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The Thrifty BonVivant celebrates in Cleveland

20 Nov

The BonVivant is not a cake lover, but is a cake admirer and wishes these had supplied birthday cheer to all her pals

This past week made me formally a year older, and some external celebrations were in order–I wish I could have had bigger parties, but these little excursions were November delights. So live vicariously, and if you don’t know these Cleveland stops, put them on your radar! And please take a slice from one of these inventive birthday cakes–although they didn’t grace my table, they provided a digital feast for my eyes.

I needed to renew my driver’s license, and my friend Miss D suggested a trip to the Brooklyn DMV might

This gets the idea across

prove quick. It was incredibly fast and pleasant, and–I can’t phrase it any other way, though it does date me–a hoot! Because the strip mall location does not prepare the motorist (no, I don’t drive, but I do have a license and want to keep it!) for the exotically pink, black and zebra-accented interior that is this

bureaucratic stop. It made me grin and I got a great license picture as a result! Why oh why

Buon appetito!

did I neglect to take a photo? You must see for yourself!

After the swift and successful license renewal, it was time for lunch, and three of us decided nothing would do but Bruno’s Ristorante, at 2644 W. 41st St.  From the outside it’s an unpretentious place, and the interior is pleasant and restrained (with a great-

Two-fisted culinary love for perch!

looking bar), but it supplies one of the city’s best dining experiences. Because it’s about real service and delicious food. Not “Hi, I’m your waiter John” pseudo-sincerity of the type that doesn’t mind interrupting an intense conversation for an inane inquiry. No. Real service to go along with your cloth

But not for long, Chicken Marsala

napkin. Service that’s pleasant, inobtrusive, attentive but not hovering. The kind Dino or Peter Lawford would have enjoyed. Professional service. Oh, and fantastic food, beginning with the still fresh-baked warmth of the delicious bread with REAL HERBED BUTTER. Funny enough, I was just talking about how much I liked herbed butter in Europe, where it’s made commercially, wrapped in metallic foil like a bigger version of a diner’s butter. Bruno’s had me so reentranced with it that I made it at home the next day, with a little oregano and garlic powder; I’m thinking of getting one of those small shaped rubber ice cube trays at the dollar store and molding some to freeze and give out at Christmas. Anyway, all the recipes at Bruno’s were concocted by a true Mamma from the Old Country, and she knows her stuff. The table had a variety of tasty meals, all automatically with side dishes (kitchen-made soup or salad with a delicious balsamic dressing plus pasta). I was the veal parm, Miss D was the chicken (or was it veal?) marsala, and Mr D was breaded perch. I was so satisfied that my meal was over before I thought to take a photo, so I will entertain you with theirs. Mr D said he had never had better fish–and he eats plenty of it. Miss D loved her Italian Wedding Soup and marsala–but she saved

The Strange Case of the Vanishing Tiramisu

room for the tiramisu, which she had an intimate acquaintance with. Mr D took a forkful and almost fainted from bliss. Not only did the whole experience please me no end–Italian is my favorite cuisine–I loved the nostalgia it produced. There were a couple of guys (lawyers?) gesticulating in the corner as they wolfed down their food, Frank was playing softly through the speakers, and there were butter mints, toothpicks and MATCHES at the door. I haven’t seen imprinted matches in ages, but everyplace used to. Bruno’s is a place with neighborhood swagger that it well deserves. They cater, toom and are priced nostalgically–thank you, Bruno!

This once was a Walleye Sandwich

Lunch for three was under $45.

This once was Christmas Ale

A few days later was the actual bday, and it was time for lunch at the West Side Market Cafe. I have been there many a time, and never disappointed. Again, excellent service in a busy spot. Mr. D could not resist his favorite, the breaded walleye sandwich, while I embraced the pulled pork sandwich. Everything fresh, hot, plentiful, and with flavor far surpassing what the luncheonette appearance would suggest. This spot, like Bruno’s, piles on the value for money. In a festive mood, it was time for Christmas Ale from Great Lakes Brewery, but the cafe does something with it that the Brewery didn’t (at least not on Halloween)–they dipped the glass rims in cinnamon and sugar. Yes, ask for it!

Horizontal books--ideal for the thrifty book explorer! Surprising treats!

We roamed about a bit–have you been shopping at W. 25th’s Horizontal Books? They deserve your custom! With both current bestsellers and remaindered works, their size is just right–good selection, not so big that you can’t look at most sections. Their pricing policy allows 50% off the first book, 60% off both if you buy two, and 70% off all if you buy three. And I just noticed as I tracked down the link that they have free shipping. Can’t beat that! Please support them so the city’s easily reachable bookstores stay easily reachable–none downtown except for textbooklands.

On to the Capitol Theatre, the restored 1921 wonder on W. 65th just off Detroit. What a

The West Side's Cedar Lee--but with an authentic early lobby

gem! We were there in the late afternoon on a weekday, so only one other couple shared the viewing with us, and there was a deal on popcorn. We saw Tower Heist, a fun film with Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, Heavy D in a small role (RIP), Casey Affleck and Alan Alda–what a distinctive voice that guy’s got! A good popcorn film, and one certainly enhanced by a big

Downtown can't beat Luxe for atmosphere or creative dishes--warm almonds anywone? Veal-stuffed olives?


Dinner? My favorite spot, Luxe. Just across Detroit. I’ve loved it since it opened–it’s an ultra-stylish place that in NYC or Philly would be overpriced because of its imaginative dishes and appetizers–and drinks–and its funky eclecticism. But here in Cleveland it’s exceedingly reasonable. The bar (where one can also nosh) is always hopping, but the dining room is quieter (same great mix of DJ’ed background music, though). If you want fancy cocktails, they have inventive

When pizza is served on a silver salver, it deserves the knife & fork treatment

Hearty onion soup is as Luxe as anything

ones–I opted for a non-alcoholic one this time, and it was equally splendid: lavender-infused carbonated lemonade with a blueberry syrup drizzle. Oh, yes. I wanted the margarita pizza and wolfed its basil deliciousness down like a goat. Mr. D was overfull from the popcorn and stuck with the onion soup, which he drained with deep satisfaction. Lucky for me, they were out of blood orange sorbet, or I might still be there.

I love going to new places and trying them out, but this birthday was about familiar and favored stops. Tried and true, still atmospheric with three moods. You won’t be disappointed if they become your choices.


Chronic Gloom in Wintry Months

11 Nov

The bright band at the right shows the time on this futuristic sundial

It’s been a fairly bright Fall in northeastern Ohio. I love light. Sundials are a lovely anachronistic way to tell time, and they don’t have to look anachronistic (though that has its charms). Here’s onethat’s precise, within 30 seconds of the atomic clock. Plus it adjusts for latitude and Daylight Savings! Nonetheless, it requires those rays

A touch of Cleveland color in this great shot of Tony Smith's "Last", on Superior. Photo by Rob Corder

to pierce through the firmament. And that’s usually a tall order in Cleveland, once November kicks in. This week has vacillated between the cheery, the overcast, and the clouds of doom, and expecting more of the latter isn’t pessimistic, it’s just what the almanacs of yore support.

My townhouse has plenty of windows, but they seem veiled on days like this. As I’ve mentioned before, a dose of color can help, both indoors and out. And our downtown is fairly devoid of color, with the exception of a few doses of flat reds, like Oldenberg’s Free Stamp or Tony Smith‘s Last. The Belgian sculptor Arne Quinze created an installation that extends the glorious foliage of autumn—his 2008 installation The Sequence, brightens a corner of Brussels, another frequently gloomy metropolis, with a

This Belgian installation brings not only color but an intimate interconnectness to an urban street.

wooden canopy. Because it interacts with the small urban trees, its palette gets a chance to change throughout the year. I like the way it creates a new sense of street, and imagine how, on the rare sunny day, dappled light would stream down through it. It’s been up for three years, but it won’t be permanent–it’s made from wood, so its shelf life is limited–knowledge that contributes to its organic feel.

A relic! The first street lamp in the U.S., on Cleveland's Public Square.

Of course, we’re used to artificial light to banish gloom, and this can also be an uplifting experience. The antique lighting fixture on the corner of Public Square’s Key Bank is a classic example–it’s not just a fabulous cast iron Art Nouveau form, it marks the first American street lamp, the invention of Clevelander Charles Brush in 1879, If Cleveland is the U.S. birthplace of public electric lighting (he improved significantly on a British invention), and East Cleveland’s NELA Park was the first industrial park, based on GE’s buyout of a local lighting company, then one would think Cleveland should remain a leader in urban lighting–and not just at Christmas time.

It may seem that Tower City is doing its part here. Illuminated in lurid red and green during December, iit’s been branching out–green for St. Patrick’s Day, for example. It’s currently a curiously livid purple, which I

Public Square chameleoning it for varied purposes

thought was perhaps a Halloween whimsy–very wrong. The purple is a greater-than-Cleveland October initiative, meant to “shine the light” on domestic abuse. Noble though that may be, conventional lighting isn’t really what I’m thinking about. It can be sprightly, such as the simple lights that make 4th Street such an alluring nighttime destination, or snazzy, like Playhouse Square’s marquee and it RTA lighted sculpture.

Shanghai's nightlights make you want to put on party shoes!

It’s difficult to compete with some cities–Shanghai has an illuminated skyline that would make Las Vegas feel toned down. But what I was thinking about wasn’t necessarily this unrelenting drive to create a frenzied nightlife (though I appreciate that), but rather a way to illuminate in both temporary and permanent ways, ways that exploit new technologies and create a sense of place–sometimes intimate, sometimes celebratory, and sometimes mysterious.

Okay–like what? All right class, let’s look at a few examples. Some are art installations, some functional only. Let’s get creative in Cleveland–everybody needs to feel the glow in the winter. The Cleveland Museum of Art has its Lantern Festival every December, and occasionally it’s aligned with the downtown Winterfest, but everything doesn’t have to be institutionally driven. How about a competition along Euclid, or those dark stretches of Lorain Avenue?

CO2LED in Virginia

Example One: This is an elegant installation that occurred in Rosslyn, VA, a waterside town by DC. Echoing the Potomoc’s reeds, it’s made from 522 rods, each topped with a recycled plastic bottle that encloses a solar-powered LED light. Artists Jack Sanders, Robert Gay and Butch Anthony dismantled the project after its summer run, with the plan of recycling all of its components.

Solar plastic trees that hold real foliage

Omar Ivan Huerta Cardoso, a Mexican designer with Milan, Spanish and Mexican training, created solar trees to replace street lamps. The plastic “tree’s” extremities have cavities for seeds to be planted, which grow hydroponically from water in the trunk and limbs. Solar-powered LEDs in the base throw light that diffuses through the water to create a glow. These have their critics–one comments, “Who maintains the plants when they grow, a service team who has to cone off the road to gain access to each tree. very expensive. 2m high so this is easily climbed not good. most authorities have a 2.4m minimum height before banners to deter climbing. it is not one piece so lots of castings that marry up with glass or acrylic. going to be hard to marry the tolerances, and the weight will cause stress fractures on the glass, esp with wind loading.” Unlike the installation above, this project is intended to have a practical side, but I think it’s more suitable as niche lighting, rather than a citywide endeavor. Still, has an intriguing side.





While a solar-powered “brick” with illuminating powers in any color is coming down in cost as a building envelope component, it isn’t quite in the affordable range yet. But solar-powered, cordless LED pavers are, and could be creatively used in, say, the upcoming rework of Public Square as a traffic-free zone, or as part of CSU’s new Campus Village.




Using light to create a new interpretation of daytime space can be extremely transformative. Rotterdam had a competition that featured the potential of light, and the project-winning design creates a mood that both illuminates and changes the familiar streetscape of Atjehstraat.

Entitled Broken Light, it projects columns of light onto building facades, and creates tesselated patterns on the sidewalk. The projections can be changed as desired, allowing for variance. A lyrical video contrasts the day and nighttime appearance of Atjehstraat; there’s a lengthy description of the project in the YouTube “show more” area. I’d love to see something like this in Cleveland.

This is Kansas, not PA, but the luminaria lighting effect is the same.


In my home town suburb, there’s an annual Christmas tradition of luminaria–each family donates some money, distributors set up paper bags with a little sand on the bottom and a lit votive candle inside, and they’re spaced along the sidewalks up and down the streets. Some cities have them as part of a relay fundraising drive. It’d be

Solar-powered commercial lantern, with LED light inside

great to see them lining Euclid on a cold winter’s evening–better yet, Lorain, as it needs a facelift and could accommodate driving viewers more easily. Luminaria and lanterns can get quite fancy, but even the simplest light up the night and make the heart glow. I’ll be looking for more Cleveland illuminations–it’s a long winter.

To be Middle-Aged, Gifted and Black

6 Nov

So young and spirited and expressive!

Cleveland has a great thing in the American Music Masters series, tribute concerts produced by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Last night’s event at the State Theatre on Playhouse Square honored Aretha Franklin, and the packed crowd was hooting and hollering (and also eating popcorn and Chinese food, and getting up and down for frequent potty breaks–hey, since Andy Rooney died, this is my tribute to his crankiness. The theatre is supposed to showcase elegant audiences behavior, dammit!). I saw Aretha perform at the Sam Cooke American Music Masters concert in 2005, a great concert that also featured a star-studded lineup, including artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke (so glad I saw him

The full house shuffling in. The crowd was predominantly middle-aged and up.

before he died, The Blind Boys of Alabama (when they were still intact), Peter Wolf (Centerfold!), Taj Mahal, among others. Part of the grace of these events is the unexpected affinity some performers feel for the awardee, sometimes it’s their wildly different interpretations of the honored one’s songs: Chrissie Hynde and George Thoroughgood at the Jerry Lee Lewis concert, or Nona Hendryx at Janis Joplin‘s, for instance.

Dr. Franklin & family--she's got no height at all!

The full line-up for Aretha listed Patti Austin (canceled due to flu), Dennis Edwards of the Temptations, Ron Isley, Jerry Butler, Spooner Oldham, Chaka Khan, Lauryn Hill, Carla Cook, Kris Bowers, “Twinky” Clark, Melinda Doolittle, Mike Farris and Cissy Houston. But before the party had started, the Rock Hall had a week full of educational events at Case Western (why not Cleveland State?) in the form of symposia, interviews and seminars. The concert itself kicked off with Case’s president, provost and dean of arts & sciences stepping on stage in academic gowns (Why no caps, folks? Like elephants without tusks) to award an honorary degree to the Queen of Soul (Does “Dr.” outweigh “Queen”?). Her family was gathered round, and Dr. Franklin was pleased, gracious and warm. Amid shouts of “We love you, RiRi!” she gushed endearingly as she welcomed the Attorney General, Eric Holder–a mutual crush is very cute to see.


Chaka Khan last night! No, not my photo--click through!

Mike Farris, a self-proclaimed “cracker”, started the music with two rock numbers–I’d never heard of him, but he did a great job, backed by a terrific house band. Everyone was good–Jerry Butler at 71 worked the stage effortlessly. The standout performance was by the still-voluptuous Miss Chaka Khan–I heard her in the 1970s at Penn State, and she’s still very much a powerhouse. Was a mic even necessary? While Dennis Edwards might not have been stepping and twirling as he once did, his styling hasn’t changed, and the crowd gasped appreciatively at his tuxedo, adorned with a sequinned motif. The intervening videos were absorbing, as we saw Aretha sing R-E-S-P-E-C-T or duet with Smokey Robinson on Soul Train.

Rock Hall President Terry Stewart said the artists picked their selections from Aretha’s broad catalogue, and many took her gospel route (or root). Daughter of a prominent clergyman, the church was the source for her emotion, her pain, her controlled wails. Some were covers, but “Spirit in the Dark” is one she penned herself, and it was superb.

Miss Lauryn Hill hatted up for her indifferent performance. Again, click through for photo source.

The only disappointment was Lauryn Hill. If The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had been a record, I’d have worn it out. I loved the Fugees, I was excited when Dave Chappelle’s Block Party reunited them, albeit temporarily. She was the last performer of the evening and my excitement was building–then was dashed. Not that her voice wasn’t fine–she just seemed out of sync with the band and irritated with them. She kept turning towards them (and away from her mic); luckily the back-up singers could carry anything. Her last song, a cover of Aretha’s cover of “A Rose in Spanish Harlem” went on and on and on….and on. It went on so long that I was sure Aretha was going to come out and do a duet–the Internet ad for the concert had stated “Miss Franklin will appear but is not scheduled to perform,” but I remembered the energy from other concerts and felt sure she wouldn’t be able to resist. But no, it was just Miss Hill, going on and on. At the conclusion of her performance, however, Terry Stewart hurriedly asked folks to be patient for a little while for “a surprise.”

The grande finale! Sure glad real photographers were there.

The interval was fairly long (there had been no intermission), but this was a sure Aretha sign. You could hear some hasty rehearsing backstage, and, sure enough, there she was in an aqua dress, seated at the piano. Ron Iseley and Dennis Edwards stood nearby, and Cissy Houston and Jerry Butler were behind her. She and Dennis Edwards did a great duet–it had something of the impromptu yet magical about it, as if you’d stepped into a studio rehearsal room and caught two voices having fun with one another. She was in fine voice (better than her performance at the recent dedication to the Martin Luther King memorial), and that piano knew its mistress. A beautiful finish to a wonderful three-hour concert–well, not quite the finish, since a blushing Mayor White came out and handed over the keys to the city. Aretha’s said she doesn’t have pancreatic cancer, despite last year’s rumors. It’s hard to believe a voice I grew up with is 69, but I’m hoping she’ll be belting out plenty more, full of grace and passion.

Hit and Run at the Cleveland Museum of Art

2 Nov

Shona or Tsonga headrest, 19th/20th c.

Relatively few good U.S. museums are free–the Smithsonian, of course, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, but…I’m glad I have my museum badge (research associate, tralala!) to get through some of the increasingly expensive doors. The Cleveland Museum of Art, however, is one of those fabulous free spots, and one of the best aspects is that you don’t have to stay for hours to get your money’s worth–you can just stop and go, directing your attention intensely at a selected area. Such a day was today–I didn’t have much time, but it was enough to enable a quick stop to see a temporary exhibition, The Art of Daily Life: Portable Objects from Southeast Africa.

Nguni wooden milk vessel, 19th/20th c.

It’s a small gem of a show, sandwiched between two 20th century galleries in Room 226. Unfortunately the lack of light (at the request of a lender) results in a gem that looks as if it’s in need of a good scrub. The beautiful colors of the beads–so clear in the studio-lit photos–fade in

Staffs from southern Africa

the environment, and the gleam of patina on a wooden headrest that’s seen decades of use can only be noted from a particular angle. The central elements–beer pots and staffs–are the only objects set free from their vitrine cages, and provide a wonderful island of viewing. The objects include nods to tobacco in the form of snuff containers and pipes, some with whimsical anthropomorphic turns, as well as wooden pillows, stools, milk containers and costume elements. Even though many museums may own such pieces, they are rarely displayed, especially en masse, and they make a great case for the design sense of Southern African groups such as the Zulu, Nguni, Swazi and others. Graphic and industrial designers, among other art lovers, should take a long look

Augusta Savage's "Gamin"

at the exquisite craftsmanship and sense of geometric balance, always with some asymmetrical elements to provide interesting byways.

The lightning visit took us out through other modern galleries, and I stopped in my tracks–I hadn’t been to the 20th century section since its reinstallation, and was thrilled to see works that hadn’t been on exhibit before. I’m a huge fan of African American art, and there was Augusta Savage’s Gamin, a bright-eyed kid in a 1929 news cap. Savage, a Floridian, showed talent even as a child, but her deeply religious father tried to steer her away from “heathen” inclinations. Encouraged by others, she persevered, and got into Cooper Union, a premier school that accepts only the best, and has remained tuition free (though this policy is currently under threat). Like every other American artist before WWII, she was taught to believe the art world’s center was Europe, and she applied for fellowships that could get her there. Awarded one, she found it snatched away when they discovered her color. Another came her way, but she had no way to pay her transatlantic passage. A hurricane in Florida blew her injured father and her mother to her small Harlem apartment, and she struggled to feed the household working in a laundry. Finally, with the help of those who believed in her, she was able to continue her studies in Paris–and it was this sculpture of her nephew that garnered her the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship that funded her trip. Like many of her works, this is plaster painted to look like bronze; Savage rarely had sufficient funds to cast her works in metal.

The Harlem of Jacob Lawrence, back in the day

The same gallery included a Jacob Lawrence not previously on exhibit, and acquired in 2007–his 1958 “Fulton and Nostrand,” depicting a busy Harlem intersection. Lawrence began his public career with a huge splash–at only 21, his Toussaint L’Ouverture series was exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art, rapidly followed by historical series that explored the lives of other heroes (John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass), Harlem life, and the migration of African Americans from the South to the industrial North. The acclaim was heady; by the early 1940s he had a solo exhibition at NYC’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and his works had been reproduced in Newsweek, The New Yorker and Vogue. It was a meteoric rise comparable to Basquiat’s later rise to stardom. But then it crashed–not through death or dissolution, but because of a tremendous art world shift. Lawrence’s abstracted social realism fit with the late 30’s and 40s, but after the war other stars were on the rise. New York had snatched the art world’s capital status from Paris, and Abstract Expressionists were in vogue, Jackson Pollack leading the pack. Lawrence loved exploring subjects–abstraction suited him, but not the non-objective approach. Left behind, he had a breakdown, and checked himself into a sanitarium in the early 50s. This tempera on masonite work shows a post-recovery work, much in the vibrant spirit that he had had

Brian Ulrich, Untitled (Shoes)

before. This carried him throughout the rest of his career; he moved to Seattle, he taught, and he lived long enough to see his work reassessed and appreciated once more. I’d never seen this particular painting–the hustle of New York is fully evident.

Hustling, hustling out of the museum to  make an appointment, I couldn’t resist one last gallery–another special exhibition. From a distance I couldn’t discern the medium, but could see repetition of objects in an interior–I hoped it might be a Wayne Thiebaud. But no! It was the photo exhibition CopiaL Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores by

Ulrich's Granger, IN is reminiscent of the repetitions of Pop Art, with the same exposure of soulessness

Brian Ulrich, and I had to look through its several rooms. Ulrich explores the American Dream, retail-style, in full force and self-destruction. The ultra-saturated colors provide that florescent urgency, the works coated in darkly humorous tweaks. It’s a terrific show. To see the same shoebox store transformed into three different incarnations, or row after row of guns on display (that was an Ohio location), or gleaming red checkout counters with an off-to-the-races air–oh, it’s irresistible in large format. Don’t miss it, it’s up through mid-January.

Dexter Davis's crustily delicious surface

Leaving the museum, I was dying to stop in the cafe, but there was no time. It wasn’t the lunchtime necessity that drew me, but the knowledge that museum employees had their work on display. I don’t know if this is true of other museums, but the CMA has many talented guards and other staff members. Not Sunday painter kind of talented, but deeply talented artists, like Dante Rodriguez and Jim McNamara, and Dexter Davis. All terrific human beings, as well as wonderful artists. Imagine my pleasure as I was swooping out of the contemporary gallery when a work caught my eye, I went over to get a closer look, and it was a Dexter Davis piece, a multimedia work entitled Black Heads. It’s a gorgeously rich surface with meaningful imagery, and it killed me to give it short shrift because I was in a rush. But it isn’t going anywhere. I’m proud the CMA knows what it has and knows what it likes, and that Dexter gets to see others enjoying his work on the regular.

Hey, for a 40 minute jaunt, I packed in a lot of pleasure. It was thrifty, and it was exactly the kind of thing a Bon Vivant should be doing on the regular. Join me!

NaNoWriMo, last year and this

1 Nov

The website where daily word counts are posted!

I’d been tempted by NaNoWriMo for a long time, but last November I plunged in. For those unfamiliar, National Novel Writing Month is an international self-challenge for writers, deviling them to see if they can reach a total of 50,000 words in a month–a novel-in-the-rough, as it were, something to be polished later. I began last year as an undercover collaborative writer–an online British friend and I were to write a joint novel with a 100K goal. Our pen names, Vyvyan Smythe and Smythe Vyvyan, demonstrated our mirrored goal. Alas, what I thought an excellent beginning drove poor Smythe mad. He could not stand not having total control over the characters, and dropped out early in the game. I thought our styles meshed extremely well, and assured him that one day we would both finish and publish American and British, male and female versions of the joint story, and hope that will still come to pass. While I didn’t meet the 50K goal (and thus “win” NaNoWriMo), I made it more than half way, and hope to finish the first draft this summer. It’s set in the near future, in a world where there is no fossil fuel, and its common contemporary byproducts, such as plastic and polyester, are sought-after collectibles.

Good God, It’s Plastic! was Smythe’s title, but I had great fun researching possibilities of what travel might be like, how jobs and cities and apartment buildings might function (the return of the pneumatic tube for the mail!). And I loved our light-hearted rollicking tone, as a spunky Philadelphian researcher/tailoress joined forces with a haughty English nouveau aristo in hunt of a great treasure thought to be in West Africa. Adventure, cautionary tale, futuristic look, it was a mashup of Neal Stephenson (early) and Douglas Adams, with a little jasper fforde and Georgette Heyer thrown in. An extract is below.

In April, the same organizers sponsor a screenwriting challenge known as Script Frenzy! and I threw myself down that rabbit hole, too. I hadn’t written a script since I was in my 20s, and conceived this as an HBO-like series. Three episodes are written, all fact-based, regarding New Orleans in 1845, in all its Creole glory. I pored through research to base it on reality, dredging up records from and looking at links to Cuba and Haiti. I love a great research project in a new direction, and I’m hoping to pitch this at someone. If nobody catches, perhaps it will metamorphose into a novel.

I proudly finished ScriptFrenzy!, and I hope to make it through NaNoWriMo this year. Both of these projects directed me toward writing discipline; I not only worked on them, I concurrently whipped out a great deal more professional writing than usual. They also created a hunger for writing companionship. There are large online components, where you can interact with other writers having common interests, as well as write-ins, where you can meet up with others in your region for companionable tap-tap-tapping in libraries and coffeehouses. I didn’t get to any of the write-ins for last year’s NaNoWriMo–bad weather and my schedule, plus non-driving, put the kabosh on that. When ScriptFrenzy rolled around, I organized several write-ins at the Old Arcade, Trinity Cathedral’s Cafe Ah Roma, and the CSU library, and met some interesting folks whose company I really enjoyed. I’m hoping Ohio City or downtown might be destinations this time around, too.

So am I writing about Cleveland? About New Urban issues again? Nope. This is a historical novel, the second in a series of mysteries set in West Africa in the 16th century, the broad historical facts providing a framework for mostly invented characters. It seems appropriate to mention on this All Saints’ Day, the day after Halloween, that witches will figure prominently in this novel. I’ll share some nuggets with you along the way, but don’t worry–the blog isn’t going to contain my daily paragraphs.

Are you NaNoWriMoing? Do you need a writing buddy?

Okay, okay–here’s a taste from last year”s novel. This is from the middle of Chapter Two, and provides a taste of the main characters, as well as casual references to the world they find themselves in. Remember–it’s unedited!!!

Now Kitty (for Katherine Marie Bolitho was her formal name, reserved only for moments of severity) was not feeling as self-possessed as she appeared, though her impatience was genuine enough. She had endured an Atlantic crossing that had tossed her from one side of her stateroom to another, and if she were never to suffer the vagaries of the wind again, it would be too soon for her. She had been forced to abjure the many delicacies and luxuries of the voyage, forced to listen to gay laughter and flirtatious conversations as her fellow passengers swept by her door to reach the lounge and bar. She had risen early (for really, he surely hadn’t expected her to rush over the minute she arrived!), and left the hotel as soon as the dark lifted, hoping to banish any thought of tardiness from the mind of her erstwhile patron. This barechested, pale-skinned youth countered all her expectations – was there really no other Thompson Davis in this house? ‘
A kindly father perhaps, or, better yet, a grandfather to chuck her under the chin, outline his requirements, then urge her on to excesses of tailoring?

Thompson exited, presumably to fetch the tea, and Kitty gave full rein to her disapproval. Lights were blazing, even in upper hallways (of course, she thought, it was possible there were little Davises and a spouse roaming around, as yet unseen, though a wife surely would be up and about) and a steady source of heat could be felt, emerging from hidden ducts – a surfeit of it, in fact. She was conscious of feeling some of the discomfort the American Middle Class often feels in the strongholds of the Very Rich, though she otherwise felt cosily warm in a rather delightful fashion.

In Thompson’s absence, she peeked into the hall, seeing some open rooms beyond – all well lit, by neither candlelight nor oil lamp. There was nary a coin-fed heater nor a gridcycle to be seen. Aside from hospitals, the clipper, and her current hotel, Kitty had never been in venues without any source of self-generated electricity – it was strangely unsettling. Perhaps the man had a phalanx of servants cycling in his basement, but she suspected not. Who was this Thompson Davis to thumb his nose at the necessary conventions that bound the whole world? She had assumed, given his interest in her dressing gown – and yes, if he liked her dressing gown so well, why was he wearing an ancient, threadbare model? – that he might be a fellow neo-Baroquian. Perhas she had built too much on the assumption that his careless expenditures – five overseas telegrams in the two days it took her to prepare, the grand cabin on one of the Baltimore Clipper Line’s best ships, the charming boutique hotel with its Czech & Speake toiletries – were the whims of an older eccentric (perhaps a famous stage actor or other performer with money to burn on the quest for distinctive new attire). Kitty had had customers like that before, and the part of her that had managed to push herself to attempt that one abortive shipboard dinner was the part of her that hoped to encounter Richard Jametal, dazzle him with her own costume, and convince him he needed a new ensemble for his next round of stage perfomances.

Kitty found the appointments of the room before her startling in their lavishhness. Antiques (admittedly dusty or cluttered with books) littered the room. Her brows lifted when she realized the chairs and sofa were upholstered with patterned polyester, rather than the polished cotton she first had supposed. The fabric could have been salvaged from some attic’s abandoned textile bolts, but if Kitty knew her Visual Culture (and she did, having excelled in her graduate studies), this set dated in its entirety from the Oil Age.

The warmth began to unmake the practicality of her cozy woolen gown, if not its quirky splendor. She regretted having left her fan back in Philadelphia, never having expected near-tropical conditions in London. She sought her handkerchief and began to dab daintily at her forehead and chest.

While Kitty was making her observations, Thompson was bustling inefficiently about in the kitchen. He remained puzzled why anyone would want to drink anything but his excellent coffee, but wanted to make up for his faults as a host. Admittedly, he could never recall if the tea went into the cup or the small pot (he decided on the pot), whether milk or lemon should be presented (neither were in his refrigerator, neatly solving that problem), and how long the leaves should remain (let them stay for a while!). In the meantime, he made a healthy start on the paper’s crossword. Eventually he foraged for a tray (only one, his own breakfast tray, usually got an airing, and he was uncertain at first where he had stored the others), fished out a cup from the drying rack, and headed back to Kitty.

“I rang round the corner to the patisserie, thinking you might like a croissant with your tea.” Thompson was impressed with his own thoughtfulness, but his visitor seemed distinctly unimpressed.

Kitty despised his French affectation – possibly because his accent was execrable – even as she admitted to an affection for croissants themselves. Certainly there were French emigrés everywhere (Philadelphia was awash in them – how much more so this nearby haven?), and they were putting their linguistic stamp on those around them, but she suspected the shop he had telephoned was probably called Joe’s Bakery or something similar. This Davis with his self-satisfied smirk would of course insist on calling it a patisserie, if only to emphasize the divide between them. He no doubt considered her nothing but a seamstress, albeit an extraordinarily skilled one.

He set the tea tray down and poured out, presented her with a cup after slopping some of its contents all over his dressing gown in what most certainly would have been a painful fashion, though it could hardly distress the garment itself any further. She sat and gazed into its frightful depths – had the man actually steeped the tea for the full ten minutes he’d been gone? Or, considering its tar-like state, had he actually percolated it? She skimmed the numerous tea leaves still floating on its surface (truly, what was wrong with a tea bag?) without even a blink. In fact, the tea itself had receded immediately from Kitty’s thoughts, for the unworthy brew was sloshing about in a metal container that was considerably more notable. A tall, slender, brushed steel mug, it was lined with plastic and an insulate meant to keep its contents warm. It was an exceedingly rare antique example, trademarked with the red shield and cannon that stood for one of those damned British soccer teams – Chelsea, was it? Or Arsenal? He probably had a complete set emblazoned with every world club somewhere in this hothouse. Unlike similar ones belonging to other collections, however, this one was not locked away, emerging only for regular dusting. No, it was casually presented to her, as if it were a chipped ceramic cup. Ostentatious as could be.

It was then she decided she might have to hate him, though his tea (strong enough for Christ and all the Apostles to walk on!) did smell unexpectedly delicious.

With his visitor apparently in a stupor, gazing fixedly at her tea, Thompson turned his mind to more pressing matters, such as a swift return to his library and the atlas. A plan had begun to coalesce in the kitchen, and once the patisserie’s delivery boy had been, he could excuse himself to dress, leaving Miss Bolitho to her breakfast (he’d yet to meet anyone who didn’t get lost in a tray of Aimée’s pastries). That was sure to give him a few moments to pause in the library, plot his next movement vis-a-vis the breaker yard, and devise a scheme to get this admittedly skilled seamstress out of his house and to her needle, while he dealt with more important issues.

Truth be told, Thompson had more than a slight blind spot when it came to the fairer sex, alternating between considering them impediments to his daily progress and becoming dumbstruck in their flowery, fulsome presence. He had, in fact, something of a blind spot with people in general (his mother attributed it to having been tutored at home, while his father considered it part of general ineptitude), but his ineptness when it came to women went a long way toward explaining why he had never realised that Aimée did not actually have a delivery service – except to his house.

Sometimes boundaries nudge creativity

24 Oct

Oh, the candies of my youth in glorious array at B.A. Sweetie's!

Well, well, well. The biggest Halloween expenses used to be the candy–now decorations and costumes carve way into the wallet. While fun to drive by, is it as satisfying to just pick things up and fork over the dough? The Thrifty BonVivant says, “Not necessarily.” But first things first. Get candy that drives you back in time–you can buy nostalgic delicacies in quantity or just for a taste at the best standard candy store in Cleveland, B.A. Sweetie, at 7480 Brookpark Rd. Oh yes–get your Razzles (first it’s a candy, then it’s a gum!), poprocks, Zott’s–everything from candy dots to all Pez flavors to those wonderful flying saucers (only really beloved by Catholics, who find their waferlike exterior–they’re filled with little candy balls–carry Communion nostalgia). Once that buying spree is underway, it’s time to reduce expenses and unleash creativity.

Villefane is a master! Click his name in the text to see more.

Pumpkins? You know you don’t have to buy a host of plastic decorations if you have skills like Ray Villefane. Get yourself to a grocery and unleash your temporary, site-specific artist. Now, not everyone is a Ray Villefane. But surely you can put aluminum foil braces on a crooked pumpkin smile? Look at any cartoon in the newspaper and try to reproduce the simplified features (all right, don’t look at Rex Morgan, MD or Mary Worth) of the character–no matter what you end up with it will be distinctive, and the candle inside (a votive in a glass makes it simpler) will create the spooky effect effortlessly. Did you know the jack o’lantern tradition is an Irish one, but in the Olde Sod it was done with a parsnip? Carved bananas may be on the scene, but a hollowed out parsnip? Tricky. Be thankful for the pumpkin.

Is anything more frightening than a flying monkey?

Yard decorations? If no neighborhood child thoughtfully decorated your trees with a cobweb of toilet paper, consider quick stencils and chalk. A quick trip to Pat Catan‘s will find you inexpensive yet discounted sidewalk chalk that the rain will wash away soon…probably very soon. Skeletal feet walking to the front door? Black cats (or florescent orange ones) arching their backs along the sidewalk? Albino bats via soap on the storm door? There are images you can quickly print out, cut out, and fill in all over the Internet–you don’t have to buy stencils.

Thank you, John Tenniel, for one of my favorite costume inspirations!

Costumes? Ah, one of the joys of my youth. I was lucky enough to live near a man who worked in the marketing division of Borden’s, who had an unending supply of large light cardboard posters–Elsie the Cow may have been on the front, but flip her and…well, the possibilities were boundless. One of my favorite costumes was a gardener from Alice in Wonderland–tights, a hoodie, and a well-painted sandwich board, and I was a star. And all for free. See what’s in your wardrobe, and what some paper can do.

Avast! She was a pirate wench skull a few years back, when Johnny was freshly putting on his eyeliner

Paper? Did someone say papier-mache? There’s still time to make your own mask. It’s surprisingly easy–we learned how in jr. high. Get some light card and cut strips about 1.5 inches wide. Form a loose but overlapping oval from under your chin to the top of your head and staple it. Leave it in place, and arrange about three strips across your face (especially across the nose!), and staple them to the first loop. Then take it off, and add two vertical strips. To this network you’ll add torn strips of newspaper dragged through a flour and water paste of oatmeal consistency (not too soggy, mind). Build it up so you have a face, leaving open areas for the eyes. Start this today, and you’ll go at an easy pace. Basic mask one night, let it dry the next day, and you’ll be ready to lay down a base coat of color. Use acrylic paint–Pat Catan’s has a cheapo small kit that will work just fine. The following night, additional color, and some elastic stapled across the back to hold it in place. I had fun with a flowering Day of the Dead mask–a quick but memorable (and easy) piece that was lots of fun, with just a base white acrylic coat and some Sharpie work–hey, the old hoodie and tights (or sweat pants) still works! The Huffington Post has suggestions for ten literary characters–but you may need to pin a footnote onto your back.

Need some last-minute inspiration? Go to Gordon Square in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood this weekend–the annual Dias de los Muertos exhibit and parade opens at the Cleveland Public Theatre East Campus (the old church) on 6205 Detroit Ave. There’s a great Day of the Dead celebration, with a parade at 3:30 pm and exhibits of altars, paintings, masks, pan de muerto (skulltastic bread), performances and more from 11 am to 10 pm. I’ve been to others–great fun. There’s nothing like Dia de los Muertos, the Latin celebration meant for All Souls Day, when skeletons come alive, dancing and carrying on.

Impressive results, but simple carries it off graphically

Can’t be bothered to make a costume or mask, but want to be a thrifty standout? If you have some time before your party or before you send a little one out, make a minor expenditure for major impact: face/body painting. It takes care, but not as much skill as you might think. Just don’t assume you can’t do it. Not free–you have to buy some theatrical makeup, but it’s not usually too costly. You can get it in Cleveland at Erie Street Theatrical Svc at 1621 E 41st St, in Strongsville at Cleveland Costume and Display at18489 Pearl Rd, and in a number of other spots in the Yellow Pages–or get a kit of very basic colors at Pat Catan’s or Michael’s Crafts. There are some great tutorials online, like this simple but effective one for a child pumpkin ghoul

I id a similar one in a theatrical makeup class--just a few colors is all it takes.

Felines can be surprisingly effective, as can abstract designs–here are 30 great examples of face painting. You may get so very involved in it that you chuck your day job and become an artist specializing in body art and the subsequent photography. So use Halloween to experiment a little! What could be more Bon Vivant-like? Just be careful where you sit.

For Halloween parties

There goes the sun….SAD though happy in Cleveland

22 Oct

The unrelieved greyness of Cleveland yesterday

Many a visitor has been fooled by these colorful plaster mangoes.

Today the sun is supposed to come out again, but it’s too early to tell. The week has been one of rain and gloom, reminding us that Old Sol will be running off to Florida soon. I have to give the last two winters their props, though–snowy and cold they may have been, but there was regular sun throughout. I noticed, because it makes a difference to me and to my outlook. Unrelieved gloom doesn’t usually start here till November, but it carries on for many, many–did I say many?–moons. People always wonder why Clevelanders aren’t more upbeat about this wonderful city. Putting on my diagnostician’s hat (I wonder what that should look like?), I proclaim it is due to SAD–Seasonal Affective Disorder. My prescription? COLOR.

W 25th St geraniums soldiering on!

A chameleon a day banishes SADness away

Not being a native, I’m used to cold with sun. Without it, I’ve taken a page from my shivery Trinidadian friend Miss W–no, not her bliss at radiator heat that allows sleeveless dresses indoors, but her use of color to keep the house lively. There are no white or grey walls in my house. Its riot of colors encompasses Haitian tin decorations and my papier-mache chameleon (legacy of a Parade the Circle past), a cheery cluster of plaster mangoes, and other vibrant touches. That’s home decorating for you–but Cleveland’s in need of similar touches.

Nothing cheers a city like flowers. Admittedly our climate doesn’t allow for 12 months of them, but plenty of blooms are still blooming–though few downtown. Greenery planting still decorates the road dividers by Public Square, but the fabulous planters CIA grad Mark Reigelman II designed for the triumvirate of Downtown Cleveland Alliance, Cleveland Public Art and ParkWorks (the last two organizations soon to join as one and become LAND studio) are already emptied. It’s a little early, isn’t it? The impatiens (or are they vincas?) at Cleveland State are still frisky, and mums and geraniums are still going strong elsewhere.

Once--and this week. But great planter design!

Bigger banners are needed for more visual impact.

We need our touches of color. The addition of flowers to various restaurants on W. 25th have made it a more attractive passageway. In fact, vibrant neighborhoods like Coventry or Little Italy owe some of their perk to flowers. It’s that kind of atmosphere that Legacy Village and Crocker Park try to simulate. My recent trip to Columbus/Indianapolis/Bloomington was color-filled. From conventional plantings to the more imaginative or downright wild, these are needed touches of nature–and we need them till frost kills them off.

Fabulous Cleveland in 2003--Art Lumiere & Luminocity

And what of post-frost grimness? Our Public Square flags are too small for their pole size, as are banners on Euclid. Cloth and plastic strips do add a bit of artificial gaiety to the grey, as other big cities have shown. Think of imperial Rome through HBO eyes, alive with red and gold! Admittedly our wind is hard on both, but we don’t have to worry about the sun fading things! Imaginative lighting can help–E. 4th St. looks attractive and inviting because its narrowness is stranded with inviting lights–a European touch. Back in 2003, Cleveland Public Art worked in conjunction with the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserve/OneCleveland to bring in Art Lumiere, creators of the overwhelmingly beautiful LUMINOCITYproject. It transformed the bleak cityscape into an exciting nexus of activities–perhaps it was ahead of its time, but even modest lighting that’s a bit out of the ordinary can create a feeling of excitement. What of experimental low-energy lighting and color?

The best way to be blue in Cleveland: Midtown's Applied Industrial Technologies

These miniscule flags don't fly our colors properly.

While flora and lux are temporary, some cities have gone further with color. Our architecture is fairly bland (with the exception of our very own Midtown Jetsons structure, headquarters for Applied Industrial Technologies), though some buildings elsewhere embrace a less neutral approach.

Even the bleakest of structures can benefit from murals–Philadelphia has transformed its urban landscape into a destination spot with its Mural Arts Program–it employs over 300 artists, involves kids and provides internships–as well as with the funky mosaics by Isaiah Zagar that have become a tourist draw.

Josh Sarantitis's Philly mural: "Reach High and You Will Go Far" (2000)

Today the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, a Kent State initiative headquartered in Playhouse Square, held a design charette in the Near West Side’s Ecovillage. From a community brainstorming discussion and their own research, they’re going to work up some designs and plans that have potential to benefit the neighborhood (more on that later in the week, when the ideas are presented). A great idea, and one that gets people thinking. And what were some of the ideas that came up? Visual ones, among others; ways of creating identities through public art and lighting.

Isaiah Zagar mosaics near Philly's South Street brighten the neighborhood even in snow.

What kind of alliances can we build among arts organizations like LandStudio, the Cleveland Botanical Garden, Cleveland State, and youth programs? Banish SAD in the home of Sherwin Williams and Glidden!