One year: A GR-versary assessment

One year ago today, I moved to Grand Rapids, MI. My body was six pounds lighter, my hair was a foot longer, and I had no cavities.

In one year’s time:

I’ve finished three books and started six. My subscription to Good Magazine has expired and I’ve replaced it with Wired Magazine. I’ve had my wallet stolen, my heart broken and worn high heels two times. I’ve seen my family twice and visited my best friend once.

I’ve ran a beer mile, swam half a mile everyday for a month, switched road tires for cyclocross tires and back again, attempted the April Bike Challenge with Chrisapapolis, and completed the June Vegan Challenge with Matters. I’ve developed a proclivity for monthly challenges and learned that weather cannot deter my impulse to move.

Since starting at The Rapidian, I’ve submitted 10 staff editorials, 24 dev blog entries, 28 stories for fun (Midtown and my own) and edited 14 Catalyst Radio shows. We won Best In Show at the WMPRSA PRoof Awards (all credit goes to Roberta F. King at GRCF). We lost a dear co-worker and weathered through another’s car accident. My video editing skills have rusted while I’ve learned how to produce for radio. I’ve been on four panels, DJ-ed twice on WYCE and initiated the process for a civic media food platform. I occasionally organize the Vegilantes and have joined two boards: Midtown Neighborhood Association and Western College Program Alumni Association.

I am learning to prioritize so I have time to chase after the things I want. I’ve also realized I need to learn how to forgive myself. It’s been a year, but I’m still haunted by having broken someone’s heart. After 2.5 years of bike commuting, my 47 cm Honky Tonk is proving to be my most prized possession.

I’ve healed quite a bit from having steeped in a toxic workplace in Portland and feel like I can ask for help again. I know it won’t somehow be held against me as a weakness in character.

Despite this, I’ve found myself paralyzed at times by “West Michigan Nice.” Loosely speaking, people here avoid directness and confrontation. Because I’m from Silicon Valley, “efficiency” is hammered into me. Being direct is understood as a form of honesty and earnestness; feedback saves time and is critical for better performance.

“West Michigan Nice” generally means people shy away from saying how they really feel. Instead of declining participation in events and projects, it is a part of Grand Rapids culture to commit without intending to follow through or to delay a definite “no” so as not to offend. Criticism is not given or it comes late in the game. Tenuous situations are coated in a broken candy shell.

Not everyone speaks it, but trying to navigate this language has left me feeling skittish. It’s something I can’t seem to do except in written communication. When I try, I feel like I’ve either blundered or blathered. Maybe because I can’t master this doublespeak, I feel tormented by how powerless my words are and, in some ways, am experiencing a loss of identity.

The most winning thing about Grand Rapids is that you can always call up an acquaintance for tea or beer. Grand Rapidians are open to friendships, and that’s something I hold close to my heart.

What I’ve learned about Michigan(ders):

  • There are seasons
    • Beard season
    • Coupling season (winter)
    • Break-up season (late spring, early summer)
    • The visibility of time (I high-five low branches when I run; I’ve felt them change from bones to folios)
  • “I’ll see you around, I’m sure.”
  • “Right?” as a way of saying “I know, I agree”
  • Sexual jokes, toilet humor as people (mostly men) break out from the Dutch Christian Reformed culture
  • A need to be clever at all times that shares the continuum with sarcasm and passive aggression
  • Grand Rapids is a cat town

What I miss about Portland:

The nouns that make up my Grand Rapids:

  • The Rapidian

  • Sunday Soup/Sundaes at The DAAC

  • Fulton Street Farmers Market

  • “Love nature” at Congress Elementary School

  • This milk crate hoop and amusing license plate, both on Warren SE, on my bike ride to work:

  • The staple-pocked post outside of Martha’s

  • Nantucket Baking Company (9:15-ish in the morning is the best time to go. The loaves are still hot, but not too hot to slice)
  • MadCap and co.

  • Gaia‘s “Almost Famous” cookie

  • Stella’s and Brick Road

  • Heather Bryant’s savory maple granola
  • The many strong women in my life
  • I know who my friends are and learned that I have many. I am incredibly grateful for how forgiving and generous they are.
  • The details

  • Midtown and The Woods

  • YMCA pool
  • Soft rose cigars in the summer and fall

  • Five bedroom windows that get me up with the sun

  • Roomiebear

  • Roomiecat


Filed under: Grand Rapids, , , , , , , , ,

13 Responses

  1. Laurie Cirivello says:

    A lovely reflection. We should all take stock more often. Despite the things you miss “out there”, we are the better for having you choose “here” instead.

  2. Ryan says:

    I asked my neighbor about his license plate…came with an interesting story about him meeting a woman at a bar in the NW Territories. They had a long talk, to the point that he got to see her “license plate.” He commented that he loved the license plate. The next day, his last day there, she showed up at the same bar with an old license plate she found at the dump for him. She gave it to him as a pardoning gift, and it has been on all of his vehicles since.

    It was way better when he told it…

    Glad you are here in GR Denise.


  3. Laura CB says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. Both coming into a new (very different) adventure post-PCM and life in GR are very close to my heart. ❤

  4. Amy says:

    Loved this!
    I was very interested in your idea that people committing to things and not following through is part of “West Michigan Nice.” I had never looked at it that way and just figured that I must have overly high expectations or people don’t really grow up like I thought they did. Maybe I just need to move to Silicon Valley.

  5. Roberta King says:

    Great reflective post, Denise. It is wonderful to read an newcomer’s perspective on what’s great and what’s odd about West Michigan.
    I’m really, really glad you chose to re-locate here and to help lead The Rapidian to greatness.

  6. very well written, Denise,


  7. dennetmint says:

    thank you, everyone!

  8. Jacob says:

    I was just wondering how life was treating you out in the mitten. Now I need not wonder any longer. Love the photos and the huge gamut of subjects (i.e. life) that you cover. Some of the most honest and genuinely compassionate people are midwest folks. Still, the left coast is having Denise withdrawals.

  9. Hi Denise,

    Your name come up on my twitter recommendations, and I ended up here on your blog. I’m really glad because I am so fascinated to hear about the differences between living here-or-there. I basically had the same experiences as your “roomie bear” (living in Northern MI and then Grand Rapids), and as you know, am in Seattle now. I have to admit I didn’t yet realize that the “West Michigan Nice” phenomenon was … well, a West Michigan thing. But I totally agree that in general people don’t say how they really feel, and the whole false commitments thing. I remember taking notice that one particular acquaintance in GR came to all of my art openings … it stood out to me because nobody actually says they’ll come, and then do!

    Overall I would say I dearly miss my Michigan friends, but I’m glad to be away for awhile to learn what’s ‘universally normal’ and what’s just a local mindset. I imagine we’ll end up back in the mitt to raise a family near our families… if you’re still out there (I don’t blame you if you’re not) I’d love to hear more of your insights over some coffee, tea, or few local beers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: