Thursday, September 28, 2006


It's funny that things that are listing are about to tip over. I like the double entendre here. That these items are both getting ready to topple, and/or are reaching their tipping point. Fielder's choice on the following; though I am taking the literal of listing as a form, I choose to think that these are all things that others are about to realize, and the sooner, the better.

1.) This is the last week of our blog on
Sarah and I (and a host of our friends) have enjoyed hitting the dives we've always driven by and answering our own cusiosity about what else is out there in the world of bars. Let's not kid ourselves, we live in a bar, so if we can find places where we still want to be, that's a good sign. Check out my latest post, on Dapper Dan's downtown... and then check out Dapper Dan's. (click on $20:Code Red at the top left corner of the page)

Moreover, get out, start exploring different parts of the city and find your own new haunts. Don't just take our word on it.

2.) Driving to the North side, yesterday and today, in haze and semi-darkness, I was once again struck by my favorite part of 44. Headed east towards downtown, just before you hit 70 west to bend around the city, there is that beautiful view of Soulard up ahead, the factory chimneys and church spires dominating the skyline... and then the Arch. There is nothing to make me love this city more each morning than hitting that bend, the red brick glistening in the late dawn. It reminds me where we come from, as a place, and where we are headed. Moving from our industrial and religious routes into some new frontier, and better yet, it's a frontier we are stil defining as a city.

3.) On the N. side, I took Natural Bridge east towards downtown the other day. Driving past burnt down and boarded up buildings, I was left with one image-- that of an old corner building made into a church. Above the door, where it once had more painted words, there was just one left: FAITH. That one word painted in black on that white building made me see it all differently-- that drive, that part of the city, and what we're all doing today. It seemed like a mission statement, or a request: hold on, we're coming back, the N. side in all its glory.

4.) That was echoed by my drive home from school today. I generally go up there via 44/70 and then circumnavigate my way through the city back to the south. Today, I took a straight course on Union towards the park. Passing Soldan High School, I delighted in seeing the high school marching band and its dancers completely closing off one whole block of a side street as their horns blared and bowed and young girls waved flags. For a school that can get a bad rap, it was great to see this music and dancing literally shutting down traffic and breathing life... and all those kids the ones doing it.

5.) On a more personal note, today I received several letters from my students as part of an activity in class. Previous to that though, a sixth grader walked in with a thank you letter for me she had made over the weekend. In the middle, in between what she has learned, it simply said, "Thank you for believing in me." Later, another student new to my room wrote me a note that said, "Thank you for choosing me to learn." For anyone out there who doesn't think kids are curious or that they want to learn, head on up to the N. side. I am constantly amazed at how bright my students are, how curious they are, and how much they want to think-- really think. Case in point, today, my fourth graders and I had an amazing conversation about Henry David Thoreau and how he thought about truth. They got it. The quote: "It takes two to speak the truth-- one to speak, and another to hear."

On that note, maybe when some of these things are noticed again, by others, instead of them listing, their tipping point will begin.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

When we used to believe...

I stood in front of my classroom the other day, all those eyes shining up at me, attentive and excited. It was beautiful. And as I jumped around the room, talking, asking questions, telling them all the things they would have a chance to try, and explaining that when they entered my room, they were writers, a question in me flickered. It was question that would later persist, repeating in my head.

I teach children to write. Not just the grammar and mechanics, or the thinking and structure, but I teach them that they have things to say. In my classroom, over and over, I try to show those kids that language is power, that everything important that is accomplished is accomplished by communication-- that the ability to understand and be understood is our highest purpose. That's what writers do. And write they can, in different ways, at different levels. But I have never heard one of them in years say, "I can't write." They just accept that they have a talent, and they work mightily, and diligently to uncover it.

As I was explaining that some things would come naturally and some would be hard work, that while one person might be great at haikus and another struggled, that they would each find what they loved, and they would each be great at some type of writing. I was using examples, trying to tell them what I was naturally better at, and what I had to work hard for, and the rewards that rested within each. I am a notoriously bad speller, yet somehow a great proofreader-- go figure. I cannot do math, but I can do calculus with ease in physics and chemistry. I have to figure out how things work, and I have to care, but there is nothing we cannot learn. As I spoke and asked questions, I said, "Who here is good at math?" and every little fourth grade hand shot up without hesitation. In later groups, with slightly older kids, when I asked similar questions, there was hesitation, some hands up right away, some staying folded in their laps.

I wondered the thing I have always wondered being a teacher: when do we stop saying we can do anything and start volunteering our weaknesses? When do we let our failures trick us into thinking goals are unattainable, and when do we start self-identifying with our talents or weaknesses as others have laid them out for us?

Think about it. There was a time when every one of us would draw. We would craft stories and make them up and delight in anyone who cared to listen. We would struggle for hours over a math problem because it felt so good when we solved it, like the whole world suddenly opened up for us alone and started to make sense. We would build things and imagine the world looking differently. We believed. In everything.

And we thought we were good at everything. Who knows: maybe we were.

But at some point, that fades away. We know more. We have more experiences. We start listening to others more than we listen to ourselves. Doubt creeps in. But I wonder, each day, how many more brilliant thinkers or dancers, artists or architects we might have if they weren't told somewhere along the way that they weren't the best at something. Since when does our prowess at eight years old or eleven determine the rest of our future? It's like some kind of sad brainwashing so that we can better deal with people. Janey becomes the writer, John the future doctor, little Neil who needs attention and causes fights the one likely to go to trade school or drop out altogether.

It saddens me. And it saddens me mostly because I had teachers who fell into two categories: those that told me I should write because I was good at it, but who didn't think I should do anything else, or like anything else; and those that told me I was good at nothing, that I lacked focus, that my excitement was too intense and I got bogged down in details of wanting to ask questions that were irrelevant. (And incidentally, I still have never met an irrelevant question, some that are oddly timed, like the other day when a sixth grader asked me in the middle of a vocabulary lesson, with all seriousness, if she could feed her pet rabbit carrot cake since there were carrots in it...). The few teachers, and I will name them here for the record, that were good were the ones who thought of me as a person foremost and a student second. I was not to be their project, but I have grown up to be their friend: Mr. Carlson (whom I still write to every year), Ms. Lipowitz, Mr. Toler, Mr. Holbrook, Mark Costello and Brigit Kelly. There, out of how many hundreds over 20 years and 12 schools, only 6 stand out as fantastic. Thank god for those six. They never once limited me to what I was good at, nor did they discourage me away from the things which I struggled with.

It was like my heart filled up to see every single fourth grader say they were good at everything, and then it sank to see the older kids so very hesitant, thinking of what others told them. If I've learned nothing else in life, I've learned that persistence and curiosity are what make us great. So I'm going to keep telling those kids they are writers, because when I look at them, I have no doubt that every one of them, if they want to, can be. And they will be great. And for right now, for this year at least, they will hear me saying over and over, "You write well. You have important things to say," and hopefully later, they will remember that.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Will the real leaders please stand up?

In the last 36 hours, I have had several charged political conversations. Beginning with my attendance at the McCaskill rally where Wesley Clark spoke yesterday to a bunch of veterans, and then ending with conversations with friends and some material I found on blogs, I can only wonder who is really running our government, on any level.

Something strange has happened nationally in the past several years, we have stopped being a democracy. We have stopped even expecting to be active in politics. We react and we blame. Sure, some people still work in their communities, and some still voice an opinion, but mostly, it seems people are just complaining. I am from the old guard of "If you don't like it, fix it." The thought of standing by while others decide our fate is foreign to me, and we are better than that, as individuals, as communities, and as a nation.

One of the things I was struck by while at the McCaskill rally yesterday was the issue of veteran benefits. Not only that though, I was speaking to retired civil servants who have experienced similar unfulfilled promises regarding their pensions and healthcare. We have social contracts in this country, and we are not honoring them. We ask people to risk and risk, and to give and give. Habitually, those are the people who are paid the least, who give the most, and who we are most in danger of losing. It is the same with teachers. It is a culturally problem of value, of how we think of service. But it has become a legislative issue. Sadly, I don't see others interested unless it is their lives directly being affected. I wonder when we might actually realize that we are all connected, and that what is bad for some members of our community, or our city, becomes bad for us as a whole.

But this example of veterans' benefits fits into it all on a different level as well. We ask people to do a job, and then we are not accountable to what we have promised them. We ask our citizens to vote, to attend meetings, to give feedback, and yet we don't listen to what they say. We are a people producing America over and over again each day, and yet, while we are good enough to do that, we are not good enough to be valued or to be truly represented.

With these musings running around my head, I read the Ordinance yesterday that is proposing a moratorium on all liquor licenses down on Cherokee. In an area that so desperately seems to need businesses to help pull it up, create foot traffic, and craft some stability, I can't help but wonder why there is so much effort being wasted in fighting people who might want to open businesses on what has often been perceived as a blighted area. It seems archaic, simple-minded, and silly to blame liquor for the problems of an area. It begs the questions of the root of social problems and takes a strange Prohibition-era stance on alcohol, sin, and community. Even if we take the exact location out of the equation, isn't this a strange precedent for us to allow?

In the last two days, I have heard several people complain about local politicians, and let's not kid ourselves, we're all complaining on a national level. The point is, as I see it, my main question: when did we start to allow government to tell us what was good for us? When did we abandon the idea of our voice, of our desires and needs as being valid? I am not looking for a government to mandate my rights and wrongs, on any level. I am looking for leadership...

And here's what I keep coming back to. Several years ago, I had a bright college student who wrote a paper for me in response to a question that I ask all my students every year (kids and adults): What is the biggest problem facing our nation? Many answers are predictable: the war, rantings about Bush, poverty, AIDS. But then I read this one essay and my student said it so clearly: "Our biggest problem as a nation is our inability to elect a worthy leader." 2 key things here-- OUR inability to elect, and the idea of a leader being worthy of actually representing us. I don't see government anymore as representation. That idea that I was brought up on seems to be disappearing. Politicians are now simply power, and they each carry out their duties according to what they think is best for us. To some degree, that is the job, but on a larger scale, we have all lost sight of the true meaning of government. The issue of service seems largely lost in politics. There are exceptions, of course, but come on; service should be the rule. We need leaders, creative people with ideas and practical implementation. We do not need more people limiting our futures, nor deterring us from what might amount to great progress. Government is not the status quo; it can't be. It's forging ahead with innovation and vision.

When I teach sixth graders about government, they get it. They have the ideas (not the practical ones, often, but the ideas) and they still realize that to be a leader is a tough job and with it comes a contract. My kids understand that our government should be about leadership, but mostly it's about responsibility and fulfilling a social contract to listen, advocate, and create progress, not to block it.

We're missing something, and I am wondering what price we will pay if we continue to keep waiting for change and representation rather than demanding it. If we want good leaders, we are going to have to work to find them, we will have to reward those who are civic-minded, and we are going to have to fulfill our end of the deal, as voters. In a government predicated on checks and balances, when the balance subsides, we need to put our city in check.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Skipping Around the 'Lou

For some reason, I decided to dust off my bike (literally) and hit the Riverfront Trail today. I managed to finally lower the seat (it was a hand-me-down from my brother, who is much taller than I am) and after pumping up the tire three times (it refuses to hold air, thus my excuse for not biking in the last two years), I grabbed my helmet and my camera and left.

Then I promptly detoured. There are a few bars I had been meaning to find, so I ventured down S. Broadway, marvelling at how beautiful the stretch is right at Jefferson and Broadway. I went a little West, driving down Virginia, where I have recently found a wealth of great bars I can't wait to hit: The Office, The Wedge Bar. On Michigan, I found a little place that made me happy. And then I continued my meandering to finally find Frank's First Alarm Bar and Grill. I am a sucker for names, and this little ditty did me in by its title.

I drove up Broadway, finding a beautiful mural on the side of a market.

I went to Bellerive Park and watched the barges and the trains.

And then, I went North, up to the Trail. After pumping up my tire (again-- and I had to do it twice in my 3 mile ride), I biked. I passed no one else. The sun was shining. I heard the trains whining and wailing as they passed just west of me. I watched the river, and I thought over and over what a great city we live in. I ws thinking of Steve Smith's latest post on his blog, Word on the Street, about anti-love letters, people posting who are none too happy with St. Louis. I just kept thinking, if only they could feel this. I felt like a kid, my legs pumping as I cycled, and yet all I kept thinking of was what I had driven by in the previous hour, the amazing ways our city changes in just a few miles, and how the people who live in each neighborhood own that neighborhood and give it a feel, a vibe.

I drove home via Chouteau's Landing, marvelling at the Grafitti Wall. I drove the distance, 0.9 miles along the road before the road dissolved into train tracks. I had never seen the full span of grafitti before, and I was in awe at the things people need to tell, to show, to put down somewhere where it will have a life, an audience, and also a quiet solitude.

Maybe it was just the texture of the road on my old bike, thumping and rattling-- or perhaps it was walking and talking to the folks on S. Broadway who seemed so perplexed that I would find small slices of their street beautiful, but today, this city felt alive. And further proof of what a great day it is in STL, on the radio, there was talk of the BalLoon Race, and as I came home, I was awash in a sea of red-- Cardinals fans. If you can't find something to love here, all I have to say is, get the hell out.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Explorer, 2006

We are a nation of explorers. We were borne of a desire to transcend boundaries, to continually move, to find new things each day. There is that sense of adventure within us all.

I think a lot of exploration. I wonder if there are truly explorers anymore. It seems impossible that there would be new Magellans or de Vacas, but still we go up into space. We circumnavigate the globe, alone, in a sailboat. We climb Everest and trek through the Gobi. We hike the Appalachian Trail. And all of us, when we were kids, traveled and traversed urban alleys, suburban yards, forests, and cornfields. We still explore, it's just different how we do it.

As a modern culture, we have stopped exploring geographically and started exploring information. We have moved beyond exploration to take bounty to our king, or the want of naming a land after ourselves. Exploration, and its sibling of discovery are now personal, and we explore things for ourselves. We travel to learn, to collect stories. People used to travel to see how people are different. Now we travel to see how people are the same. It is the places which hopefully will continue to remain distinct.

I was thinking of all this as I drank iced tea and watched the traffic on S. Grand this afternoon. And then Sarah called. We hatched a plan to hit the N. side, have a shake at Crown Candy and take some photos. They skies were grey and the air cool, the streets virtually empty, and the buildings devoid of life. We found ourselves zig-zagging in Sarah's car, turning quickly onto streets where something interested us. Sarah wanted to roll by Bluemeyer Housing Project. I saw a sign that was training ground for... we're not sure what really. It just said "INC.", and I loved it.

We drove through Old North St. Louis, seeing a mural of a fountain, and a small park on N. Market where they are rehabbing a couple of blocks. New storefronts, old buildings, flying fish painted in the medians. There was progress, beautiful progress.

We walked around ONSL, Sarah telling stories of her grandmother selling newspapers and running into Crown Candy for shelter when it rained. We saw decaying buildings, and then homes with life. A beautiful corner park where they showed a movie outside last week, a community art studio where they had boxes of the painted flying fish. The rowhomes, often overlooked, were as old and intricately ornate as any in Soulard. And then, as we walked South, it was clear again where we were, that graveyard of parking meters rising out of the pavement, the likes of which we never see on the street anymore.

For some reason, everywhere we walked and drove, people stared at us. The place was silent, and it was as if people did not want the silence broken. But we have begun to do this lately, Sarah and I. I often drive around neighborhoods, but lately, we have been picking a destination and getting out and walking around for a half hour, an hour. And it's magic. Like exploring lost lands. Like charting something new.

as we walked today, I knew we weren't the first people to see these places, nor even the first to understand them as we did. But for us, it was still discovery, even if discovery of a place we often pass through. It was the experience of it, the walking, the touching of places that are not ours, but have been loaned to us in a certain way. I may not be finding new things in the world by doing this, but I did feel like a kid again, adventuring, my eyes full of wonder at what I saw, my head making up stories as we went.

Maybe in other ways it's gone, but there's still a lot of exploring to be done in St. Louis, and I'm happy to walk to those discoveries, and through those graveyards of lost lands.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Things not to miss, on Sunday...

Think nothing worth seeing is happening in this town? Well, there's a gigantic convergence of culture high and low, art, music, and events, and it all seems to be going down this Sunday, Sept. 10 in the 'Lou.

If I were you, I would not miss the following:

ST LOUIS ART FAIR, Clayton, all day, all weekend
Look out for STL painters Alicia Lachance and Michael Hoffman. Alicia's beautiful botanical paintings graced all the posters for last year's art fair. Alicia, Michael, and Bill Lachance own Hoffman Lachance Fine Art-- the best art around without being up its own ass. Check out Lachance and Hoffman; their paintings will make you think of poetry, both be-bop and soul.

STL's newest sport weaves entertainment and endurance with physical prowess and style. Part punk, part cultural phenomenom, these girls are well worth the watching.

Yep, it's the RFT, but at least they still are supporting and showcasing local talent with this huge affair. On Sunday, all over the Loop, for many hours, great bands, in all kinds of genres will be playing. Most covers are around $10, not bad for lovin' your local sound. My recs:

Bad Folk, 6pm, Cicero's-- Their music reminds me of trains and driving, and they are just damn talented and nice.

Bob Reuter, 7pm, Riddle's-- Fantastic songwriter. See why he was nominated as one of the best in the city.

Corbeta Corbata, 8pm, Halo Bar-- punk at its best, although not my usual thing, these guys rock

The Bureau, 9pm, Cicero's-- I just saw them the other night and I'm hooked: electronic.

The Earthworms, 9pm, Blueberry Hill-- I've been missing Jive Turkey and this is their future. Hip-hop.

Tight Pants Syndrome, 10pm, Riddles-- Just go; you'll thank me later. And think of Gavin Tartowski.

Red Eyed Driver, 10pm, Blueberry Hill Duck Room-- rock, at its best and most beautiful.

After hitting these events, try and tell me there ain't a renaissance goin' down.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Red Bones

For any of you lookin' for a new place to go, Red Bones Den is back in business, after taking the summer off. Bones is back from his farm and he kicked off business for his 34th year on Labor Day. Located at the corner of Kossuth and Vandeventer (right by fairgrounds Park), Red Bones Den opens at 9am and is open until 1:30.

He might have one of the friendliest staffs in the business. And man, does he have stories. Check out the picture of him and Muhammad Ali behind the bar. And take a look at all the antique farming equipment he's got up on the walls. This is not your normal N. side bar.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

KDHX, a drink on the rocks

We all love KDHX. It's simple; we do. The idea of a community radio station is almost gone in this country. We have a great one and it's time we support them. So what can you do? Go out and eat and drink. You're going to do it anyway, so make it count.

Wed., Sept. 6 is KDHX's Tastes for Tunes event. There is an astounding number of restaurants in STL (and some in IL) participating. All are donating from 15-50% of their profits on Wed. to KDHX. The Royale is one of those places (and host to the After-Party). So go out, eat some great food at local restaurants, have an extra drink, and know you had a good time for a good cause.

Check out more info at: KDHX website

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Yep, I'm obsessed and finally coming out in public. Check out my nascent flickr account.

STLRenaissance Photos

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Things to do... on Sunday

This Sunday, Sept. 3, hit the Ground Level Block Party outside Mekong. They are closing off the street at Hartford and S. Grand. Bands. DJ's. Fun stuff. A great prelude to the holiday. And be there at 7pm when the Bureau hits the stage. It's Jamie Toon's band, and I am very excited to finally not be at work and get the chance to see them.

The fun kicks off at noon, and goes all day and into the evening, ending in DJ spins inside The Upstairs (free entry before 10:30 pm; $10 afterwards).

Friday, September 01, 2006

7 Things We Could Do Better

We're doing a lot of things right in STL, The two things that always come to mind first are a.) how well we support local businesses, especially local restaurants (tough to find an Olive Garden in the city, thank god) and b.) we have a lot of really, really talented and creative people here-- maing art and music, writing, solving problems, working in our communities. It's good stuff.

That being said, there are some simple things we could stand to improve on. My list is as follows (and in keeping with my 7 Series):

1.) RECYCLE OLD BUILDINGS. We do well with the warehouses (duh, they're lofts now-- too pricey for me, too)... and people are good with old storefronts and rehabbing and stuff. But in the 2-mile radius of S. Grand alone, there are tons of old gas stations that no one is doing anything with. Bar? Dry Cleaners? Restaurant? Cool studio space? I don't know, but we need to take a nod from Austin and some other great cities that have started recycling mid-century buildings. Or all those beautiful old movie theatres. We could do much better than what we've done.

2.) BIKE TRAILS. Yeah, yeah, there's the "Bike STL" signs or whatever, but very few streets actually have bike lanes. And, we're asshole drivers when people are on bikes. Half of the people I work with don't have cars, so there are plenty o' people out there a bikin'. Look at all really great cities of comparable or smaller size. Lots o' bike paths, folks.

3.) PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION. I know we're working on it, and it's beautiful to see that N-S running Metrolink, but we need more. This is such a car city, and by extension, so very divided in many ways because of it.

4.) COULD WE ADDRESS RACISM, please? This is a huge one. It will never get better until we say there's an issue. And there is, a big one.

5.) COMMUNITY CENTERS. We need community centers-- real ones. Places to meet and gather. Places for kids to go and learn and have fun and be safe and engaged. We need places to come together, and we're not working towards it, really, not at all.

6.) MEDIA. I don't even have to say more.

7.) JOBS AVAILABLE FOR THE CREATIVE CLASS. Ditto. We all know the score, but we need to be the ones to change that.

This is a great city, but it's not going to stay great or go anywhere if we don't start working, and if we don't have real conversations about what we want, what we need, and how to get it done. The floor is open...