This piece is narrow in scope. But wherever you live you've no doubt had to endure similar annoyances.
During the past few months, despite being spared the paralyzing snow and ice storms experienced in other parts of the country, Pittsburgh area motorists, because of road construction, have been presented with more than the usual number of challenges when it comes to driving from Point A to Point B.
Even though these disruptions are frustrating, we have to put up with them and have faith that the use of our tax dollars will have outcomes that make our suffering worthwhile.
We all remember the tangle that was the Liberty Tunnel-Route 51 intersection. You had the feeling you could complete a novel before the light turned green releasing you from the buildup of noxious fumes. That nightmare is long past and the resulting reconfiguration is an engineering marvel.
We thought it would never happen, but on November 17th, after six years of major disruptions, the reconstruction of Route 28, from North Side to Millvale, finally came to an end. It was such an occasion for rejoicing that the governor came for the ribbon cutting.
On any given day, when we least expect it, up pop signs that read “WORK ZONE," “ROAD CLOSED,” “STOP” or “SLOW,” making us late for work, school, doctors’ appointments, and Bingo.
It’s a good idea to have the phone number of every destination one plans to visit if punctuality is a factor. I keep snacks in my car and don’t ingest much liquid before I leave home. A teller at the Citizens Bank in Settler’s Ridge told me she had spent two hours the previous night waiting for a tie-up on the inbound Parkway West to dissolve.
And speaking of the Parkway West, the “WORK ZONE” delays are minor annoyances compared with what I call the Big Headache, better known as the “I 376 Parkway West Improvement Project,” the “you have to see it to believe it” construction that began this past summer and, except for a winter hiatus, will make our lives miserable until the summer of 2016.
In case you’ve been away for the last few months and aren’t aware of what’s going on, the PennDot web site explains: “The $3.72 million project includes milling and resurfacing I-376 between I-79 and the Fort Pitt Tunnel, bridge preservation and rehabilitation work, drainage improvements, guiderail upgrades, signing and pavement marking, concrete median barrier replacement and sign structure rehabilitation.” What it didn’t mention is the construction of high sound barriers in Greentree and Rosslyn Farms – which required the removal of hundreds of trees – to lessen the din of 24/7 traffic so that nearby residents might be able to open a window once in a while or take a nap.
The project is being staged just off the Rosslyn Farms exit. Until recently, we Rosslyn Farmers entered our peaceful community by driving past a green meadow that extended a quarter mile until the first house came into view. But now, instead of a lovely meadow, we get to drive past a squadron of earth movers, steam shovels, bulldozers, dump trucks, generators, construction trailers, and fuel tankers.
A particularly vexing feature of the project was the narrowing of a mile of lanes near Carnegie in which only the drivers of Mini Coopers or Smart Cars could feel confident. This lane-shrinkage brought with it the expected number of accidents when drivers became unhinged and decided to take a chunk out of a concrete barrier – or another vehicle.
All of the ramps into and out of the city of Carnegie were closed for several months, which had me wondering: Considering the abundance of publicity Carnegie has been getting lately because of the opening of new restaurants and a wealth of shows and activities at the Carnegie Carnegie (Library and Music Hall), what the good people of Carnegie were thinking about all of this. Nothing good, I can assure you.
But yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he brought us an early Christmas treat. Beginning November 24th all of the ramps were opened and the lanes returned to their normal width. The work was suspended until next March. Hallelujah!
Just when we thought all was lost, that we were condemned to an eternity of inconvenience and hazards, all has been returned, like magic, to normal except for the unsightly assemblage of heavy equipment that will hibernate for the winter in Rosslyn Farms.
Winter doesn’t bring much to enjoy unless you love to ski or are one of those slightly off kilter people who just love cold weather and snow. But this year, with a jolly “Ho, ho, ho,” the man in the red suit has given us a reprieve, restored our roads, and if we happen to be going to Carnegie, we can say “Whee!” as we take the ramps off and onto the Parkway West.
When the hardy mums show up in late August, my heart sinks. For one thing, they strike me as a desperate attempt to distract us from the inevitability of what's headed our way. Little pots of those dense, not-very-pretty flowers are strategically placed here and there to help us forget the lovely posies of spring and summer, the leaves of which have turned to yellow husks disguised under heaps of falling leaves.
And I also know that when the hardy mum season arrives, it won’t be long before we are drowning in a sea of orange as we are bombarded with all things pumpkin.
Is it my imagination, or has there been a huge uptick in the ferocity with which we are being exhorted to buy pumpkin in every possible permutation, and that if we don’t we’re being churlish and uncooperative?
I envision the great minds at Pumpkin Central pulling all-nighters, starting in May or June, as they think up new ways to inveigle us into purchasing pumpkin-flavored foods.
A lot of us grew up with pumpkin pie, which in those days was about all we ever ate that contained pumpkin. But these days everything is Pumpkin Spice-flavored. The pumpkin is an utterly tasteless vegetable unless it is adulterated with practically every spice known to man. I bet if someone placed a cube of pumpkin in your mouth while you were blindfolded, you wouldn’t know what it was.
And if you examine the ingredient list of some of your recent pumpkin-floavored purchases, you'll find that they contain no pumpkin. Check out Pepperidge Farms Pumpkin Milano cookies.
Several decades ago I won a "Susan Bakes and Cooks" award* for a pumpkin cheesecake that I developed. I was one of the first people around who used nuts in my crust, back in the 80s, before putting nuts in crust had occurred to the new age chefs.
I made a lot of those cheesecakes, which were enjoyed by many, but I make few these days because, when pumpkin season rolls around, there's too darned much competition.
A lady on a recent Jimmy Kimmel show has developed a pumpkin cappuccino using her Keurig coffee maker. She loves this stuff so much that she had displayed before her fifty-two boxes of pumpkin spice-flavored coffee so that she won’t run out before next year’s pumpkin season. She readily acknowledged that people think she’s off her rocker, and I don't disagree. I’m just wondering what will happen to the remaining boxes when, in the middle of July, the idea of pumpkin cappuccino is a complete turnoff, like a Christmas movie in February.
Some of the new pumpkin-based foods sound bearable if not enticing. For the bacon-besotted I suppose a case could be made for Pumpkin, Sage, Chestnut, and Bacon Risotto, or Bacon Pumpkin Bars with Maple Cheese Frosting. But I don’t think I’d be interested in trying any Pumpkin Lasagna or pumpkin-flavored fettucini. What sort of sauce would that call for?
I haven’t seen one yet but I’m expecting a recipe for Pumpkin Spiced Meatloaf to come around the corner any minute. And it will taste great washed down with Rogue Farms Pumpkin Patch Ale, “like pumpkin pie in a bottle.” Mmmm, good.
*Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1991
Recipe available upon request: firstname.lastname@example.org
Franklin D. Roosevelt died at the age of sixty-three of a condition that would probably not have taken him today, at least not at such a young age.
After many evenings curled up with our DVR we completed watching the fascinating seven-part, fourteen-hour series, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” by Ken Burns, who has done more than any other contemporary filmmaker to bring alive our nation’s history for viewers like me whose knowledge or memory of that history is on the sketchy side.
We learned much about Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor, their complicated family and their complicated lives. The trait the three of them shared more than any other was their determination to triumph in the face of daunting adversity. Among other trials, Teddy lost his wife and mother on the same day. Franklin was struck down by polio in 1921, at the age of thirty-nine. Until then he had been a robust sportsman and bon vivant. I did not remember that he was stricken by polio eleven years before he was first elected president. So well were his infirmities disguised that the public had scant knowledge of the degree of his paralysis. Can you imagine a paralyzed person being elected president today?
Polio has been all but eliminated from our life. But many of us remember the terror of polio in the mid-twentieth century, before the Salk and Sabin vaccines were developed. Our parents struggled to keep us out of harm’s way, especially during the summer months. A cousin, two years older than I, died of the highly contagious disease at the age of sixteen in California. Her aunt, also stricken, did not die but spent her entire adult life in a wheel chair.
The head writer of the Burns series, award-winning historian Geoffrey C. Ward, suffered from polio as a child and still wears braces, which has given him a special empathy with the president. There were times in his narrative segments when his eyes welled up with tears.
Roosevelt did not die of polio, although I had always assumed his death was from complications of nearly a quarter-century struggle with the disease. But that was not the case. He died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage brought on by extremely high blood pressure.
We don’t often think about how recently cures for some of the most deadly conditions affecting humans were developed. Roosevelt’s blood pressure was a respectable 128/82 in 1930 but shot up as high as 230/126 in 1944. A reading, taken moments before he died, was 300/190. And it was interesting to note that in nearly every frame of the documentary, even after his diagnosis, Roosevelt was seen lighting and smoking cigarettes.
Before drugs were developed for hypertension the meager efforts of treatment included strict sodium restriction such as the rice diet; sympathectomy (surgical ablation of parts of the sympathetic nervous system); and pyrogen therapy (injection of substances that caused a fever, indirectly reducing blood pressure).
Not until the 1950s were antihypertensive drugs – the diuretic chlorothiazides, the beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and ACE inhibitors, any one of which might be in the medicine cabinet of many who are reading this – developed.
We have progressed so far in eliminating diseases that used to be incurable that we’ve forgotten how dangerous and pervasive they were. When I was a child diseases that many living now have never heard of, among them scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, and diphtheria, were prevalent and terrifying. Smallpox is but a distant memory, and heaven forbid leprosy whose victims were shunned and placed into separate colonies so ghastly was their condition.
All of these diseases were conquered or greatly reduced, during or after World War II, with the development of vaccines and antibiotics – sulfa drugs, penicillin, and a variety of broad spectrum antibiotics such as Tetracycline and Cipro, and the macrolides Erythromycin, Azithromycin, and Streptomycin, the first cure for tuberculosis. Because of those developments these conditions have become practically non-existent except in certain Third World Countries.
I remember obediently standing in line at Lemington School with my jittery schoolmates waiting to get poked with the needle for my Smallpox vaccination, remnants of which still bear witness on my upper left arm. That was before a militant group of anti-inoculation parents decided that vaccines cause autism and that government bodies shouldn’t force them to have their children vaccinated for anything.
There will be other diseases, yet unheard of, to conquer. At the moment Ebola has us in a state of high anxiety. But it’s only a matter of time before an Ebola vaccine is developed. And what do you want to bet that the same group of anti-vaccination parents will be knocking people down, left and right, to get their children and themselves protected.
We have far to go as new diseases come crashing into our environment, but we have come a mighty long way.
When I was in grade school there was a thriving block of businesses near the school, which included a variety store that sold all kinds of household goods – pots and pans, tools, car wax, and everything else you could think of including candy and gum. We kids stopped there every day on the way home from school to “browse.” We must have been browsing, because we certainly didn’t need most of what they sold. Few of us used rock salt or toilet plungers.
One day, on a whim, I decided to snatch a candy bar from the display near the cash register. Within seconds I noticed the proprietor eyeing me. He came over and asked me if I had taken a candy bar. I lied, “Oh, no!” But I knew that he knew that I had. And from then on I felt peculiar going into his store. That experience rescued me from a life of crime. I decided I’d rather be a piano player than a crook.
My brief foray into petty thievery turned me into the most honest person you’d ever want to know. I wouldn’t pick up a dime from the sidewalk without being sure that whoever dropped it is long gone and won’t be back.
Some people begin lives of crime with simple shoplifting, then progress to more audacious acts of thievery. Perhaps they’ve been taught at home to take all you can get. Looters, who have never learned the lesson of honesty or to “do unto others” proudly flaunt their booty.
If such a person finds a wallet containing cash, it’s a windfall, their lucky day. It would never occur to them to try to find the owner. Those who are in a rush remove the cash and pitch the wallet into a trash can or gutter from which it is occasionally retrieved, license and credit cards intact, to the relief of the frantic owner.
What started me thinking about all of this was the recent case of a woman from a Pittsburgh suburb – let’s call her Mary Smith – who isn’t a petty thief who steals a candy bar or keeps a found wallet, although she may have started out that way. She has bigger fish to fry. Charged with embezzling $270,000 from her employer by juggling wire transactions, she had been moving money from one account to another from which she had pilfered a grand here and a grand there, thinking that no one would be the wiser.
One of the more astonishing things about her case is that she had just been sentenced to 30 days for stealing $19,000 – she started small – from a local cheerleaders’ organization. That worked until she got caught. But in the meantime she had decided to take it to a higher level.
Working for a CPA firm close to where she lives, she cleverly shuffled thousands of dollars in and out of several accounts including that of a sophisticated Oakland computer data analysis company. When one account was short she’d transfer funds from another account to make up for the shortfall. Obviously the Oakland cyberwizards were too busy analyzing data to keep track of their books. So they had hired a CPA to do it and went back to their analyzing assuming everything would be on the up and up.
If the lady had helped herself to $2700 or even $27,000, that might be a little easier to miss. But $270,000? Somebody was out to lunch.
If you do an Internet search of Mary Smith you will find the following on the web site of The American Directory of Tax Return Professionals and Tax Preparers. “For tax preparation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, you can count on Mary Smith.” Really? Seems to me she should be on a different list – The National Directory of Wire Fraud Cheaters and Embezzlers.
When I learn about cases like this I have to wonder how the person thinks he or she is going to get away with it. They do it once, twice, three or four times, and nothing bad happens. Why not five or six times? And then it becomes like a drug. The high wears off more quickly. Bigger doses are needed. The thief is hooked and helpless to stop. And for all we know hundreds of these clerical thieves are getting away with such shenanigans every day.
I also wonder: When a person is hired for a job that requires handling large amounts of money, how closely are they vetted? Is it possible to predict what a seemingly honest person might do when the bills are piling up and a solution seems so close at hand?
According to the report, the money was used for mortgage payments and credit card charges. I don't know what all she was buying, but from a glimpse of her on the evening news, it doesn’t appear that she was spending the money on clothes.
Did Mary Smith begin her life of crime by stealing a candy bar without getting caught and without remorse?
Petty thievery or grand larceny – it all has to do with that little voice inside we call conscience – whether it convinces us to be honest or we ignore it and get away with whatever we can regardless of the pain it might inflict on others or the very real possibility of being discovered.
There are few words in the English language that are more overworked than awesome, except perhaps iconic, whose promiscuous use may soon impel me to leap off the West End Bridge. These words are used so indiscriminately and with such frequency that their original meanings have been lost, their usage reduced to watered-down imitations of the real thing.
But there are developments that, blasé as we are, might legitimately be considered awesome. Here are a few that get my vote:
The microwave oven: It’s been around for so long that it gets no more respect than a toaster. But think about how it has changed our lives. My first microwave, forty years ago, was a premium for opening a CD account at a local bank. Although it didn’t take long for me to realize that the appliance wasn’t going to be the last word in cooking food, it revolutionized my kitchen in terms of heating, reheating, and defrosting food – and making popcorn!
I’ve written before about the dinner party for eight at which the main course was Cornish Hens with Autumn Fruits. Eight little birds fit snugly into a roasting pan, which I placed in the oven for the required hour and a quarter. But when I took them out of the pan they weren’t done!
A year earlier I would have had a disaster on my hands. But in 1984 I simply said, “Oh, dear,” opened another bottle of wine, and encouraged our guests to mix and mingle until, in a matter of minutes, the microwave had performed its magic on each little bird.
Printable business cards: For years I would love to have had business cards to hand to new acquaintances rather than scribbling my information on a paper napkin. I considered having cards printed but, until recently, one had to order business cards from a professional printer, and the smallest number you could order was five hundred. I doubted that I would live long enough to need five-hundred cards. So paper napkins it was. But now when I need business cards I simply buy printable sheets of cards at the local office supply store and design my own. If my information changes or I want a different graphic, I can make the corrections and print up a fresh batch, as few as a dozen at a time.
Google and YouTube: As a musician I’ve written program notes for my own recitals and various chamber music concerts. A trip to the music department of the Main Library in Oakland, with its inevitable parking hassle, used to be obligatory. I would pore over assorted volumes for hours searching for information on composers and their works. Now, without so much as opening the front door, I can find all the information I need, while sitting at my computer in my nightgown, by Googling any composer or work I need to know about. And I can listen to portions of their works on YouTube.
Digital video recording: Gone are the days when you would miss your favorite TV show if you had to leave the house. Your only recourse was to catch it in reruns. Now you can schedule it to be recorded by your digital video recorder – mine is TiVo – where it is saved for you to watch whenever you’re ready. And if the phone rings while it’s playing you can hit the Pause button, have your conversation, and not miss a second of the program. And best of all, you can fast forward through all of the commercials.
GPS: How much time and gasoline have we wasted getting lost? How many gas stations have we visited and local residents have we flagged down trying to find our way to some obscure destination. Then along comes GPS, the global positioning system, “which uses, at any one time, three from among a group of thirty-one satellites in earth orbit that transmit precise signals, allowing GPS receivers to calculate and display accurate location, speed, and time information to the user.”*
When I’m using my GPS, there are times when I would like to strangle the voice I call “Little Missy” who taunts me with her “re-CAL-culating” if I make a wrong turn. Some day I expect her to burst through the tiny screen, grab me by the throat and scream, “Are you STUPID?” I probably am. I really do believe that Spell Check makes us lazy and GPS makes us stupid.
Regardless of Little Missy’s somewhat surly attitude, to have her telling me, turn by turn, how to get where I’m going makes it worth putting up with her guff.
To young people these developments seem no more remarkable than the kitchen faucet. But to those of us who have circled the track a few times these gee whiz gizmos seem like magic, and we wonder what our grandmothers would think. I even wonder what my father would think, and he’s only been gone for thirty years.
Our smartphones and iPads, touchscreens and video streaming, and assorted other cutting edge developments truly are awesome, awe-inspiring to the degree that we can’t quite believe the breadth of functionality at our fingertips and are helpless to resist while we neglect our houses – and sometimes our spouses – as we text one another, Google one more celebrity’s birth date, or become mired in the worlds of Candy Crush and Angry Birds.