The city and the city (especially Little Village)

One of the best things about journalism school has been realizing how little of Chicago I had seen or even known to seek out before I started learning how to report and find stories. My first quarter was spent tramping up and down Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park, on the city’s northwest side, which is less than two miles from where I live but which I’d only been to for its incredible eating (notably Noon O Kabab, which, if you like Persian food is a must-visit in this town). Even though I’ve lived here since 2002, my Chicago experience had really been limited to enclaves and bubbles like Hyde Park, Lakeview, Wicker Park and bits of Uptown.

Due south of Albany Park, with all the same cross streets, is La Villita, Little Village. I’m working on a feature story about the Chicago Youth Boxing Club, which is an incredible organization full of beyond incredible people. Just south of the church where CYBC lives in the basement is 26th Street. “Oh, you have to see it,” I was told by source after source. “Go eat at Nuevo Leon, it’s the best.”

My interview began at 9, and the gym itself was closed on the weekend, so once the interview was done, it seemed like a good idea to get a feel for the neighborhood. I didn’t know what to expect — I really had no exposure to Little Village beyond what people involved with CYBC had told me, plus one thread in the community gang resistance documentary The Interrupters.

“People only hear about the bad stuff, the gang stuff,” people told me over and over again. “Which means people outside La Villita don’t know what an incredible neighborhood it is and what good people live here.”

Now that I’ve been there a little bit (a very little bit), that’s a damn shame. Because they’re right: Little Village is truly something else. Continue reading “The city and the city (especially Little Village)”

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.

Things I did on my first day of grad school

No one is surprised that I really take to approaching strangers, chatting for a few minutes and asking if I could take their picture. Our first assignment, in our first Methods class (where we learn both the skills necessary for today’s tech-wielding journalism and whether we have unexplored passions for new-to-us media creation), is to spend an hour in the Loop and come back when we’ve taken interesting photos of people. Along with two other girls, I head south and west, along Van Buren Street, across the river and down into Union Station. Nearly 70 shots later, I’ve talked with Ed, who works a newsstand behind the Chicago Board of Trade; the owner of a liquor store and bar that’s closing after 55 years in the same hands; Ellen, who insists she only takes good photos when she’s standing next to her brother-in-law; and a postman, pictured above, who says, “I’m just working, I’m just working.”

Turns out I’m super into this. Can’t wait until I get to do this and write about it too. Continue reading “Things I did on my first day of grad school”

Professional identity: Available in bulk

“Do you have a card?”

It was last Saturday, and it was the first time I’d ever been asked that question in earnest. I was at the Chicago Creative Expo, a day of workshops, vendors and networking in the Loop’s amazing Chicago Cultural Center. If you live in this city, you may also know that last Saturday was the St. Patrick’s Day parade. There were very nearly brawls, at least on my end (I don’t care how cool you are, drinking Busch Light on the Brown Line at 11 AM on a Saturday is not my idea of a good time). But once I made it through the throng of green, my grumpiness at waking up early on a Saturday disappeared entirely.

The booth guide said that more than 140 vendors took part in the event, which I more than believe. The energy of so many creative people, who take their creativity and passions in so many directions, all in one place, was thrilling. Not only did I get a gigantic bag of swag (by which I mean more brochures, leaflets and cards than I know what to do with), but I got to talk with dozens of amazing individuals and learn about the ways Chicago’s arts community lives, works and grows. (I’d love to highlight some of them here in the near future. Stay tuned.)

If I had been thinking ahead, I might have gone into this with more of an agenda. I might also have worn a nicer-looking outfit. But I just wanted to fact-find, and get on some mailings lists, so I came in jeans and a t-shirt and totally without a plan. “Hi!” I said, over and over again. “What do you do?” It’s a great opening line, and it started a lot of good conversations. But, occasionally, the topic turned back on me.

“Are you an artist?” the vendor would ask.

If the booth was about painting or dance or crafts, I would hem and haw. “I’m not a visual artist, but I’d love to learn more” was my go-to response. That was how I moved through most of the upper floors. On the ground floor, however, I found my people.

“Are you a writer?”

“Yes,” I said, and it felt really good.

“Are you published?”

“No,” I said, and that felt a little less good. “I’m working on some drafts. I want to be really proud of them first.” To a few, I mentioned Magpie & Whale, and that got a really pleasing spark of interest. Then came the question: Do you have a card?

It had never occurred to me to get a business card for my creative work. Never in a million years. However, I love collecting creative business cards. If I’m ever at, say, the Renegade Craft Fair or an art fair of any kind, I generally take home forty or fifty vendor cards to look up later online. If I order something on Etsy and the seller includes a card, I’m thrilled. I love them as little portable expressions of a person’s work.

What I realized was that, for all my talk about how I want to be a storyteller, how this is the real work I want to do with my life, in a way I wasn’t taking it seriously. Many a writing blogger, for instance, will talk about how much work and sheer elbow grease you need to accomplish when crafting or selling a book, to which I nod along and assume that comes later. But you know what, it turns out that’s not something that I only get to do when I’m a “real” writer, because I’m a real writer now. No more waiting to be anointed by a publisher: I’m a real writer now!

Still, holy cats, if I’m a real writer, doesn’t that mean I need a real business card? How much do I need to do? I could go for letterpress — people really like letterpress. Heck, this place has some options for $95 — a steal! Or maybe I could buy some stamps and make my own — people love that personal touch! Summer Pierre just got some great ones made, and as you can see in this post, Moo is highly addictive browsing. And yikes, maybe a business card is overkill — I’m a real writer now, but maybe a minicard is more suitable at this juncture. Maybe?

Hang on, says my voice of reason. Didn’t we just go over this? Yes, yes we did. Business cards are convenient ways to spread the word about one’s work, but the work is still the most important thing. I keep noting to myself that for all the ideas I get for the creative responses on this site, I’m still working on actually carrying them out. Consistency is what’s going to keep this venture going, as with any project or skill that needs practice.

So, no business cards just yet, even if they are really cool. But hey, the big red bag of swag is still full of treasure. And you’d better believe I got some ideas for neat promotions. I’m trying to stay focused and not get too ahead of myself.

Still, is it ever too early to dream? There’s a rhetorical question for the ages. “Do you have a card?” the vendor will say, and I’ll smile, and take one from a very nifty carrying case, and I’ll say, “Yes. Yes, I sure do.”

The Public, In Transit

I’ve lived in Chicago long enough that being in the city itself can get a little mundane. Granted, I still choose my seat on trains and buses depending on the view I’ll get, and I continue to be giddyinlove with this place, but finding new things takes closer observation now.

Truth be told, most of that closer observation leads me to people. I’ve had some amazing people-watching over the past few weeks. This city is great. I love that this is all nonfiction.

Restaurant, Wrigleyville
A mother and a daughter (I’d put them around 60 and 28) at the next table have already finished their meal when I sit down. They do not stop talking for love or money. Apparently the daughter is having some sort of apartment trouble, and the unit isn’t warm enough for her to be in at the moment. Regardless of context, the mother keeps saying, over and over again, “They would never do that in Wisconsin.” I hear all about the different places the daughter has lived, including Mexico and New York, what trouble the daughter has with remembering to pay bills, and trips to visit relatives. The mother is content to only respond with her thoughts on how unlike Wisconsin every other place is. By the time I’m done with my meal, they’re still talking and haven’t moved from their seats, though they’ve had their coats on for at least half an hour.

Coffee shop, State Street
There’s a girl, 14 or 15 at the outside, and already strikingly beautiful. She’s still young, despite the ankle-length black coat she won’t take off. It’s a great coat, and it really sets her apart from the group of early teen friends she’s here with – she’s obviously staked out her place as the smart, edgy one, and she carries herself with a wonderful self-possession and confidence. To me, this coat is the kind you buy because a character in a book or a comic you love has one. To my untrained eye, it seems like a manga costume, more dramatic than practical. As fabulous as this girl looks, though, she’s got white gym sneakers peeking out from under the hem of the coat. It endears her tremendously to me. I want to compliment her, for her great coat and on her sartorial future, but I don’t want to be weird.

Brown line, North Center
The two blonde girls in front of me are reading the same YA book together. Their shoulders and the fake fur ruffs on their hoods shake as they laugh silently at the text. One has a brown coat and a brown-and-white scarf; the other has a white coat and a brown-and-tan Elmer Fudd hat, with polka-dots. As we head south, they giggle more and more, but otherwise they don’t exchange a word. They even turn the pages just by checking in with each other. I wish I could see the title of the book, but they’re shoulder to shoulder, doing their own thing.

Brown line, Lincoln Park
This older couple is sitting together, holding hands. He’s a big man, bald on top, with a very expressive face. His hands are huge compared to hers, but also expressive. She’s wearing a bolero hat and keeps her gray hair long and loose. They’re not making a big deal of it: they carry on a conversation and look out the windows, but they’re still holding hands. Despite being on a late afternoon train, they’re very intimate and comfortable. I try not to catch the husband’s eye while I’m watching; the wife is with her own thoughts, and doesn’t look my way. They get off at the stop before mine. He follows her, carrying her tote.

Art: Odd number

As soon as the news was out, people were tweeting me and sending me links. @MayorEmanuel‘s identity is a secret no more. On the plus side, this Dan Sinker seems like a pretty cool guy. But I’m still left with a sense of melancholy. It took less than a week for the internet’s best and greatest mystery to be torn down. As a friend put it, “The mystery is fucking over and I’m not sure what we really gain by that.”

Of course, it was inevitable. We don’t like secrets much, especially online. But I miss that feeling that anywhere I went, @MayorEmanuel could be right there, and I’d never know. When @MayorEmanuel cursed out Michelle Malkin, it came from on high. This is not to say Dan Sinker is not a man who has communed with Chicago luminaries and the glowing heart of Studs Terkel — his writings clearly demonstrate otherwise — but it was more fun before. I hate to be that person, but I am.

I got really excited when I figured out how I could respond to my @MayorEmanuel article. My supplies are all in place, and I had all sorts of plans. There would be ducks, and bones, and mustaches and even a Honda Civic. Now that there’s a real person out there, I feel a little self-conscious about going forward with the rest. Tributes to fake Twitter accounts are fun; tributes to actual people are a little weird. So, all we have now is a draft. But it gets the point across, I think.

And hey, with Dan Sinker out from behind the curtain, perhaps we can expect what I want most from this post-@MayorEmanuel age: a book.

Nine and a Half (Test)