Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer, Editor, and Teacher

Pittsburgh writer, editor, ghostwriter, and teacher.

Category: Reasons to Love Pittsburgh

The Great Pittsburgh Spelling Bee of 2014

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This weekend I had the good fortune of participating in the Great Pittsburgh Spelling Bee of 2014, which raised funds for the extremely worthy Literary Arts Boom (LAB), a project run out of an awesome Pittsburgh nonprofit, Assemble. LAB is Pittsburgh’s answer to the 826 writing centers project from McSweeney’s and fills the same niche of tutoring kids in writing, publishing, making reading and writing fun, and so on.

A friend texted my fiancée and I about the spelling bee and, without too much reflection, I signed us both up.

I should say that I have a history with spelling bees. I participated in my middle-school spelling bee every year I was eligible (sixth, seventh, and eighth grades). I still remember each word that knocked me out: “raunchy” in sixth grade (“rawnchy”); “dormitory” in seventh (“dormitary”) . . . and the last one I’ll mention in a moment.

I love spelling bees; I love spelling. I always thought I was great at it in school, and I entered the spelling bee last Saturday feeling like I’d only gotten better over the ensuing years. Since eighth grade, I’ve graduated high school and college and earned a Masters degree in writing, and have accrued about a decade of experience as a professional proofreader, copyeditor, and writer.

Still, I didn’t have any expectations. I basically took it on faith that somewhere in Pittsburgh there existed a medieval Latin-reading philosophy grad student, or a wizened old doctor who knew all the derivations of a thousand polysyllabic conditions and syndromes, or an insomniac librarian with a photographic memory, who would show up and dominate the field with the detached cool and confidence of a spelling assassin.

Read the rest of this entry »

The unceasing wonder of the internet (and Reason to Love Pittsburgh #11)

. . . exists, among other places, in the fact that sometimes your blog subjects write back. And are completely kind and nice about it.

In the comments of that piece today, I found Billie Nardozzi had written in! Just go to the above link, scroll down to the comments, and experience my unfolding wonder as it happened.

This brings me to my Reason to Love Pittsburgh #11: people here are really, really nice. Like continue-to-surprise-you-with-their-niceness nice. (I had the idea recently for a mural (or a t-shirt, a bumper sticker, or whatever), in the vein of Austin, Tx.’s “Keep Austin Weird,” that would read “Keep Pittsburgh Polite.” I still think it’s not a bad idea.)

Reason to Love Pittsburgh #8

The “Random Acts of Kindness” column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I just love it.

For the sappy reasons you’d think, having to do with faith in humanity and the milk of human kindness and so on. But also because there’s such lovely Pittsburgh textures in these messages, and because, if you live here, you can convince yourself these stories wouldn’t be told everywhere else in the world.

Here’s an example, from the March 21st installment:

“Thirty minutes later I realized I didn’t have the [lost credit] card and hurried back to that lane, where I asked the assistant if she had found it. She had not. She directed me to the customer service counter, saying, ‘Don’t worry — this is Pittsburgh!'”

Also to wit, the opener from one of today’s “Random Acts of Kindness”:

“I had occasion to have a buffet luncheon and soft drink at the Pizza Hut located in Brentwood Towne Square.”

Oh, Lord. Oh, Pittsburgh.

P.S. Here is a link with all of the other reasons to love Pittsburgh. There are many more than eight, but I’ve been going slowly.

Morning Fog

It is a foggy morning in Pittsburgh. As is always the case when fog is general across the city, I am reminded of one of my favorite short stories, Tobias Wolff’s “Our Story Begins.” The story’s setting is San Francisco, and the fog is a bit more aggressive than it is here this morning, but what lovely descriptions:

“The fog blew in early again. This was the tenth straight day of it. The waiters and waitresses gathered along the window to watch, and Charlie pushed his cart across the dining room so that he could watch with them as he filled the water glasses. Boats were beating in ahead of the fog, which loomed behind them like a tall, rolling breaker. Gulls glided from the sky to the pylons along the wharf, where they shook out their feathers and rocked from side to side and glared at the tourists passing by.

“The fog covered the stanchions of the bridge. The bridge appeared to be floating free as the fog billowed into the harbor and began to overtake the boats. One by one they were swallowed up in it.”

. . .

“Charlie started home the long way, up Columbus Avenue, because Columbus Avenue had the brightest streetlights. But in this fog the lights were only a presence, a milky blotch here and there in the vapor above. Charlie walked slowly and kept to the walls. He met no one on his way; but once, as he paused to wipe the dampness from his face, he heard strange ticking steps behind him and turned to see a three-legged dog appear out of the mist. It moved past in a series of lurches and was gone. ‘Christ,’ Charlie said. Then he laughed to himself, but the sound was unconvincing and he decided to get off the street for a while.”

Copying out these passages, I was struck first that these aren’t actually flamboyantly beautiful descriptions of fog; second, that they’re sneakier and more effective than that, because what they conjure up is the sensation you get when you’re trapped or enveloped in fog: in the first two paragraphs, Wolff describes a bus boy inside a tourist-trap restaurant as the fog closes in, strangling business for the evening; in the last, the bus boy walks home alone, late, through the fog and the empty streets. The three-legged dog is not Wolff’s usual thing—he’s a more realistic, generally unsentimental writer, not given to quirks or humor other than the dry sort—but here it makes sense: strange things come out of the fog, and everything looks a bit stranger when its context is wiped away. You can read metaphorical significance into the fog, isolating the main character, Charlie, forcing him to confront his own life—but you don’t really need to; it’s fog, it’s San Francisco.

I can remember reading “Our Story Begins” for the first time and getting chills. It was the summer and I was sitting in a laundromat in Philadelphia, waiting for my load of wash to be done. Walking around the city I had picked up a book called Graywolf Annual for some year, maybe 1989 or ’90, in a box of books put out on the curb with a placard reading “Free Books!” There were a number of fantastic stories in that collection—Andre Dubus and Richard Ford were represented, along with Annie Proulx’s “The Half-Skinned Steer”—but “Our Story Begins” was the one that made me put the book down, look around, and feel obscurely that I had been taught something important and at just the right time. I was older than the main character—23 or 24 at that time—but in not so different a place in terms of life and career. In the story, Charlie is revealed to be an aspiring writer who has moved to San Francisco with thoughts of Kerouac, of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso popping into the cafe where he goes to escape the fog; his novel, we’re told, has been returned without comment by all the publishers he’s sent it to—except for one, who’s written “Are you kidding?” across the title page. Without encouragement, friendless, with San Francisco’s long, cold summer wearing him down, Charlie is just on the point of giving up. His encounter in the cafe, listening in on an ambiguous conversation between a married couple and the choir director the wife is having an affair with, sustains Charlie, convincing him to push on a little further by conveying a sense of possibility, of wonder at what the world will turn up next. It was an immensely encouraging idea to read in a story; whether or not any of this happened to Tobias Wolff, it seemed impossible he hadn’t lived some version of this pivotal moment, deciding whether to go on.

I’ve already sort of spoiled the story for you, but below the jump is its conclusion—a big part of why I’ve remembered this story so fondly for so long: Read the rest of this entry »

Brief Menu Item Reveals Inescapability of Steelers Football in Pittsburgh

From the weekly menu of Zenith, a great vegetarian-restaurant-cum-vintage-store in the south side neighborhood of Pittsburgh:

POLAMALU (need you to play) WRAP

BLACK BEANS, RICE, PINEAPPLE, YELLOW  PEPPERS, COCONUT AND ONIONS IN A SPICY TROPICAL SAUCE WRAPPED IN A FLOUR TORTILLA

If this were just “Polamalu Wrap,” you could suspect the scrawny vegetarians at Zenith of pandering to Pittsburgh’s well-known obsession with its NFL franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The revealing touch here is the parenthetical plea to Troy Polamalu, the Steelers’ otherworldly, locally beloved free safety, to get back in the game. (If you want to know why Polamalu is beloved, among other reasons, check out either one of these videos of him diving into the crowd during the Steelers’ 2005-06 and 2008-09 Super Bowl victory parades.)

If a Washington, DC vegetarian-restaurant-cum-vintage-store served the “Orakpo Wrap,” I’d similarly suspect those pale, feckless herbivores of pandering to that town’s football crowd. But if they served the “Orakpo (Really Going to Miss You) Wrap,” I’d be impressed, as I am in the case of the Polamalu Wrap, and surprised. You just don’t expect the same level of casual football knowledge among residents in other cities. Here, it’s sort of de rigeur. (Orakpo, by the way, is Brian Orakpo, linebacker of the Washington Totally Racist Team Name. You may recognize the name from his appearances alongside a caveman in these Geico commercials. He was injured this past week and will miss the rest of the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. I’d never cheer anyone’s getting injured but Washington fans’ loss is the Philadelphia Eagles’ gain.)

Steelers fanship in Pittsburgh is serious and widespread enough that it’s spawned a sort of backlash contingent of people who sniff and tell you, in the same tone they might use to inform you that they never watch television, and in fact don’t own a television set at all, that they don’t follow the Steelers, or football in general. Among fans of other teams, too, there’s a sort of common response of despising the Steelers and rooting against them. (A few weekends ago I was in Cleveland for the Eagles’ home opener against the Cleveland Browns. On the way out of the game there was some mostly calm discussion between Browns fans and Eagles fans (who were, in total, surprisingly numerous there in (the refreshingly named) Cleveland Browns Stadium), and it turned out one gnarled, hard-living couple in Eagles jerseys was from Pittsburgh. “We hate the Steelers, though,” the man said hastily to a guy in a Browns jerseys. His female companion turned and nodded that this was so. When they got outside, the two men shook hands and the Eagles fan, in parting, raised a fist and said, “Let’s both beat the Steelers this year” and they were joined in solidarity re: beating the Steelers. (This year teams in the NFC East play those in the AFC North, so the Eagles and Browns will indeed both be playing the Steelers.))

More telling, though, is the number of people you’ll find in the supermarket during Steelers games (which I watch part of, usually; if I’ve gone through the drama, the heartache and/or euphoria, of a Philadelphia Eagles game, I have no more patience or emotional energy to then watch the Steelers as well). You would think that Giant Eagle would be a ghost town during the game, but enough people have made the same simple mental calculation—All those sheep will be inside, glued to the tube, rooting for their ‘Stillers,’ drinking their ‘Ahrn City,’ etc., I’ll have the run of the place!—that it’s often no less crowded than it is on a Saturday morning, or midway through the evening on a weeknight.

The backlashers, people who hate the Steelers or who are indifferent but nevertheless organize their Sundays around the team, have always seemed to me to be caught in a simple binary trap: love the Steelers or hate them, they still seem to know exactly when the game is on, and to plan accordingly. Steelers football is just kind of the water you swim in in Pittsburgh, which is a crucial difference between the sports culture here versus nearly anywhere else.

Bukowski Hoggle, A Few Years Late (Including Reason #7 to Love Pittsburgh)

I just saw Labyrinth at the wonderful Hollywood Theater in Dormont. It occurred to me during the screening that the character Hoggle, Sarah’s (Jennifer Connelly’s) self-professedly cowardly muppet guide through the labyrinth, has the same elaborately craggy face as late poet/novelist/barfly Charles Bukowski. I just did all the work (“work”) of finding images of both and was preparing to blow the internet’s mind with this comparison when I thought I might as well quickly google “Bukowski Hoggle.”

I did, and found this and this. Oh well. Now I know it’s an apt comparison.

By the way, if you are in the Pittsburgh area, the Hollywood is well worth the short trip through the Liberty Tubes. (So is Dormont in general.) They’re the only game in town if you’d like to see a live showing of cult classic The Room, and have screened stuff I wouldn’t have been able to see elsewhere in town (Tim and Eric’s Billion-Dollar Movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow). I’m pumped because in a week or so they’re showing one of my favorite films of all time, Pee-Wee’s Big AdventureThey’ve re-opened the theater—a big, old-timey movie house with a giant balcony—a couple times and this time it seems to be sticking, as they’ve done it as a civic organization rather than a for-profit endeavor. So, consider this “Reason to Love Pittsburgh #7,” the latest in that sadly neglected series. (Seriously, there are thousands of reasons to love Pittsburgh. I’ve only got around to writing about seven of them.)

Pittsburgh’s Loss

Sad news (and old news, apparently). The Gist Street Reading Series has concluded its final season. I laded on the praise and affection a while ago; now it reads like an elegy. Ah, sad times for Pittsburgh’s literary scene. Gist Street was very much its crown jewel.

Marathon training begins

Speaking of marathon running (as a metaphor for writing), my training regimen for the 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon kicked off last Tuesday evening. I’m following this Runner’s World plan, which served me well last time. It’s still the “beginner’s” plan, but my intention is to replace the uphill runs (usually 4-milers that include a certain portion to be run uphill) with tempo runs (runs where you go at a faster-than-comfortable pace for a certain amount of time). My main concern is increasing my speed, not contending with hills (of which there are surprisingly few in the Pittsburgh course).

As I set out, only 12 miles into what will add up to around 300-400 miles of training runs (Oh God.), I’m optimistic about dropping my time by another 10+ minutes. I plan to cross-train more aggressively this time around. For a start, I expect to swim more consistently than during my Philadelphia marathon training, when I took it up more than halfway through my regimen. Perhaps more promisingly, I’ve enrolled in a cross-training program, offered by (apparently famous?) orthopedic surgeon Dr. Vonda Wright and sanctioned by the Pittsburgh Marathon. It begins next month, but I attended an orientation session that I found grueling even in its abbreviated form. The emphasis is on building the core muscles, strengthening both the abdominal and back muscles, and paying some attention to the arms as well. It should be a great addition to my training, not least of all because it’ll be an indoor workout during the worst of the Pittsburgh winter (which, so far, has been nasty).

Sad (Book-Related) News

Joseph-Beth Booksellers, a real high point in the life of Pittsburgh’s literary scene, is closing this weekend. Darn this rough economy!

They moved from a big, lovely two-story space (with escalators and a weird, tiny tranquility fountain sort of thing) to a more cramped space earlier in the year, but still had a great selection, at least in the fiction section and, especially, in the number of literary magazines they carried. I special-ordered Jack Pendarvis’s Awesome one time and the clerk advised me that if it came in and I decided I didn’t want it, that was fine. Some may see that as a lack of business acumen, but I was impressed by the book-first attitude evinced by that policy.

On a note that is either more positive or slightly morbid, though, they are having a great sale—40 percent off everything—until they close on November 14th.

Pittsburgh Pools: Reason #6 to Love Pittsburgh

Whether you’re cross-training, nursing a sports injury, or just love the water, swimming is always a solid option. It tends to drop off the radar once the weather turns cooler, but for my money that’s the best time to start up. Indoor swimming during the cold months puts me in mind of all those great moments when you’ve been shut up inside someplace that’s gone overboard on the heat—a stuffy lecture hall, a smelly gym—and at last you burst out into the cold air. For a brief time, it doesn’t register as cold at all, only as a bracing and welcome change. So it is when you’ve been swimming: your hair is wet, your lungs are stung by chlorine and exertion, and the sharp edge of the air takes you by surprise.

I sing in praise of indoor swimming because I recently discovered one of Pittsburgh’s real municipal treasures, the Oliver Bath House on the South Side of the city. The city has a quite good pool system, with most of the pools open during the summer only. But only the Oliver Bath House remains open through the fall and winter months. So far, it’s been a great experience. I’m lucky in that I work only about a mile from the Bath House, and can get there by 5:30 p.m., a few seconds before the bulk of the post-work rush, thus allowing myself about 20-25 minutes of lap-swimming. The pool is well-maintained, if a little small, the staff are friendly, and there’s a general willingness among the patrons to share lanes when things do get a bit more crowded.

The best part, though, is the price. It costs $4 to go for the day, $3 for a child’s pass. But a season pass costs an adult only $30. I was genuinely surprised, upon signing up, to find that “season” doesn’t mean the fall, or even fall and winter, but that my pass will cover me all the way to June. That is the kind of steal that makes me proud to be a Pittsburgher, and to pay the taxes that make such a thing possible.