Inhuman Swill : April 2012

A couple of weird things happened yesterday. The first came relatively early, as Ella and I were out on our Sunday morning walk. Laura and I usually walk Ella together on Sunday mornings, but Laura had a cough and a fever so I was walking Ella alone. We try to walk her for a couple of hours on weekend mornings, to wear her out for the rest of the day. I took Ella on a long loop to the Lake Michigan shore (about a mile and a half from our house) to run around on the sand, then to a big adjacent park to chase squirrels.

At the doggie zoo We were on our way back home after nearly two hours out when Ella communicated to me that she would like to explore the alley we were passing. She did this by stopping at the mouth of the alley and looking down it pointedly. At this stage in our walks, I'm usually eager to get home so my custom is to tell her no and make her keep walking. But we had plenty of time that morning and I'd made her leave the park before she was quite ready, so I relented.

Ella spent a lot of time sniffing around a group of black plastic trash bins in the alley before she'd let me move on. Her fascination with squirrels is rivaled only by her fascination with rats, so I kept a close eye on her. We continued through the alley and then back up the next block where a squirrel with a peanut in its mouth taunted us from a tree behind a fence. Soon we were back on our original route home, but Ella tugged me into the next alley we passed. She made a beeline for another group of black plastic bins and darted into a gap between them.

I saw a little shadow with a naked tail flash through the gap. Ella struck, and when she drew her head back a rat the size of my fist was wriggling in her jaws.

Several things happened very fast all at once, or in such rapid succession that I couldn't tell any differently. I let out a low, loud, gutteral yawp of surprise and fear. The rat let out a squeaky shriek. Ella released the rat. The rat flew through the air, flailing all its limbs, and scurried away behind the bins.

I dropped to my knees to check that Ella was okay, that she hadn't been bitten. (Of course she hadn't—she would have yelped, I'm sure.) She was fine, if you ignored the look of utter disappointment and contempt she leveled at me. Ella has been chasing squirrels and rats and rabbits and even the occasional opossum or raccoon for all of her eight and a half years. This was the first time she had ever caught one.

And I yelled like a scared puppy and made her drop it. "Oh, Nice Bill," she seemed to say with the contemptuous expression she turned upon me. "Are you ever on my whatever-smells-so-bad-even-I-won't-go-near-it list now."

I swear to God, she pouted all the way home.

The other unsettling thing yesterday was something I saw while I was out biking. Laura and I are training for one of the crazier things we've ever attempted—RAGBRAI, a 7-day, 470-mile bike ride across Iowa this July. I'll post more about that another time, but suffice it to say that I've been doing my best to adhere to the recommended training schedule with increasingly long rides along the Chicago Lakefront Trail. Yesterday I was supposed to ride 25 miles, but since I'll be working in California for the next several days, I decided to push it to 36 miles instead, my longest day yet this year by far.

That was fine, but as I was rolling south on the outbound leg of my trek I saw a police SUV parked on the grass between Lake Shore Drive and the bike trail. Off to my left, a small yacht was beached in the choppy surf, rocking back and forth. Down the slope, a police officer was talking to two men who looked, at least from a distance, to be in shock.

I passed the scene, then pulled over and watched the yacht rock for a minute or two, waiting to see if anything else interesting would happen. I figured that two unlucky or foolhardy boaters had tried to get a little too close to shore and had run aground. I shot a brief video and continued on my way.

I reached a good turnaround spot a couple of miles later, at the 63rd Street Beach. We live way up on the North Side, and I had come 18.5 miles from home. Definitely time to go back. (Especially since my phone battery died while I was taking pictures there, and I wouldn't be able to text Laura for the rest of the ride to keep her apprised of my whereabouts.)

So I headed back north, into the wind (sob!). As I approached the site of the boating accident, I saw a Chicago Police boat not far offshore. Two officers in lifejackets were making their way like commandos toward the prow of the boat. The first one there picked up some kind of long boat hook and readied it over the water. I couldn't see anything in the water. Apparently they couldn't either, but this made me worry that someone had been lost overboard in the accident.

Virgin America - I feel like I'm taking off ... for the future! There were at least three police vehicles parked near the boat as I passed. I didn't stop this time, and I have no idea what happened before or after I happened on the scene. I haven't found any news reports about a boating accident. I suppose I might find something in the police blotter if I knew where to check on Everyblock.com. I keep thinking about that boat, though.

Anyway, I made my 37-mile round trip in about three hours. I'm a little stiff this morning as I sit composing this on my Virgin America flight to Los Angeles. More on this trip later.

Writing
Is a lot like
Riding a bicycle

Not because it's so easy
To get back up on

But because
Sometimes
You're
Flying along
And you go farther
Than you intended to go

And you have to
Turn around and take
Yourself home

And it's all uphill
And the wind is in
Your face

The Chicago Writers Conference is Chicago's only homegrown mainstream literary conference focusing on practical business advice for fiction and non-fiction writers alike. The brainchild of Mare Swallow, it will feature such editors, agents, and authors as Chuck Sambuchino, Christine Sneed, Robert K. Elder, and Jennifer Mattson.

But it can only happen with support! The CWC is in the final eight days of its Kickstarter campaign and still needs to raise over $4000 for equipment rental, web development, speakers' travel expenses. There are lots of great incentives remaining for various donation levels, including art, signed books, and query letter or story manuscript critiques from Chuck Sambuchino and, ahem, yours truly.

But here, let Mare tell you more about the conference, and why you should support it:

So please help, and support Chicago's long tradition of literary excellence!

Every sperm is sacred

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Here's a Daily Show story from last week that just about made me spit a tooth across the room. It's about the amendment State Senator Constance Johnson attempted to add to Oklahoma's odious "personhood" bill. The amendment would have tacked this language onto the bill:

[A]ny action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman's vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.
This video segment was the first I'd heard about the proposed amendment, and I'm embarrassed to say that it took me until partway through to realize that Sen. Johnson was making an absurdist pro-choice statement with her amendment. Then the story was twice as funny as it had been before.

Video link: "Bro-Choice" from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Let's keep Horan around! The other day Laura and I were out walking the dog when we spotted a campaign ad on top of a taxi:

Elect Judge Kevin Horan

Yes, our minds went there almost immediately. We imagined his future reelection campaign:

Let's Keep Horan Around!

Or maybe his opponent would want to flip that:

Don't Keep Horan Around!

And then there's the thought of that dream ticket with the renowned sheriff of Aiken, South Carolina, Mike Hunt:

Keep Horan Around with Mike Hunt!

Oh, if only. If only.

Biking on Bryn Mawr

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Biking on Bryn Mawr Avenue,
clear sky, afternoon sun,
I pull over to the curb
for the ambulance
hurtling my way.

But it turns on Clark,
and as I pass through
the intersection I see
the gapers gathered,
the body in the street,
face down, lying twisted
like a crash-test dummy.

I have to look.
But I can't look.
I make myself not look,
face forward into traffic,
lest I become the thing
I gaze upon.

Into the belly of the beast I keep not finding time to post about my trip with Laura to the SXSW Interactive conference last month, but it was a swell time and I should probably jot down a few memories before a) they become totally instead of just mostly irrelevant, and b) they fall completely out of my head.

Laura has been to SXSWi a few times before, and she was adamant that I should come with her this year to feed the programming consultant side of my brain. We bought our memberships and booked our hotel last summer. We flew to Austin on the morning on March 8, the day before the conference started, which turned out to be a good idea in several ways, the first of which was entirely accidental. We ran into our good friend Scott Smith of Chicago magazine in the departure lounge at Midway that morning. With him were Andrew Huff of Gapers Block and Steve Prokopy of Ain't It Cool News. We were all on the same flight, and we ended up riding the bus from the airport into Austin together and all trekking to Frank for lunch (the only time that weekend we were able to get in, incidentally). We were also able to go to the convention center that afternoon and pick up our badges in fairly short order. The next day, lines at registration were a couple of hours long.

Venison sausage at Frank The panels themselves were varied and interesting. I attended discussions of augmented reality, artificial intelligence, smarter algorithms for pinch-and-zoom on touch interfaces, social/local/mobile services, online privacy, and even more abstruse topics. These panels all seem fascinating in retrospect, though I'm afraid that at the time most of them suffered from the problem of not quite living up to the promise of their descriptions in the program guide. Very useful stuff that, at worst, got me excited about doing more iOS programming.

There was time for entertainment, too. We made it out to Skinny's Ballroom to see Scott and Andrew (along with 18 other readers) participate in 20x2, an evening of two-minute readings. (They both crushed it. By which I mean they were good.) I saw a hilarious panel on comedy podcasting featuring Kevin Pollak and Doug Benson and others, and I attended Rainn Wilson's (sadly hit-and-miss) presentation about his spirituality site Soul Pancake. I managed to get into my own top pick of events, which was a live taping of Marc Maron's WTF podcast featuring Jeffrey Tambor. Jay-Z at Austin City Limits Live But it was Laura who scored the coup, using her Amex membership to get us a free pair of tickets to a special Jay-Z concert at Austin City Limits Live. ("HOVA! HOVA!")

And then, of course, there were the people we got to hang out with. We had dinner with our old friends Donna and Tad, who left New York for Austin even before Laura and I left for Chicago. I saw Stina Leicht—author of the new And Blues Skies from Pain, and with whom I share an agent—a couple of times. Welcome to 6th Street We ran into Rik Catlow, an artist we both used to work with well over a decade ago and whose work hangs on our wall, and Erin Dorr, whom Laura used to work with. And then there was that epic night with Scott and Andrew and Matt Wood and Paul M. Davis that started outside a journalism party and traveled through the Hilton bar on its way The Jackalope and a pedicab and shouted advice from a homeless man before it blacked out in a stupor. The less said about that, probably the better.

In any case, SXSW was a great time, worthwhile from both a personal and a professional standpoint. I hope to go again next year, although I'll be tempted to add a film badge on top of the interactive...

A full set of my photos from SXSW is here.

Some poems

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Some poems come all in a burst,
Flaring in the brain nearly complete,
Nearly perfect.

Should the mind mistrust them,
These gifts, seek the flaw,
probe for holes?

Twist the knife in their bellies
Until they holler uncle,
Change their tune?

Or are they sparrows, breathing
Mysteries that can only fly again
If left untouched?

Old man walking an old dog

Not so very long ago would have been
Old man walking a young dog

Not so very long from now might it be
Old man walking a young dog again

Once upon a time might it have been
Young man walking a young dog

Oh to picture them walking together

Young man walking a young dog
Young man walking an old dog

But it would have been a different dog

But it would have been a different man

Chicago is getting its own down-home writers conference! The Chicago Writers Conference will take place September 14-16 at Tribune Tower in beautiful downtown Chicago. Speakers and presenters include Chuck Sambuchino, Robert K. Elder, and Cinnamon Cooper, while special readings will be staged by both Essay Fiesta and Tuesday Funk.

But the Chicago Writers Conference can only happen with your help! I'd explain why the conference deserves your support, but there's already a compelling plea from organizer Mare Swallow, Write Club founder Ian Belknap, and yours truly up on Kickstarter. Check us out:

So please kick in a few shekels and help support the Chicago Writers Conference. Several great incentives are still available, including a story critique (up to 10,000 words) from me for a mere $175 pledge. (The custom poem is already gone. Sorry!) Please help, and we'll looking forward to seeing you at Tribune Tower in September!

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