Thursday, August 28, 2008
Monday, August 25, 2008
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
I have been in graduate school too long, and I have become too comfortable with the free lifestyle it offers. After defending my dissertation, I felt a sense of wanderlust I had never felt before. I literally couldn't stand to look at a computer screen, to walk down Beal Street to my lab, or walk down South University to Panchero's to eat my typical burrito. It was just too much of the same of the same of the same every day.
The mind turns inward in graduate school. I became so immersed in my own black hole of thought that I forgot there is a world beyond the same streets I walk every day. It sounds trite. It is trite. It is true. America has plenty of beautiful places and fascinating cites; I don’t think I’ll ever fully explore them all.
But, after traveling around this country, I still find myself wanting to stay in Ann Arbor. My friends have criticized me for becoming too comfortable in grad school and Ann Arbor, and that I risk becoming stagnant (if not already). I’ve always felt rather odd regarding this criticism. One of the joys of graduate school, beyond becoming an independent scientist, is that I have seen the world: most of the United States, Egypt, New Zealand, China, India, Dubai, Europe multiple times, Mexico multiple times, Puerto Rico, etc.... I do not feel the need to leave Ann Arbor to find a new place, as I travel one week a month on average anyway. I enjoy, at the end of things, always coming back to Ann Arbor. And now that I am graduated and have my PhD, I am viewing this town as my home rather than as a place I am simply staying on a long-term visit. Tim, born in the Midwest, staying in the Midwest.
The road trip ended symbolically with my flight back from New York City. From the unpretentious Bopper taking me around the west coast, I rolled back to Detroit in first class, surrounded by suits. After landing and waiting for a special lady to pick me up at the airport, I idled with psychedelic visions of the walkway to Terminal C in my mind.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Since it was a hot day, the fire department had opened up the fire hydrants for people to run through. Not many of the hipsters took advantage of them, but their dogs certainly did.
Bedford Avenue was closed off to traffic, and the streets were full of people enjoying themselves. Having been to New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh in the period of the last three weeks, I am shocked by how beautiful the woman are in cities compared to Ann Arbor. Now Ann Arbor, like any college town, has plenty of pretty gals. But in urban centers, I don't know, women just seem incredibly more stunning than in rural middle America. I hypothesize such dense beauty is due to a number of factors: 1) the women in cities are generally in better shape since they walk a lot, 2) they are generally better dressed or dressed more exotically with the "newest" fashions that are pleasing to the eye due to the novelty, 3) some probably actually are models, 4) cities also have more a diverse population, so there is more of an "exotic" effect and 5) The simplest explanation: there are more women around, so the chance of seeing bombshells is higher. I don't have any pictures of the angels, unfortunately, as I often feel uncomfortable taking pictures of strangers without their permission.
A nice young woman had brought a barrel of sidewalk chalk, and she and her toddler were drawing pictures on the road. I asked if the chalk could be shared, and she happily gave me some of the chalk to draw with. I am, and will continue to be, a notoriously bad drawer, and so I drew the only things I know how to draw: a model of the neocortex column and a spaceship.
Following the walking tour of Williamsburg, we biked to Manhattan to see the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (see post on MOMA here) and visit central park. On the way, I saw a taxi garage, a lovely taxi garage, with plants everywhere hanging from the ceiling.
And then we went to central park. Central park was full of its typical melange of people: troupes of gay men in roller states dancing to music in makeshift rinks, groups of young black kids playing African-inspired percussion instruments, break dancers, lovers, bikers, and the like. I took a brief nap in one of the fields, and then we began to motor on to make it to our Mets game. Thad and I were talking as we were walking our bikes through a crowd on our way out, when a big black guy told us to stop and walk around a touch football game. We had screwed up the last play. I'm sorry, Puff Daddy. He was playing some touch football with his kids, and that was his bodyguard who had told us to watch where we were going.
I actually thought it pretty cool that the hip hop star could enjoy a day in central park like the rest of us, with minimal entourage (one dude), and no one would bother him.
We had tickets to the Mets game, but we had lounged too long in Central Park, so there wasn't enough time to bike out to Queens to make it to Shea Stadium. So...we had to break our own rule of not taking the subway anywhere on this trip. We were those guys, bringing our bikes on the subway.
The next day had some rather nasty weather, but we tried to make it to a free concert in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, it was packed beyond capacity, so we met one of my old friends from Ann Arbor for dinner, and we spent the reminder of the night playing dominoes.
What a drag. I was ready to go home, and I had to get back to work anyway to work on my dissertation revisions and manuscripts. But, like staying at a party two hours longer than you want to, even though you liked the party, I had another day in New York City. I spent most of it in an internet cafe working on a manuscript that was due in two days. Some of the local hipsters would come in and out, and I particularly noticed this one gal who came in with her Boston Terrier. I normally hate these dogs..so yappy and alien looking, but this one was incredibly well behaved while its owner was surfing the net. I asked the cute gal if I could take a picture of her and her dog, and she laughed and said it was fine. I also enjoyed how her shirt was a shirt in name only.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Monday, August 4, 2008
Friday, August 1, 2008
Such being my dreary state, driving through hot, humid Arkansas was still rather fun.
While on I-30, a Jeep full of cutie pie black girls kept passing us, and we passing them, on the highway for about half an hour. They were heckling us and Bopper, saying things to the variation of "You need to pimp that thang!" but with a good-natured smile. I would occasionally jokingly yell back about how Bopper didn't need any modification.
Later on that day, we saw a Lexus pulled over by the side of the road and a black guy trying to flag people down for help while his family and friends sat miserably in the heat under an overpass. Given that we had been helped in New Mexico and weren't in any particular hurry, we stopped to see what he needed.
They had a flat tire, but the man didn't have the right socket on his tire iron to remove the lug nuts for his car. He asked me if I had any tools.
I have dreamed of this moment.
Do I have any tools? Sir, how about a full mobile garage? I dug* through my trunk....
*Note: My trunk latch had failed in Austin, so the only way to access all my gear in the trunk was by digging and scrounging through a hole in the back seat which I had ripped off the frame. That was fun in the 90 degree humid heat.
....gave him a full socket set, a 2 foot long socket wrench, and a 2.5 foot long torque wrench. I guarantee no one on the highway, besides maybe a travelling mechanic, had the extensive tools I had. The man was jubilant with my tools (he actually wanted to buy some off me, but I said I was on the road and might need them later). Sure enough, the man had his tire removed and replaced in no time. I looked at his car, a 90's era brown Lexus, and I noticed his tires had absolutely no tread. I said to his friend, "Wow, are these aftermarket racing tires?" I genuinely thought they were, as they looked like Goodyear flat rubber racing tires. The man changing the tire said, "No they're not. I know they need to be replaced. I was going to change them next weekend." They were normal tires, just completely worn! Wow, I guess if it never snows you can get away with it.
He wanted to give me money for helping him, but Eric and I wouldn't accept it. We just told him that the next time he sees folks on the road in need, help them. He said he would, but he still shoved a $20 in my shirt pocket anyway. He wouldn't take no for an answer.
We finally rolled into Memphis at 10 PM that night and tried to check into the hostel. Now, Eric had checked in with his cell phone, so we had rather cryptic instructions via text message on how to get into the hostel. The hostel turned out to be a converted church, and when we pulled up there were two British lads trying desperately to get in. No one was answering the door. Luckily for them we showed up, and we entered the door codes to get in.
And then frightening happened.
There was NO ONE there! No one is the hostel! No one at the desk, no one in any of the rooms. The Brits kept saying, "This is mental man! It's like a horror movie yeah?" I did check the refrigerators for severed heads. There weren't any.
We knew Memphis was a happening place, and it was Saturday night, so we figured maybe everyone went out to Beal street for the night (but shouldn't there should be at least one nerd reading a book on the couch?), so we dropped our stuff off on random beds in the hostel and caught a cab out to Beal Street and the Home of the Blues.
Lots and lots of black people on Beal Street; white folks are minorities there. I dug it. The street was closed off, and people were walking around drinking beers watching, dancing, and listening to the street musicians. We had four hours to kill since some of the clubs didn't close until 4 AM, so we walked around for a bit and Eric and I got a kick out the British lads speaking of their sexual escapades with American women (some of their exploits were lovely, some were funny, and some were rather disgusting (i.e. soiling the trousers)).
After the street musicians began to wrap up, We decided to walk into a club called Blues City Cafe and see a band that sounded pretty rockin' from outside.
Now as a music snob, I've heard a lot of live music. I've heard a lot of GOOD live music. But mostly I have heard musicians in their 20's and 30's performing some variant of rock or country music with guitars, keyboards, drums, or some combination thereof. But I was not prepared for what I heard in the Blues City Cafe; I witnessed the tightest blues-rock band I had ever heard, and they were just some house band called Freeworld! The band consisted of about 10 members, from vatos in their 20's to dudes in their 70's with multiple combinations of horns, flutes, guitars, basses, drums, and numerous vocalists. When they went into a 20-minute improvisation version of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," Eric and I just sat there, shaking our head in disbelief at just how damn good they sounded.
I particularly liked one of the players, an old man periodically playing the flute and alto saxophone. During a break, I went up to him and complemented him on his playing. He turned out to be incredibly friendly and warmed up to us rather quickly. He ended up talking to Eric and I for most of the night in-between sets, regaling us with stories about the course of his long career. He had played with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the like in his earlier days; you can see a picture of a younger version of him in the middle of the photo below playing next to B.B. King.
And a picture of him playing now.
His name is Herman Green, and he has a star on Beal Street. He serves as a sometime musician and spiritual leader for the band Freeworld, and at 80 years old, he still rocks, still dances, and still flirts with the pretty gals in the club (and in a charming way that old men can sometimes pull off). Neither Eric nor I brought our camera out that night; all we had was Eric's camera phone, in the night no less. But forgive me gentle reader. Here is a pic of Herman's star on Beal Street.
And at the end of the night, we took a picture with him and the cutie-pie waitresses. In this grainy image, I am on the left, then a waitress, another waitress, Eric, and Herman standing outside the cafe.
The police started to clear up the streets, and we found a cab back to the hostel with an Ethiopian woman cab driver who spoke Amharic all the way back home on her cell phone. The hostel was still incredibly creepy, but we were so tired (and drunk?) we just passed out on any random bed that was available.
When we woke up the next morning, there were people roaming around, so I guess that confirmed we were staying at a normal hostel. When we looked at the chore board, sure enough, Eric and I had been assigned chores to clean the bathroom! What!? No one answering the door? No notification from any human being whatsoever the night before? Sleeping on random bare mattresses? Eric grabbed our chore card off the wall, looked at me, said, "this is bulls**t dude, let's get out of here." And, trying to hold grins off our faces, we crept out of that hostel and got the hell out of there, having never talked to a single person. We had to do some backtracking to get back our way on the highway, but we were able to get a lovely view of crossing the Mississippi during daylight hours.
The next morning we crossed the Ohio river and I got that familiar sinking feeling. Why is it that Kentucky is interesting but Ohio is not? You have deep Southern accents in Kentucky, but you cross the Ohio River, and suddenly you are in bland Ohio (give or take 50 miles of Southern Ohio where it is still hilly and rural.) My mind kept saying, "Oh my, Tim, you have traveled around this wonderful county, and now you have to come back. But be still your heart, at least you can have one last adventure before going back to Ann Arbor by heading out to New York City after the NIC conference." But when we stopped in Columbus for gas, the disaster with Bopper's head gasket began.
But I did make it up to Cleveland (over four hours to cover the last 100 miles), and I was able to attend the conference in a badly damaged Bopper. I hob-nobed with some scientists, talked about my future with some potential future scientific collaborators, and I also saw the coolest poster ever that qualifies as modern art. It's from Bill Shain's group at the Wadsworth center in New York.
But my mind was also elsewhere with my car troubles. I made friends with a local cab driver who drove me around town over the next couple days while I tried to figure out what to do with Bopper.
I eventually found out I was done. Bopper was prohibitively expensive toast to the tune to $3000 if I had it fixed by professional mechanics. I had to rent a U-Haul for $300 at the end of the conference and tow Bopper back to Ann Arbor. My great American road trip was cut short, and that was that.