Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Smoking Poet Launches Spring 2013 Issue

The Smoking Poet
"Words that turn the page to flame"

Pages of Decomposition by Ladislav Hanka

The hours move quickly, and they accumulate. Hours become days, days become weeks, months, years, and then, we are looking at a lifetime. What have you accomplished in yours? How do you use your time?  
In spring 2013, a group of artists and writers gathered in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and, under the direction of Sydnee Peters, created art around the concept of Hours. The result was a book, an art exhibit, and a poetry reading. In this issue of The Smoking Poet, we share a few of the poems and many of the art pieces from Hours. You'll see the art of these many artists on every page, and something about all the members of this group on Kalamazoo Arts: Hours.
We have also set aside a few hours to have fascinating conversations with two dynamic authors, Juris Jurjevics (Red Flags) and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya (The Watch). Both of these writers have taken on the heartwrenching topic of war in their novels, and both have given it a very different perspective. Jurjevics writes about growing up during WWII and being a veteran of Vietnam, and Roy-Bhattacharya examines the war in Afghanistan through the lens of mythology. Is humanity doomed to forever be drawn into war—or is it possible to resist and bring war to an end? Read what these two have to say.
Along with fiction, nonfiction and poetry, we include social commentary on the page we call A Good Cause. This issue's contributor is Jeanne Hess, author of Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games. She has taken on a controversial topic in sports—the objectification of women. Consider the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. Are women a sport? Jeanne offers a fresh perspective.
Browse our book reviews. We add new reviews throughout the season, so come back now and then to see what we've been reading. And, we are offering a special on author interviews for future issues of The Smoking Poet. If you're a published author and would like to be interviewed, you may be interested in an interview/book review package.
With this issue, we are also introducing our newest Kalamazoo College intern, Stefano Cagnato, who came to us from Ecaudor. Stefano is interested in fiction and screenwriting, so along with helping us with this issue, he will be our fiction and nonfiction editor for the upcoming Summer 2013 issue. Welcome, Stefano!
Spend your hours well! Read, write, create, add your mark and make a difference.
With a good word,
TSP Editor-in-Chief

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Much more than vegetables grow at Sprout Urban Farms

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
April 25, 2013


A community gathering to talk about ways to improve life where they live led to organizing a farm in the city. Zinta Aistars has the story of Sprout Urban Farm.

It's a staff meeting. Let's face it: staff meetings usually inspire yawns, doodles on notepads, and texting under the conference table. But this staff meeting is led by Jeremy Andrews, CEO of Sprout Urban Farms on 245 N. Kendall Street in Battle Creek, Michigan, and while there are notepads and laptops open on the table, and notes are indeed being taken, there are no yawns. Instead there is laughter, friendly jibes, general teasing, and a lot of enthusiasm, sprouting all around the table. 
That's because Andrews is no ordinary CEO. He spells it out. CEO stands for, he grins, "Chief Excitement Officer."  And Sprout Urban Farms is no ordinary farm. Sprout, as Andrews and his crew call it, is the hub of a grassroots movement born of a community gathering to discuss ways to improve, well, life. 
"The best initiatives come from a community, not at a community," Andrews says. It was 2009, he says, and he was working as a community organizer in Battle Creek. "About 100 residents showed up at our forum. People could talk about anything, propose anything."
What the people wanted was a community garden. In fact, everyone everywhere seemed to want community gardens, and so Andrews started to think--why not start one great community garden rather than scattered many gardens? And then … he did both. 
Sprout Urban Farms took shape from that grassroots initiative, built on grants, donations, and community enthusiasm. Now vegetables are grown year-round, if not in the garden, then in a large greenhouse, or inside hoop houses. From Sprout about 30 more community gardens  sprouted throughout the Battle Creek area. But that wasn't all. 
"We talked about gardening at that forum," Andrews says, "and we also talked about composting, harvesting, education, and workshops. We talked about improving food access, building a food co-op, getting youth involved."

Sprout Urban Farms grew quickly, and soon included all of these things.
Bright Star Farm became the one community garden. Compost Happens became the community compost project with a focus on youth engagement and environmental stewardship. Fresh on Wheels is the mobile market partnership between Sprout Urban Farms and the Battle Creek Community Foundation. The GreenFist Project is a gardening youth internship made up of youth, ages 16 to 23, from many of the school districts surrounding Battle Creek. 
More initiatives keep popping up, almost like weeds. Each new project brings more nourishment to the community. 
"Community food grows relationships, I always say,"  Andrews says with a nod.
Devon Gibson, also at the staff meeting, is operations manager for Sprout.
 "I got involved after I was a witness to a homicide right outside my house," he says. "It's a low income area, and there are a lot of those here. I wanted to do something for my community. I met Jeremy Andrews, and I thought he was crazy." Gibson shrugs. "Two years later ..."

Photography by Erik Holladay at erikholladay.com 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

BabyQ Raises IQ for Pregnant Women

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Grand Rapids' Rapid Growth Media
April 25, 2013


When Dr. Mark Gostine, MD found out his daughter Emily was expecting her first child, healthy pregnancies became an interest of his. This interest sparked babyQ, a website and mobile app dedicated to helping mothers have the healthiest pregnancies -- and babies -- possible.

Finding out she was pregnant with her first child came as a shock to Emily Brann. That's true for many women. Soon after this surprising news, however, Brann realized she had an advantage that most women do not. She had a direct line to a physician at all hours of the day and night -- her father.

"When you are pregnant, especially with your first child," Brann says, "it is a very vulnerable and insecure time in your life. But it's also very empowering."

Brann sent texts to her father, the physician, for advice. What should she eat? What kind of exercise is good and what kind is too much? How much should she change her lifestyle? What effect would daily stress have on her baby? Most of all, she wanted to know: what could she do to have the healthiest baby possible?

Brann's father, Mark Gostine, MD, sent back texts of advice to his daughter. Dr. Gostine is a specialist in pain management (founder and president of Michigan Pain Consultants), not obstetrics, but with the anticipation of his first grandchild, healthy pregnancies quickly became a keen interest.

"Initially, I gave Emily a lot of nutritional tips," says Gostine. "Then I was lying in bed one night, thinking about a recent study on vitamin D deficiencies."

Vitamin D deficiencies, Gostine had learned, appeared to have a strong link to preeclampsia, a condition in pregnant women involving soaring blood pressure and swelling of hands and feet. Preeclampsia can result in premature delivery, illness in the mother and baby, and even fatalities. 

Gostine has been a physician for 30 years, and he has been voted one of the best 100 doctors in his field in the U.S. Nutrition and general health education have always been a passion, and he was accustomed to guiding his patients in health education. Thinking about the importance of vitamin deficiencies when it comes to pregnancies and births, he began to consider what else might make a difference in positive outcomes for his daughter and for women everywhere.
What if he created an app for his daughter and other pregnant women to use? Something that could quickly and easily answer all her questions about having a healthy pregnancy leading to a healthy child. Something that could increase her IQ about having babies. IQ… or, babyQ.

Gostine paired his medical knowledge with that of Gareth Forde, MD, PhD, obstetrician-gynecologist -- and a clinical professor and a researcher -- and the two physicians founded babyQ, a website, and a complementary app for Smart Phones and tablets.

Once a person has registered on the app or website, a 25-question survey gathers information about lifestyle, exercise, nutrition, and stress management, resulting in a score -- the user's babyQ score. BabyQ refers to this as the LENS system. After that, the user is offered daily tips personalized to her responses and chances to improve her score.

"I looked at studies of children born in the Netherlands during World War II," Gostine says. "Children born during the Dutch famine had many more health problems than children born a year later, under healthier conditions." From those tragic circumstances, Gostine says, has come valuable knowledge about what women can do to improve the health of their babies in utero.  

Researchers saw less intellectual attainment over a lifetime in the babies born during famine, says Gostine. Babies were born smaller and earlier, metabolic rates were lower, blood sugars were at unhealthy levels. All because women weren't eating right and had high stress levels.

Lack of prenatal care, Gostine says, "can lead to ... "

Photography by Adam Bird.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Sisters Kalamazoo Take On New York, Part II

by Zinta Aistars

Continued from Part I

Sitting on our Brooklyn stoop

My sister Daina and I were on a trip to New York City -- my business trip for a work assignment, with my sister tagging along for good company and to occasionally take over as photographer, freeing my hands to take notes for the articles I would be writing.

On this first morning in Brooklyn, however, we were tourists. One of my assignments would begin in the evening, but for much of the day, we were free to explore New York City. While I had been to NYC too many times to count, my sister hadn't been since she was a child ... so off we went to see what we could see.

Our rental car parked directly in front of the Brooklyn brownstone where we were staying, we set off on foot. Roman, our landlord for the week, kindly pointed us in the direction of the nearest subway entrance that would take us into Manhattan. One thing I can say for big cities: they use public transportation. A lot. Obviously, more could use public transportation, because the streets are packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic, but for those who are wiser, subways, buses, trains are easily available. Whenever I have visited NYC, I have used public transportation or simply set off on foot.

The day was cool, a tad too cool, but bright with sunshine as we took off for Nostrand Avenue and then to Fulton to catch the A line to Manhattan. Only my sister was lagging behind. I strode ahead, realized she was a step or two behind me, slowed, then strode ahead, forgetting. Her back was still hurting her.

Daina in red, waiting for our subway
We joked about our middle-aging bodies. "Nav joks palikt vecam," we teased each other, repeating our mother's frequent saying in Latvian ... it's no joke getting old. Perhaps not, but no use crying over it. It is a privilege to age. It means we are in the process of enjoying a long life, and I'm thoroughly enjoying mine.

We found the stairs down into the underbelly of the city easily. I bought our Metro tickets with enough funds on them that we could get on and off the subway several times throughout the day. A moment to orient ourselves, and the subway quickly arrived, on, off, and we emerged downtown Manhattan.

Here, we saw, would be our point of destination later in the afternoon, when we had reserved tickets to visit the 9/11 Memorial of the World Trade Center. Tracking our time, we headed up and into the Island, towards Times Square and Central Park. Daina's hope had been to see some of the main points of the city, and we had in mind some of my favorite restaurants, delis, Empire State Building, so that she could get an overview of the great city.

Not to happen. A few city blocks in, we both realized that my sister's back was quickly getting worse for the wear. What could be wrong? Muscle spasms? Something twisted or wrenched? We hoped nothing more serious than time could heal, but walking was obviously aggravating her back ache, not alleviating it.

Rather than continuing our walk, we dipped down into another subway entrance underground, emerged again at Times Square. This was no doubt one of the better known parts of New York City, a cacophony of displays, electronic and print, neon signs and boards, soaring skyscrapers, and a constant bustle below of humanity. Even Batman was here, spreading his black bat wings. And Spiderman slipped around him.
Times Square

The well-known Naked Cowboy, a dude in briefs and boots and cowboy hat and nothing else but a guitar, that I had seen here many times before, had gotten wise. He'd been replaced by a nearly Naked Cowgirl, clad only in red, white and blue bikini and a tan under her cowboy hat. Some stopped to have their photo taken beside her. Others rolled their eyes. My sister and I puzzled over her ability to endure the very real chill in the air and passed on.

Daina and Z eating deli food at Times Square
What better for lunch than one of New York's well-known delis? We chose one on Times Square, following in long lines of hungry New Yorkers and circling long tables of delicious foods. Name it, there it was. Salads, meats, vegetables, desserts, all for the piling. We piled it on, checked out at the register, and headed upstairs above the deli for seating and ATE.

Nourished and refueled, we headed to Central Park, the green jewel of the city, its heart and center. Limited by time and my sister's mobility, we could only walk one corner of the southern section, but if the deli food had refueled my body, the sight of green grass and trees refueled my spirit.

Central Park

I was missing home in the country ... Z Acres. Truth be told, I'd been reluctant to leave in the first place. Much as I enjoyed spending time with my sister, much as I looked forward to our annual sister trips, cities drew me in less and less. The more I enjoyed living out in nature under the wide open sky, the less I could understand living on cement, surrounded by others at brush-up-close vicinity. The sounds, the smells, the tiny squares of sky overhead, the tiny squares, if any, that passed as backyards ... I sighed. Perhaps I'd been to New York City enough times by now. Maybe, I thought, maybe this was to be my last visit.

If I'd seen much of the city in previous trips, one thing I had not seen. At the designated time on our tickets, we flagged down a taxi to take us to the 9/11 Memorial. We found long and winding lines, but they moved quickly. We were guided through security, not once but several times as we neared the memorial. The closer we got, the more hushed the crowd became.

One of the new towers under construction
The memorial was still unfinished. That didn't matter. People wanted to gather, to see, to witness, to contemplate. We entered an open area dotted by trees, and we  later learned the story of one of those trees. A pear tree had survived the terrorist blasts on that fateful day, a small part of it still showing green and sending up shoots. People noticed, and the tree was dug up, transplanted to more fertile ground to give it a chance to fully recuperate and thrive, then transplanted once again to the World Trade Center, a full grown and healthy tree once again.

My sister and I were moved by the story of the tree. Somehow, neither one of us had heard this story before. It is a story of hope and renewal.

We moved around the two footprints of the two, now missing, towers. It was an effective memorial, the two immense squares, water flowing into them, symbolizing a void left by the destruction of buildings and thousands of lives. Along the edges, names of the victims were carved into stone, and my sister and I walked slowly along the edges, fingers tracing names. There were more than a few names followed by "with unborn child," and these stung especially.

A policeman gathered a crowd around him at one side of the memorial, telling his story of that day when the two planes hit the towers and brought them down. He was a first responder. We stood for a while, listening. The world was filled with such stories, and not just here. Had we learned anything?

My sister purchased molded leaves in the nearby gift shop, imprinted on the leaves of the survivor tree. Our day of being tourists, yet feeling our belonging in this place, as we all belonged to one human race, one shared loss, one shared destiny, was over.

The clock ticked, and we stepped inside a hotel restroom to change our shoes, tussle up our hair a bit, freshen up accessories for an evening at Zio's Ristorante on West 19th Street. My first work assignment was about to begin.

To be continued ...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Looking for Truffle? Confections With Convictions

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
April 11, 2013

Dale Anderson at Confections with Convictions (Photo by Erik Holladay, eholladay.com)

Dale Anderson wanted to help youth and adults with convictions by teaching them building trades skills. He ended up teaching them how to make truffles. Zinta Aistars has the story on how he made that leap at Confections with Convictions. (Photos by Erik Holladay)

Two women in uniform enter the store on 116 West Crosstown Parkway, Kalamazoo, Michigan, badges glinting on their lapels, and they ask for an employee of Confections with Convictions by name. Dale Anderson, store owner, comes to attention, brushing his hands quickly on his white apron and motions to the young man behind the glass wall of the kitchen where chocolate is made.

"He's not in trouble!" says one of the detectives reassuringly. "We just need to talk to him a moment."

And still, as the young employee emerges from the kitchen to speak to the two detectives, his expression is wary. It's not the first time he has faced police officers. He, like all four of the employees at Confections with Convictions, has felonies on his record. But the detectives just have a few questions about someone he may know, and in a moment he is ...

Monday, April 08, 2013

The Sisters Kalamazoo Take On New York, Part I

by Zinta Aistars

Turnpike 80

My days of working in communications at Kalamazoo College some years ago were rich with travel, perhaps the best part of my job there, and I thought my business trips were over now that I am full-time freelance ... but I was offered a trip to New York City to do an interview for the alumni magazine, and I grabbed the chance.

I invited my sister Daina to come along for the adventure. "The Sisters Kalamazoo," Stephen M. would later name us, introducing us to everyone this way, but that would come later ... Daina and I make a good team. I write, she is trained as a photographer, so it was wonderful to have my hands free of the camera while doing the interviews.

When we talked about an agenda prior to the trip, my sister had one item on her list: the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center. I agreed. She reminded me that she had not been to the Big Apple since we had been children. She was 10 years old that last time, she said, when our parents took us to the World Fair in NYC.

Different story for me. I'd lost count long ago of how many times I'd been to New York City. After all, I'd married a man born in Brooklyn, bred in Queens, who had later transferred to a job in Michigan to be with me. That meant many, many trips back to see in-laws, holidays and various occasions and non-occasions, and after that, countless business trips on my own. I guessed some 40 trips over a lifetime, so I had seen much of NYC, but the 9/11 Memorial would be new. Indeed, one of the last trips I'd taken to NYC had been on September 8, 2001, and I had stood on the top of the Empire State Building, snapping photos in all directions. Several included the two towers that but a few days later would be ash and rubble and tragedy.

I'd been back to NYC several times since, but the memorial had not yet been built, or I had run out of time to visit. This time, we registered for our visitors' passes online ahead of time and planned our one day of sightseeing around it.

Our trip began with Easter weekend. My Chicago beloveds came to visit Z Acres, my Kalamazoo beloveds arrived as well, and I hid 200 colored eggs throughout the 10 acres for family to find. No easy task! But so far, I've found only one egg the group had missed. And noted that Guinnez, my old chow pup, neatly picked up two, carried them further into the woods, and buried them, tapping the dirt down firmly with his muzzle. Perhaps next year, there will be egg trees.

When everyone went back to their homes, Daina stayed, and the two of us headed for the Kalamazoo airport to pick up our rental car. It was surprisingly difficult for me to leave Z Acres. No, by now, not surprising. Now that I've found Home, my wanderlust has pretty much dissipated. I was feeling ambivalent about this trip. Daina and I have developed a tradition of an annual sisters' trip, with most common destination being north to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where she owns property and I own good memories.

When this opportunity came up, it made sense to head east instead. I was, I really was looking forward to it ... but driving down that long dirt drive through the tunnel of tall pines on Z Acres made my heart ache. My heart remained here.

But onward we go. At the airport, we hit our first hitch. That's a part of travel, and we both, having traveled a great deal over our lifetimes, knew it. Things go wrong, misadventures turn into the best travel stories, and we are enriched by it. This journey would not be without its glitches.

At the rental booth at the airport, I was told our reserved car was not yet available. Apparently, a derailed train over the weekend had brought in far more car rentals than expected. With double sighs, Daina and I settled in, surrounded by our luggage, and waited. When the car arrived, we found ourselves in the brightest, gaudiest neon green Mazda 2 I'd never seen. We'll be able to spot it easily in any parking lot, I shrugged, and my sister grinned.

And we were off. East on I-94, south on I-69, east on Turnpike 80. Ohio, where we both have lived for a time, seemed to be as bland as we remembered, flat and forever, but in part that effect comes from the turnpike, where every service area is identical. It felt like we were stuck in a repetitive dream. And Pennsylvania? Surely one of the longest, widest states, and we only made it a short way in before the day turned dusky.

Bellefonte, PA
Bellefonte, however, turned out to be a treat. An historical Victorian town that's only a short way off the highway, we were pleased to find good food at the Governor's Pub, and good walking, if buffered by chilly winds, up and down the town streets that appeared from another century. My sister, however, winced now and then. Her back was aching, and she wasn't sure why ... wrenched during the previous night's sleep? Popping an aspirin, then two more, she bravely marched on.

We figured we'd be in Brooklyn, New York, by mid afternoon the following day. Not so. Our next glitch happened as I drove the Mazda over a bump in the road, not big enough to see, not big enough to bother any other vehicles on the interstate, but the tiny neon green Mazda immediately hissed a protest, followed by a nasty smell. Rim on asphalt? It had taken but a moment, but our good luck held during our bad luck. We were close to an exit, Hazelton, and when we pulled off slowly, a Citgo station loomed, an AAA facility just down the street.

Phooey. Flat tire. A quick call to the rental company road assistance brought us Louis, an amiable fellow who seemed overjoyed to help, as if nothing better could possibly happen in his day. It took him but minutes to put on our spare, but then the realization hit that a spare is meant for maybe 30 miles distance, little more. Louis pointed back west on the interstate, rather than the eastern direction we had hoped for. To get to the nearest rental agency, we had to backtrack to the Wilkes-Barre International Airport for a trade-in.

At least two hours lost. We traded our neon green car for a fire engine red Chevy. Daina's back ached, but she took her turn at the wheel as we entered New York a few hours later. Already dark, nearing 9 p.m., our GPS led us unfailingly across the Manhattan Bridge, through the Holland Tunnel, and on to Brooklyn.

My interviewee in Brooklyn had kindly arranged with a friend to give us accommodations on Putnam Avenue in a brownstone, typical of Brooklyn buildings. Roman, the building owner, met us as we drove up, double parked, and helped us with our luggage. Seeing the tiniest parking space in front of the building, Daina threw up her hands in surrender, and Roman took over, true New Yorker style. He parallel parked our Chevy, nudging back the car behind, nudging forward the car ahead, as my sister and I winced, watching from the sidewalk.

"Rental, right?" he jumped cheerfully from the parked car, shrugging to indicate that's how it's done here, grabbed our bags and led us up the stoop to our apartment for the week. We found a grand space of elaborate woodwork, exposed brick walls in the kitchen, a fireplace, a bar, two full-size beds, and colorful Haitian artwork on the walls. Roman was born in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but he had met his Haitian wife in New York, now lived part time in Brooklyn, and took two trips annually to Haiti. He had just arrived from Haiti, but hours ago.

Long day. Very long day, long drive, and my sister fell into one bed, I into the other, and we were fast asleep. The following day would be our one day of being tourists, at least until evening, when we would attend a Kalamazoo College alumni event, and my work would begin.

Our Brooklyn apartment for the week

To be continued ...