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Monday, August 15, 2005

warm rain and fried cheese (WRFC)

You know how sometimes you visit a place you think you don't like and end up thinking it's great? That was not the case for me and Evanston, Illinois. I can safely say the midwest has been permanently crossed off my list of Places to Live If I Ever Decide to Leave Santa Fe. The headline for this posting pretty much sums up why (WRFC). However, my weekend at the AAN/Medill Writers Workshop was good, despite the environs (and ensuing headaches as the result of WRFC. Here are a few of the highlights.
My raison d'etre for attendence was, ostensibly, the annual meeting of AAN's Editorial Committee, a motley group of lunatic AAN editors, a quirky mostly-male group, all of whom have great senses of humor and, from what I could tell, high alcohol tolerances. We spent our meeting time discussing the AAN contest, specifically how to deal with the technological ramifications of allowing hundreds of entries to be submitted digitally. We also discussed the Alt Weeklies Web site and how well it has done under the editorship of Ruth Hammond (who was pick-pocketed in Chicago, lost all her ID and was, upon my departure, brainstorming how she was going to leave Evanston without identification!). We talked about future story sharing between AAN papers, conference programming, and were all particularly excited about developing a track of programming about "From Issue to Story" where large-issues (growth, civil liberties etc) would be broken down into actual stories (hence the name).
On the social front, Richard Hart, the editor of The Independent Weekly in Durham, North Carolina, is a connoseur (I still can't spell) of a certain, um, European liquor, and had special ordered a bottle for the weekend. Here's Richard, followed by a photo of us gathered in someone's hotel room for a little pre-dinner toast.

There was a great turnout for the weekend and the graduating class from The Academy of Alternative Journalism, several of whom I spoke with about SFR, so that was productive. There was also, as already mentioned, a lot of cheese. And meat, which of course I didn't eat. But here are other people eating meat, at Merle's, a rib joint in Evanston, where we had our Friday night dinner. It was just as loud and hot as it appears.

As for the programming itself, I thought it was all quite good. Mike Sager, who writes for Esquire and wrote the book "Scary Monsters and Super Freaks," was an engaging speaker who spoke about writing in a very captivating way that I'm sure was motivating for the young writers there (and the old dried-up ones such as myself). Another high point for me was the editor/writer discussion between Westword Editor Patricia Calhoun and former writer Julie Jargon about Jargon's story on the rape of female Airforce cadets which won several national awards. This was great programming as everyone got to hear how the story came to be, how Jargon approached reporting it, all the ups and downs in the reporting cycle that were faced and how they were dealt with.

I suppose the most-anticipated part of the conference was the last event, a talk by Dan Savage, editor of The Stranger that was titled "On Not Sucking." I sat next to a very nice guy on the airplane to Chicago, named Chase, and while we waited two hours for the plane to take off (a part was "broken," according to the pilot, and "leaking." Thanks for the comforting information, right?), I mentioned Savage would be speaking at the conference I was attending and he was very thrilled. I don't blame him. Dan is an extremely funny writer and speaker and it's always great to hear from him. The gist of Dan's talk was that, as "liberal" alt.weeklies we need to capture a less-compromising attitude about what we do. We can't bend over, so to speak, for prudes offended by the sometimes-sexy nature of our papers, or conservatives or anyone. Basically, anyone who doesn't agree with us can fuck off. As a philosophy, I think that's pretty reductive, and deciding that people in the "fly over states" don't matter isn't a particularly helpful notion for those AAN editors who edit papers in fly-over states (and the whole fly-over states/rural versus urban/red versus blue vernacular is, in my opinion, tired, tired, tired and is essentially just the cooption of the left by the right since they are the ones that created this idea of the cultural elite in the first place). But what I do appreciate about Savage is twofold. One, it's great that someone has that vision, even if it's not a vision for everyone. The Stranger's success lies in its clear vision of what it is and its understanding of who its readers are. I think that's the message Dan delivers that everyone can learn from. Second, he's provocative. Everyone was talking about what he had to say well into the night. Some agreed, some vehemently disagreed, but his talk sparked debate about something very important, which is the future of our profession and the role of journalists and, even, the role of liberal discourse. So that was the shit. And, here's Dan:

There's lots more I could say but I should get to work and my short-term memory took a beating over the weekend, if you know what I mean. I will say that as nasty as Santa Fe's sprawling, big-box southside is right now, it's better than Evanston's downtown cutesie, Main-street deception in which everything looks like a local shoppe but is actually a chain store. Also, a big shout-out to the renovated Hotel Orrington which features a dog bowl of water and dog biscuits outside and a sign welcoming all four-legged creatures, plus Aveda bath products in the rooms. This incorporated two of my favorite things in the world (canine friendliness and Aveda bath products) so I was happy. The hotel staff had clearly been trained to make guests feel welcome, which translated into a slightly aggressive form of courteousness (there was a man in the lobby who kept jumping out at me saying, "How are you? How is your stay? Do you need anything? to the point that I felt like I should provide him with a challenging task, like hemming my jeans or finding me a Mont Blanc pen) but better that than the alternative.
OK, seriously, back to work.