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Monday, March 16, 2009

Cleveland, pt. 3 - Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog...


Yes, you guessed it, we went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And yes, we took the dog.

Now, after reading the last entry, I can imagine you would think such a move foolhardy - or maybe just asking for trouble. I assure you, we were fully prepared to turn right around, proverbial - and actual - tails between our legs, and head straight home at the slightest sign of trouble. One look askance, one prohibitive attempt, one word from anyone in uniform, we were ready to turn & go. Honest injun.

What instead did we get? Smiles and open access all over the place. Leave it to the Rock Hall.

Let me just say - we were generally afforded easy access to most public areas. It's not like all of Cleveland was on lockdown. Far from it. But after our last experience, we were understandably a little gun-shy. But rather than consternation, we got enthusiasm. Where before we had the fuzz, now we had fuzzy-eyed smiles. And it was such a great challenge for Tag. Loud noises, thumping beats, dark areas with people milling about, floors with lights underneath, escalators (!), and all sorts of new environments. He did great.

Granted, he was a little interested in sniffing the wheels on Elvis' purple Cadillac. So we kept moving. And made sure to take regular potty breaks.

But his was the admiration of all the staff, openly accepted by everyone around, and - as always - to their own frustration, because as everyone knows: you don't pet a service animal with its vest on, 'cause it's at work. Even if it's an adorably sweet, 8-month-old Yellow Lab puppy learning to serve a future handler with all the faithfulness and determination of Rin Tin Tin, you don't pet a service animal with its vest on. In fact, if you are in any close proximity to the animal, you're doing its handler a favor not to even look at the animal, not to even acknowledge it. It needs to learn that, regardless of how large the crowd of people around it may be, there's only one person to be concerned with, one person to be responsible for, one person to be seeking the approval of - its handler.

Even if you're just standing there, smiling at it, or offering an open fist in a show of harmlessness - you're tempting the dog to distraction. You're not actually making the dog any calmer - you're just making yourself calmer. In fact, the best way to calm a dog, to show that you're no threat, is to ignore it. But some people think that they have to calm the dog, when in fact they're only calming themselves.

Because some people are just scared silly of dogs. Some people are scared silly of dogs even if they're 8-month-old Lab puppies. Some people, who might work as ushers at the movie theater where Tag and I went to go see "Watchmen", might back up and go three or four seats deep into a row as you pass, afraid that he's going to take a bite out of them. Some people, passing by you in the mall, might even ask if he's a pit bull.

Yes, it really happened. As the owner of a pit bull myself, subject to condemnatory stares as if I threaten limb and life by walking such a deadly beast on the street, I have to laugh at this on so many levels. I know pits have become the very face of evil in urban America, as if they were Osama bin Barkin himself, but has the spin gone so far as to call all canines into question? What irrational fear is next? Kittens? Pasta? Oh dear...

ANYway, the Rock Hall is one of those museums which looks like you're only going to need to spend a couple hours there, and then you leave wishing you had the whole day to slowly look at the exhibits. And it's often not the exhibits that you think you'll be fixated on that you actually spend most of your time appreciating. David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust costume? Sure you want to see it. Michael Jackson's sparkly glove? Of course. But what about the recorded interviews with Jerry Wexler, the reporter-turned-producer who first signed Led Zepplin? Brilliant. The video clips of bible-belt personalities proclaiming the evils of rock & roll? Hilarious. The note written by Mick Jagger in which he asks the editor of Rolling Stone what he gets in exchange for agreeing not to sue for rights to the name "Rolling Stone" or the use of the image of his lips & tongue? Fascinating. Rock has always been as much business as art. As much showmanship as craft.

But it's also been the product of far more committed artistry than fits on a CD jewel case insert. Witness the development of black musicians in the early part of the decade, and the negotiations they had to go through to get recorded, heard, paid. The early guitars built out of baling twine, plywood and screws that buckboard-riding troubadors carried on their backs during the depression. The rejection letters for early albums, now proudly displayed like trophies. It's a cool museum because it actually gets you closer to the lives and work of its inductees, and that's the inspiring thing.

My favorite was the series of still photos of early Screamin' Jay Hawkins - he looked like a young Nat King Cole. But a few concert 'stunts' became popular, and soon he had a whole new career. Like Alice Cooper and his oh-so-carefully constructed stage persona, so at odds with the Scottsdale golfer we know today.

There is the business of the art.
And then there is the art of the business.
And then there is the art of the art.

And all three struggle for dominance in any popular art form, I imagine.


And lastly, but certainly not least, we paid a visit, during the Monday day off, to the home of Angie's grandmother Margie and her husband Kenny, in Tiffin, Ohio.

A little background, before we begin.

In 1822, Josiah Hedges built the first frame house and saw mill on the Tiffin side of the Sandusky River river near the juncture of Rock Creek. He named his settlement after his good friend and Ohio’s first governor, Edward Tiffin. Bitter feelings soon surfaced between the two communities on the opposing banks of the river. Tiffin, at this time, had very little to offer as compared to Oakley (later called Fort Ball). Hedges practically had to give land away to induce settlement. The elite settled in Fort Ball, while Tiffin just barely survived until the two towns merged in 1850.

Agriculture was the mainstay, but the discovery of natural gas in 1888 brought industrial growth. Plumbing, furniture, automobile & machine parts, machine forging, metal fabrication, and insulation. Heidelberg College was founded in 1850 by the Reformed Church in the United States (now United Church of Christ), and Tiffin University, a business and liberal arts school, was founded in 1888. The mid-census estimate in 2005 was 17,438.

Had Tony Reed & Marianne Hoover never left, it would have been 17,440.

Of course, progress and youngfolk being what they are, they did. And the rest is history. But Kenneth and Marjorie Seislove (Marianne's mom remarried about 25 years ago) remained. And two more immovable community pillars I cannot imagine. Many and ribald are the stories I have long heard. And attendees at Angie's and my wedding would have had the opportunity to meet "Grandma Margie," but I had yet to meet Kenny. He of "Judas Priest, Kenny!" fame, one of Grandma Margie's more famous expressions. Another was the frequent and innocent inquiry, "Hmm. I'm dry. I think I need a highball. Anybody want a highball? I think I'll have a highball."

So yes, we had highballs. Which, in the Seislove household, is whiskey and 7Up. Other recipes may use bitters, grenadine, vermouth, ginger beer, brandy, gin, and who-knows-what-else. But like everything else in Tiffin, the highball is simple, straightforward, not particularly fussy, and strong enough to pack quite a punch. If it wasn't highballs, we were drinking Kenny's homemade wine. Which, I have to say, was a pretty good dessert wine. It also packed quite a punch.

Margie's just recovering from a hip replacement surgery a few weeks ago - her first time in a hospital. She took one pain pill the day after, and it's just been Tylenol ever since. Very. Hardy. Stock. Nonetheless it's slowed her down a bit, and Kenny's been doing some of the cooking. But of course, on the way home from the hospital, knowing that Angie and I were coming to visit in a little while, she stopped off to get some fixings for a pie. She made it that evening. As you do.

Kenny, meanwhile, also into his 80's, only recently discovered that it might be prudent at his age to find help when trimming tree branches on a ladder, gravity being yet older than Tiffin. But they have a beautiful kinda-ranch-style home on a few acres, with a garden that was dead asleep at this time of year but which pictures can prove is positively Edenic in the summertime.

They are also two of the most wicked players of Hearts as I should ever hope to encounter. Not just good. Not just practiced. Wicked. And remorseless. If they played Hearts in Vegas, it'd be a bloodbath. If the Queen of Spades were an icepick, Margie would be a murderess. If stone faces cut diamonds, Kenny would be in high demand.

But a couple of fine, home-cooked meals helped us heal our wounds. That and a couple more highballs. And as we spent the evening in the guest bedroom, reading and falling asleep, Angie made a fun little discovery which, all ye Reeds herewith yet reading, I'll invite you to inquire about. It's really a story best heard aloud and from her...


What else? Who knew I had so much to write about Cleveland? Not I. It's not like so much really happened. We had a decent time - and for all my glib derision, I could easily tell that there's far more to Cleveland than what's apparent during two weeks in the middle of winter, downtown & without a car (we parked ours at the Cleveland Playhouse actor housing for the stay). And as we headed out to Toronto the following Monday, we drove through a lovely park, the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, where a long swath of land comprises adjoining gardens and parks in the name of 35 (and still growing) separate culturally designated greenspaces - everything from Serbian Gardens to Armenian Gardens to Ukranian Gardens... As the website says,

The Gardens embody the history of twentieth-century America. They reveal the history of immigration to, and migration within, the United States. They comment on how we have built communities and constructed our identities as individuals and collectives. The gardens reveal the stories of the major conflicts that gave shape to the century: World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. They also provide insight into the large social, economic, political, and cultural upheavals that roiled through the nation during the last century: the Great Depression, suburbanization, the Civil Rights Movement, and the deindustrialization of America's industrial heartland.

They are also beautiful. Touching in their quiet majesty, humbling in the modesty with which major world events are symbolized, and inspiring in taking on so large and enduring a project of civic development, one that reminds them of so much of the world around them, even as the world around them marches on so potentially indifferent to its existence - for instance, making cheap jokes at their expense on some random website, like your humble author.

As as we wound our way out of town, I thought back to our visit with Marge and Kenny, to my own hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, and to a tombstone I saw in the Erie Street Cemetery, on 9th & Erie, while walking Tag one day. It's a shabby old cemetery, but still there, in grand - if grizzled - testament to the funereal aesthetic of its day: death - and the dead - are to be hallowed and heard.

One tombstone marks the graves of Lorenzo Carter and his wife, Rebekah. Lorenzo takes credit as being Cleveland's first white settler. He first built a log house for his family, then established a trading post, general store and central gathering point in the Flats for Cleveland's settlement. It is hard to imagine Cleveland as a vast, wooded, untamed region. Yet, the Carters persevered, raising 9 children and fighting against various diseases and the elements. The plaque above their tombstones reads:

They remained--Others fled.

For all of us who have fled for big cities, for big paychecks, for dreams to chase elsewhere, and for ghosts to leave behind - these typically simple, Ohioan words remind us of the value of our humblest beginnings, our earliest nurseries, and even our deepest scars of memory: without them, all of them, we would not be.

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