Friday, May 27, 2011

Hard times

That Michigan's Upper Peninsula is on its uppers is no news to the people who live there, both the hardy folks who struggle to survive and those fortunate enough (like the Lady Friend and me) to have made their pile elsewhere so they can spend their summers in these glorious woods on the shore of Lake Superior.

But now word is getting out. A crack Associated Press reporter named John Flesher came up from lower Michigan and looked around, and he filed a sobering report this morning that so far has appeared in 164 newspapers and television-station web sites, including the Daily Mail in London.

Ontonagon (Porcupine City in my mystery novels) is growing famous, even if the fame is the wrong kind: an international object lesson in the economic decline of rural America.

Still, there are opportunities up here. Living expenses are low, so low that many folks who live in urban Illinois and Minnesota are buying up properties for summer and retirement homes.

They have a love-hate relationship with the locals, some of whom call them, among other things, "FIBs." That's short for "Fucking Illinois Bastard," coined by a local waitress stiffed on the tip by a customer who drove off in a car with Land of Lincoln plates.

FIBs buy homes, many of which are foreclosures, that locals are too poor to afford even at absurdly low prices. Up here you can score a roomy, well-maintained three-bedroom home in town for $35,000 -- a home that might go for $350,000 in a Chicago suburb.

Still FIBs are not all bad. We bring in sorely needed money. We hire local tradesmen and spend our retirement checks in local supermarkets, some of which have expanded (especially their wine departments) to attract the summer crowd. Many of us fall deeply in love with the place and participate as much as we can in its cultural events, donating whatever we can to support local institutions.

True, some FIBs are truly arrogant bastards and attempt to lord it over the locals, but others try hard to win their hearts, knowing that will take time and effort. They volunteer their labor as well as their lucre -- and they ask for help in turn. If they're lucky, they get it.

You know you're on the way to acceptance when a neighbor brings over a clutch of eggs and a clump of chives for transplanting in your yard, when new friends quietly drop off (and stack) a spare cord or two of firewood after you've left for the winter, knowing you'll need it the coming chilly spring.

Today I'm going to wear my T-shirt that says "I Wasn't Born in the UP, But I Got Here as Soon as I Could."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Visiting Dan's Cabin

Clockwise from lower left: Karen Berg, Barbara Braithwaite, Bernard Malaga, Deborah Abbott, Dave Braithwaite (guide), Lynn Israel, Susan Giesen, Steve Robinson, Irene Haller, Leslie Toombs, Bruce Ruutila (guide), Bubba (Lab) and Wendy Anderson.

Today my class at the Friends of the Porkies Folk School Writers' Workshop in Upper Michigan's Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park spent the morning discussing their work of the previous week.

Afterward, we hiked deep in the woods to Dan's Cabin, a rustic and beautiful timber-framed lodge where the Friends' artists-in-residence live and work during their stints.

During the next couple of weeks the students will be writing about their experiences and observations at the cabin and on the trail to it, and, believe me, I'm looking forward to reading their stuff.

Helping these doughty and talented folks with their writing for the last couple of weeks has been a tonic for a jaded old retired newsie and occasional mystery novelist like me.

The students listen to critiques during the morning session at the Folk School.

Dan's Cabin somewhere deep in the Porkies, where artists-in-residence create.

The "back porch" of Dan's Cabin

Bruce Ruutila (left) explains the fine points of timber framing construction.

A few steps away from the cabin lies a beautiful glen with a waterfall.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The dark side of keyword searching

Not so long ago, when intelligent and educated readers still kept newspapers alive, copy editors delighted in writing witty, pun-soaked headlines to go atop lighter stories. The editor who could consistently come up with a zinger of a "hed" 30 seconds before the presses started rolling was highly valued by his bosses and sometimes made $10 a week more than his compatriots on the copy desk.

An example was a headline over a Chicago Daily News review of a book about the irritation-plagued life of the humorist James Thurber: "Great Jokes from Little Achings Grow." That was not mine but written by my boss, Bill Newman, big brother of Edwin Newman, the celebrated NBC pundit. (Pun intended.)

But now the witty headline is a fast disappearing art. As newspapers latch onto the online teat, search engines need to lock on important keywords in headlines so that readers can find the stories. Puns would turn Googling into paroxysms of bada-Bing.

Of necessity that Thurber headline would have to read: "James Thurber Led Troubled Life, Book Says."

It does tell the story -- but oh, so lamely.

True, a talent for witty headlines could sometimes get out of hand. Over a one-paragraph Daily News short about Asian villagers succumbing to an invasion of poisonous tree frogs, an editor wrote: "Croak."

Unhappily, the slot man let it through and the story made it onto the bottom of Page One. Just for one edition, but the damage was done.

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post opined on the subject yesterday in a funny but acerbic column.

P.S. This post was intended to be online two days ago, but Google trashed its own software while taking Blogger down for what was supposed to be an hour of maintenance and it was dark for 48 hours.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sunrise on Lake Superior, May 9, 2011

This morning I stepped outside the cabin at 6:30 a.m. to capture the sun at the moment of its rising. Before 9 a beaver, several buffleheads and mergansers, a brace of mallards, a couple of crows, an eagle and a turkey vulture had crossed my line of sight.

And the clueless still ask me why I prefer the North Woods of upper Michigan to the concrete wasteland of Chicago.

Click on the photo for a glorious bedsheet-sized version. If you dare.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The professor is in

It seems that the writing-instructor cap has taken up semipermanent residence on my head.

This coming Saturday opens the four-weekend Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park Writers' Workshop in the Friends of the Porkies' Folk School at the park in western Upper Michigan. There I'll be teaching nine students the fine points of writing about wilderness.

And next October 16 through 21, I'll be co-teaching a workshop on railroad photography and travel writing at the Depot Inn & Suites in La Plata, Missouri. My partner is Carl Morrison, a noted California rail photographer and fellow "field reporter" for

You can read all about it here.

Decades ago, when I taught at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, I prepared copies of my lectures and ran them off on an electronic copier to hand out to all students in my classes. I'd read the lectures aloud while the students followed along. Naturally many if not most would read ahead to the end and stop, bored expressions on their faces, while I caught up. Sometimes it took a long time to catch up.

This was an inefficient way to overcome my sometimes-hard-to-understand "deaf speech," but there was nothing else to do. In the end, it worked.

This time I'll be using another method to convey the text of my lectures: Keynote (the Mac version of PowerPoint) presentations, salted with photographs. This has worked well for bookstore pitches and library talks. I can see no reason it shouldn't in the classroom as well.