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The Relationship Issue explores a medley of unions LGBTQ NEWS, VIEWS AND ENTERTAINMENT | Vol. 32, #5 | Issue 737 | February 2021 | COMPLIMENTARY

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ISSUE Issue 737 | Vol. 32, #5 | February 2021


Editor’s Note

12 News Briefs


Nerd On Me

Need a gift for the nerd in your life? Maybe you are that nerd. In any case, Liz Mossell and Nate Kurth’s online store Nerd On Me has you covered.

COMMUNITY Dr. Ian Jenkins by Lesley Bohm

18 Between the Covers

24 Without Reservations

26 On View

Three plus two equals family

28 Not That You Asked


Tom Reardon talks to Dr. Ian Jenkins about his new memoir, Three Dads and a Baby: Adventures in Modern Parenting. Part of a ‘throuple’ — a three-person relationship — Jenkins and his partners are the first polyamorous family to have three men listed on their children’s birth certificates.

Niki and Erica found love during the pandemic


The Relationship Issue explores a medley of unions LGBTQ NEWS, VIEWS AND ENTERTAINMENT | Vol. 32, #5 | Issue 737 | February 2021 | COMPLIMENTARY






Love in the time of COVID Echo contributor Niki D’Andrea offers a candid look at dating during the COVID-19 pandemic. She shares her recent love story and how it unfolded during this global health event.

Be My Valentine: Sultry gifts for a sexy holiday

Megan Lane presents a thoughtfully-curated, tempting list of gift ideas to stimulate all the senses, making your V-Day magical.


Buddy the Rat by Jeff Kronenfeld

Kathryn Blackwell and Chelsea Mulligan

Dynamic duo of doobage: How two Phoenix women hope to franchise weed


Arizona entrepreneurs Kathryn Blackwell and Chelsea Mulligan founded The Open Dør. They hope to bring this branded cannabis retail experience and franchise opportunity to those who have a license to operate dispensaries around the U.S.


New York City’s biggest rat goes west: Up close and personal with Buddy the Rat Performer Jonothon Lyons developed his Buddy the Rat character more than 10 years ago. Since then, he’s taken to the streets, traversing different landscapes as Buddy, garnering a hefty online fanbase. He even made a stop in the Valley.


DATING DURING COVID-19 Michelle Talsma Everson examines the pandemic dating landscape. In this article, she talks to couples who are navigating this unprecedented time and relationship professionals who offer some tips and guidelines. Visit echomag.com/pandemic-datingstories-and-advice.





LGBTQ NEWS, VIEWS AND ENTERTAINMENT PUBLISHER: Aequalitas Media EDITORIAL EDITOR-IN-CHIEF: Amy Young CONTRIBUTORS: Jonmaesha Beltran Kimberly Blaker Grace Bolyard Stefan Contreras Niki D'Andrea Jenna Duncan Buddy Early Michelle Talsma Everson Endia Fontanez Jason Keil Jason Kron Jeff Kronenfeld Megan Lane

Laura Latzko Sydney Lee Logan Lowrey-Rasmussen Anika Nayak David-Elijah Nahmod Timothy Rawles Tom Reardon Terri Schlichenmeyer Carly Schorman Anika Nayak Sojas Wagle Velvet Wahl

ART DEPARTMENT PHOTOGRAPHY: nightfuse.com. ADVERTISING ADVERTISING SALES: Kris Radtke 602-266-0550x704 or kris@echomag.com National Advertising Sales: Aequalitas Media at 312-600-8823 or sales@aequalitasmedia.com ECHO READERSHIP: 50,000 SUBSCRIPTIONS: $29/year Echo Magazine LLC MAILING ADDRESS: P.O. Box 16630 Phoenix, AZ 85011-6630 PHONE: 602-266-0550 EMAIL: manager@echomag.com Copyright © 2016 • ISSN #1045-2346


Echo Magazine is published by Echo Magazine LLC, Inc. Echo is a registered trademark of Echo Magazine LLC, Inc. All rights reserved. Written permission must be obtained in advance for partial or complete reproduction of any advertising material contained therein. Opinions expressed therein are not necessarily those of the publisher or staff. Echo Magazine LLC, Inc. does not assume responsibility for claims by its advertisers or advice columnists. Publication of a name, photograph of an individual or organization in articles, advertisements or listings is not to be construed as an indication of the sexual orientation, unless such orientation is specifically stated. Manuscripts or other materials submitted remain the property of Echo Magazine LLC, Inc. 8




Two local gamers run a nerd-themed online store By Laura Latzko


very person has something that causes them to “nerd out.” For some, it’s comic books or video games. Others might obsess over sports or a favorite TV series.

options of things to offer because we don’t pay upfront for it,” Mossell said. On-demand printing allows customers to purchase a few or even one item at a time — the two work with a company called Printful, which ships to different parts of the world.

Nerd On Me, a new online shopping site run by two Arizona locals, lets selfproclaimed “nerds” find T-shirts, hoodies, masks, mugs, and phone covers that help them to express who they are. The shop caters to people from different backgrounds, including the LGBTQ community and gamers.

Mossell and Kurth create the designs and maintain the website, and Printful produces and ships the items to customers. The website can offer custom designs and print designs on different merchandise, even if it isn’t pictured on the website.

Liz Mossell and Nate Kurth developed the site and launched it in October. The two friends and gamers met at a gaming convention about a year ago. Mossell has degrees in business, web design, and multimedia. Kurth works in security, and both are longtime streamers and gamers.

Although there are options on the site for straight, fitted, and flowy cuts, T-shirts aren’t separated by gender or sex. Mossell said she and Kurth want others to embrace their styles without limits. “We want anyone to feel able to wear what they want to wear. I don’t think that that should be restricted at all,” Mossell said. Many of the T-shirts are available in sizes up to 3XL. Mossell said they are looking to expand on that in the future. The two have tried to stand out from other online stores in different ways, including The Be Yourself Collection, which launched in 2021.

Mossell has been out of work, hasn’t been able to game since August due to health problems, and needed something to occupy her time. That downtime led to her and Kurth deciding to start their online store. “Being gamers and streamers, we were like ‘Who doesn’t like a funny T-shirt?’ It just evolved from there,” Mossell said. The two put out new content each month. Mossell says she is continuously inspired to create new designs. “I will read something or be watching something, and that will click something in my brain, and I need to put something like that on a shirt,” Mossell said. Mossell says the biggest challenge to running a business has been when she struggles with her chronic illness. Kurth has helped her during these moments. “There are days where it is hard to get things done. It’s very much a lack of motivation, which is why I’m glad to have Nate because he helps me get back on track and stay with it. On days when I don’t feel up to posting on social media, he will do it. When you have a bad day, you don’t feel so horrible that you didn’t get that done,” Mossell said. Through their site, the pair offers a range of designs for people with different interests and backgrounds, including more generic designs with words and phrases that provide broad appeal, such as “Socially Awkward,” “Believe,” “Able,” “Freshly Baked” and “The Day Drinker.” Kurth is a big fan of anime, the film V for Vendetta, and The Legend of Zelda video game series and art, and Mossell loves Halloween, horror films, books, and coloring. FEATURE STORY

This collection features items such as T-shirts with the wording “Pride” and “Love is Love,” “Hallo Queen,” “Strange and Unusual,” Keep Calm And Be Yourself,” Beautiful Soul,” “Gaymer,” and “Different Is Not Less.” Mossell says the website is meant for different types of nerds. “Everybody’s got a little bit of nerd in them. Maybe they like to read books. Maybe they know everything about Harry Potter. Everybody’s got a thing, and if you have a thing, you are a nerd. I know that word has had a bad connotation in the past. I think people have tried to take it back, and I think it’s working,” Mossell said.

Mossell is bisexual, suffers from chronic illness, and is plus-sized. She said she and Kurth want to spread a message of acceptance, inclusivity, and self-love with their product. “We think that everyone should be who they are. After the hell of last year, a lot of people figured out who they are, but they might need that push to show everyone,” Mossell said.

On the site, Mossell and Kurth have offered specialized items for the Halloween and Christmas holidays. They plan to do this in the future but on a smaller scale. One of their most popular designs has been their Nerd On Me logo, which has been shortened to “NOM NOM.” Artist Vyragami created the logo.

Product-wise, Mossell, and Kurth hope to branch out in the future to items such as gaming mats with custom artwork. Once it is safe to do so, they plan to table at events like gaming conventions and pride festivals.

The pair is in the process of trying to get their name out to the public. Although they are based in Arizona, they can ship anywhere in the country. The company prints items on-demand, meaning nothing is created until an order is placed. “With print-on-demand, it is better for the environment. We aren’t putting anything in a landfill. It also just gives us a lot more

To find out more about Nerd On Me, go to nerdonmee.com.

The Nerd On Me website is meant for high-school-aged people and older, as some products contain more adult language.

Laura Latzko is a Phoenix-area freelance writer, originally from Michigan, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English and communication studies from Hollins University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. ECHOMAG.COM




The men of Three Dads and a Baby: Adventures In Modern Parenting

Three plus two equals family By Tom Reardon


here are times in life where you realize that maybe you are not as open-minded as you think you are. For example, some of us out there, regardless of our various orientations, skin tones, spiritual beliefs, and upbringing, mistakenly think of ourselves from time to time as being completely open-minded. This hopeful wish for total approval of all things similar and different to us is a nice thought, but we all have our little (or large) prejudices. Most often, of course, the question of whether we are OK with something and the subsequent feelings of doubt or confusion that follow are the product of our ignorance, even if we are usually genuinely acceptinsg of new or different ideas. Case in point, the concept of polyamory. In our beautiful country that begs for diversity to be accepted and celebrated (yes, that is a little wishful thinking), the idea of there being a third





person in a loving relationship is often either shunned, oversaturated with sexual overtones, or dismissed with the thought, “I could never do that.” However, people do, and is not just about the extra sex. Sometimes, it is about building a loving family. In his new memoir, Three Dads and a Baby: Adventures In Modern Parenting, Dr. Ian Jenkins details how he and his two partners decided to become parents, becoming the first polyamorous family to have three men all be on their biological (with the help of two surrogate mothers and an embryo donor) children’s birth certificates. Jenkins, a board-certified internal medicine physician and professor at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine, and his partner, Alan (last name withheld out of respect for his professional life as he is employed by the U.S. government) have been together

for almost 18 years. The two met when Alan, a psychiatrist, was Ian’s student while in medical school. After six years together, Ian and Alan began discussing the idea of possibly dating a third person together. “I think it was probably a fouryear discussion,” says Jenkins over the phone. The length of their conversation had to do with several things. According to Jenkins, the priority was getting comfortable with the idea of dating outside of their monogamous relationship. “I think the real issue was kind of figuring out what kind of person (we) would be comfortable with and when we first started talking about this, I think he was more comfortable with the idea of someone who couldn’t really compete as a mate. (Alan) felt better with the idea of someone that we didn’t really think was going to be a long-term partner, and it turns

out that the people who are probably not likely long-term partners are also just not a good fit for us,” continued Jenkins. The couple dated a few people, but there was not really a “click.” Then Jenkins met Jeremy, a 6’5” zookeeper with a talent for nurturing tiny Hawaiian birds (more on that later) eight years ago, and they hit it off over lunch, but there was just one problem. Jeremy was not interested in dating a couple. Jenkins, though, said that was fine and thought there was the possibility that Jeremy could become part of he and Alan’s circle of friends, so he invited Jeremy over for a friendly dinner. “We brought him home for dinner, just to be friends, and we had a great time. We spent every evening for the next week together because we were just enjoying each other’s company,” says Jenkins. Some people might assume that, like many people of all FEATURE STORY

sexual orientations, the couple was looking for a threesome or some sort of sexual adventure, this was not the case. “That was never anything that was on our radar. We were looking for a person, not like a specific adventure. Jeremy is a great person, and we just really hit it off with him, and he enjoyed our company. We just spent more time together, and we all realized that we were a good fit, and it would make sense for us to start a relationship, so we did,” says Jenkins. Alan and Ian made efforts to bring Jeremy into their relationship as an equal, not an “extra,” and Jenkins says that took a lot of communication. He also shared that he is very happy that Alan and Jeremy enjoy their time with each other and realized, over time, that it made him glad to know that the men he loved enjoyed spending time together without him because it made them happy. During the conversation, Jenkins mentioned several times that the throuple (and yes, that is a word) are not nearly as interesting as people may think they are or even salacious in any way. They do the same things that couples do, including talking about what to have for dinner, sharing finances, and figuring out what movie to watch together. Before the pandemic, they enjoyed spending time with family and friends, and with three sets of these, for example, they would often have gatherings of 50 or more people. “We’re pretty tame and ordinary people. The house is very much like every other house that’s raising two kids as best as they possibly can with the right values and making them feel nourished and wanted to set them up for success. It’s just that there’s three dads instead of two, or a mom and a dad,” says Jenkins. While some people did not necessarily understand their arrangement, at first, Jenkins says that people were typically quick to accept the throuple and did not think much of it. Some of this is covered in Jenkins’ excellent memoir, including how Jeremy’s extremely religious mother was painfully and heartbreakingly slow to FEATURE STORY

come around to the family’s arrangement. Still, the book is much more focused on how these three men came to be fathers in a groundbreaking way. Three Dads and a Baby is incredibly easy to sink your teeth into, and Jenkins’ talent as a writer is substantial. Equally humorous and heartfelt, the story of how the three men decided to become fathers and the assistance they received from two incredible friends, Delilah (who acted as a surrogate for the throuple’s first child, Piper Joy) and Meghan, a lifelong friend of Alan’s who donated the eggs (or “Meggs” as they came to be known), will make you laugh and cry as you root for the trio to build their family. Of course, there were significant obstacles along the way and some heartbreak, too, as an early attempt to add to their family was unsuccessful. The details of this process, replete with a fair amount of medical insight, make Three Dads and a Baby an excellent read for anyone interested in learning more about how in vitro fertilization (IVF) or adopting and implanting embryos works. It is hard to combine educational, informative, and entertaining concepts into one book, but Jenkins more than pulls it off. For one thing, Jenkins does a masterful job of relating this experience from both the perspective of a member of a family figuring out how to navigate these complicated waters with his partners and that of a physician who teaches other doctors how to be great at their jobs. In this book, there is some medical information that is nothing short of phenomenal, and Jenkins’ writing about his profession and his research into his topic is top-notch. The book also delves into the complicated legal precedents of he, Alan, and Jeremy’s fight to do what was right by their children. “It was a new experience for our attorneys, and it was a new experience for our IVF doctors, as well. If you’re a married couple, it is a pretty straightforward process to do as they can be included on the same contract with a

surrogate, but when you’re not married, even if you have been in an 18-year relationship, you have separate contracts with a surrogate because you’re not related to each other,” says Jenkins. While the legal and medical bills continued to add up, the throuple faced each new challenge stoically, though, providing emotional support for each other through some tough battles as they moved towards making legal history. This is another excellent aspect of the memoir as Jenkins detailed each hoop the threesome jumped through to make sure they would each be on Piper Joy’s birth certificate. Jenkins mentioned that some people might have viewed this fight as some type of “grandstanding” to draw attention to their unique situation, but this was not the case. “Our driver for this was not to call attention to ourselves but to protect our child because we are all the parents of these children, and if any one of us needs to consent to medical treatment or take them to the doctor’s office, enroll them in school, handle their legal responsibilities for

them, we all need to be able to do that, and you can’t predict when this might happen,” says Jenkins. When the throuple added their son, Parker Lewis, to the fold, the process was simpler, and there was not even a need to go before the judge as they had with Piper Joy to plead their case for an additional slot on the birth certificate. The courts handled it, and the family grew by one. While it does not sound as if more children are on the way anytime soon, Jenkins can still find time to write and is working on a couple of different projects when he can tear himself away from cooking for his family or snuggling with the kids. When people say to him that they do not think it is possible to love more than one person, Jenkins says he thinks of a woman who asked him that question once, and he thought to himself, “Don’t you have three kids? Which one did you choose to love?” Jenkins concluded with this: “I just don’t think that hearts are made that way to be closed off to more than one person. Certainly, they don’t come that way.”

Tom Reardon loves to write about people who are doing something to contribute to our community in a positive way. He also loves his family and family of friends, his pets, music, skateboarding, movies, good (and bad) tv, and working with children to build a better world. Tom’s favorite movie is Jaws, his favorite food is lasagna, and he loves to play music with his friends. He’s a busy guy, but never too busy to listen to what you have to say so tell him a story.

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the first southern state to pass a law that protects LGBTQ people from discrimination. From the Northeast to the Southwest, LGBTQ advocates are securing protections that allow our community to thrive in all the places we call home. As we face the upcoming attacks by equality opponents, we know the state-based movement is stronger than ever and ready to fight for the millions of LGBTQ Americans who need us.” — Fran Hutchins, Executive Director of Equality Federation Institute

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) releases annual State Equality Index Ratings Story and photos courtesy of HRC


n January 25, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the educational arm of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) civil rights organization, and the Equality Federation Institute released their 7th annual State Equality Index (SEI). The SEI is a comprehensive report that details statewide laws and policies that affect LGBTQ people and their families and assesses how well states are protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. This year, 19 states and Washington, D.C. were recognized in the SEI for prioritizing innovative measures to advance LGBTQ equality, with Hawaii and New Hampshire joining those in the top category for the first time. These states have robust LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws covering employment, housing, and public accommodations. Despite the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision Bostock v. Clayton County, which prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ people, explicit and comprehensive civil rights protections still do not exist for LGBTQ people at the federal level. As a result, the rights of millions of LGBTQ people and their families vary depending on which state they live in. In 27 states, LGBTQ people remain at risk of facing discrimination due to the lack of statutory protections. The SEI’s assessment of statewide LGBTQrelated legislation and policies in the areas of parenting laws and policies, religious refusal and relationship recognition laws, nondiscrimination laws and policies, hate crime and criminal justice laws, youth-related laws





and policies, and health and safety laws and policies have placed each state in one of four distinct categories: Nineteen states and the District of Columbia are in the highest-rated category, “Working Toward Innovative Equality”: California; Colorado; Connecticut; Delaware; District of Columbia; Hawaii; Illinois; Maine; Maryland; Massachusetts; Minnesota; Nevada; New Hampshire; New Jersey; New Mexico; New York; Oregon; Rhode Island; Vermont; and Washington. Two states are in the category “Solidifying Equality”: Iowaand Virginia. Four states are in the category “Building Equality”: Kansas, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wisconsin. Twenty-Five states are in the lowest-rated category “High Priority to Achieve Basic Equality”: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming. “The State Equality Index tells the story of how advocates on the ground, in states across the country, achieved wins and battled tough opposition to fight for the rights of the LGBTQ community. In a year of fighting the triple pandemics of coronavirus, police brutality, and racism, state-based advocates continued to push back against anti-LGBTQ attacks and even secured some huge advancements for LGBTQ people. As a Southerner, I was particularly pleased to see Virginia become

In 2020, 379 pro-equality bills were introduced by 38 states and the District of Columbia, while 47 were passed into law. Most notably, Virginia passed the landmark Virginia Values Act, which expanded the state’s existing protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity and created all-new protections for Virginians in private employment and places of public accommodation. Virginia also became the first state to jump two categories in one year, from “High Priority to Achieve Basic Equality” to “Solidifying Equality.” Additional key new laws include bans on the use of the so-called “LGBTQ panic defense,” laws easing the process for adoption and obtaining fertility services, required training on LGBTQ cultural competence for government employees, updating sex education curricula to be more LGBTQ-inclusive, expanding access to PrEP and collecting sexual orientation and gender identity information in COVID-19 data collection. Also, in 2020, 185 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced by 35 states, while four were passed into law. These included two bills in Idaho that directly attacked transgender people — one bill prohibiting transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports and another barring transgender people from updating the gender marker on their birth certificates. Tennessee passed on its first day of session a license to discriminate in child welfare services bill, which the Governor quickly signed into law. This SEI report comes as more than 40 state legislatures and the District of Columbia have opened their sessions. So far, we are tracking more than 60 potentially LGBTQ-related pieces of legislation that have been introduced. While this year’s legislative sessions will undoubtedly be shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election, we also anticipate continued attacks on transgender youth, particularly in relation to athletic participation and access to bestpractice, affirming medical care to continue across the country. We also anticipate seeing a resurgence in passing religious refusal legislation, including legislation to create novel religious exemptions to nondiscrimination laws. HRC’s full State Equality Index report, including detailed scorecards for every state and a preview of the 2021 state legislative session, is available online at www.hrc.org/sei. NEWS

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When I came across Erica’s profile, I recognized her. We were in the same LGBTQ club in college 16 years ago and had several mutual friends, but never really got to know each other. I swiped right, meaning I “liked” her, and the next day, she “liked” me back, which meant we had matched on the Facebook Dating app and could start exchanging messages. And boy, did we. Over the next several weeks, we learned a lot about each other — everything from our favorite colors to our family histories. We had many personal conversations earlier than people typically do when dating, and soon our contact expanded to long virtual video dates. After discovering we live less than three miles apart, I began making frequent no-contact drop-offs of homemade soup and other little gifts to her doorstep. The Facebook Dating app was our platform for reconnection, but we weren’t the only people making use of dating apps. Every major dating platform has reported an increase in use since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Hornet, which caters primarily to the gay male community, and Lex, a text-centered app for the queer community, including trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people, both reported a 30 percent increase in social engagement since the spring 2020 lockdown began.

Love, virtually: LGBTQ dating during COVID By Niki D’Andrea


ou know the old joke: “What does a lesbian bring to her second date?” A U-Haul.

Before 2020, that was a funny — and fitting — riff on the lesbian tendency to rush into relationships. But things have changed since the coronavirus pandemic. For the LGBTQ community, dating in the time of COVID has often meant forgoing close physical interactions in favor of virtual meetups and socially distanced dates. The tendency to “hook up” or get intimate quickly has shifted to a lengthier courtship. People are getting to know each other over long conversations and establishing emotional bonds before meeting face to face. That paradigm shift, some say, is ultimately a good thing for the LGBTQ community, which has long been accustomed





to living and loving outside mainstream parameters and considering health risks like HIV. Safely navigating dating and especially sex during a pandemic requires patience and precautions, but in many cases, distanced dating during COVID can lead to true love and long-term relationships. It certainly — and surprisingly — did for me. I was scrolling through profiles on the Facebook Dating app one last time before removing the app from my phone. It was early October, and I hadn’t been on any dates since February. I had been social distancing and working from home since April. My coronavirus concerns kept me indoors except for essential errands and walking around the neighborhood a couple of times a week. Dating didn’t seem safe or possible.

“Lexers are finding creative ways to connect even during quarantine,” Lex founder and CEO Kell Rakowski says. “Lexers have always been open to connecting with other queers that are cities, states, or countries away. We are familiar with making deep connections — friendships, relationships, sexting — with thousands of miles between us. In a sense, quarantine is familiar — we’re used to isolation and longing.” Stephan Horbelt, executive editor for Hornet, says the LGBTQ community has overall been very innovative in adjusting to coronavirus restrictions and having an online outlet to socialize helps alleviate feelings of isolation. “A lack of physical meetup, a lack of physical touch during this COVID craziness, affects everyone differently and affects a lot of people adversely, and I think potentially even more adversely for members of our community,” Horbelt says. “So, I think having an outlet for connection in whatever form it takes is necessary, and the community has always been very resilient or used to this idea of having to find your family.” HER, a dating app for lesbians and “queer womxn,” has not only seen a huge increase in use during the pandemic, but the conversations are getting longer, according to CEO and founder Robyn Exton. “Without physical spaces to meet new people in, dating apps are a core way to carry on finding new relationships during the pandemic,” she says, adding, “Nothing but FEATURE STORY

video dates encouraged until you’re ready to test and commit.” Exton says there are thousands of stories about HER users who have found love or long-term partnerships from an online connection during the pandemic. There’s a paradigm shift happening in the way people date. The courtship stage is now prolonged, with people meeting and talking online before in-person encounters. Horbelt concurs there’s been a change in the dating trajectory. “People are having to get creative about what dating looks like,” he says. “I think that overall, the community did good with expanding the idea of dating from, ‘Let’s meet for lunch, for dinner, for coffee, in person,’ to really getting to know each other and connect in digital spaces and online.” One of the first conversations Erica and I had was “the COVID conversation.” Of the many things we discovered we had in common, serious concerns about coronavirus and an insistence on taking every possible precaution against it was the most important. As a full-time freelance writer, I can work from home and decline jobs that put me in public settings. However, Erica is an essential worker in a high-risk environment, so we knew we could not have any close physical contact any time soon. We enjoyed the experience of gradually getting to know each other from a distance. Meeting in person for a masked, socially distanced visit didn’t happen until we’d been talking online for almost two months. There were so many safety measures to consider: Our potential for individual exposure, the number of positive COVID cases in our zip code, how adamant each of us is about social distancing, wearing masks, and washing our hands (on a scale of 1-10, we’re both at 11 on those). “I think that overall, the LGBTQ community has done a good job of staying safe and respecting best practices,” Horbelt says. Hornet recently released a guide titled, “How to Have Sex These Days: Navigating COVID When Horny.” Lex gave its users suggestions for ways they can connect virtually during quarantine, including tarot readings and recipe swapping. HER users are being encouraged to build connections before meeting offline. “We’re strongly suggesting to not do in-real-life (IRL) meetups until you are clear on each other’s social bubbles and are ready to commit to being in a bubble together,” Exton says. “If your area is in lockdown, stick to the lockdown. Or U-Haul — your call.” My first socially distanced date with Erica was on Thanksgiving. Neither of us gathered with our families out of coronavirus concerns. When she sent me a link to the trailer for the movie Ammonite starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, I got the wild FEATURE STORY

idea to see where it was showing locally on Thanksgiving night, when theaters might be mostly empty. I found a late showing in an eight-seat auditorium at Roadhouse Cinemas in Scottsdale and bought all eight tickets to have the theater to ourselves. We drove separately to the theater, which was indeed empty except for a few employees. I brought a box of antibacterial wipes and gripped one to open doors for her. In the theater, we wiped down our seats and tables. Then we sat at opposite ends of the back row and watched the main characters engage in some incredibly passionate love scenes that made me feel hot under my mask. Afterward, I walked her to her car (from six feet away), and we waved goodnight. I did not bring a U-Haul to our second date. I brought antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer, and a small jar of my body lotion so she would know what I smelled like. We had a distanced dinner on her back porch, removing our masks only to eat at our individual tables (placed ten feet across from each other), followed by a four-hour conversation in her garage with the door open — again, 10 feet apart and wearing masks the whole time. We waved goodnight again. We made plans to try to get within six feet of each other over her winter vacation. She quarantined for five days after her last day at work before getting tested. We both got tested for COVID-19 on December 22 and received our negative results on Christmas Day (Merry Christmas!). Within hours of confirming our negative statuses, I was at her door. We spent the next nine days sequestered together, enjoying the close physical contact we couldn’t have even considered for almost the first three months of our relationship. It was an ecstatic, deeply emotional experience for both of us. We’ve talked about how the months of imposed physical distance during COVID has shaped our relationship. Had we run into each other in a lesbian bar pre-pandemic, we might have been physically intimate before developing any deeper bond or emotional intelligence about each other. Instead, we had to take our time with each other and make patience our greatest virtue as a couple. And we fell in love before our first hug. The impacts of COVID-19 on dating, particularly in the LGBTQ community, could be long-lasting. The shift in dynamics from swipe circuitry and hooking up to seeking new skills of intimacy and building relationships is a positive trend, Horbelt says. “COVID definitely affected dating, and I think it could ultimately be a good thing for our community to be forced to reexamine what dating is,” he says. “I think the LGBTQ community is always kind of on the forefront of societal norms like that, so if the future

of dating means more than meeting up for coffee and it can take different forms, I think that’s ultimately a good thing.” The developers of LGBTQ dating apps are coming up with ways to enhance virtual connections. Hornet recently launched a video story feature that allows users to create video stories similar to those on Instagram and Facebook. Lex has rolled out an update that includes six new customized post reactions. Exton emphasizes the ongoing importance of continuing to use apps like HER to meet new people virtually as coronavirus vaccines slowly roll out. “We’re not out the other side yet,” she says. “There’s a few more months to go, so keep strong and get excited for IRL dating towards the end of the year.” Erica and I are looking forward to one day being able to safely eat together inside a restaurant, take a naked-faced hike within six feet of each other, and sit next to each other in a movie theater. Until then, we’re literally virtual. She had to go back to work in a high-risk environment, and we won’t be able to have more close physical contact until her next vacation (when we can once again quarantine and get tested) or until we are both vaccinated. So, we are back to video chat dates, exchanging lengthy messages, and no-contact gift deliveries. It’s hard, but we know once we get past this pandemic, it’s U-Haul time.

Four Tips for Dating During a Pandemic 1: Start with a virtual date. Health experts recommend video dates as the safest way to socialize, and relationship experts say it’s not as awkward as one might expect. 2: Ask your partner about their pandemic precautions. Does their job require them to be around other people? Do they go to public spaces? Do they cohabitate with others, and if so, what are those people’s risk levels? Experts agree this conversation should happen early in the courtship. 3: Check local transmission rates before meeting in person and assess the risk of your planned activity. (For example, health experts say eating outside on a restaurant patio is less risky than dining indoors.) 4: Get tested for COVID-19 to make sure you’re negative before being intimate. Niki D’Andrea is a Phoenix-based journalist and editor whose career spans 28 years and includes editor positions at Phoenix New Times, PHOENIX magazine, and Times Media Group. Her scope of coverage has included political elections, drug culture, funding for HIV treatments and medicine, LGBTQ art, fringe sports, and celebrities. When not chasing stories, D’Andrea cheers on her favorite sports team, the Phoenix Mercury, and enjoys playing classic rock records from her collection of vinyl albums. ECHOMAG.COM




Dynamic duo of doobage: How two Phoenix women hope to franchise weed By Tom Reardon


n November of 2020, Arizona voters joined 14 other states in making marijuana legal to [eventually] purchase for recreational use across the United States. This represents an interesting shift for the cannabis industry in the state, just as it has for other states that voted to legalize the use and sale of marijuana and related products to those 21 and over without the need for a doctor’s permission. One key question that all interested parties are asking is this: What will this look like? Another question, too, is on some people’s minds. How and when will the cannabis industry go mainstream? For some cannabis enthusiasts, this is what they have been waiting for their entire teenage and adult lives, right? The opportunity to go down to the corner weed store and buy a few edibles, a joint or two, and the latest eighth of some kind nugs. For others, though, who are not sure how to go about this process or have not spent time in one of California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, or Washington’s dispensaries, questions will come up regarding where to go, how to pick the right strain, and who to trust in a sea of somewhat murky, uncharted water. There is a need for a trustworthy brand and a place where everyone is welcome, regardless of their weed expertise, street cred, or number of Bob Marley records in





their music collection, and that place may very well be The Open Dør. Founders Kathryn Blackwell, CEO, and Chelsea Mulligan, COO, are two Arizona entrepreneurs with a weed-tastic idea. They want to bring The Open Dør branded cannabis retail experience and franchise opportunity to those who hold licenses to operate dispensaries around the country, which will cut down on ramp-up time for those both new and experienced in the industry while providing a carefully cultivated business and cannabis aesthetic. With a background in quick service restaurants as a founding member of the Kahala Group, which owned 12 restaurant brands and represented 3,500 operating locations in 23 countries, Blackwell knows a thing or two about franchising successful business designed to keep customers coming back for more. Her business partner, Mulligan, has helped over 30 dispensaries either come to market or become successful in her eight-year career in the cannabis industry as a consultant, so the level of expertise available to potential franchisees is quite remarkable. The duo is joined by Bryan McLaren, who introduced Blackwell and Mulligan as a strategic real estate advisor to find the best possible location to meet the new franchisee’s needs. The Open Dør’s goal is to give those who hold dispensary licenses an opportunity to hit

the ground running with thoroughly-tested cannabis brands, branding information, and guidelines for all aspects of the business, including training employees, and creating a welcoming, recognizable look and feel for the Open Dør franchise, no matter its locale. Don’t necessarily think the McDonald’s or Starbucks of weed, but if you are, you’re on the right track. The Open Dør team is there to assist in every way when it comes to getting a dispensary going and offers all the necessary tools to help it be successful. We sat down with Blackwell and Mulligan to talk about their venture and how it will help both potential franchisees get started and their customers, well, get high. Echo: How did the two of you get into the cannabis industry? Mulligan: I honestly found a listing on Craigslist and in my head [I was thinking], “I don’t know how this is going to go.” It was 2013, and things are now so much different in [the] mainstream, but back then, I wondered what it was going to be like. I showed up for an hour and a half long interview, and they offered me a management position on the spot. It ended up being the best experience. So, who I started working for was Bloom Dispensary down by the [Phoenix] airport. Once they took over a couple more licenses, I went on to open those [dispensaries] and re-brand them, train FEATURE STORY

people, and bring my previous experience in mergers and acquisitions from a gym I had worked for in the Pacific Northwest. It was one of those things where I thought it was going to either be weird or amazing, and, honestly, it was a great experience.

once you do get past the hurdle of the financial side and writing the application and once you actually have [the license], then finding the location is the hardest part. We are there, though, to help our franchisees get through these parts of the process.

Kathryn Blackwell Chelsea Mulligan. The Open Dor

Blackwell: We have family up in Washington State and were visiting. Washington is a recreational cannabis state, so we decided to find a dispensary to see if some products may help with some specific health ailments. I didn’t know where to start and had no idea that something like Weedmaps existed, so I was utilizing Apple Maps to find nearby dispensaries — that took me to a few places, and truthfully, I didn’t feel comfortable going in by myself. I didn’t know what to expect inside the building, the process, or even what I was going to be purchasing. This experience prompted my thoughts - why weren’t these dispensaries providing information to consumers on what to expect, or even at the minimum, branding themselves to feel welcoming? I had hoped to find one location that expressed quality, had helpful service, and a clean, friendly environment. If I had information there was a dispensary like this, I would have driven out of my way to go there. So fast forward with this idea and experience that I had previously had. I was at a local cannabis networking event and met Bryan McLaren of Zoned Properties, who is now a strategic partner with The Open Dør. We were talking about my idea, and he loved it. He introduced me to Chelsea because he knew that her experience paired with mine would be a great match. My own personal experience in searching for a dispensary led me to see the need for a truly branded operation. Echo: Speaking of the health side, Kathy, would you mind talking about that a bit more? Was there a specific ailment you were looking for help with? Blackwell: Sure, well, you know it’s been around forever. I am not nor have never been a regular smoker, or user, of cannabis. But I’ve been an avid runner for probably 20 years, and as I’ve gotten older, it’s not quite as easy on the joints if it used to be. So, unfortunately, I’m not running long distances any longer, but that’s what led me to cannabis. I didn’t want to try to go to the painkiller route, and I really wasn’t too excited about all the other medical options as far as injections and all of that. I did help my husband through a knee replacement, and I knew I didn’t want to do that. So, that was kind of the premise of going and getting my medical card here in Arizona was just to kind of help with the joints. Echo: No pun intended? Blackwell: [Laughs] No. The benefits were great, and it was really surprising. I can’t say FEATURE STORY

Blackwell: For The Open Dør to have the impact that we envision, the overall industry also will need help to pave a path. Federal legalization of cannabis will help with the complicated federal banking regulations. Currently, dispensaries have to rely on cash transactions, which isn’t truly a safe solution for customers or the business. Federal legalization will also help with branded products being able to be shipped across state lines. Currently, a brand may be manufactured in one plant and have the utmost quality. If another state wants to carry that brand, another grow house and cultivator must recreate the recipe and hope that it is the same quality of product. Products crossing state lines would help with quality control and create a competitive landscape for supreme products. Lastly, The Open Dør’s mission would also include the continuation of decriminalization on a national scale. Echo: Where do you see The Open Dør in five years?

that it was immediate or took every piece of pain away, but it helped a lot. I’ve seen the benefits of it for personal friends who have used the benefits to eliminate some of the side effects of chemotherapy treatments, and there is just so much more to this beautiful little plant. I’m excited about bringing my 30-year history in business operations in quick-service restaurants and franchising and helping other people build a business of their own in the cannabis industry. It’s been an exciting last year. Echo: Thank you for that answer, Kathy. I think many people consider that those celebrating the legalization here in Arizona because they want to get high. What do each of you feel are some of the biggest barriers to folks getting into this industry, and how will you help them? Mulligan: [The cannabis industry is] so competitive. Once they do get the license, finding a location is one of the biggest hiccups. Also, knowing how to go through the zoning processes properly so that you don’t constantly get denied [is another hurdle]. Having Brian [McLaren] as one of our advisors is phenomenal because he’s so great with zoning and real estate because we can help with that piece of it. That seems to be one of the biggest headaches because

Blackwell: The cannabis industry is everchanging on a day-to-day basis, but we know as a company that we will be operating in multiple legalized states. We will be a leader in the cannabis education space because of our in-depth programs. With these two accomplishments, it will mean brand recognition, buying power, and general support from colleagues for our franchisees. Mulligan: I don’t know if I necessarily have a goal, but honestly, for me, I want there to be as many [franchises] as possible. I’ll even be happy with one in Arizona because then that means that I have one in every legal state. And because it’s my home state, obviously, I’d like to see three or four across the state. I also want to make sure, for me, I want to make sure that our franchisees feel like, not that they are going to some exclusivity, but that there’s not another Open Dør around the corner if that makes sense. They are going to have competition that’s close, but I want to make sure that if we do have multiple Open Dørs that it’s spread out. Tom Reardon loves to write about people who are doing something to contribute to our community in a positive way. He also loves his family and family of friends, his pets, music, skateboarding, movies, good (and bad) tv, and working with children to build a better world. Tom’s favorite movie is Jaws, his favorite food is lasagna, and he loves to play music with his friends. He’s a busy guy, but never too busy to listen to what you have to say so tell him a story. ECHOMAG.COM




Author Carly Schorman


We caught up with Carly Schorman to discuss reading, writing and trying to stay creative in this terrifying garbage dump that is American pandemic life. Can you give a list of books and/or authors that were most influential to you in writing this book? When I was writing this, I read Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, Graham Greene, Paul Auster’s City of Glass, and more commercial fiction, like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I’m a big fan of Raymond Chandler and J.G. Ballard. I have a whole shelf of those old pulp novels, and I was really interested in writing something that was more noir, had that darker sensibility, so I was reading more like that. Media disinformation is a big theme in this book. You started writing it in 2015 before the topic of media disinformation rose to the forefront of societal consciousness (for better or worse). How do you feel about that?

Carly Schorman and The Saint of Lost Causes By Jason Kron


I was trying to explore the ethics of subversive, revolutionary action, figuring out what viable responses are and how ethical they are. I wrote this right before there had been a lot of co-opting of the language of the radical left by the alt-right. When I was around 17, I started reading about stories that were blacklisted, like about the Shell Oil Massacre and how it wasn’t really covered here. Being part of the radical left, you were always talking about what wasn’t getting covered. Now we’re receiving this massive disinformation campaign that is taking that mentality and perverting it. When I first got the offer to publish this book, there were conversations with people close to me about how that information would appear, whether it would

o put it bluntly, Carly Schorman has done an insane amount of really cool shit. Along with her husband, Mark Anderson, Carly has spent 12 years running YabYum, one of Arizona’s most renowned music blogs. She’s also created multiple podcasts, including the sci-fi serial Confessions from the Nocturne Nebula and the educationally death-centered The Mortician’s Daughter. If all of that weren’t enough, Schorman has also just released a neo-noir novel entitled The Saint of Lost Causes. Without giving too much away, this mystery story focuses on child abductors seeking revenge against evil corporations, shadow forces insisting on media blackouts/misinformation, and six main characters who are trying to get to the bottom of this bullshit. Schorman’s prose exhibits a mastery of the written word rarely seen in someone’s first published book, as does how well she can balance multiple interpersonal storylines AND a powerful critique of Capitalism.






seem like I was promoting distrust in the media. I’m not a conspiracy person. A lot of these incidents of corporate malignance aren’t conspiracy, they’re facts. The Shell Oil Massacre happened. We know there are incidents of companies intentionally misrepresenting findings, but people have short attention spans. How has life in a pandemic affected your creative process? It’s been a rollercoaster. It started super productive, and I thought, “I’m free of all social obligations, and this is horrifying, but you know what? We’re going to roll through a pandemic and try to be as safe as we can.” And so that was great. We were supercharged and trying to get stuff done. And then it just kept going, and everything slowed. I got caught up in editing the novel, which was much more involved than I could’ve ever anticipated. The pandemic hasn’t been great for new creative projects, but I’ve been trying to give myself space to feel the lull and not feel like I have to be using that time effectively just because I have it. I could just be trying to take in this moment in history, acknowledge it for what it is, and I don’t have to come out of it with five new novels. Society hates readers. To cite a couple of examples in entertainment: In one episode of Seinfeld, Elaine’s ‘bizarro’ friends were squares who would sit

around and read for fun. In The Breakfast Club, Bender tears books apart as a fuckyou gesture to anyone who would want to consume this fodder for nerds. Why is this the case?

beginning production on that when we started hearing about this virus that was going around, then the next week we had to cancel recording, and now we’re still waiting.

I think there’s always an aversion to the intelligentsia and everything it represents. And I think there’s a reasonable backlash to ivory tower institutionalized education, but it trickles down to having an aversion to smart kids. In this day and age, people will become distrustful of something just because it carries the weight of credentials or education or knowledge, and that’s so problematic. You don’t distrust a scientist just because he studied science; you actually want them to know something about the topic they’re speaking about! I think that’s the problem with such a deluge of information: that people don’t know where to begin seeking out the truth, so they’ll just go with what sounds true intuitively, which is just hippie bullshit to me.

I love how this book takes place in Phoenix, which is refreshing after a lifetime of being bombarded by art that’s just countless love letters to New York. It was mind-blowing to me to feel the warm feeling of reading scenes that took place on the 87 north of Fountain Hills heading southbound, or the hospital on Shea Boulevard, or being near the light rail on Central, or at Cactus Shadows High School, which some of my friends attended. There are plenty more little love notes to Maricopa County in the book, and they all made me feel pride. I wonder if that’s how New Yorkers feel all the time, or whether they take that for granted.

What are your future creative endeavors? I’m working on a sequel to this book, and I’m editing a book called The Girl Sunday, a dystopian novel set in the distant future. I finished writing a fiction podcast called The Finley File, which is about a divorced mother who moves with her two daughters into an old estate that she inherits, but then they can’t tell if it’s haunted or if they’re being tormented by townspeople. We were

Phoenix is a huge city. It needs to be a metropolitan art area because I can’t leave; I have a wonderful life here. We have to boom it and make it weird and arty everywhere! Jason Kron is a Phoenix-based writer, music teacher, Devo cover band singer and VHS enthusiast. His work has been published in YabYum and De’Lunula.

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12/3/202021 1:04 PM19 FEBRUARY

Kick off Valentine’s Day with a bang: Celebrate with the best chocolates, sex toys, lubes, and more By Megan Lane


alentine’s Day is coined a “Hallmark Holiday,” partly due to the same old presents being given year after year — red roses, a card lacking sentiment, and a box of chocolates from a local grocery store. This romantic holiday only happens once per year and we think that finding gifts for your special someone should involve a little bit more thought. Instead of purchasing your partner traditional gifts, why not switch things up this year? You can create a holiday like no other, one that is filled with sex, passion, high-quality candy, and presents that will leave your

lover with supple, nourished skin. We recommend considering sex toys, cosmetics, artisanal and CBD-infused chocolate, intimacy products that can elevate your erotic experience, and worthwhile cosmetics. Echo Magazine wants to share our curated selection with you, so you and your partner can share an O-mazing Valentine’s Day together. *This article has been edited due to length. You can find the full version on our website, echomag.com.

LELO: SILA LELO’s newest product launch, SILA, is a luxury sex toy designed for clitoral massage

and stimulation. The wide mouth distributes vibrations around the entire erogenous area, providing your lover with intense orgasms. However, the build-up is slow which allows for edging and teasing. SILA is small enough to use during laying-flat-on-your stomach sex, and it’s simple to maneuver when you’re in a missionary position. This vibe has eight vibration settings that release sonic waves, stimulating 75% of the clit as opposed to just the tip. Bonus points, it’s whisper quiet and rechargeable. Price: $169 | www.lelo.com 20





men enjoy the vibrations on their penis. Chorus comes with a matching squeeze remote — a really unique feature — that allows for uninterrupted sex. There’s no need to find the correct buttons, simply squeeze the remote harder to intensify the vibrations and release your grip to weaken them. Price: $199 | www.loversstores.com Tracy’s Dog: OG Clitoral Sucking Vibrator

JimmyJane: Canna JimmyJane’s Canna is a powerful wand that comes with three detachable heads for unparalleled pleasure. With seven vibration settings and seven intensity levels, males, females, and even couples can dictate how they want to be played with. Canna — created by one of the most luxurious sex toy companies — is designed to stimulate the clitoris, g-spot, nipples, and truthfully, the whole body. This wand does it all and more — it’s precise, waterproof, USBrechargeable, and 100% worth the money. Price: $160 | www.jimmyjane.com Cute Little Fuckers: Starsi Cute Little Fuckers crafted an approachable, artist designed, alien-inspired line of sex toys for all genders. The brand reached their Kickstarter goal during the first of campaigning, which isn’t surprising given the quality and adorably intricate appearance of their toys. Starsi, a fan favorite, is a soft silicone vibrator with five different

speeds and modes. This vibe covers genitalia with a slightly curved vulva-like feel, making this an excellent option for transfeminine people with genital dysphoria. However, Starsi pleases every body with its powerful yet quiet vibrations. Price: $79 | www.cutelittlefuckers.com Crave: Vesper Crave created a sexy, unique statement piece — Kate Hudson even spoke highly about this one on The Ellen Show. Vesper is an elegant, sleek, and discreet vibrator, necklace combination. Hanging from a delicate 316 stainless steel chain — with silver, rose gold, or 24K gold finishes — your loved one can wear their external stimulating vibe in public, while still indulging in play time in private. We feel empowered with a sex toy dangling from our neck, especially because it’s our dirty little secret that no one else knows about (except our lover.) Crave offers engraving options, so you can add a nice or naughty personalized message on your gift. Price: $69 | www.lovecrave.com

How about gifting a sex toy that simulates the sensations your lover experiences when they’re receiving oral sex? Tracy’s Dog created the best vibe for long distance relationships or weeks when you’re stuck in quarantine away from your partner. Their OG Clitoral Sucking Vibrator is USB rechargeable and bendable, with soft silicone that’s easy to clean after a fun play session. With 10 suction modes for clit stimulation and 10 vibration settings for some deep G-spot action, you know this sex toy aims to please. Price: $44.99 | www.tracysdog.com

Organic Loven: Rianne S Heart Vibe Organic Loven is one the largest BIPOC-owned sex retailers — founded by Holistic Sex Educator Taylor Sparks — where every product is hand-selected and expert-recommended. With products like the Rianne S Heart Vibe, you already know that you’re sure to find some epic Valentine’s Day gifts while shopping on their website. Not only is this sweet toy the perfect shape for the occasion, but it’s also made of medical-grade silicone and comes with 10

vibration settings. This heart vibe packs a powerful punch for such a tiny sex toy. When you’re in bed with your lover, watch her facial expression when she feels this heart pulsing against her clit. Price: $34.99 | www.organicloven.com Visit echomag.com/valentinesgifts-2021 for the extended version of this sultry list.

Megan Lane is a 30-year-old freelance writer from New York. She enjoys watching movies with her boyfriend, baking CBD-infused brownies, and practicing yoga. Megan’s work has been featured on various websites, including in Huff Post, Al Jazeera, and Insider.


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It was within this unique milieu that the idea for physically embodying such a maligned critter first occurred. “For some reason, after being in New York for a little bit, I was really interested in the rats you’re always watching,” Lyons revealed. “I had this idea to make this rat character, and then back in 2009 was when I just decided to do it.”

New York City’s biggest rat goes west: Up close and personal with viral sensation Buddy the Rat Story and photos by Jeff Kronenfeld


n December, when what appeared to be a giant rat scurried through the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market, he caused quite a stir. For the man behind the paper mâché rodent mask, the gasps, laughs, and recording cell phones were nothing new. Actor Jonothon Lyons has been in the Blue Man Group, the immersive theater experience Sleep No More, and the Metropolitan Opera’s Madama Butterfly, but his street performances as Buddy the Rat are what recently captivated audiences from the Big Apple to the Valley of the Sun and beyond.

troupe around the world when not living in New York City. As an actor in Imago’s play Frogs — a collection of speechless vignettes about various animal characters — he played amphibians, lizards, penguins, and polar bears, but never a rat.

After some helpful tips from friends at Imago, Lyons constructed his first rat mask. A few months later, he emerged onto a Brooklyn stage wearing the furry face and little else for a 10-minute performance art piece. This evolved into an hour-length play, The Tenemen, which ran for a dozen or so performances at the Dorothy B. Williams Theater later that year. The tragic story followed a rodent who eats a dead man’s brain, gains higher consciousness, gets a job as an exterminator, and falls in love before dying on a trap he set. Lyons first hit the streets dressed as a pest to promote the show. He saw a lot of laughs, a few squeals, and one dog freak out. When Lyons uploaded the video to YouTube, some 70,000 viewers tuned in. His performance on stage in The Tenement left critics equally amused. Lyons won a New York Innovative Theater Award for an Outstanding Original Short Script in 2010. Despite this suggestive reaction, other projects and acting jobs drew his attention elsewhere until COVID-19 shuttered theaters worldwide. Since his next season with Madama Butterfly was indefinitely delayed, Lyons pursued whatever creative projects he safely could. His friend Todd StraussJonothon Lyons, AKA Buddy the Rat, rests in a rocky nook on Camelback Mountain

Lyons’ journey to viral vermin stardom is as long and winding as 2020 itself. The Internet fell in love with Buddy in October when a random onlooker’s video of Lyons in costume on the set of a short film landed online. However, the character first hit the streets more than a decade earlier. Back then, Lyons was working his first professional acting job for Imago Theater following his graduation from ASU’s drama program a few years earlier. Lyons would spend part of the year performing at the company’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon, or traveling with the 22





Schulson — the director of Final Girls, Isn’t It Romantic and A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas — reached out about shooting something in their downtime. Lyons suggested reviving his rat character and spent the next couple of weeks getting masks ready, as well as building props like a giant rat trap and oversized pizza slice.

Jonothon Lyons, AKA Buddy the Rat, climbs up Camelback Mountain

During their first night of shooting at Washington Square Park, a random New Yorker posted a video of Lyons in costume on a sports and pop culture blog. It rapidly racked up well over a million views while another stranger’s TikTok post of Lyons reached even more people. This phenomenal response prompted Lyons to start creating his own videos. He reimagined his rodent alter ego as Buddy the Rat, a kid-friendly character spreading irreverent joy for a pandemicweary populace. Buddy walked the streets on all fours, boarded the subway, and even helped Slate reporter Mike Pesca propose. Some videos involved Buddy playing with his oversized props or teaming up with fellow street performers for simple impromptu skits, while others saw the cheese eater simply going about his business. Whether it was a Subway rider totally ignoring the big rodent or another one leaping over a set of stairs to get around him, often peoples’ reactions — or lack thereof — were what made the recordings so captivating.

Jonothon Lyons, AKA Buddy the Rat, hangs out in a tree on Camelback Mountain

“It’s great to see during these rough times that we can still laugh and have fun,” the Buddy booster explained. These were exactly the kind of responses Lyons hoped to elicit. As a performer, he fed off the energy and joy he inspired. He plans to continue bringing Buddy to life and hopes to share his unique form of street performance with other countries once the pandemic has passed. However, he is happy that everyone can virtually share in the fun through his social media accounts.

However, this apparent simplicity belies Lyons’ sophistication as a performer. “I’m bringing every bit of the kind of focus and technique that I would to performing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera,” Lyons said. “New Yorkers really thrive on live performance experiences, so they just haven’t seen anything in person in 10 months, and I’ve kind of brought the theater out into the street and into the subway for them.” Of course, this native son of the Copper State didn’t want to let Gotham have all the fun. He put on a more standard variety of face covering and caught a flight to Sky Harbor. Lyons then surprised his mother by scampering into the house as Buddy. The next morning, he visited the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market. Reactions were somewhat mixed, with many seeming to enjoy the diversion. When Buddy walked near a group of three female shoppers, some initial shock quickly yielded to amused laughter and even a few friendly head pats. FEATURE

the steep rocky trail, sometimes on all fours and sometimes bipedally, laughter preceded and followed in his wake. He happily obliged the numerous requests for selfies, including one from a man who described himself as a “huge fan of Buddy the Rat.”

“I thought it was a dog,” one of them told me before all three broke out in another round of giggling. Unfortunately, a security guard soon spoiled the fun. Lyons, ever gracious and never meaning to cause distress, cheerfully complied with his request. From there, he headed out for a hike up Camelback Mountain. This desert climb proved more receptive to the visiting vermin. The hikers seemed to get what was going on, though there were more than a few double-takes. As he ascended

“I think everybody’s been so bummed out all year,” Lyons said as he caught his breath before rushing off to his next appearance. “There’s been so much stress that the fact that I’m doing something totally silly and really freespirited is lifting people’s spirits. It’s just reminding us that life doesn’t have to be so heavy all the time. I’m glad that the world’s coming together to deal with a lot of heavy issues, but I also think that the playful human spirit is a big part of our experience, and it’s important to embrace that. Jeff Kronenfeld is an independent journalist based out of Phoenix, Arizona. His writing has been featured in Java Magazine, the Arts Beacon, PHXSUX, and the Phoenix Jewish News, where he received the Simon Rockower Award for excellence in news reporting from the American Jewish Press Association. Links to his previously published work are available at www.jeffkronenfeld.com. ECHOMAG.COM




The entrance to Stratta Kitchen


Scottsdale’s fast-casual slice of the Riviera: Stratta Kitchen Story and photos by Jeff Kronenfeld


tratta Kitchen is down-to-earth yet highly refined, just like its chef and owner, Alex Stratta. Don’t let his or his restaurant’s casual demeanor fool you. He won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest at Mary Elaine’s in 1998 and earned two Michelin stars for his Las Vegas restaurant Alex a decade later, though he doesn’t rest on past laurels. Instead, Stratta uses that lifetime of experience cooking in world-class eateries to offer the Valley big flavors without big calories.

Whether ordering at the counter, over the phone, or online, you may want to get a game plan together first. The menu is deceptively simple, with a range of delectable protein and sauce options offered on their own or as add-ons for the bowls and salads. The staff is happy to offer pairing suggestions if you’re unsure how a skewer of Alaskan Sterling salmon will go with the Cali Coast, a half-sphere full of quinoa, yams, cauliflower, avocado, dates, and toasted almonds. If making too many food-based decisions causes you excessive anxiety, you could opt for one of the appetizers, wraps, or tacos. To balance out all those healthy options, Stratta also offers desserts, beer, and wine.

The salmon Riviera wrap packed to go

I visited the restaurant twice, once at lunchtime mid-week and again on a weekend afternoon. On both occasions, there were a few other parties of diners inside and on the patio, as well as a steady stream of customers and delivery drivers. The spacious floor plan made sure I never felt too crowded. That said, more than half the tables were vacant each visit, a cogent reminder of both the pandemic and the location’s lack of foot traffic. The exterior’s rust-colored curves yield to the interior’s shiny white subway tiles’ clean

The chickpea & herb hummus with veggies

His newest restaurant is somewhat of a departure for the culinary artist who

cut his teeth cooking in California and Monaco, that most upscale of European microstates. In the latter, he worked under legendary chef Alain Ducasse until being lured to the Big Apple. There he learned from another foodie legend, working at Le Cirque under Chef Daniel Boulud. Stratta eventually migrated west to the Valley to helm the ultra-fancy restaurant Mary Elaine’s before Sin City stole him for a decade-plus. Las Vegas ran out of luck when he returned to Arizona four years ago, seeking a less crazy place to raise his family.

Stratta did a few consulting gigs for high-end dining establishments around town before finally lining everything up to start his latest eponymous restaurant. Finding his diet radically changed after winning a battle with colon cancer and looking for a better work-life balance, he was ready for something a little more laidback. His fast-casual restaurant focuses on bringing lighter fare from the sparkling Mediterranean to just off the banks of Scottsdale’s Marguerite Lake. Its eclectic menu offers other treats as well, so if you’re a ravenous glutton like yours truly, don’t worry; you won’t go home hungry.






The front counter and cooler

Our second appetizer was the chickpea & herb hummus with Noble bread. It was creamy and cool with plenty of citrus zest. This, all combined with the savory herbs, spices, and foundational flavors like onions and garlic, made it almost dance on the tongue. Stratta said there’s no secret to its silky smoothness, which comes from pureeing the completely cooked chickpeas while they’re still steaming in a high-speed blender. Whatever the method, its results can’t be contested.

straight lines. The open kitchen flanks the front counter, which features an equally open cooler brimming with bottled drinks. I was greeted promptly by a friendly masked employee on both visits.

holding up well until the very last bite. I was a little worried about there not being enough before I ordered, but this trio of large tacos powered me up just right for an afternoon of typing.

I ordered online the first time, opting for the charred steak tacos, but the miso glazed fish variety tempted me. All the tacos and wraps contained interesting ingredients, and I made a mental note on which I might need to circle back to for future lunches. In addition to the cuts of steak, my substantial whole wheat tortillas came piled high with chiles toreados, pico de gallo, queso fresco, avocado, and radish. On the side were a couple of lime slices and a healthy portion of viscous chimichurri sauce.

For my next voyage to the restaurant, I took advantage of its convenient location near the Greenbelt’s car-free bike paths. We sat on the well-spaced patio next to our resting two-wheelers, relaxing in the shade while basking in the heater’s warmth. It wasn’t long until our two starters arrived.

The Terra bowl with mung beans, cannellini beans, wild mushrooms, spinach, brussels sprouts, asparagus, and spiced purple yams

The presentation for these was very on point, with explosions of orange, red, and green interspersed by a light sprinkling of white cheese. These little works of edible art tasted as good as they looked. From the steak and avocado base to the intervening layers of diced and thinly shredded vegetables, some fresh, some pickled, I was impressed by both the breadth and harmony of the flavors. The tortillas deserve a special mention, as they are larger and thicker than average,

One was the Sicilian caponata with naan. For those not familiar, Stratta describes the dish as somewhere between a salsa and a ratatouille. Caper spheres and glowing lines of chimichurri sat in the deep red sauce like so many purplishcolored islands in a bloody sea. Fresh sprouts laid on top like the laurel crown of a Mediterranean demigod. It positively burst with tart, bitter and savory flavors, including an umami note, which the chef attributes to the capers, olives, pine nuts, orange zest, and currants. I thoroughly enjoyed this surprisingly filling dish. Stratta is particularly proud of this dish, which bears the indelible mark of his time in Europe.

Moving to entrees, all the glistening lakes and ponds we’d biked past must have set our ravenous imaginations swimming. We tried the salmon Riviera wrap and a Terra bowl with scallops. When the wrap arrived, the first thing I noticed was the hue and texture of the fish. It wasn’t that artificial, almost neon color you sometimes see, but a lighter yet still vibrant coral. Accompanying this were chickpeas, oven-dried tomatoes, peppers, crumbled egg, fennel, and plenty of sauce. The sandwich had a nice mix of textures, with the salmon’s moist fluffiness complemented by the chewy wrap and crunchy vegetables. This was an ideal late afternoon pick me up to sustain our bike ride home without inducing a food coma. The Terra bowl proved aptly named — its rich earthy essence hardy even before I piled on the scallops. One of four bowls, it comes with mung beans, cannellini beans, wild mushrooms, spinach, brussels sprouts, asparagus, and spiced purple yams. It had a complex flavor that was smokey, bitter, and savory at once, with a mild but lingering heat coming from the spicy harissa sauce. The various consistencies and moisture levels of the ingredients marked this dish out as something unique. I’d probably live longer if I eat at Stratta Kitchen every day, but after surviving 2020, I’m not sure how appetizing such a notion really is. As I biked home pondering this morbid thought, I regretted not ordering the double trouble chocolate cake. Luckily, as I glided down the curvy canal, my mood cheered at the thought that I can always be less healthy next time. Jeff Kronenfeld is an independent journalist based out of Phoenix, Arizona. His writing has been featured in Java Magazine, the Arts Beacon, PHXSUX, and the Phoenix Jewish News, where he received the Simon Rockower Award for excellence in news reporting from the American Jewish Press Association. Links to his previously published work are available at www.jeffkronenfeld.com.






Sean Hoy


stop everywhere that like a poet was born or because he was an educator.” Drawing was always present throughout Hoy’s life, taking inspiration from Mad Magazine and Monty Python sketches. “So, again, I literally would, this is a true story as well, I would draw like sheep, like in second or third grade and sell them for a nickel or a dime, or $1,” he said. Hoy also took inspiration from the editorial cartoons found within the newspapers his father would bring home, admiring the simplicity and the humor found in the drawings. This led him to pick one of his many careers of being an editorial cartoonist himself. “I was really influenced by that sort of medium. And again, it was more of the wit and the writing than it was the drawing. I’ve never really taken an art class. But I’ve always used that,” he said. All of his cartoons reflect different messages depending on the subject matter. While working at Arizona State University, the cartoons described current campus events or national news. “It could really be any message, but my only thing is the whole funnel of it, honing

Sean Hoy By Sydney Lee; photos courtesy of Exposed Gallery


f you can remember being a bored child in class, more often than not, you’d find yourself drifting into a land of make-believe and doodling all over the margins of your college-ruled notebook. Most times; doodles never leave the confines of notebooks, however in the case of renaissance man Sean ‘Hoylarious’ Hoy, they might be the best way into social circles and a new art exhibit. Hoy will be presenting his whimsical paintings as the featured artist at Exposed Art Studio & Gallery in the middle of the Melrose District through Feb. 27. As the gallery is following COVID-19 guidelines,





appointments and masks are required. Facebook streams will also occur. Sean, a “self-taught painter, philanthropist, and minimalist,” embraces his quirky humor and expresses it through his murals, improv, and cartoons. “I always have drawn. I actually have a report card from second grade that says, ‘Sean wastes too much time drawing cartoons instead of doing his work.’” Hoy grew up in an Irish Catholic family. His father worked at The Washington Post and then became an educator in Syracuse, New York. They moved to Arizona in the 1980s. “We took like, 12 days to get here from New York. We had to ON VIEW

it down to one visual and a sentence or so. And I don’t go for like the belly — I like laughter — but I go for thoughtprovoking,” Hoy tells Echo. The artist uses doodles to start his cartoonist process, letting thoughts transform into drawings as he comes up with ideas. He then will funnel his various doodles into multilayered ideas that push the boundaries. Another method Hoy uses to find

inspiration is working out through running or lifting weights at the gym. “I’ll go run like three miles, and I go lift weights at the gym and stuff like that. But I like doing things by myself. I’m a solo type person, even though I like crowds,” He said. Even with COVID halting most in-person art events, ON VIEW

it hasn’t stopped Hoy from discovering new ways of self-expression and artistic opportunity. “COVID took me and said, ‘Dude, start going towards your art, you’re painting and just expressing yourself.’ Where there’s strength, there’s opportunity. And I just took the opportunity and went and bought 40 canvases, went to Home Depot, bought a bunch of paint, just started just painting and sending them out,” he said. Not one to shy from opportunity, Hoy, post-COVID-19, may pursue more acting roles after participating in a table reading with the Chandler Film Festival. “It’s just like, man, I want to get back into I mean, there’s a time when I just cried, I was

crying from this piece. But I just like being in the now so much. And so, I really want to tap into that sort of side of me, ironically, where I feel more confident myself where and I could go and take those risks,” he says.

Sean Hoy, despite his varied background in art, stays true to the one motivation that keeps him exploring new mediums. Humor. Visit exposedgallery.com for details.

Sydney Lee is a graduating senior at Arizona State University, receiving her degree in Journalism and Mass Communication this May. She has a passion for writing, podcasting, and graphic design. When out of the newsroom, Sydney enjoys nature walks and homemade pizza (with pineapples).

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I’m a better person; you — not so much By Buddy Early


et’s dive right in: we did not become better people. I thought we would as we navigated Coronavirus. I even wrote a column about it. But since that column (just a few months into the pandemic), we’ve proven that we have no patience for what is required to defeat Coronavirus, and our primary loyalty is to ourselves; we do what makes us happy, and apparently what makes us happy is doing whatever the fuck we like whenever the fuck we want. I always seem to trigger people when I use the collective “we,” as some are quick to point out that they don’t fit the narrative being described — not to mention they don’t actually understand what it really means to use the collective term. Having said that, I am most certainly not referring to myself since I have had years of training in the arts of isolating and social distancing. This would be a breeze for me, I thought. It was also aided by a paranoia of contracting a serious illness, induced by the knowledge that I am a huge baby and have been known to take to my bed for days to deal with a bout of eczema. I’m a better person for the concern I’ve shown. I definitely did not want to lose my olfactory and gustatory senses — I’ve been working on using more five-dollar words throughout all this, by the way. It’s been suggested to me that I need not worry about losing my sense of taste since I have none, but I think that may have been a read, and I have decided I don’t like that one bit. Sure, the other symptoms are unappealing, as well, and probably worse; but not being able to taste or smell Kung Pao is what scared me most.





The notion that we would become better people and a better society after COVID may have been a pipe dream, but I’m going to continue to do my part concerning personal growth. I’ve learned things about myself in lockdown, such as: how much body hair I can tolerate; the number of days in a row I can wear the same pair of underwear; and there is a limit to the number of times I can watch repeat episodes of Law Order. I’ve been discovering things about my body — and not in the good way where you want to share this new discovery with a friend or someone you meet online or at the park. I’m a better person because of this knowledge. I’ve been expanding my horizons. Last summer, I finally joined Instagram and have accumulated over 150 followers. And soon, I might even post my first photo. I learned how to make memes, although the process is entirely too complicated for my impatience with technology, so I decided I’d keep simply using my words to describe funny scenarios. I’m a better person because of this growth. A popular bit of advice circulating last spring was that we should utilize our time at home by taking on projects. Write that book you’ve been putting off. Build that treehouse in your backyard. Split an atom. Whatever. But before I could put to paper “It was a drab and rainy night,” we started getting admonished for suggesting that people accomplish anything at this time. (Because that’s how the internet works—a positive suggestion one day is a negative one the next.) Apparently, for some people, it’s all they can do to not face-plant into the toilet every morning

because they are having such a difficult time with quarantining. So, obviously, being productive was out of the question. My conclusion is that asking — or even hoping — that we all come out of this pandemic as better people was a bad idea. What I can say is that I’m working on it for myself, and no one will deter me. When the world returns to a place where we can socialize safely and resume the activities that make us happy, I’ll be ready to show off my new and improved outlook on life — no more self-isolation when it’s not necessary. No more putting off catching up with that old friend over coffee or inviting that Facebook-only friend to meet for coffee or asking a romantic interest if he’d like to get coffee. (I’m starting to think I need other hobbies besides getting coffee.) And I am ready! If someone holding the vaccine comes within a half-mile of my location, I will seek them out. I’m ready to push down an 80-year-old candy striper with emphysema if it means I get mine. With the multiple versions available (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, etc.), I’m feeling optimistic about getting pricked soon. I don’t care if it’s made by Pantene — give me that vaccine. These are small steps to me becoming a better person. But I was pretty close to perfect to begin with. At least my mom says so. Buddy Early grew up in Tempe and has been involved in various communities across the Valley since. He is a former managing editor of both Echo Magazine and Compete Magazine. COMMUNITY


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Echo Magazine - Arizona LGBTQ Lifestyle - February 2021  

Echo Magazine – Arizona's leading media outlet dedicated to serving the LGBTQ community in news, views and entertainment. February 2021. Le...

Echo Magazine - Arizona LGBTQ Lifestyle - February 2021  

Echo Magazine – Arizona's leading media outlet dedicated to serving the LGBTQ community in news, views and entertainment. February 2021. Le...