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".