A Hoarder in Spring

Hoarders
Image via Wikipedia

Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment. –Mark Twain

I have a predisposition to bizarre, out of the ordinary true stories. It is not schadenfreude that compels me to read about or watch TV shows that deal with some deformed corner of the human condition. I find no relief from other people’s misfortune. But I am drawn to them – the way a campfire child already paralyzed with fear begs for yet another ghost story. “Please stop scaring me some more!”

I am uncertain of the genesis of my macabre fascinations.   Perhaps, it started when I read my first “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” paperback book. The stories ranged from the feral child raised by wild dogs to Eng and Chang Bunker, conjoined Siamese twins who each married different women and sired twenty-one kids between them .  (I still wonder what they had to pay for a hotel room).  I recall my magnificent obsession with weird, disjointed cult movies like “Eraserhead” and the 1932 Tod Browning cult classic, “Freaks”  – a horror movie about sideshow performers with names like Half Boy, Bird Girl and the Human Skeleton.

My spouse simply cannot understand my ghoulish predispositions.  She has nothing but empathy for the objects of my fascination and resents their exploitation by the media.  My nighttime malingering around television documentaries that profile people afflicted with exotic and improbable circumstances annoys her to no end.  Despite her scowls of disapproval, I plop down each evening in my great green chair and channel surf scouring the programming horizon line for anything tattooed, incarcerated, insane, disfigured or possessing some bizarre or debilitating condition. There is one show in particular that draws me in like no other. It is simply called “Hoarders”.

Each week, A&E drags its dysfunction hungry viewers into a hard to comprehend docudrama chronicling the lives of psychologically challenged human pack rats whose lives have become so unmanageable that the department of Health, Human or Child Protective Services is in the process of evicting them from a home that is literally consuming its inhabitants with junk.

A certifiable ‘hoarder’ cannot distinguish between valuables and “stuff”.  Hoarders compulsively purchase, collect and accumulate every imaginable material possession – often filling their entire home and yard with useless junk. Some hoarders actually appear normal to the outside world. They are not always reclusive mental patients. Some hoarders just lack the synapses that seem to regulate the emotional and mental connections that help us sort through our needs and wants. In other cases, a trauma, old age or an emotional event may trigger or exacerbate a person’s predisposition to hoard.

The condition of these homes is hard to describe and even harder to imagine.  The rooms are usually uninhabitable, yet the hoarder chooses to burrow among the debris like a hamster.  In one hard to fathom episode,  a woman had over a dozen cats entering and exiting her house through openings created by goats that had chewed holes in her family room wall ….(yes, goats)

To help rehabilitate the hoarder, it is critical to help them solve their own problem by ridding their home of the trash.  They must agree to allow a special cleaning unit to dispose of a large percentage of the debris. Often, the hoarder cannot handle the intervention and becomes despondent, combative or hysterical at the prospects of having their bizarre clotted world dismantled.

Ok, I confess. I am totally fascinated and at the same time, appalled at the living conditions of these seemingly normal people.  Last week, an apparently together thirty-something guy made the mistake of inviting his new girlfriend of six months to see his townhouse. There was just one problem. He was a hoarder.   His bachelor pad looked like the Salvation Army had thrown up all over his house. His soon to be ex-girlfriend wandered his home like a post nuclear blast survivor – – staring with a frozen smile that masked her horror.  Finally she mustered a question, “ How can you live like this? “ I sort of sided with the guy as my college dorm room was not too far from his house.  Who knows?  If I had known him in 1982, I might have borrowed some of his trash until I could accumulate more of my own.

The all-time nadir hoarder story involved a woman whose toilet had broken three years earlier and had solved for this problem by wearing adult diapers and tossing them into an adjacent room – where the stack had now grown to eight feet tall and blocked the door.  At this point, I made a low squeal of disgust.  I looked up and realized my youngest son was watching over my shoulder. We were temporarily united in our revulsion and both decided that cleaning the cat’s litter box was child’s play compared to removing the mummified carcass of a cat from under a two-year crush of junk. As the cleaner lifts the dead cat with a shovel from under some shelves, the hoarder brightens momentarily, “Oh, that’s where Twinkles went off to…”

At this point my son turns away in disgust.  I hear him distinctly mutter, “I want to go clean my room.”

I begin to worry.  Could I become a hoarder? I have always attached great sentimental value to things and my office is cluttered with an odd menagerie of toy soldiers, books, baseball cards, old Sports Illustrated magazines, maps, paintings and well, just stuff, lot’s of valuable stuff.

Fortunately, I am married to an anti-hoarder. Each spring, she throws open the windows and gets a crazed look in her eyes.  This pre-purge game face is all business and it appears just before most of our possessions are given away to the Goodwill or Salvation Army.

I am usually handed a broom, list of chores and a hefty bag, and forced to confront the detritus that we have accumulated over the prior year.  Her goal is simple:  shed items like winter weight – – ridding our lives of things that have long since become empty mementos of our past.  As master and commander of our ship, it is her prerogative to rid from our lives any inanimate objects that slow our forward progress.

The spring clean initiates each year usually after some disgusting encounter in the boys’ bathroom. I can hear her debating upstairs with the children about old toys, stuffed animals, clothes and books.  In the end, she always prevails and the first snowflake of what might have become a hoarder’s avalanche innocently melts under her resolute stare.

I am next in her crosshairs.  I am rarely successful defending against her cleansing blitzkrieg.  She would rather die than become even a junior hoarder. We wrestle over a stack of Military History magazines and an old set of stereo speakers. Hey, I might need those some day. My partner moves stealthily toward my closet.   I move to intercept her.

“I’m going to toss those shorts that you wore last week to baseball.  They are a little “too” short.

As usual, I am offended but also embarrassed.  Somewhere along the way, I lost my sartorial sense of what a man with my physique can now wear without looking like the blond cop in dolphin shorts on Reno 911.

” I think they look fine.” I say defensively.  “They are running shorts.” She just smiles that ” I am doing you a big favor” smile and continues to rummage through my workout clothes, gathering up torn and undersized shirts and shorts.

“I am sure someone else could use these. What about this shirt?” It is a tie dyed Grateful Dead shirt replete with skeleton wearing a crown of roses. ” When did you last wear this ?”

“Um, probably 1985”, I say incredulously.  “That shirt is a classic!”

“Jerry Garcia is dead.”

“Bob Weir is alive and I can probably sell that on EBay for $100!”

“That’s a great idea!”

Just then my son walks in and asks me to go outside and play catch with him.  Forever being haunted by Harry Chapin’s ” Cat’s In the Cradle”, I have never refused a child’s request to play anything in seventeen years.  I am trapped.  I leave her alone in my closet.

She smiles, waiting for us to leave.  I have been too busy defending my Dead Head shirt to notice all the other things she has targeted for Goodwill while we are playing outside.

You see, she knows there is a little hoarder in all of us.  And she is determined to keep it that way.

A Prayer for Chuckie

Charlie Sheen does the Sunday Comics
Image by susie.c via Flickr

“With the disappearance of God the Ego moves forward to become the sole divinity.” -Dorothee Sölle

Over the past weeks, I have watched with Jersey Shore fascination the spectacular melt down of actor Charlie “Chuckie” Sheen.  Sheen’s death spiral is a B movie script for Schadenfreude genre junkies and self-mutilation fans.

Chuckie Sheen is hardly the first to stagger down the timeless and well-worn path of narcissistic sabotage.  He is neither unique nor worthy of our attention. He is simply –- sad and pathetic. Yet, for some reason his self-immolation has struck a chord with America.  In his recent week-long campaign blitz which presumably arose out of his desire to tell “ his side of the story”, Sheen conducted a series of bizarre and angry interviews.  Not unlike the slasher movies starring “Chuckie”, the knife-wielding doll, we are getting treated to a horror show of hubris. Within 24 hours of his CNN interview and his joining of Twitter, his real children were taken from him but he gained over 1mm surrogate dependents –which according to Guiness is a social network world record.  It seems the world cannot wait for his next 140 incoherent characters.

Growing up in LA in the 80’s and 90’s, it was impossible not to follow the exploits of the infamous “Brat Pack” of Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Nicholas Cage, Rob Lowe, half brother Emilio Estevez, and Sean Penn. Aside from their routine violent encounters with paparazzi, sex tapes, break-ups, accidental gun shot wounds (Sheen accidentally shot his girlfriend, Kelly Preston) and misdemeanor arrests, Chuckie and his poison pals demonstrated a penchant for sybaritic sideshows that made Caligula look like Cotton Mather.

No one is quite sure why the quiet kid and star pitcher from Santa Monica High permanently went off the rails.  Perhaps his father, Martin, was chained to the rails trying to stop a nuclear waste shipment and there was simply not room enough for the both of them.  In LA, celebrity children grow up quickly and Chuckie was a model student. He quickly discovered the seamier side of LA and started attending Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss’ tupperware parties. His “little black book” was eventually confiscated by the Center for Sexually Transmitted Diseases and the FBI.  Charlie did not know what all the fuss was about.  He was an artist and in his own words, a “ rock star” of partying who could go days without sleep and still rally to portray a twenty-something innocent trapped in circumstances beyond his control.  As is so often the case with Hollywood, art imitates life. Yet, unlike movies where redemption and self-awareness rescue the fallen man from the abyss, the fallen angel on Sunset Boulevard is often in hell and never knows it.

Sheen’s lust for life has turned him into an angry force of nature. His jet stream lifestyle and his low-pressure passions have joined to create a perfect storm of self-interest run riot. It seems wherever Hurricane Chuckie goes, wreckage and misery is not far behind. Over the years, Chuckie’s venal appetites led him into the  company of LA’s lost souls and golden calves – – adult movie stars, call girls and high-priced prostitutes.  Apparently, he had inherited his father’s intensity but seemed to have been on a ciggie break when they doled out the moral compass.

Chuckie refers to his female companions as “the goddesses”. I am not sure the ancient Greeks would appreciate his misappropriation of a term that describes iconic female deities.  However, Chuckie may be on to something.  In today’s tinsel town age of mores looser than Mama Cass’ sundress, hanging out with adult film stars, and showing up to your pal’s dinner party with Snookie are lauded as forms of self confident expression. Everything and everyone is out of the closet.  One cannot really think of any social stigma that is left except perhaps those sad unfortunates still terrified to admit that they voted for President Obama. We have become so tolerant of the highly flawed human condition that we no longer recognize it. And we always love a comeback, especially after spending four very public weeks with Dr Drew in Celebrity Rehab.

Yet, it seems that all this “coming clean” is taking its toll on popular culture.  With the closet now clean and all of our ugliest blemishes in full view on MSNBC, A&E, MTV and TMZ, some are contemplating diving back into that dark space and locking the door.  One feels so dull if they cannot confess to some kind of psychological addiction.  Others scream “just make it all go away” and dive into the now empty closet rocking gently, humming their favorite nursery rhymes. In fact, Charlie Sheen has come out and shared that he really likes his current trajectory and you should too.  He is a “winner” with “tiger’s blood”.  He does not have time to be admired or put on a pedestal. He is quick to remind us that if we are misguided enough to look up to him as a role model, we should  shift our telescopes toward the Milky Way.  It is a more reliable celestial body, predictably in the same place each night and will not disappoint you.

For those of us who have studied the astronomy of self-destruction , Chuckie is simply another fallen star in a galaxy filled with dark matter.  He will probably never make the Hall of Shame – populated with the likes of heavy weights John Edwards, ex-South Carolina governor Mark Stafford, Richard Nixon, and histories liars, cheats, and deceivers. Yet, Chuckie’s stats are impressive – – multiple marriages, five kids from three different women, myriad addictions, lawsuits, an accidental shooting, arrests, hernia and a deviated septum.  If he ends up getting picked up in his underwear fighting imaginary dragons with a trashcan lid, he will officially hit for the cycle.

Chuckie is now wandering across a wasteland of spiritual emptiness.  Despite a net worth of an estimated $ 85mm, Chuckie will be denied the things that matter most – his family, respect, peace of mind and soon, perhaps his sanity.  While his “goddesses” and enablers cling to him like ticks, he will descend into the inferno of self-obsession. His insanity will be fed by an endless negative loop of ego that feeds on its own dark thoughts.  The worse one feels about their circumstances, the more they seek lower companions and other sycophants incapable of helping him divine just how far off course his life has gotten. The self-destructive person perpetually offends their own sense of right and wrong and produces the toxins of guilt, remorse and self loathing – – poisons that can only be medicated by more obsessive behavior or by a spiritual intervention.

Unfortunately, we have seen this “Chuckie” movie before. It is a predictable script starring a dubious roster of castaways who mess up their lines and their lives.  They read and believe their own press releases and succumb to the notion that they are the star of their own movie.  Their needs must be prioritized above all others.  Their dressing room must always be filled with green M&Ms, Badoit water chilled to 10C and pan flute music by Zamfir. Their movies always end the same with the anti-hero getting smashed, burned, broken, beaten, crushed or incarcerated.

Perhaps our fascination with Chuckie Sheen goes deeper for some.  Perhaps there is a little “Chuckie” in all of us.  We sometimes mistake the notion of living in the moment for living as if there is no tomorrow.  We deceive ourselves into thinking we deserve “this” or should be able to have “that”. Our conceit and ego assures us that we know what is best for us.  We grab the steering wheel, seize the rudder, dismiss our co-pilots and forge ahead into a storm in a boat that has been ripped from its moorings.

If we are lucky, we later find out that our own best thinking is flawed and that decisions made in fear, anger or in self-pity are often disastrous.  We understand that fear and faith cannot occupy the same place.  We realize that self-loathing is a self-inflicted condition that can be cured and the most polluted garret can be transformed into the most sacred of temples.

So I say we all say a little prayer for Chuckie.  He told me (and about 290m other Americans ) that he does not need our help. He and his goddesses are doing just fine.  His movie will end just like he has planned it.  He is, after all, its director and star.

In my movie, there are no goddesses and there is one God and I have been told that I can never play that role.  I have tried out for it several times but have been permanently relegated to the role of a servant.  I sometimes critique his work and suggest that I could do things better. Fortunately, no one listens.  It’s steady work and I always seem to get what I need.  Occasionally he laughs when I tell him what I want.

For a guy that understands all about wanting to direct and star in his own film, Sheen’s latest celluloid: “Chuckie X – Winner Not Whiner” is hard for me to watch.  I keep covering my eyes, wanting to the scream, “Chuckie, watch out.  Don’t run with that knife.  Just check in somewhere and talk to a few people who can help you learn how to once again be a supporting actor. ”

With a little help,  Sheen may find that his next sequel is a love story, and not the final act of a horror film.  It may star a humble guy named Charlie, not a self obsessed psychotic slasher named Chuckie.

Now that’s a movie I’d pay to see.

It Slices, It Dices, It Fleeces

Infomercials annoy me.  They are social polyps that have grown to outlandish proportions on the intestines of a bloated and sick American media.  The portmanteau term “ infomercial” is clearly an oxymoron describing the contradiction of programs that are both hosted and devoured by morons.  The fact that infomercials are even allowed by the FCC is a sign of the advanced dry rot in our American entertainment, economic and regulatory systems.

The FCC, according to one gadfly, now stands for “Forget Catching Criminals.”  It appears that after decades of exporting our innovation, manufacturing and customer service, the dregs of commerce have reached new lows where 30 minute advertisements fill vacant morning programming time –  feeding bread crumb promises to an inactive and unemployed America gulping down like boat marina carp visions of cleaner colons, miraculous weight loss without exercise and abs as chiseled as parking lot speed bumps.

I can recall the first time I was ripped off by a false advertisement via a DC Marvel comic book. The “Live Sea Horses” actually turned out to be ionized pieces of tire rubber.  As they floated and swirled in my “seahorse garden”, I felt my first sensations of buyer’s remorse. I had been had.  Weeks later, I was tempted to send away for X-Ray glasses.  The idea of being able to watch the older eighth grade girls PE class run laps with my three dimensional goggles was intoxicating.  Yet, the cynical memory of pathetic black floating bits of rubber had already eroded the tint from my rose colored glasses.  My father, the advertising man, later explained to me the simple Latin maxim that would echo in my brain for decades:  “Caveat Emptor – Buyer Beware.”

I was not the only mark in our household. Despite her ability to adroitly parent four boys, my mother’s Achilles heel was aggressive advertisements and new gadgets.  To my father’s chagrin, she purchased countless fad merchandise that measured biorhythms, cured headaches, preserved food and pureed any organic matter in the world.  Her first purchase was the Popeil Veg-o-matic.  “It slices, it dices and…it even juliennes!  We had no idea what julienning was but it sounded French and very fun.  I told my mother we must possess this critical appliance that promised to transform homemaking into a raucous affair. We might even eat more vegetables.

Ron Popeil, CEO of Ronco, was just beginning.  He later invented something called the Pocket Fisherman and showed America how a young boy could land a bass the size of a small car with a simple one-foot, hand held plastic rod.  I immediately saved my money and sent away for this compact angling gadget the size of a handgun.  The fact that I never caught a single fish or used it beyond a local pond was Ron’s gain and my loss.  I became a small brick in the $2B Ronco Empire which remains, to this day, hawking food dehydrators, rotisserie ovens, spray on hair, six star knives and the incredible “inside the egg shell” scrambler.

Ron Popeil actually attended college and received countless creative awards for his quirky inventions.  However, Ronco was but a muddy watering hole on the edge of an arid landscape of leafless shams and burnt out merchandise with names like Ding Kings, Jupiter Jacks and iTies- – items that sadly, only a hoarder could love.

Consider the warped world of Kevin Trudeau.  This handsome pitchman first solicited America with his Mega-Memory system promising to unleash the hidden Mensa member within each one of us.  Apparently, Kevin forgot to tell the FCC that he had spent two years in prison for fraud.  After being released from jail, Mr. Infomercial and a close friend (his fellow cellmate) joined Nutrition for Life, a multi-level marketing company that ended up bilking investors with natural cures.

No one seemed to notice our memory guru pivot into the natural remedies and self help cesspool. Trudeau’s Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About sold an astounding five million copies and was on the NY Times best seller list for nine weeks.  Here’s a sample book review from a satisfied reader, “Kevin Trudeau is a scam artist. I am so disgusted with the book Natural Cures. Repetitive, redundant, riding on the coattails of others research and THEN to top it off referring the reader to his website where he wants to yank our chain for more money! He should be horsewhipped, tarred, feathered, and ran out of town. I am so mad. I have never before returned a book, but this one is going back.”

Oops! That can’t be right!  He’s on a talk show set that looks right out of Larry King and he is being interviewed by a very attractive woman. Kevin explains that the cures that “they” were hiding from us include panaceas for obesity, AIDS, Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy. Trudeau goes on to set the record straight that sunscreen causes cancer and that “they” – the drug and food companies along with a complicit FDA – have conspired to use drugs and additives to get us addicted to food.

After thousands of consumer complaints, a federal judge whose memory regarding fraud seemed quite sound, ordered Trudeau to pay $ 37M to plaintiffs for misleading and false statements. Yet the Trudeau marketing machine could not be stopped.  His next product was a clear threat to all plastic surgeons ( the proverbial “they”) offering a non-surgical facelift.  He followed on with debt cures that “they” did not want us to know about, baldness remedies and a primer on addiction relief.  It’s my theory that if you actually used or consumed all of these products you would end up looking like Don King and as broke as Mike Tyson.

On some nights, I surf across Klee Irwin, a contrepenuer and missing twin brother of bizarre cult director John Waters.  This creepy, Pee Wee Herman, pencil necked geek pitchman is always discussing his miracle product “Dual Action Colon Cleanser”.  If there is such a thing as too much information in an infomercial, this 15-minute advert crosses multiple lines. In fact, if the suggestions of the promoter are to be believed, we each have twenty pounds of sludge (my term) in our pipes (my term).  Talk about an opportunity for weight loss and detoxification.  Just use the Dual Action colon cleanse, grab your toilet seat and lose all the weight you want.  One critic put it a tad more harshly, “We now see that America is not obese, it is just completely full of $#@#.”

We then shift to a smooth infomercial operator who attempts to dazzle us into purchasing his “Sham Wow “and his “Slap Chop”.  Unfortunately, his career has been cut a bit short. It seems this dashing young promoter was recently arrested after a prostitute that he had beaten up, saw his infomercial and mumbled out of her split lip to the police officer, “That’s the dude”.  My guess is he may need my new product the InstaShank – a new multi-purpose plastic construction tool that allows someone to quickly fashion a makeshift weapon such as a knife or spear out of any object.  I already have the tag line: “The InstaShank – retailing for $ 9.99 – ‘Cause you never know when someone’s going to stick it to you.”

Some may have heard the tragic story of Billy Mays, America’s pitchman who recently passed away from cardiac arrest at the young age of 52.  It appears that Billy’s heart literally burst from enthusiasm and perhaps, his recreational use of cocaine. It seems this hyperactive adolescent who put “Oxi-Clean” on the map was also taking copious amounts of Oxycontin.  Mays was a major league “pitchman” in high demand hawking the wares of uber marketers who pushed everything from gardening tools like The Awesome Augur, to kitchen appliances including the Big City Slider Station, a must have for hoarders and very large people who want to eat five small hamburgers at one sitting.  Mays sold it all – fly traps, ceramic plates with grater teeth and my favorite, “The EZ Crunch Bowl” which offered us all a “a new way to eat breakfast cereal”.

Some of you out there may already have scars inflicted from consumer fraud.  It may have been a burn from sending off for your indoor pet’s  “Potty Patch” or a cut from wiping out $ 19.99 of your hard earned cabbage when you bought the miraculous “Microfiber Wonder Cloth”.  You found out that the purported 30-day money back guarantee started at time of your order and after a four-week shipping period, your return time was up – and you owned it. You called a consumer support line that connected you to a Cuban restaurant in Miami.  You may have actually taken someone up on a “free” offer after just having to pay the $110 shipping fees.

I have to admit that after a bad day at work, it’s tempting to descend into the cesspool of infomercial marketing for a brisk and profitable swim.  Given all my business travel, I am working on something called the “ScumBuster”.   ” Ladies and gentleman, this handy cleaning gun uses a black light to identify every inch of invisible germs and pollution in your hotel or motel room.  It comes with a battery operated sterilization spray, steam gun, arsenic pellets for rodents and six penicillin jabs.  For an additional $ 1.99, we provide extender vials of holy water for to mitigate paranormal activity or out of control teenagers. If you act now, we will send the Lycrashield, a full body, antibacterial protection suit perfect for foreign travel, spring break motel sofas or your teenaged nephew’s bed when staying with your sister’s family at Thanksgiving.”

Showman PT Barnum summed it up best: “ There’s a sucker born every minute.” As our emotional IQs decline and our desire for rapid resolution increases, we seem all too willing to believe in the false promises and pickled pitches of snake oil salesmen.

Since the dawn of time, grifters have plagued us and exploited our fragile gullibility.  Mortality, low self esteem and popular culture perpetuates a massive marketplace for false hope and instant gratification. While shyster Kevin Trudeau has been recently banned for life from ever appearing on another infomercial, I hear he is running for Congress on the back of his new book, Deficit Reduction Cures That “They” Do Not Want You To Know About.

Who knows? This time, Kevin may finally be on to something.

Lost in “Lost”

Lost in Lost

After enduring a year-long addiction to the serial television drama “24”, I voluntarily submitted to Serial Television Addiction and Recidivism Eradication therapy (STARE) at Silver Hill.  Serial TV addiction effects every demographic ranging from college students and women addicted to soap operas and weekly black comedies like Desperate Housewives to middle aged  “Nick-o-loadies” that spend days watching reruns of Dark Shadows and Peyton Place. Therapy was intense and included a 12 Step program written in the format of a TV Guide.  We were forced to learn the real names of actors and actresses, unsuccessfully locate places like Port Charles ( General Hospital) and watch eight consecutive of hours of Gomer Pyle USMC.  Aside from  a slight gag reflex every time I hear Jim Nabor’s sing Christmas carols, I have suffered no long term side effects from my Clockwork Orange shock treatment.

I have now sobered to the dangers of watching highly addictive weekly TV series. I break into a sweat if I watch the evening news for more than ten minutes. I took an oath to my “24” Home group to never again watch any show or film with Kiefer or Donald Sutherland.  Fanaticism is particularly harsh in this age of overloaded advertising.  The serial TV addict wastes hours on their habit – – often consuming thirty minutes of carbohydrate commercials just to get to the more meaty half hour fix of weekly programming.

My family had also succumbed to the intoxicating weekly dramas of “24” and “Heroes”. In 2009, our house transformed into a den of neglect and weak intentions. We were like something out of the disturbing A&E show “Hoarders” –  a bizarre world of shut-ins, trapped in denial where garbage was piling up, the dog had eaten the cat and bills had gone unpaid.

We resolved to attend therapy sessions as a family – agreeing that we would shake the dreaded vidiot monkey together. Initially, our intervention went well. Yet, I noticed my eldest son was restless and irritable in group therapy.  He took a month to concede that Jack Bauer and CTU were fictional characters but he remained insistent that President Obama was not a US citizen and that the Bermuda Triangle was indeed a real phenomena.  “There are places in the Pacific where electromagnetic forces can create alternative realities.” He asserted. I dismissed this as too much exposure to Bill O’Reilly.  That afternoon,  I blocked the Fox channel on our TV.

Yet, something was not right. I overheard my youngest son talking about some new friends: Jack, Hugo and Sayid. I heard my daughter discussing “The Others” and a “smoke monster”. As a high school junior, I assumed these were euphemisms for kids that were on the fringe of her social circle and a fellow teen with a nicotine habit.

I arrived home one Monday evening to an empty kitchen, family dog licking dinner plates left on the table and no sign of human movement. From a distance, I could hear mechanical thumping and screams as if a person was being mangled in an industrial accident.  I raced to the door of our bedroom and burst in on an opium den of junkies. In the flickering darkness, I found my four recidivists abandoned in the television series, “Lost.”

“I thought we agreed no more TV series” I said to my spouse, recalling our stolen evenings of 2009 as we watched 7 consecutive seasons of “24”. “Oh, don’t be such a poop.” She laughed. “Sit down and watch with us.”

“Shhhh!” hissed my oldest son. “What just happened?” She asked him anxiously.

“Your dinner is in the oven” she said absently not taking her eyes off the screen.

I sullenly shuffled to the kitchen with the family dog patterering behind me, a tri-color remora shadowing me in hopes of feasting on my leftovers. As I sat eating dinner alone, my Aussie rested his head on my loafer and sighed that deep heave that only a dog can muster. He understood the pain and abandonment of addiction as he had probably not been fed in days. Off in the distance, I could hear a muffled cacophony of mayhem as some mysterious mechanical monster savaged another castaway.

I mindlessly ate and pondered a future of weeks without companionship as my brood descended into scattered DVD boxes and arguments over who jumped ahead to watch another episode. It was not enough that they were in the grips of their own mania. They were determined to corrupt me. Like dime bag drug dealers they whispered. “Oh, come on. Try it. Don’t be afraid. You’ll really like it, Dad.” My youngest son grabbed my arm.  Even the dog was now intrigued by a Golden retriever that was regularly featured on each episode. Et tu, Brody?

As I resisted, I became alienated from them in little ways.  I resented their  private inside jokes and “Lost” conversations. “Mom, what is up with Locke and why did he not push the button?” “Do you think Libby is real or fake like Hurley’s other friend from the insane asylum?”. ” Who is Ben, really ?”

My wife tried to rationalize their addiction. She explained that developing this common time with our teens could create valuable paths of communication. I wasn’t buying what she was selling.

” That’s what you said about ’24’ and I ended up having dreams about wanting to cut my boss’s head off and carry it around in a bowling bag.I was convinced the guy at the convenience store was a hostile terrorist cooking enriched uranium in the bathroom.” It was true. Overexposure to Jack Bauer had left me convinced that torture was a perfectly appropriate way to discipline anyone – including a child or an insubordinate employee. ” You may not like my methods,” I would say to my victim, ” but this company needs people like me.”

I glanced at the TV screen as it flickered the letters L-O-S-T.  I became combative.”How do you expect me to believe that all these good looking people ( except Hugo ) were actually on the same plane? The average commuter flight is filled with overweight Americans all hit with the ugly stick.”

“Come on, it will be fun. It can be our date night.” She shoved me in between two boys and the dog.  My “date” then crawled back in between the corner of the couch and my daughter.

From what I could ascertain, in 1974, a clandestine research group was transported to an island in the South Pacific where they began to track, monitor and even tap into a mysteriously powerful magnetic pulse.The project — known as Dharma – flirted with Einstein’s theory of relativity and distorted concepts of space and time. It was on this remote cay that something went terribly wrong, resulting in a catastrophic vortex that wreaked havoc on the cosmos and an unfortunate commercial airline bound for Australia. The island and Flight 815’s seventy-one surviving passengers share sinister secrets and a bizarre relationship that feels as though every character has died and is somehow trapped in an inexplicable purgatory.

The scene opens to a torn fuselage of a jet resting on a tropical beach as passengers mill in indecision.  Two male underwear models, Sawyer and Jack, argue over some trivial matter. Ok, I now get why the girls are drawn to the show. Two seconds later a scantily clad girl removes her blouse to sunbathe while another twenty-something relives her checkered past in an action packed flashback.  Check! Now I get the boys’ motivation.. A golden lab trots down the beach. Our Australian shepherd tilts his head and gives a nuetered “woof” at the television. Yes, it seems there is something for everyone on this mysterious island.

I am worried about being manipulated by the producers of “Lost”. I know I am going to get sucked in to a somewhat plausible plot that will disintegrate into a plot line that ends up like the Weekly World News with a picture of an alien shaking hands with ex-President Bill Clinton or a Batboy on a rampage. The fear of losing all those precious emotionally invested hours to some fantastical Captain Nemo comic book plot compels me to leave the room. Must – re-sist-temp-ta-tion!

Our house is silent except for that incessant thumping and screaming. I pretend to leave, shouting.  “Ok, I’m going now. Cindy Crawford is at the door and we are running away together to start a beauty mark clinic in Laguna Beach! I won’t be home until 2019.

(Silence)

“Ok, I’ll see you guys next month. I’m off to film a reality TV pilot on latch key husbands”

(Crickets)

Disgusted, I plop in my favorite chair and stare at a vacant flat screen. Framing the television is a bookcase of classical literature whose protagonists are shipwrecked, shanghaied, imprisoned, cuckolded and left for dead. I rise and pick up Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I clearly recall my first reading of Edmond Dantes, his imprisonment and improbable escape from Marseille Bay’s island prison, Le Chateau D’If.  Yet, all I can think about is Jack Bauer. What would agent Bauer do to those French bourgoise after they unjustly jailed him? It would definitely involve a cattle prod.

My “24” addiction is returning. I can feel it. My palms are sweating. I need a fix. My family is not here to prevent my descent into a roller-coaster ride of adrenaline.

I suddenly recall it is Monday night. “24” will be on in less than a half hour.  Relief falls like soft rain. My nose stops running. I can almost hear Jack Bauer on his head set, “We’re ten minutes out. The Tac team is on its way. Hang on, damn it. Just hang on!”

The Life and Times of Chip Douglas

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The Life and Times of Chip Douglas

Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home.  ~David Frost

I grew up with three caregivers – a mother, father and a black and white Admiral 21″ surrogate baby sitter.  My electronic aupair was a warm, friendly spirit whose tubes and wires glowed piping images of perfect nuclear families, communities where morality always triumphed over self-interest and colorful paragons of law and order who went by names like Mannix, Rockford, Kojak and McGarret.

Many a generation Joneser grew up as the seventh child of the Brady Bunch, the fourth kid in My Three Sons and the sixth kid, second row percussion in the Partridge family. While later generations would be Saved By The Bell or snared by Family Ties, I learned about the give and take of life in a large depression era family from The Waltons.   I registered everything that I saw on television and tried to bring these core values into our home.  At night, I would stare into the dark at bedtime and envy how the Waltons all said “good-night” to one another.  The simple act of wishing one another a safe slumber seemed to consummate that deep bond that any family should feel toward one another.  I recall screwing up my courage to introduce a new fraternal bond among my brothers.  I sat silent as the final bedside lights dimmed straining my eyes into the darkness of my older brother’s bedroom, watching for any sign of movement.

“ Night, Tom!” I whispered.  No response.  In a slightly louder voice, “ Good-night, Tom”  Still no reply.  “ Good…” A high top sneaker flew through the door and hit me in the face.  “ Shut-up, you goon.  What do think you’re on, the Waltons?“

I was Chip Douglas, the disturbed vidiot cableman in The Cable Guy, emulating much of what I saw in movies and on television.  I had great empathy for single parents after watching Bill Bixby in “ The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.”  It seemed in the 70’s people who were divorced wore a sort of scarlet letter on their foreheads.  We would listen undetected as parents gossiped on the phone about the nature of marital break ups and “divorcees”.  Kids often got labeled as “bad” because they had the misfortune of growing up in a broken home.  I wondered if these same gossipy paragons of virtue had watched Brian Keith struggle as a single dad in “Family Affair” or Dihann Carroll in “Julia”, whether they might realize that most single parents sacrificed more for the sake of raising their children.

We were introduced to Archie Bunker who revealed the comical shortcomings of provincial bigotry.  “M*A*S*H” reminded us of the futility of war. The teenagers of “Room 222” at Walt Whitman High School were bright, driven kids navigating the treacherous shoals of life’s personal, social and political shores.  Each week, a small boat would brush against a difficult issue such as tolerance, drugs and gulp, sex.  These students were guided by a progressive American History teacher, Pete Dixon, who steered them through difficults straits toward adulthood and commanded his crew with velvet understanding.

And then there was my favorite show,  “The Mod Squad”.  This hippie detective drama offered up the three ultra-cool undercover officers:  Julie Barnes played by gorgeous Peggy Lipton, Pete Cochran played by Michael Cole and the fly guy of all-time – Linc Hayes played by Clarence Williams III. I idolized Linc and his teflon indifference to the injustice of society.  Linc had it all going on.  His signature line was a celebration of urban simplicity, “ solid, man.”

I waited endlessly for the day that I could say “ Solid man.“  I finally laid this multicultural affirmation on my father after he told me to sweep out the garage.  Expecting a fight, he was confused by my response. He hesitated and squinted at me as if I had uttered some disrespectful epithet.  We stared at one another.  I could see his wheels turning wanting to reprimand his son for calling him “man” but clearly he was in the deep end of the generational pool.  He shook his head and walked away.  I swaggered to the garage having known that on this day, I stuck it to The Man.

Television shows of the late 60s and 70s offered you families and lives that you wanted to emulate.  Characters were kind, comical, sympathetic and predictable. These were the kind of people with whom you’d vacation, invite to your BBQ and ask to watch your children while you took a vacation to the Poconos.  TV tied America up in a neat little bow and gently walked you through the difficult social and cultural issues that tore at the fabric of its family values in the newspapers, on college campuses and across a great green ocean in Vietnam.

In 1973, the top shows according to Nielsen were: All in the Family, The Waltons, Sanford and Son ,M*A*S*H, Hawaii Five-0, Maude, Kojak (tie), The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (tie), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (tie), Cannon (tie), The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bob Newhart Show (tie), The Wonderful World of Disney (tie) ,Gunsmoke and Happy Days.

In the 70’s, kids played outside because there was no cable TV.  Programming was spread across 11 channels offering a narrow adolescent primetime on cartoon Saturday mornings and early evening sitcoms. Mornings were filled with game shows, soap operas and Jack Lalanne exercise classes. 70’s afternoon television was filled with talk shows, news and boredom. Friday and Sunday nights were primetime slots as 80% of all families were assembled to share an evening meal together and then watch their favorite show. TV was an acceptable companion.  While futurists like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov portended the intellectual downfall of mankind from the boob tube, we watched a Sunday evening double header of Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the Wonderful World of Disney.  We did not feel stupid.  We felt entertained and informed.

I confess to still carrying on my affair with my television although I am overwhelmed by my cable selections and offended by our lowest common denominator preoccupation with all things forbidden.  Each night, out of habit, I turn on the tube. My spouse turns off the TV when I leave the room.  This annoys me. I turn it back on.  She turns it off.  She hates television.  Being the son of an advertising man and having a sardonic preoccupation with the decline of society, I watch dark things and cable sitcoms.  When no one is watching I turn on “Lock Up – Behind Bars in America”.  I am beyond schadenfruede.  I am now actively seeking to consort with all of life’s undesirables – its blemishes, warts and shame

The Center for Media Literacy has tried to reach out to me.  The CML recently published a five point manifesto attempting to help Americans realize that television is not a magic lens to the world.  Reality TV – it seems – is not so real.  News is more entertainment than objective reporting. To those couch potato adults and their chubby pre- diabetic progeny who now have over 400 hundred channels from which to choose 24/7 television, the CML laid out a simple set of truths:

1) You are smarter than your TV

2) TV world is not the real world

3) TV teaches us that some people are supposedly more important than others

4) TV does the same things over and over

5) People use the TV to make money

I know this is a shocker but over 100M Americans do not understand these basic concepts or know that Belgium is in Europe.

The Waltons have been replaced by the Gosselins. TV detectives are no longer all male, fat, bald or based in Hawaii. Mary Tyler Moore and Newhart have moved on or out of therapy.  The Western is dead and Disney is an entire channel. Sonny died in a ski crash and Cher is still dating 20 year olds. We long for Happy Days but now realize the Six Million Dollar Man is a golden parachuted CEO of a failed bank.  Along the way, we are now warned of enlarged prostates, restless legs, sleeping problems and situational anger.  All of this could result in vomiting, severe bone pain, abdominal bleeding, chest palpitations, or suicidal thoughts – – and if all fails, go out and buy a snuggie.

Goodnight and sweet dreams. “Buenos Noches, Tia Tequilla.” “Buonanotte, Snookie.” “Bonne nuit, Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

Where the hell is John Boy?

Survivorman Comes To Wall Street

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Survivorman Comes To Wall Street

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”- Charles Darwin

In the 1985, Hollywood introduced us to Angus MacGyver, an engineering and applied science genius who could bring down a Russian T30 tank with the most prosaic of jury rigged household items  – chewing gum, a paper clip and a ballpoint pen. Macgyver, hailed from a long line of resourceful improvisationists – all spawned by a Cold War preoccupation that one day in a few violent flashes of light and mushroom clouds, we would be cast back into a Stone Age where physical and intellectual prowess would replace financial and social prowess as linchpins to our survival.

America loved MacGyver. He was the ultimate scavenger.  He did not need people.  People needed him. In an era where ICBMs idled silent in underground silos, hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles, we became fascinated with people who possessed the skills necessary to survive if anyone dropped the big one.  To subsist in a post apocalyptic world, man must learn to catch small animals with a snare, spear fish and move across an urban wasteland perhaps dressed only in a musk ox coat and buffalo moccasins.  If you were really good, you might domesticate a wild dog and call him Lobo.

Fast forward to 2009.  Armageddon has occurred in the form of a nuclear melt down bursting from an overheated reactor with rods fashioned from sub-prime debt, credit swaps, reckless leverage and unhealthy risk taking.  Suddenly, everyone’s worst-case scenario is closer to their reality.  We are in survival mode.

At night we turn on our TVs desperate to escape our new realities – hoping to vicariously live someone else’s life.  Some turn to the empty carbohydrates of reality shows.  Yet, others long for a hero.  Since MacGyver had improvised his last solution in 1992, channel surfers are turning to another set of survivalists – ex SAS instructor Bear Grylls in “Man Versus Wild” and my favorite Canuck toughie, Les Stroud in  Survivorman.

Canadian Stroud uses wits and ingenuity to survive a multitude of survival scenarios.  He must endure psychological isolation, uncertainty and inadequate resources. His ability to control his fear and focus on what is required to confront extraordinary circumstances reassures armchair mountain men who want to believe that a person cannot be so tenderized by prosperity and materialism that he cannot rise to confront and overcome disaster.

Each episode finds Les making bivouacs out of debris found on deserted islands, eating roots in boreal forests, navigating inhospitable mangrove swamps, dodging dehydration in the arid African Kalahari and or enduring the open sea adrift in a leaky raft.  Les films his own experience and survives, albeit uncomfortably, eating native plants, hunting local game, sleeping rough in every conceivable circumstance and occasionally taking drastic steps to survive such as drinking his own urine or consuming indigestible organic matter that the most ambitious contestant on Fear Factor would rebuff.

With the permanent contraction within the financial services community, the world is becoming even more Darwinian and it seems that for every position there are ravenous packs of feral workers fighting over a slave wage job in hopes of living to hunt another day.  I got to thinking, could Les Stroud last a few weeks in the primordial boardrooms and post Armageddon landscapes of Wall Street?

Those already laid off are learning new survivor techniques – – distinguishing between the discretionary and the necessary, separating wants and needs, and appreciating the clear, unobstructed perspective that now fills a field of vision once obscured by country clubs, second homes and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, serial vacationing.  Those that are still employed, understand the radical climate change in business and face their own weekly survival scenarios dealing with cutthroat last-man-standing politics, heavily leveraged balance sheets, back-lashing regulation and a self consciousness aversion to the general public opinion that anyone who works in finance or banking must be up to no good. I wonder what Les Stroud would do. Could Survivorman endure if he were confronted with the daily challenges of today’s recessionary economy?

I called David Brady, the show’s producer to discuss my idea.  Mr Brady’s secretary said he was busy and would return my call.  A few weeks later I called again.  He was still in a meeting.  ” That’s one hell of a long meeting,”  I told her.  ”  Would she mind just taking a message.  She agreed and attempted to outline my idea for a new season theme show:  Survivorman Comes To Wall Street.  “It would be the diametric opposite of “Survivor – Samoa” or “I am a Celebrity Get Me The Hell Out of Here”.   We could launch the special shows on the anniversary of last year’s meltdown.  We could then subject Les to the cruelest of corporate conditions and watch him squirm.”  The phone was still connected so I kept talking.  I could hear her scribbling furiously.

Week 1 – Les is hired as a mid-level manager at XYZ, Inc, a financial services firm’s insurance division.  Although, the problems that brought the firm to its knees are all based in the firm’s Financial Products division, XYZ is days from bankruptcy and is taken over by the Feds. Les has just learned that a new EVP will be running his division and that he hates Canadians.  The insurer is crawling with regulators.  The stock is down 75% and rumors are rampant of a massive layoff.  Employees are rapidly jumping ship.  Les decides to refuse to leave his office to avoid a potential pink slip.  At night, he hides from security guards and scavenges for meals, foraging on the most unlikely items in the office including week-old coffee that tastes like burnt popcorn.  Les cleverly uses a coffee filter to strain toilet water when the water supply is cut-off by the authorities trying to get him to vacate the building.  Can Les survive the week?

Week 2 – Les inherits a hedge fund in total free fall – redemption requests are flying in faster than spring swallows to San Juan Capistrano.  The stock market is plummeting and Les’ investment bank is making margin calls on the loans his fund used to make heavily leveraged bets on a range of securities and credit swaps.   Long time clients are bailing out faster than black ship rats as Les is hit with margin calls.  The SEC has decided, post-Madoff scandal that they must find a poster child for reckless investment management and Les fits the profile.  In a soon to be classic scene, Les sprinkles blackened eraser shards throughout the office and then calls the Health Department claiming that the building is infested with rodents.  With the building abandoned, Les uses his Gucci belt and a nail file to start a fire that rages through the main office, destroying incriminating documents and the main server where all the back up emails are stored. Will Les avoid jail time ? Is it too little too late ?

Week 3 – Les becomes former Lehman CEO Dick Fuld’s personal bodyguard. Les must accompany Dick to his favorite health club and help him avoid getting punched by disgruntled ex-employees and angry activists.  At one point, Les fashions jump ropes into trip wires as he cordons off Dick’s bench press area. He also advises Dick to carry a self cooling pouch of his own plasma.  “You never know when you may be stabbed and in need of transfusion.”  Les says to Fuld and the camera. “I’m usually the one that is drawing blood from other people,” chips in an animated Fuld. Can Dick and Les complete an entire circuit of machines without losing a quart of blood.

Week 4 – In this week’s episode, Survivorman is faced with the grim possibility of being made redundant – (the business equivalent of dying in the wilderness ).   Les goes berserk and holds everyone in the lunchroom hostage with a sharpened punji stick.  Les, recalling an old trick he used on Bushmen in the Kalahari, threatens to drink his own urine – a powerful gesture of male dominance.  To Les’ bewilderment, his new boss – a twenty-something private equity, enfant terrible with no personal boundaries – scoffs and tells Les that he drank from a commode several times during fraternity rush at Yale.  Les’s desperate act of defiance draws local media attention and unfortunately the SWAT police.  Les finds an air duct and the game of cat and mouse begins with the local authorities.  Can Les make it to Friday before getting fired?  Will Les be able to keep his backdated stock options?

“Well?” I asked.  ” Do you think he will like it?”

There was a pregnant pause and then an animated sigh.  I could tell she was smiling. “Mr Brady may like this. He can show how the American workplace has become a virtual wilderness where only the strong can survive.  Les can merchandise his survival ideas to corporate executives – Les Stroud’s Guide To Surviving a Bear Attack or A Bear Market.”  Suddenly she was covering the phone and speaking to someone.  I could hear their muffled exchange.

“You know Mr Turpin, perhaps we can get Les to climb a building or throw a chair through a window and fashion shoes out of his leather note pad? Mr Brady just got out of his meeting and wants to know if you think we can get Les to replace Ken Lewis at Bank of America for one week ? He thinks that would be one hell of a survivor episode. We need a job that really puts Les at risk.”

I thought for a minute.

“Why not put him in charge of healthcare reform. That should just about kill him. “

Jack Bauer Must Die

 

Jack Bauer Must Die

 

It’s midnight on a Tuesday.  The laundry is a massive multi-colored heap lying unattended on the mudroom floor.  The computer flashes, “you have 312 new emails”.  The dishes ferment slowly in the sink of what looks like a neglected soup kitchen.  The dog gnaws on a Ferragamo shoe while the cat temporarily passes out in a fetid litter box reeking of ammonia.

 

Upstairs there is thumping indicating the resident adolescents have yet to fall asleep.  The absence of authority permeates the house like the smell of a recent fish dinner. The television beeps like digital clock and a monotone voice announces, “The following takes place between 2am and 3am.”

 

My wife looks at me and asks rhetorically, ” You think the kids are asleep?” With my best codependent face, I reassure her. “Oh – – yeah. I’ll check them in a minute.”

We  hit the “play episode” button – pathetic addicts in a deep cocoon of denial.  We are in the middle of a debilitating video blackout watching the television show “24”. I cannot sleep until I find out whether the president will call back the bombers or he will permanently excommunicate his annoying, conniving Lady Macbeth ex-wife.  My wife is praying a new character – an urbane, handsome middle-eastern Oxford graduate will not be killed.  ” Oh, I hope Raiza lives,” she squeals anxiously clutching a pillow.  I am not jealous.   He has that “ I am a dead man “ look written all over him. I give him two episodes tops. I have become conditioned to not get attached to anyone on this show.

We are together but alone – each trapped in our own inescapable web of emotional knots tied to this soap opera serial drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, a seemingly indestructible instrument of US counter terrorism in a world that demands morally ambiguous actions to defeat the forces of evil that threaten our American way of life. 

Wherever Jack Bauer goes people die – usually bad guys.  However, if you get too close to Jack Bauer – not unlike a career as a stunt man, living among New Guinea cannibals or raising a 200lb chimpanzee as your own child, your life expectancy is reduced by about fifteen years.  And for goodness sake, don’t hire Jack’s daughter Kim Bauer as your baby sitter or au pair.  This kid is a tornado of bad karma.

Kim’s misadventures make teenagers that have ended up in their hometown police blotters look like cherubim.  In just 24 hours, innocent Kim rescues a young girl from her abusive father, discovers the girl’s dead mother, gets in multiple car accidents – one that results in her boyfriend losing his leg, pulls a gun on four different people- killing one at her Dad’s urging, endures a siege as a hostage, escapes from police custody, witnesses a nuclear explosion, and is trapped inside a bomb shelter with a reclusive survivalist.  Tough day at school, hon? Throughout this entire period, Kim keeps interrupting her father on his cell phone as he is trying to save Los Angeles and/or the President of the US, David Palmer, whining “Dad, just come get me.” Kids just don’t change – they still see themselves as more important than the future of the free world.

Jack does not eat.  He does not go to the bathroom. Jack does not sleep.  He is the ultimate warrior.  He makes the tough decisions and employs brutal methods that waffling bureaucrats cannot make in the face of danger. While interrogating a smug bad guy who displays indignant bravado given the government’s weak knee decision to grant him immunity, Bauer simply shoots the creep and asks his colleagues for a hacksaw so he can cut off the snitch’s head off and use the prize to insinuate his way in with some domestic terrorists.  As we watched “the head in a bowling bag” scene, we heard a noise behind us and to our dismay, realized our ten-year-old son had been spying on the episode from the doorway.  As my wife ushered him out of the room to bed, I could hear her talking to him as they went up stairs.  “ Honey, you know that cutting people’s heads off is not very nice, right?

Each hour is a heart pounding shot of epinephrine with soap opera lack of resolution that leaves a viewer aching and feverish for more.  My wife calls the library at 1am to extend our rental.  “Hi, we rented DVDs for “24” for Season 2. Can we recheck them for another two days? I assume you are not there right now but I wanted to call anyway.” ‘I assume you are not there?’, I say mocking her.   Most librarians are not fiddling with their Dewey decimals at 1am; And yes, sweetheart, please get “24 -Season Three” tomorrow.  If I am lucky, I may get sick from no sleep.  We can stay home and put a blanket over the windows like trailer park crack addicts and do “24 in 24.”  We can parcel the kids out to neighbors and send out for pizza.  We can be Sid and Nancy.

The problem with our “24” addiction is not only the need for constant injections of Jack and his Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU); it is the fact that we are only on Season 3.  As we race to catch the “24” train, it keeps moving.  “24” is now on season 7 and in our sprint to present day, we are subordinating health, hygiene and domestic responsibilities watching consecutive episodes which leave us completely over stimulated and vulnerable to odd dreams.

After a disturbingly symbolic dream where I cut my boss’ head off and present it to our private equity owners in exchange for some restricted shares of stock, I awake in a cold sweat realizing my obsession with “24” is threatening my sanity.  When my son would not confess to using his brother’s computer, I found myself wondering how quickly he would crack if I water-boarded him.  I routinely now refer to my children as ” hostiles” and ” friendlies” and suggest to my wife that when we have teens over we establish a soft perimeter around the basement.  When my daughter claimed she was in town but was in fact, at a friend’s party, I briefly considered using Google Earth to triangulate her location, “neutralize” the entire group and then drop them off at the local police station courtesy of “A Friend of 24.”

I realized that we are now in the grip of a mania and that for the bad dreams to end, Jack Bauer must die.  The problem is the guy won’t expire. He has been injected with more drugs than a Jersey milk cow, stabbed, shot, clubbed, injured in a plane crash, suffered numerous brain damaging head blows – and like Jason from Halloween, keeps getting up.

There is a side of me that understands that art sometimes imitates life.  Does the US employ spooks and shadow agencies like CTU who fight clandestine battles right under our noses on US soil? Do I approve of Jack Bauer’s tactics? Will democracy prevail over authoritarianism? Will Kim Bauer get through a day without breaking the law or maiming her latest boyfriend? Will Jack Bauer ever shave, eat or have a bowel movement? Perhaps some fiber might loosen him up literally and figuratively.

It’s late and we have just secured the first episodes of Season Three.  As I read my column to my wife, we chuckle at our obsessive behavior and get the kids off to bed. 

We have a civilized evening – cleaning up the house, walking to retrieve the DVDs and watching just three episodes – trying to convince ourselves that we can get

the “24” monkey off our backs any time we like.  As we turn out the lights, she is still.  I can tell she is thinking.  This is our last private moment before sleep where we discuss kids, the future and any other important unattended issue.

“You know, if you tell everyone in town that they can rent those DVDs from the library for free, we will never make it to Season 7.  The secret will be out.”

That’s my girl. 

I’ll Have The Scheudenfreud, Please…..

Logo of the Global Reality Channel
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I’ll Have The Scheudenfreud, Please…..

Over the years, I developed a taste for the German language. My admiration is not from its palate cleansing syntax but its highly logical nouns.   An example of simple words combining to make a more complex word might be Hundehütte (eng. doghouse) or Baumhaus (eng. tree house). German allows for highly complex compound nouns such as Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaenskajuetenschluesselloch, which means “the lock in the cabin door of the captain of the company running steamers up and down the Danube”.  My favorite German word is scheudenfreud.  Translated, it means the fascination with another person’s misfortune.  The word describes an all too common unhealthy appetite in our human nature and captures the bubblegum essence of American media programming – – reality television.

We all, it seems, have a flawed predisposition to become consumed with other people’s failings and to live other’s lives vicariously.  Reality TV feeds this inate longing baking it into a range of menus from personal competitions to law enforcement.  Last week, 31.2m people devoured American Idol while 16m slowly savoured Survivor: Fiji.  While my family was gathered in the family room drinking in the acerbic sarcasm of Simon Cowell,  I was secretly taking in  the TV show, “Cops”.  I always feel guilty when landing on channel 58 – – just in time to watch a methamphetamine addict trying to outrace the entire Miami police force in his mother’s 1972 AMC Gremlin or a woman who has been on a binge for three straight weeks trying to convince the authorities she is Tsarist Princess Anastasia.  If I hear anyone coming towards my den, I quickly flip to ESPN.  How ‘bout those Yankees ?

And then there is “Jackass”, a show where faux stuntmen Johnny Knoxville, Weeman, Steve-O and Chris Pontius perform outrageously dangerous and insipid stunts.  I close the door to my office and laugh that deep, from the groin, painful laugh that only comes when you witness someone being injured doing something incredibly dumb.  “Jackass” gave rise to a follow on show called “ Wild Boys”.  The first episode of “Wild Boys” featured a sequence where Steve-O and Chris ate a variety of bizarre Asian foods culimnating in snorting wasabi mustard where they promptly, threw up.  Steve-O and Chris were then off to Africa where, donning only athletic supporters, they ran through a pride of lions dragging hams behind them on long hemp ropes.  This is about the point where being an arm chair historian, I wonder if the majority of Rome was watching a show called “ When Praetorian Guards Go Bad “ when the Barbarians  charged into the city limits and brought the great empire to its knees.  Or perhaps, everyone was wearing ipods and just did not hear them coming.

America is hooked on the empty carbohydrates of reality TV.  However, we cannot take credit for creating these cultural moon pies.   While it is true, like fast food and greenhouse gases, we are producing a disproportionate amount of reality TV,  Asia and Europe actually got the whole thing started.  It was Japanese and the Dutch who built on the theme and created game shows based on humiliation, survival and co-habitation. ( For those with stupid sense of humors like me, watch the YouTube episode of the Japanese reality show, Gaki No Tsukai – Silent Library, entitled: The Old Man Who Bites Tenderly, to illustrate just how “evolved” reality programming has become.)

TV pundits estimate literally thousands of new reality shows will be released in the next year.  I worry.  What does my fascination with other people’s misfortunes say about me ?  Why can I not skip to a channel that does not seek to demean, exploit, marginalize or ridicule ?  These shows are lugubriously seductive speakeasys.  Is one genetically predisposed to scheudenfreud ?  Was the Roman Colleseum a massive reality TV for the masses of the Empire so they might for a moment, be liberated from bad news of foreign wars, threat of plague, the increasing Roman deficit and the rising cost of chariots ?  Why can I not seem to resist this nightly dose of toxic cinema verite ?

The experts have divined that as many as half of American TV programs are now some variation of Reality TV.  I figure the other half must be some variation of ER or CSI and infomercials.  I was distraught to learn that as many as 82% of these shows are, in some way, shape or form, “scripted”.  What ?  You mean “Dog, The Bountyhunter” is really a security guard at a Chucky Cheese ?  Don’t tell me those uber babes of  “The Hills” are really Universal Studios tour guides.  Those long green spongey things on “ Fear factor” are not actually baboon adnoids?  The “Ghost Hunters” are not making contact with a thumping spirit but really just filming in a room over a night club in Soho with a big woofer? Flava Flav does not really don viking horns and a massive alarm clock around his neck when he goes out on dates ?  I feel like we need a new word for our salacious interest in other people’s false misfortunes, scheudenfreudfalshe.

I have a few ideas for shows.  There could be “Dancing With the Infidels” where Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton compete for a chance to run for an empty Senate seat.  No contestant is allowed to actually touch their partners or they will be eliminated.  “Rap and Cheese” could appeal to Francophiles by teaming up defrocked French politicians with hip hop artists in a race from Newark to Avignon.  There is so much potential material.

Another crack addict is being wrestled to the ground on “Cops”.  I realize that I am living in a time where the media is all too willing to enter my home to fuel my paranoia that the world is not full of possibilities, but instead choked with meth heads, terrorists and hookers.  I have become a nightly regular at the Fear and Consumption café where I get a healthy plate of “ Reality” TV, news and talk shows that fuels my concerns that my country is on the downward slope of its moral, spiritual, and economic preeminence.  It’s crowded in the F&C café and sometimes I have to wait for a seat.   While I realize that scheudenfreud is a natural human frailty, it is also a warning sign.  It’s a subtle hardening of the arteries in the chest of a pampered soul.  It can be mitigated by simply remembering that the real world is going on outside while reality TV flickers inside our homes.