Friday, October 28, 2005

ODDS AND ENDS: Light at the End of the Tunnel

I got word that I'll be able to move back into my apartment later tonight. I've been working on another Palisades Dispatch, quite long, but I think you'll enjoy it. Look for it later this weekend.

1.) EARLIER THIS WEEK, I drove up to the Whole Foods on River Road to pick up some spinach, pork chops and potatoes for my great aunt. And I have to say, there are some strange shoppers there before 8 a.m. As I was back by the meat case to pick up the pork chops, a mother was pushing her fussy baby in a cart. The baby was being a baby and was being loud and the mother became quite frustrated.

Then she said this to the baby in a calm fashion: "Please stop crying or this nice man will start screaming at you."

That, of course, caught my attention. She then asked me, and I quote: "Do you mind yelling at my baby?" She asked this as if the request was routine, like "can you give me four quarters for this dollar?"

I was taken aback. First, I am not one to scream at anyone. Second, I'm not going to scream at a baby, no matter how annoying it is. So I looked at her, replying "No, are you nuts?"

"OK," she returned. She went on her way, I went on my way. The baby continued to cry.

2.) Q: WHAT TO ME, ARTHUR MILLER, JOYCE CAROL OATES AND WENDY WASSERSTEIN all have in common? A: We're all in the same book. I received a copy of "Writing Ann Arbor: A Literary Anthology" from University of Michigan Press today and I've been paging through the collection of essays, poems, fiction and other writings about that wonderful city in Washtenaw County. Many months ago, Prof. Laurence Goldstein of the University of Michigan's English Department contacted me asking whether he could use a column I had written for The Michigan Daily for the anthology. I never had a regular column in the Daily, but everyone now and then, I wrote observation-based essays, much like I do in this space.

The column, "A2, a Training Ground for Life's Finer Experiences," appeared in the New Student Edition of the Daily the fall after I had graduated. In the anthology, it is the concluding piece. So I get the last word on Ann Arbor in the book.

A few weeks after the piece originally ran, I was interviewed on a Detroit sports talk radio show on a Football Saturday because of the lede paragraphs:
There are few cities in the Midwest that measure up to Ann Arbor. Aside from Madison, our fair city, compared to any other Big Ten college town, is the best around.

Columbus is large, but lacks character. West Lafayette is in the middle of nowhere. Evanston, with Ivy-envy, is much like New Haven: Dead. And everyone in East Lansing is grain-fed. Or so the theory goes.
You can see how that might provoke a Spartan fan. But it's all in good fun, of course.

But if you boil it down, here is what the column is about:
"Doing one's time in the Midwest" as one out-of-state friend told me, is probably one of the most important things for an East Coaster.

"It has made me a better person," she said. "Ann Arbor will do that to you."

She's right. In such a small but vibrant and global environment, students in Ann Arbor get to douse themselves in a city that is built on a human scale and has developed into a place where people open up their minds and are better for it.

And that isn't just limited to the out-of-staters.

This happens to all people who come through this place -- whether you are from northern New Jersey, Detroit's east side or Indonesia. Then when you move away, as my friend put it, "you keep your experience in Ann Arbor in your back pocket and refer back to it when you need to ... just to make sure that you are appreciating not only where you are in life but what you can do with it."

Of course, any college town is supposed to do that. It's just that the University of Michigan, because of Ann Arbor, does it better than most places. ...
Reading back through the piece, I would like to go back and make some tiny revisions, but I still stand by what I wrote then. Although I learned many things in class, my real academic experience happened in two places: 420 Maynard St. (the home of The Michigan Daily) and the streets of Ann Arbor. Cities, to me, are better classroom experiences, especially if there is a rich history with many layers of civic, cultural, architectural and societal complexities. And if you are too timid or too insular to deal with people on a day-to-day basis in such an urban context, you are denying yourself a wealth of human experiences to learn from. That is why I have a hard time seeing myself ever leaving the comforts and the chaos of the city. It's all about daily continuing education.

But on the other hand, the old Ann Arbor is slowly dying. In fact, it may have already withered considerably before I arrived. I'm not talking about some sort of 1960s idealistic vision of social protest or anything. But as Ann Arbor becomes more and more a suburb or satellite city of metropolitan Detroit, it is losing that old sense of community. People like the idea of Ann Arbor and its myth and highly acclaimed sense of good living. But so many use Ann Arbor today as their perch. They may invest in property there (it is valuable land) but fail to invest their energies in the city and its civic livelihood.

I think I need to go back for a visit so I can better judge the place in its current state. Cities change, sometimes for the best, often times for the worse.


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