The Backstory: Dollar a Day

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.  Today happens to be my parents wedding anniversary date – it would have been their 42nd.

My mom was one of those indomitable women, the working ones who juggled career and child-rearing and house cleaning and everything else without losing her sanity. Most of the time.

For as much as working parents fret about ruining their kids, I think  I turned out ok. My earliest memories were of two parents juggling their schedules and me alongside my teenage half-brothers.  Dad worked swing shifts that involved occasional night work, but his preferred was second. Once I started school, he swung his schedule back to daytime so he could pick me up after school.

loan-sharkMom had a more “regular” job as a loan clerk at a finance company. Yeah, the loan shark company that gave people money at like 30% interest. It was a job, and she was good at it, and I doubt she’d had a lot of options when, as a divorced single mother in the 1960s, she first hit the pavement looking for employment.

So by the time I came along, she’d worked at The Associates for at least a decade. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s how my dad met her…. making payments on a small car loan.

Mom’s job was pretty decent when I was a wee lass. She worked in my hometown of Connellsville; at least, that was the closest actual “town” to where we lived, since I hardly consider the mountain hamlet of “Normalville” a town. Normalville had a post office and an ice cream place and maybe a gas station.  Connellsville was a bustling metropolis by comparison.

Murphy's And The Associates had a branch office near the center of town next to a Health+Mart and across the street from a number of fascinating shops including a Murphy’s and McCrory’s and Woolworth. Sometimes after kindergarten or on summer days when I had nowhere else to be, I ended up playing on the chairs in the guest waiting area, or killing time in one of the conference rooms.  Mom’s bosses and coworkers were always nice to me. I remember one of them trying to help me learn to tie my shoes. I think I was a helpless case at the time, but velcro was about to bust onto the scene, along with jelly sandals, saving me from some serious frustration.

And at lunch or in the afternoon, sometimes she and I would walk into Health+Mart to buy a giant Crunch! bar or across the street for an ice cream, and talk to the friendly old men who sat on the benches and liked to touch my hair. Mom knew they were just being friendly, not creepy, but it always pissed my dad off if he found out.

Because Mum had worked in her industry for so long, she knew the ins and outs of loan paperwork and interest and processes apart from adding machines or computer programs. That always amazed the 20-somethings who worked alongside her. “How do you KNOW that?” they’d wonder, looking at my mother like she was some priestess of an ancient tribe, hoarding the secrets of a sacred order of finance to which they had never been invited. She knew how it all worked. And whenever the computers went down (sometimes for a day or more), her loan paperwork was still moving right along, powered by her knowledge and a hand calculator.

ibm-punchcardGrowing up, I watched her office morph from punch-card IBM computers (no kidding!) to one of those classic 80s era IBM systems with the black monitors/green type. (Or maybe it was orange?)  The keys on the computer keyboard were extra clacky back in those days…. a stiff tactile memory. And IBM typewriters and Selectrics, where loan papers had to be typed in triplicate with carbon paper in between the sheets.

I know because by the time I was in double-digits, Mum had me helping her with paperwork. Her job got busier and busier, and there was always more filing and typing than she could keep up with. And some of the work was truly mundane, perfect for a bored 12-year-old on a weekend or lazy summer day.

I wish I could say my mom loved her job, but she didn’t.

This logo was burned into my memory as a kid. It's not a bad design, actually...
This logo was burned into my memory as a kid. It’s not a bad design, actually…

Around the time my dad lost his sight and thus his job in the steel mills, Mum’s office closed and they folded in her branch into one further away, about 30 minutes down the road in Uniontown. Her commute instantly make it far more difficult to drop me off or pick me up from school, and I found myself riding busses with the public school kids…. but that’s a story for another day.

Her office situation in Uniontown wasn’t as friendly or welcoming. The coworkers were decent, many of them, but offices always incite drama. One lady was sleeping with the boss, so she got extra favors. The men, who held the assistant manager positions, got paid way more than the women who shuffled the papers. The boss was basically a drunk, and though he was always nice to me, he could be nasty to his employees.

[An important side story: I got married after my mom had died. Several of her coworkers were incredibly kind to me during the months leading up to my wedding. One of those ladies baked our wedding cakes, and the entire office gave us a wedding gift.]

Things went from bad to worse and Mum faced a difficult choice. Locked into her job as primary breadwinner for her family, she could either trudge along doing loans, or she could move in the assistant manager position over Collections.  It was a rough gig, calling people who had defaulted on their loans and threatening them with whatever worked to get them to pay up. Or sending out the “repo man” to repossess whatever collateral backed the usury that folks were paying to this loan company to finance their summer vacation or last year’s Christmas. And unlike all the men who’d held this job before her, my mother wasn’t given an office assistant to shuffle her paperwork. She was now responsible for all of her former cases as well as all the new work of being a supervisor.

The pile grew large. I showed up on many more weekends during my teenage years, even one entire week during the summer, to type and file and process records. I learned how to read a credit report, how to properly file last names beginning with Mc-, how many horrible cuts and hang-nails you get when filing papers, how to send faxes and read the faint lettering on the shiny papers, how to do data entry.  It was actually a pretty good gig for me as a teen job for a little money here and there, though often my earnings disappeared when the money ran short at the end of the month, and Mum had to “borrow” it from me to buy gas. I resented that, and didn’t really see her point when she reminded me that I was getting a whole lot out of my parents already …. I don’t think any teenager is quite ready to understand that lesson.

Mom’s work hours got longer and longer and she felt more and more stressed, trapped by a job that didn’t end and the financial burdens of owning a house my parents had built when they had two incomes. We were the classic example of “house poor,” and since my parents had spent half of their lives waiting to finally build a house, they weren’t about to give it up. So we — and she — soldiered on.

Dad and I were pretty sure that the stress of her job contributed to the onset of breast cancer when I was 12 and she was 50, but who can say? She had a family history of the disease but none of us could deny that The Associates didn’t offer a safe, nourishing environment for her soul.

After the diagnosis, biopsy, mastectomy, and recovery, Mom want back to work. What else could she do? We needed money, and her salary was decent given the opportunities available in Fayette County.

My mom’s story is one of surviving. Trudging. Working. Earning. Coming home exhausted and worn down. The story of working mothers everywhere in America, where “work-life balance” really is a laughable term….. Turning down promotions for better positions away from the bullshit in her office because she would have been forced to move away from our family home (and my school). Running a side business in the springtime preparing people’s taxes because she could earn a little extra money to pay off just a little more of my Christian school tuition. Juggling the books and robbing Peter to pay Paul so everything more or less got paid and we all more or less had food to eat. 

She didn’t complain. She set her jaw, and she worked.

Because that’s what working mothers do. They sacrifice everything they could have been and all of their own dreams for the sake of their children’s futures. They drop us off at college, give us a hug and a kiss and a pep talk, and hold themselves together so the weeping doesn’t start until they’re in the car for the lonely ride home.

She didn’t get the chance to see me grow up enough to understand just what my opportunities cost her. That, to me, is one of the world’s great injustices.




Link: My Problem With Capitalism | adayinhiscourt

An outstanding post from my friend John today. Commended reading.

Those people for whom the system doesn’t work, be they those who are born without the prerequisite cognitive abilities needed to prosper or be they those who, because of life circumstances that they had absolutely zero control over, had serious obstacles placed in their life’s path, are why I’m troubled by the full-bore commitment to capitalism within certain segments of the Republican party. I don’t see how they have rightfully interacted with the fact that there are people living in our country for whom upward mobility is not attainable without help.

Even if I were to concede that it’s possible for a person to pull himself or herself up by the bootstraps, what about those individuals who don’t have any bootstraps with which to pull themselves up by? Look, my capitalist Republican friends, I agree with you that the best way to build wealth and security is through the free market. I agree that the future counterparts of my home improvement store co-workers will have a higher standard of living if free market principles are allowed to run their course. But what about today? What about those for whom the system doesn’t work? What about the children going to bed hungry tonight? How does capitalism feed and comfort them? How does capitalism acknowledge that we’re not created equal, and that some of us need help? How does capitalism help people for whom the bottom rung of the ladder of success is out of their reach to grasp that rung?

via My Problem With Capitalism | adayinhiscourt.

The Backstory: Light Fading, Darkness Closing

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

We just celebrated Father’s Day, and I loved seeing all the photos of everybody’s dad popping up in my Facebook feed.  It reminded me that I promised y’all way back that I’d finish telling my dad’s story…. but I haven’t.  Most of it has been told, at least as a story arc, up through my early years. What remains is a sketch of what were to me the most vivid memories of my life intertwined with his.

To recap:  My dad was the son of an Italian immigrant and he grew up in a poor immigrant section of Connellsville, Pennsylvania – a town that existed to feed the industrial behemoth of Pittsburgh via coal, coke, and glass. My dad survived his childhood, impoverished and terrible as it was, and did a stint in the Army before settling in for a 30-year career in the world’s longest steel mill. (Really!)

He met my mom when she was the single mother of two teen boys and fell in love. Along the way, he became a Christian and they got married, touching off a firestorm in their small church. But my dad was stubborn, so he stuck it out in the pew Sunday after Sunday, growing angry that he’d been pigeonholed as an unrepentant “adulterer” (because anyone who marries a divorcee is breaking the Bible’s commandments, right?) and sidelined from doing anything more at church than warming a seat. Meanwhile, they’d built a house and manufactured a daughter, and so the set pieces for my young life were all in place by 1980.

I imagine if my dad were to list the critical moments of his life, a fateful Sunday morning on a lovely October day in 1981 would rise to the top of the list.

He got up and dressed for church, as he always did. There was a funny foggy spot in his vision in his right eye, but he assumed it would go away eventually; if not, the eye doctor would be open on Monday and he could get it checked out.  The church lights really bothered him that day.

Monday morning found my father, who was almost never sick and certainly never in the doctor’s office, sitting in the chair of the town’s optometrist. Our town was small and our doctors not exactly cutting-edge. Anything “fancy” happened down in Pittsburgh, more than an hour away. My dad always wondered if perhaps a better doctor would have saved his sight, but “what if’s” do nothing but stir up dissatisfaction.

A few routine tests indicated that something – a rogue blot of calcium perhaps? – had hemorrhaged my dad’s eyeball, not the big inside part but the small area between the lens and the cornea. The fluid was 90% gone, meaning the growing grey spot which had eaten my dad’s vision in his right eye was permanent.  The eye itched and burned and ached and he was able to see only at the very top of the field of vision.

At first, I think my dad had a little bit of hope that perhaps they could find a solution, and a great deal of gratitude that the chunk of calcium or whatever that had floated around in his head chose to lodge itself in a blood vessel in his eye rather than in his brain to cause a stroke. But it was a cold comfort for a man who’d spent 50 years working with his body.

I was too young to process much of what was going on, other than the fact that my dad was home a lot more and not going to work as much.  I imagine those were deeply disappointing weeks for him.  He talked to his bosses and US Steel offered him sick leave and eventually a new job: dipping disks (of some kind) in acid (for some reason I don’t remember). Dad was quite offended that this was his option. I’m not sure if the job was demeaning (to him) because it was a huge demotion from his previous work driving big dump trucks and bulldozers, or if he felt it was unsafe for a half-blind man. Either way, he was rather indignant and walked away from the offer.

Fortunately for our family finances, dad had just completed his 30th year at USSteel-ClairtonWorks, meaning he was eligible for a small company pension and continued health insurance coverage. It was a massive pay cut, offering about 40% of his former salary. But it was something.

I remember a few of dad’s mill buddies stopping by to see him during the year that followed. His personal misfortune was soon gulfed by the widespread collapse of the steel industry in Pittsburgh in 1983-84. Ironically, many of his friends who stayed at the mills to try to squeeze out any final months of work were rewarded with less than what my dad got from his pension.  If he’d stayed at Clairton, as he’d intended, he probably would have been in the same position…. along wit the 25% of people in Fayette County who were unemployed by 1983. (!)


Life for my dad form then on was a lot more bitter. He still played Johnny Cash tunes for me at nap time, fiddled around the house with building stuff like our back deck, and cut wood to burn for heat in the winter.

Dad was a very skilled man, really, considering his aborted acquisition of a college education. He could figure out how to build nearly anything — but now he couldn’t see well enough to hit the nails squarely.  The constant watering and pain in his eye made going out in bright light nearly impossible, made reading very difficult, made driving dangerous (though he still drove), made everything harder.

So at 50, my father wrestled with God over what to him were the worst possible questions: What had he done to deserve this? What sin had he committed that brought upon him blindness, uselessness, encroaching poverty, inadequacy? As he said it (many times), “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t run around, I don’t gamble. Why, God? Why me? Why us?”

I don’t think the answers ever came.

We continued on as a family, cutting expenses and tightening our budget, eliminating household utilities that others probably considered necessities.  My dad cooked (he was an amazing cook) and did laundry and met me at the bus stop after school.  He still mended his own socks (as he’d been taught in the Army) and picked away at songs on his guitar or harmonica and wielded his chain saw with mastery. We listened to Pirates baseball games together on the radio or TV on hot summer nights as tree frogs and crickets created such a chorus from the trees around us that we had to put the volume on high. I was daddy’s girl, just as I’d always been.

But my dad wasn’t the same anymore. That gregarious, talkative, personable man shrunk down into his shell of pain and irritation and bitterness and darkness and watched as many of the bright spots of his life faded before his eyes.

By the time I was a teenager, the marital strain was painfully obvious. It was joint blame for sure, for my mom’s loyalty to her older children above her current husband led to bad fights and a lot of screaming and a hateful anger which took up residence in our house and didn’t leave. Their intimacy crumbled, their working lives crumbled, and their drive to be something useful to the world fell apart as well.

By the time I went to college, I’d learned to appreciate the love and energy my parents had poured into me – on that score, they were still united. But my dad’s bitterness and soul-darkness did not break until my mom died.

That’s probably a story best left for another day. 

As Teens Push Away, What Can Parents Do To Support Them? | MindShift | KQED News

I think any of us who’ve worked extensively knows that loving a teenager is very much like “hugging a cactus.”  Or trying to make friends with an aloof feline – sometimes it feels like all they want is food; otherwise, “go away.”

But the teen years, hard as they are on parents and mentors, offer deeply rewarding moments as well: the opportunity to watch, before your eyes, a young adult emerging into life and discovery and calling.

Good article, quick read.

When teens push themselves away, says Hill, “it does not mean that they don’t want and crave their parents’ acceptance of their identities and interests. One of my colleagues said parenting teens is like hugging a cactus. Even as the ‘warm fuzzies’ are not often reciprocated, teens still need them, still need to know they are loved unconditionally. Don’t miss the opportunity to say or show love, warmth and affection toward even your most prickly teen.”

via As Teens Push Away, What Can Parents Do To Support Them? | MindShift | KQED News.

It’s about loving your neighbor: The Flag Controversy

For 2 days, South Carolina sits stunned at the news that a sullen 21 year old boy, hyped up on white supremacy nonsense and hoping to start a race war, spent an hour studying the Bible with a group of African Americans at a legendary AME church in Charleston before pulling out his gun and shooting 9 of them dead.


We all struggle to speak, because really, what can I say?

But I can add my voice to the rising tide of others who are willing to be so bold as to challenge the narrative that there isn’t a race problem in America, that this is all caused by angry black people or poor black people or good-for-nothing lazy welfare black people or [insert your other favorite slightly racist but still acceptable conservative statement here].

I can challenge the reality in my state of South Carolina that above our capital, on the grounds, flew one flag yesterday at full mast while all the others were at half: The Confederate flag. The flag that signified the South’s proud assertion that they were sovereign in 1860 and they are sovereign now over any federal mandate.

We could easily get bogged down in an argument over that sovereignty. I’ll leave that to the armchair historians.

But if you think that the value of the Confederate flag as a statement of sovereignty means anything in face of our American white/majority culture that glorifies violence in general as symbolized by the right to own weapons of violence, and refuses to relinquish power over what defines racism — well, here we must disagree.

The question of what SC needed to do with its flag was settled a decade ago with a compromise: remove the flag from the actual statehouse building but fly it on the grounds at the Confederate memorial instead.  Ok, that’s decent I suppose. I’m fine with history.

But the flag. That flag. It nearly throbs with the emotions attached to it by both sides: those who feel like their Southern culture and way of life are being ripped from them and must then clutch to the orange and blue symbol as a rallying cry to keep out anything that suggests we live in a different world. And by those who see in the flag a constant reminder of the lynchings (144 in South Carolina alone), the lunch-counter sit-ins, the beatings that accompanied the Civil Rights marches, the man who was shot dead by a Charleston police officer just two months ago.

Folks, the hate isn’t stopping. And our refusal (as those with power and privilege) to acknowledge this hate, to own it, to take responsibility for the backbreaking work of pushing against the capacity of the human heart to manufacture evil – that refusal is hurting us.

It’s a failure to love.

The Great Commandments are these: Love God (as hard as you can all the time with everything you have) and Love your neighbor as yourself.

Friends, our neighbors are the ones mourning the shots fired and the nine lives robbed from the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on Wednesday.  And our neighbors are telling us that racial attitudes in South Carolina are not fine.

The Confederate flag is not a neutral symbol of fried chicken, biscuits, sweet tea, and big trucks. It’s a physical manifestation of our failure as Christians in South Carolina to give up our “love” for “Southern heritage” (whatever the hell that means) on behalf of actually carrying out our mandate to flood every corner of this dark earth with the Gospel: the Gospel that condemns racism and sexism and classism, the Gospel that enables us to love God and neighbor, the Gospel that recognizes sin and names it for what it is and roots it out. 

I’d like to share Dr. Anthony Bradley‘s outstanding commentary on South Carolina’s moment in the spotlight in the wake of this shooting, as the flag’s presence over the capital — padlocked to its pole so that no one can ever take it down, or even lower it to honor innocent people slain by racial hatred — has moved to the forefront.

Dr. Bradley is a scholar, a PCA minister, and one of the few minority voices within my denomination. The PCA just last week passed a basic statement of repentance for our tainted and murky racial past. Bradley is clearly a brave man to be willing to hang out with us here in all our whiteness and Presbyterianness. And he’s brave enough to say this on Facebook and elsewhere:

The video referenced in this post is here:
The video referenced in this post is here:

Calling out this paragraph as the heart of his argument, and it’s a point that may cost me some friends by repeating it:

The spirit of the Confedrate battle flag remains alive and well in South Carolina because conservative Republican evangelical Christians have yet to place “loving your neighborhood” ahead of a romantic idolatry of “states’ rights and the old south.” Until black people become more important than “the Southern way of life” by white Christians, who hold the state’s economic and political power, the community of discourse that produced this shooter could keep producing people who are just as evil.

I don’t *need* for famous people to agree with my point of view, but it’s nice when it happens. 🙂

To save myself from typing:

FB lori comment

A friend of mine teaches at a school in the Greenville area and one of her German students struggled to understand why the Confederate flag is even defensible given America’s yearlong carnival of racial violence and shootings:

Michele student

Of course, it’s hard to find a more eloquent commentator on American flaws than Jon Stewart….. I still can’t cope with the reality that he won’t be a voice for us much longer ….. he had this powerful statement last night in response to the shootings. And I’ll let this be the last word (you can also read this summary at WaPo if you don’t have time for the video):

Among many excellent points, Stewart says:

I heard someone on the news say “Tragedy has visited this church.” This wasn’t a tornado. This was a racist. This was a guy with a Rhodesia badge on his sweater. You know, so the idea that — you know, I hate to even use this pun, but this one is black and white. There’s no nuance here.

And we’re going to keep pretending like, “I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.” But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it.

Update, 11:30am:
This excellent article by a South Carolina native and minority woman is a gentle reminder that South Carolina life is complex and messy, just like life everywhere. I’ll post it here because her viewpoint is important and necessary if we are to move past condemnation into hope:

Social justice is complicated and the lack of it is fraught with local nuance. What I ask from my friends who will and should add to the public conversation on the Charleston shootings is that they consider this before they tweet generalized condemnation.

from “My Complicated Relationship with South Carolina”

Update, Saturday, 1:30pm:

One of the best articles I’ve read in a while, Osheta counsels us to stop talking and listen, setting a trajectory of response that is Gospel-rich. “I’m sorry” and “I’m listening.”

 I’m sorry tames the anger.  “I’m sorry” respects the pain. “I’m sorry” positions you as a friend and not adversary.

I’m listening because we’re called to be reconcilers.

from What I need you to say in response to the shooting in Charleston

One man’s rant through career, calling, and creative work

A great little read through one creative’s useful ramble about making a career in creative work, even if your passion isn’t your day job. It starts out sounding like a business manifesto but really this is a piece about working out your calling when it’s hard to make that fit the job market.

Part of understanding the creative urge is understanding that itʼs primal. Wanting to change the world is not a noble calling; itʼs a primal calling.

6.HowToBeCreative (opens PDF) which was hosted at ChangeThis

(I couldn’t get the link to the PDF to work, so I’ve attached the PDF to make your life easier….but I want to make sure you see the ChangeThis attribution since this PDF isn’t mine.)

Good Reads: Articles I recommend from this past week

I liked last weekend’s ’roundup’ of my favorite reads on the Internets, so here’s another round. I recommend all of these:

College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one. – The Washington Post.
“If we are going to treat college as a commodity, and an expensive one at that, we should at least grasp the essence of its economic nature. Unlike a car, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value.”  The author continues in this excellent essay to explain why today’s consumerist, assessment-driven view of education results in “trigger warnings,” low student motivation, and bad teaching.

What Overparenting Looks Like from a Stanford Dean’s Perspective | MindShift
othing earth-shattering here, but she gently reminds parents that over-parenting isn’t a virtue, no matter how much social pressure exists to push everyone in that direction.

I’m a professor. My colleagues who let students dictate what they teach are cowards. | Vox
About a week ago, an anonymous professor wrote a Vox piece that splashed hard in social media. He wrote that the rising tide of student fears about encountering ideas they disagree with had pushed him away from teaching truly challenging material in the classroom.

This rebuttal, by a female minority professor is a thoughtful piece, one that I highly recommend. Her title is provocative, but don’t make too many assumptions on the front end about what you think she’s going to say. It’s a good read.

Suicide Isn’t About Wanting To Die | PsychCentral
Many people assume that suicidal people want to die. They don’t. They just want the pain to stop. An important read for understanding how to help suicidal people.

Black America is so very tired of debating and explaining |Salon
An important read from a perspective I do not naturally hear within my personal context. The author insightfully parses the causes for the continuing deep and damaging racial divide in America. You might not agree with his viewpoint, but you definitely should read it.

Why did it take 50 years for Calvinists to care about race? How the Mainline saved Evangelicalism | Anthony Bradley
An excellent post by Dr. Anthony Bradley about the PCA, SBC and acknowledging dark racial history in Evangelicalism:  “My Protestant mainline friends are wondering why the Calvinistic Baptists and conservative Presbyterians are so celebratory about the current progress in 2015 given the fact the rest of American Protestantism had these discussions 50 years ago. In fact, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic clergy came to the assistance of African Americans during the Civil-Rights Movement while gospel-centered, grace-centered Calvinists did nothing or supported racial segregation from the Bible. However, even with the half-of-a-century slowness to embrace issues that African American and “liberal” Christians regularly raise, we must give credit wherever credit is due. Progress is progress.”

And don’t miss the bibliotherapy article I posted yesterday.