Monday, November 28, 2011

Response to John Kass: Don't Hang the Juror

By now you’ve probably heard that Bill Cellini might get another trial. About two weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune reported that one of the other jurors concealed her criminal record during the jury selection process. Cellini’s lawyers have since filed for a mistrial.

In the wake of this news, the Angry Readers (i.e., regular people who leave comments) at the Chicago Tribune website have spoken: They’re angry at Judge Zagel for not ordering background checks on the jurors, at the prosecuting attorneys for not running checks themselves, and at defense attorney Dan Webb, whose mock surprise doesn't seem to be fooling anybody.

But the Angry Readers are most angry, by far, at the juror.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Big Story

As some of you have already heard or read, I spent the last month serving as a juror on the Bill Cellini trial. The case in a nutshell: Cellini was involved in a conspiracy to extort a Hollywood movie producer named Tom Rosenberg; the objective was to get Rosenberg to pay a political contribution to then-governor Rod Blagojevich. After a three-week trial and three days of deliberation, our verdict was read; we convicted Bill Cellini on two of the four counts related to the conspiracy.

The above paragraph rings hollow. I have so much to say about this experience that I'm not really sure where to start. So I guess I'll begin by answering the question that many of those close to me have asked since the trial ended: will I write about it?

There's certainly enough material to write about: from Stuart Levine giving testimony on his double-life, to the racial undertones of the Allison Davis subplot, to the all-business federal prosecuting attorneys, to the old-school defense team, to the media coverage, to the unsettling feeling of seeing the sketch artist's rendition of my own face, to the three-day deliberation. And all that without even mentioning Bill Cellini.

Jury duty itself is an experience worth writing about. They call it a "duty" for a reason. It is not something one chooses to do, but something one does because it must be done. And carrying out that duty gives one less a sense of accomplishment than a sense of sobriety. One juror described it as one of the few opportunities we will ever have to profoundly affect the life of another human being. It's a responsibility that, on one hand, feels very surreal; and on the other hand feels very, well, real.

And then there's the obvious reason to write about the trial. Bill Cellini was one of the most powerful men in Illinois politics for over thirty years. The fact that I played a minor role in a pivotal moment in the history of this state is not lost on me.

There's a lot to think about and make sense of. I don't know when I'll have something worth posting here or publishing elsewhere. But I will write about it. To put it bluntly, sometimes life drops a Big Story in your lap. If I were to ignore it, I'd have no right to call myself a writer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Strange Old Pictures of My Family

Last month, my grandfather passed away. On the day he died, we (my father's five siblings, their spouses, and every one of their twenty mostly-adult children) gathered at my grandfather's home. It wasn't long before one of my cousins had located my grandmother's photo albums, at least two dozen in all. We sat for hours in the living room, passing the photo albums around, laughing at how we all looked. (So many Cosby sweaters. So many mustaches. So many mullets.) Often I would get to the end of an album, and immediately start over from the beginning, sometimes taking more time to look through the album than I did the first time. I could hardly put them down. We stayed for a week, and not a day went by where I did not spend at least one hour looking through the albums.

Photo albums are a dying medium, which is too bad, because there's something intensely personal about them, far more personal than flipping through digital images on a camera or a computer screen. For one thing, most photo albums come from a time before you 1) could take as many pictures as you wanted, 2) could actually see the picture you got right after you took it (which is why so many pictures in photo albums are so weird - see example above - it's a tragedy that we're so quick to delete these kinds of shots from our digital cameras). Plus you had to incur the extra time and cost of getting the pictures developed. And all that came before you even get to the part where you put the pictures in the albums. Photo albums are too inconvenient these days. There are far too many overhead costs and barriers to production.

Friday, August 19, 2011

My Reading at Storylab Chicago

A couple nights ago I read at Storylab Chicago. Storylab is held in the back room of The Black Rock Pub - dark wood, fireplace, a few comfortable couches - it's a venue that feels like a place where stories should be told.

The place was packed and the audience was very receptive. I wrote something brand new for this reading and I was pretty pleased with the way it turned out. Click the play button below to hear it:


Thanks to Scott Whitehair for putting this show together and to the other readers for kicking ass.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Badass Chicago Storyteller Shannon Cason

You know how there are some athletes or musicians that we marvel at simply because they make everything look so damn easy? Shannon Cason is kind of like that as a writer and storyteller.

Last night, I attended Essay Fiesta. It was my intention to drum up a little inspiration for myself. Next month I'm going to be reading at Storylab Chicago, and I've been hacking away at a meandering, unmitigated disaster of a story that I may as well perform in Swahili. I needed a little direction and guidance, to be reminded of what a good story sounds like. Luckily for me, Shannon was on last night's Essay Fiesta bill.

Anyone who has seen Shannon will tell you that the guy can put on a clinic in storytelling. (Don't take my word for it - he's Moth Storyslam's Grandslam Champion of Chicago.) He has an easy, straightforward style that's observant, thoughtful, and hilarious. Consider the opening from his story last night:
I went to the dentist. Not to the dentist's office, but to the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Dentistry's urgent care clinic... It's where the poor and uninsured can go and get dental care. It's where students - future dentists - can practice. In your mouth. So it's like a beauty or a barber college. Only it's your mouth.
Shannon's story hit particularly close to home for two reasons. First, two weeks ago I had four impacted wisdom teeth pulled, so I was literally wriggling in my seat for most of the story. Second, it made me see the draft of my story for what it was - an overcrowded, overcomplicated mess of twisting plotlines and one-liners. Somewhere in there, there's a story. I just have to find it and tell it straight.

You can (and should) hear the rest of Shannon's story at his podcast. (The story starts about 1/3 of the way into the podcast).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Video: My Reading at Essay Fiesta

So last month I had the privilege of reading at Essay Fiesta, an awesome monthly non-fiction reading series.

I read a very very abridged version of an essay I've been working on about the name Willy. Let me know what you think!

Special thanks to Pat and/or Melyssa for taking the video (not sure which one of you actually recorded it).

Willy's Essay Fiesta Reading - The Book Cellar May 16, 2011 from Willy Nast on Vimeo.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

All Signs Point Toward Home

On my arrival in San Francisco, I held my GPS device to the steering wheel with one hand, thankful that there were satellites in the sky guiding me. The roads there worked in three dimensions: north-south, east-west, and up-down. I put my trust in technology to keep me from getting lost, took a seemingly random series of turns, and miraculously arrived where I was supposed to go.

For the most part, the memories of my two-day visit in San Francisco blurred together like the cryptic directions on my GPS. I blindly went where I was told to go. But two particular experiences stick out, both of which occurred on public transportation. I should preface these stories by saying that I have grown very accustomed to the unwritten laws of riding public transport in a big city, where getting from one place to another is a serious, silent business. But not so in San Francisco.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Now You Can Say Wow

Alex Trebek narrated the bus ride to Hearst Castle. He wasn't there in person, of course; his pre-recorded voice played through the bus's PA system. And although it seemed fitting to hire the world's foremost expert on trivia to recite tedious factoids about the size of the hill we were climbing, about the number of years it took to build the road (a seven-mile stretch that is jokingly referred to as Hearst's driveway), about the menagerie on the side of the road that once housed polar bears, it also struck me as touch excessive. (I was the only one who laughed when Trebek reminded us to keep our arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.) Then again, the construction of Hearst Castle, the one-time residence of late newspaper czar William Randolph Hearst, was a 28-year labor of excess.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Everything You Need and More

You will see crazy things there, my friend said. I said that that sounded like fun. I would like to see some crazy things. It was late Tuesday morning, and I only had a couple hours to kill before I needed to start driving north towards San Francisco.

If you read the Wikipedia description for Venice Beach, you might think it sounds like the kind of beach/boardwalk area that only exists in '80s movies with bitchin' soundtracks: "Venice Beach includes the beach, the promenade that runs parallel to the beach ('Ocean Front Walk' or just 'the boardwalk'), Muscle Beach, the handball courts, the paddle tennis courts, Skate Dancing plaza, the numerous beach volleyball courts, the bike trail and the businesses." Skate Dancing? Muscle Beach? Someone hand me my funky neon Ocean Pacific shorts, because I am all over this shit like a Flock of Seagulls.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

This is my friend JJ, who I stayed with while I was in Phoenix. JJ is one of those people with whom, due to circumstances beyond our control, such as geography, I have spent very little time, but no matter how far apart we live or how infrequently we see one another, I still count as one of my closest friends. And I have always suspected that this says more about the quality of person that JJ is than it says about me. My most recent trip to see him only confirmed that point-of-view.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Other Pages

Whenever I am away on one of these Big Corporate Events, I feel like I have been plucked out of the pages of some book, a book whose characters and landscapes are familiar to me, and dropped into the pages of a completely different book. In this other book I play a character similar to myself, but different in some indefinable way. Sometimes I wonder what the characters from the first book would think of me if they saw the me from this second, unusual book. But I have never feared that kind of collision, because these two books will never intersect. They are kept on shelves away from one another, on separate floors of the library.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The First Morning

Although I had set my alarm for 3:15 a.m., I awoke before it rang. I stood in my undershorts and shivered, blinking at my unmade bed in the dark. The tangle of pillows and blankets was a gray cloud, inviting me to climb back in and drift off. I pressed the palm of my hand into the mattress, then pulled it away, the last comfort I would have from my own bed for two weeks.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Shakespeare Still pwns You

Yesterday marked William Shakespeare's 447th birthday. On yesterday's episode of Prairie Home Companion (yes, I am 73-years-old and sometimes I listen to Prairie Home Companion on Saturday afternoons), they celebrated by bringing in actors to recite a number of Shakespeare's sonnets.

An actress named Liz Lark Brown read Sonnet 43. I recommend you listen to it by clicking here and fast-forwarding to the 56:25 mark, because it's the most stupidly beautiful piece of writing I've come across in some time.

How is it possible, four centuries later, that Shakespeare is still kicking all of our asses?

Sonnet 43:
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow's form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
   All days are nights to see till I see thee,
   And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rules for Reading to an Audience

I really enjoy listening to writers read their work out loud. There are a few really great reading series here in Chicago that consistently feature writers who not only have strong, engaging voices on the page, but also have a knack for giving that voice new life through the spoken word. I try to attend at least one reading each month, more if I can.

What I've taken from attending so many readings is this: there are great readers and poor readers, and the gulf between them is vast.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Thoughts On: Richard Yates (by Tao Lin)

Whenever someone tells me that something they've seen or read or heard is "the worst" thing that they've ever seen or heard or read, I start to get suspicious. To me, it reveals bigger failures about the reader/listener/viewer than the book/album/movie. And the devil's advocate in me wants to like it simply in spite of their dislike, even if I've already seen/heard/read what they're talking about and agree that it's crap.

I recently read the novel Richard Yates by Tao Lin. By the time I finished the first 100 pages, I found myself thinking, "This is the worst book I have ever read." There was no plot, no character arc, not even an apt simile or metaphor or interesting turn of phrase. I got angrier and angrier as I continued to read, and more and more convinced that I was right about this being the worst book I had ever read.

It wasn't until several days after I came to the completely unsatisfying conclusion to Richard Yates (I'm not exaggerating when I say I nearly flung the fucking thing across the room in frustration) that I began to question my reaction to the book. My own devil's advocate started turning against me. Was there something worthwhile in Richard Yates that I missed? Why did I think it was the worst book I'd ever read?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Night at the Fights, a Night at the Opera

In the past month, I have experienced an unusual pair of personal firsts. A few weeks ago, I attended my first live boxing event; a week later, my first opera. (Anyone who knows me will tell you at which event I felt more at-home.) At the surface, there seems little common ground between the oldest, most primal sport, and what some would argue is the highest form of art. But after attending both events, I couldn't help but draw parallels between them.

Prior to the first bout at Windy City Fight Night - UIC Pavilion, January 28th, 2011