Thursday, August 31, 2006

COLUMN: Chinese Toilets.

I've always considered myself to be somewhat of a "worldly" person. I'm not saying that I know my way around the Louvre or that I'm familiar with the customs of Aboriginal tribesmen. I've never learned a single Japanese character, and I've never climbed the cloudy steps of Machu Picchu.

But I still like to think of myself as being fairly clued in. After all, I watch a whole lot of TV. Between the Travel Channel, BBC America, and Discovery, you can take a vacation from your living room. Every week, the folks at Borders hold the newest British import music magazines for me. I'd die without daily access to and news from around the world. I have e-mail buddies everywhere from London to Sydney to Tokyo.

And yet, other than 2 ill-advised hours in Ontario, I've never left the USA. I've always wished that I had the guts to just pack a bag and fly off to some strange and exciting landscape. But, since me and airplanes don't get along well (there's another column for another day,) I instead play Armchair World Traveler and live vicariously through the travels of my friends.

This is where I've rapidly learned that I've been a bit naive in my "worldliness." A friend of mine just left Illinois for Beijing, where she's going to be teaching conversational English to a Chinese classroom for five months. Since her departure last week, she's been sending near-daily e-mails that have raised my eyebrows on more than a few occasions.

Principally, THIS sentence: "I'm very relieved to find that my apartment has Western toilets." Umm, what? Until the PRECISE moment that I read this statement, I was blissfully unaware that toilets differentiated from one culture to another. Sure, there are those fancy ones that shoot water onto your nether-regions, but I'm talking BASIC toilet construction here.

That's when I made a VERY dumb move. I did a Google image search for "Chinese toilets." Here's a helpful and fun tip to remember: Never, under any circumstances, do a Google image search for "Chinese toilets." Unless, of course, you're an aspiring bulemic and need some good purging incentives. Suffice to say, you'll never turn your nose at a Port-a-potty again. The results, while thoroughly disgusting, were insightful.

I learned about traditional Asian toilets, which most English-speaking folk refer to as "squatters." That's right, you heard me -- squatters. Some appear to be porcelain, others appears to be little more than holes in the ground. But one thing is perfectly clear: One does not sit. One squats.

This is, quite obviously, insane. I've been obsessing on this to all of my friends for the past week, and some have politely reminded me that once upon a time, even here in America, toilets were of the squat variety. As though that makes it acceptable or something. Pshaw.

Common sense dictates that toilets should have seats. In fact, the inventions that our cave-dwelling ancestors should have focused on are, in order: (1) Fire. (2) The wheel. (3) The toilet seat. (4) The X-Box 360.

The question becomes: If push came to shove, could I accomplish aforementioned squat manoeuvre? I'm not so thoroughly convinced. First off, I'm an uncoordinated boob. If I lived in Beijing, I would be voted Most Likely To Fall Into The Squatter. At the very least, I would require some form of safety/balancing handrails, and even then, the results could be iffy. Looking at these photos of squatters, I wasn't quite positive how you even USED them. There had better be a diagram.

Without a toilet seat, there's no lap. And without a lap, there's no place to put the Sports section. Without the Sports section, guys everywhere would be cancelling their newspaper subscriptions and -- BAM! -- suddenly I'm unemployed. So, to sum, if it wasn't for the advent of the Western toilet seat, I would be falling into squatters willy-nilly AND be out of a job. That's not a rosy picture. I've been looking this gift seat in the mouth.

Bathroom visits should be a special time of personal reflection and relaxation. After all, that's why we call them REST-rooms. It should NOT require the balance and poise of a gymnast.

Then I thought about it. Martial arts, a spiritual discipline that requires strength, agility, balance, and grace, originated in Asia. Without perpetuating stereotypes, perhaps this is due to their forced early balance training at the hands of the squatter. Over here in the states, we've all been brought up on toilet seats -- hence all the uncoordinated klutzes you see walking around.

The end trade-off is this -- AMERICA: Smart enough to put seats on our toilets, yet sadly lacking in ninjas.

Personally, it's a sacrifice I can live with.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Well, here we are again. Another Monday night, another column deadline looming, another blank Notepad screen.

I'd love to tell you that I'm excited about all this. I'd love to tell you that after my vacation two weeks ago, I am now fully recharged and ready to send you into stitches as a lean, mean, humor writing machine. Truth be told, all I really want to do right now -- yawwwwn -- is go to bed.

I try to be okay at the funny stuff, but I am downright pathetic when it comes to time management. I should be grateful -- my twisted schedule allows me to keep the day job, write this column every week, AND spend my weekends DJing down in the District. All told, it's my own slice of heaven. Well, it would be, if it wasn't for this whole pesky "sleeping" thing.

I have ALWAYS hated sleep. If someone were to hand me a pill right now that would let me function normally while never having to sleep again, I'd take it in a heartbeat. Sleep is wasted time. Okay, sure, sometimes it feels awfully good to snuggle under the covers and relax for a bit, but I still can't shake the feeling that I'm missing all kinds of stuff.

Every night, I try to push the envelope. I have to be at the paper at 9:30 every weekday morning. Pretty cushy, right? Most of my co-workers are in by 8:00, while I get to sleep in. I should be loving it, yeah? No dice. Instead, every morning I stagger around in a stupor because I stayed up late like an idiot the night before. If I'm in bed every night by 2:00 a.m., it's a miracle.

Granted, some of that is because I'm up until sunrise on the weekends because of my DJ gig. But a lot of it is just because I'm stubborn and fight sleep like it's Skeletor and I'm He-Man. It can be 1:30 in the morning, I'll be lying in bed, and suddenly a car will drive by my window.

"Lucky SOB," I'll think to myself. That person doesn't have to be in bed. That person doesn't have to play by the rules. That person's probably having fun right now. Of course, the truth of the matter is that the driver of that car is probably (a) on their way to a really uninteresting overnight job, or (b) on their way to tomorrow morning's police blotter. Still, they're living life and I'm sleeping through it.

I could rationalize this if there was a single worthwhile thing to do in the pitch middle of the night. Of course, there's not. So I stay up late and short myself sleep doing little more than channel-flipping from bad late-night show to another. And I'm not talking Late Night With Conan O'Brien kind of late-night; Conan's a matinee as far as I'm concerned.

No, I'm talking laaaate night, where television has but two options. The first of which is, of course, the wide, wonderful world of infomercials. Yes, the land where buying and selling houses can net you hundreds of thousands of dollars in the blink of an eye. The land where every major celebrity was an acne-ridden monster before they used Proactiv. And, of course, the land where, at any given moment, there's a very good chance that the Girls are Going Wild.

Your other television option is to switch to the movie channels. As a pop culture worshipper, I donate heavily to the Church of Mediacom, and they give me salvation in the form of eleventy million different HBO & Starz channels. The problem is, the only time of day I get to take advantage of this is the 1-3 a.m. zone, and that's not exactly your prime movie hours. No, instead that's when you get straight-to-video movies with names like "Cold Vengeance 3." Movies whose TV Guide descriptions invariably start with the phrase, "A renegade biker... on a lone search for justice..."

Of course, there's always Skinem... sorry, Cinemax, where you can almost kinda sorta watch people make whoopie. Yes, the joyous world of cable-friendly adult cinema, where the whoopie-making is kept to a tasteful minimum so that you can really focus on the plots, which are always EXCEPTIONAL in films of this genre. Sorry, Cinemax, but if I wanted to not-watch people making whoopie, I'd look in a mirror.

I've just been pushing this no-sleep thing too much lately. Two weekends ago, I got home from the club and fell asleep at 6:00 a.m. to wake up... at 7:00 P.M.! Sunday, thou hast forsaken me! ONE DAY without a single job, and I was so sleep deprived that I snored through the whole thing. Maybe I need Ambien. Maybe I just need a swift kick in the rump and my mom to yell, "GET TO BED!" Either way, I need to put this column to bed. I'm way too tired, and I need to go... watch some TV.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

One More Reality Show Down the Drain

Those of you that know me know that there is but one motivation in my life:


Okay, so not so much. Truth is, I can barely dress myself, let alone know the difference betwixt good and bad fashion.

That said, this season I am ADDICTED to "Project Runway."

And not because of fashion. In all honesty, I think most of the things that come down that runway at the end of the show are hideous... and 100%, completely and totally, inapplicable to daily life.

No, there was a much more pressing reason to watch "Project Runway" this season.

That reason: ALISON. My GOD, what a hottie. Here's a girl who's trying to be a fashion designer, while in truth, she should be one of the MODELS strutting these bizarre creations down the runway. And, from what limited fashion taste I possess, I thought her designs looked great.

For the past two months, I've been meticulously watching every episode, imagining what it would be like to be Mr. Alison, living the artistic life, going to high profile fashion functions and then perhaps discussing the hidden merits of Sigur Ros b-sides over escargot and Kristal (hey, this is MY fantasy, shut up.)

Anyways, she got booted tonight... and a nation mourns. Well, at least the straight guys who watch "Project Runway" mourn. All 8 of us.

Here's to you, Alison. Let's hope your fashion career blossoms... and that you model your own stuff.

Monday, August 14, 2006

COLUMN: The Windy City

I hate to break it to you, Quad Cities, but apparantly we're all a bunch of hicks.

This is the stereotype I've had to fight for years now. Being an Augustana graduate, most of my college friends -- as with most of Augustana's student body -- hailed from the Chicagoland area. I, meanwhile, come from Galesburg. In MY town, when the cool kids -- you know, the ones with the hottie girlfriends and seemingly no parents whatsoever -- went to "the big city" for the weekend, they meant HERE.

It's the Theory of Relative Hick-osity. When I lived in Galesburg, I thought the kids from Wataga were hayseeds. People in the Quad Cities probably think Galesburg's a little backwater. My friends from Chicago call the Quad Cities a "farm town." Heck, I'm sure the residents of Bombay think that Chicago's an insignifigant speck. It's all relative.

Personally, I think the Quad Cities are pretty great. Sure, I suppose Chicago has more to offer, but honestly, even if I lived in the Windy City, I'd still probably spend most of my nights sitting on a couch, watching TV, and complaining about having nothing to do. There's enough culture for me right here in River City, thanks much -- and honestly, I'll take a seven minute commute to work over high culture any day. If I want culture, I've got and a debit card number that I sadly know by heart.

I am no hick. However, last week, I felt like one. I've been online for over a decade now, and one of my best online buddies is a web designer from Los Angeles. He's a fellow music nerd, and years ago, the two of us launched a music webzine called While I don't give it as much attention as it needs, the site's still up today, and he and I still run it via a barrage of weekly e-mails.

The thing is, despite our daily communiques, we've never actually MET -- until this week, when he decided to fly out to the Midwest for a week's vacation. My mission: pick him up at O'Hare International Airport. It's called "International" because the airport is so big, I'm pretty sure it actually reaches into Canada.

I was stressed. If Chicagoans think we're hick, who knows what a guy from L.A. would think. He already told me that he'd never heard of this "John Deere" fella I kept mentioning.

Shockingly, I sorted out the airport trip fairly well. Thanks to the miracle of music, I parked on the "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" floor of the parking garage (I'm not kidding, they pipe music in to help you remember where you parked.) I made it to the terminal, picked him up, and got us back to our car despite my fears of getting lost forever, destined to roam the aisles of O'Hare for eternity, hopelessly singing, "Na na na na, heeeeey, goodbye."

Finding the car was the good news. The bad news was when my friend asked the fateful question. "So, man, before we go to Rock Island, can you show me around Chicago a little bit?"

Errr, okay. I'm a big boy. I know my way around Chicago -- kinda. I mean, you can't get SERIOUSLY lost, right? You're bound to run into either an interstate or a rather great lake, right? I could do this no problem IF THE CAB BEHIND ME WOULD STOP HONKING! Pardon, sir? Yes, I see your middle finger. What's that? Oh, the light's GREEN? I can go? Wait, THIS lane? Crud.

Who was I kidding? I'm about as comfortable driving in Chicago as Paris Hilton is in a Wal-mart. Still, I gave it my best. "Here's Wrigley Field... and nowhere to park." "Here's downtown... and nowhere to park." "Here's where they filmed 'The Blues Brothers'... and nowhere to park." I was getting the hang of it. Soon I would be a master tour guide. Just a quick left here, a quick right HERE, and...

Presto. I drove us right into the remnants of Cabrini Green and the Henry Horner complex. My tour went from "and over there's the Sears Tower" to "and over here's a prostitute attempting to flag us down. Did you need any illicit drugs, because I think this gentleman over here might be offering...?"

Other than the nightmare of winding up in the VERY wrong part of town, I held my own. And hopefully my friend didn't see how white my knuckles were from being on roads with more than 2 lanes. I just know that I was way more comfortable my NEXT day as a tour guide: "Here's the river... and we can park anywhere." "Here's the tractor museum... and we can park anywhere." "Here's Whitey's Ice Cream... and we can park anywhere."

Friday, August 04, 2006


Sorry I disappeared for a bit there, kids. I'm on vacation this week... and I forgot to upload LAST week's column before I disappeared THIS week.

Anyways, no column THIS week. Instead sitting around, doing copious amounts of nothing that were supposed to inspire a surplus of new columns.

Instead, I've been inspired to watch a horrifying amount of bad TV. Wish me luck.

COLUMN: Aimless Driving

Last week in these pages, we talked about global warming. Well, we talked about how I'd seen Al Gore's flick, "An Inconvenient Truth," which is a fantastic film with a fantastic message. That message, to wit: Feel guilty. Feel very, very guilty.

When it comes to environmentalism, I am not so hot at reppin' my blue-state values. I don't recycle, I run my air conditioner 24-7, I leave the water running while I brush my teeth. Essentially, Barack Obama needs to come along with a rolled-up newspaper and swat me on the nose like a scolded puppy. "Bad liberal, baaaad liberal!"

But there's one thing in particular that makes me feel especially guilty. Not because it's something I've done for years, before knowing the horrors of global warming. No, it's worse than that. I feel guilty because, now that I KNOW that the planet is going to heck in a purse, I'm still not going to stop doing it. No way, no how.

I like to drive. I mean, I REALLY like to drive. And no left-wing movie, as vehemently as I agree with it, can make me do different. I steadfastly remain the King of Aimless Driving, and it's my intention to retain the throne for as long as possible.

Forget global warming; this is about BRAIN warming. The real dangers are those days, those weeks when things just never go your way. A customer yells at you. You forget your sunglasses on your desk. The Taco Bell drive-thru tells you that they're "out of meat". The gas station clerk insists you gave her a five when you KNOW you gave her a twenty. (All of which happened to me this week.)

That's when your brain starts to steam and fume. And every added bit of stress just contributes to that sizzling ball of stress in your head. Well, let me tell you from first-hand experience, there is NO bit of stress that can't be melted away with a moonlit drive through the country.

My friends and I discovered it in college. Studying too hard? (Hey, this is MY column - I can pretend I was a good student if I want!) Someone would just yell "CORNFIELDS! NOW!" Next thing we knew, we were loading the car with junk food, a good mix tape, and hitting the open gravel roads. Where would we end up? When would we get home? That was up to fate.

Some days we'd only be gone for a half hour; other days we'd get lost and end up in Timbuktu. But there wasn't a single night that didn't become a fun adventure of some sort. But if YOU decide to take up night-time aimless driving, there ARE a few rules to heed.

1. LIGHT POLLUTION CAN BE YOUR FRIEND. If you're lost in the middle of the sticks, just get to the top of a hill and look for the distant glows of major cities. On a clear night, you can see that megalithic strobe tower in Bettendorf some 20-30 miles away. Of course, sometimes following glows can get you in trouble. Once, my friend Jason and I were seriously lost in the pitch middle of the night. We saw a glow and followed it. Turned out to be Beloit, Wisconsin. At 3 a.m. For reference, Beloit Wisconsin is NOT a fun place to be at 3 a.m.

2. ALWAYS HAVE AN ESCAPE PLAN. Watch out that the country road you're rolling down is not a country driveway. Every time we go out in the boonies, we invariably take some cool-looking gravel road that turns out to be Bob's Road. Which leads us straight to Bob's House. And Bob is usually some cast member of "Deliverance." And Bob don't cotton to strangers. Always be ready to turn around and hightail it outta there.

3. DEER ARE SUICIDAL. They like to fling themselves in front of your path at all times, and nothing ruins the ambience of a good evening drive quite like an antler to the skull. Safety first, gang.

4. ALL ROADS LEAD TO JOY. If you're driving around south of town and get lost, don't worry. Eventually you'll end up in the tiny town of Joy, Illinois. I don't know why, but it seems like every country road eventually takes you there. My guess is that it's secretly the center of the universe. We've ended up randomly in Joy so often that I once considered getting a video rental membership at the gas station out there.

5. DON'T FALL ASLEEP IN A CAR FULL OF PROFESSIONAL AIMLESS DRIVERS. One time, our friend Kelly came along and ended up falling asleep just outside of town with the words, "Wake me up if you find something interesting." Four hours later we woke her up on the steps of the Capital Building in Springfield and asked her if it was interesting enough. We were amused; the jury's still out on her.

6. DON'T OVERDO IT. Take it from me. Once you start learning the back roads, the magic is gone. Nowadays, if my friends and I feel like getting lost in the country, we've got to get at least fifty miles away before we have no idea where we are.

I can't stop driving aimlessly. I don't care if it costs the equivalent of the gross national product of Botswana to fill the tank. It's a necessary evil. I'll be a good liberal in all other aspects of life, I swear it. But until Al Gore shows up at my door with an electric car for me and my friends, we're still going to be mucking up the environment and hitting the dusty trail from time to time. If Greenland melts, I'll apologize. Promise.