On home and being homesick

Pittsburgh has been my adopted city for more than a decade now—for basically my entire adult life. I love the city’s geography, the number and quality of parks and cultural attractions, my job at the library, and the comfort that comes with extreme familiarity.

But I still get homesick.

My family is from Coatesville, a little steel town across the state from Pittsburgh, about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia. Coatesville shares many similarities with Pittsburgh, and that’s probably why I’m so comfortable here. Both are steel towns that suffered greatly when the steel industry crashed. Both have pockets of poverty that stand in sharp contrast to wealthier areas. Both have a working class feel, even though Pittsburgh’s economy has moved to healthcare and tech.

A Wawa coffee mug

Nothing says “home” to me like Wawa.

Pittsburgh, however, doesn’t have an operating steel mill, though there’s one nearby in Braddock (I know it’s strange to feel nostalgic for a mill–and yet, I do). Pittsburgh does not have cream chipped beef or shoo-fly pie or Philly cheese steaks (don’t be fooled by the poor imitations you find at otherwise very good hoagie shops). Until fairly recently you couldn’t get Tasty Kakes in Pittsburgh food stores. Pittsburgh still doesn’t have a Wawa—think Sheetz, but so, so much better.

When I was kid, my family did a lot of day trips to air shows, NASCAR races, and gun ranges. Each of those trips began with a stop at Wawa, where we’d stock up on Gatorade, foot-long hoagies, and various kinds of Tasty Kakes for the day. My mom would often pick up Wawa hoagies on her way home from work if she didn’t feel like cooking or there just wasn’t time. (As I type this I’m drinking coffee from a Wawa mug in a bagel shop near my work.)

And while there are a few Dairy Queens around, they aren’t the old-fashioned kind where you order ice cream through a window and eat it on a picnic table outside. You have to go inside to order, and the only seating is also indoors. That always feels strange to me—eating ice cream in a heavily air-conditioned room instead of outside, where you have to eat fast, before it melts all over your hand.

In the summer we’d ride our bikes to DQ, get ice cream, and ride home. That same DQ was where my grandparents would take us after dinner when were little, and we’d sit by the train tracks to watch the SEPTA trains fly by.

Coatesville is right next to Lancaster, which has a large Amish population. My family itself is part Pennsylvania Dutch, and those foods are a large part of what home means to me: shoo-fly pie, pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day for luck, and creamed chipped beef over toast. Recently I’ve discovered a source of shoo-fly pie at a local farmer’s market, but it’s not quite the same.

But even if Pittsburgh did have all these things, it wouldn’t matter, because the biggest thing Pittsburgh is missing is my family. Lukens Steel, Wawa, Dairy Queen, Tasty Kakes—these all have meaning to me because I shared them with people I love, and who love me.

I love Pittsburgh and my life here, but I will always think of Coatesville as home.

“You’re too young for [fill in the blank]!”

People tend to read me as younger (sometimes much, much younger) than I actually am. So, while I am a 30-year old who has been working since the age of 15, has 1.25 master’s degrees, and owns her home, a lot of people think I’m 22, have just graduated college, and have no idea how the world works. On a few recent occasions, people have assumed I’m still in high school.

“Oh, you’ll be grateful for that when you’re older,” I hear all the time from middle-aged women.

And sure. If people were just telling me that I look 22 instead of 30 all the time, great. But at least half of the time, they’re not. They’re making an assumption about my age, and then using that assumption as grounds to treat me like a child. Or they’re just being condescending assholes. Spoiler alert, it’s usually men doing this, though women aren’t immune.

(The other half are usually people like one of my library patrons who, for example, asked me excitedly if the 2016 election was going to be my first presidential election. It wasn’t—with one exception, I have voted in every election in which I’ve been eligible to vote, including primaries, since I turned 18 in 2004.)

Last summer, a door-to-door salesman for some power company came up to my house while I was outside with my dogs. He introduced himself and made some small talk, then asked, “Are your parents home?” in a very serious, I-have-real-business-to-conduct-now tone. I cracked up because he looked rather young himself and was trying very hard to appear older and (I guess?) more respectable, and it was obvious the possibility of me being the homeowner had never, not once, crossed his mind.

Then there are people who say things like, “Aren’t you too young to have carpal tunnel?” when I’m wearing a wrist brace for an injury that resulted from extreme gardening, not computer usage. This question (and others like it) are always asked in a condescending tone and with the assumption that youth equals health (it doesn’t, in case that was unclear, and it’s downright rude to ask a complete stranger about their health issues anyway).

Now back to the “You’ll appreciate that when you’re older” nonsense. This response is problematic for several reasons:

  1. The underlying assumption that age and beauty are somehow related, and that being young equals being more beautiful. Let me just call bullshit on that right now. Older people are beautiful, too, and anyone who tells you otherwise can be damned to a hell in which their every flaw is constantly compared against airbrushed magazine models.
  2. The underlying assumption that my self-esteem is based on my appearance, and that I need external validation to feel good about myself. Of course, this one isn’t about me at all—it’s about the person saying it. More than likely, they feel insecure about their age and appearance, and they’re projecting that insecurity onto me. I’d much rather have people’s respect than their compliments on how pretty I am.

You know what I’ll really, truly appreciate when I’m older? Hearing that one of my stories, or essays, or novels had an impact on a young person the same way books like Sandman and The Chronicles of Narnia had an impact on me.

No one is going to look at me, makeupless, in jeans and a Star Wars t-shirt, with muddy sneakers and messy hair, and think, “Damn, I’m going to spend my whole life trying to look like her!” And they shouldn’t. They should want to look like themselves. So why should I care what people think I look like? Answer: There is no reason. As long as I’m clean and dressed appropriately for work, it does not matter.

In the same vein, age alone does not determine anyone’s capabilities. I’ve met completely incompetent 50-year-olds and brilliant, wise 20-year-olds. The next time someone asks you if you’re “too young for x,” you can respond with, “Aren’t you old enough to know better than to ask inappropriate questions like that?”

#FridayReads: The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie

cover for Ancillary JusticeJust yesterday I finished reading the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie. I enjoyed every second of it, and am excited to learn that a new entry in the series comes out in September, right after my birthday!

I’ve felt a bit out of the sci-fi loop for not having read this series since it made the awards circuit in 2014–and all of them are well earned, that’s for sure.

Science fiction has been asking the question, “What makes us human?” since its earliest days, and this trilogy continues that tradition with its own take. It also explores themes of colonization, empire, class, and gender.

The trilogy consists of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. In this universe, military spaceships and space stations are run by powerful, intelligent, and emotive AIs. Many of these AIs have ancillaries, which are human bodies essentially wiped of their consciousness and tied into the AI’s consciousness. It’s a brutal process that involves the death of the person inhabiting that body.

cover for ancillary swordThe leader of the expansionist Radch empire, Anaander Mianaai, has hundreds of clone bodies and has ruled Radch space for thousands of years. Several incidents with various alien species has caused her to split into multiple factions, which leads to the destruction of the ship Justice of Toren, minus one ancillary, who now goes by Breq.

The Radchaai language doesn’t distinguish genders, so all characters are referred to as “she” throughout the books, and we learn (some of) their genders through interactions with people who speak languages that do distinguish gender. Interestingly, we’re never explicitly (that I remember) told what gender Justice of Toren’s last remaining human body is. It doesn’t matter, though, and that, I’m sure, is Leckie’s point in concealing the gender.

cover for ancillary mercyBreq has set out on a mission to kill Anaander Mianaai, and thus sets in motion the trilogy’s plot. Leckie balances the demands of writing an overarching plot for the trilogy while also giving each book a true beginning, middle, and end. There’s a lot of internal tension, which balances well against the bursts of action and violence. This is definitely intellectual science fiction more than action-adventure-type sci-fi, though there’s plenty of action.

The trilogy is all about revenge, but I appreciate that the revenge Breq exacts involves out-maneuvering rather than outright killing the Lord of the Radch–which would be almost impossible, because of her many many of clone bodies (though Breq does try to kill as many bodies as possible anyway, and who can blame her?).

I could probably write at LEAST half a dozen critical essays on the way Leckie handles class, colonialism, and humanity in general, but I’ll leave this review here: If smart, well-written, character AND plot driven science fiction is your thing, you’ll enjoy these books. I can’t wait for the next one!