Tuesday, January 30, 2007

COLUMN: Ethics

Sometimes doing the right thing stinks.

As a general rule, my moral compass usually swings in the direction of being a namby-pamby do-gooder. "Bravo," you say. "That's the proper way to live, Shane."

Whatever. Frankly, I'm beginning to think that “doing the right thing” might be a touch over-rated.

Let me explain. A few months ago, I wrote a column in which I name-dropped a local business. I can barely recall the column, but I DO know it wasn't an intentional endorsement on my part. While it's true that I definitely respect this establishment and shop there frequently, I wasn't trying to advertise the joint. I was just telling a story, and that story happened to involve this particular place.

In other words, it wasn't a big deal, which is why I was taken aback when the manager of said business called the other day. It turns out they really liked the piece I wrote, so much so, that they offered me a boatload (OK, maybe just a carload) of free merchandise as a thank-you ... with the unspoken understanding that perhaps I might feel inclined to name-drop the store again in a future column.

I was stunned. My mouth said, "I'll have to get back to you," but I couldn't tell you the part of my brain that was speaking. Wait, no, actually I CAN tell you. It was the part of my brain that likes STUFF. And especially FREE STUFF.

I complain all the time in these pages about my loveless, tedious bachelor status, but there really is one pretty good perk to it all. While you, Random Mature Person, probably have to spend your hard-earned money on houses and kids and having a life, I get to blow my limited income on gadgets, gizmos and assorted useless junk.

You might be saving for college funds or mini-vans. I, on the other hand, went to Toys-R-Us and bought all the Lost action figures this week. (Only because chicks dig guys with action figures, of course. That and the little Locke dude comes with a plastic machete, and that's pretty sweet.)

I digress. Suffice to say, I'm shallow enough to really like STUFF. And this guy was offering a whole BUNCHA stuff! All I had to do was compromise my journalistic integrity and plug his store a few times. How hard could that be? Why hadn't I realized this before?

Could it be that my weekly drivel actually can INFLUENCE consumers? Could businesses really be affected by insignificant little ME name-dropping them in a column? And most importantly, could I thusly use my column to become a corporate shill in order for every local business under the sun to call me and give me free stuff?

This brings me to my next point, which is that Harris Pizza really IS the finest pizza in the world. The secret is their hand-tossed dough, you know. I go there frequently in my trusty Volkswagen New Beetle. Volkswagen: We Build Excitement. Or is that Pontiac? Who cares. All I know is that my newfound journalistic ethics can be summed up in one word: Fahrvergnugen.

Now gimme free stuff. Just kidding. Except that part about Harris -- it really IS the best pizza ever, even IF I have to pay for it.

Sigh. If only it were that easy. We can't accept gifts. It's company policy. Plus it's just plain wrong. The second I take the free stuff, I'm basically working for that company. Or what if I start endorsing Company X and then Company Y calls in all mad? It's just a can of worms I'd better not open.

But that little devil guy on my shoulder can sure be loud. After I got off the phone, I waited 10 minutes and then told my boss, just to ensure that I wouldn't be tempted to call the manager back and claim my booty. The I-LOVE-STUFF part of my brain can rationalize nearly anything given enough time.

But I rose above it. Once again I get to be the boring good guy without the apartment full of free stuff. How lame. So dear readers, it's your job to watch this space and make sure I don't fall into the evil trap of endorsements and journalistic payola. I vow to do my best, or my name isn't Shane Brown, The Official Humor Columnist of NASCAR. And if you're planning on bribing me in the future, you'd better bring your VISA card, because this year Shane Brown doesn't take American Express!

COLUMN: Directions

I've said it before, I'll say it again: I like the Quad-Cities. We're big-city enough to keep me occupied, and we're small-town enough to avoid hour-long commutes to work.

That said, though, there's one thing about the Quad-Cities that often brings a psychotic twitch to my right eyelid: out-of-town visitors.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I'm one of those sittin'-on-a-porch, suckin'-on-some-hay, "we don't cotton to strangers in these here parts, boy" types. I like it when friends from out of town come to visit.

The problem is simply GETTING THEM HERE.

There is nowhere on Earth more difficult to give driving directions to than the Q-Cs. Seriously. Right now there are probably Unabomber types living in shacks in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness who have an easier time giving their friends directions than I do.

Recently, a buddy from high school whom I hadn't seen in forever came up for a visit. Now, this guy's always been a little directionally challenged. My directions literally had to begin: "Exit your driveway, turn left."

But I'm a smart guy. I should be able to give no-nonsense, effective directions from Galesburg to here, right? But as I talked, I realized just how inane I was sounding:

"OK, so get on I-74, umm, west. You'll actually be going due north, but it's 74 west, OK? Then, an hour later, you'll want to exit onto, umm, I-74 west. Yeah, I know. Just do it.

"So you got off of 74 onto 74, right? Then go until you see the exit for ... (sigh) I-74. Yes. Yes. Take 74 to 74 to 74. To the left. Take it back now, y'all. Five hops this time. Five hops this time. Cha-cha now, y'all, and you're here."

The Quad-Cities is not made for the directionally disabled. First, you've got to circumnavigate that interstate loop. Then, once you get into town (any town), you've got to deal with the street names.

I've lived here for 20 years now, and I'm still not used to numbered streets. See, I come from Galesburg, where we have the logic and the sense to give our streets actual NAMES, not just numbers.

"But, Shane," you say, "numbered streets are so efficient! At any point, you'll know exactly how many blocks it is to where you need to be!"

That may be, unless you're like me and forget which street you're looking for in the first place because you can't remember whether it's 32nd or 35th or 38th, because they all sound the same. "I just knew it had a 3 in it. Maybe." And since that's not confusing enough, you've got streets like "38th Avenue Court A West" or whatever, which makes sense to the guy who programs OnStar and that's about it.

On weekends, I DJ at a club on 2nd Avenue in Rock Island. The only reason I know this is because the club is NAMED 2nd Ave. Otherwise, I'd just go, "You know. That one place. By the river. Kinda."

When I start getting cocky and swear I've got the numbers figured out, I drive from Rock Island to Moline and all the numbers inexplicably change. Fourteenth Avenue in Rock Island becomes 16th Avenue in Moline. And then, of course, 12th Avenue in Moline somehow turns into 30th Avenue in East Moline, and, hey, there's that twitch!

City leaders need to have some kind of peace accord -- perhaps Jesse Jackson could moderate -- wherein we simply make all street names between towns the same. "Heck, no!" say city leaders. "That'd take all the challenge out of day-to-day driving."

Look at Rock Island. City leaders recently discovered that one of their roads had a real name: Blackhawk. And Blackhawk Road took you from one end of town to the other, efficiently. That's a dangerous level of intelligence and logic, and it required a quick remedy. That's why, at great expense, to maintain the status quo of confusion, they have now taken Blackhawk Road and rerouted it to Milan. Whew! Thank you, Rock Island, I can sleep easier knowing that there's no longer a logical way to get from Point A to Point B.

Milan? Really? Do people, umm, WANT to go there? Now, no offense to you fine Milanians reading this now; I'm sure your town's lovely, but as far as I'm concerned, the day Showcase Cinemas closed was the day my Milan travels came to an abrupt end. But now Blackhawk Road wants to take me there. Unless, of course, I exit ... onto Blackhawk Road.

Grrr. Twitch.

I just need to come to terms with the fact that the Quad-Cities is a little backward in some areas. Don't tell me I'm wrong; there's a reason why the world's most famous north-south river decides to go east-west here. We're not normal.

And I wouldn't want it any other way.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

COLUMN: Talent

Otherwise known as The Most Controversial Column ever. Boy, is this a quick lesson on how one can TOTALLY botch something up. What's that you're thinking? That I've been over-run with hate mail from angry "Grease" fans? No such luck.

Instead, I've been getting mail from folks a little ticked off about my flippant usage of the word "crazy" in this column... and that, by this example, I must have very little empathy for those stricken or affected by mental illness.

Yikes. Obviously not my intention.

My first draft of this column was actually even worse. In that original column, I wanted to celebrate some of the colorful characters we've got here in the QCA -- from the guy who always asks you for exactly $.07 to the gentlemen known around Rock Island as "The Professor." IN NO WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM was I trying to make fun of these people... rather, to celebrate their impact on ALL of our lives.

The whole thing goes back about a year. There's a group on Myspace devoted to Quad Citizens... and a thread started on that message board about some of the more "eccentric" folks in town. I was honestly worried -- the last thing I wanted to read was a bunch of kids pointing and laughing at folks who are unfortunate and potentially unbalanced.

But the Myspace thread DIDN'T become a mockery of these folks... but rather a celebration. It was honestly pretty cool to see all these kids posting about these folks... because in their words, you could tell that they CARED. I mean, miracles don't happen, it's not like they actively assisting these people... but still, rather than mock, they revered. And, in a generation like ours, genuine feelings of compassion and sympathy don't show up too often. When it did on this thread, without any hint of name-calling or anything, I was touched. I really was.

So basically I wanted to do the same thing in the column. To tip my hat towards the eccentric characters that help define our community. To respect those folk out there who never get any credit. And, at the same time, point out the great double standard that, while our society frowns on making fun of eccentric (and, let's be honest, mentally ill) folks out there... we can always tune our dials to the Fox network and see similar eccentric folk being ruthlessly mocked by talent shows like "American Idol." It just upsets me. Period.

So I set out to write the epic column to celebrate our colorful cast of characters in town while simulataneously taking American Idol to task.

I failed. Egregiously.

My first draft of the column was summarily rejected by my editors for being "insensitive" (the exact thing I was trying to avoid.) But upon re-reading it, I realized that, yeah, it was crass beyond belief.

So I reworded it. And turned it in like you'll read below. And I still received a letter (a very SINCERE letter, not a bitch-fest or anything) from a local mental health volunteer who was upset at the piece. And I can't say I blame 'em. It was thoughtless journalism at its finest.

So... to anyone else who might take offense at this column, know that it wasn't intentional. Know that, were I a better writer, I could have picked my words a tad better. But hopefully cut through my awful writing and flippant usage of the word "crazy" and appreciate the point of the column, which is to point and laugh at "American Idol." Thanks for the understanding on this one, gang.

How did you spend your Sunday night? I could have been working on The Great American Novel. I could have been giving my time to charity. I could have been flirting with girls. Yet I, in my infinite wisdom, had a better idea.

That's right -- I watched the debut episode of "Grease: You're the One That I Want," otherwise known as Ninety Minutes I'll Never Get Back Ever Again.

What is it about oddballs that folks find so entertaining? I've never understood it. Heck, if I felt that way, I'd be a lot happier here in the Quad Cities. Let's admit it -- we've got our fair share of colorful characters around town.

Just because somebody's different, does that mean it's our duty to point and laugh? OF COURSE NOT. Why? Because making fun of people is ethically, morally, and intrinsically wrong, that's why. No matter how much the little devil guy on your right shoulder wants to go, "Whoa! Lookit THAT dude!", there's the little angel guy on your other shoulder letting you know that
ALL people are God's creatures and should be treated with as much dignity as you can afford.

So we've established that making fun of people is NOT COOL, right? So why is it that we shouldn't crack up at a guy wandering the streets talking to himself, but it's perfectly okay to bust out laughing at some nimrod auditioning for a talent show whose voice sounds like a cat being force-fed Pepto-Bismol?

If I had a nickel for every time someone's said to me, "I love 'American Idol,' but I only watch the first couple episodes with all the idiots auditioning," I'd have at least 90 cents, and hey, that's enough for one of those cinnamon rolls out of the vend-o-mat in the break room. Shows like
"American Idol," "Grease," "America's Got Talent," etc. have made cash cows out of horses asses.

It all started with the Godfather of Crazy: our boy William Hung. "Idol" auditions were tedious to watch until Willy came in with his whole She-Bang and changed television history. Now, instead of hoping to hear the next Kelly Clarkson, viewers are tuning in these talent shows to see the next trainwreck nutjob.

I haven't quite figured these people out, though they definitely fall into one of two camps. There are the people who are, in my opinion, authentic loons. The ones who come to these auditions thinking they're a step away from fame when they're in fact an octave away from making ears bleed. These are the true whackos, and it should be immoral to give them airtime, let
alone suffer through it.

Then there are the other folk. The ones who watched William Hung and realized that if they came out to the audition and acted as loony as possible, they could have a shot at freakshow stardom. These are the ones I REALLY worry about. I mean, from what I've seen, these auditions are a beast. "Idol" makes you wait in line for DAYS. Could you imagine being so
attention-starved that you'd be willing to stand around for 24+ hours just so you can make an spectacle out of yourself for 10 seconds on TV?

Where's the "fun" in that? What compels someone to want to look like a nimrod on national TV? And what does your 15 minutes of fame get you in the end? Maybe somebody on the street a month later going, "Hey, aren't you that bonehead who can't sing? The one who sucks?" Can THAT sort of interaction possibly be worth the effort?

The ones I feel most sorry for are the judges. After realizing that weirdos = ratings, the producers of these talent shows are letting more and more attention-seeking mouthheads into the top auditions. Every time I see somebody walk into an audition with the whole "whoa-look-at-me-I'm-craaazy" schtick, I hope and yearn for Randy Jackson to just step up and slug 'em in
the face.

Being an idiot can be fun sometimes, I'll admit it. Heck, I've even sung karaoke before, and let's just say no record reps were pulling out business cards. But being forced to WATCH someone trying to be fun by trying to be an idiot is just trying on my patience. Maybe I'm talent-showed-out. Maybe I really WILL find something better to do. All I know is that I'm skipping "Grease" AND "Idol" this year until both the real AND fake crazies are weeded out.

I get enough insanity in my life -- after all, I get C-Span.

Monday, January 08, 2007


I came to grips with yet another painful truth about my life this weekend. For the past two years, it's caused me to slowly descend down the shame spiral until I finally took a deep breath and confronted the ugly reality: I was living my life in lo-definition.

I really like television. More specifically, I really liked MY television. It was a 38" Toshiba that had served me well the past decade. It was the television that was with me when "Cheers" served its last beer, when the Soup Nazi served his last bowl. The TV that was there when Ross dated Rachel, dumped Rachel, dated Julie, married Emily, divorced Emily, married Rachel, dated Charlie, and kissed Rachel. That thing and I had a special, irreplaceable bond.

Until, of course, I walked into Best Buy and saw my first hi-definition television. That's when I realized my beloved TV was a hunk of junk that was an insult to all who watched it. Suddenly I was incomplete as a human being. Episodes of "Lost" seemed irrelevant unless I could actually see the individual arm hairs of the Others in crystalline hi-def clarity. Al Roker can't properly give me my morning weather in the confines of a mere 38 pathetic inches. I had suffered in my lo-definition existence long enough; it was time for an upgrade.

So when the parents asked the inevitable, "So, what do you want for Christmas?" question this year, I replied simply: COLD HARD CASH -- which I then took and put with some cold hard cash of my own. Then I took a deep breath, secured my wallet, and walked into American TV on a mission.

I thought picking out a new TV would be a snap. Well, close -- it almost made my BRAIN snap.

The first step is figuring out what kind of TV to get. Naive little me just thought the answer to that question was "hi-def." Not so easy. There's plasma, there's LCD, there's DLP, there's boxes filled with magical pixies that just draw really fast pictures on the screen. Well, maybe not, but that made as much sense to me as the salesman's explanations of all the others.

After a while, though, it started to come together. Plasma, I learned, was out for me. You're not supposed to play video games on plasma TV's because it can cause screen burn. Besides, the word "plasma" makes me think that my television is actually ALIVE, and hey, there's enough stuff growing in my apartment as is.

That left LCD (which hangs on the wall) or DLP (which is basically a kazillion mirrors powered by the world's most impressive flashlight.) After lengthy debate, I opted DLP for one simple reason: BIG. DLP sets come in larger sizes for less money.

If I'm spending an obnoxious amount of money on a TV, I want that TV to be a behemoth. I want jaws to drop. I want streams of drool to run from the corners of my friends' mouths. Some people want to invest in home theatre; I want my home to BE a theatre. That's why I walked in to American and immediately centered myself in front of the biggest thing they had: some 80+ inch Enormo-tron.

Happily, my salesman was a realist and politely explained to me that, in my tiny apartment, an 80 inch TV would basically make me blind and sterile, not to mention a potential hazard for nearby low-flying aircraft. As much as I hated to admit it, there IS such a thing as overkill, and sitting 9 feet away from a 7 foot TV is just not a prudent move. He suggested a 42". We compromised and I bought a 56" Toshiba.

In the store, sitting on the Wall 'o TV's, a 56" unit looked pretty conservative and thrifty. In my apartment, it looks like a slightly undersized drive-in theatre. My place is officially pimped out. I feel like charging admission and selling popcorn.

Of course, getting the thing set up was no easy task. Again, one would think that this kind of investment would result in the magical TV pixies moving my entire apartment around for me, but no deal. My old entertainment center only fits a 38" TV, so it had to be moved to the bedroom (resulting in the exciting discovery of an oatmeal creme pie from the Mesozoic Era underneath! Score!) Of course, to get it in the bedroom, my chest had to be moved to where my nightstand table was. And the nightstand table had to be moved to, well, the dumpster.

So now my apartment lies in ruin. Everything's moved around and nothing fits. The cats are completely confused. I may have to sleep standing up from here on out, but at least I can do it HI-DEFINITION. Now all I have to do is figure out how to work the remote and turn the stupid thing on...

COLUMN: Best 'o 2006

I fear change. I always have. Maybe that's why I never left the Quad Cities after I graduated college. Maybe that's why I'm still in the same apartment complex that I moved into my senior year at Augie. I find comfort in the consistent; serenity in the same. That's why I'm all in favor of holiday traditions.

Maybe your family opens one gift early. Maybe you take a pre-Christmas drive to check out the houses with the best lights. Me? I've only got ONE tradition: every year, on Christmas Eve, I spend the day going through the past year's CD's to come up with my definitive list of the Top 10 Albums of the Year. (It's a music nerd thing, indulge me.)

#10 - GOMEZ - "How We Operate" - I've mentioned before how much I hate hippie rock. Gomez is the exception. This UK band has been releasing album after album of laid-back groove rock for almost a decade now, and "How We Operate" is the stand-out of the bunch. Working with an outside producer for the first time, the result is a new-found cohesiveness among the batch of tunes, and a jam record with melody, fun, and earthy spirituality.

Gomez - See the World (click below for video)

#9 - CAMERA OBSCURA - "Let's Get Out of This Country" - The Glasgow-based Camera Obscura are one of those bands who've shown potential for greatness in the past, but it's finally realized with this, their third record. Pop music so gentle you fear a breeze could blow it away, this album excels from their others in tunesmanship alone.

Camera Obscura - "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken" (click below for video)

#8 - THE 1900's - "Plume Delivery EP" - Speaking of bands with potential, the Chicago-based 1900's have only offered one debut EP and are already at the forefront of many a critic's minds. It might only be 6 tracks long, but this one EP packs more of a whallop than most band's entire discographies. Hazy psychedelic folk-rock that isn't just a carbon-copy of the 60's, the 1900's bring beautiful harmonies together with loosely orchestrated strings and organs.

#7 - THE RAPTURE - "Pieces of the People We Love" - The only band that might actually take the "MORE COWBELL!" mantra seriously, The Rapture have spent their career putting their NYC-fueled punk funk signature on top of, yes, cowbell-laden dance grooves. The new record is more of the same, and hey, why wreck a good thing? Luke Jenner's shrill vocals might be a deal-breaker for the more timid, but you just can't help but shake a booty or two to this one.

The Rapture - Whoo Alright Yeah Uh Huh (click below for video)

#6 - CHRASH - "Audio Feng Shui" - Anyone reading this who's older than 25 hopefully remembers Tripmaster Monkey, one of the few QC bands to ever earn national exposure, and deservedly so. A decade later, former Tripmaster frontman Chris Bernat has again delivered a record worthy of the same acclaim. Finally transforming his ever-changing solo project into a proper band, the results are evident in the new-found strength of quirky songwriting and production. Released on the QC's own Futureappletree label.

#5 - SPANK ROCK - "YoYoYoYoYo" - The best thing to happen to hip-hop in years, Baltimore's Spank Rock takes underground rap and makes it fun again. Packed with low-budget, speaker-bending bass thumps and the kind of lyrics you simply can't go near in a family newspaper (suffice to say our boy Spank likes the ladies, a lot -- graphically,) this record truly represents the spirit, drive, & energy that made hip-hop so captivating in the first place. Play LOUD.

Spank Rock - Rick Rubin (click below for video)

#4 - BELLE & SEBASTIAN - "The Life Pursuit" - Belle and Sebastian are quite possibly the wussiest band in the world. It's hard to find a B&S review that doesn't use words like "twee," "fey," or "precious" when trying to describe the Scottish group's polite brand of art school pop music. The rules are simple: you either love Belle & Sebastian or you make fun of them. That said, "The Life Pursuit" finds the group expanding their repertoire into mildly glam rock territory, and ends up being their most exciting effort in years.

Belle & Sebastian - White Collar Boy (click for video)

#3 - THE GUILLEMOTS - "Through the Windowpane" - It seems like every year, a band comes along that surprises the heck out of me. The Guillemots feature an English singer, a Brazilian guitarist, a Scottish drummer, and a Canadian bassist. Their music is equally multi-tiered and confusing, yet somehow coalesces into a true pop masterpiece. Unorthodox instrumentation, stellar vocals, and magnificent tunes all add up to the most impressive debut record of the year.

Guillemots - Trains to Brazil (click below for video)

#2 - OF MONTREAL - "Hissing Fauna, You Are The Destroyer" - Okay, I'm cheating here. This one doesn't come out until January, but their label was kind enough to furnish a copy back in September, and it's barely left my CD player since. Perfectly balancing unabashedly fun, over-the-top glam showmanship with lyrics that paint a haunted picture of 30-something married life, it's a dance album with smarts -- disco you could write a dissertation on. Shy of putting a gun to your head and forcing you to a record store, I don't know what else I can do to get you to support this gift of a band.

Of Montreal - Wraith Pinned to the Mist (an old song, but hey, this record's too new to have a video yet!)

#1 - THE BROTHER KITE - "Waiting for the Time To Be Right" - It's as if someone entered my brain, carbon-copied my musical tastes, and figured out a way to assimilate them all onto one record. This virtually unknown band from Rhode Island have basically made Shane: The Album. Fuzzed-out jangly guitars conspire with Beach-Boys-esque blissed-out vocal harmonies, plus the kind of truly epic hooks that make neck hairs stand on end. In short, it's everything I've ever wanted out of music. But don't take MY word for it, go to www.myspace.com/thebrotherkite and listen for yourself.

The Brother Kite - "You're Not The Only One" (the poppiest tune on the record - click for video)