Tuesday, April 22, 2008

COLUMN: Banned

(or, the column where Shane ticks off half the Catholics in town.)

Time for a quick quiz: Name three things in history that have been banned by the church. Go!

Okay, let's see. 1) Abortion. Hmm, lemme think. Oh, okay: 2) Harry Potter. One more to go... umm, something banned by the church, eh? OH! I know. 3) ME.

That's right, folks. I am officially a Bad Boy. You read correctly -- lil 'ol me has been unceremoniously banned from an area church. The way I see it, I am one motorcycle and a temporary tattoo away from being an official menace to society.

It didn't even take much, either. I didn't have to bite the head off a bat or anything. Heck, I didn't even get a chance to bear false witness. Truth be told, I was banned from a church for reasons quite trivial.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably been exposed to the recent wave of charity trivia contests happening around town. What started as a small monthly gathering at the Blue Grass Community Club has evolved into an outright local fad. If it's a Saturday night, you can almost guarantee that somewhere close by, teams are gathering together to test their knowledge and raise money for a host of worthy causes.

I'm part of a team that plays in trivia events nearly every weekend. In fact, there's a good chance you might actually hate me. See, my team has this nasty habit of winning nearly every event we attend. I look at it not as a stroke of luck or a triumph of skill -- it's more like a testament to the pitifully embarassing nerds that we are. If you get beaten by my trivia team, don't feel bad. Pity us and take pride that you've had better things to do with your life than let piles of useless knowledge stack up in your brain.

My teammates are weird trivia junkies. We met one another at various trivia functions and joined forces to become a giant, 8-headed nerd monster. We're not undefeatable by any means - in fact, we've had our egos handed to us on many an occasion. But if the questions line up just right, we can be unstoppable.

We've got a geography guy, a history guy, a sports buff, a lit junkie... heck, we've got a 14-year-old on our team with more book smarts than the rest of us put together. And then there's me. I am our team's go-to guy for the most useless of knowledge: pop culture. I fit in nicely, as my smarty-pants teammates tend not to care a whole lot about Paris Hilton.

Most importantly, we make each other laugh -- and that's what we were doing the other night at a trivia event held at a Davenport church when all heck broke loose.

It wasn't the first time. At the same church last year, we were in the middle of a round of questions when one of the event staff came to our table and demanded that we immediately remove our notebooks. Our BLANK notebooks, mind you, which we use to scribe out and debate answers around the table. We were stunned, but obliged -- only to have the same dude hover over our table with a wary eye for the rest of the night. They never said it out loud, but the inference was loud and clear: someone suspected us of cheating.

Really? Come on now. Cheating at a charity benefit, especially one at a CHURCH, in hopes of winning the grand prize of $20? In the great list of Reprehensible Acts, that would be somewhere between baby-stealing and beating up Santa Claus. My teammates were flabbergasted and some vowed never to return to that church.

Me, I could forgive and forget. And besides, this church held great events. So we put together a new team and signed up for their contest last weekend. We even brought nine players, since we had routinely seen other oversized teams at their past events. We had something to prove, and this time, we left the notebooks at home.

The game went our way. There was even a Beatles category for me to salivate over. We won handily and felt redeemed. All in all, it was a great night out... until the organizers declared that our team had to forfeit due to our extra player. Never mind that 9-person teams could be seen all over the room and that a TEN-person team had won there last year. Never mind that they gladly took the entry fees from all nine of us without complaint.

Our team captain was livid and went to complain. We didn't care about taking home a prize, we cared about respect. Eventually, they begrudgingly credited us with the win. But as we packed up to leave, things escalated. Suddenly, there was the event organizer quite literally SCREAMING at our team captain, calling us "losers." Calling us things I can't print in a family paper. And -- in the middle of a church, mind you -- yelling at us to "get the (expletive) out and never come back." Not that I'd dream of returning.

It's stupid to get worked up over what's supposed to be a fun game for a good cause. I suppose it was stupid of me to write complaint letters this week to everyone from the church pastor to the head of the Davenport Diocese. And maybe it's stupid of me to whine about it in a column. But being called a loser and getting banned from a church wasn't exactly on my weekend "to-do" list, so I think I deserve a whine or two.

In the meantime, I guess I've got to get used to my newfound bad boy image. Join me next week, when I take candy from babies and rip tags off mattresses with wild abandon.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Okay, here's where I deserve to be slapped around a bit, as I've spent the past month righteously neglecting this blog.

The GOOD news, though, is that I'm making up for it by posting the last 4 weeks worth of columns all at once. They should be below. I'll be more diligent in the future. Which reminds me, diligent is a funny word. Diligent diligent diligent.

COLUMN: Fiction

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my absolute lack of concern when it comes to fashion. I wouldn't know what trends are in vogue even if I was looking in Vogue while listening to En Vogue.

Still, I've apparantly got enough fashion smarts to recognize one thing about myself: I look terrible in green.

One of my closest friends spends her off hours writing books for the demographic I believe you're supposed to call "young adults." And she's great at it. She's already managed to woo a big city agent and is hopefully on her way to a publishing deal.

Happily, whenever she finishes a new book, she lets me have dibs at reading the first draft. This makes for some spirited lunches, where we ponder such questions as "If you were the main character and in 9th grade, and you were kinda cool but not SUPER cool yet somewhat intellectual, would you listen to Beyonce?" (Answer: Beyonce isn't cool no matter WHAT grade you're in.) The wait staff at Ross' must think that we're certifiable.

She just finished her new one, and it's fantastic. It's truly a page-turner, despite the fact that it's clearly written for people half my age, more specifically GIRLS half my age. I didn't care. I got sucked in to her story line regardless, and by the halfway point, I was sitting there going, "Omigod, she had BETTER find a boyfriend before the big Homecoming dance!"

It's so weird that every character, every line of dialogue, and every word in this book came out of the brain of one of my best friends. I'm so happy for her, and so hope that she finds success in such a difficult market to break. That said, the whole scenario is also turning me an icky shade of green.

I can't NOT hear the evil voice in my head that goes, "If SHE can do it, YOU can, too!" That's not to say that I fancy myself a better writer than her, but I mean, heck, the newspaper donates a page for my drivel every week, ergo I must be a Super Awesome Talented Writing Dude, yeah? Fiction for kids -- how tough can it be?

Answer: Very.

Over the past few weeks, I've put pen to paper (okay, who am I kidding, fingers to laptop) and tried to muster up a Work of Fiction For The Ages. Specifically, the ages of 12-15.

This isn't my first stab at cracking open my laptop and hoping that the Great American Novel will pour out. Writing a classic novel involves a level of intellect I simply can't muster up. Think back to your lit classes in high school. Powerful fiction involves symbolism and imagery and poetic narrative and all that other stuff that bores me to tears. I don't think like that, and I can't write like that.

Maybe my problem, though, is that I've been setting my sights too high. I could write 10,000 pages about grapes, and they'd never end up Wrathful. My Gatsby would not be Great; he would be The Mediocre Gatsby at best.

Kids, on the other hand, don't need symbolism. Dr. Seuss didn't write allegorical morality tales about mankind's struggle against societal oppression. He wrote about cats. In hats. This is more my speed.

In fact, I've got a few ideas for a kid's adventure book that could theoretically work if someone with talent were to piece it together. Unfortunately, I decided to do it instead. Bad move. After writing a few pages, I sat back to re-read the beginnings of my epic tale. Annnnnnnd WOW do I suck. What I was convinced would be a future career move turned into the fastest-deleted file in the history of my laptop.

Apparantly, I'm incapable of writing in ANY voice other than the one you're reading now. What I created was no less than five characters who were all, umm, me. Everyone talked, thought, and acted exactly like I would in their situation. My young protagonist hero already had a sarcastic pessimism and a sailor's mouth. The girl of his dreams was a sarcastic pessimist in Katie Holmes' body. The parents could have been locked up for child neglect, whom they neglected in a most sarcastically pessimistic way. The underlying moral at work appeared to be "Well, kids, life's a hopeless suckfest, might as well make fun of it while you can." It was not a good start.

I needed help, so I turned to the mecca of children's adventure lit: I went out and bought myself a Hardy Boys book. In the great pantheon of kid-lit, no heroes were truer to my heart than the brothers Hardy. I opened the book excited to relive my youth.

One small detail the 8-year-old me must have never picked up on: it was written in 1927! I'm somehow supposed to use THIS as inspiration? Seriously, these are lines in the book like:

"Say, we fellows should search for my jalopy after we dine on this Welsh rabbit!" "That's a swell idea, chum!"

Greeeat. Then we can all watch a new-fangled talkie and do the Lindy Hop down to the speakeasy while we oppress minorities and give women subservient societal roles! That'd be the bees knees! Sigh.

So I'm back to square one: a half-corked idea and a writer with a loooooooong way to go. J.K. Rowling I am NOT. Still, I'm not giving up quite yet. Maybe there's a novel idea of a novel in me yet. I'll still keep plugging away at the laptop, though I've changed out of my envious green into a more comfortable embarassment red.

COLUMN: Spooky

Well, it's official. Spring has sprung. In little to no time, birds will be chirping. Skies will be blue. Leaves will grow, flowers will bloom, hills will be alive with the sound of freakin' music. It's the happiest time of the year.

Which, of course, is why I've been surrounding myself these days with gloom, doom, and things that go bump in the night.

I don't know what the deal is, but every time I've turned on the TV this past week, I've been sucked into random shows about ghosts and ghouls and witches and aliens and any assorted hodge-podge of hocum-pocum. I don't understand why these shows are attacking our airwaves in such fury this month, and even more baffling, I don't know what my strange compulsion is to constantly watch them.

I'm no fan of being scared. While many of my nerdling friends made heroes out of Freddy and Jason and Michael Myers, I was having none of it. In early high school, I came up with the brilliant idea of asking a girl to one of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" flicks. Not a bad idea, right? Freddy kills somebody, the girl goes "eek" and seeks comfort in the strong, brave arms of her ruggedly handsome teenaged escort.

As I sat there in the theatre watching this thing, I should have been concerned about getting to second base. Instead, I was concerned about trying not to pee my pants every time Freddy jumped out. That was my last in-theatre trip to a horror flick.

And those movies are super corny compared to the monstrosities that play in theatres now. Just sneaking up on some hapless victim with a hatchet is SO 1985. Today's horror movies don't stop rolling until the hapless victim is fileted, dismembered, and if you're especially lucky, eaten. And frankly, theatre owners should put a stop to it, as you'd assume there MUST be a negative correlation between the number of full-screen disembowelments and concession sales of hot dogs.

The point is, I hate being scared. I hate movies where everything is nice and peaceful and calm and BWAAAAAAA LOOK OUT FOR THE HATCHET! I get no entertainment value out of elevated blood pressure. On the OTHER hand, if something can be eerie and creepy without being downright scary, sign me up.

I dunno why, but I've always wanted to believe in ghosts and aliens and paranormal whatzits, provided they keep their hatchets to themselves.

When I was a kid, I saw an allegedly true story about a group of lost hikers somewhere in the desert Southwest. Those hikers would have died, had it not been for the kindly ghost of an Indian tracker who led them all to safety. Neat story until I went to bed that night.

See, my aunt had recently given me a large stuffed dog. I mean, LARGE. The sucker stood taller than me and took up a third of my bedroom. And when my mom would tuck me in and shut off the lights, all you could see at first was this dog's huge plastic eyes. Except, after watching that show, it wasn't a dog.

Nope, it was the Indian tracker ghost. He was stuck inside my dog, he was staring at me through those soulless plastic eyes, and he was anything but kindly. I'm pretty sure he wanted to eat my brain. So every night, after my mom would tuck me in, I would silently creep out of bed, remove the covers from my pillows, and flop them over the dog's eyes so that whatever lurked inside couldn't spy on me. I did this for YEARS.

So a good ghost story can have an impact. That's why I'm addicted to stuff like Sci-Fi's "Ghost Hunters" and A&E's "Paranormal State." I want to find out if there's even an iota of truth to the paranormal, and these shows, while admittedly campy, at least try to use some semblance of science to seek answers. Sure, usually it's a team of people going, "Ooh! What was that banging noise?" followed by an hour trying to establish if it was something banging or SOME THING banging. Most episodes end with a question mark and no conclusive evidence, but at least once a season, they manage to capture some seriously spooky audio or video that makes even the biggest of skeptics raise an eyebrow or two.

I'd love to be a firm believer in the paranormal, but I'd certainly prefer my ghosts to be of the "Casper-the-friendly" variety. I'd like to hope that, should an afterlife exist, I'd prefer it involve more than floating around my apartment for all of eternity spooking any new tenants. If your only job is to make the occasional banging noise in the middle of the night, you'd think that would certainly equal a lot of post-mortem downtime.

Still, I'm fascinated by it all. When the Iowa Paranormal Advanced Research Team investigated an area haunting about a year ago, they let me tag along to write a story for the paper. IPART is the region's only investigators recognized by TAPS (the folks behind the "Ghost Hunters" show,) and they take the job seriously. After the article ran, I became a member of IPART. I don't have many weekends free to go spectre sleuthing, but I still love to take part in the evidence analysis and their efforts to prove the existence of the supernatural. Laugh if you want, but there are weirder hobbies out there.

So, hey, if you think you've got an undead buddy lurking in the shadows of your house, shoot me an e-mail and I can pass it on to IPART. Unless they're chasing you with hatchets, in which case I'll wish you well and take a raincheck.

COLUMN: Toilets

As I was leaving work last Friday, I bumped into Sean Leary, our entertainment editor. Sean's mere days away at this point from becoming a first-time dad, so his life has been a whirlwind of home remodeling and baby-prepping.

"How're things going?" I asked. "Did you get the place all baby-fied?"

He then spouted off a checklist of accomplished renovations. Room redesign, nursery creation, wall painting... the list went on and on while my head swam. Here was somebody of similar age and mindset to myself -- yet all grown up, mature, and doing things with his living space I couldn't dream of. He's putting up wallpaper. I, meanwhile, still get jittery when I have to change a lightbulb (Am I using too much force? Is the bulb going to shatter? Should I wear an oven mitt?)

I've got to face it. When it comes to fix-it type stuff (and, well, most things related to independent, self-sufficient survival,) I'm pretty much a flunky. Yet this week, I accomplished my most challenging feat of home improvement yet. And it started, as most good stories do, sitting on the toilet.

There I was, deeply engrossed in some pretentious music magazine's list of The World's Greatest Albums Ever. What? How could they ignore the genius of The Kinks' 1970's output? Any music critic with half a clue would tell you that -- KA-BAM!!!!

-- And I was falling to the floor.

My natural instinct was to assume that I had been shot. Obviously, a pack of toilet-raiding banditos had broken into my apartment, crept into my bathroom with ninja-like stealth and precision, and offed me at point-blank range. And that's where they'd find me, pants around my ankles, just like Elvis. LIFE OF COLUMNIST TRAGICALLY FLUSHED AWAY BY BATHROOM NINJAS, the headline would read.

But I wasn't shot. Not even grazed. In fact, the only thing wounded was my pride. So what the heck happened? That noise -- the ear-splitting, heart-stopping bang -- was the sound of my toilet seat snapping in two. Half was still attached to the toilet, the other half on the floor with me.

This would normally be a clear-cut sign that it's time to lose some weight -- or, at the very least, introduce fiber to my diet. In fact, it would have officially Freaked Me Out, had I not known it was coming. See, during my last home improvement kick - Installing A New Shower Head - I tried a fancy manoevre involving standing on the toilet seat for leverage. Leverage I did NOT attain, but cracking the toilet seat I DID manage to pull off flawlessly.

That was four years ago. In the epic battle of Laziness vs. Toilet Repair, lazy won out. I had learned to live with that crack through the good times and bad. You know how annoying it was when your grandmother would come up and pinch your cheeks? Well, it's kinda like that -- if grandma was a toilet seat and she was pinching an altogether different set of cheeks.

Still, I made do, and just assumed that one day, it'd break. And that day, it broke. I needed a replacement post-haste. But where does one turn for toilet seats? I'm a total novice here. Is there a Toilet Seat Emporium someplace? A catalog I could peruse? Shockingly, the Yellow Pages had no section for Toilet Seats.

Ergo, I went to one of those 24-hour-Super-Mega-Conglom-O-Marts. "Welcome," said the greeter, "can we help you find anything today?"

"Sure can," I replied with a chuckle. "You won't believe it, but I sat on my toilet seat today and broke the thing in two!" In the world of Too Much Information, this was perhaps a record-setting statement. Despite looking at me as though I were there to lure small children into my unmarked van, she dutifully pointed me to the toilet seat aisle.

And I mean aisle. I was expecting toilet seats, but I certainly wasn't expecting a wall of them. Blue ones, pink ones, ones with little palm trees and ocean vistas so that every trip to the potty is like a tropical get-away. Happily, though, I was able to whittle away the selection right away. Why? One word -- "cushioned."

In my day-to-day activities, I am a fairly well-cushioned individual. I lead a padded life, from my poofy desk chair to my overstuffed sectional, from my padded pillows to the padded cell they'll probably lock me in one day. I'm a guy who appreciates cushions. That said, one place where cushions NEVER belong is the bathroom.

I never want to sit on a toilet and hear "koooooooooooosh" as the seat deflates. And let's not even dwell upon the awkward issue of trying to stand up while the vinyl seat is adhered to one's nether-region, as if the toilet itself were clinging to its only companion for dear life. Fact: Padded potties are just gross.

Finally I found a sturdy, no-nonsense, run-of-the-mill replacement seat. And I brought it home and installed that sucker all by myself (though the deceptive pop-top screws almost threw me for a loop.) Yes, my hands had to touch parts of my plumbing that could be legally classified a level 3 biohazard, but I got the job done. I am a Mr. Fix-It after all.

So good news, ladies of the Quad Cities. I'm apparantly mature and stuff, which means (at least according to my grandchild-pleading mother) that it's time to procreate. Step lively, the line forms to the left.

COLUMN: Clothes

If there's one thing out there that I tend not to give a hoot about, it is -- as my friends can likely attest -- fashion. On any given day, my wardrobe usually consists of a funny t-shirt, khaki pants, and a pair of cheap Vans. If it's a work day, I'll have an ugly polo or sweater temporarily hiding the funny t-shirt o' the day. And if you catch me on a particularly high-fashion day, maybe -- just maybe -- I'll have on my Greek fisherman's cap.

Long ago, I realized that my brain simply isn't in tune with fashion sensibilities. I get a kick out of watching that show "Project Runway" -- the kid who won this season is a show unto himself -- but I've NEVER understood it. Every episode builds to the climactic runway show, where the wanna-be designers parade their outfits down the catwalk to the assorted ooh's and eww's of the judges.

And I can never tell the difference. An outfit can stroll by that I think looks fairly decent, and then you'll see Heidi Klum making a concentrated effort to restrain her gag reflex. I've just never taken much stock into what people are wearing. God forbid I ever get robbed one day:

"Sir, can you describe the assailant? What was he wearing?"
"Umm... I'm pretty sure... yes, I'm positive that he was wearing clothes."

The truth is, you could safely come up to me dressed as a rutabega and I probably wouldn't take note of it. My brain is simply not programmed to notice these sorts of things. The only way you could get me to remember your outfit is if you forget to wear it altogether. Naked people I remember well.

So naturally, me and clothes shopping don't get along. I'm not a fan whatsoever, and when I DO have to do it, I want to bring home enough clothes that I don't have to do it again for a really long time. Lately, though, I've been running into a problem.

That problem? My wallet. You would think that my problem would entail my wallet being too empty to shop for clothes. Au contraire. The problem is that my wallet is too full. Acquaintances from decades past, enough insurance cards to provide medical coverage to most of the Quad Cities, little slips of paper with phone numbers that may or may not be of crucial importantance -- my wallet is the centrifuge of my life.

The downside, though, it that it does bad things to pants. In the course of the past month, I have managed to put holes in the rumps of no fewer than three pair of older khakis, all due to the strain of trying to cram a hard drive full of information into my back pocket.

There's only one thing I hate more than clothes shopping, and that's laundry. Less hole-free clothes = more trips to the laundry. More laundry = more wear and tear on my shrinking pants collection. It was a losing cycle, and I had to admit that it was time to (gulp) shop.

One place exists that caters to the fashion ignorants of the world. A store where everything is so fashion-free that it's a safety zone for shopping idiots like me. A store where everything pretty much matches everything else. In fairness, I won't say the name of this store in print -- let's just say that it rhymes with Old Gravy.

Now, I won't give Old Gravy much grief, because it truly is a Godsend. Admit it, the store is so generic that it might as well have a blue and white sign that just says "CLOTHES" in front of it. And I'm perfectly okay with that. I'm all in favor of a store that lets you leap in, buy some cheap pants, and leap out uninterrupted and with sanity intact.

Only one problem, it turns out. It appears that I am now OFFICIALLY a walking freakshow, as I now require a pant size that's an endangered species in and of itself. I know I'm an out-of-shape, roly-poly mess, but I didn't quite think that I was the ONLY out-of-shape roly poly mess in the universe. Apparantly I am, as my pant size was practically non-existant in the racks of Old Gravy.

In fact, I went through every stupid pair of khakis the store had and discovered exactly SIX pair my size, and I bought the lot. Of those six, four of them actually fit when I got home. I know, I know. Shoulda tried 'em on at the store, stupid. But I can't wrap my head around the fact that a waist size should be a waist size should be a waist size, right? It's a measurement, it shouldn't be open to debate. Yet it appears that those little waist numbers mean a vast variety of things in the language of Old Gravy.

Still, I made do, and even picked up some more polos and sweaters to cover up my burgeoning mid-section as best possible. Maybe my two non-fitting pants will be a catalyst to get off the couch and shed some of this belly. And these cargo pants even look big enough to hold the overweight cargo I call a wallet, so maybe they'll last a while. Sadly, though, my word limit for the week has reached its end, which means I can no longer use this column as an excuse to avoid doing laundry. Wish me luck.

Monday, April 07, 2008

2 Hours of Life Lost

Okay, so there are bad movies.

And then there are REALLY bad movies.

And then there's "Next" with Nicholas Cage.

BAAAAAAAAAAAD OnDemand choice, Shane.

I'm just sayin'.

Sorry for the lack of updates, I've been forgetful. New columns coming in the next day or two, promise.