How I (Mostly) Found Peace in the Wilds of Philadelphia

Illustration by Kelsey Dake

Illustration by Kelsey Dake

It’s a beautiful day on the upper reaches of the Schuylkill River. The birds are singing, and sunlight streams through clusters of leafy trees that bend over the water. I’m cruising along in a small beige kayak, enjoying the sound of the water coming off my paddle as I dip and pull, dip and pull. All would be perfect, really, if it weren’t for one very embarrassing fact: My kayak is attached by rope to the kayak in front of me. I’ve been paddling too slowly, so I’m being towed.

I’m one of about 120 people on the water for the first day of the annual Schuylkill River Sojourn, a weeklong trip that travels the river from the town of Schuylkill Haven to Boathouse Row. The Sojourn has been going for 18 years; participants come from all over the country. Meals, guides, campsites and assistance with kayaks are all included. A full trip costs $620, not including kayak rental. Many people are repeat customers.

I’ll only be paddling for one day, which is probably a good thing — at least for the guides who have to deal with my apparent lack of skill. I’ve kayaked before, but mostly on glassy lakes and bays. The last time I went, I took my Chihuahua and spent the day taking photos of her while she trembled in her oversize life jacket. It wasn’t exactly a vigorous workout.

But the Schuylkill Sojourn is no joke. Each morning begins with a safety talk to review the perils that may be encountered on the next stretch of the trip. Being a naturally fearful person, I was definitely intimidated when guide Allan said, “Today’s low water conditions are giving me flashbacks to 1999” and then went on to describe a difficult voyage that involved banging into rocks. “It’ll be challenging,” he said. “We have no idea what’s on the bottom of this river.” We don’t?

By the time Allan got to the phrase “self-rescue position,” I was ready to run back to the safety of Philadelphia. But I couldn’t retreat. I had to go through with this. It was one of the key steps in Spikol: Project Wilding, or The Undomestication of an Urban Woman Afraid of Life. Read more »

12 Wonderfully Questionable Purchases That Prove You’re Really Into Electoral Politics


What a crazy couple of week it’s been, right? First it was the RNC in Cleveland, and now there’s the DNC here in Philly. Such large-scale political events are inevitably horrifying and inspiring. There will be some who’ll be alienated by our two-party system entirely after the conventions, but the vast majority of us will continue to follow the electoral/political drama of 2016, which, given the candidates and the rhetoric, feels more like binge-watching a particularly sadistic season of House of Cards. For election-year junkies, there are plenty of ways to show that you’re really passionate about American electoral politics — and what’s more American than buying a lot of highly dubious crap? (Nothing. There is nothing more American than that.) Here are some recommended items to satisfy your capitalist jones between now and November.  Read more »

Every Time the Pope Moves the Church Forward, Chaput Drags It Backward

Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Joseph Chaput speaks at a press conference at the Vatican, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014, to present the 2015 World Meeting of Families to be held in Philadelphia, PA, from Sept. 22 to Sept. 27, 2015. Francis and 100 elderly priests will celebrate a Mass in St. Peter's Square on Sept. 28 in honor of the elderly, part of his long-standing belief that old people shouldn't be shut away in retirement homes but should be actively cherished for their wisdom. The Mass for grandparents, and the group wedding that Francis celebrated last weekend, are aimed at focusing attention on family life ahead of a major two-year church study on family issues starting Oct. 5. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Joseph Chaput. | Photo by Domenico Stinellis/AP

Last week, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput released “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia,” regarding Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation issued in April. That profound and complex 263-page document affirmed “a renewed awareness of the importance of marriage and the family” at the same time that it interrogated definitions of family, pastoral obligations and current practices. It chastised the Catholic Church for being too cold, too bureaucratic in its dealings with parishioners whose family structures or situations were not the accepted norm, and extolled sexuality rooted in pleasure, and unburdened by guilt. Read more »

Five Big Ways Philly’s Not Ready to Show Off for the DNC | f11photo | f11photo

Thursday I got a press release from the Philadelphia DNC 2016 Host Committee announcing “the installation of its 57 fiberglass ‘Donkeys Around Town.'” My first thought was, “Donkeys? What is wrong with this city? Can’t we do anything right? Why are we putting donkeys everywhere? That’s going to look ridiculous! We’ll be a laughingstock!” Then I remembered the donkey is the symbol of the Democratic Party, and I calmed down. I apologized, in my head, to the fictional Philadelphia event organizer I’d been blaming for dreaming up an inelegant promotion, and laughed at the actual physical panic I felt at the possibility of the city looking stupid in a headline.

The problem is that every time the city mounts a big event, one that will bring national attention, I remember the Alamo, and I worry. I speak, of course, of the Philadelphia Alamo, aka, the Bicentennial. Long story short: In 1976 we threw a party for the country and no one came. My cheeks still burn with the shame of it, even though in 1976 I was a barely sentient human being who still believed in the Tooth Fairy. Read more »

The Orlando Nightclub Shooter and the Agonizing Need to Know “Why”

Pulse nightclub following a fatal shooting Sunday, June 12, 2016, in Orlando, Fla.

Pulse nightclub following a fatal shooting Sunday, June 12, 2016, in Orlando, Fla.

We’d like it to be like Law & Order, or Criminal Minds, or CSI. On those shows, there’s always a clear motive. The boss killed his secretary so she wouldn’t tell his wife about their affair. The husband killed his wife to collect on the insurance money before the divorce went through. Even a serial killer does what he does because of that one uncle who molested him in the basement when he was 9.

The emphasis on a single, easily digestible motive is an obvious must for TV police procedurals: There’s only so much time in each episode to unspool the crime-and-punishment plot. It’s also the way the criminal justice system works. Jurors are TV watchers, after all. They need a story that holds together, is persuasive, makes sense.

A motive feels even more urgent after an inherently inexplicable event like the massacre in Orlando. Until we know why it happened, we’re stuck in the devastation. Once we have a motive, we can stop thinking about the terrified people who waited for their deaths, crouched in toilet stalls, and about the torn-apart hearts of the parents who lost their children. We can step away from the dislocating horror, the incomprehensibility, and return instead to the familiar:  Read more »

Of Course Someone Threw a Beer Bottle at Ryan Howard


I was sitting on the banks of the Schuylkill River with my boyfriend, Brad, and our friend Conor last year, outside of the Art Museum, when Conor said: “What was the best day of your life?” Conor and Brad were smoking cigars, which seemed to incline them both toward philosophical reflection. Brad said, “The day the Phillies won the World Series.” I said, “Me too!” Only we were talking about two different days.

I was referring to the 1980 victory, which I watched on a small TV with my dad and other customers at Towne Pizza at 19th and Pine. Everyone went absolutely bonkers, including my dad, who never cared at all about sports. Of course, the victory wasn’t about baseball, per se. It was about Philadelphia. It was also pure joy unfettered by knowledge (I was 12), and it suffused my entire body.  Read more »

Why Real Philadelphians Instinctively Hate Shiny New Things


Who could roll their eyes at this? The author could.

Not long ago a treasured possession of mine — an audio tape my dad made when I was about four — got ruined. Somehow the tape in the cassette disappeared and now when I try to play it there’s a vast nothingness where sound should be. On the tape, I am pretending to be a lecturer at the Academy of Natural Sciences, schooling my dad in all kinds of animal facts — some true, some invented, and some attributed to Mommy, who was giving me some seriously inaccurate information (the natural diet of the elephant is not, in fact, buttered popcorn). When I’d get off track, my dad would prod me: “And where do giraffes live, Elizabeth?” “Africa!” That kind of thing.

A lot of people have such keepsakes — childhood recordings and home movies. The fact of the tape itself wasn’t unique. But I kept this tape in a special box, so that I’d never lose it, for two reasons. First of all, one side is comprised, entirely, of my dad methodically repeating curse words — “Shit. Shit. Shit. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” — slowly, in a grave tone. He sounds like a serial killer, but it’s also weirdly hilarious. He used to leave the tape playing for his parrot, Miles, hoping the bird would pick stuff up. He never did.

The other reason I treasured this tape was because it contained absolute, touching proof of my Philadelphia origins — proof that was better than a birth certificate because it could be heard in one key exchange:

“Where does the hippo live, Elizabeth?” my father asks.

“In the wooder,” I say. Read more »

People, Stop Killing Wild Animals With Kindness

Left: The Yellowstone baby bison. Right: The Wissahickon black bear.

Left: The Yellowstone baby bison. Right: The Wissahickon black bear.

One of the most embarrassing things I ever did was find a dog that wasn’t lost. It was near Second and Washington, while I was stuck in traffic. I saw a very adorable Beagle-y Bassett-y thing wandering along the perimeter of a park, but outside its gates rather than in. I drove around and didn’t see an owner anywhere — the area looked pretty deserted — so I concluded the dog was lost and in need of rescue. I pulled over, grabbed the befuddled dog off the pavement and stuck him in the back seat of my grandfather’s hand-me-down Oldsmobile. Then I drove somewhere quiet where we could talk.

“Are you lost?” I asked the dog, who stared at me with liquid eyes but said nothing. “Do you need my help, you precious cutie?” He did have a collar and tags, so I called a number and left a triumphant message: “I found your dog!” A few minutes later, a woman called back and said, “You found him! Thank god! We didn’t know what happened.” She said her husband took her dog to the same park every day, where he’d sit on a bench and read while the dog would roam around. Her husband always kept a close eye on him, she said, but on this day, when her husband raised his eyes from his book, the dog was gone. He ran around the entire park calling the dog’s name.

Where had this happened? I asked. Near Second and Washington, she said.

Uh-oh.  Read more »

A History of Violence: Philadelphia Political Brawls

"Justice" engraved on Philadelphia's City Hall

Photo | Jeff Fusco

The first thing I do when I wake up, before I fully open my eyes, is indulge a ritual that goes back to my cable-less childhood, when school days were bookended by Action News broadcasts and Jim Gardner was God: I grab my phone and open the 6ABC app to see what’s happened in Philly overnight. How many shootings? How many fires? Was there was a hit-and-run, or a standoff with police? Did something tragic occur in some town I’ve never heard of in Gloucester County or Delaware? I can’t start my day until I know.

The other morning when I clicked on the app, the headline read: “Philadelphia Streets commissioner charged with simple assault.” Donald Carlton, who started his career almost a quarter century ago as a trash collector, was alleged to have punched a man several times at a party in December. The DA brought charges that also included reckless endangering. Given that he’s been Streets Commissioner for all of five minutes, I said aloud (to the dog, I guess), “Jesus! I can’t believe it.” Then I thought of that comedy routine by Tig Notaro: Read more »

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