Sunday, October 28, 2012

Two Chicago Stories

I’ve been to Chicago twice.

The first visited in 2006. Sometimes you know something important is happening in the moment. Sometimes times you have to wait. As I prepared to return to the six years after my first time through, that initial trip first time seemed rife with watershed moments.

The first trip was about family.

Growing up, my sister was my near-constant companion. Together, we assigned not only names, but well-defined personalities to our collection of stuffed animals and acted out any number of scenes with characters like Mud Puddle (a brown Pound Puppy) and Honk Creative (a My Pet Monster) at the fore. Over a period of years, we created a hand-written magazine for a readership of one (my wonderfully patient grandmother). My sister was my earliest musical influence, turning me on to artists like REM and Tori Amos, and taking me along to my first concert (I may have been the only 13-year-old boy at The Indigo Girls show). We grew apart a little when she got to high school, and more or less fell out of contact when she left for college; a shared ineptitude at keeping in touch left us estranged, if no less friendly.

My sister moved to Chicago with her fiancée right after undergrad. In 2006, the better part of a year removed from college myself, I decided to make a concerted effort to rekindle familial bonds. I made the trip west.

I thought the trip would be about introducing my then-girlfriend to my family.

She said she didn’t want to go.

When I broke up with her two years later, I cited her unwillingness to engage with my family as a part of the reason. She said if I had asked her to come to Chicago again instead of moving along to invite a buddy in her place, she would have said yes. We weren’t the best at communicating. But then, I don’t think it hit me how much I cared about her not coming on that trip until well after I got back from Chicago.

The trip started something new.

About a month before we embarked for midwest, my friend and I had taken a road trip to Rhode Island to see then-girlfriend’s a cappella group sing in a competition (something we did a number of times in those days). Along the drive I pitched the idea of a new website called Average Joe’s A Cappella Blog—a collection of opinion pieces about a cappella, from the perspective of fans of the genre who were in no way experts. On the train to Chicago, we sketched and wrote and crossed out and circled and numbered and all but filled a pair of legal pads, brainstorming everything from site content to layout to philosophies. By the time the train reached Chicago, we had dropped the “Average Joe’s.” The A Cappella Blog would launch eight months later.

Little did I know, six years later, it would be The A Cappella Blog that brought me back to Chicago.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We visited The Field Museum. We saw Second City. We had a pizza at Gino’s and watched The Bulls drop a game to the visiting Miami Heat. We walked up and down Michigan Avenue in the March chill. It was every Chicago cliché, plus the nuance of recounting the eccentricities of childhood with my sister. (Our old man gave us enough fodder that I doubt we’ll ever stop marveling at how we lived like that, and how we ever came out the other side as relatively normal, high-functioning adults… but that’s another topic for another time.)

Long story short, that first trip, buffered with all manner of watershed moments, was itself a pretty fantastic little vacation.

Fast forward six years. In a week with no new material posted, The A Cappella Blog is getting around a thousand unique visitors a week; in weeks when we are active that number gets multiplied several times over. I’m not saying this to boast (and I suspect some folks who may read this have a larger audience at their own sites), but rather for perspective. Against most odds and some logic, we have a readership.

Then I made a list.

After seeing a reference to the Maxim Hot 100 this past summer, I thought about creating my own list; one that objectified people less and celebrated them more. For The A Cappella Blog I write about groups all the time, but rarely about individuals. And so, I carved out an hour or so most summer nights after work to compile a ranking, do Internet research, and write bios of 100 of the coolest people in a cappella. The ranking ran as a ten-part feature, Monday through Friday of the first two weeks of September. “The List,” as it became known in a cappella circles, drew a lot of traffic to the site, and produced a lot of *ahem* discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Non-a cappella fans, bear with me, I promise this is all going somewhere.

While plenty of folks liked the list, plenty hated it. I got lampooned for snubbing most of the big names in a cappella recording; because of a heavy bias toward Americans (fewer than ten non-US citizens made my ranking); for the use of the word "cool" making it feel like a shallow popularity contest; and for the sheer principle of ranking human beings. Some of the criticism was quite valid and I’ve learned from it. Some of it was less constructive.

Midway through this series of posts, and before things got very heated at all, I got an email from a friend in the a cappella community, inviting me to emcee the professional showcase at ACappellaFest in Chicago that October. The role would entail introducing The Edge Effect and Sonos (truly one of my favorite groups) to hundreds of fans. I wasn’t just flattered. I was stunned. And all too eager to accept.

After the fall out of “The List,” I won’t deny I was a little less excited for my return to Chicago. Sure, there’d still be Sonos, and plenty more music, and plenty more friends. But after the vitriolic reaction so many folks had to The Cool 100 I had visions of getting booed off stage; of groups refusing to associate with me. I actually went so far as to compose an alternative emcee script in my mind—for emergency purposes only—if the boos did outweigh the cheers when I got in front of the audience.

And so I returned to Chicago, this time without a traveling companion and without a host (my sister and brother-in-law have moved twice since 2006). I got up at 4 in the morning to catch my flight, then drove through and walked around Chicago until it was time to check in at my hotel. I ate chicken-and-waffle pizza at Dimo’s; saw American Gothic and windows by Chagall at the Art Institute of Chicago. I paced the length of Millenium Park.

I felt calm going into the a cappella festivities that started Friday night; I enjoyed a good show and spoke with friends—many of whom I had only known via email Facebook up to that point. Afterwards, I got more pizza (Giordano’s this time) and called it an early night.

Saturday went well, too—the series of workshops and classes I visited throughout the day, and, yes, the emcee gig that night. “The List” was a topic of conversation; a majority of the folks I spoke with brought it up in one form another. But I was pleasantly surprised when most of those exchanges were more curious than argumentative; some of them even supportive. I didn’t get booed off stage; by the time I was up there, I even had the gumption to make a joke about the list, and while I couldn’t see most of the audience (the houselights were turned down) I heard laughter in response. Not one rotten tomato hurled my way.

And Sonos was amazing. The Edge Effect, too. But, come on, it’s Sonos.

When I got back to Baltimore Sunday evening, I looked through my photos from the weekend. I looked at the ones from the festival, of course, with an eye toward which ones I’d upload to share with the a cappella people. But then I looked at the ones from my walk through Chicago. I took this one, a self-portrait of sorts at Cloud Gate.

For the unfamiliar, Cloud Gate, or “The Bean” is a large public sculpture by Anish Kapoor that resides in Millenium Park. It’s said to have been inspired by liquid mercury, and has unusual reflective properties, distorting views of the skyline and of visitors. In this reflection, I stand, ostensibly amidst a crowd of people, and yet, also, ostensibly alone; in either case, distorted by another artist’s vision.

It may be true that these two trips to Chicago were two entirely separate experiences; separate stories, bound by nothing more than a common setting. But then, I’m the same person, am I not? Still looking for family, in a sense? Still spending too much time thinking about other people’s art—musical, bean-shaped, or otherwise?

Or am I (still) grasping at threads?

I made a lot of mistakes
All things go, all things go


  1. I just want to say how much I've been enjoying this blog and getting chance to read your writing again.

    Also, you weren't a bad correspondent back in the day when actual paper was required--unfortunately, electronic mail is both easier to send AND easier to forget.

  2. Thanks, CJ! And I'll have you know I still keep an eye on your blog for book recommendations (and I agree on the goodness of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs).

    I'm not so bad at responding to messages--it's more the whole initiating contact/picking up the phone sort of stuff where I'm less than stellar.

    In any event, great to hear from you! I hope all is well.