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A Black Goat: The Ultimate Battle of Chicago Baseball Curses!

A Black Goat: The Ultimate Battle of Chicago Baseball Curses!

Once upon a time there was a baseball team. They hadn’t won the World Series in a really long time. But thanks to some smart managing, talented players, and a little bit of pluck and grit, they were able to make a completely unexpected run to the World Series at a time when no one expected them to. They paced their league and stormed through everyone they faced. Facing a pitching-heavy opponent in the Fall Classic, they fought down to the last, and were pushed to the brink in one of the greatest, most memorable baseball games ever played. And after decades of misery, it was in October of 2005 that the Chicago White Sox stood above all as the champions of the baseball world!…

Wait a minute, what’s that? That’s not how it went? That’s EXACTLY how it went! Oh, I think I see where you went wrong here – you were thinking I was writing about the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series victory! Well, not there I wasn’t. The Cubs victory was totally different. They were building up to it for years and it finally happened right at a time they created a team that will be a nightmare to every other team in MLB for the next seven years. Chicago is one of two (three if we’re counting Los Angeles) two-team markets in baseball. Unlike New York City – where the Yankees and Metropolitans both get a huge share of the popular headlines – there’s a severe dividing line which splits the White Sox from the Cubs. And that’s strange, because you could build an easy argument that the White Sox were just as star-crossed as the Cubs; maybe even more so. The White Sox also got less attention than the Boston Red Sox, who famously busted up an 86-year-old curse in 2004, even though the White Sox had a curse that ran slightly longer (88 years). But even Ozzie Guillen, the manager of the 2005 White Sox, kept things in perspective when he said that his team could win the next three World Series and still be less popular than the Cubs. The White Sox curse – the Curse of the Black Sox – went without publicity to such a point that no one remembered it existed at all until it was dug up in 2005.

It got me thinking about which curse was worse. So let’s do this! The Billy Goat Curse vs. the Curse of the Black Sox. One day, I’ll learn.

Coverage
I think just about everyone already knows about the Billy Goat and its effects. Some backwoods cave-dweller from East Outer Jahunga who never heard the word “baseball” in their life will bring up the Billy Goat Curse anytime someone finds them and mentions being from Chicago. They already know that the idea of a curse getting power through a bar owner’s pet goat is something that happened in 1945, even though the Cubs drought was a “mere” 37 years old when it happened. The Cubs are a nationally known and beloved team, so every time they come racing out and start well, that goat gets brought into it. Throughout the course of the baseball season, coverage of it has a habit of picking up strength. “The Cubs! Could this be the year they exorcise the Billy Goat Curse?” Since the time I started watching baseball, talk of the Billy Goat Curse has been run through the ringer in every postseason baseball game I’ve seen the Cubs play. It probably stands to be mentioned in a ton of broadcasts for the next several seasons as well, just so we all know it’s dead. The Curse of the Black Sox, though… Well, I hardly heard any mention of that, and that’s not just because the White Sox have played in so few postseason games. The Sox just don’t get a lot of attention. Their whole drought went unnoticed until they suddenly killed their curse in 2005, then it went unnoticed again even though everyone now knew better! The Billy Goat Curse getting more attention is somewhat understandable because it ran 20 years longer, but the Red Sox’ Curse of the Bambino was SHORTER than the Curse of the Black Sox and that also gets more attention!
Winner
The Billy Goat Curse. I’ll grant that everyone in the media paid more attention to that, but coverage blew so out of control that White Sox fans forgot their own team was even cursed at all. Cubs fans never shut up about theirs. So the Cubs are winning this one based on the power of shameless self-promotion and, you know, everything else.

Origins
Again, since the Billy Goat Curse is so well-covered, everyone already knows where it came from. Although the Cubs hadn’t won the World Series since 1908, it was in 1945 that Chicago tavern owner William Sianis hexed the team. Sianis bought a pair of tickets to the 1945 World Series between the Cubs and the Detroit Tigers. One, of course, was for him. The other turned out to be for his pet goat, Murphy. Not that there’s anything wrong with bringing pets to a baseball stadium – my sister and brother-in-law made a tradition of taking their dog to Citi Field to watch the Mets on Pet Day. But the fact that Murphy was a goat didn’t go unnoticed by the other patrons of Wrigley Field; they couldn’t escape the poor animal’s smell. So Sianis was thrown out of Wrigley Field. Understandably pissed off, Sianis stayed in his seat just long enough to utter the phrase “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” Everyone laughed it off back then, but the Cubs didn’t return to the World Series for 71 years. The Curse of the Black Sox has a much darker origin story. The White Sox won the World Series in 1917 and were fielding Joe Jackson, possibly the best player in baseball; Eddie Cicotte, possibly the best pitcher in baseball; and Buck Weaver, possibly baseball’s best third baseman. In 1919 they won the Pennant in such dominant fashion that the ensuing World Series was expected to be nothing but a formality, and that people weren’t watching to see if the Sox would win, but HOW they would win. Well, the opposing Cincinnati Reds beat the White Sox in a monumental upset. But as the Sox rolled through the 1920 season, word got out that professional gamblers had placed Wall Street-asshole amounts of cash on the Reds. It began an investigation that revealed eight members of the White Sox had agreed to take payments from gamblers – notably Arnold Rothstein and Joseph “Sport” Sullivan – in exchange for losing the Series on purpose. While they were found innocent in the following trial, all eight were also banned from baseball for life. The scandal resulted in the Commissioner position being created and baseball’s zero-tolerance policy on gambling.
Winner
The Curse of the Black Sox. The start of the Billy Goat Curse sounds like a children’s fairy tale. An evil bar owner places an elaborate hex on the Cubs! Ooh! The way the Curse of the Black Sox started had tangible consequences in the real world, and it involved dangerous people and the possibility of someone who didn’t know anything about what was going on getting hurt. The Black Sox Scandal also had a positive effect: The ensuing rule against gambling has been a successful deterrent. Since its implementation, there have been a handful of players who were called in for questioning based on gambling habits they had for events other than baseball, and others warned because they had connections to known gamblers. But only one of those people ignored all those warnings and got banned for life.

Star-crossed-ness
Pinpointing where the Cubs really started to go bad can be a little tricky. Yes, they’re known for being the Lovable Losers, but that’s a smaller part of a larger narrative that people forget. The Cubs didn’t win the World Series between 1908 and 2016. They never won the Pennant between 1945 and 2016. Now if your observations are astute, you may be wondering just, exactly, accounts for the 37 years between 1908 and 1945. Well, uh, Pennants. Lots of them. Pennants in 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, and 1938 to be exact. That whole loser image didn’t come into vogue until the 60’s or 70’s; until then the Cubs were one of the most hated teams in the National League. They were the Yankees without the titles the Yankees have to show for it. And even after 1945, the Cubs could make a habit of ripping hearts out and being stupid. There was 1969, where Sianis rescinded the Curse and the Cubs charged out, led the league from April until August, and then went 8-17 in September and got plowed by the Mets. There was Ernie Banks winning MVP in 1958 and 1959 but his team hauling losing records in both years. There was 1984, where they went to the NLCS only to lose a 2-0 lead in the series to, of all teams, the San Diego Padres. They lost the NLCS again to the San Francisco Giants in 1989, and the NLDS in 1998 to the Atlanta Braves. There was the epic NLCS meltdown of 2003 and those playoff popgun shots in 2007 and 2008 and hell, the Cubs got swept in the NLCS by the Mets just last season too. Between false hope like that, the Cubs kept sort of fading in and out, being mediocre enough to let their fans think they had a chance and just outright bad. As for the White Sox, well… Between 1917 and 2005, they won two Pennants. One was the 1919 Pennant which got thrown away. The other was a stellar effort in 1959 where the White Sox had the services of many of their best players – including Early Wynn, Billy Pierce, Nelly Fox, and Luis Aparicio – at their peaks. Fox was the MVP, with Aparicio second in voting. Wynn won the Cy Young, while Fox, Aparicio, and Sherm Lollar won Gold Gloves. Manager Al Lopez was Manager of the Year. But the thing with the White Sox is that during the 50’s and 60’s, they were good… Just never quite good enough. Looking at the standings for the 1959 baseball season, it’s pretty clear that while the Cleveland Indians gave everyone pause for thought, the main reason the White Sox won the Pennant was because the Yankees of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra had an off year. Besides that, it’s hard to say they were failing in the stretch. During their best years in the 50’s and 60’s, they had a lot of close calls, but were usually bowing out to a Yankees team that was just better. Not that it would have mattered, because they would only have gotten clobbered in the Series by the Dodgers anyway. After about 1967, they alternated between overachieving and having talent that failed. In 1983, the talentless White Sox won 99 games and their division; they’re the team the popular phrase “winning ugly” was created to describe. The year of the strike, the Sox were one of the best teams in baseball and could have gotten a Pennant, but the strike happened. The good years of the White Sox can mostly be summed up this way: No one remembers the bridesmaid.
Winner
The Billy Goat Curse. It’s hard to blame bad luck when the team goes between falling short and overachieving. The World Series title the White Sox finally won in 2005 wasn’t the same as the Cubs. The Cubs’ title was the culmination of a well-built team with a grand design. The White Sox title was the ultimate of their overachieving years…

Aftermath
Well, you mean aside from two of the wildest parties Chicago has ever seen? The Cubs victory parade was attended by over five million people. I can’t speak for the White Sox, because I don’t know. But for a comparison, two enormous gatherings which I was in Chicago for – and personally attended – were the 2008 election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, which was attended by over 500,000 people, and the Chicago Blackhawks 2010 victory parade, which drew three million. (The Blackhawks snapped a 49-year curse which was then the longest in the NHL.) But you’re probably wondering more about the long-term aftereffects, and in the case of the Cubs, they can’t be judged just yet. We can make a few speculations which will be good based on things we know, and here they are: One, their current general manager is Jed Hoyer. Hoyer’s past includes a stint as the Assistant to the General Manager for the Boston Red Sox which ran through the 2004 team. He was made Assistant General Manager – don’t ask me what the difference is – after Boston’s GM, Theo Epstein, stepped down briefly in 2005. Hoyer was one of four executives who kept the team going, completing trades for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Mark Loretta, and Andy Marte. He then worked as the GM for the Padres from 2009 to 2011, when he was taken by the Cubs. And you know who’s running the Cubs? Theo Epstein! Yes, the architect of the Cursebreaker Red Sox! He’s the President, not the GM, but he still developed a plan and oversaw it right through to the end. And it’s safe to expect that he’s using the same methods in Chicago as he did in Boston, which means this is a Cubs team built to win two or three more Fall Classics. But given the finicky nature of baseball bodies – today’s MVP is tomorrow’s obscure minor-leaguer – we can never be sure. The White Sox, on the other hand, we already saw. Its been 11 years since the Curse of the Black Sox went down in flames. And since the core of the 2005 team was kept intact, they were expected to spend the next few years slugging it out with Boston for the title of Supreme Sox Team… And, oh yeah, also World Series Champions. And that didn’t pan out. The White Sox made a run of it through the first half of 2006 but got blasted after the All-Star break, getting leapfrogged by both the Tigers and the Minnesota Twins. And it was the Tigers that won the Pennant and spend the next decade being the class of the division while, save a division title in 2008, the White Sox fell right back into their spot as the second team in the Second City. That was the truth: The White Sox were the ultimate one-year wonder. Like most of the other White Sox teams, they overachieved and just happened to win the World Series while doing so.
Winner
I’m holding off on this one. Yeah, we can make educated guesses about the Cubs all we want, but we’re still not going to know anything until we see some real results.

Impact
Although its only been a few days since the Cubs won the World Series, this is something that can actually be seen. The Cubs did have a great impact on the country. Let’s face it: The country has had a uniquely shitty year. The Republican Presidential candidate was picked strictly because the insane right political wing was desperate for a victory and thought the guy who fired up the worst of their fan base could be reined in. They’ve been proven wrong and only started to see the consequences of their stupidity after it was too late. David Bowie, Prince, Gordie Howe, and Muhammad Ali all left the Earthly plane. We’re being exposed to the bad side of the NFL and are torn over it, and even if we can ignore the bad side of it enough to use it as an escape, we can’t even do that anymore because one player is using it as a way to protest the way his people are treated. The Cubs managed to do the impossible by uniting the country, at least to the extent that it could have been united in a year like this. In the meantime, the White Sox winning the World Series didn’t have any impact at all. The Curse of the Black Sox itself is what had the impact. It was the Black Sox, after all, that resulted in baseball creating a Commissioner and a zero-tolerance policy on gambling. The Black Sox are also blamed for nearly ruining the sport, but that’s the reputation of it – I’m not sure about the truth of it. It’s something they teach you in elementary school history class, and they teach you that people stayed away from baseball until Babe Ruth was moved to the outfield and started hitting home runs. Honestly, did any other bad sports scandal have an impact like that? No one boycotted baseball for the steroid thing. No one avoided it after the strike, even though the fans made their displeasure over that known. People aren’t really staying away from football now. We didn’t quit on basketball even after a ref admitted to fixing a playoff series.
Winner
I’m going to give this to The Curse of the Black Sox. Yes, it’s awesome how the Cubs brought the country together, but that’s only going to be temporary, and if the Cubs manage to turn the corner, people are going to turn against them soon enough. Remember what happened to the Boston Red Sox? Same thing, although Red Sox fans becoming the worst people on the planet didn’t help their cause any.

Drama
You’ve seen The Exorcist, right? Would that movie have left the same impression on you without the girl’s neck doing a complete 180-degree turn, all the vomit, and the Priest killing himself at the end? Nope, didn’t think so. The drama is what people remember. And the Cubs of 2016 had that in spades during the postseason. Every pitch and every swing of the bat was watched with rapt attention. Everyone was already conditioned to know the Cubs were capable of blowing it at any time, and they had a past which backed the mindset up. One loss to the Giants was a tragedy. Two to the Dodgers and everyone in Chicago was suddenly picking out their favorite bridge over the Chicago River to jump off. Three to the Indians – who had a 3-1 lead in the World Series by then – and all the wind in Chicago was the deranged and heartbroken howling of Cubs faithful knowing their team was going to blow it again. (In all honesty, you couldn’t blame them for that one.) But the Cubs, like the Red Sox 12 years before, pulled themselves out of the insurmountable hole in order to get back into the Series and win it. And that seventh game was one of the greatest and most dramatic ever played: The Cubs lit up the scoreboard early and looked like they were going to cruise to the end, but the Indians came back, tying the game on a two-run homer in the eighth. The game went to extra innings, pausing for a brief rain delay during which one of my friends expressed her sentiments by saying, “I guess Mother Nature has to cry about this game too.” The Cubs scored two runs in the tenth, only to let the Indians score one more before they were finally able to close it out. On the other hand, when the White Sox ran down the entire league for their title in 2005, no one seemed in a big hurry to resist them. They made one of the most dominant postseason showings ever. In the ALDS, they plowed through the Red Sox, who – lest we forget – won the World Series the year before. In the ALCS, they lost the first game to the Los Angeles Angels before rebounding and winning the next four on the strength of four straight complete games from their starting rotation. In the World Series, every game they played against the opposing Houston Astros provided us with suspense. Two games were decided by two runs, and the other two were decided by one. Game three was of particular interest – it was a 15-inning marathon which saw the Astros take a 4-0 lead which they blew when the White Sox scored five in the fifth inning. The Astros tied it in the eighth, sent the game to extra innings, and the ChiSox and ‘Stros dueled for four more innings before the ChiSox scored two in the 14th to end the marathon. The game set a few marks: The teams combine to use a total of 17 pitchers; they threw a total of 482 pitches; 21 total batters were walked; 43 total players were used; and 30 total players were left on base. In the following game, the White Sox clinched the title with pitcher Freddy Garcia being nearly perfect through seven, and Jermaine Dye scored the only run of the game. Dramatic? Yes. Suspenseful? Definitely. Necessary? Not exactly. The theatrics didn’t change the fact that the 2005 World Series was only four games long.
Winner
The Billy Goat Curse. I take nothing from the White Sox here, but there was a difference between them and the Cubs: Clout. The White Sox of 2005 had it. The Cubs of 2016 didn’t. If the Sox didn’t close out in that fourth game, they would have had three more chances to do it, and history says they almost certainly would have pulled it off – only one team in baseball (the 2004 Red Sox) has ever managed to win a playoff series in which they were down 3-0. In total of sports, the number of teams that has climbed out of the 3-0 hole can still be counted on one hand, and all except the Red Sox are hockey teams. And that’s because being in that hole can mentally break you down. It says that even if you managed to get that far, the other team is clearly superior, you the players want to mentally cut their losses before they get hurt. Even if they win a game or two, it’s an effort to save face. The Cubs weren’t in that hole, but being behind 3-1 in a series is pretty close. It makes things a lot harder. There’s no room at all for error. And the Cubs, with all that history weighing on them and looking like they Cubbed it all up yet again, persevered. They shook off the mentality that situation can put on an athlete’s mind, came back into it, and never let it get into their heads again.

Looks like the Billy Goat Curse was the superior curse after all. Yes, the implications and impact of the Curse of the Black Sox were a lot nastier, but the goat is associated with Satan, so there’s that.

Explaining the Appeal of Donald Trump

Explaining the Appeal of Donald Trump

Anyone who is denying the seriousness of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign now or arguing that he’ll lose at this point is in denial. Trump has morphed into the rampaging elephant with wings. He’s sitting at the top of the polls and looks like a safe lock for the nomination, but there are still people continuing to lie to themselves about the possibility of a Trump presidency. I don’t mean the everyday neighborhood butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, either; I mean full-fledged politic-heads who are versed in the nuances of the Geneva Conventions and Human Rights Constitution are going on the Tube and launching into blithering dumbass mode in efforts to talk themselves into evidence against Trump being real. They can give all the lectures in the world if they want, but they’re exemplifying Kurt Vonnegut’s famous statement about how lies become true if they get repeated often enough. It’s probably a self-survival mechanism.

People are acting like the rise of Donald Trump is some big surprise, but if they had been paying attention, it would have shown up right in front of their faces years ago. For me, this isn’t even hindsight. This is the horrifying climax of a stunt Trump pulled just before the last presidential election. He had threatened presidential runs before, but never with such an intensity. I’m not sure anyone noticed, but Trump was drawing some passionate crowds five years ago. I openly said that if Trump decided to ever run for President, there was a good chance he could win. Everyone I told that to laughed me off. Of course, now they’re pretending I never said anything like that in the first place.

It’s hard to take satisfaction in watching this whole sorry political episode pop into fruition. Since I understand international politics and come from a place that doesn’t, its been easy to read into Trump’s main selling point: That wall. The Trump Wall has been the only consistently detailed idea Trump has been using. It’s all he’s needed, with occasional lip-synching about how he’s just going to hire the best and brightest to do his thinking for him. (Because no other President has ever done THAT before, right?) People can and HAVE argued that the other Republican candidates are worse for the country, but there’s a reason they aren’t as scary as Donald Trump: It’s because Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and John Kasich all have a sense of civil servitude. Say what you will about their policies, but they all come across as being part of the race for a chance to make America great again. A Trump presidency would be four years of a bullheaded ego with no sense of feasibility or humility. The Trump Wall is the perfect example of it. Donald Trump says he’s going to build a big wall along the Rio Grande to keep the Mexicans out, and that he’s going to make Mexico pay for it. Now, this is a fairy tale. Mexico is already laughing it off, and the question of what Trump will do when Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto takes him off the speed dial hasn’t been addressed. Will Trump have the good sense to just leave it alone? Or will his ego cause him to spend trillions of US dollars on an invasion with our depleted Military to force Mexico to comply? Trump is already famous for his inability to shake off personal insults. What happens if he gets control of the Military? Going to extremes here, think a two-front war against the European Union and the Chinese which we don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. Then consider that he’s already been thrown out of England.

There’s a reason Trump is doing so well, though, and it has nothing to do with his brand name. It has a lot more to do with the fact that he doesn’t hold rejects from The Jerry Springer Show to any moral failings they have. I’m not silly enough to believe Trump has any conscious grasp of sociology, but if you’re a white person who’s in extreme poverty, the views of you don’t exactly run the gamut: You’re seen as either a personal failure who made bad choices or a moral failure who deserves everything bad that comes your way. There’s no consideration for surroundings, upbringing, or mental programming; you just suck. Yes, Donald Trump is taking advantage of stupidity, but he’s effective because he’s not running around saying that his potential constituents deserve to be sleeping in the beds they made for themselves. Other politicians and intellectuals keep telling bottom-rung whites that it’s their own fault they live down there. Trump is the only one who is telling them that everything is not their own fault, it’s someone else’s, and that’s music to the ears of people who get treated like disposable napkins.

Since there are a lot of poor white people who have educations comparable to those of any poor minority people, Trump has an easy sell. He’s not a politician, but he’s pandering to millions of people who don’t know anything about politics. That’s key: Donald Trump can easily sell himself as less a presidential candidate and more of a messianic figure or magic man who has solutions or ideas BECAUSE he’s not involved with politics. There are a lot of people who believe the President is supposed to be a wizard, and that’s what Trump is selling himself as. Trump himself seems to believe this; he’ll snap his fingers, and all of America’s problems will go away. The fact that trying to play politics will involve doing politics will be lost on everyone, including Trump himself, a fact which his head strategist took note of – before quitting his campaign because of it.

Our own Americentrism is also playing a part in it. The United States is only arguably the superpower it used to be, and with the rise of both the European Union and China, other countries aren’t exactly quaking in their boots at the prospect of pissing off the Americans anymore. We like to play up our victory in World War II as a statement to just how awesome we are, but there are a couple of points worth considering: The first is that the historical record says less “the United States won the war” and more “the United States provided a huge assist to the Soviet Union by hammering the western front in Europe and then island-hopping in the Pacific.” The second is that World War II ended in 1945, and our record since then has been putrid: We fought the Koreans to a draw, fought an eight-year stalemate in Vietnam before figuring out it had nothing we wanted, and bungled two invasions in the middle east. Yet, we still fly on the belief that we’re the best and only superpower in the world, and Trump exemplifies that ethos. Not a man who has often been shown paying respects to other cultures or people, Trump is the perfect Ugly American. He and his followers still believe that others will automatically pay deference to America no matter where they are because… AMERICA! Trump believes himself to be immune to criticism, and that little bunnies should and will dance paths for him everywhere he goes, which is a common idea in this country.

When all that is taken into consideration, the question isn’t “how is a guy like him able to make a serious bid at the presidency?” It’s “How did this take so long?”

Grace Commons Loses its Talisman

A random Sunday in October of 2006. I sat at one of my usual haunts, the quirky little brick-and-wood spot addressed at 1741 North Western Avenue in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, wondering where the hell World Can’t Wait had trotted off to this time. It was the second time this had happened – I had been given one address by the political group and told they were meeting there that Sunday, and they went someplace else without me.

So I was sitting there, nothing to do, not willing to make the return trip home because I had just dragged myself a half-mile while getting licked by the bitter winds. My health was already getting under the weather. Fortunately, no one seemed in any hurry to shove me out the door. The first person I saw was Nanette; now, I knew Nanette strictly nominally as the friendly hipster artist who was also the acting barista at the Monday jazz shows that flowed into the World Can’t Wait room’s thin walls. I thought I had a fairly accurate read on her through our brief drink and pastry exchanges then. She clearly had to be one of the many people in the building connected with the Near Northwest Arts Council. Had to be. Had that vibe.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked me that day.

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t think I was in any condition to turn down an offer of tea.

Nanette brought me the tea and, as she turned to leave, casually added “Oh, we’re having a prayer service at 5. You’re welcome to come if you like.” I could swear it was an afterthought.

Whatever, though. I wasn’t planning to head out anytime soon, and I had nothing better to do. A prayer service might be good for a few yuks, at any rate. Why the hell not?

Well… My life was changed for good after I left. I couldn’t describe what about the service hit me at the time, and I still can’t. I walked into the service room flying high on some 18 months of declared, anti-religious atheism after getting pissed with two different dogmas. I thought I was done. Instead, that Sunday invitation turned out to be the beginning of a whole different path which I’ve been walking ever since. It was my welcome to a unique spiritual community called Wicker Park Grace, and it quickly became one of my life’s centerpieces. My involvement there made me a better person in a few ways, some of which I’m certain I don’t know about yet.

Anyway, of all the qualities I attached to Nanette the way I saw her then, Presbyterian Minister was among the last on my list. I figured the initial prayer service I attended was some kind of novelty thing; not a weekly meeting. Nanette, though, said she ran services like that every week, and when I returned the next week, Nanette, me, and a handful of other people sat down in a small room. You know what the service was? The small lot of us sitting down, eating dinner, and talking about the various questions and problems we all had about scriptures. I finally got to ask about all the problems I had with the two different religions I had followed in my life to that point, and had used to hammer fundamentalists afterward. It was the first time anyone ever took my questions and comments seriously. The congregation of Wicker Park Grace wasn’t there to crush opposition to religion by insisting that I just believe, or that I wasn’t reading something properly; the earliest form of the church that I knew there was just as confused, angry, and misfit as I was, and just as eager to get to the bottom of the scriptures they were familiar with.

Nanette never tried to stand pat with testimonies and reaffirmations of faith. In fact, she was the one leading us through some questions and into even more questions. For a working class kid raised in a staunch literalist religious atmosphere, this was unheard of, and it was because of this that Nanette managed to do something no other Minister I ever met had managed: She got through to me. She made me think. She challenged everything I thought I knew about religion previously, through both my experience following two different faiths and then turning my back on them both.

The new way I discovered of looking at religion had a remarkable and unexpected effect: It made me appreciate the positive aspects of the religion I was raised practicing again while managing to reinforce my atheism at the same time. I wasn’t the only person at Wicker Park Grace who started to wonder if there could ever be such a beast as a Christian Atheist. Christian Atheism or not, though, all the barriers that mentally kept me from questioning in the past finally broke down, and I began to appreciate the fact that I could be a perfectly flawed human being and still be a halfway decent person.

I had had several Ministers in my past, but Nanette is the one I consider my first real Minister. She managed to find a new life for my weather-worn soul and prevent a third form of unofficial religious dogma from taking hold of it. I learned that I liked asking questions about the big issues of religious faith and upsetting the natural order, and Nanette gave me the first real outlet I had to do that.

Wicker Park Grace grew and eventually moved to a different building, establishing a new form as Grace Commons. But people have this funny way of moving on, and Nanette was eventually installed as the Minister of a whole new congregation. Grace Commons moved yet again soon afterward, its members moved into areas of Chicago more difficult to reach – and sometimes out of Chicago altogether – and everything that Grace Commons established started falling apart. The last time I managed to get to Grace Commons, services had become bi-weekly affairs with attendance on par with the first services I ever attended there. A couple of my friends there remarked to me last year they weren’t sure of Nanette’s ability to be a full-time Minister to two congregations.

That turned out to be a good guess, because Nanette is stepping down, and Grace Commons is losing its talisman. As the Minister of Grace Commons, Nanette installed a core ethos of hospitality and welcomed everyone, regardless of their background, and was beloved for her easy, outgoing, and personable style of teaching. She oversaw Grace Commons as it turned from three people in a coffeehouse to a formalized establishment with a personality of its own. Without her, Grace Commons is taking a congregation-run course, and I can’t say I know what’s in store for it. But I think I can speak for all of the old regulars from Grace Commons when I say: Nanette, we love you.

Worst Movies I Saw for the First Time this Year

I’ve always wanted to write up one of these best/worst movies lists. Unfortunately, I don’t frequently see enough movies in the year they came out in order to pull it off. Then last year, I read a blog post written by a friend who found a novel way around that: He presented his readers with a list of the best movies he had seen for the first time that year. I thought it was a great idea and immediately knew I had to rip him off.

That, of course, gave me a whole new problem: I couldn’t look like I was ripping him off. That and I, you know, didn’t watch quite as many legitimately good movies. So I decided to go the opposite route, because let’s face it: While all of us are willing to acknowledge the greatness of an immortal classic like Citizen Kane or The Godfather, there will be days when the heft of it will get to be a bit much, and you’ll just want to shut your brain down and throw something mindless into the DVD player. That’s why people make bad movies – they’re there for comfort and immediate enjoyment, not emotional gut-wrenching that inspires suicide notes.

However, there’s a difference between bad and just plain stupid, which I why I’ve chosen to compile a list of stupid-bad movies which would should never, ever watch under any circumstances. And one more thing: I just moved across the country and I still haven’t really settled, which is why you’re reading a part-list instead of a full one.

Atlas Shrugged Part I
You know a movie is bad when the DVD case feels the need to outright lie to you. The case refers to Ayn Rand’s original novel as a book about courage and self-sacrifice. Well, if you’re even remotely familiar with Rand’s stylings, you know the way she thinks goes as follows: You see a little kid eating a candy bar on the sidewalk. You decide that it’s in your own rational self-interest to have that candy bar. So you walk over to the kid, yank it away, and then push him into the path of a speeding car. Rand’s idea’s of courage and self-sacrifice are that you were courageous and self-sacrificial by merit of the fact that you didn’t beat the kid half to death between taking the candy and pushing him. Although that would have been okay too. You’re strong, he’s weak, it’s all gravy.

Now, I don’t denounce Rand’s work completely. I’m familiar with some of it and happen to agree with a few of her ideas: A strong market, small government, competition being good for production, and the idea that there is a vein of selfishness – which we don’t dare ever acknowledge – flowing through even the most altruistic of actions. Atlas Shrugged, however, is porn for libertarian righties. Stephen Colbert was right: This is a movie in which the good guys would be the bad guys anywhere else. It’s a fantasy, and a paranoid one at that. Every character is an over-the-top stereotype, and you’re still supposed to consider the robber barons the flawless, strong good guys.

Atlas Shrugged has no grounding in real science, real government workings, or real economics. It’s trying to get the populace to rally around an idea and a group of characters who despise them so much that they run off to a fantasy island. There is a severe disconnect between Rand’s philosophy and reality because Rand doesn’t care about the people on the production end of it and insists the world would stop when all the rich people go up even further into their rich people penthouses, and they could live just fine without the labor that keeps them there. Yeah, let’s see how that works. Atlas Shrugged takes weird leaps in dialogue – the good guys contradict themselves numerous times while discussing their philosophies – and ideas and has the production qualities of a porn movie. It’s lit similarly, scored similarly, and acted similarly. On the upside, since I’ve never read the book, I now know how bad it is and know that I’m not interested in ever reading it.

Clash of the Titans
I recently found a copy of the Sam Worthington Action Movie Checklist they used to make Clash of the Titans at a garage sale. I don’t know how it got there, and I don’t care. Stoic hero who takes himself far too seriously? Check! Does he try to evade his call? Check! Deny his identity? Check! Are we remaking an old movie? Check! I’m not going to sit here and try to pretend that the movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger are any brainier than Worthington’s, but what made Ah-nuld so much fun was that he knew what he was getting into. He wanted to make entertaining movies – as opposed to statements – and just happened to stab, shoot, and explode his way into a bunch of cult classics, a few legitimate classics, and a larger-than-life screen image which people spent years trying to copy. Schwarzenegger knew a lot of his movies were full of shit. We knew a lot of his movies were full of shit. The important difference between Schwarzenegger and Worthington is that Schwarzenegger KNEW we knew his movies were full of shit, and he played to expectations accordingly.

Yeah, the new Clash of the Titans not only employs every cliche that made action movies insufferable, it plays them straight. What you see in this sucker is what you get, and there isn’t anything about it that tries to elevate itself above and beyond the bog standard to make Clash of the Titans stand out. There’s no great overarching theme, but that doesn’t stop director Louis Leterrier from going about his job as if there’s some sort of hammy diatribe about religion in the script. The script disagrees with him, and the whole movie ends up being boring and muddled.

That sucks a whole lot too, because with the surge in superhero movies, it would have been a great time to introduce cinephiles to ancient legends like Perseus, Hercules, and the Argonauts. Those guys were the original superheroes. They stole treasures like fire and the Golden Fleece; killed unforgettable monsters like the minotaur, the hydra, Medusa, and the sirens; and interacted with interesting characters like Atlas, Hades, and Poseidon. Someone should start trying to contract Marvel to write graphic novels or movies about them. Until someone grows enough of a brain to try that, though, you’re much better off playing through the God of War video game series again. It’s pretty much the same thing as Clash of the Titans, only fun.

Good Luck Chuck
People who have seen Good Luck Chuck have no doubt made the statement of it being a cinematic sin at some point. That’s not true, though. The terrible truth is that Good Luck Chuck is itself not the sin, but rather the punishment for an even bigger sin humanity committed: For a hot minute there, we made Dane Cook a marquee movie star. I’m sure more Biblical types of folks will say the reason their god didn’t flood the entire planet again was because he promised not to, but I figure God huddled up with Hell’s Ironic Punishment Division and they decided giving people exactly what they asked for would be a much harsher punishment with longer-lasting effects.

In Good Luck Chuck, Dane Cook plays Chuck, a man who is eminently punchable and who is also a good luck charm for women looking for The One. They flag him down, have sex with him, and bam! The next guy they meet is their Prince Charming. If you can’t spot something egregious about women in that plotline, then congratulations on your success, Mr. Studio Executive. Anyhow, Chuck is the good guy, and the amazing thing is that his best friend Stu somehow manages to be even more punchable than Chuck. As all men are wont to do, Chuck sees Jessica Alba and falls in love with her instantly. They hit it off, but he can’t sleep with her. Hilarity ensues, as it tends to do. Good Luck Chuck is the only movie I’ve ever seen which opens with a joke about a junior high schooler trying to rape another junior high schooler. From there, Stu shouts a lot and acts chauvinistic and you want to kill him. Chuck has an 80’s montage of himself having sex with lots of women and you want to neuter him. The movie hits pretty much all the lowbrow humor stereotypes it can think of and you don’t laugh once.

The shame of it is that Good Luck Chuck can probably be seen as the movie that killed Jessica Alba’s career. Alba was never a great actress, but in Good Luck Chuck, she delivers a performance which is legitimately sweet, charming, and endearing. If you remember the TV ads for this movie, you may remember that Alba’s character is shown being a major klutz, but that aspect of her character is downplayed. Although her part isn’t written well, Alba brings her to a surprising life and is able to redeem a lot of the bullshit the script forces her through. At the points when she can’t, the blame lies more on the screenplay than on Alba. It’s too bad for her that this movie and her widely criticized line of natural products will now have to hold her over until her inevitable landing in the Portland edition of the CSI/NCIS franchise circle.

The Lone Ranger
Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Frank Grimes was hired to work at the Nuclear Plant and ended up electrocuting himself because he was the only sane man surrounded by an idiocracy? Picture that in reverse. You know, the funny man getting caught up in a planet full of serious, straight shooters. That’s The Lone Ranger. Another great reference point would be the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which share star Johnny Depp, director Gore Verbinski, and a pair of screenwriters, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (both of whom, by the way, also wrote Aladdin, the original Shrek, and The Mask of Zorro). Pirates involved another straight man in a comic world concept – every character in those movies had some sort of comedic slant, including Elizabeth Swann. (“You like pain?” BAM! “Try wearing a corset!”) The straight man in Pirates, Will Turner, eventually figured out that his landlubbing ways washed away with the tide.

John Reid – The Lone Ranger – never really figures that out, and boy does the script ever do everything it can to ram that into your head. Although it uses a framing device in an effort to create a mythos, the titular Ranger gets used more like the movie’s comic prop. We get left with a bloated series of scenes in which The Lone Ranger is placed in a wacky situation where his ideals and behavior clash with those of everyone else around him, thus setting up his inevitable fall and humiliation. When the movie finally gets tired of giving us the same old, same old and realizes that it has a $250 million budget, it tries to make up for lost time by presenting a train sequence. Depp seems to finally be tiring of the crazy person schtick he developed after the first Pirates movie made him a superstar, which means the guy who became the best part of Verbinski’s Pirates trilogy is now acting on autopilot. There’s only so often the audience can stand to watch the same thing over and over again, and that’s ultimately what The Lone Ranger keeps giving us. To worsen the effect, Verbinski seems obsessed with kids. Seems like there’s a kid in this movie being used as a prop in every other scene, and there’s a very special hell reserved for directors who rely on using kids to create a sense of drama or danger.

Fortunately, if you’re able to wait everything out, the climactic train sequence is a spectacular feat of stuntwork which makes a clear callback to The General, the legendary silent movie by Buster Keaton. Also, Verbinski decided against creating a photoshop-looking computerized bad guy who was obsessed with mechanical spiders, which means that for everything wrong with it, it’s still not nearly as bad as the Will Smith/Kevin Kline version of Wild Wild West.

Pixels
It shouldn’t be some great cause of confusion as to just why Adam Sandler chose to create his newest movie around 70’s and 80’s video games: Those old games and Adam Sandler are both very simplistic. And Sandler doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo that his man-child shenanigans are dead now. They’re played out, and the more Sandler appears, the more you just want to punch him in the face until his head blows up into a bunch of those small pixel cubes that appear in Pixels whenever a bad guy blows up.

That description sound like fun? Well, in Pixels, he teams up with one of the great banes of the cinephile’s existence: The video game movie! Granted, Pixels isn’t based on any video game in particular, but it involves a plot about aliens trying to wipe out the Earth in the guise of popular old video game characters. So yes, that makes it a video game movie. Hey, Wreck-It Ralph and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World were both video game movies, even though they weren’t based on any video games, so yes, that’s possible.

A thoughtful and intelligent screenplay could have made Pixels work. Unfortunately, Pixels relies on those old jokes and stereotypes about gamers which make it a pain in the ass to be a gamer. The script has no concept of in-universe rules, so it looks like it was compiled in bits and pieces by people who were trying to force plot twists and unfunny jokes into it. All your favorites are here: The guy who has no clue how to socialize; the girls who don’t know anything about video games; the men are all immature; and the idea that video games are some pointless hobby that have no merit. When the inevitable virgin joke is finally made, you can almost hear the movie breathe a sigh of relief.

Robocop (2014)
Oh, the thrilling action of a bunch of One Percent suits arguing philosophy in boardrooms! The unique thing about this remake of Robocop is that it lacks any soul, despite catering to the expectations and whims of today’s public. While it does confront a handful of issues today’s audiences will find relevant, it doesn’t have the subtlety of Paul Verhoeven’s original, and what comes out is one very confused action movie.

There are action sequences, yes. Most of them are muted in some way. Robocop seems to abhor the idea of going full throttle to hit the crazy, ultraviolent heights of Verhoeven’s classic, and with that being the prevailing ethos, it seems almost to be at war with itself at times; like it wants to be the sort of philosophical rumination that Waking Life was, except good and with guns. My comment about arguing in boardrooms up there comprises a lot of the movie – they argue a lot about the morality of how effective a crimefighting robot can be if it doesn’t have the humanity required to pull back and take context into account.

As a semi-intellectual, that’s something I can appreciate. But not in this case. Robocop can’t figure out just what it is, and it doesn’t even have enough honesty with itself to present a true bad guy. The true bad guy in the movie is an ass-pull which came about because the writers remembered that Verhoeven’s movie was an action movie, and if anyone wanted to see a remake, they would probably be expecting action.

The Magic 50

I promised myself that if I managed to gather 50 followers, I would start a Facebook page for The Windy Nickel.

That day has arrived!

https://www.facebook.com/windynickel?ref=br_tf

Skinning House Hunters International

Skinning House Hunters International

Recently I overheard a woman on a reality TV show who was trying to buy a house complain that an ideal pad she was looking at didn’t have enough of that Spanish charm. Ordinarily I try to stay away from the realm of reality TV, unless it involves upstate New York and/or food, the latter preferably involving Guy Fieri in some way. There was something about this woman that really irked me, though, as I caught several snippets of her in full-on talking head mode making a big deal over Spanish charm. I don’t know; I’m thinking it maybe had something to do with the fact that she was buying a house in Valencia. As the narrator took great care to keep reminding the viewers, this is the third-largest city in Spain, coming in just behind Madrid and Barcelona. According to Wikipedia, there are well over 800,000 residents of Valencia. It’s easy for me to conclude that a fair number of those residents are Spanish, but I’ve never been to Europe, so what do I know?

Welcome to House Hunters International, a show that drives me nuts. This show has a veneer of spoiled mockery and a ring of extreme haughtiness from the One Percent. Ever since this show came to my attention, I’ve always seen it as the television equivalent of Gwenyth Paltrow – the heiress who reminds us lowly knaves that we are, in fact, nothing more than lowly knaves by offering her opinions on living life to its fullest. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. The problem steps in when it appears that the way to live is by spending money. Then spending more money; perhaps on a nice blouse which costs more than my entire wardrobe.

The times I’ve suffered through this show, I’ve frequently wondered why all the episodes have commons themes, no matter where they’re taking place. One is that the buyers always seem to have budgets which could afford the entirety of South Buffalo. Another is that the cities are all glamor centers. I’ve never seen House Hunters International make a play at a couple relocating in the other direction – wherever they go, it’s always from wherever to your Kyoto, or your Aukland, your Vienna, your Rio de Janeiro, or if the episode is about a non-American expat headed in our direction, it will be New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. None of these are people from the creative class arriving with idealistic visions of turning the place onto its head. You’re not going to see anyone trying to move to whatever the non-American version of the Rust Belt is. (Spare me the diatribe about how Europe’s decimated economy means the entire continent is basically the Rust Belt now. You know what I’m talking about.) Well, okay, there were one or two episodes revolving around around Reykjavik, the capitol of Iceland. Also, the show seems to have a weird bias against single people, families with kids, seniors, gays, and minorities. Are you anything other than a 30-ish straight person in a relationship? House Hunters International will ignore you.

This show is basically selling to people who are viewing the rest of the world through the quaintness lens. I have very little doubt that nearly everyone who appears on it is seeing their new home mostly as tourists who are expecting to makes their purchases with the expectations of finding nothing but an extended vacation. It occurs to very few of them that they’re really going to uplift and re-pot themselves in an entirely different culture in which the language is different. Even if they manage to learn the language, they’ll also have to learn a somewhat bastardized form of it because whatever language they’re learning has slang expressions of its very own. Trickier still will be the unspoken cues which people use from day to day to communicate. There will be things natives will try to convey through between-lines spoken expressions and plenty of gestures they’re not going to get.

Another thing I’ve started wondering in light of that idiot in Valencia up there is, just what do they plan on doing while living in this country? If you’re living in Spain, Spanish charm shouldn’t be a qualifier for deciding your living quarters unless you’re going to go hobnobbing exclusively with your midwestern-accented buddies. I suspect the realtors on House Hunters International are little more than tokens. Afterward, the newly-nationalized residents are going to hang out with other expats or have a cultural pressure breakdown. I’ve read about non-American cities having America-towns, the same way this country has Greektowns, Little Italys, and Chinatowns.

Basically, this show is a travelogue for rich people planning extended vacations or long excursions for the occasional tax purpose. It’s not informing us or giving us windows into the lives of anyone. It’s mocking us, and that’s all.

For Those Who ARE Bicycle Friendly….

For Those Who ARE Bicycle Friendly….

Sadly, I don’t have a way to work this into anything I have to write. However, bicycling is something I truly believe in, and I received an email recently from someone asking me to promote a website graphic where you can buy bicycle racks for your car. Since this is something I’m big on, I’ve decided to post the graphic and the link. Here’s hoping he gets business:

http://www.bikerackshops.com/guide_to_buying_the_perfect_bike_rack/

guide to buying the perfect bike rack for cars