Saturday, July 14, 2018


"Music is the strongest form of magic." - Marilyn Manson

Ceremony, from the album Substance by New Order. Whenever I hear even the first few notes of the song, I'm transported back in time. I can see my younger self – I must be 18 years old, frustrated by being on the razor’s edge of change, feeling the bite of that metaphorical blade. I think it’s how Luke Skywalker must have felt being told by his uncle to be patient, to spend just one more season on the farm. I was chomping at the bit – already accepted into Michigan and just counting the days, the minutes, until I’d be into the next chapter in my story.

Waiting for my world to change. To be where I thought my life was.

None of it turned out quite the way I’d planned. But then little has, and most of what’s been unexpected has ended up being good to me, even if it didn’t always seem so at the time. But once the fragments get pieced together, refined and glazed over, once it’s in the rearview, then it can become a story and make sense.

Just a few notes of that song though, it brings me right back to that spot in my past – working with my friend Jason at the Exxon station his family owned just around the corner from the Montgomery Mall. Summer just around the corner, the air was already getting heavy and humid, and we’d be going different ways – he was off to Boston and I was heading for Ann Arbor. I was starting Summer term, not just because I’d heard it made acceptance a little more likely, but also because I was itching so badly for it. I can smell the gasoline on my hands, which I much preferred to the distinct scent of Kimchi fermenting in Jason’s garage. I keep trying to clean the grease of my fingers, but it’s the green and white checkered rag I’m using that keeps making things dirtier.

That blank impatient space between chapters – that’s was the song Ceremony makes me think of.

My painting "Ceremony," made while listening to the song

It was originally written when the band was still Joy Division, before Ian Curtis ended his life on the night of the band’s first world tour. They too found themselves between worlds – in transition from a strange new sound in basement clubs to becoming world renowned pioneers in electronic music. En route to becoming legendary. Post Joy Division but pre New Order, which is what the survivors would become – this one song seems to bridge those two different periods, without fitting comfortably into either. An interlude, and one to which I was particularly attuned at the time.

It’s up tempo, but still down. Minor chords played fast. The murky vocals and lyrics further shaping some new hybrid emotion. Angsticipation.

To be honest, I don’t know if the music made me feel that way of if I’ve just layered my feelings at the time over the sound. Or both. I don’t think it’s knowable, and I don’t think it matters either way. The music, the time near the end of my teen years and the internal emotional whirlwind I was going through are all inexorably fused. It has become one of the main tracks on the soundtrack of my personal history. It’s also impossible to if it will mean anything at all to you, but if I had to guess I would think that there is some song that does. All the same, here it is for you:

Here are the lyrics:

This is why events unnerve me
They find it all, a different story
Notice whom for wheels are turning
Turn again and turn towards this time
All she asks is the strength to hold me
Then again the same old story
World will travel, oh so quickly
Travel fast and lean towards this time

Oh, I'll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows, it's got to be this time
Watching her, these things she said
The times she cried
Too frail to wake this time

Oh, I'll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows, it's got to be this time
Avenues all lined with trees
Picture me and then you start watching
Watching forever
Watching love grow, forever
Letting me know, forever

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sears Mishap House Myth

(This piece was edited and published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

Local myth claims this is a Sears catalog home with its windows installed upside-down.

Savannah, Georgia, is rich with strange local tales. Many involve ghosts or other mysterious hauntings, but some involve something a bit less sinister: Victorian architecture.

How did this oddity occur? Pranksters blame it on the Sears catalog craze. Long before the advent of the internet, the Sears catalog provided people all over the United States with a single source for all of their mail-order shopping. You could purchase just about anything through the catalog, including, apparently, DIY home construction kits.Local guides will tell tourists that all is not as it seems with the peach-colored house with green shutters at 32 Habersham Street. Look at the house, and you’ll notice its windows have a unique decorative style to them, said to be due to the fact they were installed upside-down.

In reality, the windows were arranged in this way so that the top part could open, which better allowed the heat to escape to keep the house cooler.

Though this house is not in fact a Sears catalog home, that hasn’t stopped that particular myth from running wild. The house and its rumored construction mishap have become a quirky point of interest on city tours and have tricked many a visitor, despite the signs disputing the story hanging outside.

Correction: This entry previously stated that this home was a Sears Roebuck catalog house with the windows installed upside-down. That is an incorrect, though oft-repeated local tale. In fact, the house is a Victorian-era design and the windows are installed correctly.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Exploring Chicago: Carved in Stone

(This piece was originally written as part of an ongoing series for Tower Topics, a newsletter produced by and for the residents of Imperial Towers in Chicago. The publication was discontinued before this piece was published.)

The Chicago art scene is incredibly diverse representing all styles and mediums, from the cultural works on display at the National Museum of Mexican Art to the galleries of Pilsen, the studios at the Fine Art Building, installations at the MCA and countless iconic public sculptures like Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (aka “the Bean”) and Picaso’s famous, whatever it is, in the courtyard of the Richard J. Daley Center.

As an artist myself, it’s no surprise that my adventure list led me to spend copious amounts of time in front of both public and private artworks, but what did surprise me was the commonalities between many of the works that impacted me the most. They were all lesser known public artworks, and all of them were carved in stone.

Eternal Silence
At the border between Ravenswood and Uptown is what may be one of the city’s most overlooked historical treasures – Graceland Cemetery. Amidst the remarkable statues and monuments, civic leaders such as Wacker and Altgeld and famous city architects like Burnham, Sullivan and Root share space with the pioneering private eye Alan Pinkerton and Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. In this serene setting the infamous George Streeter still squats on the same land as Pullman, Fairbanks and Palmer, where at last they seem to have found peace as neighbors. With a little research and a keen eye, you could learn the entire history of Chicago from a tour of Graceland.

But one iconic stone sculpture carved in 1909 by Lorado Taft left me awestruck and speechless. This turned out to be an appropriate response since the Dexter Graves Monument is better known as Eternal Silence.

Somber and haunting, this 10 foot tall hooded reaper-like figure has one hand raising a fold of its cloak over its mouth, as a grim and powerful reminder that though we may come to visit and speak to the departed, they are forever unable to hold up their end of the conversation. Somehow even the oxidization on the black granite statue only serves to make it all the more formidable.

Fountain of Time
After seeing my first Taft monument, I had to know if there were any others nearby. Sure enough, just west of UIC at the eastern edge of Washington Park is another larger work titled Fountain of Time. 

As the name suggests, this monument depicts the passage of time through a seemingly endless procession of all manner of individuals including soldiers, laborers, and even the artist himself, marching from youth to old age while across the fountain, the massive hooded figure of time is alone unmoved and unmoving.

Presented to the city in 1905, for more than a century this cement and steel-reinforced work has reminded all who gaze upon it that our time is fleeting. You may be detecting a theme or fixation in the artist’s work – the same point that Eternal Silence makes without words, The Fountain of Time drives home with a visual yell. Part of the inscription at the base of the fountain further illuminates the artist’s inspiration:

“A line by Austin Dobson had suggested the theme. Time goes you say? Ah no. Alas, time stays, we go.”

The Secret Mermaid of Burnham Park
After experiencing the existential profundity of two back-to-back sculptures by Lorado Taft I was in the mood for some something more whimsical. Hence the mermaid.

Keep in mind that not all public artwork begins with public approval or even public knowledge. The Secret Mermaid by the lake inside of Burnham Park is a prime example of this. Secretly carved in 1986 by four artists (Roman Villareal, Jose Moreno, Fred Arroyo, and Edfu Kingigna) while evading detection by the police, today the mermaid sunbathes happily atop the fish and waves chiseled into the stone that supports her.

When the work was first discovered in 2000 by the US Army Corps of Engineers during an effort to restore the shoreline, it seemed like a creative answer to the message left by the protagonist of the Shawshank Redemption for his friend, which is to say a rock that has no earthly business being there. The public was left to speculate on its origin with theories covering everything from a remnant of the World’s Colombian Exhibition to the work of a single artist working away bit by bit over the course of years.

Eventually the truth was revealed and after being locked away in storage for three years by the Park District in 2004, a group of students petitioned to have it restored and returned to its unnatural habitat. Currently you can find this lady of the lake along Oakwood Beach.

Other Public Artworks Worth Checking Out
There’s never a shortage of public artwork in and around the city to explore. If you walk across the street from Imperial Towers to Montrose beach and head south, you’ll come upon several notable works including the Kwagulth Totem Pole and Sharon Kilburg’s blue “Chevron.” If you’re up for a trip outside of the neighborhood, I highly recommend the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park and Jack Howard-Potter’s “Winged Glory” on the 4800 block of North Damen Avenue at the edge of Greek Town.

About my "Exploring Chicago" series: Chicago will always be the first city I really fell in love with. The history, the people, the food and just the feeling I had living there – it reminded me of what it means to be at home somewhere. But Jen had lived there her whole life and always wanted to move to Florida, and I agreed. After all, it’s a big world with a lot to see and maybe it’s possible to become too comfortable in one spot. So we made a bucket list of unique things we wanted to do before we left the Windy City and as a means of saying farewell to a place we loved, we devoted ourselves to getting to know it better, finding its hidden streets, its local flavor and its secret history. That urban exploration has turned into a passion that we’ve continued in Florida… but Chicago still occupies a unique place in my personal story. This series of articles allows me to share that intense curiosity and sense of wonder while adding yet one more dimension to my experience – that of fond reflection.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Seven Quotes

When I was young, the world was overflowing with secret wisdom, and everyone seemed to have some polished shard of ancient knowledge to share, from famous physicists to artists to religious and political leaders to someone you happened to sit next to on a train from 30th Street Station to Ambler. Song lyrics were scripture. I carried around a notepad and pen everywhere I went, a practice that had solidified into habit long before I became a staff writer at my college newspaper (the Michigan Daily, if you were wondering). Funny, I hadn’t thought about those scribbled notes and quotes for probably close to 30 years, but just the other week I found one at the indie flea market at Armature Works here in Tampa. It’s from Arthur C.  Clarke about technology and magic, and there it was staring me in the face from a rack full of typographic artwork – various famous quotes printed in visually interesting ways over pages from a dictionary.

I purchased it on a whim and I’m looking at it right now, as I write this. It’s just another reminder that if I’m going to chase down childhood wonder and wisdom, I need to do more than just put back on eyes I haven’t worn in a very long time, I need to revisit some small rituals that I long ago ceased observing. Collecting quotes, reciting a prayer before bed, making a wish on 11:11, avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk - you know what I mean, because you used to do it too, even if it's not something you would ever admit to anyone else.

And so I’ve been visiting the sub cellars of the mind palace, where under the layers of dust those quotes have remained as fresh as the day I first recorded them, stored in imaginary cardboard boxes alongside fifth grade science projects and cassette tapes.
Here are seven quotes that seemed most relevant to this journey and journal:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
This one is an old favorite from Arthur C. Clarke, and now a piece of typographic artwork in my small collection.

“Not all those who wander are lost.”
I see this quote now frequently in the windows of boho boutiques and on hipster tee shirts, but I wonder how many recognize it as a line from the J. R. R. Tolkien poem “All that is gold does not glitter.”

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
Yeates, who I like to think would appreciate my appreciation of his words and my attempt to sharpen my own sense.

“We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us.”
There’s some disagreement as to the precise origin of this quote – all I know for sure is that I heard it for the first time as a line in the film Magnolia.

“Children see magic because they look for it.”
Christopher Moore, whose books have on more than one occasion caused me to laugh out loud in crowded places, drawing quizzical glances from anyone nearby.

“Anytime you miss your friend who died, just say his name and he’ll be with you, even if he isn’t.”
Hands down, this has been the most valuable piece of wisdom I've ever received from any Chicago taxi cab driver. Like voodoo, it seems to work if you allow it to.

“Magic doesn’t come from talent, it comes from pain.”
Maybe you recognize this one from The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

Recalling these quotes have been a bit like discovering doorways to further doorways, leading me ever deeper into the vast structure I’ve imagined to house, catalog and recall my memories. Through winding, arched, cobwebbed brick tunnels illuminated by flickering torches, through secret passages I didn’t even realize that I had realized. Who knew this place had catacombs? But then, knowing the architect as I do, perhaps a better question is, how could this place not have catacombs?

Monday, July 2, 2018


Bodies of water such as lakes and oceans, according to Jungian theories, are often symbolic of the subconscious – light and images reflected off the surface while that lies below becomes progressively murkier and impenetrable. The lightless lowermost depths hold both terrors and treasures, populated (literally) by what appear to be bio-luminescent aliens, and (figuratively/symbolically) by memories and dreams.

Sometimes, either by design or by happenstance, things get dredged up from the bottom. Oarfish that show up dead on Bermuda beaches give credence to a belief in sea serpents, and personal effects from passengers aboard ships that vanished are found glistening in the sand and surf. So too memories, stirred from the Mariana Trenches of our personal histories, return to the surface.

I am thinking specifically of my love of aquariums.

When I graduated college in 1998 and moved to Seattle, I found myself needing, from time to time, a place outside of my home where I could collect my thoughts and find a source of calm during a somewhat turbulent point in my life. This led me to discover something truly marvelous – the Seattle Aquarium. Located on Pier 59 of the Elliott Bay waterfront, I discovered that watching the graceful movement of sea life put me into an almost immediately deep, trancelike state. Watching sharks and rays glide around their tanks, forests of brightly colored anemones swaying with the current, it triggered something in me. I found a little slice of aquatic nirvana, where all of the internal and external pressures in my universe melted away. 

I took this secret knowledge with me as I moved from city to city. In Chicago I visited Shedd Aquarium often. Here in Florida I’ve been to at least a dozen aquariums (my favorite of which so far has been Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota). I can sit in front of a jellyfish tank for hours, motionless, completely absorbed and unburdened by self-consciousness.

If I put any stock in astrology, I might chalk it up to my sign as a Pisces. But I don’t really subscribe to such notions (which, it should be noted, does not make me any less of a Piscean poster boy).

A number of years back I shared this with my mother, who responded with laughter. I was a little surprised (which is not to say that seemly inappropriate or incongruous responses are really all that uncommon in my family). She quickly explained that she hadn’t intended to be derisive. Rather, she asked me if I remembered the very first house I lived in, which couldn’t have been for more than the first year or two of my life. More than 40 years ago now.

I didn’t recall anything about it at all.

The reason she asked, she went on, was that, like any infant, every once in a while I would have a massive and prolonged crying fit. Nothing she did seemed to quiet me. Finally, she discovered that seating me in a stroller in front of the fish tank would cause me to go instantly silent, calmed at last by watching the fish in their tanks. Complete and utter tranquility. 

I too laughed when I heard this. I didn’t really have any other way to process this new intel. How fascinating and strange, that I should be composed of and driven not only by those things I remember from childhood, but those things even further back, forgotten fragments and vestiges of my pre-lingual world, when everything must have been a meaningless jumble of sensation. The machine language, ones and zeros, behind the very first lines of code written on the hard drive. Hello World!

The gemstone layered over and concealed by sediment at the very bottom of my private ocean. 

I think about this on the way to visit aquariums, which, as it has now been revealed, is also on the way to visit some of the first experiences meaningfully recorded by my senses. I think about it all the way up to and past the ticket counter, through the first set of interior double doors, and just up until I see the first fish tank. And then, blissfully, I think of absolutely nothing at all.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Key West Cemetery

(This piece was edited and published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

The island residents are known for taking their quirky sense of humor with them to the grave.

It’s estimated that as many as 100,000 people have been lain to rest in the 19-acre Key West Cemetery, more than three times the number of living residents in the island city. The cemetery was established in 1847 after a hurricane washed bodies out from their previous location, and many of the graves are above ground (similar to New Orleans) due to the high water table. Today, though, the cemetery is best known for its many unusual gravestones.

Other notable one-liners include “Jesus Christ, These People Are Horrible,” “I’m Just Resting My Eyes,” “Devoted Fan of Singer Julio Iglesias,” “If You’re Reading This, You Desperately Need A Hobby,” and “I Always Dreamed Of Owning A Small Place In Key West.”Perhaps most recognized among the tombstones is that of local hypochondriac B.P. “Pearl” Roberts, which reads “I told you I was sick.” Literary references abound as well, with one tombstone reading “So Long and Thanks For All The Fish,” a reference to Douglas Adams’s book of the same name. Another reads “GROK – Look It Up,” from Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

There’s much more to the cemetery than just punchline epitaphs and conch-shaped tombstones. Key West is the final resting place of “Sloppy” Joe Russell, a well known local bar owner and fishing guide for Ernest Hemingway, as well as “general” Abe Sawyer, a famous little person who requested to be buried in the grave of a full-sized man. There are many Civil War and Spanish-American War graves, a section for Cuban freedom fighters, and a monument to the 260 sailors killed in 1898, when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor.

There’s also a twisted—and true—tale of Count Carl Von Cosel, who stole and preserved the body of Elena Milagro Hoyos from the cemetery. The Count, using a combination of beeswax, silk, and makeup, was able to preserve the body, kept in a wedding dress in his bed for seven years. When the woman’s horrified and outraged family learned of it, they had Elena’s body re-interred in a secret spot where Von Cosel couldn’t find it again.

While exploring the cemetery, don’t be startled if you hear a rustling coming from just out of sight. The entire island is overrun with feral chickens, and a great many large iguanas also call the cemetery home, often sunning themselves on the stone markers during the day.