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February 2011 Archives

Marya Hornbacher On Navigating Life Through Language

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Marya_Portrait_Couch_02_MT_020611_CenterStage.jpg(Photo by Mark Trockman/

Brazen memoirist Marya Hornbacher’s writes like she’s breathing. From “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia,” to “Madness: A Bipolar Life,” her books feel somehow both spontaneous and painstakingly considered. In person, Hornbacher is as brilliant, honest and witty as her writing; a delight to interview. Currently teaching creative nonfiction at Northwestern University, Hornbacher spoke with Our Town at length about everything from her teaching style to her yoga practice.

Our Town Can writing be taught?
Marya Hornbacher You can’t teach an ear, you can’t teach talent, but you can teach people who have those things not to just fly by the seat of their pants. Part of it is reading good literature, deconstructing the way beautiful language works. There’s value to having a conversation with someone who’s been [writing] a while, who knows craft. I feel like I chat with my students more than I teach them.

OT Is it hard to switch gears from writing intensely vulnerable memoir to then having to show up and be this professional teacher?
MH The assumption that your teacher will not have a life—teachers believe that more than students do. My students know I have a life, they know I’ve written about my life. They know some detail, probably more than they know about their physics teacher, but I would’ve told them anyway! When you’re teaching creative nonfiction it helps to have written about your life in a very open way, because you can say, ‘look, how much are you willing to risk emotionally to write? How careful can you be with the other people you’re writing about?’ When you deal with nonfiction you deal with human characters. How do you characterize them fully? How do you deal with dialogue? You have a way of talking about those craft points which you might not had you never taken those risks.

OT Memoirist Vivian Gornick famously admitted creating composite characters in her memoir “Fierce Attachments.” What’s your take on the ethics of that sort of invention?
MH I’m kind of a hard ass on that. I feel like in memoir you tweak dialogue in order to characterize the people involved as accurately as you can, but in terms of conflating characters, hell no. Making up events, absolutely not. Memoirs are structurally more like novels than essay, so you elide and you cut and you pare. Memoir has a narrative arc [but] life does not follow that nice, neat path to resolution and hope. So memoir is neater than life, but you can’t lie. Why would you? Write a novel.

The Alcoholic Next Door

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It isn’t that Brenda Wilhelmson journaled her way sober, but her writing practice and background as a freelance writer and journalist certainly facilitated her recovery. A self-described high-functioning alcoholic, Wilhelmson realized it was time to get help when the bad days began to outnumber the good. Looking to the literary world for aid, however, she found the self-help genre more scandalizing than beneficial. Her response? To write the book she craved. Fifteen months of journal entries led to a streamlined manuscript which she first blogged, then sold to Hazelden. Recently, she spoke with Our Town about her book, "Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife," her sobriety, and what it’s like to count David Sedaris as a fan.

Our Town How did your journalistic background influence your writing?
Brenda Wilhelmson Early on, I showed a friend the beginning of my book and he showed it to his wife, an English teacher. She pointed out places where she thought I should elaborate on my thoughts and feelings. I thanked her but didn’t take her advice. I used the who, what, when, where, why, and how approach because I knew if I didn’t, “Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife” would be maudlin drivel, and I wanted to stick close to the facts.

OT You describe your experiences as milder than other addicts’ which made you question whether you were truly an alcoholic. Can you talk about that?
BW When I started attending recovery meetings, I'd listen to addicts tell stories of their children being taken away, selling sex for drugs, burning down their houses, going to prison. It was like they knew they had cancer but waited until stage four before getting help. I felt like I was at stage one. I had a good husband, two great kids, a nice house, two cars, I hadn’t lost my driving privileges like most of them had, and no one knew I was a drunk. I’d sit in meetings and tell myself I wasn’t that bad, that I could drink again. But when I took [an] honest look at myself, I sounded bad, too. The battle of I'm-not-that-bad/yes-you-are raged in me for most of the first year I was sober.

OT What keeps you sober?
BW When I'd seriously contemplate drinking again, I’d remind myself of two truths that made me cringe. The first: I’d begun drinking the dregs from my party guests’ glasses after they left my home. The second: I knew I’d quit drinking if I got pregnant, and that’s part of the reason I had my second child.

Interview with Chicago Artist Freddie Levin

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Chicago illustrator Freddie Levin has seen me naked; apparently at the time, I asked her if she’d ever held a gerbil in her hand. I can envision the headlines now:
“Prominent (my imaginary headline, my word choice) Blogger and Botanical Artist Eat Shrooms and Cavort Nude.”

I’m throwing the drug reference in there because the gerbil question--and the fact I don’t remember asking it-- make me sound completely high.

Truth is, I was two years old and in the bathtub when I asked Levin, a longtime family friend, my very important rodent question. Years later, I still get naked for artists, and Levin remains a thriving illustrator and business owner, successfully marrying art and commerce.

Our Town Was becoming an artist always a goal?
Freddie Levin I'm not even sure I would say I 'became' an artist any more than I 'became' a girl. I think the wiring was there from the start.

OT Describe your aesthetic.
FL I'm an illustrator. All my images are pieces of stories. There is always text even if it is wordless. I don't know what you would call my style, quirky, maybe? I like to put antlers on everything.

OT Who influences you?
FL Joseph Cornell, Maira Kalman, French Medieval Manuscripts, George Cruikshank, Vermeer, Mary Zimmerman. I'm all over the place.

OT What’s your daily process like?
FL I draw every day. I'm either working on a book or an assignment from a publisher or a series of botanical works or filling sketchbooks. I keep several sketchbooks - one for ideas, one for observational drawings and one for planning. I take ballet and yoga classes in the morning and spend the afternoons and evenings on art work. It's a pretty sweet routine.

OT What’s your favorite medium?
FL For illustration, I have these wonderful overpriced Swiss crayons. For sketching I like Prismacolor pencils. For botanical illustration I have two methods: gouache on black illustration board or sepia ink on toned paper. I love art supplies. Forget candy or jewelry. I can be wooed with pencils.

OT Where do you find inspiration?
FL For my botanical work, I am constantly struck by the elegant way a plant is organized. I find beauty in very ordinary things like a twig or a seed pod or a feather. The rest of my imagery is just the crap that is floating around in my head and which I find endlessly amusing.

Who's Your Cousin?

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The more I blog here, the more impressed I am by Chicago’s talent pool. Aside from near weekly e-mails from (No I won’t link. Copy and paste if you’re curious.) asking me to endorse Mistress Day, and their contests to select the top Mistress of the Millennium (I vote Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.), I’m typically contacted by artists, writers and musicians looking to promote their work. With few exceptions, I’m pleasantly surprised. Take Cousin Dud, a local folk-rock group who recently released their debut album, “Our American Cousin.” The band name threw me for a second, but I’m glad it didn’t stop me from checking them out. Below, their guitarist Matt Carmichael discusses the band’s music, inspiration, and how their saxophonist isn’t really a prominent bankruptcy lawyer.

Our Town ‘Cousin Dud?’ Why?
Matt Carmichael Some time back our drummer Ben happened to be reading this book, “Boy Soldier of the Confederacy” and came across [this] line:
"Oh, Cousin Dud," she cried, "You won't have him shot. Oh, please don't."
We were looking for a proper name [at the time] and we all thought it had a real nice ring to it. I personally like it because I think it sets the bar of expectation really, really low.

OT Describe your music.
MC Folk-rock, lately leaning more towards the rock, particularly in a live setting. But there are some alt and punk influences as well. The songs are all lyrically driven and deal with characters and themes that explore concerns of excess and decadence.

OT How long have you performed together?
MC A couple of years, in various forms. It started as a duo: Josh Burns [and] myself. Drummer Ben Arthur came in later, and bassist Dan Schuld was the last to hop on board. We've also known sax man Pete Geraci, (not the lawyer) for a while. He handles the horn most live shows and on a few tracks off the last album, “Our American Cousin.”

OT Who are your influences?
MC Flannery O'Connor, Craig Finn, and America...the country, not the band.

OT Why self-release your records?
MC I'd love to digress into romanticized notions of calling our own shots or controlling our own destiny, or whatever the DIY appeal may be, but mostly, nobody else offered to release it. We'll sell out the second we get the chance.

OT Who would you love to discover was a fan of yours?
MC If one day we received a Paypal receipt from Jesus, I think that would be pretty rad...or ALF, that might be even better. But I guess ALF isn't around any more, so I won't hold my breath on that one.

Fighting Old Man Winter: Tips from Our Town Readers

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I’ve hit my limit. First twenty inches of snow, next fifteen below wind-chill and now I’ve got a fever to boot. Do you know how hard it is to think with a fever? You start out writing a simple blog intro and end up reading about the origin of ‘to boot.’ Apparently totally unrelated to footwear, the phrase may derive from the Old English ‘bat’ meaning good or useful—two things this digression is not. Not to mention the fever dreams. Last night I dreamed a Burlesque troupe tried to recruit me by seeing if I’d answer to the name they’d chosen for me: Salmon.

Before I got sick, I’d stayed on top of winter rage and depression by doing copious amounts of yoga and eating cookies, both healthy activities. At times, I felt only my Vinyasas stood between me and a meltdown worthy of Jack Torrance. But yoga while feverish is inadvisable, and I haven’t been able to taste anything since Sunday. So now it’s just me and Brothers & Sisters on Netflix instant. (Why did critics like this show? Non-sequiturs comprise all exchanges, each episode ends with syrupy music over family montages and no one recognizes the symptoms of juvenile diabetes.)

Clearly, I’m no poster child for Sane Winter Survival, (I’m not sure who is, but I picture her looking like Celine Dion. All in white, hair streaming, eyes fixed and faraway. Probably the fever. Let’s move on.) so I decided to turn to readers for advice.

I started by volunteering my cookie/yoga regime, and graduate student Brenna Kischuk weighed in with her response. “Same here,” she wrote, “if you replace cookies with tequila and yoga with online shopping binges.” Local artist Freddie Levin (who—whoa foreshadowing-- I’ll be interviewing in an upcoming blog) chimed in, “Same here, if you replace tequila with mashed potatoes and online shopping with document shredding.”

Obviously humor is key to enduring a Chicago winter, but what specific practical steps are residents taking? Writer Tara Walker says “pastries help,” and not surprisingly advocates “books, books, books.” Other readers choose a more active stance. Haute Dish server Aileen Keown Vaux, who recently moved from Chicago to Minnesota, says “exercise. Force yourself to go outside, whether for a walk, a snowball fight, or to breathe fresh air.” Long time Chicagoan Daphne Baille takes a similarly sporty if less physical tact. “NFL,” she says, “Australian Open. March Madness. Too bad it's not an Olympic year too!”

Also in readers’ bags of tricks: candles, fresh flowers, a fire in the fireplace, and seasonal food. When all else fails, says North Lake dweller Linda Michels, “don't agonize over winter, embrace it. It’s happening no matter what. Get out there and jump into a snowdrift! I did! It was fun!”

Not the best option for me at the moment, still, salmon for thought.

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 Our Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez

Drawing a Line

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200_300_Nancy Bio Pic.jpg

For Nancy Schwartzman, there is sex-positive life after rape. A filmmaker, writer and activist, Schwartzman used her experience as a rape survivor to fuel not only a documentary, “The Line,” examining her experience, but a multi-media campaign aimed at promoting sex-positive dialogue about relationships, sex and consent. This Thursday, February tenth at seven p.m., she joins forces with SHEER, a survivor centered, sexual assault prevention coalition to screen her film at Blackrock Pub & Kitchen.

Our Town What made you decide to so publicly examine your experience?
Nancy Schwartzman [Personally,] I needed a lens to process and understand the rape, its repercussions, and how it effected my perceptions of being a sexually liberated person. Politically, I realized my particular story was a litmus test for what our society understands as rape, who we think deserves sympathy, and what kinds of violence we tolerate.

OT Can you talk a little about the idea of a perfect victim and why you say you weren’t?
NS There is no "perfect" victim. She doesn't exist. My assault occurred during sex. Asking people to understand a violation of boundaries during a sex act challenges the idea that saying yes once, or to one kind of sex, means you give up all control and autonomy from that point forward. Even a woman walking down the street attacked by a stranger will be questioned about her behavior, and what she may have done to provoke the attack. We spend astonishing amounts of energy protecting the small minority of people who perpetrate sexual violence.

OT What was it like to confront your rapist with a hidden camera?
NS When I saw him again, I realized he’s not a monster. There were times when he tried to convince me what a great guy he is. Part of me felt torn, so it was disturbing. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the camera. The camera is objective. I also had a goal: go in, say what you need to say, give him a chance to speak, see how he behaves, and then decide how you’re going to use that footage.

NS Discuss the idea of a “line.”
NS I created The Line Campaign as a way to inspire people to talk about consent. I asked the question: Where is Your Line? And I like to reference all of the amazing audience responses:
“My line is always changing. Please ask. Please listen”
“My line is somewhere between R. Kelly and What would Jesus do?”
“My line is I am a whole, not a hole…”

Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, Ack!

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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!).

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.

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.

Laugh it Up

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200 Funny Things_6_photo credit Candice Conner.jpg
Candice Conner

The ever-edgy Collaboration Theatre is at it again with a new comedy event. Dubbed a “late-night improv asylum,” "200 Funny Things" challenges seven actors to pull two hundred laughs from an audience without use of pre-existing script, premise or even traditional characters. Conceived and directed by Chicago director, actor and teacher Steven Ivcich. the show promises material to tickle your funny bone and challenge your grey matter.

Our Town What inspired "200 Funny Things?"
Steven Ivcich I wanted a performance environment that supported two distinct lines of experimentation; expanding the actor's expressive range beyond socially acceptable behaviors and creating a totally free, unstructured approach to improvisation. I decided this environment should be humor-based, because laughter gives the audience an opportunity to respond overtly to what's onstage. The viewer becomes the "other player" and that erases the formal boundary between actor and audience. I also wanted to find out if it's possible for the actor to engage the viewer with purely abstract content as opposed to the usual narrative devices like dialogue, plot structures and reality-based characters and situations.

OT Your rehearsal process involved the creation of entities as opposed to characters. What’s the distinction?
SI When you talk about a character in a play, you're really talking about a literary device deriving its existence from the words of the author and the situations implied by the plot. Unlike a literary character, an entity is not derived from words, [rather] from what the actor is experiencing on a moment-to-moment basis. Essentially, the entity is a continuously evolving chain of experiences. Each time the actor evokes an entity it will be different because what they are experiencing at that moment is different. The entity can experience itself as human or subhuman or superhuman or not human it all. It's really an experiential universe that continuously unfolds in the consciousness of the actor. To one degree or other literary characters "make sense.” Entities do not. They are completely abstract, and yet, the audience comes to know them through the shared experience of that abstract behavior.

OT You say punch lines aren’t as funny as people.
SI They aren’t innately funny. Ask any standup comedian. If a line was innately funny, the audience would laugh every time the comedian said the line. The abstract interaction between comedian and audience is what gets the laugh. It just happens to do so in the neighborhood of the line being spoken.

OT So, how does one present a full person through unscripted improv?
SI Well, in the person of the actor you already have a full person. We're just expanding the expressive range of that person beyond the usual socially accepted norms of behavior so that the actor can morph into pretty much anything he or she wants to be.

I Get Naked for Chocolate

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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.

An interview with Glittermouse

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Snowbound? I got your soundtrack right here. Chicago indie band Glittermouse, an assortment of hip, kooky musicians, have just released a new limited edition EP, “Signs of Life,” available on their website. By the time the snow clears, you’ll have the thing memorized, just in time to venture out to their February third show.

Our Town Why ‘Glittermouse?’
Glittermouse It's a combination of Betrand Russell's teapot theory, Lewis Carol's imagination, and Michael Jackson's star power.

OT Describe your music.
GM Delightfully intriguing, partially disturbing, and generally exciting. Something akin to the feeling of mild rebellion after a long week at work. An indie, progressive, glam rock cocktail.

OT Seems like you’ve got about five hundred people in the band, what does everyone do?
GM Whatever they can! Michael tells the story and hits some wires, Rob frets with magic and dirty talk, Jeremy is the earthquake, Emily blows power kisses, Jon cooks the meat, Dave does the dishes, Per is the locksmith, and the other 493 members are impromptu backup vocalists in the audience that never make it to practice. Though, the door is open.

OT You guys are unsigned. Choice or necessity?
GM Technically, by choice. We're kind of picky about the level of control we have with our music and our media relations and outputs. That said, we're completely open to working in a more collaborative setting with anyone, labels included, as long as we feel like it's an equally beneficial situation.

OT What are some memorable onstage experiences?
GM The best would be any show where we can get the crowd up and rocking and rolling with us. Worst? Any and every time Emily has been hit with an instrument, or the time she fell off the stage. Though, that might be one of the best times too, she just ran back on and kept rolling with it. What a champ!

OT What was the inspiration behind your new limited release EP?
GM “Signs of Life” [is part of] a project to release four EPs over the early half of 2011. The project was aimed at allowing the band to consistently release new music at the same rate it's written and recorded.

OT Tell us more.
GM Signs of Life came out in two versions: One is free, downloadable, and available to anyone who wants it. The other is a special limited edition version, a physical copy. This version contains a full-color printed booklet with artwork and a sci-fi story that analogues the four tracks on the disc. The story details the flight of a disenchanted space captain on his mission to do something worthwhile with his life. Each chapter is marked by a track on the EP. Only fifty copies were pressed and available to the public.

OT What’s Chicago like for musicians?
GM There are so many venues and so many bands that it's really a breeze to book shows, especially with venues like Elbo Room, where Brian Bender will book you even if you have no real live experience. If it weren't for Elbo Room, we certainly wouldn’t have been able to get where we are.

OT Favorite Chicago venue?
GM It’s easy to say Cabaret Metro, but I think our hearts really lie [with] Schubas or Beat Kitchen. Although we've never played Lincoln Hall, so I guess we'll see come Thursday!

Glittermouse plays a free show at Lincoln Hall along with Color Radio and Pet Peeve, Thursday, Feb. 3rd at 9 p.m.

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

Chicago Crush of the Month: Patty Michels

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Photo by Kristin Michels

Into the foreseeable future, The Crush of the Month Blog will open on a nostalgic note, offering quick snapshots of crush’s gone by. Why? Because change is good. Also, I’m running out of stalker jokes.

When I was in third grade I told my parents my favorite song was “Crush on You” by The Jetts.
“Joan Jett?” My father asked, excitedly. He’d supported my Jem and the Holograms habit, sat through Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, but held out hope my musical tastes might soon mature.
“Who?” I asked.
“Well, what do you like about their music?”
“They sing about liking someone but not telling them, and the girls have pretty hair.”
Luckily for my dad, just months after the Joan Jett incident, my sister came into the world wearing Sennheiser HD 800 headphones (She was from the future.); painful for my mother, balm for my dad’s soul.
As for me? I still love a good obsessive love song (See Lucinda Williams: Essence) but not as much as I love February’s Crush:

Name: Patty V. Michels
Hometown: Park Ridge, IL
Profession: Business Manager for Wave Restaurant at The W Hotel/ Go-to photographer for Our Town
Hobbies: Photography, traveling, camping, hanging out with my dog

Our Town What drew you to photography?
Patty Michels The idea of stopping time and preserving a moment. When I was eight, I got a Polaroid camera as a present and I mostly took pictures of bugs and flowers until one humid mid-western summer dusk when a huge storm was headed our way. I was lying on the sidewalk watching the clouds roll in though my viewfinder when my four year-old sister walked into the frame. I shot a gorgeous photo of her, long curly hair blowing in the wind with a red, purple and green sky swirling behind her. I was hooked.

OT Favorite subject?
PM Right now I'm really into night photography: long exposures, vibrant colors and surreal effects.

OT Ever use photography to get a girl?
PM Put it this way, wanna come over and see my macro coupler when we're done here?

OT What do you like most about your day job?
PM Besides all the food I get to eat, I would say the people. I get to work with actors, artists, culinary wizards, world travelers, musicians, writers, people who generally say "No thanks, I will not wear a tie to work. I've got better things to do with my life," but I still get to wear a tie, plus bring home a steady paycheck.

OT The W Hotel is infamous. Any interesting celebrity encounters?
PM Rihanna wanted fresh mangos in her room. They came to me for the money and I approved it. Oh, the power!

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from February 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

January 2011 is the previous archive.

March 2011 is the next archive.

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