I love Joe Meno’s writing.

This Chicago writer and playwright (also, lately, maker of short films) is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living short story authors. His novels and non-fiction are pretty swell, too. You may have read him in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The New York Times, or Punk Planet. His work ranges from straightforward prose grounded with naturalistic dialog to magical realism interspersed with poetic language.

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If you are looking for a contemporary novel set in Chicago, you can’t do much better than The Great Perhaps. It follows a Chicago family, the Caspers, as the parents struggle with their marriage and careers. The grandfather, Henry, reacts to facing death. One daughter embraces Christianity while the other flirts with anarcho-terrorism. Ordinary problems unfold into extraordinary events. There is also a political element, as it is set during the 2004 election season, and the novel also explores the limits of science and faith, with quite a bit of emphasis on the significance of science, as the parents of the family are research scientists and academics at the University of Chicago.

There are some great lines in here, like, “Madeline decides Jonathan is an immature, selfish asshole and that she is never talking to him again,” and, “Please tear my limbs from their sockets and let the backseat and my older sister be totally covered with blood.” There are parts that make you laugh, parts that make you cry, and parts that make you want to break shit. Since I prefer a novel that makes me feel something, that’s all good to me. I am not the only fan, either. Critics liked it, too–The Great Perhaps won the Great Lakes Book Award for Fiction in 2009 and a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice award.

With six novels, three plays, and two short story collections to his name, you can start reading Joe Meno’s work now and finish just in time for 2014 Story Week, a writing festival where he often reads, or if you’re a very fast reader,  the Printer’s Row Lit Fest, where you can buy his work and where he has read in past years.

For a taste of Meno’s writing, check out the short story Homo Sapiens in Tri-Quarterly. Check Sandmeyer’s Bookstore or your favorite place to get books In July for his latest book, Office Girl.

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I love sea shanties.

It’s not like I have an iPod full of them, but really, I do. I love sea shanties. They’re great music for doing housework or keeping your kid entertained on a long-ish car trip. They have very old roots but are still around today, and Chicago has some of its very own.

What is a sea shanty, or sea chanty? Basically, it is a song that is a type of folk music–a nautical type. The name comes from the French verb for “to sing,” chanter. Back when Chicago was the busiest port in the world, men working on Lake Michigan’s many boats and ships sang these songs to help pass the time and economize labor. Unlike many other types of work song, sea shanties draw from a rich mosaic of cultural influences, including American marches, European folk dance, and the music of African-American slaves.

Chicago’s lakefront is now home to more parks than shipping vessels, so who is keeping this musical tradition alive, and how? For starters, you can take the Sea Music And Shanty class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. You can also check out the guy who teaches the class, Tom Kastle, in concert sometimes, or buy one of his CDs.

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Ahoy! It’s Tom Kastle in a photo from his web site.

You can also hear them performed, sometimes by musicians in period costume, at the Chicago Maritime Festival. If you still haven’t had enough Great Lakes nautical jams, join the yahoo group for Chicago sea shanties to find out whenever there are performances or sing-alongs in the Chicago area.

Please enjoy this video of The Hard Tackers Shanty Team, a fine group of singers from another Great Lakes state, singing at the 2012 Chicago Maritime Festival.

I love Chicago’s wild parrots (and how much Chicagoans love them, too).

While Chicago isn’t the only American city with wild parrots, or even wild Quaker parrots, we may be the only city who has fought so long and so hard for them. The now-extinct Carolina Parakeet, driven out of existence by hunting and habitat loss, cannot ever truly be replaced, but these birds are trying to do it. They have been nesting in Hyde Park and elsewhere in the Chicago area since at least the 1970’s.

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Pretty bird! Source: Windy City Parrot

It’s true not everybody loves them, but then again, there are a lot of misconceptions–that their nests start fires (only one record exists of that happening here), that they destroy crops (nobody has caught them at it yet), or that they only eat bird seed and therefore deprive native species of access to feeders (anyone who watches them will see them eat a variety of foods). On the other hand, they have quite a fan club.

Famously, former Mayor Harold Washington called them good luck. There are many legends about his affection for and protection of these parrots, but few can be verified beyond a few positive comments and the fact that they did live near his home. Shortly after the end of his administration, Chicagoans went to court to protect the birds and launched citizen campaigns to prevent their removal or destruction. Later, the Greater Chicago Caged Bird Club started a project to take in and care for any baby birds that utilities companies found in nests they destroyed on power lines, or that were otherwise found in need of help. Businesses and citizens in the community of Hyde Park rushed to aid the birds when a storm toppled a tree containing one of their large nests. Most people I’ve met who live there, or did in the past, have stories to tell about these little green parrots.

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One of their less obvious nests. Source: Chicago Wilderness.

I myself have visited parks and fields in Hyde Park to watch the birds feed, play, and do battle with crows and pigeons. I’ve also spotted a few at a miniature golf course in Des Plaines. They are fascinating little creatures who apparently love eating dandelions. If you’re not in the area and want to have a look at these colorful characters, check out Chicago Man on Flickr. Heck, check him out anyways–he has tons of great urban landscapes, too.

I love Oz Park.

Lyman Frank Baum lived in many places throughout his life, but he resided at 1667 North Humboldt
Boulevard in Chicago during the year 1899. That was the year he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It is only fitting, then, that the city named a park in his honor.

Oz Park is located several miles East of the neighborhood where Baum penned his famous novel. While the area is tony now, it was originally established as part of an urban renewal project in the 1970’s. It boasts “Dorothy’s Playlot,” the “Emerald Garden,” fields for soccer and baseball, a basketball court, tennis courts, and a sled hill. It is dog-friendly, contains an ice cream stand, and has been a venue for Movies In The Park.

What makes it unique are the statues of Oz characters around the park’s perimeter. Based on illustrator W.W. Denslow’s original drawings for the book, they captivate and charm everyone who sees them (except some cold-hearted jerks from New York and California who two-starred them on Yelp).

Here are photos of Dorothy and Toto and the Scarecrow, courtesy of the Chicago Park District.

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This photo of the park’s official marker is from the Chicago Historical Society.

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I love that people run into Jesus on the CTA sometimes.

I love the CTA. I used to ride it every day to get to work, I used to ride it every day to get to class, and I may or may not have enjoyed a few nights riding it home after closing time. There are so many things to love about the CTA, and I am sure many posts will feature these things, but today I can only choose one. Today, it’s Jesus Christ.

I have personally spotted Him riding the blue line and the red line. I also found Him standing around the L platform at Clark and Lake.  Sometimes He’s black. Sometimes He’s white. Once, He was latino. His robes are purple or white, and He may have a giant cross, stigmata, or a crown of thorns. Sometimes, He has all three.

I can’t find any photos of Him riding the L, but like all matters of faith,  you just have to believe, with or without empirical evidence. I did, however, find other believers.

I love that once a year, plumbers dye the river green.

St. Patrick’s Day is this weekend, and people will be lining up at Columbus and Wabash on Saturday morning to watch the Chicago River turn green. Yes, yes, it’s always green, but now it will be an attractive shade of green. The dye actually enters the river orange, making the process extra Irish. A small flotilla of plumbers will dump enough dye to change the color of the water for quite a distance. This started in 1961, allegedly as a way to detect a scofflaw dumping waste into the river in violation of new anti-pollution laws. The city doesn’t fund it, and this year the dyeing of the river is sponsored by WXRT and Miller Light. Plumbers Union Local 130, who runs the event, also sells T-shirts to help defray costs.

Here’s a photo from Wikipedia commons, showing the river from the Riverwalk.