Friday, May 03, 2013
Zwoyrkin and Farnsworth had different approaches to their work, but they did share one important thing in common: Not once did either ever utter the phrase, "...and with this discovery, it is my distinct hope that one day, mankind will be able to harness this technology to enjoy watching bearded rednecks make duck calls."
Have you ever seen Mike Judge's brilliant satirical movie, "Idiocracy"? In it, a man and woman are accidentally frozen alive and revived in the future. When they awaken 500 years later, they discover that, thanks to the dumbing down of pop culture, the world is populated exclusively by morons. In this future world, the top-rated TV show is the aptly titled, "Ow! My Balls!"
"Idiocracy" was released in 2006 and supposedly took place in the future world of 2505. In the real world, it's now 2013, but as I scan the TV dial these days, I'm scared that we're already broaching "Ow! My Balls!" territory. Everywhere I look, there's some new "reality" show seemingly intent on dumbing down America. Once upon a time, A&E stood for Arts & Entertainment Television. Now their programming consists of Duck Dynasty and Stuff People Watch While Waiting For Duck Dynasty. Once upon a time, MTV showed music videos. Now I'm pretty sure all they air is a 24-hour montage of drunk girls fighting. TLC WAS The Learning Channel. As I sit here typing, it's currently devoting an entire show to a man who owns 8000 bottles of mustard and is conquering his obsession with something called "ketchup therapy." The only thing I'm learning is that cable is a waste of money.
Where did it all go wrong? I'm not sure, but I have my suspicions. If I had to trace back the dumbing down of this generation's idea of entertainment, I'd say it was a three-pronged attack: American Gladiators, America's Funniest Home Videos, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Once we started sacrificing scripted programming in favor of embarassing home videos, dudes fighting each other with giant Q-Tips, and Jim Carrey talking out of his hindquarters, culture was doomed.
Back in my day -- you know, when we had to walk a mile barefoot through the snow to watch "Fantasy Island" -- if we enjoyed a particular celebrity, we tuned in to watch a show they starred in. But nowadays its not enough to watch celebrities act and sing. Nope, now we need to watch them dance, work for Donald Trump, swap wives, and dive into pools. When that's all over, we can switch to "TMZ Live," which is pretty much 30 straight minutes of celebrities trying to walk away from cameras in a hurry.
So why get all worked up over this? After all, bottom-of-the-barrel entertainment has been all the rage for the better part of a decade now. But I just read an article that proves we're about to eat THROUGH the bottom of the barrel and descend to an as-yet-undiscovered subterranean level of trash.
Familiar with the DIY Network? Once upon a time, it was an educational home improvement channel with hands-on shows that guided you through the pitfalls of home remodeling and restoration. Their programming was top-notch, but there was just one problem. In their hurry to make quality television that actually stood a chance to educate folks, they neglected to include even ONE D-list celebrity. Tsk, tsk.
That all changed a couple years ago when "The Bronson Project" debuted. The one thing better than a home improvement is, of course, a home improvement show starring TV's Balki Bartokomous -- and, because the world sucks, the show was a ratings triumph. This was followed last season by "The Vanilla Ice Project," where our favorite washed-up rapper was back with a brand new invention: the remodel of a mansion -- and, presumably, if there was a problem, yo, he solved it. More specifically, his "team" did. He pretty much stood around and checked out the hook while his DJ revolved it. The ratings, naturally, were gold.
This week, the DIY Network announced its new shows currently in production. First up? "Vanilla Ice Goes Amish," where our hero joins an Amish colony in order to stop, collaborate, listen, and raise a barn. Then there's "The Rev Run Project," where the chubbier half of Run-DMC updates his family home (spoiler alert: it's tricky.) And yes, a third show wherein Hall & Oates fix up an old farmhouse.
Look, folks: It's my JOB to sit around and think up funny stuff, and I'd never be able to come up with a premise as ridiculous as a Hall & Oates fix-it show. But maybe this is a cash cow I need to learn to ride. If the key to success is merely matching up a mundane activity with a washed-up musical act, it's high time I launched my OWN network. I'll call it Crummy Recording Artists Performing on TV, if only it had a catchy acronym. Here's some ideas I'm mulling over for programming:
• HVAC Maintenace with Air Supply - They might be all out of love, but they're rife with knowledge about energy efficient ways to heat your home.
• Preparing for the LSAT with DJ Jazzy Jeff - Okay, here's the situation, your parents have you worried about your law school examination. Perhaps a nice refresher would do you some good. Well, maybe you shouldn't... yeah, of course you should.
• I'm Alright, You're Alright: Self Esteem Building with Kenny Loggins.
• Cooking Meat Loaf with, umm, Meat Loaf - Duh. It's cold and lonely in the deep dark night, but I can see paradise by the oven light.
• The Captain & Tennille + 8 - Let's see how much love can keep them together when they're paired with 8 precocious orphans.
I'd share more, but they're MY intellectual property. Plus "Welcome to Myrtle Manor" starts in a minute, and I am NOT missing that. You know, so that I can continue to report on the degradation of modern entertainment. Not at all because the trashy girls are super cute. No sirree.
And the cuisine...? Oh, don't get me STARTED on Albanian cuisine! Umm, really, don't get me started, because I have NO idea what Albanian cuisine is like. But thanks to this past weekend, it's officially NOT for lack of trying.
Truth is, I'm a food bigot. I try to be worldly, I really do. My favorite music comes from England, my favorite car comes from Germany, and my favorite fly definitely hails from Spain... but when it comes to food, I am a flag-wavin', red-blooded, red meat consuming American.
What can I say? I like my food simple and free of surprises. If I could live on a diet of hot dogs and cherry pie, I probably would. If it looks weird, I'm not eating it. If I can't pronounce it, I'm not eating it. I'm just not very adventurous when it comes to trying food that's outside my comfort zone. I'm a basic staples kinda guy -- flour and sugar, bread and butter, ketchup and mustard, cake and ice cream, cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys. Occasionally I'll be brave and eat some tuna. I have enough adventure in my life as is; I don't need to eat things I can't identify in order to feel alive.
There's just one problem: It turns out that a simple red-white-&-bland diet where Pizza Hut is considered "ethnic food" is actually really, really bad for you. It's not exactly NEW news, but a study came out last week that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a Western diet high in red meat and high-fat dairy literally takes YEARS off your life. It's becoming clear that I need to start being brave.
It's not like I'm afraid of exploring. There's nothing better than setting off with a tank full of gas, a car full of friends, and a mission to get as lost as possible. Some of my greatest stories have come from aimless driving, and the first good weather weekend of the year is always reserved for taking the first back road out of town. In 2013, that day was last Sunday. It was early when the phone rang.
"Hi, how are you?" came the voice of Friend Jason.
"Bored. How are you?" I replied.
"Also bored. Shall we?"
"I'm on my way."
With those pleasantries out of the way, it was just a matter of grabbing the iPod and hitting the open road. The day's adventures took us in a northeasterly direction into the blissful weirdness of rural Illinois. It was a delightful way to waste a day. We shared many a polite wave with passing farmers, saw some spectacularly terrifying lawn ornaments, visited a picturesque country cemetery, took a wrong turn and ended up trespassing onto a private club, marveled at a huge wind farm, and there may even be a chance that if you were driving along a back road last Sunday, you may have caught a glimpse of two grown men laughing hysterically as they stood in a country park attempting to launch a kite. Not that those two guys were us, because we're far too macho and mature for something THAT silly and DEFINITELY way too cool to have a Spongebob Squarepants kite at the ready in the trunk of the car.
But the real highlight came when hunger kicked in. Our eyes were peeled for any weird little restaurant with a lot of character. Enter Amboy, an unassuming rural community in Lee County. That's where we saw the sign, and brakes were screeching within seconds:
"PIZZA JUNCTION: MEXICAN & ALBANIAN FOOD."
That's right, I have now traveled to the exact junction where pizza meets Mexico meets Albania. And heck, why not? I like tacos, I like pizza, and I'd never heard a bad word about Albania in my life. Maybe it's like peanut butter cups -- you know, when good things come together to make greatness. "You got Albania in my pizza!" "You got pizza in my Albania!" It was time for dinner. Or kho ishte koha per darke, as they say in Albania.
Pizza Junction might be my new favorite place in the world. There's barely an inch of wall that's not covered by odd pieces of history. Above the clear ceiling tiles, someone had placed decorative bird statuettes, most of which had fallen on their sides, creating the sensation of eating just under some kind of strange bird apocalypse. The menu sadly told us that Mexican cuisine was only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but I was feeling adventurous and we wanted to try Albanian food. Whatever that was.
The Albanian portion of the menu was plentiful. Lots of interesting sounding dishes with virtually no explanation as to what they were. The waitress came out and we hit her with questions.
"We want to try something Albanian! What's good?"
"Umm, I dunno," was her reply. "Nobody orders that."
"What's an Albanian beef roll?" Jason asked.
"Umm, I dunno," was her reply. "Let me go check." She returned a moment later. "It's the same as our regular beef roll."
"I want the Albanian baked beans and Albanian sausage," I chose.
"Umm," she said. "Let me go check." She returned another moment later. "We don't have that."
I began to wonder if by "Albanian," they were referring to the haute cuisine of Albany, New York. In the end, at least I TRIED to be adventurous, so it's a baby step. I ended up with a plentiful salad, an amazing cup of vegetable beef soup, a large baked potato, and a giant ham steak slathered in pineapple sauce. It was HEAVEN, and I'm pretty sure it set me back all of seven bucks. Friend Jason, meanwhile, enjoyed an American-yet-apparantly-also-Albanian beef roll, and it turned out to be a gyro-type pita thingamajig that he spoke highly of as well. So if you're ever in the Amboy area and hungry for, well, pretty much ANYTHING, head for the Junction.
American or not, the food was amazing -- and even though I still know nothing about their cuisine, I can now find the country of Albania on a map, so I can't say the day wasn't educational. My health might fail from eating like an idiot, but if that starts to happen, I now know I can convalesce along the curative beaches of coastal Velipoja in scenic Ada Bojana. See you there.
A couple days ago, I accidentally landed on one of these channels -- the Home & Oprah's Discovery Health Geographic or some such -- in just enough time to hear an announcer state that "the human body is a magical and complex creation." Well, if the human body's magic, mine just learned some awesome new tricks.
Chief among them is the magical trick of ALLERGIES. When I was a kid, I had bad allergies. I don't exactly remember suffering from them or anything, but I DO remember trips to the doctor and being forced to try assorted nasal spritzes and such. Then I hit puberty and magically I was fine.
Well, now I'm hitting middle-age and they're magically back with a vengeance. Here's how it works: I proceed throughout my day as usual. Then without rhyme or reason I feel the slightest tickle in my nose. And then the sneezing begins.
I don't understand people who can control their sneezes. I just don't get how it's possible to pull it off without your brain exploding. There's a girl I work with who sneezes and it sounds like this: "Fiw." When I sneeze, it sounds like this: "AAFWCHAWAAAAA!" I have no control over this noise. It's just what happens when a sneeze does. If I tried to cap off AAFWCHAWAAAAA and turn it into a Fiw, I'm pretty sure my eyeballs would pop right out of my head.
Hence, I'm cool with AAFWCHAWAAAAA. There's just one problem. These days, I don't just AAFWCHAWAAAAA once. No, I'll sit there and rapid fire sneeze over and over again while trying desperately hard not to bite my tongue off somewhere between the FW's and the CHA's. I'm not kidding -- my record of late is 26 sneezes in a row, and scarily, THAT happened behind the wheel on my way to work. So if you were almost mowed down by an out-of-control Volkswagen the other morning, I am truly and sincerely saafwchawaaaarry.
The ugly truth is that my hay fever has returned -- and the fact that every aspect of my life is coated with a thin layer of cat probably doesn't help matters much. Still, I resist going to the doctor. I have friends who regularly go to allergists, and the entire process sounds completely medieval and horrifying. We live in the modern era, and as such, I should be able to open an app, wave my iPhone in front of my face, and have Siri tell me exactly what I'm allergic to and phone in a prescription to Walgreens for something I can take (preferably one of those nifty melt-in-your-mouth strips) to make it all better.
Instead, according to my friends, when you go to an allergist, the first thing they do is strip you down, smear a bunch of toxic stuff all over your back, and wait to see exactly which of their cooties make you break out in hives. Let's say this primitive test proves that you're allergic to cats. Your NEXT step? Why, just visit the doctor on a regular basis and let them inject you with tiny amounts of dead cat until your body gets used to it. Umm, thanks, but I'll live with the sneezes and a lifetime dependency on Claritin.
But a funny thing happened to me this week. I woke up feeling fine and made it to the office in a reasonably good mood. The sun was out, birds were chirping, springtime was in the air... and my nose started tickling. Sixteen aafwchawaaaaa's later and it was all over. My sinuses were throbbing, my eyes were watering, and my head was stuffy. Yuck. But wait -- why was my throat scratchy? Where did this cough come from? And why was it suddenly SO COLD in here?
And THAT is how I went from perfectly fine to perfectly sick in less than five minutes. This is a magic trick I wish I hadn't learned. I'm now in Day 3 of the gnarliest, grossest cold I've had in recent memory. Over the past 48 hours, I have gone through 2.5 boxes of Kleenex. My head weighs more than your average anvil, I haven't been able to taste anything since Tuesday, and my voice sounds like a cartoon. I'm typing this in my pajamas with a chest smeared with Vicks and Kleenex shoved up each nostril. I am bringing sexy back, people. On the plus side, my nose can now pick up extra work lighting the way for Santa's sleigh.
Worse yet, when this thing hit, I had ZERO food in the pantry. This meant I had to make the worst trip of all: sick grocery shopping. There's nothing like strolling through a grocery store trying to act cool and non-chalant while trying to hide the fact that you're more toxic than the Contagion monkey. Naturally, then, this is when I bump into EVERYONE I KNOW at the store, and even a couple kind folks who simply wanted to shake my hand and tell me that they enjoy my column. In return, I probably gave them the plague.
If this is the "magical" part of the human body, I've cast the wrong spell. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to fall deep into a Benadryl haze so foggy I won't care WHAT channel my TV's on. Until next time, aafwchawaaaa.
But the visit itself wasn't as revelatory as the drive down. What I failed to mention is that all this came on the heels of a rather sleepless Saturday night, so the last thing I wanted to experience was the mind-numbing lullabye stretch of I-74 between here and Galesburg. Ergo, I decided to spice things up by traveling the entire journey via back roads. Aimless country driving is the most cathartic activity I know and my favorite way to recharge the battery of the soul. Give me a well-stocked iPod and a full tank of gas and I'll give you my idea of heaven.
The route I took was a travelogue of adolescent memories. There was the small-town grade school I attended as a kid... the bridge I used to drive out to and throw rocks off when I needed to think... the ditch I landed my Plymouth Horizon in when I first learned what happens when you drive too fast on fresh gravel... and hey, there's the dirt road I used to take my high school girlfriend down when we wanted to complete our homework and hold Bible study sessions and any other completely G-rated wholesome activities you can think of.
I should have enjoyed my backwoods cruise down many a memory lane, but a funny thing happened. It turns out that, despite my best intentions, I did NOT take the world in a love embrace, fire all of my guns at once, and explode into space. Instead of the bliss of the open road, my mind held other thoughts:
Whoa there, slick. You're going way too fast. Don't lose traction. No one knows that you're on this bumpy gravel road. What if the car breaks down and you can't get a signal on your phone? Your parents would be worried sick. You should have checked your oil. When was your last oil change? These rocks are probably doing a number to the underside of the car. What if one of them flies up and hits the windshield? P.S. That music's too loud, turn it down.
What's happened to me? I've dreaded this day, but it appears that my 42-year fight is over and I need to come to terms with it. My name's Shane, and I'm... I'm... a responsible adult.
Getting old sucks. The only reason babies cry is because they're too young to realize just how good they've got it. When I was a kid, I yearned for the freedom of independence. But it turns out the freedom I craved just gets stymied by the responsibilities of independence and/or the guilt that comes with being smart enough to know better. I know I sound ridiculous whining about this -- I'm sure many of you are parents who could give me a lecture or two about what REAL responsibility is. Truth be told, my only main obligation is making sure I wake up and get to work on a daily basis, but even THAT comes with its own peculiar set of challenges... which brings me to yesterday.
8:22 a.m. - I stride into the office eight minutes early. As someone who's admittedly a little challenged in the responsibility department, this feat alone should be worthy of celebration. And, of course, it turns out my boss is out sick and no one notices.
8:28 a.m. - As my computer boots up, I stare at the Windows logo and it hits me like a brick: The night before, the house was stuffy and I had opened the window over my kitchen sink. I had NO recall of ever closing it. My security system has a broken glass sensor but not an I-casually-removed-the-screen-and-wandered-on-in sensor. Yikes.
9:10 a.m. - The work day is progressing smoothly. I, however, have already envisioned at least twelve different scenarios of assorted imaginary bad guys breaking into my house and robbing me blind. One of them has an eye patch and speaks with a Hungarian accent.
9:45 a.m. - In the grand scheme of things, my cats are capable of little more than sleeping and meowing. One of them frequently confuses Kleenex for food. Yet in my head, I have now imagined a scenario where they have collaborated to remove the screen from the open window (opposable thumbs be darned) and are now cavorting about the streets of Rock Island where they have presumably already turned to a life of crime and it's all my fault.
10:20 a.m. - A revelation: I don't remember shutting the window, but I DO remember refilling the cats' water bowl before I left for work. If the window had been open, I would have been met with a cold draft while doing so. Surely I would have noticed, right?
10:40 a.m. - I just remembered I once made it all the way to work before realizing I was only wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Never trust what I do and don't notice before I've had my morning coffee.
12:20 p.m. - Surely my neighbors would spot someone shimmying through my kitchen window, wouldn't they? And if someone DID break in, they'd have to go out the same window, because if a door opened, then the alarm would go off and I presume ADT-trained ninjas would swoop in and save the day, right?
3:05 p.m. - Someone just called me. I assume they wanted something newspaper-y. I wasn't paying attention - I was too busy in my CURRENT waking nightmare where I come home from work and get jumped by a conspiracy of neighbors, thieves, ninjas, and cats -- all of whom were just waiting for an open-window opportunity like today. And then my poor parents will have to hire Liam Neeson to save me, and the whole thing's just gonna snowball from there.
By the end of the day, I worried myself into a massive stomach ache. And I'm sure there'll be other stomach aches down the road, because I fear I've merely tested the waters of what it's like to have REAL responsibilities. Maybe one day I'll have PEOPLE to worry about instead of an open window or a broken-down car. Adulthood is a long and slippery slope. I might be a little late for the ride, but I'm getting onboard regardless -- just so long as the destination never turns me into a fan of Kenny G or Michael Bolton.
(And yes, the window was closed and locked when I got home. No ninjas. Liam Neeson can stand down.)
Tuesday, April 02, 2013
I'd like it if you pictured me sitting at an antique mahogany desk in a broad chair with well-worn cushions, looking all the part of the intellectual writer while the smell of stale leather lingers in the air. Or maybe you see me in a noisy florescent-lit newsroom, bags under my eyes, running my hands through my hair, desperately trying to beat deadline while fielding calls from Deep Throat and cranky editors.
I just hope none of you pictured the actual reality of my creative process: me in an ill-fitting t-shirt, laying sideways on my living room couch and shoveling pretzels into my mouth while typing the occasional sentence during commercial breaks of "Big Bang Theory." I'm starting to wonder if I truly am THE least cool human being on planet earth.
I need to get off the couch, wipe off the pretzel crumbs, and make a change to my writing process. I say this with both determination and willpower due to three specific reasons: (1) I have absolutely no idea what to write about this week and a change of scenery could do me some good, (2) I have a wicked backache from laying sideways on the couch last night and a repeat performance could land me in a back brace, and (3) I've totally seen this episode of "Big Bang Theory."
That's why I just packed up my laptop, ventured into the real world, and am typing this from the warm confines of my neighborhood coffeehouse, a place I drive past every day but had yet to walk into, until just now. For the first time in ages, I feel like a real writer.
This place has honest-to-gosh ambience. Stories have happened here, I just know it. The table I'm sitting at has a couple of nice dings in it and my chair has the slight give that says many a butt have come before me. Great works of literature aren't written during commercial breaks. They're written in places like this. Sitting here with my laptop, I feel... Important. Creative. Productive. COOL.
Too bad, then, that I still have no idea what to write about. And it's hard to think of anything while I'm trying so desperately hard to look important, creative, productive, and cool. Oh well, good journalists observe, so let's take a look-see at what's around me...
7:03 PM - There's a girl on a laptop working hard on her Pinterest page. From what I can see, her primary Pinterest appears to be "hot supermodels." Or maybe just the stuff that the hot supermodels are wearing. Still, she looks deeply concerned about what she's doing. And whatever it is, it currently involves pictures of mascara and Beyonce. I don't have a Pinterest page, and if I did, I doubt anyone would find it Pinteresting.
7:10 PM - The waitress -- no, wait, I'm at a coffeehouse, the BARISTA -- just brought me the caramel latte I ordered, and it's arrived at my table in a cup that's roughly the size of your average soup bowl. I seriously have NO idea how one's supposed to drink this without a spoon. It has a tiny handle on it that's either for decoration or the hands of a toddler, and while I don't know much about child-rearing, I'm pretty sure you don't start feeding them caramel lattes until they're at least five years old, right? For now, it's just going to sit beside my laptop and help me look important, creative, productive, and cool. So far, so good.
7:16 PM - The couple next to me is studying for a math class. Their life is my recurring adult nightmare. You know when you're in school and studying pre-calculus and you go, "Omigosh, I will NEVER use this in real life"? YOU'RE RIGHT. YOU NEVER WILL.
7:26 PM - Omigosh, into the coffeeshop has just walked the rarest of rare breeds: an actual, authentic goth kid. Black hair? Check. Ankh necklace? Check. Trenchcoat? Check. Bauhaus sticker on his laptop? Check. Where do you even GO to buy a Bauhaus sticker for your laptop these days? Hot Topic? Goths-R-Us? Once upon a time, we were brethren. I wore black, listened to The Cure, and hung out in coffeeshops trying to look brooding while bemoaning that people misunderstood me. Now I'm one of the people who misunderstands him. Getting old sucks. If this kid knew that I had the entire Bauhaus discography in my iPod, it would shatter his world.
7:37 PM - There's a REALLY cute girl sitting by herself on my left. She's not even studying. Just sitting there, sipping on coffee, and texting on her phone. For all I know, she could be texting "OMG THERE'S A SUPER IMPORTANT CREATIVE PRODUCTIVE & COOL GUY NEXT TO ME. SOOOO DREAMY." I'd better play it safe and act hard-to-get.
7:55 PM - I wonder what's on TV? I miss my couch.
7:58 PM - Whoa. Goth kid just took it to another level. In my day, you'd wear a Joy Division t-shirt to woo cute goth girls. I never thought about Advances in Goth Technology: As I type, this kid is sitting a couple tables away, earphones in, watching a Joy Division concert on his laptop, which is turned juuuust enough for every passerby to see what he's doing and appreciate just how committed to his gothiness he is. Bravo, my technologically adept friend. That said, only one of us was alive when Joy Division was, and it's NOT you, mopey.
8:04 PM - I just realized that in the back corner of the coffeeshop sits a writer for a rival newspaper, also appearing to be hard at work on some important piece of journalism. Or maybe he just wants to look important, creative, productive, and cool, too. Except he's actually typing stuff, though. Hmm. I need to get outta this place.
Okay, so maybe I couldn't figure out how to drink my enormous latte, and maybe the Joy Division kid made me feel like the Gothfather. And I left without talking to the cute girl. And shoot, I guess I never DID come up with anything to write about. The mission may have been a failure -- but it was an important, creative, productive, and cool failure if there ever was one, so it's fine by me. In the meantime, I'm back on the couch, finishing this column the only way I [10 minutes of "Big Bang Theory" later] know [10 more minutes of "Big Bang Theory" later] how.
Sometimes it's tough being a rebel loner without a cause, but it's the cross you have to bear when you're b-b-b-b-bad to the bone like me. Most of you go through life playing by the rules, but some of us just have to throw caution to the wind and tear that rulebook up, man. I make no apologies for who I am. Like Michael Jackson once said, "I'm bad, I'm bad" and then something that sounds like "sha-mow-a!" so you know he's serious. Just like me. I'm bad, I'm bad, I'm really really bad.
I knew it was only a matter of time before Johnny Law would bring the hammer down on my reckless ways. I just had no idea it'd be last Friday.
Like most hard-living bad boys, I spend most of my Friday nights mired in the white-knuckle, cutthroat, seedy underground world of charity trivia fundraisers. In fact, the team I play with usually wins. Our captain, Kim Crandall, is the Lex Luthor of the trivia set. When he walks into an event, people cringe and scowl (I've actually seen it happen.) Kim takes his trivia seriously, and hence hand-picks a team of equal parts super-smart people (like Kim) and super-lame people who watch waaaay too much TV and know far more than they should about Lindsay Lohan and stupid pop culture garbage (cough.) Getting picked for Kim's team is both honor and duty. It doesn't matter the charity, cause, or purpose of the trivia night -- when he calls, you show up.
He called me last week, and that's where my story begins: in my car, on my way to another certain trivia night victory. I had no idea what organization was sponsoring the event, I just knew where it was: on a certain locally-based federal military installation that shall remain nameless. Like always, I pulled up to the guard gate with driver's license in hand to check in. NOT like always, the guard looked at my license and politely asked me to pull over to the side of the road.
Greeeeat, I thought. I must have been randomly selected for some kind of detailed screening or random car search. I wasn't panicked, though, because I had nothing to hide other than an embarassing amount of fast food detritus slowly decaying on the passenger floor. But when a pair of police cars showed up and purposely parked on either end of my car to block me in, that's when I started raising an eyebrow or two.
Was I on some kind of watchlist? Was there an Evil Shane Brown out there somewhere sullying my good name? Or, as it turns out, maybe just maybe I sullied my OWN name when I turned 42 back in January and failed to notice that my driver's license had expired. It turns out I've been cruising around town on an expired license for just over two months. Smooth move, Brown.
Now, I'm not going to give you a play-by-play of my brush with the law. After all, I was in the wrong and they had a job to do. Just suffice it to say that it must have been one SLOW night on that certain locally-based federal military installation, and I sincerely hope those guys spend as much time securing the homeland as they do harassing helpless idiots in Volkswagen Beetles. But at the end of the day, they treated me like a person AND let me scoot with a warning instead of taking me to the federal pokey, so I'm actually pretty lucky and in their debt. Still, NOT the ideal way to spend a Friday night.
But it was heaven compared to Saturday morning.
I woke up determined to never repeat the previous evening's scenario, so I headed out to the DMV first thing. Here in the Illinois Quad Cities, our local Secretary of State's office is conveniently located on the precise edge of nowhere in a strip mall with no logical or discernable entrance. I believe that this is the driving test portion of the license renewal process: If you can figure out how to get to the DMV, you've proven you know how to drive.
Personally, I've always thought that the DMV gets a bad rap. The popular stereotype is that its a timeless void of bitter and grouchy bureaucratic nightmares. As for me, whenever I've had to visit in the past, I've been met with courteous and knowledgeable staff who provide exceptional service in both a timely and friendly manner.
Clearly this is because I had never been down there on a Saturday. Saturdays are every bad DMV stereotype presented en masse for your viewing pleasure. Saturdays at the DMV is where hope goes to die.
I showed up relatively early and still ended up at the tail end of the waiting line to the information desk.
"Hi," I said upon waiting my way to the front. "I just discovered that my driver license expi--"
"Take a number wait for it to be called step aside," came the atonal interruption. I grabbed my number and saw with disdain that it said "44." That was when I heard them call "3." Uh oh.
I noticed that every one of the laminated numbers also came with a random safe-driving slogan. Mine said, "Keep your cool! Chill the road rage!" Little did I know it would be my mantra to survive the next 2.5 hours. With nothing better to do, I surveyed my fellow waitees. Everyone looked completely unhappy. Exasperated sighs emitted from around the room in 30-second intervals. Old men sat alongside bored teenagers of every race, color, and creed -- an equal opportunity suckfest if ever there was one. To top it off, one careless mom seemed willfully ignorant of the fact that her two sugar-infused offspring were bouncing around the entire office like caffeinated jumping beans. Seriously, it wouldn't surprise me if someone walked out that day with a driver's license photo featuring a blurry 4-year-old in the background.
Speaking of license photos, I did learn one important thing that day. It turns out that, after the embarassment of nearly being arrested followed by a 2.5 hour extreme test of patience, I take a photo that makes me look like I'm posing for the cover of my new gangsta rap album, complete with scowl and a facial expression that clearly says, "I solemnly swear I am up to no good." If I ever get stopped by the police again, they're going to take one look at that license and assume that I really AM a bad boy. January 5, 2017 cannot arrive fast enough, and THIS time I won't forget about it. I'm serious. Sha-mow-a!
I'm a fan of video games -- but I am NOT a gamer. A gamer lives and breathes the lifestyle, doesn't care how long it takes to beat a boss, and generally has the patience of a saint. I, meanwhile, peek at all the latest and greatest games, buy a few of them, and play them precisely until the moment they become difficult. Then I either get bored or frustrated and wander away. I'm the kind of guy most gamers hate.
That said, there are a few video games that I've been able to play for hours on end without giving up. What are my favorite video games of all time? Well, there's SimTower, where you rule over a 100-story skyscraper and its inhabitants. There's Civilization: Revolution, where you start by managing a primitive village and win by conquering the globe. I was a big fan of Ultima IV, where you take a simpleton and turn him into the religious leader of Brittania. Then there's Skyrim, where your goal is to take a penniless prisoner and turn him into a sort of dragon-lord scary guy.
Now that I think about it, perhaps I have a bit of a God complex, or at least God envy. I don't much like fighting games or shooting games or racing games or sports games. In fact, pretty much the only video games I do like are the ones where I get to lord over simulated populations with a cold iron fist. It's not all bad -- I'm usually a fairly benevolent ruler, I swear. I only smite those simulated townsfolk who stand in my path to greatness... or look at me funny... or catch me in an especially bad mood.
What can I say? I enjoy ruling the world, sue me. It's a stress reducer. So maybe I didn't hit that big sales goal at work. And so what if I hit every red light on my way home and then got caught behind the little old lady with 17 coupons in the checkout line. No big deal. I'm as cool as a cucumber. Know why? Coz I can head home, turn on my X-Box, and torture fake people until they beg for my simulated mercy.
And never has a game existed with as much potential for torturing innocents as the legendary "Sim City." Last week, game designers Maxis unveiled the sixth and latest installment of the epic Sim City franchise, and like any good aspiring omnipotent ruler, I couldn't resist picking it up right away.
The premise of Sim City is simple: You control the destiny of an entire community. You start the game with an empty parcel of land. Build some roads and sooner or later sim people start showing up and building little sim houses. Zone some of your land as industrial and commercial and watch little sim businesses come to life. Your job is to make sure the little sim people stay happy in their little sim city. You're in charge of water, electricity, transportation, and the basic essentials. If you do the job right, your little sim village will quickly start escalating into skyscrapers and factories and suburbs. Don't forget to build little sim schools for your little sim children or they'll turn to a life of sim crime and you'll have to start building sim police stations. I'm not kidding. There's even a little sim Superman who flies around your town thwarting evil. It's like owning the most complicated Sea Monkeys you could ever imagine.
It's also a brilliant new way to commit sim crimes against sim humanity. Last night, I was furiously working on my paradise sim city of Shane Francisco. I was barely keeping the town out of the red, but we needed more classrooms in the schools and a second fire station to protect my ever-growing population. That's when the sim people started yelling at me that taxes were too high. Great, just what I needed -- Simpublicans.
Alright, little buddies, fine. I'll lower your taxes. Too bad the city's operating in the red now. Looks like there's just one cost-saving measure I can do -- temporarily shut down the sewer system to my 8,400 residents. Did I get a victory parade down Main Street for my low taxes AND second fire station? Perhaps a statue built in my honor somewhere? Nope. Instead, the little needy sims took to city hall and starting protesting the lack of sewers, little sim picket signs and all. Fine, you little sim ingrates. I'll build you a brand new sewage outflow pipe... right in the middle of town square! You want septic? Now you have it, flowing freely down Main St. Enjoy sim typhoid, my friends.
All told, it's a great game, albeit missing a few key elements of real life. For instance, I've yet to see any sim apathy. Every one of these little sim-ians seems overly concerned with finding gainful employment, advancing their station, and picketing city hall any time their feathers get ruffled. Where are the lazy sims? Surely there must be some sim burnouts who'd rather hang out in their parents' sim-basement playing Sim-Simcity and listening to sim-dubstep. Plus the seedy sim-underworld isn't very creative -- thus far the only crimes I've witnessed are robberies committed by little zoot-suit-clad sims who look like they've watched too much Simbonnie & Simclyde. I want sim knife-fights, indecent sim-exposure, and unnecessary repetitive sim-driving. All told, Shane Francisco is pretty boring. Maybe they'll come out with a Sim Weirdos expansion pack.
In the meantime, I can't help but fantasize about how I'd sim-manage the Quad Cities if given the chance. First off, no more four towns and no more arguments about what 4 towns those actually are. In MY world, it would just be Modavendorf Island and everyone can deal with it (besides, how much fun would it be to hear every band at the iWi scream, "Hello, Modavendorf!!"?)
I opened the question to Facebook and discovered I'm not the only one on my friends list with God envy. If my FRIENDS ruled the Quad Cities, we'd have things like bike bridges over the Mississippi, state-run record stores with mandatory attendance, something about making Rock Island "just like Amsterdam" (no comment), and one friend who listed off the four things she wants in the Quad Cities: An aquarium, a large indoor swimming pool, witches, and vampires.
See, I never thought about adding the constant fear of after-dark bloodsuckers to my world. Perhaps I'm more benevolent than I thought. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some sim-lives to ruin.
(This really WAS my cheese spread!)
They say everybody needs a hobby. I've got a good one.
My hobby is occasionally pretending that I'm NOT a hopeless manchild barely capable of independent living. Sometimes I like to imagine that I'm... wait for it... mature. That's why last weekend I found myself walking into a grocery store like a big boy.
I eat out -- a lot. Almost every meal, in fact. When I don't eat out, I'm usually bringing it home in a bag or having it delivered to my door on a thin crust with a side of breadsticks. As a general rule, my culinary skills start and stop with the phrase "Peel back plastic film. Stir. Replace film and continue cooking 1 minute on high. Caution: food will be hot." And sometimes I even forget about the hot part. I've got a burn on my hand right now to prove it.
But I've discovered an interesting thing this past year: I kinda enjoy cooking. I just have absolutely no clue what I'm doing.
I suppose it doesn't help that I'm what they call a finicky eater. And by "they," I mean my friends, who call me that all the time. I think I'm a perfectly normal eater. It's just that, after drawing on 42 years of experience, I've established a small shortlist of food items that I don't especially care for. They are as follows:
- Things that are green.
- Things that are spicy.
- Things that look weird.
- Things I can't pronounce.
- Things that were once things that could be described as "cute."
Basically, if you want to feed me something containing flavor, there's about a 60% chance I won't be having it. I'd love to be one of those food snobs and tell you that my favorite meal is something pan-seared that only French people can pronounce correctly with a such-and-such reduction that only the townsfolk of some village in the Alps know how to prepare correctly.
Truth be told, my favorite meal is probably a Butterburger and fries from Culver's. I am not in possession of a refined palate.
That said, I still find shows on the Food Network fascinating. I like watching chefs take simple ingredients and turn it into art. Of course, they usually ruin it somewhere along the way by the cunning and nefarious placement of onions, but the end result is still pretty even if I wouldn't eat it.
But every once in a while, I come across a recipe that actually sounds edible, so I try to make it. That's what happened last week. I was thumbing through this very paper and came across an article about entertaining for an Oscar party. It just so happened I was hosting an Oscar party of my own, and I hadn't really given any thought towards food. The article suggested serving canapes, which is French for "crackers with stuff on them." This I could handle.
The article contained a couple recipes for spreads -- a garlic-herb one and an orange sweet potato one -- and recommended getting a variety of toppings, such as some good cheese, cherry tomatoes, and crab meat. I had a game plan and stormed into the grocery store on a mission, list in hand. Then it all went to heck.
First thing staring me in the face was the veggie aisle, so I went on a search for a sweet potato. Within a minute, I was bagging up a yam and ready to move on. Then I caught a glimpse down the next row and saw a sign that said "sweet potatoes." Wait, didn't I have a sweet potato already? But mine was more red, these were more yellow. I had a yam. These were sweet potatoes. I thought yams WERE sweet potatoes. Turns out I was wrong. Sweet potatoes are American; yams are tropical. And I know this because I was the weirdo standing in the grocery store researching yams on Wikipedia while trying to balance a handful of taters.
Then I learned that I'm also woefully ignorant when it comes to cheese. I guess in my mind, I expected to walk up and there'd be something labeled "fancy cheese to impress your friends," and I'd be on my way. Instead, there were hundreds of cheeses of all sizes and shapes. I studied the impressive variety, carefully weighed my options, and... bought the ones with the fanciest packaging and the most European-sounding names. So attention, cheese-makers of the Midwest: if you want to see the sales of your homemade Velveeta skyrocket, just give it a nonsense name like "froumayudenachtensich" and write it in Old English font and some nimrod like me WILL come along and buy it.
But enough about cheese, I had crab to buy. Here's everything I know about crabs: (1) They're really ugly, and (2) the only things that look uglier than crabs are the grizzled fishermen who make a living on the Discovery Channel catching them. As I held a pouch o' crab meat in my hand, I wondered if I'd seen this poor fella on "Deadliest Catch." At the very least, I hoped he clawed the heck out of somebody between the ocean and my shopping cart.
Things were looking good. After all, nothing says a party quite like cheese, yams, and crab, no? But I needed to go the extra mile. Remember the recipe I found for a garlic spread? I decided to make it with fresh herbs, so I headed back to the produce aisle and starting pilfering through greeneries. That's when the the well-worn piece of gum I was chomping decided to fall out of my mouth and disappear forever. The way I see it, either (a) a hole in the space-time continuum opened up at that precise moment, whisking my gum to another dimension, or (b) it's covertly clinging to some lucky customer's parsley as we speak. I swear to you all, I rifled through those herbs forever looking for that gum -- so much so that I'm sure passersby were wondering just what kind of public relationship I was attempting to forge with parsley on that afternoon -- but no dice, and no gum. If you're lucky enough to find it amongst your fresh produce, I am SO sincerely sorry and I promise I don't have mouth cooties.
I may have lost the gum but I won the day, heading home with food aplenty and crafting one heck of an Oscar spread if I do say so myself. And I do, in fact, say so MYSELF, since most of my invited Oscar party guests cancelled at the last minute. For the past week, I've been surviving on a steady diet of crackers with stuff on them. It might not be nutritious, but it sure is fancy and mature.
Technology and Shane have a long history together. As part of their never-ending mission to make me perhaps THE most spoiled child in all of west central Illinois, my folks bought me my first computer when I was in fifth grade. Keep in mind that this was 1980, when the majority of IBM computers were wall-sized and Al Gore had yet to invent the internet. I'm not even sure I knew what a computer WAS, but suddenly I had one in my bedroom.
Within weeks, I was a full-on addict. With a lot of patience and some ominously thick manuals, I taught myself the fundamentals of DOS and Applesoft BASIC. In no time at all, I was fighting orcs, levelling up characters, going on magical quests, and slaying evil all over primitive cyberspace.
The consequence, of course, is that I also became a social pariah overnight. I'm pretty sure grade school pre-dates the whole coolness caste system, but by the time I hit middle school, once you combined my already underperforming hand/eye coordination with an unabashed desire to race home every day to master Zork II, I was on a fast-track to Nerd City.
Good thing I didn't care. Killing dragons was fun, baseball was boring, and girls had cooties. I was comfortable with technology then, and I'm comfortable with it now. I might still be a bit of a nerd these days, but I can hook up your stereo, customize your Facebook page, and show you at least ten ways (of varying state, federal, and international legalities) to download new music.
Too bad none of it rubbed off on my parents.
My mom is a smart cookie. She reads more books in a year than I will in my entire life, routinely turns balls of yarn into crocheted art, and can cook eight dishes at once and have them all magically get done right at dinnertime. My dad, meanwhile, built the house I grew up in, can turn a tree into a desk, and single-handedly transformed my ugly concrete slab of a basement into a mancave worthy of a king.
They also own a computer that's fancier than mine, complete with a Blu-Ray burner, Intel processor, surround sound, and 500 gig of memory. My mom uses it to play solitaire. My dad doesn't even know how to turn it on. I just stare at them in horror.
I am my mother's personal tech support line. Whenever she wants to do something on the computer, she calls me up -- and usually with concise concerns, such as: "I can't make the song go," "How do I like your cousin on here?" and "My Google is slow -- is it because I twittered it?" Recently, she got irked that I didn't reply to her message on Facebook -- because it turns out she sent it to a presumably confused Shane Brown of Mora, Minnesota. Worse yet, he accepted her friend request and they now chat regularly.
Last weekend, my folks came up to take me out to dinner. Little did I know that "take me out to dinner" came with an asterisk that said, "(*once you go to Best Buy and help us buy a new iPod.)"
A few years ago, I got my mom an iPod Mini, which she loved and carried around with her always. There was just one problem: she didn't know how to use iTunes and didn't want to learn. Ergo, every family dinner I've attended over the past half decade has involved me arriving, eating, and then spending the next two hours ripping and uploading songs. It's okay, though -- my folks have given me the world over the years, I figure I owe them a little indentured servitude.
But her iPod broke, and it was time for a new one. As we were looking at the new iPod Touch, a thought hit me. My folks still use crummy flip-phones. Why not make the great leap forwards and buy an iPhone that holds just as much music?
"Oh, no," my mom said. "I don't need all that stuff. It's too confusing."
"But you GET all that stuff with the iPod, too," I tried to explain. "The iPhone is just like an iPod you can make calls with!"
They didn't believe me, so I needed backup. I went up to the cell phone counter for some expertise. I just needed the clerk to explain the difference in pricing between their current broadband setup vs. an iPhone used in conjunction with a mobile hotspot. Easy, right? But I opened my mouth and THIS is what came out:
"Hi! Umm, my parents live out in the country, and they have an iPod -- well, they DID, it broke. And I want them to get an iPhone, but I also want that deal where they get, y'know, one of those thingers where they can get internet without any cable dealies, and I don't know how much that dealybob costs compared to the thingy they have now that gets internet with a plug-in thingamajig."
As I watched the poor clerk's face get more and more twisted with every word I said, I realized an ugly truth: I'm becoming my parents. Technology is starting to escape me. We're headed into a world of video phones and 4D TVs and media clouds and I am seriously falling behind in my understanding of it all. Worse yet, I haven't procreated up any offspring of my own to come home on holidays and work this stuff once I stop understanding it all. I'm going to be like the dog on the RCA logo listening to music through a big horn while the rest of the world has it beamed into their brain chips via iConsciousness or whatever.
I'm hoping there's one simple explanation at work: No matter how well you think you understand technology, there's always going to be someone out there to make you feel stupid. For my parents, that person is me. For me, it's the clerk at Best Buy. For that guy, it's probably his boss. And so and so on until you reach Bill Gates, who by divine rights should rule the planet. I'm not so sure he doesn't.
The truth is, my mom probably knows more about technology than most people her age, and maybe I should cut her some slack -- and I'll tell her that as soon as she gets off her chat with Minnesota Shane Brown.
I can't help but feel like I'm slumming it these days, Quad Cities.
Once upon a time, I was content with being a self-appointed spokesman for the middle class, a voice for the struggling everyman, and a sounding board for Joe Q. Public. With this weekly column, I have strived to showcase the fun, fears, and follies of an average life in the Midwest. That was before I got a taste of the good life and realized that I'm clearly better than all of you lowly plebian commoners. Or at least I was.
You see, for just over two minutes last week, I was a multi-millionaire.
I'm a fan of technology, but there's a downside to the modernization of our lives: laziness. With every technological advancement comes a new and exciting way for me to shirk responsibility and spend more and more time on my couch watching Hulu. "Running errands" is a thing of the past -- anything I need these days can generally be accomplished over commercial breaks with a laptop and credit card. Pay bills? Check. Go shopping? Check. Order pizza? Check. In fact, most of the comings and goings in my bank account these days occur without my interference whatsoever, thanks to the magic of direct deposit and automatic withdrawals.
As a result, I've become lax at one important responsibility: check depositing. Every once in a while, I still encounter people and businesses with the unmitigated gall to send me non-electronic, non-auto-depositing paper checks that require (grimace) effort to deposit. I should be a responsible person and take them straight to the bank to irresponsibly spend them. Instead, I tend to forget about paper checks and let them pile up somewhere until I realize I'm overdrawn and desperate.
That's where I found myself last week, depositing a handful of long-overdue, already-spent checks into my empty bank account -- and that's when the magic happened.
The largest of these checks was for around $130. But when the cashier at the bank scanned the check, it recorded itself in my bank account as a deposit of $3,200,000. That's what I refer to as a healthy, well-deserved bonus, if I do say so myself. And just like any heroic Scooby-Doo villain, I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for that meddling cashier.
She caught her error right away, but still refused to listen to reason. I explained to her that as a time-saver, I'd be gracious enough to compromise and allow her to round the total down to the nearest whole million, but she wasn't having it. I begged her at the very least to allow me to take home and modestly frame the deposit receipt showing my $3.2 million checking balance, but she told me that banks generally frown on offering their customers proof of funds that don't exist. What a no-fun-nik.
Instead, I had to stand there while she rectified the error and returned my account comfortably back into the red. This process took just over two minutes -- two minutes in which I was incredibly, disgustingly, mind-bogglingly wealthy. As it turns out, my brain can think of a LOT of things in two minutes' time. For instance:
* I spent roughly 26 seconds wondering what it would feel like to withdraw three million dollars from a bank. What format would I like that in? There are no million dollar bills. If I had to carry around three million dollars with me, the only appropriate way to do so would be in the form of a comically large check that requires 2-3 people to transport.
* I spent about 31 seconds fantasizing about taking said check down to the casino, flopping it on the roulette table, and letting it all ride on black. Or whatever you do when you play roulette. I honestly wouldn't know since my knowledge of gambling starts and stops at a slot machine lever, which I've pulled a total of maybe four times in my life. I'm not cut out to be a gambler. But it's MY fantasy, and in MY fantasy, I throw down the check and, in one hand (or one spin or whatever the heck you do in roulette,) I bankrupt the casino and immediately take it over.
* I spent about 18 seconds wondering what I'd name my new casino. Shane of Capri would suffice until I came up with something better.
* I spent nine seconds realizing that I could easily parlay my newfound casino empire into a small portfolio of local real estate, which would officially make me the Donald Trump of the Quad Cities, just with better hair and a tad less crazy.
* To fully Trump my life out, I spent 17 more seconds whittling down a shortlist of who I'd want as contestants on my Quad Cities' Celebrity Apprentice. Imagine a talent pool of A-list local celebrities all vying for my affection on cable access. Who wouldn't watch a show where Paula Sands, Greg Dutra, Red Hot Brian Scott, the Brenny brothers, Suzy Bogguss, Hugo Proulx, Mary from Good's Furniture, and the "Drive 20 Save Plenty" kid all have to work together as a team to, I dunno, make me tacos and clean my house?
* My house! How could I have forgotten!? I spent the next 19 seconds cursing the wind that I'd left my phone in my car. In one quick swipe, I could have opened up my Wells Fargo app and paid off my house while no-one was looking. Maybe when you're trying to rectify a 3.2 million dollar discrepancy, you don't care so much if a few thousand dollars go missing. If only...
(Beep.) And that was it. Error rectified and my seven digit bank account went back to the crummy three digits it knows and loves. I went from owning a casino to being unable to afford a meal in a casino. After all, things don't come cheap at the Shane of Capri.
So I'm not a member of the 1% club and I'll probably be making house payments for the rest of my life. It's not all bad, though. The way I see it, I've just made myself a LOT more interesting. Now I can switch my online dating profile to: "Columnist. Media Consultant. Part Time DJ. Pop culture enthusiast. FORMER MILLIONAIRE." Ladies, the line forms to the left.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
I speak, of course, about global flavoring.
Dateline: Scotland. Two weeks ago, it was revealed that a series of heavy storms along the Scottish coast have washed up at least four large lumps... of antique lard.
According to the Scottish Office of Natural Heritage, the lard lumps are suspected to be from the wreck of a merchant vessel sunk during World War II. Back then, the lard was being transported in large barrels. Eventually the barrels rotted away and this year's storm season was enough to raise the lard and deposit it on the beach in big barrel-sized goobers.
Kinda gross and disturbing, sure, but not as gross or disturbing as the quote from Therese Alampo, manager of the St. Cyrus Natural Reserve where the lard washed up:
"It's given us some interesting sights recently on the reserve," she told the British press. "I'm sure there have been people wondering what on earth has washed up on the beach. Animals, including my dog, have certainly enjoyed the lard, and it still looks and smells good enough to have a fry-up with!"
That's funny, because "good" is never a word that I've ever associated with the smell of lard. Not once have I cracked open a tub of Crisco and gone, "Mmmm!" Last I checked, "aged lard" is NOT a top-selling Scentsy fragrance. Then again, no slight against our vast contingency of Scottish readers, but I find it dubious at best to trust the olfactory opinions of a culture that invented haggis.
And I do not own a dog, ergo I'm fairly unqualified to speak of the average canine's skill sets. That said, if I were walking along the beach and came across a barrel-sized pile of gelatinous ick, would my initial reaction be to hand the investigation over to my beloved Fido for a taste-test? Not so much.
How dumb must dogs be? I've seen my share of nature documentaries. All you need is one night of Shark Week to know that marine biologists have frequently sliced open the innards of sharks to reveal everything from tin cans to Doc Martens. There are entire species of fish that live on the backs of other fish and survive off their crumbs. A surplus of snails, slugs, and undersea creepy-crawlies hang out on the ocean floor and survive by hoovering up barely edible bits of slime and filth.
An entire ecosystem of marine life survives on finding whatever food it can -- yet apparantly all of nature's undersea wonders have swam on by these piles of lard for decades and gone, "Naw, that's not food. I'm good." But kick it onshore after 70 years and dogs go wild for the stuff. I always knew cats were smarter.
Why do we care about land-roving lard in the first place? What it is about aged food that we as human beings find so exciting? As I type, you might be aging wine in your basement. Caves in France and Italy are full of cheeses ripening away. In Scandinavia, fish are buried and left to ferment for upwards of a year to give it that extra tasty zing (which hopefully isn't botulism.)
But here's the thing that's always amazed me about aged food. If you think about it, in order to discover that certain types of cheese taste best after sitting around for a year, some dude in history must have left some cheese out for a year to see what would happen. Does this mean that ALL food has, at one time or another in history, been left out for a year and then taste-tested? And did the guy who tried a year-old hot dog live long enough to tell others that it's not so much a delicacy as it is poison? And why is it that a hot dog turns green after a short time yet lard can be submerged for 70 years to make a delightful pet treat? And does the threat of global flavoring end with four hunks of ocean lard? Hardly.
Dateline: the Pacific Northwest. Researchers at Portland State University recently sampled ocean water drawn from various points along the Oregon coast and have discovered the ocean water to be laced... with caffeine. Et tu, Starbucks? If nothing else, this clearly explains why the crabs on "Deadliest Catch" look so jittery.
If you haven't done the math, it's as gross as you'd expect. Remember that latte you had an hour ago? Well, an hour from NOW you're going to flush away some of that latte, and apparantly septic tanks aren't so perfect after all. High rainfall equals sewer overflow equals groundwater runoff equals ocean contamination and THIS is why we never see dolphins taking a nap.
This all seems like an absolutely horrible... waste of caffeine. Caffeine that I need to function on a daily basis. This isn't a pollution issue or an environmental issue -- this is a human internal effiency issue. Clearly we need to train our bodies to consume and utilize every drop of caffeine we put into them. When I slam an 8-Hour Energy, I want all eight hours, not six for me and two for some lucky catfish swimming by. I need to have a serious productivity seminar with my kidneys.
So the bad news is that we're awful polluters slowly destroying our precious oceans with lard and caffeine. The good news is that lard and caffeine are two of my five major food groups, so I'm kinda okay with it. If we could only figure out a way to start polluting our seas with bacon, tacos, and chocolate, I might consider moving to the coastline.
There are many things in life that I will never fully understand:
The origin of Man. The meaning of life. The appeal of Tom Cruise. Basic algebra. Rugby. Nickelback. How to flip an egg without breaking the yolk. The ending to "Donnie Darko." The ending to "Lost." The middle part of "Lost."
And more than anything, I will never fully understand women. How their minds work, what they prioritize, how best to interact with them, why they like what they like, and why they hate what they hate. Lord knows I've tried -- I've actually made it through ENTIRE episodes of "Sex and the City" with little more than a puzzled look on my face.
I spend forty hours a week working in a room full of women. This experience has opened me up to an exciting world of girldom, and I've gained insightful knowledge over the years about everything from childbirth to gynecologists to basket parties. I'm pretty sure I could be declared an honorary female at this point. Still, by and large, I don't get you estrogenny people.
However, I can now rest assured in the knowledge that women apparantly have NO clue about men, either.
I consider myself one of the world's leading authorities on wasting time, and there's no better timewaster on Earth than the internet. Every night, I'll log on to do a quick e-mail check or scan news headlines. Next thing I know, I'll come up for air and realize I've spent 45 minutes watching videos of dancing cats or confirming the current whereabouts of Lindsay Lohan. I am a master web surfer.
It was during one of these epic surf-a-thons the other night that I took a really wrong turn. I was browsing some news, saw a link to an article that looked entertaining, and clicked away. Little did I know that it would transport me to a world that men dare not enter. A world that answers SO many questions while introducing a million more. A world that makes "Sex and the City" look like an afterschool special. I had entered the world... of Cosmopolitan.com.
When I was in college, I had ONE friend who never held back when it came to raunchy storytelling. If there was a sexual conquest to be had, he quested it, more often than not conquered it, and more always than not reenacted it for everyone in our fraternity to enjoy, complete with hypergraphic play-by-play detail, visual aids, hand gestures, and occasional souvenirs. I'm pretty sure this is what women think ALL men act like.
But even my friend's WORST stories couldn't hold a candle to the content of Cosmopolitan.com.
Cosmo is an international magazine for women. It was first published in the U.S. in 1886, has 64 international editions, is printed in 35 languages, and boasts a current U.S. circulation of 3,032,211. Oh, yes, and I almost forgot: it is filthy naughty sex-manual smutty smut smut for ladies. Fellow men of Earth, you can now read Playboy without shame or guilt. Read away, because the articles on Cosmo's website are by and large raunchier than anything I've ever seen in that fine upstanding men's magazine.
I'd give you examples, but I'm pretty sure I'd get fired or run out of town on a rail by the morality police were I to reproduce some of the juicier tidbits currently residing on their site. Worse yet, a good portion of these articles attempt to inform or instruct women on what guys want when it comes to love, dating, and assorted boudoir-related activities. After perusing a good chunk of this cutting-edge journalism, I'm now convinced that either (1) I am a very weird representation of the modern man (admittedly a distinct possibility), or (2) Cosmo has it ALL wrong.
One of the pieces on their website is tastefully entitled, "Naughty Role Play Ideas You've Never Tried Before." Know WHY you haven't tried them before? Because they're RIDICULOUS, that's why. Every guy knows that there's a time and place for role-playing, and that time is 8th grade when you are holding 20-sided dice in your hand. We didn't want girls playing Dungeons & Dragons with us THEN, and we don't want them playing it now in our bedroom.
Okay, maybe some guys are into that kinda thing (I wouldn't know. Know why? Because WE DON'T TALK ABOUT THAT KINDA STUFF.) The article goes on to say that one of the recommended techniques is to pretend that you and your mate are "a lion and lioness out in the savannah." Really? Well, let's just add that to my OKCupid profile and see how many bachelorettes line up, shall we? Maybe I'm weird, but I'm pretty sure that if a girl ROARS at me, I'm either outta there or I'm busting up laughing, and I don't think that's what the editors of Cosmo had in mind.
Yet 3,032,211 U.S. readers of Cosmo probably take this stuff to heart. Let's see, there are roughly 150,000,000 women in the United States. That means 1-in-49 women that I pass on the street might be going home and roaring like a lion because a magazine told them to. And now of course, every time I pass a woman on the street, I can't help but wonder if she's the lucky lioness.
But it doesn't stop there. Another headline reads, "Makeup Men Freaking Love!" Ladies, I'm pretty sure there's only one man on the planet who "freaking loves" makeup, and his name is David Bowie. I've never been out with the guys and heard one of us go, "Yo, check out that girl's... rouge."
Cosmo wants to take relationships and turn them into some epic struggle of mind-games, one-ups-manship, and constant maintenance. I take a simpler approach: If I like somebody, I like them. If they like me back, all the better. No one needs to roar like a lion or apply face paint. If Cosmo REALLY wants to know what men like, just ask us. By and large, the answers are: Large televisions, ESPN, Halo 4, fast cars, and corn dogs.
We're the EASY ones to understand.
The plan was simple: Procure a weekly newspaper column. Use said column to create an army of devoted fans. Let the money roll in. Commence lavish and extravagant lifestyle of dreams. Party with Olsen Twins and Donald Trump. Kick Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen out of said party when things get freaky-deaky. Retire early and perhaps buy small island nation over which I can rule with cold hard iron fist.
C'mon, that's not asking for TOO much, is it?
My plan had one fatal flaw. Incredulous as it seems, it turns out that newspaper columnists -- despite having a job satisfaction level on a 1-to-10 scale of roughly 1,000,000 -- are, by and large, NOT multi-millionaires. Nobody told me this when I signed up. Well, maybe they did. But I wasn't listening. I was too busy designing my line of poseable Shane Brown action figures -- which your kids will LOVE, by the way. You can dress them in a variety of cargo pants and faded concert t-shirts and they'll come with real remote controls in their little hands that change all the TV channels in the Shane Brown Vacation Dreamhouse (sold separately.)
But I'm tired of waiting for millionaire status. The time has come for me to start living high on the hog. And thanks to ABC, I may have figured out how to do it.
Ever seen the show "Shark Tank"? It is a network TV show which, presumably, people must watch. From what little I've seen, it works like this: An assortment of crazy people are paraded into a room and allowed to make a crazy sales pitch about some crazy invention that they've crazied up in their brains. A group of crazy investors then throws a crazy amount of money at them and everyone leaves insanely wealthy.
Don't believe me? Ask Dr. Floyd Seskin, inventor of The UroClub. The UroClub was a product successfully pitched on "Shark Tank" and is now available via infomercial or UroClub.com. What IS UroClub, you ask? Why, it's an invention that I don't know how I've lived without prior to now. The UroClub might just be the most exciting technological innovation of the century. The UroClub is a golf club... you can pee in.
"How many times has this happened to you?" asks the UroClub website. "You're playing 18 holes with your best buddies. You're coming up to the third hole with no rest room in sight. There are no trees or bushes around and you just have to go."
Okay, so that's never happened to me since I'm not a golfer, but it sounds like a wicked awful situation. Well, now, thanks to modern innovation, you can just grab your UroClub (which disguises itself as one of your golf clubs,) discretely unscrew the cap, and do your business right there on the fairway.
What a genius idea. Not only is this a sexy and stylish new way to commit what I'd reckon to be a misdemeanor in most states, but who among us hasn't yearned for a convenient excuse to wander around an 18-hole golf course lugging a bag sloshing to and fro with your own urine? Genius, I tell you. But at the end of the day, I'd also reckon that Dr. Floyd Seskin is making more money selling UroClubs than I am by making fun of it in print.
Ergo, I need to invent something on the double. And while it might not be as revolutionary, ground-breaking, or pee-soaked as the UroClub, I think I've done it. Investors, take note:
The other morning, I was fresh out of the shower and getting ready for work when my cat Isobel sauntered into the bedroom. As I reached down to put on my socks, I caught a glimpse of her face and what appeared to be a small piece of paper sticking out of her mouth. Now, I have two cats -- one of which is a smart and intelligent example of feline evolution; and then there's Isobel, who I love dearly even if she's a little... special. Let's just say that confusing paper for food is the least of that cat's problems.
I sighed and pulled the paper out of her mouth, which grossly unrolled as I pulled, revealing itself to be about three inches in length and already halfway down Isobel's esophagus. I looked at the paper and realized it had writing on it:
"YOU WILL SOON COME INTO GREAT WEALTH," it read.
They say a picture's worth a thousand words. But if someone had taken a photo at that moment of me, wet-haired and sockless, holding a soggy piece of paper with a puzzled look on my face, the only words of value would have been "What the...?" It wasn't until I walked into the living room and saw the decimated bag and strewn-out remains of the previous night's Chinese takeout that it all made sense. I'd left an uneaten fortune cookie in the bag, and little Izzy had made quick work of it.
And, in doing so, created the greatest idea the world has ever known: FORTUNE CATS.
Who needs their fortunes dispensed via weird little cookies that taste like cardboard when you could receive them daily from a cute, fuzzy kitty cat? It would especially soften the blow should you receive a poor fortune, no? If I'm about to be told that my life is in danger or that I'm going to lose all my money, it might be handy to have something in the near vicinity with sad eyes that purrs.
I'm convinced that the advent of fortune cats could very well be the ground-breaking, money-making idea that the world's been waiting for. All I have to do is find an army of cats and train them to hack up fortunes on a timely basis -- and anyone who lives in Rock Island knows that an army of feral cats is one public bowl of Meow Mix away from my back door. Of course, my friend Jason reminded me that Step One will be to somehow ensure that the fortunes are dispensed exclusively from ONE end of the cat and not the other, so I've got my work cut out for me.
Still, a fella's gotta dream. And my dream is to one day make loads of money by going on "Shark Tank" and introducing the world to Fortune Cats (TM). After all, I'm pretty sure that even if it's covered in cat vomit, my bank will honor a million-dollar check. Wish me luck.
Monday, March 25, 2013
I now have my answer: 13 days. That's how long it took in 2013 for a little old lady to try and beat me up.
Have you guys ever heard of the new age notion of spiritual vortices? Some people believe that the earth is covered in ley lines that zip spiritual energy from hither to thither. Occasionally these ley lines converge in random spots across the globe, and this supposedly causes a spiritual hot spot where you can recharge your creative chakras or whatever. Of course, these are the same folks that sleep with crystals over their beds and somehow find the music of Yanni appealing.
I dunno if I buy into spiritual vortices, but I'm a firm believer in the notion of comical vortices: random places on Earth where funny weird stuff is just bound to happen. I've spoken at length in older columns about one such vortex: the Taco Bell drive-thru lane. In that tiny slice of real estate, I've had strangers sing to me, witnessed people strip naked, debated politics with restaurant workers, you name it. And now I can add another such vortex to my life: the interior of pretty much any Walgreens.
This is not a slight against either business. I'm a fan of both. If you ever wanted to meet me in real life, you stand a better chance by loitering at Walgreens than you would the front door of the Dispatch office. Anything you need in life can be found at Walgreens, and if you CAN'T find it at Walgreens, you don't need it. The fact that it's a breeding ground for comedy is just a bonus, really. Walgreens can't deny its inherent comical value -- this is, after all, a place that unabashedly sold a stuffed duck in a Santa hat that, for no good reason whatsoever, sings "Freebird" when you push its foot.
I shop at Walgreens so often that I'm even starting to understand the employee codes that get announced over the intercom. Have you ever been inside a Walgreens and heard "I.C.3"? This, apparantly, is Walgreens code to open a second checkout register. I believe it literally translates to "I see 3"-people-waiting-in-line. And it was in one of those lines that our story begins.
I had dashed into my local Walgreens to grab a bag of cat food. With precious little time to get to a meeting, I hustled down the aisle, grabbed the Cat Chow with grace and precision, spun towards the registers, rounded the corner, and... let's just say someone should have called an "I.C. 8."
The line was epic, all due to a woman with a shopping cart full of after-season Christmas-themed stuffed critters. They were half-off and she was clearly stocking up for one heck of a "Freebird" jam session. Worse yet, none of the things were ringing up right, and I could see the poor cashier on the verge of a nervous collapse when she finally grabbed the mic and yelled, "I.C. 3!"
Within a flash, the second register was open and we were moving. The single-file line remained single-file until you got to the registers, where folks were splitting off to whichever cashier was open.After a nearly interminable wait, I was next in line when I suddenly felt a hard jab at my side as a scowling, hunch-backed, grey-haired little old lady shoved me out of the way and guided her cart up to the second register.
"Excuse me," I said incredulously. That's when she spun.
"WHAT did you say to me, BOY?" she barked.
"Umm," I said to a few chuckles behind me. "I said 'Excuse me.' I may have accidentally bumped you while you were cutting past all of us in line just now." That's when she started screaming.
"Are you DISRESPECTING me, BOY?"
But I didn't care about her words as much as her HAND, which she held up and cocked back as if she was seconds away from slapping me.
"No, ma'am," I said, "I'm NOT disrespecting you, but you'd better put that hand down."
I expected some backup from the folks behind me in line. Instead, I only heard ONE thing from behind me: a single hushed voice going, "Ooooh." The kind of "ooooh" I don't think I'd heard since junior high. The kind of "ooooh" that's usually only followed by ONE word: "Fight! Fight! Fight!"
Now, as best I can recall, I've only been in a situation like this TWICE in my life, and neither time was my adversary collecting Social Security. In grade school, little Robbie McElroy pushed me into the dirt afterschool. I had no response to that, because my mom saw the whole thing and was out of the car yelling at poor Robbie before I even knew what had happened. Another time, in college, my roommate got fed up by my procrastination in dishwashing duties and chucked a bottle of Palmolive at my head. I had no response to that, either, mostly because I deserved it.
And that right there is my entire lifetime history at hand-to-hand combat. Nowhere in there was any experience, training, or advice on how to properly conduct a slap-fight with an 80-year-old woman. You know how they say there's no such thing as bad press? In THIS case, I would beg to differ. "BELOVED LOCAL COLUMNIST ARRESTED FOR ELDERLY ABUSE" is not what I meant by wanting to advance my profile in the newspaper.
Thankfully, it didn't come to that. A fast-thinking Walgreens clerk stepped in and guided the old lady away before I had a chance to properly knock her dentures out. As if I would. Or, heck, even could. Between my physical prowess and years of training, I've got the agility of Ed Asner and the machismo of Richard Simmons, so an 80-year-old lady might have been a fair fight. Even I had to laugh at myself for cautiously checking out the parking lot in fear that she'd be lying in wait for a street-rules grudge match.
I just hope she was having a REALLY bad day, because I'd hate to think this poor sweet-looking old lady goes through life a hair-trigger away from slapping strangers. Still, it infuriated me to think that someone could be SO rude as to blatantly shove through a line of people and THEN become indignant when someone calls her out.
So I'll admit it -- at that moment, a tiny part of my brain spent a tiny amount of time being a tiny part entertained by the fantasy of decking a little old lady flat on her little old hunched back. And that, my friends, is the precise moment when you realize you've just run out of warm fuzzies, renewed optimism, and holiday spirit. December can't get here fast enough.
Let me set the stage. It was New Year's Eve, err, Eve. I was having a small shindig at the International House of Shane the next night, so I'd just tidied the place up and decided to spend a few relaxing minutes before bed trolling around Facebook. I'd only been logged in for a second before a chat request came through from a girl whose name I didn't recognize.
"Are you from Galesburg?" asked the girl innocently.
"Sure am," I typed, "but I don't brag about it. Who's this?"
Maybe it was someone I went to high school with. Maybe it was someone I worked with. Maybe it was a super cute girl who just happens to be into chunky newspaper columnists who hail from the same hometown as three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg. Who knew?
"Well," came her reply. "I'm pretty sure I'm your sister."
Umm. Happy New Year?
My dad, as I have said many a time in this column, is amazing. He is the rock of our family, capable of almost anything, and probably the greatest living human being that I've ever known. My dad can take a tree and turn it into a living room set. He built the house I grew up in from the ground up. He spent his entire adult life working a thankless job to provide for my mom and I. He is my support, my coach, my biggest fan, and I'm blessed beyond words to have a father as good as him to share my life with.
There's just one thing we don't happen to share: DNA.
See, before my dad came along, my mom was married to another guy. He's not worth mentioning by name, so let's just make one up - I'm gonna go with Sammy Stupidhead. Sammy left right after my mom found out she was pregnant, and this was shortly after she also discovered he was cheating on her. Classy guy, that Sammy. My mom calls it her period of temporary insanity. I'm not that regretful; it may have been insane, but the end result was ME, so the good win out. A few months after I was born, my mom met my dad. Marriage and adoption came soon after, and we all lived happily ever after. I've never met Sammy Stupidhead and he remains little more than a sperm donor in my world.
I am proud to be an only child. That wasn't the original gameplan, but I caused so much damage on the way out that I ensured no future sibling rivalry, and I like it that way. I get all the love, all the attention, and all the presents. In MY re-enactment of my birth, I came out "Highlander"-style, an ovary in each hand, screaming "There can be only one!"
What I never thought about all these years, though, was Sammy Stupidhead, who headed down south on what was apparantly a mission to impregnate a measurable percentage of southern Illinois. As it turns out, I have no fewer than SEVEN half-siblings running amok out there somewhere. And now the halflings have found me. And I have NO idea what to do about it.
I guess I always assumed that he MUST have had other kids. I just never realized that they'd all be dead ringers for me. I've now seen the pictures, and yep, they pretty much all look like me with a variety of wigs on. I've always joked about my aspirations to one day take over the world; I just never thought I'd be accomplishing it through a vast, big-eared, big-nosed bloodline army.
For what it's worth, the three biological half-siblings that I've chatted online with seem to be really nice people, and, while this whole thing has me totally freaked, I'm happy they made the effort. My mom's convinced that there must be some sort of nefarious intent to their contacting me, but I truly think it was just out of curiosity. They've always known about me, and apparantly finding me was "on their bucket list." I get that, and I think it's cool. After all, I'm pretty awesome. I'd like to get to know me, too.
But waking up the next morning to a half-dozen Facebook friend requests from strangers saying things like "HI UNCLE SHANE!" was almost enough to do my head in. I never even got to torment any of my little "sisters," but some of them now have kids who have kids of their own. Apparantly I'm a great uncle. I didn't know I was a good one.
Now that I've had a week to soak up this new branch of my family tree, I'm still weirded out, but slowly realizing some advantages to their existence.
For one, I'm thinking I can now throw that exercise bike away and get as morbidly obese as I fancy. After all, I've got a fresh crop of potentially matching organ donors at my disposal.
I can also sleep well knowing that, at least thus far, no one on that side of the family has been struck down by any rare genetically-passed illnesses. I've always had a secret worry that maybe Sammy Stupidhead gave me some genes wherein I turn 42 and suddenly my spleen stops working.
Best of all is that I've now seen a recent picture of Sammy Stupidhead himself, and I now have a pretty good idea what I'm gonna look like 25 years down the road. I have ZERO interest in ever meeting the man, but I kinda want to hug his hair -- it's still there and it hasn't even turned totally grey yet.
So at the end of the day, I'm kind of excited about the Great Halfling Invasion of 2013. I set some immediate boundaries: My dad is my dad and my ONLY dad and it stays that way. I'm happy to be their Facebook buddy and a small part of their lives, but don't expect me to show up at the next potluck. And, seriously, I'm never giving any of them one of my kidneys. I'm pretty sure I need them both.
In all honesty, I'm glad to make their acquaintance, learn about their lives, and fill in some small question marks that I guess I've always had in the back of my head. But I still feel like an only child, and that's because I AM the only child of a fantastic set of parents, and that's never changing.