Urbs in Horto : City in a Garden

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When people think of Chicago they think big city, historic architecture, traffic jams, and hot dogs.  But there is another side of the city that the locals know well, but outsiders may not be aware of.  I am speaking of the parks, gardens, forest preserves and other remnants of nature that still survive in the city.  When Chicago was incorporated in 1837, the founding fathers (mothers?) chose the motto “Urbs in Horto” (City in a Garden) and there must have been a reason.  Granted, there were probably a lot more gardens and nature back then, but the natural aspects of the city can still be found.  A few statistics:  552 parks comprising 7300 acres, 33 sand beaches, 16 lagoons, 10 bird and wildlife sanctuaries, and 20 million visitors to Lincoln Park alone.  In these photos I show a small portion of the natural wonders that can be found by any urban explorer (and check out that City Seal with motto).

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Lorne Michaels Makes Annual Pilgrimage to Chicago

Saturday Night Live co-creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels made his annual visit to Chicago to scope out the scene and possibly hijack some local talent for his little-known TV show which is currently in its 35th year on NBC.  Charna Halpern, co-founder and director of iO Theater, arranged for Michaels to see a series of performances on Thursday July 29; the show ran long, so auditions continued the following night.  Michaels also paid a visit to Second City.
According to Halpern, Michaels or other SNL representatives have been making yearly visits to Chicago to assess the talent and bring deserving comics to the bright lights and big paychecks of the Big Apple.  A short list of iO performers who have sought refuge in fame and fortune includes Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Adam McKay, Rachael Dratch, David Koecher, Horatio Sanz, Seth Meyers, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, and writers John Lutz, Pat O’Brien, Ali Farahnakian, and the newest recruit Shelly Gossman formerly from iO, but currently on the main stage at Second City.
Halpern recalls that SNL reps have been coming to iO for a long long time, even before she moved to Clark Street.  At first it was often a clandestine affair, where performers would be lured to New York without her knowledge.  Beth Cahill might have been the first to go in the late 80’s.  The process has become more formalized in recent years, and Michaels has been coming personally for the last seven or eight years.
“Seth Meyers called this year to set it up,” says Halpern.  After that, she got the wheels in motion to prepare for the show.  Halpern admits that it’s a huge responsibility to decide among perhaps 85 performers who are the few that are totally ready, partially ready, or not ready at all.  Halpern says that 16 or 17 made it to the stage for Michaels’ viewing pleasure this year.
Various agents and certain famous iO alumni regularly ask or beg Halpern to select this or that performer to bring to Michaels’ attention.  Halpern regrets that she can’t oblige these requests, as she has a responsibility to Michaels to present only those that she feels are the best and most deserving talent.
In years past, says Halpern, improv was the preferred style for the Michaels audition, but it eventually became apparent that he wanted to see much more from the talent.  “He needs to see how the performers handle characters, how they generate material,” says Halpern.  With this in mind, each performer is asked to present five minutes of material., which runs the gamut from monologues, to sketches with two or more people.  This year, so many presentations went long, (and Halpern refused to cut them off) that they were only halfway through at 10pm when the program ended.  Michaels agreed to come back Friday night to see the remainder of the comics.
Halpern says that Michaels is not one to procrastinate when it comes to assessing talent.  While he is in town, he will select a number of performers that he is particularly impressed with.  The next step is a private meeting, possibly for a drink; if all goes well, a plane ticket to New York will be proffered for a formal audition.  Several unnamed comics were selected during this year’s visit–their fate is yet unknown.
Is Halpern at all resentful that the best of her talent is culled every year, destined to return only occasionally for special performances?  “That’s why people come here,” she says.  Giving them the opportunity to succeed and perform in front of people of Michaels’ caliber is what it’s all about.  She admits that the SNL connection is also great publicity for her theater–and how could it not be?  Having dozens of iO alumni move on to prominence on SNL or other national showcases only raises the recognition level of IO Theater and it’s training center.
Asked to recall memorable moments during the many iO / SNL auditions, Halpern chose two that stand out. “I had overlooked John Lutz a number of years ago and he begged me two minutes before the audition to put him in. The performers were already backstage ready to go on.  I let him in and he is the one who got hired.  Also, the year Lorne came and hired Koechner, I also put up Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in the same show, but he didn’t pay attention to them.  They were hired years later, so that’s an example to show folks not to give up.”
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Unique Views of Chicago

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What can one say about art?  Especially when the writer is also the artist.  So I will let my new series of Chicago collages speak for themselves.  I created these pieces as a way to communicate more about various aspects of Chicago than I could in any single image.  Let me know what you think.

my chicago web site

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“Mommy, he said a dirty word!”

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Fulfilling its mission to be subversive in language and theme, The Annoyance Theatre has done it again.  It’s latest incarnation, “The Swear Jar,” is an equal-opportunity offender.  During the 90-minute show, audience members are serenaded with the “A” word, both ”B” words, the “C” word, the “D” word, of course the “F” word, and two “P” words, plus cast members make a point of wallowing in most bodily functions, the grosser the better.  Be forewarned, patrons must bring a note from their mother allowing them to hear so many dirty words in one night.  But I digress…the point of the show is not to harass or offend with a constant barrage of four-letter words, the point is to be funny.  And on that mission, they succeed quite admirably.  The humor is sharp and biting and often unexpected, and the range of characters this 8-person troupe inhabits is downright impressive.  The musical numbers also showcase the cast’s talents–one is a rousing tribute to middle-age suburban moms who want to break out and satisfy their aching libido, and another more thoughtful number has an unpopular teenage girl singing the virtues of throwing up and how it will catapult her to fame, fortune, and popularity with her peer group.   If you’ve ever wondered how to receive divine intervention from a gear shift knob, or were curious why the orange juice has suddenly turned red, this show will solve these conundrums.

Comedy is huge in Chicago, and this week is the TBS-sponsored “Just for Laughs” comedy festival, with over 100 comedians performing at 20 different venues around the city.  For a great new directory of everything happening in Chicago related to live comedy, check out the Laughing Parrot.

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The Absolute Last Sports Post, I Promise

Unless you are hiking the Appalachian Trail, you have probably heard that the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup Finals last night.  People were out in the streets in Chicago celebrating; Wrigleyville and Division Street were a sea of revelers, tens of thousands of them drinking and screaming and relishing the rarity of this event.  In Hyde Park, where I live, near the University of Chicago and Obama’s house, the celebrations were a bit more refined.  Ten minutes after the game ended I heard some loud noises outside my window.  I looked down on the street and saw two students arguing about Plato.  Things got so agitated, that I actually heard one of them utter the word “preposterous.”  It’s incredible how a sports victory will bring out the animal in people who are normally in control of their emotions.
Tomorrow will be the victory celebration downtown.  Because of a previously scheduled festival, the celebration was moved out of Grant Park to Wacker Drive.  Grant Park will be hosting the Blues Fest this weekend.  I really feel sorry for the performers and people attending that event–how can anyone wallow in the blues when the Blackhawks just won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years?  “My baby done left me….but the Blackhawks won !!!!!!  Woo hoooo.”  Not my idea of the blues.
And what will happen to the identity of Chicago sports fan who wear the title of “loveable losers” like a badge they are proud of.  With the Blackhawks victory, those days will be over.  No more crying out for sympathy about the long-suffering Cubs–“you have the Blackhawks, stop companing.”  On doctor’s orders I’ve pretty much stopped following the Cubs anyway–watching their games made me feel like those weirdos who listen to police scanners so they can gape at the aftermath of grisly car accidents.
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News Leak

Everyone is doing their part to show their support for the gulf oil cleanup or perhaps their disgust for BP.  A minor league baseball team in Florida in their zeal to protest anything even remotely related to BP has changed the name of batting practice (those guilty initials) to hitting rehearsal.  Executives at BP apparently were devastated to hear this terrible news.  This act of social protest ranks second only to the flurry of Freedom Fries we were forced to endure several years ago when we were supposed to boycott everything French because they failed to fall in line with some American jingoistic march to war.  In the inimitable words of Rodney King, “can we all get along?  And that philosophy was put into practice this weekend when Sir Elton John agreed to sing at the fourth wedding of homophobic pundit Rush Limbaugh.  Was this the onset of a new age of tolerance, or was the $1 million fee enough to keep Sir Elton from puking in the wedding cake?

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Does Anyone Here Parlez-vous Francais?

It’s been a week with a lot of French overtones.  My neighbor’s estranged sister decided to visit her brother after a 20 year hiatus.  He’s not really sure why she became estranged from the family, or why she chose to get unestranged, but sometimes it’s better not to ask too many questions.  Even the French prefer not to look gift horses in the bouche. Nevertheless, she was here with a boyfriend (husband? not sure), and they spoke a lot less English than I spoke French, so French became the lingua franca.   It was nice to dust off my rusty French and do a little conjugating in mixed company.  My accent was pitiful.  At one particularly low point, I was trying to ask the sister if she was hungry, and I mistakenly asked if she had a wife.  Oh well.  I’m sure they were happy I at least tried.  In spite of it all, I think they actually believed I spoke and understood a lot more than I really did.  I’m good with brief phrases, and short comments, which I guess gave them the impression that I was comprehending the majority of the discussion.  Not really.
This afternoon was a Beaujolais tasting at the local wine shop.  Free wine.  Two of my favorite words.  I actually learned a lot of about Beaujolais.  Had no idea it was a region with 12 different appellations–that’s French for “I know a lot more about wine than you do, you peon.”   I was not aware that some of my favorite wines, like Morgon or Fleurie were actually considered Beaujolais.  And I had no idea that the wines I tasted had (according to the experts) aromas of irises, roses, violets, cherries, lime, oregano, chalk dust, and sea breeze.  The taste was also described as reminiscent of plums, red currants, peach marmalade, toasted nuts, and mineral salts.  Very strange.  Maybe I’m missing something, but they all tasted like grapes juice to me.  I guess there is a lot of poetic license with the wine writers, it’s not an easy task to describe in words a taste that is ephemeral and delicate and purely subjective.  So I will cut them some slack and take their florid descriptions with a grain of salt.  That’s sea salt, with a hint of sea weed and a fragrance of briny sea air and mussels, a tad astringent and a pleasant citrus mouth feel.  I bought a bottle of 2008 Chateau de Pizay and I set it aside in my wine cellar to let it age; I’m hoping a day or two will mellow out its rougher edges.  I’m thinking it will be a fine accompaniment to a chicken salad sandwich from Morry’s deli.  Cheers.
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Cold Steel on Ice

Before I begin, I should put out a caveat that I will be discussing sports for the next several paragraphs.  Please don’t think that this will become a trend, rather a one-off diversion, a temporary fork in the road.  After I spew this out,  I will return to the straight and narrow and discuss matters of more import.  Not that sports isn’t important, it’s obviously an integral part of millions of people’s lives.
The sport that will be discussed here is hockey.  That’s the one on ice, but don‘t get it confused with curling.  I became a hockey fan this past year by default…de fault was with the Cubs and Bears and Bulls.  I am not a huge sports fan–Rule #1: it has to be a local team or I have no interest.  Rule #2: the team must at least have a fair chance of winning and they must play like professionals. (is that two rules?)  Because of these two rules, I have become a hockey fan and I am really starting to appreciate the finer points of the game.
Hockey has a very bad reputation (or is it a good reputation?) for being incredibly violent.  Anyone who has seen the classic film “Slapshot” will know what I’m referring to.  But there is also an old saying about hockey: “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”  For the most part this WAS true, but things have changed.  Regarding the games I have been watching this year, this simply is not the case.  Sure there is action, and pushing and smashing players into the boards, and hitting opponents with hockey sticks, but it is not out of control, and fights have been the exception rather than the rule.
Which brings me to the Chicago Blackhawks.  They are the feel good story in local sports the past two years.  Over the course of two decades they gradually lost their fan base, crowds at the games were sparse and not energized.  The team had lost all connection with the legends of old, when the Blackhawks were the best game in town and a force to be reckoned with.  The Stanley Cup (the Super Bowl of hockey) hadn’t paid a visit to Chicago in ages.   And then the owner died and everything changed.
For 41 years Bill Wirtz was president of the Blackhawks and he made countless decisions that diluted the popularity and success of the team.  In 2004, ESPN named the team the worst franchise in sports.  He refused to televise home games and he repeatedly traded away the biggest stars.  When he died in 2007, his son Rocky Wirtz took over, and immediately made wholesale changes.  Home games were now televised.  The legends from the old era of the Blackhawks were invited back and started to play a major role in marketing the team.  And a bevy of top-notch talent was enticed to play here.  What a difference it has all made–in two short years, the franchise has been transformed.  All games are sold-out.  The crowds are loyal, loud and boisterous.  And the team is performing, in fact they are in the semi-finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs now, and are just two wins away from the finals.  And they are so much fun to watch.
The games are tremendously exciting.  I am still amazed that these athletes perform while wearing skates and moving on ice, maneuvering with grace and skill and dodging a frozen puck that travels over 60mph.  At least they wear helmets and sometimes face guards.  In the old days, one could always tell he was talking to hockey player because he had no front teeth.
Maybe I haven’t spread the hockey bug to you with this diatribe, but at least I got this out of my system.  I’ll be watching for the next few weeks, and perhaps there will be a reason to celebrate sports in Chicago again, since it seems pretty obvious that Michael Jordan won’t be coming back any time soon.
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The Modern Wing: A New Work of Art

This week is the one year anniversary of the Modern Wing of the venerable Chicago Art Institute.  By all accounts, the new addition has been an unquestionable success.  Almost two million visitors will pay homage to the likes of Picasso, Seurat, Monet, Manet, Renoir, and the Matisse exhibit that is currently in town.  Besides the refreshing openness of the main hall, the most surprising revelation is how wonderful the classic works of art appear in the sky lit top floor.  Works of art we have seen and loved for decades under tungsten light in gloomy galleries, now take on a new life as they are flooded with diffused sunlight.  Other more delectable works of art are available for purchase and consumption at the very popular Terzo Piano restaurant on the top floor.  A panoramic view of Millennium Park accompanies your Hudson Valley duck breast with polenta and hazelnut pesto.

more Chicago museum photos

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Seven rainy days in May

Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.  Was that Shakespeare? Or Willard Scott?  Well, I AM gonna do something about it.   Not exactly sure what that is, however.  I am familiar with some very effective rain dances, but what we need here is a sun dance.  There must be some that have a good track record of success–I need to do a little research, and if I come up with anything good, I will start dancing on my balcony until the sun pops out.
For you sports fans, the Blackhawks (that’s hockey) have won the second round of the playoffs and will play San Jose in a few days.  The Cubs….well, let’s not talk about that.  There’s always next year.  So much for sports.
Just read in the Tribune today that Walgreens will start selling a DNA Genetic test so we can discover all those hidden secrets within our genetic code.  After forking out $30 for the test, you send your saliva off to some lab, then you have to pay $180 for the results.  Does anyone want to pay all that money to have it confirmed that there is dimwittedness in their family? Or a propensity for slovenliness? Or a susceptibility to spend lots of money on pointless test results?  No thank you, I will keep my money for more important things like chocolate.
Here are some local rain photos in case you’ve been in the storm shelter for the past two weeks–this is what you’ve been missing.  Have a nice day.
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