Thursday, September 06, 2018

COLUMN: Truck Fire


(Note: Not the actual truck or the actual fire. But it was kinda like this.
Except at night. And I was a lot farther away. Or is it further away? Point is, it was scary.)


I am, by no means, a macho, macho man like the Village People once yearned to be. Still, I've always kind of assumed that inside this mild-mannered nerd beats the heart of a hero-in-waiting. After this week, I'm pretty sure I was wrong.

Running towards trouble and not away from it is a skill that doesn't come natural to me. A loud bang? I jump out of my seat. Someone yells? I pretend not to hear. A bee flys by? I run away while trying SUPER hard not to shriek. You can describe me with a choice of adjectives, but "brave" usually isn't among them.

Still, I've always thought that if I found myself in a crisis situation, I'd do the right thing. I'd help my fellow man. I'd run into the burning building -- or at least briskly walk. I've just never been in a real hurry to test my heroic instinct.

Last Sunday, I drove with my best friend Jason to Chicago to see one of our favorite bands from the old days (The Trash Can Sinatras.) It was a brilliant night out that took me straight back to college -- a frame of mind which might also explain why we thought that afterwards, we'd just hop in the car and drive back home like the 18-year-olds we definitely aren't.

Collegiate Shane would NOT have been impressed by the two middle-aged men limping and groaning their way into the Dekalb Oasis at 1:30 a.m. in dire need of caffeine and Advil. As it turned out, though, we didn't need coffee to wake us up on this particular roadtrip.

Twenty minutes later, we were somewhere outside of Dixon and I was thiiiis close to falling asleep in my seat when I heard Jason from behind the wheel yell out, "What the hell is THAT?"

I looked up. Omigod. "THAT" was an 18-wheeler, about 200 yards in front of us -- on fire. Not just a little fire, either. This was a BIG fire. Like, a MOVIE fire. I barely had time to curse when an explosion sent two flaming truck tires into the air over the inferno. I half expected Arnold Schwarzenegger at my window yelling, "Come with me if you want to live!"

Another fireball followed as presumably the gas tank went up. Was this my hero moment? Was I supposed to spring into action and somehow, some way, make everything all better? Instead, the two of us sat there transfixed, saying little that I could repeat in a family newspaper.

No one else was around. "We've got to call 911," someone said (was it me?) and we did, though it barely helped the operator to tell her we were "on I-88 somewhere not quite Dixon." Part of me wanted to run to the truck and make sure the driver was okay, but the fire was WAY too intense. The only thing we could do was turn on our emergency lights and try to warn other drivers coming up behind us.

A handful stopped and pulled off the road alongside us. A few minutes later, we saw the lights of a police car approaching from the other side of the accident. Behind us, another 18-wheeler rolled up, carrying a dozen or so new cars on his trailer. This bright bulb took one look at the situation and decided his best course of action was to just keep on truckin' down the half-lane that wasn't full of fiery debris. Smart move, since the only thing better than one exploding vehicle is a dozen of them.

He made it through, though, and that was all it took for the other cars to follow. Eventually being the last ones left, Jason and I shrugged and decided to follow suit. As we cautiously drove around the inferno, we were met with a surprise. From where we pulled off, it had looked like the whole truck was engulfed in flame. In reality, only the trailer was ablaze and the cab didn't look too bad. We saw no driver, a police car was there, and we could see lights of approaching fire trucks in the distance, so we carried on home. Easy peasy.

But then the next day, I e-mailed Lee County Sheriff John Simonton to see if there were any public details about the fire. I almost wish I hadn't.

Like I said, from our vantage point, all we saw was fire. What we didn't see was the car in front of the truck that stopped when they saw him blow a tire and swerve off the road. We didn't see the passengers of that car race to the cab and pull the unconscious driver to safety before the first explosion. We never spotted the good samaritans or the first-reponse officer giving the driver CPR until the ambulance arrived. As I write this, the driver's currently in critical but stable condition and expected to pull through, thank God.

Maybe I could have been more proactive. Instead, I was a gawker, unaware that life-and-death heroics were happening just beyond that blaze. Instead of keeping a safe distance from the fire, we joined in the parade of idiots too impatient to wait for the road to clear. Sheriff Simonton also informed me that the tanker was full of liquid oxygen and could have gone nuclear at any point.

So if you're holding out for a hero 'til the morning light, you might want to skip me. I'm still not entirely unconvinced that I'm incapable of bravery and self-sacrifice, but the jury's still out and I'm in no hurry to test it ever again. Just be safe when you're out there on the roads. And I know that some people say thoughts and prayers are overrated, but if you could send some towards the driver of that truck, this wannabe hero would be grateful.

COLUMN: Allergies


My neighbor's house is on fire. I'm not kidding.

Well, it WAS on fire. This column won't run until Monday and I'm writing it nearly a week in advance, so if my neighbor's house is STILL on fire by the time you're reading this, then we've got a far more serious problem than I could have ever anticipated.

But right here, right now, in the reality of me sitting on my couch writing this column, my neighbor's house is on fire. As I type, there are police outside my window blocking the road and two trucks full of firefighters attacking the blaze. The good news is that it looks like they caught it early and it's not going to be that big of a deal. I'm pretty sure they've already got it done to a mere smolder, everyone seems okay, and there doesn't look to be a ton of property damage. Whew.

I tried walking down there for a closer view and got a couple of very stern looks from some of Rock Island's finest, so I decided it would be best to retreat to the house and let them do their job. Besides, I was a bit preoccupied.

How did I first know that the neighbor's house was ablaze? Was it the random shouts I heard from down the block? Was it the wailing sirens of fire trucks skidding to a stop in front of my house? Was it the foul burnt smell currently suffocating the neighborhood?

Nope. I knew something was up when, out of complete nowhere, I sat up, blinked, went "uh oh," and sneezed 37 times in a row. I'm not kidding. I counted.

Like many of you, I suffer from seasonal allergies -- and the season is NOW.

When I was a kid, I was constantly sniffling through pollen season. When I hit my twenties and thirties, though, most of my symptoms went away and I just assumed I'd outgrown my hay fever. But about five years ago, my allergies returned with a vengeance. These days, I can pretty much count on losing the ability to smell for most of the spring and fall.

Some folks get the sniffles or a runny nose or itchy eyes. Me? I get spontaneous, no-warning rapid fire sneezing fits that can last for fifteen minutes or more. It's just a fun quirky facet of Shane that my co-workers especially seem to enjoy.

Some people can sneeze politely. I once had a massive crush on a cute girl who even had cute sneezes -- little petite things that went "Fiw!" adorably. I used to have a co-worker who could hold them in entirely and would just politely go "fppt" while I presume her head narrowly avoided exploding into tiny polite shards. My sneezes tend to sound more like "RrrrrAFFFFLEKAFLOOOOOOOOOO!" which is made all the more fun when they appear one after the other like semi-automatic assault sneezes.

My co-workers, bless them, are used to it. That is, the ones who've always sat near me are. But since we recently moved offices, we're now in one giant cubicle farm where each and every employee of the Dispatch/Argus now gets to hear me rrrraffflekaflooo-ing on a regular basis. The other day, a couple of them attempted to issue a polite "God bless you" after each sneeze. Both of them gave up after sneeze #25 or so. I'd like to think God must have better things to do than sit around and bless me 37 times in a row.

It's all great fun and games until it happens while you're behind the wheel of a car. I've had to pull off the road on many an occasion just to sneeze a dozen times. I'm probably the only person who's explained tardiness to their boss as "I was sneezing" and have them go, "yeah, I understand." They've heard it. They know.

I've never been tested to find out exactly what I'm allergic to, but I'm in no hurry to find out. Doesn't it still involve drawing a grid on your back, injecting you with tiny amounts of irritants, and seeing which ones make you red and itchy? To this medieval practice, I say a big no thanks. This would be like testing for meningitis by having people spit in your mouth until one of them makes you sick. Keep your back grids, needles, and cooties to yourself, doc.

No, instead I'll just err on the side of caution and assume that I'm allergic to ALL of nature and do my very best to wall myself indoors until everything that's gonna bloom blooms. I know I'm allergic to pollen, dust, bee stings, and now I'm pretty sure I can add "burning duplexes" to that list. I reckon that's all the knowledge I need for now. I'll be fine in a month, I promise you.

Some people might be bummed if they had to stay indoors and live the spring season through HEPA filters and allergy drugs. I'm cool with it. I've got a long Netflix queue to get through, people. Go enjoy the rest of your spring. I'll keep the homefires burning -- just not as dramatically as my neighbor, I hope.

COLUMN: Laurel v Yanny


So how's your week going? Mine's going okay -- well, except for that one part when my entire worldview got tossed asunder and I lost all personal identity as my reality came crashing down leaving me in a void of unanswered questions and the realization that my entire life could be a lie.

Other than that, things are pretty decent.

Fair warning: there's a good chance this column could be an abject failure. For one, I'm about to discuss something that's better HEARD than read. For two, since it was all over the news last week, you're probably sick to death of hearing about it.

But sometimes, when something this paramount occurs in our world, it merits careful analysis. I don't care if it's been beat to death by the media, a topic this important deserves our time, our consideration, and a valuable fact-based discussion about what it means to society and the global ramifications that could ensue from such a divisive, far-reaching, and world-changing topic.

I speak, of course, about whether you hear Laurel or Yanny.

In case you've been living under that one rock without wi-fi or emergency access to internet memes, I'll recap: Last week, someone somewhere on the internet posted a sound file. The short clip is a recording that comes from the website vocabulary.com of a robotic male voice offering the correct pronounciation of the word "laurel."

But when some people listen to the clip, they don't hear "laurel." Instead they hear a word that sounds more like "yanny." This is super weird, since "laurel" and "yanny" don't really sound alike at all. But it's true -- a good chunk of the populace clearly hears "laurel" while others plainly hear "yanny." Over the past week, the internet has exploded with questions about how this auditory illusion works.

The answer, as you may expect, is a bit sciency. Speaking to the website "The Verge," Lars Riecke, an assistant professor of audition and cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University, explains that several different factors can play into whether we hear "Laurel" or "Yanny."

One is frequency. The acoustic information that makes us hear "yanny" is a higher frequency than the information that makes us hear "laurel." Hearing loss over time tends to start with higher frequencies, so older people tend to hear "laurel." The audio source can affect the outcome, too. If you're playing the sound over a tinny speaker with little low-end, you might be more inclined to hear the higher frequency "yanny."

But the difference can also be due to our brains and the way we interpret sounds. When we hear something ambiguous, our brains will automatically try to fill in the blanks. If you know some Laurels and are familiar saying the name, that's what you might hear. If you're a fan of well-coiffed new age keyboardists, you might hear Yanni. Or Yanny. Whatever.

The point is, I'm not having it. I am a life-long audio geek, music fan, and weekend DJ. Even at my lowest, I can fall back on the knowledge that I am a world class conoisseur of sound waves. I'm not saying that I'm so conceited and full of myself that I believe I can appreciate audio on a different level than most of you, except that is EXACTLY what I'm saying because music is my oxygen and my well-trained ears rule.

Therefore, I should be able to listen to this clip, simulataneously hear both "Laurel" and "Yanny," and laugh at you poor audio amateurs and your unskilled ears. But no. I've played the clip a hundred times, and all I hear is "Laurel." Not even a hint of "Yanny." As it turns out, I don't have the supersensory hearing I've always assumed I had. In fact, I probably have hearing loss that eliminates high frequencies and makes me only hear "Laurel."

So what does this mean? If I can listen to a word and only hear it one way while half the world hears it another, what ELSE do people hear differently? Is this why I hate dubstep music so much? Can others put on a Skrillex CD and hear a beautiful emotive symphony while I only hear angry robots yelling at one another? Maybe to some ears, Lil Yachty can sing like Pavarotti. I hate to say it, folks, but maybe -- just maybe -- Nickelback is GOOD and we just can't hear it.

This is the kind of thing that keeps me up late. I found a website where you can adjust the frequencies of the original sample until I could finally hear "Yanny." I was hoping there'd be a sweet spot where it might sound like "Lauryannyel," but no dice. I did, however, find a median where I could think to myself, "I want to hear Laurel" and I would, and then "I want to hear Yanny" and I would -- which is frankly just more proof that everything we hear is a lie created by our brain.

My best bet is just to stop thinking about it before I lose all confidence in my ears and they take away my membership badge to the music nerd club. I just need to accept the fact that when I turn on the radio and hear "Stairway to Heaven," it might really be "Hairspray for Kevin." If you hear something different than I do, then so be it, I guess. I still like music the way I hear it just fine. If the only loss I took away from being in the crowd at the 132 decibel assault of My Bloody Valentine live at the Aragon Ballroom was my future inability to hear a robot voice say the word "Yanny," it was a fair price to pay.

Let's let the Laurels be Laurels and the Yannys be Yannys and move on to important matters -- like whether that dress is black & blue or white & gold.

COLUMN: Cancellations


Well, it's official. Good weather is upon us.

How do I know this? Is it because the flood waters have receded? Because the forecasters have retired the phrase "wintry mix" for at least a few months? Because the sun's out, people are milling around outdoors, and there's a certain magic in the air?

Nope. I know the weather's getting nice because every TV show that any of us care about has just been unceremoniously snuffed out of existence for the season, some never to return again.

I remember a day when I used to anxiously await network TV's annual spring upfronts, where they introduce and tease some of the new shows coming this fall. But this year especially, I found myself caring a lot less about new shows and a lot more about which current shows were facing the grim axe of cancellation.

Six months ago, I wrote a column celebrating the current slate of TV programming and told you that we were living in a new golden age of broadcasting. Half a year later, all those shows are cancelled and everything sucks again. Whoops, my bad.

Once upon a time, TV shows were given a fighting chance of survival. Even "My Mother The Car," an actual series about a guy's dead mother reincarnated as a 1928 Porter jalopy, a show widely considered to be the worst show in the history of television, aired 30 episodes before the network pulled the plug. (An actual episode synopsis: "Dave is forced to drive his mother/car to a mountaintop wedding, but along the way she gets drunk on antifreeze.")

These days, a struggling show is lucky to get six episodes before the axe falls. Imagine what television history would be like if networks always had this itchy of a trigger finger. When it started out, "Cheers" ranked 74th out of 77 shows on the air. "Seinfeld" was panned by test audiences. Neither show would have survived past its first season in today's market. With a kajillion different cable channels and limitless streaming options, networks no longer have the patience to nurse a show to success -- it's either a hit or a miss out the gate.

And when you're only concerned with hits, what happens? You water creativity down, pander to middle America, and you're left with a schedule of singing contests, banal family sitcoms, and my absolute least favorite genre of TV: medical dramas. I swear, every one of them has the same plot:

Patient: "I have a head cold."

Doctor: "Well, let me just take a look... OMIGOD, YOU HAVE TERMINAL NOSE CANCER AND 45 MINUTES LEFT TO LIVE! #drama"

Patient: "Let me quickly make amends with my family and say something incredibly poignant about mortality. #Emmynominee"

Actor Playing Doctor: "I am now SO popular for playing this doctor that I am quitting the show to make movies with Brad Pitt. #Emmywinner"

Doctor: "OH NO, NOW I HAVE TERMINAL NOSE CANCER, TOO!"

This season's biggest success story was the return of fan favorites like "Will & Grace" and "Roseanne." As a result, next fall's schedule is filled to the brim with multi-camera sitcoms and retreads of past glories. "Murphy Brown" is coming back, and so are new versions of "Magnum P.I." and "Cagney and Lacey." WHY? Let ghosts lie, I say.

Why not just make a NEW show about two mismatched female detectives and name it something OTHER than "Cagney and Lacey?" If you made a new show about a small-town sheriff with a heart of gold, you wouldn't call it "The Andy Griffith Show." And how much staying power does the name "Cagney and Lacey" even HAVE, anyways? No offense, but hasn't the primary fanbase of the original series shuffled off to the great studio audience in the sky?

And to make room for this tidal wave of retreads, some truly great shows got the axe this year. "Designated Survivor" and "Last Man on Earth," both quality shows, end their legacies on cliffhangers that will never get resolved (although there are now rumours that Netflix may step in and save "Designated Survivor.")

My favorite new show of the year, "Kevin (Probably) Saves the World" now ends without fanfare, resolution, or any indication as to whether or not Kevin actually saves the world (Spoiler: He probably does.) The Grim Reaper of cancellation even reached my favorite show to hate-watch, the musical-drama "Rise." Now we'll never know whether or not a high school full of every cliche teenage stereotype can be saved by one dauntless drama teacher and his plucky production of "Spring Awakening."

The point is: Shows should never end on a cliffhanger. If a network prematurely boots a show, they should be required to air a final episode wherein the show's creators and writers just stand in front of a camera and tell us what WOULD have happened had the series continued. Every show deserves a "The End."

If I ran the world, the television dial would look a whole lot different. And Katie Holmes would probably be starring in everything. But if this assassination of quality TV keeps up, I might just have to check out this "outdoors" thing I keep hearing about.

COLUMN: Co-Op


If there's one thing I'm good at, it's issuing overly-dramatic and potentially life-changing vows, only to go back on my words as if they were never uttered. "I'm THROUGH procrastinating!" "I will NEVER let my house get this messy ever again!" "That's the LAST time I ever eat an entire Harris Pizza!"

Words to live by -- except I never do. But there was one such assertion I've remained true to my word on for decades. I swore it in the middle of a particularly hissy fit sometime in the mid-Nineties, but I meant it:

"As God is my witness, I will NEVER work retail again!"

I'm now sorta hoping God wasn't eavesdropping that day, because yours truly is the newest part time employee of Moline's Co-Op Records.

Me working at a record store shouldn't be THAT much of a shocker. Listening to music, collecting music, and talking about music are pretty much my three favorite hobbies. I might as well be getting paid for it. Besides, it's not my first rodeo in music sales.

When I got out of college, I got hired on at a now-defunct second-hand CD shop. I thought it would be my dream job -- well, except it was part time, offered no benefits, and paid minimum wage.

But then I got to know the owners. They turned out to be less music junkies and more like money junkies out to make a tidy profit, and my charming slackerish ways weren't met with much love back then. I was constantly getting admonished for not tucking my polo shirt in straight. Don't get me wrong, there's certainly something to be said for wearing professional appropriate attire in the workplace. But in the "professional" setting of a used CD store, an untucked shirt IS appropriate attire, and it's usually best if said shirt is ripped, weathered, and contains the faded logo of a band that NO ONE'S ever heard of except you.

Instead of hour-long discussions about the greatest drummers in rock history, I got lessons on how to wipe down countertops. Instead of sharing musical passions, they shared how to take advantage of elderly customers. My tenure there was short-lived. Thankfully, Co-Op was waiting in the wings to offer me a job at a REAL independent record store.

My days at Co-Op were great, and quickly proved that every stereotype about record store clerks is pretty much true. YES, we would sit around and have heated arguments over which Beatles album was best. YES, we'd have contests where you'd look at a customer and try to figure out which in-store music would get him to ask what was playing. YES, we were all pretty much insufferable dorks. It was great.

Eventually, the real world had to win out. I was about to fall off my parents' insurance, they were growing tired of paying a college graduate's rent, and I wasn't exactly raking in the big bucks. A Shane in a record store is like a kid in a candy shop -- and back then, you could just take home whatever music you wanted and they'd subtract it off your payroll. That's how I went down in history as the only employee to ever receive a NEGATIVE paycheck. "It's payday! You owe us $72."

So I folded up the concert tees, put on some nice clothes, and took what I thought to be a short-term job at the local newspaper to get my parents off my back until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. 23 years later, here we are. No regrets.

But last fall, I got an interesting proposition from my friend Reid. He owns the Co-Op Records on Moline's Avenue of the Cities, and he was in a bind. Reid runs the store with a couple dedicated employees who work tirelessly, but even music dorks need time off once in a while. That, friends, is where I come in.

It's not a big commitment -- I'm lucky to work 2 shifts a month -- but I am back in the retail game. I'm still the same insufferable dork as ever, but I'm now selling music to kids half my age, which I guess makes me an insufferable elder statesdork. If I can recommend a record that'll change a kid's life the way music once changed mine, mission accomplished.

I've worked a few shifts already and it kinda feels like home, but with a few exceptions. I can operate a newspaper's entire complicated software system, but put me in front of simple cash register and I panic. I thought I knew music until I started getting questions from kids about bands I've never heard of. And how 1990's Shane stayed on his feet all shift is beyond me. 20 years and 100 pounds later, I leave work dreaming of epsom salt.

But I'm happy occasionally reliving my retail days. I've even been trusted with a key to the store. Frankly, there are days I don't trust myself with my own house keys. So if you fancy some records and see a chubby guy behind the counter struggling to stay on his feet, say hi. I promise I'll give you a great deal, and I clearly never go back on my word (cough).

COLUMN: Court Pt. 2


Tonight on Dateline:

He seemed like a nice, ordinary newspaper columnist. The kind of guy who filled his days writing about harmless things like cats and TV. So what could have caused this mild-mannered everyman to snap, get behind the wheel of his car, and take down an innocent bicyclist? Was it an unavoidable accident? Or was it MURDER?

Spoiler: It wasn't murder.

If you read last week's column, you've already heard the story. Last October, I was pulling out of my alley on the way to work when I got into a fender bender with a cyclist who came zipping down the sidewalk into the blind intersection. I was just letting off the brake from a dead stop and barely moving, so thankfully no one was hurt except my driving record and the guy's poor bike, which the front of my car rearranged like a Dali painting.

It was one of the more traumatic and embarassing moments in my life, and I can only be grateful that nobody got hurt. For my part in the incident, the police awarded me with a special honor called a "failure to yield" citation that turned out to be a little less prestigious than I was hoping for.

I certainly don't make a habit of it, but I've been on the receiving end of a few traffic tickets over the years. Nothing big, but I racked up as couple of speeding tickets when I was in college and a seat belt violation one stupid day. And every time, I've freely owned up to it. I was at fault, I deserved the ticket, and I duly paid them.

But THIS time, I didn't feel quite so liable. It truly is a blind intersection, and I don't think any driver at the same spot at the same time would have been able to avoid hitting the bike. Half on principle and half because I thought it might make for an interesting newspaper column, I decided to fight my failure to yield ticket and have my day in court.

I spent one entire day incredibly satisfied by this decision, and then the next two months regretting it. Did I need an attorney? Just meeting with one would probably cost more than this silly ticket. Could I possibly defend myself? Wouldn't I just flop-sweat and stammer like usual? What was my defense going to be? "There was this bush, see..."? This was a dumb idea.

But when the day of my court appearance finally rolled around, I wasn't scared or stressed. That's because I was too busy vomiting. My January court date timed perfectly with the worst case of flu I'd ever had in years. But somehow, I managed to crawl out of bed, put on some nice clothes, and drag my drugged-out self to the courthouse on a wing, a prayer, and a whole lot of Dayquil.

At the courthouse, I was greeted by a kindly guard who told me I had to take off my belt before passing through the metal detector, which explains how my flu-addled brain came thiiiis close to accidentally dropping trou in front of some of our community's finest legal minds. The guard gets my ultimate respect, because he was the only one who went, "Excuse me, sir? Before you see the judge, you might want to zip up your pants." Good advice. Thankfully, the officer who cited me was a no-show and my date with the judge got pushed back two more months.

This was ample time for me to become a legal eagle. I'm somewhat of an expert in the modern legal system, because I have seen at least 100 episodes of "Law & Order." So in my down time before the judge, I prepped. I went to the intersection with a camera and took CSI pics of the obscuring hedge row. I hopped online and researched statutes. I watched even more "Law & Order."

Two weeks ago, it was my moment to shine. When they called my name, I would stride confidently before the judge, present my evidence, provide my multi-point argument with the grace and finesse of Jack McCoy, and leave court a free man, vindicated of my crime. As I awaited my turn, I composed my victory speech for the throng of reporters that surely must have been outside. My fantasy was soon interrupted by the assistant city attorney. Here's how it went down:

"Mr. Brown? Care to come up? Your honor, my officer isn't here. The victim isn't here. Move to dismiss."
"Sound good to you, Mr. Brown?"
"Err... yes?"
"Dismissed. Next."

It was the fastest "Law & Order" episode ever. The judge didn't even bang a gavel, not even once. My epic courtroom drama played out in roughly forty-five seconds. I was incredibly relieved -- except for the teeny tiny part of me that was silently disappointed. I didn't get to show my fancy pictures of the crime scene. Nobody had to press any "FREE SHANE" t-shirts. I didn't even get to stand up and yell, "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!!"

As much as I want to experience a shining star moment in court, it's probably not worth doling out any more love taps to passing cyclists. Probably. If you see my car coming, you might want to give it a wide berth just in case.

COLUMN: Court Pt. 1


I was trying to think of a good intro to this week's column, but I really think the only fitting intro is to imagine that you're hearing the "CHUNG! CHUNG!" noise from the beginning of every episode of "Law and Order." So, are you ready? CHUNG! CHUNG!

For the past six months, I've been harboring a deep secret from you people. As it turns out, your friendly neighborhood humor columnist -- is a felonious felon on the lam from Johnny Law.

Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. I suppose I've been less "on the lam" and more "sitting around waiting patiently for my court date." And I'm not a felonious felon. But I WAS accused of being a misdemeanorous misdemeanorer. Rebel, thy name is Shane.

I'm trying to figure out a way to frame this in a way that you WON'T immediately cast judgement upon me after hearing what happened -- but that might be a tall order. I swear I'm not a bad guy, but this wasn't my best moment.

Alright, fine. I'll just say it. Last October, I was involved in a minor traffic... kerfluffle, wherein it is alleged that my car may have been slightly over-eager to make the acquaintance of a passing bicyclist whilst I was behind the wheel. SEE? You've already made up your mind, right? I can hear you screaming "GUILTY!" from the rafters. I'm a horrible person who needs his license taken away and should be banished to the Island of Misfit Drivers for the rest of my natural life.

Now that you're convinced of my guilt, let me tell you what really happened. I was leaving for work one October morning and was attempting to turn right from my alley onto a major Rock Island artery. I came to a complete stop, looked both ways for oncoming traffic, let off the brake, and eased out.

Next thing I knew, KER-WUMP. Unbeknownst to me, a young guy was zipping down the sidewalk westbound on his bike while I was turning east. I didn't see him, he didn't see me, and we met only when my bumper clipped his tire and my heart leapt out of my chest.

The good news -- the only news that matters, really -- is that everyone's fine. I had just started to roll out of a dead stop, so the impact was minimal. Unless you count the year or two it took off my life, no one was hurt. It didn't even knock the guy off his bike. But it DID do a pretty good number on the poor bike and bent his wheel up, so after verifying that he was fine, I called 911 and reported the incident. To Rock Island's credit, an officer was there in moments.

If you're going to be involved in a traffic accident, I hope it's as optimal as mine was. The guy on the bike couldn't have been nicer, the officer couldn't have been nicer. The only bummer was that I ended up with a "failure to yield" ticket that I didn't think I deserved. Don't get me wrong, I felt (and still feel) terrible about the collision -- but I didn't feel especially liable. Here's why.

For one, the stretch of road I was turning onto provides a clearly marked bike lane in both directions. Had the cyclist been utilizing the proper marked lane, he would have been on the other side of the street safely away from any pre-caffeinated columnists trying to get to work.

But even more importantly, the end of my alley features an unkempt overgrown hedge row that, for half the year, obstructs ANY view of the sidewalk. It's a completely blind intersection, which is why I always pull out slow enough to stop for any pedestrians. In my admittedly amateur opinion, the cyclist was travelling too fast on the sidewalk against traffic into a blind intersection and the accident couldn't have been avoided. It was just lousy timing and little else.

These are all excellent points that my brain was making at the time. My MOUTH, on the other hand, was acting as its own attorney and not doing a great job. Fueled on a diet of shock, adrenaline, and pure thankfulness that no one was hurt, "OMIGOSH" was about the most sensible thing I could muster.

When I finally mentioned the bike lane to the officer, her response was, "I'm no expert on bike laws" (?) before looking up a general Illinois statute that say bicyclists on sidewalks should be afforded the same rights as pedestrians. When I pointed out the overgrown hedge row obscuring the sidewalk, the officer agreed and told me I should contact public works to remove them because they were a hazard. These were, in her words, "things you might want to bring up with the judge."

Gulp. As a general rule, I prefer to shy away from any scenarios wherein I have bring any things up with any judges. But I did it. I decided to fight my ticket.

There's been much debate lately about Rock Island's historic yet crumbling and asbestos-riddled courthouse. All this talk has made me want to have a peek inside the place, though there's probably better ways to do it than broadsiding a bicycle.

My court date was last week. How'd it go? Meet me here next Monday and I'll tell you. CHUNG! CHUNG!

Friday, August 10, 2018

COLUMN: Hunting


One of my favorite things about our home office's recent move to East Moline has been getting to know the pair of Canadian geese that appear to have set up shop somewhere on our grounds.

Every day, you can find the literal lovebirds in or around our parking lot, nibbling on grass, happily honking, and generally just goose-ing it up, seemingly oblivious to the building full of stressed newsies running around in desperate attempts to beat advertising goals and print deadlines. It's a relatively safe space, and I like seeing them flourish rather than becoming someone's dinner.

My new guilty pleasure is reality shows like "North Woods Law" that follow state game wardens on patrol. I'm a sucker for any program that tails cops around, but after awhile, there's a finite level of drunken domestic abuse calls one can watch without becoming queasy and worried about the future of society. The Animal Planet shows, on the other hand, just show clip after clip of game wardens making life hell for hunters, and I'm all for that.

I realize I may lose a few readers with this one, but I don't care: I'm not a fan of hunting. I don't understand how it's considered a "sport" to sit in a tree waiting for something cute to come along so that you can put a hole in it. If that's sporting, then I should be considered an athlete every time I play video games. At least Grand Theft Auto requires you to push some buttons.

And yes, I know. The only way I can truly be an anti-hunting crusader without being a huge hypocrite is if I became one of those self-righteous vegan types, and I'm not. Vegetables are too icky and cows are too delicious, sorry. I prefer to live my life in denial that those chicken breasts I bought at the grocery store were once attached to actual chickens.

I just don't get how killing something cute, furry, and innocent can possibly be fun. Besides, I've tried venison once or twice and it's not my thing. Maybe I'd be an avid hunter if the only way I could enjoy a cheeseburger is by stalking wild cattle through the woods. I just don't get how any of this is sporting unless the deer have crossbows, too.

If you want real sportmanship in nature, forget deer and geese. If you really want to experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, you need to match wits with the fiercest and most cunning creature in all of nature. I speak, of course, about the domestic housecat. You might enjoy waking up early to go hunting. I get it to do it every morning without leaving the house.

One of my elderly cats suffers from kidney problems. Twice a week, I'm supposed to sit her down, poke her with a needle, and pump her with a few hundred cc's of subcutaneous fluid that she needs to help flush her system. The internet is filled with how-to videos of patient cats happily purring away while their owners administer the life-giving fluids.

To this process, my cat says "thanks, but no thanks." That's a loose translation. She really just says "Hisssssssssssssss!"

In fact, she throws such a literal hissy fit that I can't do it at home without investing heavily in Bactine and Band-Aids. Ergo, twice a week, I have to take her to the vet, where they tell me she's a "total angel" who's a "perfect patient." They don't hear her in the car, where she spends the entire six-block trip giving me an earful of meows that range from angry to livid to, well, catty. Then I get her home, and she's instantly the affectionate purring lap cat I know.

She remains that cat for two days, and then I don't see her. As it turns out, I don't raise stupid cats. She knows that vet trips happen every three or four days, so she's lovely and underfeet for two days -- and then she hides. But only until it's night out. Once the sun sets, she comes out purring -- she knows vet trips only happen during sunlight.

Where she spends her day hours is anyone's guess. Sometimes it's under my bed where I can't reach. Sometimes it's under the basement stairs where NO ONE can reach. It's only during those few times when she comes out for food or the litterbox when I can grab her. I've tried playing with her toys, I've tried shaking the food box, I've tried luring her with tuna.

Every time I grab her, she learns more about how to evade future traps. Every week, it gets harder and harder to catch her slipping up. I never expected the most challenging aspect of my day would be matching wits with an animal who once ate an entire shoestring.

So have fun in your duck blinds and deer stands, hunters of the world. The real sport happens in my living room. I fear it's only a matter of time before I wake up tied down with rope like Gulliver until sunset. It's worth it, though. Life's a little bit better with work geese and lap cats.

COLUMN: Movie Theatre


I had a weird feeling the other day. It was the feeling of my wallet -- with MONEY in it for a change. It doesn't happen often, but I found myself with a small nest egg of disposable income.

The possibilities were limitless. I could have taken a weekend road trip somewhere new and exciting. I could've bought groceries for half a week. I should've put it into a savings account and let it accrue interest.

Instead I went to see a movie. Poof, so long, nest egg. It was nice knowing you.

Inflation is just a natural part of life, I guess. Listening to my grandparents talk, it seemed like everything in their era cost a nickel. Heck, I'm not THAT old but I can remember when gas was less than $1 per gallon and a fast food meal was under $5.

And I certainly remember a time when you didn't have to make decisions like, "Well, I could pay the mortgage this month... OR I could go to a matinee." "I could enjoy a steak dinner... or this medium-sized bag of popcorn."

I'm not a big moviegoer. Or at least I'm not NOW. Back in the day, we went all the time. I'm fairly sure I saw "The Lost Boys" in the theater FIVE times. There was just something magical about seeing a great story on a larger-than-life screen surrounded by friends and strangers.

These days, though, it's just not that big of a deal. I prefer the ambience of my couch to any theater, thanks. The once-infinite wait for a film's home release has turned into, what, 2-3 months tops? All it takes is a little bit of patience to watch any cinematic blockbuster in the comfort of your own home. As TVs grow larger and hi-def-ier every year, we're starting to reach the point where there's not much difference in quality.

I remember how excited I was when my parents surprised me with a TV for my bedroom. I was the envy of my friends. It was amazing. And I'm also pretty sure it had a smaller screen than the laptop computer I'm using to type this column. I've honestly seen cell phones that have a better picture quality than my old TV ever did. If Teen Shane were to walk into my living room right now and see the TV I have now, he'd probably assume that he grew up to be a millionaire -- and honestly, my TV isn't anything special.

It didn't dawn on me until I got home from the movie the other night: I completely take technology for granted. We all do. I just watched a two-hour movie in IMAX 3D with surround sound while sitting in a push-button controlled recliner. When I was a kid, I'm pretty sure the only place you could do that was Epcot Center. By all logic, I should have been at the edge of my seat, breathless, heart racing, barely able to contol my excitement at the stunning visual effects.

Instead, it was... nice. When you go to theaters these days, you EXPECT surround sound and a giant screen and motorcycles to literally come flying at you in a previously unseen third dimension. Ho-hum. How could I let myself become so jaded and unappreciative of such technological wonder?

Worse yet, I hate the fact that I prefer to watch movies at home nowadays. "Who pays to go see a movie these days?" is an utterance that's right up there with two of my least favorite sentences in the world: "Who still buys CDs?" and the unforgivable "no one reads newspapers anymore." (No one except 70%+ of adults in your local market, you thunderdolt.)

Who still buys CDs? THIS GUY does. Once upon a time, my music collection was my proudest life accomplishment and pretty much what I was known for. These days, anyone with a subscription to Spotify has access to about 80% of the collection I spent decades amassing. Thanks for making my life irrelevant, technology.

But I still win because Spotify kids don't know the feeling of accomplishment from driving three hours to spend another three hours sorting through crates to finally put your hands on that one 12" single you've been looking your entire life for. There's blood, sweat, and tears in my collection (both figuratively AND literally - "Spinnin' Wheel," baby!)

Plus, think about what an artist went through to create that album. It's an hour-long artistic statement with ebbs and flows and emotion and heart and gusto. Spotify kids just see a list of songs to yank out and stick on a playlist. That's why some artists have stopped putting out albums altogether.

Imagine if some actors decided to stop making movies altogether and instead just made 5-minute clips you could download. It wouldn't be the same. Just as a band pours their soul into a record, so too does the cast and crew of a movie. Imagine all the best boys and key grips and gaffers who gripped and gaffed their souls into this film, and you're too busy and important to get off the couch and give it its just due.

So maybe I should go see more movies the way they were meant to be seen, heard, and felt. I just need to get a third job to pay for them all. 

Monday, August 06, 2018

COLUMN: Facebook Knows Me (Not)


Technology is constantly evolving, and in many ways, that's pretty great for us. But then there's the flipside of the coin. We've all seen the movies and we know what's bound to happen if we let technology get the better of us: robocops will take the law into their own hands, cyborg cowboys will revolt, Terminators will come back in time to kill us, and we'll all develop romantic attachments with our artificial intelligence devices.

I suppose the closest thing I have to a girlfriend right now is named Alexa, and truth be told, I have few complaints about the relationship. She hangs out with me every evening, she's pretty smart, she's always reminding me about stuff I need to do, and if I ask her nicely enough, she'll read me a bedtime story.

But now, the fear of technology running amok has reached Facebook. The social media site landed itself in hot water this month after it was revealed that Facebook's been harvesting data about its users and their activities, which could be seen as nefarious privacy violations. Personally, I'm not too worried. If Mark Zuckerberg wants to check out my cat pics or know what restaurants I like, he's welcome to it.

Facebook really does track your activities, though. It watches what pages you visit and what you search for, and then it uses that info to send you ads that are targeted to your interests. You can even view your interest profile and see what Facebook thinks you're into. Just go to the settings menu, then click on "ads," and then "your interests," and you'll be greeted with a list of things that Facebook claims you're super into.

Based on MY list, I'm not worried about The Great Machine Takeover happening anytime soon. I'm not exactly sure who the Shane Brown is that Facebook thinks it knows, but it's certainly not me. What follows is 100% true -- among my "top interests" according to Facebook are:

• "Country music" - Ah, yes, I'm such a fan.
• "Grey's Anatomy" - I've never seen a single episode.
• "Physical activity" - Oh, Facebook, you know me so well.

But then things start to go COMPLETELY off the rails.

• "Gay bars" - Nailed it, except that I don't often hang out at bars and I'm not gay. Otherwise, spot on.

• "Soda" - Well, I do enjoy a refreshing cola, but is it of peak interest in my life? Do you ever want to be around someone whose primary interest in life is Pepsi? "Great, here comes Cola Boy again. Everybody run."

• "Ice" - Yes, Facebook says one of my top interests is "ice." Am I exciting or what? You should DEFINITELY hit on me next time you see me at the gay bars.

• "Cod" - Yep. It even comes with a little picture of a fish. Facebook Shane is giving the Dos Equis guy a run for his money as The Most Interesting Man Alive. I'm clearly the whole package. I like ice, soda, AND cod. (Note: This is almost certainly the price one pays for talking on Facebook about my favorite concert venue in the world, Codfish Hollow in Maquoketa, IA.)

• "Breathing" - Well, I suppose I DO have somewhat of a vested interest in breathing, since it keeps me from being dead and all.

• "Time" - "Oh, sorry, boss. No, I wasn't clock-watching because I'm anxious to leave work early. I'm just really into time as a concept, man."

• "Gerald R. Ford" - Yes, in those rare occasions when I can momentarily stop obsessing over ice, cod, and time, I like to reflect back on our 38th President and all the great things he accomplished when I was 4 years old.

• "NXIVM" - Isn't this the cult whose leader just got arrested last weekend for, among others, branding women with his initials? Why yes. Yes, it is. And apparently I'm super interested in it.

• "Chad" - It doesn't specify if I'm interested in people named Chad or the African nation of Chad. Either way, I guess I'm in.

• "Fishing line" - Nothing good can come from an "interest" in fishing line. Then again, how else am I going to catch all that cod?

• "Centaurs" - Half man, half bull... and all of my interest.

• "Tuesdays" - Well, who doesn't love a good Tuesday?

• "Skepticism" - FINALLY. Got one right. I am super skeptical that Facebook knows my interests.

I may be a dork, but I hold myself in high dorky regard. I like to at least pretend that I'm an interesting person. But I don't hold a candle compared to the guy that Facebook thinks I am. THIS guy is the real deal. Don't you just want to sit down with him for a cod dinner and discuss the concept of time?

So if you're worried about the day when computers and technology take over the world, my guess is we've still got some time. Which is great, because I'm deeply interested in time. Until that day comes, I guess you can meet me every Tuesday at the gay bar. I'll be the one in the "I Heart Centaurs" t-shirt, breathing and drinking ice soda. Bonus points if your name is Chad.

COLUMN: Easter


Ah, Easter weekend. The most important and oldest festival of the Christian Church.

As holidays go, it's a kind and good-natured one. No packs of costumed marauders showing up at your door threatening tricks lest you produce candy. No one comes a-wassailing demanding figgy pudding and not leaving until they get some.

It's simply a day for springtime joy, celebration, hope, faith, and of course, a semi-anthropomorphic rabbit that hides eggs around your property for little to no discernable reason.

Hunting for Easter eggs is an odd tradition -- but in the grand scheme of things, it's no weirder than shooting gunpowder into the sky to celebrate our independence or hanging a parasitic plant at Christmas to justify Yuletide sexual indescretions. I'm just not exactly sure how hunting for Easter eggs became a fun thing.

When was the last time you had an absolute blast searching for a missing item? I find myself hunting around the house for my car key on a regular basis. This usually causes me to mutter an interesting variety of words, but none of them are ever "whee!" Perhaps it would be more fun if I first boiled my car key and then painted it with festive pastel colors.

I once dated a girl with a HUGE extended family, and one of the first times I got to interact with them all was when she invited me to Easter dinner. Coming from a small clan myself, I wasn't used to epic family holidays and a house loaded with people. My goal was to make a good impression, blend into the woodwork, and try real hard not to be the center of attention.

All went well until it was time for the family Easter egg hunt. Little did I know it at the time, but their house was already crammed full of hidden eggs for all the kids to find, even the "kids" in their thirties and their invited new boyfriends.

Next thing I knew, someone yelled "GO," dust flew, and children were suddenly tearing the house apart in an egg-seeking frenzy... and I was expected to join in the fun. Within minutes, kids were beaming and showing off baskets with their completed quest. My girlfriend found her eggs in record time. I, meanwhile, had looked in every nook and cranny and had so far only found TWO of my six eggs.

And on it went until everyone had found all of their eggs. Everyone, that is, except Shane, who still had half his eggs to find. And that's how the guy who didn't want to be the center of attention instead found himself wandering around a foreign house trailed by a couple dozen people, all staring at me as I rifled through their possessions as if it were a final exam for burglary school. Minutes passed. It eventually got to the point where the egg-hiders had to resort to "you're getting warmer... no, cooler... cooler... you're very cold... VERY COLD." By the time I eventually found the last egg, I'm pretty sure I'd suffered 2-3 panic attacks and was hoping against hope that one of those plastic eggs was full of Xanax.

So I might not be a good egg finder, but I've never especially had it out for the Easter Bunny. He's just an innocent in all this and clearly a good-natured fellow with a lot of time -- and a whole lot of eggs -- on his hands.

He certainly didn't deserve what happened to him this week.

The Easter Bunny clearly has a busy schedule this time of year, so it was pretty cool that he took time out to make a public appearance at the Richland Carrousel Park in Mansfield, Ohio. He was SO excited that he tweeted about it on their blog: "My bunch of carrots were very good and I have lots of energy. I'll be at Carrousel today from 1-4 p.m. and look forward to seeing you!"

All afternoon, kids and parents lined up for their chance to take a picture with the elusive hare. One such person was 54-year-old Ladonna Hughett. Ladonna didn't have any kids with her, and let's just say she had been hitting the carrot juice a little hard that afternoon.

When it was Ladonna's turn to get a picture with the Easter Bunny, she thought it would be a fine time to play a rousing game of grope-a-bunny. Let's just say the Easter Bunny didn't exactly give express consent for this sort of behavior, and Ladonna probably should have kept her hands off the Bun's buns. (And yes, Youtube fans, it's all on video.)

That's how Ladonna Hughett became quite likely the first person ever arrested for lewd behavior against the Easter Bunny. So remember, just because a bunny tweets that they have a lot of energy does NOT mean they have THAT kind of energy, regardless of any rabbit stereotypes you may or may not have heard.

So Ladonna's in jail, the Easter Bunny is likely joining the #metoo movement as I type, and our last innocent holiday will forever be tainted with memories of bunny molestation. Given our current political climate, this seems about right. But the only climate I care about right now is the one outside that's about to warm up, so if you'll excuse me, I need to go get my spring on. 

COLUMN: I Voted


Well, here it is. As I sit writing this column a few days ahead of schedule, it's another Tuesday election night and primary results are beginning to roll in on my TV. So far, it looks like most predictions are coming true and there will be no UMBC-style upset surprises out of this governmental March madness.

As for me, a couple of my picks are going to take home primary wins tonight, while a couple of my dark horse favorites aren't faring so well. It doesn't seem like there'll be any hanging-chad style squeakers tonight, so in the long run, my vote probably didn't matter a whole bunch. I'm still glad I cast it, though.

It's neat to be reminded that we live in a democracy where everybody has their say. Of course, we also live in Illinois, where only multi kajillionaires with enough money to coat TV screens in fear-mongering stand a chance of governing, but hey -- we're also a state that has no problem sending the ones who do a bad job straight to prison, so I suppose it balances out.

There's something about voting, though, that makes me feel so... adult. That's kind of ridiculous given the fact that I've been one for 30 some odd years now, but still. Walking into a polling place and hearing your name called out just sort of says, "I matter. I am part of your community. Now give me my Sharpie and my little 'I voted' sticker."

Truth be told, the voting process is nothing for me but concrete proof of what an ill-informed human being I am. I went to my polling place today for the big ticket races: Governor. Attorney General. Sheriff. Beyond that? I had no clue what I was doing. I don't know anything about tiny local races, and I WORK FOR A NEWSPAPER. In full disclosure, I have no idea what a comptroller is or does. It sounds like someone who gets paid to insult you on the internet, and we've already got a President who does that weekly for free.

Thankfully, in this primary, most of the undercard races were running unopposed -- so why bother forcing us to fill in the little circle by their name? Has there ever been an unopposed candidate so virulently hated that not ONE person voted for them? All it would take is that candidate to vote for him/herself to get elected, right?

Worse, though, were the two small races that DID involve multiple candidates. Since I knew nothing about any of the candidates, I should have done the mature thing and abstained from voting in those categories. But nope, not me. I was on a roll. I just picked the ones whose names I thought sounded the nicest. There's a smart move, Brown. So I suppose the biggest takeaway from this column is that you can be a rapist Nazi running on a comprehensive platform of puppy torture and forced public feeding of brussel sprouts, but as long as your name SOUNDS pleasant enough, THIS voter has your back. This, of course, is equally bad news if you're a saintly humanitarian named Stabby McMurderpants.

Every once in a while, I'll think to myself, "You should make a difference, Shane. Maybe you should run for city council." And then I'll feel very self-important for 2 seconds. And then I'll usually start laughing. It seems the one thing stronger than my need to make a difference is my childish need to be liked and accepted. And if you've ever yearned to become instantly hated by half the populace, there's no easier way to do it than run for office.

And I don't mean disliked. I mean HATED. Look at my uncle down in Alabama. To my knowledge, he's never met any major national politician or even sat through one of their stump speeches. That said, his Facebook feed informs me constantly of his firm belief that Hillary Clinton is a murderer, the entire Clinton family are Satanists, Barack Obama is a devout Muslim intent on bringing Sharia law to the U.S., and every Democrat is coming for our guns so that we'll all be defenseless when the great scourge of Socialism infects our shores. These are things he really believes.

I'm not built to withstand such irrational hate. I wrote a column last year that ticked off a handful of backyard urban chicken-keepers and it was nearly enough to give me daily panic attacks. Some people are born to lead. My role is best served supporting those leaders I support, and, well, comptrolling the ones I don't. Here's to the ones brave enough to give it a shot.

I just hope that today's winners end tomorrow's political gridlock. 

Monday, May 07, 2018

COLUMN: Ray


My usual role here is to be the snarky guy who makes fun of the crummier parts of life. I suppose it's a fairly easy gig. After all, a whole lot of life is crummy. But even the crummiest parts of life are better than the alternative.

A couple of weeks ago, we lost our friend Ray. If you're from the Quad Cities and you consider yourself a music nerd, you probably knew Ray Malone. If you went to a show at Circa '21 in the past decade or so, you've heard his audio mix and probably didn't realize it. If you were ever in a struggling penniless Midwest punk band, there's a pretty good chance that Ray helped record your music.

He probably could have made a name for himself in the big leagues of sound mixing. After high school, Ray went to school for audio engineering at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona. Afterwards, he moved to Los Angeles and interned at a reknowned recording studio while spending his nights moonlighting as a drum tech, setting up and soundchecking percussion for a growing list of L.A. musicians.

But rather than stay out west and try to make it big, Ray decided to move home to the Quad Cities and concentrate his efforts on helping struggling musicians in the midwest. There were a number of ramshackle studios built on the cheap, from the Kanga in downtown Davenport to the infamous Hilltop locale that musicians would affectionately call "The Lab." For awhile, he operated out of his dad's basement before creating a semi-permanent home at the Sound & Vision Studios in Moline. At the same time, he picked up a steady job running the soundboard for Circa '21's award-winning dinner theatre.

Over the years, dozens of bands from all over the Midwest would throw their gear in a van and make the pilgrimage to Moline to trust Ray's growing reputation as a knowledgeable yet affordable producer.

"It was always exciting to see young musicians come in to record with Ray," explains Jon Burns, Ray's friend and former bandmate. "A professional studio can be pretty intimidating, but Ray had an uncanny ability to immediately make his clients feel at ease. His friendly, charming nature helped relax musicians into feeling comfortable, and that's an important factor in getting a good recording."

"Ray entered into every project like a kid in a candy store," Jon says. "He sometimes seemed more excited about a recording than the musicians themselves."

"I respected Ray on a level that I did not exist on," says area musician and Daytrotter illustrator Johnnie Cluney. "He was a real engineer and musician. He went to school for recording, but forget that. He had a great ear and he was a hell of a player."

And now those same musicians are helping pay back the memory of their friend and mentor. This week sees the online release of "Songs in the Key of Ray," a 23-track compilation on Bandcamp of songs Ray either performed, produced, or recorded over the years. A minimum donation of $10 gets you a download and streaming code for the entire compilation, and all proceeds go to an education fund set up for Ray's daughter Rose.

For me, Ray was just one of those guys we were lucky to have around. You seldom had a bad time if he was in the room. In my experience as a weekend club DJ, sometimes those who consider themselves "real musicians" turn a nose at those of who press play on other people's music for a hobby. I never got that vibe from Ray. Of all the hours I've spent in a DJ booth, few were more fun than when Ray and his friends would saunter in and vogue their way around the dancefloor to any Michael Jackson songs I could scramble to play.

I hadn't seen Ray in a while, but was lucky enough to bump into him on the street a couple months ago. I wasn't even sure if he'd acknowledge me outside of a DJ booth. But when he saw me, his face lit up, and a great bear hug followed as we stood around chatting about music and Rose and his future plans of opening a new and better studio this year. It's tough to think that future generations of new bands won't be able to seek his ear or mentorship. Music and stories, however, last forever -- and we've got those in spades.

So thanks, Ray Malone, for making the Quad Cities a lot more interesting. Rest in peace? Ha. He'd never want it that way. Rest in bedlam's more his style. If there's a heavenly reward waiting for us, Ray's up there now scoping out the scene and teaching the angels how to make an unholy racket. I hope I see my friend again one day.

Until then, I'll settle for listening to him. You can download the charity compilation "Songs in the Key of Ray" at https://quadcitiesmusicarchive.bandcamp.com/album/songs-in-the-key-of-ray.

COLUMN: Gucci Gang


I just can't ever get through the day without at least one person coming up to me and asking, "Hey there, award-winning columnist and man-about-town, Shane Brown. How do you stay so gosh darned COOL AND HIP all the time?"

The answer is simple: I keep my ears to the street. It's a pre-requisite for my favorite hobby of DJing. On the weekends, I spin records at clubs that feature both hipping AND hopping. This means I have to constantly be aware of the urban sound of today and appreciative of such a complicated and intelligent art form.

"But Shane," you say, "isn't most of today's popular rap music little more than recycled trap beats and throwaway mumble-rap made by stoned losers destined for tomorrow's one-hit wonder charts? Apart from a few special artists like Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator, and Chance the Rapper, isn't this the worst era for hip-hop to date?"

"Pshaw!" I retort to you. Clearly you don't have an ear for the complex artistry that comprises today's chart-topping trap bangers. It might sound like talentless mumbling to you, but that's just because you've never taken the time to analyze and fully appreciate the lyrical genius and depth of today's best-sellers.

Take, for instance, the majestic chart-topper "Gucci Gang" by the renowned poet Lil Pump. Not only has this "song" graced us with its presence in the Top 40 charts for the last month, but it's also brought us some of the most ingenious wordplay of our day. Yes, it takes a real poet like Lil Pump to take a complex phrase like "Gucci Gang" and rhyme it with an equally complex phrase such as "Gucci Gang." And then when he only occasionally departs from rhyming "Gucci Gang" with "Gucci Gang," that's when things get truly interesting. Instead of finding any words that actually rhyme with "gang," he opts instead for some words he deems, well, close enough. I'm pretty sure he might even fall asleep at one point during the song, which is clearly a sign of an artist who lives and breathes for his craft.

Let's take a closer, family-friendly look at the words of "Gucci Gang," a wistful yet crowd-pleasing ode to his group of friends, whom he affectionately calls the "Gucci Gang."

LYRIC: "Yuh, ooh, brr, brr. Gucci gang. Ooh! Yuh. Lil Pump, yuh. Gucci gang, ooh, yuh, brr."
TRANSLATION: Yes, oh, I may be catching a cold. My friends. Ooh! Yes. I am Lil Pump, ooh yes, and I am a bit chilly.

LYRIC: "Gucci gang. Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang. Gucci gang, Gucci gang, Gucci gang."
TRANSLATION: My friends. My friends, my friends, my friends, my friends, my friends. My friends, my friends, my friends.

LYRIC: "Spend three racks on a new chain, my [expletive] love do cocaine, ooh."
TRANSLATION: I just bought a spanky new necklace for $3000. The bad news is that my female dog has somehow become a drug addict!

LYRIC: "I [expletive] a [expletive], I forgot her name brr yuh, I can't buy a [expletive] no wedding ring."
TRANSLATION: Yes, I just love my female dog, despite not being able to recall her name. I cannot, however, marry her, for I am a human and she is a dog and I am clearly a firm believer in traditional marriage.

LYRIC: "My lean cost more than your rent / Yo momma still live in a tent / Still slanging dope in the jects, huh yeah!"
TRANSLATION: The expenses of my drug addiction are greater than your cost of living. Were you to incur my expenses, you would be homeless like your mother. [Note: Ooh, sick burn, Lil Pump.] If you're inquiring as to whether or not I still deal drugs in low income housing areas, the answer is an enthusiastic YES!

LYRIC: "They kick me out the plane off Percocet / Now Lil Pump flyin' private jet / Everybody scream [expletive] Westjet!"
TRANSLATION: This is where Lil Pump and I think alike. A year ago, he was kicked off a flight for being under the influence of drugs and disturbing the peace. So, for his first national commercial single, he opts to use his 15 minutes of fame to insult the airline.

Bravo, Lil Pump. Honestly, I'd do the same thing. Well, except for the female dog stuff. But if I were to suddenly get MY fifteen minutes, I'd like to think I'd also use it to right some personal wrongs. My closest friends don't have a cool clique name, though, so my single wouldn't be called "Gucci Gang."

I fear my single would be more like:

"Jason, Linn, Sunnie, Dianna, and Reid,
Jason, Linn, Sunnie, Dianna, and Reid,
They're all the friends I need,
Jason, Linn, Sunnie, Dianna, and Reid.

Hunger pangs kept me up wide awake,
Late night drive-thru i did partake,
Came home to instant heartache:
Where's my chili? Curse you, Steak 'n' Shake!"

Sorry for the edginess there, folks, but sometimes that's what it takes to remain as gosh-darned COOL AND HIP as me. I just hope one day I'll be cool enough that Steak 'n' Shake won't forget to give me my chili.

COLUMN: Bathtub

(Note: NOT my actual bathtub. LOL.)

One of the problems with writing a column every week is that with one wrong turn, you can reveal TMI -- Too Much Information. Sometimes it's easy to give away details about your personal life that nobody needs or wants to hear. This week's column might just qualify as TMI, because honestly, it's kind of gross.

But I've got a problem, Quad Cities, and I need your help. Unfortunately, it's also kind of a disgusting problem, so apologies all around if you didn't pick up your Monday paper expecting to read about my bathroom. Trust me, though -- two months ago, I wasn't expecting to WRITE about my bathroom. But I promise, no bodily functions are involved. It's not THAT gross.

I've never made a huge secret of the fact that I'm not exactly the tidiest of humans. My house is very likely messier than yours. I will guarantee it has more cat hairs than yours. Spic and span are two words NOT often found in my vocabulary.

That said, I try not to let things ever get out of control. I think I'm somewhere around the standard of single-guy messiness. I know the difference between messy and filthy, and I try never to cross that line. Yes, when you come over to my place, there will be junk out and you may have to scoot aside some papers, boxes, or 1-2 cats to make room on the couch. But I don't let things ever get truly dirty. It's probably the only GOOD thing about being a hypochondriac -- I can live in mess, but not in filth. If things start getting bad, I won't hesitate to get out the bleach and scrub-a-dub-dub.

But two months ago, a first for me happened since moving into this house some five years ago. I was in the shower when I suddenly realized I was ankle deep in standing water. Nope, I hadn't accidentally kicked the stopper on. My tub was simply not draining. When the water finally DID work its way out, I discovered the culprit -- there, atop my drain, was a thin layer of... what can only be described as "ick." Like a gross slimy grey film of nastiness that was blocking the drain.

I steadied the gag reflex, grabbed a rag and some bleach, and cleaned it right up and the tub drained fine... for 2 days. Then the tiny layer of ick was back and once again clogging my drain. This time, I attacked with some drain cleaner, which decimated the stuff... for 4 days. Then it came back AGAIN. I've been playing this disgusting game for two months now, and I have yet to figure what this congealing gross goo is. The way I see it, there's only a few possible answers:

(1) I am somehow emitting a sticky grey filmy substance while showering and should probably seek immediate medical attention. While I'm pretty sure this is NOT the case, it's interesting to note this was my first general worry, as if it were perfectly natural for a person to start randomly molting grey slime. I am not the sort of person to leave my house unshowered, let alone dripping with any kind of grey discharge, plus no one (not even friends) has pointed at me and gone "Eww!" since about junior high. I'm thinking I'm safe.

(2) Some kind of ghost, monster, and/or ectoplasm-covered stranger has been sneaking into my house and using my shower while I'm not looking. This may be a horrifying prospect, but I would still greatly prefer it to (1) above. Plus, I enjoy ghost hunting shows and I think I'd be cool sharing my living space with a spirit whose only unfinished business is simply taking repetitive showers.

(3) Could some kind of soap or cleanser be to blame? Odds are slim. I'm a creature of habit and I've been using the same bathtime products since I moved in here. Either it takes half a decade for my body wash to turn grey and filmy or I'm barking up the wrong tree. Plus, I really DO clean my tub on a regular basis, so I'm not casting the blame on a build-up of Garnier Fructis. I've even been using the same tub cleaner since I moved in.

(4) A believable culprit COULD be Rock Island's water supply. I love my town, I really do, but let's get real here: Rock Island water comes out of the tap grey. If you pour it into a clear glass, it's still grey five minutes later. I'm sure it's legally fine, but you still won't ever catch me drinking or even cooking with the stuff.

(5) Perhaps whatever's coating the top of my drain is actually coming UP from the drain itself. It HAS been a rather wet season, so I could see the potential for some kind of stomach-turning septic backup situation. But if this were the case, wouldn't it be happening to ALL my drains? Not even the sump in my basement looks to have taken on any water, and the only drain seemingly affected by this toxic muck is my bathtub. And it's only a very tiny layer that never seems to leave the drain guard itself.

So I remain perplexed. Has this ever happened to you? If so, what the heck did you do about it? "Call a plumber" isn't a fun answer because I'm cheap. "Call my dad" would likely result in the problem getting solved, but I could also easily see myself coming home from work to my bathroom in about 184 pieces before hearing my dad's "a-ha!" of triumph. I would greatly prefer my usual solution of pouring something super toxic somewhere and hoping for the best.

I open the floor to your advice. E-mail me if you have any guesses as to what I should do to combat the Weird Filmy Scourge of 2018. Bonus points if you're an exorcist, shaman, or hobbyist plumber. If you need me, I'll be in corner checking myself for grey slime and waiting for my heebies to progress into jeebies.

COLUMN: Pyeongchang


Ah yes, time once again for the thrill of victory... the agony of defeat... the world coming together in the spirit of friendly competition and athletic prowess. I can't wait to...

Wait, what? It's over? Already? But I barely had a chance to get my luge face on. Dang it.

Truth be told, this was a fairly super non-exciting Olympics, probably owing to the fact that the U.S. didn't really have an overabundance of superstars this time around. And every time we DID stand a decent chance of dominating, some smiling Scandinavian was there to rain on our parade. And even in the throes of nationalistic Olympic fervor, it's just impossible to hate the Norwegians -- they're all just too happy and good-looking to play the villains.

So, since the stupid laws of physics sadly prevents Michael Phelps from swimming in ice, it's been kind of an average Winter Olympics for Team USA. (And, yes, I realize the hypocrisy of saying this while laying on my couch eating pretzels. Even coming in 35th place in the Olympics means that you're better than the other 7,632,819,290 of us. EVERY Olympic athlete should be glorified.) And there were still loads of highlights:

• There are dozens of sports out there to compete in. There are countless ways to show the world your athleticism. So why on Earth would ANYONE choose cross-country skiing? Not only do you look completely ridiculous while doing it, but it also looks like a really, really awful way to spend an afternoon. Every single athlete in every single cross-country skiing event looks like they're in pure agony, and these are people who are made of 90% muscle. I wouldn't be able to make it a quarter of the way up one hill without needing a solid breather (and by that, I mean a steak dinner at the ski lodge.)

• Can we talk about the biathlon for a bit? Whose idea was it to combine skiing and shooting? Ah, of course. I just looked it up -- the Norwegians, of course. They used to worship the Norse god Ullr, who served as both the ski god and the hunting god. This led to the modern biathlon as a demonstration of Norwegian homeland security -- "We will shoot you, then we will ski away quickly." Someone should have told the Norwegians that all they needed to do to protect their homeland was take off their helmets and smile. I'm working on perfecting the quadathlon -- a complex event where you (1) ski directly to your hotel, (2) take a relaxing shower, (3) drink some cocoa, and (4) read a good book. The winner is the first to fall asleep.

• The only Olympic sport I ever thought I could excel at is curling, but the older I get, the wiser I get. Curling may look easy and fun and basically shuffleboard as invented by cold and drunken Scots, but there's more to it. Beyond the strategy and the finesse and the teamwork lies one important curling skill: the ability to remain upright while standing on ice. Between my broken ankle of three years ago and my bruised tailbone of 2018, I'm pretty sure we're proven I'm incapable of this. Back to the Olympic drawing board.

• Speaking of sports that shouldn't be sports, what is "skeleton," other than a nice way of saying "Competitive Alive Staying"? Finally answering the question, "What would bobsled be like without the bobsled," skeleton competitors basically jump on a piece of plywood and head down the bobsled track face-first at 80 mph. The winner is basically ANY athlete who doesn't die in the process.

• Can Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski narrate EVERYTHING please? Up to and including my breakfast every morning? I think my entire life would be better if it were viewed through a prism of good-natured cattiness. "You're right, Johnny, she SHOULD have landed that triple axel," I caught myself saying to the TV while reaching for another pretzel fully aware there are days I can barely step out of the shower without falling.

• Am I the only one who's a little scared of Lindsay Vonn? Beyond the fact that I'm pretty sure she could snap me like a twig, she seems like someone you don't want to make mad. Like, she'd come after you really really fast on skis. And even if she fell and broke her leg, she'd stop for a few seconds, heal it right up, and keep coming? As bad I felt for Vonn missing the Super G medal stand, watching Czech surprise Ester Ledecka win was pretty much the best moment of the Olympics. A snowboarder by trade, she basically entered the Super G for fun and shocked the world (and herself) when she won by one one-hundredth of a second.

If you truly want your heart to grow five sizes, search Youtube for the live commentary of Ledecka's win by Czech sportscasters. You can't understand a word of it, but it's the sound of pure joy. Nice job, Pyeongchang. You made me proud to be a Hyundai owner. See ya in 2022, Beijing. I should be in perfect quadathlon shape by then.

COLUMN: Stress


I love this column. I love this column. I love this column.

And that's the truth, I really do. Today, though, I fear I have to remind myself of this fact. Today, it just kinda seems like one more thing I have to add to the mountainous "to-do" list that already stretches from here to the upper reaches of the atmosphere. I have really really REALLY spread myself too thin this month, and it's official: I am STRESSED OUT.

Honestly, this doesn't happen to me too much. Usually I can rely on the scheduling and action portions of my brain to sync up and hand me a harmonious lifestyle that keeps me occupied without getting myself so bogged down with commitments and tasks that I can't at least enjoy life a little bit. I've worked under the deadline pressure of the news industry for 22 years now, and I usually know how to manage my time and energy well enough to make it through the day without any veins popping.

But that's not to say I'm immune to stress. If you've ever -- and it IS a rare sight to behold -- seen me kick it into high gear in order to complete a task, it's not pretty. It's probably in your best interest to just avert your gaze and give me a wide berth to operate. My usual gut instinct to stress is to go, "Let's just bang it out, get it over with, and get back to normalcy as quickly as possible."

But so far in 2018, I'm not even sure I'd recognize normalcy if it came a-knockin'. So far, it's been a perfect storm of stress that's run pretty much unabated for weeks now -- and I've had my fill. Every time I knock something off my to-do list, it gets replaced by three other things even more time-consuming.

The worst part about it? I'm really not under THAT much stress, I don't reckon. I'm well aware there are people out there living MUCH harder lives than me, so there's a part of me that feels guilty even telling someone that I'm stressed out. Which, of course, leads to more stress and sleepless nights.

Here's the recipe for a perfect stress salad: It's our busy season at work, which is always a little stressful. But we also just moved to a new office, which means we get the busy season at the same time as new surroundings, new software, new phones, and basically a whole lot of new tricks for this old dog to learn.

Then let's add my outside interests: DJ gigs. Helping a friend by taking some hours at his retail shop. A presentation at the library. A trivia night I agreed to emcee and create the questions for. Some other can't-get-out-of obligations. Then let's sprinkle in some unexpected fun events like my credit card getting shut off for suspicious purchases AND my car breaking down twice in one week. Serve immediately. Pairs well with solid nights of insomnia.

The cherry on top (or, specifically, the bottom): I fell on the ice and bruised my tailbone so bad that I'm in constant pain and still waddling around with one of those unsightly butt donuts everywhere I go. And when I'm in pain, I don't go much anywhere off the couch. This means my house has become a trash abyss and my kitchen... there are no words. All I can hope is that the things growing in my sink decide to clean up the place a bit.

What's your favorite stress relief? None of my go-to's are possible.

My #1 - Get in the car, crank some loud music, and drive my problems away. Which would be great. Except that it's January, it hurts my tailbone to even think about sitting in my car, and if I had the time to go on an aimless drive, I wouldn't be stressed out in the first place.

My #2 - Transcendental meditation. I wrote a story about TM a few years back that intrigued me so much I actually took the course and am a trained meditator. Again, though, this requires 40 minutes a day that I simply don't have right now. Plus, with me fighting insomnia every night, I guarantee the minute I try to meditate, I'll fall asleep and end up tardy for a half dozen other things on my list.

My #3 - Buying new songs for Rock Band and playing stupid video games in my basement. Which was precisely what I was trying to do when my credit card got flagged for suspicious purchases, probably because even VISA doesn't believe that anyone of my age would be wasting money on a video game with fake plastic guitars.

So the only thing I can do is my tried and true method of hunkering down, doing the work, and hopefully getting a handle on this to-do list before I snap and wrap my car around a utility pole because I was trying to aimlessly drive and meditate at the same time. Of course, even THIS tragic outcome requires a working car which I don't even have right now.

So if you need me, approach with caution. I'll probably be the one squeezing the life out of multiple defenseless stress balls. Now if you'll forgive me for multi-tasking, I need to go cross both "write newspaper column" AND "whine about life to a bunch of strangers" off my to-do list.

I really DO love this column.   

COLUMN: East Moline


I wonder what everyday people think our newsroom is like? Do you picture a bunch of neurotic, overly-caffeinated chain-smokers wearing fedoras with little cards that say "PRESS," each struggling to be heard over the clickety-clack of typewriters and screaming editors? Wrong -- we lost the hats, like, years ago.

Or maybe you envision one of our popular "fake news" cabals, where me and the rest of the Illuminati gather routinely to sup the blood of the innocent while figuring out the best ways to subvert you and your government THIS week.  You poor sheeple, you probably still think a METEOR killed the dinosaurs. (It was Hillary.)

The honest truth is that our office is probably a lot like YOUR office: mostly boring, sometimes fun, often not at all fun, and very seldom column-worthy. But they say you should write what you know, and all I know this month is that we've moved to a new office in a new town and I'm trying my very best to defy my inner nature and not FREAK OUT.

After umpteen years (and 22 of my gainful employment,) we've parted ways with our long-time home in downtown Moline and have now set up shop in uncharted waters on the edge of downtown East Moline. Whenever change occurs in my life, it's usually my job to curl up into a little ball and assume that the world is ending. But the only thing I'm accomplishing by curling into a ball is making myself late for work. Besides, I bruised my tailbone so bad on the ice that curling is outside my range of motion at the moment.

So I've been taking the optimistic route. Or at least the quiet route. It hasn't been bad. It's just been... different.

• The only real red mark against the new digs is that it increases my commute by eleven minutes each way. That's eleven additional minutes I could be sleeping, and that's a huge infraction in my book. At least, it's eleven interesting minutes commuting alongside the Ben Butterworth Parkway, which offers compelling views of ducks, water, nature, and the occasional beloved seafood restaurant tragically engulfed in flame. (RIP Captain's Table, please come back soon!) 

• The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades. Windows were such a rare commodity in our old building that we notoriously had a light that management would switch on to let us know it was raining outside. Our new building, however, appears to be fully constructed and supported by windows. I'm not kidding. If Ella Fitzgerald cracks ONE high C, we're done for. It's a bit intimidating.

• We've gone from a building with countless nooks, crannies, and hiding places to a one-room cubicle farm. I am now a pod person, communicating with co-workers only when their heads pop over their cubes like prairie dogs.

• I've never even worked on the same floor as our reporters before. Now I share a cubicle wall with them. Specifically, with their police scanner, which every eighteen seconds goes, "KKKK! ROGER 12 ADAM WE HAVE A 10-43 IN PROGRESS. ONE ADAM 19 CHARLIE TANGO VICTOR OUT! KKKK!" I have no idea what any of it means, but it definitely sounds more exciting than what I'm doing.

• We all have new phones at our desks, and they're great, except when they're ringing, which is always. For some ungodly reason, every default ringtone on these phones sounds like a wicked new age harp solo. And when eight of them are ringing at once (as is often the case,) it sounds like a gaggle of Enyas arguing with one another.

• On the plus side, there's nothing more fun than watching my co-workers get co-worked up over having to wait for trains. I hail from Galesburg, a town where you're lucky to get from your kitchen to your bathroom without having to wait for Amtrak to pass. Take it from a professional trainspotter: when the gate comes down and a coal train comes sauntering by, all you can do is accept that you're going to be late, relax, and enjoy the travelling museum of graffiti art before you.

• Dear East Moline, you've been very welcoming. You all seem quite lovely. But your water tastes icky. And I live in Rock Island, so I know plenty about icky-tasting water. Please don't be offended while I stick with Dasani.

Actually, East Moliners, now that I've insulted your water, I need a little help. I don't know much about your town, and I need to find some good lunch haunts in our new neck of the woods. Any suggestions? E-mail me at sbrown@qconline.com and let my stomach be your plaything.