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Apropos of Nothing

Friday, March 9, 2018

'Spinning Singles' search for love atop a Ferris wheel—in 12 minutes or less

Posted By on 03.09.18 at 04:00 AM

Navy Pier's Centennial Wheel decked out for Spinning Singles
  • Navy Pier's Centennial Wheel decked out for Spinning Singles
The TV news reporter kept asking everyone the same stupid question: “So, what are you doing here?”

A man dressed in a casual blazer and jeans whose name was probably, but not certainly, Doug (I was going by the handwritten name tag pinned to his lapel) smirked into a camera, leaned into a microphone, and said: "I'm on a Ferris wheel in the world's greatest city. What could go wrong?"

Doug's answer was meaningless but perfectly reasonable. The intention of Navy Pier's second annual "Spinning Singles" speed dating event last month was more clear than Lake Michigan on a sunny summer day. All of us had journeyed here to mingle with attractive people while soaring on an amusement park ride, then drinking on a yacht docked in the lake. What more did you need to know, TV lady?

This wasn't one of those anti-singles parties that defiantly celebrate their resistance to Valentine's Day's Dracula-like suck on America's attention. This was the opposite. This was V-Day on steroids, primed to shock and awe its participants into romance. The evidence was everywhere: Rose-colored tissue paper littered the place. Servers freely handed out glasses of red wine. And my god, the Ferris wheel! The pink lights affixed to the  Centennial Wheel (including a LED-lit cartoon heart the size of a SUV on the central hub) shone so brightly that everything around it looked dipped in Pepto-Bismol.

Crass, perhaps, but so is our culture's obsession with performative courtship, the kind in which two parties bludgeon each other with cloying romantic gestures like, well, riding a 200-foot-tall pink-hued ode to true love. That thought didn't occur to me until later, because when you're busy chatting up a bunch of randoms on a Ferris wheel in hopes of finding the One, it impairs everything beyond a conversation-heart level of thinking. Or discussion, for that matter.

Spinning Singles was a speed-dating mixer that could have easily been advertised as the world's most dizzying (and pink) group job interview. Here's how it worked: The 90 participants—45 women, 45 men—were assigned a number, then packed six at a time into each of the wheel's 41 gondolas to engage in fun and flirty conversations while ascending into the night sky. Meet someone that piqued your interest and you were encouraged to slip him or her a contact card from a small deck distributed during an earlier orientation session. Each had the words "Let's Connect!" printed on the front along with a space to write in your name and contact information.

Exchanging business cards may not be the most sentimental of gestures, but brutal efficiency is essential when you've got 12 minutes before being shuttled off into the next car. Every time the wheel rotated the full 360 degrees, we'd part ways with our bite-size group dates, move to the next car, rinse, and repeat. It wasn't just the Ferris wheel that constantly spun, in other words, it was also a sense of social equilibrium. Wait, who is this I'm looking at again?

Each speed date lasted a full revolution of the Ferris wheel (about 12 minutes)
  • Each speed date lasted a full revolution of the Ferris wheel (about 12 minutes)
I was stuck staring at the same pair of guys for much of the night. The rules called for the "spinning singles" to swap gondolas after each successive spin in order to meet with three new members of the opposite sex, but oddly enough, we remained with our same-sex "competition" (let's face it, this event was heteronormative AF) for the entire time. I got to know my dude datemates pretty well over the course of the night as a result. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing. John and Michael, a pair of preppyish roommates in their early 20s were charming wingmen (wheelmen?), and telegenic enough that I began to suspect that Spinning Singles was simply serving as a warm-up for a reality-TV dating show they'd appear on in the future.

It helped matters that we were surprisingly comfortable riding a Ferris wheel on a harsh Chicago winter night. When the Dutch-designed Centennial Wheel was installed in May 2016 as part of the pier's larger renovation project, most of the attention focused on its size—at 196 feet, it was nearly 50 foot taller than its predecessor. I'd argue that the addition of the bigger, flashier navy-blue-colored gondolas was the more significant change. Each car's climate-controlled interior was outfitted with padded seats, TV screens, and speakers, and it made the experience of the ride feel more like being in the back of a limousine, except that it traveled vertically instead of horizontally.

Had we been served booze (it didn't flow freely until later on the boat) or provided with the right soundtrack, we might have also believed we were in a tiny gyrating VIP room at a nightclub. Instead we talked to strangers in sober silence—a stark reminder that modern urban dating is bizarre and alienating.

During my first "speed date" experience, we interacted almost solely through icebreakers. It felt surprisingly old-fashioned, like a secular church social. Three men were sequestered on one side of the gondola and three women on the other side, and they had polite conversations like this:
"So what do you do?"

"I'm a first-grade teacher. Live in the west suburbs."

"Cool, I'm in merchandising. I live in the Loop."

"Oh? I'm in Old Town, work in logistics. You know—supply chain."

This wasn't exactly patter to make your heart go flutter (or beat at all for that matter). I felt the need to shake things up on my second go-around on the big wheel of love.

"Sorry, Devon, I couldn't hear you," I said to the woman lounging on the padded blue seats on the opposite side of the gondola. "Did you say you were a meth dealer?"

"No, event planner!" she replied with a laugh.

"Actually, I know how to make meth," said her seatmate, a woman whose name tag pinned to her black top identified her as Elliott. Was she serious? Devon and Elliott were both in their late 20s, tallish and blonde, with easy smiles and rat-a-tat-tat banter. They struck me at first as sisters or an improv comedy duo, but they told me later they were just close friends. Regardless, they seemed ready to break out of this stiff format. 

The Spinning Singles orientation inside the Navy Pier Crystal Gardens
  • The Spinning Singles orientation inside the Navy Pier Crystal Gardens

"So, what about you?" John asked the shy college-aged woman sitting side-by-side with Devon and Elliott. "Who are you, and how did you find about this?"

"I'm Brandi," she said. I can't recall what she said next because, well, have you ever tried to remember how a dozen people you met at a party answered the same innocuous question?

That's why John was a goddamn hero. His everyman charisma and Good Will Hunting-era Matt Damon looks convinced me he'd one day survive a crash on the surface of Mars by becoming a makeshift potato farmer. On this night, John bravely guided the nervous crew of a more modest kind of vessel by prompting new questions and intervening almost every time there was a hint of an awkward pause in the conversation.

Still, Brandi only spoke a handful of words. The conversation largely ping-ponged between the two pairs of friends and me, our breath fogging up the safety glass keeping the cold air out. I learned that Elliott was a scientist who wasn't bullshitting about knowing how to make homemade meth, though she warned that she'd never put that knowledge into practice.

At some point, I let it slip that I was recently single after a breakup. "Dude, are you like OK to be here?" Elliott asked me. We all laughed. We'd earned a small achievement as a group: we'd created a modicum of intimacy in 12 minutes together.

"It was a fun group to talk to," John admitted as we strolled to the yacht from the Ferris wheel. "Everyone puts up a front. Sometimes it felt like we were on a job interview where you're thinking a lot about what you're going to say. But that second group was so relaxed—it was cool."

John also confessed two additional facts:

  • His brave facilitating skills were alcohol assisted. He and his roommates had slurped down three drinks beforehand to temper their nervousness.
  • He had a thing for Brandi.

"My end goal is to get her number by the end of the night," he said. 

That seemed eminently achievable after we arrived at the landlocked boat docked to the pier. The yacht promised everything that the Ferris wheel lacked: alcohol, thumping bass lines, dim lighting. These elements exist in almost every place singles mingle for a reason: our senses need to be tricked into believing that looking for love by making small talk with a room of random strangers is a perfectly natural thing to do.

For an hour and a half, we the singles-who-no-longer-spun sipped boozy drinks, nodded our heads to the DJ's dancey tunes, and chatted in the hull of the ship. Now all 90 of us were trudging the length of the pier through the snow to our separate ways. Elliott, Devon, and I were laughing at the ridiculous antics we'd witnessed. The drunk woman who kept chain-eating shrimp! The guy who faked a southern accent to test-market it with the ladies! (Spoiler alert: it did not go well.) And what was up with that dude who kept approaching small bands of women with the line "Hey! Where are we all going after this?" (That did not go well, either.)

Before they jumped into a cab, Elliott handed me her "Let's Connect" card—her number scrawled on it in blue ink. "That was hilarious. Let's hang out again sometime," she said.

Moments later, while biking on Grand Avenue, I caught up to John and Michael and asked John what had happened to his quest to ask Brandi out.

"She said yes," he said with that big, dumb Matt Damon grin. "We're going out next week."

At the beginning of this blustery night, I couldn't help but look up at the Ferris wheel and see a depressing supersize metaphor: Love comes with a steep admission fee, spins you in the air, and then ends abruptly.

But that cynical thought had melted down, replaced with a pearl of wisdom I'd heard earlier from possibly some great philosopher: "I'm on a Ferris wheel in the world's greatest city, what could go wrong?"

What was his name again?

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How to swim like a mermaid

Posted By and on 10.11.16 at 09:00 AM

The authors as mermaids - NORA KAITIS
  • Nora Kaitis
  • The authors as mermaids

A few weeks ago an e-mail popped into the inboxes of the authors of this post inviting us to swim like a mermaid. We knew we had to accept, because how often in your life do you get to fulfill one of your most cherished childhood dreams?

The message from Nora Kaitis of AquaMermaid Chicago, the local franchise of a company based in Montreal, promised we would be provided with actual mermaid tails and taught how to swim in them. So last weekend we headed down to the pool at the UIC Sports and Fitness Center, where Kaitis teaches classes every Sunday at noon.

After we signed a rather daunting disclaimer that absolved AquaMermaid of any responsibility should we drown (we were comforted that we were very close to the UIC Medical Center), Kaitis showed us how to put on our monofins, which fit on our feet like sandals, and fit the stretchy cloth tail over it. Then we plunged in. Somehow we had forgotten in our excitement that Kaitis had promised it would be a workout.

Herewith our reflections on our experiences:

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Thoughts on Vogue's September issue from someone who shops at Target

Posted By on 08.26.15 at 12:30 PM

This is how a plebeian reads Vogue. - BRIANNA WELLEN
  • Brianna Wellen
  • This is how a plebeian reads Vogue.

As an employee of a print publication I feel it's my duty to keep a close eye on the industry. Why did so-and-so magazine become an online-only read? How does such-and-such newspaper keep producing a daily edition? Is print really dying? 

For an answer, let's look to Vogue's September issue. This year the fashion institution printed an 832-page book. That's 832 honest-to-goodness glossy paper pages. I've never been one to follow fashion; growing up, I mostly turned to these magazines to practice figure drawing and make collages. And, truth be told, most of my clothes are from Target's clearance racks or my 18-year-old sister's closet. But when I saw this massive issue (and Queen Bey on the cover), I just had to pick it up to see what all the fuss was about. HEY—maybe this is the future of print media. 

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

There are still tickets for Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet tonight

Posted By on 03.17.15 at 12:00 PM

Strange Angels
  • Strange Angels

According to the Harris Theater's website, there are still tickets to see performance artist-singer-musician Laurie Anderson play with the classical group Kronos Quartet tonight. If you can swing it, I'd suggest going, since it's due to be a pretty great performance. Coincidentally, it's also a couple weeks before Major League Baseball's opening day. So in honor of the forthcoming MLB season and the performance tonight, today's 12 O'Clock Track is one of the all-time best baseball songs: "Babydoll," off of Anderson's 1989 album Strange Angels. Frankly, it's relationship to baseball is only tangential, but then again, "Baby Doll" is on some level about the human brain's tendency to go off on tangents. Here's another one.

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A taxonomy of snow

Posted By on 03.04.14 at 03:38 PM

Its like the Great Barrier Reef, only its on a street in Rogers Park and there are no fish.
  • Aimee Levitt
  • It's like the Great Barrier Reef, only it's on a street in Rogers Park and there are no fish.
It's March. We're all still wearing our snow boots and long underwear, which are starting to get a little rank by now. There's not enough booze, Girl Scout cookies, or even paczki in this whole stupid world to compensate for this shitty, shitty winter. But if you still have a molecule of optimism left inside of you, try to see last weekend's snowstorm not as another opportunity to pretend you're living in Siberia (you are a political prisoner, you have been sent to the gulag, your continued survival is a triumph of the human spirit, etc) but as a chance to get to know snow in all its multifarious forms. Hey, it's not often that you get to see dirty, month-old snow and fresh, new snow all at once. Plus, temperatures this week have soared all the way into the 20s, which means prime snow-spotting weather!

Herewith a guide to all the exciting different kinds of snow that may be piled up on your very own curb:

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The time I spent the night in my back alley

Posted By on 09.04.13 at 03:48 PM

Not our alley, but it looks similar.
  • EvilVince.com
  • Not our alley, but it looks similar.
I wouldn't exactly recommend spending your first night in a new neighborhood in the alley. But it's probably the best way I've found to meet the neighbors and learn about a place. Maybe it's because for most of my adult life, I've been a renter in city neighborhoods where they don't have the Welcome Wagon. Cookies are probably nice, but the alley is far more interesting.

We were spending the night in the alley in Rogers Park because of a series of unfortunate events that included a tree falling on my boyfriend Jeff's car during the storm last Friday night, power outages also due to the storm, and everything about the move Saturday taking way longer than it should have (partly because we were moving into a third-floor walk-up). It culminated in the movers driving off at 1 AM, leaving all our heavy furniture in the alley and Jeff, his mom Marilyn (who had come in from Iowa to help us), and me there with no way to move it. None of us is very strong. Which is why we'd agreed to shell out for movers in the first place.

But at least the sky was clear and the movers hadn't touched the couches since they unloaded them from the U-Haul, so we could guard our stuff in comfort.

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Monday, May 6, 2013

12 O'Clock Track: John Martyn's grizzled-man folk jam "Over the Hill"

Posted By on 05.06.13 at 12:00 PM

John Martyn didn't die on this day, but I'm going with the singer-songwriter's "Over the Hill" for our 12 O'Clock Track because I've been listening to the album it's taken from, 1973's Solid Air, like crazy lately. The album is a cross between a number of my favorite 70s grizzled man/jazzbo/weirdo touchstones: Nick Drake, John Cale circa Paris 1919, Tim Buckley, and Van Morrison's 1974 album Veedon Fleece. Martyn is an unbelievable guitarist, capable of employing frisky blues licks, plucky fingerpicking, and elegant strumming whenever it suits the melody and emotional undercurrent of a song. His voice has some of Drake's soft baritone, but he can also go for the glottal soul-blues hybrids of guys like Morrison and Richard Thompson. Actually, Thompson makes a rare appearance on mandolin on "Over the Hill," a song with a double meaning: going over a physical hill toward home, and being worn out from a lifetime of being on the road and partying. The song has a Rod Stewart Every Picture Tells a Story vibe, which means it's the kind of thing about which the staff of early 70s Creem would wax poetic. It's mostly just Martyn singing against his acoustic guitar, with Thompson seriously jamming out on the mandolin John Paul Jones-style. Incidentally, Martyn never quite achieved significant recognition stateside, but he was kind of a big deal in the UK, where he influenced a whole generation of musicians who connected with his introspective, occasionally haunting lyrics and jazz-folk-blues fusions. You can especially hear traces of his longer, meditative, spacious tracks in the work of later-period Talk Talk. YouTube and Spotify versions are below the jump.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Southwest Airlines and Branson, Missourah, want YOU!

Posted By on 03.12.13 at 04:06 PM

At the Branson airport, staffers greet or bid farewell to planes with the Branson Wave.
  • PRWeb.com
  • At the Branson airport, staffers greet or bid farewell to planes with the Branson Wave.
Southwest Airlines started nonstop service last weekend between Midway Airport and Branson, Missouri. This development is poised to change the lives of both Bransonians and Chicagoans.

"There's no place like Branson," claims Lynn Berry, director of public relations for the Branson Chamber of Commerce. "It's a friendly, family atmosphere. There's nothing offensive. Four generations of a family could come here. There's no gambling. It's great family fun."

Or, as Homer Simpson once put it, "It's like Vegas if it were run by Ned Flanders."

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Friday, December 7, 2012

What the holidays are really all about

Posted By on 12.07.12 at 11:17 AM

Mashing up Bad Brains' "Pay to Cum" with A Charlie Brown Christmas. It's actually pretty great.

"It's a Bad Brains Christmas, Charlie Brown" from Tad Was Here on Vimeo.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What's the difference?

Posted By on 09.19.12 at 10:44 AM

I decline to tell you what I was after, but thought you should know the burning curiosities of your fellow googlers:


Previously: "existential googling."

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