Category Archives: Chasing Infinity

Behind the Mask

By Ed Staskus

   Most law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Interpol thought Dr. Mabuse was long gone and never gave him another thought. They were glad to see him go. They believed he died in 1933 in Dr. Baum’s asylum outside Berlin. They didn’t know that he had been controlling Dr. Baum’s mind for years before his death. Many years earlier, minutes before the minute he went to meet his maker, he had used his powers of body transference to become the asylum’s head honcho.

   Before Dr. Baum died he used those same powers and made a new Dr. Mabuse. The Reign of Crime didn’t miss a beat. It kept up the drumbeat until it crossed the Potomac River. When it did the snare drums played rat-a-tat-tat for his new soulmate, at least until Dr. Mabuse belatedly realized the face on the dollar was chump change. The criminal mastermind hated wasting his time with flat tires who spent all their time complaining and explaining. He was going to have to find somebody new, especially after the ill-fated attack on the U. S. Capital.  

   Dr. Mabuse was able to project his spirit into the bodies of other people. If things got too hot to handle, he could escape his host, leaving him alive but insane, and move on to a replacement. If need be, he could inhabit several people at once and whip up a crime wave. In the 1890s he became Professor James Moriarty, the master criminal running riot in London. “He was a man of good birth endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” said Sherlock Holmes. “But he had tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood. He was the Napoleon of crime. He was the organizer of half that was evil and of nearly all that was undetected in this great city.”

   Dr. Mabuse was sad to see the evil professor go when Sherlock Holmes bested him at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. “If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you,” the professor had warned the consulting detective. “I want to end the world, but I’ll settle for ending yours.” When push came to shove, however, at the end of their hand-to-hand grappling, it was Professor Moriarty who went over the side of the waterfall, and it was Sherlock Holmes who went back safe and sound to Baker Street.

   In 1920 the criminal mastermind briefly body transferred into Dr. Caligari, a hypnotist who employed sleepwalkers to commit murders. Dr. Mabuse was himself a master hypnotist. It didn’t work out, though. Dr. Caligari went off the deep end, got himself strapped into a straight jacket, and became an inmate in his own clinic.

   The next year Dr. Mabuse transferred into Al Capone, where he stayed for more than decade. He was pleased with the ruthless man’s ruthlessness. He especially liked the timing of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He bid Scarface a fond farewell when he was convicted of tax evasion and sent to Alcatraz. He was later disappointed to hear that Public Enemy No. 1 had taken up playing a banjo with the prison band at their Sunday concerts for other inmates.

   He was looking for somebody new when all hell broke loose. He had to put his plans and ambitions on the back burner during World War Two. He didn’t have the firepower to fight good on that scale, no matter how much he admired the strong men of the Axis Powers. He thought Adolph Hitler was Wagnerian, even in his toothbrush mustache. He thought Mussolini’s chin wag was big and bold. In any  event, he knew when to lay low, and stayed close to home for the duration. When the war ended he got busy again.

   In 1947 Dr. Mabuse body transferred into Tony Accardo, who had become the Boss of the Chicago Outfit, where he stayed until the gangster’s death in 1992. The gang was the most successful crime organization in the country for many years. They realized profits of $1 billion annually and controlled Las Vegas. He never spent a minute in jail. He spread misfortune far and wide. Who says crime doesn’t pay? He lived in the lap of luxury.

   Dr. Mabuse didn’t care about cement overshoes, or the needle and the damage done. What he cared about was creating a Society of Crime. “When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror and when chaos has become supreme law, then the time will have come for the Empire of Crime,” he said. If there was anything he believed in, it was that. “I am everywhere and nowhere at once,” he liked to say. It was no childish boast. Everybody walks in the garden of good and evil, light and dark.

   When Dr. Mabuse first became aware of Donald Trump, all he knew about the man was that he was a notorious womanizer and much-rumored fraudster. He didn’t care about the womanizing, but he liked the rumors of shady dealing and crooked doings. He liked the gambling. He had himself once been known as “The Gambler.” He explained to an associate, “Nothing is interesting in the long run, except for one thing, which is gambling with the fates of people.”

   He liked Donald Trump’s braggadocio. Bragging about untruths was a stroke of genius. He was disappointed in himself for not having thought of it first. He went to New York City the summer of 2015 to hear the mogul’s presidential campaign announcement speech. He sat in the front row at Trump Tower. Hardly a soul noticed him.

   “Whoa, whoa, this is some group of people, thousands,” Donald Trump said. “It’s great to be here at Trump Tower. There’s never been no crowd like this. Some of the other candidates, they didn’t know the air-conditioning wasn’t working. They sweated like dogs. Our country is in serious trouble. When was the last time anybody saw us beating China in a trade deal? They kill us! I beat China all the time, all the time. When Mexico sends us its people, they’re rapists. They’re sending us not the right people.”

   “He is going to be silly putty in my hands,” Dr. Mabuse chortled, trying to keep ahead of the big wig’s stream-of-consciousness. “I can finally realize my dream, so long as he doesn’t run off the rails. He knows how to point the Finger of Blame, though. I will give him that.”

   “Hey, I know what I’m doing,” Donald Trump whined.

   “Just remember,” Dr. Mabuse said. “There is no love. There is only desire! There is no happiness. There is only the will to power!”

   “Damn right!” the presidential candidate exclaimed, making small fists with his small hands. His face got red. Flecks of spit landed on his tie. “Humanity’s soul must be shaken to its very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crimes, crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is to inspire fear and terror,” Dr. Mabuse said, his thumb on the button. There was a big thumb’s up from the would-be Caesar with the trifling hands. Dr. Mabuse wormed his way into Donald Trump on the spot.

   Dr. Mabuse never committed any crimes himself. He was more careful about that than even Donald Trump. The mastermind’s network of agents carried out his schemes. They never knew they were doing what he wanted them to do. “About to make a fuss, you swine?” he sneered whenever his henchmen screwed up. “What am I paying you for if you flounder around like schoolgirls?” He saw himself in Donald Trump, a real estate wheeler-dealer bred on greed and deceit, who portrayed himself being more sinned against than sinner. Dr. Mabuse liked the topsy turvy nature of the man. What he especially liked about the man was that no matter what, no faultfinding ever stuck to him. He huffed and he puffed, and everything blew away in a cloud of swamp gas.  

   Donald Trump believed he was a Nietzsche-like Superman who could rip open the social fabric of society. He was childish that way in his red tie and smug smile. He wore a MAGA baseball cap at his airport rallies, proclaiming his greatness, whipping crowds into a frenzy, dreaming up straw men and excoriating them. He was going to expose and drain the swamp, he said. His mind was a jack-in-the-box. Confusion and mayhem were the tools of his trade. He was opportunistic and unrepentant. He swallowed Delmonico steaks whole whenever he saw one on somebody’s plate. 

   The Donald’s Loyalty Street was notorious for being a one-way street. He had nothing on Dr. Mabuse, though. The doctor had the market cornered on my way or the highway. The mad mogul was always ready with Twitter in hand to destroy a man. Dr. Mabuse, on the other hand, was always ready with a Heckler & Koch. Insults are one thing. Hot lead is another thing.

  The test of Donald Trump’s reign came when COVID-19 arrived early in 2020. Dr. Mabuse could not have been more pleased. Epidemics and the fear they arouse were part of his game plan. The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control were urging social distancing and wearing masks in public. Donald Trump waved them away. He had his own ideas. He made sure everybody knew what his ideas were.

   “I think the virus is going to be, it’s going to be fine,” he said in February. “It looks like by April, when it gets a little warmer, it’s going to disappear, like a miracle.” In March the United States had the most confirmed cases in the world. By the end of April POTUS was promoting Hydroxychloroquine as a cure-all. It treats malaria caused by mosquito bites. It does nothing for COVID-19 unless you’re a mosquito. After the national death toll passed 40,000 he recommended trying bleach and shining UV light on people’s insides. He had ideas up the wazoo. “I am the hardest working president in history,” he said.

   “This is going to go away without a vaccine,” he declared while pharmaceutical manufacturers worked around the clock to develop a vaccine. “We’re doing a great job on COVID response. We are in a good place.” Deaths passed 130,000 in May. “It is what it is,” he said. As the year ended, the death toll passed 330,000. 

   “I think we’re rounding the corner very much,” the Donald concluded. He thought he was rounding the corner on a second term, too, but it wasn’t to be. Joe Biden beat him at the polls in November. Dr. Mabuse was disappointed. The still-warm officeholder reassured him, saying he had some tricks up his sleeve. Dr. Mabuse agreed to be patient. When the trick popped its top he found himself more disappointed than ever.

   Early in January POTUS fomented a riot among his supporters to overturn the 2020 election results and put him back in power. “Stop the Steal” was their chant, although the lack of firepower they brought to bear was their downfall. The weapons they brought to the fray were stun guns, pepper spray, and  baseball bats. One of them wielded a flagpole as a club. They stormed Congress. There were Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and Three Percenters.  QAnon was there in disguise. Jacob Chansley, a QAnon shaman, sported a bearskin headdress, horns, and red, white, and blue face paint. “I came with other patriots at Donald Trump’s request,” he said, heating up an old slice of pizza with a cigarette lighter.

   It made Dr. Mabuse sick. He had done consulting work for the Gestapo back in the day. He knew the feeble goings-on at the Capital weren’t going to accomplish anything. They should have burned it down like the Reichstag had been torched in 1933. Then they could have blamed it on the liberal elite and suspended everybody’s constitutional rights. They had taken the capital lawmen by surprise, but by the end of the day they were being chased away and rounded up. Those who weren’t immediately arrested had filmed their antics and posted them on social media. The cops went on social media and wrote down their names. All Dr. Mabuse could do was shake his head. How had he ever believed in the silver spoon boy? The boy had been born on third base and gone through life pretending he had hit a triple.

   Dr. Mabuse swallowed his pride and stuck with his namesake until the 2022 mid-term elections. They didn’t go well for his man. It looked like his kingmaker days were over. After the elections mis-fired he entertained Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist poobah, and Kanye West, a celebrity antisemite, at his mansion on the Florida coast. Dr. Mabuse like that. He floated a plan to rip up parts of the Constitution. Dr. Mabuse liked that, too. But his handpicked candidate for the Senate in a run-off Georgia election stumbled and fumbled. Dr Mabuse didn’t like that. His business corporation was convicted on all 17 counts in a tax-fraud case. Dr. Mabuse didn’t like that, either.

   “I know a lot of people in our party love the former president,” Senator Mitt Romney said in Washington, D. C. “But he is, if you will, the kiss of death for somebody who wants to win a general election. And at some point, we’ve got to move on and look for new leaders that will lead us to win.”

   When he heard that, Dr. Mabuse knew for sure it was time to move on. He hastily body transferred down the throat of a Camp Fire Jewish Laser Beam conspiracy theorist, on the assumption the congresswoman was so dim-witted she wouldn’t notice, biding his time until he found the right host. “Mein Gott, this woman has bad breath,” he muttered. When he became aware of Vladimir Putin, he realized his mistake of taking a flier on the Donald. He asked Tucker Carlson for advice, which the gab show host was happy to supply, for a price. The Russian Federation’s top dog was the man to cozy up to. Dr. Mabuse jumped on the first plane to Moscow. He was greeted with open arms. He was hoisted on to the back of a missile and immediately rocketed to the Kremlin.

   “What can I do for you?” Vladimir Putin asked.

   “It’s not what you can do for me but what I can do for you,” Dr. Mabuse replied. The tyrant slapped the master criminal on the back. They laughed heartily at the inside joke. They both hated idealistic rhetoric, especially from the 1960s. They both knew they were going to be the best of friends, and it was going to be bread, water, and barbed wire in Siberia for their enemies.

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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Slap Happy

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By Ed Staskus

By all accounts Ryan Woidke seems to be a normal 19-year-old born and bred in Lakewood, Ohio, where he still lives on weekends while in his second year at Kent State University. A graduate of Lakewood High School now majoring in Criminal Justice, trim and athletic, a full-time academic with two part-time jobs, he blends in with most other backpacking students.

Except on Friday nights, when he changes his t-shirt and blue jeans for deer-hide leather shorts, wide embroidered suspenders, a white cotton shirt, a green wool hat with a grouse feather ornament, knee socks, and black shoes with thick two-inch heels and cleats as big as horseshoes.

Once transformed he goes shoe slapping at the Donauschwaben German-American Cultural Center in Olmsted Township on Cleveland’s southwest side. The shoe slap dance is schuhplattler.

The Donauschwaben are the Danube Swabians of Eastern Europe, a German people who colonized parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire along the Danube River in the 18th century. After WWI their lands were parceled out to Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. After WWII most fled their farms and towns when faced with the advance of the Iron Curtain. Many relocated to Ohio, to Cincinnati, Akron, and Cleveland.

The Donauschwaben have a Coat of Arms. It is made of a German Eagle on top and a fortress below. The eagle is black and the fortress towers are between a sun, symbolizing the rise of Christianity, and a crescent moon, symbolizing the setting of Islam.

“What happened was that in my freshman year at Lakewood High one of my best friends asked me to help serve dinner at their winter dance event,” said Mr. Woidke. “Later on he invited me to a practice, and, of course, when you show up they start making you dance. I was hooked on it right away.”

Schuhplattler, or hitting the shoe, as it is called, is native to the mountainous regions of Bavaria and Tyrolean areas of Germany, in which women spin around their partners or simply spin in place and men execute a syncopated series of loud slaps on lederhosen-clad legs and soles of their shoes.

Between slaps men and women both waltz to the accompaniment of accordions, sometimes three or four or more of them, a wall of wheezy but smooth sound ranging from very soft to very loud.

Accordions are assembled with wax and the best ones are always fully handmade.

“I had never danced before,” said Mr. Woidke. “I don’t know if I have plattle or not, but at least for this I do.”

Rhythm is known as plattle in schuhplattler circles.

Schuhplattling requires flexibility, stamina, and unity of the group, so that the slapping isn’t just loud only, but is one loud slap in concert. Men slap themselves on the knees, thighs, and feet. Traditionally a courtship dance, a means to attract the opposite sex, it became a way to showcase the agility and strength of men and a spectacle to dazzle women.

Watschenplattle is a variation of schuhplattle. During the slap dancing men smack each other firmly on the butt in addition to everywhere else.

Schuhplattler is almost a millennium old, first described in 1050. In modern times washing one’s hands afterwards, especially if watschenplattling, has become a rite before starting up any other courtship-like activities.

“Some of us are younger and have the endurance for it,” said Mr. Woidke. “Others are in their 50s, but they’ve been doing it since they were little kids, so they’re used to it.”

Schuhplattling originally came to Cleveland in the early 1920s when four couples toured the city demonstrating the European folk dance at civic functions. The dance group Schuhplattler und Trachtenverien, better known as STV Bavaria, was formed in the mid-60s and today thrives with more than a hundred members, ranging in age from 7 to 70.

“Many of our young adults grew up within the club, but Ryan came to us as a teenager,” said Paul Beargie, vice-president of STV Bavaria and a long-time Lakewood resident.

“He has taken to the dance and fully immersed himself in the culture. It is encouraging to see his enthusiasm to learn and pass on what he has learned.”

Five years of weekly practices, competitions, and cultural events have immersed Ryan Woidke in the history and customs of his adopted Bavarian Alps and the dancing that dates back 40 generations.

“Ryan is more than a dancer,” said Kenny Ott, president of STV Bavaria. “He’s second-in-command of the men’s teaching. He’s a young man who has stepped up and assumed a role of responsibility, perpetuating the culture for at least another generation.”

One of four dance directors for the group, Ryan Woidke brings a young man’s energy to the thousand-year-old tradition.

“I’m at the point where they can show me five dances a night and I’ll know all of them,” he said

Every year STV Bavaria participates at the Cleveland Labor Day Oktoberfest, drawing large crowds. It is the club’s major fund-raising event, as well as an opportunity to perform their native dances, and sometimes even strut their stuff before an audience often unfamiliar with schuhplattler.

‘We do all kinds of funny skits,” said Mr. Woidke. “In one of them we come out dressed as old men with canes. A lady comes out with a sign saying she’s got a special brew, and we drink it, go around the glockenspiel, and when we come back, we’ve lost our beards and scraggly wigs, and we’re dancing upright. It’s like the beer that makes you younger.”

A recent poll on the Oktoberfest Facebook page rated the colorful STV Bavaria pavilion and their folk dances in full costume tops for the holiday weekend, for more reasons than one.

“We have sponsors who donate bead necklaces and sunglasses, and we toss stuff out to the crowds right after the shows, “said Mr. Woidke. “One year they gave us Jagermeister apparel to throw out.

“Another time it was thongs. That was nuts, everybody was grabbing for those.”

Affiliated with Gauverband Nordamerika, a non-profit foundation formed in 1966 to preserve and carry on the cultural heritage of Bavaria and Tyrol, including their ethnic costumes and dances, Cleveland’s STV Bavaria group regularly competes in the biennial Gaufest national competition. Since 1973 they have won 7 gold medals.

In Orlando, Florida, in July 2011, STV Bavaria brought home first place in the Gaufest group dance, and well as placing two couples in the top three of the singles competitions. They qualified for the 2012 Bayrischer Loewe in Germany, at which event they will go shoe-to-shoe against teams from both the fountainhead and from around the world.

Mr. Woidke can’t wait.

“We’re going to go and compete against all of their best,” he said. “I’ve only been here five years, so there are many things I don’t know, but I’m still going.”

By his own reckoning part German, largely on his father’s side, Mr. Woidke dances schuhplattler for the heritage, for the competition, but mostly for the camaraderie.

“The people are great,” he said. “It’s like one big family. They’re fun to hang out with.” What he meant was the energy and community of putting on a show, the village atmosphere of people who care about what they’re doing and about each other.

Mr. Woidke’s future plans include getting his undergraduate degree, attending the police academy at Kent State University, possibly enlisting in the Marine Corps, and definitely schuhplattler.

“No matter what, even if I go into the military, I’ll keep it up,” he said. “I can jump right in when I’m on leave. You can’t beat it.”

At the Bayerischer Lowe in Gauting, Bavaria, in May 2012 Mr. Woidke and the Cleveland group, STV Bavaria, took 5th place in the Gruppenpreisplattein, or group dance.

In 2013 STV Bavaria defended their first place North American Gaufest medal, again taking the gold.

After transferring to and graduating from Cleveland State University, Mr. Woidke, a life-long gun enthusiast, enlisted in the United States Army. He is currently stationed in South Korea, where he works as a Military Weapons Specialist.

Slap dancing is unknown in South Korea, although the actor Tom Hiddleston improvised a schuhplattle one night for his fantasy fans in Seoul, South Korea, during the premiere of the movie Thor: The Dark World.

Ryan Woidke, meanwhile, continues to work on his plattle, with the thought in mind that it’s never smart to give a sword to a man who can’t dance.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Family Affair

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By Ed Staskus

The first thing Jody Candow does after getting up at 6 AM is quietly slip out of her home and drive herself to Boot Camp.

“It’s where you work with a trainer every morning,” said Mrs. Candow.

Boot Camp fitness mixes calisthenics like pushups, crunches, and other body weight exercises with interval training. The difference lies in the intensity.

“It gets my workout in, which is partly to keep me sane.”

Back from the gym, her house has come to life; her husband, Rich, a Lakewood, Ohio, mail carrier, is preparing for work, and her four children, teenager Riley, twelve-year-old Kameryn Rose, and five-year-old twins Carter and Ethan, are on the lookout for their mother.

“We tag team, make breakfast, get them ready for school,“ she said.

“My husband drives our son, goes to work, I drive my daughter, the twins come along for the ride, then they stay with my mom, and I go to work.”

The work Jody Candow does is her own, which is the management of her new full-service Kameryn Rose Salon on Linda Street in Rocky River.

She got started when being a stay-at-home mother got to be less of a necessity.

“My kids were getting older, so I started working as a receptionist at a salon six years ago.”

In less than a year she was pregnant again.

“That was a surprise.”

In her second trimester she scheduled a follow-up ultrasound because she was measuring large and because of the baby’s liveliness.

“I always said to my husband, this baby is crazy, it was so active.”

Midway through the test the technician turned off the prenatal ultrasound and suggested her husband join them.

“I asked what was the matter and they said there were two heads. I asked if there were two bodies and they said yes.”

After returning to work part-time, she moved up the ladder to manager, finally striking out on her own. Supported by her family and husband, she reached an agreement with the Sean Luis Salon to lease their vacant second floor. After renovations her salon now features three stylists and two nail stations in a space lit by natural light beneath an open beam ceiling.

“It’s a really nice salon,” said Laurie Fox of Cleveland, her head festooned with silver highlighting foils.

“When I go to get my hair done here I can relax, kind of be pampered.”

One of twelve children, Mrs. Candow lives on the same street she has lived on most of her life, which is the same street her parents, Vicky and Paul, have lived on during all of their 42-year marriage. Many of her brothers and sisters continue to live in Ohio, while one sibling serves in the military.

Once at work, Mrs. Candow’s work is seemingly never done. She leaves the salon to take her twins to pre-school in the early afternoon, and leaves again in the late afternoon to retrieve them and her daughter.

“My son is 16, so he does his own thing with his friends.”

After school her husband rides herd on the family while she makes dinner, and afterwards returns to work, massaging the details.

Mrs. Candow’s long-time stylist and friend Julie Jurek describes her detail-oriented boss as ‘a little OCD’.

“Jody runs the business the way I would want to,” she said. “She’s fair and honest, but, she’s a tweak, everything’s got a place, and everything’s got to be in that place.”

It is her attention to detail that makes the salon a preferred destination.

“It is a place you can walk into and not be intimidated,” said Mary Caruso of Rocky River.

“They are down-to-earth girls, but they are smart businesswomen, too.”

New businesses fail at a high rate, more than 50%, according to the Small Business Administration. Poor management and neglect are often cited as the number one reasons. Given Mrs. Candow’s drive, experience, and commitment to customer service, it is success that seems to be her better option.

No matter the care and effort she puts into her work, Jody Candow always reserves some special consideration for her daughter, disabled from birth.

Born with low muscle tone, Kameryn Rose suffered infantile spasms as a baby, and although appears an average 12-year-old, has never spoken a word, read a book, or ridden a bike. She has receptive language skills, but at a 2 or 3-year-old level.

“She looks totally normal,” said Mrs. Candow.

“You would never know. We’ve had a million tests done and all of them have come back normal.”

After multiple tests by doctors at the Cleveland Clinic and elsewhere, she has never been diagnosed with any specific malady.

“We’ve had geneticists tell us she’s a medical mystery.”

One of the biggest challenges Jody Candow faces managing her new business is the time it consumes, taking her away from her family. When it came time to find a name for the salon, she found the decision an easy one.

“I named the salon after her, because her name is totally beautiful, just like she is, and she’s my only daughter, perfect.”

But, like any girl in an otherwise all-boy family, she knows how to bother her brothers and hold her own.

“There’s no resting in Kameryn’s wake,” said Mrs. Candow.

Whenever the weather cooperates the family spends their time outdoors, the back yard, at parks on the lakeshore, and visiting the Cleveland Zoo.

“We always take Kameryn,” she said

“She’s a little slower, she doesn’t keep up, but we hold hands and just take our time with her.”

It is the ability to care that matters, not disability.

Every day clients come to the Kameryn Rose Salon from as far away as Sandusky.

“When people come here they feel welcome, like they are part of our family,” said Mrs. Candow. “We look forward to seeing them.”

Once her children have gone to bed, Jody Candow finishes her day at the salon.

“Then I chill out a little, go to bed about midnight, and start it all again the next day.”

Postscript:

After two years the Kameryn Rose Salon moved into its own dedicated, modernist space on Lake Road on the edge of the Rocky River valley. “A five star rating,” said Wendy Jackson Richardson after having her hair and nails done, looking like a star stepping out on to the street.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Minister of Music

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By Ed Staskus

On any Wednesday evening for the past two decades-and-more whenever anyone looked toward the musician’s pit to the right of the reader’s platform at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River they would have seen, as they still see today, the back of the pony-tailed head of Lavert Stuart.

What they wouldn’t have seen is that serendipity always rewards the prepared. Mr. Stuart has had his fingers on a keyboard from the time he could stand up in a crib. He was ready for the Schantz organ at the Rocky River church

“The substitute for Berdie d’Aliberti, the regular organist at the church, couldn’t make it one night, so I filled in,” said Lavert Stuart. “Then when Berdie’s teaching duties at Baldwin Wallace University got so she could only play on Sundays I became the Wednesday organist, and now we’re looking at more than 25 years.”

What Mr. Stuart didn’t say was that he has been a church musician for almost 50 years, since he started at Cleveland’s Mount Zion Congregational Church in 1965. In the years since he has performed as a pianist and organist at many Protestant churches, from the Historic First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, to the Cathedral de St. Trinity in Port au Prince, Haiti.

Although not a member of the Rocky River church he says he is a Christian Scientist “by osmosis”.

The son of a Cleveland policeman, who was cousin to Carl and Louis Stokes, noted Ohio politicians, and a librarian who went on to become the first black insurance saleswoman in Ohio, Mr. Stuart started small.

“When I was a baby my mother kept my playpen next to the upright piano in the front room. It was so she would know where I was. As long as she heard me picking out notes she knew I wasn’t getting into anything else.”

Mr. Stuart grew up in the Glenville neighborhood at a time when it was known as the Gold Coast, crowded with immigrants, delis, clubs, department stores, and churches. He attended Empire Junior High and John Adams High School.

The first in his family to pursue a higher education, he won a scholarship to Ohio University, where he majored in organ. After graduation he moved to Chicago, working for the Board of Education, and playing at several churches, including Salem Lutheran, founded in 1868 by Swedish immigrants. While there he studied with Edward Mondello, the University Organist at the University of Chicago.

“He was a wonderful teacher. I got a lot of the romantic 19th century style from him, playing in the Rockefeller Chapel.”

After being recommended for the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, he studied there for two years. He was the musical director at the First Congregational Church in Weston and later played his graduation recital at the historic Old West Church, where the phrase “no taxation without representation” was first coined.

While living in Boston he helped coordinate the creation of the 1.6 mile Black Heritage Trail, which winds through the Beacon Hill neighborhood and ends at the African Meeting House, the oldest surviving black church in America.

“The first person to die in the American Revolution was a black man,” Mr. Stuart points out. “It was a terrible time.”

Even in 1976, during the Bicentennial celebrations in Boston, when a man at an anti-busing rally tried to kill an African-American bystander with the pointed pole end of an American flag, captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.

“I was only a few steps away from that incident when it happened.”

Thirty-five years later Boston City Council cited Lavert Stuart with a proclamation honoring his “spiritual leadership through music ministry and commitment to developing interest and knowledge in Black heritage and culture.”

Having finished his studies he returned to live in Cleveland.

“It was my experience with institutions, and the sense of history in Boston, which made me interested in the organizations and history that brought me to where I was, and who I was.”

He returned to Mt. Zion Church, serving as their organist and choirmaster for the next ten years, as well as serving as supply organist for several other churches and chapels. He began a 25-year relationship with the Stuphen School of Music, serving as their musical director. The school experienced a renaissance under his leadership.

In 1996 he began his long association with Antioch Baptist Church as their organist for the Sanctuary and Gospel Choirs.

“His ministry of music has been a blessing to me,” said the Reverend Marvin McMickle of the Antioch Church. ”Lavert Stuart has been our local version of the Music Man.”

Mr. Stuart is a long-time supporter of the Antioch Development Corporation, whose mission it is to develop personal and collective self-sufficiency within individuals, families, and organizations throughout impoverished neighborhoods of Greater Cleveland.

“Sometimes you don’t realize the things people have to go through.”

As well as a career in classical, sacred music, Mr. Stuart has had a secular career in jazz and popular music. He got his start at the New England Conservatory under the aegis of Gunther Schuller, a composer, conductor, and performer who was then the president of the music school.

“He really put jazz on the map there,” said Lavert Stuart.

In 1973 Gunther Schuller won a Grammy Award with his Ragtime Ensemble.

In the late 1980s Mr. Stuart was the pianist at the Sweet Water Café in downtown Cleveland, and for more than ten years played three nights a week at Mantell’s in the Radisson in Willoughby.

“They had a grand piano on a platform in the shape of a grand piano.”

As well as playing jazz standards at clubs and restaurants, he has worked as a conductor-pianist for theater productions at both Karamu and the Ensemble Theater. He toured with Karamu when its production of ‘Langston’ performed at Lincoln Center in New York City.

He was the featured pianist in Philip Hayes Dean’s biographical play ‘Paul Robeson’.

“I always wanted to do something on a cruise ship, too,” he said, laughing. “Maybe in a next life I’ll be able to do that.”

As if his plate weren’t full enough, Mr. Stuart volunteers at the McGregor Home, a senior living facility near University Circle, playing the piano in their dining hall.

“One of my last adopted mothers is there,” he said. “She was my car mom when I was a boy, driving me home from church. I sit at the piano, start picking up the vibe, and play for her and her friends. It adds some quality to their lives, which is important, because it’s the little things that count.”

The Reverend Marvin McMickle remembers Mr. Stuart doing the same for his mother. “He would take a keyboard into my mother’s room and play the hymns of the church as she lay in her bed in a nursing home. I believe she is looking on from glory today and sharing in his musical celebration.”

Every Wednesday Lavert Stuart plays a prelude, accompanies three hymns, and finishes with a postlude at the Testimony Meeting at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River. Those who stay for the postlude are sometimes treated to his signature piece, the Carillon de Westminster, written for the organ by the French composer Louis Vierne as an embellishment on the chimes played from the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster.

After nearly two-and-a-half score years the minister of music continues to play organs with consummate skill and enthusiasm.

“It all started when I was a teenager and heard it at Mt. Zion. I would go to the library and get records. I loved to hear that sound,” he said.

For many centuries the organ has been known as ‘the king of instruments’.

“There’s something about the sound of the organ. It’s a light unto itself.” 

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Ceiling Beams

golrghakola-e1449877325970.jpg

By Ed Staskus

Every Sunday morning Mel Hakola, at the front of the auditorium, leads the congregation at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River, Ohio, across from the town’s high school, in three hymns during the service, as well as singing a solo, accompanied by his organist Berdie d’Aliberti.

“The church has a wonderful atmosphere,” said Mel. “It’s a fabulous place to sing.”

Berdie d’Aliberti plays a Schantz organ, manufactured in Orrville, Ohio, from a recessed nook to the side of the reader’s platform.

“It’s a small instrument, but it’s an excellent pipe organ,” she said. “And the pipes are real.”

“We’re the music,” said Mel. “We help the people have a good religious experience. My role as a singer is to create a spiritual atmosphere for the worship of the congregation.”

Mel Hakola began singing at the church in 1974, when its members were looking for a new soloist, and Berdie d’Aliberti joined him twenty years later.

“We were at college together, and when the organist left I talked her into coming here,” he said.

Mel Hakola began singing in churches in Painesville when he was nine-years-old. “I sang in a boy’s choir in an Episcopal church, although I’m not Episcopalian. I am Finnish, so I was raised in a Lutheran family.”

As a boy he spent his summers at Camp Waliro, a choir camp on South Bass Island, named after Warren Lincoln Rogers, an Episcopalian bishop. “I worked there in the summers, as a dishwasher, because my family didn’t have the money for lessons, from when I was nine until I was seventeen-years-old. The camp ran for eight weeks, and every week boy choirs from different churches would come to the camp, but since I worked there I stayed all summer. I learned so much about music, in general, and sacred music especially. It helped me become the musician I became.”

A professor emeritus at Baldwin Wallace University, Mel taught voice for 38 years before retiring. The Conservatory of Music at BW created the Mel Hakola Prize for Academic and Vocal Excellence to reward voice students who demonstrate vocal and musical abilities and ‘who have the potential to make a significant contribution to music performance.’

Berdie d’Aliberti was born in Brilliant, Ohio. “My father was a Methodist minister and I am his brilliant daughter. I played prayer meetings from when I was seven-years-old.” She is a distinguished alumna of the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music. She has served on faculties at BW and the University of Akron, and is a piano accompanist at concerts throughout the Midwest, and most recently, at Carnegie Hall.

Neither Mel nor Berdie are Christian Scientists, which matters neither to them or the church. Music praises God, and in some respects music is a church’s greatest adornment. “In church, sacred music would make believers of us all,“ wrote the American journalist Mignon McLaughlin.

“I do a prelude before the service, ten minutes of organ music,” said Berdie. ”I play an offertory, a postlude at the end of the service, Mel leads the congregation in three hymns, and he sings a solo. The readers of the church pick the hymns, he picks his own solo, and I pick my own organ music.”

“We both have libraries of sacred songs, so many of them you wouldn’t believe it,” said Mel. “All the classical composers from Bach onward have written sacred songs, Handel, Mendelssohn, John Rudder. We have sung many songs by Ralph Vaughn Williams in this church.”

“You get good stuff here on Sundays,” said Berdie.

Mel Hakola sang in a G. I. chorus during his service in the army. “That’s when I decided I would go into what I always wanted to do, which was music.” After he was discharged he earned a degree at Baldwin Wallace and a Master’s from Case Western Reserve University. He began singing at the Old Stone Church in downtown Cleveland, and from there he migrated to the Jewish Temple on E. 107th Street. ”That was a huge place, and the organ in the temple was tremendous. I sang there from 1951 until I came here. I loved singing there. Even after I left I kept singing the high holy days.”

In the early 1950s he won a scholarship with the Singer’s Club, whose conductor was Robert Stulfert.

“He had a program at the Church of the Covenant, and one time he was talking about a piece of music, and said his job was to choose music that would create a spiritual atmosphere. That’s when I realized why I should be playing sacred music, so I could be an important part of the service.”

His career includes being a concert artist in more than 250 performances, a frequent guest artist with the Cleveland, Akron, and Columbus symphony orchestras, as well as a long-time church and synagogue soloist.

Berdie d’Aliberti has directed choirs and served as an organist in several area churches. She was the choir director at the Westlake Methodist Church for twelve years, and later played the Holtkamp organ, with its eleven racks of pipe, at the West Shore Unitarian Church. The Rocky River Christian Science Church might be her favorite. “I don’t know if it’s acoustically regulated, but it sounds just fine. It is a very comfortable place to play, and the people are just great.”

Music has always been an important element in Christian Science church services. In 1897 Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the religious movement that emerged in New England in the late 19th century, wrote, “congregational singing is the best song service for the Church of Christ, Scientist. Why? Because singing is, if harmony, an emotion more spiritual than material and must, to touch my heart, or ear, come from devout natures.”

Mary Baker Eddy wrote the lyrics to hymns that are still sung today, including ‘Christ My Refuge’ and ‘Communion Hymn’.

“Berdie and I choose the music for the services, planning it three months in advance,” said Mel Hakola, “so it meets the qualifications of the weekly lessons.”

“People come up and thank us for the music,” said Berdie, “for what we’ve chosen. That’s another nice thing about this church. You just don’t walk in and nobody gives you the time of day. I think it is because it is a Christian Science church, and nothing negative goes on in the church. Sometimes people have a hard time with chords in more contemporary sacred music, it doesn’t suit their harmonic specifications. But that’s all right, that’s how you grow.”

“It makes it interesting to do the singing, too, so you don’t fall into a rut, “said Mel. “We don’t have time to fall into ruts.”

Since retiring both Mel Hakola and Berdie d’Aliberti have remained active. “I have sung the Messiah more than 75 times, all over creation,” said Mel, “and Bach with the Columbus Symphony and at the BW Bach Festival.” Berdie d’Aliberti is a frequent collaborative pianist in vocal performances. Longtime friends, they are planning several recitals together.

“I sing when I am happy and I sing when I am unhappy to make myself happy, “ said Mel Hakola.

“I’m just glad to be singing at age 86.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Doing a Body Good

By Ed Staskus

Chavutti-Thai might sound like Pacific Rim culinary fare, but as served up by Jennifer Beam at Holistic Massotherapy and Apothecary, it is a blend of two separate bodywork modalities that may provide one of the deepest and yet most relaxing massages to be found anywhere.

“I would say most of the work I do is Chavutti-Thai,” said Jennifer, a Massage Therapist licensed by the State Medical Board of Ohio, which was the first state to license the practice of massage. The first applicant was licensed in 1916.

Hippocrates, the father of medicine, once said, “The physician must be experienced in many things, but most assuredly in rubbing.” Although an ancient practice, massage was banned in Europe by the Church from the 500s to the 1700s. Dr. Cornelius De Puy introduced it to the United States in the early nineteenth century.

Chavutti massage, pronounced ‘shah-voo-tee’, is a technique that has been practiced in southern India for centuries, in which therapists, while standing above their clients lying on a mat, use a rope for balance while they massage with their feet. Chavutti literally translates as ‘massage by foot pressure’.

“It is an anatomical treatment as well as energy work,” said Jennifer. “It focuses on the deep tissue and energy lines of the body. The broad surface of the foot delivers pressure more evenly.”

Practitioners use their feet in order to cover the entire body with a continuous gliding stroke and press deeper into muscles. The long strokes increase blood circulation and iron out tensions in the muscles and connective tissue.

“Chavutti is the ultimate deep tissue massage, the best I have ever had,” says Anna Magee, author of “The De-Stress Diet.”

Thai massage, sometimes called ‘Lazy Man’s Yoga’, is a form of bodywork based on yoga and Ayurveda. It is one of the world’s oldest healing modalities, originating in India more than 2500 years ago.

The massage recipient wears loose clothes and lies on a mat on the floor. The receiver is then put into a series of yoga-like positions during the course of the massage, involving rhythmic motion, palming, and thumbing along energy lines in the body. The result of the practice is greater flexibility, an increase in range of motion, and decreased strain on the joints.

At Holistic Massotherapy Jennifer Beam has synthesized Chavutti and Thai massage to make a new form of bodywork greater than the sum of it parts.

“Chavutti helps to stretch out, to warm up, and loosen up the muscles and fascia,“ said Jennifer. “Then the Thai massage brings it together by further stretching, folding in the compression aspects, and the energy work that is part of the process.”

A graduate of the Ohio College of Massotherapy in Akron, she honed her craft at Lakewood Massotherapy, specializing in therapeutic deep tissue work. In 2002 she traveled to Thailand where she studied Thai massage.

Thailand is the home of Thai massage, which has been strongly influenced by the traditional medicine systems of India and China, as well as yoga.

“I felt like I had hit a ceiling,” she said. “I knew there had to be more to massage than just the traditional western style that most of us knew.”

After returning to Thailand in 2004 for advanced training she studied with Pichest Boonthumme, an acknowledged master of the practice. Jennifer Beam opened Holistic Massotherapy in Fairview Park shortly afterwards.

Finding the way is the first step to better health.

“I started out with one room and put dividers up. It was my humble beginning.”

Patiently building her practice, she offered traditional table work while at the same time emphasizing the benefits of Thai massage.

In 2007 Jennferand her husband, planning a family, moved from Lakewood to Bay Village, a bedroom community on Cleveland’s western North Shore. They bought a ranch-style home and proceeded to renovate it.

“The yard was a veritable forest. We basically tore everything out and started from scratch,” she said. “We gutted and renovated everything short of replacing the furnace, and ripped wallpaper out of every room in the house. I don’t think I will ever buy a house with wallpaper again.”

The following year she relocated Holistic Massotherapy to Bay Village in the Dover Commons Plaza, expanding its space and offerings, as well as bringing it closer to home, where the first of her two sons was now crawling around.

Jennifer Beam’s impetus for her career sprang from an interest in physical therapy and the desire to make a difference in people’s lives on a one-to-one basis

“That is why I started massage school in the first place,” she said.

A kind heart is often the beginning of knowledge.

Massage therapy has been found to be better than medication or exercise for easing lower back pain, according to a 2011 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“Many people look to massage for pain relief, sports injuries, chronic pain due to poor posture, or just bad habits. Musculoskeletal problems are really where skilled massage therapists can help,” said Jennifer.

Massage is sometimes more than that for some.

“When I start thinking about death, I order a massage and it goes away,” Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood actress many critics regard as the most beautiful to ever appear in the movies, famously said about mortality and immortality.

For the treatment of pain, Americans rate massage as highly as medications, according to recent surveys by the American Massage Therapy Association. 9 of 10 Americans agree that massage is a practical remedy for pain relief.

“We have found massage to be effective for chronic pain syndromes,” confirmed Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

“Chavutti-Thai helps to break up the adhesions in the muscles and connective tissues,” Jennifer said. “Many people say they have gotten longer-lasting results from the treatment, more profound results, and more range of motion in their hips and shoulder girdles.”

As much as addressing muscle and skeletal pain is a primary focus of massage therapy, Jennifer Beam also brings the awareness to her practice that stress may just as likely be the reason for physical distress.

“Chronic pain might not only be caused by physical injury, but also by stress and emotional issues,” writes Susanne Babbel, Ph.D., in Psychology Today.

“Many people hold tension in their bodies, not knowing what the cause of it is,” said Jennifer. “They don’t know how to let go of that.”

It isn’t stress itself that hurts us, but our reaction to it.

“It has been clinically proven that the thoughts we have don’t just stay in the brain,” she added, “but travel in the form of neuropeptides throughout the body. That’s why stress-reducing therapies like massage are so important.”

Whether the goal is to reduce muscular tension, or pain management, or simply to lower stress levels, the new practice of Chavutti-Thai may just be the gateway to them all.

“I strive to be the best at what I do for those people who desire to live a healthy, holistic lifestyle,” she said

Treating the whole person, both spirit and body, is Jennifer Beam’s mantra as well as the business of compassion at Holistic Massotherapy.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Charles Dickens, Stieg Larsson, and a Side Order of Barbie

ridethrough

By Ed Staskus

The ‘Billions and Billions’ served up at many drive-thru’s may not be on the menu at the Lakewood Library, our hometown Ohio library, but the millions and millions of pages that go through the its own sliding window arguably have a much higher nutritional value.

Built in 1916 and expanded as well as modernized in 2007, the Lakewood Library is considered one of the best in the country, routinely ranked as exceptional for its size in the United States. Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings scored the Lakewood Library in its top ten nine of the past ten years.

The library houses more than a half-million volumes and circulates close to two million items to fifty-five thousand residents every year.  Materials are processed at the five-station main circulation desk, flanked by a two-story sky-lighted lobby and the Grand Staircase, and the four-station audio-visual department adjacent to the Grand Reading Room.

On the backside of the library is the more modest single-station Materials Return & Pick-up Window, better known as the drive-thru, facing onto the asphalted parking lot.

“All the service people work at the drive-thru,” said Beverly Coffey, one of the more than twenty-two customer-service clerks at the library. “It’s exactly the same as the front desk, except one person at a time.”

Drive-thru’s were first pioneered by banks starting in 1930, followed by burger joints in the 1940s. Since then fast food chains have made drive-thru’s ubiquitous, and their use has spread to pharmacies, coffee shops, post offices, wedding chapels, and even funeral parlors.

National Drive-Thru Day is July 24th.

The first library to install a drive-thru was the Milwaukee Central Library in 1956.

“Really, when you think about it, it’s a nice convenience,” said Mrs. Coffey. “You can order or place books on hold, check out CDs and DVDs, and sign up for a library card without ever leaving the comfort of your car.”

Not every patron agrees that convenience is the best of all possible worlds.

“No Lakewoodite ever need make the long walk from the parking lot to the front counter to pick up a copy of ‘The South Beach Diet’,” one wag waiting at the circulation desk said.

The mother of four adult children, the engaging Mrs. Coffey has lived in Lakewood since marrying soon after high school, and has worked at the library for three years.

“I saw an ad in the Lakewood Observer, and I thought, I’m always here anyway, so I applied for it,” she said. “Everybody comes to the library, it’s like a little slice of life. I enjoy working at the drive-thru; you have the window and can see outside. Except when it’s cold, you shut that window really fast.”

The drive-thru frees up parking spaces, and when it rains or snows, or a man has his dog with him, or a mother her brood about her, it is the venue of choice.

”It allows me to get good developmental books for the kids and pick them up without destroying the library in the process,” said a mother of toddler twins. “If it wasn’t for the drive-thru I might avoid the library altogether because of the hassle of getting both kids out of the car and into the library, not to mention the chaos they could cause.”

Children in the back seat are a staple at the drive-thru.

“There are lots of babies, lots of kids, which I totally understand,” said Mrs. Coffey.

Sometimes pile-ups ensue when children can’t bear to return something.

“They’ll say, no, mommy, not that one, I like that movie, when the DVD’s are coming back through the window, so we renew them,” said Mrs. Coffey. “There are certain movies they want to see over and over. The Barbie movies are very popular right now.”

Begging the question, if Barbie is so popular, why do all of her friends have to be bought and paid for?

The drive-thru is often the preferred portal for returns that have been damaged and whose returning patron doesn’t want to face a librarian at the circulation desk.

“Usually they’ll hand them to us, they’ll say, it got dropped in water, or my dog chewed on this, I’m really sorry,” said Mrs. Coffey. “It’s the nature of the material, its paper, it’s not indestructible, but that’s just library stuff.”

Patrons with fines also frequently prefer the drive-thru.

“I’ve noticed that people who drop off material and don’t wait for us to check it in often have fines,” said Mrs. Coffey. “Not that it matters, because we don’t say, you owe a dollar, wait, wait, let me get out of this little window!”

Even in an age of Kindles and i-Pads, circulation and visits continue to rise at the Lakewood Library, according to Library Journal.

“Yes, we are a really busy library,” said Mrs. Coffey.

From the classics to cops-and-robbers, books remain popular.

“I just saw a Charles Dickens go out, and I don’t think it was for a child,” said Mrs. Coffey. “It was a big heavy copy.”

“The new titles,” she added, “like Payne Harrison, Stephanie Myers’s Twilight Series, and the Stieg Larsson books, especially since the new movie has come out, are some of the hot titles now.”

Patrons occasionally linger at the drive-thru.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, people sometimes say they didn’t quite understand the second one,” said Mrs. Coffey. “I’ll ask them if they read the first one, because there are layers to the full story, and if they didn’t and somebody’s behind them I ask them to circle around the parking lot while I call the front desk and try to get it for them.”

There are no traffic jams at the Return & Pick-up Window when the Beverly Coffey’s of the service staff go the extra plot device and character development mile.  Unlike the fat and sugar served at most drive-thru’s, the fare served at Lakewood Library’s sliding window is always rich in nutrition and food for thought.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Blairpen House Turns Twenty

Riggs Picture #2

By Ed Staskus

It isn’t hard finding many first-rate inns, hotels, and bed-and-breakfasts in Niagara-on-the-Lake. But, finding one in the heart of Old Town less than a five minute walk from all the Shaw Festival’s theaters, as well as the shopping and restaurant district, is a little harder.

Finding one whose roots are as deep in the town as the Blairpen House on Davy Street, whose innkeeper bakes the bread and makes the yogurt, mixing in seasonal blueberries, for the European-style breakfasts is even harder.

“My father, who was going to become one of the town’s two doctors, bought this building in 1946,” said Tim Rigg of Blairpen House, a cozy and charming six-room inn a block-and-a-half from the Festival Theater.

“He and his brother renovated it and it became their office. The dining room today was their waiting room then. They practiced medicine together.”

Blairpen House, which turns twenty this year, was originally built as Niagara-on-the-Lake’s high school gymnasium in 1909. The high school, built in 1875, stood at the corner of Castlereagh and Davy Streets.

“They closed the high school during World War Two,” said Tim Rigg. “All the men were away and after the war there were very few children in town.”

Tim Rigg’s grandfather was the town doctor until 1939, and his father, Bruce Rigg, practiced medicine in Niagara-on-the-Lake until 1990, when he retired.

Bruce Rigg was a painter as well as doctor. In 2009 the Niagara Historical Society Museum hosted a retrospective of local art in the period 1929 – 1973 titled ‘The Forgotten Years’. Along with works by John Shawe and Mary Jones were exhibited several paintings by Dr. Bruce Rigg.

Two of his paintings depicting the town in the late 1940s hang on the back wall of Blairpen House’s dining room, including one of fishermen hanging their nets to dry. They are windows into a place that doesn’t exist anymore.

After his father’s death Tim Rigg, who had grown up in Niagara-on-the Lake, but was working in real estate in nearby St. Catherine’s, returned and took over the building.

“It was close to the theaters so it made sense to try to convert the building into an inn,“ he said.

The conversion from small town medical center to country inn included adding a second floor, a gable roof, and a suite to the back of the building.

“We updated the mechanical, electrical, hydro, and put in fire-rated drywall,” he said. “The footprint is the same, it’s just that everything is new, brought up to modern building standards.”

The ensuite queen rooms on the ground floor look out onto a brick patio, while the three rooms on the second floor have balconies. There is a guest lounge, a library, wi-fi and computers, as well as private parking. Sofas and chairs front a gas fireplace in the guest lounge, looking through sliding glass doors out onto the deep, backyard garden.

“It’s immaculately clean and yet welcoming,” said Julia Richardson of Toronto. “It’s quiet and literally a short walk to downtown.”

The patio and garden, with its masses of pots, plants, and thick bamboo, look like they might have come from southern France, not the Niagara Escarpment.

Along with the Shaw Festival the region’s more than eighty wineries dotting the landscape attract taste testers as well as cognoscente.

A couple from Scotland commented on their comfortable room, and especially appreciated how their used, by which they meant recently emptied, wine glasses were replaced daily. The guest lounge includes a wine cooler for convenience and an ample supply of stemmed glasses.

Growing up in Niagara-on-the-Lake Tim Rigg attended both grade and high schools in town, and lived two blocks from the Royal George Theater, originally built as a vaudeville house to entertain troops during World War One.

“It was much different then, much quieter,” he said. “There’s always been tourism, but before the Shaw Festival people often came for a few weeks and sometimes an entire month.”

Trains brought summer people up King Street and returned to Toronto and Buffalo loaded with fruit. Large trees lined Queen Street. Their canopies overlapped across the middle of the road.

But, the sleepy summer town began to change in the 1960s with the launch of what was then called ‘Salute to Shaw’. Since the 1970s the town’s many landmarks have been restored and in 2003 the Old Town was designated a National Historic District.

The Shaw Festival is what draws many theatergoers to Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Blairpen House.

“We have people who come here for seven or eight days,” said Tim Rigg. “They like it here because they don’t have to drive anywhere. They try to see everything and then they go to Stratford for Shakespeare.”

In the winter book clubs come for a weekend of getting together, talking, and drinking wine.

“It’s an easy walk to the shops and restaurants,” said a book lover from Toronto.

Occasionally some reading gets done, too.

Although the inn’s great location in the Old Town is a plus, it is old-fashioned service that keeps Blairpen House humming summer and winter.

“The real value of staying with Tim and Sharon [Tim’s partner] is the service,” said Mike Scullen of Alpine, New York. “Like a Continental hotel they provide nothing short of true concierge service.”

From dining establishments to wineries to local outings the innkeepers are a wealth of information. Between them there is little they don’t know about Niagara-on-the-Lake. They even make sure there is hot milk at breakfast for anyone who might need it.

”The inn is fun. I’m up at five in the morning every day,” said Tim Rigg. “We get people from all over the world, Australia, Great Britain, all over. You meet a lot of interesting people.”

Those people include composers of movie music, former premiers of Ontario, and a scientist from the Livermore National Lab in California.

“He would sit on the patio writing poetry. His wife and he would drive up from Cornell and I always wondered how on earth they got here in a car, since they were both such very small people. I resolved to stay off the roads until they left town.”

The inn is closed for several weeks at the tail end of winter while Tim and Sharon recharge in Spain. But, even then, with their laptops and Skype at hand, they are never really closed.

“It works remarkably well.”

When asked what lay in store the next twenty years at Blairpen House, Tim Rigg had an easy answer.

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing this. Our guests are on holiday. Everybody’s happy and it doesn’t seem like hard work.”

“They’ll probably have to carry me out,” he concluded, laughing wryly.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Reading Rocky River

rocky-river-nature-center-e1546723734167.jpg

By Ed Staskus

It was damp and cold on an overcast Sunday afternoon in mid-December when the Rocky River Readers met for their final book review of the year, taking a look back at everything they had read since January, and casting their votes for best book.

The Rocky River is the boundary between Lakewood and Rocky River, the suburb named after the river. Field & Stream magazine has ranked it one of the top steelhead trout fishing rivers in the world. It is also what defines the Metropark on Cleveland’s west side.

The reading group meets once a month to talk about the book they have been reading that month. Joni Norris moderates the roundtable discussion. This year they had to meet twice in August, reading and discussing two books, since Ms. Norris, a Metroparks Naturalist, was in Finland all of July.

“It was a great trip,” she said. “I got to know the moose up there really well.”

There are more than 100,000 moose in Finland’s forests. There are none in Ohio. Finnish passports even have a quirky security feature, which is a moose appearing to walk across the page. USA passports feature the balding head of an iconic-looking eagle. The moose looks like he’s minding his own business. The eagle-eyed bird looks like he’s minding your business.

A staff member since 1985, Ms. Norris’s interests in reading and writing led to the monthly book review program she proposed and offers at the Cleveland Metroparks. It focuses entirely on writing about nature topics.

This year the group read: Fire Season by Philip Connors and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and Swarm Tree by Doug Elliot and Sex on Six Legs by Marlene Zuk and A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean and The Earth Speaks by Steve van Matre and Bill Weiler and The End of Nature and Eaarth, both by Bill McKibben, and Northern Farm by Henry Beston and Tales of an African Vet by Roy Aronson and The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe and, finally, The Bluebird Effect by Julie Zickefoose.

The reading group meets in the Rocky River Nature Center off the Valley Parkway. The center was built in 1971 and from a back deck overhanging the river there is a view of 360 million year old shale cliffs. A friend who is in the group invited my wife and me to come along. She promised there would be pie and coffee afterwards.

My wife isn’t an avid reader, even though she does read when it strikes her, but she readily agreed to accompany me. She admitted the pie and coffee were powerful inducements.

The readers are critics, but affable rather than cruel ones. Their relationship to books is not the same as the relationship of pigeons to statues. But, writers need critics because, even though they might be good book writers, it doesn’t necessarily make them good book critics, in the same way that most good drunks are not necessarily good bartenders.

The weekend group of two-dozen critics sat in a large circle on folding chairs in the high-ceilinged auditorium of the center. Led by an energetic Mrs. Norris, they discussed rather than dissected the works of the nature writers and environmentalists they had been reading. They made their way with personal observation as much as with discrimination acquired by long, consistent reading.

They don’t worry about reading being bad for their eyes, either. “Reading isn’t good,” said Babe Ruth, the famous Bambino. “If my eyes went bad even a little bit I couldn’t hit home runs.” On the other hand, the road to strike outs and bubbaloney is paved by the short sighted who won’t and don’t read.

Reviewing their reading for the year the group began with Fire Season.

“It was a memoir and a history at the same time,” said a trim woman in creased blue jeans. “It was about being a fire watcher in Arizona and he was very good at telling stories about the loneliness and dangers. He lived in the mountains all alone with his dog.”

“His wife visited him from time to time,” said a man in a mustache and yellow shirt, which drew a big laugh.

“A man’s best friend, indeed!” said a wag sitting on the far side of the circle.

“My best friend,” Abraham Lincoln once said, “is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was variously described as an emotional portrait of a family, an interplay of race, poverty, and medicine, as well as a critique of science. The Swarm Tree, however, drew a blank, drawing little discussion.

“I don’t even remember it. We read it so long ago,” someone said apologetically, looking sheepish

Next up was Sex on Six Legs, a book about the complex behavior of the many insects whose brains are smaller than poppy seeds.

“It was about bugs,” said one reader. “It was really about their personalities and communication skills, not really about sex, but it helped sell the book, I suppose. The sex parts, I mean.”

“Did you know that, in general, people are more scared of bugs than they are of dying?” asked another reader.

The thing that almost everyone is more scared of than death is standing up in front of a group and having to speak. The readers all stayed in their seats when offering their comments.

“It just poured out of him” was how A River Runs Through It was described. The book is an evocative semi-biographical collection acknowledged to be the greatest fishing story ever told. Robert Redford made it into a movie.

Both The End of Nature and Eaarth by the New York Times best-selling author Bill McKibben were met with wary respect.

The End of Nature, it was all about global warming,” said a woman wearing a knitted white Christmas sweater. “It was about how we are all going to die. But, it had a positive twist at the end.”

“That was when he lived in the Adirondacks,” replied another reader. “The next book Eaarth was much more optimistic. Either it was because he moved to the Green Mountains in Vermont or the anti-depressants kicked in.”

Someone guffawed, and the next second looked guilty.

Northern Farm: A Chronicle of Maine drew a mixed response.

“It put us to sleep,” complained one couple that had come to the discussion that afternoon fresh from a hike in the northern reaches of the Metropark.

“No, we loved it,” another couple countered. “It’s a New England Christmas card.”

Tales of an African Vet was well received.

“He was trying to promote conservation. It was very upbeat,” said a man in a flannel shirt.

“I liked it,” said a woman in a red blouse, leaning back, content with her assessment.

“It got scary at times,” said a stout man wearing a beard and sweater. “He usually treated the animals in the wild and sometimes they would wake up in the middle of the procedure.”

“You’re right,” said another man. “The monkey died, but most of them came out all right.”

In the middle of the discussion about The Viral Storm someone asked, “Do you smell anything?”

“I think it’s my pie,” said Joni Norris. “What time is it?”

“It’s 2:45.”

“Usually an apple pie tells you when it’s done, but I better check that,” she said as she briskly walked to the back end of the auditorium and into the open kitchen where the pies were baking.

“Is it burnt?” someone asked.

“No, it’s perfect.”

The Bluebird Effect was the last book discussed, being the December selection. It is the latest book written by Appalachian wildlife artist and writer Julie Zickefoose, an Ohio resident, and drew the most comment.

“She’s very accessible,” said a woman, herself a writer and member of the River Poet Group. “She is very intimate with birds. I liked the story about the one bird that knocked itself out. She nursed it back to health and then the bird came back with a friend to visit. At other times it is very stark, tragic, but beautiful.”

“One sad part that is in the book,” said a woman in a maroon sweater and black slacks, “is that you are allowed to shoot morning doves in Ohio, just so you can have them as delectable little treats on your plate.”

“Why not crows, or how about seagulls?” someone asked. “There are a lot of seagulls.”

Joni Norris squeezed her nose and made a bird sound. She announced it was time to vote for the book of the year. Ballots were passed around, pencils chewed on, selections made, results tabulated, and the top three books were announced with an improvised drum roll on the back of a legal pad.

Tales of an African Vet came in third, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Laks secured second place, and The Bluebird Effect took the grand prize. Joni Norris announced that she was considering inviting Julie Zickefoos to the Nature Center for a lecture the coming summer, the news being greeted with general approbation, as was the announcement that the refreshment table, laden with Christmas cookies, cakes, and pies, was open.

Everyone, it seems, had brought a dessert.

I sampled three apple pies while my wife chatted, but in the end I couldn’t decide which was best, so I went back for seconds.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”