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May 2012 Archives

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All photos by Patty Michels

Convertibles
Swimming
Knit Hats
Light Breezes
Gale Winds
Mist
Rain
Loving Aunts


This is just a partial list of items I cannot abide. Why? Two words: Curly Hair.

Straight haired people don’t understand. They drive around in their convertibles, all carefree wearing knit hats through mist and wind and rain all the way to their old auntie’s cottage where they swim and she playfully tousles their hair.

At least that’s what curly haired people imagine. Meanwhile we’re wrapping silk scarves around our heads and ducking into doorways, trying to make it half a block without our curls: straitening/frizzing/poufing/insert your own screwed up curl activity.

And haircuts? I’ve been through breakups less traumatizing.

Once I asked for an inch off and ended up with my entire neck bare. “Are you kidding me? Curly hair shrinks, it shrinks,” I screamed (in my head.) “The back of my neck is private! Private do you hear me?”

Friends and family knew to avoid me after a haircut. Sometimes for months.

But that all changed when I met Rochelle Binik. Creative Director, stylist and colorist for Noel Rose Hair Studio, Rochelle is a thirty year veteran of the beauty industry but more important, she specializes in curly hair.

Our Town Why is it so hard for a curly haired person to get a good haircut?
Rochelle Binik Cutting curly hair is an art in understanding movement and texture. You need to really look at the different shapes and nuances of each persons curls. It takes a lot of practice and experimenting to get things right.

OT You’ve spent years honing your curly hair cutting techniques, can you reveal any secrets?
RB Being a great listener with a passion for curly hair is my secret weapon. Having curly hair myself I understand the unique challenges we face, whether it be products or climate. Each client gets an in-depth consultation to find out what their experience has been. I gather as much information,--good and bad--from the clients so I can achieve a great result they can reproduce daily.
 
OT In order to come away satisfied, what should a customer do to prepare for a haircut appointment?
RB Do your homework: find someone who is a certified curly hair specialist. Leave your fears at the door and come with an open heart. Bring in pictures of what looks great to you. You may have had a shape that you liked in the past that can help me know what works for you.


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What do you get when you combine a real estate developer mother, a daughter with a passion for music and a community of kids anxious to rock? In the case of Denise and Anne Dills, the answer is Western Illinois outposts for the much lauded School of Rock. This past April, the mother/daughter duo collaborated to bring the nationally acclaimed music program to both Elmhurst and Hinsdale. Denise Dills spoke with Our Town about the program’s importance and the evolving relevance of rock and roll.

Our Town
Rock music has undergone a cultural shift; we used to try NOT to expose our children to it, now it’s viewed as a method of empowerment. What do you make of that?
Denise Dills There definitely has been a cultural shift. For baby boomers and the generations that followed rock music has been integral. A rock song can bring back a memory of a moment in one’s life, a cultural phenomenon or even the political mood of a certain time. This is reflected in the use of rock music in almost every new sports ad, car ad or political campaign. Rock music also crosses the generational divide in ways that nothing else can. It is really amazing to turn on the radio or television and hear rock from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s that is still relevant and loved by kids and parents and even grandparents. I can’t think of another genre that so connects a wide range of ages. This is the reason that rock music is now viewed not as a negative influence but as an empowering and inspirational force.

OT Lately schools are cutting arts programs. Is the School of Rock a reaction to this trend?
DD It’s an unfortunate truth that schools have been forced to cut music and other art programs because of budgetary issues. We are not a reaction, but we try to be a partial remedy. We are pleased to be opening our Schools of Rock in communities that still have wonderful music programs and clearly value music education. We try to be a complement to these programs and partner with the school community in different ways to fund raise or provide another resources for kids to learn music that isn’t taught in band class.

OT How did you become involved with the School of Rock?
DD My daughter Anne has had a lifelong love of music and played the guitar while growing up. After business school, she went to work at the corporate offices of School of Rock in a finance role. She had the opportunity to go on the road to spend time in schools and was excited by what she saw. She asked me to come and visit some locations. What can I say? When you are in the schools and hear the music and see the excitement and camaraderie of the kids, it really is compelling. Her passion was to operate a School of Rock so she and I decided to become partners.

OT What is the organization’s mission?
DD The official mission statement is “Inspiring kids to rock on stage and in life.” We love being part of a company that goes beyond a business plan and aspires to be a force for social good. We also have our own more individualized mission. We want our students to have a fun, stimulating place to pursue their passion for rock. The middle school years can be painful for kids who can’t quite figure out where they fit. Not everyone is a gifted athlete or scholar but everyone enjoys music. When our kids become part of a band, they really feel like a valued part of a team. All School of Rock kids get to feel “cool” and accepted for who they are.

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A full-time, stressed out real estate agent, Vanessa Moses hated to cook. Yet somehow one day, she was inspired to try. Since then, she says, cooking has become her “outlet,” a source of “relaxation,” and finally, a creative new career path. In 2010, Moses established The Cooking Chicks meet-up group for professional women. Whether you love to cook or just love to eat, Moses says The Cooking Chicks offers something for you.

OT What inspired you to found The Cooking Chicks?
VM I run a very busy residential real estate business and property management company. I got into cooking about 4 years ago, needing to break away from my everyday professional world. I wanted a dinner club but could not get friends to commit. I thought, why not start with a group of people who just love food and want to share recipes? Cooking Chicks was born and it's changed my life.

OT What exactly is a food club?
VM A food club to The Cooking Chicks is all about creating amazing dishes and sharing our passion for food. You really just need to love to eat but we also have professional chefs in our group and artisan business owners. [We] love the diversity we've created. An important part of our take on a food club is information sharing - talking tips, tricks, and most importantly sharing family recipes that may not live on without someone making them and passing them on. While the Internet offers a lot of information, to us, human interaction is the most fulfilling.

OT Your group grew to over 700 members in its first two years, to what do you attribute the quick growth?
VM My background has always been about connecting people to the right people and right resources. I have been a networker all of my professional life so I looked to this as a more personal way to connect with others around something we all love, food. Our organic growth is grew out of the fact that we provide a strong focus on creating a variety of events and opportunities where busy, professional women can connect with others just like them. Cooking Chick events are educational, affordable, fun and also create new business opportunities.

Our Town You’re self taught. Does there come a point when a formal education is necessary?
Vanessa Moses You know that depends on how far you want to take, but I must say the best cooks I have ever been inspired by are everyday home cooks! I think if you want to learn a specific type of cooking or want to perfect a skill, the right classes can teach you a lot. The Cooking Chicks works hard to put on classes for those who want to learn practical skills, from truffle making to basic Middle Eastern. More serious cooks like myself my take that a step further. For example, I really wanted to learn french cooking and baking so I took it up a notch and booked a ticket to Paris last August and joined a cooking school for 3 weeks. These culinary immersions are well worth it.

OT You were a sponsor for Baconfest, what was that like?
VM Baconfest was amazing! I got to meet some amazing chefs, and [the event] allowed us to get some great Chicago-based exposure.

OT In addition to running the group, you also teach cooking classes and cater. What goes into organizing a successful cooking class?
VM Our classes are structured in a few different ways. Sometimes I will teach a class, for example, June 16th, I am doing a "Farmer and The Chef" class. It's a Cooking Chicks farm to table event where we dive into the Green City Market, get our ingredients and head back to a kitchen nearby to cook up an amazing meal. We also bring on other chefs, artisan food producers and farmers to collaborate with other cooking schools for classes and food educations. We like variety, practical-skill based classes for the everyday busy professional.

OT What food says “Chicago” to you?
VM Beer and Burgers, hands down - A classic, after work, late night, Sunday Funday, anytime, Chi-town treat!

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.

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Dan Caffrey loves Bruce Springsteen. A musician himself, Caffrey is also Artistic Director for Tympanic Theatre and his influence is apparent in their latest production. Deliver Us From Nowhere: Tales From Nebraska pairs eleven playwrights with ten Chicago directors to create a night of theater inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s legendary album, Nebraska.  Each song on the record serves as a springboard for a ten-minute play that explores the track in ways both literal and thematic. Caffrey spoke with Our Town about the innovative show.

Our Town How did the idea for Deliver Us develop?
Dan Caffrey We wanted to produce a night of short theater based on an album for a while.  I'm an absolute Springsteen fanatic [and] Nebraska seemed to be the most logical choice; its stories are very much in line with the stories we like to tell as a company: eerie tales about loners and outcasts.  You can't listen to that record and not think of ghosts. 

OT How did you go about pairing playwrights and directors?
DC Our Literary Manager Chris Acevedo and I first wrote down every possible playwright and director we could think of that might be a good fit.  Then we had to narrow it which was really tough. From there, we had every playwright pitch the top three songs they [wanted] to use as inspiration for their piece.  Luckily, there wasn't a ton of overlap.  We kind of predicted which writers would be drawn to certain pieces.  We assigned them each their respective songs, they turned in their work, the directors read all the scripts, then pitched the top two or three they wanted to helm.  From there, we tried to build teams consisting of people who had worked together before, as well as directors and writers who had never met.  It's important to get that mix.

OT What are some favorite scenes you’ve seen developed from the tracks?
DC Man, that's a tough one. Everyone took a different approach, from the straightforward to the abstract.  While I'm hesitant to pick favorites, I always love watching "The Drive," written by Mary Laws and directed by Michael Carnow.  It's inspired by the song "Used Cars," which is arguably the least well known on the album.  It makes great use of the track's simplicity; just the idea of a family going through some troubled times as they take a normal car ride. I also really dig the final show of the night, "Dead Dogs" (written by Joshua Mikel and directed by John Ross Wilson).  It's based on "Reason To Believe" and took the lyrical image of a guy staring down at a dead pet and just ran with it.  It's so spooky and sad and has some great, naturalistic performances from Michael Rice and Chris Smith. The vibe feels like No Country For Old Men.  I could go on and on about the plays.  I really do love all of them.

OT Can you take us through the process of creating your scene?
DC Well, my Dad actually wanted to submit something to be considered.  We had already picked playwrights, but I suggested we write something together.  He was a New Jersey State Trooper back in the 80s (around the time Nebraska came out), so we of course picked the song "State Trooper."  We originally had the play seen through the eyes of the song's protagonist, the guy who gets pulled over.  My Dad started telling me all these stories about officers who led double lives--guys who bought houses for both their wives and their girlfriends, you know?  And we wanted to have this kind of moral standoff between the officer and the speeder.  We eventually simplified it and shifted it to the trooper's point of view.  The play deals with moral flexibility, how we're all willing to be morally passionate about one thing, but morally indifferent towards something else.  It's not a statement on cops on all, but on all of our moral compasses and how skewed they can get.  After we got all that heady stuff out of the way, we added in some of the spooky imagery from the song--gospel stations, radio towers, and the like.

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Photo by Patty Michels

In Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop, bloggers, journalists, essayists and fiction writers share formative Madonna experiences and rhapsodize about or deride Madonna’s influence.

My first Madonna memory is of watching clips from Truth or Dare on Entertainment Tonight. Though not a Madonna fan, I’d recorded the snippets the first time the episode aired and felt somehow compelled to screen them now, with my father’s parents visiting.

I was uncomfortable, I remember that, but also proud to boast an interest in subject matter so worldly. Watching, my grandmother emitted a high-pitched clucking: chicken meets car alarm.
My dad shifted his gaze from the television to my grandmother to me. “I’ll take you to the movie if you want,” he said.

Madonna: intergenerational tool of rebellion.

Back to the anthology. Kate Harding, whose essay, "Conversations I Will Never Have with Madonna" appears in the collection, spoke with Our Town about her oddly neutral response to the polarizing pop star.

Our Town You write “my dirty little secret is, I just don’t have strong feelings about Madonna.” How is that possible?
Kate Harding Maybe that she's been there in the background of my life for so long, I learned to tune her out. 

OT Do you think feminists are obligated to have specific thoughts on influential female figures?
KH I don't think feminists are obligated to have specific thoughts on very many things. (Equal baseline respect for all human beings? Equal pay for equal work? Equal right to privacy and bodily autonomy? Done.) But those of us who publicly identify as feminist are called upon to express clearly defined opinions on powerful women all the time, so when you don't really have strong feelings, you can start to feel like you're doing something wrong.

OT Why do others react so strongly to Madonna?
KH Well, sure--sex, power, beauty, pop music, religion, reinvention, motherhood, money, and fame. For starters. There's a lot to react to! And as I say in the essay, she has a real knack for angering people on either side of a contentious issue: "she infuriated Christians with her blasphemy and atheists with her woo; conservatives with her out-of-wedlock firstborn and progressives with her sketchy transnational adoptions; homophobes with her embrace of the gay community and the gay community with her embrace of reportedly homophobic Guy Ritchie." (Yes, I just quoted myself.) That's a great way to make sure everyone's always thinking and talking about you.

OT You talk about how Lady Gaga is often seen as ripping off Madonna but then posit that perhaps it’s Madonna who is derivative.
KH I don't know enough about music to say Madonna is derivative of any specific artist or tradition, but between my age and her output, a lot of her songs sort of run together in my mind—she's derivative of herself, if you will. So I say that "Born This Way" sounds like a Madonna song, for sure—but I just don't think it sounds overwhelmingly like any specific Madonna song. It's more like the platonic ideal of one. 



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All photos by Patty Michels

Most know Amy Ray as half of the enduring folk group Indigo Girls; however, it’s Ray’s solo work, ardent and propulsive, to which I’m especially drawn. Often erroneously described as the dark or angry Indigo Girl, Ray seems neither, though her newest album, Lung of Love, continues to cultivate a punk rock ethos, the perfect backdrop for Ray’s frenetic messiness. Yet like much of Ray, that messiness is in part painstaking. An apt example: years back, we discussed the fact that she uses a voice lesson system to refine her rock n’ roll scream. That’s Ray in a nutshell; a performer who knows herself well enough to consciously become herself, a sort of disciplined discovery. Her slant on punk, though more melodious and sometimes Appalachian influenced, is loyal to the genre’s stripped-down essence. Punk’s hard-edged ferocity, Ray’s easy access to passion, both are born of heartfelt engagement. So in a way, maybe Ray’s angry rep isn’t unfounded. Maybe anger is the consequence of earnestness met with life experience, and punk is the fiercer side of folk; like Ray herself, still questing and earnest but rambunctiously so.

Our Town You’ve been writing songs for years. Can you pinpoint a moment when you became more meticulous, for example, about imagery or word choice?
Amy Ray Yeah. When I started making solo records [it] freed up the Indigo Girls avenue a bit because it [didn’t] have the burden of expressing every part of myself. I had this other road and I got excited by that compartmentalized vision [but] I had to figure out a way to be prolific. Emily is a pretty prolific writer, so if I wanted to meet her in the middle I had to work harder. I started talking to other songwriters about their writing, reading books about writing. A few really changed my discipline. One was Stephen King’s book, On Writing. Even though he’s a novelist, his discipline, his approach, the way he looks at creativity, that had the biggest impact on me. And then Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird. I started taking those things to heart and really created a discipline. I’d be like, this year I’m going to write five days a week, a few hours a day--and I really did it, stuck to it. And then I started working on imagery and melody. If I couldn’t get somewhere on the melody I would go to Mitchell Froom, a producer that works with Indigo Girls and talk to him about a melody, or Greg Griffith, my fellow producer on the last record--he co-wrote four songs with me because I got to a wall. I started being willing to reach out for help to learn more. It was gradual, but my first solo record just opened up my world because if I wasn’t going to sit down and have a discipline, I was never going to be able to write enough songs for Indigo Girls and solo work.

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With Matt Lipkins

OT Writing prose, you can’t just shift the point of view midstream, not without reason anyway, and it makes a statement when you do. But songwriters seem to do that. For example, you do it in Beauty Queen Sister and Dairy Queen-so maybe point of view shifts are acceptable in songs with the word queen in the title--but I’m wondering are there rules governing point of view shifts in songwriting?
AR That’s a really great question. I think about that when I’m writing; can I change perspectives and how do I make it clear that a different voice is coming in? In a story, the author points out the perspective changes: a person speaks and you recognize in quotation marks that that person is speaking. Or there’s a chapter that’s from this person’s perspective and the next is from another’s. Faulkner does that a lot. But in a song it’s important to be short-spoken instead of long-spoken so I might do that without using ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’ Maybe instead the tone of voice changes because the perspective is changing. I don’t think of “are there rules to this?” because I think songwriting--or even all writing-- should be free in that way. The point is to get the story across, not to obscure. Sometimes if there are different perspectives in a song someone can find themselves entering into the song in a different place, which I like. But there are probably really accomplished songwriters, maybe Nick Cage or Joni Mitchell who don’t do that. I’ll have to think about that. That’s a great question.

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OT I don’t think it’s necessarily negative in songwriting. Sometimes it provides--like you’re saying-- space for people to understand a song in a lot of different ways.
AR Although the negative part might be that sometimes as a songwriter you just want to say so many different things and you want to say them so bad that you get lazy and you just plop it all into a song and don’t worry about how it shifts. I mean, I know what you mean, but when friends pass demos around and I hear a perspective shift in their lyrics if it’s not something that is smooth or has a point, it feels lazy to me and I’ll say something about it. If they ask me.

OT I asked Facebook fans to submit questions for you. First one: What are your favorite local restaurants when you tour, places you return to?
AR It’s funny you’re asking that because... Chicago Diner. I always go there.
OT They have the best guacamole.
AR The guacamole and chips, I know, it’s incredible. There’s a place in San Francisco called Gratitude I always go. In Seattle there are a million amazing Thai restaurants so I try different ones. I usually go for either Thai, Indian or some kind of specialty vegetarian place. And I like Mexican restaurants that are like, number menu type places. In New York there’s a place called East Village Thai I always go. Every city I have places I go if I’m there long enough.

OT Wait, now I have a question. Are you weird about eating before shows?
AR I’m not weird about that. I don’t have any needs around that. I do like to make sure I eat but it doesn’t matter when and it doesn’t matter what. I’m sort of hearty that way. I can eat a big meal and go right on and play and it’s fine. As a singer, I should worry about cheese, but I don’t. I take care of my voice in other ways. When you’re on a solo tour it’s an accomplishment if you get dinner--you’re loading and sound checking and trying to make all these things happen. It’s really great when we play somewhere that has a restaurant as part of the place, cause then you can just order off their menu and it’s sitting there in your dressing room.

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OT One more fan question. You’ve mentioned making a country album next, is that true and what would it entail?
AR It is true. It’s probably going to entail a couple of years cause I’m so slow and I’m probably going to want to do another Indigo Girls album before that. I have a tape machine at my house and some really great mics and I’m probably going to track a lot of it here. I live in an area where there’s a lot of bluegrass players. It’s probably going to entail that tradition-- Appalachian, country sound. I take my inspiration from early Americana, artists like Townes Van Zandt. And then country people like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. I’ll probably listen to a bunch of Dolly Parton before I do it.

OT As a performer, there’s a way that you have to be deliberate about packaging, and promoting yourself. How do you balance that and also maintain a healthy sense of self?
AR Right, like at this moment I’m working on “Amy’s” bio. Especially now when so many artists have their own labels and are putting themselves out, they have to step out of themselves to package and promote. And also be detached from criticism and praise both; don’t get led astray one way or the other. I’ve always put out my own records so I have a little trick I use inside my head, because I hate self-promotion. You have to look at it as if you’re a different person from the person you are. I don’t like looking at photos from a photo shoot [or] trying to write a bio so I’ll get friends to do my shoots and sit down with them, work on it as a team. For my bios, the same thing. I get someone who is a friend and a really good writer, hand it over and then I kind of edit after that. I look at it like, I really want to play music, I love writing songs and I love touring, and in order to do all that I have to do this other thing to keep it in that sweet spot where it sustains itself. As long as I’m honest about it, give back to the community, look for ways to help other people, that makes me feel like I’m doing it for the right reasons so I can work really hard because I’m not achieving just for celebrity. That would be an empty pursuit for me. And ultimately that would catch up because at some point you’re not famous anymore and if you’re too caught up, you grieve it. I’ve been through that part of things with Emily, where we toured with REM and everything was really heady and my ego definitely was inflated. I went through a period where my goals and my intentions got a little screwy and I had to kind of come back down to earth.

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After much deliberation and only one fist fight, my co-judge Micki LeSueur and I have chosen the winner of The Our Town Blog's First Annual Short Story Contest. Behold his tremendous...story.

The People of the State of Illinois Vs. Andy Walquist
by Michael McCauley

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let me begin my closing argument by commending the Prosecution.

Bang up job, fellas. First-rate.

Dear jury, though I have only the faintest understanding of the law, I can see that these attorneys have delivered an airtight case against me. I almost regret waiving my right to professional counsel. Make no mistake, I maintain my not-guilty plea, but hypothetically speaking, I would have serious doubts about my innocence if I were you. I would therefore be required to find myself guilty.

Here’s where I throw a wrench in the gears: the law kind of doesn’t apply to me.

You may recall a certain Captain Sullenberger, aka “Sully,” who captured the country’s heart and imagination when he flew an airplane into the Hudson River. Now, tell me, is it legal to fly airplanes into the rivers and lakes of this fair land? Of course not. A critical distinction exempted Sully from penalty—he was hero.

And so you the members of the jury must ask yourselves: am I not a hero?

I defy you to interpret the events of the morning of October 23, 2011 as anything other than a case study in heroism.

Let’s review.

I was driving westbound on West 63rd Street, adjacent to Chicago Midway International Airport, in a 2009 Nissan Frontier, beige. I had no destination in particular; I was simply enjoying a leisurely cruise and a cocktail—a bottle of the popular carbonated malt liquor product Mike’s Hard Lemonade. In other words it was a Sunday morning like any other, until I saw overhead, at approximately 8:31 AM, a descending jet whose landing gear appeared defective. The nosewheel had emerged only halfway from its well.

Responding to a powerful and urgent sense of duty, I swerved across the eastbound lanes, motored up an embankment, through a chain-link fence, and onto the airfield. The idea was to accelerate down the runway and overtake the doomed jet such that the pilot could guide the nosewheel into the bed of my truck.

The Prosecution contends that I was never within three football fields of Southwest Flight 332. They’ve tried to color the event as a maniacal joyride taken by a newly divorced, recently unemployed powder keg.

Poppycock. One-hundred-percent balderdash.

Although, yes, Peggy ended our marriage and disappeared with the girls. Also, a tip: no matter how furiously you type when your boss walks by, if he sees that your computer isn’t turned on he’ll know you’re not really working.

Impossibly bad luck dictates that no bystanders observed the rescue attempt quite as I experienced it. At least none came forward to testify on my behalf. I do have a witness, however. His name his God. He had better things to do this week than appear in criminal court, but I promise you, he will corroborate my account in a court of prayer.

I merged from the airfield turf and onto the tarmac at a speed of 70 miles-per-hour, achieving a maximum of 120 in mere seconds. Flight 332’s data recorder reported a landing speed of 140 knots. Not very likely. I remind you that while the flight recorder reports the performance of the aircraft, the FAA has yet to implement a device that monitors the flight recorder. I’m saying it must have been broken. For I converged upon the aircraft rather quickly. Too quickly, in fact: I was beneath its tail before I could sufficiently reckon with the physical and psychic enormity of my objective.

So I hesitated. I let the jet gain five-hundred feet. I would have aborted the mission altogether if something in the rearview mirror hadn’t caught my attention.

I saw fear, which instantly turned to shame, as fear often does when recognized.

“How dare you,” I said to my reflection. “How dare you think about yourself at a time like this. What about the passengers on that plane? The grandmas, nuns, nurses, teachers, substitute teachers, veterinarians, social workers, and babies? They need you. They need your Nissan Frontier.”

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Years ago I had the pleasure of studying with Matthew Goulish at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We met in a cramped, airless cranny illuminated by fluorescent lights, like so many university offices, seemingly antithetical to free-wheeling thought. But magic collects in the folds of Goulish’s clothing. A serene, intensely engaged presence, Goulish understood the shape of my work (though at the time I barely did). His guidance felt almost baptismal, the message: “I see you, and I will help you to become more of what you are.”

Goulish’s own work defies easy definition. A writer and performer, he creates lecture/essay hybrids. Though some reference outside sources, Goulish weaves influences both internal and external into something entirely new. His new book, The Brightest Thing in the Word: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure (Green Lantern Press) is a collection of essays that touch on seating strategies, Dick Cheney, cuckoo clocks, the Fibonacci series, butterflies and old friends.

Our Town spoke with Goulish about failure but not about Dick Cheney.

Our Town Describe the inception of The Institute of Failure.
Matthew Goulish For many years I taught a course at SAIC called The Ethics and Aesthetics of Failure. My friend Tim Etchells, the director of the UK theater company Forced Entertainment, visited one time and we met for lunch. I said, “I just finished teaching my course on failure.” He said, “Tell me about that.” By the end of the conversation he had proposed the IoF as a collaboration between us, to explore the ideas in writing and performance.


OT You write: “To understand a system, study its failure.” Can you talk a little about that?
MG It’s an idea from engineering. Why does your shoe come untied? Usually it is for one of two reasons: either the bow loosens, in a kind of gradual decay, or a lace snaps, which is sudden and catastrophic. But the snapped lace was also preceded by decay of a different sort, of the lace material rather than of the bow’s tightness. This system has two elements – the substance of the lace and the pattern of the bow. The failure illuminates the system. The idea is transferable. The more complex a system is, the more complex its potential failures.

OT You work in performance and on the page. How do you determine in which milieu a piece will most comfortably fit? 
MG Performance and writing are very different modes for me. The performance work is fundamentally collaborative, physical, and spatial, engaging the elements of theater, as they say. The writing I do for it is devised for the team of performers and circulates around the ideas we discover together through the process. The writing I do individually, while also public (as a lecture), tends to take more of a subjective direction – like I’m a tour guide taking readers on a particular journey that has a degree of privacy. In that case, the focus is on the words alone and what they can do.


OT Part of your process includes “treating the entire library as a rough draft,” a sort of literary sampling. How did you arrive at that method? 
MG I think it was a response to thinking of myself as more a reader than a writer, so when a question presented itself to me, I would remember fragments of language that persisted in my mind from my reading. At a certain point I decided to copy those fragments – analytical fragments, poetic fragments – and write in a way to connect them. My writing became an act of extending other people’s writing that I loved, into a language and shape with the task of addressing a question.

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Photo by Lisa Meehan Williams

As significant and iconic as deep dish pizza or The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the Crush Blog has been a monthly Chicago staple since aught 2010.

But all good things must come to an end, my friends. All bad things must too, except for anytime Debra Messing’s drippy son whines his way through a monologue on Smash--that goes on forever.

But why? Why would you snatch away something so rich with tradition, so essential to our community? That’s what Rahm Emanuell asked me yesterday when I tried to squeeze by. His sleeping bag ran the width of my front steps though, which made it difficult. I definitely stepped on his finger.

I’ll tell you what I told him: It isn’t you, it’s me.

When I initiated this auspicious endeavor, I was just a crazy kid, buoyed by hope, my surefooted path lit by dreams and night vision goggles.

But friends, the bloom is off the rose, by which I mean I’ve lost my binoculars and run out of twine. The pressure to troll monthly for a new crush has broken my spirit the way I broke Rahm’s pinkie. My crushes, rather than breezy bursts of excitement are in danger of becoming mundane. So although Chicago is still full of deserving crush objects, this column will take a hiatus after this month.

And friends, you have Zoe Zolbrod to thank for all of this. It was Zoe’s answer to my last Crush Question that cemented my decision. (Run for the hills, Zoe, through the front window I see Rahm jotting down your address, though he’s forced to hold the pen in his left hand.)

Hip, funny, and totally crushable, Zoe came to my attention recently when she participated in the Essay Fiesta Reading Series. Not only is Zoe a novelist and senior editor for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, she’s a contributor to a forthcoming collection, The Beautiful Anthology, which comes out June 9th. All and all Zoe Zolbrod is the perfect end to a centuries long run.

As for the Crush Blog, it’s not goodbye, Rahm, but see you later. I’m sure a new crush will crop up now and then.

Hometown: Meadville, PA
Profession: Senior Editor for an educational publishing company
Hobbies: Yoga. Reading. Dreaming of places to go.  I wish I could say I had more hobbies. I would love to be taking lots of long hikes and interesting bike rides, but in reality my walking and biking are pretty utilitarian.

Our Town What inspired your 2010 novel, Currency?
Zoe Zolbrod I traveled around Southeast Asia by myself in the 90s, and I got into scrapes.

OT You’re also working on a memoir. In terms of process, how is memoir writing different than fiction?
ZZ Differences in my writing process are probably more greatly affected by my current time constraints than by my new genre. But the experience of working on the memoir is different because it's less escapist. I worked really hard on the novel—I did a lot of research, I slaved over the language—but I didn't have to excavate my own memories and emotions in the same way I'm doing now. With the novel I worried about whether I was representing my Thai character fairly. With the memoir I'm worried about how I'm representing real people in my life in relation to some complicated situations, and I have less leeway, because I'm trying to deal with truth—a complicated word in itself. I can get pretty sweaty over it.

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