10 Easy Pieces

375,000
Approximate number of white residents living in the Detroit Metro area in 1980. In 1947, the year that Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford died, the white population crested at nearly 1.5 million. Decades thereafter saw the rapid flight of white families while the city experienced an echoed decline in black residents.

Of the 713,777 Detroit residents counted by the 2010 census —one of the lowest total populations the city has witnessed— only 10% were white.

URBAN SPRAWL
A development pattern characterized by the outward spreading of a city and its suburbs with a marked segregation between residential and commercial uses. Between 1980 and 2010, the population of Phoenix nearly doubled, increasing from 789,000 to 1.45 million. To accommodate this dramatic boom, single-family home development swept in vast swaths across the desert, destroying thousands of acres of natural terrain while increasing Phoenix’s foothold as a car-centric city.

71
On average, Phoenix residents see more than 300 sunny days a year while Seattle residents experience approximately 201 cloudy days and 93 partly cloudy days. Yet, those living in the Phoenix Metro Area, known as the Valley of the Sun, are three to four times less likely to develop skin cancer than Seattle residents according to the Centers for Disease Control.

SAD
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a kind of depression that usually occurs during winter months or in climates where exposure to sunlight is more scarce. People who live in places with long winter nights are at greater risk for SAD. Symptoms often accumulate slowly and can be the same as other forms of depression, including hopelessness, unhappiness and social withdrawal.

A less common form of the disorder involves depression during summer months.

HAPPINESS
According to a 2012 poll by CBS News, Seattle is the fourth happiest large city in the United States. Two cities in Arizona —Prescott and Kingman— were among the top ten list of unhappy cities across the nation, independent of size. Residents of these cities see four times more sunny days than their Pacific Northwest counterparts.

PALOUSE
A major agricultural region that includes Southeastern Washington, North Central Idaho and Northeast Oregon, primarily producing wheat and legumes. The word’s origin may relate to the Palus tribe, whose name was converted by French-Canadian fur traders to the word, pelouse, meaning “land with short and thick grass.” The picturesque silt dunes that characterize the Palouse prairie were formed during ice ages.

Upon arriving in Walla Walla, my text to Michael reads, “The Palouse is so gorgeous — love the rolling buttery yellow fields and small weathered barns… Heavenly!”

BROWN
The transition from green to brown —Puget Sound to mountains to plain— is markedly different than what I grew up with. Michigan evergreens, small garden plots and friendly lawns gave way to Arizona brown: spiny, poky, needly, gravelly, abrasive. Phoenician hills rock rather than roll like the Palouse.

In Arizona, brown was hard; its barbs impaled my bare ankles when I walked through the front yard. Brown burned my footpads with the intensity of a blast furnace, melting my flip-flops to the asphalt. Brown was the reason I stayed inside.

Yesterday, in transit from the Emerald City to Walla Walla, I drove through lush deciduous forests and majestic purple mountains, mighty blue rivers and foamy white rapids. The road weaved up, over and through undulating hills of tawny wheat that promised to tickle the backs of my knees.

Brown soothed my vision; it was warming and welcoming. Brown was a hug. With its gentle dominance relaxing across the countryside, I couldn’t help but wonder what brown might do for me now.

WHITMAN COLLEGE
A private liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Washington. Initially founded as a seminary in 1859, the school became a four-year degree granting institution in 1883. Today, it offers 46 majors in the liberal arts and sciences, including biology and English—two of the top five major areas of study. In 2012, Whitman was ranked 43rd in the nation on US News and World Report‘s list of Best Liberal Arts Colleges.

On average, Whitman College students see 188 sunny days per year and experience all four seasons. Park benches on campus are perfect for napping in the sun and reflecting on nature and life.

HENRY FORD
Born in 1863, American industrialist Henry Ford was the founder of Ford Motor Company and sponsor of the development of assembly line techniques for mass production—the kind of job that gave my uncle carpal tunnel syndrome. Ford developed and manufactured the first affordable automobile, which mobilized middle class Americans.

Ford was born on a farm in Greenfield Township, Michigan, which his father expected him to eventually take over. Devastated when his mother died in 1876, Ford later admitted, “I never had any particular love for the farm—it was the mother on the farm I loved.”

Though we lived mere miles from the main plant, my parents never bought a Ford.

EMIGRATION
The act of permanently leaving one’s country or region to settle in another. People choose to emigrate for many reasons, such as abundant economic opportunities or a better physical climate. Around 1900, my mother’s family emigrated from Italy to America looking for the former, settling in clusters across the Midwest: Indiana, Missouri, Illinois and Michigan.

My grandmother, Rose, was literally the girl next door. She and my grandfather’s families lived next to one another and, as the story goes, two brothers from la famiglia Ellena married two sisters la famiglia Merlo. This is how my mother came to grow up in a house on Rutland Street in Detroit.

Nearby, my great-granduncle owned a bar, the kind where hard-working men —coal miners, factory workers and farm hands like the young Henry Ford— would drink whiskey each evening before going home for supper with their wives and children. An anniversary photo shows his customers dressed in their Sunday best: fedoras with pressed white shirts, gabardine pants and shiny black shoes.

My grandfather, Frank, a coal miner, was one of those men. Years later, my Uncle Buddy, who was stationed in Naples while serving in the Navy, was another. After his service, Uncle Buddy spent his entire career at Chrysler. The bulk of his tenure involved assembly line management where he made affordable cars for people just like him. Throughout his lifetime, he and my Aunt Jill bought Chrysler vehicles exclusively.

My grandmother, a strong-willed Italian Catholic who barely cleared five feet in height, managed the household, including my mother, uncle and grandfather—and anyone else who happened to be around. My mother’s sister, Gloria, was 18 years older and had moved out long ago to raise three children close to my mother’s age. As the youngest and last grandchild, my grandmother lavished treats on me: strong coffee with heaps of sugar and cream, and bowls of cottage cheese with pineapple.

Contributing to the white flight in 1980, my parents emigrated from Detroit to Arizona in search of better weather and brighter job prospects. My residency in sun-stricken Phoenix proved to be the least happy years of my life. It was only when I moved to capriciously-weathered Seattle in 2001 that I could finally appreciate sunlight, which had come to depress me. That year, I began using daily moisturizer with SPF in the hopes of preventing skin cancer; it was also the first time I lived in an urban city and walked to work and the grocery store rather than driving everywhere, as I had all my life.

Today, while strolling through the Whitman campus —sunny, leafy and serene— I wonder how things might be different had I attended a liberal arts college rather than the University of Arizona. Encouraged by the high expectations of my working-class parents, I enrolled as a molecular and cellular biology major, the first to attend college in my family. They hoped that my aptitude in science would lead to a lucrative career as a forensic pathologist. My love of writing and literature was a side interest, a distraction, as they saw it.

At the dawn of my senior year, after passing advanced calculus and countless labs in biology, chemistry, physics and genetics, I changed my major to English and picked up a second part-time job as a columnist for The Daily Wildcat, the university newspaper. From the moment I enrolled to the day I completed my last science class, I knew my heart wasn’t in it, even though my head echoed my parents’ concerns about the meager earning power of a liberal arts degree.

As I sit on this bench near a pond writing about a funeral procession, a dying dragonfly and the common threads between Michael’s heart attack and my mother’s death, I understand how my life has unfolded to this point. In retrospect, it had to happen this way. Yet, I can’t help but ask, Would I be better off somehow had I followed my heart from the beginning rather than my head?

Like many Cancers, I’m a born strategist and planner. It’s because my heart can be, and was —and is— so easily damaged. Yet, my most happy times have come about when I’ve let my heart lead and risked it all.

The sun shines in Walla Walla, and I soak it up rather than shrink away. Brown is beautiful. A cool breeze rustles my notebook while my scribbles play out on the page. I conclude that, rather than matriculating at one, I’ve crafted my life into a liberal arts college: a career in architecture and construction; the company of inspiring, brainy, creative friends; a warm and worldly family that I was lucky to marry into; and an array of travel experiences during which I have come to know people across the nation and the world. Collectively, this school influences my beliefs and inspires me to constantly evaluate the world and my role in it.

They call this immersion learning, I think. I’ve journeyed so far from my parents’ Detroit upbringing. Likewise, the Brown Era, which claimed 21 years of my life, is far enough behind as to have disappeared from the rearview. Even my beginnings in Seattle —a struggling career, a fixer house, the trappings of married life, fizzling attempts to write fiction— have shifted dramatically in 11 years. The past six have seen the most intense changes of all, beginning with my divorce and my first solo travel to Montreal.

With each of these eras, I can pinpoint the moment I emigrated from the old country to the new, as my ancestors did. Though I was drawn by greener pastures, none of these moves was capricious. The planning rolled out in my mind, sometimes years in advance, but what actually made me leap —the spark as well as the moment of truth— was my heart.

As the ink of my last sentence dries, I notice that the dragonfly has expired. His body shifts with the breeze, but not in response to it. I close my eyes, wishing him well as he begins his next adventure, and decide that it’s time to move on from this bench. Like every era of life, large and small, there are heralds of a new beginning.

I close my notebook, rise and walk through the rolling brown hills towards the sun with only my heart to guide me.

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