Class Dismissed

Buckle up, because you're about to read a whole lot of boohoo.

To some, the demolition of Charles Hay Elementary School in Englewood, Colorado means nearly nothing. To others, it signals a step forward for an evolving community. For me, it's a substantial loss. I attended that squat little red brick gem of school from Kindergarden to fifth grade. It was the setting for some of the most creative and joyous times of my life. I'm gratefully one of those fortunate people who had the gift of a happy childhood. I was also lucky to attend Englewood Public Schools during their halcyon days. Anymore, Englewood schools get the side-eye.

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There she is. Look how cute. Look how cheery and structurally sound and asbestos-free. Not only is this school scheduled for demo, so are Englewood's other four elementary schools. I wrote an article for the fall issue of Modern In Denver that gives a cursory view of these schools' architectural context. They belong to an underrated era of postwar design. The schools exemplify many details that were the product of fervent research in postwar decades. Sure, they need new windows. Some A.V. updates, I'm certain. But essentially, there's nothing so wrong with them that the $97.5 million allotted to the district couldn't fix. For the story I interviewed Amy Ogata, a 19th and 20th century American and European architectural scholar at the University of Southern California. One of my favorite things she said was, "We are, unfortunately, infatuated with the new." 

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Yes, much of my boohoo stems from nostalgia. But more than that, I'm disgusted by waste. I abhor throwing architectural babies out with the bathwater. It's historically damaging and environmentally detrimental, and it seems to be happening a lot in Colorado right now. When I attended the community update last spring, I asked if historical preservation was ever a design consideration. You'd have thought I dropped an F-bomb.

Unfortunately, within the confines of word count and the nature of a departmental piece, I couldn't delve as deeply into the history of the schools or their precursors and I'd have liked, but at least I got to say goodbye. We had to shift the perspective of the story for print, but I'll leave you with my original lead:

Onlookers gasped as cranes tore into Englewood’s 1954 high school building five years ago, but it wasn’t the marring of a community staple that caused cringes—the crumbling library was still full of books. One witness was Doug Cohn, the Director of Programming for the Englewood Historic Preservation Society. Englewood’s haste reminded him of when Flood Middle School was demolished. Cohn requested to search the building for historically significant documents but was denied access by the school district. It caused him to question the way Englewood transitions from its past. In the coming months, Englewood will raze its five elementary schools built between 1948 and 1956, effectively burying its innovative architectural legacy in school design. Charles Hay Elementary is one of them. Cohn remembers it well, as he was in its first graduating class. Since then, Englewood enrollment has experienced a mass exodus. Cohn suggests, “The school board is convinced the problem is because they have old buildings.”

Eaux Claires: Day Two

June 17th was a roman candle of delights. It began with Mike Perry asking if I'd be down to collaborate with John Mark's dancers from Minneapolis. Very much yes. John Mark was a swell guy. (This is my favorite choreography he did for Har Mar Superstar. It's a treasure.) For our collaboration, I decided to recite "Home: Hell or High Water" because of its moods and changes. A group of four dancers then interpreted my words as I spoke. They'd never heard the piece before. Here I am staying out of their way just before going on stage. 

Those lights were really hot. Then I skipped over to Chris Kallmyer and Andy Ducett's living room where I recited "Antediluvian" while my brother-in-law Scott, a jazz drummer, kept the beat. 

I also did a teensy recitation of "Green, Green" for about six people in the woods. Then I recited another hour in the Escape Installation. I bopped back over to the artists' tent for more of that cornbread, and that's when the clouds parted. I got to share a simple moment with Paul Simon. There is nothing like meeting someone who you thought only existed in your heart. Paul, you're the boy in the bubble. The archangel. The long lost pal. His set with YMusic was extra special that evening. 

Another highlight was shaking hands with Jeff Tweedy, whose songwriting meant a lot to me in high school. Still does. Wilco's bassist John Stirratt was also a sweetheart and I believe he is as enthusiastic about boats as I am. Except only one of us actually owns one. I enjoy being around all kinds of folks, but artists make my heart hum. I am neither original nor alone in this sentiment. 

I was grateful I got to personally thank Mike Perry, Michael Brown, Trace Richolson, and Justin Vernon for including me and making me feel welcome at the festival. Still, thank you all once more. Maybe twice. I've never been treated so well. 

For the rest of you, I hope electronic appreciation will suffice. If not, then be sure to collect your human gratitude next time you see me. In the meantime, thank you to everyone who took the time to watch me recite on stage and at the Escape. Time is spiritual currency, and I don't take yours lightly.

Thank you Danya, and your buddy with the blue hair, for visiting the Escape and for buying my book. Thanks to everyone who bought Revelry & Rhyme, that means a great deal to me. Thank you to The Local Store for selling it in your adorable tent. Many thanks to Piet Levy at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for considering me among the festival bests.  Thank you Benjamin Wick for your photos. Also thanks to all the volunteers, sound gurus (Cole), and security guards (Tracy). I also want to thank those who took the time to email me kind words including Molly, Peter, Gary, Mark, and especially Phil. You all rule.

Finally, thank you to every one of you who attended Eaux Claires Troix. There was a spirit of peace and celebration over the weekend, and we shared it together. I won't forget it. For those who rocked, I salute you.

Eaux Claires: Day One

Where to begin? How about the bog? The bog was a nice place. 

It looks like the Darien jungle, not rural Wisconsin. In fact, that morning of the festival I spoke with my parents on the phone, and my dad and I went on a tangent about liver flukes and the time he wandered in the Darien Gap. He came out alright. Don't try hiking the Darien Gap at home. 

My first recitation at the Oxbeaux Stage wasn't until late afternoon. Waiting around caused a psychosomatic headache, so I watched a few sets to take my mind off my brain.  Then I let "Olly Olly Oxen Free" out of its cage.

It is the wildest thing to sit in your living room imagining the people you're going to share your work with, then to stand before them as they actually listen to you. I just wanted to rub my eyes until they squeaked, but only Andy Kaufman could make that entertaining. So I recited instead. Then it was off to the Escape Installation.

Photo by Benjamin Wick

Photo by Benjamin Wick

I'm making an odd face here and a go-long hand gesture, but I swear I was reciting poems in there. I did about ten recitations for small groups of patient people who waited in line to get inside. Some were from England, several from Eau Claire, a couple from Montana, a Denver dude, and many from the glorious midwest. It warms my bloody little heart that in this mad, mad world people take the time to experience art. They're not hurting anybody. Not like those liver flukes.

I did one more recitation of "Olly Olly" and tossed in a couple extra poems since someone made the mistake of telling me I had some stage time. I added "Lifeblood" which I wrote for my brother and sister-in-law who were in the crowd. Then I enjoyed the gratis spread involving birthday cake disguised as cornbread. Fantastic as the food was, it was hard to swallow when John Prine went walking by.

Whiplash to Chance the Rapper, who is the gravitational center of the cosmos when he wants to be. I was equally impressed by his team of ASL translators. Rapping with your mouth is challenging enough, but rapping with your hands while dancing is supernatural. Yes, supernatural is the word I choose for the moment a group of people who have devoted their lives to passion get together on one piece of ground. But it remains incomplete without those who have come to witness it. I left the day in awe and wet feet. The ethereal trees ushered us into night.  

Eaux Claires: The Set Up

For those unfamiliar with the Eaux Claires festival, allow me. It's a music and arts festival held in Eau Claire, Wisconsin founded in 2015 by musicians Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who is from the area. Now, I would have gone to this festival anyway, so I was honored when Creative Director Michael Brown invited me to perform poetry this year, along with the brilliant lineup of musicians, artists, writers, and creators. Most notably (my boy) Paul Simon. So with great expectations and my Wisconsin-born-forever-boyfriend Kevin, I drove from our bitty studio in Milwaukee to the clear waters of Eau Claire.

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The first day in town, I stopped by the festival grounds to visit The Local Store. The manager Lindsey Quinnies was kind enough to peddle my book in their cozy makeshift shop during the festival. They also have a beautiful brick 'n' mortar place downtown. Then I hitched a golf cart ride with celebrated author, performer, and festival Narrator Mike Perry. He was generous with his time and uttered hilarious subtleties as we bumped along the turf. This is us headed toward the Escape Installation where I'd be performing for five-person audiences in hour time slots. The gorgeous tiny house smelled like fresh cedar and was equipped with merciful AC. 

We concluded the tour at the Oxbeaux Stage. It's where I'd be performing my latest work, a ten-minute poem called "Ollie Ollie Oxen Free." The relation between the title and the stage name just now occurs to me. Anyway, here I am marveling at the setting. Note, Kevin is an ace with the candid shots. Most of my life's photos are really his.

There's an eerie beauty to being in an empty place intended for lots of people. Like when you're walking your school's hollow halls, or your resounding footsteps fill a dark arena. I relished the moment of quiet gratitude for the things to come. Then I ran into an inspiring dolphin

Trial by Fire

Last month, a former high school classmate invited me to read my children's book for a literacy event at Kendrick Lakes Elementary School. I was all for it, except my book isn't published and hasn't gone through a formal editing process. My classmate said it didn't matter, she just wanted the kids to meet authors and hear their work. So I readily agreed to read Hedy and the Secret Shoes to the toughest imaginable audience. 

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Before reading, I shared some thoughts on writing in general and showed them one of the first stories I ever wrote called The Scariest Ghost. It's about a ghost who sneaks into shops to eat snacks at night. A third-grade girl commented that the story didn't sound scary at all. I agreed, "It's not." I didn't mention that in a perfect world ghosts eat snacks, not human souls.

Anyway, I launched into Hedy and the Secret Shoes and I could not have been more delighted by their response. They laughed at the jokes, cooed at the cuteness, and were in wonder with the final reveal. It doesn't matter how long it takes to get this story published, because the whole point is for it to reach kids, which it now has. And it was awesome. 

Go ahead, Mr. Wendell

One might assume our friendship sprouted from the relational void with my own grandfathers, but really, Wendell was just fun to hang out with. He was a regular at my parents' ice cream shop, and one day we discovered our mutual love of poetry. I started writing it when I was ten. He began in his nineties. Here's a shot of Wendell at my 21st birthday party:

We had a beer together on occasion, but mostly we played cards or Scrabble. Wendell was my friend, my fellow poet, and my time machine. Like Colonel Freeleigh in Dandelion Wine, he took me back to an era I'd never known. Wendell Winn Cooke was born in 1914. He rode in a zeppelin over New York City and had a little pet lamb that was as obnoxious as Mary's. At 97, he published his first book of poems. He's the only person I've ever met who twiddled his thumbs in all absentminded seriousness. Here's a shot of us looking tough at the closing party for my family's shop in 2007:

He teased me, saying he'd send this photo to the dean of my grad school if I got out of line. Women with tobacco was taboo before 1920. How far we've come. Now tobacco is taboo for all. My favorite Wendell catchphrase was when he'd meet someone younger than 90 and call them a "mere child." Whenever I'd answer his phone calls with, "Hey, Wendell," he'd reply, "It's Wendell."

He decidedly lived to 101. A few weeks after his birthday, he suffered a massive stroke. He could barely speak. He couldn't eat. He said nothing the last time my family went to visit him, until as last, loud and clear, he spoke, "Eleanor." I held his hand and told him I was right there. Then he looked at me and choked out, "How was your trip?" Of all the worthwhile things to expend waning mortal vitality upon, he wanted to know how my stupid trip was. I am not worthy, dear Wendell. Ask something else. "It was good. You're about to go on a trip now, too," I replied with my own labored voice. Go ahead. I'll see you there. 

It is spring and the man loved his lilacs. I think of him as they peak. I'll leave you now, mere children, with a Wendell verse:

"In the quietude of age there is/Time to dream, to dream of a love/That did once the heart invade/And finding a safe haven there/Long remained/Unchallenged and unchanged."