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All Photos by Patty Michels

I first found out about cake artist Michele McAtee through a friend, appropriate, because that’s also how McAtee began her business: word of mouth from friend to enthusiastic friend. As the owner of Maddiebird Bakery, McAtee works out of Metropolis Coffee Company, designing cakes and cupcakes for all manner of occasion. Not only did she speak with Our Town about her company’s origin and possible future, but she also gave me four cupcakes. I will never be the same.

Our Town Actor to baker--logical trajectory?
Michele McAtee Well, no. But what both careers did and do for me was to provide me with an artistic outlet. I wanted to be a visual artist when I was a little girl, but right around high school, around that time when I really started to grapple with tough emotional growing-up stuff--identity stuff--I was drawn into the theatre world. I loved pretending to be someone else. It was a great escape. It was never a question that I would major in Theatre and after graduating from Northwestern, go into theatre as a profession. For fifteen years after graduation, I was fortunate [to] work professionally here in Chicago and regionally. However, my priorities and perspective changed steadily and significantly, and by the time I became pregnant with my daughter, I pretty much knew I was done. I finally decided after all the years of trying to pursue roles and portray characters and tell stories written, directed, and cast by other people for other people, I wanted to tell my own story and just be myself, whoever that was. It was during that first year of new motherhood that I went through this total identity crisis and eventually reconnected to the visual artist inside.

OT What makes baking a creative outlet?
MM I find baking very scientific, and mathematical. It's basically chemistry--tasty chemistry. The designing and decorating is where my creativity thrives. I remember when I first started seriously doing this I told my husband, “I just don’t really feel like a baker, though, you know?” And he said, “You’re not a baker. You’re a “cake artist.” You bake your canvases. And they just happen to taste real good.”

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OT The first cake you baked was for your daughter. Can you talk about that experience?
MM As Maddie's first birthday approached in May of 2010, I decided I was going to make Maddie’s cake myself. I’d never decorated a cake in my life. I didn't even own a mixer; I borrowed my friend’s KitchenAid by dragging it in a big red wagon down the block to my house. I started looking online for recipes, and then decorating ideas, and that’s how I discovered what fondant was, where to get it, and how to work with it. It became a real project, and I loved it. The best part was that it really ended up being as lovely, adorable and spirited as Maddie herself. And it tasted pretty good, too. Our friends who were at the party were impressed, if not totally perplexed, that I’d made the cake myself, and started asking me to do their cakes. Word got around and soon enough, total strangers were contacting me, asking if I could do a cake for them. I was just as surprised as anyone else that I had any kind of talent or skill at baking or decorating cakes.  

OT So you learned on the fly. What was that like for you?
MM When I started making cakes for friends, they’d tell me what they wanted, and I just said “yes.” Then, I’d totally freak out because I had no idea how I was going to pull it off! Eventually, after some experimentation, I’d figure it out and make it happen for them. There’s a small sense of pride I feel in that learning process, but I wish I’d had a mentor or been someone’s apprentice because it would have saved me a lot of anxiety, grief and self-doubt. The only baker in my family was my grandmother Virginia, for whom Madeline is named. I never got to know Virginia, she died when I was six months old. I like to think that whatever talent I have for baking is a gift from her.

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Chicago-based cookbook author Anupy Singla has cultivated a devoted following by showing readers how to master Indian spices and make great-tasting Indian food at home. In her second offering, Vegan Indian Cooking, she tackles the perhaps more difficult endeavor of demystifying vegan cuisine.
Our Town spoke with Singla about the benefits of eating vegan.


Our Town
What originally inspired you to write your first cookbook?
Anupy Singla I have always wanted to write an Indian cookbook for the slow cooker. I know. It sounds a little crazy, but my mother was one of the first in America to cook Indian food in a slow cooker. I always told her that I would write a cookbook filled with her and my recipes. She never thought people would buy it, but it's now been the No. 1 Indian cookbook on Amazon.com for essentially two years.

OT How did you go about compiling recipes this time?
AS The recipes in Vegan Indian result from years of being predominantly Vegan. I started eating like this in graduate school in 1994. Many recipes are also basic Indian recipes that I love to make and are inherently vegan to begin with. I also took many Indian recipes and made them with whole grain options like brown rice and quinoa - an ode to the way I love to eat and feed my family - also something I learned from my mother.

OT Why go Vegan?
AS I [compare] vegan eating to clean eating. It's just less taxing on your digestive system. But I advocate taking it day-by-day and meal-by-meal. Don't feel like you can never eat an egg again. Look for delicious recipes to fill the gaps for you and you may find that you don't even miss the meat. I grew up eating this way, and so home-style Indian just seems so intuitive to me. I was shocked to learn that it's not something many others know about. I'm so excited to share my way of eating now with the world.

OT What’s the most common misapprehension about Veganism?
AS That it's a 'kookie' way to eat - that somehow all of US want to convert YOU. That the folks telling you to do it are the ones that are looking to deprive you of the foods you know and love. That's why I approach it from a place of going vegan is not about what you can't eat. It's about what you can now eat. Add the flavor from spices and the beans and lentils and you'll just naturally need less and less meat to fulfill you. So many of my readers write that they are not vegan - but love my recipes because they are hearty vegan options that can serve as go-to recipes when they want to limit the meat in their meal or in their day.

OT What is a good replacement for ghee in vegan Indian cooking?
AS I never grew up cooking with or eating ghee so it's a myth that all Indian households must use ghee in their cooking. In South Indian households they rarely use ghee. I love any vegetable-based oil. My favorite these days is grape seed oil, because it's a clean tasting oil that pairs well when used with Indian ingredients, and it has a high smoke point. Other oils like canola and vegetable works fine as well.

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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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The closest my dog will get to Baconfest. Photo by Patty Michels

You guys, I don’t actually like bacon. I know. That’s like saying I don’t like sunshine or babies. Which I also kind of don’t. But just like zombies, bacon is having its cultural moment and Chicago food writer, software analyst and bacon enthusiast Seth Zurer is thrilled. Along with Andre Pluess and Michael Griggs, Zurer was driven to found Baconfest in order to share his passion for pork with the masses. A succulent success in 2011, Baconfest is back this year, bigger and better. Zurer spoke with Our Town about what those lucky enough to attend the sold out fest can expect.

Our Town Bacon: Always tasty but only recently culturally celebrated. Why so trendy all of a sudden?
Seth Zurer I think that we're in a Golden Age of Bacon.  Chefs have always loved bacon, but they didn't always have the kind of exposure that they do now; they're hosting talk shows, travel shows, cooking shows. They're the new media darlings and celebrity stars [and] they've brought to the general public an enthusiasm for local craft bacon that dovetails nicely with the farm-to-table, locavore, artisan food movement on the rise in the culture.  Or it could just be that bacon is damn good?

OT What inspired you to create Baconfest?
SZ My two partners, Andre Pluess and Michael Griggs, attended a rock'n'roll puppet musical called "Beer" that the NeoFuturists put on in 2009.  They were impressed that the creators of the show had been so passionate about beer that they'd want to create a whole production devoted to it.  After the show, they sat down to talk about what thing they felt as passionately about and bacon immediately came up.  Pretty shortly, they'd dropped the idea of a musical, and settled on a festival instead - a "Burning Man" of bacon.  I had some experience in the restaurant media world and was known for my love of pork, so they called me up to see if I thought it was a good idea.  I did, it was, and here we are!

OT What kind of restaurants and vendors can attendees expect?
SZ We've got chefs from the best restaurants in the city - celebrities like top chefs Heather Terhune from Sable and Stephanie Izard from Girl & the Goat; craft people like Art and Chelsea Jackson from Pleasant House Bakery and Charlie McKenna of Lillies Q, fine dining powerhouses like Cafe Spiaggia and Vie, gastropubs like Three Aces and the Bristol.  Our vendors include artisan local bacon makers like Nueske's, Dreymiller and Kray, Spenser's Jolly Posh British and Irish Foods, JDY Gourmet, and Big Fork Bacon Sausage, plus bacon entrepreneurs like Meng Yang of Know Your Flag who makes unbelievably stylish bacon prints and tee shirts.  Drinks from Goose Island, Greenbush Brewery, Pabst and More.

OT Nueske's Amateur Cookoff saw 33 candidates submitting recipes for bacon-y dishes incorporating Nueske's bacon. You helped choose finalists who will then attend Baconfest. What was that process like?
SZ It was tough - contestants submitted recipes and in many cases photos of their original recipes.  We asked our fans to help choose by opening up voting on our website - over 4500 votes were cast. Then we consulted our friends at Nueske's and chose five that spoke to us and to our fans.  Those five finalists will all get to attend the fest and present their dish to a panel of judges.  One lucky winner will receive a Golden Rasher Award, the Oscar of Bacon. 

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Remember Crush of the Month Lindsey Pearlman? Well, she’s a crush with a conscience. Pearlman loves animals--from the pampered pups her dog care company walks and cares for to the elephants of Thailand for which Pearlman traveled thousands of miles to donate her time. Recently she discovered that Groupon is offering a family four pack of tickets to the George Carden Circus Spectacular.

Says Pearlman, “unlike the image the public receives of circuses - filled with cotton candy, clowns, and happy performing animals - the reality behind the facade is one of torture, sadness, and pain.” 

Since the Groupon deal went up, Pearlman’s facebook feed has been a frenzied montage of anti-cruelty petitions, late night links to disturbing youtube video of mistreated elephants and descriptions of her effort to compel Groupon to discontinue their circus deal--this is a woman on a mission.

I’m turning today’s blog over to Pearlman for her take on the situation.

Pearlman on circus animals: “Circus animals are trained as babies under the constant threat and application of physical punishment.  (How else do you get a six-ton wild animal to perform painful, joint-shredding "tricks"?  Not through positive reinforcement.  Through pain and intimidation!)  Bullhooks are the most common tool to cause physical pain and punish.  When not performing, [animals] are on chains for days on end, or in transport from town to town.  These sensitive, intelligent animals are not meant for domestication. The situation has become desperate and public education is necessary to bring circuses to an end." 

Pearlman on the circus’s impact on children: “Children who watch these performances learn that it is acceptable to force another living creature to do something that is stressful, and often even painful, as long as it serves the purpose of entertainment. This mindset will carry over into their relationships with people, and it will not serve them well in life.”

Pearlman on the George Carden Circus Spectacular: “The USDA is limited in what they can monitor, but many infractions of this particular circus have been cited over the last 20 years. The elephants used in this circus are in terrible condition.  One piece of video evidence shows Bo, the star of their show, exhibiting a swaying behavior.  This behavior occurs when the elephants are unable to do what they do naturally - walk through a forest for over 30 miles a day with their family, forage, and have their social needs met."

Pearlman on Groupon: “Over 650 people purchased this deal.  I contacted Groupon immediately, and began providing information regarding the business they were promoting.  For the past six days, I have been working to convince them to remove the deal, refund the money, and take this opportunity to help these animals receive the public awareness they deserve.  Because Groupon is such a popular source of consumer interest, their voice is invaluable.  I believe this is a great opportunity for Groupon to come out of this with a boosted public image."

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Photo by Peter Coombs

Sue Fabisch writes what she knows and she knows motherhood. A longtime singer-songwriter and stage veteran, Fabisch started Mommy Music Inc after reading of a famous songwriter’s contempt for female songwriters. From there, her songs found focus in a one woman show which grew into Motherhood the Musical which opens March 30th at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre. Fabisch spoke with Our Town about Veggie Tales, her show’s success and of course balancing career and motherhood.

Our Town What are your musical influences?  
Sue Fabisch Well, I love me some Barbra Streisand!  How I wished I could sing like that.  Hence, the switch to songwriting! And I think Bette Midler had a huge impact on me as well.  I just loved her ballsy in-your-face attitude.  Believe it or not, I was also influenced by the songs in all the Veggie Tales videos (that I had to watch over and over and over again with the kids!)  They're really well crafted songs, very silly, very catchy and really smart lyrically.  So Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Larry the Cucumber.  Yep, those are my musical influences.

OT You started your company in part as a response to a songwriter who disparaged housewives.
SF This famous songwriter talked about looking for songs for other artists.  When his team couldn't find the perfect song, out of desperation, they turned to the 'housewife pile,’ a box in the corner where he would throw songs mailed in from housewives who thought they could write.  Here was a guy, who had made it in the music business, passing judgement on me and my talent because I chose to stay at home and raise kids?  Um, no thank you.  I have a degree in music and I can write a song and breastfeed at the same time, dude!  Can you do that???


OT So why aren’t moms taken seriously?  
SF Oh man, I wish I knew!  When I first started putting out Mom songs two things happened:  Audiences loved it and the music professionals hated it.  They would call it "niche" and "cute".  They would send me condescending emails saying things like "too bad it's just not commercial."  Yet as I stood there and watched the audience, I saw huge amounts of laughter.  So I just ignored them and kept going.

OT Has your show faced similar marginalization?   
SF Well, the title kind of puts it out there that we're targeting moms, but when I see men in the audience (and this is worldwide) they are laughing just as hard.  The comments afterwards are usually "Oh, I remember my wife saying that" or "My daughter is going through that right now".  So I do believe that men are relating.  The question is:  Will men actually admit (in public) that they enjoyed the show?

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Interior designer Karyn Musick knows what she likes--designing livable, lovely homes which reflect the lives of their occupants. She spoke with Our Town about design trends, the horror of the 80’s and why moms need rooms of their own.

Our Town When did you first realize you wanted to work in interior design?
Karyn Musick I always had a passion for design. As a young teen, I use to love to decorate my own bedroom and I always had input with my siblings and family’s decorating projects. 

OT Why hire an interior designer?
KM It's sometimes difficult for people to envision and make complex decisions since they are emotionally and financially involved. [A designer can] consult and give professional guidelines to achieve your design goals.

OT What’s your favorite part of the design process?
KM I really enjoy working together with my clients [to] understand their goals. I love when a client tells me that they love what I've helped them to accomplish.

OT You’ve been in the business for over two decades. Is there any period in recent design history that you think back on and wonder what everyone was thinking?
KM Yes! The 80's--all of the high gloss lacquer furniture and teal and raspberry were "the" colors! I was a little young back in the 70's; however, avocado appliances would scar me today!  

OT What’s the secret to making  a room both beautiful and livable?
KM Understanding the space’s main function, then adding all of the personal elements to make it beautiful.

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OT Your “Mom Cave” contest invites moms to submit outrageous stories and photos in order to win a specially designed sanctuary just in time for Mother’s Day. What inspired the contest?
KM Often, we will visit a family home and as we are walking through each room, we will hear the lady of the home say "this is supposed to be my living room but it's a play room right now, oh and the basement, well, that's where my oldest child (i.e. husband) hangs out on Sunday's, while he's watching all of his football games.” She'll usually gasp for a breath and say, “my designated area is in the kitchen or the laundry room.” Yikes! In November, we were invited to a launch and it was held in a lovely home in Lake Forest. I believe this family had triplets. There was this beautiful schemed room on the main floor. The color scheme was done is bright and soft pinks with an elegant Settee Love Seat. The main wall had framed black and white prints of Audrey Hepburn. The bell went off that this was her "Mom-Cave!” This is what inspired our Mom Cave contest.

OT I’m “creatively cluttered” by which I mean I can’t find my floor. I’m also generally confused about how to make a home look good. Any general tips for someone like me?
KM Less is always more! Organize your clutter by putting away the things that you really don't need everyday. Keep and display the things that mean the most to you and get rid of the things that collect dust. 

To learn more about Divas N' Design visit divasndesign.com

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
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All Dog Show Photos by Patty Michels

At five years old, I made an announcement. “I’m not going to get pregnant with a baby when I grow up. I’m going to have puppies!”

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In junior high my friends whispered and pointed when a senior with a hip mushroom cut sauntered by, but I only had eyes for the giant German Shepherd who paced the yard across from school. “He totally looked right at me,” I squealed.

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Meanwhile, my future Significant Other grew up enamored with a family member’s Boxer that threw up with excitement whenever she came over to play. “He did that because of me!” She said.

She’s an amazing driver, my SO, her record marred by a single incident wherein she rear-ended a truck paused at a red light. Why? She couldn’t tear her gaze from a wind-ruffled retriever in an adjacent car.

Not long after we met she told me with total sincerity and absolutely no prompting, “We need to have puppies together.”

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So when the International Kennel Club of Chicago asked me to check out their annual International Cluster of Dog Shows, I knew I’d found the perfect anniversary present. Okay, that’s a lie. Never once in five years have I remembered our anniversary, but this year instead of belatedly running to Seven-11 to buy SO a Twix bar and a copy of Maxim, we were already at the dog show when she asked if I knew what day it was.

“Of course,” I told her. “Why do you think we’re here?”

She didn’t answer. A Golden Retriever had sauntered past. And he was just the beginning!

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Held at Chicago’s McCormick Place, IKC show draws 10,000 purebred dogs from 170 breeds, not to mention a whole cache of rescue dogs and anti-cruelty organizations. In a family friendly move, the event is one of few to offer spectators access to the competing dogs. Ringing the booths and competition rings is a benching area where dogs go to bathe, primp and possibly have a post show cigarette. Rather than being cordoned off, the benching area offers attendees the option of meeting and even petting the fluffy show dogs.

Life's Ruff

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All photos by Sheri Berliner

Animal trainer Chris Dignan has one mission: to raise awareness about the plight of homeless dogs. A former dolphin trainer at the Shedd Aquarium, Dignan is now the President and Director of Training for The Dog Saving Network (DSN), an organization which highlights the benefits of positive reinforcement training. Our Town spoke with Dignan about training tips, his dog talent show, Life’s Ruff, and all things canine.

Our Town What drew you to animal training?
Chris Dignan You will have to ask my mom! As far back as I can remember I have been interested in animals; dinosaurs, whales and dolphins peaked my interest. There isn't a huge demand for dino trainers these days so whales and dolphins it was!

OT Describe your methods.
CD I'm a positive reinforcement trainer. I reward behavior that I like so the dog does it again or train a dog to do what I need him to. Like most trainers, I break a complex behavior into a series of smaller steps and systematically work towards the finished behavior. By using these small steps or approximations, you can teach a dog to do whatever it is physically capable of and it stays fun for the dog throughout!

OT What inspired Life’s Ruff?
CD We had a dog show [at the Shedd Aquarium] for a while about training pets using the same techniques that are used to train marine mammals. Tons of people would come up and ask if they could adopt one of the dogs in the show. The plan was to adopt out the dogs after the show was over so I had to tell people "not now" or "check back in a few months.” I never liked that answer so I started thinking of ways that shows could be used to raise awareness for homeless animals while highlighting the importance of training [but also] as adoption events. I want people to understand that anyone can train their dogs as long as they are committed to the process. Life's Ruff is the first of many new and different shows we hope to produce that can be used to super-charge adoptions while inspiring people to train.

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OT You hope to use your Dog Saving Network to change the way the country views shelter and rescue dogs and looks to provide an easy to follow alternative to some of the more popular, aversive training methods in use today. Can you expand on this a bit?
CD I hope to show people what homeless dogs CAN do, when given the chance, instead of focusing on their challenges. There are so many dogs that need homes right now and we, as a country, need to shift our mindset towards making adoption the first choice when looking for a dog. One of the hardest things for me to see is a dog misbehaving and an owner using the excuse of "he's a rescue" or "he's a shelter dog.” Yes, dogs that come from the shelter or rescue system can have behavioral problems but that can be true of any dog, regardless of their previous living arrangements. I want people to be proud of their adopted animals and understand that being a good dog owner requires work, not excuses. Every dog that comes from a shelter or rescue has a chance to become a messenger for all shelter and rescued animals. It's up to the owners to make that happen.

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I’ve been writing The Crush of the Month Blog for over a year now, and in any long-term relationship, there comes a time when you need to spice things up.

So let’s talk about my crush within a crush, my inner sanctum of crushes, the true crush that lies below the false bottom of the crush proclivity you thought you knew.

I get crushes on couples.

In truth, my couple crushes are pretty tame. I find myself fascinated with relationship mechanics, enamored by the way two people become not a crock pot stew of codependence and resentment, but a crisp chopped salad in which the carrots are autonomous but care very much how the hearts of palm feel.

With that in mind I’d like to introduce you to January’s Crush of the Month: Husband and Wife, Sonny Mott and Erin O’Neill

Hometown: Erin-Chicago, Sonny-San Diego

Profession: Erin-Writer/Editor/Marketer, Sonny-Law Student

Hobbies: Erin-Reading, cooking, baking pies, and watching Bravo. Sonny- Law school and [daughter]Lucy.

Our Town: How did you two meet?
Erin O’Neill At the infamous Tom Tom Club in Washington, DC, going on eight years ago.
Sonny Mott I pursued her shamelessly.
Erin This is true.

OT Describe your wedding day.
Erin Which one? Because of Sonny's deployment schedule, we were lucky enough to get married (to each other) twice, so I got both my dream weddings. The first time, we got married at City Hall, then went to the White Sox game--a friend put our names up on the scoreboard, which was amazing-- and met up with friends in a bar to celebrate. The second, we had the big Catholic wedding, in the big white dress, then had the reception in my high school cafeteria (at St. Ignatius). Both were perfect, for totally different reasons, but walking down the aisle, seeing Sonny standing there, holding hands at the altar and exchanging vows meant way more to me than I thought it would.

OT Erin, you’re a writer. Any tips for those looking to freelance?
Erin I hate giving advice [because] I'm a pretty big believer that most of my "success"--if you call not having a job with health insurance success--is luck, timing, and a little networking. Overall, my best advice is to keep reading, writing, and submitting. Freelancing takes an incredible amount of passion, discipline, and hard work, but if you can make it work, it's the best gig going.

OT Sonny rarely reads your writing, why?
Erin I don't write the kind of writing he likes, and it's far too dangerous to my ego to have him not like my writing. I write creative non-fiction; a lot of personal essays about my life and relationships. The last time he read anything I wrote, it was a thinly veiled personal story about a family falling apart in a cabin in rural Michigan. When he finished, I asked him what he thought, and he said, "It was ok. It needed more wolves."

OT Sonny, you served in the US Marine Corps for more than eight years. How was it to transition back to civilian life?
Sonny Bittersweet. You miss the good times and the camaraderie but I enjoy all of the free time with our daughter Lucy.

OT Erin, what was the hardest thing about being in a relationship with someone deployed?
Erin Obviously, worrying about his safety was hardest. I obsessively watched the news, researched the Iraqi conflict, immersed myself in the military community in order to get any word possible. The other hard part was the lack of communication. During his Iraqi tours, we could go as long as six weeks with no word whatsoever. I still remember all the nights I'd hold my breath, after hearing about something on the news, and the elated feeling of relief when I'd get a letter or phone call from him. Sonny's brother is also a Marine and currently deployed to Afghanistan, and I'm hoping this will be the last wartime deployment for our family.

Holiday Tips

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Photo by Patty Michels

We’re on the last leg of the holiday marathon, people. So close we can almost see the depressing, grey, Christmas light-less tip of January. At a time of year when our checking account balances are low and our stress level is high, I’ve polled a diverse group to offer some holiday tips. Enjoy.

I’ll start things off:

Sarah Terez Rosenblum (werewolf owner) Although many are lukewarm about the concept of zoos, I had a pretty awesome time at Lincoln Park Zoo Lights. Sure, the hot pretzels cost twenty dollars, but I’m a sucker for anything dazzling. Unchecked, I'll stare at a chandelier for an hour. If you’re looking for ice sculptures, passed out lions and Christmas trees choreographed to blink on and off in time with music, Zoo Lights will overflow your holiday cup.

Lisa Jenn Bigelow (librarian and author of “Starting From Here”): One of my biggest de-stressing achievements was agreeing with my family to make charitable donations rather than give material gifts. Of course, now I stress over that, but at least it greatly reduces the amount of time I spend in stores, worrying over whether I'm wasting my money on a gift that won't be used.

Lane West (voice over actor): Booze, prescription meds, having friends over for holiday feasts; sometimes mixing the three.

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Lane West demonstrates.

Amy Sutton (retail manager): If you still need to shop, do it early in the morning or late at night. You will miss the crowds. Also, the retail workers are pretty beat up right about now, so the teensiest bit of kindness will get you everything you need!

Susan Stachowicz (teacher): I bought Christmas presents this summer when I was traveling. So [the gifts are] unique and unavailable locally.

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This is an example of a vacation. Because of the palm tree.

Marie Macula (archivist): Construct an elaborate lie about your current life and bring it up whenever relatives ask you inappropriate questions.

Jamie Lauren Keiles (college student and December's Crush): Bulk food bins at the supermarket and a script for Xanax

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One day I hope to live in a bulk bin.

Janelle Galvin: (retail worker) Though I only have five other family members in the state, there's a lot of activity on Christmas eve. My mother is the organist at her church and my father is in the choir, my aunt is in the choir at a different church, and they never quite match up. A while ago, we decided that instead of doing a big sit-down dinner we would make a dozen or so appetizers and Christmas cookies that could sit out all night and people could just come and go as necessary without feeling like they were ditching the fam. Also, if one of the appetizers doesn't come out well, there are so many others that it makes no difference - zero holiday meal stress!

Corin Sailor (mother): Speaking as a new mother, set the bar low. They have nothing to compare it to.

Linda Michels (nuclear medicine technologist): If you like crafts, make the gift! More fun and meaningful than shopping. Soaps, candles, ornaments, and cookies, all good ideas.

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My SO seriously made this.

Chai Wolfman (artist) White Elephant gift exchange and Old Fashioneds.

Cristina Chopalli (writer) Brazilian Wax.

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

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Composer Miguel Kertsman is nothing if not prolific. With an eclectic oeuvre and a genre-defying take on the music world, Kertsman has turned his talents to everything from composing to producing, creating work across the music spectrum from Orchestral, Operatic, and Chamber Music, to Experimental, and Jazz. This week, O Saci, His children’s show about the power of friendship has its US premiere right here in Chicago. Our Town spoke with Kertsman about his methods and what to expect from the family friendly show.

Our Town How does music come to you?
Miguel Kertsman Music is out there, in here and everywhere in our environment, our lives, our routines, in our world, in the universe and the cosmos. I feel composers are very fortunate to have the urge, desire, and ability to tap into all those sources and channel some of that fantastic energy -- sharing it with others, telling stories, conveying feelings and emotions through sound. Music can come in a dream, in the shower, during a walk, while implementing a totally unrelated task, in the city or in the country. Sometimes there may be a "reason" to write a piece: A person, an event, a commission, a theme. Sometimes the music simply comes to be because it needs to.

OT What’s your method for composing?
MK I write what I hear internally at any given moment and what I feel -- it could be a rather tender, tonal melody today, or a very textural, experimental, chaotic work tomorrow. Sometimes I allow myself to get more cerebral about the writing process; however, most of the time I write what I hear and what I feel -- genres or styles are irrelevant. Concerning methodologies, I still prefer to write by hand, with pencil and paper. Naturally, computer programs can be helpful, especially for mechanical work such as generating engraved, publishing-quality printed scores and parts for the musicians. However, I personally am not a fan of having a computer between the music and me during the creative process, unless the computer's resources would in fact support the aesthetics of the work at hand. I feel we spend far much too much time in front of a computer or other electronic device as it is.

OT Do you write or hear a single line at a time or multiple lines?
MK Either, depending on the piece. When writing orchestral music I write multiple parts on the fly and as I go along since the final product is often already playing internally in full sound -- as if you would be listening to your own internal radio station. It often becomes a matter of writing down and transcribing what you hear. If the orchestral score has, let's say, 32 individual parts (various winds, brass, percussion, strings, choir, special instruments, etc.) I will often write down the most important parts, and make decisions on other lines later -- for example, I may decide to have the third trumpet doubling the first violins at a certain passage, or add another percussion part or effect -- those are often important details, the icing on the cake. When writing pieces with lyrics or Jazz pieces, one can often hear / write a melodic line, and subsequently harmonize it. In such an instance, that represents a more vertical way of composing music.

OT How does improvising impact your compositions or are you more formal about your work?
MK J.S. Bach was an incredible improviser, as were many of the other great Masters -- would that make their music less formal? Improvisation can be a fantastic tool for composition.

OT What would a non-musician be most surprised to find out about a composer’s creative process?
MK I often notice expressions of amazement from people when talking about hearing full or finished symphonic pieces internally that yet do not physically exist. Well, I am just as much in awe when an architect, painter or graphic artist sees a finished work in her /his mind's eye which also does not yet physically exist.

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Photo by Patty Michels

In 2006 I moved from Los Angeles to Chicago to attend graduate school and right away the city seemed a perfect fit. Sure, I spent nine months out of the year shivering at bus stops or worse, wearing a down vest in my own freaking apartment, but have you seen the glazed expression that passes for affability in LA?

I don’t do fake, I don’t do easygoing and I certainly don’t do Sasquatch boots with shorts. So while LA does have its benefits (warm weather, content-less conversation, the possibility of running into Liz Phair at ArcLight (which totally happened to me—double parenthesis!--)), Chicago feels like home.

Yet since moving here, I’ve lost countless friends to the West Coast. This is not ironic, merely irritating. What with winter’s encroachment, I’m making it my mission to fight for our fair city. In that spirit, I’ve compiled the following list.

Things to Do in Chicago this December That Won’t Make you Decide to Move to LA:

1. Attend Nickel History: The Nation of Heat, New Etchings by Tony Fitzpatrick at Firecat Projects.
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Possibly my favorite aspect of living in Chicago, Fitzpatrick seems the ultimate Renaissance Man. A poet, writer, artist and actor, Fitzpatrick is the kind of prolific which usually requires methamphetamines, but as far as I can tell, Fitzpatrick is fueled by nicotine, dirty jokes and the sheer necessity of realizing his artistic vision.

In lieu of electing him mayor (which is actually my goal—the man has more intelligent things to say about politics (and zombies) than any “politician” out there), go see his gorgeous new work on display through Christmas. More information here.

2. Read the brilliant Sara Levine’s highly anticipated novel, Treasure Island!!!
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Okay, technically you could read this sardonic jewel in any location, but Levine is a growing presence in the Chicago literary scene; she belongs to the Windy City man. [Editor’s Note: The author meant to leave out that comma. She is in fact referring to a single entity known as The Windy City Man who she believes nests beneath one of her floorboards. Let’s not disabuse her, shall we?] Having crafted a protagonist as fascinating as she is morally questionable, Levine says, “The literature of malcontents is not without pedigree. Achilles brooded. Odysseus was a selfish jerk. And Dostoevsky's underground man—who'd pick his profile on Match.com? Bernhard, Beckett, Nabokov... obviously my heart belongs to the misfits and misanthropes and criminals.”

And my heart belongs to Sara Levine. Learn more about Treasure Island!!! here.

3. See "Let it Ho!"
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This burlesque-inspired revue features five of the funniest Broadz in Chicago showcasing an unaccountably rare combination of sex appeal and smarts. This year’s holiday show offers two new songs, fresh scenes and the same raunchy hilarity you’ve come to expect. I asked Broadz member Ricky Dickuless (Amanda Whitenack) what she likes about the holidays and she had this to say: “My favorite part is the Ham seasoning. Ham is a versatile and underrated dish. Ham can be served cold on bread or hot in a stew or at room temperature on my thighs to a single man looking for a free meal with benefits. I'm single. I'm lonely. And I have a freezer full of ham. My real number is (773) 484-5623.”

I’m totally setting her up with the Windy City Man. He likes Ham. For tickets to "Let it Ho!" go here.

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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All photos by Jeff Wasilko

Every musician dreams of crafting the perfect hook to catch our collective attention, drive hot gay dudes to lip-sync and deployed soldiers to upload their dance moves to Youtube. But sometimes the knack for writing of-the-moment music traps an artist in a certain era. Maybe she becomes complacent; possibly it’s public perception that confines her, or perhaps she’s paralyzed by the fear that she’ll never transcend an early hit.
Not so for artists Nerissa and Katryna Nields, a cult folk/rock duo with a relatively small but matchlessly fervent fan base. Set to release their sixteenth album, the sisters have performed together for over twenty years.

Interviewing Nerissa, I was struck by the similarity between her take on the foundation of their longevity and a comment by R.E.M.’s Micheal Stipe in a recent salon.com interview. “I’m so glad we haven’t had a hit yet,” Nerissa told me. “Because that means the hit we have is still inside of us.”

Speaking of R.E.M.’s 1994 album “Monster,” Stipe said “in classic R.E.M. style, we were yet again out of time. We were doing something that was either a little too before or a little too behind what was actually happening.” Though he does not relate this tendency to the band’s staying power, the two seem inexorably linked.

Such is also the case for Nerissa and Katryna Nields. “We’re not willing to follow the rules in order to have a wider audience,” Nerissa said. But by making their own rules these talented siblings have ensured their permanence.

Our Town I’m sure you constantly field this question, but what’s it like to blur the line between family and career?
Nerissa Nields It’s a great question and I’m never tired of answering it. We don’t understand how people can work creatively with anyone other than their sibling. We work really hard at our relationship. We’re only two years apart and we’ve always been exceptionally close, really became best friends in our late teens and always had this dream to make music and have a career together. Eighty percent of our work together is about strengthening our relationship. We’re very intentional. I’m the songwriter and I’m the older sister and when I asked Katryna if she would be in a band with me, she said, “okay but only if you promise that I’m never going to feel like Art Garfunkel.” If one of us is getting too much attention, we say, “it’s not fair. (We talk the way we did when were little), “I need more attention,” and the other one says “okay.”

OT Your shows feel like a visit with old friends. Was it a conscious choice to let your between-song patter become so much a part of your performance?
NN We grew up in the folk world and early in our career saw acts like Cheryl Wheeler, Moxy Früvous, Ani Difranco and Dar Williams, who is one of our best friends, and it was always part of the show. Certainly Cheryl Wheeler; I love her music, I love her songwriting, but I go to her shows just as much to hear what she’s going to say. When we were sort of forming our identity as an act we were watching a lot of David Letterman and Conan O’Brian and we naturally tried to infuse our shows with comedy. Basically, we’re giving back what we like to see.

OT In addition to your music, you’ve written several books, most recently All Together Singing in the Kitchen. How is writing a book different than crafting a song?
NN I’m a person with a short attention span and I love the song for that reason. You can write a song in an afternoon. I also love the challenge of writing a book, but it’s a much bigger deal than writing a song. We wrote All Together in two years and that was from start to finish. It was a lot of rewriting and thinking and discussing. I feel really lucky I get to both write songs and books.

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I’m the last person you will ever find at Oktoberfest. Just picture a continuum, on the left end there’s Heidi, an up-for-anything blond who rock climbs on the weekends, brings back a shot glass from every country she visits, and can run a marathon in Louboutins. On the right, imagine an agoraphobic nun, allergic to alcohol and incensed by lederhosen. I’m just to the right of the nun.

But if this blog were just focused on my personal interests, I’d only write about Don Draper. And unicorns. This great city has much more to offer (Seriously, Chicago’s paltry unicorn selection is embarrassing.), and starting today, Chicago offers up Oktoberfest!

Oktoberfest originated in Munich in 1810 as a celebration of the wedding between Crown Prince Ludwig (aka King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. I know this because Heidi told me. She’s big into German history. (Actually, Sonja Martinez, Assistant Manager of German American Services, Inc. told me. But I bet she can run in heels.) In its modern incarnation, Oktoberfest boasts carnival rides, music and of course beer, specifically Spaten, the original Oktoberfest beer.

According to Martinez, “An original Oktoberfest can only be put on with the support of an original Oktoberfest beer. We were fortunate enough to get support from Spaten brewery.”

This year, Oktoberfest will be held at Navy Pier, freaking awesome for Heidi (she loves the Ferris wheel), but bad news for the nun (she once tried to see a Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production there but experienced heart palpitations when she saw the line to get into the parking garage).

Attendees will find the experience authentic in a way Martinez says most local festivals are not. “This starts when you walk up to the tent, which is made to look like the authentic tents as can be found in Munich. The beer steins, which were specially made by a German company, are another detail, which makes this event stand out. Also, Germany’s Best & Oktoberfest will not only have the Oktoberfest portion but will also showcase many areas of modern Germany.”

Expect to see venders such as Fehrenbach Black Forest Clocks (Heidi collects them! It’s one of those quirky traits that cements her identity as the GerManic Pixie Dream Girl.), Goethe Institute (Heidi pronounces this 'goathee,' but her skin's like a baby's and she laughs at fart jokes, so who cares?), Front Porch Coffee and Gifts, and many more. When Heidi has kids at a perfect age twenty-seven, she vows she’ll make this event a family tradition; they’ll love watching wheel gymnastics and buying Gingerbread hearts to hang around their necks—just like the kids in Germany do!

So, if you’re fun-loving and know the difference between a Lager and…something that’s not a Lager, check out Oktoberfest. I’ll be watching Madmen with the nun.

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Oktoberfest runs through October tenth. Learn more at www.germanys-best-and-oktoberfest.com

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," is forthcoming from Soft Skull, an imprint of Counterpoint Press. 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

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I can’t be the only one. I can’t, because it happens to all of us. No, not getting Katy Perry’s "Teenage Dream" stuck in our heads. Death. I don’t remember how I found out about death, but from the age of four on, I feared it. Not a quiet terror, but a sobbing, sleepless, wake up the neighbors who call the police because they suspect I’m being hacked to death by my parents kind of panic. Now I knew that each person, each animal and tree and--God help me-- the planet itself held within it an expiration date, I couldn’t comprehend how my friends went on playing foursquare and eating glue.

Though my death fixation lasted a decade, ultimately, through some peculiar combination of imagination and denial I managed to force my dread to the periphery of my consciousness, where it reached up to bop me over the head only every few months. Recently however, the apprehension has sidled center stage again, upstaging my usual obsessions. While it’s a relief to no longer worry that the eunuch vampire from "Let the Right One" In lives between my washer and dryer, this mortality anxiety sure is taking up a lot of my time.

While very few people join me when I run nightly down Foster street screaming, “We’re all gonna die,” I know others like me exist and it’s for you I’ve compiled this list.

Things to do in Chicago When You’re Terrified to Die

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1. Attend A.J. Durand’s Queer Yoga Workshop at Yogaview.
Running every Saturday July 2-July 30 from 2:00-3:15p.m., this class is specifically geared to provide queer folks curious about yoga with a safe, supportive, and fun environment. If you’re lucky, the practice will lend you peace and clarity. If you’re like me, you’ll have to flee the room because shavasana means corpse pose.
(Note: Heterosexuals can achieve a similar state of serenity by drinking twenty beers at a Cubs game and then preventing the Clark bus from moving more than two feet at a time.)

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2. Visit XOJane, the new website launched this week by 90’s alternative women’s magazine darling, Jane Pratt. If you had a subscription to "Sassy" as a teenager, the familiar names of her contributors and editors will induce a form of nostalgia, which, if you are lucky, will fill you with awe as to how far you’ve come. If you’re like me, you’ll drop to the floor moaning as if trampled by time’s grime march.

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3. Come to A Taste of StoryStudio, an evening of wine, cheese, and StoryStudio classes designed to help students interested in honing their writing skills at this Chicago mainstay. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. sharp May 20. If you’re lucky, you’ll come away pleasantly buzzed and brimming with inspiration. If you’re like me, you’ll spend the night certain the end of the world is mere hours away.

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4. Sample free frozen yogurt at the opening of Red Mango’s new Loyola location. The giveaway runs 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., also May 20. If you’re lucky, you’ll enjoy a delicious, low fat desert in the vicinity of an institution of higher learning. If you’re like me you’ll convince yourself it’s possible to choke to on yogurt. Or maybe freeze to death from the inside.

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5. Adhere to out-of-touch-rich-celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow’s list of places to visit while in Chicago. (This item is kind of like if a genie granted you three wishes and you used one to wish for a bunch of extra wishes, because it allows me to refer readers to a slew of other Chicago options while technically not exceeding five selections. I’m very clever.) If you’re lucky, you’ll have a number of lovely dining experiences and learn how it feels to sleep on 100,000 thread count sheets. If you’re me, you won’t be able to afford any of Paltrow’s suggestions, but the smoldering envy you’ll experience just might distract you from your mortality.

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

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Whatever your political affiliation, no doubt yesterday was an historic day. But now that we’ve imposed artificial meaning on the fact that both Hitler and Bin Laden were announced dead on May first, now that we’ve scoffed at Donald Trump’s fixation on Obama’s birth certificate, now that we’ve scoured Twitter for Katy Perry's response, let us turn our collective attention to something truly vital: my May crush of the month.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, filmmaker and teacher Aaron Greer has developed a diverse portfolio of documentary, narrative and experimental films. His award-winning feature film, “Gettin’ Grown,” has screened at film festivals around the world and is currently being adapted into a web series, he has co-authored the award-winning screenplay "Fruit of the Tree," which was selected for the Tribeca All-Access program in 2007, and he is currently producing a documentary about Cuba, titled “Merchant in Havana.” All that and he still finds time to dodge my calls.

Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Profession: Filmmaker and Professor at Loyola University Chicago.

Hobbies: I’m a fan of professional football and basketball. I like reading historical fiction and listening to “This American Life.” Nothing else I do on a regular basis that could be considered a hobby.

Our Town What drew you to filmmaking?
Aaron Greer Acting makes me self-conscious; music requires carrying a tune or playing an instrument, and art requires you be able to draw or something. Film was the way I could figure to be creative without having much artistic talent. Also, I believe in the Hopi saying: “He who tells the stories rules the world.”

OT Which filmmakers inspire you?
AG My first filmmaker “crush,” the first director I thought of as an artiste was Spike Lee. I still see all his films. I don’t always like them, [but] I’m always glad I saw them. I was also inspired by the Cuban filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea [and] really dig Pedro Almodovar. Finally, I kind of want Clint Eastwood to make me his adoptive grandson.

OT What made “Getting Grown” seem appropriate to transform into a web series?
AG When we made the film—in fact, part of why we made the film—there were relatively few serious films for and about tweenagers produced in this country, especially inner-city kids. Unfortunately, that’s just as true now; so there’s an unfulfilled niche in the “marketplace.” Also, that age group is just as likely, more likely really, to watch stuff online. Making GGTV a web-series is a ‘taking the mountain to Muhammad’ kind of thing.

OT Explain how you’ll include viewer-generated content.
AG Each webisode has moments structured [to] include media, images, lines of dialog, sounds, provided by the viewers. Say there’s a scene with the main character talking on the telephone. That other person’s voice can as easily be recorded by one of our viewers as it can by us. In advance of an episode’s premiere, we’ll put out a call for specific kinds of [media] to include in that next week’s episode. Viewers [can] upload or send us that media and we’ll pick our top choices and drop them into the official version of the episode on our site. Once that particular episode premieres, viewers will be able to re-edit, remix and customize that episode.

OT How do you balance teaching, creative pursuits and family life?
AG The most productive I’ve been was when I was single, living alone in a new city and had no social life. It sucked, but I got a ton done. I work at a much slower pace now, but my life is filled, so it’s worth it. During the semester, I try to spend one full weekday with my son, the rest of the workweek dealing with teaching, creative projects, a couple hours on the weekends, evenings, during naps, etc. [During summer break], I go into full-time filmmaker mode. The hardest part of the balancing act is giving myself permission to be a less prolific filmmaker than I used to be.

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Last night at Target I thought a lot about Peggy Orenstein. A bestselling author and contributor to the New York Times Magazine, Orenstein is perhaps best known as a girl culture commentator. From the “Confidence Gap,” to the identity-cementing effect of Facebook on teenage girls, Orenstein is both fascinated observer and wise critic. Her new book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture,” offers an invitation to pause for a breath and examine the increasingly sexualized, appearance-centric culture in which girls are raised.

But back to Target. I’ve written here before about my conflicted relationship with all things girlie. I’m a feminist and pop-culture skeptic, but if it’s hot pink or slathered in sequins I cannot look away. So last night, even as I found myself sucked down the pinkety-pink Barbie aisle, entranced by heart-shaped Valentine’s Day dinner plates, and enviously examining flouncey red lace mini-skirts in the girls department (If they’d made clothes like that when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have resorted to wearing my mom’s silk slip to school.), I thought of Ms. Orenstein and wondered. Did Cinderella eat me too?

Our Town What was your purpose in writing “Cinderella Ate My Daughter?”
Peggy Orenstein I liken my approach to the food movement. Ten years ago, who knew from trans fats? Now, because of a couple of books, because somebody started the conversation, we’re more aware; we know there are physical health threats. I wanted to start the conversation about the rise of this girlie girl culture that encourages girls to define themselves by appearance. It’s a very personal book because it’s about my daughter, all of our daughters.

OT Your discussion of Disney Princess play and its possible impact on girls as they grow drew the attention of a Disney spokesperson who called you absurd and said in part, “little girls experience the fantasy and imagination provided by these stories as a normal part of their childhood development.”
PO It is developmentally appropriate. That’s what’s pernicious about it. Girls (and boys) are really focused on asserting their gender when they’re that age. They hook onto whatever culture provides that’s most extreme. At one point, it was dustpans and brooms, then baby dolls; now it’s focusing on becoming the fairest of them all. It’s great that Disney feels they have to respond to me-they’re that threatened. Their response that princesses help girls expand their imagination? Nothing says expanding girls imaginations like pink Disney princess mouse ears with a tiara and a bridal veil.

OT As girls mature, how exactly do their playthings impact their self-image?
PO There’s this way that little girls are encouraged to confuse self-absorption with self-confidence. My daughter got a make your own messenger bag kit for her birthday. It has all these iron-on transfers: hearts, flowers, stars, ones that say “brat,” and “spoiled and pampered princess.” And she said, “Mom why would anyone want that on their purse?” I call it Girlz with a Z culture: Bratz and Monster High dolls, toys and movies that promote the idea that the way you show you’re confident and powerful as a girl is to look like a Sesame Streetwalker.

OT You cite studies connecting young girls playing at sexiness with older girls experiencing body image issues. What’s that about?
PO With all this emphasis on play sexiness at unprecedentedly early ages, girls don’t understand what they’re doing. It becomes a performance and maybe they never learn to connect to their internal feelings and grow up seeing sexuality as something they perform for others. This blew me away: I talked to a researcher who asked teenage girls to describe their feelings around arousal. They responded with how they looked. She had to tell them looking good isn’t a feeling. Girls are going through puberty younger; they look like adult women at younger ages, so they need protection from being sexualized too soon.

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It’s been a memorable year. I for one, misplaced a pair of black Converse and made a tolerable mustard/soy sauce marinade. I know many other Chicagoans had similarly staggering peaks and heartrending valleys. That’s why today’s blog is devoted to celebrating the common man. The New York Times may have award-winning photographers and poignant headlines, but I have my parents standing inches from me having an irate discussion about the temperature of my father’s oatmeal. That friends, is what it’s really about.

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