Monday, December 26, 2011

That's Pittsburgh: David Conrad edition

Back in April, Pittsburgh native David Conrad, wrote a piece for the Local Dispatch section of the Post-Gazette, "It's hardly polite to be outside Pittsburgh." If you somehow managed to miss it, read it now. 

It struck a chord with me, and I took a moment to write him an email to tell him so:
Dear David:

Thank you for this commentary. I always enjoy reading your pieces about Pittsburgh, and it pleases me that you have chosen to not become an expat like so many who have tasted success and moved themselves to shwankier climes.

I have left and come back and left and come back and left and come back...but I'm never leaving again. I think that to fully appreciate Pittsburgh, one must leave. I ended up on a path that took me from place to place, back through Pittsburgh several times, and through new groups of friends about every 2 years for a good chunk of my life. In my mid-20s, I was exhausted and broken. I had been away for 8 years in California. I came out to visit my mom and we had cause to drive to Morgantown, through the rolling Appalachian foothills, over river valleys dressed in gossamer mist... Broad leaf deciduous forests. Water. Green...  Somewhere in those river valleys, my bones shifted. I inhaled, filling my lungs with humid air, becoming suddenly aware that I had been breathing like I was clenching my lungs in my fists. I knew with every atom in my being that I was home. 

A few months later, I took 2700 miles of therapy, alone in a 10ft U-haul, save for my cat and a little boom box stereo. I left here one more time, almost taken by the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it was not to be. 

My native land has reclaimed me, and I have fallen in love with this City in a way I can only hope to share with another person someday. When I think about it, it feels like a marriage--warts and all, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health--we're in this together. I love the rivers, the trees, the old architecture, the history, the crazy geography, my big, beautiful sanctuary of Frick Park, but there are plenty of cities with beautiful skylines, water features, and great architecture. What sets Pittsburgh apart is what you wrote about--the fundamental decency of our people. Even our pretentious hipster douchebags tend to be pretty well-behaved and polite out in public. People talk to each other. People actually stop when they say "How are you?" It is considered to be a mark of incivility if you treat those "beneath you" as though they are beneath you. We are egalitarian, proud, and kind. We believe in caring for our neighbors. We believe that those relationships matter more than what car you drive or how fancy your house is. I take great joy in being from a place where hard work, humility, and charity are still widely-held and cherished qualities. 

Thank you for allowing me to "slow down your day" a bit to tell you that I was very touched by your piece and how glad I am to have you among those who care about Pittsburgh and her future. And though your essay had "nothing to do with" the loss of your father or your brother's illness, I am saddened by both. 

Kind regards,
There certainly are kind people everywhere and plenty of jerks within our city limits, however, places have a certain esprit de corps, a sense of who they are and what they value. Pittsburgh may have plenty of rude and uncaring people, but their actions are not championed by the rest of us. When people talk about the Pittsburgh region, they do not remark on our rudeness or snobbiness. They comment on how welcoming and friendly we are. Our charity and generosity is fairly legendary. It is what we expect of each other. Hard work, charity, and humility are traits that are emphasized from birth onward. They are values that we publicly champion and aim to pass along to children and newcomers. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what matters. 

As Conrad wrote:
It's the simple damn truth: You come from here, you learn to look people in the eye when you greet them. You learn to give them the benefit of the doubt till they screw up. You learn not to mouth off to people you don't know. You don't say crap about people's families. You hold doors open. You say "Hello" and "Thank you" to someone's face and "You're welcome" when it's needed.
Ron Cook wrote a piece on the Steelers' Brett Keisel in today's Post-Gazette lauding him for the community service and charity work he does that garnered him the team's nomination for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award (for the player who combines on-field excellence with outstanding community service). Fine and good you say--plenty of athletes do worthy charity, what makes Keisel special? 
"As heartbreaking as it was for us to lose the Super Bowl last season, it was heartwarming to come home and do something good with the beard," Keisel said. "We were able to throw an event together in about a week where I shaved it off and we raised $40,000 for Children's Hospital. It wasn't me that raised that money. It was the city of Pittsburgh. I was just glad to be a part of it. Children's Hospital is very dear to me because of [teammate] Aaron Smith's situation and the help they've given [his son] Elijah"

Elijah Smith was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008 when he was 4 and is cancer-free today. 
"I look at it this way. The city we're in and the position we're in, we have to give something back. The Pittsburgh Steelers mean so much to this city and people give us so much. How do we not give something back? That's what I try to tell the young guys. 'Plenty of people need our help. Find something close to you and get involved with it.'"
Keisel also has devoted efforts to the American Heart Association, the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society, Animal Friends of Pittsburgh, the Salvation Army's Project Bundle Up and the Read Across America program.
Keisel might be "a bearded guy from Wyoming," but he gets it: hard work, humility, and charity. It could be all about him, his ego, bling, babes, and being famous (surely he doesn't have to do more than glance around his own locker room, let alone the rest of the National Felons League, for a healthy dose of those attitudes), but instead he is humbled by the position he holds in this city. He uses that place, not to build himself up, but to give back to a place and a people who have given him much. As Ginny Montanez would say, "That's Church." Indeed. That's Pittsburgh. I claim Keisel as a naturalized yinzer.

The next day, I received a reply from Dave--brief, but kind and human. When I wrote to him, I did not expect to receive a reply, but when I did, I just smiled and said, "That's Pittsburgh." And it is.

Post script:  While digging around on the interwebs a bit for this piece, I came across a (much more timely) blog post by Carl Kurlander in response to Conrad's piece that shares some of my reaction.

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Why is this place called Rough Branch?

Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
(From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
(From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
All quotes from Wendell Berry.