Friday, June 22, 2012

Zinta Interviews Author Kristina Riggle on WMUK 102.1 Radio

News for Southwest Michigan

Keepsake: A novel about hoarding and family

By: Zinta Aistars
Kalamazoo, MI
June 22, 2012

Kalamazoo author Kristina Riggle has come out with a new novel called Keepsake. Keepsake is about two sisters: Trish, who is a hoarder, and Mary, who is more of a neat freak. The sisters must clean out Trish’s house so that Child Protective Services will let Trish keep her son.

Read more on WMUK Arts and More programs, and listen to the full on-air interview with Zinta Aistars and Kristina Riggle.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How We Show the Love—Viva la Diffèrence

by Zinta Aistars

I’ve been waiting patiently (well, kind of patiently) to show Z Acres to my son. At last, our schedules and whereabouts mesh, and I get to bring him out to see where his mama now lives—in green and lush and luscious glory, in my century-plus old farmhouse on ten acres. Meanwhile, he is now moving into my previous residence, the new homeowner, tenant for now, perhaps true owner down the road.

When I drive over to his place, once my place, to pick him up, I find him in the garage, tinkering away on various mechanical … things. Half of them I’d be hard put to identify. Things that whir and hum and sizzle with electricity, blink lights on and off, and generally come to mechanical life under his hands. It’s a world about which I have little understanding. As, I suppose, he has little understanding about editing and writing copy and the nuanced subtleties of fine literature.

At times I suspect he fixes things that don’t need fixing. It’s the tinkering that is so enticing to him. Taking things apart and putting them back together again, making things better somehow. There is his love. Just as I tend to take apart copy I’ve written, dismantle sentences and put the pieces back together in revision, making it all read a little bit better.

My son and I are a different breed—yet, of course, we are not. In other ways, we are obvious blood, and we share a similar perspective, mirror a few mannerisms, and our hearts tend to tick to a similar rhythm. There is a bit of a rebel in both of us, chafing at restriction. We are both passionate about the things and the work and the people that we love.

Grease smeared across one cheek, hands deep into some engine, I can see it will be a while yet, so I wander inside while he finishes up what he is doing. Ach, such a bachelor pad! My house has changed personalities completely. My things are gone, replaced by his few belongings. The living room is still mostly empty, where my dining room table had been is now empty space, and my usually empty sink is now filled with dirty dishes.

Not giving it any thought, I roll up my sleeves and turn on the hot water. I rinse the dishes and arrange them in the dishwasher, fill it with detergent and turn it on. While the dishes wash, I head upstairs, see the unmade bed, and I rip off the bedspread and sheets to make it neat again. I plump pillows. I pick up dirty socks and drop them in the hamper. I replace an empty toilet paper roll. I empty a wastebasket. I straighten a framed painting on the wall.

Getting a bit hungry, dinnertime, after all, I peer into his refrigerator and see what’s available for a quick meal. I know he loves breakfast any time of day, so I put a pan on the stove and turn up the heat, crack several eggs and sizzle a few slices of bacon. I slice cheese and bread.

By the time he steps inside to wash up, his house is neat again, a warm plate awaits, and I can’t resist patting a loose wisp of hair on his forehead, brushing it back. I watch him eat with contentment.

“Ready?” I chirp. “Can’t wait to show you my new old place!”

Oh, he knows. I’ve said it a thousand times. And he has pretty much just nodded, each time, raised an eyebrow, listened. My son is a quiet man, a man of few to no words, and as if to compensate, when I am with him, I tend to become a chatterbox. All the way to Z Acres, I bubble thoughts and wishes and ponderings and random rhetorical questions and ideas and a lot of nonsense. He listens.

Such silent rivers run deep, however. Now and then, when my son opens up for a moment, he tends to take my breath away with an intriguing flash of innovative thought, a fresh perspective, or, most often, some one-liner that instantly spins me into fits of laughter. His dry humor gets me right there.

When we pull into the long drive that tunnels through woods at Z Acres, I sense a shift in him. He has come to attention. I can tell by the way he lifts his head that he likes what he sees. He steps from the car, takes it all in for a moment, then nods.

“Yeah. Pretty cool.”

I make a little jump. Yippee!

I give him the grand tour, and he makes comments on this and that, and I know it’s all good. We switch gears to things that need to be done. I’m not sure how that happens, but we are soon talking about this that could use a tweak, and this that could use tightening, and that thing there that could use a fix of some kind.

Mind you, I have this place in great order. With loving care, I have managed to take care of all of it. Sure, the riding mower sits in the tool shed unused, but I am an environmentally responsible person—I avoid engines when I can and opt for push power. I routinely mow near two acres of my land around the house with a push mower. I’ve done whatever tweaking and tightening as needed here, and I’ve even snaked the pond pipes to clear them when the pond threatened to go over its edges. I’ve plowed through fields of grass, I’ve started a garden, and the house is neat and orderly.

Still, when I see him unpack his big and monstrously heavy toolbox from the trunk, I’m glad. Trained as an electrician, I know it will take him but a moment to get that moody light switch in the bathroom working just right. And he does. In half a moment. He explains to me what he’s done, and I blink a lot.

The riding mower gets his attention next. It’s sat in the tool shed since last summer, I’m sure, unused, but he coaxes the engine, dribbles gas into it, leans closer to listen to its heartbeat as he brings it back to life. The shed door open, he drives it out into the field with a thundering noise and flying dust. The field that I have mown by push mower over hours of work, he zips back and forth across it and trims it down to neatness in no time.

“Come on, your turn,” he waves me over. “I’m sure you want to learn this, too.”

I do! I hoist up my skirt above my knees and straddle the seat, starting to blink a lot again as I assess all those gears and pedals on the old machine. Choke and throttle, lower mower and lift it again, speed notches there and speed gears here …

My son gives me lessons and sets me off, and I’m grinning as I make the first turn. He walks along beside me as I ride, making sure all is in control, and I smile to myself, warmed by his attention.

I remember … many years ago, when I took my son and his sister to Key West, Florida, and we decided to go scuba diving. Not a particularly strong swimmer, I was feeling a bit anxious as we prepared to jump from the boat into the deep ocean water—but I was determined to give my kids this new experience.

He sensed my jitters. My son swam beside me that entire stretch to the coral reef, and when my breathing got a little fast inside the scuba equipment, somehow he always sensed it, and I would feel my boy’s hand lightly touch my back at that precise moment to offer reassurance. It worked. Having him near, feeling his lightest touch when I was about to panic … my son made the deep dive possible for me. It was an adventure to remember. I couldn’t have done it without him.

Now, I see him walking in circles, following my progress, calling out to me to up the speed a notch, but only if I am comfortable … and I up it by two.

As I step off the mower, I remember this is how he taught me to roller blade, too, close by, following, releasing, encouraging, reassuring. It has been our symbiotic relationship—mother and son, taking turns teaching each other what each us knows best.

Throughout the evening, he adjusts things in my house. Gets them just right. Or even if nothing is needed, he checks it all out. We talk about other items on my list that he will help me cross off in future visits. I could use help putting up a chicken wire fence around my vegetable garden. The cottage on the hill could use some cleaning up. We walk through the barn and talk about future renovations as I dream out loud about turning part of it into a guest house.

“I should get a chain saw,” I ponder out loud. “Those dead branches on that tree there …”

“Sure. You have some extra chains in the tool shed. Must have been a saw around here before.”

I could do such things alone. I know I could. Left to myself, I have found over time that there is little I can’t accomplish once I put my mind and some muscle to it. But my son’s guidance and lessons and helpful hands leave me warm inside, feeling his love, as I hope he will feel mine when he returns to his life. A woman can do most anything a man can do, and a man can do most anything a woman can do, and my son has inherited my fierce drive for independence, doing for oneself … but as I lean my head for a moment against his muscled shoulder, I feel how good it is, just for a moment, to let go and let someone else extend a helping hand. Let go, and let someone take care of me for a moment. Let go, and let my son be the grown man in whom I feel ever growing pride, and know how useful he is to me, and how much I care that he cares.

Z Acres feels even more like home tonight. It knows family.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Dog Joy

by Zinta Aistars

Guinnez checking out the beehives when they are first installed at Z Acres

I almost lost him.

My official work day over (I usually work from home on Thursdays and Fridays), I switched gears to my other work life - as a freelance writer. Every month, I write a story for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media, a fun and interesting online news magazine that covers area businesses and ventures that overcome more demanding times to rise above, to do the unique, the make things work. For July's upcoming story, I'd pitched an idea to my managing editor Kathy, and she'd agreed: do a story about the beekeeper Jon Noble, who this spring had installed four beehives on my property, Z Acres.

I'd already been stung once. Right on the left eyelid. Ouch. It was my first lesson in respect. I was quickly learning more about the bees, and I was, and am, pleased to have the bees creating honey on my ten acres. Jon and I have bartered my land for his bees' honey, and in the fall, I will have some 20 pounds of sweetness and maybe a nice chunk of beeswax in payment. It also makes me feel good about doing a little something to contribute to giving bees what they need to produce honey and pollinate plants and trees. You've heard of colony collapse disorder (CCD)? Doing this story was my chance to learn more--about beekeeping, about CCD, about the life cycle of bees and their crucial role in our ecology.

My old chow pup, Guinnez, as usual, was along for the ride. If I love working from home, I daresay my old pup loves it more. He stays by my side all day long. We have time before the work day to walk the grounds, I can get in some gardening as the sun rises, we check out the frogs encircling the pond (he loves nothing more than running up and down the side of the pond to make them plop, plop, plop, one by one, into the water), and I often rev up my weed-wacker motor and do some grass cutting in the fields. He stays close by. If he ever wanders further away, he soon reappears. He is my companion, a woman's best friend.

When Jon and I first met, I was out back with my push mower, cutting the grass behind the little red farmhouse. Guinnez was lying on the back deck, paws hanging over the edge, watching my progress. He sent up a quick bark of warning to let me know of Jon's approach. He wasn't happy.

Jon was coming down the long stairs, leading from the drive down the hillside to the house. Guinnez was on all fours and took a firm stance on the bottom step to declare: that's far enough!

I held on to Guinnez's collar as Jon introduced himself. He was a beekeeper in southwest Michigan, and he placed his hives on properties where farming wasn't heavy (he wanted to avoid various sprays and overly busy areas) and land owners were agreeable to his honey barter. We quickly had a deal. He had been placing his hives here in previous years, too, and his favorite spot to place them was on the back tree line, on the far west boundary of Z Acres. 

Guinnez was less sure. He took a quick nip at Jon's jeaned ankle as the beekeeper turned to go back up the stairs. No harm done, but old chow pup wanted to be sure all concerned knew who was boss and gatekeeper here.

I was intrigued with the beekeeping, pitched my story idea, and by the time the hives were installed (at near midnight, when the bees were too sleepy to object), Jon and I had arranged to meet for an interview for my upcoming article.

Guinnez wasn't any happier about Jon's visit to the farm on this night than on our first meeting. To keep Jon's ankles free of nips, I reluctantly locked Guinnez out of the house while I invited Jon to take a seat at my kitchen table, my notebook open and ready for notetaking. The pup circled from one door to the other, watching us through the glass. For an hour, Jon told me about his honey business, about the bees, and I listened in growing fascination. This was going to be one of my favorite articles to write, I was sure of it.

As we finished our interview, Second Wave photographer, Erik Holladay, arrived. Guinnez sent up his announcement call, and I trotted outside to be sure my old chow pup didn't grab another ankle. He was a good guard dog! But Guinnez already had a little wiggle and wag going to his tail. He approved of cameras more than beehives, apparently.

The sun was beginning to dip toward the horizon. The bees would hopefully be calming toward the evening hour. This was my favorite time of day, a close second to early morning, when Z Acres was calm, the light was golden, and the creatures and insects were signaling change of day.

Jon unpacked his gear from his truck: a bee suit and veil, a smoker to send wisps of white smoke about in puffs, discouraging the bees from an angry approach, and a beehive tool to pull honey combs from the hive. Erik unpacked his gear: camera, long lenses, lighting. We headed out back to cross the last five acres of the property toward the hives. Guinnez followed.

Jon talked about the moods of bees as we trekked across the field. If we heard loud buzzing, that was a signal the bees were feeling angry. Back off. Usually, however, he was able to handle the combs without wearing any gear at all. A puff of smoke here and there, and the bees backed away, letting him check on the progress of the honey-making.

The bees didn't seem to mind the checking now. Erik snapped photos as Jon pulled up the combs, holding them up golden in the slanting sun. These photos were going to be great!

Then I noticed Guinnez. I pointed him out to the guys, laughing. Our photo shoot had us partially in the wheat field sharing a boundary with my land, and the wheat was tall enough that Guinnez was hidden from view. Only a shimmer of a wave showed where he trotted along, a parting of the wheat. If I had a fin attached to his back, I said, I could see where my dog was just as in the movie "Jaws" one could track the moving shark.

Guinnez leapt up above the wheat from time to time, indeed like a surfacing fish above the waves, and his beautiful face was bright with dog joy, dog at play. So much of my joy in living at Z Acres came from watching his joy in this place. Living off the leash, free to roam, connected with nature.

But then he was next to us, and lying at my feet in the tall grass. Jon remarked how the dog had suddenly calmed ...

As we headed back across the field toward the house, Erik remarked, "Watch out! Dog got sick here!" so that we could step around it.

Sick? Maybe ate too tall grass, I thought, and didn't give it much thought. Animals do that, the occasional small upchuck.

I saw Jon and Erik off, then came back down the hill to the house. Ah, Friday! The evening was mine, I thought, time to kick off my shoes ... and I did, kick, and grabbed a cup of Greek yogurt to enjoy with fruit on the patio. And there was Guinnez, already relaxing ...

... only he was not. He was breathing hard. Really hard.

I put down my yogurt cup and paid closer attention. He sounded like he was hyperventilating. I hurried over to him and sat down on the ground beside him.

"Guinnie?" I prodded, petted. "You okay?"

Not okay. In moments, my dog went from perky and joyful to sluggish, and finally collapsed. Something was very wrong. I ran for my shoes, grabbed my phone, calling the vet as I swiped my keys from their hook by the door and slung my purse over my shoulder. Of course, off hours, closed, but I listened for the emergency number and called that. We were on our way.

Guinnez was immobile. He couldn't even lift his head. His eyes were just slits, and his breath came heavy and hard. I was grateful for all that gardening I had been doing, all that mowing with a push mower, building strength in my arms. I hoisted the 51 pound dog in my arms and carried him up the long path of steps uphill to my car.

He made no move, no twitch of protest as I slid him into the backseat of my car. I arranged his head as comfortably as I could, cooing words of comfort to him, and got behind the wheel, revving the motor and spitting up dirt and gravel as we ripped down my long drive and took a turn on the dirt road, heading in the 40 miles or so to the city.

What a long stretch that interstate seemed to be. I drove fast, too fast, hoping to escape any radars, occasionally reaching a hand back between the seats to pat Guinnez, all the while talking to him. Be all right, we'll be fine, hang in there with me, Guinnie, hang in there ...

At last, there. A vet assistant held the door open as I carried my dog in, and someone rushed to take him from my arms and trotted with him into the rooms in back. I appreciated the hurry. They already knew this was the dog from the beehives from my earlier call.

Would I lose him? Could it happen? An animal can be allergic just as people are. I was told he had gone into anaphylactic shock. A steroid shot, Benadryl, cortizone ... it sounded just like my treatment the week before, when I visited a doctor after two weeks of battling a poison ivy rash. I was still on meds myself to calm the rash on my arms and upper chest. Ah yes, Z Acres with its woods and fields and wildness could have its darker side, too.

The door from the back rooms opened, and a vet walked out with Guinnez on a thin leash. He was up! Slow, laggard, head hanging, but his tail gave a weak wag when he saw me. He met my eyes, then dropped his head again. I was allowed to go back in with him for a while as they observed him, did an ultrasound to check for water around the heart or lungs, just in case it was something else, but he was better, he was going to be all right, my old chow pup was coming back to me.

An IV still attached to his paw, I sat on the floor with my dog, my friend, and rubbed his back and sides as he stood shakily with his soft forehead leaned hard into my chest. I couldn't imagine going back to Z Acres without him. How we do love our furry family members ... and mine was especially dear to me. All my pets are rescue stories, including Guinnez. He was a runaway with a half chopped-off tail, perhaps abuse, and I brought him home from the animal shelter. Off his leash at the farm, he never ran. He was always near, following my every step. I wanted him alongside me for many steps yet.

"So," I questioned the vet, "what kind of life span can I expect for a chow?"

"I'm a fan of chows myself," Steve, the vet, answered. "Had four. Three lived to 13. That seems to be that number for chows," he shrugged. "One lived to 16."

"I'll take 17," I said quietly, resting my chin on my dog's head, still pressed into my chest.

"How old is he?"

"About to begin his twelfth year," I sighed. "I eat organic, and that's what I give him. Purest stuff I can find. Whatever I can do."

Steve nodded. We chatted for a long while as Guinnez gradually recuperated enough strength to be allowed to go home.

Long drive back again, but I drove much slower, one hand on my dog, this time sitting beside me in the passenger seat.

"We're going home, Guinnie, you and me."

Tongue lolling, old chow pup looked at me and, I think, smiled.

He made it down the hillside of steps on his own, but it was slow going. At one step, he lay down for a moment, resting. At the house, he didn't yet want to go in. So we sat on the deck in back, his favorite place, well past midnight, and watched the stars come out, listened to the whispers of the night, and were silent.

Even now, all he wanted ... was to be here, to be outside, where nature was one with him. I stroked his head, his velvet ears, listened to his steady breath, and said a silent thanks. Living on this farm with its woods and fields, dealing with poison ivy and stinging nettle and bee stings, it was all a part of living in the country. Nothing for me, or dog, had changed. We wanted to be nowhere else but here. We would learn to cope. We would keep Benadryl in our medicine chest. Maybe an epi-pen. Learn to wash quickly after a brush-up with itchy ivy. And if ever I walked to the back tree line again, near the hives, Guinnez would have to stay back at the house.

The bees would stay. We would not barricade ourselves against nature because of one incident. Living in suburbia had felt to me like living in isolation among the crowds. Here, we were one with nature, and there was a respect due, and education needed to live in harmony. I was willing to learn, and my respect was great. I also knew that I had never been happier. Guinnez had never been happier. This was our home. We would enjoy it to the utmost every day, every day we had here.

The morning after ... Guinnez enjoys a roll in the grass

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Exquisite Corpse: Art that's alive and kicking

Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media:

Exquisite Corpse: Art that's alive and kicking

Art that keeps the imagination alive is part of what Kalamazoo's Exquisite Corpse is about. Zinta Aistars reports on how Arty Pants Button Mart funded a shared space that became home for a studio for an art collaborative.
Eana Agopian's gaze wanders out the third floor wall of windows to look west across Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo Avenue below. "During a sunset," she says, "those buildings all turn pink and orange."

Spoken like an artist. And Eana is. She is a studio member, once manager, of Exquisite Corpse, an artist collaborative and gallery in Park Trades Center, 326 W. Kalamazoo Avenue in Studio 301. The gallery is open to the public by appointment and on the first Friday of every month, during Art Hops, when 300 to 500 people might come through in a matter of hours.

As nearly all space inside the vintage Park Trades Center does, this studio has uneven and scuffed hardwood floors, pipes and ducts that hang from the high ceiling, and windows that show their age.
Read the full article at Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media.
Eana Agopian at the gallery (photo by Erik Holladay)