Handbuilt: Gratitude and Resilience In The Strangest Year On Record

LAST NIGHT, MY PARTNER AND I SAT AT THE DINING TABLE THAT CAME INCLUDED WITH OUR 1895 HOUSE in Southwest Detroit, munching on a dinner of sautéed greens and sausages from Detroit’s Eastern Market. The greens consisted of red onions mixed in with brussels sprouts greens, which I was previously unaware were a thing. I’m always down for a brassica, but I’ve found them kind of hard to grow. And the brussels were the last harvest from our garden, which produced a bounty of tomatoes of every color, a handful of carrots, a few strawberries, and a surprise canteloupe (that we didn’t plant– last year the surprise was a gargantuan vine that produced, of all things, two dozen large pumpkins).

A particularly hardy variety of arugula grows wild in our yard, its gently bug-perforated leaves poking out between the likes of schizachyrium scopariumerigeron, rudbeckia, and a broad variety of wild and planted native species. It is the yard and the garden and the home, all of which we’ve cultivated to respect the native ecology as well as the neighborhood we live in. We had recently “lost” two of our three roommates– one to solo apartment living in nearby Woodbridge, and one to marriage and consequent cohabitation in Philadelphia. The last left town for the long weekend to his rural hometown in West Michigan, near the Indiana state line.

At last night’s dinner, Adrianne and I faced off on our benches opposite the lustrous table (dipterocarpaceae, probably, while we’re on Latin names), and poked at our respective plates. I was preoccupied with an upcoming final exam and particularly onerous group project in my two last proper classes of my MBA. My business intelligence class was a slog and frustratingly not very interesting. But I wasn’t doing well because I wasn’t focused. Meanwhile, my corporate finance class was challenging but at least interesting. Taught by a Texan and former Textron executive who was slightly to the right of the Kaiser, the class offered a healthy dose of arithmetic, Greek letters, and discussion of case studies. Adrianne, meanwhile, was nervous about some new developments with her job, a fast-paced, heavily customer-facing role with a private pharmacy benefits company. The general vibe was that it sounded like they were working her pretty hard as an attempt to see what she could handle as far as, well, moving up.

Of Quiet Rockstars and Quiet Houses

Adrianne is what I might describe as a quiet rockstar. She doesn’t like to make a fuss (except, occasionally, over my proclivity to spill coffee around the house). She’s a good sport and a team player. She’s the one at the party who will rally the guests, rekindling a lagging group mood to dig into some group activity. She follows up with the friend who has fallen out of touch. She’s the get-shit-done-and-don’t-complain-about-it person– who has already fixed a problem that she’s recognized before you were even aware of it.

She has world-class executive skills but sometimes struggles to deploy them because she has an almost neurotic lack of ego behind her motivation. So, I note in particular that it sounds like she’s not just nervous about work. Like, maybe something else is wrong, but she doesn’t quite know how to talk about it. (This is a common theme– as The Girl in the relationship, I’m super emotional, while she’s the stoic, steadfast, unemotional Dude).

“What makes you say that?”

“Oh, you know,” I come out, grinning, “you know how you tend to talk a lot when you’re feeling nervous or insecure.”

“Your mom,” she replies, sticking out her tongue.

This is common enough banter for us.

Unpacking a bit, we both realized that this was the first time in both of our lives that we’ve done Thanksgiving entirely solo as opposed to with family or dear friends. Adrianne went to school in South Florida and described one year doing a Friendsgiving that preceded a trip home for proper family Thanksgiving, for example. Both years I was in college in Iowa (I transferred in), i managed to avoid going home to my native Pennsylvania through some Minnesota hospitality. Flying from Des Moines to Harrisburg or Philadelphia is rarely direct, so there’s a high probability in the fall and winter months that flights would get delayed from weather.

One memorable year this involved three car rides, an aeroplane, and three trains (Amtrak, WMATA, and MARC). That was, I thought, the extent of a particularly crazy holiday circumstance.

Until 2020, of course.

This year, well, shit’s whack.

[…] while I’ve never been invested too much in the sanitized, grade school vision of Thanksgiving– in which the benevolent pilgrims cuddled with the magnanimous Wampanoag chiefs and they all ate popcorn together and did each other’s nails while watching reruns of the ratings-crushing final season of The Witch of Blackbird Pond- this year it might well have especial meaning for us thinking about the roots of the holiday in the context of the current apocalypse we find ourselves living in.”

Giving Thanks in 2020, The Year That Wasn’t

COVID-wise, Thanksgiving as a family affair– on either side- for us wasn’t ’bout to happen.

My folks are both high-risk, being in their 70’s. My father had a second surgery to correct a congenital heart defect in January. He had made it to 70 before this manifested itself. I learned that this heart defect is typically corrected at birth. Ironically, he was the only senior patient of a pediatric cardiac surgeon in Philadelphia to correct the issue. It was touch-and-go for a bit as doctors hemmed and hawed about the possibilities. Had he lived a life of steaks and cheeseburgers high in low-density lipoprotein and triglycerides, he likely would have been toast.

But, God bless him, he didn’t– he walked to work at his civil service job most days and enjoyed the mixed blessing of a wheat allergy that forced him into being nutritionally beholden to a lot of high-quality, though weird, whole grains. After weeks in the hospital, they got it done. And just in time, too. I remember that at the time– late January, mind you- one of the ICU nurses made a comment about how flu season was wrapping up, to which I responded that, as far as we knew, this whole novel coronavirus thang from China might be just beginning. She laughed it off. So it goes.

Adrianne’s folks, in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, are similarly high-risk. Both are in their 70’s, and her mother has some long-term complications from a gnarly case of Lyme disease from the 90’s. Fortunately for them, they have other family far closer, including Adrianne’s sister, brother-in-law, and niece. But her sister works for a university that has had a mixed record with COVID management. Her niece has been going to school. And her brother-in-law hasn’t been feeling well, either, and so they’re not even chancing it.

So, today, we’ve already done some FaceTimeing (her people). We’ll do some Google Hangouts-ing later (my people– we’re an Android family, you see). No turkey, but we’re cooking a chicken later. It’s been a sedate day– of reading and writing for me. Both of us vacuumed out our respective motorcars. Dogs were cuddled and walked, Netflix watched. And things, indeed, have been thought.

Thanksgiving– and a kind of Thinksgiving

So, while I’ve never been invested too much in the sanitized, grade school vision of Thanksgiving– in which the benevolent pilgrims cuddled with the magnanimous Wampanoag chiefs and they all ate popcorn together and did each other’s nails while watching reruns of the ratings-crushing final season of The Witch of Blackbird Pond– this year it might well have especial meaning for us thinking about the roots of the holiday in the context of the current apocalypse we find ourselves living in.

No, Insider, we don’t need to cancel the holiday. No one– especially historically oppressed peoples- wants to beat anyone with the guilt-stick, because we know that it accomplishes nothing. But we should only be celebrating the holiday if we are indeed thankful. And we can make that thanks known by acknowledging a lot of the disparities that exist– and working to correct them. Looking specifically at the native history angle of the holiday, for example, we can reflect on what it means that our country’s populations most vulnerable to COVID are often, indeed, black, brown, and native.

One Thanksgiving spent in northern Indiana. Gotta love the Midwest.
Giving Thanks To Academic Critique, and, Of Course, to Critiquing The Academy

I’m thinking about this a lot as I finish a degree whose meaning and, more generally, very purpose, I’ve struggled with. It’s an MBA, and no, I’m not trying to go work for McKinsey. Or some company making hi-tech widgets. Or extracting, from deep beneath the earth, the highly pressurized, liquified remains of long-dead, once-living things. Am I trying to reinvent capitalism? Am I trying to tear it all down and start over? I confessed this to my microeconomics professor last term, and he was totally cool with it. He confessed that he had long been a devout Republican in the name of small government and deregulation– until this latest guy. I’m thinking about this as I reflect on the fragility of an economy battered by 2020. You know, the whole notion that unfettered greed is a great thing. If people get sick and die? Well, fuck ’em, right? The widget-making must go on! Profit reigns supreme.

That’s not what I’m about. And that’s not why I’m doing the degree. And, while I don’t think of myself as a radical, I find both my internal moral compass– and the readings I’ve been muddling through lately- to be pointing to the question of how we can even boast of the virtuous innovation of capitalist competition if indeed so many people in our society have been cut out of the deal altogether. TLDR– we can’t boast of it. Our society is at present held together by twine and duct tape. We’re only as strong as our weakest links, and our weakest links are the populations that we’ve cut out of the conversation, out of the very processes of exchange that we ostensibly value as a free marketeering liberal capitalist society.

Giving Thanks For Oft-Ignored Knowledge and Histories

This has echoed throughout a lot of things I’ve read and re-read this year– The Color of Money, for example, or Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. These works are not about how capitalism is evil. They’re about how the capitalism we have isn’t the same capitalism the neoliberal ideologues are claiming it to be– if it cuts off access to so many people. Mehrsa Baradaran talks about the economic vitality of black banks that was stifled by the malice of those mainstream, white businessmen who didn’t want to see black bankers participate in the system. Baradaran doesn’t indict capitalism– she indicts a system that calls itself embracing of free markets and capitalism while shutting out participants solely because of their skin color.

These ideas were similarly echoed in a couple of later midcentury histories I also read this year of native American peoples and the legacies of white colonialism. These histories focused on violent conflicts brought about by change– particularly change that was forced using state violence. Through the diverse likes of both Lakota oral histories (including stories that predated the advent of white colonists) and critical academic accounts of the US military conflicts with native peoples in the latter half of the 20th century, threads reference a spirit of reconciliation, forgiveness, and magnanimity– toward those who would fuck our shit up for no apparent reason. I didn’t read stories about how native peoples were offended by white people celebrating Thanksgiving. I read stories about native peoples not being given a chance to do the things they had done since the beginning of their existence, and then, well, being massacred by the full force of the writ-large State, more or less for the simple “crime” of being different.

Perhaps the saccharine, grade school version of the First Thanksgiving is whitewashed and invented. But certainly we can derive some idea of native wisdom emphasizing a respect of strangers and the natural world, as opposed to the colonial quest for dominance, subjugation, and extractivism. I didn’t take away from these stories much in the way of latent or repressed anger or hatred from those who have been wronged or their rights violated. Rather, I took away the notion of strength and resilience in the face of violence, exploitation, repression, erasure. Strength and resilience in the face of overwhelming bullshit.

This is a valuable thing for us to be thinking about in 2020.

A lonely beach scene in Northern Indiana several Thanksgivings ago.
Giving Thanks, Internationally, to Detroit– and Windsor

I’m thinking about all of this as I live in Southwest Detroit. Blocks of streets named in honor of veterans of the Mexican-American War (1846-48) are largely populated by mostly Jalisciense Mexicans. First generation, second generation, sometimes third and fourth generations of people. At the same time, I can look out my bedroom window and see the lights of the mighty Ambassador Bridge. Owing to our country’s inability to get its shit together, the bridge and the tunnel, the two major cross-border routes here, have been restricted to essential travel. This includes the trucks backed up for hours to deliver car parts to or from Canada. Yay cars!

It also includes the large number of medical personnel that cross from Windsor into Detroit every day. These are the people who are taking care of sick patients in local hospitals. The nation currently faces an unprecedented public health crisis that is caused by a catastrophic cocktail of obdurate self-obsession on the one hand (Live Free Or Die? Why not both?!) and, on the other, a lack of economic resiliency forcing people to make a bunch of bad decisions because in many cases they have no other option. Sorry, Donaldo, the cure isn’t going to be worse than the disease. The disease is pretty fucking bad at this point. This virus is everywhere. And it’s killing everybody. Red states, blue states, black, white, Latinx, native, immigrant. And, well, it’s probably still going to get quite a bit worse. Know why? Because you people aren’t taking it seriously and you never have.

That I live on an international border during a time of a global pandemic and at a terrifying zenith of American xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism, isn’t lost on me. It’s a wild thing to look out the window and think, “oh, over there, they have healthcare.” Wild when Adrianne’s father grumbles that he doesn’t want to go to Canada because, you know, they gave up their freedom. Whatever that means. So, too, is it wild to look at another country and think about how much different their whole society’s social contract must be, in no small part because of a stronger safety net. Having healthcare from the State means your world isn’t quite as disastrously over when you have to stop going into work because a wildly infectious respiratory virus, the likes of which the world has never seen, is ravaging the population. Seeing this isn’t a matter of me wishing I was Canadian (I got over that phase) but rather me looking at a different way the world can be, and thinking about ways we can incrementally improve upon what we’ve got.

Giving Thanks to Perspective, And Thinking About How To Broaden It

The perspective on this is something I’m thankful for. I’m thankful for it when I talk to Michiganders– white, black, Ivy League-educated and high school dropouts alike- who say, you know, they haven’t been to Windsor since they turned 19 and went over there to drink. Like many others in this largely stagnating, often ass-backwards, generally forlorn, Great Lakes state, they lack perspective. No surprise, then, that many of these same people guzzled the Kool-Aid that told them to come down to TCF and make a ruckus over the rigged election. I’m grateful that I also have the perspective that the election wasn’t rigged. That I’m able to, you know, seek out different sources and understand what they mean. I’m not saying this to be gloomy about Michiganders (though I admit that I often am). It’s been a slog living and trying to work in this town.

So, dare I come across as too sanctimonious, suffice it to say that it’s rewarding that I get to experience Detroit– certainly the cultural and economic fulcrum, if not indeed the center, of the state- from so many angles. It’s rewarding to be able to live in a racially and socioeconomically diverse neighborhood, and one sitting near a vital international border crossing– in a household that has been variously, and at times, Mexican (first-ish generation), half-Mexican, Polish (second generation immigrant), Jewish, quarter-Jewish, Black, etc.

And it’s important to be thankful for that– especially during times when little else seems certain.

Giving Thanks To Health, And Thinking About An End To The Rona

COVID has exposed the fragility of our national economy, laying bare the precarity of human life itself as it disrupts and destroys. In economic terms, we face unprecedented unemployment rates. We are testing the robustness of a healthcare system that is already straining an overworked workforce. We’re facing small business closures amid ballooning wealth for the richest handful of Americans, and the question of how to pick up the pieces after all of this is done.

But implicit in fragility and precarity is the concept of resilience. I don’t want to give you the whole, “it’s okay to not be okay.” It isn’t, in the eyes of many people in our society, okay to not be okay. I have to apply for jobs and put on a good face and interview like I worship the ground on which the interviewers walk. We have to get up in the morning and pretend that things are normal enough that we can continue business as usual as thousands of people die around us. Nothing is okay right now, and it’s not going to be okay until we fix it. But, broken though things may be, the cracks show us ways we can fix things and make sure we fix them better, to be stronger. This is as true for public infrastructure ravaged by derechos or hurricanes as it is for small businesses struggling against COVID. It’s similarly as true for the beaten-down psyche of every American, whether it’s because of COVID, or because your guy lost the election, or because your guy won the election this time but you’re still reeling from four years of incompetence, gaslighting, malfeasance, insults, disparagement, and lying.

Certainly, and especially as we face COVID, it’s time to move beyond all of that. It’s time to heal, but not forget. It’s time to fix– but not erase- the many mistakes from before.

And this year, this weird Thanksgiving– this idea– of resilience and strength in the face of overwhelming bullshit- is something I’m thankful for.

Stay home, mask up, and let’s do this thing.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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