Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday Morning at Z Acres, Memorial Day Weekend 2013

by Zinta Aistars
Copyright 2013

The old chow pup woke me early, too early, a full moon still spilling across the lawn, but I found myself unable to return to sleep ... brewed a pot of coffee ... and by then, the sun had begun to come up. I opened the door to the cool early morning air, heard the first birds of the day, in the distance the faint mooing of a neighboring farmer's cattle as they went out to pasture ... and the sun seeping through the forest, that gentle light, drew me out to wander. It is Memorial Day Weekend, a time to remember those who died to give us mornings like these, to stand in the Sunday morning sunlight and receive its blessing of new life, new every day. 

As I wandered, taking photos as I do most every day since I moved to Z Acres about a year and a half ago, I kept thinking how much I enjoy capturing these images, sharing them with others. We so often think beauty is somewhere else, far away, in some exotic place, nearly unattainable. As it happens, though, after a lifetime of travel, and years spent wandering gorgeous areas with real estate agents looking for perfection (thankfully, I have kept them as friends, even if I didn't end up buying through them), I ended up finding Z Acres as something of a fluke. It was just a few miles away from where I had lived for a long time. The place, in fact, had been on the market for quite some time. I've become convinced it was here for me ... meant for me, Home for me, a reward for a life lived looking for and longing for the place that would hold me. I could find my corner of a little paradise without leaving friends and family, staying close to all I'd grown to love.

While taking these photos, I unraveled a thought I'd been weaving for some months now. With the encouragement of many friends who had been enjoying my photos, I've started to think that perhaps photography -- and specifically of this special place -- could be more than a hobby. People had been asking me for prints. Why not provide them? Why not put together a show of framed and matted prints and offer them for sale? Something to mull over ...

That's what Z Acres does for me. It is a healing place. It is a place of serenity and blessings. People who come visit me here soon talk of the peace they feel when spending time here. Indeed, creating professional photos of Z Acres could be a way to expand on that. A way to show that beauty is right here, all around us, nearby and just around the corner, and when we look closely, our eyes can open to daily wonder.

But enough wandering. The sun is hitting a high point in its arc. I have work to do, gardens to tend, dishes to prepare for Memorial Day, when Larry comes to visit, and we fire up the grill for something of that traditional cook-out ... Latvian style. I tuck my camera in my pocket, and roll up my sleeves, but not before looking up at the slanting sun through the trees once more, silently expressing my gratitude for the blessing of this place, and the path that brought me here.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Rambling Naturalists teach the secrets of nature and a good life

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
May 23, 2013


Whether in character or as themselves, Wil and Sarah Reding have a lot of wisdom to share about the natural world around us. Zinta Aistars talked to them about their business Rent A Rambling Naturalist that's more than telling a good yarn.

A friend of William and Sarah Reding leaned into the window of the truck, right across Wil, and said to Sarah Reding: "Sarah, will you give my best to Wil?"
Wil Reding hoots with laughter to recall it. The friend didn't recognize Reding in costume, or in persona. Wil and Sarah Reding had just finished one of their outdoor performances of Prairie Pete and Miss Sarah. They were dressed in the clothing of the 1800s, and had reenacted the experiences of a couple entering the Midwest Territory from New York to establish a homestead. Encouraging audience participation, they demonstrated various tools and artifacts from the time period, and always within the context of nature. 
"I guess I was pretty convincing." Reding grins into his long white beard. He and wife Sarah have more than 72 years of combined experience in environmental and historical education, he says with pride. The two have a show-on-the-road they call Rent a Rambling Naturalist. The couple shares their knowledge about history and nature with all age groups, from schools to nature centers to senior centers through the voices of a range of characters.       

Yas Ennya Oyaka is a woodsman who shares his knowledge about Midwest ecosystems. Marsh Mallow Man knows a lot about the Great Lakes wetlands. A.E. Claus is a Father Christmas of the 1890s who knows no greater gifts than the ones we receive from Mother Earth and teaches his listeners how to protect them. Sometimes, however, Wil Reding is just himself--an educator and a naturalist on a stroll through the woods. Sarah does most of the marketing, he says, and he usually does the presentations.
Reding will be himself, an interpretive naturalist, on an excursion called "Walk Toward 100 Miles," beginning at Kalamazoo Nature Center (KNC) on July 26, and ending, with a progression of daily 16-mile or 6.5-hour segments, at Lake Michigan on July 31. The public (18 years and older) is invited to walk with him and learn about the environment along the way. They  will be transported back to the Kalamazoo Nature Center each evening. Cost is $200 for KNC members, $240 for non-members.   
"I'm going to be 67 this summer," Reding says cheerily, "and I've had a heart attack, several back surgeries, a mechanical hip, hammer toe and bunions--but I'm still walking." He shrugs. "You just put one foot in front of the other."
Reding started Rent a Rambling Naturalist in 1988, initially as a sideline to his more traditional teaching jobs. With a bachelor's degree in biology from Eastern Michigan University, and a master's in environmental education from Michigan State University, he lived in the village of Ortonville and worked at a camp as an outdoor education consultant. His wife, Sarah, worked there as well, but when the camp acted in what the Redings felt was disregard for the environment, logging trees on the acreage, they ...

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Open Roads opens doors for young people

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
May 16, 2013


Ethan Alexander, founder and executive director of Open Roads, suspects his father's choice to get rid of the family car may have had something to do with Ethan's grandfather getting hit and killed by a car. Whatever his reasons, when Ethan and his brother were small boys, the car disappeared from the driveway and bicycles took its place.    

"Dad was a single parent, wanting a simple life," Alexander says. "He had us all on bikes 12 months out of the year, didn't matter the weather. Bikes were an essential part of my growing up."
A look of pride passes over Alexander's face. His father, now 74, still doesn't own a car. Alexander does, and he says about that: "I guess I'm not as brave or crazy as my father."
But Alexander has other achievements to his name. He has Open Roads. A basement full of adopted bicycles turned into a non-profit organization--and he still is an avid bike rider, even if he does drive a car to his job as positive behavior support specialist at KRESA (Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency). 
"My wife suggested I do something about all the bikes that had accumulated in our basement," he says, smiling. A Kalamazoo Community Foundation grant through its ChangeMakers program, Alexander says, helped him make that change, and Open Roads was born in 2009 with a mission to teach youth social and bike mechanic skills as a way to prepare them for life.    
"I put my passions and my interests together," Alexander says, and Open Roads was the result. A youth development program, Open Roads donates bikes to young people as they learn how to fix them. In learning how to fix a broken bike, as Alexander has often witnessed, these young people learn how to fix some of their own broken places. Alexander runs the program with Jason Roon, head mechanic, and Eric Clark, social skills instructor, and an advisory board. 
"We don't teach kids just how to pedal faster," he says. "We teach them skills that may just lead to their first job as a mechanic, or as a sales person. Maybe they will work in a bike shop."
Open Roads draws kids, and adults, too, every Monday night from May to October, and they call it Fixapalooza. Dozens of kids show up, Alexander says, and as many or more adults, volunteers and those who want to earn their way to their own wheels. As they gather and work on the bikes, kids learn how to interact with each other, how to ask for help when they need it, how to apologize when they botch things up. They learn how to share, and they learn how to listen. Self-respect rises as they master a new skill. 
"At the end of the day, it's not about bikes as much as it's about empowering kids to make better choices," Alexander says. "Kids on bikes are less likely to be bored, and that means they are less likely to get involved in criminal activity."
Alexander plans to take that thought with him as he begins a new spoke of outreach--working with the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home this fall. Open Roads will take an eight-week program to the youth at the juvenile home, bringing all the needed tools and bikes to work on, and at the end of the course, the youth will have earned bikes of their own. 
"Think of it this way: a bike becomes a vehicle for positive change," Alexander says. "We use a system we call ROADS. That stands for Respect, Own your actions, Attitude counts, Discipline, Safety."
Grown-ups have plenty to learn, too. As Alexander has observed, "Americans have a love affair with the automobile. We spend a third of our incomes on our cars. I've been talking to some movers and shakers. We'd like to make Kalamazoo into ..."


Monday, May 13, 2013

The Sisters Kalamazoo Take On New York, Part III

by Zinta Aistars 

Read Part I
Read Part II

Meeting Stephen at the alumni event

It's been a while since that trip to the Big Apple with my sister, but I find myself reliving the experience again as I prepare to write the article that was, after all, the reason for the business trip. After our moving into a pleasant Brooklyn brownstone apartment for our stay (Part I), after our day of playing tourist and visiting the 9/11 Memorial (Part II), Daina and I took a taxi to Zio's Ristorante on West 19th Street in Manhattan for a Kalamazoo College alumni event. My work part of the trip was about to begin.

K College President Wilson-Oyelaran with Stephen
As might be expected, quite a few alumni live in New York, and the gathering was well attended. The college president, Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, soon arrived to talk to the group. It's been some years since I worked full time for the college, in the communication department, but I continue to have immense respect for the institution, and I am very pleased to be freelancing for the college again now that I am in business for myself as Z Word, LLC. It was great to be working for K again, and to connect with some of the great people who had once been colleagues. I enjoyed seeing Eileen very much; she's a terrific asset to the institution.

But first, I had to connect with the man I was here to interview. Stephen found me right away--I'm easy to recognize with my white hair. I could tell right away this was going to be a fun interview to do. He was, like most K alumni I'd met and written about over the years, brimming with enthusiasm for his cause and eager to tell his story.

Stephen's story went back to his days of study abroad in Ghana. K College is known for its incredible study abroad programs, sending students to experience different cultures in different countries not just for a few weeks, and not just living in dorms, but traveling for months at a time, as much as a year, and often living with local families, studying and working. Talk about immersion.

That kind of experience leaves lifelong impressions on people. That kind of experience changes people in a way no classroom can. It's education at its best, transforming people at the core level. That was Stephen's experience, too. Ghana has become not just a college memory, but a part of his life, all of his life.

Stephen is a teacher at a school near Brooklyn, Bedford Village School, but he spends his summers in Ghana. He returns there every year, now his second home, and is in the process of building a library and a community computer center. He calls his non-profit Tech4Ghana, and he is already making a huge difference in the lives of the people he has connected to in that community. He has helped to connect them with the tools of education and given them the resources to change their own lives however they might wish.

The day after our initial meeting at the alumni event, my sister and I walked to the school where Stephen works. We had this day set aside to devote to learning his story, understanding some small corner of his life and his dream. Stephen gave us a tour of the school, introducing us to his colleagues as "The Sisters Kalamazoo," and the name stuck. When New Yorkers asked about Kalamazoo and its location, we responded the way all Michiganders do ... by holding up our hands to resemble the mitten-shaped state and pointing out our location.

Stephen at center, me at right, and another teacher at left, point out our location in Michigan. A second hand at top is the perfect shape of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. 
The day went by surprisingly quickly. It always does when one gets caught up in a great story. Stephen's enthusiasm was contagious. I was filling up my notebook of story notes fast. This would be a grand story to tell for the college alumni magazine.

Stephen connected with a college chum over Skype, a friend he hadn't seen in about 40 years, yet who had become his top donor for Tech4Ghana. Over the computer screen, the two old friends saw each other for the first time in four decades, because Case lived in Seattle. I was able to interview both. The wonders of technology!

We toured classrooms, labs, meeting rooms. I was impressed with how rich with intellectual stimuli was this school, even as Stephen told us there was a danger of it being closed down for budgetary reasons. Yet it was clear, from the principal of the school, to every teacher we met, that everyone here had heart, mind and spirit engaged in teaching these children. If anyone understood how much education can change lives, Stephen did.

Stephen treats us to bean pies
The school day over, the three of us headed a few blocks down to enjoy dinner together. Stephen had his favorite places, and we enjoyed quite the feast at an Egyptian restaurant where the owner came over to greet us. For dessert, Stephen took us to a bakery next door to treat us to several small pies, insisting that we must taste a local favorite dessert--bean pie. A pie made from beans? Sure, I'd give it a try!

A bag full of pies and cookies, we strolled through the streets of Brooklyn, and Stephen walked us back to our brownstone. We said our goodbyes with the warm hugs of friendship, and he left to go to his home and we to ours ... for the week. Daina and I made a stop at a little wine shop a block from our apartment, and found a wine called Seven Sisters to wash down our pies. So, sure, there's only two of us, not seven, but that would, um, be five more glasses for us to share, right?

Bean pies and wine: both delicious
It was our last night in New York. With my sister's back still aching, she was ready to make the trip back to Chicago, and me, with my heart aching for my own Z Acres, the wide-open green spaces of the country, ready for the trip back to Michigan. As much as I had enjoyed a sister trip and a trip to meet and interview another fascinating alumnus, I was pretty sure this really was my last visit to NYC.

Daina snapped photos of the Empire State Building as we left the city the next morning. We never did make it up there. I had seen it on several previous trips, and perhaps my sister would return some day on her own. We made good time driving west, even with a short side trip into Pennsylvania woods (I just needed that ... ), and made a final dinner stop at what turned out to be our best meal of the entire trip, at Luigi's in DuBois, Pennsylvania. Daina had ravioli and I enjoyed my lasagna, and both of us enjoyed a surprise back rub from the restaurant owner as he went from table to table greeting his guests. Just the thing for my sister's aching back.

Daina and I toasted our trip, shared a cannoli for dessert, and got back on the road. We gassed up at ... Sheetz? Huh. Odd name for a gas station. My sister giggled, snapped a photo as I filled up the gas tank, and off we went.

I pondered my lack of wanderlust as we drove west. All my life, from earliest childhood, I had craved the sense of being on the road. Always that curiosity, to see what I can see, to experience the new, to expand my horizons. I had visited 49 of 50 states. I had crossed the ocean many times. There were still so many places that I had not yet seen. Yes, I did like the thought of experiencing parts of Africa, touring Europe more extensively, visiting Asia and Australia and New Zealand and Iceland and ... yet, yet, yet the lust for it was gone.

The only reason I could name was that I had finally found Home. After a  lifelong search, I had found Z Acres, where all my wishes had come together to live in one place. I had found my place of peace and contentment. The road had lost, at least in part, its allure.

"I hope you're not saying that we won't have any more annual Sisters Kalamazoo trips," my sister remarked when I shared my wondering.

"No, no, I won't give up our sister trips," I assured her. I enjoyed our time together. Our shared trips had strengthened our sibling bond and given us new memories to share. "I am thinking, though," I said, "that maybe more of those future trips will be to nature instead of away from it. I've seen most of the major cities in this country, and frankly, now that I have grown accustomed to being in the woods and by the water every day ..." I shrugged. "I don't think I want to leave it again. Cement and asphalt just don't do it for me."

Daina nodded, and we chattered about other places to go as we covered the miles. Perhaps back to the U.P., where she and her husband owned a five-acre plot of land on a lake. It would be a great place for me to pitch a tent in her woods. Or some other places where we could explore natural beauty together.

"Or maybe you can just keep visiting me at Z Acres, at least once per season," I smiled.

"Count on it!"

Home sweet home, yes.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Kalamazoo's bakeries put the frosting on the cake

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
May 2, 2013

Karel Boonzaaijer at his bakery (Photo by Erik Holladay, 

You might say one thing three Kalamazoo-area bakeries have in common is tradition. One was started by a former European pastry chef, one by a third generation baker and the third by an Irish baker also using recipes from the Continent. Zinta Aistars talks with the bakers of Boonzaaijer's, MacKenzie's, and the Victorian Bakery.

Spot someone in Kalamazoo (Michigan) licking their fingers, or a bit of butter cream frosting on a grinning upper lip, and chances are good that they have been to a Kalamazoo bakery. Three popular bakeries are making Kalamazoo a sweet place to be:

Boonzaaijer Bakery
Karel Boonzaaijer wanted to go to medical school, not work in a bakery. "But my grandpa was a baker, my uncles were bakers, and so when Opa insisted, I said OK!" he says, his accent hinting of a Netherlands history, but his wide and warm smile proof of a revised passion. No regrets.

Boonzaaijer immigrated to the United States in the late 1950s, three diplomas to show for his training as a baker in Holland, and began working as a European pastry chef in Kalamazoo hotels. In 1961, he opened Boonzaaijer Bakery, today located at 126 E. Cork Street, with the family pitching in, wife Maria, his right hand, and their nine children, five of whom still work in the bakery today.

"There's a difference between eating and tasting," says Boonzaaijer, leaning forward, eyes alight. "We make the best, even if it costs more. Our customers understand this, and they are willing to pay more for the best."

Karel Boonzaaijer passed the business down to his daughter Maria and son-in-law Marty Horjus in 1990, but he is frequently present, watching his children and grandchildren work over the ovens and decorate the cakes and pastries. His standards are high, and he gave his son-in-law two years to meet those standards and show himself worthy of taking the reins of the business.

"I practiced at night to get the writing on the cakes right," Horjus says with a smile. And he exchanges a fond if respectful glance with his father-in-law. He was deemed worthy, and Boonzaaijer nods. "My writing is chicken scratch on paper, but not on cakes," Horjus finishes.

"We want to make something here that is unique, something that no one else can make," Boonzaaijer says. He speaks of purity--in ingredients, in lifestyle, in passion, in service. He speaks of continual striving, forever seeking improvement to recipes, of precision in measuring ingredients, and of exceptional customer service.

He speaks of the privilege of working long hours to create delicious treats for the bakery's appreciative customers, returning again and again to purchase cakes, pastries, chocolate éclairs, although Boonzaaijer Bakery has never advertised any of them.

"Word of mouth," Boonzaaijer says. "Good, better, best, never let it rest," he recites. "Until good is better and better is best."

MacKenzies Café and Bakery

The most important ingredient in a good recipe is personal contact, decided John MacKenzie, president and owner of MacKenzies Cafe and Bakery at 527 Harrison Street. 

MacKenzie tells the story. "A customer came in and asked for ..."

READ THE COMPLETE ARTICLE AT SECOND WAVE. Don't miss the story behind Irish baker Maria Brennan at The Victorian Bakery! 

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Huffington Post Picks Up Article #3

Confections with Convictions: Kalamazoo Chocolatier Hires Youth with Criminal Records to Make Truffles
Published in Huffington Post, April 23, 2013

Photography by Erik Holladay, 

My third article is picked up by Huffington Post, first published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media. I couldn't be more pleased. Dale Anderson is a good man doing a good thing, and it's all wrapped up in chocolate. This is how to handle rising crime. Let people work once they've done their time. 

This article first appeared in the April 11, 2013 edition of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.
Two women in uniform enter the store on 116 West Crosstown Parkway in Kalamazoo, badges glinting on their lapels, and they ask for an employee ofConfections 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 back to work in the kitchen -- and the two detectives are leaning in to take a closer look at the glass shelves filled with handmade chocolates. 

They are looking for truffle, not trouble. And Anderson obliges with a grin. "First piece of chocolate is free for first-time customers," he encourages. One detective chooses a truffle made with honey and garnished with bee pollen; the other chooses Ecuadorian dark chocolate sprinkled with toasted cocoa nibs. Both lick their lips with chocolate-inspired pleasure and promise to be back, sans badges, for more. 

Anderson never blinks. He is accustomed to rubbing elbows with young people weighed down by criminal records; thus the name of the store, at least in part. The "convictions" in the store name refer to his commitment to offer ....