Sunday, March 27, 2005

COLUMN: Chelsea

The other night I watched "Steal This Movie," the biography of counter-culture activist Abbie Hoffman. While a bit romanticized, the movie got me thinking. Abbie Hoffman's prime motivation was to make our country a better place -- to expand people's minds and fulfill the notion that one voice, if raised loudly enough, CAN make a difference. It was an inspiring movie, and got me thinking about my goals as a weekly columnist.

I should be providing you guys with weekly philosophical bones to chew on -- journalism with enough depth and meaning to make us all sit back, question ourselves and our pre-conceptions of life, politics, and the human way. I should be routinely bringing meaning and message to the masses.

Trouble is, it turns out that I don't have any kind of depth or meaning to any iota of my brain. So instead I'm going to babble about my cat.

Let's get one thing clear first. Yes, I'm a single guy and I have a cat. And no, I'm not gay. Forgive me for perpetuating that horrible stereotype there, but I know that somewhere in the Great Book of All Things Not Macho, cat owning has its own chapter. "Hey, baby, wanna come over and see my precious wittle kitty" has NEVER been a successful way to pick up girls. This I realize, and it's something I've come to terms with long ago. The reason why this stereotype doesn't apply to me? I don't own a cat. My cat owns me.

Rewind to ten years ago. It's the week before Christmas, and there's a -20 wind chill outside. I'd put it off for as long as possible, and I needed to go on a grocery run. Braving the cold and my freezing car, I shiver all the way to Hy-Vee. I shut off the car and open the door... and out of nowhere, this tiny ball of frozen fur jumps into my car, onto my lap, curls up in a ball, and starts purring.

That's how I found Chelsea 10 years ago. At that time, she could almost fit in the palm of my hand. Now she's a giant lump of lard that only awakens from her daily coma to go scratch up anything I remotely enjoy owning. She's a maladjusted walking attitude problem that doesn't play well with strangers, whines as bad as any child I've ever met, hacks up more hairballs than she has hair, and holds a black belt in claw combat. But she IS my precious wittle kitty, and I couldn't imagine the past 10 years without her. Until last Friday.

No, no, my cat didn't die... but I did fantasize briefly about killing her.

It was 10 minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off... and I was suddenly awake. More to the point, I was awake and in pain. Judging by the weight, my first guess was that a rather obese cat had just pounced directly onto my stomach and was presently sitting on my chest. Gathering the strength to wake up and push the cat off of me, I raise my head and crack my eyes open... in just enough time to see my cat go "Ptooey!" and SPIT OUT A DEAD MOUSE ONTO MY CHEST.

We've already established that I'm not gay, right? Good... keep that in mind while I tell you all that the next thing I did was SCREAM. Like a wee little girl. And leapt out of bed, shaking in a full-on cootie attack. Meanwhile my cat looks up at me like, "What?" Meanwhile the mouse looks up at me like, "Hi, I'm dead."

As creepy as it was, though, I'm somewhat impressed by my cat. I didn't think my cat was in any condition to catch anything other than a cold. (One of my closest friends, in fact, is convinced that the mouse led a long and healthy life in my messy apartment, contentedly died of old age, and my lazy ol' cat just happened upon the body.) However, since that fateful morning, my cat is now in full-on mouse patrol. Every time I see her, she's darting around, smelling, probing, hunting... it's like my own miniature Per Mar guard.

So I suppose the bad news is that my apartment complex apparantly has mice (yuck.) The good news is that, while I'm sitting here typing this, my best friend is pacing around my feet, ensuring that no rodent disturb me in mid-column. Either that or she's just hungry. Lessee... sigh. Yep, it's food time. Gotta go, my owner needs me.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

COLUMN: Morrie

They say you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. They (whoever "they" are) weren't kidding. His name was Maurice J. Kinser, but those of us in Rock Island simply knew him as Morrie.

To my knowledge, he was the first person I ever met in the Quad Cities. I had just arrived at Augustana, a wide-eyed 17 year old kid. After getting settled in the dorms, I went out for groceries, and on the way back, I stopped off at the Shell station on the corner of 18th Ave. & 30th St. for a Coke and a fill-up.

Now, getting a Coke and some gas might not seem like a big deal. But back then, it was my first day of independence. I didn't need my parent's permission to get the Coke, I didn't need to borrow the car or borrow some cash. I was officially on my own and ready to make my mark in the world. I could go buy my Coke and stay up til sunrise drinking it if I wanted to. No mere mortal Coke was this; it was the Coke of Freedom.

Triumphantly, I pulled to the station. That's when I met him. The man I would come to know as Morrie strolled over to the car, raised an eyebrow, and said simply, "Freshman?"

"Errr, yeah," I replied off-guard.

"Yeah, you look the part," Morrie said as he shuffled off to get my pop. That, right there, was my first dose of reality. I wasn't king of the world after all. I was just one of the masses. That grounding of my big-headed aspirations may have deflated my chutzpah a bit, but it also gave me immediate respect for one of the most colorful figures the Quad Cities has ever seen.

That's why I almost ran off the road last week when I passed the Shell station and saw that their sign had changed to simply, "Morrie, You Will Be Missed." I knew right then he was gone, and it suddenly felt like the passing of an era.

For 27 years, Morrie worked that Shell station. Time and again, he soldiered out in his Cardinals jacket into any kind of weather to duly work the pumps for me and probably a million other customers. I found myself going there all the time, especially after my parents lent me their Shell gas card for a semester, and ESPECIALLY after I realized I could put all the snacks and pop I could carry on that card! Only one person ever gave me static for taking advantage of such a great gift -- but that was Morrie for you.

One day, I woke up to find the Shell -- like so many other full-service stations of its time -- bulldozed to the ground. I thought I'd seen the last of the old guy then, but a couple months later, they built a new self-service, Express Mart-style station in its place... and who was back behind the counter but ol' Morrie himself, making the transition from attendant to clerk with ease.

Morrie embodied the stereotype of the "crochety old guy with a heart of gold." He shot straight from the hip, swore like a sailor, and wouldn't hesitate to tell things exactly as he saw 'em... and if you happened to walk in to the station at the same time a pretty girl did, you knew just to step back because you would NOT be helped first.

The last time I saw Morrie was about two weeks ago. I was on my well-documented health kick and walked to the counter with a Diet Coke.

"Diet?" Morrie held the bottle up to me, "Just what kind of (expletive) is this?" And when I laughed and told him about my plan to cut out sugary soda, he looked at me and said, "Well, it's about time. You're gettin' one hell of a gut there, buddy."

If anybody else on Earth had said that to me, them would be fightin' words. From Morrie, it was honest advice. He might have come across like a gruff old you-know-what, but behind that demeanor was a guy who obviously cared. He always knew my car, he always knew what I wanted before I walked in, and I'd never leave without hearing a "take care now, buddy."

It probably shouldn't have been a shock that he left us. He was never the healthiest guy on the block, and the only thing he loved more than his Cardinals were the umpteen cigarettes he'd go through all day. But something about Morrie seemed unstoppable.

They buried Morrie this week in his Cards jacket and Shell jersey. It's truly fitting, because if there is a heaven, he's up there right now, pumping gas for angels and telling Jesus to cut his hair and get a real job. Morrie didn't cure cancer or do anything to merit a headline, but to me and the other customers of the Shell, Maurice J. Kinser will forever be a Quad City legend.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

COLUMN: Oscars

Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

I'd like my Sunday back please.

It was my own stupid fault, I guess. I could have been productive. My apartment needed cleaning. I had laundry to do. Hell, I'm sure somewhere there was a rerun of "Cops" I could have been watching.

But noooooo, I instead chose to suffer through all 183.5 hours of coverage of the Night of a Thousand Stars You Could Care Less About. Yes, look at them come down the glorious red carpet now. Ooh, it's What's-Her-Name, you know, from that one movie, looking oh-so-splendid in a dress by somebody I've never heard of. But enough about Joan Rivers' insightful commentary.

This whole Oscar craziness can be summed up in one simple phrase for me: I JUST DON'T GET IT. What is it about human nature that makes us want to sit and watch this tripe? I mean, just because somebody's an impressive actor doesn't mean we need to see them slowly exit a limo and spend the next 30 minutes posing for pictures and making forced chit chat with rotund interns from The Tonight Show. For people who are being celebrated for their craft of acting, most of 'em sure do a lousy job at acting like they enjoy themselves on the red carpet.

Eventually, though, all of the beautiful masses were finally herded into the Kodak Theatre and it was time to enjoy the historic and exciting 2005 Beyonce Awards. That's because Beyonce made an estimated 2005 appearances during the award ceremony itself, impressive for someone whose most acclaimed acting role to date was playing Foxy Cleopatra in the third Austin Powers flick. Yet somehow Beyonce weaseled her way into singing about 80% of the nominated soundtrack songs, including (no joke) the one in French. This had me wondering whether Beyonce actually knew French, or if she just learned the song phoenetically and had no idea what she was singing. I was going to make a joke about that... but then I realized how many times I've sung "In a Gadda Da Vida" in the shower... or known every line to "Macarena" other than what the words were.

(On a side note, I'm pretty certain the lyrics to "Macarena" go like this: "Come, dumb Americans, come and do our stupid dance now/Don't mind us while we point at you and laugh now/Heeey, stupid dance now!")

Once again, I could easily observe a trend in the Academy's voting this year, and that trend was to nominate only movies that I've not seen. My apologies go out to "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," because I DID see and enjoy that one, which immediately meant that it couldn't be nominated for Best Picture.

Instead we get a bunch of movies that I could care less about. "Million Dollar Baby"? I'll take a pass on watching girls who can beat me up. "Finding Neverland"? Given recent news events, I think it's best to steer waaaay clear of Neverland, thanks much. "Ray"? Well, that one I did see, and it's the most heart-warming tale of a philandering heroin addict this side of "Sid and Nancy."

I suppose there were some worthwhile moments about this year's Oscar telecast. Scarlett Johannsen jumped at least three places up my list of Women I Enjoy Obsessing Over, and Johnny Depp reincarnating himself as an Argentinean cowboy made me happy in the notion that even the coolest people on Earth can still occasionally make horrible, horrible mistakes.

But the whole thing was just soooo boring. I just wanted an excuse to stare at Renee Zellweger (yum) and the aforementioned Scarlett Johannsen (double yum,) But they both did their things in the first hour, and it all went downhill from there.

Maybe it was a fine telecast. Maybe I just didn't appreciate the subtle nuances and grand majesty of the Oscar spectacle. Maybe I was just bummed at the shocking snub of "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle." Frankly, I wouldn't know, as I fell asleep on the couch sometime between P. Diddy and Julia Roberts. I can't even remember who won Best Picture of the Year. I think it may have been Beyonce.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

COLUMN: Laundry

I'm nearly out of excuses. I've played with the cat. I've made dinner. I've watched American Idol (Go Scott! Boo Mario!) and 24 (Go Jack! Boo terrorists!) And now, I'm sitting and writing this column. Sooner or later, though, I'm going to have to face the ugly truth: My underwear reserve is down to one, and I need to get off my butt and go do a load of laundry.

I hate laundry more than any other household chore I can think of. One would think, living in the age that we do, that modern science would have invented self-cleaning, self-folding, and self-ironing clothes by now. Yet while science fritters away on such frivolities as medicine and energy conservation, we poor schmucks are left having to lug a basket full of stinky clothes down a flight of stairs in order to spend our hard-earned quarters just to make our laundry spin around in a variety of unexciting ways until -- presto, cleanliness.

There has GOT to be a better way. To add insult to injury, I live in an apartment complex, which means that I have to share our washer and dryer with an assortment of neighbors. Why is this a big deal, you ask? Apparantly you didn't see Dateline the other night.

Or 20/20. Or 60 Minutes. You know, one of those primetime shows that makes its ratings by telling you that a particular place, thing, or activity -- probably one that you know and enjoy on a regular basis -- is, in fact, a Deadly Time Bomb that can, and most likely will, kill you if you're not careful. What thing? They'll tell you after this important message from Ballpark franks (Mmm. They plump when you cook 'em.)

On this particular episode, the Unknown Terror of the Day turned out to be washers and dryers. You might think they're mankind's friends, but nooooo, they're seething cauldrons of doom. It turned out, much to the grossness of everyone watching, that your average laundromat dryer contains trace elements of no less than five people's... doodie.

Doesn't that make you feel good, communal laundry-doers? Next time you smile at your neighbor in the hall, just think about what you guys might be sharing beyond that occasional cup of sugar.

There are certain facts in life I'd rather not know -- that was one of them.

Enough excuses. Doodie or no, I'm off to the washing machine... Or am I? I just walked downstairs, and someone has left their clothes in the washer and forgotten to empty it. What's the protocol for these situations? I'm in a rush, but do I go ahead and pull their clothes out?
That's kind of rude, and let's face it, there's some spooky dudes in my apartment complex whose microscopic doodies should be the least of my worries.

No, this is EXACTLY the excuse I've been looking for to put this off for another day. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the 24-hour Wal-Mart to fetch myself some clean undies.


On an entirely unrelated note, I've got to say one serious note real quick. When I was a kid, I never thought I wanted to be a journalist -- until I started reading pieces that made me laugh and think at the same time. And while I respect a great number of writers these days (Sarah Vowell, Dave Barry, David Sedaris, etc.,) there was one man who first made me realize that journalism could be more than who what where when why. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson lived by his own rules, and this past Sunday, he died by his own rules, and our world is a worse place for it. His assorted fears and loathings pointed out the greatest absurdities in our society, and we can only hope his twisted legacy continues to influence rebel journalism for years to come. Hunter once wrote, "Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of 'the rat race' is not yet final." We may be down one legend, but the good fight carries on. Rest in peace, Dr. Gonzo.