What is it about the turn of a calendar, the ticking of a single stroke of a festive midnight that sets off such a wave of self-improvement, of life contemplation, of change? Perhaps it is less the passing of another year than a communal sobering up after the extended annual bacchanal that our holidays have become. Or perhaps it is simply a reaction to the bitter cold of a long winter setting in without the distractions of a beach or a beer garden. In any case, we all fall under the self-repair spell each year at this time. Sometimes we make real changes; too often we craft empty resolutions. In hope for the former and fear of the latter, we’ve asked some of Chicago’s finest writers to weigh in, sometimes with lessons from their own experiences, sometimes with the fruits of their better expertise. Some addressed educational imperatives, the foundation of most upward undertakings; others addressed more unusual corrections to life’s misdirections. Read on, and start your journey to a better place a year from now. (Brian Hieggelke) Read the rest of this entry »
By John Wilmes
“Language,” my friend tells me, “is the only thing we have.”
His claim is hyperbolic, if not downright dubious, but as he spurs me on to join my new girlfriend in a weekly German course at the Goethe Institut, I see his point. I imagine she and I creating yet another diction between us—there was the friendship, the courting, the bridge into physical happenings, all of which demanded that we mutually contort words into subjectively binding agreements of sorts—and yes, I certainly see his point. I sign up for the class.
In the classroom is a multitude of motivations for introducing oneself to this new tongue. A woman learning how to talk to her foreign husband, an heiress of idle hours, an Italian consulate who collects these schemas, and a handful of twenty-somethings looking for immersion of any kind, for an expanse of identity and ability.
Women, all women. Read the rest of this entry »
By Michael Workman
I’m trying to quit again and I’m not sure if I want to. That is to say, I know the why but not the how. How do I give up the longest relationship I’ve ever had? I first picked up a cigarette when I was sixteen. I remember walking through the neighbor’s yard next to my girlfriend Elizabeth’s house. I’d had sex for the first time ever with her a few months earlier, and she just now broke up with me to get back together with Lenny, the boy she lost her virginity to, and is chasing me across the yard, catching up with me just as I light one, and take my first drag. How appropriate that word, ”drag.” I turn to look at her, curly red hair fanning out in the breeze at her shoulders as she lopes toward me, skin flush but pale, lips thin, determined. I manage to crack a grin just as she catches up with me, snatches the cigarette from my hand, throws it to the ground and wraps her arms around me. We cry.
That’s the tradeoff. Nearly thirty years later, I’m in Winnipeg, visiting my girlfriend Norma’s family for the first time. I’m sitting across from her at a table in the restaurant started by her father, a lush, converted train station. It’s the eve of New Year’s Eve. We talk about smoking, her curly black hair shudders as she gesticulates, studying me. Her sister, who owns the place, sits with us, and talk quickly turns to my quit attempt. “You have to let him do it when he’s ready,” says her sister. “How is it going to be different from when you tried last time?” asks Norma. “It’s not a process,” I try to explain, “it’s a struggle.” Everyone in my family smokes except my dad, I stammer. Aunts, uncles, grandparents. My mom sneaks occasionally. “This is the last generation that grew up when smoking was still socially acceptable, cool even.” I say. Norma’s dad died from smoking, and she starts feeling ganged up on. The conversation descends into an argument that ends in tears. I’m frustrated, leave to smoke. Read the rest of this entry »
By Keidra Chaney
So you got a new Stratocaster over the holidays and this year, you are determined to actually learn how to play it. Good for you! Or maybe you got the Strat last year and it’s been sitting in your spare room collecting dust for the past year, whatever, no judgments here. Perhaps you’ve longed to learn the piano (or banjo, or drums) and year after year you’ve been putting lessons on the back-burner, but not this year, by golly. Either way, congratulations! Taking music lessons as an adult is both an enjoyable hobby and convenient conversation starter for cocktail parties and awkward office ice-breakers.
But where do you start? If you’re a Chicagoan, the first option that may come to mind is the Old Town School of Folk Music. It’s a great resource and music community for aspiring and experienced musicians. But (not to take anything away from that venerable institution) it’s certainly not the only option in town. If, for whatever reason, Old Town School of Folk Music isn’t an option for you, there are a number of places where you can get started in your personal journey toward musical virtuosity. Or be able to decently play “Happy Birthday To You” which is also quite commendable. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve known how to bake my entire life, for so long, in fact, that I hardly remember being taught. Cookies, cakes, breads—oh, the breads: whole wheat loaves my mother would begin baking on Sunday mornings so that when we returned from morning services the entire house was filled with the aroma of it. I’d help her slice the loaves with the long, toothy bread knife we kept around for just this purpose, and we’d spread butter on the slices and eat them with pot roasts or white bean stew or chicken casserole.
But it was my grandmother who taught me to bake pies. She was known for her cherry pies, baked with the cherries she picked from the tree in her backyard; strawberry-rhubarb pies from the strawberry and rhubarb bushes grown in my family’s garden; sugar cream pies spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon; and apple and blueberry and blackberry and pecan…
I remember quite clearly the way she mixed the dough in a white Pyrex bowl with just a fork, and how she pressed the dough between wax paper to roll it out with a rolling pin. She taught me to coax the dough into a pie pan so it settled snugly against the curve of the glass. She taught me to flute the crust by pinching the dough between my index finger and thumb of my left hand, while using the index finger of my right hand to shape it. She taught me to keep the fruit from becoming too soft by placing slivers of butter on top of the fruit, beneath the crust. Works every time. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ignatius Valentine Aloysius
We are graduate students in a program I view as intense, topnotch and rewarding. And we are The Apprentices, writers all from genres of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction who give back to the community during one weekend in early December, when we teach free one-hour creative writing workshops. These classes run back-to-back and take place in “the mansion,” an old gothic structure by the lakefront in Evanston. In fact, The Apprentices is an outreach of Director Sandi Wisenberg’s Seminar on Teaching Creative Writing course, an essential component of the MA/MFA Creative Writing program at Northwestern University.
My thrill and anticipation for The Apprentices began in the final weeks of Sandi’s course, when I was required to forge a title, subtitle and brief description for a teaching topic of choice. Each student in the class faced this challenge, and we had a few minutes to resolve it. If you were done beforehand, you offered your assistance to other classmates. Soon we’d all written rough drafts outlining our workshop topics that we hoped to teach two weeks later on the weekend of December 7 and 8, 2013. My title and subtitle, “Up Close, Out There: How to Use Distance and Point Of View in Your Stories” came quickly, and I wasted no time fleshing out the details of my workshop as I saw myself running it in a room full of eager participants. Read the rest of this entry »
By Burt Michaels
The afternoon before my son’s wedding, he said he was stressed out about the reception, and asked if I’d go somewhere with him. I figured he meant a bar or maybe a climbing wall, but instead he pulled up to an acupuncture clinic. I didn’t see what acupuncture had to do with his jitters, but figured it was just another side of Berkeley’s kooky culture, like organic tofu and Tibetan prayer flags.
Sure enough, the clinic was seventies redux, with subdued lighting, New Age music and cushy recliners. The acupuncturist asked what was ailing me. My first impulse was to reply, “Nothing,” but then the foot pain I’d suffered nightly ever since a less-than-stellar surgery a few years earlier popped in my mind. She said she’d work on it.
I anticipated needles plunging deep into my flesh like some sort of piercing Thai massage, but didn’t even feel them go in. I expected her to stick them in my foot, which she did—but also in my ear, wrists, belly, back-of-the-knee and other surprising spots. Laying there, I figured I’d soon get bored, but instead zoned out, and when she returned some half hour later to remove the needles, I felt like I’d had a great vacation. Read the rest of this entry »
By Martin Northway
Having freelanced for almost two decades, as well as being an editor who had taught or mentored dozens of reporters and writers, in the mid-1990s I figured it was time to take my show on the road with what I styled the Chicago Nonfiction Workshop. I wanted to share with improving writers how to explore markets, craft query letters to obtain assignments from editors and begin to master the various forms of nonfiction.
In small classes, on one evening a week for eight weeks, I sought to impart knowledge I wish I had had when I first began freelancing. There were weekly assignments and critiques. At first, I taught in my Evanston apartment, but after moving to Uptown I took my various groups into venues like the 3rd Coast coffeehouse in the Gold Coast, the former Cafe Gourmand in Printers Row and WorkShirts Writing Center in Andersonville.
In so doing, I felt almost as if I was following in the footsteps of the traveling scholars who carried culture into lecture halls across the Midwest during the early years of the University of Chicago. My basic curriculum remained consistent, but each new class quickly assumed its own unique identity. Read the rest of this entry »
By Kenneth Preski
I had been seduced, and not with the care of a lover. Contemporary concerns, the practical circumstances of life, healthcare, bills, rent, everyday expenditures compelled me forward, salivating toward a paycheck dangled in front of me by a genericorporation. I shelved my education, my ideas for the future, my expectations, my goals, my preferences for my own existence. I stopped living so I could better my quality of life. At least I wasn’t alone.
Gathered at five plastic-coated tables, sitting atop scattered plastic chairs, were my compatriots in the corporate life. From the walls hung authentic art, prints with prices higher than our salaries, bland enough to match the dull decorative theme that encompassed the kitchen. An unspoken agreement was being acknowledged everyday of the week during the lunch hour: we were renting our time out to the highest bidder, though not toward any agreeable end. The business model was determined before our time, was beyond our control, and therefore not our concern. Ours was the inundated life, a wave of unreflective happenings to ride without end or care, so long as the bank account was padded, and we were paid to eat. Read the rest of this entry »