When I was waiting for the bus today, somebody lit up a clove cigarette and suddenly I was 20 again and in my first apartment. You know those smells that evoke memories you have no reason to ever summon up purposefully? They aren't bad, they aren't good. Just inconsequential things you forget over time.

But when I smelled that cigarette, I could remember the exact shade and texture of the carpet (gray-blue, threadbare near the door). How many paces it was from the front door to the light switch on the other side of the living room and how unnerving it could be to walk in alone at night. The picture book that roommate gave me for Christmas. Drinking cheap beer out of red plastic cups and the sound the dial-up connection made when I logged on at night. It was always easier to get on after midnight.

We had friends over the other day. "Your house is very hygge," they said when they came in. They just went to Denmark, where it's even darker in the winter. I had never heard that word, but I fell in love with it immediately. My house is old and proud but sort of shabby. We try to keep it clean and uncluttered, but like my middle-aged self, it looks a lot better in soft light. It is cozy inside, though, especially welcoming in the winter with our boiler heat. Furniture is arranged to allow for intimate conversation, although not exactly by design. More like the kids push the couches together when they play. And always the smell of something cooking.

Hope you have some hygge in your life as we approach the darkest day.


Reading Practice


A Quiet Night

Last night my grandpa died after a brief illness, at the age of 85. My brother and I went down to the hospital yesterday to see him and despite the fact that he was lying in bed, unable to really speak or eat, and drifting in and out of sleep, he perked up as soon as we came in the room. He smiled and reached out his hand for us. This made me immediately grateful that I had spent the morning hurriedly making arrangements for the kids and had taken the time to come and see him. But also, it reminded me of how he always greeted me, whether I was calling on the phone to say hello or coming down to visit them for lunch, he was always so excited to see us, gave enthusiastic hugs, and made me feel like my visit or call was important to him. When I saw him yesterday, it really hit me for the first time how much it meant to me that he was always happy to see me and made sure I knew it. The was a real gift he gave me.

My parents went to sit with my grandma today and took Marko with them to cheer everybody up. Marko seemed to know he had an important job...when they picked him up this morning he said goodbye to M, Laurel and I, and seemed eager to get out the door. Now he's staying over for his very first overnight away from us without Laurel. At first she was enjoying our undivided attention, but she was too lonely to go to sleep in their room by herself, so she set up a little camp next to our bed.

My grandparents would have been married 63 years in January, and for many years my grandfather would tell us how long they had been married to the day. I guess it was a bit of a hobby for him, to keep track of all that. He always, up to the last time I took the kids down in September, showed us his tomato plants. He wasn't fancy and you could generally count on there being ice cream in the freezer and Coor's Light cans in the fridge door. He felt every year he lived was an accomplishment and a gift.

Here's a link to some photos of Bennie Belski. Rest in peace, we will miss you and always remember you.


Pittsburgh and Bikes (And Pedestrians)

Pittsburgh is getting a lot of positive press these days. Just last month, the Atlantic put out this video, this article on what millennials like about the city, and this article and video about Pittsburgh's political leadership on the issue.

So it must be awesome, right?

January 2008, same bike,
same tights.
Well.....I guess you could say we've come a long way. But we have a long way to go.

When we rode to Cumberland and back, the last few miles as we navigated downtown were by far the most nerve-wracking. The signage into Point State Park on the GAP, when coupled with road construction that closed some lanes, made it really difficult to figure out where we were even supposed to be riding. Most drivers of cars seemed to think we had no business being in the road, but obviously, you can't take two fully loaded bikes with trailers down the sidewalk in a business district. From the Point, we still had to get back to our home on the far eastern edge of the city. We chose to ride over to the North Shore and up the river trail to the 31st Street Bridge, so we could ride the bike lane on Liberty Avenue. It's a long hill, and I preferred to stay out of the car lane, since I was moving pretty slow with such a heavy load. Alas, construction shut down the entire shoulder, including the bike lane. Traffic was moving too quickly to easily merge in and the police officer on duty did not appear to notice us and made no effort to help us get around the construction. (So sorry to all of you who were stuck behind me on Liberty Avenue that day. I had to use the granny gear.)

October 2014, so much more stuff.
I went to a play group this morning where a woman asked me about biking in the city with kids. She has two little ones just a bit younger than my kids. We talked trailers and her fear of the hills. Here in the East End, I don't think there are any hills to really be concerned about other than maybe Negley, and it's more about going down them and being able to brake, rather than going up. We talked about weather, which frankly sucks about 6 months out of the year. And then finally, we talked about safety. Whether you are towing a trailer, or have a kid in a seat on your bike, your biggest fear is getting hit by a car. This is a valid fear because everyone is looking at their phones while they drive. And drivers, unless they spend some time on bicycles as well, tend not to be thinking about them and act as if they have just spotted an alien space craft. She's warming up to it, and I bet if we go out together a couple of times, she'll gain confidence and start doing it more.

I applaud the efforts of BikePGH and Bill Peduto and I definitely think we're moving in the right direction. But the fact is, it's still a relatively terrifying experience to get from point A to point B. There are simply too many gaps in the bike infrastructure. You ride down Forbes Avenue and boom, out of nowhere the bike lane ends AND there's no shoulder on that bridge. So much fun to merge into traffic that's often moving fast than the 35mph speed limit. Braddock Avenue has a bike lane on one side, but just sharrows on the other side. And while the sheltered bike lane downtown looks super sweet in those videos, they don't really show how weird and awkward it is to make a right turn out of that thing.

I've spent hundreds of hours advocating for better road safety (for bikes, pedestrians and automobiles) over the last few years. I 311 the heck out of any problems I see. I have put on a banana suit and marched up and down the street to raise awareness of our crosswalks. And I know the city is listening. No Parking signs and yellow paint recently appeared near my house (cars parking too close to intersections and crosswalks makes visibility really difficult for drivers. Pedestrians really do appear to "come out of nowhere" when they emerge from between two tall SUVs.) But at the end of the day PENNDOT and the city traffic engineers prioritize one thing, and that's flow of automobile traffic. This is a pretty typical response when we make any suggestions about putting in signals that stop traffic to allow people to cross.
"As per the Transportation and Engineering Department, Adding more phases on to the signal operation will reduce the overall capacity through the intersection."

Capacity trumps all. And that would be automobile capacity. 

Unfortunately, it's a bit of a catch 22 to move forward. Despite all the news stories and boosterism by the flood of millennials coming into our city, lots of people don't bike or walk anywhere. More of us have to, in order to make a better case for it. The more our streets are used in multi-modal ways, the more comfortable everyone gets with interacting with each other there. 



We take our time. It's cold then pleasant then cold again. My days are long and slow. My stories are equal parts mundane and magical. Better for you to just look for now.


Kid Party

Laurel wanted a "glow in the dark" birthday party for her friends this year. For the last several years she's obsessed over her birthday party for at least six months before it happens. If she had her way, every year would be a "blow-out" and everyone she ever met would come. We tried to scale back those expectations. I bought a 100 pack of glow sticks and looked up some recipes for glow in the dark playdough. I never made playdough before, but this recipe was really easy, though I bought decoupage instead of paint and it didn't glow very well.

To give the kids something structured to do during the party, we started off actually making up batches of playdough as they arrived. This was sort of messy, but the kids were surprisingly engaged for at least a half an hour. I gave them all aprons to put on, and covered my table with a layer of newspaper and a plastic tablecloth that I just stripped off and threw away when we were done. The parents who stuck around were able to just chill out in the living room during that time, which I'm sure they appreciated. Next we gave everybody pizza to eat. They also liked the veggie tray we made (Laurel's idea). It looked sort of like this.

Next we broke out the glow sticks. While they were making crowns and bracelets and necklaces to wear, we shut all the curtains and converted our living room into a night club. We have black-out curtains because we live on a busy, well-lit street corner, so it was pretty easy to make it dark, even though it was a sunny afternoon. They danced like crazy. The adults danced like crazy. We probably could have kept the dance party going for way longer, but in the interest of keeping our party to 2 hours, we opened presents and dug into the Dave and Andy's ice cream cake.

I didn't take any photos or videos. I think M got a couple, but mostly we were just hanging with the kids, keeping the activities going and having a good time. I think I was smart to limit the guest list. Our house isn't super huge and more than 20 people would have been uncomfortable. She invited about 10 kids. Eight came and with siblings and parents we were at just about 20.

Planning and setting up the party with Laurel was a lot of fun. She assembled goody bags, and helped to test the playdough recipe and arranged the veggie tray. We talked about etiquette and she learned how to open the door, greet her guests and take their coats. Today we'll write some thank you notes. She got some really awesome gifts and it was cute how excited each guest was to show Laurel what they brought for her.



Laurel's school was on lockdown at dismissal time yesterday and the police situation (which was around the block and had nothing to do with the school) wasn't resolved for some two and a half hours. Of course I had taken the bus over there and it started snowing and I had no snacks and only one diaper because the plan was to grab her quick and get home to our warm house.

Marko gets a piano lesson
while we wait for Laurel.
Plans. I rarely make them, and this is why.

But grace surrounded us. After we stood there for a while, as other parents arrived and squinted at the hand-written note taped to the side door, it became clear that waiting outside may not be a good idea, especially for those of us with younger children in tow. First of all, it was snowing harder all the time and I had deliberately left Marko's mittens at home, because I am searching for the mitten clips that my Aunt Mary sent to Laurel because I know he will try to take them off and we will lose them forever. Everyone was getting a little chapped in the wind. One of the mothers suggested the church basement across the street. She had a key. A group of us marched over there together, texting as we went, because people's mothers and spouses were getting wind of the situation and inquiring about our safety. (There were a ton of police officers closing off the area, but it's not as if bullets were flying.)

The church was beautiful. We walked through a chapel, hushed by the wall to wall carpet and the dome high above. Marko and I stopped at the alter. I'm used to a dying Jesus holding prominent place in front of a chapel, but this just had a cross and a bible open to Thessalonians. It was very quiet and Marko said "shhhhh" and put his finger to his lip. Amen, I said. Amen, said Marko.

Then we went through another hallway and there was a room with a stage and a piano, and then a playroom where babies were rolling about on a carpet and toddlers were climbing on a miniature jungle gym.

A little girl stopped what she was doing and asked, "What's that boy's name?"

"Marko," I said, and she replied, "Marko. I like that."

She was four, I learned, and she made an equally complimentary remark about the name of every other child that showed up.

Then a cheerful man, who looked just slightly older than me, came in and told us to help ourselves to anything. He had to go out and pay the mechanic for his car and could someone fetch his son if this was all resolved soon? He rushed out shouting, there's grape juice in the kitchen!

He's a church elder, said one of the mothers. He seemed young to be an elder, but he was so pleasant with the little ones and happy to be able to offer his church building to us. I immediately wanted to join this church. People were just hanging around, texting and playing with the kids. Another call came from the school informing us that nothing had changed and our children were fine. Eating snacks and nobody was scared, they said.

The church elder soon returned with grocery bags. We poured milk for the little ones and stood around eating cheese and apples. It got dark. The snow stopped.

I thought about the man, barricaded inside the apartment down the street. They said he was older, and that it was dispute over an eviction. He had a shotgun and was refusing to leave. It's a changing neighborhood, property values going up. This happens a lot, said someone. Not the gun part. The eviction part.

I've never been pressed that hard by circumstance. I can't imagine clinging to our house like that. But it's cold and what if we had nowhere else to go?

Some people felt scared that their children were so close to all this police activity. They were angry at the man. Some people just felt angry at the inconvenience of it all. The angry people were mostly waiting outside. They would come inside for a moment to give a report, and then return outside to pace and badger the police officers directing traffic at the corner. A long time passed before the school called again. Eventually, everything was "resolved" and we were permitted to line up inside the school building and get our kids. Marko fell asleep on my shoulder as we walked to the bus stop together. Laurel cried because she was exhausted and confused.

The only thing to be done was to talk about it and order a pizza. M and Laurel read a book about leopards. Marko woke up briefly to eat and then went back to sleep.

Today, the neighborhood was back to normal when we approached the school, but Laurel didn't want to go in. She begged to stay home, then came up with a series of excuses. I finally negotiated her down to an early pick up, which satisfied her enough to take her coat off and join her classmates on the carpet. 



It is noon, but it could be dawn. It could be dusk. A ceiling of thick gray clouds is a Pittsburgh sky. It stays all day, maybe all week. The bare trees, the periodic shower of snow flurries, says winter (or spring or fall). You can lose yourself in this bleakness. Down the street, the beeping and humming of construction vehicles shuttling dirt around, turning housing project into parking garage. But here this corner has rusty light poles and faded paint and the bus never comes on time.  Marko is strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, not too heavy but just getting a little too bulky to carry him like this. Legs dangle and his winter coat and mine make for a snug fit. But he's sleeping and his head still has that sweet baby smell. There is no rush to get anywhere and no point fretting anyway. It's just me and the Pittsburgh sky, same as it ever was.


So My Family Had Its First Same Sex Wedding

Over the weekend my aunt was finally able to marry her partner of 11 years, giving legal recognition to what was already a long established family and household. 

It also gave most of my extended family a chance to attend their first same-sex wedding. 

Basically, it was simply a really nice wedding and we all had a blast. The venue was out in the country, lovely with the lingering fall leaves. Cousins and aunts and uncles arrived from all over the country, some in time to join us to celebrate Laurel's birthday on Thursday. All of the great-nieces and great-nephews (my kids included) were the flower girls and ring bearers, which made for an adorable start of the ceremony and much enthusiastic dancing throughout the reception. My brother and cousin played some music together, the scripture passages were fitting for the day, and everybody cried when they exchanged vows. We ate, drank, danced and posed for pictures. 

However, in what I thought was a lovely speech, they did acknowledge that it might seem a little different and strange. I believe their choice to marry went beyond a declaration of love and commitment toward each other, although that much was certainly obvious. It was also an act of bravery. They didn't know how everyone would react, and in fact, there were some who chose not to come. But while those folks might have been missed, the love in that room was just way too big to worry about what was missing.

That notion of it being "weird" went right over Laurel's head, by the way. She knows that families come in different configurations. I asked her once what was different between our family and my aunt's and she said, "They have a cat." 

As families around the country experience what we just did, I hope it helps to soften the discourse on marriage equality. When we talk about marriage we are talking about real people, who mow the grass and babysit their nieces and nephews and host Christmas dinner and pay taxes. It's not weird. It's not even really that different.

So, congrats to my aunts for making it official! 


Happy 5th Birthday, Laurel!

Laurel turned 5 today and we went out to breakfast at the Square Cafe. She ordered babycakes, of course, because she always does. Five year olds know what they like.

I especially enjoy Laurel at this age with the contrast of Marko, who is nearly two. He doesn't talk much, other than to name objects, and is utterly impossible to reason with. If he doesn't want to hold your hand when crossing the street, he collapses into a toddler puddle, leaving you to drag his limp body as onlookers tsk and impatient drivers inch close to the crosswalk. Laurel, on the other hand, can understand consequences, even things that are somewhat abstract. She can imagine scenarios other than the one we are in. Plus she has five years of experience to draw upon. She holds your hand without asking because she knows which intersections are particularly dangerous and that collisions can and do happen.

We are storytellers in this house, so our adventures are told and retold and Laurel knows them. "Remember when I was 2 and we drove to Key West and I ate a key lime pie on a stick and it was a DISASTER?!" she says gleefully.

I do. And it was a sticky mess. I paid a hundred dollars to get the car detailed after that trip. I remember the first time she went down a slide by herself and bouncing all night on a yoga ball to keep her from screaming and the way her newborn fingers clutched mine the day she was born and I knew her name was Laurel for all of the Laurelness we saw in her eyes that day. I remember her standing on a stool in the kitchen with M, kneading dough. I remember her first day of school last year, and this year, and how she suddenly turns shy and standoffish at the oddest moments.

This year she ran her first race (placed third) and tried ballet (hated it).  It feels appropriate that she's off at school by herself right now, instead of with me, because this is the direction her childhood is going. She has her own gigs now. She spends six and a half hours a day in the company of peers and adults she is not related to. When we go to the park to play she can roam far from me, without me worrying too much. She can go as high into a tree as she can without assistance and it doesn't bother me.

Her favorite things are My Little Ponies, climbing on just about anything, writing stories and watching Wild Kratts on tv. She loves all things sparkly and pink and purple. She does chores around the house and goes to bed easily. She still crawls into my lap for stories or when she just needs a snuggle. When she is unhappy, she is able to clearly articulate why and offer a solution.

And for Laurel to be five means I have been a mom for five years. Half a decade. A blink of an eye, but also, that's a lot of bandaids and sleepless nights and patty-cake. I like being a mom, but I don't really like talking about it anymore. The first couple of years I suppose I didn't really know what the hell I was doing, so it made sense to obsess over car seats and introducing solids and sleep training. I felt bad and guilty a lot of the time because I would try these things and they didn't work the way they were supposed to. Nonetheless, we muddled through and everyone is still alive and well, although I think that can be mostly chalked up to luck, vaccines and abundant supplies of potable water.

The core work of mothering now feels more like building relationships. Here is the thing that nobody really talked to me about before I had kids....you are inviting real human beings with distinct personalities into your life. You don't know who those people are going to be, although they will hold some of your most vexing attributes (as well as your most charming ones, no doubt). So of course, a big part of mothering is getting to know your own kids and building a really secure and loving relationship with them.

But what I didn't understand until Laurel started to talk about her feelings and personal struggles was that all those other relationships you have really, really matter. Your kids are watching how you navigate conflict with your spouse and parents. They see who you spend time with and what you talk about and how you support each other. They learn how to cultivate....or how to terminate. They see you mess up, and repair it, or neglect it. If I watch them closely, I can see what I am unconsciously teaching my kids because children learn what they live. They carry it out on the playground and with each other.

So, I guess after 5 years, that is what has been most challenging for me, but also what I'm most grateful for.

Happy Birthday, Laurel!