Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Defining moments…

apex academy
Had a fun and fruitful visit with the 5th graders @ Apex Academy here in Cleveland. We got a jump start on their winter break take home packets by writing some definition poems for a list of words contained within said packets. 

Good sessions even though the holiday break was peeking from around the corner trying to distract us. Special thanks to Ms. Coleman for having her kids prepared and for the peanut butter and jelly sandwich!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Curiouser and curiouser…


One of the smartest shows on television as far as Sara and I are concerned is Fareed Zakaria’s GPS. This past Sunday he had the chief poobah from Google, Eric Schmidt, in the studio for an interview.


Their conversation began around internet security and the info that Google as a company collects from its users. Then they veered into finding information on the intertubes of all things world wide webby. The web – it was postulated – has changed the way we learn and the way we need to teach because facts are no longer something that need be remembered – they are now merely commodities to be downloaded.


Schmidt commented that when he was a kid in school  he spent a whole lot of time memorizing info because that was the most efficient way to have it at hand – stored in his skull. Now – anything one could want to know is just a click away. I myself like to quote Einstein who it is rumored did not know his phone number – because he didn’t see the reason to memorize something he could so easily look up.  How many dinner table arguments have been settled with a Blackberry instead of a butter knife?


Of course the draw back to the glut of data available is the parsing and vetting of its sheer mass for usefulness. There is no editor standing between us and the info floating out there in in Cyberia. We’ve been given the keys to the warehouse that holds everything. How do we sort what’s true and false, what’s junk or treasure, helpful or dangerous?


What we need to be teaching our students is how to think, to question, to look at the world through a  critical eye. The facts are out there for easy picking – all this time spent on standardized tests preparation - let me throw out a little aside here: There has NEVER been a study that links success on high stakes standardized tests with success in life. All this time spent on standardized test preparation is time spent doing the exact opposite of what our kids need to be learning.

This sets kids up to believe that the world is black and white – right and wrong – served up as a multiple choice problem where all we need to do is fill in an oval with number two pencil. When, what we really should be doing is engaging their curiosity, encouraging them to ask questions, to check multiple sources – this information laden society has turned us all into reporters who have to do their own “fact” verification.

What are we doing to feed our kids curiosity? Well, last weekend while visiting Sara’s daughter in northern Virginia, Sara and I took the boys to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History where we ogled dinosaur bones and stuffed mammals. Turns out the museum is free, parking was easy to find, and traffic into and out of DC is not a problem at all on a Sunday morning. We felt a bit embarrassed that this was the first time we had packed them up and gone into the district. See – we thought it was going to be a whole lot harder. Guess we shoulda checked our facts a bit better. Hey – we’re still learning.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

NCTE Philly

“The security guard said these were the best cheese steaks in the city.”


This is what I overheard as I jostled and bobbed in the sea of humanity ebb and flowing in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market  – just across from the convention center where the National Council of Teachers of English were holding their annual convention.  Lucky for me as the first cheese steak joint I had stopped at ran out of sandwiches while I was in line and I wasn’t going to leave town without checking off one of these colloquial culinary concoctions from my local delicacy to do list. The market was reminiscent of Cleveland’s West Side market – only around fifteen times the size.


Sara and I were attending the NCTE conference and it was wonderful to have the market so near –crepes for breakfast are not always the fare at these things. The conference was pretty well attended this year estimates I heard ranged from six to nine thousand.  For a change we were not presenting a session even so we had trouble squeezing in all the appointments, book signings, dinners, and publisher meeting we scheduled ourselves. The absence of the stress instigated with presenting though, (technology worries, finding the room, having set up time, preparing the presentation etc. etc.) made the conference one of the most enjoyable AND productive ones I have attended.


This year poet and anthologist Lee Bennett Hopkins was honored as the recipient of the Excellence in Poetry award given by the council. Lee has edited about a kajillion anthologies of poetry for kids. It has been my pleasure to get to know him a little over the last few years and I’ll tell you – the guy is a hoot.  So there was no way I was going to miss seeing him get his well deserved comeuppance. During the award – toast – roast – ceremony, speakers gave him as much credit for his inside info gossip acumen as his prowess as a judge of poetic talent. Hopkins was the first to publish Langston Hughes’ children’s poetry and continues to produce several books year. The dais was littered with kid lit lyrical luminaries including Jane Yolen, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Georgia Heard, and Ralph Fletcher to name just a couple.


I also got to see another poetic friend and VIP, Jimmy Santiago Baca – who has been contracted by my and Sara’s teacher text book publisher Heinemann to provide stories and poems for a new series of books. I met Jimmy years ago at a poetry conference in Ohio and he has been more than gracious each time we’ve run into each other since.  He has been doing some excellent work with youth and Heinemann was smart enough to grab hold of him.


We also had time to sit down and eat with friends including one really fantastic dinner with our editor Harvey Daniels and a crew of other authors and publishers in some swanky Italian joint’s comfortably catacombed  stone walled basement.  While perusing the menu Mr. Daniels questioned the provenance of the lobster served in Philadelphia.  I suspected that the shellfish may actually be irradiated crayfish kept in a galvanized washtub in a closet – “Here take this iodine pill and grab a lobster willya?” I had the veal.

ncte004After the conference we hopped into our little blue car and headed to Virginia where we are on babysitting duty while Sara’s daughters Kelly and Katie head up to NYC to work a Rosie Broadways Kids benefit. We took the boys to the Smithsonian to scope out some dinosaur bones but that’s another story now isn’t it?

BTW - the cheese steak WAS pretty great.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The hardest working stiff in showbiz


Those of you who read this blog with any regularity know that one of my favorite artists to listen to while I run is Rob Zombie. His work is a bit hard to categorize, not quite heavy metal – not quite techno, he came into prominence with his band White Zombie back in the mid ‘80s along with the likes of Sonic Youth and the B.H. Surfers. White Zombie is the title of a 1932 Bela Lugosi movie which most experts cite as the first ever zombie movie. Yes there are zombie “experts” and I would number myself amongst them on a rising scale of one to ten at about 8.2 or so. Robert Bartleh Cummings, aka Rob Zombie, scores an eleven. Since embarking on a successful solo career – Zombie has also directed and produced a series of horror movies including the last two installments of the Halloween series.

So, when I saw that Mr. Cummings was going to making an appearance at the Akron Civic Theater I coughed up the cash for a fistful of tickets and invited my oldest son and his girlfriend to join me at the gig.

I was somewhat surprised that I was not the oldest person attending the concert in fact I would put maybe a quarter of the audience in my age range. The opening acts were a couple bands whose genre would best be described as Hellbilly music. A driving four four rockabilly beat whirred up to cyclotron speed and doused with B-movie imagery. A complimentary prelude to the main event without stealing any of the thunder (and smoke and strobe lights and giant video projections) of the main event.

The overriding impression I walked away from this show with was an admiration for the work put into it. Zombie must have covered close to a 10K running around the stage and into the audience. I’ve been to shows before where the big star momentarily jumps  into the mosh-pit to be safely returned almost immediately. Zombie waded into the audience disappearing into the throng like a victim in a black and white George Ramero film being overcome by a swarm of the undead. Like the hapless babysitter who opens the dead bolted attic door to see what that noise was instead of calling the cops Zombie seemingly eschewed good sense and immersed himself in the black clad crowd. The only clue that the singer had not been consumed  by the horde was his growling bark of  lyrics still rising over the surging power chords emanating from the stage. No lip syncing here daddio, just some breakneck and more than occasional f-bomb dropping rock and roll.

Perched in our third row balcony seats we sat back and enjoyed the spectacle.

Colossal video screens showed snips of classic horror movies, clips from the Munsters and Tales from the Crypt type animated cartoons intermixed with punctuations of song lyrics in giant graphics. A  fourteen foot tall robot/golem type monster danced menacingly on stage during “More Human than a Human” – smoke, mirrors and the copious use of strobe lights as forewarned by innumerous postings in the lobby before the show  all played into what became the funnest freak show eveh.

In the immortal words of Zombie’s song, How to Make a Monster, “Go go Zombie, go go yeah, yeah, yeah “

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hog Butcher to the World

Just back from a whirlwind of a visit to the Windy City forty hours which included three gigs in a span of twenty hours.

chf_logo_black I was invited by the Chicago Humanities Festival to speak on my new book Well Defined: Vocabulary in Rhyme.  The theme of the festival this year was humor and festival director Mary Kate Barley-Jenkins found my book amusing after someone at the Chicago Poetry Center sent her a copy. So they brought me in.

Now the life of an independent teaching artist is somewhat similar to that of an airline pilot whose vocation I have heard described as hours of monotony interspersed with seconds of near cardiac inducing panic.  As the old adage goes when it rains it pours so after what seemed like weeks and weeks holed up in my home office I found myself in a blizzard of travel and engagements.  Since Halloween I’ve been in Boston, the greater Cincinnati area, Wooster Ohio and Chicago Illinois visiting schools, signing books, taking walking tours, driving, flying and riding.

After the school work in Boston I was the guest of Christine and Larry Charbonneau who walked Sara and me all over historic Boston. We visited Paul Revere’s abode, ate lunch at the celebrated Parker House hotel where Malcolm X was a busboy and JFK proposed to Jackie, visited the grave of Mother Goose (I didn’t realize she really existed either) ,and ate some pretty damn good cannolis at Mikes bakery on the North End.

Returning from Bean Town we immediately drove to Mason Ohio as chronicled in the post below. Then it was home for a couple days and off to the Buckeye Book Fair where not only did I sell out of books but got my pic taken with Big Chuck whom I mention in the post Boom Boom Boom.  Immediately afterwards I drove to Cleveland Hopkins and hop a plane to Chicago to participate in the 2009 Chicago Humanities Festival –  the past few weeks becoming a serendipitous swirl culminating in the visit to the city of the big shoulders.

I slip into Chicago as if putting on a tailored suit jacket. The city fits me well – it’s like a bigger better equipped version of Cleveland, same basic ethnic makeup, same weather, same Midwestern unpretentiousness plus the added bonus of hotdogs that are a meal. I landed with just enough time to check into the nice suite at the Seneca Hotel provided by the festival then grab a cab to catch the final half hour of a cocktail party being held in honor of the CHF’s presenters and organizers.

edkoren I am forever finding myself in water than is a little deeper than I belong and looking around this party seeing the likes of Matt Groening let me know I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I just managed to muster the restraint to keep from whipping out my Blackberry and requesting photos with the luminaries present thus not appearing the country rube in the big city – but betraying my true lack of sophistication I do kind of regret it. I did feel a little vindicated the next morning in the hospitality suite where I helped the award winning and apparently technologically challenged  New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren  print out his boarding pass for his flight back to Vermont after chatting about bikes and running.

My presentation the next afternoon went pretty well – I was not 100% happy with it but the organizers and attendees seemed to feel no need for violence afterward and to torture  the pilot metaphor a bit more – any landing you can walk away from is a good one. I even had folks line up for me to sign books afterwards so it must have been OK. I was especially happy to meet up with a former student of mine Jonathan Lykes who now goes to the University of Chicago and we had dinner following my presentation. That evening I was a featured performer at the Green Mill – the Mecca for Slam poets.

chf01I don’t know what it is about that club but it brings out the best in me. A lot of the credit goes to Marc Smith the man who invented Poetry Slam who has cultivated and nurtured the show for over twenty years – the audiences are smart, attentive and vocal.  No wonder I ran into such slam luminaries as Roger Bonair-Agard, Marty McConnell and Robbie Q Telfer there.  It was one of the best sets I’ve done in a long time – it was good to get back to my roots per se and somewhat consoling to know I still had some chops left. I think I kinda identify a smidgeon now of how the Buddha faced Foreman felt the last time he grabbed the belt.

The next morning I visited Von Steuben High School on Chicago’s North Side where I was joined by Jonathan and we talked about poetry and performed some pieces for an assembly of students.  The kids were receptive (they even took notes!) and I was given a pretty hep t-shirt emblazoned with the school’s panther mascot. Then Mary Kate her silver Honda Civic and I chased down a yellow taxi piloted by a Sudanese driver who took me to the airport where I was able to get on an earlier flight pretty much walking into O’Hare and directly onto a plane.

Sometimes things just fall together and it just looks like you know what you’re doing…


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Poetry in Motion

There are times  
when a teaching artist walks into a school introduces themselves to the secretary at the front desk and receives a blank stare similar to that of a caged bird. They are looking at you but you know they have no idea why you are there. This was not the case during the two days I just spent in Mason Ohio - just north of Cincinnati in the shadows of the roller coasters of Kings Dominion Amusement Park.

Sara (my partner in rhyme) and I were greeted out front by Laura Palmer – not the Twin Peaks character but a 7th grade language arts teacher - and her compatriot Joe Carraher who whisked us into the school, handed us updated agendas, a choice of lunch menus, provided a basket of bottled water and snacks made sure all the tech stuff was clicking and whirring at an acceptable rate and pretty much treated us like we were way more important than we think we are. We did three large assemblies of around six hundred kids each, got a few of them onstage with us and had a generally swell time. After lunch we split up and led a couple writing workshops apiece. I got in a little trouble when my group made a teensy weensy tiny bit too much noise (admittedly at my direction) in the media center - but I think the writing that they produced was well worth the minor insubordination . Joe stepped in and offered his classroom for our subsequent sessions and a grand time was had by all.

Day two we started out by leading a three-hour teacher workshop and again followed up in the afternoon with a couple student workshop sessions. After the teacher’s PD session we were thrilled when the secondary language arts curriculum coordinator, Jenny May, complimented us on how well we kept up with the latest pedagogy in the field. We were just as delighted by the staff’s enthusiasm for teaching and their participation during the session. I was pleasantly impressed with the genuine interest and appreciation showed when I recommended the vocabulary acquisition book Word Play by our friend Sandra Whitaker to one of the teachers with whom we were having lunch. Thanks for the great pizza by the way and thanks to the staff and parent volunteers who helped to make our visit to Mason Middle School one that we will remember fondly.

extra credit points if you get this reference...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

But that’s not all!

pierce021 Spent two days at Pierce Middle School in Milton Massachusetts working with the eighth graders in Christine Charbenneau’s class doing vocabulary acquisition and helping Sara out with a couple school assemblies and a family literacy night.

I led the kids in writing some infomercials for vocabulary words ala Billy Mays (one of the exercises forthcoming in our new vocabulary book)  the first day and then participated in said family literacy event in the evening. We finished up the writing projects the second day and then Sara and I spent the rest of the weekend scoping out nearby Boston with Christine and her husband (this adventure will be expounded upon in detail in an upcoming post.)

The family Literacy night was a real cool event. Sara and I kicked the thing off with a keynote reading – performing some of our family oriented poems – then the English department lead a selection of half hour breakout sessions from which the parents could choose where they were treated to book talks and other good reading promoting positive propaganda. After the mini classes a book fair was set up in the library with the prerequisite PTO bake sale goods outside in the hallway and a good time was had by all!


Thursday, October 22, 2009


animated gear

The household here has been buzzing – we’re scheduling and writing and planting trees and cooking turkey sausage - washing dogs - takin’ cats to the vet going for walks/runs and rides fishing for steelhead after running into old friends in restaurants - dropping kids off at the bus station - sending e-mails twittering and facebooking while applying for visas - nursing chronic injuries - cutting down trees - talking to teachers - going to the gym and streaming movies. 


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What does a beagle say?


owu Got up at the ungodly hour of 5am yesterday to drive down to Dover Ohio – a suburb just north of Columbus where Sara and I  spoke with a class full of pre-service teachers.  Pre- service means they have not yet graduated. We were visiting the class of  Dr. Amy McClure on the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University -OWU.

We talked about using poetry and performance as a tool in the classroom and we wrote some definition poems. I also used the opportunity to debut a new PowerPoint presentation I have been working on for my appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival coming up in early November.

Now – did we remember to bring a camera to document this wonderful visit. of course we did – did we remember to take pictures – no way José.  So I have no visual aids to share of the bright eyed students all aglow and soaking up ideas like some late night headset microphoned sham wow salesman.

sausage01 After out session with the kids at OWU we drove down to the city to have lunch with my oldest son Max – a botany major @ OSU. He suggested we swing into Germantown and hit Schmidt's Sausage Haus.  Well I do like me some sausage hence this was a sausage02welcome  proposition. I had the old world sausage sampler with sauerkraut – tart and tangy -  and a cup of potato soup.

So – Schmidt’s get’s a thumbs up in my book as does OWU – now if only there were a train between Cleveland and Columbus…

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Buy one poet get second half off!

One of the absolute best

parts of my life being a teaching artist is the travel that comes with it. I’ve worked in twenty five different countries so far and Sara and I are adding at least three new ones in ’10.


So far we are booked in January for Morocco and Abu Dhabi and then in March we’re headed for South Korea. These visits are always eye opening and exciting. Scroll down to the bottom of this blog and click on the travel tag if you want to read about some of the places we’ve been. People ask us how we get the gigs overseas and whether or not we speak all these foreign languages.

Well here’s what we do in a nutshell: Sara and I have built our careers on teaching literacy and comprehension skills using poetry and performance as a tool towards that end. This is where we differ from a lot of poets who work with kids. Our goal is not to create more poets – at least not directly. Our goal is to create better communicators, readers and writers. Quite frankly – I’m sure a lot of readers out there would agree that the world already has plenty of poets. We use poetry as an implement to teach all the writing standards as well as lessons across the curriculum. Now if our students decide they want to become poets fine and good – but we count our real successes amongst the kids who would rather be on the soccer field or taking headshots at zombies who learn expressing themselves in a bit more detail or understand the Bill of Rights a little deeper. We get kids to write better in all their subjects and teachers like that.


So, how did we end up working overseas so much? First, you have to have something to teach. We’ve written a couple professional books - a professional book is a book written for teachers to help them in their profession. Now even though the books are written and available – school systems, administrators and teachers still like to the authors visit their schools to teach the lessons within them. There are two types of visits – PD (Professional Development) where we speak exclusively to teachers and administrators explaining the research and theory backing our lessons and then there are workshop days spent actually teaching the lessons to living breathing students, sometimes with just the classroom teacher present – sometimes with a group of teachers watching the model lesson. There are links to the books somewhere on this blog…

We also have the added bonus of books published for kids. Lots of schools bring in authors to talk with their students and we have the added capability to help enhance the curriculum when we arrive for these visits. Published work is the foot in the door.

monkeyIn order to be successful we need to keep ourselves abreast of the latest pedagogy and we do so when presenting our ideas at teacher’s conferences. While attending these conferences we take the opportunity to sit in on sessions and keynotes – to listen and meet the folks behind all the research we use to back the ideas in our books. I like to consider myself an emissary for the classroom teachers who can only go to one maybe two conferences a year. Sometimes the best idea comes from a colleague over dinner – one needs to put oneself in the position to be part of these conversations. I am attending a dozen or so of these each year and I try to bring back all the best ideas and share them (giving credit to the originator when due) with the educators I work with.

Here’s a quick aside – I once had a performance poet send me an e-mail telling me how much an arts council liked the proposal sent in using the exercises from my book Outspoken. This poet was accepted into a visiting artist program using those exercises – I doubt that any credit was given to the actual developer of the lessons – but that’s one of the hazards of the profession. I am very careful to cite the source of all my lessons if I am not the originator because I know the hard work that goes into crafting them.

kazakIt is my job to be current – ideas change and evolve. I would be doing a disservice to the people I work with if I didn’t keep up with the latest studies. We are constantly updating our presentations adding new ideas. Think of everything that has changed in the last twenty years - the idea of a blog would have been unfathomable not to mention brain based learning theory or comprehension strategies. A good teaching artist keeps up with the research and then they hide it in their work like a vitamin in a glob of peanut butter.

2280681420_31aa14564cAnyway – Sara and I presented at one of these conferences being held overseas in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam. Now – the conference was for English speaking schools in Southeast Asia. See, there are English language schools all over the world. They cater to the families of folks working for multinational corporations, American Embassies, and locals looking to send their kids to the US for college. The schools are full English immersion and they are literally all over the world. These are the schools we teach in when we go abroad and that first conference half a dozen years ago is what set us on our way. We were now part of the circuit of writers who are willing to go anywhere. And the rest has been history.

International Schools in Kazakhstan, Jakarta, Bahrain, Croatia, Shanghai, Istanbul, Singapore, Bangkok, Bali, Cairo to name a few have been gracious enough to host us and we look forward to visiting many more in the coming months and years. So – just in case you are reading this from some far flung academic outpost (or even not so far flung) – Ya need a couple poets?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Could you please speak more clearly?

“I was going to tell you about the rattlesnakes.”

snake Just back from a working vacation at our editor Smokey Daniels’ Santa Fe Rabbit Moon Ranch. He and his more than lovely wife Elaine should be working on their own professional development book titled Best Practices for Hosts. Harvey “Smokey” Daniels is our editor on the vocabulary acquisition book Sara and I are currently writing and our publisher ponied up some cash to send us to confer with him giving the project a booster shot in the arm.

The first morning I was up, still living two hours in the future thanks to hopping two time zones, and took a stroll with my coffee in hand around the Daniels’ spread. Scrub grasses, tumbleweeds, wild sage and prickly pears dotted the desert along with other anonymous flowering flora benefitting from two or three days of uncharacteristic rains. I saw a couple lizards, some cottontails and a few murders of crows while the sun hoisted itself into the big sky over the mountains to the east.

santafe01 Smokey joined me outside informing me about the aforementioned rattlesnakes. Having been a bit of an amateur herpetologist in one of my earlier incarnations I had already figured we were in snake country and was already keeping a wary eye peeled to where I was stepping. A little prior knowledge can go a long way. Then again, one can know just enough to be dangerous.

Based on past experience I purchased Chuck Palahniuk’s (pronounced like two first names Paula + Nick) new novel Pygmy to read on the flight out. He is the author of the cult classic Fight Club and I have always found his stuff to be accessible plot driven and quirky. This novel promised to be more of the same. Publishers Weekly described it as: A gang of adolescent terrorists trained by an unspecified totalitarian state (the boys and girls are guided by quotations attributed to Marx, Hitler, Augusto Pinochet, Idi Amin, etc.) infiltrate America as foreign exchange students. A perfect set of criteria for occupying one’s mind while being blasted through the sky at five hundred miles an hour in an aluminum tube.

santafe16 So, the plane begins to nose up off the runway I pull my new book from my backpack read the accolades on the inside of the dust flaps and started in to chapter one. I found the book unreadable. Not that it was written poorly – but rather that the syntax Palahniuk had decided to use was impossible to decode for me. Chuck decided to write the thing in the broken English of his protagonist and in my opinion he failed. Well, let me re-phrase that – he DID write it in the broken English of his adolescent terrorist – unfortunately for the reader this prose is harder to understand than the well intentioned directions of that fourteen year old Bangladeshi trying to walk you through installation of a wireless router.

Here’s an example: "Location former chew gum, chocolate snack, salted chips of potato, current now occupy with cylinder white paraffin encase burning string, many tiny single fire."

santafe09 It never gets better – I skipped ahead to see. I am not one to shy away from complex construction: I love William Burroughs cut up work, Clockwork Orange is a favorite as is Motherless Brooklyn and Foer’s Everything is Illuminated is one of my all-time favorites but sorry Chuck – as far as I am concerned you owe me twenty five bucks. There is a difference between complex and complicated. Where these other books I have mentioned use malapropos and twisted syntax to add an additional layer of meaning on their work Pygmy’s construction wraps the story in razor wire. Not impenetrable but you’re gonna be messed up once you get inside and I just don’t think the payoff is worth the blood.

I have been rendered illiterate recently while travelling through various countries overseas. Standing on a corner in Almaty, Kazakhstan cocking my head at a Cyrillic street sign – wandering about in the death star of a fabric market in Shanghai or squinting at the oscilloscope like lines of an Arabic menu in a Cairo restaurant – but this is the first time in a long time I have had this experience with English.


This book made me mad. Mad because I felt betrayed by an author who I thought I could count on. Mad because I had wasted time and money and mad because not being able to decode this thing made me feel stupid. But, it did provide one valuable lesson. It granted me a little insight and a whole lot of empathy for struggling readers. How frustrating it has to be for that kid in the class who just isn’t getting it.

tarantula001 I passed the book on to our host Smokey who read a couple pages and apologized to me for enjoying it. This made things worse. I’m no idiot but now I was playing one on TV. I mean if Smokey could understand it what was wrong with me? I felt embarrassed. My ego was only marginally bandaged when Smokey and Elaine’s twenty something daughter – a big Palahniuk fan – gave the book a shot and agreed with my findings. Then again she may have simply been mirroring the considerable graciousness modeled by her heroically empathic mother.

So, Mr. Palahniuk, I will probably pick up your next book but I’ll sure as hell read a half dozen pages before I pay for it because after all – once bitten twice shy.


Monday, September 14, 2009

If at first you don’t succeed…

Ran my final tri of the season yesterday. The swim went a little better but I still panicked a bit – I was able to calm myself down and actually finished with a good time out of the water. I’m thinking it’s going to take a couple more times in open water with a crowd to get my composure back. That feeling of drowning (see my Lorain tri post) is a hard one to get over.

But – I didn’t want to end my season on the downer that the Lorain tri turned into so I found another race – this one down in Akron which I figured would be a nice little event to finish the year off.

Well, when we got there we found out that this race was the culminating event of a championship series that had been going on all summer. This was the biggest triathlon I have ever competed in. The swim was the longest that I had done this year in a race – the bike course was the hilliest as was the run.

In the end though – I did manage to grab third place in my division – so still no first place finishes, but as any Cleveland sports fan knows – there’s always next year!


Look at all the egg heads!


The water temp in the low seventies was higher than the air’s which was somewhere in the 60s


Smiling for the camera - (sara’s taking the pics)


Passing someone ten years younger than me right at the finish (ages are magic markered on the backs of our calves)


Suzi met a fox terrier who looked just like her minus the fur coat.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


old_tv October 8th, 1977 was a pivotal day in the development of my psyche. It was a Saturday night and I was a fifteen year old tenth grader living in a suburb east of Cleveland Ohio. In fact, even with all the travelling and moving about I’ve done I am still just six miles away from that house.

Like most adolescent males I was a bit of a night owl and I had a habit of staying up late on the weekends watching whatever was on the idiot box until the American flag streamed across the cathode tube around two thirty am or so and the television signed off for the night. You old enough to remember that? The TV used to sign off every night to the strains of some military band playing the Star Spangled banner.

Of course this was decades before a hopped up soap pushing Billy Mays ruled the wee hours of the day. Heck, good portions of the shows I would watch were in black and white. The hosts who commanded the late night roost were local folks like Big Chuck and Hoolihan and my personal favorite The Ghoul. (I missed the infamous Ghoulardi by a couple years) Big Chuck was a producer of the earlier Ghoulardi show and Hoolihan was an AWOL weatherman – the pair took over the late night slot when Ghoulardi (Ernie Anderson) left the Cleveland market for greener fields and network TV in LA.

These cats would play whatever cheap horror flick they could get their hands on and sprinkle comedy skits in during intermissions. The Ghoul, Ron Sweed – who coincidentally was also a production assistant on the Ghoulardi show – a gig he landed by showing up at one of Anderson’s appearances dressed in a gorilla suit subsequently received permission from Anderson to resurrect the character) was an aficionado of blowing things up on set with fireworks and inserting sound http://www.uttertrash.net/ghoul001.JPGeffects into the terrible movies that he showed.

I remember one occasion when a viewer had sent in a homemade volcano with a fuse at the top with the instructions to only light the IED outside in an open space. The Ghoul debated with the camera – should I light it or not? I was yelling at the screen “Light it Light it!” And I’m sure due to my prodding; he fired the homemade Vesuvius up. The thing filled the studio with smoke and sparks and Sweed, choking gagging and laughing, had to cut to commercial – truly great television.

http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/images/n1/n5816.jpgNow after The Ghoul’s show was over the station would play one more horror flick – this time no sound effects or gags at intermission. Actually there were very few intermissions – ad time between one and three in the morning must have been a hard sell in Cleveland Ohio during the seventies. Most times these movies weren’t too scary; the choppy editing making the plot almost impossible to follow sometimes the movies just stopped – no credits nothing and up popped the flag. But every now and then a gem would flicker by. I saw the original Little Shop of Horrors, the Omega man, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in The Pit and the Pendulum and Burn Witch Burn.

Burn Witch Burn – I have absolutely no memory of what the movie was about and it doesn’t matter. I could look it up on the IMDB but I would probably be disappointed because all I know is that as far as I was concerned it was the scariest thing I had ever seen. The movie ends, the star spangled banner plays, an announcer informs me that “we now end our broadcast day” and I watch the screen bw-test-pattern2revert to a test pattern accompanied by a 400 hertz sine wave tone. I’m sitting in a chair – my knees pulled up to my chest two feet or so away from the screen. Eventually the test pattern and tone disappear too leaving only a static and snowy image the sound reverted to a rasping fuzz.

“mom,” I whimper. Then again a little louder, “Mom.” This continues each vocalization getting a bit louder – Mom, MOM, MOOOM!! My mother finally appears in my doorway. “What the hell is wrong with you watching that garbage so late? Go to bed!” So I did.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about – this little event above happened a few years before October 8th 1977. See on the date in question I was watching Saturday Night Live and the musical guest was a 23 year old British singer songwriter named Elvis Costello. I’d never seen anything like it before – he sang “Watching the Detectives”. Well he didn’t really sing it – he snarled it like he hated the camera. He jerked around, knock kneed ducking and diving as if he were trying to escape from the screen, baring his crooked and gapped teeth, giant Buddy Holly type glasses – anti fashionable on purpose – his image evoking lyrics “She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake…” and I distinctly remember thinking that this was important – that this was something new and I liked it. Elvis Costello turned me into a punk that night.

So yesterday – I’m in the grocery store picking up some organic chicken breasts and what do I hear coming over the Muzak? Watching the Detectives - barely audible, I stopped my cart to be sure and there it was. Not a sanitized string version either – it was the single, Costello’s singing backed by the Attractions. Thirty two years from life altering moment to background music for shopping. You know, I wonder if Burn Witch Burn is available on Netflix, maybe I do want to see it again.elvis_costello12-17-1977-snl-radio_radio062