Many, many apologies, Readers, for accidentally posting a version of this essay earlier today. If you read the post, then you got a nice little look at my writing process, which can be snarky and long-winded. In the writing of this post, I struggled to paint the portrait of Ann Arbor, a town about which I have mixed feelings. I have been trying to appreciate the many lovely slices of A2 life the way that I know I should. I know I am being a brat. But there is something about this town that gets under my skin, confuses me, irritates me, alienates me. Ann Arbor is not an easy place to love, and I am still working on making it my home.
If you have seen the movie, “The Five-Year Engagement,” then you have been introduced to Ann Arbor, Michigan–and you have a basic understanding of my first year here. In this movie, Tom (Jason Segal), moves to Ann Arbor when his fiancé, Violet (Emily Blunt) is accepted to a post-doc program at the University of Michigan. Tom leaves his successful job as a chef in San Francisco to work a grunt-work position making sandwiches at Zingerman’s Deli; I left my graduate program behind me to do the sandwich-making of the academic world: teaching as an adjunct professor. Tom gives into the winter months here, falling on ice while scraping windshields; I not only fell on icy driveways, but totaled my Subaru on a tree. Tom feels isolated from the University world; if I have ever been close to being part of the University here, it is only when forced to rub elbows with college girls in the bathrooms of the Blue Leprechaun. We both planned weddings while living here, although my wedding planning was a much smoother affair, thank goodness.
Things don’t work out well for Tom. He succumbs to the depressing Michigan winters, wearing his pink bunny suit to hunt deer and eat stale doughnuts, proving Violet’s hypothesis that unhappy people make bad choices. I am trying to avoid this particular fate by shirking bunny suits, hunting, and stale baked goods, but I am also trying to find the things about Ann Arbor that I love.
I can’t let this happen.
I know that I love summertime here in Michigan. There is no better place to laze away summer days; this year we had sunny weather, low humidity, and temperatures ranging from the high 70s to the mid-90s. I spent afternoons by the pool of our condominium complex reading On the Road. I wrote essays in my new backyard, with Pippin running around chasing bugs. Dan and I spent many nights drinking at one of Ann Arbor’s downtown bars, blissfully free of undergraduates from mid-May through late August. Professors are on vacation this time of year, or at least on vacation from teaching, and they are emerging from their school-year cocoons to relax about life for a few months. Sweet elderly couples take Sunday walks, and young families kayak in Gallup Park, splashing their way up and down the Huron River. Townies soak up sunshine, gorging on enough Vitamin D to last from October through April. The tone of the city is entirely different from the self-absorbed, over-serious tone of the school-year; everyday is a holiday when the sun shines in our little Maize and Blue universe.
But because being too comfortable seems to be against the Ann Arbor ethos, the peaceful summer atmosphere is upended with the swish of flowing skirts and patchouli. Something wicked this way comes around the end of July: The Ann Arbor Street Art Fair.
To be fair, there are many folks, even some of you, Readers, who place a lot of value in the Art Fair’s ability to “increase public knowledge and appreciation for contemporary fine arts and fine crafts.” This is certainly an admirable mission statement. I happen to have a great appreciation for contemporary arts and crafts because of my first college roommate, Mary, who was an economics major and an art minor. Her specialties as a potter are woodland-themed dinner ware featuring the creatures/culture of the American South. She also does fine renderings of famous economists in clay. Her artwork is either overt caricature or completely without irony–I have never been able to tell–but it fascinates me nonetheless. I was thrilled when Mary decided to visit during Art Fair, to help me find the good in the disastrous maze of yard sculpture and perspective-puzzle paintings. I needed someone with good wit and a steady sense of reality.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, immortalized in a cereal bowl. Artwork by Mary Turner.
Despite my appreciation for arts and crafts, I do feel like I need to explain to my readers why the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair is not one of my favorite things. Art Fair has been an institution in this city for 53 years, beginning in 1960. Things were very different in 1960 than they are in 2012, but Art Fair is a chance for Ann Arborites of all ages to regress to the behavior that made the festival politically revolutionary in the 1960s, and relatively mundane today. The art itself is pretty, but little of it makes the grandiose cultural statements that made the festival a ground-breaking event. There are some lovely booths still, but it has lost sight of its original mission (you know, about increasing knowledge of arts/crafts, etc). Now, I would revise this statement to state “increase public consumption of beer, street food, pretension and over-priced art.” Festival goers drink in public, smoke pot almost-legally and look at pictures of naked people at Art Fair–dangerously cool stuff in 1960–but these subversive acts have become so mainstream that they aren’t subversive anymore. Like any good subculture, Art Fair has worn itself out.
It is also, from my humble perspective, the magnum opus of the typical Ann Arborite culture, which is a mix of hippies and hipsters. This culture is the heart of my problem; how am I supposed to find friends, me, a politically moderate, well-educated but farm-raised twenty-something? I am not even sure what a hipster really is; all I know is that I am not one. I don’t find a spirited debate about Nietzsche enjoyable. I am not currently pursuing a graduate degree, or teaching in one. I have some regard for the lives of others behind the steering wheel. I keep my politics to myself, unlike Ann Arbor’s ubiquitous bumper-sticker political junkies. I don’t drink coffee in skinny jeans or big sunglasses. I don’t feel the need to tattoo my beliefs on my person. Hipsterism is Ann Arbor’s new normal; a lot of Ann Arbor’s citizens from 25-34 do these things, find them normal, want them in their lives. Not me.
Doing his/her part to start a revolution. If this doesn’t make a blazing rhetorical statement, I don’t know what does.
I am not the only person who has noticed Ann Arbor’s weird ability to be both new and clichéd. My hairdresser has lived here her entire life and finds the city–and especially Art Fair–to be bizarre. Many folks living in surrounding counties describe Ann Arbor as four square miles of idealism, surrounded by reality. My students often don’t even know what to think about Ann Arbor; they either love or hate the football team, but the culture is a world unto its self for most of them. From various foot adventures in and around Ann Arbor, I have noticed two over-arching attitudes about the city: 1. That it is a Mecca of intellectualism and contemporary liberalism or 2. That it is where the crazy people live.
I think both assumptions are probably correct.
It can be irritating to live inside this giant university’s gravitational pull. It is great to live in utopia, but even in the best worlds, something is always missing. Sometimes I feel that despite its best efforts, Ann Arbor lacks an awareness–a genuine awareness–of human life outside the sanctuary of fine dining and high-brow intellectual entertainment. Sometimes I long for some consideration of the things outside of this “Leaders And Best” universe.
The Big House, via the Ann Arbor CVB
When I first started writing about Ann Arbor, I had several cutting posts of snarky, judgmental commentary ready to roll, but something about my writing felt disingenuous. I didn’t give the city the best shot to prove itself to me, and I focused more on the A2’s warts than its jewels. I felt like a jerk for judging Ann Arbor so harshly. When Mary came in July, bearing harrowing stories of life in Louisiana’s bayou, I decided to stop being a whiny brat and start appreciating my new city, starting with a good walk. While searching for the genuine culture of Ann Arbor, I found that touring Art Fair with Mary was the best way to find lovely things. And no, Art Fair was not where I found the best and brightest stuff. Honestly, the ridiculousness of Art Fair pushed us away from its orbit and out into the unexpected and unexplored nooks and crannies of my new city.
Most surprisingly, I have come to find that there is more to the A2 social scene than hipsters, and that Ann Arborites are really something to love. These characters are funny and fascinating, even if they do let a touch of hipster or hippie peek out of their shirtsleeves from time to time. Here are a few of my favorites:
The Lunch-Time Conference Caller: Start your touring by eating lunch at The Produce Station, on State Street, a lunch spot that features a beautiful, complex and yuppy-ish salad bar (think artichoke hearts and quinoa salad). Sit outside in the little eat-in garden shed–it looks better than it sounds–and listen to the sound of business getting done, Ann Arbor style. Everyone talks loudly on their cells in tight public places here, so just accept the social awkwardness and listen in. Demands to order more tabbouleh for the Saturday shift or changes to the African-drum choreography ring through the little garden shed, where customers take the opportunity to replenish their Vitamin D levels in the summer sun. Mary and I sat here, ate salad, caught up on life, and drooled over the smell of meat on the grill. It is a perfect place to while away an afternoon, and to get some grocery shopping done too.
The Professor: If you have eaten a big salad at The Produce Station, walk down to the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market in Kerrytown, or take the Ride, Ann Arbor’s public bus system. While perusing the stalls of fresh basil and Amish eggs, you will run across a world-class expert or two, stuffing their canvas bags with heirloom tomatoes and $12 loaves of artisan bread. They are prickly until you get them talking about their nuclear fission project or their new book on labor market economics. Once engaged, they will talk for as long as you can snack on samples. This is one of the great things about Ann Arbor; everyone is doing something interesting, and everyone can teach you something new.
The Summertime Festival Goer: Ann Arbor is home to several summer festivals, the most popular and extensive of which is the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, and even if you don’t attend Art Fair, you will run into the sweeping-skirted festival goer, most likely sporting tattoos and tangles. He/She may offer you a controlled substance. You will want to decline. They will engage your opinion on Romney’s political gaffs. They will encourage you to dread your hair. These conversations can go on for a long time when you are a polite person, so escape the heat, humidity and/or conversation, by stopping into the free University of Michigan Art Museum. Mary and I were very impressed by the extensive Asian art exhibits, including a statue made of re-purposed Cambodian weaponry, and this mosaic:
The University Art Museum is one of the few places on campus that actually feels accessible to the public, and they work hard to bring truly evocative art work to their space. It was my favorite find of the weekend.
The Student: When you have had your fill of artwork–and you will fill up on it at the Art Fair–it will be time to grab a table at one of Ann Arbor’s downtown restaurants. This town is known for some incredible cuisine, especially when the summer garden season is in full swing and eateries support our local Michigan farmers by designing menus around their efforts. My favorite spots are Pacific Rim for fish and shellfish, The Prickly Pear for the closest thing to Mexican food that you can get here, Grizzly Peak for reasonably-priced, local American food, and Palm Palace, when I am craving huge amounts of kitsch and lamb shwarma.
The shwarma, some stuffed grape leaves, leftover pita and hummus.
Mary and I had salmon and summer veggies (green beans) at Grizzly Peak, where we ran into the summertime student waiter. Most of the waitstaff in Ann Arbor in the summer are students who were having too much fun to go home, or graduate students who are paying the bills that their post-doc doesn’t cover by picking up a few tables. They are generally knowledgeable and helpful, like the staff that Mary and I were lucky to have at Grizzly Peak and Palm Palace (where we partook of some shwarma). Waitstaff are responsible for some of the best discoveries that I have made in A2, including The Raven speakeasy that has some delicious champagne cocktails, and the Blue Leprechaun’s karoke night, quickly becoming a favorite Wednesday night entertainment.
Other characters worth getting to know are the Stay-At-Home-PhD (incredibly well-educated Mommies and Daddies who now raise their children with an educational standard rivaled only by the Ivies), the Michigan Man (decked out in Maize and Blue from head to toe to pick-up truck),The Asian Grandma (tiny, grizzled and tenacious in the produce section) and the Runner (intense and hard-bodied, probably wearing minimalist toe-shoes).
I know that I am dealing in stereotypes here, a dangerous and limiting thing to do. But there is something about the closely-knit university community that powers stereotypes into over-drive, drawing these characters in sharp relief against a backdrop of rural, conservative Michigan. Ann Arbor’s citizens are happy to live these characters too, something which I both admire and am puzzled by. This town is a far cry from the Western and Southern towns where I grew up. It still feels like a whole other world to me.
At the same time, I have just scratched the surface of the iceberg. There are thousands of jewels to unearth here, and they are far less ostentatious than Art Fair. For me, the hoopla of a festival pales in comparison to a favorite hiking trail, a perspective-changing plate of food, or a revolutionary piece of art. These little discoveries remind me that despite the starkly-drawn borders of our city, Ann Arbor does have a cosmopolitan connection with the rest of the world. This is something I love about our town.
Stale doughnuts are looking less appetizing too, at least while the Vitamin D holds out.
Stay tuned this week as I finish up my summer series with posts on Ann Arbor area hiking–and some beginning thoughts on our first attempts at distance back-packing– gorging myself in Traverse City, and a languid reflection on Charleston. A Foot Fiction feature on Heart of Darkness and Into Thin Air is on the schedule for early October.