Sleeping Bear Dunes

In my 50 Hikes in Michigan guidebook, Sleeping Bear Dunes occupies a full ten slots. This spot on Northwest Michigan’s coastline, about 40 minutes west of Traverse City, is renowned for its scenery, characterized by the stunning contrast of undulating sand dunes meeting the flat waters of Lake Michigan. A visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of those Michigan can’t-miss experiences.

When I visited for the first time yesterday, I realized that hiking among the dunes is a humbling experience. Humbling in its beauty, and humbling in the physical challenge of scaling soft, slippery hills of sand.

I skipped the Dune Climb, the most popular Sleeping Bear attraction, simply because it’s Memorial Day weekend and the parking lot was already mostly filled at 10:30am. My guidebook suggested the trail at Sleeping Bear Point instead, stating that while it’s far less popular, “step for step, few trails anywhere in the state are as interesting as this route.” And while the write-up did caution hikers not to underestimate the demands of walking in sand, it also suggested that this hike was a good option for those traveling with small children. (I heard a few kids along the route whose parents would certainly differ with this assessment.) Armed with water, a generous coat of SPF 70 sunscreen, sunglasses, and a baseball cap, I smugly set off convinced that I was well-prepared for what would surely be a moderate but eminently doable 2-mile hike.

Before my sports watch even measured a quarter-mile completed, I was reconsidering the wisdom of attempting this outing. The steep climb from the parking lot immediately showed me how different hiking on sand dunes was compared to the mostly flat dirt paths of the parks near Ann Arbor. Each stride only seemed half as effective, my foot sliding back before it found purchase in the sand. I could feel the insides of my sneakers quickly filling with grainy particles. I worried that one bottle of water wouldn’t be nearly enough for a hike with no shelter from the sun. I wasn’t the only one coming to the realization that this wasn’t going to be a relaxing Sunday hike; a young couple who had started slightly ahead of me turned around and returned to their car before reaching the top of the first dune. I kept going but told myself that I had full permission to stop at the top, enjoy the scenery, and decide if I wanted to go on.

Once I reached the first peak and finally saw the spectacular confluence of sand, water, and sky in front of me, my decision was made: I wanted more.

So I kept going, striding and sliding, stopping whenever I felt like it—every half-dozen steps, at points—and taking breaks to pour the sand out of my shoes. I said hello to other hikers, often exchanging wry comments on our strange ideas about what constitutes fun. The trail soon seemed less demanding, as if it had intentionally placed its most intense climb at the start to test the wills of those who dared to wake the Sleeping Bear.

Faster than I expected, I had followed the trail away from the water and was practically trotting along a cool forest path that led back to the parking lot. I emptied my sneakers of sand one last time and chugged another bottle of water; although I had only been on the dunes for about an hour and sipped water the entire way, I was parched. With gratitude that I had made the time for this excursion, and relief that I’d finished without incident, I started driving toward Glen Arbor for ice cream at Cherry Republic—another can’t-miss Michigan experience, and one that’s truly enjoyable all the way through, even if the views aren’t as photo-worthy.

Now I know: I do have another nine Sleeping Bear hikes in my guidebook, and I’d love to do more of them. Now that I’ve attempted one, I realize that I could have been better prepared. Next time, I’ll definitely bring my trekking poles and wear hiking sandals that can sieve the sand away from my feet. I also think one bottle of water for every mile to be hiked is probably a good rule of thumb. Finally, I would try harder to get out on the trail early in the morning, before the sun is at its most intense. Even with temperatures in the 70s and strong breezes from Lake Michigan, it was hot and dry on the dunes.

Feature photo: Dunes and Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Point, May 28, 2023.

On the Lake

Last week I wrote about Detroit’s riverfront in Southeast Michigan. Today I’m going north—far north—to the Keeweenaw Peninsula on Lake Superior, specifically the town of Copper Harbor at its very northern end. Copper Harbor is among “The 16 Best Lake Towns in the U.S.,” according to Trips to Discover, though that wasn’t the reason I chose to vacation there last July.

I wanted to get away and see more of Michigan, and Copper Harbor was about as far as I could go without camping. Instead, I rented a cabin as my home base and spent a week driving up and down the peninsula, stopping at the Jampot for baked goods and Peterson’s Fish Market for whitefish lunches. I descended into the earth for a tour of the Quincy Mine and climbed a narrow spiral staircase to the top of the Eagle Harbor Lighthouse (and then had to slowly talk myself back down). As I walked around Fort Wilkins State Park I thought about how isolated and remote life had been for those stationed there in the 19th century, cut off from regular contact with the rest of the world for months at a time during the winter. I drove up to the starting point of U.S. 41, the same road that I’ve traveled on while visiting family in Southwest Florida, 1,900 miles away. And on several mornings I bought breakfast at Jamsen’s Bakery, tasting for the first time Finnish specialties like pannukakku topped with thimbleberry preserves.

The bakery sits on a pier jutting into Lake Superior; even in late July it was too cold and windy early in the day to eat outside. Instead, I took my coffee and pannukakku back to the cabin to enjoy while I read before setting off on another day of acquainting myself with another side of Michigan.

Feature photo: Jamsen’s Bakery in Copper Harbor, MI, July 25, 2022.

Weekly Wanderings: May 13, 2023

Yesterday marked 15 years since a deadly earthquake hit Sichuan Province, causing the deaths of at least 85,000 people and revealing widespread corruption in the local government and construction industries. I wrote about the Wenchuan Earthquake on its tenth anniversary in this post (which I revisited yesterday, checking all the links and updating them as necessary).

That earthquake was also on my mind earlier this week as I read a New Yorker article by Suzy Hansen on the December 2022 earthquake in Turkey. The similarities are striking, in terms of how the disaster brought to light the fact that much highly touted recent construction was done on the cheap, contractors and officials pocketing funds meant for the projects. And as in China, public outrage following the earthquake might destabilize the ruling regime but seems unlikely to topple it. We’ll see how tomorrow’s election goes for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

When I first moved to China in 2005, I didn’t bring a computer with me; the school where I was studying had said doing so would be more hassle than it was worth, given the complexity of setting up internet access in the dorms and the availability of a campus computer lab. Whenever I traveled—or on the frequent occasions that the computer lab’s machines got infected with the latest virus making the rounds—I checked my email and kept up with American pop culture at an internet cafe, or wangba 网吧. Usually dark, smoky, and slightly grimy, internet cafes were generally large rooms filled with row after row of oversized early-2000s Windows desktops, most often occupied by young Chinese who settled in for hours to play games and carry on multiple simultaneous QQ chats.

I probably haven’t been in a wangba since 2008, since smartphones and widespread wifi eliminated the need to seek them out during my travels. But this World of Chinese article on the internet cafe culture of years past brought on a rush of nostalgia for those hours I spent in them. As I wrote on Twitter, while reading the article “I could practically taste the secondhand smoke filling my lungs as I read Television Without Pity recaps and sent Yahoo! emails.” Ah, memories.

I’ve very recently gotten into touring Frank Lloyd Wright houses—so far I’ve been to the Robie House in Chicago and the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids—but there’s a big difference between walking through carefully curated restorations and actually living in one. This Architectural Digest piece shares the experiences of seven Frank Lloyd Wright house owners and how they get to know the homes’ nuances over time. While I’m not sure I’d really want to be responsible for the day-to-day care of an architectural masterpiece (one of the featured houses has 500 24-inch windows to keep clean!), it’s fun to imagine.

I listen to the 32 Thoughts podcast for hockey news, but sometimes also find great music through their final feature. “On My Way” by Banditos is one of those songs—for me, it summons thoughts of outdoor concerts on hot summer nights, audience members dancing in their seats while holding cold drinks with condensation sliding down the sides.

Featured photo: Exterior of the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, March 23, 2023.

On the Riverfront

I often find myself walking to the riverfront when I’m in downtown Detroit; it’s a guaranteed place to find a bench where I can read or eat or think while enjoying the calming water views. I hadn’t, however, ever thought very much about when or how those benches came to be installed until this past Saturday afternoon, when I took a free walking tour offered by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. (Incidentally, I learned about the tour from Friday’s Planet Detroit newsletter; if you’re in Southeast Michigan and interested in environmental news, I recommend subscribing.) The DRFC is a nonprofit organization founded twenty years ago to develop and maintain the waterfront stretching from the Ambassador Bridge in the west to just beyond Belle Isle in the east.

Marian, the tour guide, gave a brief history of the riverfront that recognized the Indigenous peoples who had lived there long before Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac showed up in 1701 to begin European settlement of the region. Cadillac made land grants for wide but narrow “ribbon farms” that included river access for landholders. In time, warehouses and shipping replaced the ribbon farms, and by the early 20th century the riverfront was a commercial hub. Over the following decades, however, railroads and highways grew in importance, and when Detroit celebrated its tricentennial in 2001 the riverfront was a shadow of its former self. A desire to transform the waterfront led to the creation of the DRFC, which has spent the past two decades working on a piecemeal basis, building parks and plazas one by one to create public spaces for both Detroiters and visitors to utilize. Eventually, a paved 5.5-mile Riverwalk will connect all of them.

Following Marian from Cullen Plaza eastward to Robert C. Valade Park, my group walked through the natural beauty of Milliken State Park and checked out the performances scheduled at Aretha Franklin Amphitheater. In addition to what you’d expect in any city park (playgrounds, benches and picnic tables, etc.), I noticed details that point to the DRFC’s emphasis on usability and accessibility: communication boards for non-verbal visitors, a free carousel and free binocular stations placed at different heights, signage offering brief meditations for mindfulness. They also stage an impressive amount of programming for all ages throughout the summer, from story and music times for children to a 55+ Silver Sneakers “RiverWalkers” group. Most of those events take place week after week, reflecting the DRFC’s emphasis on serving the local community and making the waterfront a place for regular outings, not one-time visits.

Unfortunately, Ann Arbor is just a bit too far from Detroit for me to drop in at everything I’d like to on the DRFC’s calendar of events. Now that I have a better knowledge of the riverfront, though, I understand why I always seem to wind up there.

Feature photo: Looking westward along the Detroit riverfront from atop the hill in Milliken State Park, May 6, 2023.

Weekly Wanderings: May 6, 2023

The ongoing decimation of Twitter coincides with my own desire to get back into a daily writing practice, so I’m reviving this blog. I’m making a minimal commitment here: a photo and short gloss on Mondays, and a “Weekly Wanderings” round-up of five stories/thoughts/recommendations each Saturday morning. If and as I can, I’ll post occasional book reviews or such here as well.

I know Substacks are in and blogs are out, but no one ever accused me of being cool. If you’d prefer a Substack-like experience, enter your email address in the “Follow Blog by Email” box at the bottom of the page and new posts will arrive in your inbox.

Way back in 2015, I wrote about a day I spent in Kansas City, eating barbecue and touring the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I noted at the time that the museum’s exhibits were excellent but largely empty of other visitors, and I’ve worried since that the institution didn’t have as much support as it deserves.

My fears appear to be unfounded, as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum announced this past week that it’s embarking on construction of a new, much larger, facility. As The Athletic reports, the expanded museum will triple its current square footage and more fully honor the vision of former Negro Leagues player Buck O’Neil, one of the driving forces behind the museum’s founding in 1991. Museum leaders hope to open the new building within five years—and I hope to visit Kansas City again to see it.

Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Lincheng Incident, when a luxury train en route to Beijing was forcibly derailed and taken over by bandits. The Lincheng Incident and its aftermath are recounted in The Peking Express by James Zimmerman, which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal last month. It’s also the focus of the latest “This Week in China’s History” column by James Carter at The China Project:

What makes the attack on the Peking Express such a touchstone is that it brings together many of the prominent strands that made up the fabric of China in the 1920s. Wealthy foreigners living above—often at the expense of—Chinese law and society; technological advances that contrasted with traditional practices in ways that were not always welcome; political fragmentation that jeopardized (some might say illustrated the demise of) the survival of a centralized Chinese state.

Expanded rail service (hopefully without bandits) for Michigan is surely many years away, but at least people are talking about the possibility. Although I’ve acclimated to the “drive everywhere” mindset here, I definitely miss the ability to get where I’m going and read at the same time.

The next book I’m planning to read is Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution, by Guardian journalist Tania Branigan. Red Memory has been available in the United Kingdom for several months and will finally be published in the United States this coming Tuesday. In advance of the book’s U.S. release, Branigan spoke with Bill Bishop for his Sinocism podcast; an excerpt from the book also appears in the Sinocism newsletter.

While I haven’t been following the wall-to-wall coverage of preparations for King Charles III’s coronation today, seeing headlines about it reminded me of this Washington Post recipe for “Coronation Chickpea Salad.” The original recipe for “Coronation Chicken” (formally dubbed “Poulet Reine Elizabeth”) was created in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne in 1953. As one might expect from Le Cordon Bleu at the time, it featured poached chicken coated in a thick dressing of mayonnaise and heavy cream lightly accented by curry powder and almonds. The chickpea version is a lighter vegetarian riff on that, with Greek yogurt standing in for the heavy cream, curry paste for a more pronounced flavor, and cilantro garnish for the ultimate 21st-century touch. I’ll be eating it for lunch next week in decidedly un-royal surroundings.

Feature Photo: The Huron River passing through Ann Arbor’s Gallup Park, May 4, 2023.

Good Coffee, Good Vibes

If I were asked to single out my favorite coffee shop in the world, my response would be easy: Café Rica in Battle Creek, Michigan. I found Café Rica in summer 2021 during a quick stop in Battle Creek, and additional visits since then have convinced me it’s the embodiment of the perfect coffee shop. To begin with the obvious—their coffee is good, and I especially favor the cold brew mocktails, which combine iced coffee with mixers like cherry bitters. I ordinarily prefer to try different menu items, but in Café Rica’s case I liked their orange-smoked salmon-avocado salad wrap so much, it was the only thing I ordered until my most recent visit last month, when I found it was no longer on the menu. I settled for a quinoa bowl instead, and it was just as satisfying.

More than the food and drink, though, the reason I keep coming back is the vibe at Café Rica. On a weekend morning, it’s bustling but not crowded, with plenty of room for people to spread out and talk or read or write. The open kitchen/coffee prep area means I often look up from my computer and watch the cooks and baristas talk and joke as they work. Brick walls and gray floor planks are broken up by bursts of color, such as the large flamingo mural on the back wall. Café Rica is a place where I settle in and get work done, hours flying by before I even realize it. If Battle Creek weren’t a 90-minute drive from Ann Arbor, I’d probably be a permanent fixture there. Instead, I settle for one or two visits a year, when the weather is nice and I feel like hitting the road for good vibes and inspiration.

“Luxury Off the Rails”: The Peking Express Review

“For the rest of my life,” Lucy Aldrich wrote in the November 1923 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “when I am ‘stalled’ conversationally, it will be a wonderful thing to fall back on: ‘Oh, I must tell you about the time I was captured by Chinese bandits.’ ”

Aldrich might have written lightly of the experience, but the ordeal had been a grueling one. On May 6, 1923, she was among 300 passengers on the Peking Express traveling overnight to Beijing when a bandit gang forced the train to derail. After looting the carriages, the outlaws took Aldrich and dozens of her fellow passengers hostage.

While some of the passengers, including Lucy Aldrich, quickly found their way to freedom, a handful of captive remained in the bandits’ hands for the next thirty-seven days. This is the story that China-based lawyer James M. Zimmerman narrates in his exciting new historical adventure, The Peking Express: The Bandits Who Stole a Train, Stunned the West, and Broke the Republic of China (Public Affairs, 2023).

Read my review of The Peking Express for the Wall Street Journal.

Protests in China: Read, Listen, Watch

During the weekend of November 25-27, protests broke out in many Chinese cities, immediately lighting up the China Twittersphere and leading to endless speculation about threats to Xi Jinping’s authority or the prospect of a violent crackdown like the one carried out on June 4, 1989. Chinese government authorities quickly quashed the demonstrations, but the protests are no less meaningful for their brevity. I’ve spent the past 10 days consuming as much as I can about the gatherings, and below I’ve collected a selection of reporting and analysis that I think is especially helpful for non-specialists seeking to understand the story beyond the headlines.

The Big Picture

The immediate catalyst for these protests was a deadly fire at an apartment building in Urumchi, where it’s likely that pandemic lockdown measures impeded the ability of firefighters to control the blaze or rescue residents.

Notable among the protesters was the prominence of students and women. Jessie Lau writes for Novara Media about the students who spoke out, and at Semafor Karina Tsui explains the importance of gender in these demonstrations.

At the New York Times, Li Yuan interviewed more than a dozen young protesters to understand the concerns and frustrations that prompted them to speak out against the Chinese government. CNN has a visual explainer showing the size and spread of the protests.

Eva Rammeloo was on the scene at protests in Shanghai on the night of Sunday, November 27 and writes about the demonstration for the Economist. AP journalists Dake Kang and Huizhong Wu also report from Shanghai, tracing how a vigil attended by only about a dozen people blossomed into a protest of hundreds.

Longtime Beijing residents Jeremiah Jenne and David Moser joined the Sinica Podcast to provide firsthand accounts of the situation in China’s capital. In an episode of the Sharp China podcast, Sinocism newsletter author Bill Bishop offers a comprehensive analysis of the protests and Chinese politics. In an episode of On Point, the host has an excellent conversation with Yangyang Cheng about the protests—if you only listen to one thing for explanation and analysis, this is my pick.

“Organizing in China isn’t as simple as posting an event announcement to an online forum or a rallying cry on social media.” So how did the protests come together? At Rest of World, Viola Zhou and Meaghan Tobin explain the covert, low-tech, and offline tools used to spread the word.

One of the most important sources of information on the protests has been the Twitter account of “Teacher Li,” a Chinese artist living in Italy, whom Han Zheng profiles at The Nation. At MIT Technology Review, Li recounts to Zeyi Yang how he became a clearinghouse for real-time protest news—as well as the risks he has taken in doing so.


While the fire in Urumchi proved crucial in driving people to protest, the demonstrators were also expressing dissatisfaction with the PRC’s long-running zero-COVID policy. What is “zero COVID,” and why did so many in China publicly reject it after almost three years?

Journalist Michael Schuman explains the policy and backlash against it at the Atlantic, while at Foreign Affairs political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang looks at the politics behind the government’s stubborn insistence on sticking to it. Political scientist Jeremy Wallace writes for the Washington Post about the importance of zero COVID’s quantitative emphasis. Prior to the protests, the New York Times assembled a collection of videos that showed how zero COVID has been enforced, often to extreme lengths, and this week the newspaper followed up with a similar story in photos.

Corresponding with students he taught in rural Sichuan in the late 1990s, Peter Hessler explores the many facets of public opinion about COVID and the zero-COVID policy.

Today (December 7), the Chinese government announced that it would relax, though not eliminate, zero-COVID measures. Prior to the announcement, public health scholar Yanzhong Huang wrote for the New York Times about what it could look like for China to put aside the zero-COVID policy.

Zero-COVID has further stunted China’s already slowing economy, causing anxiety and frustration among younger generations. Economic concerns were among the reasons for the protests, as Stella Yifan Xie reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Reporting for the New York Times from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Vivian Wang describes how COVID lockdowns and the economic slowdown have affected workers in a region that powered China’s economy for decades.

In-Depth Analysis

A ChinaFile Conversation features comments from a variety of experts, who address topics ranging from the Urumchi fire to what the protests could mean for Xi Jinping’s rule over China.

Council on Foreign Relations fellow Ian Johnson writes for Foreign Affairs about the sudden, stunning emergence of large-scale protests only a month after Xi Jinping secured his third term in office, and what he and the CCP could do to address the grievances of Chinese citizens.

The path forward is also a topic of this New Yorker column by Evan Osnos, who considers how making concessions could play out in two ways for the CCP: “As Xi’s government deals with additional demands, it may face a classic authoritarian dilemma: Will concessions fuel good will, or will they breed more public demands?”

In a Chinese Whispers podcast recorded on Monday, November 28, historian Jeff Wasserstrom and journalist Isabel Hilton talk with host Cindy Yu about China’s history of protest—and make the eerily prescient prediction that the death of Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao could add a twist to how the situation might play out. Following up on that prediction’s realization, at the Atlantic Isabel Hilton considers how the death of Jiang Zemin came at a particularly inconvenient time for Xi Jinping and the CCP, as they walk the line between quelling protest and avoiding any admission of failure in the zero-COVID policy.

As historian James Millward writes at the New York Times, it’s important that a fire in Xinjiang served as the catalyst for protests elsewhere in the country:

The sight of Han Chinese protesting the deaths of Uyghurs is unusual and poignant, because for years, the Chinese party-state has justified its Xinjiang policies by demonizing Uyghurs as terrorists and religious extremists, or at least as ignorant peasants in need of forceful “vocational training.” And now, the images from the Urumqi fire have humanized and normalized Uyghurs for the entire country.

Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, has written an analysis for Foreign Policy that examines the CCP’s approach to maintaining “social stability” over the past decade and how it contributed to the recent protests.

Spectator journalist and podcaster Cindy Yu has a powerful commentary, “Why I’m Grieving for China”:

The hand of the state now reaches into every part of people’s lives – the Communist party dictates where they can go and who they can see. Add to that the Covid shocks to the Chinese economy, record youth unemployment and a teetering property market, and you don’t have to be a pro-democracy activist to see that, for too many people, the CCP is not meeting its side of the deal.

Manya Koetse of What’s on Weibo writes about online discussions of “coming out politically” in China—publicly admitting to one’s political leanings.

In a commentary for CNN, Jeff Wasserstrom and Chris Rea take a serious look at flashes of humor in these protests, and consider the symbolism contained in the blank sheets of paper many protesters have held:

A blank sheet, too, speaks volumes. It makes fun of a censorship regime in which virtually any word can become taboo. It makes the individual illegible to a mass surveillance state, denying that state its invasive prerogative. When an individual says nothing, their words cannot be taken away.

Header Image: “Wulumuqi Road [Shanghai] After Protest,” November 27, 2022. Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Cinea467 and used under a Creative Commons license.

Burying Books versus Praising Them

When asked as a child to name my hobbies, my usual response was “books.” I wasn’t athletic or artistic; I couldn’t play a musical instrument or entertain an audience on stage. My skill was reading, and I honed it daily: on the bus ride to and from school (two hours a day just to read! I didn’t appreciate that luxury then), in breaks between classes and during recess (which got me a reprimand for not being sufficiently social), while I ate dinner and before I fell asleep at night (I joined the Bad Decisions Book Club at a very young age and have maintained my membership ever since). I churned through books, making weekly trips to our local branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia to replenish my supply and spending any money that came my way on new acquisitions at Encore Books and Borders. My tastes were eclectic: I devoured series like the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, then moved on to Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High; I developed my interest in history through both fiction and non-fiction; I eventually acquired another hobby by reading about baseball (that hobby was watching baseball, not playing it—I still wasn’t at all athletic).

I didn’t only enjoy reading books, though—I loved to share them. My Aunt Marge, a librarian, invariably asked me what I was reading and prompted me to tell her what I liked about the books I had chosen, then recommended others that she thought I might appreciate. I thrilled at the opportunity to deliver book reports at school, erroneously convinced that my over-zealous summaries and analysis would persuade apathetic classmates to love these volumes as much as I did. I was constantly trying to spread the word, not about the Good Book, but about all good books.

It’s little surprise, then, that years later I gravitated toward a profession that revolves around books—reading them, discussing them, writing them. I came to the study of Chinese history through reading books about the country, finding myself enthralled and intrigued by the stories told in volumes by writers like Jonathan Spence and Peter Hessler. I wanted to read more and discuss what I’d read with other people who were as interested in the topic as I was. So I went to graduate school.

And then … I went to graduate school.

Grad school, especially the first few years of a humanities Ph.D. program, is all about books. In the United States, at least, students begin with “coursework,” which lasts 2-3 years and involves a number of seminars (3-4 per term) requiring participants to read one or multiple books per week and show up prepared to discuss them for three hours. Depending on the professor, you might be expected to submit written responses to the books, or prepare questions in advance if it’s your week to lead the seminar. Sometimes, there are snacks. In theory, grad seminars are incredibly dorky book club meetings (with grades).

I attended three graduate programs (two masters [one unfinished] and a doctorate) at three different institutions, spending nearly six academic years of my life in seminars. What I quickly realized—though in some ways I only see it with true clarity now, nearly a decade after leaving my last seminar meeting—is that most seminars aren’t about nerding out over books and discussing all the reasons they’re great. It is, in fact, deeply uncool to show up prepared to gush over the week’s reading.

The focus in seminars is to engage in critical analysis of the books—and grad students put the emphasis on “critical.” Many students approach seminars as an opportunity to demonstrate their academic prowess by systematically eviscerating every book on the reading list. As Oxford University Press editor Susan Ferber writes in a recent essay for the American Historical Association’s Perspectives magazine,

There was a lot of posturing and trying on of academic jargon to convey ideas in a way that we thought would impress our professors and each other. By the end of each class session, it almost always felt as though there was no value in those books: that the authors had structured them badly, their research questions were inadequate, their archival source base was too thin, the analysis had failed to take into account all the strands it should, and overall they were bad reads.

Some professors would counter the students’ arguments, or at least play devil’s advocate as a way of pushing us to articulate our critiques more convincingly. I had professors who would re-orient a discussion when it got too negative, or who would point out that they had assigned the book for a reason and we should consider what it could teach us. But more often than not, my memories of grad seminars are of me arriving in the classroom excited about the week’s reading and then, three hours later, going home convinced that I hadn’t actually understood the book at all. I thought the book was really good, I would mourn, but I guess I just didn’t see all the problems with it.

This, obviously, is one way to develop a raging case of imposter syndrome, which in turn led me to adopt the practices I saw modeled around me. Like everyone else, I analyzed critically. I absorbed the lesson that any modest praise of course readings needed to be heavily couched in reservations expressed about its approach, methodology, evidence, and/or conclusions. I learned to look for problems as I read, to focus my comments on weaknesses rather than strengths.

Reading Ferber’s explanation of how dissatisfaction with this approach led her to leave grad school and embark on a career in publishing has helped me think through some of the reasons that I now rarely remember grad seminars with fondness. I wanted to read engaging and inspiring works and talk about what made them great with other people who shared my interests. Instead, I often felt that my problem was I liked the books too much, making me a Bad Academic.

Admittedly, there are good books and bad ones, strong books and weak ones. Occasionally a professor admitted that yes, they had assigned a particular work because they thought it had problems and would serve as a useful case study for us to discuss. Some of what we read was badly in need of critical analysis, and it would have benefited the author to get more of that before the book went to press. But my classmates and I tore apart our course readings with a focus and determination that most of these works didn’t deserve (and, I should add, with a frankness that we would have never expressed to the author’s face, or in a public book review). With time and distance from the classroom, I can see that those years inculcated a negativity in my approach to reading that wasn’t easy to shake. I wasn’t enjoying books; I was looking for ways to undermine them.

Like Susan Ferber, through this experience I gained a better understanding of what I enjoy and what I want to spend my time on. I love to edit and help other people strengthen their work; even more, I love to share the books that excite me, which I can do through book reviews and social media posts. I never pass up the opportunity to celebrate a good book and encourage other people to read it. And fortunately, I now have somewhat more success in accomplishing that than I did back when I was delivering over-enthusiastic book reports in front of my grade-school classmates. The medium and audience might have changed, but my inability to keep quiet about a good book will never go away.

Feature photo: A selection of books in the China pile on my desk that I’m eager to read and/or share with others. I’ll have the opportunity to talk about one volume very soon: on Friday, February 12 at 7:00pm Eastern Time, I will be in dialogue with Silvia M. Lindtner about her new book, Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation (Princeton University Press, 2020). This is an online event hosted by Ann Arbor’s Literati Bookstore and open to all—no preregistration needed. Get all the details on how to join us at Literati’s website.

Getting to Know the Gusset

Bay City State Park

Michigan is referred to lovingly as “The Mitten” for the way its shape resembles one of those cold-weather accessories the state’s residents normally wear from October through April (at least). In the four years since I moved here, I’ve traveled almost the width of the mitten’s cuff, from Detroit in the east to Kalamazoo in the west, and I’ve been to a number of places in the palm. I’m still steeling myself for a long drive to the fingertips, and I briefly considered going up there on a road trip for the five-day fall break/birthday vacation I took in the middle of October. But I felt like I wouldn’t have quite enough time to really relax and explore in between the journey up and back, so I decided on a day trip instead and turned my attention to part of the state closer to home but still unknown to me: what I think of as “the gusset.”

Public domain map of Michigan. Source.

In knitting terms, the gusset is a wedge of stitches that shapes and allows for movement in a mitten’s thumb. In Michigan terms, the gusset almost perfectly maps onto the stretch of I-75 that angles northwest from Detroit nearly up to Saginaw Bay, passing through Flint, Saginaw, and Bay City along the way. A quick detour off the highway north of Flint leads to what was originally my only planned destination of the day, Frankenmuth—Michigan’s “Little Bavaria.” Frankenmuth was established as a German Lutheran missionary colony in 1845; today the town is a popular tourist destination, even without a rowdy Oktoberfest celebration this year.

Frankenmuth is only about 80 miles from Ann Arbor, and as I scrutinized the visitor bureau’s website I started to think that I didn’t need to spend a whole day there—if I walked around, had lunch, and did some shopping, that wouldn’t take up more than a long afternoon. Casting my eye northward on Google Maps, I saw that Frankenmuth is only a short drive from the beach at Saginaw Bay, which dips in to define the “Thumb” of the Mitten. If I left early, I thought, I’d have plenty of time to do both. And if for some reason I slept late or didn’t feel like jumping behind the wheel first thing in the morning, I could still go to Frankenmuth and leave it at that.

Not only did I not sleep late, I woke up so early and so antsy to get on the road that I was defrosting my Subaru by 7:00am, watching a thin layer of ice crystals slide down the windshield as I waited for the car to heat up and checked out the route on my phone. Head up US-23 N until it feeds into I-75 N, exit onto M-13 and within a few miles I’d be at Bay City State Park—total travel time about 1 hour 35 minutes. But then I stopped to think: it was ridiculously early. I had nowhere to be and no schedule for the day. The idea behind this trip was to see more of Michigan, not barrel along a series of monotonous freeways at 70mph while too intent on monitoring other drivers to enjoy the trip. Why should I care about taking the fastest route? I opened the Google Maps route options preferences and slid “avoid highways” to the right, increasing my expected travel time by nearly an hour but also increasing the possibility that I’d see something interesting along the way.

It was still too dark at first to see much as I navigated the familiar roads of Washtenaw County and started working my way north, but by the time I encountered a construction zone around Brighton I had to slide on my sunglasses; it was shaping up to be a brilliant, if chilly, mid-October day. Driving through miles and miles of farmland with the radio cranked up and red-orange-gold trees lining both sides of the road, I laughed to myself, feeling like I’d landed in a cheesy tourist ad touting the attractions of Pure Michigan in the fall.

With the exception of Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint, and a few other scattered counties, Michigan went for Donald Trump in 2016, and I was driving through areas that had gone red, in some places by rather decisive margins, four years ago. What surprised me on this trip was how not-decisive the 2020 election was clearly going to be in those same areas. I saw lots of Trump-Pence lawn signs, yes, but it seemed that nearly every one was canceled out by a Biden-Harris sign planted in the grass next door, or across the street. It became my version of a road trip game: for each Trump sign, could I find a corresponding Biden one that evened the count? As I drove onward, I realized two things: (1) this election was going to be really close (not news, but I felt like I was seeing concrete evidence in a new way), and (2) the communities I was passing seemed deeply divided—literally neighbor versus neighbor. I wondered how this contentious election year had affected relationships in areas that were more politically cohesive four years ago.

In what seemed like no time at all, I was passing a funeral home that advertised drive-through viewings and entering Saginaw, where I followed the sparkling Saginaw River and drove under the I-75 bridges that could have carried me not through the city but over it (way over it; seeing the height of the freeway made me glad I had stuck to solid ground). Mile after mile ticked by on my odometer as I left Saginaw behind and navigated past Bay City, heading not for the town itself but the state park that lies to its northwest.

Much as I had genuinely enjoyed the drive, I was glad to have arrived when I turned off the ignition and could finally stand up and stretch. I took a quick tour through the park’s visitor center, which has a small exhibit on the area’s natural environment and wildlife, then grabbed the thermos of coffee and breakfast burrito I’d packed and started following the signs directing me toward the beach.

Bay City State Park

I knew not to expect a beach like the ones I’ve spent time on in Delaware or California: no boardwalk, no ice cream or funnel cakes, no surf shops. I could spot a handful of other people walking at different spots in the distance, but I was entirely alone at the northern end of the stretch comprising the state park. The shore at Saginaw Bay extends right up to the treeline, and fallen autumn leaves were crispy under my feet as I sought purchase on dry mounds of sand that collapsed as I stumbled over them. The difference between this beach and others that I didn’t really absorb for a few minutes was the quiet. No crashing waves; instead, the bay gently lapped at the coast, calm and nearly silent. As I sat on a log to eat my breakfast and gaze at the water, all I could hear was the wind rustling through the trees.

In a fit of optimism that morning I had packed a beach towel and my Kindle, thinking that if I dressed warmly enough I could sit in the sun and read on the beach for a while. By the time I finished eating, though, I knew that plan wasn’t going to work: that breeze causing a gentle rustle in the trees was also making me damn cold, and my clothes weren’t offering quite enough protection against the chill while I sat still. Wishing that I had brought gloves and a knit hat, I decided that the only thing to do was walk.

While it might not have ice cream or funnel cakes, the beach at Bay City on a sunny October Friday is the perfect place to walk and think. I moved down to more firmly packed sand that wouldn’t shift under my sneakers and started making my way south, stopping occasionally to take a photo or watch birds hop around at the edge of the water. A power plant glittered in the distance, and somehow even that intrusion on the coast’s natural beauty didn’t mar the vista. I walked and I gazed and I thought and could practically feel the wind blowing 2020-induced cobwebs from my brain.

I reached the southern end of the park’s beach a mile and a half later and turned around to walk back to my car. In addition to the beach, Bay City State Park is also linked to a wildlife refuge, Tobico Marsh, that has its own nature trails and observation towers; if I’d planned to spend the entire day in the area I would have ventured in that direction next. A glance at my watch told me it was closing in on noon, though, and I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to see all that Frankenmuth had to offer. Once again, I slid behind the wheel and set my course in Google Maps, this time for a relatively short trip southeast estimated at 35 minutes.

The beach had been so deserted that seeing what at first appeared to be throngs of people on Frankenmuth’s sidewalks startled me as I drove into town. I had thought that I’d avoid crowds (or the 2020 version of them) by coming on Friday rather than the weekend, but I started to worry that this might not be the best idea after all. Driving cautiously down Main Street, scanning both sides to assess both the parking situation and potential for coronavirus exposure, I began to relax. The sidewalks, I realized, weren’t actually crowded; scattered pairs of people and small family groups walked together, but otherwise everyone was giving their fellow pedestrians a wide berth. Nearly all were wearing masks outside. A few well-known restaurants—Frankenmuth Brewery, Zehnder’s—had lines of people waiting outside for tables (in fact, it was the line at the brewery that had first given the appearance of a crowd), but when I entered the large public parking lot at the southern end of town, it was nearly empty. Yellow lines of paint marked off spots stretching way into the distance, revealing the disparity between Frankenmuth’s usual expectations and the reality of tourism in the time of COVID. I’m not in the habit of taking risks, but it seemed more than possible to walk around Frankenmuth while also keeping my distance from other tourists. If I wasn’t comfortable with the situation after all, I decided, I’d go home.

Holz Brücke in Frankenmuth

I parked, slipped on my mask, and started toward the Holz Brücke, or Wooden Bridge, that crossed the Cass River separating the parking lot from the rest of town. I’d seen pictures of this covered bridge before—it’s one of Frankenmuth’s most photogenic spots—and had thought it was a legacy of the town’s 19th-century German residents. As I approached it, though, I could easily see that even to my untrained eye the wood wasn’t that old; maybe it was a replica of a previous bridge, I thought. But then I spotted a plaque on the bridge’s peaked roof dated “1979,” underneath another displaying the name “Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn,” and realized that the structure actually belonged to the hotel and restaurant sitting at the edge of the parking lot. The bridge might have nodded to the town’s history, but it was deliberately constructed to facilitate tourism by connecting the main Bavarian Inn complex with the heart of downtown Frankenmuth.

That blend of actual history and Disney-fied infrastructure continued as I turned right onto Main Street and started walking north. Various plaques narrated the town’s past: its founding as a missionary enclave (unsuccessful, one placard noted with breathtaking blandness, because the local Indigenous groups “moved away”), its decades as a farming community, the woolen mill that opened in 1894 and was once Frankenmuth’s largest employer. While the village is still surrounded by farms and the Frankenmuth Woolen Mill continues to turn out bedding for consumers across the country, the downtown commercial district appears to have re-oriented itself toward attracting tourists in the 1980s; even the famous Oktoberfest only dates to 1990. As I climbed the gentle slope of Main Street, the stucco-sided buildings topped with dark timbers reminded me not so much of anything I’d seen in Germany, but rather of the Dutch Wonderland amusement park we used to go to in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County when I was a kid. Everything was just a little too smooth, a little too picture-perfect. With a bright-blue sky dotted by fluffy white clouds overhead, though, I couldn’t deny that the town looked ready for its close-up.

Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn

I made two slow loops of Main Street, window-shopping at stores selling beer steins and lederhosen, checking out the menu for Zehnder’s “world-famous family style chicken dinner” (all you can eat fried chicken and sides, followed by ice cream or orange sherbet for dessert, $27.95 per person), watching a lone horse and carriage carrying two tourists clip-clop along the road. While I was never a fan of large crowds in pre-COVID times, there was something eerie about Frankenmuth feeling so slow and empty on such a beautiful fall day. The lines of diners waiting for tables at some of the restaurants were clearly a function of the state’s restrictions on seating capacity (limited to 50%), rather than an actual glut of customers. I endured a lengthy wait before I was seated for lunch at the Bavarian Inn, but once I ordered my Reuben sandwich came out so quickly I wondered if the kitchen had actually toasted it. (They did; it was delicious.) When I stopped in at the Covered Bridge Gift Shop for a souvenir magnet before returning to my car, the salesclerk confirmed that my impression was correct: “It’s totally dead around here,” though she expected the weekend might be slightly busier.

I found more of the same at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, where the parking lot offers over 1,000 spots but only a couple dozen were occupied when I pulled in shortly before 6pm. Claiming to be “the world’s largest Christmas store,” Bronner’s sits on a sprawling complex just south of downtown Frankenmuth; the parking lot is adorned by holiday light displays and includes a replica of the Austrian chapel where “Silent Night” was first sung in 1818. The retail store itself is almost overwhelming. When I first stepped inside I felt frozen by indecision—stunned by the lights, the Christmas carols, the enormous stretch of displays before me. In addition to religious ornaments and the usual array of Santas, snowflakes, candy canes, and reindeer, Bronner’s prides itself on its vast selection of ornaments catering to niche interests. If you name a profession, hobby, animal, food, nationality, sport, or life milestone, Bronner’s can probably supply you with an ornament.

Entering Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland

After a minute I shook off my daze and started browsing the nearest display, quickly getting sucked in by the Bronner’s holiday spirit. Behind my mask I sang along to Christmas carols, my eyes skimming over dozens of ornaments that ranged from delicate and beautiful to the ones that I think of as “only in America.” (“Ranch is my favorite food group,” declared one bauble in the food section; “I ❤️Ravioli” stated another.) The store was so large that the small number of other shoppers and I rarely crossed paths, though I heard more than one parent instruct their child to “look with your eyes, not with your hands,” and I wondered how much inventory Bronner’s loses to breakage in a given year.

I meandered through the store, looking more closely at some displays than others—to really scrutinize everything would have taken hours, and I was on a targeted search mission for ornaments pertaining to some specific interests among my family members. Bronner’s is most definitely one of those stores where it’s easy to buy way more than planned, though, and more than once I started reaching for an ornament that had caught my eye before sternly telling myself to leave it on the hook. Overall, I decided when I felt I had looked at everything I needed to look at, I had exercised impressive restraint: the basket I carried toward the checkout counter contained fewer than ten items.

In case anyone wants to memorialize 2020 with a Christmas tree ornament, Bronner’s has a few options—including hand sanitizer captured in glass.

Like the parking lot, the Bronner’s checkout areas are built to accommodate large crowds of shoppers, with one terminal after another lined up behind a new plexiglass barrier. On this October evening, however, only two lanes were open, and I walked right up to the cashier. Still, Bronner’s is bracing itself for a busy holiday season: a small cluster of new employees attired in red vests stood behind the registers, listening to one of the other staff members explain where certain items were located, and my cashier worked slowly as he showed a trainee how to wrap and box the fragile ornaments I had selected. Christmas 2020 isn’t going to look or feel like any holiday in my memory, but Bronner’s is preparing for a typical shopping season—at least, to some degree—nonetheless.

I got back into my car and poured a fresh cup of coffee from the thermos I had prepared more than 12 hours earlier, fortifying myself for the drive back home. The sun was setting as I exited the Bronner’s parking lot, the Christmas light displays around its perimeter just starting to stand out, and a billboard bade me farewell from Frankenmuth with an “Auf Wiedersehen!” Soon I was once again cruising past long stretches of farmland interrupted by the occasional strip of stores, still listening to the radio but not at the same volume or with the same energy as I had when I set off in the morning. I considered cutting over to I-75 to speed up the return trip south, but then discarded the idea; I was feeling too relaxed to insert myself into the chaos of tailgaters and sudden lane changes. The local route suited me just fine.

I won’t end this on any sort of cavalier note: “So go out and visit places! As long as you wear a mask it’s okay.” Nope. A leisurely drive up Michigan’s gusset, a long walk on the beach at Bay City—these were wonderful ways for me to relax and see more of the state. But in Frankenmuth I was ever-vigilant, starting from the minute I drove onto Main Street and worried that there were more people in the town than I was comfortable with. In a previous time, I would have likely browsed through every store, gone into the historical society to see their exhibit on Frankenmuth’s past, and lingered through a long lunch at whatever restaurant caught my eye, not the one that seemed to have the best COVID protocols and the fewest people. It was interesting to walk around and see a new place, but it wasn’t relaxing. I felt like I spent the afternoon on high alert—monitoring how close I was to others on the sidewalk, checking to see if people were wearing masks properly (it goes over your nose!!), carefully entering only the few stores that offered items I knew would be good Christmas gifts. While I never felt like I was in the “wrong” situation, I also wished I had taken the time to drive up to Frankenmuth before this year, so I could really see and enjoy everything.

One last look at the beach.

I woke up early again the next morning, and for a split second allowed a thought to run through my head: I could be back on the beach at Bay City in under two hours. I brushed the thought aside; I wasn’t in the mood for another long drive, and I had plenty of other things on my to-do list. It seemed silly and wasteful to go all the way up there two days in a row, when there are plenty of nice parks and walking trails near Ann Arbor. And so forth. But I was struck by how, in the space of a single day, I started thinking about time and distance differently; these places that for so long had seemed far away, required too much effort to reach, were actually … well, not close, exactly, but within the bounds of an impulse decision to get away and go somewhere for a day. Local route or express, all it takes is a drive up the gusset.