Author: Patrick Erwin

Brushing off the dust

This blog has been in mothballs for a few years, partly because I was writing a bit more memoir style in another blog (Music Sense Memory) and partly because I just wasn’t inspired to write much.

But I’m brushing the dust off and will be using this space to scratch out some thoughts.

I probably have fewer readers than fingers, but in the end, this space is for me.

Time to wash off that dust and grime! 




3nd Annual Ubiquitous End of Year Best Of List (2014 Edition)

Can it already be 2015?

I’ve been spotty about posting here for the last year (especially as I got to the graduation finish line with my degree) but here goes. I’m not really as “listy” as I’ve been in the past, though I do call out a number one.


D’Angelo, Black Messiah

Wow, this came out of nowhere to earn a mention on a lot of year-end lists. It’s great to hear D’Angelo again, and the album sounds fresh and right on time; it’s impossible to miss some of the connections this music has to what’s been happening across the country this summer and fall.

Mary J. Blige, The London Sessions

I’ve always liked Mary, but her last few releases were mostly generic duds cranked out by the small handful of R&B producers who land on the radio these days.

Whoever had the idea to pair her with London musicians is a genius. Even with layers of electronic noise, there’s still a stripped down, chill feel to many of the tunes, and while songs like Whole Damn Year still work the Mary-is-overcoming-her-challenges tip, they sound much fresher and more real doing it.

Azealia Banks, Broke With Expensive Tastes 

It’s been three years since the inventive, crazy 212 tore up the dance floors and music blogs (if not the charts). Since then, Banks has become better known for talking a lot of shit to anyone who will listen, and picking epic fights on social media. (The latest is with Iggy Azelea, or as Banks calls her, “Igloo Australia,” I’m on Team Banks for that one.)

This one had a bumpy road to release, and it sounds like you might expect it to sound: a jerky splash of textures and colors, zigging and zagging through themes and genres. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s never boring. Miss Amor sounds like a big hunk of 90s house melted into an electronica template — with a little Tubular Bells, and Banks’ otherworldly rap, mixed in for flavor.


As mentioned, I have a number one. Two of them, actually. It was impossible to pick between Neneh Cherry’s Blank Project and Me’shell Ndegeocello’s Comet, Come To Me.

I made these comments about Alison Moyet’s The Minutes last year, and they seem perfectly applicable here for both Cherry and Ndegeocello.

This is no rehash or victory lap for a veteran act. [The music is] in this moment and sounds magnificent in contemporary arrangements…[The artist is] comfortable in her musical skin here, and it comes through in every song. This work doesn’t read like the preconceived narrative of some record label, or the faux creation of a mask of celebrity. This is the authentic voice and the story of a confident, talented, mature woman, and it is glorious to hear.

Cherry’s return is especially welcome, and was teased in her excellent 2012 collaboration with jazz group The Thing. Blank Project is amazing partly because of the magnificent songs, and partly because this is so Neneh Cherry. This is the SAME voice we heard years ago, the same voice from the profoundly under-appreciated album Homebrew. 

My favorite song (of many gems) is Dossier — telling the story of a mature couple in a way that makes it feel like words dancing in a tangle of phone wires living in Neneh’s head.

As for Ndegeocello, I was blown away by the continued evolution of her work, a conviction made even stronger when I saw her live in September, where she played an absolutely flawless concert from beginning to end. There is nothing Ndegeocello can’t do: a virtuoso guitarist, a sharp delivery of spoken word/rap, and — perhaps her ultimate secret — she’s got an amazing and versatile voice.

This song, Shopping for Jazz, is a bit different than most of the album, which you just need to hear for yourself.


  • I hadn’t really realized it until I put this list together, but I was definitely drawn to more soul/R&B music this year. Almost all radio-friendly pop music leaves me wanting these days, and a lot of the bands that have emerged with echoes of 80s New Wave just sound watered down to my ears. R&B — at least some corners of it — is still delivering the textures and complexity I crave.
  • Music moment of 2014 and most anticipated moment of 2015: Kate Bush’s concerts. I didn’t go (not even a possibility of it happening) and I wish I had. It is only the smallest of exaggerations to say that The Ninth Wave, part of Hounds Of Love, saved my life, and Kate and her musicians played it in its entirety. It appears as though 2015 may bring a DVD of the performance, and I can’t wait to see it.
  • HONORABLE MENTION: Chrissie Hynde, Stockholm; Prince, Art Official Age; St. Vincent, St. Vincent; Röyksopp, The Inevitable End; The 2 Bears, The Night Is Young; Ben Watt, Hendra; Caribou, Our Love; Cibo Matto, Hotel Valentine; Future Islands, Singles; Röisin Murphy, Mi Senti (EP); and Lamb, Backspace Unwind.

Why LinkedIn needs to adapt to user needs

Wow. Here I am again, writing about my old friend LinkedIn.

I wrote about LinkedIn when I was a staff writer at CareerBuilder (when I wasn’t writing about CB’s own network, BrightFuse), and again when I was pounding the cold, unfriendly pavement in a long, post-layoff hell.

In 2014, after taking a few years to return to the halls of higher education, I’m a few months into a new job search. And while LinkedIn still has some amazing networking components and a healthy database of job listings, I don’t think it’s evolved to be all that it could be.

I’m talking about two main points here: industry, and location.

INDUSTRY: It’s been drilled into many of us that we must respond to the job skills market, that we should be agile and flexible in terms of our skill set, our experience and our interests. And many of us are starting second or even third careers, in clusters of competency that don’t always obviously relate to one another, or that may speak to different strengths we have.

This is certainly true for me. I’ve long had a dual career path. I have amazing organizational and administrative skills, and I’ve been really good at leading projects and processes in my corporate jobs. I seldom learn a job by repetition, preferring instead to be analytical and to understand how different parts of a system interact and relate to one another.

I also have years of experience in a distinctly different area, as a writer and journalist, working in both social media and print. I’ve written feature stories, annual reports and PR content. I’d say that’s pretty flexible.

linkedin_logoAnd yet, LinkedIn has a limited number of industry labels, of which you can only pick one. Have a “slash” career with multiple clusters of experience? Too bad.

LOCATION: The days of working the same job for 40 or 50 years is a thing of the past. For many of us, it also means that living in the same area for 40 or 50 years is also an outdated concept. Since 2000, the launch of my professional career, I’ve lived in three different cities.

I wasn’t being flighty or undependable – each job lasted for several years and I achieved a lot in each one of them. But I responded to opportunity, as well as changes in my personal life, when I moved to a new town.

In a tight job market, it would be a godsend to be able to indicate more than one potential location on your LinkedIn profile.

Yes, there are ways to work around this; joining a LinkedIn group in cities of interest is a obvious way to build visibility. But it seems like having multiple choices for city/region would help us job seekers be more visible to potential employers — or at least tell a clearer story about our long term intentions.

PLAN OF ACTION: I do understand LinkedIn’s perspective, and the perspective of the companies who are searching for candidates. The system should be straightforward and simple.

And clearly, opening these fields to a free-for-all would be an absolute nightmare.

For all the benefits of CareerBuilder and Monster, its ease of use invites a lot of candidates who, despite good intentions, are just not qualified for the jobs for which they are applying. It becomes very easy in the dark pit of a long, arduous job search to just apply for every damn thing you see. I’ve been there, wrote the book and saw the movie — it’s sorely tempting to start flinging your resume at as many walls as you can in the hopes that it will stick.

One idea would be that LinkedIn industry and location fields would still requires a single primary selection, but allows a secondary selection field where additional industries and/or additional cities could be entered — a searchable field, of course, that hiring managers and HR people could see in a search for candidates. (Obviously, one that would also be visible and easy to understand if the job seeker used LinkedIn to apply online.)

I would be completely OK with LinkedIn including these benefits as part of their Premium package. I think that would minimize the risk of the free-for-all scenario playing out, but would still allow people who really need to use those fields the capability to add them to their profiles.

Regardless of my own personal preferences as a user, it seems to me that LinkedIn needs to become more agile and flexible, and respond to the needs of its users. It’s the 21st century workforce marketplace, after all. Time to get on board!

Making a mark on the world

A few weeks ago, my partner and I watched Paris Is Burning on Netflix.

It’s a documentary movie that was released over 20 years ago, but somehow, I hadn’t seen it until now.

It’s a story about young adults and teenagers living in several of New York City’s subculture: gay kids, some in drag, intersecting with entrenched racism and abject poverty.

The result is fascinating, to see how they see the world and how they view power and privilege (and, sadly, how little that’s changed since the movie was made).

I can’t claim this movie is my story; I am not a person of color and I’ve never experienced that level of exclusion.

(There are some interesting discussions online about the process of making the documentary, and about accusations that Jennie Livingston, a white documentarian, was exploiting the movie’s subjects.)

But it brought back a whole lot of memories for me.

I came out at age 21. This was several years after the era (1986-1990) this movie captures.

My family didn’t disown me, but coming out confirmed my status as a strange, unknown factor in their midst, much as I had always been throughout my life.

At that time, their reactions varied from unconditional if confused support to a cool politeness about the whole business.

I needed to connect with someone or something, and while I loved my family, we were speaking two different languages.

For a whole lot of reasons (some of my own doing, and some detailed here) my initial attempts at college crashed like a lead balloon.

My first stop on the Reality Is About To Kick You In The Ass Express landed me in the Rust Belt town of Erie, a few hours away from home.

I spent big chunks of the next five years there, living a life that I recognized bits and pieces of in Paris is Burning.

It was a radical change. I went from a comfortable suburban upbringing to a day-to-day existence where nothing was certain. I was never homeless, but for several years had “housing insecurity.”

I moved around from place to place, sometimes sharing a place as an official roommate, other times scoring a couch for a week here or there until someone got fed up with me.

In the course of four years, I moved at least twenty times. It was probably more, but to be honest, I lost count.

A few times, I tried to get out – heading to Cleveland, or Pittsburgh. But something would crack — the job, the apartment lease, something — and back I’d go.

Even then, Erie put the “Rust” in “Rust Belt.” It was a midsize town of about a hundred thousand people, and the bottom was falling out.

My generation’s parents were losing their jobs as the factories shut down, like dominoes falling. There was little available for us, a fast food job here, a woefully underpaid gig in a retail store there. Some went to cosmetology school to learn a trade, and fared a little better in one of the chain “chop shops.”

My parents came through in emergencies with help, with food, with money. They were weary, too, just hoping I would catch a break, that I would land on my feet.

There were two conflicting forces that ruled my life at this time. There was hardship, and one shitty, minimum wage job after another. There were many moves, brought on by fights with roommates or a loss of income. Twice I was fired from a job for being gay. Once, I was asked nicely to find another place to live (read: evicted) when the landlord learned I was gay.

But there was also a fascinating community that felt like a world I could conquer. It was not a place filled with unconditional love, or with sunshine, kittens and roses. Those that entered had to fight and claw their way into the ring. This is part of what’s shown in Paris Is Burning, and it completely rings true to me.

On the one hand, we fought hard and rough and often with each other. It was do unto others before they do unto you. It was also easier to just always be in fight mode. We were fighting to survive in our small space, fighting the larger culture that didn’t want us around.

But if an outsider came into one of our local hangout spots to mess with one of us? We pulled together and fought them off. Drunk straight guys cruising for a fight would always be outnumbered by sixty or seventy of us, and would scurry away, tail between legs.

One of the things that rang most true about Paris Is Burning for me was the thievery. Few of us wanted to hurt anyone, but as the saying goes, “A girl’s gotta eat.”

Most of us were just hungry and between paychecks, and would sneak food at our menial jobs at restaurants and convenience stores. The bolder ones might slip a few dollars into their pocket here or there.

Some were far more outrageous or desperate. I remember hearing the story of one guy who showed up to the club on a Saturday night looking dapper in a new designer suit. There was no way in hell he could afford it. How did he get it?

The story slowly came to light: apparently, he’d gone to the high-end men’s retailer in question, tried the suit on….and then, after rolling the fabric into a tight ball, shoved it into his anal cavity and walked out of the store.  (How much was that dry cleaning bill?)

Another story involved several friends seeking new outfits for a drag performance, and running, Thelma-and-Louise style, from a stodgy old dress store in the outfits themselves.

I’m not condoning stealing, or laughing at it to minimize what it was. But it seemed so natural at the time. People do desperate things when your rent is due, or you’re hungry, or your kid needs to see a doctor. It’s something I’ve always remembered.

And we were just starting out, trying to figure out both the world at large and our little underground community.  (Erie was also the place where I first fell, head over heels, in love.)

We had to know two languages, two sets of signals and signs. It got really tiresome after a while, unless you were at the ends of the gender expression spectrum, where hiding simply wasn’t an option.

I always had such respect for the drag performers. Many of the clubgoers considered drag shows an irritant, something that took time away from dancing on a weekend night. But for me, I was always interested in the theatrical aspects, the aesthetics of it all, the ability to put on a show, to reinvent oneself.

One of my dearest friends in Erie was a quiet, mild-mannered man. But when he assumed his drag alter ego, the personality change was amazing. The shyness was gone, and in its place was a bold, bawdy creature who flirted with everyone in sight.

It briefly inspired me to try drag for myself . I was the ugliest drag queen in the world, but I definitely had fun. It cemented my appreciation for it as an art form, and I loved coming up with stage and song ideas.

It really got me thinking about the ways we all wear masks.  This is not a new idea – RuPaul’s talked about how everything we all do is ‘drag,’ is all performance of an identity.

While Erie didn’t have any “houses” like Paris is Burning, we did develop our own families, so to speak, ones that filled in the spaces that our own families could not. We walked through fire together, had fun together, drank together, and fought like cats and dogs.

It’s been almost thirty years since the mid-80’s era, when Paris Is Burning took place. It was sobering to learn that almost all the key performers in the movie have since died, and many of them died at a young age — some from HIV/AIDS, some from other illnesses, some from the residual effects of a lifetime of poverty. And a few died from the violence visited upon gay and transgender people then (and now).

It reminded me of the faces of people in our own Paris, the ones who died young at the hands of those same villains — watching a young friend, only 24, waste away from the effects of HIV/AIDS, watching a dear friend succumb to the ravages of mental illness and alcoholism. I wish I had the resources to help them. I do now, but I didn’t know then, and I didn’t have the voice to speak up and ask for help on their behalf.

My life today is so radically different than it was then. Sometimes, it feels like it all happened to someone else. I’m at a point of consistency, of having achieved a certain amount of success.

The funny thing is, though: I’ve lived in Chicago for half a decade, now. I’ve met some nice people, and yet, every last one of them has slipped through my fingers. I don’t know if it’s them, or me, or some other factor, but the friends I’ve made here are here today, gone tomorrow.

I live hours away from those old friends, and yet, we remain close. We’ve survived geographical divides and the occasional falling out, and stayed in touch with each other. They remain on a very short list of people I could call for advice, for help or for bail money.

Paris Is Burning’s Dorian said you’re lucky if you’ve made a mark on the world.

I’ve made a small mark, but it’s a mark. And we have been there to bear witness for each other, to record that we have made our marks.

for Destiny Divine, royalty and a true titleholder; for Theresa Jean, a generous soul and ‘the big noise’; and for Mama Puccini, who knew where to find the boys AND the booze.

And for the late Deatrice, who loved the nightlife, and is sorely missed. 

A tale of two Union Stations

This week, plans were announced to make what the Chicago Tribune called “enhancements” to Chicago’s Union Station.

Rethinking Union Station is a good thing (for reasons I’ll unpack in a minute), but it’s also made me think about another Union Station.

Denver just reopened its Union Station after a substantial renovation. The site, which has been an Amtrak station for years, was redesigned to be several things in addition to an Amtrak station. It’s now a larger hub for many of Denver’s transit lines, both rail and bus.

It’s also been designed to be a meeting place for people. When my partner and I visited Denver a few weeks ago, we stayed at that hotel (The Crawford).

Denver's Union Station before its recent remodel. (Internet photo)

Denver’s Union Station before its recent remodel. (Internet photo)

The new Union Station featured a wide array of restaurants, cafes and stores. A few coffeehouses, a bookstore and a great breakfast spot were among the choices. It was great to have those choices at a hotel (versus the usual drab hotel fare), but it’s all adds to the larger idea that this is a gathering spot – a public space that’s filled with activity.

The furniture in the station lobby reflected that – some tables and chairs, some sofas, a few benches, even a shuffleboard. And still plenty of room for the official Amtrak waiting area at one end of the station.

And the fountain on the outside of the station, where so many people were eating al fresco, also underscored that element.

Adjacent to the station itself was access to several transit lines and hundreds of buses, all through a weather-protected transit station. The rail lines sit above ground while buses arrive and depart through a long series of gates below ground. Despite the underground factor, the station was filled with light, clean, and well-organized (no clusters of traffic).

My partner and I took a bus from that spot to return to the airport. It was easy and convenient — and a third of the price of the cab we took from the airport to the hotel. And even that will be made simpler in a year or so, when a new transit line from the station to the airport opens.

Of course, Denver is building its light rail capacities and starting from square one in some of these areas, so it’s much easier to plan (and plan well) from the start. Chicago’s Union Station has been a victim of the years, of different plans and different ideas that don’t play well together.

Both the Amtrak and Metra areas are in long corridors that can become human sardine cans if trains are late or cancelled. There’s no flow to either area — Amtrak’s main gate area, waiting rooms and ticket area is, in particular, an odd series of segmented boxes with no rhyme or reason).

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a huge great room of wasted space. It’s ostensibly a waiting room, but it seems to be wasted. (It’s also often rented for entertainment and events – a lovely idea, but something that shouldn’t be a main driving force of a space like the station.)

And that’s just in the station itself. One of the biggest headaches about Chicago’s Union Station is how to get there, and how people flow around the building above ground.

The new Denver station. Amtrak waiting area is out of frame on the left; the remaining spaces are retail spaces and central social areas in the middle. (Internet photo)

The new Denver station. Amtrak waiting area is out of frame on the left; the remaining spaces are retail spaces and central social areas in the middle. (Internet photo)

The entrances may be familiar for people who take the Metra every day, but there is no real “front door” of the station.

Car traffic clutters the streets around the station, often blocking intersections, and the Megabus stop a block away has added to that confusion.

While two transit lines (the CTA Blue and Green Clinton stops) are not far away, there’s no clear sign, markings or pathway on how to connect between the station and the CTA stops.

So what can Chicago do? It may not be able to start from scratch and really rethink the entire station (or can it?) but a few ideas might help:

(1) Outside, plans should designate a few streets around the station to be buses and cabs only. (One is now, but it’s poorly enforced.) Nabbing a space to create a car passenger drop off area – complete with actual space to pull off of the street – would be ideal. This space could be combined with the curb where Megabus stops, so that traffic flows more sensibly. Mark all of those things very clearly, so drivers understand where to go.

(2) Develop a more clear marking system at entrances for what sits where, and what can be accessed from that entrance. As it stands now, it appears that Amtrak and Metra have put up signs of their own in haphazard places. A general Union Station signage plan should mark entrances, the services inside, and other things (like ATMs, ticketing services, and so on).

(3) Think of a better use for the great room area. How can this be used to alleviate crowding? Are the retail outlets currently in Union Station a good mix, or can they be updated?

The Tribune article talks about some aspects of these ideas, mainly about CTA buses around the station. That’s a great start, but Megabus is a part of the everyday experience at the station, and ignoring the cut-rate bus company won’t help with crowding.

The same article suggests no change to the great room, which I think is unfortunate. Perhaps they should fly to Denver and see that Union Station’s great room – a room full of people talking, laughing, eating, a room full of life. Chicago’s great room may have historical value, but it only vaguely flickers with the kind of life that a public space like this should host on a daily basis.

Even Amtrak's own media person calls the station "warren of obscure passageways with no natural light." (Internet photo)

Even Amtrak’s own media person calls the station “warren of obscure passageways with no natural light.” (Internet photo)

Acknowledging fatness

I don’t remember a time in my life where I haven’t been fat.

Or whatever word you want to use: chubby, husky, stocky. I’ve used them all.

When I look now at most pictures of myself as a kid, I don’t see a fat kid staring back at me. In most shots, I look pretty damn standard for a child — especially if I compare those shots to kids of today.

But I was never that rangy, thin kid who could climb, jump and bounce everywhere. I was never the kid who ran around from sunrise to midnight, a ball of burning energy.

And at some point, the numbers got out of balance and I was, indeed, fat.

My weight is something I’ve struggled with my entire life.

This particular post isn’t about having an online therapy session, or to elicit sympathy. It’s really not even about the struggle itself, or the cultural lenses through which we view fat and fatness in this country, at this time. (Another post, another day.)

What I’m examining here — what I’m finding interesting, what I’m finally acknowledging — is how much I’ve distanced myself from it.

45899_420627588423_332431_nIn many ways, it’s similar to the ways I lived my life when I was still ‘in the closet’ as a gay man. It’s there, but it’s something that has to be carefully navigated, discussed and presented.

I came out as gay many years ago, but I don’t think I’ve ever acknowledged the reality of my size, of my fat body, before.

It was such a source of teasing as a kid that disconnecting from it all was a survival tactic. (Helpful note for parents: if you think your kid might be fat, don’t name him/her with anything that rhymes with the word ‘fat.’)

That may have had a silver lining; shrinking into my own head helped my creativity and my storytelling capacities. While others were teasing or ignoring me, I was in another world, my rich inner world — writing and directing my own TV show in my head.**

But I’ve had an epiphany recently about my fatness and my creativity, and it’s this: that protective distance is getting in the way of a lot in my life, but in particular, it’s affecting my writing and my creativity.

There are so many fantastic, amazing writers I know that talk so honestly about their lives, or so bluntly about the shitty, messy parts of life just as skillfully as the joyful moments. They serve up that authenticity in a way that’s impossible to ignore.

A few of those fantastic writers – Samantha Irby and Laurie Ruettimann – are on my blogroll here.

Hell, Irby refers to her body as a “meatbag.”

But I’ve always had a protective distance in my writing. Every editor I’ve had in the last ten years told me that I write “too safe.” Or that I bury the lede.

My most recent journalism professor, a newsman with decades of experience, called me on it many times. He asked why I felt like I always had to explain everything before I got to the point — to the news, to the lede, to the focus of the story.

At some point in the last few months, it hit me: that’s also the way that I talk.

A guy I dated called it my ‘language’ – something he always had to interpret. I’m all metaphors and hints and setup, and only after I’ve set the stage — and determined that I have a trustworthy audience — does the lid come off.

This spring, when I professed surprise in one of my classes that anyone could see me as aloof, another professor offered this: “It’s clear that you’re thoughtful about what you say, that you consider it carefully before you say it.”

Well, she was right.

The pieces are coming together. I’m understanding it now.

I’m probably still doing it here. I can’t tell you how many times during the composition of this post I had to remind myself — no, force myself — to put the word fat in the first sentence, the first paragraph. Attached to me. I wanted to build up to that revelation, you see. (As if it’s a surprise to anyone who meets me!)

I’m sure it’s affected my career, my ability to start new friendships — in short, every part of my life.

And it’s all sort of hit me: I’m in the closet, with the light off.


It’s hard to write about ALL THE FEELS from an icy altitude, a huge emotional disconnect.

I’m fighting my fatness and working on getting healthier, because it’s something I want for me and for my partner. And if I can graduate from college after a hundred years of being away, then damn it, I can do this too.

But first, I have to come out, again. Into the sunlight. I have to acknowledge my fatness, own it, and understand it’s my reality right now.

And so, this post.

Step one.


** Though my retreat into inner life was never so severe, it’s often been a tool others have deployed to cope with trauma or abuse. It’s not uncommon for gay men, in particular, to make arch humor of sad or challenging things in their lives. Films like Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation are examples of this sort of utter disconnect from the current moment, and framing events as something happening to someone else — or something you’re watching, not experiencing. 

EDITED TO ADD: I just Googled “fat closet” and wow, there’s a lot of people who have had similar epiphanies. Worth checking out if you’re interested.

The worst urban studies student ever……

My freshly minted college degree includes a concentration in urban studies.

While I have no plans at the moment to become an urban planner, I’ve always felt that many of urban studies’ core ideas — about the ways we live and the demographic groups that define us — were deeply relevant for the 21st century and are applicable to just about every industry and every part of our country.  I found that it encompassed many of the things I’d been writing about for years, the changes in how we live and work.

In my personal life, I’d been doing a lot of things we’d discussed in class. I have never owned a car and, perhaps more shockingly, have never held a license to drive. I’ve walked or taken public transportation for most of my life, and I always lived in the core of a city, so I could have an existence that allowed for walking and mass transit.

Three years ago, my partner and I bought a home in the middle of a neighborhood close to Chicago’s Loop.

Our neighborhood (the West Loop) has growing density, a great walkability score, access to multiple channels of mass transit, two parks within a few blocks, and more restaurants and nightclubs than I can count.

Yes, it's true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

Yes, it’s true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

There’s only one thing: I’m really unhappy living here.

Some of the things that I’ve always endorsed? Are driving me crazy.

I am the worst urban studies student EVER.

The biggest negative impact for me has been noise pollution. While we live in a nice building, literally every flat space surrounding us has been under construction for three years. THREE. YEARS. That’s three years of not being able to sleep past 6 a.m., of constant drilling and hammering and bulldozers and cranes.

A new company has moved into a neighboring commercial building (formerly part of Harpo Studios), and promptly installed a motion alarm on their parking gate that I am pretty sure can be heard in Aurora. Possibly in space.

Indeed, our neighborhood is BOOMING. Google’s Chicago headquarters are moving just a few blocks north. A hotel is opening just east of us, and many of the small, nondescript factory spaces dotting the West Loop are being snapped up by developers. A company called Sterling Bay has, to a large degree, bought the West Loop and is now developing its use.

Of course, beyond the noise, which feels as if it will never end, many of the issues that are emerging show the wisdom of good urban planning and the repercussions that happen when it’s absent. It’s nearly impossible to cross Madison Street now with the boom in traffic, and lack of pedestrian crosswalks near us.

Parking has become a huge issue. The West Loop, like the South Loop and Andersonville, desperately needs a dedicated parking area. Instead, patrons who think nothing of spending $200 at a Restaurant Row eatery or at a Blackhawks game will insist on parking for free on one of our streets. (With car alarms set to stun; the West Loop is a symphony of sounding car alarms every day.)

Parking in the city is its own nightmare (Google Chicago parking meter deal)  but I’ve never understood why parking doesn’t come *before* or *as part of* planning here. There’s a huge, hulking half-built building at the west end of the West Loop that would be perfect to retrofit into a neighborhood park house, with shuttles running up and down Randolph.

Residential development has been the main part of the boom thus far, but as commercial development continues, a conflict is emerging between the two camps. I haven’t seen any movement to define patches of the West Loop as solely residential or commercial. We’ll have two rooftop bars opening soon near us – far closer to residences than they should be.

The other main irritant hits a little closer to home.

In my mind, I always thought that living in close quarters with your neighbors would lead to that kind of engaged community, where neighbors became friends, where people socialized and looked after one another.

A few homeowner’s association meetings have disabused me of that notion.

With precious few exceptions, our neighbors create more drama than Downton Abbey, and are guilty of more metaphorical backstabbing and bloodshed than Game of Thrones. It’s a toxic batch of entitlement and manipulation. (While we’re on the pop culture references, the most entitled and manipulative ones bring to mind Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

There’s still much to be said for sustainable urban living, and I haven’t changed my stance on those ideas, those policies.

I think it might just be that we’re outgrowing this place. This neighborhood is becoming a huge cluster for clubs and nightlife, and will be a fast-paced hub for twentysomethings. My twenties are a bit in the rearview mirror for me, though.

My partner and I want something quieter and calmer for our next home, and will likely move out of Chicago to find it. But I think we’ll be sticking with urban settings, or the “cosmoburb,” where access to walking paths, bike paths and mass transit still exist.

Of course, I also know that I’m ridiculously lucky. Lucky to have a home, lucky to have a choice to leave a place that isn’t a good match.

We’re in Chicago, where bad planning and years of discriminatory zoning and lending policies have created neighborhoods where basic life, liberty and safety are harrowingly hard to come by. Lots of people don’t have the choices we do to change neighborhoods, or to move at all.

Rahm Emanuel has followed in the footsteps of the Daleys, enacting or sustaining policies that stand in the way of evolution or change for disadvantaged neighborhoods. 2014 feels a lot like 1974 in some of these neighborhoods. It feels impossible to effect change here.

Hopefully, our next home will be in a place where we can take advantage of good planning and great living space — but also contribute to our community, where we can become advocates for everyone who lives there.

I’m going to brainstorm about this right now! You might not be able to hear me, though, with the noise in the background…….


Making the message make sense

Something very cool happened last weekend.

I finally earned a college degree — a little later than planned, but it happened. I’m incredibly proud of that accomplishment.

The days before graduation and the day itself were filled with speeches and talking – a whole lot of communication goin’ on.

I wasn’t part of the traditional group of graduates, so I was able to shift my focus and observe what was happening. (That’s also the journalist in me emerging and taking notes!)

I noticed a few interesting things about the ways that people communicated — what worked, what didn’t, and why.

AUTHENTICITY RULES: Several students spoke at the Saturday morning baccalaureate service, and while everyone was thoughtful and prepared to speak, I found the response from students fascinasting. The speakers that elicited the strongest response weren’t necessarily the smoothest speakers. But they were the ones who were willing to be vulnerable and real in front of a crowd, and they got a lot of respect from the audience.

I was stunned by one student. I’d been in a class with him and he always seemed nervous when he spoke. But that day, he stood in front of 500 other people and delivered an amazing set of remarks. It was all authentic, all him, and all heart.

SELECTING THE RIGHT MESSAGE: On the other hand….well, how do I say this diplomatically? Our commencement speaker, for all his accomplishments and good intentions, missed the mark.

I suppose I could be thankful that he didn’t launch into a flood of Commencement Clichés, but….I’m not sure WHAT it was that he said to us. I think it would be best described as a speech for a Kiwanis Club meeting, or maybe something you’d deliver at an industry conference or a job interview.

After a promising beginning with a few jokes, the speaker essentially recapped the minutiae of his career for what seemed like forever — in front of 500 graduates roasting in the sun, all waiting for That Guy To Stop Speaking. (Heck, I knew a bit about his line of business and *I* was praying for a strong wind to carry the stage away.)

That can’t in any way be called a success.

Anyone on the speaker circuit probably has a core speech they give to everyone, with alterations here and there based on the audience. But it’s important to remember that whether it’s a commencement address, an annual shareholders meeting or a town hall debate, the message has to fit the event. Too often, we try to plug a one-size-fits-all set of remarks into an event that needs to have its own story told.

SIMPLICITY IS BEAUTY:  Students often take the same approach to a speech that they do to writing a term paper: more is more. But the simplest communication can be the most effective.

The graduating class always collects money to start a scholarship fund, and this year’s seniors had been hounded via e-mail to make a contribution. Those efforts were falling short.

A class leader who had the mic at an event asked everyone who had received scholarship money to stand. It was ninety percent of the attendees.

THAT made an impact, and the senior class ended up collecting well beyond its goal.

Sometimes, the simplest message is the strongest one, and the one that can make the biggest impact.

Questions run too deep

I’m a person who lives in the current moment and cherishes it. After a lot of work and a lot of patience, I’m as content as I’ve ever been in my present day life – ridiculously, joyously head over heels in love, a secure home, a happy life.

But there’s always a bit of an interesting tension playing out between past, present and future.

You can’t hit middle age without the presence of memory making its way, swimming its way back to you. Sometimes it’s just a hint of something, a smell of fire evoking fall bonfires, or a song on the radio taking you back to a specific place and time.

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.

At other times, memory comes rushing back in an overwhelming flood.

Last week, a student at my alma mater, my former high school, stabbed almost two dozen people. No one seems to know or understand why.

I don’t know any of the people affected. I don’t know any of the teachers in those buildings – my teachers retired long ago. I don’t even know the area that well anymore – it’s been over 20 years since I last lived there, and it’s been almost two years since my last visit “home.”

But watching those familiar buildings on national TV was surreal. And it brought back some intense memory for me.

I’ve talked about this before in this blog, here and here. I won’t repeat the details in depth here, but my experience at that school was, to be diplomatic, less than ideal. I was physically attacked for four years, several times a week if not every day. It was a war zone for me.

Aside from one amazing fourth grade teacher who was always in my corner, I had precious few advocates who would speak for me. In my last year of school, the people who were accountable and could make changes were among the people joining in the teasing, taunting and bullying.

But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible
Logical, responsible, practical.

I’ve got a great career now – a multi-faceted one. And in my work as a journalist, I always want to examine the whole story, to look for relationships and causes.

It’s been so damn frustrating to watch this story and not have any real voice to ask questions, to wonder if everyone’s voice is being heard. It’s a huge lesson on how important the work of journalism is to the people whose stories are being told, one that I’ll never forget.

The news organizations are not doing a bad job – not necessarily. They did wonderful work with the breaking news elements.

But the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article this past Sundaypainting the town of Murrysville as a near-Garden of Eden, with Franklin a Shangri-La fouled seemingly for the first time by a dissenter, a bad seed emerging from the flock. They even used the term “near-perfect” in their headline.

Franklin_regional_middle_schoolThere is one brief mention of Delmont and Export as two other towns “that contribute to Franklin Regional.”

But no mention of the conflict that’s always existed between affluent Murrysville, middle-class Delmont, and working class (and sometimes quite poor) Export, where coal mines were operating a century ago. That’s fueled at least some of the conflict that’s happened here over the years. 

I know my personal story is just that – personal. It’s not enough to build a narrative around. I’m just one person, after all, and though my perspective is valid, one person’s experience does not make a trend, or a pathology.

One of my most consistent faculty tormentors is nearing ninety on the beaches of Florida. Another is long dead. There is no one to interview. And quite frankly, I don’t want to be the story. (The reflex of a journalist kicking in, I suppose – rule number one: never be part of the story.)

But news outlets have also missed a more recent case of conflict, one with perhaps a more viable source of verification. ABC’s “20/20” visited Franklin Regional in the late 1990s (1997, I believe) and featured a story where four young female students were having a fight. The two victims were suspended, while the two instigators remained in school.

Even a decade after I’d left, the ability to resolve conflict and mediate those kinds of issues within the walls of that institution were called into question.

They showed me a world where I could be so dependable
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

Last week’s event is SO not about me. I know that. But it’s impossible to wipe my own experience out of my head, and look at it through any other eyes but my own, my perceptions shaded by experience.

I’ve shared my concerns about school safety with every horrifying, sad event that has happened here in our country, ever since Columbine. I’ve had the same reaction each time.

What drove this kid to do what he did? Mental health issues? Bullying? No one seems to know.

And while I am deeply sad and horrified for everyone that he injured, and agree he needs to be held responsible for his actions and answer for what he did, I can’t help but wonder about him.

We may know very little about him, other than the fact that he’s been described as ‘quiet.’ But the obvious piece that leapt out at me was that no one stepped forward to say, “Hey, I was his friend.” He was likely navigating those halls on his own, with no advocate, no guidance. Those are rough roads to walk.

Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, criminal.

Sometimes, trying to have a conversation about the complexities of an event like this does earn you a label. These events always bring the conflict over gun rights and criminal law to the forefront, dividing lines between liberal and conservative.

We’re living in a world that is far more politically volatile than when I was in high school. The growth and plenty we enjoyed as kids has shrunk in size and magnitude. My whole hometown region shed its primary industry.

The late Harold Lasswell once said that politics is “who gets what, when, and how.”  And when things get less plentiful, people make lists, and divide into camps. I’m sure I fall into the liberal camp on many issues, while much of western Pennsylvania is a conservative area.

But the mental health of teenagers, the importance of teaching them how to resolve conflict, to speak up for help? This transcends political beliefs and divides. It’s a complex issue and will require a complex set of responses. And one of the first ones will be parents deciding not to model those simple label “us vs them” reactions, and instead teaching children to allow the humanity of everyone around them to exist, rather than trying to make people disappear.

At night, when all the world’s asleep
The questions run so deep, for such a simple man.

I’m an oddball. I’ve always been the salmon swimming upstream. I suppose it’s more socially acceptable, more righteous for my public face and career, to steal a term from Malcolm Gladwell and say that I’m an ‘outlier.’  I always have a perspective that seems to be in radical opposition to the thing everyone else is seeing.

That might serve me better as an adult than it did as a child, but still, my eyes are elsewhere.

Last week my fellow alumnus proudly displayed solidarity with our alma mater, changing their Facebook photos to our school logo, stating their class year in a status update, echoing the chant of “WE ARE FR!”

I couldn’t do it. Not because I don’t support the school, or mourn the injured, or respect these fellow alumni and their pride. They’re all good people, with kind hearts.

It’s my curse to think – perhaps overthink – these sorts of things. But I couldn’t do it.

I was never really FR, you see. It was never really mine to call home. I could not raise the flag to celebrate a house that never welcomed me.

And it’s the remaining question nagging at me about this young man, the one who picked up two knives and wanted to harm so many others, the one whose motives are a mystery.

A line has forever been drawn by those knives, one of no return. And now his name, Alex Hribal, will be writ in history books. His name will be whispered in the prescription pickup line at Ferri’s Pharmacy, at the Cozy Inn between the clinking of draft beer glasses, at Pat Catan’s by housewives helping their sons and daughters with a school project.

Those people all know they’re loved and supported, as a town, as a school – they’ve seen it in image after image on TV and in print. They are FR. The breach in the circle is closing as we speak, soon to be healed.

But the question I can’t get out of my head: Was Alex Hribal ever FR? Is he FR now? Or has the transgressor been erased from memory? Was he ever one of us?

Then again, what can you expect from an outlier like me? It’s a legitimate question to pose from out here, outside looking in.

Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd – please tell me who I am.

(Lyrics from Supertramp’s “Logical Song” – no copyright infringement intended.) 

MUSIC MONDAY: Jonatha Brooke

I’ve been trying (without success) to see Jonatha Brooke perform live for almost twenty years.

Seriously. Twenty years, folks.

I first discovered her when her band The Story released “The Angel In The House.” It was great guitar pop, with songs like “When Two and Two are Five.”

The Story. 


Brooke went on her own soon after and released a long string of great albums, but my favorite for a long time was “Ten Cent Wings.” It’s one of those perfect albums from beginning to end.

Like so many of my favorites – Aimee Mann, Alison Moyet, Kirsty MacColl (to name just three) – Brooke wrote great material and had a beautiful voice, but was woefully mishandled by record companies. In Brooke’s case, she was on tour for “Ten Cent Wings” when MCA dropped her from the label.

(Of course, these fantastic artists are all intelligent, fascinating women, and not pop tartlets who can be mass packaged and merchandized…but that’s another post for another day.)

Missing Jonatha Brooke’s concerts has become sort of a comical thing for me now.

I missed her several times around the Ten Cent Wings era. She played at a Borders near me and I had to work at the competition (B&N) across the street the night she played. I missed other shows because of work. Or they were sold out. There must have been at least a half dozen show in the early 2000’s I missed.

“Crumbs” from “Ten Cent Wings.” 


I started to look for her shows not just where I lived, but wherever she played. She played in my hometown of Pittsburgh, but I missed that show, too (working again, couldn’t travel).

It was always the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Brooke has had quite the journey the last few years. She cared for her mother, who passed away in 2012, through the final stages of dementia. And she wrote an amazing album and play, “My Mother Has 4 Noses,” about the experience.

The play had a reading in Pittsburgh last summer. (Need I tell you that I missed it?)

It’s in New York now, in an acclaimed run that’s getting people talking about Brooke’s great music and fresh narrative voice – not to mention the emotional, heart-rending story at its core.

The song “Time” from “4 Noses.” 


Rumor has it “4 Noses” will appear in other theaters across the country.

If it comes to Chicago, I’m going to be as optimistic as a Cubs fan in April that I can break the curse and finally see Jonatha Brooke on stage!