Monday, December 28, 2015

A Winter Escape: 24 Hours in Detroit

This is Detroit
When asked where to escape for an overnight stay or a weekend, many Metro Detroiters probably would mention ski trips to Northern Michigan, a cottage on a lake, or even a weekend in Chicago or Toronto. When faced with the need to get away for a night, my wife, Allison, and I chose to stay closer to home and spend a weekend in Detroit. Detroit is ever-changing, and though we try to visit the city as often as possible, we still cannot find the time to do everything we want to in this burgeoning town.

We only could get away for one night in December, but we wanted to make the most of our time in the city. First, we wanted to give a little bit back to the city, so we arrived early on a Saturday morning to volunteer with the Cass Community Social Services, through a volunteer event organized by the University of Michigan Club of Greater Detroit.

Cass Community Social Services provides food, housing, and health services as well as job programs to Detroiters. Our job involved building door mats out of recycled tires. The mat program employs formerly homeless Detroit residents, and also uses the services of volunteers. Along with the mats, they sell other products including Detroit Treads sandals made from discarded tires and coasters. After a morning making mats for the program, we visited the organization's store and walked out with two door mats, and two pairs of sandals.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Lucy: The Dog Who Gave Us a Better Life

Two weeks ago, my wife Allison and I sat on a blanket in the backyard of our veterinarian's office. It was a beautiful November evening. The yellow and orange leaves on the trees shined brighter than the setting sun. Our dog, Lucy, lay on a bed of leaves that had already fallen, unable to hold onto life much longer. 

Lucy was a mutt. Twelve years ago, she was left for dead as a puppy at a kill shelter in North Carolina until a wonderful organization called Homeward Trails in Northern Virginia rescued her. They fostered her and fed her and posted her picture on When Allison and I first saw her online, we saw something in her photo that told us there would be something different about this ten-month-old dog. I know people tend to project their own emotions and expectations onto their pets, but in this photo, Lucy had a look of untamed enthusiasm in her eyes.

We contacted Homeward Trails and learned she would be at an upcoming dog adoption event. We drove to the event a few days later excited to meet her, only to learn that another family had adopted her. We met another dog, Trevor, who seemed sweet, and decided to adopt him. When we contacted Homeward Trails again, they informed us that Lucy did not like the horses that the other family had, so they had traded her in for Trevor. We made quick plans to meet Lucy, and when we did, we were hooked.

Sprinting across a lake during her last year winter.
Untamed enthusiasm was an understatement. Lucy ran around the house of her foster family chucking toys across the room and then leaping to catch them in her mouth. I was a little afraid of taking this wild boar into a one-bedroom condo, but her exuberance was contagious. Allison and I took her home.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Superior: A Cinematic Journey Through the U.P.

Director Edd Benda's first feature film, Superior, opens in Calumet, Michigan, in 1969. With two weeks left in the summer, Charlie and Derek face certain futures. Charlie (Thatcher Robinson) will attend Michigan Tech University and study engineering, while Derek (Paul Stanko) will end up in Vietnam.

Although adulthood should be near, it is as far away and foreign as a distant shore. Charlie and Derek face a choice: They can stand still in their hometown awaiting their fates, or they can have one last adventure and determine their own destinies.

Charlie and Derek choose the latter and embark on a 1,300-mile bike ride around Lake Superior with little more than a few dollars, sleeping bags, one copy of Jules Verne's The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, the shirts on their backs, and shorts that were not made for biking 5 miles.

Although the film is set in 1969, it, like any good period piece, depicts characters whose emotions and desires are timeless. Except for Vietnam casting its shadow over Derek's future, the relationship between Charlie and Derek could happen at any point in history. Like any longtime friends, they measure themselves against each other and challenge each other. They ultimately need to accept that, although close friends, they face different futures.

While traveling through Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Minnesota, and Canada, Charlie and Derek encounter a few interesting characters (including a few overly stereotypical Minnesotans). Although a funeral director and crazy recluse add comedy to the duo's adventure, the best moments in the film are when Charlie and Derek are alone on screen. Their dialogue uncovers their hopes and fears, and the friendship feels real through the film's unspoken moments, such as the creative way they share Verne's novel or goof off on a beach.

Although Superior is a coming-of-age story and a buddy film, it is also Benda's homage to the U.P. and the largest of the Great Lakes. Benda grew up in several places but spent a good amount of his childhood, including his high school years, in Michigan. He filmed the movie in the U.P.'s Keweenaw Peninsula, the northernmost part of the U.P. that juts into Lake Superior. The story is inspired by his Uncle Karl's own trip around Lake Superior with a friend in 1971. The bikes used in the film are the same ones that his uncle and his uncle's friend rode.

Superior's cinematography (courtesy of director of photography Alex Bell) captures the beauty of Lake Superior and the U.P. A scene of Charlie and Derek skipping rocks over the lake's crystal-clear waters will feel familiar to anyone who has stood on a Lake Superior beach and marveled at the vast expanse of water. When Charlie and Derek are riding quietly on tree-lined roads and paths, the magnificent silence of the U.P. comes to life. The land is populated by majestic trees. Civilization is absent, but wilderness abounds. It is the perfect place to escape from the world and to find oneself in the process.

Superior is a solid first film for Benda. It feels like the start of a great adventure, and here's to hoping Benda takes us along for the ride.

For more information about Superior and Benda and Bell's production company, Beyond the Porch Productions, visit

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Return to the Past at the Les Cheneaux Islands

Les Cheneaux Island fishing
When recently driving along the Upper Peninsula's highways, I saw a few abandoned resorts with their lonely cabins boarded up. I assume that these resorts, which are nothing more than clusters of tiny wood cabins, once were crowded with tourists who wanted to explore the U.P.'s wilderness.

What happened? Did they lose their luster as vacation spots when those tourists bought their own land and built their perfect U.P. vacation homes? Did their modest size and scant amenities fail to keep up with their customers' demands for the modern? Did fewer tourists stop each year, instead driving past in search of something bigger and better?

We chase the newer, the faster, and the more luxurious while discarding the old, the slow, and the modest. We raze perfectly serviceable homes to build state-of-the-art castles with vaulted ceilings and modern kitchens. We have to get a new smartphone every year to avoid being outdated. And we need to stay in the fanciest resorts and hotels that cater to our every need.

The simple beauty of the Les Cheneaux Islands
It's OK to want nice things, but we can miss out on the beautiful simplicity of life when we ignore the old and the modest. We can be consumed by the need for more while forgetting the distinct difference between wants and needs.

But there's a simpler way to live and a simpler way to vacation. Sometimes, the old way of doing things still has merit. Sometimes, simpler is better. Sometimes, an old resort can provide the simplicity that our lives often lack.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A Visit to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks
Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior stretches from Grand Marais in the east to Munising in the west. My family and I spent two nights in the beautiful town of Grand Marais and used the town as our home base to explore the area. Since we have two young children, my wife and I knew we would not be able to cover as much ground as we would've liked. We realized we wouldn't be able to hike or kayak, but our goal was to see the Pictured Rocks, the Grand Sable Dunes, and at least one waterfall.

When we first arrived in Grand Marais, we spent some time in town and on the beach before venturing into the national lakeshore. We drove on Alger County Highway 58. H-58 is a meandering road that runs along the lakeshore. It leads to parking lots along the park's hiking trail, allowing people without the time or luxury to hike the whole lakeshore to stop and see its highlights.

Since we were weary from a long drive from Metro Detroit, we only stopped at Sable Falls and the Log Slide Overlook on our first foray into the national lakeshore. We picked these spots because they are the two closest landmarks to Grand Marais, and they both have fairly short trails that we could handle with two tired girls.

Sable Falls
The falls were easily accessible for us, but reaching them requires descending a long set of steps built into the side of a steep hill. Our three-year-old could handle the steps, though we did carry her a little bit to speed things up.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Grand Marais: A Superior Vacation Spot

Grand Marais beach with the giant dunes on the horizon
During my recent visit to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I repeatedly asked myself, "Why did it take you so long to come back here?" and "Why don't more people visit this place?" I try to live my life without regret, but I found myself regretting my failure to visit the U.P. since the last time I visited as a boy. I suppose I thought that I eventually would visit because the U.P. would always be there.

Fortunately, it was there, and it was better than I remembered. And I will be returning as soon as I possibly can.

My family and I stayed in only two places in the U.P. Our first two nights were in Grand Marais, a small but beautiful coastal town on the eastern end of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

The Mackinac Bridge
The only way to reach Grand Marais and the U.P. from the Lower Peninsula by car is across the majestic Mackinac Bridge. Crossing the Mighty Mac was always one of my favorite parts of my childhood U.P. trips, but I did not remember how breathtaking the view from the bridge was. We were surrounded by beautiful blue water spotted with green, tree-covered islands as we soared 200 feet above the straits. I turned to my wife and said, "I keep telling myself, 'This is so beautiful!' over and over again." As a kid, I was more impressed by the bridge. Now, I still appreciated the bridge, but I was most impressed by the view of the straits the bridge provides.

Driving along Lake Michigan on US-2
After crossing the bridge, we headed west along US-2 instead of heading east, as my family always did. The highway runs along the Lake Michigan coast and provides gorgeous views of Lake Michigan. We stopped at a couple of scenic overlooks and marveled at the tremendous body of water before us. We thought of stopping to swim, but I had the opportunity on the way back from Grand Marais toward Lake Huron to take a dip in Lake Michigan from a rest area on US-2 (so I could swim in all of the U.P.'s Great Lakes during our trip). We eventually turned inland and headed north along M-77, which took us over rolling hills through forests and farmland.

As we approached Grand Marais, we reached the crest of large hill and saw miles of blue water ahead of us. Lake Superior!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

An Apology Letter to the Great Lakes

Dear Great Lakes, 

I underestimated you.

Lake Superior
I grew up loving the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. I lived in a little beach town in Massachusetts for part of my childhood, and my family spent a lot of time at and in the water. No matter how cold the water was or how huge the waves were, my brother and I loved bodysurfing. The waves could slam us down onto the sand and drag us, and we’d go right back in. I loved everything about the beach: the salty smell, the sound of the waves, and the feel of the sand, the rocks, and floating in the water. I loved exploring and swimming but could also just sit there and let all my senses take it in. I have always been in love with the beach.

So when I moved to Michigan in high school and people said lake beaches were great beaches, I scoffed. A lake can’t be a beach beach, I said. A few years later, I saw the Chicago side of Lake Michigan, and the lake itself was beautiful, with the shiny city skyline perched alongside it. But the beach area I saw—just a stretch of sand and water--was unimpressive. So I still wasn’t convinced. I didn’t doubt that the Great Lakes were gorgeous, but I doubted that lake beaches could have the feel of beach beaches.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Taking the Scenic Route Home

Me walking towards Lake Michigan at Point Betsie
On our way home to Metro Detroit from our recent trip to Traverse City, we could have come back the way we came, but we wanted to see something new. For my wife, it was her first time seeing Lake Michigan from the Michigan side of the lake. For me, it was a a stretch of highway that I had never driven before.

One last look at Grand Traverse Bay on the way out of Traverse City
Instead of heading south or east from Traverse City, we headed west on M-72 towards Lake Michigan. It rained on and off along M-72, but the rolling hills along the road made the drive entertaining.

In the village of Empire, we connected with M-22 and headed south. M-22 is a 116-mile-long highway along the shores of Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan. From its eastern terminus in Traverse City, M-22 heads north along the bay towards the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula before the highway turns south and west along Lake Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore towards its western terminus, just north of Manistee.

One of the many lakes along M-22
We missed out on the Leelanau Peninsula portion of the highway, but the stretch from Empire to the western terminus was one of the most relaxing drives I've experienced. The highway is mostly lined by forest, but every bend brought the possibility of blue waters. Crystal Lake was stunning, even with the wind kicking up whitecaps.

Point Betsie Lighthouse

Friday, August 21, 2015

Tour de Traverse City

Traverse City at night
Until this week, I had never been to Traverse City before. When I was growing up, my family always vacationed in the U.P. during the summer. Luckily, I had an opportunity to visit Traverse City for one night, and my wife was able to join me. Unfortunately, our visit was for less than 24 hours, and, after factoring in sleep, we only had seven or eight hours to explore.

With such a short schedule, we limited our exploration to an area within walking distance of our downtown hotel and limited our activities to walking, eating, and drinking. Plus, after a rain-soaked drive from Metro Detroit, neither one of us wanted to spend more time in the car. Midway through the night, I dubbed our series of quick stops the "Tour de Traverse City."

First Stage: Clinch Park and Grand Traverse Bay

We stayed at the Park Place Hotel, which is in the heart of Traverse City. We arrived around 4 p.m. and were fortunate that the monsoon that had plagued the last hour of our drive stopped when we reached the hotel. Knowing that the rain would return, we moved quickly and walked toward the shore of the Grand Traverse Bay.

Boats on the Boardman River
As we walked toward the bay, we crossed the Boardman River, a small tree-lined river whose shorelines were filled with docked boats. One tree juts out so far into the river that it must take some serious maneuvering to get around and under the tree without dinging one of the docked boats or banging your head on a branch. A walking path runs along the bank of the river, but we continued on to the bay.

After crossing the river, we crossed the Grandview Parkway, whose name is fitting. The skies were still overcast, but the view of Grand Traverse Bay was stunning. Though there are houses dotting the shores of the bay, the hilly shorelines surrounding the bay are covered with trees, making the bay seem pleasantly undeveloped. 

Grand Traverse Bay
We walked along the trail in Clinch Park and watched a few people swimming from the beach. Though the trail runs for several miles, we did not walk far since we had skipped lunch and were excited to try a few restaurants that friends and family had recommended.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Pizza and Ice Cream in Berkley

Downtown Berkley, Michigan
With the trendy downtowns of nearby Birmingham, Ferndale, and Royal Oak dotting Oakland County's Woodward Corridor, it might be easy for visitors to miss out on a small city of only 2.62 square miles like Berkley. Though smaller than these other cities, Berkley has a lot to offer.

The city is full of walkable and family-friendly neighborhoods. Berkley's downtown has several interesting shops, but I always visit for the food. I have never left Berkley disappointed, or hungry (Seriously, this little city has Vinsetta Garage, Republica, and Mr. Kabob within its borders!).

On my most recent visit, I tried Amici's Pizza for the first time. Though I am one of the biggest advocates for Detroit-style pizza, sometimes I need a good traditional round pizza. Amici's feels like three distinct restaurants in one location. Upon first entering from 12 Mile Road, I found myself in Amici's Kitchen, where diners can pick up a pizza to go or sit at a couple of small tables. The Kitchen feels like an old-school pizza parlor where you can watch master pizza makers work behind the counter.

Next door through a small door is Amici's Living Room. The Living Room has a bar and several tables, and it feels more like a traditional sit-down restaurant. At the rear of the Living Room is the Patio, a beautiful outdoor seating area where my family and I decided to eat, since it was a perfect summer night.

Before I get to the pizza, I need to mention the breadsticks. Amici's breadsticks are thick, almost like pizza crust, and they are lightly covered with Amici's pesto sauce and are served with a side of tomato sauce. Not only are they delicious, but they also made it easier to watch other tables get their pizzas while we waited for our two pizzas to bake. 

When our pizzas arrived at our table, it was clear we had made the right choice to dine at Amici's that night. The Portabella Mushroom Pizza has a garlic spread instead of traditional tomato sauce, and it is topped with fontina cheese, portabella mushrooms, roasted garlic cloves, and bacon. My youngest daughter normally prefers pizza with tomato sauce, but she devoured the Portabella Mushroom Pizza.

Amici's Roasted Eggplant Pizza
Our second pizza was the Roasted Eggplant Pizza, which is topped with mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, and roasted eggplant. Everything tasted fresh, and though the portabella pizza was delicious, the tomato sauce gave the eggplant pizza a slight edge for me. The only disappointment of the night was that my wife and I forgot to take four slices that were left over. I am still regretting that mistake. 

Clark's Ice Cream
After dinner, we crossed the street to Clark's Ice Cream & Yogurt. Any good downtown area needs an ice cream shop, especially on a summer night. The real delight of Clark's is the grassy area with picnic tables, where you can watch the traffic on 12 Mile while eating really good ice cream on a beautiful Michigan summer night.

With a stomach full of breadsticks, pizza, and ice cream, I once again left Berkley without any disappointment.

Trust me. Visit Berkley, You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Detroit's Renaissance Center From the Inside

From late April to mid-June, I had the opportunity to work on a project inside Detroit's Renaissance Center, aka the Ren Cen. This seven-tower complex dominates Detroit's skyline. The 73-story center tower is Detroit's tallest building and is famous for its views of downtown, Canada, and Southeast Michigan.

I had an office with windows in Tower 400, and the view captivated me every day.

This was my view.
Fog blankets the river and the Canadian shore.
A peaceful morning on the Detroit River.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Detroit Is Alive

Since moving back to Michigan in September, I have worked in Detroit for about half the time I have been here, with the other half in offices in Southfield. I recently began a new job farther out in the suburbs, and though I am enjoying this new opportunity, I will miss being in Detroit on a nearly daily basis.

Almost two years ago, I was upset that an internet search of Detroit produced results such as "Detroit is dead" or "Detroit is a dump." I presented photographic evidence to rebut those claims in a post titled Detroit Is More Than They Say It Is.

Today, a Google search of "Detroit is" turns up words like "magical" or "different" instead of dead. Though the city still has a lot of work to do, it is a magical place, and it definitely is different from other places.

Detroit Is Blossoming

A view of the Renaissance Center from Hart Plaza in the Spring
Detroit Is Proud

Spirit of Detroit mural at Checker Bar
Detroit Is Welcoming

Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood

Monday, June 8, 2015

Kayaking Cass Lake

Stopping for a photo while my wife paddled on
At 2 square miles, Cass Lake is the largest lake in Oakland County. During the summer months, it is a popular spot for power boats, jet skis, and wave runners. Before the wakes from these recreational boats dominate the surface, mornings on Cass Lake are great time to take a kayak or canoe out for a peaceful trip around the lake.

A flag pole on the lake
On a morning in mid-May, my wife and I kayaked the southern shore of the lake. We launched from Marshbank Park in West Bloomfield. Marshbank Park has a fishing pier and a canoe/kayak launch, but no access for power boats. Power boat owners must launch their boats from Dodge #4 State Park on the other side of the lake.

Some of the larger houses in the distance
The lake has several giant houses with pristine yards and docks big enough for a small marina, but we also saw many smaller homes along the shores and the small canals that connect with the lake.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Family Fun at the Orchard Lake St. Mary's Polish Country Fair

The Orchard Lake St. Mary's Polish Country Fair
I am not a carnival person. I was as a kid, but I lost my interest in carnival food and fair rides sometime during my twenties. Knowing my daughters would enjoy the Orchard Lake St. Mary's Polish Country Fair, I put my disdain for fairs aside and took my family to the first night of the fair last night.

Traffic was a little heavy near the fair, but we arrived at 6:00 p.m., when rush hour traffic usually is bad on Commerce and Orchard Lake roads. Parking is free on the school's campus, and admission is $5 per person, or $10 per family. To go on the rides, visitors need to buy tickets, but the best deal is a $30 pass that lasts the whole weekend. Visitors can also buy a book of 22 tickets for $25, or individual tickets (that I believe were $1.50 each). Rides cost between 2 tickets for the small kids' rides to 4 tickets for the most popular rides like the Ferris wheel and roller coaster.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Goodbye to Hiller's

The Sanders ice cream stand at Hiller's
As I walked around the Hiller's Market in Commerce Township, something felt off. The staff and customers seemed a little quieter and somewhat subdued. As I approached the checkout, I noticed that my cashier looked upset.

When I offered him my Hiller's card, he stated that the store's rewards program was discontinued. When I asked why, he said that Kroger bought Hiller's earlier that day and was closing his store. Selfishly, my first thought was "No! How can I lose my favorite supermarket?!?!"

Then I realized why my cashier was so upset. He was losing his job while I selfishly was upset about losing my favorite supermarket. I said a few words of encouragement to him, paid for my groceries, and went on my way.

If you've never been to a Hiller's, you have been missing out. I have been to three of their locations and have always found their staff to be helpful and friendly. I also appreciated their efforts to feature Michigan-made products in their stores.

In the short time my family has been back in Michigan, Hiller's has been an important part of our lives. Soon after moving into our new home, my wife came home from Hiller's one night and gushed about how friendly everyone in the store was. Knowing that it was difficult to leave her family in Virginia, I was happy to hear that strangers were making her feel at home.

Just last month, my oldest daughter had to have her bottom two front teeth pulled to make room for her permanent teeth. They were her first baby teeth to go, and her dentist ordered us to go to the Sanders ice cream shop inside Hiller's to help with the swelling. As we sat there eating ice cream for lunch, I was looking forward to future stops with my daughters to get ice cream, after dentist trips, sporting events, or just to spend time with them. I looked forward to reminiscing with my oldest about her first trip to the Sander's ice cream shop.

I did not grow up going to Hiller's, but I was hoping my daughters would. I thank Hiller's employees for always making my family feel at home, and I wish them the best.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Preserving Memories at the Corner

Gate 4 from Tiger Stadium still stands
I stopped the car outside the old gate on Michigan Avenue and began explaining to my mother-in-law the history of Tiger Stadium. I pointed out the people cleaning up the field and told her what I knew about the Navin Field Grounds Crew, the purely volunteer group of baseball lovers who maintain the sacred field that Detroit's city government has neglected since Tiger Stadium closed in 1999.

We were just driving through after a great lunch at Green Dot Stables and did not not plan to get out of the car. My wife and I had walked on the field before, and my youngest daughter was content to be secured in her car seat (and it's never a good idea to upset the status quo of our two-year-old). But then one of the grounds crew members walked up to the car and invited us to walk around what is left of the old ballpark. At first we declined, but my six-year-old daughter piped up from the backseat that she wanted to walk on the field.

Any time my daughter is interested in something I love, I jump at the opportunity to share my interests with her. So my mother-in-law, my older daughter, and I hopped out of the car and wandered onto the field. I explained to them the history of the ballpark and made sure my daughter knew how her grandpa took me to games and her great grandpa took him to games at this stadium.

A member of the Navin Field Grounds Crew at work
The names Hank Greenberg, Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, and Charlie Gehringer mean nothing to my daughter, but Grandpa is legendary to her. That's the beauty of this old field. Baseball fanatics love it for the legends that played there, but Detroit Tigers fan cherish it for the memories their families made and the traditions they have passed on since the Tigers first played baseball on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in 1896.

Before we left the field, we watched the last remaining member of the Navin Field Grounds Crew sweeping home plate. We stopped and talked with him about the old ballpark and the future of the stadium site, and we thanked him for the work he and his group did to preserve the field for future generations.

Home plate at Tiger Stadium
As we walked away, I looked at the pitcher's mound and noticed a baseball resting on it, as if it was eagerly waiting for a couple of teams to show up for a pickup game. And pickup games and organized games still happen at the Corner throughout the summer, but the Tigers are long gone from the site.

The pitcher's mound at Tiger Stadium
My children will never see the Tigers play baseball at the Corner, but it's an important part of the city's history. I just hope that the planned development for the site preserves a grass field and as much of the original layout of the field as possible. I also hope that the field is open to the public so that someday my children can walk out on the field with my grandchildren and tell them about grandpa watching games there as a kid and their memories of walking on the field as children.

As we left the field, my daughter asked if we could take the baseball, but I told her that it belonged to the field. We left it behind, still waiting for a baseball game to return to the Corner.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Q&A: Exported From Michigan's Jon Vander Pol

Exported From Michigan is a documentary about the people and businesses in Michigan who are making strides to bring the state's economy back. Michigan native Jon Vander Pol directed the film and agreed to discuss his documentary with me.

Jon Vander Pol at the World Solar Challenge in Darwin, Australia
Was there any one person who served as your inspiration to make Exported From Michigan?

I was inspired to respond to the Chrysler “Imported From Detroit” campaign to make a positive film showing authentic stories of real people and companies who are creating innovative solutions to these social and economic problems. It’s a positive film. It’s not anti-Chrysler, but it bugged me that Chrysler was trying to trick people into buying emotional stock in their company when there are so many other Michigan businesses worth celebrating. Exported From Michigan highlights the people and organizations who are proving themselves worthy of believing in for the long term.

Where did you come up with the funding for the documentary?

Financing an independent film is one of the hardest parts; even with me and most of the crew working for free it still isn't cheap to make a movie. I fund-raised continuously for three years to cover the production expenses. Through the help of 17 private investors, a successful kickstarter campaign and a very generous grant from MSHDA, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, we were able to complete the film.

What is your background as a filmmaker?

I’ve always been intrigued by the power of story to inspire people, especially in the documentary format. I got a degree in digital filmmaking from the Art Institute of Colorado in 2007 and after working as a crew member on other people’s projects for years, I set out to tell Michigan’s comeback story in a feature-length documentary in February of 2011. It took 3.5 years to finish the film, and it premiered at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids on June 28th of 2014.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Exported From Michigan: The Fall and Rise of the Great Lakes State

Exported From Michigan at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids
"There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still." -Franklin Roosevelt

Over a period of a few decades, Michigan's economy went from one of the country's strongest to one its most depressed. Michigan became complacent, stood still, and lost its innovative edge. After years of its industries drying up or moving jobs out of state, many people looked around and thought, "What happened and what do we do to fix this?"

Grand Rapids native Jon Vander Pol's documentary Exported From Michigan explores the many Michiganders who are answering these questions and creating new and innovative ways for Michigan's economy to move forward. The film does not cast blame but instead preaches hope through the stories of Michiganders from varied backgrounds who believe in the state's future.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Happy Paczki Day!

Window display at Dutch Girl Donuts in Detroit
When I was living in the D.C. area last year, I had to go out of my way to find paczki for Paczki Day (aka Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras). Now that I'm back home in Metro Detroit, it's a lot easier to find paczki, but I wanted to try some of the best. It had been more than a decade since I had Michigan paczki, so I had to read paczki reviews online to decide where to go. I found five or six places that seemed to make every best paczki list, and I settled on two: 1) New Palace Bakery in Hamtramck, and 2) Dutch Girl Donuts in Detroit.

To avoid the crowds, I went to each bakery the day before Paczki Day. First, I stopped at Dutch Girl Donuts. I have driven by this bakery many times and noticed that it always seemed to have a good crowd, even before dawn. The first thing I noticed upon entering was the intoxicating smell of donuts. The sweet aroma was overpowering, as if the building were made out of donuts.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

My Michigan Home is Where the Lakes Are

Home. It's not just a word, a place of origin, or a destination. It's more than where the heart is. It's where the soul is. You may not even know where it is until you find it, but when you find it, you feel whole.

My family and I found our home in an area of Oakland County that we did not originally plan to move to. We did not know the area well, but when we found it, we fell in love with the natural beauty of the area's many lakes.

When we first bought our home in the fall, we were surrounded by a stunning canopy of red, orange, and yellow leaves hovering above the area's lakes' blue waters.

Fall in Michigan
Every day is a postcard when you live near lakes
By the time we moved into our house, fall was quickly becoming winter, but we were treated to beautiful mornings of pink skies, ever changing ice formations along the lakes, or light dustings of snow on the ground.

Ice forming around the edge of a lake under a pink and blue sky
A rowboat longing for spring

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Cuban Street Food in Ann Arbor

The home of Cuban-inspired deliciousness
When I visit Ann Arbor, I always struggle when deciding where to eat. The city has so many excellent restaurants. I can go with the safe choice of one of my old favorites from my college days, or I can take the risk of trying something new. This past week, I ventured into Frita Batidos for the first time with some friends and my family.

The restaurant serves "Cuban Inspired Street Food," including its mainstays, fritas (Cuban-style burgers) and batidos (Cuban milkshakes). Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis at several long picnic tables or barstools at counters along the wall. Although the restaurant may have a minimalist interior, diners should not fret, because Frita Batidos saves the extravagant details for the food.

I ordered a beef frita with muenster cheese, avocado spread, and sweet chili mayo. My wife ordered the fish frita with avocado spread and cilantro-lime salsa, and we got a mini black bean frita and a grilled cheese frita for our girls and the twice-fried plantains for an appetizer (The restaurant also serves chorizo and chicken fritas). We had to try to the other half of the restaurant's name, so I ordered a lime batido, and my wife ordered the coconut cream batido.

The beef frita
Despite being covered in fries, the fritas were not as greasy as I thought they would be. The burger meat was tender and tasty, and the fries were delicious. The burger was not huge either, so I would recommend a double burger to anyone who is really hungry. My wife described the fish frita as a perfectly browned patty of tasty flavors. The black bean frita was good but a little too spicy for my daughters.

The batidos were amazing. The first sip of my lime shake shook my taste buds. The shake was very sour for a milkshake, but not too sour to be unpleasant. My wife's coconut batido was full of chunks of coconut. The smooth taste of coconut soothed the taste buds, instead of assaulting them like the lime batido. 

The lime batido
In the end, I was happy we ventured outside of our favorite restaurants when choosing Frita Batidos for lunch. Deciding where to eat will be more difficult on our next visit to Ann Arbor because we now have another "old" favorite on our restaurant list.

Frita Batidos is located at 117 W. Washington Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. Telephone: (734) 761-2882. Website:

Monday, January 19, 2015

Seeing the Michigan Union for the First Time

My daughter looking out at the world
I lived in Ann Arbor during my undergraduate years in the mid-1990s. I spent many hours studying and socializing in the Michigan Union during that time, but a recent visit to Ann Arbor with my two-year-old daughter introduced me to a Union that I had never experienced before.

While my wife, oldest daughter, and our friends were listening to a Martin Luther King Day lecture that my two-year-old could not sit still through, I explored every floor of the Union with my tiny travel companion. As she looked out the Union's windows for the first time, I noticed for the first time the number and variety of window panes throughout the Union and the unique views of Ann Arbor that they provided.

State Street and the University of Michigan Museum of Art

The University of Michigan Museum of Art

Colored panes distorting the view of State Street

Angell Hall

Looking out and in

Multicolored panes distorting a view

A tour group by the Cube

Three windows. Many panes.

Opaque glass looks like ice

The Law Quad

A courtyard