Friday, January 29, 2010

Slaughterhouse 56

END TIME: 10:50 PM

This week's question: "You order all of your new books online at the library. Do you ever browse the shelves anymore?"

I always make sure to browse the shelves; my mind depends on it.

Because as human beings, it's easier than ever to self-select what information we interact with. We can now wake up in the morning to our favorite song, choose our lunch down to the growth origins of the vegetables we eat, watch and read nothing but news that we agree with, order only the books we want to read, watch television shows that a very small select group like us enjoy, and live in places with people exactly like ourselves.

In 1991, military personnel working at the PXs in bases in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, knew when the troops would be approaching the front. How? They'd sell out of AA batteries, the size that went into Sony Discmans. The Gulf War was the first one in which the soldiers had their own soundtrack.

There's a phenomenon going on called 'The Big Sort" and it's showing that people with like political beliefs are starting to cluster together - the "red" states are become redder and the corresponding is also true. Because we're creating a world where you can interact (virtually) with people who think and feel precisely the same as you do, there's no reason to attempt to interact civilly with people who share the same physical space. Think about your office. There are probably vast arrays of topics that you don't talk about, either by courtesy or by statute.

There are good things about this sort. If I were gay and living in a small community I would probably never be afforded a safe chance to meet anyone like me, but with the internet it becomes apparent that not only are there other people like me, but there are other people in my identical situation that are grappling with the same issues. If I have a rare disease I not only stand a better chance of getting treatment, I have a chance to see how others worldwide are coping.

The bad things, though, are that in an entirely self-selected universe, you run the risk of never being forced to think, see, hear, taste, feel, touch, or consider anything that would ever fall outside of your comfort zone - a perilous situation that leads to diminished powers of argument and reason. Let's say that you consider the steak at Texas de Brazil to be the finest on the face of the Earth. Could I ever get you to consider the entrees at Morton's, or Ruth's Chris, or Lawry's? Or if you were convinced that any one of those other places were the greatest, what would it take to get you to try something different (other than the sheer obnoxious force of my own personality)? The greater the certainty you have of your beliefs, the less likely you are to question them.

What is wrong with politics is only partially due to the participants. It's a climate in which one side believes the other is evil, dangerous, and stupid. And with both sides fanning the flames in opposition to those with the opposite colored pom poms, the situation will culminate in tragedy or doom.

So browse the shelves. It's really important.

Writing Project Update

Words this week: 1500, non-project related.

Responses to last week: Two, one of which made me laugh like crazy.

Questions this week: 5.

Third question this week: A curveball, one-off: "You order all of your new books online at the library. Do you ever browse the shelves anymore?"

Answer's attached, and this is one of my favorite topics.

RESPONSE DUE BY: 1/29-30 midnight

Friday, January 22, 2010

Slaughterhouse 55

END TIME: 10:29 PM

"Let's say you had a day to spend in Chicago - what would you do? Not what one should do, but what you would do."

I was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, and particularly in the last few years that I lived there I had the tremendous opportunity of working in the city, specifically a Five Diamond hotel on North Michigan Avenue (no, the other one; no, not that one either) and took advantage of my surroundings as often as I could. I know the city pretty well.

I get to go home about three times a year, so we’ll rule out the idea that in one day I’d like to see my family, or race in the Chicago Triathlon, activities that have a very specific schedule and set of destinations. Let’s make this the ultimate “this day’s mine” scenario.

First off, if it’s morning, let’s make it a Tuesday. I’ve already gotten my room at that hotel that I used to work at, and the wake-up call’s coming in relatively early, maybe 7:30. Breakfast will arrive shortly after that, so the lemon ricotta pancakes, pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice and small pot of espresso will be enough to get me moving fast and out the door. The morning temperature outdoors will be 61 degrees, which they’ll have told me during the wake-up call. I’ll look out the window towards a day with no clouds in the sky and start to put it together.

After a scalding hot shower and a quick review of the newspaper, I’ll head through the lobby and catch the elevator downstairs. The city’s already humming with shoppers and people making their way towards their destinations, the sidewalks already pulsing. In the old days I’d go kill a few minutes watching the few traders that do still shout at each other in the futures pits slug it out as the numbers on the board jitter around like the world’s most expensive sports book, but the viewing gallery is another casualty of September 11. Instead, I’ll walk south on Michigan for a bit, then catch a cab straight to Union Station. After a few minutes enjoying the sunlight in the Great Hall, I’m walking to the river at the bridge at Adams, so I can watch the sun shine down among the canyon of skyscrapers.

Next stop is the Sea-erm, Willis Tower Skydeck, which is better in the daytime, and I’ll try to pick out the spots looking west where, growing up, I could see it just driving around, a mere 15 miles away. I’ll give directions in the friendliest, most sincere voice I can manage to some genuinely lost people, hopefully making their stay a little more fun in the most American city there is. (New York’s a world city. Same with London and Paris. Los Angeles is American, but in a more fragmented manner than Chicago.)

It’s time for lunch, and that means the Park Grill at Millennium Park, watching how the sun bounces off of the Bean as everyone around looks at the sky, and the people realize that this is one of THOSE days, the ones that make six months of winter worthwhile, the ones that justify the sunglasses and maybe an unbuttoned shirt collar with a loosened tie, because it’s time to have lunch outside today. I’ll order a club soda with lime and watch people for a while – at the part of Michigan Avenue where the art students cross the tourists who intersect with the Loop lunch crowd.

I’ll go over the Promenade bridge and make my way to the lake, ultimately getting to the Shedd Aquarium to find the brightest yellow saltwater fish in existence, watch the field trip kids look at the electric eels, maybe see if I can watch the scuba diver feed them. Once I get back out of the dark, which is like leaving a movie, I’ll be looking right at the skyline, still breathtaking even after I’ve seen it thousands of times.

We’re at early afternoon, so it’s time to get ready for dinner. The hotel has left my suit pressed and ready to go in my closet and I got my shoes polished last night, so after a scalding hot shower I’m ready to go quickly. Tonight will be the tasting menu at the Everest Room, a seven course degustation coinciding with the sunset, because I’d like the same table I always liked in the old days, in the northwest corner next to the mirrors, looking out the 40th floor.

As darkness starts falling, I’m off to do something, but I’m not sure what. Reacquire my secondhand taste for Marlboro Lights at Blue Chicago? Have tickets to a show at Steppenwolf or ImprovOlympic? Catch something at Pritzker Pavilion? All I know is, if I got the opera tickets, I only have time for the pretheater degustation at Everest, but we all have our crosses to bear – and if I’m headed to a Sox game, I go somewhere for dinner that doesn’t need a suit.

It’s nighttime and it’s Tuesday and it’s warm. I scurry over to Navy Pier and catch the fireworks show from the edge, close enough that embers of paper risk singeing my clothes. After that, I’m going to the Observatory at the John Hancock Center, which is far better at night. I’ll look at the Mies buildings on the Gold Coast and at the rest of the city, maybe listen to the buzz from the skywalk.

If I don’t have my legs under me after all the traveling today, I’ll cross the street and go back to sleep. If the adrenaline still hasn’t worn off, I’ll head the four or five blocks to Underground Wonder Bar, grab a spot in the corner and make fast friends with whoever’s willing to provide me Sapphire and tonics while the jazz pianist plays until 4 AM.

I get back to bed before the sun comes up, confident that I’d done everything I could to make it the greatest day possible – one where every single second let me think, “God, it’s good to be home.”

Writing Project Update

Words this week: Writing? This past week? Are you out of your mind? Actually, I got about 1000 words.

Responses to last week's topic: 0.

New items in the mailbox: 3 (Ken, Ken, and Ken)

This week's question, from Ken Faikus: "Let's say you had a day to spend in Chicago - what would you do? Not what one should do, but what you would do."

Going home, huh? All right, let's try it.

Submission due by: Jan 22-23 midnight

Friday, January 15, 2010

Slaughterhouse... on assignment. By order of the Director of Assertiveness, there ain't gonna be no writing tonight. Catch you next week.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Slaughterhouse 54

Start Time 10:47 PM
End Time 11:35 PM
Word Count: 533

This week’s question: In the spirit of the now-passed holiday season, for what are you thankful and what are your goals for the new year?

I’m not really big on the concept of New Year’s resolutions. Since New Year’s theoretically affects everybody, there are an awful lot of people who are deciding that they want to make changes in their life because the sun is over there rather than where it was a few days before. I’m a regular fitness club denizen, including all of those months where people haven’t decided that now is the time to change their lives, so I have some well-established opinions on the crowd that I call “the Resolooters.”

I won’t share those here, but ultimately I wouldn’t think of immersing myself in a culture without having the slightest idea of the rules and the expected norms of behavior. And while I have no desire to discourage anyone from coming to the gym and attempting to make a better life for themselves, the reason I get so annoyed with the Resolooters is, I see these same people every single year, for precisely the same stretch of time. I even have the ratios broken down – 50 percent of them will be gone by Martin Luther King Day, another 10 percent by the Super Bowl, 20 percent more by Valentine’s Day, and the remainder by Good Friday. And then I don’t see them back until January 1. So resolutions are only to be abided by until spring? Hmm. Can’t claim to understand that, but let’s move on.

As for what I’m thankful for, I’m grateful for so much. I have amazing friends, both here in a physical sense and farther away in a virtual sense, people who stop by and read what I’ve put together here whether or not it’s coherent, people who have spent time in my life both old and new who have ensured that I will always have something to laugh at or smile about, people who are nice enough to smile and laugh at what I say to them and seem to mean it. In terms of tangible things right this second, I’m thankful for George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” from An American in Paris, even though the fine folks at United Airlines ruined the song for the rest of my life, because now I have to work twice as hard to keep the vision of smug yuppies sliding into an aisle seat from invading one of my favorite piano concertos of all time. I get goose bumps right around the 11:30 mark. I’m thankful for some Frenchman somewhere who first harvested foie gras and convinced one of his impressionable but thick-witted acquaintances, “Here, eat this, tell me if it’s any good.”

I’m thankful for red wine and air travel and some of the wilder moments in life, but ultimately I’m more thankful for those friends that are there at the no-matter-what level. The people who could call me at 4 in the morning and say,”Jim, we’re off to Miami, you’re going to want to bring at least five figures in cash and a gun.” Depending on the person at the other end of the line, I wouldn’t even need to ask any questions. Life needs as few of those moments as possible, but as many stories as you can stand.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Writing Project Update

Words this week: 1500, all sorts of places, but nothing on the main projects.

Responses to last week's topics: 1.

New items in the mailbox: 3 (Ken, Ken, and Ken)

This week's question: "In the spirit of the now-passed holiday season, for what are you thankful and what are your goals for the new year?"

Submission due by: Jan 8-9 midnight

Friday, January 01, 2010

Slaughterhouse 53 - State of the Abbatoir

START TIME: 10:40 PM, a bit of a late start.
END TIME: 11:38 PM

Projects can take on a life of their own sometimes. This is one that certainly did.

I started Slaughterhouse last year to force myself to write, every single week, to never let it get too far out of my grasp and stay in practice. Some of the fun has been going through the next morning and sorting out all of my typos, wondering who or what I insulted, and trying my damnedest to see if I wrote anything that would stick around in someone's mind.

I've had more responses to this than I would ever have figured. There were 203 e-mail submissions over the past year, and I'd get email from friends from all over, particularly when I linked the blog up with Facebook. A few times, my friends sent what I wrote on to their friends, and then it traveled the world, and for an example of how this can work sometimes, Google the phrase "cabinet appointees were mushwits"; you may recognize the author's voice. (It's how I got published in the Times of London, even though it wasn't really me talking. And if that were kind of a proto-Slaughterhouse, that took 35 minutes to write as an email to a close circle of friends.)

So since this started as a New Year's resolution, it's a fair question to look at how it's evolved. While I don't know if I'm a better writer, I've certainly got the hang of documenting events very fast, because I don't give myself much time to familiarize myself with the topics. Usually I've known for about two minutes what the question is going to be when I send out the update. There are a lot more times where I find myself a few words over the line and really close to the deadline, and rather than actually finish the point I'm making, I'll close it out right there.

So I've proven for a year (with a couple of breaks, which I don't think anyone would begrudge me) that I can do this. Many of you have thought so as well. So the goal set is changing for this year. All of the rules will still be the same, and I'm still going to try my damnedest to cover 4000 words toward the projects during the week; I made significant progress on two of the three projects that simply wouldn't have happened if I didn't have this deadline every week. It had me thinking about it.

The other thing I'm thinking about is the sheer volume of places that are looking for content. I think I could land a recap in a triathlon magazine. I think, every once in a while, I'm capable of turning in something that a lot of people would enjoy. But if this is the only forum that it appears, it won't happen, because I won't have chased anything larger.

So this year's goal is to get something - a magazine article, most likely - published.

Wish me luck, and as always, ideas aren't just welcome, they're desperately needed. Thanks.

Writing Project Update

Words this week: 1500, various forums and projects.

Feedback over the past few weeks has been nice. I appreciate everyone's good wishes and input.

New items in the mailbox: There's two, but I need to explain some stuff first. We'll return to topics du jour next week.

Submission due by: Jan 1-2 midnight