Monday, May 07, 2018

COLUMN: Ray


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLUMN: Gucci Gang


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fear my single would be more like:

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

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

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

COLUMN: Bathtub

(Note: NOT my actual bathtub. LOL.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLUMN: Pyeongchang


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLUMN: Stress


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really DO love this column.   

COLUMN: East Moline


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLUMN: Butthurt

Well, I wondered how long it would take for the winter of 2018 to cause me bodily damage.

The answer, as it turned out, was seven days. If you had ONE WEEK in my injury pool, you're a winner. The worst bit?  It COULD be argued that there MIGHT have been a SLIGHT chance that this one was avoidable.

It was one of those blessedly boring Sunday afternoons where I was groggily waking up at the crack of noon. That's about when I received an unusual text from my mom.

"FOR GOSH SAKE WHATEVER YOU DO, DON'T GO OUTSIDE."

This is not the normal sort of communique I'm used to receiving from my mother. My mom's texts are usually more like, "YOUR AUNT CALLED. THEYRE OK." Or "HOW IS CAT?" Or, on a particularly brave day, "WHAT IS A SNAPCHAT? CONFUSED." Mom is not usually prone to issuing prophetic warnings via text message.

Whatever I do, don't go outside? This isn't good. I had exactly four things in my refrigerator -- three of which were condiments and the fourth appeared to be growing a fifth. I had a long-standign plan for the day in my head which involved me, my car, and a large plate of enchiladas from whatever restaurant lucky enough to serve me.

Maybe the world was ending. For a minute there, my sleep-addled brain almost forgot that we now live in a world where each day should really begin by checking Twitter to ensure that our commander-in-chief didn't get a 4 a.m. urge to hurl race-baiting insults at nuclear countries with itchy trigger fingers. But no, apart from a routine jab at CNN, Twitter was joyously Trump-free.

I looked out the window and everything seemed fine. My folks live fifty miles south of here. Maybe there was some freakish snowstorm that we missed by miles. Outside MY window, birds were chirping and no snow was falling. Call it curiosity. Call it a quest for knowledge. All I knew was that whatever I did, I had to go outside.

The back steps looked safe and inviting. I mean, sure, it was a little more brisk than usual, but a sudden cold front shouldn't be enough to keep one from an enchilada destiny, no? What the heck could my mom have possibly been --

KER-WHUMP!

I take that back. It didn't go KER-WHUMP! There wasn't enough time for KER-WHUMP! I'm pretty sure there was only time for "KE" and I was already on the ground.

As it turned out, this pretty winter day was especially gleaming due to the glaze of ice that had frozen onto pretty much everything. I had stepped off my back steps onto a makeshift ice rink, wherein my feet went flying over my head while my, err, southern lands came promptly down butt-first onto the sharp, hard, and impressively sturdy edges of my back steps.

At least, that's what I THINK happened. The whole affair took about 1/16th of a second and that's about all I can piecemeal together of the incident. I was too busy reacting to the fall - and the reaction I chose was to immediately start FAKE LAUGHING.

I think the initial adrenaline boost kicked my brain into this split-second reasoning: "You just fell. Hard. This is horribly embarassing, and extra stupid since your mother just warned you about this very sort of thing. I bet you looked hella foolish to any neighbors who may have been watching. You need to play it off as though you're in on the joke and can take a harmless pratfall for the team. HA. HA HA HA HA. HA HA HA HA. Are they buying it? We're all just having fun, right? RIGHT?"

I looked around. No one was pointing or laughing. No one was there at all. Why? Because my neighbors aren't idiots. THEY listened to their mothers and stayed inside when they were told. THEY knew it was icy out. THEY were probably watching football and eating mountains of enchiladas.

I, meanwhile, was bleeding. My arm was all skinned up, and no amount of fake laughs could mask the pain that was starting to shoot up from Down Yonder. I gingerly stood up and nearly passed out from the tingly pain searing from my tailbone, which I'm pretty sure I've either bruised, cracked, or otherwise turned into abstract art. A week and a half later, it's a LITTLE better, but not much. Everybody I've talked to says this is to be expected. The internet says to give it a month.

How do ice skaters do this sort of thing on a daily basis? I was watching Olympic trials recently and saw little girls a third my size take harder falls to the butt, only to get up and moments later perform a triple axel like nothing had happened? I, meanwhile, performed a triple whimper on my way to the freezer to sit on ice for the rest of the night.

I've learned many truths this past week: (1) There's no way to look casual when you're 47 with the top speed of an 85-year-old. (2) There's no way to look cool when you're carrying one of those butt donuts to sit on. (3) Whoever invented those butt donuts should be our next president. (4) Listen to your mothers. (5) For gosh sake, whatever you do, don't go outside. Not til spring, at least.

COLUMN: Trax from the Stax


If you could have your ultimate dream job, what would it be?

The answer might be harder than you think. For me, one immediate thought came to mind: Somehow getting paid to watch TV.

Some people out there get paid to be TV critics, right? But TV critics don't get paid to WATCH TV. They get paid to CRITIQUE it. That might be a fun job, but it's no ultimate dream job. Why would you want an ultimate dream job where you had to actually USE your brain to constantly drum up critical thought? I don't want to analyze TV; I just wanna watch it.

Plus, I would also want full control over WHAT I was watching. It'd be just my luck to land a job where I get paid to watch TV only to discover that the only TV they'd pay me to watch was reruns of "Full House." That "dream job" would suddenly be a nightmare.

So I thought about it some more and I know what my ultimate dream job would be. It's a job that would be fun, rewarding, and perhaps even beneficial to all mankind:

My ultimate dream job would be lecturing to strangers about good music and forcing everyone to listen to all my favorite bands.

Okay, maybe it wouldn't be quite as beneficial to all mankind as, say, building houses for the homeless. But what could be more horrific than building someone a house only later to discover that someone was inside that house listening to Nickelback? Shudder.

I like awesome bands that not enough people on Earth know about, and I could run around the country like a musical Santa spreading peace, joy, and awesome tunes throughout the land.

And I can't believe it, but it's happening.

I got a call a few weeks back from Lucas Berns. Lucas works for the Bettendorf Public Library and runs a free monthly program there called Trax from the Stax. The program's goal is to expose folks to music they might not be familiar with. Guest presenters come in every month, play a few selections highlighting an artist or genre, and then chat about it for an hour.

This wasn't the library calling me. No, this was DESTINY calling me! I'm pretty sure I was put on the planet to lead one of these presentations. Most of my friends remain my friends because either (a) they like the same esoteric and weird music that I do; (b) I've convinced them to like the same esoteric and weird music that I do; or (c) they lie and tell me how much they like the same weird and esoteric music just so I'll shut up.

This phone call was it. My moment of fame. My ultimate dream job was... was...

"I'm calling because we heard that you're somewhat of an expert in the genre of K-Pop? Would you be willing to..."

Okay, you know what's worse than getting hired to watch TV only to find out you can only watch "Full House"? I do. How about landing a job where you can talk to strangers about music only to find out you have to talk to them about Korean boy bands?

I pride myself in having a wide knowledge base about all kinds of popular (and more often than not, UN-popular) music. But I don't know a single thing about the crazy manufactured world of Korean Top 40 pop music lovingly known as "K-Pop." This was a horrible dilemma. I wanted to curate one of these presentations so bad I could taste it.

"Maybe," the little devil guy on my shoulder said, "You could pull it off. Tell him yes, then race home and spend the next month learning everything you can about Korean pop music. You can fake your way through it, you know you can."

But I couldn't. The music's just too awful. I'd be in my basement, going insane, trying to jam out to music normally reserved for either 16-year-old Korean girls or 50-year-old Korean pedophiles. I just couldn't do it. So in one breathless e-mail, I wrote back and politely explained that I knew nothing about K-Pop but that I would quite literally sell my soul to a stranger for the opportunity to host one of these nights and pick the genre of my choice.

Shockingly, they consented. And this Thursday, Jan. 20th, at 7:30 p.m., I'll be the guest presenter at the Bettendorf Public Library's "Trax from the Stax." Ever wanted to meet me? More specifically, ever wanted me to play music in your earholes and tell you why it's awesome? This is your chance. It's open and free to the public and I'd love to see you there.

So what genre did I pick? It was an easy choice for me.

In the early 1990s, a collective of fringe bands from the UK figured out how to crank the volume to 11 while creating ethereal soundscapes of pure sonic bliss. Some fans claimed the music could take them to a higher state of consciousness. Bewildered critics called it "shoegaze" -- and it changed my life.

I have one hour to help it change yours, too. Come down to the library and give it a chance. Trust me, it'll be fun. If nothing else, I get nicely embarassed when it comes to public speaking, so even if you're not a fan of the tunes, it'll be worth it to see me get all sweaty and awkward. I won't care, though -- it's my ultimate dream job.

COLUMN: Best of 2017 - TV

One of the most famous -- and perhaps most misunderstood -- pieces of advice given aspiring authors is this: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. Okay, then, let's be honest: I know a lot about TV. At least, I sure watch a whole lot of it. So every year, I get one week to write what I know and tell you my picks for the best TV series of the past year:


#10 - Kevin (Probably) Saves the World (ABC). - This show could have been SO hokey. An everyman loser gets visited by an angel who tasks him to do good deeds and save righteous souls. This could have been "Highway to Heaven" or "Touched By An Angel" or any number of schlocky heartstring-tugging ratings-grabbers. But Jason Ritter plays everyman Kevin with such a childlike naivety and innocent charm that it salvages the sometimes silly plotlines and makes this show just plain fun to watch. I hope it sticks around long enough to make an impact.


#9 - Life in Pieces (CBS). For three years now, "Life in Pieces" has seemed to exist simply to fill time after "The Big Bang Theory," which is incredibly unfair. Joke for joke, it's the funniest show on network TV right now. THe formula's simple: Assemble the most talented ensemble comedy cast you can, give them a script full of edgy jokes at a frenetic pace, and watch the magic happen.


#8 - Riverdale (The CW). When I first heard they were making a teen drama based on the classic Archie comics, I rolled my eyes HARD. But then it aired, and all was forgiven. This is not the Archie we read as a kid. This is Archie done CW style. That means murder, intrigue, and romance delivered in a deliciously hammy package. It's an over-the-top Riverdale where street gangs named Serpents and Ghoulies get high-schoolers hooked on drugs called "jingle-jangle." It's a world where Archie's parents are played by Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald. It's ridiculous and it's wonderful. Welcome to your new guilty pleasure.


#7 - Legion (FX). Just when I was ready to scream "ENOUGH WITH THE SUPERHERO SHOWS!" comes this genre-saving mind-melter from FX. Based on a fringe splinter X-Men comic, Legion tells the story of David Haller, a man diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age who's spent much of his life in a psychiatric hospital. But what's real and what's a delusion? Is Haller really schizophrenic? Or could he possibly be the most powerful mutant on Earth? Maybe he's both. The show's not big on answers, instead presenting it to you through Haller's unreliable narrative as he tries to understand and control his truth and identity. It's a non-stop headspin and captivating as all get out.


#6 - The Good Place (NBC). Never bet against Michael Schur, the veteran SNL writer who went on to produce the "The Office" and create shows like "Parks & Recreation" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." His newest inventive sitcom tells the story of Eleanor, a soul who lived a bad life but, thanks to a clerical mix-up, ends up in "The Good Place." It's a heavenly oasis created and run by Michael, an "architect" played with scene-chewing gusto by Ted Danson. Watching Eleanor struggle to be good is a premise that seems too odd for network TV, but Schur pulls it off with liberal doses of laughs, humanity, and a surprise ending to season one that made me jump out of my chair.


#5 - Rick and Morty (Adult Swim.) The most innovative show on TV, "Rick & Morty" somehow manages the impossible: It makes the gags on "South Park" seem tame and dated. This envelope-pushing cartoon is the brainchild of Dan Harmon, who brought us the sitcom "Community" and knows a thing or two about how to push envelopes. For 3 seasons now, Rick & Morty have let us tag along with their inter-dimensional adventures, and the new season's just as shocking and laugh-out-loud funny as you could possibly want.


#4 - Search Party (TBS). Laughs come easy in this bleakest of dark comedies, where a numb hipster desperate for feelings and ambition sees a former classmate on a missing persons poster. When she tells her pack of self-absorbed and nearly intolerable friends, they begin a mission to find their missing friend, despite the fact that they were never really friends with her in the first place. Occasionally terrifying, mostly silly, and the breakout performance of the year from Alia Shawkat in the lead role.

#3 - Game of Thrones (HBO). Sometimes it's tough to even remember that "Game of Thrones" is a TV show. It certainly plays more like a movie, and new episodes are getting rarer than Star Wars sequels these days. As winter finally comes to Westeros, only a few episodes of the fantasy epic remain. This year, tensions started rapidly rising towards a looming conclusion no one knows the answers to yet. If you haven't gotten onboard GoT, you're running out of time. Trust me, it WILL be your loss.


#2 - Stranger Things (Netflix). The second season of the nostalgia-filled 80's monster throwback returned to Netflix this fall and most certainly did NOT disappoint. The Upside Down gets turned inside out this season, and as you'd expect, the only ones capable of saving the world are the same ragtag group of kids that saved it last year. It's fun, it's scary, and it might be the most binge-worthy show of all time.


#1 - Twin Peaks (Showtime). I never thought it would happen. 25 years after my favorite TV show of all time signed off with an infuriatingly vague ending, Twin Peaks returned. But this was no ordinary reboot with a new cast and similar plot. No, this was a brand new chapter to the original story, with most of the original cast returning and the plot picking up 25 years after we left it. But this time, freed by the move from network TV to Showtime, Twin Peaks director and co-creator David Lynch could -- and DID -- go full-throttle freaky, turning the new series into a nearly incomprehensible coda that fans will be dissecting on message boards and at conventions for years to come. It's not TV; it's a work of art.

The only thing bad about television in 2017 is that there might not ever be another year this good.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

COLUMN: Best of 2017 - Music

It's the most wonderful time of the year -- when you have to suffer through my pics for the 10 best records of the year. 2016 was a dull year for music, but 2017 made up for it in spades. Last year, I had to fight to find ten records worth celebrating. This year, I'd love to fit about 24 records into ten slots. If I have to narrow it down, though, they go like this:

10. St. Vincent - Masseduction - Annie Clark has spent a decade now making left-of-center subversive pop music under the guise St. Vincent, but never on as large a scale as "Masseduction." If critics are right when they call her the "female Bowie," then this is her "Let's Dance." Clark is a gifted guitarist, but you'd barely know here. "Masseduction" is all about the synths, driven by in-demand producers like Fun's Jack Antonoff and Kendrick Lamar's primary beatmaker Sounwave. If Clark doesn't watch it, the pop music she excels at subverting might soon be her own.



9. Grace VanderWaal - Just the Beginning - Grace VanderWaal won last year's season of America's Got Talent. She's 13 years old. Neither of those facts are as astonishing as how good her debut record is. It's one thing to be a kid and know how to write songs. It's another thing altogether to be a kid and make THIS. The plucky little ukelele that helped her win AGT is present, but now it's surrounded by rich production that runs the gamut from pop to Caribbean to psychedelia. Most mind-blowing of all is the mature control VanderWaal has over her trademark raspy voice at an age when most kids only care about zits and homework. This record isn't just good for a 13-year-old. It's better than most of her peers.



8. White Reaper - The World's Best American Band - Most indie rock upstarts pride themselves on the same influences: a little Talking Heads, a bit of Pavement, a working knowledge of The Smiths & Dinosaur, Jr., etc. But you get the feeling that the boys of Nashville's White Reaper never spent time record-diving in an indie shop. Instead, it sounds like they were raised on a steady diet of Thin Lizzy, Kiss, and The Cars. The resulting bubblegum-rock might be derivative, but in a sea of bearded indie troubadors who take themselves way too seriously, this is the most refreshing record to cross my stereo all year.



7. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN. - 2017 was a lousy year for rap music. Greatness was out there, but the charts were defined and dominated this year by an assortment of flash-in-the-pan mumble-rappers destined for one-hit-wonderdom. So in a world of disposable hip-hop, what do you do if you're the best rapper on the planet? If you're Kendrick Lamar, you come out fighting. "DAMN." is right. This is Kendrick at his most biting and aggressive, knocking out clever wordplay at a lightning-fast pace, proving haters wrong and the critics right. No one can touch him.   



6. Lorde - Melodrama - Lorde arrived on the scene four years ago as a snotty but talented 16-year-old who already seemed to have the world figured out. A few years later, it sounds like she's realizing just how much she didn't know. "Melodrama" finds the Australian chanteuse ruminating over love lost and loneliness, all set to a sparse soundtrack from producer Jack Antonoff that lets every quirky element of Lorde's intimate voice shine. Lead single "Greenlight" provides the year's ultimate "dance like nobody's watching" moment, and this record should ensure a long career is hers for the taking. 



5. Ride - Weather Diaries - It's fairly tough to be level-headed when your favorite band reunites after 25 years for a brand new record. It's even tougher when the record's great. Ride could have made a noisy retread into 90s shoegazing and made their fans happy right there. Instead, they use their wall-of-sound background to expand their sonic palette into a record that should satisfy fans of new indie rock as it does with us old guard who've loved them since 1991. I still say they're the best band on Earth. "Weather Diaries" might not be the best record of the year, but it's definitely my favorite.



4. PWR BTTM - Pageant - 2017 was set to be PWR BTTM's big year. The queer rock duo had already garnered headlines like "America's Next Great Rock Band" and the advance buzz over their second album was palpable. But two days before its release, allegations of sex abuse involving the band arose on social media. Within 48 hours, the band had been dropped by their record label, their tour cancelled, and stores asked to return unsold copies of "Pageant." What could have been a powerful rallying cry for equality may end up little more than an obscure rarity. It's a real shame.



3. Bleachers - Gone Now - Jack Antonoff has morphed from "that guy from Fun" into one of today's most sought-after producers. In fact, he helmed 3 of the albums on this very list. Thankfully, though, he saved his best work for his own project. For his second outing under the Bleachers moniker, Antonoff pushes his bedroom laptop production skills to the limits, layering every track with bombastic effects, vocal change-ups, and interesting samples that make for a compelling, confident masterpiece.



2. Slowdive - Slowdive - When 90s shoegaze pioneers Slowdive announced a surprise reformation and reunion album last year, it was music to fans' ears. But no one was expecting them to produce the most cohesive and creative album of their career. The wall-of-sound guitars are still there, but the teenaged Slowdive of yore have now become mature songwriters, adding a delicate and refined beauty to their soundscapes. Thirty seconds in and you're already floating away like a shimmer on a sea of aural bliss.



1. SUSTO - & I'm Fine Today - Justin Osborne is a Southern man and a troubled soul, and we know because he either brags about it or apologizes for it in nearly every song of SUSTO's small but rich catalog. But behind the "aww, shucks" country-folk facade lies some of the greatest pop songwriting ever committed to wax. SUSTO's second album is augmented with sounds no Americana band is supposed to feature -- strings, horns, synthesizers, drum machines, and even a few Cuban rhythms surround inescapable hooks that require your immediate attention. What should be a simple album ends up being quite simply the best record of 2017 by a country mile.



Even if you just listen to ONE of these, it's worth it. Next week? My picks for the ten best TV shows of 2017. 

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

COLUMN: Whamageddon


Some of you are probably used to coming to this page every Monday for a light-hearted dose of cats, laughter, and warm fuzzies. That won't be happening today. Not when there are wrongs to be righted. When one signs up to be a pretend journalist, one has to carry some pretend responsibilities.

We must temporarily put frivolity aside. There is an evil that needs to be addressed. A scourge has plagued our fragile earth for far too many years, and it's high time someone did something about it.

I speak, of course, about the song "Last Christmas" by 80's popsters Wham! (For our much older or much younger readers, I'm not trying to yell at you -- the band adds the exclamation mark on their own. It's not Wham. It's Wham!

How on Earth did a song as insipid and uninspired as "Last Christmas" become a holiday classic? I bet even Wham! would have doubled over laughing back in 1984 if you'd have told them their song would become a yuletide staple for decades to come. I didn't get the appeal in '84, and I sure don't get it now.

I'm not the only one. There are many great timewasters on the internet, but none as crucial to holiday survival as Whamageddon. The objective is simple: Ride out the holidays as long as possible without hearing "Last Christmas." If you make it (which you won't,) you win (you won't.) When "Last Christmas" eventually sneaks up on you, you confess via social media with the hashtag #whamageddon and your face will appear on the memorial Whamhalla webpage as a victim of the "Last Christmas" menace.

I thought I was gonna make it this year, I really did. I avoided the radio, shopping malls, and even any overly-bubbly people who looked like they could be George Michael fans. No Wham! would come to me this holiday season, I was sure of it. Then I went to a trivia night with a Name That Tune category and wham, there it was. #Whamageddon.

But being forced to listen to "Last Christmas" opened a new door for me. I've always hated the song, sure. But until now, I'd never really paid attention to how DUMB the lyrics are. Trust me, now we can all hate "Last Christmas" in new and exciting ways. Let's dive in, shall we? The song starts right on the chorus, which is fine, because it's all that matters:

"Last Christmas I gave you my heart,
But the very next day, you gave it away."

Right away, this is clearly a Yuletide tragedy, which should immediately disqualify it from holiday playlists. Christmas songs should be merry, joyful, and not mention failed relationships. As we should all agree, the only acceptable tragic Christmas song is that sole cautionary tale about reindeers murdering a hapless grandmother.

In 1984, George Michael was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. He was clearly worth millions -- but all he gave his signifigant other was his lousy heart? It's no wonder his beloved walked away the next day. Let's be realists here: If all Mariah Carey got for Christmas was you, there'd be hell to pay. I'm just sayin'.

This person walked away from him THE VERY NEXT DAY? On December 26th? That's kinda cold. "Thanks for the presents and the ham and the cookies and, umm, your HEART and all, but I'm out. See ya!" For someone who just got a free heart, that's pretty heartless.

"The very next day, you gave it away." Following the rules of English grammar, "it" would still be referring to George's heart. So this person took George's heart and gave it away. To WHOM, exactly? A stranger? A store return? You can't give away someone else's heart. Does this mean George is now contractually obligated to love whomever his heart was transferred to? This makes no sense at all -- but then the mystery deepens:

"This year, to save me from tears,
I'll give it to someone special."

Somehow, between last Christmas and this Christmas, George got his heart back. Was it returned to him? Did he have to go buy it back from the third party owner? These are the questions that keep me up at night, people.

I thought the music video might yield some clues, but no. It tells the story of a Wham! Christmas, wherein George and Andrew and an assortment of background Whammers all gather together at a ski lodge, decorate a tree, and then there's an odd 20-second clip of everyone sitting around like they're bummed to be spending Christmas in the Alps with pop icons. In the beginning, George is walking with a brunette, but by the end, she's arm-in-arm with Andrew, so maybe she gave George's heart to Andrew? (Which, admittedly, could explain some things.) It makes as little sense as the song and I think was just Wham! taking a ski vacation on their record company's dime.

Every year, dozens of Christmas records get released. MAYBE one song per decade becomes a timeless classic. Perhaps "Last Christmas" was simply the best the 80s had to offer. I suppose I should be thankful we never got "Have A Devo Christmas" or heard A Flock of Seagulls try to cover "O Tannembaun."

Oh, who am I kidding? I would have LOVED "Have a Devo Christmas." Have a great holiday, and remember: Keep your heart to yourself or someone might just give it to me, and I'm not sellin'.

COLUMN: Groceries


Well, I officially hate grocery shopping.

This was hard for me to come to terms with. I've always gotten a strange satisfaction from doing my own grocery shopping. As kids, we all had to wander from aisle to aisle with our parents while THEY decided what food we should eat. This was probably for the best, because if I had a say in the matter back then, we'd be wheeling out a cart full of Tombstone pizzas and little else.

But now I'm older and wiser and supposedly control my own destiny. And I'm proud to say that I usually exit the store with one, maybe two Tombstone pizzas at the most. Sometimes I even leave with things that are green and taste icky. When I'm at the grocery store, I legit feel like a responsible adult. Too bad I'm really lousy at adulting.

For a week straight, I had become addicted to eating Thanksgiving leftovers straight from the fridge. But like every year, there comes a point when you literally have to quit cold turkey. That's how I found myself once again navigating the aisles of my nearby grocery store, full of holiday spirit (or maybe just the last of the turkey) and maybe even a little spring in my otherwise wintery step. Nothing could stop this responsible do-gooder from adulting away.

And then I got to the second aisle. That's when I spotted a hapless woman in need of assistance. For me, spotting her was an achievement in and of itself. Usually when I'm wandering about on my own, my mind is Walter-Mitty'ed away in countless directions. Sometimes I'm writing this very column in my head. Sometimes I'm working on a new dance mix. Sometimes I'm trying to remember the ingredients for some random recipe. If life were a Youtube video, I'd be the clueless guy everyone yells at while the typhoon wave bears down behind me.

But it was clear this woman needed some help. She was a fairly short thing, and she was jumping in desperation to reach something on the top shelf. I'm a relatively useless human being, but at least I'm kinda sorta tall-ish. THIS I could handle.

"Hi," I said, all full of good deed warm fuzzies, "Can I reach something for you?"

That's when she turned to me... and shrieked. Note: It was NOT a shriek of adulation, thanks, or joy.

I'm a self-aware human being. By traditional standards of beauty, I'll probably never make it as a supermodel. But I never thought I was so ugly that the mere sight of my monstrous visage would elicit screams of terror and panic. Apparently I was wrong.

"GET AWAY!!!!!" she screamed insanely like an insane person suffering from insanity. "YOU SCARED ME! AAAAAAA! GET AWAY, [EXPLETIVE]!"

Trust me, I wanted nothing more than to get away from Screamy McCrazypants. But naturally by then, people were now RUNNING to the aid of this woman whom it sounded like I was murdering. All I could do was back off and sheepishly try to explain to a growing mob of townspeople that I was trying to help her reach her groceries. Of course, the only thing the news has taught us this month is that there's a better than average chance that every man you've ever known is secretly a deviant sex monster. So I left to another aisle and spent the rest of my shopping experience being glared at by strangers giving me sideeye while clutching their children tight as I passed by.

But they probably had good reason to. As it turns out, I might just be a deviant sex monster after all. I learned this on aisle 7, when music suddenly began blaring out of my crotch. I had made a shopping list on my phone, but I put the phone away before it had locked, and now I had just pocked-opened one of a dozen music apps.

My phone also does this nifty little trick where it completely freezes for up to five minutes without any buttons working -- which meant I couldn't shut it off.

As many of you know, I moonlight as a DJ, which means I need handy access to all the popular songs, including the current wave of vulgar mumble-rap that's dominating the charts. I wish I could tell you the words to the song that was screaming from my crotch, but that's a no-go in a family paper. Let's just say that the vocalist was expressing his immediate and urgent desire for physical intimacy -- by dropping the F-bomb some 26 times before I was able to run out of the store.

There are many lessons to be learned here. (1) In the future, should you require the aid of your fellow man and all you see approaching is Dispatch-Argus columnist Shane Brown, keep looking because he will NOT stop. You could be a screamer. (2) There is NO appropriate time for Post Malone to start playing out of your pants. I've tried. (3) I need a new phone. (4) Next time, I'm going straight for the Tombstone pizzas and leaving.

Friday, December 08, 2017

COLUMN: Levidrome


People ask me all the time, "Shane, what's the best part about being a beloved and respected and incredibly humble newspaper columnist?"

That's easy: I get to help people. (And by "people," I of course mean ME.)

If a grave injustice occurs somewhere in the world, it's my duty -- nay, my PRIVILEGE -- to inform the masses, right the wrongs, and shine a beacon of journalistic light into the darkness. And obviously, there's no injustice graver than when someone other than myself gets fame and attention for doing something I totally could have done, had I thought of it first. Or had I been as lucky. Or, in this case, had I been a precocious 6-year-old boy.

Did you guys catch the story this week about adorable little Levi? He's a precocious six-year-old boy from Canada who's gained headlines, internet fame, and perhaps even immortality this week, all because he did something any of us could do: he invented a word.

The story goes like this: little Levi had recently learned in school about palindromes -- words that spell the same thing backwards and forwards. I'd give you an example, but all I can think of at the moment is "boob," and I don't want to sink to that level. Wait, "level." That's another one right there. Those are palindromes.

And that's when little Levi turned to his dad and asked, "What do we call a word that spells a different word backwards?" You know, like how "drawer" backwards spells "reward." Or how "stressed" backwards spells "desserts." Or how "boobs" backwards spells "sboob."

Well, it turns out there's NOT a word for this language phenomenon. Ergo, Levi and his dad have launched an online campaign to create one. Everyone thinks it's adorable. Celebrities have chimed in, dictionaries have offered their support, and it's probably a done deal. The new word they have offered up for a word that spells a different word in reverse? "LEVIDROME." This is unacceptable on multiple levels.

For one, I think we can all agree that "levidrome" should be saved to name the arena we will all go to in the year 2075 to enjoy the future sport of zero-gravity ultimate cage fighting. "LLLLLLLLET'S GET READY TO LLLLEVITATE!" I don't ask for much in life, but if it's 2075 and I want to check out some good old-fashioned gravity-free combat, I should be able to march my 104-year-old sboob down to the TaxSlayer Levidrome.

But most importantly, under what qualifications does a SIX-year-old get to invent a word? By my count, this is the 653rd column I've written. I've paid my dues, time after time. I've done my sentence but committed no crimes. If anyone around here gets to invent a word, it's ME. So if Levi gets levidrome, then may I be the first to give you:

"Shane. [shayn]. Noun. The precise emotion felt when you ignore a vast to-do list but instead try to find a similar sense of accomplishment in binge-watching a full season of any show on Netflix."

You're welcome, English-speaking citizens of Earth. No longer will you be unable to express the feeling you get when you should've cleaned out the garage but at least you got through Season 2 of "Stranger Things."

Thanks to me, you now know EXACTLY how you should feel. You should feel thoroughly and completely a-shane-d of yourself.

All I need to do is start petitioning the major dictionaries of the world... which I will do immediately after this episode of "House of Cards."

And then I'll get on Twitter and try to lure celebrities to my side... which I'll get to promptly after the fifth season of "Under Arrest."

Eventually -- probably shortly after I complete Season 4 of "Orange is the New Black" -- everyone will feel ashaned of themselves and think of me. And then there will be no stop. Except that "stop" spells "pots" backwards. Stupid levidrome.

COLUMN: Hallmark Christmas


I'm not sure how it happened. I didn't want it to happen. I should have known better than to let it happen. It's days before Thanksgiving, but somehow I'm feeling -- (gulp) -- festive.

I love the holiday season. BUT IT HASN'T STARTED YET. When I was a kid, we had Halloween, we had Christmas, and somewhere inbetween we had that day where you eat too much.

Then things changed. Retailers weren't satisfied with just ONE month of blitzkrieg yuletide shopping. Nowadays, Christmas displays start firing up before Halloween candy has left the shelves. Leaves are still turning on my trees, but Mix 96 is already blaring Christmas music. Our three holidays have been morphed into a melange of Thanksmasoween.

I love Christmas -- but with clenched teeth and Grinch-like stubbornness, I will not love it until December. Or so I thought.

It wasn't my fault. I had a LOT of stuff to do last Sunday, and I was trying my best to find my productive side. It's just that my house is SUPER weird and quiet without a TV on, so I absent-mindedly channel-flipped to HBO for some background noise while I worked on my to-do list.

But then I noticed something. Banal dialogue... thin plotlines... washed up C-level actors... an overly saccharine soundtrack. OHH NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

This wasn't HBO. I was on -- The Hallmark Channel.

I don't know when Hallmark switches to 24/7 Christmas movies. My guess is mid-July. For all I know, maybe they just ALWAYS run Christmas movies. They're low-budget, formulaic, predictable, undeniably awful... and addictive as heroin. How do I know? I just sat through SIX of them.

And it was basically the same movie six times in a row. The only thing that changes is the setting and the failed 90's actor in the starring role. It's always the same plot:

We meet him/her, who is usually but not always Full House's Candace Cameron-Bure or Party of Five's Lacey Chabert. It's the holiday season, but he/she barely notices, thanks to the distraction of (a) his/her important and time-consuming job, (b) his/her louse of a boy/girlfriend, or (c) being a single mom or dad to a precocious and overly-talkative child.

He/she invariably is in a hurry to get somewhere. Then, due to either (a) a twist of fate, (b) a wrong turn, or (c) a helpful nudge from a ghost and/or angel who is usually but not always William Shatner, he/she finds him/herself stuck in a small town that looks like any number of Norman Rockwell paintings.

There they will find the following: (a) a wise-cracking waitress and/or mechanic who will inevitably become their best friend by the end of the movie, (b) the magic of Christmas, and (c) their soulmate, who is always either struggling to get by, or struggling to get by because they're a single mom/dad to a precocious and overly-talkative child. They will meet, they will fall in love, someone will learn the true meaning of Christmas, and somehow the family farm and/or business will be saved from bankruptcy.

Lessons will always be learned, love will always prevail, fake snow will always fall. The title must include the word Christmas: "Love You Like Christmas," "Just in Time for Christmas," "Christmas Done Right," "Christmas Done Wrong," "Christmas 2: Electric Boogaloo," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Christmas," it honestly doesn't matter.

But for some reason, I can't stop watching them and I don't know why. It's not as if they're nail biters. I'm not sitting there going, "Will she ever find true happiness?" There's no other possible outcome. No Hallmark Channel movie will ever end with the script notes of, "...and then she dies. The camera zooms in on a single tear rolling down the face of the precocious and overly-talking child -- for she now knows that Christmas is a lie."

After ten minutes of watching, you feel ridiculous. After two hours of watching, you can't fight off the warm fuzzies. And after watching insipid Hallmark Christmas movies for twelve hours? Well, what happened then in my house, they say, is that Shane's small heart grew three sizes that day. It didn't help that I looked outside at noon to see giant Rockwellian snowflakes floating from the sky like holiday magic. Within hours, I had already dragged out the first of my Christmas decorations.

I suppose it could be worse. I could be one of the writers who spends their summer months dreaming up these heart-warming atrocities. I could be an actor having to walk through fake snow in mid-July pretending it's Christmas. I may have found some premature holiday magic this year, but it's not my fault. Blame Hallmark. Blame the guy who turned my TV to the wrong channel. I presume it was William Shatner.

COLUMN: The Orville

I'm confused.

As part of my public service as your humble columnist and purveyor of all things pop culture, I've been checking out this fall's new TV offerings. (Because it's my JOB, and not in any way because I have no life and prefer to live vicariously through fictional television characters.)

I've seen some new shows that are fantastic. I've seen some that are awful. But there's one new show that just leaves me with a huge question mark every week, because I'm just not quite sure WHAT to think about it. Have you seen "The Orville" yet?

When I first heard that Seth MacFarlane would be helming a "Star Trek"-esque sci-fi show this fall, I was intrigued. I've long been an almost-fan of MacFarlane's work. I'm just not sure if he's a genius or the most annoying guy in Hollywood.

Take "Family Guy," for instance. MacFarlane's long-running animated series represents both the best and worst that modern TV has to offer. On one hand, it's a deliciously delinquent rule-breaker that pushes the envelope of good taste with decadent glee. But tasteless humor works best if you're using it subversively to skewer society (see: South Park, Rick & Morty.) If I have to sit through another extended sequence of Peter Griffin fighting a giant chicken, it might be the last straw for me and "Family Guy."

MacFarlane's forays into film have been equally iffy. "Ted" had some funny bits, but "Ted 2" was a disaster. Critics and fans alike turned away from "A Million Ways to Die in the West," but I went into that film expecting stupidity and ended up laughing a LOT.

That's why "The Orville" intrigued me. I'm a long-standing nerd, which means I'm required to love sci-fi stuff, right? But sometimes sci-fi drives me up a wall because it takes itself WAY too seriously. Did Captain Kirk ever crack a joke? Have Mulder and Scully ever cut loose once in their lives? Maybe letting MacFarlane lampoon "Star Trek" would be refreshing.

So I've been watching. And sure enough, the pilot started with some solid comedy and a cast of characters rife for spoofing: A captain whose stellar career was derailed by his failed marriage. A no-nonsense doctor. A skirt-chasing helmsman. A brutish Klingon-esque alien. A cute blonde security officer with superhuman strength. And, of course, a robot who struggles to understand human emotion. Then the first officer shows up -- and it's the captain's ex-wife! Ho, ho, ho. It's every bad Trek stereotype rife for parody.

I was eagerly anticipating "The Orville" to ham-handedly skewer "Star Trek." Instead, though, The Orville pretty much IS "Star Trek." Every episode starts with a few edgy laughs, then suddenly it becomes earnest and serious -- or as serious as you can take a low-budget space adventure. Like the infinite Treks before it, "The Orville" is little more than a weekly morality play, usually involving the ship happening upon some dytopian society that warns us how easily our own world could run amok.

In one episode, they visit a planet where all legal rulings are decided by citizens up-or-downvoting on what looks to be Space Reddit. I think it's supposed to show us the dangers of overusing social media. All it made me do was go on Facebook and talk about how much I hated it.

The show takes itself so seriously that when the jokes DO come, they're jarring and incredibly out-of-place. Imagine ANY random episode of "Star Trek," but have Kirk and Spock drop flatulence jokes every fifteen minutes and you'll be close to what "The Orville" has to offer. The plotlines are thin and campy and the "lessons learned" are so heavy-handed it feels less like sci-fi and more like an extra-terrestrial Afterschool Special.

It's as if the show doesn't know what it wants to be. Enough people have watched to secure a second season, so that's good for MacFarlane. Maybe he can use the down time to iron out the awkwardness a little. If he really wants "The Orville" to be the new "Star Trek," though, can I offer a few suggestions?

(1) Get the nerds involved. Geeks aren't going to be impressed by thinly veiled morality plays. I vote for a little less fiction and a little more science. How are your spaceships even powered? For all I know, they run on magic. I don't even follow Star Trek, but every geek knows their starships need dilithium crystals to activate their warp drives. Nerd it up a little, Seth.

(2) Give us a cool weapon. Trek had phasers. Star Wars had light sabers. "The Orville" has plastic looking guns that stun people. Not impressed.

(3) Diversify. You're never going to win the hearts of geeks without tie-ins to video games, action figures, comic books, and role-playing adventures. Peddle your wares and go full Comic-Con.

Make up your mind, Seth. Are you going for campiness? Homage? Sincerity? Satire? Seriousness? You can't be ALL things to ALL people, especially since most of those people are watching "Scandal" or Thursday Night Football instead. Maybe I shouldn't remind him of that. The crew of "The Orville" might soon be snacking on wine and popcorn while showing us the dangers of getting concussions from interstellar contact sports.

COLUMN: Sinatra Stranger


Well, there's another Halloween survived. No tricks, a few treats, and most importantly: No awkward dialogue with people in costumes.

Last week, I mentioned in passing how much I hate it when grown adults dress up for Halloween. A couple of you e-mailed wondering why I had to be the All Hallows Grinch. Sorry, it wasn't my intention to rain on anyone's spooky parade. I actually really love great Halloween costumes. Did you guys see Dave Grohl dressed up like David Letterman when he guest-hosted Kimmel on Halloween? It was amazing. The internet is full of hilarious costumes and Halloween hijinks, and I eat it up like candy.

My problem isn't your costume. It's having to talk to you while you're IN it.

I'm a socially awkward person. I've never been great at making banal small talk. I'm usually the nervous weirdo who won't make eye contact and can't think of a single worthwhile thing to say because I'm usually too busy telling myself, "YOU'RE ACTING WEIRD. DON'T ACT WEIRD. BE NORMAL, WEIRDO."

Face-to-face small talk is awkward enough -- please don't make me do it when one of those faces is caked in zombie make-up. I can't discuss the weather when fake entrails are spewing out your chest, sorry. That's almost panic attack territory for me.

I dunno, maybe I'm not as bad at small talk as I think. But an instance happened a couple weeks ago that cemented my self-worth when it comes to normal human interaction, and it wasn't pretty.

I was in Chicago, taking advantage of a rare chance to see one of my favorite bands, The Trashcan Sinatras. They might not be a household name, but these unheralded kings of Scottish indiepop have been wowing their diehard resilient fans for decades. When they announced an all-acoustic career-spanning tour, it was a must-attend. At the show, I met up with some old friends and familiar faces from Trashcan shows of yore. Then there was the one face who saw me, beamed with a smile, and came straight over.

"HEY!" he said with enthusiasm. "I didn't know you liked this band, too!"
"Oh, totally," I replied. "Been a fan since day one. How have you been?"
"Not bad," he said. "I haven't seen you for years! Are you still...?"
"Doing my thing?" I interrupted. "Absolutely!"
"Man, it's good to see you!" 
   
All things told, not a bad piece of small talk. There was just one problem: I had NO CLUE who this guy was. I have friends and acquaintances from all walks of life, but this guy wasn't one of them. I was talking to a complete stranger. "Doing my thing?" Did I REALLY just say that? I suppose it wasn't a lie. I do things.

When he went away, I breathed a sigh of relief. Then came intermission (and yes, I'm now old enough that I see bands who take intermissions.) Of course, who do I end up next to in line at the bar but this same stranger -- and the awkward dance continued.

He told me about his job. His girlfriend. He talked about the weather. I complained how difficult it was to find parking on the same night as a Cubs game. The more we talked, the more I was certain we'd never met. Finally, the clincher happened.

"It's... Frank, right?"
"Nope, it's Shane," I replied, pretty sure I'd just sent the conversation spiralling.
"Oh, sure, Shane, that's right."

Seriously, dude? Must we continue this phony conversation? SURELY he had to have realized by now that I wasn't who he initally thought I was. I wanted to put this sorry encounter to bed.

"How long HAS it been?" I inquired to put the nail in the coffin of this conversation.
"Oh, I think the last time I saw you was at the Beautiful South concert."

There are a whole lot of bands in the world. On any given night, dozens of them are playing in Chicago. I might drive up for two or three per year. I didn't know this guy. I'd never spoken to him before this night. But against all odds, I had been at that Beautiful South show.

It didn't change the fact that he had mistaken me for another random chubby guy, quite probably named Frank, who must look as ruggedly handsome as me and who must also have pretty decent taste in music. At some point, probably when I mentioned that I lived a stone's throw from Iowa, I think he realized he was talking to a total stranger. By then, though, it didn't matter, because we had one thing in common.

I'm bad at small talk about weather or the workday or current events. But talk to me about MUSIC and suddenly you're in my wheelhouse. We spent the next ten minutes debating the best Beautiful South records, comparing favorite Trashcan songs, and sharing reviews of our top records of the year. We certainly weren't old friends, but I may have met a new one by the time it was all said and done.

So please, if you see me out and about, don't hesitate to come say hi. I won't have a panic attack, promise. But if you see me fishing for words or awkwardly dodging your glance, all you need to do is blurt out something like, "Quick, what's your favorite Beatles album?" and we'll be fast friends. Just don't do it in a costume. And don't call me Frank.





COLUMN: Halloween Meh


I seldom remember my dreams. When I do, it's usually just me being chased by Something Really Bad. Sometimes I'm joined by others. A couple weeks ago, I was being chased alongside my old college roommate, my aunt from Alabama, a cashier from the Walgreens I frequent, and Partridge Family-era Susan Dey.

But rare is the morning when I wake up and remember an entire dream. Based on the one I just woke up from, forgetting them is probably for the best.

Here's how it went down: In my dream, I was on vacation from work. But in a dream that felt a little TOO real, I was spending this vacation bored at home, randomly scrolling through Facebook. Yep, I dreamed about Facebook, because THAT'S how awesome my life is.

And on dream Facebook, I see a post from my quite-real friend Catie. But "friend" might be a stretch. Although Catie is real, I barely know her. I've met her in real life precisely ONCE, and in the decade that we've been pals on Facebook, I can count on one hand the number of online interactions we've ever had. Yet apparently she matters enough to take a supporting role in my dream, where she just posted to Facebook about her new job -- at the recently-opened Shakespeare theme park in Michigan that everyone's talking about. Except that it doesn't exist, because I just quite literally dreamed it up.

So Dream Shane decides to drive to Michigan to spend my vacation at this theme park. Once there, I find Catie, who is happily employed in the park's geology museum, because that's certainly something you'd expect to find at a Shakespearean theme park. After all, how can one fully appreciate the subtextual nuances of King Lear without first having a basic appreciation for earth science?

So there I was, surrounded by display cases full of rocks, and Catie's job was to write little descriptions about each rock. After exchanging pleasantries, she advises me to check out the theme park's gift shop. I browse the gift shop and stumble upon a rack of CDs. Suddenly, I spot a CD from my favorite band that (gasp) somehow I don't already own. Excitedly, I race to the counter to buy it, only to be told that the CD isn't for sale, but is instead part of the theme park's library and cannot leave the premises.

Well that simply wouldn't do, so Dream Me made immediate plans to steal the CD. Thankfully, Dream Catie is down with helping Dream Me commit a dream felony, which we accomplish by dressing up as mummies and sneaking into the gift shop unnoticed. Brilliant, am I right? Like I always say, if you're looking to go incognito, there's no better way to go unnoticed than dressing up like a mummy. 

So we sneak in and freeze in mummy position until nightfall and the shop closes. Then we spring into action and start looking for the CD. Happening upon a bin of human skulls (best gift shop EVER!), I pull one out and give a ham-handed performance of Hamlet's "Alas, poor Yorick" monologue. Suddenly, the lights come on and we are busted! Security and park managers surround us -- but instead of being mad at our thievery, they are instead weeping -- because, as it turns out, I am the greatest actor of my generation, and my moving Hamlet monologue has left them all in tears. Instead of arresting me, the park managers offer me the lead role in their upcoming production.

"No thanks," I tell them, "Hamlet is too depressing. It bums me out."

"No problem," the manager responds. "We'll rewrite it as a comedy just for you." I accept the offer, everyone cheers, Jonah Hill is there for some unknown reason, and then I wake up. The end.

Lovably ridiculous, right? That's what I thought, until I went to the analysis site Dreammoods.com. As it turns out, dreaming about a vacation supposedly indicates a desired break from the routine. Dreaming about Facebook shows your desire for more friends. Shakespeare signifies a literary aptitude. Dreaming of a theme park shows a need for relaxation. Rocks symbolize stubbornness. CDs represent a need for enjoyment. To dream of stealing suggests you're feeling deprived. Dreaming of mummies means you're feeling trapped. Skulls mean danger. Dreaming that you're an actor represents a hidden desire to be recognized and famous.

In other words, I'm a horrible person. Let's recap: I suffer from a constant need to do something different and make new friends. I'm well read, but all I want to do in life is relax. I'm stubborn, feel deprived and trapped, and demand enjoyment. I will endure danger, but only if it helps me become famous and recognized. In other words, it's pretty much spot-on, and I'm a very sad little man.

So I choose to ignore the analysis and stick with lessons learned: If I'm ever in a Shakespearean theme park and need to steal a CD, I will NOT dress up like a mummy to do it. "Hamlet" probably WOULD be better if someone punched it up with a few jokes. And always assume that whenever I try something new, I'll naturally be the best in the world at it. And most importantly? Stop eating Taco Bell right before bed.