Archive for the ‘original column’Category

Lessons learned from Blogs With Balls 3

Note: title inspired by this song. Also, this image is apropos of nothing, but it’s just amazing that you can spend a weekend at a conference, sit at the “L” station and look out upon this site.

I went to the Blogs With Balls conference in Chicago to get a sense of the sports media landscape. You can piece it together on your own, reading blog posts and tweets by emerging writers who struggle to emerge in the digital landscape. But so many of the important people in the industry are working so much that there is little time to naval gaze, let alone broadcast those thoughts for public consumption.

My interactions with most of the attendees before the event came simply as a fan of their work. I have corresponded with a couple of people through e-mail, specifically about podcasts. But I was most interested in taking in all of the opinions and seeing how they match up with my expectations of what the future will hold and how I might be able to contribute to that future. Here are a couple things I took away from the event:

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06 2010

Talking podcasting at Blogs With Balls 3

The collective known as The Basketball Jones worked for four years on a podcast, starting audio-only at weekly intervals and graduating to a video show every day out of a Toronto apartment of mysterious origins. In the process, the on-air duo of J.E. Skeets and Tas Melas developed a strong reputation both in online and basketball circles for bringing strong analysis and a healthy dose of humor. Still, the podcast remained a passion project left to early morning pursuits because of one key factor: they were doing it without payment.

“I was sure that a sponsorship would come about,” said Skeets Saturday at the third Blogs With Balls conference in Chicago. Skeets and TBJ producer Matt Osten participated in the panel discussion concerning podcasts and leveraging that multimedia content into a “megabrand.” “I don’t know if they’re not ready for it, but …”

“We didn’t have a business plan,” added Osten, who joined the podcast and his friends a few years into its run. “To do something for free for four years … that’s a bad idea.”

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06 2010

From the archives: O Christmas Tree

Editor’s note: This column originally was published Dec. 18, 2002 in the Braidwood Journal. Besides the cosnistently strained equations to love and dating from this period in my writing career, the sentiment still holds up.

The cry grows common in these days and in these parts.

“I’ll never find that special one.”

December means many things, but most of all it serves as a time of introspection. With a few days off, the mind — just like the snow — inevitably drifts. You sit down on the couch and wonder when you’ll ever find the perfect match.

Then reality smacks its leather gloves across your face.

“Holy holiday heartache, Batman … We need a Christmas tree, and fast!”

There are few feelings quite like heading to the tree farm and scouting for that perfect score. In a way, the mad post-Thanksgiving rush for Christmas trees rivals the worst of singles bars in unfortunate but necessary angst. After all, it’s tradition.

Of course, when I began eying Christmas trees all those years ago, I wasn’t equating cutting down a tree with a version of The Dating Game. Actually, I just thought it would be cool to hold the saw.

My family has participated in rituals akin to many in this area. In an attempt to quell any thoughts of buying an … ugh … fake tree (that’s so Hollywood), we travel down to the local tree farm and hope this year’s tree will be better than the last.

Because the hunger never is satiated, is it? You never hear anyone say, “Well, that’s it. We found the perfect tree.” Even if one found such a subjective milestone, the tree still dries out and fades away faster than Frosty on a spring day.

So we head out to the tree farms with the same purpose and just a few tools of the trade — a map, a saw and little hope.

In earlier times (the mid-1980s), the day after Thanksgiving meant bundling up in the widest assortment of winter clothes possible. Most of the time, the Brockett boys looked like they modeled the clothes Skittles would make if they ever entered the fashion industry.

We braved the cold for two undeniable reasons. One, we could sit in the back of a minivan that lacked seats. And two, the trip meant our annual stop at McDonalds in Wilmington.

Most people laugh when they hear that tidbit (so go ahead, laugh). But for a family in rural Elwood, fast food meant something on rice for dinner. As the years went on and McDonalds became a regular staple of the college diet, the magic of those golden arches faded a little bit.

The fries never tasted quite the same once they lost delicacy status.

As I drove through the winding dirt roads through rows of trees and dozens of people with similar intentions, I was reminded of those trips of old. Each year created a different memory, even if the years aren’t kept straight.

The Year of the Mud. The Year of Bitter Cold. The Year Dad Cut His Hand On the Saw. (Let me tell you, we were careful to double-check what was ketchup during that McDonalds trip.)

All these memories were aided by how things have changed. Last year, the family chose the tree while I was away. And this year two Brockett boys were prepping for finals, not the cold.

So please forgive this Dating Game dalliance. The cold plays mean tricks on the head.

Now, there’s the obvious comparison between the kinds of trees versus the types of people looking for a little love. Douglas firs vs. Scotch pines stirs just as many opinions as a Ginger vs. Mary Ann debate. Add short-needle versus long-needle to the mix and you’ve got the makings of a bar debate right there, if not a lost verse from Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5.

But just like the earth itself, things warm up the further we dig. On television shows like Blind Date, Dismissed or Elimidate, the contestants seldom worry about the appearance of their dates. But in real life, blind dates can be more froggy than prince-like, so to speak. The end of these dates are capped off with a polite good-bye, and the mutual friend hears some rationale about a good personality but poor chemistry.

Saying a tree “has a good shape” is the tree world’s version of the good personality.

There could be a pathetic little tree 30 inches off the ground and blown over by the wind, and some good soul will say, “Hey, how about this one? It’s small, but look at that shape!”

Bless these people. However, living in a house with a good soul such as this, I reveal one truth: This attitude can cause open revolt.

We want tall, full, powerful trees! The buxom type, where you can point it out to a friend and say, “Whaddaya think of this beaut?” And the friend only can nod in envy.

Finding these needles in haystacks can lead to disappointment. Just when the right tree catches your eye, there’s a big bare spot on the side. Or, the worst of all, it looks fine until you’re ready to break out the saw … and there are two trunks.

No Crying Game references, please.

In some way, after giving up on multiple occasions, a tree ends up in our house. And with more than two decades of ornaments to pick from, the tree inevitably finds its charm … even if it’s not love at first sight.


12 2008

Evolution of an Obama momma

She likes to say that she saw this coming.

In 2006, recently elected U.S. senator Barack Obama visited the University of St. Francis for a town hall-style meeting. There, she now says, Obama showed that mish-mash of personality and presence that makes a mother think “He’s going to be president one day.” And my mom did everything she could to make that statement prophetic.

The news networks probably don’t have a category for her, one that’s easily accessible with a few touches of CNN’s touchscreens and a John King-style breakdown. She grew up with the romantic ideals of the John F. Kennedy administration, married twice and had four kids while teaching and eventually serving as a school district administrator. My first politically conscious election (1992), she supported Ross Perot. She wasn’t swept up in the prosperity of the Clinton years, at least not enough to allow Al Gore to ride in on that tide in 2000. So she voted for George W. Bush then, and again for re-election (or against Kerry, really) in 2004.

But something changed in the leadup to the 2008 election. I missed the first stirrings while away from the hometown and working in DeKalb. But little details made their way upstate, when my brothers would talk about the increased presence of cable news at the dinner table. Almost five years after I started watching Countdown with Keith Olbermann (a different incarnation than the one that eventually garnered significant ratings), she took an interest in his writerly take-downs of the Bush administration … and even humored my anecdotes about his awesome baseball card collection.

Soon, the days started with Morning Joe and ended with The Situation Room, Hardball and Countdown. The mail brought a new subscription to Newsweek, where it joined random issues of U.S. News and World Report. The Internet became more than just a portal for her Juno e-mail forwards, as she started asking me questions about Salon and Slate. It was a total media binge, and a transformation from previous nights spent sipping wine and enjoying an episode of The Sopranos or Deadwood. It all culminated with the debut of Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC, who she talked about so glowingly that it seemed like she was trying to set me up with her … except for, you know.

And once my mom settled on Obama, she set her maternal instincts on swatting away predators. Hillary never stood a chance, heckled from afar for her “manipulative” moves like a soap opera antagonist. She supplemented her financial support with signs, shirts and a last-weekend canvassing of Valparaiso, Ind. before my brother Jim’s surprise birthday party. Even those family parties turned the dinner table into a dance floor strewn with land mines, as she wasn’t afraid to defend her candidate … especially to her sister (my aunt). Meanwhile, her red-faced sons tried to steer the conversation toward something else – baseball, weather, Daylight Savings Time, anything to avoid the confrontation so prevalent on her TV shows.

So last night, she settled into the couch a bundle of nerves. “Oh, I can barely stand it!” she said as the polls closed along the east coast. We flipped around the dial, mostly settling between MSNBC and CNN (and making fun of the latter for its delay in calling states … oh how soon we forget). As Anderson Cooper navigated his way between two flanks of analysis, the tension ratcheted up with each precinct reporting in Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia. My mom was convinced the news networks were stringing things along to get great ratings for the 10 p.m. news. Then, as Pennsylvania and Ohio turned blue on the Rockefeller ice rink and NBC switched from local election results to the national broadcast at 10 p.m., her efforts were realized in the form of fancy graphics and the types of pronouncements that normally seem so pompous except for these grand circumstances. Barack Obama will be the 44th United States president.

My mom fielded the congratulatory text messages and calls well past her usual bedtime. In a way, she represented the way anyone could dive into the current media landscape – technology learning curve be damned – and join in a cause. It made me hope that there were others like my mom out there who could support the news media when it aligned with her curiosity and interests. She may have seen Obama as president coming, but I never envisioned My Mom: The Politico.

But, of course, powers such as these inevitably create a monster. As we waited for John McCain’s concession speech and Obama’s first words as president-elect, she couldn’t help herself.

“I really hope he gets Montana!”


11 2008

‘Infinite’ possibilities obscure quiet disappointments

Call me a skeptic. Call me insecure. Call me call me any time. But at moments that pop culture artists have engineered to raise my goosebumps and find a direct route to my heart, I raise a final, ultimate line of defense.

There are numerous instances of this happening, but the ones that strike most vividly combine movies/television and music. I burned through the three-disc How I Met Your Mother Season 3 in three sittings, so I’m an avowed fan of the show’s running gags and late-20s life situations. Then, I press play on the season finale, with an opening set to the tune of “(Nice Dream)” by Radiohead, a song that figured into many late high school nights, falling asleep with a Discman next to my pillow.

By this time the pop culture streams should have crossed, wiping out rational thought and the critical eye in the process. But then the moat forms, chock full of alligators snapping at irregular intervals. Has the show pigeonholed my tastes? Are the songs tapping into emotions the storytelling cheats to reach? Was liking this show inevitable, just a confirmation of my previous enjoyments? Would something like iTunes’ Genius application peg that I was the target market for this soundtrack?

This self-doubting phenomenon tints my view of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” seen last Friday among a crowd not attending the concurrent high school football games. Music blogs, themselves catering sometimes to self-fulfilling tastes, teased a soundtrack filled with talented bands lacking a measurable Q score in the culture at large. One of those songs? “Ottoman” by Vampire Weekend. The (inevitable?) Vampire Weekend backlash never reached these shores, as the band’s debut album still occupies a strong placement on my iPod when times call for tunes and not podcasts. “Ottoman” continues their string of successes, with a messy mix of lyrics and string accompanyment that brings out the best in what potential B-sides should sound like.

One must be on guard, then, not to confuse good taste in “indie” music with the type of talent needed to bring home a good teen comedy. Even bad teen comedies have their moments (says the guy who paid money to see Win a Date With Tad Hamilton), but the genre’s recent track record is spottier than the pubescent faces gathered to watch the films. Superbad and Mean Girls stand a good chance at weathering the tests of time, but the industry turned its attentions to horror and tween flicks to grab parents’ money and part-time worker wages.

Playlist, based on the book by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, manages to use witty visual cues and memorable bursts of humor to obscure a basic story premise that has been covered more often than The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Strip away these little moments, and the movie disappoints with a too-familiar Michael Cera character and, as Radiohead sang, no alarms and no surprises. I should mention these high points, culling the good songs from the bad for future playlists:

  • Director Peter Sollett stages a great scene when Nick realizes his old, superficial girlfriend isn’t the one for him. She leaves a nuclear lipstick mark on his Yugo’s windshield, and the camera subtly changes focus from the lipstick to Nick staring at the lipstick. Eventually, he turns on the windshield wipers to wash away the mark as he jets to his titular companion.
  • Kat Dennings succeeds where actresses like Rachel Leigh Cook (She’s All That) failed. Though obviously a beautiful young woman, she manages to allow a morose world-weariness to obscure those facts. Instead of ditching the glasses and putting on a dress to say “I’m worthy of a boy now!” she slowly allows that side of her to emerge throughout the movie.
  • Ari Graynor isn’t quite the female equivalent of Stifler in American Pie, but she provides ample evidence that the gross-out comic relief doesn’t require a Y chromosome.

But as “Ottoman” played over the ending credits, the emotional reaction to the inevitable relationship packed as much punch as a sip of 7Up. The movie sets up the streets of New York City as the setting for infinite possibilities at any hour of the day. And yet, the pairing of Nick and Norah emerges not as some classic couple brought together by fate, but as the proper course of action considering the previous shackles of their respective relationships. Nick and Norah don’t overcome heaven and earth to be together, just their own unique forms of depression and hormones. We can applaud the characters for not being stupid, but – at least in the teen comedy genre – shouldn’t we root for something a bit more grand?


10 2008

Wayback Machine: Elwood column

Like catnip for bloggers, Google’s new feature to search the Internet as it was in 2001 has entranced me. columnist Jonah Keri has mined the search engine for sports perspective, and Idolator took a musical approach (while inadvertently striking pangs of nostalgia in my heart for the Audiogalaxy Web site). In an interest to see how the Web viewed a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed “Hank Brockett” as a 20-year-old college student and reporter, I retro-Googled myself.

Amid the references to my days at the Northern Star and the odd Web site that picked up one of my stories (good old local Dogma protest), I happened upon a column I wrote in 2000 both for the Star and my hometown local newspaper, the Joliet Herald News. In 2001, I would go on to work as a stringer/intern at that newspaper, gaining the type of experience and trust that would normally work as a good “in” for a first job out of college (eh, not so much, evidently). But 2000 Hank didn’t know any of this.

The column was humorous/nostalgic coverage of the local community festival, and it’s filled with the type of overwritten, overreaching drek that makes 2008 Hank cringe. But it has its moments, and so I will share that column now (original file can be found here):

A few weekends ago, I was privileged enough to attend Elwood Community Day 2000, the 10th annual in my small village’s history.

My town, on the outskirts of Joliet, only contains a few hundred people (fewer than many college classes), a handful of stop signs and even fewer businesses. There wasn’t even a cash station installed until last year, and it looks more out of place than overalls on Donald Trump.

By some star’s granted wish, the ravages of sprawl have spared my fair town. To celebrate the victory, we hold a festival, if just to exercise the arm throwing candy in parades.

After attending and covering a few other town festivals, I realize, to the outside observer, Elwood Community Day doesn’t seem that unusual. A small parade, a basketball tournament, kiddie games, bingo at the church and a street dance at night all have been done before.

But my calender is marked months in advance for the festival.

Because these are my events, where I see little siblings of those I know licking ice cream cones like it’s the greatest thrill in the world. And as the kids grow older, ice cream can wait until after the all-important street dance.

A bit of background: While Elwood kids learn between corn stalks, we go to high school in the city, where apathy is definitely in. Though prom and homecoming still exist (barely), all other dance attempts meet the chopping block rather violently. Elwood Community Days somehow breaks this trend, in a good way. Kids and adults from miles around try to cleanse the apathy from their skins in the fresh air.

The main street (OK, one of the only streets) is blocked off, with a deejay at one end, two drinking establishments on the sides and parking at the other end. It’s not very picturesque, but many pictures aren’t. It is now when time slows and the corners blur …

One massive light shines 20 feet above, mingling with humid, late-summer air and the sounds of hundreds of conversations, some more important than others. In one corner, a girl just decided to dump her boyfriend. In another, beers have taken their toll on coherence.

Teens sip forbidden hops (choice hops, though) for the first time as their parents dance on picnic tables, victims of the same drug and loving every second of it. A boy, sitting on the sidewalk, smiles at the gyrating dancers, fearful that he would make them smile with his dancing.

Some years, the goals are different. Last year, it was to talk to Suzie She-So-Hot, or at least say hi. Another year, pine for a girl not there, and hope it doesn’t show in an abbreviated smile. But every year, friends from all around come back to talk amid the sounds of YMCA and country rock.

Every year — you can count on it — the night will bring non-newspaper news. They kissed? … That jerk! … Passed out? …

Walking through the air, done pontificating about the splendors of letter-writing compared to e-mail, I snap out of my romantic, Norman Rockwellian haze. Small toddlers wreak havoc in the park, broken bottles lie crushed under a 5-year-old’s feet, awful music plays over the speakers and the dancing parents are driving home intoxicated.

Not as many of my friends showed up this year; there were too many new faces. Suddenly, I feel old, a veteran. This is nothing compared to ’96, I think. I proceed to slap the recessive old-timer aftertaste from my mouth.

Folksiness is a weird thing. The reason people stay in Elwood all their lives is because of the simple, rural atmosphere: the porches, the lemonade, romping through the grass, a child’s excitement about a seasonal trip to McDonald’s.

But the feeling slowly seeps in that the perils of “citified” life are inherent at every intersection, whether paved or made of dirt.

For some reason, that realization took 20 years to set in. In small towns, it is all too easy to put on rose-colored glasses and revel in the glory that the problems of real life never enter village limits.

Wow, all that from one beautiful Saturday. I am beginning to think I might sit Elwood Community Days 2001 out.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be marked on my calender months in advance.


10 2008

So long, summer

The signs of fall are everywhere, even if that doesn’t include the sunny, warm Illinois afternoons. Google decorates its simple gateway page with a lonely leaf and the New York Mets edge ever so closer to giving their collective fanbase a coronary.

The Onion’s AV Club marks the occasion of Sept. 22, the first full day of fall, by listing “25 Sad Songs for Changing Seasons.” And, truthfully, many of the songs have graced my sad-sack CD player at one time or another. But let’s blow this out one more time, in honor of the season that has come and gone:

The Hives included this song on the iTunes album purchase of its latest release, the “Black and White Album.” It features the band in all its goofy glory, and works quite well for the manic eyes affixed to Cartoon Network programming (from which this video originates). At certain points lead singer Pelle Almqvist barely can spit out the kid-empathizing vocals in time, but that just adds to the charm. By the end, the band’s just trying to have one more good time before sweaters ruin everything.


09 2008

Son of Rambow recalls ‘Sabotage’ days

Nostalgia, or at least the idea of it, fills my head these days. Walking the streets I grew up these last few months, I look out to the neighbors’ lawns and remember the pickup baseball and basketball games. And I think that those were the best of days for that particular tract of land, hoping that no one can look out at me and say the same.

In movies, nostalgia takes on the form of writers and directors working through similar feelings. For some reason, the first movie in that vein that comes to mind is Hearts in Atlantis, an otherwise forgettable Stephen King adaptation notable for the way many scenes were drenched in a light reminiscent of 6 p.m. on a mid-June evening.

Son of Rambow does not feature such a sepia haze, as it allows you to find your childhood reference points on your own color palate. And maybe that’s just a British sensibility about such things. But its restraint allows the charming and sufficiently fantastic story of two boys growing up with the help of a camcorder and John Rambo to recall a tumultuous time in one’s life and gently make fun of it just the same.

Will (Bill Milner) maneuvers his spindly little body around a home life without a dad but with a helpless grandmother, a religion that disallows television viewing and a school/social life with peers who draw their own conclusions based on that last point. Then he meets Lee Carter (Will Poulter). Considering the sticky substance at the bottom of his foot more putty than old gum, he drags Will into his world of no parental supervision. There, Will’s oppressed imagination intersects with his first experience with images in motion – a bootlegged copy of Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood. And thus, the irrepressable mind of a pre-teen boy launches.

The movie blends a subtle, Wes Anderson-like whimsy with more outright farce, but never at the expense of its characters. A montage of stunts draws the biggest laughs, both in their execution and the characters’ ideas of what it takes to make an action movie. The boys don’t know much about making a movie, but they know they want to make one. And just as the filmmakers work through their ideas of growing up through the characters, so too does little Will as his “Son of Rambow” puts on the headband to save his captured dad. That they learn something about the world seeps in through these flights of fancy, avoiding an audience saccharine overload.

The wisdom developed by time also allows for some jokes at the expense of the time period (about 1982). A near-androgenous, absurdly coiffed male French exchange student immediately becomes the most popular kid at school, introducing new wave fashion and music to the stereotypically bland British school environment. When the French boy wants to be in the movie, it allows for the evergreen coming-of-age conflicts of popularity and new friendship to remind us how quickly social circles can change in one school year.

My next neighborhood walk will take me past the shooting location of my own “Son of Rambow.” The Brocketts never owned a VHS camcorder, but a neighborhood friend did. I can only imagine what his school project originally called for, but what the neighborhood boys – mostly 10 to 12 years in age – came up with was an homage to the music video for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” It cobbled together what was available at the time: four-wheelers, a daring stunt involving sliding underneath a garage door and … well, the rest is lost somewhere either discarded or recorded over. But it had to have the song playing during the beginning and ending.

We didn’t work through much other than trying to figure out how the camera worked. But I recognized a little of myself in “Son of Rambow. And not just because I was similarly susceptible to the popular culture of those crazy days of the 1980s.


09 2008

An obstructed view of the Cub fan

To the left of me, a young boy put down the scorecard he and his father meticulously kept and rose to his feet. For each batter, he alternated between a mimicked baseball swing and a throw to the left fielder almost 200 feet away.

To the right of me, a man of about 40 rolled up his jersey sleeve to reveal a vertical Cubs tattoo. In his left hand, he wore a foam finger confirming the Cubs’ first-place status. In his right, a gigantic blue foam hand (like some product reject from the last Hulk movie merchandising run) tapped anxiously on his armrest.

And all around us, the fans looked to a small electronic scoreboard in center field, saw “first career at-bat” and started chanting “Casey… Casey… Casey!”

Casey McGehee struck out, depriving the Chicago newspaper-reading community of countless “Mighty Casey doesn’t strike out” or “Casey at the bat” headlines … and, eventually, a Cubs win. A packed house on Tuesday filled every corner of a steamy Wrigley Field on a night when the water vendor moved much more consistently than the listless flags high atop the stadium. I took it all in as an invited guest of my friend Josh, who owned both a free ticket and a dastardly Cardinals fan as a last resort. I jumped at the chance, both to spend some quality baseball time with an old friend and to see how fans have embraced the National League’s best team.

You might recall the Sox-or-Cubs debate flared up recently when Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama remained firm in his south-side allegiances. Now, a lesser comedic writer would say something about how Obama has thrown away the crucial 23-year-old shirtless douchebag vote. But I must admit that each time I go to Wrigley for a game, I see a majority of legitimate, non-digits-seeking Cub fans living and dying on every pitch. And Tuesday’s game was no exception.

Fans new to Wrigley and weaned on the constant parade of distractions and sound to fill the void might find the relative peacefulness hard to get used to. And the Cubs fan in recent years has compensated (some might say overcompensated) in a variety of ways. The consistent batch of strikeout pitchers going back to 2003 makes every two-strike count on the opposition a potential standing ovation waiting to happen. The same can be said of a 3-and-2 count worked by a patient Cub, even – as it happened on Tuesday – in the first inning. My friend Josh isn’t on board with such eager displays of promoting “the good eye,” but if the guys in front of you start standing then there’s little that can be done.

I contrast this to a recent visit to U.S. Cellular to see the White Sox beat up the Mariners. The “Softball Sox” have conditioned the fans to anticipate the home run, and sit still until then. Sox promotions ratchet up the fan interaction with T-shirt throws, scoreboard races and the detestable Fan-O-Meter. It’s an approach consistent with the franchise that introduced the “exploding” scoreboard, and amazing in its contrast to a team and stadium in the same city. For two teams at the top of their respective divisions, the way to a win for the fan cannot be much different.

So here is what this Cardinals fan learned from behind the obstructed view in deep left’s terrace reserved, which perfectly covered the annoying “bulldog”-ness of the Astros Brandon Backe (sorry, lingering 2005 NLCS memories) but still offered plenty of view of an exciting extra-inning game:

  • Bob Howry should probably rent and not buy in Chicago. His early call into the game, after a battling Carlos Zambrano evidently left with some discomfort, brought grumbles of concern … which a 5.06 ERA is liable to do. A personal streak of five scoreless innings ended abruptly with four runs on four hits and no outs recorded – the dreaded infinite ERA/WHIP. He left to a chorus of boos that haunt Todd Hundley in his weaker moments.
  • Cub fans’ patience is wearing a bit thin on Derrek Lee, who has seen his imaginative nickname “D-Lee” turned into “DP-Lee.” He is now three years removed from his monster 2005, and has settled into a productivity level somewhere between his lows and highs with the Florida Marlins. The on-base and power consistency of the Cubs lineup can allow for this in a first baseman. But most troubling is the propensity for the double play (25 already this year, a career high by more than 7). He was known as a strong runner for a first basemen, but losing a step and rolling over on pitches has created a rally-killing trend.
  • Another team would be hard pressed to sell as many different jerseys as the Cubs. A small stand outside the stadium featured 12, and popular jerseys include at least three members of the bullpen (Wood, Marmol and Samardzija … not Howry). New additions Geovany Soto and Rich Harden quickly were added to many fans’ game-attending wardrobe.
  • Cubs fans have fully embraced Jim Edmonds, especially when he serves out a dinky home run just past the basket in left field. I attended a Cubs game on the day of the Edmonds trade and resisted the urge to wear my Cardinals Edmonds jersey in fearing for my personal safety. But 16 homers in 250 at-bats has a way of obscuring old rivalries and creating warm and fuzzy connections. The center field platoon of Edmonds and Reed Johnson – neither with the team at the open of spring training – has worked out extremely well as the team still struggles to figure out what it has in Felix Pie. Cub fans aren’t willing to think about next year just yet, but this Cardinal fan now can – I wonder if GM Jim Hendry will roll the dice with the veterans next year or if Pie will ever be a part of the Cubs future.


09 2008

Television productions hammer it home

This column originally was published Oct. 23, 2002 in a special home improvement section of the Braidwood Journal.

The revolution, as they say, will be televised. Who knew that it involved alcoves and energy-efficient light fixtures?
Baby boomers, faced with children moving away to college and having the house to themselves, are wiping away the debris from a 20-year whirlwind.
With a bit more time and fewer distractions, homeowners are updating and renovating houses at a frenzied pace. It’s created enough business for home improvement superstores to co-exist in the same marketplace.
Meanwhile, off at college or in that first apartment, children of baby boomers are taking their first interest in home decoration and design.
Both generations are turning to the television for tips, tricks and hints. And networks looking for a burgeoning market are more than happy to oblige. Here are two shows drawing in the viewers, all hitting the nail on the head in their own way.

Trading Spaces (The Learning Channel, 3 p.m. weekdays)
- In the world of reality series, this show consistently has drawn the widest variety of viewers.
One episode offers enough reasons for that. Compared to Survivor or The Real World, each participant seems like an actual neighbor, not an actor.
The premise is simple yet addictive. Two neighbors agree to remodel one room in each other’s homes with a $1,000 budget and a 48-hour time limit.
In the hour-long show, we see just when all the fun and problems (sometimes at the same time) can occur. Giving up a room to a neighbor and a home decorator “manager” takes a leap of faith … One where the feet land during the show’s climactic final five minutes.
A recent episode featured Ruth and her son Chris remodeling the dining area for Ken and Paul, and vice versa. In the “getting to know you” interview, Ken and Paul are seen fiddling with a puzzle – an apropos metaphor for the redecorating sprint.
Each team invariably encounters obstacles, everything from a lack of space to painting woes. Designers like the playful Genevieve ease tensions, diffusing the types of confrontations that might occur during a normal weekend project.
“This red is totally going to bring a new warmth and vibe to the room,” says Genevieve, without a hint of irony.
There’s enough going on that the show doesn’t slip into 15 minutes of someone peeling plaster. Any time things slow down, resident carpenter Ty offers some home improvement sex appeal for swooning ladies.
And the results? On this show:
• A vertical entertainment center becomes horizontal.
• Folksy painting adds color to some drab corners.
• A picket fence motif gives the kitchen some continuity.
• Re-cropped family photos transform into abstract wall ornaments.
Each episode offers at least a few tips for that next home project. As for what tips to follow, viewer discretion advised.
Viewers also should be on the lookout for the first Trading Spaces clone, titled While You Were Out also on The Learning Channel. On the show, a wife remodels a room while the husband is out golfing and the like. There may be some design tips here, but the tone reeks of similarity. If John Fogerty can be sued for plagiarizing himself, business might be picking up for the TLC lawyers.

MTV Cribs (check your local listings) - With Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous canceled and our caviar dreams almost a distant memory, leave it to music television to fill our need. Cribs gives viewers an intimate look at stars’ immaculate houses, with each star treating the camera like a wide-eyed guest. If you ever wanted a room a gold-toothed rapper could appreciate, this is your show.
Cribs’ popularity stems from its wide scope. Everyone from Miami Dolphin Jason Taylor to Lord of the Rings actor Elijah Wood has participated, and each show actually offers some insight into the personalities.
Of course, these participants have the money to realize their dreams. The kicker is that most lead lives on location, making the main residence almost like a summer home and left in pristine condition.
A recent episode, though, dealt with a definite homebody. Then again, in his surroundings, people come to him.
That’s right, Cribs inspected and dissected the pad of one Hugh Hefner a.k.a. the Playboy Mansion.
The average homeowner could cull many things from this episode, including:
• Any problem with the love life can be solved by building an outdoor grotto.
• You never know when a stripper pole can add a healthy dose of spontaneity to a room.
• When entertaining multiple guests, a jungle filled with spider monkeys can satisfy even those with the biggest attention deficits. And after they’re exhausted, a room with a mattress floor will cushion their fall.
• And finally, forget caulk, 2×4’s or particle board. When your home is crying out for an upgrade, silicone is the way to go.


08 2008