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One Night in Amish Country April 7, 2014

Posted by Eric Sandy in Cleveland, Longform.
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In March, I attended a special dinner event at an Amish family’s house somewhere in Geauga County, Ohio. The dinner had been reserved by a friend back in 2011. Looking ahead, this family is booked solid through 2017. And they host these dinners four times each week.

All of which made for a very enticing story. The finished product is a pleasant tale of off-the-beaten-path dining in Northeast Ohio and a brief meditation on the Amish lifestyle.

An excerpt:

Here’s the general rundown of the evening’s unrelentingly delicious food, in order: mixed fruit, home-baked bread with maple butter spread, orange Jello pudding, salad resplendent with veggie decor, cottage cheese (featuring Cool Whip, which raises eyebrows among the diners), mountains of chicken breasts and prime rib, stuffing (the depth of flavor in this dish has made grown men cry, we’re told), mashed potatoes and the accompanying gravy boat, and the dichotomous seas of corn and peas.

We spoon heaps of the offerings onto our plates as quaint candles flicker against the fading light outside. It’s impossible to scoop a serving without remarking on how fantastically scrumptious each dish looks, and the same ebullient mutterings follow once it enters the mouth. This is the inner core of table conversation, as we are collectively unable to stop drooling. The stuffing really is ambrosial. The chicken? Divine.

Our hosts for the evening, an Amish couple somewhere in their 30s, tend to the needs of all guests. They’re well practiced in the art of hospitality, and soon enough there’s this sense that we’ve all been friends for a very long time.

“If you ask for something and we have it, you’ll get it. If you ask for something and we don’t have it, you won’t get it. If you don’t ask for something and we have it, you won’t get it.” Our bearded host intermittently casts guidance like that across the dining room. We slowly settle in to the ebb and flow of the proceedings. Judging by portions of the night’s conversations, no one is really clear on how formal or informal we should be acting, and it’s best that we do away with undue caution as early as possible. For now, we are at home.



Caged: How Ohio Politicians Keep the State’s Puppy Mill Business Booming with Little Regulation February 18, 2014

Posted by Eric Sandy in Longform, News.
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I had been following Ohio’s work on puppy mill regulations since Kyle Swenson published the first Scene dispatch from Holmes County back in 2010. Since then, little had changed. Little had been done to actually protect the dogs in question and force breeders to follow even simply a handful of rules. So I traveled south to figure out what was going on.

An dog rescue organizer and advocate drove me around Holmes County and surrounding areas. She told me stories of what happened to the dogs in the past and in the present. Economic pressures had squeezed out most of the smaller puppy operations since Swenson’s report, but the market had mostly consolidated into the big players – breeders who ran massive operations and got close to political leaders. Relationships had been formed among those people who treated puppies as business and the folks in Columbus who pulled the real strings.

Again, little had changed.

An excerpt:

A slanted roof covers a row of tiny cages growing hot in the morning sun. From half a mile across otherwise gentle farmland, what appears to be a lone Yorkie can be seen sitting idly and watching passing cars and buggies.

Puppy kennels—”puppy mills” in the more oppositional colloquy—are easy to spot from the circuitous roads of rural countrysides around Northeast Ohio. The heart of the commercial dog breeding industry in Ohio lies mostly within and around Amish Country—Holmes County, south of Wooster, and neighboring Tuscarawas, Ashland and Guernsey counties. Winding roads weave in and among hills, and gravelly driveways jut off at odd intervals. Now and then, a series of buildings crop upward out of the land. These are homes, barns, silos, storage areas. But often enough, tucked among the other buildings are small kennels built for small animals. In the past decade, in many cases, puppies have lived in them.

There’s nothing secretive about the mills. But there’s certainly a darkness about them that gets brushed under the regions’ handwoven rugs.

“We have Yorkies and we have Westies,” a young Amish woman says as a prospective customer sidles up to the house and broaches the subject. She doesn’t let the customer wander too far off the rocky driveway; rather, she dispatches four of her children to cull a couple of puppies from the kennel behind the garage. For the most part, buyers don’t get a good look at the conditions of these makeshift homes and breeding grounds. “They are…eh, how old now? Four weeks old now,” the woman says, squinting into the morning sun.



Live from Trumbull Correctional February 14, 2014

Posted by Eric Sandy in Longform.
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Last fall, Doug Brown and I traveled to Trumbull Correctional Institution, a mid-security state prison in eastern Ohio. We arrived shortly after dawn, and prison officials welcomed us into a small recreation room for a private rock ‘n’ roll show.

The story glides across the personal tales of more than a dozen state inmates, all of whom had worked hard to be allowed to play musical instruments and form bands. “Live from Trumbull Correctional” is the story of two bands – DryveTrayne and Supa Dupa Productions.

My quick takeaway is that more state facilities should be investing in programs like this. Because the inmates actually own the instruments, the cost to the state isn’t a tremendous burden.

An excerpt:

The sorrowful blues of B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” isn’t lost on anyone in the room as Vincent works his blue Fender Telecaster into a frenzy. Vincent’s known as “Starter” to the other guys around here, and not just for his virtuosity on the guitar. He’s also a sound engineer and music theory teacher and he’s been doing this since it all started.

“You gotta be out of trouble for so long before you can be here,” he says.

Vincent is talking about the Music With A Purpose program at Trumbull Correctional Institution, because Vincent is locked up here and he’s not leaving anytime soon. With nearly a decade to go before he gets a shot at parole, Vincent joins dozens of other inmates here in pursuit of music. And rock ‘n’ roll.  And freedom of some limited, creative sort.

“This is the goal,” he says. “This is the ultimate goal, to be able to come out here and play.”

Supa Dupa Productions

Supa Dupa Productions



The Last American Man February 13, 2014

Posted by Eric Sandy in Longform.
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This towering GQ piece, penned by Elizabeth Gilbert years before Eat, Pray, Love, is just a delicious slice of writing. The subject is simple, and Gilbert washes over the story with patience and care.

I really enjoy magazine profiles of obscure men and women – people far from the public eye who are just, you know, living their lives. Gilbert brings the reader into the life of Eustace Conway, who’s been living in the North Carolina wilderness for years, and illuminates much about the human spirit and the cultural trajectory of this country.

An excerpt:

Briefly, the history of America goes like this: There was a frontier, and then there was no longer a frontier. It all happened rather quickly. There were Indians, then explorers, then settlers, then towns, then cities. Nobody was really paying attention until the moment the wilderness was officially tamed, at which point everybody suddenly wanted it back.

Within the general spasm of nostalgia that ensued (Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Frederic Remington’s cowboy paintings), there came a very specific cultural panic, a panic rooted in the question, What will become of our boys?

Problem was, while the classic European coming-of-age story generally featured a provincial boy who moved to the city and transformed into a refined gentleman, the American tradition had evolved into the utter opposite. The American boy came of age by leaving civilization and striking out toward the hills. There he shed his cosmopolitan manners and transformed into a robust man. Not a gentleman, mind you, but a man. Without the wilderness as proving ground, what would become of our boys?

Why, they might become effete, pampered, decadent. Christ save us, they might become Europeans.

For obvious reasons, this is a terror that has never entirely left us. A century later, some of us are still concerned about the state of American manhood, which is why some of us are so grateful when we get to meet Eustace Conway.

Eustace Conway moved into the woods for good when he was 17 years old. This was in 1978, which was around the same time Star Wars was released. He lived in a tepee, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, and bathed in icy streams. At this point in his biography, you might deduce that Eustace is a survivalist or a hippie or a hermit, but he’s not any of these things. He’s not storing guns for the imminent race war; he’s not cultivating excellent weed; he’s not hiding from us. Eustace Conway is in the woods because he belongs in the woods.


The Would-Be Kid King of Cuyahoga February 12, 2014

Posted by Eric Sandy in Cleveland, Longform.
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Tanner Fischbach is a 19-year-old self-described “young Republican punk” from Berea, Ohio. When he announced his campaign for the highest public office in the most Democratic county in the state, many wondered what the hell he was thinking. I certainly did. So I met Fischbach and talked local politics, golf, the legitimacy of Punxsutawney Phil (that part was left on the cutting room floor) and the image issues of the Republican Party. The process of tracking him down and arranging interviews/photo shoots was an ordeal in itself, which worked into the story real well.

As liberal as I am, I found Fischbach to be a great interview (once we finally managed to meet). The story gets weird at times, and it’s one of my first features to boast a “twist” of any sort.

An excerpt:

Fischbach’s voice is rough when we talk to him in mid-December. He details a nasty bout of illness that has plagued him for a couple weeks now and apologizes for missing an interview. This would become a hallmark going forward – his penchant for missing interviews, that is, not necessarily the illness.

Eventually, he agrees to meet up at a McDonald’s on the southern hemline of Parma. He’s wearing the same purple shirt and tie combo that he wears in his Facebook profile photo for his campaign. It’s as if he wriggled right out of the computer already in character.

“You know what? I’m feeling much better now.” Fischbach says in between slurps of Coke. “Everyone’s texting me: ‘I’m sorry you’re sick, but stay away from me,’ you know? The only thing I’ve got now is a cough, so I promise I won’t get you sick or anything.” His voice carries the quick lilt of his native Boston.

He leans back in his chair and, with a wistful smile, begins explaining his intentions, delving into his time at Berea High School – ground zero of his political awakening, as it were. The whole district mirrors the deep blue hues of the county, so the slightly younger Fischbach saw ample opportunity to engage in healthy debate around the halls. This was back when Gov. John Kasich was championing Senate Bill 5 (Issue 2) across the state, prior to Fischbach’s 2013 graduation.

“When you have a young Republican punk coming through your hallways…” Fischbach starts off with a laugh. “I remember they put a couple posters in the school. You know, ‘No on Senate Bill 5′ and all that. I went up to the administration and, well, ‘Am I allowed to put up posters for Senate Bill 5? Is this how it’s gonna go?’ I think it was like an hour later that they took them down, because I would do it. I would do it!”

He pursues this tangent: “I would love to see a push for another Senate Bill 5 if we could for the whole state. But if we could push something countywide, that’d be great. And a lot of people probably aren’t going to vote for me for saying that.”




The Guitarist February 11, 2014

Posted by Eric Sandy in Cleveland, Music.
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Michael Bay plays guitar at the epicenter of the Cleveland blues world. As a mentor of sorts to the scene around him, he works both on- and off-stage to ensure a thriving music community around the region.

Last summer, I spent several weeks hanging out at his band’s weekly blues jams and talking about life over bowls of pho. The story that came out of all that shows a man who’s spent his life giving back to those around him. Bay is not only an unbelievably talented guitarist, but he’s also a empathetic, caring person – the kind of soul that makes this world spin ’round.

An excerpt:

There is a very old saying in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism that tangos off the tongue like so: “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” Bodhisattvas have been riffing on that one for centuries.

In present-day Cleveland, Ohio, Michael Bay is working through a simple chord progression, methodically embracing the neck of his Fender Telecaster. Not so much the Buddhist he may outwardly appear, he is rather a guitarist. He is practicing. And as the shadows shrink back against the walls of his Tremont storefront on this quiet Tuesday morning, he will practice some more.

“I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” he says, looking up from his instrument only to confirm how deeply he means this. The clean tone of his guitar contrasts against his raspy voice, and the words hang sweetly in the air. A cat named Goober perches on a nearby windowsill and surveys the neighborhood, occasionally casting a glance back at Bay, who is still flexing a bluesy lick.

The guitarist might be talking about how he met his girlfriend Denise Graham, about whom he speaks with Neruda-inspired love. He might be talking about how the guitar hanging on his wall right there—that Orville Les Paul he’s treasured for years—made its way back to him after being stolen one gray afternoon in Lakewood. He might yet be talking about a Wednesday night in 1994 that altered the musical landscape in this town forever.

Surely, though, luck has quite little to do with any of this. Bay’s been practicing since he was a young kid from the neighborhood whose name no one knew. And the practice is everything.

“It will become what it becomes if you let it,” he says, discussing the music he’s working on. Or is he talking about life? “Be in this moment now and listen—and let it evolve.”




Note: I’ll be featuring a longform story each day for the foreseeable future on this website (some will be pieces I’ve written, others will be stories I’ve read by others). “The Guitarist” is one of my favorites from my own archives over the past year. Tomorrow, my latest story, “The Would-Be Kid King of Cuyahoga” will be published online and featured here.

2014 storylines I plan to follow January 7, 2014

Posted by Eric Sandy in Commentary, National.
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I’ll publicize briefly the sort of thing I usually jot down in a moleskine or on Evernote, particularly in times of looking ahead. Like the new year.

There are a handful of storylines I plan on following and reporting on – whether on the blog here or for various publications. Most immediately, I cover these sorts of issues through commentary and aggregation on Twitter.

The legalization of marijuana, medicinal or otherwise

This issue is rearing its medicinal head in Ohio, where my reporting will be based. There are plans to get a measure on the November ballot, which will prove to be a heavy-handed one (governor’s race and the possibility of a gay marriage initiative). Nationwide and statewide, the support seems to be there. And the Ohio Rights Group has posed an interesting hybrid of several other states’ medicinal models.

Income inequality in the US

Pundits are terming this one the “hot-button issue” to kick off the new year. That in itself makes me want to watch how the national press handles coverage in particular. Ohio lamely increased the minimum wage by $.10 (!), which means I’ll be looking to more significant bellwethers across the country.

The national climate change discussion

Whoo-ee, I can’t count the number of times I’ve gnashed my teeth as some anono-troll points to this week’s Polar Vortex horseshit as proof that “global warming don’t exist.” It’ll be interesting to see how the national discussion evolves this year, if at all.

I’ve been wanting to dive deeper on my environmental reporting, and this may be one (really broad) entry point for that. There are plenty of local attempts at solutions, etc., under way, but how local can an effectively solution really be? I feel like there needs to be some sort of concerted global effort. That dichotomy will be especially interesting in writing about all of this.

Recently played December 10, 2013

Posted by Eric Sandy in Music.
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Here’s what I’ve been listening to, with brief annotations:

Bass by Keller Williams: I’m working on a feature about Keller, set to publish in time for his Dec. 28 gig here in Cleveland. The focus leans heavily on his latest album, Funk, and his work with Virginia soul band More Than A Little, which is all really great. And all of his albums are totally worth checking out. But Bass just hits the spot. “The Sun and Moon’s Vagenda” is such a nice opening track.

T.E.T.I.O.S. by Papadosio: For a sprawling double-disc album, this one is mighty cohesive. When I’m in the mood for electronic stuff, Papadosio nails it.

March 16-20, 1992 by Uncle Tupelo: Probably my favorite Tupelo album, though I most often find myself sifting through their catalog for those short-but-sweet Tweedy tunes (“Wait Up,” “Screen Door,” “Acuff-Rose”).

A Love Supreme by John Coltrane: My personal, if random?, follow-up to Miles’ Kind of Blue in my search to know jazz music.

Return to Cookie Mountain by TV on the Radio: A seminal college selection for me. “I Was A Lover” refracts memories of Athens every time I listen.

Tin Cans and Car Tires by moe.: Still relatively new to moe., even after all these years. I’ve got a lot of their shows on hand, but their studio stuff is really great and keeps pulling me in.

My latest feature: Live from Trumbull County December 6, 2013

Posted by Eric Sandy in Cleveland, News.
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The sorrowful blues of B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” isn’t lost on anyone in the room as Vincent works his blue Fender Telecaster into a frenzy. Vincent’s known as “Starter” to the other guys around here, and not just for his virtuosity on the guitar. He’s also a sound engineer and music theory teacher and he’s been doing this since it all started.

“You gotta be out of trouble for so long before you can be here,” he says.

Vincent is talking about the Music With A Purpose program at Trumbull Correctional Institution, because Vincent is locked up here and he’s not leaving anytime soon. With nearly a decade to go before he gets a shot at parole, Vincent joins dozens of other inmates here in pursuit of music. And rock ‘n’ roll. And freedom of some limited, creative sort.

“This is the goal,” he says. “This is the ultimate goal, to be able to come out here and play.”

Read more here

The final page of Nelson Mandela’s 1964 Rivonia Trial courtroom speech December 5, 2013

Posted by Eric Sandy in World.
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R.I.P. Nelson Mandela, 1918 – 2013


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