Thursday, April 22, 2010

COLUMN: Missouri Pt. 1

A column subtitled:

Shane's Manly Tales of Extreme Manliness, Chapter 214.

The other day, an amazing event occurred. My girlfriend and I both had the same day off work. That it also landed on the first official Really Nice Day of 2010 was a double bonus. Plans, if you could call them as such, were hastily made. Two people, one car, a full tank of gas, and no rules whatsoever. It was the inaugural spring aimless drive.

We reached my target destination in no time at all: Nauvoo, IL. Not only is Nauvoo a really cool historical town with loads to see and do, but just south of town, the Great River Road runs directly alongside the Mississippi for a beautiful stretch of ten miles or so. As the sun casts its reflection off the rolling river, it's the perfect opportunity for silent meditation. A moment to be thankful for the inherent good of nature. To cast aside material problems and take stock in what truly matters in life. A moment of pure --


Well, I was thinking more esoterically, sure, but maybe life IS like one big tur --


I quickly ascertained that my girlfriend had NOT come down with a sudden case of crazy, but you wouldn't know it by the way she was suddenly screaming and flailing at every passing log.

"There's turtles everywhere! Pull over!"

Greeeeat. Twenty bajillion girls on the planet, and of COURSE I pick the one with a previously undisclosed disposition towards hallucinations. Still, I pulled over to appease her, as her eyes had by now lit up Christmas-morning style. I tried to explain to her that she was probably just seeing rocks along the river bank, but she was too busy dragging me by my sleeve to the river's edge. That's when I, too, realized what I was seeing.

Along the shores of the river, every floating log, branch, and debris pile was COVERED in turtles. Big turtles, little turtles, in-between turtles. HUNDREDS upon HUNDREDS of turtles. And they were all just kinda... hangin' out. Chilling in the spring sunshine with their little turtle necks stretched all the way out. I have seen loads of things in my day, but never before had I seen a turtle block party. Amy took tons of pictures while I wondered if there was ever a "Night of the Living Turtles" movie and whether or not this was how it started.

Eventually, we'd scared half the cute things into the water, so we figured we'd get back on the road and let the turtles get back to their turtling. As we went back into roadtrip mode, it was the perfect time to relax, soak up the sun, and coast along in a bliss of nature and relaxation and --


I would estimate that it took approximately three tenths of a second for me to spin my head to my right to see exactly why Amy was screaming at full volume. It must be noted that in those three tenths of a second, I created the entire plotline for the remainder of the "Night of the Living Turtles" movie (and it did NOT bode well for us, it must be said.) But I did not see a turtle. Instead, I spun in just enough time to Amy flick something off of her neck and directly onto my shirt. It was black. It was about an inch long. It was MOVING. And now, it was on ME.


"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! IT'S ON ME!!!!" I shrieked back.

The car, it must be said at this point, somehow miraculously managed to keep driving itself straight. I certainly had nothing to do with this fact. I was too busy taking a hurried glance at the thing CRAWLING UP MY SHIRT.

These are the facts as I now recall them: It had wings, pinchers, fangs, horns, stingers, claws, a gleaming smile, and a clear and discernable taste for human blood. I did what any macho guy would do - I screamed until my girlfriend flicked it off of my shirt and into the abyss of my car.

We got out and looked, but no sign of our insect intruder. It had VANISHED. We got back in the car. Suddenly my whole body started to itch. The mystery bug was anywhere and everywhere. I felt phantom crawls all over my body.

"It must be dead," said Amy reassuringly.

"Or plotting how to best inject its devil poison straight into our jugulars," I replied.

Still, we kept driving. In the bug panic, I had somehow gotten the car into the wrong lane, crossed the river at Keokuk into Iowa, and next thing I knew, we were in Missouri. Worse yet, a few miles into the Show-Me State, the Great River Road turned into Not-So-Great Road Construction, complete with a weird detour that forced us down a country road so small and winding that my GPS at one point indicated that we were driving through a lake.

Finally, the detour spat us out on a highway headed into Hannibal, home of Mark Twain and riverboat culture. Surely there must be a great restaurant to get some dinner, right? (More on this next week.) Let me just merge on over to make the turnoff. Signal, mirrors, blind spot...

And as I turned to check the blind spot, I was nose-to-nose with Harvey the Death Bug, perched on my left shoulder, one evil antennae in the air as if to say, "Whassup, yo?"

Here is where our stories differentiate. What I believe I said was this: "Say, honey, that pesky insect from before is now on my left shoulder. Could you reach around and flick it off while I navigate this turn?"

What Amy believes I said was this: "OMIGOD-IT'S-ONNNN-MEEEE-GETITOFF-GETITOFF-GETITOFF-I'M-GONNA-DIIEEEEEEEEEE!" Perhaps I must've been choked up on my own brute machismo.

I swerved off the road, threw on the brakes, jumped out of the car, and did a manly dance I like to call the Ewww Shuffle while frisking myself more egregiously than any cop show I've ever seen. The truth was ugly. It was gone... again. It was in the car... again.

It wasn't until an hour after dinner that Amy spotted our stowaway friend crawling up the back seat. This time, we had ample and safe opportunity to pull over, take my shoe off, whallop the thing mercilessly, and throw it and the napkin I smooshed it in right out the door. (Yes, Missouri, I littered and I feel horrible about it. But it was clearly life or death at this point.) And I kid you not, as that napkin hit the ground, I saw that evil bug scutter out, smooshed but breathing, dragging itself rapidly towards the car with its one good claw, its eyes still hell-bent on our destruction. I threw the car into gear and peeled out of there like the wind. From a distance, I'm pretty sure it looked totally manly.

COLUMN: Video Games vs. Real Life

Hey, what are you doing reading this? Don't you know?? The poor townsfolk of Bodhum are being exiled to Pulse! A fal'Cie was discovered, so the Sanctum sent the PSICOM to purge them to Pulse. Maybe a smart move, because we all know what happens when a fal'Cie starts turning people into l'Cie, right? Cocoon may NEVER be the same!

Hopefully you're one of the sane ones and have no clue what I'm talking about. There's several hundred folks in the Quad Cities who know all about the plight of the l'Cie. But they're not reading the paper. They're too busy playing Final Fantasy XIII. And after 13 installments, I'm starting to doubt the finality of these fantasies.

The Final Fantasy series is THE creme de la creme of console role-playing video games. There simply isn't a better-looking, more compelling game on Earth. Anyone with more than a passing interest in video games understands why doors get locked and calls go unanswered when Square Enix rolls out a new FF installment. I don't know anyone who says, "Wow, those games are really bad."

Correction: I DIDN'T know anyone who said that. Then I met my girlfriend Amy. Her exact words on Final Fantasy, though, came with a look of horror and intolerance: "My... brother... plays... those... games." I'm not a mind-reader or anything, but I'm starting to think she wasn't exactly making a GOOD comparison here.

I like the occasional video game, but I also like my life. Hence, I try to stay away from the long, epic RPG's that suck your soul away for days and weeks on end. But Final Fantasy XIII is too good NOT to play. Maybe having no life is the way to go...


(1) Let's say your entire future hinged upon a successful job interview. And let's say you enter that office and say something so horrifically stupid that you're led out of the interview by security and your life is ruined. If life were a video game, you could simply PAUSE your life and RESTART FROM LAST SAVE POINT and just try the interview over and over until you get the job. And if you mess up so bad that you fall over dead from embarassment? No worries -- you've got two extra lives.

(2) Life deserves cheat codes. You've lost your job and teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. In the real world, you could go live on the streets or spend years digging yourself out of debt. If life were a video game, you could simply go left-left-up-A-B-A-down-down and suddenly have unlimited money.

(3) In video games, you never have a bad hair day. You wake up a heaving carcass of sinewy muscles and brute strength. You are eternally awesome without ever walking into a gym.

(4) If life were a video game, you could find gold everywhere you looked. Smash a box? Gold. Jump on a toadstool? Gold. You would think all this loose change lying around would do some wonky things to inflationary rates, but the guy at the weapons shop ALWAYS charges the same for his wares.

(5) My friend Chris insists on me mentioning something about Hot Anime Babes, which I totally would -- if I didn't have a super-cute girlfriend who would punch me hard in the arm. Suffice to say that in the world of video games, no one punches you hard in the arm when you talk about Hot Anime Babes.

(6) More to the point, Hot Anime Babes do not chastise you about your quests or demand "snuggle time."

(7) Elves are awesome. They do NOT live at the North Pole or in a tree making Keebler cookies. They kick butt.

(8) Your universe is linear and your objective is clear. In the real world, my weekends are full of conversations like this: "So, what do you wanna do today?" "I dunno, what do YOU wanna do?" "I dunno, I asked first." In video games, you ALWAYS know what you want to do today: Jump the barrels. Defeat the monkey. Save the Princess.

(9) In real life, when I try to sing, I sound like a castrated cat. Yet out of the 4,900,000 people who play Rock Band, I am ranked on the scoreboards as the 12th greatest singer in the world. To compare, Rolling Stone recently released their list of the greatest vocalists in the world. Their pick for #12 was Little Richard. Hence, I am the Little Richard of cyberspace.

(10) In the world of video games, eternal life is always yours, and it doesn't even take an ounce of faith. Reincarnation just costs another quarter.

That said, I also came up with 5 reasons why the real world might be the better world of choice:

(1) While it's true that as a brave adventurer, you often are surrounded by one or more Hot Anime Babes, you never really get anywhere with them except a giggle and some speech about togetherness (*unless you're playing Grand Theft Auto, to which I utter a terse and G-rated "no comment.") Sometimes you don't even get that. You can play Donkey Kong until your fingers bleed and you NEVER rescue that stupid princess. I just watched a Donkey Kong documentary (I know, not really gaining any cool points with this column, am I?) and do you know how you "win" Donkey Kong? You reach a score level too high for the game to calculate and it FREEZES up on you. Not exactly a happy ending.

(2) There are far fewer Orcs in the real world. Orcs are bad news.

(3) You can sleep in the real world. This is a rarity in the land of video games ("PRESS (X) TO SNORE! TAP (Y) REPEATEDLY TO PERFORM BUTT-SCRATCH MANEUVER!")

(4) In all of my final fantasies, rock bands, and RPG's, I have yet to encounter a pizza-delivery guy. With the exception of the old Nintendo 64 game "Yo Noid," in which I believe you PLAY a pizza-delivery guy.

(5) You take considerably less damage sitting on your couch. Let's say you beat Final Fantasy. That's fine and good, but by THAT point, you've been slashed, gouged, maimed, and shot THOUSANDS of times. Surely this must result in some permanent scarring, a surplus of limps, and a likely burning sensation when you pee. Is it worth it?

Don't ask me - I'm putting the video game down. I've got a super-cute, NON-anime, flesh and blood girlfriend to go snuggle with.

Friday, April 02, 2010

COLUMN: Meditate

I know what you're thinking. Something seems different this week about your favorite newspaper columnist, am I right? Could it be that your loveable hero has suddenly become more relaxed and less stressed-out? More in-tune with the world? It's almost as if I spent the week diving into a blissful sea of pure consciousness and restful alertness.

The events of this week actually started several years ago, when some friends and I discovered that film director David Lynch was giving a lecture in Fairfield, Iowa. To say that I'm a huge fan of Lynch would be a massive understatement. I'm a nerd for his work, and to find out he was lurking around in central Iowa was pretty epic. I didn't even care what he was lecturing on, I just knew I had to be there. If that lecture had been on "How Best To Murder Puppies," I'd have been first in line with a schnauzer under each arm.

Happily for the midwestern puppy populace, Lynch's lecture instead was on a subject he's most passionate about: the benefits of Transcendental Meditation. The ancient Vedic practice of TM was revived in Western culture back in the 60's by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (famed for his encounters with The Beatles.) Years later, when the Maharishi decided to open a school for what he called "consciousness-based education," the Maharishi University of Management settled upon the former grounds of Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa. Thanks to the school, Fairfield has turned into the Midwestern epicenter for new age philosophies and green living. Lynch is but one of the many people who practice Transcendental Meditation every day.

At that lecture, I ended up meeting David Lynch and it was the thrill of a lifetime. Years later, I travelled back to Fairfield to interview him for our paper. Since then, I've done a number of gripping and/or Pulitzer-worthy pieces on the weird little town of Fairfield and the practice of TM.

Too bad that I've never exactly bought into the whole thing.

Parts of the TM technique seem really cool. Folks who meditate on a regular basis lead heathier and happier lives, and the school's got statistics galore to back it up. Meditating relieves stress, lowers blood pressure, improves brain function, and encourages creativity. I buy into all that.

Then they kinda lose me a little. According to the principles of the practice, when you meditate, you descend into a form of pure consciousness that's known as the Unified Field -- the primordial ooze that makes up all of everything, the basic building block of existence. And when you tap into this Unified Field through meditation, you create waves of positivity that can have an effect on everyone and everything around you. Ergo, if I were to meditate right now, my cats might feel a little better. My neighbors might feel a little better. And, as the college suggests, if you were to take a group of meditators skilled enough and drop them into the Middle East, you might just attain world peace. This is the part of TM that the realist part of my brain calls advanced hocum-pocum.

Still, every time I visit Fairfield, the people there and at the College are just so stinkin' nice. Like, bordering-on-creepy nice. And everyone seems so earnest in their attempts to turn the town into this Utopian existence that I can't help but admire their efforts. So when the opportunity came to me to learn the practice of TM from an accredited teacher, I couldn't refuse. That's what I've been doing this past week: learning to meditate. If at any point in time this past week, you've felt happiness or enjoyment, clearly that was me sending positive ripples into your little niche of the Unified Field. You're welcome.

If there's one thing I've learned this week about myself, it's that I have a very difficult time trying to shut my brain off. Or turn my inner brain on. Or whatever I'm supposed to be doing (I still don't know for sure, I'm only halfway done with my classes as I type this.) I just know it's gonna take an awful lot of time and practice before I bask in the true bliss of pure consciousness.

I can't really tell you much about the actual TM practice. It's principles and technique are rather closely guarded, and they're not really keen on amateurs giving away trade secrets. I can tell you, though, that like many other forms of meditation, TM utilizes what's called a "mantra" - a noise without meaning. Your trainer gives you this mantra and you focus on it during your meditation.

I thought I would be really good at meditating. I mean, I practically do it every day in front of the television watching reruns of "Law and Order." My best mantra might as well be, "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups..."

I'm not supposed to divulge the mantra given to me by my trainer, and I won't. But suffice to say, my noise without meaning sounds like a very similar noise belted out by Beyonce in the chorus to that song you couldn't escape from last year. So every time I try to repeat the mantra, I have to fight the Beyonce song from leaping into my head.

Here's how it's been going:

Mantra... mantra...
(Beyonce! Beyonce!)
mantra... mantra...
(get out of my head, dumb song)
mantra... mantra...
(ahh... that's better)
(kind of relaxing)
(I'm doing it, I'm totally meditating)
(no you're not, because if you were truly transcending, you wouldn't be having this conversation with yourself)
mantra... mantra...
(why did I just think of a duck? Stop that.)
mantra... mantra...
mantra... mantra...
(Aretha? What're YOU doing here? Get outta my brain!)
(Billy Ocean? You're here, too?)

Etc., etc. My brain appears to be immune to internal relaxation. Still, I'm gonna give it a shot and see where it takes me. I'm all for anything that reduces stress. And in all honesty, as I was leaving class tonight, the world seemed a little more... visceral, I guess. Whether that's due to meditation or Sudafed or Billy Ocean, I dunno. The way I see it, it's a win-win: No longer will I be Shane-the-guy-who-zones-out-at-his-desk-sometimes, I am now Shane-the-master-of-pure-consciousness-and-transcendence. Your Unified Field can thank me later.