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    McDonald’s prints a restroom code on customers’ receipts for access to the toilets — at least the ones in working order.


    During my trip to France this month, I was reminded of the many things the French care little for. Here are five examples:

    Automatic transmissions

    In all my time in France, I’ve yet to ride in a vehicle that doesn’t have a manual transmission. I know automatics exist in France — you can rent one, for example — but I’ve never seen a French person drive one.

    Window screens

    They don’t exist. Get over it and enjoy the flies.

    Complaining about gas prices

    The French don’t partake in one of America’s favorite pastimes. Or maybe they do and I’ve just never heard them. I saw prices of more than $8/gallon but never heard one person blame the government or suggest gas stations are conspiring against them.

    Free public restrooms

    I paid $0.70 to an attendant to use the restroom in a train station outside of Paris. The restrooms in what I was told is the largest shopping center in Europe weren’t free, either. Even McDonald’s prints a restroom code on their receipts to give you access to their toilets.

    Restroom privacy

    Speaking of restrooms, doors are often situated so that, with the right angle and enough initiative, passers-by can often see you doing your business. Even in modern airports. There’s even less privacy in some restaurants and bars. I’ve seen urinals placed back-to-back with a sink shared by both men and women. Attention!

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    A 1930s Jazz bowl, commissioned by Eleanor Roosevelt to celebrate FDR’s reelection to Governor of New York.


    Michelle Marhoefer leads a tour through her and her husband’s humble art restoration studio in Momence, a quiet town of 3,000 in eastern Kankakee County.

    The shop is a former Danish Lutheran church, built in 1893, where Rtes. 17 and 114 meet at the Kankakee River, just minutes from the Illinois-Indiana state line. The couple bought it nearly 20 years ago, stripped it down to the studs and turned it into what is now Broken Art Restoration: an unlikely home base for some of the best art restoration work in the industry.

    Broken Art’s specialty is restoring rare porcelain, pottery and ceramics, and art collectors, dealers and auction houses send their broken items for repair in order to increase their value. And museums send pieces so they, in turn, can be put on display.

     Consider some of the couple’s work:

    • A 1930s Jazz bowl, sculpted by Viktor Schreckengost for Cowan Pottery. The bowls, featuring an Art Deco design celebrating the sights of New York City, were commissioned by Eleanor Roosevelt to celebrate FDR’s reelection to Governor of New York. She put the bowls in the governor’s residence in Albany, in their home in Hyde Park and in their apartment in Manhattan. One eventually made it to the White House, too. Broken Art repaired one that later sold at an auction for $123,000. One of the few remaining bowls can be found at The Art Institute of Chicago.

    • An early 20th century Terra Cotta vase designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Two were produced by Teco Pottery for display at the alter of the Unity Temple in Oak Park, which was also designed by Wright and finished in 1908. Years later, one of the two vases was found in a broom closet, and after a repair to a chip in its base, it commanded an even larger sum at auction.

    While Broken Art restores museum-quality pieces, not everything they do goes on public display or brings hundreds of thousands of dollars on the open market. Much of their work is putting family heirlooms back together — simple repairs that often cost the customer just $50-$100. A small price to pay for something that has infinite sentimental value.

    Then there are pieces that are priceless for a different reason, like the prehistoric rhinoceros skull found in China and shipped to Broken Art from Hong Kong by a private collector. Bill did the repair to the cracked bone, estimated to be between 7-12 million years old.

    Above the door of Broken Art’s studio original stained glass, now more than 120 years old. The front room is filled with objects waiting for repair. Bill, a 62-year-old sculptor who migrated south from Chicago, emerges from the back room, where he’s repairing a work of Ruth Duckworth, a German-born sculptor known for her ceramics.

    Bill, the surgeon, repairs and restores nearly 1,000 pieces every year. Michelle, 55, nurses the patient back to health. An Arizona native, she remembers digging through desert sand for Native American pottery as a child. Her background is painting, and she’s the scientist behind matching colors and applying the finishing touches.

    “I’ve been doing it for 34 years,” she said.

    Not surprisingly, Michelle and Bill met through art, not long out of school, when they were both doing an apprenticeship at a porcelain restoration at a shop in Chicago. They married in 1984 and eventually started looking for a weekend getaway spot outside the city. They found one in Momence, which became their permanent home.

    The couple still has a storefront in the Ukrainian Village, a now hip neighborhood in Chicago. It opened in 1980 and grew from going door to door, the Yellow Pages in hand, to antique shops in the city. Bill goes there once a week to meet clients and pick up and drop off work. They celebrate their 35th work anniversary next year, and Bill estimates they’ve repaired 20,000 art objects since the start.

    Part of the business’ successes is the exclusivity of the service. Collectors and dealers of valuable artifacts made of porcelain or pottery have relatively few places to turn. Bill says Broken Art is the only business near Chicago and one of just a handful in the U.S. who are doing this type of restoration work. It’s an art in and of itself, one being done by fewer people these days.

    One reason is the depressed antiques market, which has given way to more contemporary tastes. Mid-century modern has replaced Victorian as a style du jour. IKEA is growing while antiques dealers are disappearing.

    Another is the business’ barrier to entry. Broken Art has been built on 35 years of networking, and art restoration is not a trade that can be learned overnight. Michelle says she has trained former employees up to 12 months before they’re ready to work on their own.

    That’s not to say there’s a lack of demand for Broken Art’s service. Current wait time for a repair is between six and eight months. Business is so good, in fact, that Broken Art does little advertising — just a quarter-page ad in the back of “Chicago Gallery News,” which publishes industry news three times a year. Being featured on HGTV and in publications like Chicago Magazine helps, too.

    The only question mark in the business operation is who is eventually going to take it over. By now Bill and Michelle had hoped to have a successor trained and in place, but that hasn’t happened yet. Employees and come and gone, and the fear is the business will just close when it comes time for the couple to retire.

    But Michelle and Bill haven’t given up hope finding someone. And in fact, they have some time. They don’t see themselves quitting anytime soon, not when they see the work they’re doing brings joy to people’s lives.

    Even when the art isn’t worth thousands of dollars.

    “It’s fantastic,” Bill said. “We have clients who have come to pick something up who have just started crying.

    “And, of course, that’s a great thing to see.”


    A master of art restoration, Bill Marhoefer is also an artist himself.

    Bill’s whimsical, circus-like sculptures of little creatures are influenced by childhood memories, from when he’d make Saturday deliveries with his father, owner of a sausage business, to places like Riverview Park, a now-defunct amusement park in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood.

    While his father would be doing business, Bill would take a handful of quarters and wander around the freak shows, abnormal in their nature but less so in their occurrence in the late 1950s.

    Today, that sideshow atmosphere is seen in Bill’s work, which has been featured in exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago and is on permanent display at the 14,000-square-foot American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog in St. Louis.

    Time is precious, though. When you’re repairing 1,000 pieces of art each year, it’s not easy to be an artist yourself.

    “When I’m done with a day of doing that, I’m just exhausted,” he said. “It’s like a studio musician who spends the whole day in the recording studio. He doesn’t want to come home and spend hours writing his own music, too.”


    Originally published in the July/August 2014 edition of Yes! Magazine. A PDF version of the story is available here.

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    Katie Rich writes jokes for SNL’s “Weekend Update.”


    Dan Sackett sent a joke book to New York City.

    One of his most valuable former students, whom he once directed on stage at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, was headed to 30 Rockefeller Plaza almost as if she were chasing the ghosts of Gilda Radner and John Belushi.

    But by now, Katie Rich doesn’t need much help.

    The sketch comedian was preparing to leave Chicago’s famed Second City, where she had spent her post-graduate life working her craft on the same stage that’s produced more comic geniuses than any other. In fact, her trip from Second City to Saturday Night Live was the same one comics like Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler all made before her.

    But now it’s Rich’s turn. After spending her teenage years in Orland Park and early career in Chicago, Rich is now one of three writers who write the jokes and skits for SNL’s “Weekend Update,” the show’s parody newscast that mocks current events with quick-hitting, fast-moving jokes and faux guests and “correspondents.”

    "I’ve been loving it so far," she said.

    Fans at home are loving it, too. Sackett, who has directed school plays at Sandburg for more than 30 years, stays in contact with his former student. He remembers her on stage for theater productions and performing well in statewide speech team contests.

    But a field trip to Second City when Rich was 13 years old proved to be more influential. From that point forward, Rich had her sights set.

    After graduating from Northwestern University, she earned a spot on a Second City comedy team that performed on a cruise ship as it traveled the world. Then it was three years with the theater’s touring company — a comedy farm team, of sorts — and then three years on Second City’s mainstage.

    Today, she’s reached the major leagues. “Seeing Katie Rich’s name in the credits of ‘SNL,’” Sackett said, “I hate to say it’s surreal because everyone says surreal about this sort of thing, but it makes me laugh in enjoyment.”

    Write jokes — lots of them

    That’s Rich’s job, actually. And at ‘SNL,’ the secret sauce seems fairly simple: Write jokes and lots of them.

    Rich spends about 10 hours a day at NBC Studios producing more than 150 jokes a week, which are continually massaged and edited, even after the start of the live broadcast on Saturday night.

    It’s a job at which she’s well-suited, said Second City CEO Andrew Alexander. “She’s a terrifically smart writer,” Alexander said. “And she’s got a great wit. Her writing has so many smart observations.”

    Former “Weekend Update” host Seth Meyers left in February to replace Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s Late Night, so Rich now works with new host Cecily Strong, an Oak Park native who was Rich’s understudy at Second City.

    Comedy at ‘SNL’ is a team effort, and in addition to collaborating on jokes and punchlines, one of Rich’s roles is to watch other comedians like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and Conan O’Brien throughout the week to ensure “Weekend Update” isn’t chewing used gum.

    Rich’s parents, Lou and Mickey, help, too. They still live in Orland Park, where they moved to from Chicago when Katie was 12. Dad sends his ideas for jokes despite no room for him on the ‘SNL’ payroll.

    It’s entertaining and rewarding work. Rich has climbed to the top rung of the sketch comedy ladder and works for the most well-known, universal act in the industry, now in its 39th year.

    Rubbing elbows with the hosts

    She didn’t arrive by accident. Second City has been a talent pipeline to ‘SNL’ since the 1970s, and Rich auditioned for ‘SNL’ a few times before getting an offer. They knew who she was, and the timing was right, with the ‘SNL’ cast and crew evolving with Meyers’ exit.

    Every path to ‘SNL’ is unique, Rich said. It’s possible her next step will be performing in front of the camera. There’s precedent for it — Fey, for example, was first a writer at ‘SNL’ — and Alexander describes her as a “terrific performer.”

    Sackett sees something special, too.

    “She’s a larger-than-life personality,” he said. “She’s tall, has a big laugh. Hopefully they’ll see that and hopefully she’ll be on ‘SNL’ [as a performer].”

    For now, though, it’s writing. And with it some perks, like meeting hosts like Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio, who made recent ‘SNL’ appearances following the release of “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

    Rich got a three-week Super Bowl break that allowed her to return to Chicago and spend time with her fiancé. Perhaps a needed break.

    By the time Rich gets back to her place in Manhattan’s Upper West Side after leaving work at 30 Rock at 9 or 10 p.m. — or 2 a.m. on Saturday nights — all she wants to do is play Candy Crush.

    And not think about the news.


    Originally published in the March 2014 edition of Yes! Magazine. A PDF version of the story is available here.

  4. I first came across Dan Okrent in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary (in which he’s brilliant) and again while reading about the history of fantasy baseball (he invented it).

    He was also the best at chronicling the fall of Detroit, which now seems to be behind Time magazine’s paywall.

    His 1985 book “9 innings” is a insider look at baseball through analyzing a single regular-season game between the Brewers and Orioles in June of 1982. The beauty, of course, is that he uses the seemingly random game as a platform to examine more macro baseball ideas: the amateur draft, scouting, labor relations, broadcast rights, journalism, team ownership, etc.

    Also weaved in and out of the narrative is a long list of facts I either never knew or had once known and since forgotten. Also, some great anecdotes:

    Paul Molitor played just 64 minor-league games — all in Class A — before debuting in the majors in 1978, when he was named the AL Rookie of the Year. (Robin Yount played the exact same number of minor-league games before becoming the Brewers’ starting shortstop at age 18.)

    Luis Tiant once said that Milwaukee outfielder Gorman Thomas was so ugly he “could be anything in the jungle [he] wanted to be, but not the hunter.” (Proof.)

    • The Brewers’ iconic logo from the early 80s was chosen in a fan competition. The fans got that one right.

    • Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith were high school teammates.

    • In the attempt to lure a major-league team to Milwaukee, Bud Selig's ownership group convinced the White Sox to play 10 “home” games at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1968. (Selig eventually got his team when the group bought the Seattle Pilots in 1970.)

    • Baseball actually went 80 years without a major rule change, from the time the pitcher’s mound was moved 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate until the designated hitter was instituted in 1973.

    The Brewers won the game and continued to win in 1982. They went on to advance to the World Series that year, where they lost to the Cardinals in seven games. As Okrent notes, the franchise fell off quickly from there (and actually didn’t advance to the playoffs again until 2008).

    There was one move, however, that could have prevented that. At the 1981 winter meetings, Brewers general manager Harry Dalton declined a trade that would have sent 33-year-old starting pitcher Mike Caldwell to the Phillies for Ryne Sandberg, who at the time had just six major-league plate appearances under his belt.

    Caldwell pitched just three more (sub-par) seasons while Sandberg, of course, won an MVP and has since been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    A dozen seasons with Yount, Sandberg and Molitor in the infield would have likely changed the landscape of the American League.

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    Last night, at the Southern League All-Star Game in Chattanooga, after his team had finished its pregame team picture taking, much-heralded Chicago Cubs hitting prospect Kris Bryant walked along the field’s right-field brick wall, signing every autograph requested of him, except for those coming from the outstretched arms of obvious collectors.

    While Bryant, 22, made his way down the line of those holding out baseballs, baseball cards and prospect guides, I jokingly asked him when he was coming to Chicago. After dominating Southern League pitching over the first half of the season — he leads the league in all three Triple Crown categories — Bryant and his promotion is something Cubs fans have been calling for.

    Bryant laughed and answered, with a genuine tone, as if he was already tired of answering the question. “I don’t know,” he said.

    Today, he was promoted to Triple-A Iowa. That’s one step closer to Chicago.

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