2.01.2017

Literary Chicago: Edward Albee - 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Martha:...and she wants to go to Chicago all the time, 'cause she's in love with that actor with the scar...But she gets sick and she sits down in front of her dressing table...
George: What actor? What scar?
Martha: I can't remember his name, for God's sake. What's the name of the picture? I want to know what the name of the picture is. She sits down in front of her dressing table...and she's got this peritonitis...and she tries to put her lipstick on, but she can't...and she gets it all over her face...but she decides to go to Chicago anyway, and...
George: Chicago! It's called Chicago!
Martha: Hunh? What...what is?
George: The picture...it's called Chicago...
Martha: Good grief! Don't you know anything? Chicago was a thirties musical, starring little Miss Alice Faye. Don't you know anything?

This dialogue happens in the opening scene in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It doesn't really say much about Chicago itself, although the film Martha is trying to think of is Beyond the Forest (1949). Although I guess it says something that we are introduced to two characters that express such disdain towards each other while mentioning our city.

1.18.2017

Literary Chicago: Jeanette Winterson - "Gut Symmetries"

"When Mama and I left for Berlin, Jove was about to go to Chicago to study. He was nineteen, a dark teenage hero to a girl in old-fashioned clothes and dreaming about James Dean." (pg 126)

Like in many works of fiction, Winterson's characters go to school in Chicago. While this reference is as vague as Jhumpa Lahiri's Chicago school reference, the context implies the school to be the University of Chicago (see Tender is the Night) although Alaa Al Aswany's Chicago is primarily set in UIC. I don't think I've read any fiction that pays much attention to DePaul or Northwestern though I'm sure it's out there. Any fiction about Chicago State? My alma mater Columbia College? Northeastern? I'm curious...

1.02.2017

2016: The Year in Reading

Five Two. Fifty-two. LII. For each week of the year, I read a book. This has been a goal of mine for the past few years and I finally achieved it.

Of course, this is an arbitrary number. Does it mean I read more than in previous years? What about the average length of books? Consider Saramago and the works of poetry I read. Do I need to count pages? Number of words? But this isn't about nit-picking. It's about setting a goal and reaching it.

I like this reading goal in that it forces me to read wildly and without precision. I can read a wider range of works when I force myself to read 52 books. Having this goal in mind means I read more short poetry works and more works of flash fiction and short story collections. I read more non-fiction this year than I've ever read before. I found that sometimes books had to resonate with how I was feeling at the time. Like Lewis's It Can't Happen Here after Trump won the election or finally reading in the Spring Tender Is the Night, which I had purchased at a book fair over five years ago. Some books I couldn't wait to start as soon as I bought them like Known and Strange Things or Speedboat (although I couldn't get into it at first, it really grew on me).

The White Album, complete with front cover falling off, I found at the Logan Square Arts Fest, the same warm day I listened to Ryley Walker and Bill MacKay and found a reissue of the Beastie Boys first EP on on vinyl. Open Books, where I volunteer, provided many serendipitous findings as well, including Road-Side Dog and Written on the Body. Some books I special ordered, like the poetry collection by Danez Smith after I read a poem of his on Buzzfeed of all places.

11.15.2016

Literary Chicago - Joan Didion "The White Album"

I wrote this post a few months ago. Not sure why I never uploaded it. I was planning on originally trying to find somewhere else to publish this, but I never really expanded on it in any meaningful way. I still think it's worth posting based upon the connection between the writer, the artist, this city, and my experience.

(via the Art Institute)
I recall an August afternoon in Chicago in 1973 when I took my daughter, then seven, to see what Georgie O'Keefe had done with where she had been. One of the vast O'Keefe "Sky Above Clouds" canvases floated over the back stairs in the Chicago Art Institute that day, dominating what seemed to be several stories of empty light, and my daughter looked at it once, ran to the landing, and kept on looking. "Who drew it," she whispered after a while. I told her. "I need to talk to her," she said finally.
Joan Didion wrote this in 1976 in an essay titled "Georgie O'Keefe". It was released in her collection called The White Album, chronicling the death of the sixties and the uncertainties of the seventies, covering everything from the Doors to dams to horticulture to Hawaii, Bogota to bureaucrats, to the women's movement and how an artist creates.

I've gotten into the habit of marking whenever Chicago is mentioned in fiction. This year however, I've been a bit out of character. I've read less fiction, and more non-fiction and, especially recently, poetry. I've read Didion in the past, and as I began reading this collection, I'd wondered if she would mention Chicago.

This essay was a pleasant surprise. It got me to rethink my previous notions of O'Keefe. Personally, I've never been a huge fan of her work (nothing against her personally, the works of European artists and authors have always appealed to me more). I've probably walked by these clouds dozens of times.

But last Thursday was different. I wanted to see what Didion saw and what her daughter saw in these clouds.

9.09.2016

"Her Laugh (Killing Joke)"

'Cachinnator' was the word of the day one time on Dictionary.com so I wrote a story about it.

Perhaps it is my contrarian streak, but hearing laughter inspires in me near total mental collapse. I find the nature of cachinnators to be capricious and disconcerting. Every time a prospective chortler opens their mouth to release a guffaw or cackle, as if it were imprisoned inside them, I want to yell “Stop!” Have they no concern about the consequences of their actions or how others around them may react to their belly-laughs? No, they think not of my plight or of others like me at all.

This may be a surprise, but there are indeed many of us. We have meetings, local chapters, national conventions. There are critical inquiries into why we disdain such common practice, and defining the “what”: do we despise the laugh itself or the buffoon of the laugh's origin? Some write these notions off as futile or meaningless even if answered. They'd rather live their lives as they are, accepting the fate they've been dealt, and never be able to be one of the buffoons themselves. But I, and others like me, well, there's no hiding it: we want to laugh.

8.19.2016

"Pairs"

These things on my feet. It wouldn't be correct to call them shoes. Nor boots nor moccasins nor loafers nor slippers nor anything else in the social vocabulary we have to define the materials that robe our feet. Neither sock nor stocking nor hose will do either, though certainly closer to the lightness those items imply.

The problem, I believe, is that this is the first garment I own that can most accurately be defined not by the materials it is made of, the brand or designer, the size, the country of origin, the length of the laces, the proper use of, or the history of the concept of the shoe itself. These devices on my feet, which to you may seem vague in description, can only be described in adjectives and not nouns.

For simplicity, for your vocabulary, since you have never worn such a thing, I will call them “shoes.” But this soft wiry mesh is softer than the clunky thing that you are probably scrounging up in your imagination. So instead, picture: lightness. Air. Softness. The voice of your favorite female jazz vocal singer shrouding your feet in clouds. Imagine the feeling of stepping into one of Monet's lily ponds, or bathing downstream from a waterfall in a bubbly ravine. This is not just how these shoes feel, but how they look.

8.12.2016

"Seventeen Chandeliers"

I wrote this story while sitting on the floor of Preston Bradley Hall in the Chicago Cultural Center, aka, the room with beautiful giant glass dome in the middle. Lauren gave me the word "lodestar" to write a story about and this is what happened.

I know a world exists outside this room, but I fear I will never see it again. This cavernous space is filled with slow-moving giants. I am fortunate to've not been sighted yet. They are quiet like me. I make my way across rough plains of burgundy, crimson, teal, sienna. I am in a maze with no walls. A false lodestar watches over me. I know it to be false, yet every day I am tricked by it, day in, day out, every day. They all blend together, the days.

At night, it is quiet. Quieter than when the giants of the day roam. I allay my fears of solitude, of capture, of death, by knowing that each day anew, my true sun rises on the same grandiose windows that tell me that there does exist a world outside these walls. But it soon flies away, camouflaging itself with other false stars, seventeen by my last count, though infinite they might as well be: their reflections around the ceiling are eternal.

8.11.2016

Literary Chicago: Ruth Ozeki - "My Year of Meats"

"I had a lover in the Year of Meats. His name was Sloan and he was a musician from Chicago."

"Sloan lives in the penthouse of one of the high-rise apartment buildings that cluster along Lake Shore Drive as it winds around the southern perimeter of Lake Michigan. From his vantage, the horizon line is negligible, obscured by smog and slatted blinds. Floor-to-ceiling windows from the gray lake and the steel waves that lap the concrete shore. The carpet is gray and mimics the water."

This description of Chicago reminds me of Martin Amis's character riding the Blue Line from O'Hare in his book The Information (coincidentally, in that post, I reference Ruth Ozeki as well). Writers love to make this city sound bleaker than it actually is. It is setting the mood for a single scene, but it's interesting when it becomes a trend. Algren of course wrote about the roar of the L and the seedier parts of Wicker Park but he is probably most remembered for his over-quoted "never a lovely so real" to define the city.

This isn't to say that I think grittiness is an insult. But maybe perhaps the romanticiziation of the idea is a bit outdated. Then again, this story was taking place in 1991 (and The Information was written in 1995). This was a time when the murder rates and overall crime rates were even worse than in this year, which itself has seen a spike in murder and crime. So maybe the romanticiziation is appropriate, that things may have appeared to be too good in this city over the past decade, and now the ugliness is starting to rear it's thorny head again.

Or maybe I'm just trying to make the city sound worse than it actually is. 

8.05.2016

"The Quote-Makers"

Four men are sitting around a table. A notebook lays in front of each of them, with various sheets of loose paper, pens, pencils, and erasers scattered over the rest of the broad, wood table. George is shifting uncomfortably in his chair, and stands up to look out the window, to observe the naked plains before him.

“I don't fucking get this. What are we doing here anyway?” George asks irritably.

Kurt, calm, responds, “George, we go through this every year. We're on a deadline.”

“You say that every year too,” says George.

“Well either way, we have to come up with something,” Kurt says. “We've all done this a thousand times. Let's just give them something short, sweet, and poo-tee-weet, we're outta here.”

George glares at Kurt a moment but then sits back down and picks up a pen.

Oscar begins to whistle a cheerful tune.

Kurt poses in a thousand yard stare into the blank wall, while George starts scribbling frantically. His eyes grow wide and foam forms in the corner of his mouth.

Oscar stops whistling and looks at Kurt, still lost in thought. He nudges him, breaking his concentration and nods in George's direction. Kurt realizes what is happening, stands behind George to read the scrawl he's affixed to the page.

“'I want to live my next life backwards...'” Kurt begins to read aloud. “'You start out dead and get that...' no, no, no, George, stop, seriously, come on. I mean it's a fine idea, but we need a quote, something punchy. A one-liner.”

George puts down his pen. “'One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor,'” he responds.

“Oh why was I born with such contemporaries,” Oscar sighs.

7.22.2016

"Propaganda"

I wrote this story based on the first fifty or so images on Google after searching for "Propaganda." Enjoy!

The man in the white hat is pointing his long finger in my face; the man with the mustache keeps his back turned the whole time. Accusations automatically become truth when they're said with enough conviction. A third man in a mask is begging, pleading: is he on my side? I look to her, to her wrists cuffed together like mine, to her brown eyes for reassurance. The finger continues to point as if unattached to any body.

I am aware of the reality, of the gravity of this situation. Mockery is boring but only one of our sides can be right. My enemy loses power when he expresses doubt. But that finger continues to hold steady as if it emanated molecules of doubt that attach to any being at which it aims. Are good and evil relative terms? No. But how did I end up here, with her, in a state of compliance, in a state of surrender?

“Shut up,” the man attached to the finger says. I never said anything out loud. Yet here I am, willing to, eager even, to believe everything he says. And her and I aren't the only ones. The alarms were sounding; we panicked; we fell in line. We surrendered identity. We submitted possessions. We abandoned thought and listened without discourse. We barely ate.

But were we afraid?