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Author’s life a winding path of queerness, art, pride and disability lineage

Fink explores familial exclusion in new book

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Jennifer Natalya Fink

When Jennifer Natalya Fink, 55, an English professor and director of the Disabilities Studies program at Georgetown University, was growing up, her grandfather’s house overflowed with his extended family – from aunts to second cousins. 

“Though my gruff grandfather argued with everyone,” Fink, who is queer and Jewish, writes in her new book “All Our Families: Disability Lineage and the Future of Kinship,” “his household included far-flung family members in his ever-expanding mishpacha–Yiddish for family, extended family, and that aunt who’s really just your mother’s best friend.”

Yet one family member wasn’t welcome there, Fink, who is married to a Korean-American, gender nonconforming spouse, told the Blade in an interview. She never saw her first cousin, Cousin XY, (her grandfather’s grandson) at family gatherings.

As a child, Fink knew that she had a cousin who no one mentioned. A geneticist’s daughter, she named her “lost” cousin “Cousin XY.” 

“My grandfather had an expanded idea of family,” Fink said, “But Cousin XY had Down syndrome.”

Fink’s grandfather was a doctor. His mishpacha included vulnerable people who were unable to provide for themselves. But “there wasn’t room for someone with an extra chromosome,” Fink said, “he said my aunt and uncle should ‘give away’ their child with Down Syndrome.”

There was so much shame around disability when Cousin XY was born, Fink said. “It was like how it was for me growing up queer in the 1970s and 1980s,” she said. “No one talked about it then. The stories of queer people were erased.”

Her grandfather’s vision of family had “one limit,” Fink said. “It didn’t include disability.”

After he was born, Cousin XY was taken from his parents. At first, a nurse cared for him. Then, he was institutionalized.

“Cousin XY’s story was erased,” Fink said. “He wasn’t even given a name.” 

The 1970s was the “tail end” of the mass institutionalization of disabled people, Fink said.

Institutionalization of people with disabilities is much less common now. “Yet disabled people are still often being culturally and psychologically delineated from our idea of family,” Fink said.

Nearly one in five people has a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So, it’s not surprising that Fink’s family (like many families) has had more than one disabled person in its history.

Fink’s grandmother Adina was extremely hard of hearing. “Yet, we never talked about her deafness,” Fink said. “She took no pride in her disability.”

Just as, until recently, many families erased the stories of their LGBTQ mother, fathers, husbands, wives, children, grandmas, grandpas – “guncles,” families still erase disabled people from their family history.

Fink, born in Washington, D.C., grew up in Ithaca, N.Y. “Growing up, I felt like I was the only queer person in the universe,” Fink said, “being queer wasn’t considered to be ‘normal.’”

Many families have at least one family member who is LGBTQ. Fink’s parents were loving and liberal. But, when she was young, “it was as if there had never ever been a queer person in my family,” Fink said. “It felt like being cut off from my family’s story.”

Now, Fink’s parents are supportive of her sexual orientation.

In this era of LGBTQ pride, being queer is more often seen not as “abnormal” or “traumatic” but as a “normal” part of being human.

This hasn’t been the case for disabled people, Fink said.

The stigma and shame around disability became up close and personal for Fink when her daughter Nadia Sohn Fink, now 15, was two-and-a-half-years old.

Then, Fink learned that Nadia was autistic. Fink was gobsmacked.

Nadia, who is biracial, was an intelligent, playful child. Now Nadia is a bright teen who writes stories and poetry. 

“It felt traumatic to get this paper saying Nadia is autistic,” Fink said, “as if we were being cut off from what is normal.”

Fink, who isn’t disabled, had internalized society’s perceptions of disability. She’d imbibed the ableist Kool Aid: the idea that disability is shameful – that disabled people should be feared, patronized and/or shunned.

To deal with her daughter’s autism diagnosis, Fink leaned into her experience of being queer.

“Because I’m queer, I’m used to being an outsider,” she said, “I drew on what I know of homophobia. On what it’s like to be excluded – to be considered abnormal – not a part of the family.”

Fink is an introvert. “If I weren’t queer, I’d never have gone into a bar,” she joked.

But connecting with other LGBTQ people had made her feel pride in herself. Her queer connection made her feel part of a chosen family and think about her family of origin’s stories.

She and Nadia connected with other autistic people and their families. Fink came to think of being disabled not as something to be ashamed of, but as a normal part of being human.

Fink began to look into her family’s disability history. She found that Rhona (now deceased), another cousin in the United Kingdom, had Down Syndrome. Rhona, Fink discovered, led a happy, fulfilled life.

 “Rhona lived with her family through her childhood,” Fink said, “her mother started a progressive care center where Rhona lived the rest of her life.”

There’s a parallel between families being out and proud about their queer and disability history, Fink said.

“Reclaiming your family’s disability stories will change how you think about disability,” Fink said.

Take her hard-of-hearing grandmother. Fink now looks on her grandmother’s disability with pride. “She didn’t transcend her disability,” Fink said, “but because she was hard-of-hearing, my grandmother had to pay attention. She was a great listener.”

Fink’s daughter Nadia feels pride in her disabled ancestors. “Disability lineage empowers me,” Nadia emailed the Blade, “To know my people were always there. To know I have a people.”

Creativity runs in the Fink family. Like her daughter, Fink is a writer. She was the winner of the Dana Award for the novel and of the Catherine Doctorow Prize for Fiction.

“I write experimental fiction,” said Fink who was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for her 2018 novel “Bhopal Dance.”

“Bhopal Dance” “focuses on disaster, activism, white savior complex, and queer world making,” Corinne Manning wrote in the “Lambda Literary Review. “The book is an astonishing sun-posed magnifying glass on our radical failures and desires.”

In 1988, Fink graduated from Wesleyan University with a bachelor’s degree in a self-designed major in feminist performance art. She earned an M.F.A. in performance from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1990 and a Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University in 1997.

For a time, Fink was based in New York City, where she supervised art teachers in public schools. She noticed that often there were no books, and that the students were frequently alienated from books.

But “the kids loved to draw, paint, cartoon, etc.,” Fink said, “I learn best through making. So did these kids.”

To promote youth literacy, Fink was one of the founders of the (now defunct) Gorilla Press.

Fink’s life has been a winding path of queerness, art, pride and disability lineage. She wears her grandmother’s ring to honor her disability ancestors.

You can’t help but think that her grandmother would be proud.

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‘Jackie & Me’ puts a refreshing spin on Camelot

Jack’s gay pal narrates fictional take on iconic love affair

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(Book cover image courtesy of Algonquin)

‘Jackie & Me: A Novel’
By Louis Bayard
c.2022, Algonquin
$28/352 pages

It is a truth that is universally acknowledged: A love story will be not only entertaining, but a moving, thought-provoking page-turner, if it has a gay best friend.

“Jackie & Me” by Louis Bayard, the acclaimed gay novelist, isn’t a Jane Austen tale. But Austen would have appreciated Bayard’s witty, poignant, new novel.

Unless you’ve lived under a rock, whether you’re Gen Z or a Boomer, you know about Jack and Jackie Kennedy and Camelot.

Yet, Bayard, in his tenth novel “Jackie & Me,” puts a refreshing spin on this story.

The novel is narrated by Kirk LeMoyne (a.k.a. “Lem”) Billings, Jack’s best friend. Lem has been JFK’s pal since they were students at Choate. Though Lem never says “I’m out and I’m proud,” it’s clear that he’s gay.

Lem is JFK’s fixer and court jester. He pays for Jack’s lunch. If Jack’s in the mood, Lem drinks with him. When Jack needs advice on love affairs, Lem’s on it.  

“Jackie & Me” brings us JFK and Jackie before they were iconic.

The novel takes place in 1952. Jackie, 22, then Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, is the “inquiring photographer” for the Washington Times Herald. Jack, 35, is a Massachusetts congressman. They don’t know each other until they meet up at a party in D.C.

What makes “Jackie & Me” so enjoyable is that Lem is our fly on the wall. He takes us along as the couple date, meet the parents, and wed.

Jack is from a wealthy, Irish, Catholic political family. The Kennedys know everyone from Harry and Bess Truman to Henry and Clare Luce to Joe McCarthy.

Jackie’s father, known as “Black Jack,” was a Wall Street stockbroker. Her mother Janet Auchincloss was a socialite. Her stepfather Hugh Auchincloss was a Standard Oil heir. Unlike many women at the time, Jackie is well educated (with a degree in French literature from Washington University and classes at the Sorbonne in Paris). 

Jack loves sleeping with women, but has no love for marriage. Yet he must marry because “my father says I can’t get elected [president] if I’m not married,” he tells Lem.

Knowing that matrimony is in his future whether he likes it or not, Jack thinks Jackie might be the right woman to marry. But he wants to be sure she’s not involved with other men and that, if they wed, she’ll tolerate his extramarital liaisons. He turns to his dependable buddy Lem and asks him to pal around with Jackie – to spy on her.

Lem isn’t thrilled by this. “Who would I be working for,” he says to Jack, “you? Your father ‘the bossman’?”

While Jack’s been busy in Congress and womanizing, he’s been escorting Jackie about town. They’ve gone to the Smithsonian, laughed at bad Loretta Young movies and gone to an amusement park. They’ve become close friends.

If something happens and Jack doesn’t work out, “would you be my back-up husband,” Jackie, who’s caught on to Jack’s foibles, jokes to Lem.

Billings, who lived from 1916 to 1981, maintained ties with the Kennedy family after Jack’s death.

But “Jackie & Me” is, without apology, a fictional work and “an exercise in alternative history,” Bayard writes in the acknowledgments.

Though a work of fiction, “Jackie & Me” feels true. In the novel, Jackie and Lem are outsiders. Jackie isn’t of the Kennedy family and doesn’t, as many women did then, aspire to be a homemaker. Lem was a closeted gay man when homophobia was socially acceptable.

Lem recalls how at Choate, boys who wanted sex or tenderness from other boys, would write notes on toilet paper. “I’m not that kind of boy,” responds Jack on receiving a note on toilet tissue from Lem.

“Jackie & Me” is intriguing because it’s not, at heart, about the romance of a glittering young couple. It’s an Austenesque triangle: the tale of the twists, turns, love and friendship of three compadres.

It’s a charming, elegant summer read.

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Books

Fascinating mystery novel features gay private eye in 1947 Philly

‘Knock off the Hat’ explores a world before LGBTQ rights advances

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(Book cover image courtesy of Amble Press)

‘Knock Off the Hat: A Clifford Waterman Gay Philly Mystery’
By Richard Stevenson
c.2022, Amble Press
$18.95/200 pages

The Horn & Hardart automat is a great place to meet friends and eat (on the cheap) delicious meatloaf and coconut cream pie.

People wonder when Connie Mack, the Philadelphia Athletics’ manager, will retire and have a ballpark named after him.

If you’re queer, you dance, drink and hook-up in gay bars.

Life is good. Even on summer nights when few places are air conditioned. Except that if you’re queer, you can be  arrested if you’re in a gay bar that’s raided by the police. If you’re arrested, your name will likely appear in the Philadelphia Inquirer on a list of “deviants.”

This is the world of Clifford Waterman, a gay private eye, the protagonist of “Knock Off the Hat,” the fascinating new mystery by Richard Stevenson.

The novel is set in 1947 in Philadelphia. During World War II, Clifford, a former police detective, was in the Army. He was an Army MP in Cairo, where he jokes, “I was working with US Army unintelligence.”

Clifford was dishonorably discharged from the Army for being gay. Though ironically, his job in the service was to round up “drunks,” “dope fiends” and “perverts.”

An officer found him one night, “enjoying the company of a nice man named Idriss, who normally cleaned the latrines,” Clifford says. “On this particular occasion, this pleasant chappie was cleaning my latrine.” 

The era in which Clifford lives is repressive. The House Un-American Activities Committee is going after queer people and suspected Communists. If you’re LGBTQ and arrested in a bar raid, you’ll lose your job if your employer reads about it in the paper. 

Yet Clifford respects himself. He proudly hangs his dishonorable discharge on his office wall. 

In “Knock Off the Hat,” Clifford is called upon to use his detective skills, street-smarts and connections in the queer community, to solve a terrifying, puzzling mystery.

Usually, queer people who are arrested in a gay bar raid for “disorderly conduct,” can pay off Judge Harold Stetson. (Stetson is called “the Hat” because his surname is the name of a type of hat.) If they pay the judge $50 (a lot of money, but, with some belt-tightening, doable), they’ll avoid “public humiliation along with a hefty fine or even jail time,” Stevenson writes.

But now, the judge and his clerk have gone bonkers. They’re requiring queer people to pay Judge Stetson $500. If they don’t pay up, their professional and personal life will be ruined.

Scarcely anyone can afford this sum. A gay man, who’s proud to be a salesperson in the shoe department of the glam department store Wanamakers, is comparatively lucky. After he’s arrested in a bar raid, he sells his car to get the $500 to pay off the judge. Other queer people end up working at gas stations or even kill themselves because they don’t have that kind of money.

“Knock Off the Hat” takes place at a time when queer lives were, largely, devalued. Yet it’s far from grim.

The novel is filled with dark humor and engaging characters from an actress who pretends to be a deceased gay man’s fiancee to a left-wing queer farmer. In one scene, after Lauren Bacall drops into a dinner party, it’s revealed that her “dick” is “bigger than Bogie’s.”

Richard Stevenson is the pen name of the groundbreaking mystery writer Richard Lipez. “Knock Off the Hat,” was published after Lipez, who was openly gay, died at 83 in March 2022. Lipez envisioned “Knock Off the Hat” as being the first in a series featuring Clifford Waterman.

Also, under the pseudonym Richard Stevenson, Lipez over four decades (beginning in 1981 with “Death Trick”) wrote 17 mysteries featuring the queer detective Donald Strachey. “Chasing Rembrandt,” the last of the Donald Strachey series, will be released by ReQueered Tales in fall 2022.

The Strachey mysteries, set in Albany, N.Y., in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, are less dark than “Knock Off the Hat.” Donald Strachey, his lover Timmy and many of the other queer characters dance, cruise, and indulge in camp humor. Yet without being preachy, the Strachey mysteries address AIDS and other serious issues.

“Knock Off the Hat” is as riveting as the best of Raymond Chandler. Though it’s highly entertaining, reading it in this “Don’t Say Gay” era, is sobering. The novel with its depiction of a time when queers had no rights is a chilling reminder that we can’t afford to be complacent.

This isn’t meant to be a downer. Libation in hand, treat yourself this summer. Check out “Knock Off the Hat.”   

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Celebrating Arab and Muslim heritage, art, gastronomy

Three new books open a window to influential cultures

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‘Portugal: The Cookbook’ explores the Arab roots of Portuguese cooking.

As a college student, I hungered for Arab and Muslim representation. Prejudice against our communities was mainstream and demoralizing. Things, however, can sometimes change sooner than we expect. 

Although Muslims and Arabs are still maligned, it is no longer as widespread and is often counterbalanced by allyship and, crucially, Muslim and Arab representation. From Hulu’s “Remy,” Netflix’s “Master of None,” HBO Max’s “Sort Of,” to the upcoming premiere of Disney+’s “Ms. Marvel” to Muslim characters on “Love Victor,” “Never Have I Ever,” and “Genera+ion,” Muslim characters and creators are now common. And these creators are diverse, proud, and often queer. 

Mahersalah Ali is a two-time Oscar winner (one for the Black queer Best Picture winner “Moonlight”) and Riz Ahmed is the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor; he won an Oscar this year for a short film taking on British xenophobia, and spearheading an initiative to boost Muslim representation in Hollywood from screenwriters to actors. 

From starving to satisfied, it has been quite a transformation in American culture. And it’s not only TV and film. Political representation isn’t novel anymore. I still remember when former Rep. Keith Ellison was asked on CNN to prove his loyalty by the conservative host Glenn Beck. Today, Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are progressive trailblazers. Irvine, Calif., has a Muslim mayor in Farrah Khan. Joe Biden has nominated the first Muslims to the federal judiciary, one has been confirmed and the other, civil rights lawyer Nusrat Choudhury, awaits Senate confirmation. And Biden, lest we forget, said “inshallah” (God willing) on the presidential debate stage. “We’ve made it,” I want to shout. But I know we’re still fighting for full normalization in American life.

Hence my excitement over three new books (two cookbooks and one art text) that feature Arab and Muslim heritage, art, and gastronomy. 

Arab roots of Portuguese cooking 

“To these new rulers [the Moors], cuisine was an art, and food a gift from God that should be consumed in moderation and shared with those in need,” writes Leandro Carreira, the author of “Portugal: The Cookbook.” It’s not surprising to learn that Arabs and Berbers shaped the evolution of Portuguese cuisine, but what’s striking is the nature of its legacy. In this cookbook of 700 recipes, half draw from the Moors. 

When Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain) they brought with them not only warriors and administrators but architects, astronomers, poets, and, inter alia, cooks along with cookbooks, such as the Medieval “Kitab al Tabikh.” 

The Moors introduced hydraulics that irrigated the farmland (along with orchards and leafy gardens) and beautified the land by planting citrus trees both for the fruit and scent. The list of crops introduced by Moors includes eggplant, artichoke, carrot, lentils, cucumber, and lettuce. The latter would later christen the residents of Lisbon, who are colloquially known as Alfachinhas (“little lettuces”). Moors popularized sour oranges, apricots, dates, melons, and watermelons; spices such as pepper and ginger; pickling of olives and nuts; sour marinade to preserve fish; rose water and orange blossom. The Moors’ vinegary salads were the precursor to gazpacho. The introduction of sugarcane later severed Portuguese colonization and fueled the slave trade, and transformed sugar from luxury to staple. 

Naturally, the North African rulers brought couscous, the main consumed wheat until the late 16th century. To this day, northwestern Portuguese villagers prepare couscous using the methods and utensils introduced by Berbers 900 years ago. 

The Moors cultivated hospitality and conviviality at the table along with the order in which food is served: soups followed by fish or meat and concluding with sweets. The Arabs’ cousins, the Jews played their part in shaping Portuguese cooking, too. Jews prepared their post-Sabbath meal by laying aside a slow-burning stew of meat, chickpeas, collard greens, hard-boiled eggs, and vegetables; today, the Portuguese call it Adafina. Jews introduced deep-fried vegetables and Portuguese missionaries later brought them to Japan and (voilà!) tempura. 

In its history, “Portugal” evokes our interwoven humanity. 

Arabiyya: Cooking as an Arab in America

The past few years have seen cookbooks with narratives of culture and personal journeys foregrounding recipes — many focused on Arab culture. “The Gaza Kitchen” by Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt and “The Palestinian Table” and “The Arabesque Table” by Reem Kassis, for example. To this list, we can add “Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora” by the James Beard finalist Reem Assil. 

For connoisseurs of Arab food in America, Reem is no stranger. Reem’s California, a bakery in Oakland and San Francisco, has acquired temple status for its use of California’s ingredients in the service of Arab dishes. A few years ago, the New York Times praised Reem’s as an “Arab Bakery in Oakland Full of California Love.” (The bakery was, sadly, the target of vulgar anti-Palestinian prejudice for its mural of Palestinian activist Rasmeah Odeh.) 

Food was Reem’s saving grace. Facing a debilitating digestive disorder, and the wreck of familial stress, Reem left college and headed to the Bay Area live with her Arab uncle and Jewish aunt. Soothed by California’s climate, nature, and ingredients, she found mental and physical healing — and roots and purpose. 

“Arabiyya” is a guide to California-based, Arab-rooted recipes alongside tales of Reem’s journey and her family’s. Her grandparents fled the Nakba — the 1948 “catastrophe” of the forced exile of roughly 750,000 Palestinians at the hands of Israeli troops — and the Naksa, the 1967 War that forced her family to decamp once more for Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil War led to one more flight to Greece, and finally, California.

Growing up American, Reem knew little of her grandmother’s resilience. After her sitty’s (colloquial Arabic for grandmother) passing, she pasted together tales from relatives of her grandmother’s determination to uphold Arab hospitality no matter where she landed. Her identity as a Palestinian was threatening both in Lebanon and America — but she walked with dignity. Arab hospitality meant that home was a safe comfort no matter the headwinds outside, and, at times, her grandmother went lengths to survive. A tale of sneaking out during a pause in fighting in Beirut became family lore: sitty couldn’t forget her lemons (who would serve fish without lemons?!) even after a rocket attack knocked her down. 

Food’s healing and grounding became the thread uniting Reem with sitty. “I’ve come to realize that my grandmother, who loaded the table to its edges with tasty morsels of my favorite foods, lives through me,” Reem relates. 

Reem’s journey to cook and bake as love and spontaneity opened a window to heritage — a family’s history and Arab pride. Her recipes (like the California Fattoush Salad where traditional tomatoes are swapped for oranges and citrus and fried sunchokes) overflow with love. “Arabiyya” is destined to be a classic among Arab-Americans. 

Arab artists in their prime 

Artists from the Arab world exhibiting in the West face a challenge: Our culture is ubiquitous in Western depictions but poorly understood; a dilemma for the artist who must inevitably “interrogate the stereotypes that spectators bring to the practice of looking at mythologized places,” in the words of critic Omar Kholeif in his review of the Abu Dhabi-born and NYC and Dubai-based Farah Al Qasimi. 

Al Qasimi is one of five Arab artists featured in the new collection on “art’s next generation” entitled “Prime.” In “After Dinner 2” (2018), Al Qasimi captures the pressures of domestic life in her native UAE and the misconceptions westerners have about Arab domesticity. A mother stands behind her daughter kneeling on the couch while looking out at the window. The mother’s stance is recognizable to any child raised by an Arab mother: head tilted up and her arms stretched out — a plea for God’s mercy in the face of a stubborn child. The pink and white staging of the drapes and couch suggest the mother-daughter dispute is about marriage, the daughter having sights on another admirer. Neither the daughter’s nor the mother’s face is visible. The mother’s face overflows out of frame while the daughter’s rests behind the drapes. Al Qasimi’s photograph turns on its head the Western conception that Arab women are hidden “behind the veil;” their life is plain to see if one discards their preconceived notions and recognizes that mothers and daughters differ universally. 

Gulf Arab states, soaked in oil and gas money, however, pander to Western standards. Alia Farid scrutinizes the imitation. Urbanization has upended life in the Gulf, including in the official representation of culture. Seeking to parade heritage, Gulf states are crafting historical narratives that embody less the realization of culture and more a contrived display that weaves together disparate artifacts, as Farid displays in a mock-museum exhibition titled “Vault” (2019). These exhibitions stand as staid advertisements — a defensive declaration: “We, too, have culture!” — placing together all manners of ancient and modern objects without telling a coherent story or inspiring new creativity. 

In a juxtaposition, “At the Time of the Ebb” (2019) is a video installation documenting the celebration of Nowruz Sayadeen (Fisherman’s New Year) on the island of Qeshm, Iran. “We are brought close to culture at its grassroots level — the suggestion being that cultural life is built in communities as opposed to something to represent within the entanglements of a global museum industry, one that willfully neglects the culture it seeks to validate,” observe critics Hana Noorali and Lynton Talbot. 

The Middle East’s wars and rivalries inform the work of Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet, who works in Beirut and San Francisco. “Steel Rings” (2013) is a recreation of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline that was abandoned due to political upheaval but not before hundreds of miles of pipes were laid (and remain) underground. In Tabet’s exhibition, steel rings laid on the floor stand in for the pipeline’s route with engravings on the rings marking the locations passed underneath. The uncompleted pipeline is the only material project to exist between five regional nations. It is a sad statement on the region’s divisions that the only thing crossing that many borders is abandoned and buried steel. Humanization of the region’s troubles comes into relief in “Cyprus” (2015). The installation consists of a 1,800-pound wooden boat suspended from the ceiling. The boat was deployed by the artist’s father to flee Lebanon’s civil war but was unable to complete the journey to the neighboring island. Years later, the family found it on the coastline. Suspended in midair, solitary, the boat speaks to the anguish burdening people in the face of conflict — a hardship that is often insurmountable, like the boat drawback by the current. “Cyprus” centers our thoughts beyond the headlines — obscuring the human toil — and toward people struggling in their wake. 

It is refreshing to see Arab artists creating thought-provoking art on their own terms. And so, the wheels of American life roll on as we crave our hearts on its road.

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