Friday, April 05, 2019

COLUMN: TiVo

I'd love to write a normal column this week. What do normal columnists write about this time of year? Something about the weather, the floods. Gardening. Spring break. Any slice-of-life tale of whatever people do when they're allowed to leave their living rooms.

Not me. I can't write about that stuff. I'm too busy being kidnapped. Or man-napped. Or whatever they call it when a grown adult is kept against his will. Folks, I'm being held hostage by my TiVo.

When our local TV cable carrier announced their partnership with TiVo to replace our DVR boxes, I was excited. A means to record must-see shows is essential when you're a spry, on-the-go whipper-snapper such as myself. Cough.

Okay, maybe I'm not snapping any whips per se. And maybe the REAL reason I have a DVR is to record one show while I watch another. But still, it's important. I use my DVR like crazy.

If television is an addiction, then TiVo is my pusherman. TiVo boxes do more than record shows. Let's say I want to record an episode of Big Bang Theory. TiVo says, "Sure, I'll record that. Do you want me to record EVERY episode I can find?" Well, gosh, TiVo, if you insist. And then it'll go, "Hey, if you like Big Bang Theory, here's a list of ten other shows that you might like, too. Shall I record THOSE, too?" Umm, I guess. And even if you say no, half the time it records anyways and ends up in a tempting folder called "Suggestions Recorded for You."

TiVo is constantly on the hunt for shows I might like. It's probably recording something right now. But that's okay, because TiVo boxes have lots of room. Mine can hold somewhere around 300 hours worth of shows. THREE HUNDRED HOURS! Just imagine how long it would take to fill that much space.

Answer: Two months. That's how long.

My TiVo is currently sitting at 99% of its storage capacity. Every night, I come home to a warning message that programs I've recorded are "GOING AWAY SOON" to make room for other shows I need to record. Just when I think I'm making progress whittling down my queue, TiVo records a bunch more stupid shows it insists I watch.

And when I say stupid shows, I mean STUPID shows. I usually watch the good stuff when it airs live. This leaves TiVo to pick up the slack on all the weird cable and reality shows I inexplicably like. Ergo, not only do I have 300 hours of TV to catch up on, I have 300 hours of lousy TV to catch up on.

For instance, my queue right now currently includes:

- 87 episodes of a "reality" show where a psychic and a cop investigate ghosts. The cop interviews residents while the psychic makes crazy faces and goes, "Ooh, this ghost is MAD!" At the end of every episode, they instruct the haunted homeowners how to rid themselves of the dearly departed, which usually consists of a warlock and/or priest blessing the house, performing a cleansing ritual, and doing the spiritual hokey pokey. Obviously its an important and thought-provoking documentary series that is in no way a giant load of hooey.

- 23 episodes of a DIFFERENT reality show wherein the same psychic and the same cop go BACK to the same locations to see if they're any more or less haunted than the last time. I only wish I was kidding.

- 7 episodes of "Kindred Spirits," wherein a couple of seemingly earnest ghost hunters don't always find too much. It's probably the most believable and enjoyable paranormal show out there. It's also kinda boring. But it needs to be watched because they occasionally employ the services of psychic Chip Coffey, who is the greatest television personality this side of Charles Nelson Reilly.

- 6 episodes of "Finding Bigfoot" that I haven't gotten around to watching. They stopped making this show two years ago, and I can only presume its because they found Bigfoot and accomplished their mission. No spoilers please.

- 11 episodes of "Live P.D.," which is exactly like the old show "Cops" except that each episode is roughly half a day long. It's mostly just police arresting drunken morons. I'd like to think I'm above the shameless exploitation of humanity like this, but it's pretty much the best thing ever.

- 67 episodes of "The Partridge Family," because one day I said to myself, "I don't know if I've ever actually SEEN The Partridge Family," and TiVo said, "Hold my beer" and taped them ALL. I've now seen 29 episodes and I think my curiosity towards the Partridge Family has been fully satisfied -- but TiVo went to the trouble of taping all 96 episodes and it'd be a shame if I let them go to waste.

- 17 episodes of "Meet the Press," because I feel like I need to balance out the ridiculous ghost shows with some quality journalism. And maybe one day, after I've watched all the ridiculous ghost shows, I'll get around to it.

So enjoy your spring, Quad Cities. If you need me, I'll be in my living room literally watching my intelligence slowly get sucked away. I just hope TiVo isn't gathering information about its users viewing habits to sell the networks. If HBO premieres a show this fall wherein a school bus filled with singing psychics chase imaginary monsters while being pursued by police, I'm afraid you'll know who to blame.

COLUMN: Aurora


Finally. With warmer temps and bluer skies, I can commence one of my favorite activities of springtime in the Quad Cities: leaving them.

I love the Quad Cities and all we represent. But there comes a time when one needs to head out in search of adventure, excitement, and life stories to pass down to future generations and/or fill 800 words in a weekly newspaper column. Spring has sprung, and aimless driving season has begun.

Of course, now that I'm  mature, grounded, and responsible, I can't just pick up and leave the Quad Cities on a whim. It takes a solid, rational reason.

Incoming text, Saturday 3/23: "Northern Lights supposedly visible tonight to the north. Wisconsin?"

That'll do.

Two hours later, with a carload of friends and a freshly selected playlist, we headed north. Because of journalism or something.

The Sun is our planet's life giver -- except when it tries to kill us, which is often. Occasionally, she gets mad and sends solar storms to bombard the Earth with charged particles. The good news is that we've got a natural defense system: our magnetic field, which causes them to dissipate in our atmosphere rather than shower us with radiation.

Best of all, the battlefront is super pretty to look at. The ionization from solar storms throws brilliant waves of color into the night sky at our poles. The aurora borealis (aka the Northern Lights) is a spectacle few people this side of Santa's Workshop get to see firsthand -- but every once in a while, the sun spits out a blast of radiation called a coronal mass ejection that allows the aurora effect to be seen in lower latitudes.

In 1992, a buddy and I were driving home from a late-night DJ gig in Cedar Rapids. Just when we were precisely in the middle of nowhere, we blew a tire. Instead of helping, I stood guard, transfixed NOT by automotive maintenance but instead by the green lights dancing in the sky to the north. It was incredibly random, incredibly beautiful, and incredibly annoying because it was 3 a.m. and we were tired and cold.

This time would be different. Early last week, scientists recorded a mass ejection capable of lighting up auroras all the way to Wisconsin. After a grueling three hour drive of laughs, music, and fun, we finally laid eyes on it.

And by "it," I mean nothing. This time WAS different, because this time there was no aurora whatsoever. I saw some street lights, and by definition they were to the north, but those weren't exactly the northern lights I had in mind. As it turned out, the sun pitched a curve ball and we avoided a direct hit. It's probably the only time I will ever go, "Aw, darn, I wish I was being bombarded by radiation right now."

Instead, we tried to make the best of Wisconsin After Dark. Once upon an aimless drive, I stumbled upon a Wisconsin eatery that had the best brisket sandwich of all time ever. I just couldn't remember the name of the town OR restaurant, but after 20 minutes of hunting for cell signals and Yelp reviews, we found it. A thirty minute drive and a forty minute table wait later, my mouth was reunited with the brisket of my dreams. I'm not one to dole out free advertising, but if you're ever in the town of Monroe, Wisconsin, make a beeline for Pancho & Lefty's. Give the brisket my regards, should there be any left that I didn't eat.

After that, there was nothing left to do but enjoy some sight-seeing in central Wisconsin, which is a good pastime when it's NOT midnight. But darkness never stopped us before, and that's when we took a fateful exit in the town of Verona. We were on an epic drive, so when you see an exit for Epic Drive, you HAVE to take it, right?

It turns out Epic Drive is actually the main drag into the campus of Epic Systems. They're the folks who design the medical coding software that 1 in 2 hospitals use. They are - how to say this politely? - exploding with money. And their massive headquarters is one or two Oompah-Loompahs shy of a Willy Wonka fantasy. There's a castle, a barn, a replica of King's Cross, and an alley that's a Harry Potter homage. There's a Star Wars hallway. Employees use slides instead of stairs. Toy soldiers and Humpty-Dumptys line the roads. It is equal parts amazing and ridiculous and makes me kinda want to be a computer programmer.

Of course, we couldn't see any of this because it was midnight. We could make out the dim outline of a castle followed by the dim outline of a barn and it's a wonder we didn't see the dim outline of an angry security guard wondering why a carload of weirdos were marveling at shadows.

After finding our way out (left at the wizard statue, right at the treehouse,) I looked up and collapsed with laughter. My friends looked at me like maybe I'd spent TOO much time in an Epic wonderland, but I just pointed at the road sign. There we were, 12:40 a.m., cruising down Northern Lights Boulevard. Mission accomplished.

We made it home by -- well, I don't know. Time had lost all meaning by that point. We missed the northern lights, but it was what I needed to get the aimless driving bug out of my system -- for about two days. Now I want to go back during normal human hours and witness more of Wisconsin's finery. After all, there's an International Mustard Museum still on my bucket list.

Happy spring, Quad Cities. Go enjoy it. There's an Epic world out there. 

COLUMN: Storm Spotting


Fear not, Quad Cities. Sleep well. You are safe.

At great personal sacrifice, I am now officially certified to protect you all. I've even got a fancy secret identification number to prove it.

What were YOU doing last Thursday after work? Maybe making dinner. Maybe hanging out with your family. Maybe getting an early start to your St. Patrick's Day weekend.

Me? I journeyed to the distant land of Cambridge, Illinois, in order to sit in a windowless basement full of other earnest wannabe protectors of humanity, learning how to warn citizens of eminent danger and ensure that everyone find safety and shelter in times of crisis.

That's right, after a two-hour class, I am now a certified Skywarn Storm Spotter with the National Weather Service.

Pretty cool, eh? You're welcome, Quad Cities. The next time a tornado bears down upon our area, rest in the knowledge that there exist a number of us, perhaps even your friends and neighbors, who are officially trained and certified to proudly and confidently state, "Yep, that's most definitely a tornado." I have found my calling.

In all honesty, it was one of the coolest things I've ever done, and it's a training class that EVERYBODY should take.

As an amateur weather nerd, this was something I'd wanted to do for some time. The annual classes are free and voluntary and occur sporadically throughout the early spring. I hadn't been able to attend any of the ones closer to home, but when I saw there was a class in Cambridge I could get to, I was all in.

Frankly, I'm glad I made the trip. The class was held in Henry County's newly furbished Emergency Operations Center, which is pretty impressive. It's something straight out of the world-ending apocalypse movie of your choice -- a brightly-lit concrete bunker full of tables, chairs, screens, and phones. I felt important just sitting there. If, God forbid, Henry County were ever to fall victim to Something Really Bad, this is clearly the room where shots would be called, decisions would be made, and zombie uprisings would be thwarted.

So what IS the role of a Skywarn Storm Spotter? Essentially, I've now got the training to hopefully identify serious weather threats before and as they develop. And if I notice something potentially dangerous, I've got an ID number and the unpublished phone number required to call a meterologist at the local National Weather Service office, who can use the information to issue severe weather watches and warnings. In the 36-county bi-state area covered by our regional office, there are over 3000 trained spotters that the NWS relies on for eyewitness accounts.

That took me a little by surprise. Why do experts who live and breathe weather and who sit in rooms full of fancy radar screens and satellite imagery need call-ins from locals? As it turns out, radar doesn't always tell the whole story.

"Radar isn't a magic crystal ball," explained Rich Kinney, NWS Warning Coordination Meterologist and our class leader. "We need your eyes to see what's happening on the ground."

Radar is a literal life-saver, but its returns can vary based on distance, elevation, and even the curvature of the Earth. If the radar is miles away from a storm's center, it may only see what's way up in the sky and not what's happening on the ground.

"Spotters are the most vital link in terms of ground truth information," Kinney stressed. "Your calls matter. We could be on the fence about issuing a warning. You could also prevent us from issuing a false alarm."

Much of the class was spent learning how to identify dangerous weather conditions, but almost equal time was spent learning what ISN'T considered a severe weather situation. For the National Weather Service to issue a Severe Thunderstorm Warning, one of two scenarios has to be in play: Either the storm has to be producing 58 mph winds, or it has to be dropping 1" diameter hailstones. Anything less, by current standards, is just a storm.

We've all seen clouds in the sky that look super spooky and a potential one-way trip to Oz. But thanks to the class, I should now be able to identify a storm's updrafts and downdrafts and hopefully spot the difference between something that looks spooky and a supercell with actual rotation and a wall cloud capable of producing funnels.

If I was better at math, I might have considered meteorology as a career. Instead, I'm happy to have a little bit of training under my belt. Maybe one day it'll come in handy and a phone call from me might make a difference to get a warning issued in time for folks to get to safety. That's honestly pretty cool. I can't leap tall buildings in a single bound, but if I can help somebody with a single phone call, I'm proud to be a Skywarn Storm Spotter.

It's not too late to join the fun. There's still a few classes being held in the area. You don't need an advance reservation, you just have to show up. To see the remaining schedule for this spring, visit https://www.weather.gov/dvn/spotters#schedule

COLUMN: 80s Shane


Well, that's it, then.

Bad news, everybody. I am officially, proof-positive, one-hundred percent past my prime. There's nothing to do now but put me to pasture and bear witness to my slow slide into irrelevancy.

Once upon a time (aka three days ago,) I still thought I was, by and large, culturally cool.

I mean, look, I'm a realist. When I look into the mirror, I know there's a fat and hopelessly single cubicle-dwelling middle-aged man staring back at me. But I prefer to see what I want: a me who hasn't aged in decades. A me known for being a record store clerk, rave promoter, nightclub DJ, and program director of his college radio station. A me whose cultural worth can still be measured by the depth of his CD collection even though CDs are mostly irrelevant to anyone under 30. A me who is deeply in touch with modern trends and surfs the pop culture zeitgeist with grace and ease. A me who will never be defined by his age.

At least that's what I thought.

As some of you may know, I've been moonlighting a few hours here and there behind the counter at my old stomping grounds: Co-Op Records. The decision was kind of a no-brainer. I'm good friends with the owner and he was short-handed and in a pinch. You get a healthy discount on music, which is never a bad thing. And I generally spend a considerable amount of my free time in record stores as is, so I may as well be getting paid for the privilege.

Mostly I love it because it's a second home for forward-thinking music nerds such as myself. It's a gathering place and natural habitat for progressive pop culture scholars to argue and discuss the merits of music trends, entertainment headlines, and whether or not R. Kelly's alleged misdeeds (which he most likely misdid) make "Trapped In The Closet" any less awesome (it does not.)

So I was excited to learn that a buddy of mine was also going to be picking up a few hours at the store. Until, however, he regaled me with a story from his first day of training. He was working with another long-time clerk and asked who was working this weekend.

"Oh, I think Shane is," the clerk replied.

"Which Shane?" my friend replied. Yes, I know, there can be only one. But truth be told, there's a couple of other Shanes out there who are ALMOST as hip as me, and he wasn't sure which of us was working at the store.

That's when it happened.

"Oh, you know," the clerk told him. "Eighties Shane."

EIGHTIES SHANE?

And with that, my cultural relevancy promptly expired. I can only presume that the gods of pop culture will be calling any moment to rescind my membership card and decoder ring. I have just been kicked out of the Cool Kids Club.

I don't get it. I still read Rolling Stone cover to cover. I watch TV shows clearly written for people half my age. I know every song on the Billboard Hot 100. I routinely have to explain things like Kanye West, Cardi B, and the overall concept of Facebook to my mother. I'm hip, darn it.

But no. For all the hard work and thankless man-hours I've put into staying culturally cool, my legacy is now: "EIGHTIES SHANE." I thought I was riding on the cusp of the cutting edge, but apparently I fell right off that edge on January 1, 1990. According to at least one of my peers, I'm as relevant in these modern times as Boy George and Cyndi Lauper.

Surely this can't be true. If there's one thing I've always rallied against and mocked ruthlessly, it's those people whose musical and cultural tastes stop evolving once they reach a certain point in their lives. People who say they "don't understand today's music." People who go to bed early. That will NEVER be my life and I can prove it.

Why, just last week I put in my order for the greatest holiday of the year: Record Store Day. On Saturday, April 13th, HUNDREDS of over-priced, limited edition, hard-to-find records will be released for one day only -- and if you're not in line by 8 a.m., there's a good chance you'll get left out in the cold. As usual, I plan on spending an absolutely irresponsible amount of money on collectible records I'll likely never even play. It truly IS the most wonderful time of the year.

Would a culturally irrelevant "EIGHTIES SHANE" throw away his paycheck on hip releases like a box set containing ALL SIX original Devo albums on colored vinyl? Or a 3000-copy worldwide reissue of Bananarama remixes? Or a compilation of outtakes from a-ha's first album? Oh... crud.

Okay, so maybe I only ordered a bunch of stuff from the 1980s. It's not MY fault that most music released after 1990 has been terrible. That's not cultural irrelevancy. I say it's just a clear indicator of superior taste.

I'm not stuck in the 80s, I swear it. But if I HAD to be stuck in a decade, it's a pretty sweet one to call home. So call me whatever you want -- my suggestions would be "Awesome Shane" or perhaps "Cooler-Than-You Shane." I'm not going anywhere, pop culture. Just try and stop me. In the meantime, I guess if you need a DJ for your next 80s flashback party, I'm probably available.

COLUMN: Groceries


I'm starting to think I'll never get the hang of grocery shopping.

If there's one quick way to make me feel like a kid again, it's stepping into a supermarket. It's not like I gain a youthful pep in my step or lose the grey in my hair. No, it's just that to this day, shopping for groceries makes me feel every ounce as clueless and intimidated as a kid.

Look around the next time you're at the store. And I say "The Store" because my parents always called supermarkets "The Store," as if there were only one. It didn't matter if it was The Eagle Store or The Hy-Vee Store or The A&P Store, it was always just The Store. "I need to go to the store" always meant it was time for groceries.

But next time you're at The Store, take a good look. Everywhere you go, you see people with a purpose. Everyone seems to have a plan and a clear-cut shopping mission. Some folks are efficiently shopping while simultaneously wrangling multiple children. Some are meticulously gathering ingredients for pre-planned menus in their head. Some are sticking precisely to a budget they've allotted for the trip. Everyone is, by and large, cool and collected and there with intent and direction.

And then there's me. I tend to go to the store only after opening the refrigerator for food to discover there IS no food. I walk in aimlessly and just wander aisle-by-aisle, grabbing anything that looks vaguely appealing and leaving with a mis-matched cart full of food that doesn't remotely go together. I never plan meals or watch prices. I'm generally just an idiot.

I have no idea how to tell if produce is fresh or good. Does it pass the color test? Bananas are supposed to be yellow, tomatoes are supposed to be red except when they're supposed to be yellow, peppers can be yellow OR red OR green but it doesn't matter because peppers are icky. I often find myself poking produce because I think that's what you're supposed to do, but I have no idea what I'm poking for. As long as nothing pokes BACK, I'll usually put it in my cart.

No matter what I'm there for, I always end up spending WAY more than I wanted to. Just last week, I went on what I considered to be a pre-planned, mature, smart-shopping mission. I needed cat food, bath soap, toilet paper, and enough food to make a couple lunches and dinners. No problem, right? By the time I got home, I was $100+ in debt and making three trips to the car to lug in groceries that I didn't really need. How does this ALWAYS happen?

Well, having no clue what food I wanted, I just started strolling down the aisles. Ooh, tilapia. I like fish, so let's get that. But then I head down the next aisle and what do I see? Manwich! Man, I haven't had Manwich in forever. And what's this? A papaya marinade? Yes, please. But I'll need some chicken for that. What goes good with chicken? A bag of frozen veggies. Ooh, riced cauliflower and broccoli? I've GOT to try that. Hey, a recipe on the back says I should add some lime juice and parmesan cheese. Sounds good, I just need to go back and buy some, and hey, I'm out of soy sauce, so I should get THAT... and so on and so forth until I have a cart full of nonsense.

Worst of all, I forgot to buy buns, so at some point this week, I'm probably going to be enjoying papaya-marinated chicken with a side spoonful of Manwich. Mmm.

But maybe sometimes it pays to NOT be on a mission at the store. Last week, I was in the dairy section when I noticed a go-getter with purpose approach the yogurt. In one sweeping arm gesture, she professionally knocked about 12 single-serve containers into her cart before scurrying away. Impressive -- or so I thought at first.

I was raised by a loving and incredibly over-protective mother (and who can blame her? Who wouldn't want to overly protect ME? I'm awesome!) My mom introduced me to the culinary arts with lessons that usually had a arcing theme of, "Cooking is rewarding and can be a lot of fun EXCEPT WHEN YOU DO IT WRONG AND IT KILLS YOU." Ergo, I've always been one to meticulously check expiration dates.

Now, I know that some food is good long past its sell-by date, but I don't like to mess around with yogurt. I'm not convinced yogurt isn't just milk that's ALREADY gone bad, so that's an expiration date I pay attention to. Problem is, it's generally easier to find the Lost Treasure of the Sierra Madre than the expiration date on a container of yogurt. Still, I'm glad I looked, because as it turned out, that woman on a mission failed -- unless her mission was to take home a dozen yogurts that expired in early February. Eww.

Every time I'm convinced that I'm the world's worst grocery shopper, I get to the checkout and start realizing it's not just me. Now, I'm not the kind of nozy, shallow person who checks out what everybody around me's buying -- except that I AM. Call it my natural inquisitive journalistic instincts, but I STILL wanna know why the guy in front of me bought ONE Twinkie, EIGHT whole pineapples, and a jar of gravy. Was he prepping the world's most lop-sided pineapple upside-down cake? Served with a thirst-quenching glass of gravy? The mind boggles.

Maybe I'm not the only one just winging it at the store. If you're a smart shopper responsible for feeding a small army and you're able to stick to a budget, you have my ultimate respect. I have no idea how you do it. You're also NOT invited to my place for Riced Soy Cauliflower Papaya Manwich Surprise.

COLUMN: Basement Leaks


Okay, winter. Enough's enough.

You've had your fun. You've assaulted us with snow. You've coated our sidewalks with ice. You've gifted us with hurricane force winds and -50 wind chills. You even broke my friend's wrist. It's been fun. But look at the calendar, buddy -- it's time to leave your vacation home and head back north.

I'm SO ready for this winter to be over -- and it's honestly not because of the wind chills or the ice or the snow or the tire-eating potholes.

I want winter to be done because I'm sick of the perpetual reminders that I am, by and large, an incredibly useless person.

I have neither the skills nor the fortitude nor the experience nor the common sense to deal with this kind of weather. You know those movies where people get stranded and have to fend for themselves using only their cunning and ingenuity? Yeah, I'd be dead within an HOUR, I promise you. Either my own ineptitude would do me in, or the other castaways would mercy-kill me for the benefit of all involved. Any way it plays out, I would NOT have the starring role in that flick.

I always assumed that as I grew older, my brain would fill with sagelike wisdom that I could offer as advice to a naive and younger generation in need of my guidance. Well, God help anyone who asks ME for advice on anything other than a mixtape or fast food recommendations, because that's pretty much where my expertise ends.

Last weekend, I woke to a text from my best friend -- the one, in fact, who recently broke his wrist thanks to a bad tumble on the ice. He had just discovered inches of standing water in his basement. That sucks.

A flooded basement is one of my worst fears. When I was having my home inspected prior to purchase, I asked about the possibility of unwanted water someday paying my subterranean level a visit.

"I'll be honest with you," he said. "It's not a question of IF your basement floods. It's a question of WHEN it'll flood. Everyone's at risk."

This season has been particular gnarly on basements, and the Great Melting has only just begun. When it hit my friend, all I wanted to do was help.

"Do you need a hand?" I asked him.

"Nah," he texted back. "Thanks though."

Unacceptable. This same friend has bent over backwards for me on any number of occasions, and "nah" just wasn't gonna cut it, especially when he's only got one good hand at the moment. Of course, I have absolutely no idea what to do when one's basement fills up with water other than phone over-priced people who can make it all better. Still, I wanted to help, so I grabbed a box fan and headed over to his place.

By the time I got there, he'd already managed to restart his sump pump and drain most of the water with a shop vac, but it was still pretty gross. I helped as much as I could, which mostly involved standing around, cracking bad jokes, and casting several disparaging looks at the floor. But there was something about the sound of the vacuum against concrete that was tantamount to a thousand fingernails on a thousand chalkboards, so I wanted to help but I also wanted to claw my ears out and run screaming. Eventually I headed home, useless as ever.

I've been helping another friend manning occasional shifts at his retail store, and that's where I found myself the next day. Winter hasn't been kind to his store either, and we've been battling some epic ceiling leaks. There's no fixing the roof of the strip mall until the metric ton of ice up there melts off, or in this case, melts DOWN. So we've been fighting the drips of doom with little more than patience and a few well-placed buckets. The problem, though, is that one of the leaks is collecting in a flourescent light fixture, which is less than ideal.

I'd already gotten a text asking me to check the light and drain it if necessary. Sure enough, there was some gross rusty water pooling inside. As I stood there trying to convince myself it wasn't that bad, I watched as a drip fell and rippled the water like a stone on a lake. It definitely needed draining.

Sadly, Youtube has no videos on "How to drain water from flourescent lighting" (I seriously checked.) So I had to wing it. Knowing it might all end in tears, I waited until the store was empty, then hauled out the trusty ladder, overcame my fear of heights, and shakily climbed up, bucket in hand. As I surveyed the task at hand, I realized how easy it would be. I just needed to position the bucket perfectly, carefully unclip the fixture, and gently let the water drain into the bucket.

So I positioned the bucket imperfectly, carefully unclipped the fixture, and then watched in horror as it, along with about a gallon of rusty water, fell squarely on my head. A half gallon of rusty water looks nasty, but I can assure you it tastes even worse. It ended up in my mouth, my eyes, and up my nose. And then I had to keep working for four more hours, which I'm sure was a treat for all the customers.

So go away, winter, and make me stop feeling inept at life. Of course, spring and summer will probably figure out a way to make me feel incompetent, too. Still, I guess it's not all bad. I'd rather feel useless beside my best friend than self-sufficient alone. And one way or another, I DID get that light drained. Maybe one day I'll learn some common sense. Maybe one day it'll stop snowing. I guess time will tell.

COLUMN: Goblins


A couple weeks back, I wrote about the suspension of disbelief, an important skill needed to appreciate nearly all movies or TV shows.

To enjoy "Twilight," you have to buy that it's super romantic when a 17-year-old girl falls for a 104-year-old vampire. The Syfy network's most successful film series requires us to accept the plausibility that mankind's greatest threat is tornados filled with sharks.

Even a simple sitcom like "Friends" forces us to to believe that a self-employed chef and a part-time barista can somehow afford a 1500 sq. ft. apartment in the West Village. Reality often takes a back seat when it comes to being entertained, and I'm usually fine with this. I've sat through ALL SIX Sharknado films, people.

I'm a sucker for paranormal "reality" shows, and that requires some hefty suspension of disbelief. I will watch any show where people are hunting ghosts, searching for UFOs, or finding (or NOT finding) Bigfoot. Our world can occasionally be a boring place, and I like adding the occasional dose of weird to my diet.

Do I buy into all of it? Not really, but I love the idea of ghosts floating around old mansions and alien visitors loitering around in the sky. The existence of Bigfoot sounds ludicrous, but so did the existence of giant vampire squid until we sent a rover to the bottom of the ocean and found one. Anything's possible, I guess.

But the suspension of my disbelief may have met its match with a new series on Youtube called "Hellier." You should binge it pronto.

Hellier follows a group of paranormal investigators who receive a series of e-mails from a frightened individual named David Christie, who claims he and his family have been terrorized regularly by small goblin-like humanoids emerging from an abandoned mineshaft on his rural Kentucky property. The e-mails come complete with some truly creepy photos.

So far, so good. Sure, mine goblins are a bit of a reach, but I'm game. After all, the goblins in Christie's pics look eerily similar to police sketches from one of the most famous UFO cases of the 1950s, where a family in Kentucky claimed to have had a shootout with alien creatures in their backyard. So suddenly these critters aren't just goblins, they're aliens.

But thanks to some tie-ins with the legendary Mothman case, the investigators theorize that they're not EXTRA-terrestrials, but rather ULTRA-terrestrials -- aliens from another DIMENSION. So now I have to believe that goblins are real, aliens are real, and that highly evolved alien goblins from gob-knows-where have mastered inter-dimensional travel in order to creep around the hollers of rural Kentucky. This is starting to be a bit much.

I won't tell you what the team find when they travel to Kentucky, because you should watch the show for yourself.

Okay, that's a lie and a spoiler alert. They travel to Kentucky and find... nothing. So they regroup at their hotel 20 miles away and decide to hold a spirit box session. And this is where they completely lose me.

A "spirit box" is a device popular on ghost hunting shows used to communicate with the afterlife. Basically it's a radio that quickly changes stations and plays mostly static. But as it races through the dial, occasionally you can discern words. The theory is that any ghosts in the vicinity can use their magic spirit juju to talk through the thing. I find this super silly, especially considering most ghost hunting occurs at historic old homes where they're trying to contact dusty old spirits from yesteryear who wouldn't even know what a radio IS, let alone how to become a post-mortem DJ.

So to recap: They're goblins. Alien goblins. Alien goblins from another dimension. And now they're alien goblins from another dimension who are apparently both (a) omniscient enough to know that people 20 miles away are trying to talk to them, and (b) omnipotent enough to talk back through a radio. Yet despite all their superpowers, these dimension-hopping goblin gods can only communicate via single-word responses like "Look!" "Coming!" "You!" "Here!" "Yes!" I call cowpoop on this one, sorry.

In the middle of the session, one of the investigators says, "I don't know if it means anything, but I just had a vivid image of a tin can appear in my head!" And later, when investigating one of these abandoned mines, they find... a TIN CAN! I know, what are the odds, right? Never mind that any clip I've ever seen of old-timey miners usually involves them cooking beans in a tin can over a campfire, and never mind that tin cans last about forever, and never mind that if you Google "abandoned mine," there's a tin can laying around in about 40% of the images. It's a spooky coincidence!

In fact, in the "Mothman Prophecies" book, famed UFOlogist John Keel writes that supernatural bogeymen can come in all shapes and sizes, "from twenty foot tall giants to animated tin cans." (You may gasp now.)

Despite what I consider its utter non-believability, "Hellier" is a great series and you SHOULD binge it. It's shot and paced wonderfully and it's magically creepy. Maybe you can suspend your disbelief long enough for it to make sense. But if you DO buy what they're selling, you might want to clean out your pantry. That can of beans in the back corner might just be an omniscient omnipotent ultra-terrestrial alien goblin. I don't think that's the kind of infestation you can clear up with a can of Raid, especially if the can of Raid is ALSO an omniscient omnipotent ultra-terrestrial alien goblin. 

COLUMN: Bad Day In Peoria


When I was (not) studying at Columnist School (doesn't exist), I learned one thing (nope): Always have a point. Pick a topic, have a perspective, and hopefully be entertaining.

This column, however, has no point. Well, other than maybe, "Hey, today sure sucked." Honestly, I'm just writing for catharsis at this point.

My morning started with a horrifying phone call that the long-time partner of a close friend passed away. She'd been ill for some time, but none of knew how serious it really was. As much as I want to spend this whole column throwing myself a pity party, my thoughts are with him right now. If you're the praying type, please throw in a word or two for my friend Chris.

My thoughts may have been with him, but my body was in the (not) next best place, Peoria. That's because my dad had surgery today on his angry oversized potato of a prostate. The man goes the extra mile in everything he does, up to and including glandular growth. I don't remember the exact details, but the doc said the average human prostate measures 18-20 whatzits (grams? cubits? kilobytes?), but my dad's was clocking in at 81.

So today, he went under the knife (well, technically under the laser) for a process wherein they go in and -- well, honestly, I stopped listening to avoid terminal heebie-jeebies. I nearly missed it all, because I was too busy wandering the halls of OSF St. Francis, trying to figure out where my poor dad was in this magical medical labyrinth.

"Room 2218? Oh, sure. Just go down this hallway, hang a right, take the elevator to 1, go left, then a quick right to Zone 3, take the first left past the bistro, cross the skywalk, take those elevators to 2, hang an immediate right, then a left, then one more right." Presumably then I had to show my passport to the border guard, proceed to Tijuana, do the hokey pokey, turn myself around, and that's what it was all about. Note: When your hospital requires "zones" and has indoor trolleys, perhaps you've expanded enough as a medical center.

That said, everyone at St. Francis couldn't have been nicer and my dad's in good hands. Such good hands, in fact, that I decided to head back to Rock Island before nightfall.

I was ten miles outside of Peoria when I hit it, and I do mean literally. I guess you'd refer to it as a pothole, though it was more like an open-maw pit to Hell. It was under the shade of a bridge and I didn't see it until it was too late. I yelled "SON..." and by the time I reached "A", my tire was fritter-flat and I was skidding to a stop along the shoulder.

My usual first call would have been to the man currently tethered to an IV with a freshly trimmed prostate. Instead, I called roadside assistance. The assistance it provided was to play a looped eight-minute Muzak rendition of Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen." I'm not sure how this was assisting me on this particular roadside, but perhaps it made me focus less on my wrecked car and more on how much I hate that song.

Just as a live human being picked up, I also got a visit from Trooper Kulkowski of the Illinois State Police. "Problems tonight?" he asked at my window.

"VERY flat tire," I replied. "I'm on with roadside assistance now."

"If you've got a spare in the trunk, hang up."

I know. Spare me the lectures (pun intended). I've never changed a tire. When it comes to cars, I know where the gas goes, which pedals to push, and which satellite radio channels are the best to sing along to at top volume. If you want a tire changed, you call my dad. If you want a column about cats, you call me. I play to my strengths.

"Thanks," I said. "You really didn't have to do this."

"Oh, I'm not gonna do it. You're changing the tire. I'll teach you."

Suddenly, waiting for a tow truck didn't sound half bad. At least it sounded half warm. I'm a firm supporter of secondary education, just not when it's along a cold dark roadside. But school was indeed in session, and true to his word, Trooper Kulkowski taught me how to change a tire. Twenty minutes later, I was freezing, filthy, and freaked out, yet strangely accomplished. Is this what it feels like to be my dad? No, I reckon it's a lot more painful to feel like my dad right now. 

Today might have sucked, but I'm still thankful. I made it home in one piece. My dad's prostate did NOT, but that's a good thing. My car will be fine once I hand it over to people far more qualified than myself. I will miss my friend Erin for the rest of my days, but I'm a better person simply for having known her.

Maybe my column DOES have a point. Despite what the wind chills or estimates from auto garages may have us believe, even on our worst nights, the sun WILL come out tomorrow. I hope.

COLUMN: Dog in a Bar


I like to think that I'm a reasonably good person.

Sure, I've used salty language now and then. I've walked across streets in a jay-like fashion. I've cut tags from mattresses with carefree abandon. But if you judge me on a grand scale, I think I'm one of the good guys.

Odd, then, that I spent time last Saturday researching ways to get a disabled person arrested. This may require an explanation.

As regular readers may know, I usually spend my weekends moonlighting in the DJ booths of area nightclubs. Last Saturday, I was grateful to be booked at one of my favorite haunts. It's a laid-back neighborhood bar that I'm proud to be a part of.

Not that they need it, but this bar employs off-duty police to work security on the weekends. But since it's usually just a lovefest, the officers spend much of their shifts loitering around with their friendly neighborhood DJ. Over the years, I've come to know and respect these guys a great deal.

I wouldn't trade jobs for all the money in the world. Never mind the inherent danger of police work. What makes THESE cops special is their patience. If you've ever wanted to see people at their MOST irritating, step into a bar at closing time. I generally like people, but let's be honest: some folks can really try your patience. Give those folks booze and it's a whole new level of annoyance.

These cops have the thankless job of keeping drunken shenanigans to a minimum and making sure everybody has a fun but SAFE night out. Even when patrons are unruly and occasionally intoxicated, I've never seen them treat anyone with disrespect. If problems arise, they quickly defuse the situation and firmly but politely send the bad eggs out and safely on their way to a hangover. I don't think I've witnessed them arrest anyone. But man, last Saturday I was sure hoping for it.

It all started when a customer walked in with a large dog in tow. Well, not so much "in tow" since he took a seat while the dog strolled through the bar barking and sniffing and, well, being a dog.

Since its not every day you see a retriever running roughshod in a bar, the curious canine was drawing a lot of attention. And unless this dog was a service animal, they're not allowed inside. So the officer went up to inquire about the pooch. Now, this guy was on the other end of the bar from me. Inbetween us, I was giving numerous subwoofers a hefty workout. But even in a loud bar with MY well-abused ears, I could still hear the customer start screaming.

"YES IT'S A SERVICE ANIMAL! YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO QUESTION ME! I CAN SUE YOU!"

Let's get one thing clear: service animals are amazing. The roles they play assisting members of our community are crucial. Guide dogs help the visually impaired, hearing dogs assist the deaf, psychiatric service animals provide emotional support. There are even specially trained animals to detect allergens in the air. The Americans With Disabilities Act ensures that people with disabilities have the right to be accompanied by service animals pretty much anywhere.

Maybe this was a legit service dog, maybe not. We don't have the right to invade anyone's privacy by asking about their disability or requiring the animal's certification. All you can legally do is ask whether or not the dog is a service animal and what specific tasks it performs. And that's all the officer asked before this guy went ballistic. It became evident REAL quick that he was less interested in a drink than a grand self-righteous confrontation.

Eventually the officer walked back to my half of the bar. The crusading customer decided to follow.

"ARE YOU LOOKING UP THE LAWS? DO YOU REALLY WANT TO GO THERE? LET'S GO THERE. I DARE YOU TO GO THERE!"

What followed was ten minutes of the most unwarranted verbal abuse I've ever heard anyone take, let alone a cop. He called the officer every name in the book. He called him a few names that weren't even IN the book. Backup had to be called, but that just fueled the guy's indignancy even more. I had no idea what tasks his service dog performed, but I started hoping I'd find out if one of them was picking his owner's teeth off the floor.

How do I know so much about the ADA laws? Because cops are patient, but I'm not. While the officers were enduring his torrent of abuse, I was on my phone looking up the laws. None of this involved me, but I was so horrified by this unjust rage-storm that I wanted to find any loophole, exemption, or bent rule that could put him in handcuffs. I have unlimited respect and admiration for anyone who perseveres over a disability, but that shouldn't give you carte blanche to be a jerk.

Eventually the guy tired himself out and he and his poor dog huffed out of the bar. I don't know how the cops kept their cool. He told me later that they could've ticketed the guy for not having visible rabies tags on the animal, and he could have even kicked out the dog for barking at other customers. But because those cops are better human beings than me, they decided it'd be best to let the guy have his soapbox, vent a little, and calm down.

I might be a good person, but those cops are GREAT people.

COLUMN: Bewitched


Dear beloved writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron: We need to talk.

Sorry for my tardiness in contacting you. I've been a little busy writing and DJing and working at a record store and petting my cats and trying super hard not to die in -50 wind chills. Sorry also that I just remembered you died in 2012. That's a bummer.

Your work has played an important part in my life. You wrote the screenplay for "Silkwood," a movie that made at least ONE 12-year-old so terrified of nuclear power plants that he cried when he found out his class was taking a field trip to Cordova. You wrote "When Harry Met Sally," a film that comforted me with the knowledge that unlikeable dorks like Billy Crystal can land Meg Ryans with just a little charm and the perfect meet-cute.

You made one of the most iconic romantic comedies of all time, "Sleepless in Seattle." Then you made it AGAIN and called it "You've Got Mail." You created "Julie & Julia," which temporarily made me think I could fix all my problems if I could successfully prepare boeuf bourguignon (Spoiler: it could not, and I could not.) I adore nearly all of your films, Nora -- except one.

I love good movies -- but I might just love BAD movies even more. There's truly something magical about films that miss the mark SO wide they become brilliant in their awfulness. I can sing along to "Ishtar" and "Xanadu." I've forced my friends to suffer through "Manos: Hands of Fate" and "Troll 2" more times than I can count. If someone told me I could only watch a handful of movies for the rest of my life, I guarantee Tommy Wiseau's "The Room" would be in that hand.

But if I had to pick the worst film I've ever seen? Nora, I'm afraid the answer might be "Bewitched."

The year was 2005. That was the summer of my life's one and so far only great solo adventure. On little more than a whim and a few days off, I packed the car and drove to Dallas. It was a great trip, except for the trek back. My initial idea was to make it to Kansas City and grab a hotel room for the night. But when I hit K.C., I decided to keep driving.

At some point, I made a pact with myself that if I made it all the way home, I'd use the extra day to relax and treat myself to a movie. It was fifteen solid hours in the car, but I did it. And true to my word, the next day I took myself to see the film adaptation of the TV show "Bewitched." It remains, to this day, the only movie I've ever walked out of.

So why bring this up NOW, fourteen years later? Because it was on cable and I just gave it another shot. I wondered if maybe I was too hard on the flick the first time I saw it. After all, I was road-weary and exhausted. Maybe I was just in a mood? Nope. Sorry, Nora, but it's terrible. And not in a good way. It only took five minutes for me to remember.

Movies require the ability to suspend disbelief. You can't enjoy Harry Potter without accepting that parents willingly send their children to a magic school rife with life-threatening danger. You can't enjoy Star Wars without accepting a distant world where bad guys can build planet-sized spaceships yet fight one another with laser sticks. But in FIVE minutes, "Bewitched" killed ALL my disbelief.

In the film, Nicole Kidman plays Isobel, an unknown actress cast as the lead in a reboot of the beloved "Bewitched" TV series. But what no one knows is that Isobel really IS a witch! Sounds cute, right? But the movie opens with Isobel househunting in Los Angeles. She sees a place that she likes, so she twitches her nose and suddenly a "For Rent" sign appears in the yard. With another twitch, an "Open House Today" sign shows up and a realtor leaps out to greet her.

I tried to suspend disbelief, I really did. It's magic, right? But I can't help but wonder, WHAT JUST HAPPENED TO THE FAMILY THAT LIVED THERE? With one selfish twitch, did she magically alter some tenant's entire timeline and change their lives forever? Or did she just wipe them out of existence without a second's thought? And where did the realtor come from? Did she just invent a human being?

For the rest of the movie, we see her attempt to relate to muggles and woo her narcissistic co-star. But why should this be a problem? We've already proven that she's omnipotent, omniscient, and perhaps even capable of murder. Couldn't she just twitch her nose and make ANYONE fall in love with her? Or just invent a boyfriend out of thin air like her realtor?

This isn't magical. It isn't fantasy. It's just stupid. And the first time, I was smart enough to walk out BEFORE Will Ferrell's character had some unexplained fever dream where he's visited by the super funny Steve Carell doing a super UNfunny Paul Lynde impression. It's just a trainwreck, Nora. I'm sorry.

Still, I love your other films. Thanks for making them. I wish you weren't dead. I wish we could've consulted on this. Maybe one day we can. If I ever make it to the top of the Empire State Building, meet me there as a ghost and we'll work on a re-reboot. You've got to admit, THAT would make an awesome movie.

COLUMN: Alexa Spying


In today's evolving tech world, we're more connected to one another than ever before. Thanks to social media, we can share our lives, our likes, and our feelings at any time with basically anyone we've ever known -- including Britney Spears, who strangely follows me on Twitter. I'm sure she cares about my life a great deal.

We're often guilty of OVER-sharing. I can hop on Facebook right this second and learn what three of my friends ate for dinner tonight. I bet I can find over 100 photographs of snow posted in the last day. I can watch home movies of families I barely know. I can see the President discuss "hamberders," then witness a dozen of my friends supporting him and 200 of my friends hating his guts. People share EVERYTHING on social media.

But as we move more and more from a world where "sharing is caring" to a world of "I don't care, I'm gonna share," we also seem to be growing overly preoccupied with privacy. This seems to run contrary to the whole concept of social media.

Don't get me wrong -- security in the internet age is important. I had a credit card stolen online once, and it sucked. Thankfully it was caught early when some idiot used it at a Best Buy in Indiana and my bank called right away to report suspicious activity. Online security is paramount.

But what I DON'T get are people worried that the massive companies of the internet are spying on them for nefarious purposes. You hear the accusations all the time: Your Amazon Echo listens to your conversations. Google is tracking what sites you visit. Facebook wants to own all your content and the only way to stop them is to publically post "Dear Facebook, you may not own all of my content. Sincerely, me." Come on, people.

Look, I have no idea whether or not internet giants are spying on us. I also don't care. It would take a massive boost of self-importance for me to believe that any billion-dollar company cares the slightest about me. I suppose we're entering a grey area that could pave the way to a Big Brotherish dystopian future, but for now, if Mark Zuckerberg wants some pictures of my cats, he's welcome to them. If Jeff Bezos wants to eavesdrop on my friends and I making fun of "Riverdale," he can tune right in. If I wanted my content private, I wouldn't have posted it to social media in the first place.

And yes, Google DOES track what websites you visit. They use it to deliver relevant offers to your screen. It's called targeted advertising. I go to a lot of music sites, so I get a lot of music-related ads. I'm cool with that. If I have to be subjected to constant promotions, I'd rather it be something I care about and not "Hey, Shane, stop leaks before they happen! Use Tampax!" 

I'm generally okay with a moderate amount of corporate Big Brother snooping on me. But sometimes it CAN get annoying.

My cable box, for instance, allows me to watch videos on Youtube. The other night, I got suckered into checking out some clip promising "Undeniable Proof That UFO's Exist!" Spoiler: It didn't. In fact, it put me right to sleep. But whilst I slumbered, Youtube kept on playing hours and hours of the most nutbag videos imaginable. And now every time I turn on Youtube, it recommends videos to me like, "HILLARY CLINTON CONTROLS THE REPTILIAN LIZARD ILLUMINATI!" Youtube now thinks I'm a basement-dwelling conspiracy theory lunatic. Awesome.

But the most disconcerting example of technology gone amok may have happened to me the other morning. I have to share this story, as embarassing as it is. I was watching a show on Netflix that featured a super cute and funny actress who I thought I recognized from somewhere, so I decided to pause the show and Google her to see what other shows she'd been on.

And yes, I'm fully aware that it's borderline skeevy to do an internet search for an actress young enough to be my daughter, but I'm a pop culture nerd, so don't judge me. And you don't HAVE to judge me, because my Amazon Echo took care of that for you. Keep in mind I'm by myself, the show is paused, there's dead silence in the house except for me typing on this very laptop, when out of NOWHERE, Alexa's voice comes booming out of my Amazon Echo: "THE WORD 'UNJUST' REFERS TO AN ACT THAT IS CONSIDERED MORALLY OR ETHICALLY WRONG." Like possibly researching an actress half my age. I was waiting for Alexa to start ringing a bell and yelling "SHAME!" like Game of Thrones.

I think it was just a random error. I hope it was just a random error. Or maybe somewhere Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are deeply concerned about the alien-obsessed pervert in Illinois who checks the iTunes music charts five times a day. Who's to say? All I know is that for now, I'm okay being observed by corporate America. After all, if my bank hadn't been monitoring my account Big Brother-style, that jerkwad who stole my credit card could be cleaning out Best Buys across Indiana on my dime as we speak.

Frankly, there are better things to worry about -- like this week's episode of "Riverdale." DON'T JUDGE ME, ALEXA.

COLUMN: Cleats


I don't want to sound morose or anything, but it's a simple fact of life that each of us has a finite number of minutes on this planet. Mine seem to be allocated thusly: For 30% of my earthly minutes, I'm sound asleep. 10% I spend eating. Another 30% I spend in this office staring at a computer screen. And whatever remains are mostly minutes spent worrying about whether I'm going to slip and fall on the ice.

This week, I'm celebrating five years since a routine trip to take out my kitchen trash turned into a broken ankle and an unplanned six week staycation on my couch. As I was walking my trash to the curb that night, I didn't notice the trail of frozen water draining from the gutter of my garage. I'm guessing my ankle didn't see it coming, either.

Once upon a time, I loved sliding around on the ice, building snow forts, and pouring water down sled trails to make them good and icy. If I fell? Big whoop. Laugh a little, pick yourself up, and fall down all over again. I don't have perfect recall, but I'm pretty sure that falling down used to be FUN.

These days, however? Not so fun. If I slip even the slightest fraction of an inch on any ice, all I can picture is my ankle snapping like a twig, which is interesting given that I didn't even witness it snap like a twig five years ago. The view at the time was somewhat obstructed by my butt landing on it. Have you ever been so mad at someone that you've wanted to shove a foot up their...? Well, DON'T. I am proof positive that IT COULD BREAK YOUR FOOT.

If there's even the slightest glimmer of ice on the ground, trust me to find it and almost die. So now I'm pretty much terrified of the outdoors, and the only thing worse than an uncoordinated klutz is a PARANOID uncoordinated klutz.

So my heart dropped last week when I woke up and heard a weatherman issue my least favorite words in all of meterology: BLACK ICE. Black ice is the scientific term for ice that is evil, malicious, and black-hearted. It's ice that HIDES and pretends to be pavement. It's ice that keeps the LifeAlert people in business: "HELP! I'VE FALLEN AND I CAN'T GET UP!"

But not for me. This year, I was prepped and ready for the blackest of ice. When I went home for the holidays this year, my parents gifted me a pair of stretch-on cleats. Simply attach to the bottom of your shoes, and if any black ice comes between you and the ground, your cleats impale it with extreme prejudice, the evil menace is thwarted, and you continue about your merry way in an upright fashion.

Perhaps stretch-on cleats are nothing new to you. Maybe they've always been for sale at all the places normal people go who aren't weirdo shut-ins that buy everything online. For me, this was new terrain. Despite my macho physique and athletic prowess, I am shockingly inexperienced at cleat-ing. Maybe that's why I was surprised when I took them out of the bag.

I think I have an average shoe size. Yet based on what fell out of the "one size fits all" bag, I either have freakish Sasquatch feet or my folks bought the children's model. There's no possible way these could fit a normal adult human foot, is there?

Well, it turns out they ARE one-size-fits-all, provided you have the dexterity and virility to stretch them around your shoes. I suppose the sort of people who frequently wear cleats are the sort of people with the necessary arm strength to implement them. As for me, it took a five minute workout to stretch the things in place. At one point, one of them flew off my foot like a deranged slingshot, nearly using up one of my cats' nine lives.

Eventually I got them on, stomped to the car with the confidence of anyone wearing metal needles on their feet, and headed to work resuming my daily autopilot routine. This involves the morning ritual of stopping for coffee and a pre-work snack. Remember when I said I'd never worn cleats before? I have to restate this, because it's the only explanation I can offer as to why I just strolled right into the gas station with cleats still attached to my feet.

I guess my mental powers at 8:15 a.m. were not enough to realize that tile floors are every bit as susceptible to cleat punctures as black ice. Don't worry, though, I didn't actually get the chance to aerate their floor. That's because the gas station had laid out cardboard to alleviate customers tracking in snow ick. I took one step and PUK-THWAP PUK-THWAP, my cleats went clean through the soggy cardboard which was now attached to my shoes and I went surfing down the aisle like a one-man cardboard regatta. My fear of breaking an ankle was instantly replaced by a fear of doing the splits headfirst into the Slurpee machine. I don't speak punjabi, but I'm pretty sure I could still catch the drift of what the clerk thought of my performance.

Soooo if you happened into a gas station and bore witness to the world's worst breakdance routine followed by a sheepish solo sock hop, many apologies. It turns out there ARE worse things than falling down. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take these spikes off my shoes, pretend this never happened, and hide in a corner until spring.   

COLUMN: Britpop


As far as parents go, I pretty much lucked out and got the best ones on the planet. As a spoiled only child, my folks were fairly over-protective of me, but that never applied much when it came to my exposure to pop culture. Within reasonable boundaries, I was pretty much allowed to watch and listen to whatever TV or music I fancied.

I can only recall three times when my parents tried to censor the music I grew up listening to. I remember them coming home from a PTA meeting saying I shouldn't listen to Blondie because they glamorized drug use, but then I caught my mom humming "Call Me" days later. My folks are both proud veterans, so they REALLY hated Paul Hardcastle's "19," the early electronic song that sampled news clips from the Vietnam War. They went so far as to ban it from the house, which of course meant that I procured it within 24 hours and would secretly play it over and over again, because if your parents hate something, it HAS to be awesome.

And I can distinctly remember my mom recoiling in disgust the first time she heard David Gilmour belt "we don't need no education" over the FM dial. Honestly, that time I mostly agreed with her. Of course, I was too young to realize that I was listening to a small fragment of a conceptual masterpiece exploring the themes of abuse, abandonment, and isolationism. I just thought it was a guy named Pink Floyd who hated school, as evidenced by his poor grammatical choices.

I disagreed with Mr. Floyd. I was one of those weirdo kids who kinda liked school. I've always enjoyed learning things, or at least the things that interest me. Sadly, the things that interest me the most are usually TV, movies, and music -- topics that aren't always a priority in higher education. I loved my time at Augustana, but I'd get jealous whenever I'd read about some school offering a class on Twin Peaks or Madonna or some other cultural zeitgeist. I'd love to take a college class on pop culture. The only thing better would be TEACHING one of those classes.

I'm about to get a taste of just that.

Don't get me wrong, I'd make a lousy teacher. I'm not a very patient person, and I'd freak out the first time some know-it-all student dared question my great authority. Plus, I have a near-crippling fear of public speaking, so I'd be sweating through my shirt by recess.

I have no desire to be a teacher. But it might be fun to be one for an hour.

Every month, the Bettendorf Public Library hosts an event called "Trax from the Stax." On the third Thursday of the month, they invite a presenter to host a music listening party with the goal of exposing folks to music they might not be familiar with. This month, that presenter is ME. I'm pretty sure I'm qualified, considering I host music listening parties for my cats nearly EVERY night.

It's actually not my first time in this particular hot seat. I dusted off my first Stax of Trax about a year ago. Apart from a few stammers and a possessed laptop computer, it went fairly well. I was nervous as all get out, but hopefully I unveiled some new music to a few people, which I'm pretty sure is my real purpose on Earth. Getting somebody to like one of my fave bands is worth every sweat-soaked shirt and stammer it takes.

This one, though, should be fun. You see, before a certain newspaper strangely agreed to let me write about nonsense every week, I used to co-manage a music blog created to unite weirdo fans of obscure music like me. And it just happened to coincide with an interesting time in pop music.

In the mid-90s, the dour phenomenon of grunge rock was taking over the world. But in England, a handful of rebellious bands came together to reclaim the UK airwaves with a sound that was anything BUT grunge. Armed with the influence of vintage English rock of yore, they created a revolution that was unashamedly upbeat, audaciously anti-cool, and uniquely and unapologetically British. The press dubbed the movement "Britpop," and for a fleeting moment, it was the most exciting music in the world -- except the U.S., where much of the scene went completely unnoticed.

So if you're up for hearing some banging tunes and Cockney accents, come to the Bettendorf Public Library this Thursday, January 17th, at 7 p.m. in the Norman J. Kelinson Room. At best, you might fall in love with some great bands you've never heard of. At worst, you can point and laugh at a sweaty stammering newspaper columnist.

I'm sure my folks are proud. My mom would probably be prouder if I was lecturing about Barbra Streisand, but that's her fault for letting me listen to GOOD music when I was a kid.

COLUMN: Dips

(Not the real dip. The real dip looked far more vomity.)

Well, that's it. Farewell, holiday season. We'll see you again come mid-September when we as a nation again begin the three-month shopping orgy of Thanksmasoween.

The lights are down, the halls have been un-decked, and the Lifetime channel has gone from movies where handsome men teach the real meaning of Christmas back to movies where handsome men are double-life-leading rapists who prey upon your teenage daughters. All that's left now are the memories.

With loads of free time around the holidays, I wasted more than a few hours binge-watching shows stacking up in my Netflix and Hulu queues. But what to choose? When you're single at Christmas, watching sappy romances can cause a needless pity party. And I don't care what Andy Williams says, the most wonderful time of the year seems like a bad time for scary ghost stories. Instead, I settled for my mounting queue of cooking competition shows.

I know nothing about cooking. I can make about twelve different entrees competently, and I'm okay with that. I can bake chicken and fish, boil pasta, work a grill, and I'm quite skilled at adding Helper to hamburger. Beyond that, I'm contentedly inept.

The chefs on TV, on the other hand, are anything but inept. The stuff they make is less food and more edible art. They use ingredients I've never heard of before. They use cooking techniques I've never heard of before. Everyone "sous vides" everything. I don't even know what sous vide is. I just had to look up how to spell sous vide. I don't think it's something you can do in a microwave.

Still, I enjoy watching these chefs make magic out of a pantry. But there's a downside. Those shows make everything look TOO easy. Easy enough for a stupid part of my brain to go, "Well, that doesn't look TOO hard. Maybe I CAN cook." For the record, I cannot -- but shows like this occasionally make me forget. And the false confidence I took from this binge-watching session was JUST in time for my annual New Year's Eve party.

Don't be alarmed, I'm still a realist. It's not like I tried to serve my friends bouef bourguignon or something. But rather than the usual chips-n-salsa cuisine that usually awaits my party guests, I thought I'd try some dip recipes I pulled off the internet. How tough can dips be, right? Throw some stuff in a bowl, stir it up, and presto: delicious goop. I felt confident. Some of you might have even seen me pushing a cart through Hy-Vee with a metric ton of cream cheese.

The first recipe I thought I'd try was some decadent goop called Monster Cookie Dip that's a can't-lose combination of cream cheese, peanut butter, and loads of sugar and chocolate. The recipe says, and I quote: "In a mixing bowl, add ingredients and blend with electric mixer until light and fluffy." Or, in my case, until your electric mixer gets stuck, makes a noise like "grooooonk," and starts puffing out a cloud of noxious black smoke.

But I was determined to not let one tiny near-fire ruin my new year, so I moved on. Next was a meatless taco dip as a token offering to my one vegetarian friend. This seemed to go fine until the part where you have to dice up onions and jalopenos. I hate onions, and jalopenos straight up terrify me. I can't even look at one without hearing my mom warn, "DON'T TOUCH YOUR EYE!" Which of course made my eyes immediately start itching. "WEAR GLOVES!" said my inner mom, who probably instead should have said "BUY GLOVES!" because I lost mine years ago. But if you've ever wondered if it's possible to quickly de-seed a jalopeno while wearing winter mittens, I can now provide a definitive answer: No.

I decided the best course of action to avoid blindness would be to chuck the onions and peppers into an electric chopping product I own that shall remain nameless, except that it looks like a bullet and may or may not be magic. With mitten hands, I carefully loaded the bullet, pressed down, and just like magic, it moved most of the contents to the side walls while turning a very small amount into a toxic onion-jalopeno death-pulp, which I carefully deposited in the crock pot and said a small prayer. I apologized for the dip prior to anyone touching it. People said it was good, but based on the amount of leftovers, they lied. I now have a full container of the stuff in my freezer for that future day when I get a hankering for a really lousy taco dip.

I sought redemption in an easy queso dip with only three ingredients: sausage, cheese, and tomatoes. The quick assembly boosted my confidence, and I poured the mixture into the crock pot with the pride of accomplishment. Then I looked to the left and saw the crock pot. I had instead just poured hot cheese and sausage directly into the heating element. Somewhere I could hear the voice of Padma Lakshmi going, "Shane, please pack your knives and go."

I am no Top Chef. But despite my best efforts, the party went off without anyone getting burned, electrocuted, or pepper-eyed. Maybe by the time I drag out the holiday decorations again, I'll be a MasterChef -- just remind me not to WATCH MasterChef right before New Year's.

COLUMN: Best of 2018 - TV

In true nerd fashion, the end of my year is always spent making lists and arguing with friends over the best pop culture moments of the past twelve months. Last week, it was tough to even find ten albums worth mentioning. This week, I'm listing my picks for the best TV shows of the year. This, it turns out, was equally as hard, but only because SO MUCH great television came out in 2018 that it's near impossible to narrow the list down to ten. Here goes nothing.


#10 - Big Mouth (Netflix) - This crass animated adult series from Netflix follows the changing bodies and adolescent woes of a pubescent pack of middle-schoolers, and it's one of the funniest things you'll ever see. With voice talent from Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Maya Rudolph, and some of the biggest names in comedy, "Big Mouth" throws SO many rapid-fire jokes at you that it's probably unhealthy to binge more than an episode or two in a row. 


#9 - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW) - Cheers to the CW for keeping this low-rated, critically-acclaimed musical comedy afloat for four seasons. As we approach the series' final episodes, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend isn't pulling ANY punches. Envelope-pushing, rule-breaking humor still runs amok, but the show's heart and emotional sincerity still shines through. The only crime is that Rachel Bloom hasn't won an Emmy for being the most awesome person on TV.


#8 - Survivor: David vs. Goliath (CBS) - Survivor was a fun show that ushered in the age of reality TV -- for about two seasons until we all got super sick of it. Now astonishly on its 37th season, the show somehow managed to assemble its best group of castaways in years. Backstabbing, scheming, and blindsides were EVERYWHERE this year, and the result was arguably the show's most entertaining season to date. Was it skilled casting or just dumb luck? Who knows, but it sure was a fun ride.


#7 - Everything Sucks! (Netflix) - The only thing that really sucks is that Netflix gave up and cancelled this fantastic coming-of-age series after just one season of awkward adolescence and unlimited charm. It now joins "Freaks and Geeks," "Firefly," and "My So-Called Life" in the annals of shows pulled WAY too early.


#6 - Life In Pieces (CBS) - The most consistently funny sitcom on television still hasn't found the wide audience it deserves, but thankfully CBS hasn't given up on it. Despite starting as an obvious clone of ABC's "Modern Family," "Life in Pieces" quickly surpassed it in quality, originality, and laughs. Thomas Sadoski and Zoe Lister-Jones are the funniest actors you don't know by name, trust me. The new season starts soon, don't miss out on this fragile gem.


#5 - Riverdale (The CW) - You either love "Riverdale" or you hate it. I'm all in, as the show loosely based on the Archie comics takes campy melodrama to the next level. Don't believe me? This season, Archie's in a prison fight club after being wrongfully convicted of murder. Betty's being given psychotropic drugs by an order of evil nuns. Veronica's opened a casino speakeasy in the basement of Pop's Chock'lit Shoppe, and Jughead's busy running the local biker gang. All this while the town falls prey to an evil knock-off of Dungeons & Dragons that twists the minds of those who play. The Riverdale writer's room must be amazing.


#4 - Barry (HBO) - It was a sad day when the amazingly talented Bill Hader left "Saturday Night Live," but it was worth it for his star turn in "Barry," a show that single-handedly reinstilled my faith in the struggling HBO. Hader plays the title role, a hitman who follows one of his marks into an acting class and discovers his love for theater. It sounds like an SNL bit, but with smart writing, unique characters, and nonstop existential crises, "Barry" is a darkly comedic treat.


#3 - The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix) - Finally, a spooky TV series that hits the right marks. Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel has been adapted umpteen times, but this one sets aside most of the jump-n-scare moments in favor of an unsettling character study of a family trapped by grief... and ghosts. It's compelling, creepy, and occasionally terrifying -- and the scariest part is when you realize you've wasted an entire day binge-watching the whole season at once.


#2 - The Good Place (NBC) - In this amazing era of ground-breaking, risk-taking, go-for-broke television, I never thought the most daring and unconventional show would be found on primetime NBC. Following the antics of four recently deceased strangers trying to earn access to heaven, "The Good Place" is a Philosophy 101 class reborn as a sitcom. You'll laugh 'til you're sick -- but you'll do it while learning about Immanuel Kant. If my old philosophy instructor had been half this funny, I might have remembered something from his class.


#1 - The Flash (The CW) - These days, all you have to do is stick a superhero into a movie to make a billion dollars at the box office. TV execs aren't dumb, and they've been trying every which way to cash in on the craze. Some (like the Marvel shows on Netflix) end up too dark and gloomy for a wide audience. Others (like the CW's Supergirl) feel like afterschool-special morality plays draped in a cape. But "The Flash" gets the recipe just right. It's funny without being hammy, dramatic without being dour. Its heroes face devastating challenges with courage and heart, and good always prevails over evil. Great TV shows don't always have to be works of art. Sometimes they just have to be the ones you look most forward to watching every week. If you're missing "The Flash," you're missing the most entertaining show on TV, period.

And that's a wrap on 2018, folks! Forget those old acquaintances, bust out the noisemakers, have a wonderful New Year, and if I can pry myself away from the TV, I'll see you in 2019.
 

Thursday, April 04, 2019

COLUMN: Best of 2018 - Music

Let's just admit it: 2018 was a lousy year for music. Many of our best artists were in-between records, while others put out career-defining letdowns. This year's charts were ruled by mumble-rappers, one-hit wonders, and watered-down commercial pop/rock. The indie scene was chock full of bands pushing musical boundaries but forgetting they still need to write some decent tunes along the way. Yet despite my disappointment, a handful of artists managed to release some truly incredible music this year. Here are my picks for the ten must-hear albums of 2018:



#10 - Carla J Easton - Impossible Stuff - Some songwriters suffer from an innate likability, and that's always worked to the advantage of troubadour Carla Easton. Whether on her own or with her band Teen Canteen, Easton's always had a knack for turning heartbreak and doubt into contagious singalongs. This record, the first released under her own name, is an indiepop fan's dream menu of killer hooks, exuberant confidence, and a proud Scottish brogue.

 

#9 - Post Malone - Beerbongs and Bentleys - If I'm being 100% honest with myself, this has to make my list. Music critics are supposed to hate Post Malone, as he really IS the living embodiment of homogenized mass appeal pop music. I fully understand all the reasons I'm supposed to despise him, but his stupid songs are just too catchy to write off. Once I figure out how to stop playing this record in my car, I'll try really hard to hate it, promise.


#8 - Juliana Hatfield - Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John - Who'd have thunk that one of indie rock's most beguiling chanteuses owes it all to a pop icon? When word got out that Hatfield was recording an album of Olivia Newton-John covers, I expected it to be a tongue-in-cheek wink to 1970s cheesiness. Surprisingly, it ended up a heartfelt tribute to a long-admired hero and breathes new life into some forgotten old school gems.



#7 - Brockhampton - Iridescence - If Brockhampton keep this up, they might actually become the "world's best boyband" they've always claimed to be. A loose collective of rappers, singers, and producers who met on a Kanye West fansite and moved to L.A. with little money and big dreams, Brockhampton's DIY approach to recording and performing has made them one of hip-hop's most exciting and versatile new acts. Even after losing a key member to allegations of sexual misconduct, they still managed to put out a cohesive, fun, emotional record that breaks boundaries and gives hope to every bedroom rapper alive.




#6 - Schizo Fun Addict - El Shoegaze Bossa Nova - Leo D'Onofrio has made a career out of being an internet provocateur. Over the years, he's been a mouthpiece for the birther movement, claimed the moon landings were hoaxed, and even wrote an online opus asserting that the lyrics of The Stone Roses herald the return of the Messiah. But when he's not busy pushing people's buttons, he makes music. GOOD music. His latest project is a fascinating and purposeful melange of tropical rhythms and hazy guitars, like if Pink Floyd got trapped in a studio but all they had for drums were the pre-programmed Latin loops of a cheap Casio keyboard. It's odd as heck, but it REALLY works. 



#5 - Robyn - Honey - It's been a long time since Swedish teen-pop starlet Robyn reinvented herself as the reigning queen of electropop. For her first album in 4 years, she's veered away from brash beats in favor of a warmer, more minimal groove. This lets the songs shine bright, as she chronologically walks us (nay, DANCES us) through the recent split and eventual reconciliation with her fiance. It's a song cycle for the ages AND the dancefloor. There's no bigger force in pop music right now.



#4 - Father John Misty - God's Favorite Customer - It annoys me how much I love this record. Singer/songwriter Josh Tillman's self-importance often climbs from big to bigger to Kanye on the ego scale, and his records are often self-absorbed odes to himself. But they're also genius. No one writes about Josh Tillman like Josh Tillman can, and his confessionals pour out like James Taylor, Elton John, and Billy Joel in a blender of magic and wit. If I was at a party and Tillman walked in, I'd probably leave. But then I'd probably listen to his record all the way home.



#3 - The 1975 - A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships - It's easy to dismiss The 1975. On the surface, they're pretty much the British version of Maroon 5 -- faceless dorky musicians with a pretty-boy frontman who make easy-on-the-ears suburban soul music that your mom would probably enjoy. But hiding behind that pop sheen is nothing less than a modern treatise on technology and the human condition, heartache and longing, addiction and recovery. It's more Radiohead than Maroon 5, just with fewer guitar squawks and evil robot voices. It's the smartest pop record you'll hear all year.



#2 - Janelle Monae - Dirty Computer - No one may ever be worthy enough to climb the stairs and sit on the funky throne that Prince built, but Janelle Monae sure comes close. It's rumored that the Purple One had an uncredited hand in Dirty Computer before his untimely death, and it wouldn't surprise me. With guests ranging from Grimes and Pharrell to Stevie Wonder and Beach Boy Brian Wilson, Monae has created a funk symphony of tolerance, empowerment, pride, acceptance, and love. The world could use more records like this.


#1 - Let's Eat Grandma - I'm All Ears - Two years ago, teenage best friends Jenny Hollingsworth and Rosa Walton stepped out of their bedrooms with a homemade record that took all the trappings of pop music and shook it up like a psychedelic snow globe. Two years later, they've returned with a more professional follow-up that's more polished but no less inhibited. Listening is akin to peering into a secret world of in-jokes and knowing glances - if the girls from "Beautiful Creatures" made music, it would sound like this. Leaping from somber psyche sludge to purified pop at a breakneck schizophrenic pace, the duo capture exactly what it's like to be a teen: Everything is amazing, little things are big deals, and no one wants to follow the rules. For the second time, Let's Eat Grandma have earned my Album of the Year accolade -- and they're STILL teenagers. Let's hope it never stops.

If you give ANY of these records a quick spin, my job is done. NEXT WEEK: A look at the year's best TV offerings.