Archive for the 'Tales From The Coal Patch' category

Letter to Santa

My mother kept a book for each of her children (at least, the younger ones) called "School Days. It had two pages and a pocket for each grade. It had room to record your child's teacher(s), friends, pets, hobbies, clubs & activities, awards & achievements, sports, school & location, height & weight, "additional information", a place to paste their photo, and a line for them to print or sign their name, as they gained prowess. We always thought the entry for school and location was hilarious because you could just put it in at the beginning of the book: Bobtown Elementary, Mapletown Jr-Sr High School. What else was there to know? We had no concept of kids moving from one school to another as their families moved. Nevertheless we dutifully filled it in.

Fifth grade's additional information dutifully notes in my crabbed printing "My teeth are coming in; hair is shoulder length; am going to write". A very important year: the gap from my missing front teeth, which had inspired the great poetic work "Toothless and Teethless" (another time, Zuskateers) was finally getting patched; and I declared myself as a writer. Never mind there were detours through engineering and administration, and writing turned out to be blogging. I was right all along.

The pockets were for newspaper clippings, extraordinary art work, and things of that nature. I was going to say "I don't know how she had time to keep up with that" for all of us. Except that, you know, we were our mother's job - nay, her life's work. There was time because this is what she did. I was thinking the other day how badly we've all been hoodwinked with that "how can I combine career and family" question. The question implies that "family" a.k.a. mothering (and here I mean mothering, not parenting) is something that is not very difficult, creative, important, worthwhile, or time-consuming when done right. Therefore it can be "combined" with Career, which is all of those, by correct application. Think of Career as the shiny new glass tile of your kitchen backsplash that everyone looks at and wants, and Family as the grout which you paste in the thin little spaces inbetween (and nevermind that you need the grout to keep the whole business together).  Once the grout is properly in, you need not think of it much anymore, and can refocus all your attention on the pretty, shiny glass tile.

Mothering can be done by women or men, I think, but it truly is more than a full time job - it is a life's work.  Parenting is something different. It can be done by one or two parents, and parented children can thrive just as well as mothered children. Whether you are in a family where the children are being mothered or parented, life for everyone would be so much better if everyone's workplace was less greedy and demanding. And not just your fancy white collar jobs.  I remember my dad would trade shifts with someone in the coal mine, or go without sleep before the next shift, so he could see me or my sister or brother sing a silly song in a school play, or be crowned Queen of Hearts at Valentine's, or march with the band at our first football game. Mom would be glad he was there, and then worry about him at work.

Among the ephemera my mother saved in the pockets of my school years was a frantic 5th grade note:


I need 50 cents, one self-addressed envelope, 3 buttons, my cotton balls, and a milk carton for Monday. Also, get me up at 7:00 and make sure I get up then.


p.s. I need an 8-cent stamp

I would dearly love to know what that was all about.

Another piece she saved leads us finally to the title of this post - a letter to Santa. Written when I was 9 years old and in the fourth grade, I was teetering on the edge of believing/non-believing. As a budding scientist, I was hoping to garner some proof one way or the other.

Letter to Santa Claus from 9-yr-old Zuska

Letter to Santa Claus from 9-yr-old Zuska

The text of the letter reads:

Dear Santa,

We left some cookies and milk for you, and some salt for your reindeer. (Be sure they all get equal amounts.) I hope you brought my Love doll, and Cindy's doll like mine. Are you real? (Write yes or no) [Arrow pointing to two blank lines]

I really do believe in you.

Suzy, Cindy, Paul, Andy, Eddie, Mom, Dad [unexplainable sibling deletion - sorry, Pat!]

In the morning, the cookies and milk, and the salt, were gone, and the letter was signed in elaborate script "Thank you Merry Christmas - Santa". Santa declined to answer the "are you real yes or no" portion of the letter. Obviously beneath his dignity, or maybe he just didn't see it - it was in the messiest part of the letter, and he was probably in a hurry.

So Santa, since I have written proof of your realness, I'm writing again to ask for just a few things this year. I believe I have been especially good this past year. I've whined only the usual amount about the migraines; I've done a lot of elder care and not begrudgingly either - time spent with elders can be difficult but is often a gift itself; I've done most of the litter box duty and all of the cat puke duty. So please, please Santa, this is what I am hoping for.

1. Let lots and lots and lots more people follow George Bush Sr.'s lead and resign from the NRA.

2. Let those who remain fight like hell to change the organization from within.

3. Let Wayne LaPierre vanish into a world where the only sound is is own howling.

4. Let the tide be turned back on the vicious onslaught against workers and unions.

5. Let the people realize that not just the children, but the teachers, too, are our future.

6. Let parenting and mothering both become more possible and pleasurable as real and unconstrained choices for all.

7. Let The Hobbit be a reasonably pleasurable and escapist viewing experience for me and not a total crushing disappointment when I compare it to my own mental images of the novel.

Thank you, Santa. I know you are busy this time of year and I will appreciate anything you can do with this list. If #7 is too difficult you can leave it off.

One last question. Are you real?

(Write yes or no).  ___  ___



2 responses so far

Washington Trades and Labor Building

A few weeks ago I was in Washington, Pa - or what everyone in southwestern Pa refers to as "Little Washington". I've been there on numerous occasions but this was the first time I'd seen this building.

Washington Trades and Labor Building, Washington, PA

This is a closer view of the entrance.

Washington Trades and Labor Building entrance

The building now houses the Newman Center for Washington & Jefferson College on its second floor.

What had originally caught my eye, and led me to want to investigate more closely, was the stone slab on the lower left of the building front.

Inscribed stone slab on the front of Washington Trades and Labor Building

The inscription reads:

This granite is dedicated in memory of our brothers and sisters of Washington and Greene Counties who paid the ultimate price for employment many of which due solely to corporate greed and employer indifference to safety.

"Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living" Mary Harris 'Mother' Jones

"The present age handed over the workers, each alone and defenseless, to the unbridled greed of that a very few and exceedingly rich men had laid a yoke of almost slavery on the unnumbered masses of non-owning workers." Pope Leo XIII

It's difficult to describe how I felt when I read that. It was breathtaking to see such strong words chiseled in granite right there out in the open for everyone to see - right here in the age of Scott Walker and Mitt Romney.  It's not some very old monument either - it was dedicated in 2001.  I haven't been able to find any information about the building or the granite marker.  If anyone knows anything about either, I'd appreciate it if you'd leave a comment.

If the Republicans have their way, we'll be right back in the world these quotes describe - indeed we're heading there.  It is so discouraging to a child of a UMWA man, to see how beaten down unions are in the U.S. today.


2 responses so far

Remembrance of Pies Past

Last year for the first time I made a shepherd's pie, in time for Pi Day, but inexplicably did not blog it. Onion, carrots, chunks of lamb meat in a savory filling, topped with mashed potatoes and sprinkled with cheese, then run under the broiler.  We dined with pleasure, and were sated.

Shepherd's Pie, One Year Ago

I love good pie, but alas, must purchase it or start with frozen crust. I cannot make a crust.

I love also the oblong pie that sits on a shelf in a wrapper,  Hostess Fruit Pies. Last week I searched but could not find them in my local supermarket - most likely because they are low class and my aspirational supermarket won't go slumming.  Years ago, when we were too stupid to know how low class we were, my mother packed these in my father's dinner bucket.  Something sweet at the end of a meal taken in the dark of a coal seam.  Sometimes he didn't eat everything in his bucket, or drink all the water in the bottom.  When the dinner pail came home, the leftovers that had journeyed to the underworld and back seemed especially desirable to we children - the water, more tasty, more thirst-quenching than nectar; the bit of sandwich or fruit pie, more savory than a feast. An unwrapped fruit pie was often saved for the next day's bucket; but once in awhile, we were permitted to devour it.

After I wrote that last sentence, I searched on google for "coal miner's bucket" and found this, where you can see great pictures and learn a little about a coal miner's life.  And there, I also read this:

I used to love to get anything my dad brought home in his bucket. It always seemed to taste better after it had been in there.

This gave me an odd and comforting happiness.

Hostess may have served my father's  dark world pie needs, but in the land of sunlight, it was my mother's coconut cream pie he loved.  We talked of pie today, and she told me how she made her own crust, and her own meringue, but used boxed vanilla pudding for the filling, adding a handful of coconut to it before putting it in the shell.  Back then, this was not instant pudding; it required some cooking.   I can remember my mother's meringues, picture them in my mind's eye; they were wonderful.  She made them from scratch, from egg whites; I cannot make crust, let alone meringue.

How did Daddy come to love coconut cream pie, I asked, did he always like it, or did you make it and he came to like yours?  Oh, I guess I just made it, and he started eating it, and that was the one he liked best.  I always made it for him on his birthday, he never had a cake, just the coconut cream pie.  My mother, when she made it, she made it all - the crust, the meringue, the filling.  I don't know how she did, cooked that pudding, how she made that.  I never was great with crust, mine came out okay.  Betty was the one who could make crust, so light and flaky!  Now, I heard somewhere where you could make crust with lard instead of Crisco, but where are you going to get lard today? I'd like to make one of those pies again.  Maybe when you are here and we are at the house.

If that could be, that would be the best pie day ever.

13 responses so far

Where We're All Heading in Scott Walker's Handbasket

Now indeed is the winter of our labor discontent.

Scott Walker, you'll recall, is the Rethuglican who has creatively called his union-busting scheme a "budget repair" bill.  Once we've finished stripping workers of all their rights - collective bargaining is just the first step! there's so much more that can be taken away once the collective bargaining is gone! - we can bring back many useful practices from the good ol' days.  The history of Blair Mountain is instructive in this regard.  Maybe you'll want to go visit Blair Mountain, and see the historical marker, but I'd do it now if I were you, before Mr. Peabody rips it off the face of the earth to get at the coal underneath.

Two years ago, Blair Mountain was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. And then, just a few months later, it was taken off by state officials.

Lawyers hired by West Virginia's largest coal companies came up with a list of landowners who, they said, objected to the designation.

"There's apparently a lot of money to be made by blowing this mountain up and taking all the coal out from it," labor historian Gordon Simmons says, referring to mountaintop removal.

Fuck you, coal companies. Isn't it enough that your predecessors had a hired army of goons and federal troops dispatched by the president to keep coal miners from forming a union?  Now you want to literally erase the history from the face of the earth? Fuck. You.

Well, Scott Walker's not calling in the troops yet on the citizens of Wisconsin. I'm sure that's just crazy to even imagine.  Why, people have the right to collective bargaining!  Oh wait, he's taking that away.  Well, they have the right to be in a union!  Oh wait, he's trying to make it really, really, really hard for there to be a union at all, what with the yearly votes for the union to exist, and the optional dues, and the fact that once your union can't bargain, and pay raises are strictly limited, you're going to wonder why you should pay dues or be in the union at all. You might as well join the Elks and spent your union dues on beer; at least you'll get drunk for your money.

So once the union is gone, and the plutocrats can pay us whatever they deem we are worth, and fire us whenever they feel like it, and take away our benefits on a whim - oh wait, you're saying, that's my life now?  Because you're not in a union.  Have you grumbled about unions in the past?  A union exists to protect you from all that.  But they talked you into thinking that the union was making your life hell, not the top 400 of them who hold more cash, stocks, and land than  the bottom 155 million of us combinedCrabs in a barrel, they wanted to make us, and it mostly worked.

Anyway, as I was saying, once they've taken us back to the point where we have as many rights as those coal miners at Blair Mountain (maybe they'll start paying us in scrip again!), they can imprison us even faster than they do now.    Pennsylvania's prison population has grown 500% in the last 30 years - that's a promising industry!  A caller to Marty Moss-Coane's radio show this morning suggested that prisoners be placed 3 to a cell, but only two of them in the cell at any given time; one would always be out working an eight hour shift.  Put the prisoners to work!  Well, at least they'd have an eight hour day, if not a five-day work week.  But why be limited by the arbitrary eight-hour day? We could pack them four to a cell and take out two at a time for 12-hour shifts.  It's not like they have a union or anything.

Yeah, where did you think your eight-hour day and five-day work week came from?  Oh, you say, not me, I'm a professional, I'm a scientist, I'm a grad student/postdoc/professor, and I work long hours.  I'm k3rntastic!  Science demands no less, I work for the love of it, I work long hours because if I don't someone else will step right into my place and work just as hard and take my job. Oh crap, that last one sounds just exactly like what the coal miners used to say before they got themselves organized and formed a union.  You know what?  Coal miners are professionals too, and take pride in their work, and love what they do, too.  They like having a union that regulates working conditions, and says if you work overtime you get time and a half.  What do policies like that do?  They create more jobs, and make employers think twice about overworking the employees they do have, because it costs more.  Oh, unions won't work for science. Science is so different!  Believe me, baby, if you wanted a union bad enough, you'd find a way to make it work.

Listen up:  Philip Dray, author of There Is Power In A Union: The Epic Story Of Labor In America, will be on Fresh Air this afternoon, to put the Wisconsin union battle in a historical context. Listen live at 3 pm or audio available online after 5 pm.  Read the little blurb about the show - it's fascinating.  Here's the piece that was a real shocker even for me.

[quoting Dray]: Every city in America has these large brick armories in the city. I used to think they were there for soldiers to gather to go abroad but those were built in an era when authorities wanted a place where soldiers could gather to bring down local labor unrest.

Yeah, they didn't teach me any of this history in school.  Certainly not in the coal patch public schools. They did not tell me how the tax dollars of our forebears went to constructing buildings for the express purpose of gathering troops to suppress the formation of unions by those same forebears.  Well, not the tax dollars of the Blair Mountain coal miners, per se.  They were paid in scrip, which could only be spent at the company store.

If you have a few extra dollars in your pocket this month, consider donating to a union to help fund organizing struggles, general strike funds, etc.  You can become an associate member of the United Mine Workers of America for $5 a month.  Write to your congressperson and insist that Blair Mountain be placed on National Register of Historic Places, not ripped apart by coal companies.  Speak up when someone is union bashing and say you wish everyone had the kinds of benefits and job security that a union can negotiate for its members.  Don't be a crab in the barrel that the plutocrats and Rethuglicans are constructing for us all.

My grandparents lived through the union-organizing hell of the past.  Let's not go back there in Governor Walker's handbasket.

9 responses so far

Dear St. Kern: A Modest Proposal

Found this blog post about the child labor bill being passed in May of 1918. My grandfather would have been 15. minor between 14 and 16 years shall be permitted to work more than 51 hours a week or more than nine hours a day. Such children shall also be compelled to go to a vocational school at least eight hours each week, the time they spend in such school to be counted in the 51 hours.

The local newspaper at the time explained why everyone hated the new law and how it was just bad, because the poor widows were going to starve since their little boys could not go off to work now as breaker boys now that the mine had eaten their husbands/daddies. And besides that work is not really that hard, and they want to do it, and all the smart kids these days want to be breaker boys!

The occupations are usually not too laborious and are not harmful as is attested by the fact that many of the richest, brainiest and most able men of the coal region today are men who worked in the breakers and mines when they were boys under the age of that provided by the new child labor law.

You might say they had a passion for picking slate, and that it made men out of them, and slate picking doesn't stop at 5 on Fridays.

St. Kern, you don't have the balls to follow your vision where it is truly leading you. If we are going to exploit workers around the clock, let's do it right.

Let us return to the days before May of 1918. Young children can be trained to run gels and staff the centrifuges of our nation's cancer research centers. Piecework and child labor made this nation strong once before. Let them be wielded once more as mighty weapons in the War on Cancer. A beneficial side effect is that many children, like the slate pickers, will likely be exposed to carcinogenic and mutagenic substances, since the little dickens just aren't always so careful and clever as they think they are. So they can work for us while simultaneously serving as de facto research subjects, and think of the cost savings with that kind of vertical integration! The child-worker experiments can replace some of those costly animal research protocols, and we won't need to spend so much on feeding and housing critters that can't load and unload a centrifuge or wash up some glassware for us.

If we build little cancer company towns, employ grad students/postdocs and their children, and pay them all in cancer scrip that can only be spent at the St. Kern Cancer Company Trading Post, which is located right next to the Cancer Research Factory, they really never need leave the worksite nor want for anything that the Cancer Factory cannot provide.

12 responses so far

Dear St. Kern (and all your wannabes)

You've read St. Kern's blather.  You've followed the twitter fun - and doesn't that just make you k3rn3d!, because, alas, you were not curing cancer during the fun times you were having mocking St. Kern on twitter.  You've read Drugmonkey's excellent takedown of St. Kern.

And what?  You know what's next.  The zombie St. Kern wannabe PI hordes are gonna come crawling out of their nicely appointed offices, borrowing the language of "I was walking around this weekend and didn't see you slaving away over the bench at 11 pm on Saturday" and "you gotta have PASSION!  PASSION, I tell you!" and "Science doesn't stop at 5 on Fridays" and "the children! think of the poor children with cancer dying because you had to go home and kiss your baby."  The "5 on Fridays" bit is a direct quote from my master's thesis advisor a month or two after the sudden and unexpected death of my dad, when I told the advisor I was having a bit of a hard time coping with everything and wanted to drop an elective course.  The St. Kern's we have always had with us.  

Well, my puke's too good for the shoes of those d00dches, but I'll tell you what.  I don't know about you, but I didn't go into science to work like a mule in a coal mine.

When my parents scrimped and saved to send me off to college, it was so I could get out of the blue collar life, and have a job that paid reasonably well with decent hours "where you don't have to work shift work" my dad said. Come home in the evening and be there with your family. His dad told us the story of the mules he worked with in the mine when he was younger. How if they found a good mule that would work for them, they worked it and worked it and worked it until it dropped dead in its traces. "Don't be that mule" he told us.

7 responses so far

Women's Health: Cry Babies

This post is part of Scicurious's great idea to take a comprehensive look at an issue of Women's Health, and the advice offered therein for health, sex, love, dating, etc. I'm dealing with the article on Cry Babies, by Joel Stein, filed under Sex and Love.

My dad was a "life of the party" sort of guy, and the kind of dad you could count on to put down the camera and produce an oversized white handkerchief to mop up the blood from your freshly gashed knee on the way into church on First Communion day.  He might forget to straighten your veil, which would be crooked in the photos, but he would comfort and calm you, stop the bleeding, and make sure you could go on with the procession into church.

Only once in my life did I see my dad cry.  Continue Reading »

20 responses so far

How To Grow A Zuska

Aug 27 2010 Published by under How to Grow a Zuska, Tales From The Coal Patch

Anyone can be a Zuskateer if they want - many of you are, and I thank you for reading!  Perhaps some of you more adventurous folk look at your young ones, picture  them in a onesie emblazoned "Future Zuskateer!" and wonder "just how the heck did she turn out that way anyhow?"  Being childfree myself, I am the last person in the world to turn to for childrearing advice.  Nevertheless, I have spent some time pondering the positive things my parents did for me, and at the top of any such list would be this: valuing books.

"Disposable income" there was not much to speak of, but we always had books in the house.  Not a huge library, but enough to justify, at some point, my parents purchasing a bookshelf.  Back in the olden days, when people still read actual books printed on paper, men used to travel door-to-door as encyclopedia salesmen, exhorting working class families to purchase encyclopedia sets so that the poor kids could learn.  My parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia, and the Childcraft books, and the Grosset & Dunlap Companion Library two-in-one books.  We had a raft of Dr. Seuss books and other small story books for small children - I remember being particularly fond of "Splish, Splash, and Splush", a book about some ducklings afraid to swim, who head off to the pond with rainboots and umbrellas. The water strips them of their fear-born coping mechanisms and voila!  Swimming!!!  The wise mother duck allows them to clutch their useless umbrellas and figure out for themselves that they like swimming - unlike my dad's father, who taught him to swim by repeatedly throwing him in the Monongahela River until, in self-defense, he swam.

But my most favorite book, when I was little, was this one.   Continue Reading »

31 responses so far

Eating My Heart Out: Food, Relationships, and the Passage of Time

Aug 22 2010 Published by under (if) Elder (why) Care, Tales From The Coal Patch

Food is on my mind this evening.  It’s summer (go away, you haters who say summer is over because school is starting!  I will not hear you!) and the farm market tables are groaning under the load of all they have to offer.  It is so pleasant to shop there on Saturday morning, bring home a few bags of whatever looks nice, and then concoct the week’s meals out of the haul with the help of my two favorite cookbooks these days:  Simply in Season and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.  My kitchen is now perfumed by a perfectly ripened cantaloupe I aim to slice into and cut up in cubes for easy snacking.

When I talk with my mother, she always wants to know what I’ve bought at the farm market, and what I’m cooking.  She’s always been interested in what I’ve had “good to eat” as I’ve moved about from place to place, and encountered foods and cuisines other than the familiar ones of home.  Now, with her residing in assisted living, and the days of presiding in her own kitchen past, these inquiries take on a new poignancy for me.  Oftentimes, when she was still living at home, we would chat on the phone and each make and drink a cup of tea while talking – having a cup of tea together, we called it.  We can’t do that anymore, so we just talk about what I’m eating.  I try to give her vivid descriptions, and I try to make her at least one really delicious meal each time I travel back to see her. Continue Reading »

11 responses so far

Blackberry Bushes versus Marcellus Shale Cash: There's No Contest

Aug 09 2010 Published by under Tales From The Coal Patch, Technology Gone Bad

At my local farmer's market right now, I can, if I choose, buy lovely fresh blackberries.  A half pint container costs around three or four dollars, depending which vendor you get them from.  They are incredible, but a luxury.

While I was in western PA last week for my uncle's funeral, one of my relatives made fresh blackberry cobbler.  She was also freezing blackberries, and making blackberry jam.  She and several other relatives had been out picking blackberries in an abundant wild patch, and would return several times more.  The berries were sweet and juicy and some were as big as your thumb.  The bushes gave more than they could pick; there were plenty for the humans and for the wild critters who fed on them as well.  While picking, they chanced to see a wild turkey and her brood toddling along off in the distance.

The berry bushes are on a scrap of land that's been more or less neglected up until now.  Not of much interest.  No one's wanted to build on it, so it sits there in its semi-wild glory, a haven to all sorts of critters, and its rambly berry bush patch yielding sweet fruit every August for those willing to do the work of harvest.

The person who owns the land is a business person who didn't pay a whole lot of money for the land when it was purchased.  Times are tough for all business people, and credit is tight, and people have to make a living.  Sadly for the berry bushes, and the turkey mama and her brood, they all have the misfortune to dwell above the Marcellus Shale.  The business person has been offered hundreds of thousands of dollars for the drilling rights to the little scrap of land.  In order to drill, the land will need to be cleared devastated. They will spray the bushes and rip things out and put in roads and that will be the end of berry picking, spotting baby turkeys off in the distance, and sharing fresh blackberry cobbler with your grieving relatives.

No final decision has been made yet but it is hard to see how anyone can hold out, in a depressed economic climate, when offered that kind of cash for a small piece of land.  One might argue that blackberries and baby wild turkeys are priceless but you can't make your business payroll out of warm happy feelings about environmental preservation.  Individuals cannot be expected to be the guardians of our state's environmental treasures and the safety of our groundwater and streams and rivers.

Here's what the PA Department of Environmental Protection says (on its crappy website):

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is not involved in regulating lease agreements between mineral property owners and producers, except that minimum royalty payment is prescribed by law.  Lease agreements are contractual matters between private parties.  DEP does not audit payments, read or calibrate meters or tanks, or otherwise get involved in lease matters.

Of course not.  We can't interfere with private enterprise.  Out of the way, turkeys!  Begone, blackberries!  We've got poisonous wastewater to produce!  Let the fracking begin.

4 responses so far

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