8 Things to do in the Zoo this Fall

(For little or no money)

We’ve all seen those Best of lists—The 10 funniest comedies of the nineties, the friendliest town in every state, quirkiest museums in Michigan, even best dysfunctional-family books to read with wine (Full discloser – I wrote that last one). It’s what the social media world calls Clickbait, and yes, we can’t help but click. Sometimes these online articles pull us into a rabbit hole of ads, but occasionally we actually discover new places to visit or cause us to shake our heads, saying things like, “How could they not mention Tahquamenon Falls as a best state park?!” The simple fact is that many of us feel a sense of camaraderie when a Best of article reflects our own opinion.

But seriously, why should Saugatuck get all the credit for being the best (fill in the blank) town on so many favorites lists? Best artsy town, yep. Best beach town, natch. Best small town, kinda vague but sure. But why should our beach towns have all the fun? One has only to travel a little inland to discover what we in the Zoo already know is the best kept secret on any Best list. That little city whose name would fit in naturally in any Doctor Seuss Book—Kalamazoo.

Of course, I could list off the obvious places everyone should visit at least once, like the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, where visitors are greeted at the front entrance by a magnificent Chihuly and can browse the KIA gift shop for beautiful affordable artwork and gifts. Or the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, which pays homage to the Checker taxicab company known as Checker Motors. Under the ownership of Morris Markin, Checker became the first cab company to hire black drivers and the first taxicab company that instructed drivers pick up people of all races. Some speculate this is why the cabs have the black and white checker stripes. And of course, Kalamazoo is also home to the Air Zoo where one can check out the world’s fastest air-breathing aircraft, the SR-71B Blackbird.   

But there’s so much more to do in the Zoo …

If you think you’ve done it all, here’s a list to prove you haven’t even scratched the surface. Or at least provide you with the argument that yet another list has failed to mention one of your favorite, “Things to do in the Zoo…”

  • Attend the monthly Art Hop – While we’d like to think we invented Art Hop, it’s likely we didn’t, but we sure have perfected a perfectly good reason for visiting the downtown area. Kalamazoo is rich in the world of arts, and wine, shopping and great local art just go hand-in-hand. Taking place on the first Friday of every month, Art Hop invites shoppers and art lovers to experience downtown in fun fashion. Do yourself a favor and visit the participating merchants that are located off of the main busy streets. It’ll be a win-win for the both of you.

Speaking of Downtown …

  • Did you know that you can now stroll the downtown area with a drink in your hand? What started out as a solution to the challenges of the Covid pandemic has evolved into a standard rule and one more reason why Downtown Kalamazoo is the place to go for dining, shopping and hanging with friends. Beverages must be purchased from one of the designated Downtown establishments and must remain within a defined area. Finally, you don’t have to go to Vegas to stroll the shopping district with a drink in your hand!

Since we’re on the topic of drinking …

  • It’s no secret that West Michigan boasts a great assortment of wineries that will placate the palate of the sophisticated wine enthusiast and the casual admirer alike. But once again, don’t be afraid to step off the well-traveled path and experience a winery tucked away on winery trail less traveled. Have you been to B 52 Winery in Paw Paw, featuring photos and stories of the female aviators of WWII? If not, we suggest, you start there.     

But you’ll need to work off those wine calories …

  • Fun fact – Pickleball acquired its name from Joan Pritchard, wife of co-founder Joel Pritchard, and is a reference to the group of non-starters in the “pickle boat” of crew races. There’s an internet story circulating around that claims the sport is named after the family dog, but the lucky dog was actually named after the quirky sport. Anyway, there’s still time to purchase your paddles and balls to join in on the party that is catching fire, and curiously exploding with mature adults. This is an interesting phenomenon since the sport is not exactly for those with a weak heart. But if you’re looking to burn off some serious calories while laughing at the shot you just made, this is your game. You should have no problem finding a court near you, but here’s a list to get you started … https://www.discoverkalamazoo.com/blog/post/10-ways-to-experience-pickleball-in-greater-kalamazoo/

And if pickleball ain’t your thing …

  • How about a walk or bike ride down the Kal-Haven Trail or any one of the many trails in the area. Repurposing what was once a railroad bed, this unique linear state park welcomes many walkers and bicyclists, leading them from Kalamazoo to South Haven. Visitors will pass through a delightful collection of small towns and villages dotting the trail. As you pass through Alamo, take note of that barn located on the northeast corner of 6th St. and Hart Dr. Back in the late 1800’s that barn functioned as the Alamo Valley Creamery and was the largest employer in Alamo.       

And if you really enjoy learning about history on your walks…

  • Put on your sneakers and take in one of the Kalamazoo Historic Walks sponsored by Discover Kalamazoo, Gazelle Sports and the Zhang Legacy Connections Center. These 90-minute walks take participants through areas of Kalamazoo rich in history. Learn more at  https://gazellesports.com/pages/kalamazoo-historic-walks.

Or maybe you just want to sit back and take in a little music…

  • There’s no shortage of music available in the Kalamazoo area. Whether it’s local and regional bands playing at familiar bars like Old Dog Tavern and Bells or bars that maybe you haven’t taken a look at, like Lucky Girl in Paw Paw or Liquid Note in Otsego. Many of these spots offer outdoor dining while taking in the music.

And because it’s that time of year …

  • Take in a football game—any game. Kalamazoo is the home of Western Michigan University Bronco Football, and you don’t have to be a former student to appreciate and enjoy great football. But there are so many other teams to root for from the stands. When was the last time you attended a football game at your old stomping grounds at the high school you graduated from … never?! Come on, grab your husband, kids and old friends and make it an evening of hotdogs and touchdowns.       

Did I leave anything out? Of course, I did. This list can be so much larger but let’s call it a good start.

Heidi McCrary is a contributing writer. Her novel, Chasing North Star is available at Kazoo Books, This is a Bookstore, and online wherever books are sold. Follow Heidi at heidimccrary.net and facebook.com/HeidiMcCraryAuthor

The “Golden” Prize at the County Fair

As a child growing up in Alamo, harvest season signaled families throughout the area to pile into station wagons for the annual trek to the Allegan County Fair, where food, rides and attractions attacked our senses in delightful chaotic fashion. Over the course of the evening, our family would inevitably end up at The Mouse Game, a popular arcade game featuring a live mouse that would be dropped onto a horizontal spinning wheel outfitted with a multitude of numbered holes. As the (I’m sure, terrified) mouse ducked into hole #12, the winning player would then choose from a colorful collection of cheap stuffed animals hanging overhead. 

But these mice weren’t the only animals put to work for our amusement. Across the way was another game, this one featuring live goldfish packaged in plastic baggies and given away as “prizes,” likely to be flushed down the toilet by parents two days later after finding Timmy’s prize sitting at the bottom of the bowl serving as a makeshift aquarium. 

The Mouse Game has long passed, so as I sat on a bench this past weekend at the county fair with my niece, I was surprised to see a young boy walk by, clutching that familiar glowing orange baggie.

While the world today is recognizing the fact that animals don’t belong in traveling shows, it appears that we have overlooked the antiquated act of giving away live goldfish as prizes. It’s time for “Win a Goldfish” to join The Mouse Game as a childhood memory of yesteryear. 

By Heidi McCrary, author of “Chasing North Star,” available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

Saying Goodbye to the Pearson Family

“This is Us” comes to an end, and why I’ll miss Rebecca most

They have been weekly guests in my home for the last seven years—before COVID was a word, and before Apple TV, Paramount, and YouTube TV were viewing options. Sometimes the visits were heartwarming and fun, but more often, our family gatherings around the kitchen table over Thanksgiving dinners were filled with stress and drama. Together, we’ve weathered untimely deaths, addictions, divorces, and illnesses. Simply put, we’ve been there for each other. Or rather, I’ve been there for them. Truth is, they have never acknowledged my loyalty because the Pearson family is too busy worrying about the Pearson family. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which is why I’m still here for them, tissue box beside me, preparing to say goodbye to the gang on the NBC hit drama, This is Us after seven rollercoaster years. Are they the most narcissistic woe-is-me group of whiners inhabiting the airwaves today? Perhaps, but, like family, we love them anyway.

I’m loyal to my TV friends. It’s the only explanation I have for suffering through the excruciating final season of How I met Your Mother. It’s why I continued hanging with the ladies on Mom after Anna Faris left the show. And it’s why I stuck with Mad Men long after Don Draper and the gang left the cool martini era of the 60’s. And it’s why I’ll be right alongside those Pearson kids as they stand together around Rebecca’s bed to say their goodbyes to their mother.

Speaking of Rebecca…

After seven years of analyzing each Pearson family member under the microscope, I have concluded that I’m going to miss Rebecca most. Caught between dreams of being a singer, duties to her family, and looking for love again after losing the love of her life, this flawed character is believable and real as she tries to make the best of difficult situations while also constantly reminding her children that they are her everything. The fact that 50+ women everywhere can relate to actress Mandy Moore (AKA Rebecca), currently in her late 30’s, is testament to her acting skills as she regularly portrays Rebecca in her later years. Her acting is believable—whether she is portraying Young Rebecca navigating through courtship, or Mature Rebecca finding her way again post-Jack.  

If you want proof of just how relatable Rebecca is to the everyday woman, let’s look at a recent episode where Young Mother Rebecca goes out to dinner with Jack to celebrate their anniversary. She proceeds to get quite drunk, and when the two of them are forced to rush home to save the babysitter, they later sit down with the kids to discuss what happened. After Rebecca and Jack learn from the boys that the babysitter was “mean” to their sister, Rebecca asks, “What do you mean, mean?” She then pauses, pondering what she just said, and repeats, more to herself, “Mean, mean,” causing her to laugh at her own joke—a joke no one else finds humorous. This small moment is priceless, making me love her even more.  

I measure the likability of TV and literary characters I come across on my viewing and reading adventures based on the type of conversation the two of us might have over a drink. I not only can envision Rebecca and me laughing over drinks, but I can also see myself telling the bartender, “We’ll have another.” While I will miss the entire Pearson family, I will miss Rebecca most. Maybe down the road, we’ll catch up on Netflix.

Feeding Your Writing Addiction

And how to extend your book’s 15-minute shelf life

If you’re currently clutching a half-written manuscript or in possession of the first seven pages of what you’ve deemed the next best-seller, you might have caught yourself daydreaming of that day when your polished novel is presented to the world. And the world rejoices. You kick off your publicity tour with a stop at the Today Show Studio 1A, where Hoda and Jenna can’t get enough of you as you humbly admit that your incredible talent and lovable personality have allowed you to break through the sobering fact that debut novels are rarely commercially successful. While these daydreams are fun, statistics show that debut novels rarely catch fire. Still… can you beat the odds?

The answer is… maybe.  

While a miniscule proportion of talented and well-positioned writers are able to secure a literary agent who eventually leads them to the bliss of publication with one of the traditional publishing giants, the remaining wishful authors often travel down a different path with much heavier traffic. Some may go down the road of self-publication while a growing number of writers are securing publication with the ever-popular hybrid publisher. Working with a hybrid publisher carries the benefit of validation, in that your work is vetted before the company agrees to publish your book. The expenses and sales are then shared between author and publisher. The upside of this collaboration is the book being available online wherever books are sold (Amazon, Barns & Nobel, etc.) and in your local bookstore, just as with books published in the traditional manner. The downside? Lots and lots of money out of your pocket. Let me say it again…

Lots and lots of money.     

The initial investment for the printing of your book is just the start of a well-oiled machine that cranks out invoice after invoice until you’re convinced that you’re never going to make back the money you’ve put into supporting your ridiculous addiction. And you’re probably right. As the publisher of one hybrid publishing company puts it, the path to success for writers is an ongoing process. In other words, the probability of Kim Kardashian being our next President is more likely than you, recouping your money from your first published book.

But that’s not why writers write.

There are several actions you can take to keep your book on the minds of readers and go beyond your allotted 15 minutes of fame before the window shuts on the selling opportunity of your book. Working on these five things will keep your book relevant, and your name top-of-mind with readers…

  1. Don’t blow it all, on the launch of your book – It’s easy to think that you need to come out of the gate screaming, but it’s important to think of your book’s shelf-life in terms of a marathon instead of a sprint. While we all want a successful book launch, there’s a benefit to spacing out your appearances at area libraries and events. By focusing on just a few appearances during the launch period, you allow for the public to warm up to your book, and for you to grow as an author. In fact, by letting a year go by, you will have the luxury of hindsight, allowing the appearances you schedule down the road to bring you real customers, not just the same familiar batch of friends and family.           
  • Understand the difference between publicity and marketing – Knowing what I do now, I would have saved the thousands of dollars spent on publicity that garnered little impact throughout the country. Instead, think about investing in a conservative yet consistent campaign in your niche market on social media. Whether it’s a geographic area (I chose to market myself as a local author, advertising only in the state I live in.), or a particular segment, like travel enthusiasts on the east coast. You may not become a world best-seller (Or you might!), but you can dominate a niche category or geographic area.         
  • Become an expert – By that, I mean, figure out what your schtick is. Librarians and event coordinators are looking for someone who brings something to the table other than, “I wrote a book, and it’s a great story.” While the book I wrote is a novel, it borrows heavily on my childhood with my sisters. By bringing my sisters along for appearances, we have found that we are quite entertaining. It’s quirky and different, and readers love getting to meet the characters in person. 
  • Keep investing in YOU  – Speaking at libraries and other events isn’t just about having books on-hand. It’s also about presenting yourself in the most professional manner and highlighting your attributes. Go a step beyond the basics of bookmarks and signage. Having a mini media-wall not only promotes your presence at events, but it also serves as a wonderful backdrop for fans to take a selfie with their new favorite author. Don’t forget to encourage people to post the photos on social media with your chosen hashtag (#NameOfYourBook).       
  • Above all, keep writing – It’s all about keeping you and your book relevant beyond your allotted 15 minutes. Every article, post, and blog circles back to growing you as an author. Whether you’re penning articles on a favorite topic for online magazines, blogging about current affairs or your journey to publication, or starting your next writing project, the key to successful writing is to keep writing.   

Writing is an addiction that must be fed for it to grow. To ensure your longevity as an author, it’s also helpful to put your earnings from book sales into an account earmarked for marketing your current book and for publishing your next. While you may not make back your initial investment, by feeding your writing addiction, you will not only grow sales, but you will also grow yourself as an author – and the likelihood that your next book will be even more successful is a given. Because there will be a next book!  

Heidi McCrary is a writer and author of Chasing North Star. Keep up with her at https://heidimccrary.net/ and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/HeidiMcCraryAuthor