Thursday, September 22, 2016

The curious increment of the blog at the right time

My gateway to the user experience was editing. In 20 years working on the internet, even as a designer I still think like an editor: I use my curiosity to make new connections.

Editors soak up inspiration indiscriminately, like a sponge. You can see this in sly headlines and pop-culture quotations. One day the musical “Hamilton” struts beyond the theater page. The next day, look for random references to Pokémon Go.

Our ability to connect seemingly unrelated element is a factor in our success, whatever we fall into. Maybe a critical factor: While few of us can stay in journalism, we keep searching for the next new thing. In my case, I haven't strayed far from publishing: I develop an association website, and start every weekday morning sending subscribers its news headlines.

Fans of the Mark Haddon novel shouldn’t read too much into this notion. Editors still have a fairly conventional view of the world. In this case, my wife was reading "The Curious Incident," and that started me thinking: What is it about editing that makes me at least incrementally better doing other things? Service designer Richard Verne brought a few of us writer-designers together for an IxDA Chicago panel this fall. Writers who fall into design and development fall back on many relatable skills. Working up my talking points, I thought back on the curious increment to my design portfolio.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Keep the unemployment line moving


Picture the number of construction workers. The workforce includes about as many involuntary part-timers.

Looking for confidence in the year ahead? Take heart in unemployment holding at 5 percent. Still, as statistics skeptic Ken Harrelson says, "Don't stop now, boys."

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen told Congress yesterday to expect "further improvement in the labor market." The unemployment report this morning doesn't quite back up CNBC's Fedspeak translation, "close to full employment."

One in 4 unemployed people have been searching for more than six months. For each of the nearly 8 million stories in the unemployment office, there are another 8 million tales of hanging onto the edge of the job market, settling for part-time work or abandoning the search entirely.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Lessons from a neighborhood dairy

The Leona's restaurant at 1938 W. Augusta Blvd. is due to be razed, and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks today recommended that the city allow the demolition. A staff presentation suggested the 1920s dairy did not fit the East Village district, showing slides of my Victorian block as proof. The building's piecemeal construction also counted against it.

I've lived for 17 years in East Village, but I grew up in Milwaukee, and my grade school was a converted dairy. Like this building, it was built in sections over time. The dairy was actually the school gym: I played basketball there, I had band practice, I tried to learn the foxtrot. It served well as a school, and taught me something about city history.

This building is remarkably similar in structure. It stands as a lesson in Eastern European settlement of the West Town community and the commerce that kept it running. When I go to Leona's I look at the bones of the building and I see more than a restaurant. To my to mind it contributes greatly to the East Village landmark district, and I encouraged the commission (in just these words) to keep it in place.

Our new alderman, Brian Hopkins, also spoke for preserving the building. He'll have another chance in the City Council to defend a local landmark.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Woodstripper's Ball [and Chain]


Jazz Age musician Bix Beiderbecke, patron saint of woodshedders and woodstrippers (Cliff Wirth / Chicago Sun-Times)

At the Chicago Sun-Times, I talked myself into taking over the Around the House column. After coming into the office every Monday morning with remodeling stories, my boss thought I should put my research to better use.

The great Les Hausner set the feature's first-person format, plus the frequent dashes and paragraph breaks. This installment is a sentimental favorite. It's for serious rehabbers: An out-of-town friend read the piece and asked me, "What was that all about?" But I still giggle over Cliff Wirth's illustration.

It's back to Sundays with Bix.

Bix Beiderbecke, the young man with a horn, on the radio. Bix woodstripper slowly melting the plastic tuning knob.

Like the Paul Whiteman Orchestra cornetist, this stuff could just about cut through brass.

On and off for a year, I would get fidgety feet long before the first downbeat of Dick Buckley's Sunday afternoon as program on WBEZ (91.5 FM). I'd be off the davenport and scraping paint off the woodwork in our pre-Beiderbecke rowhouse.

The stripper calls again this summer, like the trumpet trio in "San." A clothes chute that we liberated from behind a wall needs to go naked. Same for the white sheets of paint behind our bedroom doors, and the weathered green window frames that look like an alligator's backside.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Let them tweet cake: 'Marie Antoinette' at Steppenwolf


Ericka Ratcliff, Tamberla Perry and Alana Arenas in "Marie Antoinette" (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

"Liberté, égalité, fraternité" is just another meme in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of "Marie Antoinette." We're invited to think of the Enlightenment as the start of our unenlightened age. Seems like a daft notion, but then again how can rebels still see beheadings as all the rage?

The production starts with the Capet queen and her ladies-in-waiting decked out in wide-contour crinoline, but engaged in the idle girl talk of reality television: Marie Antoinette as Kim Kardashian. Alana Arendas has the task of reigning over a Moulin Rouge court, a pastiche that makes Antoinette only 1% aristocrat, or places her in the aristocracy of the 1%.

David Adjmi's play sets her in a tourist Versailles, a hall of scratched mirrors. It's not a vast palace but a small jewel box of family and friends, with not much to the lot of them beyond their aloof, over-the-top image. Louis XVI is not playing a delicate game of empire and reform. Tim Hopper's king is mostly distracted, the inheritor of the family business; his fall, a few convocation missteps. Axel von Fersen (Ariel Shafir) is a flirtatious count on his grand tour, not Rochambeau's aide in the march on Yorktown. There's not much revolution in this rarefied air.