In which the author of the bestselling essay collection The Empathy Exams and I discuss Frozen, Taylor Swift, the limits of empathy, the problem of happiness, and why we listen to sad songs over and over, with critical attention given to the importance of acquiring your own “personal flurry.”
I was honored to be asked to review Katha Pollitt’s latest for the Tribune’s Printer’s Row books supplement this fall.
[Originally written for and performed at Theater Oobleck's June 3, 2014, residency at the Hideout. Perhaps to be revised, or turned into a chapbook. We'll see. Gently revised version republished September 22, 2014, by Belt Magazine.]
Down the street from my apartment there’s a community garden on a vacant lot owned by my landlord — although, of course, “vacant” is a bit misleading. It’s home to a dozen raised beds of flowers and vegetables. There are hoses and a rain barrel and two rotating compost bins and a mess of stakes and tomato cages under the porch of the house next door. In the spring mushrooms push up through the dandelions
In the first warm weeks of May I sowed buttercrunch lettuce and mesclun and red romaine, along with beets and chard and kale and carrots in the plots I’d claimed as my own. I had the best intentions, I had carefully ordered an array of exotics from the heirloom seed catalog – Chantenay red core carrots; bull’s blood and golden beets. I amended the soil with compost and an extravagant layer of topsoil. I even drew a map in a little spiral notebook. But, perhaps dizzy with the sudden onset of spring, when I got down in the dirt itself I quickly abandoned any attempt to impose structure on nature and began sprinkling seeds with abandon. I figured I’d thin them out once they’d germinated, after I saw what stuck.
One month later the lettuces are coming up thick in nice straight rows. But the bok choy and the chard are sketchy, their sprouts emerging from the soil in curves and clumps, if at all. Only four of dozens of golden beets have germinated, and cilantro has invaded the carrot patch. Samaras from the maple towering to the east have rained down on the garden, blanketing it with little brown propellers and every morning I crouch over the beds, contemplating clusters of inch-high shoots, wondering, are you kale or crabgrass? Are you seed or are you weed?
I live half a block north of this garden, on Humboldt Boulevard practically on top of the Bloomingdale Trail. That’s the colloquial name given to the elevated tracks stretching 2.7 miles west across Chicago from Ashland all the way to Ridgeway, along Bloomingdale Avenue, about midway between Armitage and North. Once it was a spur line for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, but regular transit stopped on the line in 2001 and in the years that followed the tracks were reclaimed by fast-growing plants. Bull thistles and pokeweed grew thick along the railings while pineapple weed choked the tracks – as did broken glass, beer cans, dead rats, abandoned shoes, needles, condoms, and yards upon yards of VHS tape, scenes from Ghostbusters unspooling on the breeze. Catalpa and gingko stretched their branches overhead. Wildflowers rioted in July.
From the ground the trail didn’t look like much – a few miles of dank, crumbling cement held together by graffiti. But from above it was a magic highway. A thin strip of rough scrubby green easily accessed at strategic points along a poorly maintained fence line, the Bloomingdale Trail gave sanctuary to drinkers, dog walkers, joggers, junkies, and anyone seeking shelter from the streets below. It was an interstitial wilderness, opportunistic plants holding tight to rocky soil, and for much of the 00s it was the city’s best-kept open secret.
These days the weeds are gone. Last August the city broke ground on construction of a long-planned network of parks and trails along the railway that’s now called The 606. In the works for more than ten years, it’s set to open in its first phase this fall, and I’ve watched over the last six months as small trucks and front-end loaders zip back and forth along the viaduct past my second-story windows. On the ground, the bright murals that marked the passage from Humboldt Park to Logan Square – whose neighborhood boundary the trail passively polices – have been sandblasted away in the name of lead abatement. The quiet man who lived underneath the overpass all last summer has moved on. If you trespass on the tracks these days you’ll get a ticket.
Almost exactly 19 years ago I was homeless in Chicago, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s loft at Grand and Wood. I spent hours each day, those first weeks, adrift in a strange town, drinking coffee at the old Wishbone on Grand and poring over the Reader classifieds looking for a job, an apartment, a map, a clue.
In the afternoons I walked the streets of greater Wicker Park – Grand to North; Ashland to Western — building a muscle memory of Chicago’s geography with every step. I didn’t go west of Western on my own back then. In 1995, to the new in town, west of Western was the wild unknown, best approached only with a trusted guide.
One night we threw a party. My friends were moving out of the loft, moving on, and I needed to as well. We posted a sign in the kitchen, bold black Sharpie on butcher paper: “Martha needs a place to live.” It was a party with intention, at which I had to introduce myself to strangers over and over until, by accident, one of them stuck. I moved into Carla’s apartment at Augusta and Damen two weeks later.
Accident or intention.
Seed or weed?
For as long as there’ve been gardens, gardeners have pondered the epistemology of weeds.
Because a weed famously is defined by what it’s not. A weed is just a plant growing where it’s not wanted, right? A hardy plant with the tenacity to thrive, neglected, in inhospitable turf.
A weed competes for resources – for space, sunlight, and water — with more desirable, intentional plants. It provides shelter where pests can overwinter. Early-season weeds offer sustenance to sap-sucking aphids and other insects, enabling them to grow strong enough to attack your tomatoes when the time is right.
In the proper context a weed can be a tincture, or a tea, or the main ingredient in your pasta with wild ramp pesto. If it roots in the right place it can fix nitrogen in the soil or anchor unstable ground. In fact there’s a famous story that the first life to return to east London after the devastation of the Blitz came in the form of weeds. According to Richard Mabey, author of the book Weeds, by the end of the war braken carpeted the nave of St. James Cathedral and ragwort scrambled up London Wall. The spread of the lowly rosebay willowherb was so thick and rapid it was welcomed with the nickname “bombweed.”
But what’s a weed on land no one cares about? In the loose taxonomy of common weeds, railway weeds are their own low category: tenacious, craven plants that have staked a claim to the roughest most embattled turf around. Yarrow and curly dock. Pigweeds prostrate, Russian, rough, and smooth. Spotted knapweed, hoary cress, Western goatsbeard, and toothed spurge. They all have names and properties, but in the ledger of urban improvement count for nothing.
Last summer I walked the Bloomingdale Trail a lot, climbing the fence at Julia DeBurgos Park over on Whipple and more often than not heading east. To the west, near where the tracks split at Ridgeway, vegetation gave way to a ground cover of small hostile rocks, and long-abandoned freight cars offered privacy for all manner of illicit human activities.
To the east, though, the path grew soft and lush and where, from the street, the tracks seemed a dark mass of decaying concrete, from above they vibrated with the full flower of midsummer.
Accident or intention?
Seed or weed?
Which is better in the long run? Is it even possible to quantify their relative good? Intention builds bridges; accident coats them with rust. Intention drops bombs; accident turns the rubble green. Intention sows spinach; accident raises lamb’s quarters instead.
But, wait a minute. Weeds grow from seeds, same as radishes. Lamb’s quarters are just wild spinach. You can eat them too, just as well.
My friend Amy used to live on Monticello, just south of the Bloomingdale tracks, and she swore for months that from her garden she could see trains passing along the tracks overhead. We scoffed. Those tracks haven’t been used for years! She was seeing ghosts, we teased, and Amy’s ghost train was a running refrain until, one day, I saw it too – a freight train, real as steel, moving smoothly west.
I did some poking around and the most likely explanation for this is that the trains were delivering flour to a nearby industrial bakery that, though warned of the imminent redevelopment of the trail, waited until the very last possible minute to make alternate shipping arrangements. The least likely, though most lovely, explanation is the legend told by longtime trail neighbors, who swear that the circus used to use those tracks, sending carloads of animals towards the United Center, giraffes poking their necks out the top and nodding to condo dwellers as they passed.
This, of course, is a fairytale. No record of such a train exists with either the railway or the city. It turns out, in fact, that Amy’s ghost train may have been delivering neither bread nor beasts. Rather, in order for Canadian Pacific to hold onto the air rights above the tracks all these years, they were required by law to keep them in use. And so every once in a while, for no reason, they’d run a train bearing nothing slowly by.
In April the Chicago Department of Transportation removed the old railway bridge at the Ashland Avenue end of the Bloomingdale Trail. It was taken to a work yard, scrubbed clean of rust, repainted, and then driven slowly, at dawn, one mile west to Western, where it was reinstalled, and now connects Humboldt Park to Bucktown. The video of the bridge’s transit reminds me of footage of the journey of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, the 350-ton granite boulder Heizer – a reclusive land artist perhaps best known for his 1970 earthwork Double Negative — had excavated from a Southern California quarry in 2012 and trucked over ten nights, at a stately 2 miles per hour, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Over those ten nights crowds of thousands gathered to marvel and clap, and others to mock and jeer. It’s just a rock, the skeptics scoffed. Why waste all this time and money staking a claim to art? But like “Double Negative” – which is basically two big gashes cut into the earth atop a remote Nevada mesa – the appeal of the big rock, which now sits suspended above a deep trench cut into the LACMA plaza, is as much about what’s not there as what is.
Weed or seed?
Can’t a plant – a rock, a trail, a home — be both at once?
For weeks now city crews have been working on the viaduct over Humboldt Boulevard, spitting distance from my door, jackhammering away every morning at the unhappy hour of 7 am. When this phase of construction is done, there’ll be a new access ramp over on Whipple and bleacher seating installed along the Humboldt overpass that will give visitors a place to sit and rest, and look down at traffic on the boulevard, and in my front yard.
It’s a long arc to this yard from that first apartment I stumbled into, the one that anchored me in Chicago. I was only there a year, but in the 18 years since I haven’t strayed far from that central square, even as its perimeter has expanded, pushing past Western to California and beyond, and north to the edge of the Bloomingdale Trail, whose rocks and weeds inscribed new memories into my muscles as recently as last year.
According to the plan recently unveiled by the landscape architect for the site, the trail will be home to an elaborate new ecosystem of native plants, with hanging gardens of forsythia, thickets of poplars and maidenhair ferns, and meadows of blue flax and bee balm, goatsbeard and yellow mullien — desirable, intentional, weeds no more. A spiraling observatory – an earthwork built from soil and rubble — will anchor the western trailhead, its access points marked by evergreen spires. A tunnel of paper bark maples will open onto a public arts space at Ashland, and magnolias will bloom over Julia De Burgos Park.
Like the circus train, it will soon be a fairytale that once upon a time in the city you could climb a fence and take a long walk through nothing, along a trail of beautiful weeds.
About two months ago I agreed to review Tanya Selvaratnam’s The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock for the Tribune’s book supplement. And then, once I got into the book, oh boy did I regret it. Not because it was bad - the book actually has much to recommend it. But Selvaratnam’s sprawling attempt to wrangle feminism, biomedical technology, pop culture, and politics into one comprehensible package, combined with her own hotly personal treatment of the evergreen question, “Can women have it all?” managed to rub up against so many still-tender spots in my own personal history that parsing it all out was more challenging than expected.
The results can be found here — and I’ll just add, to those made blind with rage by the subtitle (you appear to be legion), that I do believe the contents within are more nuanced and/or less incendiary than the cover package implies. If you’re interested in the subject, don’t take a pass just because the Prometheus marketing department decided to wave the red flag of feminism.
This is a (lightly) revised version of a piece presented February 20, 2014, as part of Day Job, a night of stories about work (and, it turned out, play) organized by artist Dmitry Samarov, in conjunction with his exhibit at LivingRoom Realty.
When people ask me what I do, I often joke that I have five day jobs. I have so many day jobs, I complain, that I don’t have time for the night jobs – the creative, life-affirming, desperately unmonetizable work that all this paid labor is supposed to be supporting. But that’s life in the new economy, right? The problem is, I’ve never been very good at playing the field. I was in a serious, long-term relationship with my career for years, and when we broke up a few years ago I spiraled out into promiscuity, looking for love in every gig I met. I had a hard time keeping it casual and then, when those short-term freelance jobs couldn’t give me what I wanted – every goddamn time — I would slide, once again, into despair.
So, a few weeks ago I went on a quick trip to New York with one of my regular day jobs. We’ve actually been together for a few years now and this one, at least, has settled into a comfortable routine, even if there’s still a bit of awkward tension. I try to stay poised and pretty when we’re together. We’re not watching bad TV in our sweatpants just yet, me and this job.
Because, this job, you see, is kind of a brainiac – what it is, really, is an academic journal of opera studies. The journal is held in high esteem by a very small number of musicologists, dramaturgs, performance studies people, and other miscellaneous academics, and has pretty much no relevance, or readership, outside this rarefied circle. And, while I’m not an academic, and I don’t know much about opera — or I didn’t when I started — it’s my charge to keep things on track; to keep the overcommitted, easily distracted thinkers whose thoughts fuel the journal from wandering off and getting lost in the thickets of dissertation defenses and departmental politics. This, basically, takes about ten hours a week, give or take, out of my life. It’s not bad, really, when all is said and done.
Every once in a while, though, it stands up and demands a little more commitment – and thus, I wound up in New York in early February for our board meeting and a conference on Prince Igor, a 19th-century opera by the Russian composer Aleksandar Borodin that was premiering in a new staging that weekend at the Met.
Now, Prince Igor is the tale of a man who makes very bad choices. A man blinded by hubris who, in the very first scene of the opera, defies the blazingly bad omen of a full solar eclipse and leads his men into battle with the Asian warlord to the east. The army is, of course, destroyed, Igor is taken prisoner by the enemy, his homeland is reduced to rubble, the women are raped, his wife is distraught, etc., etc.
It’s also four hours long, and by the time I made it to the conference early the next morning, I was weary. A familiar cloud of doubt descended as I made the rounds of the conference room. What am I doing here? Who is this job? It doesn’t really care about me – the real me, underneath this carefully de-linted sweater. It only cares what I can do for it.
As the assembled scholars dug into the previous night’s production my mind wandered. Musicologists debated the unstable narrative tropes of the medieval epic and the contemporary challenges of Orientalism in 19th-century opera. I wondered whether my paycheck had gone through in time to cover the rent. You should be trying harder to meet the right job, my inner monologue scolded. A nice job, with prospects, and good intentions for the future. This here? This is getting you nowhere.
By the time we broke for lunch I was considering sneaking out early. No one would notice; I didn’t even really need to be there. But instead I just went and got a bagel. And while I was sitting in an upper west side diner, licking the last of the whitefish salad from my fingers and checking my phone, I discovered that I had been dumped. One of my other jobs – a job that had sought me out and courted me, had made me feel so special that despite the various red flags it was throwing up I had let myself get excited about our future. And now? Now it turned out this job was seeing some other writer, and she was so excited about their new relationship that it was all over Twitter.
I walked back to the conference, blinking back hot embarrassing tears. Surely everyone on 86th Street could see that I was unlovable, unworthy of even the basic courtesy of a text message saying, “I’m sorry, I’ve met someone else.”
I settled into the back of the room simmering in a stew of self-pity and humiliation. My face burned; my mind buzzed. Around me the dialogue continued: musicologists and dramaturgs and performance studies people — some well-known thinkers at the peak of their careers; others junior scholars scrambling their way onto the tenure track, but all of their academic reputations carefully built on moments such as this, moments that entailed the informed consideration of questions of operatic scope.
Heroism! Hubris! Love! Failure! Redemption!
At the end of Prince Igor, the humbled hero turns his back on the life of sensual delights offered by his benevolent captors (long story) and returns to his devastated city-state, where he vows to redeem himself, rebuild and start anew. Based on a historical event from the 12th century, it’s a national epic on par with the Niebelungenleid and Beowulf, and while the score pales in the face of the Ring Cycle, it, you know, holds its own as allegory.
And somehow, as the afternoon rolled on, the fact pierced my private pouting that here in this room my day job – my boring, sort of nerdy day job — was publicly investigating the eternal tension between duty and pleasure; between men and women; East and West; body and mind. And though this was happening in an environment so hermetically sealed that a very involved discussion of the theatrical deployment of a stage full of poppies as a visual metaphor for the escape into oblivion failed to include a single reference to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose funeral was that day taking place 40 blocks south – I was soothed.
My mind calmed; my humiliation at my other job’s heartless betrayal was replaced first by anger – what an asshole! – and then acceptance. Because that other job? It was pretty high maintenance. It made big promises, but had trouble returning my emails. Frankly, I was better off without it.
I sat in the back of the conference room and as the conversation unspooled, my left brain kept tabs on the proceedings at hand as the right drifted into daydreams. I remembered lost loves and mistakes made in the face of phenomenally bad omens. And I didn’t panic. It’s all going to be OK. There are other, better jobs in the world; jobs that will treat me right, and I lost myself in visions of a future spilling over with love and loss, success and failure. I am lucky, I realized in that hot conference room and that uncomfortable chair. Lucky that my day job isn’t afraid to talk about its feelings, to engage with big emotions. I’m lucky to have this job to remind me that the day to day grind can still unfurl at operatic scale. I know there’s no future for me and this day job – but that doesn’t mean it can’t still surprise me – deliver comfort even, and occasionally joy.
Elise Zelechowski is executive director of the ReBuilding Exchange (RX), a Chicago-based organization that diverts used building materials – the source of 40% of America’s solid waste stream – away from landfills by promoting sustainable “deconstruction” practices which allow it to reclaim lumber and other raw materials from demolition and remodeling sites and make them available to the public for reuse.
In addition to being an expert on all things garbage, Zelechowski is also my neighbor and a damn fine conversationalist. We sat down over breakfast burritos in December to talk about the need to rethink the waste stream, the economic and environmental impacts of creative reuse, and how making trash visible is key to making it manageable. Our wide-ranging Q&A can be found here at the Occupy website (it was later picked up by Truthout).
Shortly after this piece was published at the end of 2013, Elise announced she was leaving RX to take a position with Thoughtworks, to lead their social impact program in the U.S. So, hey that means RX is looking for a new executive director to carry the torch she so critically lit.
So, I guess I am a business reporter now? I’ve been talking to Gene Pellegrene and the crew at Artist Painters for the last few months — and the result is my first story for Chicago Grid, the online business publication from the people who bring you the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Reader, and, well, who knows what else soon.
Because it’s a business story I focused on, yep, Gene’s business. But he’s got a lot more to say about art, gift-giving, the reciprocity of relationships. He’s an interesting guy and if I’d hung around a few more months I could probably have written a 10,000-word feature. Instead, here’s one little bit hat didn’t make the cut:
“I can tell at the end when people don’t know about the art. I’ve learned not to describe the concept of Artist Painters as an art piece when I give them the art. I do it before, and then I go get the art. Because sometimes they’re just dumbfounded. If it’s done right it’s a powerful thing, and it’s an emotional thing. And oddly I find that I’m more emotional about it than anybody. There’s something about the beauty of what can happen that gets me. People have teared up or just had these expressions of complete joy, or wanted to hug me. People don’t know how to wrap their minds around it and I think it takes a bit of time to sink in.
“I don’t want to tell people up front that we’re going to make them a piece of art because then they might not take us seriously as a painting company. And we should be taken very seriously as a painting company, because no one is going to be as neurotic and crazy as me. And all of us, we really care about the painting aspect of it. So that’s why I tell people the quality has to be so high for this to work as an art piece. So that’s another reason not to tell people up front about the art because I don’t want people to think it’s a gimmick. Or it’s some kind of hook.”
So, I’ve been reviewing books semiregularly for the Tribune for a few months now, and it’s nice to be back in a deadline-making, word-count-hitting groove. Thus far I’ve stuck mostly to the food beat, but with this latest I got to branch out into ecology — and I liked it.
JB Mackinnon is a former Adbusters editor and author, with his partner Alisa Smith, of the 2007 bestseller Plenty, one of the first books to popularize the then-fringey idea of local eating. (Canadian title: “The 100-Mile Diet.”) I wrote about that book for the Reader when it came out, and have loosely followed their work ever since, and after I chanced upon a great essay by Mackinnon in Orion (”Appetite of Abundance,” sadly not online) I was inspired to seek out his latest, The Once and Future World.
Here’s the review – which can be found in prettier PDF format if you are a subscriber to the Trib’s Printer’s Row digital supplement.
I’m on vacation but by the time a friend texted me this morning to see if I’d seen the news, I was already all over the latest devolution of the Charlie Trotter Story. You know the one I mean. The one in which he reportedly ordered some high school photography students to clean the toilets, hollered and cursed at them when they declined, and offered at least one teenaged girl $500 to get a “Charlie Trotter’s” tattoo before he, allegedly, threw the students out of his now-shuttered restaurant. He also (allegedly) flipped off a bemused WGN-TV reporter.
The facts are still sketchy and schadenfreude is ugly — and the comments on this Sun-Times story are even more so. But it was enough of a news peg to get me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: namely, free my 2002 Baffler essay on Trotter’s business philosophy from behind the MIT Journals paywall.
This piece was the thinkier followup to a 2001 Reader feature I wrote in the wake of a confounding meal at the restaurant, but as the Baffler ceased publication shortly thereafter so too did my piece drop unmourned from the cultural conversation. I was happy to find it a few months ago archived along with other pre-digital-explosion content at the journal’s new MIT Press home.
It’s here: Charles the Excellent (Baffler #15, 2002) (pdf)
I just got back from a week on Washington Island, the remote Wisconsin island about which — once upon a time, in 2008 — I entertained fantasies of writing a book. I spent a long, solitary summer on the island that year only to return home after Labor Day with no book, no money, and an ugly bruise on my ego.
My book project failed for a bunch of reasons but one of the biggest was that after a while I was unable to divorce my writing mind from my personal affection for the people I was supposedly chronicling. It’s a trope that writing is a lonely business, but never more so than when you’re stuck six miles off the mainland, and your only connection to the rest of your life entails spotty cell service and daily trips to the library to squat on the free wifi. In that environment, when you stumble upon an actual person interested in your company, it’s easier than you think to table your annoying questions and your digital voice recorder and take them up on that offer of a beer.
That summer came flooding back when I read Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room, which I reviewed this month for the Tribune. (In fact, I sent the final version of the review off using the aforementioned sketchy island wifi.) The Telling Room is a food memoir, and a mystery, and a couple of other things, but at its core it is a smart and rueful meditation on storytelling and on the hazards of going native. The full review is here — and the book itself is a great read. I would recommend it to anyone interested in cheese, Spain, the pitfalls of immersion journalism, and any intersection thereof.