Tuesday, September 30, 2014

New Reading Together Book All About Great Lakes

by Zinta Aistars
Aired on WMUK 102.1 FM 
September 29, 2014

Jerry Dennis

The Kalamazoo Public Library (Kalamazoo, Michigan) recently announced its Reading Together selection for 2015. It’s called The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas by award-winning Michigan author Jerry Dennis. My interview with Jerry Dennis on WMUK 102.1 FM, Kalamazoo, Michigan's NPR affiliate -- listen to the radio version or the full interview here, online:

The Kalamazoo Public Library recently announced its Reading Together selection for 2015. It’s called The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas by award winning Michigan author Jerry Dennis.
The book combines Dennis’s journey across the Great Lakes with the environmental issues that shaped the lakes history.
Sailing The Great Lakes
Dennis and his crew sailed through four of the lakes (excluding Lake Superior) and through canals and rivers to Bar Harbor, Maine. Most of the crew were ocean sailors. Dennis says it was interesting to hear their take on the Great Lakes.
Environmental Dilemmas
Dennis says the environmental health of the Great Lakes has been on the minds of the American public since the 1960s. There were several causes that environmentalist rallied around, like the Cuyahoga River catching fire and the pollution problems in Lake Erie and Green Bay, Wisconsin. 
"The controversy of course was over whether this was a problem that needed our attention or whether needed to let the economy have its way or let industry have its way," Dennis explains. "And I think that controversy has slackened quite a lot because now we're recognizing across all boundaries, all partisan viewpoints that a clean environment is good for the economy."
But that doesn't mean that the battle between industry and the environment is over. Dennis cites the Enbridge near the Mackinac as an example. He says the coast guard has even stated that if an oil spill like the one on the Kalamazoo River happened there, they would not be prepared to handle the situation.
Shipwrecks On Top Of Shipwrecks
During the trip, Dennis explored several shipwrecks. He says he came across an 80-year-old man in Canada who ...

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Next Questions

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Kalamazoo College's ezine BeLight
September 2014

May 2014, the first ever Kalamazoo College Economics and Business Development Senior Individualized Project (SIP) Symposium was underway, and the excitement at Hicks Center was palpable. President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran walked from project to project, leaning in to examine the details, taking time to question the seniors. The economics professors mingled, glowing like proud parents.
President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran asks senior economics and business major Kari Paine about her SIP.
“For me, seeing these SIPs is seeing the culmination of a K education,” President Wilson-Oyelaran said, pausing between posters. “We are seeing the power of faculty mentorship. I’m thrilled the department of economics and business is doing this. I hope it will become a tradition.”
“It will be!” assured Ahmed Hussen, the Edward and Virginia van Dalson Professor of Economics. “This is our new tradition. We had workshops with the students and saw great improvements—we had only 14 of our majors participate this year, but we expect the symposium to grow over the years.”
Topics varied greatly: crowdfunding and the lean startup; new growth opportunities in Detroit; economic analysis of property rights in outer space; measuring the effectiveness of a buy-local campaign; economic impact of hosting the Olympics; analysis of produce pricing dynamics in Kalamazoo; effects of patient protection and the Affordable Care Act on the medical cost trend; a marketing plan for a luxury travel planning business in Spain; and more. Something for everyone, yes, even those who might one day prefer to live in outer space.
Among students, faculty and administration, and here and there the proud family members of seniors, wandered Will Dobbie ’04. A decade from his own school years at K, where he majored in economics with a minor in political science, he has made a name for himself as a result of his research on school effectiveness. Dobbie today is an assistant professor himself, teaching economics and public affairs at the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs. He was back on campus to deliver the keynote address for this inaugural symposium.
“When I received the invitation to speak at K,” Dobbie said, “I wondered – about what? Then my fiancé reminded me. She said, ‘Everything you do, Will, everything you are today is because of K. Talk about that.’” Dobbie smiled. Obvious. His talk on this evening at K would be about the value of a liberal arts education in business.
“We raised the bar immeasurably this year,” said Timothy Moffit ’80, associate professor of economics and business, in his remarks at the dinner that concluded the symposium. “All in the spirit of learning,” he said. “Friction was natural in this process of making improvements. It was the friction of change.” Then Moffit introduced Hussen, who serves department chair as well as (in Moffit’s words) “the SIP czar.”
Senior Katie Moffit answers discusses her research with “SIP Czar” Ahmed Hussen.
“I loooove talking about my former students!” Hussen crowed, and his audience laughed. “It’s a way for me to brag about what I’ve done, to claim that everything this former student has done is because of me,” Hussen smiled. Then he became more serious.  Will Dobbie, was special. Will, Hussen explained, earned the highest grade he had ever given a student.
“Will Dobbie’s SIP on the decentralization of government in Kenya is one of the best, still, that I’ve seen,” Hussen said. After K, Dobbie earned his master’s degree in economics at the University of Washington, and his Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Just a few weeks prior to the economics department SIP symposium, he had been in Kalamazoo to receive the W.E. Upjohn Institute Dissertation Award for best dissertation on employment. In addition to his teaching at Princeton he serves as a research fellow at the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University.
Dobbie’s speech that evening was titled “The value of an (economics) liberal arts education,” and Dobbie illustrated that value by talking about his November 2011 study, “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City,” in partnership with Roland G. Fryer, Jr.
In their study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dobbie explained, the two professors compared 39 New York charter schools to find out if the charter schools were any more effective than traditional models of education. Did class size make a difference? Would spending more money per pupil improve quality of education? Did teachers with more credentials and advanced degrees teach better?

READ THE COMPLETE ARTICLE ON K's BELIGHT. (Because the answers may surprise you.)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Musical minds: How a documentary on local Hot Tracks show is making autism more familiar

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Rapid Growth Media
Grand Rapids, Michigan
September 25, 2014

Photo by Adam Bird

With the documentary Musical Minds, two filmmakers hope to share the lives of two local people with autism with a wider community. Meet JB and Nick, passionate music critics, weekly hosts of the Hot Tracks show on WCET-TV, and singers of a song all their own as Zinta Aistars learns why this film had to be made.

JB wears a cap and one of his several Detroit Lions sweatshirts. His grin is wide and bright.

“Have faaaaaith!” he sings to his best friend Nick, and he holds his hand in a circle over Nick’s head like a halo, drawing it up toward the heavens.  

It cracks Nick up, but he shakes his head. He’s done being a Lions fan, he says. Decades of losing, that’s enough. He’s given up on his team, at least until they start showing signs of improvement.

The two are sitting in the back room at WCET-TV, a public access station in Hudsonville, a small town about a half-hour drive northwest of Grand Rapids. Their banter is light and fun, as it will be once the camera starts rolling for the half-hour show they tape every week, and have been taping for 13 years, called Hot Tracks.

JB West, 38, and Nick Van Zanten, 29, both have autism. To most, including their fans, they are simply known as JB and Nick. They will tell you: they fall into the high-functioning spectrum of autism, a developmental disorder of the brain expressed as difficulty with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 American children fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, a tenfold increase in the past 40 years.

James Grochowalski, now 27, was a Byron Center High School intern at WCET-TV when he first met JB and Nick. He became intrigued with their friendship, with their easy banter on the Hot Tracks show.

Grochowalski today lives in Las Vegas, where he works as media director for a church, but he has maintained his connection to JB and Nick both on a professional and personal level. Grochowalski and friend Andrew Bedinger, 27, of Grand Rapids, have just finished filming a documentary about JB and Nick, called Musical Minds.

“We followed JB and Nick for, oh, I don’t know, four, five years, filming their everyday lives,” Grochowalski says. “The documentary is more a slice of life than informative. Our push was to make people more familiar with autism.”

When Grochowalski first met JB, JB had already been working at WCET-TV for some time, helping director Allan Dodds film a program called This Week in Jenison. He has earned the title of production assistant.

“It was probably Allan, the director, who first connected JB and Nick,” says Bedinger. “JB had an idea for a show about music, so Hot Tracks is all about their favorite music, mostly from the 80s and 90s, and rating songs they like.”

Or don’t like. Neither of the two have any inhibitions about ...


Friday, September 19, 2014

Montage Market in Allegan (Michigan) specializes in the local

By Zinta Aistars
Published by SW Michigan's Second Wave Media
September 18, 2014

Allegan (Michigan) is a small, quiet town of about 5,000 hardy souls, tucked up against the Kalamazoo River. Approaching the city on M-89, one of the first signs of entering downtown is the truss bridge, built in 1886, that crosses the river and leads into the center of the city. Take a quick left after crossing the bridge onto Brady Street, and the first to draw your eye are the brightly colored umbrellas over sidewalk tables outside a specialty market. 

Montage Market, located at 137 Brady Street, is owned by Dan and Marcia Wagner. The couple also own one of Allegan’s most popular restaurants, The Grill House, and a catering service and banquet hall inside a renovated grain silo called, aptly, The Silo. They opened Montage Market in spring of 2010, and the store has done a bustling business since.

“There aren’t many places like Montage,” says Monica Reich, manager of the store. “We offer many unique Michigan craft beers and wines from Michigan wineries, but we also have a deli with fresh items daily.”

The historic building where Montage Market is located was built in 1890, originally the Wedge Office Machines location. The Wagners gave its historic value and charm extra attention, keeping that sense of a grocery store from a day gone by. The store even has its original wood floors, polished to a fine sheen.

Featured are ...


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hard cider business is one way this family farm keeps changing

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
September 18, 2014

Diversity at Schultz Fruitridge Farm means more than 20 varieties of apples, grapes, peaches, asparagus, and more. Bill Schultz talks about the latest innovation for the farm: turning its apples into hard cider. 

The air is crisp, the skies blue with plump white clouds, and a hint of a chill in the breeze hints at the coming fall. It’s apple season. 

During the months of September and October, Schultz Fruitridge Farms at 60139 County Road 652 in Mattawan is busy with its apple harvest. With 20 varieties of apples, they are one of the most popular U-pick places (or buy apples in their on-site shop) for the greater Kalamazoo community. Pickers move through the apple orchards with rosy cheeks, as if blushing in reflection of the ripening fruit.

Honeycrisp, Gala, McIntosh, Cortland, Empire, Fuji, Red and Yellow Delicious, Ida Red, Roma, Goldrush and more, all beckon from the acres of orchards. The Schultz family farms 250 acres of fruit and apples are only one of their many fruit and vegetable crops. 

There are vineyards of grapes, peaches, asparagus, blueberries, cherries, pears, pumpkins, squash, sweet corn, but if that’s not enough to whet an appetite, sweeten it with maple syrup and honey. On a separate ranch located in Schoolcraft, called Gravel Canyon Bison Ranch, the Schultz family raises bison for meat. 

“What makes us successful, what keeps us here so long when other farms aren’t,” says Bill Schultz, third-generation farmer, “is our diversity. When one crop fails, another survives.”

Bill Schultz is operations manager at the Schultz Fruitridge Farm, and he’s never considered any other occupation. The family farm, he says, is his passion. It has to be, he notes, because farming is hard and unforgiving work. “And you can have one night of frost or bad weather and lose an entire crop.”

That concept of diversifying to survive is one that crops up regularly in farm plans as the family gathers to assess their future. Sometime around 2012, the Schultz family started talking about another way to branch out: hard apple cider. 

“It’s value added,” says Schultz. “I did some traveling a few years ago, and I found really good hard cider in the United Kingdom, way better than ours in the United States. So I thought, why not us? Why not here? If anyone should be doing hard cider in this area, it should be us.”

The idea for a microbrewery was born, and the family named it Texas Corners Brewing Company, or TCBC. Brewing the hard cider on the farm and adding their own apples, they developed three flavors: Apple, Apple-Dry, and Apple-Cherry, priced at $5.50 for a 16 oz. bottle at 6.4 percent alcohol.

“These are not sissy beers.” Schultz smiles. 

By 2014, TCBC is brewing 1,500 gallons of the hard ciders on the farm. But why not add a tasting room? Why not a restaurant?


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Second chances for the two- and four-legged

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
September 11, 2014


Dogs that no one wants are getting a second chance when they are trained by incarcerated inmates at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. The trainers teach dogs what they need to know to find a home. Zinta Aistars has the story.

Jim Derks plays with Jesse
When the Lakeland Correctional Facility door opened, Jesse stood for a moment taking it all in: the blue sky, the fresh air, the road ahead. He wanted to run and run and run, until his lungs near burst with exertion. Sure, he was still on probation, but life was an adventure waiting. 

Jesse is a dog--a boxer. About a year-and-a-half in age, he is large, weighing in at 63 pounds, and still full of puppy exuberance. Jesse is a graduate of the Refurbished Pets of Southern Michigan, or RPSM, a nonprofit correctional companion program that pairs homeless, abandoned or unwanted dogs with inmates at the Lakeland Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Coldwater, Mich.

The dogs live with the inmates inside the prison for 10 weeks as the inmates retrain them to become exceptional, well-mannered pets, ready for adoption. 

When Carol and Jim Derks of Kalamazoo picked up their new dog, he came with a letter. The letter was written by one of the two inmates who had worked with Jesse for 10 weeks. It was addressed to Jesse’s new owners, and it was full of affection:

“Jesse is great. You couldn’t ask for a better companion. He loves attention and he loves to include you in his activities. For example, if you give him a squeaky toy, rather than go off by himself to play, he’ll bring the toy to you and put it in your lap as if to say, 'Play with me.' Be on the lookout for his array of facial expressions. Once you see them, you will be laughing your heart out … Jesse will surely be missed by all of us at Lakeland, and he will remain in our hearts long after he’s gone. We hope you enjoy the newest addition to your family. God bless!”

The two-page letter describes in detail Jesse's favorite activities, his eating and sleeping habits and various idiosyncrasies, his learning experiences and amusing misadventures. Another two pages attached to the letter list detailed explanations of the commands Jesse has been taught: Sit, Down, Stay, Up, Front, Finish, Swing, Stand, Drop It, Heel. 

“I found Jesse on a website called Petfinder,” says Jim Derks. “We had two rescue boxers prior to Jesse, but both had died some time ago, and we were ready for a new dog.”

The Derks were taken with what they learned about Jesse online, and they watched a video to learn about the RPSM training program Jesse had just started at that point. 

“We loved the photo of Jesse,” the Derks say. “We decided to adopt him on that one photo.”

The Derks decided to fill out the application for Jesse’s adoption. A volunteer from RPSM soon arrived to interview them, to check that their home and lifestyle were right for Jesse, and that the Derks understood how the adoption process worked and would provide a good home for the dog. 

“We had to answer a lot of questions,” Jim Derks says.

“I work from home,” Carol Derks adds. She runs a graphic design business called Derks Studio from their residence. “That was helpful, so even though there was another applicant ahead of us to adopt Jesse, we were chosen first.”

The Derks were sent weekly updates from the inmates about Jesse’s progress in training, and after they picked Jesse up at his foster home in Constantine upon his graduation from the program, Jesse was still on a period of probation to ensure both he and his new family adjusted well to his new life.

Keeping a close eye on dog adoptions, Sharon Albright is an RPSM volunteer and member of their board of trustees. She jokingly considers herself a “foster failure.”

“That’s what we call foster parents who fall in love with their foster pets and keep the dogs themselves.” She laughs. She has failed as a foster parent once with an RPSM dog and twice with two other rescue dogs.

The RPSM program, Albright says, was founded in 2007 to help cut down on euthanasia rates in area animal shelters. By 2008, the companion program with the prison was in place, run entirely on donations and costing approximately $285 per dog for the training program. 

“By now, we’ve saved about 500 dogs,” she says, and while the rehabilitative value to the inmates is harder to measure, “We have a long waiting list of inmates who want to be involved with the program. These are people who are considered by many as throwaway people, just like these dogs. We’ve received heart-wrenching letters from many inmates, telling us what the program means to them.”

With 28 inmates currently working with the dogs, two per dog, the RPSM program is a highlight at the prison facility. Inmates and dogs live together throughout training in a barracks-style room. 

“Trainers only live in this area,” Albright says. “But other inmates get to meet the dogs, too. The dogs wear bright yellow vests for their first two weeks of training, usually muzzled, so everyone knows they are still getting acclimated.”

Dogs chosen to participate, Albright says, are usually 6 months old or older and of larger sizes. They usually come from the local animal shelter or brought in by animal control.

“We watch them closely for signs of aggression, and we choose dogs who show a pleasant personality.”

Jesse, for instance, says Albright, had been turned in to a shelter because he was “too much dog.” His trainers worked to calm his hyperactivity and teach him to obey his owner’s commands.

“Inmates in this program have to earn their ...



Monday, September 08, 2014

What's It Like In Someone Else's Head? Asks Author Monica McFawn

by Zinta Aistars
for WMUK 102.1 FM
Arts and More Program
Kalamazoo, Michigan's NPR affiliate station
Aired September 9, 2014

Monica McFawn

Grand Rapids, Michigan author, poet, and playwright Monica McFawn’s book Bright Shards of Someplace Else recently won the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction. It’s a collection of 11 short stories based on that little assumption that we know exactly what someone else is thinking.
McFawn will be reading from her work Thursday night at 6 p.m. at Michigan News Agency in Kalamazoo.
Where's the Dialogue?
Though McFawn is a playwright and has written a few screenplays, you won't find much dialogue in her latest book. McFawn says she's interested in the contrast between people's thoughts and what they actually say. Most of the time we only say a fraction of what we're thinking and sometimes we don't express those thoughts very well or even hide them. 
"I think the majority of conversations I have are in my head," says McFawn. "And that's not because I'm an anti-social person, but because you spend so much time imagining what you would say or ...