Tuesday, December 28, 2010

COLUMN: Best o' 2010

Somebody asked me the other day what the biggest payoff of having a column in the newspaper was. The fame? The ladies? The creative freedom? The fact that I'm lucky enough to have my own weekly sounding board to prattle endlessly about pretty much anything I fancy? Nope. THIS right here is my payoff: the annual New Year column in which I can shove my eccentric and/or exceptional musical taste down your throats by this, my list of The Best Albums of 2010.

#10 - Alphabeat, "...The Beat Is" (Polydor UK.) America is SO far behind the times when it comes to pop music. I'd love to tell you to march straight down to the nearest retailer and pick up a copy of "The Beat Is." Sadly, you can't get Alphabeat records in North America without importing them (which, it must be said, our local Co-Op Records CAN do. Tell 'em Shane sent you.) The Dutch phenoms have been entirely overlooked in the U.S., and it's almost criminal. Their new record is once again laden with infectious, unashamed pop, evoking ghosts of 90's dance culture like Black Box and Roxette, but with the goofy and lovable charm that makes Alphabeat a true pleasure to listen to.

#9 - Lissie, "Catching A Tiger" (Fat Possum.) Wow. Talk about a local girl done good. We never heard much of Lissie Maurus while she was growing up in Rock Island, but these days you can't find a music magazine that hasn't given considerable press to her astonishing debut record. Now a resident of Oja, California, Lissie's brand of homemade bluesy folk meshed into the 2010 coffeehouse crowd and earned her tours with Lenny Kravitz, and, oddly enough, a Billboard Top 10 dance track thanks to a DJ collaboration. But it's alone with little more than an acoustic guitar where Lissie really shines, with a voice that runs the gamut from Stevie Nicks to Bobbie Gentry and an unparallelled knack for crafting stick-in-your-head gems.

#8 - The 1900s, "Return of the Century" (Parasol.) Chicago's 1900s became instantly buzzworthy in 2007 with their debut release. Back then, the umpteen-membered band was known for their near flawless recreation of folksy 60's pop pastiche. But in true Fleetwood Mac fashion, inter-band relationships crumbled and members walked. Now down to a 6-piece, the more streamlined and focused 1900s wow us with a follow-up that's more concerned about the music than the retro family vibe. It's jam-packed with challenging yet direct earnest songwriting exploding with hooks -- and did I mention it's a concept record about an underworld cult?

#7 - Robyn, "Body Talk" (Interscope/Konichiwa/Cherrytree). When Scandinavian chanteuse Robyn announced her plans to release THREE albums in 2010, we wondered if the feisty diva had finally bitten off more than she could chew. Nope, and "Body Talk," the latter of the three, serves as a best-of from the previous records PLUS five new songs. It's a full-steam-ahead example of why this small-framed firecracker packs more of a whallop than Madonna or Lady Gaga. She's a superstar in almost every other country in the world, and with just a little luck (and a huge 2011 tour in the works,) the US will soon follow.

#6 - Kanye West, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" (Roc-A-Fella). So let's recap: You call the President a racist on live TV, then you follow it up by stage-crashing the MTV awards and making America's sweetheart Taylor Swift cry. And you do it all while declaring yourself a more important performer than the Beatles. Career suicide has never looked easier. So what do you do next? Hold on, I'm-a let you finish, Kanye West, but you just made one of the best rap albums of ALL TIME. There's a part of me that wants to hate the boorish ego of Kanye West, but it's that same ego that drives him to make the most revolutionary, creative, and ground-breaking hip-hop of our time, and this just might be his "Sgt. Pepper."

#5 - Sleigh Bells, "Treats" (Mom+Pop/N.E.E.T.) Every once in a while, you just need a record to get your frustration out and perhaps test the structural integrity of your car audio system. "Treats" is NOT Mozart, but it's the most fun record of the year. It goes like this: Derek Miller had just left the hardcore band Poison The Well and was making ends meet by waiting tables at a Brooklyn restaurant. In walks Alexis Krauss, a former singer with the failed girlgroup Rubyblue. The two get to talking and Sleigh Bells is born. The formula is simple: Krauss sings sugar-sweet pop hooks while Miller assassinates them all with a sonic maelstrom of jagged guitars and drum machines so intense that no speakers are safe. It ain't rocket science, but it's as loud as one.

#4 - Tame Impala, "Innerspeaker" (Modular.) Most people think of cool bands as always hailing from big city scenes (Seattle, London, New York City, etc.,) but sometimes the most creativity comes from bands in fringe areas without a scene to influence them. Perth in Western Australia is about as fringe as you can get, and that's where Tame Impala were stuck making bedroom records for their own pleasure until a demo on Myspace led to a bidding war and loud critical buzz. Worthy accolades, too, as "Innerspeaker" runs the gamut from Beatles-esque psychedelia to 70's arena rock. Easily the most adventurous record I've heard all year.

#3 - Yeasayer, "Odd Blood" (Strictly Canadian.) Yeasayer are one of those bands easily written off as weird for the sake of weird, mixing tribal percussion with vaguely mystical lyrics - you know, the kind of stuff for hipster kids to power up their cool factor and drive their parents insane at the same time. But a weird thing happened on this, their second album: the band discovered the power of pop music. When their Eastern influences meet killer pop hooks, the end result is an uplifting record of unsurpassed charm and catchiness. If The Talking Heads were still around making music today, they'd probably sound a lot like these guys.

#2 - LCD Soundsystem, "This is Happening" (Virgin/Parlophone/DFA.) When music critics first hailed James Murphy and his one-man dance showcase as the Coming of the Great Musical Messiah, I wasn't buying into it. Finally, I get it. On his third (and purportedly final) LCD Soundsystem record, Murphy channels the ghosts of Eno, Bowie, and Iggy Pop, then rams them head-first into a drum machine. The end result is a thinking man's dance record that works just as well in your headphones as it does coming out a subwoofer at your favorite club.

#1 - The Brother Kite, "Isolation" (Claire.) This unknown little band from Providence, Rhode Island won my heart with their last record, but when the band announced they were ditching their trademark wall-of-sound in favor of a more sparse and intimate feel, I was horrified -- until I heard the end result. "Isolation" brings with it all the pomp and explosiveness that made me fall in love with The Brother Kite, but by trading in their layered guitars for a more subdued approach, the newfound breathing room lets the emotion and intensity in the songs shine. What we're left with is once again nothing less than the best record I've heard all year.

COLUMN: Back to the Manger

"The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life."

The legendary Oscar Wilde uttered those words in 1885, and ne'er have they rung more true than today. Every weekend, countless performances come to us courtesy of our local theatre scene. Our area perfoming arts collective is a culturally-rewarding underground zeitgeist of passion, sweat, tears, and joy.

Still, for all of the great dramatic fare that graces our local stages, rare is it when a performance comes along that transcends the stage and becomes a living embodiment of pure art. A dramatic presentation so moving, so full of emotional depth that those lucky enough to be in attendance will be fundamentally changed as people forever.

I refer, of course, to this season's most sought-after ticket: Morning Star Academy's K-6 2010 Christmas Program, the epic saga "Back to the Manger."

There's no arguing that this musical tour de force was THE greatest stage production in the history of human existence, but now we acclaimed critics of great acclaim must tackle the impossible question: why? What makes "Back to the Manger" burn with a fiery fervor, captivate with visceral intensity, and do other big words with other big words?

Clearly, it's all due to the performance of the break-out star of the year. "Back to the Manger" is a tale of love,loss, redemption, and a time machine -- but without the pivotal portrayal of Mr. Olson The School Janitor, the entire production would have fallen flat. To find an acting talent to handle such a challenging and coveted role had to be an arduous process, but the actor chosen not only commanded the part, he brought the inner nuances of Mr. Olson to life in a way that left everyone in the audience that night a better person for it.

That actor's name? Okay, fine. It was me.

It was another one of those "hey babe" moments. My grade-school-teacher girlfriend knows just when to spring things like this on me. "Hey babe?" she said, back in, oh, June or something. "My school needs someone to play a tiny little role as a janitor in their Christmas program. Would you do it?"

It's no secret that I'll do anything for my girlfriend.

"ABSOLUTELY NOT!" I replied. "I'd rather be stung by bees. I'd rather watch a marathon of 'Full House.' I'd rather listen to the complete discography of Celine Dion in quadrophonic surround sound than act in a school play. Sorry, it's not for me."

Thus followed a campaign of puppy-dog eyes and back scratches the likes of which the world has never seen. Eventually, after WEEKS of goading, and I think after some totally unrelated squabble that required a colossal make-good on my part, I relented.

"Fine. I'll be in your dumb little play thing."

"Eeeeeeee!" came the wide-eyed response. "Really?" Sigh. Sucker, thy name is Shane.

Now, when I hear "tiny little role as a janitor," I think to myself, "I bet I'm in the background sweeping or something." But, lo, this role had LINES. MULTIPLE lines, in MULTIPLE scenes. And worst of all? At the very end of the play, I had, like, a triumphant epic half-page speech. It was the "Back to the Manger" equivalent of Linus' monologue at the crux of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." This little role had MEAT.

I got into drama in high school because drama geeks were the coolest of the nerd hierarchy. I had no natural acting talent, but I could remember lines and usually had no problem scoring supporting roles that allowed me to hang with the cool nerds and occasionally put the moves on arty theatre girls.

But in high school, I vowed to put an end to it. During a performance in the round with me in a wee side role, the scene ended with the actors freezing in place before the lights went down. I froze on cue, but I happened to freeze staring directly at a white-hot stage light. When the lights went out, I went temporarily blind, missed the exit tape on the floor, and proceeded to walk straight into the audience, plummeting into the first four rows and shoving my hand down the esophagus of the Galesburg High School version of The Little Red-Haired Girl I Had Longed To Date for Years. It was the epic fail of all epic fails, and the precise moment I decided that the stage was NOT for me.

Yet here I was, ready to tackle the role of Mr. Olson, the money-hungry janitor who builds a time machine that the kids steal to go back in time to teach me the true meaning of Christmas. Oh boy. Well, at least I'm good at memorizing lines...

Correction: At least I WAS good at memorizing lines back in the '80s. Twenty-some-odd years later? Not so much. Eventually, after a rough cram session, I was good to go -- but I've got to confess that, for my pivotal final line, I had the monologue crib-noted and taped inside the Bible I had to carry, which might just be sacrilege, I'm pretty sure. Worse yet is that I forgot to take it OUT of the Bible afterwards, so the next time you're at Bettendorf Christian Church and need to read Psalm 32, there's going to be one confused parishioner amongst you.

Before the curtain, I was taking places backstage with the 11-year-old star of the show who turned to me nervously and asked, "Are you scared? Coz I kinda am!"

"No no," I lied profusely while holding the Bible that I had just desecrated, which I think might be reeeeal bad but I'm hoping someone upstairs will let slide on the basis of good intentions. "I'm just excited and full of energy because we're gonna go out there and do our best and have fun and show everybody the real meaning of Christmas!"

It was the best acting I would do the whole night. Truth be told, I was more scared than every one of those kids combined and already sweating like a jogger. But the lights came up, the kids sang their hearts out, I didn't botch any of my lines, and in the end we were ALL upstaged by a little first-grader who belted out the cutest solo of "Away in a Manger" that's ever been.

All told, it was a success, and it was really cool to see the kids of Morning Star beaming with pride and accomplishment afterwards. I'm happy I got to be a part of it. Well, kinda happy.

"Great job," said the director to me afterwards. "And now that I know you can act, we're gonna be calling on you NEXT year..."

I would, but I've got this Celine Dion CD to listen to...

COLUMN: VanDerGinst Pt. 2

It's been confirmed: I am now officially a Local Celebrity of Great Importance.

I've been trying to tell you people this for years -- and now I've finally got the proof. Two weeks ago, yours truly was a celebrity bartender at the 2010 VanDerGinst Holiday Bash. I have officially reached the big time. Soon, I will be rubbing shoulders with the upper eschelon of local celebrity icons. Look out, Paula Sands. Step aside, Mary from Good's. Heads up, Orby the Super Van Man. Say it ain't so, Dave Necker. There's a new kid in town.

Actually, I'm guessing our important columnists were busy because offers like this do NOT routinely land on my desk. But land it did, and who am I to deny a charitable event the splendor of my presence? Ergo, I accepted their offer, and my girlfriend and I prepared for a long winter's night of bartending and celebrity-ing.

Too bad I know absolutely nothing about bartending and even less about being a celebrity. We'd have to wing all that. The first step was to get ready for the event, a process so epic and time-consuming in nature that it required LAST week's column to report in detail. If you happened to read that, you already know the skinny:

Our last-minute invite caused a last-minute panicked dash to the stores for ANYTHING we could refer to as "formalwear." As I detailed last week, our trek to one of the big box stores ended with my girlfriend in tears and me seething with rage, thanks to The Rudest Store Clerk Ever. For the first time in the history of Shane, I was mad enough to complain to a manager.

The clerk who handled my complaint got on a little walkie-talkie and asked for a manager because "there's an L.O.D. situation." The manager who came up was super nice and apologetic and got our day back on track, but days later, I still can't help but wonder just what "L.O.D." stands for. "Livid Old Dummy?" "Loud Obstinant Diva?" I'm gonna go with "Lively Original Dude Whom It Was A Pleasure To Assist" but they just didn't want to say L.O.D.W.I.W.A.P.T.A. on the walkie.

Regardless, it was time to stop being a LODWIWAPTA and start being a celebrity. We got to the party with plenty of time to spare and --

Wait. I need to backtrack one last time. One of the advantages of being an acclaimed celebrity is that I can now name-drop the other celebrities I know, and I'm pals with local radio guy Red Hot Brian Scott. I had heard on the radio that Red Hot was doing the announcements at the Bash, so I shot him a fun celebrity-to-celebrity text message, something like "TURNS OUT I'M CLBRTY BRTNDING 2NITE. CYA THERE. NEED A HAND?"

I was expecting some kind of "LOL" hob-knobbing response (like we famous people do.) Instead I get: "YES! NEED DJ FOR END OF NITE. CAN U DO IT?!?!" Like that, I was celebrity bartending AND celebrity DJ'ing. The things I do for charity...

So my girlfriend and I get to the event and it's a splendid affair of holiday merriment, fancy dresses, and boatloads of money being raised for a good cause. My fears were alleviated early on, as it turns out that I wasn't celebrity bartending so much as celebrity drink-handing-to-people. Our station served only one flavor of martini, professionally mixed by real bartenders. My job was to take the drink and hand it to the customers while they lined up in hordes for the honor of meeting someone as famous and engaging as myself.

Only one problem: No one there had any clue who I was. Let's face it, the aged photo that runs next to my column is almost a decade old and looks nothing like me. And as I was a late confirmation, my name was missing from all signs and schedules. As I stood there proudly, I realized that I was no celebrity; I was just Some Dude Behind A Bar, a face-less unpaid employee. Awesome.

Still, it was for a great cause, so we soldiered on and had fun with it. Mostly we had fun watching people walk right on by. Eventually, a woman sauntered up to the bar. And nnnnnope, she had no clue who I was. Still, we had fun chatting and I perfectly executed my drink-handing task without fail. I was beaming with pride -- until the REAL bartender a minute later goes, "Wait, did you get her money?"

That's right, I think I'm the only celebrity bartender in history to COST the charity six bucks. I went to re-pay the till from my own celebrity pocket when I realized that, in the rush to get ready, the one thing I DIDN'T remember was cash. Right before my shift ended, the same woman came up for another drink, and this time I got her money. What I DIDN'T get, though, was her drink. While I was turning to execute my drink-handing task, she absent-mindedly picked up the drink already on the table and sauntered off. The drink the bartender mixed as a sample some two hours prior. So let's recap my performance as a celebrity bartender: I give one drink away for free, then charged a customer for a 2-hour-old stale room-temperature martini. I am CERTAIN to get asked back next year.

Eventually, my shift was over and I was replaced by KWQC anchor Jessica Tighe (super nice) and meteorologist Greg Dutra (also super nice, and bonus points for looking like Fred Savage from "The Wonder Years.") Suddenly, a flock of people showed up wanting THEIR martinis.

My girlfriend hob-knobbing with the other celebrity bartenders. She's the one NOT on KWQC.

I must say, my stint as celebrity DJ went far better than bartending. Red Hot didn't miss any opportunity to give me grief, adding more and more faux accolades to my name every time he announced me. I believe I went from "columnist Shane Brown" to "nationally syndicated columnist Shane Brown" (lie) to finally "Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Shane Brown" (biiig lie.) By the end of the night, it was how it should be: shirt and tie crumpled in a heap, t-shirt on, full dancefloor, laughing with friends, raising money for a fantastic cause. And one lone woman in the crowd came up and told me how much she liked reading this column, and that was all it took for me to have an amazing night.

I might make a lousy bartender, but I hope VanDerGinst invites me back next year. Maybe I can celebrity-park-cars or something.

COLUMN: VanDerGinst Pt. 1

Every year around this time, I get the itch to find the Christmas spirit. I crave proof that this holiday amounts to more than crass consumerism. I want magic in the air, children laughing, and chestnuts roasting on open fires even though I had one last year and it was super gross. I demand nothing less than the living embodiment of the monologue at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Will 2010 be that year?

It started, as most good tales do, with a phone call.

It was my friend from the newsroom, Jonathan Turner, with an interesting proposition. As most of you know, every year the Quad Cities has a gala Christmas bash put on by our friends at the VanDerGinst Law firm. It's a time-honored and heralded local tradition. Except, of course, for the fact that I'd never heard of it. Let's face it, my idea of a Christmas gala is microwave brownies and reruns of "Elf." High falutin' and cultured I am NOT.

Still, Jonathan was calling me because the folks at VanDerGinst wanted a known face from our papers to serve as a "Celebrity Bartender" at the event alongside other recognizable media personalities. Well, apparantly all the known faces at our papers were otherwise occupied, because the offer strangely ended up my way. I mulled it over for a night.

I know NOTHING about bartending, I have crippling social anxiety when it comes to milling about with strangers, and I'm about as well-known a celebrity as your average house-bound agoraphobic. I was already practicing my "thanks-but-no-thanks" speech.

But I also had a girlfriend who squealed when I told her the news. "Eeeeeee!" she said, "That sounds FUN! We should totally go!" Well, if nothing else, there's supposed to be complimentary "heavy hors d'oevres," and if there's one thing I'm a sucker for, it's some heavy hors. Besides, I figured, it's all for charity -- and maybe by giving back to the community, I'll capture some of that elusive Christmas spirit.

Last Saturday was the big day, and it started off with my girlfriend arriving with a garment bag the size of Rhode Island and a rousing game of "which-outfit-do-you-like-best?" (note to guys: the only acceptable answer here is to say "ALL OF THEM.") Upon her suggestion, I sent a text to my contact at VanDerGinst inquiring about dress code.


Well, "Help!" is definitely one word that crossed my mind. In my world, "dressing up" means "a shirt with buttons." When I wear a tie, it means one of two things: "Yes, I would like this job" or "I'm so sorry for your loss." I haven't worn a tux since Prom '88. I was in trouble deep. I showed my girlfriend the message. She took a breath, paused, and just said, "Get in the car. Now." I know when to shut up and when to move, and this was a shut-up-and-move moment.

Some people excel at athletics. Others excel at business. My Amy excels at shopping. She's the only person I've ever met who can come home with a new wardrobe and announce that the whole thing cost twelve dollars. She's a genius at thrifty shopping, and I was just along for the ride. And the credit card. And dealing with rude employees, of which there were MANY.

At one store, I was trying to buy a dress shirt despite the clerk NOT allowing me to try it on. And when I DID finally try on her idea of a perfect fit? Well, my neck is where I choose to store all the leftover pizza for the long winter months ahead, and let's just say my second chin grew a third and a fourth and they were all trying to escape the dreaded stranglehold of that collar.

But nothing could have prepped us for the rudeness of our final bulls-eye: a big box mega-store that shall remain nameless. This store is Amy's natural habitat; she knows its every nook, cranny, and clearance rack. With skillful precision, she swept down the aisles, grabbed five different dresses in a blur, and headed to the fitting rooms. Staffing the area was an over-worked clerk trying to balance two customers AND a telephone call. By this point, we were in a HUGE hurry and the fitting rooms were empty, so Amy bolted into the nearest one. Or would have, had Ms. Clerky NOT had a fit.


"Really?" muttered Amy under her breath. This woman was impeding our quick-shopping mojo. "This is ridiculous..."

And as the clerk returned to her desk, I overheard one of the customers say, "I'm so sorry that girl was SOOOOOO rude to you."

"Well," replied Ms. Clerky, "This time of year some of us are just jolly and some of us are just grinches!" SAY WHAT? DID YOU JUST CALL MY GIRLFRIEND A GRINCH?! My girlfriend is known far throughout the land for 3 things: (1) Her occasionally insufferable niceness, (2) her love of Christmas, and (3) her love of the very store we were standing in. I couldn't keep quiet.

"Actually," I leapt in, "we're just in a big hurry and you looked understaffed and busy and we were just trying to save you some..."

That's when Amy came out of the dressing room and handed her the number tag back.

The clerk shot us daggers and said venomously, "Thannk yooou. You have a niiiice day." It was the closest I've ever heard "You have a nice day" sound like a swear word. It's also the closest I've ever come to wanting to hit a woman. Or a man, for that matter. Or, well, ANYTHING. I don't even know how to hit something. Still, I was hot.

"Put down ALL this stuff and let's leave," I said to Amy. "Now."

"No," said Amy on the verge of tears, "I'm not letting some horrible lady ruin my favorite store."

So we held our grinchy heads high, found our clothes, checked out, and then complained to the store manager until we were blue in the face and red in the eyes. And as much as I hope the world finds Christmas joy, I wouldn't weep for Ms. Clerky if Santa stuck her with coal.

On the lighter side, we now had the clothes, the style, and a newfound holiday bloodlust for violence. Would we find the spirit of Christmas at the VanDerGinst holiday bash? Or would I end up going ten rounds with the coat-check guy? I'll finish the story... next week.


This week's column might be a tough one. I fear I've lost my grip on the English language this week. I've been sitting here in front of this laptop waiting for wisdom to come pouring out of my fingers, but the only thing that my brain has emitted thus far is an off-tune "ABCDEFG." I fear I may be suffering from Post Traumatic Alphabetization Disorder. To fully understand the malady, you need to go on a brief yet fascinating ride into the mind of a self-confessed music nerd.

As I've written before, my project since summer began has been the transformation of my basement into a fully functional man-cave/media center, and we've finally reached a crucial stage. I'm proud to report that, over the past week, the shelving units for my music collection have been installed. The next step? Getting said music collection out of the mountain of cardboard boxes in my basement and into some semblance of alphabetical order. This is no easy task.

I have to own up here. I own a LOT of music. I mean, a LOT of music. There's a fine line between "wow-your-collection-is-quite-impressive" and "wow-someone-from-TLC-needs-to-come-document-your-life-as-a-hoarder," and I fear I may have crossed that line about a decade back. My music collection outgrew my first apartment, then it outgrew my second apartment, and now it barely fits snugly into my house. It is an unwieldly, impressive beast, and, depending on who you ask, is referred to as either "my life's greatest achievement" or "what the hell are we gonna do with this junk after you die?"

Now, I need to interject for a second here, as one of my co-workers just reminded me that it might not be the smartest move to mention one's massive music collection in a public newspaper column if one doesn't want one's house robbed... which brings me to an important sidebar entitled:

Reasons Why I Would Really Prefer It If You Didn't Rob Me
by Shane

(1) As such a goodly portion of my annual income goes directly into the hands of area record store owners, the result is that I have an impressive collection of near-worthless music, but live on the poverty line as a result. If you're looking for high-ticket items to steal, there's far better houses to case, trust me.

(2) Music is quite possibly the most ridiculous of all collectibles. Its resale value is slim to none. The minute you unwrap the plastic off an $18 CD from Best Buy, you've devalued your purchase to about 50 cents. If you're looking for a get-rich-quick haul, used CDs are NOT the way to go.

(3) Besides, what I'm REALLY into collecting are albums and CDs of, as my girlfriend puts it, "whiny British garbage." Most of my favorite bands are UK indie acts never heard of in America, so you should REALLY only rob me if you're a big Britpop fan -- and if that's the case, we should probably be friends instead of the traditional robber-victim relationship.

(4) As I've recently discovered, vinyl records en masse weigh A LOT. Just shuffling those boxes around from point A to point B in my basement is enough to do my back in. Trust me, it's not worth getting them up the stairs. I'm no expert on thievery, but if I were looking towards a career in professional pilfering, I'd specialize in more weightless pursuits, like, say, small diamonds or perhaps rare feathers.

(5) You could totally mess up my alphabetization. Then I'd get seriously mad.

The truth of the matter is, your average hoarding music nerd is often too busy alphabetizing their collection to bother listening to any of it. And now I get to start the organization process over completely from scratch, as all of my precious music was thrown in boxes rather haphazardly when I moved in.

You'd think that alphabetization would come easy for me. After all, I'm a professional journalisty-type dude, right? We're supposed to be known for our amazing grasp of grammar and the English language. When I took my first journalism class in high school, I was handed the ultimate guide to the English language: Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style," whose weather-worn cover still sits on my desk to this day. We know it is the ultimate grammatical resource because it was co-authored by the guy who wrote "Charlotte's Web," ergo I like to think that every time we make a grammatical error in print, a spider dies. Thankfully, as a resident of the Arts & Living section, I'm not quite chained to S&W's non-flinching rules. I don't have to have perfect sentence structure with nouns and verbs. I can write fragmented sentences for effect. Like this one. Or this. Cool, eh?

Too bad Strunk, White, or Charlotte can't help when it comes to alphabetization drama. And oh, is there drama. I kid you not, when I used to work at Co-Op Records fresh out of college, my fellow music nerds and I would have fights - and I mean raised-voice, clenched-fist fights - over where to file certain records.

Take, for instance, The Dave Matthews Band. Where's it get alphabetized, D or M? Since it's a singular band name, tradition says "D." I vote "M," only because Dave has band-less solo records out as well, and it'd be weird to have some of his stuff under D and some under M, no? But if that's the case, shouldn't it follow to put the Dave Clark Five under "C"? That seems weird.

Rappers are a particular headache. Do you ignore the prefixes of "MC" and "DJ"? What about "Dr." and "Li'l"? Kanye West goes under W, but Fat Joe goes under F. Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs changes his name so much his CD's are in, like, 4 different places. Ron C goes under C, but does that mean Jay-Z should go under Z? Missy Elliott gets filed under E, but does that mean Joe Sinister gets sorted as "Sinister, Joe"? It's a slippery slope until Meat Loaf becomes "Loaf, Meat."

These are the things that keep me up late at night. You can worry about the economy and rising Korean tensions and the situation in Darfur all you like. I'm a little busy trying to figure out whether Big Daddy Kane gets filed under B, D, or K.

COLUMN: Booty Got Swag

It's a firmly held belief of mine that everyone on Earth should possess at least one skill that he or she can openly brag about without shame or repercussion. In the grand scheme of life, I'm kind of a weenie. I'm horribly out of shape, often completely bereft of common sense, and my social skills are iffy at best.

But there's one thing in life that I'm proud to be really, really, mind-bogglingly good at: DJing. Whether you're at a wedding or a party, a rave or a nightclub -- if I'm in the DJ booth, you're going to have fun.

Cocky? You betcha, but I've earned it through a LOT of practice. I've been moonlighting as a club DJ for almost every weekend since 1986, so if I wasn't any good by now, there'd be a problem. DJing parties and events fuels me. There is NO greater rush than mixing into JUST the right song at JUST the right moment to send the dancefloor into overdrive. I can't dance, I can't play any instruments, and I certainly can't sing. But for those fleeting moments when I'm in the DJ booth and the soundtrack to the evening lies in my hands, I'm a rock and roll star.

At least, I thought I was -- until some teenagers figured out a way to deflate my ego.

About two months ago, I worked for the final time at the Rock Island District nightclub that I've called home for the past ten years. Since then, I've been freelancing at various clubs around the Quad Cities. While I miss my old haunt, the prospect of change is kind of exciting. When you mix music for the same crowd night after night week after week, you run the risk of putting yourself on DJ autopilot. Instead, I recently accepted one of the most challenging gigs in town. For the past 5 weekends, I've been DJing the final run of the fall season at Energy, the under-21 teen dance club in Davenport.

In the dog-eat-dog, take-no-prisoners world of semi-professional DJing, excelling at a teen club is like reaching the summit of Everest. When you're at a college bar, the music is often the last thing on people's minds. Adult beverages are flowing and a majority of patrons are a bit too preoccupied by the mating rituals of the Drunken Human to fully appreciate the way you just deftly mixed "Sexyback" into "Billie Jean." But when you're in high school, your life revolves around pop culture. You're dead sober, judgemental as heck, and you know every nuance to every song on the Top 40 chart, even the ones you hate. Kids pay ATTENTION, and kids immediately know the difference between a good DJ and a sucky one. When you mix for teenagers, you'd better bring your A-game.

I thought I was ready. I didn't prepare a single thing. I showed up with my usual gear, my usual know-how, and my usual ego. As the doors opened, I hit a few of my better mixes to set the tone for the evening, while the kids lined up at the booth to write requests down. After about ten minutes, I had a full sheet so I grabbed it to take a look. That's when my ego got up and took the first cab home.

I stood there, staring dumbfounded, at a list of about 20 songs -- of which I knew precisely... one. Could it be that your faithful columnist, your pop culture hero, your hip and happening music nerd, was (gasp) UNCOOL?? Clearly I had some homework to do.

Whew. It turned out that most of the songs I didn't know were all non-Top-40 album tracks by a rapper named Soulja Boy Tell 'Em. And now I understood why I didn't know them. Soulja Boy makes juvenile and borderline risque songs that appeal to few except hormonal 16-year-olds who've yet to learn the difference between good and bad music. Like Justin Bieber, if Justin Bieber only rapped about butts.

Don't believe me? Half of the requests were for a gem of his called "Booty Got Swag." Say what? Whose booty got what? When I was a kid, swag meant free stuff, as in "I went to this job fair and got all this sweet swag." But then again, once upon a time, "booty" meant pirate treasure or free stuff as well. "Free stuff got free stuff?" Surely not. That's when I did the uncoolest thing of my life and went to the online Urban Dictionary. And "swag" now means "confidence, style, and demeanor." In fact, with help from the Urban Dictionary, this gem of a song reaches emotional depth of Shakespearean levels:

"Her booty got swag, her booty got swag, her booty got swag"
- Her buttocks have confidence, her buttocks have style, and her buttocks have demeanor.

"Now dip it down then roll with it"
- Which is why they should move about promptly.

"Her booty so big I can hang my chain from it"
- Her buttocks could theoretically be adorned with my necklace.

"I'm good if u wit it I'm wit it"
- How are you? I am fine.

"Souljaboytellem first verse let's get it"
- My name is Soulja Boy Tell Em. I will now rap about our activities.

"She got a donk part two was happenin"
- This fine tune is a sequel to my past song of equal intelligence, "She Got A Donk."

"New money and I got it from rappin"
- I routinely receive payment to discuss your buttocks.

"100 flips wrapped up in plastic"
- I possess a great amount of illegal drugs. Or possibly 100 Filipinos whom I speak of derogatively and cover in plastic.

"Shake it up and down can I grab it"
- I now wish to grope you. Is that acceptable?

"Mic check Gucci bandana, girl I see you in dem sandals"
- My microphone is functioning. I have expensive headgear. You have shoes. I see them.

"Might be too much to handle, Soulja Boy TV that's my channel."
- You are an intense dance partner. I have a streaming internet television station.

"Get it get it get it get it get it get it get it get it get it get it"
- Umm... Get it.

"Twerk twerk twerk twerk twerk twerk"
- I can make silly noises. I am done rapping now.

Clearly, the "American Pie" of our time. The good news is that I'm not uncool. I've just got grown-up taste in dance music. And maybe it's time to head back to employment in a grown-up nightclub. Anyone hiring?

COLUMN: Thanks

Ah, yes, Thanksgiving. The time of year when we put aside our hardships and take stock in what really matters in life -- basketball tournaments and the life-endangering over-consumption of turkey. Ergo, I spend this week's column space giving thanks:

• to TBS, for bringing back our beloved Coco, the true king of late night. And thanks to Andy Richter for sticking around and being the best sidekick on TV.

• to my new house*. (*Subject to change after first snowfall and inaugural snow shoveling session. Which reminds me, how does one of these shovels work? I've got one in my garage, but I've yet to find the "on" switch...)

• to Harmonix, the makers of Rock Band 3, the sequel to the sequel of the best video game ever and the greatest waste of time I've ever encountered in my life. The bad news is that I'm only ranked #113th in the world right now, so I've got a lot of work ahead of me. The really bad news is that sales of rhythm-based music games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are nosediving right now, which I can't understand. I mean, what marketing campaign makes kids rush out and buy video games better than whole-hearted endorsements from chubby middle-aged newspaper columnists old enough to be their dad?

• to Starbucks, the official fuel of Shane Brown.

• to NASCAR drivers Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, for giving me two people in the world to unabashedly hate for little to no discernable reason whatsoever. And yes, I realize that this skewed logic also serves as an argument toward the entertainment value and mass appeal of professional wrestling, for which I am very, very sorry.

• to my dad, for spending a better part of this year as my live-in handyman and remodeler, and my mom, for putting up with it.

• to the staff, lower management, and regulars of 2nd Ave. in the Rock Island District, for a decade of the best weekends of my life. I miss that DJ booth like crazy.

• to the kids at Club Energy, where I've been freelance DJing of late, for making me realize that I am super totally uncool. Note to all aspiring club DJ's out there: If you think (as I do) that you know anything and everything about music, try keeping a pack of 16-year-olds happy for four hours and you'll rapidly realize that, to them, your usual playlist is about as hip as a Michael Bolton record.

• to the divine Miss Amy Gritton, for accepting the role of my girlfriend without reading the fine print that says her worst moments of the week can, and very likely will, be written up in detail for the amusement of 100,000+ readers every Sunday. Love you, honey!

• to "Ghost Hunters," "Destination Truth," "Ghost Adventures," and "Paranormal State," for finding umpteen-hundred different ways to entertain me with the sentences, "Wait, did you HEAR that? WHAT WAS THAT?" I vote that we need an all-paranormal network of 24-7 ghost hunts!

• to Netflix Instant Viewing, for allowing me to watch all of the above shows because I'm too busy writing columns like this when they're actually on.

• to the tiny crack in the sidewalk of the 700 block of 15th Street in Rock Island, for tearing out all the ligaments in my left foot and allowing me a perfectly good excuse to spend most of the summer sitting on the couch doing absolutely nothing. Plus the unsightly orthopedic walking boot I was strapped to for two months scored some MAJOR sympathy points from friends, family, and strangers alike.

• to tough actin' Tinactin, because when you're strapped to an orthopedic walking boot for two months, athlete's foot gets real, people. 'Nuff said.

• to the giant carnivorous feral monster cats who live and/or patrol in the yard next door, for making my rotund-bellied feline companions look wee and skinny in comparison. Just please don't eat them.

• to Louis Goldenberg, for inventing the first electric washer. For the first time in my life, I now have one of my very own in my basement. I would kiss your feet, Mr. Goldenberg, were they not all presumably deceased and decaying. I can now erase the word "laundromat" from my vocabulary and never again have to worry about getting Neighbor Cooties on my delicates. Next step: learning how to use it.

• to Wikipedia, for making it really easy to hop online and look up who invented the electric washer so that my readers think I'm all smart and stuff.

• and, of course, to all of you -- for reading my column, for stopping me on the street to share a laugh, and for writing my paycheck. I am humbled and thankful to have such an awesome opportunity to invade your lives every Sunday, and your readership means the world to me. Now get back to work - you've only got four more days to practice your binge eating.


It's been pointed out to me on many the occasion that, for an aspiring humor columnist, I can quite often be the least fun person in the room. As time goes by, I'm starting to agree with the assessment.

I hate change. There is comfort in the familiar. Hence, that which is unknown is often scary and disruptive and why I generally steer clear of it. I work hard to create around myself a contented little world of stability and navigational ease. When that world gets disrupted, I fall completely off my game.

Take work, for example. This week, I found out that my schedule's going to be changing. In just a few days, I'll be expected in the office 30 minutes earlier than what I'm accustomed to. Most people would take this in stride. I, however, am of the firm belief that it's nothing less than the end of the world. I'll have to go to bed a few minutes earlier. I'll have to wake up a few minutes earlier. The HORROR! Most people would go, "Eh. Whatever." I, meanwhile, am in full alarm red-alert crisis management mode.

I've stepped into a role in life, both at work and at home, that I'm not particularly proud of. Whenever something new comes along -- something change-y, be it a new computer system, new product, new schedule, or a new brand of mustard -- my job is to announce to anyone and everyone within earshot how this change will be a horrible detriment to our way of life, how every essence of this change is A Very Bad Idea, and how it's certain to fail in a remarkably short amount of time. I am the devil's advocate. I am Debbie Downer. I am the Grinch Who Stole 365 Days A Year.

So I'm trying desperately to become Hip Shane, Lover of Change. And for what it's worth, I think I've made decent headway. I mean, this year alone I bought a stinking HOUSE, for gosh sake. You can't get much more change-y than that. And I've tried to be a little less the voice of fatalism and a little more the voice of reason. I've even tried really really hard to bite my tongue about this schedule change at work and have thus far kept my seething outrage and panic to just a small flurry of incendiary e-mails. For me, this is a big step.

But my new-found tolerance for change is taking a beating this week.

My good friend and co-worker Chris is about to be making the biggest change of his life, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. Well, I guess it doesn't matter how I feel, because it's not MY life. Part of me's jealous that I don't have the guts to make such a change, but that's just a wee little part of me. The big part of me thinks he's making a bad move and I just wanna stomp and pout and be incredibly unsupportive and tell him that he's on the road to ruin, but that makes me a lousy friend. Or maybe a great friend. SEE? I JUST DON'T KNOW WHAT TO THINK.

Here's the scoop. My friend Chris has always had a jones for the Orient, specifically the fine island nation of Japan. I know this because (a) he was an Asian Studies major in college, (b) he likes video games, (c) he thinks ninjas are pretty sweet, and (d) he thinks Japanese girls are pretty hot. These are the sorts of important world issues that our friendship is based upon.

And in one week, my friend Chris is selling all his belongings save for 50 lbs. of allowable carry-on luggage and is hopping a plane for Japan, where he plans on spending the rest of his life teaching English to Japanese schoolchildren. He's never been there before. He doesn't speak the language. He doesn't know a single person over there. What little money he has will quickly be eaten up in plane fares and apartment rentals. And, as his good friend, I'm supposed to be supportive of this endeavor. OR, as his good friend, I'm supposed to tell him that he's making a horrible decision. I'm just not sure which camp I fall into yet.

Let's weigh the pros and cons of the scenario out.

PROS: Going to Japan could be an enriching and rewarding cultural experience, as could teaching English to kids. He's an adventuresome guy and this is about as adventurous as a gig could get. He's young and doesn't have any obligations to prevent him from seeing the world, so why not take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself? If he loves it, he's found a new path in life. If he doesn't, he can return home in a year wisened and world-weary.

CONS: Are you kidding me? He's going to a foreign country and doesn't speak the language. The company he'll be working for is truly called The Peppy Kid's Club. After arriving in Japan and going through training, he'll then be assigned an area to teach in -- and their classrooms aren't in hip, happening Tokyo or Okinawa. They're in, like, small towns and villages. He might be looking for exciting culture, but he's probably going to end up in Japanese Galesburg (I'm FROM Galesburg, I'm allowed to poke fun.) The Peppy Kids Club website says that their teaching lessons involve extensive singing and dancing. Thanks to our shared love of the video game Rock Band and some truly ill-advised karaoke nights, we've each suffered through each other's versions of "singing," and lemme tell you as a fellow tonedeaf impartial: it ain't pretty. Umm, what else? In the real world, there's a sad shortage of ninjas. And, while some Japanese girls are indeed eye candy, you're probably not gonna make much headway when your pick-up line starts and stops with "Konichiwa" because that's the only Japanese you know.

But in reality, what it comes down to is selfishness:

MY CONS: Who's going to get me through challenging boss fights on the X-Box? Who's gonna stand by my side in the DJ booth and fend off unwieldly requests? Who am I going to call and go, "DUDE! You HAVE to see this video on Youtube right NOW!" I'm losing one of my best friends and confidants to foreign weirdos across the globe, and that's change for ME and that's why it stinks.

So good luck, man. I hope you carve a path of destruction all over the land of the rising sun. Japan doesn't know what it's in for. Defeat all the ninjas, find as many hot anime-looking babes as possible, and most importantly, teach all of the kids how to log onto QCOnline.com and read my column. I hope it works out, I really do. And if it doesn't, there's a couch here with your name on it from which you can rebuild the shattered pieces of your broken life. Plus if you can get back on at the paper, we can go back to the old schedule and I can sleep in for an extra half hour. And then everybody wins.

COLUMN: Trick or Treat

Well, it's been a ground-breaking week... I think.

But thanks to my early deadline, I'm going to have to guess as to exactly what ground we broke. It's okay, though, I'm a professional journalisty dude, I can totally play it off. Let's just assume that our nation went to the polls in droves, and let me be the first to give a hearty congratulations to Governor-Elect Quee'glort from the planet Epsilon Beta IV on his(?) successful last-minute write-in campaign.

Or maybe not. But as far as I know right now, every Congressional race could have been won by aliens. (That would, at least, explain Rand Paul.) Sarah Palin could have overthrown the government with a horde of highly trained Alaskan flying monkeys. I have no idea what may have happened, because as I write this, it's Monday night, the election hasn't happened yet, and I'm presently looking over my laptop at a cavalcade of negative political ads on my TV. Thus far, I have learned that everyone running for every office is an incredibly bad person who should probably be stopped at any cost.

But more importantly, this same early deadline also explains why I am the only professional journalisty dude in the world still writing about Halloween.

As I've mentioned in a few past columns, I am a self-confessed Hallo-weenie. I'm all for kids in costumes and the free market trade of candy, but that's pretty much where it ends for me.

My friends ALMOST applied enough peer pressure to get me to go haunting-housing with them last Friday. My friend Linn pointed out that the experience would make for excellent column fodder, but my epic willpower (otherwise known as laziness) prevailed. Besides, I will never understand the appeal of being scared.

After 39 years of the lifestyle known as Shane, I like to think myself somewhat an expert when it comes to leisure activities. At the drop of a hat, I could provide you with a rather lengthy annotated list of things I like to do in my downtime. And you will never find "paying $12 to go walking through a dark building while grown adults in masks and make-up jump out of doors yelling BOOGITY BOO" on that list.

As Friend Jason put it so eloquently the other day, "When dudes in make-up come at you indoors wielding chainless chainsaws, it's not scary. It's just loud and annoying." Amen, brother. I know there's a lot of you who spend gobs of time and effort volunteering to make haunted houses a success, and I know some of the local ones are quite impressive in scale and design, but sorry. If your goal is to make me afraid, then I'm afraid you'll never be getting any of MY money, sorry.

That said, I don't want to be a Halloween fuddy-duddy. I like creepy movies, ghost stories, goth music, and getting the occasional mild case of the heebie-jeebies. I just don't want to be the self-conscious guy in the awkward costume making awkward small talk with other grown adults who look ridiculous in their awkward costumes. I'm perfectly okay with Halloween, so long as I'm a passive observer.

In fact, I kinda got excited about the prospect of the first Halloween in my new house. Growing up in the country a good mile off the main road, we never had trick-or-treaters. Of course, it never stopped my mom from stocking up on candy (her annual excuse to defy the gods of Weight Watchers.) And at my old apartment complex, they actually used to post "NO TRICK OR TREAT" signs in the halls. But now that I had my own house in the city? Game on.

I asked my next-door neighbors about the Halloween situation.

"Mmm, nope," came the reply. "We've been here for years and never get any trick-or-treaters."

Bummer. That just stinks, even for a Hallo-weenie like me. When I was a kid, running around and getting candy was the only thing that made the costume-wearing worthwhile. I might've hated dressing up, but the week-long sugar high comedown was the payoff.

So despite my neighbors' advice, I brought home 3 huge bags of candy and on All Hallow's Eve, I dutifully turned the patio light on and hoped for the best.

Little did I know that apparantly the children of the Quad Cities have some kind of super-hi-tech candy telemetry. No sooner had I turned that light on than DING-DONG. "TRICK OR TREAT!" Cute little vampire kid and a Spiderman kid. Those must've been the scouts. Five minutes later, I peeked outside to a GAGGLE of children heading down the block in a ravenous, candy-crazed little line. Within an hour, my girlfriend was rationing our remaining stock while I was racing to Walgreens on an emergency candy run.

By the time it was done, SEVEN bags of sweets were dispersed. It turns out that our neighbors across the street, neighbors who I had never before even seen outside, are Halloween-heads. In the course of one afternoon, they converted their front yard into a graveyard of horrors, special effect lighting, and creepy sound effects. Their house was the Pied Piper of Halloween, and my place was caught in their gravitational pull.

We had cute kids aplenty at the door, sure, but I'd say only about half of them were in costume. The rest MIGHT have taken enough time to put something orange on before heading out the door on their quest for free candy. Maybe it's always been that way, but as far as I'm concerned, if you want free candy, you've got to work for it, or at least suffer by wearing some horrifying costume your parents have forced you to wear. I had to be Uncle Sam. I had to be a hobo. The least you could do is put on a mask, kid.

Still, I'm not going to deprive anyone of candy. That would just be mean. Instead, I have a better solution for next year: TWO bowls of candy. In one, a vast array of chocolately goodness. In the other? The unholiest evil of all: CANDY CORN. Show up at my door in costume? Chocolately goodness. Yell, "Yo, you got candy?" to me from the sidewalk? You bet I do, buddy, and it tastes like vaguely sweet chalk. Enjoy.

As for me, I'm off to get an early start on catching the Christmas spirit. Maybe I'll write about it, oh, mid-February.

COLUMN: Hand Towels

As I type this, it is a cold and lonely Monday night. Normally at this time, my girlfriend and I would be sharing dinner and snuggling in front of the television. Not tonight. No, tonight I sit alone eating microwaved hot dogs while Amy is at her house having a party I'm not invited to. And as I sit here in the sullen silence of a dark and lonely house, all I can think is: THANK GOD.

Amy's "party" tonight is one in which someone comes to her house and pitches a vast array of products to those female family and friends unlucky enough to get an invite. I forget what the company's called -- Tastefully Easy? Elegantly Simple? Needlessly Overpriced? Something like that.

Until the day Tupperware invents plastic power tools, guys will never understand the lure of the home sales party. But I now know the reason why: girls' brains are hardwired completely different than ours, and I now know why.

It started off with a reasonable request.

"Hey babe?" she asked. "I need a new hand towel. Can we run out and buy one real quick?"

The male mind sees shopping as a basic problem-solving exercise: Need. Buy. Have. If we need something, we go buy it and then we have it. And if my baby needed a new hand towel, then we should go buy one.

"Just stop by the drugstore. I bet they have them there."

Excellent! Why drive to one of those ginormous box stores when you can go a few blocks and get it at a drugstore? You might pay a buck or two more, but it beats the parking lots, the walking, and the check-out lines of MegaSuperMart. My girlfriend and I are a well-oiled, think-alike shopping machine.

Which is why I was a bit surprised when she marched into the drugstore, bee-lined to the toiletries section, and started shoveling stick after stick of my deodorant into her shopping basket.

"Ummmm," I said, "I don't need deodorant. I just bought some last week."

"I found a coupon!" she said with glee. "Now you can stock up!"

My girlfriend prides herself on being a bargain shopper. Guys never find coupons. We're usually too busy using our newspapers to sop up oil spills or kindle campfires. I guess in the long run (in this case, since I was already pretty well stocked up, the reeeeally long run) I'm saving a few bucks, so... okay, sure. I now have enough deodorant to see me through my golden years free of pit stains and springtime fresh.

I, meanwhile, rounded the corner to a fantastic find. There in front of me was a bag of SIX hand towels, ON SALE to boot! I presented it to her like a proud hunter returning with the kill.

"Problem solved!" I said with pride. "Hand towels and deodorant. Mission accomplished! Let's go home!"

"Don't be silly," she replied sternly. "Put those back."

"But you needed a hand towel, right?" Need. Buy. Have. "They're on sale! Now you can stock up!"

"I'm not looking for THOSE kind of hand towels," she said as if talking to one of her first-graders. "I need a HALLOWEEN hand towel for the party!"

Umm. This begs oh-so-many questions. Chief among them: "Why does one require a Halloween hand towel?" "They MAKE Halloween hand towels?" "People BUY Halloween hand towels?" "Is there anything on Earth more pointless than a Halloween hand towel?"

Now don't get me wrong. I am the king of possessing pointless stuff that I really don't NEED in order to function in society. In fact, the very minute that I finish this column, I'm hopping in my car to go wait in line at midnight for the release of Rock Band 3 for the X-Box. But even my pointless stuff serves a good and proper time-wasting purpose: Video games are FUN. CD's are FUN. DVD's are FUN. You can listen, watch, and play them again and again for true quantifiable fun. My life NEEDS fun. Need. Buy. Have.

But what personal satisfaction, what FUN can one gain from a Halloween hand towel? I actually know the answer to this. Are you ready, because here it is. Start the stopwatch.

"...aww, cute..."

Annnnd stop. 1.6 seconds. That's how much fun a Halloween hand towel is. That's exactly how long it takes to look at the hand towel, have your brain absorb its charming Halloween theme, and internally register some passing reply of cuteness. Then it's done. Your hands are dry and it's time to move on. All this fun for a mere $3.99. That equals $2.49 per second of enjoyment.

THIS is the primary difference between guys and girls. We both buy stupid stuff with alarming frequency, but guys at least buy FUN stupid stuff. Rock Band 3 may cost $60, but I plan on playing that video game for hours on end until my fingers are blistered and my arms throb with carpal tunnel. By the time it's done, I will have spent less than $0.0000000000000000000000000001 per second of enjoyment. Yet SHE'S the bargain shopper.

So we went from the drugstore to the big box store in search of a Halloween hand towel. And at the box store, we found some that clearly fit the dual criteria of (a) being Halloweeny and (b) being hand towels. One had a little skull on it, the other a little ghost. Unfortunately, though, those weren't CUTE enough to make the grade. See, the skulls and the ghosts were SCOWLING. That's right, guys: If you're going to decorate your home with elements of the supernatural, you'd best make sure they're at least SMILING.

So we went from the drugstore to the big box store and finally to the department store, where we finally found a docile hand towel showcasing an emotion-free -- yet apparantly cute enough -- pumpkin. Whew. Crisis averted, party saved.

I, on the other hand, am beginning to worry. In a couple days, I'm having people over to MY place for a Rock Band 3 party, and I fear that I don't have a Halloween hand towel. I don't even have a hand towel. I have a roll of Bounty the Quicker Picker Upper woefully bereft of holiday theme. In fact, I have nothing Halloweeny in my entire place. My only hope at this point is to leave the uneaten remainder of hot dog out and hope that something orange grows on it within the next 48 hours.

I'm beginning to realize that if this girlfriend of mine is the keeper I know she is, one day I'll have a house full of holiday hand towels. And I think I can live with that. After all, I need something to do for those 1.6 seconds per day that I'm not playing video games.

Monday, December 06, 2010


Well, my plan failed.

Despite packing up all of my belongings and -- in the quiet undercover of midday -- stealthily moving all of my possessions to a secret undisclosed location some seven blocks away, the bill collectors still found me. I was kinda hoping that with a new house and all, they'd simply forget to charge me for utilities and services and assorted payments due. No such luck.

I went home for lunch today. This was a bad move, as my mailbox and its Cavalcade o' Invoices just took my abnormally good Monday mood for a quick stroll through the mud. Urgh. Why do things have to cost money? Don't these companies realize that I am a beloved and cherished area writer of some importance? The power company, for instance, should know that without power, my laptop computer would not function; hence this very column, here to entertain you all, would not be written. As a public service to newspaper readers everywhere, they should be giving me EXTRA power, doggone it.

But, as it turns out, I have little power over my power. Nobody does. Why? Because power only makes sense to the power company. My bill might as well be written in German and I'd still just thoughtlessly provide them with the "AMOUNT DUE" (or, auf Deutsch, "ZU ZAHLENDER BETRAG.") This is why I opt for automatic bill pay.

Auto bill pay is a great thing for me, as I tend to have the responsibility level of your average beanstalk. I forget to pay bills all the time, but with auto pay, I can just go about my business safe in the knowledge that my bank account will be routinely bled dry without any of that bothersome signing-my-name-and-mailing-a-check business. The downside of auto pay, though, is that I NEVER pay attention to what's coming or going out of my account. The power company could be charging me extra to scrape squirrels out of transformers and I'd be none the wiser. Back in the apartment days, this was a fine way to waddle through life. But now that I'm a homeowner, these withdrawals are a tad bit larger than what I'm used to, and maybe I should pay a little bit more attention.

That's why I just opened my power bill. Again, not a good move when you're trying to have a happy day. It turns out that the average power bill at my house is about 3 times as much as my old apartment. "Well, duh," you say, "you're now paying to heat and cool an entire HOUSE." But see, here's the thing:

My apartment was on the middle of 3 stories, and my downstairs neighbor enjoyed keeping his apartment at heat levels juuuust below the melting point of human skin. His 90+ degree atmosphere routinely turned my apartment into a human crock pot, forcing me to run my window air conditioner, often entirely against its audible wishes, year-round. I kid you not that in mid-January, I was running my air non-stop. Meanwhile, all around me, computers hummed, televisions illuminated, and stereos blared.

In my new house, I don't have to run my air 24-7. When it cools down, it shuts off. And my computer and stereo are still in boxes waiting to be unpacked. As far as this unapologetic power-waster's concerned, I've been living like a pioneer of yore (albeit a pioneer with central air and heat.) Yet still, my bills have been outlandish. Good, then, of the power company to break it down in an easy-to-understand format.

Let's see: Basic Service Charge, Energy Charge (800x0.07450), Electricity Excise Tax, Municipal Tax, Meter Class 1 Charge, Distribution Charge (16x0.10556), Gas Supply Charge (16x0.47697), Illinois CC Assessment, and State Utility Tax. Oh, well gee, that explains it. At least they have a handy guide to break it down: 16 ccf x 0.995 pressure x 1.009 BTU factor = 16 therms. I'm starting to think that the power company doesn't even understand their own bills.

What's a "therm"? I finally found out in fine print: "Your natural gas consumption is measured by volume. One ccf is equivalent to 100 cubic feet. The ccds you use during a billing period are converted to therms for billing. A therm is a standardized billing unit that represents the heating value of the gas sold to you."

In other words, they made it up. "Therms" are created by a consortium of power companies as a convenient way to make our bills even more illogical. Frankly, I didn't know it was that easy. If I want money from someone, clearly I just have to invent a new unit of standardized billing and simply start invoicing people. I'm starting with the power company. I just invoiced them for 13.2 pumpernicks and a note in small print that says, "Pumpernicks are a standardized billing unit that represents the estimated cost value of the pain and suffering felt while trying to decipher your inane bills."

But the sad truth is that the power company is but penny candy compared to the OTHER bills that showed up in my mailbox today. Remember last month when I selflessly conducted my in-depth scientific research to determine once and for all whether or not human feet actually require ligaments? (As it turns out, they DO.) Well, the doctor bills are starting to roll in.

Amidst the invoices for x-rays and doctor visits was one bit of good news, though. For the past five weeks, I've been forced to wear one of those orthopedic walking boots while my foot heals. What I DIDN'T know, though, is that MY boot appears to be a limited edition collector's version. At least, that's the only rational explanation I can think of as to why the boot cost me $300. Silly me, all this time I was under the impression that it was an unsightly piece of metal covered in cheap velcro. But for $300? The metal must be platinum and the velcro hide freshly shaven from the elusive and endangered South American Velcrobbit.

I can't really complain, though -- I have friends with medical problems right now without insurance who are a LOT worse off. And I'd better hush about the $300 boot, because the second that teenagers realize orthopedic walking gear costs more than their Air Jordans, kids around the world will be tearing their ligaments with glee just to have the most expensive footwear possible. So I guess I'll keep paying my bills. I just hope the doctor accepts pumpernicks.

COLUMN: Observation

They say parents always know best. At the very least, I'm certain that mine do. I just don't often want to hear it.

My dad is the greatest dad in the world. If you think your dad is better than mine, you are, in fact, wrong. I've got the evidence to prove it. All summer long, we've been working hard at turning my raw, unfinished basement into a man-cave/media center of the highest degree of coolness.

And by "we," I mean my dad. Every morning, my father wakes up, packs a simple lunch of veggie pizza and an apple, and makes the 50-mile trek from Galesburg to Rock Island, where he spends about 8 hours every day slaving away in my basement before driving back home. If that's not enough, he's also been predominantly footing the bill for the entire project against my rather quiet protests. And let me tell you, the basement looks AWESOME. Like, professional showroom kind of awesome. Despite a chronic bad back, he's done roughly 99.995% of the work. Meanwhile, because he's been taking their car up here every day, my mom has spent the entire summer car-less and stuck at home.

For this, I am humbled, grateful, and almost feel guilty to have such thankless and AMAZING parents. That said, it's been a bit of an adjustment having my dad around day after day. There's one phrase, in particular, that's been a bit of a chore to hear on a regular basis:

"Just an observation from the peanut gallery, but..."

I always know what's coming next. I realize he's simply trying to give handy advice to a new homeowner, but invariably it sounds like: "Just an observation from the peanut gallery, but the way you're living your life is incorrect. Please allow me to point this out to you in a slightly condescending manner."

Such as the other day when my bathmat basically disintegrated in the wash and I resorted to using a towel on the bathroom floor: "Just an observation from the peanut gallery, but if you wouldn't leave towels laying around on the floor, the bathroom would dry out a lot faster."

Or the other day when I was running late for work, grabbed a banana, and accidentally left the peel on the kitchen counter. "Just an observation from the peanut gallery, but if you leave banana peels out, they'll attract bugs."

Or when the carpet got installed yesterday. "Just an observation from the peanut gallery, but now that you have a carpet worth maintaining, you might want to invest in a vacuum that's not from the 1960's."

I know he's trying to help, but sometimes the only thing he helps is the elevation of my blood pressure. The gallery must have a HUGE observation deck, and it's high time those peanuts got harvested. Still, I'd die before I complained, because I know he's just trying to help. Putting up with some nit-picking is the least I can do when the man's breaking his back for me.

Still, it's nice to occasionally prove that I'm not incapable of forward thinking of my own. I got the chance the other day.

Last week started on a bummer note when I learned that the father of one of my oldest friends had passed away after a long and painful cancer battle. Back in high school, their basement was "THE" hangout where we would laugh and goof around and play music at harmful levels for hours on end, and his folks put up with the noise and debauchery without a word of complaint. As the only member of our little clique still in the area, I wanted to drive down to Galesburg and pay respects.

My girlfriend wanted to go with, but she was on babysitter duty for the girls she watches 4 nights a week.

"Here's an idea," I said. "Why don't we all drive down to Galesburg and see if my mom could watch the girls for a few minutes while we go to the visitation?"

I called home and my mom was more than eager to help. "Temporary grandchildren!" she squealed.

"Now, they're kind of a handful, but all you've really got to do is turn the TV to the Disney Channel and tell them to be quiet and they shouldn't be a prob --"

"DO YOU THINK I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING?" my mom asked with a condescending tone. "I raised you, didn't I? I know a thing or two about kids."

"Ooookay," I said. I knew she was in for it.

On the drive to Galesburg, the 6-year-old started to nod off in the backseat. This is never a good thing, because she routinely wakes up from naps cranky and crying.

"Don't fall asleep!" my girlfriend said. "We're almost there."

"I'm sorry, but I had a really hard day in kindergarten." Kids are awesome.

We dropped the girls off with my folks and went to the visitation, which was sad yet great to see my old friend and his mom. As we pulled back into my parent's driveway, I wondered how effective those things or two my mom knew were.

We walked in to the girls running around the house in concentric circles tormenting my parents' poor dog and stopping only long enough to bang on their antique Steinway piano. My mom did a good job at holding her composure, but my dad shot me a one-second look that clearly said:

"Just an observation from the peanut gallery, but these kids are going to give me a stroke any second now and it's a good thing you're about to drive them 50 miles away."

As for mom? "They told me I'm a really nice lady." Have they been running around like this the whole time? "Pretty much, yep." Why didn't you tell them to sit down and be quiet and watch TV like I told you? "Because I'm a really nice lady and didn't wanna blow it. Have fun being the meanie."

Shoot. Parents DO always know best.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Change IS Happening!

Well, my newspaper may be officially endorsing Bobby Schilling... and politics deserves little place in my novelty/humor column...

But make NO mistake about it:

The Complacency Chronicles fully endorses PHIL HARE to retain his seat in Illinois' 17th District.

Phil's commitment to bringing jobs to the area is commendable. Under his tenure: the Arsenal has grown, rail service is a-comin' to town, the Triumph plant will be starting up shop, and a full-blown movie production company is coming to Rock Island. In addition, Phil's commitment to an overhaul of our national health care system will help the uninsured and poverty-stricken for YEARS to come.

Bobby Schilling doesn't support a woman's right to choose.
Bobby Schilling doesn't support stem cell research to cure disease.
Bobby Schilling doesn't care enough about gay rights or the environment to even post a platform on his web site.

Phil Hare is the right choice to continue leading our District. Please take the time to vote on Tuesday. The sanity of our country is hanging by a thread.

Monday, October 11, 2010

COLUMN: Parenting 101

Four nights a week, my girlfriend earns extra cash looking after two precocious siblings, ages 6 and 7. It's gotta be easy, right? Just put them to bed, and once those girls are asleep, you could parade a marching band through the house performing Concerto for Air Horn and Jackhammer #2 and they still wouldn't blink an eye. So my version of "come help babysit" usually involves watching a movie while listening to wee snores from the bedroom.

Not so much last week.

The 7 year old -- I'll out her because I don't really think her classmates are big fans of the Arts and Living section -- has a bit of a bladder control problem. That's why Nana always sends them with pull-up diapers for the latest in fashionable moisture-absorbing eveningwear.

On this particular night, my girlfriend had already put the 6-year-old to bed when the other one came sheepishly out of the bathroom with a big UH-OH plastered all over her face.

"Amy?" she said in her most timid voice. "I don't have a pull-up in my bag. Don't worry, I won't pee, I promise!" Uh huh. It's probably not best to trust a new mattress and sheet set to the positive thinking of a seven-year-old.

"Are you sure you don't have one?" asked Amy. "Hand me your backpack." When I heard my girlfriend gasp, I knew it couldn't be good.

"WHAT... IS... THIS?!?!"

Amy was holding a pull-up in her hands that she'd fished out of the backpack. Huzzah! Problem solved! That's when I realized that the pull-up was -- how to put this delicately -- not un-used?

I've come to learn exactly what the family dynamic will be should Amy and I ever procreate. She will be the authoritarian, disciplinarian, teacher, and mother. I will be the guy who it's fun to play video games with. This is not to say that I'm entirely incapable of parenting, but Amy is a zen master at the craft.


"I didn't put it there!"



"So you need to be honest with me. Did you put this in your bag?"




"GROSS! We're running to the store to buy pull-ups BECAUSE ONE OF US IS GROSS. Can you stay here and watch the other one? Don't let her come out of the bedroom. You'll be fine. I'll be right back."

And before I could even gulp, I was Shane Brown, Temporary Child Care Provider. Amy wasn't even out of the driveway when the crying started.

Crud! I'm already lousy at this. "Don't let her come out of the bedroom." But it's not cool to just ignore a crying child, is it? Maybe I should just be quiet and she'll fall asleep... drat.

"What's wrong, kiddo? Come out and talk to me."

"I... (sniffle)... can't... Amy would be mad!" Wow, that girlfriend of mine IS good. She can lay down the law without even being here.

"Well, umm, Amy's not here and I'm the adult, so what I say goes. And I say you can come out for a minute and tell me what's wrong."

No dice. I got up and headed into the bedroom. I'm an adult and I'm smart and I can handle a sad kid. And there she was, all puppy-eyed and sobbing.

"What's wrong?" I asked. "Amy and your sister will be right back."

"I wanna go home and my sister hates me and she punches me and kicks me and pinches me and she won't play with me and I tell her I want to play and she says NO! and she has all the Barbies and she even has the new Barbie and I said can I play with the new Barbie and she says NO! and I don't know why she hates me and I hate myself."

Urgh. Think, Shane, think. You've seen pretty much every bad family sitcom. You've witnessed the Keatons, Seavers, Huxtables and Bradys handle worse messes. There has to BE some kind of sagely advice you could offer right now. Let's see...

"Well, I know that big sisters can be mean sometimes, but how would you like it if you didn't have a sister? I bet it'd be lonely, huh? I didn't have a brother OR a sister when I grew up and I was lonely all the time."

Huge lie. I LOVED being an only child. I got all the presents, all the attention, and didn't have to worry about being punched or kicked or pinched or having my Barbies stolen.

"But why does she h-h-h-hate me? I like her and I just want to play and she's always so m-m-m-mean!"

Oh man, kid, can't you cut a newbie some slack? Okay, I can do this.

"You know why some people are mean? Because they're scared that people won't like them for who they really are. Just be yourself and be proud of the girl you are, because you're really cool. If your sister's mean to you, just walk away and don't be her friend and see how she likes it when she gets lonely."

Wow. That was, like, Mr. Miyagi good, right? This parenting stuff is EASY. Any second now, she's gonna look up at me and say, "Shane, you're the best babysitter ever, and when I grow up to win the Nobel Prize, I shall thank you for being my inspiration!"

"Shane?" See, told ya. "I just wanna come out there and watch a movie."


This was pretty much the time that Amy got back. with a couple stern words, she had the girls in bed like magic.

"Let me guess," she said, "she did the crying?" Yep. "And the everyone's-mean-to-me?" Umm, yep. "I-hate-myself?" Yeah. "So-let-me-get-up- and-watch-TV?" Gulp.

"Congratulations," said Amy, "you just got played by a six-year-old con artist. Welcome to parenting."

Okay, so maybe I'm not Mr. Miyagi. And maybe I learned some newfound respect for Amy's skills and learned that 6-year-olds will say just about anything to stay up late and watch TV. But I bet with some practice, I'd be good at the dad thing. The weird thing is, I kinda wanna try.


When you're in love, sometimes it really IS just like a fairy tale. It's those moments when you catch a little look, share a crooked smile, and hear that laugh that it really hits home. Alone, you're half a person. When you're together, it just clicks and Air Supply songs start playing in your brain out of the sheer ether of love.

What follows is the story of a weekend. Not just any old weekend, mind you -- a VERY SPECIAL weekend for yours truly. Why? Because it's the first weekend in recent history that I haven't had a single thing to do. In the past decade, I can count on one hand the number of weekends I haven't had a work-related gig.

But last weekend, no gig. No family functions to attend, no friends coming in from out of town, no THING whatsoever. This, I had convinced myself, would be a weekend for the ages.

In the many, many free weekends I used to have Once Upon A Shane, I had one distinct weekend pastime. I would call up Friend Jason and together we would hit the open road. Sometimes it would start with little more than, "Hey, wanna go grab lunch?" and the next thing you knew, it was 2 a.m. and we'd be in St. Louis. Or Nebraska. Or a state park in Minnesota. Or -- in one especially botched trip -- Beloit, Wisconsin.

And oh the trouble we would get into. There was that one time when we, umm, saw a dog. Annnd, uhh, once the car got stuck in mud. And then one time we passed this guy and he totally waved at us, and, and... okay, so usually nothing at all happened on our epic roadtrips. But they WERE epic and among my favorite memories of the 20-something years.

And it was high time Amy learned. I was gonna grab her, grab Friend Jason, and kick it old school. Maybe it sounds weird to invite your best friend on a daytrip with your girlfriend, but I'd talked up our past adventures so highly that it wouldn't have been the same without him along. This was my plan. It would work. It would be epic.

"Baby?" Amy asked. Uh oh. It's only taken 1.6 years of dating to discover that "baby" is the reddest of red flags. "Baby" is never followed by "I sure do love you." No, "baby" is reserved for one purpose only: "Baby? Can we go do something you absolutely abhor for an extended amount of time?"

And this one was a doozy.

"Baby? Can we swing by the shoe store real quick? They're having a sale!"

Never fall for this again. Shoe stores are always having sales. And girls + shoe stores = nothing but trouble. But I gave in and sat there while the Parade o' Shoes came trapsing by. Shoes that, as far as I could tell, were identical and black but with varying little baubles on top of them.

"Which do you like better?" Well, shoes is shoes is shoes as far as I'm concerned. They keep your feet dry and your toes comfy. I have NEVER looked down at a girl's feet and admired their choice in shoes (except maybe Lady Gaga.)

"That's because you're not a girl, silly," Amy explained. Happily, we made it out with plenty of time to aimlessly get our drive on.

"Baby? Can we stop by my house real quick? I forgot something." Sigh. Sure, honey.

"Baby? Aren't you hungry? Can we go somewhere to eat?" Grr, but I suppose food IS a human necessity. When it comes to eating out, Amy and I have NEVER been on the same page. I prefer fast, American, and simple. She, on the other hand, goes to places like Bob's House Of Exotic Panda Curry Tofu Spicy Diarrhea Nightmare. Places where you look at your food and can't exactly ascertain what it is. She even eats (shudder) spinach.

So we compromised and I treated her to an exotic meal of worldly international cuisine. Namely, the International House of Pancakes. It would be my only victory of the weekend.

"Baby? Can we stop by the book sale at the library real quick?"

"Baby? Look! A second-hand store selling kid's clothes [despite us having no children]! Let's go look at the cute Halloween outfits!"

"Baby? Can we run over to my work real quick? I need to drop something off!"

"Baby? Can we hang out with my friend So-And-So for awhile? She's only in town for the day!"

Before I knew it, Saturday's aimless driving opportunity evaporated in a puff of Baby's. It's okay, though, I thought to myself, there's always Sunday.

"Baby?" said the voice on my phone Sunday morning. "Can we go to lunch with my mom?"

Little did I know that on Sunday, the WORLD would be my Baby. To say that the service at lunch was a little slow is like saying that Lindsay Lohan is a little crazy. I won't say where we went, but it might be a while before I take my babybackbabybackbabyback there.

Then my dad called. "Hey, ace [baby], if you're out and about, could you pick me up a tube of silicone caulk?"

Finally I had the time and opportunity to call Friend Jason and inform him as to my epic plan.

"Oh, sorry man [baby], didn't I tell you I was painting my house this weekend?" D'oh. He did. I forgot. Et tu, Amy?

"Baby? Can we just hang out here? The season premiere of "Dexter" starts soon!"

I surrendered to the gods of a sucky weekend. No aimless drive, no epic plan, I just wanted to make it through the rest of the night without one more --


Teeth clenched, blood pressure elevated. This was it, I was going to stroke out right here on my couch.

"Baby, you know what's a weird word? 'Among.' Among, among, among..."

Before I knew it, I was laughing so hard I was crying. THIS was why I fell in love with the girl. Because among IS a weird word. And because I'm dating someone who knew the EXACT moment to point it out. Suddenly it all made sense. I didn't need an epic plan or an aimless drive to have a great weekend. I just had it. I loved buying silicone - with her. I loved going to lunch - with her (and her mom!) I even loved shoe shopping - with her.

Do I hear Air Supply?