Posts Tagged ‘Urban Living’

Word on the street: Sidewalk poetry

July 9, 2008

Like most big cities, Chicago has its share of graffiti. Most of it is mindless tagging, the annoying human equivalent of animals spraying their scent to mark their territory. Only this is done with spray paint or markers or—in the latest defacement innovation—acid that actually etches into plate glass and has to be ground and polished out. This is vandalism, pure and simple.

But there’s a much more creative side to graffiti that, if it doesn’t exactly make me ready to forgive taggers, maybe causes me to adopt something of a philosophical “take the good with the bad” attitude. Most famously, graffiti has given us artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It also gives us random poignant moments like this piece, spotted downtown last winter, near Columbia College:

And on a grander scale, this piece done with stencils and spray paint by graffiti stencil artist Peat Wollaeger:

Most recently, graffiti gave me a bit of street poetry. Well, sidewalk poetry, to be more exact. Walking up to the Bucktown offices of the ad agency where I work one morning, I saw a seemingly random word stenciled onto the sidewalk. And then another. And another. When I explored later, I discovered there were 38 words in all, in 29 groupings, spaced out over two city blocks. Someone or a group of someones had cut out these stencils and, in the wee-est of the wee, small hours of the morning [Bucktown and neighboring Wicker Park are infested with late night bars], had applied a poem to the streets of Chicago. Here it is:


A museum! At night! With wine! We are so there.

April 2, 2008


There’s a lively, happy holiday song that office supplies company Staples hilariously appropriates for its back-to-school sale TV commercial every year. Parents gleefully shop for school supplies as their kids look glumly on; meanwhile, Andy Williams cheerfully sings to us that “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

That’s how we feel about Members Night at the Field Museum.

For starters, the Field is one of our favorite museums, chock full of fascinating things that teach us about both the natural world and the many and varied cultures humankind has created over the millennia. Anytime you get mummies and dinosaurs—including Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the world—in the same place, you’re off to an interesting start. But there are also cases of butterflies, a Pawnee Earth Lodge, Aztec and Incan treasures, fossil plants… and room after room after room of amazing natural life played out in taxidermy dioramas. Like the imposing grouping of water buffaloes above. Equal parts awe-inspiring and slightly surreal, these displays give most of us the most intimate view we will ever have of the creatures that share the planet with us. The museum not only wows you with its amazing collection, it goes to great lengths to tell you why it all matters.

Just as important as the exhibits—arguably even more so—is the work the staff does in the field. At any given moment, the museum has teams of scientists and anthropologists all over the planet, not only collecting and cataloging, but furthering science with their research both on expeditions and back at the museum. And on any given Members Night, you get to talk to some of these people.

We begin every Members Night visit the same way. We head for the Great Hall, get wristbanded for alcohol consumption, buy our drink tickets and grab a glass of wine. As cool as just being at the museum is for us, being there after hours with a drink in hand ramps it all up considerably. We have to be careful, though. At a similar event at the Shedd Aquarium once, instead of marveling at the beauty and diversity of the sea creatures on display, Marion just found herself wondering how each might taste.

time-flies.jpgWine in hand, we immediately head behind the scenes. Members Night is like an all access pass to a rock show, only for science geeks. All those places usually marked No Admittance? You’re admitted. You get to wander the halls, peer into offices, see what scientists put up on their walls and doors—there were fewer Far Side cartoons this year than in previous visits. You get to see where work gets done, exhibits get planned, where at least some of the museum’s vast collection of study specimens is stored. While the museum’s exhibition space is vast, high-ceilinged and continuously being updated, behind the scenes is a fascinating rabbit’s warren of utilitarian, dark corridors with pipes and wiring snaking overhead. Dark wood doors with frosted glass windows open onto cluttered offices and brightly lit laboratories.


Coolest of all, though, is you get to meet the people who work in this fascinating environment. And rather than being irritated about having to work extra hours on these two nights every year, they are genuinely delighted to be surrounded by people interested in what they do. Asking someone a question is like flipping an on switch. Fascinating information just starts pouring out.

On our most recent Members Night visit last week:

Marion and her sister Lena learned that ancient textiles are often repaired with one of three grades of Japanese paper made from mulberry bark, extremely strong, but so light and thin it “feels almost like nothing,” as Marion said.

dodo.jpgI learned that, unlike humans, all birds have circular disklike bones in the backs of their eyes, and that, like humans, they have kneecaps. I learned this from a scientist seated next to the case of live dermisted flesh-eating beetles that clean study skeletons for the museum. She was carefully tweezing little bits of gristle and flesh they’d missed on tiny bird skeletons as we talked; Members Night is not for the squeamish.

We spoke with a zoologist whose current project is photographing minute flies that live on bats. The flies are so specialized that each species of fly lives not only on one particular species of bat, but only on one specific part of that bat. Around the neck, for instance, or under the wing [which Marion kept calling the armpit, and the zoologist kept gently correcting her]. As a bit of trivia, this is interesting enough. But it is anything but trivial; it is yet one more bit of evidence that every environmental choice we make affects many, many more fellow inhabitants of this planet than we can begin to imagine.

One might think this event would be about as well attended as a Friends of Sylvia Plath poetry reading. Well, one would be wrong. It is packed both nights every year. And not just by the pocket protector crowd—it is about as diverse an audience as you’ll find anywhere, by any measure you choose. Of course, if you’re still reading this, chances are I’ve stirred your inner geek too. Maybe we’ll see you there next year. Marion’s already trying to work out a way for us to get in both nights next time.

Thank you, Benjamin Franklin.

March 26, 2008


What can I say? We’re library geeks. This stack is some of the materials Marion and I currently have checked out from the Chicago Public Library. By our standards, it’s a modest pile. Marion is a voracious reader; I’m a guy with good intentions. Inevitably, my eyes are bigger than my literary stomach, and many books return unopened. Again, what can I say?

We’ve always been library geeks. In St. Louis, librarians knew us and our children by name. We used to get invited to librarian-only parties. [To balance things out, I’d like to say here that we also used to get invited to staff-and-musician-only parties thrown by the crew of the Broadway Oyster Bar.] Daughter Claire has picked up the torch; she works in a library.

Growing up in St. Louis, I was blessed with access to an excellent library system [it was recently ranked second in the nation, in fact], and I discovered it early. Many of the city’s branch libraries were grand beaux arts structures, with ornate columns, profuse ornamentation, grand stone staircases and massive, heavy doors—especially to an eight-year-old on the skinny side. Beyond those heavy doors was a quiet sanctuary, elegant, ordered, cool in the summer and invitingly warm in the winter. And books. Mountains of them. Miles of them. All free for the taking—well, the borrowing. Even though I didn’t know the term business model back then, I wondered how they could possibly do this. Obviously, I was equally naive regarding taxes.

I only knew that they somehow did manage to do it and that, with my library card, I was in the club.

Anytime you have a great idea like this, everyone wants to take credit for it. As Wikipedia tells us, “Many claims have been made for the title of ‘first public library’ for various libraries in various countries, with at least some of the confusion arising from differing interpretations of what should be considered a true ‘public library’.” In ancient Rome, Greek and Roman scrolls were available to readers in the Roman baths; but these weren’t lending libraries—scrolls couldn’t be checked out.

benjamin-franklin.jpgIn the United States, Boston lays claim to the first town library, established in 1636. But most give credit to Benjamin Franklin for creating the first lending library. You have to wonder where he found the time. One of the nation’s founding fathers, he was also a printer, an author, satirist, politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.

For all the press Gutenberg gets for his printing press and how it brought books and knowledge to the masses, books were still very expensive, especially in America, and not readily available even to those of moderate means. In 1731, Franklin and a group of friends formed the Library Company of Philadelphia. It was set up as a subscription library; individuals bought shares, and the money was used to buy books. Members could then borrow books, making it possibly the first lending library. It is still in existence today, now operating as an independent, non-profit research library.

But with the Internet, do libraries still matter? Do books, for that matter? One word answer: One of the most successful businesses on the whole worldwide web is a book store. And yes, the marketing of books is changing. Life for independent booksellers like our friend Jun, who runs the wonderful Foto-Grafix Books in San Francisco, is more challenging than ever. But drop in any book store, independent or big box chain, and you’ll find people hungry for books. You’ll find us there too. Some books you just need to own, to flip through again and again. To just take pleasure in knowing that you own it.

You don’t have to own everything, though. In this acquisitive culture, I’m not sure everyone gets that. Our good friend Laura told us of discussing books at work. When she mentioned finding something at the library, her colleagues laughed. Not derisively—just in that confused, it-would-never-occur-to-me sort of way.

But that’s the beauty of libraries. They’re a great place to kick the tires on a new author or be pleasantly surprised by something that catches your eye as you get the library crick in your neck, scanning titles sideways. There’s also almost a perverse anti-ownership pleasure in knowing that others have read this book before you, and many more will read it after you do, part shared experience, part recycling smugness.

So, yeah, we’re library geeks. And perhaps geekiest of all, on more library visits than not, I silently thank Ben Franklin.



Art and food together. “Is this heaven?”

February 6, 2008


Last Saturday night we went to Chicago’s first ever Slideluck Potshow, held at the spacious Madron Gallery. As the event’s name sort of implies, it’s a combination potluck dinner and slideshow. At first blush, this sounds like something the Moose Lodge in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, might put on to liven up a long winter night, with everyone oohing and aahing over the multiple green bean casseroles and Ed’s 827 slides of the Alaskan cruise he and his wife Doris took, “when was it now, two years ago… three years ago?” Or as my Brooklyn Buddy Ronnie Ann put it, “Now wait a minute… people willingly go to watch slide shows without having committed a crime?”

Except the slideshow was art—very current work by Chicago artists. The crowd was an entertaining mix of mostly artists and hipsters. The food was plentiful and, for the most part, really good and interesting—this was not the kind of event where you show up with a bag of Doritos or a green bean casserole. And there was even a potluck dessert table and a potluck bar.

For our contribution, we brought a nice bottle of California sparkling wine, and Marion made a heaping bowl of the delicious soba noodle salad she posted on Blue Kitchen last week. The latter was an especially big hit—had the bowl been scraped any cleaner when we picked it up at the end of the evening, we could have just put it back on the shelf.

After the crowd had sufficiently fed, imbibed and networked, we all settled in—mostly sitting on the floor [and feeling fairly collegiate, I think] for an amazing show.


Slideluck Potshow is the brainchild of advertising and editorial photographer Casey Kelbaugh. It began in his backyard in Seattle back in 2000, when he invited friends and colleagues to bring slides and food. He told me Saturday night that the first shows really were slideshows, with artists loading their slides into carousel trays and projecting them onto the screen: “Click-click… click-click… click-click…” Now it’s all gone digital [of course], with images being set to music and the whole show being run from a laptop to a projector.

Kelbaugh did a number of slide show parties in Seattle before moving to New York in 2003. He wasn’t sure how the idea would fly there, but he gave it a shot and hosted his first New York Slideluck Potshow in his East Village apartment in 2004. According to a New York Times article, “He was surprised when 120 people arrived, obligingly toting home-cooked dishes as well as images of their work. The event mushroomed into a kind of open-mike night for photographers and other artists, who would show up with trays of slides or CDs to show.”

As Slideluck Potshow’s own website says, “Slideluck has become something of a global phenomenon, as they are now taking place everywhere from Berlin to Minneapolis, Mexico City to Washington, DC.”

And now, Chicago. Chicago’s show was heavy on the photography—no surprise, since Kelbaugh is a photographer. The work was a real mix of images, ranging from beautiful to compelling, disturbing, amusing, lyrical and sometimes just plain strange.


Particularly moving was a series of paired images by Chicago Tribune photographer Scott Strazzante. He began visiting an Illinois family farm 13 years ago, taking thousands of pictures of the husband and wife, their land and their animals. In 2002, the farm was sold and became a subdivision. Last year, he returned to the area and began shooting the new life there. He was surprised by what he discovered when he did. “I just started to watch and to shoot and I began to realize that there were so many similarities in what I was shooting to what I had shot,” Strazzante said. “When I think about it now, it’s really eerie.” Here’s a link to a Tribune piece that includes more of his wonderful photographs.

As with any group show, there were a few clunkers in the bunch. But they were greatly outnumbered by real gems. At the end of the evening, we left happily sated, our bellies and brains equally full.