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.