to people lucky enough to have never been seriously ill, I’m a drain on society. I’m tired of being told that conservative congressmen will take the money I paid in, and give it to the most obscenely profitable industry in the world — the oil companies — as “subsidies” necessary for “the creation of new jobs.” (It’s a fact: As oil companies profits have risen, the number of people they employ has decreased, a reality that apparently doesn’t trouble conservatives.)

Photograph of member from the Westboro Baptist Church at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, on the day of Pope Benedict's address to the UN General Assembly. Original photograph by David Shankbone. URL:
     I’m tired of being told that Christianity is a “Religion of Love,” when frequently I can read dozens of stories about members of the Westboro Baptist Church calling Catholic priests “vampires” and the daughters of our current president “satanic spawn…of a murderous bastard.” The Supreme Court just upheld the group’s right to stand outside the funerals of military heroes holding signs that say, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The group launched a Web site called “Priests Rape Boys,” and they don’t just save their venom for Roman Catholics. They have claimed that Orthodox Christians are indistinguishable from Catholics, and they also criticize Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and other Baptists. After a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan China, the group issued a press release thanking God for the number of people who had lost their lives, and in 1996 they protested at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. saying, “Whatever righteous cause the Jewish victims of the 1930s–40s Nazi Holocaust had…has been drowned in sodomite semen.” And in case you haven’t figured it out, yet: They are just as “typical” of Christianity as Al-Qaida is of Islam.

     I’m tired of being told that out of “Tolerance for Free Speech and Freedom of Religion” we must look the other way when conservative politicians encourage the murder of gay people in Uganda or aggressively proselytizing American Christian missionaries offer to rebuild areas of Sri Lanka devastated by a tsunami only if the homeless and destitute residents abandon their faith and convert to Christianity. (And when Sri Lanka’s government complained, the Bush administration threatened to cut off aid and credit to the country.)

     I’m tired of hearing that American workers must lower their standard of living and give up the right to bargain collectively as union members in order to slow the number of jobs being shipped overseas. Ending up with a living standard comparable to Bangladesh has never been part of the “American Dream.”

Prohibition era poster
     I’m tired of being told that that we can “Win the War on Drugs,” when it is obvious that the millions we pour into it are working just as well as Prohibition did in abolishing the sale and consumption of alcohol. And I am tired of being treated like a criminal whenever I go to buy OTC Sudafed at my local drug store. Are middle-aged, chronically ill women with stuffy noses the leading edge of a new crime wave?

     I, too, am tired of hearing wealthy athletes, entertainers and politicians talking about innocent mistakes, stupid mistakes or youthful mistakes, when we all know they think their only mistake was getting caught. I’m tired of people with a bloated sense of entitlement, rich or poor.

     I’m really tired of people who don’t take responsibility for their lives and actions. I’m tired of hearing conservatives blame “big government” or “reverse discrimination,” for all their problems.

     Yes, I’m sick and I’m tired. But I’m also glad to be 57. Because, maybe, I’ll live long enough to see people catch onto the many ways that conservative Republicans pretend to serve US citizens while actually doing the bidding of the large international corporations and interests that fund them. I sure hope so.

Candace Van Auken is a middle-aged woman disabled by autoimmune diseases, who was mightily ticked off by Robert A. Hall’s essay — now going the e-mail rounds — “I’m 63 and I’m tired.”
There is no way this will be widely publicized, unless each of us sends it on! This is your chance to make a difference.

Photo credit:

Copyright © 2011 by Candace L. Van Auken. All rights reserved.

Here are my friend's additions to the list:

  • I'm tired of being told that when corporations with near-perfect information and superior bargaining power join forces to lower wages, eliminate regulations, reduce benefits, and send jobs overseas, that's patriotic, free-market capitalism; but when employees respond by negotiating wages and work conditions collectively through unions, it's Marxism.
  • I'm tired of being told that when a public employee accepts a lower wage than she could earn in the private sector, in exchange for job security and retirement benefits, and then does that job for 30 years even if it sucks, she's a lazy good-for-nothing bureaucrat who has a lot of nerve expecting the state to fulfill its contract.
  • I'm tired of being told that government can't do a single thing right, and that only the private sector will provide quality products and service, by people who have apparently never had to deal with Comcast or AT&T customer service.
  • And I'm tired of hearing the chant of "WHAT PART OF ILLEGAL DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?" to justify splitting up families and denying basic human rights to children.

And me? I'm tired of all the lies, half-truths and stupidities: Obama is not a Muslim, He's certainly not a Socialist (I know, because my Chinese students think I am, and they should know), and all the other nonsense. We have so many important problems to solve. It is tragic that we have to be involved with these slogans, sound bites and obfuscation.

“What does your husband think about it?”

That brought me to a grinding halt, and I poked at it all evening the way you keep running your tongue over a newly broken tooth. There were so many assumptions behind the question. Aside from the fact that I don't have a husband, and I had already said I had no one to discuss it with, the tacit assumptions behind it: that my husband would know what to do, would make more sense than I did; I could go on and on. It's not the problem I started with, but it made my feminist heart beat madly. And it was a woman who asked the question.

It all began with one of my students. Once, he told me he came here to be free. Two weeks ago he said we didn't have freedom here. I thought this was connected with his work situation and just said yes, having money gives you more freedom. He seems to have had a lot of problems lately, most of them connected with money. Last week we filled out forms for his daughters' school, and he expressed concern about them possibly not being ready to move to the next grade.

This week he wanted to fill out a form for a passport. He already had completed forms (someone else did them) for his wife and kids. Again we talked about money. I asked why he needed passports, and explained that you only need them if you want to leave the country. He gave me several different reasons for needing a passport, none of which really made sense to me. I helped him fill out the form.

This is when I decided I had to speak to someone and really didn't know where to turn. (Because I have no husband?) Was I being silly? overly suspicious? had I bought into the paranoia that seems to be gripping our country?

I have been working with him under a very loose arrangement with one of the groups that help refugees here in Pittsburgh. They introduced me and left; giving me no guidance. I never hear from them unless I initiate the conversation, which I did, and got that wonderful question to mull over and no practical answers.

Where do I go from here?

Women’s Health and the Environment

Pittsburgh is fortunate to have retained the presence of many of the movers and shakers who, a century ago, made the city one of the wealthiest in the country. One of the most interesting, and influential, is Teresa Heinz (Kerry) who brought us the Women's Health and the Environment conference I was privileged to attend. Reports on National Public Radio talked about the presence of Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the EPA, Regina Benjamin, the U. S. Surgeon General and, of course, Teresa Heinz's talk about her personal battle with breast cancer. All of the them were interesting: Jackson, because it is the first time I have heard anyone from the EPA sound like they wanted to protect us or the environment; Heinz and Benjamin because both spoke very personally about their own experiences. The website promises to show videos of the presentations; I hope they will include all of Teresa Heinz's talk.

But the conference was much more than these three women. We spent the day at the convention center. While I have trouble sitting for long stretches, I found all of the presentations touched me, personally. I had no wish to leave. I wish you could have been with me; I think  this was a very important event. When we arrived at the convention center, instead of the usual shopping bag and tables of literature, we were given flash drives filled with pdfs, to take home with us: information about the presenting organizations and speakers.

The focus of the conference was the number of manmade, probably toxic, chemicals we now have in our bodies. Even newborns have been found with 200 plus chemicals passed from the mother through the placenta. We don't know the effect of these chemicals but strongly suspect they are the cause of many cancers, asthma, autism, ADHD/ADD, obesity, diabetes, on and on. Many of the worst of these chemicals are found in the air and in ordinary things we have in our homes: children's toys like rubber ducks, canned food, packaged food, toothpaste, deodorants, receipts (those things you get when you use your charge card; chemicals enter the body through the skin), meat, chicken, cosmetics, personal care products like shampoo and body wash; the list goes on and on. Start here for more info; I'll put up a page of resources and links very soon.

Jury Duty

Citizens have a responsibility to participate in the political process by registering and voting in elections. Serving on a jury is another responsibility of citizenship.

This from materials I was using to prepare Abdul for his naturalization exam. When I received the summons for jury duty, although I could have opted out because of my venerable age, I agreed to participate. It was only after I arrived and the clerk began a long instructional harangue I realized I couldn't understand/hear him. I could hear the sounds, but I only got one word out of ten. He spoke very quickly, and Pittsburghers tend to swallow syllables, and I was out of it. They gave me a pass on the basis of my hearing and that was it, although I had to spend the day there. I'm not sorry I went, but I'm also not sorry I didn't get on a case.

The proceedings were held in the Allegheny County Court House, a wonderful building. I'm always happy to go there, although the upper floors are not as wonderful as the first and ground floors. Here is one of the lamps on the staircase leading to the second floor.


Here is a picture of the architect's drawing for the building. It was hanging in a lounge next to the jury room.


As usual, it's a little different than the actual building.

I've always been intrigued with this part of Pittsburgh, one of the real mysteries. At one time there was a very steep hill, called Grant's Hill, that covered the ground floors of both the court house and the Frick Building across the street. Both were built knowing the hilltop would be removed. There is a small plaque on the second floor of the Frick Building indicating the top of the hill. I have trouble envisioning it. Here is a quote from the Post Gazette which throws some light on it:

But by the 1910s, what was left of a whittled-away Grant's Hill was an
inconvenience known as "the Hump," and so the last of it went, leaving
two of Pittsburgh's best buildings with their bottoms exposed — H.H.
Richardson's Courthouse and the Frick Building that upstaged it,
walling it off from its city.

Looking back

Just finished Barbara Kingsolver's newest, The Lacuna. Her fictionalized protagonist interacts with the real history of the early twentieth century: Russian revolution, Trotsky, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and finally, the anti-communist witch hunters in Washington. I don't know much about Russian history, but the witch hunters had a profound affect on me. I was 16 years old and started college in 1950 at the height of all the madness. The college seemed to be noted for its communist sympathies (the chancellor was one of the few who stood up early on to the various investigations), and my father was worried about what this would do to me. He made me promise not to get involved and not to sign any petitions. Did I know any Communists? Maybe. Was I afraid? Absolutely!

I obeyed him until I finished school, after all he was paying the bills. Then I decided I would never act out of fear again. I sign any petitions that sound reasonable. I write my Congress people often, and tell them exactly what I think. But I have given up marching. After months of marching against the Vietnam war, and being photographed (by the FBI) so often I have no soul left, I decided the whole thing was useless. 

All during the Bush administration I felt we were headed back to the same mentality that made Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover into heroes. I still feel like we're going there when I hear Glen Beck, Sarah Palin, etc. expounding on patriotism, being an American and denigrating Obama and the Democratic Party.

Going over the Constitution with my Somali refugee I realized we have diluted the power of that amazing document. How about the first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of
speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to
assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

We have made religion a major concern of government, freedom of speech and freedom of the press into a mockery of rational thinking and reasonable ideas. And here in Pittsburgh we have more than a few questions about the right of the people to peaceably assemble. My student has many questions about our right to bear arms. He's afraid of his neighbors and their guns.

Have you read the preamble:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect
union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the
common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings
of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this
Constitution for the United States of America.

Sometimes I think it should read: We the lobbyists of the United States, in order to pursue more perfect profits, …And how do you insure domestic tranquility when you don't know who is carrying the submachine gun? Explaining all this to him was not easy. I'm glad he passed the test and we can go on to something easier.

Medicare advantage

TV just broadcast a commercial about Medicare Advantage, which reminded me that is what I originally wanted to post about. I have a Medicare Advantage policy. If I keep it next year, I will be paying double what it cost when I first bought it 3 years ago. This, by the way, is with a government subsidy. The commercial wants me to tell my Congressman not to cut the subsidy. It seems to me they have already raised the rates in anticipation of a government cut. It was a nice deal, but I'm not going to pay them and I don't want the government to pay them for me. There are other policies out there.

Memoir and thoughts about Congress

This is my tenth post. I'm glad November has only 30 days. As this day got older I thought of several things I wanted to say; now I can't think of anything.

My memoir class met this morning. We are supposed to write a new story: someone who made a difference in our lives in grade school or junior high. I came to a big block on that one, also. Of course those teachers made a difference in my life. But it all seems ordinary to me now, looking back. I can't think of anything to write.

There is a wonderful post about Congress at Time Goes By today, written by Saul Friedman, who always writes wonderful posts. I agree with everything he writes about the buffoons we send to Washington, but I would add one thing. He speculates about why we keep these guys in office. One thing he doesn't mention is the terrifying lack of choice, or perhaps it's just terrifying choices when it comes time to vote. I think decent people just don't run for office. For instance: if I don't vote for Arlen Spector next year, all of my potential choices are worse. It's very depressing.

Fenced in by the G 20

The powers that be in Pittsburgh tell us this is great PR for the city; we will finally get known for something other than being a smoky city. I don't think they meant the steel city would be known for our fencing and steel barricades, but that's how it looks to me. Tuesday, walking to class, one of my classmates offered me a ride just as it looked like the rains were coming. She drove through Schenley Park near Phipps Conservatory and already the park was being fenced in–or we were being kept out. Yesterday I went to a noon colloquium at Frick fine arts, the Pitt building closest to the Phipps. It was surrounded by fencing with only one way to get in (or out). I felt like I was in some kind of prison. Pitt is closed today and all of my classes at CMU have been canceled. Sculpture in front of the Carnegie Museum looks like it has been crated. All of this because there will be a welcome dinner tonight at the Phipps. How welcome is that!

They say it's because of all of the protests and the damage done in other cities. Here are some links about the protests:

If I was coming here from a foreign country I would certainly wonder about all of these impediments to free movement in our supposedly free country. And why don't these government ministers from all over the world wonder what they have done to make so many people so angry.