The Christmas Concert from Hell

I intended to blog this month about the Revolutionary War soldiers from Western Pennsylvania who wintered at Valley Forge from 1777 – 1778. However, “Winter at Valley Forge” doesn’t radiate sunshine and warmth. A lot of people that I love are pretty sad this month. Anyway, I don’t think that I can tell you much that you can’t just learn from a five second Google search.

Jonathan and I toured Valley Forge once. We watched the movie at the visitors’ center that was basically footage from a 1977 re-enactment. (I could tell because the “soldiers” wore eyewear from the 1970’s.) We walked around the entire National Historical Park. Jonathan photographed Washington’s headquarters. Maybe next winter, I will post some of Jonathan’s Valley Forge photos. My sister K. got married right down the road from it, so this is what we did before the rehearsal dinner.

In the meantime, if you really want to read about soldiers from Westmoreland County who served during the Revolutionary War, go read my blog post about Lochry’s Defeat.

So, Christmas time always reminds me of the music programming at Berlin Brothersvalley School District. My four sisters and I all graduated from Berlin. The entire district consists of three buildings connected by a tunnel. The entire school district has one auditorium that everybody shares. My poor mom and dad sat in this auditorium every December for over three decades, watching their kids perform in various holiday concerts. Sometimes, they attended multiple concerts in the same month!

It’s a really long story, but the school district’s Christmas music programs in this auditorium began in either kindergarten or first grade. Then, all four of my sisters and I were in Christmas programs for either band or chorus for elementary, junior high, and high school. Keep in mind that there is a nine-year age gap between me and E., and a 13-year age gap between E. and O. So, I started elementary school over thirty years before my sister O. graduated from high school. That’s how my parents got stuck sitting in Berlin’s only auditorium every December, for over three decades. (This doesn’t even count all of the spring concerts and musicals, and all of the hours and hours and hours that my parents spent watching K. and I perform in the high school marching band.)

The thing that makes me feel so guilty now is that I NEVER PRACTICED my clarinet on my own. I got away with this because my school was so small that the music teachers basically took every warm body that showed up for all of the rehearsals. I am so sorry that my parents had to sit through so many concerts (and football games and parades) in which I played the clarinet so poorly.

Remember when I said that my parents sometimes watched their kids appear in multiple performing arts events in the same month? Well, that’s because all of the bands and choruses from the elementary, junior high, and high school each had their own separate events. Except for one December.

Berlin sits on top of a mountain in Somerset County. One winter, the weather was so bad all December that everybody’s separate events got cancelled. Multiple ice storms or something.

So, Berlin Brothersvalley School District combined all of the rescheduled holiday music programming (band AND chorus) from grades 4-12 all together on one special evening! Seriously. The entire combined holiday concert was four or five hours long. I wish that I was making this up. I’m not.

Well, what do you think happens when you fit an entire school district’s worth of families into one auditorium to watch every single band and chorus student from grades 4-12 perform? Do you think that the entire audience sits there quietly? Do you think that the audience stays for every single musical group’s entire performance? Do you think that audience members who do need to cut out early take care to be quiet in the hallway?

If this were the game show Jeopardy!, I would say, “What is none of the above, Alex?

My high school band director, Mr. B., was PISSED that this entire school district’s worth of families in grades 4-12 did not sit quietly for the five hour Christmas Concert from Hell.

Mr. B was so upset that on the very next school day, he made the entire high school concert band get into groups and brainstorm lists of concert etiquette. Then, he made all of the groups get together and compile one master list of concert etiquette.

Then, at the beginning of every single performing arts event held at Berlin for the rest of my high school career, a student had to come up on stage and read our master list of concert etiquette to the audience.

Mr. B. also made sure that our master list of concert etiquette was printed inside every paper program for every musical event held at Berlin.

Years after I graduated from high school, I returned to the school to watch a musical in which one of my younger sisters performed. The master list of concert etiquette that I helped to compile after the Christmas Concert from Hell appeared at the very front of that event’s program.

Now, I can’t even go to see something at the Benedum without mentally tsk-tsking whenever I see or hear somebody violating the giant list of concert etiquette that Mr. B. made us create. For instance, one time I went to see the muscial RENT. The woman sitting next to me pulled a sandwich out of her enormous purse and ate it in the middle of the show while the lights were down and people were singing. At the Benedum. The place with the $100+ tickets. (Disclaimer: Maybe she had blood sugar issues. Who am I to judge.)

The concert etiquette disaster at the Christmas Concert from Hell happened long before everybody and their dog owned smartphones. So, maybe the audience’s behavior would have been even worse if the Christmas Concert from Hell had happened (pre-Covid) in 2019.

At the time, I thought that Mr. B. made us band members write the giant list of concert etiquette in order to teach all of us kids a lesson. Now, looking back, I think that the concert etiquette list was directed at the parents, at all of the adults who didn’t set a good example that night.

(But also: a four-or-five-hour concert, featuring every music student from grades 4-12? Really?)

I can’t wait until the Covid crisis ends so that I can go back to judging other people’s concert etiquette behavior at live performances. In the meantime, I sit here and think about the Christmas Concert from Hell. Those days were the good old days.

Omni William Penn Hotel

Omni William Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh, PA, November 2019

Up until mid-March 2020, I commuted into downtown Pittsburgh almost every weekday to my job. I now telecommute for this same employer from my dining room in Parnassus.

My employer’s Pittsburgh office is several blocks away from the Omni William Penn Hotel. The hotel was built in 1915-1916. Omni purchased it in 2001. So, for the rest of this blog post, I will just refer to this hotel as the “William Penn.”

One morning in November 2019, I walked to the Starbucks that is located inside the William Penn (and which opens into the hotel’s lobby), and then I sat in the lobby with my coffee and enjoyed the hotel’s holiday decorations.

This was less than a week before downtown Pittburgh’s 2019 “Light Up Night.” The hotel’s hardworking staff decorated the lobby ahead of this event. I watched many Starbucks customers pull out their smartphones and take photos of the gingerbread house built to look just like the William Penn’s facade. So, I too took a smartphone photo. I didn’t think to take photos of anything else in the hotel lobby, such as the enormous and fully decorated tree.

I expected that this November or December, I would once again walk to the William Penn for a coffee break and holiday decorations.

Just for reference, here below are the only photos that I took of the William Penn’s actual facade. I took these photos on December 13, 2011. Occupy Pittsburgh camped at Mellon Green, across the street from the William Penn. Wikipedia tells me that BNY Mellon filed in court on December 12, 2011, to end the encampment. So, the local news coverage from this filing must have inspired me to walk from my workplace (a financial services job) up to Mellon Green to sight-see the people who were protesting financial services industries (and the people who worked there). I did not actually interact with anybody “residing” in this encampment. I assume that many of them were away at class (Pitt, perhaps?) or their own jobs.

Mellon Green and the Omni William Penn Hotel, December 13, 2011
Mellon Green and the Omni William Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh PA, December 13, 2011
Mellon Green with the Omni William Penn Hotel in the background. Pittsburgh PA, December 13, 2011

Bonkers Political Story Out of Johnstown, Pennsylvania

I lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for a few years out of college. I graduated from high school in a tiny town about one hour south of Johnstown. After college, the very first job that I found that included health insurance was in Johnstown. So, I stayed there for a few years until I was able to find a much better paying job in downtown Pittsburgh.

I actually went to Johnstown about once a month each month or so while I was growing up. Johnstown had the closest mall and the closest new release bookstore. We couldn’t order books off of Amazon because that’s how old I am. So, my mom drove me to the bookstore in Johnstown every time that a new Baby-Sitters Club book came out. I was in my high school’s marching band. We travelled to Johnstown to perform at football games and at the Halloween parade. My sixth grade class visited a bunch of the famous sites connected with the 1889 Johnstown Flood for our spring field trip. (You know – the site where the South Fork Dam burst, the flood museum in Johnstown, and of course, the cemetery where many of the flood’s over two thousand victims were buried.)

This story isn’t about all of the people who died in the Johnstown flood. This story is about ANOTHER calamity in Johnstown that killed a bunch of people in the 1800’s. I just learned about this particular calamity this month. I think that this is because Johnstown has just experienced SO MANY tragic mishaps.

This story is bonkers.

Anyway, in 1865, the Civil War ended and John Wilkes Booth assassinated President of the United States Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, became the new POTUS. Things did not go well for Andrew Johnson.

In 1866, Johnson took a “Swing Around the Circle” train trip. He was trying to convince people to like him better. In September 1866, Johnson’s train stopped in Johnstown, between his route from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.

Thousands of people showed up in Johnstown to see Johnson and the Civil War heroes whom he (allegedly) pressured to travel with him. Maintenance staff in Johnstown built a viewing platform over an old canal for the spectators.

Hundreds of people stood on the platform.

The platform collapsed. Many spectators fell about 20 feet.

Several spectators were killed.

The train moved on to the next stop WHILE THE RESCUE AND RECOVERY WERE STILL IN PROGRESS.

Now, I don’t have the talent or the patience to write about Andrew Johnson. Especially not for a blog post here. Especially not on Thanksgiving Eve, while I have several shots of whiskey in me. That’s why God created Wikipedia on the eighth day!

When I was a kid, I read a children’s historical fiction novel about Andrew Johnson that I either found in a used book store or else I found in the back of a classroom. I think that it was called “The Tennessee Yankee” or else “The Yankee from Tennessee” or something. The book made Johnson out to be a hero. However, everything else that I ever read about Johnson after this pretty much called him a jerk. People are complicated. The American Civil War was complicated. Reconstruction was complicated.

I never had anything THIS exciting happen to me when I visited or lived in Johnstown. One of my co-workers from Johnstown told me that her ex-husband went to see Sting at the Johnstown War Memorial. Sting – ALLEGEDLY – performed so poorly that night that the crowd threw their beer bottles at him when he sang “Roxanne” for twenty or thirty minutes. So, that’s an exciting thing that happened in Johnstown – to somebody else – during my lifetime.

I used to work for a business that was owned partly by somebody Very Highly Involved in the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. During the time of my employment, there was a political election for Pennsylvania’s governor. The Republican candidate for governor visited Johnstown’s airport for a speech one fall evening.

My employer promised a free vacation day to any employee of his who showed up at the airport that night to watch the gubernatorial candidate (“the Candidate”) speak. So, I went to the speech.

The Candidate’s wife stood next to the candidate in her heels and clutched the podium as her husband spoke at length about morals and values. Then, we spectators all shook the Candidate’s hand.

(Obviously, this was all pre-Covid!)

The next day, one of my co-workers told me that she had showed up at the speech undecided about her voting decision. Then, she shook the Candidate’s hand. She decided not to vote for the Candidate because she thought that he had the weakest, limpest handshake that she had ever felt.

The Candidate lost the governor’s race.

My former co-workers and I didn’t have to stand on any platforms twenty feet in the air over a canal. We didn’t have to listen to Sting sing Roxanne for thirty minutes. So, by Johnstown standards, we had a successful evening.

The Old Stone Tavern Needs to Have Its Own Ghost

So, for a few years now, I’ve casually followed the efforts of local preservationists to purchase and restore the Old Stone Tavern, aka Elliott’s, in Pittsburgh’s West End. Daniel Elliott, or perhaps somebody else, built the tavern / inn during the late 1700’s.

I took an interest in the tavern because it appeared in Agnes Sligh Turnbulls’s historical fiction about late 1700’s Western Pennsylvania. (Turnbull graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and she wrote several books including The Day Must Dawn and The King’s Orchard.)

In The King’s Orchard, the protagonist, James O’Hara (an early Pittsburgh business leader and also philanthropist Mary Schenley’s grandfather) lived for a while at Elliott’s while he established himself as a fur trader. Also in Turnbull’s fiction, the famous / infamous Colonel William Crawford and Simon Girty drank at a colonial Pittsburgh tavern that I believe may have been based on Elliott’s. Daniel Elliott himself appeared in Turnbull’s fiction.

Turnbull’s historical fiction also referenced either a Pittsburgh innkeeper or Pittsburgh store owner named Sam Semple. I haven’t yet figured out whether Semple’s establishment later became Elliott’s, or if these were two different operations.

I can’t ask Turnbull about Sam Semple and his connection to Elliott’s because she published The Day Must Dawn in 1942 and The King’s Orchard in 1963. She passed away in 1982. She is buried in her hometown of New Alexandria, Pennsylvania.

Everything that I know about the preservation of Elliott’s Tavern came from Wikipedia, the preservationist group’s Facebook page, and the first articles that appeared when I Googled “old stone tavern Pittsburgh.”

For instance, here is an article that appeared in Pittsburgh Magazine in December 2019:

Reviving History: The Fight for the Old Stone Tavern

The last post of the “Old Stone Tavern” Facebook page showed a February 2020 date. It detailed a fundraiser held that same month in order to raise money to purchase the building.

Less than a month after this Facebook posting and the fundraiser, Pennsylvania’s governor shut Pennsylvania down due to Covid-19.

So, will Elliott’s ever open as a tavern again? I wonder. If currently open restaurants struggle right now to stay open, who knows what will happen to a tavern that closed years ago?

I’ve never looked into becoming involved in the tavern preservation group’s fundraising efforts. My husband and I have enough frustration trying to preserve our own 1890’s house. For instance, this past weekend, Jonathan transplanted a baby Japanese maple tree that was growing into our house’s foundation over to a different part of our yard, and the tree didn’t get blown over in the next day’s giant windstorm. This was a major accomplishment in our house restoration. I don’t need to get my heart broken over a 1700’s tavern.

That said, I’ve thought about Elliott’s and compared it to what I know about the Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford. I’ve come to the conclusion that Elliott’s needs to have its own ghost. Or ghosts. Or, at least, ghost stories.

I’ve heard that you can purchase “ghost in a bottle” kits on the internet. I think that these are all Caveat Emptor deals, though. What if the ghost that you ordered turned out to be a woman who had unpopular opinions about things?

On a more serious note, what if the ghost was one of the Native Americans slaughtered in the Gnadenhutten Massacre of 1782, or else one of the Native Americans slaughtered by Colonel William Crawford’s men, or else one of the Native Americans who received a smallpox blanket from the soldiers at Fort Pitt?

You never know what you’ll actually get when you order a ghost online. Also, a preservation group can’t purchase ghosts for a building that it doesn’t currently own.

Most of the articles that I read emphasized the tavern’s role in colonial and very early American history. I read about more recent (1870’s and Roaring Twenties) history that happened there; I’d love to blog more about that later.

Thanks for sticking by my side on this blog. I’ve blogged before about the tavern, but I owed you an American history post.

Stay healthy, and talk to you later.

Contest Winner Loot

I am so excited to receive my prize in the mail today from the Nina Sadowsky’s flash fiction writing contest that I won last month. To be honest, the card from Nina Sadowsky congratulating me for my winning entry is the item that I value the most from this package.

I accidentally wrote this story. Back in September, I saw a tweet about a flash fiction contest based on the theme of “lies.” This theme reminded me that back in the summer of 2018, I was under the impression that my mom’s cancer treatment was actually working. Then, this turned out to not be the case at all. Am I casting shade? Nah. Anyway, based on this memory, I wrote my award-winning story in one sitting. I submitted it a few hours before the deadline ended.

I have my writing notebook open in front of me now. On Saturday, February 1, I attended the in-person event “Time Management for Authors with Nicole Peeler.” Per my notes from that date, I gave myself permission to never again attempt to write fiction because I don’t actually enjoy writing fiction and I have never enjoyed writing fiction. I resolved to concentrate instead on non-fiction.

Per the next page in the notebook, I see that I attended the live, in-person event “Point of View with Lori Rayder-Day” on Saturday, March 7, 2020.

Both of these were held in an event room about the size of a high school classroom in the basement of the Oakmont Carnegie Library. For each of these, maybe 20, or 30, or 40 of us sat at several long tables. I didn’t pay much attention to the crowd size because I had no idea that these would be the last in-person meetings that I would attend for months or maybe years. Nobody at this event wore face masks because, at that time, public health officials told us that masks were not necessary and were actually harmful to the public good.

I don’t think that I social distanced. i don’t think that I even know what social distancing was on March 7, 2020. I tried to stop myself from sneezing at least once that afternoon.

Before “Point of View” began on March 7, an officer from the writing club that sponsored these presentations announced that she had just attended an official “Covid-19 Prevention Training” at her workplace. She asked if anybody in the room displayed Covid symptoms. She also asked if anybody in the room had just returned from Italy or China.

The, the “Point of View” seminar began.

During the course of this, I volunteered that William Faulkner used first person plural Point of View in “A Rose for Emily.” I also gave away the spoiler for “A Rose for Emily.” Oops! I maintain if you are enough of a glutton for punishment to put on real clothes and attend a “Point of View” workshop on a Saturday, then you already know that Emily kept her dead boyfriend’s body in that bed with her for 40 years or whatever.

Pennsylvania’s governor shut the commonwealth down due to Covid a little over a week later.

These were the last two writing workshops that I ever attended in person.

Next month, I am going to take a class about family memoir-writing over Zoom. I purchased the class reservation from a local bookstore that offers virtual writing workshops. The instructor also teaches nonfiction writing at a Pittsburgh university’s MFA program. I already read, front-to-back, two of the books listed on the class syllabus. I am excited about this class and I might possibly blog about it. I might possibly write a family memoir about life in Western Pennsylvania.

Since you, dear reader, just put up with reading this, my next blog post will be about Pennsylvania history.

Here’s my call to action: If you enjoy (or hate read) my blog, please share it with others would would also enjoy (or hate read) it.

Two Degrees from “Love You Forever”

This is a story about somebody going through life as the sibling of a well-known author.

The subject of this story is somebody whom I respected in the brief time that I knew him.

At the same time – well, I find it tricky territory to separate what I know about people and what I know about their famous siblings.

For instance, I learned through Adam Selzer’s “Mysterious Chicago” website that the Chicago grave of Charles Dickens brother, Augustus, identifies him as being the brother of Charles Dickens. It says right on his tombstone “Brother of Charles Dickens.”

In another story, my own sister K. blogged here about the time that she sat next to Elizabeth Gilbert’s sister, Catherine, at a library conference lunch. Catherine Gilbert Murdock is a writer, just like her sister Elizabeth. However, K. spent the lunch trying not to bring up how much she enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s books.

(K. and I are just two out of our own family of five total sisters, and we both know about going through life being compared to one’s siblings.)

So, here’s my story:

Once upon a time, I spent four years as a student at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Back in those olden days, all students – even full-time students – paid tuition by the credit. So, a full-time semester of 18 credits was more expensive than a full-time semester of 15 credits. As a result, I personally was very conscious about not taking any more course credits than I absolutely needed to graduate. I guess that some of my fellow classmates felt the same way. Maybe this led them to complain about taking “unnecessary classes.” Or else, I just gave my fellow classmates too much credit for the reasons that they whined. (Pardon the pun.) Maybe my fellow students just moaned about taking “unnecessary classes” because it resulted in more schoolwork for them.

Anyway, back in those olden days, all freshmen were required to take “Exploring Religious Meaning.” Half of the freshmen class took it in the fall, and half took it in the spring. After the scheduling department halved the freshmen class, they divvied us further into several sections for this class.

I took “Exploring Religious Meaning” during the fall semester of my freshmen year at Saint Vincent College. I had Father Nathan Munsch, O.S.D., as my instructor for this class. O.S.D. is the abbreviation for Order of Saint Benedict. Fr. Nathan was both a Roman Catholic priest and also a Benedictine monk. The Saint Vincent community included a Benedictine monastery and many Benedictine monks taught at the college.

I took this class during my very first semester at college. I was under the impression that this was the very first semester of college ever for many of my classmates as well.

From what I understand, Fr. Nathan taught at least one other section of “Exploring Religious Meaning” that fall. This is important.

Now, several weeks into the semester, at least one person complained to the Saint Vincent College administration about Fr. Nathan’s “Exploring Religious Meaning” class. I don’t know if the complainer (or complainers?) came from my section of the class or another section of the class.

So, we had to spend at least one entire 50 minute class period in an “airing of grievances.” We had to explain what made us unhappy about the class. A debriefing. My big takeaway from this bitch session was that many of my fellow classmates “covered this exact same material” in their classes at their Catholic high schools. So, my big takeaway was that many of my fellow students were just a bunch of ex-Catholic school whiners. Or, maybe they disliked having to pay Saint Vincent for this course content after their parents had already paid their parochial high schools for similar wisdom.

(I graduated from a public high school. In full disclosure, some of my fellow classmates for “Exploring Religious Meaning” had graduated from the same Catholic high school at which my future husband graduated and at which both my future husband and my future mother-in-law taught years later. My future husband possibly graduated from high school with some of my “Exploring Religious Meaning” classmates.)

Fr. Nathan explained that “Exploring Religious Meaning” was a core requirement needed to graduate for every bachelor’s degree program at Saint Vincent.

Life moved on.

Then, a few weeks later, Fr. Nathan started class by saying something to the effect of, “Well, you might have heard some rumors. So, I want you to hear what really happened directly from me.”

Fr. Nathan’s “Exploring Religious Meaning” students had attempted, once again, to get him in trouble with The Dean.

Fr. Nathan said something like, “Let me start by telling you the story that I told the other section of this class.”

So, we learned that Fr. Nathan Munsch had a brother – Robert Munsch.

Robert Munsch wrote the children’s book Love You Forever, as well as several other children’s books. My parents owned a copy of Love You Forever. The plot of one episode of the television show Friends involved the book Love You Forever. I maintain that Love You Forever is a famous book.

(To give this a local connection, author Robert Munsch was born in Pittsburgh.)

Fr. Nathan explained to his sections of “Exploring Religious Meaning” that his brother Robert wrote “Love You Forever” in the aftermath of a heartbreaking tragedy in the Munsch family.

Then, Fr. Nathan said something to the other section of “Exploring Religious Meaning” to the effect of – wait for this:

Sometimes, you just feel like flipping the middle finger at God.”

And then –

Fr. Nathan flipped his middle finger at that particular classroom of freshmen college students.

Somebody reported this to The Dean.

So, that’s why Fr. Nathan was in trouble again. Because he had gotten caught up in the emotion of his family’s grief in front of a classroom full of eighteen-year-olds.

I don’t know of any other incidents that happened to either section of this class.

I finished the class with an A because I am a Totally Stable Genius. Or because Fr. Nathan was an easy grader. Either one of those.

I graduated four years later.

Fr. Nathan continued to teach at the school.

Today I opened my mail to find a booklet from Saint Vincent College. The purpose of the book was to ask for money. I flipped the book open to the centerfold. I saw – two photos of Fr. Nathan Munsch teaching class! Also, three paragraphs about his current health challenges.

I only ever took one college course taught by Fr. Nathan. However, seeing the photos of him brought me back to the time that he made himself vulnerable to his students in speaking about his famous brother and about their family’s experience with grief.

Did Pittsburgh Kill My Mother?

View from my desk at work in downtown Pittsburgh, PA, pre-Covid.

I intended for this blog to be mainly about life in Pennsylvania. My mother was born, lived, and died in Pennsylvania. She died of lung cancer. So, today’s post fits with my blog’s theme.

Also, November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

Mom was born in Pittsburgh in 1954, and she lived in Pittsburgh until 1974. Then, she moved to rural Pennsylvania. She lived in rural Central and Western Pennsylvania for the rest of her life. She turned 64 years old on October 23, 2018. She passed away very early in the morning on October 25, 2018.

Mom never smoked. She never lived with a smoker. (I smoked a few cigarettes in college when I was trying to look like a badass, but I never did this around Mom.) By no means do I mean to imply that my mom “deserved to get cancer less” than do smokers. I bring this up because the first time that I visited a new physician after my mom died, I gave him my medical history. I told him that my mom had recently died of lung cancer. The very first two things that he asked me were: 1.) Did your mom smoke? 2.) Did your dad smoke? I bring this up because I am concerned that lung cancer has a stigma. I want to point out that ANYBODY can get lung cancer.

So, did living in Pittsburgh for twenty years kill my mom?

I’ve heard a lot of stories about Pittsburgh’s dirty air.

My own husband’s late Babcia (the Polish word for grandma) worked in downtown Pittsburgh in the late 1940’s / early 1950’s. In that time, the women wore white gloves as they travelled and worked. Babcia brought TWO pairs of gloves with her each day. She had to change her gloves partway through each day because the original pair became dark with soot. She did this every work day. And she worked in an OFFICE.

I was born shortly before Pittsburgh’s steel industry imploded and took a lot of American dreams with it. I visited my grandparents in Pittsburgh (Carrick) during my early years. I remember how the city smelled of sulfur from the mills on a late December night.

Earlier this year, a Google engineer published a controversial essay claiming that Pittsburgh’s alleged poor air quality drove him to transfer from Pittsburgh to a different part of the country.

We all hear every single day about Covid-19. (Another respiratory illness!) So this will be my last lung cancer rant until next fall. But my mom drove me all over Somerset County and over the mountains into Greensburg and over the OTHER mountains into Johnstown and THEN over the OTHER-OTHER mountains into Maryland so that I could read all of the books that I ever wanted to read. So, at the very least, I can blog once a year about my family’s personal experiences with Pittsburgh air.

Salisbury Steak and Political Swag

When my husband’s mother and grandmother were both still alive and healthy, they and my husband’s father all lived together up the hill from us. They invited us over to their house for a dinner of Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, twice a year , on Election Day.

Every single year, I said something to the effect of, “It’s fantastic that you guys celebrate the democratic process this way!”

Then, my husband and his mom, Fran, reminded me of the dinner’s true origins.

See, my husband’s grandmother – Babcia, as the family called her – worked for the City of New Kensington. She received a day off of work from the city on each Election Day. She used her “day off” to cook a dinner which ordinarily took her too long to prepare on normal work days – Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes.

(I know – I just know – that somebody out in cyberspace is going to read this and either think or say, “Look at those lazy public servants, getting Election Day off on the taxpayers’ dime.” I don’t care. I’m a taxpayer myself. If the City of New Kensington once paid my husband’s grandmother so that she could stay home and cook dinner for her family twice a year, whatever.)

After Babcia retired from the city, she and her daughter continued the Election Day tradition.

They passed away in 2015 and 2016. We were all heartbroken. Jonathan’s dad outdid himself in trying to keep up all of the family traditions, including the Election Day dinner. I give him a lot of credit.

Then Covid happened. We stopped the big family dinners.

Jonathan and I will eat dinner alone together today on Election Day. Then, Jonathan will spend the evening at a volunteer fire department training. I will write as I listen to music and try to not watch the Election Day news coverage.

Jonathan and I both voted this morning. I joked to Jonathan, as we left our polling place – the basement of a Presbyterian Church that sits on our street – that now we had to jump in our car and drive north to Rochester, New York. This way, I could attach my “I voted” sticker to the sticker guard that protects Susan B. Anthony’s tombstone. We didn’t actually drive to Rochester. We returned to our house to do laundry and telework at our day jobs.

My sister, E., texted me to tell me that she walked around a Civil War battlefield after she voted in Northern Virginia today.

E. and I – and our other three sisters – all grew up in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. In late August each year, we walked around the Somerset County fair. I picked up every bit of “free” political swag offered to me in the exhibition tent. Pens and notepads and wooden rulers and, of course, bumper stickers. I asked my parents if I could put the “free” bumper stickers on their car and truck. They always said no. My dad told me that we couldn’t ever put bumper stickers on our family autos because this would affect the resale value. I figured out later that most of these “free” bumper stickers listed the names of people for whom my dad would never vote.

When I was in the sixth grade, our social studies class held a mock presidential election to model the actual presidential election that fall. We each wrote down our choice of candidate on a piece of paper, folded the paper, and placed it in the “ballot box.”

The election was meant to be “anonymous.”

Unfortunately, the teacher picked two fellow students to count up all of the ballots.

I had “voted” for the same presidential candidate that I knew that both of my parents favored. I was the only person in my entire class – perhaps the entire sixth grade – who voted for this candidate.

Everybody in my class wanted to know which student had voted for this candidate.

The students who had been selected to count the ballots figured out that the unpopular vote came from me based on my handwriting.

The students who counted the votes snitched on me. They ratted me out as the person who had cast the lone vote of dissent.

My entire social studies class made fun of me for this.

My classmates did me a favor. They warned me back in the sixth grade about the way that people behave when they get caught up in groupthink. They warned me at the age of twelve that politics is a dirty game.

Happy Election Day, y’all.