Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Do you recognize this man? He's probably the most photographed bartender in all of Chicago, and we're lucky enough to have him right here in the neighborhood.

The mixology craze hit the city about 2 years ago, and Paul's been inventing new cocktails on a formerly desolate strip of Milwaukee Avenue ever since. The bar where he hones his craft is neither cozy tavern nor gritty watering hole, but it's not fastidious either. It often features live music or a dj on a tiny stage, but the real stars here are the drinks. Their complete cocktail archive includes names like the Sibling Rivalry, the Hemingway, and the Smoking Corpse, many of them coined by Paul. He recently mixed me up some gin, bitters, and tangerine marmalade and poured it, up, into a martini glass. Swoon.

So on this day, as I prepare for our annual New Year's Eve trek to central Wisconsin, and harbor some dread for my return to work, and anticipate 2010 with both steely reserve and squinty optimism, I raise a glass to another year behind us and another offering its promises ahead. When I reflect back on 2009, it will register as one of the toughest yet, but also a year full of texture, where I was constantly forced to prove something to myself (and was successful maybe half the time).

It was also a banner year for the neighborhood, with many more good things to eat and drink, some new businesses thrown in the mix, community gardens just a stone's throw away, and new neighbors to get to know. Plus some cemented appreciation for the things that aren't so new: my favorite grocery store, hardware store, taqueria, tamale vendors, bike routes, backyard barbecues, alley culture, Polish deli, street art, thrift stores, music festivals, park benches, block club, friends within walking distance, and ever-evolving little green house.

This will be my final entry of the year before I'm off to Wisconsin and off the grid, so let me also hoist a glass to each of you, who always makes me feel a part of something larger than myself. Thanks for your comments (both verbal and written), your unrelenting support, and your uncanny ability to crack me up. It's certainly been a year. Thanks for being part of it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Second Hand

In the last post, I referred to a growing collection of local treasures that have found their way into this house. My favorite may be this original drug-store counter from the Paul Davis Pharmacy up the street. The eponymous shop was open for decades, one of the few active commercial establishments on an otherwise (at least recently) shuttered retail strip.

Paul Davis himself dispensed prescriptions until his retirement a couple of years ago. When a friend of ours bought the space for his law practice, we ended up the proud and lucky owners of this solid parcel of history, where countless transactions were performed, and countless remedies were tendered. How much suffering was relieved as hands met across this very piece of oak?

The counter and all its ghosts now serve as a work surface in John's basement office. We relish the scratches in the wood, because they remind us to treat this baby as the workhorse it was intended to be.

And all this gets me wondering, on this most commercial of holidays, why the default for most people is buying something new. There are so many wonderful existing items out there, ripe for the taking-in, rather than the landfill. And this reminds me of my favorite of our family holiday traditions, Second Hand Santa, invented by my mother-in-law, who felt it good and proper to exchange things that were already part of the object stream of people's lives.

We've passed along Second-Hand-Santa to other friends, and we've ended up giving and receiving some of our favorite presents ever in the process: Vintage juicers, balls of yarn, shiny barware, wool sweaters, fondue sets, college sweatshirts, bathrobes, cookbooks, an imported wine rack, a footstool intended to be stuffed with old newspaper, and most recently, a stunning set of wooden spoons from Vietnam.

If it were up to me, we'd only exchange second-hand gifts at the holidays, but not everyone shares my patience for thrift stores, garage sales, or the backs of cobwebbed closets.

Nevertheless, I can go on record saying my favorite things in my life, including my sweet pooch Inez, were owned by other people before me.

I'm grateful to those people for keeping these items safe and sound, fit to pass along to someone who'd give them a second round of affection.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Tis the season of the holiday craft sale, and I've certainly made the rounds. Last Saturday I went to five different fairs, and yesterday I visited two more. This doesn't begin to account for the untold fairs I haven't patronized: church-basement bazaars, art-studio fundraisers, and increasing numbers of DIY craft shows held in bars, vacant storefronts, and personal apartments.

It starts to make you wonder: who are all these talented people, and where do they find the time?

More to the point: What the hell happened to me? I used to be a creative person! Signs of earlier production still linger around the house. But they're all dusty with age, reminding me of a younger, more endeavoring version of myself.

I guess I've traded trying to make things for trying to make things happen (with results more mixed than when I was trying to make things).

If I were still trying to make things, I'd want them to be as nifty as this bud vase, created by my intrepid friend and neighbor Ann (above), who works for the City, raises two teenagers, watches over her block, volunteers, and takes a long, pre-dawn walk around the neighborhood every morning. This season I salute Ann, who continues to flex her creative muscle, even with so many plates in the air.

I'm especially happy to have found a prime spot for her work, which joins a growing list of objects that have come outward from the neighborhood and into this space . . . so that our house -- in both its appointments and endurance -- tells the story of its situatedness these last hundred years.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Good Fight

With Obama's announcement this week of 30,000 more troops being deployed to Afghanistan, I got to thinking about a small group of war protesters that's become a fixture in the center of town.

Sure as the clock, there they were again yesterday afternoon. They've gathered every Saturday at 3:00 for the last six years, regardless of blizzards, thunderstorms, high winds, or busy traffic.

They never have meetings and they don't socialize together. They simply show up.

It's always the same group of a people: a retired nurse (scarf and yellow sign), a retired social worker (behind the nurse), an electrical engineer (baseball cap), a guy who "works in a bank" (hat and sunglasses), a grizzled and confrontational aging hippie (who refused to have his picture taken unless I picked up a sign and joined them), and a sweet, stout woman who may be his wife (not pictured, but carrying a 'Books Not Bombs' sign).

These may not be the kinds of people you'd enjoy running into at a party. They've got that activist fatigue I've recognized in myself and certain friends at times: Why am I doing so much, why don't other people pitch in more often, why do we have to go it alone every week? It makes them a little bit surly.

But surly serves you well when you're passionate about what you're doing, and when what you're doing is just. The jury's still out, at least for me, on how big an impact these tiny demonstrations may have on actual policy. But in a world where tech-savvy people have far sexier options, like joining Move On or signing electronic petitions, I'm glad for aging Lefties with placards. And I'm glad for the endurance of sayings like 'Books Not Bombs,' at least while books still exist for a while.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Dreaming of the root cellar

With this morning's dusting of snow, it's a wonder that just two days ago I was still harvesting broccoli. Not a lot of broccoli, mind you (that bowl is only four inches in diameter. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you microccoli?), but broccoli nonetheless.

With our farmer's market moving indoors for the winter, and our new grocery co-op two days from grand opening, I'm trying to stretch this local vegetable habit as long as modern methods allow. Cooking and freezing? Count me in. Hoop houses for lettuce in February and March? Bring it on, cunning farmers. John and I never quite got to pickling this year, but next summer is another day.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Buried Treasure

Yesterday we got a call from a friend, an attorney, who recently represented a client in a real-estate transaction. The deal involved a house, just a few blocks from us, that the buyer intends to tear down.

The house itself is a bit of a mess. It's been through a fire and is only partially covered with damaged asphalt siding. There are plywood boards where the windows used to be. The pantry is filled with mouse traps. I always lament the loss of a house, but this one may be easier to say good-bye to than some. If there's such a thing as a house being 'totaled,' where the cost of repair would far outweigh the value of the structure, this may be one of those cases. Plus the buyer, Mr. Morales, seems like an upright guy. He lives next door and knew the occupants of the house for decades. He told us the previous owner is now in a nursing home and doing pretty well.

Demolition plans for the building are imminent, but Mr. Morales seems to hate the idea of all the contents of the house (there were piles and piles left behind) going to waste. He's painstakingly culled all the items of either utilitarian or sentimental value and set them aside. Then he invited in our friend Mike, the attorney, to come and take what he could use. And Mike, naturally, called us to join him.

We spent yesterday morning combing through all three floors of the house, seeking out whatever treasures might be squirreled away. The previous owner was a master seamstress and possibly a quilter, and she had countless shelves filled with fabric, thread, elastic remnants, needles, straight pins, lace, rick-rack, and bobbins. I ended up with this beauty, which will be passed on to my 9-year-old niece, who's expressed interest sewing.

John salvaged a collection of polka records, and we had to reach way back into a storage area to purloin this enamel coffee pot, which we plan to use as an ice bucket. It wasn't this pristine when we found it, but it sure cleaned up nice.

We'll save the amazing bikes until they've had some work and are road-ready.

It felt sort of ghoulish to be going through all that household effluvia, piling up our hearts' desires, especially when John came across a high-school student ID for the owner's son, who likely grew up there. But we also felt we were doing our parts to protect and honor some of the history of that he house and the family who called it home. We will ride and listen and sew and drink a little better because they were here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Good Turns

Early this morning, as I was walking the dog and carrying her little bag of waste, a garbage man stopped me and said, "Ma'am, I'd be happy to throw that away for you." He took the bag right out of my hands and tossed it into the back of his truck, which was mulching up some throwaway doors behind the Oddfellows hall.

It was an incredibly kind gesture, all the kinder for it being unexpected, especially considering the abject terms of exchange. How do you even repay that kind of thing?

A few blocks later I turned the corner toward the house and there was our neighbor Mary Beth -- back since only 3am after taking her kids to the School of the Americas protest in Georgia -- struggling with a dead car battery. We have no jumper cables, and neither did any of the folks she tried to call. But I peeked into the backyard of our great neighbor Caesar, alleyway mechanic, and he was able to walk his charger over and get her on her way. He and Mary Beth live next door to each other but had never officially met. Now they have a point of connection.

It seems to be starting off as that kind of week. Pass it on.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Spaghetti Western

The Good:
- Our remodeled basement means my entire family will have places
to sleep when they visit for Thanksgiving, rather than our usual
tent city of sleeping bags and sofas.

- Our TV no longer lives in the living room. *We* live in the living room.

- Tonight's graduation ceremony for an ex-offender training program reminded me why I do what I do for a living.

- Overdue lunches with friends, dinners with friends, and beverages with friends.

- It's Brussels sprouts season!

The Bad:
- I don't know what kind of paint the taggers are using these days, but even the strongest solvent leaves a ghost image behind. Makes it sort of impossible to forget that the Latin Kings have claimed the building on the corner.

- Inez's arthritis.

- Can't. stop. cutting. my. hair.

The Ugly:
- Herbalife 'nutritional product' is taking over the world, including this long-abandoned storefront just two blocks away. The company seems to prey on struggling people of color, many of whom were gathered inside this space tonight, listening to the pitch and emptying their wallets. Beware the orange and green curtains, my friends: today's American signifier of empty promises.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


For the first time, our farmers' market has moved indoors for the winter, specifically into the old Congress Theater, which in its heydey was a movie house where locals would dress up fancy for an evening on the town.

More recently, the Congress has survived the way many old theaters survive: by becoming a concert venue for folks our grandparents would have found appallingly underdressed and badly behaved. We saw Fugazi at the Congress once, and many a Mexican wrestling fan has enjoyed a La Lucha Libre match there. Insane Clown Posse played a show there last week, and rabid fans in clown make-up snaked their way around the block.

The farmers' market is a kinder, gentler use of this aging but elegant lobby. I wish I could capture sound here as well as image, though, because while we were browsing the arugula and beets today, a teenage battle-of-the-bands was underway in the auditorium. Our cider sampling got punctuated by driving guitars and shrieks of pubescent masculine angst.

Even the Wisconsin artisanal cheese vendor had to concede: It was fantastic.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The voters got it wrong

This morning, after disappointing news from Maine, I salute my favorite men who exercised their right to marry.

Robert and John: parks advocates, public-school graduates,
hand holders, friends to farmers.

By they way, that little orange character they're posing with? It's a special-edition Shawnimal. Robert enlisted creator Shawn Smith to produce just five of them as a fundraiser for our local playlot park. Robert's a Shawnimals collector, and this little orange fellow joins his ever-expanding collection of ninjas, mustaches, and random blobs. John doesn't seem to mind. He joined Robert in line that very night to buy an original Smith woodcut at a local gallery.

Take that, Maine.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Several years ago, a group of us lobbied hard to save a historic building on a nearby corner. A bank agreed to take occupancy and the building survived, but the compromise was a bitter pill. Despite a sustained lobby to preserve the pedestrian way, the bank installed a curb cut smack in the middle of the sidewalk to make room for their drive-thru window. Harumph.

It was something of a fool's bargain. The idea was that once the bank moved in, other businesses would follow (this is a sizable building, with several additional storefronts available). That was at least five years ago. And for the duration of those five years, every storefront has sat empty, leaving us pedestrians feeling similarly empty as we imagine the building in its glory days and stop short at the drive-thru so we don't get hit.

This may explain my gratitude for our wonderful neighbor Jill, who saw the potential for a pedestrian-friendly business there and opened her doors earlier this week.

This isn't just any business. It's a language center/community hub, where you can take classes in Spanish or Russian (and other languages to be added over time), come see a movie in Spanish, take a conversation class over wine and cheese, or spend a weekend at bilingual bootcamp.

I know what you're imagining: one of those institutional spaces with a linoleum floor and metal folding chairs. Think again, little chickies. There's an exposed brick wall, paintings by local artists, a cafe, and a full kitchen (which, the day I visited, was generously stocked with cheese, crackers, and sweets).

What I'm imagining is this: Maybe 6 months from now, after some conversation classes or a weekend of bootcamp, it would be amazing -- when my Spanish-speaking coworkers tell hilarious stories over lunch -- if I could not just pretend to laugh, but actually sort of get the joke.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

November, you're not welcome here.

I've got a conundrum. Maybe you can help.

Sure, I'm eager for this crazy month to pass. Work's been slapping me around and shows no sign of relenting for the next couple weeks.

Then everyone I know is getting sick: Fevers, fainting spells, appendicitis attacks, blood clots, nerve damage, and unexplained heart palpitations.

And a wonderful public-art group in the neighborhood got burglarized last night. Every last laptop, all their accumulated archives, spirited away in the night.

Enough is enough, October. Be still your wrath.

On the other hand, we've had some early glimpses of winter, and
I'm. Not. Ready. I'm craving a nice, slow winding down, but also a quick sprint to the finish. As they say, you can't have it both ways.

I can't help but notice I'm not alone in my resistance.

This is our rockin' neighbor Annalise. She's fashioned herself a secret perch on top of their detached garage. Every day I come home, and every day I hear her tiny voice chirp 'hello!' from the trees. She's the new town crier, watching over her corner in case something interesting happens. Or maybe she's just hiding out, flying solo in the world except when she feels like announcing herself. And she'll keep returning to that spot until snow and ice dictate otherwise.

Or behold my valiant eggplant, trying to grow despite two hard freezes. There's not an ounce of nutrients left in those pock-marked leaves. But still she hangs on. And so do I, wondering what one does with a miniature eggplant, since I know I'll have to harvest while I can still close my fist around the fruit.

Last Halloween was warm enough to sit on the porch and give out candy. I'm holding out for a repeat performance, even as our 9-year-old neighbor Rose strategizes over this year's costume: a cup of hot cocoa, which I have to admit doesn't sound so bad either.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Rapture of the Deep

Chicago didn't get much of a summer this year. (Not that I'm complaining). But September more than made up for the loss. Imagine the most perfect day of the year. Now multiply it by 30. Take away a day or two for some thick morning fog or an occasional rain shower. September 2009.

The minute we flipped the calendar page to October, fall came in like a lion, and people are still struggling to adjust. It's sweater weather, and then some. The result is a kind of collective resistance: everyone sucking the marrow out of these last few weeks of outdoor occupancy. Restaurants refusing to dismantle their al fresco seating areas, families shivering through late-season yard sales. Our eggplant is fruiting again.

Yesterday the latest of our local community gardens held an art demo all afternoon. We got a fascinating paper-making demonstration and another on natural-dye techniques. The garden was partially designed to grow plants for the Columbia College Interdisciplinary Paper Department, and we got to see the process from day-lily harvesting to sheet drying. This season's milkweed was infested with aphids, so we even saw troops of ladybugs at work, destroying the attackers to save the plant.

The natural-dye process essentially involved placing a square of weighted muslin in a mason jar filled with warm water and marigolds picked straight from the garden. In two days, that small cotton square will bear whatever color is leached from the buds.

As one little girl shook the jar to distribute the color, she noticed a bee stuck inside, sloshing around in the water. 'Oh no,' the instructor said. 'It looks like he probably died.'
And then we all realized: A bath of flowers isn't such a bad way to go, especially if you're a bee.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Deep Tissue

Ok, I believe in child-labor laws as much as the next guy. But I'm inclined to make an exception for 'Emil's Awesome Backrubs.'

Emil is just one of the vendors in the makeshift flea market that's taken root around our Sunday farmers market. He charges a quarter for five minutes, during which he covers neck, shoulders, lower back, arms, and palms. I ponied up the fee and treated myself, and if someone's not protecting this kid's hands like they would a piano prodigy's, there's simply no justice in this world.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stuart's Not so Little

One phenomenon I've never tackled here is the ubiquity of the rat.

It's not uncommon to see them scurrying across the street or through the alleys, or even straight through your backyard garden and under your porch, where it seems likely they'll reproduce by the hundred-fold, only to dash across your bare feet some unsuspecting evening.

Some friends in the area are so at the end of their tether, they're considering digging out all their fruit trees and vegetable plants.
Don't do it, I've urged them, or the rat will be king!

I sometimes wonder, though, if it's time to reconsider the rat. Put some fur on their tails, and are they really so different from squirrels? Who among us hasn't imagined taking in a baby squirrel as a pet, feeding it milk from an eye dropper as it bonds with us like a kitten. Ah, sweet domestication.

My friend Kim from college had a pet female rat named Chuck, and she was a perfect companion. Here's a photo from the last day of Chuck's life, when cancer had so steeped her body that there was really no choice but to put her to sleep. (I don't know who that uncomely vagabond is holding her, but please forgive the fashion indiscretions. It was the eighties).

I'm starting to think that rats may simply have a PR problem. Exhibit A: The signs posted throughout alleys of my neighborhood, warning of the pestilence sure to befall us if we dare to leave our trash can lids open, inviting this saber-toothed monster to destroy us all.

There are City-sanctioned poisoning schedules for the rat. And I have to wonder what the reaction would be if the same campaign were waged against the pigeon, an equally hated example of metropolitan vermin. But widespread extermination? Would we really have the same bloodlust for a humble bird?

I guess that's why I'm so taken with an alley 4 blocks east of us, where the rat-warning signs have been punctuated by original art.

Why should our lamp and electric posts be used only to besmirch the poor rat? There are surely better things to do with our public display space, as this alley so agreeably reminds us.

Friday, September 18, 2009


You ever have one of those days? You talk too much and wish you could take most of it back. You mistakenly throw somebody you like under the bus. Your inner bully comes out, pushing your inner
sweetie-pie so far deep inside that you forget what she even looks like. Your efforts to make amends are clumsy and bloated, like a walrus on the beach. On top of it, your hair looks terrible and you probably should have ironed your shirt before leaving the house. There's a bit of almond stuck in your teeth, possibly there since 11 this morning. Your perceived age is catching up with your real age, and suddenly you're putting the pepper mill in the freezer like you saw in that Alzheimer's movie, thinking "Ok, here we go."

On days like this, the neighborhood doesn't offer comfort or insult. I hear kids out the window playing in the yard next door. It's mid-September, but still warm enough to run around without a jacket. The kids' mother, someone I cherish, has lit a bonfire because they were too late buying tickets for an organized campfire at a north-side park. Most days, this would fill me with such a sense of wonder I'd call myself the luckiest girl in the world. Tonight I can't feel a thing.

Later on I'll ride my bike to a nearby bar, where John's band is playing the headliner slot. I'll wager that if I see a rash of new gang tags along the way, I won't be dialing 311. If there's a drug deal in the alley, you're on your own, good people. I'm off the clock. Sometimes a girl just needs a breather, from herself and everything else.

I'm breathing, and tomorrow is another day.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Kinder. Gentler.

Last year's block party featured a teen street fight, accidental shooting, and towering sound system that -- when I asked the owner/DJ to please turn down the volume -- led to an accusation of racism. Not my version of a grand old time, and nothing I looked forward to repeating in this lifetime.

But this year's shindig made up for last year in spades. Families on bikes, grills smoking, the smell of skirt steak and Milwaukee brats in the air, a dessert table, a book-exchange table, a margarita station (thanks, Johno; nobody squeezes a lime like you, my love), and a visit from the local fire department, who let kids tour their truck and grown men don their hats for photo opps.

One fire official mentioned to my neighbor that he'd been on the scene during the triple murder down the block January 1, 2008 (the incident that actually inspired our block group and this very blog). He described a grisly scene, then told Amy that he didn't know what we'd done to put this block back together, but whatever it was, we'd done it right. We kind of agree, but it sure was nice to have it noticed.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Today, in honor of Labor Day, I want to recognize the hard-working men and women at the auto-body repair shop on the corner. There's a cottage industry of illegal mechanics throughout our local alleys, so it's a wonder this place perseveres. But there they are.

I used to curse them, because their parking lot was configured so it bled right out into the sidewalk. The result? At least four cars every day parked blocking the pedestrian through-way. Now if you know anything about me, you know how much that curdles my blood, so I mentally boycotted them for the imaginary car I'd someday probably never own.

But lo and behold. As of a few weeks ago, my boycott is over. Look at the sweet little greenway they've installed between the lot and the sidewalk. Four petite saplings and a good bedding of mulch, all behind a decorative fence.

Of course the parkway is still plenty wide for at least one car (which is invariably there, but now with enough room for a person or two to get by), but I have to hand it to the owners for taking a step they really didn't have to. I doubt it will help their business much, and they might have even irked a few of those serial parkers, who may be waging their own less-imaginary boycotts. But hats off to the staff for reminding us that life is really about the small gesture.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


I woke up to a sound no one likes to hear: helicopters overhead. As I've mentioned in previous entries, this can mean one of only a handful of things in our neighborhood: fatal shooting nearby, blazing fire nearby, gruesome discovery nearby.

This morning's helicopters had snuffed out a fatal car crash that allegedly happened around 3am. Why the place was still a roped-off crime scene at 7:30 remains a mystery, though by no means a rarity. The police were clearly investigating something. What they found we may never know, but there were apparently 7 separate garage fires in the neighborhood last night. Connection? Who's to say? And the whole thing may end up a red herring anyway: just the sad confluence of two drivers moving at excessive speed (which that particular street, with its 6-7 lanes across, tends to invite), then smashing like stars into planets.

Some folks have started to turn to an unlikely source for this kind of information. If you're a local, you may already know about the Avondale Logan Square Crime Blotter (as he calls himself), a 15-year-old autistic boy who blogs every detail he picks up on the District police scanner. He's been known to spend a dozen hours straight listing to the scanner, breaking only for meals or to use the bathroom.

The pleasure in this particular text isn't the pithiness of the information (though that's something too), but the unique character he gives to each story: His breezy digressions and marginal notes, his musings on the day or the weather or how well he may have slept the night before. One amazing exchange happened after Time Out Chicago published a piece on him in a recent issue. Check out the comment string, where the blogger repeatedly expresses his longing for a regular teenage life. The whole thing is full of pathos and poignancy, because along the way, the Blotter has told us more about himself than he realizes.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Steal This Art

A couple posts ago I alluded to an exhibitor at the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Fest who gave me pause. The guy collects street art and hosted a pretty breathtaking installation in an old shoe store along the festival route.

He basically goes on reconnaissance missions to uproot each piece from its original context (building walls, signposts, fences, etc). He fashions himself a Robin Hood of the built environment, claiming that the pieces are, by design, ephemeral: If he doesn't take and protect them, the police will, and they'll disappear from public view altogether. Not a single piece he owns is for sale. Once it's in his possession, it's his to keep.

His collection includes work by noted Chicago koo-koo Wesley Willis (RIP) as well as some fly three-dimensional buildings by Wesley's far less well-known brother Ricky. There are tributes to the murdered artist Solve, though somewhat gratefully not a single original Solve work. (He seems to consider Solve his holy grail.) I still see Solve's handiwork on signs now and again and feel nervous for it, imagining this guy heffalumping his way through the public domain and then all the way to the bank.

So I struggle. On the one hand, the work was amazing to see, easily some of my favorite pieces in the show. Your heart beats a little faster to be in their presence. And it's true: I probably would never have had the pleasure of experiencing them without this guy's intervention.

On the other hand, do the pieces mean the same hanging on an exhibit wall as they do in the public context? (Of course they don't, but how damaging is that slippery geography to the overall meaning of the work? Negligible? Monumental?) And to what extent is the guy participating in the very tradition of the artists themselves, vs. claiming production he has no right to call his own?

SOS: Is he a noble preservationist or a rotten thief? And is looking at this material at an art show a fair exercise, or something akin to ambulence chasing? A penny for your thoughts.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Tabula Rasa

When I got home Tuesday it’s like everything had died. My zucchini plants, so lush and overgrown when I left that morning, had simply deflated while I was gone—the stems chewed up by disease in a matter of hours.

Inside the house, my peace lily drooped like a willow. After months of blooming, its knees had buckled.

Maybe most catastrophically, my laptop refused to start. I pressed the On button, the engine revved, then the whole thing shut down. Over and over as I tried in vain the rest of the night.

And here’s the problem: I’ve never backed up a file. Ever. Yeah, yeah, of course I know better. But you want the truth? I don’t floss much either. I don’t strengthen my core muscles. I don’t take potassium or do my monthly breast exams. I don’t clean the cheese that drips to the bottom of the oven, and I don’t take the rain barrel in for the winter. I don’t use fancy moisturizer. To my father’s incessant protests, I haven’t tested my house for radon. I don’t organize my closets. I don’t limit my wine to one glass a night, and I don’t always tell my doctor the truth. These aren’t philosophical positions on my part. This isn’t some kind of libertarian stubbornness. It’s just that -- and I have to come to terms with this -- there are certain things I never get around to doing, even though I wish I were the kind of person who made them a priority. (Please don’t send comments about how important each of these activities may be, because I can promise you one thing: Unless you’re coming over to do them on my behalf, they’re probably not getting done).

So I guess I was supposed to be kicking myself over all that lost material. Every short story I ever wrote, every wedding I ever officiated, every resume sent and digital photo taken, and my entire dissertation. Letters to my husband, letters to the editor, my entire archive of block-group organizing . . . all of it up in smoke.

But the only thing I really missed was my list of restaurant meals from 2009 (something I’ve been religiously cataloguing since January 2007; I have printouts for all but this year).

In the ensuing days, a tech-savvy friend was able to recover all those lost files. I guess I felt some degree of relief. But no real gladness, no legible joy.

Am I really that indifferent a person? Do I have such a detachment to my ‘life’s work’ that I feel absolutely nothing when it’s gone? I remember getting so frustrated with John when he lost his bookstore all those years ago and he didn’t shed a tear or betray a moment of sadness. Maybe I’m that more like that than I realize.

Or maybe, when it comes right down to it, there’s a sense of liberation in losing all that content. Maybe I’m sort of curious what happens when you have to start from nothing, when you don’t have old texts and templates imposing themselves on the first word, the first paragraph. Maybe there’s relief in that capaciousness.

I won’t be able to test the theory since my files have been recovered. But I’m hopeful for one thing: When I see a clean slate on the laptop I buy as a replacement, I hope I’ll fill it judiciously. I hope I won’t transfer all those files just because they were there before. I hope I use a benchmark stronger than simple existence.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Art walk (and walk . . . and walk . . .)

Things have been so crazy I've had no time to post about the recent Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival. This is like one of those belated birthday presents that arrives so late you might as well call it a Christmas present. So Merry Christmas one and all, because the fest still seems worth a reflection or two.

By all reports, and despite a few crotchety critiques (my sympathies for drivers' frustrations in getting around a blocked street evaporated a long time ago: it's summer, and a perfect time for hoofing), this was a splendid event. It had a pretty interesting evolution to boot. Its seeds were the Taste of Logan Square, a strange, glorified carnival run for several years under the watch of our previous ('machine') alderman, and a place that featured very little food from Logan Square and more than occasional outbursts of violence. Our current alderman's brother was actually killed there one year, so it's no surprise that when he unseated his predecessor, his fair would change both its venue and orientation.

Cue up the Palmer Square Arts Festival, a kinder, gentler summer fair. But it was almost too kind and too gentle. The music never strayed from various folk traditions. The art had no internal conflict whatsoever. And the attendance was pretty lukewarm from year to year. Still, with actual local restaurants featured and a productive use of one of our neighborhood's few patches of green space, it was a tilt in the right direction. A shame, then, when the alderman lost favor with the folks living on the perimeter of Palmer Square by supporting the construction of a playlot in one corner of the park's greenway. Scroll ahead a year: the Milwaukee Arts Festival was born.

Stillborn, you might say.

Its first year or two was an earnest but pretty anemic, taking up an awkward corner at the confluence of three busy car arterials. There were a handful of artists featured--most of them pretty darn talented, if you could actually make your way to their exhibits--and some live music in the parking lot of the liquor store across the street. But it'd be tough to call this progress.

Which is why it was such a surprise to see this year's festival come to life. Is there such a thing as two steps back, 1000 steps forward? Because that might be a fair description. More than three miles of exhibit space up and down Milwaukee Avenue, 2+ full days of activity, live music of every stripe on the Square, an open-air gallery where you could look at art but also get a heaping bbq pork sandwich and a decent local beer. And my favorite part: installations creatively intersecting with the built environment: not only in existing exhibit space, but throughout an entire collection of empty storefronts decimated by the current economy.

The former PUSH 'nutrition supplement' store (a front, no doubt) housed the artists' marketplace, filled with felted scarves, dioramas in jars, and handmade jewelry I've regretted not buying ever since. A one-time medical office featured the results of art in the park, where amateur artists of all ages got together on a few consecutive weekends to paint whatever inspired them at the moment. And a recently closed hip-hop clothing store showcased what was for me the most controversial exhibit (and one that probably deserves its own entry): a personal collection of street art 'appropriated' (stolen?) from its public context that I have to admit was amazing to see. More on that to come.

But overall, it was great to see all our neighborhood assets, from green space to a stalled retail corridor to an abundance of locally created art, put to such productive use. Some of the owners of those empty storefronts have actually asked to keep the exhibits hanging for a while--a nice way to 'stage' the space for would-be business owners. If it works, the alderman (and all the rest of us) owe those hard-working artist/organizers an even greater debt than we realize.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

1000 Words

Today I share with you my favorite example of 'branding' in the history of mom & pop retailing. Around the corner from our house, on a bustling but uninspired commercial corridor, and among photos of babies in Christening gowns, kids in 1st communion outfits, and stiffly posed couples on their wedding day, sits this beauty.

This little girl probably isn't so little anymore. She could be in college now for all we know. Or tending to kids of her own. This display seems to have graced the owner's window for as long as the business has been around, which--judging by the discoloration of some of the photo paper--seems like an awfully long time. There are worse things than being a business with such longevity that its display window starts to fade.

But I get such a kick out of the thought of this photographer, thumbing through his portfolio for just the right pieces to promote his business, coming across this scowling little girl, and thinking "Eureka, that's the one!"

It's even more curious to think of passersby looking in the window and deciding this is the guy who should take the photos at said Christenings, 1st communions, and wedding celebrations. Truth be told, I've almost been tempted to go over there myself: book a session with me, John, and the dog for posterity. And I don't mean that with any kind of kitsch arrogance. I'm genuinely curious about this guy. What did he do to provoke this particular look from this particular little girl, and can it be replicated? Better yet, who's the guy who takes this portrait and considers it photographic gold? Because I have to say, the more I look, the more I can't help agreeing with him.

This isn't so many worlds apart from the portrait studios I remember from my youth: There was Van Ramsey, portraitist par excellence in my hometown (or so we thought), creating his own cottage industry out of school pictures for all the graduating seniors in town. When the occasional kid got a photo taken elsewhere, you could always tell in the yearbook: it just wasn't a telltale Van Ramsey.

Or the sessions at the local Sears or Olan Mills, where they'd pose us with our elbows on mini split-rail fences with phony flowers in the background. Or they'd shoot one image face forward and the other to the side, so a ghostly profile could be superimposed in the upper right-hand corner of each 8 X 10. This little girl gave exactly the look we should have been giving them. Nothing they were doing was cause for a smile. It was ridiculously artificial and frankly a pain in the ass. Yet thank goodness, in some ways, for those legacies. We know not only what we looked like, but what we looked like in the context of those decades.

I sort of wonder what the age of digital photography, Facebook, and the like, is doing to the genre of the portrait. Like so many things, it seems to be going the way of the dodo. No one goes to sit for a portrait anymore unless there's some professional purpose (bank presidents, annual awards, driver's licenses). And the ways we present our images in social networking tend to be partial shots, looking away from the camera, doing something goofy or propping up intentional distortions for a laugh. It's as if we have some collective cultural embarrassment over taking this kind of thing seriously. We're more likely to have professional portraits taken for our pets (who have no capacity for cynicism) than for ourselves. And yet what is Facebook or MySpace but self-representation writ large?

Regardless, sometimes when I need a good laugh or a good reminder of humanity, I walk past the window of the portrait studio just to stare back at that little girl. I hope the rest of her day brought her a moment or two of happiness. Clearly, she'd earned it.