Category: social justice

A love letter to Squirrel Hill

I loved Pittsburgh from the moment I stepped out of my parents’ mini-van for a tour of Pitt 13 years ago. The sun shone bright and high in the sky, and the Cathedral of Learning (still covered in soot back then), reached up to it as if in prayer. It felt like home already, though I’d only just arrived.

When I graduated four years later, the decision to stay was easy. By then I’d learned how precious those few sunny days were, how inadequate and frustrating the public transit was, how the neighborhoods were divided—segregated, essentially—by race. I stayed because, despite the negatives, despite the downsides, it still felt like home. I was young and thought, too, that maybe I could make things better. Not just in Pittsburgh, but the world.

I’ve never lived in Squirrel Hill, but I did and still do spend a lot of time there. As a student I spent countless Friday nights at the now-closed Barnes & Noble, spending what little money I had on books and more books. I wrote endless pages of terrible novels at the 61C Cafe, smoking clove cigarettes on the patio and watching the bright sunflowers nod in the breeze. And on late nights, studying or just escaping from the pain of a bad breakup or another rejection, I sat with my friends in Eat ‘n’ Park, drinking stale coffee and eating pie that tasted like cardboard, but the taste wasn’t the point anyway.

My favorite tea shop is in Squirrel Hill (Margaret’s), my favorite diner (Pamela’s—specifically the Squirrel Hill one), the best gaming store (Games Unlimited). I always find something delightful at The Exchange (the Star Wars soundtrack on 8 track, for example). My friends live there, and when out-of-town friends visit we meet up at 61C or Common Place. I spent two and a half years at Chatham, heading to the Squirrel Cage with friends after class for a stiff drink and literary dreaming.

In my boring adult life, I spend one Sunday a month in Squill (as we affectionately call it) pretending to be an X-Man with my nerd friends. We usually go out for a post-gaming dinner at Cafe 33, which is arguably the best Asian restaurant in the whole damn city. The Barnes & Noble is gone, but we have two indies in its place: Classic Lines and Amazing Books. 61C is still one of my go-to writer hangouts, especially in summer. I don’t visit Eat ‘n’ Park as much, but it’s tradition to kick off NaNoWriMo there at midnight on November 1 every year, and I plan to be there tonight.

D.J. and I often head to Pamela’s for a weekend brunch after a run. When we miss the North Side’s Friday farmer’s market, we stop by the Squirrel Hill market on Sunday for our local produce. I go out of my way to use the Post Office there, because the clerks are always smiling.

In short, I love Squirrel Hill.

On Saturday, a racist Nazi murderer walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue and massacred 11 people gathered for worship and community. The signs were there—after all, we elected a blatantly racist president who called literal Nazis “some fine people,” and just last year another racist Nazi spread anti-Semitic flyers all over the neighborhood.

My heart is broken, and it cracks anew every time I open the news or social media and see the world over talking about what happened here. I want the world to know and love the Squirrel Hill I know. The multicultural neighborhood full of love and such a vibrant community. I didn’t directly know anyone involved in the shooting. But I know people who do. They are my friends, they are my neighbors. They are my community. Every act of horrific mass violence like this cuts me to the quick, but this one hurts more because Pittsburgh is my home.

I’m a white woman. I’m almost always “safe.” And if I feel as if the world is stuttering to a stand still a thousand times a day, I cannot imagine the pain and grief my Jewish friends and the local and global Jewish community is going through. And what’s more, this was not the only shooting this weekend. This was not the only recent Pittsburgh tragedy. This the way things are, but this is not the way things have to be. It starts with me. It starts with you.

Together, we are stronger than hate. Love alone is not enough. We must stand whenever and wherever injustice strikes in this city we call home, whether against our Jewish neighbors, our Black neighbors, our immigrant neighbors, our refugee neighbors.

Stand for Antwon Rose.

Stand for Irving Younger.

Stand for Melvin Wax.

Stand for Bernice and Sylvan Simon.

Stand for Jerry Rabinowitz.

Stand for Joyce Feinberg.

Stand for Richard Gottfried.

Stand for Daniel Stein.

Stand for Cecil and David Rosenthal.

Stand.

Running and body image

Feet in running shoes standing on the grass

I started running at the end of May because I wanted to improve my overall health. Back then, I couldn’t run for more than a minute at a time without getting winded. Last week, I completed my first unofficial 5k run in about 45 minutes. I still have to take some walk breaks on those “long” runs, but the point is that I did something I couldn’t have conceived of doing six months ago.

Running hasn’t been without its challenges. Between asthma, chronic migraine, and a bout of painful runner’s knee in June, it’s something of a miracle I’ve been able to keep running–and more of a miracle that I actually, really, and truly, enjoy it. I crave it.

There’s no doubt that running is tough. My gym-class-averse English lit nerd self always shied away from cardio, but there’s beauty in the rhythm of the breath, the strike of each foot on the ground. And the endorphin rush that hits after I finish a run is enough to get me through the day without wanting to stab anyone, which is another miracle in and of itself.

Which brings me back to the original reason I started. I never had too much trouble maintaining a healthy weight, and I never really cared if I had a little bit of tummy fat or how thick my thighs were (and they were thick, even at my skinniest). I practiced karate until I went off to college, and earned a second-degree black belt, so I also felt confident in my ability to kick butt and take names.

Then, in 2014, I started taking Prozac for chronic migraine. I gained nearly 50 pounds. People began asking me if I were pregnant, or when I was due. I had to buy pants in a larger size, and then an even larger size. My previously rock-solid self-confidence about my body evaporated. I still had confidence in my brain and my skills, but for the first time, I felt disgust over my own body.*

I never really fit the image of what the media portrays as the “ideal” woman. I am on the tall side and have always been curvy, especially in my lower half. My hips are wide and there’s no way in hell my skeleton can fit into any pant size smaller than an 8 or 9. I have those aforementioned large thighs and a big-ish butt with small-ish breasts. A super skinny size zero model I am not, and will never be.

But I let the lie that I should be that super skinny size zero model get to me. I bought into it, at least for awhile. I attempted to lose weight a number of times, but always failed, and always blamed myself. And sure, my eating habits were partly to blame, but it wasn’t a moral failing. I let the allure of easy, cheap processed food (especially pastries) get inside my head and let my eating habits backslide because I didn’t think I was worth it anymore, or because my head hurt so damn much I needed some sort of physical comfort, and food was easy. I was going to be chubby anyway, so why bother?

Then I started running. I’ve lost at least one pants size and a good 15-20 pounds since the beginning of 2018. And that’s great. But it’s almost beside the point. As the summer months went by, and I kept running, and running, and running, I felt a sense of amazement at what my body could accomplish, even with all those extra pounds. I felt physically powerful and empowered. I saw the harmful things I’d been telling myself about my body for what they were–lies based on an unachievable ideal that just made me feel crappy and didn’t help me achieve my goals.

My goal is not to be skinny, or attractive, or to live up to someone else’s idea of who or what I should be. My goal is and has always been to be the best damn writer I can be, and to achieve it, I need to be healthy. Not skinny, not pretty, not… whatever. I need actual health. I need to be able to hold down a job so I can pay my bills. I need to have enough energy that I can actually wake up early to write every morning. I need to manage my chronic migraine so the whole thing doesn’t fall apart.

Running has become a non-negotiable part of my wellness routine. It’s reminded me that my body is an amazing conglomeration of bone and blood and flesh that deserves to be cherished, not vilified. It’s reminded me that I absolutely can achieve my (realistic) goals when I apply myself. (I don’t mean goals like publication or getting a particular job that rely on other people’s decisions, I just mean goals that are in my control, like finishing a novel or sending a specific number of job applications.)

Ideally, I’d like to lose a bit more fat and put on more muscle, but I can honestly say at this point it’s not because I want to look better. I want to feel better. I want that post-run rush that fills me up for the rest of the day. And, yes, I want to run faster. But even if I knew I’d never lose another pound of fat, I’d keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It’s a huge difference–deriving self-esteem from what you look like versus what you can accomplish. Looks are transient. Talent much less so. My hope is that eventually, every girl will grow up in a world that values her smarts, her talents, her ideas, and her skills, not whether or not she measures up to the current unrealistic beauty standard.

These messages from the media about what women should look like–and that we should feel terrible about ourselves if we don’t live up to those standards–are so pervasive and so insidious that they affect all of us, men included. For awhile, I let myself get lost in them. Running helped me find my way out. It may not be your thing, and that’s okay, but I hope that you–wherever you are on the planet, wherever you are in your journey–will find the thing that leads you out of that mess, one step at a time.


*I feel compelled to point out that the minor embarrassment I’ve faced from being “overweight” is diddly squat next to the discrimination many fat people face on a regular basis. This is a complex issue, and I’m not the best person to delve into it. Here’s a conversation between Lindy West and Roxane Gay for starters, but I highly recommend the books Shrill by Lindy West and The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life by Wendy Shanker.

Let’s talk about the NFL and Colin Kaepernick

I was in the middle of writing a post on body image and running, but I’ve seen too many Facebook posts about Nike, the NFL, and Colin Kaepernick, and truthfully, I’m spitting mad. But I’m not going to try to change anyone’s mind here. Instead, I have some questions for you. For those of you who feel that Kaepernick is disrespecting America, the flag, and our soldiers, yes, but also for those who find his protest admirable. Because if we’re going to talk about respect and justice, well, we need to actually talk about respect and justice.

So, did you boycott Nike in the 90s when the report on its use of sweatshops came out?

Did you boycott Nike after that because they never really improved their labor practices?

Did you boycott the NFL after owners willfully covered up and actively distorted science to hide the numerous, life-long, devastating complications from players receiving concussions? (See also the book League of Denial, which was also made into a documentary.)

Did you boycott the NFL after player after player was accused of murdering, beating, raping, and assaulting woman after woman after woman after woman, and some dogs for good measure?

Did you boycott the NFL after almost every single one of those men walked free?

Are you boycotting Nike and the NFL now because you disagree with Nike hiring an athlete who designed a peaceful protest of injustice in conversation with a Green Beret, who fought and risked his life for the country you claim to love so much? Are you certain there aren’t other reasons, maybe ones you aren’t comfortable facing?

Because if you answered “no” to the first five questions and “yes” to the sixth question, I have to ask you another, even more pressing set of questions.

You respect a flag, a symbol of a country, but where is your respect for women? For laborers in third world countries—working class people struggling to get by? Where is your respect for human life? For the right to pursue life, liberty, and justice for all? Do you show your respect for people and values the same way you show respect for a symbol? Why does THIS, a peaceful protest that harms no one, make you so angry, when all those other things didn’t?

And to those who are now applauding Nike/Kaepernick/the NFL, what about those first five questions? Are you a “yes” or a “no”? If you’re a “no,” why not? Why is Kaepernick’s protest against injustice praiseworthy, but the suffering and death of real people across decades doesn’t warrant a pass on those two brands, at the very least?

I’m not going to make any arguments here or tell you what to think. All I ask now is that you consider your answers to these questions, and examine the reasons behind them. I’m happy to discuss this further in the comments here, or elsewhere on the net. However, I will not tolerate any racism, sexism, disrespect to myself or other commenters or troll bullshit here or elsewhere.

For the record, I’ve never been a football fan. I’ve always thought it was stupid, and the more I learned about its violence and concussion issues, the more I grew to despise the NFL. My record with sweatshop clothing isn’t perfect—it’s damn hard to avoid—but I make an effort, and will and do pay more for ethically sourced clothing (and I also shop secondhand).

Finally, I leave you with this line from the musical Hamilton: If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?

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