Sunday, April 25, 2010


Only a child could enjoy picking up trash this much. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I’ve been having a lot of revelations lately as I continue to steam through middle age. Most, unfortunately, are a bit depressing. Like the one I had last fall when it suddenly dawned on me that the poor trees in Michigan spend more months naked and bare, than they do fully clad in leaves. But some are a little lighter. Like the one that hit me last week while driving home from baseball practice with my 10-year-old son and his three buddies, as they joyously held a farting contest in the backseat of my car.

With every successive blast came a roar of laughter from the boys, who also discovered that their protective cups doubled nicely as bongo drums. Really, what could be funnier than a group of 10-year old boys testing the limits of flatulence as they pounded out a nice beat on their plastic-covered groins?

As I rolled down my window to give us all a little breathing room, I had another revelation: "This is the best time of my son’s life and he doesn’t even know it!" 

In hindsight, this revelation didn’t just “hit me” the moment I began gasping for fresh air, this one actually had been brewing all day.

It started that morning when I was taking pictures of elementary kids cleaning up their school grounds as part of Earth Day. It was there where I realized that only a kid could possibly enjoy picking up trash this much. Not only enjoy it, but practically revel in it. With all the dancing, and frolicking about with trash bags, it looked more like the set of “The Sound of Music, than a schoolyard.

“When does this end?” I thought to myself. “When do kids stop having fun picking up trash? When do boys stop using their protective cups as a drum kit? When are farts no longer funny?” (Okay, maybe never on that last one).

Like every other parent in this world, I’m learning as I go. Sure, there are a lot of manuals on the subject. I read plenty of them when my wife was pregnant with our first child. But once you actually have a kid, who has time to read?

Fairly quickly, I realized an infant’s life, and parenting, could be divided into a series of stages. Some last but a few weeks, some a lot longer. Some have very definite beginnings and endings (the actual birth, for example) some are more gradual (teething, potty training, etc.) As my kids got older, the stages changed, getting longer, but no less important - goodbye diapers, hello puberty!

When I was a new parent, I couldn’t wait for my kids to move on to their next stage. But now, as a middle-aged parent, things are different. Now, I want to hold on to things a bit longer. Now, I no longer think of them as stages. To me they’ve become windows. Windows, that I know, will shut soon enough.

Luckily, my wife and I had our three kids fairly close together. Back then, with two kids in diapers at all times, it seemed like a curse, but now it seems to have paid off, because I’m able to relate to all three of them at the same level as they plow though life … as I plow through life.

But this window of time I’m in right now is the best. This is the window I really want to keep open. The one I envisioned when I became a parent. The time where my kids, for the most part, still really like me … and I still really like them. I know this is cyclical. I know they’ll hate me soon enough as they begin dating … and driving … and doing all those other things that make a parent have to step up and put their foot down - but not now.

Now, I’ll enjoy all the ball games and the trips to the zoo. I’ll relish every family vacation, knowing full well that this is most likely as good as it’s going to get. At the moment, we’re a very busy, but harmonious unit. I wish this time could last forever, but I know it won’t. 

I’ll gladly settle for a few more years before this window closes for good. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to keep that window open so I can enjoy the fresh air as much as I enjoy the laughter coming from the backseat of my car.




Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sign Language

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign - blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind. Do this, don't do that. Can't you read the sign? (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

When I moved to Ann Arbor 15-years ago, it was quite a shock for me, a small-town boy from the fruit farms of northern Ohio.

Where I’m from, the only thing remotely resembling diversity went something like this: “Do you grow apples, or peaches?" Differences of opinion, if there were any, were discussed at the local coffee shop. For the most part, life was harmonious and we all got along. Certainly no one asked, or cared, whom you voted for in the last election, or where you stood on the major issues. We focused our talk, instead, on fertilizers and insecticides.

That all changed when I rolled into Ann Arbor, the “capital of diversity” a decade and a half ago. It wasn’t like I was that na├»ve. I mean I didn’t ramble into town in an old Ford pickup wearing overalls and smoking a corncob pipe. Heck, I’d even been to college! But nothing in this world quite prepared me for the Ann Arbor experience – which, I might point out, is different for everybody.

For example, I don’t drink coffee - never have, never will – so imagine how much of the A2 experience I’m missing out on there? Also, I really hate soccer – strike two! And, believe it or not, I don’t have one single bumper sticker on my car, and I’ve never actively participated in a protest.

Steeerrrike threeee!!! Yer out!

How could this be, you ask? How in the world could a non-coffee drinking, soccer-hating, bumper-stickerless, 44-year-old man live in this town?

Well, I am a curious sort, and I do like to read - not that you’ll find me hanging out at one of the roughly 1,500 bookstores in Ann Arbor. No, I’m more a connoisseur of the short read, and thanks to all those bumper stickers and protest signs that propagate so freely in this town, it seems I’m never at a loss for good reading material.

If I can’t satiate my quest for word play at my local intersection, all I have to do is head for the Federal Building, Kerrytown, or the “granddaddy of them all” – The University of Michigan Diag – where I’m sure to be bombarded by a library’s worth of unique phrases and catchy political slogans via the protest sign.

That’s the cool thing about Ann Arbor. On any given day, at any given place and any given time, you’re likely to encounter some sort of protest. And the one thing a protest has over bumper stickers is originality. That’s not to say that bumper stickers aren’t original or quirky, they’re just not all that unique since they’re mass-produced. Protest signs, on the other hand, are generally made one at a time – sometimes right on the spot!

And with every passing year, the signs seem to get more and more creative – and bigger! Often times a simple little sign may blossom into a gigantic banner, a peace dove, or even a float! But last week’s TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party protest on the Diag, definitely took the cake when it came to both the number of signs, and the diversity of the signage.

The ultimate sign? (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Of course, as with every protest, all the usual suspects were there, and by that I mean the true signs of the times. Right away you know who the President is - who likes him, and who doesn’t. This protest was no different in that regard, but it was different in that the sheer number of the signs, and their varying degrees of cleverness, seemed to take away from the actual message.

For every “Give Me Liberty, Not Debt” sign floating about, there was a “I love Puppies!” (and who doesn’t, really?) For every perfectly cut, and printed, “We will REMEMBER, in NOVEMBER” there was a sloppy, handwritten “Bring Back Led Zeppelin.”

It was hard to estimate the crowd size, because most were holding at least two, sometimes three signs. And gazing out over The Diag, it was hard to actually see the people hidden behind the giant wall of Magic Markered poster boards.

It got to the point where folks were making them up on the spot. One UM student even brought an entire package of blank poster board and a black Sharpie with him, stood behind the main speakers on the library steps, and tried his best to became a performance art piece as he cranked out these beauties, “For? Against? I don’t know – I just like to protest stuff” “I was promised a free hat” and “Waffles are delicious!”

Even the president of the college Republicans, who was standing next to me at the time, had to agree, “Well,” he said, “I have to admit, waffles are delicious.”

By the time we got to Woodstock! (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Somewhere along the line, the protest turned into a party for those who only came for… well, I’m not sure why they came – maybe it was the nice weather. Three Woodstock wannabe girls punctuated that point by dancing barefoot through the crowd to The Who’s “We Don’t Get Fooled Again” (hardly the group, or the song I would associate with Republicans) that was blasting over the PA. And when tempers did flare between opposing sides, one student simply penned a sign that said, “Be Nicer!”

What a concept! (photo by Lon Horwedel)

In my 15-years as a small-town boy covering protests in Ann Arbor, it was by far the oddest I’d seen to date. But in the end there was one thing I knew for sure: no matter what side of the issue, if any, the protestors chose, each and every protest sign there that day was 100% recyclable!

This is Ann Arbor, after all.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Polar Opposites

People and polar bears at the Detroit Zoo - and only a sheet of glass between them! (photo by Lon Horwedel)

It’s a thousand degrees in this tube. How can something under a polar bear’s tank be so warm? I guess it doesn’t matter anyway, there’s nothing to see here but a bunch of dead fish parts at the bottom of the water.

And where did all these people come from? There must be half a million folks here today – on a Monday! Doesn’t anybody work anymore? My poor shins are turning purple from all the wayward strollers crashing into me all day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many little kids in one place my whole life. This place really is a zoo!

I wonder if the animals look at us the way we look at them? I remember when I was a kid a monkey flung his crap at some couple at the Toledo Zoo. That was weird ... but pretty funny.

Then there was that time last spring at the Indianapolis Zoo when one of the male lions roared at a group of women and then sprayed them with his urine. What was that all about?

I suppose they have to entertain themselves somehow, and who could blame them? I mean, not having to work for food would be alright, but if I had to stay in the same space the rest of my life, I’d probably be flinging crap or peeing on people too.

Oh well, it doesn’t look like much is going to happen here anyhow, and it’s not getting any less crowded or cooler in this tube, so I guess we should just … WHOA!!! What the … where did he come from?

Man, look at that thing. He must weigh a thousand pounds or more. And look at those paws; they're as big as basketballs! He sure looks friendly enough though – kind of dopey and cute. I guess I can see why people sometimes feel the need to jump the fence and wander into their cages. Boy, that never turns out well.

Being in here reminds me of my favorite Far Side cartoon – the one where a couple of polar bears are standing outside a half-eaten igloo and one bear says to the other “I just love these things – crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle.”

I bet that old bear would gladly trade those nasty looking fish for one of our heads – you know, crunchy on the outside, chewy in the middle. Poor bastard looks kind of frustrated too. It must suck chomping down all those mackerel while staring at a human hand pressed against the glass. And what’s keeping this tube from imploding anyhow? I mean he’s walking right on top of us and these seams in the glass don’t look all that strong to me.  What if this whole thing just blew apart from the pressure one day? I wonder if anyone could get out before they drowned or became part of a polar bear buffet? 

I bet someone would survive. They always do. Man, wouldn’t that be a cool story to tell your grandkids – the day I out swam a hungry polar bear at the Detroit Zoo after his exhibit imploded on hundreds of unsuspecting patrons…


... look at all those people down there behind this stupid glass while I’m stuck here eating this lousy mackerel, for like, the nine billionth day in a row! Man, what I’d give to trade this stinkin’ fish for one of those humans. I’m not picky – short, tall, skinny, fat – it doesn’t matter to me, just give me anything besides these damn fish.

I hate fish! Why don’t they at least let me eat that harp seal behind the glass on the other side of my tank? This is torture! It’s bad enough I have to look at five thousand potential meals pass underneath me every day, why do they have to rub it in my face by putting that stupid seal over there?

Lousy water isn’t even cold either. Who ever heard of polar bears swimming around in 50-degree water? I might as well be taking a bath. 

Oh well, maybe one day one of these lousy seams in this tank will burst open and I can show these people just how cute and cuddly I really am. Now that would be something, I can picture it in my head - a real buffet, just the way I like it - polar bear style! 

You know, crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle!

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Washtenaw Communty College student Alisha Wilkins, Ann Arbor, turns a pair of lawn chairs into a makeshift lounger to take full advantage of the beautiful weather by listening to her music and basking in the sunshine. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

By the time you read this, it’s entirely possible there could be a foot of snow on the ground. It might also be sleeting sideways, or just be 40 degrees and raining.

But not today - today is special.

Today is the first true day of spring, and you never really know when that day will be, even if the calendar says it’s March 20th. Because here in parts north, like the state Michigan, there’s no guarantee that the first official day of spring will necessarily feel like spring.

It’s the only season that can lay that claim. It always feels like summer long before it’s actually summer, it always feels like fall well before it’s truly fall, and we all know winter gets here a hell of a lot sooner than December 20th. But spring can arrive at any time – it might come on March 6th one year, and May 6th the next.

This year it came today, the first day of April - no fooling. Tomorrow is supposed to be even nicer, but for me today was the day.  Not that it hadn’t been nice for much of March – a few days even in the mid 60’s, but the first day of spring is the day when you open all the windows in the house - the day when all the golf courses are open.

It’s the day when everyone ventures out, a day when everyone decides to get back in shape and go out for a run. A day when everyone decides getting in shape is overrated and goes out for ice cream. Two months from now the story will be different – a day like this will garner no special mention, but not this day, this day is special, this day is the first.

It’s the first day of the new year when that winter-white skin of yours gets a real dose of UV radiation. The first day you can drive around with your windows rolled down. The first day you can wear shirtsleeves and shorts without needing a jacket. The first day the grass starts to get green and the buds on the trees suddenly appear.

Today is the day when college girls emerge from their apartments and creep out onto their sun porches and front yards like lizards warming themselves on a rock. The day when college boys rediscover the joy of tossing something … anything, through the air to each other, be it baseball, football, or Frisbee.

And you soak it in completely, because you know it won’t last. You might get a day or two - maybe three, before it all comes crashing down again.  Soon the sky will cloud over in its familiar gray, the wind will pick up and the temperature will drop – maybe even in the same day.

You know today is only a tease, but that’s okay, because you will take this day and live it to its fullest. It’s one of those “good to be alive” days, and it really is good to be alive. Some days are just a waste - days when you have a throbbing headache, or the weather just plain sucks. And you know those days count the same, 24-hours, like today, pushing you one day closer to death - days you’ll never get back.

But today is beautiful. Today feels like Friday, even though it’s Thursday. Today the potential is endless. Anything can happen today, and chances are it will be good. Today you can breathe. Today you’re full of energy. Today nothing hurts and you feel young again - even if you’re not.

Today you want to live forever, because today it’s finally here - the first day of spring!