Friday, November 28, 2008

COLUMN: Winter Whine

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

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

Autumn is shrinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLUMN: Election Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLUMN: Carbon Monoxide

I couldn't believe it.

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Post Turkey Bliss

Okay, okay...

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

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

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

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

Tell me I'm wrong:

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

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

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

Friday, November 07, 2008

COLUMN: Breitbach's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLUMN: Halloweenie Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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