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September 6, 2011

Kant buy me love


One U of C student's quest to find out just how pretentious an alumni happy hour could get.

By Christina Pillsbury, '12

The Facebook wall for the “Harvard/UChicago/Cornell/Emory/Northwestern/Wash U Happy Hour” event page displayed the usual “I have a boat cruise that night... but hope you guys have a good turnout!” “Bummer, out of town still—next one for sure!!!!,” (yes, with four exclamation points), but there was one stand-out comment: “I cannot wait to hang out with people equally as pretentious as me!!!” (only three exclamation points). I was intrigued.

And so my quest for the evening was to find out how pretentious the conversation could get. Coordinator Tim Richards, AB’07, told me that eventually, as more drinks get consumed, students will commingle, the maroon will bleed with the crimson, and hopefully, some alumni might actually "score some dates," he said. "You’d be surprised at how many schools need help with that. It’s hard after college to pick someone up in a bar and talk about the Odyssey."

I heard him loud and clear: I have been known to blabber on about Foucault’s theories of authorship after a few drinks and it’s not generally an effective way to pick up men.

At the Kerryman bar Chicago happy hour, I started at the outskirts of the crowd, making the rounds to all the different schools. For some reason, many students were not keen on talking to a strange girl without a name tag who was writing down everything they said. Also, eavesdropping was hard in a bar filled with almost 100 people talking about what I hoped was the Odyssey. I would have also taken the Illiad.

But, sigh, for the first hour I heard nothing of the sort. Alumni stood in circles with their fellow college-mates—the drinks were mixed, but the alumni were not. I approached a few groups, and none were talking about anything of substance. As an arrogant U of C student, I was starting to get impatient.

I interrupted a conversation between Mary Potkonjak and Emily Wolodiger, both AB’11, regarding employers’ misconceptions about U of C women. “If they know the prestige of the University of Chicago, they expect you to know everything,” Wolodiger said. “If they don’t, they just assume you went to a state school.” Which, as every U of C student knows, is the worst thing anyone can think about you.

I was getting there. Things were getting slightly pretentious, but not close to what I was hoping for. I was thinking that it's possible that U of C alumni, perhaps, aren't what their reputation suggests.

Then I got to talking with Eric Blaschke, AB’06, MD’10, who was perturbed that the U of C students weren’t all cowered in the corner, isolated from the crowd, muttering to one another. Then he launched into a diatribe about how he expected the conversation to turn that evening, it seemed quite reasonable: “I assume that these U of C alumni will only discuss Kant in its original German. That seems pretty reasonable, maybe Aristotle in its original Ancient Greek.” He realized there should be a compromise; “I suppose it won’t get that pretentious; it will probably fall somewhere between Kant and Greek, though.” It's difficult to tell just how sarcastic his comment was.

My night ended with familiar faces: former Chicago Maroon editors—including former Magazine intern Asher Klein, AB’11—some of the most pretentious people at the University. Former sports editor Nick Foretek, AB’11, strutted in carrying Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, with a smug look on his face which negated any need for words. And finally, a former Maroon news editor, who preferred to remain nameless, said she could “come to this bar and find all the pretty people, and then see all the U of C people.”

And that, ladies and gentleman, is the type of sarcastic, self-deprecating, pretentiousness I was looking for that evening. Challenge complete.

September 7, 2011

Not your grandkids’ bricks


Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie house gets the LEGO treatment.

By Mitchell Kohles, '12

In America, if you didn’t play with LEGO as a kid, you played with Barbie. If you didn’t play with either, well, maybe you ended up at the U of C.

Steven fits into the first category, but it’s too early to know if he’ll be a Maroon. “2,276,” he yells upon learning the brick count of the new LEGO interpretation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House. “That’s even more than the Temple of the Crystal Skull!”

On August 28, Steven and others—most of them adults—visited the Prairie-style landmark to meet Adam Reed Tucker, LEGO master builder and the man behind the LEGO Architect Series. The event launched the 16¼L x 4¾H x 7½W mini-Robie, and visitors could pick up a set of their own for $199. I don't get an allowance anymore, but if rates haven’t changed much in the last 10 years, that price tag is no child’s play.

And obviously, the goal of the LEGO Architect and Landmark series is to target the adult market, to make the bricks feel like an art form instead of a toy. Or at the very least, a sophisticated toy.

Tucker, who had a nine-month LEGO exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in 2009, is all about the “brick as art” idea. Six years ago, he was working as an architect using rebar, glass, and drywall to construct his buildings. But when the economy took a bite out of his business, he realized his LEGO side-project might be something more. “I realized that I could use the brick as a medium, not just a toy.”

For the past five years, Tucker has been using those bricks to interpret famous architecture from around the world, from the Willis Tower to Burj Khalifa.

Build, play, stack? When asked, Tucker says he prefers “create.” And on August 28, visitors got to check out his newest creation: a jumbo version of the mini-Robie, this one not for sale. Tucker is using 12 of the retail Robie sets to build an extra large (or slightly less small, depending on what you're comparing it to) version of Robie.

“I’m not really building it to scale,” says Tucker. “It might be 1:127 or something else, but it is to proportion.” After working on it for four days at his home, Tucker brought the model along with him to show his fans and continue building—after four days of work, he had only completed the exterior walls. “I’m just taking it apart and putting it back together until I’m happy with it.” And instead of flipping through an instruction booklet (by the way, the booklet for the retail version is a hefty 195 pages), he consults Frank Lloyd Wright's photos and architectural drawings.

“I’ve studied him so much by this point,” Tucker laughs. He even has plans to build a home of his own in recognition of Wright’s work, using only stone, concrete, and wood. “Not a square inch of plaster.”

As for the jumbo-mini-Robie, once it’s finished Tucker plans to take it to the National Building Museum in Washington, where it will join 15 of his other creations, including Fallingwater, another famous Wright home.

The Robie House is the third Wright building to be featured in the LEGO Architect Series. Next up: Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, to be released before the end of September.

September 9, 2011

Campus celebrates life of Mandeep Bedi, AB'10


Day of remembrance honors alumnus killed in a traffic incident in late August.

By Christina Pillsbury, '13

On September 1 the University community mourned the loss of Mandeep Bedi, AB’10, who died August 25 from injuries sustained in a traffic incident a few days prior. His wife, Elizabeth Bedi, is a fourth-year anthropology student in the College.

Bedi was run down by a female driver with whom Elizabeth engaged in an argument after she merged into traffic on August 19. The couple were rushed to John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital. Elizabeth, who was also hit, was treated for her injuries and released. Police are investigating his death as a homicide. He was on his way to campus, where he was a sales intern at the University's IT Services Solutions Center.

In honor of Bedi's senior anthropology thesis that examined American graffiti, students and other members of the community began the day of remembrance by making a graffiti wall on the Bartlett quad. Following the tribute, approximately 150 community members attended a memorial service in Rockefeller Chapel, which concluded with a walk to the Promontory Point, led by Elizabeth.

From the podium at Rockefeller, friends and faculty members remembered Bedi as an active campus community member: As a student he served as a residential computing assistant, helping students and faculty with technological difficulties. Through the student-run organization SPLASH! Chicago, he taught two classes to high-school students—one on the politics of soccer and the other on contemporary freedom of speech. Friends also said his enthusiasm in the South Asian Student Association dance group was contagious.

“He never stopped dancing, ever,” Elizabeth said in her eulogy. “Even now I know he’s dancing.”

Others remembered the always-optimistic Bedi’s intellectualism. One of Bedi's most influential professors, John Kelly was unable to attend, but sent a statement, read by Director of the Anthropology Department Russell Tuttle, “Mandeep reveled in thinking along with other students rather than trying to distinguish himself from everyone else. He had the kind of intelligence that was there to help others.”

Bedi and Elizabeth were married a little less that a year ago.

“The night of Mandeep’s final SASA dance show, I leaned over to my roommate and said, 'I’m going to marry that man,'” Elizabeth said. “Since we met, our life has been a fairy tale.”

She concluded with Bedi’s signature phrase; “B.E.Z. [Be easy] Mandeep, B.E.Z. always.”

September 12, 2011

Out of the Core, the Phoenix rises to the stands

phil-on-steps.jpg Alumnus talks about his time playing the part of the U of C's mascot, Phil.

By Christina Pillsbury, '13

Stephen Bonnet, AB’11, proudly lists his position as the mascot at the University of Chicago on his résumé. But his stint as Phil the Phoenix, he says, is hardly the most eccentric detail about himself. Under the personal section he boasts about his Bullwinkle J. Moose impression. In fact, he considers it a big part of why he was hired as a Teach for America corps member, teaching tenth grade special education in the Bronx. He’s also pursuing a master’s degree in special education at Hunter College. He hopes to take his experience riling up the crowd to the next stage of his life–even if that doesn’t include mascot grad school.

QandA_QDrop.jpgDid you show any signs as a child that indicated a future career as a mascot?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThroughout my childhood I was shy, deathly afraid of crowds or large groups of people, a super-nerd who was not at all dancer-ly, and the last person on earth you would ever expect to do any of the things I have done over the past three years as our mascot. But it wasn’t until I got to high school of all places that, supported by my classmates and teachers, I really got comfortable enough with myself to do that. I came out of the closet in tenth grade, which stands in for just a total transformation over my first two years of high school that released publicly the gregarious extrovert I had been on the inside for so long.
QandA_QDrop.jpgIn what way did the skills you learned in the Core translate to Phil the Phoenix?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThey both required me to step into the perspectives of others. In the case of the Core, that meant thinking like an astronomer, a biologist, an anthropologist, and a philosopher, among others. Being Phil the Phoenix required me to understand, without talking, who of the players and fans was in the mood for getting fired up and who was in the mood for joking around, and who was in the mood for being left alone.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat is your best memory jumping around in the U of C crowd?
QandA_ADrop.jpgOne really heartwarming memory from this past year is that my parents flew from New York out to Chicago for Parents’ Night, which is the last home basketball game of the season, and so was also the last formal appearance from me of the season. I came up with the idea that in acknowledging parents of graduating seniors, my parents could wear the heads from the two old costumes that were just lying around the equipment room, and we could acknowledge “Mr. and Ms. Phoenix.” My boss agreed to it, and it was the most hilarious-looking thing to see me with two normally dressed adults wearing phoenix heads. I also really appreciated the chance to acknowledge my parents when they came out all that way to see me.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat other stories stick out in your mind from your days representing the Maroons?
QandA_ADrop.jpgOnce I was walking from Ratner to Summer Breeze, and a drunken person thought it would be hilarious to steal my head and run off with it. Now this was in the old costume, which actually was broken in a number of places. The shoe inserts were completely broken, which meant that my feet were just kind of sliding around all the time in these huge shoes. I literally could not run in the costume, because I would have landed on my face. Fortunately, while I tried to cover my head with my wings, one of my friends was nearby and immediately followed the thief, in heels I think, and got my head back within seconds.

September 17, 2011

Help help!

"Sports for people who like to read"?

By Mitchell Kohles, '12

the-classical-logo.pngIf the idea doesn't sound UChicago, the pitch sure does. Pete Beatty, AB’03, and Tom Gaulkin, AB’04, are helping to start The Classical, a website dedicated to smart, sophisticated sports writing. On board is a host of writers and bloggers who have written for everything from McSweeney's to SLAM, and who have story ideas that range from a piece on David Foster Wallace's relationship with tennis to an exposé on Jason Giambi's offseason entertainment.

The staff plans to launch the site in mid-October once they reach their one-year budget of $50,000—check out the sports artwork and editorial privileges offered in return for donations to their Kickstarter campaign. With only a few weeks left to reach the target (they're pushing 85 percent now), the website could offer a much-needed breather from the knee-jerk opinions and over-the-top fawning of standard fare sports journalism. Beatty, managing editor, shared some more details and showed his Chicago loyalties. Well, sort of.

QandA_QDrop.jpgHow will The Classical fit into the landscape of sports journalism filled with giants like ESPN, websites like Deadspin, and unconventional upstarts like Grantland?
QandA_ADrop.jpgA friend (and fellow U of C alum) said she was glad someone was going to launch a sports website for people who read novels. That obviously doesn’t cover our whole mission statement, but it’s not a bad place to start. The Classical is a place for thoughtful, engaging, and stimulating writing about sports and beyond. There are a lot of great sites serving up sports coverage right now, but there is also an opening for a more literary-minded take on the games people play. I hope we can be a place where writers who can’t find full-time jobs in the new media environment can get great clips, make a few bucks (once we’re on our feet as a business), and do some wonderful writing. I’m hoping The Classical winds up like the sports-writing equivalent of an old-fashioned small mag—a journal of ideas, very much a Chicago idea. But, of course, on the web. And funnier than Ramparts or the New Left Review. With more skateboarding columns.
QandA_QDrop.jpgAre there any specific Chicago or UChicago stories that you plan to cover?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe Classical is going to wind up skewing very Chicago-y. I’m already lining up pieces from Moacir de Sa Pereira, AB’04, AM’05, and Edward “Whet” Moser, AB’04, and many other folks I know from the U of C. Between Nate Silver, AB’00; Christina Kahrl, AB’90; and Kim Ng, AB’90; et al, the U of C has put its fingerprints all over the sports world. I’m very much hoping The Classical can be in the same ultra-smart tradition. I am already looking for an angle to write about the American Professional Slow Pitch League’s Chicago Storm franchise, and their successor, the Chicago Nationwide Insurance team (what a boring team name!). One of our charter members, Tim Marchman, is a resident of Hyde Park and a pretty ardent White Sox fan, so the website is definitely going to have some Chicago flavoring, with an emphasis on the South Side.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat, if any, is the transition from FreeDarko to The Classical?
QandA_ADrop.jpgBethlehem Shoals, the animating spirit behind FreeDarko, is sort of the center of the hub of how everyone from The Classical knows each other. And that’s no accident; I think for a lot of people FreeDarko as both a blog and two awesome books opened their eyes to the fact that sports can be approached in brainy and provocative ways without feeling clinical or condescending. We’re going to branch out from pro basketball into the entire kingdom of sports, but I think we will always look to FD for inspiration.
QandA_QDrop.jpgThe promo video on your Kickstarter page emphasizes reader involvement. How do you hope this “conversation” will work on a micro level?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI’m hoping, as the managing editor, to recruit writers from the commenter community if I can, and not just as a gimmick. On an even more micro level, I think our content—literally what our staff chooses to write about—is going to be shaped by how people react to our initial offerings. We’ve already gotten suggestions via Twitter and the Kickstarter drive for things that are going to be a part of the site, from a skateboarding video column written by a novelist/professor, to a call for an oral history of the Continental Basketball Association’s Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets.
QandA_QDrop.jpgYou offer your backers some pretty creative rewards—at least 15 people have donated enough money to request an essay on any topic. What’s the wildest request so far?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe donor who requested that we write a sonnet about Manu Ginobili and/or Jerry Jones is the clubhouse leader in oddball requests, but there’s a ways to go yet—about 20 grand left to raise still, so we may have to do even more outlandish things to get our seed money.
QandA_QDrop.jpgSox or Cubs?
QandA_ADrop.jpgActually, Indians, but if I’m choosing a Chicago loyalty, White Sox all the way, division rivalries notwithstanding. I’m a sucker for the disenfranchised, and the Cubs’ ineptitude is a fig leaf for their establishmentarianism.

September 27, 2011

He said, she said

Lawyer-turned-drag queen Irwin Keller, JD'88, gave himself a pretty great interview.

By Ruth E. Kott, AM'07


It was the easiest interview ever. After Irwin Keller, JD'88, agreed to an e-mail dialogue about his more than 17 years performing in “America’s Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet” the Kinsey Sicks, I sent him some questions—"How did you decide on the name Winnie and her character?" "What's your most memorable performance experience?" "Do you think you'll ever go back to being a lawyer?"—but he wasn't really all that excited about them.

Keller took matters into his own hands, coming up with a quite entertaining set of questions and answers. "As I was writing," he said, "I kept modifying questions to elicit the answers I wanted to give, and before I realized it I'd written the whole damn interview. So here is my version for you to do with as you will!"

And we will publish it below.


QandA_QDrop.jpgYou probably have one of the more unusual professions for a University of Chicago graduate, wouldn’t you say?
QandA_ADrop.jpgFor sure. I do read through the University of Chicago Magazine, and I rarely see anyone having as much fun as I do performing with the Kinsey Sicks. I imagine working on the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary would’ve come close, but at least I’ve still got a job.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHow did you end up forming and performing in the Kinsey Sicks?
QandA_ADrop.jpgIt was during the early 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic was still raging unchecked and the work was difficult and heartbreaking that we formed the Kinsey Sicks. We were four gay men living in San Francisco, in the center of the storm, and two of us were doing HIV legal work—me locally and Ben Schatz nationally. To blow off steam we’d sometimes do little guerrilla drag outings, getting friends together and showing up somewhere inappropriate in drag.
So in December of 1993 we went to a Bette Midler concert dressed as the Andrews Sisters. A promoter approached us and asked us to do a number at an upcoming World War II-themed event. This was the first time that it dawned on me that all four of us had significant musical background. We were excited by the idea and began harmonizing as we wobbled home on our pumps. We stayed up till 3 a.m. coming up with song ideas, and the Kinsey Sicks were born that night.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHow would you describe your act?
QandA_ADrop.jpgLots of politics, really smart songs, a generous helping of raunch, bad drag, four truly lovable characters, and some really good four-part a cappella singing. It’s very highbrow and very lowbrow at once—the musical styles range from Gaga to opera.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWas it hard to find an audience?
QandA_ADrop.jpgYou’d think, wouldn’t you? But no. We almost instantly became a cult hit in San Francisco. We’d write show after show in our evening hours and do four- or six-week runs at a local theater. But then we started touring and imagining what it might be like to do this full time. ... In 2000 we got an offer to open our show Off Broadway, and there was no way I could say no. I didn’t ever want to think that I’d had the opportunity to be a performer at that level and that I said, "No." So I quit my job and haven’t practiced law since.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHow did Off Broadway go?
QandA_ADrop.jpgOur first production meeting for the show was September 11, 2001. That probably tells you something right there. We had all moved to New York that week. We already had a contract with Studio 54, which was building an Off Broadway–sized space around us. We had a production crew, designers, everything. We couldn’t just call it off. So we opened the show. It was a great show—the reviews were lavish. But New York was traumatized. No one came. The tourists stayed away. The New Yorkers stayed home. It was heartbreaking. We closed by Christmas, like everything else running Off Broadway at the time, except for Puppetry of the Penis. Go figure.
QandA_QDrop.jpgSounds like a big disappointment.
QandA_ADrop.jpgYes and no. It was sad, but it raised our sights. We realized we really could do this for a living. So we started touring full time, and we’ve been doing that now for ten years. We’ve recorded seven albums, starred in two feature films [including Almost Infamous, a behind-the-scenes documentary], and performed in theaters, colleges, and comedy festivals all over the place. Not just the big cities, but small towns and Bible Belt. It’s fun, it’s silly, and it’s often mission-driven. All in all, it’s a life I’d never expected.
QandA_QDrop.jpgTell us about your character, Winnie.
QandA_ADrop.jpgI love Winnie. She helps me work out a lot of stuff. She’s sort of the den-mother of the Kinsey Sicks and the musical taskmistress. She’s a lesbian but kind of old-fashioned—conservative and prudish. She hates when the group’s smiling veneer begins to crack, and she struggles valiantly to maintain a socially appropriate demeanor. But mostly her attempts fail, often leaving her having to face down the audience in long, awkward silences that have become her comedic stock and trade. I love those long beats.
QandA_QDrop.jpgSo how did your time at University of Chicago prepare you for a life with the Kinsey Sicks?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI loved University of Chicago. I loved and still love Hyde Park. My years studying obscure Semitic languages give Winnie no end of puzzling, esoteric factoids to blurt out impulsively on stage.
But most significant is that University of Chicago is where I became an activist. The gay-rights movement was still pretty new; the AIDS epidemic had just started. So I started organizing and protesting and lobbying. I was part of getting the University to adopt its non-discrimination policy. With the support of my law-school professors, I drafted Chicago’s human-rights ordinance, which was passed into law in 1989. I ran the Gay and Lesbian Law Student Association and organized the Chicago Conference on Sexual Orientation and the Law in 1987 (which is actually where I met fellow Kinsey founder Ben Schatz, who was at the time a baby lawyer with National Gay Rights Advocates and one of our invited speakers).
But it was a challenging time. Some readers will remember a horrific spate of anti-gay harassment that went down on campus in 1987—a concerted campaign by a group calling itself the Great White Brotherhood of the Iron Fist. They targeted some dozen visible queer activists on campus, my partner at the time and I among them. They researched us all and sent our parents and neighbors and employers letters telling them that their child or neighbor or employee was gay, and a probable carrier of AIDS, and encouraging violence against us. I became frightened to walk alone at night in Hyde Park, not knowing who these people were and what their actual capabilities might be. The campus community was shocked when it turned out to be a couple of students in the College.
It was terrible. But the experience hardened my resolve. I needed a life where I could be out and outspoken. And for a while, my HIV legal work served that function for me. But frankly, the chance to do social critique in a wig while singing four-part harmony and making people laugh? What could be better than that?

About September 2011

This page contains all entries posted to UChiBLOGo in September 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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