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.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

COLUMN: Olympics

It started out like any other weekend night.

In the wide world of second job possibilities, I have one of the coolest. There I was, safe in the confines of my DJ booth, preparing to rock the house for yet another night of mayhem, merriment, and mind-numbingly loud music down in the District. It was Ya Maka My Weekend, so we had a festival-sized crowd milling about in the club. It was showtime. I put my headphones on and quickly flipped for the perfect CD to open the night. That's when it happened.

Suddenly, about a hundred people started cheering wildly.

My God, I thought to myself, it's finally happened. I have a fanbase. I have become such a Mega Fantastic Awesome DJ that a crowd of loyal devotees had developed -- a crowd waiting, yearning, and needing only one thing: the mighty presence of legendary Superstar DJ Shane Brown. And frankly, it was about time. I had officially Arrived. Look out, DJ Jazzy Jeff. Stand aside, Whats-Her-Name-Who's-Apparantly-Dating-Lindsay-Lohan. There's a new celebrity DJ on the block, and the kids are going nuts. They're even chanting my name.

Oh, wait -- no, they're not. They're chanting "USA! USA! USA!" And why is no one on the dance floor?

Bummer. It turns out that the crowd wasn't cheering for me. It turns out that the crowd was cheering for Michael Phelps, who was on our TV sets above the bar -- and as usual, he was swimming very, very fast. Hmpf. Does Michael Phelps know the beats per minute of the entire Top 40 chart by heart? I don't think so. Can Michael Phelps stylishly and dangerously mix a 140 bpm Ludacris song into a 70 bpm Lil Wayne song? Hardly. But Michael Phelps can swim. Very, very fast.

I'm kinda digging the weird nationalistic fervor that's sprung up around these Olympics. It's amazing that one kid in a swimming pool can cause an entire nation to walk prouder and high-five strangers. It's especially weird that it's due to a sport that, apart from one week every four years, no one appears to care a bit about.

Let's be honest: Swimming's cool, but when was the last time you were at a swim meet? When did you last see amateur competitive swimming in primetime? Yet right now, even the most anti-social and elitist of cynics can't help but be gobsmacked by Michael Phelps' performance in these games. I can't even swim and I still spent a week glued to the tube.

I've decided, though, that the Olympics aren't as much fun when we don't have an evil nemesis to defeat. Back in the Cold War days, no matter the rest of the world, we only cared about two teams: the USA vs. the USSR. The American athletes were always wholesome and virtuous, and the Soviet athletes were always soulless and sinister. If you don't believe me, go rent Rocky IV.

These days, the only sinister Communist regime to defeat is China themselves, and it's hard to root against them because (a) the Chinese have been so nice and welcoming at these games, and (b) you just can't hate wee Chinese gymnasts who appear to be 8 years old. I don't want to defeat them, I want to give them Care Bears.

So in these turbulent times, how do we keep this newfound burst of American pride rolling? I propose we simply force Michael Phelps to swim EVERY week on TV. Better yet, let's stick him in every primetime show. Nielsen ratings don't lie; Phelps is our biggest TV star of the year. So imagine the success we could have with CSI: Phelps. A murdered body is discovered, the police have no leads, all looks hopeless... then Michael Phelps walks in, takes off his headphones, does an eagle stretch, and goes, "THAT guy did it!" before sauntering off while his mom cries and a team of forensic pathologists chant "USA! USA!" Ratings gold, I tell you.

In all honesty, working late nights at the club has caused me to discover my new favorite Olympic event of all time: team handball. I certainly hope all of you stayed up until 2 a.m. to watch coverage of this thoroughly insane sport. I've seen a couple matches now, and I'm only beginning to understand its subtle nuances.

As far as I can tell, it works like this: First, teams interested in playing handball must first break into a sporting goods manufacturer and steal soccer balls from the womb when they are undersized and deflated. This is your new handball. The objective then appears simple: Run into your opponents at breakneck speed while whipping the ball as hard as you can at the heads of any of your teammates. Should your teammate NOT be decapitated, they can then catch the ball and carry on running and flailing it at those teammates who have yet to be bodychecked to the floor by your opponent.

Occasionally, you will throw the ball at your teammate's head and miss, accidentally landing the ball in a tiny net. This is called a "goal" and is possibly more important but certainly less fun than the ball-throwing and body-checking. Seriously, I have watched Ultimate Fighting events less violent than two minutes of a team handball match. Naturally, this makes the game completely awesome, even though I honestly had no clue what was happening half the time.

I bet Michael Phelps would kick butt at it. USA! USA!

COLUMN: Bureaucracy

Occasionally, I like to pretend that I'm a patient, happy-go-lucky sort of bloke. The kind of guy who the random annoyances and nuisances of life bounce right off like so many super balls. Then, as if on perfect cue, the world does something to remind me just how impatient and pessimistic I really am.

We live in a technological age of convenience and efficiency, yet strangely we still have to wait an hour at the DMV only to discover we've been standing in the wrong line. Microsoft may have opened the doors to the future, but if your Microsoft product breaks, you still have to hold on an indefinite phone call to India for help.

We don't live in a world of technology. We live in a world of bureaucracy. Modern science lets us accomplish new and exciting things, and modern bureaucracy makes sure we accomplish those things in the most backwards, complicated, and inconvenient manner possible.

This week, I got to live the bureaucracy dream first-hand, all thanks to an Egg McMuffin.

I was in the drive-thru last Friday on my way to work. I got my McBreakfast and put my foot on the clutch when I heard a noise like "kerrrrrrr-ack." I tried putting the car in gear but the shifter just flopped around as though entirely unattached (because, I later found out, it was entirely unattached.) I was able to coast the car into a nearby gas station. Little did I know I had just entered the Bureaucracy Zone.

My first call (1) was to the national emergency roadside assistance hotline of my insurance company, who issued a tow after an inquisitory round of questions both important ("Are you hurt?") and pointless ("Now, is Rock Island an actual island? Can you reach it by roadway?" Answer: No. I built my own Volkswagen factory, oil mine, and gas station on my isolated hermitic island, so that I could cruise around its sandy shores in style.)

Then a call to work to explain why I'd be late (2), followed by my favorite mechanic (3): "Could you fix this?" Answer: Nope. Sigh. The dealership (4): "Could you fix this?" Answer: Absolutely -- on Monday. Grr. (5) was an automatic callback from insurance, saying a tow would be there in 30 minutes, followed by the tow company (6) asking questions I had most definitely answered in (1).

(7) & (8) were to the dealership again, ensuring that the car would arrive safely and inquiring if they had loaner cars ("Nope.") Instead, they gave me the number to a rental car place they recommended (9) if I needed a ride for the weekend. (10) was to a different rental car place to see if I could get a better rate (I couldn't.)

(11) was a much-needed sanity break call to my mom to whine, who nodded appropriately and told me everything would be okay, which is all I really wanted to hear in the first place. (12) was back to the original rental car place, who told me they'd be glad to rent me a car provided I had a major credit card. Uh oh. I did, but it was maxed out. Maybe the bank (13) would extend my credit? ("Nope.") So I call the rental car company (9, 12, and now 14) back.

Would a debit card work? Sure, I'm told -- all I need to do is provide them a current phone bill (15), cable bill (16), and power bill (17) proving I was in good standing. Three faxes later I am good to go, so I call (9, 12, 14, and now 18) back to arrange for my car.

This was a place whose motto may or may not be "We'll pick you up" who then told me that absolutely under no circumstances could they pick me up. Instead, they referred me to their Moline branch (19).

Rob at the Moline branch told me he'd gladly pick me up -- if only they had any cars, which they did NOT. So he refers me back to (9, 12, 14, 18, and now 20.) They reiterate that they cannot pick me up, as they are in Iowa and I am in Illinois and apparantly some kind of unknown yet powerful cosmic rental-car-prohibiting barrier field exists across the Mississippi River. I call Rob (19) back (21) who tells me that (9, 12, 14, 18, & 20) are crazy and that he'd pull strings and take care of me.

Which eventually he did, and I publicly thank him and the whole staff at Moline's Enterprise Rent-a-Car for helping me out of a big bind. Rather than pick me up, they even brought the rental car down to me at work, which was above and beyond the call of duty. Of course, looking my gift horse in the mouth, I had asked for an economy car and was instead greeted by a white 2008 Crown Victoria, which is economical only when compared to a Princess Cruiseliner, which coincidentally is exactly what it feels like to move from a Beetle to a Crown Vic.

Still, part of me digs this beast of a car. It rides like a cloud, people think I'm an unmarked cop, and best of all, I can play CD's via a button on the steering wheel and that's pretty sweet. So I'm not in a huge hurry to give it back, despite the off-shore oil drilling I'm causing just by cruising this yacht of a grandpa car around the QCA. In a way, though, it's sweet payback for Shell Oil, considering I made (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) and (7) from one of their company phones.

So wish me luck, dear readers. In the coming days, I'll need to return my rental and pick up my Beetle, and my only goal is to do it in fewer than 21 phone calls.


Well, it's official. The whole world's going to heck.

It shouldn't surprise me. For years, I've been a firm believer that a good chunk of humanity is hopelessly evil. This enchantingly pessimistic outlook, generated somewhere around the third time my house was t.p.'ed as a kid, has kept me somewhat level-headed when perusing the oft depressing and occasionally horrifying news headlines.

I mean, there's always going to be corrupt governments oppressing mankind in favor of oil and power. And as long as one person believes in god #1 while another believes in god #2, there will always be conflicts, wars, and atrocities that you'd think would majorly tick off ANY of your gods of choice. The big headlines don't shock me.

It's the smaller acts of evil that make you sit there and go, "Umm? Really? In OUR world?" This week, I read one of those stories that's still leaving a mark on my psyche.

By now, I should be firmly desensitized to violence, right? I listen to Top 40 music that pushes the virtues of decadence daily in new and exciting ways. Last night, I watched a Mark Wahlberg flick where, in the closing scene, I cheered as the heroic Marky Mark walked into a room full of defenseless bad guys and capped them all at point-blank range. Today, I spent 3 hours playing a video game where one of the prime objectives is to, I kid you not, conquer Gandhi. So by now, when I read about some horrific act of violence, I should just be able to tune out, right?

Not so much, I discovered.

I'm going to recap this story. It's awful, but true. Maybe you've already heard the details. If you're of a sensitive constitution or don't want be exposed to gross stuff, stop reading now -- surely there's a Sudoku puzzle somewhere in this paper calling your name out. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

So last week, in Canada, a packed passenger bus is hauling people cross-country. A random guy gets on the bus, sits down next to some sleeping kid, pulls out a butcher knife and hacks the kid to death. Awful, right? There's more. As random passenger-hacking is usually frowned upon in today's modern bus lines, the driver comes to a stop and everyone runs out.

As people are fleeing, though, a group of do-gooders decide to go back and try to save the kid and apprehend the guy. They get to the door of the bus to find this crazy freakshow standing there, knife in one hand, kid's severed head in the other. (Don't worry, I made that same "eww" face when I read that part, too.) Somehow, they trap the guy in the bus until police come and arrest the nutjob.

I just can't believe people like this are roaming the Earth. I live by some basic tenets, and one of those is proudly: "Unless your name is Connor McCloud and you are a Highlander, don't decapitate strangers." Can you even imagine what it would have been like to be on that bus? I'd be in therapy on a daily basis for the rest of my life. What would I have done? I'll guarantee you that I would've made a sound like "Eeeeeeeeeeeeee!" That's all I know for certain. Beyond that, I would probably be the guy known as "a second victim who succumbed to a fatal heart attack."

I mean, there's crazy, and then there's Freddy Krueger nightmare kinda awful. I'm a firm believer in a fair trial and all, but this is one of those cases where you should be allowed to just throw the books out and do away with this sick puppy. He's not even worth locking in a padded room and studying through little slots for the rest of his life.

I suppose, if you can somehow approach things analytically, our response of shock and horror might simply be mandated by societal values. Just as we go out to festivals in the District, our forefather's forefather's grandparents would go out to the village green for an afternoon of music, roast mutton, and a public beheading or two. But I'd like to think that our world has advanced to a place where we can all agree that this story isn't just appalling, it's... it's... a word not even invented yet to define "the most appalling thing of all time ever."

Which led me to my aforementioned belief that the world is officially too evil for its own good. Still, at least some guys were brave enough to trap this nutbag for the police. So maybe we're not evil after all, I thought. Then I read the rest of the article. Sigh. Looking for comment, reporters turned to the charter bus company.

"This event is tragic yet isolated," said a spokesperson. "PROUDLY, BUS TRAVEL STILL REMAINS THE SAFEST MODE OF MASS TRANSIT IN THE WORLD."

Yes, there's only one thing more evil and heartbreaking than the brutal murder of an innocent kid, and that's a PR staffer trying to spin the story to their advantage. If there was ever a time to NOT extole the bountiful wonders of the contemporary bus, perhaps its the moments surrounding someone getting their head chopped off in one of them. Once again, the world sees a human tragedy while big business sees a fiscal one. If I were a CEO and my company approved that statement for release, heads would roll (sorry, couldn't resist.)

In the meantime, I'll be as optimistic as possible towards our world and hope for the future. That starts with me shutting off the computer, turning off the news, and petting some cats, so if you'll excuse me...