Thursday, December 31, 2009

Losing His Stripes

Tiger teeing off at the 2004 Ryder Cup, long before his problems. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Tiger Woods turned 34 yesterday. My guess is it wasn’t all that happy a birthday. I suppose I shouldn’t really care what happens to Tiger. He made his bed, now he has to sleep in it (or the couch, or maybe the garage). But for some reason I can’t seem to stop thinking about Tiger since his “transgressions” came to light a month ago.

Maybe I’m so intrigued by his situation because I’m a golfer myself. Or maybe it’s my love of history (and let’s face it, Tiger Woods is a historical figure in our culture, like it or not). But for me, my fascination with Woods started kicking into high gear in October of 1999.

At the time Woods had just won his second major and helped the United States Ryder Cup team win back the cup from Europe. All the signs were there for super-stardom. It seemed like nothing could stop him in his quest to shatter every record in the books. And in 2000, he did nothing to derail those plans, embarking on the single greatest year any professional golfer has ever had by winning three more majors and dominating professional golf like no one thought possible.

But on October 25th, 1999, the golf world cared little about Tiger Woods or his enormous potential. Instead, our attention was tuned into 2-time U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart and his private jet, which was silently streaking several thousand miles off course before running out of fuel and death-spiraling into a South Dakota farm. It was then and there that I had the sickening premonition that “something really bad is going to happen to Tiger Woods.”

Since that fateful day, I’ve had the opportunity to photograph Tiger Woods in action several times. I even prompted my daughters to shout out to him during a practice round at the Buick Open a few years ago.

“He won’t acknowledge me because I’m a grown up.” I told them. “But he might say hi to you.”

Sure enough, as Woods walked by us on the first fairway, my girls shouted out, “Hi Tiger!” and to his credit, he stopped in his tracks, turned toward them, and then smiled and waved. They nearly peed their pants.

To see Tiger in action is truly spectacular. He has an aura, a focus, which is unrivaled. He does things on a golf course that defy logic and reason (and sometimes physics). It’s rare when he doesn’t pull off the seemingly impossible.

But despite my intrigue and respect for his talent, I’ve never been a big fan of Woods. I always found his behavior to be boorish. His club-throwing, spitting and incessant use of obscenities seemed immature to me, and he treated photographers with absolute disdain, often dispatching his thug/caddie Steve Williams to rough up a lensman or two if they, God forbid, snapped off a picture of Woods at the wrong time.

Even though I'm not Tiger's biggest fan, I always kind of felt sorry for him. Where most golfers I know would have loved to have been Tiger Woods, I never in million years would have traded places with him - even before he was found to be a fraud.

Tiger never seemed happy to me. And when somebody supposedly has everything – immense talent, fame, fortune, a beautiful wife and two beautiful kids – and then throw it all away, were they ever really happy?

Tiger was our (golfer’s) Santa Claus. He wore the same color red, he always came through in the clutch, and he did things that seemed impossible. The only difference is, unlike Santa, who we put our faith in cookie crumbs and an empty glass of milk as proof of existence, we actually saw Tiger perform his magic.

Now we feel like we’ve all been had. We don’t know what to believe. It’s like we’re all third graders again, the ones who stood up for Santa when our classmates laughed at us and told he wasn’t real. But he was real - he had to be real. Right?

Imagine our disappointment when we found out our classmates weren’t lying.

So something terrible did happen to Tiger Woods. It turns out he wasn’t real after all. At least not the way we hoped or thought.

And that is sad.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Decadence - 10-years of stealing moments

The forever changed skyline of New York City after 9-11. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Every year at this time, we look back and reflect on the events of the past 12-months. We pay tribute to the great accomplishments and mourn those who have left us. But this year is a little different. This year we’re also looking back on the past 10-years – the end of our first decade in the new millennium.

As a photojournalist, I’ve had the privilege of documenting the entire decade right here in Ann Arbor. From the panic of Y2K, to elated students celebrating Barack Obama’s victory in the last presidential election, I was there with camera in hand.

Through blizzards, heat waves, floods and droughts – I was there. When the world changed forever on a sunny Tuesday morning, September 11th, 2001, I was there to photograph the local reaction. I never went to Iraq or Afghanistan, but I covered the homecomings of many who did – some alive, some in caskets.

I was stranded in traffic in the middle of Ypsilanti when our world, once again, was thrown into chaos with a major blackout on a hot August afternoon in 2003. Making sure my family was safe was priority number one, but priority number two was documenting the event.

When the economy went sour, I covered local businesses as they began falling like dominoes. I took pictures of homeowners in the midst of foreclosure when the housing crisis spiraled out of control, and I cursed like a sailor right along with you while pumping four-dollar-a-gallon gas into our cars.

I felt the pain of watching the local automotive industry nosedive into bankruptcy from a front row seat with a Nikon stuck to my eye. From “Buy American” to “Bye-Bye America” it was hard to watch – like our state had terminal cancer or something.

As the landscape of the University of Michigan sports turned, I was on hand to photograph old coaches leaving, new coaches arriving, and all the drama in between. When Super Bowl XL landed in Detroit, I landed right there with it. When the Wolverines went to the Rose Bowl, I went as well. But high school athletes made up most of my diet of sports coverage - many celebrating “the thrill of victory” but even more reeling in “the agony of defeat.”

For me, as a photojournalist, the world never stands still, but at the same time it remains exactly the same. The 18-year-old kid I photographed playing high school football in the year 2000 has now graduated from college, gotten married, maybe had a kid already and probably moved out of state to start his career. But that same 18-year-old kid strapped on the pads this past fall in 2009, he just had a different name on the back of his jersey. It’s strange how every year I get one year older, but the high school kids and the college students remain the same.

The joys and pains of a 10-year stretch are hard to define, but this past decade had plenty of both for me. Mortality became something I never took for granted when I nearly died from a liver abscess in 2002, then lost my best friend to cancer three years later. I went from a guy in his mid 30’s at the beginning of the decade, to a middle-aged dude with three adolescents by the end. But through it all, I had my camera by my side to document the journey. It’s been the one constant in my life for the past quarter century.

This past year, that nearly came to an end when the 174-year-old Ann Arbor News went out of business in July. I thought it was over for me at that point. My career as a photojournalist was done. The thing that always happens to the "other guy" had finally happened to me. But I’ve been blessed, because today I continue to do what I love to do for a living, this time for

Who knows if I’ll be around at the end of the next decade? It’s a funny thing to look that far in advance. But if I am, I’m pretty sure I’ll be there with a camera in hand covering everything from the “end of global warming” to “Michigan’s amazing resurgence.”

Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Oh ... Christmas Tree!

Finding the perfect tree isn't as easy as it looks. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

It’s inevitable, that into every family man’s life, a little Clark Griswold must fall. For me, that time was this past weekend when I loaded my three kids into our minivan (she’s no Wagon Queen Family Truckster, but she’s close) and headed out into the country to bring home the Horwedel family Christmas tree.

Unfortunately, the day we set out to glean our tree, it was only slightly warmer than the Arctic Circle. But that had little chance of slowing my quest. My kids didn’t bother putting up a fight either; they knew that when I set my mind to something, not much could be done to thwart my progress, no matter how painful the outcome. Besides, it now was the middle of December; a good two weeks after we’d normally have our tree up and decorated in the middle of the family room. This couldn’t wait any longer.

But it's not like I'm some monster. I knew searching for a tree in those conditions would be brutal, so to help stall the onset of frostbite, I made sure to crank up the heat full blast on the drive there so we all were good and toasty upon arrival. This seemed to work fairly well when we opened the doors of our Ford-Easy-Bake-Oven and rolled out onto the tree lot like four piping-hot, Pillsbury muffins.

Before cooling off, we set our sights on the barn at the tree farm where we could pick up a wagon and a saw before heading out into the great unknown. I grabbed the wagon, but I made the mistake of giving the tree saw to my 9-year-old son Eamon.

Warning, do not let 9-year-old boys anywhere near here! (photo by Lon Horwedel)

The cool, steel blade shone brightly in the sun, revealing a mad glint in my son's eye I’d never seen. Before I had time to rethink my poor decision, he'd rushed ahead of us like a drunken lumberjack set loose in the forest.

I yelled for him to slow down, but it was useless. He too, was on a mission.

“Dad, you aren’t going to let him cut down a tree are you?” My oldest daughter Olivia asked.

“No, don’t be foolish, of course not!” I replied, secretly hoping he wouldn’t get too far out of sight. 

“Besides, I don’t think he’s strong enough to actually cut one down,” I said, “and even if he was, he’s too lazy to finish the job.”

My daughter relaxed when she realized I was right. Still, there was my son, 50-yards ahead of us, trying to prove me wrong.

“What are you doing? Get away from that tree, you moron!” I yelled at the pint-sized Paul Bunyan who’d already set the saw blade in motion at the base of a tiny spruce.

Soon, his sisters were screaming at him too.

“Eamon, you idiot, give dad the saw!”

Unfortunately, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree and my son was just as eager to fulfill his quest to fell a pine tree, as I was to find the perfect tree to fell.

“Just relax Eamon, you can cut down the tree once we find a good one.” I promised.

In all the excitement of my son nearly leaving us with a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, we sort of forgot about the sub-zero temperatures. But now, the warm glow from our minivan oven was fading fast, and with each successive blast of arctic air across our faces, we knew we’d better find a tree sooner rather than later.

This proved to be a much more difficult task than I imagined.

“How ‘bout this one?” Eamon asked every 15-seconds, or the next available tree, whichever came first.

But every tree he wanted to topple with his wicked blade was greeted with a stream of negative replies from his dad and two sisters.

“Too scrawny.” I’d say.

“Too short.” They’d say.

“Too tall.” We’d all say.

It seemed the harder we looked, the harder it was to see. Our eyes were watering badly in the cold wind now, making everything seem like a mirage.

Inevitably, one of my kids would squeal, “There it is! The perfect tree!”

And from 50-yards away, it would look perfect. But once we were actually on top of it, it wouldn’t be perfect at all … except to my son.

“Looks good to me dad.” He’d say, champing at the bit to cut down something … anything! “Can I start cutting?”

Eamon cutting anything and everything in his path, including stumps! (photo by Ella Horwedel)

For 30-minutes this went on and now my son was beginning to lose what little patience he had left. Not to mention my 11-year-old daughter Ella was losing all feeling in her feet.

“Dad, can’t we just pick one?” She moaned.

“Ella, I’m not just gonna settle for some crappy, scrawny tree like we had last year.” I said. “I want to get a big, full one so we can hang all of our ornaments.”

“But dad, I can’t feel my toes.” She cried.

“They're in your boot somewhere,” I said, “we’ll dump them out and reattach them when we get back to the barn.”

“Dad, can’t we just bag it?” Olivia begged. “It’s getting dark.”

“Fine!" I snorted. "Man, you guys are wimps. I guess we’ll just head in like a bunch of wusses and pick up a tree off the lot.”

My son’s heart sank.

“You mean I don’t get to cut down a tree?” He asked sadly, dropping the saw to the ground.

“I’m afraid not,” I answered sadly, “but I’ll tell you what, I’ll buy you guys some hot chocolate when we get back, okay?”

“Great” Ella said sarcastically, “I'll pour it on my feet!”

Ten minutes later we were back at the barn watching other happy families loading their perfect Christmas trees atop their minivans and SUV’s. It was a maddening sight - one that left us completely deflated. But then an amazing thing happened.

“Hey dad, check this one out.” My son said excitedly from a short distance away.

And there, on the tree lot by the barn, sat the most beautiful, full-needled, 8-foot tall Fraser fir I’d ever set my watering eyes on. Only this time my tears were real.

“Oh Eamon, she’s a beaut!” I beamed proudly.

“You mean to tell me we spent an entire hour freezing our butts off when the whole time the perfect tree was sitting 50-feet from our van?”  Ella said angrily.

“Well … yeah,” I said, “but just think of the experience.”

“Yeah, great,” she said; rubbing her frozen toes, “next year let’s just skip the experience and go straight to the lot.”

Eamon, Ella, and Olivia warm up with some hot chocolate. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

We bought the tree and headed inside the barn for some from some flesh-searing hot chocolate before loading up our prized conifer. Unfortunately, our minivan doesn’t have a luggage rack, so on the way home I let Ella sit in front seat with her feet by the heater trying to salvage her frostbitten phalanges, while my other two kids sat squashed under the weight of the world’s largest air freshener.

“Dad?” My son asked from somewhere beneath a branch in the backseat, “Do you think this will fit in our house.”

“Sure.” I answered. “Why?”

“It seems kind of big dad,” my daughter Olivia chimed in, “what if we can’t get the star on top.”

“We'll draw it on the ceiling.” I deadpanned.

The kids looked at each other, and then started to laugh at the thought. Seconds later, I joined them. It was pretty funny, and for the first time this winter, I felt the true Christmas spirit starting to work its way into my being … either that, or it was just one of the tree branches poking me in the back of the head!

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Adios Tio's

A backhoe picks at the pile of rubble that once was Tio's Mexican Cafe on Huron Street in downtown Ann Arbor. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Tio’s Mexican Cafe is alive and well on Liberty Street in downtown Ann Arbor. The same can’t be said for its original location just two blocks away.

It got leveled last week after sitting vacant for several months when the city wouldn’t renew the building lease. Now all that’s left is a flat spot.

Sad really, and I don’t even know why. It was, after all, just a building – and to be fair, not much of one - but to me it was more than that.

The original Tio’s was my gazing point for nearly 12-years. The place I’d get lost in a daydream, as I’d stare out of the third floor window from the Ann Arbor News’ photo department.

The squat, little, one-story rectangular building may have been small, but it was full of attitude and flavor - lots of flavor, and not just the food. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the food, but my wife didn’t (she liked the food, just not me after I ate it, if you catch my drift). It was always a battle from me - the lure of a wet burrito versus not being allowed in the same zip code with my wife for three days.

Tio’s had a vibe. It was the perfect non-coffee-shop-place to hang out. To hell with laptops and Wi-Fi, Tio’s gave you a real sensory experience, both aromatically and visually. The intoxicating smells of fresh Mexican food outdone only by an inside wall covered with the coolest assortment of “R” rated hot sauces usually named after a flaming-hot part of the lower-rear side of your anatomy (“Screaming Sphincter” was my personal favorite).

If that wasn’t cool (or hot) enough, the outside wall of Tio’s was adorned with the absolute best mural in Ann Arbor - a gigantic, underwater world that completely engulfed you. Because The Ann Arbor News parking lot was located behind Tio’s, I had the privilege of walking past that mural everyday I went to work, and everyday it seemed I’d see something new. It was the rare, extremely large painting that looked just as good from up close, as it did from a distance.

Now it’s gone.

Oddly enough, the day Tio’s was being torn down, I drove right past it and didn’t even notice. It wasn’t until I ran into Tio’s owner, Tim Seaver, 5-minutes later walking down Washington Street that I found out its fate.

"Well, she’s gone.” Tim said, a tinge of sadness in his voice.

When I found out what he was talking about, we both just stared silently at the sidewalk. As many memories as I have for the old Tio’s, I could only imagine the treasure trove of feelings Tim must have had for the old building.

We chatted a while about his new location, which, according to Tim, is doing quite well, but the main gist of our conversation kept drifting back to the old location.

“It’s amazing how quickly she deteriorated after you guys moved.” I said.

“Well, there was no life there after we left.” Tim replied. “A building needs life.”

As we spoke, you could hear the backhoe tearing into the pile of rubble that once was Tio’s, just a block away. If we were 50-yards further east on Washington Street, we could have seen it as well, but I don’t think either one of us really wanted to look.

All that's left of Tio's underwater mural. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

“Man, the mural, I can’t believe it’s gone.” I lamented.

The mural had faded badly over the years - nowhere near the bright, brilliant piece it once was, which made it all the sadder knowing it now was strewn all over the ground like a jigsaw-puzzle, cement block, by cement block, not far from where we were talking.

Tim looked wistful, but smiled. “That was something, wasn’t it? People would come from all over to look at that mural. I even had couples take their wedding pictures in front of it.”

We spent a few more minutes reminiscing, and then we parted ways. Tim headed west on Washington Street, walking slowly away with his head down in thought, but I decided to head a block north and take one last look at the backhoe ripping away at our memories.

Nothing lasts forever.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Silence is golden

Pete Eckman uses sign language to communicate with his team on the field. (photos by Lon Horwedel)

Coach Pete Eckman walked up and down the aisle of his football team’s school bus. The bus was dead quiet – and why not, his team had just been shellacked in a 30-point beat down to the Eastern Washtenaw Mulitcultural Academy. It was their seventh and final loss in a winless season, but strangely, as coach Eckman walked through the bus, he couldn’t help but notice that every kid on the team had a huge smile on his face – in fact, they were downright giddy.

Despite being blown out – despite not winning a single game, the kids on coach Eckman’s team were ecstatic. They’d expected to be shutout by the undefeated EWMA team, but somehow they’d put 20 points on the board. That was victory enough for Eckman’s team in their first official season as an actual football team.

The team members exchanged high fives and bounced around in their seats without making a sound. It was a strange scene for Eckman. Not the silence; he was used to silence. After all, this was Eckman’s 12th week coaching football at the Michigan School for the Deaf in Flushing, and none of the kids on the team, nor his two assistant coaches, could hear or speak. It was the player’s happiness that caught Eckman off guard.

“They handled it (losing) so well.” Eckman said. “Better than I would have ever thought. I’ve never had a team, win or lose, who was just happy to play the game – to have the opportunity.”

Despite being blown out, MSD'a Tim Jenks was beaming as he came to the sidelines after a Tartars score.

Eckman, who resides in Fowlerville, knew it would be rough season for the MSD Tartars when he agreed to be their head coach just five weeks before the season began. The school hadn’t put a team on the field in 25-years, and if not for the fact Eckman’s daughter Kassie, 12, recently went deaf and enrolled in the school, they’d still be without a team.

Eckman was already coaching at the time, but when MSD’s Athletic Director Nikki Coleman approached him about possibly starting a team, he took the leap.

“They took a survey of the student body,” Eckman said, “and they unanimously voted to play football.”

Amazingly, every boy at the small school – all 18 of them – signed up to play.

Getting kids to sign up to play was the easy part. The actual task of putting a competitive team on the field with only five weeks to prepare for the season would prove to be more daunting for Eckman. Even more so, considering the players deafness.

“I didn’t have a clue when I went into this.” Eckman admitted.

Despite the fact his own daughter was deaf, Eckamn was far from fluent in sign language when the season began. To combat this communication problem, he enrolled in ASL (American Sign Language) courses every Friday, and enlisted the help of school instructors Tracie Inches and Jeff Courtney, who became his assistant coaches.

“I made a deal with Tracie,” Eckman said, “he could help teach me ASL, and I’d help him learn to coach.” As for Courtney, “He reads lips,” Eckman said, “so we communicate very well.”

Defensive coordinator Jeff Courtney, and interpreter Tracie Inches, left, helped Eckman, right, immensely in the Tartar's inaugural season.

Communication was the least of Eckman’s problems. His roster was filled with kids who’d never played organized football before in their lives. “Maybe some backyard stuff,” Eckman said, “but none of them knew the rules.”

Eckman also realized fairly quickly that his team would have to make some adjustments to play the game due to their lack of hearing.

“We have different logisitics - I’m not going to call it a problem, that a hearing team doesn’t have.” Eckman said. “For example, we always start from a two-point stance so the players can see the ball being snapped - we rely a lot on peripheral vision.”

The Tartars, who play 8-man ball on a slightly smaller field, had a seven-game schedule consisting of other small schools from around the state, as well as two deaf teams from out of state. Despite the fact they went winless, Eckman was encouraged with his team’s progress, and the communication hurdles he thought would be stumbling blocks, turned out to be nothing but small speed bumps along the way.

“Before the season, I would have said football is the hardest sport to play without being able to hear.” Eckman said. “But then I realized I’ve always used a lot of non-verbal communication to send in plays, so it really wasn’t that tough.”

The Tartars take the field for the last time as the harvest moon silently rises over them in the background.

What impressed Eckman more was the happiness his team displayed, even in defeat. “I learned a lot from these kids,” Eckman said. “It’s great for me as a coach, because with these boys, I don’t have to deal with attitude.”

But as the bus full of his happy players pulled out of the parking lot and headed silently back to Flushing, there was plenty of attitude – all positive.