I’ve finally decided to start blogging under (more or less) my own name.  If you like you can follow me at the new blog.

“Bing will not seek re-election as mayor, eyes Wayne County executive position”

Since he has proven himself such an effective leader since he was elected mayor.

As with so much of Michigan political news in recent years:  You really can’t make this stuff up.

The Zen of being laid up

Wednesday night, I dropped a dresser drawer on the big toe of my right foot.  As I told Fang, the woman who lives in the unit next to mine (our bedrooms share a wall) must have thought I was having the best orgasm of my life.  Fang posted some vintage Kathy Bates realness to my Facebook wall in honor of the injury:

Fortunately, the nail stayed on, the toe was not broken,  and the hematoma stayed fairly contained.  But the doc at urgent care instructed me to keep weight off that foot as much as possible for the first 48 hours and to keep it elevated.  My mom, who had spent an entire summer out of commission several years ago after a heavy outdoor stone table fell on her toe, was adamant that I should stay home from work the next 2 days.  I’d just returned after 3 work days away from the office at a conference in Boston; my condo was a mess, I had no food in the refrigerator, and my dryer had broke the weekend before, so the timing was less than ideal.  So I took the first day off but went in yesterday, with the aid of crutches.

While the pain has steadily receded, I’m still trying to stay off my right foot, and it’s been an instructive reminder of how physically active I am.   The day I took off work, I couldn’t resist the urges to empty the dishwasher, pick up groceries and a clothesline, sweep the layer of dust that had accumulated over every surface of the house, do 3 loads of laundry, and pack to spend the weekend in Detroit.  Fang & I were planning to spend today moving the new washer and dryer and taking the old ones to the Ann Arbor Recycle drop-off station, but that will have to wait a week.  Last night, we went out for dinner and spent 20 minutes waiting for a table, which turns out to be a really long time to spend standing on crutches in a crowded restaurant.

Normally I would have started my Saturday morning taking the dogs for a long walk, and then spent the rest of the day running errands and doing house work.  I keep a Google Drive document with a list of all the things I need to get done in a day, and normally that list metastasizes throughout the day;  I cross off one item, and manage to find another to append.  Instead, I’m looking at spending most of the day on my ass, resisting the little voice yammering away about how much shit I should be taking care of.

Overriding that little voice is becoming an unexpectedly Zen-like exercise.  A day of doing nothing?   Sitting around and just writing or reading?  I can’t remember the last time I allowed myself the luxury.  I’ll be 29 in August, and damn it, the clock is ticking!  Who knows what kind of profound insights and inner peace I will discover in the course of my Weekend of Doing Nothing?

So early in the spring

Jokes about Michigan’s abbreviated spring are cliché for anyone who’s lived here for more than a few months.  Winter is interminable, and lingers long into April; we’ve been reminded of that this week, when we got snowfall yesterday.     The trees typically don’t bloom til early May even in the southeast; from that point things evolve rapidly so that by month’s end the daily high is routinely in the 80s, and the air is humid.

I have a considerable chip on my shoulder about the state I’ve spent my life in,* and our climate is one of many reasons for that.  On the plus side, once you’ve lived here, it makes you really appreciate what other parts of the country take for granted.   I had no complaints about the chill of San Francisco in January or the (usually) brief showers in Scotland in September, and Texas in March was almost thrilling.  And unlike Southerners or Californians, Midwesterners know how to drive in an inch of snow.   I like to think this harshness makes us Midwesterners a little tougher than the rest of our fellow Americans.

As I write this the sun has re-emerged after being smothered by clouds most of the day, and the temperature is a crisp, invigorating chill.  It’s perfect for sweater-wearing, and I think the dogs are going to get a walk this evening.

*and about a lot of other things, obviously…

Words as therapy

One of the reasons I decided to try to start writing again on this blog was that I was already doing so much daily writing.  Journaling has always been one of my two main go-to methods of therapy.  When I’m in the grip of a particularly acute attack of anxiety or a sleepless night, I can easily fill pages with “Dear Diary”-type dreck of varying degrees of navel-gazing.  The value of this kind of writing to anyone besides me is questionable.  On the other hand, clearly I’m not the only person struggling with mental health issues;  in my case, mostly anxiety and insomnia secondary to that anxiety.  Online blogging is a way to share what I’m going through with others, both to help me process it and, ideally, to start a conversation that can help some of my readers too.  And if nothing else,  it’s a way to leverage at least some of those hundreds of words I’m scribbling each day for better use.

Now that I’ve released this blog from its previous topic constraints, you can expect to read more about mental health, both my own and in general.

In which I discuss my new commute, which is going to blow

So effective late August, it appears I’ll be making the commute to work in Ann Arbor from Ferndale, 5 days a week.  (Well, probably from Ferndale — there’s a remote possibility we’ll stay in Detroit — but that’s a topic for another post.)  With the exception of the last time I lived in Ferndale, for a couple of months in 2007, I’ve never had a commute of more than a couple of miles and for most of my working life I’ve walked, biked or taken the bus.  It’s something I’ve prided myself on, low carbon footprint, etc.  I always secretly looked askance at my colleagues who commuted from far away — why didn’t everybody just pick up and move down the street from where they worked like I did?

Hence this lifestyle change has generated some major cognitive dissonance for me.  I already commute to & from work from AMD’s* place in Detroit from time to time and have got the routine down pretty well.  In the morning, I get on the road when it’s still dark, turn on Morning Edition, savor the coffee in my travel mug, and on clear days I get to enjoy the sunrise.  The afternoon is not as pretty, but I have the choice of All Things Considered on 2 different stations (Michigan Radio and WDET) to help me power through, and an excited welcome home from 2 Cairn terriers (and a more low-key kiss from AMD) to look forward to at the journey’s end.

So it’s not that it’s an unpleasant commute; far from it.  It just feels wrong.  Going back at least as far as Sex and the City, my generation has been trained by mass culture that young. childless people get to work by the subway or a similarly urbane method; that hippies, health nuts, and the environmentally conscientious get there by bike; and that a commute by car is reserved for old people with kids and responsibilities.  I’m going to be one of those old people with responsibilities, alone in my car for 90 minutes-plus each day, stuck in traffic, and it’s freaking me out.

*AMD = Astronaut Mike Dexter, aka Fang aka my boyfriend/partner/the old ball & chain.

April 16, 2013

It felt like something was missing, so I’m going to try writing again.

I have started a number of different online blogs and they always end up fizzling out sooner or later.  With Motown To TreeTown, I started it following Penelope Trunk‘s advice that you should focus your blog on a specific topic rather than making it a general “Dear Diary” type blog.  (I’d cite the exact post where she advised this but I can’t find it anymore, and I’ve subsequently realized Penelope Trunk is completely batshit anyway so there’s no point in taking her advice as gospel.)

I was super into urbanism at the time so that’s what I decided to blog about, and I needed a niche, so I focused on my own peculiar geographic circumstances.  And it worked pretty well for about a year and a half.  I pushed myself and kicked out over a hundred posts, many of them quite lengthy.  But eventually I got depressed about the subject matter (because frankly southeast Michigan is kind of an urbanist’s nightmare), distracted by, well, living my life, and tired of spending so much of my spare time in front of a computer screen.  It was starting to feel like work, and I already have 45 hours of that per week not counting time spent commuting.

So I’m back, and I am going to keep my ambitions modest:  1 post per day, 100-200 words, this time no topic constraints.  I thought about starting an entirely new blog and thought, Why bother?  I’ll just keep what I have now and re-brand things as I go.  What’s important is getting the words out.  Eventually I think I’ll just write under my own name and register a domain name like, say, MarkMaynard.com.  But I think I’ll hold off on that til I’m safely and securely self-employed, which may not be too far off.

I’m already at 250 words which is tl;dr so I’m going to wrap this up.  More to come.

Back from the dead (The ghost of Christmas present)

It’s been since April 26, the datestamp tells me, that I last blogged here.

There’s been so much change, both in my life and in the communities I live, over those 8 months, too much to really cover here.  Some of the change has been really awesome (though it appears many of my fellow Ann Arborites would dispute that).  Some of it has been really, really awesome.  I got most of what I wanted this year, politically speaking — more than I could have hoped for.  Even the skyline of Ann Arbor has morphed rapidly this year, as a sequence of student high-rises sprouted from the southeast at Forest & South U north and west to William and Washington streets.  As I type this, a new development is finally going up on a long-abandoned brownfield across from Whole Foods on Washtenaw, one that will spawn perpetual Carmageddon and force UM workers to begin to re-evaluate their commutes.

In my own personal life, I went through a short but shattering break up, followed by a series of at least 3 minor nervous breakdowns.  Cumulatively they made me start to re-evaluate the status quo I’d built for myself since I came to Ann Arbor in 2008.  I still really love in Ann Arbor in some ways.  You don’t need me to tell you it’s a special place.  I think I could be happy here if circumstances were different.  But the closest thing I have to family in Southeast Michigan is in Detroit.  I hate living alone and, as my boo the incomparable Luther Vandross noted, a house is not a home.

I’m in the process of maybe/possibly/probably moving back to Detroit, in the process divesting myself of my cosy and charming condo* in Pittsfield Village (a delightful and welcoming community I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone).  So the focus of this blog, insofar as I bother to update it, might start to shift a bit to reflect that.

For those of you who left me in your Google Reader during the long hibernation of this blog, I hope you continue to follow along, give me a piece of your mind, and direct me toward worthy objects of commentary.

*PS it’s an end unit AND updated with 2 bedrooms less than a 10-minute walk from the #22 or #4, so you really ought to just hurry up and make me an offer already.

Ann Arbor’s (lack of) affordable housing

The city of Ann Arbor had another quixotic forum on sustainability on April 12.

As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Ann Arbor Housing Commission executive director Jennifer Hall oriented attendees to the context of trends in the city’s housing costs:

Ann Arbor’s owner-occupied housing market is getting more expensive compared to other areas nationally. According to data from the National Housing Conference, in 2011 metro Ann Arbor (Washtenaw County) ranked as the 87th most expensive housing market among the nation’s 209 metro areas, Hall reported. The median home price for the Ann Arbor metro area was $162,000. Just two years earlier, the median home price was $136,000, and metro Ann Arbor ranked 132 among the 209 metro areas, she said…

There’s a growing need for more affordable housing in this community, Hall said. A study conducted by the Washtenaw Housing Alliance showed that in 2004, 2,756 people in Washtenaw County reported that they had experienced homelessness. In 2010, that number had grown to 4,738…

Hall also observed that as people search for affordable housing and move further away from where they’d prefer to live, they often increase the amount they pay for transportation to get to work or to necessary services, like grocery stores. That increased cost often isn’t factored in to their housing decisions, she noted, and the more distant location can end up being more expensive overall…

It often seems like the average senior citizen in Ann Arbor is among the city’s most vociferous opponents of densification.  Consequently, it was refreshing to read the commentary at the meeting by former Ann Arbor City Councilmember Eunice Burns, who “described how she’d sold her house to her daughter and son-in-law, and now lives in the home’s garage that was renovated into an apartment for her”:

But because of existing zoning constraints, only a family member can live in an accessory dwelling, she noted – no one will be able to use the apartment when she’s gone. The city’s ordinances need to be revised to allow for more types of dwellings like this for a wider range of people, Burns said…

She recalled that when the city tried to change zoning for accessory dwelling units in the past, it had met with resistance…

The derailed effort that Burns mentioned would have changed the city’s zoning to make it possible for non-family members to live in accessory apartments.

Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, told the audience that the concern had primarily been about neighborhoods close to campus becoming too densely populated…

Another attendee, UM planning professor Doug Kelbaugh, noted

The carbon footprint of those living in the suburbs is dramatically higher than for urban residents… Increasing urban density would have the single greatest impact on reducing that carbon footprint – saving energy, the amount of land that’s used for development, the amount time people spend commuting, and more.

He underlined the central irony of this forum, which is how the city’s efforts toward sustainability can be canceled out by its land use regime:

Kelbaugh said he loves the city’s parkland, but he sometimes thinks there’s too much of it – what the city really needs is more people living downtown. Perhaps parkland is being over-prioritized.

This thought often occurs to me when I drive or bike through the city’s northeast quadrant — the part of town roughly bounded by Huron Parkway to the south and Maiden Lane to the west.  Much of this area is occupied by UM’s North Campus, which provides a beautiful pastoral setting but is, environmentally, a disaster, and increasingly a nightmare for the university from a logistical and transportation standpoint.   Plymouth Road’s commercial strip and the residential neighborhoods to its north are isolated from the rest of town by the finger of countryside.  Huron High School’s rural setting likewise precludes walking to school for most of its students, forcing them to drive or take the bus, increasing traffic congestion and needless costs to the public school district.

Returning to previous speakers’ theme of affordability,

Regarding sustainability and affordable housing, Kelbaugh said the lowest-hanging fruit to address that issue is accessory dwellings. The previous attempt to revise zoning and allow for more flexibility in accessory units was shot down by a “relatively small, relatively wealthy, relatively politically-connected group,” he said. “I don’t think it was a fair measure of community sentiment.”…

There cannot be too many people living downtown, Kelbaugh concluded – the more, the better – and Ann Arbor is far from hitting the upper level of the population it can sustain.

I was reminded of the response of frequent Chronicle commenter Rod Johnson to another recent article on that site concerning a new development off South Main Street:

I’m generally pro-density downtown, but I have to hope that 618 S. Main falls through. It’s just so out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood, just like the Moravian etc. were. I’m not sure exactly where my intuitive boundary of downtown is, but it’s certainly north of Madison.

Acknowledging the aesthetic preference for keeping the neighborhood “at scale,” I would think there’d be a trade-off in the form of additional property taxes & spending at nearby businesses from the residents at 618 S. Main.  It’s easy to forget there are opportunity costs to arbitrarily confining denser development within what is traditionally designated as downtown.

As I’ve often said before, the goal of housing affordability in Ann Arbor continues to be undermined by incumbent homeowners and other residents who may not even live  near downtown, but whose aesthetic and driving preferences  lead them to rigidly cling to the status quo.  Solutions like relaxing the restrictions on accessory units could permit greater density while preserving the scale and historic built environment that preservationists love.  But an outspoken lobby already considers downtown too “congested,” who profess a desire to maintain a “vibrant Main Street” while somehow getting rid of all those pesky humans who keep it vibrant and help businesses there stay open.  (I would encourage them to relocate to downtown Detroit, where they can enjoy the emptiness and ample parking they strive for.)

This fear-driven mentality is what advocates for housing affordability and environmental sustainability are up against.

Why I sometimes ride in the sidewalk

As I’ve noted before, I commute by bike in warm weather.  I take Washtenaw Avenue, which has no bike lanes, from my home all the way up to the Medical Campus.  Because of the aforementioned lack of bike lanes, the high speed limits, and the heavy traffic on this road during my commute hours, I ride mostly on the sidewalk along Washtenaw, contrary to the official state guidelines.

I understand the reasoning behind the League of Michigan Bicyclist’s rule that cyclists should ride in the road, because for various reasons, it’s generally unsafe to ride in sidewalks.  I try to comply with this rule in high-density, slow-traffic areas like downtown Ann Arbor, or in Detroit where the roads typically have plenty of empty lanes.

But I think it’s stupid to say bikes shouldn’t use the sidewalks on stretches of road like Washtenaw which have heavy traffic and high speed limits.  Yes, drivers are supposed to share the road, but on the few times I’ve rode in the street I’ve feared for my life.  Even when following the rules of the road, halting at red lights (which I always do) and sticking to the right hand lanes, I’ve encountered hostility from drivers who want to kill me.  Meanwhile, for most of Washtenaw, the pedestrian presence on the side walk is pretty light.  I slow down and look carefully for drivers whenever I reach an intersection, and halt if I’m not absolutely sure a driver will yield right of way.  When I do get stuck behind a pedestrian, I slow down and go around them, usually on the grass.  I don’t care what the official guidelines are.  They are simply not appropriate for the particular conditions of the route I take, and I don’t see how mindlessly following them makes any sense.