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.

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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

Canceled Puerto Rico

I am supposed to be waking up in Puerto Rico this morning. I was going to the wedding of some colleagues and then spending a few extra days relaxing and enjoying the island. However, I woke up in chilly overcast Philadelphia, to the death of Fidel Castro, and the dried blood of my cat on the floor.

How did I get here?

My cat Josephine is very sick. Cancer has made it into the bone of her jaw, and now she has a permanent open wound in her mouth. She bleeds as she drools and it is all over the house. When she cleans herself, she coats herself in her own blood, making her beautiful mane look like something from a horror film.77631-10475051_1447635288827892_560881605_n

We decided to cancel the trip to Puerto Rico on Tuesday night. At that point she had not eaten in 48 hours and we were expecting the end to be close. Instead of leaving her with the cat sitter, we called Paola and explained that we were canceling. Honestly, we did not know if she would even make it to Friday night.

On Wednesday afternoon I thought that she might have eaten a little. There was food missing from the plate, but it was a small amount and I couldn’t be certain. I called the vet and made an appointment for the evening. I readied myself to discuss euthanasia. It seemed like were going in that direction. It was a chilly night, and I carried her in her carrier the four blocks to our vet.

Sam met me there and I started giving a history of the last few days. The vet suggested we offer her some food, which I thought was hopeless. I had bought 15 different types of soft food and offered them all. Additionally, I gave her dry food in every possible variation and everything had been refused.

She ate the entire plate. $160 so that she can eat normal cat food at the vet. Well played darling.

Now it is Saturday. Josephine is eating, though it seems pretty difficult.  She is still quite sick. The bleeding from her mouth has increased; she sleeps more, and continues to lose weight. We thought she may not make it through the weekend, but we are no longer that pessimistic.

What are our plans in lieu of a tropical beach vacation? Things are undetermined, but I just administered her pain medication and steroids. Now we are enjoying a coffee while listening to the Buena Vista Social Club and I am going to enjoy every minute we have together.