Wining, whining and winning with Matt Bellassai

We made the cover!

I spent New Year’s Eve with a guy who’s made his career getting drunk at his desk, and even though we were both sober, I had a fantastic time talking with him. Matt Bellassai is in Los Angeles tonight, because he’s a nominee for a People’s Choice Award (Favorite Social Media Star), but I hung out with him on a Thursday afternoon at the BuzzFeed office in Manhattan and talked about origin stories, Internet fame and why kids are the root of all evil. You can read all about it in today’s cover story at RedEye Chicago: Matt Bellassai’s guide to drinking (and whining) your way to the top. (To my delight, we also cast his biopic. I love his choice for starring role.)

That story includes exclusive video, as well as some behind-the-scenes photos of his star-making series, Whine About It. This much is true: Matt does drink an entire bottle of wine and then makes hilarious viral videos complaining about everything from pants to holiday parties to dealing with airplanes. It’s simple but effective — in addition to the PCA nomination, his videos have more than 150 million views, and the series only started last May.

You’ll be pleased to hear that Matt is a great pleasure to interview, that he’s both thoughtful and funny and that cutting down this interview was extra hard because of how much fun I had. Please enjoy these pictures, some of which didn’t make it into the article, and, because journalism is the beast that it is, feel free to share the article on the social media network(s) of your choice!




With director Jeremy Briggs, who really collaborates on the filming with him and draws out a great performance.


Detail from his desk
Detail from his desk
FYI, out the big window to the right of this image, you can see the top half of the Empire State Building.

Matt Bellassai’s guide to drinking (and whining) your way to the top (RedEye Chicago, Jan. 5, 2015)

Daylight: Saved, apparently

I promised everyone I’d dance in the streets if Chicago made it to 50 whole degrees, and holy cats, on Monday we hit 56. So, off I went with my camera in just a sweatshirt and tennis shoes, although rain boots probably would have been a better plan, considering that all our snow and ice is now melting into gigantic pools of standing water, much of which is congregating on sidewalks and at street crossings.

Of course, it’s supposed to dump more snow on us again this week, which makes Chicago Magazine‘s musings about whether the City That Works is too cold to compete with the sunny South particularly apropos. But I assume you’re not here for me to endlessly talk about the weather. (In my hometown, you didn’t start conversations with remarks on the weather, you filled dead air with a comment on the height of the Hocking River.) I could ramble about treadmill desks or Amtrak’s actually sort of scummy terms and conditions for their writing residency, but let’s get to the good stuff, shall we?

By which I definitely mean Scottish Plumber, (888) MAC-CLOG, tagline: "The Pipes are Calling"
By which I definitely mean Scottish Plumber, (888) MAC-CLOG, tagline: “The Pipes are Calling”

Continue reading “Daylight: Saved, apparently”

“He was calling to tell me…”

Dad and me (age 4) in Moissac, France, 1988
Dad and me (age 4) in Moissac, France, 1988

I’ve written before about the grief of losing a parent. It’s a thing I carry with me everywhere, in ways I never anticipated. But I lucked out with both my parents: my dad is a really, really good guy. He’s a good dad, and over the last several years I’ve learned a lot about him.

When JUF News sent out a call for articles about relationships, I knew I had to write about him, and to write about this. This personal essay, which is very meaningful to me, is now in the February print issue of JUF News and online. You can read it here: My dad, the mensch.

Hug the ones you love. Tell them you love them early and often. Not just in case of tragedy, but, I hope, because it’s true.

Interviewed by Alexandra Edwards about storytelling

So this is exciting! The very excellent Alexandra Edwards (transmedia editor of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and all-around cool lady, among other pursuits) interviewed me recently about writing, Shakespeare, Tumblr plugins and adaptation, and the interview just went up, which is — exciting! As someone who hopes to make a living interviewing people, it’s still neat to see how it is from the other side of the table. She asked some really good questions, so I hope you enjoy reading the whole thing!

A lot of your work falls under the rubric of what I’d call adaptation. Why that form, specifically?

The what if? of stories fascinates me. When I was in college, I got in a fight with a friend without knowing it. He was upset with the direction Neil Gaiman’s 1602 had taken, and I didn’t understand why that bothered him so much when you could just write your own version to fix it. Now I see where he was coming from—the stories that get published, that come with “endorsement,” need to be challenged when they mess up—but I get so sparked by the idea that storytelling is a conversation, that stories change when you put them side by side, and that “newness” or “originality” isn’t Athena springing fully formed and unique from Zeus’s skull, but that the remix can reveal truths about the world that we wouldn’t have seen from a story in isolation.

That’s how we create anyway: we, as human beings, are reacting to the world around us, and both change because of that interaction. Other people’s stories are just one facet of a far-flung collage, to torture this metaphor a little. Why should that story be done? Look at this, it can still surprise us! And if someone decided to transform one of my stories, I can’t imagine a higher compliment. You wanted to make something (and did!) because of something I made—how great is that?

More at the link! “Storytelling Is a Conversation”: An interview with writer Esther Bergdahl

You can pick it up if you come down with ID.

This month is — who knows why — supposed to be the month for stories. I’m a big proponent of (Inter)National Novel-Writing Month, and I even said I would be sort of trying it in bits, even as my time at Medill winds down to its final weeks and the final project–a long form narrative piece that I’m rather excited about–looms ever larger.

Part of that has been The Shallow Project, which has been a blast, even if the photo element has proved easier at maintaining than the writing part; and part of that has been a side Tumblr I’m keeping for a story that I know very little about. Which is interesting, because usually when I start (or even fail to start [yet]) a story, I generally know some salient facts about the end, or the premise, or the characters. Right now I’ve got a setting, the barest amount of backstory for the two protagonists, and a vague idea of how writing this story is going to be intensely personal in that way that may or may not be obvious from the outside.

To be fair, I didn’t have any ideas about my half of The Shallow Project before we began, and all I needed for that was to move the story forward every single day. With writing, though, I want to be more certain. I’ve got some bits and bobs — I originally set myself a 750 words a day goal, but then, well, school — and I’m pleased with myself for just writing scenes or character moments, rather than obsessing about plot. When I make the time for it, though, I’d like to sit down with Chuck Wendig’s foul-mouthed and actually perfect questions to answer for character enrichment (which seems more doable than making my way through this comprehensive list of other great ideas). One thing I love about improv is that the story comes from character interaction, not a plot determined by an outside force. I have some plot points in mind, but more than that, I just need to know enough about my characters to set them loose and let myself be surprised.

It should be interesting. I’m not explaining much in public, but if you’re curious:

If you want to ask me (in comments, on Tumblr or over email) any questions about this project, please do! It will probably help me, in all truth, and that I always appreciate.

So! Who wants some links? Internet privacy and democracy, actual spoken Akkadian, unpaid internships and a cello-piano hybrid beyond the jump, plus more!

First I would like to mention that I remembered that I finally have a really nice camera that makes even my messy apartment look amazing. Hurrah DSLR!
First I would like to mention that I remembered that I finally have a really nice camera that makes even my messy apartment look amazing. Hurrah DSLR!

Continue reading “You can pick it up if you come down with ID.”

Esther and Jordan present The Shallow Project

“So… what’s with all the selfies?”

It’s true, my Instagram account has been more active lately. But in service of a great cause: The Shallow Project.

My friend Jordan and I are embarking on a quest this month. We’ve set out to tell stories using social media, flash fiction and dollar store-purchases. What’s the plot? You’ll have to follow along to find out — because since we’re also bringing bits of improv in, we’re going to surprise ourselves too.

But we’re pretty sure it’s going to be a lot of fun.

People love to rag on selfies almost as much as they love to take them. (Hopefully you all know where I stand on the matter.) Really, though, we’re operating in a great tradition here.

Want to follow along? I live here on Instagram; Jordan lives here. Track #jesterly on Instagram to stay on top of new posts, or just keep coming back to our website. More social media infrastructure to come, but for now, you can get in on the ground floor.

Or, as one commenter put it, “Still not sure what’s going on, but your green dragon looks lovely.”

Yes she does, thank you, and she’ll be very happy to hear that.

The Shallow Project!

Space: The Primal Frontier

There’s no better setting for an existential crisis than IKEA. This one starts and ends with a TIDAFORS EDSKEN dark gray sofa.

That’s the opening line of my latest post at Oy!Chicago, Those Blue-and-Yellow Box Store Blues. I really like this post! It’s a good foil to a lot of the things I’ve been wrestling with lately, which have largely included how to use the spaces I inhabit. In the Oy! post, it’s about investing in an apartment; here, on Magpie & Whale, it’s about not building the idea of the site up so much in my head that I never say anything here unless it’s Deep and Meaningful and Well Crafted and Illuminating.

That’s… not very representative of what Being Alive and Being a Person entails. So, time for an arbitrary break with perfectionism. I’ve been super enjoying the blogs of my friends lately (Coming to the Edge and Terra Bear are always good reads!), so I hope to bring more of that to Magpie & Whale in the future, near and far.

(I also hope to bring more fiction here too. And maybe things like book reviews and such, because I finally want to create stories and enjoy books again, after a very long time not feeling either of those things. Given that we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death, I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about that in the coming weeks too, but for now, there’s been a palpable feeling lately of being able to come back into the world, and that’s nice. And she would want that too.)

By the way, you may have noticed that M&W has its very own domain now! I’m still pretty stoked about that. I’ve also added a snazzy (and expansive) Journalism section; this site was originally intended to be a launching pad for my identity as a professional writer of fiction (someday!), but until I commit to making anything more than a place where I learned how to CSS and WordPress (yes, those are verbs; no, don’t look, it’s horrible to behold), this is going to be a much more interesting and informative place to be.

Okay! That’s been good. How’re you guys? Hi!

Midway through Medill

Man in orange shirt shows off tattoo

Today was my last class of my second quarter of grad school, which means I’m pretty much halfway through my time as an apprentice journalist, as I’m thinking of it. At this very moment I’m just trying to catch up on my sleep debt, which is more profound than I realized. But for those who found interest in the work I’ve been doing this term, here are the back four stories that I filed, rounding out my 11 required.

  1. Military suicide epidemic compels survivor families to speak out (June 6, 2013)
    Of the military families the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors looks after, as many have lost a veteran family member to suicide as to combat. Andy and Julianne Weiss of Naperville are of that number: their son, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Danny Weiss, took his own life in March 2012. The Weiss family is determined to confront the issues of mental health and suicide risk among veterans, especially given that, according to government statistics, 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
  2. Warrior artists explore art therapy for veterans (June 5, 2013)
    Veterans and art therapists are working together to formulate new counseling programs using creative arts therapies outside of the VA system. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Albany Park Community Center have just completed the pilot year of their VetCAT program, using a variety of approaches to bring veterans healing.
  3. Veterans without VA health care eligible for Medicaid through Obamacare (June 5, 2013)
    Thousands of uninsured Illinois veterans could start receiving health coverage when the Affordable Care Act provisions expanding Medicaid eligibility kick in on Jan. 1, according to a study released in March. Many factors could be keeping these veterans from using VA health care benefits, including, in some instances, a choice to avoid the VA entirely.
  4. Healing through art for veterans at Portage Park museum (May 28, 2013)
    A new exhibit at the National Veterans Art Museum shares and explores the work of veterans who are artists, and why art has been valuable to them.

I have a letter to the Chicago veteran community that I would like to write, but the short version of it is that it has been such a privilege and such a pleasure reporting on such an extraordinary group of people, all of whom are doing such important and amazing work. I thank everyone I’ve spoken with for entrusting me with their stories.

The counterpart to the “Hello, world!” post: “I aten’t dead yet.”

Well, that’s embarrassing — the first piece of spam on Magpie & Whale made it through Akismet, which I then had manually go in and delete, to my shame. It’s been, what, three months since I updated? Many apologies; there’s been a lot going on.

Medill is going well — it’s going very well, in fact. I continue to be wildly, wildly happy, with the program, with the people and with this profession. We’re coming up on the end of the quarter, and it looks like all my final projects are due on June 3, which is inconvenient, as that’s my mom’s would-have-been 70th birthday and I will be in Ohio that weekend. She, of course, would not let me get away with not doing the work, so it’s going to be a busy week.

I have a new side project that I keep banging my head against, trying to make it go from concept to outline to execution. It’s more “what if?” Shakespeare, though it’s more in line with the play (Henry IV Part 1, for the curious) than Innogen is with Cymbeline. (I also have not forgotten Innogen. It pains me that it’s still stalled. There is a break coming up, though, and hopefully that will be fruitful. Thank you everyone for your patience. If George R.R. Martin can [sort of] do it, so can I, goshdarnit.)

In the meantime, if you’re interested in the reporting I’ve been doing as part of the Medill News Service this quarter, here are links to my seven published stories so far; I have four more to go. I’ve been covering veterans and military families, and I’m spending this Memorial Day transcribing interviews conducted at the opening of the new exhibit at the National Veterans Art Museum, so I suppose that’s apropos. Continue reading “The counterpart to the “Hello, world!” post: “I aten’t dead yet.””

Laramie is my Ithaka

Holiday travel as a metaphor for existence, or at least your twenties? It could be a thing. I just wrote “I Made It to Wyoming” for Oy!Chicago, which is part travelogue, part confession of poor planning habits and part announcement: next week will be my last at my present employer. After that comes another adventure.

My first flight, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, was scheduled to leave Midway around 1:30. I’m terrible about packing. I always tell people I have packer’s block, and can only do it the morning I leave. It only takes me half an hour at the outside, so I was prepared to enjoy a leisurely breakfast at my Lincoln Square apartment with a huge mug of my favorite tea. Until, of course, I remembered that I wasn’t giving myself nearly enough time to navigate a major airport on the busiest travel day of the year. I’m not saying the scene that followed was from Home Alone, but it’s not as far off the mark as I like to admit.

Continue reading “Laramie is my Ithaka”