Travelogue: Glessner House in Chicago


Glessner House, located in Chicago’s Prairie Avenue Historic District, was designed by American architect Henry Hobson Richardson and completed in 1887.

Richardson studied at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which encouraged quick conceptual sketches and detailed perspective drawings that could and should be followed through to physical completion of a space.

Good thing.

In April 1886, Richardson completed the design for the house. 

Three weeks later he was dead.

This sprawling residence was built for the Glessner family, wealthy from 19th Century manufacturing of agricultural equipment. It was home to a child who would grow up to be very important due to homes of a different scale: Frances Glessner Lee.

Frances was the first female police captain in the U.S. and “the mother of forensic science.” In her 40s, Frances began making miniature dioramas that depicted grisly murder scenes. The replicas were designed to be educational tools for homicide detectives and the fledgling field of medical examination and crime scene investigations.

Pictured: Detail of “Kitchen,” from the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths. 

The dioramas, eventually becoming Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, were precise — down to the make of the mousetrap and the bloat of the body. Many are still used today to train detectives, and the answers or real-life cases from which they were inspired remain under lock and key.

Also awesome? It’s rumored Frances was the character inspiration for everyone’s favorite brilliant amateur detective in gaudy baubles: Murder, She Wrote’s very own Jessica Fletcher.

Following, some pics I snapped on a recent tour of the place… No crime scenes evident!

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Entrance, library and parlor

Dining room and kitchen details

Bedrooms

Behind the scenes

Next door


The story of the French Angel


As the end of the year (aka gift giving season) rolls up with the top down, I thought I’d show off one of my favorite custom embroidery jobs from the archives.

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I recently finished this custom piece for a dear friend. He wanted to gift an artwork to a friend who loved wrestling and wrestling history. He picked an image from this series of photographs by Irving Penn from 1945 and told me to have at it.

Original image info: Irving Penn, 1945, “Dorian Leigh & Maurice Tillet aka The French Angel”

The man in this photo is Maurice Tillet (1903-1954), the most notorious wrestler of the 1940s, better known by his ring name, ~THE FRENCH ANGEL~.

If you’ve been to Chicago’s International Museum of Surgical Science, you’ve probably seen a bust of The French Angel.

The plaque there tells more of this man’s story:

“He studied 14 languages, wrote poetry, and aspired to become an actor. However, his dreams were shattered when he developed acromegaly in his twenties. … This disorder is caused by an abnormal production of growth hormone usually related to a benign tumor of the pituitary gland… With his new body, Tillet, an educated man and a lover of the fine arts, felt like a monstrosity. Unable to face a life of constant gawking and humiliation, he decided to make drastic changes and use his condition to his benefit.”

At the end of his life, Maurice was a Chicago boy. He died here, too, of a heart attack that came on after he heard that his trainer died. <sobbbbbbing>

My color choices for his wings and the stars on his belt are a direct reference to the Chicago flag.

I almost put the fourth star on Maurice’s belt too, but I just had to do something about Dorian there…

The angle of her foot, the shape of that heel… oh la la, there’s just so much I love about that aspect of the original photograph. I put the last star beneath it to give Dorian her own special place in this piece.


I said good day, 2020!


When Justin and I moved into this apartment a few years ago, I loved the place. It was bigger than the tiny Lakeview studios we’d been living in separately, and it had a three-panel window that looked out into the park. A dream! After a few months of living together, though, we realized it was way too small and, well, our home decor tastes did not align. Where I saw a place for some lovely thrift store trinkets (the bane of Justin’s existence), he saw room for his signed Rocky poster (the bane of mine). This apartment taught us to compromise and we stuffed ourselves and all our belongings into its tiny closets. Then, I promptly spent three years complaining about it. I wanted to move to a bigger place. I couldn’t wait to leave, looking up condos and bigger apartments on Redfin, Facebook, et al.

Of course, karma pulled out its spindly little finger and decided to teach me the value of staying still and staying put by bringing on a year that has required me to stay nowhere but here. Then it took its yellowed pointer and pushed salt into the ironic wound: I was diagnosed with narcolepsy in February of this year, started medication that helps me stay awake throughout the day in March, and had nothing to do with my newfound energy and wakeful outlook except stay home April through what feels like forever.

I, like most people who haven’t eaten at a restaurant since mid-March, went through a range of feelings this year. Late March through April, I really enjoyed staying home. My introvert self secretly delighted in fact that everyone else was at home too. The slower pace was a welcome reprieve from the going and the doing.

But by June, the country was on fire and my beloved grandpa died. I said goodbye to him on my sister’s phone. I watched him take his last breath via pixels on a two-by-five-inch screen. I stayed home for the funeral, Zooming in to the calling hours and the ceremony as I watched my family say goodbye to him for me. It was awful not being there; worse to know my grandma, safe in a visitor-free nursing home, couldn’t go either; alarming to see so many of my loved ones not wearing masks. The funeral was a briiing-brriiiing wake up call to the reality that many were not taking the reality of a pandemic personally. It made me doubt why we were doing so if no one else was?

This ushered in a period of grief, not just for my grandpa, but also for a lost Chicago summer. A seemingly lost year of our lives, filled with self-doubt about what the “right thing” was in the first place, and a feeling of loss surrounding something less tangible than time squandered—the truth of how fragile everything we took for granted could be. Our collective health, our scientific institutions, our communities, our democracy, and on and one it went.

We did the best we could. Justin and I went to the park across the street occasionally. We went for walks, spooning sherbert onto our tongues from dusty sidewalk seats. But it wasn’t the same. I was sad. So sad about all of it.

By fall I was in acceptance mode and experienced the numbness that comes with knowing this is just how it is, how it’s going to be for a while. I began to mentally prepare myself for the fact that we could be living like this until spring 2021, at the earliest. My autumn was consumed with professional work. I was grateful for the distraction but also experienced frustration that I couldn’t release the work stressies anywhere other than another room in our one-bedroom place. I couldn’t go work from a new cafe, find a forgotten gem in the Chicago scenery as I walked to and from my destinations. I couldn’t enjoy the life our high rent was a trade off for. I couldn’t escape into planning for our next trip—or looking at new places we could move to; after all, who knew what next year would look like and where we would want to live or even be able to afford to live. 

I missed my nieces and nephews so much. November marked a year since I’d seen any of them. The baby I bounced in my lap last Thanksgiving I now watched toddling and transforming into an adorably drool-faced sprinter over FaceTime. I longed to hold them, to play, to just feel their curious energy mingle alongside mine in real time. A new niece was born and, sitting in my office chair, I cooed over her perfect cherub cheeks while tears made a salty line down mine.

My dad got Covid at the end of November, and I fretted helplessly two states away. I lived through the cognitive dissonance that transpires when caring for someone sick means having to stay far away to keep them and others you love safe. Waiting for texts on his condition became an hourly grind. The anxiety didn’t lift until the day he sent me a video text from the farm, which meant he was finally recovered and healthy enough to go do his retirement chores, to see the bunnies and feed the hogs, the highlight of his average lung-strong days. 

The pace of the city slowed to a crawl but the people throbbed with rage. I began to feel cautious walking alone at night in a neighborhood that has always felt comfortable. I got more honks than usual, and more unmasked men came up to me than ever before, empowered by the chaos to take their shot. I’d turn them down and keep walking. Several followed me home, and I disarmed them by talking about my husband and asking about their plans for tomorrow.

Through all of this, I started to see our third-story walkup in a new light. Our apartment became a safe space, a warm glow connected to familial and friendly lifelines that could keep me whole, even if they were miles away. I found friends on the internet to talk to about sobriety, the pandemic-inspired isolation triggering so many of us recovered. I grew close with an awesome woman I met in late 2019 at a comedy show, our friendship forged over weekly Wednesday Zoom sessions. I strengthened friendships I already cherished, taking walks in so many parks I’d never been to in the city. I gained a writing group that now has 10 screenshots of our monthly Zoom-based workshops to add to our quarantine photo albums. I grew my writing and visual art practices, even as my exterior life wilted to a one-block radius. I found an online therapist that makes me hopeful for what’s next. I watered my jade plant that sits on the sill overlooking the park. She’s got the best view in the house and so do I.

I began to feel so grateful for my job. Grateful for the internet and a remote career that feels creative and aligned with my values. Grateful for a salary that made it so Justin didn’t have to go out either. Grateful for security and income to pay the rent. Grateful for taking that test in February instead of later in this weird ass year. Grateful for not getting Covid and a family relatively untouched by the carnage. Grateful for a best-friend-roommate husband. Grateful for the groceries, the snail mail, the time to focus on art. Grateful for no kids, no mortgage. Grateful for all the decisions that led us to be here, safe and sound, despite all that 2020 wrought. Grateful for an apartment like this, small but manageable, happy and warm. Healthy, most of all.

As I write this, there are nine days left in this unexpected, totally bananas year. Nine is my lucky number. Here’s hoping 2021 proves to be a lucky number too. Or at least a sane one. I’d settle for sane, waiting here by the window I’m fogging up with bated—but grateful—breath.


Two empty lawn chairs sitting side by side

Home is a feeling


Quarantine Day 1,345. It was early evening, that time of day when the heat has started to fade but the light is still saying its goodbyes. 

Justin and I strapped on our masks and headed out the door to take a walk around the neighborhood. “Let’s go get Italian ice,” he said. I was suspicious, not wanting to go to a restaurant. “They have a walk-up counter,” he said convincingly.

And so we strolled, taking a brand new route, a few side streets behind the local grocery store, streets that I’d never been down before. One block in, and I couldn’t believe how excited I felt. All the new things to see! After approximately forever-amount-of-days staring at the same walls and the same computer screen, chilling in the same park and running the same route, this walk was a novelty more delicious than any cold treat.

We said muffled hellos to an ancient Border Collie lounging among the pink blooms and behind the twisted iron fence of a brick one-story.

We joked about what we would do if we had to move into a three-story house towering above us, its boarded up windows framed by a white exterior turned a dingy browbeaten gray. I would fix it up and nurse its good bones back to health. Justin would burn it down because clearly it was haunted and something wicked lurked in the basement. 

We passed by a wooden fence. It was too tall to see over, but if we could, we would see a family celebrating summer in their backyard. The scent of grilled corn and the sounds of mariachi carried over the fence, tempting us to join as we passed on the sidewalk. Hello, I said, wordlessly. Thank you for the reminder.

I’ve always loved looking at houses. That there are endless rows of them is one of my favorite aspects of living in Chicago. The neighborhoods, the overflowing residential streets with endless charm tucked away just beyond the hurried thoroughfares. It’s like knowing where to find a secret water source in the desert.

I tried to explain to Justin why I like walks like this so much. Looking at other homes makes me feel like I am here. Nowhere in particular, just here. On earth and un-alone. But though I like thinking of all the human stories stacking up in those houses they inhabit, what I enjoy most is the look of the exteriors, as an individual and as a whole. A street of houses all lined up, especially if those houses have completely different facades, looks the way a bowl of fresh, in-season strawberries tastes: A welcome mat for the senses. 

Each house has a face and sleeps at night. Even the most humble of architectures here carries a gentleness for me, feels like a place where life unfolds unceremoniously (which is the most rewarding kind of unfolding, I think?). From the humble bungalows to the soaring million-dollar build right next door, I love looking at all of them. I don’t want to be inside them necessarily, just to behold them. The window panes, the flower beds, the curve of a doorway and all the knowing it can share just from its shape. Even the sharp angle of every roof taps a different feeling inside me. Oh! And, best of all, the trees! Dangling their drapery as a curtain to each house’s stage. Look, they say. Witness what is here.

We held hands as we ordered our Italian ice, a line of people with the same idea spaced six feet apart behind us. A string of brightly colored owl lights on the outside of the building shone stronger by the minute as the sun settled. There were pink and green plastic chairs on the small strip of grass near the order window—also six feet apart. We decided to keep walking and find a corner to stand on as we spooned the icy treat into eager mouths. Lemon, raspberry, watermelon. A woman riding her bike with a dog on a leash passed us. A new mom on her cellphone tutted along, baby peeking out of a blanket from the stroller in front of her. Cars blinked by with a rattle. Justin and I watched it all as we ate, the cold a relief on our hot tongues. The taste lingered, hidden behind masks, as we walked back. Dusk hitting the homes with a loving light, guiding us back to ours.

The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook is here!


An essay I wrote is in the new book “The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook” from @beltpub! I’m excited and grateful to be included. The Chicago Tribune called the book “required reading” and I can’t wait to dig into it this weekend.

I’ve only had it for a few hours and already stained the cover with fried food grease because that will always be who I am as a person.

There’s a release party from 5:30 to 8 pm at The Hideout Inn (1354 W. Wabansia) on Sept. 11, featuring readings by some of the writers, including @meganstielstra (!!!😍!). Plus delicious food donated by Abra Behrens and by Floriole bakery. Books will be available for sale! Here’s the Facebook event link!

The second event is at Marz Community Brewing (3630 S. Iron) on Sept. 17, from 7 to 9 pm. There will be readings and a DJ at this release party. RSVP on Facebook here!

Check out the whole lineup of books examining life in the Rust Belt at beltpublishing.com (oh, hi, they also have a Rust Belt Arcana tarot deck and I think that’s so very awesome).

Art you should know: Chicago Reader’s Father’s Day series


Happy Father’s Day weekend to all the dads out there! I suggest checking out Chicago Reader newspaper’s feature of W.D. Floyd photographs of fathers from the south and west sides of Chicago. The series focuses on African American fathers, who society often holds an inaccurate view of. You can read the whole story and see the series at Chicago Reader here.

“Within our society there is an underlying belief that fatherhood is a role Black males struggle to fill. But every day I see Black men engaging in acts of care. Most are not making a political statement but fulfilling their basic human instinct. According to a 2013 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black men are more involved with their children than other demographics.”

Photographer W.D. Floyd

Get your tickets for You’re Being Ridiculous PRIDE edition


Chicago’s awesome storytelling show You’re Being Ridiculous is celebrating PRIDE at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre on June 20, 21, and 22 at 8 p.m. each night. The show is part of Lookout Series, an event that presents the work of artists and companies across genre and form. And I’m one of them!

I’ll be reading a new story at the Thursday, June 20, edition of You’re Being Ridiculous at Steppenwolf.

Join us to hear true stories from a stellar line-up of some of Chicago’s very best writers and storytellers. Tickets can be purchased here. Seating is limited, so be sure to reserve your seats today before it sells out! There’s a new group of readers every night (and YBR never disappoints), so maybe make a whole weekend of it, OK?


More info here.

To do: Goat yoga


You agree to goat yoga at the Garfield Park Conservatory because you could use a break. A stretch break. And if baby goats are available for the whole process, why not include that little bonus of zoological Zen? Like fury parkour experts, these newborns. Or so you’ve assumed from YouTube videos of parkour and of baby goats.

When you arrive, you’re amazed at the conservatory’s calm and wonder why you have never been here before? Because you’re busy. You’re worried. You’re reading the news and staying up to date and even Story Corps advertisements are promising to “restore your faith in humanity,” which in-and-of-itself kinda does the trick because at least someone—even just a lonely NPR advertisement copywriter locked in a basement somewhere—is admitting people like you are getting nervous and feeling a little hopeless and climate change is real and ecoanxiety is also real (as of 2017, according to the American Psychological Association) and holy goats can we fix this or is it too late?

Regardless, all of this makes you grateful for the conservatory’s sheltered plants and the gated teeny triangle of prairie grass dotted with dandelions, which you’re now unfurling your brand new yoga mat onto, puffs of glittering seeds rise up to the morning sun. The L train zips by sporadically, charmingly. You begin to relax. You take some deep breaths. Stretch. Break.

When the goats come off the truck, you do everything you can to keep from squealing. But then you’re squealing anyway. You’re squealing and hand clapping like a child and have zero apologies for your excitement. Have you ever even seen a four-day old goat? Been climbed by one? Petted the peach fuzz of one’s recently crowned head?

You can’t focus on the poses, but that’s OK. Goat yoga is ultimately more about the goat—more specifically, what the goat is giving you—than the yoga but eventually you settle in to a warrior two or something like that and stop watching the bobbling babies struggle to walk the knee high grass and you push your drooling mouth closed and pop your eyeballs back into your head. And you breathe.

You hear the L ricochet by one more time and give thanks for a place like this and for your ability to move freely to and from it at whatever pace you like. You feel your legs in your yoga pants, which you haven’t replaced in years because you read somewhere yoga-pants-plastics were harming the water systems, but you’re not thinking about that now. You’re thinking about nothing but what this exact moment feels like to be you.

A goat bleats and you smile even more because that shit sounds so desperate and it’s funny because what sounds like a scream is really just him saying, “Hi. Got food?.” You cup the warmth of the sun in your open, welcoming palms. You smile. For a moment, this moment, it feels like you’ve got the whole world in your hands. Even if it’s a fucked up one. This is enough and you are happy here.