Wednesday, October 30, 2019

COLUMN: Cats (With A Capital C)


Congratulations, Hollywood. You actually did it.

I'd read some of the reviews and I just couldn't believe it. "The scariest thing you'll ever see," they said. "A new masterpiece in modern horror," some proclaimed. I didn't believe the hype. There was no way it could be more terrifying than the classics. But I've seen it for myself, and they're not lying. Move over, The Exorcist. Make way, The Shining. Step aside, Mr. Krueger. Hollywood has just released the most terrifying film you'll ever see.

I speak, of course, about the brief trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation of "Cats."

Last week, Universal Pictures released this nightmare fuel unto the world with little warning. Mankind was clearly not prepared.

The "Cats" trailer is truly two of the most off-putting minutes you'll experience all year. If a brief montage can elicit this kind of repulsion, the full movie (coming this Christmas) might be the end of us all. You've officially been warned.

It isn't just that you're watching a star-studded cast prance about in cat costumes. That would be bad enough. But the makers of "Cats" then took the footage and added CGI effects to make everyone look like beastly half-naked singing-n-dancing cat aliens from some untapped plane of Hell. If there really IS a secret UFO stronghold under the mountains of Area 51, we now have a pretty good idea what its residents resemble. Finally, the world has answers to questions that have plagued mankind, such as "What would Dame Judi Dench look like with fur and a tail?" (The answer? REALLY creepy.)

It doesn't help that this trailer is for the movie version of my least favorite musical of all time. Even without CGI and fraudulent feline fur, "Cats" creeped me out as a kid and continues to creep me out today.

For one, it has NO plot. Zero narrative. Zilch. Here's what happens in "Cats": cats sing about being cats. The end. Okay, maybe there's a TINY plot. "Cats" is the story of a tribe called the Jellicles, who meet once a year to elect one cat to travel to the Heaviside Layer, where they'll be reborn into a new life. Essentially, the entire musical is nothing but cat-people singing about why they should die -- and frankly, if I was trapped in this plot, I'd be pleading to die, too. In the end, I presume one of them does. I don't know for certain -- I've never made it that far without fleeing for my life and sanity.

I don't know a THING about how "Cats" came to be, but I have a guess. Once upon a time, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote an amazing song called "Memory." It's a boss tune. A real tear-jerking show-stopper fit for a diva. Trouble was, he had no musical to put it in. Just then he looked down, saw his cat sleeping, and thought to himself, "That'll do." "Cats" is a two-hour excuse to hear "Memory" and little else.

At some point, he must have come up with the word "jellicle" and thought it was cool. But nothing rhymes with "jellicle," so most of the songs rhyme "jellicle" with "jellicle." If "Cats" had a drinking game where you had to swig every time someone said "jellicle," the entire audience would be dead of alcohol poisoning fifteen minutes in.

Other songs just abandon rhyme altogether, because why bother? You're already in the theater, you've already paid the money, and you're only there to hear "Memory" in the first place.

Mr. Webber, I know cats. Cats are friends of mine. This is not cats.

Either my cats are really weird (admittedly a possibility) or Andy Webber got it all wrong. Despite my constant encouragement and deepest desires, my cats have never spontaneously broken out in song and dance. At best, I might get a meow, and even that's pushing it.

Maybe its up to me to fix what's broken in "Cats." I might not be able to carry a tune or play a lick of music, but tonight, my cats and I put our heads together and came up with the basics of a musical I like to call "Actual Cats."

Act I, Scene I. The curtain opens to reveal two housecats sleeping on a couch. Upon the sound of a housekey turning a lock, they yawn, stretch, and immediately go into the opening number, "Hungry Songs for Hungry Cats."

This is followed quickly by other memorable sing-along numbers, such as:

"Back To Sleep"
"Guess Where I Peed (It's Not the Litterbox)"
"I Know You Have Food, Where Is The Food?"
"I'm Not Staring, I'm Judging You"

Act II is a little more emotional, with songs like "Pet Me Pet Me DON'T PET ME THERE" and the dramatic tale based on a true story, "I Don't Know This Girl You Invited Over (So I Pooped In Her Shoe.)"

Then, once the audience is deeply invested, hit 'em with the show-stopper. "Hunnnngry! It's so eeeasy to feeeed me / When you feeeed me, I'll understand what happiness issss, tilll the food bowl... FILLS AGAIN!" The audience weeps. Someone hacks up a hairball. Curtain.

Easy peasy. No need for a Heaviside layer or cat reaping ceremony. No one had to hear the word "jellicle." No one had to see a furry Dame Judi Dench. Dear American Theater League, you may send my Tony to the usual address.

COLUMN: Too Hot


Well, well. We meet again, empty white Notepad screen.

I can't wait to share the super exciting column topic I have this week -- except I don't have one.

Here's the thing. I usually write about what I see, where I go, and the things I do. But THIS week, the only place I've gone is my couch, and the only thing I've done is sit here on my e'er-expanding fanny. Sorry, but it's just too hot to do anything else, and I have ZERO patience for triple-digit forecasts.

I just looked out my window and witnessed a dude jogging by. In these temps, that's just death-wish levels of insanity. It's hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk right now. At least I think it is. It's too hot to go outside and actually try it. But that's not gonna stop Joggerman. He had a clear look of superiority on his face as he proudly strode past all shirtless and self-righteous. He's not gonna let a little thing like an Excessive Heat Warning interfere with HIS exercise regimen.

As a rule, I don't generally wish ill fortune upon people, but I've gotta say, it would probably serve him right if he doubled over and started power barfing all over the sidewalk. Well, as long as it's not MY sidewalk. If it's hot enough to fry an egg, I don't wanna know what it would do to THAT. Eww.

Give us chubby nerds one bit of credit: We know how to stay indoors, especially when outdoors feels like a torture sauna. I'm supposed to be skilled and gifted at wasting time watching bad TV and obsessing over good video games, but I've already got cabin fever. How does this happen? A few years ago, I broke my ankle and spent the better part of six weeks surfing this couch with few complaints. Why can I not spend six hours on it today without the walls closing in?

But hope is not lost. On my lap sits a machine of infinite power, with access to all the knowledge of the world and at least 10,000 cat memes. If there's an answer to these heat-addled doldrums, surely it can be found on the internet. Back in a second...

BOOM. It took less than five minutes. I just went to a self-help site and pulled up an article entitled "GREAT THINGS TO DO ON A HOT DAY." Shall we dive in?

- "Cool off in the nearest stream or river by kayaking." Umm, okay. First off, don't own a kayak. Second off, can't swim. Third off, this author's clearly never endured a spring flood in the Quad Cities, because the nearest river is barely in its banks and still reeks of unhinged raw sewage. This helpful hint might as well just say, "Nothing to do on a hot day? Why not drown yourself in fetid feces water?" Hard pass.

- "Fill a child's swimming pool with ice and jump in!" It's so hot outside I'm not entirely sure that a bag of ice wouldn't just turn to steam the second I walk outside. Plus, this solution would first require me to roam the streets approaching random children and asking to borrow their pools. Clearly not a good look. Shane-ger danger.

- "Grab some water pistols, fill them up, and shoot your friends!" Because it always ends well when you go running around the neighborhood brandishing a mock weapon. That's never gotten anyone in trouble. Pass.

- "If you have a dog, give it a bath! Watch it run around like crazy trying to dry off!" I don't have a dog. I have cats. Specifically, I have cats smart enough to hate stupid activities like baths. If I tried to give my cats a bath, they'd watch ME run around like crazy trying to find something to stop the bleeding. No thanks.

- "Put on your favorite beach music and dance like a crazy person!" The music's already playing. In my house, it's never NOT playing. But the sight of me dancing is too embarassing for ANYONE to witness, including my cats or, God forbid, myself should I accidentally side-eye a mirror. Absolutely not.

- "Get in your car and drive somewhere you've never been before, somewhere cooler!" It's a 22.5 hour drive to Lake Windigo, Ontario. That's the furthest point north of here accessible by car. It's only 8 degrees cooler there, though admittedly you might catch a refreshing breeze whilst running for your life from angry moose.

But just when I thought this list didn't know me very well, I think I just found one of their pieces of advice that might be doable:

- "Stay in, write an opinion column, and see if your local newspaper will publish it."

Hi, I'm Shane, and my opinion is that it's too [expletive] hot outside. Let's see if my local newspaper will publish this.

COLUMN: Love Island


Sometimes it's easy to believe the world is beyond saving.

After all, the evidence in support of a society beyond redemption is staggering. Half of us hate the other half for entirely asinine reasons. Social media was supposed to unite the world, but it just gives us new and exciting ways to argue with strangers. Taxes are rising. Businesses are closing. Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. Tom Cruise. The future looks grim. There are some who say we're done for.

Not me. I'm an optimist. This morning, I watched a man nearly trip over himself to hold a door for an elderly lady. On my lunch hour, a car backed up an entire lane of bridge traffic just to let me make a left turn. At the gas station, a stranger complimented another stranger on her shoes. We as a people are innately good, and goodness is always worth saving. Humanity is strong and intelligent and one day, we -- or at least our children's children's children -- are going to live in world of positivity, equality, intellect, and hope. This is what I believe.

Then I turned on the TV and watched "Love Island" and I take it all back. Society has failed. We're doomed.

I have no patience for schlocky reality dating shows, but I needed to check out "Love Island." The British version has been a ratings juggernaut and the talk around every UK water cooler. When CBS announced the risky commitment of launching the American version five nights a week all summer long, I had to see what the fuss was all about. It must be great fun, no?

No, indeed.

I've now watched three episodes of "Love Island," and I'm honestly not even sure WHAT I've been watching, other than I definitely feel icky for doing it. It is a reality show? A dating game? Or has CBS just finally figured out how to air family-friendly pornography in primetime? I dunno what it is, other than gross.

Today's young people have advantages we never did. They've been raised in a tech-savvy world of limitless potential, walking around with instant access to all the knowledge of the world right in their pockets. Surely this new generation must be the smartest, most worldly, woke creatures ever raised on this planet, right? Just imagine the important discourse, soul-sharing, and refined conversations a modern dating show would contain.

Then chuck it all out the window, because here's how "Love Island" starts:

"Hi, I'm Caro! I'm 21, I'm a marketing student. I recently just started loving my hair, so I'm, like, really trying to own it, and so that would be my number one best quality!"

Within minutes, "Love Island" has already set us back as a society by about a kajillion years. Caro was quickly followed by Alana.

"I think my personality is a good quality," she announced to the camera. "Well, and I've got a nice butt! I really do! I'm just gonna let Jesus take the wheel!" I'm hoping if Jesus took the wheel, he'd immediately pop a U-turn and drive as far away from Love Island as he could.

In a post #metoo world, how could something this insipid, shallow, and sexist ever get green-lighted? Then I rapidly discovered it's not just the girls who are an embarassment. No, thankfully "Love Island" is an equal opportunity flaming dumpster pile.

Ladies, meet Michael. "Being this good looking is a gift and a curse," he philosophizes. "People make assumptions and judge, like I'm this dude who's way into myself. That's just not me. I also love animals." Clearly Michael's a catch, or possibly someone you could catch something from.

The plot of "Love Island" is simple. Painfully simple. Five impossibly attractive women are instantly paired with five gym-raised dudes and forced to live together in a tacky villa in Fiji. Remember that 80s music video that ruined the career of Billy Squier? The one full of bad decisions where he pranced around a neon set that looked thrown together by the decorators of "Miami Vice" during a bad cocaine binge? 

"Love Island" is like being stuck in that video forever, except Billy at least had the decency to don a pink t-shirt. On "Love Island," shirts and pants are clearly optional, and most residents opt out. The rest of the show is just skeevy makeout sessions, muscle flexing, catfights, and camera crews with itchy trigger fingers on the zoom button. In the end, somebody wins $100,000 but I still have no idea how. If this is what modern love's all about, then consider me perfectly cool with being eternally unlucky in love.

Maybe one day someone will green-light "Nerd Island," where human beings with actual personalities sit around watching anime, playing video games, and judging others not by the niceness of their butts but by truly important standards, such as the contents of their record collections. I'd watch that show. Heck, I'd go ON that show.

If "Love Island" becomes a hit over here, I'm officially pronouncing society beyond redemption. PLEASE tell me you have better things to do with your summer than sit around and watch vapid hot people be vapid and hot. Don't worry, I'll tell you everything you missed later. I mean, SOMEONE has to keep tabs on this show for the survival of mankind. These are the sacrifices I make for you, for journalism, and for the common good. Now if you'll excuse me, its almost 7 p.m., gotta go. Caro's going on a private date with Cormac. SQUEEEEEAL!

COLUMN: Blue Angels


I may have had a full-on Top Gun moment last week, folks.

At least, I THINK I had a Top Gun moment. Truth be told, I have no idea what a Top Gun moment even is, because I've never seen Top Gun. Like all movies starring a certain shiny-veneered thespian with the unmitigated gall to have once married MY future wife Katie Holmes, I took a pass.

Here is precisely everything I know about Top Gun: Some dudes fly planes. Berlin sings what might be the only 80s song I truly despise. Someone feels the need for speed. And worst of all, I'm pretty sure Tom Cruise's character does NOT die, and I hate movies with sad endings.

Still, I think I had a moment that captured the essence of Top Gun.

It was lunchtime, and I was leaving the office in search of fast food. I'd been listening to a quiet podcast on the commute that morning and had left the volume on my car stereo fully jacked. When I turned the key, it kicked on LOUD. But instead of the quiet podcast, it defaulted to a dance music channel on satellite radio, and suddenly vintage house music was blaring out my speakers at an entirely inappropriate, unprofessional, and unhealthy decibel level.

In other words, it was awesome.

Instantly I was swept back to my raver days of 1992, when my biggest concern in life was funky dope beats and how to make them funkier. For a fleeting moment, I didn't care what any of my co-workers or our customers may have thought (apologies all around.) The publisher of the paper could have been pulling into the lot with Donald Trump and Joe Biden for all I cared. For just a moment, I was going to sit there, close my eyes, lean back, and let the bass thump. But that's when a new noise popped in. Somewhere behind the familiar oontz-oontz-oontz of some sweaty French DJ, I heard it.

rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Man, I didn't remember the bassline in this song being that wicked?

rrrrrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRR

Suddenly I realized what was happening. "No way," I thought to myself as I sprung open the car door and leapt out.

RRRRRRRRRRRROOOOOOOAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!

And that's when my subwoofer immediately lost the good fight to the majestic thunder of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels searing through the sky overhead in a formation so tight it looked like they were only inches apart. The fly-by was so low I could actually see their little heads in the cockpits. Like that stupid Berlin song, it literally took my breath away.

As it turns out, I have an instinctive reaction to witnessing a squadron of F/A-18 Hornets soundtracked to wicked house music. And that reaction, friends, was to yell "YEAAAAH!" and throw a clenched fist triumphantly to the heavens. I've never seen Top Gun, but that HAS to be something Tom Cruise would do, right?

Now, to any non-insane person who may have happened upon our parking lot at that moment, what they clearly witnessed was a sad fat man having a spontaneous midlife crisis. But to me, I was living the dream -- well, until I sheepishly realized how ridiculous I must have looked before quickly returning my arm to a normal and decidedly less triumphant position, turning down the volume on my stereo, and self-consciously driving away.

But let's be honest, the Blue Angels are rad. As far as I'm concerned, they can headline the air show EVERY year. I've witnessed them a handful of times, and they never fail to amaze. These are military folk who have crossed the line from heroes to death-defying lunatics, and I love 'em for it. No words can properly express the respect I have for the speed, precision, and technical might of those magnificent men & women and their flying machines.

There's nothing like witnessing aeronautics in motion -- provided I'm safely on terra firma. Flying is not for me. I lose my stomach when I reach the second rung of a ladder, let alone pulling 5.2 G's in a vertical ascent to 8000 feet. Occasionally the Angels invite local journalists up for an aerial cruise. Not that they'd ever turn to the dude who writes about cats and bad TV, but trust me when I say they can spare the call. I guarantee I'd be the first ridealong to use the barf bag before the plane even fires up.

I am, however, a fan of watching others defy gravity. Youtube offers a surplus of amazing flight videos, from the Blue Angels to beyond. One of my favorites is a guy named Tucker Gott who fills his Youtube channel with paramotoring videos. That's the hobby and/or suicidal deathwish where you put on a parachute, strap a gas-powered fan to your back, and literally wing it. His selfie videos, where he's basically open-air cruising at 8000 feet in a wind-fueled lawn chair, are unreal. Except they ARE real, which is even more unreal.

In this world, there are some who slip the surly bonds of Earth and forge a new path through the heavens -- and there are others who yell "YEAAAAH!" and fist-pump like no one else is watching. I'm pretty sure I know which camp I fall in. Thanks for a great air show, Blue Angels. You're welcome back anytime I need a Top Gun moment. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a huge stack of Tom Cruise movies to not watch. 

COLUMN: Dear Uncle "Jack"


Dear Uncle "Jack,"

We need to talk.

You've been my uncle for most of the years I've been alive, and for that I'm grateful. You've always treated me with kindness and a smile, and I love spending time with you guys when you come to town. You're a great uncle and I'm proud to say we're family.

But I'm a little less proud to have you as a Facebook friend.

I realized long ago that we're NEVER going to agree on politics. Every time I log onto social media, I brace for whatever offensive memes, cartoons, and manifestos you decide to share with the world. Your goal is to provoke, and you do a pretty good job. I've come to learn that the best course of action is usually to bite my tongue and resist the urge to return fire. Whenever someone disagrees with you, it just fans the flame and inspires more eye-rolling content.

I'm never going to change your opinion when it comes to politics, and you're never going to change mine. So rather than waste our time starting flame wars on Facebook, it's usually best if I just ignore your rants and keep my trap shut. Trust me, I've become pretty adept at swiping past your many posts.

But I can't swipe this week away. You can rag on #fakenews and invent Benghazi conspiracies all the live-long day for all I care. But now, you've decided to celebrate Pride month by unleashing a daily stream of gay-bashing, and I can't ignore hateful nonsense like this. So let's have a chat.

I'm not gay, but I try to be an ally to my friends in the LGBTQ+ community. I support their rights, but I also support freedom of speech. As long as it doesn't escalate into threats, hate speech, or libel, you have the right to express your opinion on anything you want. That's what makes America so great. When those hateful clowns from Westboro show up to picket funerals, most of us justifiably want to punch their lights out. I choose to ignore their despicable rhetoric and instead celebrate that we live in a country where even ignorant buffoons have the right to speak their minds (or lack thereof).

I get that you have some religious issues with "alternative lifestyles." That's your right, too. I'm no theologian, and I'm not qualified to argue on the accuracy of the specific translations of those one or two Old Testament verses you repeatedly fall back on. But I'm pretty sure using the Bible to justify and fuel hatred and intolerance is the exact opposite of everything I know about Christianity. Jesus said nothing in the New Testament about being gay. If it wasn't a big enough deal for him to weigh in on, why do you feel the need?

You don't like gay people. Well, I don't like onions -- but you don't see me outside of McDonalds onion-shaming everyone who walks out with a Quarter Pounder. If you think it's wrong to be gay, then my best advice to you is: don't be gay. Is there really need for more discussion? No one is trying to indoctrinate you or your grandkids into the gay cabal. If you're not gay, then the gay agenda shouldn't concern you. Love who you love, and let others love who they love. Everyone lives happily ever after, and I can go back to checking Facebook without wincing.

The other day, you asserted that being gay is "a choice." I hold a different opinion, and so does most of the country, and so does science. But for the sake of argument, let's do an experiment real quick. If you're certain that a person "chooses" to be gay, then put your money where your mouth is and give it a whirl. For the next five minutes, choose to be gay. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone. I dunno, go find a picture of the dude who plays Aquaman and see if you can choose to be attracted to him.

No luck? I guess this means one of two things. Either (a) you're more of a Clooney type, or (b) maybe there's a teensy tiny chance that folks don't get to choose who they're attracted to.

What really made me write this column, though, was this gem you posted today: "Dear LGBT, if you don't want to be treated differently for being gay, then stop acting like being gay somehow makes you special. Your sexual orientation is neither an achievement nor a holiday." This, more than anything else, shows how much you're missing the point. Pride has nothing to do with wanting to be seen as special. It's about wanting to be seen as equal. It's about bravery and strength. It's about taking pride in your true self. It's about tolerance and acceptance and celebrating the diversity that makes life so rich.

Equality shouldn't be an argument. It should be common sense. I have friends who are straight, gay, transgendered, and some whose orientation I don't know or care about. I just call them friends, and that's enough for me. I'm not a soapbox columnist who writes impassionated pieces that inspire social change. I'm the guy who writes about cats and reality TV. I'm the guy unashamed to quote Taylor Swift -- and to that extent, Uncle Jack: "You need to calm down, you're being too loud."

I hope everybody had a wonderful Pride month. I see that July is National Aunt & Uncle Month. I'd send you a card, Uncle Jack, but I don't want to unfairly insinuate that being my uncle somehow makes you special. After all, having me as a nephew was a choice, and your familial orientation is neither an achievement nor a holiday.     

You're my uncle and I love you. You'll always be family. But I just wanted you to know why you're no longer my Facebook friend.

Friday, October 25, 2019

COLUMN: Ghost Hunting


Summer brings to mind many adjectives: carefree, lazy, relaxing, tropical, sunny, delightful, etc. Thus far, mine can be described as spooky. And perhaps a little stupid.

In my never-ending quest for personal growth and long-term success, I've set a series of important goals for myself this summer. Well, okay, ONE goal: It's time to get my DVR queue down to a manageable level.

This is the ONE time of year when I get a respite from my arduous and time-consuming TV watching schedule. We're in that magic window between the end of season finales and the start of my true summer shame: Big Brother. It's the perfect time to watch all the shows that have been gathering and taking up space on my DVR.

There's just one problem: it's mostly all quite terrible stuff. I watch all the good quality shows live, which means I leave the DVR to tape all my guilty pleasures. My DVR presently sits at 98% capacity. And I'd reckon about 95% of that 98% is nothing but shows about ghosts, UFOs, and sasquatches. I realize this sort of television fare is best suited for times a bit more Halloween-y, but some of these shows have been stacking up SINCE Halloween, so I need to get my summer paranormal on, y'all.

I like to think that I'm not a stupid person. That said, I DO enjoy my share of stupid shows about things that go bump in the night. Is most of it ridiculous hocum designed to get ratings and appeal to the lowest common denominator of humanity? Absolutely. Do I still watch it religiously? You betcha. And now I have somewhere in the range of 150 hours of this nonsense to catch up on, all so I can clear up room to record even MORE nonsense.

So while you've been enjoying nights out with good weather, great friends, and grilled food, I've been sitting here watching people take electromagnetic readings of door handles to prove the existence of bogeymen. Good times.

I'm starting to realize I can only suspend my disbelief for short doses. The more of these shows I watch, the more ridiculous they become -- and this is a genre that can already make the leap from scary to silly in a heartbeat. Among the worst offenders is a show featuring a woman with purported psychic powers who enters supposedly haunted homes and communicates with the dead. Having spent last night binge-watching, I have questions.

Each episode follows the same rough outline. We meet the scared homeowner who goes into great detail about their haunted domicile. The poor family is usually being plagued by unexplained noises, strange shadows, and the ever-popular "feeling like we're being watched." Sometimes they report seeing ghostly figures and apparitions popping 'round to say hello.

Then it's later that night. The psychic lady enters the house and says something ominous like, "THIS IS NOT GOOD!" before regaling us with tales of the evil and malicious spiritual forces at play.

Here's my question: I've seen umpteen episodes of this show, and I've yet to see her encounter ONE friendly ghost. Is there some kind of afterlife prerequisite that all ghosts must be demented or have some kind of malicious murderous agenda? As far as I'm concerned, this would be a bummer.

I've always hated change. When I'm forcibly shuffled off this mortal coil, if a white light shows up to take me away to the loving oneness of the universe, there's a pretty good chance I'll go, "Thanks, I'm good. I'd rather just stick around my living room if that's cool." I've always thought I'd be a fairly decent ghost to have around, but I'd clearly be a letdown if any psychic show came a-calling.

"I'm afraid you were right. Your house is haunted by the unholy presence of a dark spirit."
"Horrors! What does it want?"
"Let me attempt to communicate with him."
"I'm scared! What do you want, o spirit demon?"
"He says... he says... he says the band you were listening to last night was prosaic and derivative. He wants to make you a mixtape. He also hopes you could leave your TV on HBO. He wants to discuss the ending of 'Game of Thrones' with you."
"Oh no."
"THIS IS NOT GOOD!"

Pity whoever buys my house.

At the end of every episode, the psychic then tells the homeowners how to rid themselves of their otherworldly infestations. This can involve anything from salt to prayers to exorcisms and/or shamanic rituals -- all your standard ghostbusting checklist type stuff. But in the episode I watched last night, she produced a vial of something called "tar water" supposedly culled from one of the more voodooey bayous of Louisiana.

"One drop of this in each room," she explains, "and all spirits will be banished."

Well, that's handy. But wait, ALL spirits? So shouldn't tar water be the answer to every one of these episodes? In fact, shouldn't every episode from this point on last for exactly one scene?

"My house is haunted. Please help!"
"Here. Have some tar water."
"Much better. Thanks. Goodbye."

This might make for a slightly less entertaining program, but clearly a more efficient one -- not to mention a much-needed boon to the struggling tar water industry. Most importantly, it'd sure take up less space on the DVR. TV should hire me. It'd give me something to do this summer -- looks like I may have some free time on my hands.
   

COLUMN: Wasp Nest


Help me if you can, Quad Cities. I'm feeling down.

I'm working on this column Tuesday night. As I type these words, those lucky and/or wealthy enough to have tickets are presently at the TaxSlayer Center breathing rarified Beatle air. Sir Paul's in town while the biggest music geek I know -- namely, ME -- sits on my couch making a pouty face.

I shouldn't complain. I've seen my fair share of amazing concerts. Plus my couch is comfier than the seats at the TaxSlayer, and I should be grateful just to have a roof over my head and a place to call my own.

There's just one problem. My place is under siege.

I had no idea until last week. I was in the yard checking on the evergreen tree I've been babying since I moved in. But then something caught my eye, I looked up, and that's when things got fuzzy.

I've never fainted before in my life, but I'm pretty sure this was close. I may have forgotten to breathe for a bit. After thirty seconds of paralyzing fear, I blinked, ran full bore inside the house, and commenced freaking out.

There, hanging on the side of my house, was a wasp nest. No, I'm underselling it. This was a wasp metropolis, larger than a basketball, attached to MY safe space. At least I thought it was my safe space. It turns out my confines are no longer friendly.

Nothing makes an afternoon fly by quite like crippling irrational fear, and nothing turns me into a cowardly idiot faster than insects that fly and sting. If a bee gets near me, all rational thought ceases. I will run and scream like an idiot. I have tried to jump from moving vehicles. I once had a fast food employee think I was having a stroke in the drive-thru lane because a bee landed on my shirt and the only noise I could make was "Gfffraak!"

There is reason to my apiphobia. When I was little, I stepped on the wrong barn board and some angry bumblebees sent me to the emergency room when I puffed out with hives and my throat almost closed. Honey used to do the same, but nowadays I can eat it without problem, so there's a fair chance I've outgrown my allergy -- but I'm in no hurry to find out.

Wikipedia says that "unreasonable fear of bees in humans may have a detrimental effect on ecology," to which I say, "Sorry, ecology." I still want all bees to die. Look, I get it. Bees pollinate flowers and make honey. They're nature's little helpers who also occasionally inject us with venomous poison. But as far as I can see, there's no good argument for wasps. Wasps are just mean little attitude problems whose sole purpose is to make me act like a ninny and lose bladder control. Wasps are the worst.

I sent two texts. The first was to my friend Jason:

"Giant wasp nest on house. Will never sleep again. Their house now. Its been a good run. Goodbye forever."

The other was to my mommy.

"Wasps now own my house. Prepare bedroom, moving home. Buy cat litter."

Thankfully, Jason showed up before I could pack a suitcase. "Let me see this huuuuge nest," he said with an eyeroll until I pointed at it from the safety of my living room.

"Whoa!" he exclaimed. "You weren't kidding. That thing's huge!"

"I KNOW," I said, because, well, I knew.

"It's also vacant."

I crept around the house and steeled myself for another glimpse into my worst nightmare. Sure enough, the nest was empty. In fact, the bottom half of it was gone. All that was left were the desolate ruins of Wasptopia. I wasn't sure whether I felt relief or anger. The imminent threat was gone, but did I really spend 2018 as the unknowing landlord to hordes of my mortal enemy?

One thing was certain - this nest was getting evicted. The only thing I owned capable of reaching the nest was a feather duster with a telescoping handle, so if you happened to be driving through Rock Island and witnessed two weirdos playing the least manly game of aerial croquet imaginable, my sincere apologies. After a few misguided whacks, we brought it down.

And by "we" I mean Jason. I was cowering a half block away. Jason grabbed the nest and brought it over.

"See how cool it is? Look how much work they put into the creation of these things."

"Yes," I replied. "Behold this majestic and wondrous creation of nature. NOW BURN IT WITH FIRE."

I've had my fill of insects this season and it's only June. I've fought bagworms, gnats, wasps, and now tardy mayflies are coming around. Maybe it's a good thing I skipped the concert. I'm tired enough of bugs. The last thing I need are Beatles.

COLUMN: Bagworms


It's been a rough spring.

Record precipitation has ravaged the heartland with unspeakable flooding. We've seen neighborhoods evacuated, businesses shuttered, roads closed, and farmland devastated. I still have friends wading through toxic muck just to get to their front doors. They say there's "no such thing as bad press," but I'd reckon the folks who work at HESCO might have a different opinion. It's been (and continues to be) a big mess.

I'm lucky enough to reside on higher ground with a dry basement (knock on wood and/or concrete.) I haven't been completely unaffected by the floods of 2019, but once you see submerged cars and underwater basements, it's hard to complain about the extra eight minutes it currently takes me to get to work.

But I think we can all agree on the worst part of this year's flooding: THE STUPID GNATS.

When nature rained on us for a month straight, it seemed cruel. When the sun finally emerged but you still don't want to leave the house because of gnat swarms? Well, that's just sadistic. I can't open my back door without a half dozen of those winged wonders making it inside, and I don't need my geriatric cats attempting triple salchows trying to catch the microscopic monsters.

We'll beat the flood and we can beat gnats, too. I'm thinking either a DEET airdrop or a mass deployal of whatever creatures feast on gnats, unless said creatures are grosser than gnats (i.e. spiders need not apply.)

At great personal expense, I can proudly report that I've single-handedly lowered the local gnat population by five. That's the number I've accidentally inhaled and/or swallowed this week. That's 0.03 needless calories I've consumed in the name of gnat-destroying heroics. Remember that when you see me. I'm not chubby -- I'm a hero.

Unfortunately, gnats haven't been my only insect problem this year. Nature is coming at me full bore.

It was only days after I moved into my house that I first noticed the wee little volunteer evergreen sprouting up beside my house. I couldn't bring myself to pull it. I was trying to make a home, and so was this tree. A decade later, it's tall and proud. It's too close to the house, so I have trim it back every year, but it's part of my life. I was even excited to see little pine cones on it this winter.

Until, that is, a friend corrected me. "Dude, those are cocoons." Eww. Kinda gross, but maybe I helped bring a few more butterflies into the world. This spring, I spent a boring rainy day researching cocoons on the internet, and I'm glad I did. Turns out I wasn't making butterflies after all. I was making something way more disgusting. Eww, indeed.

If your life has been torn asunder by the floods of 2019, be thankful of one thing. No matter how bad things are, you're not an evergreen bagworm. It turns out my lucky tree's been infested by freeloading squatters with about the worst existence imaginable.

They start life as little wormy caterpillars who seek out delicious trees. Once a home/victim has been found, they eat the tree up, all the while crafting and lugging around a little bag made from tree bark, dirt, and silk. With bellies full, they hang the bag on the tree and crawl inside. If you're lucky enough to be a male bagworm, you emerge as a mouth-less moth with little time and one goal (hint: it involves the music of Barry White.) You might not have a mouth, but you DO have an "appendage" so impressive that you can land on another bag and impregnate the female without even stepping inside. You are what James Brown wrote "Sex Machine" about. But you have no mouth, so then you die.

Female bagworms don't get to be moths. They just chill inside the bag hoping for a gentleman caller before they die. If they were lucky enough to get lucky, their dead bodies could harbor up to 4,000 babies who eventually emerge and begin the process anew.

So if you're feeling down from the flood, at least be grateful you're not walking around building and carrying your own coffin before sealing yourself inside and hoping you get sexually violated so that one day your children will eat their way out of your carcass. That's horror-movie level terrifying, and this demented miracle of nature has been playing out some four feet away from where I watch bad TV every night.

The best way to curb a bagworm infestation is to pluck the bags from the tree before the next generation comes out to say hello. I went into immediate action -- specifically, the action of telling my lawn guy to get a-plucking. Hopefully we got them in time, but I need to monitor the tree for further signs of infestation.

That's what I was doing last week when I happened to look up into the face of pure evil. This was followed by me making a noise like "Gahhhhhk," turning pale white, and almost cold fainting. More on that next week, as Shane's Fun With Nature continues.

COLUMN: UFO Twister


I've never been a believer in making a "bucket list" of things I'd like to do before I die. I live in steadfast denial of the aging process, and any admission of life having an expiration date would be a clear concession to the grim reaper that I refuse to make.

That said, there's two things I've always yearned to see while I'm around. This weekend, I almost checked both off my list.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again because I'm quite possibly very stupid: I want to see a tornado with my own eyes.

They're deadly, yes. But tornados are also spell-binding. They seem to defy all laws of reason and physics. When we go about our day, we're used to the world behaving in a certain way. For instance, we can generally rely on the ground staying on the ground and the sky staying in the sky. But sometimes, the sky gets super angry that it has to stay in the sky and instead points a swirling finger of destruction at the ground to up-end our lives.

I've always been one of those idiots who wants to run TOWARDS a tornado, not away from them (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, unless you want your home to be Oz.) I grew up in a house that was virtually tornado-proof, so maybe that's why I've always found them more fascinating than terrifying. My current house would probably come down with little more than a huff and a puff, but it hasn't stopped me watching every idiot storm chaser on Youtube with envy.

As much as I yearn to witness one, the reality of tornados is sobering and horrifying. A few years ago, I saw the damage firsthand to homes in Fruitland, IA and Washington, IL, and there are no words. My thoughts and sympathies go out to everyone in Kansas, Ohio, and obviously right here who've been affected by storms, floods, and this spring's historic outbreak of twisters. As I type this Thursday night, tornado warnings are popping off in Iowa for yet another round of damage and terror. If this is the new normal, it's a scary normal.

I almost had a front row seat. Occasionally in this column, I've poked fun at a certain regional meterologist who likes to call snow "white gold" and cheers on blizzards with enthusiasm. As it turns out, he's a great guy who's just an unapologetic weather geek. Every spring, he takes a pimped-out van on a week-long chase across Tornado Alley. This year, he invited me along for the ride. I desperately wanted to go, but schedules were tight and my only option would have been driving out and meeting up somewhere mid-chase that hopefully wasn't in the path of funnel. 

It wasn't to be. When you're storm chasing, the storms call the shots. This season, the storms called him to eastern Colorado, a bit far me to play catch-up. No storm chasing for me this year. Instead, I sought solace with friends at my favorite place in the world: Codfish Hollow. If you haven't been to the farm-turned-concert-venue in rural Muscatine, you're missing one of the greatest treasures we have.

There we were, standing in a field next to a rustic barn blaring decidedly NON-rustic rhythms, when my friend pointed and went, "What's THAT?"

"That" turned out to be the second thing I've always wanted to see. In the northern sky, three equidistant lights were evenly gliding from west to east, and three things became instantly clear: it was unidentified, it was flying, and it was an object. Missing my chance to see a tornado sucked, but a witnessing a UFO was the best consolation prize I could ask for.

It wasn't even a clear night. Only a few stars were visible, but these lights were almost as bright as the Big Dipper itself. Was it three objects or one BIG object (aka the mothership where they take the abducted for routine probing purposes)? I stood transfixed as they disappeared into the horizon before springing into professional journalist mode. Thankfully, my years at the newspaper taught me proper interviewing technique in times of crisis.

I approached a couple of potential witnesses and calmly asked, "OMIGOD DID YOU JUST SEE THE [EXPLETIVE] UFO IN THE [EXPLETIVE] SKY JUST NOW?!?!?!?!"

So, fellow Codfishians, if a chubby insane person accosted you this weekend with tales of aliens in the night sky, he did NOT, for the record, take too much brown acid. He really DID see a [EXPLETIVE] UFO in the [EXPLETIVE] sky.

And I did, for approximately 16 hours. Some of you spent last Monday with family and friends on a day of rememberance and togetherness. Others may have spent the day submitting field reports to MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network. That's where I discovered five other identical reports that night, from Iowa to Michigan, reporting the exact same sighting. Whatever I saw was big.

And it was. While we were dodging storms and firing up barbecues, Elon Musk and his SpaceX team were releasing sixty new broadband satellites to orbit Earth. Before the satellites were properly positioned, they were released low enough to be seen by the naked eye. The mass of lights nearly sent the Netherlands into a panic. By the time they orbited back over North America, you could only see three of them. I found video of the flyover from a SpaceX fan in Chicago, and it was exactly what we'd witnessed.

So our UFO wasn't actually a UFO, but it was a FO regardless, and a day with a FO is better than no FO, I always say. Maybe one day I'll see something truly unidentified in the night sky. Maybe one day I'll be able to go on a real storm chase. Until then, tornados and UFOs remain on the bucket list I'll never admit to making because I plan to live forever unless an alien or a twister gets me.

COLUMN: Influencers


Last week, I did the unthinkable. I broke my number one columnist cardinal rule: I became an old curmudgeon.

When I was a kid, I used to read newspapers and bristle at their columnists. Why? Because I'd invariably run into some old fuddy-duddy trying and failing to understand youth culture. Every week, I'd read how I was somehow taking life for granted, or that I didn't know how to communicate, or that my driving sucked.

For the past 25 years, I've been lucky enough to have a front row seat to the newspaper industry, and I know how important it is to get younger generations to read, enjoy, and engage with our products. And a good way to NOT do that is to fill pages with some crusty Andy Rooney-type telling them they don't know anything. I swear half the reason I wanted to be a columnist was out of spite over those clueless columnists of yore. I vowed to be the voice of the younger generation.

There's just one problem with that -- no matter how much I may try to deny it, none of us stay the younger generation forever. I'm now a voice of a boring middle-aged generation, and more often than I care to admit, sometimes we don't understand youth culture. Last week, I spent a whole column trying and failing to appreciate TikTok, a phone app that seems endlessly entertaining to anyone under 30 and endlessly stupid to the rest of us.

Even though I might not fully understand today's kids, I hope I'm still a few years away from full-on Andy Rooneying. But while I'm on a roll, I may as well dip my toes in the curmudgeony sea one last time and tell you about another thing I simply don't understand.

My overall plan for world domination is clearly going slower than anticipated, but should I ever find myself sitting on the Iron Throne in judgement of the entire world, I'm pretty sure I know who would be first against the wall when my revolution comes: anyone who states without shame or embarassment that their occupation is "social media influencer." Second against the wall would be anyone who's actually influenced by these people.

I'm still not quite sure what it means to be a social media influencer, but I think it works like this: You join Instagram and Youtube and TikTok and amass a ton of likes and online followers. If you get a big enough audience, eventually companies will pay you to shill their products. Just like that, geeking out on Facebook is now your CAREER.

Some social media stars become full-on celebrities despite not having done anything worth celebrating. And now that big business has realized they can make a buck off these amateur celebrities, the internet's become full of phony pitchmen posting infomercials disguised as entertainment.

For a while, I regularly followed an Ohio family who boast over a million subscribers to their Youtube channel. Almost every day, they'd post a fairly amusing video of their daily adventures. It was fun and endearing to watch this average family achieve internet fame by basically just being themselves, and all the while the overall message was positive and uplifting. You couldn't be in a bad mood while watching their videos.

But over the past year, things changed a bit. They'd never admit it publicly, but it's fairly clear they've grown sick of the schtick. Honestly, who could blame them? Filming original content and doing something entertaining every single day has to wear on you with time. Their once daily videos became weekly, and now sometimes they go weeks without posting.

But no one in their family holds actual jobs. Their income depends entirely on their online sponsorships and merchandising. So now, whenever they DO post a new video, you can almost guarantee a sponsor has mandated it. How can you tell? Because the product placement in their videos has become obvious and awkward. They still film themselves goofing around, but now it always includes some cringe-worthy scene like, "Hey guys, before we head out today, we should replenish with a glass of Vitafuel! Mmm, that Vitafuel sure is tasty and healthy!"

When you know the only reason they're uploading videos is to earn a buck, it takes the fun out of the whole thing. I'm half expecting them to introduce their new neighbors, Flo from Progressive and Vince the Sham-Wow Guy.

Yet somehow these social media influencers remain popular, presumably because they're actually influencing people, and that's scary. If you've ever bought something because some Youtuber told you to, seek help.

The list of "influencers" in my life are short: Mom & Dad Brown (although don't ever tell them I admitted to it.) The author Douglas Adams. Monty Python's Flying Circus. Chris Lagrow, who taught me how to DJ. The Columbia House tape club, who showed me a world of music beyond what I was hearing on the radio. A few friends. A couple teachers. A co-worker or two. And nary one Kardashian in the mix.

I'm not slighting advertising one bit. Advertising pays my bills. Consumers need to know about new products, and new businesses need a way to get their message out. But when you're living in a mansion and demanding VIP treatment because you wore a watch in an Instagram photo, I'm pretty sure I hate you.

Maybe social media influencers are awful corporate shills. Maybe I'm just jealous. After all, I've had this corner of newspaper real estate for over a decade, and I've never used it to plug a product for personal gain. Maybe the younger generation is smarter than I thought. I'll be sure to contemplate that, right after I enjoy this ice cold Coca-Cola. Yes, nothing satisfies you at the end of a column like a crisp refreshing Coca-Cola. Mmm, Coke Is It! (Make check payable to me.)

Thursday, August 29, 2019

COLUMN: TikTok

Image result for tik tok

Whenever I get stalled for original column ideas, I have a tendency to fall back on some well-worn topics. You know, things like:

• Cats do cute things.
• Gee, that episode of [INSERT TV SHOW HERE] sure was crazy.
• Let me tell you about some video game you couldn't care less about.

And, of course, countless variations of my perennial go-to:

• Waah! I'm old!

This, of course, is a ridiculous assertion. I'm only 48. If you think I'm not painfully self-aware of how silly I sound whining about the passage of time, you're sadly mistaken. I know how ludicrous I sound. 48 isn't old. But it IS closer to 70 than 20, despite what my wardrobe, maturity level, or the volume of my car stereo might have you believe. That's a tough pill to swallow when I still have occasional nightmares about bombing my midterms.

I'd rather the hands of time come to a grinding halt. But if I had some kind of magical opportunity, would I want to be a kid again in today's world? NO WAY, and I just found the perfect example why. This week, on a whim, I downloaded TikTok.

I've spent the past two months bombarded relentlessly by ads for TikTok. Each ad is essentially the same thing: a picture or video of some impossibly attractive 20-something looking like they're having the most fun of their entire lives. I might not be ancient, but I'm clearly past the target demographic of TikTok. Still, curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to see what the fuss what all about.

TikTok is an app for your phone -- and by "your," I mean your CHILDREN'S phones -- that allows users to film, edit, and share short 60-second videos. TikTok also gives their users access to a vast catalog of song and movie snippets, so when handed the tools to create original content and a platform to distribute said content to a global audience, the vast majority of TikTok members use this stunning technological feat to lip-sync.

Essentially, it's a super easy way to make yourself a worldwide idiot. If I was looking for a way to feel young again, this ain't it. TikTok makes me feel older than I am, because I simply don't get the appeal. I grew up watching MTV, which at least had REAL musicians lip-syncing. I don't get the entertainment value in watching 35 strangers fake-sing to the same 30-second Beyonce clip. But I'm also not a teenager.

There's no way I'd want to be a young person in today's world. When I was their age, I was an expert at NOTHING. But just to be an active participant on social media, today's kids need to be movie directors, film editors, professional models, skilled actors, and competent dancers. I sure didn't know my good side or my best angle when I was a teenager. I'm still trying to find that magic angle today. 

Not to portray myself as a mature adult (eww gross), but it's easy for older generations to look at Instagram "likes" and silly lip-sync videos and dismiss them as childish fancy. But for today's kids, it's not so foolish. Likes and followers are currency, both socially and fiscally. The most popular users of TikTok are Lisa and Lena, twin sisters from Germany who've amassed 32,700,000 followers and counting. There aren't 37 million people who've ever heard of ME, that's for sure. And they've already parlayed their lip-sync success into a successful clothing line and record deal.

Then there's the case of Montero Hill. He was a teenager devoted to making comedy videos on Facebook, viral posts on Twitter, and homemade raps on Soundcloud. Then one of those homemade raps got picked up by TikTok for a snippet. You might know it as "Old Town Road," the #1 song in the country (and eleven other countries) right now, racking up gold and platinum sales all over the world.

So next time your kids slack off on their chores, cut them a break. They're probably exhausted from spending the whole day thinking up creative ways to lip sync to the new Drake single. Regardless of your opinion on TikTok, you've got to appreciate the effort these kids put into it. Maybe this generation will have a work ethic so intense that we can slack off and let them handle everything. Or maybe we'll carry on making all the money because we're not wasting our days lip syncing mindlessly into the lens of an iPhone. Either way, we win.

Heck, I remember making videos in high school, too. My friends and I had a video camera. It cost us $50 to rent for a weekend and weighed about twenty pounds. I'm sure everyone would love to see our hilarious hijinks, and I'll show them to you as soon as someone finds me a Betamax player and a TV with analog inputs.

I guess we should let kids be kids and fads be fads. It probably won't be long before TikTok gets replaced by something else whose appeal only our kids' kids will understand. I might think it's an absurd waste of time, but that's okay, because it's not meant for me. TikTok sure does a good job at making me feel old, but it also makes me happy and relieved to be too old for it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some Beyonce choreography to learn.

COLUMN: Waterworld

Image result for waterworld

We all owe Kevin Costner a HUGE apology.

Once upon a time, he was one of the most successful and popular actors on the planet. He wowed us in The Untouchables, thrilled us in No Way Out, and danced with wolves in, umm, Dances With Wolves (I presume. Never saw it.) With Bull Durham, he proved that old baseball players could still be loveable. With Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he proved it was possible to do a worse British accent than Dick Van Dyke. And above all else, he became a friend to the Midwest with Field of Dreams, perhaps the only movie that's ever tried super hard to make Iowa seem like a cool place to live.

Then 1995 came along and it all went sideways. Kevin Costner accomplished an extraordinary feat of cinematic achievement: one of the most expensive and most terrible movies ever made. It was a production so epic that the director reportedly walked off, the cast spent most of the production nauseous, and the non-sensical plot is riddled with so many holes it's the Swiss cheese of cinema. BUT it does have a scene where flaming jet-skis fly through the air, which is admittedly pretty sweet.

The film is Waterworld, one of the most celebrated rotten tomatoes of movie-making.

But I get it now, Kevin. It's not a terrible movie. It's a handy guideline for Midwestern survival in 2019. We all scoffed at the notion of a future world underwater. Based on our recent weather patterns, I reckon that'll be happening, what, about a week from Tuesday? Waterworld isn't a bad movie. It's a manual for surviving life along the Mississippi.

Waterworld takes place in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future (aka a week from Tuesday) where the ice caps have melted and rising waters have wiped out life as we know it. Those with the fortitude, strength, and cool enough wardrobes to survive are left to float around on ramshackle armadas fighting each other presumably out of boredom. But hidden inside this gem of a movie are wise Kevin Costner's tips for survival.

I just watched Waterworld. Well, at least the first ten minutes. I'm pretty sure that's good enough to glean the knowledge Kevin Costner wants us to have in order to survive the Great Flood of 2019:

Waterworld Tip #1: Start hoarding dirt. In "Waterworld," dirt is currency. It's the most precious commodity. Henceforth, I am using this as justification to stop cleaning my house.

Waterworld Tip #2: If possible, grow gills and webbed feet. In the movie, Costner inexplicably has them, due to "evolution" or maybe his great-great-grandfather having an unspeakable tryst with a mackerel. Regardless, they seem to come in super handy, so let's get to work on evolving, people.

Waterworld Tip #3: Stay away from anyone who remotely looks like Dennis Hopper. This seems to be solid advice for all facets of life, flood or no flood.

Waterworld Tip #4: And this one's probably just for me and a few others: Learn to swim. It seems to be important. Of course, if I grew gills, I could just stroll along the river bottom, but swimming seems like a solid backup plan to spontaneous gill growth and first-hand knowledge of what lies on the river bed. Plus, breathing water sounds painful, and breathing Mississippi water sounds especially nasty. Sewers are backing up, people. My future gills have standards.

So far, my plan is to hope my basement holds up, be thankful I live on the other side of a reliable flood wall, and not worry unless I see animals start lining up 2-by-2 to get onboard any arks. But in that event, I offer a plea to any aspiring ark builders out there: This time, can we maybe skip the snakes and the wasps? Would anyone except maybe Alice Cooper really mind? I suppose it's not good karma to advocate for taxonomic genocide in times of crisis, but would there be any silver lining to this flood better than the elimination of stupid wasps?

When it comes to ark life, I suppose my real fear should be its capacity for humans. Hard cuts would have to be made, but I think I'd make this list.. After all, a new society would need important skilled inhabitants: doctors, politicians, cooks, tradespeople, and of course the guy who DJs the mad parties once electricity gets re-invented. Of course, this would mean I'd have to bring my music collection onboard, sooo... tough break, platypuses. Let's be honest, you guys were probably a mistake the last time around. Sorry for your extinction, but we need room for records in the new world.

The worst part about spring floods is that there's little we can do except wait it out, wade it out, and help everyone affected as best we can. In the meantime, you should totally NOT rent Waterworld. Sorry, Kevin. We appreciate your input, but the BEST advice is to save your money and instead use it in help or patronage of the many wonderful citizens and businesses in the thick of it. They need and deserve our support.

COLUMN: Thank You For Your Service

Image result for veteran thank you

Have you ever woken up on the wrong side of life?

That was me the other morning. Instead of greeting the break of dawn with a spring in my step and a song in my soul, I instead woke with a scowl on my face and more than a few choice words for my alarm clock.

I'd like to offer an explanation for the rain on my parade, but it was just one of those mornings. I thought momentarily about calling in sick, but knowing MY luck, next week I'd come down with ACTUAL flu and need that sick time. Besides, I'm too annoyingly honest. My guilty conscience would kick in and I'd probably spend my entire Ferris Bueller adventure checking work e-mails from home and worrying about co-workers having to cover my duties. I'm so lame.

By sheer willpower and a thunderous need for caffeine, I forced myself into action and went about my morning rituals. As I began the flooded, bridge-traffic-addled drive to the office, I took stock of the situation and tried to find the good mood that I had clearly misplaced. That's when I had my brainstorm.

What's the one thing I could do to brighten my morning and reaffirm my love of life? A selfless act.

I needed to do something -- anything -- to make someone's day better. It made perfect sense, right? Give a little bit of yourself to bring a smile to someone else's face, and you're destined to fill with warm fuzzies and self-confidence. The world might be going to heck in a handbag, but a little act of kindness might just slow the descent a bit. Pay it forward, as they say.

They, of course, are mostly full of it. The ugly truth is that most selfless acts don't really exist. My motivation was entirely off kilter. I wanted to commit a selfless act to improve my SELF, and that's the exact opposite of "selfless." I was definitely looking to make someone's day better -- and that someone was ME. I wasn't motivated by helping others. I was motivated by the warm fuzzies I'd feel when I did it. Did I just disprove the righteousness of charity on my morning commute?

These are NOT the sorts of philosophical quandries one should wrestle with prior to one's first cup of coffee, so I made a mad dash into my favorite gas station for a cup of black gold. That's when I saw him -- the unmistakable fatigues of an active military serviceman. Bingo. I'd seen it done many times before, and now it was MY chance. Today, I would pay for his coffee, thank him for his service, and be graced with good karma and warm fuzzies aplenty.

I'm in awe of our active and veteran military. They are brave and valorous, whereas I am cowardly and chicken. They run towards danger, whereas I have been known to run from a honeybee. I am the proud son of two veterans, and I was raised to appreciate the sacrifice that every man and woman in uniform makes. They are our nation's heroes, and I am always thankful of their service. Today, I would make sure to let one of them know.

I patiently stood behind the serviceman in the checkout line. As he approached the counter, I could already the warm fuzzies welling. I took a deep breath, cleared my throat... and that's when a voice from behind me rang out:

"I've got his coffee! Thank you for your service!"

Wait, what? And THAT is how, on a dime, I went from paying the due respect (and coffee) of one of our nation's heroes to instead wanting to choke some random stranger for the crime of being nice faster than me. I may have looked like a patient customer in line, but inside, I was SEETHING. How DARE someone selflessly steal MY selfless act? I had DIBS, buddy. As if things weren't awkward enough, that's when the soldier, not knowing who had just bought his coffee, immediately turned around and tried to shake MY hand in gratitude, leaving me to sheepishly mutter, "While I'm very thankful for your service as well, sir, it wasn't me."

Suffice to say, no mood-changing fuzzies occurred that day. Thankfully, my co-workers allowed me a fairly wide berth to grumble my way through the rest of the day, before I got home and went to bed wishing for a do-over.

Little did I know, I'd have that chance the very next morning. I found myself at the same gas station, in the same checkout line, but with a different soldier in front of me. Better late than never, I thought. Once again, I took a deep breath, cleared my throat, and made it to "Ehhh" before I noticed he didn't have a coffee in his hand.

"Yes, I need seventy dollars worth of scratch-offs," the soldier said as I quickly ehhh-ed my way back to silence. I'm all for being selfless, but I guess not THAT selfless -- although I did thank him for his service and I hope his scratch-off party yielded bountiful results.

Being selfless feels good, but that's not why you should do it. You shouldn't need an excuse to thank a soldier or a vet. And if one isn't handy, donate to a cause or figure out any way to better someone else's bad day. They might just return the favor someday. As for me? I eventually fixed my bad mood with a small donation to my alma mater, who certainly doesn't need my help. But I earmarked mine towards my college's underfunded and underappreciated campus radio station, where even tiny donations go a mile. Once upon a Shane, that little studio was the epicenter of every good mood in my life. Helping it stay alive for others to enjoy gives me all the warm fuzzies I need.

COLUMN: Colors

Image result for color spectrum

I don't want to cause any undue alarm, but I'm pretty sure I may be broken.

To fully explain, you need to understand one thing: I'm a sucker for online questionnaires.

If you're on social media, you know the drill. You'll be innocently scrolling through Facebook when one of your friends shares a viral post like this:

"Here's a fun game! Let's get to know each other better! Have you ever driven a motorcycle? (Yes/No) Have you ever been in a car wreck? (Yes/No) What's your favorite food?" And on and on it goes. They're usually posted by some distant "friend" I barely even know. But like a dummy, I'll drop everything and sit there and answer all the dumb questions like it's super important.

Identity thieves honestly don't have to go to the trouble of writing malicious code or hijacking ATMs. If someone wanted to steal my identity, all they'd have to do is friend me on Facebook and put up a post like, "Here's a fun game! Let's get to know each other better! What is your social security number? What's your credit limit? Does your pin number start with a 4? (Yes/No)" I'd probably go, "Ooh, this IS a fun game!" and happily share all of my confidential life information.

The other day, I was operating on five hours of sleep. Why? Because the night before, I was getting ready for bed and someone was like, "Here's a fun quiz! What musical do you like? What musical do you hate? What musical do you think is overrated? What musical makes you cry?" The smart option would have been to complete the quiz the next morning when I had some spare time. Actually, no, the smart option would have been to skip it altogether and do something constructive with my time.

Instead, I stayed up for an HOUR filling the thing out. Instead of sleeping, I was Googling "lists of Broadway musicals" and watching Youtube clips of "South Pacific" as a refresher. All this to reply to a distant friend who likely spent exactly ten seconds looking at my answers and going, "Hmm." And it probably wasn't even a "Hmm, those are intruiging answers." It was probably more like, "Hmm, I wonder why this guy I barely know took the time to fill this out?"

But the WORST came last month, when I got suckered into THIS viral game: "Over the next ten days, post the cover art of ten albums that influenced you." Being a music geek, this was right up my alley. BUT WHAT TEN ALBUMS TO PICK? Could I possibly narrow my favorites down to just ten? Clearly, I'd need to consult my iTunes library, my CD collection, Spotify, and perhaps a series of short debates with trusted friends. But wait, the rules didn't say your FAVORITE albums. It just said ten albums that "influenced" me. Well, that's an entirely DIFFERENT can of worms. I should probably make a pot of coffee and think about this for a while.

When you're already an OCD record store geek, "fun" quizzes like this are nothing less than life-stopping. After all, I'm the same human being who once tried to determine my 100 favorite songs by judging my entire music collection across eight categories on a scale from 1-25 and totaling the points. I'm THAT silly. I still have the notebooks filled with scores (not to mention the dumbest How I Spent My Summer Vacation story EVER.)

But the REAL head-scratcher was the quiz that popped up on my Facebook feed yesterday: "Here's a fun game! Let's get to know each other better! Leave a comment and let me know your favorite color."

Simple enough, right? But here's the thing: I don't have a favorite color. I've never had a favorite color. I don't understand how people can have favorite colors. My mind doesn't work that way. I don't find one color any more or less appealing than another. Well, except Burnt Umber. We can all agree that Burnt Umber sucks. If your favorite color is Burnt Umber, you're probably a murderer.

I have no color allegiance. I've never been "Team Red" or found myself rooting for blue. Sometimes green things are pretty. Sometimes they're ugly. They're just colors. To me, this question makes as much sense as choosing your favorite letter of the alphabet. Are you an F gal? Or are you more of a J man? I just don't find myself gravitating to a particular color based on its, err.. color.

So am I broken? Does everyone else on the planet have a favorite color? Does this mean I'm not creative or artistic? Do I not have a soul? Should I prepare a notebook and figure out how to judge each color of the spectrum on a scale of 1-25 across 8 categories? My poor Facebook friend must be absolutely beside herself waiting for my response. If you'll excuse me, I need to make some coffee. Maybe black is my favorite color.

COLUMN: Mo Bamba

Image result for sheck wes

Welcome back to the semi-regular feature I like to call: Is The World Doomed Or Am I Just Becoming An Old Fuddy-Duddy?

I'm a fairly optimistic person who tries to see the good in everyone. And I like to think of myself as fairly progressive, able to roll with the changes and see new trends as exciting instead of threatening.

But as I ponder the state of the world tonight from my Armchair of Pointless Judgement, a couple things have me on high alert. There may be signs that the world is changing faster than I can keep up, and NOT in a good way.

Exhibit A: The rise and popularity of the song "Mo Bamba" by up-and-coming rapper Sheck Wes.

Are you familiar? If you don't know it, I bet your kids do. Your grandkids DEFINITELY do. Pity them.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those out-of-touch columnists who doesn't "get" rap music. I won't ever claim that today's kids don't understand what good music is (although I'd be lying if I said the thought's never crossed my mind.) But I moonlight on the weekends as a DJ, enjoying and playing those very songs at dangerous volumes to clubgoers half my age. There's a ton of great new music out there, and I encourage all of you to seek it out and stay hip (or possibly even hop.)

But "Mo Bamba" isn't your typical chart-topper. It's pure sonic anger. It's basically the sound of a fight waiting to happen. Most songs on the charts have tempos in the range of 90-130 beats per minute. "Mo Bamba" clocks in at a maddeningly slow 73 bpm. It's a funeral dirge of aggression that sounds like it was recorded in somebody's basement on a shoestring budget. Don't believe me? There's honestly a spot in the middle where the music accidentally cuts out and they just go "oops" and keep on recording.



I'd love to share the lyrics, but this is a family publication and I'd like to keep my job. I don't know if there's a single line in "Mo Bamba" clean enough to publish. Instead, I offer you this watered-down, family-friendly lyrical synopsis:

"Hello! I'm Sheck Wes. I take pride in befriending females of questionable virtue. Where is my associate with our illegal narcotics? I compare my success to that of a professional basketball player. Have you met my brother? He has a gun, and he will shoot you with it. The music just stopped. Oh heck, shoot, darn it all! It's back now. As stated before, I'm Sheck Wes and I'm quite wealthy. I am an exceptional drug dealer (despite still not knowing the location of my associate with our drugs.) I will copulate with your beloved and you shall be none the wiser. Did I mention that I am Sheck Wes?"

That's pretty much the whole song. And look, I get it. An essential facet of pop culture is making sure it occasionally scares your parents senseless. Elvis did it with his hips, the Beatles did it with their hair, Gene Simmons did it with his tongue. Marilyn Manson made an entire career out of terrifying suburban moms and dads. Rebellion is an essential part of youth. It's why God made The Ramones.

So if "Mo Bamba" became popular with a small segment of disaffected and rebellious youth, it'd make perfect sense. But with little club play and virtually no radio support, "Mo Bamba" sailed to #8 on the Billboard Top 40. That means a LOT of people are jamming out to this song, more than just your kids. And that's weird. Maybe guns and drugs and aggression are the new norm in our America?

This brings me to Exhibit B. Last Friday was a busy one in the office, so I decided to drive my lunch a couple blocks down to one of the few riverside parks not presently underwater. As I sat there decompressing, I spotted a guy walking his dog. I should be more like that guy, I thought to myself. Physically fit. Getting some exercise. Maybe I need a dog? And that was when the guy diverted and made a beeline for my car.

"Excuse me," he said, "Do you have a light? Oh wait, I found mine, sorry."

And my new friend used it to light up what I believe is defined as a fatty chronic blunt, then looked at me and cheerily said, "Fridays, am I right?" before engaging me in small talk about the weather and floods while Cheeching and Chonging it up with carefree abandon. I could have been a cop. I could have been an undercover DEA agent. I could have been a newspaper columnist in dire need of a topic. Didn't phase him one bit. I, on the other hand, beat feet outta there to avoid returning from lunch smelling like one of Willie Nelson's road crew. Drug laws have loosened, but they aren't THAT loose.

Maybe this is the new norm we're headed for. Who knows what we have to look forward to? Maybe it's a world of angry rap songs full of explicit swearing. But how angry can we be if we're spending our Fridays wandering around stoned in public? I'm not qualified to predict the future, but however it plays out, I'll do my best to sit in my Armchair of Pointless Judgement explicitly swearing -- that I'm neither fuddy nor duddy.

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