Friday, January 20, 2012

The College of Hard Knocks

“…A permanent lesson was etched into my mind when I first moved there, in January, 2000, and was riding back from a motorcycle journey to Death Valley. Winding down through Malibu Canyon, framed in rocky walls and chaparral green after the winter rains, the Pacific glittered before me, and I thought, ‘It’s the last day of January. I’m on my motorcycle. And I live here.’ ” – Neil Peart

“Home is where the heart is,” Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder)

I said I would tell you what Pittsburgh has taught me.  As I considered what that is exactly, I realized that I have indeed learned a lot over the last year, but it wasn't really the city that taught it to me.  It was just time and experience.  Life was the teacher, it turns out, Pittsburgh was just the campus.

I have a vision - an admittedly vain vision - that someday someone deep in the throes of grief will stumble upon this blog and take some comfort from it.  It's vanity because who am I to think I really have anything insightful to offer anyone else?  And haven't I said over and over that grief is a very individual journey?  Besides, I have days still where I can barely get by, I get so bogged down in my loss, and on those days I think it is the height of hypocrisy to think I can steer anyone else through anything.  But, still I have this wish that someone will read through the steps and the progressions I have taken and gather something up that can help them.  It is for that person that I write this really.

There were those who were bold enough to tell me moving was tantamount to running away, and that it is impossible to run away from your sorrows.  Others probably thought it.  I denied vehemently that we were running away from our pain, and that was sincere; I knew we would bring it with us.  And we have.  But I confess I did initially wonder when I would return to feeling "normal" and thought moving here would hasten that.  After a year here, I am struck by the realization that there is no finite definition of "normal" and what I really wanted to know is when would I feel the way I used to?  And the answer to that question is never.  So, the way I feel now may be my new "normal".  Maybe just the current "normal", to be replaced by some other state of being later.  How I feel now is a bit hard to explain, but here goes:  like there is a constant weight inside me.    Not on my shoulders because one can peel that off with some effort, but deep inside like a tumor.  It is ever-present.  There are moments when I find that I am not thinking about it:  during the frenzied pace of a hockey game when the only thought is to follow the course of the puck, or during a quiet moment at the zoo when one of the kangaroos comes up to greet me and we share a moment of connection that is only between us.  But, those moments are just that: momentary.  The challenge therefore is to accept that state of being.  Accept the loss, the depth of the loss, and the fact that it will never be made whole. Then learn to live with it because that is the only choice there is.  Take it and do something noble with it if you have the strength to do it, move across the country, maybe just across town, or remodel the house you live in if it helps, but the loss is now a part of you for the balance of your days no matter what you do.

Now, know that is okay.  I don't want my sorrow to define me, but neither do I want to fail to heed the lessons I should take from it.  I will love my daughter always.  It is a thing that is in the present tense.  The love lives on even though she does not.  I do not want her to fade from me.  Perhaps not least of all, feeling something, even if it is bad, is better, I have come to believe, than feeling nothing at all.

Maybe what Pittsburgh has taught me is how to have a measure of fun again, and a little bit of joy here and there.  I was so struck recently when I read Neil Peart's blog and read his statement about driving along a winding California road and the sensation hitting him that "..I live here."  As I read it, snow swirled outside my window.  In many ways, our idea of the ideal environment is worlds apart, but I knew just what he meant by that comment.  So many times I have been driving into town and see the skyline opening up before me and think, "Wow, this is my home now."  Or sitting inside a chilly arena looking down on Evgeni Malkin and thinking, "Wow, he plays for my home team."  Or watching Marc Andre Fleury make an incredible save and being able to say, "Glad he's my goalie."  And don't even get me started about the wonder of being a member of the home crowd at a Steelers game.  Pittsburgh didn't teach me that, but it has given me that.

Sometimes I feel guilty about those moments.  Do I really deserve to live in this city?  That's a tougher nut to crack, and more time will need to pass before I can justify that one to you.   But, for now I think I remain on earth for a purpose.  To shut out the experience of life would be to miss somewhere along the way what that purpose is.  If you are reading this and think that laughter or any measure of happiness in light of your loss is a sin, I understand why you say that.  I have so often felt that exact same way.  But, here you are.  Nothing will bring your loved one back.  So, decide to live.  Celebrate the time you had with your loved one.  Keep him or her close to your heart, but do not allow that heart to become frozen.

As I write, a soft layer of snow has descended on the landscape outside my window.  My dogs lay contented at my feet.  The house is quiet.  Tonight there is hockey.  Wow, I live here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Four Seasons in the 'Burgh - Part Two

Fireworks over Point State Park on July 4th

Summer:  What we grow up with tends to become our "normal".  Normal for me is the dry air in Montana.  Which is great until you touch the handle on the freezer case in the grocery store and feel like you just stuck your finger in a light socket, pull a sweater over your head only to find that half your air is now standing straight up, or you're giving yourself moisturizing facials at 17.  But, there are a lot of advantages to it, primarily that when it's hot it's just hot, not boiling, and cold doesn't chill you straight through to the bone.  So, when I came to Austin, I spent the first few weeks feeling as though I had constantly just stepped out of the shower and everything I touched felt wet.  So, when Mother moved back to Pennsylvania and would call to complain about the humidity, Greg and I would just shake our heads and have a good laugh.  Well, Mother, I owe you an apology.  The humidity in the City of Rivers is a killer in the summer.  I should have figured that out actually - there really are major bodies of water all around here - they didn't just build all these bridges to confound me.   But, for all I thought I knew about Pittsburgh before moving here, that one caught me by unpleasant surprise.  And it does get hot here.  As sticky miserable as I was on occasion, at least I was not galavanting around town in a rubber bat suit.  I cannot even imagine what hell the cast and crew of The Dark Knight Rises had to go through.  But, my cousin had told me there would be about two weeks during both the summer and winter where the weather is hard to handle, and that seemed to be born out, it just so happened that during that time was when Marissa and I had to go pretend to be sitting at a winter sport and spend 12 hours in black wool under a blazing sun.  However, hopefully that will result in my being a small part of something historic.  And, two weeks of sauna hot weather is nothing compared to months of it back in Texas.  So, now I know and will be mentally prepared for it next year.
From  Batman is saying, "I am SO hot, that's not snow it's sweat!"
And next year I hopefully won't be standing on the precipice of financial ruin.  Because if I was fearful in the winter, I was terrified in the summer.  The drain of trying to maintain two households and then fund the requisite repairs and expenses to get the house in Texas closed finally caught up to us in July.  I often think of that time and realize how extraordinarily lucky we were, but it didn't feel like it at the time.  We were well served by two terrific Realtors, both here to find this house and in Texas when our Realtor, Cella Lancaster, had to try and broker the deal with us clear across the country.  I got sick one weekend, had my phone off and didn't check my email, and nearly blew the deal.  There were so many twists and turns like that, with the buyers wanting expensive repairs (that I don't blame them for - I would've done the same), that it was incredible that the deal went off.  And to have a buyer that fast at all was nothing short of a little miracle.  A beautiful house just down the road from us went on the market months before I left.  It is still for sale.  I know we had angels on our shoulders, but that was a stressful, stressful time that strained all of us.  I was happy, frankly, to get summer behind us.
Best Part of Summer:  Training Camp

Marissa, me and 65K of our neighbors
Fall:  And besides, I was chomping at the bit to experience my first fall in three decades.  And, in the Steeler Nation, autumn is not really a season, football is.  The other stressor of summer was the lock-out.  Would I have moved all this way only to find myself thwarted?  What truly cruel irony that would be.  But, fortunately, it ended.  And in time for a full training camp.  I think we all saw fallout from the lack of mini-camps and coordinated work-outs:  injuries in training camps that were unusual, the timing between QB's and their receivers was rusty at first, rookies in particular were behind the eight-ball, but we had a full season in front of us.  And, for the first time in my very long tenure as a die hard fan, I was in the midst of it from start to finish.  Of course, if one wants to participate in an expensive sport, one must either work for a living or win the lottery.  So, initially, I would find myself pouting because I was missing this appearance or that one, and I wanted to be wherever the players were.   Finally, I settled in to where I think most local fans are mentally:  there are enough appearances and events that I could get my fill and still actually do my job.  And some of the stardust wore off a little after a while, I confess, and I didn't feel the need to see them outside the stadium.  I was content to see them play on Sunday.  Of all the things I have come to love in this city, feeling comfortable inside Heinz Field because I've been there so many times is among the greatest.

For Greg, it was different.  He is the opposite of me in many respects.  For instance, I have put all my emotions out here for anyone to see.  I don't even really know what he thinks about being so far away from the only home he's known; he really won't elaborate.  I look for clues and make guesses, but that's all they are.  Whatever he's feeling, he's the only one who can say for absolute certainty.  But, one thing I can say:  life without his football teams being a sure view was not to his liking.  He thought he could do it.  Moreover, I think he really bought into that whole America's Team thing and thought Dallas would be on most weeks.  Not here, bub.  Missing the Longhorns was probably worse.  They were actually on air more than I thought they would be, but not always - even at sports bars.  I think one of the things we all love about our sports affiliations is that it connects us back to our roots, so he was a tree with no roots.  How long can one last like that?  Well, he's made it through one season...  But, at least he didn't have to worry about his team being torn asunder by earth-shattering controversy.

I have not blogged about the whole Penn State situation because it is beyond tragic and my feelings were complicated.  I have, however, shed many a tear over it.  I have wept for the victims, I have wept for the young men on the team now who paid a heavy price for something they had no hand in.  I wept for the families whose lives have been shattered, and I have wept for Joe Paterno.  I am not affiliated with Penn State in any way, but I have always loved JoePa.  I never knew a time when he wasn't on the sideline for Penn State, and I have watched them since I was young because I loved that tradition and loyalty.  When life was so nightmarish for me over the last decade, this was stability personified.  So, I wept a little about that too I guess.  We talked about going to a game, knowing that I would have limited time to see him coach in person.  Lesson in life:  don't wait too long to pursue your bucket list, because you never know when the bucket will get tipped over.  I would have cried those tears no matter where I lived, but this was near Ground Zero and you could practically feel the earth shake when the story broke.  The tremors will likely continue for some time.  Nothing will be as it was.  An era has passed, but not passed so much as been flung violently into flames.

Early fall at the cemetery

Life is forever like that, ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys.  They seemed particularly steep and wild this year,  sometimes I felt as though I was just hanging on for dear life, but it was quite the unique ride.  Next post:  what 2011 taught me.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Four Seasons of the Burgh, Part One

When my actual first anniversary of living in the capital of Steeler Nation comes up I will actually be in another state altogether celebrating the marriage of my Lovely Philly friend whom I've mentioned many times before, so I'll give you a glance back at the year in the life of a city from my point of view a bit early if you don't mind.

Winter 2011:  When Cheyenne and I pulled into the empty little house toward the end of January, snow dominated the landscape and new snow was falling.  I remember standing at the kitchen window for the first time as an actual occupant of the house and thinking that it was just as I remember it and experiencing something akin to joy.  There is something magical and comforting about falling snow when you're safely watching it from a cozy interior.  Then I had to go out in it.  My first order of business was to go to the grocery store.  I made a wrong turn and ended up getting lost right out of the gate, got a little panicked, had a few bad moments, turned myself around and eventually found it (keep in mind that you could realistically walk to our grocery store, it is that close), and a tradition seemingly was born.  If I had a nickel for every time I made a wrong turn, ended up getting lost, panicking about it, but eventually found my way, I'd be able to retire my credit card debt.  Many things about living here have changed for me over the last year, but that, sadly, does not seem to be one of them.

Thinking back on it, my memories of that time are tinted in fear - not of being here on my own with only Cheyenne by my side, but just by finding my way around.  Maybe timidity is a better word for it.  I've often marveled at my own silliness.  Here I was:  the woman who fearlessly uprooted her whole family to come to a strange city and once she got here, just going to the grocery store took a monumental act of courage.  Maybe I spent all the courage I owned on the move, who knows.  But, if not for my Lovely Philly Friend, coming clear across the state several times to drag me out and about, I would have been officially a hermit.

After - All's Well That Ends Well?

Of course, it wasn't like there wasn't adventure enough at my little house to keep me occupied.  Beginning with moving day when three young men had a miserable day of it in bitterly cold, wet sloppy snow trying to jam way too much stuff into the house, trying to work around carpet cleaners who were trying to save the carpet after I had spilled a gallon of trim paint, panicking Cheyenne in the process, who had proceeded to run through it and then on through the house, leaving rust colored paw prints all over the celery carpet only an hour or so before the movers showed up!  There is still evidence of that fateful day in various places throughout the house, in the garage, on a couple pair of my boots, in the driveway, and on the outside trim (long story).  I can say this about myself:  when I make a mess, I do not half-ass it.  Then there was the time I locked myself out of the house after walking the dog without my reading glasses, had to call Greg in Austin to call a locksmith here because I couldn't see to do it, and it took the poor man an hour and a half and an expensive drill bit to get me in.  The moral to that story is that I certainly feel secure here.
The Beauty of Winter

Then the long days that followed trying to sort all of our books, clothes, furniture, Star Wars toys and whatever else I just couldn't live without largely by myself, realizing that nothing was fitting in like I thought it would, so Plan A gave way to Plan B, C and sometimes D.  But, gradually it came together.  I confess that I sometimes look around and marvel that I did it.  It was nothing compared to the transformation Greg and his friends were making on the house back in Texas, but I still take some pride in slamming this much crap in this little of a house and still having room to walk around.

The Ugly Part
Spring:  And that was how winter passed for me and Cheyenne.  Some days were lonely, but a routine developed and gradually the snow gave way to rain and the days lengthened and the roads cleared.  I took some tentative steps out into my new world and got to see native Pittsburghers out and about, and not just when they were coming to rescue me from whatever situation I had created for myself.  It helped that I had some company:  friends from Michigan came for a weekend and my sister-in-law from Arlington flew in, so that took the edge off the solitude and forced me to stretch beyond the four walls just a bit.  As a matter of fact, my sister-in-law was still here when Greg and his friend drove straight through with my zoo in tow and the second round of "stuff".  And, as was no real surprise to me, sadly, Greg and his friend navigated the city neither had spent any time in immediately better than I still could after four months here.  Alas, I am a lost cause...

But, from what I did get out to see and do, I made the observation that spring seems to be a hopeful time here.  Like bears crawling out from hibernation, we turn off our TV's, the hockey season over and football long done, and we re-introduce ourselves to nature.  Walk the dog, go to outdoor art festivals, have friends over to sit by the outdoor fire pit and drink some Iron City or Yuengling.  We begin working in the yard and getting the outdoor furniture out and look forward to summer.  When I look back, it was the only time I can think of that the culture is not dominated by one sport or another.  There is baseball, but the season is just beginning during the spring, and, while I was struck at the level of loyalty the city shows to the Pirates, the expectations are exceedingly low.  Baseball is a third tier sport here, that is just the truth of it.  Yet, I learned what lots of sports fans from here already knew:  it's still fun to go to the game.

Pulling weeds in the front bed after the snow uncovered what a year's worth of no lawn maintenance means
But, in the spring, life is a celebration for its own sake.  Saint Patrick's Day being the Mardi Gras of the East and Easter being the day of atonement a couple of weeks later when the hangovers have worn off. Whatever disappointment fans have over the Steelers or the Pens is behind them, the annual disappointment they will experience about the Pirates is some time off in the future, so spring - at least in my Catholic-dominated part of the world - is about beginning anew.

The Pirates on Easter - they may not be all that good, but check out that view

But, it's easy to be optimistic when you can open your windows and enjoy the breeze.  Next comes summer...

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Day After

Many of my friends are wondering how I'm faring after the events of the weekend.  Well, I'll tell you.    I'm glad I have a low profile right now because I have to confess that there seems to be some karmic correlation to my arriving in Pennsylvania and the sports icons in the state going to hell in a hand basket.  If you're of the paranoid or superstitious ilk, you might suggest that I'm the reason for all of this chaos.  Like I ripped the fabric of time and space by making such a dramatic move.  I might even tend to believe it myself, because the laundry list of woes is rather extensive.  Among the calamities to visit various sports teams:

  1. The Steelers lose the Super Bowl to the Packers thanks in large part to turnovers.
  2. The Eagles put together what is deemed a "Dream Team" by a certain former Longhorn, but fail to even make the playoffs.
  3. Sid the Kid returns only to leave again with no word on when - or if - he will be able to play again.  Along with him are a plethora of other marquis names.  The Pens are struggling just to dress a full team and are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
  4. Penn State.  If I need to expand on that for you, you may need to crawl out from under that rock you're living under.
  5. Todd Graham in his freshman year as head coach of the Pitt Panther football team, with their bowl game ahead of them, takes a job with ASU and informs his players via text message.  Not that anyone is sad he's gone, but the pure douche-baggery of the move sent shock waves through us all.
  6. Pitt sports fans got no relief once basketball season started.  Normally a NCAA powerhouse, having lost only 11 times at home in the past nine seasons combined, they've lost three at home already and are 0-2  in conference play (maybe worse by now, this was as of the January 2nd when I stopped even pretending to pay attention).
  7. For those Pennsylvania pro basketball fans, the only team to follow are the 76'ers, but their season was cut dramatically short by the NBA lock-out.
  8. The Pirates flirt with success for the first time in nearly two decades in 2011, but are dashed once more on the rocks of mediocrity.
  9. The Flyers are doing fine, but I hate them, so that's actually a bad thing.
Now add it to yesterday's expulsion of the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs by the 10-point underdog Broncos and one would have to be a little worried about what space-time continuum I disturbed in coming here.  But, what is worse than simply losing the game is the drama surrounding it, most notably the injury of the running backs coach, Kirby Wilson, who was badly injured in a house fire the Friday before the game.  There was a strong air of mystery surrounding the fire right from the beginning, but, whatever happened notwithstanding, it is tragic.  This is a small market town - people know the Steelers, the Pens and the Pirates.  You see them around town or end up interacting with some of them here or there (well, I don't, but people who actually leave their house do).  As an example, my hairdresser is friends with Coach Kirb.  It means that fans take both the teams' successes, failures and drama personally.  In good times, that's all great.  In times like these, these inevitable dark days, it turns ugly, like family dynamics sometimes do.  Therefore, if in some weird way I brought any of this down on the teams housed in this state, I should be expelled violently from here - and I'm sure there would be no shortage of people willing to do the deed.  The only thing to redeem me is to have the Steelers come back and claim that 7th Lombardi next season.  If only parenting solutions had been that clear cut and easy maybe I would have never felt the deep loss that drove me here...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

I Hereby Resolve To...

The New Year has officially begun.  And in Pittsburgh it began with a bang.  Not only with the big First Night fireworks display, but with Old Man Winter showing up with a flourish and seeming to think that the way to make up for being so late was to hit the area with everything he has in stock and plenty of it.  The city was slammed with plummeting temperatures, winds the paper said were gusts of up to 30 MPH, (seemingly forgetting that normally the definition of "gusts" is short blasts), and driving rain that turned to driving snow, as if he wanted to make sure we all knew he still existed.  And winter has established itself now as if it means to stay, with the low tonight expected to be eight degrees.  However, the forecast for Friday is calling for sunny skies and a high of 49 (always subject to change)!  For those individuals who think we're on a short count for the end of the world, the weather seems to be playing into that theory with crazy fluctuations, as if the world is in its death throes, convulsing violently from one extreme to another as it tries to shake off the disease of mankind.

I don't know if I believe the end of the world is coming or not, but I watch out my windows as intense stormy weather descends, then makes way for calm and sun, only to have the sun chased away by another round of storms an hour later, and think that we, the tenants of this planet, have broken the terms of our lease and the world is doing its best to evict us.  And we probably deserve it.  The low hiss of a remediation device in my house as it cycles on, scrubbing my little space of radiation seeping back up from the soil, reminds me of that occasionally.  But, I'm not really banking on going poof on December 21 either.  Therefore, as I look forward to my second year here, I have to think about the things that have happened, what I should take from them and translate them into my goals and aspirations for the upcoming year.  I have to think about the things I did not like, myself included, and look to change them.  I, like millions of others, have to take stock of myself and make some resolutions.  Here's mine:

1) Reclaim the afternoon walk.  For the first several months Cheyenne and I were here we had no fence, so she was outside only at the end of the leash, and necessity dictated at least three walks a day, sometimes more.  She got used to it.  So did I.  Once the fence made that irrelevant, she still wanted the routine, so we continued on with a quick turn around the block in the morning, along with Chappy (not sure how he ever insinuated himself into the picture, but he did somehow) and a longer, slower paced ramble in the afternoons, geared more toward just getting out and stretching our legs and checking out different areas of our neighborhood.  She had the timing of it down, knowing when the shadows in the room fell just right to indicate that it was time to go, and she would get up and begin to nudge me and whine until I stopped what I was doing and paid attention to her.  At some point, work swallowed me whole, and the afternoon walks were impossible, or so I thought.  She continued to look forward to them for a long while, and it broke my heart to deny the both of us, but deadlines pressed.  Finally she gave up expecting it, occasionally still trying to coax one out of me.  I miss those walks - I had a little quest going to find the tombstone I know exists in the neighborhood cemetery of a man born in the 1700's.  I miss coming upon a group of does grazing in neighborhood yards at sunset.  I miss seeing the red and orange blaze in the sky as the sun sets behind the hills.  I miss most of all just being me, not a worker, for a few minutes out of the day.  I resolve to take that back.  Again, this is about work-life balance.  If the world does end in December, am I going to be glad I worked more or that I gazed upon the sunset on a lovely spring day?

2)  Accept who I am, but not be afraid to change what I can.  The tricky thing for any person is to find that delicate balance of accepting certain things about yourself that you simply cannot alter, but not giving up on improving oneself, learning more, becoming more compassionate, or letting go of long held fears or hatreds.  This is all harder to do than it is to say.  To look in the mirror and accept what you see is oh so hard, as I've written about before.  But, I was never a Heidi Klum lookalike, so it stands to reason that as I grow older I don't look like I could be Heidi Klum's mom either.  If I want others to accept what's inside the cover instead of shelving me for a more glamorous issue, then I have to start by accepting myself first.  I resolve to do it - how is the part I'm still working on.  On the other hand, I never want to stop improving that inner content.  There are things about my personality I don't like.  When you meet someone you don't like, you can choose to forgo that friendship, but you're stuck with yourself so you might as well strive to be a better person so that you can walk around in your own company and be satisfied with it.  That's what I resolve for myself this year.

3) Finally, I resolve to embrace the people who love me and let go of worrying over those who do not.  When I was younger I employed what unfortunately can only be called a chameleon-like personality.  I tried to emulate whatever likes and dislikes the group around me had so I'd fit in.  When I realized the folly in that, I went too far the other way and become rigid and forceful about throwing all my quirks out there, daring people almost to take me at my whole and like it.  I'd like to think I've mellowed some and come back to some middle ground:  I am who I am, but I don't have to toss that full in your face anymore.  You can like me, and I hope you do, but maybe you won't.  I resolve not to worry as much about it as I always have in the past.  If you fall into the latter category and we're stuck together through work or other situations, let's both resolve to treat each other with respect and some degree of empathy, but I don't need to be friends with the world.  I just need to love and treasure the ones I have.

Those are my New Year's Resolutions.  Let's see how I do with them.  What are yours?