It’s Not The Heat, It’s The Pizza.

My last thoughts of Chicago were of the oppressive heat.  The sun seemed hotter and thus the shade sweeter than home; the humidity was cruel and ever-present. I loved the city, but hated the humidity.  As a coffee fiend of minor renowned, the weather disrupted my joyful drinking on the walk back from that particular den if inequity.  Instead, I needed to leave enough time in my busy schedule to take my fix onsite, cutting my expected number of trips in half.  The coffee shops (one mediocre, one fantastic), much like my hotel, understood the importance of heavy hand on the thermostat.  I often imagined the patrons lingering extra hours, without buying more dark elixir, to delay the unpleasant task of re-entering the warm sticky air just a bit longer.  There was free WiFi after all.

In packing for Chicago I thought about the weather and decided on shorts and t-shirts.  Clearly these were fine for our time at the World Science Fiction Convention, but if it was that hot and humid I would need to change my shirt often.  And who wears shorts to nice restaurants?  Surely, not I.   So, I packed lots of shorts and t-shirts.  A great deal of effort went into picking those shirts.  As I am not a wall flower, my attire is often chosen to elicit a response, generally a smile or laugh.  It’s harder to do than one thinks.  My friend Chataya says it’s all about the shoes.  Of course she’s right, but no one notices my shoes.  Everyone notices hers.  It’s the plan and, in my opinion, a very good one.  A few times my shirts got noticed, so my plan was not completely flawed.

It is so hot outside in Chicago that the hotel has decided to keep the internal temperature just slightly warmer than the North Pole in winter.  Inside I’m freezing and outside I’m dehydrating like beef jerky, just much slower because the humidity makes sure that my skin is wet and slimy like a salamander, and you know how tough it is to dry one of those.  I’m thinking it is easier to survive a Chicago winter than enjoy a Chicago summer.  I’d like to see the Wicked Witch of the West avoid melting there.

To combat the cold, Lambchop wore pants one day.  She was cozy and comfy in hotel.  When we took a walk for lunch, her comfy was roasted on a spit.  Thus ended the experiment of “pants in the daytime.”  While we often wear shorts at home, neither of us have 10 pairs and we were in the Windy City for 8 days.  I hope no one noticed me recycling my shorts.  I’m paranoid about things like that.  Look at my fun t-shirt people, not my sad, ready for the laundry basket shorts.  And yes, at least twice I wore shorts to restaurants that implored, “Please, Lee – dress a bit nicer.”

To offset the heat and humidity, there were a few cool moments.  Our friend John Picacio won the Chesley Award for Best Product Illustration (the 2012 Song of Ice and Fire Calendar) and then proceeded to call us and several of our friends out in his acceptance speech.  I’ve never been thanked like that before.  It gave me chills.  Of course karma was looking out for him and he won the Hugo for the Best Professional Artist 2 days later.  I’m thinking at this rate its time he puts the EGOT on his goal sheet.

There are a few times of when I wear my fanboy hat for a few moments before I revert back to the suave, cool dude I am.  I try to keep the fawning to a minimum, but I am a bit out of practice. If I fawned too much, I apologize in arrears.  At a party I finally got to meet Melinda Snodgrass, who is as nice as nice can be.  I also had short conversations with Ian Tregellis and Stephen Leigh, writers whose work on Wild Cards I’ve always loved.

One of my favorite moments in Chicago, was one many people missed. There was some serious bonding as  Adz, Allythia, Arantius, (what’s with all these A’s?) Fragile Bird, Lambchop, Jeebus and I had a quiet night of cocktails and pizza.  Friendships were built and I can’t wait to hang out with them again.  What is interesting is that only Lambchop and I are from the US.  Australia, Canada, Germany and Luxembourg were all represented.  Sadly, there were no hobbits, but I do think I saw some trolls across the room.

Perhaps I have the wrong attitude toward the humidity.  It doesn’t seem to bother the natives, though I saw far too many working women going back and forth from their offices in flip-flops.   Have we come so far from the tennis shoes as an accessory in the 80’s that flip-flops can survive in the office?  No, they were not Gucci, at least I don’t think so.  The trick might be to embrace the humidity and treat it like a sauna; think of it as the soothing schvitz integral to rejuvenation and part of a cleansing.  I do feel invigorated after my trip.  As my friends return to their homes, many of them falling from the high of comradely, booze and unbridled joy, I have different feelings.  I don’t have that emotional drop several of them are describing in social media.  I find myself smiling and ready to enjoy life in the best place on earth.

You didn’t know that fall in the bay area is the best weather in the calendar year or that the crush has started in Napa?  Add in Football and the smile that waits for me at home and life is pretty good.   Suddenly, oppression is the last thing on my mind.

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Far From a Level Playing Field

The two towers rose above the river to the north.  Slowly, the pilgrims came from the other corners of the world.  There were Hobbits, Wizards, Klingons, dragons, artists, authors, actors and other disparate species .  They all came to call the corner of E. Wacker and Stetson in Chicago home.  The towers did not guard the entrance to Mordor, instead they welcomed everyone to the 70th World Science Fiction Convention.  Over the course of several hours, these two towers were quickly transformed from a large hotel to a village.

A convention really is its own self-contained microcosm.  The hotel provides beds, which in many cases are rarely used.  The hotel also provides convention facilities encompassing 3 levels below the hotel and a big bar (which was indeed its name) above.  If an immigrant to this village so chose, they would not ever need to leave the hotel complex, with the towers connected with an enclosed skyway and an underground tunnel.  The con provided food for snacks and lunches; the hotel provided the alcohol and shelter from the heat and humidity.

Including the bar, the con took place on 4 different levels of the hotel.  In investigating our surrounding, I realized that like the convention, Chicago was a town of many levels.  There were two levels of underground roads surrounding the hotel.  The river was yet another level down.  Looking westward, one could not miss Donald Trump’s latest ego driven construct, the Trump Tower; built in 3 distinct shining glass levels, each level proclaiming the increasing socio-economic status of its residents.  Rumor has it that the penthouse, with its modest $32 million price tag, is still available.

Up the street from Trump’s monolith and down in a hole,  sits the Billy Goat Tavern.  Famous for both the curse that keeps the Cubs from winning baseball’s World Series and John Belushi’s “Cheezborger! Cheezborger!” skits on SNL.  The shining and new tower with its 3 progressive levels is juxtaposed with a grimy (through clearly charming) old tavern.  The upper crust top level looks down upon the lowest level, a simile made concrete.  Or, in this case, glass.

Within the convention itself, there are levels.  One can tell what the organizers think of certain topics and speakers based on time slots, room sizes and conflicts. They probably don’t see it that way, but from my perspective it was hard to see it otherwise.  Jim C. Hines, in accepting his Hugo, talked about how he found Science Fiction Fandom and remarked that he “found his people.”  It was touching and rang true.  I’ve always known this was one of my tribes, as we all belong in more than one tribe.  Often it is difficult your place outside your immediate family.

The convention is not at all what one might think.  It skews much older.  The amount of “longtime fans” is quite large. I would guess more than a third of the attendees are over 50; a ver significant amount over 60.  And I’m probably guessing low. This in and of itself creates the stratas and layers within the convention.  Like the rest of society, there is also resistance to change.  It is not always obvious, but it can be seen if you look closely.  With such a long history, one must wonder why ComicCon and DragonCon are huge compared to the humble village that is WorldCon.  I’m guessing it’s a resistance to change.

Unlike the Con, Chicago shows its changes.  You can see them on its sleeve. On its lowest level, you can tour the city via the river look up at the buildings.  Some are big blocks, others sweeping curves and still others are stacked in layers.  But you can see the changes from the down below.  You can see when it was in vogue for architects to “turn their back on the river,”  leaving little to no view of the water from the building.  Art Deco, Modernism and other forms of architecture cohabitate along the shores of the Chicago River, showing how change has imbued the city with a spectacular skyline, a modern forest and a past that welcomes the future.

We are not so different from the modern jungle. We may choose to ignore it, but we each have many levels and layers.  Generally, we only show a few to the people around us.  Those closest to us see a bit more.  The trick is knowing what should and shouldn’t be shared; when to embrace change and when to hold fast to what was previously a change.  As much as I hate to admit it, I’m not the long-haired teenager wishing I had been 18 in 1967.  That will always be one of my levels.  But there are several more.  I know I never expected me to  have a blog.  Did you?

A Musical Interlude

After the crowded halls of the Con and the crowded streets of Chicago, the walk down the platform from the train to the stairs is eerily empty.   Every 20 seconds or so an empty eyed urbanite wanders past me, unsure whether to wobble left or right as though they have never seen someone come into town.  As if all-knowing, the Genie in my iphone cued up one of my favorite songs.  It had been a while since I had heard it.

I pulled out the phone to look at the iconic cover.  I smiled even as the tune evoked sadness, but echoed hopeful strains.  I wandered to my favorite Peet’s, lost in the melodies, not the lyrics.  At various points in the song, hope is given over to despair.  Even with my caffeine fix in hand, the song resonated within.  And it struck home.

     You gotta keep one eye looking over your shoulder.
     You know it’s going to get harder, and harder, and harder as you get older.

There is something about getting older that hits you at strange times.  I don’t feel 50, but I am.  That age when society starts thinking less of you.  We all joke about AARP and their invitations that start arriving shortly after your 49th birthday.  Life seems more about what I’ve done than what I can and will do.  That’s hard.  It takes a concerted effort to change those thoughts and subsequent actions.

A week ago I had a great exchange with a fellow Cal grad.  His eyes sparkled when I talked about being in Memorial Stadium on November 20th 1982.  That was the day that Cal held John Elway in check for 59:56 only to see him single-handedly take the Cardinal (who names their team a color? I think of them as the Robber Barons, which did win the student vote) to a seemingly game winning field goal.  Stanford 20, Cal 19.  Dismay reigned.  Once again the Cal team of my tenure grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory.  What could happen in 4 seconds?

Quite a bit as turned out.  2 million people will probably tell you they were there.  I was one of the 60,000 or so in the stands, sitting in the middle of the Big C in the student section with my poker group, a junior among graduating seniors. It was about to be the saddest of the games I saw as student.  It was to be the last game I saw as a student.

4 seconds – a lifetime in slow motion. 5 laterals (one disputed, one blindly over a shoulder), a band on the field and crushed saxophone player later, Cal scored. I was in shock.  The stadium erupted.  My friends all ran down the bleachers to run on the field.  A bit shell-shocked, I sat there and guarded our belongings.  I know, even though you think of me as mischievous, I am generally the responsible one.

I’m talking to my fellow alum.  There is joy in my reminisces and his eyes light up a bit as I relate my memories.  It’s a important moment in our shared history. It’s a party and even I know I’m drunk and slurring just a bit.  That doesn’t mean my mind has seized up. Of course as I recreate this day to my new friend, I realize he was still in diapers as my 20 year old self sat in that stadium. The song is right, it’s getting harder; he’s not a kid.

     Gotta stay awake, gotta try and shake off this creeping malaise.
     If I don’t stand my own ground, how can I find my way out of this maze?

Again, the lyrics echo where I’m at.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a great life and much to be thankful for.  There is a transition that has been going on for some time.  We spend our younger years working, striving, motivated to achieve.  As we grow older, especially past 40 and then 45, workers have become disposable as jobs are off-shored and employment for life becomes a distant memory.  I believe I understand why it’s called the rat race.  Malaise sets in as what we focused much of our efforts on previously, is no longer within our reach. Life becomes a cycle of paychecks and sustenance. Our egos and self-image need to find new things to hold on to, simpler achievements to find joy and continued rebirth in.  Perhaps that is why I spend so much time in my garden.  Even if my plants suffer, I can try again; the sun will rise, the plants will grow and there is no pink slip at the end of the rainbow.

At this point, I often feel as out of place as beast of burden in the industrial age.

Dogs – Waters and Gilmour

Animals. Pink Floyd, 1977

Chicago in 3 dots (or Barfleet, Coffee and Furries Oh My!)

Chicago, the windy city, home to the Billy Goat Tavern and Wrigley Field.  Two disparate locations – one well-lit, the other down in a hole –  linked by a single curse.  Lambchop and I were in town for the World Science Fiction Convention.    At least 3 of you are now smirking derisively, but that’s ok.  We had a wonderful time.  Everyone knows about Chicago Style Pizza, christened pretender pie at the con, but perhaps I might add some new insights after my time there…

Lambchop met her twin in a hobbit from down under. Actually they met as the hobbits journeyed from the Shire to Chitown, stopping in San Francisco.  I fear the havoc the two of them will cause in the coming years, especially if they realize what that ring can do.  Could be I’ll be voted off the island…  I never expected the replacement for the Mudshark in my lexicon to be Trebla, but seeing the girls now swoon for him, I must admit its inner truth.

John Picacio finally won a well deserved Hugo in addition to his Chesley award.  I am pretty sure he’s going to need a bigger trophy case soon.  It will be interesting to see how he fares on his home turf in San Antonio next year…I found the art show terribly disappointing, but I found a gem in an older Don Maitz painted sketch, which hangs proudly in the entry to my office…. now if I only liked The Book of the New Sun.  Perhaps I’ll reread them with older, wiser eyes…

It seems that Chicago is a Pepsi town.  By my count it was 3:1, Pepsi over Coke.  One of the few things the town got wrong… On the other hand Arlington Bill provided more beer than any one man had a right to have in his hotel room…There are signs everywhere declaring it illegal to put ketchup on a  hot dog in Chicago. I don’t know, I might have put more effort in to helping the sad panhandlers shaking their cups of coins.

We were stalked, or so it seemed, through out Chicago by Ron Donachie, aka Ser Rodrik Cassel in HBO’s Game of Thrones.  He and his wife are two wonderfully nice folks, going so far as to walk over and say hello in restaurant after he’d met several of us at a party…those of you that don’t get Star Trek, would surely have missed Barfleet and that would have been a shame.  They won the award for most creative use of  a Kiss song,  “Detroit Rock City,” but I seemed to be the only one to notice. But we did miss the Klingons shouting, “Revenge is a dish.. BEST SERVED COLD!!” … Cam was giving out schmoozing lessons nightly.  I should have paid more attention.

If you are reading this you probably already know Peadar Ó Guilín.  If you don’t, I would suggest you look for him and read his book, The Inferior.  Of course he’s a friend, but I really like what I’ve heard him read.  Needless to say his two books are near the top of my reading stack and I am eagerly awaiting The Shatter…I will be hiring X-Ray (the Enforcer)  and Mr. X to run my next party.  They run a tight ship and really went above and beyond this year…

The programming at the con  was a bit disappointing.  Last year there were so many panels, talks and readings that I couldn’t attend then all.  This year there were few that called to me and inevitably they conflicted…Clearly the organizers did a very good job overall, but how could they not give George R.R. Martin their largest room for his reading and interview?  Those chosen were too small… And Patrick Rothfuss was scheduled to read in a room with 20 chairs?  Even I know he’s a huge draw….but the food in the con suite was great and the midnight pizza after the Hugos, sheer genius.

I never realized how close John Belushi’s “Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Chip! Chip!  No Coke, Pepsi” was to reality at the Billy Goat Tavern.  Great atmosphere, well priced and solid, if unremarkable, grub. Its one of those things everyone should do at least once… Remarkable might be an understatement for Intelligensia coffee.  I am now a huge fan, but please reconsider your baristas.  Those cute boys in skinny jeans and skinny ties pushed the cool environment towards hipster doofusville.  It just seemed wrong…There are not enough superlatives to shower on Frontera Grill.  Rick Bayless is a genius…And Trebla is sex symbol.  What next, dogs and cats living together?

One panel was called “The Secret History of Science Fiction” where George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick, Joe Haldeman and Gardner Dozois, who arrived 30 minutes late,  told stories of cons past.  The room was overflowing with bodies and laughter.  Entering the room as the panel started, I was relegated to stand in the back.  500+ seats were not enough. While I enjoyed this to no end, laughing for the better part of that  hour, I still don’t understand why the guy behind me was wearing stilts…The gumbo at Heaven on 7 was really special, in a foodgasm sort of way.

I don’t really have a bucket list, but one day I need to help Chataya organize a real Furry hunt… Not only was there a complete absence of alcohol at the Hogwarts party, those bathhouse pin-ups of Malfoy combined with the Harry/Snape cuddle pictures crossed the creepy line.  Had Lambchop not been bonding with the Kiwi who did the elf ears in LOTR, we would have left much sooner.

Leigh Bardugo can write — that’s not news.  What is news is that with charm, wit and humor she single-handedly took over a panel that could have flopped, offsetting a few others who were didn’t realize they were sinking.  One day, she’ll be on Kimmel or Leno and she’ll blow up.  Huge.   In the meantime, read Shadow and Bone.  You’ll feel better…I don’t understand the position of the con having a few Young Adult (YA) panels, but refusing the consider the category for a Hugo.  Based on the stories I heard, the passion level on the “no way” side seems over the top for my sensibilities.

And yes, a few too many con-goers did look like they escaped from their mother’s basement.  Other than the 3 or 4 that interrupted panels or were simply clueless in regards to social cues, who cares?  It was a 5 day celebration of shared joy and fandom — much love and thanks to everyone I drank, laughed, talked and debated with… Next year in San Antonio can’t come soon enough.

Chicago: Day 1

As we flew into Chicago’s Midway Airport, I noticed the landscape was very different from home.  Green open spaces and small forests, covered with trees unfit for lumber filled my view.  Then houses and more spaces.  But no real hills or mountains.  I thought it odd that the genie in my iPhone didn’t jump to Liz Phair’s “Stratford-On-Guy”

In 27-D, I was behind the wing
Watching landscape roll out like credits on a screen

</required song quote> Of course I was in 22-C, so there was some logic to the Genie’s decision.  Looking across the row out the window by Lambchop, the description was apt.

A friend had recommended we take the L into town rather than a cab.  A $4.50 train ride beats a $40 cab ride most of the time.  We had two large rolling bags, a duffel bag, a computer and my murse.  I know it’s a messenger bag, but since my niece named it, I always hear her voice when I think of it.  Had we been on a Sunday stroll, it would have been a nice walk. It went on.  And on.  There were elevators and hallways.  Ups and downs.  Lambchop was a trooper and didn’t complain, but I knew she would have been happier in a cab in traffic. Take a  cab on the way back

A few years ago, they added an extension to BART that ran to SFO.  My current position allows me to commute on the train (but of course by now you know this.)  About half the trains I take to work end at SFO and half I take home come from there.  The amount of luggage and neophytes on those cars  make the journey harder than it used to be. Somewhere along the way people decided their luggage should block the aisle and empty seats. Commuting etiquette has gone the way of the dodo. As we wheeled our luggage into the L  and looked for ways to be out of others way, I realized the cost of cab ride made me “that guy.”  I guess everyone does have a price.

As we rode into town, I saw what a different place Chicago is from San Francisco or Oakland, my local urban references.  Flat.  Lots of brick.  Houses, then industrial areas, followed by more houses.  And then, looming to the right, a large skyline.  As much as I love San Francisco’s skyline, it is just a cute puppy compared to Chicago’s Polyphemus – awe-inspiring and, perhaps, partially designed by gods.   We were speechless.  As we drew closer on the train, I think we both noticed each other’s smiles broadening.

Finally getting to our hotel, we quickly checked in and kidnapped our Aussie friend Neal for some <food!> Chicago Style Pizza </FOOD!>and to begin drinking. There was a larger group going out later, but evil forces had scheduled a fantasy football draft at 8pm local time and it was 6pm.  We really hadn’t eaten other than the crackers and pretzels on the plane.  Football and famine demanded a meal then and there.

Dining alfresco was fun, but the humidity did take some getting used to.  We caught up on the last year and enjoyed the cocktails and beers.  I had a chocolate stout that just blew my socks off.   The pizza was pretty good too.  The final crescendo to the meal was our waitress; explaining we were in town for a convention, I asked her for some recommendations.  She came back with a 3 page hand written list that looked like it came from a laser printer.  Such penmanship must delight the kitchen staff.   Mine isn’t good enough to be a doctor.  My favorite Chicago spots were on that list including 1 I had not heard of yet. But one I was to learn to love.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel and my football draft.  Later, we headed down to the bar where we knew our friends would be.  There they were, in the bar almost, but not quite, waiting for us.   We squeezed in to hang out with our friends.  New friends were made and there were copious drinks all around.  Then, there was more drinking.  I had a few cocktails and discussed the “Cheezborger! Cheezeborger! Chip! Chip!” SNL skit  with the guy  that wrote The Song of Ice and Fire books.  Did I neglect to mention we were in town for the World Science Fiction Convention and that is basically the only sectioned event for the Brotherhood without Banners, the George R.R. Martin Fan Club?  I may be a Knighted Ser of that group, but I learned early on that I couldn’t drink like Jebus or schmooze like Ser Cam.

It was a great start to what was about to become a most excellent week.