Sunday, April 30, 2006

Pump House Gang on Sago Mine Disaster

The Pump House gang was at it again yesterday, this time leading a talk on whether a union would have made a difference at the Sago Mine disaster. A few dozen people turned out for the talk, which was sponsored by the Battle of Homestead foundation. The talk included panelists Chris Potter, of Pittsburgh City Paper; Steve Twedt, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Ron Airhart, UMWA, president, Indianaa Labor council; Ed Yankovich, director, Dist. 2 UMWA; and Ron Bowersox, UMWA safety representative.

Among those attending the talk was, surprisingly, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter.

Sometimes these get-togethers at the Pump House, a small vestige of the once-great-now-gone steel mill, resemble preaching to the choir events. I can’t help but wonder how many who aren’t diehard labor supporters attend these shindigs. Still, I’m glad they happen.

It had been a while since I’d visited the Pump House. Last time I was there, they didn’t have the neat wall hangings with depictions of mill workers from all of the decades of the erstwhile steel mill. The artwork gives the space a more pointed air.

I got there late and missed the first part of the talk.

Twedt asked the union reps, what was the difference between December 2005 and January 2006?

“Even though nothing happened in December 2005, that doesn’t mean the conditions weren’t there for some [accident] to happen,” Yankovich said. He reflected on the earlier comment of Bowersox, who’d said that many of the fatalities in the industry happen to young workers. “Ten years from now, 70 percent of the people working [in mining] are going to be retired. Who will replace all these workers?”

Twedt noted that the history of mine safety has been that every overhaul of regulations has been precipitated by some disaster.

“We’d like them to enforce [the regulations] we have,” Yankovich said. “But unfortunately, that’s not going to happen until there’s a change in the administration. These MSHA inspectors don’t agree with a lot of the things they have to do. This disregard for safety comes from the very top of the administration.”

Someone in the audience noted that many more workers are killed yearly in China. Yankovich said about 5,000 mining workers die each year in China.

“Workers really have to be educated, in their own mind, to work safely,” he said. “It’s harder to work safe than it is to work unsafe. You’ve got to be educated and disciplined in order to know how to work safe.”

A guy in the audience asked if the panelists saw the possibility of a turnaround in the fortunes of workers.

Yankovich fielded the question. “Is there a potential for things to change real quick?” he asked. “I’d say yes, if people get their heads out of their asses. How do we turn around public sentiment? Thirty-five thousand people went to a Steelers rally, and 70 percent of those people probably didn’t have health care! Now how many do you think would come if we had a rally for health care? That’s the problem. How do you change that?”

Friday, April 28, 2006

Pittsburgh: Urban Appalachia

I wrote a story the other day in which I’d mentioned that I was from Pittsburgh, which, I said in the story, is not too far from Appalachia. I was given a bit of a dressing down because of it, and called a Yankee.

It turns out that I was right. Not only is Pittsburgh not too far from Appalachia, it is part of Appalachia, according to this map from the Encyclopedia of Appalachia. So why was I treated like some carpetbagger? Who knows? Maybe the lady didn’t like my accent.

But according to the Appalachian Regional Commission, Appalachia, is “a 200,000-square-mile region that follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. It includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

“About 23 million people live in the 410 counties of the Appalachian Region; 42 percent of the Region's population is rural, compared with 20 percent of the national population. The Region's economic fortunes were based in the past mostly on extraction of natural resources and manufacturing. The modern economy of the Region is gradually diversifying, with a heavier emphasis on services and widespread development of tourism, especially in more remote areas where there is no other viable industry. Coal remains an important resource, but it is not a major provider of jobs.

“Manufacturing is still an economic mainstay but is no longer concentrated in a few major industries.”

Pittsburgh, in the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, is referred to as “urban Appalachia.” Some of the sounds of the region are more obvious in some of the bands that play around, such as the Flying Cunninghams, the Carson Street Bluegrass Band, and of course, the great Mac Martin, of Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers. Mac, a resident of Brookline, not West Virginia, is profiled in this nice piece in the Trib.

Our region also includes a number of excellent bluegrass festivals, such as the Mountaintop Bluegrass Festival in Tarentum, the Laurel Highlands Bluegrass Festival, and Hickory Fest, in Wellsboro, Pa. Incidentally, some of what is called "pittsburghese" is common to much of Appalachia, such as the word, "yinz":
“But many of the linguistic features considered unique to the Pittsburgh area are found elsewhere in the region. Words like yinz are used in other parts of the Appalachian Mountains.”

Barbara Johnstone, a CMU professor and one of the authors of the aforementioned quoted essay, has a web site on Pittsburghese. Our town also includes a school that teaches folk music. That is, of course, the Calliope School of Music, which teaches Bluegrass techniques. To learn more about Appalachia, check out the Appalachian Studies Page.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Sweet second chances

(This story was published in the February 14, 2002, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I've run it on Barnestormin before. She knows why I'm running it again.)

Every good love story begins the same. It starts with a look -- she saw him, he saw her, they saw each other. That first look represents a world of possibilities that a solid bond with another person can bring. It's like looking into a canyon and feeling you can fly.

In the case of my valentine and me, I saw her first -- in the rarefied air of a choral concert at Kiski School in Saltsburg -- and I fell. Those lips, the nose, the hair and eyes -- some kind of attraction grabbed me, some atavistic yearning that I didn't understand -- and I was done. With her curly, reddish brown hair, perfect skin, green eyes and the profile of a Germanic princess, she was clearly the most beautiful of all the debutantes lined up on the stage singing at our boy's school.

After the concert, our school hosted a dance. Though I wanted to ask her to dance, I felt overdressed in my coat and tie and uncomfortable with the chaperoned ordeal. My heart dropped as I watched someone else ask her. I never got up the courage.

I hadn't thought she'd noticed me. "I noticed you," she would say later with a knowing look.

A year or two later, I hit on her at a friend's graduation party in Monroeville. Sitting around my buddy's backyard pool, she swayed to the music blaring from a boom box and flirted a bit with everyone. She wore a white outfit that showed off her slender figure and complemented her tan. A little older and a bit cockier, I spent half the evening talking to her, laying on the malarkey. I stole a first kiss.

The first kiss is a promise of more promises to come, more surprises to unfold. I had to wait for more of those promises for 15 years, since, frankly, shyness again gained the upper hand, and I didn't pursue her again until three years ago.

I was out with a younger brother, helping him nurse a broken heart with an antidote of beer. Then I saw her, again, in profile. She was up at the bar getting a drink, and her name sprang out of the recesses of my mind. I gave her my best cool look, and she noticed. She looked even better than she had years ago -- more focused and confident. I called out her name, though even as I said it I wasn't sure I had the right girl.

"Do I know you?" she asked with a smile, obviously pleased by my attention. I told her my name and she recognized it, but not my face. We talked a bit, and as she left the place that evening, I hugged her. I got her number and called her later, but I still didn't really pursue her.

About a month later on St. Patrick's Day I was out with the same brother for his birthday, having a Guinness in a South Side bar. And in she walks, looking even better than before, and this time we both saw each other at the same time.

"So where's your girlfriend?" she said to me jokingly.

Next thing I knew she was sitting there with my brother and me, and I couldn't believe I'd been fighting it. This time, I took my second chance. We hung out for the rest of the night, and we've been together since.

"It took a while to reel you in," she likes to say now.

What is it that makes us so attracted to each other that we want to bond for years, into old age, till death do us part?

"When you find the right one, you're not going to know what hit you," my mom used to tell me as I dated a string of girlfriends in my 20s.

The excited, sometimes even nauseating feeling of falling in love compares to no other sensation. It has inspired works of art and acts of violence. It sets us off-kilter.

But we gladly go there anyway. We launch ourselves into the great unknown with the fervor of religious converts, committing ourselves to one another for eternity. When it works, it's a sweet deal, like having your own cheering section and a best friend for life. The possibilities seem boundless.

To those readers who are unlucky in love, who haven't found the yin to their yang, take heart. For many of us, it's happening later and later in life. If it doesn't happen on this Valentine's Day, it may happen by the next one. And then of course, sometimes there are second chances.

http://www.post-gazette.com/lifestyle/20020214life5.asp

Monday, April 24, 2006

Damn Yankees

We were headed home from Richmond when we saw we were low on gas, so we stopped at an exit in Staunton, Virginia, to fill up. Anne wanted to check out a row of shops across the street. She hopped out of the car as I parked. I lagged behind her as she made a beeline into a kitschy general store-style tourist money-trap.

Strangely, as soon as I walked into one of the stores I saw something I thought I might want. On a table just to the right of the door, sat a short pile of copies of At Home in the Heart of Appalachia, which is a memoir by John O’Brien, who’s a Philadelphia native whose dad was raised in Appalachia. I picked up the book and immediately recognized the name. I’d read about it in the newspaper, or heard about it on National Public Radio, or maybe both. When I saw that Edward Hoagland and Stuart Dybek had contributed nice blurb quotes for the back of the book, and then I saw that it was just $8, I went for it.

I told the woman behind the counter that I’d heard of this book, and that I’d heard it was very good. I told her I was from Pittsburgh, which isn’t too far from Appalachia. I knew as soon as I'd said it that I'd overstepped--I could tell from the disgusted look on the woman's face.

“Pennsylvania—that’s Yankee territory,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m from Kentucky.”

I said the Appalachians stretch all the way up into New York, you know.

“Pittsburgh’s just forty-five minutes from West Virginia,” I offered.

“That’s the Yankee part of West Virginia,” she said dismissively.

I thought of telling her that technically, all of West Virginia is Yankee, since the state was created because it did not side with the Confederacy during the Civil War. I wanted to inform her that the book was written by a Philadelphia native, too. But I knew there was no winning a war of words with this woman. I said I was looking forward to reading the book, I thanked her for it, and I walked out.

I walked down the sidewalk and into the wine shop next door, where I’d initially gone in search of my wife when she’d bolted into the shops. The young woman behind the counter in the wine shop had an easygoing expression and I had noticed a Northern accent when I’d asked her earlier if she’d seen my wife. I wished I’d liked wine a lot, because she was so nice I wanted to buy something, but I didn’t need any of it.

It turned out the gal, whose name was LeeAnn, was a Vermont native. I started to vent.

“You know you’ve got a Yankee-hater next door,” I said. LeeAnn laughed. I explained the interaction I’d had with the fifty-something lady next door.

“I came down here for my niece’s wedding, for just a couple of days, and I thought I was going to make it home without being called a Yankee. But sure enough, on my way home, someone called me a Yankee,” I complained. Actually, I was a bit shocked that it happened. I find Virginians in general to be very urbane people, and being called a Yankee was a bit unexpected. But after all, she is from Kentucky.

Just like my uncle’s family, the Lee family, who are originally from Kentucky. I also have a great uncle who’s been in Nashville for decades, after he married a true Southern Belle. My brother-in-law is from Virginia, another brother-in-law is from North Carolina, and I have a sister-in-law from North Carolina. My older sister and my eldest brother both went to college in North Carolina. I find Virginians and North Carolinians to be among the most gracious, kind and thoughtful people in the South.

It does annoy me, though, when some people start throwing around the Yankee word in a disparaging way. It makes me want to ask them, so are you a racist who thinks the world would be better now if the Confederacy were just allowed to go its own way?

It’s like some people in the South are still fighting a 150-year-old war, I said to Anne as I talked to her about it when we were further down the road. They can’t get over it, I added.

“Where would we be if we hadn’t fought that war?” she asked disgustedly.

I said I know, I agree. “But she didn’t mind taking my northern money,” I said. “I felt like telling her that one of my great-greats fought on the winning side.”

Anne told me that the lady and another woman were talking after I’d walked out. They were saying how hard it was for them to understand the speech of people from New York and New Jersey when they stopped into the store.

“Then they started talking about how their county is the meth capitol of the nation,” Anne said.

Without Conditions

I know my waist is slender, my fingers they are small
But it would not make me tremble to see ten thousand fall
-Lyrics from Jack A Roe, a traditional English folk song

Anne was driving and I was talking through an early morning rain as we headed to Richmond, Virginia for my niece’s wedding. We were listening to the Grateful Dead, enjoying “Jack A Roe.” The song tells the story of a woman forbidden by her father to see her lover (a part skipped by the Dead, who re-popularized the song), who dresses as a man to join a ship as a sailor, to follow her beloved. The song ends happily with the woman saving her wounded lover and getting him patched up and them marrying.

It’s a beautiful tune that’s sweet and simple. It got me thinking about the love of a woman for a man. That is, the nearly unconditional love that a good woman gives when she marries a man she truly loves. For a man, having such a love is like having an unending supply of riches that can’t be measured in dollars. One payoff is the man being inspired by his mate, or him finding new abilities that she helped him to discover.

I pondered Anne’s lovely profile—her upper and lower lips, the shape of her nose, the pink in her cheeks, and the way her curly reddish brown hair falls on her shoulders. That unconditional love frees a man, I thought, as I again considered my good fortune.

Maybe I’m a sentimental because Anne and I are approaching our third anniversary. We’ve gone to a few weddings together since we married, and I suppose I’ve gotten this way a bit every time. It’s much more fun to go to a wedding when you’re happily married than when you’re looking for a partner, or in an unhappy relationship. I used to hate weddings.

We got to Richmond about 6 a.m. and checked into the hotel, when I realized I’d brought no dress socks to wear for the wedding. I woke later and asked the desk clerk at the hotel if he knew of a place I could buy socks. He said yeah, it’s about ten blocks away. So I headed to the store, which was uptown. I walked half a block from the hotel and saw a historical marker about Anna Marie Lane, who was the only documented woman soldier in the Revolutionary War. Following the conflict, she and her husband, John Lane, lived in a house near the Bell Tower in capitol square. Anna Marie had disguised herself as a man and enlisted with her husband in the Connecticut Continental Line.

“In the garb, and with the courage of a soldier, (she) performed extraordinary military services,” the historical sign quoted an unnamed source. She was wounded at Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1777. After the war she followed her husband into the Virginia light dragoons. She was guaranteed a pension in 1808, and died in 1810.

A few blocks up, I passed by the Stewart-Lee house, which was rented to Gen. Robert E. Lee, who occupied it for the last year or so of the Civil War. I wondered what his wife was thinking that year. Did she hate the war? When this sensitive woman, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, met Robert E. Lee she probably had not bargained for all that she that she would later endure. The government seized her family home, Arlington.

Did Martha Custis Lee stand by her man without uttering a contrary word? She no doubt would have died for him. During the war many of the family possessions that she inherited from the Washingtons were buried for safekeeping, but the possessions left in Arlington were declared by Congress to be the property of the American people. Robert died in 1867, and Martha died in 1873, after making a final trip to see her Arlington. In an age when the house was a woman’s dominion, Martha Custis Lee was forced to give up her ancestral home.

At my niece Lauren’s wedding on Saturday, I enjoyed watching her and her fianc√©, Christian, at the altar in the Cathedral of The Sacred Heart. Since I’m happily married, during the ceremony I felt like I was in on a secret that others who’ve never been happily married simply don’t understand.

The officiant of the wedding was a Catholic deacon who himself was married. In his homily he talked of God’s unconditional love. It reminded me of the seemingly boundless trust of a woman’s commitment to go through life as the partner of her husband. I considered the love of a woman like Anne Marie Lane, who offered up her life for her man. I thought of Martha Custis Lee, who gave all she owned for her husband. And I thought of my wife Anne, and the huge gift I have in her friendship.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Sometime

Author's note: I wrote the following story a while back when I learned I'd be talking to some students at CMU about writing. When I gave the talk the other day, I didn't read this piece. I merely went quickly over my work experience and said that "sometimes a story changes you, and that's what happened to me with this story," before I read a Sago story.

--Written on 1/21/06

My college academic advisor, Jim, glanced down at my transcript and shook his head, then looked up at me with an urgent expression.

“Jon, you have to graduate sometime,” he said. “You have to buckle down and finish.”

I stared back at him through glazed-over, stoned eyes, trying to look as earnest as possible.

“I know. I know. I’m going to finish this time,” I assured Jim, as I had the other times I came back to college after taking a leave of absence. After a bit of humble pleading, I got him to sign the form getting me back into Carnegie Mellon.

That’s how I ended up here, talking to all of you about being a freelancer, and about Sago Mine. Obviously, I’ve skipped a lot in between. Fourteen years ago I was trying to finish up my degree here at CMU, and I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. All I felt I knew after I graduated was a bit more than when I’d started at CMU years before. I also knew that I wanted to write.

After freelancing for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Pittsburgh City Paper for a couple years, I stumbled into my first low-paying reporter job, with Gateway Publications. This was about a decade ago. They paid me about eight dollars an hour.

I lasted there almost four months, before I took a job editing a weekly newspaper for the Butler Eagle. I stayed there about two years, and then I got a job as a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I was there for not quite one year when I took a 25 percent increase to work for a Public Relations firm in downtown Pittsburgh. I did a six-month stint in PR, and I bolted.

Since then, going on six years now, I have been freelancing. I’ve published more than 830 stories in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, including nine personal essays. I’ve had my essays published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Philadelphia Weekly, Pittsburgh City Paper, Pulp, North Carolina-based Rip Current, Pittsburgh Magazine, and other publications. I’ve become a regular contributor to Engineering News-Record magazine, which is the best-known construction/engineering magazine in the nation.

I am a stringer for Reuters news agency, where my stories have been published worldwide and translated into numerous languages. I have become a stringer for The New York Times, as well, and I have contributed to many other publications including Newsday and the Pittsburgh Business Times.

I’m not making a mint, but I’ve learned a little about reporting and writing. That’s how I got to be here, talking to all of you.

You may have guessed that the Jim I referred to earlier is Jim Daniels, head of Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon. Jim was right to be annoyed that I was dragging my feet through college, but I knew I was on my own timeframe, and it didn’t correspond closely to real world time. Maybe some of you are on your own timetables, and maybe some of you aren’t sure if you really want to write.

If you really want to write, write. Personally, it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do since long before I went to college. But it wasn’t until I became a reporter that I really started to feel like I was learning fast about writing. That’s why I’ve continued to do journalism—I do it because I like to write and I can get paid something for it, but also because I enjoy people.

A lot of folks talk a good game about writing, but even among writers, not a lot of them really work as hard as they should work at their writing. It may sound stupid to say, but writers write. I became a reporter because I wanted to learn how to write. I stayed a reporter because I’m still learning.

How did I get to Sago Mine, and here? Reuters news agency called me to cover Sago, and after I came home, I wrote a couple of pieces about being at the mine. I emailed them to Hilary Masters and Jim Daniels because I was hoping they would think the stories were good, and I am not shy about trying to get compliments on my work because I need all of the encouragement I can get.

So when I got Jim’s email inviting me to come and speak with you folks, it was like I’d redeemed myself, in a way. How did I get here? I wanted to write, and I wrote. However awkward my attempts at writing were, I remembered Hilary Masters’ advice, to “keep going.”

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Hearing it click

Yesterday at Carnegie Mellon University, I read a couple of my essays to several students and teachers in a small room.

At first, my knees shook. I stammered. I stumbled over my own words, but I got through it.

The experience helped me realize that the visit was an anniversary, of sorts. I first discovered the essay form years ago in Personal Essay, a class taught by Hilary Masters in the spring fourteen years back.

In that class, at the end of a long college “career,” I finally discovered that I could write. I’d spent several years in and out of college as a Professional Writing and Creative Writing major, taking time off from school beginning in my sophomore year. I’d taken poetry and fiction classes, screenwriting, playwriting and radio drama classes, professional writing courses and all sorts of other classes in which writing was required. I’d filled notebooks full of stories, thoughts and reflections, trying to force something good out of my pen, but my stories never seemed to really click. They were OK, but they never seemed to me to hit the nail square on the head. It wasn’t until I took one of my last classes at Carnegie Mellon that I realized I could write.

I was lucky. I had stayed in and out college long enough to be taking classes when Hilary Masters again offered his essay course. He hadn’t offered it in several years, and I happened upon it in such a timely fashion that it now seems to me it was fate. I say this because not only was essay the perfect class for me, but Hilary Masters was the best person to teach the class. He is known for his fiction, but his essays and nonfiction are arguably some of his best stuff. His memoir, Last Stands: Notes from memory, is considered by many to be an American classic.

Though I never thought I was particularly good at writing fiction, I’d taken a couple of Hilary’s Fiction classes because I still wanted to try to learn how to write fiction, and also because I liked him. I’d originally thought he was something of a formalist, but as I got to know him I realized that he was a lot more open-minded and accessible than I’d thought, so I sought his help during his office hours.

Because I was in the habit of stopping in to see him if his office door was open, I stopped in one day when I still had about four or five classes to go to graduate. One of those classes had to be a Professional Writing class.

We chatted a bit and Hilary told me that he was going to be teaching his Personal Essay class again. The class actually was categorized under professional writing, he said.

What is personal essay, I asked him.

He handed me a small green, red and black paperback that had been sitting on his desk. It was Essays, by Michel de Montaigne. Hilary explained that Montaigne was the founder of the essay form. Montaigne, a sixteenth century French nobleman, retired to his tower and wrote essays exploring a topic (and sometimes getting off the topic), exercising his mind, and learning while writing. The title of Montaigne’s book, Essays, is from the word essai, which means “trials.” He invented the word essay as a literary term, meaning the writer using the form to make a trial of himself and his opinions. Each essay is an attempt to try to get at a greater truth, and he titled them On Liars, and On the art of conversation, and the like.

I took Montaigne’s book home and read it and signed up for the class soon after. In the class, I felt like a duck exploring water for the first time. I was swimming in words.

Yesterday I was tripping over my own words when I read my stories for the first time in front of an audience. I was invited by my former long-suffering academic advisor Jim Daniels to read The Other Side of The Pittsburgh Seam and Mass Media Hysteria in Tallmansville, which are a couple of first person essays I wrote about my time covering the Sago Mine disaster. Hilary gave me a really sweet introduction that was a bit embarrassing it was so nice. He talked about how as professors, one of their joys is seeing how a student has progressed. And he talked about how in 1992 he’d offered his essay class and I had taken it.

“And there was this pugnacious face, looking at me, waiting to catch me—Aha!—and tell me I was wrong,” he said, which was a revelation to me because the last thing I would’ve thought of at that time was to bust his chops. He continued, saying, “then I realized that he was thinking, he was trying to figure it out.”

This was all news to me. I’d thought of the class and still do think of it as a turning point in my writing life. In that class, (and not since) I first heard people cheer for a story of mine. It felt good. Yesterday, they politely applauded my halting, tongue-tied effort to read my stories. It felt good, but not like that first time. Back then the applause seemed so loud it was mind-blowing.

For a couple of weeks we’d been reading essays in our class, discussing how they “worked” and what worked about them.

“We’ve been reading essays and talking about them, but now it’s time for us to start writing them,” Hilary told our class. “What should the topic be for the first one?”

I looked around the room, waiting for one of my classmates to respond. When it seemed like the rest were too shy, I blurted out, “On violence!” and pounded my fist on the desk. I had been thinking a lot about violence at the time, and it was bothering me so much that I knew I wanted to write about it.

Hilary looked around the room, and said “On violence, and asked the class, what do you think, any other ideas. Nobody spoke up. Then the essay is on violence, he said.

In our essay class, as with all of our writing classes, we used the workshop method. We would read our classmates' stories aloud in class, then we’d critique the stories. The workshop method can take up a lot of time, because you can only read and talk about so many stories per class. So after we all had written our essays, a few classes passed by before my piece was read, because several of my classmates’ stories were read before mine.

You'd determine who’d read your story by passing it to your left or right, and everybody would read the story he got. One of my classmates, John, who was an older student (as I was) and who’d been in the Navy as a decoder/translator prior to going to college, had his piece read in class before mine. In his story, he took a gratuitous shot at me, referring to me as “resplendent in his tie-dye shirt.”

I was a longhaired neo-hippie type at the time, and I liked to sit on the periphery of class. I was lucky to be sitting next to Tom, a fellow hippie type who was a good friend of one of my buddies and who understood me a bit. Tom read my essay for the class, with perfect inflection and feeling. An energy accumulated in the room, as he read:

On Violence

In our apocalyptic 1990s America, it sometimes seems as if we’re constantly pelted with violence—in our language, relationships, TV sitcoms, newspapers—so much so that we chug right along through the cacophony, ignorant of the imminent danger. The danger I’m referring to is the danger of all of the violence that we’ve created flying back in our faces. But after all, why worry about it? What’s the use?

Anyway, it’s hard not to admit that a little violence is a good thing. I mean, America is a big place, but not big enough for everyone. We should probably applaud our law enforcement officers for their efforts to thwart the growth of such anarchistic trends as homosexuality, drug use, and war protests.

After all, what are we gonna do, change the Statue of Liberty to say: “Give me your angry, your discontented, your alienated freaks yearning to breath free?”

Not a chance. That is, if I have anything to say about it.

The American continent is like a new type of beehive in which many breeds of drones work side by side, eyeing each other suspiciously. One false move, and mayhem breaks out.

“Yeah!” Hilary said, slapping his palm on the table. Tom didn’t miss a beat.

So really, maybe we should all give our local cop a pat on the back, a little encouragement for an endless job going well. What would we do without these fine men who beat the hell out of those that we wish didn’t exist? This country would probably revert to some primitive form of socialism.

“Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphics to those questions that he would put.”

So wrote Emerson, the Great Humanist, and I feel that I must cling to this notion with every fiber of my being, since Emersonianism is one of the few religions of academia that I can grasp. And I know that the Great Geek must be right; otherwise, my English Pharisees (oops, I mean professors) wouldn’t slaver over his words so.

And so the questions that I would put are these:

1) How can I live my life comfortably in America without working,

and

2) How can I win girlfriends and influence women?

–But now you probably think I’m a hedonist.

So I’ll have to answer that charge with a quote from the Evil-pornographic peddler himself, Henry Miller:

“If I am against the condition of the world it’s not because I’m a moralist, but because I want to laugh more.”

“Yeah!” Hilary said again, slapping the table a bit harder.

And don’t we all want to laugh more? After all, life is a constant flow, and you never know, one day you might be a longhaired writing major in college, throwing around words like “resplendent” with the ease of hard-boiled eggs, and the next day you could be in the service, translating commie messages in a submarine in the middle of the sea.

I watched John’s face drop as my jab hit him.

So maybe we shouldn’t be afraid, maybe we should just live our lives with the mindlessness of children. After all, isn’t it obvious that our country is going broke? Might as well make like the politicians and take what we can get.

Now please don’t accuse me of sophistry, because I’m just trying to follow in the Great Skeptic’s, the Noble-leering-Montaigne’s footsteps. I’m just trying to give a reasonable view of a seemingly unsystematic scheme of things.

“Yeah!” Hilary exclaimed, slapping the desk even harder than before. My classmates broke into applause and cheers. A warm feeling washed over me, and I felt vaguely like I was floating. After all those years of questioning myself, I finally knew I was a writer. I’ve been one ever since.

Author's note:
Hilary Masters also has an acclaimed book of essays titled In Montaigne’s Tower, published in 2000. His book length personal essay Shadows on the Wall was published in May. The book follows the story of department store founder E. J. Kaufmann and his interactions with Mexican painter Juan O’Gorman.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

People Don’t Read

My regular readers will know from my stories that my late father was a religious man, a born again Christian with a penchant for quoting the Bible and inspirational sayings. I bring this up because I just had a disturbing conversation that reminded me of one of my dad’s sayings.

I was talking on the phone with the publisher/editor of a new publication, trying to pitch stories to her. Well into the conversation I realized we weren’t going to be able to work together.

“I get contacted by these journalists and they want to write…Stories,” she said. “But there’s too much serious stuff out there. We want to keep it light and airy.”

I kept trying to pitch, but as she continued I realized all hope was lost.

“People don’t read,” she said, and launched into this poorly reasoned argument that “serious” stories were no good for her publication, because people don’t really read stories.

She had told me no more than ten minutes earlier that she gets all sorts of letters from people who write to say how much they love her publication. But people don’t read.

“Confess it and you’ll have it,” Dad was fond of saying. When I’d hear him say it sometimes, it would really grate on my nerves, because it sounded so simplistic that it was maddening. Now I wonder if folks believing that people don't read is helping to dumb down our society.

This recent conversation with said “editor” has me again questioning my assumptions. If “people” don’t read, or at least if they don’t read as much as they used to, is it their fault alone? Or is the fact that fewer people are reading directly attributable to the crap that is printed and published? Doesn’t it stand to reason that people are going to have an interest in reading things that catch their interest?

My gut feeling is that more people are reading, due in large part to the widespread use of the Internet. Of course I have a vested interest in believing that people do read, and that they want to read more. Because I’m a journalist, I want to believe that at least sometimes, what I write makes a difference. Would I still write if I didn’t think the piece would make a difference? Absolutely, I do it all the time.

But if fewer people are reading it’s no wonder, when folks create publications full of jokes that are lame to 13-year-olds, or when they publish magazines with vaguely sleazy models on the cover as a way to have “pick-up appeal.” What’s to read? Glance through it and you've got it.

People start publications and they want all the writers and photographers to contribute stories and photos for free, as if it were some great gift to be able publish in an ill-conceived, out-of-focus publication. With options like these for the young aspiring freelance journalists in Pittsburgh, it may be that fewer people are writing or becoming photographers.

Several publications created in this region in recent years have been composed in the “cut-and-paste” style of journalism. That is, get some kind of text and or image to fill the news hole on the page. Considerations such as appropriate content, writing style, and topic sections for a publication are chucked in order to slap something together to use to sell ads. This new breed of publishers looks at the enterprise as simply a moneymaking venture, content be nearly ignored. They start publications meant to be bus-riding reading, or toilet-thinking material. Why worry about content? People don’t read.

It’s like a form of what is known online as “citizen journalism”—amateur journalists give a news web site stories or photos for free, out of the joy of being published. Citizen journalism is not a bad thing, but when publishers’ ability to get stories and photos for free is increased, of course they’ll want even more stories and photos and artwork and graphics for free. Nowadays, people start publications intending to never pay people for contributing, or to pay so little as to practically not be paying. Even when they pay a little, of course the check comes very late.

This kind of treatment shows disrespect for writers and photographers and artists. What they create isn’t worth paying for, or at least is worth very little (or less than it was worth for the same publication last year), because it’s all writing and photography and artwork of seemingly equal quality. To the undiscerning eye, it’s all of more-or-less the same quality. At least it seems so, to people who don’t read.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Bird knows the score

Peck on this… Tweetster, our little bird friend, tells Barnestormin that a race card trick may be partly responsible for the “need” for slots machine suppliers/distributors in this state. While it’s starting to become conventional wisdom across the commonwealth that slots machine suppliers for the state’s slots casinos will be nothing more than unnecessary middlemen that will cost gamblers and the gambling industry money, thus lowering gamblers’ chances of winning and decreasing Pennsylvania casinos' competitiveness, the idea hasn’t caught on with legislators yet.

Before you say that’s a racist bird, listen. I bring this up is because Tweetster is a good source and because the other night I just happened to be watching PCN TV (Pennsylvania Cable Network—a public access channel, for you nonpolitical geeks), and they had folks giving testimony about how the gambling industry is the greatest thing since double chocolate ice cream. These folks were giving testimony to the state gambling commission. They talked about how great it’s been for them to work in the gambling industry, and the nice careers they have. I watched it for a few of these testimonies, and all three or four of the guys I saw talking up the gambling racket were black.

I write all this not to annoy my readers and make them think I’m a cracker, but as a preface to saying that the little bird tells me that the Black Caucus of Pennsylvania, led by the Philadelphia Black Caucus, pushed to have the slots machine supplier proviso written into the state’s gambling law.

The slots machine supplier “necessity” is about jobs, remember? That’s what our legislators are telling us about the need for these middlemen. That’s what they say, despite the fact that other states don’t have slots machine suppliers.

Maybe when they’re talking about jobs, they are talking about jobs for such impoverished types as former county executive Jim Roddey and WQED chief George Miles, who have applied to have a slots machine supplier company.

And if it’s so important to have slots machine suppliers to create jobs here in Pennsylvania, I would like to know where the slots machine manufacturer will be located in the state? I’d also like to know how any of these requirements will increase gamblers’ chances of winning in Pennsylvania casinos? And if these middleman companies affect the gamblers’ bottom line payout, won’t it hurt casinos in the end?

It doesn’t seem that there’s a rhyme or reason for why these slots suppliers are needed. As it is right now, we’ve got them and they’re here to stay. But how many suppliers will there be? That’s undecided right now, but still our legislators know that the state must have these suppliers. Maybe they think it’s like paying a relative to work for your company—“keeping it in the family.” Or maybe they’re planning to hire family members of friends and the influential?

“There’s a dead fish in the room that I want a piece of,” Tweetster says.

When 14 state legislators, Democrats all (10 of them from western Pennsylvania) changed their votes at the last minute to make the slots machine suppliers a requirement, one must wonder what happened at the eleventh hour behind closed doors to make legislators so receptive to this legal middleman shenanigans called slots machine suppliers?

Tweetster says a little bird feed will go a long way to change a legislative vote at the last minute. And by “bird feed” he means WAMs (walking around money) were given to legislators to convince them to change their votes.

It all comes down to a couple of hawks that the smaller birds have been singing about to our friend Tweetster. Did lobbyists Steve Wojek and Holly Kinder bring the last-minute “feed” to that demented birdcage called Harrisburg, as the rumor-birds say? Stay tuned.

Drug War Progress

The Drug War is progressing, and the most ruthless criminals are winning. I keep tally sometimes by paying closer attention when I hear a series of gunshots at night. Then I check the newspaper the next day, to see if there is a body count, and there usually is.

In this quiet little neighborhood in a corner of Wilkinsburg, we are close enough to the front line to hear the gunplay, often dealt out by kids who should be playing a game, like basketball or some other sport. But we are far enough away, up on our quiet little hill, above it all, that we can pretend the shootings don’t concern us.

It’s just a bunch of crazy poor kids battling it out with guns, not fists, we reason with ourselves. What can we do about it, we wonder, as we flip the channel to something more upbeat.

Iraq has its problems, but it sometimes seems that America’s sectarian strife is mainly between adherents of the Red and Blue gang religions. I don’t always hear their drive-bys, but even if I don’t, I’m likely to talk with a neighbor who reminds me of them.

“Did you hear the gunshots the other night?” my sister-in-law asked me during Easter Brunch. “There were five shots, then another. I was waiting to hear the ambulance, but I didn’t hear one.”

I hadn’t heard the shots, but I’ve heard them enough to also wait to hear the ambulance. It’s depressing, because it’s real life and death, not some make-believe radio show or TV drama. You read about the casualties in the next day’s paper. “Sixteen-year-old girl shot dead in shower,” the headline says. Or, “Boy, 15, found dead in Wilkinsburg house.”

On Saturday I was across town, in my old hometown of Bellevue, when I ran into an old friend. We stopped to talk and catch up. My friend still lives in the North Boroughs, and because of this he is aware of the status of a cast of wild characters who we both knew from the old Bellevue and old Avalon. Somehow we started talking about some of these characters, and what became of them.

“Tim and his brother Kerry are still crackheads,” Cal said in response to my question about Tim, who I once was quite close to. “They’ve lost nearly all their teeth and they both look like they’re sixty.” The brothers are in their early forties.

I reminded him of D, who battled a heroin addiction that tortured him until he hanged himself just before he would’ve turned thirty.

“Yeah, how about that,” Cal said, shaking his head.

He told me that R, my old friend Jay’s elder brother, also died from heroin. Jay found R dead in a bathtub with a needle sticking out of his arm, a day after he died.

Thinking of these Lost Ones, Cal and I would briefly stare away from each other or toward the ground, stuck in momentary incomprehension at the horror of it. Cal is several years older than me and was tight with one of my brothers, but we both remember a simpler time, when all of these people who killed themselves on drugs or who were killed through involvement with drugs were more or less happy. Things hadn’t gotten too far, like they did somehow with Billy.

Word on the street for a while has had it that Billy was killed over a drug debt. Shot in the back of the head for owing some guy money.

“I was really sorry to hear about his death,” I said to Cal.

Cal repeated the story I’d heard of Billy’s death: one scoundrel misdirected him while the other shot him in the back of the head.

“Blew off the back of his head,” Cal said. “Over some drug debt he owed to some a******.”

The murderer apparently wasn’t caught, I said.

“He’s dead,” Cal said, nodding his head. “He’s dead.”

I said it seems the borough’s looking up, with the new businesses lining the main street.

Cal shook his head and said, “You won’t think so when I tell you this.” Then he relayed a story he’d heard from a close friend about a teenager at a local high school who had been ill one school day.

“She kept falling down, so they took her to the nurse. The nurse couldn’t figure it out, and the girl was out of it. Then her girlfriend said, ‘Check her ankles.’ The nurse checked her ankles and there were track marks all over them. They had the ambulance take her to the hospital, and three days later she was back in school, without being punished,” Cal said. “The girl was sixteen.”

“Heroin with kids around here?” I said. “I know about it up in the richer school districts, but around here?”

In Upper St. Clair, Wilkinsburg, Bellevue and communities throughout the region, people are witnessing a devastation from drugs that is cutting down individuals, families, and neighborhoods. Still, our leaders tell us that they are winning the Drug War. But the growing body counts, the lost friends and loved ones, and the increasing frequency of shootings belie that notion.

Author’s note: I’ve changed names in this story to avoid offending.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Be the media

“Don’t hate the media; be the media.” –Jello Biafra

I am not alone in my ability to make a mistake that appears in print, for all to see. My last post fessed up to my mistake, because alas, I am only flesh and bonehead. Sometimes, I’m barely that.

Though I asked for one, I was surprised to see a correction in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s The Morning File today, about misrepresenting Barnestormin in a mention the column had made about the blog last Friday. In that text, they gave me my own subhead—not quite a standing subhead like Fear and Loathing, but a subhead nonetheless. They were busting my chops, but I was glad to get the publicity:

Barnestormin'

Because our fair city has one giant inferiority complex, it seems natural that our bloggers should, too. Jonathan Barnes, who writes the Barnestormin' blog, echoed Aldo Coffee's cry for attention, after his blog was referenced by the Allentown Morning Call out east but overlooked back home: "It seems the Pittsburgh media completely ignores my blog," he typed, possibly as he whimpered. Apologies, Mr. Barnes. (Full disclosure: Mr. Barnes is a free-lance writer who contributes to the P-G, among other publications.) The blog is a hodgepodge of essays, political observations and other stuff.
For the record, we are compelled to note that neither Mr. Barnes nor Aldo has specifically mentioned The Morning File, and yet you don't see us complaining, or even bringing it up, for that matter.

But they got the last part wrong, because I have mentioned The Morning File in Barnestormin in the past. It was a short and nice mention, and it’s here.

After they mentioned the blog last Friday, I sent Peter Leo a note and asked for a correction, but I didn’t demand one, because I didn’t think it was that big a deal because I knew they were bound to bust my chops in any first mention of my blog. I was just glad they had mentioned the blog, and hadn't made me look like a total idiot. I do that well enough without help.

Full disclosure: When I asked for the correction part of me was angling for yet another gratuitous mention in the newspaper. And it worked. Forgive me for my crass media manipulation—I did a six-month stint as an account executive in Public Relations. Here’s the correction:

Last Friday's Morning File joked that one of our featured Pittsburgh blogs, by Jonathan Barnes, had never mentioned our work. In fact, he has and in such a praising manner as to embarrass us, but not too much. We apologize to Mr. Barnes and direct you to check daily, barnestormin.blogspot.com.

What can I say but thank you very much, twice, Peter Leo. You are a gentleman, a scholar and by FAR the funniest writer at the P-G.

For the record, the quote that last week’s File referred to was from a short piece I had written about the Allentown Morning Call mentioning my blog for a fourth or fifth time. That post is here:

Thanks, Allentown Morning Call

Somebody on the other side of the state, who is in the media, apparently likes Barnestormin. This encourages me because it seems the Pittsburgh media completely ignores my blog. Or maybe they just scan my blog for story ideas and news tips, with no intention of giving me any publicity--check the news and be the judge, critical reader. Does mainstream media fear competition from online news sources? You bet they do.

I’ve found in my ego-trip Google searches that the Allentown Morning Call newspaper has mentioned and linked my blog stories a handful of times. The Morning Call has a circulation of 130,000 daily newspapers and 170,000 Sunday newspapers sold, which is about the same size as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The most recent mention and link to my work came in the same place all of the others did, in the newspaper’s online section titled “In The Blogosphere.” This time, they linked my story “Luck of the Somewhat Irish”:

The truth is, I was whimpering when I typed it. Just jagging you.

The Great and Powerful Barnestormin has Misspoken

I am not the type of person who cannot change his mind. I also am not the type of person to think he never makes a mistake. That being said, I must admit that I erred earlier today when in a knee-jerk reaction to some commentary on my blog I hastily banned anonymous posters from this blog.

I was wrong. Please forgive me, O Anonymous Ones, and also Those Who Are Named.

It seems I identify very strongly with my given name, while many people who are online do not share similar strong feelings about their names, which is part of the reason why they adopt “handles” or pseudonyms. This fact was just made clear to me, by blogger Funky Dung, a.ka. Eric, and also by a friend of mine who shall remain nameless because he doesn’t blog.

Eric and I got into a bit of an argument recently over my “Are yinz from Pittsburgh” story, and I got p.o’d and I flew off the handle. People who know me well won’t be surprised by that news.

Part of the reason why I was arguing with Eric is because I took umbrage with him using a fake name to comment. I felt it was disingenuous, as I felt other bloggers who use a handle are being a bit disingenuous. So I stupidly banned them all from this blog, because I felt that the only way to have honest discussions here is if people who are commenting are who they say they are. But thanks to Eric, who has the blog Ales Rarus, and also thanks to my unnamed friend, I’ve seen the light, at least a bit.

Apparently some bloggers who use handles have had them for years and came up with them as gamers. And apparently others are trying to reveal something about themselves through the nickname that would not be apparent if they used their given name. I have given little credit to these and other reasons for having a handle, and I have been wrong.

Part of the problem is that I am so heavily invested in my name that it’s been like a quantum leap for me to see the side of those who wish to remain anonymous. I identify strongly with my name because as a journalist, it’s my calling card—people know my work from my byline, and they know me from my work. Because of that and also because of my strong connection to newspapers, deep inside I’ve felt that people should express their opinions online as they would in a letters to the editor section of a newspaper. But this isn’t an online newspaper; it’s a blog. And the rules for playing on blogs came before my very recent appearance on the scene. So I think it makes more sense for me to play by the rules.

I’ll admit that I don’t want to scare away readers, even those who’d remain anonymous. I think that the fear of Big Brother is over-hyped, but I might feel differently if I viewed myself as an anarchist or as a revolutionary communist. Or I might feel differently if I had a boss who would fire me for some of my online comments.

I understand a little better now why others feel they must remain anonymous, and I think I can finally completely accept it. It might not seem like a big deal to others, but it’s taken me a lot to come to this perspective. Like many people, I want others to see things my way. But my way is not for everyone, and I must remember that.

So in complete sincerity I ask the forgiveness of those people I may have offended with my knee-jerk views on handles. I’m talking to you, Funky Dung, and you, Amos the Poker Cat, and you Fester, and everybody else who I might have steamed as a result of my comments. Sorry folks. I’m working on it, but I am a full-time project.

To all my readers, named and nicknamed, I wish you a good Passover, or a happy Easter, or just a sweet, enjoyable weekend. And thanks for reading and putting up with me.

Pertinence and Impertinence

As soon as the printing press was invented, people began to use it to disagree with each other. The disagreements quickly turned to smears.

Similarly with the Internet and blogging (the virtual equivalent of a free printing press with unlimited free paper included), people have taken a useful tool and utilized it to spread hatred and invective as far as the telephone will reach. And just as with the printing press and political pamphleteering, no sooner was blogging invented than bloggers going by pseudonyms began to spout their opinions, free from any retribution or even recognition. They came up with what they perceived to be clever names for themselves, such as Frankie the Feline and Stinky Crap. Their inventiveness was uninspiring.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, since people often are fragile bundles of insecurities. Still, it’s troubling that so many have chosen to take a blog, the equivalent of a language cannon, and use it to indiscriminately blast people who have the temerity to express their opinions and give their names at the same time. I am talking about anonymous bloggers.

I also am talking about the failure of people to use blogs to their fullest potential. The Internet Age has signaled the end of objectivity—a change to be embraced, and perhaps feared to some extent. In a recent column, Washington Post writer Michael Kinsley explained the shift that is occurring:

“No one seriously doubts anymore that the Internet will fundamentally change the news business. The uncertainty is whether it will change only the method of delivering the product or will also change the nature of the product. Will people want, in any form, a collection of articles, written by professional journalists from a detached and purportedly objective point of view? Or are blogs and podcasts the cutting edge of a new model—more personalized, more interactive, more opinionated, more communal, less objective?”

Let’s hope that if blogs are the new model, blogs written by anonymous bloggers do not become the standard.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would tackle this subject, because it’s bothered me for some time that various people in the blogosphere think that they ought to be able to insult and criticize others who name themselves, while not being able to take such insults themselves. It just seems sneaky, if not simply dishonest, to throw barbs at others from behind the cover of a fake name. I know I’m liable to receive a lot of angry criticism about this view, and no doubt some of it will come from people who are gutsy enough to not even name themselves.

The irony of all of this is that when it is at its best, blogging can be a form of journalism that inspires, educates and enlightens. Many people, though, choose to use it as nothing more than a virtual sketch pad of their thoughts, and that’s fine. Certainly all blogs do not need to be serious.

Bloggers who seem to want to be taken seriously, who tackle serious subjects and make what appear to be serious remarks on other people’s blogs, should be held accountable for their words, just as they hold others accountable for what they’ve written. Why are the anonymous unassailable? Shouldn’t they be questioned for refusing to give their names, just as protesters who cover their faces in peace marches are questioned about their motivations for doing so?

I’ve had some online run-ins with a few bloggers, and I have earned the enmity of a few, but those who I dislike but who name themselves I at least will give credit for not being complete wimps. But bloggers who go by pseudonyms I am almost inclined to ban from my blog. Why shouldn’t I? I really have no idea who these people are, and what their motivations are. They might just be angry frustrated types who simply enjoy stirring the pot. Misery loves community, so to speak.

What’s frustrating is that, while the Internet is a forum that can be used for so much good, a lot of the time that some people spend online is used for the purposes of back-biting and player-hating. The free expression of ideas can be a good thing, Kinsley reminds us later in the same article:

“Opinion journalism can be more honest than objective-style journalism, because it doesn’t have to hide its point of view. All observations are subjective. Writers freed of objectivity can try to determine the whole truth about their subject and then tell it whole to the world.”

Or they can pontificate and bust on others while hiding securely behind a wall of anonymity.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Measure of a Change

Barry Kauffman is not the type to be impressed by political pronouncements, regardless of the message. Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, has the sort of job that could make him jaded.

But when Gov. Ed Rendell recently announced his executive order to regulate lobbyists dealing with his administration, the folks at Common Cause, who for years have been pushing for strict lobbyist disclosure laws in Pennsylvania, were caught off guard.

“We were surprised by the timing of it,” Kauffman said. He noted that the governor’s administration is the second branch of Pennsylvania government regulating lobbyists, including the state senate. The fact that there are now two different sets of regulations for lobbyists to deal with in this state could create pressure in the lobbyist industry to pass a law in order to streamline the lobbyist disclosure process, Kauffman added.

“With nearly 1,000 lobbyists in the state capitol, I believe they’ll want this,” he said. “You want to make it as easy as possible for [lobbyists] to provide that information.”

When we spoke a few weeks back, Kauffman’s unimpressed manner reminded me again that he has been in the fight over lobbyist disclosure for years, not just months, as some legislators have been. He reminded me that the executive order Rendell signed still has authority over just lobbyists dealing with the executive branch of Pennsylvania government. “I welcome what the governor’s done,” Kauffman said.

But the fight for something closer to a full accounting of the money being spent to influence state legislators is not over, and Kauffman is well aware of it.

“I’m hoping that the house speaker keeps his word, and that by the end of June we have [a lobbyist disclosure law],” Kauffman said.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Simple Question

It was a simple question, posed only somewhat provocatively, so I was surprised by the response I received at the end of a recent press conference held by local peace groups. I asked the leader of Pittsburgh Organizing Group if the F.B.I. surveillance of POG and Thomas Merton Center members during anti-war demonstrations is why POG members conceal their faces with bandanas.

“Is that the media’s favorite question for us, or what? I think every time we have a press conference, someone from the media asks us that question,” Bridget Colvin responded.

“Well you’re for openness. Back at you,” I said.

She looked flustered and shook her head again, then continued.

“It’s one of the reasons, yes. It’s also the fear that if [a protester] is seen at an event” an employer could take action against the protester, she said. “There have been undercover FBI agents at these events, not just TMC and POG events. Unidentified police with batons have been at the protests.”

Unidentified protesters wearing bandanas and all black clothing also have been at the events. As far as POG is concerned, these people shall remain nameless. I named a few in a piece I did some time back about the group.

So part of the reason for the disguise is to save people’s jobs. Now I get it. Some members of POG apparently are anarchists with a social conscience who want to work for The Man, while anonymously protesting The Man.

I am not suggesting that POG or TMC have nasty intentions, but I am skeptical about POG because many of their members dress like a wannabe-anarchist fashion faux pass and they cover their faces in the getup. They often refuse to give their names and are secretive and seemingly paranoid about being spied upon. And in the past at least, they have hassled journalists.

Now if I wrote scathing editorials about anything at all, and I asked you to agree with me, but I refused to sign the editorial or tell you who I am, what kind of a jerk would you be if you agreed with me without even knowing who I am? In my estimation, this is exactly what some members of POG are doing when they conceal their identities.

Do a search on POG if you like, and you’ll find a link for the group that says:

Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG) is an Anarchist based organizing group that uses Direct Action and Creative Resistance to fight imperialism...”

I couldn’t find such language on POG’s web site anymore, though I am not convinced that’s not what they still stand for. They still wear black clothing as an obvious wannabe-anarchist statement (I’d like to see any of them get by without electricity or running water for a week), but they don’t have the cajones to admit where they’re coming from, or even to fess up to their names.

I am not talking about Bridget and others who have the guts to put their names and faces on the line, which is as it should be with politics. Those people’s opinions I might trust. Clowns who cover their faces and won’t reveal their names are completely untrustworthy, though.

At the press conference I had the pleasure of meeting TMC staffer and POG member Jeremy Shenk. He didn’t bust on me for questioning POG. We talked a bit.

He told me that at POG’s Nov. 1 Stand Down Day protest, agents were spying on the group.

“They actually rented the building across the street and were photographing us,” he said.

Friday, April 07, 2006

What is Barnestormin?

I started Barnestormin last June because I wanted to publish essays that I had written that I couldn’t get published elsewhere. I thought others would want to read those stories, and so I took the leap and went with Blogger, which seemed to be the easiest blog format I could find without really looking much.
I named the blog Barnestormin because I liked the sound of it and the play on words, and also because I once wrote a regular column for a weekly paper I edited (the long-gone Hampton-Richland Eagle) and the column was called Barnes Stormin’.
So what’s in Barnestormin? Lots of stuff, including investigative pieces about lobbying in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Drug War legislation pros and cons, and of course personal essays. Most of the stuff in Barnestormin is new material, but some is reprinted material, such as my essay on meeting Mister Fred Rogers, which was published in the now-defunct weekly Pulp, and my essay on growing up as one of twelve kids, which was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
I sometimes plug my stories here, too. Barnestormin also includes shorter news stories about local news such as the rash of shootings around bars in the Pittsburgh area. I’ve written about food, because I like to eat. I’ve also written about a book or two. This is just a smattering of the stories I have posted here—I’ve also written about love and relationships, too.
But the types of stories that put the storm in Barnestormin are stuff like my lobbyist stories, my Dread and Repugnance series, and perhaps also stuff like my account of running into and talking politics with a couple of hostile Turks on July 4 weekend in Virginia Beach.
I also recently wrote a few pieces, including two that have been well received, about my time covering Sago Mine.
You never know what you might find here, so please keep reading Barnestormin.

The Morning File wakes up to Barnestormin

Whine, and you shall receive. Or, the squeaky wheel gets jagged. Either will work to explain how I finally ended up in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s The Morning File section. Actually, it was my online whining, combined with the fact that I got Bill Toland drunk and convinced him of the virtues of my blog. Of course I’m kidding. I have never met Bill but I have talked to him on the phone, and I’ve never pitched my blog to him.

It turns out that I have been in whiney company here in the Pittsburgh blogosphere, since lately I am not the only blogger around here to complain that the local media has missed him. I am one of several bloggers who made it into the A-2 page of the paper, and several of us got there because we complained.

What can I say but thanks, Bill Toland and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette!

After writing more than 830 stories as a freelancer for the P-G, I figured they might never mention Barnestormin because of a perceived conflict of interest in doing so. They don’t want to hype anyone who’s affiliated with them, I figured. But it appears that I simply wasn’t whining loud enough to make it into the paper.

As my former employer the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review likes to say, now you know.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Finding My Inner Slav

In my early teens, I discovered that despite my Anglo surname, I look more like a Slav. This revelation came to me around the time my dad told me I wasn’t a WASP.
We were talking about White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, because the term was in the media for some reason, and I said, “WASPs, like us.”
My father looked at me through his large eyes, and laughed.
“You’re not a WASP,” he said, chuckling. “I’m a WASP. White. Anglo. Saxon. Protestant.” He grinned, self-satisfied, as if he’d planned it that way.
I had noticed the difference in the shape and setting of my eyes, compared to my father’s eyes. When I was young I hoped I would “grow into” eyes like Dad’s. His were large and wide, set flat on his face. My eyes, and most of my siblings’ eyes, favored my mother’s Slavic side, as our eyes are smaller, closer together and deep-set in high cheekbones, like Mom’s.
This might be of no interest but for the fact that I, like many Americans who are approaching middle age or in the thick of it, am re-discovering my ethnic heritage. Some do it by lending a hand to preserve local monuments that are related to their nationalities. Some, like Steelers great Hines Ward, are visiting the nation of their birth to reconnect to roots that never had time to grow. I am rediscovering (and discovering for the first time) my Croatian heritage through involvement with those who guard that ethnic heritage.
A few years ago I visited the Croatian Fraternal Union lodge that I had belonged to with my family when I was growing up. I never knew what the connection was that brought our family of twelve kids from Bellevue all the way to Clairton to the “Cro Club,” as we kids called it. At the club I spoke with Ruth, who was friends with my mom and dad when we were members.
“My brother, Sky, and your dad were friends. They worked together at U.S. Steel,” Ruth explained to me. “When he heard your mom was Croatian, Sky invited your dad to join the club. I signed them up.”
I studied her face, trying to see if there was anything in it that reminded me of myself. She and mom resembled each other, reminding me of my Croatian grandmother. Stara babas.
I realized I looked different from men in the club, but I am just a quarter Croatian. I inherited Mom’s full Irish lips, which are a genetic marker from a county in Ireland. I see through Slavic eyes and speak with Irish lips.
My mixed-looking face confused a Croatian-American or two over the years. When I met the late Elsie Yuratovich, the defender of St. Nicholas Church in the North Side, she seemed incredulous about my ancestry.
“Are you sure you’re Croatian?” she asked. I responded again by repeating my grandma’s maiden name, which brought a nod from Elsie. She and my grandma could’ve been sisters—except Elsie would’ve been the more active, excitable one.
Speaking with the leader of a Croatian heritage group here in Pittsburgh, I mentioned that I am part Croatian, and I name-dropped Grandma’s maiden name.
“That means son of Vukel,” the man responded.
In the past few years I’ve realized that having a bit of Slavic ancestry could be to my advantage as a freelancer here in Pittsburgh. This city is a tight-knit place, and even for a native like me, some individuals are hard to reach. But I use every advantage I can to get the story. So, the other day I pulled the Slav Card with a man who founded a $25 million a year company here in Pittsburgh.
I was corresponding with the company’s marketing person, and she was sending my emailed requests to her boss, the founder. She wrote that he was uncomfortable being interviewed, because he didn’t want the focus of the story on him, rather than the company.
From deep inside of me, a stubborn Slav dictated my response:
“If he gives you a hard time, tell him that I’m a quarter Croatian, and that I’m well acquainted with the St. Nicholas folks, because I’ve written about the church,” I wrote. I had been told that the founder was part Croatian and connected to the Croatian community, which is why I pulled the Slav Card. It turned out that St. Nicholas was the man’s first client many years ago, but that he’s part Serbian, not Croatian.
When I spoke with the founder, he asked me about my Croatian heritage. I mentioned Grandma’s name.
“That sounds Serbian to me,” he said, laughing.
Several years back my grandmother died and my mother cleaned out the old family house in the mining town in which Grandma was raised. Among the artifacts my mother found an old document signed by her grandfather, who was recruited in Zagreb to come to America to work in the iron ore mines. In the document he swore allegiance to the United States, and he swore off allegiance to the King of Serbia, who ruled part of Croatia at the time. This document was evidence of a forced sort of assimilation, but it worked. My great-grandparents assimilated.
They learned English from their kids, and they stayed in America for the rest of their lives. They weren’t bohunks, as my grandma was called in grade school; they were Americans. They even had the loyalty oath to prove it.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Spring Jam Sessions

After a Saturday morning Spring rain-shower, the urban songbirds call each other in jazz-like, unrehearsed harmony. Their improvisation seems to muffle the sounds of nearby traffic, allowing a listener to concentrate on the birds’ own riffs. Their songs help to create stillness in the air that can catch us off-guard, if we let it.

The half-clouded light of spring days give a lush appearance to the foliage in the city and the country. For a moment after a rain, the grass is greener, and the small, lace-like Sweet Woodruff blossoms seem to be more striking against the rough bark of a Maple tree. The immature leaves of trees appear to be tenderer. And the perennial flowers begin to show how they’ve grown.

Spring is like an early harvest-time for perennial flower gardeners. In spring we begin to see how our hostas, ferns, sedum and other groundcovers have fared. We notice again how the perennials seem to give back each year a bit more than they offered us the year before. So it’s sort of like a mini-Thanksgiving for some of us, as we watch the fruits of our gardening labors rewarded beyond any measure of the work that we put in the year prior.

While gardeners have their own reasons for loving the flowery abundance of spring, they are not alone in their admiration. The vibrancy of this “fresh start” of a season is obvious to any who will stop for a moment to listen, or pause for a second to look. And more folks around Pittsburgh stop and look in this season—you see them hesitate before walking closer to inspect the blossoms of a flowering crabapple tree, or squinting their eyes as they scrutinize the blaze of flowers on a blooming forsythia. Looks of wonder transform their faces as they consider the competition between some “Chubby Fingers” sedum and a patch of "Red Dragon" sedum, each plant trying to be the fastest to engulf a pile of sandstone rocks.

The rain and overcast half-light of spring days brings the colors and sounds and the fecund, sweet smells of nature into sharper focus. Few people have to be told to pay attention to nature at this time of year; because nature’s daily drama is so compelling that it seems to grab us by the shirtsleeves. The almost Day-Glo-looking apricots, pinks, whites and lavenders of many ornamental trees grab our attention, and we rubberneck them as we drive by slowly.

But that’s nature’s way—always conspiring to have us focus a bit on her splendor.

During this time of year, we gardeners often are amazed by how a plant seeds smaller “volunteers,” or how a groundcover or tree perpetuates itself as if it had something to prove. We admire azaleas and rhododendrons that muscle each other for dominance of a hillside, while at their feet the moss is patiently working to carpet the ground and creep up the trees.

Above it all, the birds see lots to eat. They congregate in the branches and call each other. They ignore the traffic and the buzzing lawnmower next door, and they concentrate on themselves.

The birds are so oblivious to other noises that they might as well be singing to themselves. Their “jam sessions,” while delighting to those hearing them for what seems like the first time, are common background music to many gardeners.

But on cool spring mornings, those harmonious songs seem to have a more recognizable refrain.

This story first was published in June 2005 in Barnestormin.