Mike’s Mural

In the welcome sunshine of a Sunday morning, a wall went up. Not the structure, but the substance. A wall with a door in it, except this portal was painted on the outside. Twisting tubes, faceless figures, one large bear, a Superman, and many, many bricks. For a day, we marked. We painted. We made a mural, but it was one person’s vision.
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This is Mike Turner’s work – look at this. And this. And THIS.

Based on a piece called “Vertical Suburbs,” the mural is a black-and-white expanse of brick walls, windows, tubes, and vignettes that invite and compel, leading places but not resolving. You can start anywhere along its length, but never really know where to end up. You can look at it up close, or from across the street – either way, it offers up a sort of labyrinth. You can stare at individual lines and shapes and not know what it put into your brain, but sit in that uncertain wonder for a while. It does things to whatever your thing is.

Vignette / Mike and Gina / Bear!

This mural was conjured on facade of the Violet Hour, a cocktail lounge in Wicker Park. Each month, they let a different artist muralize the exterior. Mike graciously let a group of friends help him put his up, thankfully in June, post-polar vortex. We pulled up on Saturday evening, a nice blank wall ready for us to reinvent it. As it turned out, weather and technology had other plans.

Mike and his fiancee Gina had planned the operation like a guerilla standoff – plenty of weapons at the ready to execute a quick(ish) mission, with all the backup needed to head off any issues along the way. However, you can’t reason with power converters that have previously tested fine in all readiness phases, only to fail in the moment of need. What had been planned as a projection of the original drawing onto the wall coalesced into a frantic search for a generator to rent, and ended in a parking lot of futility.

After having waited out a tornado-shaded downpour, ready to wipe every inch of the wall down with paper towels and get to work, we sat in the car, shadowed by a hulking Home Depot, talking about extension cords and batteries. (Also Patton Oswalt’s impression of Tom Carvel, somehow. Fudgie the Whale saved our sanity that night.) We resolved to try again in the morning, urgency nipping at everyone’s heels.

Sunday came with sun and breezes – cool even away from the lake. With a ladder bisecting the car, we drove back to the blank wall. Fueled by donuts and iced coffee, we faced that void again. The people in the group who actually knew what they were doing attacked it with renewed zeal, quadranting that sucker with tape and free-handing pencil outlines while Mike filled in details. A vision took shape. (In this phase, my contributions entailed playing seminal saxophone solos on YouTube and petting as many dogs as possible.) If someone had told us the night before we would end up Free-Soloing this mountain, we probably would have laughed with tight faces. We would have pretended not to scream inside. But today, in the sunshine, we did it because that was all we had left.

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In the beginning

This was an experiment in a lot of ways – how do you prepare art for greater consumption? Do the weather gods want you to succeed? What happens to meticulous planning in the face of unforeseeable technological glitches? How many Home Depots are there in the greater Chicago area, and how long do they stay open? What do you do when Things Go Wrong?  How do people act around a mural in progress? (They say things. Out loud. A lot of things. Their opinions WILL be heard.) A collective mindset held the answer to all of these questions.

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The figure in repose: homage to Burt Reynolds? 😉

A bit of a mindmeld cloud collected over our group. Mike was the piece’s mastermind, and we went to him with questions, but we also trusted each other to work in between. We all tuned into the same buzzing sound, and worked off of that. A radio frequency was born. If this is what it feels like to join and be in a cult, then I am deeply susceptible to it and should probably seek help. Possible Cult Joiners Anonymous? Local Lemmings?

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Bricking

At one point, I joined forces with a friend to erase some of the remaining pencil marks – we went around with two brushes and one can of white paint between us, talking to ourselves and conjoined twinning up the place. The world melted away even more as we painted and painted. Nothing else mattered but to keep space open.

Things happen to you individually, too. You make so many bricks you become a line, just wanting to connect other lines. You think and say things that only make sense to the people working alongside you. Your only goal, your single-minded dream, is to do whatever it takes in this moment to get this work just a tiny bit closer to realization. It’s a little universe.

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Drawing bananas (the boot is for fashion purposes only)

Passersby want to peek into this tiny cosmos. People walking by on the street tended to say whatever they were thinking out loud, whether alone or in a group. I couldn’t decide whether they wanted us to hear, or thought we were like zoo animals. Some seemed to be performing for their groups, remarking that this wall contained the passageway to a bar with “amazing cocktails.” “You knock on the door, and it opens!” (No, sir, that is not how it works.) Others wanted to name artists the work reminded them of, or explain how we were making the mural. Other people would just yell “THANK YOU” – for what, exactly? One woman went up to my partner in erasing and quietly said it, a hand on her arm, like this was a conspiracy. In slightly more sinister fashion, a man said this loudly while hugging me from behind as he kept walking. NO thank you. A couple of drunk bros demanded high fives and then said Mike should paint the apartment building one of them owns. In decidedly the most charming show of curiosity, a little boy took one of the stepstools and sat on it, clutching his lil drink, sipping through a straw and observing the goings-on. Like a tiny king, he surveyed the workers, then summarily dismissed the whole thing and walked off, his dutiful parents trailing behind.

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When we finished the mural, hours had slipped by, and sunset was imminent. We went to eat pizzas so big I could have used them as sausage-y blankets. We went home so full and so tired. This was easily one of the most satisfying, fulfilling days of my life. I got to help create something with a group of excellent people – even if I’d never picked up a marker or brush, I’d have been thankful just to be in that headspace. It really was a storm on a sidewalk. I was most floored by the fact that Mike took some of his art, secured a public space for it, and then let other people help him put it up on a wall. Even though the mural is only up for a month, it adds a layer to the city, and I hope many people will walk by and take a piece of it in. It doesn’t have to envelop them like a blanket pizza, but it’s something new to process.

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Mike Turner’s mural “Horizontal Suburbs” will be up through June 30 at the Violet Hour (Wicker Park, Chicago, IL).
Mike’s website: GravelPlayground.com

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Mike Turner
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Mural crew

 

Out of Context Werner Herzog

“When I met him, I wanted to tickle him.”

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“If you do that, I will buy your station and fire you.”

“It’s difficult and painful, but should happen somehow.”

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“A shock went through me of delight. A moment of great elation inside me.”

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“I do believe you have a great alternative and that’s the internet. But you have to be prudent in navigating the internet.”

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“Inconceivable.”

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“I don’t know, I’ll probably have a sailor’s grave somewhere in the ocean. By the way, I shouldn’t die anyway.”

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“I was paid to be terrifying. I do it well.”

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“But there’s a great joy, awe – all my feelings I feel with awe.”

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All quotes from an interview with the director after a screening of “Meeting Gorbachev” (May 10, 2019)

Book Time: April Titles

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland – Patrick Radden Keefe

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One of my favorite books of the year so far. It’s about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, as seen through the lens of a family whose mother was taken by the IRA (AKA disappeared) in 1972, and select IRA members themselves. Radden Keefe unfolds disappearance as another weapon of war -deployed on a smaller scale in a tiny country but still sending giant aftershocks into the community and decades ahead.

A code of silence undergirds everything about both the IRA and living in Northern Ireland at this time. Everyone knew things, whether what they had witnessed or information they picked up, but had to be very careful about using it. So silence it was, for years on end. Radden Keefe also uses this thread to explore repression and lying, noting especially that Gerry Adams, once a key IRA operative and then a leading member of Sinn Féin, still flat out denies ever having been a militant.

Information – both in withholding and wielding – is the weapon that can’t be contained or defeated. Radden Keefe is a measured but giving storyteller, and the research and time that went into gathering all these details is staggering.

The Friend – Sigrid Nunez

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A beautiful book about the nature of grief. Well, about a woman who inherits a Harlequin Great Dane from her friend, who died by suicide. The woman wonders how she’s supposed to keep living without his presence, all while the years go on and on, and she loves the dog more and more.

Stay Up with Hugo Best – Erin Somers

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A somber look at comedy. June is a writer’s assistant at a late night show (it’s Hugo’s, you guessed it) wrapping up its final episode. After the final party, she wanders into an old haunt comedy club, not so much wondering what she’ll do next but more sliding into a fog. After her impromptu set, Hugo Best himself comes up to her and asks her to spend the long weekend at his house in Connecticut. Sort of an “Odd Couple” setup with a mystery edge. Off they go, and the weekend unfolds more or less moment by moment.

Somers populates the story with entertaining details and fully realized characters, and there are some excellent one-liners. It just made me sad – I don’t know what I expected; perhaps I was hoping for more head high and fuck ‘em all from June and less middle-aged-white-man-has-an-identity-crisis from Hugo. Maybe that was the point. I liked the humor and sadness mixing to an extent, but Hugo Best wasn’t a nut I wanted June to have to crack. In any case, I think this book will go in the pantheon of millennial literature, because I’m still experiencing existential tinyshocks after reading it.

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing – Thomas Morris

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After gobbling up Conversations with Friends and Normal People, I needed more Sally Rooney in my life immediately. So I dredged the internet for her interviews, looking for mentions of what she reads. She mentioned Thomas Morris, and here we are.

The stories are all set in Caerphilly, Wales, and are an examination of ordinary lives. Everyone is grappling with averageness, but there are moments where the banality mixes with happiness. Overall – yes, also depressing, but great stories all the same.

The New Me – Halle Butler

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This book also made me almost irrepressibly depressed. Something about my reading selections this month, I guess. I couldn’t stop reading once I started, though, so I just had to endure the feelings.

Millie is an office temp in Chicago, and Butler’s descriptions of cubicle denizens and workday mundanity are something to behold. Millie keeps spiraling down into unemployment and despair, with Butler keeping up the ever more manic voice in her head. I really can’t articulate a better reason why this was so compelling other than it looks you straight in the eye.

The Authentic Lie – Pandora Sykes

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This is technically an essay, but the Pound Project bound it into a beautiful little book, so I’m counting it. Sykes tackles the maelstrom of self, culture, and social media, and what it means to be real. These topics encompass a lot of what I think about all the time – philosophies of pop culture, the nature of gossip in society, and how the social sausage gets made. I also love the podcast Sykes hosts with Dolly Alderton, the High Low, so I suppose I was primed to like this essay.

I love that Sykes and this outfit collaborated – I’ll read anything she writes, and I can’t wait for the Pound Project’s future campaigns. I wish I had known about them earlier so I could have a little library of their titles going.

 

Bathroom Fights

The first rule of Bathroom Fight Club is that I get to talk about it.

When you fight in the bathroom, there is so much at stake. The amount of porcelain alone is a threat to anyone’s well being, and no one wants an Elvis-esque death in such proximity to a toilet. But I want to see it – how are people going to have an altercation in a small space? No room for error, it’s just you and some fists and a lot of tile.

This is an ode to the commode fight. Bathrooms are a kind of cathedral. Often marble-y, with different kinds of founts, for holy water or regular water – you get doused all the same, ritualized cleansings occur. So why not fight it out in there, too? Ashes to ashes, bust to bust.

You’d think the genre is restricted, but no, like a stained glass window, the possibilities tessellate. Movies with bathroom fights are inherently creative, as you have to put a lot of action in a smaller space, and my god, the camera placement alone is a logistical puzzle I love to contemplate. There should be an Oscar category for this. I’m calling the Academy right now. In the meantime, here are three of my favorite dust-ups in water closets that have informed my cinematic universe. [Contains spoilers, duh.]

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

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The fight scene: I’ve mentioned an element of this particular bathroom fight on this here platform before, but the full tableau is too good to not discuss. (On YouTube this scene is titled “bathroom brawl” or “toilet fight.”) Plot points aside, all you need to know is that Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill parachute into the Grand Palais in Paris and go in search of their target. They follow him into an impossibly clean bathroom. Tom has a fun secret knife-needle thing he’s ready to deploy, but this being a public restroom, he and Henry run into issues trying not to bust their target apart in front of any witnesses. It’s almost physical comedy. Henry does the shortest, fakest hand washing. Finally, Tom goes in for a hit. The target sees him coming from a French bathroom mile away, but luckily Henry clocks him with his briefcase. More physical comedy ensues as the pair has to hide their hit from more plebs, and eventually the target regains consciousness. This is where stall doors get busted, Henry gets punched in the throat, and the target gets thrown through a mirror.

He somehow survives this relatively unscathed, and grabs a sink pipe to wreak more havoc (a tip I’ll have to remember). Henry recovers from having his windpipe smashed, winds up his fists, and goes in for the body punches. He still gets owned, and Tom gets backwards kicked in the stomach. There’s some more wall smashing and the target gets hold of an errant gun, then Rebecca Ferguson comes in and saves the day.

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Why it’s the right scene: The gauntlet for the genre has been thrown. Henry Cavill and his Tom Cruise-mandated moustache Wind It Up, throwing themselves around the lavatory like teenage boys at a middle school dance, but a woman gets the last word/bullet. She brings a dose of efficiency to the drag-out fight, and probably could have saved the guys some work and internal bleeding. But then we wouldn’t have had this magnificent scene, so she gets to be their deus ex machina. I like this setup because the target is a worthy adversary, and cannot be dispatched with a quick one-two. If he hadn’t had to die in a bathroom, it would have been fun to see him and Rebecca team up and start their own international spy ring. Another call I need to go make.

Continue reading “Bathroom Fights”

Book Time: March Titles

Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest – Hanif Abdurraqib

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Hanif Abdurraqib is one of the best writers at work today. He’s a poet and essayist but no box can contain everything that comes out of his brain – and I can’t get enough. With this latest book, Abdurraqib writes about and to A Tribe Called Quest, combining a deep love and appreciation for the group with a far-reaching history of why people make and share music, an elegiac sensibility for cultural legacies that have come before and cannot always be carried forward, epistolary sections to the group’s members, and and personal ode to the mark it left on him and his world.

It’s one of my favorite openings to a book I’ve read in a while: “In the beginning, from somewhere south of anywhere I come from, lips pressed the edge of a horn, and a horn was blown. In the beginning before the beginning, there were drums, and hymns, and a people carried here from another here, and a language stripped and a new one learned, with the songs to go with it.”

I got to see Abdurraqib speak and read recently, and I want to leave some of his sentiments here. The joy and love for his subject, while still holding it at arm’s length, was palpable and insanely fun to hear about firsthand.

“Sampling is speaking backwards.”
“I’m not speaking as an authority, but as a fan. I raise the personal stakes while keeping a distance.”
“Adam looked upon the apple and said ‘I have no choice but to stan.’”
“There are moments you can tell a rapper is fully in their bag.”
“I don’t care how much you know about music. If you have one song you love, I’m with you.”
“To love a musician is to already have mourned the world without them in it.”

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

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In the 1970s, teenage Silvie and her family are on a two-week trip of sorts reenacting the lives of Iron Age Britons in northern England. Her father is obsessed with this period of life, turning out to be an abusive bigot (not a spoiler). He would like to think that if he goes back far enough, there will be no foreign influence to be found, and he can wallow in the sameness. At his behest, the group falls into gender-segregated tasks, with the women cooking foraged food and the men “hunting.” We learn more about Silvie’s everyday life, with her father looming over with painful control. The patriarchy is strong in this one – the men eventually build a “ghost wall” after something ancient Britons apparently did. Silvie’s father is also drawn to sacrificial practices, and is locked in a past of his own design. Moss explores the thread of violence connecting women in all spans of time. Walls may not be new, but they seem to speak to the dangerous sensibilities of assault and subjugation in any period.

Continue reading “Book Time: March Titles”

Suits I Have Seen and Loved

It has come to my attention that certain celebrities have been sporting sundry suitage of late. Specifically, three of the best famous people at work today have showed out in suits that telegraph their talent, their esteemed personage, the David Byrne-esque boxiness that says “I cannot be contained. But I’m wearing a suit that draws a map of my territory.”

Before I present the suit saviors, I need to establish my qualifications. My grandma wore a homemade suit to her wedding in 1947, smashing the patriarchy and serving a timeless look. She meant fashion business even with limited resources at her disposal. So I know from good suitage. Let’s begin.

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Sandra Oh hosting Saturday Night Live

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To host SNL on March 30, Ms. Oh and her fabulous hair rocked a blue tartan suit with a drop blazer (I’m making that a thing), and I now want to make that fabric my family crest. She noted it was her one-year anniversary of becoming an American citizen while recognizing her Korean and Canadian roots. Can we please have Ms. Oh in every editorial from now on? She and fellow visionaries like Whoopi Goldberg are underappreciated fashion plates who have discovered all the secret pathways in Mario Kart while the rest of us can’t even figure out how to get up the ramp in Koopa Troopa Beach. It takes someone with both verve and poise to wear a suit of less conventional proportions, and she gives us a lecture in making style your own. I want to attend her class and sit in her office hours. This country is beyond lucky to have Ms. Oh grace its screens, let one count her as one of its citizens. We are not worthy.

Harry Styles at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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Mr. Styles had the honor of introducing Stevie Nicks at this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. (She is the first woman to be inducted twice, which is something I needed to lie down after hearing. Induct all the women multiple times, you soulless award-hoarding men.) And he certainly came correct: a royally blue velour suit, an ultramarine dream, also with a drop blazer and wide-legged pants, complete with Navy-esque white shoes and buttons. All aboard the SS Styles. After saying things about our Stephanie like “she’s the magical gypsy godmother who occupies the in-between,” and “She is a beacon to all of us. Whenever you hear her voice, life gets just a little bit better. When she sings, the world is hers, and it is yours,” he bowed down to her like the royalty she is. Naturally, he knew blue was the only true color to wear on such a divine occasion.

Steven Van Zandt at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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Not one to be showed up by younger generations, E Street veteran Little Steven brought his own brand of suiting to the same fete as Mr. Styles. Also royally resplendent in a monochrome purple ensemble, the Jersey don rolled up looking like a rock and roll turtle, the kind that lives forever and bears the markings of history on its shell. My theory is that while not on tour with Bruce Springsteen, he moonlights as an enforcer for Grimace, hence all the purple suiting he has apparently accumulated. I stand in awe of his accomplishment in making myriad McDonald’s spokesman violet tones look regal. Or I might just be blinded by the light. But as Bruce himself says, any good magic trick begins with the setup, and Little Steven has Set It Up.

In-between times: Selected readings

What is time? Matthew McConaughey says it’s a flat circle. I say it’s a slippery devil I can’t get hold of. Which means I haven’t done monthly books on a, well, monthly basis lately. So here is a curated collection of what I’ve read in the in-between times.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us – Hanif Abdurraqib

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This is the first book I’ve read by Hanif Abdurraqib, but I’ve loved his essays on music and culture for a long time. Abdurraqib is everything – eager to engage in new and old content, wary of the world but full of love for some of its inhabitants, a quivering soul with some great stories about the punk scene in Ohio in the early 2000s. In this essay collection, he writes about everything from Prince’s unparalleled Super Bowl performance in 2007 to Carly Rae Jepsen. Nothing I can say will do his writing justice; it’s poetic and personal and wrapped up in empathy. I can’t wait to read his latest, the just-released “Go Ahead in the Rain,” about A Tribe Called Quest.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh

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It was just a month ago, but feels like eons since I read this book. Like I was living a different life – I think that’s the effect of Moshfegh’s writing; she seizes your mind and pulls it into a different plane while you’re reading. (I know, isn’t that what all reading does? Reading Rainbow travels? Not like this. Not like Moshfegh does it.) Whatever world she’s created is jarringly different but has all the same scenery as modern life that you feel like a zombie in an alternate world.

An unnamed young woman in 2000 New York decides to narcotically enhance her life by sleeping as much as possible. She finds the worst psychiatrist imaginable and gets endless prescriptions to aid in this endeavor. During her fleeting waking moments, she is addicted to watching Whoopi Goldberg movies on VHS and has to find ways to keep her drug cocktail calibrated for maximum unconsciousness.

I’ve heard this book described by multiple sources as “utterly depressing.” And maybe my mind chemistry is addled, but that wasn’t my first impression. Sad, yes, but Moshfegh is too good for this to just be a sinking stone. This was…funny. Darkly so, but it took the concept of alienation and pushed it into another universe. The protagonist doesn’t only want to escape from the world, but her own inner one, too. Moshfegh steers us through the narcoleptic fugue states and arrives at something almost hopeful.

Continue reading “In-between times: Selected readings”