Super Scholars

“The 2021 Presidential Scholars represent extraordinary achievements for our extraordinary times,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a news release. “I am delighted to join President Biden in saluting these outstanding young people for their achievements, service, character and continued pursuit of excellence. Their examples make me proud and hopeful about the future. Honoring them can remind us all of the great potential in each new generation and renew our commitment to helping them achieve their dreams.”

Like the Secretary of Education, I’m proud and hopeful about the future too. I’m also proud that half of the Presidential Scholars semifinalists in the entire state of Ohio — 11 kids — hail from the Cincinnati area. Two of these scholars (Aidan Finn and Anna Rahner) started their scholarly journey in the same Montessori classrooms as my kids. Three of the semifinalists attended Walnut Hills High School, where all four of our kids attended junior high, and three attended (or are still attending) high school. Another semifinalist went to McNicholas High School, also the alma mater of our oldest child and my lovely bride.

I’m not claiming any sort of transitive property that makes my kids super-scholars by association. But I do think grade schools like Sands Montessori lay a strong foundation for all the kids going to school there, and high schools like Walnut Hills and McNicholas help them blossom. The kids get the awards, but the teachers deserve a ton of credit for bringing out the best in their students.

“Our chief want in life is someone who shall make us do what we can.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

You can read more about the semifinalists in this story from Cincinnati.com. And you can read about the two area Presidential Scholars in this article. Aidan Finn, who started at Sands Montessori, is one of them. We know his family well, and couldn’t be happier for them. The qualities cited by the Secretary of Education include “service” and “character” and Aidan and his younger sister have that in spades.

Aidan founded Tutor Teens with his sister, Erin, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The volunteer tutoring program matches Cincinnati area high school tutors to students across the region. There are tutors from more than a dozen local high schools in the program tutoring students from more than 70 local schools. The program is virtual and free. 

From this Cincinnati.com story
Aidan Finn – Lisa Binns Photograpy

A few years from now, no one will care what these Presidential Scholars got on their ACT or SAT… but “service” and “character” will matter for the rest of their lives.

The Father and Child reunion

That’s our neighbors, Aron and Ben Levin, up on stage last night, doing their thing. Playing the blues.

Ben Levin is a piano prodigy. He’s only 21, but he’s been playing gigs since he was 13. (You can check out his chops here.) Pre-pandemic (“The Before Times”), Ben and Aron had quite a few gigs around town every week. When coronavirus hit, it shut down most of the venues they played. Then it hit a lot closer to home – Aron got COVID-19 last November. Playing live took a back seat to staying alive. Aron was in the hospital for a month… he came way too close to being yet another coronavirus fatality. Then he endured a long stint of in-patient rehab. He’s not 100%, but he’s working his way back.

I’ve always loved seeing live music. I’ve always admired the special bond that Aron and his son have. But I’ve never appreciated their gigs as much as I did when I saw them last night.

Blues a healer, all over the world

Blues a healer, healer, all over the world, all over the world

It healed me, it can heal you

The blues can heal you, early one morning

It can heal you

The blues can heal you

Yeah, yeah

John Lee Hooker, “The Healer”

I’m kind of a Big Dill

My wife and I play pickleball on Tuesday nights, in a couples league. No, we’re not 80 years old, we just like to act like it.

There’s another league that plays on the courts next to us, and one of the guys in that league heads up the Cincinnati Pickleball Club (yes, such a thing exists). A few weeks ago, he gave us some promo swag (carabiners to hang our pickleball bags on the fence… now if only we had pickleball bags). The carabiners had the CPC website listed, so I checked it out and decided to join. It’s a grassroots organization dedicated to promoting the sport in this area, and I’m all about groups that promote positive activities (hence my 20 year membership in the Arbor Day Foundation… and my decades-long love affair with Up with People).

Smells Like Teen Spirit… the good kind

Unbeknownst to me, my $20 annual fee made me Member #700 in the CPC. And that’s the only 700 Club I want to be a member of.

They’d never play pickleball… it even sounds sinful.

In Cincinnati Pickleball circles, I’m kind of a big deal.

I didn’t get a tickertape parade, but I did get a Q&A slot in the weekly email newsletter.

Free publicity in a newsletter that goes out to at least 699 other members. It’s almost as good as being in the new phone book!

Autograph line forms on the left. One item per customer…

Getting Hip to Hops

Not that I need any more notoriety — this blog has thousands hundreds tens a few loyal readers — but I managed to get a byline in the April edition of Cincinnati Magazine by writing the text to accompany some really cool photos (by Aaron M. Conway) of a local farm that grows hops.

You can check out the full online version here.

The editor of Cincinnati Magazine, John Fox, is an old friend of mine. When I was working at an alternative music station, he was the editor of an alt-weekly, and the station and the paper would collaborate, cross-pollinate, and co-promote events often due to the large overlap in audiences. John will throw me a magazine assignment every now and then – usually something fairly straightforward and not too time-consuming. I enjoy the challenge, and I always wind up learning something new while doing research and interviews. For the hops farm piece, I got to interview one of the growers and connect with brewers at several local breweries… it’s a really tight-knit community and it was cool to witness the spirit of collaboration among them. I also learned quite a bit about the process of growing hops, and I found it quite fascinating.

“The more you know…”

If you’re keeping score at home, I’ve now done four pieces for Cincinnati Magazine over the past couple of years, and two of them have been beer-centric. I think I’m being typecast. Then again, if the shoe beer mug fits…

Last Night It Snowed

Last night it snowed in Cincinnati.

I mention this for a few reasons:

  1. It’s like, totally far out to get snow on 4/20, duude.
  2. Global climate change is real.
  3. “Last Night It Snowed” is a song by the Cincinnati band Ass Ponys. Their lead singer and main songwriter is Chuck Cleaver. He’s brilliant – right up there with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon. I love, love, loved the Ass Ponys – still do, in fact, even though they faded into the sunset back in the early aughts.

Chuck Cleaver’s lyrics can be twisted, sardonic, off-kilter… downright weird. His voice is an acquired taste. But spend some time with his songs and you’ll come to appreciate his brilliance. “Last Night It Snowed” is the lead track off the Ass Ponys final studio album, Lohio. That release is a good place to start your College of Chuck courses.

Chuck’s in a band called Wussy now. They’re as amazing as the Ass Ponys were. Chuck and Lisa Walker, the other lead singer/songwriter in the band, have done nearly 40 livestream shows on Facebook over the past year, on Friday nights. Combined with a few shows from bassist Mark Messerly, members of Wussy are approaching 50 free shows. Each one’s a gem… and a lifeline in this pandemic-cursed year.

Wussy can’t tour. They have a tip jar but they never mention it. They all have day jobs. If musical genius equated to cold hard cash, they would be billionaires. But it doesn’t work out that way. We could focus on the cold, cruel music biz that’s buried them and the Ass Ponys.

A blanket white

At least it was when it came down last night

The morning brings the rain

The blanket’s washed away

Now everything turns back to grey

But instead I focus on the inherent beauty of the music. And pray that someday the world will come to appreciate it as well.

A standing Ovation for great art

My friend Keith Neltner was featured in yesterday’s Cincinnati Enquirer. The online version of the article is here. He created the artwork for a mural that will be in the green room of PromoWest Pavilion at Ovation, a new music venue in Northern Kentucky. Now he and his friends are bringing the mural to life.

L to R: Nathan Dye, Stacey Vallerie Meyer, Chris Dye, Keith Neltner Photo credit: Kyle Eli Ebersole

The artwork pays tribute to three local musicians who first rose to fame via their work on the King Records label, which was based in Cincinnati. Philip Paul was a session drummer. Otis Williams was a doo-wop artist. Bootsy Collins got his start playing with James Brown, and is widely regarded as one of the best bass players in this or any universe.

Bootsy Collins, Philip Paul and Otis Williams Photo credit: Sam Greene/The Cincinnati Enquirer

“So many people were influenced by the music that these guys created, and they have no idea that there’s a vacant building on Brewster where it all happened.”

Keith Neltner, in the Cincinnati Enquirer article linked above

The fact that they are Black musicians is significant, because that’s a big part of the King Records legacy. In King Records’ heyday in the 50s and 60s, King had an integrated workforce – not just the recording artists on the label, but also the session musicians, the A&R folks, the engineers, the workers at the pressing plant, the office staff.

This M.O. of King Records owner Syd Nathan was driven less by noble intentions and more by capitalism: he didn’t see black and white, he only saw the color of money. But to his enduring credit, he created a mini-meritocracy and a bastion of diversity in an era when most were blinded by prejudice, and helped launch the careers of performers from marginalized communities – both African-American and “hillbilly.”

Sidebar: Check out the book King of the Queen City by John Hartley Fox for the full story about King Records, one of the most important, successful and influential record companies in the history of modern music, and one whose role is often overlooked.

I’m sure the mural artwork is fantastic (I’ve written about Keith Nelter’s artistic genius before – it’s on full display on his website.) And it’s great that it will drop some King Records knowledge on the touring artists who play the venue.

“King Records was a big deal back in the day. It’s going to be a great thing when artists come to town and they can learn about King Records.”

Scott Stienecker of PromoWest, as quoted in the Cincinnati Enquirer article about the mural

But because the mural is in the green room of a music venue that will hold 2,700 indoor fans, or 7,000 outdoors, the only way I’ll get to fully appreciate it is if I join a successful rock band… or become a groupie!

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