Sunday, April 29, 2007

Family vacation: Odds and ends from Myrtle Beach

While on vacation with my family I saw a few miscellaneous odd things.

OD LION signAt night it became clear that two lights were out for letters in the sign for the supermarket where I did some shopping, apparently changing its name to "OD LION".

Shopping at the OD LION was almost like being at home because the cashier's voice at the self-checkout lane was the same one I had grown used to hearing at the Giant Eagle in New Kensington. Except she asked me for my MVP card instead of my Giant Eagle Advantage Card. She must really get around.

Sign directing the way to restrooms in the Murrells Inlet Dunkin Donuts.; mural showing young boy urinating on grass.Also, the expeditionary force that went out after doughnuts for Donut Day came back talking about something they had seen inside the Dunkin Donuts restaurant. When I was able to get to the Dunkin Donuts myself, I found this mural being used to direct the way to the rest rooms.

I know I have seen cute artwork like this inside the restrooms of many establishments. But there was something a bit unpalatable about seeing this mural on the wall outside the restrooms.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Poverty simulation at the Pittsburgh Mills

Entry sign to the Poverty SimulationThere were about 42 participants in today's Poverty Simulation in the Galleria at the Pittsburgh Mills. The event was hosted by the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches at the Radiant Life Christian Community, a United Methodist Church that will be meeting in space at the Galleria. In addition to the participants there were approximately 15 volunteers who helped present the simulation. The event was provided by Pittsburgh Social Venture Partners.

I attended the simulation as one of the participants, and was assigned the role of a 15-year old teenage girl who hung out with a bad crowd at school. My "mother", my 14-year old "brother" and I had just been abandoned by my father, who was nowhere to be seen. We had a few things in the house, $10, a bus pass for a single trip on the bus, monthly obligations that would cost more than $650, and no income. My "mother" was unemployed and had not had a paying job since getting married. In order for us to survive the month my "mother" was going to have to keep all the bills paid, keep us fed, and not get evicted. One of her first tasks was to apply for food stamps, and the single bus trip was the only way she could get there.

As our household looked at what we had to do before the simulation began, it seemed to me that the cards were really stacked against us, and as we played out a four-week month that proved to be true. Our "mother" spent so much time successfully getting food stamps that we still ended up without food in the house, and were experiencing serious malnutrition.

At the end of the second week, I came home from school with a note that I was expelled for the remainder of the simulation. No explanation for the expulsion was given other than that I had gotten into too much trouble at school. I knew so little about why I was expelled that all I could tell "mother" was that the other kids were the troublemakers. There was so little food in the house that my expulsion had me wondering what I was going to eat if I was not going to have access to lunches at school.

I talked my "mother" into giving me a precious bus pass so that I could go try to get a job since I was not going to be in school. After I used up the pass, I learned that I was too young to have any kind of job. And my "little brother" had been handed an eviction notice from the landlord that he was to give to "mother" when she got home.

"Mother" kept telling us that she was buying food and taking care of the bills, but it seemed that although she may have been talking to the realty company and making partial payments, the eviction process was already in motion and would roll ahead no matter what. She pawned almost everything of value that we had left just in order to pay bills.

When "mother" went to try to get me back into school, we learned for the first time that there was evidence that I had been selling drugs, and that we needed to see the police to get that resolved.

During the last week of the simulation we were evicted. I was resourceful enough to notice that there was a one-room "dwelling" nearby that had been vacant since the simulation began. While our "mother" was out fighting her losing battle to provide for the family, and my brother was at school, I moved myself into the vacant unit without permission. I probably would not have been able to stay long once the police or the realty company noticed where I was.

This was a good learning experience that helped me see how drastically poverty can affect a family system. "Mother" had to solve so many problems at once that she did not even keep the children informed about how bad the situation was. It created the impression for the children that she was not being honest with us about what she was doing to keep us safe.

When the simulation was over we all spent some time debriefing what we had experienced. People who had roles in families with different situations all had something to share about the feelings that we had as we struggled just to make it to the end of the month.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Family vacation: a few thoughts on security

photo of stone lion at the resort where we stayedOne of the jokes from last year's family vacation emerged from my riding down to Myrtle Beach with my parents and my niece Mary.

Mary had book of road games for children to play. One of the games was a page on which there were many things that people might say in the car while travelling; she was to cross them off when she heard them, and see how long it took for the list to be complete. One of the sayings was "Was that a police car?" When out on the highway we could be pretty sure we would be able to say that fairly often.

But on this vacation I flew down, and met up with the whole group at the resort. At one point I started to kid with Mary about statements on the list from the game. I started to become aware of the fact that I had not seen a police car since arriving. I checked it out with Mary at various times during the week, and she had not seen any either.

In fact, the first police car I saw in Myrtle Beach was on the last full day we were there, when my parents and I took a trip up to North Myrtle Beach.

One of the obvious reasons I found myself thinking about the visibility of the police probably had to do with the shootings at Virginia Tech at the beginning of the week. We live in a world where terrible things can happen quickly. And if these disasters cannot be prevented, it is comforting to know that there is someone available who would be able to intervene, call in other resources, and otherwise deal with the problem.

So in the middle of the vacation when I was looking for some other information about the resort where we were staying, I was a bit jarred to read the following statements in the welcoming and orientation material:
A security guard is posted in the office from 11pm - 7am. If you need assistance after 11 pm, please come to the front desk. The security guard has been instructed not to answer the phone and all calls will be forwarded to voicemail.
photo of paragraph in letter

The policy was probably intended to address the typical "emergencies" guests might have, like the guests who need more towels or want to complain about a noisy neighbor. But in my mind I was picturing a situation where a bad person might want to break into my room to hurt me. And you're telling me that my call for help would go to voicemail????

From the time that I read that paragraph I became acutely aware of the invisibility of police and security people. On my flight home while I stood at the gate for the last leg of my trip, the airport's public address system gave the message I had heard so many times before about not accepting items from strangers, being alert for suspicious behavior, and reporting things to the nearest security personnel. When the announcement finished the people standing next to me asked each other whether they saw any security personnel anywhere in the area.

I looked around and could not see any.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Family vacation: return to Pittsburgh

My flight from Myrtle Beach to Pittsburgh at the end of the vacation was uneventful. When I arrived the pilot did announce that we were in Pittsburgh, but I had a number of experiences that drove home the fact that I was back in Allegheny County.

On my way to the main terminal and baggage claim I encountered statues of Franco Harris and George Washington side by side. I don't think I had any chance at all of seeing that in Myrtle Beach.

Franco Harris and George Washington at the Pittsburgh International Airport

Right after that I encountered the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Nope, I saw no T-Rex at the Myrtle Beach airport.

Tyrannosaurus Rex

Then, after getting my luggage, and retrieving my car from the parking lot, I started driving home. As I was driving on Routes 22 and 30 I saw a car pulled over, and a police vehicle behind it. The police officer did not appear to have pulled the car over, so I glanced in my rear-view mirror after passing, and saw what I would recognize on the evening news as this car. The hole in the car's windshield explained as much as I needed to know without hearing the story on the news. I was back in Allegheny County, where, if the rockslides on Route 28 don't kill me, I still need to watch out for those malicious individuals who deliberately throw dangerous objects at cars on the highway. The rest of my drive home, I watched every overpass just to be safe.

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Family vacation: traditions

This year our family continued a number of traditions from last year. We did skip Hospital Day; no one needed to go to the hospital all week.

Ben & Jerry's at Broadway at the BeachA new tradition this year was Ice Cream Day, which we observed on the day that the local Ben & Jerry's was giving away free ice cream cones to all visitors while asking for donations for a local charity that supported sports programs for special children.

We did observe Tolerate Stewart's Cooking Day by allowing me to fix chili for everyone.

Waffle House Day, 2007 - the whole groupWe got everyone together for Waffle House Day. Five sat at a counter, five in one booth, and four in a third booth. As last year, we had an informal contest to see which group would fit the most plates on their table. Waffle House serves the items for many meals on separate plates.

Thirteen plates for five people.The group of five who sat at the counter won with 13 plates.

I don't think everyone was competing seriously in this informal contest. The results were really an accident of what the people at each table wanted to eat, and how many plates that would require.

The multiple plates, that make so much sense to us with our Western style of eating together, look odd when we eat as a group and struggle to find space for them on the small amount of table space. But they must look truly strange to people from cultures where a family meal is eaten from a common bowl.

Donut Day 2007We also made a point of having Donut Day last week. A team went out to secure two dozen doughnuts from Krispy Kreme (Krispy Kreme had some kind of special offer involving a free dozen) and one dozen doughnuts from Dunkin Donuts. They came back with hats from Krispy Kreme, and some of us wore them during breakfast.

Krispy Kreme FlamingoBut not all of us wore the hats. As a result, there was a hat left over for the Krispy Kreme Flamingo.

Saturday was Start Saying Goodbye Day, when three cars headed out, one south and two north. (I stayed an extra night with my parents.) On Saturday the cars left very early in the morning, so we made a point of getting our group pictures on Friday evening.

Family picture

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Family vacation: sandcastles

Sand pyramid built on Huntington Beach.For the last week I have been on vacation near Myrtle Beach with much of my family: my parents, two sisters and their families. Unfortunately, neither of my brothers were able to be on this vacation.

One of the days last week we all went to the beach nearby, and my nephews and nieces deliberately built the largest sand castle they could make in the time they would be there, very close to the water's edge. With buckets and shovels they built a sand pyramid, surrounded by a moat. Within hours of when we left the beach, the rising tide would sweep it all away.

Tower at Atalaya CastleI did not stay on the beach long enough to see the finished project. I wanted to go explore the nearby Atalaya Castle, just a short walk away.

This castle was built in the style of Moorish architecture along the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Archer Huntington had it built during the Great Depression, between 1931 and 1933, using only local labor. There were no blueprints, only verbal instructions Huntington would give to his contractor. The construction was thus quite inefficient, with many sections being removed and rebuilt before the whole castle was complete. Some see the prolongations of the project as Huntington's plan to provide continued employment to people who needed it.

Covered walkway exiting Atalaya CastleThere is not much left inside the castle to show how it had been when the Huntington's inhabited it. Some white paint remains on the brick walls, but what is left of the castle is a restoration project now.

Some people build sandcastles on the beach to remind themselves of the impermanence of human accomplishments. Others build brick castles on the inland side of the dunes where later generations will struggle to restore what once was. The Huntingtons wanted to leave monuments behind, and they certainly succeeded in that. But I wonder whether the real legacy they left behind is in the form of families that survived hard times, and may not even know the role the Huntingtons played in their survival.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Some things you have to wait for; and sometimes the wait gets shorter

Deciding to restrict traffic to one lane in both directions?

That's an act of PennDOT.

Nevertheless, I refuse to blame them for the current inconvenience -- and when I say "inconvenience," I mean inconvenience in the same way that having one's teeth pulled without the benefit of Novocaine could be considered an inconvenience.

- Matt Sober, in "This season think orange"

The delays from the road project along Route 28 are by now legendary in the Valley. Even PennDOT admits that none of its projects in 2007 will be more disruptive to motorists in Allegheny County. There is more waiting to come.

But there will be a lot less waiting for the people who have been asking when the next ham loaf dinner at Central Presbyterian Church will be. It is now less than a month away, on Saturday, May 12.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Memories of barriers and protection in Eritrea

From 1962 to 1964 (when I was 8 to 10 years old) my family lived in Eritrea. My father was in the U.S. Army, and he was posted to Kagnew Station in Asmara. Recent events have caused me to reflect on the experience of living there, and in retrospect I see that it was a very insulated setting in which I was kept safe from genuine dangers, but also from experiencing the place more closely.

Big events were occurring at the time. Eritrea had been an Italian colony; after World War II it was a British protectorate; in 1952 the UN approved federating Eritrea with Ethiopia. In 1961 Ethiopia dissolved the federation and the following year declared it a province of Ethiopia. In 1961 the Eritrean War for Independence began, and would take thirty years to reach its conclusion.

During the time my family was there we knew the name of Eritrea, but we spoke of ourselves as living in Ethiopia.

We pronounced "Kagnew Station" with a hard G. I remember once being told that the local people pronounced it differently, but I don't recall ever hearing the correct pronunciation. And I don't recall ever asking for it. The "GN" combination is likely a transliteration under Italian influence as in lasagna. So we should have been pronouncing "Kagnew" something like "con-you". In retrospect I am dismayed to realize that I was one of a large number of American guests in a foreign country who essentially gave our own name to a place in preference to the name used by the locals. It was not a very good example of how to receive hospitality.

When we first arrived in Asmara, there was not housing available for us on the base. We lived in a small house in the city. The house was surrounded by a wall designed to discourage anyone from trying to climb over it; pieces of broken glass were embedded in the cement on the top of the wall. There was a metal gate in the wall, and each morning we could see that many tiny slips of paper had been stuffed into the gate through the night by the watchman who patrolled our neighborhood.

The house itself had a central area open to the sky, and the rooms in the house opened on that tiny courtyard. The ground was covered with white pebbles. The electrical fixtures were like nothing I had seen before. We had to use a transformer to convert the local power for use with any appliances we had brought with us.

Eventually we were able to move onto the base. (Here is a satellite picture of where we were.) The perimeter wall was across the road in front of our quarters. The wall had barbed wire on top and was tall enough to deter someone from trying to climb it. Because of the torrential downpours we would get during the rainy season there were occasional openings at the base of the wall for drainage; these openings had a metal gratework in place to make sure only water passed through.

Life on the base was very much like the life we had back in the States. There was a movie theater on the base. The base had its own radio station, and a TV station. Our kitchen radio would usually be playing American programming while our family had breakfast. Back in the States in the early 60's my experience with TV had been that we could get one channel well, and perhaps could watch a couple other channels with poor reception; at Kagnew we could get one channel well, and if there was another TV station in Asmara it was not in English.

The food we ate was very similar to what we had been used to back in the states. My mother had to adjust cooking times in any recipes for high altitude cooking; after all, we were living 7,000 feet above sea level.

Once, early in our time in Eritrea, my father took me along when he went to check out the local butcher shops. We found shops where the raw meat for sale was hanging unrefrigerated in store windows. For the whole time we lived in Eritrea, my father insisted that meat had to be fully cooked until no part of it was still pink. If we discovered meat was undercooked in the middle of a meal, the meat went back to the stove.

Our Sunday dinner routine included all of us taking a quinine pill for malaria prevention. I remember the pill as the biggest one I ever had to take. It had a sugar coating that did not last long, and the inside was extremely bitter, so there was a strong incentive to swallow the pill as fast as I could get up the courage.

I think we had zigni, a spicy stew, a few times while we lived in Eritrea, but I believe I only ate injera bread once.

We took occasional trips to the R&R Center at Keren. It was a very relaxing setting. I remember there was shuffleboard on the pavement at the R&R Center. In the evenings we would sit under the open sky and watch movies, like "That Lady in Ermine" (or perhaps I am remembering this one), projected on a portable screen. Often we would even have our meals served outside. One time I came across a whole bay leaf in the dish that was set before me, and my parents had a hard time convincing me that it had not fallen into my food from the trees.

Whenever we were at Keren, I would usually get a pet chameleon from one of the Eritrean boys outside the R&R Center. The transaction always seemed to take place through metal grillwork of the gate to the center. We were very protected, even when bartering.

While we were in Eritrea we did know that there was unrest outside the base. If our family had to travel off the base we always made a point of being home and in a secure place before nightfall. We were told that the problem was "shiftas", a word meaning "bandit", but I use the term not knowing precisely what it meant to the Eritreans. (I suspect it may have been a pejorative term used to dismiss the developing struggle for Eritrean independence.) There were stories of families who would stop their cars before hitting obstacles placed in the road, and that the shiftas then would relieve them of their valuables. I did not hear stories of people actually being hurt by the shiftas, and never encountered any shiftas myself.

Walls, metal gates, parents who kept me safe, an American community outside the States -- these made it possible for me to live for more than two years far from home, seeing some of the differences in the ways people lived without ever being fully immersed in the other culture.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Coalition of Immokalee Workers achieves another major agreement

Only two years after the Coalition of Immokalee Workers achieved a remarkable agreement with Yum!, the CIW has achieved a similar agreement with McDonald's, according to this news story from the Presbyterian News Service.

Under the agreement, McDonald's will pay a penny a pound more for Florida-grown tomatoes, and will ensure that the raise is passed on to the workers. Additionally, McDonald's will work with the CIW to strengthen its supplier code of conduct.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been a partner with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers since 2002 when it endorsed a boycott of Taco Bell. After the CIW achieved its groundbreaking agreement with Taco Bell in 2005, the PCUSA participated in the formation of the Alliance for Fair Food, a network of groups working for human rights for farmworkers.

I have blogged on these issues - with some skepticism about the reasoning concerning supply chain ethics - here, here, and here. All that being said, I rejoice in the agreement reached between McDonald's and the CIW.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Beware the Easter Gargoyle!

Easter gargoyleSpotted in Western Pennsylvania, an Easter gargoyle menaces an illuminated Easter bunny.

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Easter banner

Left panel of bannerMiddle panel of bannerRight panel of bannerImage map of banner

The young people at Grand Central Station made a 3-panel banner over the last couple of sessions. We posted the banner in the sanctuary at Central Presbyterian Church, so the whole congregation could see.

The young people made it in three teams, each of which worked on a single panel, and in each team they each made their own contributions.

I think it added something to our Easter celebration this morning.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

My, what big teeth and claws you have!

can bitten openThe better to ignore the tab opener, my dear.

Rob Protz showed me this can, and asked me, "If you opened a can this way, who would you be?"

I guessed at various kinds of wildlife, before he finally told me that it was a 100-pound black bear he had seen in the area.

Now, if only we can convince the local bears to recycle ...

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