Thursday, January 27, 2011

State of Shame

From the Pleated Jeans humor site.


*Massachusetts has the worst drivers (probably the reason they call them Massholes).

*Alaska has the highest suicide rate (must resist the temptation to insert the obligatory Sarah Palin comment).

*Mississippi and Alabama are associated with Stroke and Obesity - not surprising since the mantra in the Deep South is "If it ain't fried, it ain't food."

*Louisiana has the highest rate of Gonorrhea - maybe that's why they call it "the big easy".

*Texas has the lowest high school graduation rate - certainly explains their voting patterns.

Well, I suppose there are worse things than being labeled the Nerdiest state.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

An Interview with Earl Wild

Earl Wild died one year ago today. This interview is from about late 2002:

An Interview with the Pianist Earl Wild

This fall the legendary pianist Earl Wild gave a concert, "Wild in Pasadena," as part of the Shumei Arts Council of America's 2002 - 2003 concert series. Among the pieces he played were Mozart's Sonata in F minor K. 332, Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor, Mendelssohn' s Rondo Capriccioso, as well as works of Chopin and Liszt.

Born in 1915, Mr. Wild has been a major figure in the performing arts for well into seven decades. He has played to acclaim throughout the world and, among the many publications in which he has appeared, was twice featured in Time Magazine articles. Mr. Wild also has the singular distinction of being invited to play before six US Presidents. In 1997, he received a GRAMMY for the CD, "Earl Wild -The Romantic Master," which was devoted entirely to his own piano transcriptions.

The concert took place in Shumei Hall, Pasadena, on November 17, 2002. Mr. Wild played with a profound passion, and yet a subtle touch. The performance was brilliant, remarkable for its fluidity and grace. Judging from the audience's unreserved ovations and it's size, the largest for the series so far, it was the most successful concert held in Shumei Hall, Pasadena, to date.

This interview was conducted by George Bedell, Associate Editor-in-Chief of SHUMEI Magazine.

SHUMEI Magazine: You are referred to as "The Last Great Romanic Pianist." Are you?

Earl Wild: When they call me the last of the Romantics, I always have to laugh because I have lived through so many of the "last-ofs" that came before me. So, I'm the last one in line because I'm the oldest one of them now. It's very amusing for me to be put in that category. It doesn't mean anything really -- except to some people who try to put a moniker on everything, no matter what it is.

S.M: So, you suspect that you are not the last of the Last Great Romanic Pianists?

E.W: Oh, yes. And, some day soon, I might even predict the next one.

S.M: Rather like a Dalai Lama.

E.W: Yes. While the last one is dying, the next one is being crowned. It is sometimes very amusing. And sometimes the winners of that title don't really deserve it. Yet, if you last long enough, you might be able to progress enough so that something good happens when you play. Most people don't progress as they grow older. They go to Florida to die or play golf.

S.M: I've been rather holding out for that option.

E.W: Oh, don't you do that! Keep busy at something. You'll be happier. People would be much happier if they kept busy.

S.M: What does the word "Romanic" mean to you?

E.W: We usually think of Romantic as something fiery and passionate, like lovemaking or battles. It can be anything that has a lot of action. It could even be an early western. It has such a wide range of meaning. It is really a feeling more than anything else.

S.M: Another Romantic with whom you have an affinity, Franz Liszt, like you was not only a fine musician but also a fine transcriber of other's music and composer of his own music. Did your background as a composer and transcriber affect the way you play piano?

E.W: I think that any musician who can write music has an advantage over those who do not. This is because by writing music you understand it better. You understand the structure of it, where it is going, you see the whole picture. Liszt was wonderful. He opened up the gateway to modern music. For instance, his creation, "The Fountains of the Villa d'Este" was really some of the first wonderful water music. Ravel followed it with "Jeux d'eau," and, of course, Respeghi followed with his "Fountains of Rome."

S.M: Do the insights that you gain by being a composer who plays other people's music lend freshness to your approach because you understand the process a composer was going through while writing that music?

E.W: I keep the music fresh by allowing it to happen while it is happening. I don't set it. When you set it, it becomes like stale jelly. Sometimes my interpretation is affected by the lighting, sometimes by the atmosphere, whether cold or warm, and sometimes by the instrument, itself. If you have that flexibility, the audience feels the ease at which the music is coming out. It doesn't matter whether it is a little bit this way or a little bit that way, so long as one phrase connects well with the next. In that way, it is like good speech. It follows through and comes out better.

S.M: You are primarily known for your interpretations of 19th century music, but recently you have recorded works by 20th century composers, such as Barber, Hindemith, and Stravinsky. Is this a departure for you, or new venture, or have you always been interested in 20th century music?

E.W: Oh, I've always been interested in it. In the late-fifties, ten years after the Hindemith Third Sonata was written, I recorded it. I recorded his Second Sonata before that. I knew Stravinsky, and I liked his music very much. And Samuel Barber was a good friend of mine. So, I knew the three composers that I chose to record. I like each one of them, and I like them in this order: Barber, Hindemith, Stravinsky.

S.M: You have known and worked with many impressive people in the music world. Is there anything that you could share with us about the fellow pianists that you knew?

E.W: Well, I knew Rachmaninoff and liked him very much. He was the pianist. But I also had met Joseph Hoffman. Joseph Hoffmann was a strange person. As great as he was as a pianist, he was an even greater auto mechanic. He invented parts that were used on the Rolls Royce automobile. He worked in the garage a lot. I think he preferred working in the garage to what he did on the piano. His playing had a wonderful clarity to it. It was precise, and its tone was beautiful. And he had small hands, which sometimes is helpful. When you have big hands, you have more problems.

S.M: (Anyone who has shaken hands with Mr. Wild knows that he has a large, firm grip.) But I thought that a wide span of fingers benefited a pianist.

E.W: No. Small hands can be much more flexible, which makes the tone better. Big hands sit right on top of the keys and can sound clunky if you are not careful.

(Those who heard Mr. Wild at Shumei Hall will testify that his deft touch sounded anything but "clunky.")

E.W: But it's not really a matter of size, it's a matter of the brain. When you teach people, you deal with all different kinds of brainwork. Some students use their right hand as their guide, others their left. You never know where direction is going to come from. They have to find out for themselves, because I can't tell them. As they find out, I only can help them to be flexible. And that is really what good piano playing is all about. The moment anybody plays stiffly, whether their hands are stiff or their arms are stiff, it comes out like that. You can hear it in the sound. It's a big problem. That is why it is better to start when you are very young.

S.M: You have taught at Juilliard and Eastman, among other fine schools. You do not have to teach, yet you do. What draws you to helping young musicians?

E.W: It's mysterious. It is a mystery because you can't tell someone how to play something. But you can find out what works for them. That is always very interesting. Teaching is certainly better than opening a magazine or watching television. I enjoy digging into a personality and finding out what makes the coordination work and what makes the beautiful sound. You know, young people can't catch it all at once. It has to be worked at for years. You hope that their minds are fertile enough to continue the development that occurs as you work with them.
The minute a piano teacher says to you, "Do it this way, this is the right way," you should immediately find another teacher because there is no one way of doing it right. Sometimes what works for one person doesn't work at all for another. You have to work with them, watch them, and see how they react. You have to see what goes on with their neck while they play because a lot of people get stiff in the neck while playing, and you can hear it in their tone. Often times in moments of great stress, you forget to breathe because of the tension. But a good teacher can catch all that. And if one learns to breathe during the very difficult spots, it's much easier to play. You need oxygen to continue and if it is not there, trouble begins. The muscles tighten.
There are people who say that the tone comes from here or it comes from there. But it all works together. It's a natural thing. It is only when you are relaxed that it all comes together and music begins to happen. It is like life; once you become too definite, too set about something, you are finished. That's what causes a lot of divorces! Balance is another thing; how your ear tells you what to do with your fingers. Then there is the physiological thing, how your mind works. The fingers do absolutely nothing; it all comes from the mind. If you don't have the feeling, if you are only taught to play with your fingers, you will never get anywhere and it's ugly. It is important to train the fingers to do what the mind tells them, not to let the fingers be on their own. It's very easy to do that and when you do, it becomes mechanical. There are lots of people who are wonderful mechanics on the instrument, but they're also very boring. Often times they're very accurate, and so everyone says, "Oh, they are so accurate." Accuracy is not such a great accomplishment in my book. If you are relaxed and have a good sensibility about the emotional state that you are trying to display in the music, the playing can be very accurate as well. It is only when the emotions become befuddled and you are not sure where you are going with the music that all of a sudden you have to fall back on finger practices. It becomes just detail work.

S.M: As you may know, the Shumei Arts Council creates and sponsors children's concerts. It's one of their most successful programs. They also have created a venue in which young people can perform.

E.W: That's wonderful. Children play music that excites them, that does something for them. It makes them broader people and it feeds their imagination. Also, it feeds their desire to go forward and do more. Some children are apt to take in too much of this television junk and that Rap stuff. "Crap stuff" is what I call it. It's annoying to anyone who has any sensibilities.
But every generation has its popular music. We've had Rock, but that's starting to fade. No one knows what the new thing will be. I remember Arthur Fiedler coming back to Boston from England and telling me that he had just heard this new group play in a small town in England. He said he really didn't know what it was they were doing, but that it was really something, and that you had to give them credit for what they were doing. They were called the Beatles, and he thought they were going to be big. Arthur was very smart, he was a very fine musician, and I miss him very much. People used to say that Fiedler disliked children. He did not dislike children. He disliked their parents, who let them misbehave. In the Boston Pops, he would often invite teenagers, even twelve-year- olds, to perform in the orchestra. And if they were a little bit nervous about it, he would have an extra rehearsal after the main one, with just a few musicians, a few strings, woodwinds, and one bass to go over the spots that they were nervous about.
He was a very fine man. He made more money for the Boston Symphony than anyone else, and they never appreciated him in Boston.

S.M: So many of the young musicians that we hear at Shumei Hall are so impressive. Do you find that there are more very good young people playing today than in the past?

E.W: Oh, yes. Well, first of all, it's all the exposure that they have. And they enjoy it so much. The thing that you have to be careful of is that they understand why they are playing and what it is about, that the music they play is a projection of their thoughts and emotions, not just wriggling their fingers. You have to gain the confidence of young people so that they are willing to try everything. You do not say, "This is how you do it." Because the minute you say that, you are finished. You simply have to allow music to happen. It's poetic. Of course, "poetic" has a very wide range of meaning. It can be anything that you want it to be, but then there is a certain wonderful thing about that. That is why composers who purposely try to write "Romantic" music often times fail. They fail because they get trapped in the writing of it. One of the things that is very important about being a composer is the ability to improvise. Without the ability to improvise, you should never try to write music. Improvisation is the secret of all great composition. I was fortunate because I was able to improvise very well. I still can. And, I can improvise in any style that you want me to because I am so old that I have played almost every piece that was popular on the concert stage, and I have developed an understanding of the composers' thoughts. That sounds like bragging. But, I am not. Because there are so many people who become Beethoven experts, and just because they play all the 32 sonatas doesn't mean they are any good. There is not one person alive today that can play all 32 and play all of them really well. They can play eight or ten of them very well, and the rest are always ordinary.

S.M: Then this improvisational gift and the ability to relax and let the music happen directly affects the sense of play and brightness that is heard in a performance.

E.W: Yes, exactly. Because, as you know, in a poetic sense, if you are out in the woods and it's springtime and the sun is out and you are running through the leaves, the joy of it is so wonderful that you don't stop to think about it. You don't stop and analyze what you are doing; it is just there. If you play music that way, it just comes out, and people can hear it. In my lifetime, I have heard so many big-name pianists play in such a square fashion that it was revolting. And, I often wondered how they achieved the place that they were given. But, that's life.
(Mr. Wild reflects a moment, then chuckles.) And, of course, the worst thing a person can do is think that he is positively right about everything all the time - that's what starts wars!

S.M: You studied under Egon Petri, who in turn was a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni. Busoni's Piano Concerto has been said to be late Romanticism at its most overblown and over-the-top, the piano concerto to end all piano concertos. Have you ever considered playing it?

E.W: Egon Petri once gave me a copy of the concerto when I studied with him. It was a big volume. I never thought it was very good. He asked me one day why I didn't bring it in with me, and I said, "Oh, it's too heavy." He laughed. It's a piece that really never made it because the piano parts are not all that good, and it is boring in spots. No matter what you do with it, it can't get any better. Every once in a while someone comes along and revives it. The critics at this moment are prone to praising anything Busoni ever did. He wrote a terrible opera, "Doctor Faustus." That's another example. It was never accepted as a masterpiece. I have heard it many times in my life ? more than most people. It just doesn't come off. It is pseudo-intellectual , which I hate. There are so many pseudo-intellectual s around. They couldn't give you a performance of Beethoven's Minuet in G without making it sound stiff. And I love intellectuals. They are the joy of my life - but not when they play the piano.

S.M: So, I take it you lead from your heart.

E.W: Well, yes. That's the only thing to lead from. What else is there?

S.M: Shumei holds art, whether secular or sacred, to be spiritual in essence. Looking back over your life, have you ever felt that something more than yourself was guiding you in your pursuits as a composer and musician?

E.W: There is always something there that leads you on. But it should never be forced.
When I was a child, I started playing at three, and there was nothing else. At four, I took lessons from a teacher in Pittsburg who was very prominent. He smoked big cigars, and I couldn't see the music for the smoke. So, one day, I got up, said, "I have had enough of you", went home, and never came back. Then I studied at the Pittsburg Musical Institute where I had a marvelous teacher named Mrs. Walker. She was the one who discovered that I had perfect pitch and could improvise. By the time I was eight, I started to do transcriptions. I fell in love with the works of Ravel and my first transcription was the Paderewski Minuet, played in the style of Ravel. I never had it published. But even today, it amuses me when I see it. So many things happen like that. They are never forced. They just roll out. That is why I dislike so much of the work of contemporary composers, because they force things. You should never force things out. It never works that way. Things have to just appear.

S.M: Are there any composers working today whom you like or would consider playing?

E.W: That is hard for me to say, because I know there must be some -- definitely. And if I ever see anything that would work on the piano, I would certainly make an effort to play it.
But most contemporary composers haven't the slightest idea of how to write for the piano. It's often too noisy, and they haven't the facility. They may be starting to write too early. Mozart could write music at an early age because he could play the piano and the violin well by the time he started to write. It is necessary for a composer to have an instrument that can be used as the basis for the music ? and the piano is that instrument. People will disagree. It is very easy for critics and intellectuals to take you up on making a statement like that, because people are so wonderful with words these days that they can kill anything.

S.M: You said that there is always something that leads you on. What does it take to be able to pursue that something?

E.W: You have to believe in what you are doing. I always believed in what I did.

S.M: It seems that you always had the confidence and talent to become a very fine musician. But what part did the people in your early life and your family play in nurturing your musical gifts?

E.W: Half my family was Protestant and the other half was Catholic. They quarreled a lot when I was young, and so I drowned them out by practicing. It was wonderful. I avoided it by drowning them out. I practiced a lot. That's one of the best things music can do for you. (Laughter.)

S.M: I probably should delete that from the interview.

E.W: Oh, no, not at all. Not at all.

S.M: Yet, despite drowning out your parents, you have to face it, you were an extremely precocious child, and you also were extremely lucky to have a home that supported your - -
E.W: My mother liked music. My father was tone-deaf. He really couldn't recognize anything I played. If I played the same piece 15 times over, he wouldn't have known it. It just wasn't in his makeup. But my mother was terribly musical. She took piano lessons until she was twenty-one.
I have a sister who is very smart. Her name is Beatrice. She is ninety now. When she was 14, the depression was on and there was no money. She went to school at 15 and learnt dictation and typing. By the time she was 16, she was making more money than most men were at that time. She was always called on to work. She took me to concerts all the time. And I was thrilled, because I loved orchestra music. By the time I was 14, I was playing celesta and piano parts in the Pittsburg Symphony. I loved playing in the orchestra, because to me the tone colors of the orchestra were the most marvelous, imaginative thing in the world. It was there that I learnt to respect rhythm. Later, when I went to the NBC Orchestra, my improvisational skills helped me immensely. I often wondered why Toscanini picked me to perform Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Although I was on the NBC staff, there were thousands of outsiders who wanted to play it with Toscanini. It turned out that he used to listen in on chamber music concerts that we would do on Sunday mornings, and there he heard me play. One of the musicians that I played with was the cellist, Harvey Shapiro, who still teaches at the age of ninety. I had good training playing chamber music. It was all new to me. I used to go home on Tuesday and practice till midnight so that I could play on Wednesday. Harvey would come over to me and say, "take it a little easier" and "try this" and "try that." I remember it to this day. Most musicians don't try to help each other that much. They are just there. I was very lucky.

S.M: Your improvisational skills must have helped you considerably when you worked in early television with Sid Caesar.

E.W: I was first asked to take on an Italian opera skit that he was doing.

S.M: Did you work on the famous I Pagliacci skit?

E.W: Yes.

S.M: That was classic. I recall Sid Caesar playing tic-tac-toe on his cheek, while putting on clown makeup and singing.

E.W: That part was all Sid's work. The first opera spoof that I did was a take-off on Mozart. The cast was dressed in Louis the 14th period costumes and the opening chorus was based on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," which sounds very much like Mozart when played in his style. It was a big hit, and we did quite a few spoofs after that. I enjoyed working with Sid Caesar very much. He is a most wonderful, sensitive man. When anything turned up in his work that he thought might be offensive to any group or any person, he would take it out - unlike Mel Brooks, who would trample on anybody.

S.M: During your concert at Shumei Hall, you will be playing one of your own transcriptions.

E.W: Oh, it's a very short piece. It's nothing, really, but it has a beautiful melody. It's based on the second movement, an adagio from Marcello's Concerto for oboe and strings. It's one of the most beautiful melodies from that period. I have loved that piece for a long time. It's a wonderful opener because it is calm and very beautiful. I try to plan my programs better now. Years ago, I wasn't so smart about the order in which I played things. I'd start out with a big Bach arrangement, which immediately set up a tonal range that I would be trying hard to make up for during the rest of the program. Now, I try to set things on levels when planning a concert.
As you may know, the human ear cannot hear a long crescendo. It can only hear steps of levels. That's why when you plan crescendos, they should be planned on levels. This works marvelously on a piano because the instrument takes care of a lot of it. It's the same way with playing different pieces in a concert.

S.M: You have shown an interest in playing works that have been neglected. How did your interest in reviving these works start?

E.W: One of the reasons that I play a lot of those things is that when I was studying at Carnegie Tech, I had a teacher who had been a pupil of Xaver Scharwenka and he gave me a copy of Scharwenka's First Piano Concerto, which I had never seen before. I learned it and became interested in other works of that period. I liked particularly the Paderewski Concerto. One day, years latter, I was sitting by my phone when I got a call from Eric Leinsdorf. He asked me if I knew the Scharwenka B Flat Minor Concerto. I told him that I had been sitting by my phone for the last forty years hoping that someone would call me and ask me to play it! We recorded it with the Boston Orchestra. It caused quite a scene when it came out. It's a good piece. It's straightforward, and there is no doubt about what it is saying. Very few people know that it was one of Richard Strauss's favorite pieces.

S.M: Is there any particular piano piece, which you think is great, but unduly neglected, that you feel a strong need to bring before the public?

E.W: I know most of the pieces that are available. But there must be one or two great ones out there somewhere that should be performed. There always is. I was always disappointed in the Scriabin Piano Concerto. I think it's a good piece but it's not a great work. The Medtner Concertos I like very much, too, but I don't think they are great, either, but they are very good. I adore his writing. The music is so melancholy and sad. I didn't know Medtner, but I did know his nephew, who lived on Long Island. He could only play if he had several drinks. He would refuse to play until after several glasses of booze. Then he would sit down and play one piece after the other, and it was wonderful playing. I can't have so much as one drop of liquor and play the piano. It's not in my makeup. I wish I could. It would be so nice.

S.M: I've been told by more than a few poets and prose writers that a stiff drink is an essential to creativity. It relaxes the mind and allows it to make connections between seemingly incompatible ideas. It allows them to come up with new approaches that would be impossible stone-sober.

E.W: But it's all in the thinking process, really. You have to believe and know how to say to your self, "Now, turn off," and "go after it."

S.M: This facility to calm your mind so that you can go with the music, was it an ability that you acquired or is it native to you, something you were born with?

E.W: I don't know. It's hard to say, because there are so many psychological points involved. Psychology and psychiatry have gone through such changes since I was young. And all the theories were disproved over that period. I had a friend who was a psychiatrist and he introduced me to a lot of great psychiatrists. It was all very interesting. I always thought they were amusing. I would have loved to have been a psychiatrist, but I didn't have time -- too busy with the piano. And when they start analyzing Beethoven! Beethoven was just a nice, ordinary man who happened to be stubborn. He did what he wanted to -- and that was it. So, why make such a scene about the great psychological disorder that they say he suffered?

S.M: What do you think about some of the critics who analyze and judge the works of great composers?

E.W: Oh, they talk about them as if they had lunch with them that day.

S.M: I think I already know your thoughts about music theorists, such as Theodor Adorno, who could be so scathing about fine composers, like Igor Stravinsky, and even disparage composers that he admired, like Arnold Schoenberg.

E.W: Well let's face it: Schoenberg was a sour pickle. His early works were wonderful. I loved them. But when he decided to put his foot down on all that had been done before, when he got into that 12-tone serialism it was the great mistake of his life. The composer Korngold said that Schoenberg played the dirtiest trick on music that had ever been done. That's never been in print, but I can tell you that that is what he said.

S.M: Erich Korngold said that?

E.W: I knew his son, George, very well - a marvelous fellow. He was a recording engineer, and very smart. So, I used to hear what his father said. So, I can guarantee that one.

S.M: Erich Korngold did some very fine things when he was in Austria. Yet, today most of us only know him as the father of the Hollywood soundtrack.

E.W: I wish people would stop talking about film music as if it were on some lower level than "serious" music. Film music can be so tremendous. And a lot of it is certainly better than some of the stuff we hear today that's suppose to be so new and cerebral. And that repetitive stuff, Minimalism -- when you start to write like that, you are writing yourself into a knot.

S.M: Yet, some composers who were considered founders of Minimalism have distanced themselves from that label. Today they are writing things that seem much more lyrical. And younger contemporary composers seem to be creating music that is much more accessible than that of the old Avant-garde.

E.W: Things are turning around. They always do. You see, if you live long enough and wait long enough, something good will occur. I am really an optimist. Of course, sometimes, we have to wait a very long time for this to happen. I always thought that in my last years everything would be very pleasant. That it would be like floating in the air and everything would be so wonderful. It's worse now than ever! Travel is impossible. The airlines don't know what they are doing. The government is having problems with safety, and we are in the midst of all this trouble. It is awful. But as I said before: it will straighten out. At least, I hope the traffic in Los Angeles gets better - for the first time in my life I am beginning to understand road-rage. But, things will straighten out.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) has stated that China is the most "egregious" violator of human rights in the world.


Worse than Iran?

Worse than North Korea?

Worse than Uganda?

Worse than Zimbabwe?

Worse than Saudi Arabia?


I am not disputing that China's record on human rights has been shoddy. But there are many countries that are far worse by any standards. I feel that the U. S. government is right to push China toward more open policies. But let's not lose our perspective.

And isn't it ironic that it has been Congressman Smith's party that has historically been in favor of free trade with China - under the debatable belief that free markets create human freedoms? Guess that didn't work out the way they intended.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Day in the Life of Joe Conservative

This has been posted before on numerous blogs - but it bears repeating now that the Republicans are in control of the House of Representatives.

A Day in the Life of Joe Conservative
by John Gray

Joe gets up at 6:00am to prepare his morning coffee. He fills his pot full of good clean drinking water because some liberal fought for minimum water quality standards.

He takes his daily medication with his first swallow of coffee. His medications are safe to take because some liberal fought to insure their safety and work as advertised. All but $10.00 of his medications are paid for by his employers medical plan because some liberal union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance, now Joe gets it too.

He prepares his morning breakfast, bacon and eggs this day. Joe’s bacon is safe to eat because some liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat packing industry.

Joe takes his morning shower reaching for his shampoo; His bottle is properly labeled with every ingredient and the amount of its contents because some liberal fought for his right to know what he was putting on his body and how much it contained.

Joe dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. The air he breathes is clean because some tree hugging liberal fought for laws to stop industries from polluting our air.

He walks to the subway station for his government subsidized ride to work; it saves him considerable money in parking and transportation fees. You see, some liberal fought for affordable public transportation, which gives everyone the opportunity to be a contributor.

Joe begins his work day; he has a good job with excellent pay, medicals benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some liberal union members fought for these working standards. Joe’s employer pays these standards because Joe’s employer doesn’t want his employees to call the union. If Joe is hurt on the job or becomes unemployed he’ll get a worker's compensation or unemployment check because some liberal didn’t think he should lose his home because of his temporary misfortune.

Its noon time, Joe needs to make a Bank Deposit so he can pay some bills. Joe’s deposit is federally insured by the FDIC because some liberal wanted to protect Joe’s money from unscrupulous bankers who ruined the banking system before the Depression. Joe has to pay his Fannie Mae underwritten mortgage and his below market federal student loan because some stupid liberal decided that Joe and the government would be better off if he was educated and earned more money over his lifetime.

Joe is home from work, he plans to visit his father this evening at his farm home in the country. He gets in his car for the drive to dad's; his car is among the safest in the world because some liberal fought for car safety standards. He arrives at his boyhood home.

He was the third generation to live in the house financed by Farmers Home Administration because bankers didn’t want to make rural loans. The house didn’t have electric until some big government liberal stuck his nose where it didn’t belong and demanded rural electrification. (Those rural Republicans would still be sitting in the dark.)

He is happy to see his dad who is now retired. His dad lives on Social Security and his union pension because some liberal made sure he could support himself in old age so Joe wouldn’t have to. After his visit with dad he gets back in his car for the ride home.

He turns on a radio talk show, the hosts keeps saying that liberals are bad and conservatives are good. (He doesn’t tell Joe that his beloved Republicans have fought against every protection and benefit Joe enjoys throughout his day) Joe agrees, “We don’t need those big government liberals ruining our lives; after all, I’m a self made man who believes everyone should take care of themselves, just like I have”.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Rating the area’s grocery stores

Clevelanders love to eat, and it’s not for nothing that we have one of the highest obesity rates in the USA (a nation not exactly known for svelteness). There’s no shortage of places to shop for food in Cuyahoga County, from standard supermarkets to health food, ethnic specialty stores to wholesale outlets. Here are a few with my opinions on each.

The list here – in no particular order - is not comprehensive, but rather representative – and it’s primarily geared toward the east side. So if I didn’t mention any place you either love or hate, don’t pillory me for missing it – but by all means comment and let me know.

General Markets:

Heinen’s: Cleveland’s premiere family owned grocery chain, currently with 17 stores. Slightly higher prices are more than made up for by the freshness and variety of produce and meats. The stores are beautifully designed with spacious aisles and intuitive layout, the grocery carts are well maintained (no stuck wheels here!), and every location I’ve been to is invariably spotlessly clean. Heinen’s is one of the rare chains that has bucked the unfortunate trend toward self-service checkouts – and curbside pickup is not just an option, it’s standard.

West Side Market: A Cleveland staple for over a century. Two decades ago, WSM had seemed to fall on hard times, but now seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance – as is the surrounding area. Simply put, when it comes to fresh food, WSM has nearly everything, from fruit & veggies to hand-made pierogis, rare cheeses to whole pigs (and I mean whole – head to tail). WSM stubbornly holds onto its 19th Century heritage – and is closed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. We just went there this past Saturday – in additional to the usual whirl and rush, a band was performing on the upper balcony. Go early to snag a decent parking spot, be prepared to haggle – and bring cash.

Whole Foods Market: Sometimes called Whole Paycheck market, America’s largest “health-food” chain came to Cleveland a few years ago. It’s true the prices on many items are on the high side – particularly premium items like venison. However, for more ordinary fare WF has its own store brand, 365, which includes everything from pop, milk, and cereal, to frozen veggies and pizza, to household items like detergent. A few years ago, WF’s CEO John Mackey caused a stir when he was caught making negative comments about competitor Wild Oats Market on an internet chat board (using an inversion of his wife’s name – not too slick there, John). WF eventually acquired Wild Oats – and that company’s former location on Chagrin Boulevard has been converted to WF. There was also a boycott of WF stores after Mackey, a strict Libertarian, penned an op-ed opposing President Obama’s health care plane. But that boycott never gained traction locally: Business is never less than brisk at the Cedar Center location – and it’s not advisable to shop there on Friday evenings when the store hosts social events. While there are now two WF locations on the east side, west siders have to commute or go to the next company listed.

Trader Joe’s: In my opinion, TJ’s is overrated. Both the Chagrin Road and Crocker Park locations are small and uncomfortable to navigate. Because of the small physical space, TJ’s cannot carry a broad selection of brands or items. Some would state that shopping, like art, can thrive on limitations, but I’m not buying. Others consider TJ’s the more politically correct alternative to Whole Foods. While I understand those who take issue with WF’s CEO John Mackey’s business practices and politics, need I remind anyone that Trader Joe’s is owned by ALDI’s? Despite that, items there are in the same price range as WF.

Giant Eagle: Currently the dominant supermarket chain in northeast Ohio, many branches are open 24/7. In terms of quantity, SUPERmarket does apply here. GE carries just about any food imaginable, including a generous selection of “ethnic” foods and brand names, like Goya. Most locations also have a formidable selection of alcoholic items – and I’ve even seen lawn furniture and local high school T-shirts for sale there. But the quantity does not always extend to quality: most GEs I’ve been to are only indifferently cleaned, the staff is unhelpful, and those self-service checkouts guarantee a long wait in line. Truthfully, I seldom go there unless it’s after hours.

Dave’s: Priced like Giant Eagle, Dave’s stores have a happier vibe. The chain is locally owned by the Saltzman family. Staff seems to enjoy working there, rather than just relieved to have a job. Good selection at reasonable prices. Dave’s has taken over many former Tops locations, (including the Hilltop Plaza location, which was briefly owned by Zagara’s). They currently have 13 stores.

ALDI’s: Cheap uber alles, this German owned chain is strictly for the budget minded who think price over value. The produce is not optimal. Brand name items are not available. Cash only – bring your own bag or pay extra for theirs, and bag it yourself. Bring a quarter for the privilege of using a grocery cart. Previously confined to more downscale neighborhoods, in recent years they’ve infiltrated Lyndhurst and Westlake.

Italian food stores:

Ferrara’s: Italian-American specialty grocery in Mayfield Heights. The selection is fair, the prices are a bit high – and they don’t accept plastic payment of any kind. Whenever I’m there, which is seldom, I half-expect to see Don Corleone looking for oranges.

Alesci’s: Locally owned, their South Euclid branch has a better selection than Ferraro’s. Very friendly staff, and great deals on pies. Not the place to go if you’re on a diet, but definitely the location for those who love food.


Costco: What can be said of the world’s largest members-only wholesale chain that hasn’t been said? Sam’s Club and BJ’s may be cheaper at times, but for selection, they are not in the same orbit. One either loves Costco or hates it. At times, for me, it’s both. I love shopping there – my pulse rate increases whenever I approach their doors – but hate braving the long lines and self-checkout when leaving. Costco has everything and then some. But for now, let’s concentrate on the food: Costco carries name brands for most types of food, usually packaged in bulk sets: frequently there are coupons for 8-packs of Progresso or Campbell’s Soup. These guys are master marketers: They send out a booklet of coupons every month, cannily timed. Expect to see a coupon for four 8-packs of hotdogs as the summer starts, for example. Their own brand, Kirkland Signature, offers excellent value on everything from oatmeal, canned veggies, soup, frozen items including hamburger patties, veggies, and pizza, even beer, ale, and wine. (Recently, Costco stopped carrying Nature Made brand orange juice, retaining only Tropicana – which I despise – and the KS brand, available in condensed only. I hadn’t had condensed OJ in decades, but tried it and love it – and expect to save about $15/month.) KS also makes non-food items including batteries, clothing, shampoo, conditioner, bar and liquid soaps, cleaning products, and that cookware I’ve had my eyes on. Often, the KS value is superior even when there’s a coupon for the big brand names. For those with large families or who frequently entertain, Costco’s value is indispensable. Even though it’s usually just Dan & me at the dinner table, our membership pays for itself with the savings on gasoline alone. One note to those who’ve never been there: Costco does not accept Visa, Mastercard, or Discover credit cards. They do accept debit cards, American Express (Costco has a program where you get a rebate coupon for a percentage of your AMEX purchases) checks (who even pays via check anymore?) and, of course, cash.

The Departed:

Tops: This chain took over Finast, which had been going downhill for years. A cheaper and more downscale version of Giant Eagle, all local stores closed a few years ago. Not missed.

Catalano’s: RIP. My market of choice when I lived in Lyndhurst, one of the last family owned grocery stores went downhill after it was taken over by Giant Eagle. Sales plummeted and the Catalano family briefly took over again before closing for good around 2007. The very simple store layout could be overlooked on account of their stellar bakery and deli. One of the rare grocery stores where bag stuffers wore ties in the 21st Century.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

America's Epidemic of Gun Violence

Rachel brilliantly lays the facts before the viewers. Commentators and ordinary people alike constantly repeat the words "unimaginable" and "inconceivable" - but the fact is, these events have been too common in the United States for all too long. Our nation has had a history of murder and political assasination that makes many third-world countries seem like beacons of civilization. Anyone who, after watching this, still denies that the United States has a major problem with violence is utterly insensate.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How much retail is too much?

Please be sure to read the comments on this entry. While I still maintain that there is too much retail for an area with a declining population, my position has evolved somewhat. Non-anonymous comments are welcome.

There has been a curious phenomenon happening in Cuyahoga County. It may be happening elsewhere, for all I know. In an era of declining population, recession, and increased shopping via the Internet, more retail exists than ever before. Perhaps I should clarify my statement: more storefronts exist than ever before, for many of these are empty.

Last week, it was announced that First Interstate Properties was purchasing Oakwood Country Club (which has land in both Cleveland Heights and South Euclid) and developing it into senior housing and retail. Part of the property, First Interstate says, will be preserved for greenspace (although this space will be divided into two parcels with the shopping center plunked into the middle of it).

The Oakwood Club and surrounding area.

Let’s take a look at some numbers:

91,392 <--- combined CH-SE population at its peak (1960 for CH, 1970 for SE).

67,036 <---combined CH-SE population as of 2008.

Over the past half century, the CH-SE area has lost almost 25,000 residents, or 27%. Part of this has been tied to people leaving Ohio for warmer climates, and part to an overall trend toward outer suburbs (whose residents will pay dearly when gasoline hits $4/gallon). Despite the population drain, the CH-SE area has seen an increase in housing stock. That increase continues, despite the foreclosure crisis, to this day. The Cutters Creek development in South Euclid, which involved bulldozing a wooded area for the construction of cluster homes, is a recent example. So are the Bluestone and Courtyards of Severance developments in Cleveland Heights.

The Cutters Creek clusterhouse development in South Euclid.

While the population has dropped, there has paradoxically been an increase in retail space. The major centers are listed below with their largest tenants - a small fraction of the total storefronts there.

*University Square (built on the site of the old May Company, early 2000s): Target, Jo-Anne Fabrics, Applebee’s
*Cedar Center South (rebuilt on the site of previous strip center, 2006): – Whole Foods, First Watch Café, Boston Market, Dollar Store, CVS, Tuesday Morning, urgent care medical facility
*Cedar Center North (construction pending): – Gordon’s Food Service
*Coventry Village (dating back to the 19th Century): – Record Revolution, Big Fun, Winking Lizard
*Severance Town Center (built 1963, rebuilt in the late 1990s): Home Depot, Walmart, Bally Total Fitness, Dave’s Supermarket, Regal Cinemas

Numerous retail options are within a short drive from SE and CH:
*Legacy Village (2003): Crate & Barrel, Cheesecake Factory, Urban Active fitness
*Beachwood Place (built 1978, expanded 1997): Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue
*La Place (built in the 1970s): Borders, Talbots, Melange
*Richmond Town Square (built 1966, remodeled & expanded 1999): Sears, JC Penney, Regal Cinemas
*Golden Gate Plaza (early 1970s): Old Navy, Half-Price Books, TGIFridays, K&G, PetSmart (and a Costco and Best Buy across the street)

There are also smaller retail centers at the Cedar/Lee, Cedar/Taylor, Cedar/Green, and Monticello/Green intersections. The above is in addition to an endless strip of storefronts running along Mayfield Road from Coventry to SOM Center Road.

Anyone can plainly see the area is not lacking in retail/restaurants.

Supporters of First Interstate’s plan claim that this will 1) generate more tax revenue and 2) bring more residents. The first part of their claim is debatable: for there will probably not be a net gain in active retail, just more storefront. The second part of their claim is pure bunk and is not supported by historical evidence. In the era of the automobile, people don’t move somewhere because it’s close to a mall (it’s instructive to remember that when the exurbs started booming, there was no nearby shopping). People choose a place to live based on price, quality of life, and – if they have children – the school system. Neither the Cleveland Heights nor the South Euclid-Lyndhurst school systems are anything to boast about at the present time. That leaves price (which works in CH and SE’s favor), and quality of life. Ask any young professional about what constitutes quality of life for them, and they will reply with a laundry list that includes bike trails, greenspace, and cultural activities (they may also mention sports teams, which will definitely not work on northeast Ohio’s favor). The east side of Cleveland has culture up the wazoo – the orchestra, art and historical museums, the botanical gardens, art cinema – we’ve had it for the past 90 years and it will continue to be a draw. Our greenspace, however, is lacking compared to the west side, which has Edgewater Park and the Rocky River Metropark. In comparison, we have only the smallish Euclid Creek Metropark, then the North Chagrin reservation which is on the far side of SOM Center Road.

Politicians in CH and SE are being short sighted in their mad quest for tax revenue and development for their own sake. Better to reduce housing density and increase greenspace - thereby increasing property values and tax revenue.

Fact is, the “if you build it they will come” school of development doesn’t work in the 21st Century. Big box retail and chain stores struggling to survive in an era of high rent and shrinking population does not lead to quality of life. It leads to empty storefronts – which makes the area undesirable and hurts small business most of all. Jobs with good wages and benefits (which are not retail/restaurant type) improve quality of life – and northeast Ohio has been woefully ineffective in creating those. Greenspace improves quality of life – and those who benefit don’t have to spend money to enjoy it.

The answer to this article’s headline is: when there are empty storefronts and a declining population, there is an overabundance of retail.

If First Interstate really wants to improve the area, why not buy existing facilities along Mayfield Road and fix them up? It would cost a lot less.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Mistake by the Lake

Cleveland has often been erroneously referred to as “the mistake by the lake”.* In fact, that sobriquet was originally aimed at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The venue for Cleveland’s baseball and football games (not to mention concerts, religious, and political events) from 1931 until the 1990s, it was designed in such a way that made fans and players subject to crosswinds and, in the winter, blistering cold temperatures.

By the time the Indians relocated to Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) in 1994, Municipal’s days were numbered. The Stadium was badly out of date, including bathroom facilities with trough-style urinals and lacking stall doors – and much of the facility inaccessible to handicapped patrons. In addition, the structure itself was literally going to pieces, with chunks of concrete falling off and the pilings starting to petrify. When Art Modell took the Browns to Baltimore (renaming the team the Ravens), a new stadium became a prerequisite for getting another football team.

There is little doubt that Cleveland Browns Stadium, completed in 1999, is more aesthetically pleasing than its predecessor. It’s much easier on the eyes from the outside, with the orange seats adding a distinctive splash of color in famously grey Cleveland. The design also makes for more convenient viewing on the inside, with virtually unobstructed sightlines. It goes without saying that the Stadium is light years ahead of the old Municipal in terms of navigability and convenience.

None of those plusses alter the notion that if Municipal Stadium was a mistake on the lake, Cleveland Browns Stadium is pure boondoggle. Nearly 75% of the construction cost was borne by Cuyahoga County taxpayers. (The NFL kicked in most of the rest). The Browns lease the facility for a mere $250,000 annually. Therefore, the shrinking populace of Cuyahoga County – many of them cash strapped rust-belters – is paying for a facility that relatively few use (and at additional expense), for the benefit of the few: the players, managers, and corporate owners.

It can be, and has been, argued that the stadium boosts the local economy, creating jobs and bringing people downtown whenever there’s an event. The jobs created are mostly part-time, with low wages and few if any benefits. Lacking a dome (which was rejected due to the cost), and even more open to the elements than the old Stadium, the new facility was used a scant 10 times by the Browns this past season. (Non-Browns events have occurred, but are exceedingly rare.) So, the notion of a publicly funded stadium as a booster for economic development is dubious at best. In an era when tea-baggers complain of socialism, I have yet to hear a peep from them about this flagrant corporate socialism.

NOTE: My above complaints have nothing to do with the fact that the Browns suck.

*Cleveland’s location on the shores of Lake Erie may one day be the factor that brings the city back to prominence. The Great Lakes hold 21% of the world’s surface fresh water. Any climate scientist will tell you than in the not too distant future, water will be a more valuable commodity than oil.