Street Smart Chicago

Chicago Hype Exchange: Charting the capricious contours of celebrity

Chicago Hype Exchange No Comments »

This Week’s Biggest Gainers

1 Jennifer Hudson
In what’s been a series of big weeks, the Chicago-bred singer won a Grammy for Best R&B album.

2 Barack Obama

The president received positive reviews for his first primetime press conference.

3 Kanye West
Took home some Grammy gold of his own in the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration category, for his work on Estelle’s “American Boy.”

4 Bears Fans
Experienced some relief after it was announced ticket prices for the 2009-2010 season will not be raised. Nor will expectations.

5 Abraham Lincoln
Honest Abe turned 200 this week, amidst vast tributes and life retrospectives.

This Week’s Biggest Losers

1 James “Little Jimmy” Marcello

The “Family Secrets” mobster was sentenced to life in prison.

2 Father John Regan
The former priest at St. Walter’s Parish in Roselle was charged with pocketing more than $100,000 of parishioners donations.

3 Juan Quintero
The 25-year-old man was arrested for impersonating a policeman—replica handgun and all—in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

4 Bill Ayers
State Senator Larry Bomke proposed legislation in an effort to force the UIC professor’s dismissal.

5 Robert Walston
The former teamster president was indicted for cocaine-trafficking.

Free Will Astrology

Free Will Astrology No Comments »

By Rob Brezsny

ARIES (March 21-April 19): I invite you to get all the mind-blowing sex you can this Valentine season, Aries. The entire cosmos will be on your side if you generate erotic wonders that rearrange your thought processes. For best results, cultivate the attitude described by the philosopher Voltaire in a letter to his partner Marie Louise Denis: “Sensual pleasure passes and vanishes, but the friendship between us, the mutual confidence, the delight of the heart, the enchantment of the soul, these things do not perish and can never be destroyed.”

TAURUS (April 20-May 20): Gertrude Stein defined love as “the skillful audacity required to share an inner life.” That’s the perfect seed idea for you to meditate on this Valentine season. It suggests that expressing the truth about who you are is not something that amateurs do very well: Practice and ingenuity are required. It also implies that courage is an essential element of successful intimacy. You’ve got to be adventurous if you want to weave your life together with another’s.

GEMINI (May 21-June 20): A mischievous voice in my head rose up as I was contemplating your astrological omens. It said I should tell you to make love in a bed covered with ten-dollar bills. I asked the voice if this was a cracked metaphor for a more practical piece of advice. The voice just cackled. So I’ll have to surmise what it was driving at. First, it could mean that you should make a business proposition to your lover or spouse, or somehow collaborate with each other to increase your prosperity. Second, maybe you should spend money on enhancing romance, either by taking a workshop to upgrade your intimacy skills or getting creative about fostering togetherness. Another possibility is that you should add imaginative and humorous touches to your love-making, like by doing it in a bed full of money.

CANCER (June 21-July 22): Over the course of your lifetime, if you’re average, you will spend about 336 hours kissing. But why be average? Especially now, when the cosmos is begging you to use your mouth to incite ingenious bliss and explore the frontiers of closeness? To be in maximum alignment with the great cycles of nature and make God happy, I suggest you experiment with Guinness-Book-of-World-Records-levels of smooching and licking and sucking. If you can’t find a human partner to collaborate with, then kiss the sky, the trees, the rivers and even the mist. (P.S. For extra credit, use your mouth to murmur lyrical praises and whisper poetic temptations.)

LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): It’s a perfect time to cast a love spell on yourself. You don’t necessarily need to consult any pagan books about how to proceed. It may even be better if you improvise your own homemade conjurations and incantations. I can think of two main goals for you to accomplish with your spell. (But feel free to add others.) First, rouse your imagination into visualizing romantic possibilities you’ve been closed to before. Second, make sure you banish the curse that you yourself cast on your love life once upon a time. P.S. For best results, stand naked in front of an altar crammed with magical objects that symbolize both lust and compassion.

VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): “The person one loves never really exists,” said Arthur C. Clarke, “but is a projection focused through the lens of the mind onto whatever screen it fits with least distortion.” Your assignment, Virgo, is to prove Clarke at least partially wrong. See if you can figure out a way to dissolve or elude your own projections long enough so that you can see the raw truth about a certain person you crave or adore or care about. Not a reflection of the dream lover who hides in your heart. Not a fantasy you wish your beloved would become. But the perfectly imperfect soul who is actually there in front of you.

LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): The Madonna of Orgasm Church is a Swedish institution. Its leader claims that the sect is not obsessed with sex, nor are orgies included in the regular worship services. Rather, deifying the orgasm is a symbol for cultivating a lust for life. Making love is just one of many ways to experience peak states and explore the spiritual potencies of pleasure. You don’t have to be a member of the church to experiment with this approach, Libra. I hope you’ll have fun with it during this Valentine season, which happens to be a time in your astrological cycle when seeking intense bliss and cathartic release is your sacred mandate.

SCORPIO (Oct. 23-Nov. 21): In creating this oracle, I’ve borrowed words from the artist and poet Wolff Bowden. Please steal them from me and use them in cryptic, affectionate communiqués that will deepen your connection with someone who makes your heart sing. Here’s the first batch: “You belong to love as wheels belong to roads, as grapes belong to the blossoming of taste, as corn belongs to crows, as shadows belong to the ache of heat, as happiness belongs to the capricious pangs of the soul.” Here’s the second: “May the color blue behold your body while sun washes your shoulders near the window. May your lips refuse the kiss unless your heart is home. May euphoria find you in the place where you are lonely. May you light a billion candles with your mind.”

SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 22-Dec. 21): “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” says the Bible’s first book of Corinthians. I think that’s great advice for you. What I take it to mean is that when you come together with someone you care about, bestow a kiss that’s more than merely affectionate or polite. Use it to invoke a sense of sacred space, surrounding the two of you with a mood of deep gratitude for the privilege of being alive. Even further, make your holy kiss be a prayer for the well-being of your ally, an affirmation of your desire that he or she will thrive and prosper and become the gorgeous genius he or she was born to be.

CAPRICORN (Dec. 22-Jan. 19): Would you like to stir up deeper and smarter intimacy? Are you interested in attracting good surprises that would air out your romantic dogmas? Do you think it might be fun to discover a new love secret? To encourage these happy developments, Capricorn, carry out the following assignments. First, practice loving something or someone you don’t understand. Second, any time you start longing to be loved more than you are, make it a point to go out and love someone more than you have in the past. Third, visualize your heart growing softer and warmer and more receptive.

AQUARIUS (Jan. 20-Feb. 18): “When we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours,” wrote author Robert Fulghum, “we join up with them and fall into mutually satisfying weirdness—and call it love.” I mention this, Aquarius, because the Valentine season will offer you ample opportunity to bask in the wonders of mutually compatible weirdness. It could come in the form of friendship or romance or some other collaboration, but one way or another it will help you feel less alone in the world, suggesting that maybe you’re not an extraterrestrial time-traveler from the twenty-ninth century after all.

PISCES (Feb. 19-March 20): We’re faced with an economic downturn as well as the need to take strenuous measures to heal the environment. Does that mean we have to dial down our pursuit of happiness? Are we obligated to have less fun and deny ourselves pleasure? I say no, as do the editors at One of their articles, for example, gives extensive advice on how to have great sex in small, fuel-efficient, low-emissions cars. With this as your inspiration, Pisces, identify five other ways to enjoy yourself without having to spend a fortune or hurt the earth. It’s an excellent time, astrologically speaking, to experiment with the hypothesis that cutting down on consumerism can help you discover new approaches to feeling really good. (For other ideas, check out

Homework: Proposed experiment: Carry out an act of love that’s unique in your history. Testify at

Exploring the Googieverse: In search of Chicago’s vanishing architecture of the future

Architecture 1 Comment »

Layout 1By David Witter

It’s Frank Lloyd Wright meets George Jetson.

Born out of the same post-World War II energy that spawned the swirling, splayed chaos of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, Googie architecture celebrated the ascension of America and the atomic age. No longer was great architecture limited to banks, opera houses, mansions and downtown structures. Instead, Googie, which is also known as RayGun Gothic, Populuxe and Doo-Wop, transformed buildings like coffee shops, motels, gas stations and dry cleaners from simple boxes to giant, saucer-shaped structures with oversized signs splashing bold, pastel colors. To anyone driving down a highway or city road, Googie transformed the bleak horizon with buildings sporting upswept roofs, boomerang and saucer shapes, neon and large, plate-glass windows. Googie especially celebrated science and space, as structures in the shapes of amoebae, atomic models, stars and planets, all advertised with neotype signage, typified Googie. Like Art Deco and Bauhaus, the influence of Googie was not confined to architecture. Cartoons like “The Jetsons” and later “The Incredibles” used the Googie motif. So did the beehive hairdo, cat-eye sunglasses and tailfins on fifties-era cars.

While Googie generally proliferated in the postwar boomtowns of Los Angeles and its neighboring Orange County and Las Vegas, Chicago does have its share of Googie structures. Many of these are on Chicago’s far Northwest Side, an area that was largely developed in the 1940s and 1950s. These include Trim N’ Tidy Cleaners near Austin and Higgins Avenues, Superdawg, at Milwaukee and Devon Avenues and the LP Motel at 4605 North Harlem Avenue. Other Chicago Googie structures include The Ohio House Motel at LaSalle and Ohio, and Pride Cleaners on E. 79th Street in the Chatham neighborhood. Chicago also has another link to Googie. Architect John Lautner, known as the “father of Googie,” spent six years under the tutelage of Frank Lloyd Wright and his protégés as the recipient of Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship in the 1930s.

stars-3Like many artistic movements, there is no one place where Googie actually began. According to however, the term itself originated as Yale Professor Douglas Haskell was driving through Los Angeles with architectural photographer Julius Shulman. When they drove by Googie’s Coffee Shop on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights he yelled, “Stop the car! This is Googie architecture.” He later used the term in an article in House and Home Magazine, and it stuck.

Googie’s Coffee Shop was designed by Lautner. The subject of the recent documentary, “Spirit of Architecture,” Lautner supervised the construction of two Wright buildings, Wingspread and the Sturges House. Many of the elements of Googie include Wright’s incorporation of nature.

“Man’s continuing link to nature was expressed in a number of ways, including the common use of rock and fake rock, [flagcrete] walls, lush landscaping, indoor gardens, and vast plate glass windows that broke down traditional barriers between inside and outside,” writes Chris Jepsen of “In the world of Googie, it’s not uncommon to see UFO-shaped buildings with one rock wall, three glass walls and palm trees growing straight up through a cutout shape in an overhanging roof.”



Googie is far better known for its use of bold pastel colors and designs that reflected America’s fascination with space, atomic energy and the promise of the future. In the book “Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture,” author Alan Hess writes, “The public was captivated by rocket ships and atomic energy, so in order to draw their attention architects used these motifs for their work. Buildings have been used to catch the attention of motorists since the invention of the car, but the 1950s took it a step further and created a genre of architecture that was used exclusively for the roadside service industry.”

One reason why Googie architecture never really flourished in Chicago is the number of classic structures that had been designed between 1890-1929. Masters like Louis Sullivan, Henry Hobson Richardson, Wright and many others had already changed the face of modern architecture. Chicago was, in effect, a canvas that had already been painted.

“Chicago is known for its classic architecture, and a somewhat more conservative and serious tone,” Joan Gand of Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond, an organization dedicated to preserving mid-century architecture, says. “You did of course have Mies van der Rohe and the revolutionary modern architecture of his school, but Googie was still considered to be a little too radical, as well as “lightweight” or fun for the Chicago market. So even though Lautner was from Michigan and was influenced by Wright, he and many other Googie architects went out West where they had more choices.”

With its El trains and compact downtown area and old neighborhoods, the influence of the postwar car culture also had far less effect on Chicago. Nevertheless, if you look hard enough you can find a number of Googie structures in greater Chicago.

The Ohio House Motel

The Ohio House Motel

The Ohio House Motel, 600 North LaSalle
The Ohio House Motel was built in 1960 and features almost all of the elements associated with Googie. Most notable of these is the use of jagged flagstone rock on its South and West walls, and the floor-to-ceiling windows beneath it, illuminating the influences of Wright. The white diamond, triangular-shaped rooftop, made out of pressed aluminum, gives the building a space-age feel. This diamond/triangle theme is reinforced in the hotel’s sign. As Googie was named after a coffee shop in Los Angeles, the Ohio House Motel features its own, sixties-era coffee shop, one of the few places to have an inexpensive breakfast in River North the Loop. Note the lettering on the coffee-shop sign.

Trim N' Tidy Cleaners

Trim N' Tidy Cleaners

Trim N’ Tidy Cleaners, 5939 West Higgins
The sky blue, palette-shaped sign suspended from a steel post two stories above the ground gives this building its Googie props. The lettering on the sign, which uses stars to dot the eyes and the red arrow underneath are also vintage Googie. The building, comprised of three giant steel L-shaped arches over a wide drive-through area (remember cars baby, cars), seems like something straight out of Southern California. Behind this frame is floor-to-ceiling glass with thin, vertical white steel beams, giving it an airy, spaceship look.

Pride Cleaners, 558 East 79th

Spotlighted by architecture critic Lee Bey on WTTW and a later YouTube segment, Pride Cleaners is also textbook Googie. Built in 1959 and designed by Chicago architect Gerald Siegwart, the triangular-sloped roof juts out into the sky like a giant skateboard. Underneath is a floor-to-ceiling glass structure supported by aquamarine trim. The sign, which features lighted teardrop letters in lime green, avocado green, orange, pumpkin and baby blue is something the set designers of “Austin Powers” wished they would have stolen.

pride-signOther Googie buildings that can be found in Chicago and its outskirts include the BP Amoco Station at Clark and LaSalle, which boasts a spaceship-like overhang reminiscent of the LAX theme building; Superdawg, located at Milwaukee and Devon, combines classic Googie colored triangles with a blue neon roof that looks like a spaceship, lots of glass, the fiberglass hot dogs, Maurie and Florie, perched atop the roof, and brightly colored, triangular packaging that all of Superdawg’s food is served in; the Cindy Lyn Motel at 5029 West Ogden in Cicero, which boasts a funky semi-Googie sign and a long overhanging roof; and the LP Motel at 4605 North Harlem. Located just over the Chicago border in Harwood Heights, the LP Motel boasts a long white carport suspended by lithe, narrow columns, floor-to-ceiling windows, an overhanging sundeck and an orange, shield-like sign. All in all, the place has a definite early 1960s vibe like it was plucked off of Santa Monica’s oceanfront motel strip and transported to Chicago. Another odd but true-to-form example of Googie is a bus/train stop shelter located near Devon and Lehigh Avenues, about a half mile east of Superdawg. Complete with slanted overhanging roofs, large windows and a space-age feel, the choice of a bus shelter is a perfect example of Googie’s tradition of structures designed for use by everyday people.

googie-shelter“As for private homes, there are some other examples of Googie-influenced homes in the Budlong Woods area near Foster and California, as well as in West Rogers Park,” Gand says. “Also, buildings like IHOPs and Denny’s, especially the older ones, have a lot of Googie characteristics.”

Besides architecture, Googie also influenced the fashion and culture of the 1950s and early 1960s. Items like the Googie or Populuxe ashtray, which is basically an upside down satellite with the top cut off and the base raised by the antennae, were mass-produced by the Pal-Bell Company. Googie also had its effect on the world of fashion, furniture and the arts. Short, brightly colored dresses with atomic and other geometrical shapes, high, shiny boots and purses, and beehive hairdos (think Kate Pierson, the redhead from the B-52’s) exemplified Googie. Men’s shirts with high, semi-rounded collars and white shoes and belts made of vinyl or other materials (George Jetson), were the trademarks of men’s Googie. Although most of the Googie articles have long since vanished, retro and resale hunters can still find many of these 1950s gems at stores like Store B, at 1472 North Milwaukee.

pedianChicago has recently lost many of its great Googie structures, including The Stars Motel, at Lincoln and Jersey, where only the sign remains. The Seville Motel, 91st and Stony Island, and Pedian Carpets, at Lincoln north of Devon, vanished sometime during the fall. While it was not taken seriously until the 1970s, groups of Googie supporters on the West Coast have rallied to save many Googie buildings, including a Denny’s in Seattle. Googie lovers are hopeful that Chicago can retain structures like The Ohio House and Pride Cleaners, yet the preservation of Googie is up against a unique problem.

“For most buildings to be considered architecturally significant, they have to be at least fifty years old, an age which Googie is just starting to reach,” Gand, who also works in conjunction with organizations like the Chicago Architecture Foundation says. “Yet in recent years organizations have fought to preserve Googie architecture in Los Angeles, and things like the documentary on Lautner may raise awareness for Googie. Hopefully, Chicagoans can save some of their Googie structures, which show us that architecture can not only portray a new, bold vision, but have a sense of fun as well.”

Sweet on Senegal: Café Senegal brings West African cuisine to Chicago

Food & Drink, Rogers Park No Comments »


By Michael Nagrant

I don’t know if Diaw Sow, owner/chef of Café Senegal in Rogers Park, has seen “Field of Dreams,” but she clearly doesn’t agree with the movie’s tagline that if you build it, they will come. Or, rather: if you cook it, they will come. Because the restaurant is so new and because of her concern for freshness, she’s waiting for customer traffic to increase before she expands her selection. As a result, though her French-inflected West African-style printed menu features forty or so items, you’ll likely only be able to order a handful on any given night.

This reflects a smart business move from a serial entrepreneur. Though Sow emigrated from Senegal in 1996, she’s already run three local businesses, including a grocery store and a hair-braiding operation. But this new project is her true passion. While the restaurant opened recently, Sow took a sanitation certification course seven years ago, because she knew she’d always wanted to cook professionally. Because her food is so good, my only lament is that she waited so long.

My initial impression of the restaurant belied any kind of quality cooking. Though Café Senegal is a clean spot lit up by a gigantic wall mural of a neon-hued sunset, the dining room is also smaller than a high-rise studio apartment. Art sat on the floor waiting to be hung, and there was an empty hot box on the back counter, the kind you might see filled with desiccated “hot” pretzels or pathetic pizza puffs. And, when my wife, son and I first entered the restaurant, for one short awkward moment, Sow, her two daughters and another older woman looked us up and down like a couple of elderly tourists who’d just set foot in a Hells Angel’s hangout.

The awkwardness turned out to be a touch of panic because they’d just served the last of their signature dish, ceebu jen. Ceebu jen, aka rice and fish stew, is to Senegal what deep-dish pizza or Italian beef is to Chicago. As a national dish, there are also as many recipes for ceebu jen as there are active Senegalese political parties (eighty-plus). Sow’s version is made with eggplant, carrot, cassava and white cabbage and tomato. Unfortunately we’d have to come back to sample it.

But that didn’t matter, after what I know now, if Sow only had one dish and she said it was made from old shoe leather, I’d trust her instincts. Fortunately, our options were quite a bit wider than braised animal hide, and we started with a generically named “beef patty.” Featuring a flaky-puff-pastry-half-moon filled with ground beef and peppers, it’s Senegal’s version of an empanada. But by any standard the light crust and full fruity and fiery-peppered beef make this the best empanada, Latin American-based or otherwise, that I’ve had in Chicago.

We followed that with a set of Nem. Though the dish sounds like a government agency or obscure stage of the sleep cycle, Nem is actually what would happen if you pan-fried a Vietnamese-style spring roll. Sow’s version is a flavor torpedo of crispy, charred rice-paper conucopia oozing with scallions, glass noodles, egg and chicken.

While waiting for our main courses, the older woman in the restaurant entertained my unruly 21-month-old son by dancing with him to the house music and convinced him to call her grandma. She stopped only when a young man came in to purchase some African Black Soap (apparently Café Senegal doubles as a retail beauty operation). While “grandma” stepped out to get change for the man, he told my wife and I, “This is the good stuff, it’s way better than Proactiv. It’ll get rid of blemishes and everything.”

As I dug in to a heaping plate of Debbe—peppery, grilled lamb topped with a sweet vinegar-tanged salad of olives, onion and tomato—I thought, man, that’s good news. Maybe I won’t have to endure those horrible infomercials of Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson and Puff, err, Sean Diddy Combs rehashing their horrible acne drama anymore. The Debbe was followed by Yasa Ginar, a succulent sweet-spiced stewed-chicken perfumed with lemon and smothered in caramelized onion.

Though Sow learned to make these great dishes from her mother, she is no weekend warrior. She’s a full-blown culinarian with a mastery of flavor and balance. The lack of a full menu here is actually a blessing that allows her to guide you, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. The only thing mother-like at Café Senegal is that Sow cooks meals to order and entrees take forty minutes or so, but that just leaves you time to do a jig with “grandma.” Whether Sow believes it or not, I’m pretty sure “they” will come. Just to be sure, you better head on over now.

Café Senegal, 2131 West Howard, (773)465-5643

Keep Quiet: All aboard the Silent Disco

Events No Comments »

A small crowd of eight gathers at Jackson’s Red Line stop. With excitement, they pull MP3 players and headphones from their pockets and wait for a northbound train to zoom up to the platform for them to board. Once they board the train, with a crowd of passengers gazing on, they press play almost in unison and shuffle their feet. They dance, all to different tunes streaming into their ears with wide and bright smiles on their faces.

The first ever to take place in Chicago, the Silent Disco is a soon-to-be regular event inspired by the Chicago’s Critical Mass. “Urban space has historically been ‘used’ with certain expectations in mind while there have been no rules against ‘unusual behaviors’ such as dancing and mass-biking,” says event coordinator Kristy Lueshen. “I suppose it is a protest, then, of expected uses of urban space. The disco is attempting to revive the mindset that the world can be a fun place.”

“Fun” may be an understatement given that every participant is free to listen to whatever floats their boat—and without causing what the CTA would call a “noise disturbance.” “In the future, maybe it’ll include loud, collective music, to bring forth a more unifying structure and to help those who have neither a bike nor an mp3 player,” Lueshen says. “Hopefully, the disco will continue as a monthly event, always on the same night as Critical Mass [to promote the same idea without a bike].” (Micah McCrary)

Variety Show: Gretchen Travers debuts her Wicker Park Nights

Events, Wicker Park No Comments »

At 7pm, the room is empty. It looks like an abandoned PayLess. There has been some trouble with the city regarding permits. Audience and artists are asked to come back around nine o’clock, after a sound system, tables and chairs will have been set up. At 9pm, things look pretty much the same, save for a P.A. system and a few more people in the room.

Wicker Park Nights is the vision of Gretchen Travers. Her goal is to bring artists of different mediums together and to provide them a common audience. Inspired by Around the Coyote, the long-running art show that has since moved its big annual event from Wicker Park, Wicker Park Nights is what Travers refers to as a Room Opera. “We have painters and architects and poets and filmmakers and actors and dance troupes, and hip-hop, classical, opera, jazz and so on,” Travers says. On a given night, an artist is given fifteen minutes to perform or showcase his or her work, and the hope is that the fast-paced changes will keep an audience interested in everything that is presented to them.

Around 11pm, after an hour of a sort of free-form jam session that includes beats, electrical guitar and classical guitar that serves to open the night, the lights are dimmed and Saniqua Thompson is introduced to the stage. Thompson performs three pieces of spoken word. The audience is attentive, and after the third, a round of applause is given, and the next artist, Dwayne Richardson is introduced.

Richardson plays the blues. He introduces himself and his music with a story. When he was 5 years old, he looked up at the sky, and asked himself, “What the hell is wrong with this world?” He closes his set with a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” He repeats the chorus four times in a sing-along fashion as the audience sings with him, “If you’re lost you can look, and you will find me, time after time. If you fall I will catch you, I will be waiting, time after time.”

“It’s an opportunity for musicians to just play and meet each other and there’s no pretenses, there’s no glitter and glamour,” Richardson says, “It’s just a place to come, and everybody can do their thing.”

Following Richardson is a stream of short performances from artists, a singer/songwriter, a poet, a spoken word artist, a guitarist and a filmmaker.

“It’s a cool idea,” says Whitney Jones, an audience member. “It’s good for all of the artists to be able to come together.”

The evening begins to wind down with two short films from filmmaker Amir George. The first, “Sneaker Freaks,” and the second, a music video that he directed for hip-hop artist Go Bezerk, “Drunken Monkee.” When the credits roll, the champagne is popped. (Todd Miller)

Goodbye, Updike: Bidding adieu to one of America’s great novelists

Lit No Comments »

31730_updike_johnIn an era of specialists, he stood alone as America’s last great man of letters. In addition to his nearly two-dozen novels, story collections and a shelf-full of poetry, he wrote on American presidents, the cosmos, science and gadgets. In an era of identity politics, he refused the limitations of skin. Fifty years after he published his debut novel, John Updike—America’s most gifted twentieth-century observer of the currents of this country—is gone.

It is hard to describe the vacuum his departure creates. He sprung into the world fully formed, publishing his first poem in The New Yorker when he was just a senior at Harvard University, following up with a torrent of “Talk of the Town” pieces, and then the glorious string of short stories remembering—and creating in readers’ imaginations—the imaginary Pennsylvania town he called Olinger.

The knock on him—as it was with contemporaries Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, only one of whom remains today—was that he was a solipsist. But in the pages of his early collections, “The Same Door,” “The Music School” and, especially, “Pigeon Feathers,” Updike proved what miraculous things were possible from the close study of what one knew best.

From his perch in Massachusetts, where he moved in the late 1950s to escape the artistic mercantilism of New York, Updike breathed life into one of America’s most enduring fictional characters: Rabbit Angstrom. Through the eyes of this unapologetically provincial car salesman, Updike tracked the upward and outward thrust of post-war American life.

Taken as a whole, the five books Updike wrote about Rabbit won him every major literary prize available to an American writer. More importantly, they dignified the din and often unlovely consequences of this country’s robust capitalism: The seepage of greed into a man’s personal life; the corrosion of small-town life before big time dreams; the cushioning of empathy created by plentitude.

So often is Updike identified with Rabbit that during his lifetime he was confused to be a living embodiment of his character’s values. The truth couldn’t be further from the case. Although his fame as a literary writer was enormous, Updike remained a self-professed amateur. He happily reviewed books by writers from around the world, including those of Americans many decades younger than him, well into his middle seventies.

I had the good fortune to interview him six times. He was frighteningly articulate, unimpressed with himself, solicitous even in the face of the most prying questions. He possessed a twinkle in his eye, as if this miraculous zeppelin of work he launched weekly into the pages of magazines and yearly onto the shelves of bookstores was an act of mischief.

The truth was he knew how much was at stake in the act of writing—that what we dream in the pages of books conditions our appetite for the world. He gave it back to us, sentence by beautiful sentence. And unlike so many givers, he seemed to make it seem easy, as if the act of doing so was its own reward. That—more than the decades of sex which parades across his pages—explained the shine in his eye, so sadly dimmed forever now. (John Freeman)

Chicago Hype Exchange: Charting the capricious contours of celebrity

Chicago Hype Exchange, News etc. No Comments »

This Week’s Biggest Gainers

1 Jennifer Hudson
A triumphant performance of the National Anthem before the Super Bowl showed epic strength in a time of great personal tragedy.

2 Pat Quinn
New governor…good luck!

3 Mayor Daley
All twenty-six Olympic sports federations approved the city’s plans for competition venues, an integral part of the bidding process.

4 Robert Gamez
The Chicago policeman was lauded for saving the life of a man suffering from a heart attack at Midway Airport.

5 Ron Huberman
The head of the CTA was appointed to lead Chicago Public Schools…good luck!

This Week’s Biggest Losers

1 Rod Blagojevich
In a unanimous vote, Blago was officially booted from office.

Joey “The Clown” Lombardo
The “Family Secrets” trial mob boss was sentenced to life in prison.

3 Barack Obama
The president took heat after his Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle was called out on failing to pay $140,000 in back taxes.

4 Drew Peterson
The infamous Bolingbrook man was dumped by his 24-year-old live-in girlfriend Christina Raines. Awww…

5 Richard Dent
The Bears great was denied admission into the NFL Hall of Fame.

Free Will Astrology

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By Rob Brezsny

ARIES (March 21-April 19): I was watching a martial arts competition on ESPN TV. It featured a fierce macho dance-off, in which rivals took turns brandishing their high-octane warrior choreography. At one point the announcer waxed poetic as the eventual winner pulled off a seemingly impossible move: “And that was a corkscrew illusion twist rodeo spin!” In the coming week, Aries, I urge you to do something like that yourself—maybe even a few times. As you seek to take your game to a higher level, unveil your personal version of the corkscrew illusion twist rodeo spin.

TAURUS (April 20-May 20): There’s one supreme standard by which your progress in the coming weeks should be ultimately measured: Will you understand yourself better at the end of the adventures than you do at the beginning? A new privilege may come your way, or an honor that’ll perk up your résumé, and maybe even a breakthrough that’ll help dissolve your phobia of success. But they will only manifest a fraction of their potential unless you heed my updated version of Socrates’ best soundbite: Know thyself—or else.

GEMINI (May 21-June 20): Scientists say that ninety percent of your brain is composed of fat. My own investigations have revealed, on the other hand, that less than twenty percent of your soul is made of fat. So the two balance each other out pretty well. In the coming days, however, I expect that both your brain and soul will be adding the equivalent of more lean, highly toned muscle. As a result, your mental acuity should increase as well as your spiritual insight. You’re likely to be getting smarter and wiser. I hope you will bring these growing abilities to bear on every important decision. Alone, neither is enough.

CANCER (June 21-July 22): Born in 1822, my great-great-great grandfather Edward Dembowski was a bohemian philosopher and columnist who led a revolutionary struggle to liberate Poland from plutocrats and foreign occupation. A feminist long before most European men entertained the issue of women’s liberation, he edited a journal that was the main organ of the “Enthusiasts,” who fought for women’s rights. He’s one of my heroes! I invite you, Cancerian, to delve into your own ancestry to see if there are inspirational role models like Dembowski. According to my reading of the astrological omens, it’s an excellent time to activate more of your dormant genetic potentials. One good way to do that: Use your imagination to establish psychic and spiritual links to your admirable forebears.

LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): Dating your first cousin? I don’t recommend it anytime soon. Likewise, I’m here to talk you out of surrounding yourself with people who always agree with you, and I hope you won’t try to milk an old resource for the same help it has provided countless times. In the foreseeable future, Leo, please downplay and de-emphasize the kinds of unions that result from like attracting like. Instead, think cross-fertilization. Catalyze exotic blends, unexpected combinations and mergers of elements that have never been mixed.

VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): As Barack Obama’s inauguration day approached, some astrologers were aghast that he would be taking the oath of office when the moon was void-of-course. In their eyes, this aspect is a bad portent for any new enterprise. If Obama would only postpone the oath for thirty-five minutes, they said, everything would be fine. He didn’t, of course. But then the improbable happened. Chief Justice John Roberts, who was administering the oath, got the wording wrong, and Obama went along with it. Scholars then speculated that the oath wasn’t fully official. The next day, when the moon was no longer void-of-course, Roberts and Obama re-did the ritual, making things right. And that’s how an apparent mistake allowed Obama to elude the curse of superstitious astrologers. A seemingly inconvenient delay in your own process, Virgo, will bring an equally beneficent loophole for you.

LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): “Everything has been figured out, except how to live,” sneered the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. That’s not completely true, of course, which he might have discovered had he not closed his dogmatically cynical mind to the countless humans (many unknown to history) whose lives have been great works of art. Starting from these thoughts, Libra, you are hereby invited to regard the next eleven months as a time when you will make your own life a masterpiece—a labor of love that is ingeniously imagined and lyrically wrought. Unseen forces and unexpected allies will come to your assistance if you do.

SCORPIO (Oct. 23-Nov. 21): I’ve got three questions for you, Scorpio. First, where will you go next to satisfy that special need of yours—you know, the need that demands ever-fresh varieties of fuel? Second, who will you enlist in your ongoing efforts to change your environment so that it’s more compatible with your drives? And third, what helpful influences will you seek to attract into your sphere as you upgrade and refine your ambitions? The coming weeks will be a good time to cultivate your web of alliances as you address these questions.

SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 22-Dec. 21): A substantial fraction of the world’s scientists are funded by the military. This saddens me. I wish we lived on a planet where most scientists were in service to peace and plenty, working to solve social and environmental problems. But corrupt exploitations of the scientific method are no excuse for me to banish it from my repertoire. I use it frequently. Likewise, I draw tremendous inspiration from the life and teachings of Christ, even though I don’t belong to a Christian church and am distraught about the devastation wrought by the fundamentalist mindset. Would you consider applying this approach to your personal life, Sagittarius? For example, maybe you could come to a new appreciation of your parents’ gifts without losing sight of the ways they messed you up. Or perhaps you could forgive your heroes for their slight lack of integrity, or borrow good ideas from a way of looking at the world that partly offends you.

CAPRICORN (Dec. 22-Jan. 19): You may find it hard to believe that imprecise language could undermine your ability to merge with your heart’s desire. But it’s true. Your biggest wish may never be fully granted as long as you’re lazy or sloppy about how you articulate it. Try this: Write down a brief statement that crisply sums up the one experience you want more than anything else in life. Preface it with this assertion: “I am doing everything possible to accomplish the following goal.” Memorize this magic formula and repeat it twice a day until your wish is fulfilled, even if that takes ten years. P.S. It will work best if you don’t include anything about how certain people need to change in order for your longing to be fulfilled.

AQUARIUS (Jan. 20-Feb. 18): “What is a weed?” asked Ralph Waldo Emerson. “A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Your assignment, Aquarius, is to identify a weed-like thing in your life whose rich possibilities have not yet been fully realized. Bear in mind, as you ruminate, that there are some weed-like things that would not be particularly valuable even if you did ultimately tease out their full potential. Your task is to find a weed whose transformation into a plant will be especially useful to your unique needs.

PISCES (Feb. 19-March 20): Many Americans believe China is a society that puts an abnormally high emphasis on keeping its citizens in line through punishment. But the truth is that only 1.2 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people are in the slammer, whereas the U.S. has jailed 7.7 percent of its population of 300 million. In other words, my home country has a much higher percentage of our people behind bars than they do. I bring this to your attention, Pisces, as a prod to free some of the parts of yourself that you’ve imprisoned. Declare amnesty for the miscast captives and repressed workers within you. Bring the level down from the U.S. rate of incarceration to the Chinese level.

Homework: Do you know precisely what you need in order to feel pretty good most of the time? If not, go on a quest to find out.

Brand New Day: A close-up of an inauguration for the books

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dsc01184By John Digles

I’m seated on the United States Capitol lawn in front of the podium for an extraordinary occasion. A handful of Chicagoans are in my row of seats. In front of us, guests from California to Georgia. Spotted nearby, Academy Award winners Halle Berry and Forest Whittaker as well as former World Boxing Heavyweight Champ Evander Holyfield.

It’s high noon on January 20. Barack Obama, previously junior U.S. Senator from Illinois, former state senator from Chicago’s South Side and arguably now the world’s most famous living person, just became President of the United States of America according to the Constitution.

Many of us were in line to enter before 7am, seated by naval officers just before 8am. Waiting hours in twenty-degree temps this morning, “Hot Hands,” those little packets that heat up when exposed to the open air, are as coveted as inaugural-ball tickets. Guests nearby are stuffing the hot packets into their gloves and boots.

A slew of relentless Obama merchandisers have descended on D.C. for the festivities. With makeshift tents and folding tables lining the streets around The Mall, a potential branch of economic stimulus is in full swing as these mouthy merchants hawk a catalogue of predictable Obama gear: buttons, bobble-heads, pens, posters, paperweights and t-shirts. Some stretch the limits of good taste, pushing items capitalizing on the Obamas’ daughters Sasha and Malia while others shamelessly place our president’s image on items like toilet paper. And, no kidding, nearly every hungry vendor has a crowd. Even those who have strewn rough-hewn Obama t-shirts on the sidewalk are drawing business, fanning out stacks of dollar bills as they cut their gritty deals.

dsc01178I could have only imagined this day when I first met Barack Obama, back when he was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996, representing Chicago’s South Side from Hyde Park to South Shore. As a Chicago-based independent filmmaker, I worked with a group of local visual media industry leaders to gain legislative approval of Illinois’ first-ever tax incentive to attract more film, television and commercial production to the state. A state senator at the time, Obama was an important advocate of that legislation to create over 700 new jobs.

For the past two years, I worked in support of this historic campaign, witnessing close up not only the meteoric ascent of one of the most exciting candidates in our generation, but also the rise of a grassroots, community-driven movement that shattered fundraising models (and records).

Several hundred supporters joined Obama at the Old State Capitol in Springfield to announce his presidential candidacy on a frigid February day in 2007. On this even colder day, less than two years later, The National Mall, spanning nearly two miles from the Capitol steps to the Lincoln Memorial, is a scene resembling the closing montage of Return of the Jedi. A jubilant crowd, so dense it appears digitally enhanced, their hands and voices raised to the sky, waves little flags wildly.

As our new president rises from his seat to take the Oath of Office, guests nearby are pulling up CNN and MSNBC reports on their iPhones. “They’re watching this live in Kenya,” one says. “People in Europe are sending their best wishes,” reports another. Normally jaded A-listers are giddy with excitement, some holding up their phones to take pictures, like 12-year-olds with backstage passes at a Miley Cyrus concert.

dsc01203I first arrived at Reagan National Airport on Saturday with several state legislators and Mayor Daley
. My visit to Capitol Hill that afternoon included dropping by the office of Illinois’ new junior U.S. Senator Roland Burris.

It’s interesting to see Senator Burris in his office and to watch people greet him the next few days. Thanks to a two-week frenzy of press coverage and appearances on nearly every major talk show, Senator Burris arrived in his Capitol Hill office as a widely recognized member of the senate and even enjoys a bit of celebrity status.

“He’s embraced by nearly everyone we meet. He’s in demand by major talk-show producers and gets a ton of interview requests. Right now, Senator Burris is a fascinating public personality,” says top Burris advisor Jason Erkes.

Police begin closing streets around us as we walk from the Capitol and through downtown Saturday evening. Our cab pulls through an intersection on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, followed by a squad car that sounds a siren screaming like Godzilla and blocks off both lanes, spinning a bright alert of red and blue.

Walking is tricky too. By the time we reach the next corner, it is blocked off by metal fences and we’re rerouted three blocks. D.C. officers and other security personnel are at every intersection. I ask a nearby guard in camouflage how to get to the closest Metro from here.

“I don’t know. I’m from Brooklyn. Sorry. A bunch of us here are from New York,” he says.

By Sunday, the first day of the “Renewing America’s Promise” inaugural celebration, crowds poured into D.C, security amps up and traffic succumbs to a few days of epidemic gridlock.

Getting near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is tough, even with credentials. Streets around The Mall are blocked off. A ten-minute walk is now over an hour. A lot of attendees are telling me they were in place five hours earlier.

Later Sunday evening, it takes me ninety minutes to hail a cab and push halfway around DuPont Circle near my hotel on the way to Chicago’s Inaugural Reception hosted by Mayor Daley.

We stall in a herd of cars and perturbed horns, so I bail on the cab and jump on the Metro. My Metro stop is closed due to security preparations. I exit one stop after my stop, emerge from the multitude and walk more than a mile to the Mandarin Hotel for the reception where Chicago’s business and political heavy hitters pack the downstairs ballroom.

I chat for a few minutes with Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn. While few inaugural guests are talking about the Blagojevich scandal here, many are already referring to Quinn as “governor.”

Monday’s focus is the national day of service. Invoking Dr. King, Obama had issued a call to volunteer service weeks earlier and begins the day helping to paint a youth center.

I work with the Veterans for America to help promote the Veteran Survival Guide, a resource to assist vets with navigating the vast requirements to receive full benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. We spend the afternoon handing out flyers and talking to veterans about their ongoing education as well as housing and health care.

The Illinois State Society Ball Monday night is jammed to capacity. On the way to dinner, we make our way through what seems to be a thousand formally dressed guests throughout the lobby already waiting for the ball, slated to start in two hours.

After dinner, they stream down the escalator and the stairs while a security contingent scans their tickets and directs the heavy flow of high heels and patent-leather shoes.

Later that evening, it is on to the Newseum for the celeb-heavy Huffington Post party. The logjam at the door steps aside as security whisks in the Jonas Brothers. Teri Hatcher does interviews on the red carpet while comedian Sarah Silverman, activist actor Michael J. Fox, CNN host D.L. Hughley and Emmy-winner Dana Delaney make the rounds. I exchange greetings with a very fit Jennifer Beals (“The L Word”) before having a few minutes to talk “Frost/Nixon” with director Ron Howard. Howard’s latest project is said to be a Best Picture contender. “It’s a hard movie to market, based on a series of interviews,” Howard says. A couple days later, the movie gets the nomination. and Arianna Huffington lead a New Years Eve-style countdown to Inauguration Day, followed onstage by Sting, who opens his set with “Brand New Day.”

dsc01267Tuesday night, we make the rounds of official inaugural balls.
Beyonce sings “At Last” for the First Couple’s first dance at the first-ever Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, an event for Washington D.C. residents.

At the Home States Ball, attendees hop around three different stages. A band plays a bluesy set up front. Then the spotlights hit the main stage in the back where the presidential seal hangs and Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden materialize onstage. As soon as the Bidens waltz off, a stage to the left side of the ballroom lights up and musician Jack Johnson pops out.

“I just met Barack Obama backstage. I’m star-struck and my palms are kinda sweaty,” confesses Johnson as he tunes up with his band mates.

As the inaugural balls wrap late night Tuesday, streets around the Convention Center are blocked off, downtown bars, in twenty-four-hour mode, are filling up and cabs are nearly extinct. So we walk nearly ten blocks to the D.C Billy Goat for the “Cheeseburger Ball” hosted by former Illinois Dem Party Chair Gary LaPaille.

This party is rocking. A DJ replaces the bands and orchestras. He’s playing “Bust A Move” by Young MC as we enter. Tuxedos and ball gowns line up again, this time for the “double-cheese” and chips.

You can hear the familiar refrain all night as the grill man does his bit. Double-cheese!” “No Pepsi. Coke!”

Back outside, we flag down a private driver in an Escalade and aggressively negotiate a ride back. It comes to forty bucks. Not bad, all things considered.

Not bad at all.

(Photos by Fred Lebed)