28 May 2008

Goodbye, My Zeke

You were my best dog.

22 May 2008

The Weather Sucks, But the Cops Are HOTT... er, Doing a Very Good Job

Or: Why Chicago So Totally Kicks Your First Responder Ass, New Mexico!

Tonight I was lying on the couch, half wondering if I should go ahead and take a nap, half contemplating getting back into the Graham Greene novel I'm reading (half dreaming about the green chile cheese bagels currently in our refrigerator.... mmmmm....) when I heard a braking noise and then a faint crunching noise.

"Was that a car crash?" I asked.
Natalie called from the other room. "No, it was just the wind. Go back to sleep." But a moment later she went to the front window (aka Front Page to the World) and started making horrified little gasping noises.
"What?" I asked. "What happened?" She didn't answer so I was forced to run to the window and see for myself: there was a girl all crumpled up in the street in front of our house, surrounded by concerned women.

Like any good urban neighbors, we watched the drama unfold through our window. The girl had been hit on a vespa. She had a friend who hadn't been hit. They were wearing identical silver helmets. Two ladies stopped their cars in the middle of the intersection, but we couldn't tell who was the hitter: the black Pontiac, or the blue Mercedes? The girl who hadn't been hit kneeled down and talked to her friend with a huge smile on her face. It's easy to smile when you haven't just been hit by a car and thrown from your vespa into rush hour traffic on Western, I guess. You'd think the fact that your friend was just hit would make it a little harder to smile, but who knows. That's what keeps us glued to our windows.

We've seen a lot of accidents here. Most notably, of course, the best. car crash. ever! last summer. Natalie saw a girl get hit on foot, on her way to the train one morning. Yesterday, the Damen bus I was riding nearly ran a girl off the bridge into the Chicago River. Today a ghost bike showed up at one of the bridges on my commute. (Incidentally, Time Out Chicago was all about hardcore bikers this week, and every single one of them had been in several serious accidents. Natalie and I were JUST talking about how we were way too scared to ride bikes in this town, an hour before the crash. As we stared out the window at the crying girl, we said, "Looks like vespas are too dangerous in this town, too.")

We've also seen other kinds of drama. Two weeks ago there was a huge fire down the block from us, with giant flames engulfing an entire apartment building. When I was here taking a class at Second City in the summer of 06, a Blue Line train derailed not far from here. And of course, last winter, the bank robbery. In just under a year here, I've become quite the witness to Chicago emergencies.

And so, I would like to take a moment to give a big shout-out to some of the least lame people in this entire city: the Chicago Police and Fire Departments. Every single time I've been in or near a situation that warranted their attention, I've been impressed. For one thing, they are SO FAST. When the bank got robbed, the police were there in under five minutes. UNDER FIVE.

By contrast, when my truck was broken into in Albuquerque, I waited for the police for three hours. THREE HOURS. I kept calling the dispatcher and saying, "Look, I know you're all busy, but I'm a single woman alone downtown and it's four in the morning." They kept saying, They'll be there shortly ma'am, just hold on. Look, ABQ police, I get that a woman all by herself with a truck covered in shattered glass isn't a huge emergency compared to all the cows loose on the highway and people driving the wrong way on off-ramps, but if you weren't going to come for me, you should have just said so. I would have appreciated a "Look lady, we don't really care about your broken truck or stolen stereo and we're not going to do anything about it anyway, so why don't you just go home and get some sleep." Similarly, the Moriarty police could have cared less when my wallet was stolen out of my classroom & within two hours over $800 had been charged to my credit cards. Again, I get that my little dramas aren't a huge deal, but it's MORIARTY. Tell me you honestly had anything better to do. Or there was the time that a sheriff was murdered right outside my house in Tijeras and I was too scared to go home for days, and when I finally went home there was a policeman in my backyard, staring into my house, who yelled at me and asked what I was doing there. I live here, I said. What are YOU doing here? Surely the murderer isn't still hiding in my kitchen, four days after the murder?

New Mexico police could learn a lot from the CPD, is all I'm saying.

With the fire down the block, the firefighters did such a good job holding everyone back and getting their ladders up and making sure everyone was out of the building and safe. And again, they were there FAST.

By contrast. In high school, a car spontaneously combusted in the student parking lot and it took the Oregon Fire Department a half hour to get one truck there. A half hour! In Oregon! The fire department was only like three blocks from the high school. They could have CARRIED BUCKETS OF WATER all the way from the station in less time than it took them to drive their truck out. By the time they finally rolled up, the car had burned itself out and nearly taken a bunch of other student cars with it (including my poor, sainted Renault, who had to watch the immolation of one of her fellows from across the aisle, and was very traumatized and covered with ash when I came out of school that afternoon).

So again: Chicago Fire Department, 1. OFD, minus twelve.

I can't imagine being a police officer or fire fighter. I can't imagine the kind of spirit and dedication it takes to show up for work every single morning after facing emergencies and tragedies (both devastating and tiny) nearly every single day. I can't imagine what kind of heart you would have to have, to stand witness to all that sorrow.

But man, do I appreciate it.

Thanks, CPD & CFD. You're doing a great job.

20 May 2008

Name That Novel

My friend (and fellow writer) Mark needs your help. He's finished with his novel and currently in the process of sending out queries, but... he doesn't have a (good) title. He's burned out on brainstorming (and completely unimpressed with ALL of my suggestions!), so he's turning the wheel over to you. If you come up with a winning title for Mark's novel, he promises to buy you "many expensive Belgian beers and/or overpriced coffee concoctions."

About Mark's novel:

Seven years of bad luck, seven years spent touring in a van held together by duct tape and coat hangers, rehearsing in a loft infested by incontinent rodents, causing shallow pings in the vast music machine, and just before giving up, one last chance to make it.

Finnegan is a blink away from thirty-three, the talented lead singer/songwriter for indie rock band The Babylon Sonic. A last gasp demo snags the interest of a label, luring them from New York to snow-plagued Chicago. The show is three days away and nothing is going right. Sullen lead guitarist James disappears from a hospital after overdosing on absinthe. Cranky English manager Shemp paces the frigid loft threatening to quit. Longtime girlfriend, neurotic fringe theater actress Holly, abandons him without explanation. And dodging the smothering blanket of depression seems impossible with each sleepless night. What’s that one shot in music really worth? Can Finnegan recapture the intensity he had when adolescence was still winning the battle and everything was sharp inside, buzzing and humming with the strange electricity of youth?

YOUR TITLE HERE is a 130,000-word novel for anyone who loves music or songwriting and imagines what it might feel like to climb on that stage, and anyone whose compass has ever spun wildly out of control while chasing that dream they’ve had since childhood.

If that's not quite enough inspiration for you, check out Mark's music page, featuring music similar (and in some cases identical!) to that of The Babylon Sonic.

Submit your suggestions in the comments here, or email them to info@storystudiochicago.com. Have fun!

19 May 2008

How's Your Soul Doing?

If this picture of an otter mama holding her little tiny grover doesn't make your heart rejoice, even a tiny bit, for all that is good and true and itty bitty on this often-wretched-but-still-full-of-baby-otters planet of ours,

then wow. You're really in trouble.

03 May 2008

Plans, Facebook, and Why No Amount of Sheep-Throwing Will Ever Lead Me To Predict the Downfall of Human Society

Plans went down this week, and I’ve been thinking about community ever since. Do virtual networking sites like Facebook and Twitter really help to build stronger communities, or do they impede actual human interaction, until one day we’ll never leave our houses at all and merely communicate with people by sending them one-sentence updates about the minutia of our shut-in lives and then throwing virtual sheep at them?

I vote stronger communities… of shut ins.

No, I’m kidding. It’s just the gray skies and 49 degrees Fahrenheit talking. Clearly, Chicago hasn’t gotten the memo that it’s MAY and thus could bring on the sunshine and springly weather any day now. And until it does, I’m sticking to my winter policy of never leaving my house unless I have to, dammit.

And that’s kind of the point, I guess. Lately I’ve been feeling more connected than usual to the wide circle of people I’ve met in my life, thanks to the marvel that is Facebook. Look, I know that you probably hate Facebook. You probably think that it represents everything that is silly and intemperate about our stupid society with its one-sentence updates and its zombie fighting and its obsessive reports about who has added or subtracted what from their interests, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But Facebook is also like a giant living phonebook, with entries for everyone under (and some over) 35 that I’ve ever met, and in that sense it’s been an amazing tool of reconnection. And every time a new friend pops up in my inbox, it’s like turning another corner at a reunion and running into yet another person I really liked ten years ago but haven’t thought of or heard from in a while… but this isn’t just a school reunion, it’s a reunion of everyone in my whole LIFE.

Just in the last month, Facebook has reunited me with:
-- the children of my parents’ friends, those friends-of-convenience we all had in childhood because it was easier to play with them than it was to be a baby misanthrope as our parents drank too much wine and pretended to be normal people for once. Most of these people I haven’t seen since junior high, and yet in retrospect I realize that even though we were sort of just friends because our parents were friends, as it turns out they’re cool people in their own right, and I’m pretty excited to reconnect with them. Even if I have to drag my parents along to do so.
-- the first person who ever taught me improv. That’s huge, right there. He gave me the gift of Chain Murder Mystery when he was a skinny teenager with a mullet, and now he’s a high school theater teacher in Ohio. This morning we had a conversation about 1992 and high school musical.
-- my fifth grade pen-pal. I’ve never actually met her, but I have met her parents. They took me out for dinner in Albuquerque a few years ago, which was a little weird, since – again – I’ve never actually met their daughter, only sent semi-illiterate letters and HIDEOUS pictures of myself to her in the early nineties. And now she’s my friend on Facebook. (One day, Becca, we WILL meet. I swear. And it will be heartwarming enough to get into the Reader’s Digest. OH. Or if one of us gets cancer or something, maybe we could get Oprah to foot the bill. And buy us both new cars. Just a thought.)
-- the high school English student teacher who was cool enough to come to our Poetry Society and who we called Franz, who let me give him advice about writing and life when I was 17 (because really, who DOESN’T want advice from a precocious, overly-dramatic seventeen-year-old who’s never lived outside Wisconsin?) and who, after finishing out the year with us, moved to Turkey to teach, and who is now a travel writer based in Madison. Check out his blog here.
-- a bunch of the amazing people I met at Nadia’s wedding.
-- tons of people I haven’t seen since high school, which is great, because now if whoever’s in charge of these things actually gets around to organizing a ten year reunion for us, I’ll actually be able to match some names and faces. Not to mention the fact that, again, I went to school with some really incredible people, only I was too much of an idiot to actually recognize that particular fact at the time. It didn’t really help that I only thought about myself, back then. (And SO much has changed since then. Ha.)

So, I admit it: I’m kind of in love with Facebook right now.

For a while, I actually thought that my love of Facebook would eclipse my love of PLANS, which is to Facebook what Model Ts are to corn-powered jet packs. [If you’re not a Grinnellian, or if you haven’t already heard me explain Plans a million times, here’s a little (long-winded and perhaps overly-informative) History of Plans that I wrote about five years ago. (I just realized that I’m coming up on my ten year anniversary with Plans. Weird.)]

While Facebook has been one giant reunion, Plans has been a continuous community since the very beginning of college. Unlike Facebook, where you generally only connect to people you actually know in life, Plans allows you to meet new people, through the web of interconnected discussions and references. Over time, it’s not uncommon to become a regular reader of plans written by people you’ve never actually met in real life – and then, over time, to start thinking of those people as friends. Moreover, because Plans is nothing but text, it’s a place of discussion and reflection. Not that there’s no place in this world for virtually poking people, but… that place is Facebook. When I need advice, or want help sorting through my thoughts and feelings about some issue of ethics or current events, I go to Plans. When I want to find friends from sixth grade and then attack their vampires, I go to Facebook.

After graduation from Grinnell, we spread out across the globe. Recently I found something I’d written as a senior in high school, announcing my intention to find a college that drew people from all over the country, so that I could take a post-college road trip and crash on my friends’ couches in every state. As it turns out, I set the bar a little low. I ended up with friends all over the world, and Plans has helped me to keep up with many of them. A few years ago, I went out to dinner with a Grinnellian I hadn’t seen in years, and though she went around the table asking everyone what they’d been up to since Grinnell, when she got to me we just looked at each other and grinned. We were on Plans. We kept up with each other’s lives. We hadn’t seen each other since college, but we were still connected.

When Plans went down this week, I realized how much I’d come to rely on that community of friends, classmates, and colleagues for their insights and wisdom. A week without Plans and I had no idea what was going on in the wider world. Sure, over at Facebook they were all partying til dawn and playing Scrabulous, but I needed the Plans community to help me think about environmental legislation and the legal and moral implications of polygamy and what was going on with the democratic candidates and what cute thing Doug Cutchins’ daughters said this week. The Plans exiles ended up huddling in a chat room over at Facebook, bolstering each other’s spirits and trying to figure out ways to help. The Facebook Plans group felt a lot like the time there was a tornado in fourth grade and we were all stranded inside the school’s Little Theater for hours, sitting on the floor in tight groups, worried, and trying to make the best of things. We were survivors, exiles from the same community, joined in concern over our lost home. And when Plans finally went back online Thursday night, we straggled back and welcomed each other home.

Plans has been a great gift in my life, as it has given me access to a wide network of thoughtful, kind, intelligent people with tons of collective life experience to share. It’s an incredibly rich, deeply supportive community that – even though it’s just a bunch of text on the screen – feels an awful lot like a family.

And so I have to say that this trend of social networking doesn’t worry me at all, because I know that the best kind of social networking can help you to grow as a person, and keep you grounded and connected to people and events all over the world. Because after all, it’s about people, about building connections with other human beings, and in that sense it’s no different than writing on cave walls or composing blank verse: just another way to reach out to another human and hear them say, “I hear you. I understand you. I’m glad you’re here.”