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. 


Past pollution meets present day corruption

I often speak to my ESL students about democracy. Most of them don't really understand what we are all about (I'm not sure I know lately, either), and most of them are unrealistic about the US, loving us, or hating us too much. I am always pleased when I have an opportunity to demonstrate some of our professed values in action.

Back in December, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette ran a series of articles about air pollution in Western Pennsylvania–how fine particulate in the air causes asthma, lung cancer, other lung diseases and heart disease. They told stories about the problems individuals and families living near our coal fired power plants have, and presented statistics showing a huge number of deaths above the national average from these causes. You can read the series here.

In order to keep the message alive a meeting was held at Chatham University, attended by me, my two students and several hundred others. The reporters gave an overview of the problem and several of the affected individuals told their horrifying stories—children suffering with asthma, proliferation of lung cancer deaths within their communities, well water polluted so that it was not only not drinkable, but caused skin rashes when they showered with it corroded pipes and faucets so badly they had to be replaced every two years. 

I was hoping to show my ESL students that this is the way democracy should work. What did we learn? My Chinese student learned that the Chinese aren't the only ones with pollution problems. He was clearly impressed with that. My Russian student lived in Sweden for twenty years before coming here. I'm not sure what she learned. I learned, not for the first time, that our elected officials have no shame and don't care about what happens to their constituency, so long as the industry involved continues to support their tenure in office.

The lessons are clear: in the name of creating cheap power we allow the industry to be lax and shift the cost away from all of us and on to the backs of a few individuals who pay dearly. The most obvious lesson is the ineffectiveness of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which seems to be protecting only the companies creating the environmental problems.

All of this has to do with rectifying past sins, but we have learned nothing. The day after the meeting, the head of the Pennsylvania DEP announced that all permits and enforcement actions for Marcellus shale drilling would be issued by his office. We know he isn't concerned about air or water quality. His only concern is to give the gas drilling industry the greatest freedom possible. Pennsylvania is not taxing or taking any kind of removal fee. The only authority looking out for the public interest is the DEP and they sold out. See the links below for more information.

We haven't learned our lessons from air pollution, now we will poison our water supply.

This is the story I told during my fifteen minutes of fame at the Waffle Shop. But I made one mistake. The interviewer asked me what she could do and I talked about contacting elected officials. That's obviously hopeless. These college kids should be out marching in the streets, just like they are doing in the middle east. It's their water and their air we are poisoning. Because of my age and the fact that I already have heart disease, it won't matter so much to me; it should matter hugely to them. We have allowed our democracy to be sold to the highest bidder. Our children will pay more dearly for this than they will for the debt the Republicans are screaming about.

Ronni Bennett, at Time Goes By, has a wonderful post about the choices we face for our democracy. If you haven't read it, go there now.


Post-Gazette Air Pollution series

The sell-out







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.

Cooking and eating

For the first time in many weeks I cooked something: iced tea. Don't laugh at me. I consider this cooking because it involved a kettle, a teapot, a pitcher and finally, a glass with ice–and no use of the microwave. Maybe, after I get my hair cut this afternoon, I'll make gazpacho. I've been buying it, already prepared, from Whole Foods. I found it perfectly adequate until I read the label yesterday. Salt is the third item in a long list of ingredients. I was going to compare the relative costs of buying or making, but now I guess I have to make, regardless of cost.

I find myself ruling out increasing numbers of food items. After I went to the conference on women's health and the environment I decided to stop eating meat or poultry. (BTW, all of the conference presentations are now on the website if you are interested.) I haven't been entirely successful about the meat but I keep trying.

I stopped drinking soda (usually Diet Coke) the last time I was in Japan. They have hot or cold green tea in vending machines and I find that more satisfying. Too bad we can't get it here in machines.

All told, my diet has become less interesting. To some extent I've lost my zeal for eating, making it much easier to diet, but I still love ice cream, frozen yogurt and dark chocolate. What would life be like without that stuff!

“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?

Moments of reality

The sun was shining; the sky was blue and cloudless; despite the cold I decided to walk to East Liberty and pick up my prescriptions at Walgreens. There's a Borders in the same complex as the drugstore and I stopped in to warm up. While I was browsing in the magazine section, in fact looking at a jewelry mag, a woman questioned me, "What kind of jewelry do you make?" One of the great things about Pittsburgh is that people talk to you. We had a long, very pleasant conversation during which she mentioned she had been a librarian. I told her I thought that was something I might have enjoyed doing. She said, why don't you do it? Go back to school. I said no, I didn't want to work again. We left it at that, but I've been thinking about it all day. I think this was the first time I've acknowledged to myself that I am too old to do something.

This evening I finally went through the pile of papers I brought back from my trip. It made me very sad. I will probably never return to Japan, although I would very much like to. I have finally, at almost 75 years, concluded I would not do another trip like that alone and as inexpensively as I have done these last two. Having money makes things much easier, and I no longer have confidence that my money will outlast me. I may have to go back to work, yet.

The lady in Borders had the same undaunted attitude I had a year ago. This has been a hard year for me, sometimes wonderful, occasionally frightful; it has very much altered my vision of myself and my attitude. I hope I can recover my sense of invincibility, or maybe it's just a fantasy I've had for 74 years.

Did you miss me?

It wasn’t because I was lazy, although I am; I didn’t know what to write until I could tell you the outcome of this story. I’m not the same person I was a week ago. I have been changed forever, transformed.

While I was having such a good time in New York something else was happening to me, something that happened before but only briefly and with weeks between episodes. On Tuesday night, returning from the lovely visit with my friends, my heart started beating very hard and fast: palpitations, then several occurrences I had trouble describing: not vertigo, not lightheadedness, not really feeling faint, but feeling like the world tilted for a couple of seconds. One of the times this happened previously was just before I had a doctor’s appointment. The doctor gave me some instructions about it, but didn’t seem concerned—intermittent palpitations being hard to diagnose. The Tuesday night episode seemed a little worse than previously, but I decided to ignore it.

Most of my life when I’ve had something wrong, it’s gone away by itself, or it wasn’t very important—obviously all were aggravations I could live with. This time, although I wasn’t ready to acknowledge it, was different. Saturday morning I met City Mary. The plan was to see Indiana Jones, which could be the subject for a different post, go to lunch, then walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, that weekend being the 125th anniversary of its opening.

The palpitations began at lunch. Being in denial and convinced of my omnipotence, I didn’t say anything. We walked to the subway, down three flights of stairs to the express trains where I experienced a really bad world tilt, then up to Brooklyn Bridge Park where I told Mary the whole story. She had never walked across the bridge. The walkway was crowded; the bridge had gotten lots of publicity on this anniversary. I walked part way up, found a bench and waited for Mary to go to the actual bridge part. She did not go across, but came back to help me. This time I was really in bad shape, still in denial. We went back toward the apartment and I began to feel better. I considered going to an emergency room but decided it wasn’t a great place to be on a holiday weekend alone. I spent Sunday evening and all day Monday being quiet and very careful of what I ate. I wanted to get back to Pittsburgh before I saw a doctor.

Tuesday morning I took a taxi to the train station and finally called my doctor’s office to try to get in there first thing Wednesday. They advised me to go to an emergency room in NY, and if not, to go right to the emergency room when I got off the train. I opted for the train and spent most of the nine hours contemplating my mortality, thinking about how my life would change, all the things I would have to change–not easy. Of course, I still didn’t know what was wrong or what would happen.

The emergency room was a zoo, but they take people with chest pains very quickly. And are you thinking, she never said anything about chest pains? My chest did feel very heavy all day Monday, so let’s call that chest pains. I felt fine Tuesday, all Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. I was beginning to wonder why I was there when, about 10:15 am, my heart started racing. The nurse came over and quickly took an EKG. About 10:30 the terrible tilt sensation came again, longer and worse than before. They told me afterward, my heart had stopped for about 8 seconds. Not too much later I was told I would be getting a pacemaker.

I’m writing this on Friday morning, pacemaker implanted, almost ready to go home. I think I will be able to resume most of my usual activities, although I don’t think I’ll be going to Chicago next week as planned. The worst part of it is that I am now a captive of the pharmaceutical industry for the rest of my life, something I’ve been trying to avoid.

Ronni Bennett wrote a post about elder adaptability; essentially how we all adapt to the changes in our bodies and our circumstances. I certainly think I have done that. I no longer run to catch buses, I know that my reflexes have slowed and take that into consideration when I drive. I’ve made a lot of adaptations for my poor vision. I could go on and on. The one thing I wasn’t willing to consider was poor health. My mother was a world-class hypochondriac and wasn’t willing to think about anyone else’s ailments. When I was sick I was doing it to her. Early on I learned to stay healthy, a habit I maintained until last week. So it really took me by surprise. I don’t go to doctors easily. This is the first time I’ve ever been to an emergency room for me. I don’t really know what constitutes an emergency or illness serious enough to go for immediate help. This whole thing has been a learning experience, but I don’t know if it will apply the next time.

Messages from the universe

Amazing how things come together sometimes. Last week, answering that meme, I wrote about how depressed I was when I was supposedly living the American dream. Over the weekend a friend sent me these rules for being a good wife, dated 2 months after I got married.


Googling it before I wrote this post, I found a controversy about its authenticity.  I don’t know whether this exact article is authentic, but I am certain those ideas about being a good wife were widely promulgated at the time. If you have any doubts, look at The Ladies Home Journal from the fifties. It was my mother’s bible, as she tried to make me into a good little housewife. Her most repeated instruction was: "marriage is a compromise and the wife compromises 90% of the time." Obviously, she didn’t think much of my ability to compromise.

What I find most appalling about the controversy is that young people don’t really understand that the sentiments were real; and that it could happen again. Many women worked and were independent in the thirties and forties. After World War 2 ended, men wanted to take away our independence; they wanted us out of those good jobs. They also wanted to sell us all those consumer items that were being produced. Housewives were encouraged to think they couldn’t live without the newest refrigerator or vacuum cleaner; these items became a substitute for self esteem.

Finally, last night, PBS aired an amazing documentary about lobotomies, a popular "solution" applied, until about 1959, to people (mostly women) who were depressed or psychotic. As I watched I realized I could easily have been one of those unlucky victims. Thanks again, Betty Friedan.

I need help!

I made a big mistake when I decided to call this blog fat old artist. My friends don’t like it because they say I’m not fat or old, but that’s not true. I am fat, obese by government standards; enough said. I am old, 73 years old, to be exact. Sometimes I wonder if I’m still an artist, but no one else seems to question it.

I think the name is a mistake because most of the searches that find the blog are for fat or old, and they are looking for horrid stuff; very few are for art or artist. I don’t think I write about fat or old very often. In fact, this post says more about those topics than I’ve ever said in two and a half years of blogging. So, I’m looking for a new name. I’ve been thinking about it for some time. I’m not happy with anything I’ve come up with. Any suggestions?