Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Ann Arbor memories

I went to Ann Arbor a week and a half ago for an overnight business trip. I always enjoy this trip, which I usually take once a year, if the budget permits.

Two years before I moved to DC, I spent the summer in Ann Arbor. I had a traineeship for which I did almost nothing, mostly because I had no idea what I was supposed to do. In theory, I was using a particular dataset to develop my dissertation topic. It turned out that the data were not appropriate for what I wanted to do—eventually I dumped the data and kept the topic. But during that summer I spent a lot of time running SAS programs and generating useless output. I felt guilty for getting paid, even if it was only for 20 hours a week at $10/hour.

I had quite a nice time otherwise. I was worried about going because I thought I would be lonely. I remembered how hard it was to move to Chapel Hill, where I only had a single friend. I'd been miserable for months. In Ann Arbor, I knew no one.

Yet, everyone I met was very friendly and they took particular pains to include me in things. For example, when I mentioned to my officemate that I wanted to see the Mariners play the Tigers, she invited me to the game with her and her husband. Word got around that I was a baseball fan and another guy in the office invited me to a different game that same weekend. (Yes, I went to two Mariners games, two days in a row.) A graduate student who tried (and failed) to help me arrange housing became a summer friend and we went to dinner and played tennis a few times. Also, my friend, Spesh, was around for a few days here and there and I hung out with him and his friend, Josh.

I found a place to live in one of the Ann Arbor co-ops. I sent an email to someone at the main office and didn't hear anything for while. I wasn't even sure if it were possible to let a room just for the summer. Then I got a message saying, "Linder House voted and you can stay here this summer." So I did. I had a brief scare when I thought they put me in a double instead of a single, but they hadn't, so I was happy. I was in a tiny room on the third floor of an old Victorian house. There was no a/c, which is pretty necessary for a Michigan summer, but I survived.

While most of the people in the house were a lot younger than me, it didn't matter. They were all friendly and even dragged me out of my room when I was doggedly doing a paint-by-numbers thing for my brother's wedding (long story, best left for another time).

I was enamored of the co-op concept, where everyone had a job and a stake in the house. I asked several times in my first week what my job was, but it took them a long time to assign me something. Then, in the second summer session, I was voted "work manager," which meant that I had to make the work assignments and ensure everyone did their job. That was ridiculous and I didn't enjoy it, but what could I do? I was pleased to have been nominated for something, even if knew it was because no one else wanted the job.

I rarely used my car that summer. I remember spending an afternoon in the living room attaching a speedometer to my bike that I'd picked up at a yard sale while listening to This American Life for the first time. Members of the house passed through and tried to help me. I went on a few short rides with a guy in the house who may have had a crush on me. I did my grocery shopping and clothing shopping on the bike. The only time I drove the car was once to Detroit and to the malls that were not too far to bike to, but too unfriendly to navigate. I would bring my bike into shops with me, if possible and no one ever said boo about it. It was a much better biking town than Chapel Hill (or DC, for that matter).

Somehow, I also got connected with a practice softball game. I'd show up once a week for practice and go for drinks with them afterwards, but I never played in the "real" games.

I still had plenty of free time and I spent most of it reading. I was there for eight weeks and I read fourteen novels. Not all of them were crap, either. I read Gore Vidal for the first time. Good stuff.

I also had one romantic encounter. We had a party at my house and towards the end of the evening there was a bike race—just around the block. I declined to participate, but I loaned my bike (which was then almost brand-new) to this guy, David, who I'd been flirting with. He was mighty impressed. And we flirted tons more. There was a drop-by, a coffee date and then a party at his house. That's where I learned that he had a girlfriend in New York. He waited a good long time to tell me about her. It seemed a particularly cruel turn of fate, since my issues with the then already ex-important grad school boyfriend, Tom, had centered around his girlfriend in New York. But I still made out with David and even spent the night in his room (fully clothed). And then I didn't call him. At least not until two days before I left town. We had coffee in the morning the day I drove back to Chapel Hill. I've never spoken to him since.

During that summer I also realized that if I didn't change advisors, I'd never finish my PhD. A grad school friend was in town for a week to teach a class and I had lunch with her one day. I poured out my advisor woes to her. She was sympathetic but couldn't really understand how bad it was for me, since her advisor was a great, supportive guy. My advisor thought I was stupid. That conversation, which we couldn't have had in Chapel Hill, helped make it clear to me what I needed to do. It wasn't that I hadn't know for a good long while, but this time, I finally succeeded. I changed to my new advisor as soon as I got back and it was one of the best decisions I ever made in grad school.

P.S. When I was in the Detroit airport I spotted a sign for the "Religious Reflection Room." What the heck? I think it's ok to call it a chapel—that's a nondenominational word, after all.

Grateful for: Ann Arbor.
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