On placemaking, or a review of Melody Warnick’s This Is Where You Belong

Melody Warnick is no stranger to moving–or the itch that inspires it–, and considers herself pretty proficient at the practice. But then she and her family do move number 6 so her husband can take a tenure-track job at Virginia Tech. Faced with the reality of yet another new town, she longs to put down roots. This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Live is her attempt to figure out what it is, exactly, that makes a place feel like home.

ThisIsWhereYouBelong_CVF_110316.inddIn the book, Warnick talks to placemaking experts (as an aside, am I the only one that reads books like these and finds all these cool careers she didn’t know existed but sound really fun and interesting?) to find out ways to jumpstart feeling at home. She has chapters on volunteering, getting involved with local politics, making neighbors into friends, and even how simply walking somewhere creates a bond between you and where you live in a way that driving won’t. At the end of each chapter she includes a “Love Your City Checklist” with a variety of actionable ideas you can implement in your own community. There’s something for everyone there, and you don’t have to do them all–one of her main points is that just trying at all will be extremely helpful in establishing a sense of place.

I read the book with great interest since I’ve moved around a fair amount–it’s nothing compared to some people, but it’s enough to make the ‘where are you from’ question a slightly convoluted one. The book helped me understand why I felt at home in some places and so displaced in others.

If I think about why Germany and I didn’t mix, well, a large part of that was probably because I wasn’t doing any placemaking of my own. I walked a lot and took public transit, so scored high on that list, but my life there was pretty restricted to the university and my apartment. Mostly due to the language barrier (completely underestimated how long it would take me as a shy introvert to even try to talk German outside of language classes), but honestly also because I spent a good chunk of my time there battling clinical depression without realizing it. When I left Germany in 2013 for a fellowship in Utah, I had very little to show for my time there, and I kind of regret that.

I jumped at the chance to leave Germany, and moving to Utah felt like a breath of fresh air, albeit fresh air with a lot of culture shock. Utah was an interesting experiment, in that it was supposed to be a short-term home for me (the fellowship was nine months), so any placemaking I was doing in those early months had that in the back of my mind. Until I met L. and suddenly I was there for the long haul and had to step up my efforts.  Two things stand out for me there: I took a small seminar-type class at the university and met some other grad students, and I joined a fabulous friend’s fabulous book club. I distinctly remember meeting a friend one Saturday morning at a coffee place in my neighborhood, maybe a year and a half in, and thinking, ‘this is it, now I’m home.’ And that’s pretty much when L. got the California job offer and we made plans to move again. I thought moving with someone would be easier, and in some ways it was, but in some ways placemaking as a trailing spouse is especially hard. Or at least I found it so. I made L. promise we could stay here longer than two years, and I set about the task of building a new life, again.

I found myself nodding at a lot of what Warnick wrote, in the sense that she describes a lot of things I had done unconsciously in my attempt to settle in, like volunteering, or eating local, or just wandering around the neighborhood. I ended up signing up for a century that first spring, and I got to know so much of the peninsula while training (I’d go out on 40-60 mile rides every week). And because we only had one car and I didn’t have a job yet, I spent a lot of time walking to and from downtown, or the grocery store, or around the block with the dog. So I got to know my way around pretty quick. That, coupled with a new church where I quickly started volunteering, our commitment to trying out all the breakfast places in town, and finally landing a job of my own, meant I felt much more at home at the one-year mark than I had ever done in Germany and Utah.

The longest I’ve ever lived anywhere is the ten years we spent in California when I was a kid, so I can’t really fathom staying in one place for 15 or 20 or however many years and becoming a real local. But one of the things I appreciated about the book is that you don’t have to be–Warnick includes both long- and short-term strategies in her book, and implementing them will help you feel at home wherever you are, however long you stay there.

One last note: even if you’re not like me, you’re not a Mover, you’re a Stayer, there’s probably a lot you can learn from this book. You might instinctively being doing much of this already, but I bet there’s a tip or two in these pages that will make you love where you live, even more.

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Military Reads

June was Military Month when it comes to my reading habits: one book on military science, one book written by a physical therapist at Walter Reed, one book about women in the military.

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Timely, according to the articles in my Facebook feed about the possibility of requiring women to register for the draft now that combat positions are open to women. For the record–I’m not opposed to being drafted. I don’t particularly want to go to war, but I doubt many of my male friends do, either, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t do my part if it’s needed. (I did, however, look up what would happen if I got drafted, since I have dual citizenship. Turns out that there’s a nice little loophole that as long as my two countries aren’t at war with each other, and I’m drafted and don’t voluntarily enlist, I can keep both nationalities. Good to know. (Please stay friends, guys.) I also learned that I can’t, however, serve as a military chaplain–single citizenship is a requirement there.)

Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Medical Center, by Adele Levine. 

Levine works as a physical therapist at Walter Reed, working with soldiers who have undergone amputations. It’s hard work, and a hard world: all-consuming, painful, but with a surprising amount of humor too. Most of the book tells the stories of the soldiers who come to her for rehabilitation, but she also writes about how she got into the work and what it does to her and to her co-workers to see the effects of the war on a daily basis. Recommended if you’re interested in the human cost of war. (Levine writes about the prices soldiers pay for policy decisions made by mostly white men in Washington DC, but doesn’t go into politics itself, so this book is suitable for both sides of the aisle in that sense.)

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach.

I love Mary Roach. I’ve read all but one of her books, and I love her irreverent approach to life and science and the wacky questions she comes up with that end up being super interesting. And she knows how to write for those of us who aren’t particularly science-minded or didn’t take a lot of science classes in school. As Goodreads says, “Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries—panic, exhaustion, heat, noise—and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them.” Roach tackles the varied topics of hearing loss, heat, exhaustion, proper clothing, fear, submarines, ducks, and stink bombs.

Roach is famously funny and irreverent, and I will say that she tries very hard to find the humor in a lot of situations, but doesn’t become disrespectful–she is writing about the military, after all, and people willing to risk their lives for other people’s safety. I think she’s conscious of that and tries to stay on the right side of that particular line. You can judge for yourself how well she succeeds.

A couple of reviewers on Goodreads and Amazons remarked that the book seems a little disjointed, and I’d have to agree with that. It’s still worth your time, especially if you’re a Roach fan, but if you’re new to her work, I’d pick up one of her other ones first to get an idea of her style. (Try Packing for Mars, for example, I liked that one a lot.)

Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War, by Helen Thorpe.

This was the most heart-breaking book of the three. Thorpe writes about three women who joined the Indiana National Guard and were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq. She talks about their time overseas, but also what happens when they come back after their first or second deployment, what happens to their families, and how they try to adjust back to civilian life. Embedded in a military that is inherently  male in nature, these women try to navigate their way through boot camp and training, drill weekends and deployment. Thorpe follows them for more than twelve years, and this longer-term view makes for a particularly interesting narrative.

Michelle is a student who enlisted in the National Guard because she needed money for college–and then 9/11 happened and suddenly she was sent overseas. Debbie is a beauty salon manager and has been in the Guard since the 1980s, serving as a kind of den mother to the soldiers. The Guard means community to her, more than anything else. And then there’s Desma, who signed up on a dare and ending up needing both the camaraderie and the steady paychecks to support her family. A New York Times piece about the book says that Thorpe “gives us a dynamic understanding of what it’s been like for Guard members who unexpectedly found themselves shipped off to the front lines of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, their lives and plans disrupted, their families thrown into disarray. She chronicles how these once ordinary civilians were abruptly transformed into full-time soldiers, and how they coped with the boredom and isolation and terror of serving in places where land mines and I.E.D.’s and roadside bombs were a constant threat.” This is also a good book to read if you’re interested about the support work that goes on during a deployment–one of the women works in the motor pool, while the other two are a part of the armament team and spend their time repairing and keeping track of deadly weapons. None are meant to see combat, but of course those lines aren’t as clear overseas and eventually one of them will even encounter an IED and will later be diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. This was an interesting book to read given the debates over women in combat, as it showed how women are sometimes already on the front lines, how gender comes into play while deployed, and what a female draft could mean for those left behind.

Main take-away from all three books? There is no good excuse for not taking care of those we ask to fight for us. Whether it’s before, during, or after deployment, there are about a million different ways in which we are letting soldiers down. I don’t know what to do about that, honestly, so if you have resources or further book recommendations for me, let me know!

what I read in March

What better way to get back into the swing of blogging than a monthly recap of the books I’ve read?

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It’ll be a short recap, actually, because the majority of books read in March belong to the Amelia Peabody series of cozy mysteries. Written by Elizabeth Peters, these books deal with an archeologist family, headed by matriarch Amelia Peabody, and surrounded by a cast of characters that make for highly enjoyable reading. If you like cozy mysteries at all, go read this series–it’s better than most. (Cozy mysteries can be both delightful and terrible, and these are definitely the former.) They go very well with dissertation writing–after a day of teasing out complex problems, it was very nice to spend a couple hours in twentieth century Egypt with Amelia and co.

1. Lord of the Silent (Elizabeth Peters)
2. Children of the Storm (Elizabeth Peters)
3. Guardian of the Horizon (Elizabeth Peters)
4. The Serpent on the Crown (Elizabeth Peters)
5. Tomb of the Golden Bird (Elizabeth Peters)

And then, for the more literary part of my month), I also read

6. Shakespeare Saved My Life (Laura Bates). Bates is a Shakespeare scholar that found herself teaching Shakespeare to inmates in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison. I really wanted to like this book, and there were parts that were really interesting, but overall, I felt like Bates was trying too hard and I wanted to throw the book across the room after the third time she very earnestly told us how incredibly insightful these prisoners were. If you’re interested in Shakespeare in prison, I recommend a podcast from This American Life (Act V): I feel like it did a better job of showcasing the complexity that surrounds the rehabilitation of serious offenders.

7. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Maria Semple). Architect turned neurotic stay-at-home-mom wreaks havoc on her life, and everyone else’s.
It took me a very long time to get around to reading this book. I really liked 3/4 of this book, and I’m recommending it based on that. The characters are eccentric but believable, and the use of correspondence to tell most of the story is clever and well-executed. The ending is a bit blah, but that could just be me.

8. Death at Wentwater Court (Carola Dunn). I listened to this one through Overdrive, mostly while walking the dog. Short, enjoyable cozy mystery set in 1920s England.

9. The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck). I was hooked on half of the book, cheering for the family, until Lotus was brought on the scene and I wanted to shake some sense into Wang Lung. Want to read something that will make your blood boil? The way women are treated in this book should qualify. (Also, this was a book club read. During the meeting, the lone guy present told us that this was the book that made him realize the importance of family planning and birth control. All the women in attendance just looked at him, because yes, thanks for catching on.)

There were two books I didn’t finish this month (rare for me!): Allure of Deceit (Susan Froetschel) and The Rosie Effect (Graehem Simsion). Allure tried too hard for my liking: part murder mystery, part psychological thriller, part exposé, I felt like it didn’t deliver on any of the fronts and stopped reading it halfway through. And although I really, really liked The Rosie Project, the second installment felt too formulaic and frankly too unbelievable for me to want to continue. I felt like the author sat down, brainstormed a list of challenges that could happen to someone on the spectrum, and then proceeded to throw them at his character all at once. If you’ve read and liked The Rosie Effect, let me know if I should reconsider and see it through.