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Roll Out The Weird Carpet: The Umali Awards


John Kulsick is a part-time musician and writer living in Milwaukee.

I have lived in Milwaukee for less than one year and only recently have I begun to feel as if I am getting to know the city and its peoples.  Having spent 30 years living in New England and the last 6 in a small community in Western Massachusetts with my staple eateries with which to pair every mood, and a solid cast of characters to happen upon familiarly as if chance were always the next thing on my agenda, adjusting to the Northern Midwest has been a long and slow process.  Milwaukee, while inviting, sincerely and utterly enjoyable, has a different feeling, a different pace, and a different set of reference points.  At no time has Milwaukee ever seemed more gloriously operating under its own rules than the evening I attended the 8th Annual Umali Awards. 

I had the pleasure, several months earlier, of meeting Renato Umali after the Batten Revue’s set at the Bremen Café.  We spoke of casually various interests until we struck a common chord: extended Franchise Modes in Madden Football.  We both enjoyed creating narrative storylines for homemade characters to the point where we wished for and, at least I, actively imagined NFL films lending its austere narration for just a single afternoon to bring a legitimate drama that others could experience without spending several months watching either of us play video games.  It is an act of creation, this birthing of mythologies, an act that gives deep and potentially universal meaning to traditionally simple and “everyday” experiences, turning finite experiences into bottomless canyons of potentiality.

The 8th Annual Umali Awards was a stunning realization of this creative act.  I did not have a clear idea of what I was walking into as I entered the Green Gallery West on Center Street; I just knew that I was wearing a tie and that meant something important was about to happen.

photo by Rassi Borneo

I sat enthralled, gratefully and amazedly watching Renato Umali relive, retell, and thereby create the narrative of his last 365 days.  By keeping records of his daily actions, ranging from who he talked to and how he ate his eggs, to the more subjective “Best Dining Experience of the Year,” Umali was able to present a series of snapshots of his past year.  Presenters read from scripts (which themselves ranged from sincere to tongue-in-cheek, a nod to the traditional awkwardness of such scripted moments) and bestowed awards for the best of various categories, providing actual statistics to back them up.  I found myself pulling for scrambled eggs and hoping Latrell Sprewell would show up in the “Most Famous Person Spoken To” category because I had seen him at the grocery store a week earlier.  I was being drawn into these snapshots. 

More importantly, however, I found myself gradually being drawn into  Umali’s circle of friends, taking a couple hours to experience an entire year, or 8 for that matter.  I kept returning to the fact that I was attending the 8th installment of the Umali Awards, that Umali had been keeping stats and ranking his dining experiences for the past eight years; a feat which instantly gave credence and credibility to both the events being spoken of as well as the presentation itself.  This was real, this was important, and this was tradition.

Then I realized something more immediate.  Something more sincere (and much more sneaky) was bubbling up from under all the stats and graphs.  The ultimate Umali Award, the D.I.W.I.T.T.Y.  (Days in Which I Talked to You), was presented throughout the night in stages, building up to the final presentation of the 3 people with whom Renato spoke with the most days during the past year.   The unfolding narrative of Sarah Buccheri, the reigning champion of the last 6 years, being unseated and falling to a respectable and still coveted position of 3rd place was enough to close the night on.  But having the crowning of the new champion come down to Umali’s fiancé, Sarah Burgundy, and his roommate, Frank Straka, was enough to have me, a man with no ties to any of these people, on the edge of my seat.  And, while I was pulling for the romantic choice of fiancé, it was Straka’s acceptance speech, delivered painfully in phonetic-only French and translated by an interpreter, that had me cheering for the idea of strangers turning into people and then into friends, and all the sweet and awkward moments that happen along the way.

I found myself comparing the Umali Awards to the more easily recognizable award shows.  Every time the Grammys, Emmys, Oscars, or anything shiny and arbitrary happens, I  experience it with caution; there are forces far beyond “art” that go into winning one of those awards for their respective arts, be it star power, advertising, scandal, or the sheer whim of cultural relevance (which in itself is always a source of shaky contentiousness).  The winners of these awards, the presentations of which are the gluttonous celebration of the capital I-Industry that is created by the viewing public paying to watch their money being spent from a distance far greater than the length of a sequined red carpet and the width of a wall of photographers, are always suspect in my eyes.  The sheer size of the Industry makes the awards that much smaller and more about celebrating another opportunity to cash in than another arbitrarily “successful” work of art.

The most amazing thing about the Umali Awards is that the night simultaneously celebrated the arbitration of such award shows and obliterated it.  By offering actual consumption statistics to determine why one type of egg dish won the award over another, Umali called to mind the Billboard Awards, determining “Best” song or album based on how many copies it sold.  By scripting the presenters’ dialogue, Umali reminds his audience that one needn’t be a famous celebrity to either read such lines with poise and grace or fumble over the words.  Such fumblings may serve as comic relief, though they also betray the superficiality of the delivery itself, baring the presenter’s own refusal to play make-believe for a moment in the name of something larger as well as, perhaps, the presenter’s subliminal disappointment for not being a nominee in the first place.  Even the acceptance speeches ranged from thoughtfully planned and humble to awkward and nervous, even including the staple recipient using the speech to address random issues and pre-conscious ramblings.  The presence of a hired photographer, who made every professional attempt to blend into the background yet was visible enough to remind the audience that the night was glamorously worthy of proper documentation and yet still limited from its inception to a single hired flash, was, at once, necessary and absurd.

photo by Rassi Borneo

Through these instances, the audience was constantly asked to determine if what they were witnessing was Umali poking fun at the awards show industry or using the format of such events to not only legitimize his past 365 days but also raise those days to Hollywood status, as if to ask “Who’s to say my breakfast can’t compete with George Clooney’s?”  Again, I was continually returning to the conversation I had with Umali about creating elaborate narratives out of fake players in a video football game.  Watching Umali laugh at the presentations and seeing the humor that was driving the entire actualization of the evening, one could easily assume that the Umali Awards were an elaborate and ornate inside joke.  I beg to differ.  Umali, while enjoying the humor and company of friends, acquaintances, and strangers, was up to something much larger.  He was turning his friends and associates into celebrity presenters.  He was turning his co-workers into esteemed winners of prestigious awards.  He was turning his every day into a movie premier.  He was turning his breakfast into a gold record. 

If the Grammys are a black tie dinner, then the Umali Awards are a family barbeque with all your relatives, including the ones you never knew existed.  I found myself leaving the Green Gallery West feeling like I had met all of Umali’s friends and co-workers, that I had eaten the dinners in contention for “Best Dining Out Experience,” that I was a Scrabble Champion.  I learned as much about Umali’s friends as I did he, and I remember distinctly being excited to make the short walk to the Bremen Café to see all of my new friends and dance with them to Umali’s various musical outfits.  I actively thought about how many days were left in the year to weigh my chances at earning a D.I.W.I.T.T.Y at the 9th Annual Umalis.  Then I remembered what Umali taught me that night: its never about winning the award, its about the narrative, the story that goes into the experience that shapes the person’s day that served you the eggs you ordered because it was overcast outside and you were in love and there was a faint song on in the background and even though you usually didn’t like that song it was perfect right at that moment and you remembered being young because the four year old across the way was struggling with carrying everything he wanted to carry.  That’s what the Umali Awards are.  May we enjoy ourselves thusly every year.

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