Archive | August, 2012

Kids These Days – An Unmitigated Rant

28 Aug
It may be the crotchety old Luddite within, but I get dismayed every time I see a kid – eight, twelve, fourteen – out in the world (a restaurant, the park) and glued to the screen of an electronic device.  Happily disengaged preteen girls tapping away on smartphones, boys who can’t be away from a video game for more than ten minutes.  It isn’t the devices themselves – these are only tools and toys, whose use or misuse depends on the user (or the parents thereof).  But I feel there has been a cultural shift in our expectations, an inability to be satisfied in any way other than instantly, an addiction to endless external spheres of prefab experience.  I know, every generation laments the one proceeding it, claims that things just “aren’t what they used to be.”  Thing is, they really aren’t.  When I was a kid (yeah I know, I can’t believe I’m using that opening either), fun largely had to be created.  Or at least hunted down with purpose. This necessitated resourcefulness, imagination, and often a bit of mischief – all essential assets.  Active, rather than passive, diversion.

 

Don’t get me wrong, passive entertainment is also important, especially for inspiration.  Brilliant filmmakers wouldn’t exist without the legacy of media they grew up on, and writers (like I fancy myself) couldn’t write, wouldn’t even think to write, without the authors we love to read.  But ultimately entertainment is an act of feeding on the creativity of someone else.  This isn’t any kind of bad thing, until it replaces the individual act of creation.  I believe children are naturally-born scientists, artists, explorers.  They want to know everything, create everything, go everywhere.  And over time, these healthy impulses are deadened, by the demanding grip of “real” life, and by the deluge of external distractions that come from every direction.  There is so much rich experience waiting in our inner and outer worlds, and I think screens tend to encourage passivity, and should thus be used in some sort of moderation.  Screens separate.  That’s just their nature.

 

I promise I’m not really as old as I sound here.  I didn’t grow up on a farm or out on the wild frontier.  I’m largely a product of suburbia (with some urbia mixed in).  I had lots of video games, watched cartoons all afternoon, and in my teen years, devoured the internet.  But as fun as those modes of entertainment were, they had a temporary quality.  I’d play Super Nintendo for an hour or two, then life would go on elsewhere.  Because the Super Nintendo, and the television, and the internet, were stuck in place.  This may be a big part of the issue – ubiquity.  It removes the specialty of context, the singularity of each activity.  Sure, there are obvious advantages to having the internet at your fingertips at any given moment, or being able to give your kid a movie to watch while you’re stuck in the checkout line.  But we can’t deny that these slight changes have an eventual net impact on the intersect of society and its children.  I bet the longest time the average person spends away from a screen during their day is while they’re crossing the parking lot. What are we teaching?

 

Just to be clear, I like technology.  It isn’t always applied in the best way (profit potential tends to be the first motivation, followed by warfare) but it moves us as a civilization.  It keeps things interesting.  As fundamentally weird and creative animals, we always find unique ways of using technology, and our children will surely take that inspiration to create even more amazing innovations.  But (and there’s always a “but”, when you talk about humanity) it behooves us to be cognizant of the world we actively choose to create.  Civilization has been, in a way, one very long process of disconnection.  The screens we use to stay informed and entertained can serve to connect us to each other and to the wider world, but they also disconnect us from whatever is right in front of us.  Or perhaps, within us.  I guess the point of this rant is simply this: Balance.  It won’t kill your kid to turn her cell phone off during dinner.  It will benefit you both to learn how to really talk to your son on a car ride. We can wait until we get home to watch the new episode of our favorite “reality” t.v. show, rather than stare into tablets while the world is going on around us.  Because whatever the priests of our new techno-theology insist, that world of data and devices is not the real world.  It’s a fun, sometimes educational, often powerful realm of abstract experience to be used with moderation in between, rather than in place of, life.  All that said, I reckon it’s time for me to hit the “publish” button and get my ass outside.  Adios.

 
~

 

Destination: Cleveland! Pt. 3 – Museum of Art, Lake Erie, West Side Market

2 Aug

On our last full day, we went to the Cleveland Museum of Art, a cultural gem in the University Circle neighborhood, housing significant works from ancient Minoan statuary to Picasso’s famed La Vie (among my favorites).  To get there we drove through Wade Park, lovely and inviting grounds begging for a summer’s walk.  Next time.  This area of town also features the Museum of Natural History and the rumored-to-be-awesome botanical gardens, so I’m sure we’ll be back.  The art museum is an impressive neoclassical building, beautiful, as museums like to be.  Navigation can get tricky, as some areas are off limits or in the process of renovation.  Going from section to section is not totally intuitive, so grab a map.  The rooms themselves are well designed, the works spaced far apart to facilitate extended viewing and prevent traffic jams.  The walls are painted in unobtrusive colors and each room feels airy and relaxing – small details which can really enhance a museum experience.

Detail from “La Vie” by Pablo Picasso

Jean Leon Gerome – “Woman with a Veil”

It was a treat was to come upon a sculpture by my favorite orientalist, Jean-Leon Gerome.  Gerome had his hand at sculpture only later in life, and I had never seen one in person.  This was a bronze entitled “Woman with a Veil”.  With my outdated camera, it was difficult to get a good shot.  But I really love this piece, the mystery it invokes.

Another large room housed five classically-themed paintings by Charles Meynier.  The paintings tower over the viewer, larger than life, and depict Apollo (god of poetry) with Urania (astronomy) in the center, and four Muses on the left and right: Polyhymnia (eloquence), Erato (lyric poetry), Clio (history), and Calliope (epic poetry).  I could have spent an hour in this room alone, beneath their beckoning eyes.

From left to right: Polyhymnia, Erato, Apollo and Urania, Clio, and Calliope

Viewing platform at Lakefront Nature Preserve

I really loved this museum.  They have an impressive and diverse collection of art and artifacts, and I think our trip to Cleveland would have been worth it for the museum alone.  Once we got our fill of Gothic etchings, medieval armory and ancient Assyrian reliefs, we bid farewell to this splendid house of beauty to get back into some nature.  We had yet to get a good look at Lake Erie, so we thought about where to go for that.  We were just leaving University Circle and considering some of the lakefront parks near downtown, when the lady friend spotted a small sign saying “waterfront”, pointing down an unassuming road.  What the hell, right?  We followed this road to a lakefront nature preserve only recently opened to the public, which included a trail that looped out to an overlook of Lake Erie.  Serendipity!  The trail was a bit claustrophobic with vegetation, thriving under the summer sun to create a hall of green.  We heard a lot of signs of wildlife, but couldn’t see much of it.  It was… vibrant.  Particularly after the ruminative peace of the museum, the trail felt like a visceral overload of life.  Expect bugs, especially inland.  A short hike brought us to a corner jutting out into the lake, with a metal viewing platform one accessed by ladder (careful climbing up, there are a few rungs missing).  And there it was, Lake Erie.  Cleveland in the near distance, and nothing but water in the other direction.  We spent a while enjoying the vastness (possibly prolonging our return through the heavy brush).  It was a fun, unplanned way to experience the lake.

Cleveland and Lake Erie

West Side Market

The next day was our departure.  We woke up extra early to hit the famed West Side Market before getting on the road.  This brought us back to the Ohio City neighborhood, where the market serves as an obvious focal point.  Designed by the same architects who designed the art museum, the market consists of a striking neoclassical main concourse, encircled by an arcade.  Within, one finds upwards to a hundred vendors, selling local meats, dairy, confections, and much more.  The surrounding arcade has all of the produce vendors, stalls overflowing with seasonal treasures.  It’s a wonderful market, though perhaps more useful to residents than visitors (unless your accommodations include a full kitchen).  What I mean is, the bulk of this market’s appeal is its trove of fresh ingredients, begging to be cooked with.  Alas, we could not fulfill their wish.  We settled for some fresh fruit, cups of delicious noodles from the Noodle Cat stand (a Cleveland staple), and bagels and hummus for the car ride.  We ate our breakfast of Japanese noodles at a table outside in Market Square, historic grounds for the 19th and early 20th century community, and where the market first began.  It seemed an appropriate last meal, connecting Cleveland’s past with its present, a city with deep history and an eye on the future.  A city I definitely look forward to seeing again.

Destination: Cleveland! Pt. 2 – Cuyahoga Valley, Loganberry Books, Happy Dog!

1 Aug

Pardon my insidious slackertude.  Discipline – that’s the thing I’m still wrestling with.  Fortunately I’ve been getting work done with my fiction, but I haven’t done enough with the blog.  So then, where was I?

Ohio-Erie Canal & Towpath Trail

Cleveland!  Right.  Hell of a town.  The lady friend and I were thus far impressed with this unsung destination.  But before exploring the city further, we wanted to experience some of the green and the wild of surrounding O-hi-o.  So we headed over to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which runs north and south between Cleveland and Akron, covering some 30,000 acres.  The Canal Visitor Center happened to be right down the road from our hotel in Independence, perfect place to start.  We chatted with a ranger about the history of the Ohio-Erie Canal, conservation efforts, and local fauna.  Within the Center’s large 19th c. building one finds numerous exhibits on the history of the canal area, a history I’d say is pretty underrated.  Us upstate New Yorkers are aware of how monumental the canal boon of the Transportation Revolution was.  The construction of our own Erie Canal, bisecting New York from Albany to Buffalo, connected the Great Lakes with the Atlantic, enabling an explosion of industry and commerce that spread across the northeast.  New York state would not have become what it is without it.

What I didn’t know was that Ohio owes a similar debt of gratitude to man-made waterways.  In the 19th century, there were two major canals in Ohio running north to Lake Erie, and we had stumbled upon the largest, the Ohio-Erie Canal.  It ran from Portsmouth in the south up to Cleveland, connecting interior Ohio to the Ohio River and the Erie Canal, and thus to the trade and industry of the rest of the country.  No small thing for a nation in the midst of an industrial revolution.  These days, the canal is a source of regional historic pride, and the axis of northeast Ohio’s outdoor recreational opportunities.

We asked the ranger where a first-time visitor should go to spot wildlife and were recommended Beaver Marsh at the southern end of the Valley, which also afforded an opportunity to drive through most of the park’s length.  We arrived at a parking area south of Everett where we could pick up the Towpath Trail, running alongside the canal (this is the path donkeys would use while pulling barges along the canal).  This segment of the trail would take us through Beaver Marsh, a thriving ecosystem designated by Audubon as an IBA (important bird area).  The marsh itself has a bit of history, having once been a dairy farm, and then later a field where used car parts were dumped.  Some time in the 1980s, the area was totally cleaned up, which attracted the beavers, who then reshaped the landscape into a waterscape with their industrious labor.  It was amazing to see just what beavers could accomplish!  They had turned a 70 acre  field into a 70 acre marsh.  We walked along the boardwalk, looking down into the water at massive carp gaping their mouths up at us, and glimpsed a huge snapping turtle swimming by.  But the biggest stars of the marsh were the Great Blue Herons.  As we arrived, a group had gathered to watch one perched and preening on a dead tree poking from the water.  As we walked on, we had another heron swoop low right over us, it’s large wings flapping slowly, an audible “whoosh!  whoosh!” -unforgettable.  We later saw another heron standing at the edge, being pestered by a little ol’ blackbird of all things.  It kept dive-bombing the big heron, which, despite its size, seemed at a total loss.  Eventually it flapped laboriously away, clearly confused and annoyed.  Who knew blackbirds could be so fresh?

Great Blue Heron

The Beaver Marsh was great, and we wished we could go there every morning.  The only annoyance is that the Towpath Trail is used heavily by bicyclists, and when one is not a bicyclist, the traffic gets irksome, bikes zooming by next to you, startling birds, threatening collision or a soggy tumble.  Like all National Parks, it’s good to go in as early as you can.  There were other activities at Cuyahoga that we passed up – a waterfall, a train ride, guided walks, so on.  The park region contains a bunch of small farms and quaint eateries, little villages and lots of trails.  It’s a nice thing for Cleveland, to have such a great green area right outside the city.

After the marsh we decided to head back into Cleveland proper.  For the unaware, I’ll mention that I happen to have a serious used book addiction.  Thus it wasn’t long before I discovered the existence of Loganberry Books in the Shaker Heights neighborhood, an “up-and-coming” (as they say) area with lots of shops and a walkable vibe.  I was just looking for my book fix, you know?  Maybe a little paperback or something on the history of the area.  But Loganberry turned out to be a very impressive shop, much larger than it looked from the outside.  They seem very involved with the community, and there was a steady flow of visitors.  Loganberry had some interesting collectibles (passed up a lovely illustrated antique volume of Russian folk tales), and a decent poetry section.  Grabbed some Seamus Heaney, the complete works of Percy Shelley, and an over-sized edition of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, solely because it included large prints of the Gustave Dore illustrations.  I could have spent the rest of the day there, but we were getting hungry and headed downtown to hunt down dinner.

Downtown Cleveland was… not my kind of scene.  There were a lot of restaurants, many that looked very good, but the atmosphere was a jarring blend of tourism and urban hustlin’.  We trekked all over, meticulously looking over menus and meticulously not-looking at the sketchy oddballs who loped around the city with strange looks in their eyes.  Maybe it was a full moon that night, I don’t remember.  Normally I love sketchy oddballs, but there was an unsavory vibe.  It didn’t help that we had a hell of a time deciding where to eat – everything seemed gimicky or over-priced or was already jam-packed.  We gave up and committed ourselves sight-unseen to the next place we came to, which turned out to be an Irish joint called Flannery’s Pub, where I had passable fish and chips and a draft of Old Speckled Hen.  They have an extensive Irish and English beer list, so if that’s your thing, this might be your spot.

Happy Dog!

Our dining experiences took an upswing on the next day, when we went to the acclaimed Happy Dog for an early lunch.  Now this place is awesome.  You can get either a quality hotdog or a vegan “sausage”, and smother it in as many of their fifty (FIFTY!) toppings as you can stomach.  I had the vegan sausage with black truffle mustard (yes, seriously), marinated mushrooms, onions, relish, and garlicky escarole.  Sounds like a hodgepodge, but somehow it all worked beautifully.  Most delicious dog of my life, hands down.  The staff is laid back and the beer selection is extensive, lots of craft brews on tap and bottled.  If I lived in Cleveland, I’d be here every week.

The main event of the day came next – the Cleveland Museum of Art.  That, along with Lake Erie and the West Side Market, coming up in the next post!