General

Now, you can’t Bee serious

I’m a good speller.

Heck, probably a great speller.

But after stumbling to a somewhat-disappointing 4th-place finish in the districtwide finals as a first grader (I flubbed “lyric,” a word I’d simply never heard before. I think I misplaced the “i” and threw in a “k”), I never competed in a schoolwide spelling bee again.

That’s still weird to me, as I’m certain I was — after, you know, learning what a lyric is — a better speller than almost every other student in my grade. Whereas numbers, basketball or, well, detentions were the forté of some kids in school, my strength was words.

Still is.

Now, letters, on the other hand, well they belonged strictly to my childhood buddy Thoufiq Kutty.

Along with his brothers Malik and Rafiq before him, Thoufiq — now an attorney and alumnus of Northwestern University and University of Chicago — was part of a spelling dynasty at Bourbonnais Upper Grade Center during the 1980s.

Back then, the Kuttys did one thing: They won spelling bees.

And by the time Thoufiq rolled into junior high in 1988, it was simply expected that he would sweep the 6th, 7th and 8th grade bees over the next three years.

Just as his brothers had before him.

Really, I don’t know he had any other choice.

The pressure was on.

And I certainly didn’t want to add to it.

So, each spring during a schoolwide assembly, I’d sit up in the gymnasium balcony, twiddling my thumbs and spelling to myself while watching other classmates drop like flies during the bee, misspelling an “allusion” here or a “conscience” there.

And every year, at bee’s end, Thoufiq stood alone. Victorious.

And, I’m certain, relieved.

Now, it’s not that I would have surely beaten Thoufiq (in fact, it’s unlikely I would have), but never once did I even enter our school’s spelling bee during junior high.

I believe I may have claimed stage fright as my excuse, and perhaps that did have something to do with it. But I think even more of a reason for ducking the bee was I feared I’d actually win the thing.

And beat my buddy, snapping his family’s cherished streak.

I didn’t even want to try.

In any case, the only reason why I’m sharing this little tale with you today is to display the strong respect that I have for spelling.

And bees.

That said, however, I still had to laugh this morning when I read a “BREAKING NEWS” e-mail alert sent by my hometown newspaper, the Kankakee Daily Journal (where I have friends, and once interviewed for an editor job).

Because, while spelling bees are great and all, I’m still not sure they’re quite this buzzworthy … 🙂

Sent: Thursday, May 29, 2008 8:33 AM
Subject:
***BREAKING NEWS FROM THE DAILY JOURNAL ONLINE***

Ajay Chatrath, an eighth-grader at Grace Baptist Academy in Kankakee, correctly spelled his first word this morning in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.More on this story will be posted on www.daily-journal.com as details are available.

General

Heat Waive

Chicago Summer R.I.P.

May 26, 2008 – May 26, 2008

Wednesday afternoon update: Well, at least the sun is out today. But, still, people simply should not be wearing parkas and scarves on “L” platforms three days before the start of June.

This happens next year and the CTA is going to have to start keeping those heat lamps at my Red Line station active until May 31.

Or July 31.

The current shut-off date of March 31 is not cutting it anymore. Not even close.

Of, course … ahem, I’m guessing CTA officials probably have other things on their minds today besides the Chicago chill.)

General

Bad TV, Good Stuff

Just like boys, apples and hair days, there’s a lot of bad TV out there. But who knew that screen captures from some of it could end up being so good? Take a look at these, and have a laugh.

General

Pun Porn

You could say HBO Def Poetry alum Big Poppa E has a way with words. And, boy, did he ever show it last weekend with his pun piece “Illegal File Sharing” at the 2008 O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin, Texas. Punny stuff.

General

Ten years, Ten thoughts

Last Saturday marked the 3,653rd day since I graduated from college.

Ten full years.

Yes, some how, some way an entire decade has slipped off the calendars since May 17, 1998, the day I strolled onstage inside the University of Illinois’ Foellinger Auditorium wearing a stuffy cap and gown, and then strolled off it with my diploma in tow.

(Too bad a 10-year projection of the print newspaper industry didn’t come tucked inside it.)

A day after graduating, I turned 22 years old.

And, apparently, one day after that some gizmo called the Galaxy IV communications satellite failed while orbiting Earth, resulting in a loss of service to about 90 percent of the world’s pagers.

Pagers.

Jeez, how old am I, anyways?

In any case, with a decade of life in the real world now under my belt, I got to thinking this week about how much things changed since that sunny day in ’98 when I morphed from Joe College into Joe Journalist.

And headed out on my own.
In honor the 10-year anniversary, I came up 10 things I was doing in 1998.

That I don’t do any longer.

1. In 1998, I didn’t own a cell phone.

I think I knew exactly one person who did.Besides this guy.

2. In 1998, I wore a watch.

Now I just use my cell phone.

3. In 1998, I had an alarm clock.

Now I just use my cell phone.

4. And in 1998, I had a landline phone.

Now — you guessed it — I just use my cell phone.

5. In 1998, I didn’t have an ATM card.

I actually went up to a bank teller to withdraw 20 bucks.

Either that, or I wrote a check out to myself and cashed it at a grocery store service counter.

Weird.

6. In 1998, I didn’t have a home computer.

And my newspaper office had just one with Internet service.

Dial-up, of course.

I checked e-mail one time a day.

Now, I check it, about one time a second.

7. In 1998, I thought Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit home runs naturally.

They just, you know, worked out really, really hard in the offseason, drank milk and took their vitamins.

8. In 1998, I was an idiot.

9. In 1998, I was more likely to HotBot than I was to Google.

If you don’t know what HotBot is, well, try Googling it.

10. In 1998, I could buy a gallon of gas for 97 cents at the
Speedway station in Ottawa, Ill.

I am so not kidding.

Told ya things have changed.

And I don’t think they’re changing back.

General

NBA Draft may be Bull, but make Rose one too

Okay, so the Chicago Bulls — coincidentally located in the NBA’s third-largest market, without a head coach, and, hmm … with fan interest waning once again in the Post-MJ Era — had a 1.7 percent chance to win the NBA Draft Lottery on Tuesday night.

So, naturally, the Chicago Bulls won the NBA Draft Lottery on Tuesday night.

Yeah, so maybe the NBA Draft is fixed.

But if that is the case, I suppose I won’t complain too much this year.

After all, if Bulls GM John Paxson uses this miracle pick to draft miracle point guard Derrick Rose, I might even — will miracles never cease? — start regularly watching NBA games again.

Over the next several weeks, some people no doubt will call for the Bulls to take Kansas State power forward Michael Beasley with the first pick.

Beasley, the nation’s leading rebounder and a 26-point-per-game scorer as a freshman, is ridiculously talented, and will almost certainly be a fabulous NBA player. But if the Bulls don’t take Rose, they’re crazy.

Because, believe me, you’re more likely to uncover a Beasley elsewhere in the NBA than you are to dig up another Rose.

Back in the days before I was a newspaper columnist, I spent seven years as a sports writer.

I’ve seen more prep basketball games than I can count, watching hundreds of kids hoop it up in both cavernous big-city arenas and crackerbox gymnasiums in towns where you probably didn’t even know there was a high school.

Or a town.

Most of the players I’ve seen were mediocre. Some were good. A few were even great.

But only one of them was Derrick Rose.

Most of the world got to know Rose this past March when the fab frosh came within a whisker of leading the University of Memphis to a national title. I first got to know Rose, however, back in December 2004 when he was a high school sophomore playing in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament.

On that winter night, the wiry point guard from Chicago Simeon was as raw as could be — Rose committed eight turnovers in the game — but he also flashed athletic gifts beyond belief.

Rose’s first step off the dribble was the quickest I’d ever witnessed in person — and that includes Big Ten college players.

And during the game — while on a fast break with a defender attached to his hip — Rose appeared that he’d go in for a layup, maybe a one-handed dunk attempt, but instead erupted off the floor for the most shocking two-handed slam that I’ve ever seen.

So startled was the crowd that the entire Pontiac High gymnasium gasped in unison.

During this year’s NBA playoffs, precocious point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams have showed how important a talented, young quarterback is for today’s NBA game.

And, while Beasley will no doubt be great, Rose is the guy who can take your breath away.

Just ask the folks in Pontiac.

Rose is a perfect fit for the true-point-guardless Bulls.

So, don’t think twice, Pax.

Draft the kid No. 1.

General

Me TV

So, it’s true.

The camera really DOES add 10 pounds…

No, seriously, it was pretty cool – and a little surreal – seeing myself on national television tonight talking about convicted con artist Hillard Jay Quint during the E! Network’s episode of “THS Investigates: Dating Nightmares.”

(In case you missed it, I’m pretty sure the show will rerun next week. And probably the week after that.)

After turning off E! tonight, I was thinking that I’ve now written sports, features, columns and hard news for papers. I’ve worked as a reporter, an editor, a columnist and a blogger. I’ve written a book, I’ve done radio and now I’ve been on TV.

When it comes to media, I’m not too sure what’s left.

Movies, I guess?

Yeah, well, I don’t expect that I’ll be getting a star on a sidewalk in Hollywood anytime soon.

A spot on “True Hollywood Stories Investigates” will suffice.

Thanks, by the way, to everyone who sent me e-mails, text messages and posted online comments today. It was much appreciated, great hearing from everyone and fun finding myself back in the writing game.

Thanks again.

Alright, with that, I need to get myself some rest.

I’ve got two Cubs games and one birthday this weekend, you know.

General

Wisch List: Resurrection

“I feel reborn. I’m like a Phoenix rising from Arizona.”

– Frank Costanza, “Seinfeld”

I figured it’s about time that I rise from the dead.

Or, you know, Arizona.

After all, I’ve been (Wisch) Listless long enough.

And, c’mon, haven’t you been too?

(Only answer that if it’s a “yes.”)

It’s now been more than 10 months since I left the Chicago Tribune (but not Chicago), sent this blog on an extended vacation (poor little fella needed it. I did too) and pretty much fell off the face of the Earth (or the face of the blogosphere, at least).

If you followed my Wisch List blog at chicagotribune.com from July 2005 to July 2007, or read my print column of the same name at the Daily Times in Ottawa, Ill., from 2002 to 2005, then you might have been wondering what the heck happened to me.

And where the heck I’ve been.

Well, we’ll get to all that.

But first, let me fill you in on what the heck I’m up to right now.

For one, I’m still living in Wrigleyville. For another, I’m now working for a fine mid-sized public relations firm in Chicago’s Loop, comfortably removed from the current chaos of the newspaper industry but still utilizing my media experience and skills.

Oh, and yeah, I’m also on national television tonight.

Guess I should mention that too.

No, I’m not subbing for Ryan Seacrest, nabbing Katie Couric’s seat on CBS, or joining the cast of some new reality show. Although, I suppose I could on the latter.

Survivor: Journalism, perhaps?

Instead, at 7 p.m. (CDT) tonight, I’ll be making my TV debut by appearing on a two-hour episode of E! Network’s True Hollywood Stories spinoff, “THS Investigates.”

The show’s full title is: “THS Investigates: Dating Nightmares.”

And, no — since I know you’re laughing — it’s not about me.

Rather, it’s about Hillard Jay Quint (and other dating nightmares).

Many of you might recall my front-page stories in the Chicago Tribune about Quint, a 42-year-old disbarred attorney from Atlanta who was arrested on Feb. 23, 2007, in Chicago Gold Coast’s neighborhood. The overweight smooth-talker with the white Hummer was cruising about town while posing as a wealthy California plastics CEO by the name of Matthew Goldstein and juggling eight girlfriends, each of whom he’d met through online dating services.

In the Windy City, Quint’s outrageous hijinks included doctoring a photo to make himself look like Success magazine’s “2006 Achiever of the Year,” photoshopping his head onto the body of a fighter jet pilot and even claiming to own the brown-and-white polka-dot dress his dear friend Julia Roberts wore in “Pretty Woman.”

He was accused by police of taking about $23,000 from three women in Chicago. Authorities, however, believe that since 1999 — when Quint was released after spending 13 months in a Georgia prison for conning his legal clients out of hundreds of thousand of dollars — the man with the silver tongue has bilked as much as $1 million from women and men throughout the country utilizing a vast array of elaborate hoaxes.

In December, Quint pled guilty in Cook County to a charge related to passing bogus checks in Illinois and was sentenced to 5 years in prison. Right now, he’s sitting inside a cell at Graham Correctional Center in Downstate Hillsboro.

I’m currently conducting research for a book – “Mr. Wonderful: The Not-So-True Story of Hillard Jay Quint” – that I hope to write, and in February E! interviewed me in Chicago about Quint’s story, which is one of the “Dating Nightmares” profiled on tonight’s show.

So, anyways, that’s what I’m up to right now.

But you’re still probably wondering why I’m no longer at the Trib.

Well, it’s a long story. But here’s the short(ish) version:

In July 2005, I joined the Trib through its residency program, a common way for young reporters to break in at the newspaper.

Akin to a medical residency in regards its hours and demands, the Trib residency involves being staffed out of the paper’s Metro desk as a general-assignment reporter and involves working nights, weekends and holidays while logging hours both downtown at the Tribune Tower and out in a suburban bureau. Sometimes all in the same week.

As any former Tribune resident knows, the job – which also includes no guarantees of permanent employment after two years – is a load. And it should be. Joining the Tribune shouldn’t be easy.

On top of those duties, however, I also was the only resident at the Tribune to write a blog, the Wisch List — something I was told by my bosses would be done on my own time. As the third-ever blogger at the Tribune, behind only veteran staffers Eric Zorn and Maureen Ryan, I helped pioneer the technology for chicagotribune.com and was proud of it.

My blog was an online adaptation of the popular general-interest print column about life – and the people who live it – that I began three years earlier at the Daily Times, a 12,000-circulation newspaper located in Ottawa, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago.

In November 2004, while features editor in Ottawa, I published a book, Northern IlliNOISE: Tales of a Territory,” that was a collection of 75 of my Wisch List columns. Between 2001 and 2005 prior to taking a job with the Tribune, I also won the most editorial awards of any journalist in Illinois during that time frame (18 total, including six firsts and a Top 10 national).

So, that was my situation upon arriving in Chicago. And having long aspired to become a columnist for the Tribune, I worked day (as a reporter) and night (as a blogger) to prove my chops as a journalist and writer. I was particularly proud of the following I developed through the Wisch List despite having limited time to devote to it, and also while straddling a complicated line between reporting and writing opinion.

Last Memorial Day, about a month before my 2-year residency was to end, I made a pitch to some of the Tribune’s top editors, hoping to sit down and discuss a variety of ideas, including my desire to start a Wisch List print column, develop my blog further, provide the newspaper with a younger voice and also help increase synergy between the its print and online products.

To be brief, some at the Trib were very enthusiastic about hearing my ideas, while others were not. End result was, I was told in mid-June that the paper was letting me go once my residency ended. So, essentially, I was laid off and my last day at the Tribune was last July 5.

About 10 days later, I went to the ER with a case of tonsillitis so severe that my throat had nearly swollen shut. Six sickly weeks and one allergic reaction to medication after that, I had those pesky tonsils removed. I then spent another two weeks surviving on yogurt and water.

And how was your summer?

Ha.

Thankfully, 2008 has so far been much kinder to me than 2007. And I can laugh about last year now because I’m still alive and kickin’.

As well as writing again. Finally.

And I’m doing it all without any regrets. I’d be lying, of course, if I said the way things turned out at the Tribune wasn’t frustrating and a disappointment, but I also learned an incredible amount while working at the paper, made loads of wonderful friends and had a ton of memorable experiences. I also was fortunate enough to emerge from the news industry’s current struggles with my sanity (if not my tonsils) intact. I suppose these days, you could still call me a recovering journalist.

But here’s to hoping that I recover well.

In this blog (a work in progress). On TV (tonight, at least). And through another book (if I’m lucky).

So, make sure stop by the Wisch List often. After all, this old columnist (I turn 32 on Sunday) needs somebody to keep tabs on him. Might as well be you.

(P.S. It’s good to be back.)