At Home in Ohio: Spring 2015

I head to my home state of Ohio a few times a year. I go back to see my beloved family, I go back to stay at the farm where I grew up, but mostly I go back because I have to: it is home.

Home can exist as a state of mind, it’s true, but home as an actual physical place has a stronger claim on a person than any abstract notion ever could. This doesn’t even have to mean that your home is a place you even necessarily want to be, but it is still a place, not just an idea. A place that exists in a specific spot on the planet — one that is unlike any other for you, utterly familiar no matter how long it’s been since you’ve been there. That’s how the farm is in Ohio for me. And not just for me; it’s the same for a lot of people in my extended family, scattered across the continent and the globe. We all converge in this particular spot any chance we get. It’s not that our farm is particularly amazing, though it has plenty of amazing elements, it is that it is ours. When I’m there, I think about my grandpa, who died in 2006, the year my oldest son was born. Just as my grandpa no doubt thought about his grandparents every time he was back on the same farm, their farm, long after they had passed away.

Spring came while I was in Ohio for this last visit. We celebrated Easter and mourned the dead and dying Ash trees that cover the property, the work of an invasive species which showed up  in 2002 and has managed to kill millions of trees in little more than a decade. Death and life, as always, go hand-in-hand and even as dead ash trees are cut out of the landscape, the tiny seedlings my sister planted in anticipation of summer sprang from the dirt and cheered us all up each time we walked past this little field of green.

The days are getting longer, long enough for the kids to run around outside to the point of exhaustion, but not so long that there isn’t time for adults to sit around in front of a fire in the wood burning stove on my mom’s porch, hot tea taking the chill off a late evening in spring, at home in Ohio.

Making Music with the Family

A few weeks ago my brother, who is a songwriter and musician, and my niece and nephews, who have a band and play with my brother for as many of his gigs as they can, stayed at our house for a week while they did some recording and made a few stops on their Northeast mini-tour in support of their new album Blinded Again. The band crammed in a lot on this early spring visit: a supper around the fire out in the woods (cold. so very cold), a few beach walks, trips to Boston and lots and lots of music-making. Our living room was stuffed with instrument cases and instruments: a cello, fiddle, a couple of guitars, a couple of banjos, a mandolin and more covered every available surface. It was a great and crowded week, and we missed them as soon as they pulled out of the driveway. I can tell I’m getting older because I kept wanting to ruffle their hair and hug them and talk about how “special” it was to have them all staying with us. And I wanted to bake them cookies and extra food to take with them on their various excursions out of the house, though I didn’t do too much of the latter. I was too tired from all the excitement. Which is further confirmation that I am getting old.

If you like indie-folk, traditional Americana style music, check out their music:

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The band, looking cool in every sense of the word.

Summer Living

It’s been a crazy summer. From Germany and Canada to the west and east coast of the United States, my family all converged on the farm in Ohio for several weeks. Sometimes all at once, sometimes in succession. A wedding, a family reunion, and a camping trip involving the 47 members of my immediate family were followed just a mere few hours after we packed up the camping gear by the birth of the 48th member, whose mother managed to make it to the hospital in time for the baby’s arrival.

My family completed our month-long homage to the cycle of life by holding a memorial service for my uncle out by the pond at the farm in Ohio, the pond built by my grandpa and recreated, in a way, by my uncle, who put a pond on his own property all the way across the country in Oregon.

A few days after the memorial service, and on the last night most of us were together, the third annual micro Madden Road Music Festival took place at the old brick building at the crossroads of Mutual, Ohio. My mom has an antiques shop on the ground floor of the building, and a few years ago some of the family came together and cleared out the top floor for use as an occasional music hall. With its cracked plaster and old beadboard walls, the music hall resembles a depression-era honky-tonk or small town opera house. Which it probably was — both of those things — over the years. The floor still bears faded painted lines outlining the boundaries of an undersized basketball court from its stint as a sports center for budding young farmers.

For this year’s festival, both floors were put into use. We pushed the old bureaus and benches and side tables to the edge of the antiques shop and placed the tables and chairs in the center, creating a place for the festival potluck.

Potluck beginnings

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Hemisphere Coffee Roasters, a local coffee roasting business run by a family who source all their beans directly, came to the festival and transformed my mom’s shop counter into a coffee shop. Right next to the counter we created a bakery using an antique glass display case, which held goods baked by my nieces, who made everything from brownies to snickerdoodles to chocolate chip cookies. To the shock of everyone who knows her well, my mom spent the day of the festival baking bread to add to the bakery’s inventory. The bread was delicious, which belies the whole idea that only highly-trained experts who spend their youth sweating over commercial ovens as apprentices are capable of baking bread. The motivation for my mom’s baking spree came from the fact that proceeds from bakery sales all went toward efforts to help the friend of yet another sister who lived in Mumbai, a friend who is saving up with her husband so that he can buy his own rickshaw. I know this sounds over-the-top but it’s true. We raised money to purchase a rickshaw in India at our tiny music festival in the middle of nowhere, Ohio. We live in global times, people.

The potluck featured lots of stuff from the garden: corn and cantaloupe and squash. Someone brought a huge tray of macaroni & cheese, which was quickly consumed. And someone else brought a trencher of homemade popcorn. It turns out that popcorn tastes especially awesome when eaten from an antique trencher. And while I don’t know exactly what a trencher is (the people who brought the popcorn told me the name of the thing), I know that I want one for my next potluck.

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Five bands took both stages, alternating between the Antiques Store Stage and the Music Hall Stage, and each one was mesmerizing. Which also sounds over-the-top, but it’s just as true as the rickshaw story. Something about seeing musicians make music in front of you seems both familiar and completely strange these days. Familiar in the sense that making and experiencing live music in real time has been around since human beings themselves. But strange in the sense that most of us take our music in electronic doses, perfected and altered and manipulated before we consume it at random, usually isolated moments. Listening to real music being made by actual people in a roomful of family, friends and strangers, eating popcorn and cantaloupe and drinking coffee seemed almost bizarre. But really comforting too. A personal highlight for me was the music of Bob Lucas, who performed along with his daughter and son-in-law. These three are steeped in old-time music across several genres and decades. And Bob is a composer as well as an actor, director, producer in theater. Just one of those run-of-the-mill geniuses you often encounter playing above a random antiques store in Ohio. (Never underestimate the Midwest. It is full of surprises).

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Daniel Dye & the Miller Road Band

The morning after the festival we gathered outside my parents’ farmhouse to see our nephew David off to college in Chicago, and the summer was complete. It held everything: endings, beginnings and middles, all of it carried out to a sort of soundtrack of music-making at every point, from singing around the campfire to my brother playing his banjo at his newborn daughter’s side at the hospital to singing (and we do sing choral arrangements as a family, some of us more skillfully than others) The Lord Bless You and Keep You as a benediction, moments before David climbed into the van with his family, heading west — just as the sun climbed higher and higher in the east.

Obsessions: One Rock at a Time

The fact is: most of us will enter and leave this world without making much of a mark beyond the circle of our immediate friends and family. In light of this, it is startling to drive to a nondescript street in Springfield, Ohio — the city where my brother lives with his family — and wander around the backyard of 1905 Russel Avenue, the former home of Ben Hartman, who died in 1944, and see the mark this foundry worker made, which has now outlasted the span of his lifetime by several decades.

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Laid off from his job in 1932, Ben Hartman began fiddling with building things from cement and small stones in his backyard to keep busy. Even after he went back to work in 1937, he kept building and building and building, extending his scope from the original project of a cement fishing pond to creating dozens of structures and little figures with patriotism, religion, historical events and historical places as his themes. After Ben Hartman died his wife Mary tended the rock garden, which also included extensive flower beds, for the next 53 years. Mary encouraged visitors to stroll along Ben’s concrete paths — many of which he embedded with messages spelled out in small stones — just outside her back door. Mary passed away in 1997 and the rock garden began to fall into disrepair until 2008, when the amazing Kohler Foundation stepped in and restored the gardens, transferring ownership to the non-profit Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden, now responsible for maintaining the site.

One of the many great aspects of the Kohler Foundation’s restoration is that they kept the spirit of the garden intact, offering interpretive materials for anyone who wants them, but avoiding the sense that this is some sort of rarified museum experience and clobbering the viewer with the site’s significance. The Hartman Rock Garden is true folk art, which by definition means it exists outside of the Academy, and what a relief that is, at least in this case.

The Garden gives the same feeling to a visitor today that it offered to someone strolling through the site decades ago: the strange, almost eerie sensation of stumbling onto a tiny plot in a random place that somehow manages to contain a world of beauty, sadness and moral certainty — an entire world created by a single man, one rock at a time.

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Sun setting behind the garden

The Cathedral

A depiction of a store in Springfield

Fort Dearborn in tiny stones

Tiny rock garden cemetary

a huge wall built of tiny stones

Door to the Cathedral

classical architecture in the backyard

Sidewalk words, buried by the snow

Noah's Ark

Cupola in the snow

Hart. Man.

the garden at sunset

God. Country. Church.

I visited the Hartman Rock Garden after a snowfall, which gave everything a monochromatic quality, heightening the almost universal grayness of the world in winter. In another season the garden, like the world itself, is a much more colorful place, and I plan to view it again in a different light altogether.  For more extensive information on the Hartman Rock Garden, photos of Ben Hartman and more, check out the garden’s website, hartmanrockgarden.org

Events: Madden Road MusicFest

I grew up in Ohio, one of six kids (number five, for those of you who believe birth order holds significance). My family sang together. At home, in the car, at church. These days my siblings are scattered from Mumbai, India to Mutual, Ohio — with a brother in Berlin along the way — so opportunities to make music together are few and far between. A few members of my family decided to put together the Madden Road MusicFest over the Labor Day weekend, giving the rest of us a little musical incentive to come home again. My brother, along with his band (composed of my nephews and niece) are the family members making music these days. So it makes sense that they host the festival, headlining the evening with their set of folk and Americana tunes, all of which were original songs written by my brother, except for his cover of Paradise County, a John Prine song that still makes me want to cry no matter how many times I hear it. The rest of the music at the festival was provided by a roster of talented singer-songwriters and bands, with a lineup that ranged from bluegrass to delta blues to indie rock to gospel.

We say that the Madden Road MusicFest is a micro-festival. It’s not intended to be a big operation — the Music Hall above my mom’s antique shop, the site of the festival, can only hold 120 people or so — and it’s not intended to be slick and polished. Madden Road MusicFest is designed to be a family gathering at heart, with an open invitation for likeminded souls to join us for a day of good food and good music. Not to sound overly sentimental, but the plan for creating a music-centered extended family reunion worked, with cousins from Virginia, Chicago and Washington D.C. making the trek to our little shindig. Even our 96-year-old grandma stopped by for a few songs and a piece of apple pie from the Screen Door Bakery. Which was the name we gave to the old screen door we used as a backdrop for a vintage bakery rack (stolen from my mom’s antiques shop) packed with homemade cookies and pie. There was other food on offer as well, provided by my sister Amy and her family, who ran the Madden Road MusicFest food booth, serving up homemade grilled pizzas topped with vegetables that Amy grew on the family farm, just a mile up the road. And Amy also managed to put together a produce stand with her butternut squash, zucchini and pumpkins with MRMF in raised letters, carved right into the surface.

The day was long, and hot — if the intermittent rain didn’t get you wet, the sweat making rivulets down your face would do the job — but no one complained. Everyone was too busy recalling just how good it is to pry ourselves from our screens and earphones and take some time to eat real food while listening to real people make music, all of us part of the same family, if only for a day.

All photos courtesy of Adam Caouette.

For more on the bands pictured — Daniel Dye & the Miller Road Band, Todd the Fox & Lisa Bunny, William the Accountant — along with the rest of the festival musicians, check out the links on the festival website: www.maddenroadmusic.com.

Fresh Discoveries in a Familiar Place

You know how you think you know a place? Then you discover that the place you thought you had a handle on is full of surprises, unexpected turns that cover never-before-seen territory. This happened to me as I wandered through the town of Urbana, Ohio, a place 6 miles up the road from the house where I grew up. I went to school in Urbana, to church there, to Kmart before it was squashed by the behemoth that is Walmart. And when Walmart came to town, I (reluctantly) went to Walmart in Urbana. We went downtown regularly and witnessed, along with every other small town American, its demise, store by store — except for the hearty few which managed to hang on. So I thought I knew the town by heart.

When I visited my family in Ohio in August, my mom said “We have to go to Urbana”. Sure, I thought. I could always use a trip to Walmart. But my mom didn’t intend to head into that particular den of iniquity; she actually wanted to go to downtown Urbana. Urbana has many of the ingredients that make up the ideal of small town middle class life, one of which is a cinema downtown still plugging away (which feels like a minor miracle). Still, it has struggled to find an identity, a way to set itself apart from every other place in rural America that suffers from the malaise of the car. Meaning: to the rural American with an automobile, there is always a better place to go, just a little further up the road. Every small town that used to be an entire, humming, economic engine is now just a place you drive through on the way to the mall.

But downtown Urbana is finding its way, and maybe its identity (besides being a generally great place to live), its new economic engine, will be driven by visitors coming in droves to check out all the stores selling antiques and vintage pieces. Where once there were two, now there are…I don’t know, I lost count. There were several great shops. The store I would personally spend the most cash in is called Fruit Salad Antiques, and it was just my kind of happy jumble, full of all sorts of fascinating odds & ends. One could go there three times a week and come away with something unexpected each time.

The most compelling store in terms of the setup was called The Boston (a nod to the name of the old department store which originally inhabited the space). While the downstairs was conventional, if quite nice, in its antique mall layout, the upstairs of of the store was the real treat, carved out of the upper floors of two old buildings. And by carved I mean that the space wasn’t really remodeled, rather, the old rooms, which look as though they were part of an rooming house, were kept intact — shredded wallpaper, pocked floors, lathes showing through cracked plaster and all. A series of naked lightbulbs lead you down a hallway which is decked out to look like a reimagined 19th century sidewalk, every room off the hallway has a different theme and every room was over the top. The whole place was imaginative, bizarre, and decidedly un-Midwestern. On the other end of the spectrum in the sense of refinement (though still decidedly un-Midwestern) was a discovery so surprising that I actually felt embarrassed when I walked into the store, so obvious my reaction of blatant amazement. I went into a shop called ben and me only to find a store that would be perfectly comfortable existing in say, New York. I mean New York, New York. It’s as though I was seeing the flattening effects (to make an un-intellectual use of the Thomas Friedman phrase) of globalism in Urbana, Ohio. A store like this one, so design-y, wouldn’t have been imaginable here just a few years ago. I suppose we should thank the Internet, which has made it possible to set up a life anywhere you want, as long as you have a secondary, successful life online (which the owner of ben and me does, as she’s an Interior Designer, with projects beyond Urbana). It was an invigorating, cheerful trip to a beautiful small town that has updated its charm for the 21st century by speaking to the timelessness of antiques and good design.

Apologies in advance for the photos: my camera has moisture in it, which I failed to realize until I took these terrible pictures. Be sure to check out The Boston and ben and me online for a better sense of both shops.

The hallway at The Boston

A room at The Boston, with fragments of the original wallpaper.

Another room, another mood at The Boston

Another view of the hallway at The Boston

Joni, the Interior Designer of the store ben and me interiors.