“Save a Lot” recently published online by Bindlestiff Press

Save a Lot

Spilling out of cars
with loose bumpers,
in flip-flops, they fill
their carts with
frozen chicken breasts
that look like
they’ve had work
done, shrunken heads
of lettuce, off-brand beans.

In the produce aisle
a guy with
a muscle shirt
that says “Six Pack
Under Construction”
is poking tomatoes
while a woman
leaning on her cart
as if it were a walker
kicks the tires
on an eggplant.

A clerk at the checkout
scans apples
that got roughed up
in the alley
and customers bag
their own
to save $.10.

A writing workshop and a walk in the woods

Stone CottageLast Wednesday, while battling a bout of illness that swept through our family last week, I drove down to the Hines Hill Conference Center in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park for a nature writing workshop. The room was filled with writers of varying experience levels, the kind I love working with, interested, open to ideas, a little unsure. We read and talked about nature essays by Anthony Doerr (who’s a Cleveland native) and Edward Abbey, and also discussed the concept of the “new” nature writing that’s emerged in the past decade.

After dipping into a piece by Mary Oliver where she talks about capturing unfiltered thoughts and words using a notebook she keeps in her back pocket, we took a walk in the woods. The sound of footsteps in the grass and a dozen writers jotting in their notebooks as I-271 blurred past in the background was pretty powerful. As one writer remarked afterwards, “I’ve never tried that. Usually when I write it’s late at night, and I’m writing something down I’m remembering from earlier. I’ve never tried to capture it in the moment.”

When we came back, Chris Auerbach-Brown from the Conservancy for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park gave us a fun, brief history of the park. I’m excited to read participants’ writing over the next two sessions. Many of them are interested in writing about the park itself, an amazing resource that blends wildness, people, and wildlife in an urban setting.

The Poetree Project: Bringing poetry to people

poetree imageLast August, before Literary Cleveland was really even a thing, I got together with some neighbors on my street and wrote a proposal to Neighborhood Connections. I was inspired by the lovely poetry-filled cedar box that Bobbi Reichtell and Mark McDermott had placed on a tree in their front yard on Franklin. I decided to help create “The Poetree Project,” which will sprinkle 10 similar boxes on trees and fences throughout our immediate neighborhood (West Clinton, West 75th, West 74th, West 65th and Franklin in the Detroit Shoreway community). We were funded by Neighborhood Connections so now the project is underway. We’ll be announcing more soon, but our goal here is to get great (and some locally-written) poetry out into the public realm, to inspire people, to bring the arts district into the neighborhood, engage youth and adults in writing, beautify the area, and have fun. This summer and fall, we’ll be doing a launch event in the reading garden at Franklin and West 65th and holding writing workshops / poetree writing parties. Many thanks to the neighbors who have joined our committee and helped out so far. If you want to learn more, you can like this Facebook page, where more info will be posted soon. Note that the image above is a poetry box from another community — we’ll be posting images of ours soon, as they’re under construction.

A fascinating night with Ali McClain and Lisa Damour

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Dr. Lisa Damour and Ali McClain

Tonight at the Happy Dog at the Euclid Tavern, Lit Cleveland was lucky enough to host Dr. Lisa Damour, author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, in conversation with poet, writer and youth advocate Ali McClain. Lisa was gracious to spend time with us in the midst of her seemingly nonstop touring schedule, doing her regular jobs, and being a parent herself, and Ali was the perfect person to interview Lisa because of her work as director of youth services at West Side Community House. Ali not only did an amazing jobs of holding a dialogue with Lisa about the book, but actually engaged the girls in her Sisterhood program in the topics raised in the book and had them frame questions about it.

The event made me realize how close Katherine and I actually are to having a teenager. While Emily has only just turned seven, I can already see her rising self-consciousness and confidence in herself as an independent person. These are good things. So is adolescence, Damour reminds us — although it can be a topsy-turvy, painful time, amidst the outbursts, confusion and fights there is an incredible amount of developmental work that’s taking place. As she points out, fighting with parents can actually be incredibly productive for teens! Whodathunkit?

My friend Susan Petrone asked if there was a similar book about boys and Lisa recommended Raising Cain by Michael Thompson. Sounds like my life. Nathan has been badgering me lately because I have “too much meetings.” Sometimes I can literally see his face darken as Emily gets into her routine of practicing piano, doing homework and generally being self-assured, and Jonathan cuddles in for some daddy time, leaving Nathan to play by himself. When Nathan disrupts my time with Jonathan (who is incredibly cute, but can also kind of monopolize me sometimes), of course he gets criticized for picking on his younger brother. But is it really his fault? He’s looking for attention. So when I got to read him two stories tonight, and he cuddled against me like old times, I was hoping he wasn’t mad at me anymore and things were closer to normal.

As a family, in the last couple of months we’ve settled into a nice routine. Jonathan and Nathan are becoming friends, and after some difficult times we’re learning how to be “five” instead of four. It feels really good right now. Not sure how long that will last, but hey, we’ll take it. Reading Untangled made me realize how fast life changes and how important it is to really savor it.

Getting braces might be the best thing ever

IMG_0695In  just about every angst-ridden 80s movie, braces were the scourge of a teen’s existence, something that ruined your life and exiled you from your peer group. These days, dentists put on braces much earlier, as we found out, and our girl Emily thinks they’re pretty much the coolest thing ever. She got to pick out the color (turquoise) as well as a tie-dye retainer. It’s a sign of her getting older and how fast our lives are moving that she’s adept at managing the process of knowing what to eat, cleaning her teeth after each meal, putting her retainer in at night and taking it out again in the morning. She is so happy about her braces.

Conversation with Jonathan (who is very reluctantly giving up the pacifier, and as a result much more conversational) this week:

“Jonathan, do you want to go to the store with daddy or stay here with mommy?”

“I want ice cream.”

The kids kind of went crazy with the warmer weather this week. It’s a double-edged sword: on the one hand, we can play outside, on other hand the spring buds seem to send raging hormones coursing through their tiny frames. They’re paralyzed by the possibilities of play and instead stand in the driveway screaming, “I don’t know what to do!”

At one point during dinner this week, it got so loud that I just took my bowl of ice cream and sat outside in the chilly 55 degree night air and ate it. Sometimes you have to grab peace where you can find it.

Another entry in the Emily-growing-up-too-fast department: she greeted Katherine when she came home after a night out with the admission, “I was struggling without you here.”

I’m writing a story for Next City about the Ballot Box Project in Collinwood. This week I got to observe the project in action: pretty impressive.

The difference between artists and cruise directors

600x255Just listened to a 2012 podcast with Junot Diaz that came out after the publication of his linked short story collection This Is How You Lose Her. He has this to say about criticism of his book from Dominican Americans and Dominicans: “What cultures, groups, enclaves want is cruise directors and heads of tourism boards. But they’re not artists. They’re boosters. Artists put fingers in the wounds, and in the silences. If the culture is not used to that discussion … people get riled up. That’s OK. We go places people don’t want us to. If you look back three, four generations later, maybe you’ll think that this was useful.”

I’m not comparing myself to Diaz (OK, maybe I am), but in researching my latest story for Scene about Global Cleveland, it was at times hard to get people to talk to me on the record. I was turned down for interviews by people close to the organization. Why is Cleveland so averse to controversy, to taking a long honest look at itself? And if the opinions represented in this story, that Global Cleveland perhaps squandered millions of dollars, are accurate, how did this happen without earlier community dialogue? How is this different than the county corruption scandal / bad stadium deals / all the other ways our city’s been fleeced over the years?

When R.A. Washington appeared at the Happy Dog as part of Lit Cleveland’s Between the Lines series, he said, “This city is corrupt, but its people are pure.” Don’t know if I agree wholeheartedly or not, but I think it’s an interesting way to look at Cleveland and its travails. Reminds me of the Wire, that great series by David Simon, perhaps the best thing that ran on television ever.

This happened, too: Cleveland Leadership Center asked me to have a Lit Cleveland table at Accelerate NEO this week, and also connected me to a reporter at WOIO 19 who highlighted us as one of last year’s successful finalists.

guvLast night, we made it out of town to Chautauqua with some other folks for a weekend away. It feels good to get away and reconnect. Here’s a shot of McGovern playing outside with the kids. A fair amount of snow up here. Highlights for me so far have been sitting around the fire drinking beer and talking after the kids went to bed, watching the kids play together in instant fraternity, and throwing snowballs and falling through the ice to the (one foot deep) water below.

Winter Fictionfest a huge success, a hidden house concert venue near Oberlin

IMG_0541.JPGSome of my favorite moments from Lit Cleveland’s Fictionfest on Saturday, which had over 50 attendees: reading Raymond Carver’s short story “Viewfinder” with workshop leader Eric Anderson, Laura Maylene Walter talking about her visit to Centralia, Pa. and how that setting transformed one of her short stories, Kevin Keating on going to St. Ignatius in the 1980’s and the dystopia that lay beyond the campus’ edge, which filtered into his two novels. Purple-tastic Loganberry Books was the perfect setting and folks walked away excited and inspired.

IMG_0556Saturday night Katherine and I went with some friends to Riverdog, a B&B and house concert venue five miles west of Oberlin, to see the Hello Strangers. The band is led by sisters Larissa Chace Smith and Brechyn Chace. It was kind of a magical night. There is something about these two sisters singing about heartbreak (causing it more than enduring it), leaving men, and murder and mayhem in old America that sends chills down your spine. Because I’m that 90s guy, I bought the CD. I’ve listened to it at least five times since then.

It’s hard for any artist to carve out an original space within the well-worn territory of folk music. What I liked about Hello Strangers is that their music felt familiar and uniquely original at the same time. They were not just drawing on timeworn riffs, grooves and structures, but also innovating within those traditions. Not everyone has a song about Conocogeague (a creek in Pa. that apparently runs near their house, pronounced, “Kah-nah-kuh-jig”) and the man that apparently lies at the bottom of it.