Thursday, May 28, 2009

Slaughterhouse 23 - The Vacation Edition

Start time: 10:27 AM CDT
End time: 11:28 AM CDT
Word count: 986 (Composed entirely on my Blackberry.)

"Write a commencement address." -Ken Faikus

Good morning graduates, distinguished educators, long-suffering parents, proud families and honored guests.

I am proud to be given the privilege to address you today. There are several reasons this honor is typically bestowed on someone who did not graduate from the institution they are speaking at, and to the best of my knowledge, they are as follows:

One, there is a cardboard scale model of a building in the administration office that is soon to bear the speaker's name.

Two, the speaker has a unique life experience to impart to the leaders of tomorrow with a mind, and usually a face, buffeted by the cruel winds of fate, experience, and reality.

Three, the speaker is someone of sufficient celebrity to merit inclusion on the commencement montage during the Friday nightly newscast.

I stand before you as none of these things. Frankly, I stand before you mystified as to why I was chosen for such a prestigious honor. What wisdom could I import to you? What can I tell you about the most important things that I've learned, that will not cause you to shake your heads and mutter, "Wow, dude, I'm never giving a dime to that endowment campaign."?

My answer to you is this.

We are all, each and every one of us, on a Japanese bullet train towards Death. We don't know where the last stop is or how soon it's coming, but it's there. Sooner or later, every one of us gets off the train, but the train keeps moving, back and forth.

I hate to focus on mortality at such a festive occasion, but you're celebrating a major milestone today. So if life is a ride on a Japanese bullet train (and the exact word is "shinkansen", but I'm as illiterate in Japanese as I am in every language that isn't English) make sure that you stop to recognize the importance of the time between.

You're in America, so many of you have probably flown on airplanes. I live in Las Vegas. And one of the runways there runs parallel to Sunset Road and is lined with palm trees. When I took my first trip out there I was 21, and when the plane landed and I looked to my left, I saw those trees by the dozens and realized I was in a very different place than home. But when I saw the one tree with the top of it bound up, since it had just been planted, even as we're landing at 200 miles an hour I was turning my head and trying to figure it out. Obviously being from Chicago didn't give me a lot of insight into what palm trees looked like when they were planted.

Once I lost sight of it the rest of those toothpicks just flew by, and we were at the gate. One long stream of same with just that little bit of difference.

And that's what you need to look for. That one little variant, that one person who you notice, that one thing that sticks out. Find what's interesting on your surroundings and I can guarantee you will never be bored-and in an age dominated by so many avenues of leisure and so many ways to distract yourself, that's better than any other insight I can give you.

The other important thing to remember, part of the reason that new palm tree was so interesting to me was not only that I'd never seen one like that before, I'd just been up in the air for four hours above clouds and would have considered nearly anything to be interesting. I will tell you this as a young person and you'll laugh, but after a marriage, a job, a kid, you'll understand; value the quiet. It's when you can think for a little bit, escape in a book for a little bit, lose yourself for a little bit. As the world creeps in around you one of the first things to go is that freedom. Hang onto it if you can.

As your journey continues you'll figure more of it out, like where the dining car is and why some stations have people to push you onto the train and jam everyone in as tight as sardines. Some of you have overcome tremendous obstacles to be here, and all of you no doubt face many more, but tell the people who matter to you that you love them; you don't know when their next stop is.

As the non-rich, non-famous, minimal-wisdom guy speaking to you today, all I can ask is for you to live as if there's a better tomorrow that we all have to share. There is a place in this world for optimism and cynicism and skepticism and atheism and baptism and little kids who sing Christmas carols off key. A well developed sense of humor will get you through everything, and a poorly defined version of irony will make you wealthy and famous, as long as you're Alanis Morrisette.

And with that, our common experience comes to a close. You look at the woman next to you; she's going to start the next social networking fad. The weird looking kid on the aisle? He's got two chords in his head that could change the world and he MIGHT find the third one in the next decade. The guy three rows in front of you - he's going to start the next Enron and probably head to federal prison. Look up here at me; I'm going to be on a plane in three hours looking for the next palm tree, and hoping to God my luggage came along for the ride.

Before I stop speaking, I'd like you to take a second, close your eyes tightly, and make sure to commit this moment to memory. This achievement belongs to you for the rest of your life.

Congratulations to you all.

Writing Project Update (Vacation Edition)

Words written this week: I'm away from my files and my writing, consumed more with trivia contests than training, more drinking in Wrigleyville than writing in Vegas, and too busy looking forward to look back. Make it 200 or so.

This week's question: By design, I can't access the Slaughterhouse mailbox from anywhere but my desk. Therefore, I hadn't planned on writing this week, but I've found that few things pass the time quite so well while you're in a laundry room waiting on the clothes to dry. Ken has been asking for the seasonally apropos "Write a commencement address." I will oblige.

500 WORDS DUE BY: 5/29-30 midnight, but thanks to this Blackberry I should be done earlier than that. Or later, if my thumbs are slow.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Slaughterhouse 22


“They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I'll give you a discount. Post a picture and write 500 words on it.”

Sure. This is the one that’s on my monitor at home:

This is me in September of 2007 on a Sunday morning at the Cheyenne High School football stadium and track in North Las Vegas. I was joined this day by several of my coworkers, as well as my co-captain, Lisa Zelazny, and her daughters, Mary and Sara. That’s Mary’s bicycle visible on the left side of the picture, and Mary herself on the very right side. For the uninitiated, that’s my son Jarren standing on the bench; at the time of this photo he had just turned 5. My younger son Jayson is in my right arm; here he’s 2.

When I first started trying to get in shape, I had a series of ten goals. The first one that I had was to provide a positive example for my children. I knew that some of this was accomplished when Jarren took a camera bag off of the back of the closet in 2005, flung it over his shoulder and announced he was going to the gym. But ultimately, he wound up liking distance running and running fast; a whole lot more than his dad ever did at that age.

He’s got his arms over his head in triumph because he’s just run six laps. That’s a mile and a half. Remember, he’s 5. He tore around that track as fast as he possibly could in a pair of Stride Rite shoes, and to this day he’s never forgotten how to run a mile for distance. He is literally growing up doing it in a way that I never did, even though my own father and I ran at the park a lot. I remember walking with my dad once when he pointed out when I got home that we’d gone a mile and a half; I think I was seven at the time. The smile Jarren’s wearing is the same as the one that I wore when my own father told me that. I smile now at Jarren’s stories of racing older children on the playground. He’s smart and he’s fast. I’m a very, very lucky dad.

Look closely at Jarren’s hat and you’ll notice the Silverman logo. I’d gotten the hat when I’d volunteered for the 2006 race. In this photo I have no idea that I’ll be running the half distance in two years’ time.

The young man in the silver and yellow shoes had run a total of two laps, that day, but in a most unusual fashion. He’d start parallel with the letter E that you see behind us, then run about a quarter lap around the track until his shadow beat him. Then he’d put his arms up and ask to be carried back. I’d usually carry him like this the remaining ¾ of a lap.

The thing that this picture always reminds me of is that I have the power to change lives. There were five coworkers at this event (they’re in the other pictures I’m not showing you) and I’m not sure that any of them would consider themselves runners. Since this picture was taken, two of them have done 10K races, one does a lot of soccer and 5K races, and two have done half-marathons. The reason that Mary is there with her bike as well as Sara is they would participate in their first kids’ triathlon two weeks after this photo. They did triathlon because it’s something their mom did. Their mom found out about it because it’s something that I did. The two guys with me in the picture are going to know more about endurance and determination from the guy in the yellow shirt the same as everybody else, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Writing Project Update

Words this week: 6,064! Completed a race recap for Sunday's triathlon in Tempe, AZ, which you can see at . I also finished up the race recap for last year in Chicago, available at . I was a typin' fool. (And while I have joked that I probably could increase my perception of manliness by getting more hobbies that ended in an N, like huntin' and fishin' and workin' on cars, I don't think that "typin', writin', and website designin'" count for much.)

Responses to last week's topic: 2. Write, then pack, then travel. It's kind of a rhythm these weeks; let's see if I can make it work further.

This week's entries: 3 (Ken, Ken, Ken)

This week's question: "They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I'll give you a discount. Post a picture and write 500 words on it."

500 WORDS ON THIS TOPIC DUE BY: 5/23 midnight Friday/Saturday

Friday, May 15, 2009

Slaughterhouse 21

END TIME: 10:26 PM

This week's question: If you could invent a holiday, what and when would it be? What special traditions would take place on that day? – Nancy Beagle

Inventing holidays is tough work. It’s the sneering contention of too many employers that we get too many holidays as it is, and in some cases reinventing holidays means reinventing religions, so someone will get upset.

Fear not. I’ve devised a solution. And it’s already about two thirds of the way towards being a holiday for most people, and I’ve become virtually professional about celebrating it myself. It’s your birthday. Your company’s probably already got provisions for you taking the day off.

You’re already thinking, drinking, stupid paper hats, cake, candles, presents and cards – we’re already halfway to a holiday there, right? Sort of, but you’re not quite there. I use my birthday like most people use New Year’s Eve – a time to reflect on the past year, compare mistakes, make plans for improvement, and try to commit to learning new things. See, New Year’s Resolutions are a collective invitation to failure, a chance for you and the crippled willpower of your acquaintances to commiserate before Valentine’s Day over the smoldering ruins of your good intentions. (Why yes, I am a member of a health club that I use year-round. Why do you ask?) But if you do it like this, it’s about you, getting better, moving forward, passing one more milepost on that Japanese bullet train towards Death.

1. You need to pick someone famous with the same birth date as you to compare yourself to. Many of my friends are nodding in recognition, as I’ve been doing this since I turned 11 and found out that I share the same birth date – June 30 – as former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Now, you might think that in the 23 years since this discovery, it’s been pretty one sided. Not so. During this stretch Mike was the heavyweight champion of the world and I was a sixth grader on summer vacation. I was a high school student and Iron Mike was incarcerated. I had a girlfriend and was riding bicycles through Door County, Wisconsin and Mike was biting Evander Holyfield’s ear off. I’m coming off a year in which I achieved major personal goals in triathlon, took some steps forward in writing, met some great new people and was featured in a documentary. Mike was featured in a documentary as well – the critically acclaimed “Tyson” which got rave reviews at Sundance. He’s also in some dumb summer comedy that premieres in two weeks. People say he’s doing better. I like to think I am, too.

What does this do? First off, it’s fun. Our culture’s obsession with celebrity provides you the superficial knowledge you need to give your year a thumbs up or thumbs down compared to whoever shares that date with you – and you can picture that somewhere else in the world, someone else is hearing the awful Happy Birthday song in as tuneless a manner as you are. (Interestingly enough, should something befall Mr. Tyson, there is another 6/30 birthday waiting in the wings to replace him, a man who could provide an equally intriguing comparison – Mr. Michael Phelps.)

2. For God’s sake, don’t go to work. I inherited this from the fact that I have a summer birthday, so while I never received a day at school where I wore a crown made out of construction paper and listened to the other children sing to me in a tuneless manner (which has no doubt fed my slavish quest for attention ever since), I never had to spend my birthday doing much of anything. If your life means so little to you that you would spend a day devoted to you at the office, you’re making a very serious mistake. It will be there tomorrow. Your goal is to go to bed that night confident that you had as good a day as possible. Even if you have the greatest job in the world – which, as you know, is making five hundred dollars an hour doing inventory for a blind liquor store owner – it will still be the greatest job in the world the day after.

3. At the very least, get out of your ZIP code. Don’t waste this holiday in bed. Not that I’m saying not to sleep in, but there are better things to do with the day than stay in bed. This isn’t some random Sunday somewhere. Get up. It counts.

I’ve spent birthdays in the Caribbean, over Greenland, in New Orleans, traveling 135 MPH towards Searchlight, Nevada in a convertible, and doing all manner of profoundly enjoyable things. I don’t like spending birthdays in the state. Go somewhere. It’s a great big world and the best present you can give yourself is to see more of it.

4. Age gracefully. And when you figure out how to do this – to accept that peaceful slide of the fallen leaf towards the soft, freshly mown grass – tell me how, won’t you? I haven’t the slightest idea.

Writing Project Update

Words this week: About 900. There’s a race on Sunday so my focus has been elsewhere.

Responses to last week's topic: 3. I heard some really nice stuff about this – thank you!

This week's entries: 4 (Ken, Ken, Nancy, Nancy)

This week's question: If you could invent a holiday, what and when would it be? What special traditions would take place on that day?

500 WORDS ON THIS TOPIC DUE BY: 5/16 midnight Friday/Saturday

Friday, May 08, 2009

Slaughterhouse 20

END TIME: 11:14 PM

Write a piece of fiction that starts with "There was a knock at the door."

There was a knock at the door.

I was right in the middle of typing and I had to have this thing finished by midnight, and the usual accouterments were there; ice water with a squirt of lime, ITunes, and the lemongrass and mint candle that my brain now associated with immediate creative thought.

I opened the door and my jaw dropped. The resemblance was more than uncanny, it was an exact match. The black shorts, the black basketball shoes, the glasses. All of them were sitting in their respective places in this apartment right now-what were they doing on this guy? I knew the answer. They say your past can catch up with you, but this wasn’t what I was expecting, and I can’t say I was happy about it. I certainly wasn't ready to welcome me in.

“What do you want?”
“I’m here to take you back.”

I looked around the apartment complex parking lot furtively, wondering if anyone else was seeing this. I’d read that B12 vitamins can give you really screwed up dreams-was that what this was?

“Back to what?”

“This isn’t your life and you know it. You drove past this apartment complex thousands of times on your way home and never thought you’d live here. You never thought you’d be divorced. You looked at the apartment on the day you moved out of Crystal Creek and never though you’d be in an apartment for the rest of your life. You’ve had diagnoses and theories and medication and all manner of people trying to tell you you’re crazy. Well, you’re not. It’s time to wake up. It’s not real. You’re only 26. Come on home.”

“Wait a second.” I’d had a few moments to contemplate time travel. “Is it going back and knowing everything I know, or just some of it, or none of it? If this were a movie, are we rewinding without looking at the movie, or just without sound, or without picture?”

“I don’t get the metaphor. We’re going back.”

“No, because this part matters. If I say yes, does my hair grow out and I gain a hundred pounds and I forget everything?”

Another voice shouted, “Stop!”

We each looked over the railing. One of the neighbors had to hear this. Oh, God. Bounding up the stairs two at a time in jean shorts, purple mirrored sunglasses, black Chicago Bulls baseball cap with the letters in red script; compared to the two of us on the porch, this guy didn’t know anything.

“I don’t know who the hell this is, but you need to come with me.”

The first visitor appeared as stunned as I had been a few seconds ago, but I figured I’d been indulgent enough already. “How come?”

“You see, THIS guy, he doesn’t know what you and I know about what this morning was like.”

I smiled. The first visitor asked, “What are you talking about?”

I told him, “I went swimming this morning at the beach, got in some work in my wetsuit, and then rode 20 miles in the heat. And we both know that this guy in the Bulls-Phoenix NBA Champions shirt spent HIS mornings playing basketball…”

“…sixteen years ago!” The first visitor nodded slowly, and the second visitor was ready, as always, to start talking fast. “So let’s get back to it! I’ll take you back and you’ll be 18 years old! The trees are green, the court’s got that little bit of shade, Coke Classic’s on sale at the 7-Eleven, and Brian’s going to be by in two hours! You can get it back!”

The first visitor looked insulted. “Oh, don’t you pull that nonsense with ME. You can talk all about what those mornings were like. I know what the NIGHTS were like. I know who he was pining over, the one who all that writing was FOR, and you’re taking him back to enough misery and uncertainty that he’s got all sorted out with me. It works out. Didn’t you ever wonder why we’re meeting on his front porch in Las Vegas?”

The second visitor looked momentarily puzzled. “We are a little far from home.”

The first visitor snorted condescendingly. “And aren’t you late for your shift at the library?”

The second visitor looked at the ground, knowing he wouldn’t win an argument with someone who literally knew everything about him. But then something dawned on the kid, who wasn’t much for listening on a good day.

“So…it all worked out?”

I looked at the moon and chuckled a little bit. “Guys, it’s been a long day already and I’ve got stuff to do. If I invite you in it’ll wake up the kids.”

The first visitor reacted as if he had ordered the tilapia and been presented with lamb chops. “Kids?”
The second visitor was a little more taken aback, as if he had awakened in a classroom to take a final exam without having taken the course. “Kids?”

I laughed even harder. “Guys, you can’t ever go back. You both know it." I turned to the first visitor. "There’s moments you’re at the desk in the computer room, looking out past the Rolls Royces that get parked up top, watching how the sun hits the front courtyard and wondering if you’re going to have a morning like he’s having right now ever again. You will. I promise. And you…” I tried hard not to laugh at the shock on my second visitor’s face – “you need to have all the fun you can right now, because that’s what you’re there for. I need you to go back alone and do that because I need that right now. I need it to be even BETTER than you think it is. Good night, gentlemen.”

They looked at each other quickly, forgetting the earlier tension. “But it’s better! You KNOW it’s better than this! You don’t…”

“I am who I am, and where I am, because who and where else would I be? I’m you, and I’m you too. If I take your best moments I have to take the bad ones. I remember them both. If it makes you feel any better, when I get back in there and write you’ll be standing over my shoulders, but that’s how it works. You don’t get to look forward with absolute clarity, and I don’t ever get to go back. That’s life. Good night.”

I closed the door, and closed my eyes. I regretted not telling myself at 18 to stretch before playing basketball and to switch to diet soda. I regretted not telling myself at 26 that he should hit the pool the next morning, to give me a head start for a triathlon he’d never even dreamed of that was taking place next weekend.

I didn’t regret much else.

Writing Project Update

Words this week: 1200 or so, as I spent a lot of time training and getting over illness. I had some good ideas while I was riding today, so that can usually turn into something.

Responses to last week's topic: 1.

This week's entries: 2 (Ken, Ken). But I also had some people suggest that I go back to some of the entries that didn't make it. In the 19 weeks I've done Slaughterhouse, there have been about 70 submissions. There was also an "almost" by Nancy, who didn't remember the topic she wanted, but she's reading. That's the important part.

This week's question: "Write a piece of fiction that starts with 'There was a knock at the door.'"

And I've got an idea. Catch you in an hour and change, I think...

500 WORDS ON THIS TOPIC DUE BY: 5/9 midnight Friday/Saturday

Friday, May 01, 2009

Slaughterhouse 19

END TIME: 10:30 PM

“Write a sales pitch for Gu.” – Ken Faikus

I’ve completed 20 triathlons in the past four years, and as I’ve steadily gotten myself in better shape and steadily improved my times, there are two things that I’ve found absolutely determine what level of success I can expect. Those two things are Effort and Consistency.

The first one is effort. The harder I work, the luckier I get. The focal point of my year takes place every August along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, in the Chicago Triathlon. Last year I set my personal best time in the world’s largest race. I rode close to two thousand miles training for those 24. I ran over 200 miles to prepare for those six. And right there alongside me, every step of the way, was Gu Chocolate Outrage gel.

The second one is consistency. I have the least anxiety and the best performances at races where I’m in complete control of my setup, and I want everything the same. My Transition area looks the same no matter the city, no matter the conditions. If I have to spend time wondering about how a product’s going to behave, I can’t focus on performing at my best level. Even in a race that takes hours to complete, there simply isn’t time to worry about if my nutrition’s going to behave any differently this time out as opposed to last time. I’m at my best when I feel like I’ve been there before.

Gu answers those questions for me, packet after packet, case after case. It’s got everything I’m looking for to ensure that I feel my best from the pace line to the finish line. When everything falls into place in a race like Chicago, I reach for the little Velcro flask and get the quick bounce that I need with a shot of gel and a pull from my water bottle. I’m not even off the aero bars and I’ve just gotten enough energy to keep my legs from turning to jelly as soon as I get off of that bicycle.

Gu’s got plenty of carbohydrates, caffeine, and electrolytes to keep me moving when otherwise sane people would decide to turn around. With 8 flavors you can find one that fits what you want to taste as you’re pushing the limits. (And one of those flavors is Just Plain, in case you don’t want to taste anything.) I train in the desert, through the summer, and there’s three things to remember - you don’t leave without water, sunblock, or Gu.

There are some things that I enjoy about my sport that have nothing to do with racing – the smell of sunblock and permanent markers, the camaraderie of hundreds of bodies starting to swim at once, the first bottle of ice water and banana after a day’s work-but the night before ritual of mixing Gu and water in a Styrofoam cup to pour into my bike flask is one of those little moments I get for myself. It’s like a gladiator checking the fit of his helmet and sandals before entering the ring. This is a product that’s as important to me as my training plan and my transition bag – I wouldn’t think about doing a race without it. You shouldn’t either.

Writing Project Update

Words this week: 3400, most of which were an Implosion chapter about speed dating that for reasons of decorum can't be posted in a public forum.

Responses to last week's topic: 1.

This week's entries: 2 (Beth, Ken)

This week's question: "Write a sales pitch for Gu."

500 WORDS ON THIS TOPIC DUE BY: 5/2 midnight Friday/Saturday