My Birthday Weekend

Last weekend we decided to leave the city and head to a cabin in northeastern PA on Paupackan Lake. It was my birthday, I had been locked away at home since March, and Philly’s protests were leading to a lot of stress. Recently I’ve been worried about the interplay between the movement for Black Lives and the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t want the uprising to stop and I am worried about everyone in the streets becoming infected with the virus.

A Victoria sponge.

Samer made a very classic Victoria sponge cake with homemade strawberry jam from Lebanon. We ate some for breakfast and then made our way out of the city. I wanted to try some road food on the way, so I remembered hearing about a famous hot dog place in Allentown. My friend Dennis told me to skip it and make our way over to Easton and try Jimmy’s Hot Dogs. It’s a cash-only place in a strip small, and I thought it was great. It’s pretty simple, you get a good hot dog on a bun with mustard and a full pickle spear. I skipped the onions. That’s the entire thing. If you like a good hot dog and are in Easton, PA, you should check it out. I had 2! The (very) big dude behind us in line ordered 9. Sam is sure that he ordered for a family. I’m skeptical.

On our way to the cabin at 111 West Shore Drive, I typed in the wrong address. I typed in something like 11 North Shore Drive. We pulled in to a driveway that did not look like the picturesque cabin that we saw on Airbnb. It was more of a bayou setting. Trailers very close to the water, lots of trucks, and at least 2 dudes with rat tails and or mullets. Pulling up, I was a little nervous about how a gay couple in a Mini Cooper was going to be received. We couldn’t get reception, and I was a bit of a nervous wreck. A toned-down, Joe Exotic stopped to ask us if we needed anything, but we said we were figuring it out. Moments later, a cop pulled up behind us. I was convinced these dudes had called the police on us. Samer assured me that the police in this area were not that efficient, but I wanted to bounce as soon as possible. All I kept thinking was that we stumbled onto a meth operation, and this small-town police is running a protection racket. Admittedly, my imagination probably got away from me.

Wrong Location -> Correct Location

We drove until we got cellular reception and then realized we were 20 minutes away from Paupackan Lake. We made our way over and were so happy when we arrived. I was not working that day, but my lead for the last few years retired that day, and I was one of the emcees for his Zoom retirement party. The cabin had terrible reception, so we drove up to the volunteer fire department parking lot where we could find LTE with 3 bars. We celebrated Dave and I made a few jokes. It was a tough week to do any joke writing, so I think it was my B-game. Certainly not my A-game. Also, being funny on Zoom is brutal. There is absolutely no feedback. I really feel for every comedian trying to make it work right now. That being said, all reports said he enjoyed it.

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Sunset on Paupackan Lake

Ok, back to my birthday weekend. On Friday night, we split a bottle of wine and watched the sunset from the dock. It was very peaceful and felt a million miles away from the chaos of the quarantine or the intensity of the anti-racist uprising happenings. We made cod, garlic scapes, and a tomato and mozzarella salad for dinner. It was so delicious. Falling asleep was delightfully comfortable and quiet. There were no explosions from fireworks, psy-ops, or ATMs blowing up. There were no lights from all of the city’s light pollution and my phone was on airplane mode in my bag.

On Saturday, Sam continued the birthday celebration by making me biscuits & gravy. This is my favorite dish from Ohio that does not exist in the east. I could pass on most Midwestern recipes, but this south to the midwest breakfast is so goddamn good. I love sausage gravy. How could you not, but the truth is, this best biscuits & gravy I’ve ever had was at the Portland, OR farmers market in 2009, and it was made with brown mushroom gravy. It was delicious. Sam decided to make a mushroom gravy. It was terrific and as good as  sausage gravy. While he cooked, I meditated on the dock and was lucky enough to see a bald eagle skimming the lake’s surface.

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The dock of our cabin.

We kayaked around the lake for about 2 hours after breakfast. There is a lot of marshland that you can skirt and see birds on Paupackan. On our way home, the wind picked up, and the paddle back was much more tiring than when we started. We spent the rest of the afternoon, napping and reading. Samer escaped to the hammock, and I really got into my book. I’m reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I am not a fantasy genre lover, but I am enjoying it.

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A little dragonfly

For dinner, Samer made the best pork chop I’ve ever had. He made a sauce from red wine, apple butter, and apple cider vinegar. We paired it with a Cabernet Sauvignon and finished the birthday cake. It was a fantastic meal.

Waking up on Sunday meant that the weekend had already passed. Ugh, I loved the cabin. It’s difficult to describe how loved nature, the lack of connectivity, and the simplicity of everything. We decided to check out Lake Wallenpaupack before we left. That’s a vast and famous lake in the area.

We stopped by one marina and decided to check out the Lacawac Sanctuary on our way home, but on the drive, our tire went flat. We have drive-flat tires, so we limped to a gas station about 5 miles away only to discover our entire tire had completely blown out and was destroyed. We don’t know what happened. Maybe it was a little low, and the road’s curve hit it just right, but there was no saving it. I walked to the Advanced Auto Parts, where they told me the only tire guy open on a Sunday was M&J Tires. We drove another 8 miles on a flat and started getting nervous as we left the main road to see more Trump-Pence signs. If this guy didn’t have a tire, where in the hell were we stranded?

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We pulled up to the tire shop and were met by 2 monster trucks flanking the entrance. No one came to meet us. I surmised the one person not fidgeting with a tire may be the customer in front of me. I asked her who was in charge and she pointed me to a guy named Mike in the back of the shop. He was not much for chatting and told me he’d be with me in 5 minutes. To an outsider, this scene may be overwhelming, but my life in rural Ohio prepared me for this. A big shop, lots of tires inside, outside, outback, on their sides, in racks, etc. and a dude who is not good with small talk or business formalities. I’ve got this.

At this point, we realized our cell phones were not getting any signal. Our Mini Cooper has a weird tire size, and my guess was that neither foreign cars nor gay couples with at least one foreign-born member frequented the shop. When Mike asked me about the car, I was frank, “I don’t know, man. I just drive it.” I knew I was setting myself up to get ripped off, but I was 130 miles from home.

Mike is a totally nice guy. He replaced my tire in a few minutes and then only charged me $45 for a new tire. I tipped well, and we made our way home.

I had a wonderful birthday, and it was so great to take the weekend to leave town. We maintained social distancing, enjoyed some nature, and utterly unplugged. I loved it, I appreciated it, and want to go back very soon.

I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

I just finished J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I am not interested in politically analyzing it, because that has been done. My political analysis of the book closely aligns with Bob Hutton’s article at Jacobin called Hillbilly Elitism. Please go and read that if you want a smart and thoughtful analysis of Vance and his complete disregard of poverty.

I want to talk about my emotional and mental response to reading this book. I was born in rural Ohio, not in the Appalachian part, but in the northwest corner. It’s the flattest part of world you will ever see. A mighty glacier flattened that area into the Lake Plains about 10,000 years ago.

I left Ohio when I was 19 years old. Less than 3 weeks after I graduated high school I boarded an international flight to Russia to study abroad for the summer. I spent a my graduation money on the trip and it was worth every penny. When I returned from that adventure, I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania two weeks later for college and I never lived in Ohio again. Was I running from Ohio or to a wider world? I don’t know the answer, but it is probably a little of both.

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Camera: Rebel SL1 EF-S
Lens: 18-55mm
Camera firmware: Canon Hack Development Kit
Editing Software: Pixeluvo
Photographer: Joshua L. Ferris

There are parts of Hillbilly Elegy that forced a real emotional response from me. Many times, I knew the feeling he was talking about before the sentence would end. When he described the pervasive pessimism, the fear of imposition, or the frustration at people’s rigidity or lack of curiosity is something I think (probably obsess) about a lot.

Ohio is one of the few places in the world that make me want to respond like a conservative. When I am organizing anywhere else, I can apply a thoughtful power analysis to the situation. I try to consider the poverty, drug addiction, joblessness, and crime that many poor people battle. That analysis goes out the window when I think about rural Ohio. Unfortunately, I too often see folks in Ohio and think “turn off the TV and pick up a book,” or “you have nothing but farmland, grow food and stop with the fast food.” Those thoughts are unbelievably shitty and condescending and I try to keep unsolicited opinions to myself. They are very real and gross natural response I have to the “culture” of my home state.

I wanted to move out of my area for a very long time and a lot of that was centered around my sexuality, but not all of it. I wanted to be in a place that had things that interested me. I wanted to go to the orchestra and I wanted to see an opera. I wanted to try interesting foods. I thought the unpredictability of a city would lead to new adventures, and leaving a farm and moving to a city did allow for all of that and more. It was nice and it was what I wanted.

I struggle with other people’s pessimism. Vance talks about leaving Ohio and becoming and optimist, and I feel very similar to him on this issue. I was recently in Ohio and asked, “what is one thing we could do to really change the area for the better.” Someone said, “drop a bomb.” Everyone laughed, nodded in agreement, and offered no other solutions.

Vance discusses folk’s fear of imposition. This is very true and it drives me insane. People are really scared to express their opinion’s on anything. When my family from Ohio comes to visit, I’ll often say something like “would you like to do burgers or chicken for lunch?” The response is always, “Oh, we don’t care, whatever you want.” My husband tells a story from his childhood, where a relative offered to buy him ice cream and he chose the cheapest thing for fear of imposing. That adult had a conversation with him about how he would not have offered to buy him ice cream if he was unable to provide the ice cream my husband wanted. Sam knew from that day forward that if someone offers you something you accept it, be grateful for it, and to never feel bad for accepting it. No one taught me or any one I know that lesson in Ohio. It is an absolute crazy that accepting a gift causes more stress than giving a gift.

There are many reason why I do not return often. You probably think that homophobia is on the list, but there I have not experienced much as of late. That being said, my circles are limited to a loving family and friends when I visit, so there is not much of a chance to attack me or my husband. I don’t go back because of the fear and the pessimism. Vance captured that and those passages resonated with me, so I will give him credit on those merits.

The thing that bothers me more than Vance’s analysis is how his book became so popular. I am shocked that this was (and still is) on the best seller lists. If you don’t identify with or recognize parts of it, I’d think it is nothing more than navel-gazing blogging (I get the irony). It’s 250 pages of a guy working through his mom issues. It really grosses me out to think about a bunch of upper middle class people treating this book like a national geographic.

This book’s popularity is very unsettling.

If you think it is valuable to actually spend time on some of the issues mentioned here, than skip Vance and look up the Ohio Organizing Collaborative or Redneck Revolt. These people are working to make Ohio a better place and have the optimism and courage needed right now. I am unable to help with it, but maybe you can.

Josephine’s Ashes

I am not a spiritual person. I do not believe in an afterlife, and I do not have the patience needed to entertain the ideas of metaphysics. I only tell you this to open up one of my final posts about my friend and former pet Josephine. The vet ended her life at the end of November in 2016 and we had her cremated. The vet called us a few weeks later and gave us the urn full of her ashes.

Sam and I were not interested in keeping her ashes with us, but we both wanted to say good bye to her one last time. We decided to split her ashes between two sites. At our house, she loved sitting under the raspberry bush in our garden. It’s winter now, so the raspberry bush is pruned low to the ground. We dug a hole in the ground at the center of the bush and we both poured half of her ashes into the soil. She loved the space a lot, and we wanted her to be in a place she loved for a very long time.

The second half of her ashes were spread in Kruger National Park in South Africa. Yes, Josephine was a cat that was adopted from a shelter in Philadelphia. I know that she was not a lion, but Sam and I always said that she had a fierceness in her eyes. I sound delusional, but we used to laugh a lot about how domestication never bred the mightiness of a lion out of her.

We were on safari in Kruger for 3 nights this month. Every night we saw a pride of lions. There were 5 mothers and 12 cubs of varying ages. I was close enough to see their eyes and watch the cubs fall on their sides playing with their siblings. Sure, I was transferring my memories of Josephine to these noble cats, but when I saw them, I saw my cat.

On our last night, Sam and I walked onto the deck of our cabin and shared a few memories of Josephine. Our cabin sat on a dry river bed, that had not been full in 4 years. It had started to rain earlier that day, but the earth was so dry the river bed could not even puddle. We poured her ashes over our deck and the wind picked them up and spread them far and thin across the river bed. We smiled, hugged, reminisced about her and went to bed.

img_2034The next morning, we woke up to a real shock. The river bed was completely full. The rain had increased over the night. There were no signs of any ashes, as they had been swept deep into Kruger Park. The safari guide told us, we were very lucky to see the river as it is very rare, and he had never seen it in his time. I am not someone who needs to find meaning in coincidence, but I am someone who can enjoy and appreciate one.

When we die, I do not think much happens, but I find solace in knowing my friend’s ashes are where I think she would have wanted them to be. Some are under a bush in the last home of her life. The others are spread across the original home that she never knew, but the one she always allowed to show through the veil of modernity and domestication.

Thank you Josephine.

Our cat Josephine passed away. In October we noticed something was wrong with her mouth.  Weeks later we discovered a cancer had started to take her jaw bone and things worsened from that point. She could not keep herself clean from the amount of blood in her mouth.img_0960

In the past week she stopped eating and started to rapidly lose weight. In consultation with our veterinarian, we decided to end her pain.  I held her in my lap with Samer by my side and the veterinarian gave her the injections.  It was quick and I am told, quite painless for her.

She was a fabulous cat that was a real lover of life. We never needed an alarm clock, because she woke us up every morning. That first morning meow was sonorous and commanding. She loved food.  She was defiant and full of personality.   She would bully cats twice her size, make herself the center of any party, and she hated those birds outside of our third floor window.

She liked to hang in the garden and relax inside the raspberry bush. Josephine was Samer’s first pet, and though not my first, she was one that made a mighty impression. We will love and miss her immensely. My time with her is an important chapter in my life.  I owe so much to her and our time together.

img_1247Thank you old friend.

Here are some photos of her: https://goo.gl/photos/puaYPR3fbJsc5r3F6