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An Evening of Gentlemanly Pursuits, Part I

The Publican

Some background.

Grant Achatz, Chicago celebrity chef/darling/villain/prettyboy, will open two new restaurants in the West Loop very soon: Next and Aviary.  Though he rose to fame with Alinea, now ranked among the greatest restaurants in the world, he is trying to woo a new following.  Enter Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan.  The pair essentially started the West Loop’s renaissance when they first opened Blackbird more than ten years ago.  More than that, Kahan literally grew up here, working at a deli on Green Street.  Achatz would be nowhere near West Fulton Market Street were it not for Kahan, Madia.  And now he’s elbowing into what is very much their territory.

This piece began as an article about the restaurants that Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan opened.

Last year, well before I knew about Achatz, I wanted to find out why all of the restaurants in the Kahan-Madia empire—there are five, soon to be six, in all—are so popular.  I pitched the story to a writer for The Atlantic, who said he liked the idea, but it never got published.  Why it never got published will become apparent, I think, almost immediately.  But the more I think about that night, and everything leading up to it, the more important it seems to become.  So here, after rewrites and more rewrites and revisions, in roughly 1000-word installments (and with Achatz as an excuse), is the article in a radically different form than the one I first “submitted.”

One last thing.  It’s no longer as much about food as it is about other things.  Some things are reconstructions, imaginations, and outright lies.   A writer’s claims to veracity are always conditioned by his or her sense of how words relate to reality; by the substances they consume while “researching”; and by whom they’re trying to impress.  To varying degrees, my own sense of the relationship between language and the world is affected by all of these.  The piece is nonfictional to the extent that its aims are to capture a real mood, a sense, a bundle of affects that characterize a particular moment in my life and the life of a friend.  In this way, I have convinced myself that writing is honest.  And maybe only in this way.

Part I: Aftermath

I woke up on the hardwood floor in Tyler’s apartment, twisted into a crumpled pile of chewed up meat.  There was blood everywhere.  On my shirt, my pants.  The tip of my thumb was sliced somewhat less than totally open, and had turned an alarming shade of purple.  There was a crust of stale sweat coating my body.  It felt as though the alcohol had sucked all the fluids out of my skin, and now I lay as dried out as an iguana.  Pieces of malignantly dry skin hung off my lips.  I ran my shriveled tongue against the raw roof of my mouth and felt something scrape off.  I swallowed and coughed, as the day began to insist upon consciousness, sputtering like a dried up fish on the deck of a listing ship. Continue reading

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Everyone in Between: Toronto Artist Arowbe on the Borders

It’s easy to have good conversations with Toronto-based poet/musician/composer/performer Rob Bolton.  But this particular conversation was having a tough time getting off the ground.  When we finally got vchat to work on two finicky wireless networks, important business interrupted:

“Hold on one second, I think my coffee is ready,” he said.  It was Saturday morning.

Rob writes and performs for the group Broadway Sleep, as well as for the duo Times Neue Roman (which has a new video dropping today for Hands no Hands).  He has also written songs for artist Tanika Charles, including Silly Happy Wild, which was nominated for a Stylus Award in the category of Canadian Best R&B Single.  He participated in TEDx Toronto as a solo artist and with Broadway Sleep.  He writes hip-hop odes to Music and Math; homages to motown; and writes Lacanian lyric poetry.  In other words, he’s pretty busy these days. Continue reading

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Touch the Art…No Really.

No really, go ahead.

I picked up Emma Stein underneath the El tracks at Robert Bills Contemporary–where she spends her days working as Gallery Director–on a sloppy, gray afternoon last week.  It’s the time of year when even optimistic Chicagoans start to wonder if Spring will ever arrive, and as a native Californian, Emma has had more than her fill of snow and slush.

Weather aside, Emma has thrived in Chicago.  Having completed her MA in Art History at the University of Chicago last June, she won high praise from the Tribune for her most recent curated group show: Exploding Faces, Confining Spaces.  But she has also been working on her own project proposal for an exhibition that rethinks the senses and sensations associated with the consumption of art in the gallery and museum.  Playfully titled Please Touch the Artwork, Emma’s project considers how the blind experience what we traditionally call “visual arts.”  It’s a deeply personal issue for her, as two members of her family–including her mom–are affected by a degenerative disease that affects the retinas, often leaving patients legally blind.  Emma’s idea not only has the potential to raise awareness about the problematic way museums attempt to address accessibility, but also to expand how individuals conceive of their relationship to art.

(Why touching the art matters…after the jump) Continue reading

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AMCGR: “Zodiac” and “Targets”

That's a surveyor's sight! Not a crosshair! Promise!

[I’m going to categorize most of my future posts on film as: “Analysis of Movies My Cinephile Girlfriend Recommends” (AMMCGR), mainly because I can never say exactly what I think about them until way after.  I’m not used to analyzing film.  I’m used to reading at my own glacial pace (sometimes I think I read at a fifth grade level).  In general, I’m not a very quick writer either, and need to take my time and let thoughts congeal, and then get them down.  As you might imagine, this makes me a really awful conversationalist, especially when it comes to film.  But since we’re all expected to be critics of movies, I’ll make some efforts].

[Oh, also, I spoil everything]

This week it was Zodiac and Targets, two films that are roughly 40 years apart and extremely different–but that both try to get at the heart of what might be an obsession-in-transition in the American psyche: the Serial Killer.  Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 film Targets, starring Boris Karloff, draws (in many places quite overtly) from the infamous University of Texas bell-tower shootings of 1966.  David Fincher’s 2007 Zodiac examines the exploits of the Zodiac Killer, who murdered seven people (though he claimed responsibility for almost 40 murders) in the Bay Area during the late Sixties and early Seventies.  Unlike Targets, Fincher’s film takes up the perspective of the investigators assigned to the case, though it also reconstructs scenes from the perspective of Zodiac’s victims. Continue reading

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Covert Urban: Chicago Artist Gwendolyn Zabicki

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“Somebody called me the Bruce Springsteen of painting,” said Gwen Zabicki.  We were eating homemade steak and ale pie, sitting in Ikea recliners in her UIC studio.  Gwen is one of only three painters in the most recent crop of the University’s MFA students.  “And I thought, oh no, so I’m really earnest and hamfisted and there’s a honking sax in the background.”  It seemed like a real concern, especially because Gwen paints subject matter that can be easily associated with the middle or blue-collar urban class.  In other words: solidly in Springsteen territory.  But after our conversation, it was readily apparent that there is an important difference between earnestness and inquisitiveness.  The former is about latching onto an emotion and glorifying it.  The latter seems more about asking why we feel a certain way in the world, and whether we might be able to feel differently by changing our perspective.

In thoughtful and measured paintings, it is this territory that Gwen’s work inhabits.

Continue reading

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Best Books for Valentine’s Day

I love Valentine’s Day.  I really do.  It’s some sort of weird disorder, or maybe just a testament to the successful rhetoric of greeting card companies.  But in any case, it’s nice to think that once a year you can either do something self-consciously hokey (or, you know, break out the ol’ love swing) with your significant other, or cry yourself to sleep watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and listening to Coldplay.

Regardless of the state of your heart this February 14, here are some books to read to make sure that your brain is working:

How many times do we have to tell you: it's not an advice manual

Got a little someone special in your life?  Try Lolita.  It’s not exactly the most un-horrifying experience in the history of modern literature, but it sure makes you feel normal by comparison.

Nobokov’s unbelievably sinister portrayal of Humbert Humbert takes us through the psychology of a pedophile and leaves us wondering, well, how he thought up all of this stuff.  The salacious content of the novel is one thing…and there are arguments on both sides about whether it is pornographic.  I come down on the side that says: this is a novel that pushes the limits of narrator-reliability.  Its unrelenting portrayal of psychosis is absolutely unique. Continue reading

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Super Bowl Car Commercials II: Vader Kid

They'll be no Stopping the Spin Cycle This Time.

It has been declared, almost unanimously it seems, the best commercial of the Super Bowl.  And it’s for a Volkswagen Passat, a decidedly un-luxurious vehicle.  What does this spot tell us about the persistence of traditional narratives of middle class desire?  And moreover, why should we care?  Why do I want to suck the joy out of this adorable commercial by overanalyzing it to death?

Continue reading

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Super Bowl Commercials I: Is it Okay to Start Buying Stuff Again?

Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar for "The Philadelphia Story" -- ""The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world, is the privileged class enjoying its privileges....and you Tracy"

Can the privileged class start enjoying its privileges again already? Here’s the first in a three-part series on the Super Bowl’s auto commercials (including perhaps THE only two popular ads this year). They tell a divided story.

Audi: Release the Hounds (Or, Meet the New Boss: Same as the Old Boss)

Two bathrobed prisoners in a jail for the wealthy break out, to a soundtrack of their delighted fellow inmates’ cheers, and Kenny G. The warden orders “Release the hounds,” and as the prisoners reach the gate, they have a choice: climb into a white Mercedes, or a flashy Audi A8. The older of the pair hops into the Benz–“My father had one of these,” he says, and is driven immediately back to the jail. The younger accelerates to freedom in the Audi, passing under the George Washington Bridge as a voice-over implores us: “Escape the confines of old luxury.” The tagline reads: “Luxury has progressed.” Continue reading

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Dispatches from DC: The Problematic Ambitions of “Donald”


I like McSweeney’s when it’s funny.  And though I have gone back and forth on Dave Eggers, I have been strongly in the “pro” camp (at least when it comes to his work) since Zeitoun, a powerful piece of writing about Katrina that may very well go down as one of the best books about that disaster.

But last night’s reading of the McSweeney’s-backed Donald at 826 DC was not funny.  The evening presented a confusing and often painful caricature of what Eggers’s enterprise morphs into when it boosts authors who “do” politics.  The concept and execution of Donald come off as shrill, opportunistic, and incurious.  All the while, its authors trumpeted the incoherent idea of “serious fiction”–a term that McSweeney’s did not invent, but one that it seems all too ready to mobilize as its reason for existence.  Donald, written by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott, attempts to turn the tables on Donald Rumsfeld.  Set to hit shelves on the same day as Rummy’s memoir, the book is described as an “allegory,” in which a Rumsfeld-inspired character is kidnapped, rendered, and tortured at the hands of an unnamed regime.  Simply: Donald is the wrong book at the wrong time with the wrong message, and it took me less than an hour to decide that McSweeney’s owes its fan much more than this. Continue reading

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