My Scary Mommy essay about how Facebook made my high school reunion more fun and meaningful

fullsizeoutput_14f3In recent years, Facebook has become the go-to scapegoat – or, as I like to call it, “blame piñata” – for nearly all society’s social ills. Our tribalism, our short attention spans, our loneliness.

Occasionally, though, an experience demonstrates how social media can be an honest-to-God blessing, and lay the groundwork for a surprisingly meaningful experience.

Months ago, for instance, I got a Facebook invitation for an unofficial, informal 30th high school reunion – at a bar in my hometown, the night before Thanksgiving – I simultaneously thought “Nope!” and mentally checked my availability.

I mean, my family wasn’t traveling anywhere for the holiday, I currently live only about a half hour away from my Michigan hometown, and that square on my calendar happened to be blank.

But I’d also, in high school, been a pretty forgettable band nerd in a class of more than 400 people, many of whom had chosen to move back and raise their kids in that same town. So I had the sense that a lot of the reunion’s attendees would be the people who saw each other regularly, anyway, and had sustained close friendships with each other over the decades.

I, on the other hand, had re-connected with just a modest handful of high school acquaintances via social media, mostly after attending the one “official” reunion we’ve had since graduation (the 20th, in 2009).

This was partly a function of how not-present I’d been in high school. So consumed was I at the time with boyfriends, grades, and getting into a good college that precious little from my adolescence has endured.

So what could I possibly hope for from attending this slapdash reunion? Wouldn’t it simply reinforce the neurotic sense of invisibility that is my middle-child default setting? READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode story about how Farmington is carefully reopening its downtown

Screen Shot 2019-06-15 at 8.34.51 PMThe process of slowly, safely re-opening up businesses in downtown Farmington has mirrored the gradual arrival of spring.

We’ve had to be patient, but we’ve also reveled in each small sign of change.

Like when Silver Dairy, Farmington’s iconic, seasonal ice cream stand, announced that it would open for drive-through service only, beginning on the first of May, two lanes of cars circled the building for much of opening day.

And when the Farmington Farmers Market (FFM) re-opened on May 16th – as originally scheduled, but with fewer-than-usual vendors and a number of restrictions in place (i.e., only one person per party allowed; social distancing and face masks required; no touching the produce; no personal shopping bags; etc.) – more than 500 attendees cautiously ventured to Sundquist Pavilion.

“Opening the market after its been in cold storage for six months is daunting on its own, even without having to overhaul your model on the basis of a pandemic,” says FFM manager Walt Gajewski, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 near the start of the quarantine. “We studied state guidelines, CDC guidelines, Michigan Department of Agriculture guidelines, Farmers Market Association guidelines – all of that. We scoured the internet for best practices for online pre-ordering and curbside pick-up methods and social distancing, both customer to vendor and customer to customer, and how to mark the space.” READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode story about how Farmington businesses are streaming content to stay connected to quarantined customers

Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 12.09.04 PMIf the intoxicating scent of fresh-baked bread permeated Farmington’s air on Sunday, April 26th, it’s probably because 330 quarantined locals bought $5 baking kits and tuned in to Sunflour Bakehaus’ nearly five hour, free, live-streamed bread-making class.

“It seemed like almost everybody we knew was baking bread with us at the same time, which was really cool,” said Sunflour co-owner Becky Burns, whose husband, Jeff Pavlik, led the workshop in their home’s kitchen. “ … At first, we thought we were going to sell maybe 50 kits, but then it got to a point where making more kits seemed to be the only thing we were doing.”

Sunflour’s hugely popular bread-baking class is just one example of several downtown Farmington businesses’ attempts to serve, and stay connected with, their quarantined customer base via online tools like YouTube, Facebook Live, and Zoom. READ THE REST HERE

My UMMA feature about Courtney McClellan’s ‘Witness Lab’ installation

Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 12.11.56 PMA courtroom has always been an emotionally charged space.

It’s where ideas and memories are challenged; conflicting argument are voiced; and our sense of justice is either frustrated or satisfied by a judge’s (or a jury’s) ruling.

Yet this inherent tension is precisely what inspired Courtney McClellan to create Witness Lab, a performance-activated installation at UMMA’s Stenn Gallery (February 5-May 17), co-presented by the Roman J. Witt Residency Program at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design.

Resembling an austere courtroom painted in shades of blue of white, Witness Lab invited visitors to consider the relationship between performance and the law, as well as the concept of witnessing as a social and artistic act.

Programmed events, meanwhile, explored the deep connection between the courtroom’s function and its physical space.

“Chloe Root’s Community High School mock trial team opened Witness Lab,” said McClellan, who hails from Greensboro, North Carolina. “They were really engaged and made me so hopeful about the impact of the project, but also the importance of practice and learning at even an early age.” READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode feature about how Farmington restaurants/food specialty stores have adapted during quarantine

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Sunflour Bakehaus co-owners Becky Burns and Jeff Pavlik. (Photo by David Lewinski)

About a week and a half ago, when I started working on this story, five of the six local restaurants/food specialty stores I’d planned to contact were still conducting business – albeit in a limited way – in downtown Farmington during the Coronavirus quarantine.

When I started actually writing, the number had dwindled to three.

This has become the new COVID-19 “normal” – which is to say, a time of constant change – since Michigan schools (and other places where people gather) began the process of shutting down on Friday, March 13th.

“I remember leaving work that day, and I counted fourteen open spots in the back parking lot,” said Jeff Pavlik, co-owner of Sunflour Bakehaus. “You’d never usually see that many spots open in downtown Farmington on a Friday night.”

This was only the first of several striking signs of the times, as sidewalks and streets emptied, and local restaurants and food specialty stores scrambled to adapt to a carryout- and delivery-only model.

“Previous to the COVID crisis, we only had online ordering for ice cream cakes,” said Browndog Barlor and Restaurant co-owner Paul Gabriel. “The platform we were using really was not the best platform to use for restaurant ordering. …We had to pivot to a completely different platform overnight, build out our entire menu, and test everything to ensure it functions. That was a monumental task to pull off in 24 hours. The system is still not perfect, but we’re learning as we go.” READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode essay about what the start of the Coronavirus quarantine felt like in Farmington

When I first started writing stories about Farmington for Metromode, late in 2018, WDET’s Jerome Vaughn asked me what defined our tiny town’s spirit.

“People who live there and spend time there really want to know each other and interact with each other,” I’d told him.

And it’s true. Whether we’re running into dog-walking friends downtown, or spontaneously clustering on the sidewalk, chatting with neighbors at dusk, Farmington residents are generally a hyper-social bunch.

So how are we faring during this Coronavirus quarantine, when we can’t do one of the things we love and value most?

Well, it’s been hard, obviously. When I venture outdoors with my daughters each day, I can’t escape the sense that we’re all suddenly existing in adjacent, single-family ghost towns, like something out of a “Twilight Zone” episode.

But every now and then, thankfully, I’ll also be surprised by something lovely. READ THE REST HERE

My Metromode feature about Farmington’s role in the Underground Railroad

Rochelle E. Danquah successfully nominated Nathan Power’s gravesite, along Gill Rd., for inclusion in the National Underground Railroad Network. (Photo by David Lewinski)

The first time that Farmington’s Laura Vestrand – a communications director for the Detroit Institute of Arts who recently began serving on Farmington’s promotions committee – heard about local ties to the Underground Railroad, she was in third grade.

“Everyone got assigned a local historical marker, and you had to write a report about it,” said Vestrand. “Mine was Utley Cemetery (on Twelve Mile Rd.), and I remember feeling kind of jealous because someone else in my class did their report on the Underground Railroad. When I was eight, I’d thought, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’ But when you’re in your thirties, and you really start thinking more about what that means. It’s pretty amazing.”

When Vestrand started working with Downtown Farmington’s promotions committee, “it just happened to be the beginning of Black History Month, so when (the Underground Railroad) came up, I thought it would be a great thing to tell more people about.”

To that end, Vestrand reached out to Farmington Hills resident Rochelle E. Danquah, a PhD student at Wayne State University whose studies focus on abolition, anti-slavery, and Underground Railroad activism.

Danquah, in fact, was the person who invested the time and effort necessary to nominate the burial site of Nathan Power (in the Quaker Cemetery on Gill Rd.) – a son of Farmington’s first settler, Arthur Power – for inclusion in the National Underground Railroad Network. (Danquah’s application succeeded in 2012.) READ THE REST HERE

My Michigan Alumnus mag profile of Jennifer Beyer

Screen Shot 2020-08-04 at 10.16.43 PMWhen Jennifer Beyer, ’03, MA’08, came to a fork in her professional road, she took both paths. She is an award-winning exhibit designer and the co-owner of the Michigan-based Good Design Group as well as a riding instructor for the disabled working at Ann Arbor’s Therapeutic Riding, Inc. Her two jobs may seem profoundly different at first blush, but Beyer believes that the central role of storytelling makes them more like two sides of the same coin.

“In both my roles, my primary job is to teach people something,” says Beyer, who has worked with a number of museums and galleries designing their exhibit spaces.

But what has Beyer herself learned? She recently shared some life lessons with Michigan Alumnus. READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp preview of Encore Theatre’s junior production of ‘James and the Giant Peach’

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Encore Theatre’s junior production of “James and the Giant Peach.” (Photo by Michele Anliker Photography)

Perhaps it’s a sign of how trippy a moment we find ourselves in that the work of Roald Dahl seems suddenly, particularly ubiquitous.

For just as a touring production of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues its run at Detroit’s Fisher Theater, regional productions of the James and the Giant Peach stage musical — with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald, and music and lyrics by U-M grads and Oscar, Tony, and Grammy Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — have been sprouting up everywhere, including at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

Encore’s junior production, which begins February 28 and runs for eight performances through March 8, features 22 young performers, ranging in age from eight to 18.

“One of the things I love about [the show] is, not just the chosen family aspect of it, but also, James has this ability to be dealt a terrible hand constantly, and yet he always finds a way to make it better, and always finds the good in things that other are quick to overlook and discard,” said Matthew Brennan, the director of Encore’s production. “The insects, for example, these pests people just want out of their house. … [H]e finds potential in them, and that speaks to something really cool about this story.”

In the stage musical, young James awakes in an orphanage after having a nightmare about his parents’ death-by-rhinos at the London Zoo. (Dahl’s stories for children always have a pretty dark, black comedy lining.) James has no one to tell his story to but a ladybug and a grasshopper, but soon, he’s swept away to live with two aunts who consider him to be little more than an unpaid laborer.

After saving an earthworm from a centipede, and spilling magic potion onto a tree, James soon finds a newly grown, enormous peach on the tree, and he and his insect friends end up setting sail on it, crossing the ocean toward New York. READ THE REST HERE

My Pulp review of the UMS presentation of ‘As Far as My Fingertips Take Me’

Screen Shot 2020-02-05 at 2.33.20 PMWhenever I see news footage of refugees, I always think, “How bad would things have to get before I packed a bag and fled from my home?”

The answer, of course, is really, really bad, especially when doing so would likely put me in mortal danger and leave me vulnerable, indefinitely, in countless ways.

So I knew that As Far As My Fingertips Take Me — a one-on-one installation performance that’s part of University Musical Society’s No Safety Net 2.0 theater series — would likely challenge me and make the pain of diaspora more tangible. But what I couldn’t have guessed is how strangely attached I’d become to the visible marks it left upon my skin.

Created by Tania Khoury and performed by Basel Zaraa (a Palestinian refugee born in Syria), the experience begins when you bare your left arm to the elbow, sit next to a white wall, pull on a pair of headphones, trustingly extend your arm through a hole in the wall, and listen to a recording of Zaraa telling his own refugee story, accompanied by an atmospheric rap inspired by his sisters’ journey from Damascus to Sweden.

On the recording, Zaraa introduces himself and says, “This is me, touching your arm,” and there’s something both unnerving and comforting about experiencing touch without being able to see its source. First, you feel the pads of your fingers being inked, one by one, and then you feel different areas of your arm being gently drawn upon: a line from one fingertip to a small boat full of people at the center of your palm; and from your wrist to your elbow, a caravan of walking figures, dragging their possessions toward a distinct border.

Zaraa completes the figures before the music ends, leaving you to look at your newly decorated arm and read a long poem (printed on the same wall) that contains the refrain that gives the song you’re hearing its thematic shape: “We only want what everybody wants.” READ THE REST HERE