Monday, February 25, 2008

Dreams and Creativity

Last Wednesday, Sarah, a woman I work with, told me that she and her husband Matt were closing their cheese shop, "The Cheese Stands Alone," in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood.

It made sense for a lot of reasons for she and Matt to close the place, but it still made me-- and my kids-- sad. It was unique, interesting and the result of someone's dream, vision and sweat.

I currently work for two small businesses, and have worked for a number of them over the years. They've varied in success and other regards, but one of the things they all shared was that they were someone's vision and passion.

I'm fortunate to be and have been surrounded by a number of small businesses. A couple of blocks from my home is the home and studios of Delmark Records, the oldest independent record label in the United States. My last post was about my friend Joe Judd, who owns Myopic Books. My friend Mark came back from a 1990 trip to Europe to form his own graphic design company, The Art Mafia, and later formed Automedia, Inc., one of the first web design companies in Chicago. At the end of my block, a family is opening a Thai restaurant. My barber, who is from Serbia, owns her own place. The list is long.

Mark once made the comment that one of the reasons he opened his own business was because he wanted to be his own boss. He ruefully said that ironically, when you own your own business, you have dozens of bosses-- your clients. Still, people keep opening their own businesses.

A couple of weeks ago, I was working at the Evanston restaurant with my friend Christine. Some of you may remember how bloggers Lulu and TenS had sent me there when they found I needed another job. An old friend of theirs is a co-owner. The day I walked in to apply for the job, to my surprise, my friend Christine, whom I'd lost touch with, was working there.

I had become friends with Christine a few years back when I'd picked up an arts/politics magazine in a bookstore and had been impressed with it. I had published my own 'zine, and thought, rightfully, that I'd like to be friends with someone who would be creative and motivated enough to publish a magazine like that and tracked her down.

That day at work, Christine and I were sipping coffee, chatting, when she confided to me that she was having big doubts about her life. She felt like she should be doing more, she said. I was astonished at the statement and told her that I felt completely opposite; that she was one of the most creative, self-actualized people I've ever known. I think she appreciated hearing that.

In addition to publishing the magazine for a while, she writes poetry and short stories. She is also an excellent musician, writing and performing her own music. She's also a talented artist. I pointed all of these things out to her, and told her my belief that she and people like her brought beauty, grace and creativity into the world and made it worth inhabiting. As someone who has little to no skill in the arts or music, I appreciate people like her who bring those things to us.

For every Picasso, whose name will always be famous, there are thousands of other artists who labor in obscurity and often poverty. For every Joyce Carole Oates, there are a legion of other writers whose excellence goes unnoticed. For every Miles Davis, recognized and lionized for his accomplishments, there's an army of musicians who play for the love of the art form and never get to quit their day jobs.

I am in awe of these people, along with the people who have the faith, audacity and courage to open their little restaurants, boutiques, businesses and shops. The restaurant business, which has allowed me, and continues to allow me to feed my kids and pursue my own little dreams, has a staggering 98% failure rate. Yet people continue to open them.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I brought my kids to Sarah and Matt's store. I knew that they were thinking of closing the place, and wanted Adam and Mel to have one more memory of going there. They both love cheese, and it was fun to watch them as they excitedly tried the different cheeses and chose which ones they wanted me to buy them.

Truth be told, they are models of creativity themselves. A few years back, I told Adam about my old friend Dana's theory about the "Million Dollar Idea--" that every person, somewhere in their brain, has an idea that would make them rich, and that they just have to discover that idea. Adam's come up with some ideas, including a pillow with a speaker for playing your Ipod through. About a year later, he saw this product in a store, much to his chagrin. I'm certain that he'll come up with another idea. My stepdaughter started a company making coasters (the kind that you set your drink on) with a couple of her friends. She also wrote me a wonderful song as a Valentine's Day present.

As I'm easing into middle age, I think a lot about the future, the future that my kids and their kids will eventually inhabit. As a society, we've got a lot of problems to solve. Political problems. Economic problems. Cultural, religious, educational, energy, technology and a hundred other types of problems. We've got a boatload of problems to solve before we reach a sustainable future.

But I have faith that we've got that creativity and the energy to solve those problems. From a latino immigrant with his lunch truck and a dream, to Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic domes, to some software wonk writing code that allows a spaceship to explore planets, and everything in between, people with a handful of dreams and a pocketful of creativity make this world a place worth living and, I'm convinced, will someday not only come up with the solutions to our problems, but make this place an interesting and enriching place to live. Sarah and Matt may not have come up with the cure to AIDS or a solution to our energy problems, but they did contribute to making this a rich, interesting and wonderful world. Thanks guys.


lulu said...

What a shame; that was a great little shop. The world needs more cheese. (coincidently, I wrote about cheese on my blog yesterday)

Bubs said...

What a wonderful post--a little poignant, but incredibly hopeful and good-natured. This is perfect for this morning.

Beth said...

Great post, Mr. Yen. I want that hopeful feeling to come back, to have the next generation enjoy it.

SkylersDad said...

I am amazed that anybody makes a go at the restaurant business. But wow, 98% failure rate? I had no idea...

GETkristiLOVE said...

Great post, as always JYen. The Cheese Stands Alone sounds like my kind of place.

I once had an idea to put ski resort maps laminated on the ski liftchairs. Then I saw it in Aspen.

I'm sure Adam will come up with something (or his stepsister) someday.

Johnny Yen said...

It was. There's hope, though-- they may reopen it if they can find a new location.


I felt a sense of loss. We've lost a few intersting things in the neighborhood in the last couple of years, but have gained some too. I'll be posting about it.

Me too. I hope this next election provides it.

Skyler's Dad-
Incredible, isn't it?

I've actually thought about a post about what I percieve as the biggest errors in the business.

Thanks! Don't you just love cool little mom and pop places? They make the world so much more interesting.

I'm certain they will come up with something.

sarah said...

Thanks for the send-off!

Hopefully the cheese shop will return in some capacity.
I do, however, hope that Matt never tires of me cuz the man sure moves on to new challenges fast...
Viva la cheese!


Johnny Yen said...

Yeah, it would have been even better if I'd spelled your name right!