About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

(Ann) Arbor Day

I went to school at the University of Michigan, and I enjoyed six of my seven semesters plus one summer in Ann Arbor. Since there's decent train service from Chicago to Ann Arbor, I decided I'd add some vacation after WorldCon. And when I noticed there was a home football game the Saturday after WorldCon, I decided to make the stay in Ann Arbor even a day or two longer than maybe otherwise so I could go to my first Michigan home game since I graduated 27 years ago.

So first, the train ride. The actual boarding areas in Chicago are even less pleasant than in New York's Penn Station, but with one difference that you can still sit in the grand hall waiting room. I purposely headed to Chicago's Union Station a few minutes early just so I would have time to sit there for a bit. And while the train won't win awards for one of America's most scenic train rides, they've done some improvements to the route and there are occasional places where the train may actually go faster than 60 mph, which is still rare-ish outside of the NE Corridor. There were 8 or 10 other people returning from WorldCon surrounding me in my train car, talking about the good and bad points of the Orlando bid as I took my seat.

I don't want to think about the cab ride from the train station to the hotel.

After I settled in at the hotel, which was in the hotel village on the south side of town, across from Briarwood mall, it was a little late to head the 3 miles into downtown and campus. Instead, I made tracks for a new Costco just over a mile from the hotel. It had opened in June, just a couple of weeks after one of the Costcos I visited in Chicago. It was a Costco! But there is some variation from warehouse to warehouse, in this instance there was a book called "Three and Out," about Rich Rodriguez's disastrous 3 years at the helm of the Michigan football program, which oddly enough you won't find at a Costco in NYC or Chicago. So I got it, it's pretty short, I should be able to make a few hours to knock it off even though I shouldn't, and then I can share it with the other Michigan alums in my family. After that, I window shopped in Briarwood mall. During the earliest family visits before I was actually a student we stayed at the Briarwood Hilton, now the Kensington Court hotel, I have fond memories of walking to the mall one night to see Animal House, and of having pizza delivered to the hotel's pool area. The Briarwood theatre was a crappy '70s/'80s sloped floor multiplex but I saw lots of movies there while I was in college and shopped lots at the mall. Probably not many stores that are still there from back then, but there is a Mrs. Field's successor to the Original Cookie Company where I used to occasionally treat myself, so I got a 12-pack of the little nibblers which may be the same as the Original Cookie Company's, and felt it was just like old times. Kind of out in suburbia, I chose Olive Garden as the chain restaurant of choice for dinner. I was a little annoyed that my beverage was mostly ice with no free refills.

The next morning, I headed off to Whole Foods #1, a mile from my hotel, then I hopped the Whole Foods Shuttle, aka the #7 AATA "The Ride" bus, which stops at one edge of the shopping plaza with Whole Foods #1, then whisks you catercorner to Whole Foods #2 on the other side of town. Walked a few miles in from the Whole Foods to the edge of the campus area, then walked down thru the Nichols Arboretum to the banks of the Huron River. While the forecast called for a chance of rain almost every day of my stay, the first of two instances of actual rain I encountered came during this walk, perfect as I traipsed through the Arboretum to get the bottoms of my pants legs a little dirty.

Which wasn't great timing, as I was meeting with a "development" person for the UM college of Lit, Sci & Arts and some History Department people for a couple hours that afternoon. Since the UM History Department educated me and the University Library gave me a part time job that paid for my Unos pizzas and movies and Doritos and soda pop during my college days, I've always given a little money to them, and in recent years as JABberwocky has done well, more than a little to where the development (i.e., fund-raising) people are nice to me. So we all had a nice chat about the history department and this and that, there were homemade cookies to enjoy, in November the History Department has invited me back to Ann Arbor to participate in a program on what sorts of things one does with a degree in history.

In the evening I went to see Searching for Sugar Man at the Michigan Theatre. This is an old movie palace in the heart of downtown that was rescued and showing movies during my college days, then subsequently actually refurbished so it looks beautiful instead of like a historical relic. I had no interest in seeing this movie. I saw it solely because I wanted to sit in the balcony of the theatre. The movie did nothing to change my opinion of it, so it was as much napping as sitting. But I can report that the Michigan's digital projection is quite nice, and the digital sound with the digital projection quite wonderful indeed.

And then I went to Zingermans for dinner. This deli had just opened during my college days and has subsequently gone on to become this foodie mecca empire of cheeses and baked goods and this and that and the other thing, but at 9:00 on a weekday evening there wasn't a line. The menu is too big to be creative, so since they still have the Bill's Two Over Prime sandwich that I remembered getting in days of yore I got one, it was OK. I get the matzoh ball soup out of habit, I need to stop, it isn't such good matzoh ball soup.

Super Breakout is still Super!
Especially when played the way
it's meant to be on the Atari 2600
Thursday The Agent Was Cultivated. This time by the University Library. This was a very interesting day. We started off on that distant and far away land known as "North Campus," where the Library has a video game archive. I played Centipede on an "Atari Legends" arcade game that somehow manages to be zillions of arcade games all in one. Then, just like I was 16 again, I played genuine Atari Super Breakout on a genuine Atari 2600 using a genuine paddle controller, with a little Yar's Revenge and Circus Atari for old time's sake. I'm not so bad at Centipede for someone who's never been good at sports, and I was kind of playing Super Breakout like I'd never stopped. Then we toured some of the very fancy new-fangled library things in the distant and far away land known as "North Campus." I got to see a 3D printer, which was a nifty new experience, it takes spools of plastic and melts them and builds things with them, and all for much less than an Espresso Book Machine because it's mostly just a single head moving around in two dimensions that is nowhere near as fancy as what you need to do to get a photocopier to bind a book for you. I saw other fancy 3D thingies. I was quite impressed. And most of this stuff is available for students to use, though it requires they go to that distant and far away land known as "North Campus."

Playing around in a fancy 3-D
black box on North Campus
Back in the real world of central campus, we had lunch with Jim Ottaviani, a writer of graphic novels who in his secret identity heads up the "Deep Blue" online resource for the University Library, and after lunch we discussed Deep Blue and other things. One of my supervisors from my college job still works at the library and we chatted for a bit. While some things have changed (no more card catalog) old-fashioned books are still being circulated, they still need to have tattle tape put in when new, which still needs to be sensitized when the books return, and the books still put back on the shelf, and people still need to "shelf read," checking the shelves to be sure the books are in their proper order so they can actually be found. All the same fun things. While that is the same, the 2nd floor area that used to have periodicals where I'd go to read Variety and Publishers Weekly during my college days is now a fancy map collection area, the periodicals have been put elsewhere. And it was hard to walk about central campus, since this was the day when all the student groups had tables set up to solicit new members.

Dinner was with writers Merrie Haskell and Catherine Shaffer, who live in the area and whom I'd chatted with some at Chicon. Merrie works at the Library as well, along with Jim Ottaviani she forms a cabal of Evil Librarians -- I mean, librarian writers -- at the UM Library. They went off after dinner to a coffee shop in Saline to do that writing thing in coffee shops that writers like to do. Since Ann Arbor is on the western end of the eastern time zone, it is a very civilized place where the sun rises at a nice late hour and then gives daylight in the evening when people need it (yes, you are correct, I am not a morning person) so I found a place nicely on line with the setting sun to enjoy the last hour of daylight, reading and people watching, then headed back to my hotel.

I can't even remember which day it was that I visited Vault of Midnight, the impressive comic book and gaming store in the Main St. shopping area. I have fond nostalgic memories of the Eye of Agamotto, the comic book store during my college days, but honestly this is bigger and nicer and better and full of many more wonderful things to buy.

Friday I didn't have anything planned. So I walked in to downtown. Then I walked out to the west end of town to where the Fox Village theatre had once been. I felt very old that the cashier at the Plum Market that occupies the exact space (gutted and remodeled and all, but in the same exterior walls) as the theatre had once been, had no idea that she was working on the site of an Ancient Cinematic Burial Ground where I had seen Wargames and Octopussy and other early '80s movies. That mall used to have a Little Professor bookstore, now you have to go to the shopping mall on the other corner where you will find Nicolas Books, a very pleasant indie which is unlike most indies in having a large well-curated sf/f section that had about the same number of JABberwocky titles as even many B&N stores will have. Jim C. Hines was just there to sign Libriomancer, so they had a very nice selection of his books. I rewarded them for their excellence by buying too many little bags of chocolate to share with the office, and a Harpers magazine with a new Stephen King story.

Then I walked back to the Arboretum, to do one of my favorite things. I sat on a bench at the base of the Arboretum, and after dealing with some office stuff I curled up with a good book, in this case Seawitch by Kat Richardson. I read around 100 pages in the Arb, and couldn't have been happier. The world seems so far away when you're sitting in the Arb with a good book !!

The movies had changed, so I went back to the Michigan to see Robot and Frank. This was projected using their actual film projectors with actual film instead of the new digital projector. This movie had gotten some decent reviews, I went in thinking I would like it and especially so seeing in such nice surroundings, but no such luck. The script didn't interest me, I didn't think this was one of the better performances from either Frank Langella or Susan Sarandon, and the rest of the cast I found even less interesting. Kind of disappointing. I had a late dinner at the Redhawk, and since it was raining I took a cab instead of walking back to the hotel.

Saturday I met up with an old college friend whom I don't see really at all but who's always been on my Christmas gift list as a way of keeping in touch. He picked me up early at the hotel so we could park downtown before the lots filled for the football game. We walked around campus, had a nice lunch at the Redhawk, walked up to the "Big House" as Michigan Stadium is known. We were heading up two hours before game time so it didn't have quite the feel of when you're walking up with throngs of people a half hour before the game, but the frat houses had already started their pre-game revelries along the way. We had really nice seats on the 35-yd line.

In Michigan Stadium after
the big game at the Big House
And what can I say, I loved the experience. In my freshman year I sold some of my football tickets, the few dollars I got could pay for the bus out the Briarwood and movie with money to spare. By my senior year, I couldn't understand why I'd ever done such a thing. So many of the rituals are still intact, the band taking the field just like it always has and playing many of the same songs. It was Michigan/Air Force, so we got a flyover from a B2 stealth bomber after the national anthem (it doesn't look very stealthy when it is flying directly over you) and a halftime show of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and Sousa's Stars and Stripes. The game was closer than anyone would say it should have been, but Michigan did win. We stayed for the post-game band show.

Lots of things reassuringly haven't changed, some have. You now buy a t-shirt with your student football tickets, and they are rigorous about checking student IDs to sit in student sections, so that's why a fifth of the bowl at the Big House has people wearing matching maize shirts. The stadium is somewhat bigger with luxury boxes. I just thrived on all the ritual that is the same now as 27 years ago, and much of that the same as 27 years before that.

One unchanged ritual: traffic on Ann Arbor Saline Rd. is one-way to I-94 for an hour after the game.

But this was the first time, since I was heading back to my hotel, that I actually headed off in that direction instead of downtown. I actually got to see all the cars heading down Ann Arbor Saline Rd!

The parents of one of my freshman year roommates drove out from Southfield to have dinner with me that night, the only bad thing was that traffic after the game was really bad, so we all agreed we had to stay on the mall side of Eisenhower Road, which meant a chain restaurant at the mall. But I think we all enjoyed our California Pizza Kitchen dinner, and the conversation was nice.

And then Sunday, I had to head home.

General impressions of Ann Arbor.

There are lots of changes, yet the overall feel of Ann Arbor is still very much the same, I enjoyed the trip immensely, it would be nice to be back somewhat more frequently. It was 11 years since my last visit.

There's one new building in the central campus area which I think intrudes a little too much on the "diag" area, but otherwise I'm impressed at the quality of a lot of the architecture. The business school has a snazzy new building with a gorgeous atrium to hang out in with a little cafe and seats and light and just buzzing with excitement. The new North Quad (which isn't on North Campus, but the north side of central campus) looks wonderful on the outside. You can cut through for good pedestrian circulation, and the interior space is beautiful with deep landscaped courtyard recesses that allow light to reach basement levels, and it's nine stories tall without looking like it. Money is being spent on the old dorms. The hill dorms have a great two-level dining atrium addition. My old dorm is being gut renovated to improve the dining areas and add AC and better IT and other such things. A new buidling was being dedicated for the law school that looked like a beautiful companion to the old law quadrangle. Some of the science buildings added in one corner of the campus aren't as attractive but even there have a nice elevated walkway area with a cafe in one of the buildings that provides good access from the main campus to the hill dorms and medical campus. They pen in the power plant, I guess if you're going to have bad architecture having it surrounding the most utilitarian functional ugly building on campus isn't a bad place to do it.

Three large new private luxury student housing "highrises" were opening for the school year. When I was in school, private student housing and luxury did not go together.

The South U shopping district has become very monoculture in having mostly Asian restaurants to eat at. The State St. shopping district is full of chains like Chipotle, CVS, 7-11, Panera, Starbucks, much more so than once upon a time. The Main St. shopping district is even more full of trendy restaurants than what I remembered.

Most of the old original Borders location on State St. is now occupied by an M Den emporium of Michigan stuff. Around a fifth of the space, the ground floor of the adjoining building, is given over to another store. The successor Borders store downtown is still empty, Borders signage still up on the building, the windows mostly papered over, but where I could peek in this store may have more shelving and other fixtures still intact than a lot of the other vacant old Borders locations.

And finally... when I went to UM, the video player had just arrived and not yet had a real impact. Cinema Guild, Cinema 2, the Ann Arbor Film Coop and more all had films, sometimes double-features, all weekend, and on many weekdays. You were never lacking for movies to see of all different types at very reasonable prices. You had the huge single screen Campus showing new movies, the Michigan showing films, the State Quad and the Ann Arbor Twin. Not the world's best theatres, but they were there. Briarwood was a few miles and a quick bus ride away and expanded from 4 to 7 screens. The Fox Village was a couple miles away and a quick if not as frequent bus ride. Today, you have four first-run screens instead of seven in downtown Ann Arbor, all of which show primarily art or indie films. The multiplexes for new Hollywood releases are now a mile beyond where the Fox Village was, twice as far as Briarwood, and both less convenient to get to than their '80s predecessors. The campus film scene, which had already started to diminish by the mid-1980s, hasn't just diminished further but is pretty much gone. All of this is discussed in a 2010 Michigan Daily article. I'd be a very different person if I was formed by going to UM now as opposed to then, and the me that was formed by going then definitely doesn't like the movie experience you'd get now.

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