Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Bay Area Adventure - Day 2

Sunday, August 9
7:30 am

Based on nothing more than my glee, I have higher-than-usual expectations for the continental breakfast. And yet, it is delicious. The bran muffin - so warm and so sweet! The crumb is actually crumbly. Are these homemade? Dan and I are certain until I see a staff person schlepping a box clearly labeled “Otis Spunkmeyer”. To their credit, microwaving the muffins definitely makes them taste better. The French Roast is truly noteworthy.

8:30 am

Dan has set off on conference-related business, so I hit the streets alone, heading toward Chinatown.

It feels so good to walk around a city by myself, going my own pace. I would sometimes walk around Detroit alone, but those treks were carefully calculated to be as safe as possible (take busy roads only, bring the dog, wear headphones so no one tries to talk to me, dress like a freak for the same reason, etc). It's so great to be in a place where 1) I don't need to worry about that stuff and 2) I can actually enjoy the sights.

At this Sunday hour, all of the businesses are shuttered, but I still enjoy roaming the streets and checking out the vendors. Yes, even Chinatown has a falafel shop.

Some of this is familiar to me, because I stayed in this neighborhood with my mom 19 years ago. I recognize a pretty little park with a playground and a giant statue of a man named Sun Yat Sen. There are about a dozen elderly Asian people practicing martial arts. A floral smell wafts through the air and the sun is out. I'm so happy to be here.

10:30 am

I'm with my friend, who I will call Alex. Alex was my boss until a couple months ago (the best boss ever!), but he recently moved to San Francisco to be with his boyfriend... and to live in paradise. We've found a pleasant, mellow hotel restaurant where they serve a variety of Eggs Benedict and you don't have to wait in line for a table. I am regaling Alex with all of the awful workplace drama that went down after he left. Despite all the nutty news, we are constantly cracking up laughing. We drink a lot of coffee. Our slightly overattentive waiter eventually brings the bill but assures us that there is no rush to settle. He then asks, “Are you on your honeymoon?”

Alex and I laugh some more. “No, we're just friends!” But the waiter insists. “Maybe later?” Then he says something inscrutable about Obama doing the same thing. Frustrated, I point to my wedding ring for the first (and hopefully last) time in my life and say, “I'm married to someone else, so that would be a problem.” Alex adds, “There are a lot of problems.” I laugh so hard that my stomach hurts and when the waiter walks away, I tell Alex how funny his comment was. He shrugs and says, “Well, you know, I didn't want to give him a heart attack.”

12:30 pm

Alex and I are hoofing about Chinatown, through the now crowded streets, up and down the hills. 90% of the merchandise is priced next to nothing, because it's all made in China. But if you care to spend $50 on 4 oz of tea, that can be arranged.

3:00 pm

At the new hotel, Dan is prepping for his presentation. I slip out to grab some lunch from the retro 50's diner up the block. It's the first day on the job for the girl at the counter, so she keeps asking the senior waitress for help. The latter looks just like Johnny Depp's grandma in “Cry Baby”. Both of them are super friendly. That's a trend in this town.

6:15 pm

Dan has presented his research on food acquisition in Detroit neighborhoods at a session on environmental racism. The woman hosting the session tells him “I was crying tears of laughter when I read your paper. Your style of writing is so deadpan and dadaistic” ? The other presenters respond to it very well. Dan's buddy from undergrad at Florida (I'll call him Trey) shows up, and we all head out on the town to celebrate.

7:00 pm

Even on a Sunday night, we can't find a ready table at any of the nearby sushi bars. We head down to Dojima Ann (the place I spotted on the first night). Along the way I see a very angry man clenching a copy of Time magazine with a Dick Cheney cover story, alternately shaking a clenched fist and pointing at Cheney with a homicidal expression. I guess that some of the mentally ill people on the streets of San Fran can stand up to Detroit's best. We all instinctively slow our pace and let him pass.

7:30 pm

Success comes to those who are willing to sit at the bar. As others wait for tables, I am feasting on the best agedashi tofu.

9:30 pm

Sitting in Trey's hotel room, sipping Grey Goose, I feel like I'm in a Dashiell Hammet story, except that we are watching youtube videos on Trey's iphone. Trey shows us Hurricane Chris's “Halle Berry” and teaches us the dance – primp the hair, powder the face, check the compact.

11:30 pm

We are singing karaoke at a Mexican restaurant. There are less than a dozen people here. The songbook is tiny and full of typos. Try to spot my favorite -

Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gays
Mary Chapin Carpenter

I sing “Build Me Up Buttercup” and “The Tide is High”. Dan does Lauryn Hill's “Doo Wop (That Thing)” which is a barnstormer, as always.

1:30 pm

Waiting for the restroom at another bar. A very average looking young woman emerges. Now that's something I like about this town – unlike New York, not everyone is super glam. You see all types here. When I enter the restroom, I notice that the toilet seat is up. Why, that was a highly convincing trannie!

2:30 pm

Dan is sure that someone must be wanting to deliver us a pizza, but I... am... falling... asl...

Friday, August 21, 2009

My Bay Area Adventure - Day 1

Saturday, August 8

9:00 am, Eastern Daylight Time

...though I am technically flying over the central time zone. Do time zones exist at 38,000 feet? I say no. I have entirely too much square footage of arm and leg to ever be comfortable in this seat. I lean over my tray table, trying to stretch my neck. Mmm, peanuts. Good old Southwest! Used to be the no-frills airline. Now it's the only one that lets you check a bag for free and gives you salty snacks. My tray table smells like an old, overused kitchen sponge. Probably from the sponge that wiped this thing down. Did someone puke here?

9:45 am, bizarre Arizona "we don't believe in Daylight Saving Time" time

Phoenix. What an asshole airport. I just spent $15 on a salad. I know, that only means that I'm at an airport. What gets me about this place is that I had to ride a dozen 1/4 mile moving walkways to get to this food court. Even the airport is absurdly wasteful in its sprawl.

3:00 pm, Pacific Daylight Time

San Francisco! Civilization!! I am riding the BART from the airport to downtown. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I had no trouble or stress getting from the terminal to the luggage claim to the shuttle to the BART. It's all so... self-explanatory.

6:00 pm

Dan and I wander from our downtown hotel east to the Ferry Building. It's an unusually warm evening in SF. I'm thrilled to be back in a thriving city, with lots of people and tall buildings (none of which appear to be abandoned). As we head down Market Street, we see a grown woman holler at a pigeon. I feel a flash of warm fuzziness for Detroit, where this sort of public nuttiness is so common. Here in paradise, it's sorta quaint.

Ferry Building - I must stop in at the Cowgirl Creamery cheese shop. Hey, they're selling my company's cheese! Crap, it's even more expensive here than it is at home. I run out the door.

Speaking of expensive, I spend $18 on a bowl of clam chowder at the Hog Island Oyster Company. Totally worth it. The broth is lightly buttery, infused with bacon fat. The clams are still in their shells, piled in the center of the bowl and topped with bacon, corn and potato. I like that it takes a little time to detach the clams from the shells. It prevents me from downing the bowl in one fell gulp.

9:15 pm

Dan asks me to join him at a sociology conference reception, hosted by his University of Michigan compadres. Sure, what the hell. I'm giddy.

It's a typical grad student gathering where everyone talks shop and I haven't much to say. It's the stuff of some really un-fun parties, but it doesn't bug me as much in this decidedly academic environment. It is a conference, after all.

What's really cool is that the reception is on the gazillionth floor of a fancy hotel and there are chocolate chip cookies + wine. I sit by the window and take in the view.

10:00 pm

Heading back to our hotel, we spot a sushi place where a lot of Japanese people are hanging out. I make a mental note.

11:00 pm

Despite the cars and the crowd and the street saxophonist playing "Happy Birthday" to no one in particular and the Santana cover band in the distance and the TV tuned to AMC's neverending run of "Stripes", I... am... drifting... to... sleee...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On Not Becoming Rich and Famous

My summer has revolved around a series of painful flashes of self awareness. I experienced the first one in late April. It happened shortly after a visit to my therapist. I had been telling him about a co-worker's delusion of grandeur (someone, in my opinion, was taking the job a bit too seriously). In my estimation, that particular individual was probably not employed in the sort of job that their education or background had promised, and overcompensation was a way of coping with those ruined expectations. In my own backwards, haughty way, I surmised, "I feel oddly lucky that I wasn't raised to have any expectation of being happy or successful. It saves me from that kind of disappointment."

My therapist gave me a funny look and turned the subject back to me trying to get along with my co-worker. "So, this person thought they would be doing something better than this job. But in this economy, they should be happy that they even have a job. And here you are - coming from your crazy family, with the alcoholic father - and now your life is pretty good. You have a nice husband. You aren't a drunk or an addict. You're making okay money. You're doing alright."

He went on to say some other stuff, but I was distracted by the sting. When I contemplate my life's trajectory, I don't like to think of myself as "pretty good" or "alright". I prefer "awesome turnabout!" to describe where I'm at. And yet, I know that "pretty good" is pretty good descriptor for my life, and that's pretty damned lucky in this harsh world.

And then, the moment came. I was working out at the gym later that afternoon when it hit me - I will probably never become rich or famous. You see, even though I was not raised with any expectation of accomplishing a goal, or getting an education, or finding a husband, there has been a little part of me, going all the way back to childhood, that assumed that I would someday become rich and famous. That assumption was so ingrained in my psyche that I never even thought to question it - until now. Talk about delusions of grandeur!

I brought up my revelation at my next therapy session. What I really wanted to know was, do other people have this delusion, or am I special kind of crazy? My therapist chuckled and told me that everyone daydreams. And daydreams do affect the way people live their daily lives. But discussing one's daydreams is generally a taboo, even in therapy. In other words, "who knows?" answers the first question and "not really" answers the latter.

This idea of not being rich or famous has changed me forever. For one thing, I've been forced to ask myself why I would want those things anyway. I mean, I could always stand more money, but I know too many unhappy rich people to assume that it would give me much pleasure. And I know I would suck at being famous. I'm too shy, too much of a loner. I can't even handle having a Facebook account.

I guess the thing that I long for is recognition. I don't need to be famous, but I do need to know that my self-expression is appreciated. Like, there's this woman at work who tells me every week that she enjoys reading my corny, pun-filled meeting minutes. And as pathetic as it may seem, that brings me joy. I think the highlight of the last month was when I sang "Turn to Stone" at a seedy karaoke bar in Dearborn Heights, and I guy came up to me afterward and said that I sounded like the singer from The Motels. I don't even like the song "Only the Lonely," but he does, and I can take a compliment like that any day.

My more recent conundrum is this - the more recognition I receive, the more I want. I discussed this with my therapist at our most recent session and he says that this is some weird thing called "ambition". He claims that this new found ambition is a good thing, a sign that I am progressing in the style of a happy person. I would rather return to those blissful days when I had no desire to make myself more recognized, but here I am. Oh, well. I guess I can accept that there is some middle ground between "dirt poor and unknown" and "rich and famous".

Monday, August 3, 2009

No Justice, No Piece of Pie

On the last Saturday in July, Dan and I attended Pie Lovers Unite at the Ladies' Literary Club in Ypsilanti. It was an affair as awkward as it was tasty.

The entry fee for the event was either $5 a head or 1 pie per family. Of course, we had to bring one of Dan's fabulous pies, with his one-of-a kind crack crust. Before Dan started making crust, I always thought that pie was pretty lame. But that's only because most crusts are disgusting. The common myth is that you must use shortening (a.k.a. the world's least enjoyable fat). The key to Dan's pie crust is butter, just a little lard, and coarse sea salt. Yum! A good crust may not be the best tasting part of a great pie, but it is always the most valuable player.

Slow Food Huron Valley sponsors Pie Lovers Unite. In keeping with their mission, they encouraged entrants to use only local ingredients. Even though you can't grow a lemon in Michigan, we decided to bring a lemon meringue pie. Screw it. What's a pie contest without lemon meringue?

And so we set out for the Ladies' Literary Club, citrus pie in tow. The Club was packed by the time we got there. The atmosphere was sort of like a church hall gathering crossed with a Jane Austen drawing room scene - lots of little old ladies, attractive young people and questionable manners. The front parlor was crowded with self-proclaimed pie lovers seated around a dozen small card tables. We wound up in the back dining room, which was really the best place to be. The judges sat at one end of the room, sampling bits of every pie, all of which were stacked high on a massive table in the center of the room. I was perfectly content to stand there, ogling the pies and sipping a cup of coffee (from the aptly named Mighty Good coffee company) as the more formal ceremony took place in the adjacent parlor.

It was a pretty weird program. The emcee, though mild-mannered and pleasant, seemed to enjoy the microphone more than it flattered her. She spoke of pie passion in a humdrum monotone. She tried to rile up the crowd with a battle cry, raising her voice just a smidgen to say

"Pie lovers"

to which three people responded, "Unite"

"Pie lovers"


And that was that.

The next order of business was the pie-ku reading (yep, haikus about pie), followed by the pie walk. I'd heard of a cake walk before, but never really knew what it was. For the pie walk, participants gathering in a circle around the pie table and marching clockwise to some polka music. There were paper signs taped to the floor, each with the name of a local farm on it. When the music stopped, so did the participants. Then the emcee called out the name of one of those farms, and whoever happened to be standing on that farm's sign won a prize. I could totally get down with that.

But since there wasn't enough space for everyone to compete in a single pie walk, there were several. And then, the emcee came up with random and bizarre qualifiers, like "If you're wearing sandals, you get to be in this pie walk!" The most annoying qualifier was, "If you keep chickens in your backyard, you get to be in this pie walk!" I hate the way the slow food movement alienates working class people - renters can't partake in that pie walk!

If I ever host a pie walk, I'm going to come up with qualifiers that get you excited about the not-so-great details of your life like, "If you've ever had an abortion, you get to be in this pie walk!" That way, everyone has a chance to feel good about themselves.

Perhaps it's jokes like that that make me a pariah. I must have had the word "avoid" tattooed on my head that day, because I saw several co-workers at Pie Lovers Unite and only two of them spoke to me willingly (I tip my hat to HM and LG for being so kind). One woman averted her glance when I smiled and waved and another bolted when I said "Hello". I really try to not take this stuff personally, but it's getting to be a little tough.

My favorite awkward moment of the night happened when LG (who was one of the judges) gave me some very thoughtful feedback on the only lemon meringue pie in the competition. She swore that the whole panel was impressed with the "jiggle" of the meringue, and that the filling was considered well set. I gushed, "LG, I feel like I'm on Iron Chef!" And just as I was starting to feel at home at PLU, a thoroughly obnoxious woman approached us. She knew LG, but I knew her, too. I'll call her Bertha. Bertha volunteers at the theater where I used to work. She's a nightmare, one of those townies that you can never get rid of. Terrible manners, loud, crass, dumb.

In spite of all that, I tried smiling and waving at her, too. We're all pie lovers, right? She ignored me, until she was just about to walk away. Then she turned to me, stared down her bulbous nose and said, "Hey, you look familiar. Where do I know you from?" I connected the dots to the theater, and she replied, "Oh, I haven't seen you there in a long time." Then she turned on her heel and wobbled away.

Alas, Dan's entry did not win a prize, but we did get to eat a lot of pies - savory, sweet, some well crusted (though many were not). I got a pretty wicked sugar rush that night, right before I headed down to the karaoke pub. All in all, it was a pretty fab Ypsi night, despite all the social awkwardness and unfair pie walks.