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.