My Uncle Joe’s Garden – A Veterans Day Remembrance

Originally published November 11, 2011

Four Cut Sunflowers by Vincent Van GoghJoseph Papak was a carpenter, my great uncle, and the only natural-born gardener I ever met. A railroad track ran alongside the duplex he and my Aunt Sue shared with my dad’s family in Monongahela, Pa., and Uncle Joe claimed the strip of rocky soil across the track for his garden. Polio forced him to walk with a cane as long as I knew him, but he scaled the gravel rise along the tracks, “just threw seeds on the ground,” and raised everything without fail. Broccoli, strawberries, corn, massive sunflowers lighting the entrance to the driveway, all in the constant gray of southwestern Pennsylvania. He also took over every unused patch of ground around the house and yard, always growing something year round. Beautiful asparagus shot up randomly along the wooden fence, like they’d taken root in each of his footsteps. He was the first person I ever saw compost, when I was just a little kid. He’d dump table scraps into a perfectly dug hole in the garden, sides as smooth as a beer keg, and cover it with a garbage can lid.

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Meet My First Best Friend

NOTE: This post was originally published May 15, 2012. I’m reposting it at the kind request of my good friend Kay Morgan.


I traveled back to my hometown of Pittsburgh this week for the first time in two years. I made the trip for my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party, so there was a lot of going through old family photos. I kept a few of the ones of — with apologies to all the humans I’ve known — the best friend I ever had until I met wife, my childhood dog Mindy.

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Art That Changed My Life: The Counterfeiters

NOTE: This post was originally published Sep. 11, 2012. I’m reposting it for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Counterfeiters – directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky (2007)

The Counterfeiters
My dad’s Catholic; my mom’s Jewish. So by the rules of Judaism, I’m Jewish. I certainly have the typical family for it, with the sheer size and volume of my mom’s side 1Her father was the youngest of 11 children. drowning out my dad’s small, quiet side. If I called my maternal grandmother, all I had to do was ask her one question and sit back and listen for an hour. If I called my dad’s mother, I needed a ream of material to keep her on the phone for five minutes.

But I never had the belief for Judaism. My sister and I were raised with samples from both religions: a Christmas tree with a star of David on top, Dukes of Hazzard action figures for Hanukkah. Between birth and high school I’d been to temple maybe twice. It took me a few years to realize that the illustrated book of stories that my maternal grandmother gave me, full of cities being destroyed and big dudes getting killed by rocks, were all tales from the Old Testament. I was allowed to make up my own mind about religion, and that combined with a steady dose of ontological science fiction put me on a slow but reasonably steady path toward atheism and a general lack of interest in religion.

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1. Her father was the youngest of 11 children.

A Mom Looks at Her Kids and Sees What’s at Stake

The following comes from my good friend, Pittsburgh writer, professional, activist, and mom Jenn. I asked her if I could repost it here because it bluntly and clearly describes what’s at stake this election

I have tried really, really hard to not get upset and angry this election cycle. Really. I AM trying to hold back, despite what you may see me post on Facebook or Twitter.

Until today. Today a friend told me that she wasn’t sure who she was voting for, maybe she’d just vote Libertarian or write in Elmo. Which is about the stupidest thing I’ve heard in days, weeks maybe.

But then I asked her to think of my younger son when she’s casting her vote.

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Pennsylvania Has Decided That My Grandmother Shouldn’t Vote

Show It

Yesterday a Pennsylvania appellate judge upheld the state’s misconceived voter ID law, and by “misconceived” I mean slightly more poorly conceived than a drive-thru colonoscopy.

The law requires voters to present a state-issued photo ID at the polls when voting. Longtime readers of this blog will remember the chum bath I had to take to get a Pennsylvania drivers license a couple of years ago, but everyone else can find a summary of the ridiculous process now standing between PA residents and their constitutional right to vote in Kara Vallow’s excellent blog post about the law.

Keep in mind that I had all that trouble getting my state ID while not only being independently mobile and Internet savvy but also having a 100% clear schedule and some disposable income. So imagine what’s in store for people like my 90-year-old grandmother in Monongahela, Pa, who can’t leave her apartment building without aid.

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How I’d Spend My Spare $177,000

Barrett-Jackson Orange County Auction BlockI spent a few hours Friday at the Barrett-Jackson Orange County auto auction, one of the largest collector car auctions in the US. You might’ve once flipped past some of the 87 weekly hours of B-J auction coverage on Speed, approximately 86 of which are commercials for engine coolant. Tucked in-between during this particular three-day auction at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, CA were over 400 of some of America’s best restored collector cars.

Growing up I was a car guy, particularly in my tween years, long before I even had a learner’s permit. I credit/blame my dad for this. A gearhead himself, back then he always had at least one collectible car in the garage (or, in one case, lying at the bottom of the hill behind our the garage after shooting out unguided in reverse). A Sunbeam, an Aston Martin (that I remember pushing down the street to a gas station when the fuel pump died), a few Alfa Romeos (one of which sat literally entirely disassembled in the garage for years), a couple of Fiats, and a long succession of Audis starting, I think, with an unusual 1987 4000CS. 1Doing the math now, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the prime of my dad’s car-collecting years were when he was about the same age I am now. I’d read his copies of Road & Track and hang posters of Lamborghini Countachs on my bedroom walls.

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1. Doing the math now, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the prime of my dad’s car-collecting years were when he was about the same age I am now.

#SethBuyMeLunch Lunch No. 11 – Dave Shotwell

David ShotwellI should really just stop intending to take photographs of the #SethBuyMeLunch winners, because I forget every time. I’m just gonna uese Dave Shotwell’s Twitter photo, which I can verify is what he looks like. Conversely, he can confirm that this lunch actually happened and that I’m not just making this post up from information I learned during the 49 hours I spent hidden in his couch cushions.

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