Tag Archives: spring

Material goods

April 26, 2014

As Earth Week’s burst of cheerful ecofriendly activity winds down and families return to business as usual, refueling their SUVs, tossing the children’s recycled-paper crafts into their recycling bins, and forgeting to water Arbor Day’s newly planted trees, I’ll probably just be taking another walk. Very slowly.


On Earth Day, I tested out another pair of new shoes, taking, with adequate trepidation, a stroll in a pair of Vapor Gloves by Merrell. Sunshine was abundant, the magnolias were blooming, distractions from painful feet were burgeoning lushly on all sides. It was the first time I’ve worn shoes in a few weeks since irritating a painful nerve over my heel bone, so careful movement was in order. The Vapor Gloves are soft and giving, with thin, highly flexible rubber soles and ethereal fabric uppers. This particular pair is an overwhelmingly neon green with various shades of bright aquas and cobalts. The swirling designs look kind of like cascading water, or like the planet Earth, if you forget the clouds and crayon it all in with bright clip-art colors.


One of the many things I love about walking is the minimal equipment required. Anyone can do it, anywhere. No one needs high performance running shoes or trekking poles or tennis rackets or golf courses to experience the benefits of movement and the outdoors. Walking is about as egalitarian as fitness gets (competitive walking being a thing of the past, that is). It should be that simple.

The trouble started when I began looking for a new pair of shoes, a months-long and ongoing process that has been figuratively and literally torturous. A pair of new grey boots wouldn’t break in and slipped unrepentantly over the back of my foot. Limping past Run Detroit one night, I figured I’d give it a try. Despite my reluctance to ever become a runner, maybe something with laces was in order. When I got around to visiting the store one afternoon, co-owner Justin took time out of a busy day to tell me, in an impressively unevangelical way, lots about running footwear and his inspiring daily commutes across the city. As he helped me into weird-fangled shoes by New Balance, Nike, and Altra, and watched me plod around on the sidewalk in front of the store, he also introduced me to what must be the most wonderful term in shoe technology: zero drop.

Zero drop means that there’s no incline in the sole of the shoe that elevates the heel, a common feature of running shoes since manufacturers started making specialized footwear for the sport. This incline is something I’ve never become used to, having walked, run, or climbed in whatever regular sneakers I have at the time. Zero drop shoe soles range from well-padded to the more recognizable minimalist or barefoot shoes, encompassing Vibram’s Five Finger oddity to Merrell’s more socially-acceptable sporty line to Vivobarefoot‘s lovely casual shoes. Run Detroit doesn’t sell barefoot shoes, reasoning that most overpronating people will injure themselves silly with them, but following Justin’s generous assessment of my form, I was told that barefoot shoes should be no problem. After realizing that I could fold or roll up most of my favorite past walking shoes just like the fancy barefoot zero-drop shoes, they seemed like the next logical option.


Merrell, actually a sort-of Michigan-based company, has a serious corner on the barefoot-whatever market, but the Vapor Glove seems to be their only real minimalist shoe in a line of supposed barefoot footwear. I spent a few days with the heftier Bare Access Arc 3 (what happened to the name for this product?), another zero-drop shoe with 8mm of “cushion.” Cushion may not be the best word for whatever comprises the sole of these things. It’s hard and incredibly rigid, hinging in a strange way under the ball of the foot that makes my toes go numb after a couple miles. The sole has a peculiar contour, dipping back under the heel so that the foot might unexpectedly rock backward across what feels like a sharp plane. There was nothing about these that evoked the purported stability or comfort of being barefoot.

The Bare Access Arc 3s have the wide toebox of most barefoot shoes, but run narrow through the arch and heel, which snugly hugged my foot. The uppers are no less severe than the sole, and despite a superb lacing job, the stiff material of the heel nagged at my foot so hard I felt an eruption of pain, as though my calcaneous had been ripped off. After removing the offending shoe in an alley downtown and actually barefooting it the rest of the way through the usual detritus, the pair was retired vindictively to their box.

I made it partway through Earth Week in the Vapor Gloves before I found myself listlessly staring through my car windshield at a store I needed to navigate. An ad airing on WDET informed me that April was Foot Health Awareness Month according to the useless American Podiatric Medical Association, whose website serves as a referral service for their members and otherwise just instructs readers to wear flip-flops only if they have adequate arch support. I limped across the parking lot, an area about as sad and un-rambling and un-Detroit as it gets. At least with the subtle reflective stripes on my Merrells I might be less likely to get mowed down by drivers as I inched around. Driving on the highway, the pain was unabating and ridiculous. I gingerly withdrew my left foot from the shoe.

The Vapor Gloves sit in their box, now on top of the box holding the Bare Access Arc 3s, which are still muddy from that final alley they traversed a month ago. “Let’s Get Outside!” the boxes mockingly suggest. Even with rest, intermittent icing, and a wholehearted return to my non-APMA-approved flip-flops, I can’t bend my feet, and a deep burning has overtaken my arches. Companies like Merrell and Vivobarefoot aren’t kidding when they advise caution in acclimating to the new shoes, but, shockingly, even utmost caution in wearing won’t save feet from shoes that just don’t fit.


So here are four more pieces of plastic made somewhere in Asia that will end up in a landfill. I hardly feel like I’ve reduced my carbon footprint in honor of Earth Day this year, but at least Merrell, under their flimsy guise of sustainability and greenness donates returned and lightly used shoes to people in need of footwear both domestically and internationally, so I can be assured that my used shoes will soon be either for sale a a Goodwill shop somewhere, or freighted to whichever part of the world has the most convincing disaster relief fund set up. Additionally, the company touts themselves as one of the largest consumers of wind energy in Michigan, and have created a whole 3.5 miles of walking trails at their Rockford, MI headquarters, outfitted with birdhouses and pious goodwill.

Part of Earth Week is reconnecting people with the planet, which is just what barefoot shoe manufacturers claim to do. This is hardly a comfort, relying on global conglomerates to make me feel better about my connection with the earth by purchasing $100 worth of overdesigned, crummily-produced luxury items. It’s a shame to capitalize on the simple act of walking on the ground. The illusion of barefootedness is fun, but it’s hard to get out and do anything without shoes. As some call for the end of Earth Days, denouncing them as a counterproductive bandaid of a holiday standing in the way of action or conversation about real issues, it’s all the more sad to spend the day walking in circles, preoccupied with these material goods.


Spring cleaning

March 25, 2014

Nothing particularly exciting happened to mark the flip of seasons last week. The equinox came and quietly went with a little fuss of wind. Days are 2 minutes and 53 seconds longer. Today it’s been snowing. People groan and make small talk, wishing the weather would break. A breath of fresh air, a cool glass of water.


It seems that someone has decided it’s time for spring cleaning anyway. For the past two weeks, toothbrushes have been materializing everywhere, in all conditions, minty fresh to old and scrubby. Is there a new dentist in town, handing out freebies? A clean-teeth evangelist making rounds?


An odd flush of toothbrushes isn’t the only anomaly to puzzle sidewalk users — repeated instances of a particular item will appear in the tight space of a week or two, then vanish. If not all over the city, this is at least the case in the small wedge I most often explore. At the end of February, citrus peels suddenly decorated the snowbanks. Why did pedestrians go so nuts about fruit in that moment? Warm enough for picnics already? Citrus on sale? (Citrus sale happens in January, too). A viral listicle enumerating the health benefits of oranges? What can account for this peculiarity? As mysteriously as they began, the appearances of bright mandarin rinds, half-eaten grapefruits, and smushed clementines ceased abruptly about two weeks later. I can’t wait to see what the world comes up with for April Fool’s next week.


In another type of spring cleaning, Detroiters shooed out the dweeby Nain Rouge again this weekend, hooting and hollering over the 0.9 mile trek through the Cass Corridor to banish the legendary demon. After standing around getting wasted outside Traffic Jam for an hour, the parade slowly threaded south, past new parking lots and imminently shuttering businesses. This obliviousness to history and environment seems to be part of the new tradition of the march. Allegedly a revival of the French colonists’ annual rite to bring peace to their city by chasing the evil red man out, this story is really, as one of the parade organizers admitted to radio producer and journalist Mike Blank in 2011, a complete fabrication. It seems instead to be, if anything historic, an appropriation of Ottawa myth.


There was sun but it was chilly, and the march seemed much smaller than past years, though certainly no more shabby. Most people were in costume, except the uniformed cops benevolently corking sidestreets. Amid drag queens and hotdogs and people with grotesque masks there was a funeral procession for Capitol Park, some kind of perambulating coffin setup attended by a cluster of people in black clutching umbrellas. The whole effect was comic; despite the spangles, it was slightly reminiscent of goths in high school. Their presence is appreciated, but these are probably not the same kids who would offer to help the evictees move out of their apartments this week in the hideously rebranded Albert building.



While there were important messages to be conveyed, few seemed to be in the mood to send or receive them. It was a Sunday, and these people are called ‘revelers’ taking part in a ‘parade’ for a reason. Inebriation and spirits were high, and questioning the debatable history or political correctness of the march was out of the question. One person told me that he cared a lot about our neighborhood but really just wanted to drink tequila with his soccer team. Whatever, I say, as long as it gets people walking. After a dull speech by the Nain, revelers quickly dispersed north toward the starting point or descended into the bowels of the Masonic Temple for the afterparty.


Unlike previous years, nobody even touched Cass Park, which isn’t all bad — less spring cleanup. One resident muttered that having people in the park might not be the best idea anyway, given the creaky trees and downed branches. Did I want some firewood?, he asked. Mike Ilitch doesn’t seem to out there making good on the pledge to make or keep the park a functional greenspace. With the ominous shifting of land and narrative, the march just wasn’t as fun this time as previous years. Whether the march is what they say it is or not, Detroit needs fun, and it’s hard to argue against such earnest attempts at it. But must fun come with a certain amnesia?

Today the ground and bushes on Canfield and on Cass are brightened by dyed feathers and snippets of ribbon. I imagine a lot of the unfamiliar faces I saw on Sunday back in their elsewhere, recollecting a boozy memory of the weekend gone by. The wind scrubs clean the shrubs bit by bit, Detroiters lose their toothbrushes, and flowers come up soft and unsoiled.



March 17, 2014

The first flower I saw this spring was probably the brightest I’ll see for a while. Leaving the 15th annual Alley Culture seed exchange, spring was on the radar, and a flourishing of pink projected up from the scrubby grass of the sidewalk margin. It was a fake flower was stuck in the ground. (Alley Culture’s always highly-anticipated spring newsletter is out, with a generous blurb about rambling to remind you of our next walk on April 6).


Today’s walk was 25 degrees and sunny, wind stinging cheeks and ears. Plants have been on their way up for some time now, the spiky fronds of daffodils poking out of the ground like pineapple tops, welcoming and waving, like “Aloha — warm weather.” It’s reassuring to see something green emerge from the subsiding snowbanks, unlike the dismaying quantities of dog poop mounded on grassy stretches and sidewalks alike. (Prentis and Third dog owners, for shame! Get your shit together. Literally.) It was, of course, just a matter of time before something bloomed.


The first real flowers I’ve seen this season, a scant three days before the equinox, are Galanthus nivalis, commonly called snowdrops or snowbells and less often referred to as “February fairmaids” or “dingle-dangle.” They were coming up against the south-facing shelter of a big stone church amid some twiggy bushes that I mostly ignored and whose name I don’t yet know.


The name ‘snowdrop’ can be traced back to 1633, when the revised edition of London botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s enormous tome Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes appeared. Although it makes enough sense visually (the tenacious plants pushing up through snow; the white flower hanging droplike from its stem), no one seems to be sure exactly where it came from. In the initial 1597 run of his book, Gerard was referring to it as the “Timely flowring Bulbus violet.” Some say the change may have been of German influence, the word Schneetropfen being a type of earring popular around that time. Whatever their name, they’re a most pleasant zeitgeber.

Incidentally — or not; it’s not as though there are plentiful floral options available this time of year — snowbells or snowdrops are practically the official flower of Dragobete, the ancient Romanian Valentine’s holiday celebrated nearly a month ago now. Tradition instructs girls and boys to pick snowdrops or other early-flowering things as a gift for the person they’re sweet on.

Despite the photographic evidence otherwise, I do actually walk places; I don’t just crawl around on the sidewalks, rummaging through bushes. On the subject of weird walks and a sudden flourishing, the West Coast’s crazy toast person, the one single-handedly responsible for the rise of the humble slice of Maillard-reactioned bread to artisanal fetish object, makes an appearance on This American Life this week. In her walks around San Francisco, she doesn’t literally crawl through any brambly bushes either, but the metaphor might not be a bad fit.

Giulietta Carrelli, zesty proprietor of The Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club, has schizoaffective disorder, which sometimes leaves her wandering the city for twelve hours at a time, hallucinating and lost, unable to recognize even herself. John Gravois, 35-year-old non-hipster and father of two, was the unlikely investigator into the origins of the toast trend. In a version gently dumbed down for radio, Gravois narrates, “She remembers this one episode, a long delusional walk though San Francisco, during which she called police to let them know a tree had fallen on top of her, which it hadn’t. And finally Guilietta found herself at China Beach, in the northwest part of town. On the sundeck was an elderly man, sitting on a towel, wearing a speedo, sunbathing on a cloudy day that suggested anything but.” Guilietta chimes in, “His socks always matched his sweater — no matter what. I was always amazed by that. But he was mostly in a Speedo, tanning.”

Gravois says, “This would be the beginning of the beginning for Giulietta and Trouble Coffee.” He describes her in her uniform of crop tops and headscarves, covered in tattoos, even her permanently-freckled cheeks, “like a biker Pippi Longstocking.” Like Pippi, you never know what you’ll find out on a walk. Flowers, a decent This American Life podcast in your headphones, Holocaust survivors relaxing in Speedos, who knows.

UPDATE 03.18.14:
What you’ll find out on a walk today is … more flowers. While these buttery yellow crocuses caught my attention, my attention caught a dog’s attention, and my camera’s attention wandered off into some other depth of field. The dog did not stop to smell the flowers, but it did smell me.


Walking — it’s for the birds!

March 4, 2014

When the tide of conventional holidays slogging by fails to inspire, or when they’ve passed unacknowledged, it’s reassuring to have something else going on, something better. Late on Valentine’s? Don’t care for dead roses and gobs of cheap chocolate? Be all the more romantic celebrating Dragobete, while perhaps affecting a bright spot of good in the world.


Dragobete, a Romanian Valentine’s holiday taking place since ancient times antedating Romania itself, is celebrated on February 24, marking the beginning of spring. It’s “the day the birds are betrothed,” when they begin to seek mates and construct their nests. Humans are more or less expected to do the same.

As Wikipedia has it, “If the weather allows, girls and boys pick snowdrops or other early spring plants for the person they are courting. Maidens used to collect the snow that lay on the ground in many villages and then melt it, using the water in magic potions throughout the rest of the year. Those who take part in Dragobete customs are supposed to be protected from illness, especially fevers, for the rest of the year.” There’s also a bit about singing together after gathering the vernal flowers, but as much as singing relates to the well-being of birds, the karaoke can wait for another occasion.

It’s well before the vernal equinox, and hardly a thing springlike outside, but all the more reason to collectively attempt to banish the midwinter and its blues. (It seems that ancient Romanians didn’t expect spring to show up after Dragobete, either — another spring-bringing holiday associated with fertility, Mărțișor, is scheduled just a week later on March 1). On the Sunday we finally got around to belatedly showing the birds what our best wishes were made of, it was rainy and 46 degrees in Bucharest, Romania — certainly a higher proportion of spring to winter than the bitter 11 degrees we endured here.

We sensibly started with some warming tea. Kukicha, or twig tea, nested in one pot, and the green lushness of stinging nettles steeped fragrantly in another. Perched on the table next to bowls of trail mix fixings was birdseed toast accompanied by homemade mulberry preserves, mulberries being an apparent favorite of birds around here. Brownies made with buckwheat and sour cherry, the fruit harvested on walks around town, would have probably been enjoyed by birds as well. Mulberries seem like a greater hit with birds than the cherries, but the bias may come from the telltale seasonal splotches of bird poop inked dark by berries.

Leftovers, food bloggers, leftovers.

Leftovers, food bloggers, leftovers.

Tea is just ceremony; the most important part of the Dragobete celebration is offering the birds some avian housewarmers to ease early nesting dilemmas. We rounded up our bags of hair clippings from the winter’s haircuts, or the morning’s hairbrushing, in the case of one superb brushwad encased in a small paper bag, and some of us bravely snipped offerings on the spot, including one person who literally went under the knife to harvest a lock. We set off at dusk in the general direction of “more fields,” which are less numerous nearby given recent fruitless destruction of bird habitats.

Plastic bag full of hair, wandering up Grand River. Wonder how many of those there are.

Plastic bag full of hair, wandering up Grand River. Wonder how many of those there are.

Once, there was a streetlight. This teacup of hair was briefly illuminated.

Once, there was a streetlight. This teacup of hair was briefly illuminated.

We trudged through the snow for a couple miles, eventually finding some nice fields skirting stands of promising scrubby little trees. The snow was etched with bird tracks unidentifiable to me, hopefully birds that enjoy nesting in our silky split ends. The wind funnelled the hair hither and thither. It was very quiet. We wondered where the birds were sleeping.

This is primarily a picture of wind.

This is primarily a picture of wind.


Of course we could have just thrown the hair out the window and been done with it, but over the years the holiday has evolved to incorporate a longer and longer walk — and what holiday, especially those celebrating the rhythms of nature, isn’t better for that?

Much thanks to everyone who took part in making spring a more probably reality for our avian neighbors. Next year, bird house construction party? Field guide reading group?