Street Smart Chicago

Out of Iowa: A Life of Lessons Learned and Lost at Workshop

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The author as a young poet in Iowa

By Dina Elenbogen

A place does not wait for the weary traveler to return. Life continues and it is the houses that alter from storms and the passage of time. I can’t remember which doors I walked through to get home, although the hills I climbed to get there have long ago toughened my legs. I can’t remember the number of my house on Summit Street, only which window my desk sat in front of, but I think the poems came from darker corners. And on Burlington, my first apartment in Iowa City, where did I place my typewriter? I remember the park bench on Governor that I collapsed on once, on my way home from class, and those who walked through my unmarked doors and loved me too much or not enough.

As if through a sieve, details of a life sift through and so much gets lost. This was a place I left when it was time to leave. I didn’t turn back much, at first. A semester ended, I received my degree, packed up a car and took off. I came back twice in the eighties: Once after I returned from Israel to see how my poems would play in Iowa and another time for the fiftieth reunion of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Now I’ve come back to give a reading from my first book of poems. Read the rest of this entry »

Angst Academy: The Philosophy Institute Brings Ideas Out into the World

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By Hugh Iglarsh

Let’s face it, philosophy is an odd beast: It is Reason contemplatively munching on its own tail. As a process, it dissolves innocent beliefs that had been minding their own business into a vertigo of nested questions and pregnant uncertainty. In our pragmatic society, philosophy is often seen as a respectable pastime for tenured navel-gazers, but about as relevant to virtual modern life as the Gnostic Gospels in the original Aramaic.

And yet… among the swarm of adult ed offerings that promise some combination of knowledge, power, success, libidinal satisfaction, affirmation and expertise to a paying clientele, there is one local enterprise that has somehow found a niche for itself selling only gnawing doubt. Read the rest of this entry »

Social Education: CommuniTeach Plays Matchmaker for Teaching and Learning

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Ben Paul and Sarah Press/Photo: Drew Bly

By Caylie Sadin

When people think of learning, they usually think of a teacher and some students—maybe in a classroom, possibly in an art studio, a computer lab or the outdoors. And sadly, after primary education, people usually can’t also help thinking of those massive tuition checks—or student debt. But Sarah Press and Ben Paul, friends from grade-school and the co-founders of CommuniTeach don’t like that there is a price tag on learning.

Press and Paul founded CommuniTeach (, a website for people who want to freely learn and teach those in their community. Founded in 2010, the website serves people in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston, but they want to expand. The company is built around their personal learning philosophy of peers sharing knowledge. “The world is better when people come together to freely share their skills together,” Press says. Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t Look So Horrified: The Monstrous Pleasure of Cinema Studies

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I’d explored various academic paths as a college undergraduate, including English and film production, but I was continually frustrated by the lack of critical analysis of popular media; English tended toward more classic and literary novels, while film production focused on the methods of storytelling. But in cinema studies—especially of film and television centered around horror archetypes like vampires and zombies—I found the combination of critical theory and popular media for which I’d been searching.

I enrolled for a class at DePaul called “Monsters in Popular Culture.” Taught by assistant professor Paul Booth, the course used material ranging from short stories by Neil Gaiman to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Friday the 13th.”

I’ve always refused to believe that the movies I grew up watching and the current fare that I count among my favorites are nothing more than pure entertainment. Luckily, I’m not the only one. Read the rest of this entry »

Senior Class: A Sixtysomething Gets His Start at Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference

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At fourteen I wanted to be a novelist.

At sixty, I thought I’d better get to it.

“Do what you love doing,” my Buddhist son encouraged. So I cashed out of my commercial writing agency—which had improbably propelled me, a son of unschooled immigrants, to the 1%—invested our nest egg, and enrolled in a fiction-writing program.

After two years I had a compelling concept for a novel but remained clueless as to how to implement it. I quit school, engaged a writing coach and made some progress, but feared I was running out of time and money. On a long shot I applied to the nation’s top writers’ workshops. Read the rest of this entry »

Crossing Swords: A Revival of Traditional European Martial Arts

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By Kristen Micek

Who hasn’t heard the tales of Arthurian knights or watched “Lord of the Rings” and had a fleeting desire to learn how to wield a blade?  The Chicago Swordplay Guild has taken it upon itself to preserve the history and culture of centuries-old Italian sword fighting by teaching it to others.

The guild offers eleven-week courses on either the Medieval Longsword or the Renaissance Rapier that teach students the historical background and how to use the weapon, with dagger combat and grappling thrown in. “From day one, it’s not just a matter of it being a martial art,” says Gregory Mele, co-founder and curriculum director of the CSG ( “We ground it in the history of the tradition.” Read the rest of this entry »

An Abstract Education: The Seductive Call of the Experiential

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By Francesca Thompson

During my freshman and sophomore years of college, I was convinced that after graduation, I was moving to Botswana.

Well, maybe not to Botswana specifically, but I was determined to go abroad with the Peace Corps after earning my bachelor’s degree in creative writing. I wanted to experience the world. Plus, I was fairly certain that a degree in creative writing would get me a really nice cardboard box or a lifelong place in my parents’ basement. There seem to be two paths for continuing education after undergrad: keep treading the theoretical education path and pursue a graduate degree, or make my own education through worldly experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Life 101: The education issue 2011

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We turn the page on a new year, resolved once again to change our lives. Laugh, perhaps at the cyclical folly of this endeavor, but you cannot deny its basic truth: we are driven to be better today than yesterday. And while some seek it through denial (diet, smoking cessation) and others through sacrifice (volunteerism),  education not only serves as a portal to a transformed life, either big (a new graduate degree!) or small (I know how to hand-make pasta!), but the very act of learning is, in fact, irreversible change.

Ted C. Fishman’s seminal new book “Shock of Gray” paints the rapidly aging world in vivid colors and he points out that as we age, our cumulative knowledge is our greatest asset in life’s losing battle against eventual obsolescense. Fishman’s prescription for us all is to keep learning, “pumping yourself full of knowledge as you go along.” Read the rest of this entry »

Losing Our Sages: The past and future imperfect

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Bob Dylan with Joan Baez

By Dina Elenbogen

I have a bust of Honest Abe that my father brought back from a trip he’d taken to Washington D.C. when I was a child. I keep him on my desk because he was honest and forthright as legend had it, and helped abolish slavery. He is also a gift my father gave me. As Abe traveled with me from desk to desk, in college and beyond, I had my father, who also represented “the truth” and endless knowledge, with me as well.

I hadn’t thought for a long time about Abe Lincoln, Bob Dylan, the poet Yehuda Amichai or others who had once been my idols until my Ethics teacher Chava asked us the seemingly simple question, “Who are our sages?” in response to a quote by the twelfth-century philosopher, rabbi and doctor, Moses Maimonides. I drew a blank. The ten students in our adult education class were uncharacteristically silent as well. We returned to the text with Maimonides’ sage advice: “Eat and drink with your sages, live as they do.” As I took in these words, I realized that I have lost sages from living too close to them and discovering discrepancies between what they say and how they live their lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Lost and Found in Improv: Or, how Del Close changed my life

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The muses: Charna and Del

By Jack Helbig

“When the student is ready, the teacher arrives.” That’s what it says in the I Ching, and that’s how it has worked in my life.

I was certainly ready for a teacher—and a new direction—when I began taking classes with Del Close at the ImprovOlympic in the summer before I turned 27. I had dropped out of graduate school and returned to Chicago the previous January, broke and broken, all my belongings (books mostly) packed into six boxes and stored in a friend’s basement in Lincoln Park.

I was utterly lost. So for six months I did as little as possible. I worked when I had to, as a temp downtown, and otherwise I read, wrote in my journal, and road the El endlessly, watching the city slide by.

Then I saw the ad in the paper. A small ad announcing that Del Close was teaching classes in improv. At the time I knew only three things about Del Close—he was famous, he used to direct at Second City, and he was somehow connected to (and important to) a whole bunch of comic actors I idolized, among them John Belushi, Bill Murray and Betty Thomas. Read the rest of this entry »