Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Adios 2011

I probably should have realized, when the year started with two months of debilitating back pain, that 2011 would be a rough one. Was this the body's way of preparing the mind for what was to come? Hospital visits. Crushing professional disappointments. The loss of our sweet, sweet Inez.

Relativity aside -- no, I'm not one of the Chilean miners or Japanese earthquake survivors. I'm not even one of the affordable-housing tenants in whose interest I spend my working hours -- this was the toughest year of my life. So I look ahead to 2012 with buoyancy and relief. Ready to say good-bye to a rotten year, light an unforgiving calendar on fire. Ready to breathe in the crisp January air, knowing it has put December, and the eleven months before it, to bed.

So . . . how to set the ship right for the coming year? How to lay the groundwork for happier times? Of course there are things I'll never control. There may be hurdles, disappointments, aches and pains I can't get out of the way of.

But there is also this: If there is nothing else I do well in the world (and recent history may bear this out; I'm starting to wonder if I'll ever be a competitive job candidate again, if maybe, after 20+ years of ennui and vain searching, I may have hit the apex of my career), it's to make something out of nearly nothing.

- Homemade soup
- Bread pudding
- A wardrobe from thrifted odds and ends
- Memorable weddings for friends and strangers
- A comfortable home of garage-sale finds
- Random detritus out of fabric scraps
- A puppy fit for adoption after a rough start in the world

Ok, it's a working list, so give me a break :-).

But this may be my year to stop being aspirational and learn to make the most of what I have. To start looking sideways instead of up. To see what windows might open in spaces of turbulence or vague dissatisfaction.

How might I focus on the rewards of my job, for example (flexible schedule, fair salary, voluminous time off) and not its many punishments? How to translate those perks into lucky charms to hang on the coming year? Where is my white space, and how best to fill it?

I've got some ideas percolating, and they require the cooperation of many floating bits of matter. Some is controllable, some not. So I need a good dose of karmic good luck (which means I need to start believing in karmic good luck -- not likely). But I could use a little boost, that's for sure. Not a winning lottery ticket, mind you. These aren't stretch goals. I'm specifically avoiding stretch goals this year. But I need a few pieces to fit together, so if 2012 were a simpler puzzle than its predecessor, I'd gladly be the first to open the box.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Don't touch the burner

This is Milo the foster puppy. He was hours from euthanasia when a rescue group intervened, assessed his temperment, and decided he was worth saving. He'd arrived with a severely broken leg -- the likely result of being used as a bait dog -- and prognosis of imminent amputation. He just needed to clear up a nasty case of ringworm first.

We gave him a temporary home at my urging. They needed a pet-free home, and the sad circumstances of late September enabled us to oblige.

It's been a challenging few weeks. On top of realizing (in neon) that puppies are much tougher than older dogs, Milo has some issues that I'm struggling to get my head around. Sure, he does some puppy things that puppies will always do -- chews pillows, begs for food, whimpers in his crate -- but he's also got a nasty propensity toward biting that seems to go beyond playful antics. What's he thinking up there in his tiny, adorable puppy head? That he needs to defend himself, and if so, against what?

Is he angry? Befuddled? Borderline aggressive?

Am I food? A nemesis? A threat? A chew toy?

Our foster commitment comes to a close before Christmas, and I'm hopeful he'll find a home that can give him both boundaries and limitless love, and perhaps the answers to those questions. I know in my heart I'm not part of that equation, and I feel like a daily failure for it. Especially since so many friends predicted we'd keep him, as if it was inevitable we'd fall in love. How could you not? Look how adorable he is. But we haven't. I haven't.

There have been some good lessons in all of this, and it seems worth listing them here, as someday this period in our lives may be just a fuzzy blip in a long line of animals we ideally come to know, perhaps even make homes for.

1) The best intentions don't always produce the best results

2) It may have been too early for us to take this on

3) I don't have a handy arsenal of tools for conquering things I don't understand

4) Puppies can hurt your skin

5) Puppies can hurt your feelings

6) A lousy potential adopter can be a bang-up foster, and sometimes you need to flip this switch

7) I miss Inez

8) I really, really miss Inez

So there you have it. Another one of my bright ideas that will go unfinished -- one that's left me with a healthy dose of ambivalence and perhaps a dash of self-loathing. I hope we've at least given Milo some structure and stability, and though he won't remember us, I hope we've made it easier for those who might adopt him permanently. May they be patient, loving people. May they welcome a challenge on four clumsy legs. May they hold dear things like fragility, complexity, and unpredictability. May they have thick skin in body and mind. May they count themselves lucky for knowing him. May they make him better, and may they get the same in return.

Monday, December 5, 2011


This piano may look austere now, but not yesterday afternoon, when John and I were treated to an impromptu performance by Mabel, a concert pianist and also our good neighbor. She'd asked us to come watch a practice session for an upcoming concert -- said it made her less nervous for the real deal.

Mabel's work tends toward contemporary avante-garde, and at times she throws her entire body into the piece, stretching her hands to the farthest reaches of the keyboard, plunking out multiple notes at once, arms spread like a bird alighting.

Watching Mabel work is not only awe-inspiring (even for a musical rube like myself). It also makes you realize there are those people who have their thing: Musical gifts, athletic ability, multilingualism, a knack for sewing, a knowledge of birds, or wine, or baking. And there are those, like myself, who very much want a thing but struggle to find it (sigh). I've tried knitting and photography and learning Spanish and writing fiction and even keeping a sourdough starter, but none of it stuck. I'm even a lousy Luddite.

Sure, I make soup. I perform weddings. Occasionally I keep track of local social policy, but I'll shift from education to employment to immigration on a whim. I guess I'm a consummate dabbler. So it's luminous to watch someone like Mabel strut her stuff. She's been at it 20 years or more, and her piano continues to challenge and excite her, as it does those lucky enough to disappear into those complex notes as they fill up the room around you, like reminders.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Dozen Things I Carried

These are not farm-fresh eggs.

They're citified backyard eggs, from our neighbors Tim and Conor, who have been raising chickens a block north of us for the last three years. (Not to be confused with the chickens being raised by our new neighbor a block east, recently celebrated in this blog, who modeled the rehab of his house after the aesthetics of his hand-constructed coop).

That parenthetical did not deceive you. We now have two sets of backyard chickens within a block of our house. The country usurps the city. The smog will not win.

I've learned that eggs straight from the chicken have a protetive coating, a "cuticle," that allows them to sit on the counter, unrefrigerated, for up to a month. But I'd like to reassure my mother and anyone else who eats eggs at our house, we're keeping them in the 40-degree safety of the Frigidaire middle shelf.

Scrambled or sunny-side up?

Sunday, November 6, 2011


My neighbor Allison gave the block a present last week. She and her young daughters planted these flowers in our scrappy little corner garden.

Now when you approach the corner, you're met with vibrant color and a last brief glimpse of . . . well . . . life before winter settles in.

Sometimes you need to make deliberate choices when you live in a challenged neighborhood. Will you measure your days by broken bottles in the parkways? By boarded-up properties? By graffiti on buildings and the time it takes to have it removed? Or will you define it by the efforts to make things not just less ugly, but even, at times, acutely more beautiful.

At least for today, my community is yellow and purple mums and the giving hands that put them there.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

To market, to market

This the grocery store of my heart -- no doubt you've heard me sing its praises before. I have a nearly unnatural love for it, a kind of love that might be illegal in the South.

Sure, they run out of stock from time to time (no couscous today? fine, I'll use grits). And their freezer case has been known to leak. They break out rolls of cheap paper towel rolls and line them up along the bottom to keep the floors dry.

But they're a little-engine-that-could kind of supermarket. An earnest underdog. A beloved cousin with a club foot.

I was recently there for a midweek, early-morning stock-up, and the manager remarked that I wasn't buying so much today. I told him as long as it was still warm, I was getting most of my produce at the farmer's market. "I'll pretend I didn't hear that," he said, smiling."

It's an amazing thing to be in a supermarket where the manager is both the guy who both greets you at the door and the one who worries whether volume is moving. It's not some suit in a corporate office fretting over the bottom line, but an actual guy, who greets you at the door and pitches in to bag your groceries during a rush.

And of course there's my favorite Produce stocker, who always offers a warm smile and a hearty hello -- asks me how I've been, wants to know in broken English if I need any help. It doesn't matter if I'm having the worst day of my life (too frequent these days) or walk in a bedraggled stinking mess after a jog. He makes me feel like my visit to the store matters to him.

Yesterday, when I noticed they were out of the milk I usually buy, I asked him if he expected a delivery later today. Yes, he told me, maybe later in the afternoon. "Ok, I'll come back," I said.

"You better," he said. "It's always a treat to see you."

You too, produce guy. You have no idea.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

If this is progress, take me to the wayback machine

Despite a heroic community fight, this unassuming set of storefronts is slated to become an EZ Pawn in early 2012. I didn't agree with all the protesters. Some were in the mix because they don't like what a nearby pawn shop says about their neighborhood. Classic nimbyism. Classic shmucks.

But I did agree with the jewelry shop owner a couple doors down, worried that his business (already displaced once due to land grabs to the east) is now vulnerable. And I agreed that one key piece of the EZ Pawn model -- payday loans -- is a scourge in an area where unemployment and foreclosure are running amok.

But mostly I'm worried about what's happening to my local retail corridor. The longstanding funeral home has already closed. My favorite portrait studio is in the process. We've lost taquerias and Chinese restaurants, independent dollar stores and barber shops. I fear our beloved hardware store is next.

No, this area isn't ripe for the Gaps and Trader Joes of this world, but the T-Mobiles and the Wal-Marts may well be on their way. Before my favorite storefronts are papered over and sanitized, I thought it was worth displaying the good old days of anything goes.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


This is the Arts of Life band. It may be a little tough to tell from the photo, but half the members are developmentally disabled. When we went to see them play an outdoor show in the neighborhood some weeks back -- a period it's still tough for me to write about, because it was our earlier and better normal, when Inez was still there to greet us when we came home -- I admit to thinking, "Oh, this will be really sweet," or "Wow, that band leader is doing the work of kings."

On the first count, I was wrong. It was completely badass.

On the second count, also wrong. The guy who assembled this band, who also runs a small gallery one neighborhood over (the same neighborhood where I work, where this guy has taken no small amount of flack for being one of the bellwethers of gentrification) doesn't beam with pride over his singers and drummer. He doesn't slowly say, "1 . . . . . . . . 2 . . . . . . . . . 3 . . . . ." to make sure they're ready to start. He doesn't demand louder applause for his differently achieving musicians. These are simply his bandmates, and he responds to them as he would any bandmates. By playing the songs.

Those songs may be about a shark attack, a bear eating garbage, or a rap homage to one of the singer's home towns of Brookfield, Illinois. Here's a taste if you can handle the rock.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Inez was here

On Friday we lost our best thing: Our beautiful sweet soul Inez, who showed up on our porch seven years ago and essentially made us a family.

The loss was sudden and unspeakably painful. We had her, and then we didn't. Her absence leaves a terrible emptiness in this house that we're not yet ready to fill with our memories. We know those memories will come. They come already, but they bring with them such piercing heartache that we push them away. Later. Later.

For now we stumble through the hours, challenged to tackle each of those first things: The first morning waking up with her gone, the first step into the kitchen where she took her breakfast, the first entry into the living room where she sneaked onto the sofa strictly forbidden to her. The first time sitting on the family-room couch -- her couch -- and the first time realizing it still smells of her body. The first time clearing away her food bowls and toys. The first sighting of a collection of her hair on the floor, or on a shirt from the last time she slept on our laps. The first time we let ourselves look at her photos. Say her name.

It's a little like stepping into a very cold ocean. You go in to your ankles -- so cold -- so you step back out again. Then you resolutely go back, stand in the icy undulating water for a few moments so your skin can get used to the temperature. When you're ready, you go to the knees, stand, and adapt. Then to the waist -- this may be the hardest stage, when you can start to feel that tingling on your back, and you resist, stretching taller and holding your elbows out, tempted to think this is all I can bear. But you wait, settling in as your skin gets adjusted. Ready to go a little further. Up to the middle back, the shoulders, the neck. And finally, boldly, you duck your head under the water until you're brave enough to open your eyes, then swim.

Right now we're in to our baby toes. Maybe today or tomorrow, we'll wade.

We miss you, little girl. Thank you for finding us.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


We popped into the new poetry space around the corner last week. The performances happen in the front room, essentially a dressed-down apartment living room, with exposed brick along an entire wall and some interesting original art displayed. In the back room (the kitchen), you could grab a Schlitz in a bottle for a $2 donation. Not a bad little operation, and the place was packed.

Packed mainly with 20-somethings smoking cigarettes, squeezing themselves thigh to thigh on small couches, flirting a little, drinking their beer down to just a small pool at the bottom of the bottle, then using that same bottle as an ashtray. They listened to not incompetent poetry delivered by not overly earnest poets. As scenes go, it was a reasonable one.

The evening filled me with some guarded nostalgia over a period of life when an average Wednesday night for me might feel much the same.

That said, despite my dents and dings and wear and tear, I'm very happy not to be a 20-something chainsmoker anymore, reciting poetry in non-ventilated rooms, hoping I might get a kiss by the end of the night.

Monday, September 12, 2011

O Wall, O sweet, O lovely Wall . . .

What you may see here is a plain brick wall. Actually, given the light, you -- like me -- probably see much more, but I'll get to that in a minute.

This wall tells a story, but one without a real denouement. A blank brick canvas is a bit of a midsummer night's dream to gangs working to (re)establish their territory. In the days prior to this photo being taken, one of the largest tags I've ever seen broadcast itself prominently across the building. I actually went out that morning to photograph the tag, but I was relieved to see that our city Graffiti Blasters had beaten me to the punch.

Chicago is strapped for cash these days, and graffiti-removal efforts, like streetcleaning teams, have seen deep cuts. This results in tags lasting longer than they once did, which means the gangs in question get to claim that corner for longer than they used to. Even a few extra days can mean a lot, and trust me, as a neighbor, you feel it.

But the missing tag reminded me that down isn't out, and the city still responds to 311 requests, even if it takes a little longer. It's important, in these trying days, to remember that every problem has a solution, even if that solution requires some extra work on residents' parts.

And yet the ghost of the paint still lingers. You can see it in the proper light, and you know it's never really over. That phantom reminds us that it's a matter of a drug sale on the wrong corner, a girlfriend looked at the wrong way, an Explorer cruising with intent down the wrong block -- and on a larger scale, the job market failing to improve, public education remaining anemic, and cycles of poverty repeating themselves -- and the tag will be back, the tension right along with it.

It's hard to imagine those masons, laying every brick, applying every single layer of mortar, with any sense whatsoever that this would be the legacy of their work.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rewriting the Story

I sent a confrontational note to my alderman yesterday. This honestly isn't my style, but sometimes you have to say enough is enough. And between the gunfire the other night, a rash of new gang tags, the illegal tires continuing to pile up outside the auto-body shop down the block, and the pawn shop/payday loan operation being secreted through Zoning to open around the corner, I guess I've reached a tipping point.

My familiars seem better about letting this stuff roll off their backs than I am. I used to be better about it too. It's clear I need to detox. Not the blissful but temporary decompression that came with my trip to Maine last week, but something more longstanding. A giant intake of air that lasts a month or more would be nice.

But life doesn't show any sign of letting up, so I'm taking a DIY approach. Seeking out the small painkillers that present themselves from time to time in the neighborhood.

To that end, I'd like to send a thank-you note to this guy, who's rehabbing a house on one of the busiest, most treeless, perhaps least invested blocks in the neighborhood. More interesting to me than the actual house on the property, though, is this smaller blue dwelling, which already houses his flock of chickens.

To you, sir, I say Welcome to the neighborhood . . . homesteader, urban farmer, pedaler, inspired stranger, calmer of jittery hearts.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sermon on the Sidewalk

If I told you I was excited to see one of our nearby empty storefronts finally returned to productive use, I'd be lying. Not because I want to see these spaces stay vacant, but because when something opens near us, it tends to be one of three things: An Herbalife outpost, a tire shop, or -- like the building in question -- an evangelical storefront church.

These outfits tend to come and go in our neighborhood. For a while small pockets of people will drive up at odd hours -- maybe 10:30 on a Friday night, or 11am on a Tuesday -- and echoes of shouting and staticky music will be heard as far as the next block. Then, just as quick as they set up, they're gone, leaving a hollowed-out building and crooked sign in their wake.

I've never quite understood how these operations work. How do they establish their flocks? Why so peripatetic, and where do they go when they leave? What kinds of tax breaks do they get? Perhaps most importantly, do they follow much of the faith community in having a social mission? If so, what do they contribute to the neighborhood?

They never stick around long enough to guess.

Just a couple doors down from this church used to be a fantastic upholstery shop, and a number of yard-sale finds in our house carry their hallmark. I've always mourned the closure of the shop, which left another empty bay on the strip. So you can guess that when I walked by the other day, and saw yet another sign for yet another church, I got grumpy.

But wait, a closer look, and something didn't quite jive. Bad News Bible Church? West Side School for the Desperate? Either the evangelicals are getting cheeky, or this is something else altogether. Something new. Something that doesn't grow out of pyramid schemes or over-reliance on personal automobiles.

Sure enough, it's a small, culturally diverse, fringe literary group who is using the space for poetry slams, readings, variety shows, and any performance that folks from the community want to bring to their four unassuming walls. My heart may have audibly fluttered.

Ok, I get it: This could easily ring of gentrification, and if I were worth my salt as a lover of community, I'd embrace the evangelical church as heartily as the literary space. But I'm going to refuse that duality. Not everything associated with my cherished existing neighborhood is a good, and not everything sporadic newcomers bring with them is a bad. I like good poetry more than I like bad church. I think it's better for community. So there. I said it. Out loud.

If I'm proven wrong in time -- if the church sticks around, takes in homeless kids, helps women suffering abuse, or even cleans the litter from in front of their storefront . . . and if the literary troop stands out on the sidewalk, spewing treacly verse to unwitting passersby, demanding audience participation -- I'll humbly eat my words. Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Canine Stretch Goal

We chanced a trek today to a free outdoor concert on the Square, with dog-aggressive Inez in tow. She was skittish and overstimulated the first half hour, but then she calmed down, rolling over in the grass, snuffing out food scraps, and flirting with any pierced or
skinny-jeaned kid who glanced in her direction. What a thing it must be to have such blind faith in humanity.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Open Your Eyes and You May See it Too

Back in 2003, I worked on a team with this guy to help re-vision a problematic traffic circle in the heart of our neighborhood. I realized then he wasn't your average bear.

John's role was designer, and he painstakingly moved from ink-on-paper sketches to AutoCAD renderings that removed or simplified every last conflict point for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. It would've cost about $10 million -- worth every dime -- but it was a tough sell for a cash-strapped ward. Fortunately my role was pest, and I was able to convince the alderman he owed it to the community to do at least a portion. We got our bump-outs at Wrightwood and Kedzie. Within the next two years, we may get the closure of the slip-lane that feeds Logan Boulevard into Milwaukee Avenue. That unsightly piece of asphalt would expand the green space for an apple orchard slated for the site.

In all the ensuing years since our planning, as I've been floundering around trying on new jobs for size, John's been incubating a vision: A zero-waste, fully energy-efficient vertical indoor farm in one of Chicago's own manufacturing districts. With the purchase of a former hog-processing plant about a year ago, he's already started to bring this vision to fruition.

As we speak, an aquaponics program uses fish waste to fertilize indoor organic greens. A craft brewery has taken up residence on the first floor, and discarded barley, hops, and yeast will be converted into energy to help heat and light the building. A timed lighting system for the indoor farm will allow wattage to be maximized at the cheapest hours of the day, and vegetables will adapt to a growth cycle accordingly. All usable materials from the former version of the building will be reused in some capacity for its next iteration. The acres and acres of outdoor land will become raised-bed gardens and hoophouses, farmed by the formerly homeless and incarcerated for a living-wage job-training program. Organic bakeries, chocolatiers, and cheesemakers are already lined up as tenants, and all their waste material will marry with other sustainable energy sources for the building in something called a "digester."

Zero waste. Fully sustainable. A closed loop.

On any given morning, I might pass John on his bike, saying goodbye to his affable wife and kids, as he rides the 10 miles from our neighborhood to his own personal Wonka to the south. He may be hauling drywall rescued from the alley, compost worms, or beer for his army of volunteers for the day.

Somebody get this guy a MacArthur Genius Grant, stat.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Open Books

I've noticed that my blog entries have become a little more personal lately. I've let my guard down a bit, reached my arms out wider, then cursed myself for allowing too much exposure to the sun.

But I'm realizing this all probably means something, and I've been dully but tenaciously obsessed with those signifiers. Why such a short fuse these days for things that should only be mildly irritating? And why such indifference to the things that used to bring such joy: A clumsy but warm exchange with one of my Spanish-speaking neighbors; a piece of funky public art hung covertly in the alley; a poignant moment at the grocery store with the morning produce guy.


In the midst all this ennui, I've rediscovered reading. Lorrie Moore. Miranda July. And people I'd never heard of before, like the incredible Samantha Hunt. Their characters are like friends who, for those generous moments we're together, demand nothing of me.

Maybe it's because I spend so much of my life these days facilitating meetings, delivering talking points, negotiating, fielding people's questions. My voice is in overdrive -- so ramped up in volume and frequency the words are like chewy, marble-sized bits of cartilage I have to break down, atom by atom, till I can swallow them down or spit them out.

So I've rediscovered the library. I've also renewed my verve for movies -- just sitting in an air-conditioned matinee, sometimes all by myself, letting the scenes and minutes wash over a rapt and passive me. Perfection. These days I want to watch, look, and listen. I want to respond privately, quietly, and keep myself from lapsing into the words, words, words that seem to be my habit lately.

It feels right somehow. Like this is what I'm supposed to be doing with my time. Now if I could just find someone to pay me a decent salary for peace and quiet, I might get my pluck back a little.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

More Fun From the Portrait Studio

I walked past my favorite shop window this morning and noticed that the proprietor, a portrait photographer, had changed his display. I can only imagine what he must have said to this poor couple -- lovely people who care for each other, no doubt -- to capture this particular moment in time, then tack it up proudly to attract new business.

"Saying 'cheese' is such a cliche. Say something more clever, like 'obituary' or 'bubonic plague' . . .

"Now, think of your last argument. That's good. Perfect. Imagine your partner has just eaten onions. Many many onions. Yes, just like that."

One of these days John and I are going to drag Inez over there and order up a family portrait package. I'm just telling you now, so you can leave space on your refrigerator for our holiday card.

Friday, July 22, 2011

This Is What My Midlife Crisis Looks Like

I have a tidy, modest 1-bedroom apartment in Belfast, Maine that takes under an hour to clean. I wait tables in a nearby restaurant where I never have to carry more than two plates at a time. No one chides me about not having texting on my phone.

I foster broken dogs. There are fewer broken dogs.

Only my alarm clock or the sun wakes me up. Screeching tires don't wake me up. Boom boxes don't wake me up. Wailing car horns don't wake me up.

No one is afraid of tree roots messing with their foundations. Shade lines the streets.

I have a newly discovered talent such as calligraphy, perfumery, or needlework. I put this talent to use.

I have a better memory for world events, but I rarely talk about them.

Numb becomes sad. Sad becomes serene. Serene becomes a good night's sleep.

It's June, and you come to visit.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sarajevo post script

I hadn't written a poem in probably twenty years, and I was never much of a poet anyway, but I was sobered by our trip to Sarajevo and somehow found myself compelled. Especially when we ended up with two hours hours to kill at the bare-bones train station (the only real visual perk being this guy to the right), our train to Mostar delayed without explanation. As one of our innkeepers had noted, "This isn't Japan."

I guess I offer this as one last memory of our trip to the Balkans, and an important contrast to photos that may have made the region seem of sunny climate and disposition round the clock. It's very much that way, but there's weight there as well.

The Loneliness of the Sarajevo Natural History Museum

No one comes to the museum anymore.
Maybe a family on holiday from Frankfurt
A lone traveler from Kyoto
A handful of American tourists on their way to Prague,
who complain of the heat on the second floor
as they tire of the exhibits of woodpeckers, thrushes,
and so many swifts.
Ideally they’ve carried their own toilet tissue.

Paid staff outnumber customers by three lab coats to one
A woman behind a locked glass door prepares a sparrow for taxidermy,
emptying its insides,
placing it in a room full of predatory beetles
who will finish the job, tissue and all.
Then she’ll steady her needle and thread.

A man with a nametag follows visitors from room to room
as closing time approaches. He speaks quietly in Bosnian:
“Do not touch the cases,” perhaps.
His face has a mild disfigurement,
maybe from birth, maybe later.

And the handsome woman who tears tickets at the door,
who wears her hair tightly back in a bun,
explaining which rooms are open
and which are off limits,
offers in a baritone,
“Enjoy your visit.”

But she says this only three, possibly four times a day
As cases full of mice, pumice, jackrabbits, scarabs, walking sticks, bears, travertine, moths, and mollusks
turn to paper, dust, and skeleton.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reflections on a Balkan Vacation

Some of you know that I just spent two weeks in Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro with my husband John and some of our closest friends here in Chicago. I've been fascinated with the region since teaching in Prague and Budapest with the Soros Foundation back in the mid to late 90s.

I failed to keep any kind of travel journal this trip. I left that documenting to John, who does it far better and makes of it a kind of ritual for us: He writes as I drift off to sleep, then he reads to me over morning coffee as we put our heads together to catalogue small moments he may have missed, but still hopes to capture for posterity.

With my own ailing memory, though, I try to write down at least a few details -- just some random memories I don't want to lose -- on the back of travel itineraries and boarding passes, stuffed into my bag for archiving later. I haven't tackled that assortment of pages yet, but I'm guessing they'll trigger things that have already faded as I immerse myself back into the tedium of work.

So, how to capture any of that here? I could retell some of my fondest moments -- the perfect cevapcici taken in the heart of Sarajevo's Old Town one morning before John had even woken up; watching a diver finally take a plunge from Mostar's Old Bridge, reconstructed after total destruction during the Balkan war; an impromptu evening with our Mostar innkeepers, who opened a bottle of housemade brandy to share with us while telling stories of Bosnian life during wartime; buying homemade wine from a front porch, packaged for us in a reused two-liter Coke bottle, in a tiny unnamed village in Croatia; hanging out with our friends in our flat in Split, musing over how we would have been different had we been born in this part of the world; climbing fortifications and bell towers for panoramic views of tile roofs and turquoise water; witnessing evening prayer services -- men on one side, women on the other -- at a Sarajevo mosque; wading shoulder deep into the Adriatic Sea as John dove from rocks and swam as far as the barricades would let him.

I'm not sure any of this really gets at what was so powerful about the visit, though. I said to John I've never visited a place with a more profound sense of its own living history. This was probably truer, at least in our perception and experience, in Bosnia than either of the two other countries. But even in Croatia and Montenegro, you can't help but feel you're in a place that has struggled, suffered, and lost -- then rebounded with a resiliency I'm not sure we Americans would harness as readily.

So we walked, we drove, we swam, we ate, we eavesdropped, we photographed, we toured, we climbed, we overheated, we imbibed, we paid admissions, we got lost, we bargained, and we lamented the deficiencies of our own historical knowledge, all with a humbling sense of our good fortune to be in a place that essentially came back from the dead, then reopened its doors to the world.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Wobbly Throne

One of my favorite neighbors, possibly of all time, is selling his building. You may have heard me talk of him before. John is a conservative judge with a great love of small industrial towns, historic preservation, gardening, wayward dogs, and salvage art.

But now his building is for sale and his realtor has clearly advised him to boring it up -- make it look like the house of an everyman, so others can envision themselves within it. Problem is, John is no everyman. He's a singular character, though you'd never know that now, looking at his house.

Gone is the low fence made of handpainted old ladders. Erased is the mismatched patio furniture, culled from years of dumpster browsing. Removed is the handcarved tribute to our former alderman, a wretched woman to whom John took a liking after she possibly removed a zoning restriction or turned the other way to his parkway wonderland.

One of his tenants, who had been his caretaker and essentially surrogate daughter, once described herself as the 'heir to the wobbly throne.' They had a falling out soon after and unfortunately she moved on. I like to think she would have carried on the wonderfully claptrap legacy of this house. But it's not to be.

Goodbye backyard opera singing. Farewell blue mirrored ball in the garden. Godspeed cantankerous John -- painter of houses, master of the 6am conversation, guardian to lost souls, carver of discarded wood, hoarder of bricks, adjudicator on the bench and beyond. You will be missed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


The sweet little Hamlin Garden will produce its last harvest this year. This little lot -- borrowed three years ago by a young guy with a great idea: Why not turn this derelict patch into a community garden? -- has been sold to a developer.

The real rub? It sold for just $23,000, something the gardeners might have pooled their own resources to buy. Heck, at that price a single gardener might have been able to gift it to the neighborhood for a good long stretch. They say the market may not rebound for 10 years or more. That's a whole lot of eggplant and zucchini.

It's tough not to see the crooked little sign, tucked next to the garden's well-used rain barrel, as a prescient tombstone. It points to one of the real paradoxes of urban agriculture: It's tough to make the most sustainable ideas sustain in the most important way -- in perpetuity.

Someday soon there will be a building on this space. Its foundation will rest in nutrient-rich soil, unharvested seeds, and a city lot that once fed its people -- and I'm talking about dozens of people who came together to turn it green. The hope is that some of those gardeners stick around for a while, preserving the memory of their shared enterprise, even as new folks dig for their keys, open their front door, then shut it again to settle in for the evening.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pop-Up Park

Your eyes do not deceive you. That's a group of outlaw gardeners, laying sod over the asphalt to turn a side street into an instant park. Woebetide the cars that neglected last night's "No Parking" signs.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were enough sod to transform every under-utilized road into safe, lush, convivial green space? Imagine what might be possible if that were the city we lived in . . .

Friday, May 27, 2011

The More Things Change

So, perhaps you remember the saga of the 5am horn honker. If not, let me refresh your memory.

Sigh. The car horn is back, this time at 4:15 in the morning. Not every morning, mind you, but frequent enough mornings that I'm starting to wake up startled even earlier than that, simply anticipating. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn't, but it almost doesn't matter. I'm already awake, even if nothing has jolted me there but my own restlessness.

For what it's worth, I've already confronted the driver -- in the gentlest possible way -- and asked him please not to honk his horn so early. He was apologetic, but clearly mystified. Why wouldn't you take the quickest route toward your objective? And don't people just go back to sleep after 8 seconds of a horn anyway. Sheesh, it's only 8 seconds.

I know there aren't so many blog readers out there anymore, and those that hang on tend to lean on vehicles more artful, more economical, and more likely to involve meringue or porcini mushrooms. But if you're out there -- maybe even in the middle of the night, trying to find some solace in this crazy, nearly falling-apart world of ours -- I'm curious about your next course of action, if you were in my shoes.

Feel free to enter strategies, wisdom, empathic stories, hilarious jokes, warrented insults, therapeutic mantras, or new ways of looking at this particular conundrum here. First person who helps me sleep through the night wins.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Have you seen this cat?

If you have, I'm secretly hoping you won't say a word.

He's now safely harbored with our next-door neighbors after living four straight days in the space between the roof of our addition and our second-floor deck. He wouldn't let anyone come near enough to rescue, at least until a thunderstorm that left him feeling terrified and more than a little damp. After the storm passed, I went upstairs, coaxed him onto our deck, let him rub up against my calf for a while, then picked him up and carried him inside as each of his front paws found one of my shoulders.

Within two minutes I'd broken out in hives.

Next-door neighbors to the rescue. They came equipped with a cat carrier, food, and a willingness to foster for as long as it took.

It took about an hour. After that point, they were in love. By the next morning, the cat was napping against the stomach of one of their young daughters. The day after that, they took him to the vet and discovered no disease, no microchip. By day three, he had a name -- Bird -- after the creature they assumed he'd chased up a tree to land on our roof in the first place.

So we'll all work collectively to do the right thing: Spreading the word on the block, alerting shelters, putting up fliers. But we'll also hope that no one answers the call -- that there's not a sweet little girl somewhere pining for her lost cat -- because Bird has found a home where he can sit in a front window, looking out on the world. It's the same home that will soon say good-bye to beloved Zelda the mutt, who is now rejecting food and having trouble walking. It's nice to think of new life filling the gap of that sweet, old, grumpus of a life, and that the girls might have an animal that lets them near him in the way Zelda never would.

So you know when I put up my fliers I'll be doing so sparingly, and it's really not my fault if the tape doesn't hold, because I don't control the humidity after all, and they just don't make tape the way they used to.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Eavesdropping on the World

Last night we happened into one of those wonderful bits of kismet: An impromptu performance in a tiny municipal building, once a boarded-up haven for derelicts and taggers. It was formerly owned by the Department of Forestry and is now being renovated into possibly a gallery, possibly the headquarters for our local Chamber of Commerce . By now there may be other ideas. Things change pretty fast around here.

In the meantime, the building is being reclaimed by creative types who admire its acoustics or stripped-down aesthetics, or maybe just its queer location, between two patches of green space separated by four (unnecessary) lanes of traffic.

Because I didn't have a camera, I lifted these photos to give you a general idea of what the space looks like from the outside. The important thing, though, was what the world looked like from the inside.

For just over an hour we sat in that room looking out that picture window as one guy played an ambient laptop composition, and another offered an earnest acoustic set -- just a boy, his guitar, and an urgent, mellifluous voice that soared straight up to the rafters.

The music itself was certainly amazing, but more amazing still was the way the entire world was framed within that window. We literally watched it go by for a while. Not in the indifferent, even protective sense that we usually do: All that noise, all that traffic, bleeding together into one chaotic mass so we can contain and ideally ignore it. But in a way that froze every detail and made it count.

Look! There's a man with a blue umbrella.

Look! A city bus, with at least a dozen people inside, stone-faced and sad.

Look! A pick-up truck hauling an old striped couch.

Look! Lightening in the distance.

Bicycles, bicycles, bicycles.

A man doing push-ups in the park.

Not one, but two, fantastic malamutes.

A woman with a plastic grocery bag as a hat, rummaging through the contents of her handbag.

The whole experience made me realize how much better things would be if every tedious moment of our lives had a soundtrack. Maybe one a little bit like this, which was played with gusto after I vainly asked it to be.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sign of the Times

Sometimes you don't realize how much you take something for granted until it's about to leave you. Case in point? Our local dollar store. Unlike the wave of similar models opening shop around the neighborhood, this one was independently owned -- by a nice Middle Eastern guy who always offered a warm greeting and never tried to

We counted on them for staples like bungee cords, tissue paper, and shower-curtain liners. Every once in a while we'd come across a great pair of cheap sunglasses or set of Asian dishware. Now they're packing it in, liquidating the whole inventory for 30% off (they do the math in their heads at the register, and sometimes it's closer to 20%, but who can really quibble over a dime?)

I went in yesterday to stock up on a few things and express my sympathy to the owner.

"Yes, what can you do?" he said. "The neighborhood is changing. It's very hard."

He's right. The neighborhood is changing. Yesterday a hipster in a white jean jacket walked past me from west of where we live (I was comforted when he wasn't past checking out some furniture someone left in the alley for the trash man). A renovated sports bar has opened two doors down from the store. And probably most consequential, the national Family Dollar chain has a targeted expansion plan for neighborhoods like ours.

Still, business isn't coming in droves to this frenetic stretch of Fullerton. My best guess is the storefront will stay empty for a long time, probably replaced by a cell-phone shop. We have a situation that's too late for a dollar store and too early for a boutiquey cafe. It makes you wonder what this means for economic development, and what kind of forecasting (or audacious gambling) a business will have to do before it can take up residence there and be successful. If they're legit and independently owned, it's a fair guess we'll be supporting them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Let the good deeds go unpunished

This guy was talking just today about how damn lucky he feels in this life: He's travelled the world, plays in a band he loves, and has a great house in a neighborhood where both guitar repair and streetside cheese tamales are just a few paces away. He wondered out loud when his luck might run out, saying he was really in no position to complain if it did.

Sometime within the next hour, he lost his Blackberry.

Since that put a bit of a damper on the afternoon, I thought I'd note for the record that my good luck is simply in knowing him. (If you know him too, you surely feel the same). This week alone he took our dog to surgery, helped her up and down the steps at least 15 times, put antiobiotics and pain pills down her throat, stuck her haunches with a needle, lost sleep as she whimpered through the night, and still had enough will and stamina left to repair the trellis that broke in half during February's blizzard.

He gives money to drifters, mows the neighbor's lawn, tips his servers at least 25%, and installed a ramp for the dog next door when she became too arthritic to take the back stairs.

I've been known to complain about dirty dishes and unhung coats left about the house, but that's a ridiculously small tariff for a guy with power tools and an unspeakably generous spirit. He could lose a thousand Blackberries and a thousand hours looking for them, but he'll never lose the thing that makes him always just a little bit better than he needs to be.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

When Things are Pretty for a Day

Yesterday we woke to gloomy rain the very day we were scheduled for our block group's annual Clean & Green, in which we roll out of our houses in grubby clothes and together clear the debris that's taken up residence on our blocks. This is no easy task. For those of you who have visited, you know the litter has become something of a character in the drama of our lives here in the neighborhood, and not a very nice one at that.

By the 10am start of the clean-up, the skies had cleared a bit, and household by household, people started emerging to lend a hand. Not every household, mind you -- and some of the worst offenders were unsurprisingly not to be found -- but it was great to see kids, new neighbors, and people I've never met before pitching in to make this a place that looks like it's cared for rather than an urban dumping ground. It's really something to look down the expanse of our blocks and see one green front yard after the next, unpolluted by fast-food bags and discarded beer bottles -- just spring perennials in bloom, trees coming back to life, and lawn decorations of every stripe.

Part II of yesterday, after a hot shower and hearty lunch, found John and I taking a three-block walk to the festivities of Record Store Day. This is a national annual event, and we were happy to see our local record shop, despite being a scrappy newcomer to the scene, participating with zeal. John was there when the doors opened at 9am, and he was hardly the first in line. He bought a bunch of special releases, and we spent the afternoon watching seven different bands playing for free. We haven't seen the store as packed with devoted customers since their grand opening a year or so back.

We put the day to rest over a pot of homemade ginger lentil soup, the perfect thing since the cold rain had returned by early evening.

So here's the thing: Today is a windy day, and we know that within an hour or so, litter will be blown from Fullerton Avenue right down our blocks and into our yards. But we also know that people may be more likely to pick up that random detritus, at least for a little while. And we also know that our little corner garden, which now has native perennials transplanted from five different households, is blooming again -- those flowers resilient despite a brutal winter and all the exhaust and smog of the city. And that's one of the more hopeful signs I can think of for what may lie ahead.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Someone's in the Kitchen with Nitrous

Calling all nonprofits or charitable organizations: Invite me to your silent auction! I admit it. I have a sickness. I've never met an auction I didn't like, and I've never stepped away without bidding on something. Sometimes it's very small: a gift certificate for a frame shop, or a bottle of wine. Sometimes it's quite large: 10 days of seaside lodging in Croatia, for example, or more recently, Chef for a Day at Moto restaurant.

If you don't know Moto, it's one part traditional kitchen, one part mad-scientists' lab. Their food is a mash-up of normal old grocery-store staples and unpredictable techniques employing food dehydrators, liquid nitrogen, nitrous oxide, edible paper, and machines invented expressly to unfoodify (yes, I've just made this up) the dishes. You get 10 or 20 small courses, depending on your level of extravagance and purchasing power. The result is at times extraordinary (a signature box that heats consommé so it steams a piece of fish inside, or a faux Cuban cigar wrapped in collard greens) and at times disappointing (edible packing peanuts seem to mock rather than play with their consumers). But it's always original. And I can say now from experience, the kitchen crew is having a blast preparing your meal.

I spent four hours in their stunning basement kitchen yesterday, listening to a soundtrack of 70s classics as I peeled carrots or sliced shallots through a laughably unstable mandoline, marveling at how these culinary experiments start with the most banal ingredients. This struck me as either a lighthearted extension of the restaurant's sense of humor, or a comforting sense that everything, and I mean everything, begins with the basics.

Ben, the pastry chef, who has gained fame through his appearances on Future Food, and also happens to live in my neighborhood (see how I did that? brought it back to the neighborhood? because otherwise, you're right, this doesn't fit the parameters I've set out for this blog at all. thank you, Ben), took me under his wing. He insisted that I taste everything, including his amazing housemade ice creams: Earl grey and sassafrass. He's enjoying sassafrass lately and also made it the esssence of his homemade marshmallow fluff. I tasted pineapple infused with vanilla, densely macerated banana puree, and a rich dark chocolate truffle into which is inserted a small marshmallow wick that is set on fire like a tiny bomb. When the flame goes out, you put the entire truffle in your mouth and it explodes with the taste of a campfire s'more. At one point, Ben put a pastry bag of his banana puree into an industrial vaccuum sealer.

"What's that doing?" I asked.

"Running the restaurant." He was smiling, but he wasn't kidding.

I joined the crew for "family meal" around 2:30, when everything breaks for some needed staff sustenance and revelry with the front-of-house folks. One of the chefs made a decidedly un-Moto like chicken marsala with truffled mashed potatoes and homemade pasta. I could've eaten that marsala for days.
I also got a window into their service strategies during the 4:15 staff meeting. They reviewed the reservations -- so many dietary restrictions! -- and decided on the fly how to substitute dishes to keep Table 4 gluten-free, make sure Table 11 had no dairy other than cheese, or avoid refined sugars for Table 8.

All in all, it was an unforgettable day. So different from being in my grandmother's restaurant as a kid, when my sister and I would flee to the walk-in when the French chefs would start screaming at each other. In fairness, they couldn't've been overjoyed to have two sticky rugrats in their kitchen stealing melba toasts from dry storage.

There's something kinetic about a restaurant kitchen. Especially so when you're sucking all the moisture out of a mushroom to turn it into a crunchy garnish for beef, or pouring a vat of liquid nitrogen into a bowl of who knows what, filling the room with smoke. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to that banana puree, and how they remind you of the ones your father used to mash for you as a toddler, when you weren't old enough to remember much, but this was one of the things that mattered.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Gustatory One-Act

Overheard today at the winter farmer's market (the last of the year):

Man to bread vendor: Do you have any normal bread?

Vendor: What do you mean by normal bread? Do you mean white bread?

Man: You know. Something to make a sandwich with. White . . . rye.

Vendor: I have walnut, or whole wheat.

Man: No, no, no. None of that tricky stuff.

Of all the tiny telenovellas that have played themselves out at the market -- the sad-eyed alfajores baker aching to make a sale (delicious, but $4 apiece); the alfalfa sprout vendor from downstate, resiliently appearing after being implicated in the Jimmy John's salmonella scare; flirations between vendors and patrons; visitors who graze on free samples and never buy a thing -- this is undoubtedly my favorite.

Happy trails, winter market. You've served my pantry and my eavesdropping well.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Buy me a record

Remember when I dreamed this record store into existence? That was a pretty good dream. It's been nice to have them around the corner, especially because almost every weekend features a free live performance by one musical act or another. Some are bands you've surely heard of. Most are unknown, like shiny wrapped presents.

Yesterday we saw Matthew Mullane, an acoustic guitarist who looks as young as my nephew but plays like a virtuoso.

Previously we've seen a rowdy blues band, an electronica DJ (with a film projected behind him onto a white bedsheet), a moody Califone, and a Southern-gothic punk outfit that would challenge you to a staring contest as soon as look at you.

We've missed Jon Langford, a handful of noise bands, two film premieres (shown on the same white bedsheet), three art openings, and a 17-member punk-rock glee club singing a cappella. No matter. There's always something new on the calendar.

Watching music this way corrects for all the things I've come to hate about the late-night rock club:

- Afternoon performances. You leave and it's still daylight outside

- Just one or two bands on the docket, with none of that endless set-up and breakdown in between

- Crowds you can breathe in, even if you're short

- No danger of getting knocked over by some liquored-up jerk trying to recreate the mosh pits of his youth

- Sometimes there's a dog in there

- Free show!

See? It's not that I don't love music anymore. Not at all. It's more that after 20+ years of heading out at 10pm, sitting through two different bands before hearing the one I came to see, and dodging the collective machismo of the room, I'm ready for a kinder, gentler delivery system. Now one has opened just around the corner, and I don't even care that my husband is single-handedly keeping them in business. Whatever it takes, I hope they stick around.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Someday I'll write a shorter post, but apparently not today

Little in life makes me happier than a new thrift store. This one isn't so new, but it's a new discovery for me since I've started walking to work.

Cargo, as it's called, has been around for a year, and the cheerful Global Cafe next door is part of the same operation. Both businesses are connected to a detox center that's operated for years, modestly and even mysteriously, out of a pair of storefronts.

A year ago, they put in a community garden in the empty lot next door. They rehabbed what had been their meeting space -- a place where clients could get together behind closed curtains and have a cup of coffee and a chat -- to the public. Now the clients work in the thrift store or the cafe, earning a modest wage as they get back on their feet and build up their portfolios.

Does it surprise you to hear me say I adore this model? (I didn't think so).

I popped into the thrift shop yesterday and encountered who must be the founder of this eponymous facility. He was a lively character, definitely turning on the hard sell for a BCBG dress (I bought it) and some grandmotherly china (I passed). He talked about making a collage of Michael Jackson magazine photos for the wall, then trying to sell it for $25. He led a sweet, pregnant Spanish-speaking woman to a box of onesies, all on sale for $1. He pushed me to buy a $10 spider plant, which will help fund the insurance they need for their community garden, a bureaucratic formality that clearly disgusts him. The pregnant woman's 7-year-old son told him $10 was way too much money for a plant. I'll probably eventually buy the damn thing.

And then a curious thing happened. The guy held up something I've never seen before. It looked like an old pin, but was actually a clasp you attach to a scarf to keep it in place. Sweet, but superfluous, so I told him thanks, but not today.

And then he gave it to me.

"Please take it," he said. "This looks like you and you should have it."

"Thank you," I said. "That's incredibly kind, and I accept it."

Now I hesitate to tell the rest of the story, because it casts a bit of a pall on this moment, and I admit it made me wonder if this was truly a gift or a covenant he was enlisting.

But after talking of the good karma he thought this would bring him, he told me that everything he does is in service to the Creator, and isn't the Creator's will majestic?

You know me by now, so you know I had no answer for this question. I smiled, thanked him again, and headed out the door.

But the whole thing left me wondering. What does it mean to take my tea and gently-used dresses with a side of old-time religion? Will I continue to shop in the store, or will I avoid the place to avoid the conversation? Will I feel too disingenuous to wear my scarf clasp?

I navigate these questions frequently in my work, which revolves largely around faith-based institutions. But I've also started outing myself as a nonbeliever ('atheist' can come off as confrontational in my line of work), and the sky hasn't fallen yet.

I suppose I could handle myself with the same diplomacy with a guy like this. I might just have to buy the Michael Jackson collage to let him know I'm not the devil.