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.