Slow Down…

A note was published on Gapers Block yesterday announcing the site will go on an “indefinite hiatus” on January 1, 2016. If you followed the site at all, it’s worth reading the entire thing.

Gapers Block was my journalistic home for three years and as a result of the time spent there I grew as a writer, editor and person. I started as a writer for Mechanics, the politics section, which always kind of surprised me because I viewed myself as being completely unqualified as I had been a theater blogger and the most notable thing in my background was I dropped out of The Theatre School at DePaul University. From 2013 through 2015 I was the editor of Mechanics, which was a fun adventure and I’m eternally grateful to Andrew Huff, the editor and publisher, and Ramsin Canon, who proceeded me as the editor of Mechanics, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the site.

As a send off, I thought I would round up my favorite pieces I wrote or edited because Gapers Block was such a unique part of Chicago media some of these pieces feel like they only could have been published there.

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Someone Let Me Talk on the Radio for 10 Minutes About an Abandoned Hospital

It’s now no longer recent, although it could qualify as semi-recent, but I appeared on WBEZ’s The Morning Shift back in February to talk about Edgewater Medical Center, a long-empty hospital on Chicago’s North Side. This came after I wrote “The Saga of Edgewater Medical Center” for Gapers Block, which is part four in the “series” called Monica Writes About Hospitals. (This is a bit delayed because I’ve been busy for the past month and I didn’t think, “I should put this on my blog.”)

It was mildly terrifying because I hadn’t been on any broadcast outlet since my sophomore year of high school and I was worried I’d sound like some silly little kid who think she’s a journalist and I’d say “hahspital” a lot. After sitting down in the studio and starting to talk and thinking of it as just being a conversation with Tony Sarabia, the host, everything came easy. I regret not jotting down some notes to take in with me because there is some stuff I forgot to mention, but now I know next time I’m asked to be on TV or the radio.

If you haven’t heard the interview, I embedded it below for your listening pleasure. A quick note, the part where I very faintly say “Hi!” was the result of my mic not being on, not my anxiety. (Also, the email asking me to come on The Morning Shift came on my birthday, which was pretty great timing.)


I was a weird kid.

When I was in high school, I discovered Harold Pinter and fell in love with his plays. When I auditioned to get in to Rockford College’s theater program I did the end of “Old Times” for one of my monologues. After I did the monologue I was asked why I chose the monologue and I spoke about my love of Pinter’s writing getting under the skin before lamenting the time limit for a monologue not allowing me to really use the full potential of the pauses.

My love of Pinter has continued and the sole play I saw in 2013 was “The Birthday Party” at Steppenwolf, which I greatly enjoyed. But then it eventually came up in a conversation that I’m a woman and I enjoy Pinter.

The issue came up when I was talking with someone about what I did over Spring Break. I mentioned I saw “The Birthday Party” and enjoyed it. The woman asking me about my Spring Break activities looked up the play on Wikipedia and then said, “You shouldn’t like that play.”

“Why not?”

“You’re a feminist. The women in this play lack agency.”

I never enjoy people applying labels to me as they tend to be incorrect, so I cringed when she said “You’re a feminist.” But to be fair, Harold Pinter is not great feminist literature. His work is, however, among the most important theatrical work of the 20th Century.

I have a history of being lectured by those in my age range for my taste in plays. I’ve even listened to a voice mail message where someone questioned me owning a copy of “The Essential Bogosian.” These are the plays I enjoy because of the writing and stories told within. Simply because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I should only like certain plays with strong feminist tones to them.

The surprising thing is I haven’t been lectured for my unabashed love of Philip Roth’s work. Roth’s work is derided often as misogynist and sexist, but he is in my opinion the greatest living American writer. It’s how the words flow when Roth writes and the characters he creates that draw me into his books, even though they might be rather piggish and, let’s face it, Alexander Portnoy was a schmuck. It is even possible for me to sometimes feel sympathy for his characters because of how Roth writes.

Among the things I learned in college is the importance to appreciate and analyze the writing of a writer rather than focusing on if you like the book or if you approve of the actions of the main characters. The actions of Alexander Portnoy and Coleman Silk aren’t ones I would engage in and I don’t condone them, but that doesn’t take away from my enjoyment. The writing of “Portnoy’s Complaint” does read like the world’s most messed up therapy session from an incredibly neurotic person and works very well on that judgement.

Occasionally I do stop and wonder, “Is it okay for me as a woman to enjoy Harold Pinter and Philip Roth’s work?” But at the end of the day, what is okay for a woman to enjoy? If a woman enjoys “Twilight,” and many women do, she’ll likely be accused of being shallow and be criticized for enjoying the books when Bella is not an interesting protagonist. If a woman enjoys a Dan Brown novel, she’s reading middlebrow thrillers. If a woman enjoys Jennifer Weiner novels, she’s stooping to “chick lit.”

The problem is there are no books or works you can openly enjoy without getting some criticism. As a friend of mine pointed out once, everything is problematic. It’s easier to prepare yourself to be criticized for liking anything in the realm of culture than to sit around and go, “Is this okay to like?”

There is nothing wrong with me liking Harold Pinter or Philip Roth’s work, even though other people might object. Just be prepared for me to launch into an analysis of his work if you ask me about Pinter.

Hospital Architecture and You

“Why hospital architecture, in particular?”

I looked at that question on my Blackberry as my train sped through middle-of-nowhere Michigan. The question came from Neil Steinberg, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist, in regards to my Twitter bio containing a declaration of me being a “hospital architecture enthusiast.” There was more to the direct message, but the question of why I enjoy hospital architecture stayed in my head when I was not catching naps on the train. I briefly answered the question at one point, trying my hardest to be concise.

I enjoy architecture in general because I view architecture as a form of art. For example, I find the Broad Museum of Art at Michigan State University to be too modern for the part of campus it sits on and impractical as an art museum. (Have you ever tried looking at paintings that hang on slanted walls?) Meanwhile, I love the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum because it enhances Milwaukee’s skyline while also allowing visitors to take in both the art and the beauty of Lake Michigan.

The main reason hospital architecture fascinates me because the architect has to fine the right balance of form and function.

A hospital has to be designed in such a way to make it easy for patients, visitors and staff to get around. But then there’s the aspect of making it not terrifying and making design moves to maximize beds in a tight space or improve recovery through design.

Take Thorek Memorial Hospital in Uptown for example. It’s a boxy brick building sitting in Chicago, nothing really spectacular about it’s design. Inside the walls and flooring looks like a generic hospital, although the last time I was there the hospital had vacant dark waiting rooms you had to walk through to get to other parts of the hospital and grime in various areas. It seemed like the last place you wanted to end up in for hospitalization and not a pleasant place to recover from illness or surgery.

Meanwhile Rush University Medical Center’s tower, which opened in 2012, features large windows and green spaces throughout the building, including a terrarium inside the lobby. On Rush’s website for the tower, the choice to design the area for patient rooms like a butterfly stemmed from the design improving sight lines for nurses and putting them closer to the patients.

The butterfly design, although feeling like a more attractive version of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, was done to improve the quality of care. When I toured John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County in 2011 for a piece for Gapers Block aspects of Stroger’s design pointed out to me were things like separate waiting rooms for pediatric emergency and private rooms in the neonatal unit were ways of showing how the hospital was an improvement from what previously existed.
Cook County Hospital
Cook County Hospital is a gorgeous building and one of my favorite buildings in Chicago for its aesthetic value. The hospital was built in 1912 and by the time it closed it was largely outdated. One of the more horrifying details to modern times is the use of an open ward for maternity where woman giving birth was sandwiched between beds where other women who were in labor lay. The hospital was also, by all accounts, not a very efficient hospital largely due to the design not working well as it entered the late 20th Century.

Although Stroger does not share its predecessor’s beauty, it is a pleasant building to look at. The lobby has large windows, allowing for a great view of the Fantus Health Center next door, and the purple signs and awnings feel oddly soothing to me. No, it doesn’t have the grand Beaux Arts look, but it works as a hospital and as was pointed out frequently to me while touring it, they tried to improve from what previously existed.

There are other hospitals with architecture that strikes me as interesting. The old Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center is another building with fantastic lines and excellent details that works well with the rest of other historic Los Angeles buildings built in the early 20th Century. Above the doors of the hospital are carved statues of various men–Hippocrates, Scottish surgeon John Hunter, Louis Pasteur–acting as if they’re the guardians of medicine. (Similar to Cook County Hospital, Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center’s predecessor isn’t nearly as architecturally interesting, but it is pleasant to look at.)

The new Columbia St. Mary’s Medical Center in a very modern and unique looking building. Rather than going with a boxy metal and glass design, the 2010 building features curved and straight lines. Next door is the women’s hospital, which uses a “cloverleaf” design, but not the same as the Rush Tower’s cloverleaf design. As I was going past the building with my mother, we wondered if the design maximized the amount of windows in the patient rooms, which would be nice since Columbia St. Mary’s Medical Center sits very close to Lake Michigan.

The old Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago also featured a cloverleaf design, but due to the materials used in its construction it ended up being viewed by quite a few Chicagoans as being an eyesore. The materials used for the women’s hospital at Columbia St. Mary’s keep it from being a brutal structure.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan viewed from Lurie Children’s Hospital.

But sometimes interesting hospitals don’t have to immediately stand out for beautiful details or an interesting design at the street level. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago has a rather straight-forward boxy design. But on the inside you see all of the details the architects and planners created to make it a great hospital for children. There’s the large inviting lobby, complete with a giant fake whale; the aquarium near the emergency department waiting room, the indoor gardens and the design of the patient rooms to create a good space for the patient’s family as well as improve accessibility for doctors and nurses.

The hospital is located in Streeterville, which allows it to have fantastic views of Lake Michigan, which at least is soothing to me. Sometimes the best parts of hospitals are hidden from the street and can only be found on the inside.

Those little details are the best part of admiring the construction and design of hospitals.

The Night I Went to Miller’s Pub

Among the more interesting things I’ve written in my life is a post for Punching a Jayhawk, the blog I write with my sister, entitled “A Review of Drinking a Non-Alcoholic Beverage in the Palmer House Lobby.” This isn’t so much interesting because of what I wrote about, but what occurred the night I went to the Palmer House and had the drink featured in the review.

On that particular evening I was supposed to review the tour of “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Bank of America Theater a block away. There was a mix up with my press confirmation and as a result I could only see the show if I bought a ticket. Although I enjoy “La Cage Aux Folles,” I felt better enjoying the original Broadway cast recording with George Hearn in my apartment for free than coughing up the money to see the tour. Dejected, I decided to walk to the Palmer House, which I had every intention of going to after the show.

For those who have never been to the Palmer House, the lobby is incredibly exquisite, featuring a stunningly decorated ceiling I could stare at for hours. It is built in such a way that when I walked into the lobby for the first time while wearing a suit I felt underdressed. Because of the beauty of the lobby and the tranquility I tend to feel when I sit there, it is one of my favorite places in Chicago. (The first Palmer House was built as a wedding present from Potter Palmer to Bertha, his bride, but it burned down in the Great Chicago Fire. Still, lucky woman.)

I walked down Monroe and through a door held open by one of the doormen at the hotel’s entrance. Up the stairs I went before I plopped down in one of the yellow fabric and wood chairs in the lobby. A waiter walked over and I ordered a pomegranate lemon drop because the basil lemonade was unavailable. I also informed the waiter I might consider an appetizer or the creme brulee from Lockwood while I sat there.

At that particular moment, I was feeling a bit bluer than usual. This was likely the result of having recently gone through a mutual break-up with my boyfriend at the time, a sweet Libertarian who worked in PR, and being in that weird purgatory of being between semesters at Columbia College Chicago. It also possibly didn’t help at the time I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. The Palmer House lobby felt like the only place to go since I was 19 at the time. I couldn’t go to a bar and have an actual drink and I didn’t want to go straight to my apartment. So I decided to savor my drink and occasionally stare up at the ceiling.

While I was doing this a man in his early 30s wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, that morning’s New York Times and the previous week’s Chicago Reader walked up the stairs and sat down across from me. He greeted me and we began talking.

I learned he was a lawyer in I believe business law and studied at University of Chicago, having grown up in Highland Park. We talked about the papers he had and various other topics before he asked me if I wanted to have dinner.

Let it be known that most men do not ask me, “Care for a drink?” or “Would you like to have dinner with me?” and mean “I’m buying.” In fact, only twice in my life has that happen and once was with my ex, the other with the lawyer I met that night in the Palmer House lobby. Coincidentally, both are from Lake Country in Illinois. As a result of me rarely being asked this, I was caught off guard but accepted. Rather than staying at the Palmer House, we left the hotel and went around the corner to Miller’s Pub.

Miller’s Pub is an old-school Chicago bar. The lighting is dim, the walls covered in wood. It has a cozy feeling that makes you immediately think, “I’ve been here before” even if you’ve never been there before. It’s a place I immediately felt comfortable in because I felt like I’m not the person who wants to go to bars that scream “Pick up place!” or somewhere with blaring dance remixes which result in my eardrums feeling like they’re about to burst. I’ve been to the latter in East Lansing, Mich. and it was deeply unpleasant. Unfortunately, I don’t think the owners of such establishments are listed among the damned in Inferno.

We took a seat and looked at the menu. Miller’s happens to be known for its ribs and other meat, which I could have tried. However, I happen to be the weird person who will order one of the cheaper items on the menu even though someone is paying, so I ordered the Cobb Salad, which is fantastic. My companion ordered a sandwich and we continued to talk, largely about politics. Although there is the saying that you should never talk about politics, sex and religion in polite company, it is inevitable people will talk about politics with me because I write about politics.

The only specific thing I remember being said while we were in Miller’s Pub was he asked me, “Do you ever wonder if you think too much?” I responded with, “Yes, largely because I’ve been told I think too much since I was seven.”

After we finished eating, we walked out of the restaurant and he asked if I wanted to go anywhere else that night. I said I felt like I needed to go home because I was tired and had to be at work at 8 a.m., but thanked him for the evening. And so I walked up the stairs to hop on the Brown Line, which I would eventually get off of at either Belmont or Fullerton.

I failed to get the lawyer’s number and I don’t remember his name. This was probably because I did not go to the Palmer House to pick someone up, but to enjoy a nice drink. I ended up having a better night than planned because the lawyer sat down across from me and began talking to me before taking me to dinner at Miller’s Pub.

As I sat on the train I made a mental note to one day return to Miller’s Pub as it was a place I felt comfortable in. However, I moved to Michigan in August of 2012 to finish my journalism degree and I haven’t had the chance to venture back to the bar on the days I’m in Chicago. I have made a note that after I move back in May I will have to go to Miller’s Pub before starting to write my review of the drink at the Palmer House lobby in my head.

Even though I only went there once, it was one of those places that left an impression on me. When people were discussing on Twitter what could possibly replace the Billy Goat on Michigan Avenue as the place for journalists, someone mentioned Miller’s and I chimed in saying it’s a good place.

I don’t go to bars or restaurant to be picked up by some guy because most guys will eventually have to reckon with the fact I’m a journalist and my profession tends to make people uncomfortable. I go to any place to enjoy myself, be it a library, restaurant, bar or store. I happened to enjoy myself that night and anywhere I enjoy myself is worth revisiting again.

I do apologize to the lawyer for not remembering his name since he bought me dinner.

“Red Angel” Versus “The Blue Angel”

My two main activities this weekend are reading plays and reading about Jane Byrne for a play I’m writing. Among the plays I checked out was “Red Angel” by Eric Bogosian. I first started reading it while sitting on the fountain outside of Michigan State’s main library, but then walked to run some errands in Downtown East Lansing. I then sat down in a coffee shop and finished the play while sipping on some tea.

My immediate reaction to the script was that it was well-written and less angry than the Bogosian plays I’ve previously read, although the tone of later Bogosian is much different from “Drinking in America.” I was also impressed because thanks to reading too many plays I expected the premise of a writer and professor sleeping with a student at the college to end up being very cliche or maybe ending with the woman going to great lengths to ruin the life of the professor who is her lover.

After finishing the play, I then looked at the back of the script and noticed Dramatists Play Service included the following sentence with the synopsis:

“Bogosian’s riff on Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel.”

This caused me to pause and suddenly try to reevaluate my opinion of the play because I’m very familiar with “The Blue Angel.” That evening, after having dinner, I reread the play and tried to see if my opinion changed at all.

“The Blue Angel” is a 1930 film that catapulted the career of Marlene Dietrich*, who stared as cabaret performer Lola-Lola. The film focuses on teacher Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), who goes to the cabaret Lola-Lola performs at hoping to catch students who have been circulating photographs of Lola-Lola. He becomes immediately smitten with her. He eventually becomes consumed with his infatuation with Lola, eventually marrying her. Due to resigning from his job as a teacher, he becomes a clown performing with Lola and his life continues to slip away.

The plot of “Red Angel” is that one evening a writer and professor, David Blau, has three graduate students over after a reception. Two of his students leave and the third student, Leena, stays with him and they talk at great length before deciding to have sex. She spends the night, they have more sex and he discovers she is very familiar with his work. He becomes instantly smitten with her and grows jealous as he finds out there is another man in her life.

There are some similarities and even some possible allusions. One is that the both David and Immanuel are educators, another is that David’s last name is Blau, which is the German word for “blue.” There is also the similarity of the male character in both works becoming jealous regarding his lover.

However the stakes are much different in the two works. Rath is a very respected educator and loses everything because of his infatuation with Lola. Blau is a moderately successful writer who doesn’t really lose anything. There is an emotional change during the course of both works as Rath eventually goes crazy from his jealousy and Blau is significantly weakened by his feelings for Leena.

As for Leena compared to Lola, the strong difference I see is that we see Lola is a woman men go gaga for while I can’t tell how men other than David feel about Leena. Both are strong confident women in creative careers.

The main difference between the two to me is the tone. For me, “The Blue Angel” is very much like a tragedy as we see the fall from grace Rath experiences and his eventual realization that he screwed up before his life comes to a sad end. “Red Angel” feels more like a common drama, although with conflict seems less contrived than in other plays I’ve seen involving romantic relationships. The play, at least on paper, doesn’t seem to be emotionally devastating**, but it ends on a rather lugubrious note.

So after analyzing the similarities, “Red Angel” does feel like a riff that is distant enough from the other material to make you really think about the two different works. Even without comparing “The Blue Angel” to “Red Angel,” the play is very good because it doesn’t devolve into “Women are bitches,” which is what I was afraid of when reading the play because of other plays I’ve read throughout my life.

(I think I just wrote a blog post to discuss my feelings on a play. Sorry, everyone.)

*Marlene Dietrich is a German treasure.

**Emotionally devastating Bogosian would be his novel “Wasted Beauty,” which I enjoyed.

Geek Bars Are a Thing Now

WBEZ has an article on their website about a Kickstarter to create a geek bar in Chicago. (thanks to Anna Tarkov for tweeting about it.) This is a bar for “geeks” to enjoy geeky pursuits like playing Magic the Gathering or discussing The Lord of the Rings or debating if Anne Frank or Lizzie Borden would win in a fight.

The article quotes Tony Nilles, who owns a geek bar in Milwaukee:

“You have a demographic where if they go to other bars and clubs, they don’t feel comfortable, they feel like they are an outsider or outcast,” Nilles said. “When you get them around other people that are just like them, they feel this sense of belonging and you find that you have these really nice, kind people that are able to express in ways they weren’t able before.”

It almost sounds like geek bars are analogous to gay bars.

That’s the problem with this concept. It feels like “Aw, the poor geeks. They don’t feel comfortable at The Violet Hour, Big Chicks, Simon’s or some Billy Dec place. We should give them a place to feel comfortable. We’ll give them a geek bar! It will be a safe space!”

The difference between a gay bar and a geek bar is that gay bars are there for gay people to interact with other gay people–and now straight women who want gay best friends. It is a place where they can flirt, pick someone up and feel safe doing so. The quote from Nilles makes a geek bar feel like it’s a way so geeks don’t have to interact with people who aren’t Star Wars obsessives.

I happen to enjoy some things that would normally result in me being a geek. I read comic books, play video games and watch Star Trek, Game of Thrones and Doctor Who. I also occasionally enjoy anime, but with all of these things I’m not an obsessive. I can’t give you a complete overview of Superman’s mythology, debate which Final Fantasy games are superior to other games and I don’t speak Klingon or Dothraki. This might mean that I’m not a geek, but I enjoy “geeky” things. When I walk into a bar I feel very comfortable. Then again, I can carry on a conversation with people about things I’m not geeky about. I’m not going to walk up to some stranger in a bar and talk their head off about health care policy.

What seems even more surprising about this is I’m curious if a geek bar is really necessary in the age of the internet. It’s really easy to find people who share an interest with you. Although going to a bar is a unique experience, if you really want to be around people with a similar geeky interest with you without feeling awkward at a bar you don’t feel like you fit in at, you can go on a subreddit and drink a beer in your apartment.

I also find the quote from David Zoltan, the man behind the concept, about where he got the idea from to be very interesting:

“I thought, I don’t have cable. I’d like to watch the show with a bunch of my Whovian friends and other Whovians from the rest of Chicago,” he said. “(But) while I can throw a stone out and reach a half dozen sports bars in Chicago, there isn’t a place for the geek.”

The thing about this is that you could put together a viewing party at your place or a friend’s place. I know people who don’t have HBO and watch Game of Thrones at a friend’s place. Although going to a bar to do something like watch a football or hockey game is a unique experience, a viewing party with close friends is a great experience. You can eat water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and TARDIS-shaped cookies, or sugar cookies decorated to look like Ood.

But perhaps this ends up being a good idea. It’s promising that this is for people who are geeky about all things, something I don’t get from the Milwaukee geek bar. It seems as though I could walk into this bar and start spouting opinions on mass transit in Los Angeles and it would be okay. Still, it feels a bit discouraging that people feel the need to create bars for geeks to be geeky when it’s seems like it would be relatively easy for geeks to gather in this day.