August 27, 2006
By William Hageman
Tribune staff reporter

Go ahead and question Hillary Carlip's assertion that she is "the queen of the oddballs."

But the evidence is simply overwhelming.

She was suspended from school in 3rd grade after she was caught smoking on the playground. (Hey, she was just in character as Holly Golightly from "Breakfast at Tiffany's.")

She began working at 14 as a juggler and fire-eater.

She was a "Gong Show" winner. She has delivered singing telegrams. She fronted a fictional, all-girl, all-ex-con band--actually a bunch of studio musicians who just pretended to be a band. (The oddly true part: The "band," dubbed Angel and the Reruns, had a cult hit with "Buffy Come Back," an anti-drug ode to Anissa Jones, who played Buffy on the TV show "Family Affair" and who later died of an overdose).

Carlip is one of those people who cultivate their oddness, stepping off the path they're expected to follow, enjoying the inner eccentric that we all have.

"I think, yes, it is in everybody. It's a matter of allowing it," says Carlip, who was in Chicago publicizing her new book, "Queen of the Oddballs: And Other True Stories From a Life Unaccording to Plan" (Harper).

"I love the word `oddball,'" explains Carlip, who lives in Los Angeles."

To me it's the sunny side of weird. It's not freaky or crazy. It's about expressing, living in a creative way."

Ann Hetzel Gunkel is a good example. She has a doctorate in philosophy and is a professor of humanities and cultural studies at Columbia College Chicago. A Fulbright scholar, she teaches and lectures around the world in ethnic studies, media criticism, feminism, postmodernism and studies in popular culture. She has been referred to as the United States' leading expert on the polka as an ethnic urban art form.

And she scrapbooks. Almost obsessively.

It started three years ago when she was collecting and organizing photos of her young son. She was already doing work as a multimedia designer for educational Web sites in her role as a teacher, she says. "And so my multimedia skills somehow sort of collided with my obsession with documenting my toddler. Suddenly I entered what I realized was this enormous underground world of scrapbooking."

Artwork and publishing

Since then, Gunkel has completed dozens of scrapbooks, published more than 100 designs in scrapbooking and crafts magazines and founded her own digital scrapbooking firm ( She has signed on as a product designer for the digital scrapbooking company Scrap Girls, branched out into non-scrapbooking digital artwork and photography (her work is in galleries in Chicago and Los Angeles) and had some of her artwork published in a new book, "Scrap City: Scrapbooking for Urban Divas and Small Town Rebels" (Sixth & Spring Press, $24.95).

All this from someone who had no background or interest in scrapbooking a few years ago.

"I perceived scrapbooking as a totally oddball thing that clearly would be busy work," she says. "I thought about people sort of in, like, `Little House on the Prairie' garb, gluing lace doilies into a book. That's how I pictured scrapbooking."

Once she got into it, though, she found an outlet for previously unknown skills.

"The creative aspect of it really sparked something in me," she says. "This is a whole side of me that didn't exist before I tapped into this scrapbooking universe."

All it took was that left turn.

"I think we probably all have it, that ability to switch gears and do something totally different," says Dr. Patrick McGrath, clinical manager of anxiety services for Linden Oaks Hospital at Edward in Naperville. "But I think that a lot of times a lot of that is quashed as foolish or not important or too risky."

To many people, Chicago attorney Chris Matern's avocation would fall into that latter category. Matern, a partner in the downtown firm of Wolf, Holland and Matern, travels to Urbana a couple of times a month for his escape: aerobatic flying.

"Aerobatic flying is flying in unusual attitudes but in a controlled way, following FAA requirements as to where you would go and how high you have to be," he says. "It's not daredevil flying. Daredevil flying is reckless flying."

Matern started going up with his uncle when he was a kid. Now, maybe twice a month, he'll head to Frasca Field in Urbana and fly his DeHavilland Chipmunk, a 1950s-era British training plane.

"To be up in the air, have a great view, feeling the freedom," he says, describing the rush he gets from flying. "Aerobatic flying is exhilarating. It requires a great deal of concentration, and it gives you confidence to know that you can control an airplane in any situation."

It's challenging. Just as eating fire or starting a scrapbooking business can be risky.

"Yet there's a thrill that people get out of doing these things," McGrath says. "And that thrill is catching."

Heed the call

McGrath, Carlip and Gunkel all agree that the risks are worth taking and that everyone should pursue that little oddball in their character.

"I think that the quest for fun is hopefully never ending until the day you die," McGrath says.

"To me, personally, it's tied with creativity," Carlip says. "The way to start finding it is to explore creative expression. Writing. Art. Acting. Whatever."

McGrath suggests fishing around for a pursuit. Explore the Internet, attend classes or lectures at the library, find something that pleases you, no matter how off the wall it may seem.

"You can go into a home improvement store on the weekend and they'll have a How to Tile class," he says. "And maybe that'll inspire you to do your kitchen, and you do a good job and who knows where that'll lead. Maybe a friend will ask you to help them do theirs. In a year that can be a business of yours."

The rewards are many.

"I would want to encourage people to do this as well," Gunkel says of exploring their eccentric side. "It really unleashed a whole new aspect of my life that I didn't know was there. ... I mean, a whole separate creative life evolved for me since deciding to do that. It wasn't part of my activity before. It's been tremendously enriching. And even though it's very time consuming, it actually feeds energy into the rest of my life."

- - -

Are you an oddball?

Do you have some interest, some quirk, some pastime that puts you on "the sunny side of weird," as author Hillary Carlip describes it?

Living in an apartment with 87 cats . . . that's not oddball, that's crazy.

But if you spend your free time training cats to wear derbies and tiny mustaches and walk on their hind legs . . . yes, you're an oddball. And Q wants to hear about you.

We're asking readers to tell us about their oddball side, and how they cultivate it. Send your stories to and put "oddball" in the subject field.



Queen of the Oddballs: And Other True Stories from a Life Unaccording to Plan
by Hillary Carlip