Category Archives: Michigan

What You Need to Know about Life, Death, and the Stories We Tell

Ghost bike placed in memory of South Christian High School teacher Rod VanDyke.
Photo: Karen Dunnam. This is a ghost bike, placed in memory of Rod VanDyke. Do note that this is only near the site of the accident – there was no sidewalk where he was hit.
Rod VanDyke was killed doing what he had done many times before: biking in to school for a day of teaching. In spite of Mr. VanDyke having lights on his bike and being in a highly-visible position on the road, the driver of a car coming up behind claims not to have seen him and hit him from behind at speed. What caught my eye, and made my heart sink, was discovering that the man who had been killed was part of my broader community, a colleague of my once-roommate’s husband. The headline read, “Police: Teacher killed in crash had lights on bicycle, was wearing dark clothing.”

Any child of God deserves to have his life treated with dignity, to have the story of his life – and of his death – told with integrity. But this doesn’t always happen. It’s time for us to have a conversation – about life, about death, and about the stories we hear and tell.

Telling a story well can be uncomfortable. So can hearing a story well. Rather than receiving the story as it’s told, we may need to look a little more deeply into our own souls and re-examine what are sometimes ill-considered knee-jerk reactions. This is all the more essential when the “characters” in our stories are flesh and bone.

An excerpt from the story mentioned in the headline above:

A South Christian High School teacher who died after he was hit by a car as he rode his bicycle early Tuesday morning was wearing dark-colored clothing but had lights on his bike, Ottawa County sheriff’s officials said.

Rod VanDyke, a math teacher and girls varsity golf coach, was riding southbound on 36th Avenue near Jasper Drive in Georgetown Township when he was struck from behind by a 1999 Acura also traveling south. The crash occurred shortly before 6 a.m. Oct. 7.

Sgt. Steve Austin said investigation showed VanDyke was riding in the road, more than 8 feet from the edge. He was wearing black and gray clothing, and his bicycle had lights on the front and rear. Deputies found an MP3 player and headphones near him at the crash scene, Austin said. He was wearing a helmet.


Last year, a similar tragedy happened when a teacher on his way to Hamilton High School was killed in a collision with a a semi outside the Tulip City Truck stop. His name was Josh Hoppe.

The crash was described this way:

Hoppe was driving about 6:20 a.m. south on M-40, south of the I-196 interchange, when police say a truck pulled out into his path from Tulip City Truck stop.

He died at the scene after his 2009 Ford Fusion hit the trailer, near the cab of the truck driven by 54-year-old David St John of Wellston.

As the community grieved over Joshua Hoppe’s death, the public conversation was quickly filled with anger and determination. People called MDOT, filled City Council meetings, demanded traffic studies, reminded the powers-that-be that others had died here, too.

The community honored his life and demanded an accounting for his blood. What they didn’t do was question his decisions or character.

Incidentally, the community’s efforts were successful. MDOT is planning to make safety improvements to the road in 2016.


In researching this story, I read over a hundred media reports of car crashes involving bikes and pedestrians. I was encouraged by how many of them were neutral, including only the clear facts of what had happened.

But many were not. Too many followed a predictable script, script that reinforces our desire to believe our world is fair and orderly, and that tragedies like this are either inevitable or crushingly just. But this script quietly argues for a status quo that sees valued members of our communities and families unnecessarily killed every day – and then blames them for dying.

We don’t need to accept a script that far too often condemns the dead. On the contrary, this is a script that needs to be rewritten, and we have a right to insist that it is.

This is the first in a series on the stories we tell about the people who use our common roads in ways that our culture considers unconventional. Next time, we’ll look at how to identify the specific scripts we hear so we’re better able to push back against them when appropriate.


Room to Breathe


It was summer at its best. Grilled chicken, watermelon, second cousins, fireworks, a toddler belly-flopping off the dock… and traffic, the unsung Independence Day tradition!

On our way home from the cottage, my family was logjammed for over an hour passing through Grand Haven. We were struck by how many people on bikes were crossing the river on the gravelly shoulder of US-31 – many of them children, most without lights, and all without protection from the crazies trying to fly around the traffic jam.

The whole city seemed to be at a standstill…


… and it brought this visual to mind.


Can you imagine what it would be like in our cities if we had more room to breathe?

image courtesy Copenhagenize Design Co.

Why the Winter Bird Sings and How You Can Too

Sometimes all we need is a reminder of just how free we are.

It’s early on the second day back to normal, after that endless streak of snow days at the beginning of the year.

“Mom, can we go to the playground?”


The playground…In the dead of winter?

Well, I guess I could blog about it. Sure, let’s go.

We go potty (or “go potty”) and don 27 pieces of outerwear (I count), some more than once, before crunching down to the end of the block. The temperature is in the mid-twenties, which feels unbearable in November but by January makes hats and mittens seem overdone. I can feel the beginnings of sweat at my hairline as I pull Mae across the squeaky snow and over the street-edge snowbanks in her bright new sled. I tell the five-year-old who doesn’t like to walk, the child who requested this trip, that when I was her age I walked to school every day all by myself.

She isn’t impressed.

The park we are going to is right in our neighborhood, only four or five blocks away. It takes up most of one city block and has a playground, a gazebo, a big open field and a ball diamond. After fighting the shifty sidewalk snow and a recalcitrant preschooler all the way here, my legs are ready for a break. I breathe a sigh of relief as we walk up…

…and see that, of course, the sidewalks in the park haven’t been cleared. Wearily I gaze across the field of unbroken snow and contemplate turning right back around to go home.

I’ve been hooked by the idea of winter cities, places that embrace their climate and celebrate life through every season. I can picture a miniature sledding hill in the middle of this park, sidewalks shoveled to the playground, kids playing on the playground and making snowy igloos in the baseball diamond.

Someday. Today is… different than that.


Abigail is suddenly inspired and leads the way, powering her way through the snow with her strong little legs. She stops in the gazebo, where the snow is shallower, and lays down for a minute before plowing on to the playground.

In the meantime, I have Mae in the sled and am trying to stay upright as I gracelessly drag her through this impenetrable snow bog. I’m scarcely twenty feet off the sidewalk and am beginning to wonder if we’ll even make it to the playground at all.


Ignoring her requests is ineffective as she attempts to launch herself out of her wee chariot. So out she comes..

But the snow is “doo deep.”


What have I done? What am I doing here? It’s the middle of winter and we walked to the playground?? What kind of crazy was this? I’m plowing through knee-deep snow carrying a two-year-old who has ever been in the 98th percentile for both height and weight, dragging the sled in which she now refuses to ride. Those prickles of sweat at my hairline have turned to droplets in a hurry. I stop and take a breather.


The sky is feathery gray and blue and has that heavy, steely look it does in winter. It’s like its colors have been put on mute for the season. There are birds flittering around the tree beside me. I can’t tell what they are, but I hear a bluejay across the park.

I pause. You can’t see the birds in this photo but a flock has hidden itself in these trees, dancing through the branches and singing their little hearts out in the middle of this Narnian season, free birds who “leap on the back of the wind,” however cold it may be.*

Their song baffles me. Don’t they know how cold it is? Don’t they long for the spring, iwth its gentle breezes and plentiful food? I think that I might sit huddled on a branch, waiting for the season to change.

And I wonder… am I waiting for an easier season, too? Don’t I wish there were fewer clothes to put on, fewer mittens to find, beautiful clear sidewalks to walk down? Don’t I wish for fewer dishes to wash, fewer early-morning wakings, beautiful little rooms that stay clean once I clean them?

Have you ever put your life on pause until spring? I have.

Maybe life is just too HARD right now. We lower our heads and hunker down, wishing for the storm to pass and waiting for an easier season to venture out.

But there’s beauty in the storm.

How much do we miss if we confine our dancing, confine our singing, to the days when the sun shines warm on our faces? How much of life passes us by if we flee indoors to escape the blowing snow that needles our cheeks?

Abandoning the sled in the gazebo I press on, feet sinking deep into the dense snow.


The playground was amazing. The slide that the girls normally fly off at top speed, landing on the hard ground in a crying crumple, is nearly snowed in. They slide down and then off the end on an invented luge run that extends the ride by a good fast four feet. Abigail faces her nemesis, the monkey bars, now plopping painlessly into the snow when she loses her grip. Every snowdrift is a little fort, piled up around slides and stairs, ready for hideouts and playing bad guys.


Getting there was arduous, but oh, was the journey worth it.

So much of this life is in how we face it. Whether it’s a dark night of the soul, the winter of our discontent, or a polar vortex, we’re birds in a cage with an open door. And sometimes it takes some doing, but gathering our courage and being willing to endure discomfort can make all the difference in how we experience this cold season.

The trip back goes faster. We’ve already broken the trail out to the playground, so getting back to the sidewalk is much more manageable. Over the snowbanks we clamber, cheerfully kicking aside snowplow-flung chunks of ice to arrive back home, to the favored lunch of hot tomato soup and Sunbutter sandwiches.

That thing you’ve been waiting to begin, that thing you’ve been waiting to be over with… will you settle into it this week? Take a little leap into the storm, put on a coat and find a spot of beauty in it? Will you decide this week to sing a song of freedom?*

I’d love to hear. Feel free, as always, to leave a comment or email me at And stay tuned for an exciting announcement about an event that you will LOVE coming up next week!

Because livable places are better.

*I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Snow Day Survival Guide, including a free printable!

Adorable. Fresh, clean snow.
Adorable. Fresh, clean snow.

If you’re all in a panic because your kids are going mad and you don’t have a thing prepared for them to do on the millionth snow day in a row, go on ahead and skip to the end. I won’t tell!

This winter is no joke.

It’s snowed every single day since forever. We haven’t had school since last Wednesday, and wind chills for today are forecast to hit about -30F (which is -34C – we’ve almost converged!).

But what do you do? There are only so many days you can spend huddled inside waiting for spring, especially if you live with lots of little humans.

There’s something to be said for celebrating the place you live, crazy climate and all. In honor of our fourth straight snow day, I’m offering a few hints on getting outside to enjoy this unique weather with a free printable below to wrap it up.

Dress in layers.

And I mean lots of them. Two pair of socks; leggings, long underwear, or fleece tights under jeans; undershirt, long-sleeved shirt, and sweater – this is your base layer. Then add your boots, snowpants, hat, mittens or gloves, and scarf. It’s so much easier to enjoy being out in the snow if you’re dressed for it!

Stay out of the wind.

Play on the sheltered side of the house and avoid open areas – it will make a tremendous difference in how long you’re able to stay outside. Good old-fashioned snow forts make great windblocks, too.

Come in for warming breaks.

This is a new one to me that came from a woman who grew up in Alaska. You can get outside in some crazy cold weather, you just need to come in periodically to let your skin warm up. So send the kids out for twenty minutes – or better yet, join them, the fresh air will do you good too! – then come back in for five or ten minutes to warm up and head right back out. Go ahead and leave the gear on and your sanity may actually remain intact.

Activity for Desperate Parents


Now, for that moment when you really need to go inside, I created – ahem – a printable. It’s a poem called The Snowman which I’ve formatted as a booklet for the kiddos to illustrate. It requires the ability to do double-sided printing but otherwise needs absolutely no preparation ahead of time. It is appropriate for preschoolers and young grade-schoolers (my kids are 5 and 7 and enjoyed it; the 2-year-old took a yogurt bath and decorated my kitchen with cinnamon rather than participate).

Get it while it’s hot (hahahahahaaa):

The Snowman: Click here to download!

Additional Activity for the Exceptionally Motivated or Desperate

Again, this needs no preparation ahead of time. Grab some kind of dish with sides from the kitchen – a cookie sheet with a lip, casserole dish, pie plate, that sort of thing – and bring it outside to put some snow in. Make a miniature snowman. (If you live around here you might need to let the snow warm up a little for it to pack.) Then watch it melt, just like the snowman in the book (hopefully it won’t traumatize your little artistes!). A lesson in solid and liquid states.

UPDATE! What’s a snow day without a video?

Many thanks to Sammy for this suggestion. Head on over there if you love to escape through adoption stories. 🙂

See? You covered nature, literature, and science today. Win!

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More on helping kids thrive in:
Ten Reasons for Your Child to Walk to School
The Courage of Children
The Capability of Children
Car Time to School Keeps Kids from Concentrating

Advocacy Day Update! Truth and Consequences and Fun.


Today I’m joining transportation advocates from around the state in Trans4M’s Advocacy Day at the state Capital. And I have to admit… I’m having FUN.

First observation: The House Office Building smells exactly the same as it did 10 years ago, and the sergeants-of-arms are also the same. It’s a little bit uncanny.

Going into these meetings was really interesting. The representatives and their staffs were gracious and attentive, and the meetings were quick and efficient. These are busy people, and I personally appreciated both their willingness to meet with us and their candid assessment of the proposals we were bringing to them. I’d expected a lot more beating around the bush than I thought we got.

Rep. Haveman rejected the vulnerable user legislation – sad – but his reasoning for this was interesting. He spent a great deal of time on the corrections committee, looking at how to reduce incarceration rates across the state. As we know, it’s incredibly expensive to hold someone in jail. It disrupts the flow of their lives (sometimes irreparably), is expensive, and a felony conviction makes it extremely difficult to find employment afterwards. In his perspective, there are two victims in a car-pedestrian crash, so introducing a new felony for something that any of us could do without malicious intent was just a non-starter.

First of all, does that bit – something that any of us could do – sound at all familiar? We talked about this just a couple weeks ago when we discussed mistakes you can’t take back.

So I get where he’s coming from; we have more inmates than college students in Michigan and the social costs probably outweigh even the heavy financial costs. Where I differ with him, however, is in concluding that we ought not to create consequences for additional misbehavior – and I, for one, consider inattentive driving to be misbehavior, even if I know that I could do this as easily as anyone else.

It raises a valuable question, I think. We talked a little bit about broader official responses in the post about mistakes – that in the case of any fatality, a team of safety experts could analyze why the problem happened and then work to remedy the problem. But what’s an appropriate penalty for a driver who injures or kills a pedestrian or person on a bicycle? We do distinguish between manslaughter and murder by statute.

Japan has interesting penalties for people driving who hit people walking. I don’t know all the details, but you’re required to write an official letter of apology and visit the victim in the hospital.

What do you think? Does the Representative’s argument hold water with you? In your opinion, what should the penalties be for a driver who hits a person walking or biking?

Reimagining Downtown

This book I’ve been reading has me imagining. Every street I walk down, I see something new.

In my mind, I’m walking downtown, headed west on Eighth Street toward River.

This map is so ugly. Here we are, going for a walk!
This map is so ugly. Here we are, going for a walk!

On the ground, it looks something like this…


A one-way street with slow traffic, angled parking, and wide sidewalks. It’s a pedestrian’s dream. But it ends, at River, like this…

All three lanes of glory. The corner of 8th Street and River.
All three lanes of glory. The corner of 8th Street and River.

Personally, I rarely walk down River if I can help it. The speed limit is around 45, and a little bitty curb is the only thing that separates me from the fast-moving traffic. Not compatible with a willful toddler.

Now that’s crappy. Here we have this fantastic downtown – I mean really, it’s so good that we welcome 500,00 visitors during Tulip Time each year and even Kathie Lee Gifford loves us – and we’ve hemmed it in on three sides with thoroughfares! That’s right, out-of-towners, it’s not just River… 7th Street and 9th Street are also three-lane one-way headaches.

We’ve created a beautiful, beautiful peninsula downtown. But it’s really hard for a peninsula to infect the surrounding community, with, well, its awesomeness.

Yeah, I watch a lot of cartoons.

So let’s imagine for a few minutes that these streets are just a little bit different.

A caveat here: Some of these would be easy changes; some far less so. I know that. But for a few minutes, just let your mind wander a little bit.

Now rather than the unfriendly streetscapes above, let’s imagine that they look more like this…

Downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan - photo courtesy of my brother, Ben
Downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan – photo courtesy of my brother, Ben

Or this…

In the city of Charlotte, NC; click for source website.

Or even something like this…

Poughkeepsie, New York. Lots of great photos if you click through to the slide show.

Flip back and forth between those photos a couple times. The basic structure is the same, of course; they’re all traditional downtowns. But some are a lot more pedestrian-friendly and pleasant than others. Some streets looks like they would be nice places to walk, live, run errands. Ours is kind of a non-place to get through.

There are SO many options as to what to do with the area between the buildings, even when you do have a lot of traffic to move through an area.

So instead of getting to the current end of the downtown and facing a torrent of traffic, there’s a reasonable street. Maybe it has bike lanes; maybe it has parallel parking on either side creating a barrier between my kids and this fast-moving traffic. Maybe it’s shaded by trees. I think I’ll go around the corner and wander a little more, past a few more shops… my downtown has just expanded for the cost of a little street paint.

Our awesome downtown is built around the automobile, of course. Check out this map of Holland’s downtown parking – all the blue boxes are parking lots. There’s more parking than storefront! Necessary to a certain point, but I wonder what the return for investment is there.

City of Holland public parking lots
City of Holland public parking lots

So what about this?

The expanded downtown... and me at the park with my grandchild and cane. I'm a little bit realistic.
The expanded downtown… and me at the park with my grandchild and cane. I’m a little bit realistic.

What if we added on-street parking to the revised 7th and 9th streets? And what if instead of having so many crazy surface parking lots, we made space for parking only in the middle of blocks, with storefronts facing the street? What if we had three times the downtown that we do now? How awesome would that be? Can you imagine just how vibrant our downtown would be if we tripled its size, made it accessible to the rest of the neighborhood, slowed traffic so that you could ride bikes with your kids all around town…

Can you imagine?