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Photo by Frank Ockenfels

For singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile, confidence is key.
“The level of rejection [you] experience [in] music can be devastating,” she says. “You need an underlying sense of self worth to persevere.”
And persevere Carlile has.
“I was passed on by every record label at least once - some three times,” she says.
In Chicago to play the Chicago Theatre last week, Carlile spoke with Our Town about touring, her new marriage, and tenacity in the face of rejection.

Our Town You convinced your bandmates to work with you by promising them you’d be signed and on the road within a year. What made you so certain?
Brandi Carlile What made me so certain was a completely unprecedented and underlying sense of cockiness. But at 19 years old I really believed that I could do whatever I put my mind to, plus the twins were so good, I knew it would be more like them getting me signed and on the road within a year!

OT How has your writing (both process and content) changed over the course of your career? 
BC Naturally, as one gets older, the content of a song is based a bit more on experience and less speculative than songs from your early twenties and late teens. The really challenging thing is performing these songs in light of a wiser outlook and trying to make sense of early opinions; retrospect definitely is 20/20.


OT Obviously at this point listeners pick and choose, downloading only certain songs. What does it mean to create at this point in history when people’s attention spans are shorter than ever?
BC My objective isn’t to acquire listeners in a cultish sense, my objective is only to be blessed with the opportunity to interrupt someone’s life for three and a half minutes at a time and make them happy or reflective. I don’t worry too much about the climate of the music industry, so to speak, because humans have needed music for much longer that we’ve known how to sell it. As far as live music goes, no device will ever be able to cheapen the connections between people in a room.


OT What’s your favorite song off your most recent record and why?
BC It’s ever-changing, but if I’m looking back at Bear Creek ten years from now and asking myself which song moves me the most, it would be “That Wasn’t Me.”



OT You recently got married. How do you juggle career and relationship?
BC With complete and utter co-dependence. No I’m just kidding, who really knows?

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After ten years as a Cook County correctional officer, comedian Robert L Hines has begun to find the humor in his grueling former occupation. Now based in LA and performing stand-up across the country, Hines spoke with Our Town about his time as a jailer, his views on rape jokes and hecklers and why pain is comedy gold.

Our Town At first you were reluctant to talk about your work as a jail guard. Why?
Robert L Hines Well, it wasn’t a happy situation and it has nothing to do with the jailers, it has to do with the situation. These people have lost hope, and they feel like they have no other option than to go against the law. In your training, they tell you that you need a hobby because just doing that job itself will make you crazy, and you will hit a wall. So, I felt I needed to separate my stand-up [from] my jail life, because they had convinced me that if I gave the jail too much of myself, then there would be a time where I would burn out and wouldn’t be able to handle it. And I was not going to let anything like that get ahold of me. I don’t know if you know this, but generally black people will not get counseling. ‘I’m not gonna sit here and tell you my problems. It’s not your business.’ So to avoid all of those problems, I’m gonna keep this separate from this. Remember, I was at the jail for almost 10 years. I would end my shift at the jail, then change and go to the clubs. I left the jail in 2003, and I have only started doing the jail material in the last six months. So, it took some time—maybe, after you feel that you are no longer in danger— some time to look back and see the humor of the situation.

OT What convinced you to incorporate jail material into your act?
RLH A good friend of mine, Shay Shay—he’s a comedian, himself, he said I needed to share some of the pain I had, that pain was comedy gold, and that until I stopped being so stingy with it, I would never get the outcome I was looking for. But I was still pretty guarded. Then, last year I signed with new management, and my team said I was not really tapping into all the entertainment that I had to give. So, it was a combination of Shay and my management team both saying, ‘hey, listen, this is what’s funny, if you let it be funny.’ So, really in a very short amount of time, I have been dedicating a significant amount of my set to the jail material, and to my surprise, people are very interested. They are eating it up. It’s been outside of my own personal ability—outside of what I thought I could do. It has been amazing.

OT Why do you think audiences are interested in that material?
RLH I found that people are interested in what they have no experience with. There are a lot of misconceptions. For instance, people think you are relatively safe and separate from the prisoners. But, where I was, I was in direct contact with maximum security prisoners. So, I was in there alone with murderers and thieves and car jackers and I was unarmed. All I had was a black pen, a red pen, and a flashlight. Not the big-assed, ‘knock-a-bitch-out’ flashlight. No, no, no. I had the little ‘where’s my keys?’ maglite. From time to time the supervisors would say, “Officer Hines, why are you in there playing cards and dominos with those inmates?” And I would say, “Inmate? That’s my cousin. He’s got a name.”

OT Do you think getting to the audience to feel some of the things you felt—like getting them to feel scared or threatened— has anything to do with it?
RLH Definitely. That is a part of it, because that’s what you do when you are a storyteller. When I was a young stand-up, one of the things I learned from Bernie Mac is that the reason that this is an art is that you are painting a picture with words. The picture can go from being something beautiful to something horrific, and you need to understand that the words you use are very important. Like, he would say, “If you’re going to talk about a grape, I want to be able to taste the sweetness of the grape. I want you to be able to have rinsed the grape off and there still to be water on the grape. I want you to tell me every bit of your taste bud enjoying that grape. If you can’t do that, then you really can’t hang around me. You have to make that picture with your words.”

OT Who are your favorite comedians of all time?
RLH There are quite a few guys that make up the mosaic that is me. Some of the Chicago guys— Richard Belzer, Bernie Mac, Shay Shay, Daran Howard, Evan Lionel. Then there’s Eddie Murphy. And, of course, every black comic has a love affair with Richard Pryor, because he really changed the game. Before that, it wasn’t as theatrical. After him, everything was, you know— everybody was dramatic. And I also like Franklyn Ajaye quite a bit. When I was a young, like four or five, I would see guys on TV— like the Belzers and Franklyn Ajayes— and I would think, ‘That is the coolest job in the world. I want to do that.’ Because they would be so laid back, and so cool, and so happy on stage.

OT What are your thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh’s rape joke?
RLH I think that when you go to see Daniel Tosh, you are going to see Daniel Tosh, and you should expect that it is going to be sort of nasty, or mean, or whatever. I mean, you don’t go to a demolition derby and complain because there are cars smashing into each other— it’s just nonsensical. And I also believe that he has the right to say anything that he wants to say. But, I think that there is also a price to be paid for that freedom of speech. Okay, so it’s like the NBA player who was an ambassador for the league who said that he was, uncomfortable with, quote unquote, fags. So, you can say whatever you want to say, but the NBA can also do whatever they want to do behind it. So, when you make certain statements, you should be prepared for the backlash. My personal thought? There’s nothing funny about rape, so that’s not part of my act. For me, as a stand-up, I want you to leave my show happy. I want everybody to get laid after they get through seeing me. And I want all that sex to be consensual.

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Chicago based writer, actor and director Nathan Adloff can’t believe Nate & Margaret is truly finished. “We began brainstorming ideas in early 2008,” he says. “I've watched the movie close to 200 times and I’m still waiting for it to sink in that we actually pulled it off.” A quirky buddy movie in which the buddies are a 19-year-old gay film student and a 52-year-old aspiring stand-up comedian, Nate & Margaret grew out of Nate’s college experiences, but over time became something altogether new.

Our Town What inspired Nate & Margaret?
Nathan Adloff The story evolved greatly from first conception to the final film. My co-writer, Justin D.M. Palmer and I were working the same day job and began brainstorming ideas there. Our original idea was a collection of true stories about myself in college that had a younger female lead playing my best friend. Shortly after we began the writing process, we met with Natalie West [and] our concept quickly shifted to having an older woman as the female lead, which resulted in more fabricated stories, so we just scrapped the “based on true stories” tag altogether. Also, Justin and I really wanted to make a film that could be categorized as both "straight" and LGBT. Nate is gay and based on myself. Margaret is straight and is sort of loosely based on Justin (and his obsession with stand up comedy and comedians). And, obviously, a lot of it is based on our personal friendship. 

OT How does co-writing work? Do you literally construct every sentence together or do you swap scenes?
NA It all begins with bouncing ideas off of each other in conversation, then creating a rough outline. I send Justin notes and ideas, and he incorporates them into a more structured outline. After we both feel that’s solid, we build the outline into a longer treatment, then work on scripting. Justin finds order in my mess of writing. By the time we get to scripting, we get together, sit in front of my computer and work on writing the script together, which takes a few weeks. We'll share pots of coffee, order food and basically try to make each other laugh our way through the process, writing it down as we go, until we have a final script. It's pretty awesome.

OT You also directed the film. Is it difficult to change hats?
NA It was much easier having Justin as my right-hand man on set everyday. Having him there to help with line re-writes on set and such was great. So, in a sense I didn't have to switch hats because Justin was my hat. That sounds dirty.

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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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“You just saw me run out of my Travelers Zen,” Dar Williams tells me after the second time she’s forced to hang up and call me back. In the midst of forty eight hours of layovers, cancelled flights and delays, it’s no wonder the singer/songwriter is stressed. However, even under pressure, on tour to promote her ninth studio album, Williams is as earnest and genuine as her fans might expect. Between interruptions, Williams tried valiantly to discuss folk music’s connection to social justice, tips from Joan Baez and the greening of American towns.

Our Town In the Time of Gods, like most of your albums, seems to coalesce around a theme. Obviously the public’s relationship to music has changed with technology. Instead of buying and listening to a whole album the way an artist might envision it, most people pick and choose. I’m wondering if that’s changed the way you conceptualize your work.
Dar Williams A song versus an album is not like a scene versus a play. It’s more like, you can always enjoy a painting in a museum, but if you go to a retrospective or a planned exhibit it’s that much better because the setup allows you to get inside somebody else’s head. Even though there’s an integrated theme, I hope that each of the songs can hold up apart from one another.

OT You write when inspiration strikes rather than having a daily writing practice. Is that an approach you advocate for others?
DW You can never presume what will work for other people. You’ll almost encounter a superstition amongst musicians, people sort of go through strange rituals, what they need to do to write a song. The only thing I’ve noticed is that the friends of mine who write every day struggle just as much as I do, just in a different way. And they have more stuff that they throw out, which is fine. It’s hard for me to create anything that isn’t somehow interesting to me. So instead of saying I’m going to write a song about the set of bowls that my aunt gave me because that’s what I’m looking at, I wait for the thing to find me, the theme or the subject. However, there is a daily practice to holding an open enough mind to receive such a thing. So, that’s a practice.

OT Are there any songs you feel have helped you advance as a writer?
DW There’s a song called "February" where I was developing this metaphor and then suddenly the metaphor just broke open into reality. My sister and I have spoken about this because she’s a writer and we basically said, the story is more important than the metaphor. You can get very academic, but at the end of the day, your heart is in the story. Writing February made me realize that breaking form is a way of letting the song be human.

OT You’ve moved back and forth between songwriting and novel writing. How are the experiences different?
DW They’re really different. The book writing, I did show up for every day, and I always looked forward to it because I knew that whatever I was feeling I could find a part of the book that would fit my mood. So if I was feeling wistful, angry, frustrated, excited there was always a character who could absorb that. Writing a book wasn’t like that kind of fine motor skills of writing a song-- really parsing things out, phrasing them and rhyming them, and oh by the way, what’s the song about? It was a really rewarding experience. Inevitably I always felt better at the end of a writing session and always felt glad that I’d sat down. It was creativity without all the frustration of getting things painstakingly, poetically tight.

OT When you get an idea how do you know whether it wants to be a song or a book?
DW Its a pretty clear line. There are long cinematic things that come into my head and then there’s very specific phrases that will pop in and those are clearly meant to be as long and short as a song.

OT There are certain performers who you go to see not just for the music but for the relationships-and to hear what they’ll say. I’m thinking of Girlyman and The Nields Sisters. You’re also someone who talks and shares and is funny onstage. I interviewed Nerissa recently and I want to ask you the same question I asked her: was relating to the audience in a really casual, funny way a conscious decision, or did that evolve for you?
DW That was very much the world that I was in in Cambridge and New York at the time. You know, John Gorka and Patty Larkin and Greg Brown. The early nineties were all about something bigger than just the songs, that would make the songs bigger. It was not a way to deflect; it was a way to bring it all together. The first concert I saw was Cheryl Wheeler. Cheryl sang eight songs in an hour and fifteen minute set. Usually you can do about twelve in that time. And even Jane Siberry, who will sing a song that can be up to ten minutes and can be very meditative, she’ll say just enough in between songs, so this idea that you can kind of weave it together. Or Loreena Mckennitt, she did this beautiful piece and I thought, this is going to be a very musical thing and she’s going to preserve her mystique by not speaking; she spoke right after the first song and was so lovely. I think people want to know where it comes from. It’s an elemental thing. We like to find the connection to the source of a song. The singer/songwriter tradition preserves something that people like, and it’s different than any other genre.

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It’s no secret that I live under a rock. (I have a hell of a time receiving packages and dinner parties go downhill fast when it rains. Literally. On the plus side, my student loan company can’t find me and I’ve become great friends with a family of worms.)
But seriously folks, I’m frequently oblivious to the obvious. Case in point, I’d already written two Our Town blogs before I realized I was writing for The Sun Times. I’m not sure what I thought. Maybe “I’m wearing dirty pajamas and getting paid, no angry customers are talking to me as if I’m the product of an unholy union between a lemur and a catfish, and I didn’t take three buses to get here so this can’t be real.” Truly, there’s no viable explanation. Nor is there any reason for me to have lived in Chicago for six years and only now discover Amy Matheny.

Currently making her Timeline Theatre debut in Enron, Amy has worked for more than a decade in Chicago's GLBT community as a radio personality, producer and event host. In addition, Amy was an Artistic Associate of About Face Theatre for a decade and has appeared in more theatre productions than you can shake a stick at. (I can personally attest to this. Shaking a stick is a primary source of entertainment when you live under a rock.)

It’s pretty much obscene and speaks only to my charming obliviousness that Amy came to my attention at this late date. But nothing says belated reverence like a giant telescope aimed right at a Chicago Celebrity’s house. That’s right, Amy Matheny is March’s Chicago crush!

Full Name: Amy Matheny
Hometown: Cleveland, Tennessee
Profession: Actor, Producer, Talk show host, Sr. Account Manager for Windy City Media Group - "Renaissance Woman"
Hobbies: pilates, theatre, travel, walks with my dog, dinner w/friends, singing, guitar, collecting rocks

Our Town Enron’s made quite a splash. How has the experience been?
Amy Matheny I love being in this show! It is risky, divisive and very funny. Having the opportunity to play a strong, smart, successful Southern woman is rare. True Story: I took classes in the late 80's from a woman in Tennessee who taught Southern businesswomen how to lose their accents so they were taken seriously. And my accent was thick! Her theory was that there is the perception that being Southern and being a woman equals to most people that you are not capable or smart. Well, Claudia Roe, my character gets to be smart and capable in a male-dominated world. And she uses every asset she has...charm, brains and body. Enron is a man's world. And it is exhausting [and a] rush to play a woman who successfully navigates that world and in 5 inch heels!

OT Was working in radio always a dream?
AM Not at all. I fell into it. I was doing some voiceover work and became the What's Happening? segment girl on LesBiGay Radio (the nation's first daily gay radio show). Normally I pre-recorded my segment [but] one day I went live on the air and talked with the host the whole two hours. Afterwards he said, “you are natural. I want you to do this with me.” That was 1998 and I have been talking on the radio--now podcasting-- ever since.

OT You’ve had the opportunity to interview everyone from Margaret Cho to Patti LaBelle. Any standouts?
AM Sandra Bernhard. We've talked many times over the years. She is fresh, smart and outrageous. Also Lynda Carter. I was a Wonder Woman fan as a child, so that was a thrill. Though mostly I love talking to parents of gay and lesbians. They always move me. There is nothing more beautiful than those stories, those journeys.

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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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Enough about you, let’s talk about me. I’m sick. I know this because I watched an entire season of The Office on Netflix yesterday and peanut butter seems disgusting. Normally, I will crawl naked across a thicket of thorns to procure peanut butter. (Well, what does your grocery store look like?) Also, when I stand up, the world seems shot by Twilight’s cinematographer; everything is blown out and too close. Also, people are drinking blood through straws. No wait, that’s just the couch.

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It’s in this spirit of slight ennui and total deliriousness that I bring you my Utterly Subjective End of Year Round Up in which I speak in absolutes and you can’t object because this site doesn’t support comments.

Let’s ease into this with something indisputable.

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1. Best new Chicago Restaurant: Lady Gregory. Only days after opening its doors some time last summer (I’m too sick to google.), this upscale Irish bar and restaurant already felt like a neighborhood mainstay. Since then, LG has made itself indispensable, providing not only delicious food and homey ambiance, but also holiday movie screenings, special whiskey tastings and a winter coat drive. If you’re in the market for a low-key New Year’s Eve destination, LG promises a live DJ, party favors, champagne and best of all, no cover. What are you waiting for? Go. Order the beet salad and tell them I sent you. They will have no idea what you mean, but they will still bring you the salad.

My Shocking Secret

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I have a reputation for no-holds-barred honesty, shockingly intimate revelations and naked disclosure. (I’m not sure what that last part means, but it would be a nifty title for an exposé about the figure modeling industry except that there is no figure modeling industry, just a bunch of naked, broke people who haven’t taken enough drugs to make the leap to stripping.)

This intimacy we’ve developed over the past year and a half, it’s vital. You think I have what we have with anyone else? And the reason for our connection is my high-octane candor. (Coincidentally also the name of a buddy flick I have in development about a racecar driver and his therapist.)

My word is my bond, people. Great phrase, feel free to quote me, but keep in mind it carries a lot more heft on the page than when you get to the register to pay for your crème brûlée latte.

My point? Honesty is the cornerstone of our relationship, that and my nominal blogging fee. Which is why it pains me to tell you that I’ve been keeping something from you.

Not the ‘snuggling’ dream I had about my sister’s boyfriend.
Not the fact that I dress the dog up in swimwear.
Not my long-term emotional affair with Levar Burton.

I’ve never told you about my werewolf.

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Everything you’re feeling right now is totally normal. Go ahead; let it out. But when you’re done rending your garments and wait, could you not throw that particular vase, it was a gift from my…ooookay, nevermind. Easy come, easy go. Listen, believe it or not my not telling you about the werewolf was an oversight rather than a conscious decision. The werewolf represents such a quotidian aspect of my existence that I even neglected to mention him to my therapist. He only came up in passing.

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This is totally normal.

“So in the dream,” I said, “I was trying to take a shower in another closet with my sister’s boyfriend when I realized the werewolf-” And there I caught myself. “The werewolf is real, actually. My father is a poet and he wrote a poem cycle called The Werewolf Sequence and before I was born my mother made a six-foot tall werewolf out of paper-mâché to sort of go with the book I guess and anyway, I grew up with the werewolf--”
My therapist: “Wait a second, you grew up with a six foot werewolf around?”
Me: “Well, he wasn’t really around, he was mostly in the basement.”
My Therapist: “Oh, that’s better.”

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Portrait of a Werewolf as a Young Man (Also my mother.)

Lately I think about the werewolf a lot more than I used to. Probably because he’s always behind me.

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Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Princess Leia’s impact on my childhood was minimal and mostly to do with her hair. I admired it, but only because I liked braids in general, though I preferred the way Pippi Longstocking wore hers: a horizontal braid arrow that seemed to pierce her head. I can’t tell you how many wire coat hangers I unraveled and stabbed through my braids, trying to force my hair to defy gravity too. It was a point of contention between my mother and me, so much so that I assumed her little lapel button with the crossed out hanger on it was a warning directed at me.

My true Carrie Fisher awakening came by virtue of her book, Postcards from the Edge, a witty, blunt, lightly fictionalized account of her time in rehab. Perusing my quote book, I assume I was about fourteen when I read Postcards—the thicket of Fisher’s quotes I chose to record are smack between excerpts from Woody Allen and Sylvia Plath, the infamous dynamic duo of teenage angst and hilarity. Fisher’s novel is chockablock with lines like “I narrate a life I’m reluctant to live,” and “describing herself was her way of being herself;” I related so much I thought my head might fall off. From there, I sucked down each book she published, spitting her insightful one-liners into a series of notebooks I kept through college. (Philosophy professors and lesbian folk singers replaced Plath, but Allen stuck around.)

In 2007, I returned to The Geffen Playhouse where I’d worked for a year in ticket sales, to see Wishful Drinking, Fisher’s one-woman show. The Geffen is a magical dollhouse of a theatre; intimate, with a lobby that spills into a courtyard lit by twinkling lights. Working there was my first taste of what it meant to live in L.A. Sure I’d spent my shifts crammed into a tiny cubbyhole shared with a rotating bunch of oddballs (the Englishwoman who microwaved fish stew, a retired astrophysicist, some set builder guy who’s claim to fame was that Tori Spelling had given him not one but two lollipops on his last job), but I got to attend glittery red carpet premieres and once ran into Steve Martin walking the halls. (I’m pretty sure the Steve Martin thing happened, but I’ve told the story so many times, it feels more fairy-tale than truth.)

Seeing Fisher at the Geffen seemed like some kind of synchronicity, a childhood idol had chosen to grace a space through which I used to wander barefoot still sporting my college lesbian overalls. The show itself though, then in its infancy, was uneven. While imbued with Fisher’s characteristic amalgamation of candor and whimsy, it meandered. It was lovely just to spend time with Fisher—and the show truly does feel like an impromptu get-together—however, Wishful Drinking’s only through-line seemed Fisher herself. At the time, this bothered me.

This week Fisher kicked off Wishful Drinking’s limited two-week Chicago engagement. Since working out the kinks in LA, she’s taken the show across the US, playing to enthusiastic crowds and even receiving a Grammy nomination for the show’s album. Myself, I approached Wishful Drinking with trepidation, (possibly a byproduct of the hot pink tights I chose to wear). Hours lost in a room with an idol can be treacherous, dragging or accelerating at will. This time, I wanted to leave the theatre feeling as connected to Fisher as I had at fourteen, transferring her words from her book to mine.

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Photo by Amy Boyle

My coworker gave me a lacy bra…. because I had cancer.
I love boots…. but then I got raped.
I wore this sweet maternity dress when I was pregnant with my son…who died at eighteen months.

There. I just saved you seventy bucks and ninety minutes. Go buy an Eileen Fisher sweater and take a yoga class. Or grab your bestie and get facials, or just binge on Entenmann's and clean your closet; anything that reminds you of your ovaries. Bonus points if it makes you feel bonded and nostalgic too.

Because that’s what Nora and Delia Ephron’s Love Loss and What I Wore wants: to grant a women of a certain age and means the opportunity to nod wryly and swear that, even with all her problems, you know, like those spats with her sisters, the difficulty finding a pair of heels that doesn’t pinch, she’s still got grandkids and lots of swoopy scarves, so gosh darn it, she’s doing just fine!

Based on the 1995 book by Ilene Beckerman, LLAWIW began as part of a summer series in East Hampton NY. (Of course it did.) Since its inception, it has been produced internationally and often with a star-studded cast. To be fair, the low-tech show has plenty of laugh out loud lines and offers the sort of offbeat moments distinctive to the Ephrons. Set up Vagina Monologue style-- women, music stands, a bunch of somewhat interchangeable characters—LLAWIW uses Gingie (Barbara Robertson) as a focal point, interweaving hundreds of other women’s stories as well. Though many monologues grow mawkish, due in large part to the “now I’m going to tell you something sad voice” nearly all of the cast members employ, several are saved by the quintessential Ephron ability to counter the listener’s assumptions, leaving them somewhere fresh and new. Hard to come by in a show rife with dated references and passé slang. Set in its midst, young actors Roni Geva and Katie O’Brien, strain credulity. In a saccharine gay wedding scene that hijacks the show’s already flabby middle, Geva maintains stellar timing, but O’Brien fares poorly as the least believable tuxedo-sporting lesbian in history.

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Dear Twelve Year Old Self:
You don’t know me but I know you. See, I am you. The future you. Nice hot pink shorts by the way. They go smashingly with your hot pick socks, white keds, hot pink scrunchie and that hot pink glossy sports bra you wear as a shirt. (Sports bras are much less exciting when you spend all of your time wearing one while shouting at people from a stationary bike in a darkened room. Why would you do that? Good question.) Oh, and don’t worry, I don’t use the word ‘smashingly’ all the time. Just for special breaching the time/space continuum occasions.

You see this occasion is special indeed. I have brought you here to read my interview with one of your very favorite people. Dare I say, your idol. No, not Lily Tomlin. Younger self, I was lucky enough to interview Tiffany. Yes, she’s still got great hair. Not quite as high in the front though. Well, fewer jean jackets, no shopping mall concerts, but she is on tour with your other favorite. No, not Bette Midler. My God, why didn’t anyone know you were queer? Debbie Gibson. No, I don’t still have the Electric Youth perfume poster you climbed into the dumpster behind Walgreen’s to swipe. Yes, she’s still cute as a piano-playing bug, but she goes by Deborah now.

Anyway, Tiffany was lovely and gracious and gabbed about everything from her country-tinged album, “Rose Tattoo,” to whether she regrets posing for Playboy. Crap. No, forget I said that. I don’t care how much you like Gypsy. I don’t care how well things worked out for Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Look, by the time you’re me, you’ll have a lucrative blogging career. Yes, I know what lucrative means. I was using it in its original sense, from the Latin lucrātīvus, meaning gainful. Fine, once you get here, if my/your lifestyle does not meet your standards, you can pose for Playboy. My God, you’re stubborn. No wonder our mom sent you to all those therapists.

Our Town How is the music industry different from an adult perspective?
Tiffany You know more of the pitfalls; you know the industry is a business. It’s a balance to not get jaded by that. As a young artist, you just go out and play music because you love it. When I got off the road at nineteen, I thought, I’ll give it a couple years and just jump back in, but it’s a very fast paced industry and you have to keep up and continue to put product out and I think I’ve learned all that as an adult. Maybe people told me all that when I was younger but you don’t really get it.

OT We’ve watched artists like Britney Spears publicly falter. How did you avoid that period?
T For myself and Debbie Gibson, that was a big no-no, a career breaker, to be out doing scandalous things—at the time that was not acceptable. Not that it’s okay now, but bad behavior is a little more celebrated. Artists have always gotten into trouble, especially as young teens because you’re living in an adult world. Nobody’s telling you no, you’re making lots of money. But we didn’t have reality TV; paparazzi weren’t what they are now. Every second these kids are bombarded, so you’re gonna see some unflattering things. As a public, we gasp when we see that sort of thing yet we’re hooked to the TV.

OT How has social media changed life for an artist?
T It’s a great time to be an independent artist. Everyday I wake up to some new tool available to me to get the word out about my new record or to network within the industry or get in contact with my fans. I’m not always instantly in the know, but I have lots of friends with their fingers on the pulse and I look to them to educate me. Being an artist used to mean making a record, doing a video, doing some touring-- those were the tools of the trade. Now you can go on Twitter, be accessible through so many different avenues. That’s very exciting, but also kind of demanding. You really have to stay on top of things.

OT Was there ever any truth to the supposed rivalry between you and Debbie Gibson?
T We get a kick out of that. I can definitely say for myself, I never had harsh words with her, I didn’t even know her. We would walk red carpets together, take a few pictures and go our separate ways. We never became friends (and definitely weren’t enemies) until the movie “Mega python vs Gatoroid” brought us together and we developed a friendship for the first time. You’d think we would have collaborated through music, but that’s actually really a challenge. We are two completely different people and I think that’s what this tour is about: celebrating the 80’s through each of our perspectives. I’m much more of a rocker and country at heart, so I’m going to be into Stevie Nicks and Bon Jovi and Guns and Roses and Deborah is your pop girl through and through (with some Broadway thrown in) and she does it beautifully. We never understood the rivalry but it’s probably to be expected, it’s good gossip.


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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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My journalistic credo is borrowed from the theater world: don’t steal focus. As an interviewer, I’m a supporting player, my subject, the star. To this end, I strip questions to the bone, cut most personal asides, and shy away from quoting those capricious compliments the average interviewee pays.

Enter artist Tony Fitzpatrick; generous, insightful and endearingly loquacious—not your average interviewee.

I worry that including my end of our discussion appears self-indulgent. However, in the interest of accurately rendering Tony, I’ve put my usual reticence aside. As personable as he is talented, Tony has plenty to say about his politics, his travels, his inspirations, but he’s also genuinely curious about others. To interview Tony is to step into an ongoing conversation, one he carries on through his visual art, poetry and acting; one he has with neighbors and hobos and strangers who quickly become friends. Here's my contribution.

Our Town What inspired your new play, Stations Lost?
Tony Fitzpatrick I went to Istanbul to meet Muslims. I realized I didn’t know any. I had some a**hole at a dinner party tell me that the world wouldn’t be a peaceful place until we dealt with the Islamic problem. I said, “what do you mean by that,” and he said, “well, till we get rid of all the Muslims.” I said, “jihadists are like two percent, you understand that, right?” He goes, “name me one place in the world where Islamic people live in peace.” I said, “Istanbul, since 1927.” So, then he slides his glasses down his nose and he goes “have you beeeeen to Istanbul?” I said “no, but I’ll tell you what, the next time we speak I will have been.” And I went. And I’ll tell you, I found more brotherhood and kindness and generosity among a culture of Muslims than I did driving across America. So much for who we fear.

OT This is your second show with Ann Filmer. To what do you attribute the success of your collaborations?
TF Her laser sharp ability to adapt. We carved away a lot of great pieces and went down to the most muscular ones. Just as with [first collaboration]This Train, she very gently told me where the lines were, let me know what was germane, helped prune what didn’t belong and shape it into a really dynamic piece. Were it up to me she would have taken a co-writing credit for Stations Lost, but she said, “every word is yours.” I showed her my diaries and told her, I think there’s a show in here about fear and faith and the folly of wanting faith. I worked in radio for ten years. When I hear O’Reilly and Limbaugh, these are the guys who chased me out of radio. They’re the reason I didn’t want to work there anymore; it became this culture of hate. They wrap it up in fear and they kite tail it with faith, like if you’re a Christian you believe this or that; well, thank God I’m an atheist. So, the show is about the aural wallpaper that surrounds us as Americans and how they attempted to teach me faith as a kid. Now look, this all sounds really heavy, but it’s really funny. You’ve seen my shows; I’m a funny motherf**ker. So what’s going on with you?

OT Me? I have a book coming out next spring.
TF It’s about time, goddamnit.

OT I don’t know what to expect-
TF Expect to spend no small amount of time promoting it and let me know what I can do to help.

OT That’s really generous, but you don’t have to do that.
TF I’d like to. You want to do a book signing at the gallery? My gallery is a cool place; people come there.

OT Tell me a little about your gallery.
TF Firecat? It was my studio for seventeen years and I closed it as a studio and turned it into a gallery where we show artists who I think deserve to be better known. You know, Stan [Klein] and me made a list of artists, and everyone on the list it was like, why aren’t these men and women a bigger part of the conversation? I said to Stan, “what could we afford to lose between us,” and he said, “comfortably, maybe $3000 a month.” We figured that was enough to budget the gallery. We take no percentage of the artists’ sales. We print a poster, do a mailing and invite all our collectors. Our friends from 3Floyds supply the beer, and then we usually throw a little after-party at my house.

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Here are things I pretend to understand:
Numbers longer than four digits
Fractals
The word ‘hegemony’
The difference between broasting and roasting
Twitter direct messaging
Why the Beatles are important
The problem with free radicals
How to tell time
Post-modernism

I got to thinking about these items while reading Psycho Dream Factory, Chicago writer/artist and Green Lantern Press founder Caroline Picard’s gorgeous new book. In the introduction, Lily Robert-Foley writes that the stories collected within the volume deal with reappropriated images, with copies that destroy the original; that Picard’s work makes “an explosion between the point of origin and the point of arrival, thereby opening a new space.”

I’m pretty sure Robert-Foley believes CDF postmodern. Here are my clues:
-this word pairing: copy/original
-gathering tension between my shoulder blades

I kind of assume everyone understands everything better than I mostly because whenever I call my mother to ask how to hard-boil eggs she either says “Same way as last time,” or “How do you not know how to do this yet?” But just in case you’re similarly confused about post-modernism, when I spoke with the seriously brilliant Picard about her celebrity-sprinkled book and the show she’s concocted in conjunction, I swallowed my pride (also my gum, but that’s another story) and asked her to explain post-modernism. Turns out even those who function within post-modernism are more concerned with making art than labeling it. As it should be. Now if only I can find someone to teach me how to pronounce San Luis Obispo.

Our Town Give me a one-paragraph crash course in post-modernism.
Caroline Picard I will fail miserably. [A teacher] showed me a Derrida art piece. He set up a chair in a gallery. Next to the chair he'd posted a photograph of the chair. Next to that he'd posted text: "chair." I think my teacher said, "This is postmodernism." I liked the teacher because she was an angry old hippy who cussed under her breath; because I liked her I believed I understood. The truth is, I wasn't exactly thinking about postmodernism when I wrote these stories. I was thinking about how you can take celebrities and use them like dolls.

OT You do, however deal with the issue of sameness, which is kind of postmodern, right?
CP I got interested in appropriating images and manipulating them. I was thinking a lot about Woody Allen's movies, how--particularly in his films with young people (like Christina Ricci and Jason Briggs, for instance) actors imitate Woody Allen's style of speech and behavior. In Anything Else, you suddenly have more than one Woody Allen-ite in every scene. When Ricci and Briggs talk to one another they reflect a similar neurotic affect back and forth. When that happens, I feel like the narrative of the story collapses; as a viewer I'm suddenly more interested in the directorial conversations that lead to this display of sameness than I am in the actual movie. I suddenly wonder about the actors' freedom [within this] narcissistic Woody Allen fantasy. Also, a book I was reading about Michael Jackson brought up this idea that everywhere he turned, he saw some version of himself. In a car, he would hear his songs on the radio, at the grocery store he might see himself in the tabloids. What happens to "the self" under those circumstances?

OT Why do celebrities fascinate us?
CP I’m into thinking about their placement, particularly in supermarkets. They’re all over the aisles before you check out--so clearly as a thing to consume. Also they're next to candy; these images of lifestyle connect directly sustenance. At the same time, the worldview perpetuated by magazines like Us or Star is really narrow--lots of white people talking about babies and the celebration or collapse of monogamy. Who got what new plastic surgery. I feel like celebrities also represent a particular and pervasive idea of success--one that spreads through other fields. Fame and recognition is a measure of achievement. The marketability of oneself is more important (in many cases) than the integrity of what is being produced. The actor is legitimized if he or she gets a spot on a glossy magazine. In a more general way, those ideas of success speak to a very basic desire to be acknowledged, recognized and known but that impulse has become commensurate with human capital. Something to be bought and sold. One sort of amazing example, celebrity perfume. You can buy J-lo perfume, or Jessica Simpson perfume. A kind of purchasing of essence to fulfill some deep desire to become them.


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Photo by Stephanie Richardson and Jeff Steinmetz

John Stamos may be tweeting backstage passes to Beach Boys fans and Lady Gaga personally Facebooking with followers, but in this moment of increasing celebrity accessibility, folk group Girlyman can honestly say they did it first and maybe with more integrity.

Formed in 2001, the band has always maintained a close relationship with their supporters, arguably grounds for their consistently swelling fan base. However, according to band member Ty Greenstein, it was member Doris Muramatsu’s 2010 leukemia diagnosis, that further solidified that unique connection. Now in addition to down to earth post-gig conversations and personally mailed CDs, the girly people have begun openly blogging about everything from body dysmorphia to musical self-doubt.

While on tour, Greenstein spoke with Our Town about Muramatsu’s positive prognosis, recent addition, JJ Jones and why the band will never change its name.

Our Town Most bands say the secret to maintaining a good working relationship is time apart, but Girlyman socializes on and off the road. Why does it work?
Ty Greenstein We really are best friends, soul mates who share a life path. The bond was personal first. Our lives lined up in this incredible way so we get to be in a band together and take our life lessons into our work. That's really how it happened, not the other way around where a band of random musicians gets together and hopes they have some personal chemistry. In some ways the band is a theater where we can play out all our dynamics and work through whatever comes up, which we're all committed to doing. If things feel good in the relationships, the music also feels solid, and if personal revolutions are happening, I think you can hear it in the music or see it in the shows.

OT Recently you added JJ to the group. Was the addition as seamless as it appeared?
TG It really was. I forget she's a newcomer; we all laugh at the same jokes, obsess over good food, and have long conversations about the meaning of life. Her vision for the band is very much in line with ours; we want to keep opening people up in all kinds of ways with music, and basically just have fun and keep growing. But she also has a freshness to her approach and a perspective that having done this for almost ten years, we sometimes lack. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are to have gotten this far.

OT You famously have a very open relationship with your fans. Any regrets?
TG After Doris was diagnosed in November, that kind of blew the whole thing open. We were all personally shaken and humbled. I was facing the mortality of my best friend of thirty years, plus the specter of an end to the band and my career. I didn't care anymore about arbitrary divisions between "performer" and "fan," and frankly, the fans helped get us through. They wrote to us, prayed and visualized for us, sent packages and donations and inundated Doris with love. Everyone should have that kind of support network when the sh*t hits the fan. We know how lucky we are, and how special our fans are.

OT How is Doris?
TG She's doing really great, responding very well to the drug she's on. She's active and for the most part, leads a normal life. This is largely thanks to the incredible advances in CML treatment over the past ten years. The drug she's on was only approved as a first-line treatment a month before her diagnosis, talk about being born at the right time. These targeted therapies have turned CML from a terminal disease where people had a few years at most, to a chronic illness that just needs to be managed. At her three-month checkup, Doris went from 100% leukemic cells at diagnosis down to 4%.

OT What was the personal and professional impact on the band?
TG In six words or less, it has put everything into perspective. Doris started keeping a blog about her health on CaringBridge, and then we basically turned our whole website into a blog where we post our thoughts about life in general, in addition to pictures and videos of the band in action and behind the scenes. I think the whole "fame" thing has been transformed in a great way with social networking and real time interaction via the internet. Everyone is just a person now, and we're sharing our lives.

OT What can fans do to help?
TG Please keep coming to the shows. And if you want to make a donation to Doris or to the band, you can do so at http://girlyman.com/donate/

OT Careers in the arts can be rife with disappointment. Any derailing early experiences you could share?
TG Plenty. Before Girlyman, when it was just me and Doris as the Garden Verge, we once played a gig where so few people came that not only didn't we make anything but we had to pay the sound guy his fifty bucks out of our own pockets. Then when Girlyman formed, there were plenty of places that wouldn't book us, even for free. Those early days can be pretty rough. I've blocked out a lot of it. We once played a whole show to one person. That was pretty special.


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Photo by Honey Lee Cottrell

For almost three decades, feminist sex writer Susie Bright has taken America on a guided tour of her sex life, offering political ruminations, writing advice and titillating anecdotes. But what do we really know about her life outside of the bedroom? Her new memoir, “Big Sex, Little Death” addresses this omission, offering characteristically frank, often startling accounts of topics as varied as Bright’s early work as a founding member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, her fraught family life, and the truth behind her ongoing feud with anti-sex crusaders.

Our Town Why write a memoir now?
Susie Bright When the publisher approached me, my parents had died recently and I was learning things I never would have discovered if they were alive. I thought I knew everything about my family, but there are people who come out of the woodwork, there’s a box of letters that falls in your lap. I also had a twenty-year perspective on the highlights of the feminist sex wars, things I didn’t discuss when we were in the thick of it. It’s funny how some of the biggest things in your life, you realize you’ve never told anyone.

OT You write that women’s memoirs are often diet books or tell-alls. Why?
SB It’s the snake biting its own tale. Mainstream media and publishers say no to anything truly original. I once proposed a book about my experience as a sex positive feminist and parent to one of my former publishers who said, ‘You can’t be a mom and a sex goddess at the same time.’ I laughed my ass off, although I could only laugh so much because it was a rejection. The professional climate is rife with male chauvinism. A friend of mine’s daughter recently got an editing post at a digital media company, but she wants to do international reporting. She’ll hafta buy her own ticket and airdrop herself into the gnarliest situation she can, because of the gender rigidity in mainstream media publishing. There’s a tracking regime, like, ‘Would you like to write about diapers? How about edit these very important men’s work? You don’t want to do news and hard Op-ed, are you kidding? Wouldn’t you feel better working in PR and marketing and all these other areas where strangely, there are lots of other women?’ We’re faced with those obstacles, which you can get really mad about, and stamp your feet, but you might also find you’re participating. It’s not enough for me to worry about where I get to publish or what I get to say. What am I doing in terms of publishing other women’s real life adventure stories? If I’m not doing that then I can just shut up.

OT Reading your book, I was struck by your bravery. You talked your way out of many explosive situations. Do you look back in amazement?
SB In the moment I didn’t have any doubts. Like, I have to hitchhike to San Francisco, what the hell are you doing obstructing my path with your gun and your psychosis? Afterward is when you open your eyes in the middle of the night. In a narrative, of course, those elements are dramatic highlights. Most of the time my life could be called ‘the kindness of strangers.’ I’m talking to you from Baltimore, where I’ve just been kissed and fed and treated like a queen by people I’d never met. Being plugged in and open to new experiences is definitely worth it.

OT You write about anti-sex advocate Kittie Mackinnon publicly decrying porn and rough sex, but privately sleeping with a woman who in your mind embodied kinky sex. Why do people like her condemn what they enjoy?
SB Look at the GOP Christian zealots who get caught with their pants down in the public square. Same reason, they believe they’re special. If they have a kinky sex life, if they like naughty pictures, if they entertain themselves with taboos, if they have secret prostitute friends, they can handle it because they’re different, they’re entitled. You see this all the time among the uber elite. It’s an aristocratic point of view, which is why sexual freedoms and sexual speech is the foundation of democracy, the litmus test. If people can’t make their own decisions about their sex life and speak freely about it--we’re talking everything from reproductive rights to what you like to fantasize about-- it means there’s a group of people setting up and enforcing public policy in vindictive and prejudiced ways.

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Interviewing someone you’ve never heard of is easy. Sure you gotta research, but becoming informed on a deadline is cake compared to fielding a phone call from an icon. Amber Benson may be a minor mainstream star, but for fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” she’s a major deity. Thankfully, she’s also one of the most genuine, forthcoming celebrities I’ve had the privilege of interviewing. On the final leg of her book tour, Benson hits Challengers Comics Saturday April 9th, and she’s looking forward to it, but maybe not as much as she’s looking forward to grabbing a burger while she’s in town.

Our Town How’s the tour?
Amber Benson A little crazy. I feel like I haven’t been home in months. We had a really amazing turn out in New York and Houston, people waiting in the rain, crazy stuff.

OT You knew early you wanted to act. When did that goal crystallize?
AB I was a hyperactive child. My mom put me in ballet and lots of after school programs to wear me out so I would sleep. I remember being onstage in “The Nutcracker,” this little marshmallow rolling out of some guys skirt and realizing I did not like ballet. It’s beautiful and I appreciate it, but the rigor was not very appealing as a child. But being onstage and having people clap? That was like catnip, so I sort of matriculated over to the drama world.

OT Acting led you to everything from producing to writing for TV to novels; surprising or part of the plan?
AB If you have a brain and you’re a woman, being one thing isn’t enough. As a creative individual, you have to diversify. Plus you can’t really make a living as an actor. A small percentage does, but then there’s everybody else who’s struggling. As an actor, you’re regurgitating somebody else’s dialogue invented in their world rather than yours. I knew I would go crazy just being an actor. I had always written short stories, bad poetry, plays, that sort of thing. When I was approached about doing the Willow/Tara comics for Dark Horse, I was excited to try something new and writing-centric. After the BBC read the comics, Chris Golden and I were asked to do the “Ghosts of Albion,” an animated program. Then Random House asked us to novelize that universe, so that was my entré into writing long form prose.

OT "Death’s Daughter" was your first solo novel. Since then you’ve written two more. Is it getting easier?
AB I’m at work on the fourth as we speak. You have to treat writing like a business. I like to go places to write. Like, ok, I’m leaving to go to my office. I try to do 1500 to 3000 words every time I sit down. It’s daunting to see a blank computer screen and know you have to fill it with 90 to 100,000 words. But the process gets easier—maybe easier is the wrong word. I get better at the process because I’m doing it more. Especially revisio where the book comes together. You vomit it up as a first draft, then go back and rewrite until you get it to a place where it’s not vomit anymore, it’s cotton candy.

OT You blog, tweet and are active on facebook. Social media, boon for artists or distraction?
AB Traditional ways of reaching people don’t work anymore. Magazines and newspapers are going under, everything is becoming internet based. You have to use what you got and what we have is social media. It puts you in connection with fans in a very intimate way. It’s awesome but frightening because all the walls separating the creative from the real world are knocked down.

OT Any social media regrets?
AB I did something just stupid. I was trying to direct message a friend to give them my new e-mail address and whoops, it popped up on Twitter for everybody to see. But I work hard not to talk about where I am while I’m there. I was at the New York comic-con a couple years ago and another writer, a friend, Anton Struass was at the booth and I tweeted, “I’m at such and such booth,” and then I went to do my signing and he’s like, “dude you left and a bunch of people came over, going ‘where’s Amber, she says she’s here.’” I’m learning you have to be protective of your personal space. I’m not on Foursquare. If I get checked in it’s somebody else doing it and I have to beat them up later.

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When it comes to jewelry, designer Erin Gordon knows what she likes, and happily, Chicago likes it too. A New York transplant, Gordon began her line of jewelry as a hobby, but by 2009, she was selling her signature semi-precious gemstone charm bracelets direct to customers and at Sarca, a Gold Coast boutique. Demand escalated, however, and in response, Gordon is launching an e-commerce site, allowing her growing customer base to shop at their convenience. Gordon spoke with Our Town about her favorite designs, her new men’s line and the style-setter she hopes will be Bah-nanas over her work.

Our Town What’s the first piece of jewelry you remember owning?
Erin Gordon When I was very young, my grandparents had a ring made with my birthstone and diamonds for me to wear when it was time for my Bat Mitzvah.

OT What inspires you?
EG So many things, from friends, family and favorite quotes, to fashion, colors, prints, fabrics, art and photography.

OT Which of your designs are you most excited about right now?
EG I recently launched a brand new Luxe Line which will be available on my website in April. With the Luxe Line, I am using luxury gemstones like Malachite, Leopard Skin Agate and Cloudy Quartz with rose gold and rondelle crystal ball accents. The Luxe Line can either be worn alone or mixed in with bracelets from my core collection to add a little extra sparkle.

OT What would you say to others interested in making their hobby a business?
EG I am so lucky I was able to turn my passion for jewelry design into a business. It’s definitely been a learning experience over the past year but if you truly love what you do, it’s worth all of the hard work and dedication it requires to be successful.

OT You’re known for your charm bracelets, a retro concept. However, your take seems current. How do you achieve a look both modern and vintage?
EG When I initially launched my jewelry line, I focused on creating one-of-a-kind pieces using vintage brooches and charms mixed with new gemstones. With the popularity of my vintage pieces, I expanded my collection with signature bracelets that reflect a modern take on a charm bracelet using vibrant gemstones and edgy charms like skulls, Buddha’s, peace signs and feathers.

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