Recently in Chicago Category

Jaimy Gordon said something particularly memorable to me once. She was rightfully reacting to my frequent and strenuous complaints about sentimentality in the writing we were reading for workshop. She described a New Yorker cartoon in which a man is reading a book. As the panels progress, he gets more and more engaged, more and more distraught, more and more moved by what he's reading. But as we get to the last panel, we see him sitting in front of a typewriter, stoney faced with a ballon showing what he's typing - "what a load of sentimental bullshit" - or something similar.

I very much sympathise with that cartoon, because it's a process I find myself repeating very often. I remember even when I was much younger, when I watched Titanic in the cinema, how I wept while watching it - though to be accurate to what went on, there were personal aspects that led up to that event. Once it was over, of course I felt completely manipulated by filmmaking that's the equivalent of pushing an elevator button. Of course over the years I've come to understand at least in part how the percolation of a Marxian perspective very much assists in creating this odd sentiment. This dictates that we should always strive to be able to understand what is going on by looking at it from the outside rather than from the inside (to put it rather simplistically) - not inhabiting the emotion, but rather questioning why that emotion is evinced. This does not necessarily undercut the sincerity of all emotion per se - but it curses us to always question the nature of our being affected by something we watch or observe.

If we were to do a practical criticism, a close analysis, of why we are affected by the ending of great expectations - especially when we are in the courtroom with pip and magwitch and we understand there to be no "help or pity in all the world" - we would perhaps dissect with awe the way dickens constructs scene, uses language etc.

In a political context though, when the sentiments you have to put forward have to be repeatable (in a stump speech) or reproducible (in the sentimental medium that is television) or is in fact the translation and repetition of affections past - it is no less able to bring about emotion. But in the context of such a direct appeal to persuasion - to vote one way or another, rather than to simply nudge people towards a more nuanced understanding of how things are or a particularly focused world view - you question whether it really should be about emotion as a means of persuasion.

The more I think about it, the more I think persuasion should be about facts. About rationality. If you want to help poor people, the question is not how do we make people feel for poor people, it is what are the best policies to lift those people out of poverty. And unfortunately sometimes those policies can seem counterintuitive - like taxing the rich less. It might not make any conventional or emotional sense - certainly not as much as giving the poor money (though that's a good idea too, via the EITC) - but if it's borne out by the facts, how it feels shouldn't make a difference.

But I'm a sucker, whether Adeena would believe it or not, and I'm a sucker for a reality distortion field. That's why I'm emotionally entertained by Steve Jobs, and why I can't help but be emotionally entertained by Michelle Obama's speech.

But so what if you feel the pain of the common people? So what if you are "like them"? Will it stop you from enacting policies simply because you think they'll work and hope they'll work, rather than counterintuitive policies that smart people can measurably and verifiably tell you will work? Because I can never help but worry that Democrats are too soft-headed not to damn the people they are trying to help, just because they can't help themselves from giving in to what people want rather than standing up for what is in those people's long term best interests. You can try and protect people all you want from the pain of free trade and lost industry, but all you're doing is delaying and magnifying the inevitable, rather than doing the hard and radical work required to create a situation where the impact of these changes would be minimised.

Jaimy also helpfully points out that people have every right to be surprised when they find out I'm not an only child.

I've always been a big fan of Blackbird. I consider it probably the best place to go that I know of to get finely prepared food in Chicago. That may change as my experience widens, but by and large that impression has stayed with me, and whenever I go back, the food seldom disappoints. The high point was going for their New Year's Eve tasting menu, that I found altogether sublime, and which highlighted some of the key strengths of their kitchen. I've always had lovely amuse bouche there, and they've typically been fish, and they have a real strength in cooking pork.

Having said all that I suppose already constitutes a mini review of Blackbird (all that's left to say is that I really appreciate them having a small piece by Tony Fitzpatrick in each of their washrooms). Which brings me to Avec, their sister restaurant, located right next door. It's meant to be trendier and more casual, in contrast to the elegance and grace of Blackbird. I'm more a Blackbird person by nature, but it's the variety of food that pulls me to say more than that about Avec.

The first time I went to Avec, I made the mistake of going at their peak. It probably didn't help that they'd been featured on the then current season of Top Chef in Chicago. But yes, right round 7pm till whenever they close, whenever I've driven past, it's always been packed to the gills. That experience was saved really by the food, which is why I went back, but otherwise it's not what I would have thought of as ideal. I imagine that there are people who love to dawdle and socialise in a place where you can't hear yourself think, much less talk, but I'm not one of them, and if I'm going to spend copious amounts of time in a place, it would have to have a much more relaxed atmosphere. But that might just be me. trendier souls than myself may find this their Mecca, but I can find the ambience a little wanting.

Again, if you love to dawdle, you won't mind placing a drink order and waiting at least 45 minutes for a seat at the bar (a seat at a table is even longer). And while their wine selection exhibits the same elegance Blackbird does, and I could guzzle on that teat quite happily, you will be standing outside next to the rather busy Randolph St. I for one have never been quite happy in less than contolled temperature environments, and car exhaust does nothing for me.

But fine, to go through a long wait and less than ideal environment, the food service should be as impeccable as the food itself promises to be, given the lineage. Unfortunately the service tends towards the harried, with a distinct feeling that the place is at least understaffed. Our food took absolutely forever to come, and the timing in between courses was just way too long. And for that, there's none of the customary geniality of Blackbird. I suspect unless you're a regular or a big spender, terse is the watchword. But the food was very good, and very good enough to make us want to come back. I think the hostess (who's quite handsome, if you're into such things) was free enough to answer our question about when they're less harried, and we resolved to come back then - they open at 3pm, and they don't get too crowded till around 6 plus.

Today was a happy day, and we hadn't eaten yet at 4 something, so we took a swing and got there about 5, which seemed just right. Everything was lazy and laid back. On stepping in you would have thought it was the serving staff having their dinner break, rather than paying customers. We got to sit at a table, we didn't have to sit precariously at the bar, we were able to order fast and our food was timed well for arrival. Not that I go in for excessive schmoozing, but our server seemed particularly unwilling to go through the motions with us the way he was with the rest of the clientele, and I wonder what the fuck that was about. To be sure I was a little unkempt and we only had a single glass of wine between us (a nice Grenache - fruity but still mild) - I suppose more leisurely places must make more of their income on pushing the drinkies, but still - that's no call for being selective in your service.

monkey had the medjool dates - and this may be my ignorance, but they were absolutely lovely. I'm not sure where the dates were in the bowl of four, they were probably holding the spectacular meatball in the middle, covered by the bacon wrapping it all up, but the experience as a whole was very charming. The tomato sauce I thought was particularly outstanding. Next was the pork shoulder, and that was absolutely spectacular. If anything, even though the pork was absolutely perfect, it was the seasonal vegetables accompanying, lovingly rendered in the not-too-heavy pork fat, that was most outstanding. It all came together in a way altogether heavenly. Anything with pork I suspect is a home run in either restaurant, personally.

In comparison, the large plates were altogether fine, but less than spectacular after the pork. I suppose if we were more tuned in to the style of the place, we would have just had more and more small plates, but we wanted a main along with the starters, at least this time round. The pasta was next (they don't update the menus online, so I'm not sure if it was linguine or tagliatelle) - very nice, if a little heavy on the oil and a little oddly tart. Nothing to write home about, but very solid. The pizza similarly was very nice, very fine. Perhaps the meat on top was a little clumped and a little over salted. Overall the use of pepper was strong but that was actually very much to my liking. Good dishes, but overshadowed by memories of pork.

Dessert was uninspired polenta cake for her, and rather good thin chocolate bars for me. Doesn't seem as if dessert is their core competancy, so if you're full, you might just skip it for coffee and port.

To paraphrase Celia, I'm not sure if this is a place where I could willingly waste my time, but the food is definitely worth coming for, and if you're there when the food arrives in a timely fashion and you're not elbow to elbow with everyone else in there, it can be a positively happy experience. I can't see though the harm in finding a way for there to be even one more server, or if it comes to that, making a less clear distinction between the servers and the bus-boys. The service isn't friendly to speed in any situation, but that may just be my own impatience at the pace of American food.

Aberdeen, Dino's, AAA

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This has really been the summer of car troubles. Part of it is my own fault, since I decided to buy the Mountaineer (which I still want to hug to sleep at night), but the litany of stuff that's had to be done and the number of trips I've made to Aberdeen (ie: Aberdeen Auto Body at 1043 Fulton Market) have gone right past the point of being in any way funny.

Let me just say up front that I trust Aberdeen - and I don't just say that because this whole site is identified with me and they might well read it and be mean to me (as all tradesmen are wont to do to the effete who are required to patronise them) - but I've used them for years now and even if I didn't trust them, I like them. Best of all they're also nearby.

It used to be that they were so close that I could take a 3 minute walk and get to them, back when we used to live on May St. But even now they're not that far away, and Wayne the office manager has gotten used to loaning me his car when repairs take more than an hour.

I'm normally content to sit around at Dino's (at 954 W Fulton Market, a lovely working man's bar in the middle of the meat packing district, two blocks away from Aberdeen) have steak and eggs and watch the news, but once it gets to an hour, I can't just keep hanging around. Dino's also serves probably the best French Toast I've ever had anywhere, much less in Chicago, and they serve steaks (also in the form of superb steak fajitas) that are to die for.

Anyway it'd be way too depressing for me to go through the list of stuff I had to have done, though for the number of times I had to ping pong back there, the price tag wasn't as prohibitive as you might think. Suffice to say ball bearings, wheel alignment, tail light, windshield washers, driver's side lock. In the end it's not the parts that added up so much as the labour, which is fair enough, given how much time and tsuris it all came out to. But that might just be me being too accustomed to dealing with them - feel free to disabuse me and hand me an "easy mark" sign round my neck.

Right now I'm waiting for AAA to turn up. I must say that paying for AAA is just worth the price of admission. Getting roadside service through your insurance might cost less, but in terms of full service whereever and whenever it's needed, AAA doesn't disappoint.

Turns out that the minor problem that appeared to be the air conditioning in monkey's Saab is more likely to have to do with the alternator (of which the AC failing is a symptom, I belatedly discover), and apparently that means somehow that the steering on the Saab is now like pulling through molasses - I assume it's all got to do with the power steering etc. Needless to say it's not driveable, and hence the need for a tow. I'm hoping that maneuvering out of the rather straightened underground garage isn't just too much to ask.

My regular correspondent was telling me how he had had a conversation with someone else I know, about how they both disliked Jeff Koons' work - especially since I'd been telling people about his exhibition that's going on right now at the MCA in Chicago. To which my reply was:

Interesting. For me it's just stunning the scale and subtlety of the work. If nothing else, what you notice most about his work up close is the fine and detailed use of materials. Take the balloon animal bunny rabbit - it has a balloon animal carrot, which is just fantastic. The idea that you would fashion out of chrome and steel something that is otherwise so fragile - is just breathtaking. With the giant dog, the fact that they replicate the balloon knot at the tip - the bit that looks like an odd belly button - is superb.

He has one work where a large bear is being conspiratorial with a old style English bobby. He has a pink panther hugging a mermaid. And what's not to love about a golden Michael Jackson with is golden monkey? But yes, it strikes me that the Nth degree of whatever contemporary art moves towards has so much to do with exactly the experience of material - of touch, or the visual notion of what something would feel like.

And so much of it is shiny. I couldn't stop smiling throughout the exhibition. I was squatting down and trying to look at the items in as much detail and perspective as I could when one of the black rent-a-cops began basically mocking me saying "it's not a car, sir" but I find the complexity and immense simplicity of the giant balloon animals just stunning.

My correspondent's response was to talk about some of the problems of making art "accessible" through exaggeration - about people who win awards and prizes because their work takes on a large thing of subtlety that should have the heft of reality, and yet reduces it into something exaggerated and simplistic - in a way people can find so much more easier to absorb. He also talked about how people can tend to "steal" things - using something rendered by someone else and simply reusing it or enlarging that thing. And in so doing essentially appropriating the other person's work as their own. My response:

I think you're absolutely right, that people can tend to lean on the iconography of "other things" as a means of burnishing their own credentials, and that kind of hackery is exactly plagued by this kind of simplicity and exaggeration - being hyper-indian etc. But I'd like to think there's a difference between exaggeration and scale. Because I object to the use of extremity more than a bunch of people - I even object to the way philosophers try to define existence by making wild surmises at the extreme ends of (only vaguely possible and wildly hypothetical) human experience. But artists and writers are capable of creating objects and narratives of such grandeur and scope as to be exactly breathtaking. In that way they would seem to be using spectacle not as a means of titillation, but as a means of accessing extremes of emotion within the individual.

But what seperates Titanic from King Lear is exactly the fineness and quality of the detail. Not that I'm saying Titanic was put together in a slapdash manner, but it is not going to have the same rigour of composition and consideration as a film or narrative of more heft and substance. In part it's this confidence in the ability of real artists to imbue the microcosm of their works with that consistency of detail that surely sets them apart from hacks. It's how people can really tell from reading a small section of a writer's work that the greater work, if not his/her corpus is worth something. Because close up, to the minute detail, it all pays off even at the level of the dot stroke or punctuation.

I think of Koons' work very much in the tradition of Duchamps - though in Koons' case he's even more conscious of the necessity for detail in order to achieve his effect. We might think it's really easy to make a giant balloon animal, but it's constructed out of a huge amount of steel and chrome - it weighs exactly tonnes, and yet it's representing something that is otherwise fragile and almost delicate.

When it comes to what I assume to be the more fundamental issues of choice, composition, color, shape etc. it would seem to matter less the material you work with (oils, paints, canvas, matchbook covers, glue), than the arrangement of items. And it's not as if Koons is saying he invented the balloon animal - he's not passing himself off as the creator of the pink panther - he's relying exactly on your recognition of the item from a separate context as a means of achieving his effect. In part it's about how transposing something into a different medium changes things - how the use of materials is exactly transformative in that context.

If we understand the totality of what distanciation does - really understand the full shape and effect of any metaphor - we start to see the full picture. Because metaphors use the unexpected to accurately depict a recognizable reality that we exactly recognize beyond the distancing of the metaphor itself. Which is why even when people say "When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table", we know what they mean. But while it is a means of accurately depicting reality, it is also a rhetorical act - it serves to impose the artist's world view upon you. We are being persuaded to view the sky in this way, just as Hopper's paintings try to persuade us of a certain sense of alienation in the landscape of the city - something he does by focusing on unexpected things, ordinary things that would otherwise not be subject of such focus.

In many ways, I would argue that this is exactly what is happening with Tony Fitzpatrick's work - that it's very much about juxtaposition - so much so that Maggie instantly recognizes it as her city. But maybe not so much the city as she knows it, but her father's view of the city.

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