Door County

July 26th, 2014

Island hopping with Cousin Dick

Island Hopping Lighthouse

Driving 12 hours from Detroit, we crossed a drawbridge onto the island. Then we took a car ferry to the next island. Finally, we rode a small passenger ferry to this remote rock. If we want to go any further, it’ll be by kayak or backstroke.

Standing at the tippy top of the lighthouse, my daughter Skye points out Escanaba, a zillion miles across the bay. Either that or she’s eyeing the enormous spider. It’s about six hours from here to Escanaba; the spider’s six inches away.

It’s a bit strange standing here at Death’s Door, so labeled because of the treacherous passageway that has claimed many a seafaring vessel. Door County Wisconsin, named after Death’s Door, is a curious mix of rural farmland, super upscale summer homes and a healthy schmattering of quaint little towns with quaint little galleries. “Tourist traps” cousin Dick calls ‘em. It reminds me of what Cape Cod might have looked like 50 years ago.

Island Hopping Dick Leonard

My dad’s cousin, Dick Leonard, is a cool, seasoned world-traveler.

A series of islands and bays make up this peninsula jutting off into Lake Michigan, separating it from Green Bay. Cousin Dick spends a lot of his time here. The not-quite-80-year-old is the only one we know who remains on my father’s side of the family. We have recently become reacquainted, fortunately. He graciously opened his home to our invading throng, (all ten of us, when in the past, the most he’s hosted was two!).

After leaving the two northernmost islands along Death’s Door, I am regaled by my cousin’s stories. He has traveled the world over, including a trip to Antarctica last fall. This fall, he will outdo himself with an early-morning balloon trip over the Serengeti. Did I mention he’s almost 80? My journey in the minivan to get here pales somewhat in comparison.

But I had no real preconceived notions about what this trip would hold. I felt it would be more about the journey, as opposed to the destination. Sure, my brother and I wanted to hear stories about Dad from way back when. But something fascinating began to happen. Dad’s stories gave way to Dick’s stories. Somehow he became more fascinating to us than our long lost father.

Maybe it’s because he’s still thriving. Educated in economics at Harvard, he thought he’d become a lawyer. But his own father’s illness pushed him to become a doctor. His deceased wife was a high level ad executive, living the Mad Men life as a woman. Remember Peter Pan peanut butter being “the pea-nuttiest?” That was one of her many slogans. I still sing the jingle in my head.

Island Hopping Forest Art

We visited during the Plein Air (art out in the open) Festival and found some fun outdoor installations including a mermaid, owl, fish and a “mowman.”

On the last night at his place, we spent time stargazing at the eye-popping display above us. In sweats and socks I stumbled across the sand down to his beach to see if I might snap the Big Dipper rising above his house. Fiddling around with my camera and bracing it against an incongruous pole that had sprouted up in the sand, I got lucky and scored Ursa Major.

Looking closely afterward, I couldn’t believe I’d also captured the binary stars in her handle, the horse and rider — Mizar and Alcor for you star buffs.

Dad loved looking at the stars. He loved sailing and flying too. It turns out his cousin is a lot like him in those respects. We caught various glimpses of our father in his cousin. But no, we weren’t looking for a replacement dad. That undercurrent never really surfaced during our time gallivanting around Door County. More importantly, I like that we have made a strong connection with someone who represents both our family’s past and its future. Dick says we’re welcome back any time.

Also — and this can’t be understated — I like that I can now claim I’ve been to Death’s Door both figuratively and literally. The first time around I feared the destination and hated the journey. This time, I bought custard, lots and lots of custard. Whipped cream and hot fudge do wonders for the soul (if not the waistline).

Island Hopping Big Dipper

Ursa Major, The Big Dipper, rises above cousin Dick’s place along the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan.


Driving around, snapping photos

July 18th, 2014

It’s what we used to call feature hunting

Photographing towns

A tiny doggie in downtown Northville entertains kids on their way to an outdoor concert.

Sometimes I simply love being a freelance writer and photographer. This past week was one of those times.

A large company in Southeast Michigan hired me to travel around photographing people, towns and neighborhoods in and about Detroit for the sole purpose of putting them in a brochure to attract potential employees.

I got to put on my photojournalism pants and drive around “making images.” This time  — as opposed to when I was a newspaper photographer — I was only tasked with showing the Good. The Bad and the Ugly could wait for someone else. How fun!

Recovering journalists, like me, can just show up at a situation and portray only what the client wants me to share. I’m okay with that.

Real journalists are tasked with giving a balanced report on their stories. Just this week, another Malaysian plane crashed and a ground war began in Gaza. My heart goes out to the journalists who have to cover that type of news. More so, my heart goes out to those civilians actually living those stories.

For years I photographed fires and tragedy, inhumanity and — ugh, death. It’s so much more enjoyable picturing only the bright side of the human condition. So while I read and witness from afar all the ugliest this world has to offer, I remember how fortunate I am living where I live and covering what I cover.

And yes, I feel guilty for feeling this way. There will always be a part of me that feels as though maybe I should be putting myself on the line to tell the real story. But that guilt quickly evaporated when I pulled into one of the area’s most affluent neighborhoods and two little boys, not more than seven-years-old, waited for me to drive by before shouting, “pecker head.”

The adrenaline surge hit and I was instantly transported back to all the dangerous situations I’ve been in as a journalist, like the pushy crowd gathering around me in Haiti or that semi driver who threatened to put my camera somewhere extremely uncomfortable. Those guys in Boston — who said if I took another picture in the courtroom, they’d make sure it was my last — also flashed in my memory.

Nah, just kidding. Those two little boys made me laugh, especially with the way they said it, “PEKuh head,” with a pronounced lisp.

But don’t tell that to my freelance client; I’m trying to put in for a little extra combat pay.

Back in the day, we called driving around aimlessly taking photographs “feature hunting.” Most photographers grew to hate it since that meant it was a slow news days and there wasn’t enough stuff for the next day’s paper.

We liked to whine a lot back then.

Give me a “fluff” piece any day to write or photograph. But what do I know; I’m just a pecker head, but at least I’m a happy one.

Photographing towns 2

The fountain spray on Belle Isle doesn’t have far to go before mixing with low hanging clouds.


The Fault In Our Stars

June 30th, 2014

“Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”


Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort are simply amazing in The Fault In Our Stars.

Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort are simply amazing in The Fault In Our Stars.

Go see The Fault In Our Stars.

I can’t be any more direct than that. You’ve probably heard about the movie, based on the massively best-selling John Green book of the same title. It centers around Hazel and Gus, two whip-smart teens who are both dealing with cancer. Yes, it’s a Young Adult story supposedly, but you’ll love it if you’re 90.

I read the book last summer, while on vacation at a rented cottage, then saw the movie this summer while staying at the same rental cottage. It’s not like I’m looking for cancer stories while I’m on vacation; I’ve had enough cancer stories to fill a book (yeah, literally!).

This seemingly simple story is fantastic. It’s life-affirming, even while dealing with horrible diseases. It’s funny, even while being sad. And it’s beautifully told with real emotional heft. The type of feelings you experience seem to be dictated by where you are in life.

My youngest daughter was moved most by a speech made by one of the secondary teen characters. My wife found meaning in the parent’s struggles. Me, well I tended to look at it from a patient’s perspective. I was brought to tears when one of them got some good news. So there’s something for everyone.

Shailene Woodley, whom we first noticed in The Descendants as George Clooney’s daughter, was absolutely incredible as Hazel. Along with her ever-present oxygen tank, she inhabited the screen with a type of emotion that’s hard to describe, yet incredible to watch. They might as well only plan on four other Best Actress nominations, because she’s a lock to get one.

There are other great bits about this movie. The snappy male lead, Ansel Elgort’s father is a professional photographer and named him after my hero Ansel Adams. Elgort and Woodley starred together earlier this year in Divergent, which I didn’t see and got roundly panned. I plan on renting it, though, simply to see how their chemistry played out under completely different circumstances.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia was appropriately subdued as the cancer support group leader. He may very well be the next comedian to hit the big, big time, like Louis CK. And, of course, there was Dutch actress Lotte Verbeek whom I couldn’t take my eyes off of. I’ve just finished scouring IMDB and have added some of her other movies to my Netflix queue. The wonders of the internet!

There is so much more to say about this movie, but I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for those few out there who haven’t heard about it. Everyone I’ve spoken with who has seen the movie has also read the book. And they are all blown away by both. Sure, see the movie THEN read the book if you’d like (though that sentence may get me in trouble with the Literati).

It doesn’t matter how you experience this story, just experience it!


Some handy tips for watching World Cup Soccer

June 22nd, 2014

“Soccer” for dummies

Here are 20 important things you should know:

1. Soccer began, some say, when a group of Medieval Brits gathered together around a pig’s bladder to receive endorsements from Nike.

2. Like presidential elections and new episodes of Mad Men, World Cup happens every four years.

3. In every other part of the world it’s pronounced “SOCK-er.”

4. FIFA stands for “Football: It’s FOOTBALL, Americans.”

5. Each team has 11 players, unless one of them has a day job and can’t get off work.

6. Follow this easy trick to remember the positions on the field. There’s a goalie, then all the others.

7. A game lasts 90 minutes, made up of two 45 minute halves and a bunch of random extra minutes no one ever tells you about.

8. Apparently, even having LeBron James on your team isn’t enough to insure victory.

9. Like we have fantasy football leagues, other countries have fantasy soccer leagues.
(I don’t actually know if this is true, but I’m too lazy to Google it.)

10. Before World Cup, most Americans knew only two famous soccer players: Pele and David Beckham. Now they know nil more.

11. Oh, and Brandi Chastain.

12. Except for boxing, it’s the only other sport that allows you to use your head.

13. Imagine I’m writing this with a British accent; It’ll sound way more authoritative.

14. Soccer is basically lacrosse without sticks, or padding, or helmets, or danger.

15. Names to bring up when you’re talking with your daughter’s soccer-playing boyfriend: Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey.
Oh, and Brandi Chastain.

16. Here’s an interesting tidbit about Portugal:

17. Even people in Ghana don’t know where Ghana is.

18. Although you’d never know it by his name, Team USA coach Jürgen Klinsmann is NOT a native-born American.

19. Most referees are sponsored by Hallmark and often show off their latest line of cards during a match.

fuleco-the-mascot20. This is the first time in World Cup history that referees will be using a special vanishing spray to mark where players have to stand when a free kick takes place. (Really. I’m not making this up!)

21. Fuleco, the three-banded Armadillo is the official World Cup mascot. If you think that’s a bit odd, consider the Racing Pierogies during Pittsburgh Pirates games.

22. Soccer is as riveting to watch as a full-blown chess match.

23. When anyone else besides Team USA plays, there’s always a Family Guy re-run somewhere on cable.

24. Like soccer games, this list inexplicably goes on past its stated ending time.