We are all so close together now

As it turns out, moving is no joke, but you probably already knew that. The last month has been out of control – within the last four weeks I ended my job with the hospital system I worked with for over eight years, packed the marginal amount of stuff I could manage in addition to the children and our dog, and joined Sam in a two-bedroom apartment in Toledo, Ohio. Our dog promptly grew critically ill from a wicked virus he picked up at the kennel where we boarded him – twice I drove to the emergency veterinary hospital prepared to put him down – more on that whole story later. It took a little over a week for Skylar to heal, and as soon as I brought him home Evangeline and I immediately departed for Colorado for a week to celebrate my brother’s wedding. The trip turned out to be a much-needed buffer between our relocation and actually living in Toledo, and I fell madly in love with Colorado. It is my experience that like people, you can’t have too many places to love. If we are lucky, life is long and wide and you don’t know where it will take you.

The apartment we moved into is the opposite of the house we left behind – one floor of modernity that has benefits and drawbacks. Benefits include an incredible easiness to clean – I feel like a housekeeper extraordinaire! There is storage here so I can put things away. For every nook I clean, there isn’t a cranny leaking century-old coal dust onto the floor. If Duncan races into another room my heart rate remains the same because there are no stairs for him to topple down (he long ago figured out the secret to baby gates) and the amenities of living in a complex designed mostly for doctors and lawyers and such to wait out relocation can’t be beat – a large pool that Evangeline prefers I refer to as azul and parks for kids, a park for the dog. But it’s small, and after our entire family life spent a house with many cavernous rooms, we are all getting to know one another a lot better. Duncan and Evangeline are sharing a room, which they enjoy but is a little trying for me. Evangeline is a hard sleeper but Duncan likes to wake up in the middle of the night and chatter – no problem when he was in his own room in his own bed but a habit my daughter finds trying, understandably so. They are working it out. On the occasions when Sam’s snoring grows too much for me to bear, or if I’m racked with insomnia, there aren’t the two extra rooms for me to escape to with my pillow and book, just the living room couch which is comfortable but not the same. And this situation is fine for me, but Evangeline was the one who alerted me to the fact that if one of them gets sick, there isn’t the “extra” room for them to sleep in with me, which I am sure I’ll miss mid-winter.

Truthfully, though, while part of my heart broke off and shattered the day I left my church and my friends behind in Pittsburgh, I don’t miss living in a city. The first time I took the kids out for ice cream and we sat on park benches looking at trees instead of concrete I knew we had made the right decision. Don’t get me wrong – Pittsburgh is a wonderful city, and a great one to raise a family – there was so much I loved and will continue to love about it, but I wasn’t born and raised there and I feel much more peaceful returning to the Great Lakes region. I’ll return to Pittsburgh a couple of times a year to visit my friends and their families and stock up on homemade pasta and prosciutto – Pittsburgh will always have a huge part of my heart, but Michigan IS my heart and to be so near again? Well, I’m home.

I have so much I want to talk about! My transition (for a while, anyway) to a stay at home mom and how I totally underestimated the snack preparation involved in staying at home, and rededicating myself to a reading, writing and teaching kind of life (what even WAS that corporate detour? Okay, not really – I loved my job for a long time and have a lot to say about it, actually) and the limbo living between Pittsburgh and Ohio, but there is time to discuss all of this. I mainly wanted to say hello, revive my blog posting and start putting my fingers to keys again. I am going to finally get with the times and probably create a Facebook page for this blog, but in the meantime you can reach me through this blog or on twitter at CPMcCrimmon or on Instagram at bookgirl1977.

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Making Room for the Mountains

When we were planning our annual week-long visit to northern Michigan this summer, the most difficult part logistically was working through our return trip. This was partly because we somewhat dreaded sharing a hotel room with two kids, and partly because we had our dog with us, but mostly it was because I can never actually picture leaving northern Michigan once I am there. When headed to the part of the country I still consider home after two decades away, I am always convinced that for once and for all something will happen that will cause us to remain there against all reason. Sometimes my imaginings are truly awful – the dramatic death of a parent – and sometimes they are routine, like running into the woman in charge of public relations for the hospital, discovering she’s retiring, and nonchalantly submitting my resume. These are my fantasies, so I don’t bother with details like the reality of putting our house on the market prior to moving, or the actual move itself. No, in my daydreaming the situation is either so critical in nature or so ridiculously fortunate that I don’t have to concern myself with real-life details, and no one would expect me to.

I have this adolescent belief that the geography of my home state completes me in some fundamental, lizard-brain like way, and growing up I actually didn’t have terribly grand schemes to move away from Michigan. For the most part, I hoped to return to Northern Michigan after some unspecified but exciting time away – not to my home town but to one of the towns on the west side of the state, like Petoskey or Traverse City or Boyne. My grandma once told me I’m meant to live on a lake, just like she was, and her remark stuck with me – to this day I’m not sure a greater truth about me has been spoken. Bodies of water have an incredibly calming effect on me and there is nothing I enjoy as much as long walks near them. Those of us blessed enough to spend time in an area that experiences a full, glorious autumn on the water – the juxtaposition of flaming leaves and deep blue waters – have seen God.

And yet, I’m 37 years old and except for a few years while Sam was in law school, I haven’t returned to Michigan. Our lives have bounced us around the rust belt and parts of the south at a somewhat alarming rate, but for the last six years we’ve remained settled in Pittsburgh, and, much like with marriage, we keep choosing to live here, over and over and over again.

For a couple of years, I thought I would have to reconcile myself to feeling homesick every day of my life but recently my longing has mutated to something less dramatic. Now, while I still have days where I miss Michigan acutely, I am growing more content with the idea that Pittsburgh might always be my home base. I’m even beginning to admire the mountains that surround us, drinking them in and the way they change in the light, the way I once did with lake Huron, lake Michigan and lake Charlevoix. My first go-around with Pittsburgh, for graduate school from 2002 to 2005, the mountains often made me feel like the world was closing in on me. Pittsburgh was an unknowable, odd town made up of one-way streets and a confusing mish-mash of tunnels, bridges and rivers, all of which prevented me from ever getting where I needed to go. And it seemed so dark, and all of us wanna be writers lived in the attics of rickety old Victorian homes with no air-conditioning and radiator heat, and almost everybody smoked, so that for three years I dreamed about Michigan’s wide open roads and endless sky, and the way the smell changes as you drive from southern Michigan to northern Michigan, to something like sun-baked pine needles and rich, dark soil.

We’ve lived in Pittsburgh for six years now, and in that time we’ve purchased a house and had two children. When we first returned our enthusiasm came close to zealotry – our stay in Michigan had made us appreciate Pittsburgh’s walkability, public transportation, accessibility to ethnic, non-chain restaurants and behemoth museums. We embraced the local sports teams and breathed a sigh of relief – we were home.

For several years, I continued to long for Michigan, even as we made concerted efforts to grow roots here. We joined a church, a gym, said yes when people asked us to go out and reciprocated requests in return. I enjoyed all of it, even while not being able to shake the feeling that while Pittsburgh had my heart, Michigan wasmy heart.

Lately though, something has shifted. I guess it’s the kind of shift that comes with time, but now my feet feel firmly planted in Pennsylvania soil. I’m less homesick and more at home, and it’s this shift that has allowed me to begin appreciating not just the restaurants, libraries, bars and book stores Pittsburgh has to offer, but to really sink into the city and surrounding area in a new way. In Pittsburgh, I have found my tribe – a network of friends at once vast and close-knit – friends who I can count on to drop off gatorade on my doorstep when my entire family is stricken with the stomach flu, friends who will take my kids if an emergency arrives (and I, in turn, take theirs, no questions asked)friends who always have a drink or a cup of coffee or a cake at the ready, whatever the situation may require. Instead of hanging out in smokey attics ruminating about Derrida I spend my time in backyards with barely tamed gardens, the laughter of children always nearby.

Northern Michigan provided a rather cold place to vacation this summer, and the chaos of two little ones on such a long road trip didn’t make it necessarily easy. On the second day of our drive back to Pittsburgh, as the Ohio turnpike carried us east of Cleveland toward Pennsylvania, instead of tensing up as the rivers grew wider, the bridges higher, and the slow build of the Appalachians began, I found my shoulders lowering, and I began breathing more deeply. This had always been my physical reaction in the past to driving into Michigan so to find it happen on the reverse course was shocking – it also forced me to look at the landscape with new eyes. Steam was swirling off the rivers like tufts of fireless smoke while the mountains, shades of jade and emerald emerging from the distance, beckoned. In the matter of just a hundred miles or so I would arrive in the city so artfully hidden by these early hills, driving into the land of rivers, bridges, steel pride and my loving tribe. A small part of me budged that day, making room for the mountains that surround me, allowing room in my heart for two homes – and it has been expanding ever since.

Detroit – the next Pittsburgh?

It has felt a little strange recently, as the City of Detroit prepares to file for bankruptcy, to read various comparisons from major news outlets claiming Pittsburgh, the city I live in, could serve as a model for Detroit, an area I once also lived in. There have been dozens of articles over the last couple of years stating that Pittsburgh’s resurgence after it almost collapsed when the steel industry imploded could help guide Detroit in reinventing itself. Pittsburgh, in case you haven’t heard, successfully reinvented itself by focusing, in large part, on developing the health care industry and institutions of higher education, or “eds and meds.” Now we have Google and a thriving robotics center and a booming film industry, and more farm-to-table restaurants than you could eat at in a week. Detroit, many of these articles claim, could become the “next Pittsburgh,” if it could only be willing to shed its Motown, auto-industry dominated sense of self and focus on higher education and technological advancements as well.

Good luck with that.

Even my recent addition of The New Yorker is getting in on the act. writing “If you were to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts, home to Diego Rivera’s magnificent murals depiciting scenes at the Ford Motor Company in the early nineteen-thirties, and then take a stroll through the surrounding streets, you might be surprised at what you find: coffee shops fequented by young hipsters; old warehousesbeing converted to lofts; bike racks; houses undergoing renovation; a new whole Foods supermarket. After decades of white flight, black flight and urban decay, Detroit is being spoken of, in some circles, as “the new Portland” or “the new Brooklyn.”

It’s a shame, really, that in order to survive and then, thrive, Detroit needs to become the new anything beyond the new Detroit. I’ve told my father-in-law, who is ardently anti-Detroit, having had a relatively disappointing working experience in Michigan, that the Detroit currently portrayed in the media isn’t the Detroit I experienced from 2005 – 2008. Certainly, there was blight, and yes, I was once approached by a homeless man who threatened me for my engagement ring (lesson: don’t wear diamonds in Detroit. Hey! Could be the title of my memoir, yes?) but the majority of my experience was marked by evenings spent over mojiots and ropa viejo at Vicentes or beers and barbecue at Slow’s, watching the Tigers play at Comerica park or attending plays at Wayne State University. Ian and I both worked in the heart of the city and while my parents claimed our daily commutes to Detroit elevated their collective blood pressure for four years, I did not feel more vulnerable or unsafe than I do in the city of Pittsburgh, which is to say, not often at all.

I lived and worked in the Detroit area for four years, and I have many friends who remained there and have carved out gorgeous lives for themselves. At this point, between graduate school and my current position, I’ve lived and worked in Pittsburgh for nearly eight years, and to me there are some very definite differences between Pittsburgh and Detroit – differences that will probably keep Detroit from “becoming the new Pittsburgh” but will also hopefully become…whatever it’s meant to become next. In many ways, my answers might seem more pro-Pittsburgh than pro-Detroit, so first just let me say that while I live in Pittsburgh, and love it nearly unconditionally, and it has hold of my heart – Michigan, the state, IS my heart, and that includes Detroit.

(1.) Pittsburghers LOVE Pittsburgh – Michiganders mostly feel “meh” about Detroit – I have lived in four different states and six different cities, and I have traveled all over the country, and I really believe that NOBODY loves their hometown the way Pittsburghers love Pittsburgh. Loyalty knows no bounds here, and most people can’t imagine why you would ever want to live anywhere else. Don’t bother pointing out the dismal climate, often poor air quality and difficulty of getting from point A to point anything thanks to one-way roads, poor road construction, and oh my god congestion on the bridges – Pittsburghers will just cheerfully point out to you the rivers, the mountains, our identity as the one true Appalachian city and, of course the Pittsburgh Steelers. In Michigan, a majority of the people who travel into the city for work don’t live there, and a significant portion of the population never has to leave the suburbs at all. This means…

(2.) Pittsburghers USE their city, whereas people in the suburbs of Detroit don’t USE the city in the same way. I have friends with a wide variety of economic backgrounds, and while some of us have tickets to the ballet and others have tickets to the local football or hockey games, almost all of us have annual memberships to the zoo, the Carnegie museums and the library. It is never recommended that we take a drive outside the city, unless it’s for a very particular experience, like white water rafting or zip-lining. My friends and I take our kids to the Children’s museum, the zoo and Frick park – we go to the opera and fight to obtain tickets to touring Broadway plays – we all support our sports teams. In Pittsburgh, enjoying and using our city is a way of life. I was shocked recently to find out that the majority of my friends in Michigan have annual passes to the Toledo zoo instead of the Detroit zoo – their reasoning is sound (better zoo, + baby polar bears for the win!) but it still seemed odd to me that they would leave the state instead of supporting a local resource. Trips to the Detroit Institute of Art are considered a once-a-year luxury, as is attending a baseball or football game. Regular use really seems to make a difference, in the Pittsburgh vs. Detroit argument.

(3.) I’m going out on a limb with these next two, so keep in mind these are my personal observations and not necessarily how things are. On the whole, I find Pittsburghers signicantly less materialistic than many of the people who live in suburban Michigan. In Pittsburgh, it doesn’t feel like a race to keep up with the lastest fashions, cars and home decor whereas in suburban Michigan, it felt like people were conspicuous consumers. I’m not someone made to easily feel badly over a lack of interest in material goods, but in southern Michigan there was a tremendous emphasis on having a new model car, a new condo or home, and keeping up with trends. In Pittsburgh, rocking a pair of legggings and some rain boots is as fancy as it often gets, even in the nicer restaurants, and it’s more fashionable to take the bus or bike to work than it is to drive a car. If you DO drive it really doesn’t matter WHAT you drive but if you want to drive a Prius or other chargeable car, there are lots of stations to charge your car around the city. People live in old houses along older streets and they don’t automatically flee farther away from the city the minute they earn more money. There is an inherent focus on sustainability here that is endemic to the people and place of Pittsburgh itself.

(4.) I also think racism tends to be more up front in the Detroit area than it is Pittsburgh. I thought about saying that suburban Detroit is more racist than Pittsburgh but ultimately I don’t know if that is really true – what I do know is Pittsburgh is much more diverse than Detroit and suburban Detroit, and beyond that, I literally never hear negativity from my caucasian friends and co-workers directed toward other races or cultures. When I lived in Detroit many of my friends thought nothing about sharing their negative opinions about other races and cultures to an uncomfortable extent. The legacy of white flight from the late fifties and early sixties runs deep in Michigan, and the city and neighborhoods aren’t as integrated as they are here in Pittsburgh.

(5.) Time magazine, online, ran a great piece a while back that doesn’t appear to be saved in its archives, arguing that the very geography of Pittsburgh is what helped make its resurgence successful, and I think that’s the most important point I’ve read about this topic. Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs could only expand so far, limited as they are by rivers and mountains. Detroit, on the other hand, had seemingly limitless land surrounding it, so the expansion of the suburbs could go on ad infinitum. I grew up in northern Michigan, a four hour drive from southern Detroit, and upon my first few exposures to the extensive southern suburbs I didn’t understand how anyone could tell them apart. As far as I was concerned, Novi bled into Northville and Southfield bled into Canton which bled into Plymouth and they all looked exactly the same. After living there for four years I know that’s not the case, and each town is distinguishable, with its own heart and personality, but they are so interconnected by expressways it’s incredible. So, if you are raised in Novi, go to school in Novi, and do the majority of your living in Novi, you don’t necessarily feel connected to Detroit, in any way. The limiting geography of Pittsburgh prevents this sort of dissonance and makes, I think, a big difference in the way the city is embraced.

I don’t want to see Detroit crumble and fall, any more than it already has. It was once a truly great city, and it can be again. I think identifying industries that can be successful and help restore some of the economy is vital, as well. But Detroit shouldn’t be expected to shed its past – just celebrate it, learn from it and move on. There can only be one Pittsburgh, one Portland, one (thank God) Brooklyn – there only needs to be one Detroit. I think our energies could be better spent figuring out a vision for a new Detroit, one guided by its history and its present – a vision that draws on the strength and knowledge of those who live there, as well as the geography – than wishful hoping that Detroit will model itself after something its not.