Coffee and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Yesterday morning I stopped at the Asado on Irving Park for a coffee. I was feeling crabby and unsettled, stifled in some indefinable way.

When I stepped inside, the guy behind the counter greeted me warmly, cheerfully asking what I’d like to order. I asked him to recommend a roast from today’s three offerings and he explained the differences in taste, acidity, and body. I chose one pretty much at random and sat down at a table to wait for the pour-over cup to be ready.

Sound Colour Vibration, photo by Ben Reed

I took my red Moleskin notebook out of my shoulder bag and began writing my way through a litany of all my current frustrations, all my current mental/emotional/spiritual blocks, trying to excavate whatever the root of my discomfort might be. The warm cup of coffee, with my requested touch of cream and sugar, was soon placed in front of me. I eagerly took a sip of the strong, almost ashy blend. I couldn’t help but think how improbable it is that we, as humans, cultivated this beverage at all, and marveled that Chicago should now have so many fancy roasters available to partake in.

Photo via Huffington Post

I have a love-hate relationship with coffee that goes back years. I first learned to gulp it down with tons of cream and sugar as a teenager during late nights out at the local diner with my theater friends. I remember, during what must have been spring break of my junior or senior year, drinking so many cups one night that I temporarily forgot what caffeine would do to a person. After my friend Kristen dropped me off at home many hours later, I lay wide awake in bed, feeling like a tweaked-out, over-stimulated cartoon version of myself, my heart pounding rapidly in my chest, wondering if the fever-pitch insanity pulsing through my body would ever dissipate enough to let me sleep.

Tweek! Via Comedy Central

I drank coffee off and on during college, especially on days when I was scheduled for multiple classes that segued into late evening film screenings or other meetings, though I always got frustrated by the inevitable crash that left me feeling like my veins were scraped out by the dregs of the coffee grounds.

Imagine me just dragged my overcaffeinated bones through this beautiful campus

At some point as I neared college graduation, a friend introduced me to a magical new elixir called Red Bull, which I embraced wholeheartedly for the way it would buzz me up for much longer and wouldn’t crash me down as catastrophically as coffee did. It tasted like children’s cough syrup and became associated with a certain kind of odious Party Bro, though, so my romance with it as an alternative to coffee was fairly short-lived.

I know it's hard to believe/remember, but it was SUCH a novelty when it first came out.

Once I moved to Chicago, I had endless choices for my fix: Atomix near my first apartment, Starbucks across the street from my office, the Bourgeois Pig, Beans and Bagels near the Rockwell brown line stop, Black Cat on Division (I can’t even find evidence online that that place ever existed, though I vividly remember walking there once after a brutal early January cold snap to work on my review of 8 Mile for the website Spiked Online).

I wonder how this film would hold up for me now.

In the same way that I struggle with caffeine, I struggle with money (specifically with saving it, and not overspending or getting myself into debt), so at some point I decided I’d have to invest in a coffeemaker so that I could start making the stuff at home, rather than buying a cup somewhere every day. As I recall, I fortuitously received a personal coffeemaker, which could brew enough for just two cups, from one of my cousins in a holiday gift exchange. But coffee brewed at home in an inexpensive machine always tastes kind of crappy, so indulgences in cups from all of the above mentioned places continued, if not quite as frequently.

Basically like this, but for two cups.When I started exercising more and cleaning up my diet with raw foods and green smoothies, coffee was naturally one of the habits I knew I needed to break. I started putting maca powder in my smoothies to both give my adrenals a break and hopefully to compensate for the energy boost I knew I’d be missing. I eventually dropped the habit altogether and felt extremely virtuous about it., 28 Sept. 2012

Until early 2010, that is, when I was copyediting Cherry Vanilla’s (amazing) memoir Lick Me and decided to dose myself with a cup of coffee, almost medicinally. My thinking processes after a good cup of coffee always felt more fluid and effortlessly intuitive, and it indeed helped me plow through the editing process on the impossibly short schedule I’d been allotted. Of course, I got majorly hooked again, and I date my current on-again, off-again relationship with the stuff back to that fateful cup.

So then I moved on to Dunkin’ Donuts as an alternative to Starbucks on my way to work, Einstein’s Brothers when I couldn’t find anything else (their coffee is truly awful), the Julius Meinl on Southport, Regulus’s dearly departed brick-and-mortar shop, the occasional cold brew at home, and now even new kid on the block Bad Wolf Coffee with their exquisite pastries., 31 March 2014

My life is awash with temptation and the constant promise of fulfillment coupled with the inevitable risk of oversaturation.


Back at Asado on Sunday, I sipped from my mug and let my thoughts drift away from the doubts and anxieties that had been plaguing me. I noticed at some point that the sound system had begun to quietly play that notorious first Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album. I hadn’t heard any of those songs in ages, and I was surprised by how terrific they sounded. Ounsworth’s vocals will never be exactly crowdpleasing outside certain circles of now old-school hipsters, but the drumming was tighter than I’d remembered, and I’d forgotten, too, how catchy the melodies were.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

After a little while, I looked up from my now nearly empty mug and realized what a massive healing it had been to just sit in a coffee shop alone on a Sunday morning, listening to an almost ten-year-old album, sipping a lovingly brewed cup of coffee, and getting some much needed caffeine into my system. Certainly some of my mood lift could be chalked up to the chemical stimulation, but I felt all the morning’s heaviness fall away just the same. I gratefully reconnected with an inner sense of optimism and enthusiasm, and looked forward to a few hours of random wandering and exploring.

As I packed up my notebook and put on my coat and got ready to head out, I returned my mug to the guy at the front counter and thanked him both for the blend he’d recommended and for playing the CYHSY album. He laughed and shared that one of the women who worked there had recently said of that album, “Oh, it reminds me so much of middle school,” and I laughed loudly in response. He and I were probably about the same age, and thus recognized that our experience of that band would necessarily be very different from someone who listened to it as a middle schooler.

It wasn’t really a “kids these days” thing or a “gosh, aren’t we old” commiseration. It was just a nice moment of connection over coffee and music and the acknowledgment of the cycles that bring us back to them both in times when we need them most.


Now Let Us Praise Counting Crows

During my teen years in the ’90s, I wasn’t terribly tuned into contemporary music.

Grunge just totally left me cold, and I didn’t realize it was possible to seek out anything, like Riot Grrl, that would have been considered indie or underground—not that it would have mattered. My tastes at that time simply did not run toward much of anything that was loud, or guitar-oriented, or that existed primarily to express angst.

I listened to a lot of show tunes, and jazz, and even piano music that would be considered easy listening or new age, and to Sting’s solo stuff, which makes perfect sense in that context.

But, as my teen years wore on, my first boyfriend introduced me to the music of Sophie B. Hawkins, so I started listening to her first two albums relentlessly, mostly because I missed him so much while he was in California.

If a boy you have a crush on plays this for you, the hidden message is not exactly subtle.

I’d developed an affection for PM Dawn at some point, so The Bliss Album…? and later Jesus Wept got a lot of play during those years.

This one hasn't aged quite as well for my ears, personally.

A friend from my high school theater department who’d graduated a few years ahead of me turned me on to Everything but the Girl’s Amplified Heart, and that made me dive headlong into the glory of Tracey Thorn’s voice for a while.

This one's still terrific, too.

But, that was about the scope of it for what seems like a long time.


Oh God, and there was the Dave Matthews Band too, I guess. But I’ll even defend that on account of their chops as musicians.

But as my senior year in high school droned on, I somehow started getting keyed into more of what was being played on the radio, and though I can’t remember exactly why, I picked up the Counting Crows album Recovering the Satellites at some point in early ’97. My best guess is that I was probably responding to the current ubiquity of “A Long December,” but even that would have been slightly out of character for me, buying a full-length album solely on the strength of its big hit single. Regardless, the album (on cassette) went into heavy rotation in my life, mostly on the car stereo of my white Chevy Lumina.

I remember driving somewhere with my friend Casey, the album on quietly in the background, and he asked me, somewhat incredulously, “you like this?” in response to one of their big noisy guitar freak-outs, probably the one at the end of “I’m Not Sleeping.”

He’d tried to turn me on to Weezer at some point, making an argument for the tunefulness of the melodies and the wit of the lyrics, and I think he was confused as to why I couldn’t stand that stuff but was newly obsessed with Counting Crows, which didn’t seem, to his ears anyway, that far afield from it. I shrugged and tried to explain that the build at the end of “I’m Not Sleeping” felt like it had been earned, that the song started small and crescendoed logically, giving the whole thing room to grow.

(My father always taught me that, when playing or singing, you shouldn’t give away everything you’ve got right at the beginning or there’s nowhere interesting left to go. That was part of what I didn’t quite get about Weezer; the guitars started off so loud and distorted that there was no sonic narrative left to develop. I guess maybe that feels cool, emotionally, when you’re a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old boy, but to me, it was just like, “ugh, this is making me uncomfortable, please make it stop.” Also, I came to realize in my twenties and early thirties, Weezer kind of sucks anyway.)

And so, Recovering the Satellites is indelibly linked to that time in my life, that final semester of high school and first summer before college.

Imagine my surprise, however, when I realized that the album turns out to still be terrific. I can’t remember when I first pulled it (now on compact disk) back out of my collection for a spin, but every so often since then I get a craving to hear it and am bowled over by the fact that it holds up so well, totally beyond any nostalgia factor.

@afelus, 16 November 2012

The melodies are lovely, and Adam Duritz is actually a really interesting singer, and the playing is top notch. When my boyfriend first put The Jayhawks on for me a little while ago, I kind of sniffed and said, “yeah, OK, but I’d really rather just be listening to Counting Crows.”

I used to be embarrassed about how much I loved this album (probably because of stuff like this), but I care so much less about coolness now. Especially given that I can actually discern, after all this time, that my enjoyment truly stems from the music itself and not its popularity. It’s almost the opposite of the phenomenon of sending love to myself backward into the past; I have to give my eighteen-year-old self credit for locking into this thing that continues to bring me joy a full seventeen years later.


On The Divine Comedy and Mingling with Artists

Neil Hannon

For a good fifteen years now, whenever people have asked me what my favorite band is, I usually say The Divine Comedy.

I attempted to oeuvreblog them a few years ago and wrote an introductory essay laying out many of the reasons why. Though the blog project stalled out after only a few entries, I’ve never really thought of it as failed, merely as on hiatus. I’ll get back to it at some point eventually.

And though I’m happy to see Neil Hannon continuing to collaborate with Thomas Walsh of Pugwash on their “cricket pop” project The Duckworth Lewis Method and working under his own name on live musical/opera projects like Swallows and Amazons and Sevastopol, my primary interest in his creative output remains The Divine Comedy. Though his post-Regeneration albums have become increasingly spotty as far as their being consistently listenable from start to finish, they always have at least one corker of a song that really makes me marvel at his skill as a lyricist. (And I say this as someone who’s notorious for not always listening to the lyrics of pop songs.) It’s rare that I don’t have at least one of his albums on my iPod at any given time.

Absent Friends

Coming home from work on the train a few nights ago, “Our Mutual Friend,” one of his post-Regeneration masterpieces off the album Absent Friends, came up on shuffle. As usual, I was in complete awe of its narrative complexity and efficiency, then had the strange thought, out of nowhere, that I actually have no desire to ever meet Neil Hannon.

When I was more avidly going to rock shows in my twenties, I fairly regularly had run-ins with musicians after their gigs, usually just hailing them with a quick “good show” as they brushed through the crowd on their way to the green room or maybe a slightly longer but still informal chat at the merch table. With my combination of extreme excitability and extreme self-consciousness, there was only a brief window of time, between the moment when the opportunity for personal interaction presented itself and when my adrenaline completely pushed my nervous system so far into the red that it became impossible for me not to turn into an insanely spazzy mess, when I actually remained cool enough to have a coherent conversation. (I wrote about this phenomenon way back in 2005 over at my old blog.)

One of my more (relatively) successful encounters was in the fall of ’02 when The Divine Comedy played a full-band show in Chicago at Martyrs.

What Martyrs used to look like

I’d only moved to the city two months earlier and wasn’t yet comfortable enough going to shows by myself, so I, strangely, bought three tickets. One was for me and one was for my good friend Casey, with whom I’d always bonded over The Divine Comedy’s music. We’d even seen them together about a year and a half earlier when we took a spring break trip to London and took a train to the University of Southampton to catch one of their performances at what was probably the student union. When I couldn’t think of anyone else to give the third ticket to, I ended up giving it to my dad.

My memories of the show itself have become fuzzy, though I remember enjoying it quite a bit and thinking they’d chosen an agreeable selection of songs from their older albums for the setlist. Neil disappeared backstage as soon as the lights came up, but the rest of the band lingered, packing up their own gear onstage, and I spontaneously declared that I was going over to chat them up.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, my dad noted to Casey that I was just like my mother in this regard. My dad sometimes told stories of my mother effortlessly charming her way backstage when they went to concerts together early in their marriage. It was never any kind of groupie thing with her; it was sheer curiosity about interesting people coupled with her own intense, instant likeability and warmth. If I have even a fraction of her boldness and charisma, I consider it truly inherited on a genetic level since these outings occurred way before I was born and were never described to me until many years later.

My Mom (1974)

In a strange way, I often forget that it’s even possible for my mom to have influenced my life at all, since she died when I was only eight. So throughout my life, my heart has always leapt a little in surprise whenever someone would say that I did something “just like Sharon.” It was never surprising when I heard that I looked just like her since, based on photographs, I know that I did. But when it came to behavioral things or mannerisms, that always delighted me most because I knew it was totally unconscious on my part, because it somehow proved that she really was my mother, that she was really part of my body on a level I couldn’t deny.

So, sidling up to the edge of the stage at Martyrs, I chatted with the drummer (I think?) for a bit, and mentioned how I’d been at that show at the University of Southhampton. It was a pleasant enough exchange, and, like I say, one of my more relatively successful as far as playing it cool, though I retroactively have to believe that he was probably more than a bit taken aback by being accosted by this loud American girl when his brain was probably barely coasting along on post-show fumes.

Even at the time, though, I think I was secretly relieved that Neil had made himself scarce, eliminating all possibility that I would be tempted to try to interact with him. Because really, what would there be for me to say to him? Other than expressing gratitude for the years of joy that his music has brought me, I can’t think of anything I’d want to talk to him about. Unlike, say, Robert Fripp, whose brain I would love to dive into and swim around in for a while, I don’t need much more from Neil Hannon than what he’s already given me in his music.

Robert Fripp!

I recognize now that so many of the wearying behaviors of my twenties—like forcing myself into conversations with musicians after gigs—were misguided attempts to assure myself of my own internal worth and viability as a creative person. What I was actually trying to replicate in trying to talk to my indie rock heroes after small club shows was the way my father, not my mother, would have conversations with musicians and actors that he already knew after we went to local theater performances when I was a child.

The glamor of hanging around the auditorium after the house lights came up, standing at his elbow as he laughed and kibitzed with his friends and creative comrades who only moments earlier had been in the spotlight singing and playing for a large crowd, will always inform my idea of what it means to be a part of a larger creative community. And not only to be a part of that community but to be valued for one’s contributions to it. Even when my father didn’t know someone personally, he or she inevitably knew him by reputation as a talented musician and tough but enthusiastic critic and received his praise accordingly.

It’s as if I thought I’d not only permanently inherited his notoriety by association but that it would transfer behind the Northwest Indiana theater community as well. I think at some level I was still operating out of a “don’t they know who I am?” internal programming, even when I was, say, trying to chat up Andrew Bird after a show at the Hideout, like he would have any reason to care that I thought his then-most recent album was his personal best.

As I said last week about learning to reappreciate Phil Collins, there was a point in my life when my sense of my own identity became confused, when I suddenly wasn’t sure if, at base, I was a musician or an amateur music critic. I often still struggle to align myself with what I’ve taken to calling “level zero” of creation, instead of the “level one” of commentary about someone else’s creation. But now that I find myself in a romantic relationship with someone who just happens to be one of my favorite songwriters, and now that I play in a band with someone who just happens to be one of my favorite poets, I’ve had the satisfaction of forming my own creative cohort well outside the bounds of my father’s influence.

More important than even that is the (re)discovery that the pleasure of knowing them actually has nothing to do what they’ve achieved or how our friendship reflects back on me. The success, and the satisfaction, that I’ve so longed for comes not in talking about it after it’s all over, but in living beside and caring for one another as the doing of the thing knits itself into the reality of how we show up for ourselves as creators every day.


Talking to Phil Collins’s People

“So if you’re looking for your big, breakout single, you might wanna put a bid on this one tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Because we are talking to Phil Collins’s people, right? But then again . . . aren’t we all?”

As I mentioned in the notes that I wrote over on Tumblr to accompany my Best of 2013 mix, in recent years I’ve distanced myself from the Pitchfork-approved musical hype machine and have tried to reconnect with artists that genuinely bring me pleasure. And part of the pleasure of this shift has been to honor my instinct to privilege musical skill over enthusiastic ineptitude. (I am the daughter of a former music teacher, after all.)

The more and more of the indie stuff I listened to, the more and more I realized that no one really knows how to write songs anymore. Sure, it’s possible to isolate catchy hooks here and there, but I’m talking about legible, satisfying harmonic and melodic structure. (And yes, I realize that this puts me firmly in the crabby old lady realm of “they just don’t make ’em like they used to.”)

@maura, Maura Johnston

Nevertheless, one of the unexpected results of my refocusing on craft is my rediscovery of Phil Collins.

Phil Collins

I know that, post-American Psycho and in the hopefully waning days of hipsters’ kitschy obsession with so-called yacht rock, there’s almost no musician as ready-made for sneering punchlines as Phil Collins. And I would have been ready for a quick takedown myself in years past.

After my back went out for the second time in college, a dear friend made me a “get well soon” mix CD that unironically included “I Can’t Dance” on it, and I was secretly embarrassed for him about it for months. How hopelessly uncool, I thought.

Another friend of mine, who’d spent a couple summers during college painting houses, used to like to say that the best days were when, listening to the local soft rock radio station for hours on end, he would hear a Rod with a Phil chaser. I loved this anecdote because it exemplified exactly what kind of radio station that was and because, at the end of the ’90s, anything that smacked of ’80s culture was immediately suspect, immediately to be derided.

So, it’s been quite a shock to me in the last few years when I’ve heard a Phil Collins or Genesis song on the radio in a public space and realized, “wait a minute—this stuff actually sounds terrific.” As their former ubiquity has diminished and as we’ve now graduated to making fun of the popular sounds of the ’90s and ’00s (have you listened to Interpol lately? It sounds absurd), it’s finally possible to hear those Collins songs for the impeccable pop songcraft that they represent.


And yes, there appears to be a small groundswell currently advocating for a reappraisal of Collins’s work. A quick Google today turned up a couple pieces: “Is Phil Collins the Godfather of Popular Culture?”; “We Will Rock You: A Spirited Defense of Phil Collins, Part 2: The Reckoning”; “Telekinesis’ Michael Lerner on Phil Collins, Dave Grohl, and his other favorite singing drummers.” I’m sure there will be others soon enough.

It’s safest, of course, to say “hey, his early stuff with Genesis is actually really cool and sonically challenging” or “do you realize that he played drums on a handful of Brian Eno’s legendary solo albums?” as a way of distancing oneself from the still-tainted ’80s pop hits. But, fuck it, I’ll speak up in favor of those pop hits.

Though at a certain level I understand that familiarity breeds contempt and that people (especially self-styled cultural critics) hate nothing so much as massive mainstream success, I’ll never understand why catchy pop songs get such a bad rap. Do people not realize how difficult it is to write something that sounds so simple and connects with so many people?

Take “That’s All,” for example.

For whatever reason, it’s the song that always comes to mind now when I want to build a case for Collins’s unique genius. (I know it’s a Genesis song, and was coauthored by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, but it’s clearly of a piece with the poppier direction that Collins was taking the band in the post-Peter Gabriel/prog rock days.) He’s mentioned that this song was an attempt to write something straightforward and Beatles-y, and it succeeds marvelously without sounding like a straightforward Beatles homage the way countless power pop acts do. Plus, the reference is not just sound; it’s not just relying on certain guitar effects or vocal processes to indicate its influences/inspirations. There’s an honest-to-God song in there, too, packed with satisfying hooks and hummable melodies.

The combination of the opening piano riff and the dead-simple kick drum/high hat combo sets the stage for the most immediately memorable part of the song, that “A” section. Collins sings the melody through the first time down one octave, giving a slow burn quality to a song that, intentionally, starts out with a lot of air in it. For a band that’s notorious for their complexity and precision (and, again, often mocked for it), there’s a looseness here that really makes you, as a listener, lean into the groove, seduced by where it could possible go next.

The B section of the song shifts to a major key, with a kind of oompah rhythm in the bass line and a calliope-esque keyboard part that establishes a neat tension with the minor-key A section sandwiched around it. And with the return of the A form that we heard at the top of the song, Collins takes the melody up an octave, which, as it strains the upper limit of his vocal range, lends that immediately identifiable, shouty intensity that he’s perhaps best known for as a singer. Snuck in underneath that signature sound, however, is, as Brian pointed out to me, the elaboration of an increasingly Ringo Starr-esque drum part (especially check out the fill before they go back into the major-key B part, and the fill that takes them back out of it).

The C section/bridge is perhaps the most ’80s-ish part of the song, with the slightly bigger drums fills between phrases and slightly more R&B-inflected vocal runs in the melody line. It whizzes by in a flash, though, bringing us to Banks’s keyboard solo over the chords from the A section. He embroiders the basic melody tastefully, never letting the filigree distract too long from the hooks. And the keyboard sound itself is delightfully, bizarrely reedy.

The rest of the song repeats the familiar form that’s been established—BACA—before letting Rutherford solo out over the remaining ABA fade. And though the form remains consistent, the accompaniment gets a little more frenetic with the addition of a tambourine, handclaps, more backing “oohs” and “aahs”, a repetition of the basic melody line on the keyboard, one startlingly big cymbal crash as the volume starts to cut out, and one last one for good measure right as it’s fading down to nothing.

The very clear structure here is incredibly satisfying, giving you as a listener just enough repetition without ever letting you feel bored or lulled into sing-songy sameness. It also takes incredible restraint to let a song build so incrementally over the course of four and a half minutes, without blowing its wad too soon or too dramatically. It’s just incredibly sophisticated musicianship all around.

So, I’m happy to be in a place personally where I don’t feel beholden to any cool factor when it comes to really grooving on the things that sound good to me at any given moment. I think a lot about something that Travis Morrison said in an interview with Vice last summer. When asked if there was ever a time when he felt self-conscious about his musical taste, he responded: “Not really, no. I don’t know why. I mean, I don’t think musicians think like that. Musicians tend to have appetite where Music People have taste, if that makes sense.”

I suppose that’s the conflict at the heart of what I guess I’d call the tourism I was participating in through music blogs ten years ago. I was trying to consume like a Music Person, rather than letting the bedrock of my own musicianship inform my ability to listen, appreciate, and fall in love with the sounds and songs that spoke to my heart.

Delany and the City

Chris Smith, "Wabash Under the L"

I don’t remember when I first consciously realized it, but I am a devotee of The City.

And though of course I love my current home of Chicago, I don’t mean the Windy City exclusively.

I am devoted, and probably even addicted, to the energy of urban spaces. To the cityscape and all its people and possibilities. Any connection that I’ve felt with wild or sparsely populated areas—such as the deserts of New Mexico, the coastline of County Kerry, the mountain passes of the Cascades, and the hills of Southern Indiana—usually, ultimately, stems from the way that nature gives me the opportunity to disconnect from the things that do irritate me about city living. That cleansing then allows me to realign myself to that which truly matters to me about urban space when I finally return to it.

In my early years of living on my own in Chicago, I was always surprised by the very palpable sense of relief I would feel getting off the commuter train at the Randolph Street/Millennium Park station after spending an afternoon or weekend with my family in the suburbs of Northwest Indiana. More than just escaping poisonous and demoralizing family dynamics, my return to the city always felt like a return to a rhythm that my body intuitively understood.

Chicago Cultural Center

Emerging from the underground station to see the beautiful architecture soaring into the sky, to feel hundreds of people bustling past me without giving a damn about me one way or another, to hear the whoosh of cars and buses and the rumble of the elevated train—the embrace of all of it made me feel so comforted, so at home, so at peace. People often talk about the excitement of a city, of the sense of possibility that anything can happen here, and I’m sure that’s part of it for me. But there’s also an indefinable sense that I know how the city works.

My body understands, on some preverbal level, the way cities support, encourage, and even thrive on intensity, whether it’s the intensity of achievement, creativity, restlessness, high-stakes risks, or the ever-present opportunity to find love (be it the kind that lasts as long as a locked glance with an alluring stranger or the kind that lasts a lifetime). I resonate with the overlap of historical grandeur with of-the-minute invention, with the prosaic beauty of functional spaces like alleys and fire escapes, with the permission for hardship and breakdown to be enacted in full view of passersby, with the tenuous togetherness inspired by local sports, music, or political heroes.

Chris Smith,

My passion is mainly intuitive, so though I love reading about cities, too, I’m far from being any kind of amateur scholar of urban studies. I’ve picked my way through bits and pieces of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities without ever actually finishing it and am currently doing the same with Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is one of the best damn things I’ve read in the past 10 years. But I’ve never so much as picked up a copy of Devil in the White City. Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography has been on my to-read list since its release a few years back. I’ve likewise been meaning to read Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue since hearing artist and writer Edie Fake mention it last year as an important reference point for his incredibly moving gallery show Memory Palaces.

But, when I learned that Delany himself, currently Critical Inquiry‘s Winter 2014 Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago, would be giving a public lecture on Friday, January 31, I thought I’d better at least dip into the book before heading down to Hyde Park. Though I’m not quite halfway through with it, it’s as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be. But the joy of seeing Delany speak live belongs in a category all its own.

The fact that I even had this opportunity to attend his lecture, with only about a week’s notice, is yet another testament to the endless opportunity and variety inherent to city living. But when the man himself is such a towering figure of erudition, compassion, and radical sexual politics, I found myself moving beyond the self-satisfaction of being at the right place at the right time and into the realm of “I needed to be here today.”

It wasn’t just that I found my brain stimulated by his reflections on what his literary legacy may or may not be. It’s that I felt both inspired and privileged to behold a person so at ease with himself, in mind, body, and spirit. And it wasn’t just me—I felt a shift in the room over the course of his talk, as the audience of intellectuals realized that it’s possible to strive not just to be smarter or more widely published, but to be a better person, living a more joyful, more connected, and thus more meaningful life.

He explains in his writer’s preface to Times Square Red, Times Square Blue:

I hope these two extended essays function as early steps (though by no means are they the first) in thinking through the problem of where people, male and female, gay and straight, old and young, working class and middle class, Asian and Hispanic, black and other, rural and urban, tourist and indigene, transient and permanent, with their bodily, material, sexual, and emotional needs, might discover (and even work to set up) varied and welcoming harbors for landing on our richly variegated urban shore. (p. xx)

And in the spaces between reading that, and hearing him speak, and driving home on Lake Shore Drive, with the exultation of Chicago’s skyline rising up in front of us, I was grateful to have my commitment to The City not only renewed but reinvigorated by seeing how much more there is for me to learn here.

Photo by jimkim_2000


A Vegas Baby

The Sounds of '66

My first boyfriend skipped his senior year in high school to start early as a freshman in a fancypants program at the University of Southern California. He left for Los Angeles at the end of the summer we met.

Pastel Sky, Eric Lo Photography

In many ways, it was the perfect relationship for 16-year-old me.

I got all the romantic pining and pre-e-mail love letter writing with none of the daily negotiations of when we were going to hang out or any other reality-based buckets of cold water that would have quashed the highly romantic narrative I adored being the center of. We lasted about two years this way, and I have no regrets about any of it.

Love letters

Well, I guess except for the typical regrets that come with simply having once been a teenager and thus having lacked the emotional intelligence to handle highly charged situations that inevitably become a bit easier to manage when one gets older.

He came back home to visit his family often enough that first year, but going into the second year of our relationship, which coincided with the beginning of my own senior year in high school, I was feeling squirrely and ready to declare a bit of my independence. So, late that fall of ’96, I decided that I would fly to L.A. to visit.


Looking back on that trip, I know I was an emotionally voracious wet blanket. I was especially pouty and sullen any time I was expected to interact with large groups of his friends. I wanted nothing more than to spend time with him and didn’t know how to communicate my crushing disappointment when it became clear that he wasn’t going to allow me to, you know, lock him in a quiet, dark room with me for two or three days straight. He welcomed me to join in his revelries with his friends and, rightly, felt no qualms about proceeding about his business when I feigned jet lag and went to bed early the night of my arrival.

I fared a bit better in the ensuing days in one-on-one interactions with his roommates and other closer friends. It being USC, at least one of them was studying filmmaking, and happened to mention how much he’d enjoyed a new indie film that had just come out, in limited release, from Miramax, called Swingers. The title went into my mental Rolodex for the next several months.

The Town Theatre (Jonathan Miano, The Times)

Fortuitously, that following spring of ’97, I saw that Swingers was scheduled to screen at the late, lamented Town Theater in Highland, Indiana, the place where I saw so many great things that year of my own burgeoning interest in film. I don’t remember much about that first viewing, only that I instantly loved it and knit the film into my personal pantheon of films that felt like they truly belonged to me without having first been passed through my father’s tastes. I’d felt the same way about Pulp Fiction when I first saw it two and a half years earlier and would feel the same again when I saw Rushmore two years later. And there were countless others, of course. But Swingers somehow felt special because I’d first heard about it from some college kid in Los Angeles, at a time when I was busy fashioning myself into the kind of person who knew cool people that knew cool things.


I watched the film repeatedly in college and even had a poster of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau hanging on my closet door for a period of time. I was fully in my “one of the boys” phase of life, and few things made me feel more IN than taking this film to heart. All the inside jokes and clever lingo and the revelation of how regular-seeming but impossibly witty guys related to and bonded with each other was irresistibly appealing. I couldn’t get enough. For from feeling like an outsider, like one of the unknowable girls these characters lusted after or found otherwise elusive, I felt like I was part of their clique, part of that group of tight-knit friends. (And clearly, so did many, many other people, as the recent delightful oral history of the film over at Grantland makes clear.)

Even though, in real life, it was challenging for me to, say, fly to L.A. and find a way not to be an awkward spazz around my boyfriend’s friends, Swingers nevertheless succeeded in seducing me into riding along to Vegas with these screen-friends on their us-against-the-world adventure.


Recently, my now-boyfriend brought home a copy of the Sammy Davis Jr. live album The Sounds of ’66.

The Sounds of '66

Even though I actually am a performer and have played in my fair share of late-night, high-energy, never-to-be-recaptured shows, I find myself resolutely not identifying with any of the musicians on this album. Least of all Davis himself. When I listen to this album, I am completely surrendered to his showmanship. His masterful command of the band, his voice, and the crowd delights me like few things have recently. At the slightest provocation, I will repeat his opening remarks, “Any noises that come from the audience or any of the people or any side noises you might hear, know that they are NOT canned—they are LIVE” like it’s a mantra.

I listened to the tracks during my morning commute on a particularly jam-packed train car last week and felt instantly completely immune to the stresses of the situation. It was like Davis was creating a magical, protective bubble that extended not just to his audience of showgirls and high rollers who’d come to let their hair down after hours at the Sands but to any of us, at any time, with any need to be elevated out of the mundane. Such is the force of his talent and charisma.

In this instance, though, it’s actually those invisible, unnamed showgirls populating the audience who I am most compelled to identify with. Hearing them clapping and cheering and just generally losing their minds (particularly whoever’s really going nuts at the end of “Once in Love with Amy”—a woman named Amy, perhaps?) touches me for the way it conveys that, yes, Vegas in the mid-60s really was as swinging as we’d like to imagine that it was. They were there to take full advantage of all its glamour in all the ways they could. But in many ways their pleasure is the actual aspirational part of the recording for me, a reminder to enjoy my own lived moment as a woman, without either hiding or persisting in my old belief that being one of the guys is the only game in town.

My Cookbook Jamboree

Ani's Raw Food Kitchen

It’s no exaggeration to say that I learned to eat by reading cookbooks.

When, at age 27, my doctor told me I weighed too much and that my blood pressure was so high she was going to have to put me on medication, I figured, well, I guess it’s finally time to change my habits.

I tried Weight Watchers for about five minutes. Regardless of the calorie counting, I sensed that I was undernourished and nutrient deficient. In some dimly lit cavern in the back of my mind, I recalled having read an interview with actress Naomie Harris in which she talked about how Woody Harrelson introduced her to raw foods while they were filming the movie After the Sunset together. With this shadowy concept of raw foods in mind, I reasoned that I couldn’t possibly go wrong if I just started eating a ton of fruits and vegetables. So, my conversion to vegetarianism, and eventually to a raw vegan diet, began.

Raw Food Made Easy

Raw Food Made Easy

The first order of business was buying a cookbook. I searched Amazon and was happy to come across Jenny Cornbleet’s Raw Food Made Easy: For 1 or 2 People. The name was its obvious selling point. I was living with a roommate at the time, and we generally went our own separate ways food-wise, so the idea of making dishes in individual servings was appealing to me. Especially since I didn’t know what I was getting into with this dietary shift. But, since I was never much of a cook prior to that, there were no bad habits for me to unlearn or recipes to miss or ingredients to regret not being able to use. I was as blank a slate, culinarily, as it was possible to be.

Thinking back on it, I actually have no idea what I ate for those first four years I was living in Chicago! I think probably a lot of pasta and chicken breasts made on a George Foreman grill.

I eased my way into the raw food thing gently, by learning how to make desserts first—avocado-based chocolate puddings, apple crumbles, and such. Then, I added in raw vegan versions of familiar, identifiable entrees like spaghetti with tomato sauce (made with zucchini spiralized into noodle shape) and various nut-based pates. The other wonderful thing about Cornbleet’s cookbook was that it didn’t call for any exotic ingredients that I would have been afraid to try (with my then-limited palate) or that would have been hard to find outside Whole Foods (I don’t think I probably had ever stepped inside a Whole Foods prior to this new dietary era).

Ani's Raw Food Kitchen

Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen

Once I felt a certain level of proficiency using Cornbleet’s cookbook, I graduated to Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen by Ani Phyo. The recipes were slightly more complex, but the book was longer and had more to choose from and so I felt comfortable skipping over anything that was daunting. I gained confidence in the kitchen, and though I tried to never be an obnoxious proselytizer, I was always pleased to be able to share the food that I’d made with people and hear them say they genuinely enjoyed it.

Over the next few years, I did manage to get healthy enough that my doctor took me off my high blood pressure medication. This was a triumph in itself, and I’ll always be proud of that, but secretly, of course, I was dismayed that that accomplishment didn’t magically result in my suddenly having a brand new body. My skin cleared up and my eyes were blazing white and I did lose a pretty significant amount of weight, but it was never enough. I was never transformed. I was never not me.

Still Me

Still me

Not to mention, the vigilance to maintain the raw food way of life ultimately became too much of a time investment for me to sustain it long term, especially once I started getting busy in other areas of my life that left me with less time for experimenting in the kitchen. So, over the next several years, I stopped identifying myself as a raw foodist. I continued to drink green smoothies pretty much every day (thank you, Victoria Boutenko!) and remained vegetarian (for the most part), but my raw food recipe books languished on my shelf for longer than I’d like to admit.

But these days, I have a new cookbook love: jae steele’s Get It Ripe. My boyfriend remembered that it had a great recipe for peanut butter cookies, so we purchased a copy about a year ago just for that. Luckily, it’s been the source of a handful of terrific new recipes that we now make and eat regularly: Sesame Kale Soba, Coconut Cauliflower Chana, and Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins.

I will never be the kind of person who can just throw a dish together based on feeling. I don’t trust myself enough to improvise at that level. But, it’s gratifying to have a shelf full of cookbooks that I can rely on to fill in the blanks if the cupboard is less than well stocked and I need to make breakfast in a pinch. Knowing where to look for the answers, in this case, is enough.


Tony Trigilio’s “The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1”

Tony Trigilio's "The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1"

My favorite thing about Tony Trigilio’s The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) is, honestly, probably the title.

And considering how much I absolutely loved this first installment of the multi-part project, that’s saying a hell of a lot.

On the surface, it couldn’t be a simpler and more accurate description of the poem’s content and scope—it’s a comprehensive overview, in verse, of every episode of the old soap opera Dark Shadows, which Trigilio watched with his mother, yes, while he was a child. But, by the time I finished reading Book 1, I found the phrase starting to run through my head at odd moments, like a scrap of melody—especially that catchy, parenthetical bum-bump “of my childhood” at the end. Beyond the pleasant rhythm of it, though, I found myself turning it over in my mind repeatedly as I began to more fully appreciate and take in its poignancy.

More than just the retold plot lines of an old TV show, the real dark shadows of this book are the excavated memories of childhood nightmares, family tensions, adult regrets and reckonings. As his memories of the episodes merge with his current reassessment of the show while he rewatches, in present time, the DVD box (coffin) set, these cheesy characters open all manner of vistas for him onto the places where ghosts of the past are finally ready to be dealt with. Just as the show itself jumps from the late 1960s back to 1795 and he must find a way to keep the narrative straight for us as readers, he likewise jumps from 2012 to 1967 (with various stops in between) to find the threads that keep it all straight inside himself, emotionally and spiritually.

Coincidence, arriving
at the 10/2/67 episode on 10/2/12,

as if reading about aliens traveling
hundreds of light years wasn’t enough

to imagine time is circular rather than linear,
that all moments in time exist at the same time

As I begin to embark on my own reassessment of the childhood incidents and influences that continue to affect me in adulthood, I was so deeply touched by, and grateful to, Tony’s willingness to divulge private moments with such fearlessness and clarity. (Full disclosure: Tony and I play in the same band!) Learning to strum Johnny Cash chords on guitar with his father, sitting with his dying cat not long after his divorce, and, perhaps most movingly, telling how his mother watched her deaf-mute brother finally speak in the hospital in the last moments before his death—these are the images that will haunt not my nightmares but my dreams for how truthful and resonant I too aspire to be on the page.


Italian, Film, and Me

When I was in fourth grade, for some reason the gifted and talented program that I was placed in decided to hire a woman, two days a week, to teach us German. Why not Spanish or French? I have no idea. My best guess remains that the administrators simply couldn’t find an instructor in Northwest Indiana prepared to teach either of those languages to a roomful of nine year olds.

At any rate, Fraulein Leep was a delightful, energetic instructor auf Deutsch, and I took to the language immediately. I think at that age, I was probably just on the edge of that neural plasticity that allows children to become proficient in a second (or third, etc.) language much more effortlessly than adults. If it had been spoken around me more often than just two days a week, and/or presented as language immersion rather than dry grammar and vocabulary lessons, I probably would have achieved something close to fluency. Regardless, I had a natural affinity for the language and seriously studied it from then all the way through high school. I even declared German as my major as an incoming freshman at Indiana University, before abandoning it for English and Film Studies.

In high school, desperate to weasel out of math and science classes whenever I could, I eventually added French and then Spanish to my schedule. I’d convinced my guidance counselor it was OK because I would be going into international studies, hoping to become a translator or interpreter. I can no longer recall if I actually believed any of those arguments myself. But, I do know that I genuinely loved studying languages for the sake of themselves. I was also quite impressed with my newly invented identity as “language girl.”

So convinced I remained of my ability to pick up new languages with relative ease that, in the summer of 1999, I decided that I was going to teach myself Italian. Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful had recently been all the middlebrow rage, and I remembered a Mexican literature professor mentioning that he was able to get around Italy just fine, speaking Spanish, as long as he spoke slowly enough. I reasoned that the bits of Spanish and French I knew could only help my effort, so I procured a copy of Italian for Dummies to get me through the basics.

I was working that summer in the office of a small steel manufacturing company in Hammond, Indiana. I recall very little of whatever tedious tasks I was assigned to complete, only that there was barely enough to keep me busy for a full day. This was just before the Internet really took hold as a business necessity, so, instead of spending my downtime surfing the web, as I would were I in that position now, I somehow got away with reading all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels in chronological order and studying my Italian flashcards at my big metal desk in the corner.

Since I never had anyone to practice or converse with, though, very little of the Italian I managed to cram into my brain stuck with me. But, I developed something of a fixation on Italy itself. Still considering myself a nascent Woman of the World, I declared that the next foreign country I wanted to visit, after I spent the summer of 2000 studying abroad in London, was Italy. In proto-vision board style, I took home a clean paper placemat from some church fundraising spaghetti dinner to hang on my bedroom wall, simply because it had a map of Italy on it.

Life, as it tends to, intervened, though, and these past fifteen years I’ve been less the international playgirl than I thought I would one day be. A weekend trip to take precepts at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Toronto in the summer of 2009 made Canada my next visit outside the U.S., followed by ten or so days in Ireland three years later. I still haven’t been to Italy and even question whether, as a woman in her mid-thirties in the post-Eat, Pray, Love era, that aspiration might even be an embarrassing cliché at this point.

So, as Italy remains a dream for me, it makes sense that I would adore the deliciously dreamlike film The Great Beauty. Chicago’s excessively cold temperatures were no match for its two hours and twenty minutes of beautiful people wandering around Rome, celebrating life and philosophizing about death. I’ve always been notoriously bad at parsing plotlines (something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy makes my brain numb), so I was grateful to this nearly stream-of-consciousness visual extravaganza, where nothing much happens anyway. I was freed to just revel in the endless dance party sequences, the golden light bathing the city’s architecture in a sensual glow, the impeccably fashionable clothing worn by even the minor characters, and the director’s loving meditations on the lines in lead actor Toni Servillo’s face.

With notions of failure, and regret, and loss, shading the edges of the revelry, though, main character Jep Gambardella finds himself questioning the choices he’s made with his life. Was it the right career? The right place? The right time? His friends and associates (and often strangers as well) repeatedly ask him why he never wrote a second novel after his first and only youthful success, as if there could be a satisfying answer to such a question.

Because I watched my own father fail, in ways both major and minor, for so many years, I’ve long had a soft spot for these kinds of stories about men reckoning with what they didn’t, and couldn’t, achieve in their lives. Now that he’s gone, and now that the passage of time has brought me to what, I suppose, counts as the beginning of the middle of my own story, I wasn’t sure if I was identifying with Jep’s aimlessness on behalf of my father, or on behalf of myself. Jep, though, does eventually find inspiration for his future in a key memory from his past. I have to believe there’s still plenty of time for me to not only find inspiration from my past but to actually allow it to remain in the past as I build a future for myself that’s better than any dream.


Why Scorsese and Stiller Are This Holiday Season’s Most Meta Directors

I enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street a heck of a lot. Sure, I feel a little dirty about it, and worry a bit about what Rachel Syme in The New Yorker calls its potential for winning “bad fans” (“watch closely as Scarface posters in frat houses are quietly replaced with Wolf ones,” she says), but when I think about my experience of watching it, I know that I was having fun.

And, one of the most fun things about it was DiCaprio’s performance. Not just because it was an insane, shameless, fearless, Oscar-worthy, can’t-tear-your-eyeballs-away tour de force (which, pretty much any review you’re going to read right now will likely agree on), but because it was so pointedly referring back to his whole prior body of work as an actor.

I’m not enough of a fangirl to be able to get chapter-and-verse comprehensive about it, but, for example, tell me that wasn’t a Titanic joke in the scene when they were on the ship in the storm and he was standing behind the actress playing his wife, his arms around her, while gripping the railing and looking (in this case, fearfully) into the distance. And, even if DiCaprio insists his Quaalude-induced slug crawl from the country club to his car was a reference to a viral YouTube video, I think it’s also a piss-take on his “I’m a serious actor because I’m portraying a character with a handicap” Oscar-bait performance from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. As the hopelessly starry-eyed newbie in thrall to Matthew McConaughey at the beginning of the film, he could be gesturing toward any of his former ingénue characters—an out-of-his-depth Romeo, perhaps? I’m sure there are other examples.


Another instance of “did that just really happen?” meta-commentary in this year’s crop of holiday films was the Benjamin Button sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Some critics seem to have thought it was hilarious; others, predictably thought it was a tonal misstep. But I was primarily fascinated with the way the joke was directly referring to another movie based on another early 20th century short story that took the story’s title and basic concept as a jumping off point, disregarding everything else.

Even however many years after its release, I stand by my assertion that casting Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button is the most intriguing part of that needlessly bombastic film. There’s no way that, without him, the film could evoke the emotional resonance of watching a person age in reverse. It requires an actor who’s been so famous for so long for being so beautiful that our own nostalgia for that person’s youth will filter back through the film we’re watching. (I guess maybe Johnny Depp could have worked the same trick? Or, can you even imagine some alternate-universe version with Elizabeth Taylor?) It was a genius bit of casting, in league with DiCaprio in Wolf as I just mentioned above.

But, that’s where the brilliance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stops. There’s almost nothing in Fincher’s turgid film that resembles the playful, snotty smarminess of the short story. (And, I say “smarminess” as a huge Fitzgerald fan! It’s just that his fixation on his own youth is both why he’s awesome and why his writing often reads as overly self-satisfied and insufferable.)

In much the same way, both film versions of Mitty (I’ve seen bits of the Danny Kaye movie and found it nearly unwatchable) have taken Thurber’s sad, sick-feeling short story that’s centered around anxiety about masculine ineffectuality and turned it into a man-child’s fantasia about Living Yr Dreams! or Becoming the Hero of Yr Own Life Story! or somesuch hokey Hollywood garbage.

And, getting back to my whole point here, does Ben Stiller actually realize that’s what he’s doing with this Mitty adaptation? I think he does! I think he’s admitting it with the Benjamin Button parody! I think he’s essentially saying, “look, y’all, the movie version of Benjamin Button pissed all over the Fitzgerald short story and no one seemed to care, so this is my fair warning to you that I’m going to do the same thing now with Thurber. Don’t say I didn’t tell you in advance how it was going to go down. Peace out.” I’ve always had a lot of respect for him as an actor and a comedian and, despite the almost bone-chilling cynicism of this little hat-tip, I have to say, it’s pretty brilliant.