Wednesday, August 27, 2008

War is a Force that Makes Good TV

I just finished watching the finale of HBO's "Generation Kill." It's great. And I had to struggle there not to say "it blew me away." Because that would be tasteless.

The series follows a group of recon Marines as they lead most recent invasion of Iraq. It's told largely from the perspective of Evan Wright, an embedded journalist from Rolling Stone. And, like all great stories--even those that are true--the people, the characters are what keep you hooked.

I won't go into too many details of the show. You can read all three parts of Wright's magazine reporting on the Marine First Recon Battalion here.

But there is a theme or undercurrent of implication that these Marines, crushed together by the weight of combat and killing, are living a kind of brotherhood that no one else can experience. I can buy that. And as a journalist, it drives home another point that I've always suspected is true (and I know is true in me): Many of us gravitate toward the worst kind of unpleasant news scenarios because, well, that's where the action is.

And in fact, it's kind of addictive.

I have seen bodies from a distance and gore up close. Once, when I bluffed my way into the Cook County medical examiner's office to get the names of some recently (and violently) deceased, I passed through the "intake" area--but it was empty. Mostly what I have personally witnessed is the extreme emotional reactions that come along with tragedy: sadness, anger, depression writ large across people and communities.

Sometimes, though, after reading or watching something as powerful as "Generation Kill," I feel a little jealousy for people like Wright, who have weathered the horrors of combat, soaked up a human experience that by any rational standard we should want to avoid.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

How to find information you never knew you wanted

Generally, I don't like text messages. Generally, I hate smilies and text speak.

And yet I have found the perfect use for my alphanumeric keyboard. It is called: Cha-Cha.

Type your question and text it to "242242." You'll get an answer back, no matter how obscure--some might say pointless, but they're cynical--the question.

For example, I recently learned:

-Gerry Doyle works at the Chicago Tribune
-New Zealand is 1,400 miles from Australia
-The population of Mauritius is 1,250,882 (and bonus--that's 616 people per square kilometer!)

Now go ask them what the best use for text messaging is.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fat, but not phat

Yeah, I know no one says "phat" anymore. I guess that makes me old school. Which no one says.

OK, oh-for-two. Let's make it a hat trick.

See, I love barbecue. So when my parents came to visit for a semi-special occasion, we sought out some 'que. Smoque, a tried-and-loved favorite in Irving Park, was an obvious choice. The problem was, it was the obvious choice for the rest of Chicago as well. A line out to the sidewalk and two hungry parents meant we needed to go elsewhere.

"Elsewhere" turned out to be Fat Willy's, near Western and Diversey. I think they have fine brisket. They were out of brisket. They also made us wait for service (after being seated) for 20 minutes, served us chewy ribs, dry sandwich meat and gave my dad lip for suggesting that maybe onions had been included on his sandwich when he requested they not be.

The barbecue was as blurry as the sign.

Dissing my pops is really the last thing you want to do if you're a barbecue restaurant without good barbecue.

I doubt I'll be making a return trip. If you want good 'que, buy some great meat and do it yourself, or head over to Honey 1, which has never steered me wrong.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A painful Round Two

For the second time in as many weeks, I'm ignoring my rule about keeping Tribune matters out of my blog.

Today dozens of my co-workers--the exact number is not clear, but is probably between 40 and 50--were laid off. Some were called at home. Some were at work and heard the bad news in a closed-door meeting.

All of them are missed tonight.

That's all I really have the energy for at the moment.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I've made a huge mistake

Good: Quickest response to query letter EVER. (and my name was spelled correctly)

Bad: It was a rejection.

I'll bet Jason Bateman doesn't have these problems.

Worse: That probably means I didn't read some element of their criteria closely enough, i.e., submitting a teen romance novel to someone specializing in fly-fishing manuals. The clue? NO ONE evaluates a query in a half-hour... not even a query from a literary giant like myself.

The proper cliche to deploy here, I think, is "live and learn."

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Departed

I have tried to keep my day job out of this blog as much as possible, for various reasons.

Today, though, things are different.

On Friday several of my Tribune colleagues in Metro and dozens across all the editorial departments said goodbye. They had volunteered to be laid off. And yesterday, without warning, they were.

Troubling issues around the circumstances aside, this is a sad occurence. Not only because many of them are friends, but because it represents a tremendous loss of skill, intelligence and experience.

Good luck to all of them. The Chicago Tribune is worse for their departure.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Let the games.... tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap

It's Aug. 8, 2008, and that means two things:

1) Good luck.

2) The start of the Summer Games in Beijing.

And what better way to celebrate (2) than by reliving your childhood, in which you went over to your friend's house and pounded frantically on the A and B buttons to make your stupid Nintendo athlete run faster, but he never would?

Higher. Stronger. More pixellated.

Click here... and enjoy!

Photographic evidence

The International Thriller Writers have posted a gallery of photos from this year's Thrillerfest in New York City.

Besides the firearms 'n' such (which we've already discussed), there was this breakfast at which I actually was a guest of honor. To commemorate the occasion, I wore a designer T-shirt and a seersucker jacket. For real:

It's like Where's Waldo for lazy people.

I looked much more alert closer up.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The quoted material below is not my own

Good prose has made my fingertips bleed. I have sat for 10 minutes... 20 minutes... an hour trying to figure out how to make a paragraph sing. Yeah. Writin' ain't easy, but it's necessary.

So how would it feel to learn that an ENTIRE NEWSPAPER was being constructed based on your torturously constructed words? Without attribution, of course. Crazy? Nope. If you live in Houston, you can see it for yourself.

The saga began in the classical manner: with an e-mail about Jimmy Buffett. Several weeks ago, I received a note from a Slate reader drawing my attention to an article published in March 2008 in the Bulletin, a free alternative weekly in Montgomery County, Texas, north of Houston. "I believe your … profile of musician Jimmy Buffett was reproduced wholesale without attribution," the reader wrote. "I thought you should know." I followed a link to "Spring Fling: Concerts That Make the Holiday a Time to Party"* by Mark Williams, a feature pegged to concert appearances by Buffett and country singer Miranda Lambert. Sure enough, the article included 10 and a half paragraphs copied nearly verbatim from "A Pirate Looks at 60," my Slate essay of Jan. 9, 2007. My words were slightly reworked in places, and further enlivened by eccentric use of em dashes and semicolons—a hallmark, I would learn, of the Williamsian style. But the original text was largely unaltered. For example, my Slate piece began this way:

Jimmy Buffett turned 60 this past Dec. 25, a day he undoubtedly spent in a lower latitude, in a meditative frame of mind, in close proximity to a tankard of Captain Morgan. At least that was the case with birthday number 50, which, as recounted in his autobiography A Pirate Looks At Fifty (1998), Buffett celebrated by piloting his private jet from the Cayman Islands to Costa Rica to Colombia and drinking copiously, while contemplating "spirituality" and his goals going forward: "Learn celestial navigation," "Swim with dolphins," "Start therapy."

Mark Williams kicks off his consideration of Buffett with this passage:

Buffett, who turned 60 on Christmas Day, likely spent the day in a lower latitude, in a meditative frame of mind—and in close proximity to a tankard of Captain Morgan. At least that was the case with birthday number 50; as recounted in his 1998 autobiography 'A Pirate Looks At Fifty,' Buffett celebrated by piloting his private jet from the Cayman Islands to Costa Rica to Colombia—merrily drinking while contemplating "spirituality" and his goals: learning celestial navigation, swimming with dolphins and starting therapy.

I recalled writing the Buffett piece, laboring on deadline into the wee hours, hunched over a laptop at the kitchen table in my Brooklyn home. How could I have known that I was previewing a concert to take place some 15 months later at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in Spring, Texas?

And, of course, it turns out that it's not just the entertainment stories. You have to look really hard in the Bulletin to find anything original. That bit of content is the punch line... supplied by the original writer of the Slate piece quoted above, Jody Rosen.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Six degrees of too much time on their hands

Microsoft, far from inventing the next you-must-have-it bit of electronica, has been spending its time online, I see. No, not checking out the latest YouTube hilarity. Counting the number of people between you and... well... Kevin Bacon. Maybe.

Kevin Bacon wonders why you haven't texted him yet, LOL :).

The "small world theory," embodied in the old saw that there are just "six degrees of separation" between any two strangers on Earth, has been largely corroborated by a massive study of electronic communication.

With records of 30 billion electronic conversations among 180 million people from around the world, researchers have concluded that any two people on average are distanced by just 6.6 degrees of separation, meaning that they could be linked by a string of seven or fewer acquaintances.

What does this mean? You know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows Barack Obama. Sweet.