Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Ever since the day when locals were actually excited about Kwame Kilpatrick being America's first "hip hop mayor", the question on everyone's lips has been, "Is Detroit coming back?" Amazingly, even with all the political scandals, and the nearly 30% unemployment rate, and the poor performing sports teams, the haters cannot overcome those who envision a brighter future for the D. So the debate continues. But I say, to hell with the question. What would "coming back" constitute anyway? A return to the 1950's? The 1920's? The 1730's? What's the great ideal and when do we call it a win?

The thing is, I like Detroit right now. I'm not denying that it's a really hard place to live, or that I sometimes feel scared or uncomfortable being there. But it has very unique charms, including some of the friendliest people in the region. And since I don't often bother engaging in arguments about Detroit, and I've more or less given up trying to convince white people that they shouldn't completely avoid the place, I'm going to show my appreciation for the city by telling an occasional story about some of my favorite moments spent there.

Not a Normal City

In the summer of 2007, Dan and I lived in a Victorian house in North Corktown. It was a pretty great location for walking or biking to midtown, downtown or the southwest neighborhoods (which I did often, always during daylight hours and it was only kind of scary once). One blazing Sunday afternoon, Dan laid in bed with an unfortunate hot weather head cold. There was no food in the house so I decided to ride my bike down to the Honeybee Market in Mexican town to pick up some groceries. I was looking for some specific ingredient - basil, or something - that couldn't be found there. With Dan laid up and knowing I had nothing better to do, I decided to bike over to the other good grocery store, Harbortown Market on East Jefferson. Having ridden there in a car on several occasions, I was confident that it wasn't too far a journey.

In actuality it wasn't (just four miles), but the thing about that stretch of East Jefferson is that there aren't any shade-providing trees or tall buildings. I rode by a lot of asphalt parking lots. There was nothing to protect me from the circa solstice sun. I was holding my Honeybee groceries in a backpack and I could feel the sweat dripping down and forming a little pool in the small of my back. By the time I got to Harbortown, I was embarrassed to take off the backpack and reveal the giant sweat stain on the back of my shirt, so I guess I wasn't too disappointed that they didn't have what I was looking for.

But as I was biking home, I started feeling a little thirsty. Not enough so that I was going to seek out a liquor store or gas station, disembark the bike, find a place to lock it, and reveal the giant sweat stain. As I pedaled toward downtown, I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be cool if I lived in a normal city with street vendors and I could just roll up on this bike and buy a juice?" I tried to imagine any occasion when I had seen that in Detroit, outside of a concert or festival. That sort of thing just doesn't exist.

I rode to Campus Martius, anyway, in the vain hope that someone had just decided to set up a cart in the middle of a downtown park. That is where that would happen, right? No luck, of course. But I was only a few minutes from home, where my Brita water pitcher awaited me.

Then, as I was rolling down Michigan Avenue toward Washington Boulevard, I heard some music and smelled grilled things. I followed the sound and smell and found a street party in front of St. Aloysius Church.

St. Aloysius is a flat faced funny looking parish squished between two office buildings. It's easy to miss unless you're standing on the street staring at it. It also happens to be the church where my parents got married. That being a pretty important step toward the existence of me, I guess I find St. Al's endearing.

It was especially endearing on that sunny evening. I saw a couple dozen folks lined up for burgers, dogs and Better Made potato chips. Others were chilling on folding chairs or sitting on the grassy part of the boulevard. There was a crowd of people doing the hustle to Stevie Wonder's "My Eyes Don't Cry" in a tent. Almost everyone appeared to be homeless, and the people were having a good old time! I parked my bike and wandered toward the beverage table. A white woman with a shaggy blond mullet rolled her eyes at the disco dancers as she poured cups of orange Faygo. "Come on people, the seventies are over!" she said. I asked her what was going on. "It's St. Al's annual street fair. We like to do this for the neighborhood. Everything's free. Help yourself to food and drink."

In my happy daze I stared at the church and muttered, "My parents got married here."

She stared at me. "Do you want something to drink? Get some food, too."

I settled for a bottle of juice, which is all I had really wanted. As I rolled the rest of the way home, I felt very pleased with the outcome of my journey.

Friday, March 19, 2010

People Acting Like Jerks for No Good Reason

Last Sunday, I decided to take my dog Dulce to the park. As we turned from our front walk to the sidewalk, I noticed a somewhat sketchy dude walking about 50 feet behind us. That's no big deal as I often see sketchy dudes walk by my place to get to the liquor store on the corner. But after we turned down Forest Street toward Frog Island, I noticed the same man behind us. As we were approaching the narrow part of the walkway that spans the bridge over the river, I slowed Dulce down and tried to interest her in a stinky pile of dirt so the guy could pass us. As he walked by, he muttered something to me. My initial reaction was to smile at him, because I figured he must have been commenting on Dulce's cuteness. After all, she looks like this ~

But once I glanced at his grumpy mug I was able to make out the exact words behind his bitter snarl. "Are you walking that dog or is he walking you?"

I can think of so many better ways to let a person know that they're in your way. "Excuse me" would have worked. Even the more abrupt "Could you please move?" would have been better than his snide comment.

A month ago, I would have been thoroughly desensitized to this nonsense, but then I went south to Nashville where I made the most pleasantly shocking discovery. The people there were polite to me all the time. Some were even downright friendly! At some point in the midst of my brief trip, I realized that not one person acted like a jerk for no good reason. Now that I'm back in Michigan, I have to say that dealing with this "no good reason" jerkiness is the hardest part of being here.

But who am I fooling? I'm not so obtuse as to believe that there's no good reason for the cloud of depression hanging above the mitten state these days. Honestly, this place is screwed. If you haven't lost your job and/or your house yet, then you probably know at least five other people who have. And it isn't going to get better any time soon. I think our best hope is my friend S's theory that global warming will make this an agricultural hotspot in about 20 years (and judging by our recent good weather, and the much worse blizzard conditions in typically warmer states this winter, she may be onto something). What else do we have?

I used to think that if I had a perfectly stable source of income, I would want to buy a house and stay here for good. I've made a lot of wonderful friends here and I think this is a beautiful place. But I'm done, y'all. Living here has become a severe bummer trip and it's killing my spirit. I've become especially disheartened since I noticed that a sweetly springy four-day heatwave hasn't overcome the general social grumpiness that I would have traditionally attributed to winter. If anything, it's just made everyone behave worse.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Egg and I

After our Mammoth Cave visit, Dan and I headed to Nashville for the rest of our vacation. Seeking an indoor activity on that last cool and rainy day, I faintly recalled reading about a botanical garden and art museum in town and then Dan found it online.

The Cheekwood Estate, built in the late 1920' and early thirties, is the former home of Maxwell House tycoons Leslie and Mabel Cheek (she the former Miss Wood). Their daughter Hulda inherited the estate and in 1957 donated it to the community for the purpose of creating a fine arts center. Cheekwood encompasses 55 acres and includes several gardens, a woodland sculpture trail, and a Museum of Art housed in the founders' mansion home.

Though we hoped for a greenhouse to cheer us on that dreary day, we learned shortly after our arrival that the public green spaces resided outdoors and that our time would be best spent in the Museum of Art. I was disappointed for the few moments before we climbed the stony summit to the front drive that wove a half circle in front of the mansion. Then I realized that I was about to enjoy one of my favorite activities, known as "Jane Austen time".

Jane Austen time can occur in any situation or place that makes me feel as if I'm living in one of her stories. It could be an event, like last summer's Pie Lovers Unite at the Ladies' Literary Club in Ypsi (which I reviewed in this blog). Or it could happen when I'm working with a self-important customer; I pretend that I'm dealing with Lady Catherine De Bourgh from "Pride and Prejudice" and that's how I stay sane. But my favorite instances of Jane Austen time occur in physical settings that remind me of Austen's world. More than any other place I've been, this Georgian style mansion made me feel like I was walking through the set of a BBC production of "Persuasion". Wandering from the grand dining room past the loggia to the west wing of the house, I could imagine the ladies and gentlemen on their divergent paths after supper - the men to the library for their cigars and the women to the parlor for their cards. As a museum, the space is wonderfully bare, allowing visitors to take in the lovely architectural details, like the arched doors and windows, or the curl of the sweeping staircase and it's balustrade. Staring out from the loggia to the rolling green fields below, I felt the closest I've ever felt to Mr. Darcy's Pemberley (Admittedly, I have a long way to go - these Cheeks weren't half as rich as Mr. Darcy).

To have enjoyed such authentic Jane Austen time would have been worth a great deal more than the price of admission, but it turned out that this also happened to be a fantastic museum of decorative arts, painting and sculpture. I can't say anything for the contemporary arts section in the stables as we missed that part, but the William Edmondson sculpture gallery blew me away.

According to the Cheekwood website,

William Edmondson (1874 - 1951) was the first African American artist to be featured in a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937. Edmondson was a stone carver, born to former slaves, who worked with a hand-made chisel on limestone block discarded from demolished buildings; inspired, he said, by religious visions, he did not start sculpting until he was about sixty years old.

When the Depression hit in 1929, Edmondson lost his job as a hospital orderly and began carving tombstones for the two African American cemeteries in Nashville, Mt. Ararat and Greenwood. Edmondson told the story of how God spoke to him. "I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone. I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make.

Edmondson carved the sculptures for his and his neighbors' gardens. I admit that these deceptively simple pieces struck me as no big deal initially, but I was utterly charmed by the end of my tour through the exhibit. All I can say is this guy had a really beautiful vision of god.

What could be the antithesis of Edmondson's humility and minimalism? A Faberge egg perhaps? There were three on display in the Museum's Faberge exhibit, just down the hall from the sculptures. That one little trinket filled room honestly changed my life. Talk about underestimating a big deal. I always thought Faberge eggs had to be the dumbest thing that humankind sold for tens of millions of dollars. An egg made of gaudily displayed jewels, are you kidding me?

I feel like a fool. Just like a Georgian estate, all I'd known of Faberge eggs were pictures, which don't tell you a thing. Staring at a Faberge egg is sort of like contemplating the cosmos. There's a universe of detail in those little eggs. You can understand the rise of Communism when you consider what the Russian Czars spent to commission these playthings, just by guessing the sheer monetary value of the jewels, not to mention the painstaking craftsmanship and two or so years of labor that went into a single egg.

Oh, and pains were taken, indeed. I commented to the very informative security guard, "I would go crazy making one of these things." He said, "Yeah, I meet a lot of Russian women who come here to see the eggs and they really know the history behind this stuff, and I ask them if those guys went crazy. They say to me, 'Oh sure, they went crazy, they went blind."

This man - I'll call him Nick (we never got his name) - had become a Faberge enthusiast. He was very knowledgeable of the entire exhibit. He helped me understand why the Faberge flowers were arguably more exquisite than the eggs; they took twice as long to make and every part was made of some precious material. The lilies of the valley, with their gold stems and pearl buds, laid upon gold spun grass. Diamond chips glistened at the end of each pearl.

The eggs were nevertheless my favorite, especially the Caucasus egg pictured in the left corner. Like so many of the eggs, it held a special treasure, a miniature folding screen. Each bejeweled frame held a tiny, intricate landscape painting. "Those are painted on mother of pearl," Nick noted.

I have to say, that as much as I was enchanted by the Faberge collection, I was impressed by Nick. I think he appreciated my attention and I learned much about him. He spent 28 years working security at Opryland USA before that shut down. I'm not sure how long he'd been working at Cheekwood, but he's been protecting the Faberge exhibit for the three and a half years it's been there. He told me a story that one of his Russian ladies had shared, about a woman on "Antiques Road Show" who had stumbled upon a Faberge craftsman's journal. Expecting a few thousand for her find, the woman almost passed out when she learned that each page was appraised at $100,000. But what I loved most about the story was Nick's preface, "I'd never watched 'Antiques Roadshow' - but I definitely do now...". To imagine this seemingly average burly man, trading tales with mysterious Russian women and developing a passion not only for Faberge but also antique culture at large, made me so happy. It reminded me what it's like to feel an enormous passion for that thing you do or encounter every day at work.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Darkest Dark You've Ever Seen

Yesterday, Dan and I took the Historic Tour at Mammoth Cave National Park in southern Kentucky. I have just discovered that a cave is a wonderful place for reflection, which is one of my favorite pastimes.

Also, caves quench my thirst for something I like to call organic architecture. There's probably a better name for it, but I can't think of what it us. Anyway, I love studying cities and the way their buildings come together to create spaces, and thinking about how those spaces make me feel (Chicago - tall and smart; Detroit - sad and free). But I also love studying natural environments and the way organic elements come together to form useful and beautiful spaces for humans to enjoy. A forest is my most familiar example. On a cool drizzly day in the early spring, all those slightly leafy branches shelter you from the rain while the tree trunks and limbs cut the wind. On a blazing hot summer day, the thick canopy blocks the light and makes a cooler space amongst the trees. A walk through the forest can be a respite from bad weather, a peaceful and lovely sanctuary. Just like a church or a temple, it's a wonderful space for reflection and meditation.

I had never before considered how a cave can also be a wonderful place for thinking and just being. The architectural aspect is obvious - caves have floors, walls and ceilings. The Mammoth Cave is all limestone, which humans use to construct buildings and roads. But there are certain details I didn't anticipate, details that make that particular portion of the Mammoth Cave perfectly serene. For instance, it is always 54 degrees inside the cave. According to Joe, our tour guide, that's the average sea level temperature for the state of Kentucky. On any day of the year, it will be 54 degrees inside that cave. Now that isn't my favorite temperature, but it's a highly anticipated temperature in Michigan this time of year. In the summer, it would be refreshingly cool. But I just can't get over the fact that it's always the same. With all of the weird weather people have experienced across the US these past several weeks, I find enormous comfort in the fact that Mammoth Cave will always be 54 degrees.

One of the great things about the part of the cave that we toured is that it is so often traveled that there are no creepy animals around. No bats, rats or salamanders. As Joe noted, those few animals who can survive in such a dark, cool space don't hang around when they hear people walking. He assured all of us that we were not likely to see even a bug during our journey. The fear hadn't even occurred to me - I figure that the most basic tour at a National Park would be pretty safe and that anything I could encounter wouldn't hurt me - but once he explained that to us, I started to see how nice it is to not worry about that stuff. I fear snakes. I've gotten better about it, but there were times when I would catch a little wiggle out of the corner of my eye and then find myself running through the woods before I had completely registered the wiggle as a snake. So it was really nice to explore the cave without risking a sudden flight reaction, which could conceivably lead to a head injury in those spots with the low ceilings.

Joe's chief warning was that we stick together. "Every once in a while - not often, but once in a while - the lights go out, and then I'll need to light lanterns. And trust me, if that happens, it's the darkest dark you'll ever see." Being the good little obedient ex-Catholic that I am, I stuck very close to Joe for most of the journey, but he was also just a fantastic tour guide (a job he's been doing on and off since the mid-1960's). He spoke frankly about the slaves who mined the caves for saltpeter, which was later used to make gunpowder, that was then sold to the US government during the War of 1812, thereby helping to preserve a freedom that slaves would not have until decades later. I also loved the tour stop known as The Church, a cavern where locals held prayer service during the mid-nineteenth century. Joe pointed to a rocky ledge high on the wall that served as a pulpit, and the dark soot where the lanterns had lit the preacher. But my favorite part of the tour followed the labyrinthine journey through Fat Man's Misery (not for the claustrophobic). Joe sat us down in a large open cavern, told us to be still for a moment and then yelled to his assistant, "Hit it, Charlie!" And then the lights went out. It truly was the darkest dark I've ever seen. I felt scared for a moment, and then I found Dan's hand, and then I just let the blackness pour through me. It was so peaceful.

Joe said, "Now when I light this match, it's going to look like a torch." And it did! He pointed out that the flame blew a bit. "There's always a breeze flowing through here. The cave is breathing." That's when I noticed that there was a very gentle, constant draft, so consistent that you could barely notice it. And I wanted, just a little while longer, to get back to that darkest dark I've ever seen and feel the cave breathing and see what kind of strange thoughts would pop up inside my head.