Archive | December, 2012

What’s on the box?

17 Dec

When you first turn on a television set in America, it seems like a smorgasbord of entertainment. Give it half an hour, though, and you’ll soon see why Bill Bryson wrote something along the lines of, ‘The point of American television isn’t to see what’s on, it’s to see what else is on.’

It’s true that it’ll take you an hour to flick through the hundred or so channels, by which time you’ll have forgotten everything you saw and have to repeat the entire process. Add the endless commercial breaks and I doubt you’ll end up watching a single show from start to end.

The other night I was enjoying a soak in the jacuzzi while channel surfing. Yes, our hotel room had thoughtfully positioned the spa in front of the swivel TV set. I settled on a channel that wasn’t dubbed (many Montreal channels are dubbed in French), which was showing ‘Take It All’, a US gameshow hosted by the ever-bubbly Howie Mandel. The audition process must have involved finding the most zany, colourful contestants (or perhaps plying them with gallons of soft drink) because they all entered the set screaming widly and flailing their arms above their heads. Some had even concocted their own catchphrase like, ‘I’m a-get-it!’ or ‘Waaatch out!’, presumably to put off the other contestants. All poor Howie could do was shuffle back a few paces and explain the rules of the game, which are: choose from one of five boxes, each of which contains a prize valued at between $5000 and $12,000. The next arm flailer can steal the previous contestant’s prize or choose their own from one of the remaining boxes. If your prize is nabbed, you can’t immediately take it back; though you can later on. You can, however, block your prize from being stolen, though you can only do so once. If you end up with the lowest value prize, you wave bye bye to Howie and the other contestants (who are likely to be busy fist-pumping or humping their podium as a form of modest self-congratulation).

The next rounds continue in this way until three contestants remain and battle it out for prizes worth between $30,000 and $100,000. Howie tries to keep the two winners of that round calm as they square off in the ultimate elimination challenge. I was pushed up against the edge of the jacuzzi by this point. I even had to turn off the jets so I could hear, which wasn’t hard seeing as everyone was yelling and pointing and screaming by that point. As far as I could tell, the two finalists picked a card with even more expensive prizes listed. They can then choose to keep their prize or…

I have no idea what happened after that. I returned to channel flicking during the commercial break and never again found ‘Take It All’. But I can guess how it ended (hint: fist pumps and squeals).

Another show I’ve been glued to is about a Rhode Island woman who looks and talks just like Carmela Soprano from The Sopranos. That’s not the premise of the show, though (although I’m sure that would rake in the ratings). Theresa also happens to be a medium. A hand-held camera follows her around as she goes about her daily life – taking the dog to the groomer, buying groceries etc. And funnily enough, no matter where she goes, she ends up feeling a spirit who then relays information to her about someone in the shop, groomer, petrol station. This is usually done with her teenage daughter in tow, who stands awkwardly next to Theresa while she corners some poor sod and tells them, ‘I’m a medium. Did your grandmother/sister/brother/uncle die recently? He/she wants you to know that he/she is at peace.’ The camera zooms in on the shocked shopper or worker, who then does a piece to camera about how they used to be a sceptic and now they believe in spirits. In one episode, after she’d told an elderly woman that her mother didn’t suffer during death, Theresa swung around to her daughter and in her best Rhode Island accent said, ‘The spirits told me you rolled your eyes at me! Did you roll your eyes at me, missy?’ That poor girl – with all those spirits around, she wasn’t likely to get away with anything!

In a typical episode, Theresa talks with half a dozen spirits and sees a few clients in her home. I mentioned to The Lad how talented I thought the bleached blonde medium was. ‘She’s just rocking up all over town, seeing spirits and making people cry with relief. I need to meet this woman!’ He turned to me, raised an eyebrow and said, ‘How many hours of footage do you suppose they record to capture those golden moments when she nails it?’

I was flabbergasted! I’ve done a fair bit of work in TV, understand the media and always look at coverage with a critical eye. And yet I’d been sucked in to believing the magic of television. Of course it hadn’t all been filmed in one day. Obviously there would be just as many misses as hits. Surely no one – not even John Edwards – is able to walk down the street, point at people and say, ‘Yo, your brother Wade says hey…Your mum says you need to look under the bedroom floorboards…Your uncle’s here, he wants you to watch your weight’.

And once I realised my new favourite ‘reality’ show wasn’t all it appeared to be, I felt a little deflated. So I got back to my new number one pastime – channel surfing. Just to see what else was on.

Big is best in the mid-west

16 Dec

In America, they like it big.

Really big.

A small pizza could feed a family and their Labrador, a regular coffee is so bulbous my fingers barely wrap around the mug, and most cars need a step-ladder to enter.

The obsession with all things mega is perhaps most obvious in the mid-west. The Lad and I recently attended the wedding of his schoolfriend to his Carbondale born and raised sweetheart. From Chicago, we ventured five hours south to the vast Illinois town. Its main strip is dotted with so many fast food joints and mega outlets that you could provide directions simply by rattling off a list of establishments: on Main Street go past Walmart, Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar and Burger King. Turn right at Taco Bell, left past McDonald’s and head towards Barnes & Noble, passing Stake n Shake and Subway on the way. If you reach Macy’s at the University Mall, you’ve gone too far. But don’t worry if you have – just pull into one of the giant parking lots and you’ll find something sizable to entertain you, fill you, hydrate you and help you while away the hours. Or days.

Thirsty? Grab a gallon of cola. Hungry? Order a sandwich and sink your teeth into the twelve layers of meat, three layers of cheese and complimentary bag of chips and long pickle. Want a coffee? It’ll come with a great big swirl of sweet cream, topped with caramel chunks. Need a rifle and a new mascara? Grab a shopping cart at Walmart and load up. No time to boil water and cook potatoes? No worries – grab a giant bag of ready-made whole spuds, bung it in the microwave and dinner is served! Worried you won’t make it back to Walmart before the loo paper runs out? Just snag a bulk bag of 36 rolls!

Once, after far too many cream-laden coffees and giant hamburgers, I requested a simple breakfast of two poached eggs and half a grapefruit. The waitress placed a hand on her tip, cocked her head and said, ‘What, no hash? Grits? Bacon? Sausages? Toast? Fruit cup? Pancakes?’ I shook my head. She responded with a look that seemed to say, ‘Do you want sat fat with that?’

Even the pharmacies are humungous in the States. Often they hog an entire block, with flashing signs advertising DRUGS, WINE, SPIRITS, COSMETICS. You can fill a script for a shonky body and load up with booze and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, all in one visit! While you’re at it, why not grab a few sports drinks, the latest gossip mags and lottery tickets? And if you happen to overindulge on all that beer and sugar, you can just pop a pill and bounce back!

The Lad remarked recently that every store in the mid-west seems hell-bent on feeding its customers. Most bookshops sell candy or other sweet treats. The pharmacies have entire aisles that would rival Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. And many cinemas have a large snack booth, stocked with giant sodas, hot dogs and nachos drowned in an unnaturally orange cheese, on every floor of the complex. Upon ordering a water at the movies, the sneaky salesman then tried to tempt me with chocolate. ‘How about something from the candy bar this evening, ma’am? M&Ms or Maltesers?’ It took all my strength not to reach over the counter, grab him by the collar and scream, ‘STOP TRYING TO MAKE ME FAT! DO YOU KNOW HOW LONG IT TOOK ME TO LOSE THOSE LAST 5 KILOS?! GAAAAAAAA!’

Unfortunately, Americans are just so darn polite and offer such stellar service that it seems rude to refuse their suggestions to add a side of coleslaw, upgrade to a gallon cola or spend another $10 to receive a free gift. Aside from pretending I don’t speak English, I’ve taken to saying yes to every offer and keeping the button on my jeans undone.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to grab a low-fat latte with whipped cream, caramel sauce and a white chocolate cookie. It would be rude not to.

Blogging on the road again

16 Dec

Blogging while travelling is a tough gig. Before every trip, I stare at my laptop and deliberate whether or not to take it with me. And every time, I say ‘Nehh, she’ll be right.’ She is usually so, so wrong.

And so I emerge in a new destination, wide-eyed and mentally drafting blog posts as I gorge on the culture, the sights, the strange experiences, all the while cursing myself for leaving my laptop at home. If I get the chance, I’ll pull out a crumpled notebook and scribble as much down as I can before The Lad yawns and I get a case of the guilts. Here in Canada, however, it’s so freezing that whenever I pull off a glove to grasp the pen, my naked fingers turn blue and the nails ache. So far I’ve managed to jot down the date, before abandoning the whole thing, shoving my glove back on and cursing the cold.

Thankfully, though, The Lad and I favour roughing it in hostels. More often than not, they have a computer or two set up. But given my penchant for lazing about in bed, I tend to jump under the covers with my phone and tune in to the free Wi-Fi. I don’t recommend attempting to tap out your thoughts on a teeny, tiny screen. You will make typos, you will definitely get a thumb cramp and you may end up throwing your phone against the wall.

Complaints aside, I’m thrilled to announce my blogging drought has been broken by the penning of this post. As I type, I’m enjoying the warmth of the communal living room at Planet Traveler in Toronto. It’s 4pm and pitch black outside and there’s a fellow hosteller next to me who keeps interrupting to tell me about the night he wound up down a nearby alleyway with two kids and a camera. I’ve decided it’s best not to ask questions about that.



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