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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. 
img_0068-1.jpeg

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, June 14, 2016

Buying a thrill with Steely Dan at Northerly Island

Posted By on 06.14.16 at 06:01 PM

Walter Becker does a stream-of-consciousness monologue during "Hey Nineteen." - APRIL ALONSO
  • April Alonso
  • Walter Becker does a stream-of-consciousness monologue during "Hey Nineteen."

"Northerly Island" may sound like the name of some obscure Steely Dan demo, but the venue is not an ideal place to see the band play. That would be Ravinia, where I took in the Dan last summer in appropriately bourgeois fashion: while sitting on a blanket spread over a patch of Highland Park grass, sipping a white wine, and grazing leisurely from a spread of cheese, meat, and olives. Unlike the ticketed audience seated in the covered pavilion, I had no sight line of the stage—but that didn't detract a bit from the evening. You can watch Steely Dan, however you won't really see much of anything: Donald Fagen, perpetually wearing sunglasses, looking ever more like Ray Charles, pawing and pecking at the keys of the grand piano; Walter Becker, stiff and moored, picking out the occasional guitar solo. Yet there's little doubt that Fagen, Becker, and their murderers' row of ace players are going to be precise. And that's why the location of a Steely Dan show takes on outsize importance: enjoying them live is dependent on almost every element other than the quality of the musicianship.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Please kill the MTV Video Music Awards

Posted By on 08.26.14 at 07:38 AM

Charli XCX performs on a red-carpet stage sponsored by State Farm at last night's Video Music Awards.
  • Larry Busacca/Getty Images for MTV
  • Charli XCX performs on a red-carpet stage sponsored by State Farm at Sunday night's Video Music Awards.

In 2008 I was assigned by a prominent music magazine to cover the MTV Video Music Awards for its blog. That might sound like torture to some people, but I eagerly accepted. I needed the money (probably the biggest reason), but I was also curious to witness the state of the delightfully obnoxious awards show. At one point in time, I'd seen the VMAs as an edgier, irreverent alternative to the likes of the Oscars and the Grammys, dragged-out black-tie affairs with schmaltzy, dull interludes and monologues stringing together presentations of prizes to predictable winners. The VMAs didn't quite buck the format of conventional awards shows—there were still musical interludes and monologues and a red carpet—but they were hardly dull or predictable. And by loading up on performances, ignoring any sense of a dress code, and avoiding all sense of propriety, the VMAs often felt more like a music festival than an awards show. So I looked forward to catching up with the VMAs after missing them for a few years.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cutting CEO pay: It's an act of compassion

Posted By on 08.05.14 at 07:00 AM

Some senators and corporate CEOs called for hiking the minimum wage earlier this year, but studies have found that the rich and powerful are typically less able to sympathize with others.
  • Getty Images
  • Some senators and corporate CEOs called for hiking the minimum wage earlier this year, but studies have found that the rich and powerful are typically less able to sympathize with others.
An important new business principle is making itself felt: the more you pay your CEO, the more incompetent a job he'll do. I suppose powerful forces would like to stamp out this notion before it takes hold. But it's a fine, compassionate idea.

I learned about this from a couple of Canadian psychologists who published an op-ed in the New York Times the other day headlined "Powerful and Coldhearted."

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Mayor Rahm sends in the ISAT inspectors to Drummond elementary school

Posted By on 03.21.14 at 03:36 PM

Just when you thought Mayor Rahm had done all the damage he could do to our schools, CPS starts pulling kids out of Drummonds classrooms to rat on their teachers.
  • Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media
  • Just when you thought Mayor Rahm had done all the damage he could do to our schools, CPS starts pulling kids out of Drummond's classrooms to rat on their teachers.

When I got word yesterday that central office inspectors were hauling in kids from the classroom to interrogate them about their teachers, I said—no way!

Mayor Emanuel may be hardheaded, vindictive, and pugnacious, but he would not—I repeat, not—stoop so low as to force grammar school kids to rat on their teachers.

Hear that, Mayor E.? When push came to shove, I defended you. That's correct. Far from being one of your knee-jerk opponents, I was, instead, a knee-jerk defender.

'Cause I love you, man.

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

This Thursday at Doc, it's just one Swanberg after another

Posted By on 07.09.13 at 02:55 PM

Joe Swanberg and Kate Lyn Sheil in Silver Bullets
  • Joe Swanberg and Kate Lyn Sheil in Silver Bullets
On Thursday at 7 PM, Doc Films continues its local filmmakers series with a "Joe and Kris Swanberg double feature," with Joe's Silver Bullets (2011) and Kris's Empire Builder (2012) screening back-to-back. The pairing makes perfect sense: Bullets is something of a directorial self-portrait and Empire—directed by his wife and featuring him in the role of "the Husband"—offers another reflection. (Also neither movie has yet to receive a run at any Chicago theater.) If that sounds like Swanberg overload to you, Bullets already has your number. The director claims he fashioned the movie as a response to criticisms of his previous work—in fact it often seems to anticipate its own negative reception. Like Swanberg's subsequent Art History (with which it premiered at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival), Bullets stars the director as someone very much like himself, a low-budget filmmaker who makes improvised, sexually explicit movies on digital video. The character's ongoing project has created a strain between him and his actress girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil), who ends up cheating on him with the director of a low-budget horror movie she's acting in. Is the story autobiographical or an illustration of what Swanberg's critics think he deserves?

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Best of Chicago is coming soon (even sooner if you pay attention)

Posted By on 06.18.13 at 05:56 PM

Coming soon. Sooner if youre paying attention.
As you might have gathered from this shoddily shot Vine we posted to Twitter, on Monday night we finished up our 2013 Best of Chicago issue and sent it off to be printed and stapled somewhere closeish to the center fold.

Nestled within its pages: 264 of your picks for the best things in Chicago, plus 164 of our critics' picks for Chicago's best things. To save you the effort of doing math, that's 428 restaurants to try, places to shop, plays to see, bands to hear, cocktails to sip, and aldermen to not spit at when you see them on the street. Basically, you're busy until next June.

The print version will be on stands Thursday (Wednesday evening some places) and the whole thing goes online on Wednesday at 3 PM. In the meantime, we're going to let a few of the winners slip. We're generally good at keeping secrets, but all these winners are burning holes in our little pockets. Or something.

On Wednesday, we'll be periodically posting links to both readers' picks and critics' picks hours before the issue goes live. All you have to do? Follow us on Twitter or Facebook. Or both. In the spirit of the issue, you should know we're doing this because we think you're the best.

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Friday, June 7, 2013

In The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg shows you can go home again

Posted By on 06.07.13 at 10:32 AM

middlesteins.jpg
  • hachettebookgroup.com
It's always exciting when you come across your own home turf in a book. Yeah, yeah, literature is supposed to be about broadening your horizons and bringing you out of yourself and introducing you to new worlds, but that happens all the time. Seeing someplace you know well through someone else's eyes—now, that's something rare and worth getting excited about.

Jami Attenberg's latest novel, The Middlesteins, just out in paperback, happens to be set in an unnamed northwest suburb that is clearly, at least to those of us who grew up there, Buffalo Grove. There's one geographical clue: the family matriarch, Edie Middlestein, works as a lawyer "for corporations developing shopping plazas all along Dundee Road, from I-94 to Route 53." The rest, well, it's there. Except for the one thing I most wish existed. But I'll get to that in a second.

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Monday, May 6, 2013

Hey, the Reader won some awards this past weekend

Posted By on 05.06.13 at 01:57 PM

stk128219rke.jpg
  • George Doyle/Photos.com
We were already celebrating at our first-ever Key Ingredient Cook-Off on Friday evening when, virtually all at once, we discovered that a number of Reader pieces had won major journalism awards. In recognition—and in case you missed the winning entries the first time around—here they are:

Mike Sula's squirrel-chomping extravaganza "Chicken of the Trees" won the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation.

Mick Dumke won a Peter Lisagor award for his five-part series "The shot that brought the projects down," which ran on the Bleader over five days this past October. Mick also won a Lisagor for his posts "Here comes another city privatization deal forged behind closed doors," "G8 moving to Camp David = one less summit to protest," and "UNO's Juan Rangel does a damn good Chris Christie impression."

• And finally, contributor Elly Fishman won a Lisagor for her cover story "Pariahs Amid the Rainbow," about homeless queer youth.

Congratulations to all the winners!

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

In Another Country: Hong Sang-soo's visions and revisions

Posted By on 05.01.13 at 02:57 PM

Isabelle Huppert stars as three different women named Anne.
  • Isabelle Huppert stars as three different women named Anne.
Hong Sang-soo's 2012 feature In Another Country, which never received a single theatrical screening in Chicago but is now available on DVD, opens with a fine Buñuelian joke. A young woman commiserates with her mother about their family going bankrupt and having to leave Seoul in disgrace as a result of her uncle's shady dealings. The conversation unfolds in a plainly dressed but rigorously framed two shot that's instantly recognizable as Hong's, even though the content differs from his usual shtick about film-world sniping and thwarted romance. Is the prolific South Korean filmmaker, perhaps the most stubbornly consistent since Yasujiro Ozu, branching out in his subject matter?

Cut to the next scene: The young woman goes to another room and starts working on a film script. It was going to be about a family going bankrupt, she says in her voice-over narration, but now she's decided to write about a French director (Isabelle Huppert) visiting South Korea and staying with a local filmmaker. Hong shifts immediately to the movie she's imagining, a low-key tale about film-world types remarkably similar to one of his own. So much for branching out!

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