I love driving on Lake Street.

A significant portion of Lake Street’s drivable surface sits directly beneath train tracks. The supporting beams enclose you like a tunnel as you travel, and the sun casts shadowy patterns across the people and vehicles around you. Trains passing overhead fill the air with their rumble. Driving along Lake is one of my favorite ways to leave or enter the city.


I also love promoting local artists, so hey! Check out this show at the Harold Washington Library.



Ian Belknap loves to hate James Franco.

I recently noted that James Franco was in town to read from his new book of poems.  Immediately I wondered, “Does Ian Belknap know about this?”

You see, Belknap is a sometime comedian, actor, writer, and recurring element in Chicago’s cultural milieu lately known for his one-man show, Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash in the Narrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull. His involvement in such noteworthy goings-on as Write Club, Paper Machete, and Live Lit are now overshadowed by his Franco-fueled vitriol.

That’s Ian Belnknap. Look. Right there. It’s him.

I cannot blame Mr. Belknap. I watched this video and became nearly apoplectic. I didn’t make it all the way through Actors Anonymous and agreed with the reviewer who stated that it “would be best read as a work-in-progress in a creative writing class.” I am not sure, however, that I would have the boldness required to call for somebody’s head, much less threaten to use it as a cooking vessel, in a public forum. Bravo, Ian Belknap. Bravo.

For the record, Belknap knows what the hell he’s talking about when it comes to writing. I mean, the man can write. Here’s a recent passage from his blog I found particularly striking:

The surest fucking way to become exactly like the parent you hate is to make elaborate, repeated claims that you’ll never, ever, ever be anything like them – it is the perverse joke of the human heart, which may have greatness in it, but also can be a huge dumb-ass.

So when you are an alcoholic, and you remove the alcohol, you are left with the feelings. Which you must experience. In all their un-minimized fury.

Which, for a person like myself, is a fully horrifying prospect. Most of the time, I’d sooner pound a tent stake into my own thigh than feel the feelings. But this is not an option. The emotional life of an alcoholic without alcohol is a gunfight – either the smoke and fire and blood-letting, which at least has the a grisly kind of clarity – or the anguish of standing in the dusty street, twitching hands poised over your gun, waiting.

Ian Belknap has been writing a lot longer than I have, and I’ve accumulated enough rejection notices to wallpaper a small room. Many of us take them as a badge of honor. The rare occasions when my name makes it into print above something I created, I feel I’ve earned the fleeting pleasure it gives me through patiently undergoing the emotional turmoil of repeatedly being shot down as a writer, if not as a person. I don’t know how Belknap feels about his rejections, but I’m sure he has a few, whereas James Franco got published because he’s a famous actor. The time between his first short story collection and his second one (referred to often as his novel) was brief enough that many writers would not have had time to write and prepare a manuscript and have it back from an editor, let alone see it accepted and in print. Of this “Hollywood people can do anything they damn well please” phenomenon, Belknap says:

Franco is the biggest distillation of this tendency, because he is doing so any things simultaneously, then has the feverish insistence we pay attention to his every move. I just zeroed in on the worst practitioner. His “body of work” — air quotes so vigorous my knuckles are breaking — occupies this annoying place where he is making unimaginative work in every discipline even as he is insulating himself rhetorically from any criticism by saying he is “working in forms,” “not speaking literally” — all hollow art-speak justifications.

I think a lot of writers (and readers) are deeply annoyed by this aspect of James Franco’s writing career, regardless of however much they (or I) respect his acting or laughed riotously during Pineapple Express. Few of us, however, express that annoyance as well as Ian Belknap.

I love reading Pablo Neruda in Spanish.

I love reading him in English, too, especially since that’s my first (and only really fluent) language. I first appreciated the beauty of his words in the language they were originally written in because somebody gave me a copy of a Neruda book from Giron Books in Pilsen. They’re rock stars of Spanish-language lit, and they ship all over the US. Here is one of the first poems I remember grappling with en espanol however long ago it was. It’s the only reason I still remember the Spanish word for “artichoke.”

Oda a la Alcachofa

La alcachofa
de tierno corazón
se vistió de guerrero,
erecta, construyó
una pequeña cúpula,
se mantuvo
sus escamas,
a su lado
los vegetales locos
se encresparon,
se hicieron
zarcillos, espadañas,
bulbos conmovedores,
en el subsuelo
durmió la zanahoria
de bigotes rojos,
la viña
resecó los sarmientos
por donde sube el vino,
la col
se dedicó
a probarse faldas,
el orégano
a perfumar el mundo,
y la dulce
allí en el huerto,
vestida de guerrero,
como una granada,
y un día
una con otra
en grandes cestos
de mimbre, caminó
por el mercado
a realizar su sueño:
la milicia.

En hileras
nunca fue tan marcial
como en la feria,
los hombres
entre las legumbres
con sus camisas blancas
de las alcachofas,
las filas apretadas,
las voces de comando,
y la detonación
de una caja que cae,
con su cesto,
una alcachofa,
no le teme,
la examina, la observa
contra la luz como si fuera un huevo,
la compra,
la confunde
en su bolsa
con un par de zapatos,
con un repollo y una
de vinagre
que entrando a la cocina
la sumerge en la olla.

Así termina
en paz
esta carrera
del vegetal armado
que se llama alcachofa,
escama por escama
la delicia
y comemos
la pacífica pasta
de su corazón verde.

(You can read it in English here. )

Can you think of another poem that applies personification to a vegetable so well? I can’t.

I love “Lost Buildings.”

This book/DVD combo is some sort of mind-blowing intersection of many things that interest me and about which I am passionate. Somehow NPR’s This American Life, the work of Chris Ware, local history, a movie, a well-designed book, and yes, actual lost buildings all conspired to arrive shrink-wrapped in a box on my doorstep one day. When I first found out about it, I wanted to call somebody up and talk excitedly at an inappropriate volume and at too-great length, but I had nobody to call who might understand and who would have been awake at 2 AM (prime book-nerding time, if you ask me). Well! Now I have a blog where I can use caps and exclamation points to convey to you the AMAZING EXCELLENCE OF LOST BUILDINGS!!!

Actually, it is difficult to explain its wonderfulness here. The saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” so here are just a few images to help convey something more than I might be able to just now.

Chris Ware does vertical as only he can do.


A non-Ware spread.

DVD still.


Having still failed to do the project justice, I’ll recommend that anybody who can get their hands on a copy, even for a short time, watch and read Lost Buildings.

I love the clavilux.

If you’re familiar with the clavilux, you might be reading this and wondering what the hell it has to do with Chicago. After all, its creator Thomas Wilfred was a Danish artist, and the instrument was first publicly played in New York City in 1922. This so-called Color Organ, however, may have had its largest audience in (of all buildings) the Dairy Building at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. According to the Cornell Daily Sun, Wilfred had already created and performed a piece entitled “Chicago Nocturne” by 1926. It was said to have simulated the experience of looking up at a bridge in the night.

The clavilux is a keyboard (or switchboard, apparently) instrument intended to be silent. Instead of sound, it plays light. Wilfred subscribed to a now-defunct school of thought called theosophy, which held that the pinnacle of art involved creating “thought forms:” physical manifestations of thoughts, memories, emotions, and other things that often exist solely in the mind of one person. Wilfred sought to play things in his concerts and recitals that would make public things that, previously, could only ever be private; he wanted to make visible to anyone who cared to look the personal and invisible. Chicago’s bridges appear to have been an inspiration to him.

There are few of these instruments left today, and those that remain seem to be in private hands, undergoing restoration by passionate collectors. To get an idea of what light music looks like, you can watch some youtube videos, but so far I can’t find a performance of “Chicago Nocturne” on the internet. Also, Wilfred objected to these works being filmed, insisting that they must be experienced firsthand, so you must hope one of the restorers eventually decides to tour with a clavilux and bring it to a theater near you.

I love Magnifenct ChamoMile.

Along with Chai Town and Jazz Mint, Magnificent ChamoMile is one of the three teas in the Adagio Tea Chicago Series. I don’t work for Adagio, and nobody is paying me to write about them–I just really like this tea!

Normally, I find chamomile teas too floral and lacking in depth. Because this is a blend with whole leaf white tea and a few other ingredients, Magnificent ChamoMile doesn’t have these problems. It’s mild yet flavorful, without any overpowering elements. While I never find a drive down Michigan Avenue as relaxing as a cup of tea, I do find the name clever.

Source: Adagio

Like its companions in the Chicago Series, Magnificent ChamoMile is packaged in a gorgeous tin featuring photography of a Chicago streetscape on the outside and architectural detail on the inside of the lid. I’ll certainly be keeping mine and using it to store other teas and/or tea paraphernalia when I’ve consumed all the tea.

I love Chiberia.

Saying that 2014 has been cold and snowy is an understatement.

Whether conditions on the ground are turning O’Hare into an exercise in mass exasperation (good thing they have a yoga room!) or frightening away celebrities, inclement winter weather has a way of bringing out the local color. Being warned not to leave the house doesn’t stop people from helping neighbors shovel out plowed-in cars while wearing every hat in the house, halt the great dibs debate, or dissuade people from battling the polar vortex to go sledding. People-watching becomes more interesting when your subjects are the brave souls venturing out in subzero temperatures and biting wind. You’re nearly as likely to see somebody calmly standing on an elevated platform waiting for the train in a windbreaker and no gloves as somebody desperately clutching a travel mug of coffee through three pairs of mittens that protrude from the sleeve of a parka worn over another parka worn over a hoodie. Who is just trying to get to work? Who is waiting for a tow truck? Who is questing for pie?


Photo by Dëxtér F Cónde

One particular thing that always amuses me is the language used to describe the winter weather. I dimly recall my mother and her friends referring to one storm in the winter of 1988-1989 as “hell frozen over.” More recently, there was a “snowpocalypse” in 2011 that left cars stranded for days on Lake Shore Drive. This year, meteorologist Ricky Castro noted that Chicago is colder than the South Pole and coined the phrase, “Chiberia.”

Photo by Isaac Silver

I enjoy living in a place with real seasons and, what’s more, extreme seasons. Despite the occasional mild winter or cool summer, I can generally expect to both sweat and freeze while walking down the same street within each calendar year. My January landscapes are reliably dotted with snowmen. Hot cocoa tastes better because I really need it. Going for a run turns into a scene from Rocky IV. These harsh winters make me grateful that it isn’t this way every year while making me see ordinary places in extraordinary ways. I love Chiberia (but I can’t wait for August)!