Friday, November 28, 2008

Reality Show Ramblings #1

I've stumbled upon a ticklish little corner of television known as the Fox Reality Channel. While probably not available in all markets and on all systems, it is a strange cousin of yet a stranger channel, called "TruTV". Though these channels are devoted to the world's obsession with reality based shows, many other channels dip their lanky fingers into this cauldron of "humansploitation". Discovery Channel, Food Network, the Fox Network, MTV, VH1 and Bravo are leading finger-dippers in this area. The depths to which these networks have sunk has steadily increased. Since there are dozens of reality shows worthy of commentary, I only intend to touch upon a few at a time.

A parting thought - we have the Fox Reality Channel - how about the Fox Realty Channel? Could be spicy! Foreclosures, bidding wars, overzealous agents, and those people that use the bathroom at open houses! Juicy stuff. As Radar used to say..."Wait for it!"

Hell's Kitchen
This one tops the list, and while not necessarily a pioneer in the field, it has the most exposure, thanks to Fox and heavy promotion. It features the cantankerous Gordon Ramsay, a bitter, foul-mouthed bastard of a Briton, who looks like he grew up in a cigarette factory and has the disposition to match. I reserved judgement on his misanthropic behavior as long as possible, until I started watching him in other shows; suffice to say, he just isn't that nice a fellow. Like most shows, Hell's Kitchen begins its season with a group of aspiring chefs, all hoping to win the final prize of running their own restaurant. Each week, the group is presented with a "challenge", and throughout the episode, the group is demoralized as if they were boot camp recruits. I never could imagine someone being called a "piece of shit" for overcooking a scallop or adding too much pepper to a dish. I can understand Ramsay singling someone out for stupid mistakes, but does it need to go to that point? He's slammed food into people during a tirade, and thrown food at contestants for messing something up. When it gets into character assassination and physical acts like that, then a level is being crossed that just doesn't belong in the culinary profession. I have no idea how contestants from past seasons have been able to exercise restraint from simply hauling off and attacking the abrasive ass. I'm not one to fly off the handle, but I wouldn't have lasted through any single tirade of his without jumping him. Unfortunately (and it's a big "unfortunately"), stupid people like myself are entranced by the fear that encircles the contestants, and the layer of eggshells on which they dance. Ramsay's abrasive nature, the wide-eyed contestants, and the high ratings, simply prove that we viewers love to see people being abused. Hell, we're sitting in a warm living room watching people suffer, and like sex itself, suffering sells.

Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares/Kitchen Nightmares
The former is the BBC incarnation of the show which ultimately burst upon the North American markets as simply Kitchen Nightmares in the wake of Hell's Kitchen. The premise of the show involves Ramsay coming in as a "consultant" (with all the subtlety of Godzilla) to rescue and reorganize a failing restaurant. Apparently "consulting" involves yelling at the managers and owner, avoiding any element of civility in pointing out their misgivings, and cursing every fourth word. I'd submit that the "nightmare" isn't the failing restaurant itself, but rather the insane manner in which Ramsay attempts to, um, help the place. Again, it is a successful show, for the same "suffering sells" reason as with Hell's Kitchen.

Real Housewives of Atlanta
I briefly watched this show, and couldn't understand the point. I easily could figure out why the show was created, since almost all participants were self-entitled, finger-waving black women, full of the "mnuh uh!", "talk to the hand" and "don't go there chile!" aphorisms. Why, therefore, do we need to focus on elitist Oprah-wannabe women, if we have the technology to show some real black housewives? How about "The Real Single Mothers of (anywhere)". Show them chasing their kids around... "Advil, get over here!" "Tylenol, what you doing in the oven?" Bravo seemed to pass on such ideas, and show the Cosby families, not the Good Times families.

The Osbournes
Yes, I understand that this show is already passe with the populace, but it appealed to me for basically one sad reason - the meandering life of all things Ozzy. It would be inaccurate to say that watching him was like seeing a train wreck; rather, it was like watching a train still wobbling along, with missing wheels, its locomotive on fire, and most of its cargo stolen by bandits. I could always be entranced when watching poor ol' Ozzy, the supposed "Prince of Darkness", cleaning dog crap, taking out the garbage, or trying to figure out where the refrigerator went. Sad and funny at the same time. Worse yet, seeing his children exploit his finances to death was enough to create plenty of personal ear-smoke. A bit of an aside - why, in current commercials, does Ozzy claim he's been the Prince of Darkness since 1979? His music career started many years before that. Just curious. Did quitting Black Sabbath earn him the title? Must have been a promotional move. Be a solo artist now? Well you're a prince of something. Prince had his "Revolution" group, then he was a prince by becoming Prince. Then a symbol. Now even I'm confused. Bad aside. Aside from bad asides...

Hogan Knows Best
A VH1 production, the show captured the viewing public's interest for various reasons. Some were ardent "Hulkamaniacs" from his glory days of the 1980s, and sought anything related to the Hulkster. They never grew out of the classic Hulkster era, and his famous three "demandments" (train hard, say prayers, and eat vitamins). Others simply were hooked on the notion of watching the goings-on of high profile families, known as the "Osbourne Effect". Then there were the rest, who simply wanted to ogle Brooke, the bright-eyed, blond, bimbo daughter. She was this century's answer to Kelly Bundy. People who know me well enough will likely throw me into this category. Fine! Consider me thrown. Anyway, the recent sequel Brooke Knows Best is slightly less compelling, as she's already starting to resemble her withered mother, and that the element of the family epic, post divorce and his son's arrest, has dissipated. That said, it was good for its time.

Trading Spaces
Ah, to long for the glory days, lo these many years ago, when reconstructing a room wasn't punctuated with that annoying phrase "Move that bus!". Great catch phrase. I'm sure that will unseat "Where's The Beef" in no time. But then again, that is a different show. As for Trading Spaces, the era around 2002 had a small, yet predictable cast of interior decorators (two per episode) who offered their expertise and personality while helping a couple redo a friend's room. The men featured the ambiguously gay Frank and Doug, with the more palatable Vern as one to round out the crew. The girls featured Hilde, a glamorous brunette with strange sense of design, and the bubbly blond Genevieve, pictured at right, who's my favorite (again, those who know my type...). Like the Brooke Hogan syndrome, many of us red blooded males were hoping the episode would feature one of the ladies, as the rest were too annoying. Speaking of annoying, host Paige Davis was ever intrusive, and one we'd all hope would just go away. Didn't help much when she returned to the show years later.

I'll stop here for now, but there are more to mention! Hope you all had a good holiday!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Winter and Chicago Sports

There were times, years ago, when Chicago's winter professional sports teams were exciting to watch, and captured our attention. These teams, specifically speaking, were the Bulls, Bears, and Blackhawks - the dreaded three B's. Their greatest moments have since been permanently emblazoned upon the cold bronze that is the city's sport fan community. Allow me to recapitulate:

The Bears brought immense anticipation and enthusiasm to a fervent Chicago crowd, starting around 1984, when they were forming a prominent defensive presence, and playing competitive games against the best teams in the league. It was an exciting season, and a sign of more to come. All of the pieces of the puzzle were in place, and I recall quite a bit of excitement for their victories that season, and for the season to come. The season to come, well, came. 1985 brought forth a dizzying, dreamlike autumn for Chicago football fans, with a run of 12 impressive wins in a row to start the season. The only elements that spoiled this potentially indefatigable season were the dreaded notion of broadcast television, named Monday Night Football (which thus disrupted the team's rhythm and momentum) and a talented quarterback named Dan Marino. I remember, as a 14 year-old fan of Bears' seasons good and bad, literally crying as I realized that the bastard Dolphins were about to defeat the Bears that dreaded Monday night during week 13. If there was ever to be a greatest football team ever, this was it - and it was to be spoiled on national television. I hated hearing the howls of the suntanned idiot fans in the Dolphins' home stadium. Miami didn't deserve that win, but tried to make a mockery of the hardest working team in recent history. Miami, the city that deserved a football team as much as Elvis deserved his black belt.
The Bears, that season, regained their composure, and played a strange, presumptuous card by recording their "Super Bowl Shuffle" song well before the end of the regular season was even in sight. The Bears held true, however, and steamrolled their way through the post season and provided ardent fans a long-sought Super Bowl title.

The Blackhawks were an exciting team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1992, and around 1989-1990, I went to most of their home games, having a friend who invested in season tickets. There was nothing quite like the environment of hockey in the Madhouse on Madison, being Chicago Stadium. Everyone was drunk and rowdy, and during games against local rivals, fights on and off the ice were common. It was a paradise for the typical male sports fan. When at those games, the team was agressive, exciting, and every game was a close one - fortunately, with the Blackhawks often gaining victory. Again, in those years leading up to their Stanley Cup push of 1992, there was an element of excitement, anticipation, and progress. Nothing seemed stale, and every season seemed promising. Even though they didn't win it all in 1992, they were still champions to most, if not all, of the old school Blackhawk fans out there.

The Bulls were mostly a joke in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Management was abysmal, draft picks were local jokes, attendance was amusing, and media exposure was nil. Even in the late 70s, I remember promising players such as Reggie Theus, Artis Gilmore, John Mengelt, etc. Nevertheless, the coaching of such legends as Larry Costello helped keep the Bulls away from the pressures of playoff contention and participation. Finally, things took a turn for the better in 1984. Yes, that's when the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan, a #3 pick. People seem to forget that the team wasn't instantly better with Jordan's addition during his early professional seasons. Jordan was still a thin, lanky punk, and his game was not polished at all. He was, however, exciting to watch, and while his game was nowhere near what it ultimately became, it drew crowds, more money into the till, and ultimately, the power to acquire stronger players in upcoming years. The true unsung hero leading to the Bulls' eventual dynasty was the coach of the team in the late 80s, named Doug Collins. At this point, all things about the Triangle Offense and other strategies involving Jordan were being set in place - and the assistant coach was a nobody named Phil Jackson. Strategic geniuses named Johnny Bach and Tex Winter were also on the coaching staff during those anticipatory late 80s runs, and their contributions not only led to the Bulls' ultimate Championships, but Jordan's "best ever" performances as well. Once again, those late 80s seasons were exciting to me - something was building. Pieces of the proverbial puzzle were steadily added into the mix as attendance figures (and finances) improved. Scottie Pippen was added in 1987, then Horace Grant, and ultimately Bill Cartwright. John Paxson's steady shooting and court wisdom (that which could be compared to John Stockton) stabilized the on-court presence. Jordan was finally a piece of the greater puzzle, rather than the savior of the team, even though his scoring dominated every game. It was inevitable that the Bulls would become a title-ready team, and once they pushed themselves past the dirty tactics of the Detroit Pistons, the NBA championship was theirs for the keeping. 1991 was their first NBA title, and rather poetically, a passing of the torch from an aging Magic Johnson to the peaking Michael Jordan. The dynasty to follow was something beyond most fans' expectations, and the Bulls could arguably have won eight straight NBA titles if Jordan hadn't abandoned all things basketball for his attempts at minor league baseball. Unfortunately, we Bulls fans got accustomed to the annual championships and the great breakup of late 1998 was all too sobering. The coach left, Jordan (for the moment) retired, and Pippen was poised to leave the team as well. But one of our winter teams was exciting to watch, and gave us thrills right into the early summer's post-season competition.

These days, the fans of the three cold weather teams in Chicago are left with a bad taste in their mouths.

The Bulls are showing nothing promising, even with the lucky lottery opportunity to have the first draft pick, in Derrick Rose. Rose is somewhat like a young Jordan, unpolished, not yet the savior of the team, and about four years away from true prominence. The fan base has worn away, media coverage is fleeting, and coaching changes happen with the flipping of the calendar. Joakim Noah (the previous year's wasted first draft pick) is an embarrassing member of the team. He's an arrogant, pot-smoking dork that rarely contributes anything other than personal fouls and missed lay-ups. I'll never understand why anyone drafted this bozo, and as I watched the NBA draft on live TV, I screamed out loud "WHY?!". The Bulls won't be much to watch for several years to come, at least. It's a shame to say that, but trust me, it's not must see TV. They are bottoming out, and it won't be long before they are playing in a 1/4 filled United Center.

With the Blackhawks, it's the same old story. Constant personnel changes, and seasons that might have been. WIth good coaching and passion, they could've made the playoffs last season, but seemed to give up the ghost in the final couple weeks. Except for goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who is by far the biggest name on the team, nobody is interesting to watch. To make matters worse, their games in the early part of the season have been frustrating at best, with them unable to hold a lead in the late minutes of the game. The other team would tie the game, and eventually win a shootout. Nikolai can only do so much.

The Bears - forget it these days, though I was excited for them during their 2006 season. There were two reasons why the Bears fared so well that year - Thomas Jones, the running back, and their receivers. Jones always could provide first down runs, seemingly no matter what yardage was required. They unfortunately didn't win the Super Bowl, and the geniuses in the front office decided to dispense with Jones during the ensuing off season. Everyone knows that a strong running game is critical to keeping options open for a more effective passing game, and Jones was the reason why the Bears quarterbacks could complete passes with reasonable reliability. Since 2006, the Bears chose to pass (pun intended) on grabbing a "real" quarterback over and over again. They have become much like the Cubs, opting to trade away established superstars for one or two supposedly promising rookies. The Bears are once again, a joke, with too much media exposure and nothing to show for themselves. They're destined for a 7-9 season, missing the playoffs, and a new round of "wait until next year" rhetoric. As such, I don't watch their games, because in a rare case, it's the car accident that I don't slow down to observe.

The winter is depressing enough for a climate such as Chicago's. The summer baseball teams at least show promise, talent, and excitement, but then again, it's summer - everyone is out of the house, enjoying the weather. During winter, when Chicagoans are trapped in their living rooms on cold days, the teams that offer escape through televised sports are nowhere to be found. Sadder still, I don't see the trend changing anytime soon. It will be even worse when the Cubs and Sox lose their stamina and revert to 4th place teams in their respective divisions.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Night At The Opera, Part Two

After a full day of being herded through endless mazes of confusion, heat-induced delirium, and cyclic fatigue, the long journey through the basement of Cook County was nearing an end. It felt like it was midnight, but unfortunately, it was only 6pm, based on the spurious guesses of fellow incoming thugs. We entered the area where a strange, futuristic three dimensional x-ray machine scanned the body completely, presumably looking for stashed goods. It was an odd, plexiglass phone booth, in which several rings moved around the person and presented a live image of the body incarnate. Back to bullpen twelve. About two hours later, it was time to be entered into the computer system. We sat on the cold concrete floor, in a long line, while data entry personnel howled last names from our herd to be logged into the computer. The computers were, appropriately, frighteningly old and outdated, still using a DOS based system to enter newcomer's names, addresses, next of kin, and phone numbers. After the irritatingly redundant process of being entered into the system, we each received our "number", in black marker, on the forearm. The thoughts of being a Nazi concentration camp inductee unfortunately crossed my mind. If anyone takes exception to that comparison, first of all, fuck yourself, and second of all, remember (or find out) that many modern prison intake procedures were directly "learned" from Nazi methodology in this era. That said, we were physically branded with numbers.

We then were herded back to a bullpen, cramped shoulder to shoulder, until someone called a few of our names to check in our property. Mine was already checked in, but we all still had to get in line, confirm what we had, and suffer a few screams of "stand up straight, muthafucka!" from the stormtroopers patrolling the floor. After I confirmed my possessions, the guy stamped my arm with something else, some type of indiscernable symbol to show I'd been through this station. Back to the bullpen. I heard my name again, and was told by a dumpy, loud, near-sighted black guard, I need to see one of the people on the other side for "psychological evaluation". I found an empty booth, and sat down.


Gave it.


Gave it.

"Ok, do you have any psychological problems?"

"No, but I did get..."

"Ever try to commit suicide?"

"Well, not really but..."

"Ever think of doing it?"
"Well there had been times..."

"Ok, put your right arm out."
Faceless data entry person writes a "P" in marker on my now heavily branded forearm...
"You're done...go to the end of the room for a picture and your ID."

That was my psychological evaluation. I had now assured the fine bunch that I wouldn't harm myself or that I had any psychological problems in the past. I'm sure the virtual forms were filled out for me long before sitting down with this highly trained individual.

Off to get my picture taken for my formal ID, inasmuch as my entire identity, wallet-wise, was in the possession of some profanity obsessed asshole behind the protection of chain link fence and other similarly scourged co-workers. The picture taking was the easiest of, two, three, and very DMVish. I signed off on my picture and was directed back to the original bullpen stuffed with the usual hostile, hungry, vocal, thirsty, hungry, and fatigued mortal frames with which I had endured the previous multiple hours' journey.

At this point, I found out it was after 10pm, and we had been enduring this process for over 10 hours. Standing in cramped cages, enduring screamings and guard abuse, wishing for a drink of water and ultimately, a bunk in some cell to collapse. Fortunately, at this point, I had a comaraderie with many of the fellow incoming "monsters". 80% of them in our group were massive gang people, many who knew each other, and they all thrived in the roughest parts of the city. I had a pretty intelligent conversation with a guy about how I thought Obama was a fake, and he was leading the blacks on. His "posse" was right there with me, agreeing completely. Turns out two of those guys were picked up on warrants for murder, and another one just was given $750,000 bond for gun possession and armed robbery. These folks were my talk buddies. I didn't care - I was pretty scary looking myself, and had already earned the nickname "Big Man" during the process. Oddly it would stick. I was myself - not scared, just tired and pissed. This whole process would be a badge I'd have to earn, and I was gonna earn it. When I wanted a drink from the occasional functioning faucet in the bullpens, I'd line up and take my time. Nobody would mess with me because I had nothing to lose. I was super tired and desperate for a place to lie down.

We all found out, while stuffed into that caged bullpen, that it might be about three more hours before we get to the point of receiving uniforms and being assigned to a cell. That's all we wanted - a place to lie down - we wanted our cell.

Finally, fatigue got the best of me, and after midnight, I realized that I could lie down on the cold tile floor underneath one of the benches that lined the walls of the bullpen area. That said, I crawled under people's legs, who were sitting on the bench, and found my little dark solace underneath the bench. There was garbage, roaches, grime, and other debris underneath this bench, but now I had floor space on which to lie down. I took both of my shoes and used them to rest my head upon, and despite the noise, dirt, cold, and uncertainty, I was able to catch a nap.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Night At The Opera, Part One

I had a rough October, with issues from the past having caught up with me. The state of Indiana had some legal issues with me, some that ultimately were never resolved, though the impetus of these issues came from an era of unstable decisions several years ago. That said, things didn't get cleared up, and eventually, the State of Indiana decided they were very interested in seeing me...thus leading to an ugly Sunday in October when a few local officials were ringing my doorbell:

"Hi sir, it looks like your car out front might have been damaged last night - can you come out and check it? We just noticed it passing by..."

Stupidly, I bought this one, and came out wearing only shorts and socks...

"Nope, looks fine to me, thanks for checking though..."

Officer Friendly suddenly took a different tack:

"Have you ever been in Indiana, like a couple years ago, maybe [name omitted] County down there?"

Shit. All I could do was shake my head "no" and try to get back into the house.

"Are you sure you were never in Indiana, maybe got taken in for anything? If not, we can go to the station and clear up the mistake..."

I knew it wasn't a mistake...panic mode. I cooperated...

"Ok, well let me run in and get a shirt on, and a jacket..."

"No you can't go back in there...we'll get a shirt for you."

The "bad cop" out of the good cop/bad cop pairing was now blocking my front door, with all the subtlety of a freight train. I knew I was toast, and that it would be a long long week. I also knew right away, I was destined to be extradited to Indiana, and just admitted that I did have a legal run-in down in southern Indiana a few years ago. It was too late to keep denying things, computer records don't make mistakes! Yeah right!

They put me in their car, didn't read me Miranda rights, and off we went.After a night in the local holding pen, I was whisked off to the place I fear the most... Cook County Jail. I would have castrated myself right then and there to bargain my way out of spending even one night in a place that is normally referred to as "the worst place in the country". Unfortunately, there was nothing I could say or do to avoid being shipped there while waiting for officials from southern Indiana to pick me up. I figured, fine. Those folks will come for me in the afternoon, I'll be out of Cook County in less than a day, assuming the Indiana folks were to send someone to pick me up immediately. Or so I thought. Off to Cook County I went, and was soon sitting in a large room waiting for a hearing which allowed me the right to fight extradition - something I wanted to summarily waive, so the Indiana folks could pick me up and rescue me from this hell hole. At 6:30 in the morning, there I sat in this large room, waiting for my 11am hearing. Nothing beats trying to sleep, in a panic, on hard benches for 4 hours. Around 7:30 am, a friend of mine, who happened to be a Cook County Officer, had heard I'd be there, and he took me aside to talk. He was always a dear friend from my dart/bar days, and it was nice to see a friendly face. He, in an eerily stoic way, directed me into a side room. Nevertheless, it was nice to see a familiar face, after having dealt with harsh, faceless soldiers of justice.

"What happened?" he innocently asked.

I explained things, and that I was just hoping to not have to spend the night in this place, and that ideally the Indiana people would be here in hours to retrieve me. Then my heart sunk as he started to speak, with an element of resignation.

"Well, they have 30 days to come get you, so you may be here for a while."

The panic meter went beyond the red zone in my torso. All I could do was nod, ask if he could help keep me "safe" while there, which drew the "I can't help ya, buddy" response. I was hopelessly alone. Alone amidst a labrynth of cinder blocked walls, cold cement floors, graffiti, screaming, roaches, and uncertainty. After a relative eternity (first of many to come), I was given my moment in front of the judge to say I would be waiving my right to fight extradition. Hell, I could be fine in a small, southern Indiana county jail, the sooner I got down there, the better. Unfortunately, after the news about potentially being trapped here for a month, I didn't know how soon was "sooner". By 11:30, I was already beginning the process of being processed. I was stuck into a group of 200 people who were also due for being processed into the system, all of which were destined to spend at least one hellish night there. All 200 of us were loudly ordered through various stations along the process, and were held in caged "bullpens", which had room to seat 50 at most. Hours at a time would go by, being stuffed with others in these bullpens, forced to stand, for lack of room to even sit on the floor. Most of the fellow incoming deadbeats were really dangerous types, reciting gang tales and the like. Some were too dope-sick to stand up. I almost fainted twice from the lack of oxygen, water, and sheer fatigue. Little did I know that we'd be shuttled through 15 of these bullpens over the next 14 hours, and that I wouldn't eat anything or lie down in a cell's bunk until 2:30am. Thus, the night at the opera continued, and little did I realize that my adventures there would last another 3 days. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Resolve Things

I doubt it would have been hard to notice, but after my 100th post, I had a bit of an extended absence. As such, I should address the reasons for the sudden leave of absence. It's of a personal nature, and without divulging too many details, I'll wrap things up in a neat little package, with a moral of the story as well.

I had to take some time to resolve some icky legal issues with the state of Indiana, those of which I put off handling, and eventually, it simply made things worse. During all of the months when these loose ties went untied, I couldn't rest comfortably at all. There was no such thing as peace and quiet at night. Slumber was kidnapped by nerve-induced cycles of sheer panic, offset with self-assurance that the complacency needed to end soon. Having such things hanging over ones head is simply too much for a person with copious amounts of time to think. Over the course of many months, the logic became "live to fight another day", instead of much more substantive logic, dictating that it would be best to clean up any unresolved issues and face the music. I knew, by then, that I was incapable of facing said music. It became too convenient to slip into the cycle of simply not taking care of things hanging over my head, but to rather attempt to ignore them and self confirm that I'd handle it later on. Then the bad dreams took form, almost on a nightly basis, to the point where I was afraid of falling asleep, despite the fact that pure unfettered rest was exactly what I needed for the moment. Nightmares became recurring - of being on a plane about to crash, being kidnapped, drowning, etc. While all of which were too easy to analyze, the bottom line was that they were a result of continual anxiety about things not having been resolved. More recently, I let a dear friend down by, again, putting things off, when I should have been building up a web site with sufficient support and promises of things to come.

Moral being, get things resolved now! Few things are worse than having unfinished business hang over one's head on a daily/nightly basis. It grows to constrict, confine, and distract. If you have tax returns to file, face the music! It won't be pleasant, but the burden will have been lifted. Make that uncomfortable phone call you may have been putting off. Personally, I think a moment of discomfort beats an indefinite period of avoiding the inevitable.