Friday, May 21, 2010

COLUMN: Offspring

Life has been evolving at a scary pace lately.

For pretty much the past decade, I've been living a life of complacency, safety, and let's face it, boredom. Over the past year, I've somehow managed to meet and date a girl that I'm in no real hurry to lose. And if that's not enough, if all goes well, in about a month or two I could be moving into my first house. How's that for shaking things up a bit?

Now, I realize that this column is doing nothing but feeding ammo to my annoying co-workers who serenade me through the halls on a near daily basis with a barrage of "So when's the wedding?" "When you popping the question?" "Do you have baby names picked out yet? I bet sheee does!" So let me just nip that in the bud right now with THIS statement: If it happens, it'll happen, and only when it's the right time. That time is not now, especially when I have to pull a down-payment out of thin air. But it could very well happen at some point in the future, and that's enough to make me gulp right now.

This sort of lifestyle upheaval is scary on a number of levels, but there's one that makes me extra super duper scared:

My girlfriend is a bit baby-crazy. And that's not to say that it's a bad thing, because it's not. And it's not to say that she's trying to rush me into something, because she's not. There's some people who reach a stage of life and their mind just starts going "BABY BABY BABY." That's not her, either. No, I'm pretty sure my girlfriend's been going "BABY BABY BABY" since she WAS a baby.

She just seriously digs kids. This is probably a good attribute to have when you're a full time elementary school teacher and part time babysitter. We can't go to a restaurant, mall, or any public place without her fawning over any assortment of little kids. I know she eventually wants kids, and I know she'd make an awesome mom. I seriously dig her, and I know that if I want to stay with her, there's a good chance that one day I'll be saying howdy to a pointy-eared Shaneling or two. Double gulp.

I've never been AROUND kids in my life. I grew up the only child in a small family out in the middle of the country. Amy grew up in an army-sized family that would invent their own holidays if that's what it took to have a potluck. None of my close friends have kids. ALL of her friends have kids.

I know NOTHING about babies -- well, except that you're not supposed to shake them or let them fall on the soft spots of their noggins. Ergo, I'll be in charge of keeping our future offspring docile, dormant, helmeted, and seat-belted in a prone position until junior high. Amy can handle the rest. All I'm sure about is the one thing I don't think I'll ever be able to handle: poo. With advances in modern technology, you would REALLY think that by now, we should be able to potty-train children in the womb. Even the newest of newborn kittens know how to drop deuce in a litterbox.

"But Shane," you all say, "It'll be different when it's your own child. You won't mind changing their diaper, trust me." I don't trust you.

Let's go back to the cat analogy. I love my two cats, right? They're the closest things to children I've ever had to deal with thus far in life. Well, the other day, I got home to find a big ol' pile of hairball puke in the center of the kitchen floor. And in order for me to clean THAT up, it took The Infinite Number of Paper Towels, a couple of rubber gloves, looking in the opposite direction, and I STILL started to retch in the two steps it took me to get that nightmare from floor to trashcan. I think the only way this will work is if Amy takes my progeny away until Shane Jr. has full control over his/her body orifices.

Occasionally I think that I need to spend time with kids to prep for what one day might be the real thing. This is where Amy's babysitting gig comes in handy. She frequently sits for two sisters, age 5 & 6, who I lovingly refer to as my "practice children." Don't worry, Amy's always close by so I can't warp these kids TOO bad. But hanging with them is starting to brace me for what fatherhood might one day entail.

The other day, I was sitting around a table at what's likely to become my new house, in near-convulsion levels of fear, signing the first of a thousand documents to make an offer on the place. That's when Amy walked in with the girls.

"YOU LIVE IN A PRINCESS HOUSE!" one exclaimed.

Great. That's the exact macho image I was going for with this life makeover.

After the deal was done and the papers were signed, we went to Village Inn to see if I could get my resting heartrate down to a manageable level. As Amy took one of the girls to the bathroom, I was left for a minute with the six-year-old, whose attention had already turned to a word search in the kid's activity book.

"How do you do this?" she asked me. Practice Dad to the rescue.

"Well, you see those words there, right?" I explained. "They're all hidden in the puzzle and you've got to find them. What's that first word? Spell it out for me."


"Now sound it out. What's that spell?"


"Yep, that's a kind of fish. Now try to find it in the puzzle."

She nailed it in a second. I am totally awesome at this.

"Okay, spell out the next one. It's a kind of fish, too."


"See, you're GREAT at this! Now sound it out, what's that spell?"

Turns out that it's pretty easy to transpose an A and an R when you're six. And that's how the entire clientele and staff of Village Inn got to hear my practice child proudly yell out her first obscenity. So hey, at least I'm good at teaching little kids how to cuss (or, as I see it, perhaps I made a crucial early diagnosis of dyslexia.)

Still, I'm not giving up. One day I'll be comfortable around kids. Last weekend, I reviewed the Taylor Swift show at the iWi. Turns out I had an extra ticket, so I took Amy's little sister (a HUGE T-Swizzle fan.) Not only did we score great seats, I also lucked out and got her a pit pass so she could (gasp) TOUCH a guitarist and get loads of up-close pictures. I believe I am now THE COOLEST MY-SISTER'S-BOYFRIEND EVER. That's good enough for me for now.


It's a good thing they let me have a column in this newspaper. I'm going to need it to retrace my steps this week.

See, a funny thing happened to me over the past seven days. I started the week as Shane Brown, Normal Guy -- safe, happy, and complacent in my non-changing life of non-change. By Friday, I was Shane Brown -- HOME-OWNER. Never in all my years did I think I would type that sentence, but I just did.

I guess I'm speaking too soon. I suppose I don't "own" my house until I "close" on my house (see, I'm picking up the lingo already.) But I got the loan, made an offer, and some dude who lives states away took me up on it. And now, barring some kind of radon and/or plumbing catastrophe (keep your fingers crossed, the inspection is next week,) it's mine. I am now officially and indisputably a Rock Islander. Gulp.

I just need to figure out exactly HOW this happened.

I've been a renter my entire adult life, and it's been pretty much the same apartment. When something breaks, I can pick up a phone and some dude just shows up and magically fixes it. I guess I can still have a dude show up and fix my house, but the magic wears off once he asks for a credit card number. I've lived my life in blissful ignorance of how to perform even the simplest of home repairs, and I'm pretty much cool with that. I've got more important issues to deal with, like video games.

I react poorly to change. Change is bad. There's safety in the familiar, and I like my life to be perpetually wrapped around me like a security blanket. If the world were Shane-perfect, none of my friends would move, start/stop dating anyone, or change jobs. In fact, in my perfect world, I'm still in college, just without tests or classes to attend (not unlike my actual college experience.)

But I suppose sometimes logic needs to outweigh the warm fuzzies of complacency. I've lived here for just shy of 19 years now, but it's no real secret that my apartment complex has seen its best days. The neighborhood has pretty much gone to pot (both figuratively AND literally, based on the current stench in the hallway.) And while I'm the last person to want to change my life, there are occasional tell-tale signs that point towards necessary action.

Like when you've run out of room to put your stuff. Or maybe if your next door neighbor pleads guilty to raping a minor while your other neighbor gets evicted for harboring a fugitive murder suspect. These are what folks in the know refer to as "red flags." And lately, the only flag that HASN'T been red is the Black Flag I had to buy the day I came home to a cockroach in the kitchen sink, waving with its antennae like, "Yo, do me a solid and pass me some crumbs!" Moving might not be such a bad thing.

No one was a bigger proponent of the concept than my girlfriend. I guess she just doesn't like apartments. Or maybe it was when her car got broken into while it was in my lot. All I know is that, immediately following my admission that I was considering a move, she started leaving subtle hints around the apartment to keep me on-task. Like finding 10 different house listings pulled up on my laptop every day. Subtle.

A few weeks ago, we toured a a super-cute place for a reasonable price, but when I went to show the listing to a friend a few days later, I discovered the house had already sold. "Meh," I said, "Dashed hopes. See, I'm better off on the couch."

But that was before I got the phone call at work the other day.

"Umm, honey?" said Amy sheepishly. "I think I just found the perfect house."

I got off work and headed to the property. As I stepped out, I realized what I was about to face: a conspiratorial girl gaggle. There stood Amy, one of her best friends, and that friend's mother -- all giddy with house fever. Behind them stood a realtor, who might as well have had dollar signs for eyes at this point. I was in deep.

The house that they were in love with I was certainly not. It was a neat ol' house for sure, but the focus here is on the word OL'. This house was crusty. The kind of house that groans when you walk across its floors. The kind of house you would NOT want to say "BEETLEJUICE BEETLEJUICE BEETLEJUICE" in. The kind of house that needed both fixing and upping, and I am NOT the man for that job. My basic rule of thumb: Any home that has already celebrated its centennial is NOT the home for Shane. I needed backup, and stat.

So I called MY friends over, and told them to be level-headed and realistic about the state of the place. One of my friends took this to mean "come over and act like a party-pooping Bob Vila," which might have worked, were he not another apartment lifer like me. Still, I was grateful for his incessant pointing out of every crack in the foundation and damp spot in the basement. In the end, the boys won out. Well, at least THIS boy did. I passed on the house. The husband of Amy's friend? Not so lucky. They put an offer on the house the next day.

Speaking of the next day, the realtor from the day before called and wanted to show us some other properties. What the heck, I thought, couldn't hurt. We'd never find anything in our price range better than the house we'd just passed on, Amy would be happy that I was being pro-active, and I'd be home early enough to get in some video games before bed.

Sure enough, the first house he took us to looked like a good stiff wind could bring the sucker down. And here's a handy hint to those of you selling homes: If you're having an open house, perhaps you should remove the pile of assorted vertebrae bones from your front porch first (though I did greatly enjoy their interior design options - the empty beer bottles full of cigarette butts was a bold choice.)

The second house was equally as off-putting, with a 100-degree upstairs and The World's Creepiest Basement, complete with a mural of faceless children playing ping-pong, presumably drawn by Freddy Krueger. Then we rolled up to the third house and I walked in. And in one blink of an eye, I knew I'd be making an offer that night.

It's pretty much my dream home. New construction, vaulted ceilings, lofted bedroom, spiral staircase, open floor plan, modern as heck, and squeaks into my budget by the slimmest of margins. It's as if they built the house knowing I would one day come for it. And come for it I have.

This of course means that the pending inspection will find the place rife with radon, termites, and faulty wiring. Keep your fingers crossed for me, Quad Cities. If nothing else, I might have just found unlimited column fodder for the next 30 years worth of house payments. Gulp.

COLUMN: Missouri Pt. 2

If there's one thing in life I hate, it's stereotypes. To make sweeping and unfair generalizations of the innocent shows a shameless insensitivity and brazen disregard towards the uniqueness of human individuality. Quite frankly, to hurtfully stereotype makes this reporter physically ill. Which brings me to my next point:

The citizens of Missouri are, by and very large, fatty-fat obese lardbutted cheeseburgers with legs, who -- were it not for the haunting prospect of an incarcerated lifetime devoid of all-you-can-eat buffets -- would presumably devour their own young.

Okay, okay, maybe I'm being a tad bit harsh. I'm sure there's folks in Missouri who spend hours on treadmills and look like they just stepped out of GQ. Those folks must have been hiding the other weekend when my girlfriend and I took a longer-than-anticipated aimless drive and ended up crossing into the Show-Me State. And if you're wondering what they want to show-us, it's their rolls of fat trying desperately to escape their midriffs. The truth of the matter was unabashedly evident everywhere we went that day: Missouri has porky people aplenty.

This meant that I fit in nicely.

Look, it's no secret that I'm a bit gifted in the midsection myself. I prefer not to be labeled "fat" -- I prefer the term "svelte-challenged." But before you make screams about the pot calling the kettle fat, hear me out. Yes, I'm a chubby guy, but I've at least got the decency to be somewhat ashamed of myself. In Missouri, people wear their extra pounds like badges of flubbery honor. And nowhere was this more perfectly clear than in the town we ended up at: Hannibal.

When we crossed into Missouri on our day of adventure, billboards for Hannibal were everywhere. And it sounds like a great place. It's the home of Mark Twain. The setting for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. The center of river culture. Surely it must be a mecca of discovery, wonder, and reasonably priced upscale eateries, right?


Hannibal is just another town along the Mississippi. But while we take Blackhawk Road through Black Hawk State Park and past Blackhawk State Bank to get to Black Hawk College, there you take Mark Twain Avenue past Mark Twain's Boyhood Home to get to the Huck Finn Shopping Center. If you think Hannibal's any more rife with culture than the Quad Cities, step right up - I've got a fence you can whitewash.

The one thing Hannibal didn't have was an obvious quaint place to eat, so we settled upon the only sit-down restaurant we could find - an all-you-can-eat buffet chain. I waited in line while my girlfriend hit the restroom. As I stood there, I began to soak up the enormity of the situation, or at least the enormity of my fellow eaters. Everyone in line at the buffet was huge. Every fourth or fifth person was riding one of those mobility scooters, presumably to help their stomachs catch up with their mouths. Everywhere I looked, people were sculpting majestic food mountains on their wee buffet plates. Then a VERY bizarre thing happened.

The patron in front of me had just paid and received his plate and drink. I happened to be looking as he took a sip of his soda and did an honest-to-gosh spittake all over the floor. "SALTY!" he spewed. THAT'S when it got weird.

"Gladys! GLADYS!" screamed the cashier. "There's salt in the Pepsi again!"

AGAIN? Now, I'm no master of commercial culinary equipment, but I thought I had at least a slight grasp as to the workings of your standard soda fountain. Syrup goes in. Water goes in. CO2 goes in. Pepsi comes out. How salt enters the equation is beyond me. Before I could ponder it, the cashier turned to me with an apologetic smile. "Don't worry, honey, we'll get you Pepsi from the other machine." Um, whew.

As I snaked around the line tentatively adding to my plate, the guy in front of me turned abruptly. "You need to wait for fresh rolls to come out. Get 'em fresh and cover 'em with butter. Mmmm!" I followed his advice.

Finally, the line turns towards its main attraction. An over-zealous twenty-something with a chef's hat stood over a grill barking the same phrase at every passerby:


And before anyone could respond, he would deftly fling a piece of fatty steak haphazardly onto their plate. I watched in sheer awe as the gentleman ahead of me in line (the roll guy) took his steak swiftly to the salad bar and covered it in ranch dressing. I returned to my seat as we soaked up the atmosphere (which, if you're wondering, was a mix of body odor, old lady perfume, and stale smoke.)

It was like being trapped inside the embodiment of the deadly sin of gluttony. Everywhere you looked, it was just NOM! NOM! NOM! People chowing down on their food mountains. I thought of the Mr. Creosote skit from Monty Python, where Terry Jones in a fat suit eats an entire table of food before dining on an after-dinner mint and promptly exploding. A funny notion, but had it happened in THIS place, I feared that an employee would race to his remains and start yelling, "HEY, ANYBODY WUNT SUM MEAT?"

And it honestly wasn't just this place, either. Before we left Missouri, we stopped at two other restaurants. At one, their french fries were instead "fancy fries." What makes them fancy, I found out, is a pool of melted butter, a pile of parmesan cheese, and what I'd estimate to be 2-3 full cloves of garlic. The kind of garlic that makes your girlfriend say phrases beginning with, "I love you, BUT..." The kind of garlic that leads your girlfriend to build a protective odor wall between the driver and passenger seats. Not once did I get thanked for warding off vampires.

And at the last place we went to? Instead of french fries, they served "funnel fries" -- funnel cake dough cut into french fry shapes, deep fried, sugar-coated, and served with strawberry syrup. For what it's worth (my permanent health?), they were AMAZING. In fact, Missouri might be fat, but they also know a thing or two about good-tasting food. And everywhere I went, the people were so nice it almost made up for their attempts to smother me to death in cholesterol. Missouri, you're my kinda state.

COLUMN: Meteor

Ah, here's to the best laid schemes of mice, men, and nerdy newspaper columnists. Last week, my plan was to enthrall you all today with the rapturous tale of trying to find a decent place to eat in all of Missouri. Clearly, that will have to wait another week. That all happened before we made FIRST CONTACT.

I don't know why our entire newspaper hasn't been devoted to the greatest news story of our lives for the past two weeks. My guess is either a government conspiracy or otherworldly mind-control. But that won't stop THIS intrepid reporter, no siree. Somebody's got to have the guts to speak for the common man, and that someone is me. So here goes.


It's no secret that I'm a fairly nerdy guy. As a kid, I slept under the watchful and protective eye of a Star Wars Imperial Battle Cruiser poster over my bed. When I was twelve, I could have explained to you the physics of warp drive technology -- in Klingon. Heck, just the other night I was openly making a complete fool of myself, standing outside on a crowded sidewalk, holding my iPhone to the heavens trying to identify Venus in the night sky with the aid of the Pocket Universe app.

And I'm not ashamed of it. Outer space is neat and magical and weird and the biggest question mark left for mankind to understand. Which is why, on the night of April 14th, when the heavens roared with a sonic boom and the skies lit up with a passing fireball that most of the Midwest could witness, I was outside to capture the entire miraculous event.

Oh wait, I forgot. I'm also the unluckiest person EVER. Which is why, on the night of April 14th, when arguably the coolest astronomical event of our lives was happening outside, I was blind to the whole thing, sitting on my couch with headphones on, playing X-Box. Dear world, you suck.

What I speak of is the purported meteor that streaked low across the Midwest sky the other night, possibly even touching down in southwest Wisconsin. I didn't even know about it until I logged onto Facebook at midnight to see tons of my friends posting updates about it. I've seen my share of meteors, but they're always of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it shooting star variety. If you've seen the police dashcam video of April's meteor, you'll know it was more like a fast moving sun screaming across space and temporarily lighting the town up like it was noon. One of our reporters was covering an outdoor fest down by the river that night. She told me the thing was the size of a Volkswagen and that people were crouching down behind buildings because they assumed it was a bomb. I, meanwhile, was impervious to the whole glorious event.

Or was I? I mean, it seems like "sitting around playing video games" would be just the kind of false memory that the Men in Black would imprint upon the brain of a first-hand witness to the impending alien invasion, no? Look, when it comes to this kinda stuff, I'm pretty much an expert. I know these things because I've seen almost every episode of "The X-Files." And if there's one thing I've learned from carefully studying Agents Mulder and Scully, it's this: If a mysterious event can be explained as either (a) a rare yet wholly plausible natural phenomena, or (b) a carefully orchestrated sinister government conspiracy involving extraterrestrial aliens, massive cover-ups, and countless untold resources of materials and manpower... well, let's just say you never heard Mulder go, "You're right, Scully. I bet it was just a meteor. Let's get some coffee and get home in time for Leno."

Clearly, we were witness to Stage One of the impending alien armada fleet. I mean, come on -- where better for aliens to blend in undetected than southern Wisconsin? The last time I was up there, a guy wearing a cheese helmet tried to sell me turtle jerky and a strange woman approached my girlfriend demanding a tampon. Aliens would fit right in.

Meteor or no, I have seen my fair share of science "fiction" movies. I know what's about to happen, and I know the warning signs. So take heed, Quad Cities, of the following advice:

1. If any of your friends, family, or co-workers start behaving in an odd manner, have a bad day, become suddenly grouchy or become suddenly UN-grouchy, it's probably safe to assume they have been body-snatched and are now pod people. You will probably be next. On the plus side, you may find that you'll be able to scream in new, exciting, and high-pitched ways. If you don't like the way anyone is behaving, you should probably report them to the police but that'll probably be too late. Personally, I'm keeping my eye on that John Marx guy.

2. If you are strolling through southern Wisconsin and see what appears to be a blob of strawberry jelly lying on the ground, do not -- I repeat, do NOT -- poke it with a stick. Just to be on the safe side, you should probably carry around a fire extinguisher and avoid any showings of midnight movies wherever you go.

3. If you see aforementioned blob and all you want to do is mold it into the shape of the Devil's Tower whilst whistling the same 5 note refrain, you should probably just stop and do something else instead. Continued molding of items such as shaving cream and mashed potatoes could result in experiencing a close encounter with innocent-looking Claymation aliens (though am I the only one who fantasized that the minute Richard Dreyfuss entered the craft and the closing credits kicked in, the aliens all grew fangs and tore him apart limb from limb?)

4. If some time passes with no obvious alien invasion, then maybe we've got a cooler scenario on our hands and perhaps some poor Wisconsin farmer found the meteor with a baby inside. And maybe one day that baby will grow up to harness a surplus of super-sweet powers and decide that it'd be best to stay on Earth, wear a cape, and fight crime. But then he'll have to have a day job, so he'll put on a pair of dorky glasses and come work as a reporter for this very paper. Since I already work here, I will naturally become his best friend and sidekick and then one day he'll fly me to the Arctic and I can hang out in the Fortress of Solitude because, come on, that place looks totally rad and who wouldn't want to party it up down there? And then I'll convince Superman to turn it into a dance club and I'll be the super DJ. Wicked.

Then again, I'm pretty sure the aliens have already landed -- I think they were in line with me at a restaurant in Missouri the other day. More on that - I promise you - next week.