Friday, January 29, 2010

Accepting Winter's Limitations

My friend S. came up with a very smart new year's resolution last year. She told me that she was going to be at peace with winter's limitations, and that's been my cold weather mantra ever since.

I think the most important change that came out of this philosophy is that I now allow myself both ample time for donning layers and the freedom to look like a complete freak. I don't care how unsexy my blue marshmallow coat, two scarves, baggy jeans and long underwear are. When the temperature drops below 15 degrees, I have no concern for fashion. I'm stunned by the number of hatless people I see walking around in unzipped jackets. They all look miserable, trying to fool themselves that winter can't overpower their day-to-day habits or their style. But the cold will get the best of them and mess with with their minds and spirits. I honestly believe the most important key to beating winter depression is to accept that looking dorky is way better than freezing.

But I figured out a couple of other things, too. Like yesterday, I was contemplating what it would be like to be a bear and hibernate. What if Dan and I gathered a bunch of food, stayed in, and just ate and slept all the time? Then I realized, that's exactly what I do when it's this cold outside, which inevitably leads to me feeling like a loser (as a bear probably does not). But so what if I don't go out as much in the winter? I'm saving money and at least half of the time I'm doing something creative like writing or cooking. I admit, when it's this numbingly cold I get into regrettable, low brainwave habits like watching "Matlock" reruns via the digital antenna (and even looking forward to it) or obsessively composing Youtube music video playlists. Yet I know I'll shed those lamer pastimes along with the unsexy layers once the weather gets better. In the meantime, here in the middle of winter, my brain is just not peppy enough to do it's usual batch of thinking so I seek simple, mindless activities.

Accepting that winter limits my brain power hasn't been easy. I get really frustrated when I make little mistakes at work, which happened a lot this week. But there's nothing to be done about it. I take some comfort in the fact that everyone is a little stupider these days, so I'm not facing a unique disadvantage. I like to pretend we're all drunk or drugged, like one of those Star Trek episodes where an alien force infects the ship and all the crew members get loopy and have sex. All I'm saying is that I think there are some good laughs to he had out the situation.

So that's how I'm keeping myself afloat on these single digit days. I'm also going to the gym more often. In fact, I need to go so I can assemble my skin-covering mosaic of workout layers. I think I'm going to go for the look Dan describes as "homeless track star". After all, if there's any place where I always feel comfortable looking like a complete freak, it's the gym.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Babies on the March

In the spring of 2005, all of my friends started getting married. Prior to that I had been to two friend weddings. Since then I've gone to nine (including my own) and missed at least four. I anticipate being invited to three weddings this year alone.

It's funny being in a mental space where marriage is the norm. Up until five years ago, I'd had serious doubts about my ability to find someone I would want to marry. That's probably because I was living in Ann Arbor, which is a horrible, horrible place for dating when you are in your late twenties or older. It seemed like every guy in my age group who wasn't a grad student (generally speaking, a pretty insular crowd) was a drunk, or both. I'd gone on some dumb dates and been in even dumber relationships. On the eve of my thirties, I was losing heart, fast. But then I started noticing the things I liked about my married friends' relationships, which helped me figure out what I wanted. At the same time, I also realized that most of the couples I knew had met each other through friends. And just as if my prayers had been answered, my friend T reintroduced me to his then single friend Dan (incidentally, T is one of my friends who is getting married this year).

It's as if marriage is contagious among my friends. Now there's a new contagion - babies. In the beginning of 2009, I had no friends with babies. Then last summer, we spent a couple of days in the company of a very charming couple and their newborn baby, who I will call Charlie. Until then, I didn't know Charlie's mom and dad so well (dad's grandma and Dan's grandma are best friends) but they made a big impression on me. They're both such thoroughly mature and hardy individuals, and they're only in their early twenties. Charlie, their robust offspring, showed great spirit and muscular ability. He was already rolling himself over at less than four months. Knowing so little about him or his parents, it was obvious to me that he had inherited their mettle. That fascinated me. The prospect of watching him age was so exciting. I think that was the first time I sensed the raw adventure of parenthood.

And now, at the beginning of 2010, I have three sets of friends who are having babies, including an adoption by one couple and twins for another! Helping my expectant friends is a major part of my itinerary for the next several months and honestly, I'm completely thrilled. I've never been a particularly altruistic person, but I'm genuinely excited to become a good baby assistant. I also appreciate the opportunity to get a little new mom training. After all, it won't be so long before Dan and I start trying for a little Rosebot of our own.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Conscientious Consumption - Girly Journals

I used to be a sucker for cute $17 journals, the kind that I would usually find at rich hippie boutiques in Ann Arbor. There would be some beautiful floral or paisley design on the cover and thick paper inside. For a short time I was obsessed with Moleskine journals, with their ultra-pretentious "Van Gogh, Matisse and Hemingway bought these, so you should too" marketing; obviously it totally worked on me. But at some point (probably when I was unemployed), I figured out that $17 is a ridiculous amount of money for me to spend on paper.

I used to find simple, pretty, cloth bound note pads at the old Afterwords on Main St. (R.I.P.) for four or five bucks. But when Afterwords bit the dust, I caved in and started going to Borders.

I hate shopping at Borders, especially in the girly journal section. I swear it's the biggest section of the whole store, with its stacks upon stacks of vaguely pro-lady themed blank books with dumb phrases like "Give me chocolate or give me death" written on the covers. As a woman, I feel insulted by that assault of bad taste.

So I got really excited when I finally noticed the stock of $3 journals right next to the Liberty St. store's front door. It's as if they're marketing directly to obsessive journal writers who hate shopping there. And though these journals are not the least bit pretty, they do have nice thick covers and a good shape that fits into many purses. And they're only $3! I have diligently filled at least a dozen of these in the last few years.

I was in need of a new journal last week and ran into the Borders at Arborland to grab one. I never shop at that Borders and was disappointed that they didn't have my cheapo book at the front door. I scrunched up my shoulders, marched toward the girly journals and suddenly realized why I always get that yucky Bed, Bath and Beyond feeling whenever I shop in that section - almost all of the products are made in China. Or Vietnam. Or in some other place where people get paid way less than $1 an hour to make journals, so that I can procure it at a rate very cheap to me.

I've decided that I don't need girly journals anymore. I've become an astute money manager and I love a thrifty bargain, but not when it's contributing to this fucked up economy in which others slave to create our cheap playthings. So I decided to go to buy a notepad at a drug store.

Of course, I ran into the exact same problem. I couldn't find any notebooks that said "Made in the USA". But then I found a Mead 5-Star notebook that didn't say "Made in Vietnam". It didn't say anything about where it was made. I decided to take a chance.

I emailed Mead to find out where that particular notebook was made and I'm very happy to say that it was made in the U.S. So there you have it. I finally found a $5 journal that was made in this country. The paper quality isn't that great. It's too big to fit in a purse, but since I treat the bus like my office, I'm more apt to carry a book bag anyway. It works for now. I'm sure I could find something much prettier and pricier that was also produced outside of a sweatshop. And maybe when I have more money I will allow myself that luxury. In the meantime, I'm just glad that I was able to reconcile my frugality and my habit with my desire to avoid sweatshop merchandise.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why I Have Grudgingly Returned to Facebook

It happened on Thursday, after a really emotionally draining day at work. I called my best friend from high school to see how he and his wife are doing (they are having twins this Spring). He was understandably tired and distracted, and couldn't remember when we last spoke. He wasn't sure if he had told me about some of the health issues he and his wife had been facing. And then he said the all too familiar phrase, "Oh, yeah. You're not on Facebook."

Fine. I give up. If this is the only way I get to know stuff about my favorite people, then I guess I will have to suffer knowing too much about people who are less important to me. I have returned to Facebook.

So far, I have been really excited to reconnect with my friends and family about all their news, both mundane and exciting. I can report those things to Dan (he has also refused to rejoin; I'm taking one for the team). I like seeing how lost friends are doing, and photos of their respective spouses and children. Perhaps I will even see some of them again in real life.

As far as dislikes go, I've already listed most of those in a previous posting. I will add that I now find the mechanics perplexing, but I'm sure I will figure out how to post photos eventually. I've been more savvy in controlling the settings. I don't care who sees my profile, but I set it up so I don't get any email notifications about stuff happening on my account. I'm trying to allot a certain portion of my day for this activity.

The one thing that really upsets me about Facebook, which I haven't touched on previously, is that it makes me feel incredibly lonely. I'm not sure why that is. I like to think there is some way I can manage it so that I don't feel that way, but if the feeling persists, I may have to withdraw, again. But for the sake of knowing what's happening to the people I love, I will give it a shot for now.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Going Back to Dearborn

For most of the 16 years that I lived there, I couldn't wait to get out of Dearborn, for a few reasons

1) It was boring and unattractive, a typical outer ring Detroit suburb. It was more urban than today's McMansion-filled sprawl in that I could walk to local businesses. I would have preferred either a real city or a more bucolic country setting, but I came of age in acres of post-war housing and used car lots, instead.

2) The people could be so hateful. When my family moved to the east end of Dearborn in 1981, most of our neighbors were white, elderly, long-term residents who were obsessed with maintaining their front lawns. They didn't like having a bunch of kids around and they definitely didn't like seeing a lot of Arab American families moving into the neighborhood. These were the same people who had proudly kept segregationist Orville Hubbard as their mayor for 36 years. After he died and Dearborn began to get way less white, the 80's got to be a very ugly time in my town. The statement "I'm not racist, I just hate Ay-rabs" was commonly spoken among all the white people I knew. Fortunately, my mother raised me well enough to know that that's completely fucked up.

3) Unfortunately, my parents had also raised me to believe that life was immeasurably better in our previous home, that mod and marvelous metropolis known as... Buffalo, New York.

It makes sense in hindsight. United Airlines laid off my father in '81. His best option was to take a much lower paying job with the company and move the family to Dearborn. In Buffalo, my parents owned a bigger home in a neighborhood they loved, where they could afford to send their kids to the Catholic school down the street. Life in Dearborn meant a bungalow for eight (which turned to nine when my little brother came along), neighbors we never really knew and public schools. So even though I had the vaguest recollections of life in Buffalo - and by my siblings' accounts, it was not such a great place for kids - I grew up thinking that we had a golden life there, and that Dearborn was more like stainless steel.

At age twenty, I left Dearborn to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Turned out that I hated UM, but much was happier living in Ann Arbor. I stayed there for nine years before moving in with Dan in Detroit. By that point, I had long tired of Ann Arbor, and though it had once seemed like a much superior alternative to Dearborn, it never felt like home to me. So when economic realities convinced us to move back to Washtenaw County, we chose Ypsilanti over Ann Arbor.

I love Ypsi. It's the only town that makes me consider staying in Michigan after Dan completes his doctorate. It combines the down-to-earth, working class sensibility I associate with Wayne County, with the more progressive values and verdant landscapes I associate with the Ann Arbor area.

But I also like that Ypsi living puts me closer to Dearborn, not just geographically, but psychologically, too. Ann Arbor is its own planet, a polished little bubble. It has its charms, but it isn't for me. Detroit, conversely, is a cold bucket of reality thrown in your face - at times disturbing, but also refreshing. Places like Dearborn and Ypsi are somewhere in between, both being former industrial hotspots that have managed to hang on despite a long series of economic blows. And geographically, the two towns are just a half hour distance along Michigan Avenue, a road that has been just around the corner of four residences and 20 years of my life. I guess that's why I have this sense of coming full circle.

Last Spring, my mother bought a house in Dearborn Heights. Between that and some intense cravings for middle eastern food, Dan and I have been spending a lot more time in Dearborn. I'm really happy to say that Dearborn has changed.

I can't help smirking as I write. "Dearborn has changed" used to be code for "There are too many brown people in this town". Here's an example, overheard at Dexter's Pub in 2003 - "We used to live in Dearborn and it was so wonderful. They had the best city services, but that old neighborhood just isn't what it used to be. Dearborn's changed". I nearly tore my hair out when I heard that. It was an affirmation of everything I was so eager to leave behind.

I'm sure that many people say it still, especially those who felt compelled to move away. But the sentiment seems much different among those who chose to stay. When I talk to people who live in Dearborn now, they seem proud of their integrated community. There's a lot to be said for living with people who don't look like you. I remember the preppy white girls at Fordson high school shrieking "Kiss emick!" (Arabic for "Your mother's vagina") the way other white girls scream "Oh my god!" Many of those girls' parents would never let them date an Arab boy, but I'm guessing the grandkids won't be so tightly guarded. That's a good thing.

Another major positive development in Dearborn - black people now live there. That definitely didn't happen when I was a kid. I remember there being a black kid in school twice, on different occasions, but their families didn't stay for long. The city government and cops were notoriously racist (the common code amongst the white residents was "people from Detroit" as in "The City had to cancel the annual Fourth of July Fireworks Festival because too many people from Detroit were coming to it"). Well, I happen to know that there are lots of black people now living in Dearborn. On our last visit to our favorite middle eastern restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised to see several white, black and Arab American families dining, as well as some Dearborn cops. That combination of people peacefully sharing a public space simply didn't happen in 1987.

So I'm feeling way more comfortable in Dearborn these days, but I have to admit that my change in attitude is largely personal. So many of my unhappy childhood memories have to do with my family and the house where I grew up. I guess I took all that bad feeling and stretched it to the city limits, because I used to have nightmares about moving back to Dearborn. I decided that I will never go back to that house (my sister still lives there) and now that my mom has her own place, it's very easy for me to stick to that resolution. I guess that's cured me of my bad attitude toward Dearborn.

I also figured out that my parents' nostalgia for the old life in Buffalo put a spell on me. Funny how those childhood influences can taint your adult perspective, because honestly, I had long felt like a failure for not having left Michigan. I'm ecstatic that I broke free of that mindset.

I still see Dearborn for its history of racism and general intolerance, and though wouldn't care to return to it, I no longer scoff at anyone for wanting to live there. I also feel a pleasant sort of pride and, yes, nostalgia when I return. I choose to not live there, but I no longer have nightmares about it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Notes to Myself for the Next Holiday Season

Dear Tara,

Congratulations! You didn't drive yourself completely insane this holiday season. In fact, it was one of the best ever. I guess Christmastime 2008 was a great model of what not to do. For instance, don't try to force the sense of festivity by buying a tree a week before Christmas, when it's so cold outside that your brain shuts down and you find yourself knee deep in a strip mall snow drift, clinging a pathetic, lopsided, dead evergreen, shouting, "This one, Dan! This is the one!" When you found yourself tree-less a week before Christmas 2009, you just decided to forgo the tree. Well done.

In fact, when you look back at what made this Hanukkah/Christmas season so wonderful, it was the usual combination of choice company and scrumptious food. Yes, there were some excellent gifts, but the best part was the time spent with family and friends in the presence of meatballs, cheese, cookies, candy and the best latkes you've ever eaten. That's what you'll remember next year.

So here's a reminder of the things you won't remember, hints on how to perfect that formula for another relaxing holiday time in '10

Nix the Gifts They say that giving is better than receiving. Well, you enjoy receiving as much as any hourly wage earner, but you'd gladly take nothing if you could give the same. There's a good chance that you'll be living far away from friends and family next Christmas and you have to admit to looking forward to the possibility of a lighter gift exchange, or none at all.

But then, I know you well enough to anticipate a sentimental tug in the first or second week of December. You'll think, "What's Christmas without gift giving?" and then you'll start a list. Ten minutes later, you'll be popping Tums in your mouth, wondering how you'll pay for all those gifts or when you'll find the time to shop. Sometime in the following 24-36 hours, you'll have an emotional breakdown, on the couch or in your bed, wondering if you really will be poor for the rest of your life.

Fortunately, that breakdown happened only once this December. Let's aim for zero in 2010. If you feel you must give something, find an alternative to traditional gifts. You could donate money to charity on behalf of others, but there's something sanctimonious in that practice (it isn't as if you give tons to charity any other time of year). Also, a piece of paper that says "So and so made a donation to such and such in YOUR NAME!" just isn't that inspiring. Who cares? The nameholder knows they didn't do anything.

Ah, but remember your boss told you about Kiva! You can buy gift certificates at their website, which the recipient can use to loan money to an entrepreneur in a third world country. When the business owner pays your giftee back, they can loan it to another person. Now there's a charitable donation that's fun and inspiring, and not apt to lead to self-pitying moments that involve you curling into a fetal position.

Hey, speaking of your relative wealth (and paraphrasing Tom Petty) You Don't Have to Eat Like a Refugee That need to shove every visible food morsel in your mouth must be a throwback to those late '80's days when all seven McComb kids were living in the Dearborn bungalow and sometimes there was little more than a couple cans of Spaghetti-os and a tray of Brown and Serve Rolls in the kitchen. When Dad's payday came along and there was bounty, you gorged because you could. Since the holidays are an endless parade of gustatory opportunities, some part of you wants to celebrate by eating constantly.

That's cool. Seriously, why fight the urge? You don't mind gaining a few pounds. But you did mind the unusual acne and that too frequent nasty aftertaste in your mouth. That wasn't from overeating. That was from eating crap food.

Don't eat the crap food. Don't buy the advent calendar with the shitty chocolate. Don't eat the high-fructose garbage that people leave at work. Don't eat from the Sysco deli tray. If you wouldn't eat it any other time of year, don't feel like you need to eat it just because the calendar says it's Christmastime.

Do Have a Party If you are lucky enough to be near loved ones next December, have a celebration. Last week's New Year's Eve party was the first one you and Dan threw since you got married a year and a half ago. Yeah, the wedding was more than enough party planning for a good long time, but now you wish you hadn't waited so long. You and Dan are a great entertaining duo! He bakes the sweets and you cook the savories. He sets up the sound system and you arrange the table. You both pick the music and the company. The rest of it takes care of itself. All your friends get along so well. In fact, you should make a point of doing this a few times before the next holiday season. Why wait?

Other than that, I think you have the rest figured out. You can tell by the short list of regrets and the enormous excitement you're feeling at the start of this new year. Let it carry you through the snow covered season ahead

Your Pal,