Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Year One in the Mitten State

One down, unknown quantity to go.  A year ago today, I moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and took up legal residence in this corner of the Midwest.  All things considered, A2 is a great location, but the state and Michigander culture certainly have unique points.

As I've been repeatedly asked "So what are the differences between Michigan and Indiana?" I decided to whip up a list based on my experiences of this first year.

1. Speed Limits are Suggestions
You know you live in Michigan when the policeman standing on the shoulder of the freeway with a radar scanner doesn't blink when you cruise by at 15 over.  At this point, I wonder how fast one must actually drive in order to get pulled over?  Definitely, don't go the posted speed limit, because you'll get run off the road.

2. The Great Lakes Obsession
It's all about the Great Lakes.  (One might think there's nothing else to brag about?  See #4.)  "Unsalted and Shark Free" is the main tag-line, but the Great Lakes are important for industry, shipping, vacation, bragging rights, advertisement, and to keep the Michiganders contained.

3. Don't Insult Detroit
Unless you're a born-and-bred Michigander.  It's like beating up your siblings - you have every right to do it, but heaven help anyone else who tries.  If you're from out of state, don't say a word about Detroit, or they'll give you a defensive breakdown of exactly how the city is bouncing back.

4. Up North
Closely connected with the Great Lakes obsession is "Up North".  Everyone goes Up North.  Summer weekend?  We'll be Up North.  What I didn't realize until recently is that Up North is actually the very top of the lower peninsula, distinct from the U.P. or Upper Peninsula.  People on the U.P. are few and far between and are called Yoopers.

5. Hockey Octopi
Say that ten times fast.  Somewhere along the line, Detroit Red Wings fans decided that it was a good idea to throw a dead octopus on the ice.  Ostensibly, the tradition started as a reference to the 8 games formerly needed to win the Stanley Cup.  (There's more on Wikipedia - Al the Octopus and Legend of the Octopus.)  Because this is Michigan.

6. Book Paradise
There exists in Detroit the biggest and best bookstore I've ever visited.  John King's Used and Rare Books is stuffed to the gills with books of every shape and size.  It's absolutely beautiful, once you survive the drive into Detroit.  I wrote a post on the awesomeness of King's a while back, here.

7. Pączki, Anyone?
For the uninitiated, that's pronounced "poonch-key", and it refers to the plural of a rich jelly-filled doughnut which is universally consumed in this corner of the world on Shrove Tuesday.  The singular of the word is pączek.  Yes.  I didn't realize until I moved here that south-eastern Michigan is very, very Polish, which is easily apparent when the frozen-food aisle in the grocery is stuffed full of pierogi.

8. Paradise and Hell
You can tell that Michigan was not entirely settled by Polish Catholics, because there exists a Hell, Michigan, and a Paradise, Michigan, but no Purgatory.  Michiganders enjoy much amusement in telling you to "Go to Hell" and then politely explaining that you should take M-36 to get there.

9. Drive South to Canada
Michigan is the only state in the US where it is possible to get into Canada by driving south.  Via the tunnel or bridge in Detroit, I could pay a visit to our neighbors in about two hours.  Crossing the border on the eastern side of the state is apparently standard procedure for Michigan's teenagers wanting to take advantage of Canada's younger drinking age.

10. Built-In GPS
Michigan is very roughly shaped like a mitten.  If you ask someone where they're from, they'll happily hold up their right hand, and right before you think they're going to smack you, they point to a particular wrinkle on their palm.  "Right here!" they proudly exclaim.  For instance, I live in Ann Arbor:

I definitely miss Indiana, but it has been quite a fun experience exploring this new state!  There's much more to see and discover, so this next year should be great, now that I'm more comfortable in my adventures.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

#OpenBook August

This blog is getting pretty quiet, isn't it?  I'm close to launching Restless Independent, my new site, and that's draining most of my creative energy.  BUT I haven't decided yet whether I'll keep Our Hearts Are Restless as a separate entity, or possibly switch its identity to more of a books-and-faith focus, or say goodbye to this site altogether.  The life updates and miscellania will all switch over to RI, which is basically a blog about adulting.

Anyway!  The OpenBook linkup is still the highlight of my blogging month, so here's your regular window into my bibliophile world.  This one is slightly delayed, but what the heck.

My mom and I share a love of fiction.  When I asked her for a reading list this summer, because I needed recommendations for new novels, she happily gave me a piece of paper that brought nostalgia and excitement.  As a kid, I knew the season had begun when Mommy gave me my summer reading list.  Always hand-written on lined, usually yellow paper, the reading list held the promise of new adventures.  Mommy always picked books I had never read before, and which broadened my experience or challenged my reading skill.  Some of my all-time favorites came out of the summer reading lists, which she culled (I think) from the Kolbe Academy list and her own childhood book adventures.

This summer, she gave me a list that covers a wide range of genres and subjects.  One title was The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett - and coincidentally, a few days later, I found an omnibus of Hammett's five novels.  Hammett, particularly with The Maltese Falcon, basically pioneered the "hard-boiled" detective genre with his cynical, tough detective characters.

While Hammett has remarkable skill in plot and story development, I have to admit he's not my favorite author.  I prefer my detectives slightly less hard-boiled as a general rule, and the era of the Twenties is rather bleak after a while.  Perhaps I made a mistake in reading them all at once.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, was a last-minute impulse read.  I'd been given the book a year or two ago, and it sat on my dresser with the rest of my "books I really need to read before they get shelved" collection.  But a four-hour train ride called for a long, but easy to pick up and put down, new read.

Written vignette-style in a gentle voice, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn fit the bill perfectly, and drew me in by the end of the first chapter.  Barring a single chapter (skip chapter 33 if you're under 16-ish or a sensitive reader), this is a fascinating read for teens or adults alike.  It's a gritty, realist picture of a young girl's life in the slums of Brooklyn, and the way her gift of imagination and storytelling opens a window to beauty and purpose in her life.  It's almost a biography rather than a novel, as far as the plot construction is concerned, but Smith has an admirable talent for description, foreshadowing, and character development.  Altogether, this was a charming read, and one I'd highly recommend (for the quotes on the value of fiction if nothing else!)

I'm a bit late, but linking up to Carolyn Astfalk and CatholicMom.com, hosting An Open Book!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Camping, with Bison (and Babies)

Fourth of July weekend with my family means camping.  Over the last few years, we've explored several Indiana state parks, where we hike, hang out, and chill for a few days.  2016 brought a new development, as my parents decided to invest in a tent for my sister and I, so as not to cram four people into an RV meant for two.  The first thing Meredith and I figured out how to do is attach a flashlight to the ceiling so that we can read after the parental units have gone to bed.  It's the important things in life.
This tent could only be improved by the addition of a green door with a round knocker and a G-rune.

Despite a bit of a cloudy chill over the weekend, it was quiet, peaceful, and refreshing for all of us.  For me, I think the change of scenery was the principal attraction, as I've been in a city for the majority of the last year.  Living simply and unplugged under the trees for a few days was a much-needed change of pace.  Although, when we packed up the tarp and discovered the twenty or so spiders that had moved in underneath us, my suburban apartment looked equally refreshing.

So here are a few pictures for illustration!
Hiking around Oubache State Park brought us to a bison wildlife reserve, nothing new after a year's work at Domino's Farms with the local bison herd out back, but still fun to see up close.
 Also a nice medium-sized lake, which if we'd had more time I'd have tried to go kayaking on.
We also had the opportunity to celebrate my new nephew's baptism!  Little Sebastian was received into the Catholic Church on Sunday, July 3.
 And to leave you with a dose of joy for the day, I snapped this picture of my dad and his little granddaughter on Monday before we all headed home.  Cue the "Aw!"

Thursday, July 7, 2016

King's Books - A Bibliophile's Paradise

If you're a bibliophile, you've probably dreamed of owning - or at least walking into - a library like the one from the Beast's castle:
There's something intoxicating about the thought of so many adventures, waiting for discovery behind their polychromatic spines.  Unfortunately, chances are that, like me, there's not a snowball's chance in Hades that you'll ever actually own that many books.

The next best option?  Swing over to John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit.  This book lover's paradise is curled in four floors of a repurposed glove factory.  It's cramped, dusty, not air conditioned, eccentric, distinctly old-fashioned, and relies on red-aproned attendants to help you find your favorite books among newspaper clippings and bric-à-brac.  In other words, it's all about the books!  And books there are in abundance, on seven-foot shelves, stacked in corners, piled along the walls, and displayed in glass cases.  Navigation is tricky - I get the impression that the collection is constantly growing and morphing, perhaps even mildly sentient.  This picture barely provides an adequate estimate of the scale of the place:
Admittedly, I'm the kind of person who will spend the last few dollars of a paycheck on books.  Over years of literary purchases, my book-shopping buddy and I have developed a rhythm; we browse, chat, collect, and then try to convince ourselves that we can't possibly buy every volume we picked up.  Despite our hard-earned experience, King's is the only bookstore that has ever beaten us!

Fun fact - as a very rough estimate, if I did nothing but read 24/7 for 55 years, I might make it through all the books on the main stacks of one floor.

We quickly realized that strategy would be vital.  But even with a short list of authors and a picnic lunch break, it was five hours before we finally dragged ourselves out of the place.  My purse was lighter and my bookshelves more crammed when we returned - until I make it back to this book Mecca, I'll happily revel in the possession of three out-of-print Wilkie Collins novels, a Tom Holt omnibus, and a tiny hard-backed copy of Jane Eyre.  At this rate, I'm well on my way to owning the Beast's library, if I can just get the shelf space.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

#OpenBook July - Classics & Fun

Welcome to July's edition of An Open Book linkup!  I've got a lot to share this month.

Two other book nerds were aghast when I told them I hadn't read Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. The reason was that The Three Musketeers had scarred me as a kid, and it took a lot of bibliophilic peer pressure to get me anywhere near another Dumas. I took the plunge, finally - and if CMC didn't hit any other superlatives in my book, it definitely wins the prize of The Book that Took Me Forever to Read.

I started the massive tome (okay fine, it was an e-book) in mid-May, thinking to have it done within a week or two. Took me over a month to get through it.

Dumas' skill is readily apparent, opium trips and irritating not-quite-heroes aside. He manages a dozen primary characters and several supporting plot lines, successfully wrapping up all the loose threads with neatly bookended scenes. Simultaneously, he manages to create in Edmund Dantes a sort of sociopathic Cinderella-turned-avenging-angel, so convinced of his divinely-ordained path that the reader is sorely tempted to believe in his brand of justice.

Thankfully, the reader gets to see not only the villains' just desserts, but also the innocents' eventual happiness. A fairytale ending somehow makes sense, and there's a cathartic nature to the majority of the book.

So overall, a classic worth reading once at least. Not my favorite, but I'm not sorry I spent the time on it. (Which is more than I could say for Wuthering Heights a few summers back.)

On a much lighter note, in the course of book-shopping rambles with a friend, I picked up a volume of two novels by a British author I recently discovered.  I've mentioned Terry Pratchett before; Tom Holt, who was recommended on NoveList, is similar in writing style and humor.  Barring a bit of language, his books are the perfect light summer reading for a literature addict.  The Second Tom Holt Omnibus kept me entertained through this Fourth of July weekend.  Sadly, Holt's books are hard if not impossible to find, so I'm constantly on the lookout for hard copies.

My Hero does everything that a book shouldn't do, and somehow pulls it off while simultaneously taking its characters on a romp through every imaginable caricature of genre fiction.  As the back-cover blurb says,

"Writing novels? Piece of cake, surely ... or so Jane thinks.
Until hers start writing back. At which point, she really should stop. Better still, change her name and flee the country. The one thing she should not do is go into the book herself. After all, that's what heroes are for. Unfortunatly, the world of fiction is a far more complicated place than she ever imagined. And she's about to land her hero right in it."

Who's Afraid of Beowulf? tracks an archaologist who discovers that the new barrow she just discovered is full of Vikings who aren't actually dead.  The ensuing adventure to save the world from the Vikings' equally long-dead evil adversary has just the right amount of the comic fantastic.

"Who's Afraid of Beowulf? Well, not Hrolf Earthstar, for a start. The last Norse king of Caithness, Hrolf and his twelwe champions are woken from a centuries-long sleep when Hildy Fredriksenn, archaeologist of the fairer sex, finds their grave. Not only that, Hrolf decides to carry on his ancient war against the Sorcerer-King.  In a mixture of P.G. Wodehouse, Norse mythology and Laurel and Hardy, Hildy and her Viking companions face such perils as BBC film crews, second-rate fish and chips and the Bakerloo Line in their battle agaainst the powers of darkness."

Been reading a bit more this month!  I wonder what everyone else has pulled off their shelves?  Check out the linkups at Carolyn Astfalk's blog, and at CatholicMom.com.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Joy Under the Sword

CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

The current condition of the world forced me to turn over a conundrum in my head on the way to Mass after work.  You can probably, like me, list the locations of the last half-dozen major acts of international terrorism, the recent ethical and moral rulings of SCOTUS, and at least three of Pope Francis’ confusing statements.  There’s a lot happening in this world, and with the help of mass media, we see little that is good.

Many of my friends and colleagues have no optimism left.  Accurately, perhaps, they predict an oncoming storm of chaos, fear, amorality, and death.  In the current day and age, many feel that the world is rolling down a steep hill, picking up speed as it nears destruction at the bottom.  Hope has faded into a dull resignation.  But when I hear comments like “This is the end of civilization as we know it” and “Martial law is coming”, and I listen to the underlying tone of despair, something in me recoils. 

While that analysis of the downhill trend is probably right, my first emotional impulse is to escape into a kind of Christian Pollyannism.  Most days, I tend to be an optimist, generally assuming things will turn out all right.  If there is a problem I can make better with a little effort, I’ll try.  But if there’s a worrisome situation that’s too big, or utterly beyond my influence, I try to ignore it.  I try to keep living my life, looking away from the sword of Damocles over my head.  

When it comes to a collapse of civilization, though, that’s a sword long enough to dangle in my peripheral vision, like it or not.

And so, as I walked to my car, I asked God, “What is the right answer?  I don’t like this pessimism, but I know I can’t ignore what is happening.  What ought I to be feeling?  How should I be living in this broken world?”  I mulled over various answers, but none of them seemed to click.  I wanted to find some happiness in the middle of this chaos, to find some answer for the despair, but images of shattered buildings and broken bodies kept leaping at me.  How could I not just accept the darkness?

In the chapel, I opened my breviary and began to pray Vespers.  I tried to pay attention to the Psalms, but my mind wandered as it typically does.  When I came to the reading, however, I suddenly focused with a sharp breath and stinging tears. 
“This is a cause of great joy for you, even though you may for a short time have to bear being plagued by all sorts of trials; so that, when Jesus Christ is revealed, your faith will have been tested and proved like gold – only it is more precious than gold, which is corruptible even though it bears testing by fire – and then you will have praise and glory and honour. You did not see him, yet you love him; and still without seeing him, you are already filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described, because you believe; and you are sure of the end to which your faith looks forward, that is, the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1, 6-9
As if I could hear His voice in my head, there was my answer, and it couldn’t have been more plainly spoken.  Perhaps I can find happiness even in this chaotic world, and not through an empty blindness to reality.

Yes, there will be trials and suffering, maybe even destruction and death.  But faith brings joy, and that joy can and must remain even in the darkness, because Christ remains.  The trials should never be ignored, but must be identified, anticipated, and met with firmness of purpose.

God always answers when He’s asked.  And every now and then, His reply is easy to hear.  But He also must be answered.  His words are a challenge: with a clear head and a keen eye for the dangers before us, can we cling to this joy He offers?

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

So this took me forever to actually write...apologies!  A nasty case of writer's block has set in, so I'm determined to get this post out the door so I can write other things.  

Despite being born in Ohio, and moving to Michigan this past year, I remain a Hoosier through and through.  I love breaded pork tenderloins, basketball, fresh sweet corn, 4-H, and the Indiana State Fair.  And as a Hoosier, I know that on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend comes "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing", the Indianapolis 500.

I grew up listening to the race annually on the radio, hearing Jim Nabors singing "Back Home Again in Indiana", Mari Hulman-George announce "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!" and the excitement in the announcers' voices as they communicated lead changes and track incidents.  This year was my first opportunity to actually attend the race in person.

Explaining the 500 to out-of-towners can be challenging - what is the thrill of watching 33 intricately designed, high-powered, open-cockpit race cars drive fast and turn left for three hours?  I guess it's a Hoosier thing, but it is also an Italian, Brazilian, British, Canadian, Colombian, Australian, Russian, French, Japanese, New Zealand, and Spanish thing, based on the drivers' lineup for this year's race.  (The Indianapolis 500 is also the world's largest one-day sporting event, and the centennial running this year drew a sold-out crowd of about 350,000 people.)
Flags at the gates of the Speedway - yellow is used for caution, black to pull a driver off the track, red denotes a forced stop to the race, checkered flag signals the end, blue warns of passing traffic, white signals for the final lap, and green gives the start or restart.
Our day began at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM, when we drove into downtown Indianapolis to catch one of the shuttles to the track.  We made it through security in good time, and wandered our way towards the infield to eat breakfast and watch a handful of local marching bands.  IndyCar Ministry had arranged, for a second year, a Mass with Archbishop Tobin at the track.  We took advantage of the opportunity, and assembled with about 100 other people, including former driver and team owner Mario Andretti.  The Archbishop said a simple, quick Mass, and back to the stands we went, to broil for a few hours before the start of the race.
Mass was on a tire manufacturer's stage...yep.  Catholic where you can, I guess.
As the bleachers filled, we got a sense of what 350,000 people look like when they're packed into stands around a two and a half mile oval.  They look like...a lot of people:
Part and parcel of the race itself is the pageantry and ceremony that precedes the event.  In true down-home-Midwest style, we don't forget the fact that 1) God put us here, 2) we're American, and 3) many people sacrificed for our freedom.  It's Memorial Day weekend, after all!  The military honors, patriotic songs, and invocation by the Archbishop led up to the defining moment of the Indy 500: "Lady and gentlemen, start your engines!"

I won't bore you with details of the race itself, other than to say it was pretty intense all the way through.  Ultimately, it became a race any one of the drivers could win, a fitting competition for the centennial running.

Best moment of the day: Alexander Rossi was an Indy 500 rookie who took a heck of a gamble during the last laps of the race.  The fight for the finish came down to an issue of fuel, as the top contenders each had to pull off to top up.  Rossi, however, played a spectacular strategy, and stayed out of the pits at the risk of running dry.  I guess he had nothing to lose - and he won!  But he didn't even have enough fuel to finish the victory lap, and coasted to a stop right in front of our seats:
Sometime during the race my sister conveniently managed to kick our sunscreen under the bleachers, so we ended the day rather more toasted than we'd anticipated.  Teetering on the edge of exhaustion, we suffered through a hellish wait for the return shuttle, and made it home tired but pumped after a twelve-hour day at the track.
In a word, the experience was compelling.  Whether it's the adrenaline that makes the head and heart pound at that first roar of speed as the cars begin racing, or the emotion of traditions that take a third of a million people and wrap us all together, or the plain enjoyment of a good competition, or awe at the speed, control, and courage of the drivers, the Indy 500 is a one-of-a-kind, somewhat addicting experience and incredibly fun!