Monthly Archives: June 2013

We Got us a Ball Game

“The Pittsburgh Pirates have the best record in baseball”

– USA Today 06/27/2013

I was brought back to my early adolescent years last week. It was Sunday and I was watching our number 5 batter in the late afternoon softball game we were playing.  It’s a coed team of mixed abilities defined by enthusiasm for the game and not by age or gender.  Our oldest player is about 70 and he’s hitting around .250.  I’m 0-3 with with a winning walk-off walk; sort of like Mazeroski without the honest benefit of the hit.  The nostalgia came from Ron who had his iPhone up to his ear and eyes – like a 1968 transistor radio – listening to the Pirates play Anaheim.  We found ourselves devoting as much attention to their game as to ours.

Barring serious injuries, the Bucs look like they have the legs to keep going.  How many of us can allow ourselves the luxury of remembering what a competitive (much less a winning) baseball team is?  The Bucs are 51 and 30 as of today, with the best record in baseball, and they’re fun to watch. Don’t discount that; why watch if there’s no entertainment factor? Maybe that’s why I couldn’t abide the Yankees growing up; especially opposite the Mets and the rest of the National league.  

I love the poetic geometry of baseball, the importance of fundamentals (how many times couldn’t the Pirates turn a double-play against SF two weeks ago?) the skills and coordination required, and the history – the thousand and one stories we’ve collectively seen ourselves, watched on TV, read about or heard about from our friends, parents, siblings and neighbors.  I couldn’t be with Aldrin and Armstrong on the Moon, I didn’t make it to either of President Obama’s inaugurations, but I was there (July, 1977) when Mays, Mantle, Snider and DiMaggio walked in together from Shea Stadium’s center field fence.  I can only imagine it’s what the Earps and Doc Holiday looked like going to the OK Corral.

Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays & Duke Snider walking from Center Field. Shea Stadium, July 19, 1977.

Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays & Duke Snider walking from Center Field. Shea Stadium, July 19, 1977.

We’ve been doubly blessed this year – the Pirates as a winning club, and the release of  “42.”  I enjoyed the movie because of who Jackie Robinson was and what he meant to baseball, and also because it brought to life a long-gone era and players who were shop-talk for my brothers, but only history lessons for me.  My only gripe about the movie – How do you have a credit blurb for Ralph Branca (one of the good guys who welcomed Robinson to Brooklyn) and not even obliquely mention Bobby Thomson and the 51 pennant?

Even if you don’t like watching the game (you’re a Communist) the lore and history should be able to stand on their own as fine literature. You just need to know who / what to look for.


42 – “In 1946, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) signed Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) to the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking MLB’s infamous color line and forever changing history.”

blassA Pirate for Life / Steve Blass – “Exploring a pitching career that began with a complete-game victory over Hall of Famer Don Drysdale in 1964 and ended when he could no longer control his pitches, this book details the life of Pittsburgh Pirates great, Steve Blass.”



The Boys of Summer / Roger Kahn – “This is a book about what happened to Jackie, Carl Erskine, Pee Wee Reese, and the others when their glory days were behind them. this is a book about America, about fathers and sons, prejudice and courage, triumph and disaster, told with warmth, humor, wit, candor, and love.”


robinson never hadit

I Never Had it Made : An Autobiography / Jackie Robinson – “I Never Had It Made recalls Robinson’s early years and influences: his time at UCLA, where he became the school’s first four-letter athlete; his army stint during World War II, when he challenged Jim Crow laws and narrowly escaped court martial; his years of frustration, on and off the field, with the Negro Leagues; and finally that fateful day when Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers proposed what became known as the “Noble Experiment”

robinson a bio

Jackie Robinson: A Biography / Arnold Rampershad – “The life of Jackie Robinson is recounted in this biography by Arnold Rampersad, who was chosen by Jack’s widow, Rachel, to tell her husband’s story, and was given unprecedented access to his private papers. We are brought closer than we have ever been to the great ballplayer, a man of courage and quality who became a pivotal figure in the areas of race and civil rights.”


A Moment in Time : An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak, and Grace / Ralph Branca – “Ralph Branca is best known for throwing the pitch that resulted in Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” the historic home run that capped an incredible comeback and won the pennant for the New York Giants in 1951. Branca was on the losing end of what many consider to be baseball’s most thrilling moment, but that notoriety belies a profoundly successful life and career.”


Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game / Micahel Lewis – “By re-evaluating the strategies that produce wins on the field, the 2002 Athletics, with approximately US$41 million in salary, were competitive with larger market teams such as the New York Yankees, who spent over US$125 million in payroll that same season. Because of the team’s smaller revenues, Oakland is forced to find players undervalued by the market, and their system for finding value in undervalued players has proven itself thus far.”


October, 1964 / David Halberstam – “The 1964 World Series between the Yankees and Cardinals was coated in myth from the get-go. The Yankees represented the establishment; the victorious Cards were baseball’s rebellious future. Their seven-game barnburner, played out against the Kennedy assassination, the escalating war in Vietnam, and emerging civil rights movement, marked a turning point. Halberstam looks back in this marvelous and spirited elegy to the era, and players such as Mantle, Maris, Ford, Gibson, Brock, and Flood with a clear eye in search of the truth that time has blurred into legend.”


Out of Left Field : Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates / Bob Adelman – An “unauthorized” account of the Pirates’ 1973 season, told chiefly through direct interviews with the players.  The interviews are more like transcriptions of off-the-cuff tapings.  Not only players, but wives, “baseball Annie’s”, agents and management. About 2/3 of the book is comments by the pre-“Pops” Willie Stargell, hence the book’s title. But there’s much more than that.  This is the season following the Clemente tragedy, where the team was trying to find itself without their former leader. It was the year the Pirates, despite admittedly underperforming, managed to stay in the pennant race until the end.


The Team That Changed Baseball : Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates / Bruce Markusen – Veteran writer Markusen tells the story of one of the most likable and significant teams in the history of professional sports. In addition to the fact that they fielded the first all-minority lineup in major league history, the 1971 Pirates are noteworthy for the team’s inspiring individual performances, including those of future Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Bill Mazeroski, and their remarkable World Series victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles.


We Had ‘Em All the Way : Bob Prince and His Pittsburgh Pirates / by Jim O’Brien – Bob Prince, The Gunner, who broadcast the Pirates from the 1950’s through 1975 rooted unashamedly for the Bucs. Like other announcers, he had his pet phrases such as “We have a bug on the rug.” “You can kiss it goodbye. Home run!” “Let’s spread some chicken on the hill with Will.” And, of course, at the end of a close game in which the Pirates were victorious, “We had ’em allll the way.” Bob was Pittsburgh’s answer to the likes of Harry Caray, Vin Scully and Mel Allen. He was colorful, controversial, and a people person.

– Richard


Filed under Uncategorized

Geek Assistance Needed

Oh, the things I’ll do in the name of professional development. I have had the opportunity to learn pop songs on the uke, figure out how to play X Box (and subsequently get trounced upon by a bunch of grade school kids in a Just Dance 4 dance off), and brush up on my trivia for a game of Stump the Librarian at Market Square Reading Room, all in the name of doing my job. Whatever it takes to get folks excited about the library, I’ll do it.

String meme

The latest professional challenge facing me, however, may involve a complete change of identity. You see, the Library has embraced geek culture in a big way — see The Den, The Buzz, Out of the Gutter, Hands On Workshops, and a goodly chunk of our Teen programming, to name a few. The library and geeks are natural allies — we love technology, learning, making lists, collecting things, and pop culture. And in my role as an outreach librarian, I have an obligation to go out and bring the library’s mission of lifelong learning and literacy to geeks wherever they may work, play, and LARP.

The problem is, despite my love for the obscure and a deep-seated and strong opinion in the Star Wars v. Star Trek debate, I am not yet a geek.

That’s not to say that I am a prep or a jock or any other non-nerd John Hughes archetype. I simply have never been able to stick to anything long enough to get really knowledgeable about it, which for me is the hallmark of geekiness. Sure, I’ve read some sci fi, played a few video games, read a decent number of comics, watched some movies, and made some stuff, but my knowledge in these areas is too broad for me to even be accurately called a generalist. I’m a dabbler at best.

There’s a bit of a sense of urgency here, because I would love to represent the Library at the Pittsburgh Comicon 2013 on September 27, 28, and 29. When I was working the table at the Comic Art Festival, I got called out as a non-geek because I wasn’t able to identify a web comic character. Never again! Now’s the time to cultivate my inner geek.

That’s where you come in, dear Eleventh Stack readers. Be my Virgil, er, Yoda, and guide me to be a +10 level geek!

Professional development literature. It's a tough job but somebody's gotta do it.

Professional development literature. It’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it.

To set the mood for my quest, I’ve started with a book that was recommended to me by both my Dickens-loving brother and a fantasy-loving librarian friend, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I have fallen in love with this book, and I’ve got several years’ worth of reading, viewing, and playing suggestions to work through based on the story. If you haven’t heard of this book, check it out immediately. It’s a dystopian adventure story set in a riot-filled, poverty-stricken, environmentally-wrecked near future in which the vast majority of inhabitants of Earth escape the ugly reality by plugging in to a massive virtual reality video game universe called the OASIS. The genius inventor of this virtual world left an “easter egg,”(which I learned is a hidden challenge within a video game that has no bearing on the primary game-play) a series of challenges that will yield to the winner a vast sum of money and a controlling stake in the game’s universe. This book pits our hard-luck teenage protagonist against a massive corporation with dubious intentions and I LOVE IT.

Other recent forays – Joss Whedon’s X-Men series, Twin Peaks, Makey Makey — have been equally promising. But since time is scarce, I need some help! For starters:

  • Do you have to start a comic series from the beginning, even if it goes back 50 or 60 years? Can you just jump in?
  • Manga — I’ve read some Osamu Tezuka, what’s next?
  • What’s an entry point for a fantasy-curious reader?
  • What Superman series will cure me of my tendency to find him boring?
  • If you only have time for one science fiction TV series, should it be Firefly or Battlestar?
  • I’m not a teenager, do I have enough time left in my life to consume and understand Dr. Who or should I move on?
  • I like Red Fang and Sleep, but I fear that these groups are false metal. Please discuss.
  • What’s this Homestuck all about?
  • Do you have a favorite Cthulhu story not written by Lovecraft?

What else do I need to know before Comicon?

-Dan aka Morath, my new Klingon name


Filed under Uncategorized

Hitting All the Keyes

I am a huge fan of Marian Keyes. She’s an Irish writer who early in her successful career wrote humorous books about the lives and loves of Dublin-based career women, interested in fashion and popular culture. Keyes was unfortunately pigeon-holed in the fiction category of chick lit, “a genre concentrating on young working women and their emotional lives.” The reviews of her novels often refer to her “quirky characters,” droll dialog, wordplay, and madcap antics, but her books are so, so much more.

Although she has also written eight stand-alone novels–the best of these being This Charming Man–Keyes has a terrific extended series, begun in 1995, about the five Walsh sisters of Dublin. What is especially engaging about Keyes’s books is that there is usually a problem or issue at the core of the story that said “chick” confronts. Despite the serious themes, Keyes’s realistic approach to life is often reflected in downright funny scenes and glib conversations. The empathy this style engenders draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. You not only care about these characters but you feel personally invested in their arriving at a successful outcome, though not necessarily a “happy” ending. The Walsh Sisters series includes:

watermelon  Watermelon. Clair Walsh is abandoned by her husband in the maternity ward as she is giving birth to their first child. So she goes home to her dysfunctional family in Dublin to try to start over.

Rachel’s Holiday. When Rachel Walsh’s family stages an intervention for her serious recreational drug use, Rachel agrees to rachelsholidayenter rehab at the Cloisters, an exclusive treatment center. Rachel finds she is not on a “holiday” at a posh retreat but rather a true rehabilitative respite where she must confront her addictions.

angelsAngels. Maggie Walsh discovers her husband is unfaithful and she’s about to lose a job she loves, so she runs away to Hollywood to visit her best friend…and soon discovers that this may be the place she’s meant to be.

Anybody Out There. Anna Walsh’s PR career in New York unravels when tragedy strikes, and she seeks solace from her family outtherein Dublin while trying to find answers to a devastating loss.

The most recent in this series was published this past April in the U.S. It’s called The Mystery of Mercy Close. More about it in a bit…

As an obsessive-compulsive reader, I keep a calendar each year to track when my favorite author’s new books are expected to be released. Patricia Cornwell is late fall, Harlan Coben is spring, Mary Balogh is late summer, Elin Hilderbrand and Elizabeth Lowell are both early summer, etc.

Keyes wrote The Brightest Star in the Sky in 2010. When her next book didn’t show up in 2011, I thought, check again in six months. When I searched again, there was still nothing. I was vaguely aware that the author’s personal encounters with addiction and depression contributed to the autobiographical nature of some of her plots; Being the good librarian that I am, I Googled Keyes and located her personal website. There I found Marian’s newsletter, where she was painfully recounting her most recent depression and the accompanying writers’ block. It saddened me greatly that she was suffering so when she was responsible for so many funny and profound insights in her clever, poignant stories.

So I continued to check on her from time to time and gratefully watched her begin to show signs of joy in life again. Last summer she published a cookbook, Saved By Cake: Over 80 Ways to Bake Yourself Happy. In the preface she describes the onset in 2009 of this dark mood while she was publicizing Brightest Star. She writes:

But I didn’t feel depressed; what I felt was very, very afraid. I felt like I’d been poisoned, like my brain had been poisoned. I felt like there had been an avalanche in my head and I’d been shunted along by some awful force, to some strange place, off the map, where there was nothing I recognized and no one familiar. I was totally lost.

Keyes considered suicide, and was beyond the reach of her loved ones. Then the simple act of baking a birthday cake for a friend provided a focus: identify a recipe, gather the ingredients, follow the directions, and voila. The science of baking, the trial and error, the eating and the giving of cake–and cupcakes and cookies–supplied the delicious “magic” she needed to go on. To that, all I can say is, thank heavens!

If you don’t know this part of Keyes’s personal story, you will not fully grasp the depth and realism of the last Walsh sister’s struggle.  Helen, the youngest of Mammie Walsh’s daughters, fights her own demons in The Mystery of Mercy Close. Helen has lost her income and her apartment. Hard economic times in Ireland have impacted her lucrative job as a private investigator. As a dark mood descends on her, Helen is hired by an ex-boyfriend to locate a suddenly missing member of a ’90s Irish boy band, The Laddz, who are just about to stage a big comeback. The systematic process of the search for Wayne Diffney provides Helen with the focus she needs to climb her way back and reclaim her own life.

If you know, or have known, someone in your life who has struggled with mental illness, and you have been frustrated and saddened by what they are going through, and you just want to shake your fist at them and say, “Can’t you just get over it?,” you will have a deeper understanding of why that’s not so simple by reading this story. And you will see how it is hope–whether it’s for solving a mystery, baking a great cake, or finding the reason for just getting on to what is next–can make life worth living. Marian Keyes’s deeply personal story in The Mystery of Mercy Close is moving, funny, and well worth reading. And yes, it is about the emotional life and loves of a career girl, steeped in popular culture. But “chick lit” it is not; it is much more.

Be well, Marian. Your voice is important.



Filed under Uncategorized

Just Because You’re Paranoid…


I read a news article on Tuesday, 6/11, about how sales of George Orwell’s book, 1984 have skyrocketed in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal.


I just so happen to be reading the novel 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami; translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. On this very same Tuesday, I come to a passage in the novel with a synopsis of 1984. Coincidence?

I am finding 1Q84 to be a dense fantasy, full of unexpected, surreal twists that keep me reading. As the protagonists are narrating, I hear distinctly Japanese voices in my head.

infernoI also happen to be reading Inferno by Dan Brown as an eBook on my iPhone. Another book about a well-known book! I didn’t do this on purpose! The only reason I chose this one is that it came up first on the eBook browsing list, and I liked The Da Vinci Code well enough. I am kind of enjoying it, even with unwieldy and inelegant sentence structures which say the same thing in the same exact way over and over again. I feel like the author has underestimated the intelligence of the readers and please, we have all heard about Dante’s Inferno before. As I have been trying to get past these shortcomings, the plot continues to hold the promise of being engaging, except for the desperate and overt way it has been beating suspense over my head.


I also liked the film, The Da Vinci Code, well enough, mainly because I love Tom Hanks. Oddly, the third book that I am in the middle of, Cloud Atlas, has also been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. I don’t think I spoiled the book for myself by checking the movie out from our new “DVD bestseller” area yesterday. The reason I chose this one was that it was there, randomly, on a shelf where new and popular DVDs are either in or not. It was well acted and very thought provoking, though it was a tad long and the makeup jobs were awful. Where is CGI when you need it?


When I see coincidences everywhere, I immediately think about The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson. This fnord “fiction” book will make you feel like you want to take another look at what you thought was the truth. And it kicks Dan Brown’s butt.

Did I somehow subconsciously choose books whose running themes are about other books?  Part of the plot of 1Q84 (so far) is about an author who helps to write a popular book, and I am a little surprised by the amount of references to western music, art and literature. The running theme of Cloud Atlas is how different authors of pieces of work, like a diary or a piece of music, will directly affect the consumer of that material in a subsequent generation. Dan Brown’s Inferno incorporates many old masterworks as plot devices.

Is it a coincidence that each book and its predecessor have a looming, all seeing presence?

Is Big Brother (and/or the NSA) really watching me?



Filed under Uncategorized

Following An Artist’s Vision

Just as certain authors have distinctive voices, certain directors and creators have distinctive visions and you can tell when you’re watching one of their works. For example, Michael Mann movies have a certain look about them and once you know what to look for, you can usually tell when you’re watching one of his films. When Hannibal premiered in April, I was intrigued. I enjoyed The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter and was interested in seeing what this take on the character would be like. The cast, Hugh DancyMads MikkelsenLaurence Fishburne, and Caroline Dhavernas, were all people whose work I enjoyed. I watched the first episode and while I liked the acting and the story, the feel and the visuals of the show were what really grabbed me. They seemed familiar for some reason. In the second episode of Hannibal, a character from another TV show, Wonderfalls, appeared so I looked into who was writing and producing the show, found out it was Bryan Fuller, and understood why I was attracted to Hannibal. Fuller has created some of my favorite TV shows and while the story line of Hannibal is much more violent than his other shows, the look and feel are similar.

Found at

Found at

The first time I saw a Fuller production was Wonderfalls. In it, Jaye, the youngest daughter of Darrin and Karen Tyler (her other siblings are named Sharon and Aaron), works at a Niagara Falls gift shop and one day, a wax lion talks to her. This sets off a whole series of inanimate objects with animal faces telling her to do things that will, in some way, help her or others. Caroline Dhavernas (who’s in Hannibal) and Lee Pace (who might, fingers crossed, be in the second season of Hannibal) starred. I fell in love with the show immediately. Only a few episodes aired, but the entire show is available on DVD.

Dead Like Me

Dead Like Me, the first show Fuller created, aired before Wonderfalls, but I caught it after. In Dead Like MeEllen Muth, who guest-stars on Hannibal, plays Georgia Lass, a young woman who dies after being hit by a toilet seat falling from a reorbiting space station. Georgia becomes a Grim Reaper and works with a small group of other Reapers. It aired for two seasons (there’s also a movie) and also stars Mandy Patinkin and Jasmine Guy.

Pushing Daisies

The last show Fuller created before developing Hannibal is probably the most famous of all his creations: Pushing Daisies. It stars Lee Pace (another Fuller favorite) as Ned. As a young boy, Ned discovers he has the power to bring dead things (his dog, his mother, some birds) back to life with a touch, but if he touches them again, they die forever. As an adult, he brings his childhood sweetheart, Chuck, played by Anna Friel, back to life and they fall in love, but can’t touch because if they do, she’ll die again. This show also aired for only two seasons.

Found at

Cast of “Hannibal”. Found at

Fuller’s shows all have a sense of the fantastic, like some warped fairy tale. Wonderfalls has talking inanimate objects; Dead Like Me has Grim Reapers as the main characters; Pushing Daisies‘ main character has the power to bring back the dead; and Hannibal is about a serial killer. They also share a sense of sadness and loneliness. In Wonderfalls, Jaye’s ability to hear inanimate objects pushes her farther away from people she’s already distanced herself from; in Dead Like Me, Georgia watches her little sister grow up without her and realizes how much she loves her family; and in Pushing Daisies, two people who are in love can never touch each other.

I don’t want to say too much about Hannibal and its characters’ story lines since it’s just finished its first season, but it too contains a level of loneliness. Visually, Pushing Daisies is the show Hannibal reminds me of which may sound a little weird. The colors in Hannibal are more muted than the colors in Pushing Daisies, but there’s still a richness to them that I haven’t noticed in other shows. I can’t say that if you enjoy Pushing Daisies or Dead Like Me or Wonderfalls, that you’ll love Hannibal; it’s a completely different beast and very graphic, but if you enjoy watching how an artist carries his vision through different works, what Fuller has done throughout his career is worth looking at and Hannibal is an interesting part of that vision.


Filed under Uncategorized


I’ve been on a waiting list for a plot at a community garden for some time, and last week learned that a plot was available.  Since it’s gone untended all year, that means a lot more clearing out than actual growing just yet.  As I cut down and dug up a forest of wild carrots and mint gone rampant, I discovered that my garden was not just home to lots of weeds, but also to lots, and lots, of bugs.

I am not a bug person.  Spiders make me scream, bees will elicit a flurry of arm waving and hopping and flinching, and ants, beetles, crickets, and millipedes will all have me running for a corner of the room that is as far away from them as I can get.  But as I dug in the dirt over the past few days, I discovered a few things: first, I don’t so much mind bugs when they’re outside, where they belong; and second, that they are actually kind of fascinating to watch.  My kids and I watched giant ants scurrying to save their larvae after we turned over a log that they had been living in, we saw more types of spiders than I knew existed, and my son dug for “roly-poly parties,” as he called them, and we watched them all running away or curling up into balls as they made their escape.  It turns out that I actually like seeing all the bugs in my garden.  It makes me feel as though any spot that can support that much life will surely also support the plants I put in.

Books on insects and entomology might not be your first choice for summer reading, but they are actually  a pretty good seasonal pick.  To help me identify what some of the little guys are, I picked up A Field Guide to the Insects of America North of Mexicoas well as The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies.  My parents used to have copies of several of the Audubon Society field guides, and I always loved trying to figure out what different types of butterflies I saw.  It’s actually a little difficult to find a field guide to insects; there are just so many different types that most books don’t try and tackle them all.  So even though using a field guide is a lot of fun, I also plan on using a book like Good Bug, Bad Bug: Who’s Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically (All You Need to Know About the Insects in Your Garden).  

Even if you don’t garden, there are still other interesting books on insects.  A Fly for the Prosecution: How Insect Evidence Helps Solve Crimes and Maggots, Murder, and Men: Memories and Reflections of a Forensic Entomologist are both about how insects can be used in forensic investigations, to determine time of death or whether a body was moved from a crime scene, for instance.  And if you’re looking for a novel, you can always pick up Robert A. Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers.  Like all good science fiction, there’s a definite subtext here, but the story at face value is about a war on an alien planet on which the aliens are giant arachnids.  *Shudder*


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Look About You, Nature is Everywhere

“The poetry of earth is never dead.” On the Grasshopper and Cricket,

John Keats

Most people who know me know that I love being outside. I love to feel the sun warm on my face, the breeze muss my hair, and the air on my skin. My psyche needs to be in  it every single day.

I also love to notice the changes in the weather; even during a humid heat wave, I like to detect the subtle temperature differences in the air from one morning to the next.

Nature surrounds us if we only just pay attention.

  • Observe a robin doggedly digging for worms on dewy morning grass or rabbits grazing on some clover
  • Enjoy the cool shade on a hot day under a mighty oak tree
  • Watch a yellow swallowtail butterfly flit among purple coneflowers
  • See flowers on a tree where there were just buds the day before or
  • Find wild edible berries

Even in the heart of a big city, you can find  and appreciate nature.

There are a lot of edible wild plants growing in and around the city. But to be safe, check out some of our foraging  books at the library.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

~Maria, who enjoys long meandering walks in the woods, along the lakeshore, and all over town


Filed under Uncategorized

Slice of ‘Life’

My films ask a great number of questions but don’t come up with too many answers. I hope I make films where you walk away… with work to do, arguments to have, things to worry about, things to care about. In that sense, I would regard what I do as political.” – Mike Leigh, filmmaker


The twisted sisters at the center of Leigh’s Life is Sweet. From the website:

During a recent visit from my grandma, she mentioned the great 1996 British film Secrets & Lies, which was the first Mike Leigh film I’d ever seen. I wound up enthusiastically recommending a handful of Leigh films to her, which is when I realized I’ve never met a Mike Leigh film I didn’t like.

As luck would have it, right after that visit a film of his (finally) came in on hold for me. I’ve always wanted to see his 1990 breakthrough film Life is Sweet, but until recently it was not available on DVD. Criterion just released a handsome new print of this gem of a film, and I wound up watching it twice before bringing it back.

From the website:

From the website:

For those unfamiliar with Mr. Leigh’s work, he often works with many of the same (fantastic) British actors, and focuses on the lives of working class/underrepresented populations in contemporary British life. Scripts start out as nothing more than a group of characters and a few possible story lines; dialogue and character development are shaped by months of brainstorming, improvisation, and rehearsal, all in full collaboration with his actors and crew. After guiding all involved through a series of loose improvisations, Leigh then builds up the film scene by scene—choosing some bits, reshaping or rejecting others—until he’s able to write it down as a screenplay and roll the camera.

For this reason, Leigh’s films often seem so utterly realistic as to be documentary, or as my grandma stated, “When I first saw that [Secrets & Lies] movie, I felt like I was really eavesdropping on those people. I felt like a fly on the wall or something. It was a very good film.”

You can take my grandma’s word on that. If you’re interested in checking out any of Leigh’s films, these four might be a good place to start:

Life is Sweet (1990)  Equal parts touching and comical, this portrait of a working-class family in a suburb just north of London features twin daughters who couldn’t be more different—the brainy and good-natured Natalie, and her sneering, layabout sister Nicola.

Secrets & Lies (1996)  After her adoptive parents die, a young black woman seeks out her natural birth mother only to discover her mother is a working class white woman–the first of many surprises.

Vera Drake (2004)  The true story of Vera Drake, a caring housewife in 1950s London who secretly tends to women who are looking to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Happy-Go-Lucky (2010)  Proving Leigh can direct an interesting portrait about just about anybody, he chose to make a charming film about a genuinely happy and good-natured school teacher, and how said happy person makes lemonade out of life’s daily lemons. This film was followed by a lovely portrait of a happily married couple in Another Year.

How about you? Are you a fan of Mike Leigh, or do you have any favorite directors?

Happy viewing,



Filed under Uncategorized

The Legacy of Jonestown

I just finished reading Stories from Jonestown by Leigh Fondakowski. I finished it while on vacation in a lovely relaxing spot, one of my favorite places to visit. It was pointed out to me more than once, that I was reading about a horrific tragedy while I was supposed to be “relaxing.” I would argue that reading what could be an uncomfortable book in an extremely comfortable location is exactly how it should be done. When things get too intense, you can glance up at your surroundings, re-ground yourself in the here-and-now, take a mental break, and then go back to your book when ready.

But I digress. I want to talk about Jonestown and specifically this wonderful collection of interviews and personal histories collected by Ms. Fondakowski and her colleagues. Where most of the books about Jonestown have usually focused on the “cult” of the Peoples Temple and the personality that was the Rev. Jim Jones, Stories from Jonestown is all about the survivors. Some choose to share how their lives have been since that day in November 1978. Some talk about the family members that they lost, who they were and what they believed in. Many tell about their experiences in the Peoples Temple, both before and after the move to Guyana. Every single story is riveting and emotional.

The general public has tended to blame the victims in the wake of the mass suicide at Jonestown. Even calling the tragedy a “mass suicide” puts the onus on them. The testimonies of those who participated in the practice “White Nights” and those who escaped that horrible day, tell a tale that resembles murder much more than it does suicide. All of the babies had the poison squirted into their mouths. They did not go willingly. Most of the elderly were injected with the poison. They did not go willingly either. Yes, there were people who “drank the Kool-Aid” of their own free will, but many others did so only because they had seen those who did not drink during the practice runs tortured and ostracized by their own community members. So much for forming the perfect society, free from prejudices and injustice.

The formation of this perfect society, where racism, classism, sexism, and all other –isms did not exist. Where people of all colors and backgrounds worked together for the betterment of each other and the greater society as a whole. This ideal was why most people chose to join the Peoples Temple. Many of their dreams were realized, but unfortunately the influence of Jim Jones ultimately turned their vision from triumphant to tragic. For those of you who want to hear more about this shyster, drug addict and man of God turned megalomaniac, there are interviews with two of his sons, one biological and one adopted. They are two very different men who handled the tragedy and legacy of their father two very different ways.

As one of the interviewees says, “We will never be seen as survivors. We will only be seen as the ones who got away.” As is so often the case, getting away does not mean getting away scott-free. Many have survivors-guilt and others have suffered from what can only be called post-traumatic stress disorder. Many, many lives were ruined that day in Guyana and not just for those who died. Parents lost children. Siblings lost brothers and sisters. Children lost parents. In some cases, entire families were wiped out.

Tragically, it took 30 years for all of the 918 people who died on November 18, 1978 to be named. Even that one final task was a monumental one. Stories from Jonestown ends, appropriately, with that list of names. Everyone there had value to someone and everyone there had a name. They all deserve to be remembered.

-Melissa M.

P.S. It was not Kool-Aid. It was Flavor Aid. Yet another phrase that has entered the common lexicon based on a fundamentally incorrect notion.


Filed under Uncategorized

There but for the grace of God…

Allegheny County Jail, 2013

Allegheny County Jail, 2013

As of 2011, there were 1.6 million inmates in America. That’s 492 inmates per 100,000 residents.  America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We’re number one!

I’ve been doing this:

In March, 2013 staff from across CLP launched a one-year pilot [Literacy Unlocked] in which we deliver onsite programming and library services to Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) residents and the families visiting them. This project involves programming for inmates, children’s story times and other interactive activities in the Family Activity Center during Saturday visitation and training from ACJ staff to library staff about how to best serve this population upon release.

I teach Financial Literacy classes.

*Let’s all pause while we reflect on the irony of me teaching Financial Literacy classes.*

I kid, I kid, it’s an FDIC-approved curriculum, with fancy PowerPoints and teacher guides.

There are many fascinating and sad and scary things about teaching at the jail:

  • To even get into the building, you have to do a lot of paperwork. I had to get my Pennsylvania State Criminal Record Check (which, contrary to popular belief, I passed) and an Institutional Clearance Profile.
  • I also had to complete a sort of terrifying Civilian Training at the Allegheny County Jail which included subjects such as “How to Avoid a Con,” “What To Do In a Hostage Situation,” and “How to Avoid Rape.” Being told to “humanize” yourself and go to your “happy place,” does not inspire confidence.
  • Every time I go I do something wrong and make the guards mad. It almost always involves standing in a line. This makes visiting somewhat nerve-racking.
  • You’re not allowed to wear red. When I tell people this, their first response is, “Oh, it will get the prisoners all riled up.” Because they are like bulls? For real? No, it’s because the prison uniforms are red.
  • You never, ever forget for even one second that you are in a jail.
  • Some of the inmates are so young it breaks your heart.
  • This was my first teaching experience. I nearly died in anticipation and anxiety waiting to teach my first class. I secretly wished I’d get hit by a car to avoid it. It turns out I’m actually a good teacher. I even had a student tell me I was “the real deal.”
  • I am always  grateful and appreciative for what I have, but being in the jail really drives homes the fact that I basically won the American genetic-socio-economic-education jackpot. That is depressing.
  • Hard drugs are no good. Mandatory sentencing is no good. A lot of things about our prison system are no good. This is also depressing.
  • I have done a ton of rewarding work as a librarian. But for some reason this project really speaks to me. I’m so proud to be part of it.

Further reading:

AmericanFuriesAmerican furies : Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment, Sasha Abramsky

Did you know that most prisons no longer have the goal of rehabilitation? In his expose of the U.S. prison system, Sasha Abramsky demonstrates, with thorough research, how our prison system is more punitive and vengeful than ever before. It includes information about prison conditions, sentencing guidelines and the treatment of juveniles.

YouAreGoingtoPrisonYou Are Going to Prison, Jim Hogshire

Considering the insane rate of incarceration in this country, someone you know is probably in jail. This book is a survive prison “how-to” manual that includes information for prisoners and families. From arrest to death row, Hogshire gives real life advice about everything from being in police custody to jailhouse etiquette to death by lethal injection.

InvisiblePunishmentInvisible Punishment : The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, Marc Mauer & Meda Chesney-Lind

Sixteen essays explore the economic, social, and other consequences of imprisonment. The contributors focus not only on prisoners, but also on the unintended fall-out for families of inmates, especially children. The essays all approach the topic from different angles, but all are very critical of mass incarceration.

MarkedMarked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration, Devah Pager

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if a former inmate can’t find a job, they’ll end up right back in prison. The point is really driven home by Pager’s innovative experiment in Milwaukee: attractive, capable applicants- and ex-offenders- were sent out to find jobs. Less than half received call-backs, demonstrating the difficulty for recent parolees in finding legitimate work.

WhenPrisonersWhen Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry, Joan Petersilia

Dr. Joan Petersilia is faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and has written 11 books on crime and public policy. Her research has fueled not only discussion about parole reform and prisoner reentry, but has changed nationwide policy. In this book she includes prisoner profiles, how we help and hinder prisoner reentry, and what we can do to ease reintegration.

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” – Desmond Tutu



Filed under Uncategorized