Friday, December 28, 2018
This is going to be a difficult column to write.
Wait, that sounded ominous. That's the kind of intro you use when you're quitting or if there's some horrible secret from your past about to be revealed. This is NOT the case (I hope.) No, this will be a difficult column because I'm about to come to the defense of someone I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to hate.
Ever since my parents presented me with a second-hand record player at probably too young an age, I've been a music junkie. I have no talent to make music, but it turns out I'm fairly gifted at listening to it. Over the years, my collection has grown from big to really-big to I-clearly-have-a-problem to hmm-time-for-a-bigger-house.
Some people get on the internet to argue about politics. I'm usually there to argue about music. My favorite t-shirt says "Your Favorite Band Sucks." My second favorite says "I listen to bands that don't even exist yet." I proudly grew up on a diet of artists like The Smiths who once pleaded for us to "hang the blessed DJs, because the music they constantly play says nothing to me about my life."
For years, I've revelled in critical attacks of bands that dumb down the musical landscape, from the despicable bro-rock of Limp Bizkit to the faux earnestness of Creed and the steaming pile of mediocrity that is Nickelback. But many critics have now set their sights on a new target -- and for once, I'm not jumping on the hate train.
In fact, I may just be a fan of Post Malone.
If you don't know 23-year-old Austin Post, then your kids probably do. Both his albums sit towards the top of the Billboard charts, and the rapper/singer's been selling out shows around the globe. His fanbase is as huge as the disdain of his critics. Last week, the Washington Post ran a claws-out piece that called him a "rhinestone cowboy who looks like he crawled out of a primordial swamp of nacho cheese," and that's about as nice as it gets.
The arguments against Post Malone go something like this:
(1) Post Malone has nothing to say. This is absolutely true. The guy had a #1 hit this year with a song about a new watch and how shiny it is (seriously.) Most of his songs are about cars and jewelry and girls -- in other words, he's just like all the other artists on the Top 40. Not every musician needs to be Radiohead or U2 and make some grand statement about the human condition with every release. There are times I want to hear challenging music that questions our world, but there are other times when the only question I want answered from my car stereo is who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp.
(2) Post Malone songs are nothing but one hook repeated over and over. This is also true -- and kind of amazing. The average Post Malone song reduces the verses to a quick whisper that just gets you to the hook without delay. But here's the thing: by and large, they're GREAT hooks that get stuck in your head for DAYS whether you want them there or not.
(3) Post Malone isn't very talented. I don't even think Post would argue this. Part of his appeal is that he's an average dork who made it big. He doesn't look like a pop superstar. He looks like any of the dudes I used to play Dungeons & Dragons with. He's an everyman with an okay voice who makes decent songs and spends his success on stupid stuff like cars and ill-advised face tattoos. There are worse crimes.
(4) Post Malone is a culture vulture. The thinking here is that a dorky white guy from the Texas suburbs has no business making hip-hop. That's just kind of unfair. I've always thought of music as a cultural uniter, not a divider. He's not pretending to reinvent rap music, and I've never seen him dishonor the origins of hip-hop. Pop music has a time-honored tradition of thieving from various cultures (do you really think the Beach Boys hung out on the beach?) Maybe he'll expand to other genres in the future. Maybe he won't even have a successful future and THIS right now is his fifteen minutes of fame. Who knows?
Music aside, it's hard to hate on Post Malone because he seems like a genuinely nice guy. Critics rip him and he laughs it off. Instead, he goes on talk shows and takes Jimmy Fallon to lunch at Olive Garden. He's a funny dude, and it's nice to have a chart-topping artist who really seems to be enjoying his moment without any pretense.
So yeah, I'm going to neglect my duties as an elitist music snob and give Post Malone a pass -- which is fine because it gives me more time to hate on Nickelback. Maybe you disagree and can't stand Post Malone. If that's the case, look on the bright side: One of the fastest ways to become uncool is to have random middle-aged newspaper columnists gush over how cool you are.
When I sit down to write this column, there's only one rule I try and give myself: BE POSITIVE.
I'm not remotely qualified to discuss the problems of the world. I'm barely qualified to discuss my cats. There's enough depessing news in the world, there's no need for me to add to it. A high percentage of daily life is utterly ridiculous -- if you don't stop to appreciate the silly side of life, you're not really living.
I've always believed that humanity is innately good. You see it every day. Maybe it's a stranger holding a door open for you. A driver yielding the right-of-way. A friend enduring yet ANOTHER cat story. We're all in this absurd life together, so let's make the best of it.
But THIS week, it's been tough to stay positive.
We've had mentally disturbed people mailing bombs and gunning down innocent faithful in Pittsburgh, and that's the kind of awful you just can't wrap your head around. Obviously, the folks responsible have more than one screw loose, so I don't know if we CAN understand or if we should even bother trying. All the while, our leaders condemn the "terrible, terrible thing what's going on with hate in our country" and then seemingly contribute to it.
I've never shoveled poop in my life -- but I think I'd prefer THAT job to being the White House press secretary, no matter WHO'S in office. Remember the days when the government would call press briefings to actually brief the press? Nowadays, the press secretary's job is less news conveyer and more news spinner.
I feel bad for Sarah Huckabee Sanders sometimes. Her entire job is to defend and rationalize a vast number of indefensible tweets and gaffes while reporters bait her into MORE gaffes through a barrage of slanted and leading questions. I wouldn't take her job for a kajillion dollars (unless I got paid upfront and didn't have to return the money the first time I told someone precisely where they could shove it.)
I tried to escape news the other day and opted to peruse social media. Within minutes, I found myself roped into a war of words with someone trying to DEFEND the area teacher who got caught partying in blackface. Wow. You don't understand what the big deal is? Once upon a time, people didn't understand the problem with Amos & Andy either. At worst, it's racist. At best, it shows wickedly poor judgement. Neither are qualities I want in a teacher, sorry.
I needed an escape, so I stepped off the information superhighway to go wait in line for deliciously awful fast food. And there I was, patiently chilling in the drive-thru lane, when the car ahead of me rolled down its windows while both driver and passenger began chucking trash out onto the ground. It was a straight-up litter party with bags, cups, and debris everywhere.
Is this REALLY where we're at as a society? Does our town matter THAT little to people that they can dump detritus on the ground in full view of strangers with nary a pang of guilt? I'm no angel. I'm sure I'm leaving a shamefully sizeable carbon footprint in my wake. But never in my WILDEST delusions would I just start heaving trash out the window.
I almost took a stand. I imagined picking up their trash while giving them the stinkeye. But then I also imagined a gigantic dude getting out of that car and starting a rumble. Although it's probably the most appropriate spot for me, I'd prefer not to die in a drive-thru lane. "Here lies Shane, He Sure Liked Tacos." So I wussed out. Actually, I yelled "Are you SERIOUS right now?" but I doubt they heard. When I got to the window, I told an employee about the trash dump, and she replied with an "okay" that clearly indicated she couldn't care less.
So it's been a tough week to be Up With People, but I haven't lost hope. There's still good out there. And if sometimes you can't see it, prove it to people. Keep holding doors for strangers. Don't hate or offend people. Don't make the world your dumpster. And if you REALLY want to be positive? VOTE. When you make your voice heard AND get a free sticker out of the deal, everybody wins.
By the time you read this, someone somewhere is a newly minted lottery BILLIONAIRE. I bought a ticket. They say the odds of winning are less than getting struck by lightning twice in your life. I haven't been struck by lightning even ONCE yet, so the way I see it, I'm due.
Whether it's me or not, I'm sure we've had a Mega Millions winner by now, and all of us have had our pipe dreams duly shattered and are back to earning the incomes of mere mortals. But I'm writing this column a full week ahead of time. In MY current reality, we still have two days until the drawing and there's a ticket in my hand. The possibility currently exists that I'm days away from being a billionaire.
A pretty THIN possibility, sure, but a possibility nonetheless. I'm no physicist, but I guess I'm sort of like a walking version of Schrodinger's cat. But this time, it's Schrodinger's Lottery. Since the outcome depends upon a series of random balls ping-ponging around, and since said outcome has yet to be determined, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that right NOW, the ticket in my pocket is both a winner AND a loser, since it hasn't been observed in one state or the other. I am, in this moment, both an inconsequential average earner AND a billionaire with enough money to literally shape the destiny of the future.
That's pretty sweet.
I know, a columnist writing about the lottery is about as played out as a comedian riffing on airplane food. But this is no normal lottery. This is a BILLION dollars. If I won a million dollars, I would jump up and down, scream til I was hoarse, and probably die from shock. If I won a BILLION dollars, I'm pretty sure I'd just start laughing. That's a comically absurd amount of money for one person to possess.
If I won a million dollars in the lottery, I might take a vacation to Bora Bora. If I won a BILLION dollars, I might be able to BUY Bora Bora. I can't even wrap my head around that kind of money. Whoever wins this prize could create foundations and charities that could SERIOUSLY help the world. You could fund scientific studies that could eradicate any number of horrible diseases.
There are some who say that laughter is the best medicine -- and I'm pretty sure I can come up with some HILARIOUS ways to blow through a billion dollars.
For instance, I'd buy up as much New York real estate next to Trump Tower that I could. Then it's just a matter of constructing an identical skyscraper. Except mine would be ONE floor taller. And I'd name it something like "The Obama Spire," just to see Trump's face grow another shade of orange. Love him or hate him, wouldn't you want to see THAT Twitter-storm? Of course, we may want to wait until he's OUT of office. When I said I wanted to reshape destiny, accidentally causing World War III via temper tantrum wasn't what I had in mind.
Maybe I'd track down Tommy Wiseau. You know about "The Room," right? Universally accepted to be perhaps THE single worst movie of all time, "The Room" is SO bad that viewing it is one of life's great pleasures. Wiseau is the astonishingly untalented writer, director, financier, and actor behind this most rotten of tomatoes. It's said Tommy spent eight million of his own money making "The Room." Imagine what could happen if he spent $100 million of MY money on a sequel. Sure, some characters didn't make it out of the original alive, but I guarantee people returning from the dead wouldn't be the least crazy thing in "The Room 2." The world needs to see Tommy Wiseau interacting with CGI dinosaurs, I'm just saying.
And speaking of incredibly talentless people, I'd say it's about high time I record my debut album. I might not have a lick of musical talent, but when has that ever stopped someone with $1.6 billion in his wallet? With fancy producers and some auto-tune, I can probably make a banger or two. And if not, I know how it'll sell regardless. Paul McCartney's headed our way next year. Macca could SNEEZE on a record and countless Beatle completists would line up to buy it. I just need to find out how much Sir Paul charges to record sneezes. Sample it, loop it, rap over it, top the charts, date Taylor Swift, dump Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift records a hate album about me, and finally I attain my dream status as a certified Hollywood Bad Boy.
Oh, and as for Paul McCartney: if I won the lottery, Paul would be staying for a SECOND night at the TaxSlayer Center -- I mean the Shane Brown Is Awesome Center -- and THOSE tickets wouldn't go for $200 a pop. REAL Beatles fans don't have that kind of disposable income because they're already in debt with basements full of 180-gram Japanese import vinyl records. Instead, I'd give all the tickets away for free, provided you score high enough on the giant Beatles trivia quiz that I'd publish in this very paper.
The news has spent all week going back and forth telling us how great it is to win the lottery but then how TERRIBLE it is to win the lottery. For every happy winner, there's horror stories about lottery windfalls leading to murders and lawsuits and bankruptcies.
So maybe it's best that I don't win the big payout. After all, if I could ever beat THOSE odds, I'd suddenly start being REALLY afraid of lightning.
Well, it's that time of year when columnists like me are supposed to regale you with spooky tales of haunted happenings. The thing is, I'm fresh out.
My house doesn't seem to be a supernatural hotspot. It's devoid of tragic backstories and doesn't appear to have been built over any ancient burial grounds. The only things that go bump in the night around here are cats.
But something a tiny bit terryifying DID happen last weekend. I was moonlighting at a DJ gig when one of the employees came up to chat.
"Hey, one of my best friends went to school with you," she said.
This is a somewhat ghastly thing to hear. If you guys think I'm nerdy NOW, you should've peeped me back in my school days. There's no way I could've left a good impression.
"Ooh, I bet she told you I was crazy nerdy," I replied.
"Actually she said you were really cool and nice. Do you remember Jill Johnson?"
Wow. Talk about a blast from the past. It's good to know that I was cool -- when I was ten, because that's the last I ever spent quality time with Jill Johnson. At some point, we ended up on different sides of the district map, so we only ever went to grade school together.
I actually knew that Jill ended up in the Quad Cities. She came up to me once at another DJ gig and introduced herself. I didn't recognize her, but she knew ME right away, which confirms my fear that I apparently look like a taller and fatter version of my ten-year-old self. Regardless, it was good to see her and harken back to old memories.
But Jill Johnson and I can never share my MOST vivid memory of her -- because it never happened.
Do any of you remember your first real nightmare? The very first time you had a dream SO scary you woke up in a cold sweat shaking? A dream so awful you spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, afraid to go back to sleep? A dream that you can't forget, not even 40 years later? There aren't many things in my life that I'm capable of keeping secret -- but I've never told ANYONE about this dream. Mostly because of how stupid it was.
I was in third grade when it happened. Here's the dream: One of my classmates was secretly an alien trying to take over the world. The ONLY person who knew about it, naturally, was ME. And like the plot of SO many bad monster movies of yore, absolutely no one would believe me. Meanwhile, all of my friends were being turned into alien zombies. Heavy bummer.
If this WAS a bad movie, it'd be up to me to step up and somehow stop the alien menace. Except that I couldn't. Instead, I spent the entire dream hopelessly afraid and unable to change fate as more of my friends became mindless slaves at the hands of the evil alien. An evil alien named Jill Johnson.
Creepy, right? But I left one part out. In the dream, I knew that Jill was an alien because I accidentally saw her in her TRUE ALIEN FORM -- which looked identical to Olivia Newton-John's Sandy at the end of "Grease." Slowly but surely, Jill the Alien turned our entire student body into Evil Zombie Sandys.
We all know "Grease," right? It's the movie musical that teaches us we can woo the boy/girl of our dreams if we simply change every aspect of our personality and find some hot pants. Sandy's a goody-goody who's in love with Danny, who's a baddy-baddy. At the end (spoiler alert,) Sandy shows up in a wicked perm and a leather jacket and she and Danny go together like rama-lama-lama-ka-dinga-ka-dinga-dong. Some say it's one of the most sexist movie plots of all time. Others argue it's a feminist manifesto. And at least one eight-year-old thought it was 100% alien.
I suppose Freud would tell me this dream was symbolic of a young man's search for understanding of the alien nature of blossoming sexuality. Either that or too many Cheetos before bed. But I was in THIRD grade, and I'm pretty sure at that age, girls were just boys who had cooties. I could probably debate the deep meanings of this dream forever. I've certainly pondered it numerous times over the past 40 years.
The only thing I know for certain is that it had nothing to do with Jill Johnson. I don't ever recall her auditioning for the role of Sandy the Hot-Pants-Wearing Nightmare Alien. She's an innocent party in all this, which is why I'm not using her real name. In reality, she was -- well, she was cool and nice, as I recall. I like bumping into her, and on those rare times we DO talk, I hope she can't tell that a small part of my brain is always worried that she's going to start singing "Summer Nights" and eat my face off.
If I want a good Halloween fright, I don't need a house full of ghosts or alien lights in the sky to get creeped out. I just need a bad musical and the name of an old classmate. For now, I'm putting this column and this nightmare to bed. Here's hoping I don't spend the next eight hours being chased by a hatchet-wielding Man of La Mancha.
I love technology.
If I had a nickel for every column I've started with those words, I'm pretty sure I'd have at least thirty-five cents by now.
But it's true. Some people are thrilled by antiques and flea markets and crusty old items from yesteryear. Not me. I don't marvel when I see a relic like a butter churn. We as a species have evolved beyond churning our own butter. I await a future where butter is brought to me at the push of a button from either a robot maid or a highly advanced system of pneumatic tubes.
I vowed long ago that I would forever stay at the top of my technological game. I wonder if my parents ever said the same thing? My dad is amazing. He built the house I grew up in from the ground up. He designed the blueprints, captained the construction team, and saw the project through to completion. He cannot, however, figure out how to turn on a television, play a DVD, or find the power button on a computer. My mom, on the other hand, loves computers. She has a home PC that rivals mine in processing and memory, complete with a multi-speaker surround sound system. She uses it to check the weather and play mah-jong. I've explained iTunes to her at least two dozen times. She "doesn't get" Facebook.
But against both desire and determination, I think I'm starting to reach that stage myself. Every time some new piece of tech comes along that's supposed to make my life easier, I find myself weighing the benefits of an easy life against the amount of time and patience it takes to learn and understand it. I steadfastly believe that I am neither fuddy nor duddy, but I'm starting to get fed up with keeping up with technology.
Case in point: You guys know I DJ on the side, right? Well, one of the lines on my high-tech DJ controller is acting up right now. The tech support section of their website suggests that I update the firmware, which seems like sound advice. I just need to learn what "firmware" is and how one goes about updating it. They also recommend that I install the newest version of my DJ software. No problemo, I thought, until I logged on to discover that the software I use is so old they don't even MAKE it anymore. In the three years since I bought my "top of the line" gear, everything's become outmoded and outdated.
At some point, we should get to put a cap on tech evolution and take a breather. Do we really need 5G televisions? I mean, 4G's are plenty enough G's as far as I'm concerned. Technology is cool, but sometimes it's more trouble than it's worth.
Last week, one of my favorite bands was playing the Windy City. I was meeting up with old college friends at the show, but I had to face a long solo roadtrip to a club and neighborhood I'd never been to. The Old Shane would have pulled out his trusty map and familiarized himself with the route beforehand. But not NEW Shane. Not technologically adept Shane.
Instead I did what anyone under 30 does now: I punched the address into my smartphone and put complete blind faith into an annoying little robot voice who tells you where to turn. At first, this made for a relaxing and confident drive up without a care in the world. In fact, Google's guidance system comes with real-time traffic avoidance, which was neat. It told me right out the gate that I-88 had traffic backups and recommended I take I-80 to I-55 instead. Cool, right?
Well, until I got to Joliet, when it told me that I-55 had backups and I should take I-57 instead. Well, okay. And then I got on I-57 and it told me there were immediate backups and I should take the next exit -- which was four lanes over at rush hour. I simply had to risk life, limb, bumpers, and the death glares of a half dozen drivers as I merged my way over to Google's handy shortcut.
A shortcut that involved driving for twenty minutes through, shall we say, some of the more murder-y parts of southern Chicago. I wasn't exactly positive that I'd be murdered at any second, but it was certainly a bit more murderish of an area than I ever cared to be in.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that if I had my choice of waiting in traffic for a few extra minutes versus finding myself at stop lights where people literally come banging on your windows yelling "GIMME SOME MONEY," I now know for SURE which one I'd pick. But Google didn't care that it just sent me on a scenic tour of burned-out warehouses from the nightmares of Snake Plissken. Google only cared that I shaved seven minutes off my commute.
And that's the problem with new technology. Sometimes the cost outweighs the benefits. Is an easier life worth the effort? Should I be satisfied with my current non-smart refrigerator or should I upgrade to one pre-installed with Twitter and Facebook? (Which seriously exist, apparently for those of us who don't want to access leftovers without losing immediate access to the public thoughts of Kanye West.) For now, I'm still trying to stay as high-tech as possible, within reason. I don't have any offspring to explain the new Facebook to me in twenty years, so I need to have game. But next time I go to Chicago, I'm using a paper map like some butter-churning fuddy-duddy.
(Yep, that's an ACTUAL PHOTO.)
I don't want to be murdered. I don't want to build any type of city on rock and roll. I don't want to be nominated to the Supreme Court. And perhaps more than anything, I don't ever want to be one of those people who posts pictures of their dinner to social media.
You know the type, right? "I'm so much better than you because I made perfectly plated pecan-crusted salmon with mango chutney and capers!" Look, it's not tough to best me when it comes to food. I have no idea what chutney is. I don't even know what a caper is. Truth be told, I barely know what salmon is.
I'm not so great in the kitchen. Fairly early in my adult life, I discovered that it's far easier to sit at a table or drive past a window and pay strangers to cook and serve me lunch. And dinner. And sometimes breakfast. This, however, is not exactly the healthiest way to live. At any given point in time, there's a strong possibility that I am legally taco-toxicated. It's probably a good thing for everyone involved that there's no breathalyzer to test for blood-salsa levels.
But a couple years ago, I set about to change things. I started learning about some of these weird devices in my kitchen like, umm, a stove. I went grocery shopping. I bought cookbooks. Well, truth be told, my friends sort of threw cookbooks at me when I told them I was going to "wing it." I even cracked open a few of those dusty tomes my mom passed down (sample sentence: "When your husband gets home from a hard day's work, he DESERVES a hot, tasty meal!")
It wasn't always pretty, but I daresay I've made some giant culinary steps. I can grill fish. I can bake chicken. I can roast potatoes. Someone came to my last party just because they'd heard about the food (and presumably didn't show up just to laugh at it. I hope.)
Last week, though, I discovered it's possible to become a little over-confident in one's cooking ability. Last week was a big oops. An oops big enough to send me back to fast food while I re-evaluated the progress of my life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you inadvertently create a toxic bio-hazard. Plates had to be DESTROYED, people.
I know what you're thinking. I probably attempted a recipe well beyond my skill level, right? Something complex with multiple steps and foreign ingredients requiring an experienced delicate touch. I wish.
Instead, I ruined a HAM STEAK.
That's kind of impressive. It takes a certain level of skill to improperly cook something that comes PRE-cooked. I might be lousy at cooking, but I'm clearly awesome at blunders. The worst part? I still don't exactly know what I did wrong, but I'm blaming Youtube.
You name the recipe and there's a kajillion videos on Youtube to help you. I found over 50 different videos alone on how to cook ham steak, which is notable considering all you have to do is warm it up, and even that's optional.
But Chef Shane wanted to elevate his ham steak game, so I found a video that seemed super easy to follow. Cook the steak until "it browns nicely." Add some pineapple juice, brown sugar and dry mustard to the leftover juices, let it caramelize, and then pour your delightful glaze over your delightful steak, presto bango.
Well, I cooked that ham steak like a champ and it didn't brown one bit. Either I'd discovered a race of heat-resistant pigs or I was cooking too low. So I turned up the heat and kept at it until I finally gave up some fifteen minutes later and plated my decidedly NON-brown steak.
Then I added pineapple juice, brown sugar, and mustard. A few minutes later, it started bubbling just like the video, so I let it caramelize for a minute and then poured the glaze over my steak. At this point, things looked pretty good. I suppose my first clue something was amiss was when I touched my knife to the ham steak and heard a noticeable "clink."
Somehow, some way, in the two minutes between pouring the glaze on the steak and attempting to eat it, the entire concoction had solidified into a hard blackened plate of nightmares. Instead of a succulent and juicy ham steak, I'm pretty sure I had just invented ham candy, and let's just say no one would turn up at a party to sample it (at least not without a pickaxe.) I tried my best to chisel and scrape away the smellier and/or more carcinogenic parts of my meal, but it was a lost cause. All that's left now are some photos that are blurry because I was laughing too hard at my ineptitude to hold my phone steady.
Maybe one day charred ham candy will be a delicacy and I'm simply waaay ahead of the curve. Or maybe I just royally botched it. But I'm not giving up. After a few days of self-doubt, laughter, and a LOT of carryout tacos, yesterday I attempted a casserole that came out so perfectly, I took a picture and put it on Facebook without hesitation.
I guess if there's one thing I REALLY don't want to be, it's a quitter.
Well, it's official. Summer's over.
All we have now are a few blissful weeks of crisp autumn air before ice scrapers come out, coats come on, and meteorologists start talking about the dreaded "wintry mix." I suppose the only thing to do now is sit back, reminisce, and take stock of those random moments that made summer special. In 2018, I have a clear favorite.
It must have been mid-July-ish or so. As is lazy Saturday custom, my friend Jason showed up at my door and we set off in search of anything to do or see. Usually this involves whining about having nothing to do before getting sidetracked in conversation and then eventually we'll look up and find ourselves 100 miles away and road-weary. On this Saturday, we set off in a vaguely northwestern direction and eventually landed in the uninteresting back country of Iowa.
You're a fine state, Iowa. You have, after all, "Fields of Opportunities." But on this particular day, we had journeyed well beyond the opportunities and found ourselves in nothing but fields. This was Nowheresville -- and, as it turned out, Nowheresville was having their county fair.
Now when I say "county fair," I'm sure images come to mind. Carnival rides, food vendors, happy families, et cetera. Right? Not in Nowheresville. As we drove past, all I could see were parked cars surrounding drab exhibit halls and sale barns. In Nowheresville, even their fairs are boring.
That is, until Jason yelled, "STOP! STOP! TURN IN!"
This generally means one of two things. Either (1) Jason had spotted something amazing, or (2) there was a bee in the car and I was seconds away from veering off the road and killing us both. Thankfully, this was the former.
Along the back edge of the parking lot, I hadn't noticed the primitive drag strip or the dozen or so trailers unloading their racers. But these weren't cars. These were souped-up, heavily modified LAWN MOWERS -- and we just happened to arrive at pre-race qualifying.
As we walked up, the noise was deafening. Once upon a time, these beasts were simple garden tractors. Now they were customized monstrosities of polished chrome, elaborate pipes, and nary a muffler in sight or sound.
Why do people do this to these poor mowers? I suppose I understand the desire to be able to mow your lawn in 3.8 seconds, that's perfectly understandable. But I'd reckon none of these beasts had seen grass in quite a long time. It had to have taken HUNDREDS of man-hours to customize these mowers, and for what? This one day of the year when you get 30 seconds of muscle-mowing fairground glory? That's much of a payoff. Only later did I discover that there are racing LEAGUES for these things, and some of these guys are probably taking their Franken-mowers all over the midwest.
The one thing missing, though, were spectators of any kind. Only a small set of bleachers was set up for qualifying, and the only people around were drivers and their families. In fact, the only thing truly being spectated seemed to be the two of us. It didn't take long before we realized that many, many eyes were turned our way. We clearly did not belong.
"What if someone asks us what we're doing here?" Jason whispered under the roar of the engines.
"Simple," I replied. "We put on our best Italian accents and explain we're with Ferrari Motors, Lawn & Garden Division, and we're obviously here scouting for talent."
The stares didn't stop. It became clear that everyone in Nowheresville knew everyone else in Nowheresville -- except the two of us. It was unnerving. I checked to see if my fly was undone or something -- nope, all good there. But it still felt like some Invasion of the Body Snatchers scene where someone was about to point and yell "OUTLANDERS!" and then they'd all turn and point and scream and come at us zombie-style. I was plotting an escape route when Jason nudged me.
"Dude, hand on heart!"
"Whaa?" I started to reply, but then I heard it, too. Never mind the craziest sporting event I'd ever seen. Never mind that there were less than a dozen people in attendance. That didn't stop Nowheresville from bringing out a teenage girl who, behind all the engine noise, had begun a humble a cappella rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.
So there we were, standing in the middle of the parking lot, hands on hearts, given a brief respite from the Stranger-Danger staredown thanks to the stars and stripes. We gave the song the respect that it deserves -- while also silently stepping back towards the car.
"Oh, say can you see" (Step back.)
"By the dawn's early light," (Step back.)
Two seconds after respecting the Home of the Brave, we were in the Car of the Chicken, beat-feeting out of town before the Nowheresvillagers grabbed pitchforks and hopped on Husqvarnas that could likely outrun my Hyundai. I'm all for seeing lawn mowers that go zero to sixty, but I'd rather do it in a town that DOES cotton to strangers.
In the meantime, the only thing I'm fixing to modify are some pumpkins. Hello, fall. Good to make your autumnquaintance.
You shouldn't ever feel guilty about harboring a guilty pleasure. I've got tons.
I know I'm a nerd, but a nerd with some fairly advanced pop culture credibility. I love esoteric and thought-provoking TV shows like Twin Peaks and Mr. Robot -- but I also religiously watch Big Brother. I love dark movies with detailed character studies -- but I've also seen "Bridget Jones' Diary" like fifty times. I thrive on left-of-center artists that push the boundaries of contemporary music -- but I also own the entire discography of Debbie Gibson.
There's nothing shameful about liking something you're not supposed to. Well, unless that something is illegal. Don't murder people, even if you like to. That's a no-no. But other than criminal activities, I say embrace your guilty pleasures and wear them with pride.
Except my guilty pleasure is dying off, and if quick action isn't taken, it might not be ANYONE'S guilty pleasure for much longer.
I like NASCAR. I can't explain why. I've never been able to. I realize it represents pretty much everything in life that I'm supposed to hate. Whether it's fair or not, there's a stereotype of people who like NASCAR, and it's not pretty. Just listen to the folks who call in to NASCAR talk radio and you'll know what I mean. The scarier takeaway here is that I sit around and listen to NASCAR talk radio. It is my guiltiest of pleasures.
I know there's plenty of great NASCAR fans out there, so please don't think I'm trying to tear you down. I am one of you -- and like me, I'm sure you hate the unfair stereotype that most NASCAR fans are uneducated drunken hillbillies. That's just not true. I mean, look in the stands at any NASCAR event and you'll find... well, you'll see a wide variety of... err, no one?
I just watched the 25th running of the Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR's most iconic races. By and large, the stands were empty. No matter how positive the announcers sounded and even though they completely ignored the attendance, there was no hiding the empty seats around the track. In fairness, this year's Brickyard had to be rescheduled to a Monday after a weekend rainout, but still. Do you think Soldier Field would be empty if the Bears had to push back their game by a day? No chance.
The ugly truth is that fans are leaving NASCAR in droves -- and as fans leave, so are the sponsors. And when sponsors dry up, teams dry up. Last week, Furniture Row Racing announced that they're ceasing operations at the end of this season due to a lack of sponsor commitment. And Furniture Row is the home of defending Monster Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. If a championship team can't stay afloat, how are the others going to make it? Imagine if the New England Patriots went belly-up and gave Tom Brady a pink slip.
Strangely, though, as NASCAR flounders, they have yet to consult with ME as to how to fix things. Which is a shame, because I have the answers.
For starters, let's put the S back in NASCAR. Today's top level cars are far from "stock" -- they're aerodynamic racing machines that require a team of highly-paid engineers to perfect. I visited the Hendrick Motorsports complex a while back and it looked more like a science lab than an auto garage. The teams that routinely win are always the teams with the biggest engineering budgets. The new cars might be technical wonders, but racing was a lot more fun when it was souped-up cars you could actually see at a dealership. I'd rather see the best drivers win instead of the best pocketbooks.
Speaking of drivers, it'd be nice if they had some personality. Over the years, NASCAR has made a commitment to making their events family-friendly, and that's great -- but not when it's at the expense of racing. In order for NASCAR to captivate fans, it needs good guys to root for and bad guys to boo. It needs cars that bump and tempers that flare. NASCAR recently had a changing of the guard with the retirement of several older drivers who mostly couldn't adapt to the new high-tech cars. This new crop of drivers are talented, promising, smart -- and super boring to watch.
It's sad to say, but NASCAR's only saving grace right now is Kyle Busch. Most fans hate Kyle Busch. He's an egotistical jerk with a short fuse and a win-at-all-costs attitude. Best of all, he's a skilled driver who wins a LOT. Earlier this year, Busch and Kyle Larson were fighting for the win at Chicagoland. On the last lap, Busch intentionally spun Larson to take the win. Grabbing the checkered flag to a cavalcade of boos, Busch found the first camera he could and mimed cry-baby tears. The outrage was palpable -- and fantastic. Hating Kyle Busch is incredibly fun.
Today's combination of safety, science, and engineering is impressive, but it doesn't sell tickets. Nobody wants to see a race where elite cars get a half-lap jump on the rest of the field and everyone else politely drives in circles for three hours. I'm not saying NASCAR needs more wrecks -- if you're one of those people who goes to a race for the thrill of seeing a driver get injured or worse, you're pondscum. But now that the cars and tracks are MUCH safer, why not let drivers bang it out a little while balancing the technology to give all 42 of them a shot at winning? Once races get exciting again, fans will get emotionally invested and they WILL come back.
I know first-hand that NASCAR's not for everyone. My friends come over and I try to show them an amazing last-lap pass that I've recorded and their eyes roll before I can even grab the remote. But for a lot of us out there, Sundays wouldn't be the same without cars turning left all afternoon. Here's hoping they can figure it out before I have to find a new guilty pleasure. I hear pro wrestling's still a thing, right?
I'm sorry I was 25 minutes late for work. Trust me, there's a simple explanation.
I am nothing if not NOT an investigative journalist. And I have carefully utilized my non-journalism degree and lack of investigative skills to uncover a very real conspiracy that runs so deep I might not even be able to convert it into an award-winning screenplay. I hope you people can handle the shock of what I'm about to reveal to you.
Why was I late for work? Because there exists a massive anti-Shane conspiracy involving (I'm pretty sure) the Hyundai Motor Company, Circle K Convenience Stores, The Iowa Interstate Railroad, Apple Computers, The Illinois Department of Transportation, and the passionate libido of a man known only as "Bill."
As you may know, our office recently relocated to our new home near the East Moline riverfront. I reside in Rock Island. Allowing for my daily stop for caffeinated provisions, it takes precisely 22 minutes to get from my garage to the office parking lot.
Or so I thought. As I backed out of my garage, I noted that I'd left my driver side window cracked. This was noted when it started raining on my face. I generally prefer to make my daily commute free of facial precipitation, but when I hit the "up" button, my window instead made a noise like "gronk" and proceeded to roll DOWN.
My power windows occasionally go a little wonky when it's humid out, and the only way to fix it is to pull over, open the car door, and force the window back into position. Easily accomplished, but I was now sopping wet AND a minute behind schedule. No problem, I can make it up at the gas station.
Or so I thought. Every day when I stop for gas, I'm greeted by the same friendly clerk who has my morning coffee already rung up by the time I get to the counter. THIS day, though, I walked in to see a new clerk I'd never encountered before, who was on the phone with the regular clerk who was running late, and there was much dialogue and explanation to be had. Don't get me wrong, I love that place and everyone who works there, but I was now running FOUR minutes late. A challenge, but one I could handle.
Or so I thought. My car basically drives itself to work. Take the one way around Augie, left on 7th Ave., left on 44th St., annd... TRAIN. Grr. I come from Galesburg, land of trains. I know there's no avoiding trains. They simply make you late and you just have to deal. So as I sat there growing ever more tardy, I simply took solace in the passing graffiti alerting me that "Bill Loves Sweet Pea." Aww.
Five minutes later, I was rolling again, now on pace to be nine minutes late. That's bad, but not awful, and I was in the home stretch.
Or so I thought. Let's get one thing clear: no one asked ME if I wanted a new bridge across the Mississippi. Sure, the old I-74 bridge is a crumbling narrow deathtrap, but what's a trip to Iowa without fearing for your life at least once? I'm a fan of progress, but when progress closes River Drive without warning for God-knows-how-long, I'm less than enthusiastic.
So, too, were the other 30 cars impeded by the sudden detour. So now I was stuck deep in traffic and the only way out was to cut back to the one-way, which meant running into the SAME train AGAIN. In case you were wondering, Bill continues to love Sweet Pea. As I sat there now 14 minutes late, I realized I'd better call the office -- which I would have, had I not left my phone sitting on my couch back at home. I suppose one could argue that I'm more to blame here than Apple, but I wasn't the one who made the iPhone sleek and black and easy to blend into my couch. J'accuse, Steve Jobs!
With the train passed, I just needed to get up to the one-way and haul butt to work. Except the train had caused gridlock in all directions and it took SIX light changes to move three blocks. By the time I got to East Moline, it was too late. I turned to the office in JUST enough time to see the crossing gates go down.
And THAT, friends, is how I got stopped THREE times in one commute by the SAME TRAIN. As I sat there, looking at my office just past the boxcars, I wondered what Bill and Sweet Pea were doing just then. I'd like to think that Sweet Pea dumped Bill later that night because he showed up late after getting stopped by the very train he had just graffitoed. You suck, Bill.
And then, as the last car passed, I saw it. Just there, in the corner, was one simple piece of graffiti: "BILL RULES." I hope my co-workers didn't hear me cursing Bill from a block away, but it's a distinct possibility.
So THAT, boss, is why I was late. It's clearly a Bill-helmed masterplan. I guess I'll be setting the alarm a little earlier. I bet Bill gets to sleep in. Hey Sweet Pea, if you want to date a REAL man, give me a call. Just don't expect me to be on time.
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
As many of you know, I am nothing if not an obsessive music nerd. And I've found a new obsession.
The majority of my music collection is taken up by dark atmospheric indie bands -- the kind of music that's usually only made for record store clerks and people who wear turtlenecks unironically. But I also appreciate the value of a good pop spectacle. One night I might be in a dimly-lit bar watching some intense beardo bear his soul with an acoustic guitar, but the next night you might find me having just as much fun in the cheap seats at a Britney Spears show. What can I say? Sometimes you want to hear artistic emotional music that touches your soul, and sometimes you just wanna see Gene Simmons spit fire and waggle his tongue.
So when I stumbled across an article recently that read, "2018's Biggest Music Spectacle Is A Band You've Never Heard Of," I was intrigued. And now I'm obsessed. You should be, too. Allow me to introduce you to the magic of Sekai No Owari -- the biggest pop band in Japan.
I've always had a soft spot for Japanese culture. I've got a friend who moved to Nagoya a few years back, and every so often, I'll get a care package full of Japanese goodies both amazing and incomprehensible -- and I love it all. This is, after all, a country where you can go to the corner store and buy corn-flavored Kit-Kats. A country that recently developed a robot you wear on your head that feeds you tomatoes while you jog -- because we all want to run while wearing a robot arm and fresh produce on our heads like a Terminator Carmen Miranda.
No country does pop music like Japan, and no pop band is quite like Sekai No Owari. They're a 4-piece band featuring Fukase on vocals, Nakajin on guitars and drums, Saori handles piano and accordion, and then there's DJ Love, whose only job appears to be creeping people out. No one has ever seen DJ Love's face -- he hides in public 24/7 behind a smiling clown mask. Already this band is awesome.
But it's Sekai No Owari's live shows that have people talking. A full orchestra dressed as mummies? Check. Inflatable trains that drop LED bracelets onto the crowd that sync up with the band's light show? Check. Onstage waterfalls? Sure. Pillars of fire? Absolutely. ANIMATRONIC LIFE-SIZE ELEPHANTS? You betcha. The band stopping mid-set to fight ninjas? Most definitely.
I've seen some good shows in my day, but I don't ever recall Bono fighting ninjas or Michael Stipe riding an animatronic elephant. Kiss only WISH they had this level of spectacle.
But as good as the live shows are, the songs themselves might even be better. In true J-Pop fashion, every tune is bubblegum pop that's been overly polished, overly produced, and fully orchestrated into little pop symphonies. Each song is a major-chord feel-good lovefest, and that's something woefully missing lately from the American charts. Earlier this year, Lil Uzi Vert went to #7 in the US with a song that goes, "All my friends are dead / push me to the edge." Sekai No Owari, on the other hand, recently had a Japanese chart-topper about falling in love with a 200-year-old magical snow fairy.
See for yourself. Just check out the video for "Honoo to Mori no Carnival." The lights come up as Fukase walks through a door into the woods, where he stumbles upon the rest of the band. DJ Love shows up playing a tuba because of course he does. And the subtitled lyrics read as such:
"The emergency exit of 'Cosmo Panic' in Yokohama / that's the entrance to the party"
(Okay, awesome. Secret parties are rad. What is it? A rave? An underground casino?)
"When you open the door, you will see a giant tree / This place is called Treeland."
(Sooo... not a rave then.)
"Here you are a superstar!"
(I'm a superstar in Treeland? I always suspected as much.)
"Tokyo Fantasy / Mummies are dancing too"
(You sure this isn't just Studio 54?)
The wizard said this to me: "You have to keep this love a secret, because if you don't, this girl's life will be in danger."
(Wait, what wizard? What girl? Am I a girl in this scenario? Why would you take me to a carnival where I could get killed?)
"'Please take me to the party' / You look at me with your sad eyes."
(No, what I said was 'Get me the hell out of this party, I don't trust those dancing mummies.')
"As I was staring at the robot at the bar, you started to get upset with me."
(Damn straight I did. Take me home... unless the robot wants to feed me tomatoes first.)
"Surrounded by people, I gave you a kiss."
(GREAT. Didn't you listen to the wizard? NOW MY LIFE IS IN DANGER."
"And now it's time for you to take the stage!"
(This is less "Tokyo Fantasy" and more "Spooky Tokyo Hell Dream.")
"I've decided to stay with you, my love, forever."
(And now I have a stalker. Just great.)
And, hand to God, at this point in the video, the band drop what they'e doing and launch into a zombie dance routine.
Clearly, Sekai No Owari are the best thing ever. And now, according to Wikipedia, they're working on an English language album and plan to conquer America. They've already conqurered my heart. If there's one thing our Top 40 charts need right now, it's a proper dose of fun. If there's six things our Top 40 charts need right now, it's robots, wizards, mummies, Treeland, 200-year-old snow fairies, and a tuba-playing DJ in a clown mask. I beg of you, go directly to Youtube and indulge.
Thank me later.
Throughout my fake career as a fake journalist, I've experienced a lot of milestones.
I can still remember the very first sample column I ever submitted... and the rejection letter that soon followed. I remember what it felt like to see my picture in the paper for the first time. I remember my first fan letter just as I remember my first piece of hate mail. I remember when a guy from Missouri showed up at our office after I wrote a less-than-enthusiastic recap of an unpleasant roadtrip I took to the Show-Me State.
And now, I'm pretty sure I'll always remember the first assassination attempt on my life.
It was last Wednesday, and I was just getting back from a trip to the vet. There I was on my back steps, keys in one hand and cat in the other, when it happened.
When I first bought my house, my dad was eager to make some improvements to the place. One of the first things he did was install an outdoor floodlight next to my back door. When you're standing on the back steps, it's mounted just beside my door, roughly at eye level. When turned on, it does a pretty good job illuminating my tiny yard. When turned off, it does nothing -- except for last Wednesday, when it exploded.
All I heard was a huge bang, and then felt glass shards hitting my face, my hair, and covering my entire back steps.
Despite how savagely cool I may look in my photo, I am not an especially street-smart individual. I am neither well-read nor experienced in the inner workings of the modern floodlight. One thing I can say with confidence, though, is that they're NOT supposed to explode in your face, especially when they're off. I've never seen a caution label that reads: "WARNING: May spontaneously combust at any time, scaring you within an inch of your life."
There was only one possible scenario that sprang into my head: GUNPLAY. Either someone just did a really good job shooting at my floodlight or a really bad job shooting at me. Either way: SHOTS FIRED.
I refuse to believe that our world has devolved to the point that random acts of terror and violence are the new norm. I still believe in the power of goodness. But bad things CAN happen, and who among us hasn't wondered how we'd react in a God-forbid sort of scenario?
I now know exactly what I would do. I would, in fact, scream "WHAT THE FAAAAAAAA" in an octave I didn't know I was capable of, and then I would awkwardly dive into my house like a lame overweight action hero being chased by assassins. Then, once my hands stopped shaking, I would avoid all windows (you know, in case it was a SQUAD of assassins,) and then I would call 911 and tell them I thought I was just shot at.
"Do you, umm, have any enemies?" the operator asked me.
Good question. DO I have any enemies? Hmm. That fella from Missouri was awfully steamed. Urban chicken-keepers sure hate me (long story). There's my 5th grade gym teacher, but I'm pretty sure he's dead. That pretty much only leaves my mortal enemy, Tom Cruise. I'd like to think he has better things to do than take up sniper positions outside my house.
"I don't THINK so?" I replied.
To the credit of the Rock Island police, an officer was at my door in less than two minutes. In fact, SIX officers were there. And as they searched the back of my house for bullet holes that didn't exist, all I could do was apologize.
"No worries," one of the officers replied. "Better safe than sorry. I would've done the same thing." I don't think he would have done EXACTLY the same thing -- the artistry of the belly-roll-dive I performed shall forever be mine and mine alone.
The exploding floodlight, though, remained a mystery. Then it hit me -- on the head, literally. My neighbor owns a walnut tree. The tree, in turn, owns most of the airspace over my yard. And every year, a team of black squirrels farm that tree for every scrap of walnut they can get. And they HATE me. Every day, I open my back door to a sea of cracked walnuts while squirrels scamper up the tree and chirp at me angrily. If I stay out there too long, they'll drop walnuts on me -- or worse. Let's just say you haven't lived until you've had to clean squirrel pee off your head at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday.
Do I have enemies? I have a whole furry family of them, and I'll bet one of them dropped a walnut directly onto that floodlight while I was standing next to it. Those adorable little assassins have officially crossed the line, and I'm through playing. If you were driving by this morning and saw me yelling angrily at a tree, I promise I'm not insane. I just have a treeload of enemies that need eviction. My guess is they're from Missouri.
Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods. David Beckham. That Ken guy who won a bunch of money on Jeopardy. Scoot over, because I'm about to join you in the hallowed halls of immortal greatness.
As readers of last week's column know, I recently attended the Mississippi Valley Fair for the first time in, oh, about 25 years. The sights, the sounds, and especially the smells of that place will stick with me for a while (even though I've showered, like, 20 times since then, I swear.) But as any professional fair-goer knows, the REAL thrill of the fair isn't in the rides or on the stage. It's the cutthroat competition.
You haven't fully experienced a county fair unless you've wandered through its exhibition halls to see the myriad of competitions raging on. It's all there: the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the greatest floral centerpieces in all of Scott County. You think winning a boxing match or a car race is tough? Try growing the best beet in east central Iowa, losers.
By the time I made it there, some of the biggest battles had already been waged. Blue ribbons adorned everything from green beans to quilts to model cars. And suddenly, right then and there in the middle of the exhibition hall, I had a flashback.
It was me back in grade school -- and one drawer of my dresser was filled to the brim with shiny blue ribbons and pins. Some were from activity fairs at school that I earned basically by showing up. Some were my late grandfather's photography awards. More still came from my great-grandmother's fair wins. All told, there were probably two dozen ribbons of various colors, sizes, and statures. And sometimes, when I was alone in my room and feeling extra important, I would take every one of those ribbons, pin them to my shirt, and play a little game that I liked to call "I Am The Greatest Person Who Ever Lived Ever."
The gameplay was simple: I would walk around my room with my amazing technicolor dreamshirt, and all of my stuffed animals would be really, really impressed by my many ribbon-winning accomplishments. A few of the luckier ones might even get my autograph.
Forty years later, I am mature, grounded, and fully self-aware that a meaningful and happy life can be had without ribbons or recognition. And as I wandered around the exhibition hall staring at all those blue ribbons, only one thought crossed my mind:
I WANT THEM. I WANT ALL OF THEM. Sure, you don't need ribbons for your life to have meaning. BUT I BET THEY'D HELP. And I bet two dozen of them would look JUST as good pinned to my shirt as they did when I was 8. My cats would be SUPER impressed.
So that's it, then. I have almost one full year until the next fair. That's plenty of time to learn how to bake, sew, pickle, quilt, craft, draw, farm, and paint my way to greatness. My goal is simple: WIN ALL THE RIBBONS NEXT YEAR. ALL OF THEM.
Sure, there are a few hurdles I'll need to overcome between now and then. I'm not quite sure what those hurdles ARE, because I didn't bother looking at the rules. I suppose I could do research, but that comes awfully close to real journalism, which I try to avoid in this column whenever possible. I do know that if I really want to win ALL the ribbons, I'll have to somehow pass myself off in certain categories as being both over 65 AND under 14 years of age, which is admittedly a challenge. But by then, I figure a convincing costume should be no problem, since I'll be a master sewer and craftsman by that point. I also might have to move to Iowa, but one doesn't become The Greatest Person Who Ever Lived Ever without the occasional sacrifice.
Some categories might be tough to win. I saw one where you apparently make dresses for little girls. I don't know the first thing about dressmaking OR little girls, and I'm pretty sure asking random children on the street to try on dresses is generally frowned upon by society. I also can't practice growing blue ribbon vegetables in the winter unless I install an elaborate grow light set-up in the basement, and nothing spoils the winter holidays quite like a SWAT team descending on your house. Of course, it might be worth it to see their faces when they bust through my basement door to find a secret grow lab full of radishes, corn, and green beans.
I'll also need to carefully study the difference between good things and bad things, because at the fair, I often couldn't tell the difference. At one point, I got to witness blue, silver, and red ribbon bales of hay. Sincere apologies to all you professional hay balers out there, but to MY untrained eye, every single bale looked identical. Frankly, I think the whole category might have been a sham, because when I was there, they were using the blue ribbon hay bales as free food for the blue ribbon goats.
Which reminds me, I need to go buy some goats. I've only got a year to get them trained up. If a tap-dancing goat isn't deserving of a blue ribbon, I don't know what is. Plus, even if I fail and I don't become The Greatest Person Who Ever Lived Ever, I'll still have a yard full of goats, and that's a pretty decent consolation prize.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have things to pickle. Greatness calls.
Did you see "The Late Late Show" last week when my favorite shiny-veneered super-villain, Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, convinced talk show host James Corden to join him in a skydiving adventure? I couldn't help but wonder what I would do in the same situation. While it's true that I've often yearned to see Tom Cruise take a flying leap, I wouldn't ever opt to join him.
Some people are thrill-seekers. I'm more of a thrill-avoider. Occasionally newspaper columnists get chances to do cool stuff like climb construction projects or fly with the Blue Angels. Those are amazing opportunities, to which I would say: "HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. No."
You might have your own definition of the word "thrilling." My version goes like this: "Ooh, my Amazon order arrived a day earlier than expected. How thrilling!" "This DVD has an extra commentary track? Thrilling!" "McRib is back? I'm thrilled!"
So why, then, did a self-confessed thrill-avoider recently find himself walking through the gates of our area's week-long home for cheap thrills? For the first time in 25 years, why would I purposely go to the place where stomachs churn, hearts burn, and the agonizing screams of the tortured fill the night sky?
I'm not sure, really, other than the constant month-long reassurance that "EVERYBODY'S GONNA BE THERE... THE GREAT MISSISSIPPI VALLEY FAIR!" The jingle lies, people. "Everybody" was not there. I wandered that whole place, and I can assure you from first-hand experience that Katie Holmes was NOT there. I checked.
But yes, I did it. I came, I saw, I ate funnel cake.
Now, I'm not gonna take any cheap shots at fair-goers, that's lazy journalism and it's dead wrong. I saw people of all walks of life, so I'm not about to issue any unfair stereotypes. I will say that I felt somewhat in the minority because the clothes I opted to wear that evening included sleeves. But hey, if you've got a side-body that you're not afraid to show countless strangers, go for it. Sleeves aside, the fair unites us all under one common cause: To eat horribly unhealthy food and then try super hard not to vomit it back up while being strapped to mechanical torture devices.
I may have approached the midway with the wrong mindset. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "I ate a big lunch today. All I really need is something light to nibble on." I should have realized that "something light" doesn't exist at a fair -- and if it DID, someone else would find a way to throw it in a deep fryer and cover it in powdered sugar. I saw a vendor offering something called "Chicken on a Stick," which seemed like a nice little kabob-y thing to snack on. Then he handed me -- with TWO hands, I might mention -- what appeared to be 70%-80% of a whole chicken, deep fried to hell and back, attached to a popsicle stick that was clearly for ornamental purposes only. Fair food is NOT for amateurs.
I loved it all. There were angry-looking tigers, friendly-looking wolves, high-diving pirates, giant robots, and countless exciting ways to separate me from the contents of my wallet. At the far end of the midway, there was a wonderful exhibit devoted entirely to horse poop. Well, and the horses that made it, I suppose. But if I had to guess based on smell alone, I'd say the poop was the real star of the show.
In all honesty, I was there for one reason and one reason alone: to spend some quality time in a stable full of goats. I love goats, and I simply don't have enough of them in my life. In the grand agricultural animal kingdom, goats are far and away the best -- mostly because I don't understand them. They're strange creatures that look like the result of an unholy tryst between a bull terrier and the aliens at the end of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." I'm not quite sure why anyone keeps goats, unless you're looking for a less efficient source of milk, a less efficient garbage disposal, or a less efficient lawn mower. Still, I love them to pieces. I hear that "therapy goats" are a real thing these days, and I will gladly sign up for goat therapy any time, any place.
That leaves us with the rides, and I wisely left those to a younger generation. Once upon a Shane, I greatly enjoyed the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Scrambler, but recently I was at a park with some friends and felt my stomach drop out while I was on a simple playground swing, so I think my whirling and scrambling days are behind me. As for the crazier rides that take you airborne, upside down, and round-and-round, I truly think the only reason one willingly goes on those is to test courage, challenge gag reflexes, or respond to a dreaded double-dog dare.
The crown jewel of this year's show appeared to be a flashing mini-rave of a ride called "GENESIS," where riders strap in to be hurled violently in sideways circles. And speaking of hurling, the only guy who looked more miserable than the riders was the poor soul tasked with cleaning up the after-effects with a spray bottle and a roll of paper towels. Let's just say it wasn't an ideal ad for the "quicker picker upper."
All told, I had a pretty fair time at the fair. I might be too chicken for the rides, but I wasn't too chicken for chicken-on-a-stick. Plus I got to pet a goat, and hey, it was pretty thrilling. Maybe I'll go again in another twenty-five years. I double dog dare myself.
A friend of mine confessed something shocking the other day. Somehow, some way, she's lived her entire life having never seen "Star Wars."
In a way, I find this sad. She's not just missing a movie, she's missing a cultural touchstone that's shared and celebrated around the world. I bet you could go to the farthest corner of Mongolia and still find nomadic shepherds who could quote Yoda.
In another way, though, her achievement is kind of impressive. "Star Wars" is fairly omnipresent. It must be somewhat tough to avoid. Kudos, friend. You must be really committed. The Force is strong with this one.
I don't really think of myself as a film buff, but I probably qualify. If you spend as much time on a couch as I do, you're eventually going to see your fair share of movies. If I'm bored enough, I'll watch just about anything. But just like my "Star Wars"-hating friend, there exist a pair of movies that were massive cultural benchmarks of my era that I've never watched, nor do I ever intend to. Maybe I'm just being stubborn or an elitist movie snob, I dunno. I just truly think I'm a better person for having never sat through them.
The first is "Top Gun." My hatred of Tom Cruise has been well documented over the run of this column, but that's mostly due to his temporary betrothal to my ultimate celebrity crush, Katie Holmes. But even before he had the gall to sully the good name of my future wife, I was never a big fan. "Top Gun" just never interested me, and I guess I just never got around to seeing it. I don't even really know what it's about, other than a bunch of guys who fly planes super fast and I presume that Tom is the superest and fastest of them all. And then Berlin sings a song about taking my breath away. Yawn.
The other classic film of our era that I've never seen is "Pretty Woman." That almost changed this weekend.
Last Saturday, I was working on my laptop with the TV on in the background. TBS was airing a cavalcade of harmless romantic comedies that I'd seen a kajillion times over. All of a sudden, though, a new movie started and it wasn't until I spotted Julia Roberts that I realized I was absent-mindedly watching "Pretty Woman." I shoved my laptop aside for a second and stared at the screen.
Do I even know what this movie's about? Richard Gere's a fancy business guy and Julia's a prostitute and I guess they fall in love, right? So it's basically just a skeevy version of "My Fair Lady," except instead of awesome timeless songs, all you get is Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love" and Go West's "King of Wishful Thinking," two of the blandest chart-toppers ever released unto the world. Is there anything redeeming about this movie? I hit the "INFO" button on my Tivo to read its capsule description. Hand to God, this is what it said:
"PRETTY WOMAN (1991). George hires a bar girl, Mimin, who looks the same as his co-worker he killed to cover up the disappearance and resign from her job. However, Mimin decides to stay after seeing the vice president who saved her a few nights ago."
Wait... what? Richard Gere's a murderer? Julia becomes a businesswoman? Who's this vice president and what did he save her from? And what kind of a name is 'Mimin'?
One of two things was clearly afoot: Either (1) Tivo seriously screwed up, or (2) "Pretty Woman" is a WAY more interesting film than I ever knew.
It took some investigating, but I finally figured it out. Richard and Julia's "Pretty Woman" came out in 1990. But in 1991, ANOTHER "Pretty Woman" was released -- this one a low-budget drama from Hong Kong. Tivo had simply switched the two descriptions by mistake. (Why a Cantonese movie has leads named 'George' and 'Mimin' remains a mystery.)
But seriously, how AWESOME would that plot twist have been? There's nothing set in stone that says a light-hearted romantic comedy can't end in a moment of horror. Imagine a 90-minute movie where Richard and Julia meet-cute, fall in love, and do all the boring things that happens in every romantic comedy. Finally it culminates in a passionate kiss, after which Richard Gere pulls Julia Roberts close to him, leans into her ear, and whispers, "I killed my co-worker. She looked just like you." A look of terror spreads over Julia's face. A Roxette song starts playing. Credits.
Now THAT would be a movie to remember. Imagine a crowded theater full of date-nighters all going, "WHAT THE...??" in unison. THAT, friends, would be a movie I'd endorse. Moral of the story? I dunno -- prostitution is bad? The world is terrifying? Life is like a box of chocolates except when one of the chocolates gets murdered and replaced by another chocolate that looks exactly like it?
But no, instead of a cool movie full of murders and Mimims aplenty, this was just the boring "Pretty Woman" we all know and love. Except I didn't know it. So I watched a few minutes, got bored, and changed the channel into a Star Wars flick that was just starting up.
Good ol' Star Wars. No Tivo confusion to be had there. Just a good guy, a bad guy, a Wookie, and best of all? In a galaxy far, far away, there's no sign whatsoever of Tom Cruise.
Modern living is amazing. In my lifetime alone, we as a people have made some pretty tremendous Jetsons-like leaps of progress. I remember tube TVs that proudly picked up three local static-filled channels. I remember when records weren't "vintage" and was simply the way music came. I remember when my family was at the cutting edge of technology because my dad had a "portable" pager that was still too big to fit in most pockets.
It seems hard to fathom, but once upon a time, I survived quite easily without a phone that could stream movies, play music, keep tabs on our President, or assist angry birds in swine genocide at the push of a button. The future is here, and it's pretty amazing.
But at the same time, we're still a good distance away from proper Jetsons-level cool. Where's my jetpack? My flying car? I look outside and see no people-sized pneumatic tubes that can whoosh me to work and back. Science and technology have given us many blessings, but I'm pretty sure if we all put our heads together and focused, we could really make some historic leaps and bounds in modern laziness, people.
For example: we should have a WAY better system for handling our trash.
Landfills, global warming, carbon footprints, climate change, litter, paper vs. plastic, recycling, composting, environmentalism. These are all words that important journalists should focus on. Thankfully, I'm not one of them. I'm just tired of having to bag my trash up and take it out to the bin, over and over and over again. This is counter-productive towards my aspiring goals of laziness.
Taking the trash out takes manhours (or at least man-minutes), motivation, and exertion -- three things that I can personally live without. I just took out a bag of trash and I'm pretty sure I missed at least two important television commercials that some poor corporation spent good money on. Taking out the trash is unfair to capitalism and the free market. Plus, it's horribly hazardous to your health. The last time I tried to walk my trash out to the curb, I fell and broke my ankle and had to spend the next six weeks in a cast.
I know what you're thinking -- Shane, didn't that happen, like, four years ago? Yes, yes it did. And that, friends, was indeed the last time I took my trash out to the curb. How my trash has gotten there since is completely beyond me. I like to think of it as one of those mysteries of science that perhaps we'll never be able to explain.
Or maybe I just have a VERY nice neighbor. All I know is every Monday, I wake up, my trash is already out at the curb, and I'm not asking questions. I don't know if someone's being nice or if someone just wants to use the excess space in my bin for their excess trash. Frankly, I don't care. I'm just grateful.
Still, though, I'm pretty sure there's room to be a little lazier. My trash might magically make its way to the curb every week, but I still have to go to the effort of bagging it up and putting it in the bin. I thought I could handle this simple task -- until this week.
Last Sunday I had a couple bags of trash that needed tossing, so in a fit of pure unadulterated motivation, I put on shoes, walked the trash down the back steps, opened the lid of my trash bin... and screamed in horror.
I hate taking out the trash -- but I hate bugs a whole lot more. And when I threw back the lid of my trash bin, I would approximate somewhere around thirty earwigs became airborne, landing in my hair, on my arms, on my shoes, and just generally everywhere you don't ever want earwigs to land.
Now, I'm a grown adult. I know fully well that earwigs don't ACTUALLY crawl into your ear and lay eggs -- but they sure LOOK like they do. In the grand pantheon of insectdom, earwigs are fairly harmless. That still doesn't mean I'm in any hurry to have dozens of the pincer-waving montrosities rain down on my head. I hope none of my neighbors heard me yell, "Gaaaaaaak!" and dance around in horror in my back yard. It wasn't my best moment. Don't worry, the denizens of my surprise earwig condo have since been evicted with extreme prejudice, but just imagine how many important television commercials I missed for THAT.
I'm just saying that if technology stepped up, I could put broken ankles and earwigs behind me for good. How? Don't ask me, I'm no scientist. Maybe some kind of hygenic hole in the floor that you toss garbage down and it disappears forever and ever, no questions asked. At the very least, you'd think I could purchase and install some kind of sassy, back-talking robot maid to handle waste management with skill and comedic one-liners aplenty.
I don't like to trash talk, but we need to step it up if we wanna be as cool as George Jetson.
As I type this, it's 9:30 at night. I'm sitting alone in my car, just me and my laptop, in the parking lot at Schwiebert Park in downtown Rock Island.
Why I am writing a column in such a peculiar locale and not in the usual position of lying sideways on my couch with a cat precariously balanced on my shoulder? Simple. I'm on a stakeout for UFOs. Duh.
Scoff all you want, people, but it's happening. A couple days ago someone uploaded a video to Youtube showing a creepy white light hovering unnaturally in the sky before it appears to ascend vertically into the clouds. The video was purportedly shot by a truck driver, and it was supposedly filmed somewhere just south of the Quad Cities.
Last night, a friend of mine captured grainy cell phone footage of two green lights he saw travel across the horizon, hop the Missisippi, and disappear somewhere over the Rock Island horizon. It appears the Quad Cities is rife this summer with unidentified flying objects. This is entirely unacceptable.
My whole life I've wanted to see something cool like a UFO in the sky. I've been on countless roadtrips, umpteen aimless drives, and more wasted hours than I care to admit staring wistfully at the night sky, and I've yet to catch even the tiniest glimpse of any wayward alien tourists. Now people in the Quad Cities are spotting genuine unexplained lights in the sky, and none of these people are ME. This is super unfair.
I am a firm believer that we are not alone in the universe. The odds are just too stacked against it. We're standing on merely one of eight (sorry, Pluto) planets that orbit our sun. Our sun is but one of 250 billion stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy is but one of 100 billion galaxies that we've been able to identify with the Hubble telescope. On the big map of the universe, we are less than a pinpoint. We are less than a molecule dancing on the head of that pinpoint. You simply can't tell me that out of the infinite abyss of the endless universe, we're the only ones with enough common sense to grow legs and stroll out of the ether.
Maybe there's life on one of Jupiter's mysterious moons. Maybe the nearest life is a kajillion light years away. Maybe that version of "life" is little more than a lump of moss chilling on some space rock somewhere. Or maybe that "life" is a race of sentient space wolves who've mastered interstellar travel. We literally have no idea.
The internet is awash in UFO videos, and I'm enough of a dreamer and/or idiot to watch them all. Most are fake, silly, and easily explained -- but a few of them are genuinely creepy and maybe, just maybe, the real deal. Perhaps it's the military testing new technology, maybe it's E.T. waving hello, or maybe it's those space wolves looking for an appetizer. Who knows? The only thing I'm sure about is that I'm not letting a UFO go unseen by me tonight. I'm here for the long haul, eyes skyward.
9:45 p.m. Nothing yet, but I feel all kinds of Fox Mulder cool. Truth be told, if I DID see a UFO, I'd probably just freeze and pee my pants, but for now, I feel like a cool FBI alien hunter.
9:55 p.m. It's a good thing I'm NOT with the FBI, because the kids in the car over there are passing around what does NOT look like a normal cigarette.
10:05 p.m. OMIGOD I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! LET ME GET MY CAM -- no, wait, that's just an airplane.
10:10 p.m. I will never not love the way the downtown WHBF aerial tower looks at night. It's my Eiffel.
10:15 p.m. NO. FREAKING. WAY. I TOTALLY SEE A -- oh, that's just Jupiter.
10:25 p.m. I'm starting to think I look less like a cool FBI alien hunter and more like a weird middle-aged creeper hanging out by himself at a park after dark. If a cop asks me what I'm doing, I'd better have an answer that isn't "looking for aliens."
10:35 p.m. Okay, so the "long haul" I was in for turned out to be roughly 45 minutes. I'm now back home, safely sideways on my couch with a cat on my shoulder. It turns out my desire to see a UFO is tempered only by my desire to NOT be seen as a park creeper. Plus I'm pretty sure I saw ANOTHER park creeper there, and I'm pretty sure he had dibs.
So if you see an eerie light in the sky, don't tell me about it. I'll be mad jealous. Just put it on Youtube and I'm sure I'll see it soon enough.
WHOO! Oh man. How are you guys holding up? Is anybody even still conscious enough to read a paper today? I've barely recovered from such an exciting final match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. That was intense!
Well, okay. I'm writing this in advance, so I have absolutely no idea how yesterday's final match turned out. Let's just say that [FRANCE OR CROATIA] really deserved that win after playing such a hard-fought game against [FRANCE OR CROATIA]. Even though [FRANCE OR CROATIA] didn't end up with a win, they can be proud to have even advanced far enough to play a team like [FRANCE OR CROATIA].
The World Cup is exciting stuff, folks. Every four years, top athletes from around the world gather in the spirit of competition, sportsmanship, and a united desire to kick each other in the shins as hard as they possibly can. Occasionally, one of these formidable athletes will miss a shin and instead kick a ball into a net. This is called a "goal," or "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL!!!!" for short. I've watched enough matches to know that goals are important, but not so important that a preliminary game can't end in a 0-0 tie, which shows you right there JUST how exciting of a tournament it can be.
The World Cup is a grand spectacle. There's only two problems: (1) We live in America, and (2) the sport they choose to play is soccer.
I know, I know. Shut up, footie nerds. I'm well aware that soccer has made some serious inroads in American culture over the past decade. Major League Soccer teams presumably exist because I've heard of them, and major U.S. networks are now even starting to carry British Premier League matches on the weekends. Soccer in the U.S. is probably the most popular its ever been right now, which means it's now our nation's favorite sport just behind football, basketball, baseball, hockey, NASCAR, golf, horse racing, pro wrestling, pumpkin chucking, hot-dog eating contests, and whatever American Ninja Warrior is.
YES, I'm kidding. There's a lot of people out there who love soccer. They just tend not to live in our country. Even the most ardent American fan of soccer has to admit that, while popular in the states, soccer isn't exactly a way of life over here like it is in most parts of the world. Still, I like soccer. Watching it makes me feel worldly and sophisticated. It looks like it'd be great fun to play. I'm just not entirely sold yet as to whether or not it's great fun to watch.
I'm well aware that I'm NOT remotely qualified to comment wisely on soccer pros and cons. The only sport I watch regularly is NASCAR, which is (a) a character flaw that I'm well aware of, and (b) a sport that many sportspeople don't consider a sport. Other than racing, the only sports I tend to watch are: baseball (when the Cubs are in the playoffs,) basketball (when the Bulls are in the playoffs), football (when the Bears are in the playoffs,) and yes, World Cup soccer (when England are in the tournament.)
Why do I root for England? Well, it's tough to root for the U.S. when we didn't even qualify this year. If you've got to adopt a team to root for, you can't do better than England. When it comes to droughts, Team England is basically the Bill Buckner of World Cup soccer. When they're predicted to do well, they do awful. When they're not expected to dominate (like this season,) they always come thiiiis close to glory before mucking it all up in the end.
England is a soccer crazed nation. When the World Cup rolls around, their pop charts fill with soccer anthems -- and even the ANTHEMS can be depressing as all get out. Probably the most recognized UK soccer anthem is a song called "Three Lions." You can hear thousands of fans chanting its "football's coming home" chorus every time Team England takes the pitch. But the rest of the song pretty much just bemoans their team's reputation for failure. "So many jokes, so many sneers, but all those oh-so-nears wear you down through the years... Three lions on a shirt, Jules Rimet still gleaming, thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming." It'd be like if Wrigley blared a song called "Fail Cubs Fail" after every loss.
But if you thought the party in Chicago was insane when the Cubs won, I promise you we'll be able to HEAR the Brits screaming the day that Team England eventually wins the World Cup, and it WILL happen one day. But it definitely won't be this year, after last week's heartbreaking loss in the quarterfinals. Instead, we ended up with France (a team I don't especially care about) vs. Croatia (a team whose country I couldn't even point out on a map, other than "somewhere by Russia.")
Honestly, though, I enjoyed the matches I saw this year. If you've got to pick a sport to support, you could do a lot worse than soccer. I recently read an article about other sports as old as soccer that didn't quite catch on. Let's just say it's a good thing. Many were weird variations of tennis and baseball. A truly alarming number involved the use of live roosters, often as, err, the "ball."
So if you're a fan of soccer, I hope you enjoyed this year's World Cup. Maybe next time we'll have a Team USA to continue England's disappointments. If you're NOT a soccer fan, just be happy that we weren't all tuning in to watch organized chicken homicide. I just hope you didn't miss out yesterday when history was most definitely made by [FRANCE OR CROATIA].
Over the years, I've amassed a fairly decent movie collection. But in today's age of streaming media, I've been buying fewer and fewer Blu-Rays lately. This week, though, I had to make an exception.
When Ernest Cline released his novel "Ready Player One" back in 2011, it became one of my fast favorites. Spielberg's film adaptation earlier this year was equally awesome. I saw it in the theater, and I've now been watching it on repeat viewings at home this week. With a fun nerdy plot and non-stop references to the 1980s, it's the kind of movie custom-made for a pop culture geek like myself. But I also discovered that after you watch it umpteen times, you can easily get lost daydreaming about Cline's world.
"Ready Player One" is set in a not-too-distant future where global warming and overpopulation has plunged much of the world into poverty and slums. As a result, most people instead spend their days in the OASIS -- a virtual reality universe where you can live, love, work, and play from the confines of your dilapidated shack. Strap on some VR goggles, plug yourself in, and suddenly you're anywhere you fancy. You could climb a virtual Mt. Everest or drive a virtual Batmobile -- the possibilities are limitless. The virtual currency inside the OASIS is valued more than real world money. Even if you live in a real world shantytown, you could be a mansion-owning millionaire in the OASIS.
If you want to know what happens, watch the movie or read the book. I recommend doing both, since they're quite different from one another.
But it's made me ponder: What if the OASIS really existed? What if there was a virtual world that we could escape to any time we fancied? Where would I go? How would I live? What would I do with my time?
If I had to pick the ideal virtual location for my virtual mansion, my mind immediately goes to mountains. I have no idea what makes tall stacks of ground majestic and beautiful, but nothing wows me like a good mountain vista. I think having some kind of Stanley Hotel-type mountain fortress with spectacular virtual views would be my first choice.
Then again, I know a guy who just went to Colorado and crashed his mountain bike to avoid running into a rattlesnake. If I had my global pick of locales, I think I'd rather live someplace without venomous and/or beclawed wildlife. Even in a virtual world, I'm enough of a weenie to be virtually afraid of virtual snakes and cyber-bears. I sincerely doubt the existence of Bigfoot, but in an imagination-fueled world where anything's possible? I'd be surrounded by robo-Sasquatches by sunset.
My next pick, then, would be ocean-side. Nothing centers me quite like staring out over an infinite sea. Going to bed with the sounds of waves crashing against craggy rocks would beat the heck out of any white noise machine the real world could offer.
Hmm, but once broke my foot walking down a sidewalk. I should probably avoid craggy rocks. I can't swim in the real world, so what makes me think my virtual avatar would fare any better? I don't want to be the first virtual corpse to wash up on a virtual beach. It'd be safer to set up virtual residence somewhere land-locked. Maybe I should just settle for, like, a river or something.
A desert? Too virtually hot. A medieval castle? Too virtually cold. I suppose it really doesn't matter WHERE I virtually live, as long as I have a massive mansion that I could deck out any way I saw fit.
Then again, in all the virtual worlds and virtual homes in "Ready Player One," I never once saw a virtual maid. I don't want to exhaust my imagination building a massive virtual dream house only to spend all my virtual time having to virtually clean the place. Plus, unless I round up a virtual girlfriend, which is virtually unlikely, I'd be stuck by myself in some echoey mansion that, knowing my luck, will be virtually haunted.
No, I'd probably be better off in a small simple imaginary home with a nice TV and a couple of virtual cats.
In other words, if I had access to a virtual world where I could live anywhere and do anything, I'd probably live in Virtual Rock Island, in a house identical to my own, sitting on a virtual couch playing virtual video games and watching movies about people who live in other virtual worlds.
And something tells me, as long as I had access to virtual Harris Pizza, I'd get along okay. Virtually.