Wednesday, December 23, 2009

COLUMN: Best of 2009

You might ask yourself, should you be the sort of person who asks yourself questions about what you read in the paper, why the Dispatch/ Argus humor columnist is writing about the best records of the year. The truth is, I don't exactly have an acceptable answer.

Here's what I can give you, though: I've been a semi-professional music nerd my whole life. When I was in the womb, my mom would put headphones around her belly so that I could have something to do besides grow fingers and toes. (This also may explain my love of Neil Diamond.) I've been writing about, talking about, and collecting music my whole life. I started here as an entertainment correspondent, and doggone it, right now I wanna correspond about entertainment.

Still, I know my annual music wrap-up column is a bit unlike everything else I write about, so I was contemplating skipping it this year. Then I went to see Sondre Lerche perform at a Daytrotter show last month at Huckleberry's Pizza. That's when a guy recognized me and came up to say hi.

"I especially like that column you do every year with your music picks," he said, and THAT was all the validation this music nerd ever needed. So here you go, Random Pizza-Eating Dude. This one's for you. Behold the ten albums of 2009 that your record collection is hopelessly naked without:

10 - Seven Worlds Collide, "The Sun Came Out."

When the former frontman of Split Enz and Crowded House got it in his head this year to record a charity album, he invited a few friends down to his native New Zealand for Christmas 2008. Especially fortunate for Finn, since his friends just happen to be Wilco, Radiohead, KT Tunstall, Lisa Germano & legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. For fun, they all holed up in a studio for 3 weeks writing, collaborating, and recording. The result is the double-album "Sun Came Out," a record so spontaneous you can hear the excitement oozing off the grooves.

9 - Pearl Jam, "Backspacer."

Wow. The Shane of 1994 wants to slap me right now, as I spent most of last decade cringing at the grunge fad, and no band was more self-important and easy to hate as Pearl Jam. Why the change of heart? To put it simply, they got good. I never would have known about the genius of "Backspacer" were it not for my pathetic need to master EVERY song released for the video game Rock Band. I shuddered at the prospect of being forced to listen to their new album -- until the game forced me to listen to it. Somewhere along the way, Eddie Vedder & Co. lost the cockiness and learned how to write decent tunes.

8 - JBM, "Not Even in July."

I've sat through waaay too many opening "bands" consisting of a token beardy guy with a worn acoustic guitar and quote unquote "earnest" songs. Those are the shows where other people in the crowd may be in rapt attention while I'm usually wondering where the bathrooms are and what I'm missing on TV at that moment. Singer-songwriters just bore me. But not every singer-songwriter is Canadian-born Jesse B. Merchant, better known simply by his initials: JBM. Taking the Americana cues of roots rock and blending them seamlessly into Nick Drake-style classic acoustic folk, "Not Even in July" is simply the prettiest record I've heard all year.

7 - The Trashcan Sinatras, "In the Music."

I think it's in my contract somewhere that if the Trashcan Sinatras release a record, it's bound to end up in my Top Ten. Once upon a time, I was in a record store and made a purchase based solely on the coolness of its cover art. That record was "Cake," the debut from the Trashcan Sinatras, and the music inside was 20 times cooler than the cover. Twenty years later, they're still churning out the same gorgeous melodies and clever wordplay.

6 - The Big Pink, "A Brief History of Love."

Being a rock band with electronic drums is a scary proposition. No matter how cool it may sound when you make it, technology will ensure that an even cooler electronic sound will await the decades to come. That's why bands like Jesus Jones and Depeche Mode, who were cutting edge in the 90's, sound dated today. The Big Pink may have very well escaped that fate by eschewing techno beats in favor of bone-rattling primal synths, hazy guitars, and epic runaway vocals that don't come with a "sell-by" date attached.

5 - Alphabeat, "The Spell."

Okay, you're gonna have to trust me on this one, seeing as how "The Spell" is currently only available in, umm, Denmark. But it's WORTH finding, I swear. Imagine a garage band whose primary influences are less Ramones and more Britney Spears. You don't often hear of pop bands starting from scratch, but that's what makes Alphabeat so special. No outside songwriters or svengalis in sight - just a little pop band from Denmark trying to be the next megastars. And with the dual vocals of spunky spitfire Stine Bramsen and gangly goofball Anders SG at the helm, Alphabeat are a non-stop charmer that can't NOT put a smile on your face.

4 - Animal Collective, "Merriweather Post Pavillion."

This is a tough one for me. If there's one thing I hate, it's a band being weird for the sake of being weird -- and it don't come weirder than Maryland's Animal Collective. Creating records that are less songs than reconstructed sound loops and mind-bending harmonies, I long dismissed them as annoying art-wank. Then they had to ruin it and put out "Merriweather Post Pavillion," a record that, indeed, is still full of crazy sound loops and even crazier layered harmony -- but this time, it somehow WORKS and turns into a beautiful mess than outshines its own weirdness.

3 - Camera Obscura, "My Maudlin Career."

It's rare when pop music sounds sincere these days, but Camera Obscura have been making a career of it since 2001. Forever sounding like a cross between Petula Clark and the Ronettes, the band's timeless orchestral wall-of-sound pop has never sounded more confident, with Tracyanne Campbell's fragile voice gliding over tales of woe and love lost catchy enough to usurp their lyrical heartbreak.

2 - Girls, "Album."

A record whose brilliance is almost overshadowed by its backstory. Girls frontman Christopher Owens was born to active members of the Children of God cult, and spent his entire childhood in a nomadic communal existence. At night, he would sneak out of the house and busk on street corners for pocket change. By age 16, he'd saved enough for a plane ticket and escaped the cult, only to end up broke and homeless in Texas, before forming Girls. Their debut record sounds like what you'd expect from someone banned from secular music most of his life: non-conventional, non-conformist, and gloriously rule-breaking -- all bound by Owens' world-weary, Elvis-Costello-on-a-drunken-bender croon.

1 - The Raveonettes, "In and Out of Control."

If the world were fair, Sune Rose Wagner & Sharin Foo would be the most famous hipster duo on Earth - at least more so than the over-appreciated and lesser-talented White Stripes. For almost a decade, the Danish duo have been spitting out some of the most venemous and catchy noise-pop ever recorded. Timeless rock and roll that's half grime and half precision, and all from a band gutsy enough to record a sing-along anthem called "Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed.)" Nothing better came out this year.

COLUMN: Fu-Bar which our heroic columnist, on his ne'er-ending search for the magic of Christmas, makes a few realizations:

Christmas Realization #1: Nativity scenes just keep getting weirder and weirder.

Is it just me, or are light-up Nativity scenes taking over our holiday lawns this year in record legions like some kind of undead plastic army? I'm okay with your simple traditional Nativity displays. But this year, I keep seeing what can only be described as Nativity Improv, and I'm not a fan. The other day, I spotted one that featured our infant Savior just a-chillin' in a hammock. But it gets weirder.

I kid you not, I have now seen THREE light-up Nativities this year featuring... a giraffe. No, not a camel. Not even an oddly shaped wise man. A giraffe. And sure enough, if you hit Google, you'll find websites selling "Nativity giraffes." Umm...?

Perhaps it's from the fabled fourth verse, lost in the sands of time:

"By the way, a giraffe was there, too, pa rum pum pum pum,
Why it was there I haven't a clue, pa rum pum pum pum,
In truth it wouldn't be able, pa rum pum pum pum,
To even fit in a stable, pa rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum."

Which brings me to Christmas Realization #2: Maybe bashing a drum in front of a newborn infant isn't a great idea after all.

The Little Drummer Boy may have had the world's best intentions, but it certainly doesn't seem like a smart move. Your average marching snare drum rocks out at 115 decibels. The permissable exposure time for an infant to 115 decibels of noise before permanent hearing loss ensues is .46875 minutes (~30 seconds.) That means one of two things. Either (a) the little drummer boy played one HECK of a short song, or (b) Jesus may have had long-lasting tinnitus -- which, admittedly, could explain a lot. "I said the water was FINE, Jesus, not turn it into WINE, but thanks!"

Christmas Realization #3: Roasted Chestnuts Taste Like Sour Turkey.

My girlfriend and I went to the Geneseo Christmas Walk last weekend, and it was a GREAT night out. In all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, nothing beats a small town Christmas celebration. Geneseo did NOT disappoint. Block after block of carolers, inviting shops, and perhaps the best cup of 50 cent cocoa I've ever had in my life. And there in the street was something I'd yearned to try all my life: Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Well, more like roasting on a closed Weber grill, but I'll take what I can get.

I didn't know that chestnuts were as big as hockey pucks. I held out my hand expecting some kind of peanut-sized thing and was kind of aghast when this mammoth blackened nut was unceremoniously plopped into it. I studied the thing for a second and didn't even know how one opened it, or even what part of said thing was edible.

Mister Chestnut Roaster Guy saw our puzzled expressions and immediately explained the chestnut opening-and-eating procedure, which to us on a chilly night of epic distractions made about as much sense as solving a Rubik's Cube. It was something about applying pressure along the seam, but I didn't see a seam. Well, I saw a big "X," which I later learned on the internet is what you have to carve into the beast in order to change the lyrics from "Chestnuts EXPLODING AT HIGH VELOCITY on an open fire."

So I applied pressure to the X, the thing finally cracked... and our hands were delighted to encounter an unexpected treat: sappy sticky chestnut ooze, which I quickly learned does NOT make friends well with a wool scarf. Still, I was feeling accomplished and presented Amy with my very first chestnut. She eagerly took a bite, made a horrified face, and then invented her own avant-garde jazz improv Christmas song, "Spitting Chestnuts Over An Open Sewer Grate."

"Ewww!" she said. "It tastes like sour turkey dinner!"

How turkey dinners go sour is beyond me, but her analysis was enough to expire my curiosity. I didn't even try my half. Chestnuts can roast away all they want, just not in my mouth, thanks.

We left the Victorian walk in just enough time to get some late-night shopping in, which brings us to Realization #4: Christmas Can Occasionally Be Fu-Bar.

My father remains the hardest person to shop for. Every year, all the man wants are tools and pieces of hardware so specific that his Christmas list is often augmented by corresponding catalog numbers. I don't speak hardware, so I thought nothing of it when he told me his #1 Christmas wish list item for 2009: a "Fu-Bar."

So Amy and I tromped into Lowe's, asking bewildered sales clerks to point us to their Fu-Bar section. After a few confused looks, a call home, and a consult with a few different employees, we finally were pointed towards what we needed: A Stanley FatMax Extreme Fu-Bar.

If you're like me and wondering what a Fu-Bar is, you'll have to keep wondering -- even though I'm now the temporary proud owner of one, I couldn't tell you what on Earth it does. It looks to be part wrench, part crowbar, part pickaxe, part nail remover, part finger remover, and a fully capable, multi-use murder weapon. It can basically serve as every item, up to and including the candlestick, from Clue.

"I'm not even sure what kind of work this thing is good for," said the hapless sales clerk.

"I'll tell you exactly what it's good for," I replied. "Colonel Mustard, in the Conservatory, with the Fu-Bar."

Hopefully it'll make my mild-mannered dad happy -- and hopefully my dad doesn't derive his happiness from bludgeoning the innocent, because if I saw someone coming at me carrying one of those things, I'd be dashing through the snow o'er the fields
screaming all the way.

With that, I close the book on this Christmas season. Tidings of comfort, joy, and figgy pudding to one and all -- hold the chestnuts.

COLUMN: Clutch

My friend Linn is a Christmas fun-hater.

Friday afternoon found us as every Friday afternoon does: under the I-74 bridge, in the back booth at Ross' Restaurant, sharing our relatively mundane tales o' the week. This week's primary topic: the holiday season.

I confess to a great child-like love of the magic of Christmas. I want to see my breath through falling snow while hearing jingle bells and smelling chestnuts. I want the smiles on children's faces as they see the tree atop Kone Tower. I want twinkling lights on houses, cold air upon my face, and to feel -- if only for a moment -- that everything is undeniably right in the world.

Linn's not having any of it.

"Look," she said, "don't get me wrong. I like giving presents and I like getting presents. But 'Christmas magic' stops when you turn twelve and you can't ever get it back." And with that, all the Whos down in Whoville could pretty much bite it.

But I wasn't one to give up. Not optimistic Shane. My girlfriend Amy and I are on a quest this year to rediscover the magic of Christmas, no matter how many festivals of trees, lights, and/or Victorian walks it takes. I'm proving my friend wrong, and with any luck, I'll make her eat her words AND the roast beast. Of course, she's vegetarian, so it might have to be a tofu beast.

It started last Saturday night. Every year, East Peoria takes one of their city parks and turns it into a holiday wonderland of lights, floats, elaborate displays, and merriment aplenty. Amy and I had exactly 4.5 hours to get down there, soak it all in, and get back in time for my weekend DJ gig. I went to their website for directions.

"From Decatur: ... From LaSalle/Peru: ... From Champaign: ... From Springfield: ... From Chicago: ..."

Hmm. Apparantly if you're from the Quad Cities, East Peoria doesn't care how you arrive.

What East Peoria's website SHOULD have said was this: "Directions - go to East Peoria. Look for the tallest hill you can find. See the infinite line of barely-moving vehicles crawling up it. Go to the end and pray you see lights prior to death from old age." I'm not kidding when I tell you the line of cars was roughly 3 miles long, and moving at a pace that made me jealous of snails.

"It's okay," I told myself, "we've got thirty minutes. I'm sure it's just around this next bend." It wasn't.

Meanwhile, let's talk about the car behind me in line. Well, it wasn't a car so much. More like one of those jacked up monster truck-a-majigs. All I could see in my back window was a giant grill and a forboding Dodge Ram logo. And the guy was riding my bumper like our cars were connected. Did I mention that we were in MY car, a stick-shift? And did I mention that we were in stop-and-go traffic up a 30 percent grade epic hill? The next twenty minutes were spent revving my engine to not slide back and have a Dodge Ram logo forever imprinted in the back of my skull.

Then I smelled it. And it wasn't chestnuts. More like toxic death. It was, in fact, my clutch screaming for help. We were out of time, my car was critical, and we had to get home.

Thankfully, Amy understood. We found a turnabout and pulled in.

"Ooooh, look!" Amy exclaimed, "You can see the festival! I'm taking a picture!"

Sure enough, through the trees lurked the East Peoria Festival of Lights. Or what I could make of it. There was a float of some kind, and loads of pretty lights, but I couldn't make out what I was staring at. Amy jumped out of the car with her camera and took photographic evidence of the display we had driven two hours to see... a dinosaur butt.

That's right, the well-lit rump of what appeared to be a triceratops. Which, from our angle, looked more like a big lump of lights. Sigh.

We got back on the interstate and out of Peoria with JUST enough time to get me to work. Which would have been swell, had my clutch not disintegrated 30 minutes later.

If you're wondering, folks, where the magic of Christmas lies, I can now safely tell you all that it is NOT alongside the shoulder of Interstate 74 ten miles east of Galesburg. I checked. Then I swore. I swore a lot. I swore so much that I'm pretty sure I'm on Santa's naughty list for the rest of my life. I swore so much that all the Whos down in Whoville will be in therapy for the next decade.

Then I calmed down and called for a tow. It turns out that there's only one tow company in Galesburg my insurance company relies on, and I had the pleasure of breaking down during their annual Christmas party. Instead, my tow had to come from someplace that I think was called Bobby Joe's. Or Billy Bob's. Or Bubba Boy's. Or Baba Booey's. The point is, they were located in... East Peoria.

That's right, I had to call a tow truck in Peoria -- to come get my car in Galesburg -- and drive it to Moline. Deck my tow truck driver's halls with gobs of money, fa la la la la. Oh, and a 70 minute ETA.

You know what's good about growing up in Galesburg? My parents still live there. In fifteen minutes, Ma and Pa Brown were there in multiple rescue vehicles. It was decided that my folks would wait for the tow while my girlfriend and I raced to Rock Island in the family mini-van. All that to only be TWO HOURS LATE for work.

Thanks to my comrade Jeff James for covering in the DJ booth those two hours. Thanks to my parents for gallantly rescuing us. Thanks to Bobby Billy Bubba Joe Boy Booey for the longest tow he's had to do in a while. Thanks to Precision Auto for what I seriously hope won't be a price quote that kills all Christmas joy (they're estimating as I type.) Thanks to Amy for being an understanding girlfriend, and to Amy's grandma for the short-term loaner car that's getting us around this week. And thanks to Linn, for helping me realize that the magic of Christmas isn't in a tree or a light or a dinosaur butt, but in the people we surround ourselves with at the holiday season. Happy Christmas, everyone. Now get back to shopping. Time's a-wastin'.

COLUMN: Shopping

Being in the first year of a new relationship is a magical, wondrous time, right? This is when you, as a couple, affirm the similarities that make you click as a unison team. It's also the time when you, as two individuals, discover the differences that allow your complex personalities to complement one another in interesting and exciting ways. My girlfriend and I choose to embrace these differences as they come along.

Take shopping, for example. My girlfriend is of the opinion that shopping might just be the single-most fun, thrilling, and life-affirming activity that a human being can do. I, on the other hand, am of the opinion that my girlfriend is OFF HER ROCKER AND PERHAPS NOT PLAYING WITH A FULL DECK. But man, is she cute -- so I let it slide.

I suppose I can't blame Amy on this one entirely. She can't help it. I mean, I think it's genetic, right? Clearly, this is not a case of me vs. her. Caution, stereotype ahoy: This is a case of men vs. women -- or, as I like to call it, sane people vs. the crazies.

Dear Women of the World, what can you possibly find enjoyable about wandering around a retail store with no aim, list, or reason? I. Don't. Get. It. I mean, come on. There are video games that need to be played. Sporting events that need to be watched. Things that need to be sawed in two with saws. It simply comes down to this:

Women see shopping as social entertainment. Guys see shopping as a task.

Let's take the other night for instance. Amy alerted me to the fact that I was running precariously low on toilet paper.

(And wait, can I digress for a second here? Ladies, what DO you do with the massive and vast quantities of toilet paper that you folk use? When I was single, a 4-pack of Charmin could last me a month, I swear to you. Nowadays, I'm lucky to have a 4-pack last me 4 days. I'm pretty sure that when I'm at work, Amy sneaks over and just unrolls t.p. down the drain while probably yelling "wheeeeee!" Then again, I suppose one uses an exceptional amount of toilet paper when one goes to the restroom THIRTY-SEVEN TIMES A DAY. Okay, I'd better stop or she's gonna read this and I'm gonna get coal in my stocking.)

Anyways, yes, I needed toilet paper and some other necessities. Normally, this would merit a run to the nearby drugstore, wherein one can pay inflated prices for the privilege of dashing in and out with ease.

Instead, Amy insisted we go to one of those big box stores. I won't say which, so let's pick a word at random and call it "Bullseye."

Now, there are a vast number of reasons to dislike big box retailers, and I firmly subscribe to them all. For one, they're putting all the poor little mom & pop stores out of business. And then there's the hypocrisy of some chains selling vast quantities of profane R-rated movies while mandating the censoring of any hip-hop album it stocks via edited lyrics. And there's the whole business of the environment and certain stores that seem to get their jollies by abandoning their Supercenters to go a block away and pave over some wetlands to make a SuperDUPERCenter.

Or maybe I'M the real hypocrite. After all, I don't seek out mom & pop stores, I just seek out convenience. And while it's hyprocritical of a store to only censor selected items in their warehouse o' pop culture, it's probably just as hypocritical of me to chastise them whilst their generous advertising inserts in this very paper help write my paycheck every week. And as for the environment? If we lost all our wetlands, my environmentalist friends would have a cow. Me? I'd clap for a world without localized West Nile Virus breeding grounds and then I'd have a cow, too -- preferably on Swiss with some pickles and mayo.

The point is, there's only ONE real reason why I really, truly dislike big box retailers: I'm PATHETICALLY LAZY. Whenever I step foot in one, it invariably ends up that the item I need is roughly 2.5 football fields away from my present location, and the only thing I hate in life more than forced shopping is forced exercise.

But Amy wanted to go to Bullseye, so that's where we found ourselves last night. Sure enough, we walked through the front doors in Moline and quickly discovered that the toilet paper aisle was somewhere roughly three miles east of Geneseo. So off we ventured across fields and fields of bargains (and me without my hiking boots.)

THIS is where big box retailers really nail you, because in-between us and the toilet paper treasure trove was, well, pretty much the entire rest of the store, which began calling out to me with come-hither glances. "NO!" I told the myriad of items, "I'm on a fixed budget and have roughly eleventy kajillion Christmas presents to buy. I MUST stay on track."

But excuuuuse me? Is that a rather comfy-looking knit thermal for only $15? Wow, I'd better get that, it's a deal. And what's this? A green henley for under $20? I'd look gooood in that. Hold the phone! Is that a totally sweet winter coat for only FIFTY BUCKS? Jeez, my current coat looks kinda ratty... Awww, look, CHRISTMAS TREES! And what's a tree without tinsel... and lights... and ornaments...

The average price of a 12-pack of Charmin is, what, six bucks? I left Bullseye that night with a bill for $180 and a carload of non-essentials. Well, I suppose I DID find a couple of Christmas presents in that mix, but I'm still seeking the definition of "fun" in there someplace, 'cause that's certainly NOT what I just had.

I suppose it could be worse. I suppose I could be dating someone who thinks that shaving a few bucks off a retail sticker is worth waiting in line until 4 a.m. on Thanksgiving night. Happily, we both agree that sleep trumps bargains any day of the week, up to and including Black Friday. And Amy reminds me that, on more than one occasion, she's had to twiddle her thumbs while I spend the occasional requisite hour or two digging through bins at record stores, an act that she seems to refer to as "pointless and boring" and I seem to refer to as "fun." Hmm.

I'd love to debate that point, but I need to get to the store - we're almost out of toilet paper.


Well, it's official. The truth is finally hitting my clique of friends: It appears that we're not kids anymore.

I'm mighty good when it comes to denial. As far as I'm concerned, I'm still in college and have just been skipping classes for a reeeeally long time (and when my parents find out, I will be sooooo dead, dude!) Responsibility is for old fuddy-duddy no-fun-niks like Mom and Dad. As for me, I'm such an easy-going, carefree 21-year-old that I've been at it for seventeen years now. Some folks say that makes me a 38-year-old.

But it's finally happened. One of my clique -- Friend Jason, no less -- has bought a house.


I've been an apartment dweller my entire adult life -- and I'm pretty much okay with it. In fact, I've been pretty much the SAME apartment dweller my entire adult life. I moved into my complex my senior year of college, and thus far the only move I've made since is to leap from an efficiency to an upstairs one bedroom.

Why on Earth would anybody want to move into a house? I own a lot of stuff, and, take it from me, stuff is oftentimes heavy. I couldn't imagine putting all of my worldly possessions into a U-Haul without rupturing a disc and/or spleen. If it's time for me to move -- wait, I'm told by my girlfriend that the correct phrasing here is "WHEN it's time for me to move," I'm only gonna do so when I've got enough money to pay a team of testosterone-fueled macho men to do all the work.

With a house comes loads of needless house-related responsibilities. Houses have lawns, and for some reason, people like to keep them mowed and raked and snow-shoveled. Houses have gutters that clog up with really vile crud. Houses have hot water heaters and boilers and plumbing and ductwork and vents and appliances and a cornucopia of fancy things that can, and will, break.

My apartment has many of those things, too. But when THEY break, I pick up a phone and call a dude named Scotty who comes and makes it all better, and it doesn't cost me squat except a monthly rent check. So what's the point in being a homeowner?

"But Shane," the responsible portion of today's audience says, "if you buy a home, you can start earning equity!"

But what do I need equity FOR exactly? So that I can one day buy a bigger and more breakable house? Have yet more acres of lawn to be mowed and raked and shoveled? Forget that.

Still, who am I to stop Friend Jason from growing up? So when he told me his offer had been accepted and that he was now inarguably a resident of Rock Island, I smiled with encouragement and approval.


Last Saturday was moving day, and we were there in full support. Over the years, Jason's not just been my best friend, he's been the rock I can rely on for help anytime day or night, not the least of which was when I needed a hand moving from one apartment to the other. I was more than happy to return the favor.

Of course, having worked the night before until 4 a.m., I wasn't exactly the see-you-at-sunup kinda guy. By the time my girlfriend and I arrived, Jason and his other friends had already moved most of the big stuff. I wandered into his new place to check it out for the first time.

Yep, it was a house, alright. Hmm, the living room sure had nice carpeting. And the kitchen was really spacious. And do I see a dishwasher? I started counting -- one bedroom, two bedrooms... THREE bedrooms? Man, that seemed needless for just one guy.

I went out to the truck and started grabbing whatever I could. As I deposited a box in the spare bedroom, the weirdest thing happened. It was an empty room, but for just half a second, I swear I saw my entire music collection arranged in a meticulous display of imaginary shelves.

I walked back into the living room and caught a flashing glimpse of my sectional sofa against the wall, with a perfect view of my TV and sound system. And I'm pretty sure I heard the bass thump of the subwoofer that I own but never turn on for fear of disturbing my neighbors.

Another box was marked "basement," so I found the stairs and headed down, dreading the inevitable array of spiderwebs and concrete that awaited. But wait a tick. The basement is CARPETED? Hang on, the basement is FINISHED?! It was like another mini-house down there!

After the boxes were all moved, Jason had to return the U-Haul. But he had also scheduled the cable guy to come hook things up, so I volunteered to wait at the house while he drove the truck back. While he was gone, I set to work hooking up his audio & video equipment while my girlfriend entertained herself by unpacking and setting up his kitchen in record time. As I sat there on the floor unrolling speaker wire listening to the love of my life humming away in the kitchen, I was pretty sure for a quick moment I felt... home.

I went out into the backyard. Sure enough, it was COVERED in dead leaves. I checked in the garage -- a GARAGE! -- and saw a rake leaning against a wall. I raked it across the ground and felt a weird excitement to see a clear strip of green grass unveiled. I kept on raking until I was staring at a huge pile of leaves. It was a bit of work, sure -- but kind of satisfying.

It didn't hit me until the drive home that the odd feeling in my stomach wasn't indigestion -- it was a tinge of jealousy. I wanted pretty new carpeting and extra bedrooms and a dishwasher and a finished basement. I wanted to rake my own backyard (or at least pay a neighbor kid to do it.) Instead, I was pulling into the parking lot of apartment sweet apartment -- where my upstairs neighbors enjoy frequent and voluminous 3 a.m. frolicking sessions. Where the drives, sidewalks, and car windshields routinely become icy deathtraps. Where I can get a contact high from the random scents wafting out of neighboring units. Oh, and where, in two days, I get to call the state's attorney's office to find out what day I'm going to be called as a witness because one of my neighbors allegedly raped a girl some 20 feet from my bedroom wall.

Uh oh. I think I just decided that I want to buy a house. Man, am I a sucker.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

COLUMN: Oscillo

I like to think that, at least occasionally, I can be a smart guy. Sure, there are times when it's doubtful -- like when I play in trivia events and my teammates look at me in sad wonder when I don't know the answers to history and geography questions that they consider common knowledge. And yes, it's true that I'm the only person I know of who can routinely explode a Hot Pocket in an innocent attempt at lunch. But on the whole of life, I'd like to think that I'm somewhat with-it.

But occasionally, I find that the rational and pragmatic side of my brain takes a holiday. Never is this more true than when I get sick. Personally, I blame these moments on over-medication.

I have trust in science. And if science says I can take a pill and feel decongested, I'm taking that pill without hesitation. If I get a cold, I'll have my mobile medicine cabinet in my pockets: a travel pack of Kleenex, ibuprofen, decongestants, antihistamines, nasal inhalers, hand sanitizer, cough suppressants, expectorants, and, if I'm feeling particularly peckish, a nightcap or two of Pepto-Bismol.

This is not to say that I'm some kind of weirdo pill popper who abuses over-the-counter drugs. I only take what's necessary to relieve symptoms, and I follow all directions and mind all potential drug interactions. I just like to be pro-active in my cold battles.

But then there's the flipside of science. The science that's not handed out by medical professionals in white coats. The science that's usually dispensed by aging, long-haired ex-hippies in sun dresses who seems genuinely concerned about my chakras. The "science" you have to put quotes around. And if I'm sick enough, this "science" begins to make sense.

Just as I'm a sucker for over-the-counter medicine, so am I for herbal wonder cure-alls. This, I firmly believe, is a genetic trait I've inherited from my mother. Ma Brown reads a whole lot of Prevention magazine, and Prevention is awesome if you're a crazed germophobe such as we members of Clan Brown. If there's ever a study that proves gargling with pureed asparagus prevents spleen cancer, you're gonna read about it first in the pages of Prevention. It's the mothership for herbal remedy hocum-pocum.

As a result, over the years I've tried nearly every herbal miracle fix-it for colds and flu. They come and go, and they all have the same cycle: (1) An "incredible new breakthrough" is reported by the herbivore press. (2) Everyone tries it and claims varying degrees of success. (3) Modern science does a test and finds out that it's absolutely, positively, incredibly rubbish. (4) We wait for the next miraculous wonder herb to be plucked off a mountainside in Nepal so that the cycle can begin again. Time and again, I fall for it.

I used to think echinacea helped me every time I had a cold... until I read a story attempting to prove its worthlessness. Same thing happened to me with those effervescent herbal vitamin tablets. Those little things were initially touted to make you invincible. Now studies are saying that not only is it a fairly lousy way to get Vitamin C, but some brands may contain dangerous levels of Vitamin A. Plus ANOTHER new study claims that mega-dosing on Vitamin C may contribute to kidney stones, and frankly, I'd rather be sick for a month than deal with that again. I tried zinc supplements when they were all the rage and found out quickly that I prefer having a cold to having every meal for the next week taste oddly zinc-y.

In fact, in all my experiments with herbal medicine, I've only found one that I swear to you actually works: Elderberry syrup. If you take a few spoons of elderberry early enough, it CAN knock out a cold before it starts. Plus it tastes kinda nummy, so double bonus.

The point is, I'll try anything at least once. And when I was whining on Facebook the other day that everyone around me was coming down with H1N1, several folks recommended I try a product that had escaped my radar thus far: Oscillococcinum. Their testimonials were impressive, so I picked up a box.

And an impressive box it is: Right there on the front, it says "Flu-Like Symptoms: Feeling Run-Down, Headache, Body Aches, Chills, Fever." I should note that it doesn't say that it CURES or ALLEVIATES any of these symptoms - it just lists them. Hmm. Each packet of Oscillococcinum contains a handful of little pellets that you pour under your tongue while they dissolve. Presto, flu go bye-bye. Or does it?

Here's what I learned on the internet. Once upon a time, there was a doctor named Joseph Roy who was studying the Spanish flu. Under a microscope, he found a bacterium in the blood of victims that he called "oscillococci." The same bacteria was found in folks with cancer, syphilis, and eczema. Assuming this bacterium to be a disturbance of our life force, he worked on isolating it to use as a homeopathic vaccine that he hoped would cure cancer (and, presumably, eczema.) He theorized that the power of these bacterium could be imparted into an edible form by diluting it and pouring the dilution over milk sugar. And the best source of Oscillococci that Roy could find? Duck liver.

So when you're placing Oscillococcinum in your mouth, you're basically eating tiny duck-liver-flavored malted milk balls. The box claims the active ingredient in Oscillococcinum is "anas barbariae hepatis et cordis extractum 200CK HPUS," which in layman's terms means duck liver diluted 200 times over, which in sub-layman's terms means water served from a dirty glass. Imagine a glass full of duck liver. Then you dump that out and refill the glass with water. Then you dump it and refill it again. Then do it 198 more times. Your 200th glass of water is now "medicine," despite the odds that your glass doesn't contain one single molecule of duck liver by the time you've rinsed it out 200 times. Umm?

So it all sounds fairly hokey to me. I think I preferred oscillococcinum better when I thought they were magic curative balls of wonder. That said, I took the recommended dosage and am (knock on wood) thus far flu-free. So maybe oscillo IS magic. I know it magically caused $14 to disappear from my wallet.

NOTE: Two weeks after this column appeared in the Dispatch/Argus, I received the following letter:

December 2, 2009

Shane Brown
The Dispatch
1720 Fifth Avenue
Moline, IL 61265

Dear Mr. Brown,

I'm writing in regards to your Nov. 22, 2009 column "Help or hoax? Duck liver bacterium, elderberry syrup, Echinacea" in which you doubted your mother's advice and believed the Internet about our product Oscillococcinum.

Moms are always right. Please find enclosed two of the four studies supporting Oscillo's claim to "reduce the duration and severity of flu symptoms." This is unlike many that work by masking symptoms. The latest study published in a British scientific journal found that when patients took Oscillo within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, nearly 63 percent showed "clear improvement" or "complete resolution" within 48 hours.

Furthermore, Oscillococcinum has been on the market in France for 65 years and in the United States for 25 years with no reported side effects, and stands firmly on its reputation for reducing the duration and severity of flu symptoms. In fact, it is the best-selling (in Euros) over-the-counter product in the cough/cold/flu category and a top ten selling brand (in both Euros and unit volume) in French pharmacies. In the U.S., its success in natural product stores like Whole Foods Markets has led to it now being carried in CVS, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, etc.

Regarding your question that the package does not actually state it "cures or alleviates" symptoms, please know that Oscillo is regulated as a drug by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. As such, it adheres to the same labeling guidelines as other over-the-counter drugs. Please note that other OTC's do not use language such as "cures." For example, Tylenol label reads "temporarily relieves minor aches and pains due to the common cold, headache, backache, etc." Due to these regulations, only the symptoms that Oscillo works against as shows in studies are listed on the box label.

Regarding homeopathic medicine in general, six meta-analyses of high quality clinical studies have shown the efficacy of homeopathic medicines and have concluded that this efficacy can not be dismissed as merely a placebo effect. These results confirm 200 years of safe and efficacious use of homeopathic medicines, and explain why homeopathy is a growing choice among patients and healthcare professionals.

Please let me know if I can provide any other information for you or arrange an educational discussion for you with one of our medical experts. I'm available at 610/325-XXXX or by e-mailing alissa.gould@XXXXXXXXX.XXX.

Thank you for your consideration of this matter,
Alissa Gould
Boiron USA Public Relations Manager

P.S. It doesn't have a duck flavor. And I'm including samples that your co-workers, friends, or family can help you test with a product test. But you have to take it at the onset of symptoms.

Okay, so...

My column made it to Boiron HQ all the way out on the East Coast. Yikes. But it was cool of her to write, and cooler still to enclose a CASE of Oscillo-Coccinum. So I'm keeping some on-hand, and the next time I start to feel lousy, I'll give it a go and see what happens.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I vaguely remember what it was like to live in a carefree world. Where every day brought the potential for excitement and the promise of tomorrow brought hope for an enchanting future. A world where dreams could come true if you just wished on a star. Where you could put on a pair of Nikes and JUST DO IT, whatever "it" was. A world where the bogeyman didn't lurk behind every corner.

Then I opened the paper and turned on the TV and it all went to heck. Thank you, global media, for not allowing me one sleep-filled night of carefree abandon and optimism. That would just be silly.

So by now it should be clear to us all that the H1N1 virus is out to destroy the human race. Yes, it won't be long until the only residents of Planet Earth will be germs and toxins and ragtag gangs of bloodthirsty survivors with inexplicable Australian accents who occasionally meet in the middle of deserts to listen to Tina Turner sing songs about Thunderdome.

Okay, maybe it won't bring on the Apocalypse, but you can't pick up a newspaper or turn on a television these days without being haunted by the spectre of swine flu. With such massive media coverage of our new microscopic visitors, it sure would be nice if everyone got their stories straight. CNN tells us that H1N1 is now the world's dominant influenza virus around the globe, yet just a couple weeks ago CBS News was reporting that only an estimated 20% of the folks who think they have H1N1 actually DO (the rest, presumably, have either a particularly nasty seasonal flu or a particularly active imagination.)

Either way, there's one clear message to take home from the media about H1N1: Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. And if there's one thing I'm super good at, it's cowering in fear.

As a long-standing, card-carrying germophobe, an invisible menace like H1N1 is super fun to have around. As I type this, my fingers are cracked raw from the constant application of Purell ("moisturing formula," my fanny.) My desire to write a good newspaper column is trumped only by my desire to be sure not to touch my nose, mouth, or eyes at any cost. Those little menacing buggers could be on my hand right now. Or maybe on the very newspaper and/or computer mouse that you're touching this second. Shh, listen -- I'm pretty sure I heard some of them plotting against mankind as we speak.

But surely I'm over-reacting, right? They say that the flu virus can only live for a few hours outside of the human body, and everybody's been reading the papers and watching TV and following the advice of healthcare professionals, right? Well, let's just say that I pay attention in public restrooms (in a 100% non-perverted way) and I know which of my co-workers do their lavatorial duties WITHOUT WASHING THEIR HANDS (you know who you are.)

So I think until the menace of H1N1 recedes from our headlines, the best coping mechanism is to assume that every one of you are tainted, toxic, and covered in a thin layer of contagious mucus. The truth is, my immune system is comprised mostly of the nutritional elements of the Taco Bell menu, so I'm fighting a battle that I'm destined to lose -- but I'm not going out without a fight.

I love my colleagues at the newspaper, I really do. All of them. But this month? They kinda suck. It all started some three weeks ago when one of my co-workers mentioned that her stepkids were sick with the flu. Gulp. A week later, that co-worker was sick herself - but not before showing up to work for an hour and presumably spreading her cooties around the office all willy-nilly. A few days later, her nearest cubicle dweller came down with the flu. The week after that, MY nearest cubicle dweller got it... and decided that rather than keep her germs to herself, it would be more fun to sit some ten feet away from me, sounding like an alien from Close Encounters of the Phlegmy Kind, reassuring all of us by repeating, "Don't worry, I'b DOT sick!"

I'm now on the shortlist of flu survivors. No-one's been tested, so we don't know if it's H1N1 that's been going around, but I don't want to take my chances. I feel really bad for my co-workers and friends who've come down with this yuckiness, I really do. But I'm also horribly shallow and selfish and don't exactly want to experience the fun for myself if I don't have to. But here's where it gets dicey.

About a month ago, I came down with a whopper of a head cold. The kind that debilitates for a few days and then lingers for a few weeks. I've still got a gnarly cough from it. And when I was at the height of sick, my caring and loving girlfriend doted on me like a trooper. I never had to move a muscle or worry about a thing, because she was constantly by my side armed with soup and love.

So last week, when my girlfriend told me that she suddenly wasn't feeling well, I knew what I had to do:

"Ewww! Seriously?!?! GO HOME! Don't touch anything!" Oh, and then I sprayed down my entire living space, up to and almost including my cats, with a liquid inch of Lysol.

Okay, so Boyfriend-of-the-Year I ain't. But flu-free I remain for the time being (knock on wood.) And I wasn't entirely without caring: I made her a delightful care package, which I placed at her doorstep while maintaining a minimum distance of six feet. I bought her soup and water and a vaporizer and Vitamin C and anything I could think of to make her visit with the swine flu as short as possible. She even complained about being bored so I got her this great High School Musical 3 Activity & Coloring Book. Strangely, she didn't find it as funny as I did.

Happily, she's much better now. Happier still, she continues inexplicably to like me. I've allowed her back into the apartment and might even kiss her in a few days. I, meanwhile, am putting my faith in a regimen of vitamin supplements and elderberry syrup. Little did I know, though, that the answer to flu avoidance may be staring us all in the face. If, that is, you're currently staring at the severed liver of a duck. More on that next week.

COLUMN: Door County Pt. 4

Seeing as how this is the big finale column detailing my recent trip to northeast Wisconsin, it needs some kind of a heady name, like "Door County 4: The Reckoning." Or maybe "Door Countier With A Vengeance of the Sith Takes Manhattan: The Deathly Hallows of the Ring."

So what can I say about our trip to Door County that I didn't mention in the past three columns? Truth is, not much. And trust me, when your trip begins with a horse-drawn carriage wherein we risked life, limb, and fecal contamination... and is topped off by a stranger asking me for a tampon while simultaneously inquiring about my cocaine connections... well, in that case, "not much" is kind of a blessing.

The whole point of our trip was to see some fall foliage and maybe take in one of those legendary Door County fish boils. Well, truth be told, my prime motivator for the trip was to earn some brownie points with the girlfriend by going someplace all uber-romantic and mega-girly.

Take the word "foliage," for example. This is a word that I've never said in my life. I'm pretty sure that my brute machismo prevents it from coming out of my lips. Don't get me wrong - I like my share of girly foo-foo things. I own an alarming amount of romantic comedies on DVD. I think "Incomplete" by the Backstreet Boys is a great song. Heck, my car comes standard with a FLOWER HOLDER. I'm down with my wussy feminine side. But I've never looked at a tree in autumn and gone, "Aww, pretty."

Down here, trees turn a couple boring shades of yellowish-brown. Call it pretty if you want. To me, it's just an annual arbor snuff film, and a boring one at that. But in Door County, fall looks like the kind of thing you only see in movies or, well, travel brochures to Door County.

Instead of five or six exciting variants of yellow, it's a cacophony of color. Vibrant orange, red, and green hues leap out of the landscape like nature's own firework display. Without sounding too cheezy, it was a magnificent sight, and made it kinda tough to keep your eyes on the road. This may explain what happened next.

Wisconsin is called the Badger State. I assumed until recently this meant the state was crawling with indigenous badgers. It turns out that Wisconsin miners of yore would live in their mines throughout the bitter winter, which reminded somebody with apparant state-nicknaming privileges of a badger. While Wisconsin does have its occasional badger, they're not exactly running amok.

But I swear to you all, at that moment I saw a badger. Or possibly a small bear. Either way, it was lying in the middle of the road and was considerably less than alive. I nudged my girlfriend who was driving at the time. "Umm, mind the roadkill." This was my effort to have her perhaps move the car to avoid the mystery animal carcass. And I think that was what she TRIED to do. Instead, she corrected course to immediately aim right for it. I'd make some joke about women drivers here, but I know your e-mailing capabilities, ladies, and I'm not going there.

Regardless, next thing I heard was "WHUMP! WHUMP!" as our left tires ensured that the mystery badger/bear/chupacabra was good and properly extra dead. "Ewwww," I said with extreme brute machismo. "Oops," said Amy as we toodled off in search of more adventure.

Door County, if you've never been, is a huge peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan like a 50-mile long finger. At the very end of the finger lies Washington Island, a community that's only accessible by ferry ride. We didn't drive six hours to only see PART of Door County, so we hopped the ferry to check it out.

And it turns out that Washington Island is a pretty cool place. Chock full of ancient lore and famed shipwrecks, it was an impressively mystical place, especially in the hazy cold and accurately-forecasted "wintry mix" we were traversing through that day. We'd made it 50 miles up the peninsula without finding a single Monday fish boil, so my hopes were dim on finding good food.

Boy, was I wrong. The KK Fiske, "Home of the Fish Mortician." My kinda place. I'll admit, I was thrown a bit by the sign out front that said, "Fresh Lawyers!" Sadly, it was NOT a reference to sexually-harassing attorneys, but instead a rather ugly freshwater fish. The KK Fiske was the only Door County restaurant we found that had a Monday fish boil (yessss!) But sadly, it didn't start until 6 p.m., and the last ferry to the mainland was at 5.

As fun as it would be to call into work with "sorry, it seems that I'm trapped on an island," we had a looong drive home ahead of us and no boiled fish would stop us. Instead, I had a plate full of fried whitefish that the owner had sailed out and caught that morning. Heaven. And it was a place devoid of tourists but rife with locals in cover-alls who all looked haggard and grizzled and were all inexplicably watching "Days of Our Lives" in silence punctuated only by conversation like:

"So... get yer harvesting done?"

We had just left the restaurant when suddenly I felt a sickeningly familiar vibration under the car. NO! We'd pull over and find a shredded tire with a badger claw jutting out of it. we'd miss the last ferry, and we'd have to find some guy named Cooter who'd tell us that a replacement tire was coming on the January ferry. We'd have to leave our world behind and start life anew on Washington Island. I only hoped that the haggard and grizzled contingency needed a skilled nightclub DJ slash aspiring newspaper columnist.

Happily, though, it was just a weird stretch of pavement and the tires were fine. We made the last ferry back with eight minutes to spare. As we began the drive home, Amy looked at me and said, "When do you s'pose we'll be back in the Quad Cities?"

"11:20," I said, pulling a time completely at random.

At exactly 11:20 p.m., we rolled up my driveway, which I'm pretty sure lets me add "mystic seer" to my resume. Despite all the craziness, we made it from Washington Island to Rock Island in a car weighed down with Door County cherries and happy tummies. Thumbs up, Wisconsin. So... what'd I miss while I was gone?

COLUMN: Door County Pt. 3

It's not my intent to turn this column into a weekly travelogue for northeast Wisconsin, I promise. But our recent weekend trip up to Door County merits a few weeks of reflection. This was no mere vacation. No, it was a learning experience and nothing less than a revelatory exploration of the inherent frailty of the human condition.

Specifically, the human of ME, and the condition of my sanity.

If you've been reading along, my girlfriend and I had arrived just before sunset at our hotel in Sturgeon Bay, road-weary and mind-fogged after six hours in the car. My immediate hope to salvage the night with a romantic carriage ride turned into a terrifying ordeal of sub-freezing temperatures and the World's Most Flatulent Horse.

Upon our return, we decided simply to stay in and enjoy a thoroughly over-priced and thoroughly under-tasty dinner at the hotel restaurant. Afterwards, we moseyed into their inviting lounge before calling it a night. Inviting yet empty, as the only other patrons appeared to be off-duty employees letting off some steam. That's when the evening's entertainment walked into the bar. Well, kinda walked.

You guys know that I DJ on the weekends at a dance club in the District, right? Having worked down there for a number of years, I've got a pretty good understanding of some of the key elements of contemporary tavern-ing. This would include the warning signs that say, "Hrm, maybe I shouldn't serve any drinks to this particular customer."

A clear warning sign, for instance, is when the customer enters your lounge DANCING. Note: There was no music playing. And I don't mean a little dancing, I mean a full-on shuffle step that looked like an intoxicated cross of the Boot-Scootin' Boogie and the Stanky Legg. This dude would make a clear front-runner for "So You Think You Should Never EVER Dance In Public Again." And behind Drunken Fred Astaire staggered his equally-less-than-sober wife.

Another warning sign might be when the wife yelled to no-one in particular, "HEYYYYYWHEREZZZABAFFROOM???" Neither of these appeared to phase the bartender, who frankly looked like he would rather be at home playing Call of Duty on his X-Box. Instead, Slacker Bartender readily obliged with a sigh when Dancin' Joe asked for a round of shots. Uh oh, I thought.

Soon Mrs. Dancin' Joe came out of the restroom with an angry look in her eye. She marched to the bar, slurped down the shot, and then proceeded to tell the husband, the bartender, the two of us, and everyone else within earshot that the restroom... was out of tampons.

If only it stopped there. But no, she had to impress upon all of us her dire need for the aforementioned product, which she did with gusto, volume, and alarmingly creative graphic detail. I can't say much more in a family newspaper, but I'm pretty sure her gynecologist knows less about this woman than I now do. Hurrah.

My girlfriend is a nice person. I mean, hyper-nice. Almost to a fault. If a creepy axe murderer was chasing her around, she'd be the one to stop and ask if he needed a foot massage or maybe some home-made brownies. And I believe it was this inherent niceness, or perhaps an overwhelming desire to shut this woman up at all costs, that made her stand up and go, "I've got something in the room that you could use. Let me go get it."

And before I could even say "umm," she was off... with Mrs. Dancin' Joe in tow.

I sat there dumbfounded for a couple of moments before it hit me. I was the biggest idiot on the planet. I had just let my innocent and beloved girlfriend go wandering off with some drunken stranger while I sat silently with drunken stranger #2. This wasn't just a bad move, this was a future episode of Dateline - "The Tampon Killer." For all I knew, this woman WAS an axe murderer. Eventually, Mr. Dancin' Axe Murderer Joe would either (a) kill me, or (b) run from the lounge cackling, never to be seen again. By the time I could get back to the room, my girlfriend would be robbed or hacked into wee bits and I'd have to explain to Amy's mom why I came back from Door County one passenger short.

Surely my luck wasn't THAT bad, was it? These people couldn't be criminals, they were probably pleasant folk who just had a drink or six too many, right? I'm sure they're nice people...

"Hey, buddy," said Dancin' Joe. "Lemme axe you sumthin..."

"Umm, yeah?" I said.

"Have you ever done blow?"

Omigod. That was it. Amy's dead. I wondered who would play me in the Dateline reinactment. I hoped he wouldn't be as fat as me.

"Umm... NO, man. Not at all, ever."

"Well, lemme gives you a piece of advice -- DON'T."

"Uh... okay?" was all I could muster.

I had just stood up to literally RUN to the hotel room when Amy and Mrs. Dancin' Joe returned, all smiles and laughter.

"You okay?" Amy asked as she sat down. "You look sick or something."

So, lesson learned. Kids, don't take candy from strangers. Adults, don't give tampons to strangers. In our case, we lucked out. The Dancin' Joes were actually a really nice couple (albeit with some apparant feminine hygiene and/or illicit drug issues) on vacation from Minneapolis who indeed DID have 6 drinks too many to celebrate Dancin' Joe's 37th birthday. We hung out with them for a while longer and they shared some funny stories and what turned out to be some great recommendations for the best Door County food & fun...

But that's for next week's column, which I promise will be the last one set in scenic Wisconsin for SOME time.

COLUMN: Door County, Pt. 2 defines vacation as "a period of suspension of work... usually used for rest, recreation, or travel." I now realize the importance of the word "OR" in that definition. On my recent vacation, I didn't do a whole lot of recreating, and I certainly didn't rest. But oh, did I travel.

My girlfriend and I traveled, in fact, to northeast Wisconsin's Door County. We just made the misfortune of doing so on the coldest weekend to ever grace a Midwestern October.

Door County is NOT an easy place to get to from the Quad Cities. There's no express autobahn. There's not even an interstate. There IS, however, a six-hour journey snaking up state highways past such epic Wisconsin attractions as the Troll Capitol of the World and the World Famous Mustard Museum (hint: you can not make something "world famous" just by putting "World Famous" in your name. If that were the case, I would call this Shane Brown's World Famous Newspaper Column of Global Awe-Inspiring Awesomeness.)

Still, I was in a relatively good mood upon our arrival at Sturgeon Bay, the southern-most town in Door County. As I parked the car at our hotel, there stood one of the greatest romantic brownie-point earners of our era: a horse-drawn carriage.

Now, keep in mind that the girlfriend had recently accused me of neglecting my boyfriendly duty of romantic woo-ing. This was about to change. We hadn't even brought the bags in from the car when I grabbed her hand and said, "Follow me." I took her straight to the carriage. This thing better have a seat belt, I thought to myself, 'coz girl, I'm about to rock your world. It was time to get my woo on.

The driver explained that we could choose a fifteen-minute ride through the historic district of Sturgeon Bay, or a thirty-minute ride down to the waterfront. Seeing as how I was the newly-elected Mayor of Wooington, fifteen minutes wasn't gonna cut the world-famous mustard. She was getting the full thirty minute woo-down. Next thing I knew, we were being introduced to Lucas the Horse, a seemingly charming animal with no outward appearance of being an equine killing machine. How wrong I was. But more on that later.

Here's two things I learned right away about Sturgeon Bay. (1) Our hotel was indeed within trotting distance of the waterfront. But inbetween hotel and waterfront was a 3-block stretch of one of the more unpleasant warehouse districts you could imagine. That equals 10 minutes of waterfront sandwiched between 20 minutes of creepy industrial wasteland. (2) When it's already unnaturally cold out, the best place to go is NOT the scenic waterfront. By the time we saw water, my concerns had turned from wooing to frostbite. I hope that my girlfriend didn't realize that my best "aww-let's-cuddle" moment was more "aww-please-let-us-huddle-together-so-that-feeling-may-return-to-my-ears."

But it was tough to focus on the cold. No, not with the smell. It turns out that Lucas was having a touch of gastro-in-horse-inal distress. Let's just say the sound effects were as such: Cloppity, clop, clop, stop... splat. Yes, nothing says romance quite like a horse in dire need of Kaopectate. And in case you were concerned, Lucas wasn't leaving unsightly presents on the streets as we clomped. Instead, Lucas had a little bag under his nether-regions, making us passengers in a mobile equine outhouse -- with all of the rich fond aromas you can imagine.

We looked up to the porch of a nearby upstairs apartment, where a little yip dog was parading around in all kinds of fluster, barking with all its wee yippy might as if to say, "Omigosh, horsey, horsey, WOW, a horsey, OMIGOSH!" We laughed at how cute it was... but not for long.

"It ain't funny," said Kenny the Carriage Driver, "Lucas would kill that dog."

That's when Kenny added that extra touch of romance lacking thus far on our voyage. For the next ten minutes, we heard charming stories about how Lucas hated small animals and would take it upon himself to stomp the life out of any critter that dared venture near him.

"I tell people with dogs all the time to stay away," Kenny said. "Some folks listen, but others..." and he trailed off, leading us to believe that Lucas had smited a countless number of hapless beloved Sturgeon Bay pets.

"One time, this little farm cat wandered over to check him out," said Kenny with what I'm pretty sure was a chuckle. "Lucas kicked that cat so hard he musta flew about thirty feet in the air. We naturally assumed it was dead, but when we went to get the body, it was gone. Sure enough, a couple months later, we saw that same cat good as new. Of course, his neck was a touch crooked and he done walked funny ever since, heh heh."

Greeeat. So our fate was in the hands of Flatulent Lucas the Death Horse. As we stopped for Lucas to do his business yet again (and oh, yes, business was good,) I'm pretty sure I heard the horse mutter a Satanic chant. Or maybe it just whinnied. Either way, I'm pretty sure it took us to the waterfront because Lucas preferred his human-meat slightly chilled. We headed back towards the hotel and passed a yuppie couple out walking their dog, noticably giving the horse a wide berth. They knew. Or maybe we just smelled THAT bad.

"Get away, doggie," I muttered under my breath, "I think Lucas just spotted dinner."

Amazingly, Kenny heard me, spun around with a deadly serious look in his eye, and proceeded to lecture to me as though I were the stupidest man alive.

"Lucas doesn't EAT the dogs," he said with a deliberate grade-school-teacher voice, "he just KILLS them."

Ahh, yes. Good to know. Thanks, Kenny, because we don't have horses in Illinois. Lucas doesn't kill for food, simply for SPORT. Refreshing.

Eventually, we made it back to the hotel and disembarked from Lucas the Devil Horse. Bravely, my girlfriend even posed for photos. As for me, I held the camera far away from kicking distance, bravely surviving the icy cold stare of Lucasatan.

Our vacation was off to a riveting start. Now all we needed was a quick change and a visit to the local pub to bond with the locals. It couldn't go wrong, right? How wrong it went -- next week.

COLUMN: Door County Pt. 1

I often sit back and wonder what it would be like to be a normal person with a normal life who does normal activities normally. How do you do it, normal people? I'd love to be one of you someday.

If normal people were to tell you stories of their normal lives, they might go something like, "Today, I went to the gas station. I pumped gas, I paid for it, and I left." I try to be one of the normal people. But why can I not have a normal activity without undue amounts of insanity and/or stress? My stories are more like, "Today I went to the gas station. That's when the ninjas attacked." What is it about myself and my luck that draws the abnormal into my daily planner like a magnet?

It all started with a normal dream. The girlfriend had been throwing some not-so-subtle reminders my way that, as a woefully underpaid education professional, she had a gaping hole in her work calendar named Columbus Day. So I took the day off to match hers and was faced with the "what-do-you-do-with -a-3-day-weekend" debacle. I love you, Quad Cities, I really do. But sometimes what I love the most is leaving you behind in a trail of dust and a quest for adventure. It was time for a road trip.

That's when I turned to the world's worst vacation planner ever: Google Maps. When you look at their website, the world is your oyster. Why? Because the whole world can fit compactly on a 26" computer monitor. And when you're looking at a 26" map of the continental United States, ANYTHING looks like a good and possible weekend drive. Texas? Look, it's only 2 inches away from Illinois. Ohio? We could be there in minutes, right? And that's when my eyes spotted it.

Door County, Wisconsin. One of the Top 10 Vacation Destinations in North America, their website proudly announces. And when I saw that Door County had been proclaimed a top fall foliage destination by none other than NBC's "Today" show, I knew I had my destination. (Because, when it comes to travel plans, the #1 mantra in everyone's head is clearly "WWMLD: What Would Matt Lauer Do?")

For the uninitiated, the Door Peninsula is the little part of northeastern Wisconsin that juts out into Lake Michigan like a finger, essentially creating Green Bay, the Packers, Vince Lombardi, and weird people who wear cheese on their heads. The Door Peninsula is known far and wide for its wineries, cherry orchards, and tree-laden state parks. And if you know anything about me, you know that the three things I live for are booze, fruit, and outdoor activities of any kind. Oh, wait, that's Bizarro Shane.

Still, I was down for seeing some pretty fall foliage -- and if Al Roker says it's pretty, then it's pretty, dang it. And two things kind of excited me about Door Peninsula.

For one, it boasts the most lighthouses of any county in the United States. Now, I've never been super keen on lighthouses. At least I don't think I am. They're kind of outmoded, right? Nobody needs a little light beacon to guide their vessel when you've got GPS and some shrill computer voice in a British accent telling you, "Rock ahead. Turn left in one - point - five miles. Recalculating!" And I've never really thought that lighthouses were particularly pretty or anything. Yet every time I go on vacation anywhere near a body of water, I come home with about 18 photos of every lighthouse I pass. It's sort of inexplicable, really. Maybe I don't fancy lighthouses, maybe I just like taking photos of 'em. I made sure to pack the camera.

For another, I had talked to some of my co-workers about the trip, and before I could say, "We're going to Door Co--," those who had been all started shrieking "FISH BOILS!"

At first, I was assuming they were placing a pox on my family. But, as it turns out, fish boils are the culinary rage of Door County. And since it immediately sounded completely disgusting, of course I was fascinated. After doing some intense research, here is, apparantly, how one properly performs a legendary Door County fish boil:

Step One: Catch some fish.
Step Two: Boil them.

Enthralling, right? But wait, there's more. I know because I watched a video of it on Youtube. First off, in order to boil fish, you first need to look like a grizzled old fisherman with worn-out suspenders and the craziest set of sideburns you can muster. Then you need to find the scariest-looking kettle in the history of the world - think Shakespearean witches but with the added bonus crust of 1000 fish boils of yore. You toss in a pile of whitefish, a pile of potatoes, and a pile of onions. Garnish with - I kid you not - a HALF POUND OF SALT.

Bring to a boil. This is done by placing the kettle o' fish 'n' brine over a campfire. But, since that's kinda boring and all, the "boilmasters" (yes, that's what they're called) decide to liven things up by dumping what appears to be a gallon or two of kerosene onto the fire. This creates an immediate and raging vertical bonfire that alerts the tenants of the International Space Station that soup's on in Door County. Actually, the salt changes the specific gravity of the water, causing the fish oils to rise to the top of the kettle, and the kerosene causes the oils to boil over the side (and you thought I didn't actually DO any research, right?) What you're left with is heaven, if your idea of heaven is boiled fish and taters. I needed to try this.

So that was my mindset when I booked the trip, and that was my mindset last weekend when we left for northern Wisconsin. On the record-setting coldest day of October. In the snow. To a town 6.5 hours away and further north than Toronto. Using all county highways (thanks, Mapquest.) Just your average normal person vacation, right?

Normalcy, thy name is NOT Shane. If you'd care to learn more about how we spent a weekend traversing Door County with flatulent back-alley killer horses and strangers inquiring about our current inventories of cocaine and feminine hygiene products, then join me here next week. You'll discover the answers to such pressing questions as: "How dead can a badger get?" and "How many cherries can the human body safely intake in one setting?" Needless to say, we made it up and down Door County without seeing one lighthouse or a single boiled fish. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 16, 2009

COLUMN: Finger

Bad news, Quad Cities. It appears that my bed has turned evil. Regular readers of my column may have noticed that I was "on vacation" last week. Truth be told, I was right here in my apartment, paralyzed by an overwhelming fear of my bedroom furnishings.

It all started two weeks ago when -- wait, scratch that.

I guess it really started two YEARS ago when I bought a new bed. Furniture shopping isn't exactly my idea of paradise, ergo I decided to go whole-hog and get one of those pricey, enormous uber-mattresses that would hopefully last for years and years. You know, the kind with the pillow top and the depth so massive that science has yet to invent a sheet big enough to fit it? I have one seriously pimped-out bed.

But about a year ago, things started going downhill. I was routinely waking up with a wonky back and it seemed like the mattress was becoming lop-sided and sagging to the middle. This really ticked me off, given the relative newness and high price tag (a tag, mind you, that I quickly cut off under penalty of law upon arrival - does that make me a felon?) I had to do something about it.

That "something" was to begin sleeping on the couch every night. I just couldn't bring myself to admit that my extravagant mattress was a back-killer and a horrible purchase. And besides, my couch is pretty comfy, backache free, and stragetically located in close proximity to both my air conditioner AND my television. There are far worse fates than my couch, so I resigned myself to permanent living-room-dweller and pretty much handed over my bed to my two cats, who didn't seem to complain much.

This brings us to two weeks ago, and the onset of The Cold From Hell. I know, normally when I catch a cold I write some kind of pathetic woe-is-me column. But every time I've opened the paper lately, all I see are horror stories about H1N1 and people a lot worse off than me, so this time I kept my yap shut. This was no swine flu. It was just a yucky fall cold, and I decided to just be a big boy and tough it out.

And the first rule of "toughing it out," I've learned, is to whine pathetically to your girlfriend so that she becomes your indentured servant for a week. I was the sick one but Amy deserves the medal -- she ran herself ragged cooking and cleaning and doing my laundry while I lurked under a blanket of phlegm and pathos. I can't express in words how grateful I am -- so I tried expressing it in sneezes instead, and I think she understood. She even bought me a Snuggie, but I'm pretty sure it was just to take embarassing photos and post them on Facebook.

Well, the other night I was plastered to the couch while Amy was hanging up laundry when she called out, "Honey? I think I figured out what's wrong with the bed!"

Did I mention she's awesome AND SMART, TOO? I hobbled into the bedroom as she lifted up the mattress and the bedskirt. Somehow, likely in one of my help-I'm-being-chased-by-faceless-ninjas dreams, the box springs had popped right out of the bedframe and were sitting there all weebly-wobbly. And since the mattress was comically thick, I had no clue whatsoever. All I needed to do was just scoot the box springs over until they popped back into the frame, like sooo...

NYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH! Suddenly I was no longer scooting the box springs. In fact, I was on my knees, screaming like a baby, cradling the ring finger of my right hand. It turns out that, while I was fixing things in a safe and cautious manner pursuant to OSHA standards, the bed had sprung to life and bit down on my finger really hard. The only other scenario involved me being an idiot and carelessly pinching my finger in-between the two weighty pieces of metal -- but clearly I'm too smart for that, so Evil Possessed Bed is the story I'm sticking with.

Immediately Amy came to my aid, and being the caring and chivalrous gentlemen that I am, I responded with a polite, "GEEET AWAAAAY!! I NEEED AIR!!! ICE!!! HOSPITAL!!!"

Well, I didn't need the hospital -- I don't think. I didn't GO to the hospital, anyways. I don't think my finger's broken because I can move it. It didn't even get particularly black and/or blue. But it hurts like a mutha even now, a week after the fact. I fear my best Guitar Hero days may be behind me.

So that's why I was "on vacation" last week. My hand hurt too bad to even contemplate typing. My bum finger is usually responsible for hitting U, I, & O on the keyboard, and it turns out that it's really tough to compose a half-vowelled column.

And yes, I know that there are people out there who continue to have it worse than me. I'm whining over a smooshed fingy while Stephen Hawking writes entire books based on eyeblinks. But I'm a whiner, so let me have my moment. Even though I'm left-handed, I'm rapidly learning how important this random digit on my right hand can be.

This was made painfully clear the next morning in the bathroom. How to say this in a family paper? There's a product whose slogan is "nature calls, Charmin answers." Well, for 38 years, Charmin has answered with my right hand. Faced with a left hand of Charmin, it was as though all of the coordination in my body went on holiday. It was SUCH a nightmare that I ended up pulling a muscle in my shoulder and falling clean off the toilet. There I landed on all fours -- shoulder aching, finger throbbing, nose running. I am SO super sexy.

The good news is that I'm on the mend. The cold is almost gone, my finger appears to at least remain attached to my hand, and my shoulder's fine. Better yet, my bed is level and comfy and beckoning. Too bad I'll never sleep in it again. It's already tried its best to break my back AND my finger -- and I'm pretty sure that yesterday I heard it growl with the thirst for human blood. Hopefully I'll be back to column writing speed by next week -- it just might be without U's or I's or O's. Sawry everybhddy. Whsh me lack!

COLUMN: Blog Stats 3

It's time once again for my favorite annual column -- one I've never given a proper name to, but if I did, it would be something like, "If You Thought You Were Weird, Just Hop On The Internet And Learn By Comparison How Normal You Really Are."

At the bottom of every one of my columns, there's a little blurb in tiny print. Those little blurbs have some kind of hip journalistic name that I can never remember ("endtag" or "tagline" or something,) but I prefer "endy dealymajig." Anyways, if you look at my endy dealymajig, it gives the address to my online blog. I've published my blog for years, but in truth, it's little more than an online repository of past columns. That's not to say you shouldn't visit, because you should (thus endeth my marketing skills.)

The fun bit, though, is that I've got a little stat tracker on there. It's a program that allows me to see how many people are reading my blog and what the most popular entries are. But the BEST part is that it monitors keyword searches.

Let's say, for instance, that you hopped on Yahoo or Google and did a search for, oh, I dunno, "ATTRACTIVE BEAVER SNOT." And let's say that once upon a time, I wrote a column that said, "Boy, that Katie Holmes is quite ATTRACTIVE, despite being married to Tom Cruise who looks like a BEAVER. And if you thought he was a good actor, he iS NOT." There's a chance that your search for attractive beaver snot could lead you straight to my blog.

The following is a list of ACTUAL KEYWORD SEARCHES that folks have tried on Yahoo & Google that somehow led them to my blog this year:

• "BAM BURGER SEASONING SUCKS" - I'm assuming by this they're referring to Chef Emeril Lagasse's "BAM! Hamburger Seasoning," a product which this columnist has never endorsed but certainly would if Emeril wanted to pay me. In all honesty, I think Emeril's seasoning is pretty nummers. But let's say that you tried it and it's not your cup of tea. Would your first instinct be to immediately turn to cyberspace to research and affirm your opinion? Why not just reach for the Heinz 57? (Dear Heinz Corp., make check payable to BROWN, SHANE.)

• "I LIKE TO LOOK AT PEOPLE OF THE OPPOSITE SEX" - Dear Pervert, welcome to the internet. This must be your first time. TRUST ME when I tell you that the world wide web can fulfill your needs. But typing this into Google will NOT fill your screen with skantily-clad hotties. I just checked. It does, however, immediately link you to a news story with photos about how the brains of gay people look just like the brains of straight folk. So if you have a fetish for brain tissue of the opposite sex who are not into THEIR opposite sex, these are the search keywords for you.

• "BETTER WORDS FOR VOMIT" - I might suggest "do the Technicolor yawn," "un-eat," "de-food," "launch your lunch," and/or "call Ralph on the porcelain phone."

• "SHANE BROWN PIRATE CHRONICLES" - Long ago, I titled my blog "The Complacency Chronicles," but after seeing THIS, "The Pirate Chronicles" would have been way sweeter. I'd make a lousy pirate, though. I can't swim, my plundering skills are thoroughly untested, and it tickles my throat when I go "ARRRRRRR!"

• "I AM A CREEPY STALKER KILLER" - Well, I'm no expert in the field, but I'd have to believe that the #1 Rule of Creepy Stalker Killing is not to reveal it to the world via a public search engine. It sorts of takes away from the creepiness and stalkiness.

• "HOW TO DO THE HOKEY POKEY" - Again, no expert. But I'm pretty sure you put your right leg in and your right leg out and your right leg in and you shake it all about. Then go to the left, the left, the right, the right, cha cha now y'all, and kick, now kick, now walk it by yourself, it's electric, boogie woogie woogie, heeeeey Macarena!

• "GEOGIA RATZENERGER" - I have no idea. The funny thing isn't that someone searched for "Geogia Ratzenerger," it's that they searched for it SEVENTY-THREE TIMES IN ONE AFTERNOON. No joke. They typed "Geogia Ratzenerger" into Google and linked to my blog, which must be sorely disappointing in its lack of Geogia Ratzenergers. So then they go BACK to Google, search "Geogia Ratzenerger" AGAIN and get linked to my blog AGAIN? So then they go BACK to Google again?? Yes, and seventy-one more times after that, in fact. You'd think after the fourth or fifth visit to my blog, you'd start to get the hint that it's not going to just start inventing Geogia Ratzenergers willy-nilly.

• "THINGS THAT LOOK SEXY WITHOUT DEFYING VICTORY LAKES DRESS CODE" - Out of sheer journalistic integrity and NOT any kind of profane desire to see sexy schoolgirl outfits, I immediately sought out the Victory Lakes School District of Texas website. I was expecting some kind of Footloose-esque plot wherein oppressed kids are forced into ultra-conservative uniforms. Instead, their dress code seems pretty loose, non-limiting, and common sense, despite a clear ban on "any hairstyles which may pose a safety problem." So bad news, Little Susie, no razor blade barrettes or anthrax hairspray, no matter how sexy they may be. Sadface, I know.

• "U SPEND MY HEAD RIGHT ROUND LIKE A RECORD LYRICS" - For the record (that spins right round baby right round,) the lyrics are "you SPIN my head," not SPEND. How do you spend something like a record? What can I say, it's a no-holes barred doggy dog world. Dead ants are my friends, they're blowin' in the wind, and the girl with colitis goes by. Sleep in heavenly peas, and excuse me while I kiss this guy.

And my personal favorite of 2009?

• "ED ASNER NAKED" - I am soooooooooooo normal compared to the internet.


Of all the sagely advice my mom handed down to me over the years, there's one that I've always tried my best to ignore:

"NOTHING GOOD EVER HAPPENS AFTER MIDNIGHT," she'd say to me. Twenty years later, I'm starting to suspect she was right.

As many of you know, I DJ on the weekends at a dance club in the District until the wee hours of the morning. 3 a.m. usually finds me trying to make an uneventful way home with tinnitus and tired toes. That's where we join this story last Friday night -- well, technically Saturday morning. Normally I head straight home, but my tummy was rumbly from a half-hearted dinner and I decided to swing by a 24-hour gas station.

I'm not a big junk food kinda guy. I eat bad enough as is without the added calories of a pantry full of chips and candy. So I bypassed the junky snacks and went straight for the junky meal: one of those bland little breakfast biscuits. But as I stood there with biscuit in hand surveying the gas station cuisine, I heard the voices of ALL my friends, yelling at me in unison that I never have anything to snack on in my apartment.

So I decided then and there, with fresh DJ cash in my pocket, that it was time to stock up on some public munchies. Bag of chips? Sure. Sugary candy? Heck yeah. Salsa? Mui bien! Cheese balls? Sign me up. Couple of donuts? And how. (And, okay, the donuts WERE for me.)

So, imagine if you will, your heroic columnist waddling up to the counter with two armfuls of pure food hedonism, looking like a refugee from "The Illustrated Guide to Binge-Eating 101." As I stood there like Richard Simmons' evil arch-nemesis, I was half-embarassed yet half-proud of my combination weight-lifting/balancing act. In front of me, a woman was wrapping up her purchase... or so I thought.

Instead she was one of THOSE people. You know, the folks who go to a gas station as more of a social outing. And this woman wasn't buying a single thing. No, it was just chatty hour with the clerk. I stood there as she told the clerk what a handsome man he was, and how he shouldn't worry because he'd find the right girl one day.

So I'm standing there bemused at the situation and feeling bad for this kid, who's showing remarkable patience listening to this lady lecture him on romance. But it doesn't stop. She doesn't shut up and she doesn't move. And after a while, I can now verify by experience, donuts start to get heavy. So I try the polite "ahem" cough. The not-so-polite hacking cough. The foot shuffle. The exasperated sigh. By this time, I've lost feeling in three of my Pringle- balancing fingers. I've gone from amused to impatient to downright annoyed. Finally she acknowledges my existence.

"Oh, I bet you want me to move..."

"Gee," I said, "Ya think?"

As she steps back, I attempt to sidle up to the counter while figuring out how to gracefully dump my items using those portions of my arms still maintaining bloodflow. That's when it happened.

The woman stepped behind me, began SCRATCHING MY BACK, leaned into my face with creepy deathbreath, and said the words that every man never dreams of:


How does one respond to this? I can now answer that question. One takes a shimmy forward/side step, twists one's ankle, drops one's donuts to the ground, shivers, and basically recoils in horror. It's a dancestep I like to call the Cootie Shuffle.

"WHOA, lady," I said, recalling the childhood molestation mantra, "Hands off! I'm special! Plus I'm not Jeff."

For a moment, I thought she might apologize and become embarassed. Perhaps she mistook me for Jeff, her long-lost love. After all, I am a pretty hunky dude. Maybe she thought I was NASCAR great Jeff Gordon or mistook my comedic stylings for Jeff Foxworthy or my brute machismo for Survivor host Jeff Probst. Nnnnope.

"Oh," she said. "You look like a Jeff. Or maybe a Scott."

I have never reached into a wallet, paid a bill, and left a gas station faster in my whole life. There aren't enough w's in the world to clearly express my level of "ewwwwwww." I went home, took a much-needed shower, and immediately changed my Facebook status to the tale of my near-molestation.

The next morning, I had a breakfast date with the girlfriend, but, as is my way, slept right through it. So when she let herself into my place and woke me with a whispery "Are you gonna moan for me, Jeff?" I almost started crying.

All day long we laughed at what's now officially become the Creepiest Moment Of My Life, but maybe I was wrong to make non-stop fun. That night, I found myself back at that gas station and thankfully Miss Cootie was off presumably harassing potential Jeffs elsewhere.

"Whew," I said to the clerk, "your new friend isn't here tonight."

"Who?" he said, astonished.

"You remember? The 'moan for me' lady?"

"Oh," he said nonchalantly. "She was nice."

"Are you kidding me?" I said. "People thought Ted Bundy was nice, too. I bet Chuck Manson was a personable guy 'til 'Helter Skelter' came on the radio. She was creepy."

"I politely disagree." he said. and I ended up getting schooled.

"She was nice. She may have been a little weird, but she wanted to know me as a person. She didn't judge and she treated me like a human being and not some retail slave. I like her."

So the moral of the story? Don't be mean to gas station cashiers. Or don't judge people. Or be nice to strangers. Or maybe it's be nice to strangers but not SO nice that you scratch their back and call them random names because that's still pretty stinkin' creepy. Or maybe... heck, I dunno. If you figure it out, let me know. Ask for Jeff. Or maybe Scott.