Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The worst week ever

Photo copyright: Sean Birmingham. Used with permission.

I’ve had bad weeks before. Plenty of them actually.

But I can’t remember a more bizarre one than the one Kristin and I suffered through last week. Of course, I wasn’t really the one who suffered. The ones around me fell victim to a wicked game of “So You Think This is Bad …” created by karma.

It was a week that started as a vacation and ended after two trips to emergency rooms at different hospitals and being stranded in a flood.

Kristin became the first unwitting victim in karma’s vicious game. We delayed our vacation by one day because she was just getting over being sick, her fever at one point tipping 102 degrees.

Convinced the worst was behind her, we headed off for my family reunion in Eau Claire, Wis. You ever have those moments where you just know the decision you’ve made is the wrong one yet you forge ahead anyway? Yeah, that moment for us was the morning of the 17th when we got in the car.

Over the next few days, Kristin’s body declared war. It threw laryngitis at her, a sinus infection and finally pinkeye, which had us rushing to the Mercy Hospital emergency room in Coon Rapids, Minn., at midnight on July 19.

Her diagnosis meant she couldn’t go to the Twins game the next night. We were staying with our good friends, Rick and Patty. With Kristin quarantined, it was decided Rick and I would go to the game without the wives. It started as a good night, kicking off with a pregame trip to a local bar for a bite to eat. I hear the place is especially fun on New Year's.

Rick and I used to go to Twins games together back in the day, so it was nice to get to do it again at the Twins’ new stadium. But it was a hot, miserable night. The Twins were awful, losing 4-3 to Cleveland.

Around the eighth inning, Rick got up and went to get something to drink. He didn’t come back, so I figured he’d found a more comfortable seat and was watching the game from there.

As I walked into the concourse I saw him right away – sitting in a wheelchair with several first-aid workers surrounding him. Trip No. 2 to the ER – this time to the Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis – ensued.

He ended up spending the rest of the week in the hospital, another unknowing victim of my bad karmic touch. I’m glad to say he’s now home and should be better now that he’s a safe distance from me again.

We returned home Friday and it was time for karma to come gunning for me directly. Kristin and I were supposed to go together to a show at Lincoln Hall in Chicago that night. But even though she was feeling much better, she figured it was best she stay home. Hallelujah – we made a good decision!

While I was inside Lincoln Hall enjoying a great show from Ha Ha Tonka and headliner Langhorne Slim, a little rain was falling outside. I left the venue at 1:30 in the morning, heading home in a downpour, completely oblivious to the misfortune awaiting me.

I soon found myself rerouted off the expressway in the near west suburbs when flooding on the road forced the police to close it. As I left the expressway I figured this was going to delay me about an hour or so – no big deal.

Two hours later having still not gotten past the Eisenhower/I-88 junction that would lead me home to Aurora, I was driving around with dozens of other people seeking an escape route from the flooding that was suddenly everywhere.

Eventually I decided I needed sleep, so I pulled into a Holiday Inn Express parking lot, pushed my seat all the way back and stole a 45-minute nap. At 6 a.m. I woke up to daylight and more rain. But at least now I could find my way out of the mess.

By the time I got home – six hours after I left Lincoln Hall – the suburb I was trapped in, Westchester, was being declared a disaster zone. I crawled into bed thankful to be home.

I was also thankful the week had ended. Given a few days to reflect, I’m still not sure what I did to piss off karma. I just hope it has moved on to some other poor sucker. Carson Daly would make a good target.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Big Buff Blues

No! It can’t be. No way did the Blackhawks just trade Big Buff.

That was my reaction to a voicemail I received Wednesday from my brother, who was more than happy to share the news that the Hawks had traded Stanley Cup hero Dustin Byfuglien, defenseman Brent Sopel, enforcer Ben Eager and a prospect to Atlanta in order to clear salary cap space.

Less than two weeks ago I was on East Wacker in downtown Chicago during the Hawks victory parade and rally. Big Buff was on the bus that ended up parking right on the other side of the street where I stood with Kristin and our friends.

There he was, bigger than life, a homemade world championship title belt draped over a shoulder, his Stanley Cup champion hat riding off-center on his head. He carried a bullhorn in one hand and a can of beer in the other.

This was Big Buff at his grandest. And now he’s a Thrasher. The difference in stature is stunning.

It took some time, but eventually at some point last night I came to accept the trade, and saw it for what it is: a good move for the Hawks. It’s a good move for the Thrashers, too, but that doesn’t really matter to me. I hope Byfuglien does well and if he doesn’t, at least there’s a chance he’ll be sent down to the AHL and I’ll get to see him play for the Chicago Wolves!

But I digress. The trade was good for the Hawks for the obvious reason of freeing up some salary-cap space. It’s also good because they got some decent draft picks in return, and two serviceable roster-ready players in Marty Reasoner and former Colorado College standout Joey Crabb.

It also brought prospect Jeremy Morin, a sniper who The Hockey News writer Ryan Kennedy said has a lethal release and could be a 50-goal scorer for Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League next season. If he develops well, he could be a nice addition to the Hawks in years to come. But some doubt exists as to whether or not he’ll materialize into a successful pro.

Kennedy also brought up a point I’ve been thinking about a lot: what type of player are the Thrashers getting in Byfuglien? His career high in points during the regular season is 36. And while he scored 11 goals in the Hawks’ Cup run – including three game-winners in a sweep of San Jose – he only had 17 goals in the regular season.

There were long stretches of the season where Big Buff somehow seemed to vanish on the ice. He hardly ever released his booming slap shot and seemed not to care much about mucking it up in front of the net until he was facing his nemesis, Roberto Luongo.

I was hoping the playoffs were going to serve as his turning point. He’d become a legitimate Chicago hero and the thought was he appeared ready to live up to his potential.

We’ll never know that now. If he has a great season with the Thrashers, there is still no guarantee he would have done that with the Hawks. And if he resumes his old, underachieving play, that’s still no reason to believe he’d have done that in Chicago.

In any event, I’ve come to accept that Big Buff is gone. It’s the way of the world in professional sports these days.

I’m just glad I chose to buy an Esposito jersey instead of the Byfuglien one I was eyeing.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Going where my mind takes me

This is what I wrote Saturday at the website. You'll need to read my earlier post to learn more about the site. Beware, this entry got an R rating for its language and sexual content. So if you're easily offended please don't read it. Also please keep in mind this is fictional (mostly) and written in one take in less than 20 minutes.
Down in the recesses of my brain, down past the walls I set up for others to see, the parts of me I make public, there is something else living there. I feel its breath on me at night as I roam the streets looking for company. The sidewalks are usually deserted in the early morning hours. The frat boys and sorority sluts are already back home, sleeping or fucking or whatever else they do when the bars close. Chicago can be a lonely place, despite its bustling nightlife and daylight hours. I can walk along the lakewalk from Montrose Harbor all the way to the Shedd Aquarium and hardly anyone will pay any attention to me. I walk past teenage girls who look right through me. I've reached the age where I am invisible to them. If I try to talk to them, they are usually polite at first. It's when I start asking where they are headed or what they are doing in the city, that's when they start to get that look in their eyes. We have to get going, they'll say, and scurry off to get away from the guy who is creeping them out. I stand on the sidewalk and watch them disappear down Halstead. At night I walk Rush Street, unable to afford to stop in and have a drink at any of the clubs. I love to hear the jazz notes floating into the air from behind the closed doors. In front of those doors usually stands a burly meathead asking for the $20 cover charge. And I think to myself, 20 fucking dollars? Really? I went into one of them during another phase of my life. I ordered a Diet Coke because I was still on the wagon then. The drink came back in one of those tall, skinny cocktail glasses loaded with ice and a narrow black straw. A few pulls on that straw and my pop was gone. The bartender asked if I wanted another, and I said yes because in addition to the $20 cover charge, there was a two-drink minimum to sit at the bar. A short time later she slipped the tab in front of me as I watched the band crank through one of those 15-minute jazz songs that never really sounds like the same song but then they stop playing and tell you that was, "whatever, whatever" and we hope you liked it. I did like it. But I left anyway. I've never been back into one of those clubs. The clientele was rich and refined, maybe even dignified. All things I am not. I prefer finding the hole in the wall bars, places like Carol's on Clark. A guy can go in there and get five or six beers with 10 bucks and be happy. It's one of those dingy places where cigarette smoke still clings to hte walls and ceiling even though smoking hasn't been allowed in city bars for two years. I suspect Carol probably still lights up in there when business is slow. She always struck me as a I-dont-give-a-fuck gal. But you have to be careful in Chicago. Cops are always looking to bust bar owners for stupid shit like that. Those liquor licences -- especially the 4 a.m. ones -- are better than gold in Chicago. Carol's stays open until 5 a.m. on Saturdays. Well, I guess that would be Sunday. I've walked into that place many times after 2 a.m. and had trouble finding a place to sit. College-age girls don't come in there, but that's all right. The women who do don't look so bad, unless they're the ones who slather on their makeup with paintbrushes and squeeze their fat asses into way-too-small jeans. Those are the ones who sit at the bar looking bored, glancing around for some guy drunk enough to want to fuck them. Some nights that guy is me. But it never works out well. We'll go back to her place -- always her place, I never take anybody to my dingy apartment -- and maybe smoke some weed if she has any. I'll get myself a beer or a shot of whiskey and then we'll start up on the couch. My hands run all over her body and hers are on mine. We move to the bedroom, disrobing along the way. By the time we're naked and on the bed, I'm bored. My dick just lies there no matter what she does to entice it. A few minutes later I'm back outside letting the night air cool my face. I look down the street one way then the other, hoping someone -- anyone -- is out walking and wouldn't mind talking to me.

750 words a day

I've been meaning to write more. I've had a bunch of ideas bouncing around in my head that would make good blog entries, but I never get around to doing it. Part of that is my freelance workload has increased, and I find that as long as I am doing some kind of writing, I don't get the urge to do another kind.

So when I hit a slow spot with the freelancing, I usually get the urge to blog. When nothing comes to mind to blog about, I try to turn to my much-neglected fiction.

But this makes everything very disorganized and isn't the best for trying to be creative. As I've been told by other writers (either in person or through books), you shouldn't wait until you feel inspired to write. You should create a habit of writing every day.

Maybe you end up writing crap that day, but that's not a big deal. For some the goal is to write three pages per day. That breaks down to roughly 750 words, which is what I learned when I discovered this website.

I signed up two days ago and pledged to write 750 words per day for the entire month of May. But I couldn't wait to May 1, so I started already. I've only created two entries, but I'm finding I really like the system.

I'm a competitive person -- no, really I am -- so is a way for me to challenge myself. The site keeps track of how many days I've succeeded and myriad other details, including the weather that day, the words I use most often, and how long it takes to get to the 750-word threshold.

What I really like about it is the point system. The more days you write, the more points you earn. There is a scoreboard that keeps track of everyone. This is where my competitiveness comes in handy. I want to see my name included on the leaderboard some day.

My strategy for writing is just to write whatever pops into my head, which is what they recommend doing. No editing. No looking for the "right" word. Just type one word after another and see where it takes you.

I took the nonfiction road for my first entry. On Saturday morning my writing turned into a fictional story told in first person. I might share it just to give you an idea of how my mind works. Don't expect a polished product, though. As I reread my entries I cringe at the sloppy syntax and sentences that sometime pop up.

I'm a manic self-editor so it's difficult to let typos go and just keep rolling. I'm getting the hang of it, though.

Anyway, I just wanted to share the site with you. Really, this post was just a way for me to tend to my much-neglected blog. Check out my next entry if you're interested in reading my stream of consciousness ramblings. I warn you, though, don't expect Faulkner.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What I love about my job

Last Tuesday I found myself wandering around McKinley Park on Chicago's South Side.

I was there looking for fishermen at the park's lagoon for this article. But I was there at 10:30 a.m., not exactly prime fishing time. So I only found one guy, and he was leaving just as I saw him. I talked with him and then waited around for another hour or so before deciding I'd be better off coming back the next day.

I drove home frustrated for having wasted the day, especially when the assignment pays a flat fee and not an hourly wage. I essentially drove there for nothing, which is a freelancer's worst scenario.

When I returned Wednesday evening I wasn't very optimistic. I walked around the lagoon again but didn't see anybody fishing. Then as I rounded the far side I spotted a few guys set up on the path ringing the lagoon. They had poles propped up on the shore, lines in the water.

I still wasn't sure if I would find anything interesting as I approached two of the men. I told them who I was and that I was writing about the recent consumption advisory telling anglers they shouldn't eat carp caught in the lagoon more than once a week. The carp population was contaminated with PCBs.

The guys pointed me to an older man sitting in a folding lawn chair next to two tackle boxes and a cooler. He wore a tan fishing vest over a T-shirt that read something to the effect of him having to choose between fishing and his wife. Lower on the shirt was a Gone Fishing sign above, "I'm sure going to miss her."

This turned out to be Lonnie Williams, a 58-year-old McKinley Park resident who claimed to have fished that lagoon for 50 years. Jackpot! I don't know if he saw my face light up or not, but I knew without having to ask another question that I'd found the guy I needed to find for the article. His two friends, who were about 15 years younger than Williams, were equally interesting.

This is how it often is for journalists. Sometimes we strike out looking for the perfect fit for an article. And sometimes we find Lonnie Williams. Nothing replicates that feeling of knowing everything is going to be all right -- I'm going to make deadline, I'm going to have an interesting character to channel the subject matter through, my time hasn't been wasted.

It also makes me feel very fortunate. If not for that assignment I never would have discovered McKinley Park or Williams or his band of urban anglers. That's the best part of the job, the discovery of something new. It might not be new to everybody, but it's new to me.

I'd be happy if I never interviewed a famous person again as long as I can continue meeting people like Lonnie Williams. Or George Hood, who I first encountered a couple years ago and interviewed again this morning.

Hood is looking to reclaim his Guinness World Record for riding a spin bike. The record stands at 192 hours, but he's shooting for 300 hours or more. Some think Hood is crazy, and I can't fault them for that. It is crazy to put your mind and body through such an ordeal to raise money for charity and to get your name in a record book.

I'm fascinated with Hood and what makes him tick. I'd like to write a book about him, and he's offered me the opportunity a few times. But as much as I'd love to do it, that would mean I'd have to drop everything else. I don't know if I'm ready to focus on only one topic and subject, no matter how fascinating it is.

There are just too many people out there with interesting stories waiting to be told.

Monday, March 22, 2010

More Backyard Tire Fire

OK, OK, I know. You've had enough. But really, have you? If you haven't listened to Backyard Tire Fire's latest release, "Good to Be," then you are missing out on something special.

Anyway, I wrote a review of the Los Lobos/BTF show from Saturday night. It's posted on a message board that caters to Chicago's live music fans and is run by my friend, Dave Miller.

You can find it here, but you have to click on the "Concert Reviews" section when you get there. Please check it out, and then poke around a little bit on the site, especially if you're in Chicago. It's a great resource and I know Dave works hard on it.

In the meantime, here's another BTF video, this one featuring the opening track on the new record, the kick-ass "Roadsong #39." As the 70-something woman usher said to me after the show, "If that didn't get your blood pumping, nothing will."

Friday, March 19, 2010

It's OK, it's all right, I'm alive and it's Good To Be

Photo by Brad Hodge

Life on tour can be a lonely existence. The long miles between gigs, that constant, unending road leading away from home and family. It can chew up musicians and spit them out in the shoulder already littered with the debris of failed bands.

Yet, it can also be exhilarating. For some, the road becomes home. The chance to play music for a living can outweigh the difficulties of a nomadic lifestyle.

It seems to me Ed Anderson falls into the latter description. Anderson, who turns 38 next month, is the leader of Backyard Tire Fire. His brother, Matt, who plays bass, and drummer Tim Kramp complete the trio that hails from Bloomington, Ill.

BTF is in the middle of a long tour in support of its latest record, the exceptional "Good To Be." I talked with Ed last week while he was driving between Montana gigs in Missoula and Bozeman. You can read the result of that interview here.

Our conversation drifted to his youth in the western suburbs of Chicago (he and Matt graduated from St. Charles High School). He joked that as a kid he wanted to grow up to play shortstop for the Cubs. He never really considered becoming a rock star. But as he got older music became a viable option, thanks mostly to his blue-collar work ethic.

BTF has played between 150 and 200 shows a year for the past decade.

"It's been a haul," Anderson said. "We've worked our asses off, but even if you work really, really, really hard, there always has to be a little luck involved."

Luck for the band came in the form of a show opening for Los Lobos in October 2008 (more details can be found in the article I linked earlier). Because of that the band is riding an unprecedented surge of popularity, though BTF is far from a household name at this point.

But that isn't the point. Ed, Matt and Tim are doing what they love. They are creating music that is connecting with people. They are doing that one town at a time, finally getting a boost from commercial radio stations that have begun spinning "Good To Be" in regular rotations.

No wonder Ed is able to say, "It's OK, it's all right, I'm alive and it's good to be," as he does on the title track.

"I feel fortunate to have found something that's challenging and that I love," he said. "So many people don't get that in life. They end up having to do things they don't want to do. I never wanted to be one of those people. I always wanted to be happy with what I was doing.

"I think I found what I'm supposed to be doing, you know?"

I, for one, am happy he has.