Wednesday, June 25, 2008

COLUMN: Turn Signal

What? You're kidding, right? Vacation's OVER?! I need to write a new column, you say? But... I'm playing Rock Band, can't this wait? No? Sheesh, okay, fine.

Well, I suppose the first thing I should touch on is Kanye West. The self-proclaimed "brightest star in the universe" brought his Glow In The Dark Tour to the iWireless Center last week, and sadly, our paper didn't get to cover it. Apparantly, priority had to be given to the entire state of Iowa being one Shamu away from our very own underwater adventure park. In addition, Kanye's star is apparantly SO bright that no members of the press were allowed in to capture his heavenly visage.

It's a shame, too, because it was one of the most elaborate productions to ever grace the iWireless stage, and definitely a show I won't be forgetting for some time. Too bad that the most memorable parts happened AFTER the show got out.

My friends and I knew things were getting interesting about halfway through the gig. Chris Brown had just jumped onstage with Rihanna (a total surprise and the highlight of the concert) when we first started to hear the rumblings of thunder from a distant outdoors. That's when the gossip mill opened for business.

Folks around me were getting text messages on their cell phones and whispers were flying throughout the venue, each one more dramatic and catastrophic than the last: Tornado sirens were going off. Funnel clouds had been seen in Moline. Tornados had been seen in Moline. Tornados were bearing down on the iWireless Center. Mothra was destroying the entire Quad Cities.

Eventually, we decided to check it out for ourselves and headed outside for a peep -- only to be turned away by an armada of iWireless staffers and police. Apparantly, some of the hype was real. Tornado sirens WERE going off. Funnel clouds HAD been spotted. Greeeeat.

No worries, right? The professionals had assessed the situation and determined that the safest course of action would be to return to our seats safely underneath a one-ton lighting truss. As I wondered what it would feel like to be konked on the head by a spotlight at gale force velocity, I reminded myself that we'd obviously be fine. We were, after all, in the presence of greatness. I'll guarantee you that at some point in his career, Kanye West has declared himself more powerful than Mother Nature. Surely his egotism would protect us all. And hey, worst case scenario, if we DID end up going to the pearly gates en masse, at least we'd have a groovy soundtrack for the ride.

At the end of the show, as Kanye was prattling on about being bigger than the Beatles and U2 combined, we made a break for the exit. Now thankfully un-blocked, we strolled out of the concert into full-on weatherpocalyse. Rain was pelting us sideways. Lightning ripped through the skies. Cows and small children flew through the air willy-nilly. Okay, maybe no cows, but it was nasty. By the time we made it to the car, I was sopping. Seriously, I've taken showers and gotten less wet.

Once inside my ATB (All-Terrain Beetle,) we were kindly directed by parking staff onto River Drive and a foot and a half of standing water. We made it about 100 yards before the finest in German engineering went "Achtung!" und das engine went kaput. After a refreshing nature hike (aka pushing the car 2 blocks to high ground,) it restarted -- kinda -- and I was able to chitty chitty bang bang it home while giving my friends mild cases of whiplash.

I was hoping all would be well the next day, and for the most part it was. The Quad Cities hadn't blown away, my apartment was still above water, and my car started up problem-free. Then I moved it and discovered right away that my turn signals and hazard lights were done for. It was Friday afternoon. I called every garage I could think of, but was given estimates from 3-10 days and excuses like, "We'd love to help, but we're a little underwater at the moment." Stupid flood.

So I had to make do all weekend without turn signals. I flashed back to angry ol' Mr. Bunch's Driver's Ed class. There were hand signals for these moments of crisis, right? Straight out for a left turn, up for a right turn. I could do this for a few days.

A couple problems, it turns out:

(1) Sticking your arm straight out into the path of oncoming traffic is kinda stupid on the narrow streets of Rock Island.

(2) Sticking your arm up to indicate that you're turning right looks a heck of a lot like you're waving to strangers, which is exactly what every passing car thought I was doing. My hand would be saying, "Hi, I'm turning right." Their hand would instinctively reply, "Why are you waving at me, freakshow? This is awkward but I guess I'd better wave back. Wave-ity wave wave!"

So, Quad Citizens, I apologize if you were one of the folks accosted by a weird dude in a Volkswagen challenging you to a waving match this weekend. I swear I was simply trying to turn into Taco Bell. Which brings me to my final important learned lesson: When one is trying to shift, wave, steer, and eat at the same time, one's Cheesy Double Beef Burrito WILL land on one's rather expensive silk shirt.

I'm sending the dry cleaning bill to Kanye.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Friday, June 06, 2008

COLUMN: Parents

It's the first week of June in the year two thousand and eight, and I strangely find myself with something quite unexpected and interesting: a pretty solid prospect for a girlfriend.

That's right, ladies, you can commence weeping. Yours truly may be off-the-market for a hot minute. (Hang on to those dance cards, though. I'm certain I'll drive her away soon enough with my endless prattle about music and video games. Just wait.)

In the meantime, though, I'm a pretty happy guy -- but I'm having a tough time remembering exactly how to pull off this whole "dating" business. I'm seriously out of practice. There's more to it than just sitting on one's couch and going "sooo, w'sup?" when the commercials hit.

I have to remember to to open doors and pull out chairs. To NOT schedule Rock Band practices EVERY night of the week. To be, like, a gentleman and stuff. Yikes.

I'm giving it my best shot. This past weekend, I survived the ultimate trial by fire. The scariest part about dating someone new. The evening most guys dread with a lump in their gut. The night that can make or break an entire relationship:

I met the parent.

Over the years, I've walked through a lot of doors, and I've had to meet a lot of parents. From these encounters, I've learned one very important fact:

Parents either LOVE me or HATE me. There's no middle ground whatsoever. If they've got a good sense of humor, I can usually win 'em over. If they don't, I'll be bound to do something stupid and blow the whole deal.

Flashback: 1990. I was dating a girl whose parents lived in the south suburbs of Chicago. I'd only had a couple of brief run-ins with them when an opportunity presented itself to get in some quality time with her folks. My roommate at the time needed a ride to a debate tournament at a school that just happened to be in the same Chicago suburb. I gave him a lift, and in turn earned an excuse to spend a weekend earning brownie points with the folks, right?

Well, back in the 90's, there used to exist a record store in the suburbs called The Turntable. It was the mecca for hardcore music nerds like me. Never again will there be a record store as exciting, awesome, or nerd-tastic, trust me. And being in the suburbs for the weekend, I wasn't about to let an opportunity to pay homage go to waste. So after dropping my roommate off, I decided to make a quick shopping detour.

What I didn't realize at the time is that it's one loooong drive from the south suburbs of her hometown to the north suburbs of The Turntable. And, because expressways used to spook me, I decided to do it on side streets. How long could it possibly take?

The answer: ALL DAY. And some of the night. By the time I had snaked up there, made a breathless perusal for music, and snaked back, the stars were out. Not only had I managed to miss reservations with her parents for dinner, I had completely stranded my roommate at the debate tournament, to the point that he had to call HER parents for a lift to our hotel. Since I couldn't reach her folks by phone, I'm sure they could only assume that I'd chosen an odd time to kidnap their daughter and flee the area. In the grand scope of bad impressions, this was legendary.

It's the recollection of such episodes that explains why I found myself in my car on Sunday, driving to meet my maybe-girlfriend's mom, sweating like a teenager. 37 years old and my mind was still preparing scripts. "It's SUCH a pleasure to meet [whoever's in the room.]" "Ooh, this is such a nice [whatever I'm staring at.]" "Yes, I LOVE [whatever food product is being made.]" Basically anything that DIDN'T say, "Hi. I'm kind of a loser. I'll be the one corrupting your precious daughter. Hand her over."

Instead, when I got there, what I said was: nothing. I walked in the door and it was as if every synapse in my brain suddenly went on strike. I met her mom, sat down, and zoned out to the TV like a zombie. Rather than take command of the situation to make a good impression, I instead chose to concentrate fully on "America's Funniest Home Videos" as though a guy getting kicked in the groin was THE most infinitely fascinating thing I had ever seen.

I am, it turns out, kind of a loser. Happily, though, her mom ISN'T. It turns out she's really cool. She's funny, she's sarcastic, and she doesn't take grief from anybody. She's my kind of people, even if she DOES have a weird fetish for chicken-related knick-knacks. And I should talk -- just last week I bought an etched glass paperweight of a unicorn inexplicably jumping over a lobster. Compared to THAT thing, chickens are pretty normal.

The point is, whenever you're faced with a similar scenario, just be yourself, even if yourself is a bit of a weirdo. It's always a better fate to be hated for something you are than to be loved for something you're not. All you can do is try and earn respect and trust, and that's better than any first impression. Here's to you, Mrs. S. Thanks for going easy on me.


Life is full of do's and don'ts.

Some don'ts are common sense. DON'T put your hand in the fire. DON'T eat the yellow snow. DON'T listen to Clay Aiken.

Other DON'Ts can only be learned by a catastrophically uneducated DO. The other weekend, i DID a DON'T (and not in one of those high-five-your-friends-later sorta ways.)

It started, simply enough, with a phone call. I was faced with the unenviable position of a trip to the mall. I've written before of my disdain for all things mall-related, but I was in dire need of new summer shirts. Rather than make the journey solo, I decided to call my friend Linn. I'm fashionally-challenged and it never hurts to have a female judge in tow to avoid me coming home looking like America's Next Top Weenie.

"Hey!" I said in the best I'm-super-excited voice that I could muster up, "Here's an idea! Wanna go to the mall and help me buy some shirts?"

"Sure," she said, "I need some new shoes for my sister's wedding. Is it cool if we stop at some shoe stores?"

Here's the DON'T.

"Yeah," I said, "I'm game."

Note to self: In the future, when a girl asks you to help her shop for formal shoes, you are NOT game. You are not anywhere near game. You exist in a game-free world. That day, I was game -- and it was a game I eventually lost. I'm kidding... kinda. Linn's one of my oldest and closest friends and it actually ended up being a fun afternoon out. But I learned more that day about the inner workings of the female mind than I was ready for.

For instance, I learned that when a girl says, "I just need to find some brown shoes that'll go with my dress," what it REALLY means is, "In my mind, I have created the ideal shoe. A shoe that, when worn, will quite possibly bring wars to a close and heads of state to their knees. It is the perfect shoe, and I will settle for nothing less."

Which brings me to Important Things I Learned Numbers Two and Three -- that it is entirely possible for one pair of shoes to be "TOO brown" and another pair to be "not brown ENOUGH." Clearly, this was no routine expedition. We were on a mission -- and I took upon myself the role of apprentice.

How about these? "Too strappy." Fair enough, what about THESE? "Too heel-y! Do you want me to fall and kill myself?" Okay, okay, HERE is the perfect pair. What? Yes, I KNOW they're neon aquamarine, see-through, and covered in glitter -- but you've gotta admit, these are some pretty stylin' shoes, yeah?

Eventually, about three stores in, I started to get the hang of it. I was the one going, "Eww, TOO brown." Finally, I spotted them. Not too brown yet brown enough, straps to a tasteful minimum, heels at what I can only assume to be a manageable level. Holy smokes, had I found THE shoes? Anxiously, I summoned my tutor over.


"Hmmm...," came the reply after some thought. "Maybe."

"Maybe" involved pulling out a camera phone and holding an impromptu modeling session.

"What ARE you doing?" I asked.

"Well, it's my sister's wedding. I want to get her approval," she said while sending photos of shoes across several hundred miles of the information superhighway.

Really. Girls DO stuff like this, guys -- and my friend is NOT a prissy, shopping-obsessed stereotype in the slightest. Girls just care SO much about shoes that it takes a mall full of stores and a consortium of their peers to pick the perfect pair. And what the girls don't realize in the slightest is that we guys couldn't care less.

Ladies, you could wander amuck in clown shoes and most of us wouldn't notice. And for that small percentage of guys who DO notice feet? well, there's a vast network of intricate and astoundingly weird websites for those folks.

I'm sure I irritated my friend to no end that day. Every time she asked for my opinion, I was like, "They're nice, I guess. I dunno, they're SHOES." This would earn me an eye-roll that clearly indicated my apprenticeship was lacking. Meanwhile, whenever we encountered a shirt store, here's what I got: "These are all great. Just buy some and don't be so picky." Sigh.

Granted, she DID stop me from buying a henley with sleeves far too wee for non-muscular me. And she DID stop me from buying a sports coat that was, apparantly, icky. And she DID give me an immense amount of grief over the fact that I was clearly buying these clothes in a shallow attempt to look good for the new girl I've been seeing.

"See," she said with a grin, "we're BOTH just trying to look cute."

Women are wise indeed. Just DON'T mess with their shoes.

COLUMN: Shortage

I bumped into a friend of mine the other day who asked me a question that I've repeatedly had to answer for the past three years that I've been fortunate enough to have this column.

"Hey Shawn," he said (because all people of Earth, even human beings that I've known and worked with my entire life, apparantly have no idea what my first name actually is,) "Where do you get your ideas from every week?"

"It's easy," I told him. "Just start thinking outside the bun."

I've said it before and I'll say it again -- the source of all things humorous, wacky, and creative on Earth is your local Taco Bell drive-thru. I can't tell you how many times a quest for burritos has ended in me laughing so hard I've had to pull the car over. Some go there seeking chalupas; I go there seeking enlightenment.

There's only ONE place I've ever been greeted at the drive-thru with, "What the (expletive) do YOU want?" There's only ONE place where a drunken, semi-clad girl has leapt from her car behind me to perform a strip-tease on my bumper. There's only ONE place where I've ordered JUST a large Coke and heard, "Okay. What kind of sauce would you like with that?" Folks, the Taco Bell drive-thru is ALWAYS a good time out.

This week, however, things were different. I've always known that Taco Bell was a source for comedy, but I never knew that Taco Bell could also provide me with hard-line breaking news of a national crisis that has, until now, been wholly ignored by your local media.

I was driving around the other day when I realized that my life was lacking. Specifically, it was lacking a Cheesy Double Beef Burrito. I could see the welcoming pink bell of culinary goodness in the distance, so I made a bee-line for the drive-thru. I pulled up to the menu and that's when I saw it -- the sign that let me know that things weren't right in the world:


I sat there stunned for a moment as the gravity of the situation began to sink in. I could live with one Taco Bell's accidental failure to stock up on their products. But no, this was something far more troubling. This was, as the sign clearly stated, a NATIONAL SHORTAGE.

I headed home with concerned mind and empty stomach. How could I have been unaware that our great nation was being crippled by a shortage of both tortillas AND nacho cheese? Where were the warning signs? Why hadn't rationing been implemented? Who could be responsible for such a crime? NAFTA? Global warming?

Naturally, I lay the blame on myself. After all, for as much grief as I unload on them, I do feel single-handedly responsible for the fiscal security of my local Taco Bell. Some day, science will be able to confirm that I am composed of 23% nacho cheese. Perhaps the answer to the national shortage could be found right here in my rotund mid-section. I hope you're happy, Shane. You've eaten ALL the tortillas.

I don't have much experience in dealing with the woes of supply and demand. I was too young to remember the oil shortages in the 70's or Johnny Carson's ill-fated joke that once caused toilet paper to disappear from shelves for weeks on end. Until now, the only national shortage to affect me was my inability to get a Nintendo Wii, but I eventually found one of those suckers. Still, it takes energy to play Wii Sports -- energy usually obtained from a Cheesy Double Beef Burrito. Now I can't have cheese OR burrito? Man cannot live on Double Beef alone.

I had no choice but to venture off to a supermarket and (gasp) make my own food. There I was, wandering aimlessly down the aisles, wondering if my stove still worked after all these years, when lo and behold, what caught my eye? TORTILLAS. Package after package of the things! And further down? Nacho cheese! I couldn't believe it -- this supermarket had yet to hear of the nationwide Tortilla-N-Cheese catastrophe!

I could buy them out and be set on burritos for months! Better yet, I could set up a roadside stand and engage in some good old-fashioned price gouging. I called a friend to see if he wanted to help me in my bid to make gobs of money from a frightened, cheese-less nation.

"Can't talk, dude," he said. "I'm at Taco Bell, eating a burrito."

Sigh. That's right, the Great Tortilla-N-Cheese Shortage of '08 lasted about six hours. My dreams of profiteering in times of crisis were dashed, but I could at least nurse my wounds in the loving arms of a Big Beef Burrito. As a shift manager later explained to me, the "national shortage" involved only a handful of Taco Bells that weren't expecting their new menu, chock full of new and exciting ways to combine tortillas and nacho cheese, to be as wildly successful as it's been. They just ran the heck out of ingredients. On behalf of a grateful nation, I can only say: Whew.

Truth be told, I did a Google search and discovered that there is, in fact, an honest to gosh tortilla shortage down in Mexico that's really no laughing matter. Tortilla prices have gone up some 35% in the past two years. It turns out that more and more corn is being used for ethanol production, leaving less and less for tortillas -- so, in a weird roundabout way, I guess it IS global warming's fault. I like Al Gore a lot, but he better not come between me and my quesadilla.

COLUMN: Dress Code

We've got some new employees at the day job.

As much as I tend to resist change, I kinda like it when there's some new blood around. Having to adapt to new faces and new personalities keeps you on your toes. Plus, they're pretty cool people, so they'll fit into the fold nicely.

For the past week, we've watched them dip their feet into the newspaper world and go through the usual new employee initiation rites. They've had the meeting with HR. They've had the OSHA lectures ("Don't sniff the white-out!") They've gotten lost in the catacombs of our office. And they were here for approximately a day and a half before The Topic came up. The one that's spoken of in hushed tones. The one that all employees, whether they've been here a day or a decade, have a hardened opinion of. The one that can make a manager cringe from 100 yards away.

I speak, cautiously, of our company dress code. (The sound you just heard was every employee of our company gulping.)

Okay, not really. Our dress code is, quite simply, No Big Deal. It's fair, it's not harsh, and it makes basic business sense. We're not required to wear a top hat and tails or anything. It's probably looser than YOUR workplace's dress code. Use your head, don't look like an outright slob, and you'll hopefully float underneath the radar of the fashion police. (In other words: Dear Managers, I'm not complaining. Please don't hold this column against me and my Tommy Bahama action-wear.) Still, there are a couple aspects of our dress code that cause the occasional grumblings.

For the ladies, it's something called "capris." To this day, I'm not exactly sure what they are. I think they're some kind of mutant half-pant things. I just know we're not supposed to wear 'em. Well, we couldn't wear them, then I think we COULD wear them if the leg came down to some level where they effectively stop being capris and start being pants. And now I think even those are verboten. As a guy, I could care less, but there's not one mention of our dress code that comes up without one of our female contingency muttering something about capris under their breath.

I'll let that controversy rest, because for me, it's what lies below the capris that matters. And no, I don't mean undies. (Dear Managers, have I mentioned how much I'm NOT complaining? Please don't ban my undies. Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.) I'm talking about shoes.

"Athletic shoes" are kinda frowned upon in my department. This bums me out a little, because I'm definitely a casual shoe kinda guy. As a life-long wussy-boy, I've got wussy-boy feet. They get cranky in dress shoes. If they get stuck in a hard-soled environment for too long, they blister up and I walk around in agony. I am a talking, occasionally walking posterboy for Dr. Scholl's.

I tried to explain to my boss that this policy most certainly didn't apply to me -- she wouldn't buy it, even though my well thought out argument was flawless, factual, and inarguable. It goes something like this:

Any shoe, regardless of make or model, when placed on MY feet, immediately ceases to be "athletic." Despite their best intentions, no pair of Air Jordans will ever cause me to "just do it" or "take it to the hoop." At best, I will take it to the couch. I could wander around in two-inch cleats and could still guarantee you that, shy of the building erupting in flame and me being forced to run for my survival, no athletics would be involved.

Strangely, I was still shot down. This has created an ugly quandry for me that I've had to deal with for years. See, there's an embarassing problem I've got that I seldom make public -- but what the heck, I've already admitted my underwear preference in this column, might as well let it all fly:

I can't tie my shoes.

Okay, wait -- that's a lie. I can tie my shoes just fine. It's just that, five minutes later, they tend to come UN-tied. I'm absolutely certain that it's not my fault. I'm not an idiot. I mean, two weeks ago I was enjoying a lecture on quantum physics. But neither quantum physics nor rhymes about bunnies hopping around trees has ever helped me keep a shoe tied longer than ten minutes. Maybe it's because I'm left-handed. Maybe I'm just so super awesome at tying shoes that the inferior laces can't cope with my master skill level and simply fall apart in defeat.

Regardless, for me to wear proper dress shoes at work, I have to find slip-ons that don't immediately slip-off. Usually I end up with something featuring hideous Velcro straps. I've survived the winter with some ugly slip-on clunkers made by Dr. Scholl's that are actually quite comfy. But now that the weather's getting good, I can pull out my secret weapons: Vans. The mutant offspring of a pair of Converse and some penny loafers, Vans are MY shoes. They're comfy, lace-free, most definitely NOT athletic, and even gained a begrudging work-appropriate nod from the powers that be.

I've always thought I had it rough when it came to shoes, but last Saturday, I learned just how naive I've been. That was the day I elected to go shoe shopping... with a girl. More on that next week. Stay tuned.