art/culture writing

  • Essay in Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology

    Photo credit:

    I'm honored to have an essay in this excellent upcoming Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology. Editor Martha Bayne at Rust Belt Publishing has assembled a stellar batch of writers, WOW: Aleksandar Hemon, Zoe Zolbrod, Naomi Huffman, Kathleen Rooney, Kevin Coval, Eileen Favorite, and Bill Savage. The fiction, journalism, essays and poetry in the book explore how Chicago's "foundation of meat and railroads and steel" makes for a complicated political and cultural ecosystem. My essay, "Illiana," is about decades spent living on the Indiana/Illinois border, and includes the phrase, "feral Indiana girl with big hair."

    Even better than just buying the book, please consider PRE-ORDERING it, which helps small publishers enormously. Plus, you'll get a tote bag.

    Pre-order here

  • Interview with Nancy Pochis Bank, chalk artist

    I recently had an awesome art-talk and studio-visit with chalk artist Nanci Pochis Bank. You can now read it at Chicago Booth Magazine

  • Traveling to Israel for Orbitz

    Last summer, I wrote about my recent trip to Israel for Orbitz. It was 8 days of the northern portion, (Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tiberias, Jerusalem). Months later, it's now published, along with my photos. 

  • Artisanal Soapmaking Class

    Last week, I took a Soapmaking 101 class at Abbey Brown Soap Artisan.  The class covered the "Cold Process method of soapmaking wherein we will learn about lye safety, necessary equipment, vegetable and plant based oils, and essential oils for scenting bars naturally." It's a basic course that combines lectures, demonstration, and a hands-on portion in which students make three large batches of soap together. Each student comes away with handouts, a bar of olive soap, and the knowledge of how to make basic soaps safely. This last part was exciting to me because I'd wanted to make soaps for a long time but had been intimidated by the process of working with lye, which is extremely toxic. Now, though, I'm confident I can do this safely, and in my own kitchen. I also appreciated Deborah Kraemer's advice around sourcing oils (both essential and olive) and the strong emphasis on using the right ingredients to make products suitable for sensitive skin.

  • Mud Baths in Calistoga, CA


    (Above and below image from

    I love spa treatments, and over the course of my life I've done a lot of unusual ones: Aromatherapy "color baths" with light lasers, a gong bath, cupping, a facial with a "tesla wand," high-end seaweed wrap, no-touch reiki massage, etc. But immersing in a 4-foot tub of volcanic-ash mud last week in Calistoga, CA was by far the oddest treatment I've ever undergone. Dr. Wilkinson's has been around for over 60 years, and the retro look and feel of the buildings and locker rooms doesn't hide this fact. 

    Here's the procedure: You lock up your things, grab a bathrobe and are escorted by attendants (of your gender) into a large tiled room that has two large, rectangular tiled baths, mounted a few feet above floor level. They're filled with sulfuric-smelling "volcanic-ash" mud. THIS IS NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH. You strip down and the attendants assist you into the oozing, bubbling, stinky tubs, while reciting some science-y factoids to try and convince you that this is not the most disgusting thing that has ever happened to you.

     Sinking into the mud is not as easy as it sounds: It's very thick (and did I mention BUBBLING), and it takes about a minute to get yourself fully immersed, up to your neck. If you're me, this is where some mild panic sets in, (AS THE MUD SINKS INTO EVERY CORNER OF YOUR BODY). Your attendant then gives you a pillow to rest your head on, and places cucumbers over your eyes, and instructs you to relax for ten minutes (easy for her to say). Once the time is up, you are escorted out of the tub and proceed to take the most complete shower of your life. Next is the wet-sauna (the attedants hand you glasses of cucumber water through a little window), for another ten minutes. Then, you head to an old-fashioned clawfoot bathtub behind a curtain (in the same room), which is being pumped full of hot-spring water. Last, the attendants have you shower one last time, and lead you to a relaxation cube, where you're wrapped loosely in towels for ten more minutes, while your body temperature returns to normal. 

    You can't take pics inside the spa of course, but my pal and I stayed in one of the cottages Dr. Wilkinson offers, and hit the outdoor tub later that night. And if you're curious about what the tubs look like, you can see images here.

    The below pic is of a late-night moonlit tub, which we welcomed with some local CA bubbly. 

  • Booty from Jaffa markets in Tel Aviv

    Last week in Tel Aviv, I explored the markets in Old Jaffa. The olives and dried fruit made me drool, but it was overwhelming with so many to choose from. So, I confined my purchases to an olive sampling and some irresistable dried roses--that cost mere pennies--pictured below. They smelled divine, and now that they're smuggled home (Tel Aviv security either didn't see them rolled up in my t-shirt, or decided not to care), I'm not sure what to do with them, apart from making sachets for my lingerie, sock, and sweater drawers. I'm taking ideas!

  • Custom Perfumer in Tel Aviv

    I'm in Tel Aviv for a travel story, and went to this Jaffa perfumerie, Zielinski & Rozen, that offers custom-blended perfums based on not only your scent preferences, but also one's own personal scent and lifestyle--exactly the way I like to pick out scent. It's tucked away on a side street, (and basically doesn't advertise), so going inside feels like discovering a secret. The owner, Erez Rozen, compares building an individual scent to building a pyramid, using the traditional concepts of high, middle, and base notes. Apart from the Dead Sea and the desert fortress Masada, this was probably my favorite experience in Israel. 

  • Interview with women's health advocate Christine Baze

    UR Chicago / Sounds section

    Interview with: Christine Baze
    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    Christine Baze wants to reach every “woman and every man who has a woman in their life that they love” so that she can scare the hell out of them. With good reason -- she's trying to prevent other women from suffering as she did in 2000, after being diagnosed with cervical cancer and having a hysterectomy 10 days later, throwing her life and musical career into disarray.

    During recovery, Baze learned about cervical cancer and HPV (high-risk types of the virus cause cervical cancer and low-risk types cause genital warts). She also watched Harold and Maude, a film famous for its humorous morbidity and spirited, 79-year-old Maude. Inspired by Maude's yellow umbrella, Baze began playing music again and decided to incorporate cervical cancer awareness into her message. She started the nonprofit organization and the Yellow Umbrella tour, an annual musical benefit that educates women about preventing cervical cancer.

    HPV is extremely common -- almost 80 percent of women will get the virus by the age of 50. It gives no symptoms and is transmitted through sexual contact. Annual Pap tests are supposed to catch precancerous cells but they don't always do so, and Paps don't test for HPV, so it's important to get both the liquid Pap and HPV test. “People say, 'It's too invasive to get in the stirrups or get a finger up my butt,'” Baze says. “But you know what's really invasive? Getting a radical hysterectomy or internal radiation. Getting a Pap or an HPV test -- that's going to save your life.”

    Having HPV doesn't mean you'll get cervical cancer: The immune system usually fights off the infection. But when high-risk types of HPV persist, precancerous cell changes can occur and cause cervical cancer. However, because it is one of the few types of cancer for which the cause is known, Baze says it's beatable. “We've got the answers and we can't say that about any other cancer.”

    Baze's initial reaction to her own diagnosis was disbelief. “I was healthy and having the time of my life,” she recalls. “After the disbelief was incredible horror and anxiety.” But her compassion made her an activist. “Cancer disempowers you because your own body is betraying you,” she says. “But after chemo I felt so empowered and started getting onstage saying, 'Hey ladies! Pay attention! This can save your life.' It worked -- and now I'm in my fourth year of touring around the country doing essentially the same thing.”

    This fall, Baze and headliner Kaki King (previous lineups featured Ben Folds and the Samples) will perform in 35 U.S. cities, including Chicago. The tour is also sponsored by companies doing work related to cervical cancer, such as Digene, the makers of the HPV test.

    Baze, whose new album, Something New (Lime Green), mixes jazz with electronica, says her musical sensibilities shifted post-cancer. “I was trained as a classical pianist and did that for 20 years, then just before cancer my music had a nonsensical, whimsical attitude,” she says. “Now the songs come from a place of deep appreciation of my life. These days I think about the gift of cancer, the enlightenment that comes with it.”

    The tour reflects the same spirit. “We're celebrating the passion of music and the passion of life,” Baze says. “Even the venues and promoters have been so supportive; these guys come up to me at the end of the night like, 'Hey Christine, what's that test? HPV? I gotta tell my wife.' And they write it on their hand to remember, which is so cool. If that happens once every show, everything I'm doing is worth it.”

    Words: Gretchen Kalwinski

    The Yellow Umbrella Tour hits Schubas (3159 N. Southport; 773/525-2508) October 14; Something New is out now

    For more SOUNDS coverage, pick up the latest issue of UR Chicago in streetboxes now

  • Natural Botanical Perfumery class at Chicago Botanic Gardens

    I've taken soap- and candle-making classes at various organizations including Abbey Brown, and I'm also very interested in natural botanical perfumemaking. A year ago, I read a wonderful book about the history of NBP, Essence and Alchemy, by perfumer Mandy Aftelier. Among other things, it goes into the "primal" nature of scent, the history of perfume and why she chooses not to use synthetics (a unique perfumery choice.) 

    Today's natural botanical perfumery class at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, taught by the talented and generous Jessica Hannah, (who has studied with Mandy and is influenced by her). I learned so much, and love the vetiver-heavy custom perfume I made today.  Jessica spoke passionately and emotionally about the proper and sustainable use of essential oils, and got me even more excited about delving into this world of NBP.  Now, I feel ready to make some blends of my own; starting with a mosquito-repelling blend (using things like cedar, lavender, citrus--all proven to repel the pests).

  • Writing for Time Out Chicago: "DIY Acupressure"

    DIY Acupressure 

    I’m an acupuncture devotee, but getting several treatments each months is pricey—I’d rather funnel that cash into my footwear habit. So I decided to teach myself acupressure, which mimics the pressure-point system of acupuncture sans needles. Acupressure Techniques: A Self-Help Guide by Julian Kenyon (Healing Arts Press) includes instructional drawings organized by ailments. After bookmarking relevant pages (foot pain, insomnia). I apply direct pressure to the correct points for each ailment—the inside of my foot and my inner ear for foot pain, and points on my shins, ankles and wrists for insomnia. After three days fo doing this twice daily, my heel pain has eased a tad and my insomnia has improved slightly (but that could also be due to my new nighttime ritual of hot apple cider with rum.) All told, it’s no substitute for the spacey, peaceful feeling I get while my acupuncturists’s needles work their magic. Still, it’s a decent option for those frigid winter days when I can’t muster the energy to leave the house. –Gretchen Kalwinski

  • Northwestern University: "Navigating Freelance Writing" panel 5/30/15

    Northwestern University: "Navigating Freelance Writing" panel 5/30/15

    On May 30, I'm on a Northwestern University panel: "Navigating Freelance Writing," from 11-11:50am, with Kevin Davis and Julianne Hill. Come to the event to hear advice from 3 versatile, in-the-mix freelancers; (bios are below.) Free advice, open to the public!

    Kevin Davis is a freelance writer and journalist in Chicago and author of the nonfiction books The Wrong Man, (Avon) Defending the Damned, (Atria) and, forthcoming, The Brain Defense (The Penguin Press).

    Freelancer Julianne Hill's nonfiction work has appeared in outlets including "This American Life," "Morning Edition," Chicago Public Radio, PBS, The History Channel, Real Simple, Health, The Round and Writer's Digest. Hill received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Northwestern University, which named her work Distinguished Thesis. An award-winning journalist for more than 30 years, Hill served as a Rosalynn Carter Fellow, awarded to journalists covering mental health, and was named a National Press Foundation Fellow, examining the issue of HIV/AIDS. She has taught journalism at Northwestern University, Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy and Loyola University Chicago.

    Gretchen Kalwinski is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Make Literary Magazine, and Featherproof Books. Her clients have ranged from Crate and Barrel, Orbitz, Imagination Publishing, University of Chicago, and the American Library Association. Kalwinski has appeared as a panelist on WGN radio and Chicago Tonight, and was awarded a Ragdale artist residency in 2009. Currently, she’s editing novels for Curbside Press, ghostwriting an e-book for a startup, and writing travel stories. In 2014, she earned a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. For more, see

  • Orbitz travel story about holiday reads

    In which I talked to a bunch of bookseller and booklover friends and scoured the 2014 year-end lists, and local bookstores, to come up with this list of books you've gotta read over the holidays, for Orbitz. 

  • Exotic Feline Rescue Center cover story, Chicago Reader

    This was such an amazing place to research, travel to, and write about: The Exotic Feline Rescue Center, in Center Point Indiana.

    "Joe Taft wants his bedroom back. For four months it's been inhabited by a baby tiger named Max, while Taft, who's 60, crashes on the couch. "I can't get him out of my house until I move these other cats into the new pens being built," he says. "Then I can finally have a bedroom. The walls are pretty raggedy in there." He means claw marks, like the ones in his kitchen and living room. Download PDF [for full article.]" May 20, 2006.

  • Venus Zine: Spring 2006: "Memoirs of a Muse"

    Venus Zine; Book Review; Memoirs of a Muse

    Published in Venus Zine, Spring 2006
    Memoirs of a Muse by: Lara Vapnyar 

    This first novel by Lara Vapnyar tells of a modern muse living in New York and obsessed with the great Russian writers, Dostoevsky in particular. The main character Tanya emigrates from Russia to the States, after deciding in adolescence that she is not gifted in her own right and asking, “could I fight death by living my life to the utmost degree?”

    Tanya’s ideas about muses went far back into childhood, when her grandmother warned her about the trials and tribulations of the role. Still, Tanya is so impressed (and turned on by; she masturbates while thinking of Dostoevsky) the great writers that she decides to achieve immortality by inspiring another person’s work. Vapnyar’s lyrical style is notable for its fine detail, economy of words, and tight, crackling dialogue, best evidenced in the gender-interplay between Tanya and Mark Schneider, the writer that (in the absence of Dostoevsky), she takes up with. Mark is confident, with well-honed tastes in everything from coffee to clothing to architecture, and he enjoys schooling Tanya on the tenets of his sophisticated world, paying for her clothes and food, and letting her live with him. In turn, she listens to his childhood memories, discusses his work, brings him coffee while he writes, sleeps with him, and undresses the way he requests, until the affair turns up its eventual pitfalls. 

    However, the reasons why a modern-day woman would choose this role instead of pursuing her own path, are left unanswered. After all, which of us in adolescence had a declared passion, other than the prodigies or geniuses? Why did Tanya lack the curiosity to find and develop a talent of her own, rather than glomming onto some dude? We never discover why Tanya decides on such a lazy route at such a young age. To be sure, muse-dom is a complicated notion to tackle, especially since muses are usually female and have roles similar to that of “kept” wives and mistresses. In the latter half of the book, Tanya begins to understand what her role entails, and Vapnyar handles the contradictions of a muse’s role with intelligence and dry humor and earthy, womanly insight. 

    -- Gretchen Kalwinski
  • Venus Zine-"Listen Up!"

    Venus Zine / Fall 2006
    Listen up! 

    Audio artist Julie Shapiro shares her thoughts on the current radio renaissance and shows how you can get in on the action

    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    As managing director for Chicago’s Third Coast International Audio Festival, an annual and on-going celebration of documentary and feature audio works, Julie Shapiro is an expert on fascinating radio segments, but her girlhood listening was uber-ordinary; "Typical for a white Midwestern Jewish girl,” she laughs. “Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Peter, Paul, and Mary." Shapiro began working with TCIAF in 2000. There, with executive director Johanna Zorn, she chooses radio documentaries for their competition, hosts "Listening Room" events, and travels to worldwide radio conferences, which has been life-changing: “It’s opened my ears and mind to audio work from all over the world, and stretched my mind about the power of sound.”

    Shapiro did a college radio show at Transylvania University, where she played typical indie stuff of its time; Husker Du, Uncle Tupelo, The Slits. During the 90’s, she lived in Boulder, Colorado, Portland, Oregon, and Durham, North Carolina, where she worked in a record store and public radio station and played drums, which helped her become “more receptive to sound” and led to her appreciation for experimental artists like John Cage and Meredith Monk. "I got into composition and very beautiful spacey sounds."

    An audio artist herself, Shapiro produced a tribute to model-horse collectors titled, “Are There Any More Rare, Plastic Ponies?,” which was picked up by TCIAF’s Re:sound. ( She also runs an audio-blog called, and, apart from TCIAF, hosts Lissenup!, a listening event that began as a potluck, where she plays beloved audio pieces including one by Benjamen Walker (about a Darth Vader impersonator) and another in which Brooklyn student Natalie Edwards does a tongue-in-cheek investigation of prostitution. She’s currently considering new Lissenup! venues and the use of blindfolds to engage the senses.

    Shapiro claims that we’re in a radio renaissance, evidenced by the number of younger people, journalists, and filmmakers exploring the field. “Radio's being recognized as an art form as well as a source for news and information, like in the pre-TV days. And, being surrounded by radio stories at TCIAF, I'm constantly learning--whether about blood feuds in Albania or one guy's encounter with a blind dog in Wyoming. Being able to help bring these stories to many more ears has been such a privilege. And a blast.”

    Julie’s Advice on Producing Audio Segments

    There's tons of used equipment online. The basics are: a microphone, recorder, and editing software, such as Audacity. (

    --Choosing a Story
    Listen to many different styles of radio, and learn to be critical. (See,, and Be careful with personal stories - they're often not that interesting to others. Make sure your story's really a contender for audio, and isn't just a spoken print piece. Think about stories that will surprise people or show them something new about the world.

    -- Interviewing
    Ask simple, straightforward questions. Watch for sounds that may disrupt conversations, like barking dogs, or humming refrigerators. It's ok to ask someone to repeat something or to stop wriggling in a squeaky chair. Always gather more tape than you think you'll need, and keep recording as long as possible. (Very often the best tape materializes after the "real" interview ends.) 

    --Putting Words Together with Music/Background Sound
    Use the medium to its fullest! Sounds can play as important a role in telling your story as the narrative, [because] they're crucial to setting scenes. Music can add a lot to a listening experience but can also be a huge liability; don’t use the same songs you've heard in dozens of other radio stories. (No more Yo La Tengo!) In general the old adage "less is more" applies.

    -- Editing 
    Writing is very different for radio than for print. Write like you talk - keep sentences simple and use words you usually use when you speak. Cut out every bit of tape you don't absolutely love. Then cut some more. If you're using narration keep it minimal and let the subjects of your story speak for themselves and move the story along. But don't leave out crucial information that'll help a listener understand the full context the story takes place in. Try to show, not tell. This is easy to do in radio, because you can actually include a clip of, say, a dog barking.

    --Where to Send Your Finished Audio Segment
    My advice to someone who wanted to get a serious start in radio would be to get an internship somewhere, not to start making stories cold and sending them around. That said, it's much better to contact any show or station you're hoping to work with BEFORE you produce anything, to find out what sort of work they're seeking; (most stations and shows' websites have contact info for this). Besides getting work onto airwaves, you can make a podcast and, or post it at, (a web-based marketplace for public radio pieces), where it can be reviewed by peers, and possibly picked up by a radio station. You can also just invite a bunch of friends over for a potluck, open a couple bottles of wine and beer, and have a listening party. ----GK

  • Time Out Chicago-”Concrete Canvas”

    "Concrete Canvas"

    By Gretchen Kalwinski

    "The artists installing this “guerilla” art (mostly in the warmer months and the dark of night) call themselves street artists and often hide their identities from cops by using nicknames. But don’t confuse their work with gang graffiti or tagging: It’s illegal, but there’s an altruistic mission to their madness..."
    July 24, 2008. Issue #178.

  • Venus Zine: Review of Edith Frost's "It's A Game"

    Venus Zine; Interview; Edith Frost

    Venus Zine, November 2005

    Interview with Edith Frost 

    The Chicago musician's new album, It's a Game, evokes a country carnival

    Edith Frost’s brand-spanking-new album, It’s a Game, the long-awaited follow-up to 2001’s Wonder Wonder, was released by Drag City on November 15, 2005, with a corresponding CD release party at Chicago’s Hothouse and a glowing, full-page review in the Chicago Tribune.Known for her heartbreak-y tunes and melancholy, wistful lyrics, Frost is used to fielding questions from journalists about her relationships. She's matter-of-fact about a recent breakup on her massive blog,, and a recent post expresses frustration that her relationship status gets so much attention. I chatted with Frost at her Chicago apartment in the Ravenswood neighborhood, where we drank Hefeweizen and chewed the fat about Chicago weather, the new album, blogs, stupid jobs, and pets. 

    So I’ve listened to It’s a Game, and I wanted to tell you that I think it’s so beautiful and melodic.

    Thank you. … I like it too.

    Do you have a favorite tune on the album?

    Well, “Emergency” and “Playmate” are the ones that — when we were talking about what to put out on mp3 — we talked about showcasing. I’d been thinking about those two, and then one day Rian Murphy [Drag City’s head of staff] just yelled out in the studio, “Everybody, what’s the one?” And they were like, “Emergency! Emergency!” “Playmate” is a super old song; it was written nine to 10 years ago. I actually played that when I first starting playing out with my own songs, when I was in New York. I was wondering if you have daily rituals for getting work done, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?Rian says that I used to do that a lot more. When he met me and when we were recording Calling Over Time, I guess I was sitting with a guitar every single day. I was just sitting every day playing folk and country tunes for the sake of playing. I really don’t do that any more, like I used to. I don’t practice regularly.

    Is it because it is so second nature to you that you don’t even need to make a ritual of it?

    No, I should be doing it! I should, because then I’d write a lot more songs. I should definitely get back into that habit. Because if you’re dealing with the music every day, then something is more likely to come of that than sitting and watching All My Children. (Laughs) Well, you never know, there might be something you could use from that show? (Laughs)There was a quote from the show today that I loved. Something like, “You got me pregnant and now you’re dumping me?!” In that one, the guy was a sperm donor. Like, he was like the family doctor, so he didn’t actually screw her. He impregnated her by insemination. Still pretty shocking.

    When I'm home writing during the day, I’ll turn on the judge shows sometimes. They’re a problem for me. 

    Those I can get sucked into, those and Elimidate, because it’s always on after South Park, which I love. I Tivo that, and so I get Elimidate at the end. At some point, I got sucked into the reality shows. My theory was that I’d start watching all of them and eliminate one every week until I’m down to the One True Reality show that I really love, but I’m still Tivo’ing all of those. My favorite is Big Brother. I don’t really watch-watch them, but I just work right here on the couch and have them on out of the corner of my eye … I swear I’m not … oh well. 

    I wanted to ask you about public versus private personas, because your music is introspective and wistful, but you’re also out in public mode pretty often, blogging and performing, so do you think of yourself as more of an introvert or extrovert?

    Well, my natural inclination is to be a total homebody. I can be perfectly happy just being at home and doing the little projects that I do. And, with the blog, from my perspective, it doesn’t seem that revealing or that I’m giving away too much. When I first started it years ago, I was blabbing too much and using too many names. I keep going back and forth, with “I want a private life, I don’t want them to know everything” and then just talking about everything on the blog. But it was just a matter of learning how to go about it and assuming that who you were talking about was going to read it. And performing is cool, because you get feedback. I do well at it, by my standards. In other words, I get a lot of fulfillment from it.

    Had you played with any of the musicians that you worked with on It’s a Game before? 

    Yeah, pretty much. Lindsay [Anderson], Josh [Abrams], and I had opened for Cat Power three years ago, and Ryan Hembrey is someone who I’ve been working with ever since I moved to Chicago. Mark Greenberg is someone I’ve also known forever, too. He worked on Wonder Wonder and also Love is Real. Jason [Toth], the drummer, is in Manischewitz, and I’d done a tour a while back with them. I have the worst luck with drummers — they always go onto bigger and better things. Like, my first drummer in Chicago was Glenn Kotche and he’s in Wilco now, and then Gerald Dowd who plays with Robbie Fulks, who has about 365 gigs a year. And Adam Vida who is in US Maple. There is just this trail of drummers behind me. 

    So your last album came out in 2001, four years ago, and a lot of reviewers so far have fixated on the four years between that one and the new album. I thought that seemed sort of weird …

    Yeah, I did too.Because it seems to put out the expectation that you’re supposed to trump out a record a year or something.Well, the others were like a year and half or two years apart, so maybe I’d set up these expectations by cranking out stuff a little faster. But to me, the time just flew by so fast — it didn’t seem like four years. I think if I’d had it together a bit more, it would have been maybe three and a half years instead, but that’s it.Do you find yourself going through seasonal cycles of productivity versus simmering?Well, if I’m touring I’m not writing, and I don’t write when there is something going on with my family. Basically, almost anything can distract me from making music. Your Web site has the heading of “roller skating enthusiast.”

    How frequently do you roller skate?I haven’t in a while — I need to get back into that. Do you think you’d ever like to skate with a roller derby like the Windy City Rollers? 

    No, but I bet they’d like me to. I mean, I’m a really good skater. Oh, I shouldn’t say that because there are really good skaters who could say, “No, you’re not.” I mean, I can skate. But I don’t have health insurance, and that is one of their requirements. Also, the roller derby is just not my thing. I’m more into wanting to be a wannabe figure skater. I like doing jumps and spins.

    You’re from a warm climate, and it’s getting to be wintertime in Chicago. Do you have coping mechanisms for Chicago winters?

    I don’t know — the winter seems to go very fast for me. I got used to the cold because I lived in New York for six years. There, it seemed like worse, sloppier winters, since it was on the ocean. It’s colder and more bitter here, but more tolerable, I think. And I learned in New York how to dress: three pairs of socks, hose under the long johns, pants, blah, blah, blah. I get more bothered by the really gross hot weather. I finally broke down and bought an AC this summer, during that weekend when it was 94 degrees all weekend. Y’know, in Texas, everybody knows that you don’t live without an air conditioner — you just don’t do it! And here, it’s more like you don’t live without heat. All of the buildings I’ve lived in have had good heat but not automatic AC, like in Texas. But, coming from a place where there weren’t really seasons — where it was just hot, hotter, or maybe not as hot — I do like Chicago’s defined seasons.

    This is a big apartment building. Do your neighbors ever hear you singing and playing and complain? 

    It’s a really quiet building and no one has ever complained. Also, I don’t jam that loud; I don’t do the amp too much, just sometimes to make sure it works. I think that if they were going to complain, it would actually be about the incessant TV. I don’t think they hear me; we have pretty thick walls. I don’t hear them, except for little footsteps from above and their cats sometimes.I hear my landlord’s bassett hound sometimes, when it’s chasing toys across the hardwood floors. I can’t have a dog in this apartment. I’ve had cats in other apartments, but not here. Really, if I could I would, because they’re so fun, but when I tour and go away, it’d be such a drag for the cats. If I was living with someone it would be different. It wouldn’t be like I was putting this creature in the position to be really lonely. My best pal just got a dog, Lois, so I live vicariously through her, and Drag City has Easy; she is a pitbull who is the sweetest. So I get a lot of pet privileges. 

    I love offices with dogs. Venus shares space with this skateboard company, and the owner rescued these two greyhounds that are always there. 

    Greyhounds are so damn big, though!

    Yeah, but these two are really mellow and sweet. They sleep in the sun for most of the day, and I’ve only seen them be high strung when they hear a vacuum cleaner. 

    Yeah, the great nemesis of all dogs — they say it’s the postman, but no!

    How do different producers’ styles affect the sound of your albums? 

    Well, Rian has produced all but the second album, Telescopic, which was done by Neil Haggerty, and they had very different styles. Rian is a lot more of the kind of guy who will gather all the pieces and musicians together and say, “Work your magic!” Whereas Neil was a lot more structured about things. He took detailed notes, even to the point of changing structures a little bit, like adding longer middle parts or whatever. And he was really really specific about what he wanted. And they’re all great ideas, so it worked out. But Rian is a lot freer with bringing people together and letting them work. And he does come up with ideas for arrangements that I wouldn’t necessarily come up with myself. His talent really lies more in being the conduit or the facilitator. 

    Kind of like throwing all of the ingredients in the pot and letting them work together? 

    Yeah, and he’s really good about knowing who might sound good together. And he just keeps it light and jokey. He’s a funny guy.Must be comforting to have a producer who you can trust to go with their instincts like that.It’s really cool to have worked with Rian for so long. To have him know the language, you know? He knows what is best for it and what will make the music sound good, because he’s heard it for so long, so he knows what works and what doesn’t work.

    Were you a musical kid?

    My mom had me in lessons periodically. I took some cello and piano when I was a kid, and I got a little guitar when I was 14. And she always had a piano and was always hanging out with orchestra people. And my dad has always been really into jazz and classical stuff, and he turned me onto a lot of stuff too. My mom always had a lot of records around: Joni Mitchell and Carole King, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Led Zeppelin. But yeah, there was always music around, and that was fortunate for me, but I was in Mexico from fourth to ninth grade, and they didn’t have a music program there. So when I moved back to Texas for high school, the other kids had already been in the programs, and I really wasn’t prepared to read music or play an instrument in band or anything. I missed out on the schooling in the early years, kind of caught up, took music lessons at University of Texas, and tried to make up for it. But there are still big holes in my knowledge of music — like as far as the technical part of it, even though I’ve taken all these classes, and I should remember all this theory and stuff. But that’s never been very natural for me. I do a lot better just with three chords and banging around. I know that a while back you weren’t getting international distribution.

    What’s going on with that?

    Yeah, yeah, they got me a better distribution deal since the last album, but it’s only been in the last six months or year. It used to be that if there was a store that had my stuff, they had it as imports, for the most part. I used to go there and hear, “I’ve never heard of you. I haven’t seen your records. Where do I get your records?” It should be a lot better now, I’m hoping. I’ve never had a bad tour [in Europe], but it’s been a little lacking as far as prepping them for who the fuck I am! (Laughs) But there are always these weird little pockets of fans, like in Stockholm, I had like fuckin’ 20 superfans, with lighters, singing along to every word, but that’s an anomaly. 

    Where do you like to play in Europe? 

    Paris has always been great. London I’ve only played once, but it was awesome show. When I played Spain, I had so much fun there, because I speak Spanish — since I used to live in Mexico — and it made it a lot easier to joke with the audience. Sure, they didn’t know who the hell I was there, but I had the advantage of being able to joke with them and speak to them. The show there was a super-fun show. 

    That’s right, you speak Spanish. I read that you moved around a bit when you were a kid, in Texas and Mexico.

    Yeah, the order was San Antonio, Austin, Guadalajara, Austin, San Antonio, Austin, New York, then Chicago. And there were about five different homes in every place.

    You’ve maintained your blog for 10 years, you were on the Internet before most people even knew what the Internet was, and you once had a day job as a programmer. Do you still do that work to make extra cash?

    No, well, the last little freelance thing that I did was with Drag City, helping them with their Itunes, uploading data entry, but that’s just song titles and stuff, not like “programming.” As far as Web stuff, I just do my own site now. I like separating my fun from my work (laughs). The best job I ever had was as a courier, when I was using my van to drive packages from like downtown FedEx to the airport. It was for a shipping company. I was a substitute-courier for Adam Jacobs, this Chicago character who tapes concerts. And so it was no brainwork — just picking up, signing for the packages, driving them out somewhere while listening to the radio. It was so removed from any of my responsibilities in my real career — the music — that I really [enjoyed] that shit work. 

    That sounds like a dream day job for a creative person — just being able to zone out. 

    Yeah, stupid jobs can be really fun like that if you don’t have to worry about what you’re doing so much. Working in music could be a drag if you’re just being immersed in music all day and having to do it for your vocation, too. I think it takes a lot of dedication to keep things separate.Yeah, it makes you value what you’re doing for the love of it as opposed to the money. I’ve been lucky, because more and more over the years, the music has moved from being hobby to work. Even my tax lady can say so, and then she can take more of a percentage! It’s hard, but the more I work at it the more I can do that. If I got off my ass and played more shows, I could make a pretty comfortable living. It’s just that I’m lazy and I like to avoid working. 

    You were just playing some shows with Calexico in Austin. How did that go? 

    I met them in Tulsa — we played there and then Fort Worth the next night — and then we played Austin. It was a blast, it was so fun. I didn’t have copies of It’s a Game with me, so I was just talking it up and playing some songs off of it. I had the pedal-steel player from Calexico, and “Playmate” was actually one of the songs that we were doing. He would come up at the end and we’d do “Mirage” and “Playmate” on pedal steel. It was sooo pretty. I don’t know how they do that, those guys. Pedal steel seems like a really hard instrument to me. But it was perfect.

    Many of the tunes on the new album are hinged on heartbreak or a love-affair ending. Do people make assumptions about you and your love life based on that? 

    Yeah, it’s part of the mythos or whatever. I don’t like it — I wish that my thoughts were a little less rooted in the real (laughs). But the thing is that it’s just the topic that is easiest for me to write about. I have all of these aspects of my life — friends, family, hobbies — but I just don’t choose to write about them. The way I see it is that you write a sad song and you can kind of “validate your feelings” and then you can leave it behind and it becomes just a pretty song eventually — you know, after a few weeks. I just really like sad songs. Some of my favorite songs are really broken-heartedy kind of songs. It’s just ... yeah, why do people like that, why is that enjoyable? I don’t know (laughs). I envy the people who can just make up a story and write really vivid imagery and can take you to a place that they haven’t even necessarily been. I can do that somewhat — a little bit — but that is harder for me. It is easier for me to just pull from my own e-mail or things I’ve said or things I overheard. Plus, the songs do tend to be patched together a lot, because I’ll just write like three phrases down or something when the thing is going on. And then, in a notebook, piece of paper, or on a computer or something and might not come back to it till much later. There was one, “My Lover Won’t Call” — I literally had every word of that for 10 years, and it took me that long to finally stumble across it and say, “Oh, I could finish that” (laughs). So, in that way, the albums end up being much more at a distance than what is going on in my head at the moment, because it is so pieced together time-wise.

    So the songs are not necessarily about what’s happening at that time period.You’re actually mining old scraps of paper, moments, and journals?

    Yeah, by the point that I am pulling it together and actually making it into a song, that is definitely not the point that I’m actually going through the heartbreak. When the heartbreak is happening, I will tend to write stream-of-consciousness shit, but I’m not in a state where I want to actually sit down and do a demo or figure out chords or anything. It’s just like “bleh, bleh, bleh,” and then I’ll come back to it and be like, “Hmm, that rhymes!” I have to go through [the scraps of paper] later and attempt to pull something out of it that makes sense. It’s just about the discipline to do that.

    Top photo © Drag CityBottom photo © Eric ZiegenhagenNovember 23, 2005.

  • Venus Zine-Interview with Elizabeth Merrick

    From my full review: "Girly takes place mainly in rural Pennsylvania, and depicts the unfolding of events in several women’s lives, most primarily the lives of the Hart family women, made up of Racinda Hart, her psychologically damaged sister Ruth, and out-of-it mother Amandine, who became a born again Christian when Racinda was a baby. " Venus Zine, January 15, 2006.

  • Venus Zine-McCarren Park Concert

    Neko Case, Joanna Newsom, and Martha Wainright at McCarrenPark Pool, August 24, 2006

    Venus Zine / September 1, 2006

    Three performers crank it out in an abandoned pool, despite the ominous weather

    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    John Lennon once described New York as the center of the universe, saying that, “If I was living in the time of Rome, I’d go to Rome. But I’m living now, so I’ll be in New York.” Freelance work being a bit slow in Chicago right now, I had this in mind when I hopped a red-eye to NYC to visit a pal. We got $2 sandwiches at the deli on the corner in her Brooklyn ‘hood, then hopped on the train to McCarren Park Pool where Joanna Newsom and Martha Wainwright were playing a 6 p.m. show headlined by the superb Neko Case.

    The pool, unused for 20 years and three times the size of an Olympic one, has only recently been used as a venue, (to much controversy, since Clear Channel is sponsoring the shows). We got there amidst threatening rain clouds, and plopped down on the crumbling edge of the old pool just as the rain started full throttle and the charismatic Wainwright started to play. She began with the pensive “Far Away;” “Green grass blades are all on fire / I own the crack that's in the wind,” and later did a rocky-version of the standard “Stormy Weather” in a small homage to the increasing sea of umbrellas and ponchos. She was sweetly apologetic about the weather, yelling to the crowd, “You guys are such troupers; thank you for staying…Wish we had bathing suits.” As she wound up the set with “Baby,” she noted that she wasn’t going to be touring for a while “cause I need to make a new fuckin’ record!”

    When Newsom walked onstage in her ‘70s sun-dress, the sky was clear, and the rain was drying from the peeling paint bottom of the decrepit pool. With a voice that the New York Times describes as “froggy, girlish” and my friend Meghan calls “Lamb Chop-esque” (the puppet, not the band), Newsom charmed the cheerful gaggle of hipsters with her weird, winsome songs, warbling in “Emily,” “I saw you last night by the river / I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water / frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever / in a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky'd been breathing on a mirror.”

    By the time Newsom finished, the sky was clear. It was almost too bad, we thought, because it could’ve been great to see force-of-nature Case belt out songs during a thunderstorm. But to no one’s surprise, Case was magnificent anyway. She played a nice mix from her albums Furnace Room Lullaby, Blacklisted, The Tigers Have Spoken, and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Almost immediately, she played one of my favorites, uh “Favorite,” and the crowd began visibly swooning as she sang, “I thought you were golden / I thought you were wise / Caught you returning / To the house you caught fire.” One girl, evidently moved by the spirit, started waltzing by herself in an empty part of the pool, and three art-girl rockers began dancing near her with a spazzy mix of mod and country moves. In “Set Out Running,” Case threw back her head to bellow, “Want to GET it all behind me / you know everything reminds me / can’t be myself without you / wanna crawl down deep inside,” and I realized that the only trouble with her performances is that she makes it look so easy that people think that if they throw their heads back and belt it out, they can sound that way too. Hence, leaving the shows, you often see folks mimicking her singing with the same lusty abandon but without her blessed vocal chords. Ouch.

    Case was in punchy spirits and kept referencing unicorn tarot cards that were recently gifted to her. “The unicorn oracle is guiding every decision I make tonight — even my clothes,” she informed the crowd. “Unicorns have this sexual power that I think is harnessed from every 12-year-old girl in the world. Basically when they’re not humping their Pink Panthers, they’re looking at unicorns and they don’t know why….” We left the show elated and I’m catching tonight’s red-eye back to Chicago.

    So, in short, my visit did just what I wanted:
    Jolts of confusion, in a good way: check. (Newsom).
    Goosebumps from a favorite performer: check. (Case).
    Celebrity sighting: check. (Jimmy Fallon was at the show).
    New music introduction: check. (First time hearing Wainright live).

    Back to ye olde Midwest, and my big, affordable apartment go I, fresh with invigoration. Thanks and kiss-kiss, NYC.
  • Time Out Chicago; Article; Pierogi Festival

    Published in Time Out Chicago / Issue 22: July 28–Aug 4, 2005

    Stuffed with fun 

    Fill up on pierogi at this surreal street fest

    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    Northwest Indiana's prosperous industrial days may be gone, but there's still a reason to celebrate: really good pierogi. To bolster community pride, the small town of Whiting (so close to the Illinois/Indiana border that the neighboring town boasts the "Illiana Yacht Club") honors its Eastern European heritage each year with its three-day Pierogi Fest, where the tried and true Polish/Slovak dumplings are fried or steamed with butter, and chock-full of different fillings like meat, cheese, potato, mushroom, berries and apricot.

    On the main strip you'll find newly erected "old-fashioned" lampposts just down the street from a grade school and church with a primitive wooden antiabortion sign on the lawn. Farther down the street, amidst dozens of pierogi stands, there will be costumed polka dancers, drunken bystanders, a magic show, carnival games, booths selling pierogi paraphernalia, a beer garden under the pavilion and a John Waters–esque show by the Mr. Pierogi Musicale Players (mostly preteen girls in tights with curled hair and stage makeup, directed and choreographed by the town's drama guru), performing "Whiting, Indiana" to the tune of "Gary, Indiana."

    The dumplings come mainly from nearby delis and restaurants in Whiting and Hammond, as well as Hegewisch, Illinois. Those made by the Slovak ladies at St. John Catholic Church are also sold frozen if you need to stock up. The festival's motto is: "We're stuffed with fun." Come for the irony, stay for the food.—GK

  • Bitch Magazine website: Commentary; Kiss My Bass

    --I wrote this blog post for Bitch Magazine [] website, August 2002.

    Kiss My Bass

    Bass Beer is evidently trying to narrow its target audience to include only upwardly-mobile misogynists. The brew’s new commercials feature young, conventionally good-looking white guys in neutral-colored clothing pontificating to the camera about their philosophies of life. In one ad, a guy simply enumerates the things that women do to attract him in bars. "Bring on the flirtation," Mr. J. Crew challenges. "The hair-toss, the unbuttoned button, the leg cross, the licking of the lips, I know you see me, I see you."

    It’s hilariously presumptuous of Bass to imagine that this guy attracts women using that crap—but the apparent belief that all women in bars are posing and preening on his behalf is not as funny, given how many men explain away rape by claiming they were "led on" by a woman’s clothing or behavior. It’s a small step to imagining that if you’re in the same bar with this guy, talking with friends and occasionally crossing your legs or smoothing your hair, he’ll assume the two of you are engaged in some sort of urban foreplay.

    Another commercial in the campaign offers us a second clean-cut white guy—this time with a basketball as a prop—with his own observations, among them "If you’re going to draw a map of your life, do it in pencil," and "There’s a difference between the right girl and the right-now girl."

    Both commercials make plain that for Bass Men, women are disposable, sexualized objects that entice and attract, but certainly aren’t equals. The difference between these and other misogynistic beer ads would seem to be that the beers marketed as working class are more obvious in their imagery, their sexism more honest. These Bass ads frame their spokesdudes as the kind of man every khaki-wearing college graduate should aspire to be, and this makes their sexism all the more insidious. Personally, I think I’ll be switching to Pabst.

    —Gretchen Kalwinski

  • Venus Zine; DIY, Spring 2006, Guerilla Drive-Ins

    Venus Zine; DIY article, Guerilla Drive-Ins

    Venus Zine, Spring 2006

    Guerilla drive-ins These groups are reviving the lost pleasures of the drive-in movie

    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    When was the last time you watched a movie with a bunch of strangers under the stars? Drive-in movies have been phasing out since their heyday in the ’60s and ’70s. They were popular because of the inherent romance in watching a film under the stars, snuggled up with siblings, friends, or paramours under blankets. Contemporary technology allows an extremely high-quality home entertainment experience, but it has come at the cost of estrangement from fellow movie-goers. So some radical folks began their own “guerilla” drive-in movie collectives as a DIY way to enjoy the intimacy and communal nature of drive-ins, with the added bonus of being able to show whatever films they damn well pleased, usually free of charge.

    One of the most organized groups is the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In in Santa Cruz, California ( In 2004, they started showing films such as “The Third Man” and “The Gleaners and I” on vacant walls of abandoned buildings for friends and strangers to enjoy. The Santa Cruz drive-in doesn’t actually involve cars, however — movie-watchers bring lawn chairs and blankets to the given location, where they view the film via a projector and high-powered speakers.The nation-wide MobMov collectives — short for Mobile Movie — ( take the term “drive-in” a bit more literally. They use technology similar to that used in ye olden days, utilizing an FM transmitter to broadcast the movie’s sound into car radios, so that, as organizer Bryan Kennedy notes, “there is no sound pollution at all.”

    Because of this, says Kennedy, they are rarely bothered by law enforcement. He thinks that the MobMov idea (now active in 12 U.S. cities) has caught on because of “the sense of community you get when you come, the experience of sharing something unique with strangers.”Most groups have guidelines for if and when they are approached by police or upset neighbors, since, as theSanta Cruz group notes, “good neighborly relations are an important element of DIY culture.” In Kennedy’s experience, a law enforcement confrontation “has never happened--if it did, I would just show them my papers, and if they asked that I stop the movie, I would.”

    The Santa Cruz group notes that the best defense to hassling from cops is to “know the laws restricting amplified sound and rules restricting access to public space after dark, and have people on hand who have experience with non-violent communication.”Most collectives agree that the real issue at hand is one of public versus private space. The Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In notes on their website that; “Beyond showing great movies and bringing a broad community together, our mission is helping to reclaim public space and transforming our urban environment into the joyful playground it should be.”Kennedy from MobMov echoes the sentiment, saying, “A drive-in is much more than just a movie projected on a wall like at your local cineplex.

    In a cineplex, you have this huge public space, yet interaction is frowned upon, so it is not appreciably different than watching the movie by yourself. In the drive-ins of old, some people would roam around and visit each other, while others would sit in the privacy of their car, unperturbed. With a drive-in, you can select the level of interaction you want. It’s a much more customizable experience.”

    Plan Your Own Guerilla Drive-In Location, location, location. The Santa Cruz group suggests that you scout out a dark location near a smooth, light surface, in areas that are either full of warehouses or under bridges to minimize the chance of interruption. 

    The technicalities. Determine whether you’ll use speakers or a radio transmitter, and then scrounge for speakers, amplifier, and projectors. Additional technical information about projecting films can be found on the Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In and MobMov websites.

    What ya gonna watch? Make a list of films to choose from. Some groups have subversive or political themes, while others make a specialty of documentary or foreign films. 

    If you build it, they will come. Let people know when and where the screening will take place. This can be done via a website, e-mail distribution list, or fliers on local bulletin boards.

    Dealing with authorities. The Santa Cruz group always has a few “cop tamers” on hand to serve as police liaisons. He explains, “A good cop tamer has experience with non-violent communication and a good understanding of applicable laws.”

  • Northwest Indiana Times, Book Feature, LaPorte, Indiana

    Published in the Northwest Indiana Times, on Monday, February 20, 2006

    An Outside Appreciation
    The book 'LaPorte, Indiana' offers a glimpse into the history of small-town Midwest

    BY: Gretchen Kalwinski
    Times Correspondent

    Only expecting a quick meal and cup of coffee when he first visited a LaPorte, Indiana diner in the summer of 2003, magazine editor Jason Bitner instead found himself with a new book project. B & J’s American Café is a classic slice of Americana with its authentic soda fountain, jukebox, wooden phone booth, vintage Coca Cola memorabilia, and standard diner fare like hamburgers, salads, peach cobbler, and rhubarb pie.

    After ordering one of the famed cinnamon rolls, Bitner took a look around the diner and happened upon a stash of thousands of photos tucked in the back room with a sign inviting patrons to peruse or purchase the images (available for 50 cents apiece). The photos were the remnants of the Muralcraft photography studio located on the 2nd floor of the same building and run by Frank and Gladys Pease from the late 40s to the early 70s. B & J’s owners John and Billie Pappas took the photos out of storage in the early 90s, planning to “clean out storage” but kept them around when they saw how much people enjoyed sifting through them, looking for long-forgotten photos of themselves, friends, or family members. Bitner was entranced by the discovery, and describes the images as, “an enormous visual survey of the Midwest a generation back.”

    To be sure, Bitner already had a propensity for this kind of project. As the co-creator of Found Magazine, ( “show and tell” magazine that publishes found photos, discarded school-kid notes, doodles on scraps of paper, and other found miscellany sent it by readers worldwide—he revels in such discoveries, which he calls, “the accidental archive of an entire town.” For Bitner, a fire had been lit, and he couldn’t get the photos out of his mind. Though he’d only planned to pass through LaPorte for the County Fair and demolition derby, he ended up spending two weeks in B & J’s looking through images in amazement at the magnitude of the archive, and the almost-painterly beauty of the photographs. The end result of Bitner’s enthusiasm is a book of selected portraits titled LaPorte, Indiana, which is being released by Princeton Architectural Press in April 2006.

    Bitner found the book idea to be an easy sell. “People love photos of other people,” he explains. “I was in New York, and stopped at a publisher who I knew was into photo books, and said ‘Hey, I’ve got something that you might like.’ I dumped out the envelope of images on the table, and at first, there were two people standing there, then three, four, five. Right away people got really excited and started trading them around the table saying ‘That looks like my grandfather! That looks like your boyfriend!’ That is also what it’s like at the diner, once you start looking, you just want to see more and more. It’s amazing—I’ve never gone to an archive where I saw photos all by one person.”

    Photographer Frank Pease was by all accounts a nice guy who enjoyed his job. He was also an excellent craftsman and as Bitner puts it, “an accidental historian.” One of Pease’s former clients remembers him as “really nice, down to earth, very patient.” His wife Gladys helped him in the studio by greeting customers in the lobby, and helping to prep them with grooming and makeup before they went before the camera. The photos themselves are interesting not only for their comment on the time and place (mostly 40s and 50s, in small-town Midwest) but because of their old-fashioned formality and idealism. The poses varied only slightly, with 8 or so poses for men and 8 for women, with a few variations for children and couples. Pease obviously had great technical skills, but it is clear that at some point, he zoned in on a certain “look,” and, Bitner notes, “didn’t waver from it in 2 ½ decades.” The poses and lighting are not natural ones but are instead traditionally classical—the men are wearing ties, the women often hold a flower, or tilt their heads in imitation of movie-star glamour.

    Bitner has spoken with several of the subjects of Pease’s photos, including Hugh and Kathy Tonagel, whose somber engagement photograph is at the forefront of the book. “Hugh told me that Pease was trying to impress upon them that this was a really weighty moment. Like, ‘You guys are getting married, and this is the photo that is going to represent that forever. This is a really important moment and I want you to be here and present and understand what it is you’re sitting for.’ [Pease] also had a process in place for setting up the studio, getting the lighting right, people getting their hair done just-so—there was a gravity to the process.”

    Part of the delight of the archive is that it is not limited to only the shots that ended up being used, but also the myriad, back-to-back proofs from the sittings. The mistakes and glitches are all there—a couple bursting out in open-mouthed laughter at the camera, an accidental wild-eyed grin from a teenage boy, and a young boy raising his finger in a politician’s pose. After Pease’s death in the early 1970s, much of his equipment was donated to the local high school or given away and Muralcraft Studios was eventually renovated to become a large apartment. Another striking facet of the archive is how idealized the images are, and that they seem to tell a story about the ideal way that each of the subjects wish to see themselves. “Nowadays, it’s different,” Bitner says. “There are so many cameras around and people are so comfortable in front of a camera. Back then, there was definitely a feeling that film was a little more precious, and I think that when people took a portrait, they were more interested in creating an image for public history; their public face. Nowadays there are a lot of cameras around and people are so comfortable in front of a camera, and that sense of a public face doesn’t seem as important as it was then. But these photos were definitely not intended to be private or intimate shots; these were shots that were intended for an audience.”

    LaPorte, Indiana contains about 150 images of LaPorte residents in the 50s and 60s in various stages of life. Some were taken for specific events like graduations, engagements, first communions, and anniversaries. Other people posed with objects that conveyed their individuality; a nurse or military uniform, a musical instrument, a radio microphone, or prayer book. Still others simply seem inexplicable, like the one of two elderly men in suits preening for the camera while one affectionately straightens the other’s tie. The end result of the book is a crossbreeding of several genres; because of the beautifully displayed images, it easily functions as a coffee table photography book. It is also of interest to history buffs and found-art aficionados alike. It contains approximately 150 photographs and a forward by both Bitner and writer Alex Kotlowitz who calls the images, “Distinctly middle American. Open. Unassuming. Sturdy.” Kotlowitz goes on to intuit that although the images were taken in a time when the country was perched on intense conflict, the people in these portraits “seemed impervious to the upheaval around them.” Famous Hoosier John Mellencamp weighs in on the book’s back cover, musing that “the grace and dignity one sees in their faces should be a source of hope for us all.”

    With about 22,000 residents, LaPorte is a small town. Incorporated in 1835, LaPorte’s business development began in the late 1850s, after the railroad came to town. The town has six surrounding lakes and some notable architecture, including the Romanesque LaPorte County Courthouse and the Door Prairie Barn, a “round barn” which was recently placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. While agriculture and manufacturing have been the primary industries, the current economy is increasingly relying on tourists who visit to enjoy the lakes and the famed LaPorte County Fair each July. According to Fern Eddy Schultz of the LaPorte Historical Society, LaPorte is going through a time of re-evaluation, “trying to make plans for what is best for it in the future and how to implement them.”

    But aside from water-recreation offerings, and an abundance of maple trees that have earned it the title of “The Maple City,” Schultz notes that LaPorte is otherwise “very much like most towns its age and size in the Midwest.” Indeed, residents and historians alike seem to agree that there is nothing terribly out of the ordinary about this peaceful Midwestern town. These extraordinary photos of mid-century Midwest, then, seem to be extraordinary for their very ordinary-ness. These are people carrying out their lives in the midst of a rapidly changing world. There is a father surrounded by wife and kids gazing worriedly into the camera, a toddler playing with his ears, a girl graduating from high school. These are optimistic portraits of real people with quirks and flaws who gain love and lose it, experience birth, death, and all the rituals of life.

    LaPorte, then, is all of us. We’d value this discovery from any town. But the people of LaPorte happened to have a better archive than most of us, along with the impeccable foresight to preserve it. It is of note that the images were made public via the enthusiasm of a non-native, a testament to the idea that we oftentimes overlook what is right under our noses. With his outsider’s perspective, it seems that Bitner was in a unique position to be able to see facets of the archive that were regarded as everyday by those familiar with them. He notes that, “I think that a lot of times it takes an outsider to make people appreciate what they have. If these were from my town, I know that I’d be looking for photos of family or friends, and I wouldn’t be so interested in the guy at the end of the block. When you’re so close to something you may not understand the greater significance.”

    Several hundred photos were purchased for the book, but most photos remain in boxes in the back room of B & J’s. The count has only dwindled down to about 17,000 from the original 20,000 and the archive is basically intact. “The vast majority are still there,” Bitner notes, “And they want them there; it’s a document of their community.”

  • Time Out Chicago; Book Review; Ruins of California

    Book review published in:
    Time Out Chicago / Issue 50: Feb 9–Feb 16, 2006.

    BOOK REVIEW: The Ruins of California
    By Martha Sherrill.
    Penguin, $24.95.

    The Ruins of California begins with the divorce of seven-year-old Inez Ruin’s parents in 1969 and chronicles 1970s California life through her eyes. Her home split in half, she travels between her father Paul’s elegantly bohemian existence in San Francisco and her primary home in suburban Los Angeles with her mother Connie, a dancer described as “one of the great flamencas of her generation.”

    Sherrill’s depiction of 1970s California is vivid, and the Ruins epitomize the decade’s multicultural ideals. Her Peruvian-Mexian mother gave up dancing for the creature comforts of suburban life, while her hippie half-brother Whitman grew up on a commune to become a surfer.

    And in stark contrast stands the blue-blooded grandmother Marguerite Ruin, who coaches Inez on niceties like music lessons, horseback riding and afternoon tea. Her father Paul’s string of beautiful girlfriends soon begins introducing new ideas to Inez—Buddhism, tarot cards, love beads, motorcycles—that form crucial coming-of-age impressions. As time passes, their bond becomes increasingly intense. And though Paul prefers being a friend rather than a father figure to Inez—offering pot, speaking frankly about sex and inflicting few rules—it becomes clear that if she is to break out of her role as a passively observant deer-in the-headlights it will be via her distant but loving father.

    Everywhere, the accoutrements of the 70s are present, particularly the sensibility that nothing is a “big deal.” Throughout, Inez becomes much like California itself: a receptive guinea pig, a litmus test for the new. Surfing and beaches are omnipresent, and Sherrill brilliantly uses the movement of water as a tool for her unfettered prose, which is as languid as the era. Despite constant action—births, deaths, affairs ending and beginning—the language and pace make events simply wash over and leave faint impressions. This style lends complexity to the story and catapults the reader into a new set of realizations. It’s akin to riding a wave and landing on a calm Californian beach where everything is suddenly different, but you’re not exactly sure what has changed.

    —Gretchen Kalwinski

  • Time Out Chicago; Book Review; My Sister's Continent

    Published in Time Out Chicago Magazine / Issue 44: Dec 29, 2005

    My Sister's Continent
    By: Gina Frangello.
    Chiasmus Press, $12.
    Review By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    After her twin sister's mysterious disappearance, narrator Kirby Braun responds to a therapist's mistaken diagnoses of her family—laden with sexual secrets and feminine angst—by carefully piecing together details from Kendra's life. While sifting through memories, Kirby muses, "How do I tell the story of a life...that is outside my own experience, wrapped in shatterproof glass and secrets that have everything to do with me?"

    While Kirby is complacent and domestic, Kendra was passionate and bohemian. Devastated after an injury ended her promising career at the New York City Ballet, Kendra returned to family in Chicago only to become increasingly withdrawn before disappearing entirely. Though Kirby was considered the "good" twin, she is inwardly troubled: no career, a banal sex life and health problems that become a serious threat to her wedding plans. It is difficult to deal with female sexuality without exploring issues of body, consumption and purging (of food, thoughts, memories), and the novel's strength is how intricately these themes are linked. Between Kirby's digestive troubles and Kendra's depression, both girls lose weight rapidly, mirroring one another's bodies even while their personalities conflict.

    Kendra's sadomasochistic relationship with an older man functions as a "therapy of humiliation," and it is in these scenes that Frangello's lush and poetic style is at its most lyric. The cat-and-mouse style of their coital dialogue is an annoying but necessary device in conveying their sex games, and during one particularly sophisticated conversation, Kendra muses, "I prefer my sex less civilized and urbane than this cigarette-lighting Noël Coward routine you call being direct."

    Frangello's debut novel is akin to a woman's archeological dig into another life, as well as a modern retelling of Freud's famed "Dora" story. As such, it cannot help but be rather bleak, evoking a similar anomie as The Ice Storm and The Virgin Suicides. It is also an intriguing and darkly psychological look at and investigation of identity, the façades that cloak us and the complicated habitat of private, inner lives. —GK

  • Venus Zine; Interview: Ladyfest

    Published on, November 2005.

    You've come a long way, lady
    Ladyfests are gaining steam ‘round the globe

    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    The first Ladyfest took place in 2000 in Olympia, Washington. In addition to bands like Sleater-Kinney and Cat Power performing, the weeklong event hosted bands like the Rondelles, Neko Case, and Mary Timony, and a dizzying array of varied spoken-word artists, authors, and visual artists, along with workshops and dance partiesOlympia festival, an astounding 80 Ladyfests around the world have been successfully planned, testifying to the need for this sort of event. Ladyfests should not be mistaken for a franchise, however, and the different Ladyfests are not related to one another, except in spirit. The varied places around the world that have hosted Ladyfests include Bloomington, Indiana; Chicago; San Francisco's Bay Area; Nantes, France; Glasgow, Scotland; Toronto; Los Angeles; Stockholm, Sweden; Melbourne, Australia; Seattle; Berlin; Napoli, Italy; and Vienna, Austria. In 2005, approximately 30 Ladyfests were scheduled to take place worldwide. Venus interviewed organizers and performers from this year’s festivals in Brisbane, Australia; Guelph and Ottawa, Canada; Denver; Lansing, Michigan; and Johannesburg, South Africa.

    The Organizers
    Ladyfest organizers as a whole are a determined lot with an idealistic focus and an overabundance of energy. They also are uniquely open-minded about their attendees and welcome all genders, unlike the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, for example, which restricts attendees to only biological females. Sarah Brown of Ladyfest Ottawa noted that their demographic was "definitely young women 18 to 30, but we had audience members of all ages and genders." Fellow Ottawa Ladyfest organizer Natasha Beaudin attributed their good turnout to dynamic and feminist-oriented programming, affirming that, “it was definitely a better turnout than one would get [from] a lecture on feminism, for example."

    Ladyfest Guelph organizer Ashley Fortier was impressed with the event’s large attendance and the variety of ethnicities that were represented, especially given Guelph’s small population. “It was a very diverse crowd, especially at the hip-hop night," she said. Ladyfest Out West organizer Shannon Perez-Darby commented on the queer focus of their festival’s performances. "Over 75 percent of our performers were queer, lesbian, gay and/or trans identified," she said. The organizers of Ladyfest Guelph went a step further by specifically listing their event as"anti-oppressive, feminist, queer and trans-positive, DIY, and collective."

    Local Focus, Broad Appeal
    The 2005 Ladyfests had varied concentrations in their different locations. Some had a heavy hip-hop presence, while others were more film-centric or focused on performance art or workshops.At Ladyfest Ottawa, the closing party with the Gossip was the most popular event, and Alix Olsen was a "big hit" in Lansing, Michigan. The best-attended performance at Ladyfest South Africa was a band called Electro Muse, a string quartet that combines drum‘n'bass tracks to trip-hop.

    Workshops also drew in enormous crowds. Sarah Brown of Ladyfest Ottawa mused that, "A panel discussion on privilege in activism was one of our best-attended events. Bookbinding also had high numbers." Nearby in Guelph, the workshop on urban gardening was hugely popular. Oftentimes, decisions about performers and events were made broadly and then localized, with organizers focused on bringing in as much local talent as possible. "We included similar broad themes like music, art, politics, film, etc., but then tried to re-appropriate it to the Brisbane context," said Ladyfest Brisbane organizer Nikola Errington.

    Similarly, Ladyfest Ottawa included local talent such as Les Alumettes, Sarah Hallman, Daydream Square, and the Hussies. Ladyfest Out West brought in resident spoken-word artists Jeanette Henriquez, Angela Palermo, and Isis, in addition to well-known local activists Ashara Ekundayo and Kelly Shortandqueer MC and the Denver band Supply Boy.

    The Talent
    When asked about their Ladyfest experience, performers often got gushy. Susie Patten was double booked at Ladyfest Brisbane with her bands I Heart Hiroshima and the Mean Streaks, and she enjoyed playing to the crowd’s enthusiastic response. “My bands played first and second, so we thought that there'd be a pretty quiet vibe around, but everyone was really into [it]. The crowd response was fantastic. Maybe that was just because Kate Bush was played in between sets." Patten attended other Ladyfest events while on location and said that "apart from the rad music, the photography exhibition was probably the highlight — so much awesome talent."

    Patten said the only changes she would make for future Ladyfest stints are that she’d like to play last. "And for Cat Power to support us, and maybe even for her to fall in love with me,” she said. “So realistic." Deb Cavallaro of the Golden Circles called the Brisbane Ladyfest an "intimate, beautiful, dynamic, honest, and inspiring gig. As far as sisterhood goes, there was a fair bit of that feeling going around that night and [it was] kinda great … when you look at the stage and see more than one woman out there."

    Organizational Challenges
    The momentum for these festivals seems to be only increasing as time goes by. In 2002, there were 13 Ladyfests; in 2004, the number had reached 26, and in 2005, close to 30 Ladyfests occurred around the globe. This steady growth is encouraging to those of us who aren't having our needs for this kind of event met in mainstream culture. However, there are definite challenges in planning these festivals. First, there is no one source of income or funding for Ladyfests, and one of the first things that organizers are obliged to figure out is how to raise funds through advertising, fundraising events, or auctions.

    Ladyfest Ottawa raised funds via craft sales, bake sales, film nights, rock shows, garage sales, art parties, and bottle drives. Sarah Stollak and Latricia Horstman of Lansing, Michigan’s Ladyfest invested the money from their tax returns to fund their town's festival, in addition to applying for grants and selling ads to local businesses. Ladyfest South Africa secured Jose Cuervo as a sponsor and "used most of the funding to pay the marketing and printing" costs for their festival. There are definite challenges to organizing other than finances. Many organizers struggle with the admittedly valid critique that Ladyfest and events like it can work to marginalize women artists and performers. Being cast as an "alternative" culture can run the risk of alienation, an important point to consider when in the planning process. Others depict the female nonprofit organizing process akin to a series of infighting sessions, characterizing women's managerial styles as too emotional or complicated.

    However, the typical response from a Ladyfest organizer is that although the planning completely consumed their life for the better part of a year, the payoff was enormously rewarding. Most organizers said that they'd do it again but would change small parts of the process. For instance, they suggested a different organizational structure, setting earlier application deadlines, and, as Nikola Errington of Ladyfest Brisbane said, "we would try and make EVERYTHING all-ages."

    When asked if she'd program another Ladyfest, Sarah Brown said, "Hell yes. Organizing this festival is so rewarding. It deeply affects your life, and as an organizer you have the privilege of watching it affect others." Latricia Horstman muses that she set out on a mission to bring Ladyfest to Michigan in a way that changed her community’s mindset, all the while having fun and providing a fantastic opportunity for folks to get involved and learn. “The ultimate goal for everyone participating or attending: to have fun, learn something, and have some money at the end to give to a charity,” she said. “Every year we've done just that."

    Good Deeds, Progressive Values
    Ladyfest South announced on its Web site that it is a forum for "radical and progressive women everywhere" and goes above and beyond the <leo_highlight style="border-bottom: 2px solid rgb(255, 255, 150); background: transparent none repeat scroll 0% 0%; cursor: pointer; display: inline; -moz-background-clip: -moz-initial; -moz-background-origin: -moz-initial; -moz-background-inline-policy: -moz-initial;" id="leoHighlights_Underline_0" onclick="leoHighlightsHandleClick('leoHighlights_Underline_0')" onmouseover="leoHighlightsHandleMouseOver('leoHighlights_Underline_0')" onmouseout="leoHighlightsHandleMouseOut('leoHighlights_Underline_0')" leohighlights_keywords="call of duty" leohighlights_url="http%3A//">call of duty by not only paying their performers, but raising a good deal of cash for local social-service projects that assist women, such as the DeKalb Rape Crisis Center and the Women's Center to End Domestic Violence.

    Ladyfest Mexico will be held in Monterrey in February 2006, and the organizers are calling for submissions of women artists, including photographers, writers, actresses, filmmakers, musicians, and fashion designers. The festival will focus on subjects such as the situation of women in politics, society, and the economy, with a critical reflection of the role assigned to women in the work-field and family by societal and moral values.

    The possibilities of Ladyfest seem endless. As long as there are women producing good work, there is a seemingly endless array of locations and venues for Ladyfests to showcase them. It is of note, though, that what most of the organizers, participants, and attendees are ultimately working for is a world where the kind of work, art, and music featured in Ladyfests around the world would automatically be showcased and valued by a larger and more diverse demographic of society. We've come a long way, ladies, but there is still a long way to go.

    The Future of the Fest
    Some upcoming Ladyfests in 2006 are in Atlanta and Monterrey, Mexico. For more information about past and future Ladyfests, visit

    All photos courtesy of Nikola Errington of Ladyfest Brisbane 2005.

    Top photo: Stitch N' Bitch event
    Middle photo: Scout Niblett performing
    Bottom photo: Women in Activism workshop

  • Punk Planet; Book Review; Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs

    The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs
    Written by: Irvine Welsh
    Review by: Gretchen Kalwinski

    In Bedroom Secrets, Danny Skinner is a rakishly handsome, carousing restaurant inspector living in Edinburgh, plugging away just fine until Brian Kibby arrives as his co-worker. Kibby is seemingly unthreatening--quiet with "cowlike" eyes and a bit of a mama's boy, but generally inoffensive. However, Skinner immediately hates Kibby with an intensity that even he doesn't understand. Via his contempt and competitiveness, some of his long-languishing problems, long-clouded by booze begin to rise to the surface and throw his whole life into upheaval and disarray. He begins to pester his formerly punk-rock mother about his father's identity, (which she'll only jokingly give as Joe Strummer of The Clash), and throws away whatever was left of his relationship with Kay, a beautiful dancer who's been finding his drinking bouts increasingly tiresome.

    Skinner eventually puts a curse on Kibby that results in the Star Trek and model train-obsessed boy beginning to suffer the damage of Skinner's abusive lifestyle. This sets in motion Kibby's declining health and Skinner's gleeful indulgences in even more booze, drugs, fighting, and sexcapades. Simultaneously, Skinner's search for his father's identity takes him to San Francisco and back via information he learns in a book penned by an obnoxious TV chef. Once he returns home, Kibby starts approaching death and begins to learn the ins-and-outs of the curse and how he might be able to reverse it.

    This is Welsh's eighth novel centering around gritty, urban environments and one common critique of his work is that he's never departed from stock characters and themes from Trainspotting. It's true that the ho-hum-by-now grit is Welsh's schtick, but he's also got substance in spades. For all of his stock use of transgressive
    content -- booze, drugs, orgies, sickness (and gratingly flagrant use of the c-word, by the way) -- Welsh knows how to tell a story in the old-fashioned sense of the word, a narrative that subtly builds tension in increasingly complex characters, delivers unexpected plot twists and resolutions, and conjures a reader's genuine investment in outcomes. Few writers handle the-beauty-of-ugliness themes as well as Welsh and the warm humanity of his deft language coupled with his insights into ego and the dark side of human nature makes Bedroom Secrets a compelling read.

    --Gretchen Kalwinski

  • Centerstage Chicago; Theater Review; Once Upon a Time

    Once Upon a Time (or the Secret Language of Birds)

    Joe Meno injects Redmoon's aesthetic with his particular brand of unsentimental yet pathos-laden humor.

    Tuesday Feb 13, 2007
    by Gretchen Kalwinski

    Redmoon Theater is known for its outlandish productions that employ puppets, carnival aesthetics, gymnastics and whimsical, otherworldly sets and costumers. But sometimes their performances can suffer from a lack of narrative arc—the fantastical, beautiful scenes are entertaining in their own right, but aren't always held together by a strong plot.

    But for "Once Upon A Time," Redmoon hired a writer to piece together parts of their concept and form a cohesive script. Enter Joe Meno, acclaimed Chicago novelist and playwright, who also has a penchant for the whimsical. Meno promptly injected Redmoon's aesthetic with his particular brand of unsentimental yet pathos-laden humor, creating a modern fairy tale about Emily, a lonely and lost girl living in a tenement in the 1920s. After realizing she can speak to and understand the chirping of birds, her loneliness is eased.

    The engaging plot that follows revolves around the theft of "all the world's birds" and the corresponding loss of human dreams. With some clues to guide them as to the whereabouts of the stolen birds, Emily and her friend Bruno (a retired wrestler and giant) embark on a dangerous quest to retrieve them.

    The lovely and unusual set is comprised of a small puppet theater at center stage and a large screen above, which the puppet action gets projected onto. Narrator Lindsey Noel Whiting does double-duty providing voices for all the characters, while the puppets—made up of entertaining, disproportionate photos—are maneuvered by puppeteers via sticks. All this is set against local musician Kevin Donnell's haunting atmospheric music.

    The puppet theater itself is an intricate masterpiece, which the audience crowded around when the play ended. Aside from the illustrations and little mini-sets built into it, the theater also employs a clever, wheel-driven mechanism (designed by jack-of-all trade artist Erik Newman) for moving panels of scenery back and forth on hemp-string. Others members of the stellar artistic team include director Frank Maugeri, Kass Copeland (puppet theater design), Seth Bockley (assistant director), Tracy Otwell (toy theater design), Angela Tillges (art director) and Jim Lasko (Redmoon founder).

    The ticket price is a bit steep: $30 for adults and $15 for tots. But the haunting mood that Redmoon creates with its visual dynamism, along with the warm humanity of the tale, makes it a perfect wintertime family outing that's well worth the cost of admission.

    "Once Upon a Time (or the Secret Language of Birds)" runs through April 8 at Redmoon Central, 1463 W. Hubbard Street, Chicago. Shows 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday; 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, $15-30; call (312) 850-8440.

  • CenterstageChicago; Review; A Christmas Carol; Theater Review

    A Very Chicago Christmas

    Attending the Goodman Theater's annual production of "A Christmas Carol."

    Monday Dec 04, 2006 by Gretchen Kalwinski

    Pictured in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol adapted by Tom Creamer directed by William Brown are (l to r) Martin Yurek (Ghost of Jacob Marley) and Jonathan Weir (Ebenezer Scrooge).

    photo: Michael Brosilow

    I'll admit it: I'm one of those holiday-nerds who cues up my iTunes holiday playlist the day after Thanksgiving. Even so, I haven't attended the Goodman Theatre's long-running annual production of "A Christmas Carol" since I was a kid, carted in from Northwest Indiana on a class field trip. The reason is twofold: One, the crowds, and Two, the germy half-pints who tend to make up a large portion of the audience.

    This year I decided to throw caution to the wind and see the Dickens classic on the weekend following Thanksgiving with my mom. We had some extra time before the show and could have checked out the Macy's Christmas windows kitty-corner from the theater (and with a Mary Poppins theme), but as Marshall Fields die-hards we turned up our noses at the opportunity and passed them by with nary a second glance.

    Instead, we walked to Dearborn and Washington to take in the Chriskindlmarket (an outdoor holiday bazaar sponsored by the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest) at the Daley Center. Chriskindlmarket usually runs during the month before Christmas and shows off a big, lighted tree, craft and gift booths, and even Santa Claus.

    Some of the crafts embrace the cheeze-factor, but there are also a good amount of delicate hand-carved and glass-blown ornaments, pretty lace tablecloths and artfully clever puppets and toys—and foodstuffs; among other delectable offerings were brats with kraut, apple cider, almond-apricot strudel and sweet-cheese fritters.

    Satiated, we made our way to the Goodman, listened to the carolers in the lobby, and took our seats. A fun fact: "A Christmas Carol" has been running since 1978 but the company changes it up a little every year to keep things fresh. I found that the timeless play was even better than what I remembered as a kid: The authentic sets were spot-on, the flying and ghostly effects were clever, and Scrooge was a deliciously cranky (and funny) curmudgeon, backed up with a talented and believable cast.

    Years of honing the production means that the look of the sets is authentically Dickensian and are neither amateurish or overdone. They even managed to find a Tiny Tim who was legitimately cute instead of cloying.

    More than that, the whole experience felt communal in a really good way, and the layout and intimate size of the Goodman lends themselves to that vibe. Though I'd originally balked at the idea of hoards of kiddies, I didn't mind the ones I ran into; it was refreshing to attend this well-worn production with a gaggle of tots who were probably seeing their first play ever and it lent some extra jubilation to the event. The lessons in A Christmas Carol may seem to be "true meaning of Christmas" cliches, but hey, some tales bear repeating, and the morals are well-worn ones that aren't bad to be reminded of now and then, right?

    After the production, we tried to go to Petterino's, the legendary bar and restaurant attached to the theater, but it was too busy, so we opted for the Atwood Cafe around the corner in the Hotel Burnam instead, and sipped on an overpriced spiked cider and Manhattan, watching the State Street passerby.

    And that soft fuzzy buzz you feel? That's how you truly know that the holidaze have arrived.

    Guidebook rating: It goes without saying that all holiday-nerds should attend the production at least once to kick-start their holiday season. But even if you're not a holiday nerd, and are made to attend in order to appease family members or out-of-towners, you're going to have a blast. Make the most of being downtown by checking out the Macy's windows and sucking down a cold-weather drink at Petterino's or Atwood Cafe.

    Stats: A Christmas Carol runs two hours and five minutes including one 15-minute intermission. It generally runs the Sunday after Thanksgiving through Dec. 20.

  • Punk Planet; Book Review; We Don't Need Another Wave

    We Don’t Need Another Wave: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists
    Edited By: Melody Berger
    Publisher: Seal Press

    Editor and founder of The F-word zine Melody Berger compiled this collection of essays to critique the ways that contemporary feminism is discussed in the media. “We don’t need another wave,” she writes in her introduction. “We need a movement.”

    The foreword is by Bitch Magazine editor and founder Lisa Jervis, who says that the “wave” terminology has outlived its usefulness and is often used by the mainstream press to position 2nd and 3rd wavers as “anti” one another, (i.e., 2nd Wavers reject humor and sex; 3rd Wavers aren’t politically active). Jervis’ take is that the idea of a simplistic generational divide serves no one, and that we should keep discussing the main point—gender justice—while retaining myriad voices and opposing perspectives that move in the same direction: forward.

    Topically, the essays run an impressive gamut—covering everything from Latina reproductive rights activists, a critique of the GLBT wedding industry, the organization of sex worker rights, one woman’s reclamation of sexuality after abuse, and the inherent issues of being one-half of an interracial lesbian couple. One of the contributors is Jessica Valenti, who runs a blog called, and writes with intelligent passion about the image problem of the word “feminist” and why women shouldn’t shrink from it, in her piece, “You’re a Feminist. Deal.”

    Another stirring essay is by Kat Marie Yoas, who grew up in a trailer park, and later ended up in academia. Yoas grapples eloquently with the complexities of living simultaneously in two disparate worlds, including identity-confusion, class-anger, and insulting assumptions made and spoken by her colleagues. In “Steam Room Revelations,” writer, teacher, and filmmaker Courtney Martin tells of coming to term with body issues and self-consciousness via a raucous group of older women who frequent the steam room at her local YMCA.

    What’s thrilling about the collection is how firmly grounded in activism the contributors are. The diverse bylines are made up of educators, artists, poets, filmmakers, founders of non-profits, students, performers, all who live and breathe the issues they’re writing about. I’d nitpick that several of the confessional poems embedded in the collection don’t serve it well, but mostly this is a gaggle of brash, fun, enlightening, fearless, and on-point essays by people working in the trenches of contemporary feminist issues, and for that it’s well worth your lunch money. ---Gretchen Kalwinski

  • Time Out Chicago; Book Review; Children's Hospital

    Book review published in:

    Time Out Chicago
    / Issue 85: Oct 12–Oct 18, 2006

    The Children’s Hospital
    By Chris Adrian. McSweeney’s, $24.

    -4 stars-

    Forget everything you know about doomsday lit. In his debut novel, Chris Adrian turns the concept on its head with his disaster tale of a flood covering the earth with a seven-mile-deep layer of water, leaving the inhabitants of a magically engineered and angel-commissioned children’s hospital as the only survivors.

    The hospital staff members continue to dutifully perform their jobs attending to sick children, sure that they’ll soon hit land. The protagonist is Jemma Chaflin—medical student and all-around tragic figure—whose entire family has previously perished by either gruesome accidents or suicide, leaving Jemma to believe that anyone she loves is cursed. As months pass, they float uneasily, fighting madness, suspicion and fear, eventually shedding their Old World ways and breaking from the social order they instituted. Jemma stands out when she starts exhibiting mystical healing powers and is whispered to be everything from a Jesus figure to a demon.

    The 600-page tome is flabby in parts and heavier editing could’ve excised the slow midsection. But Adrian has a way with weirdly arresting images, and the religion found here is of the palpable, God-fearing, apocalyptic kind, all sprung from his singular imagination.

    Gretchen Kalwinski

  • Stop Smiling; Article: Jean Shepherd

    Stop Smiling Magazine
    Issue #27 / September 2006

    In Shep We Trust: Jean Shepherd Remembered

    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    “We spend most of our lives trying to outlive our pasts,” Jean Shepherd claimed in a radio broadcast about encountering raw clams, an unheard-of food in the meatloaf-Indiana of his youth. “And we never do quite expunge the past.” Known as “Shep”, Jean Shepherd (1921-1999), was a raconteur, writer, and actor, but his true legacy was his genius for weaving everyday events into goosebump-inducing radio narratives. He created a magnificent intimacy with his listeners in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Radio producer Harry Shearer notes; “He told supercilious East Coasters stories about the Midwest, not the romanticized Midwest of small-town life, but a Midwest that we didn’t know existed—the Midwest of steel mills, of tornados.” Broadcaster Joe Frank, a former insomniac, claims that Shepherd “had such a positive, life-affirming humanity that it gave me a genuine sense of comfort…. that made it possible to fall asleep.”

    Shepherd grew up in Hammond, Indiana, a mill town bordering Chicago’s South Side, gaining mainstream fame for the film “A Christmas Story,” based on his short story collection, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. In 1955, he moved to New York where he began his radio show, but Shepherd’s voice retained his origins, and his crooning; (“After you’re gone, dere ain’t no denyin,’) contained the unmistakably nasal undertones of South Side Chicago and Calumet Region. He read poetry and organized listener pranks, often while kazoo-playing, with show topics ranging from his scorn of advertising, love of pickles, or the White Sox. But his best-known are those about kid-dom in the rustbelt Midwest. One show compares a steel mill to Dante’s sixth circle of hell; “I’m gonna tell you people about how different life is outside of the PJ Clarke and martini-drinker orbit. I worked on the bull gang in a steel mill… in a town that hangs like a rusty barnacle from the South Side of Chicago.” In Excelsior You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, Eugene Berman notes that Shepherd "tickled the better parts of your mind" because he knew just when to pick up speed or change course. This skill is the ability to make a dollar out of fifteen cents, and Shepherd had it in spades. His improvisational mastery led to friendships with Jack Kerouac and Charles Mingus; he collaborated with Mingus on his 1957 album, The Clown.

    Often blurring fact and fiction, Shepherd often lied about or withheld actual biographical information; repeatedly denying the existence of his two children, who he abandoned along with his first wife. Shepherd gleefully disdained “suits” and enjoyed playing the disenfranchised gadfly. He sometimes lapsed into ranting and buffoonery, calling women chicks and portraying the gender as daffy biddies, and it’s assumed that the warmth in his storytelling probably wasn’t present in his personal life. In Hammond, Shepherd’s name inspires mixed emotions. The town has a community center in his name, and many revere him as “Hammond’s Most Famous Resident.” Others revile him for characterizing them as provincial, working-class stiffs; “If Chicago is the city of broad shoulders, then Northwest Indiana is its broad rear end.” But the region was his bread and butter, and in the rest of the world, he’s only marginally known. In 1999, Shepherd died alone in Florida with his past so emphatically shed that his obituary read: “no survivors.”

    If you squint, a nighttime drive through Hammond is a Venice of glistening marshes and rivers. Cheap hotels flash neon, and lumbering freight trains blow whistles, while smokestacks on Lake Michigan pump smoke and blue-orange flames around the neighborhoods. Despite himself, Shepherd couldn’t shake these childhood impressions, and spent his life using his voice to drift into people’s nighttime consciousness. Being immortalized by his similarity to the Calumet Region would be bittersweet to Shepherd, but the words he broadcast through the night air voiced a desolation and ugliness so intense that it became beautiful, and he managed to transcend the smokestacks, hovering in listener’s minds like a pervasive cloud. --GK

  • Time Out Chicago; Book Review; Alligator

    Book review published in:
    Time Out Chicago / Issue 82: Sept 21–Sept 27, 2006

    Lisa Moore. Black Cat, $12.
    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    Alligators are only incidental to Lisa Moore’s novel, but the symbolism of a deceptively slow-moving monster is apt in this tale. Alligator’s plot creeps along more quickly and desperately than apparent, and there are a lot of murky happenings taking place beneath the surface.

    The vividly drawn characters include eccentric, aging filmmaker Madeleine, recently widowed Beverly, teenage ecovandalist Colleen, Russian thug Valentin and disastrously unlucky lonely guy Frank. They’re all oddballs: Colleen ritually watches beheadings on the Internet so that the victim is not alone; Madeline is crazed with finishing a film about “everything” before she dies; and Frank is a desperately hardworking hot-dog vendor. Though the plot is nonlinear, with constantly shifting perspectives, Moore inhabits the disparate worlds of her characters elegantly. The challenging structure adeptly builds tension as simultaneous events move the plot along, and there is the building sense that all are heading toward strangely connected climactic events. Moore’s prose is tight, tough and stunningly original; when an ex-lover booty-calls, he craves a “languid tussle.” Midway through, we were invested enough in the characters to enter the throes of page-turning headiness, even though we still weren’t sure how they were connected.

    A prizewinning short-story writer, Moore makes her first turn as a novelist with this book and she succeeds magnificently for the most part. Our only beef came at the end: We were engaged and waiting for the kind of emotional wrap-up that someone like Eugenides delivers, but the last five pages fell flat. We just wish she hadn’t taken us nearly to the finish line only to stop short and meander off the track. —GK

  • Stop Smiling; Article, Third Coast International Audio Festival

    Stop Smiling Magazine

    Issue #27
    September 2006
    The Third Coast

    By: Gretchen Kalwinski

    The Third Coast International Audio Festival (TCIAF) began in 2000 as a Chicago Public Radio project with the goal of celebrating the “best feature and documentary audio work heard worldwide on the radio and Internet.” TCIAF has myriad components including an annual conference and competition, and a website that archives Re: sound, a weekly radio program. TCIAF produced the cd that accompanies the Midwest issue, and here’s what executive director Johanna Zorn had to say about the Midwest tie-in.

    How did you choose the pieces for the cd?
    We wanted to offer a variety of examples, so we picked some favorites that demonstrate the versatility of the radio form. There are four tracks, and three of them were made by producers from Illinois or Michigan. The stories are all over the place! There's a first-person narrative by a young gay boy trying to find his way in the world, and a documentary about a town in Arkansas that's forever changed by the appearance of a bird. The topics are very different, but what they all have in common is that sound plays an essential role in each story.

    Who were some of the producers and artists?
    Some may surprise you--for instance, writer Rick Moody and musician Sujfan Stevens. Artists from other mediums have a growing interest in using audio to tell stories and make art; we're witnessing a renaissance in using radio as a storytelling medium. Now, the tools for audio production are relatively low-cost; anyone can podcast through the Internet, and there are more radio programs out there inspiring folks who never took a journalism class to pick up some equipment and get busy.

    Why did you choose the name “Third Coast Festival”?
    While other cities may stake their claim to the third coast, we felt the title was especially fitting for a festival rooted in the heart of America's Midwest and headquartered on Navy Pier in Chicago, right where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan. So the third coast is literal, another name for our prime location, but since we're an international festival, we also hope it evokes coasts throughout the world. ---GK

  • Time Out Chicago; Feature article: SKALD competition

    Time Out Chicago / Issue 73: July 20–27, 2006

    The tell-tale art

    The annual SKALD competition brings the art of storytelling out of the dark ages and onto the stage.

    Back in the days of Vikings, skald was a term for someone who told stories and performed poetry in exchange for jewels, cash and other booty. Evidently, human nature hasn’t changed much in the past few centuries: The annual SKALD storytelling competition, which offers such modern treasures as a $150 gift certificate from Borders and $250 in cash, has grown so popular that even the City of Chicago wants to get in on the action.

    SKALD was born out of a 1999 WNEP Theater (a theater and comedy troupe) audition in which an actor told a two-minute story instead of performing the usual monologue or scene, WNEP’s founding director Don Hall recounts. These auditions were so entertaining, and company members were so eager to do it again, that storytelling quickly became its own show, SKALD. “In fact, most wanted to do it once a month,” Hall says. “I knew then that the concept had legs and decided to make it an annual thing.”

    In past years, stories performed ranged from the irreverent—like the one about a man who gets a desk coffeemaker and becomes the office stud—to the creepy, like “a school janitor who used a classroom doll to…pleasure himself,” recalls SKALD competitor Rebecca Langguth. “It sounds darkly funny, but was heartbreaking.” Hall’s favorite story was performed by Jonathan Pitts about Pitts’s father David (an Ice Capades performer who skated with a chimpanzee named Spanky), and the duo’s encounter with a serial killer. “It was a true story, and Pitts showed the audience a blowup of the 1960s newspaper article at the end of his tale,” Hall says.

    At this year’s SKALD, Hall hopes WNEP’s new partnership with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs will lead to its biggest turnout yet. The city sponsorship means SKALD’s program is greatly expanded from last year, so this event includes more than the big storytelling competition on July 29. There’s also the MAELSTROM contest on July 28 (see sidebar), in which competitors are given ten seconds to create a three-minute story based on audience prompts. Young’uns will hear some tales at KIDSKALD, and a panel composed of storytelling experts such as Leah Guenther, executive director of Dave Eggers’s 826CHI writing program, and Greg Allen, the founding director of the Neo-Futurists. In addition, Hall will lead free workshops for adults while WNEP member Jessica Rogers teaches kids on Monday 24 and Tuesday 25.

    In past years, competitors were admitted on a first-come, first-served basis, but this year’s high demand forced Hall to hold auditions. “We whittled it down to the best 16—six for MAELSTROM and ten for the [main] SKALD competition,” he says. SKALD contestants have six weeks to prepare their story, and Langguth says she plans to use every moment until then. “Last time I participated [in 2001], I practiced with an egg timer,” she says.

    She also almost passed out from nerves. “I can still remember pulling the host aside and telling him that I didn’t think I could go on,” Langguth says. “Five years later, you’d think I’d have some kind of calm, but just thinking about it makes me nauseous. Maybe that’s what makes it such a wonder of a thing. Folks standing up and sharing something of themselves. It’s very intimate, in a way.” SKALD is about sharing stories, but it also involves competition. Yet Langguth’s got nothing but love for other participants: “Every year, there are new stories that break your heart or make you bust a gut. Last year, [eventual winner] Brad Norman told a fantastic story about a man who likes to bake. He made the most delicious chocolate-and-peanut-butter cake, and shared it with the audience afterwards.”

    When asked about how she plans to demolish these other talented competitors, Langguth says, “It’s not about annihilation. I really want everyone to tell the best story, if only for my own entertainment.”

    But then she quickly adds, “Don’t get me wrong—I want to win! Badly!” Just goes to show that things haven’t changed that much in the past few centuries: People still rally when booty is involved.

    SKALD’s story time runs from Monday 24 to July 29. 

    Stories on the spot

    How good are this year’s MAELSTROM contenders? We gave four of them an idea and 10 seconds to improvise the beginning of a tale for us.

    Competitor: Scot Goodhart Suggestion: “Cigarettes on the beach” Chrissie goes to the beach to “get fucked up.” The idea was that she and James would fill a Styrofoam cooler with Natural Light Ice and Marlboro Mediums, then take the 78 to the beach. They’ve been together for two months; he just moved in with Chrissie and her daughter Kaytlyn, who’s not his. The first thing I heard Chrissie say was, “It’s God’s fucking ashtray is why!” just before she swung at the guy confronting her about where she was depositing her butts. The last thing I heard her say as she was placed in the patrol car was, “I just wanted to get fucked up.”

    Competitor: Mike Rosolio Suggestion: “Antlers” There are a few circumstances that no one, no matter how battle-hardened and worldwise, can be totally prepared to deal with. One of these is waking up in a foreign country. The world makes so much sense when you’re stationed in a log cabin–themed hotel in Seattle, and the clarity and comfort found there enhance the stark contrast of stepping off of a train car, blurry eyed from sleep deprivation and $2 mojitos, expecting to see the San Francisco Bay and finding instead the cruel beauty of British Columbia. While there wasn’t actually any danger of being detained against my will, and I was able to find a ticket back to the Golden State within a few hours, the point is instantly made that the future, no matter how scheduled it seems to be, is impossible to know, and that it might be among the wishes of fate to deliver you to the land of socialized medicine.

    Competitor: Michael Brownlee Suggestion: “Breakneck” Samantha’s aching lungs fought to pull in enough oxygen to keep up with her pumping legs. “Faster. I need to go faster.” The footsteps behind her were closing in quick. She lowered her head and pushed herself harder. She could hear the panting breaths of her pursuer. She arched her back and lunged for safety. It was too late. She felt the hot hand on her back and cringed as she heard those awful, breathless words: “Tag. You’re it.”

    Competitor: Cholley Kuhaneck Suggestion: “The postman rings twice” I don’t like getting mail. This offends my mail carrier. He tried marking all my mail return to sender. I was happy to see it go. He stuffed anything that was not addressed to anyone in particular in my mailbox. It backfired on him. He now had to move beyond Newtonian physics to make everything fit. Finally, he put my mail in everyone else’s mailboxes. All night my neighbors came by with pieces of mail for me. I put a note in my mailbox. “I promise I’ll get my mail weekly.” He left a note, “Write it a hundred times.”—Gretchen Kalwinski

  • Time Out Chicago; Feature excerpt; Lake Michigan Activities

    Time Out Chicago / Issue 69: June 22–June 29, 2006

    10 things we love about the lake
    Lake Michigan defines Chicago, both literally and figuratively. We think it’s time this underappreciated wonder got its props.

    By: TOC Staff
    Excerpt by: —Gretchen Kalwinski and Rod O’Connor

    ...2. It’s our own public water park
    The lake offers plenty of ways to hold your own personal X Games. Howza ’bout kayaking? You can join Chicago Kayak  which offers free rentals to members and departs from Leone and Wilson Beaches up north. You can get a yearlong club membership and a free introductory lesson—which is required to join the club—for a mere $130. If windsurfing is more your speed, Windward Sports offers private lessons for $50 an hour from June–September. But for our money, the most exciting water sport is kitesurfing, in which harness-wearing participants combine surfing and kite-flying to navigate a board propelled by a huge kite. Chicago Kitesurfing launches from Montrose Beach, and offers expert instructors, classes and equipment. All that’s required is water and wind (no waves needed). It’s a pricey hobby— a three-hour lesson (with equipment provided) costs $150–$250, and if you decide to buy your own gear, you’ll pay $1,000 to $3,000—but as any adrenaline junkie knows, you have to pay to play.

    Plain, old-fashioned surfing is an option, too. Every day, Lake Michigan longboarders watch cold fronts closer than Tom Skilling, and when the winds hit 25 miles an hour, it’s time to slip on the wet suit in search of the perfect wave—calendar be damned. “I surf all year round, until the lake freezes over,” says Jim Hoop, 43, Chicago’s unofficial surfing ambassador. “I’ve surfed excellent waves on New Year’s Day.” If you wanna join the fun, hit Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Michigan (269-932-4575,, for lessons. And since surfing isn’t allowed in Chicago proper, head to Michigan City or Whiting in northwest Indiana, good spots when there’s a west or north wind.

  • Time Out Chicago; Feature; Strange Lake Tales

    Strange but true lake tales
    You may think you know all about Lake Michigan, but we dredged up some offbeat lake lore that is sure to float your boat.

    Excerpt by: Gretchen Kalwinski

    Making waves

    You know how when you look across the lake, the other side looks really, really far away? It is. But some dude swam across the lake in 41 hours. See, ultramarathoner Jim Dreyer was running out of terrestrial body-punishing feats of endurance, so in 1998 he took to the water. Swimming the 65 miles between Two Rivers, Wisconsin, and Ludington, Michigan, in a little less than two days, he smoked the previous Lake Michigan distance record (held by IIT research chemist Ted Erickson, who swam the 44 miles from Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana, in 36 and a half hours). Though he was already a marathon-trained athlete, Dreyer had to add “meteorological expert” to his resumé in order to look out for potential hazards on the lake. But his real secret weapon: replaying Aerosmith and Beatles tunes in his head while he swam. (We’re hoping it was the older, pre–“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” Aerosmith.) After a blitz of media attention, Dreyer continued his long-distance swimming in the four remaining Great Lakes and nabbed 13 world records, all to raise funds for Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum ( in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Here’s the kicker: He’d only learned to swim in 1996. Traumatized by water after almost drowning as a toddler, he finally decided to venture to his local swimming pool, where a kindly lifeguard gave him beginner’s lessons. “My swimming career had real modest beginnings, for sure,” Dreyer said. He plans to keep undertaking running and swimming challenges for charity; track his progress at —Gretchen Kalwinski

  • Chicago Reader; review, Festival of the Lakes

    I wrote up my hometown's "Festival of the Lakes" for the Chicago Reader, (or, as locals call it, "CritterFest.") May 2006


    In its 1980s heyday northwest Indiana’s AugustFest brought the Guess Who, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Koko Taylor to industrial Hammond, but in later years it started to draw a seedy crowd. By the time the city canned it in 2000, it was known locally as “CritterFest.” Its replacement, the three-year-old, family-friendly Festival of the Lakes, focuses on the area’s water—lakes Michigan, Wolf, and George. And since the city has been working on turning brownfield sites into green space, the festival highlights those improvements with outdoorsy events. Wolf Lake has carnival rides and a pontoon outing alongside its music stage (Cheap Trick, the Temptations), and the Hammond Marina showcases a Lake Michigan bird sanctuary and hosts a floating polka party. George Lake has the most weirdly intriguing attraction: the new $40 million Lost Marsh Golf Course. Formerly a slag heap, Lost Marsh is now full of rolling hills and cleaned-up water hazards, though it’s still flanked by smokestacks and oil tanks. Is there anything more American than standing in a fairway that used to be a toxic hill, hot dog and lemonade in hand, watching geese fly beneath a hovering cloud of pollution? Wed-Sun 7/19-7/23, Hammond, Indiana, 219-853-6378 or —Gretchen Kalwinski

  •; Venue Review: Newberry Library

    --published in:, April 2006

    Review of: Newberry Library
    60 W. Walton St., Chicago
    Tel: (312) 255-3504

    Just uttering the word "Newberry" inspires knowing looks, as this independent research library doubles as a revered Chicago cultural institution. Founded in 1887 by Walter L. Newberry, the Chicago businessman's ideal library was one that was free and open to the public. Admission is still free and open to the public...with a few caveats. Books cannot be checked out and readers must be over 16 and must be researching a topic that is covered in the library's collection. (However, one-day passes are given out to curious booklovers who want to peruse.)

    The evolving collection focuses on the humanities, centered primarily on Western Europe and the Americas. Reference librarians offer in-depth research assistance; their services can also be garnered for genealogical research, one of the most frequently used Newberry resources. The extensive public programming includes author events, concerts and exhibits. A seminar schedule of classes designed for adults changes seasonally and includes courses in genealogy, jazz, Chicago history, Victorian culture and public art. But don't keep your nose buried in a book, as the building itself is a treat: Designed in 1893 by Henry Ives Cobb, the lobby and several of its rooms were restored to its original turn-of-the-century state in 2001. At the same time, the columns were redecorated and a grand chandelier was installed in the elegant Ruggles Hall, which is often rented out for events or weddings.

    If you don't have a specific area of research in mind but want to check out the building, try the bookstore (just inside the Walton Street entrance) first. It's filled with books on everything from Chicago history and architecture to calligraphy to literary fiction, and is stocked with gift items for the bibliophiles on your list.

    Reviewed By: Gretchen Kalwinski

  • Time Out Chicago; Recent Restaurant Reviews

    Two new restaurant reviews for Time Out Chicago, below.

    Crepes Cafe
    410 S Clark St
    Loop/West Loop, Chicago | Map


    El: Blue, Brown, Orange, Pink, Purple (rush hrs) to LaSalle 
    Those who crave the stuff of San Francisco crêpe stands can find a suitable substitute until their next Bay trip at this cheerful Loop café. The $7–$12 price point may seem stiff for a little French pancake, but savories (mushroom, beef Stroganoff) come with salads and desserts are a la mode. Plus, while the namesake crepes may be thicker than the lacy-edged ideal, they’re jam-packed with fillings, the best of which include a seafood-studded frutti di mare option. Hours--Lunch (Mon–Fri).

    Papa Smiles
    This charming south side ice cream parlor/candy shop is owned and managed by “Papa” Ron Kozak, whose mother ran a beauty shop in the building. The quaint decor—an old-fashioned soda fountain, jukebox, and walls plastered with historical photos of the 'hood—hearkens back to a simpler time. We recommend the generous portions of Homers & Hershey ice cream (especially pistachio), Papa’s greasily delicious chili- and corn-dogs and housemade taffy apples (peanut, pecan, walnut). Eat outside on benches or at antique tables loaded with games for the rugrats.
    6955 W Archer Ave between Newland and Sayre Aves (773-788-0388). El: Orange to 62H Archer bus. Bus: 62H. Lunch, dinner: 12-9pm daily during late March through November (weather permitting). Average item: $3.

  • Time Out Chicago; Hilary Clinton Event, 2008

    Time Out Chicago / Issue 163 : Apr 10–16, 2008

    The scene

    Hillary Clinton at the Civic Center in Hammond, Indiana, March 28, 2:32pm By Gretchen Kalwinski

    Borderline state: Most of Indiana votes Republican, but Northwest Indiana (a rust-belt region that calls itself a Chicago ’burb) is populated with blue collars and union Democrats. Due to the state’s increasingly important May 6 primary, Hillary Clinton planned a Gary, Indiana, stop; but after Gary Mayor Rudy Clay endorsed Obama, she rerouted her Hoosier Economy Tour to Hammond, mere miles from Obama’s South Side base. Bobby Kennedy was the last presidential candidate to visit Hammond, so thousands turned out with signage: NWI IS CLINTON COUNTRY and 2 FOR 1: HILLARY AND BILL: KEEPING THE DREAM ALIVE. Undeterred by Clinton’s posse being two hours late, the crowd ate concession-stand hot dogs and politely endured a high-school chorus’s Beatles/ Footloose medley during the wait. Clinton’s talk was crowd-appropriate: “It was from Northwest Indiana that so much of the steel came from that built this country;” “My campaign is about jobs, jobs, jobs.” She invoked Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, rumored to be her potential VP, and Bush-bashed—“Won’t you be happy to see him walking out of the White House?”—while the crowd cheered wildly. One sign-holding mom scolded her daughter when she slumped back in her chair, saying, “This is history: Stand up!”


  • Time Out Chicago; Features; Polish bars

    Time Out Chicago / Issue 157 : Feb 28–Mar 5, 2008

    Global drinking | Poland

    Warsaw packed: Vodka abounds as do bottles of Zywiec and Okocim. Na zdrowie!

    POLE POSITION Martini Club’s cold vodka and hot bartenders may make you a little lightheaded.

    The Polish party spot Martini Club (4933 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-202-9444) nestles in the blue collar ’hood of Jefferson Park, but it’s attempting to draw an upscale, clubby crowd. Exhibit A: swank decor like gilded mirrors, a translucent bar lit up underneath by red lights, a DJ area near the front window, glowing red candles, leather booths, exposed brick, disco balls and laser lights. In a city that abounds with Polish shot-and-beer joints, this bar reaches out to those whose names may not end in ski while still retaining its Polish roots.

    As is the custom for any Polish bar, the place is stocked with impossibly good-looking female bartenders (who understand just enough English to chat with non-Poles). Before 9pm, the joint’s littered with men buying drinks and watching the bartenders and whatever game is on the TVs; the mood is mellow, and occasionally someone uses the free Wi-Fi to type on his laptop.

    Poles are a naturally suspicious people—hey, their country has been invaded a lot —so non-Poles may receive a standoffish reception. But once a drink is ordered and cash is out on the bar, bartenders get chatty and smilingly suggest vodka drinks from their menu. “You been here before?” one minidress-wearing bartender asks a man sporting an outfit and a baseball cap in the Polish flag colors of white and red. “You want me to tell you best drinks on menu?” He does.

    Beer drinkers go for bottles of light, crisp Zywiec (ZHIV-yetz), or Okocim (oh-KO-chim) on draft, which tastes “cleaner and sharper” than the bottled stuff, according to one friendly old man who downs the traditional vodka shot before taking a sip of his beer. Another shot option: the gold-colored Krupnik ($3), a honey-lemon vodka infused with herbs. This stuff burns as it travels down the pipes, but many Polish bartenders (and grandmothers) tout it as a cold remedy; “It’ll kill whatever germs you’ve got,” says Mark (Marek in Polish), a first-generation Pole in his fifties whose parents met in a post-WWII relocation camp. He speaks Polish, “but not as well as I used to,” he says.

    After a few drinks, Marek loosens up enough to try some Polish on the bartender, so he says “thank you,” “Dziekuje” (jane-KOO-yeh), and clinks glasses with his friend while reciting the traditional Polish toast, “Na zdrowie” (nah STROH-vyeh), which means “to your health.”

    Soon there are signs the boisterous birthday party in the back booths threatens to take over the bar—the place is suddenly full of balloons, the TVs change from sports to European music videos and laser lights flash around the bar. “I’m out of here,” Marek says, laughing, and though the bartenders try to press another drink on him, he leaves to make more room for the young Poles, who are toasting, “Sto lat!” (“100 years”), to the birthday girl.


    Slow burn

    Pick up our two favorite Polish vodkas.


    Zubrowka (joov-BROOV-ka), pictured, is an herby-tasting vodka infused with bison grass grown in Poland’s Biaowie forest; there’s a blade of it in each bottle, which gives the stuff a pleasing greenish-yellow color. Poles like to drink it with apple juice or cider. (3394 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-286-4482).

    For straight-up great-tasting vodka, go for the sharp, clean, no-aftertaste Wyborowa (veh-bo-ROW-va). It holds its own against Belvedere and Ketel One—but costs substantially less. Grab a 750ml bottle for $12.99 at Foremost Liquors (2300 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-278-9420).


    Zakopane (1734 W Division St, 773-486-1559). The same old men have been drinking Polish beer and mid-range vodkas here since time began. Only now there’s an actual bathroom door instead of a sheet, an improvement made sometime in the late ’90s.

    Cavalier Inn (735 Gostlin St, Hammond, IN, 219-933-9314). If you’re hitting traffic on the way back from Michiana, exit I-90 for reliable Polish drinks—Zywiec (beer), Zubrowka (bison-grass vodka) and jezynowka (blackberry brandy). Order some pierogi to soak up the booze before heading home.

    Karolinka Club (6102 S Central Ave, 773-735-0818). This polka joint serves Tyskie, a popular lager often sweetened with raspberry or strawberry syrup.

    Accent Café (700 N River Rd, Mount Prospect, 847-298-2233). On weekends, young Poles here drink the Polish flag shot—cherry juice with vodka.

  • Time Out Chicago; Features; 2008 Spas Issue

    Assignment: Get fancy spa treatments and write about them? Yes boss, I can do that. See below or click here for the full article.

    Time Out Chicago / Issue 155 : February 14, 2008 - February 20, 2008

  • Bad at Sports Interviews Literago!

    BadatSports sat down and interviewed Genie Williamson and I about why we started and what we hope to accomplish. Such great fun talking to these ladies! Listen / Article.

  • Eco-Maniac, Features article; Time Out Chicago

    Time Out Chicago / Issue 129: August 16–22, 2007.  Click here or scroll down to read entire piece. 

  • Venus Zine; Spring 2007, Mother's Day

    Yo mama, you rock!

    Venus Zine gives a Mother’s Day shout-out

    Lately, I've been thinking about how über-DIY my mom is. I have fond memories of my hippie-parents building their own garage and cutting labels off clothing to protest advertising. But my mom's Do-It-Yourself attitude wasn't just ’60s counterculture-nonconformity, it was necessity. She came from scrappy immigrants who re-used every plastic baggie, every piece of aluminum foil. Then her father died when she was 16, and DIY took on a whole new meaning for her family — making their own clothing, canning vegetables and fruit actually helped the 6 of them survive. During my childhood, she managed to work full-time while also making clothing and costumes for us kids, designing her own "Snugli" before they were popular, cooking from scratch, baking elaborate birthday cakes in the shapes of trains and animals, and still attending every game, every dance performance. Even now, when it's no longer financially necessary, she re-uses materials, gardens, and makes clothing herself. I believe that every creative urge, every cooking, yoga, or gardening impulse that my siblings and I have, we owe to the DIY street-cred instilled by my amazing mother when we were kids.

  • Time Out Chicago; Books Article; O Street

    Time Out Chicago / Issue 107: March 15–21, 2007

    Chicks and balances

    A debut author upends chick lit with an unflinching look at poverty.

    By Gretchen Kalwinski

    If there existed a polar opposite to chick lit, Corrina Wycoff’s O Street (OV Books, $17.95) would exemplify the genre. The debut author isn’t interested in romanticizing love, motherhood, hardship—or anything at all, come to think of it.

    O Street collects ten short stories about Beth Dinard, who spends her Newark childhood caring for her mentally ill, homeless, junkie single mother. “Visiting Mrs. Ferullo” shows Beth following a neighbor home, longing for the home-cooking aromas that waft from the woman’s apartment. In “The Wrong Place in the World,” adult Beth is in Chicago trying to stabilize her life even while her brutal memories affect her relationships and attitudes about class and work. When she gets a phone call informing her of her mother’s death, it triggers a relapse into old, destructive patterns. It’s tempting to read the tightly linked stories as a novel, but Wycoff stresses the importance of the form.

    “In a linked-story format, I can present other points of view as short pieces of contrast,” she says. “I wanted to structure the book so that it begins and ends with a death, because I wanted it to read as a cycle. Linearity, to me, seems more of a construct than cycles.”

    A single mother herself, Wycoff says the stories should not be confused with autobiography.

    “They are based on a political truth: Single mothers fall through the cracks in this country, and the cracks grow in proportion to these women’s economic challenges, making inaccessible the so-called American Dream,” she says. “When my son was born, I’d not yet gone to college, and money was extremely tight. I drew on that experience…but by the time I wrote about it, [I] had changed enough that it didn’t resemble my ‘real’ life at all.”

    In one scene, a depressed Beth wishes that she could “grow into someone new—someone who could easily have had two parents, good breeding, hearty suppers and piano lessons.” Passages like these strike unexpected chords. Though many contemporary narratives deal with women’s physical and spiritual transformations, few do so at the poverty level. This is, of course, no grand coincidence: Poor women face even more barriers than their male counterparts in getting their stories told.

    “The second of these I wrote when my son was two years old,” says Wycoff. “I wrote it, in part, in reaction to all of the sentimental, dreamy writing about motherhood. ”

    In Chicago, Wycoff met UIC’s Cris Mazza, an award-winning author who has waged a one-woman war against the chick-lit genre. Since then, Mazza has become both her creative muse and mentor.

    “Twelve years ago, I read How to Leave a Country, and decided I needed to read everything she’d ever written,” Wycoff says. “She was the reason I chose to go to college and, later, graduate school at UIC, and she helped me see that the disparate single-mother stories I’d written could be linked.”

    Because of the book’s gravitas (the title story is especially harrowing), getting O Street published wasn’t easy.

    “I got about seven rejections over the course of four years, all from small presses,” she says, “many of whom called the collection ‘too dark.’”

    Indeed, Wycoff portrays the gritty, sorrowful elements of her characters’ lives head-on and offers no easy solutions—no one’s riding up on a white horse, but neither are the stories bleak. Instead, drama and tension are delivered in such a subtle but detail-infused way that the reader becomes invested in Beth’s plight early on in the collection. The collection will likely elicit Dorothy Allison comparisons for its depictions of poor women and lesbian relationships, .

    Wycoff is working on a novel now, and is planning another about teaching at a community college.

    With chick lit down, it looks like the vaunted “university novel” may next.

    Wycoff reads this week.

  • Book review for Stop Smiling, "Entrapment"

    Just published: a new book review for Stop Smiling, of Nelson Algren's Entrapment. The mag does a thing called "Two Takes," where they have two writers review the same book; then they publish the two reviews alongside each other. Beth Capper wrote the "alternate take."

  • Writing for TOC's "DIY" issue

    I wrote a few pieces for Time Out Chicago's recent "DIY issue," including a piece about making your own deodorant (so cheap! so easy!) and another about teaching myself to sing that actually inspired me to start voice lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music. See below or read more here and here

    Dated: Apr 23–29, 2009 / Time Out Chicago; Issue 217: DIY 

  • Time Out Chicago; Travel to Springfield

    In celebration of Abe Lincoln's 200th birthday, I spent a weekend in Springfield, Illinois, and wrote about it. And now I never need to return to Springfield, Illinois. 

    Issue 206; Feb 5

  • Time Out Chicago: Blog Post: Obama in Grant Park

    In 2008, I attended the historic Obama rally in Grant Park last week and wrote a TOC blog post (now defunct) about it the next morning. It was the very first time I felt patriotic.

    Yesterday, feeling the Obamaramic excitement starting as soon as I woke up, I did something I haven't done before: I purposely wore the colors red, white, and blue together. In the past eight years, sad to say, I've actually gone out of my way to avoid those colors, lest anyone mistake my point of view with that of the Bush administration's policies and doctrine.

    Waiting with 20 friends at the Hilton for the results to start coming in, that energy grew as fast as the stash of empty beer and wine bottles discarded in the hotel bathtub. Many of us had canvassed and donated to the Obama campaign and we'd all supported it from the get-go. Some of us were native Chicagoans; some were born and bred in different states: Indiana, Ohio, Virginia. As those state's results came in, the feeling that had been building all day grew exponentially: the feeling that we actually DO have a voice in our nation's path and history and in our own destiny. 
    When we left the hotel room, Indiana, Ohio and Virigina well in hand, our crowd of thirtysomethings felt more than optimistic—we felt something new: Patriotic. This is an entirely new emotion for many in my generation, a generation who's mostly come of age under a Bush administration. Since 9-11, we've shuddered hearing the McCarthy-esque phrase "un-American" casually tossed around to describe those who opposed the administration's views. We've seen, to our great horror, our American flag used as a thinly-veiled threat against "outsiders," or anyone expressing dissent against the government–the ideals on which this country was founded. We've watched politicians be judged on whether or not they were wearing flag pins. We have only known what we've considered to be a political "dark age" in our adult lives.
    But last night, we reclaimed our patriotism. We grabbed American flags and waved them around while braving the throngs waiting to get in the Obama rally. We kept that flag up and waving all night, taking turns keeping it up in the air, (one saying, "every time my arm gets tired, I think of Studs Terkel and put the flag up higher.") After Florida's results were announced, we waved it harder and smiled big in anticipation as the Grant Park rally got louder and louder. And when Obama was officially declared President-elect, after the initial moment of shock, my group—and the rest of the crowd—hugged and sobbed and screamed happily, welcoming in what we believe to be a new era of not only "change," but inclusion, peace, and optimism.
    Before Obama came out to give his classy, somber speech about the direction of our country under his watch, the crowd of thousands said the Pledge of Allegiance together.
    For the first time in my adult life, I pressed my hand firmly to my chest and said the pledge with utter pride. Oddly, I remembered  Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married, where Kathleen Turner's 40-something Peggy Sue time-travels to the 1950s of her teenage years and sings "My Country 'Tis of Thee" in a classroom with teenage peers; in contrast to their bored, lackadaisical singing, she stands up straight and sings proudly, loudly. Watching it with my parents as a kid, I joked about how nerdy she looked and they rebuked: "That's because adults are actually proud of their country. Kids take it for granted."
    Now I get it. This is what it's like to be an adult who is proud of your country. This is what it feels like to be a patriot. This is what it's like to feel hopeful about the future. This is what democracy looks like.
    Now, where can I get one of those flag pins?  - Gretchen Kalwinski, associate Features editor