July 10, 2020

The Sense of Wonder

“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility. ”

—Rachel Carson

During my freshman year of college, I started visiting the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on a more regular basis. I loved finding new hikes, and being out in nature provided a space for reflection and solitude. I spent hours upon hours hiking all of the trails, identifying trees, looking for foxes. After a year or two of visiting, my enjoyment of nature began to fade—maybe I was preoccupied with school or other life happenings, but I started visiting less. When quarantine began this spring, it provided a pause, so I decided to pick-up wildflower and bird identification again—primarily as a way to rest and occupy my mind from the anxiety of everything going on.

Over the last three months of searching for birds and flowers though, I feel that God has given me an entirely new joy for the natural world. There is so much beauty that he is making during the summertime in Ohio. Living near a lake provides direct access to plants and wildlife that would normally take more time and effort to get to: the purple martins (some of which migrate as far as Sao Paulo, Brazil for the winter) and tree swallows as they chirp and swoop over the water lilies and pickerelweed on the edge of the lake; swimming beavers; the call of a red-winged blackbird; the flight of a great blue heron over the water. There are other wildflowers I typically don’t notice on my commutes, too: bird’s foot trefoil, chicory, day lilies, sweet clover, queen anne’s lace, red clover, or wild parsnip.

I recently listened to an audio version of Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder about introducing children to nature. Her thesis is that being in nature ought to be fun, and full of wonder, and that in turn this would lead children to want to learn about it—rather than going into nature with children to “teach” them. As a new parent it’s a profound essay, and one that I will surely return to often. I hope that as Arlo gets older, I'll be able to enjoy the wonder of nature with him. Already I see this inborn sense in him that Carson discusses—the desire to go outside, to explore our backyard, to run freely when we go to parks—there is a freshness and newness to everything he's experiencing. I remember for myself how quickly this dimmed as a child. There is one instance I remember in particular, probably before middle school, where I was angry at my mother because she wanted me to play outside rather than in our basement playing video games. In one sense this responsibility is invigorating, while in another, daunting. Who am I to teach Arlo about nature when I don't know very much myself? Anticipating this, Carson responds, “it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” My hope that this time of childhood will be a time to prepare the soil for this sense of wonder.

There is a small thread which connects this sense of wonder and daily life. I have been reading Liturgy of the the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren, and in a chapter about savoring daily moments of beauty, she quotes G.K. Chesterton on the child-like wonder of God:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

As each flower blooms, I imagine God intricately making each one with care and craftsmanship with a deep sense of joy. I hope that I will learn how to more deeply appreciate these things as if a child. It is a deep privilege to “bear witness,” as Marcia Bonta calls it, to this beauty, and to approach nature as if knowing nothing about it—with a sense of wonder at the hands of a good maker. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, the use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19: 2–4). I think that children might inherently know this, but maybe I have forgotten and need reminding. I have become impatient with what I deem monotony as an adult. I think it's no mistake that Carson ends the quote at the top of this post with the word humility. At first, it seems that there is so much to teach children about nature, but I think if we're careful and observant, there is so much for them to teach us, too.

June 21, 2020

I Made a Skateboard

In the film 180° South, Yvon Chouinard talks about how climbing is essentially a useless act: “You get to the top of a wall, there’s nothing up there. Lionel Terray, the great French climber called it ‘The conquistadors of the useless.’ Yeah, the end result is absolutely useless, but every time I travel, I learn something new and hopefully I get to be a better person.”

I love this observation about climbing, and I think it reflects the way I’ve always viewed skateboarding. In many ways, it is a useless act—but in the same way art is a useless act. In a culture which centers around work and pragmatics, doing something purely for the sake of enjoying it can be refreshing.

I started skateboarding back in elementary school. My uncle Kevin had grown up skating himself, and gave me a couple of his old boards right before I started middle school. I would spend hours skating around in the street, and eventually it became a primary activity with friends throughout high school. While many stereotypes of skateboarders exist in America, it might also be seen as an art form and as a craft. We were often kicked out of locations, or viewed as burn-outs with nothing to do. But I think my friends skated for the same reason I did. There is a beauty in carving down a hill or feeling the wind in your shirt. When I started college, skating eventually faded out of my life. In an attempt to find a few personal projects in the midst of the pandemic, I decided to reuse the trucks from my uncle’s old board, bought some new wheels, and shaped my own deck out of an old cabinet shelf.

My uncle Kevin’s old board.
Using a paper template to trace a shape onto the board.
Cutting out the main profile with a jigsaw.
Putting on the old trucks.

May 12, 2020

Quarantine + Emptiness

We’ve been living under a quarantine for a little over 2 months now, and it’s had me thinking a lot about stillness, idleness, and pause. When I first heard of the possibility of a lockdown in any sense, my first thought was: “but what will we do? How will things just… stop?” I think in one way or another, this has to feel the same way for the rest of the globe, too. Each day of the news is filled with empty streets, airports, coffeeshops, and train stations. Everyone is stuck at home—some alone, some with loved ones—in some amount of idleness. Many have lost jobs and are not able to work. Others are asked to work from home and, maybe like me, are feeling tired and and unmotivated. Either way, our country is facing a large moment of stillness, of pause: economically, socially, culturally. I think there’s so much we can learn here.

In the world of design, one of the most common terms we throw around almost aimlessly is negative space. It’s the space in between objects, foreground and background, which allows our eye to move around. Massimo Vignelli has even pointed out that the letterforms we design with have black space and white space—and that often we focus on the black imprint of the letterforms, when really it is the whitespace around each letterform which gives shape to those letterforms. Similarly to music, it’s the space between the notes which defines the succession and emotion of the song. Robert Poynton, in his book Do/Pause: You Are Not a To Do List relates negative space to the way we use time, the way we pause. Our society is used to hurrying, and to productivity. I find it to be such a strong idol in my own life, an I think this is because it is so acceptable to work hard and to be proud of it—especially in the midwest! I know that in my own work, I often become sucked into the idea of completing tasks—of getting to the next thing. And not only at work, but at home. Whether it’s things to do around the house, or how I spend time with Katey and Arlo. But Poynton asks an important question:

“…our children can easily become just a stream of endless tasks: feeding, dressing, getting them to school or football practice or dance class, doing homework, bedtime story and so on. In the midst of all that, do we allow ourselves time to actually be with them, to enjoy them? …In general, we don’t pay much attention or give importance to the spaces in between all the tasks.”

Certainly amongst this quarantine, thinking about this space between is one of those things which I feel blessed to have found out. These moments of space, whether cooking, reading with Arlo before bedtime, or taking a short walk can be smaller pauses within this larger pause of quarantine—breaking up space and allowing for pockets of rest and reflection. My own heart is learning how to enjoy this new slowed down pace. But Poynton takes a nuanced approach to exploring the idea of pause, and clarifies that the idea that we must choose between fast and slow is a bogus choice, and while doing so we can miss the many possibilities of understanding how pause relates to our cultures and habits, or how it can be used as a tool. I highly recommend the book. There’s so much here that’d I’d love to write about, but it’d be better for you to just read it.

Kenya HARA, in his book White explores a similar concept of emptiness. Yet in the prologue he clarifies: “This is not a book about color.” Instead, White is an exploration of HARA’s own culture, an attempt “to find the source of a Japanese aesthetic that produces simplicity and subtlety through the concept of white.” In many cases a blank, white page in a book denotes the concept of emptiness. It is not filled with anything—not even a page number. But HARA points out that emptiness doesn’t mean “nothingness” or “energy-less”, “rather, in many cases, it indicates a condition, or kaizen, which will likely be filled with content in the future.” He provides another example:

“A creative mind, in short, does not see an empty bowl as valueless, but perceives it existing in a transitional state, waiting for the content which will eventually fill it; and this creative perspective instills power in the emptiness.”

How do we see this quarantine? Is it a negative state? A gap that takes place inside of our “normal” course of life? Is it capable of being filled in a meaningful way, like an empty bowl to fill with fruit? In my own life, I find that want to fill the bowl quickly because I’m afraid of it being empty—that I might then be forced to see the inside of it. So I fill it with gardening, writing, yard work, house projects, or watching movies with Katey. And while these are certainly valuable things in their own right, I feel challenged to take a step back to consider how these moments of pause can be carried with me no matter the circumstance. I think these examples of pause and emptiness from Poynton and HARA are important not only because they reveal the reality of these concepts in our country’s current state, but because they reveal the beautiful potential of this time to be filled in a meaningful way.

May 23, 2017

West Coast Road Trip

For our 3rd anniversary, Katey and I took a road trip on the West Coast. We flew to Sacramento, CA, where we made our way up the coastline to Seattle, WA over the course of about two weeks. There is so much that I could say about our trip, but I think the photos will say more. Katey and I planned our trip by looking up the National Parks we hoped to visit, and made highlights on a paper map that we bought in the cases where we wouldn't have cell coverage, but we ended up using the map the entire time (a first for us), and it was a fantastic way to travel. There was a lot of planning and saving for the trip as far as which roads to take, where to stay and when, or what food we'd eat—but it was all worth it, especially once we were out on the road in places we didn't know. We were so fortunate to have taken this trip, and we hope to do another out West again.

I've always had this draw to the Western half of America. I've taken classes about it. I've watched and re-watched the Ken Burns documentary. Its size alone has been a part of America's history, a manifest destiny that has drawn people to its open spaces. Traveling it was much different than I imagined. I think that there are so many aspects of the West that are overly romanticized. And yet I can see why people are drawn to its beauty and size. The West is so big, and beyond comprehension.

May 16, 2017

Cleveland Anniversary

Photos from Katey and my anniversary spent exploring the Cleveland Botanical Gardens and visiting Mentor Headlands State Park.

March 27, 2017

The Smoky Mountains

Photos from a recent trip to the Smoky Mountain National Park.

January 16, 2017

Photos of Home

Katey and I have called many places home around Kent over the last few years. This is just a small collection of photos of the places we've shared morning coffees, watched lilac shrubs bloom, and seen winter light cast shadows on the walls.

December 24, 2014

Oak Hill

Ohio winters are sometimes difficult to bear. They seem to last forever, sometimes into March or April. There’s a certain persistent grayness, and the dark afternoons push us indoors. Yet there is an inherent warmth to winter that I love. The pale winter light is beautiful. There is such joy in taking a walk on a cold morning, and then returning to a warm apartment. Katey and I have had such great opportunities to enjoy meals with our friends or to sit around the fireplace at her parent’s house.

August 17, 2014

Discovering My Family History

Last July, my Grandmother Margherite Catanese passed away. For a week or two, my family told stories about her as we rummaged through photos. It was a hard time, but also cathartic. My family is filled with hard-working, Italian-American immigrants with midwestern souls. My grandmother’s grandparents came to America on a boat from Italy. “Catanese” is an Italian surname, meaning literally “Catanian,” “from the city of Catania” or “from the province of Catania.” Catania is the capital of the Province of Catania in Sicily. She and her family grew up in north Akron. I always imagine that they were proud to see their sons and daughters settle into America—to create their own life and run their own businesses. They have run their own excavating companies, started their own taverns, and settled into the Akron community.

The Importance of Old Stuff

I love rummaging through my grandparents’ old keepsakes in the basement, and the beautiful kitchen items from their tavern. The white enamel coated steel pots have red rims and slight patina where the enamel has worn. My grandma kept everything—from vintage travel brochures to steel bottle openers. There are old photos of when my grandparents traveled to Italy. Katey and I even have an old red leather and steel stool from the tavern her husband Carl helped run in our living room. These items hold deep histories and sat at the heart of where the stories of our family were made.

Although I am often looking at people I’ve never met, flipping through old family photo albums calls forth a deep connection to my ancestors. There is something very primal about wanting to know where I came from. I even find myself creating my own memories from the photos themselves—picturing the stories unfolding as though I were present at the time they were taken.


JoJo’s Tavern

In my english class during my sophomore year of college, we had to write about a piece of our family history and the historical context that it was set in. I decided to do some research about the time period that my grandfather Carl and his brother Joe opened their Tavern on E. Tallmadge Avenue in Akron. I interviewed my grandmother about her experiences working in the kitchen there alongside her husband. At the time I interviewed her, I knew that what I was doing felt important, but didn't quite understand why. Now that she has died, I am realizing how valuable her stories are, and the way they have preserved pieces my grandmother’s life.

I recently listened to a podcast from On Being, where Krista Tippet interviewed David Isay, who started StoryCorps. They discussed the importance of creating spaces to tell stories and have intimate conversations. Isay once recorded and interview with his father, which at the time he thought was insignificant. Shortly after, his father passed away. Isay then understood the beauty and depth of the interview. Isay often says that “The soul is contained in the voice.” I think this is what happened when I talked to my grandmother and wrote down our conversation.

The following is from an interview with my grandmother Margherite Catanese, 2011. I did my best to write down her words as we talked.

“We had the Tavern for 18 or 20 years. We had a good family business. It was on Tallmadge Avenue, you know, near the train tracks. It was across from a shop, I think, called the Working Man’s Overall shop, and Carl’s brother Tony lived in a bungalow next door. There were eight or nine people who worked there in all: Joe was the oldest, and he ran the place with his brothers Tony, Ross, Pete, his sisters Margaret and Janet, his mother Mae, and me. Tony was in his excavating business, and Pete was the youngest and did all the papers for the place.

“You know, I used to make the meatballs and sauce at home. It would take about three hours, and we would load it up into crock pots and set them on the floor of the car to take to the tavern. We lived on Damon Street. The work wasn’t hard. We were closed on Sundays, and we would clean all day—our place was always spotless! We had big tubs in the back kitchen that we could clean our big pots in. You know, we had no dishwasher then.

“That was during the 40s, when the war was. Everybody was busy. We served all week to the workers who would come in for lunch, usually about noon or so. I can still picture the guys lined up there. They would give the orders and you’d hear: Cheeseburger! Grilled Cheese! Chili! Meatballs! A lot of the men usually sat at the bar. Joe was the bartender. There were red stools at the bar and wood chairs at the tables—they held up pretty good.

“The men would usually come after work, and Joe and the other guys would sip beer and talk about whatever men talked about.

“Sometimes we would sit at the end of the bar closest to the kitchen door, and would take orders or eat something when we got a chance. I remember during New Years Eve we all sat together at the bar. It was always crowded that night. Most of all the men drank beer. I had 7up.”



A Short History of JoJo’s Tavern

The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company bought land in Akron, Ohio in 1916. One year later, it branched into another plant known as the Goodyear Zeppelin Company, which produced zeppelins for World War I. As the war died down, it continued manufacturing this early form of the Goodyear blimp. During World War II, the economy slowly pulled out of the Great Depression.

During the 1930’s, the New Deal programs began to hit Akron, along with prohibition and gambling. Wartime mobilization pushed factories into full production. By 1950, Akron’s population was nearly 275,000. Small businesses in Akron and surrounding areas began thriving.

Joe Catanese (my grandfather Carl’s brother) was a World War II Veteran, and in 1942 he returned and his family opened Jo Jo’s Tavern on E. Tallmadge Avenue. It operated for 21 years, with constant business from Akron’s factory workers and the like.

Following WWII, the traditional industries like the Goodyear company began their decline, and Akron faced financial downturn. A population decline ensued, and Jo Jo’s Tavern was sold in 1963.


Jo Jo’s
By E.A. Goble Jan. 1951

There’s a tavern in our neighborhood
Where the eating and the drinking’s good;
A nice place as taverns go—
Run by a fellow named Jo-Jo.
But Shannon and Zurbuch with smiles angelic
Insist on calling him “old smart Alec”
And they call Russ Copping the same.
Because of his funny euchre game.
If you happen up in this part of town
And have an hour, just drop around
And watch the characters come and go
And meet me in host—my friend Jo-Jo;
And meet his three nice brothers,
Tony, Carl and Ross—and there are others
Besides the ones here portrayed;
You’ll see them all on parade.
Bob Lewis with a poker face
Hangs funny signs all over the place.
There’s Rog Anderson and his smile,
He buys a drink every once in a while.
And Sam, the genial man about town
Who takes our Jo-Jo round and round,
Through every night club they have reeled
From Bucket of Blood to Chesterfield.
And “Jop” is another nice guy to know
Though he bets the yanks and DiMaggio.
Piney, whose train blocks the avenue
Comes in sometimes for a drink or two.
Shaffer, who quietly sits at the bar,
Can tell you what the answers are
To questions the television brings
About places, people and dates and things.
There’s Anna—I’m sure you’ll agree when I say
She’s tops! As a waitress she’s “George all the way.”
The names of them all would fill a book.
I remember Johnson, Jacobs and Charley Shook,
And there are many whose names I can’t recall,
But come in and you will see them all.
If there’s a “closed” sign out, please try the door-
They’ve closed it from outside before,
And Jo-Jo stood at his bar all day
Wandering why the crowd all stayed away.
So whenever you travel out this way,
Here’s hoping I’ll see you there some day.
We’ll watch television while the grunters “rassle”
And drink Iriquis and Copenhagen Castle.
This is a cordial invitation to you and to you
To come to 803 E. Tallmadge Avenue.

All Content © 2020 Alex Catanese. All rights reserved.