Sunday, December 30, 2007

COLUMN: Retail Hell

I tried, people. I really did.

I gave it my best shot to NOT write another "bah humbug" column about Christmas this year. In fact, this week's column was to be my annual list of the best music of the year. That'll have to wait, because I need to document the soul-sucking Grinching I received this past week. I don't even care that, by the time you read this, Christmas will have come and gone. You'll have to indulge me, because I need a proper (albeit belated) holiday whine.

Despite what you may think, I'm not an entirely cynical human being. There's a spark in me that yearns for white Christmases, roasting chestnuts, and goodwill towards men. I'm all for the warm fuzzies that fill your heart at the holidays. This year, though, I think the warm fuzzies went on strike with the Hollywood writers.

As usual, I waited 'til the last minute to get my Christmas shopping done. First up was my dad. If you were to ever meet the man, you'd think he was the mildest, friendliest guy out there (which he is.) But the guy's got some weird hobbies. Chief among them, my dad likes cannons. I can't tell you how many childhood vacations involved stops to look at some kind of antique artillery. Dad, with a gleam in his eye, would try his best to tell me the history and importance of Civil War munitions; I would nod appropriately while wondering if the town had a record store and whether our hotel had free HBO.

Dad's new project is to build a replica Mountain Howitzer cannon from scratch. How one does this is beyond me -- just know that the next time you're planning on robbing a house, you might want to skip my folks'. When I asked my dad what he wanted for Christmas this year, he rapidly replied, "I'd love a 12 lb. shot put." I knew right away this was not a sudden interest in track and field. That's right, a 12 lb. iron shot put makes a spiffy cannonball.

So I scoured the Quad Cities in search of a shot put, and came up empty-handed. As you may have guessed, Shotputs-R-Us doesn't have a local branch, and I couldn't find a sporting goods store that stocked the things. My best hope was ordering online, where I discovered that if you have a 12 lb. ball of iron and you paint it red, you can get away with charging $130 + shipping for the thing.

I decided to cross off the shot put and go for the next item on his list -- something called an "air needle scaler." Dunno what it is, but it should come in handy the next time I need something scaled with air and needles. But Dad wanted it, and I found one easily enough. I celebrated with a post-shopping burrito at one of my favorite eateries. It was quite tasty, until I was leaving and glanced back to witness my bare-handed burrito maker in a full-on nose pick -- and not just a little innocent, my-nose-itches sort of manoever, no. This was a full-on nasal mining operation. Fa la la la la.

The next day was Mom. Not wanting to suffer alone, I invited my friend Linn along for the merriment. Chief on my mom's Christmas list was a new paring knife, and seeing as how I know cutlery almost as well as I know cannon-building, I summoned a clerk for help. Well, the front desk did, after I had to walk up twice and have one paged three times. Still, it was the holidays, so I let it slide.

Eventually a tired-looking clerk showed up and immediately went into sales mode, telling me that my mom deserved nothing but the best paring knife. The kind that are displayed behind glass in the store.

"Fancy," I said of the 3" paring knife being pitched our way. "What's this bad boy cost?"

"It's on sale," the clerk replied, "for only $74.99."

The look of open-mouthed horror on our faces said it all.

"Well," the clerk tried to explain, "this knife is made from only the finest German..."

"Finest German WHAT, for that price? BABIES?" Linn interjected incredulously. I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe. The clerk was entirely unamused. But for 75 bucks, that knife had better prepare my meals, clean up after itself, AND read me a bedtime story. Eventually I settled on another nice knife (perhaps only made from sub-standard German babies,) and the clerk nodded and said she'd be back with the key.

TWENTY MINUTES LATER, she was. This was after having her re-paged twice and having two stockboys roaming the store looking for her. When she DID return, she acted put out and exasperated, offered no apologies, grabbed the knife, and walked it to the register with us. I now understand why they keep the sharp implements behind glass.

Look, I've worked retail before. I know the chaos that comes with the holidays. I know it can be stressful to wait on last-minute idiots like me. But even in my worst moments in retail, I knew how to be nice to people. I knew how to apologize for delays. I knew how to smile.

Despite my Christmas fantasies of fileting rude clerks with imported paring knives, I managed to complete my list with my sanity somewhat intact and my holiday spirit repairable. By the time you read this, you'll be full of Christmas leftovers, but as I write, it's still two days off. Despite what the world of retail wants to do to me, I still plan on having a fabulous holiday. I hope and entrust that your Christmas was bright and wish you all a happy new year -- even you, nose-picking burrito dude.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Alright, I know this is going to make me sound like a hack comic, but honestly -- really, truly, seriously -- WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH THE WEATHER AROUND HERE LATELY?

I've lived in Illinois all my life, and thus am no stranger to winter weather. With relevant and profound apologies to James Taylor, I've seen snow and freezing rain. I've seen frost-bitten fingers that I thought would never mend. I've seen heating bills that I could not comprehend... but I always knew one day winter would end. This year? I have my doubts.

By calendar standards, winter is only a few days old -- and I'm already rooting for its demise. If this keeps up, I may be forced to drastically alter my views on global warming.

It started a couple weeks ago with that dandy late afternoon snowstorm. I'm all for a mild whitening of things, especially this time of year, but there's one teensy little problem. As much as I appreciate fine German engineering, my Beetle is NOT known for its arctic off-roading capabilities. Add that to my apartment sitting atop a steep driveway atop the Rock Island hill, and those two inches of snow meant that I couldn't get home from work that night for several hours until the plows had done their job.

We'd barely gotten back on track from that snowfall when forecasters sounded the panic alarm once again. I usually react to these warnings with a resounding "hmpf." Like I said, I'm no wuss about winter weather. I was only seven years old in 1978, but I still remember having to tunnel our way out of the house after the record-setting blizzard of that winter. I grew up in the country, and with a dad who would have taken me to school on dogsled rather than willingly submit to a snow day. No measly frozen water is going to impact MY day.

Yet in all the bad weather I can recall over the years, the one thing that doesn't ring a bell is the phrase "crippling ice storm." But thanks to our icy surprise last February, it's at the tip of every local meterologist's tongue now. There's no two ways around it: that storm last year sucked. I was trapped without power for the better part of a day, and I was one of the lucky ones. So when word came last week that another menacing ice storm was a-comin', the Quad Cities united together for the one thing we're well-trained and talented at: PANIC.

The news was already telling us to stay home at all costs. Schools had already been cancelled. The National Weather Service was telling people to prepare their "winter survival kits." What, exactly, should a winter survival kit consist of in this modern age? A pointy stick with which to kill passing polar bears? Instruction manuals for "Extreme Makeover: Igloo Edition"? The rules and regulations of professional curling? I was dubious, but perhaps I DID need to stock up on some supplies.

I headed to the grocery store, a fine notion were it not for the other 98.53% of the Quad Cities who had the same idea. Shelves were emptying. A woman walked by carrying what appeared to be a cubic ton of toilet paper to the register. I even saw a beleagured manager attempting to explain to a customer that sidewalks would not benefit from the sprinkling of water softener salts. Based on the checkout line length alone, you would have thought Neil Kastor had called for an 80% chance of the Apocalyse.

And there I was, stuck in the middle of it all. But hey, if enough ice DID manage to plop down and cause a problem, I wanted something slightly more filling than the three packets of taco sauce and one can of tomato paste that comprised my entire inventory of provisions.

I got home and downloaded the first season of "How I Met Your Mother" onto my iPod -- if the power did go out, I still wanted entertainment options. Satisfied with my prep work, I went to bed and had nightmares of opening my window to scenes of pure winter carnage.

Hours later I awoke, took a gulp, and opened my window to scenes of... rain. Not freezing rain. Not evil rain. Not witness-the-wrath-of-Nature rain. Just rain. I drove problem-free to work and spent the rest of the day in disbelief that half of my co-workers had pulled no-shows due to the weather. Due to the rain.

And yes, before you yell, I know it was a bad storm. People died in other states, and that's awful. Even some of the QC metro area lost power. But in Rock Island, it was just some crummy rain. I didn't get to call in to work, I didn't get to see any gnarly wrecks. It was the most underwhelming "crippling ice storm" ever. I hate storms, but if it's gonna happen, it might as well shut the city down for a day or two or it's just no fun.

But now, especially after the dumping of snow we got last weekend, I'm ready for it to end. Granted, a friend of mine just got back from a trip to the Caribbean with photos of holiday palm trees and surfing Santas, and that just seems horribly wrong. Christmas should be white, chilly, and wonderful -- but on Dec. 26th? Let it thaw, let it thaw, let it thaw.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

COLUMN: Kyrgyzstan Claus

I stink at math.

It's one of my dark, shameful secrets. There's just something about numbers that makes my brain switch off. I am, for lack of a better word, mathtarded. And it's not for lack of trying, either.

I'm not saying I was the world's best student or anything, but still, I gave math my best shot. I had to -- my father was a former physics major who designed and built the house I grew up in from scratch. I'm still convinced to this day that my dad lost most of his hair not due to genetics, but due to my Algebra II homework (a class I passed by the skin of my teeth and thanks only to cram sessions with an overly patient parent and a programmable calculator that learned the formulas a lot faster than me.)

High schoolers are famous for saying stupid stuff, and one of those cringe-worthy phrases often uttered by my younger self? "I will NEVER need to know this to get by in life." Well, I'm here to tell you that, for once, High School Shane was right. I have made it almost 37 years now, and can safely tell you all that I've yet to find myself in a perilous situation where I need to measure an isosceles triangle in order to survive. In fact, I had to go to Wikipedia just now to spell "isosceles." I have yet to encounter any task preceded by the adjective "Pythagorean." The cosine button on my calculator has NEVER been pressed.

I'm sure there are career paths out there that utilize math on a minute-by-minute basis. Newspaper Columnist isn't one of 'em. I suppose it would be nice to balance a checkbook or complete a tax form without the sensation that my brain is about to leak out of my eye sockets, but hey -- if you can't do those simple tasks, there's certainly a computer program and/or paid professional willing to take it on for you. It's good to know that there are competent mathematicians and engineers out there to make life easier and run the world for we mathematically challenged types.

Take the fine Nordic engineering consultants of the Sweco Group. According to their website, Sweco provides consulting services in engineering, environmental technology, and architecture. However, as a public service to one and all, they recently applied their genius minds to a phenomenon not easily grasped by we math underlings -- Santa Claus. For generations, we've been puzzled how one jolly old man and his eight freaky deer could possibly deliver toys to ALL the girls and boys. In a press release that I swear I'm not making up, Sweco has the answers.

Taking into account factors like geographic density and the fewest detours, and working with the estimation that there are 120 persons per square mile and an average of 66 feet between homes on Earth -- and assuming that Santa travels against the Earth's rotation thus giving him an optimizing 48 hours in which to deliver gifts -- Sweco has proven that Santa has exactly 34 microseconds at each stop to shimmy down the chimney, plop down the gifts, down some cookies and milk, and be on his merry way.

In order to pull this off, Dasher and Prancer and Comet and Dunder and the gang need to travel at 12,974,400 miles an hour to get the job done. And that officially puts the kibash on the North Pole. Assuming that Santa begins and ends his annual trek from the most logistically optimal position on Earth based on population density and distance, there's only one place where Santa's Workshop can really exist: Kyrgyzstan.

That's right, Santa Claus is a Kyrgyzstani. Until now, Kyrgyzstan was best known for its woolen exports, the komuz (a fretless 3-stringed lute), a rousing 22nd place finish in the men's pentathlon at the 2004 Summer Olympiad, and being the only country whose name sounds like the noise I make when I sneeze. But now, thanks to the wonders of modern mathematics, it's home to Santa and the elves.

And the Kyrgyzstani government couldn't be happier. After word reached them of the Swedish engineering discovery, the Kyrgyz tourism board launched a contest to track down the Bearded One and his jellybelly. Given Kyrgyzstan's abundant and treacherous mountains, this might take some time.

"The state tourism agency always knew that Father Christmas lived here," said Kyrgyz tourism official Akbar Dzhigitov this week to reporters, "and finally Swedish scientists have proved it." The contest runs until December 20 and the winner will receive an award, so you've still got time to catch that flight (Air Kyrgyz?) and get a-huntin'.

Of course, another report on the internet claims to debunk the Swedish engineer's claim. It says that -- if the Sweco findings are accurate and Santa's jetting around at 12,974,400 mph -- a sleigh weighed down with presents would encounter such massive air resistance that the whole ensemble would burst into flames and be vaporized with 4.26 thousandths of a second.

Thus proving, once and for all, the truth we dare not speak: mathematicians are even MORE bored than I ever thought possible. And also proving that the greatest physicist & mathematician of all time must be Santa Claus himself, as even given these odds, he somehow manages his job. After all, the presents under the tree are irrefutable proof. My guess is it must involve a rip in the space-time continuum... or perhaps a genetic Santa cloning lab... or perhaps subterranean tunnels allowing Santa to fly THROUGH the Earth as opposed to around it...

Then again, what do I know? I stink at math.


Well, this weekend washed away yet ANOTHER one of my fantasies.

For a long portion of my life, I was a Shane o' Optimism. The kind of guy that lived in a world of chirping birds, rising suns, and the genuine belief that humanity, for the most part, ain't so bad. The Shane o' Optimism fancied himself one day living in a perfect little home (assuming, of course, that Shane o' Optimism had a limitless budget with which to hire perfect little caretakers for his perfect little home -- even an optimistic Shane isn't prepped to mow the yard himself.)

And this life would naturally come complete with a white picket fence, a charming wife, some loving children, and even maybe a little yip dog named Skipper or some such. Therein lies the problem. No white picket fences surround my crummy apartment. My dance card is woefully lacking in elegible bachelorettes. The only children in my life are the neighbor kids who try nightly to barricade my hallway unless we tenants pay something called a "Door Tax." And instead of yippy Skipper, I have neurotic sister kitties who are systematically destroying any possessions that I may otherwise choose to care about.

But this, friends, is no big deal. I was born an only child. I know how to cope. That's why I replaced my optimistic dream with one that's a little more grounded but hopefully just as fun:

If I don't get the house and the wife and kids and the dog, then at the very least I should get to enjoy life as a cantankerous hermitic shut-in whose life's ambition is to scare the neighbor kids. "DOOR TAX?!?!" I can hear myself yelling at them as I shake my cane menacingly, "I'LL SHOW YOU A DOOR TAX!" And I've already got 2 cats; that means I'm only 58 more away from the appropriate level of crazy to ensure that folks walk a wide swath around Creepy Old Man Brown's door.

And my first grand test of the hermitic, isolationist, slightly off-my-rocker lifestyle? This past weekend.

Normally, I spend my Saturdays shopping, eating out, and DJ'ing to a packed dance club until the not-so-wee hours of Sunday. This past weekend, though, Jack Frost had other plans. I'm not afraid of a little ice. But I AM afraid of pratfalling onto my fanny, and those two things tend to happen simultaneously.

Happily, for once I'd paid attention to the weather reports ahead of time. Knowing that an ice storm was hours away, I went out on Friday and picked up some essentials (2 frozen dinners, 1 bag Chips Ahoy, 4 magazines, and a metric ton of Coke Classic.) By the time I woke up on Saturday, the world was already glazed over, cars were sliding down my street, and best of all, my DJ gig was cancelled.

I had the weekend free. I could do anything I wanted... anything but leave my apartment. I was thrilled. It was heaven. How many days I had spent at work daydreaming of an afternoon of sitting around and doing whatever I felt like! Here it was. I was free. I was independent. I was... really, really, really bored.

I turned on the TV. 138 channels at my disposal. Fascinating programming options from around the world. Or so I'm told. I, meanwhile, chose to watch 8 reruns of "Frasier" in a row.

There were projects to sink my teeth into. The cupboards in the kitchen needed a good cleaning. A pile of records begged for alphabetization. And who wouldn't want to get an early start on their taxes?

Me, apparantly, as I wasted the day playing pretend Rock Band on my X-Box. The newly released rival to the Guitar Hero video game features not only plastic guitars, but plastic drums and a plastic microphone to boot. Of course, I can't actually sing a note in pitch to save my life -- unless, that is, I attempt it in the world's weeniest falsetto. You know, the kind of voice you don't pull out in front of friends. Yet I screeched until hoarse, and as of press time, am now the 106th greatest vocalist in the cyberworld. And judging by the thinness of my walls, perhaps I DID satisfy my goal of scaring the neighbor children, albeit in the entirely wrong way.

I thought I'd like being a hermit for a weekend, but I ended up with nightmarish cabin fever. Were it not for my friend Chris braving the ice to come over with a bucket of chicken and a second X-Box controller, I might have lost it entirely. Curse you, reverse psychology -- as soon the ice made it impossible to leave the apartment, leaving was the only thing I wanted to do. So I'm not giving up my flirtation with the shut-in lifestyle quite yet... but let's just say I still steal a glance or two at any white picket fence that comes my way.

Now then, I'm off to leave my hermitic lifestyle for a taco run. Anybody got a buck I can borrow? I don't know if I've got enough to cover the door tax tonight...

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

COLUMN: Noodles

I know how much my editors love it when I do this, but this week's column is partially little more than an unsolicited endorsement. I usually try to stay away from outright promoting a business, but this time, I don't care. My story has a point, though, so bear with.

It all started several years ago when I found myself in Boulder, Colorado for a week-long training seminar. The newspaper sent me out there by myself, and it was one of the most liberating times of my life. Finally, I felt like the Mature Responsible Adult Working Dude. You know, staying in hotels, renting a car, making appointments, finding out I was there during the Colorado state-wide breakdancing finals (yesssss!), taking awkward photos in front of the "Mork & Mindy" house -- you know, mature people stuff. Well, at least as mature as I ever get.

Anyways, one of the integral aspects of being a Mature Responsible Dude is the act of procuring food for oneself. In Rock Island, this is easy -- there are brightly lit places called "Taco Bell" and "Wendy's" that dispense food to those in need. In Boulder, it's a little more challenging.

Because of the crazy scenery out that way, Boulder city regulations prohibit big gaudy neon signs. Handy when you want to take in the mountain views, NOT handy when you're looking for the golden arches of Big Mac goodness. On top of things, everyone in Boulder is skinny, attractive, and physically fit -- I'll never forget driving to the Rocky Mountain National Park in my rental car, trying to precariously balance an order of french fries on my lap, while dudes in mountain bikes are whizzing past me doing 40 mph up a sheer vertical incline.

The point is, greasy fast food options -- the staple of my diet -- are few and far between in health-conscious Colorado. Instead, there are tofu emporiums and oxygen bars and weird ethnic cuisine featuring massive amounts of curry and pepper presumably to mask the taste of pure, unadulterated Evil. I had a really difficult time finding food to match my palate.

Until I discovered one of my favorite restaurants ever. And I ended up eating there for nearly every meal that week. And I came back and wouldn't shut up about the place to friends and family. Heck, I even wrote their corporate offices once to suggest building a Quad City franchise. A decade later, I still get warm fuzzies thinking about that place.

That place was Noodles & Company, and this week, they just opened their first Quad City location. In fact, I'm writing this column on their opening day. It turns out that I must not have been the only one excited about the place, as it's now become one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in America. Even cooler is the fact that the corporate owners of Noodles & Company met right here in Rock Island when they both attended Augustana College.

Now, I'm not going to turn this whole column into a free ad for the place, I swear. Suffice to say, if you're the kind of person who gets excited by noodles, it's worth a stop. Honestly, I'm kind of scared to go there now -- after a decade-old fuzzy happy memory, the reality might not be as perfect as my brain recalls it to be, but that's a risk I'm going to take. I'm going to go check out the Davenport location as soon as I finish this column. But it's not really the food that scares me the most -- it's all you other Quad Citizens.

What is it about this area that compels every man, woman, and child to rush out and try every new restaurant that comes along? The opening of a new restaurant in the Quad Cities is so often treated with the hype and crowd rush of a Hollywood premiere, and I just don't get why it's always an Officially Big Deal.

Case in point, we recently got our first couple of Sonics in town. When I heard on the news that they were opening, I thought, "Hey, a burger sounds alright tonight. I think I'll swing by there." So I drove all the way out to northwest Davenport to claim my burger... only to find a line of cars SIXTY-TWO DEEP in the drive-thru (yes, I counted.) Come on, people. I'll be the first person to tell you that Sonic cooks up a mean burger and some tots, but is ANY eatery worth that kind of a wait?

Who knows, maybe it was 62 other people who also thought, "Hey, a burger sounds alright tonight." But I have a sneaking suspicion that for some of those people, it was an Event. People who had been sitting at home, ticking off dates on a calendar and getting REALLY excited at the prospect of stuffing their faces somewhere new and different.

Maybe it's a Midwest thing; my hometown of Galesburg was even worse. There's a reason why many chain restaurants use Galesburg as a testing site for new products. We're willing, chubby guinea pigs for it. "Grab the kids, honey! You won't believe it, but McRIBS ARE BACK!" If our entertainment options are such that the opening of a new fast-food joint requires police presence to monitor traffic flow, perhaps we should sit back and take stock of our lives.

Of course, every time I sit back, all I can think about is a bowl full of noodles. So I bid you all adieu and bid myself bon appetit, and I cross my fingers that less than 62 of you have the same idea.


This one's gonna be tough to write. Maybe the toughest one ever.

See, it's normally my job to find life's little inanities -- you know, the unavoidable crummy bits to the daily grind that get under our skin -- and skewer them. I like to poke fun at myself and my problems, and maybe even you and your problems.
But what happens when something comes along that you CAN'T poke fun at? What happens when life throws such a curveball that you can't make it all better in the confines of a newspaper page? It's where my skills as a writer stop, and it's where I find myself this week.

This week, we unexpectedly lost one of our own -- Marla Angelo, one of our classified telesales reps here at the paper, passed away at the criminally young age of 54. And there's nothing I can do or write to make it cheery or distract me from reality. There's no right thing to say. It just hurts. It's unfair, and it sucks.

I've read so many eulogies in our papers over the years that you'd think I could just blurp out the appropriate sappy prose. But what happens when you simply want to pay tribute to someone who lived their life on the quiet side -- never hurting a fly, never standing out in a crowd, but always there for you no matter what?

For 26 years, Marla worked here at the paper, and I've had the pleasure of sitting beside her for the last 12. If you've ever held a garage sale or sold your car through the classifieds, there's a good chance you've talked to her. She's been a rock to our advertising department, and the fact that her corner desk now sits empty makes me numb.

It's no wonder that the photo used in her obituary was taken right here with her trusty telephone headset in place. The woman had a work ethic that I had never been exposed to, nor will I likely see again. She came in every morning and buried herself in her job, coming up for air only for lunch and quitting time -- and many a night, it would take the exasperated prodding of a manager to get her to put work down and go home.

Frankly, her devotion to her job drove some of us batty on a regular basis. Even the most basic of tasks would take Marla forever to get done. But it wasn't an issue of poor time management; it was her constant and unwavering drive for perfection. If you were a client of Marla's, you could expect a barrage of questions, faxes, and phone calls until your ad was absolutely perfect. And when her devoted clients would call in while she was out of the office, the usual response was "let me have her voicemail." They didn't want OUR help; nothing but the original would suffice.

The only time Marla would ever get distracted at work was if one of us had a problem -- in which case she'd tell us about an even greater problem she once faced. If you had a headache, she'd tell you about her near-stroke. If the roads were bad coming in to work, they were nearly impassible in her native East Moline. Sometimes her one-upsmanship would leave you bristled, but for Marla, it was more innocent commiseration. It was her way of saying, "Don't worry, I've been down that road, too. I know how you feel." And if something were truly wrong, you could set your watch by her phone call to your house that night to check up on you.

More than anything, the woman never uttered a bad word about anyone as long as I knew her. Right after I started at the paper, the brakes on my car went out. After catching me complaining about the ungodly price estimate I'd been given, Marla insisted that I bring the car by her house for her team of mechanics (her husband and sons) to look at. I'll never forget walking into her living room and seeing her tiny frame there, glasses on, surrounded by a pile of work she'd brought home from the office. Other than this weekly column, I've never taken a lick of work home in 12 years. Not only did her family fix my brakes, she insisted on feeding me home-cooked meals each time I was over.

Recently on a golf outing, a co-worker returned to the parking lot to find a flat tire. Not only did Marla wait with her for the tow truck, she followed her for miles to an out-of-the-way garage and kept her company until the tire was fixed. She probably never thought twice about it. She was always there for us.

And at her visitation, we got to see photos of a different Marla -- rock climbing, inner tubing, sled racing. It was good to be reminded of her full life outside of work, and her loving kids and grandkids are testament enough to that.

As we try to make sense of it all, I've been talking to so many co-workers this week. And they ALL say the same thing: She was SUCH a nice lady. And when you stop to think about it, could there possibly be any better legacy than that? She was a nice lady, a colleague, and my friend -- and I'm going to miss her like crazy. Rest in peace, Marla.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Marla G. Angelo 1953-2007

No updates this week in honor of my friend and co-worker who left us WAY too early.

COLUMN: Strike

"IT'S ABOUT TIME!" I yelled when I heard the news. Immediately I threw down my work and told my boss where he could stick it. I ran home, grabbed a can of paint and made up my protest sign. Then I remembered that I wasn't in the Writer's Guild of America, and I wasn't going on strike. Phooey. Just when I was about to go all Norma Rae on the newspaper and everything.

It's no fair. Even if I wanted in, the Writer's Guild of America is only for broadcast and theatre writers. So we lowly newspaper hacks continue to slave away at the keyboards while TV writers get to kick back and relax in an angry picket line. I want to picket something, doggone it. Unfortunately I don't really care about any of the issues, plus I'm perfectly happy here at the paper. I just want to be in the mix. I want to take a stand.

Problem is, I don't know where to stand. At the core level of the WGA strike, you've got a bunch of scriptwriters trying to make it better for themselves. As an occasional writer, I'm down with that -- especially when it comes to movies. Writing is the most important part of making a good flick. If you don't believe me, go watch "Clerks." Great writing + bad acting + bad directing still equals great movie.

But the Guild's big beef with the major studios is that writers aren't getting paid for online distribution of their work. So if you go to NBC's website and watch an episode of "My Name is Earl," the writers for Earl aren't getting a cut of any profits.

The problem here? To my knowledge, no one's figured out a profitable model for online TV yet. Prices are always fluctuating on iTunes, and the networks can't figure out how to go about selling ad space for the web-surfing community. It's a cluster-coitus. Technology evolved before its accompanying business model, and the networks are still playing catch-up.

So where does that leave us? If the strike ends, we'll be paying more money or suffering through more ads in order to get our internet dose of "30 Rock." If the strike keeps going, the networks will fall back on writer-free reality shows and we can look forward to a future of "Spelunking with the Stars" and "America's Next Top Farmer." It's a no-win. But I've got a plan.

See, there's one thing that the Writer's Guild of America didn't count on: ME! Here's my offer, major television studios of America: hand your show's writing over to me, Shane the Scab. I have all the necessary qualifications: I watch a lot of TV, I have no scruples, and I work cheap. So hire me. I'll write for every show for every network. Ideas just pour out of me. Every show will be a hit, guaranteed. Here's what I'm thinking:

* Tonight, on a very special "ER", tragedy befalls County General when a sudden explosion rips through the hospital, killing every doctor, nurse, and assorted minor character. The end. A grateful nation applauds.

(Let's face it, "ER" is the worst show in the history of shows, plus it's been on the air about ten years too long. It'd be a mercy killing, trust me. Oh, and House? You're next.)

* This week on "Desperate Housewives:" Okay, so there's the one kinda hot housewife, right? Well, she gets into a fight with the OTHER kinda hot housewife. Naturally, the altercation moves to their newly-installed backyard mud wrestling pit. For, like, an hour...

(Okay, fine, I've never seen an episode of this show. Wanna know why? 'Cause I'm a guy -- and this show's made for girls. Advertisers like reaching ALL demographics, right? Well, bring on the mud wrestling and the guys WILL watch.)

* CSI: Davenport. Crime scene investigators are summoned to town when information about a business moving to Iowa gets leaked to the press. Blame falls on an eccentric city council member, who becomes shunned by the town's mayor and city manager and loses his bid for re-election. Our team carefully puts the pieces together and comes to the stunning conclusion: No One Cares. (This story is fictional-ish. Any similarities to persons living or dead is purely coincidental-esque.)

If that's not enough, I've even got a great idea for a new series, loosely titled "Shane's Ultimate Fantasy." Katie Holmes stars as a happy-go-lucky girl finding her way through life. But here's the wacky comic twist: she's completely allergic to clothing! Hilarious hijinks ensue as she tromps around town naked! Oh, and since it's my ultimate fantasy and all, there should also be some ninjas in there someplace. Ninjas with lightsabers. And a talking car. And maybe the A-Team. I'm looking for a two season commitment.

Whether I'm involved or not, I just want the strike to be over so I don't lose the mind-numbing goodness of my boob tube. If the next season of "Lost" gets strike pre-empted by "When Animals Attack 4," I may not be responsible for my actions. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to hop online and watch some TV.


There are times in one's life that occasionally stand out more than others. For me, that time usually happens every Sunday morning at 3:00 a.m.

That's when the club that I DJ at shuts down for the weekend. At 3, we herd the spirited masses out the doors and close up shop. My role in this process is to sit around and wait to get paid, which can't happen until the tills are meticulously counted. That's when it flashes back to junior high.

The bartenders gather at one table to count out and swap stories. The burly security guys sit at another. Me? I usually plop down with one or two of the club's sound engineers, where we debate such things as the merits of speaker wire or the ideal mp3 compression rate. It's the cool kids vs. the jocks vs. the nerds all over again, just with a slightly smaller personal fear of getting a wedgie. I'm cool with it, though -- for the most part, sitting at the nerd table is a time-honored and comfortable position in my book.

This week, though, my ears perked up. The security guys, who incidentally are all great and I'm glad they've got my back every weekend, usually converse on a myriad of topics -- provided those topics include cute girls or not-so-cute football players. This usually excludes me, as I'm (a) woefully lacking when it comes to cute girl stories, and (b) still for the life of me clueless as to just what a "Big Ten" is. Last night, though, the conversation turned in a direction that made my nerd hairs stand on end.

It turns out that one of our security guys recently went shopping and stumbled upon a remote-controlled toy helicopter that you can actually fly around your apartment. And that is, as we nerds say, pretty sweet. Suddenly I wanted the scoop. How is it powered? (Lithium battery.) Can it hover? (Yep, if you're good enough with the controller.) How much? (Only TWENTY BUCKS!!)

Oh, miniature toy helicopter, you WILL soon be mine. Let's hear it for modern technology, for continually coming up with new and exciting ways for me to torture my cats. If my feline friends think a laser pointer is captivating fun, wait 'til they get an aerial fly-by from Chopper Shane. Finally I will have something to guard the perimeter of my entertainment center next time Bez (also known as "Baaaad Kitty, Down Kitty!") decides to jump on the speaker.

But as much as I'm obsessed about picking up one of these bad boys, it really got me thinking as to a part of my adolescence that I just never got into: I was NOT a big toy-lover.

My folks sure bought a lot of 'em for me. I had the Evil Knievel bike that you wound up and sent spiralling across the kitchen floor. I had an armada of Hot Wheels. And thanks to my construction-minded father, I had enough Legos and blocks and bricks to build -- and potentially power -- my own Death Star. But on the whole, toys didn't exactly cut it for me.

I always thought Silly Putty was kinda gross. Stretch Armstrong was, and shall always be, creepy. I lived in perpetual fear of putting a kink in my Slinky. And those dumb plastic action figures? I always thought they were kinda, well, dumb and plastic. I was already into stereos (true fact: I could change a record at 18 months old) and books and computers. And the toys that I DID really enjoy weren't really toys at all.

Case in point: the Green Thing. I don't even know how to describe it. I don't even know what it was. My mom doesn't even know its given purpose to this day. It resembled a tiny green plastic briefcase, handle and all, but with tiny interior egg-shaped compartments. If I had to guess, the Green Thing was created to hold and carry six small eggs. Like possibly for camping or, well, any other reason you may have to stylishly transport six eggs. Why it exists? Beyond me. How it came into my possession? A mystery. All I know is that I loved that thing. I would put marbles in it, Hot Wheels in it, any toy with a general egg-like physiology, I would cart around in the Green Thing.

But not even that holds a candle to my all-time favorite childhood toy: a run-of-the-mill tire pressure gauge. I could play with one of those things for hours. To a kid, it's a multi-purpose fun zone. Stand it on end -- presto, it becomes a satellite dish for my Martian Hot Wheels outpost. And with one swift flick of the wrist? Instant lightsaber. Happily, I just called my mom to find out if she ever discovered the purpose of the Green Thing (no.) But in our conversation, she fessed up to having had a drawer full of contraband tire pressure gauges when SHE was a kid. Therefore, this one I'm writing off to genetics.

That's when it hit me. I like toys, sure, but I equally like non-toy weird things. Which makes me? A cat. I buy my cats every toy under the sun, but invariably they end up far more taken by the boxes and packages that the toys come in. Maybe we should all take a cue from my cats and try to find the fun in everyday living instead of seeking out the toys. Don't get me wrong; I'm still gonna go buy that helicopter. But maybe I'll pick up a tire pressure gauge, too.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Happiness is NOT...

...finding out that the dude who lives next door to me just had his apartment ransacked in a robbery last night. During a time frame that I was sitting next door in front of my computer. I should've heard it. I should've been able to stop it. Instead, I heard *nothing*.

Nothing like a little paranoia to make the evening go so much more smoothly... is MY place next? I'm installing all new locks when I get home tonight.


You're not getting some throwaway, flippant foo-foo humor column outta me this week. Heck, no. I'm a hard-hitting journalist, and we hard-hitting journalist types bring you the facts. Look, here's one now:

FACT: On November 20th of this year, Rhino Records is releasing on CD "The Brit Box: UK Indie, Shoegaze, And Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium."

ANOTHER FACT: This is causing me to have a near-stroke.

Once upon a time in college, I was cool. Okay, scratch that, I was never cool. But my record collection sure was. It's easy to pigeonhole people based on their musical tastes, right? Goth, metal, country, rap, jam bands, polka -- stereotypes aplenty. The music we listen to helps define us as people, and how we're defined as people helps solidify our musical taste. It's a symbiotic relationship: man hand-in-hand with his Best Buy Reward Zone card.

Well, I was certainly definable in my college days. But not as a goth or a metalhead or a hippie. No, I was FAR more evolved. My music? Brit Indie. You might not even know it was a genre, and heck, that's okay -- the music's just probably cooler than you.

While most of my college brethren were caught somewhere between Guns 'n' Roses and Nirvana, we were driving hundreds of miles to see our favorite UK indie bands play rare American appearances. We were staying up until 4 a.m. to call record stores in London to place orders. It was a passion, a way of life, and some of the best tunes to ever grace the inside of a CD player.

And now it's been assembled into a tidy nostalgic box set in stores soon for $50. The music that meant SO much to me, the genre that I was a part of and identified who I was as a person... is now retro chic and bargain-binned up for the masses. The music of yesteryear. Which makes me OLD. Outdated, irrelevant, and most of all? Horribly, horribly uncool. I can't believe it, but a $50 box set has officially triggered a mid-life crisis.

Ever since I read about its release, I've been moping. I'm now at least two generations away from cool. This weekend, I looked around the club I DJ at and realized I was by far the oldest person in the room. I'm not saying I'm cob-webby, but clearly, my days of even pretending ineffectively to be cool have passed right on by without me even realizing it.

I needed a recharge. I needed to do something stupid, to feel young again. I needed the warm, sweet embrace of pop culture. I needed... Guitar Hero III.

That's right, the sequel to the video game that both ruled and ruined my life came out last Sunday. And carpal tunnel or no, it was a must-own. Mature fuddy-duddies my age might wait until their next convenient errand run to pick up such a time-waster. (Actually, mature fuddy-duddies have better things to do than play video games in the first place.) Me? I'm hip. I'm happening. At least I wanna be. Hence, I ran down to a 24-hour supercenter place at 4 a.m. after the club closed.

Supercenters at 4 a.m. are the mecca of humor columnists. Let's see... sketchy drug deal-esque event going on in the corner of the parking lot? Check. Trashy family lugging around sleepy looking 5-year-olds in the pitch middle of the night? Check. Serial-rapist-lookin' dude pacing menacingly and muttering to himself at the front door? Check. Awesome.

Eventually I found an employee with the magic key needed to open the video game display case. Only trouble? He was just shy of a thousand years old. Greeeat. Nothing against the elderly, but this guy looked like his idea of a video game was the glaucoma test at the optometrist.

"I need to purchase the game 'Guitar Hero 3,'" I said in a polite but I-know-you-won't-understand voice.

"Yep, you and the rest of the Quad Cities," said the old guy. "What platform you need? X-Box has been selling out tonight. We're out of wireless controllers, though, so you'll have to settle for the standard model. I've heard the battery life in the wireless units is pretty weak, so you're probably better off."

I couldn't believe it. Here I was, stereotyping this clerk like he was an escapee from Shady Acres, and in one breath, he proved what an idiot I was. And just like I stereotyped him, my biggest fear is that one day I'll be stereotyped by some young punk who thinks I'm the old, lame one. I smiled at the clerk and we talked video games all the way to the front of the store.

That guy doesn't realize it, but he didn't just sell me a video game. At the price of being a little humbled, he sold me my optimism back. I don't need a video game to prove my youth and I don't need a box set proving that I'm out of touch. I just need to be me, period. Now excuse me, I've got a guitar solo to go wail on.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

COLUMN: Organization

The problem with being a published columnist is that sometimes, when you least expect it, it goes to your head. No, I don't mean that I walk with pride or that I get a big head about things (my head, incidentally, is big enough on its own. When I was in marching band, they had to custom make my XXXL hat. I'm neanderthal-skulled, apparantly.)

But because some of you people graciously take time out of your week to read my silly column, occasionally I get the notion that I am capable of having intelligent ideas and making smart decisions on my own. This, clearly, is not the case -- and recent events have proven it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Here's the scenario. You guys know that I'm a bit of a music nerd, right? I live in constant fear for the well-being of the spritely old man who lives in the apartment below mine, because I'm pretty sure that I'm about one Jay-Z album away from my floor collapsing under the weight of my record collection alone. When people ask me if I'm planning for the future, I'm not lying when I tell them that all my money's invested in CD's.

Anyways, a couple years back, I stumbled onto a free treasure trove of vinyl records. It's a long story, but basically they were leftovers from an estate sale that were en route to a dumpster when I intervened. They didn't know what they were in the process of throwing out, as the collection held some of the greatest and most priceless dance and club tracks of the past thirty years. For a part time DJ like me, it was akin to winning the lottery. The problem is, winning the actual lottery would've been a lot easier.

See, we're talking about roughly 4000 records. Add that to my EXISTING collection and stick it all in my tiny one-bedroom apartment, and you start to see the trouble. I now have records in every nook, cranny, and crawlspace that my humble abode offers.

Here's where my two-pronged stupid idea comes into play. Idea #1: "You should really catalog these records, Shane, so you know what you've got." On the surface? Smart idea. Insurance needs a record of these records, and I need to be able to pull out a list the size of an encyclopedia in order to validate my pathetic life by shocking and awe-ing mere mortals who tragically exist without any all-consuming materialistic hobbies.

The reality, as it turns out, is that it's not so much fun to catalog 4000 records. Ergo I slacked on the project until about 8 months ago, when I was struck with Idea #2: "Pull out all the albums, put em in the middle of the bedroom, and you'll get so irritated you'll get it over and done with."

This is why I've slept on the couch for the past 8 months. My bedroom has turned into a wasteland for record albums and a giant scratching post for my cats. I needed to reclaim the bedroom, so I turned my final vacation of 2007 into a week-long effort to clean and organize my living space. Willpower vs. epic laziness: What would prevail?

SUNDAY - Got vacation off to a good start by going to Target and buying a new lamp and DVD player for the bedroom. My productivity level swells. Great things are afoot. I am a lean, mean work machine. I celebrate by giving myself Monday off.

TUESDAY - All prepped for a day of work, I stick in a Friends DVD and fire up the catalog program on my laptop. By night's end, I have cataloged 30 albums and watched 24 episodes of Friends. This is not the ratio to success.

WEDNESDAY - I catalog a couple hundred albums by noon and note that Drew Carey is a pretty crummy "Price is Right" host. I start to discover that under the piles of albums are piles of debris and dirty clothing from decades yore. As these are much less fun to organize than records, I give up and go club-hopping with friends of the lower-case F variety.

THURSDAY - As the bedroom gets tidier, the rest of my apartment goes south. Rather than tidying, I begin to realize I'm simply displacing junk from one room to another. I give up and go club-hopping by myself.

FRIDAY - My last proper day of vacation is spent with more upper-case Friends and cataloging the last album. Progress has been made, but it now looks like my apartment has been ransacked by the authorities.

SATURDAY - I pick up piles of clothes, wash them, realize I'm out of hangers, and throw them right back on the floor.

SUNDAY - I am the living heir to the throne of Pathos. I decide to kick back and wait for the health inspector to arrest me. Then I channel-flip into bad romance movie, "The Holiday." Sudden enlightenment. If Cameron Diaz and Jack Black and their astonishly bad acting skills can both find love and happiness in two hours, there's still hope for me. I buy hangers! I do laundry! I make a milkshake! (Hey, it sounded good.)

As I type, my apartment looks once again human. I can reach my bed. I can sleep in my bed. Life is good. Except my DVD's. Those should really be cataloged. I bet if I pull them all down...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

COLUMN: Scenic Drive

The Spoon River valley is truly a picturesque place in autumn. Waves of rolling hills sport leaves in the most majestic of fall colors. Country roads wind breezily through the bluffs, lazily guiding their occasional passengers from one historic town to the next. When the trees occasionally part, you're awarded with breathtaking views of the plains created by the hard-working Spoon and Illinois Rivers. Norman Rockwell and Grant Wood could only dream of capturing such beauty.

Sadly, there's no time for that. Not when elephant ears are a-wastin'.

I started obsessing about it weeks ago: The Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive. Annually one of the most ambitious festivals in Illinois, the Scenic Drive is put on by over a dozen communities in east central Illinois. For two weekends each October, the towns on the Drive fill with vendors, events, and activities for all ages.

When I was a kid, going on the Scenic Drive was one of the high points of the year. We'd pack the car up, set out in the wee morning hours, and drive from town to town, making it home sometime around sunset, bellies full and feet worn. But that's the thing about childhood memories -- the more time passes, the more diluted (or perhaps deluded) they become. Either that or the Drive's changed a tad since my glory days of youth.

I had wanted to go on the first weekend, but that was the Saturday it reached 95 out, and that's not Scenic Drive weather one bit. Scenic Drive should be breezy, chilly, and a bit overcast -- you know, the kind of weather where looking at gourds and drinking apple cider sounds pretty awesome. The second weekend did not disappoint.

With my friend Linn in tow, we set out for the heartland last Saturday in the wee afternoon hours (hey, no matter how much I may like something, it always turns out I like sleep more.)

Our first stop was Maquon, where my grandparents and great-grandparents used to live. I remember the Maquon town square as hustling with food and vendors. This year? A few tables of junk and a dude selling corn dogs out of a trailer. We tried to stop at the fire department, which always had the BEST food, but alas, they had already closed for the day. Given the meager attractions, though, Maquon still had quite the crowd of shoppers. And more than any of my other deflated childhood memories, that's what weirds me out the most.

I remember the Scenic Drive as a hustling epicenter of hand-crafted commerce where friendly, farm-fed folk would sell homemade knick-knacks and treasure troves of antiques. Now that I'm older, I realize what Scenic Drive really is: the mother of all garage sales.

I looked around the tables in Maquon with a wrinkled brow. This wasn't a treasure trove. This was junk, and lots of it. Some of these vendors were trying to sell stuff that I bet they found in their basements, or perhaps the family dog found while digging up a bone. Dirty, rusty debris. As long as it was old, it was fair game to put a price tag on. I was tempted to make a sign and sell off the mess in the back seat of my car. Surely there's a french fry that's bordering on antique status back there someplace.

I guess I'll never understand the lure of antiques. I'm just not one to dawdle in the past. I don't get the appeal of frilly, old, Victorian stuff. Sorry, but the way I see it, if a product was made 100 years ago that's NOT made now, it's because a NEW and BETTER product came out to replace it.

Antique furniture, for instance, may look all quaint and dainty, but try sitting in it. Your great-great-grandpappy may have carved it out of a tree himself, but I'll take my poofy, scientifically designed, ergonomically correct, space age polymer blend chair any day over that chiropractic nightmare. Plus I like the sleek look of modern design better anyways. I guess I won't be happy until my apartment looks like the set of "Barberella," and hey, THAT'S an antique now itself.

So forget the antiques. No, the one thing I was concerned about on Scenic Drive this year was finding myself an elephant ear. That's right, the death pastry itself. Take some dough, throw it in a deep fryer, glaze that puppy up with sweet icing, and I'm in heaven.

I finally found my elephant ear vendor in the tiny town of London Mills. When I saw that sign and marched up and ordered my elephant ear, I thanked God that it wasn't too late. As it turns out, I wasn't the only one. As the elephant ear merchant started to glaze up my pastry, he triumphantly, err, blessed it. No foolin'. He said, quote, "I shake this sugar in the name of our Lord."

Yes, I had found a fundamentalist elephant-ear maker. And hey, that's pretty cool in my book. Personally, I'd like to think that God might prefer it if I ate something a little more nutritious, but hey, my arteries could stand a blessing or two. It was a little kooky, sure, but also a little heart-warming to know that a guy's out there spreading cholesterol with a side dish of positivity.

Suddenly, the Scenic Drive made sense again. It's all about people getting together, having fun, and celebrating the changing season. I didn't need to have my elephant ear blessed. I was already blessed -- with great scenery, a great friend along for the ride, a great set of parents that I surprised with a visit on the way home, and a pretty doggone good life.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

COLUMN: Fall Sucks.

Ah, yes, a column which I would like to call:

WHY THIS FALL SUCKS: An Essay in 5 Parts.

1. THE WEATHER. Okay, so by the time you read this, it's supposed to be perfectly fall-like in nature outside. 60's, breezy, partly cloudy, etc. This would have been well and good -- in SEPTEMBER, when it's supposed to turn breezy and cool. Instead, as I write this, it's 92 degrees outside and I'm sitting with my a/c on blast.

If this is global warming, then okay, fine, Al Gore, you win. I'll start doing my part. I'll shut the water off while I'm brushing my teeth. Whatever I have to do. Because I like summer, but I also occasionally like summer to end.

Fall is my favorite time of year. I like walking through leaves. I like wearing a jacket. I like cuddling up around a campfire. None of this works in scalding weather. Mother Nature's already been wrecking my plans willy-nilly.

This weekend and last was the Spoon River Scenic Drive to the southeast. It's a festival that lures you in with the promise of fall scenery and then sells you funnel cakes and lemon shake-ups until you finally explode. If you somehow survive with your sanity, you likely do it with a hole in your wallet and a car full of knick-knacks, most of which are probably somehow made out of corn cobs. It's wacky and tacky fun, and my kinda fest.

But it's certainly not a 90+ degree outing. Mmm... the heat index is 102, I could sure go for a hot mug of apple cider. Yeah, not happening. Chicken and noodles? Chili? No way. So we cancelled plans and I stayed home and Grinched my way through what should have been a great roadtrip.

2. MY NOSE. On the other hand, staying inside might be a good thing. I don't know what's happening to the air outside this week, but I certainly know that I'm allergic to it. I don't normally have bad hay fever, but October has been a nightmare thus far. The other day, I woke up, blinked my eyes, and promptly sneezed... 37 TIMES. IN A ROW. Sneezes feel kinda good at first, but man, after 37 of 'em, I start to worry about busting an O-ring or something. My eyes are puffy, my sinuses are throbbing, and I'm living from Claritin to Claritin. Forget fall, I'm ready for all that ragweed to get buried under a foot or two of snow at this point.

3. THE CUBS. Okay, I'm the world's worst baseball fan. I don't think I've watched an MLB game since the Sox were in the World Series. Real Cubs fans probably want to kill me, and hey, rightfully so. But even us fair weather fans have to root for the perennial home state underdogs. It's one thing to place high hopes on a team that fails, but it's another altogether when that team chokes so bad that you start WISHING for a Steve Bartman to blame it on.

4. NASCAR. Yes, I know it's a character flaw that I love watching Nextel Cup racing, but I don't care. Despite the sane part of my personality, I inexplicably love NASCAR. But there's only a handful of races left, and then it's done for the year. Then what will I do with my Sundays? I've already tried looking out the window and watching cars turn left, but somehow it's just not the same.

5. THE FALL SEASON. One thing I WON'T be doing to bide the time is watching network TV, because -- newsflash -- the new fall season reeks. Every year like clockwork, I get all excited about the new slate of shows coming to network TV. Then, every year like clockwork, I actually watch them. Bad move. When my choices start to become "Hmm, do I watch the Geico cavemen or the bionic woman," that's when it's time to choose C: none of the above. As opposed to CSI: None of the Above, which will probably be coming NEXT fall.

I mean, seriously -- there's a new show on TV this year about a guy who's a private investigator by day, VAMPIRE BY NIGHT. Are you kidding me? The collective braintrust of network execs couldn't come with a better premise than that? What's next? A heartwarming sitcom about a yeti who babysits 3 precocious kids? Actually, I wanted to give the vampire show a chance, but only because it's got that Jason Dohring kid in it who was fantastic in Veronica Mars. But now every time I see him on the vampire show, it just reminds me what a BETTER show Veronica Mars was, and if it hadn't been cancelled last year we could be enjoying its fourth season right now, and... and...

I'm officially saying it: Bah humbug. In October. That's a new record. I'm gonna go pout in bed. Somebody wake me up when winter gets here.

Friday, October 05, 2007

COLUMN: Assembly

A friend of mine and I were joking the other day about how I should use my column as leverage to go to places in town that I've always wanted to check out -- you know, exotic locales where the general public isn't allowed, like the top of the Kone tower, or a security camera room aboard one of the casinos, or even the creepy old house that sits atop the 25th St. hill in Rock Island. Those are places I've always wanted to see first-hand (and wouldn't say no if the opportunity presented itself *cough*).

Yet even without the help of my column, I still occasionally find myself in the oddest of places. Take last Friday, for example, when I went somewhere I never thought I'd go again: high school.

Not MY high school, mind you. That's all the way down in Galesburg, and trust me, there's enough bad adolescent karma there to crush my soul and re-open the wounds of puberty seven-fold. But I DID, however, get to pop in to Rock Island High's fieldhouse for their homecoming assembly last week.

You guys know that I moonlight as a DJ on the side, right? Well, the Rocky High cheerleaders came to me a few weeks ago all sad-puppy-eyed and desperate, and asked if I'd mix the music for their homecoming routine. All of this in exchange for some homemade cookies. I'm such a sucker. Plus I'm still waiting for those cookies (*double cough* Am I getting sick?)

Since I knew a few of the adults on-hand, I figured I'd pop my head in and see for myself exactly what I'd spent the last few weeks soundtracking. And right off the bat, it was odd.

Arriving early, I walked in to a near-empty gymnasium and found some of my age-appropriate friends already staking out prime bleacher real estate. I clumsily plopped down next to them, and instantly started worrying about how NOT to lose a car key out of my pocket and into the dark recesses of Bleacher Netherland. Man, I'm becoming an old fuddy-duddy.

Then a bell rang and it happened. Students began filing in out of nowhere like livestock, and it hit me. Every high school neurosis I had ever had. Wham. Sherman and Mr. Peabody had set the wayback machine to 1987. Years may change, but high school pep assemblies remain the same.

There was the slightly befuddled yet clearly respected principal type, asking over and over again for the kids to quiet down. There were the ragged-looking teachers, who were obviously not having the time of their lives shepherding their classrooms into some form of organized seating.

There was gossip. In case you care, from what I heard over my right shoulder, someone named Keisha is totally getting played by someone named Dre, who is "straight trippin' even though he fiiiine."

Then there was the Rocky alma mater song. Okay, YES I know that I'm sure it's a sacred tradition I should respect, and YES it was probably written by some famous historical Rock Islander who was a great person, and YES the Rocky choir did a fantastic job tackling it. But MAN, what a downer of a tune.

I couldn't quite make out the lyrics, partly due to the gym acoustics, partly due to the continuing saga of Keisha and Dre, but I'm pretty sure it was something like: "Alma mater, alma mater, we mourn this dirge for thee/In crimson and gold we drape our dead/Hi de li de dee."

Okay, I'm just kidding. Please don't send me hate mail. It had real words which were probably touching and poetic. But at a pep assembly, I just wanted something, well, peppy. Maybe it could be reworked to the music of "Hey Hey We're the Monkees" or something. I'm just sayin'. All I know is that when a kid behind me spiced it up with a little beatboxing to the chuckles of his fellow students, I had to stifle a laugh myself.

But on the whole it was a great assembly. It was neat to see the Rocky cheerleaders do their thing to music I helped make. And it was neat to see such fantastic school spirit from the whole student body. It turned out we were sitting in the sophomore section, and the sophomores went on to win the spirit contest at the expense of the remaining shards of my eardrum.

"School spirit" is a weird concept, isn't it? When we're IN school, we're told that it's important to have. But why? Does it translate to the real world? Has anyone ever gone, "Well, you got a 10 on your ACT and you've got a 1.2 GPA, but you've got school spirit so WELCOME TO HARVARD!" But maybe it IS important to have spirit in everything you do. Maybe we need pep assemblies in the real world, like here at the paper. Our publisher could tell us all to quiet down, then we could have a spirit contest between the writers and the sales staff, and I could finally be elected Homepaper King!

Or maybe I'm just an old no-fun-nik and it's NOT 1987 all over again. After all, I scanned the seats but never saw MY high school clique anyplace: the outcasts. Where were the kids in black turtlenecks and Joy Division t-shirts making crass comments about lack of individualism and people behaving like sheep? I saw not ONE kid sticking it to The Man. I just saw a school full of spirit and having a blast.

Maybe that's what pep assemblies are all about. All I know is that -- even though I remain a Silver Streak by birthright -- I high-fived a stranger when I saw on the news that the Rocks crushed Quincy in the big game.

Friday, September 28, 2007

COLUMN: Crockpot

When you're a single, aging, chubby, nerdtastic man-boy such as myself, moments of sheer ego-boosting don't come often. And when those fleeting moments DO occur, you've got to cherish them and ride that ego wave for as long as you possibly can. which is why I don't need to apologize before telling you all about how TOTALLY SUPER AWESOME I am.

I achieved something this weekend. Something I've never been able to pull off before. Something that I'll be patting myself on the back over for weeks to come. To the average person, it's probably nothing. It's probably going to be a huge anti-climax. It's probably going to cause that one dude to make his "IS THIS NEWS?" comment when this column runs online. But I don't care. I did it and I'm proud.

I... cooked dinner.

And here's the kicker: It was good. Like, REALLY good. Like, friends-asked-me-for-the-recipe kinda good. This may seem like no big deal to you, but for a culinary moron like me, it's nothing less than an epic moment of achievement.

It's not like I have any particularly deep-seeded ethical conflicts with my kitchen appliances or anything. It's just that -- as a single guy with a surplus of jobs, activities, and laziness aplenty -- cooking takes up waaaay too much time. First you have to cook the food. Then you have to clean it all up. And THAT is why Pizza Hut is on my speed dial.

I actually enjoy cooking when the mood hits. But since I make my own meals 0.0001% of the time, I'm incompetent at it. Among my many misdeeds:

- Making spaghetti in a hot pot. Call it a learning experience. Call it a science experiment. Call it time to buy a new hot pot, because whatever substance the spaghetti transfigured itself into lines the walls of that hot pot to this day.

- Frying bacon in a pot. Hey, my only skillet was busy with instant pancakes at the time, so I figured "what-the-hey" and threw some bacon into a pot -- whereupon it shriveled up into a series of grease-coated bacon death-balls.

- Baking a cake. Once on a dare, I decided to pull out the craziest cake recipe I could find and try to make it for a Food Day here at work. The finished product never made it to Food Day, but it could have served as a formidable blunt weapon and/or doorstop quite well.

But recently I discovered my problem. I was merely using the wrong appliances. Stoves, ovens, mixers -- all these do is exascerbate my culinary ineptitude. Why bother learning how to use these energy-wasting and skill-requiring implements when modern science has provided us bachelors with the ultimate cooking tool.

I speak, of course, of mankind's greatest creation: the crock pot.

Crock pot cooking is DEFINITELY more my speed. Throw some stuff in, switch the thing on, go watch a NASCAR race and some football, and a mere 8 to 10 hours later, din-din is served. Nerds especially dig the ease and creativity of crock-pots. If you don't believe me, type "crock pot recipes" into Google and enjoy the 2,370,000 results. If they sell it in a grocery store, you can probably melt it in a slow cooker with a gob of Velveeta and some soup mix and turn it into Bachelor's Delight.

Still, I find myself not using my crock pot as much as I thought I would. I guess I tend never to know what I want 8 hours prior. When I wake up in the morning, I have a hard enough time picking breakfast cereal, let alone what I might fancy eating 10 hours down the road. So the crock pot sits most the year gathering dust. I don't know what force of nature caused me to pull it down on Sunday, but I'm so glad I did.

I found some red potatoes and threw 'em in. Added some baby carrots. Plonked in a can of condensed Cream of Chicken Soup. Then I cut up four round steaks, topped it off with a cup of red wine and a packet of pot roast seasoning. I was terrified as it was slow-cooking away, since (a) even I know that beef and chicken together isn't normal, but it was the only Cream-Of soup I had, and (b) for the first 3 hours, it smelled like I was making wine soup.

But I'll tell you what, the end result was GREAT. Try it yourself and tell my ego that it's wrong. Okay, sure, maybe I cheated with some canned soup and a seasoning packet, but I don't care. It was tasty and hearty and it came from MY kitchen. So who knows, maybe there's hope for me yet. But fear not, restaurants of Rock Island -- unless I finally figure out how to slow cook up a pepperoni pizza, you're not rid of me quite yet.

Friday, September 21, 2007

COLUMN: Defrost

Congratulate me, Quad Cities. It's only taken 150 columns worth of effort, but I have finally had a moment of pure self-improvement. Yes, a fleeting glimpse at what my life would be like were I a pro-active human being and not the lump-o'-lard couch potato of reality. And it didn't take me pouring my heart out in a column, it didn't take one iota of soul-searching. It just took me getting sick.

There's nothing ickier than a summer cold, and I just got over a doozy of one. I was working on a draft of what would eventually become last week's column when -- achoo! -- the rapid-fire sneezing started and I knew I was doomed.

That reminds me -- do you know what my biggest pet peeve ever is? People who hold their sneezes in. There are girls who I work with who, when they sneeze, make dainty little noises like this: "Fft." "Fft." When I sneeze, I go like this: "WHAFLAAAARGHL!" If I tried to "fft" my sneezes, I'd most certainly rupture my eardrums and quite possibly pop my eyeballs right on out of my head. Doesn't it HURT to hold in a sneeze? Sneezing feels GOOD. It's your body's way of going, "BEGONE FOUL GERMS!" Don't be afraid to let the sneezes loose, folks, that's all I'm sayin'. We won't think less of you. But I digress.

So this nightmare of a cold arrives like an unwanted relative and sets up camp for a week. And then I screw up and do what I ALWAYS do: over-react and immediately call in sick to work. This is a habitually dumb move, because it always takes about 2 days for the worst bits of a cold to hit, and I invariably jump the gun. Still, I called in more of a courtesy to my co-workers than anything else. The last thing any of them wants is sniffly little me showing up to WHAFLAAAARGHL all over the department like a walking, talking biohazard.

Instead I stayed home. And turned on the TV to what can only be described as catastrophically bad viewing options. This is my least favorite part of being home sick: While a get-out-of-work-free card sounds positively wonderful, the reality is that my apartment can be FAR more boring than the workplace, and within an hour, I've developed cabin fever on top of my ACTUAL fever. So I sat around and stewed for awhile. All this did was turn my thoughts into a running monologue of "I hate being sick. I hate being sick." I couldn't take it any more. I needed to take my mind off feeling icky.

I stood up. I looked around. And then, out of sheer boredom and desperation, I started (gasp) cleaning.

First I re-alphabetized all my CD's (don't laugh, I'm such a music nerd that this is a FIVE HOUR process.) Then I alphabetized my DVD's. Then I figured it was time for an orange juice break, so I opened the fridge in search of some Vitamin C deliciousness.

"Hey," said Mr. Moldy Burrito, "Enough with the lights. Some of us are trying to decay in peace here!"

Well, maybe he didn't say that. But he sure did smell that. Being a single guy who lives (and will probably one day die) by the hand of fast food, refrigerator upkeep is NOT one of my strong suits. There's always some beverages in there, always a pizza box or two, and what's left is invariably an ugly collection of mustards, jellies, and forgotten leftovers, usually covered in the sort of mold that could likely either kill mankind or save mankind. I leave those answers to science.

It was at that moment I remembered buying ice cream the day before. I know that ice cream isn't on the recommended diet of the ill and infirm, but I had a craving. A little nibble wouldn't hurt anything, right? So I dug in and grabbed a spoonful to find the ice cream (a) mushy, and (b) tasting a tad bit like Mr. Moldy Burrito.

Enough was enough. There's a fine line between messy and, well, gross, and the fridge had crossed the line. Cold be damned, it was time for action. I stood there and cleaned out the whole thing. The ice cream was mushy because my freezer had collected so much ice that the door wouldn't even shut right, so after I cleaned, I defrosted.

Problem was, I didn't just have ice in my freezer. I had tremendous, global-warming-solution-sized icebergs. So imagine me standing there literally for HOURS: a pot of boiling water in one hand, a blow dryer in the other, Kleenex shoved up each nostril, Vicks smeared on my chest, doing my best to conquer both an ugly cold and an ugly, not-so-cold refrigerator at the same time.

But you know what? It really WAS a proud moment. Two weeks have passed, I feel much better (though I still managed to infect several co-workers off sick as I type this,) and my refrigerator looks and works a million times better. Maybe I WILL get the hang of this bachelor life one of these days. Let's just hope it doesn't take the flu to do it.

Monday, September 17, 2007

COLUMN: Randy, Pt. 2

I know this is supposed to be the "dog days of summer," but I never thought I'd get to live them so literally. The plot thus far, if you happened to read last week's column: Shane finds a small hapless terrier puppy in his parking lot. Shane takes dog to the pound. Owner pulls a no-show. Shane adopts dog and, for reasons unknown, names him Randy.

Here's the thing, though. I can't really have a dog. I work two jobs and I'm just not home enough. Plus, the vet told me that this puppy could put on up to 40 more pounds, which would be highly problematic in my already cramped abode. And any hopes I had of keeping a dog were dashed right away by my feline roommates.

The night I found the dog and took him to the pound, I returned home coated in dog hair and walked in to my apartment. As usual, my cats came barreling out from the bedroom. But this time it was different. Both of them came to a screeching halt. Sniff. Sniff. Hair goes up on their backs, and they made a slow, slinky retreat to the bedroom. They knew. And if I wasn't sure, I woke up the next morning to find the hair-covered shirt removed from the laundry basket and relocated to the middle of the living room. They knew, and they were NOT amused.

This is where my friend Linn comes in. I'll say it in print right now: Linnea Crowther is the most awesome person on the planet ever.

Why? Because Linn turned her Moline house into a foster home for Randy and did most of the legwork in finding him a good home. Linn deserves far more than a simple shout-out in the paper, but for now, this'll have to do.

It's fun to watch puppies learn new things. For instance, on Day 1, Randy discovered that he had teeth -- and he could use those teeth to bite, well, pretty much anything: hands, feet, shoes, sticks, and even large portions of a defenseless wooden patio. But his favorite thing to nibble on? Toby, Linn's sweet old-timer of a dog. Toby's as big as a house and as nice as they come, and was surprisingly patient in dealing with a puppy who spent most of his waking moments trying to turn Toby mental.

On Day 2, Randy discovered his nether-region, and spent the better part of the day doing his own version of the Humpty Dance with anything in sight. THIS is where Toby drew the line, and understandably so.

Still, Randy was a great puppy. When he wasn't traversing the yard humping or biting everything in sight, he was underfoot or licking your face or curled up in a ball on one of our laps, making us say words like "awww" and "lookit" far more times than I'm personally comfortable with. We didn't just need to find him a home, we needed to find him an awesome home. I ran an ad in the paper and we whittled our way through potential candidates.

I was suddenly going from Shane Brown, Dog Owner to Shane Brown, Adoption Advocate. There's no worse situation to be in than having to decide between a bunch of potentially great dog-owners. Finding Randy a great home was a mission, and part of that mission meant having to disappoint some folks, and I never want to be in that position again.

One family sounded great on the phone, and we scheduled a time for them to stop by and have a look-see. Of course, this was the day Randy had started teething and was thus gnawing on everything until he was bleeding from his gums. It was also the same day we discovered he'd caught kennel cough from his brief stint in dog jail. So, as if on perfect cue, the family shows up to look at the dog that we had promised them was cute as a button... to find Randy running around at warp speed, hacking and bleeding. Then Toby, who had the misfortune to be a white dog, saunters up COVERED in blood from Randy's gums. Suffice to say, it was NOT a love connection. It was more like an outtake from Cujo.

Eventually, though, we found Randy a PERFECT new life with a wonderful family out in Edgington. 4 kids, a beautiful house, a huge yard, and all the love and attention this dog could ever want. Plus I saw copies of our papers in their recycling bin, so they passed the first test.

I must admit, though, that when we brought Randy out to them, I noticed a Fred Thompson support sticker and a Rascal Flatts CD, meaning that Randy's new family are Republicans AND country music fans. Little do they know that in the two weeks we had him, Randy became a lifelong Democrat with a distinct affinity for indie rock. But we'll keep that our little secret.

Oh, and from what I've heard, Randy is becoming Sammy, but I can live with that. I had initially hoped that my folks would take the dog, and if that had happened, he'd be cursed with a name like Snooky or Pookums by now. Besides, the new owners have promised to send us photos and updates so that Linn and I can watch our little foster child grow up.

So here's to you, Randy-Sammy. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, September 14, 2007

COLUMN: Randy Pt. 1

This column's gonna be a quick one, folks. This is the first moment of peace I've had in two weeks, and I simply don't want to spend it in front of a laptop. I've just been through one of the most stressful times in my life -- and, as usual, it's all Taco Bell's fault.

See, if it wasn't for the irresistable lure of the Gordita Supreme, I wouldn't have headed out to my car that night at midnight. And if I hadn't walked out of my apartment that night, I never would have met Randy.

I saw him standing there right away. I'm not prone to dealing with strangers in my parking lot at midnight, so I tried not to make eye contact. In fact, even though he was obviously making a bee line for my car, I ignored him and drove off to Taco Bell. But fifteen minutes later, when I returned, he was still there loitering in the parking lot. I had no choice - I had to deal with him. I tried to step out of my car, but I didn't have a chance. As soon as I opened the door, Randy jumped on my lap and started licking my face.

It's been well established in these pages that I am proudly a cat guy. I'm incredibly lazy and cats are incredibly low maintenance, and that symbiotic relationship is the only way I can relate to a pet. But when a lost terrier puppy hops into one's car and starts licking one's face, you can't help but fall in love.

I took the little guy in, gave him some food, and called the cops. I practically couldn't bear handing him over to animal control, but my cat-dominated apartment was ill-equipped for a dog on the premises, and besides, surely this puppy had an owner out there deeply concerned.

The next day, I put an ad in our Lost & Found section and waited for a call from the dog's grateful owner, who was likely roaming the streets of Rock Island in a sleepless daze looking for their awesome puppy. But the call never came. I couldn't believe it.

Animal control holds dogs to try and find their owners for a week -- and for that entire week, I couldn't shake the pup from my mind. I was hoping they were taking good care of him. I was hoping he wasn't mad that his new friend had sent him straight to dog jail. But as the week progressed with no owner in sight, I started having thoughts that surprised even me.

Could I raise a dog? It's not as if I've had no experience with dogs. I grew up in a dog-friendly home. When I was a kid, we always had some kind of little yip dog in the house. But could I cope with the trials and tribulations of dog-owning? As much as I love my mom, the dogs she raised always seem to turn into spoon-fed social maladjusts -- their last dog would break out in "stress bumps" every time it got upset, and their current dog gets pancreatitis every time it sees its shadow. Would this dog befall the same fate? And could I cope with it? The potty walks? The baths? The vet bills? What if I wanted to go out of town for a weekend? Pets are fun, but dogs are responsibilities.

Still, every time I had a blank thought that week, it was filled with images of this puppy sitting sadly in the pound. Now, the truth of the matter is that this dog is SO friendly, it probably was having the time of its life in that kennel. But my mind painted the picture of one of those impossibly huge-eyed sad dogs you see in velvet paintings, and by the end of the week, I'd made my decision: I was getting this dog.

So I went to the pound to spring him from the clink. I had a few questions, though. How old WAS he? Three months, they guessed. Wow, he really WAS just a puppy. Was this dog done growing? Nope, thought the vet. They estimated he could still put on up to 40 more pounds.

I ignored it at the time, but upon hearing that, I knew I had a change of heart. I MIGHT be able to have a little tiny thing in my apartment, but a fifty pound dog? My cats would never forgive me. My apartment's barely big enough for me, let alone a dog that could grow up to be a third my size. Still, I had made up my mind to spring him from the joint, so I ponied up the dough and adopted him -- but did so in order to find him a perfect home.

Step one, though, was picking a name, even if it was destined to be temporary. I thought it would be funny to have a dog with a common name. My friends and I considered Eric, Tim, and Doug, before settling on... Randy. Yep, Randy the Dog. And a few days later, when Randy discovered his own nether-region and what exactly he could, umm, DO with it, I realized the name was appropriate.

But more on that next week. Right now, I just need a nap.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Anatomy of a Trainwreck: The 2007 VMA's

Discussion points on the annual trainwreck that is MTV's Video Music Awards. This year, though -- the show's first stint in Vegas where they, in true MTV style, rented out the entire Palms hotel -- was tremendously MORE of a trainwreck than previous years:

* First off, cutting the show from 3 hours to 2 yet NOT cutting back the # of "featured entertainers." Bad move. We'll get into that later.

* The Pre-Show:

1) Dear John Norris, WHY DO YOU EXIST? Sincerely, The Earth. Really, is there anyone creepier than the aged MTV news guy who you NEVER see except trying to lamely host the pre-show coverage for one of these award atrocities? Look, John Norris was annoying 15 years ago when his sole job seemed to be filling air time while Kurt Loder went potty. A decade on, he's now rocking dyed hair and what appeared to be EYE SHADOW? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Ick, please go away.

2) Let's put the red carpet on the casino floor of the Palms? Whose bright idea was this? The whole thing just looked like a hot mess. Nobody appeared to have room to move, twirl, or suck up appropriately to the paparazzi. And on camera, it just looked like human chaos.

* BRITNEY. Oh, dear. I mean, really. Look, I'm not going to wax poetic about Britney Spears' troubles of late. We all know what a horrific year she's had, right? But you know the best thing about pop culture? It is hopelessly FORGIVING. If Britney truly wanted to resurrect her career, all she had to do was show up, dance sexy, lip sync, and be her sluttily charming self, and all would have been forgiven. Instead, we got bizarro half-a**sed Britney. Well, if ONLY her a** was half. Instead, it was like a doublewide. Look, I'm a big guy, I know what it's like to be chunky and flabby. I, however, hide it appropriately in baggy pants and oversized t-shirts. Britney, on the other hand, decided to shake her thang wearing little more than a moist towelette. And her thang was a tad too big for that kinda skimpily-clothed shakin'. Add to that her barely-trying dance moves and why-even-bother lip syncing, and what do you get? CAREER SUICIDE. It's over, girl.

* Sarah Silverman. Wow, don't you think MTV was setting Britney up for failure by bringing out Sarah Silverman directly afterwards? Sarah Silverman who earns a living by making the kind of crass, off-color, offensive, hurtful jokes that can instantly wreck a person? The thing is, though, usually Sarah Silverman's funny as hell. Tonight, though, she was just a mess. A couple potshots at Britney that were such low blows that she lost both the crowd AND her timing all at once. It was an ugly crash-and-burn.

* The Neutrogena Party Suite, or whatever it was called. Apparantly Neutrogena, a major sponsor of the show, had some kind of contest where you could win a trip to the VMA's. But instead of actually going to the SHOW, these poor contest winners appeared to be sealed in a hotel suite at the Palms with a food tray, DJ, and karaoke machine, with TV's to watch the event going on above and below them. And Neutrogena kept paying for these ad spots where they broadcast live from this Empty Funless Room of Despair, as if these kids were a part of the action. Granted, the 5 or 6 kids sealed in this room looked like they were having FAR more fun than the people at the ceremony itself, so maybe there's something to be said for Neutrogena. Besides, their room was hosted by Heroes starlette Hayden Panetierre, and there are few other people I'd ever want to be trapped in a hotel suite with. So maybe they really WERE the night's big winners after all.

* So the award show was splintered off two ways. First, you had the main event in the Palms grand ballroom or whatever. But at the same time, 4 of the suites in the hotel were holding "private" shows -- one hosted by Fallout Boy, one by the Foo Fighters, one by Kanye West, and the last, dubbed the "Southern Hospitality" suite, co-hosted by Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. Each of these suite parties looked like a pretty decent time and chock full of great performances... TOO BAD MTV DIDN'T SHOW ANY OF THEM. As a result of basically 5 events going on simulteanously, the network tried to cram coverage by going, "Alright, now let's check in on the Kanye West suite." The cameras would then take us to the suite, where we'd join whatever song was occurring live in progress, get to watch for about a minute, then *poof* coverage returns back to the main room, where there decidedly was NOT a party going on. There was some seriously cool stuff going on in those suite performances. At one point, they send things up to the Foo Fighters room and join the band in mid-song. What's NOT noted, though, is that Pat Smear, who used to play guitar for the band in their early days, was onstage with the guys. That's a pretty monumental occurence, and if you weren't paying careful attention, you wouldn't have even noticed. Guests were omnipresent in the rooms. Gym Class Heroes and Rihanna joined Fallout Boy; Cee-lo, Lemmy from Motorhead, and Serge from System of a Down joined the Foo Fighters; Soulja Boy was performing with Kanye; TI and 50 Cent were onstage with Justin & Timbaland. Heck, one time they cut to the Foo Fighters party and the Foos were nowhere to be seen, it was Queens of the Stone Age playing! And all we got to see was scattered minutes of what may have been legendary performances (with vague promises from MTV that their website would have highlights from the suites that didn't make the show.) WEAK.

* Whoever did the seating arrangement for the main party needs to be fired, like, NOW. From what it looked like on TV, fans were either relegated to the back of the main ballroom or were up in one of the 4 party suites, leaving the artists on the main stage to play to what appeared to be a room full of bored record executives. Seriously, no one seated at any of the front tables looked younger than 35. That's not a way for MTV to market themselves. As a result, NO performances got the crowd hype necessarily to make them legendary.

* Chris Brown. Okay, the kid can dance. Like, really, in a jaw-dropping sorta way. But he went to the Britney Spears School of Less-Than-Great Lip Syncing as well. What happened to at least having a live mic to augment the pre-recorded vocals? Even though it was impressive dancing, the whole thing felt like mime without even pretending to sing live. And, inexplicably, in the middle of his performance, Rihanna pops out to do a verse of "Umbrella." And she was singing live. Now, there's a remix of "Umbrella" out there that features Chris Brown, so I was naturally expecting him to do his verse. Nope. It was just a disjointed Rihanna cameo that made NO sense in the set.

* I really don't want to, but I totally like that new Linkin Park song.

* Alicia Keys. Let me get juvenile for a second... WHEN DID ALICIA KEYS GET THAT BOOTY? She took to the stage with a J. Lo sized posterior that seemed to magically have grown out of nowhere. Like, can you get butt implants? That said, Alicia Keys is a TRUE performer and was definitely the highlight of the televised performances, even if she DID bust out a Wham cover (?!?!)

* According to Jennifer Garner, the Best New Artist of the Year is someone called "Gym Class Fallout." If only they existed...

* Apparantly, the highlight of the show happened prophetically during a commercial break, when Tommy Lee and Kid Rock got into a slugfest, presumably over the love of leather-skinned, hepatitic Pammy Anderson. Now seeing THAT woulda been worth my time. Oh, and MAD props to Diddy for his "please stop the violence in rock and roll" ad-libs -- that was THE best moment of the night, and vindication for every hip-hop artist in the audience.

* The awards themselves. Okay, so the MTV Video Music Awards never had THAT much credibility in the first place. I mean, who decides who wins? The marketing dept. at MTV? It's NEVER been explained. But, still, they used to at least go through the motions. This year, the awards were such an afterthought that they followed trend with their movie awards and just started making up stupid categories for the awards. It was like somebody at MTV thought, "Hmm, we should give Justin an award, so let's make a category called 'Most Totally Awesome Performance By A Former Boyband Member Whose Last Name Rhymes With Bimberlake'!" It was ridiculous. The categories were literally that lame.

* What happened to the Video Vanguard award? Or Director of the Year? I suppose there's no point, especially considering MTV doesn't air videos anymore.

So congratulations, MTV, for your absolutely worst awards show to date. I thought it would be impossible to make the show worse than last year's, but hey, you pulled it off. Maybe next year, you should just do away with the awards altogether and call it what it is -- a badly thrown together excuse to get a bunch of celebrities to celebrate themselves.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Vanessa Hudgens Nude

...will not be found on this site.

But hey, since the entire male population is scouring the internet this weekend looking for her nudie pics, maybe it'll help my blog get some more hits. Yes, Virginia, I WILL sink to that level.

What IS this affliction plaguing young starlets of the world that compels them to think, "Hey, I know, why don't I get naked and take some embarassing sexy pics that would easily result in a career catastrophe were they to get in the wrong hands! [Insert temporary skeevy boyfriend here] would NEVER make those pictures public! He, like, totally loves me!"

And, more to the point, why has this affliction never touched Katie Holmes?

(Psst... besides, those pics of Vanessa Hudgens naked? They're totally crap.)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

COLUMN: Weekly World News

I love our newspapers, I really do -- and in more than an it-puts-food-on-the-table kind of way. It consistently blows my mind that I'm allowed to write about pretty much whatever suits my fancy every week -- and equally mind-blowing that occasionally you folks care enough to read it. Over the years, you've come to trust our company to provide you with the best daily news that our rag-tag team can muster, and I, for one, am humbled beyond words at the opportunity.

Too bad, then, that it's all a load of hooey.

As hard as we try, we're obviously lacking when it comes to the big picture. Sure, we bring you news, but it's usually just filler gobbeldygook. You know, insignifigant stuff like floods and murders and government and hog plants, yada yada. As well-intentioned as our newspapers may be, we just don't have the backbone to bring you the information that REALLY matters. Is it a conspiracy? Perhaps. After all, the Quad Cities DOES have its share of grassy knolls. But perhaps not -- because the same yellow-bellied fate befalls nearly every newspaper in the country.

Every newspaper, that is, except one. One publication out there with the guts to bring you the REAL news. The news that affects our lives on a cosmic scale. The news that no other paper has the guts to print. The news that could save your very life, especially if you're planning a vacation to the yeti-infested mountains of Nepal.

What, you ask, is this paper that puts us to shame? This bastion of knowledge, defender of truth, hope for the masses, and all-encompassing guide to the REAL whereabouts of Elvis? (Answer: Pluto.)

I speak, of course, of the heroic pinnacle of journalism known as The Weekly World News.

And, dear readers, it is with profound soundness and regret that I must inform you of its passing. Yes, last week marked the very last issue of the Weekly World News that you'll ever find in newsstands, bookstores, and -- most importantly -- next to the Wint-O-Green gum in checkout aisle #11.

I know what you're thinking. Some of you are probably convinced that The Weekly World News is nothing but a supermarket tabloid full of bogus stories and Photoshopped images dreamt up by a pack of punks that excelled in their college Creative Writing courses.

Well, THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT THE GOVERNMENT WANTS YOU TO BELIEVE. If you were a true reader of the Weekly World News, you would realize that, were EVERYONE to know that a race of alien vampire ninjas was thiiiis close to launching an attack, society would be crippled in fear. If you were to understand that the government was REALLY being run by a very-much-alive-thank-you John F. Kennedy and his close advisor, "slain" rapper Tupac Shakur, your faith in our nation would crumble.

And now, somehow, Someone (with a capital s) has seen to it that The Weekly World News is silenced forever.

My only advice to you brave souls? RUN. Run like the wind and be very, very afriad of EVERYTHING. The true horror is that -- without the trusty reporting of the Weekly World News -- by now, Bat-Boy could be anywhere.

It was in 1992 that the Weekly World News first discovered the half-human, half-bat hybrid living in an underground lair in Virginia. Despite the hubbub that must go hand-in-hand with Bat-Boy leading the police on a three-state car chase, the WWN was the ONLY press on top of the situation, as well as their crack team of investigative reporters who found out that Bat-Boy had enrolled in a small liberal arts college in upstate New York under the pseudonym Guy Fledermaus. In October of 2006, Bat-Boy was captured on film (by the Weekly World News reporters, natch) riding atop a New York City subway car.

Today? Without the keen reporting of the WWN, Bat-Boy could be anywhere. He could be right here in the Quad Cities. Wait -- what was that? Odd, I could swear I just heard flapping outside my window. Ah well, it's probably... nothing. OR WAS IT?

When I was a kid, my mom used to snag the WWN from my grandmother's coffeetable every week. And then like clockwork, I'd go in and snag it off my mom's nightstand a few days later. Why Mom didn't grab it off the rack and proudly present it to the supermarket cashier is beyond me. Well, she probably didn't want to tip off the government (or at least Tupac and JFK) that she was an Informed Reader. Too much knowledge can be dangerous. That's why she faked that she was embarassed to be seen with the WWN in her house every week - it was for MY SAFETY! Thanks, Mom!

And now, with the demise of the WWN -- officially attributed to a decline in circulation but we all who's really responsible (Bigfoot, and maybe Elvis) -- we now live in an uncertain time. Bat-Boys and yetis could be running around willy-nilly without a trace of documentation.

So, dear friends, I vow that at least one humor-columnist-who-likes-to-pretend-he's-a-reporter will remain vigilant. Sleep easy, Quad Cities, for I will maintain a constant journalistic lookout for Bat-Boys and assorted Elvi aplenty. The Weekly World News may be gone, but true journalism remains. Well, at least until the vampire alien ninja uprising begins.