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)

High four-and-a-half!

I know, I know, I never write, I never call! Last week I got caught up in my head about what to write for Monster Mash, and this week I’ve been caught up in, well, I don’t know what. But I wanted to share a post that I wrote for another blog!

Oy!Chicago is a blog collective for young Jewish twentysomethings; I’m a regular contributor, usually writing about health issues, but occasionally I get to add something a little different. Today, it’s taking a look at the brilliance that is @MayorEmanuel, the fake Twitter account of Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, who over the past month has really put us through the ringer. I take a look at the implications and the effect this has had on its readership, along with some thoughts on what makes the experiment so great.

Read it all at Goodnight, sweet nine-and-a-half-fingered prince.

(As for my own Rahm story, I did get to shake his hand at an El stop this election cycle. It was on the day he was struck off the ballot for the residency issue, and I was very impressed that he was down at the turnstiles in the State and Lake station, rather than huddled in a conference room or raging from a podium. Yeah, call me impressionable, but it was neat. He’s not a big guy, but I liked that I got to shake his hand. Yes, it was the hand with half a middle finger. He said “Nice to see you” and then moved on to whoever was next. I’ve had my brush with greatness. And who’s to say I didn’t meet @MayorEmanuel himself?)

Monster Mash

Mummies assaulted me on the train last week. I wish it was as funny as it sounds. Some local museum (I suspect the Field) is hosting an exhibit, and the blue posters seem inescapable on the CTA. I can’t actually tell you more than that, because I am too terrified to look. The two preserved heads on either end of the ad are just too much for me.

As soon as I saw them, the physical reaction was instantaneous. I felt nauseous, claustrophobic, shaky, dizzy, cold. I couldn’t look anywhere but down at my knees without seeing them: the ad reflected in the window next to me. At least three stations displayed the ad on the platform, much bigger than an overhead car poster. As soon as I got to my stop, I ran into a convenience store for Cheez-Its, my ultimate comfort snack. I stress ate all evening, exhausted by the tension of trying to avoid those mummified faces, and knowing I’ll be repeating it until the CTA bothers to take them down.

Mummies are my bugbear. I literally cannot comprehend how they don’t repulse and terrify everyone else. They’ve haunted me my whole life. First was Ötzi the Ice Man, the oldest known mummy, who was found in the Austrian Alps when I was 6. PBS aired a special on the discovery, and I sat down to watch with my parents. When I saw the Ice Man’s skin, discolored and distorted and very, very dead, I shot out of the room. From then on, I could never abide mummies. When I received a gorgeous Dorling Kindersley Illustrated History of the World one year for Christmas, I had my parents go through it first and tape over any images of mummified bodies. (They knew to go through Egyptian history; that was when I learned they had mummies in Peru.) When my sixth grade teacher had us transform our classroom into an Egyptian pyramid, I learned to studiously avoid the pictures taped up on the wall; obliging classmates would bring the DK Mummy book up to me and shove it in my face.

When I was 13, we took a trip to London, my first. One day we went to the British Museum. I thought I would be safe in the Norse and Celtic wing, among the beautiful metallurgy and woodwork. Instead, I turned a corner and came face to face with a human sacrifice who’d had his throat slit and been dumped in a bog more than a thousand years ago. My mother stayed up with me all night. I was too scared to sleep.

This all begs the question: what did mummies ever do to me? I think of Nora, our basset hound. Once when she was a puppy, the divider gate fell on her; her whole life after, she skittered out of the way if the gate began to tip. Haven’t I outgrown my horror of mummies? Two of my favorite TV shows, Fringe and Supernatural, both frequently show old bodies in varying states of preservation, often freshly exhumed. I can mostly deal with those. Then again, these CTA ads have no Jensen Ackles or Anna Torv to distract me. There’s just those sunken, leathery, grimacing heads.

The reasons I am scared of mummies have not changed since I was small. Of course, yes, they’re horribly ugly, all bared teeth, caved-in skin, ragged flesh and protruding bones. But even as a child, I could not reconcile the mummy’s appearance with the fundamental fact that these had been people once. Knowing all the grim details of how the ancient Egyptians “perfected” mummification, down to the canopic jars and the removal of the brain through the nasal passages, only made it worse. These terrifying things had once been people. They laughed, they felt things, they had friends, they made choices, they grumbled about the weather — they were people, and now they were shriveled and mottled and not even whole. We even know individual names, in some cases: this shell was Nebemakhet. He wrote poetry. He loved his wife. He died four thousand years ago. Here he is.

This seems like fairly standard dead body horror. I have also, for instance, never been a huge fan of zombie stories. But zombies, while stomach-churning, don’t fill me with the same terror that real mummies do. The key difference, I think, is that mummies consented to mummification, enthusiastically. Perhaps there’s some cultural element at work, given the kind of Jew I am — letting any body go unburied for more than 24 hours is incredibly discomfiting to me — though I wouldn’t assign that too much credit. People with great interest in mummies have explained their perspective to me, how the thrill of a mummy is precisely because it’s a connection to another time. I really cannot let go of that transformation, from living human being to husk: the continuity of the person and the choice to embrace and glorify such an end is the source of its horror.

I never thought I would need to desensitize myself to mummies. We don’t see them often unless we seek them out, so I was always certain I could merrily go through life avoiding them. In stories, confronting fears of this magnitude becomes a plot point. The past week or so has not cured me of this fear, and it has not helped me control it. I have to check train cars when I get on, and if the ads are up, I have to position myself so they’re out of sight, mostly out of mind. Even then, if I can people-watch, I wonder what my fellow riders are thinking of those images. Do they notice? Do they care? Are they are surprised as I was? Are any of them scared too? And if it’s not mummies for them, what am I missing? Who wishes they could look and blithely forget what’s there?