Friday, September 25, 2009

Slaughterhouse 39

Slaughterhouse 39
END TIME: 10:57 PM

“Describe the night when you've had the most fun (or the funniest night of your life, if you recall it).” Brian Mascheri

Wow. It’s obviously a clear indictment of my faculties and capacity for a good time that there’s the tagline of “if you can recall it.” The gentleman asking this question has accompanied me for evenings that involved…well, the expression is, “those who know, don’t say, and those who say, don’t know.” I think the statue of limitations on several of those evenings has passed, but Brian’s a happily married man with kids, and I wouldn’t wish to threaten the sanctity of several domestically tranquil situations by hauling out the old…

…all right, one for tonight, and a bunch of people already know this one, so it’s better to take this to the wider audience.

The three-legged race with the hookers? Nahhh, that never really happened, and it SHOULD have (and I could type the story but it’s not the same without the hand gestures and vocal inflection), but I was really thinking about the ceremony itself.

For some reason, when you’re in your twenties, there are moments where you figure that you can do just about anything. You think you can drink until five in the morning and work at seven. You think you can go four days without sleep and make a coherent presentation. You think you can juggle three different serious relationships and no one will be any the wiser. You think you can drive a vehicle at 104 miles an hour and be making good time. Or, in my case, you think you can write the script for a set piece at a wedding in Hawaii and everything will go seamlessly.

(Oh, I did all of those other things, too, and I think I survived all of them with minimal scarring, but we’ll talk about the last one tonight.)

My friend Mark is fascinated with Japanese culture, and met his wife Alice at a tea ceremony in Camarillo, CA – she’s Japanese. She has Japanese family, and her parents and grandparents live in Hawaii, and Mark’s family is a diaspora across the Midwest and West Coast. Hawaii was the most sensible place for this wedding to take place. I was honored when Mark asked me to be his best man, and this meant a toast.

And I had an idea.

I wanted something shorter and simple, because I knew that there was a strong possibility that the day and/or night was going to involve liquor, and the less complexity that I was able to bring to the situation, the better. But what I wanted to do was give that toast in two languages, as there would be two tables of people who didn’t speak English. I Googled “Japanese translation las vegas” and found a man who was used to doing this sort of thing all the time. I even had a great idea for a joke, even though every guidebook ever published under the sun warns against using humor across cultures, because it doesn’t usually work.

So I had a very simple toast:

I would like to point out that among the many virtues that Mark has chosen in his friends, he has not chosen a best friend who can speak Japanese. However, he has chosen a wonderful woman to be his bride, his soul mate, his partner. Please join me in wishing them all the joy, luck, and happiness they can imagine.”

So I wanted that turned into Japanese. But – wait – audience participation! I could have one of the guys yell at me, “Jim! You don’t speak Japanese!!!” And then THAT guy gets interrupted by someone saying the same thing…IN Japanese! Hot damn! This was going to WORK. I knew it. And when I explained my idea to the translator, he was excited. “This is funny. They will laugh at this.” So I also had him translate

“Wait a second! You don’t speak Japanese!”

I was ready to go. I got mp3 files of the speech and listened to it, over and over again. I explained the plan to Ken and Brian, and we were well rehearsed and set, even the point during which one of them became terrified with stage fright and screamed “Godzilla!!” and sprinted for the exit.

I listened to the files constantly, and I had a phonetic printout of what I was going to say, and carried it with me constantly, rehearsing and rehearsing, weeks of getting ready. It was likely that I could have left the hotel and forgotten my ID and room key, but I would have been clutching a sheet of paper reading

MAH-koo-no-goy-YOU-jin no kah-tah-gah-tah-wah

tox-ON-no yoy-SIGH-no moh-tay-oh-uh-day-moska


And all of a sudden it was showtime. Ken and Brian were the only guys in the room who knew what I was about to do, and they were situated in the back. Our foresight in planning for drinking was going to pay off, and I had my translation page with me. I was given my cue, came up, and had eye contact with most of the room, without going to my sheet of paper.

And I nailed my lines. The Japanese table is smiling. Mark and Alice are having a hard time keeping up; they’re English speakers who know Japanese and I’m moving at the speed of a TV news reader, because that’s what the woman did who translated it for me. I had no idea I was going so fast I was baffling anyone who wasn’t a native speaker.

And I hit the end of it, and Brian shouts out:
“Jim! You don’t speak Chinese!”

My face goes blank. I’ll admit that I didn’t spend much time working with Brian on his one line in English. And Ken’s Japanese line about me not speaking Japanese didn’t project like I thought it might.

But it was a success. And the photo of us out on the balcony shows a bunch of excellent friends without pain, without anything to do but continue laughing like crazy. We’ve done so ever since.

Writing Project Update

Words this week - 1000, mayyybe. I was a graphic designer and a designated driver and an athlete and a promoter and a team captain and a content provider, but I wasn't much of an author. I kind of knew I'd wind up here.

Responses to last week's topic: 2, one of which smartly assumed that I didn't answer the question. I read the entry again and said, yep. I could get a whole 'nother entry out of my response, but that's cheating.

This week's entries: 3 (Ken, Beth, and Brian)

This week's question from Brian Mascheri: "Describe the night when you've had the most fun (or the funniest night of your life, if you recall it)"

RESPONSE DUE BY: 9/25-26 midnight

Friday, September 18, 2009

Slaughterhouse 38

Start time: 9:54 PM
End time: 10:42 PM
Word count: 868

“What do you think of this whole Universal Health Care Reform that they are trying to pass? Is something better than nothing and what side are you on?”

I have a philosophy that applies to essentially any problem that we have in this country, and it hasn’t failed me yet. It’s the Pyramid Philosophy, kind of an extension of the corporate maxim about shit rolling downhill.

The Pyramid Philosophy says that when the top of the pyramid is not invested in the success or failure of the middle and bottom of the pyramid, what the rest of the pyramid gets is going to suck. Have you been happy about flying in this country recently? Delayed planes, time wasted on the tarmac, charges for bags and soda? It used to be that the fares that the first class passengers paid – a level of comfort in which the passengers did not travel any faster or with much greater expedience or luxury, but were plied with amenities such as free drinks and meals, slightly larger seats, a nicer blanket or pillow – made the airlines profitable. These things didn’t justify the difference in price, though, and along came the more ubiquitous private jet. Now, there isn’t a CEO who’s angry enough at United Airlines to demand they straighten out or he’ll pull every speck of business his giant corporation has with them, because the CEO doesn’t have to go through TSA screening lines, putting his custom-made London oxfords through the x-ray machine. His jet leaves when he says so. As for the rest of us? They could charge everybody in coach for oxygen and he’ll happily keep billing his company for $28,000 every flight from Vegas to Chicago.

Here in Las Vegas, the Pyramid Philosophy works like this: If you are wealthy and can afford the best medical care anywhere, never mind our hospitals, our cancer center or our new brain institute and outpost of the Cleveland Clinic. The top tier of medicine in Las Vegas is to get the hell out of this city and get yourself over to Cedars-Sinai or UCLA Medical Center and get your treatment there. As for what they could expect back here in town? Google “Las Vegas hepatitis” to find out how 40,000 people were exposed to Hep C during routine medical tests because they reused needles.

So we have a really sweet situation where the top of the pyramid thinks they’ll have to pay for the health care of everybody else; they may be on the hook for this and it’s an outrage, I tell you. But this isn’t a simple Pyramid Problem any more.

The real problem with health care in this country is actually close to what we believe with air travel. Do you want the fully reclining seat, the unlimited bowls of your favorite honey roasted cashews, the boardroom style seating? Of course you do. What are you willing to pay for it? If it’s your money, you may not have a loose 28 large; odds are you’re going to tough it out in coach. If it’s other people’s money, nothing but the best. So when I get cancer, treating my cancer should involve sparing no expense, ensuring I’m involved in the latest experimental treatments, using tools of analysis, expert systems and opinions to ensure that I not only survive, but do so with a minimum of suffering. If it’s your cancer, though, and you need me to pay for it directly, well, I’ll give you a couple bucks and I’ll donate blood, sure, but I’m a little short right now.

In America, we want the Cadillac treatment at Yugo prices, and in many cases we’re bitching about that. We rail and scream at the idea of illegal immigrants actually availing themselves of emergency room services without ever wondering if we could physically throw a dying man back out through emergency room doors. We shout about how much money this will cost us without having to accept that our child couldn’t receive treatment at an emergency room when they’ve stopped breathing because we didn’t have the right insurance card, or do anything for our dying mother except get her one more month with us, one more hour without pain.

And for all of the screaming about death panels, did anyone really understand what that was about? Anyone who’s had a pet understands that a time arrives when you have to make a decision about If It’s Time. We do this because we are imbued with a capacity for moral decision-making that animals are not, a sense of compassion and a desire to alleviate suffering. But ultimately we make the decision at several levels regarding whether or not a pet is leading a fulfilling life and whether you can end their suffering. Are you saying that you can’t have this discussion with someone in advance of this decision being made? An understanding of when it’s time?

Ultimately we have to make the decision of not only choosing death over suffering, but finance over life. I get the feeling this may take a little longer to settle than most anyone would like to acknowledge.

Writing Project Update

Words this week - 2600 or so. There's some other stuff happening and we're coming in a little light. It will be easier shortly, but it's not easy right now. I accept that and try to accomplish other things.

Responses to last week's topic: 4. I was generally pleased with how it turned out and was glad to read that others were as well.

This week's entries: 5 (Johnny, Brian, Johnny, Cami, and Ken)

This week's question from Johnny Lopez: "what do you think of this whole Universal Health Care Reform that they are trying to pass? Is something better than nothing and what side are you on?"

RESPONSE DUE BY: 9/18-19 midnight

Friday, September 11, 2009

Slaughterhouse 37

"They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I'll give you a discount. Post a picture that doesn't have you or anyone you know in it and write 500 words on what it means to you."

The documentaries proved it later; at least 200 people had chosen to jump from the burning World Trade Center rather than remain inside. For me, the overriding story of September 11, 2001 was one of asymmetrical information.

The gentleman in this picture knows what the rest of us do not; there are no escape routes from where he is. (Estimates identified him as Jonathan Briley, a sound engineer who worked at the Windows on the World restaurant on the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center.) The smoke is enveloping the stairwells, there’s no way a helicopter can land on the roof, he can probably hear the pins holding the trusses buckling as the building nears structural failure. When there is a difference between what you know and what everybody else knows, that’s asymmetrical information. He had to accept what every human being does eventually, and many are cognizant of it before it happens. Today I am going to die. But I will decide what my fate is; not some misguided zealot with a box cutter, who shredded my building with a jetliner.

The plane was delayed out of Newark; Flight 93 didn’t get off the ground for an extra 41 minutes because of congestion at the airport. The cockpit was warned of cockpit intrusions on both flights that had already hit the World Trade Center. As the passengers were herded to the back, they called from Airfones and cell phones to their families. They explained that they were being hijacked. The families, the operators, explained what was happening hundreds of miles away in New York and Washington, and at that point the passengers of Flight 93 had the asymmetrical information that the other passengers aboard the other planes did not. Passengers, crew, and civilians had all been taught the same thing regarding a hijacking, or a robbery, or a mugging: Don’t resist. It’s not worth your life. Give the robber what he wants – the register, your wallet, your phone, your cooperation – and you’ll live. But in scores of phone calls, the people on Flight 93 were learning the asymmetrical information that their training and philosophy was bullshit. Today I am going to die. But I will decide what my fate is; not some misguided zealot with a box cutter, who told me to stay here and I won’t get hurt: I know this is a lie.

But there are happier endings.

Three weeks after 9/11, a mentally deranged man on a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles attempted to rush the cockpit. Half the plane jumped up to stop him. In December of 2001, when Richard Reid attempted to detonate his shoes on a flight from Paris to Miami, he was subdued by the other passengers with plastic handcuffs, seatbelt extensions, and headphone cords. A doctor administered Valium from an in-flight medical kit; I like to think that was done via the broken off stem of a wine glass from First Class. Five months earlier, he could have held up his shoes with the fuses sticking out of them, said he had a bomb and to do what he said and no one would get hurt – and people would have complied. That was the safe thing to do, you see. But the passengers in December 2001 were not the same travelers of August 2001. Today I am going to die…if I don’t do everything to resist, fight back, and overcome this zealot who’s trying to frighten me.

Your beliefs don’t scare me. Your masks don’t scare me. Your methods don’t scare me. And it’s not about being a hero or being famous or leaving a legacy. Because if given a choice to die praying for mercy or with my hands clutched around a terrorist’s throat, if the choice ends with my dying either way and there’s no hope for survival, there is but one guarantee: They’re going first.

Writing Project Update

Words this week: 2800. You'll never see them, though. I'm at a bit of a project lull while I attend to the busier portion of my racing year, but I will keep this up.



THIS WEEK'S QUESTION: They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I'll give you a discount. Post a picture that doesn't have you or anyone you know in it and write 500 words on what it means to you.

Considering today, I have something appropriate.

500 WORDS ON THIS TOPIC DUE BY: Midnight 9/11-12.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Slaughterhouse 36


Each of the last two years at the Chicago Triathlon, you've beaten your goal by seven or eight minutes. What is your goal for next year and how can you accomplish it?

This year the goal was a secret. The prize was not. The prize was the bottle of Veuve Clicquot St. Petersburg that I got when I was in Reims in the Champagne region of France - the only city where it’s available outside of Russia. There aren’t many of them in America right now and it’s probably my favorite champagne. I promised myself I would drink it if I ever accomplished something huge, and I thought that beating a three-hour triathlon time by an even more significant number than I had previously would justify its consumption.

I also vowed I’d never drink champagne alone, and I won’t be doing so this time, either.

But the goal…the goal was to do better than last year. The training this year had gone very, very smoothly. My schedule didn’t have a long midsummer break, so quietly I told myself, “Five minutes.” That would put me at 2:47:51, which I could live with. But I didn’t like saying it out loud, because it seemed like I was tempting fate. Blow out a tire, turn an ankle, get kicked in the face on the swim, and you’re doomed. Last year was everything being amazing – why risk it?

I finished in 2:45:46 – 7:05 better than last year. I had some issues where I could certainly have been faster. So it would just be a matter of sustaining those levels and passing them next year, right?

Well, there are a lot of things that have to break in my favor. All of the things I mention above? They can’t happen. I can’t get hurt during training, or have someone else run into me on the bike. At that point, you hope for the best.

But what’s next year?

Next year’s goal will be 2 hours and 40 minutes, and a swim of less than 30 minutes. This means that I plan to make up most of the time in the water, where I was only better than about 50 percent of the triathletes this year. On the bicycle I was better than 80 percent of the other triathletes, and on the run I was better than 79 percent of the other triathletes.

I arrived at this conclusion based on the issues I had on the bike this year, where I could certainly have been faster had I not had to stop, and the persistent issues I have with open water swimming. I need to make a concerted effort to solve these problems if I want to do better next year.

I’ve had an irrational and persistent fear of real live swimming lessons, despite the fact that I’m acquainted with and train with several members of an area Masters club. I’m relatively competent in the water but have picked up such an accumulation of awful habits that I’m like Elton John going into rehab in Park Ridge. He had so many addictions that it was murder just to unweave them and deal with them one at a time. My swim stroke will require a similar overhaul, but I’m not totally up for it yet. I’d rather convince myself I can squeeze an extra 45 seconds a mile out of my run if I do more brick workouts.

As for prizes, let’s plummet off that particular precipice when we come to it. Stay tuned. For now, the widow awaits.

Writing Project Update

WORDS WRITTEN THIS PAST WEEK: 850. There was a race.

No topic, no responses. Thanks for all the good wishes before and after the event, though. As always, the hometown race is unforgettable.



Each of the last two years at the Chicago Triathlon, you've beaten your goal by seven or eight minutes. What is your goal for next year and how can you accomplish it?

500 WORDS DUE BY: 9/4-5 midnight.