Thursday, January 30, 2014

The route to a better bus service

by Zinta Aistars
Published by Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
January 30, 2014

Kalamazoo County Commissioner Jack Urban (Photo by Erik Holladay)

A more efficient, more streamlined transit system in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with more routes and more frequent stops is the goal. Zinta Aistars has the report on how it's coming about.

Photo by Erik Holladay
When considering what barriers might hold the unemployed back from getting and holding jobs, what's the first one that comes to mind? The economy? Education? Wrong.

"When I spoke to representatives at Michigan Works, they told me one of the largest barriers unemployed people face is transportation," says Michele McGowen. McGowen is the chair of Friends of Transit for Kalamazoo County, an alliance of 49 organizations and individuals who advocate for a strong public transit system.

She's one of many who are cheering on the development of a regional transit system rather than one focused mostly on urban areas only. McGowen is part of a coalition working toward that end, and she also works for the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan. Part of what that organization does is to help the disabled negotiate public transportation.

"For years, people have thought of our transit system as buses that move around the city of Kalamazoo, but the transit system covers many municipalities. We need to revamp schedules and routes to reflect that," says McGowen. "And most of us live all over the county. For instance, I live outside of the city, but I work in the city. Yesterday I bought a pair of pants in Galesburg, and I stopped in still another town for coffee."

When we consider what kind of transit system we need, McGowen points out, we need to think past our own backyards. 

In enthused agreement with her is Kalamazoo County Commissioner Jack Urban. He explains how the Kalamazoo County Transportation Authority (KCTA) is working to achieve metropolitan status, meaning more efficient, more streamlined, with more routes and more frequent stops.

Admittedly, Commissioner Urban says, it can be confusing. Two entities, city and county, are working toward a goal of merging into one regionalized, countywide transit system. 

"The first step is to create a new authority to replace the city authority," he says. But mergers are never smooth or easy. A leadership team of elected and appointed officials are working to create a transition plan to a transit system that voters will embrace whether they live in or outside the city. 

"State law requires millage to be uniform throughout the district," Urban says. "But people don't like that. That's why the millage vote in 2008 was defeated, because out on the perimeters voters aren't using it. People in the townships don't want to pay taxes for something they don't use. That's our first roadblock."

The other roadblock, Urban says, was ...


Sculpting a new reality in Sin Republic

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Rapid Growth Media
January 30, 2014

Sin Chun (Photo by Adam Bird)

Sin Chun sculpts hair and plots world domination from his new Grand Rapids, Michigan, salon, Sin Republic. Zinta Aistars has the story.

To walk into Sin Republic at 1140 Monroe Avenue NW, Suite 2103, is to enter another country. That’s how Sin Chun sees it, and no one coming through the doors is arguing. Enter and you become a citizen.

Sin Chun approaches, his smile bright. He is slight and quick, and he seems to move in complete silence, as if on air. He wears a few bangles on his wrist, a red leather wrist band, and an array of earrings. His hair, dark today with a few mauve streaks, is pulled up and back, a few sprays coming loose, and surely it was intended that way. Nothing is an accident with Sin Chun.

Sin Republic is a hair salon, opened in December 2013, but for its owner, it is home, it is his domain, and it is just the beginning of his global take-over. He has planted his flag here.

“Everything I do, there’s always a reason for it. I am always planting a seed for the future,” Chun says. He takes a seat at the table in the front of the salon, and behind him, his staff bustles about at their ten portable stations (designed by Chun and built locally), where clients come in to have, no, not their hair cut, but sculpted.  

“I have had a plan for Sin Republic for seven years,” Chun continues. “It has been a vision in my mind. I saw where I wanted to be, and from there, I go backwards to where the fun begins.”

The fun began in South Korea. Only it wasn’t always fun. Sin Chun lived with his sister and parents in South Korea until he was 10 years old. That was 24 years ago.

“I am one-quarter American, and back then there was a prejudice against mixed blood,” he says. “I got picked on. Kids teased me.” Chun shrugs and smiles, and there is no sign of a child’s suffering on his face. He continues: “Teasing made me stronger. My parents came here for us, my sister and me, but I got picked on here, too, for being different. I was quiet at first—it took me about two years to learn to speak English—and then other kids got interested in me, in who I was.”

Chun’s wish for a “country” of his own begins to make sense as he tells his story of being an outsider in all places. At Sin Republic, he has even created his own currency: a dollar bill with his own image at its center, with the words at top: “The United Allies of Sin Republic,” and a detailed drawing of the interior of the salon on its back. It is a gift certificate.

Chun learned about hair and beauty supplies growing up, when he and his sister worked at their parents’ business, Hair-n-Mart in Plainfield.

“I worked in the shop up to 20 hours a week while I was going to school,” Chun says. “People asked style questions, and I learned about the ingredients in hair colors.”

Chun’s major in college, however, was a far cry from hair styling. He majored in ...


YouTube of Sin Chun cutting hair in his unique style.  

Friday, January 24, 2014

On the road to Allegan

Photos copyright by Zinta Aistars

Winter has been winter again. The way I remember her. Chillingly cold, clapping her blue hand over your mouth and stealing your breath, slipping ice fingers down your shirt and between the seams to make you shiver, biting the tip of your nose until it turns bright red. She sweeps her white skirts in drifts across the road and hangs dripping lace along the branches of the denuded trees, striping their trunks with snow. I love her when she shows a little wild.

Today I go out to meet her face to face. Head out on the roads to the village to pick up a booklet of stamps before the price goes up again, a quart of organic milk to make another batch of  yogurt, and some fresh greens to toss to the chickens in their coop while they wait for spring.

She has transformed the world. Nothing is as we know it. She reinvents the earth, tosses the world about in her white dizzy, and through the thick and weighted clouds, a white sun breaks through from time to time with a pale and otherworldly glow.

Why do I love winter so? I can't say. Can one explain a mad rush in the blood? Maybe that wild streak in her, when she kicks up her heels like she does today. White veils sweep across the roads, and I drive into them with care, but with a rush, too. Winter challenges me, and I rise to the challenge.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Three Sistas in the Kitchen have a family recipe for success

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
January 16, 2014

Sample platter at Sistas in the Kitchen

 Three Sistas in the Kitchen is the restaurant family built and the community demanded in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Zinta Aistars has the story.

Someone is singing in the kitchen. No, not just one person, but two, three, singing and laughing, the laughter sputtering like bacon grease on a frying pan. 

The delicious smells from the kitchen whet the appetite coming in the front door of Sistas in the Kitchen at 2307 East Main, just where H Avenue forks off to the north, creating a triangular island where the little restaurant sits. Once it was a gas station. Once it was another restaurant, then another and another, until a car crashed through the south wall. The ruined building remained long vacant just waiting for song and laughter and the clatter of cookware such as resounds there today.

More than likely Granddad (Leroy Williams) will greet you at the door when you walk in. He’s almost always there, doing whatever needs to be done. He delivers the food for the soul food restaurant’s branch business of catering, he unlocks the door in the morning, he mops floors, he waits on tables, he fries up okra, he tightens loose screws. 

"Call me a floater," Leroy Williams says. Granddad smiles, touching his fedora. "I do whatever is needed." 

He does more than that. This is a family affair, this restaurant that opened in October 2013, and it’s come into being by a recipe of family, love, faith, and a great deal of public demand. The kitchen has been the gathering place for this family for as long as any of its members can remember, and that center has drawn in ever more friends and neighbors. 

Although a great many family members work at Sistas in the Kitchen, it's mostly run by three sisters: Tameka Sims and Marquitta and Mya Williams. Waiting on tables is nephew DeAundray Shaw. 
DeAundray Shaw
"You know, soul food comes from what was left over during slavery," says DeAundray Shaw. He points to a framed text that he takes off the wall for a moment that explains the 300-year history of soul food. "After they took the good parts, they gave us what was left over and we took what was negative and made it into something that is positive."

Tameka Sims smiles wide. "It’s comfort food. Soul food is good times’ food," she says. 

The recipes for the menu, says Shaw, almost entirely come from what his grandmother cooked. "We called her Big Mama. I loved everything she cooked, even the vegetables. I only eat her vegetables."

A bowl of fried okra appears before Shaw as he talks about vegetables, and he chuckles. "I haven’t tasted those yet," he admits, then pops one of the fried okra nuggets into his mouth. His eyebrows go up. "Hey, this is good!"

Food is the bond of love that keeps this family together. The three sisters recall childhood years of gathering in the kitchen, learning to cook. They tell of the last meal  of pork chops and cornbread Big Mama cooked, at age 99. She lived just days shy of her 103rd birthday. 

"We had the best Big Mama in the whole world," says Marquitta Williams. "She was a strong woman, ran a daycare, and the kids were always asking for her food. She had us in the kitchen so much we thought we were in trouble." Williams laughs heartily. "But we learned how to cook. Smothered pork chops, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, candied yams … now we’re the sisters in the kitchen, but 80 percent of the credit goes to Mama, and Big Mama, and Daddy makes the best breakfasts."

As the sisters tell it, it all began with ...


Sistas Mya, Marquitta, and Tameka

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Chilean poet, publisher and Ludington writer read at Kazoo Books

For my southwest Michigan readers ... while others of you may simply be interested in checking out these books by Michigan writers. 

Author corner at Kazoo Books

Kalamazoo, MI—Mariela Griffor and George Dila spend much of their time being the publisher and the editor writers approach with hope in their hearts. At a reading on Saturday, January 18, at 1 p.m., at Kazoo Books on 2413 Parkview in Kalamazoo, however, the two will show their other, equally passionate, side—as writers.

Mariela Griffor is an editor, translator, and poet. She was born in the city of Concepción in southern Chile. She is the author of Exiliana (Luna Publications, 2007) and House (Mayapple Press, 2007) and founder of Marick Press, based in Detroit. Mariela holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New England College. Her forthcoming publications include the translations Canto General by Pablo Neruda (Tupelo Press, 2013) and Bye, have a good time! by Kristina Lugn.

Mariela Griffor
At Kazoo Books, Griffor will be reading from her third poetry collection, The Psychiatrist, published by Eyewear Publishing in November 2013. The Psychiatrist contains poems written between 1986 and 2011. This collection of new and selected poems explores the tension between political idealism, motherhood, and the shifting ground of modern society across cultures and nations. 
“Reading Mariela Griffor’s poetry has been a revelation to me. Hers is one of the most intense poetic voices among the rising stars of Chilean and Latin American poetry in recent times,” says Raúl Zurita, one of Latin America’s most celebrated poets.

George Dila’s collection of short stories, Nothing More to Tell, was published by Mayapple Press in 2011, and his short fiction chapbook, Working Stiffs is forthcoming from One Wet Shoe Press in 2014. His stories and personal essays have appeared in numerous journals, including North American Review, Literal Latte, Fiction Now, Palooka, Potomac Review, Cleaver, and others. A native Detroiter and graduate of Wayne State University, George now lives and writes from the small Lake Michigan town of Ludington. In addition to writing, he is the fiction editor of the paper-and-ink quarterly Third Wednesday, and the Re-prints editor of the online journal Referential.

Griffor and Dila will be available to answer questions after the reading as well as sign books.

To learn more about Mariela Griffor, see my interview with her on The Smoking Poet

To learn more about George Dila, read my article about the thriving literary life in Ludington, Michigan, at Northwest Michigan's Second Wave Media.

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Thursday, January 09, 2014

Best Stories of 2013 in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave

Photo for #1 story, Kids in Tune, by Erik Holladay at 

One of my favorite publications to write for is Southwest Michigan's Second Wave, and their annual list of best stories of the year is out. Six of the top ten are mine, and I had great fun working on them and meeting the great people behind them: #1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10. Thank you, Kathy Jennings, for the terrific assignments and Erik Holladay-McCann for the eye-catching photography that illustrates the stories.

Before we get too far into the new year it's fun to take a look back and see what feature stories Southwest Michigan's Second Wave readers liked best in the preceding year.

Of those written in 2013, stories about places to eat and drink were favorites. So were stories about good ideas that people are putting into practice, one of our favorite topics to feature in Second Wave. 

2013 was a great year for this little online magazine. Our readership continues to climb as more and more people find us and share our stories. (We encourage sharing!) As we get ready to go into our fourth year of publication here is our list of the top 10 stories for 2013:

10. Deerings get help to lighten the load of festival refuse that's landfill bound 

9. Kalamazoo's bakeries are the frosting on the cake 

8. One-of-a-kind jams, foraged foods keep elder fires burning

7. Keeping kids out of trouble by making truffles

2. Latitude 42 hops forward with Portage's first microbrewery

1. Music changes young lives, one note at a time, with Kids in Tune

Monday, January 06, 2014

Arcus Center Rising

by Zinta Aistars
Published in January 2014 Issue of ENCORE magazine
Cover Story

The nearly 10,000-square-foot building on the corner of Academy and Monroe Streets in Kalamazoo is still under construction, just bare cement and crews in hard hats covering its rising steel skeleton like worker ants. But while the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership (ACSJL), at Kalamazoo College, is still months from its anticipated grand opening in June, its reach is already extending across the globe.
Click on image to read complete article in our digital edition.
Click on image to read complete article in our digital edition.
Kalamazoo College has had a commitment to social justice and leadership development as part of its curriculum since its founding in 1833. In 2009, the college took that commitment one step further with a $200,000 planning grant from trustee and alumnus Jon Stryker’s Arcus Foundation for the establishment of a social-justice leadership center. A year ago, the Arcus Foundation made a $23 million endowment grant to fund the new center. Within that funding was money for the construction of a new building on the edge of the college’s campus, in the West Main Hill neighborhood, that is estimated to cost $5 million and was designed by Chicago architect and MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang.
“Our vision is pretty clear,” says Lisa Brock, the academic director of the ACSJL and the center’s interim executive director. The center aims for a world in which “every person’s life is equally valued, the inherent dignity of all people is recognized, the opportunity to develop one’s full potential is available to every person, and systematic discrimination and structural inequities have been eradicated.
“But the mission of the center is to ...

Friday, January 03, 2014

Knees by Lebolt

by Zinta Aistars

Ed Dublis
A patient story I wrote for one of Michigan's largest health care organizations about a man so grateful for his double knee replacement that he participated in a 5K race just a couple months later to say Thanks, Doc. 

He was #40931, and Edward Dublis walked proud, wearing a bright blue shirt for all to read: “I got my knees from Dr. Lebolt on January 14, 2013.”

Today, that blue shirt hangs, framed and behind glass, among a row of similar sports shirts in the office space of James Lebolt, DO, medical director of sports medicine and an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine physician.

People came up to Dublis at the finish line and asked about his shirt. They wanted to know: had he really had a double knee replacement in January and was already able to walk a 5K race in May? Dublis, a financial planner and CEO of his own business, Diversified Financial Concepts, was very happy to share his story:

“I had the shirt made because I was so impressed and pleased with my knee surgery,” says Dublis. “My knees have been bad since college, when I played football. I’ve had four or five surgeries on my right knee over the years, but in the last few years, I was in pain all the time. Last year I went to Las Vegas and my family had to wheel me around in a wheelchair because my knees hurt too much to walk for more than a few minutes at a time. It was embarrassing to be a 57-year-old and to feel so helpless.”

Dublis talked to his primary physician who referred him to Dr. James Lebolt to discuss knee replacement surgery.

Dr. Lebolt specializes in shoulder, elbow and knee conditions for all ages. He trained under Dr. James Andrews, physician for many of the top athletes in professional sports, while completing a fellowship in orthopaedic sports medicine at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.

“Ed’s knees were significantly impaired,” says Dr. Lebolt. “He had severe arthritis in both knees. Usually we work on one knee replacement at a time due to the recovery and rehabilitation process. Even though Ed was young to need both knees replaced, that’s also part of the reason he was able to undergo both surgeries at one time. We also were able to use a type of implant that should last about 30 years.”

“December and January are quieter times in my business, so that’s when we scheduled the surgery,” Dublis says. “Dr. Lebolt felt that I had more upper body strength than someone older might, so I could handle the therapy for both knees after the surgery.”

Dublis had his surgery at the Center for Joint Replacement at Blodgett Hospital.

“The surgery, the care I received, it all exceeded my expectations,” says Dublis. “The nurses were extremely attentive and responsive to my needs. My pain level never went above 3 on a scale of 10 and I was able to walk the next day!”

In fact, the day after surgery, when Ed was encouraged to walk from his hospital bed to the hospital room door with the help of a walker, he ...

Thursday, January 02, 2014

What biblical characters were thinking: my interview with Exodus author Janet Ruth Heller

by Zinta Aistars

My interview with author Janet Ruth Heller will air at 7:50 a.m., 9:50 a.m., and 4:29 p.m. on Friday, January 2, 2014, on WMUK 102.1 FM on your dial or listen to the interview on the link below:

Kalamazoo, Michigan, native Janet Ruth Heller is a writer, playwright, and literary critic. In her third book of poetry called Exodus, Heller fills in the gaps in the lives of characters in the Bible, especially women. Exodus can be found at Kazoo Books on Parkview Avenue in Kalamazoo, Michigan News Agency, and

Heller says she’s been working on this collection since the 1970’s. At first, Heller had mixed the biblical poems in with secular poems and tried to publish a book, but publishers wouldn’t take it on. Then, Heller separated her secular poems into what is now her book Folk Concert and put her biblical poems into this new work Exodus. Heller explains why she chose "Exodus" for her title:
We often get in situations in life that don't work out. Maybe a relationship with another person doesn't work out--whether it's a friendship, or a marriage, or a working relationship. Sometimes a job doesn't work out. There are all sorts of changes in life that we have to make and I see these all sort of encompassed in the notion of Exodus. That there are times when we have to leave a situation. We have to get out of there and do something new. And it's difficult, but it's the way that we grow.
Because Exodus spans about 40 years of work, there are poems that empathize with different characters in different stages of their lives. Heller says she was drawn to many female characters in the Bible. She would try to imagine what their lives were like, but also what they would be like today. For example, Heller wrote ...