Saturday, December 15, 2012

The future of shopping

I recently heard on the radio a report about the future of retail. Apparently in the future, the stores will 'hear' you coming by detecting the approach of your cell phone. That will bring your purchasing history up and the staff will be able to greet you by name and then direct you to the merchandise you're most likely to be interested in. The interviewer asked about the creepiness factor involved. The interviewee suggested that once we see that it will save us money and result in a more fulfilling shopping experience, we'll be all for it. No thanks. I think I'll stick with my hometown stores that don't have to pretend like they know me. I sometimes don't know quite how to respond when a checkout clerk at major retailer X, after reading my name on my credit card, thanks me by first name for shopping at this store. I am friendly enough about it, but I can't help thinking "You don't me!"

I like it when the clerks I actually do know engage me in authentic conversations. That did not happen instantly. It happens after many times of choosing to go to the small local retailer and building an acquaintance. Even that took some getting used to upon moving from busy town to small town. At first I did find it a bit annoying that the check out clerks thought they had to chat up each customer. Now that I'm one of those customers I do kind of like it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A few thoughts for early December

Three to four inches of fresh powder on frozen ground. Nice conditions to ski around the campus loop. Just enough stick on the kick, nice slide on the glide. Or something like that. ‘Tho in my case it isn’t so much kick-and-glide as shuffle and shamble.

It was also nice to have my polymorphous, two-dimensional companion alongside. I did not realize how much I had missed seeing shadows. It had been cloudy for day after day until this recent high pressure brought nice clear skies. Around town, people remarked on the nice weather. Cold but clear. And no one even said ‘oh but we’ll pay for it later.’ That’s the response one often hears when we have clear, sunny days in winter. It’s not pessimism. It’s that we often get sloppy days after clear days when low pressure moves in after high pressure and drags gloomy skies along.


The city has a new place-making initiative to reshape the, well, shall we say, overlooked back side of part of our downtown. The back of that stretch of businesses that face the waterfront is not the most attractive part of our town. It could be a natural funnel to draw people to the adjacent downtown streets. That's the idea of the place-making initiative.

It was a well-organized and well-attended meeting. People shared their aspirations for what that part of our downtown could be. Open space for civic events, kind of a town square concept, seemed to be a common theme. This project runs through next summer, when a concept plan will be provided by the consultants with the hope that the concept plan will guide development and spur a search for funds to carry out the plan.

The meeting illustrated a sense-of-place concept I had not thought of until reading about it recently in a place-making blog, namely, the role of good governance. We have our share of shady insider deals in our town, as in any, but they are not institutionalized in the city government. From my perspective, our city government is open. The city commission and administrators really do listen at public listening sessions and projects do seem mainly to track public desires. We would not be considered an especially progressive town, but we do have some projects addressing land use planning and other sustainability ideas. Things move slowly, but that has the advantage that we’re not lurching from one new idea to the other.


We were considering dropping our subscription to the local paper. That’s a shocking move for us. “You gotta subscribe to the local paper,” we’ve always said. “How else will you know what’s going on?” Admittedly part of knowing what’s going on is seeing which of our students are in the police blotter feature. But it’s also a way to know of upcoming events. In speaking to other residents after some event, I often hear “I never even heard that was coming up.” I try not to say “Well I can’t help it that you’re un-informed.”

I’ve been reading about successful local papers that go beyond the police blotter, high school sports, obits and legals. Papers that have in-depth, local content. Ours needs more of that. Our next small town to the south has a weekly that does. We subscribed for a few years, but let our subscription lapse since learning about happenings in the neighboring county didn't have a favorable cost/benefit ratio for us. 

We would have gone Sunday only with our local paper, but that is not an option. (Reading the Sunday morning paper is a long-standing tradition in our household, even if it takes some effort to stretch the reading of the local Sunday paper out to 20 minutes). So we’ll keep our subscription for now. The next time our local paper runs duplicate stories from one day to the next, (it’s even been known to do it in the same edition), misses out on reporting what could have been a good local story, or drops another feature from its coverage, we’ll think again about whether to continue our subscription. We want to support local media but not as a pity purchase. We look for value that we can’t get elsewhere. Maybe Warren Buffet will buy our paper and fortify it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An outsiders perspective

A few weeks ago, we made quick trip to see the extended family for a fun event. Flew out Friday morning, back Sunday night. The family event, a wedding, was great and it’s always nice to see extended family for a fun event. During the travel time, I ended up reading Prairie Spring by Peter Dunne. So it was fun reading about the part of the country I was traveling to. As someone who grew up in the plains and prairies, I was interested to see what one of those easterners had to say about some of my favorite places. I wanted to see if he got it right. I also recalled that sometimes it takes an outsider to do a good job of interpreting a place (I seem to remember something from history class about Alexis de Tocqueville’s contribution to America’s understanding of itself). I am happy to report that Dunne did indeed get it right.

The book documents the travels he and his wife did across the Great Plains during spring time. Lots of good info about birds (Dunne is a well-known birder) and plants, but even more so the book was about the people who live in the plains are working to conserve what they love about their place. Dunne uses good creative non-fiction technique to make for an informative and fun read. (As a biologist, I’m as eager to read dense technical info as anyone, but for a fun read I have to admit that bringing in the people can make it fun).

I also ran across what to me is a sad commentary about reading about the plains and prairies while flying over them. A marketing blurb on the back of a different plains and prairies book – one I did not buy because I did not like that marketing blurb – said that this was the book to read while flying over the middle of the country to let you know what was going on down there while you’re flying over it. Yikes. I guess if that’s your attitude about the plains and prairies, we’d just as soon not have you drop by!

As fun as it was to see family, I did manage to sneak off to the local wildlife area. The elk were especially cooperative, standing in silhouette against the afternoon sky on the first small rise from the road. The bison were not so cooperative but were still easy to see a bit farther off.

Haven’t written much this month about place (travel makes the stack of papers to grade get so much taller!). I must get back into the habit. Writing about experiences does help one get more from the experiences (you English profs out there are saying ‘duh!’). In the mean time, we do have skiable snow. Time to get out on it.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

today's random thoughts

Met someone today who is from the Upper Peninsula  but, as she puts it, has to work downstate sometimes. She told us about how when she crosses the Mackinac Bridge she always rolls down her windows and opens the sun roof on her car to flush out the downstate air with good, clean UP air. She admitted that this time of year, it makes for some cold air in the car.

UP - not a separate state, just a separate state of mind.

We live out of town and typically come straight home after work. We don't spend many evenings in town, but tonight I had a meeting that kept me in town 'til dinner time, so I availed myself of some local food and drink. I walked downtown from campus for the exercise, the think time and to see what there was to see. After my dinner, the walk back to campus took me past the laundromat. Since it was dark outside, it was like looking in on a picture. Nothing says college town like seeing a student studying while doing laundry in the laundromat.
I'm not a particularly smiley person. I'm no grouch, just not necessarily one of those people who always are smiling. But when I see something just that's just so fun to see, I can't help but smile. Tonight I pulled into a store parking lot to go get a few things I needed. A grandpa and grandson were making their way toward their car right by where I was pulling in. Grandpa and grandson appeared to be having a great time, so I could not help but smile as I pulled up and walked by. Grandpa must have seen me appreciating the scene.  'Hi, how are you doing," he stated, to which I simply replied quietly 'Good!' A minor moment. It brought to mind a recent news report that I had heard about a study that showed how smiling at a stranger leads to good feelings in both parties involved. I have to agree with that study. It did feel good. I'm still not a particularly smiley person, but when the occasion present itself I guess I am.

Friday, October 26, 2012

closed storefronts, but wait...

I don't like seeing closed storefronts. Well, I guess no one really does, but having lived in places where the downtowns are plagued by closed storefronts -- any knowing of rural midwest towns that most of the downtown is now closed storefronts-- they make me especially sad.

I was downtown the other day and the closed storefronts looked kind of forlorn. I know they're just closed for the season, but I still can't help but feel a bit of melancholy (not sure of the part of speech here, but I know it's not 'feel melancholonic'). We're not a resort town. We don't lose that much population in the winter and we make up for it with the college students in the fall and spring. The only businesses that close for the season are the DQ, the two burger shacks on the river and the fudgey row businesses. So it's not that sad. While the signs say "Closed for the Season, " they then dispel any doubts with their declaration of "See You Next Spring!"

Friday, October 19, 2012

Making a healthy walk healthier

Wednesday AM. Sitting here at my desk, feeling like I need some exercise. Got about 50 minutes before my morning class starts. But I need a destination. I can’t just walk around just to walk around. Coffee shop! 15 minutes each way, just enough time for a coffee and something sweet to eat.. “Yea, but,” says the voice in my head, “weren’t you just there yesterday eating something sugary?” Hmm. Yes I was. Maybe too soon for another sugary treat. “And aren’t you about out of extra-budgetary cash from doing that pretty often?” Right again. “Better pick another destination.” How about the bookstore? So I walked downtown, past the coffee shop, just around the corner and perused the new local interest books. I’ll go back and get Visiting Tom and let you know in a future post how I liked it . I kept my eye on the time so that I would not get engrossed and thus late for class. Got back with 5 minutes to spare, having gotten some exercise, having found a new book to add to the very long list of books to read, and with a net expenditure of calories this time.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

It's all in the context

I was hiking with the students my eco lab through a forest this fall in a cool, drizzly day.
"Ew, it's stinky," said one of the students. "It smells like rot."
"That's the smell of our forested wetlands," I replied. "I rather like the aroma."
Some of the more outdoorsy students concurred with my point of view but we all agreed that it's not an aroma considered pleasant by all.
It occurred to me that what I really like is the associations I have with that aroma. It makes me think of enjoyable days spent hiking around the forested wetlands taking in the scenery, getting out in a natural area, learning new plants and pondering how that ecosystem functions. It is all in the context.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Enjoying the fall weather bike style

So OK, the sleet did sort of sting on my face. Not the most favorite part of my bike commute yesterday. I tried to time my ride between the squall lines but didn’t hit it quite right. All day, we had wave after wave of rain and sleet for several minutes with about 30 to 45 minutes of sunshine in between. Forty five minutes of clear weather would be just right for the ride home. But I was delayed a bit in leaving so by the time I got away it was ½ way through the clear, which meant I’d encounter a squall. But after the sleet, the last half the ride was in clear weather. A nice ride overall.

I have always thought it’d be adventurous to be a consistent 3-season bike commuter over a reasonable distance. Many years (and about the same number of pounds) ago, I would sometimes do a 15 mile one-way commute but only on nice days. It required a change of clothes and freshen up in the washroom upon arriving at work so it was not a causal ride. I now have a more reasonable, 15 mile round-trip distance which can be done in street clothes. I frequently ride in during summer; this was the first time I had in October. With the recent addition of a commuter bike (i.e, with fenders and – full disclosure - battery assist) and the with the right rain suit, it was really quite a pleasant ride, aside from the few minutes of sleet. 

I had ridden in to work the previous morning in a warm drizzle which was quite a pleasant ride. I car pooled home that evening, leaving the bike in my office overnight. I car pooled in the next morning then rode home that afternoon. I don't claim to be an everyday bike commuter.

Part of appreciating the place one lives is appreciating and getting out in all weather. And here we have all weather. I don’t intend to ride in the winter. Snowpacked roads are too treacherous (I knew people in Fargo who would put a traction chain on the front wheel of their bike – I don’t need to be that hard-core). And subzero weather is a bit too extreme for me for cycling. But regularly biking in from March through October is quite do-able. People like walks in the rain. Rides in the rain can be enjoyable, too, in their own way. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to forego rides in the summer in shorts to save up my bike riding days for fall rides in the rain. 

When I saw that today’s weather was going to be snow/rain mix all day, I chose to carpool in. Today it was a walk downtown this morning for a coffee instead of a bike ride. It was quite an enjoyable walk in the rain that turned to snow. Looks like we’ll get a little accumulation today. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Place and Being Organized

Can where you live determine your level of organization? For twenty of the past 22 years, we’ve lived out-of, but close-to, town. Therefore when we’re doing a plumbing, electrical or construction project we have the luxury of being able to go to town the three or four times it takes to get everything we need to get the job done. Our closeness to town is enabling that way (for the two years we lived in town it was still just 3 or 4 trips to various stores per project). But how about those people who live so far from town that they need to be sure to get everything they need the one time they are in town? That’d be impressive.

The people who live outside cell phone range  have to be even better organized. We all used to be a bit better organized that way. It seemed like only a few years ago that I was resisting getting a cell phone because I said it was for people with poor planning. Everyone used to make plans ahead of time. You had a designated time and place to meet. If the other party did not show up within an unstated but somehow mutually agreed to timeframe, well, we followed the unstated but somehow mutually agreed plan B. If one were meeting someone in town, the waiting time could be just 10-15 minutes but for a remote meet it could be up to 1-1/2 hours to wait until switching to plan B. If the other party didn't show up, you’d ask them about it the next time you saw them. Now no one plans, we – me included -- just call to smake and to change plans. It’s a great time saver. No more waiting and wondering for those precious 10-15 minutes. I’m sure our time is much more valuable today compared to years past and taht we put that saved time to high value uses. I don’t mean to sound like a crotchety old guy. OK, it would have been nice to have been in communication with the people I waited 1-1/2 hours for at a remote site and then had to make the call to switch to plan B. Knowing they were delayed much longer than that could have saved me some time and some worry. But come to think of it, that area is probably still out of cell phone range. So I guess there are still some places where planning is an essential skill.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


“You know how to get to our place, you were there before”
“Yes, but that time I rode with someone else/ I followed someone else/ I just did what the GPS receiver told me to do.”
In any of those cases, the individual involved may not know how to get to your place.

I have found an especially good way to learn how to get somewhere. Head off with a vague idea of where you need to go and go. Of course it doesn’t seem like a vague idea at the time. I look at a map and say “Oh, sure, I know exactly how to get there.”

This past week, I was in the KC area. It’s where I grew up. I wanted to visit a particular site, glanced at the map and headed off, knowing exactly how to get there and headed off no map, no GPS receiver.

I need to modify my previous claim. Yes it is where I grew up but that was many years ago. I would have known exactly how to get there then but now the roads are all different. A while later, , I arrived at my destination (more modification of claims - I arrived at my destination after calling Sis who got me the exact address off her smartphone but  knew better than to offer turn-by-turn directions). But how much more informative and adventurous it was to have driven several miles in a few different directions, seeing many interesting sights and really learning the lay of the land. I saw a farmstead surrounded on all four by a high fence topped with barbed wire (what goes on at that farm?). I saw some very fine equestrian farms. And I saw just how extensive the former munitions plant is and was thus spurred to look up its history. 

If you have the time for some adventure, I recommend the wander around until you find it method of wayfinding. I’ve done it on several occasions and have gotten to know the backroads and byways in several areas that way. And sometimes I even learn a more direct route after taking the circuitous path a few more times.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Beautiful morning

I stepped outside this morning to complete some quick chores before heading to campus. I would say that I stopped momentarily to appreciate the gorgeous morning, but more truthfully the gorgeous morning made me stop and appreciate it. Clear, cool, wet from the overnight rainfall. We’re way behind on precipitation this summer so the analytic part of my mind was saying ‘yea, 0.4” of rain.’ The not-so-analytic, free-format part of my mind was saying ‘Quiet, you. Enjoy the moment.’   So I did.

Being outside is important for me. Natural environs are a tonic. ‘Built nature’ can be too, for me and for all those people who don’t have a chance to get out into natural nature. By built nature, I mean places people have brought the plants in to. These places could be farms, food gardens, flower gardens designed to produce or show off flowers or thoughtful spot gardens that draw people in, quiet them down, get them to think. It’s nature, nature fashioned by people for a particular purpose, but still nature.

One sees large and small versions of these thoughtful gardens in larger population centers. I’m reading a wonderful book about places like that: Open Spaces Sacred Places: Stories of How Nature Heals and Unifies by Tom Stoner and Carolyn Rapp. The spaces featured in this book range from a healing space at an HIV/AIDS center to a healing space at a prison to a healing space in what was a crime and drug ridden neighborhood. If I’m in the vicinity of these amazing spaces, I will stop in. The story of how they were built is as beautiful as the resulting places.

One can find thoughtful gardens in some small towns and rural areas as well. They are not so professionally crafted, but still make their own important impression.  Our area used to have a unique garden/book/artsy shop out in the country that had a garden with a walkway that invited visitors to stroll slowly and think. Unfortunately the shop is no longer in business. I don’t know what became of the garden. I know it took a lot of upkeep. One small town here in the eastern upper peninsula has a community garden, not the kind of community garden where individual gardeners have plots to work (a great, but different type of community garden) but rather a collaborative garden designed to get people to slow down and ponder. Built nature has a place even in small towns surrounded by natural nature.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Attention restaurateurs

Classes started last week. I like to use that first week to get a run-up to the class topics. For example, in ecology lab, we don’t get right into field data collection. Instead, we go out and talk about some concepts of field ecology. I like to get the students thinking about overall concepts that we will start taking data on next week. I also take the opportunity to talk about the role sense of place plays in conservation. I explain that by helping people develop a stronger sense of place, we may be able to enhance their willingness to work toward conserving the features that make their place special to them. That leads to the need to have some people who actually live  in rural areas so that we have people on the ground to advocate for the conservation of those special features. That in turn leads me to describe how someone interested in conservation of natural areas also needs to be concerned about sustainable rural economic development, which wraps right back to sense of place.For the rest of the semester we talk technical details of ecology, not the environment and society aspects. This first week is my chance to discuss those latter features, which I explain are in some ways more important than the science, but are covered in other classes. Maybe a few of these future leaders in conservation will take the message to heart.

Some entrepreneur could help build sense of place here in our town by providing on-the-river dining. We are a river town, yet the closest place on the Michigan side to dine on a deck overlooking the St. Marys River is 15 miles or so downstream. We ate there this past weekend and the river made for great ambiance. I know people who go literally that extra mile just to eat on the river like that. It’d be nice to be able to eat on the river right here in town. Several of us are just waiting for a restaurateur to see that opportunity. In the mean time, we get to-go dinners or bring our own picnic dinners to one of our nice parks on the river. Works OK for hand held food, but a nice sit down dinner on a deck overlooking the river could be quite special.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Summer yields to school year

School’s back in session. Always great to get back into the swing of it, but during the week before school starts, we want to take advantage of the last days of having that more open schedule. Last week, we went to Petoskey and Charlevoix, partly to see if we could find some peaches for canning and partly just to have a nice day trip. No peaches available in bulk, only by the pound and expensive due to the early warm and late frost this spring, but it made for a nice day trip regardless. 

We just kind of poked along, stopping at turnouts to Lake Michigan, at farm stands and at artsy/touristy shops. We also stopped at Petoskey State Park to look for Petoskey stones (found a few, as always).

At the park we also were entertained by the kite surfers, three guys on short boards holding kites. It was a breezy day, so they got some speed and just as we were leaving, one guy got some serious air. One of the kite surfers packed up to go just as we were. Looked to be an involved process of capturing the kite, deflating the kite, packing the kite. Not something to do single-handedly. By nature, kite surfers are avid in their sport.

One sees the avid sportspeople on the road, a cluster of expensive bikes or skis or kayaks on the rack, them driving off to some destination to pursue their sport. I like to see that. They’re probably adding to the economy of the areas they visit. They are enjoying the outdoors and maybe even advocate for conservation of the places they mountain bike, cross country ski or kayak in.

I don’t get out that much. My recreational pursuits tend to be closer to home or right at home or campus. Skiing, cycling, hiking, canoeing are things I can do casually during my usual day. That’s one of the big advantages of living here – the fact that we can do paddle sports, cross country skiing, cycling right in our immediate neighborhoods. It’s part of the lifestyle here, and we use that fact when recruiting people to come work at the university.

I have not always lived where one can canoe so casually or with reliable enough snow to XC so often. But one can always go cycling and running . All you need is roads (although one place I lived was miles from a paved road so not so good for cycling when all I had was a road bike). What about hiking? Is a long walk through town a hike or does one need to be in an interesting natural area to call it a hike? As a kid and as an adult, I’ve walked for transportation, often a couple of miles distance. I never considered it a hike, though.  Regardless of what it’s called, it can be a good way to get somewhere and enjoy the journey even if it’s just through town.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Nice ride, eh?

Talk about sense of place. Nothing says ‘cycling in the EUP’ better than drafting off a tractor pulling an empty hay wagon. Not that it happens often. I’ve been cycling just about my whole life in farm country and never had drafted behind a hay wagon until this morning.

I was on a ride I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Everything fell in place for that ride this morning. It’s about 16 miles one way, so I needed a couple of hours in my schedule. Check. Nice weather. Check. The bonus today was that the breeze was SE, unusual for us, but making for the always desirable homeward tailwind. The destination: Dunbar Park, a place I visit often with class but have never biked to. I know several people who do and recommended the ride. There was a work aspect to the trip, too. Last year I saw a purple loosestrife plant there, so part of the motivation for the trip was to see whether it had spread.

A few miles into the trip, I heard a large vehicle coming up slowly from behind. A tractor pulling an empty haywagon passed me slowly, which gave me the chance to get into its draft. It was a nice break for about ½ mile until we got to a slight incline and I could no longer match the tractor’s speed.

Otherwise, the trip was uneventful but very pleasant. The familiar terrain rolled by with a few new sights. The _______’s are finally putting an entryway on the front door of their house 15 years after it was built. About time. Saw another house-in-the-country under construction on Riverside Rd. Saw some gardens hit by our hot dry weather and others that looked fine (probably had an irrigation system).

Traffic was practically non-existent. Lost count at 4 cars; the total could be as high as 8 or 10 passing in either direction for the whole ride.

Dunbar Park actually did look better from the bicycle than from a college van. Probably it was just the satisfaction of getting there under my own power. 

The purple loosestrife had spread. Where there was one plant, now there are several over 10s of meters. We’ll get the students on that project.

On the way home, I was feeling the old spin in the legs, a pleasant feeling I had not felt in a while. I don’t get that feeling on my more typical rides, which involve getting to and/or from school. The reminiscence of cycling past was soon replaced by the more recently familiar rubber in the legs, especially after the short, steep hill up out of the river valley onto the plain. Ride home was a bit faster with a few chances to get on the big chain ring.

Everything added up to a very nice way to spend a few hours in the EUP. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

UP Connections II

A UP Weekend II
by Thaddeus

The afternoon of Sunday, July 29

3:57 (Buddy): “Hey whatcha doing next weekend?”
3:59 (Me): “Nothing planned. Wanna go for a hike?”
4:01 – “No, I will be in Crystal Falls for Humungous Fungus.”
4:01 – “Cool man. Sounds like a blast.”
4:03 – “Yeah it’s a good time. You should come out.”
4:05 – “For sure, that’s a cool area. Why not? I will see you there.”
4:06 – “Awesome, that’s what I like to hear.”
4:18 – (Internal monologue) “Wait, where is Crystal Falls? Have I been there? Is that by Marquette? I need to google this...”

The morning of Saturday, August 4


10:38 – (External monologue) “THIS is Crystal Falls?”
10:39 – “HAVE I ever been here?”
10:40 – “Am I in the Central Time Zone?”
10:44 – “Did I just drive through Crystal Falls?”

As of the 2010 census, Crystal Falls has a population of 1,429. That number is much, much lower than estimates thrown around by my road trip partner “Bob” and I as we were sight-seeing through town, slowly making our way to a gas station. Bob could swear he was here once before, and tentatively recalled a bait shop and memories of the greatest submarine sandwich he ever tasted as the neural pathways of his brain were being fueled by blue Gatorade and McDonald’s breakfast.

Myself, on the other hand, never tasted an epic sub in this part of the state. Sure, I had been through Iron Mountain, Iron River and Covington, but somehow I never succumbed to the siren song of Crystal Falls.

I discovered what I had been missing. Ultimately, the Humungous Fungus Festival was what brought me to town, but proximally the UP Strongman Competition was scheduled to begin at high noon (yes, Central Time) and a mutual friend to Bob and I was competing in the heavyweight division.

Being of extremely slight build relative to the competitors, Bob and I felt more than a little out of place prior to the competition as the athletes were stretching muscle masses that were clearly the result of years of training and discipline. No disrespect intended, but the female competitors could have twisted me into a pretzel that would have sold at a premium at the concession stand. It was agreed upon that the only way to salvage – or mask – our self-respect was to partake in some 12 ounce curls of ice cold beverages as the emcee announced the start of the spectacle.

The event annihilated my concept of what human beings could achieve. Imagine the most physically demanding movement you have ever made, quadruple the intensity, and you have the first of five feats of strength. I’m lucky if my back doesn’t seize while doing dishes after lunch, but these men and women were moving weights best described as large fractions of blue whales. At regular intervals over four hours, the gamut of responses ran from nervous energy before the whistle blew, exhaustion after completion of a challenge, episodes of profuse perspiration, shouting, grunting, and physical and emotional strain. I can only imagine what the competitors were going through.

If I ever happen to meet any of the people who competed (other than my buddy, the 2012 heavyweight champion, by the way), I will look directly into their eyes, shake their hand, and give them my utmost respect. Immediately afterwards I will drive to the nearest hospital for an X-ray of the pulverized bones of my useless limb, suppressing tears and thinking of whom I will ask first to sign my cast.

To be honest, I didn’t attend any of the other scheduled events of the Festival; I didn’t think it was necessary. I had a blast in Crystal Falls, and as much fun as it would have been to hang out at the Teen Dance (Thursday @ 7) or the Senior’s Cribbage Match (Friday @ 1:30), nothing could trump the time I had at the UP Strongman during the weekend I spent in Crystal Falls this past Saturday afternoon.

If you happen to make it out next year, I will be the skinny guy at the concession stand nervously asking if there is any demand for pretzels to be on the menu – say hello.

personal connections to the UP

Sense of place is all about one's personal connections to a place and, better yet, the people one interacts with there. This edition of know-your-place features a guest blogger (a young scientist with whom I collaborate) writing about just such connections.
Part I is about Thaddeus' adventures in the territory around Marquette, Michigan.
A UP Weekend I
by Thaddeus

Perhaps the greatest irony of my life is that for a person who measures 6’4” tall, I am terrified of heights. Full disclosure: I am talking about a fear far beyond which is indicated by symptoms of wobbly-knees or dizziness. At the apex of my six inch vertical leap, I begin to get very angry with Sir Isaac Newton and question what possessed me to leave the surface of our most wonderful planet Earth. I have considered how self-secure I am to withstand to the public ridicule that would befall someone in my age range without a disability using walking canes, if for no other reason than to enter into a more pleasing consort with land.

One of my earliest memories is of my parents taking me to a public library. The library had two floors, and the children’s section was on the second level. If memory serves, the elevator was shrouded in the cobwebs of several generations (if not whole civilizations) of numerous species of spider with a dusty OUT OF ORDER sign that was placed in front of its entrance sometime in 1958. The staircase at this library consisted of large, rectangular marble slabs held together by approximately half the steel distributed from Pittsburgh. A very sturdy structure and a testament to the talent and skill of its designers to say the least. Problem was, there was a gap of about a hand’s width between each offset step that allowed for the necessary incline and the visitor to be able to see through the stairway as they made their way to the second floor. I was so paralyzed by this evil creation as a child that my current stage of literacy is a credit to the wonderful teachers on the ground floor of the elementary school I attended.

The simple truth is that the more of my surface area that is in contact with objects permanently affixed to the ground, the more comfortable I am. This is known by people who know me. “Bob” is one such person who knows me. He and I go back a few years and we have spent not an insignificant amount of time developing a friendship.

A quick note about Bob: he likes to have fun. He loves hiking, fishing, kayaking, biking, building beautiful log furniture…in other words someone who fits in perfectly in Marquette, Michigan.

Another quick note: Bob is absolutely crazy.

I visited Bob this past weekend in Marquette. We had dinner on Friday night at the Vierling restaurant on Front Street. If you have never been there, order a pint of a delicious hand crafted hoppy beverage and don’t be shy about looking through the large windows overlooking the bay or the old black-and-white photos on the walls before your food arrives. (The whitefish, by the way, is phenomenal.)

One picture shows Marquette harbor sometime after the turn of the century. The photo succeeds in representing how busy the port was in a time long since past as the viewer sees immense sepia toned tree trunks waiting to be shipped off to lumber yards. On the horizon, there is a promontory that reaches towards the sky, the tallest landmark of the area from that photo’s perspective. Naturally my eyes were led to this peak, and my throat started to constrict as sweaty hands tried to grasp a fork.

“What’s that hill there, in the back?” I ask, trying to allay burgeoning anxiety through dialogue.

“Oh yeah, I think that is Marquette Mountain,” Bob says. “Cool photo, huh?”

My voice squeaks as I attempt a response and the conversation eventually drifts elsewhere.

Later that evening we discuss plans for the weekend and a couple of ideas were tossed around. Things with Bob always seem to move fast and before I knew it the first suggestion of a crisp autumn-in-August Sunday morning was floating through the open window of my guest room.

“So we’ll head up to Jeffrey’s for breakfast and then hit the cliff?”

“Um, sure sounds like a good plan” I mumble, still in a sleepy haze without having consumed the several cups of coffee required to alert my senses every morning.

It wasn’t until the third cup that I became aware of myself seriously discussing climbing a rock face. Was this actually presented as an option on Friday for things to do over the weekend? What’s more, it seemed as though we were talking about climbing the same peak that I had seen in the photo at the restaurant two days before. I’m not one for hyperbole, but as the server dutifully refilled my bottomless cup of coffee, my mind recalled every detail of minutiae in the photo of the Mt. McKinley of Michigan, from the sherpas leading pack mules up narrow trails to the base camp with wind-tattered tents and spare oxygen tanks.

I won’t bore you with the details of how I managed to scramble up the side of that mountain; frankly, I have no recollection of anything that happened once I started climbing. However, I will say that I think I may be the first person in recorded history to have the ability to consciously decide against having multiple heart attacks, something I learned about myself while I was clutching a shrubby oak tree some 70 feet above where my feet last touched flat ground. Photographic evidence shows a rope knotted to a harness into which I was strapped leading through a pulley anchored by two trees at the top of the cliff to Bob’s own harness at the foot of the cliff. This technique, I was told later, is called “top anchoring” and once the nausea that still accompanies any association with Sunday, August 5th subsides in a week or so, I might read up on how exactly the physics behind it works.

It’s good to have friends, but it is better when crazy friends live a few hours away.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Our special boat

A friend of mine has a 39+’ foot boat. That’s a big boat, just under the 40’ that requires a special license. As I like to kid him, we have about that same amount of  boat, it’s just that ours are in the form of two canoes and our peddle/paddle boat.

I take the canoes out to study sites with students and sometimes our son and I get out for a canoe float. The peddle/paddle boat is our special boat, though, because one particular member of our household is not comfortable in a canoe (too tippy) or really any small craft in deep water. (She’s plenty comfortable on that 39+’ boat as are we all when we get to enjoy what we consider a luxury cruise.) The peddle/paddle boat is not at all tippy and draws only a few inches of water, so we can take it in shallow water.

It fits right into the bed of the pickup so it makes for a nice trip to a shallow embayment on the river. Yesterday, we took it out on Ashmun Bay. With the rains in Duluth, Lake Superior is not low this summer and so Ashmun Bay has enough water to put the peddle/paddle boat in.  Ashmun Bay is also a popular power boat launch. The power boaters use the dredged channel that runs to the west of the launch to get out onto the St. Marys River. We go to the east, into the shallow bay, follow the shoreline then cut across back to the boat launch area. We spend about 45 minutes or so on the water. It is great to get out on the water and to do so without making a lot of noise and a big wake.

One party launched their powerboat when we did and returned when we did. We traveled about a kilometer. They likely traveled much farther. But I think we had a more peaceful experience and by going so slowly over a short distance got to see things in detail. I wonder if they even noticed the bald eagle carrying a fish in its talons, being mobbed by gulls? We also noticed a few sprigs of purple loosestrife. I’ll have to take some students out there this fall and get it dug up. It’s the first I’ve seen and so few plants we can stop the invasion just with hand pulling. It would be good to keep the bay free of purple loosestrife. It’s a nice bay with the vast majority of the shoreline in natural bank and a great place for canoes, kayaks and even a peddle/paddle boat.

We topped the afternoon off with some of the best burgers in town from the burger shack immediately adjacent to the bay. It made for a nice afternoon to capitalize on what this great place has to offer. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Greetings from Ann Arbor

From Ann Arbor MI-
Art Fair has taken over downtown Ann Arbor as it does this time every summer. A chance to take class at U of Mich brought me here, as it has before during Art Fair.

 Earlier in the week, it was fun seeing the logistics involved in making an already walkable downtown into a two-layer town – there’s gotta be a thousand booths for artists and vendors lining the streets in front of the restaurants and store fronts. The not-for-profit row provides political, religious, charity and other groups a chance to have hundreds and hundreds of people at least walk by. For some of the fringy-ier groups, it’s got to be the only chance they have of this kind of exposure.

The vendors range from interesting clothes and food stuffs to those selling objects d’art and bric-a-brac. You can tell the artists. They’re the ones with just a few pieces with no prices, some of which leaves one saying ‘huh?’ which is better than just ‘I don’t get it.’

One can do worse than spend 30 minutes or so in a beer tent enjoying a local brew and watching the crowd go by.

On the east side of campus is the Nichols Arboretum, a slice of nature in the city, a chance to leave the hustle-bustle behind (you can still hear it, though) and appreciate what 120+ acres of nature in the form of forested hills and restored natural Huron River waterfront has to offer. The formal garden part of the Arb is immediately adjacent to the med center. I hope some of the families members with loved ones in tough health straits have a chance to be restored by the gardens and natural setting of the Arb. I couldn’t help but imagine naturalists of previous generations, including Ed Voss, walking the trails of this jewel in the urban landscape.

This morning I finally found a funky old diner to get some pancakes. I like scones and bagels but was hungry for pancakes. Franks, just off campus, fit the bill. A potential customer came in looking for bagels. The waitress said ‘we don’t have bagels, the place next door does.’ The customer said ‘but the place next door doesn’t have fried eggs.’ ‘Well they got bagels but no eggs, we got eggs but no bagels.’

It’s probably just because I’m an academic and obviously have a long, pleasant association with college campuses but I do like college campuses and this one is special in its own big, important, well-known University-with-a-long-history sort of way. Walking thru the archway onto the old campus quad is special. The old buildings recall a time when big public buildings said something about how the people who built them felt about what went on in them and not just the most utilitarian construction. The open spaces, the architecture, the activities all make for special places. When you’re walking thru the quad or sitting on a bench taking in all that positive energy, you don’t need to think of any professional rivalries that may be going on inside the buildings or the mountain of debt the students are accumulating.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Feel the day

In our meeting, we were discussing the details of an ongoing research project. I was thoroughly engaged in the discussion, not looking our the window daydreaming. So I was not really prepared for what awaited me outside. After my meeting, I stepped outside and immediately received the kiss of a perfect summer morning. Warm, not too hot. Not too humid. Not too windy. I felt the day. And it felt wonderful.

I also felt fortunate that my options in a place to live and work included a place that offers such nice days. Luck always has something do to with it. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

a special, although fictitious, place

This blog is about how place informs our lives. I had intended it to be actual places but this week, with the death of Andy Griffith, I thought about how fictitious places can inform our lives, too. Sense-of-place is an important component of good fiction. Novelists strive to put us in a special place and time, to put us right in the scene. Sit-coms maybe not so much. Except for the Andy Griffith Show. The show had more exterior shots than most sit-coms. We saw Main Street, Andy's neighborhood, the service station, the lake. The Mayberry attitudes were featured prominently as well. An episode I saw recently was the one about the guy 'from the city' just has to get his car fixed on a Sunday. By the end of the show, the guy 'from the city' had bought into the slow pace of Mayberry. As a kid, I always wondered how Andy put up with all the incompetence around him. I understood after I had a chance to live and work in a particular areas where one did the best with the people available instead of trying to thinking one had to have the best and the brightest.

Mayberry was a pretty accepting place. Not a lot of racial diversity, but there were the 'confirmed bachelors' whose private preferences were never discussed but seemed to be tolerated just fine.

Thanks to the writers, directors, producers and actors that took us to that fun place. Let's see. 50 years later and still in re-runs. I guess that makes it classic TV. For a modern and thus somewhat snarky but still good-hearted  sit-com in which the place is a main feature, check out Corner Gas.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

DIY Placemaking

Want your place to be a special place? You don’t have to wait until the professionals do their special placemaking work. Find a destination that’s 30 minutes or so walk or bike ride away along an enjoyable route. Get friends and/or family together and walk or ride to that spot and enjoy the activities to be had there. Do that a few times and voila, you’ve done some DIY placemaking. Your doing a fun activity with family and friend, enjoying the trip there and back outside of your car, seeing and commenting on things that you otherwise would not see and comment on.

That amazing insight came to me yesterday. A new ice cream shop recently opened up. It’s a convenient 30 min bike ride away. So yesterday I took the 30 min ride, enjoyed a nice ice cream cone on their picnic table and rode back, enjoying the trip and the treat (and it made for a good motivation for the ride). Now I can tell others about it and convince them to come along.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Spotted an ex-pat Yooper home for a visit

In town the other day, I was behind a pickup at a stop light. The pickup had a Nebraska license plate and one of those oval place abbreviation stickers. Instead of NEB, it said UP. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen a NEB oval sticker. Not because there are no beautiful places in Nebraska. There are many. Maybe because people from the middle of the country either want to have to explain that or don’t want to hear comments like ‘I spent a week in Nebraska one afternoon.” Pass-through tourism generates quite a bit of revenue for towns along the main routes, but destination tourisms is at best a niche market in the plains. Some people I knew in Kansas liked the idea that I-70 just squirted people through and we did not have to cater to tourist whims. And we gloated about the little secret we knew about great places to go.

The driver of that truck at the stop light was no Yooper wannabe. On the back window was another sticker declaring “Yoosta be a Yooper.” I think it was said wistfully not as something he was able to overcome.

I’m sure he has to explain to others back in Nebraska a.) why he’d have a sticker that says ‘up’ (some kind of new age positivism message?) and b.) what the heck is a yooper?

Friday, June 22, 2012

thanks, bridge toll taking guy!

If you travel on the Mighty Mac very much, you're sure to have paid your toll to the native american fellow who is always so friendly. I don't know his name but he makes the crossing even more fun than it already is. On a recent crossing, he said, as he generally does, 'how are you doing young man?' I said 'you've been calling me young man for more than 10 years, I'm not so young anymore,' and he replied 'sure you are.'

The automated toll booths are convenient. I admit that I usually use them. But when I either need a receipt to get paid back for a business trip or am pulling a trailer, which the automated lanes don't allow, it's nice to get the real thing...human contact with someone who knows that a friendly comment can make his job more enjoyable and make his customer's day brighter . So thanks, bridge toll taking guy. You bring the bridge down to a personal scale.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Real cities

The State of Michigan is on to something with the Pure Michigan campaign. I recently had the chance to hear a talk by one of the directors of the program. He stated that the campaign has achieved good brand recognition across the region and beyond. It’s had an excellent return on investment and even spawned numerous spoofs (search You Tube for Pure Michigan spoofs --  you’ll be quite amused). The State likes the spoofs, too. Bonus publicity! (And they are done my Michiganders and in a backhanded way complement what’s we Michiganders think is special about our state.)

The director mentioned that, while most tourists understand the ‘pure’ part as ‘unspoiled nature,’ some tourists are looking for authentic cities as well. He used the term ‘gritty’ and mentioned that the European tourists are especially looking for the gritty side of Detroit. I’m not sure about just how gritty they want it, but the idea did register with me on a later trip to Lansing. I was driving on W Saginaw, in an authentic part of town. It was actually nice to see a part of town that organically developed over time. Full disclosure: I was on my way to a strip mall to visit a local-but-still-big-box bookstore. (We don’t have big bookstores in our area, so a trip to a larger town always includes a visit to a big bookstore.) An authentic part of town with the hodgepodge architecture, small, local shops and eateries has a nice feel.

I recently had a meeting in Toronto. The meeting was right downtown so I had a chance to walk all around the downtown. Along with the steel and glass high rises, there’s block after block of low buildings hosting ethnic restaurants, upscale pubs and taverns, small specialty shops (vinyl record shops!), and lots of people enjoying it all. Seems just authentic enough without being over-run with shops of dubious specialties.  Not new and shiny but vibrant and real.  

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

From a recent trip to rural S-central Michigan

“There’s just something about these small towns,” exclaimed my traveling companion on a recent trip downstate to pick up our bee nuc. All I could muster by way of response was “Indeed.” Just not much more to add; the visual said it all. With the bees safely tucked into their new home, our hive box, we wandered the back roads and enjoyed the scene.

The landscape was rolling hills with an admixture of neat, thrifty small farms, woodlands, wetlands, and small towns. Apparently the climate, soils, topography and proximity to large population centers create just the right conditions for growing nice villages as well as growing a diversity of crops and animals. I’m not sure how many families live solely off their small farms. My guess is that most have a family member that works in town, but the conditions are right for a small farm to make enough of a contribution to the family finances to make it worth keeping the small family farm going. It’s a nice place to visit and you would want to live there.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Reason #57 to live here

Crossing the international bridge, watching an osprey hovering, talons extended, ready to dive into the rapids to catch a fish, but upon seeing the fishermen in the rapids reconsidering and moving on.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Not Me

One of the repeat gags in The Family Circus comic strip featured two characters “Not Me’ and “I Dunno.” In the gag, one of the parents, surveying some disaster or another, asked the kids“Who made this mess?” to which the kids answered “Not Me” and “I dunno” while the ghost-y creatures of that name snickered in the background.

This time of year includes city cleanup days, all of us pitching in to make our places better. Surveying the annual accumulation of litter being picked up leaves one thinking about the characters “Not Me” and “I dunno.”

It also leaves one wondering about the role of product stewardship. Someone bought the items and someone improperly discarded them. Clearly the responsibility for the litter is on the people who improperly discarded them. (I saw a pile of trash laying by a trash can on campus one morning and just as I was questioning how someone could be so irresponsible as to miss the trash can and not bother picking it up, I saw the real culprit re-appear – gulls. But we can’t blame gulls for very much of the litter strewn about our community.) Litters will litter. Although over the past several decades we’ve seen a real change in attitudes about littering (thanks in part to the 1970s PSA featuring a teary-eyed Native American character), there are still litterers.

In Michigan, the 10 cent deposit on bottles and cans of fizzy and alcohol drinks makes it worthwhile to keep those containers and worthwhile to pick them up when someone else drops them. The Michigan United Conservation Clubs got the bottle bill passed a few decades ago as an anti-littering measure and it’s worked. When I was living in Colorado, a similar measure was proposed but the retail outlets and beverage industry was able to prevent its passage. They contended that the culprits were the litters and so more anti-littering fines and enforcement was the answers (and besides, think of  the vermin that would be attracted to the food stores where all those returned bottles and cans would be sitting and the extra costs in that handling. Yet somehow in Michigan it seems to work just fine.)

There’s talk in Michigan of extending the bottle deposit law to non carbonated beverages (e.g., water bottles) and drink pouches. The beverage industry is resisting attempts to expand the law. They admit that drink pouches are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable but they point out the environmental benefit of thinner and lighter which means less use of fuel in transporation. (I'm not sure how that negates a benefit of a deposit.) They also point out that the present can/bottle return machines cannot handle pouches. (Um, the present machines did not exist until the bottle bills made them worth inventing.)

Whether bottle bills, bans on single-use plastic bags, deposits on products that end up in household hazardous waste or other ways to solve the problems some products can cause at the end of their useful life, the question is who is responsible. Should we all pay for deposits on beverage containers because some people don’t dispose of them properly? We are benefitting from the use of the products so maybe we all should pitch in to help shoulder some of the costs that go with it. Shouldn’t the companies that profit from the manufacture and sale of such products take on some of the responsibility for cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-cradle management of their products? The same goes for tires and electronic devices.  If everyone was responsible, we wouldn’t need to ask the question. Unfortunately, we do need to ask the question and "I dunno" and "not me" are not the right answers.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

sorry for the re-post

I don't intend to re-post articles but sometimes I run across one that is so informative and for which I could not really add anything. Here is one such article:

Saturday, May 12, 2012

retail dynamics

After 99 years, a local grocery store is closing its doors. Too bad. It's one we shopped at often.

We do still have another small, local, full-service grocery and a small local market best known for its meats. Guess we'll be going to those more now. At least we have those. I know of towns our size that have no local grocery stores, only the global-super-big-box. So far, our smaller stores are able to keep the niche they've carved out around our installation of the global-super-big-box.

The global-super-big-box moved into its new space a few years ago, leaving a large vacant building which they previously used. They continued to pay rent on it, the story is so that it would say empty and thus void of potential competitors at least for a while. Now it won't be empty. New tenants (including a national discount fashion chain) are moving into that space now. Not a fan of strip malls but once they're there, they should have tenants. As one of my students recently said "what's worse than a strip mall? An empty strip mall."

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A week of place

Last Wednesday was the first day of our local farmer’s market. It’s gotten to be an important place for the hundreds of people who come by. A hundred-some on a nice day in the summer anyway. This year’s opening day, like many days early in the season and even some later in the season, was not an ideal weather. The temps were in the 50s, which sounds pleasant enough, but the steady breeze made it feel much colder and the overcast skies meant no warming sunshine. Even with the weather, several customers stopped visited the dozen or so vendors who offered the variety of products that makes the market a unique place. It’s a place to renew acquaintances, talk politics and news of the town, share appreciation of the ingredients that make good meals. Thursday was the opening of what we hope becomes an important part of this place. Thanks to the efforts of the Building Healthier Communities Coalition and the rec trails group, we now have a “Downtown Lunch Loop,” an officially designated exercise route 0.9 miles around part of downtown, marked off in 0.1 mi increments. Here’s hoping people will take advantage of it and get up and moving for their health. A few trendsetters had been walking their own route in the morning and afternoon breaks, but I think that was to go get sugary drinks. The new ‘official’ route goes in the opposite direction. No temptations for sugary drinks along this path. Friday we went to a local fave restaurant/tavern for the fried whitefish. Always tastes great. Whitefish is another special aspect of this place and everyone has their favorite place to go our for fish dinner, ours is just down the road from where we live. Friday we got it as takeout and enjoyed our meal overlooking Whitefish Bay from the lighthouse. The freighter passing by added to the view. Sunday we worked pretty hard outside all day and it was all of the sudden it was dinner time. I suggested another local fave, our favorite burger shack. Didn’t take much convincing to end up there. Our town has two locally owned burger shacks, both on the river, one upstream from downtown, one downstream. As with the whitefish establishments, each place has its devotees. We happen to be partial to the upstream one. Many others are, too, as shown by the fact that on a nice weekend afternoon early in the season the wait can be up to an hour. (Both places are closed for the winter so there’s always a pent-up demand early in the season.) But no wait this time. We called our order in, took it to one of the downtown parks and enjoyed looking out over the river. The seaplane (a/k/a bush plane) landing on the river added to the view. Health note: Just so you know, we do eat healthy sometimes. Saturday dinner was a nice salad made with our lettuce. I like to think that with the physical work in the produce plots over the weekend, we burned at least a fraction of the calories from the fried fish and from the burger (OK I admit it and the onion rings). It’s all about moderation. And enjoying a nice meal in a nice place, not just mindlessly eating.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

honors place

A colleague and I taught an honors seminar this past semester called "Developing Your Sense of Place." My colleague is from the creative writing group in our English Dept. Most of the students were more on that arts and literature side of things, but three or so were science students. It was a great class and a great combination of interests. The students were highly motivated and quite engaged in the subject (they were, afterall, honors students). We instructors tried not to talk too much and instead tried to listen to the students. We instructors had fun and we think the students did, too. Projects throughout the year included interviewing placemakers here in our town, each student writing about their own special place, a review of a place-oriented book, ongoing discussions about importance of sense of place and placemaking, foods of places, and of course the use of place in art and literature, as well as several reflective essays. The wrap up project was a symposium in which members of the university community and town came to see the students' works, displayed as posters and video with the students discussing the topics one-on-one with the visitors, as in a conference poster session. We did not want powerpoint talks. The students were quite creative in their presentations, but none took up our suggestion of an interpretive dance. Probably just as well (although one non-traditional student did dance briefly with her husband to 'Moonlight Serenade.') The symposium was fabulous. And we had a pretty good turnout. Great work, students. We will be posting their work on the university website. I'll share the link when it's put together. The students were skeptical at the beginning of the term about this symposium business but they did a great job and now know that putting on a symposium can be an enjoyable experience. Who knows. Maybe in the not-too-distant future one will be putting on some kind of public outreach event in support of placemaking in their towns. Maybe it'll be a symposium or even a colloquium. In any case, I am encouraged that the students came in with a good sense of place and, according to their wrap up reflections, left with an even stronger sense of place.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

MI Place

The state of Michigan is banking on placemaking to help us diversity and modernize our economy. The state housing authority just launched this website: It has plenty of good info on successful places, links to other placemaking projects and helpful hints for communities to get going. The emphasis is on the built environment in larger towns/cities but a small town in NE lower Michigan is also highlighted. On miplace, I found a link to some really exciting things going on in Ft. Wayne IN including a music video by young rappers who want to stake their claim to the future of their town. I don't know Ft. Wayne other than we go past it on the way south and I'm not especially a fan of rap and I work more in small town/rural placemaking but even I was struck by the spirit of this video. Check it out, be inspired.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Learning Patience II

Another lesson in patience today. I set a record for time to ride in to school. The longest time to ride in to school. Here's the recipe for setting that record. Start with a not-so-common, stiff NE breeze (guess who lives SW of campus), Then pedal slowly since so you don't get your go-to-meeting clothes all sweaty, And be sure to take the mtn bike because a. its lighter than robo-bike and thus easier to toss in the back of the car when you get the ride home this evening b. you'll be in street clothes not in road bike clothes. And there you have it. A never-fail recipe for slow. Still it was an interesting 50 minutes. Toodling along into a stiff breeze on fat tires and in an upright position helps one develop patience.

On the balance beam

The health experts encourage all of us to find balance in our lives. Don’t work so many hours that you have no time for family, friends and for yourself. Find something you like to do other than work. Recharge your batteries. Have some down time. Don’t wait until your friend is facing a health crisis to find time to spend with him or her. And don’t neglect your spiritual side. A lack of balance could result in a nasty fall. The impression is that Americans work too much. Some people attribute it to materialism. Some think it’s due to a fear of losing your job if you’re seen as the kind of slacker who takes vacations. That may be true for some people, but it’s not just that. I know people who simply find it easier to work every day than to face the pile of work that will be waiting for them when they get back. From so much worry about productivity and cost-cutting, their employers have no cushion in the staff. If you’re not there to do the job, it doesn’t get done and there’s just that much more when you get back. I think there’s another reason. I don’t have the research in front of me to back it up. I was not able to find any citations in a quick search, but I’m sure somewhere in the social science journals, there’s evidence that work is our new community. I don’t mean it as a negative idea. Some people don’t live near family. Some people don’t have lots of friends outside of work. They are not all sad, lonely people. It’s that the job is in a career they worked hard to achieve and that they get real satisfaction from. They may have moved across the country for the career opportunity. It’s only natural that their career would then be their community. Still, there is that balance thing. Work, even work at a job that you like, that is very satisfying, that makes you positively giddy when you think about the fact that you get paid to do something so great, should still be just one dimension of the multi-dimensional creature that is you. If you can’t quite get away for several days at a time, at least get away to some place long enough to calm your mind and allow non-work thoughts to simmer upwards. Find your thoughtful spot. Find where you feel a sense of place. If you’re lucky, someone else has, either through their very cool career or through their avocation, help create or conserve such a place in your area. And if you need to make a business case for your downtime, if nothing else you rationalize it as an investment in time that make your more productive when you get back to work. No, on second thought, don’t do that. Find your thoughtful spot for your own health, not to enhance your productivity.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

do be do be do

Our town is small (about 15,000 people) and our area a bit remote. It’s not on the way to anywhere else in the US. The nearest larger town in the US is 90 miles southwest, and it has about 25,000 people. Otherwise, it’s 150 miles west to a town of 50,000 or 150 miles southwest to a town of 150,000 people. For people accustomed to the hustle, bustle of one of those ‘larger towns,’ there doesn’t seem to be a lot to do*. For students from a metro area, there really doesn’t seem to be much to do. In talking to some of our students recently, most of whom are not from this area, I asked what we could do here to enhance our sense of place. One reply was ‘have more activities.’ That’s a common comment from our students. They agreed that there is plenty to do in terms of outdoor recreation, for which our area is well known. ‘The outdoor thing is pretty well set,’ they explained, ‘we need some indoor things, too.’ I described to the students a conversation I had with a local mom a few years ago. Her kids enjoy BMX riding. She wondered whether we couldn’t have an indoor BMX area for kids so they could pursue that activity in the 8 months that are not conducive to that particular sport outdoors. I explained to the students that my unsaid reply to the mom was that what the kids actually needed were XC skis. The students agreed that it had been polite of me to keep that comment to myself. It would not have been a constructive response in that conversation. So I let the students convince me that cold weather activities are not for everyone and that some people, including some of them, have a need for indoor activities. Again, politeness prevented me from saying ‘well there really are things to do here, you just have to find them.’ That would have sounded too much like my mom asking me and my brothers if we were bored. That would send us off looking for things to do or else we’d be cleaning the garage. So instead of blaming the students for not finding things to do, I intentionally watched for events for the next several days. Let’s see, there was a local artist’s show opening at the art center, there was the weekly art film at the local public library, there was a play by a local theatre company, there was a talk at the public library by an author visiting the area, and a few other things. So there are activities. Either the students did not know of them or did not think to take advantage of them. The events are publicized. Still, the students would be correct if they said they did not know of them because publicity doesn’t hit home if people are not receptive to it. So it seems we need to help our students become more receptive to these events. I’m not suggesting that students lower their expectations about what ‘something to do’ means. I’m suggesting they expand their horizons. How many art openings have they been to before? How many author talks have they been to before? How many live theatre productions have they been to? Small towns present the opportunity to do that. No, you won’t be able to fade into the background at such events. You will be a new face. But everyone won’t go silent and turn to watch you enter the room. They will appreciate someone new. Instead of just telling the students to go to the art opening, we should say, ‘perhaps we will see you at the art opening.’ Knowing that they will know someone there could encourage them to go. To use the jargon, it also models the behaviour we want to encourage. My ultimate goal in all that isn’t just to provide some entertainment for the students. It’s to get them to realize that these events don’t happen by magic. A group of like-minded people come together and put them on for the benefit of the community. In the future, the students will be those that put such events on in their communities. I would like the students to go one better than that mom in the BMX conversation who had actually said ‘they should build an indoor BMX arena’ without specifying who ‘they’ would be. Our students could be the ‘they’ who see a need and work toward meeting that need. But in the mean time, it’s up to us old-timers to help them realize that there are events out there and they can go to them and eventually work towards becoming the people who make them happen. ------------- * There is a larger town right across the river, but as similar as it is, it is still another country – with different money, foreign fees on credit card purchases, a sometimes not so quick stop at customs both ways, items not permitted to bring across the border. Many of us routinely cross back and forth. Even so, when it comes to ‘things to do,’ we can’t entirely rely on what they have going on. We need some of our own.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Learning Patience on the Bridge

One way this place informs my life is the fact that we’re on the Canadian border. My academic pursuits take be across the border each week. I also enjoy hearing the news from an-outside-of-the-US perspective and learning about Canadian politics (well, mainly via the Rick Mercer Report). Canadian TV is handy that way. (It’s still the old grainy style of TV so one TV upstairs is the Canadian TV). Usually crossing the border is not a problem – every now and then there’s the random check -- but with summer coming on, the traffic across the bridge is increasing and thus the delays on the bridge are increasing. I had gotten spoiled by quick crossings this winter and forgot to leave extra time for getting back to the University this past Friday. It was about 45 minutes instead of the usual 5-10 minutes. Sitting on the bridge teaches one patience. There’s nothing to do but wait. Does no good to stew and steam. The view of the St. Marys River makes it more tolerable than traffic jams on an interstate. It’s always a great sight across the up and down the river from the bridge. Technology helps, too. I made an appointment I’d been procrastinating about, checked my phone messages, updated my list of things to do. And that’s without a smart phone. I always put the car in neutral at the top of the incline and coast. Don’t know why everyone doesn’t. Brakes and steering work with the car switched off. It saves gas and reduces pollution. Maybe it doesn’t occur to others. Maybe they just like the idea of their car running. Or maybe they have friends in the petroleum business and want to make sure their friends are getting enough sales. (Is that why people leave their cars running while they go into a store?). Every once in a while I see a bicyclist on the bridge. My respect for heights (not quite acrophobia, just acro-concern-ia) prevents me from being that environmentally conscious. Next time I will remember to leave more time. The only time I feel frustrated on the bridge is when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere. I won’t have so many appointments once school’s out in a few weeks, so that helps, too. Happy crossings everyone!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

change of seasons, almost

Our DQ is a real local favorite. It's not one of those big city, dine-in restaurants. OIt's a walk-up. You step up to the window, order your treat and enjoy it either sitting on the few benches right there or more typically taking it with you, say, down to one of our wonderful parks on the St. Marys River. Given our climate and the fact that there is no indoor space for customers, our DQ is closed in the winter. The re-opening of DQ is thus a harbinger of spring for us. It generally opens sometime right about the public school spring break. The opening was delayed a bit this year because they had to replace a freezer. But yesterday was the first full day open. And we had snow flurries. So, yes, people did stand in line to get a blizzard in the snow flurries. It's not at all unusual to see people arms crossed to stay warm while waiting in line at the DQ in April and even May.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

how much nature?

When it comes to natural areas, more can be better. But since conserved properties are often taken off the property tax rolls, sometimes there can be resistance to designating another property to conservation status. When one property comes off the tax rolls, others have to make up that difference. But the conservancy groups respond with a.) the conserved property does not require the services local property taxes pay for and b). the conserved properties increase economic activity, for example through increased tourism. The conservancy might not mention the increased property values due to the contribution to the area’s desirability for newcomers. That might sound too much like gentrification, but the area might indeed find itself better able to attract professional workers if there are those kinds of assets that young professionals seek in a place to live. That makes property taxes go up on newly purchased properties. I’d be interested to see how the data supports the claims and counter-claims. It’s probably out there, I just have not searched for it. Any of you readers have insight on that?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A unique take on place

A town just south of us has staked part of their claim to fame on their dark skies. St. Ignace, Michigan, already a popular tourist destination because it’s a gateway to Mackinac Island, is capitalizing on the dark skies initiative. With all the light pollution around the country, people would like to come to a place they can actually see the stars, planets, satellites, meteors, and northern lights. West of town in the Headlands, the city is developing a Dark Skies Park and looking for local businesses to kick in some of the required local match for state grants for the park improvements. The park has gotten national publicity and is expected to increase tourism which would benefit businesses. A unique twist on placemaking, capitalizing on existing natural assets and boosting the local economy.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Red Queen

In Through the Looking Glass, Alice found herself running alongside the Red Queen but despite their running, they were not making any progress through the landscape. The Queen told Alice that “around here, one must run as fast as one can simply to stay in the same place.” Biologist Leigh VanValen (1973) borrowed the idea to explain that organisms must keep evolving to keep up with those that are getting better at eating them, keeping from being eaten by them, infecting them, or appropriating resources that would otherwise be available to them. Organisms constantly evolve just to keep up with the other organisms they share the ecosystem with. I had occasion recently to ponder how the Red Queen hypothesis may apply to communities. Our communities must keep running just to keep up with the constant changes in demographics, global economics, technology, and other dynamics from regional to global levels. If we stop, we risk extinction. We shouldn’t lurch from trend to trend. Some towns – like one about 100 miles southwest of here -- have large, gaping holes in their downtowns after some developer with the latest idea of a downtown hi-rise development went bust. Maybe someone urged caution, maybe not. But we mustn’t be so cautious as to do nothing. Let’s be careful and practice due diligence, but change we must. Plenty of other towns sat by while the world changed out from under them and now find themselves going extinct. We need forward-thinking people to help a community keep its collective eyes on the future; we need cautious people to prevent the holes in the ground. Thank you forward-looking people, thank you cautious people. What we don’t need is people that think everything should stay just as it is. It won’t. We might stay the same, but the world changes and we will find ourselves at the mercy of outside forces. We need, as a community, to decide what is valuable that we want to keep as-is and what we can do to keep up with the world while preserving those features. Even the natural, historical, cultural features that we want to preserve need some stewardship and need our messages about them to be continually updated. We need to agree on a way of identifying preferred options and how we can try to achieve them. Examples are out there to draw from. Even here in Michigan. A few communities have laid out their plans and, not coincidentally, are now among the few communities in Michigan that grew in population from the 2000 to 2010 census. The Michigan Land Policy Institute is studying those examples and sharing their insights around the state. Our descendents won’t appreciate it if we let our special places drift off into over development. Nor will they appreciate it if we let them drift off into extinction because we didn’t keep running.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


One way this place informs my life is the weather. This week, we’re back to more seasonable temps with some light precip. So being the fair-weather bike commuter that I am, I am not on two wheels this week. Harsh, cold winds and rain? No thanks, I’ve been out in that weather on a bike and and it really wasn’t enjoyable at all. But the probability of what I consider cycling compatible weather should be on the rise right on through the fall so I do look forward to many days of round trip cycling fun – perhaps stretched out to a training ride from time to time. Just not this week. Some people seem to think that since they wouldn’t ride or walk to work everyday due to weather, they can’t do it any day. Seems to be too much trouble to decide that morning what mode of transportation to use. (One drawback to switching modes is that one can forget how one came in that day. At another place when I lived closer to school, I did walk home one day only to hear the family: “where’s the car.” Me: “Oops!”.) There are people out there for which it just doesn’t occur to them to do something different from what they’ve always done. For those in that category, a local group offers ‘Walk and Roll to Work and School.” This year it falls on Earth Day. How convenient! As I tell people, it’s not to be the only day you walk or roll to work and school, but it is an excuse for people to try it. Who knows. They might like it. So thanks Building Healthier Communities Coalition and Sault Trails Group for sponsoring this event.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Slowly, Insidiously

I recently had occasion to meet up with someone I had not seen for several years. I didn’t think he wanted to hear “wow, you sure are starting to look like your dad,” so I did not say that. And he was polite enough not to say ‘wow, you sure look a lot older than you did last time I saw you.” When you see someone everyday, you don’t notice them aging. Similarly, you may not notice small gradual changes in your place. Another small pocket of woodlands converted to a development. Another creek paved over, hidden from daylight. Another piece of farmland taken out of food production. Someone who had not been there for a while notices the changes, but those that live there every day might not. After the losses build up enough people ask “how much nature do we need?” Is it at all like the aging person asking “how healthy do I want to stay?”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rainy day

“Loves long walks in the rain along the water.” No, that was not my profile for an on-line dating service. I like walks along the water rain or shine. This morning I dropped the car off for a small maintenance job and walked to school along the water. First I walked along the river, then I switched to walking along the canal. This afternoon I get to repeat the trip. I’m looking forward to it. This morning’s walk was nice, as walks always are. The pace of walking lends itself to a different kind of thinking than cycling does and walks in town lead to different thinking than walks in natural areas. Town walks seem to lead me more to getting tasks mentally arranged and helping develop better ways to handle the upcoming steps that need to be handled for ongoing projects. The rain was just a minor drizzle so the Frog Togs may not have been completely necessary. Still it was nice to arrive completely dry. Rain suits are fun that way, makes me feel like I’m in a protective cocoon. Waders are even more fun that way since one feels completely invulnerable to water, or at least to a particular depth with surety of footing and not too much current (hmm…what happened to invulnerability?) Walking this morning, I recalled a particular day as a kid playing in the pools of water standing in our neighbors back yards. The back yards were not cross fenced and it was OK with the neighbors to play in what was virtually a large commons. The water drained into one persons yard. Of course as kids we didn’t worry about that standing water leading to water in the basement. We were kids, not middle aged homeowners. I also recalled a day in college where several of us went out and literally frolicked in a warm afternoon rain shower, even body sliding through standing water. It was the 70s but yes, we did have all of our clothes on. I get a special feeling while looking out over a river or lake on a rainy day, seeing the top of the lake or river -- the surface water -- and the water in the atmosphere. Looking across a great lake when one cannot tell on the horizon where the water in the air stops and the water in the lake begins makes for an even more special feeling. Rainy days, gotta love ‘em even if March should still be XC Ski season.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Healthy Places

My academic/professional interests are wide ranging. They include epidemiology/public health as well as environmental conservation. It doesn’t sound that wide ranging, but it does cross several academic disciplines. That says more about how artificially our academic disciplines are set up than how expansive my outlook is. In Epidemiology class today, we’re talking about how city planners/designers and public health professionals work together in making sure places are designed to encourage healthy living. We’ll be talking about how viewscapes enhance mental health, how public spaces and neighborhood layout can enhance development of social capital, how walkability enhances physical activity and thus promotes cardiovascular health and healthy weight, how neighborhoods can even promote access to healthy foods. One of the references I’ll point the students to is “Making Healthy Places: Designing and Building for Health, Well-being, and Sustainability,” Dannenberg, Frumkin and Jackson (eds) Island Press (2011). Across the two disciplines, city planning folks are talking about how they can act as public health officials, the public health folks are talking about they can act as city planning officials. For example, last fall’s American Public Health Association Annual Meeting was titled “Healthy Communities Promote Healthy Minds and Bodies” and featured scores of sessions tying community design – urban and rural – to health. Placemaker sites generally have some description of how better planning around public spaces will enhance the health of the residents of those neighborhoods. Researchers are working on quantifying that link and are able to show that the new walking path has led to more physical activity in that community or better access to more diverse restaurants led to better food choices. A tool to guide that kind of thinking is a Health Impact Assessment (HIA). Based on the concept of an Environmental Impact Statement, the HIA shows how a development plan might affect public health. The HIA process can provide stakeholders with a chance to voice their concerns and make recommendations about how the plan or project could be modified to improve health and, according to the CDC’s fact sheet about Health Impact Assessment, “brings public health issues to the attention of persons who make decisions about areas that fall outside of traditional public health arenas, such as transportation and land use.” The HIA process is in use in the UK. Canada is starting to use it and a few counties in the US are using it. Placemaking and public health. Huh.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

local connections

After that most recent post, I'd better lighten the mood! Last week I had a business meeting with someone I had not yet met from our town. Before our meeting could get going, I felt compelled to find that local connection that's always there in a small town. It took a few minutes but we were able to establish that his sister was HS friends with my daughters. OK now that that's settled we can go on with the business. It really didn't occur to me that people feel such a strong need to do that until I overheard a colleague that was talking to a local person she just met and they took a few minutes to establish that her neighbor was his cousin's ex girl friend. Whew. Glad we go that straightened out! The local connection can have more immediate, practical value, too. Years ago, when the only credit cards I had were CONOCO and AMOCO (OK that was several decades ago), I found myself low on gas in a rural area without those brands. I was in a neighboring county so I had to ask whether the proprietor would take a check from the town in which I lived. He saw the last name, presumed I was actually from that town, and asked 'who's your dad?' I told him my dad's name and he said 'sure, I know him, you're check's good.' I did not correct him to say that my dad lived clear across state and he probably was thinking of someone else by that name. So incorrect local connections can work, too. Fortunately in that case, it was a positive connection. I'd have been out of luck if he would have responded "That #@!%? Get out of here!"