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11.17.2004

Chicagoland

I attended a conference last weekend in the aptly named Downers Grove, out in the suburban doughnut of strip malls and car dealerships that surrounds the city of Chicago and buffers it against the redneck sea. I used to live in the northern part of this doughnut, in a town called Glenview, next to a big naval air station. But the naval base has since been eaten by little starter mansions, and I'm hoping other reminders of my adolescence will follow its lead.

I had only been back to Illinois once before, for my high school reunion, and it felt both creepy and dissociative to return to the place as someone who can now drive and buy alcohol and do other adult things that were off-limits back in the day. The radio in my rental car (red! Wisconsin plates!) was tuned to the same oldies station that I had been addicted to as a thirteen-year-old boy, with the ageless Dick Biondi still announcing each two-minute song in a voice of indestructible enthusiasm. I found this unusualy distressing; a man should only have to hear so many Paul Anka tunes in his lifetime.

The conference hotel was one of those places, like the Gulag, designed to be easily reachable from a major transportation hub, but far enough away from any population centers to keep people from trying to leave. This caused some grumbling during the early stages of the conference (an academic technology snoozer), when people had enough energy to contemplate leaving the building, but after the fourth or fifth discussion on 'whither courseware', all traces of initiative and spark had given way to a pleasing somnolence.

There is some funny cultural mixing near the hickipause, that border area where urban civilization starts to give way to big hair country. The conference hotel breakfast bar offered freshly brewed cappucino, but also sausage pucks spread in a lattice on a layer of Wonder bread. For lunch, there was foccacia, tuna carpaccio -and hot meatloaf with red sauce. I knew that if I were to head just a few miles further west, I would start to see feed stores, and then enter the four hundred million square miles of corn that separate Chicago from the nearest topographical feature. But instead I pointed my red cheesemobile east, into the city - I was going to meet Mimi Smartypants!

I don't know what I can tell you about Mimi Smartypants. She is my writing hero, a longtime intellectual crush, and the antidote for every time I get sick of blogs, politics, trackbacks, formats, syndication feeds, the Future Of Computers, emergent folksonomies, or any of the thousand other ways people have invented to be tiresome online. Mimi can (and probably does) write two thousand words about a piece of lint she found on her sleeve, and it will be engaging, full of obscure interesting links, and funny enough to make her site impossible to read during staff meetings. Not many sites pass that bar with old Stone-Face Ceglowski.

So you can imagine my excitement at getting to meet Mimi, her husband LT, and their Internet-famous daughter Nora, especially since my visit was so cloaked in mystery. I still did not know so much as Mimi's real initials even as I stood outside the front door to the Smartypants compound, trying to figure out which apartment button to push.

I was greeted at the door by an elegant, petite Asian woman in a Viking helmet who directed me to my seat and then climbed into a kind of hamper for much of the rest of the evening. I tried speaking a little Polish to her to break the ice, but it just gave her the giggles. I wonder if it was some kind of happy nostalgia for retroflex sibilants (the single strange point in common between Polish and Chinese), or just the novelty of Gibberish Speaking Man.

In any case, Gibberish Speaking Man had a wonderful time with both the small woman and with her extremely likable parents, and wishes to extend a big, awkward public "thank you" to you all. I look forward to the day when we can talk for an evening without the spectre of next-morning seven o'clock meetings, and without me having to keep my blood alcohol in the safe driving range.

The rest of my readers are encouraged to go buy Mimi's book. Help fund the beer that fuels the writing that makes us all so happy.

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