Open Letter to Senator Pat Toomey: Who Will Pay for NICU Babies?

March 8, 2017

Dear Senator Toomey,

Usually I hand-write letters so you don’t think I’m copying and pasting from some source online, but I type faster than I write, and I’d like to tell you a personal story that’s very dear to me.

Today, International Women’s Day, always feels like my second daughter’s birthday, because six years ago today, I went into labor at 31 weeks; the baby was 4 lbs, 5 oz, and so breech her feet were literally sticking out of my cervix. That was a bad day. Fortunately, 5 years and 359 days ago, March 14, 2011, what could have ended very badly ended happily, with the C-section delivery of a perfect little peanut of a preemie. I’ll call her GJ here.

Nineteen months earlier, my first daughter, at 34 weeks, had been eerily still for hours, not kicking or responding to stimuli. After an emergency induction, we realized she’d aspirated meconium in the womb. She was born very ill, and was whisked off to the NICU for emergency oxygen treatment for her persistent pulmonary hypertension. We’ll call her EB.

When I was pregnant with EB, I was on a PPO. I thought it was a good choice, because I hadn’t expected to get pregnant so quickly; it turned out to be a terrible choice, as her illness and my resulting infection racked up costs of over $200,000 inside of a week. Fortunately, we had an annual cap, but we still spent $12,000 out-of-pocket. I’ve had a career for a long time, and between California’s Pregnancy Disability Leave, what I was able to save, and our families, we were able to pay off that $12,000 within months, without too much hardship.

As you can imagine, I am extraordinarily grateful for that good fortune. We didn’t earn our families’ money, but we were grateful to have it. My job didn’t have to offer 6 weeks of paid pregnancy leave, but I was grateful to have it. Having my baby in California meant I got PDL, and I was grateful for that, as well. I often lay awake at night, thinking, if I’d been in that same position in a different state, in a different city, with families living paycheck-to-paycheck, and I’d been laid off at the start of my pregnancy—what would have happened to us? A tax credit certainly wouldn’t have made much of a difference to us in that case.

With GJ’s birth, I didn’t make the same mistake; I got an HMO. I paid $500 out-of-pocket all told: that’s for one week of mandatory hospital bedrest, one week of C-section recovery, and GJ’s three weeks in the NICU, as she put on enough weight to be discharged. Again, I wonder: what if we hadn’t had healthcare? How would we have paid for her care? What price is the life of a living, breathing baby?

If we spend so much time caring for unborn fetuses, why don’t we spend as much money and time caring for the lives of newborn babies and their mothers?

If we spend so much time caring for unborn fetuses, why don’t we spend as much money and time caring for the lives of newborn babies and their mothers? Don’t we care about them, as well? Do we tell a mother that a small tax credit will make up the difference of a $200,000 bill for her child?

My story doesn’t end there. A doctor had told me I have a condition wherein any pregnancy I’d have following GJ would track similarly: I’d have to be on bedrest for the last months. I’d need cerclage, meaning they’d literally stitch my cervix shut to hold the baby in. And for all that, she’d likely still come early, and I’d have a third baby in the NICU.

I suffered nightmares for the first two years of GJ’s life, terrified that I would get pregnant again—I dreamed of pregnant women, abandoned in the rain, hailing cabs that wouldn’t stop for her. I dreamed of being in the NICU, and doctors telling me I couldn’t touch my baby. I dreamed of being pregnant myself, and having tiny babies that I had to carry in a bubble, outside my body. Physically, the idea of intimacy so terrified me—even using condoms—that my husband and I grew apart.

My stress finally helped my husband decide to get a vasectomy, two years to the date that I went into labor with GJ. The dreams went away, although I still suffer anxiety attacks triggered by places that remind me of the hospital and NICU where I spent three weeks of my life. (Including my grandmother’s nursing home.) And we’re still dealing with the aftermath of that lack of physical intimacy for so long.

How can the party of so-called family values tell happily married couples that they must either suffer a sexless marriage or pay for the full cost of sick babies?

Again, I think: we were able to pay for his procedure. You’re married, and surely you understand how important physical intimacy is to a healthy marriage. What about married families who can’t afford contraception? Do we just tell them to stay abstinent? Do we tell them to suffer through their marriage? How can the party of so-called family values tell happily married couples that they must either suffer a sexless marriage or have sick babies? And who will pay for the sick babies once they’re born?

If I hadn’t been so fortunate, the young, healthy people paying premiums under the ACA mandate would have picked up the cost of GJ’s care. With EB, born in July of 2009, we’d have gone bankrupt. The ACA would also pay for anti-anxiety meds that I take very occasionally, so I don’t end up shaking on the floor of a bathroom just because I want to visit my grandmother. The ACA would have helped pay for my husband’s vasectomy.

I’m grateful my family has the means to pay for our family’s healthcare, but my heart aches for the families who are not so fortunate—the very families who need the protection of the ACA. These families will not benefit from a small tax break. They will pay and pay and pay, before pregnancy, during, and after, and I, for one, am happy to do my share to ensure no mother has to go through what I went through and worry that she won’t be able to feed her family while she pays for it.

Please, show you’re a compassionate man who truly cares about families, and fix the ACA. Don’t destroy it and replace it with a plan that will only benefit people like me—I don’t need more benefits. I’m fortunate enough already.



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My 92-Year-Old Grandma’s Late-Life Political Correctness

My grandmother is going to be 92 years old in December. She grew up in Braddock, a borough near Pittsburgh that saw its population crumble from 50,000 to 5,000 in her lifetime. She grew up in a deeply Italian, Eastern European, and Black neighborhood.

When I was a kid I stood on her stoop and she pointed at the five Catholic churches in site–“There’s the Dago church, the Hunky church, the Polack church, the other Dago church, and the Russians, but they’re a different kind of Catholic.” The nationalities barely mixed; the races most certainly did not.

I grew up hearing every foul racial epithet you’ve ever read in a book. She wasn’t even necessarily complaining. They were just descriptors.

Grandma and Grandpa (Gram and Pap, inset)

Grandma and Grandpa (Gram and Pap, inset)

In the early 90s, I came of age, and my mouth grew up with me. I started calling her on her language. She started hearing people on TV saying it wasn’t OK to use those words. The last time I remember her offhandedly using a racist slur was probably around 1994, when she said something about “those jig-… but I probably shouldn’t say that.” She used one of the most offensive terms out there, and she corrected herself.

She’s been living in Greene County with my parents for 15 years. Her mind is slipping. But she watches The View with a fervor, and hasn’t used a racial slur in my presence in years. (Between The View and Sister Act, Whoopi Goldberg can do no wrong.) Somehow homosexuality came up a few months ago, and she mentioned Rosie O’Donnell, and said, “I don’t know why people are so mean to those people. I don’t think they can help it.”

Representation works.

Point being: Grandma’s almost 92 years old, and she understands that political correctness is not being “politically correct.” It’s realizing there’s shit she’s been saying that she literally should not say: not just because I asked her not to. Not just because it’s unkind and rude.

Why? Because it’s also WRONG. And she tries, and has been trying for the last 30 years of her life.

Does she always get it right? No. Do any of us who grew up in not-quite-woke environments? No. But we try. And we should keep trying. We shouldn’t see ourselves as “allies” and leave it there; we must continue listening and evolving.


Grandma at Easter, 2016.

Bottom line: Do NOT tell me times were better back then, when Grandma could talk about the n****rs down the street as casually as I mention now that my neighbor used to be a dentist. It was toxic for her neighborhood—white flight decimated Braddock—and it was toxic for her. And she knew it. She wanted to connect with her grandchildren, and she also recognized that maybe that crap she’d been saying all along wasn’t right.

My grandmother didn’t just use those words; she internalized them. And when she stopped using those terms, she internalized that, too. Behavior influences your perspective. Change the behavior and you change yourself.

If you’re not changing (you who are not 92 years old, by the way) it’s because you don’t want to… or because you live in such a secluded society that there’s no one around you to show you that change is even possible. In which case, enjoy your comfort zone while you can, and please don’t complain to the rest of us, who are working every day to move on. Including my Grandma.

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In Defense of Morning People, or, 7 Ways to Avoid Getting Stabbed with a Bagel Knife

Engaging in society-wide, public loathing of morning people has always been a fun pastime. Morning people, (as we all know) typify the very worst kind of vapid, gung-ho, obnoxious teacher-pleasing go-getter: they’re not just extroverts. They take their productive extroversion and rub it in your face like a steaming pile of unicorn dung just when you’re most vulnerable and introverted.


Why are morning people so horrible? Is it because work traditionally starts at 9 AM, so they have an unfair societal advantage? Is it because they’re not in a bad mood when you are? Is it because all the morning-hater memes are funny and cynical, and the morning-loving memes look like this?


Is it because, at the exact moment when you’re swimming upward into consciousness, grasping blindly for the coffee and just wanting a quiet transition into the day, they’re already presenting you with a to-do list, on which they’ve already crossed off five things and need your help doing the sixth thing, because, they can’t do the seventh thing until you help with the sixth thing and they’ve been waiting like 45 minutes for you to get up so you could do the sixth thing, and BTW the coffee’s probably cold because it was made three hours ago?


Yes: I am a morning person.

I have never had anything to do with being a morning person, and I didn’t choose it. When I was 5, my grandmother remarked that I “wake up with the chickens,” and that’s never changed, not even in my teen years. I wouldn’t give it up–I like being a morning person, much like most night people I know wouldn’t change that about themselves–but I had nothing to do with it.


Like with everything, the internet makes it easier to publicly hate morning people. I’ve frequently been told how fucking annoying morning people are. And that night people are proven to be smarter, and better at something or other. I’m a morning person, ergo, I am likely as intelligent and obnoxious as a squirrel, digging into a birdfeeder at dawn.

Greedy morning motherfucker.

Greedy morning motherfucker.

Night folks: the next time you want to stick your bagel knife in someone’s eye just because they ask you a question before 8 AM, please remember that they can’t help being a morning person, and if they’re not assholes, have likely spent a lifetime curbing their morning-people tendencies so as not to get stabbed with a bagel knife.

Being a Morning Person is Innate

Our bodies are set to sunrise, and all things being equal, our asses will wake up by 8 AM at the latest, regardless of bedtime (10 PM? 4 AM? No difference.) We’re not trying to annoy you any more than you’re trying to annoy us by wheedling, “It’s 9 PM, why are you going to bed now, seriously, are you 5?” (Or maybe you are trying to annoy us with that. That’s on you.) We’re not more productive than anyone else; we just wake up early and fast.

The  problem is, a good mood before 10 AM is an intentional act of aggression against a night person, just as playing loud music (or something really offensive like snoring) after 11 PM is equivalent to a gut-punch for morning people.

Being a Morning Person Doesn’t Mean You Have to Be An Asshole

We all have to live together, so we all need to work to make it a little easier for everyone. If you don’t believe that you need to occasionally think about someone else’s emotional and mental state, you’re an asshole. If you think that because you act a particular way, then everyone else also should act that way, you’re an asshole. If you think that you deserve a medal for having a sunrise or sunset clock, you’re an asshole.

Don’t be an asshole. If you’re a morning person, respect the night people.  Just like you can’t help springing out of bed at 6:30 AM on a Saturday, they can’t help feeling like they want to kill you because you chirped, “GOOD MORNING!” We can’t help our feelings. But we can control our actions. They can make an effort to not kill you (and do every day). And you can make an effort not to chirp at them.

So, morning people, in case you haven’t learned these lessons the hard way, after a visit to the ER for an emergency bagel-knifectomy, here are my top 7 methods for helping night people cope with our natural tendencies.

7 Ways Morning People Can Avoid Getting Stabbed With a Bagel Knife

  1. Don’t smile with teeth before 10 AM, unless someone smiles at you first. Our sister gorillas have long taught us that baring teeth is an act of aggression. Night people will take it as such.
    • Exceptions: If someone smiles at you, you may return it.
  2. If you feel compelled to say anything to anyone in the kitchen before 9 AM (or in the work kitchen before 10 AM), keep your voice low and steady, and say “‘Morning.” That’s all. Nothing more. A brief nod of acknowledgment is also acceptable.
    • Exceptions: Co-workers you really despise. Go Pinkie Pie on their asses.
  3. Don’t ask anyone any questions before 9 AM. 
    • Exceptions: “Where does this bus go?”
  4. Don’t list the things you got done before 9 AM. That’s obnoxious in any capacity, and especially if you’re doing it at 9:10 AM, and Night Person hasn’t had her caffeine.
    • Exceptions: Conversations about that, specifically; breakfast meetings. (I’m a morning person and I also fucking hate breakfast meetings.)
  5. Don’t talk to anyone before 7 AM. Seriously, just don’t. If circumstances demand it, see #1 and #2 for appropriate behavior. And even morning people have limits: I’ve had to tell a few airport drivers to STFU at 4 AM.
    • Exceptions: Other morning people; your children.
  6. Understand your spouse’s morning habits and behave accordingly. If you’re married to a night person (as I am), watch them closely in the morning so you understand their ready-for-communication signs. Is it the second cup of coffee? After they’ve showered? After they’ve put on lipstick? Once they’ve crossed that starting line, then (and only then!) can you begin demanding action.
    • Exceptions: If they kept you up late, knowing you will not be able to sleep until 11 AM, you have my blessing to go Full Metal Jacket on their asses. With a vuvuzuela.
  7. If you really, really want to be cheerful in the morning, find bus drivers, sanitation workers, and baristas; they’ve already been up for hours and probably appreciate a smile among the hundreds of fuck-this faces they see during every shift. Get out your chirpy “Good morning!” with them.

As morning people, we must be considerate of our fellow night people, both out of human consideration and simple survival. If they’re not complete assholes they’ll return the favor, respecting quiet hours and our inability to sleep for ten hours straight, regardless of the sun’s position in the sky. Bagel knives should be used only for slicing into delicious, toasted bagels.

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What It’s Like Having a NICU Baby

I wrote this letter to a friend’s sister who has a baby in the NICU. I thought I’d share it in case it helps anyone else.

I’m being terribly presumptuous writing this letter, I know, and I don’t know you very well. But  I wanted to let you know some things, because I’ve been in a similar situation as you, and the worst part of it, for me, was feeling lost and alone because I wasn’t sure if anyone understood what I was going through. So I’m hoping this might offer you some comfort.

First of all: Congratulations! She’s adorable and will keep getting cuter. This is such a special moment, and even in all the worry and pain you might be experiencing, you have a little baby who will grow into an adorable kid and amazing woman.

Since every person and every birth experience is different, I can’t presume to know what you’re feeling. So at the risk of seeming self-absorbed, I’m going to tell you how I felt. When I was going through this, I wanted to know from other people that they had been through it, too, and how they felt, and to know that my feelings were normal.

My Girls’ Stories

I have two daughters, as you know, healthy as horses and cute as can be, but both of them were in the NICU. With Eliza, I ended up in the hospital two weeks early because I hadn’t been feeling her move, and I wasn’t feeling well. It turns out I’d gotten an infection, and she had also aspirated meconium. She was born with PPH, which I found out later is no joke for newborns. Her lungs and pulmonary system were compromised, and we both were pumped full of antibiotics for a week; she was on an oxygen tube for most of that week. I didn’t realize until afterward how sick she really was, thankfully, but she came through and is just fine now.

With Gillian, I went into labor at 31 weeks (I have a condition called an incompetent cervix, and how’s that for a term made up by a man?) and was on hospital bedrest for a week. After a week, I got an infection, and she was born by C-section at 32 weeks, at 4 lbs., 5 oz. I’d gotten all my steroid shots for her lung development and she was in the “scary” NICU for only two nights before she became an official feed-and-grow in the “nice” NICU. She breastfed in the first week—crazy!—and didn’t need a feeding tube after only a few days. The nurses just fed her and cuddled her until she was big enough to leave the hospital, which was 3 weeks after she was born.

Your story is different than mine. Everyone’s story is different, even with textbook births. But I hope I can offer you some comfort in commiseration. I’ll try to offer only this advice to you: your feelings and your own, and they are all OK.  Everything you’re feeling—all of it!—is yours, and it’s OK and valid and acceptable and yours.

Most of what I’m about to write refers to Eliza, since she was my first, and she was sick.

Terrified, Stressed, Lonely, Scared, Guilty, Grateful

I was terrified for her, so worried she was in pain she didn’t understand, or feeling as lonely and scared as I did. I felt horribly guilty that I’d done something wrong to bring it on. I felt stressed out that I had to manage my family’s anxiety, and make them feel better, and answer all their texts and talk to them on the phone and tell them I felt OK. (I ended up telling my sister to intercept all the messages from my mom because I couldn’t take the scared tone in her voice.) I felt exhausted, because having a baby is hard, and when I had Gillian by C-section, I was in pain, and getting the chills, and fevered, and trying to squeeze out “liquid gold” colostrum so they could get those good nutrients.

I felt devastated that both of them had their first baths by nurses, without me to help or watch. The wires were terrifying, and looked painful. I looked at the babies in the well-baby nursery, and felt bitterly cheated every time I had to get admitted to the sterile, beeping, and whirring atmosphere of what I came to think of as the scary NICU. Then I looked around the NICU and saw other babies who were in much worse condition, and felt guilty for feeling anything but grateful that my kid wasn’t that bad off. And then I felt guilty for comparing her condition. I shared tired, hopeful smiles with other parents and talked with mothers in the lactation room as we pumped breastmilk into sterilized bottles.

I felt comforted by the constant beep-beep-beep of the monitor that echoed her heartbeat, and overjoyed every time they removed one more tube or wire. I had nurses I especially loved, and couldn’t help but laugh when a night nurse shot me a “Your kid won’t STFU” look because she was crying all night. Because crying was the best. I went up one night at 3 AM, freshly pumped milk in my hand—I was wide awake and wanted to see her—and heard her shrieking through two sets of fire doors. They were removing the IV from her foot, and I’ve never heard a better sound. No baby with lungs like that could possibly have compromised lungs, right?

Most of all, I felt strong. I cried, but I mostly held it together. I didn’t have any choice. I didn’t make a conscious decision to keep it together for her; I just did. All these emotions were a constant swirl, a tornado of happy/sad/scared/comforted. And then we left the hospital, and I was deep in the weeds with a newborn, and all that that entails, so the emotions got packed away. Caring for an infant is a lot of flipping work, never mind the NICU part, and I didn’t have the time or energy to dwell on the ordeal we’d just been through.

NICU PTSD is a Thing

One of my friends that had a NICU baby always says, “The NICU was our ‘Nam.” Another friend told her husband (a combat veteran): “Imagine being in combat, only you don’t have a gun and have to let everyone else fight for you.” That’s what it’s like.

Five months after I had Eliza, we went back to the same hospital to see my sister-in-law, who had just had a boy. I stepped into the hospital, and my heart started pounding. By the time I got to the elevator, I felt dizzy. By the time we got to the labor ward, I was sweating and realized I was having a panic attack. We visited Catherine, and Dylan was in the room with her, an arm’s length away. She was fine. He was fine. He slept with her, and she breastfed him when he cried. I cried all the way home.

The next year, I went back again for my first OB checkup for Gillian, and suggested we visit the NICU ward to show off our walking, babbling toddler who’d been a resident only 14 months earlier. I walked through the first door. Walked up to the second. Looked through the window. Turned around and bolted. I wasn’t even thinking. I just ran like the devil was at my heels. Fortunately, a nurse saw me and chased after me, grabbed me and literally dragged me back. By this point, I was sobbing, and she talked me through it. “You did this. You got through this. You didn’t do this back then—you didn’t cry because you couldn’t, and you had to be strong. But you can cry now. It’s OK. And look what you have.” And she pointed to Eliza, who was blissfully unaware that Mommy had just had a nervous breakdown in the hallway.

At that moment, a guy walked in with two cups of coffee. He looked wiped out. I pointed at Eliza and said, “She was here a year ago.” And he smiled, probably one of the first smiles he’d had in a while. “I like to hear that,” he said. He carried the coffees in to his wife and sat next to his own baby. And I hugged the nurse and took Eliza home.

Every mother is a soldier for her baby, and having a NICU baby means you’re on the front lines. It means we experience the pain and shock and resonance of this for a long time after they’re giggling and fighting and losing their teeth and growing up. PTSD is a real thing. I still get palpitations when I smell the hand sanitizer they used in the NICU. It sucks. If I experienced more than one bout of sadness a year over it I’d probably go to counseling for it. But I know they’re my feelings, and it was my experience, and I don’t have to apologize or feel guilty for any of it.

Babies are Fighters

The best part, of course, is that I have Eliza and Gillian. They’re more to me than I ever dreamed they’d be. They’re totally different people from me, and different from each other. They’re people. One of my favorite lines from a TV show featured a woman looking at a pregnant woman’s belly, as she was giving birth, and she said, “I wonder who’s in there.” And now you have a lifetime to figure out who’s in there, who Ruby is. One thing you know is that she’s a fighter. All babies are. And with you being there to give her your warmth and voice and skin—because she already knows your voice!—she’ll fight even harder.

One last anecdote: before we discharged Eliza from the hospital, a neo-natal physician gave a spiel about what we needed to do when we got her home. And he started with, “She won’t remember any of this.” I believe him. She won’t remember any of it. You will—you’ll carry it forever, and you’ll get to tell her all about her dramatic and exciting entry into the world, and she’ll feel even more special and strong because of it. But all of these next few months, she won’t remember any of it. She’ll just carry with her the understanding that she’s loved, and that you want her to fight.

Sharing my story is part of how I work through this, since I would’ve loved to have had people telling me their stories when I was going through it. The worst part, for me, was the isolation and feeling like no one understood, so I hope you find some comfort in this. Take care of yourself.

Keep enjoying your little kitten! She’ll be running around and driving you crazy in no time.


My NICU babies, 4 1/2 and 6 years later.


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When it Comes to Air Quality, Better is Not Good

Nov 3 UPDATE: Read the article in the Post-Gazette here: Western Pennsylvania native helped spur council conversation on air quality


In the last year, I’ve gotten more involved with working toward better air quality in Pittsburgh. Today, I joined Councilman Corey O’Connor at a post agenda specifically for this issue, one that affects every Pittsburgher. Here are the remarks I gave.

I’d like to thank Councilman O’Connor for calling this post agenda, and all of you for attending. I also want to thank the presenters who are providing us with so much context. I’m Jody Handley, and speaking as a private citizen because behind every number and statistic there’s a family like mine.

A bit about me: I grew up in Greene County. My dad went to Sto Rox High School, and my mom grew up on Corey Avenue in Braddock, the granddaughter of an Italian immigrant employed at Edgar Thompson Works. As a child, when she arrived at Braddock Elementary, she and her classmates washed the soot off their faces when they arrived at school. As a child, and when I worked at Kennywood for two summers, I didn’t question the summer sulfur smell—it was just the way cities smelled.

After graduating high school, I lived in New York City for three years, and then San Francisco for nearly 12 years. In early 2012, when our second daughter was about to turn one, my husband and I decided we’d had enough of paying out the ears for a one-bedroom apartment and flying back home twice a year to visit our families. Given the choice between several East Coast-cities: Baltimore, Washington DC, Pittsburgh—we knew Pittsburgh was the right choice. Aside from my personal history there, it has beautiful, affordable homes, a gorgeous landscape, culture and nightlife, and a growing software industry, which is my profession.

We knew we’d have to contend with losing our walkability, not to mention winter. What I didn’t know was that a week after moving in, I woke up in the middle of the night to a horrible sewage smell in our rental house on Shady Avenue; I called the landlord the next morning, but by then the smell had dissipated. It turns out the smell wasn’t coming from inside the house.

We still bought a house in Squirrel Hill South, on Landview near Minadeo. We love our yard, our house, our neighbors, but what we don’t love is the smell. During our first full summer, on cooler nights, when we’d leave the windows open for fresh air, I’d routinely wake up at 2:30 AM—always 2:30!—to close every window in the house.

After I got a new prescription for an Albuterol inhaler—something I hadn’t needed since high school—I looked deeper into the issue, and began reporting the bad air on the ACHD’s website. I reported frequently enough that someone actually called me. The problem, it turned out, was the weather… and the Clairton Coke Works. The river causes an inversion due to cooling night air, the wind blows it just right, and it settles right in Squirrel Hill, Homestead, Greenfield and Hazelwood.

It may go without saying, but the bad air is not the weather’s fault. It’s not my fault, either, or my neighbors’. When I get my 2:30 wakeup call, it’s not because the neighbors are burning wood, or using inefficient lawnmowers. It’s not rush hour at 2:30 in the morning. The only thing awake at 2:30 in the morning is US Steel. The coke works generates the bad air, and we all get to enjoy it—twelve miles away. Good god, I thought—if it’s this bad here, what’s it like in Clairton?

I got in touch with Jennifer Bails at the Breathe Project on Facebook, and it turns out she lived around the corner from me. Last spring, I attended a public hearing with the ACHD in Clairton, and it was just as I thought: US Steel is great at putting in playgrounds, but who would want to play in them?

When I ask my friends and neighbors about their experience with the bad air, and invariably got one of two responses. One: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” They literally can’t smell it. Just this Monday I had another 2:30 AM wakeup—this time with all the windows closed—and the moment we stepped outside to walk to school that morning, my older daughter said, “Ew, Mommy, it stinks today.” My five-year-old smells it, but people who have lived here for long enough? They just don’t even notice it. Or if they do, they think it’s just the way a city smells.

Second: “Well, I remember when it was actually bad.” I remember not being able to open my windows for all the soot, shaking soot off my laundry, seeing the black clouds of smog roiling over the hill, all infused with a sense of pride in Pittsburgh’s romantic blue-collar roots. This is usually followed up by a defensive posture of Pittsburgh: we’re getting so much better, the air pollution’s not from Pittsburgh, but from Clairton or New Castle—all with the underlying message that it’s better than it used to be, and if we hang our dirty underwear out on the line, no one will come visit us.

That is madness. I love Pittsburgh. I love living here, and I love seeing the physical and cultural changes it’s undergone since my childhood. I love that Braddock is coming back from the edge of ruin. I love that STEM companies have become a major industry here, and that so many of the young people who come here for college are staying. It’s why I wanted to come back.

But we have a long way to go, and if we’re not willing to acknowledge the problem, we’re never going to change anything. Clairton will keep getting new empty playgrounds, Shenango will continue getting slapped on the wrist, and our air will keep smelling like an outhouse.

Better is not good. It’s not even just not good enough—where we are right now, it is not good. I’ve read articles quoting that we’re no longer hell with the lid off, and I heard a caller on the radio tout that we’re better than Beijing! This is our basis for comparison: Beijing and Hell! We’re better than Hell. That’s an awfully low bar. And we can, and should, expect more from ourselves. And it sounds like we do. In press, we compare ourselves to Austin and Portland and even San Francisco. But in the next short breath we’re favorably comparing ourselves to Beijing and Hell.

So why am I talking to all of you? What can you do about it? I know that the city of Pittsburgh is not Allegheny County, but it is a pretty big part of it. I’m asking you to start talking about this. Just this conversation we’re having now is a great step. So many people seem afraid to say anything bad about the steel industry, because to denigrate the steel industry is to denigrate the Steelers, and Pittsburgh’s rich history. I also love the romance of it—my great-grandfather was a mill foreman at Edgar Thompson, and my grandfather captained a tugboat on the Mon. I hear the trains go through Homestead, and watch the barges pass from my yard. It’s part of me, too. I love how Pittsburgh is growing in new directions.

We’re on our way, but we haven’t arrived. And I believe the thing that’s standing in our way is air quality. You, City Council, can enforce our existing Clean Air standards. You can help us build a city infrastructure so that we don’t have so many cars on the road—speaking as someone from the East End, I would love a train downtown—and we can end smoking in bars. That’s at least two things to start giving private citizens better choices controlling air quality.

But that doesn’t hold Clairton, and Shenango, and Edgar Thompson accountable. They are the root of the problem. They are why, some days, I don’t want my daughters playing outside in the yard. They are why it’s healthier for my girls to sit inside an air-conditioned home with the windows closed, watching TV, than it is to play Frisbee.

I do get a third response from people when I talk to them about air quality, and joke about how I’m going to become known as Crazy Stink lady. I tell them how they should register complaints on the ACHD, write emails to you folks, and Mayor Peduto, and their state legislators. The response I get back? “Good luck with that.” I think part of that comes from a perception that you don’t read your emails and don’t care what anyone has to say. I’ve found firsthand that’s not true, so thank you! But the real root of that message is that you can’t fight the industries. They have too much money, they’re too powerful, and the politicians are beholden to them. That is the most discouraging message in all of this: that I shouldn’t even bother trying, because when I moved here three years ago, I gave up control of my family’s respiratory health and signed it over to US Steel.

[Note: I’m embarrassed to say at this point, I got so choked up I couldn’t continue. So you can all enjoy my final, unsaid paragraph.]

I’m asking you to help us take that control back. We have to convince Pittsburghers that this IS a problem; that it’s worth fixing; and that we have to help fix it. Only then can we get the message to the people who can hold Clairton and Shenango accountable. Help Pittsburgh get mad! Help us take control of our own health. Help us aim higher than just better. Because better is not good.

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