Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

How a non-sports fan learned to love the Steelers

When I first moved to Pittsburgh as a young adult more than a decade ago, the last full-length football game I had ever watched was played by the team at my junior high school. I had proudly supported my classmates then, but had no interest in the sport. I could think of few things I would enjoy less than spending hours on a Sunday, or Monday night, watching grown men toss around a ball and crash violently into each other in front of shivering, shouting fans guzzling beer.

As a newcomer to the city, I knew vaguely about the Terrible Towel, the golden piece of fabric the size of a dish towel that fans wave to show their support for the Steelers. And, I knew that Pittsburghers were deeply proud of their home team. I wished the Steelers well, but I had no interest in their exploits. I soon found that game time on Sunday was a great time to run errands since most of the rest of the city was glued to their television sets.

All of that changed during the 2005-2006 season. That year, the Steelers were playing stronger than ever, reminding dedicated fans of their glory days in the 1970s. As the regular season ended, and the playoffs began, Super Bowl excitement rose to fever pitch. Even someone as oblivious to football as I could not ignore what was happening around me.

In Pittsburgh, many workplaces encourage employees to wear black and gold on the Friday before game day. I had always thought it was great that people expressed so much team spirit, though I never wore the colors myself. That year, I felt the pressure from coworkers, especially when one Friday I inadvertently wore colors that were similar to those of the opposing team. I promptly went out and bought a gold, long-sleeved Steelers shirt. (I didn’t have to go far, they were being sold, along with other Steelers merchandise, at my neighborhood grocery store.)

But my team spirit was more than an outward show. I, too, began to be excited about “our team” going to the Super Bowl. And, I saw how the excitement brought people together. Perfect strangers would pass each other on the street, each dressed in black and gold, and exchange smiles and cheers of “Here we go,” the opening words of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl rallying song. An otherwise bleak winter was brightened by the promise of victory. I even devoted an evening to watching the AFC Championship game on TV. When the Steelers won, I opened the door to my apartment’s balcony and listened as my neighbors, on an otherwise sedate residential street, let out cries of victory, honked their horns and shouted “Go Steelers.”

And, then, two weeks later, like the conclusion to a blockbuster movie, the Steelers won the Super Bowl. The city erupted in celebration, with people swarming the streets and cheering the victory late into the night. We had won, and the triumph was more than an athletic conquest; it was a symbol of Pittsburgh as a city reclaiming its past glory.

A few years before, when the Steelers had lost badly in a playoff game, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article that talked about how a city’s self-esteem can be deeply intertwined with the fortunes of its sports teams. While passionate fans in cities that are doing well – with low unemployment rates, booming industries and other markers of success – may weather a disappointing loss fairly well, those in struggling cities – dwindling populations, hard economic times – personalize losses much more. The failure of a team becomes symbolic of the failure of a city.

Conversely, the success of a team is reason for hope and optimism. Pittsburgh, in particular, is still working to overcome its image as a smoky steel town. The 2006 Super Bowl victory was an opportunity to show how the city had retained its old glory while reclaiming its natural beauty and energizing its economy with new industries.

In 2009, the Steelers again swept their way through the playoffs and on to victory at the Super Bowl, setting a record as the team to have won the greatest number of Super Bowls. And now, in 2011, they are poised to play in the Super Bowl again.
I’ll be watching the game, wearing black and gold, and cheering on the team. This year, my enthusiasm is dimmed by the off-season exploits of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended from playing for the first few weeks of the season. I’m not proud of him, and I have a lot of mixed feelings about rooting for a team that depends on his leadership and even more about a culture that is so willing to forgive outrageous behavior in those with star athletic ability. However, I have learned over time that the Steelers are so much more than a sports team to Pittsburgh.

In 2006, the city’s self-esteem was bolstered by the Super Bowl win. That was true again with the 2009 Super Bowl and the Penguins’ Stanley Cup victory later that year. After decades of feeling down about itself, Pittsburgh was again a city of champions.

But ecstasy is an ephemeral feeling – gone almost as quickly as it arrives. It is much harder to sustain hope, optimism and vision in the long-term, though an occasional shot in the arm in the form of victory never hurts.

Just two days after the 2011 AFC Championship game, President Barack Obama delivered his annual State of the Union speech. He spoke about a lot of the challenges our country faces, but was optimistic about reclaiming our innovative spirit and reinvigorating American cities and industries.

That message is particularly resonant in Pittsburgh, which has received national attention and praise for reinventing itself. The city has come a long way, but still has far to go to rival its former reputation as a major center of industry and innovation.

Whether the Steelers win or lose on Super Bowl Sunday, those efforts will continue. In the meantime, I think it’s about time I bought myself a Terrible Towel…

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Employment update

Shortly after my bitter rant about my professional prospects, I received a call back from a marketing communications agency to which I had submitted a resume weeks before. They brought me in for an interview, and, a week later, had me start on a free-lance contract for one of their clients, a nutrition supplement company. (a large, national corporation that is based in Pittsburgh) After a few weeks on the job, the creative director of the client company asked if I would be interested in applying directly to them for a copy writing job. I did, was interviewed, and have now been hired as a regular, full-time employee.

So, I think I have figured out what I can do with my writing skills. I am enjoying the new job, though it is not as emotionally fulfilling as a journalism job. On the other hand, it's also not as emotionally draining. The pay is good, and this is a great place for me to be now in my career. I don't know what the next step after this will be, but I think I am evolving into more of a writing generalist, which is a good thing to be in a volatile economy.

The idealistic person I was in college might have thought that taking this job was a sell-out, but the pragmatic me, who hopes to one day have children to send to day school, sees this as a responsible choice and a wise career move. Life is full of unexpected choices, and I am grateful to be working in a pleasant atmosphere, doing a job that is at least related to what I was trained to do in college and graduate school. And, I hope that having some reserves of emotional and intellectual energy will allow me to eventually do the serious type of writing to which I aspire. (And in the meantime, to do more personal writing for this blog.)

Monday, December 01, 2008

My return to blogging and a bit of a rant

Fair readers, I am happy to report that married life has not marked the end of my blogging career, in spite of my long absence. Perhaps at some point I will elaborate on the joys and challenges of this wonderful change in my life, but in the meantime, I would like to jump feet first into that old enterprise I used to enjoy so much: thinking out loud.

Did I say a bit of a rant? Correction: A full blown rant

In these days of economic crisis and corporate downsizing, the chance of a talented journalist finding work at an old fashioned newspaper is slimmer than ever. Most daily newspapers in major cities have dramatically smaller staffs than they did a few years ago, and we all are left to wonder if these publications will exist at all in the future. While it is sensible and nearly inevitable that newspapers will eventually evolve into primarily (or entirely) electronic versions of their former selves, it seems likely that many publications will cease to exist even in electronic form because they have failed to remake themselves fast enough to match the new technology or because they do not offer content that is unique enough or compelling enough for consumers.

From a strictly capitalistic perspective, there may be nothing to weep about, since a free market allows the most successful products to survive. However, quality journalism is more than a buyable commodity -- it is an intangible resource of unpredictable content. More than a mere record of what has occurred, good journalism gives its consumers insight and understanding. Anyone who attends a public meeting (and few citizens ever do) can tell you if a resolution passes or not, but a good journalist can help readers understands what it means, and perhaps even why they should care.

As someone with years of training and experience in such matters, it is frustrating that such talents, which have never been particularly valued, are increasingly considered dispensable, even worthless. Even more upsetting, as I look at the remaining staffs of various publications where I used to work, is that it is not the most talented staff members who remain on board, but the most average. The envelope pushers, creative thinkers and masters of prose have been laid off, or have left in frustration (with important exceptions). Meanwhile, the folks who do clean, acceptable and unremarkable work are the ones who have jobs. The papers still publish on deadline, but there is a loss of ambition and passion. If articles about Paris Hilton sell more papers than those about storm sewers, then Paris Hilton wins (and so do the writers that can say the snarkiest things about her). Never mind that sewer systems have real and immediate health, environmental and community development implications.

I got into journalism because it was challenging and fun and creative. Sometimes the topics I covered were uncomplicated and other times they were intellectually exciting. Whatever I wrote, each day was different and exciting, and gave me the opportunity to meet people I would never otherwise encounter.

At one time, such experiences were commonplace for entry-level reporters at scores of newspapers all over the country. Now, it seems, the privilege of doing first-hand reporting for a respected daily newspaper is reserved for a very small class of journalists that is constantly shrinking.

My current employment situation is due in part to personal choices that I have made that are not directly related to the journalism jobscape. (I left my most recent staff position to move to a different city because I was getting married.) However, I can't help be frustrated that, whereas professionals in most other fields can look in the classified job ads in any major city and find at least a couple of jobs to apply to, journalists who are tied to a particular city almost inevitably have to consider working in another field.

This situation is not at all new -- it has been developing for more than a decade. I was fortunate to be insulated from the problem for a while, but now I am feeling it keenly. I am trained to do a job that I love, one which, giving license to my ego, I feel that I am called to do. I am not as brilliant or as cutting edge as I would like to be, but I am committed to doing my job well and I have touched many readers in the past with my work. I feel that I have lots of potential that I have only begun to mine.

And now I have to figure out what else I am qualified to do.

Monday, June 02, 2008

An unexpected, and happy, turn of events

(Here is my final column for The Jewish Chronicle:)

Almost exactly eight years ago, after completing graduate school in New York, I went with a friend, Chana, to visit the Statue of Liberty, something I had not managed to do in five years as a student in the big city. Since I was preparing to move to Pittsburgh, I decided to finally check some items off my New York to-do list.

During our journey that day, Chana and I chatted about graduate school, jobs, the city, and, inevitably, our social lives. Chana, who is older than I am, had some fairly outlandish tales about bad dates she had endured, and we laughed together about our experiences.

I don’t recall speaking to her in the weeks that followed as I completed my move and started my new job in Pittsburgh. Then, in early September, just over three months since we had commiserated about our dating woes, Chana called me with the good news that she was engaged to a man she had met since we last saw each other. I was delighted for her, and encouraged that I would eventually have good news of my own in that area. I went back to New York for her wedding, and she advised me that “G-d’s salvation comes in the blink of an eye,” a sentiment that comes from the ancient Sages.

I have often thought about those words in the last eight years. I am fortunate to be predisposed to having a positive outlook on life, and I also have an appreciation for unexpected plot twists and reversals of fortune. While I have certainly had moments when I doubted that I would ever meet a man with whom I would want to share my life, the hopeful voice inside of me always said, “Just wait, you may be pleasantly surprised.”

The voice was right.

(It is worth noting that my mother was also right, since she encouraged me to move to Pittsburgh, and to stay here, even though others advised me to go back to New York to improve my dating odds.)

A few months ago, after enduring countless blind dates and other awkward situations, I agreed to date yet another young man who was suggested to me as a potential match. While I thought he was good-looking from the photos I had seen of him, and he sounded nice on the phone, I was filled with doubts. I wasn’t sure that we would see eye to eye on a number of issues and thought that our interests and lifestyles might be too different for us to forge any type of long-term commitment. I was guarded, and defensive.

In spite of being convinced before we ever met that he would be all wrong for me, I managed to walk away from our first date with the strong impression that he was extremely kind and thoughtful. I was taken aback when he suggested that we get together a second time. I agreed.

Still, I couldn’t imagine that we would ever get married.

Fortunately, it did not take very long to change my mind about that. The more I got to know Jonathan, the more I liked him, and the more I saw that differences between us were insignificant compared to our very important similarities. Exactly two months after we met, Jonathan proposed and I accepted. After years of disappointment and frustration, my life had indeed taken a wonderful turn in the blink of an eye.

Since then, life has become a tailspin of wedding preparations and plans to move to Baltimore, where Jonathan lives. As a result, I will be leaving my job at The Chronicle in a couple of weeks.
I am sad to be leaving Pittsburgh and The Chronicle, but happy that it is for such a wonderful reason. And, who knows? Maybe someday life’s journey will bring me back to Pittsburgh again.

It has been a privilege to write this monthly column, and I have enjoyed and appreciated all the feedback I have received from readers. I especially appreciate all the warm wishes I have received since my engagement announcement was printed a few weeks ago.
I wish all of you the happiness and fulfillment that I have found.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Happy ending, and beginning

By now readers of my blog who know me in real life know that four weeks ago today I became engaged to a wonderful guy named Jonathan Jablow.

After years of dating frustrations, and so many blind dates that I actually lost count, I feel so blessed to have found a wonderful man to build a home and a future with. Perhaps later I will have a chance to give some more details about how we met, but the short version of the story is: we were set up by a mutual friend in Baltimore (where Jonathan lives), first spoke in late January, met on Feb. 17 and got engaged exactly two months later on April 17. We plan to get married on July 6 in Pittsburgh.

The last four weeks have been an absolute flurry of activity, with Pesach, traveling to see each other and our families and planning a wedding, and a move -- I will be moving from Pittsburgh to Baltimore, and Jonathan also has to move, from his current apartment to a larger one for the two of us.

Thank G-d, I am very, very happy, but also exhausted by everything that has to be accomplished in the next 7 1/2 weeks!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Waiting for Elijah

It's way overdue, but this was my pre-Pesach column.

When I was a child, one of my favorite moments during the seder was when we would open the door to symbolically welcome in Elijah the prophet. I nearly always volunteered to stand with an adult at the open door. I loved peering out from the warm, well-lit house into the quiet, dark enigmatic night.

Just as all the other events of the seder night are designed to inspire the asking of questions, opening the front door at night, and leaving it open for a few moments, piqued my curiosity. I peeked out onto the quiet street while my grandfather read the appropriate passage from the Haggadah.

Just at the moment when Elijah was supposed to sweep into our house for a sip of the wine, there always seemed to be a light spring breeze, adding an air of mystery to the experience, as though Elijah were rustling through the tree branches on his way to our house and then silently slipping away.

After we closed the door, my sister and I would look closely at Elijah’s cup to see if any of the wine had mysteriously disappeared. Since there was never a noticeable difference, an adult once assured us that Elijah could only drink the tiniest of sips from each cup since he had so many seder tables to visit all over the world on one night.

I am still charmed by these childhood memories, but I later learned a different way of thinking about the cup of Elijah.

In traditional Jewish thought, the cup of Elijah is connected to the other four cups of wine at the seder.

Among the many meanings assigned to the four cups is the idea that each is connected to a different term used in the Torah to describe the redemption from Egypt. In the book of Exodus, God’s redemption is described in the following ways: “Vehotzati” – I took you out; “Vehitzalti” – I saved you; “Vega’alti” – I redeemed you; and “Velekachti” – I took you to be my people.
But there is a fifth term in the Exodus narrative – “Vehavati” – I will bring you … to the land of Israel. The rabbis of the Mishna debated about including a fifth cup of wine at the seder to remind us of this promise from God for a final redemption.

The rabbis ultimately decided to have just four cups of wine, but in recognition of the minority opinion of Rabbi Tarfon, they included a fifth cup that was to be filled, but not drunk.

This unresolved dispute is one of many that tradition teaches will be resolved when Elijah comes and resolves all doubts.

Furthermore, since this fifth cup was thematically connected to the idea of the coming of the Messiah -- which tradition teaches will be announced by Elijah -- the cup is appropriately named for the great prophet.

So, in the end, it is not that Elijah is clandestinely visiting our homes on Pesach to sample our wine. Instead, we are waiting expectantly for him to settle our disputes and announce the beginning of Messianic times.

While the time and method of Elijah’s arrival remains an unresolved mystery, certainly we can all hope that we will notice when he comes.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

When all the pieces fall into place

This is my March column from The Jewish Chronicle.

Megillat Esther, which is read on Purim, is among the most spellbinding of the books of Tanach. Filled with intrigue, lavish feasts, pageantry, near-destruction for the Jews, and ultimately, salvation, it has all the elements of an epic tale.

In fact, the story is such a tightly written narrative, that it can be difficult to remember that it recalls actual historical events. Unlike a dry historical account, the Megillah gives readers insight into the feelings and motivations of the players in the drama.

The story is so fast-paced that it seems to unfold in a matter of weeks or months, so I was surprised when I learned in college that the events of the story actually took place over the course of about 11 years. It is hard to imagine a modern historical account of a similar time period that would be as concise, compelling and perceptive about the meaning of events.

When we read the Megillah in synagogue, in a matter of moments we have gone from Vashti’s termination as queen to Esther’s selection as the new queen. But upon closer reading, the text of the Megillah gives us clues that Esther’s ascent to the throne took a few years, from Vashti’s banishment (and possible execution) through the rounding up of eligible maidens from the 127 provinces of Ahashuerus’ kingdom, and ultimately Esther’s coronation. Similarly, the rest of the events of the story take place over the course of several more years, finally culminating in Esther’s revelation to Ahashuerus that Haman intends to kill her people, the Jews, and the king’s decision to instead spare the Jews and kill Haman and his collaborators.

According to tradition, Esther and Mordechai had the insight to recognize the connections between these events and to record them for posterity in Megillat Esther, which was later edited and rewritten by the men of the Great Assembly for canonization in Tanach.

Although some of the events of the story seem arbitrary, or extraneous, by the end it becomes clear that all along, God was behind the scenes, orchestrating the events.

Even though God is never explicitly mentioned in the Megillah, a careful reading of the text reveals many illusions to God. For example, throughout the story, there are repeated references to “the king,” which seems to ostensibly be a reference to Ahashuerus, but can also be understood to be about God.

As one of the last books included in the Bible, and one of the few to record events that took place in exile from Israel, the Megillah is a guidebook for how to think about God in a world in which events may seem arbitrary. Sometimes life goes on for years in which circumstances may be frustrating, frightening, painful or even devastating, and then in an instant, a single event or decision clarifies the meaning of everything that preceded it.

When Esther was called upon to be brave on behalf of her people, she rose to the occasion, and suddenly it became clear why this self-effacing nice Jewish girl had been chosen to be queen. Circumstances had unfolded so that she would be in precisely the right place at the right time to save the Jews from destruction.

It is not surprising when all the disparate parts of a novel come together in the final chapters of a book, because we know that the story was invented by the writer to turn out this way. In life, however, things do not always work out so neatly. Sometimes it is hard to discern where a story begins and ends, and what it means. And, none of us has an omniscient voice in our heads to explain the motivations of the people with whom we interact.

However, like Mordechai and Esther, sometimes we know that we are in a situation or circumstance for a reason, and that we are uniquely situated to do some important task. When we are really fortunate, we can look back afterwards and see all the machinations of destiny that led to that serendipitous moment.