Tuesday, December 30, 2008

COLUMN: Coldplay

"You say 'Long done, do, does, did,' words which could only be your own / And then produce the text from whence was ripped, some dizzy whore, 1804... / If you must write prose and poems, the words you use should be your own / Don't plagiarize or take on loan / Because there's always someone, somewhere, with a big nose who knows / Who'll trip you up and laugh when you fall."

That's an exceptionally pretentious yet exceptionally ACCURATE lyric from Steven Morrissey, the lead singer of the legendary Smiths. I've spent the last 37 years on Earth becoming a card-carrying and highly skilled music nerd, and let me tell you, nothing riles up my brethren and I quite like a pop culture plagiarist.

In the grand scheme of things, the idea of thievery should be nothing new to the world of rock & roll -- the entire genre is little more than a rip-off. Listen to some of the original iconic rock & roll records and you'll hear shades of blues, R&B, gospel, folk, and country music homogenized down to a mass-appeal goo. Blues music might have too extreme for 1950's suburban America, but once that music was delivered via the swaggering hips of Elvis, suddenly it was fair game for the middle class. Soon, every kid with a guitar was learning riffs seldom heard outside of a Delta blues club.

But sometimes, musicians get caught with their hands a little too deep in the cookie jar of inspiration. In 1971, George Harrison was successfully sued over his classic song "My Sweet Lord," a tune with a melody a little too reminiscent of the old Chiffons hit "He's So Fine."

Earlier this year, Canadian pop songstress Avril Lavigne settled out of court with an obscure California band called The Rubinoos. It turns out that Lavigne's hit single "Girlfriend" is almost a carbon copy of little-known Rubinoos single, "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend."

One of the most notorious band of thieves in music is arguably the greatest in rock & roll history: Led Zeppelin. Go have a listen to Willie Dixon's "You Need Love," a blues gem from 1953. The words AND the melody eventually made their way to the Led Zep catalog, where heavier guitars were added and the name changed to "Whole Lotta Love." The only credited songwriter? Page/Plant of Led Zep.

Of course, hip-hop and pop music have been sampling the songs of others for years. In 1997, Richard Ashcroft and his band The Verve scored their only global chart-topper with a tune called "Bitter Sweet Symphony." The Verve were poised to make a killing until it was revealed that the song's 12-note repeating string section was sampled from an orchestral rendering of a Rolling Stones tune. Despite the sample being only 4 seconds long, the ensuing lawsuit reverted the songwriting credits of "Bitter Sweet Symphony" to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards alone. The Verve never saw a dime from their hit single and broke up shortly thereafter. At the time, a defiant Ashcroft was quoted as saying, "This is the best song Jagger & Richards have written in 20 years."

And now another accusation of plagiarism has come to light, and it involves a band modeled on a public persona of earnest righteousness: Coldplay. It's nearly impossible to hate Coldplay. Their songs may all be incomprehensible mid-tempo schlock about love and yellow stars, but Coldplay are clearly A Band Who Cares. If there's a charity concert happening in any major arena on Earth, you can all but guarantee Coldplay's on the bill. The Live 8 concert? They played it. Fair trade? They're all over it. Gwyneth Paltrow? They married it.

Earlier this year, Coldplay released a single called "Viva La Vida."

A fine tune, sure -- but then came along Andrew Hoepfner. Andrew fronts a struggling band called Creaky Boards. And he claims that the melody of "Viva La Vida" rips off a song he wrote a year prior, a tune aptly called "Songs I Didn't Write." With no money for legal representation, Hoepfner took his cause to Youtube. In his video, the two songs play next to one another while Andrew claims Chris Martin of Coldplay was spotted at a Creaky Boards gig in 2007 and that he "seemed pretty into it."

While it's undeniable that the two songs are strikingly similar, that's only the tip of the iceberg. A couple months later, guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani filed a federal lawsuit against Coldplay claiming that "Viva La Vida" incorporates substantial portions of one of HIS songs -- a 2004 instrumental called "If I Could Fly."

Again, when the two songs are compared, the similarities are astonishing. Enterprising remixers have taken to the internet blending the two songs together seamlessly. So the perhaps million dollar question -- are Coldplay thieves?

For once, I'm inclined to say no. For one, Coldplay and Joe Satriani are NOT musicians who roll in the same circle. I find it hard to believe that Coldplay would be rocking out to a heavy metal instrumentalist on the tour bus. In fact, I'd venture a guess that they probably detest one another's music. For another, if Coldplay thieved from Joe Satriani, then by logic, so too must have Creaky Boards -- it's all the same melody. And Creaky Boards DEFINITELY don't strike me as Satriani fans. In fact, they don't even look like they could afford a Joe Satriani CD.

Instead, I propose a more plausible explanation: The shared melody of "Viva La Vida," "Songs I Didn't Write," and "If I Could Fly" is so simple, puerile, and banal that I'd be surprised if only THREE bands have come up with it over time. The tune isn't rocket science, it's just a simple chord progression, and hey, there's only so many chords in music. But I'm still excited because it means a looming court case, tons more gossip fodder, and the chance to see the holier-than-thou Coldplay taken down a peg or two. On top of that, I'm just happy that the scandal caused me to discover Creaky Boards, who are actually a pretty great band.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Bad news. It appears that I'm facing a crisis. It's a personal and secret shame, but I'm afraid it's true: I'm no longer at the cutting edge forefront of modern technology.

Gadgets, gizmos, and grossly overpriced toys are clearly the best measure of a man's worth, and I've strived to remain as high up that ladder as my paychecks allow. Sadly, though, there comes a time when even the most zealous of gadget-hounds has to stop and realize that his life is lacking.

Specifically, it is lacking an iPhone.

I want one soooo bad. Foot-stomping, pouting kinda bad. Especially right now, for I am trapped via contract for at least five more months to what I have come to call Eddie the Wonder Phone.

I really liked my old cell phone. Its life, however, was extinguished by a girl who decided that the best place to set her drink would be all over my lap.

A sad loss, aye. But a chance for me to step up my game. At the store, I was immediately drawn to the phattest (or fattest, as both apply) and most technologically intense phone in the joint -- a Palm Treo. It had a shiny keyboard, a huge screen, and a magnificent price tag. This was no sissy phone. This was a phone that clearly said, "Hold me and be a man." At the time, I even wrote a column touting its virtues.

Then, well, I turned it on. It seems that my over-priced bundle of joy was, shall we politely say, quirky.

One of the primary reasons I opted for the Treo was its ability to plug into a laptop and serve as a wireless modem. A cool feature for an on-the-go newspaper professional, no? Too bad no-one knows how it works. I got my little cord, installed the software, plugged it in, and... nothing.

After playing around with it to no avail, I took the entire ensemble to the phone store and said, "HELP!" Their response? "Umm, we dunno how to do that. You need to call Palm corporate. Here's the 800 number." Nifty. Good to know there's a fleet of trained salespeople who are, apparantly, trained in SELLING their product but not operating it.

Still, I went home and called the number. I explained the problem in detail and this was what I got:

"Sir, is your phone currently plugged in to your laptop?"

"Umm, no, my phone is currently in my hand allowing me to speak to you."

"Well, sir, you're going to have to plug the phone in to the laptop and call me back."

"Umm, and how do I call you back if the phone's plugged in to the laptop?"

"You'll have to call me from another phone."

"So in order to fix my Palm Treo, I need to buy ANOTHER Palm Treo?"

This went on until I gave up and cancelled that part of my service.

But that was only the start of Eddie the Wonder Phone's charms. He also comes stocked with software like Word and Excel -- neither of which I've opened in the year and a half I've owned the thing. Strangely, it turns out that I've yet to experience the sort of on-the-go accounting and/or word processing emergency I had imagined Eddie to be necessary for. And if I ever found myself in a scenario where I'm walking down the street and suddenly need to balance a spreadsheet, only a trained surgeon could access the microscopic keys on Eddie's keyboard. I can barely manage typing a cohesive text message as is. If your phone ever says "DDUDEE, CVALLK ME," you'll know it's from me.

Eddie DOES have an additional feature not specified in the sales pitch, though, and it's rather exciting. It turns out that my phone has the stunning ability to unlock itself and call friends, family, and random numbers from inside my pants pocket. I learned this the day it dialed directory assistance 17 times unaided. And the time my slacks dialed 911. And from the many friends no longer speaking to me because I've called them 8 times in a row at 3 a.m.

Once, as I walking into work, from the bowels of my pants pocket, Eddie managed to unlock itself, dial my parents, AND turn on the speakerphone all at once. If you've ever thought your life required therapy, try hearing the voice of your mother spontaneously erupting from your crotch. "SHANE? SHANE MICHAEL! ARE YOU PLAYING GAMES AGAIN? ANSWER ME!" And I wonder why my relationships fail.

Meanwhile, my friends now have iPhones. iPhones don't have Excel or Word, and they don't call your mom from your nether-regions. Instead, iPhones have software you can install that turns the screen blue and makes swoosh noises when you wave it around like a lightsaber. Clearly the phone for me. There's even a program for the iPhone that can instantly identify any song playing on any nearby radio. That's the coolest thing, well, ever.

Yet I wait. Five months remain on my contract with Eddie, and I don't want to pay the penalty charges for early termination. And of course, if I finally DO get a chance to upgrade, by the time I get home from the store, they'll have launched iPhone 2010, rendering mine instantly obsolete.

All I know is that I'm iRate with Eddie the Wonder Phone, and our time together is nearing its end. And if my pelvis ever calls you up, I'm truly, truly sorry.

Friday, November 28, 2008

COLUMN: Winter Whine

Well, it's official. We're not even out of November, and winter has already sucked the life out of me. I'm sitting here absolutely bereft of ideas staring at a Notepad screen that's the same gross off-white as the sky outside. Dear Sun, wish you were here. Love, Shane.

Yes, I know winter doesn't officially start until December 21st. But I tell you what -- you step on outside without a coat on right now and tell me how it's still autumn, I dare ya. There's a harsh reality out there, people. It's a truth that educators and them fancy word-books don't like to speak of. Me? I call it like I see it:

Autumn is shrinking.

This year, fall was officially ONE day long. You remember the week, right? On Monday, it was 70 degrees out and we were all running around with short sleeves high-fiving each other about our collective awesomeness. By Wednesday of that week, it was 20 degrees out and we were shivering in winter coats looking up for courtesy nooses to drop from the heavens.

Now there's nothing left to do but sit around and take bets on when our first Crippling Ice Storm of the season will hit. At this rate, I'm thinking pre-Christmas. Fa la la la la.

I've been deep in a winter whine for nigh on a week now, starting on the day I was five minutes late for work because I couldn't find my ice scraper in the bowels of my back seat debris pile. My friend Linn suggested the other day that perhaps I have Seasonal Affective Disorder. I've self-diagnosed myself with many a malady over the years, but the uninformed and irresponsible part of my brain naturally assumed that Seasonal Affective Disorder was something made up by mental health professionals. You know, for the sole purpose of high-fiving each other for finally creating a clinical depression that can be abbreviated S.A.D.

According to Yahoo, SAD is a type of depression that affects a person during the same season each year. If you have SAD, you may: Feel sad (check,) grumpy (check,) moody (check,) and lose interest in your usual activities (such as stepping foot outdoors? Then check.)

My favorite bit? "Experts are not sure what causes SAD." Well, experts, here's a hint: It's flippin' FREEZING outside. You can't DO anything because it's cold out. You don't WANT to do anything because it's cold out. Going ANYWHERE and doing ANYTHING involves going outside, which I don't want to do because it's cold out. Maybe, just perhaps, people have SAD because it's cold out. Something tells me there's not a lot of Floridians with SAD.

I was never this much of a winter fuddy-duddy. In fact, I used to really like winter. But how I viewed winter has changed dramatically over the years:

IN GRADE SCHOOL, WINTER = Snow! Fun! Sledding! No school! Christmas! Snow angels! Moon boots!

IN HIGH SCHOOL, WINTER = Girls! Girls! Girls! Girls! Girls! Girls! (Okay, I was a little one-track in high school, regardless of season.)

IN COLLEGE, WINTER = No parents! More girls! No parents! More girls! (Maybe I'm just a little pathetic.)

IN ADULTHOOD, WINTER = Snow! (And here lies the downfall of the written word. The grade school "Snow!" was said with wide-eyed enthusiasm and excitement. The adulthood "Snow!" is uttered with more of a shock, disdain, and overall hatred for nature.) And of course with snow comes ice, which means I can look forward to (a) my car being unable to scale my vertical incline driveway, and (b) my annual Three-Stooges-esque icy butt-bruising pratfall of the year. And with snow and ice comes the bone-chilling cold that's already resulted in my first sore throat of the season.

How did the early dwellers of this area survive these gnarly winters? Chief Black Hawk didn't exactly take time out from leading the Sauk to sit around a space heater for four months out of the year. Obviously, Black Hawk didn't have time to whine about the winter months -- clearly, he was far too busy founding a college, a car dealership, and a state bank.

(Unrelated Soapbox Sidebar: Obviously I'm being ignorant. But this type of ignorance is what Chief Black Hawk's legacy could turn into for future generations if the governor of Illinois -- the only official I've ever regretted voting for -- follows on his plan to close the Hauberg Indian Museum at the Blackhawk State Historic Site. Sign a petition if you haven't already.)

As much as I hate winter, I guess I have a hard time envisioning life without it. After all, Christmas without seeing your breath is just wrong. A good friend of mine recently put it into perspective. She's lived her entire life just outside of Los Angeles, and she recently drove up to the California mountains to see and play in snow for the first time ever. She described it as a winter wonderland -- but then she sent photos. There she was with her boyfriend, making snowmen out of a total ground accumulation that we would refer to as a hard frost. Seriously, there's more snow in the frozen food aisle of your local Hy-Vee than what they were romping around in. So I suppose if one person can find magic in a scattered clump of white, we should at least be able to find an upside to the inevitable blizzards to come.

For now, though, I'm just happy whining about it.

COLUMN: Election Night

I received an e-mail this week from the editor of a little monthly newspaper based out of Fairfield, IA called The Iowa Source. They're an independent publication with distribution throughout the state (though not in this area at all.)

Apparantly they're putting together a big election recap for their next issue and looking to publish a montage of essays. They've asked a smattering of Midwest writers to submit short pieces about election night -- where we were, what we witnessed, and how we felt as the next President-elect was decided. I was excited and downright humbled to be asked to contribute to such a neat concept. Finally I could show off my writing prowess in a consortium of my peers, no?

Only one small problem: I did NOTHING on election night, and I mean NOTHING. I was on the verge of coming down with a cold, so I spent election night sitting around with a small group of friends blowing my nose and feeling sorry for myself. Not exactly a page-turner. I could tell the riveting story of how I sat on my living room floor eating cold pizza and single-handedly (or single-nosed-ly) causing a rift in the global supply of Kleenex. Something tells me, though, that they're looking for something a bit more poetic.

This was, after all, a night when history was made. An evening that allowed all of us -- man, woman, and child -- to come together and witness an event some never thought possible. An event that could change the very shape of the world for years to come.

I speak, of course, about CNN's holograms.

There are really only two times when cable news networks get to shine: Hurricane season and election season. And come voting night, that's when the news nets pull out the big guns. Fancy computer-aided graphics, panels of analysts, celebrity guests aplenty -- just make some popcorn and pull up a seat.

Marshall McLuhan was a famed communications theorist who once wrote a book called "The Medium is the Message." It's the notion that WHAT you see and hear is always influenced by HOW you see and hear it. Well, if that's the case, based on the mediums I watched that night, the message was, clearly: "We're all super crazy."

Now, I won't get into the real or perceived biases of the various cable news networks. That's a discussion best left for our online forums, where people are probably arguing about it this very second. It usually goes like this: The liberals accuse Fox News of being conservative. The conservatives accuse CNN & MSNBC of being liberal. Then a bunch of Ron Paul constitutionalist types show up and accuse everyone of everything, presumably taking the stance that the only unbiased form of communication involves Paul Revere and a horse.

Me? I'm not about biases; I'm about showmanship, and the nets were full of it Tuesday night. First stop was MSNBC, where the anchors stood about weighing election returns amid a CGI backdrop that looked half Roman coliseum, half Mortal Kombat. I was hoping for a McCain v. Obama Beyond Thunderdome battle royale, but no such luck. Instead, the icing on the cake: A giant US map in the skating rink at 30 Rockefeller, where I'm pretty sure Obama took the state of New Hampshire with a graceful triple lutz.

The mood was a lot less carnival over at Fox News, where a somber and astute Brit Hume (you could tell because he was wearing his somber and astute glasses) had the unenviable job of covering a clear McCain defeat to the fair-&-balanced demographic. For what it's worth, I thought he did a decent job -- just a boring one, which is why I flipped to the king of election night hype.

CNN brings it. The overly-caffeinated team of Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper delivers the best 1-2 punch of over-the-top antics for your entertainment dollar. Elephantine TV screens, incomprehensible maps, and analysts at the ready like James Carville, who gladly flew in from his home planet for the occasion. It couldn't get better... until I saw the holograms.

Discontent with merely broadcasting interviews with talking heads, CNN upped the ante this year to full-on talking bodies, using hologram technology to make guests from miles away appear as they were standing in the studio. It was comedic genius, as it was painfully clear to everyone in the real world that Anderson Cooper was staring at and interviewing an empty expanse of air in the studio.

And who do they decide to "beam in" via hologram? Why, important figures. Like, umm, musician will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas. Because if there's one person whose perspective I require in order to fully understand the Washington political machine, it's naturally the creator of "My humps, my humps, my lovely lady lumps."

As for the election itself? Heck, I dunno. I'm bad at grandiose statements and I don't like writing about politics -- that's a job for people far more qualified than myself. The notion that my political opinion could be taken seriously by, well, anyone is kinda spooky. Suffice to say that I've never hid my blue-state leanings, my guy won, and I'm happy. Now here's hoping change turns out to be more than just a word. And hey, maybe by the time we reach the far-off land of 2012, technology may evolve to the point that Anderson Cooper and will.i.am could just beam right on in to my living room. I'll be sure to save them some pizza.

COLUMN: Carbon Monoxide

I couldn't believe it.

After years of hard work, I'd finally made it to the bigtime. There I stood, center stage, DJing at my first A-list Hollywood party. It was only an opening slot, but I didn't mind. The dancefloor was packed with celebrities and my mixes were flawless. Then I saw her. The love of my life and the obsession of my entire universe was staring straight at me. My heart skipped a beat as she walked up to the DJ booth, and I was face-to-face with my muse, Katie Holmes.

"I like the way you mix," she said.

"Yeah?" I said. "I like the way you look sheepishly at the camera, bite your bottom lip a little, and let out a smile when you say the word 'Dawson.'"

It was game on. As I gazed at her perfect face, I knew it was there. We had a --


-- connection that was electric. I swear I could almost see the sparks shooting between us as she sighed just a little. In mere moments, she'd be in love with me forever and we'd move to a small house along a creek somewhere.

"You know I hate my husband and my marriage is a --


-- sham, right? In fact, I'm pretty sure that he doesn't even like girls. Yep, I'm pretty sure that Tom Cruise is a total --


Ohhhh no. I could ignore some ill-timed 3 a.m. knocks on my door for the sake of Katie Holmes. But when someone's yelling "WAKE UP OR DIE," you've got no choice but to hit the stop button on even the greatest of dreams.

I got out of bed and sluggishly made it to the apartment door. On the other side stood most of my pajama-clad neighbors and a couple emissaries from the Rock Island Fire Department. Others were were busily beating on the remaining doors of absent neighbors. This was no fire drill.

It turns out that an upstairs neighbor had decided to crank up her heat. The complex's boiler thought about it long and hard and decided it would be much more entertaining to instead emit poisonous gas throughout the building. Were it not for one neighbor's carbon monoxide detector going off, we never would have known.

I don't pretend to be well-versed on science, but apparantly carbon monoxide is measured in some sort of units -- let's just call them kilodeaths. Obviously, a measurement of 0 kilodeaths is ideal, while a measurement of 30 kilodeaths or higher is cause for evacuation. Well, the fire department was there and measuring 300 kilodeaths in the halls and over 1000 kilodeaths in the boiler room. That's not cool.

So while a rep from the power company showed up to shut down the boiler, the fire department had us open all our windows and gather our fans in the hallways to help dissipate the gas. My apartment had an initial reading of 28 kilodeaths. That's enough for me to get reeeal scared, because I'd already played Fun With Carbon Monoxide once.

On Christmas Eve 1982, the fireplace of the house I grew up in backed up in the night, and our family awakened to a house full of black smoke. My folks got the windows open and had the place ventilated lickety split -- but the next morning, my mom and I both woke up to a shared headache that was beyond words. I was only 11, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It might have been the worst day of my life.

So no thanks, sir. I wasn't about to repeat that fun -- which is why I left the building, got in my car, and decided to see just what life was like at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning in Rock Island.

Answer: there IS no life at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning in Rock Island. The entire world was asleep. I did spot a few fine folks hard at work delivering this very paper on doorsteps aplenty. Otherwise, it was awkwardly quiet. Well, it would have been quiet, had I not also invited my two cats out on our monoxide-free field trip.

My cats have been in a car exactly: twice, and now I remember why. While Izzy decided it would be best to spend most of the trip shivering in my lap with her claws deeply embedded in my thigh, Bez decided the ideal activity would be to sit in the passenger seat, stare at me, and go "MEOWMEOWMEOWMEOWMEOWMEOWMEOW" for an hour straight.

I'm not kidding. The cat never stopped meowing. I'm pretty sure she figured out a way to meow and breathe simultaneously. There wasn't even a tenth of a meow-free second to be had. By the time I got back to a 0 kilodeath apartment two hours later, that cat was HOARSE and running around like a 4-pack-a-day smoker going, "MRACK. MRACK."

On the brighter side, though, we weren't all dead, which truly could have been a distinct possibility. I hate those stupid detectors and their shrill cries every time I overcook something, but one of them may have just saved my life. And of course, an apartment complex full of dead bodies in their beds just screams "I-bet-they-were-all-in-some-crazy-cult," and that's a horrible way to go out. Still, I was thiiiis close to being part of a real life Halloween legend that could have spooked generations to come.

Instead, your faithful columnist lives to ramble on. But right now? I'd rather just get to bed. Katie? Katie? Please wait for me!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Post Turkey Bliss

Okay, okay...

I know. I keep forgetting to upload my newest columns to this thing. I'm blaming it on my new work schedule... I now have to get to the paper a half hour earlier every day and it's throwing my entire routine into a tizzy. I'll try to play catch-up tomorrow.

In the meantime, I'm already starting to give thoughts towards best-o-the-year accolades in pop culture. Wondering what music/movies/TV shows have been tripping everyone's trigger lately? Anything worth discussing?

As far as music goes for me this year, it's pretty tough to beat the awesomeness of the Fleet Foxes record, which answers the divine question: What would the Beach Boys and CSN&Y sound like if they were from the post-grunge Pacific Northwest?

If you don't own this record yet, your collection's lacking. That's all I'm sayin'.

Tell me I'm wrong:

Also, how about the genius of Girl Talk? Pittsburgh native Gregg Gillis has become a true master of the sampling software, releasing guerilla-style mash-up symphonies wherein its perfectly acceptable to match Salt n Pepa with Nirvana and the Beach Boys and Ludacris and Earth Wind & Fire and... well, just watch, you'll get the point:

Girl Talk's latest album of mash-up insanity is "Feed the Animals," and it can be downloaded legally for ANY donation price via Illegal Art, though you should probably give the guy a few bucks for the effort.

(Oh, and if you like Girl Talk, ALSO be sure to check out their European predecessor, Soulwax's 2 Many DJ's.)

Friday, November 07, 2008

COLUMN: Breitbach's

If I learned one thing from my high school journalism teacher, Ms. Hinman, it was this: know your audience. If you're working at a paper (like this one) that's distributed to a kajillion people from all walks of life, write about stuff that everyone can relate to.

This week, though, Ms. Hinman needs to stop reading -- I'm about to break her cardinal rule. For this column and this column only, I'm narrowing down my target audience down just a little. This column is directed to an audience of TWO: Mike and Cindy Breitbach of Balltown, Iowa.

I love my community and all, but let's face it -- one of the most fun things to do in the Quad Cities is to hop in a car and leave. Even during my early days as a relocated Augie student, Friend Jason and I would grab some provisions and head out in search of rural adventure. It was during one of these aimless journeys that we first stumbled upon Balltown.

The first thing you notice is the view. Resting high atop the Iowa bluffs, the scenic overlook at Balltown offers the best glimpse of the river valley you'll get between Dubuque and Prairie Du Chien. Iowa hillsides that would make Grant Wood drool cascade to the lazy river while the hazy ridges of Wisconsin beckon in the distance. It's postcard perfect.

But just beside the overlook, there's something else that draws your eye. A non-descript eatery with a sign proudly proclaiming "Iowa's oldest restaurant."

That eatery is Breitbach's, and I'm proud to declare in print that it's since become My Favorite Restaurant Ever. It's not like it's super fancy or anything. There's no menu items you can't pronounce, no fancy wine list, no sorbet to cleanse the pallet between courses. It's simply down-home midwest food, cooked to perfection and offered in abundance. Imagine a buffet where each and every item was cooked by your favorite grandmother and you'd be close. Thick and sweet ham steaks bigger than your plate, mountains of fried chicken and shrimp, lumpy mashed potatoes with achingly perfect homemade gravy, pickled beets like you ONLY get at family reunions, the list goes on and on.

The meal was stellar, the view out of this world, and the drive home was spent loosening the belt in the painful bliss of overindulgence. In all my years of aimless driving, in all the miles covered, Breitbach's remains my favorite discovery.

But on Christmas Day 2007, I paused from roasting chestnuts and decking the halls to peruse the paper. There, buried in a story in the back section, was an article I never wanted to see. "Iowa Restaurant Burns," was the headline, and I gasped when I saw a picture of the smoldering remains of Breitbach's. An explosion in the basement, possibly due to a gas leak, had spelled the end to the buffet of my dreams.

This spring, I once again found myself in the car, north of Dubuque in the vicinity of Balltown. I decided to cruise up for the view and memories of ham steaks gone by. But it wasn't the view of the river valley that was breathtaking; it was the view of a resurrected Breitbach's. I probably broke every traffic law in Balltown peeling into the parking lot.

It turns out that Mike & Cindy Breitbach, the third generation of owners since the family bought the place in 1861, had trepidations about the physical and fiscal task of rebuilding. It turns out, though, that Friend Jason and I weren't the only fans of the place. Out of nowhere, volunteers came from across the state. An armada of Amish carpenters traveled miles to put up new walls. Townsfolk provided food and support while workers erected a new roof. The ductwork was done for free by an Ohio biker who had once stopped by the restaurant on a whim. Families donated untold time and resources, just for the privilege of saving a beloved landmark.

The new Breitbach's reopened in June of 2008 with nary a hint of December's devastation except a photo album in the lobby paying tribute to the volunteers and supporters. Once again, the gravy flowed in Balltown. Just the other day, I was telling my girlfriend that we had to get up there before the snows came. Then, I made the mistake of opening the paper again.

Like some kind of cruel joke, last Friday the NEW Breitbach's burned to the ground. As of press time, investigators still haven't determined a cause, but once again, the great restaurant lay in ruin. And once again, Mike & Cindy Breitbach are left with a decision to make.

According to an article in the Dubuque paper, the family plans to meet soon to decide whether or not it's worth it for a third go-around. My vote is YES. Iowa might not be the most attention-getting state in this union, but it IS one of the friendliest. Mike & Cindy, if you guys can somehow swing it, I guarantee you'll have even MORE help this time around.

At the end of the day, I guess it's kind of a shallow plea. I just don't want those ham steaks to become the stuff of legend. But at the same time, the legacy of Breitbach's is worth saving as much as its gravy. In today's modern era where even the classiest of national chain restaurants do little more than heat up frozen meals, the charm of a home-cooked dinner in a building raised by the hard work and love of a community is priceless. And to the credit of Ms. Hinman, I think everyone can relate to that.

Borrowed with the best of intentions from the Telegraph-Herald. Please don't sue me.

COLUMN: Halloweenie Revisited

So I wanted to come up with a holiday themed column this week, but Halloween's a tough one for me. Every year, without fail, I'm the Halloween grinch.

I've already fessed up in these pages that I can't stand dressing up in costume. Some people might think its fun -- but my vote remains that it's creepy and stupid. And I don't just think it's extra stupid dumb for adults (which it is.) No, I hated it as a kid, too.

In an effort to join my friends in their current fad of let's-post-old-and-embarassing-photos-onto-Facebook, I recently found myself perusing old scrapbooks and grimacing at some of the Halloween pics that turned up. I found a 9-year-old Shane dressed up like a hobo, pleading at the camera with a look that clearly said PLEASE-MOM-JUST-LET-ME-GO-CHANGE. I found a 6-year-old bicentennial Uncle Sam Shane with the same facial expression, despite wearing a hat that was, admittedly, pretty awesome.

Worse yet is dealing with OTHER people costumed up. I have enough social anxiety as is, don't make me talk to you while you're dressed up like Harry Potter. Between this column and my DJ gig, I've had the pleasure of meeting roughly eleventy billion people in the Quad Cities. I have a hard enough time keeping names and faces straight, and that job becomes ten times harder when you're dressed like Barney the Dinosaur. If you ever want to see me have a full-on social breakdown, just put on that Yoda mask and come say hi. It ain't pretty.

Plus I just don't like any of the usual Halloween stuff. Horror movies where actors with chainsaws jump out and go "BOO!" are my least favorite thing ever. If you've been to a scary movie with me ever, (1) you are a girl, (2) YOU chose the movie, and (3) you must've been really, really cute. Same goes for haunted houses -- no offense, but clearly the only thing worse than actors with chainsaws are Jaycees with chainsaws. And that's nothing against the Jaycees, who are a fine organization which, according to their website, helps young people develop personal and leadership skills. This is apparantly accomplished by applying fake blood and scaring the bejeezus out of paying customers.

Don't listen to me, though. Go to haunted houses, get spooked out of your head, and let your money go to a good cause. I'm simply a Hallo-weenie, I know. Heck, I don't even like pumpkins when they're in non-pie form. They smell, their innards are slimy and gross, and I'm lousy with a carving knife.

So my options for themed columns this week are lacking. Bereft of ideas, I sat around trying to come up with something appropriately creepy to write about. There was only one obvious option:

Drive around in the country in the middle of the night and hope something spooky happens.

Well, I just got home and I'm sad to say: No UFO's, no unexplained time losses, no evidence of probing. No Bigfoot, no chupacabras, no strange curse-wielding gypsies to accidentally run over. Not even one Child of the Corn to pop out and say howdy. Dang my luck.

Of course, I had my satellite radio tuned to the 80's channel the whole time, so it sorta blew the mood. It's tough to get creeped out while listening to "The Safety Dance." Jason never hacked anybody to death to the strains of "Whip It," and I'm pretty sure that Freddy Krueger never spun anybody right 'round baby right 'round like a record baby right 'round 'round 'round. Not one UFO and/or boogeyman anyplace.

Look up at the night sky. With the naked eye, we can only see a teeny tiny bit of the cosmos. And in that teeny tiny bit, there's a kajillion stars that could have a kajillion life-supporting planets circling them. It seems pretty egotistical to assume that we're the only place in the entire endless universe with enough smarts to grow opposable thumbs.

Still, it's a bit of a reach to go from opposable thumbs to dilithium crystals and warp speed space travel, so my odds of stumbling onto little green men are thin at best. Let's say that you were a society capable of breaking all known rules of physics and engineering. I'd seriously hope that you'd have better things to do with your days than buzz Earth and occasionally probe the weird obese hillbillies that turn up on talk shows claiming alien abduction. These tales would hold a lot more weight with me if they were to take, say, Bill Gates or, heck, anyone with teeth.

But I'm not giving up on my quest to find the Halloween spirit. The world remains a fairly spooky place. Ask the Brits, who just this week unveiled classified documents of military encounters with UFO's from decades past. Or ask the cop in Texas who filmed what many think is a chupacabra (or a reeeally ugly dog) on his dash-cam. Or ask the Japanese team who just this week unveiled what they claim to be indisputable scientific proof of a Yeti.

Sometimes it's fun to celebrate the unexplained -- and maybe that's what Halloween's really all about. Or maybe it's just about candy and knowing all the moves to the "Thriller" dance. Either way, have fun with it. Who knows, maybe one day I'll join you.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

COLUMN: Gibson v. Mountain

As a creature of habit, I follow some fairly concrete routines on my lunch hours. One's usually spent at the record store. Another in the aisles of a book store. And on one day each week, I meet my friend Linn at the base of the I-74 bridge for lunch at Ross'.

A person needs to have goals in life, and my new goal is to spend enough time at Ross' that one day I'll walk in to find Linn and I painted into their awesomely weird mural of employees, regulars, and, inexplicably, Humphrey Bogart.

Last Friday, though, our routine was anything but. We'd been at Ross' for about five minutes when I saw it.

"Hmm," I nodded towards Linn. "Check out the camera crew."

Sure enough, some dudes were out in the parking lot with some impressive looking television cameras. Suddenly it dawned on me.

"Hey, this isn't the day that what's-his-head's s'posed to..."

Before I could get the sentence out, I saw it. A bus the size of Rhode Island was pulling up to the outside of Ross', and inside that bus was the star of ABC World News Now. Charlie Gibson was swinging in for a Magic Mountain, and the gods of fate had given us front row seats.

This was not your run of the mill mass transit vehicle. No, this was a mobile command center. The irony was NOT lost on me: a Presidential election featuring the hotbed topic of environmental conservation, and here's that election being covered by a metal behemoth that probably averages .1 miles to the gallon while leaving a carbon footprint the size of King Kong.

In the minutes that followed, I learned an important and valuable piece of information about modern news:

Anytime that you see someone on network television appearing to walk into a business spontaneously, it's a load of hooey. On the telecast later that night, it looked as if Chuck was just happily cruising around the QCA and decided on a whim to swing by Ross' for a chat.

In reality, the whole thing was pre-planned and orchestrated to perfection. Camera crews were already in the parking lot just to film the bus rolling up. Once it dropped anchor, a team of producers came in to set the interior scene, up to and including the hanging of temporary blinds for optimal lighting conditions. The owners and staff at Ross' were given their marks where to stand, while the kitchen staff were busily preparing a smorgasboard of specialty dishes to show off.

I'd like to say that, as a semi-professional journalist dude myself, I was beyond the spectacle of the whole thing. Truth be told, I was waaaaay into it. It was kind of like a U2 concert, but instead of Bono, it was a middle-aged paunchy dude. Wait, actually that IS kinda like Bono.

Anyways, in walks Chuck and you can cut the excitement in the place with the same knife I'm using on my ham-n-cheese. Here was an opportunity for me to see a REAL journalist at work. A guy who's surely seen the best and worst of society. A guy who knows the important questions to ask. I tried my best to listen and learn from a master.

His first question was indeed important, pointed, and cut to the chase. I believe, in fact, that it was: "Hi. Do you have a men's room?"

Way to go, Charlie. I knew a professional journalism move when I saw it. He may have been in the Quad Cities under the guise of covering the election, but I bet he was secretly doing an expose on public restroom cleanliness. Or maybe he just had to tinkle.

Either way, it was seriously cool to watch his visit unfold. The owners of Ross' beamed with pride while being interviewed, and yes, The Magic Mountain got some quality national airtime -- though between you and me, I think Charlie might've been a little scared by it. Let's admit it, we Quad Citizens are the secret-keepers that Rossmeat + cheese + hash browns + toast piled on a plate is culinary heaven, but it might take some time for the rest of the world to catch on. That's fine, 'cause it's just more Rossmeat for you and me.

More revealing, though, was just what the presence of journalistic greatness did to me and Linn. We were two professional and intellectual 30-somethings, but as soon as we realized that we were in the background of the shot, we did nothing but awkwardly giggle the whole time. I've never had a more self-conscious lunch in my life. Do I hold my fork weird? Am I eating applesauce believably enough?

Somehow, we soldiered through. And later that night, I was rewarded by seeing my blurry visage on national news for 1.8 seconds. That's right, I'm sure you saw it. That kinda greenish blob? Totally me. Any second now, I'll be getting a call from Hollywood. Somewhere there's a big-shot director right now going, "Who IS this man? I must have him for my large budget picture, 'The Adventures of Blurry Green-Shirted Applesauce-Eating Guy." Don't worry, though, when I make it big, I won't forget about the little people. Or the Rossmeat.



It's a good thing Boyz II Men released that song, 'cause I stink at the sappy stuff. But today, the sappy stuff is sadly an obligation of sorts.

You're holding in your hand the very last issue of the QC-Leader. The closure came as a bit of a shock to us all, but given the current state of the economy, I suppose it's not particularly surprising. Still, it's almost like a death in the family.

I was an unemployed college grad in 1995, and I'll admit it, kind of a mess. I'd been supporting myself by DJ'ing at a night club on the weekends, but the club had just gone belly-up and I was completely jobless and reasonably helpless. That was when I bumped into an old friend, Nikki Zeger, who told me about an opening in her department -- selling classified ads for the Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.

"Ohh, I doubt I'd be any good at that," I remember telling her. My only sales experience up to that point was working behind the counter at a record store, and I'd been canned from there after forgetting to lock the place up one night. But Nikki assured me that it was a fun and relatively easy gig, and I figured it'd be a temporary way to pay the bills while I sorted out my life.

Well, apparantly I was the only sane person to apply, because I somehow got the job. Thirteen years later, I'm still at that "temporary" job. Once I realized what a great company I had lucked into, suddenly that desk chair started getting pretty doggone comfy. Still, there was something missing.

Word had eventually gotten around the office about my unhealthy obsession with pop culture, and thusly I'd been called upon to write a few entertainment articles for the paper. It was fun, but nobody knew my REAL passion. I wanted a column. I wanted a column SOOOO bad. Each week, I would read our columnists with an envy and jealously almost criminal. Eventually, I figured I had two choices.

(1) Kill current columnists Sean Leary or Johnny Marx. This seemed impractical, plus I'd kinda miss the dorks. Besides, I pass out when I see blood, so I think I'd be a sucky murderer. Ergo, I settled on (2): Inundate our editors with sample columns and pleas.

I'd done this two or three times to no avail. Each time, I was told that they liked my stuff, but it just wasn't the right time or right fit. I'd resigned myself to despondency when the great Russ Scott asked me if I'd ever tried submitting anything to the Leader.

Wow, I'd never really thought of that. To a Rock Islander like me, the Leader was kind of the forgotten stepchild of our family of newspapers. It was a great publication, don't get me wrong, but it only came out to Iowa -- and only once a week. Surely they had a crowded pool of material to draw from every issue, right? Still, I fired off a couple sample columns regardless. Two hours later, the call came.

"So," said the voice of Leader editor Michael Romkey, "Can you start this week?"

And for that week and the 204 that have followed, it's been my pleasure and honor to come into your homes. Why ANYONE would care about the ramblings of a hopeless slacker is still beyond me, but I've been truly humbled by your support over the years -- even YOU, crazy cat lady who writes me all the time. My only hope is that maybe I got to serve as a momentary distraction to the suckier bits of life.

And now its time to put the old girl to bed. It turns out that the only thing more expensive than a gallon of gas these days is, apparantly, newsprint ink, which has risen in price some 35% this year alone. Seriously. Look at your hands right now. See that ink smudge? Your thumb's now worth, like, $1.40. That kind of a price hike just makes it impossible to effectively circulate a free paper every week.

Some people point to the internet as the downfall of the newspaper industry. I think that's a load of hooey. While it's true that even I get most of my national news online, there will ALWAYS be a need for local news and a guide for community events, and there will ALWAYS be businesses that need to advertise their products to the local market. Advancing technologies aren't spelling the end of our business, just a new way to DO that business. The future might be different, but it IS still bright.

In the meantime, though, we are losing a dear friend in the Leader. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as we've enjoyed putting it out every week. For those of you who can, I strongly encourage you to call up and get an affordable subscription to the Dispatch or Rock Island Argus, where I'll continue to amuse/annoy you every Sunday. If not, check us out online and say hi every once in a while.

I leave you with the Beatles, who once said, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make," even though I have NO idea what that's supposed to mean. Still, it's appropriately sappy. I think.

The Leader is dead. Long live the Leader!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

COLUMN: The District

Once upon a time, the city leaders of Rock Island had a plan, and it was a good one.

They saw their downtown, once the centerpiece of a thriving river community, turning into a museum of forgotten dreams and days gone by. But rather than see nothing but gloom and doom (and trust me, I originally hail from Galesburg, I know a little something about gloom and doom,) these visionaries instead saw potential. They had an idea that could turn Rock Island from yet another slice of forgotten Americana into a thriving center for culture and tourism.

Calls were made to some of the area's most proven business leaders -- pleas to come to downtown Rock Island and bring it back to life. With dreams, promises, and financial assistance, businesses began sprouting up in a two block radius soon to become the shining star of Quad City nightlife. A non-profit group (DARI) was formed to help these businesses prosper. The District was born.

A perfect complement to the riverfront casino and the elegance of Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse, the District has now become synonymous with weekend fun in the Quad Cities. Walk through the District and you'll see a neighborhood wholly unique to this neck of the woods. Brew pubs, live music venues, bars, and clubs working hand-in-hand with art galleries, cutting-edge theatre groups, and loft-style residential living -- you've got to look far and wide to find anything as vibrant up or down the river. The District created the blueprint for the modern street festival that you now see emulated all over the Midwest.

Once upon a now, the city leaders of Rock Island have another plan, and this one's not so good.

The District has become a destination point for fun and nightlife in the Quad Cities. Drive 100 miles away and tell someone you're from Rock Island. "Ohhh, the District!" they'll say, I guarantee it. As a tourism and entertainment hub, a weekend in the District draws folks in by the thousands. From what I hear, in fact, the DJ at the club 2nd Ave. is such a talented, sexy, and mega-awesome draw that he sometimes forgets that his REAL day job is writing an unbiased newspaper column.

But the road to success doesn't come without a bump or two. Every time you've got thousands of people gathering together for revelry, the potential for problems is there. The District can help people have a great night out, but it can't stop people from occasionally being idiots.

Every night at 3 a.m., the nightclubs and bars of the District close up shop. And every night, thousands of folks are herded onto the downtown plaza, where occasionally fights can break out. Usually it's just a couple of morons, and it's handled quickly and effectively by the off-duty officers paid for by the clubs to patrol the area. Still, you get word of some fights and the next thing you know, people get worked up.

That's why the city council members are getting together to discuss ways of improving the District, and one of the proposals being discussed is to change Rock Island liquor licenses to 2 a.m. This isn't just a dumb move, it's a move that would spell the end for the District.

The bars and clubs of the downtown depend on the 3 a.m. closing time to prosper, plain and simple. Cutting operations by an hour is just bad business, and these clubs will close down, pack up shop and head for higher ground. Hundreds of bartenders, wait staff, and yes -- even talented, sexy, and mega-awesome DJ's -- will be out of work.

And then what happens to Rock Island? The casino's relocating in weeks, Circa '21 has made no secret of their efforts to keep attendance high -- and if the bars leave, so too will the folks who live in the downtown loft developments for the opportunity to be a part of the District (because they sure don't live there for the ample parking.)

Beyond the District, the downtown clubs also provide an extra 1% sales tax that goes straight into city coiffers, and that means tens of thousands of dollars disappearing from the city budget by losing that single hour of business.

The answer clearly isn't early closure. The same problems facing downtown Rock Island at 3 a.m. are occurring in downtown Davenport when they close shop at 2 a.m. Idiots don't set their watches to 3 a.m. for fightin' time. When Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood enacted similar changes, it didn't curb the violence -- but it DID result in the closure of over 80 successful businesses.

The answer is simple: Soft closure. Let the District bars stay open as long as they want. Don't panic - I'm not proposing 24 hours of drunken hedonism. At 3 a.m., all bars would stop serving alcohol and stop letting people in, but would continue pumping tunes onto dancefloors until the crowd slowly departs at their own pace. When you're not forcing 5000 people onto the streets at once, your potential for problems drops ten-fold.

At the end of the day, am I biased here? Sure I am. I'm proud to have worked in the District for the last 8 years, and I want to be there for 8 more. Despite the grumblings of online bloggers and naysayers, the District is the premiere fun and safe nightlife destination in the Quads. Hey, I'm a giant wuss and I wouldn't hang out someplace that's dangerous. But if you change the closing times to 2 a.m., you'll do little more than sign the death sentence for the arts & entertainment district we cherish.

Now someone help me off this soapbox so I can go play Guitar Hero.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

COLUMN: My Bloody Valentine

I think it was Gene Simmons of KISS who coined the phrase, "If it's too loud, you're too old." Sadly, of course, no one told Gene the follow-up rule: "If you're 59 years old and still putting on Spandex and demon make-up while boasting about your 'Love Gun,' it may also be time to roll up your tongue and call it a day.

Still, I've always thought ol' Gene had a point with the "too loud, too old" bit. In fact, I've spent an inordinate amount of my adult life worrying about that phrase.

See, I'm a music nerd. It's my only hobby, my only passion. It's even my second job -- spinning records for the dance club crowd down in the District every weekend. And thanks to Gene, I now wake up every morning in perpetual fear of discovering that music's too loud and I'm too old. I just know that one day, my alarm clock will go off to the radio, and my first thought of the day will be: "You confound kids with your gall darn rocking and your rolling! Shut that racket off!"

And that will be the day that my life ceases to have meaning.

I can already feel it happening. There's already a good chunk of Top 40 music that I just don't "get," be it the pointless aggression of metal bands like Disturbed (sample lyric: "Ooh ah ah ah ah! Awk! Awk!") or the repetitive drone of dirty South hip hop (sample lyric: "Yahhh, trick, Yahhh!") And, while I still dutifully go to the record store every week and walk out with a handful of new releases -- many of which are exceptionally good -- it's still the music of 20 years ago that gets the most play on my iPod.

My fate may be sealed. I'm guessing it's only a matter of time before I start calling my mom to borrow her Celine Dion and Kenny G records -- to play, of course, at a courteous and respectful volume.

I was bargain-shopping for Geritol when a text message showed up on my phone:


To the average mortal? Gibberish. To an aging music nerd in dire need of redemption? It was like being born again.

My music tastes occasionally run a little left of the dial, I realize. The bands and scenes that saw me through the college years are admittedly not for everyone. I experimented with all kinds of music, but one scene and one sound connected with me like none other: SHOEGAZING.

It's a term coined by a British music journalist in the early 90's while trying to describe a batch of bands coming out of the art schools of England. Bands that were taking basic rock melodies and layering them with waves of guitar overdubs, reverberating tremolos, and vocals so fragile and low in the mix that sometimes you couldn't discern what you were hearing. Bands so concerned with hitting the right effect pedals for their guitars that they would never look up when playing live - quite literally, they would be gazing at their shoes all night.

If there was ever music invented solely for me, this was it. I worshipped shoegazer bands like:








But above all of them, there was the band that essentially invented the sound:


With a name so evil, you'd think their music would be angry, right? Far from it. It's the most perfect noise ever confined onto record. If you believe me, it's the sound of God dreaming. If you believe my mom, it's a defective recording of a dying pig onboard a crashing airliner. And even after a 14 year hiatus, the band's devoted fans never gave up on their return. And when I got that text message, I knew it wasn't a joke. The Valentines were back.

Their music might not be angry, but it IS loud. So loud, in fact, they once held a Guinness record for being the loudest band on Earth. Ergo, as we made our way to Chicago's Aragon Ballroom last Saturday, earplugs were the primary fashion accessory. A half hour later, I was doing the impossible: I was seeing My Bloody Valentine play live.

And it was heaven. Loud, noisy heaven. A crushing wall of sound meeting a sea of music nerds, culminating in -- I kid you not -- 23 minutes of pure, mind-numbing, atonal feedback. It was like 12 jet airliners taxiing down the runway of my soul. And I sucked every second of it up (earplugs safely in place.) At times, we worried for the structural integrity of the Aragon Ballroom, but it held up. The crowd held up. I held up. And then, with nary more than a "Yea, thanks," they were gone again.

And so, too, was any notion that I was losing my music nerd credibility. My Bloody Valentine is NOT a band for amateurs. Even the dudes who listen to that scary death metal that sounds like the Cookie Monster screaming over a power drill might be spooked by the sonic maelstrom of an MBV gig. And I didn't just survive; I loved every minute of it. They're not for everyone (look 'em up on Youtube - you'll hate 'em, trust me,) but for this humble nerd, it was bliss -- and enough to convince myself that, officially, it's not too loud and I'm not too old.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Good to Know Life Still Sucks

Okay, so remember a few weeks ago when I wrote all the flowery praise about the new property manager at my apartment complex? The guy who evicted all the crappy tenants, towed away all the junk cars, put rules and groundwork in place to turn my complex around, and who stayed up for 3 days straight and bought us all food when the power went out?

Yeah, he quit today.

Turns out we're not getting new street lights. Nor are we getting new washers and dryers. Or pop machines. Or anything other than a slow and steady decline into the 'hood.

Instead, we apparantly have an owner who can't pay his employees and isn't willing to invest a dime in a complex he bought.

Sooooo... anybody know a good place to live?

COLUMN: Facebook

I've said it before, I'll say it again: I hate change. Some may call it a personal flaw -- I call it a way of life.

The underlying operating theory here is what I like to call The Scaredy-Cat Rule Of Suck: Change involves the unknown, and there's a decent chance that the unknown might very well suck. Ergo, my defense mechanism is to find the things in life that DON'T suck, and hold on to those things as hard as I can. Trust me, it works. Kinda.

Let's review. Rock Island doesn't altogether suck, so I call it home. My apartment complex can occasionally suck, but its better than owning a home that has the potential to REALLY suck. I've got a job I like, another job I like, friends I like, and a life I like. So who needs change, right? I'm staying put.

There's only one problem with the Rule of Suck, though. I can stay put all I like, but the pesky world keeps revolving despite my best attempts to make it stop. Unlike me, some of my friends AREN'T scaredy-cats, and have evolved. Moved away. Married. Procreated. Matured (shudder.)

There's nothing worse than friendships that drift apart. In high school, I had a tight clique. We did everything together and I knew in my heart of hearts that we'd be besties forever. But then I went to college and before I knew it, my little clique faded away. Well, that's cool, because -- lo! -- here's a whole new set of friends, and they're the ones I'll have forever and ever and ever, right? Well, until graduation and everyone but my nearest & dearest move away. Sigh.

In the end, my Rule of Suck is shallow, ill-conceived, and kinda sucks. Or at least it DID -- until a college kid named Mark Zuckerberg unknowingly fixed my dilemma from his Harvard dorm room. Mark Zuckerberg was the kid who got bored one day and created Facebook.com.

I've been a huge fan of social networking websites since Day One. Yes, thanks to the latest in cutting-edge technology and the greatest programming minds our generation has to offer, through extensive investments and manpower, we as a people finally have a better way to waste time at work than Windows Solitaire.

Friendster started it all. Here was a website where you could find your friends online and send spastic notes back and forth all day long. Friendster begat Myspace, which took social networking to a whole new dimension -- namely, the dimension where you could hit on available girls all day long. "You like cats?? I LIKE CATS, TOO!" After a while, though, the fun was gone -- as were most of the available girls my age -- so I shifted my societal networking priorities over to Facebook.

Like its predecessors, Facebook allows users to log on and send messages & updates to anyone who's accepted you as a friend. Having a bad day at the office? I can let my friends know all about it with the click of a mouse. Ate a bad hamburger? Tell 143 people you know in seconds. And more than anything, Facebook is like a family get-together, high-school reunion, and college homecoming in one.

My clique from high school? Reassembled. My college friends? Together once again. Within the past couple months, we've all found each other on the information superhighway. My friend Brian from high school may live in Japan now, but I can send him a crass joke in seconds. And every day, I keep hearing from the oddest and most distant memories.

That kid I used to play Commodore 64 with in middle school? He's now a ski photographer in Aspen. The guitarist from my favorite 90's band? He's having a baby any day now. I got a friend request the other day from an apparant stranger who informed me that I used to make her "crack up in Physics," a high school class I barely remember other my teacher's love of overhead projectors.

Of course, the downside about reuniting online is that, as I type, crusty old pictures from decades past are now soaring about cyberspace willy-nilly. I've rapidly learned that (a) there are no words to apologize enough for 80's hair, and (b) I was half the man then that I am today - mostly because I've apparantly eaten another whole person. Good lord, I had forgotten what skinny me looked like. I think it's a shape I'd like to see again someday.

Of particular concern to me is a pic from the early days of college, when a long day of thrift & antique store-hopping begat a rather horrifying image of me holding an accordion and attempting to, as the kids say, rock out. And the same modern technology that's brought us together on Facebook has also brought us Cafepress.com, where evil friends can submit awful photos of you and put them on t-shirts with the caption "SUPERFLY," sales of which are now in double digits.

And I suppose it's a little disheartening to have your classic memories shattered by contemporary reality. I don't need to know that the girl I had a puppy-dog crush on for years is now a bored-looking housewife. And just because I went to high school with you doesn't mean I want to play a game of online Scrabble or donate a cyber-plant to your cyber-garden.

Still, there's comfort in knowing that I haven't lost these people forever. The internet: an agent of NON-change. Who'd'a thunk it?

COLUMN: Hurricane

I knew it was time for the fall TV season -- I just didn't know it would turn out to be THIS exciting.

None of the networks could compete with the debut of "90210," could they? I watched that sucker and, within the first ten minutes, we'd already experienced (a) fisticuffs, (b) plagairism, (c) drug abuse, (d) teen promiscuity, and (e) at least two totally steamy love triangles. TV could get no more engaging, right?

How wrong I was. Little did I know that a network was ready to launch an even more exciting fall show -- a premiere that would take the list into letters like (f) (g) (h) and (i). It's just a shame that the network was CNN and those letters stood for Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike.

It's an inarguable fact that hurricanes suck. People have died, houses have been demolished, and the toll on families and budgets is all but immeasurable. But the only thing more despicable than the devastation on TV is, well, being able to watch the devastation on TV.

I knew Ike was going to be a doozy as soon as the NOA or the NWS or one of those fancy acronyms issued a statement to coastal Texas that said, "Anyone NOT evacuating from a low-lying area FACES CERTAIN DEATH." Now, that's a terrifying announcement -- and when you play it back, I swear you can almost hear a little noise in the background. I'm pretty sure it's the sound of Anderson Cooper drooling.

See, the networks figured out long ago that Mother Nature equals ratings gold. Scan your TV right now. Odds are good that you'll see some ice road trucking or deadliest catch fishing or, if you're especially lucky, shark week. There IS something captivating about the epic struggle of man vs. nature, especially for those of us lucky enough to live safely away from its impact. The citizens of our southern and eastern coasts may watch hurricane coverage for news and information -- but a good chunk of the country watches just to go "Whooooooa."

No one seems to know this better than my favorite Master of Disaster, CNN's Anderson Cooper. At the first sniff of bad weather, he always seems to be the first reporter on the scene, eager to stand outside in his yellow raincoat through the thick of torrential downpours and gale force wind, and I just don't get it.

Given today's scientific breakthroughs, I'm pretty sure the technology now exists to take a camera, mount it somewhere secure, point it outside, press the "ON" button, and run for your life before you're blown away to kingdom come. But no, despite the promise of CERTAIN DEATH, a hurricane just isn't a hurricane without getting to watch some reporter getting clobbered by the storm.

I got home from my weekend job at 3 a.m., just about the time Ike was making landfall in Galveston, a town known for (a) the second-best Glen Campbell song ever made and (b) its propensity to be washed away by hurricanes on a semi-regular basis. Galveston was at the heart of CERTAIN DEATH country, yet there were the reporters, hunkered down and barely able to talk over the crashing waves and gusting winds. CNN's crew was in a Galveston hotel whose owner had the good sense to evacuate while handing CNN his keys.

It was also the pitch middle of the night, so you couldn't really see anything going on. The same thing could have been accomplished standing in a TV studio with a guy off-camera going "whooooooooooosh" into a microphone. None of the reporters were really providing any news, either. They would just find new and exciting ways to say, "yes, it's really windy and rainy," while the anchors would go "maybe you should head somewhere safe" without really meaning it. I gave up and went to bed.

The next day, it took exactly 8 seconds to find Anderson Cooper in all his glory, standing in Texas floodwater up to his bellybutton and casually reporting on the Presidential race as though it were just another day at the office. The sun was out, birds were chirping, and in the background, all you could see were a myriad of places where he could have stood WITHOUT having to immerse himself in cootie-plagued bilgewater. But that would've been boring. Eventually he started interviewing people, who I'm assuming all had to wade out in protective gear just to be interviewed. It was ridiculous.

Not as ridiculous, of course, as the townsfolk who elected to stay through the storm. Call me cold-hearted if you want, but I have no sympathy for anyone perfectly capable of evacuating a town but choosing not to, like the nimrods keeping their bar open or the idiots on surfboards trying to hang ten on a natural disaster.

It's not like the old days when your first sign of a hurricane was a guy in a lighthouse with an eye to the sea going "uh oh." They were already monitoring Ike before Fay, Gustav or Hanna had struck land. For all I know, they could be tracking Hurricane Xerxes right now. There was plenty of time to hit the high road.

I saw them interview a guy who said, "This is my land, and I'm staying put." Well, Rock Island's a fine land, too -- but if someone came up to me and said, "Hey, Shane, you've got two options: you could hang out here or you could face CERTAIN DEATH," me and my cats would be on the first bus to Anywhere But Here. Don't worry, though, I'd leave Anderson my keys.

If you can, donate to the Red Cross and help Texas out. 1-800-REDCROSS.

COLUMN: Hospital

Occasionally, I like to think of myself as a hip, on-the-go urban city slicker. Sort of like "Sex and the City," but without the estrogen... or, come to think of it, the sex. But I'm not just a city dweller, I'm a QUAD city dweller, which should make it 4x as cool, right?

I grew up on a gravel road, five miles outside of Galesburg, a town with only (gasp) ONE Wal-Mart. I know, I know -- life was rough. Yet somehow I perservered to the bright lights of the Island of Rock.

Of course, coming here to Augie where all of my friends were from Chicago, I rapidly learned that, to them, the Quad Cities was little more than a slightly refined sequel to "Deliverance," just with running water and a few less banjos. And on our many sojourns to Chicago, I would witness their eye rolls every time I gaped in awe at the Sears Tower while travelling 10 mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic on something inexplicably named an "expressway."

Still, those trips to Chicago gave me a boost of big city confidence. I now know the names of Chicago neighborhoods and can get from Point A to Point B (just don't ask me to parallel park once I get there.) And when I found out that my dad had to go to Chicago for surgery last week, I was ready and able to be my parent's liaison to big city livin'. But none of my faux urbanism could have prepped me for the inner workings of a big city hospital.

First off, my dad's fine, so no worries there. After 30+ years of riding the rails on Burlington Northern, his spine had apparantly seen enough and was attempting to escape, one disc at a time. But the surgery went relatively well, and as I type, Dad's convalescing at home and expected to be good as new in a few weeks.

I'd decided to drive up late the night before, crash at a hotel, and join my mom at the hospital the morning of the surgery.A good plan in theory, yet I hadn't counted on a $200 room bill, a hotel full of rowdy drunken Germans, and a long night of insomnia. In the morning, I found the hospital, and it was a suburb unto itself. And that suburb was apparantly building another suburb, as half the place was under nightmarish construction. After parking in the convenient across-the-street, up-the-block, and down-a-hill parking garage, I hiked to the main entrance and made my way to the waiting room -- and Joyce.

Joyce sat at a desk and her job, best as I could tell, was to read the morning newspaper to herself. Occasionally, though, she'd be distracted by these pesky patients going into surgery. That's when she would take a deep sigh and recite the same speech to every family walking in: Here's a bag, patient's clothes go into bag, bag goes into closet, here's a pager, we'll beep you when your beloved family member is out of surgery (or, presumably, deceased.)

Something told me that deep inside, Joyce knew that she could easily be replaced by the JoyceBot 3000. It's ok, she was far better at reading the paper anyways. And when a construction worker mistakenly walked through the back door to the room, Joyce looked like her world was about to end.

So there we sat, with a pager that looked not unlike the "your table is ready" contraption you get at Olive Garden. This hospital had no fewer than 16 operating rooms going at once, and your could monitor it all via a video board that looked identical to an arrival/ departure screen at O'Hare -- except instead of Flight 106 arriving at Gate 12, it was Patient 10615 arriving at Surgical Post-Op (and hopefully not departing for anywhere whatsoever.)

My dad ended up in a hospital room the size of your average walk-in closet. I know that the hospitals in Galesburg probably don't offer the kind of cutting-edge technology as this place, but at least they feature room to stand. And they certainly don't feature Italian John.

Italian John was my dad's roommate, and HIS job was to make me afraid of ladders for the rest of my life. This was a guy who took a simple spill off of a 4 foot ladder onto a grass lawn, yet somehow had managed to mangle his legs to the point of a horror movie. He laid there in a gnarly traction device, pins jutting out of his flesh, moaning. Non-stop. "Ohhhhhhh." "Ughhhhhh." "Errrrrrr." Occasionally he would spice things up with a "I NEED TO GET THE (EXPLETIVE) OUT OF HEEEEERE," which may have been the only English in his vocabulary. Our only break was when he would fall asleep, where we would have approximately 2.5 minutes of peace before the snoring began. By the end, my dad was the one lying there in pain and I was the one wanting the morphine pump.

Later that day, I journeyed back to the Quads, humbled by my big city naivete and happy to be home. Even happier was my dad when he got released 3 days later. This week, I got a call from an old friend whose mom in Chicago had taken ill and required gall bladder surgery. "You wouldn't believe this place," she said, "There's construction everywhere and I don't even know where I am."

"Actually," I told her, "I WOULD believe this place. And when you meet Joyce, tell her the family of Patient 10615 says howdy."

Monday, September 22, 2008

COLUMN: Stalker

It all started on what was up 'til then a normal Sunday. Friend Jason was over for yet another evening of remarkably bad TV and video games -- when my phone rang. I took a look and it was a number I didn't recognize. Ooh, too bad for you, random caller, you get to meet Mr. Voicemail. On far too many occasions, I've had to explain to an unknown caller that despite their attractive and alluring sales pitch, my apartment continues to NOT need new siding. If it's someone important, they'll leave a message, right?

Well, no voicemail followed. But what I DID get a second later was a text message from the same number.


What the... Several things immediately went through my mind, and strangely not one of them involved going to my front door. If I wasn't going to answer the phone for a random stranger, I certainly wasn't going to invite them in for tea and crumpets. My actions at this point were dictated by years of my mother's advice, namely: STRANGER DANGER. It worked when I was 8, and as far as I'm concerned, it still applies at 38.

I chose the mature path, which was to immediately whisper-yell, "SHHHHHHHHHHH!" whilst quickly hitting mute on the TV and dodging the all-too-familiar eye roll from Friend Jason. Some people might embrace the unknown - I hide from it. The logic was simple: this number didn't belong to any of my close friends, and Ed McMahon's Prize Patrol would've surely picked a far less sinister introductory text message.

Ergo, this stranger -- now possibly perched outside my door -- surely was evil. Perhaps a serial killer. Perhaps a deranged fan of this column. Perhaps Tom Cruise, here to seek vengeance as only Maverick can at my public worship of Katie Holmes. One thing was certain -- I wasn't opening that door.

I tiptoed silently to the peephole and cautiously peered out. No one there. I crept back to the living room and picked up my phone. This was the exact text message conversation that followed:

Creepy Stalker Killer: R U HOME?
Creepy Stalker Killer: A MYSTERIOUS VISITOR
Creepy Stalker Killer: I WILL VISIT AGAIN SOON

And thus the conversation ended, with me on the edge of a paranoid breakdown. Eventually, though, I looked at it realistically. Freddy Krueger wouldn't fuss about with a Blackberry, he'd simply invade my dreams and kill me mercilessly sans text message. And if there IS someone out there stalking me creepily, I kinda feel sorry for them, as it must be one seriously boring pasttime ("Day 342: He continues to watch TV.")

So I put the whole episode out of my head -- until this past weekend. I was walking to my car en route to my weekend DJ gig when a nondescript car pulled into my lot. They were working on the lights in our lot, and on this night, it was so dark that I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I was at the door of my car when I heard:


Gulp. I tried to ignore it. Maybe they'd think I had my iPod on.


I spun, heart racing. The car had stopped near mine and an outstretched hand was holding a small box.

"Come here, I have something for you."

Did I recognize that voice? Maybe, I wasn't sure. I walked over with my finger hovering over the alarm button on my remote start. If I was going to die tonight, I'd at least do it a cacophony of car horns and flashing headlights.

"Here, it's a present." I looked down at the box in my hand and realized immediately that it was a videotape. By the time I looked up, the car had screeched away without giving me a glance at my creepy benefactor.

All through my DJ set that night, I couldn't stop thinking about the videotape. What could it be? What if it was someone hiding behind bushes filming me on my morning commute? I'd need adult diapers, that's what. I got home, stuck in the tape, and bravely pressed play...

...and discovered I was now the proud owner of a bootleg copy of the holy grail of Nerdvana: the Star Wars Holiday Special. Back in 1978, George Lucas had a momentary lapse of sanity and allowed CBS to air a made-for-TV, family-friendly atrocity that in 2 mere hours destroys any ounce of credibility that Star Wars once held. We're talking dancing Wookiees, Carrie Fisher singing, cameos from Art Carney and Bea Arthur, and a musical interlude from Jefferson Starship -- truly terrifying stuff that George Lucas has spent the past 30 years trying to disown and bury. Naturally, it's a must-own for nerds worldwide.

And I'm still not sure who my geeky gift-giver is, though my guess is that it's a local legend named Tom -- some of you might know him as Movie Tom for his encyclopediac film knowledge, others call him Officer Tom (because when he used to pop up at frat parties, he looked so out of place that we naturally took him for an undercover cop.) I go years without hearing from the guy, but when he DOES show up unannounced, it's usually with something cool, nerdy, or both.

One thing's for sure, though. Whoever it was, they were right: I think it DID make for an okay column.

COLUMN: Blog Stats, The Sequel

Over the years, I've come to terms with the fact that I can be a little weird.

I wear socks to bed religiously. I keep my apartment at 67 degrees year round. I'm incapable of keeping shoes tied. I never learned how to snap my fingers. When I concentrate on something, instead of doodling, I absent-mindedly sign my name hundreds of times over on scrap paper. I routinely chew my pens until they explode in my mouth. I'm definitely a little strange.

Yet no matter how weird I may be, it's comforting to know that you can always find someone weirder on the internet.

This is my favorite column to write every year. As you may know, I keep an archive of my weekly columns online (the address can be found at the bottom of this column.) When I first set up my blog, I also installed a stat tracker on it, just to make sure it attracted more than cobwebs. After having my stat program for a few months, though, I learned that it tracked something far more interesting than webpage hits: keyword searches.

Let's say you're looking something up on the net using a popular search engine like Yahoo or Google. If you type in a particular phrase that somehow pulls up MY blog as a result, my site keeps track of what you searched for -- and it proves that, when compared to the rest of cyberspace, I'm Joe Normal.

These are actual keyword phrases and questions that folks have searched for online over the past 12 months, leading them to my blog:

WHERE TO BUY LIVE BUMBLEBEE NESTS - Folks, nothing on Earth scares me more than bees. If you're looking to ME for provide answers on that one, sorry -- though I might be able to answer "How To Run Away From Live Bumblebee Nests Like A Screaming Ninny."

I LIKE TO PUT NOODLES DOWN MY PANTS - Good to know, thanks for sharing. Also glad to know that my combination of the words "noodles" and "pants" within a column or two of one another has turned my blog into a wayward home for creepy noodle perverts. The scary thing is, there's probably a website or chatroom out there devoted to erotic noodle placement.

WHAT DO I DO WITH MY SPICY TREASURE? - I'm not exactly sure. My advice? Talk to the noodle guy, I bet he's got some brilliant ideas.

INGESTING RUBBER - I suggest not.

CAN CHIPS AHOY CAUSE INTESTINAL LUMPS? - As a certified Chips Ahoy fan, I certainly hope not -- though perhaps it could explain my rotund mid-section.

HOW DID ALICIA KEYS GET A BIG BUTT? - If I had to wager a guess, I'd say Chips Ahoy.

WHAT DO DREAMS OF A PLATYPUS MEAN? - That you found something to do with your spicy treasure too soon before bed, I'd reckon.

WHAT IS MORE PATHETIC THAN GOING TO HOOTERS BY YOURSELF - I dunno. Perhaps coming home and doing an internet search for it?

AUNT FRITZI NUDE - I've been fascinated by the comic strip "Nancy" for some time, mostly because I find it creepily drawn and astoundingly unfunny. That said, Nancy's Aunt Fritzi is, I've gotta admit, a cartoon mega-hottie. Sadly, though, in all my years of reading, I've yet to see her cross the line into PG-13 territory. Besides, if she was naked, the world would be deprived of the bizarre country music T-shirts they like to put her in.

• While I'm thinking about it, we need to touch on "__________ NUDE." If the name of someone famous has ever come up in one of my columns, there's an internet weirdo who's done a search for them sans clothing, as if celebrities have nothing better to do with their time than strip down to their skivvies and apparantly give any resulting candid photos to me. KATIE HOLMES NUDE (82 hits) I can kinda understand, and if you find any, send 'em my way. TAYLOR SWIFT NUDE (108 hits)? Well, she's 18 now, so it's doesn't make you a criminal, just a skeevy perv. But, and I'm not kidding here, in the past year I've received hits for ED ASNER NUDE, AL ROKER NUDE, and my favorite, TERRY SWAILS NUDE (Tonight's forecast? A 20% chance of hot meteorological action!)

MITCHUM DEODORANT HAS TURNED BROWN IS IT STILL GOOD? - I'm no scientist here, but if I could offer some unsolicited, unqualified advice on this one -- NO. Eww. Throw your icky brown deodorant away, you internet freakshow.

COOL DJ NICKNAME ADVICE - Umm... DJ Fritzi? DJ Noodlepants? DJ Spicy Treasure? I'm out of ideas, and I'm afraid DJ Shane Brown is taken (on both mainlands, I'm afraid, as I met a British DJ Shane Brown thanks to my blog.)

GUITAR HERO CARPAL TUNNEL - Perhaps the most embarassing column I've ever written was when I 'fessed up that I was wearing a wrist brace and thought I'd done permanent damage to myself from too much Guitar Hero. I thought I was such a loser. And hey, I still might be -- but I'll have good company, as exactly 666 people have come to my blog this year with the same dilemma. And that's The Number of the Beast, which is a wicked Iron Maiden song that I've yet to five star on expert level, so I must be off.

P.S. Bea Arthur Nude. Ostrich Dreams. Salad Down My Pants With Ranch Dressing. (Hey, I'm just getting a headstart on next year's column.)