Monday, October 31, 2005

COLUMN: Powerball


Despite investing a very hard-earned twenty dollars into last week's Powerball, I am not, it turns out, a kajillionnaire. I don't understand it. With twenty plays at 1-in-120,526,770 odds, I thought I was a lock for the payout. Oh, merciless fate, your cruel hand taunts me so.

No, instead of someone worthy (AHEM!) getting the dough, somebody in Oregon is the proud new owner of $340 million dollars. I have an ex in Oregon. With the way my luck flows, it'll probably be her. $340 million dollars. Stop and think about that for a second. That is, to use the vernacular, a buttnard of money.

ONE million dollars is officially more than I would know what to do with. Multiply that times 340. That makes Regis seem like chump change, doesn't it? "Who Wants To Be a Millionnaire?" Not me. I wanna be a $340-millionnaire now. Thanks, Powerball, for upping the stakes. That kind of payout makes "Survivor"'s meager one million seem completely NOT WORTH IT. Spend a month stranded on a remote island? No thanks, not when I can make 340 times that by just walking into a Kwik Shop and throwing down a buck, eh?

Staggering odds aside, the Powerball jackpot has been the front and center topic of conversation over the past two weeks. It might start as small talk, but it always ends up at the same question, doesn't it? Say it along with me, gang: "So What Would YOU Do With 340 Million Dollars?" You might have your own pipe dreams, but I've got some ideas of my own.

First off, let's skip all the touchy-feely, namby-pamby stuff that we'd all do with a bazillion bucks. YES, my folks would be taken care of for life. YES, I'd give some serious money to charity (or at least to the fine folks at NPR.) YES, my friends would all get new cars. But let's face it, with this kind of jackpot, you could take care of all that stuff and STILL have a vigintillion dollars left over to blow. With that mindset, a few thoughts:

• I would, immediately and without hesitation, buy up every radio station in town, thus allowing me to rule the airwaves from my living room every night. Radio Free Shane: The music that I want you to hear, when I want you to hear it. Hate the song? Change the dial, I dare ya. I'll be on the next frequency, too. And it's nothing against the local DJ's either; in fact, I'll even throw in a free plug and admit that I'm addicted to Jeff & Missy's morning show on B100. But the simple sad truth is that owning the airwaves is the most effective tool I can think of to turn you all into my brainwashed minions so that you all can carry out my evil bidding. Hey, everybody needs a career path, and Evil Ruler of Earth sounds like a good choice for a jillionnaire.

• That kind of dough might finally buy me some leverage with this whole Katie Holmes thing. Or it would have, had she not recently become impregnated with Tom Cruise's devil seed. I might be an aspiring Evil Ruler of Earth, but I'm not about to break up the engagement of an expectant celebrity. Therefore, there's only one obvious option: hire some scientists to build a time machine. Then I just roll back in time and stop the TomKat atrocity before it starts. Easy peasy.

• How much money do you suppose it would take to coerce Britney Spears and her skeevy husband into just going away forever? That's worth at least a zillion dollars in my book.

My co-workers here at the paper chipped into a pool to buy Powerball tickets. However, since I work later hours than they do, they FORGOT TO ASK ME IF I WANTED IN. Now THAT would be just my luck, coming into work to find out I'm the only NON-millionnaire employee left. Then again, if I was the only one still working at the paper, that would mean that every week I could babble on... and on... and on... Hmm, there's more than ONE way to make you all my minions. (Cue evil laugh.) BWAA HA HA HA. Don't worry, none of us won. Sigh. So I'll see ya next week. Have a happy (and, sadly, a fiscally responsible) Halloween

Sunday, October 23, 2005

COLUMN: Homecoming

This past weekend was Homecoming at Augustana College. I know this because the club that I DJ at on the weekends had a big sign up saying "Welcome Augustana Homecoming!" This is clearly a character flaw on my part.

I shouldn't have to rely on signs in dance clubs to know that it's Homecoming at Augustana, especially since I spent four of the best years of my life at Augie. I should be oozing gold and blue this time of year. I should have had my pennants at the ready and been fully prepped for Homecoming madness. Nnnnnope. Why? Because I've NEVER celebrated Homecoming.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I have my own Augie Homecoming on a nightly basis. I get off work and, indeed, Come Home to the same building I've lived in since my senior year at college. I've turned into that breed of person that we so mocked during my four year tour of duty at Augustana. Yes, I've become (gasp) a TOWNIE.

Going back to the ol' Alma Mater loses its lustre a bit when one drives right past it three to four times a day. I've even caught myself cursing under my breath when I have to stop at one of the many crosswalks along 7th Ave. to let some weasly freshman cross the street. 18 years ago, I WAS that weasly freshman, cursing under my breath whenever some jerk townie DIDN'T stop to let me cross the street. Oh, the times, they are a-changin'.

Homecoming at any college is pretty much synonymous with football, the ultimate collegiate battle. Trouble is, I've never been a big fan. I didn't attend one single game when I was a student; why should I bother as an alumni? It's no big secret that I was/am a bit of a nerd. My friends and I in college were the ones who hung out in dark corners, listening to bands like The Cure and Depeche Mode, naively espousing the benefits of socialism and wondering why the jocks ran the school.

During my sophomore year at Augie, I lived in a triple with 2 of my fellow nerd-tastic friends. The triple above ours was inhabited by a trio of jocks. Once, the guys upstairs taped up an ornate drawing of me and my roommates on our dorm room door. It was a grand caricature of the three of us holding hands below a banner that read, keenly, "WE ARE GAY." This is why we hated the jocks.

Of course, we retaliated by pointing all of our stereo speakers at the ceiling, popping in the most irritating CD we could find (Debbie Gibson's "Electric Youth") on repeat, and then leaving -- for the entire weekend. Our hope was that we'd be known as "those guys who drove the jocks crazy." In retrospect, it probably came across as "those guys who really, REALLY liked Debbie Gibson," which probably didn't do much for fighting the whole "we are gay" thing, despite the fact that I spent most of that year attached at the tonsils to my then-girlfriend.

Those days are waaay behind me. If you're pushing middle age and you havent yet come to terms with the whole nerds vs. jocks thing, you're a sad puppy. In fact, I work with some of the members of the current Augie football squad, and they're great guys. A couple years ago, I even decided to throw caution to the wind and (shocker) show school spirit. I had to DJ at Ribco on Homecoming weekend, so I dug through the closet, stretched on my old frat jersey, and took to the stage a portrait of Augustana pride.

And wouldn't you know, that would be the EXACT night that I bump into an old college friend. Once upon a time, he was a huge party guy. Now, he's a high-priced stuffed-shirt attorney, wife and kids, the whole package. And here I was, still DJing on Homecoming weekend, still single, still in my frat jersey. Nice. But know what? Who cares. At the end of the day, I was having fun and he was going bald. So Augie, maybe next time I'll actually REMEMBER Homecoming weekend. You've still got a fan in this townie. Go Vikings!

Friday, October 14, 2005

COLUMN: Shoplifting

Yep, I know. My column's not in the Leader this week. It was accidentally omitted due to a miscommunication by our layout folks. No worries -- here's this week's column as it was intended to run in the Leader (and you folks who read the Dispatch and/or Argus, you get to read the column a couple days early:)

I saw the weirdest thing the other day. Well, maybe it was only weird for me because I'm not a parent.

I had just gotten off work and had made my way to the nearest Walgreens to forage for essential life nutrients (in the form of Pringles) when, all of a sudden, I heard somebody yell.

"You're a thief!" declared the voice down the aisle from me.

First of all, it must be duly noted that, upon hearing this, my first instinct was to immediately pat down my pants pockets. Why I did this I will NEVER know. I've never shoplifted a thing in my life, I swear, but I guess that when you hear someone yell an accusation of thievery, you need to make SURE it's not you.

I mean, maybe this guy had slipped some sort of valuable Wal-good or Wal-service into my pocket. Perhaps I was about to be framed for a crime I did not commit. Imagine the embarassment when the headlines would splash, "Local Hero Columnist Found Filching Fritos -- Film at 11!"

Happily for me, it turns out my pockets were empty. The same, however, couldn't be said for this guy's kid. Turns out Dad had caught Junior trying to pinch a pack of gum, and was now standing there causing a full-on freak out scene.

I'm about the least qualified person on Earth to be offering parental advice, but in this case, I approved of Dad's actions -- a little yelling was the proper course of action here. I would want to make it perfectly clear to Junior that shoplifting is bad and wrong while drawing the eyes of the entire store and causing the kid to die of embarassment. I would want this image to flash into Junior's head each and every time he approached the gum aisle for the rest of his natural life.

The thing is, Dad didn't stop there. Next thing I knew, he grabbed Junior and was parading him to the front of the store. Ooh, I had picked a good day to go to Walgreens. I sprung into action and moved to position myself at the perfect here-I-am-browsing-away-but-really-I'm-just-eavesdropping vantage point.

Unfortunately, that perfect vantage point just happened to be the ladies skin care aisle. So there I was, trying VERY hard to look like I was researching the curative properties of Oil of Olay when all I cared about was the scene erupting in front of me.

Dad had brought Junior to the hapless check-out clerk and was yelling, "This kid was shoplifting! Call the police!"

Whoa. This was getting good. Sadly, my love of drugstore drama was tempered by my embarassment of holding something called "Citrusmelon Body Mist," so I left the scene just as Dad was calling the cops on his cell phone. I figured he was putting on an Oscar-worthy performance until, as I was leaving the store, I saw a squad car pull up.

I'm okay with scaring a kid straight, but to the point of calling the police on your own son just for nicking a pack of gum? I suppose if your kid was the Hubba Bubba Bandit or something and you caught him with a trenchcoat full of Juicy Fruit, then yeah, maybe Junior's got himself a habit that needs the long arm of the law.

But for one lousy pack of gum? The police have a JOB to do, and surely there's more pressing crime to attend to than teaching little Billy a valuable, Bubble Yum-related life lesson. Would you go so far as to put a mark on your own child's record? What if Little Billy, at your expert guidance, grew up to run for President, only for his opponent to pull out a 25-year-old mugshot of wee Billy with a handful of illicit Bazooka Joe?

I told this story to all of my friends, and was surprised to get a mixed reaction. Some agreed with me that calling the cops was a bit over-the-top. Others thought it was a smart move on Dad's part. Strangely, everyone in THIS camp were the folks who had kids (including MY mom! Now I'm glad I never shoplifted!) One of my friends, though, came up with a great idea: we need to have an elected official whose sole purpose is to scare the bejeepers out of our kids. That way the cops can deal with the important crime, while Barney Fife can handle Operation Tough Love.

If I ever have kids, and if I ever catch 'em stealing, I'll make their lives hell, don't worry. I'd just do it without dialing 911. But then again, maybe that wouldn't be enough. So, hey, if I end up with kids, keep your kids away from my kids. Unless, of course, your kids like gum. My kids might have enough to share.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

COLUMN: Grandpa

Note: This column got SERIOUSLY chopped in the papers this week. It's completely MY fault, as I turned it in roughly 250 words OVER my cut-off size. Sometimes when I do that, it's a slow news week and they run the column bigger. This time, not so much. I have separate copy editors for the Leader as well as the Dispatch/Argus, so the column ran considerably differently in each paper. Here's how the whole thing SHOULD have read, in a perfect world where people just hand me as much newspaper space as I want every week(grin).

One of my favorite songs in the world is by a little-known British pop group called The Bluetones. The chorus of the song goes, "There's no heart you can't melt with a certain little smile, and no challenge should be faced without a little charm and a lot of style." It's a credo that I try and live by -- though sometimes things happen that make that mantra all but impossible to follow. Or so I thought.

Two weeks ago, my grandpa died.

He was a good guy -- a simple man of simple means whose immense pride in his 35 years on the line at the Admiral (Maytag) plant in Galesburg was only overshadowed by his love for his two daughters and the families they raised. Retirement had been good to my gramps, and gave him plenty of time to take care of his lawn, play a tune on the old organ, and hang out on the porch swing in hopes of catching a wave from the engineers and conductors aboard the trains that passed just across the street. (One of the trainmen who always made sure to wave back? My dad.) He was a fairly gruff old guy, but if you managed to tickle his sense of humor, the smile you'd get back would light up the whole world.

As sad as I felt when I called home and got the news, I felt even worse for my mom. After losing my grandma a few years back, my mom spent time daily with my grandpa, filling the roles of daughter, friend, and caretaker simultaneously. His health had been declining lately, but no one (including his doctors) expected him to go so quickly. We had all lost a cherished family member... but my mother had lost a dad, a best friend, and a daily lunch date all at once.

The week of the funeral was the sort of somber chaos that you'd expect. My already stressed-out mother had to deal with the arrival of the extended family, many of whom stayed at my folks' place. My mom, the eternal giver, when put in pressure situations ALWAYS rises to the occasion, but often at her own expense. She was as gracious a host as ever, but I was concerned that she wasn't taking enough time to calm down, breathe, and work through her OWN grief.

My grandpa was a simple guy, and as such, requested a simple service - a quick prayer at the funeral home followed by a quick service at the graveside. The pastor at our church is a great guy, but he barely knows any of us. I can't even call it "our" church without a flash of shame - the only times I've been through its doors have usually involved either funerals or weddings. Before we left, our pastor got together with my mom to ensure he had the names right. My grandfather's clan were Fishels; my grandmother's were Coopers. With that, we adjourned to the cemetery.

At the graveside service, my mother was seated in the front row and wanted me beside her, which I gladly did. The rest of the family and friends gathered around. The service was nice, but perfunctory. At one point, the pastor eulogized my grandfather as "the most even-tempered man" he'd encountered. At this point, my cousin leaned into my ear and asked me if we were at the right funeral. My grandpa was a lot of great things, but "even-tempered" sure wasn't one of them. Well, maybe his temper WAS even - evenly GRUFF. I let it slide; like I said, he barely knew the guy.

As the pastor proceeded, my mind wandered a bit, soaking it all in and remembering all the things I loved about my grandfather. Suddenly, I burst back to reality:

"...and we can rest in the knowledge that, right now, he's being embraced by the Fishel family and by the Connor family."

Wait -- what? Did he just say CONNOR family? My grandma's family name is COOPER, not Connor. Wow, that was a really bad flub. And that's when it happened. When yours truly, at the front row of a somber funeral, did the unthinkable: I giggled.

It wasn't a loud giggle, but a giggle nonetheless. I quickly tried to compose myself and pretend that it didn't happen. But I was too late. Suddenly, I felt the shoulders next to mine heave. Oh no. I had become the world's worst son. I had the unmitigated gall to giggle at my grandfather's funeral. And my mom had heard it. And I had made my mom cry.

I leaned over to try and comfort her, to try and whisper an apology through her heaving sobs. But as I looked at her, realization hit. My mom wasn't sobbing; she was LAUGHING. She was sure trying to look like she was sobbing, but the Connor flub had hit home for both of us, and she was CRACKING UP. That was all it took; suddenly MY giggles were back, too.

It was the 'Chuckles the Clown' episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show come to life. For the rest of the ENTIRE SERVICE, my mom and I sat, heads buried in our hands, laughing uncontrollably to the point of exhaustion. The more I thought about it, the funnier it became.

I envisioned my grandfather at the pearly gates, suddenly being embraced by a family of complete Connor strangers. My "even-tempered" grandpa would undoubtedly be going, "Who are you sons-of-&$&@*es? Get the #&$@ away from me!" I couldn't stop laughing. Every time I'd get it together, my mom would lose it again. Every time she'd calm down, I'd start up again. Composure was NOT an option; if God Himself had hopped down seeking atonement, I would have still been cracking up all the way to Purgatory.

Thankfully, most of the family assumed that the two of us were more grief-stricken than funny-bone stricken. My dad knew what was up, and wasn't too amused, but my mom and I didn't care. My grandpa used to say that the last thing he ever wanted was a bunch of people gussed up and crying over his body. He got his wish. And knowing my grandpa, he would've cracked up over the Connor thing, too.

More than anything, though, our little politically incorrect foray allowed my mom to de-stress considerably. By the time we were back in the car, she was no longer the hypertense Family Rock - she was my mom again, full of life and fun and the sense of humor that she so luckily passed on to me. Our shared embarassment made for the greatest mother-son bonding moment we've had in eons.

Like I said, my grandpa was a good guy, and this was the best way I could possibly imagine to say goodbye. We should all be so lucky to go out the same way. I love you, Mom. And Gramps, may you rest in peace and laughter, with a little charm and a lot of style.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Goodbye, beautiful flat stomach.

Hello, creepy Scientology-brainwashed seed-of-Satan baby.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

COLUMN: Rock Star

Whew. I was getting worried there for a bit. It was a long, tense summer, but we rose to the occasion. We persevered through the best of times and through the worst of times, but it was worth it. Yes, we as a people can sleep much easier tonight in the safe, comfortable knowledge that -- finally -- INXS have chosen a new lead singer.

Anybody else get roped in by CBS' "Rock Star: INXS" this summer? I didn't mean to, I really didn't. I watched on a laugh one night... and inadvertently found myself completely and pointlessly hooked. It really WAS compelling television -- the contestants on "Rock Star," while arguably weaker vocalists, were FAR more engaging than anything "American Idol" threw at us last season, and it was refreshing to see a talent show -- ANY talent show -- not involving Ryan Seacrest.

We watched the contestants battle week after week ("we" being the 14 or so of you who actually checked the show out - it was fairly low-rated.) We saw the tense moments, the stumbles, the triumphs, and the bizarre covers of "Bohemian Rhapsody." And, in the end, it was homeless guy and erstwhile Elvis impersonator J.D. Fortune who won the position of fronting INXS, one of the most popular bands of two decades ago.

Umm... congratulations, J.D.! Just yesterday, you were a total nobody. Today, you're the frontman of a group of total nobodies long past their prime. Next stop? Perhaps opening for Foghat at the Oklahoma State Fair. That's right, you've MADE IT, baby!

And THAT'S what makes "Rock Star: INXS" my pick for Most Ridulous Show of the Year. Once upon a time, INXS were a truly great band. The reason for their greatness was simple: Michael Hutchence. Here was a guy who figured out a perfect formula for success: Take the swagger and sex appeal of legendary Doors frontman Jim Morrison and homogenize it down to appeal to the pop masses. Morrison took peyote and wrote songs about doing rather scandalous things to his mother; Hutchence was more concerned with finding words that sounded sexy and rhymed.

For all intents and purposes, Michael Hutchence WAS INXS. Sure, there were some other guys behind him onstage someplace, but you never really paid attention. Those other guys might have even written all the songs, but would you -- even 20 years ago when they were huge -- have recognized anybody in INXS if they were standing next to you in line at McDonalds? Only Hutchence; the rest of the guys were filler.

Tragically, Hutchence died a few years ago. And now, INXS have wrapped up their search for his replacement. The goal is that J.D. will step on stage with the rest of the band and that "INXS magic" will happen all over again.

What nobody informed you of on the show was that the magic had already run out years ago. Quick, name ANY song off one of the last 3 INXS albums. Can't do it, can you? That's because NOBODY BOUGHT THEM. Their career was already toast PRIOR to Hutchence's death. Did you also know that Fortune wasn't the first to replace Hutchence? The band had already recruited a new singer and set off on a failed world tour that netted empty seats and no new record deal.

But now, thanks to "Rock Star," INXS are once again household names (provided, of course, that you're in of one of the 8 or so households that actually WATCHED the show.) And Fortune is ready to try and do the impossible by honoring the memory of Hutchence AND making INXS somehow relevant again. Best of luck, pal.

Amazingly, "Rock Star" producer Mark Burnett has announced that he wants to do future installments of the franchise, where each season another presumably washed-up band seeks a new singer. What's next? Join us next season as the Blowfish seek a new Hootie? The Captain needs a new Tennille? Randy and Tito look for a new Michael? "The Jackson 4 + Some Guy Named Doug," coming to a Wal-Mart opening near you! Run away. Quickly.