Thursday, December 23, 2010

Being Back in Michigan

This nomad's life is weird. I don't feel like I belong in Chattanooga, but I don't feel like I belong here, either. That's actually a good thing, because I was worried that seeing the friends and family I miss so much would set me up for a big post-vacation bummer. I'm not so concerned about that now. Hanging with so many loved ones has been a blast, but now that I'm finally up here, I'm almost overwhelmed by the sense that I shouldn't be here instead of Tennessee.

Let's just get it over with and talk about the weather. Surprise! It isn't the worst thing about being here. The cold honestly hasn't bothered me, mostly because it hasn't been that bad since arrived last Friday (and it was about this cold in Chatt the week before we left). Even the greyness hasn't been getting me down because there's a certain beauty in the vast, quilted sky that I don't get to enjoy in sunny, mountainous, southern Tennessee. I love the way barren, ebony branches and tree trunks look against that backdrop, especially when placed behind an uninterrupted field of white snow (which is far prettier than brown grass).

There is much loveliness to enjoy in a Michigan winter but I had forgotten about the seasonal dirtiness - the dry, stuffy indoors, the perpetual snot and chapped lips. The roads are the worst part. I saw a woman sitting on a bus bench by the side of Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor. She sat just inches from the slush spray that emanated from the 40mph traffic, her legs ankle-deep in the black-streaked drift. That image broke my heart, though (or because?) I had been in her place so many times. And I had forgotten how cars turn into hideous, hulking sludge monsters. We haven't been able to see clearly through our windshield since Cincinnati. As soon as you wipe it down, it films over with that special blend of dirt and precipitation. Driving feels like walking around with filthy eyeglasses.

Culturally speaking, I think that southeastern Michigan has Chattanooga beat, hands down. The metro-Detroit/Ann Arbor food and beer scene is way more tasty, diverse and affordable, probably because there is a much larger and more diverse population in this region. Also, I've been able to do things here that I could never do in Chattanooga, like go to an art house theater (in a once-abandoned elementary school, no less) or hang out in bars where white people and black people and even people of other races mingle. I've longed for these things. It's also really exciting to be around a large population of Jewish people again.

I do find myself missing the friendlier, more upbeat attitude you find in Chattanooga. Yes, people seem nicer there. I like to say that in my experience so far, southerners tend to be more polite about everything except their racism and religion. My Louisiana-bred Michigan friend W got a big "Told you so!" kick out of that. There have been occasions when some pleasant bit of chitchat in the Chatt took an abrupt and nasty turn (in which I found myself responding, "Actually, I don't have a church," or "Actually, it's not cool to say that you 'Got jewed'.") Allowing for a reasonable level of self-expression, I'd rather that believers keep their views to themselves, but when it comes to racism, I just don't know. Is it better for people to be mask their bigotry in polite terms? I had a very typical SE Michigan conversation the other day, during which a woman told me how she had to move her family out of an inner ring suburb because "the neighborhood had changed". She didn't explicitly say that black people had scared her away, but that's exactly what she meant. I got that familiar "Oh, boy. Here we go," feeling and made my social escape as quickly as possible.

Of course, one's feelings about polite racism have everything to do with one's race, so I'm not going to suggest that impolite racism is the same or better. I will say that from my point of view, racist people everywhere make assumptions about my beliefs and it's annoying. Blunt southern racism is shocking, but the sentiment is nothing new to me.

When people ask me if I'm enjoying Chattanooga, my usual response is something like, "Sure." I guess it rates about a 7. I love the mountains and vistas the most. I miss being close to a big city. In some ways, this new-town experience reminds me of being in my twenties. The overarching theme of that decade seemed to be, "I don't always know what I want, but I'm figuring out what I don't want." I guess that sounds a bit bleak but I don't see it that way. When we first moved to Chattanooga, I was desperate for it to be our Forever Place because I couldn't stand the thought of packing another truck. Fortunately, the memory of the move is fading and I know I can do it again and even again, if necessary. Being a nomad feels weird but it isn't necessarily bad, especially if it makes me hungry for more world. In the meantime, there is more Scenic City exploring to be done.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Conscientious Consumption: The Year in Review

Three months of wrangling later, I have finally received my union-made-in-America, bright green sweatpants. The original pair arrived in October with a two inch slit in the inseam. After much back-and-forth communication between me, the internet store and the manufacturer, I now own a pristine pair of pants, just in time for holiday festivity. Seriously, these sweats are really green.

The long awaited arrival also timed well with my decreasing patience. Most people would have demanded a refund weeks ago, but my special balance of understanding and laziness made me wait. I didn’t need the thirty bucks as much as I needed a pair of sweatpants, but I could have spent less on instant gratification if I had just sucked up my resolve and bought a pair that was made in a sweatshop. I had to ask myself why I was making this purchase so difficult for myself because I have bought other sweatshop-made goods this year (recent purchases include a stopwatch and an off-brand X-acto knife). This got me thinking about my 2010 resolution to buy my clothing second-hand or sweatshop-free. Why clothing? Why not all things? Does this decision make any difference? Why bother at all?

I’ll start by backtracking to the resolution itself. It all began when I read a Harper’s article entitled "Shopping for Sweat: The Human Price of a $2 T-shirt". I won’t get into that too much, as I already blogged about it in this post. In short, I was struck by two fairly apparent ideas that I had managed to ignore for many years: 1) Sweatshops are unjust and unsustainable workplaces (meaning that no person with any means will put up with those conditions forever) and 2) People in this country used to make the things that we now get from sweatshops, and it sucks that those jobs are disappearing. The second point is just as important as the first. I feel yucky buying sweatshop clothing because of the conditions in which those items were made, but I also feel yucky knowing that I could have supported our dwindling manufacturing industry.

So, I’ve made a conscious effort to buy all things sweatshop-free. I sometimes pay a bit more for my purchases. Mostly, I spend more time shopping because I’m checking all the labels. But I’ve been surprised to discover how many things are made in the USA. I’ve been able to find notebooks, pet toys, a cooler. It seems that usually there are three Made in China options for every one Made in the USA, but that just makes choosing easier (and when it comes to the dreaded shopping task, I’m all about “easier”). As mentioned above, I have failed from time to time. The knife is a good example – it was the only choice available at the Target where I was shopping. I needed it right away. I didn’t want to invest hours researching other options online, so I bought it. That’s the essence of the exception – if I need it soon and there’s no other choice, I may buy the sweatshop–made product.

I’m less likely to make exceptions for apparel, for a few reasons. First, I rarely find myself in a situation where I need an item of clothing right quick (except with weddings – the last one I attended led to the indiscretions described in this post). I can take the time to find alternatives. Second, I tend to buy most of my clothing second-hand, and while many of those items were undoubtedly produced in sweatshops, I also appreciate the value of reusing. But I think the biggest reason that I avoid purchasing new sweatshop-made apparel is that it is so pervasive. That seems backwards, I know. It’s the toughest goal to meet because almost all clothing is made in third world sweatshops, not to mention that clothing is a basic human need. I guess that the preponderance of sweatshop-made apparel bugs me because it represents a common, shoulder-shrugging acceptance of everyday injustice, and that just makes me mad. So, I’ve sought alternatives. I know that not everyone has the time, money or other resources to pursue those alternatives, but some of you do. Please consider this when shopping.

I guess that all thoughtful people have their pet causes. An elderly friend of mine thinks that anyone who isn’t primarily concerned about nuclear disarmament is an idiot, and I certainly see his point. I’ve also been told that my particular way of approaching the problem of sweatshops is ineffective, which may be true. The few dollars I spend or don’t spend won’t make any more difference than a blog post that will be read by (maybe) ten people. My resolve doesn’t rest upon my ability to change other people. I’m just trying to do the right thing. And barring any exciting news or developments related to this topic, I think that is all I have to say about it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Abdominal Muscle Building and Other Lessons in Humility

When it comes to physical fitness, I guess I'm sort of like a baby - a rusty, aged baby. I've never been "good" at fitness, but I've also been lucky to avoid any serious, long-term-impact maladies. My personal trainer, a young man named T, seemed surprised that I signed up for his services without some dire impetus, like an injury or an illness. "No allergies, never broke any bones, nothing I need to know about?" he asked.


"So you're perfect?"

Ha! Sure, except for the fact that I have no aptitude for these workouts. I never played sports as a child (this culture of music lessons and team sports and other after-school activities just wasn't a thing when I was a kid; most of the children I knew just watched TV and played with toys). I went through the minimal motions in gym class and my harried teachers did their best to encourage a greater effort in me, but I was stubborn. I was sure that if I couldn't get a certain exercise right the first time that I would never succeed, so I never tried. The academic part of school was so easy for me, I didn't understand that trying is an essential part of learning.

As a thirty three year old woman struggling to get through basic activities like balancing on one leg while side-stretching the other, I've gained a new perspective on those old school days. Now I see that I viewed school more as an arena for recognition than an institute for learning. I just wanted other people to think I was smart and to reward me for it. That attitude carried me through high school (though my know-it-all indifference earned me some pretty awful grades during the last two years) and community college, until I hit a humbling wall called The University of Michigan. All "hail to the victors" obnoxiousness aside, few can succeed at UM without concentrated effort.

I don't regret dropping out of UM, but I do regret the attitude that set me up to fail. Fortunately, I'm not big on regrets. All I can do now is be a better person, and try. It isn't easy on my ego. I mostly enjoy my sessions with T, but this past Monday nearly took me to my limit. I know I looked like a complete ass, trying to do this exercise with my sweaty t-shirt riding up my back while my flabby belly dangled over my pants -

The worst was trying to do stomach crunches on a weight lifting bench. I couldn't even master the at-rest form, much less the crunch itself. I'm always a little embarrassed when T counts my sad and mangled attempts as legitimate reps, but what else can we do? Only through much diligent "wrong" will I ever get these things right.

I find some satisfaction in the torn-muscle pain that I feel later. I must be doing something useful for my body if my belly hurts when I cough. Sometimes it's just so hard to imagine that I will ever be able to do a proper crunch or push-up, but I know that I can and eventually will. Honestly, I've never worked so hard to be good at something for which I have no talent... yet. I must remember to always give myself the benefit of a "yet".

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Non-Prescriptive Kitchen Philosophy

I enjoy being thrifty almost as much as I love eating*, so I spend a great deal of time planning and cooking meals at home. I know my lifestyle wouldn't work for everyone - it's a big time investment - but it's how I like to roll. I figure most people are sick of hearing how they could eat better; I certainly don't wish to contribute to that noise. But in honor of Thanksgiving, I thought I would document a bit of my ongoing internal dialog regarding food, for whatever it's worth to you. It's a fun exercise, and I'm curious to hear some of your ideas, too.

The following are a list of rules to myself regarding kitchen and diet management ~

Don't throw away any edible food Plan to use all the food you buy. If something is about to expire, eat it. Freeze leftovers that you are sick of eating (especially soup). Freeze vegetable scraps and use for stock. Save bacon fat and use for fun.

Eating more is no cure for eating poorly Following half a pizza with a salad does not make you healthier.

Never buy prepackaged spices Go to the hippie grocery store and buy it bulk. You don't need to be spending four bucks on a glass jar.

Seek creative uses for canned tuna Two servings of lean meat for under $1.50 is an unbeatable deal. Take advantage of it.

Cook large quantities of stock and bean regularly Canned stock and beans are cheap, but home-cooked stock and beans are even cheaper and usually taste better. Make a bunch at once, portion into small containers and freeze. Do it on a day when you're sticking around the house anyway. The entire project may take several hours, but not that much attention.

Save all disposable plastic containers This includes baggies, old sour cream tubs, and any Ziploc containers that your friends happen to leave at your house. Horde that shit. You can never have enough and you shouldn't have to pay extra for it.

Don't assume that leafy vegetable greens are garbage This recipe for radish greens soup, for example, is fantastic.

Experiment with producing homemade versions of foods that you usually buy processed This includes items like crackers, refried beans, mayonnaise, vinaigrette and ginger ale. Making it yourself may not always be your first choice, but it's enormously satisfying (especially if you make it taste better than the processed version).

Find recipes that fit your pantry (not the other way around) If a recipe requires more than two ingredients that you rarely use, then simplify, substitute or move on. Don't make special trips to the grocery store. Good flavor needn't require obscure ingredients.

Eating out is the funnest use of disposable income, but you will be disappointed if you could have made a better tasting version of that dish at home And that's why you quit The Fleetwood Diner long before you quit Ann Arbor.


* In fact, pretty much all of these ideas come from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" and Amy Dacyczyn's "Tightwad Gazette".

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cheese, a Good Pain, and the Horizon

Saturday was a dark day. After spending too many hours on Facebook, I saw that my friend M had linked to this New York Times article entitled "While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales". I don't know why I clicked it, as I suspected it would say terrible things about my good friend cheese; maybe it was because I had already sucked that day's entertainment value out of Facebook (which, more and more, felt like a substitute for the friends I haven't made in Chattanooga).

Anyway, I found the first several paragraphs quite alarming ~
Domino’s Pizza was hurting early last year. Domestic sales had fallen, and a survey of big pizza chain customers left the company tied for the worst tasting pies.

Then help arrived from an organization called Dairy Management. It teamed up with Domino’s to develop a new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese, and proceeded to devise and pay for a $12 million marketing campaign.

Consumers devoured the cheesier pizza, and sales soared by double digits... But as healthy as this pizza has been for Domino’s, one slice contains as much as two-thirds of a day’s maximum recommended amount of saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease and is high in calories.

And Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.

Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese.

Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate.

No one likes to think that they're a dupe for "the man" but I clearly am. I considered the last four cheese-laden meals I'd consumed, and why ~
Cheese pizza with crumbled sausage - Duh, it's pizza. I'm not eating pizza without cheese

Bagel with cream cheese and lox - Okay, maybe I would eat a buttered bagel, but there was lox. I'm not eating a bagel and lox without cream cheese

Turkey meatloaf with cheddar cheese, with a cheddar corn muffin on the side - I guess corn muffins and meat loaf don't have to have cheese, but cheese makes it so much better!

Welsh rarebit - It's cold outside

It happens that lately I've been extra concerned about my gut, especially when I catch the least flattering view of it in the mirror. I don't feel unattractive but my current shape isn't my ideal. I could blame it on so many things - my love of nearly all food (excluding only hot dogs and sugary junk foods in the style of Hostess or Little Debbie), a general decrease in physical activity since moving to Chattanooga, beer. I certainly knew that cheese accounted for some of my girth, but might my favorite of all foods make up the bulk of it?

I sighed at the thought of a new food rule. I'm not opposed to lifestyle changes. In the spring and early summer I worked out four hours a week and ate way less fried food, red meat and pork. The frustrating thing is that it doesn't make much difference in terms of my weight. Sure, I felt better when I lived that way, but I wasn't any smaller. The rewards just didn't match the work and sacrifice that went into that lifestyle, which makes laziness and indulgence more attractive options. Would I really subject myself to new cheese parameters? Could I really make it last beyond Thanksgiving?

In considering ways to limit my cheese consumption, I became dejected. At least I could be grateful that last Friday, I accidentally answered my phone and spoke to a trainer from my gym. Her name was C and she was calling about my freebie training session that I had yet to redeem. We decided to meet on Tuesday morning. The anticipation of this workout made me feel a little better on Monday afternoon, when my friend S and I ordered a bowl of cheese dip at the pub down the road.

When I got to the gym on Tuesday, I found C to be a very serious and very fit young woman with smart eyes and a razor sharp glance. She had me complete a form that asked questions about my weight, my desired weight, the parts of my body I wanted to work on, etc. Then she handed me a small electronic device that looked like something a Star Trek doctor would use.

"This is to check your body fat percentage. Have you used one of these before?"

"Um, not since elementary school and it was one of those creepy scissor-like thingies."

"Oh, with the pinchers?" She smiled, which seemed out of the ordinary, which made me proud. "Yeah, those were weird." She demonstrated how to use the device and handed it to me. "The bottom number is your BMI, but I'm not paying attention to that. We're just going to look at the top number. That's your body fat percentage."

It wasn't pretty. Turns out, I am over 1/3 fat.

We sat down and she looked at my form. She wrote down the percentage next to the columns where I had listed my current and desired weights, which she covered with her hand. "We're not going to look at those numbers. We're only going to look at this percentage. You really need to be here," she said as she scrawled "21% - 23%". I appreciated her discretion, but not as much as her honesty.

We talked a bit about the kind of workout I've been doing, which is almost all cardio. "That's the problem," she said as she drew a triangle. "Building muscle tissue has to be the foundation." She wrote that at the bottom of the triangle. "On top of that you have cardio activity. At the top of the pyramid, you have food and diet. But I'm not going to tell you how to eat."

"Yeeeeeesssss!" I said with a gleeful arm pump. Hello, cheese!

She smiled as if she really wanted to roll her eyes. "You know how you should be eating." Then she launched into the most articulate, informative explanation about why it's important to build muscle tissue and approach weight training holistically (as opposed to focusing on one region of the body), and how this can be done effectively. I'm not going to repeat everything she said, because I would probably say it all wrong, but let's just say that for the first time I got it. Sure, I've heard that it's important to build muscle if you're trying to lose weight, but I always found the message vague, and it got lost in the midst of those thousand-and-one other vague messages we hear every day about fitness and health. Most importantly, C focused on the lifelong benefits of muscular fitness (so you don't wear out your joints, so you can lift things when you're old, so you can increase your metabolism), which really got to the heart of my belly fears. As she said herself, it isn't about getting skinny - after all, muscle weighs more than fat. It's about health.

Then she had me work out. I began with five minutes of cardio - easy enough. Then came the regimen that has left me sore in places I've never felt before. It hurts to sneeze, and I know that comes from all that core-building stuff she had me do with a strange object that looks like this

I was honestly stunned by my capabilities. I didn't know I could use my gut, forearms and tippy toes to support the length of my body. I pushed myself in a way that I never have before and I didn't even care if I looked weird while I was doing it (even when I rolled over on my side doing that forearm thing). The sometimes painful exertion felt good.

She had me work out for a half hour. Then came the hard sell. "Have you ever considered a personal training program?"

In my winded state, I couldn't help being honest. "No."

A bitter smile. "And why not?"

Because that's something movie stars do was what I was thinking, but I said, "I guess I just never thought I could afford it."

She offered the customary sales pitch, broken down into my various options - I spend a little less per session if I sign up for more sessions per month, and I'll get a great deal if I sign up immediately. If I could afford it, I would have signed up for weekly sessions right then, but I knew I needed to think about it and look at my budget.

Perhaps misinterpreting my hesitation for a lack of interest, C said something that I would have chalked up to a down and dirty sales tactic if it weren't so obviously true. "You can't do this alone."

Doing it alone is always my first inclination, but then I remembered those weak solo attempts to improve my mental health before I got into therapy. Just as deep breathing is no replacement for a shrink, I doubt that even the most extensive internet research is a replacement for an educated physical trainer.

So, I'm gonna do it. Two sessions a month. I'm geeked. This seems like the perfect next step after many years of therapy (from which I finally "graduated" in July - hooray!!). I'm ready to make some dietary changes too but this decision feels like the revolution. I also find it exciting, because even though it really sucked to learn that I'm over 1/3 fat, I finally feel thrust into this new life in Chatttanooga. Something about the fall weather and the mild loneliness has made me incredibly nostalgic and I find myself too often on Facebook, or daydreaming about my December trip to Michigan. Now, me and my belly have a new thing, and it's focused on progress.

Monday, November 1, 2010

My Little Bit to Restore Sanity

My main motivations for attending The Rally to Restore Sanity were these ~

1) To visit Washington D.C. and particularly the National Gallery of Art, which is my favorite museum.

2) To see our friend J, who had already booked a hotel room in Dupont Circle

3) I like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert

Nevertheless, I had misgivings. My impression was that it was being marketed as an event for politically moderate people, which I am not. And for that matter, I don't think Jon Stewart is, either. So I found that angle disingenuous.

Actually, it turned out that this rally and especially Stewart's keynote speech got to the heart of some ideas that have been on my mind since the 2008 election. But before I get into that, let me take a minute to talk about why I have a lot of respect for Jon Stewart.

I almost never watch The Daily Show. I used to watch it every night (especially in 2004, 'cause that was one hell of an election year), but I haven't had cable much in the last six years. Still, I think Stewart has more journalistic integrity than anyone associated with cable news. He is obviously liberal, but he isn't a pundit. In his entertaining fashion, he encourages viewers to analyze politics and the news media that inform them. This is an anti-pundit approach. Pundits, conservative and liberal, make their fortune and their celebrity from preaching opinions to the choir about things that generally don't matter. I'm sick of all of them, even the "good" ones like Bill Maher who happen to be on my end of the spectrum. I don't care that ten years ago Christine O'Donnell talked about experimenting with watered down Wicca in high school, but now that matters. I appreciate Jon Stewart because instead of advocating for sides, he advocates for reason. He transcends the fights that don't matter and reminds us that we should do the same.

I don't know why I should be so surprised that this philosophy shaped the rally, but I was. I guess that's because no one knew exactly what to expect. I went to an anti-war rally at the Mall in January of 2007, but I don't recall any of the speakers or events. It was more like a powwow of like-minded individuals. From the moment we arrived at the Mall around 9am on Saturday morning, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (renamed after Stewart and faux pundit Stephen Colbert joined their two events) felt more like a music festival. Three hours before showtime, the throngs were moving toward the main stage, staking out their seats. Dan, J and I got a bite to eat at one of the museums and then J went with his brother to grab a seat near the second set of big screen monitors. Meanwhile, Dan and I made a quick visit to the National Gallery. When we emerged 30 minutes later, the crowd in the mall had doubled in size. We squeezed our way into a spot near our friends' general location, and that's where we stood for the next four hours.

Within thirty minutes, the crowd around us was so thick that I couldn't see an empty space anywhere. Luckily it was a gorgeous, sunny autumn day, just chilly enough so that the warmth of all those tens of thousands of bodies wasn't stifling. Another thirty minutes later, The Roots took the stage and kicked off a set with John Legend. Then the Mythbuster dudes came out to do some symphonic experiments with the audience (this was mostly lame, but I will say that when 150,000 or so people make a thumb-popping-cheek sound at the same time, it's pretty cool). At 1pm, Stewart and Colbert took the stage and commenced a truly entertaining series of events. For me, the highlights were:

1) When Stewart brought out Yusuf (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens) to sing "Peace Train", which Colbert countered by bringing out Ozzy to sing "Crazy Train". After a lot of theatrical bickering between the two hosts, Yusuf and Ozzy bolted. Then the O'Jays came out and sang "Love Train".

2) The awards portion - Stewart gave awards to public figures who have demonstrated calm and reason while Colbert awarded public figures who promote fear. Stewart first honored Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga, who didn't freak out and throw a justifiable tantrum after umpire Jim Joyce made a bad call that ruined his perfect game. I admit, when they showed Galarraga's videotaped acceptance speech, I was verklempt.

3) Random celebrity appearances, such as Sam Waterston's reading of Colbert's fear poem. Kareem Abdul Jabbar appeared onstage at one point to remind Colbert that he is, in fact, a Muslim.

It wasn't a thoroughly excellent show. When Kid Rock came on stage, Dan said, "Okay, let's go." I think he would have insisted if it wasn't so incredibly difficult to move through the crowd. So we suffered through it, which was ultimately a good thing because Stewart's keynote speech toward the end of the rally was well worth the wait.

The gist of the speech was that, despite our differences, and the divisive practices of our leaders and our news media, it is possible for Americans to work together to fix our problems. I think Stewart's most persuasive argument was when he used an aerial video image of gridlock traffic merging on a freeway. He pointed to each car and made up some demographic information about each driver - gay investment banker, mother of two small children, white baptist plumber, etc. He noted how almost every car moved in an orderly fashion to make it work - "You go, then I go. You go, then I go." It's a good, everyday example of random, disparate people making sacrifices to improve a difficult situation. But my favorite statement, the words that have been ringing through my head since Saturday, was when Stewart said (as best as I can remember), "And occasionally there's a person who drives along the shoulder and cuts in front of everyone else, but that person is rare, and they are scorned and they aren't hired as an analyst."

That inspired me. Not only does it validate my frustration with punditry, it also lines up with my feelings about politeness and civility. For all of my leftist political values, in my day to day life I just want everyone to get along. And I don't mean that in a super deep, Rodney King kind of way (but please know I'm not making fun of him; he, too should be awarded for profound calm and reason in response to a terrible situation). I don't like dramatic family situations, workplaces, or encounters with strangers. I prefer calm and not worrying about the little stuff, which is more apt to happen when social groups are focused on getting along. That takes a lot of thoughtful consideration and sacrifice, but sometimes it really can work.

It worked when we were leaving the rally. We spent over an hour just getting out of the Mall. The human gridlock was almost overwhelming at some points, when no one was moving and my body was sore from lack of food and standing still for four hours. I'm sure everyone was exhausted, but of the hundreds of people I personally encountered, not a single one freaked out or acted like a jerk in any way.

We left town shortly after returning to the hotel room. I heard a bit about the rally on the radio as we were heading down I-395 (mostly about how the city had not properly prepared for the crowds), but we were on the road and with family most of the time until today. I made a point of not reading anything about the rally before I wrote this, because I didn't want this to be a reaction to anything other than what I experienced. I don't know how to sum it up better than this: for a brief moment, a Frank Capra vision of the world became real and I hope I never forget that feeling.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A Kind of Racism I'm Not Used To

It was such an auspicious start to an ultimately unpleasant experience. Right after we moved here, Dan spotted the pet store in that sleepy little business district about a mile east of downtown Chattanooga. We finally made time on a beautiful autumn Saturday to drop by and perhaps get a couple toys for our dog and cat. Pulling up to the storefront, we realized that we couldn't park on the road, so Dan turned down the next side street, hoping to find a lot in the back. As he made the turn, I noticed a consignment shop on the corner.

"Consignment shop - sweet! Can we stop by there for a minute, after the pet store?"

"Oh, sure," Dan said as he pulled into parking lot. "Wow, look at how cute this is."

It was cute. Beyond the back end of the consignment shop, a half flight of stairs led down to a narrow, brick-paved dugout behind the neighboring row of brightly painted storefronts. We got out of the car and headed for the pet store entrance. Immediately outside the door, at the end of the dugout, we saw a couple dudes lounging at a wrought iron table. A small, hyperactive black dog greeted us.

I laughed as the dog tried to tackle my leg. "What kind of dog is he?"

One of the dudes stood up and said, "Miniature schnauzer. He's just nine months old."

We cooed over the puppy for a bit. Dan reached for the door handle. "Okay if he gets inside?"

"Sure, he owns the place."

We laughed as we stepped through the door. The store, like it's canine owner, was absolutely adorable. It felt like an old timey general store, but with a pet focus. A long aisle leading to the streetside entrance was flanked with racks of colorful dog and cat toys, sundry pet motif toys for humans (I think that was the stuff the owner called "boutique items"), in addition to a few practical things, like food and beds.

The owner brought our attention to a sealed, white paper bag on the counter. "You get a complimentary bag of biscuits on your first visit. We bake all of the biscuits here." That was when I noticed a small kitchen behind the counter. It was very homey, adorned with dog themed hand towels and other bric-a-brac.

We thanked the owner and then set about spending some money at his lovely establishment. Dan had his eye on a new bed for Dulce, but I convinced him to wait until after payday. He assented, but added, "We should definitely get her new bed here. I really like this place."

We settled on our purchases, which included several pet toys and a pair of "I Love Dogs" socks that Dan selected for me. As the owner rang up the order, I noticed a sign on the counter that said, "Is your dog afraid of thunderstorms? Ask us for free advice." Could this place get any cuter?

Our purchases in hand, I thought of the consignment shop and recalled that, unlike the other businesses on the block, it didn't appear to have a rear entrance. I turned to Dan and said, "I think we should go out the front."

Dan turned to the owner. "Is that front door open?" The man looked confused. "Can we go out that way?"

I added, "We want to go to the consignment shop, but they don't have a door in the back, do they?"

The owner walked around the counter. "I'll let you out front. I keep that door locked. But let me tell you something." Looking me straight in the eye, he said to me, in all seriousness, "That store is owned by black people. They're into the crushed velvet and sequins. You're just going to walk out empty-handed."

Boing! I sort of laughed and gasped simultaneously. Dan looked at me, and then the owner, and smiled as he said, "Maybe she likes crushed velvet and sequins."

I added, "Yeah, I just want to check it out."

He persisted. "You're really not going to find anything there, so I wouldn't bother if I were you. You should go to the consignment shop on the north side of town." Chattanooga's north side is notoriously yuppie/liberal; the locals often tell us that we belong there, for one reason or another. "They have a much bigger and better selection. You'll just be wasting your time at this place."

I guess he sensed that we were going to ignore his advice, so he eventually let us out the front door. Dan and I had a very spirited fifteen second discussion on the way to the consignment shop, which by the way, happened to be lovely. It isn't the kind of place where you find splashy, loud, vintage-y stuff (as a matter of fact, I visited one of those places on Friday; I most definitely walked out of there empty-handed, though with many fond recollections of an era when I could dress like Marcia Brady and actually look cool). Rather, this shop was the kind of place where money-minded, middle aged women sell their old Ann Taylor goods to money-minded women in their 30s (like me) who want quality, solid-colored, mostly natural fiber apparel. It was clean, the clothes were organized by size, and they had fitting rooms. They did not, however, appear to have any items made of either crushed velvet or sequins, which was kind of a letdown.

Nevertheless, I walked out with a navy blue shirt and a red sweater, for a total price of $10.93. Let's just say that I know which store I'll be visiting again. And with my combined purchases, I can now rock this ensemble:

Take that, weird dude. Thanks for creeping up my day. See you never.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Metroplex Reflections

* Whenever I leave Texas, I can't help feeling like I should actually be staying. It's a dreamy place, dotted with polite men who open doors with a flourish and a smile, and white-on-black night speed signs.

* Of course, I can only speak of the minuscule portion I've seen, which includes Houston, Austin and the Dallas/Arlington/Fort Worth Metroplex. Even if I had explored these cities thoroughly (which, of course, I haven't), that would constitute just 3.6% of Texas's 268,601 square miles.

* Last weekend saw my first visit to Dallas. So far, it is my favorite sprawled-out city where I don't want to live, easily beating Los Angeles and Atlanta. We had to drive at least forty five minutes to each destination, but traffic was never that bad. It appears that the sprawl is by choice rather than by necessity. Exit ramps stretch far from the ample freeways, like tentacles trying to grasp the insurmountable prairie. Ranch style buildings rest a long distance from the road. It seems that if there is one aesthetic rule that guides Dallas's inefficient urban plan, it is "don't distract from the sky". I have to admit, I find the vastness soothing.

* We visited the site of the Kennedy assassination, which appears to be the number one tourist attraction in Dallas proper. I find this morbid and strange. We stood across from the "grassy knoll" and watched as tourists snapped pictures at the X-marked spot in the middle of the road where the first shot hit JFK. They would take turns, pointing and shooting their cameras toward the infamous sixth floor window. That X is like a freakin' magnet. People just can't resist it. We saw a guy lazily wave away an oncoming pick-up truck as if he were shooing a pestering toddler. I have to wonder if any unmindful tourists have been killed by motorists in that very spot.

* As tourist attractions go, I personally prefer the Fort Worth Stockyards, a preserved "Old West" style neighborhood where they parade longhorns twice daily to maintain a sense of authenticity. We missed the cattle drive, but still had fun ogling cows and horses, wandering amongst the kitschy shops, and (my favorite) following the Texas Trail of Fame, which is just like the Hollywood Walk of Fame but refined to "honor those who have made a significant contribution to our Western way of life". Interestingly, one does not need to be a native Texan to be honored, as evidenced by this tribute to my favorite historic lady of the Midwest

The TToF has yet to recognize James Stewart, which I consider an enormous oversight. There is an open nomination process, which involves including "a description as to why the individual should be included along with a brief biography, references, family contact information and photographs." Yikes! This Trail of Fame is no joke.

* Being in the Metroplex (isn't that word stressful?) reminds me how much I miss being near a big city. Granted, Detroit's population has plummeted over the decades, but the metropolitan area is still home to four plus million sundry people. That means many restaurants and different styles of food. Statistically speaking, there are bound to be hundreds of quality eateries within a forty five minute drive of the city. Now, consider the fact that the Metroplex is home to about six and a half million people.

In short, we ate well. At length, this included Tex Mex, Chinese, Thai, Italian (prepared quite masterfully by an Armenian family), lots of little deep fried things, and prodigious amounts of beef, all of which were excellent. I simply cannot get this in my new home without driving at least two hours.

* On the way to meeting my father-in-law for happy hour on Monday, my mother-in-law pulled over by the ranch where the television show "Dallas" was filmed.

I said, "I went to a K through eight school and when I was a little kid, I remember the junior high marching band playing the 'Dallas' theme song."

She laughed, "Really? That's strange."

I started cracking up just thinking about it. Dan asked, "Wait, how does it go?" I hummed the first few bars and then he and his mother finished the tune in unison. It is an exceptionally good theme song. It more or less represents my complete image of the city, along with Larry Hagman in a cowboy hat.

The gates were closed, so we just gazed from the car windows. Dan joked, "Do you wanna get here early tomorrow for the tour before we hit the road?" Truly, I have no recollection of the TV show beyond the song, Larry Hagman and the certain feeling that Patrick Duffy was the morally and physically superior son. But it felt good to be there anyway. Staring across the expansive lawn, I noticed a slight incline along the side of the property, where the lush horizon blocked the sight of the adjacent road. All I could see beyond the grass and a couple trees was the broad, blue sky. It felt like looking at forever.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In Search of a Pregnancy Primer

There are many womanly things I'm no good at, including the application of makeup, the doing of hair, and the knowledge of obscure terminal illnesses. That smart alecky statement might give the impression that I actually think I'm cool for being no good at these things, but that's just a cover-up. I know I'm a freak and I'm not particularly proud of it. I'm not particularly ashamed either, but I'm not proud.

Mostly, I just accept myself for who I am, but there is one lady category in which I am so ignorant that I think I may need a crash course: pregnancy. I'm thirty three years old. I've never had a kid. I want to make a baby soon. I think I'm almost mature enough to be a mom. My plan is to get my party on until the end of 2010 and then revisit my three year old new year's tradition of not drinking. But instead of abstaining until Valentine's Day, I will abstain until I have birthed a child. Oh, and I'll quit my BC pills (obviously). And I will give up coffee, because that's what I'm supposed to do... uh, right?

Okay, okay. I should give myself more credit. I know that I'm not supposed to drink coffee while I'm pregnant. But I think I'm supposed to give it up beforehand, too. Or at least I know someone who did that, but I'm not totally sure why and I didn't know her well enough to ask. This is my very problem. Most wannabe moms I know (especially those in the thirty or older crowd) are quite knowledgeable and purposeful in their pregnancy quests, and I still don't know anything about this stuff. I don't even know how I'm supposed to find out about it. I think that there are some books that I should be reading, but I don't know which ones.

To get myself started, I'm hoping I can track down R, a woman I've met only twice. R's husband K is the grandson of Dan's grandma's best friend. I first met this young couple two summers ago and though they cannot know it, they had a profound impact upon me at the time (you can read all about it in this ancient myspace blog post, in which I renamed them Frank and Karen). R and K are eight or nine years younger than me, but in some ways, far more mature. Both of them are very sensible and hardworking, strong of will and body. I was initially struck by their down-to-earth money management skills, so much that they inspired me to take a personal finance class that completely changed my life. If I had never seen them again I doubt I could forget the impression they made upon me. But when we were reunited a year later (they hosted us for a couple days after Dan presented at a conference in San Francisco), I was even further moved by the way they handled themselves as the parents of a baby boy. To this day I am especially in awe of mother R.

R is a pediatric nurse who has long wanted to become a midwife (at the time she had decided to put that goal on hold, as nursing and child-rearing were more than enough). She chose to have her son at a birth center under the care of a midwife, a decision that most of her colleagues considered completely nuts. Without getting into a lot of personal details, I will say that R made several decisions about her pregnancy and her child-rearing methods that are contrary to conventional medical wisdom, of which I know almost nothing. I did not know, for instance, that doctors warn mothers against sleeping next to their babies, because they may roll over and suffocate their kid. But R pointed out that on the rare occasions that happens, the mother is usually drunk or drugged. So, you know, use your common sense and don't sleep next to the baby if you're wasted. Or don't be a drunk mom.

R's general take on conventional prenatal and postnatal care is that it's so focused on prevention/caution/avoiding medical malpractice suits that it essentially encourages women to be freaked out and worried all the time. That can create other problems for new mothers and their children. Being a healthy, young and educated woman, she chose instead to live by this mantra - "It's going to be fine." She said that statement to me several times during our visit and she truly was the picture of serenity. And her baby? He was a dynamo! Hearty and strong, just like his parents, he was turning himself over at just four months. He smiled lots, too.

So, yeah, I admit it - I want to be a mom exactly like R, though I know that isn't physically possible. In lieu of that, I'm going to enlist my grandmother-in-law's help in tracking her down. I'm hoping that a quick email and a request for sources will get me off to a good start. I just have a feeling that R has some good ideas for an older lady like me, who feels pretty sure that despite her lack of knowledge, this baby-making endeavor is going to be fine.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


My new gym is small and the machines are shabby, but they have this wonderful, tiny, low-lit room with two bikes, two ellipticals, a stair stepper, a muted flatscreen TV and a DVD player. Initially I was drawn to this room because the darkness and the unspoken agreement to remain silent combined to make it a perfectly antisocial workout space (also, I could avoid listening to terrible dance music while watching closed captioned Fox News in the larger workout room). At first I didn’t bother bringing headphones because I didn’t care what video was playing as it was usually a dumb action movie with a barely memorable title like "The Sum of All Fears". But then one day I noticed that some generous person left “Glee” Season 1 for all to enjoy. Now I’m totally addicted to it.

But that isn’t the point of this post. That’s just a lead in to the strange but increasingly typical experience I had two weeks ago. I was at the gym by myself. I had forgotten my headphones, but decided to watch closed captioned “Glee” anyway (shows you how great their writing is – I got hooked just reading the captions, which often made me laugh out loud). It was the episode when diva Rachel quits the glee club because she doesn’t get the solo she wants and Mr. Schuester replaces her with his former classmate, who is an older, alcoholic, high school drop-out played by Kristin Chenoweth. The story is about the drunk lady redeeming herself after years of screwing up and she hits her peak when she performs a kick-ass number in front of the whole school. But Mr. Schuester cans her immediately because she's still drunk and she’s been a bad influence on the kids (but she knows she should go, too, so there’s no hard feelings, in case you’re concerned). And just as Mr. Schuester is about to tell the audience that the glee club will not be able to perform their second number, a humbled Rachel asks if she can be let back into the club and offers to sing lead on their second song (which, of course, she already knows by heart, though we the audience don’t know what song it is). At first, the other kids are reluctant to let her back in because she’s been such an egotistical jerk but then Finn says they should because everyone deserves a second chance and that is, after all, the theme of the episode. So with the help of Rachel, the glee club takes the stage and belts out – oh, what could it be?!? – “Somebody to Love” by Queen. And I cried. I cried on the goddamn elliptical machine to an episode of “Glee” that I could not even hear.

This non-sad crying has happened often in the past several weeks. It's as if my emotions are amplified. Admittedly, my eyes have been historically prone to teary-ness, especially when I witness something beautiful, like the view from a nearby mountaintop, or triumphant, like when Dan's dissertation committee first referred to him as "Doctor". But actual, tears-running-down-my-face crying is something I used to control better.

I guess that now I'm in a new place, I don't feel the need to control it. A few weeks ago at work, an elderly woman and her middle aged daughter returned to the bakery after lunch because the mom had lost her amethyst ring. I brought it to her from the lost-and-found pile, and she just sighed and began sobbing. Then she told me that her late husband had given it to her on their first anniversary. Then I started crying and it was a glasses day, so I had to shove a napkin under my spectacles to wipe away my tears. She kept offering to reward me and I kept saying, "No, no. I'm just glad you came back for it." And she kept crying and I kept crying. Then I helped the next guy in line who said some dopey, sexist thing like, "It must be a chick thing," because apparently we were making him uncomfortable. But I really didn't care. I just went about my work and a few minutes later my face was dry again.

Perhaps now that I am almost completely surrounded by strangers, I feel free to be as gushy as I please. Okay, when "Glee" makes me cry at the gym (yeah, it's happened more than once, but only one time when I couldn't hear it), I get a little embarrassed, but at least there I can pretend it's sweat. I have sad-cried a couple times since we moved here, out of loneliness, or because I dreaded going to work (more about that some other time). But generally I either feel excited about the future or a present sense of exhilaration. So I've decided that I'm not going to worry about my amplified emotions. I'm going to go with the flow of my eye brine.

In closing, I would like to share an artistic masterpiece that always makes me cry. It is Otis Redding performing "Try a Little Tenderness" the night before his tragic passing. I still can't get over the fact that he was only twenty six years old. He seems like the kind of guy who lived as if each day might be his last.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Conscientious Consumption: Shifting the Focus

I'm over nine months into my new year's vow to not purchase sweatshop-made apparel and I guess I'm doing a pretty good job. Other than a couple of regrettable Target trips in the spring, I've stuck to my goal. I attribute my success to minimal consumption and maintaining an old and increasingly threadbare wardrobe. Honestly, this doesn't represent much of a change from last year, but it feels different because I'm being cheap and lazy for a cause.

However, a recent bump in our household income, coupled with Dan's bulky once-a-month paychecks, has led me to another solution - online shopping!! I used to think, "Oh, I don't want to buy clothes online. I would hate to have it sent here just to discover that it doesn't fit. I would much rather try on clothes at a store." But it turns out that's just nonsense. I was so poor until a couple months ago that I never seemed to have enough money at one time to make online shopping doable (American-made clothing is more expensive - that's part of the challenge). Now that I'm not poor and I have access to lots of cash at the beginning of the month, I find I'm an enormous fan of e-commerce . As for that "I must try it on" business, I actually hate the physical act of shopping. I would rather wait an extra two weeks for a pair of pants that actually fit than spend two hours trying on pants at the mall.

But my favorite thing about online shopping is that I can find sweatshop-free, even union-made apparel, which I can never find at the mall. Recent purchases include a sports bra, a regular bra, a tank top, a black dress and a pair of sweatpants. I haven't received the sweats yet, but I've found my other purchases to be sturdy and attractive (well, the sports bra is probably more functionally than aesthetically pleasing, but I like it). All of this cost me about $150. I don't know how that sounds to you, but that's an astronomical amount of money for me to spend on clothing.

But then I consider the amount of money I spend on food - not just my fancy, yuppie groceries but also going out to eat. Without getting into the nitty gritty of my personal finances, let's just say that I can blow through $150 worth of food-related purchases pretty swiftly, not even including Dan's half. And once I buy that food, I consume it much faster than I wear out my clothing. In light of that, $150 for items that will last me months if not years... it really isn't so extravagant. So why does that dollar amount seem like such a big deal?

This notion has been on my mind for months, but I've been thinking about it more since I read this excellent blog post by a University of Michigan graduate student. In it, she talks about the supposed "virtues" of foodie fetishism, the sense of moral superiority that comes from buying local, organic and natural foods. She suggests that

eating “better” isn’t driven by evidence-based beliefs about what’s really healthier, more sustainable, more humane, or even better-tasting—which are often conflicting ideals anyhow. The main appeal of natural, organic, local, yadda yadda food is a deep, often inchoate, feeling that it’s superior, which precedes and trumps reason or any objective weighing of the evidence. I think what reinforces that feeling of superiority most is the experience of sacrifice, which channels good old-fashioned Protestant Work Ethic values like the satisfactions of hard work and delaying immediate gratification.

I have to admit that this describes me pretty well. I take some pride in the sacrifices I've made to eat "better" (spending more on locally grown and organic foods, cooking for myself instead of using processed foods, practically eliminating high fructose corn syrup from my diet, etc.), yet I don't know enough about agriculture or industrial processes to say for certain that my food choices are actually more sustainable or healthful. I've taken for granted that my thoroughly considered and pricey purchases are not only "better" but also "important" for me, for my community, for the rest of the world. Given that, I found this part of her essay truly dispiriting -

I first started thinking about this at a roundtable on “Food Politics, Sustainability and Citizenship” at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association. The panelists acknowledged that local, organic, and/or “natural” foods were not always objectively superior in the ways people want to think they are—they often require more energy to produce and transport even if they have a much shorter distance to travel, there’s no consensus on whether or not they’re healthier than the conventional, processed alternatives, and they are often labor-intensive and rely on child labor, unpaid interns, and the willingness of farmers to self-exploit. In short, they admitted that “bad” industrial food is often more sustainable, just as healthy, and possibly sometimes more ethical. But they all insisted that regardless of its real impact, what was more important was that consumers of local and organic foods were “trying.”

I admit to being completely naive of such arguments, a testament to how well I've been brainwashed. Thinking about this in the context of my new year's resolution reminds me of my favorite Gloria Steinham quote - "The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off." The notion that I may have been wasting too much time making conscientious decisions about food consumption isn't what's pissing me off. What really pisses me off is that I've spent so much time making decisions about one form of conscientious consumption at the expense of other obvious concerns, which leads me to this question: how can so many of my acquaintance care so deeply about where and how their food is grown yet have little or no concern regarding where and how their clothes or their cell phones or their kids' toys were made?

I know countless individuals who wouldn't be caught dead with a can of Spaghetti-o's in their hand, yet who are totally happy to boil their organic, gluten-free pasta in a pot that says "Made in China" on the bottom. I know because I've been one of those people for years. What are we thinking? How can we be so preoccupied with our culinary carbon footprint without considering the fact that most of our non-edible material goods are being shipped from the other side of the world. Michael Pollan and his ilk say that the cost of food has cheapened with the quality, that we should pay more to eat better because, after all, we used to pay more when dear old grandma was cooking dinner. But isn't the same thing true of all stuff? Why should this only matter when it comes to food?

I have a theory. I think that part of the appeal of the Food Revolution is the lure of "returning" to an agricultural utopia. I guess the idea of verdant trees and bountiful crops is a lot sexier than factories and industrial labor. I get that. But factories are what built my hometown, and I don't think urban farming is going to bring that town back to what it used to be.

I'm not trying to pit one cause against another. Nor am I ready to abandon certain food snob standards, like avoiding processed foods and h.f. corn syrup. I just think that those of us who care about sustainability regarding the things we put inside our bodies should also consider the ethics related to what we drape upon our bodies. Really, this rule should apply to everything, from notebooks to dog toys to ice cube bins (this is not a completely random sample - I have found "Made in the USA" versions of all these items). I know it isn't reasonable to expect everyone to buy everything sweatshop-free, but I'm pretty sure that a widespread effort at "trying" could lead to some positive changes both here in the US and abroad.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Losing My (Mind Over) Religion

This morning, out of nowhere, my coworker asked me, "You're not, like, super religious, are you?"

I answered as any good, ex-Catholic atheist would. "Oh, god no!"

She exhaled deeply, as though relieved. "I didn't think so. Gabe thinks you are."

All day, I've been wondering why my 21 year old boss would make such an assumption. The best reasons I can muster are these: that he finds me "oddly" nice for a Yankee (he told me so), and that I don't wear makeup. There was a time and a place when such qualities made people think I was a "hippie" and I thought that was the most offensive assumption anyone could make about me.

Since moving to the south, I've had religion on the brain almost all the time. Certainly, part of it comes from arriving at the bible belt. Here, the question isn't "Are you Christian?" The question is "How Christian are you?" (I think the local "most Christian" award goes to the dude who keeps dropping bibles and religious tracts in Dan's public school lounge.) Also, our southward move coincides with the recent rise of anti-Muslim sentiment around the globe, though it seems especially concentrated here in the US. I haven't much to say on that subject that hasn't been stated more eloquently, but I'm going to offer my few cents anyway.

Again, I am an atheist. I think most religions are pretty bizarre to the same degree, though I admit to finding Mormonism especially weird (because I used to believe in god, and I figure that 2,000 years of groupthink can be pretty convincing; 150 years, are you kidding me?). Nevertheless, I respect the fact that others - including many of my favorite people - believe in god. I don't agree with them, but I don't think they're dumb for having their faith (and I know atheists who do). Mostly, I just try to mind my own business. I believe that this life is probably all I have. I'm not going to waste it with a lot of arguing and hurt feelings about the unknown.

Again, I don't think Islam is better or worse than any other religion - like I said, they're all pretty weird to me - but this spate of anti-Muslim rage and the accompanying indifference from the "Oh well, everyone's a victim, sometimes" crowd is making me really, really angry. That's because I have Muslim friends. More than that, I've known dozens of perfectly okay Muslims. Just about anyone from Dearborn can say that. It's really just that simple. If you have a friend who is Muslim, chances are that you are more likely to support the opening of an Islamic center two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center (according to this New York Times article, that's certainly true among New Yorkers, who are arguably most affected by this controversy).

My point is, I think it's a really good idea to live and work with people who don't share your same class, race, religious or sexual profile. One of the reasons I started to question Catholicism as a youngster was that I didn't think it was fair that my sister's gay friend should burn in hell, because he was always really kind to me. I'm not saying that exposure to people different from you has to be that much of a dealbreaker, but I think perspective is healthy for all. It may help you from misunderstanding an unusually polite northerner who simply chooses to not wear makeup.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Transition to the Tennessee Valley: A List of Pros and Cons, in No Particular Order

Pro: Mountains
Every day, when I walk or drive around the corner to Main Street, the first thing I see is Raccoon Mountain on the horizon. If I cross Main and continue down one of the side streets, I see Lookout Mountain. I've never had this experience in my everyday life before. The mountains around here are so cute and funny, too, popping up from the relatively flat land surrounding them, like the way little kids draw hills.

Con: August Weather
Apparently, we moved here at the worst possible time. It was about 100 degrees outside every day for two weeks straight. I guess it was worse than usual, but "usual" is still around 90 degrees, and I hate that, too.

Pro: Living in a Place Where People Look Forward to Fall and Winter
People around here talk about fall the way Michigan people talk about spring, as in, "I can't wait 'til fall comes and I can start biking to work, again." I'm hardwired to associate fall with school, increasing darkness and inevitable winter. All of these things still happen here in Chattanooga, except it doesn't get quite as dark and winter doesn't mean staying indoors 90% of the time. Also, I don't care what anyone says, I would much rather deal with extreme heat than extreme cold. Layering is so cumbersome and I really like seeing my bare feet outside of the shower without risking pneumonia.

Con: Everyone Assumes You're Christian
This is not new to me, but I can totally feel my Jewish friend J's* frustration when she said, "Maybe I don't want to have a 'blessed' day." That happened to me all the time when I was living in Detroit, so as culture shock goes, it doesn't register quite as high as other Chattanoogan idiosyncrasies. Plus, being (very) white makes it easy for this atheist to pass. I'm sure it sucks a lot harder if you wear a hijab or a turban, but of course I don't see that so much around here.

Pro: Butterflies
And lots of 'em! Not just Monarchs! Will work on getting photos.

Con: Almost Everyone is a Republican
Obviously, moving from Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County to a place where the primary election seals the Republican winners is a drastic change. But here's the thing - as much as I got used to living in a so-called bastion of liberalism, Michigan is a swing state and even Ann Arbor isn't as thoroughly liberal as this region is conservative. Ann Arbor is a very wealthy town, which means it has its share of Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate, Rick Snyder. And for those Ann Arborites who are aware of the rest of Michigan (granted, not many), they know that you cannot assume a person's political persuasion, which may change from election to election. Not so in these parts. I don't know what I'm going to do this election day. I mean, I know my vote will be nothing more than a symbolic gesture, but I would still feel really yucky bestowing it upon this guy.

Pro: A Tight Network of Local Businesses
I thought that the "buy local" movement wouldn't be as big here as it is in Michigan, if only because the economic situation in Chattanooga isn't as desperate ("If I can just get this upstart tea cozy business moving then maybe I won't lose my home! Oh, and I have such a passion for knitting tea cozies.") Most of the Chatt businesses I've shopped have been restaurants, but I've noticed that just about all of them use products from local vendors, including breads and buns from the bakery where I work, pork products from the sausage-maker next door, and greens from the guy who sold me a $2 bag of spring mix at the farmer's market. In fact, just about every vendor I've encountered at the market does some wholesale business within this region. And it's nice for a change to hear these vendors complain about overwork and exhaustion instead of lost revenue and foreclosure.

Con: New York Prices for Food Snobs
Dan put it well, "Being poor is cheap here but being middle class is really expensive." The most common grocery stores in Chattanooga are Bi-Lo (the name really says it all) and Food Lion, which some clever online person referred to as "The Shitty Kitty".
These stores are sucky and gross, but cheap. Then there are a couple Publix, which is touted as some great option, but it's really just a Kroger with a superiority complex. Their meat is conventionally weird and questionable, but also expensive. Organic options are few and very pricey. They don't offer many local options, either. And then, there's Greenlife. Greenlife is the place where you can buy anything organic and some (but not many) things local... if you're okay with never owning property or having children. In all of Ann Arbor, there is no grocery store as expensive as Greenlife. And get this - Whole Foods recently purchased Greenlife, which means that some of their prices will actually be lowered. Excuse me?! This is insanity. When we were nearly charged $14 for five heirloom tomatoes, Dan and I made a pact that we will never shop for produce at Greenlife again. Fortunately, there are some great farmer's markets and a pretty good Mexican grocery store nearby. I'm trying to narrow our grocery shopping to two or three locations but it's going to take a lot of strategy and research to make it work year round.

Pro: Simple Social Skills Abound
When you make eye contact with a passing driver, they wave. If you see someone walking toward you on the sidewalk, they smile and maybe say, "Hello". People start conversations with, "How are you, today?" and end with, "Have a nice day." I like these little niceties. It helps a shy person like me get acclimated to a strange new place. The thing I miss most about Michigan is talking with my friends. Granted, most of these everyday interactions I've had in Chattanooga pass without any real discussion, but it's still nice to have those social moments. They're sort of likes conversational appetizers, and sometimes those lead to a main course.

*Yes, we made friends! We're very excited.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Work Sweet Work

I had an encouraging experience on Friday afternoon. I was walking down Main Street and heard someone shout, "Hey, Tara!" That hadn't happened to me yet in my new town.

It was my twenty one year old supervisor, who I'll call Gabe. Gabe was standing on the deck of the taco shop, a cold beer in hand.

"Hey, beer - nice!" I said. It was around 2pm.

"Yeah, I need it. This morning sucked. Phil didn't show up."

"Who's Phil?"

"He's the new kitchen guy. Now I have to cover for him tonight, and I had plans, too."

"Aw, that sucks."

"Yeah, but it's just part of the new job." Gabe became a manager last week. "At least I have this beer to calm my nerves."

"That's good. Enjoy it! I'll see you tomorrow."

Ah, to be twenty one and the boss. I remember those days. At that time, I probably wouldn't have guessed that I would be doing that same kind of work at age thirty three and if I had, I might have found that very depressing. But I'm not depressed now. For several reasons, this new job has brought me great relief.

For one thing, it gives me something to do with my day. I've suffered bouts of unemployment before (I think the maximum length was just shy of three months) and while I won't pretend I didn't enjoy the ample free time, I missed the structured days and, of course, the money. I used to think that I would be happy to be unemployed if money were no concern. Well, now that Dan has a full-time teaching gig, I'm as close to that reality as I've ever been but still I felt the need to get a job asap. The brutal southern heat combined with my natural shyness made it too easy for me to stay indoors all day and just wait for Dan to come home. I was getting bored and weekends just weren't feeling like weekends.

So, I got myself a job. This is as good a time as any to note that I barely ever blog about work, for a few reasons: 1) it isn't that interesting (and if it is, that's usually a good sign that I should be looking for a job elsewhere); 2) it clashes with my sense of professionalism - I rarely gossip at work because it usually leads to trouble, and that's the same reason I don't do work gossip on my blog; 3) the obvious one - I don't know who reads this. But, for the sake of sharing my new life with whatever readers I have, I'm going to disguise and describe my new workplace, which requires that I tell you a bit about my old one.

I used to work in the catering department of a nationally renowned deli that I'll call Foodie Deluxe. FD is famous for its towering sandwiches made with tasty breads from its sister company, Foodie Deluxe Bakehouse. Before I left Michigan, I did my research and learned that an FDB alum had started his own bakery in Chattanooga. That bakery happens to sit around the corner from my apartment and after we moved in, I started heading over there every day for a cup of coffee and free wifi. When I noticed that they had a retail sales position open, I made sure to put "Foodie Deluxe" in big print on the application.

It worked. I interviewed with the owner right after he returned from vacation. By the first day of my third week in town, I was selling bread and slinging coffee. I quickly learned that I shouldn't mention my FD background to my new coworkers, because I got this reaction - "Oh, you worked at Foodie Deluxe." Eye roll. "Well, the owner must loooove you." After hearing that a couple times, my story was simply that I had worked for a catering company in Michigan.

Really, other than the fact that I'm working with artisan breads, this job has almost nothing in common with the last one. I'm on my feet all day instead of sitting at a desk, which I definitely prefer (though I am starting to feel my age). The hourly pay is lower (boo) but I make cash tips (yay!). The two biggest differences are the level of organization and the customer service dynamics. Foodie Deluxe was big on customer service, which I loved. They claim (and I actually think it's true), that providing great service is as important as serving great food and making money. Too often, service workers are made to feel that their work isn't "real" work and I liked having a job that dignified customer service. Plus, the company did a good job of making it easy to provide great service by being highly systematized and allowing their employees to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy. I didn't have to ask my manager if I could give the customer a refund, I could just use my own judgment.

In my current job, I feel like I can make similar judgment calls and it's such a small business that it's easy for me to find a manager or supervisor who can deal with an unhappy customer. At the same time, because it is a small, up-and-coming business, I don't feel quite as comfortable giving refunds and band-aid cookies because cash is tighter.

In addition to that, there are almost no documented systems for anything, whether it's "how to give a refund" or instructions on cleaning the espresso machine. Fortunately, I've had enough restaurant/barista/food service jobs that I know the right questions to ask. But I have to admit that it was a little freaky for me at first. My northern sense of efficiency makes me nervous and leads me to frequently wonder if I'm doing my job right, or in the smartest possible way. In my experience, efficacy is as important as accuracy. I'm from the birthplace of the assembly line. I had a boss in Detroit who would berate me if I didn't pour coffee, bus tables and wipe counters in as few steps as possible. I keep expecting a customer to yell at me because they had to wait ten minutes for their sandwich when there were only a few other people in the dining room.

But, guess what? That doesn't happen! In the three weeks I've been working at the bakery, I have not seen a single customer yell at anyone. One man calmly asked for a refund after he waited half and hour for his sandwich and was told that we had run out of that type of bread. He simply said, "This is not right," and my supervisor said, "I'm sorry," and that was that. Yes, southerners are much nicer than people up north. When I was trying to figure out the credit card machine on my first day, I explained to the customer that I was a newbie and she said, "Oh, I thought you'd been here a week, at least!" before sticking a buck in the tip jar. Another woman cheered for me when I bused her table. I've never had a new job where the customers were so encouraging of my development! Honestly (and I've never felt this before) interacting with customers is one of my favorite things about this job.

But my coworkers are cool, too. Everyone I've worked with so far has been pretty friendly and helpful. I don't know if I'll make pals at this place, but I find even work-related social interactions uplifting. Starting over in a new town is exciting but lonely. Sometimes it just feels really good to here someone call your name as you're walking down the street.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Place that W Could Call Home

On our sixth day in Chattanooga, Dan called me from work to see if I would join him for lunch at Porkers, a restaurant about a mile from our house. Dan had noted three key details about Porkers during his solo visit to Chatt in mid-July, but only one stuck in my mind – exceptionally yummy barbecue. Therefore, I was game. I remembered the other, less flattering details after I got to the restaurant – a creepy, racist caricature of a black child eating watermelon and the fact that George W Bush had visited Porker’s while he was in office. The racist painting was it’s own reminder but it was the snapshots of GWB behind the cashier stand that refreshed that detail for me.

Those photos blew my mind. I actually thought the owners had hired a very convincing Bush impersonator to pose with staff members because those candid shots portrayed a man who looked relaxed and happy. The George W Bush I remembered looked more like this –

This photo depicts the occasion when President Bush awarded the National Medal of Arts to the late Louis Auchincloss, who happens to be one of my favorite writers. Note the awkward stance and the apish, dangling arms on our former leader. Remember when Bush bragged about not reading newspapers? I wonder how he felt about books. I also wonder if he had any idea who Auchincloss was. To be fair, most Americans don’t, but Bush might. Louis Auchincloss was both a chronicler and member of that privileged echelon of wealthy east coasters who rule the world, just like those Bushes. He went to prep school and then Yale, just like those Bushes. He also referred to them in a Financial Times interview as, "a big family of shits," so perhaps they weren't close. Nevertheless, there was a familiarity between the Auchinclosses and the Bushes. On some level, they were each others "people," but you would never know it from this photo.

But if I could just show you those Porker’s photos, you would know see that everyday Chattanoogans are Bush’s real people. And that's just one of the many reasons that being here feels so strange, but that isn't my point. The point is that I have never seen an image of GWB looking so thoroughly peaceful and content. This was the best one I could find online. You can see that he’s having a good time –

- It’s from the White House website, so of course it is quite becoming. It isn’t that the ones on the wall at Porker’s are unbecoming, but they’re way more goofy and fun-filled – Bush posing with a couple of waitresses, his arms chummily hanging over their shoulders, a giant grin on his face; a wide-eyed Bush gawking at a pile of ribs; Bush crouching behind a pair of confused-looking old people. These are the equivalent of your Facebook photos, frozen moments when you were at your best and having a funky good time. But, they’re not the kind of pictures you would post on your professional website or, if you’re a former U.S. President, include in your memoirs. So, sadly you’ll probably never see these pictures online or in a book. You’ll just have to come to Chattanooga to see what Bush looked like when he was happy.

It makes me wonder what other presidents look like when they are in their happiest, most fitting element. I imagine Obama talking sports with another brainy intellectual type and Bill Clinton lounging at a bordello crossed with a McDonald’s, if such a thing exists. All W needs is some sweet tea, a pulled pork platter and some friendly southerners who don’t make him feel like a dummy.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Feelings About My New Home

It’s so hot here. All I can do is accept that the extreme heat is going to turn my accustomed lifestyle upside down. I mean, it’s REALLY hot, even for this region. The average high temperature this time of year is 90 but we’re closer to the 100 degree mark and the humidity makes it feel way hotter. Stepping outside just long enough to get to the car and cool off its insides absolutely knocks me out. If I do that a few times in the middle of the day, I need an hour nap to regain my energy. I don’t have a job yet, so I’m free to follow that schedule but it’s a strange thing. Mandatory naps have never been a part of my adult habit.

Yet this seems fitting for my current phase of existence. In the spirit of a chosen new life, I’m trying to do everything a little differently. This change in attitude began with the move itself. Having once possessed very little (including a sense of patience with myself) I used to approach moves in a very hurried and disorganized fashion. But since Dan and I together have accumulated about 10 times more possessions than I ever owned by myself, and seeing as I had no other occupation, I decided that for this move I would indulge my obsessively organized inner librarian. I packed dishes, CDs, LPs and books in the precise order in which I wanted to unload them. I designated boxes we never need to open (you know, the sentimental stuff you can’t bear to throw away but hardly ever view). My last unpacking task will be creating a screened hiding spot in the corner of our loft-like space where all those boxes can live as long as we are living here.

This organized planning has made the unpacking process actually enjoyable. I can spend more time thinking how I will fit this stuff into our unusual living space. Our apartment is half of a refurbished auto shop. The front wall is a 12 paneled glass and steel garage door. The outside walls are painted cinder blocks. The space is divided into two giant rooms. The front room features an industrial kitchen – it’s my new favorite toy, with its ample counter space and enormous sink (cooking soup stock will no longer be a logistical nightmare!) I also love the poured concrete floors throughout. It doesn’t matter if you splash outside of the shower or spill a cup of water, it all just soaks into the floor. This apartment is a funky space, but it’s also well built, surprisingly practical and (thankfully!) centrally cooled. It’s a pretty fun place to while away a long, sultry afternoon.

It’s a good thing that I like home so much because the midday heat and a sense of social awkwardness keep me there often. I know that I must fight the urge to remain a hermit, but again I am trying to be patient with myself and take on this new life at a comfortable pace. The thing is, I really do stick out in Chattanooga. It isn’t just my accent or my untanned northern white flesh. Cotton clad, short-haired women who don’t wear makeup are pretty uncommon in these parts. I don’t feel compelled to transform myself, but not since high school have I felt so different from everyone around me. And for someone like me, who is apt to gladly melt into social invisibility, this sense of difference is a little startling. My goal is to have fun with it. My social experiences so far have shown me that most people here are outwardly friendly and polite, which makes it easier, though I have caught a couple people staring at me. I just smile back at them.

Nevertheless, I do admit that I love having so much alone time at the house because I get to enjoy the vast media library that I so dutifully packed, hauled and unpacked. We own six milk crates of vinyl that we neglected when we had cable TV in the spring and early summer. Since we have no need for cable now (our digital antenna gets excellent reception) and we won’t get internet hooked up for almost three weeks, I have a new interest in our fantastic album collection. We have a vintage record store display rack that we use to hold our current favorites, and in the spirit of a new life, I have made myself refile the old favorites and bring out some new ones. It’s been fun. I’ve been listening to a lot of 80s British stuff like Aztec Camera and Style Council, as well as singer-songwriter-y fare from the mid 70s, like Paul Simon and Todd Rundgren. Now that I think of it, it’s the stuff that Dan probably doesn’t want to hear. Yeah, being alone in our new home is not yet boring.

Oh, and that digital antenna has reintroduced me to the wonder of RTV, the Retro Television Network. Before we got cable, I found many hours of solace on a harsh winter’s night watching reruns of “Simon and Simon” and (cringe) “Matlock” on channel 007-02. I know that RTV is included with some cable packages, but we didn’t get it with AT&T U-verse and somehow it seems way more appropriate as an antenna-only network. The RTV lineup includes shows I totally forgot – like “Simon and Simon”, “I Spy” and “Kate and Allie” – along with some genuinely good shows – like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” – and adds to it a lot of weird ass shit that I never knew – like the short-lived 1960s comic western “Laredo”, which I LOVE. Interestingly, RTV is based in Chattanooga and of course I have fantasies about being their chief programmer (first order of business – acquire Martin Mull’s 1970’s mock talk show “Fernwood 2Night”), but in the meantime, I’m having fun enjoying their bizarre lineup. Again, it’s something different.

This introduction to my new home is not what I imagined. I thought of myself wandering the neighborhood, checking out the local businesses, but that’s tricky in this dangerous heat. At least I can take advantage of the short distance between our place and Niedlov’s bakery, with it’s speedy wireless internet. Perhaps today I will wander a bit further down the road to Market Street and look at some of the boutiques. It may be worth an afternoon nap to see what else my new town has to offer, and today I am in the mood to do something (there's that word again) different.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

At the Start of My Last Week in Michigan

We were supposed to leave on Tuesday the 27th, but it looks like it will be Wednesday instead. So now begins my last week in Michigan. Usually at these turning points - leaving a job, saying goodbye to friends, moving - I get caught up in a lot of sentimental reflection, like one of those corny flashback montages at the end of a TV series. But this change is so BIG, encompassing all three of those aforementioned shifts (and so many more), that I don't have time for my usual sap. That's probably a good thing. But I do have a couple of quiet minutes at the top of the day, so I thought I would jot down a few observations about getting ready for the grand exodus.

Nothing has ever made me so popular as moving. Getting married came close. I remember that warm feeling at my wedding, when I got to see some of my closest friends and family meet each other and celebrate on my behalf... that was pretty fantastic. Amazingly, I've been feeling that same warmth almost every day for the last month. Particularly since the start of July, my free time has consisted of a nearly non-stop parade of friend visits and a series of fun local adventures. By the time we leave town, I think I will be able to say that I saw every person I needed to see. But more than that, I've had the pleasure of spending more time with those whose company I probably should have enjoyed more often - really cool coworkers and friends that I took for granted because they live nearby. Of course, this can lead to a sense of regret, which will probably hit me after I've been in Chattanooga a couple weeks. But really, I'm not big on regrets. I knew that I had a limited window to hang out with all of these wonderful people and I made the most of it. I'm even a little proud of myself.

I've been having good luck with timely reunions. In the past two weeks, I've been able to hang with my two oldest friends (meaning those I've known the longest - M and S, you know who you are), as well as their lovely spouses and Dan's best friend from high school, J. In a weird way, I feel like old friends are inherited through marriage, so if you add it all up I got to hang with five buddies from way back, none of whom live in Michigan. In addition to that, my mom is hosting a family reunion this weekend during which I will be able to see five of my six siblings. That's one of the many reasons I'm feeling lucky.

Packing is way better when you don't have anything else to do. My last day of work was on Friday, so my only job right now is to visit with friends and pack. What luxury! The last time I moved when I wasn't working was when I left home at age 20, and back then I had barely enough stuff to fill half a bedroom (also I was moving from Dearborn to Ann Arbor, a distance only 1/15 of my upcoming journey). I don't have that combined sense of panic, frustration and exhaustion. Not yet, anyway. I'm able to approach packing in an organized fashion, which appeals to the obsessive librarian in me. I hesitate to say... it's kind of fun. I'm excited for this morning's project - watching DVD reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation while I clean out the closet!

I'm guessing the next time we move will be in Chattanooga, from our new apartment to a house, but who can say what the future holds? I can't imagine moving to the west coast - I would just want to throw everything away and start over, rather than pack and haul it all. As it is, I can't believe all the shit we've accumulated in this one bedroom apartment. I used to take pride in the art of the three carload move (I used to not need more than that) and look at me now! I'm starting to worry about fitting all this into a ten foot truck. I don't know how people do this with kids, but they do and we will, too, if need be. I guess the point I'm getting at is that I suspect I'm enjoying certain luxuries that won't be available next time around. And I can definitely say that I won't be sharing that last week with the same set of fascinating people. That's why I'm trying to enjoy it while it lasts. There's simply no time for the montage.