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.