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Are you getting what you need at home? Do you have the intimacy you crave? Can one person really meet another’s every little need? Not when it comes to....poetry? Get ready to meet the Poetry Whores at where else? The Poetry Bordello, an event boasting a unique combination of Victorian costume party, performance art, musical performance and poetry readings.  The evening includes interactions with “Bordello Regulars” who dress and act as characters from a Victorian-era brothel as well as authentic burlesque. If you’re thinking, big deal, my partner provides all of that on a nightly basis, then you won’t want to miss the evening’s highlight: a chance to purchase a one-on-one poetry reading with one of the Poetry Whores. Our Town spoke with creator/Madame Susan Yount and Poetry Whore Nate Lowe aka Carlo Matos about what to expect from this naughty literary event.

Our Town Describe Poetry Bordello’s genesis. 
Susan Yount Our resident historians inform us that it all started at the 2007 Brighton Fringe Festival in the U.K., when Jimmy McGee and Chris Parkinson created the idea to sell poetry directly to the people within the setting of a brothel. Their brothel setting was a bit tongue-in-cheek but ultimately received numerous awards including "Best Literary Event"! The idea traveled to other cities, including Chicago. The first show in Chicago was organized in mid 2010 and included poets from New York and Chicago. Our first all-Chicago show opened on 24 September 2010.


OT Why take the Victorian age as inspiration?
SY It was during this time that Chicago quite literally raised itself from the ashes of the Great Fire, like a great Victorian Phoenix, and as a result its culture, history and architecture are intertwined with the gilded age in a manner that is distinctly Chicago. Also, during the conception of an all Chicago Poetry Bordello, I was inspired by Karen Abbott’s book, Sin in the Second City, a fabulously researched and brilliantly written historical novel about the Everleigh Club. It made sense to choose the same age the most famous and luxurious house of prostitution existed. Finally, there is also a strong & supportive Steampunk community here who set a very high bar with their impeccable wardrobes (and of course, also an impeccable taste in poetry). We love seeing and interacting with them at our shows!

OT Nat, what’s the benefit of having poetry read in a one-on-one situation?
Nat Lowe When I was young, I wanted to be a poet, but I had this notion that poetry was something that people didn’t do anymore. Sure, we could marvel at the great poems of the past, but no one was writing anything new. I don’t know where I got this idea, but I find that many of my students share a similar idea. The Bordello shows them that poetry is alive and well. It also takes a lot of the bologna of poetry performance and brings it down to a very personal level without it having to be confessional. I find that my clients like to suggest topics or genres. For example, I’ve had clients ask for poems that are funny, or poems about zombies, or poems about stuff that really happened to me. When I get a more knowledgeable client, I sometimes get to have interesting discussions about poetry and poetics. It allows for a tailor-made experience, which for many people—like my students, who sometimes come to the events—can’t get anywhere else.

OT How do guests respond to the intimacy? 

NL Return customers know that the ultimate bordello experience is in the one-on-ones. It’s a little bit poetry, a little bit illicit affair and a lot of fun. For some of the new guests, I am sure it can be a tad daunting. When I get a guest to myself, I relax and try to give them what they want. They paid good money for me, after all. Mostly, I want to maintain the air of fun and debauchery and not turn it into class time. Poetry at the bordello can still be dangerous.

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I came late to the zombie genre but just like everyone and their flesh-eating mother, it's got me by the entrails now. 28 Days Later was my turning point, my zombie awakening if you will; images of that chittering priest amid a church full of zombies still accelerates my pulse when I head for the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Jason Geis, Co-Artistic Director of pH Productions knows what I mean. A fast-zombie aficionado himself, (“Why? Because they can catch you and eat you.”) Geis is responsible for the much anticipated annual Zombie Pub Crawl. A benefit for pH Productions, the crawl started on a lark and has grown exponentially with each passing year. Below, Geis discusses all things zombie.

Our Town Zombies have been around for decades; what’s behind the recent cultural resurgence? 
Jason Geis There are a lot of theories on this. Obviously shows like Walking Dead help push the zombie meme harder. But my favorite theory is that we can relate to zombies. They aren't hard to kill, they aren't particularly sneaky, but they can overwhelm you pretty fast. In this day and age with all the emails, and Facebook and everything else - if you don't keep up with it all you feel overwhelmed and can fall prey to the zombies. Zombies as a metaphor for modern society - how's that for brainy? 

OT What’s the Zombie pub crawl origin story?
JG A former cast member came to us and told us that Minneapolis had done a Zombie Crawl and wouldn't that be a funny fundraiser. I immediately thought - not funny - downright awesome. So now we do it every year. The cast looks forward to it as much as the zombies. 

OT Why Andersonville?
JG I'm actually not sure why we picked Andersonville for the first crawl. I think we were trying to think of an unexpected location that might go for something quirky like this. We have since kept it in Andersonville, because that is where we want to move our comedy theater permanently. It's an amazing neighborhood, with amazing people, amazing businesses and amazing leadership in the alderman and chamber of commerce. Did I say amazing enough? I think I did. 

OT How do you go about enticing neighborhood bars to participate?
JG After the first year it was easier. Bar owners saw how many people came out. On a non-Cubs Saturday afternoon there's a pretty nice potential to make some profit for your bar. Plus, we try and get a beer sponsor to give cheaper beer to the bars so they turn more of a profit that day. It's a win-win for everyone. Oddly, there are still bars that will not participate; they are skeptical that they won't make any money or they think we are going to destroy their bar. Simon's and Hamburger Mary's have been on from the beginning - and I'm sure they could tell you otherwise. 

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Photo by John Reilly

I first encountered Carol Anshaw’s work at a Milwaukee library. Just out of college I’d moved to Wisconsin for a relationship, was peripherally trying to initiate an acting career, maybe for an audience of dairy cows. I’m forever moving to the wrong place for the wrong reason, case in point, a few years later I would relocate to LA for another relationship and fall into a job as a sales consultant. Next thing I’ll head to Sweden in January to beat depression. At loose ends in Milwaukee, I was compelled by Anshaw’s deftly crafted characters, drawn into their imperfect world. What truly enthralled me though, was Anshaw’s voice, this amalgamation of finger-on-the-pulse authority and hot chocolate hominess. I felt certain I knew exactly what Anshaw’s life would look like, her relationships, her home.

In 2006 I prepared to move cross-country to pursue an MFA rather than a girl. A few months before the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s semester began, I spoke to a counselor. Had I chosen an advisor? he wanted to know. Thirty floors above downtown Los Angeles, I swiveled in my office chair.

“Who are my options,” I asked.
“Well, we have Carol Anshaw.”
“Wait, I’m sorry who?” Though my heart accelerated, I couldn’t initially place the name. “She’s written, oh let’s see, Lucky in the Corner, Seven Moves, Aquamarine.”

“You’re scaring the clients,” my boss tapped me on the shoulder. “Stop shrieking, did someone die?”
“I’m sorry,” I mouthed. Then into the phone, “I’ll take her,” as if Carol was a purebred dog or a shiny Corvette.

Six years later, Carol and I live within walking distance, a coincidence, I swear. We go to yoga together (She’s the type who cracks jokes during class.) and she and her partner spoil my dog with steak dinners.

I probably shouldn’t say this, because authors get huffy when readers claim to know them based only on their work (as if what one writes is somehow separate from one’s truest self), but turn a couple dials a few notches and Carol’s what I imagined, more caustic, more generous but otherwise the same.

Her much lauded new book Carry the One comes out March 6th and it was my absolute pleasure to sit at her kitchen table and discuss it while she made fun of my tape recorder and a storm whipped up outside.

Carol Anshaw That thing looks forty years old.
Our Town I think it is.
CA Does it take a cassette? I just got rid of some old ones; I wish I’d known.
OT It’s okay. Walgreen’s should be getting a new shipment from 1982 any day now. So, writing was a lifelong ambition for you-
CA As soon as I could read I wanted to write books. Where did that come from? My parents were not educated people. They could take me to the library but they couldn’t point me in the right direction, so it was just innate.

OT When did writing begin to seem achievable?
CA I was blessed with my ignorance. I wasn’t like you; I didn’t have all this information going in. I was kind of groping around in a cave. It was a whole different process.

OT Your early work-
CA First I wrote a novel that never saw the light of day, but it taught me about scene structure and all that. Then I had a novel published in seventy-eight and I thought, well, I’m on my way! But I didn’t have anything published till Aquamarine fourteen years later.That’s why I tell students until you’ve been crawling through a tunnel over broken glass for fourteen years don’t come bitching to me. During that time I wrote a lot more, I wrote a second book that went right into a drawer. Then I wrote something under a pseudonym, but it was a long tunnel.

OT Whenever I interview a writer I ask about their writing process-
CA What writing process?

OT Do you have one? Do you sit down at 2:01 p.m. exactly with your cup of earl grey just to the left of your parchment and-
CA No! I think people think that. I was reading an interview with Alice Munro and she writes from nine to one every day and I thought wow, that must be so great. I just write when I can.

OT When Aquamarine was published I assume having a lesbian main character was still a potential stumbling block. Have things changed?
CA I think so. Nobody blinked at my new book. But also in ninety-two it was a good kind of exotic, a sort of curiosity. Maybe I got in through that gate.

OT In feminism and gay rights we always talk about benefiting from the work of those who came before, but with a long career like yours, is there a way in which the work your earlier books did pushing the envelope in terms of gay acceptance or at least a queer presence in literature is something you yourself have come to benefit from?
CA Maybe. I don’t know if my books had enough reach to influence anybody about anything.

OT Take credit.
CA When I started, there was more of a cultural assumption that many readers would find gay characters irrelevant or repugnant. I was only one of many queer writers out there trying to cut through all that antagonism. For whatever reason, I don’t think it’s that big a deal now. In the beginning you just had lesbian novels about women being lesbians—that was all they did. But now you have people who are queer, but living lives that are about a million other things.

OT Speaking of change, the literary world itself has changed significantly during your career. Are the changes positive?
CA There used to be only three routes: mainstream publishers, university/small presses and self-publishing. But self-publishing was on a really low rung. Now not so much, now you can instantly publish your book, you can get an ISBN number and be on Amazon and eventually get a publisher and wider distribution. I think publishing is going to be split into more little pieces. But this fragmenting of the market has really been helpful. More different kind of books are being published. I don’t know where everything is going but I’m pretty confident that people like books—the objects. So I’m going to go on that—they’re not going to disappear. For instance, we’re talking about your really tragic cassette player, the tape you’re making here, you can’t play on any other item in your house, probably. You can have all these old LPs but you might not have a player. But my books are right over there on the shelf; I can pull them down any time I want.

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Writer Natalie Edwards wants you to come to her party. A development associate for Ox-Bow School of Art and Artist's Residency, Edwards is on the cusp of all things hip and current—case in point, The Rumpus named her one of the funniest women of McSweeney’s-- but the thing she cares most about was founded in 1901.

“Ox-Bow” she says was established “by artists from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago who wanted to create a place to make work in an environment that was both beautiful naturally, but also one that could support their mutuality of purpose as creative thinkers and makers.” Since its inception, Ox-bow has continued to compel artists and foster their work, and now the artist’s residency needs you. Edwards spoke with Our Town about the Ox-Bow Winter Benefit and what it’s like to be a writer in Chicago.

Our Town What’s so special about Ox-Bow?
Natalie Edwards The artists that participate in Ox-Bow often remark on how productive their time was at Ox-Bow, both in terms of the amount of work they made there, but also in terms of how the atmosphere at Ox-Bow recharges them with fresh energy, ideas, and connections to bring back to the studio after they've left. Most artists spend about one or two weeks at Ox-Bow, but the impact of the experience influences the work that they make for a long time after.

OT How did you become involved?
NE I was a student at Ox-Bow for several years. I took a painting class where I learned that painting is difficult and I am terrible at it. I took a printmaking class where I learned that printmaking is difficult and I'm ok at it, and then I took a playwriting class with the amazing Beau O'reilly where I learned that writing is the best thing ever, and then I learned that producing a play is the most difficult thing I could ever do. Those classes made such a tremendous impact on my personal and artistic life, that when a job popped up there I hopped on it. It's nice to work for a place you care about.

OT Chicago is bloated with gala events. Why is this one important?
NE Well, I wouldn't really call this a gala, because that sounds stuffy. I would call it an awesome art show where you can actually take the art home. I would also call it a super fun dance party. All proceeds from the event go to keeping the place running and in good shape. It also goes to our artist-in-residence program and scholarships and other ways that we can help artists enrich their lives. I think Jerry Saltz said this, and I'm going to paraphrase it terribly, but here goes: even if artists don't become all famous and rich, isn't it good to have creative thinkers out there in the world solving problems in inventive ways? Yes. The answer is obviously yes.

OT What are you most excited about?
NE I'm excited about seeing who takes what home from the auction. I'm always surprised to see what people scramble over. I'm also really excited about drinking the cocktails that City Provisions is providing. We also have beer from Half Acre--they are consistently amazing--and we have wine from this great winery in Michigan called Good Harbor. So I'm excited that I get to be grateful for all these generous people coming together to make this event awesome.

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“Masks,” says Jeff Semmerling, “are tools of revelation” rather than “disguise.”
A Chicago mask-maker and Filament Theatre Ensemble advisory board member, Semmerling is not only an internationally renowned artist, but also a mask historian and teacher. Though he started out working with puppets after graduating from Northwestern’s Theater Department, he zeroed in on mask making after visiting New Orleans in 1981. Semmerling spoke with Our Town about his work with kids, sources of inspiration, and how one of his masks came to be shown on America’s Next Top Model.

Our Town When did you first become interested in masks?
Jeff Semmerling I played with puppets as a child quite seriously, then got very involved in the theater. Masks were right there under all the things I was interested in. Theater was interesting to me mostly because of the ‘we’ thing of working on something bigger than myself. Masks do the same thing in a more direct way. They make us less about ourselves and more about a spirit of ‘we.’ [Masks] melt social restraints and distance. So damn healthy!

OT Your bio says you have the “unique ability to understand masks and how they relate to their wearer from the inside out.” Can you talk a little about this?
JS When we sell masks we set them on tables, hundreds of masks, and we stand behind the table and we watch people play with the masks. I've watched people fall in love with a mask, but leave without buying it, only to dream of it that night and come back the next day for it. Part of it, and it is only part, is that when you obscure the "identity" self the playful self is set free to be playful. The mask invites people to step out of their walls of protection, not just the wearer, but people who encounter the extra-terrestrial being that is, yet is not, before them. They are forced to be here now! Art at its best makes us really perceive.

OT What inspires you?
JS When I wintered in New Orleans [after college] and saw what happens when a whole city shuts down to party in costumes and masks, my eyes went up like roller blinds. Everything I loved about watching and doing theater was all happening at the same time with no line between the audience and the performer. These days, my customers, serious costumers, and the theaters, dancers and opera productions that need masks. I also love to play, so wearing [masks], that keeps me going too. When I travel I always make sure to have a pocket size silly face-changing mask, it makes it all so much more fun than if I were just getting pictures of myself in front of famous sites. You meet people and have some really genuine connections. The masks are like an open invitation for the best stuff to happen.

OT I hear one of your creations has appeared on America’s Next Top Model.
JS A fellow named James St. James has one of my Crazy Smile Masks and has made several appearances on the show. One of his resume pics features the mask and they always show that photo when they introduce him. It is quite a striking image. Those smile masks are really powerful!

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If you’re a Chicagoan who likes to shop than no doubt you’ve heard of the Randolph Street Market. Created in 2004 by former party planner Sally Schwartz, the event has even attracted the likes of Oprah darling Nate Berkus. Our Town spoke with Schwartz about the Market’s inception, current incarnation, and because we here at Our Town are fashion impaired, snagged some style tips as well.

Our Town When you started what was originally known as Chicago Antique Market, did you have any inkling of what it would become?
Sally Schwartz I knew it was a big idea but I didn't actually think I'd still be doing it eight years later, thought I would be on my yacht having cornered the market in some rare item I'd stumbled across. Honestly, it's so much fun I can't imagine doing anything else and feel very blessed that it's been so well received.

OT Randolph Street Market has been described as an urban street party rather than a traditional flea market. What goes into cultivating that atmosphere?
SS I always wanted this event to feel safe and be a safe place to transact business so the vendors are hand picked and screened. Because it's a two-day show, everyone gets to relax and have fun. Throw in the alcohol and people are loose and enjoying life. It's our cool vendors, many of whom camp out onsite, that make the event such a joy for the customers. We also have lots of big cops, Chicago's finest, as bouncers making sure everyone behaves. Chicago is such a unique place, even in the world of big cities, and the Randolph Street Market reflects it, a little wacky, a lot of quality.

OT Haggling at RSM, distasteful or necessary?
SS Haggling is just part of the game and the fun! Though many of our vendors report that they love our market so much because lots of the customers never beat them down in price at all. They think our Chicago customers are so fun and polite and appreciative. And apparently, that's unusual in the world of flea marketing!

OT What was it like to receive a mention from Oprah darling Nate Berkus?
SS I was totally thrilled the first time I saw Nate wandering about. I knew he would shout it from the rooftops. It's incredibly validating to have people with the means to travel anywhere and buy anything tell you how much they love what they see and buy at the Randolph Street Market.

OT This weekend you’re hosting pool parties and a photography competition.
SS The pool party is part of the high jinx, we fill kiddie pools and put lawn chairs around them and VOILA! Pool party! It keeps everyone cool in spirit and gives the pups a place to drink and romp. The first annual Vintage Vernacular & Street Style photo contest is another way for us to get our audience participating and using the market as a backdrop. There are so many fabulous photo ops and we just can't capture them all so we invite our attendees to try their hands at creating permanent memories.

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2010 Metamorphosis Party

Homeless to gainfully employed--could there be a more positive metamorphosis? Probably not. That's why The Lincoln Park Community Shelter, a comprehensive social service agency is working to help homeless adult men and women obtain housing and gain self-sufficiency. To that end, the organization is throwing a Metamorphosis Party to both showcase the presentation of the Compassion in Action Award and benefit the LPCS in its quest to create hope and change for Chicago’s homeless.

Our Town spoke with Heather Pressman, the organization’s Community Relations Manager about their success rate, twenty-six year history and of course, the upcoming gala.

Our Town To what do you attribute LPCS’s success rate with members?
Heather Pressman The programs at LPCS are highly individualized, the staff flexible and responsive to guests’ needs. There are several different ways guests can suggest improvements, which helps them invest in the programs they are participating in. Our goal isn’t just to get people housed, [but] to make lasting life changes so that they don’t find themselves homeless again. We also try to stay connected to graduates to ensure things continue to go well and help if needed.

OT What makes LPCS’s individualized support system unique?
HP Guests living in the LPCS work with case managers to assess their needs for referrals to additional support services and permanent housing. Guided by each guest’s personal goals, case managers work to provide resources in three broad areas: Track 1: Addictions Recovery; Track 2: Mental and Physical Health; and Track 3: Employment and Education. The program both empowers and challenges guests to address barriers to self-sufficiency by making progress toward meaningful sobriety, mental stability, healthy lifestyles, livable wage employment and permanent housing. The program also offers daily educational and support groups, classes, and activities, including career building, job search, healthy lifestyles, financial management, computer tutoring, and daily living skills enhancement. Each track has measurable outcomes, and includes assessment, goal setting, referrals, educational groups and classes, advocacy, and follow-up for each guest.


OT This year’s Compassion in Action Award honorees are Pastor Jeffrey Doane from Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church; Reverend Linda Packard from Church of Our Saviour; Father Tom Hickey from St. Clement Church; and Reverend Thomas Henry from St. Pauls United Church of Christ. How were they chosen?
HP The Compassion in Action Award acknowledges that individuals who make long-term commitments to an organization's mission are the people who make both stability and change possible. The recipient of the Compassion in Action Award will always be an individual (or individuals) who inspires the community to action, and one who mirrors the community's compassion, over the long term.

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Some know AJ Durand as a yoga teacher (perhaps the only one to claim Johnny Weir-asana as a pose. In the realm of yoga humor, this is actually really funny.) Others may recognize him as Our Town’s first ever Crush of the Month (Because love means never having to say “Fine, I’ll stop following your every move and also I will return your underwear.”)

Lately, however, Durand has been living the dream as a gender fluid android, host of Sh*t’s and Giggles, a monthly themed variety show. S&G, which next takes place April third at The Parlour, is Chicago’s one stop shop for all things gender-bending, think “Cabaret” if Joel Grey were an alien android (and I’m not saying he isn’t.) This month, the line-up includes Sherri Stein, Marlene Biscotti (Kristen Studard), Steve Hnilicka and more. Space is limited, so arrive before the 9:30 curtain.

Our Town How did you come up with the Trandroid character?
AJ Durand In the summer of 2005 I was playing with some makeup and costume pieces and my neighbor had a camera and we created this being who appeared on the roof, curious to explore the sexual nature of humans. As a performer, I wanted to blur gender. Trandroid is ambi-gendered, all genders.

OT Trandroid has killer style. Where does zie shop?
AJ Oh, you know, all the finest boutiques, like the village discount thrift in Roscoe Village, Ragstock, my closet, my friend's closets, you know Plato, right? I try not to spend too much money on Mamsir Trandroid because I tend to hack apart and sew together most of it. Although, the sweater dress just made an appearance unaltered. Some garments are just built for bots!

OT What do you look for in a performer?
AJ Light and cheeky, over-the-top sexy, gaudy, but never mean. I don't think mean is entertaining. [We’ve had] comedians, burlesquer/boylesque, drag kings and queens, animal impersonators, jugglers, sword swallowers, belly dancers, and once we had a stripper robot. I encourage people to add a touch of queer to the mix and many do. I send out a once monthly "call to perform" email to performers. If anyone would like to be added, email me at TrandroidChronicles@gmail.com or "like" Trandroid on Facebook.

OT What aspect of the show are you particularly excited about this month?
AJ I don't just host the show, I host the event, so it's nice to see some familiar faces and meet new people and talk about gender and queerness and fun. Every month I'm excited to hang out with the audience. We have some returning artists this month and some new, so I'm excited to see what everyone comes up with. [Also], Maxx Hollywood, a former Chicago King is performing and never fails to win our hearts!

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The first time I entered one of those mammoth grocery stores we’ve all grown accustomed to, I reacted as if I’d spent my life in an Eastern European bread line or possibly running with wolves. The options, the scale, both overwhelmed me.
Later, my years in LA felt like a sentence served inside Baz Luhrmann’s mind; the garish corner of Sunset and La Cienega enough to make me sob. I guess lurid excess just isn’t my thing.

Still, as I mentioned last week, I was eager to attend the For the Love of Chocolate gala, (or as I like to refer to it: Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate, Ack!) FTLOC benefits The French Pastry School’s Scholarship Foundation, and draws hundreds of local candy shop pros and restaurant chefs, from Chris Kadow-Dougherty of Whimsical Candy to Kai Lermen, Executive Chef at the Peninsula Hotel.

Inside the Merchandise Mart it was like Willy Wonka meets Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Top Chef: a DJ blasted artful mixes, an elfin man on a sort of elevated bicycle turned a crank to produce wine by the glass and a woman essentially wearing a table served chocolate from her “skirt.” (She refused to come home with me; for the best, she wouldn’t have fit in the car.)

In corridors branching from the main area guests, like well-coiffed ants, surrounded long tables heaped with chocolate concoctions (sorbets, puddings, cookies, tiramisu, cupcakes, mousse). In one area, a candy maker used a blowtorch to construct a two-foot high candy flower. Elsewhere, celebrity chef Rick Bayless attracted a throng of devotees as he threw together some sort of cubed beef, cilantro, tortilla situation (Hey, I’m not a food writer!).
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Though I likely bypassed dozens of amazing displays, I was most taken with Bleeding Heart Bakery’s “Tribute to Sid Vicious in Whiskey and Chocolate,” an edgy conglomeration of whiskey infused offerings including a chocolate handgun I slipped into my purse.
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Eventually I found my way to the “real food” section, where guests queued up for ceviche, chick pea soup, and soft hunks of meat girded by pureed root vegetables, which I also slipped into my purse. I’m guessing chocolate was involved in each, but at that point I was too overwhelmed to inquire.

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If you were sitting next to me at my writing desk this morning (and perhaps you were; I wouldn’t know because I wear blinders when I’m working. If it’s good enough for the plough horse, it’s good enough for the easily distractible work-at-home writer.) this is what you would have seen:

Me, totally normal person wearing horse blinders and roller skates (I hate the sound of the kettle shrieking, and the skates cut my travel time in half.). I lean closer to read an incoming e-mail. My jaw slackens. I remove all of my clothing. (Except the blinders and the roller skates, which are technically accessories, I believe.)

You ask: Why engage in such strange behavior? Why hang out in my house without my knowledge, watching me write? I counter. But let’s not quibble. Instead I’ll share an excerpt from the e-mail I received.

Dear Sarah:
On February 5th, The French Pastry School will hold its annual gala, For the Love of Chocolate, at the Merchandise Mart to raise funds for future pastry students. We would like to invite you to attend.

It was then I shed my clothing, something I do whenever I come in contact with the word chocolate. It’s not sexual, rather, if chocolate is in the vicinity, even the word chocolate, I simple want to be ready to get as close to chocolate as possible.

Reading on, I discovered the affair would include “celebrity and award-winning savory and pastry chefs such as Rick Bayless (of Frontera Grill) and Sherry Yard (of Spago, Beverly Hills); nationally recognized food writers such as Barbara Fairchild (longtime editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit) and Chicago TV news personalities wearing chocolate fashions.”

See, I was right to undress in preparation!

The $200 a head gala takes place Saturday February 5th from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Merchandise Mart. The invitation specifies black-tie, but lucky for me there’s no mention of pants.

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New Years Eve, like all grown-up holidays, gets more disappointing each year. For kids, there’s the excitement of staying up late and convincing yourself you’re drunk on sparkling apple cider. But adults must wrestle a surplus of writhing anxiety, much like that snake pit in Indiana Jones.

What will I wear? Where will I go? Will I be stranded without a cab? Will that creepy guy wearing those shoes with a slot for each toe who keeps trying to argue with me about whether The Beatles are really a rock band try to kiss me at midnight? If he doesn’t and no one else does either am I doomed to spend the rest of my life alone? What if I get alcohol poisoning? What if I’m trying to write a check in line at the grocery store tomorrow (because I’m eighty-two years old all of a sudden) and instead of writing 2011, I write 2010 and then I have to start over but I make the same mistake again, and the line is growing and the people behind me are getting angry and finally one of them loses it and tries to asphyxiate me with that bag of Doritos he’s buying to go with his Monster drink?

These are a mere sample of the fretful issues that flood the adult mind, whereas kids are mainly concerned about the Times Square ball coming loose and flying through the TV set to crush them, at least I was. But even if you’ve achieved some Zen-like stage of enlightenment and when your ipod loses battery power in the middle of a run or everything you pick up gives you a paper cut, even the cat, you just smile and sip some green tea, New Year’s Eve remains ridiculously expensive. So ha, you still need me, because that’s where this blog post comes in.

Below, please find a proven list of New Year’s Eve activates that will cost you nothing. Better, each item may even earn you a buck or $2500. Or maybe that’s just the sparkling cider talking.

1. Stuff your pockets with burritos, Plan B and those thin elastic headbands and stand on the corner of Clark and Addison. Come three a.m. sell your merchandise for $50 a pop. Men and enterprising lesbians: this may also be a way to land an out of your league sleepover buddy!

2. You know that older fellow who lurks in Edgewater doorways barking? At first I deemed his disorder involuntary, like Tourette Syndrome or an affinity for the Rachel Ray Show. However lately, I’ve been locking eyes with him instead of acting oblivious as well as observing his behavior from afar. My conclusion? He targets heedless women. So this New Year, why not dress up like Animal Care and Control and come after him with a net? Then charge him $5 for release back into the wild.

3. With tickets ranging from $145 to $2500 for a VIP table, Chicago Scene New Year’s Gala at The Drake Hotel is a perfect place to line your pockets. Just stand out front and pretend to be the doorman. Note: wear running shoes.

4. Slap a lit-up triangle on top of your car and pick up drunken revelers. Bonus: Tell them you’re the Cash Cab, then ask a series of increasingly difficult trivia questions. Every time they get an answer wrong, fine them $20.

5. Watch the New Year’s Eve scene in "When Harry Met Sally" on repeat at top volume. At intervals, wail, “Why doesn’t anything romantic ever happen to me?” and “I want an off-the-shoulder party dress!” When your husband/girlfriend/downstairs neighbor/dog begs you to stop say you will. For a price….

Photo by Patty Michels

A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez

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Actors have it rough. Often dependent on others for creative expression and denied any sort of blueprint for success, many feel isolated and adrift.

Not Grace McPhillips, well, not anymore. McPhillips founded The Chicago Acting in Film Meetup Group in 2007. Feeling “stymied as an actress,” McPhillips decided it was time Chicago actors had access to a support system, “fellow working actors [with whom] to share concerns and successes.”

Three years later, her group has grown to almost two hundred members, each “go-getters who take charge of their own careers.” No accident; McPhillips is selective, asking that those interested apply for membership. “Protecting our group's professionalism,” she says, “is key to our success.”

Though actors are often perceived as competitive, McPhillips doesn’t worry about sharing her secrets. Says McPhillips, “one of our goals is to help each other be smarter Chicago actors. When we share what we know, we learn and we grow, and everyone benefits.” Another goal? To keep film production local. “For every dollar spent on a production in Illinois, something like three dollars is made for the state and local economies,” says McPhillips. “We want opportunities here so we don't lose people, and money. It’s important for actors in Chicago to be able to make a good living and provide for their families. Film and voice over production feeds actors here much more than theater. And who doesn't love watching our beautiful city in films and commercials?”

To assist in these goals and others, The Chicago Acting in Film Meetup Group will host its “Annual Networking Night and Holiday Fundraiser” on Monday, December 13 from 7 p.m. to Midnight. Held at Chief O’Neill’s Restaurant and Pub, the event includes entertainment, a raffle and more. McPhillips says she’s looking forward to the event, specifically the chance to “celebrate the year, and plan projects for the New Year.”

With prizes including a Bulls ticket package, a private vocal lesson with Mark Burnell and a headshot session with Teresa Cesario, the raffle offers something for everyone, whether an actor or not.

According to McPhillips, "what happens in the Meetup stays in the Meetup,” but what happens at the fundraiser is anyone’s guess.

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Death Toll: A Drinking Game
11 p.m. Friday-Saturday at Cornservatory; $10-$20
Get splattered and plastered at this brilliantly moronic distillation of the Halloween season. It's a game, and it's simple: Watch a series of ultra-violent sketches. Whenever a character bites it, drink. BYOB and plenty of it. The body count in the Cornservatory will be high.
More: Halloween theater guide.

Deerhunter, Real Estate, Casino vs. Japan
9 p.m. Friday at Metro; $19
Atlanta's Deerhunter kicks out the most blissfully disturbing sounds on this neo-chill wave bill. Lead man Bradford Cox recently cut his finest lyrics to date, inspired by the "sad" way in which we can "digest" our memories as we please, most likely playing heavily from recently dropped Halcyon Digest. Real Estate, not too keen on the twisted metaphors, rolls on mid-eve with a taste of their Jersey Shore relaxitude, combining beach-comber guitars with floating choruses from their best-of '09 charting self-titled debut. Opener Casino Versus Japan is a ringleader of the Intelligent Dance Music boom, serving up a dream ambient segue into the night’s chill vibe.

Chicago International Children's Film Festival
All weekend at the Center on Halsted, Facets; $6 for kids, $9 for adults
Now that the Chicago International Film Festival is over, the kids take over. See host of films for all ages, chosen by a child-led jury. Check out the schedule of weekend screenings, workshop dates and info on the opening and closing events. Kids can also participate in the Young Chicago Critics Program and tell everyone what they think.

Phantogram
9 p.m. Sunday at Lincoln Hall; $13
After gaining popularity with U.K. label BBE, the hip-hop duo Phantogram (Joshua M. Carter and Sarah D. Barthel) recently signed with Barsuk Records in order to reintroduce themselves to fans here in the U.S., and so far the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Their show at Lincoln Hall will be in promotion of their latest album Eyelid Movies, but don't be surprised if they come to the stage with a set of new material from a forthcoming EP. Opening for Phantogram will be Why? drummer Josiah Wolf, who is also promoting an album entitled Jet Lag.

The Nervous Breakdown's Literary Experience
6:30 p.m. Sunday at Cary's; free
Our favorite arts blog comes to Chicago for a free reading. The event is emceed by Gina Frangello (Slut Lullabies) and contributors include Rob Roberge (Working Backwards from the Worse Moment of My Life), Mathew Frank (Barolo), Davis Scheiderman (Drain) and Zoe Zolbrod (Currency).

Just missed the cut: Zion I, The Ladies & Gentlemen, Whistler Soul & Funk Party, Pistol Pete Band, The Other Cinderella, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ghostbox.

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Big Buck Hunter Championship
5 p.m. Friday and noon Saturday at Cubby Bear; $5 cover
Hunting season hits Chicago with the third annual Big Buck Hunter World Championships, the pinnacle of competition for this bar-friendly arcade game. Top players from around the world - including X-Games star Travis Pastrana - will attempt to shoot their way to $50,000 in prize money. The event is open to the public and features free game plays for spectators and raffle prizes, such as the new Big Buck Hunter Wii Game.

Oktoberfest Kickoff Party
5 p.m. Friday at Faith & Whiskey; free
Work your way through all 10 $3 Oktoberfest pints and receive a free $15 gift certificate to a Chinese restaurant. More decidedly German offerings include a free bratwurst buffet from 5pm-8pm; a $100 cash prize for the best Lederhosen wearer or German beer wench costume; and a "Germany's Best Video Power Hour" at 8 p.m. featuring clips ranging from The Hoff to Dirk Nowitzki to Claudia Schiffer, to the lyrical stylings of Rammstein (to keep it light).

Pacific Division
10 p.m. Friday at Subterranean; $13-$15
Hailing from SoCal, Pac Div has spent the better part of their young careers trying to carve themselves out a niche. Many have compared them to fellow up-and-comers The Cool Kids, but you'd be surprised how focused a vision they have as opposed to the straight party rap material. A strong buzz has been surrounding their newest album, Grown Kids Syndrome, and if the product lives up to the hype, it should pave the way for a big breakout year. Their performance at Sub-T will serve as an official album release party as well as a celebration for Ground Lift Media (now in its fourth year) and Jugrnaut clothing (third year). Opening will be talented lyricists Mic Terror and Que Billah.

Nightmares on Lincoln Ave Too - Totally Tubular Tales of Terror
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday at Conservatory; $7-$15
Quake, 1980s pop culture hegemony! The children of the '90s are on the rise. Kick off Halloween season with the latest show from the Cornservatory, which draws on the rich heritage of Nickelodeon, parodying beloved ephemera from "Troll 2" to "Are You Afraid of the Dark" to "Goosebumps." Pair with trick or treating for the perfect evening of regression.

Fork, Cork & Style
Saturday at Arlington Race Track; $12
This tailgate-themed food and wine festival will feature unique dishes from America's best restaurants, chef cooking demonstrations by Emeril Lagasse and other celebrity chefs, a high-end wine tasting with 250 elite brands and innovative ways to dress up tailgating parties.

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Land of Talk, Suuns
9 p.m. at Lincoln Hall; $12-$14
Broken Social Scene alum Elizabeth Powell’s baby, Land of Talk, broke in '06 with the aggressive pseudo-feminist EP Applause Cheer Boo Hiss, with Powell leading a trio of Dinosaur Jr. grungy guitars through cut-the-skin tales rooted in shaking her tom-boy youth. Montreal prog-rockers, Suuns, lead.

Rock of Ages
8 p.m. at Bank of America Theater; tickets start at $27
Broadway in Chicago serves up a giant flaming ball of cheese. This touring show combines the guilty pleasure of '80s rock with the guiltier pleasure of jukebox musicals and the nauseatingly guilty pleasure of American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis.

Pup Crawl
6 p.m. at Matchbox; free
We’ll spare you a joke about sniffing butts and just tell you to bring your best friend to this weekly pub crawl in West Town, featuring drink specials and a park stop for the pooches. Participating bars: The Matchbox (6 p.m.), J. Patrick’s (7 p.m.) and Mahoney’s Pub (9 p.m.). Don’t have a dog? You can look into adoption with the folks from ArfHouse.

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Margot & The Nuclear So and So's
8 p.m. Sunday at Lincoln Hall; $12-$15
Another representative of the orchestral pop genre that has become the flavor of the month, Margot stands out from the crowd by virtue of its quirky, energetic live shows. Though the band's members hail from various corners of Indiana, they've found a second home in Chicago, recording the sessions for their "Animal" and "Not Animal" albums here. The Lonely Forest and Cameron McGill & What Army open.

Lebowski Fest Chicago
Friday-Saturday at various locations
Creedence, bowling, White Russians, purple jumpsuits and lots more will be present at the third annual Chicago fest celebrating the 1998 cult classic film, "The Big Lebowski." The first night of the event takes place at Portage Theater, featuring a special screening of the film with some special guests making appearances. On Friday and Saturday, there will be bowling, trivia, costumes and more at Diversey River Bowl.

Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival and Art Fair
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday at Millennium Park; free
A true fiesta with music, food and art from the Latino community. The art fair will give you an opportunity to bring some love for all things Latin into your home. Local merchants will be selling artwork in addition to jewelry and clothing.

Harvest Jam
Friday-Sunday at Queen of Angels Church (2330 W. Sunnyside); $5-$10 (tickets)
Celebrate autumn at this Lincoln Square fest featuring live entertainment, carnival games (Skee-ball, anyone?), food vendors, dancing and more. The usual suspects on the festival scene (Too White Crew, Wedding Banned) try to make you forget summer is just about over.

Love! Valour! Compassion!
6 p.m. Sunday at Mary's Attic; $5-$10
Get gay-friendly with Harry Osterman, our beach-cleaning, parade-waving 14th District rep. Osterman will host the fourth installment in the "Great Plays of Terrence McNally" reading series: "Love! Valour! Compassion!" This bittersweet look back at summer follows the adventures of eight men over three holidays in one lake house.

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Windy City Wine Festival
Friday-Saturday at Buckingham Fountain; $10-$35
Expect plenty of wine tastings, cooking demonstrations and live entertainment in Millennium Park. Bone up on wines from around the world (Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Argentina will all be represented in addition to various regions of the U.S.) and you can impress your friends at the next dinner party. Also: the Wine Discount Center will be offering 10 percent off any wine ordered at the festival.

Renegade Craft Fair
Saturday-Sunday on Division between Damen and Paulina; free
Now in its eighth year, the fair features cool crafts like jewelry, knitting, t-shirts and 'zines in a D.I.Y. environment with over 300 artists, plus music from independent artists. This juried craft fair has a true renegade spirit, and was one of the first of its kind.

Mexican Independence Day Parade
11 a.m. Saturday on 18th Street from Newberry to Wolcott; free
While you may think of Cinco de Mayo as the Mexican Independence Day, it's actually widely celebrated on September 16. Mariachi bands, exotically decorated floats, Mexican flags, handmade crafts and games make this parade a family fiesta.

Daredevils' Hamlet
Friday-Saturday at Neo-Futurarium; $10-$15
A rollicking meditation on manhood, boyhood and all points in between, the Neo-futurists' latest reinterprets Shakespeare through a combination of soul-searching and dumb stunts. The daredevils, five vastly charming male actors playing (more or less) themselves, confront what scares them most, whether it's a famous monologue, an accurate self assessment, or a flaming hoop. The results provoke thought and laughter, both in generous measure.

Wavves
7 p.m. Sunday at Lincoln Hall; $12-$14
He was chewed and spit out by the blogosphere for his trash guitar distortions and indiscernible lyrics, culminating in some odd drug cocktail-exiting career hiatus at a Spanish music festival. But San Diego's Nathan Williams is riding a new comeback wave with sophomore release King of the Beach. "Laugh, I beg you laugh, right behind my back," he shreds in glistening pop clarity, heel-kick crunching, "I won't ever die. I'll go surfing in my mind." Hipsters do forgive, it's true. SD tour-mates Christmas Island strip it down lo-fi, but still glimmer from the beach as openers.

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Ahmad Jamal
7:30pm at Millennium Park; free
As a pianist, composer, arranger, theorist and teacher, Ahmad Jamal's influence has echoed for well over five decades. His innovation as a composer has stretched the boundaries of music, and has influenced everyone from Miles Davis and John Coltrane to De La Soul and Jay-Z. At 80, he is still touring regularly, and his stop at Millennium Park will be a nice warm-up before this year’s Jazz Fest. Hopefully the rain will stay away long enough to make an enjoyable show.

Nerd Fest 4th Anniversary Celebration
7 p.m. at Holiday Club; $10 in advance, $20 at the door
Help Nerds at Heart celebrate all their geeky glory with this mixer for single straights and GLBTs, featuring video games, board games, comedy performances and maybe some brainy romance.

Back to School Toga Party
10 p.m.-2 a.m. at Y Bar; $20
Get in the college spirit with a hosted Belvedere Vodka reception, jungle juice and jello shots at this River North hot spot. Toga! Toga! Toga!

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Rock Your Heart Out Volume II
8:30 p.m. at Bull & Bear; $15
“Bachelorette” star Ed Swiderski hosts this event to raise money for his new organization, the Global Education Open Technology Foundation (http://www.geotf.org/). American Idol’s Jeffrey David Goldford will play a set, to go along with a two-hour cocktail reception with appetizers and drink specials. A raffle includes tickets to see Dave Matthews Band at Wrigley Field.

Leon Russell
8 p.m. at SPACE; $35
Session guru Leon Russell has credits with everyone from Eric Clapton to Frank Sinatra, flanked by gigs with Phil Spector’s Studio group, and later his own Church Recording Studio. This tour will probably showcase more of his country side, the kind he used to light up the Billboard charts with Willie Nelson duets in the late 70s. (Gavin Paul)

Bar AIDS
5-11:30 p.m. at various locations; $40
More than 35 bars and restaurants throughout Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Andersonville, River North and even Oak Park participate in this annual event to raise money for AIDS research. Most places offer drink specials, and a raffle includes prizes like tropical vacations and spa packages. Check out a list of participating places here.

3 Things To Do Today

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‘Top Gun’
Dusk at Chicago History Museum (outside); free
Is it bad that we always rooted for Val Kilmer’s character to wipe that stupid grin off Maverick’s face? Yeah, probably. Anyway, bring back that lovin’ feeling for Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise as part of the Movies in the Parks series. Also showing tonight: "The Blind Side" (Fulton River Park, 601 W. Kinzie St.) and "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" (Smith Park, 2526 W. Grand Ave.)

Reverend Raven and the Chain Smoking Alter Boys
9:30 p.m. at Buddy Guy’s Legends; $10
Voted Milwaukee's best blues band by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry earlier in his career, the Reverend aligned himself with harpist Madison Slim and a crew of Chain Smoking back-up singers to jam his own breed of chug-a-lug funk and blues. Expect a raucous romp at one of Chicago's best blues venues.

One Man Chicago ‘Meet the Men’ Happy Hour
6 p.m. at Rockit Wrigleyville; free
Meet the 20 contestants for the One Man Chicago pageant, which awards $5,000 to the winner’s charity of choice. Check out the contestants here, and then go mingle with them tonight with free apps and $5 “One Man Martinis.”

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