A week or so ago, I got a tip that a young woman by the name of Amy Probst had “quietly” purchased a home in Ypsilanti in hopes of avoiding her mandatory immigration interview. Well, it took a little detective work on my part, but I was finally able to track her down, fire up the bright lights, and ask her why, of all places, she and her tiny dogs decided to live here among us.
MARK: Do I understand correctly that you purchased a home in Ypsi last summer?
AMY: You do. I wasn’t planning to buy a home just yet, but I saw a photo of this house on Facebook and fell in love. It was the cover photo for an article about Ypsilanti’s annual tour of historic homes. It was the writing cottage I’d always dreamed of, and it was just two blocks from Depot Town. I knew an “Amy house” this perfect was a rare find, so I pursued it. Buying turned out to be a 6-month roller coaster, but thankfully it ended happily. I’m still quite close to the former owner, who lived in the house for 28 years. He’s stopped by to bring (and chop!) wood for the fireplace, teach me about the hundreds of flower varieties in the yard, and yesterday, to change a lightbulb. My house was built in 1920, and I’m the third owner. [below right: Interior of Amy’s Ypsilanti dream house]
AMY: Before buying a home and moving here, I was living in Royal Oak. Directly before moving here the first time, I was living in Livonia… I moved there to be near my sister’s family when she had my twin nieces. Those were dark years, socially. I’m from Royal Oak, and have also lived in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Oklahoma.
MARK: How does one find herself in Oklahoma?
AMY: In this particular case, one hitchhikes to Florida with her friend, Liz, as 16-year-old runaways, gets caught, then sent to live with her dad in Oklahoma, where she begins a new high school mid-year with one pair of jeans, a hoodie, and a sweater, and is instantly famous for her Yankee accent. I highly recommend the Tulsa area, and more direct trajectories are available, though certainly less colorful. [below right: Amy before running away]
AMY: I don’t mind at all–I actually welcome opportunities to share my perspective, which is that running away is sometimes the most adaptive and mentally healthy option for certain teenagers in impossible situations. For me, I reached a point where my inability to improve my home situation was starting to make me crack. I felt my sanity teetering, and feared that a door to myself was about to slam shut, permanently. I needed to remove myself from an environment that was, for me, crazy-making, in order to preserve my sensibilities. It worked for me. Not without consequences to the trajectory of my life, certainly, but a bargain at any price. I don’t know what would have happened had I not left, but my feeling is that part of my good judgement and sense of right and wrong would have irrevocably shut down, and I’d have by necessity morphed into the belief system I was trying to escape. So, I think that for those kids who become “a product of their environment,” there was no option available; no foot in the door of the sanity kids innately have, so they are crippled by the limits of their adults. Mentoring can be sanity-saving for just this reason, and I am an advocate… What made my situation impossible for me mentally was emotional abuse by someone who used me as an outlet to vent his considerable rage, and I had no protection from that for about six years, when I finally left.
MARK: At the risk of venturing any further into the darkness, I’m interested to know more about the “belief system” you were running away from. Was it an oppressively conservative home? I ask because I think it may provide some context for your overflowing love for Ypsilanti, which is decidedly not conservative.
AMY: Interesting, sir. Yes, the home did become born-again Christian during my pre-teen years, which didn’t turn out to be a move in my favor. The belief system I referred to was more an internal one, about who I was and what I was worth, but this certainly nestled itself nicely into the religious framework eventually adopted. It’s worth noting that I have made peace with all involved, and have some understanding and empathy for their roles. I also think that sometimes religion acts very much like a drug in the lives of suffering people, and is consequently clung to with a life-or-death vigor that is subconsciously powered by a psyche unwilling to let it go for fear of a return to their state of suffering… I have empathy for that. I also suppose there are likely religious folks who enjoy a calmer, kinder relationship with it all. But the damage that can be done, and the impossibility of having open-minded dialogue, by definition, limits the depth of relationship possible with someone like me, who is driven by questions, logic, and kindness. So yes, to your point, Ypsilanti is also an intellectual home: from Rick at the Tap Room to someone sitting next to me at Ugly Mug to my friends and their parents, I’ve enjoyed galloping conversations and intellectual quests that, to this day, have always ended with smiles, fondness, and a good time shared.
MARK: What was your very first experience of Ypsi? Do you remember what it was that brought you here the first time?
AMY: I do. I’d started working at Thomson Reuters in Ann Arbor and liked the job so much I decided to shorten my commute. I wanted a loft, Ann Arbor was more than I could afford, and I found a gorgeous one in Ypsi (The Flour Mill lofts across from Haab’s). I’d figured I would just live there and hang out in Ann Arbor. Instead, I fell head-over-heels in love with Ypsilanti: the buildings, the locals at the end of the Tap Room’s bar, the “living room of Ypsi” that is Corner Brewery, the parks where my dog and I spent time almost every day, and the people. I love the people here so much: I’ve never felt more myself and more at home than now, with the smart, interesting, diverse, and overwhelmingly kind people of Ypsilanti. I’ve been lucky enough to be welcomed into the Ypsi-based Team Smoot family of friends, who’ve known each other for decades and are the best people I know.
MARK: And what, for those of my readers who may not understand the reference, is Team Smoot?
AMY: A group of adventurous friends who competed annually in the Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament, then moved on to Major League Dreidel, as a team. Many of the Smoots, and their extended group of friends, met on college trips traveling overseas, and through other adventures. I participate in National Novel Writing Month every November, and was with a group of fellow Nanoers, furiously writing into our laptops at the Corner, when I first encountered Team Smoot, who were having dreidel practice at the table next to mine. Team Captain Kurt Anscheutz invited me to take a spin, I had beginner’s luck, and was invited to join the team for the tournament in Brooklyn, which was just two weeks away. My own sense of adventure and innate trust of these folks had me getting picked up at 7:00 AM two weeks later and heading to Brooklyn for one of the best experiences of my life. The rest is history. Nobody seems to know where the Smoot name originated. [right: Amy with Kurt Anscheutz at the 2010 Dreidel Championship]
MARK: So, what is it that you do for a living? Are you still at Thomson Reuters?
AMY: To pay the bills, I’m an instructional designer, which sort of means I create corporate training, like software workshops, technical manuals, and e-learning modules. Fun; right? I’m no longer with Thomson Reuters, but it remains the best company I’ve worked for to date. Professionally, these days I work by contract for a variety of companies. Personally, my primary goal in life is to complete a novel that means something to me. It’s in the works. I also act, do stand-up comedy, teach Lynda Barry’s WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE workshops, and loaf around with my dogs quite a bit.
MARK: Does Lynda Barry know that you teach Lynda Barry writing workshops?
AMY: She does. I met Lynda as a student in her workshops, which were life-changingly helpful to me as a writer and a person. During a weeklong workshop at Omega Institute in upstate New York, Lynda, singer Kelly Hogan, and I kind of bonded. Kelly and I traveled with Lynda periodically afterward, helping as her workshop “pixies” and mostly enjoying our friendship. Lynda encouraged me more than 10 years ago to teach the workshop, and I finally got the guts to do so last year. It’s a huge honor and a great responsibility to offer this meaningful experience to others.
AMY: Ha! Quite often, as it happens. We are both, along with Hogan, typically found at home in overalls, boots, and bandana. Lynda always wears a white cotton blouse when she teaches, because, as she tells her classes, she sweats profusely when teaching. I can relate, but don’t wear white, because I also get uncommonly grubby.
MARK: What can you tell us, if anything, about the novel you’re working on?
AMY: I can tell you that I’ve avoided writing “what I know” for 15 years, and only recently realized that it’s where my characters live, so consequently, where I need to write. That kids are the heroes of my story, the setting is blue-collar 1970s Royal Oak, and we’ll come to know a lot of sadness, triumph, and humor.
MARK: Given that you grew up in suburban Detroit in the ‘70s, I’m curious to know your thoughts on Freaks and Geeks. Does it ring true for the most part?
AMY: I’m vicariously inclined to say, “Yes, absolutely!” because people I trust love that show, but the sad truth is that I’ve never seen an episode. If you’d like to hold publication, I will perform my due diligence and watch it on YouTube, certainly to my betterment. [right: Amy working on her novel at Sidetrack]
MARK: And do I understand correctly that, like me, you’re venturing into the world of podcasting?
AMY: It’s something I accidentally found out I really enjoy. A friend asked me to be the first guest on his podcast, The Ken and Tom Show: Tales from the D, and I had so much fun doing it — really, one of the best times, ever — that when I learned Ric Pruneda’s podcast, The Dirty Words Radio Show, was looking for a new female co-host, I asked about my sitting in for a guest spot. He said yes, and that happens later this week. A million years ago, I wrote the LooseLips column for the Metro Times, and in that capacity did a weekly spot on the Johnny in the Morning show on 96.3. That was my first radio experience, and also a great time. I’m always looking for more opportunities to have great conversation behind a microphone.
MARK: I haven’t gotten too far into your Tales from the D piece, but, at the very beginning, they give you kind of a hard time about being a member of Mensa. Does that happen a lot?
AMY: Yes, pretty much any time I’m open about it, which I think is understandable. People tend to see it as the equivalent of a “Pretty” club or “Better Than” club. Fact is, human brains just work differently from most when they’re outliers in any regard, and it’s nice every now and then to be with folks who don’t find you weird…. who don’t think you ask too many questions, “over-analyze” everything, are too impatient, criticize them personally instead of the idea you’re discussing. People usually assume Mensans think they’re “better than” everyone else, when the reality is we feel like dysfunctional aliens, doing things wrong that we can’t figure out, with most people, most of our lives. Mensa is largely a place where you can not feel bad about the innate characteristics that make you unlikable in the real world. Mensans tend to be kind and lonely for the most part, in my experience. They like chocolate, hugs, and board games.
MARK: Do you have to register, like sex offenders? I mean, is there a map somewhere that I can find online to see if any of you are living near me? Also… and more seriously… do you have a secret fort somewhere, a place where you congregate, like the old house where the murder takes place in The Bye Bye Sky High I.Q. Club episode of Columbo?
AMY: Ha ha ha ha! I am totally finding that episode of Columbo! Fantastic. There is no public registry, but passing score on any of a number of standardized tests must be shown, and then dues must be paid annually. A funny thing: When someone in Mensa says something dumb, you’re likely to hear people shout “Retest! Retest!” and lots of cracking up. Mensans are fun and do not take themselves overly seriously. As for secret forts, restaurants, community centers, and hotels are popular.
MARK: I want you to say something really stupid now, so I can yell “Retest!” Is there anything really dumb that you’re into that I could ask about?
AMY: I watch every episode of The Bachelor, sporadically attend propane shoots, rescue worms drowning in puddles, and willingly subject myself to the brutal humiliation that is standup comedy. Take your pick.
MARK: What’s a propane shoot? Is it like doing whippets?
AMY: Even dumber. Take a propane tank, put it in a field or suspend it from the ceiling of an abandoned warehouse, then shoot it with any type of gun until it turns into a dancing fire demon for about 4 minutes.
AMY: I enjoy extremes. And there’s always room for me in Densa.
MARK: Quick… The five best things about Ypsilanti?
MARK: Finish the sentence: “The thing Ypsi really needs is…..”
AMY: …to remain just under the radar and slightly gritty, so that it doesn’t become Ferndale or Royal Oak.
MARK: Any regrets so far about choosing to relocate to Ypsilanti?
AMY: Zero. I am very much at home.
[Still wondering why people are moving to Ypsi? Check out the Ypsilanti Immigration Interview archive.]