Category Archives: housekeeping

Coal: A Personal History

It’s January, and much of the country is confronting freezing temperatures, snow, and ice.  I live in San Francisco now, but I vividly remember what life is like in cold-weather climates.

When I was growing up on the North Side of Chicago, my winter garb followed this pattern:

Skirt and blouse, socks (usually short enough to leave my legs largely bare), a woolen coat, and a silk scarf for my head.  Under my coat, I might have added a cardigan sweater.  But during the freezing cold days of winter (nearly every day during a normal Chicago winter), I was always COLD—when I was outside, that is.

My parents were caring and loving, but they followed the norms of most middle-class parents in Chicago during that era.  No one questioned this attire.  I recall shivering whenever our family ventured outside for a special event during the winter.  I especially remember the excitement of going downtown to see the first showing of Disney’s “Cinderella.”  Daddy parked our Chevy at an outdoor parking lot blocks from the theater on State Street, and we bravely faced the winter winds as we made our way there on foot.  I remember being COLD.

School days were somewhat different.  On bitter cold days, girls were allowed to cover our legs, but only if we hung our Levi’s in our lockers when we arrived at school.  We may have added mufflers around our heads and necks to create just a little more warmth as we walked blocks and blocks to school in the morning, back home for lunch, then returning to school for the afternoon.

Looking back, I can’t help wondering why it never occurred to our parents to clothe us more warmly.  Weren’t they aware of the warmer winter clothing worn elsewhere?  One reason that we didn’t adopt warmer winter garb–like thermal underwear, or down jackets, or ski parkas–may have been a lack of awareness that they existed.  Or the answer may have been even simplerthe abundance of coal.

Inside, we were never cold.  Why?  Because heating with coal was ubiquitous.  It heated our apartment buildings, our houses, our schools, our stores, our movie theaters, our libraries, our public buildings, and almost everywhere else.  Radiators heated by coal hissed all winter long.  The result?  Overheated air.

Despite the bleak winter outside, inside I was never cold.  On the contrary, I was probably much too warm in the overheated spaces we inhabited.

Until I was 12, we lived in an apartment with lots of windows.  In winter the radiators were always blazing hot, so hot that we never felt the cold air outside.  The window glass would be covered in condensed moisture, a product of the intensely heated air, and I remember drawing funny faces on the glass that annoyed my scrupulous-housekeeper mother.

Where did all that heat come from?  I never questioned its ultimate source.

I later learned that it was extracted from deep beneath the earth.  But what happened to it above ground was no secret.  More than once, I watched trucks pull up outside my apartment building to deliver large quantities of coal.  The driver would set up a chute that sent the coal directly into the basement, where all those lumps of coal must have been shoveled into a big furnace.

Coal was the primary source of heat back then, and the environment suffered as a result.  After the coal was burned in the furnace, its ashes would be shoveled into bags.  Many of the ashes found their way into the environment.  They were, for example, used on pavements and streets to cope with snow and ice.

The residue from burning coal also led to other harmful results.  Every chimney spewed thick sooty smoke all winter, sending into the air the toxic particles that we all inhaled.

Coal was plentiful, cheap, and reliable.  And few people were able to choose alternatives like fireplaces and wood-burning furnaces (which presented their own problems).

Eventually, cleaner and more easily distributed forms of heating fuel displaced coal.  Residential use dropped, and according to one source, today it amounts to less than one percent of heating fuel.

But coal still plays a big part in our lives.  As Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia (which is currently suffering the consequences of climate change), wrote earlier this month in TIME magazine, the issue of “climate action” has been “hijacked by a toxic, climate-denying alliance of right-wing politics and media…, as well as vested business interests, especially in the coal industry.”  He added:  “Above all, we have to urgently stop burning coal and other fossil fuels.”

In her book Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have, Tatiana Schlossberg points out that we still get about one-third of our electricity from coal.  So “streaming your online video may be coal-powered.”  Using as her source a 2014 EPA publication, she notes that coal ash remains one of the largest industrial solid-waste streams in the country, largely under-regulated, ending up polluting groundwater, streams, lakes, and rivers across the country.

“As crazy as this might sound,” Schlossberg writes, watching your favorite episode of “The Office” might come at the expense of clean water for someone else.  She’s concerned that even though we know we need electricity to power our computers, we don’t realize that going online itself uses electricity, which often comes from fossil fuels.

Illinois is finally dealing with at least one result of its longtime dependence on coal.   Environmental groups like Earthjustice celebrated a big win in Illinois in 2019 when they helped win passage of milestone legislation strengthening rules for cleaning up the state’s coal-ash dumps.  In a special report, Earthjustice noted that coal ash, the toxic residue of burning coal, has been dumped nationwide into more than 1,000 unlined ponds and landfills, where it leaches into waterways and drinking water.

Illinois in particular has been severely impacted by coal ash.  It is belatedly overhauling its legacy of toxic coal waste and the resulting widespread pollution in groundwater near its 24 coal-ash dumpsites.  The new legislation funds coal-ash cleanup programs and requires polluters to set aside funds to ensure that they, not taxpayers, pay for closure and cleanup of coal-ash dumps.

Earthjustice rightfully trumpets its victory, which will now protect Illinois residents and its waters from future toxic pollution by coal ash.  But what about the legacy of the past, and what about the legacy of toxic coal particles that entered the air decades ago?

As an adult, I wonder about the huge quantities of coal dust I must have inhaled during every six-month-long Chicago winter that I lived through as a child.  I appear to have so far escaped adverse health consequences, but that could change at any time.

And I wonder about others in my generation.  How many of us have suffered or will suffer serious health problems as a result of drinking polluted water and inhaling toxic coal-dust particles?

I suspect that many in my generation have been unwilling victims of our decades-long dependence on coal.

 

 

Do you ever find yourself saying things your parents said?

Do you ever find yourself saying things your parents said?

Maybe your father used some phrases you’ve caught yourself saying.  Because my father died when I was 12, I can’t recall any pet phrases he used, so I have none to repeat.

But my mother, who died when I was decades older–that’s a different story.

At the outset, you should know that Mom was very smart.  She yearned to go to college and become a teacher, but after her father died, her family didn’t have enough money to send her and both of her brothers to college. I’m sure you can guess the outcome.

Mom had many pet phrases.  More and more, I hear myself repeating them.  But not all of them.

Here are some of Mom’s best, along with the context that surrounds them:

 

One of Mom’s favorites was “Before you know it.”  She usually said it when we’d talk about something we expected to happen in the future.  For example, when we talked about a young child going off to college someday, she’d frequently say, ”Before you know it….”  Or when, in the dead of winter, we talked about how far away summer seemed, she’d say, “Before you know it…”  Her instincts about how rapidly the future would arrive were usually right.  Now I often repeat that phrase myself.

When Mom conceded that something wasn’t just right, she’d often add, “Still and all.”  I can hear her saying it over and over again.  The dictionary defines the phrase as meaning “nevertheless” or “even so.”  Although you don’t hear many people use it, still and all it’s a great phrase.  Maybe more of us could use it.

When Mom liked to be very sure of something, she’d tell me that she wanted to “make doubly sure.”  I love that phrase and really must remember to use it whenever it fits.

 

Mom had definite views about gender and gender roles. They were typical of her era, so I give her a pass on some of them. But not all. These phrases frequently annoyed me, especially as I grew older and much more wary of gender stereotypes.

For example, I’ve written previously about how she admonished my sister and me to act “lady-like.”  I’m sure she thought that was the appropriate behavior for girl children.  But although the phrase didn’t bother me when I was younger, it later began to irritate me, especially when I had two daughters of my own, and the term “lady” assumed connotations I disagreed with.  But I don’t think Mom ever changed her thinking on that.

Her views on boys were distinctly different and bordered on stereotypical.

When a little kid acted up in her presence (and it was generally a boy), she’d refer to him as a “holy terror.”  She rarely referred to rambunctious girls that way.  But she might have.  (The prime example: My older sister, who later in life self-diagnosed as being a hyperactive child.  I know her behavior often created problems for my parents.)

Mom would frequently describe little boys she encountered as “all boy.”  I’m not really sure what she meant.  And as the mother of two daughters (as she was), her choice of words always struck me as rather strange.  Were girls ever “all girl?”  When?  Why?  And what made boys “all boy” to begin with?  I never challenged her on her use of this term and would just let it go.  But it still makes me wonder how she came up with it.

 

Let’s leave the gender issue for now and move on to the weather.

Living in Chicago, where we constantly faced extremes of heat and cold, most of us welcomed a warmer day that came along in late winter.  But Mom would often say, “It’s almost too warm.”  I guess she found the occasional warm day somewhat jarring in the middle of a cold spell.  But I was always delighted by that sort of change in the weather, and that phrase often made me laugh.

 

Now, on to the subject of time.

When we traveled, especially when we were driving somewhere in a car, Mom always relished “making good time.”  She meant that we were getting to our destination efficiently!  An admirable phrase, no?

But on other occasions she’d say, “Slow down.  We’ve got nothing but time.”  I generally disagreed with this point of view.  Always pursuing one goal or another, I’ve never felt I had “nothing but time.”  Quite the opposite.  And I’m afraid I still have the same outlook today.  But…maybe Mom was right, and I should slow down!

Slowing down might keep me from meeting some of my goals, but it would probably benefit my health.  I should keep in mind that one of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs begins this way:  “Slow down, you move too fast.  You got to make the morning last.”  Thanks, Paul Simon.  Mom definitely agreed with your thinking.

Speaking of “time,” Mom also liked to say that someone who wasn’t moving fast enough was “taking her sweet time.”  An example would be an employee in a retail store who helped customers in a poky fashion.  I sometimes think of that phrase when I see a pedestrian sauntering slowly across a busy intersection–sometimes looking at a cell phone instead of the traffic.  I’m often a pedestrian myself, and I resent careless drivers who barely let me cross an intersection safely before they make their turns.  (And I move fast.)  But when I’m driving, I find “saunterers” annoying.  They’re taking their sweet time!

I don’t think I ever encountered the “sweet time” phrase anywhere else…until I recently came across it in a short story, “Something to Remember Me By,” written by Nobel-prize-winning author Saul Bellow.  The narrator describes a character he’s watching this way:  “she simply took her sweet time about everything….”

That Mom and Saul Bellow used the same phrase doesn’t strike me as bizarre (as it might strike you) because the two of them were close in age, grew up in the same neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago (Humboldt Park, to be precise), and attended the same public high school.  Mom sometimes told me that she knew the Bellow family.  So when Bellow published Humboldt’s Gift (which I confess I’ve never read), I figured he chose the name Humboldt because of his origins in that neighborhood.  Maybe everyone who grew up there during that era also used the “sweet time” phrase.

 

Mom found certain things disturbing.  She and my father always followed politics, perhaps inspiring my lifelong interest in the political scene.  But Mom could get “all worked up” when things didn’t strike her the right way.  A devotee of daily newspapers and local TV news, she continued to follow politics into her 90s.  But she increasing got “all worked up” when she listened to officeholders orating on TV, stating policies she disagreed with.

Although I never used this phrase in the past, it resonates with me more and more. If I don’t hit the mute button fast enough and inadvertently hear the current occupant of the White House or his cohorts speaking on TV, I can easily get all worked up.

 

Other things that disturbed Mom made her feel “sick at heart.”  I haven’t used that phrase, but maybe I should.  It reflects the reality that disturbing events can make us feel deeply troubled, even affecting our physical well-being.

 

Switching topics:  When I would go shopping with Mom, usually on State Street in downtown Chicago (she always called that part of town “the Loop”), Mom’s admonitions came fast and furious.  A favorite was “Watch your purse!”  So from the time I was old enough to carry my own handbag, I would clutch it close to me.  The irony is that I never was a victim, but one day a thief opened Mom’s handbag on a CTA bus, and her wallet disappeared.  I remember collecting the wallet for Mom at the Woolworth’s store on State Street when it somehow turned up, money extracted.

In a way, this outcome wasn’t terribly surprising.  Despite her fear of thievery, Mom would carry the kind of handbag that could easily be opened.  Held over her arm the way the Queen of England invariably holds hers, it had the kind of clasp that could be flipped open in a millisecond.  I’ve always preferred shoulder bags with zipper closures that I can hold next to my body, making them difficult to pilfer.  Now I frequently wear crossbody bags that discourage thievery even more.

Another downtown phrase:  In the enormous women’s restroom on the 3rd floor (or was it the 4th?) of Marshall Field’s vast State Street Store, Mom would always say “Flush with your foot!”  I guess the toilets were the kind that featured a flushing mechanism one could operate that way.  Mom’s concern with bacteria was always front and center.

 

This concern related to household matters:  When I was older and my family and I had our own home, Mom would frequently visit us there.  She almost always made clear that she disapproved of my housekeeping (which admittedly has–throughout my lifetime–been abysmal).  Mom would offer to help, but as she got older, I wouldn’t let her do anything.  Accustomed to doing her own household chores with tremendous zeal, she would throw up her hands (figuratively), and after a while she’d tell me that she was “tired from sitting.”

Mom may have been onto something.  Research has shown that simply sitting is in fact unhealthy.  Mom’s instincts were right.

Mom also insisted that my daughters help me with household chores.  She would often tell them, “You can’t be lazy.”  This phrase relates to another literary reference:  In a story written by Nobel-prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer (published in a collection of stories titled The Power of Light), Singer sets the scene in an old-world home. He quotes an elder who explains his view of miracles:  “The truth is that miracles were rare in all times.  If too many miracles occurred, people would rely on them too much.  Free choice would cease.  The Powers on High want [people] to do things, make an effort, not to be lazy.”

So it seems that Mom was borrowing the wisdom of the elders when she told us not to be lazy.

Today, my older daughter and I repeat Mom’s phrase to her two daughters, my delightful granddaughters.  Like Cinderella’s stepsisters, they would prefer to lie abed and have someone else do things like laundry and straightening up.  Let’s face it, I’m very much of the same mind.  I do as little as possible to make my home neat and tidy.

But Mom’s phrase often comes back to haunt me, and I remind myself, as well as my granddaughters, that you can’t be lazy!

 

So…when you find yourself repeating phrases your parents liked to use, remember that a great many of them have stood the test of time and can be repeated today, as well as in their day, with the same positive effect.

Don’t be reluctant to use those phrases in your own conversation.  They may sometimes seem old-fashioned, no longer worth repeating because they’re out of date.

Still and all…they may say exactly what you want to say.

And before you know it, our kids will be doing the very same thing.