Thursday, February 04, 2010

So Long, and Thanks for All the Zebra Mussels!

Today is the fifth anniversary of RBCA, and so I think that's as good a time as any to pull the plug.

I started writing RBCA when I lived in New Jersey. I felt like a displaced person, a Rust Belt refugee, and I was trying to figure out what my relationship to Cleveland was.

However, I've exhausted that topic and now I'd like to focus my life on other things.

As you know, I have been out of work since July. When it happened, I wasn't too worried. I decided that if I had no job offers, I would re-evaluate the situation in six months.

Six months later, I realized I have three options:

1. Continue to pursue freelance work (I have picked up a few paltry bits and pieces, but nothing substantial);
2. Acquire a completely new set of skills that are better suited to the Cleveland economy; and
3. Look for work outside the region again.

It's easier not to move. It's easier not to have to sell the house. Jim has a good job here. I still have hope about finding a great job here too, but I have to think realistically now. I love libraries, I love archives, I love publishing, and I'm really good at those things. When I think about starting a new career in something with a future but which doesn't interest me (like health informatics) just to avoid the hassle of selling the house and planning another long-distance move (this would be my sixth!), part of me wants to roll over and play dead.

But at the same time, when I think about the possibility of leaving again, I don't feel a sense of loss or disappointment, so much as the sense of relief that comes with admitting you made a mistake. When I came back here in 2007, I made a mistake in timing and judgment. I came back here with a skill set that didn't match the needs of the community. I came back here because I thought I could make a difference just by owning a house and shopping at local businesses. I should have waited longer, stayed at a job I loved until the right job opportunity came up here, if ever.

I won't succumb to the idea that I'd be failing Cleveland by leaving again. I'm not a martyr. I've given it two years, and two years is a long time. Cleveland and I are comfortable enough in our relationship that if we need to end it now and pick up again in ten years, we can do that. I still like Cleveland. I still want to see it succeed, and help it succeed if I can (by sending money home, for instance). But at the same time, I'm just going to have to think about other things. I can't waste my prime earning years scraping by, doing nothing, or doing what doesn't interest me.

I'll still be posting at Cleveland Area History and Rust Belt Reader, so check those out if you're interested. I may end up doing something else, too, but as far as RBCA goes, it's time to call it quits.

Otherwise, thank you for reading and I wish you all the best of luck!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Favorite Books of 2009

Every year at this time I look back over the list of books I read over the last twelve months and pick my favorites.

Last year, I noticed that I'd read an awful lot of books I wasn't crazy about. I noticed the same thing this year. Why do I keep doing this?

The answer, which I am going to pull out of my librarian hat, is because people read books for different reasons. In 2008, I read a lot of mediocre young adult books because that's what I was writing at the time. In 2009, I read a lot of pulpy whodunnits because they kept my mind occupied between losing my job and figuring out what to do with myself.

I was surprised to find that I'd barely read any nonfiction this year, because I've always been a big reader of stuff that tells you why and how things got to be how they are. Although it's possible that I've given up that slightly adolescent search for definitive answers, I've probably just been reading more magazines and news sites, and fewer books.

All in all, I liked this year's crop of books better than last year's -- for the most part, the stories are better put-together. Better stories for an author to be working on while simultaneously trying to put together her own fiction projects.

So here are this year's favorites, in the order that I read them.

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright by Jean Nathan

Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon by Leonard S. Marcus

I read these two books in tandem - Brown and Wright were two of my favorite authors as a very small child (Brown wrote Goodnight Moon and Wright did the slightly creepy Lonely Doll series, which is incidentally one of Harriett Logan's most requested books.) Both women were tragic figures, but in entirely different ways.

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
Absurd, horrific, delightful Ohio.

Lirael by Garth Nix
Everyone should read one artfully-rendered epic story per year.

Walking the Labyrinth by Lisa Goldstein
I read this after lamenting to a fellow librarian (who's much better at readers' advisory than me) that most urban fantasy felt too gimmicky and trendy. My only complaint is that Lisa Goldstein hasn't written more books.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
I'm probably the only person on God's green earth who didn't know what happens in the end. Surprise!

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is still one of the only authors who makes me feel glad to be alive. Why? Because it's so obvious that he enjoys what he's writing.

Modern Ghost Stories by Eminent Women Writers, ed. Richard Dalby
I suspected that I might enjoy writing ghost stories, read this anthology, and found out that I do.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
This is one of those books that I should've read at some point, but never did.

Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner
This one, too. It's been on my list forever, but I've always been afraid I would hate it. Either it would be too sentimental (it isn't) or it would have that loathsome studied quality that I've come to expect from academics (it doesn't). You can read my full review here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


A year ago today I made my Christmas wishes for Cleveland, one of which was "I want Cleveland to learn to laugh at itself." Obviously I have powers, because it did:

Since I've got the wish fairy caught in a rat trap, and since my pole-dancing friend Kim is going to stay up late and help me catch Santa in a compromising position, this year I'm going to get greedy and ask for ten wishes:
  1. I want more people to shop at Drug Mart instead of Walmart.
  2. I want Cleveland to embrace the following things once and for all: winter, the term "Rust Belt," and not being New York or Chicago.
  3. I want a Christmas miracle for public transit funding.
  4. I want a Christmas miracle for the Christian Science Church at West 117th and Lake.
  5. I want Clevelanders to remember the small arts organizations. Every dollar helps.
  6. I want the unraveling of the cultural forces that converged to allow Imperial Avenue to happen.
  7. I want to see more courage here.
  8. I want all Clevelanders to open up a savings account. (Preferably at Third Federal, the bank that deliberately chose not to screw you in the foreclosure crisis.)
  9. I want Clevelanders to really connect with their cultural heritage.
  10. I want Cleveland to keep laughing. It's the best medicine, trust me. Better than ranitidine.
Now go read some other wishes. (I vote for the Ghoulardi statue.)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Lost Year

I've blabbed a lot here about my experience living in New Jersey and New York, but something I haven't talked as much about is my first relocation experience: when I moved to Montana in 2000. It's not just here, either: I have plenty of friends and associates, some of whom have known me for years, who say, "I didn't know you lived in Montana! How come you never talk about it?"

Well, the reason I never talk about it is pretty personal, but it's faded enough into the background of my life that I'm not uncomfortable talking about it anymore. That is, a very intense romantic relationship fell apart in Montana, and that's what I've always associated it with most. So, the year in Montana = bad memories.

But really, it wasn't all bad. It was living in Missoula, Montana, that made me discover the importance of walkable neighborhoods. During the four months I spent out of work in the Big Sky state, I had my routine: I'd walk to the bank, the post office, the library, and back home again, all the space of 20 minutes. It was a comforting thing.

I have a lot of happy memories about reading, and buying huckleberries at the farmers market, and interesting characters like my neighbor Billy, a retired math professor who told dirty jokes in the laundry room and who had a fridge full of nothing but yogurt that he got on clearance at Safeway. Billy had wandered on foot all over North America. He liked my cooking and didn't mind that we had no furniture to sit on, because he had even less. I never found out why, but he was estranged from his family. Billy was the last person I ever saw or talked to in Montana. I still remember him waving to us, his face sweaty from helping us move crap from our apartment down to the car.

I got my first driver's license in Montana. And since so much time has gone by, I can even remember happy memories from the relationship that wasn't meant to be. It's taken me a long, long time to get to that place, but no matter how cringeworthy the memories are, you get there eventually.

Most of the interesting stories I acquired during my twenties took place not in New York, where my experience was the refreshingly mundane routine of someone who'd gotten burned out too quickly and needed to dissolve into anonymity right quick, but in Montana. In Montana, someone got stabbed outside the 24-hour casino that I lived above. In New York, I lived two stories above the parking garage, and one storey above a Dominican couple whose chief idiosyncrasy was that they watched Lifetime movies a little too loud on weeknights. In Montana, I attended a creepy death-day party for G.I. Gurdjieff. In New York, the only recreational outing I ever went to was the company Christmas party, and even then I left early because I'd had too much free beer and I was afraid I might say something stupid.

In New York, I never peered through the blinds to see my neighbor engaged in a scene that, if it were a 19th century painting, would be titled, "Twenty Unclothed Men and a Vacuum Cleaner." Or made sympathy dinner for that neighbor after he got evicted, either. Or for that matter, been surprised at how hungry he was, and wondered whether he had enough money to buy food.

There were no bears in New York.

So what I aim to do, now that the tenth anniversary of my great westward migration is at hand, is explore what it means to be a Midwest migrant, a Rust Belt refugee, in these modern times. What made me leave? What made me come back? What did I learn about myself, about where I came from, about America, while I was out west?

Please stay tuned. I hope we both learn something.

Five Lessons I Learned from Harvey Pekar

I went to see Harvey Pekar at the Eastman branch of the Cleveland Public Library yesterday. Here are five things I learned from him:
  1. If someone offers you $5000 to write something, do it, even if you don't know how.
  2. You don't need friends.
  3. If you don't make much money at your job, your pension will be correspondingly small when you retire. You have been warned!
  4. Quit it with the nationalism and ethnic pride. You're not better than anybody.
  5. Artists need to take chances to move things forward. If they don't, "fine art just becomes folk art." (Also Wynton Marsalis sucks.)
Bonus: The Cleveland accent may be dying among young intellectuals, but it's still alive in Harvey Pekar.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Would you go on a Jane's Walk?

Jane's Walk is:
a series of free neighbourhood walking tours that helps put people in touch with their environment and with each other, by bridging social and geographic gaps and creating a space for cities to discover themselves....Jane's Walks are less like the regular heritage walking tours and more like a walking conversation about neighbourhoods and how people use cities.

Based, of course, on the principles of the patron saint of snobby urban assholes everywhere*, Jane Jacobs.

Actually, the 6 Tips for Leading a Jane's Walk makes it look like fun. Look them over and tell me which CLE neighborhoods would be best for a Jane's Walk, and why.

*Hold your hate mail. That's supposed to be funny.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Would you move away from friends and family for a new job? A Plain Dealer poll

It's been interesting to sift through the comments on this one. There's a lot of the same predictable shouting: "Cleveland is great -- love it or leave it!" vs. "I jumped ship like a rat on the Titanic!" There are even a couple of chuckleworthy bons mots about losing your Cleveland accent, which of course I appreciate. But honestly, there's a lot of thought there, too, put down by real people with real worries.

Earlier this month the Great Lakes Urban Exchange hosted an event called "I will stay if...." I didn't go mainly because I was zapped by a harrowing, 3-hour long job interview, but also because I suspect "what will make you stay?" is the wrong question to ask, because so many people are strapped for cash and out of choices that it's more like "I can't stay unless..."

In Roger & Me, there is a scene where a former GM employee describes the day Ronald Reagan came through Flint. When she told him about losing her job, he blithely suggested that maybe she could just move someplace like Texas and find a new job. As if people's attachments to their families and places of origin should mean nothing.

There is a odd and ruthless undercurrent at work here. One that says, if you're not willing to leave your home and family in the pursuit of cold hard cash, you're being sentimental and backwards, a drain on society. There's an expectation in America that if you're not willing to relocate to look for work, there's something wrong with you. Maybe I'm just being sensitive, but I feel like the Rust Belt is hit the hardest by this idea, because more so than any other region, we were defined not by our character or our land, but by our industry. By our jobs.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Last week, when RTA announced the latest round of devastating service cuts, I finally realized that Cleveland is becoming a place that I don't recognize. It is simply becoming a different sort of place -- a place where (unfortunately for me) it is much harder to live without a car. It finally feels to me like Cleveland is emptying out. Of course my old brain-box has always known that Cleveland is losing population. I've listened to older people complain about it since the launch of the Cleveland's a Plum campaign. But now I am becoming the older person. I can see how different the place looks as compared to ten years ago, twenty years ago.

And that unnerves me. Because suddenly I'm riding the empathy train with the voices of Don't get me wrong. I'm not going to urge the last one out to turn off the lights. But I've realized that when you hear "Cleveland sucks," it's often coming from the same place as "Cleveland rocks." The difference is thin and elusive, but I think it has to do with hope. And one thing I've learned is that hope is hard for some people, and maybe it's not our place to judge them.