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.

May the Fourth Be With You!

photo of me with a jawa and a Tusken raider

On my recent vacation to Tatooine.

A long time ago, in a town far, far away, I discovered Star Wars. I was ten, my brother was nine. We were at my grandparents’ house, where the adults were doing something that necessitated sticking us in the tv room upstairs to watch movies.

It was 1997, and the Star Wars trilogy was airing in advance of the theatrical release of the Special Editions. In our channel flipping, we stumbled on Return of the Jedi. The movie was half over when we happened on it—already the gang was on Endor, chasing down Stormtroopers on speeder bikes.

We were transfixed. When my parents came up to get us so we could go home, we didn’t want to leave. Luke was fighting Darth Vader and Han and Leia were trying to blow up the shield generator. We had to know what happened next.

My dad, perhaps incredulous that we cared so much about a movie that was already fifteen years old, told us that we had it on tape.

“What?!” we both asked, surprised and delighted, but slightly distrustful.

“Yes, we’ve got the whole trilogy on tape,” my dad repeated, trying to hurry us along.

It was too late to watch the rest of the movie when we got home, but the next day, my dad dug out bootleg copies of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, taped off the tv at some indeterminate time in the past. He couldn’t find A New Hope, but we took what he offered.

a Star Wars movie poster with various autographs

I’ve been collecting signatures on this poster since I was 14. My most recent acquisitions are Wedge, Biggs, and Gold Leader (Dutch).

And we watched those two movies over, and over, and over, and over.

It wasn’t until the Special Editions came out in theaters later that year that we were able to see A New Hope. My dad took us to the theater to see it.

We already knew the characters from watching Empire and Jedi, but we soaked up that movie like sponges. The trash compactor scene scared me, but I wasn’t willing to admit it. And I will always remember the thrill I felt leaving that theater, like I had found religion or the secret to eternal youth.

That Christmas was the best Christmas I can remember. We got a (legal) copy of the trilogy on VHS, Star Wars Quiz Whiz, and Star Wars Monopoly. My grandmother began a tradition that has lasted into the present by buying me the Star Wars Hallmark Keepsake ornaments for that year. I’m sure we got other presents–Lego sets, video games–but the Star Wars presents are the ones I remember best.

From then on I had no interest in playing “house.” I wanted to be Princess Leia going on adventures with Luke, Han, and Chewie. I wanted to fly an X-Wing and train to be a Jedi Knight. I called my brother a scruffy looking nerf herder. I pretended my dog Maverick was Chewbacca.

Twenty years later, these films still transfix me. I still want to be Princess Leia and fly an X-Wing and wield a lightsaber. When the world feels devoid of light I only have to pop in A New Hope, learn the ways of the Force from Obi-Wan Kenobi and fight the bad guys in my little snub fighter to remember that resistance is never futile. Resistance and persistence create change, make a better world.

In my most desperate hours, I will always have Star Wars to remind me of this truth.

Happy 40th Anniversary, Star Wars, and May the Fourth Be With You.

Being 30

Three is a lucky number. Thirty is ten threes. Ten threes may not be as lucky as nine threes or even six or three threes, but still. It’s lucky.

I used to dread turning 30, but then I turned 27. 28. 29. Time creeps forward, whether we’re paying attention or not. So I choose to embrace this year of being ten threes, and want to spend it with purpose.

No wrinkles appeared around my eyes when I woke up. No lightning bolt of wisdom struck me. My clothes did not transform into hooded cloaks in the night (though it’d be cool if they did).

Thirty happened the way every other birthday happens: Slowly, over the course of the year, the months, the weeks, the days. It happened over the course of deaths and loss, over the course of illness and setbacks, over the course of new friends and goals met, over the course of endings and beginnings.

And, thankfully, it happened with many of my dearest friends and family—some of whom drove great distances to see me–doing things I love: book shopping, spending a day at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, getting the breakfast buffet at Happy Days and having my annual allotment of creamed chipped beef.

I don’t know what this year will bring, though the cards suggest some interesting things. All I can do is write every day I’m able, send my work into the world, take care of myself as best I can, and continue loving the people (and dogs) I love.

Here’s to 30, and all the things it might bring.