Monday, August 23, 2010

COLUMN: River Walks

When I first started in the newspaper biz some umpteen years ago, one of my first jobs was typing in personal ads. Nowadays, there's a kajillion different dating websites promising to find your soulmate, but back then, the best shot for the hopeless lovelorn was a simple ad in the personals. And once upon a time, those ads would come my way.

I remember one lady who would routinely place her ads in the form of epic oversized poems (because as we all know, if there's one thing us fellas like, it's a girl who can rhyme.) Some ads would be brief (aka the ones written by guys,) and others would be like reading a comprehensive biography and/or job application. But after typing in dozens of these things, a few trends began popping out.

For instance, it appears that single people LOVE to play darts and pool, because one or the other would be mentioned in almost every one of these ads. I'm not sure what "head games" even are exactly, but every girl out there is apparantly sick of them and needs to make sure that all potential suitors know this. Chubby guys like me are "chunky," while chubby girls are "full-figured." And maybe there'd be a lot fewer chunky full-figured bachelors and bachelorettes out there if they'd stop spending all their down time watching NASCAR and enjoying "quiet nights at home."

But one phrase would constantly pop up in these ads more than anything else:


The number of times you would see this exact wording in an ad would boggle the mind. And the best part? Most of those people have to be lying.

If all the people who claimed to love taking long walks along the river actually loved taking long walks along the river, you would never be able to SEE the river through all the people taking long walks along it.

I, on the other hand, never fell victim to the alluring spell of long river walks. Why? Because the river's kind of, umm, well, ICKY. There, I said it. But let me qualify it so you don't hate me forever.

I love the river. The mighty Mississippi is the most important geographical element of our area. It shaped our hills, it shaped our valleys, and it shapes our lives. It is what makes our cities Quad, and as we all know, there's a feelin' in the air that you can't anywhere except the Quad Cities, right, KWQC? Many of us have jobs thanks to the river. Many of us love our community for the simple fact that it's situated on the biggest and most majestic river on this continent. The Mississippi is beautiful and forceful and bountiful and a sight to behold. I just kinda prefer to behold it from either a car or an air-conditioned vantage point.

There's two simple facts about the Mississippi (and pretty much all rivers) that bug me: (1) Rivers are dirty, and (2) rivers are smelly. And if I wanted to walk next to something dirty and smelly, I'd built a Habitrail around a landfill. I know a lot of you like to boat and fish the river, and hey, if I could swim, maybe I'd be one of you. But I also know a guy who went swimming in the river and got some of that majestic river water into a cut on his leg. Before he knew what hit him, his leg swelled up like a balloon, they ran tests and determined he had no fewer than 32 different strains of bacteria setting up shop in his thigh, and despite an inhuman load of antibiotics, the poor guy's been plagued with health problems ever since. Like I said: ICKY. And God bless him for all the work that he does, but there could be a million Chad Pregrackes running around cleaning up the river and I'd STILL be too scared to stick my foot in her.

But when I found myself last weekend in my girlfriend's car with her behind the wheel asking what I felt like doing, I had the uncommon stupidity to go, "Oh, I don't care. You pick." That's right, within minutes we were pulling into the Ben Butterworth Parkway and I was taking (gulp) a long walk along the river. And you know what? It was really entertaining.

We'd barely stepped out of the car when the entertainment began. A nice breeze was rolling in off the river and I was just starting to enjoy the tranquil awesomeness of the setting sun. It was really rather peacef--


That's the sound of the least peaceful thing in the world: a jet-ski, which went careening by us way too fast for its own good. Onboard was a guy having the time of his life. But trailing that dude by a few hundred yards was his buddy, clinging on to an inner tube for dear life while hitting the river with a series of mighty FWAP's. Inner-tube guy looked like he was having considerably less fun than jet-ski guy, mostly because he was taking facefuls of river water with every FWAP.

As a non-swimmer, I'm fairly inexperienced with any facet of boating that doesn't involve pulling the handle of a slot machine and losing money. But boating in itself seems like a nice idea. Gentle waves, relaxing water, I get it. Jet-skiing, on the other hand, seems like a hobby for insane people. Let's just examine the word itself for a minute. Does putting a JET on SKIS even sound like a smart idea? I'm terrified enough of regular sporting activities, but any that involve compound or hyphenated words are extra bad: JET-SKIING, ROLLER-BLADING, BUNJEE-JUMPING, WIND-SURFING. (I've seen the Summer Olympics and now I'm even afraid of PING-PONG.) Let's just simplify it and call them all DEATH-DYING. It's as if a mad scientist thought to himself, "Hmm, how can I get across this river as violently, painfully, and noisely as possible? I know, let's put a JET on a SKI..."

Eventually, Jet-ski-guy dropped his buddy off and went back out on a solo run, most likely to impress the bikini-clad girl checking him out. Ergo, he decided the best course of action would be to take the river at a weird diagonal, gunning the engine and purposely cutting into the waves to hop out of the water as dangerously as possible and almost do a backflip.

"C'mon," my girlfriend whined. "Let's keep walking and get some exercise."

"Sure thing," I replied. "Just let me see this dude bite it real quick and we'll be off."

But darnit, he never did, and presumably lives to woo more bikini-clad girls at a later date. As for me, I got distracted by a lady distributing a loaf of bread to some lucky ducks... while standing directly in front of the sign that said, "Do not feed ducks." People rule.

All in all, though, it's not every day you get to see a guy nearly drown and a woman blatantly break the law. Plus the sunset was pretty, so hey. I'm Shane, I'm a little chunky, and I like darts and pool and NASCAR and long walks along the river.

COLUMN: Twilight

In today's hectic, breakneck, hustle-bustle, take-no-prisoners, do-or-die world of professional humor writing, stress breaks are clearly few and far between. So when the girlfriend recently brought up the idea of a night out at the Highway 61 Drive-In movie theatre up in Maquoketa, I was all for it.

After all, some of my most vivid memories as a kid hail from the old Galesburg drive-in. I may have only been a wee Shaneling, but I distinctly recall seeing three of my all-time favorites from the backseat of the family Accord: "The Blues Brothers," "Trading Places," and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." And if there's anything to feed the imagination of a six-year-old nerd, it's being able to watch "Close Encounters" and then looking up to a field of stars and just... hoping. It's a memory so perfect that it might not even be real.

I had always wanted to head up to Maquoketa and re-live the drive-in of my youth, plus the second movie on the bill was "Inception" which I was aching to see. Ergo, we threw caution to the wind and headed up Highway 61 for some outdoor movie party action.

They do things a little different in Maquoketa. For one, the lot isn't paved - it's grass. This was immediately a different vibe than I was expecting. "Hrrm," I said disapprovingly, like the closed-minded, change hating Grinch Who Stole Funtime that I often am.

"What's wrong?" my girlfriend asked.

"This is less like a drive-in and more like a bumpy pasture, albeit a bumpy pasture starring Leonardo Dicaprio."

"Shut up and have fun," she replied.

Ah well. At least I'd enjoy sidling up to one of those weird boxes and hooking up the tinny speaker to the car window. But wait, no poles? No boxes? No treble-heavy, sub-standard sound quality? No, instead you had to tune your radio to an FM frequency that broadcast the movie audio. What kind of new-fangled modern trickery was this?

At least some things hadn't changed. There was still the concession shack selling yummy treats at super-cheap prices. There was still the playground at the base of the screen (which, as we all know, serves one purpose and one purpose only: to give John Travolta something to look at wistfully while he sings "Ohhh Sannnnndy bayyy-beeee, sooome daaay, when hiiigh-iiii schoool is done!")

And, as I looked around, there were the prerequisite carloads of teenagers and 20-somethings. In fact, it started to dawn on me that maybe I was the oldest person here. This, I immediately determined, could be blamed on two simple facts:

(1) It was a Thursday night. My brain failed at the math of it all. Sunset + 2 movies + an hour drive home = one laaaate night, and I had to be at work at 9 a.m. the next day. Urgh. No other adults were this dumb. And no-one failed to tell me that "Inception," for as cool as it was, is roughly as long as "Ghandi." It finally got to the movie I wanted to see and I could barely stay awake for the thing.

(2) The first of the two movies was "Twilight: Eclipse."

My girlfriend did a good job at pretending that "Inception" was the movie she really wanted to see, but I know the truth. I've seen the Stephenie Meyer books creeping out of her purse. She, like every other female on the planet Earth, is a fan of the Twilight series. And I, out of sheer journalistic curiosity alone, have now partaken in the first three films.

Gentlemen, I'm speaking now to you, because I know that if you have estrogen in your system, you've already seen the movies. But to my brothers in arms, in case you were curious as to what this whole Twilight "saga" is about, I'm here to translate.

In "Twilight," a girl moves to the Pacific Northwest. She meets a vampire. Nothing happens.

In "New Moon," she meets a werewolf. Nothing continues to happen.

In "Eclipse," she hangs out with the vampire and the werewolf and the amount of nothing that's been happening takes a new and extreme turn towards egregious and unforgivable levels of nothing, which, as you may have guessed, continues to happen.

I take that back. One thing happens: a lot of pensive staring. See, the girl and the vampire want to bump uglies, but they can't, so instead they stare at each other pensively. Then the werewolf guy shows up with a disturbing inability to wear clothes above his groin, and he and the girl decide to stare at each pensively for awhile. Occasionally the girl gets up to go to the bathroom or make a sandwich, leaving the vampire and the werewolf to stare at each other pensively in their down time.

The real mystery of the Twilight saga is how this girl, who seems to ONLY know how to pensively stare at people, sulks around town and manages to woo pretty much everyone she meets despite having absolutely no charm or personality whatsoever. Never have I sat through a movie with so many supernatural baddies and such little spilled blood in my life.

We all know that vampires can't go out in the sun because they'll burn up in a horrifyingly awesome fireball, right? Not in Twilight. In these movies, vampires don't go into the sun because they get all sparkly and shiny. That's right - only in Twilight-land do vampires not go outside for fear of being CUTER. Sigh.

So I'm seriously annoyed by this movie. Because, of course, I can't figure out whether to sign up for Team Edward or Team Jacob. I mean, Edward really cares about Bella and you can tell, but Jacob's like, all shirtless and wolfy and he cares about her too! If only there were some way she could date both of them forever!

I say forget Edward AND Jacob. I'm officially Team Jasper. Jasper's one of the less-important vampires of the Twilight saga, but he's clearly my favorite. As a recent convert to the good-guy vampire clan, his character is supposed to be constantly struggling against his natural vampiric urges to chomp the necks of humans. But the guy who plays Jasper in the movies gives him this constant facial expression that's less "I want to bite people" and a lot more like "Gee, I could sure use some Ex-Lax right about now." And if there's one thing that could successfully put an end to all this pensive staring, a constipated vampire might just do the trick.

All in all, though, I had a blast. "Twilight" might not be for me, but it was still great to watch Twilight in the twilight of the Highway 61 Drive-In. Bumpy pasture or no, it brought back memories while making some great new ones. I kinda wanna live there now, at least provided I don't have to work at 9 a.m. the next day. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a girlfriend to go pensively stare at.


I've said it many times before in this column, but never has it rung more true: I am NOT a morning person.

Each day, I rely on my alarm clock to pull me out of bed and set Zombie Shane on autopilot. Zombie Shane's purpose is singular: to get me showered, dressed, and en route to work while using the least amount of brainpower possible. How this is accomplished is beyond me, but based on the garbage lining the floor of my car, I'm going to say that it somehow involves coffee.

Truth be told, I have an intricate system of morning rituals that help me glide painlessly into consciousness. Get up, listen to the radio for a few minutes, visit the restroom, peruse the headlines on the internet, turn on the TV and allow Al Roker to insult my intelligence for five minutes, hop in the shower, throw on some clothes, and get out the door. All of this is timed in such a manner to allow me to get to work with exactly 4 minutes to spare, which is usually how long it takes to visit yonder caffeine merchant.

There's just one problem: I've moved. I'm in a new abode where everything is NEW and WEIRD and DIFFERENT and I'm still living out of boxes. Zombie Shane is NOT amused. My rituals have ground to a halt. I can't peruse the headlines on the internet because right now my computer is on the floor of my kitchen. I can't hear the radio from the living room and I can't see the TV from the bedroom. Things are so messed up right now that last week, I inadvertently arrived at work eighteen minutes early. EARLY! The horror!!!

But I've been at the new house for a couple of weeks, so things should be getting in a groove, right? Zombie Shane should be able to once again handle the mundane tasks of the morning, no? Ergo, I woke up today with brainpower firmly in the OFF position. Listened to the radio -- check. Restroom -- check. Morning headlines via my iPhone -- check. Al Roker -- check. Shave, shower, clothes -- check, check, and check. Just a last minute pocket inspection and we're clear to depart from Door #1: Phone... wallet... house keys... car key?


The car key was gone. Zombie Shane only knows one course of action in this event: Check the pocket again in hopes that magical key-finding pocket fairies returned it to its rightful place. No dice, and worse yet, no key. I know, I know... "If you put your key in one place when you came home every night, you'd never lose it." Thanks, mom. Well, if I was responsible enough to have a "key place," I'd probably be responsible enough not to have to rely on a "key place" to find my stupid keys because I wouldn't lose them in the first place. I looked all around the house -- that key was GONE.

There was only one place where it could be dwelling. When we moved the couch into the new house, we were pretty amazed at the collection of change and pocket possessions that had fallen through the cracks and into the dread underbowels of the Key-Eating Sofa. I started feeling under the couch. No keys, just a bunch of yuck and a freshly pinched finger. Ew. I pulled the little ripcord that opens the reclining end of the couch and felt under the footrest, but no key.

That was when I remembered the spare. I've always had a replacement key on-hand for just an occasion like this. It lurks in a junk drawer, but the remote lock stopped working the day I accidentally ran it through the washer/dryer. Still, I bet the key itself would work in the door lock, right? So I grab everything I need and go racing out to the car with plenty of time to spare. Put the key in the lock, watched as the lock disengaged, and opened my car door to the trumpeting call of victory.

It's funny, though, because I didn't remember the call of victory sounding like, "ENGH! ENGH! ENGH! ENGH! ENGH!"

Yes, my broken spare car key allowed me to quickly and efficiently set off my car alarm and NOT let me shut it off. So now it's 8:30 in the morning and I'm serenading all my new neighbors with my stupidity.

"GOSH!" I yelled out to my family friendly newspaper readers. Well, actually, maybe I chose a different word -- I can't quite remember, but I do recall it was four letters long. "Stupid goshgosh gosher-goshing key!" So yes, Rock Island, if you were serenaded with ENGH! ENGH! ENGH! last Monday, you can thank me later.

I ran back into the house to intensify the hunt. After checking to make sure the fairies didn't put the key under the recliner for the second time, I slammed the recliner shut and went to move on to the next hiding place. That's when the couch began screaming at me.


I can't say that the morning wasn't educational. I learned something very important. I learned that if you're like me and you think, "Gee, there's no worse noise I could think of to hear at 8:30 in the morning than a car alarm blaring," TRY CLOSING YOUR RECLINER ON A CAT.

I immediately ran to the couch's ripcord and pulled it... right out of the couch and into my hand.

Let's recap. I'm now standing in my living room, drenched in sweat, FREAKING OUT, listening to my car alarm blare outside, while directly in front of me one of my cats is howling mercilessly because a couch just ate it -- and the release lever for the couch just snapped off in my hand. Or, if you need an audio translation, it was kinda like this:


I would have counted backwards from 10 to 1 like Jack from "Lost," but there was no time. I took one breath... then ran to the couch, popped open the recliner with a mighty heave, got hissed at in the face by a very ticked-off but thankfully uninjured cat, ran outside, jiggled the broken key until the car locked and the alarm stopped, then went inside and did the only manly, responsible thing I could think of: I called my girlfriend for help.

Happily, Amy raced over here, picked me up, took me to work, drove back to my house, promptly found the stupid missing key under the one section of couch I hadn't thoroughly checked, played with the poor cat to ensure it wouldn't be permanently maladjusted, then picked me up for lunch and brought me back to my car and my key.

Morning people suck -- in an "I-love-you-and-owe-you-one-bigtime" kinda way.

COLUMN: Zephyr

Lots of occasions pass me by in life wherein I think, "Well, if nothing else, this'll make for a good newspaper column." But it's rare luck indeed to encounter one of those perfect-storm moments where you KNOW you're sitting on a column-worthy goldmine. That's exactly what I thought last week when I received my first ever kidnap threat.

"Dear Shane," read the e-mail. "I have been following your world for quite some time now and I do think you are due for a mental recess. I am going to make you an offer you can't refuse, or suffer the consequences. I belong to MVR. We can take you on a long ride. I'm hoping you'll opt for the Zephyr. Are you intrigued? Of course you are. You will be surrounded Saturday, July 24. Details forthcoming. -CJB"

I spent the next hour at work totally sluffing off, I mean, CAREFULLY AND ANALYTICALLY PONDERING THIS IMPORTANT COMMUNIQUE. An offer I can't refuse? Suffer the consequences? Who is this CJB? And what exactly is "MVR"? Maliciously Violent Redheads? Mostly Vocal Rabbits? Mothers of Various Rodents? Wait a second -- a few weeks ago I took some unfair potshots at the overweight clientele of a Hannibal buffet restaurant. Maybe this was the Missourian Voices of the Rotund here to seek retribution.

I wrote back a one-word e-mail reply with the only thing going through my head: "Dear CJB, Gulp. -Shane," and then took a different route home from work that night.

It turns out I didn't have to be quite so scared. As the Saturday approached, a second e-mail showed up and everything was made clear. It turned out I got the Redhead part right, but she was neither malicious nor violent. "CJB" was, in fact, avid Argus reader and exemplary Quad Citizen Constance Bell. She and her husband Franklin are well-known in the area and active members of the MVR: The Mississippi Valley Region Antique Automobile Club of America.

Every month, members of the MVR get together and, weather willing, show off their rides. This month's outing was a leisurely caravan up Route 84 to the Mississippi Palisades State Park, and they wanted me to be their guest. And hey, who am I to say no to a friendly kidnapping? I was all for it.

Mostly, I was all for it because I've never understood the lure of the antique automobile. I know there's a whole lot of you folks out there who are proudly restoring some rustbucket out in your garage right now, so please don't be offended when I ask you all: WHY?

You can't go ten minutes these days without seeing some ad showcasing a team of scientists putting a new-fangled auto through wind tunnels and safety tests to prove it's The Ultimate Driving Machine Built Ram Tough To Move The Human Spirit And Grab Life By The Horns. Every new model of car claims to be the best model of car ever built, yet a huge number of people seem deeply concerned with preserving these old and thusly (if the ads are to be believed) inferior cars.

And from what I gather, the fewer miles you have on these classic cars, the better. So to recap: it's a hobby where you take old cars and spend countless hours getting them into pristine driving condition, yet you don't ever really want to drive them for fear of tacking on needless mileage. This seems like a LOT of work to preserve something that rarely sees the outside of your garage.

So yes, I was excited to go on the MVR-AACA's July drive, because I wanted to understand the lure. And I think maybe now I do.

We met in the corner of the Southpark Mall parking lot. Scores of classic cars had made their rare break for daylight, and it really was pretty impressive. There was a gorgeous Studebaker, a really sharp Triumph convertible, and even a car that Johnny Depp once rode in during the filming of "Public Enemies." And then there was our ride -- the Bell's fully restored 1937 Lincoln-Zephyr sedan.

And I've got to tell you, as cars that pre-date my parents go, this thing is a beauty. It wasn't made for aerodynamics or safety or fuel efficiency. It was made to be driven, and driven in luxury. The Bells have done a whale of a job on the remodel, even finding a company that still makes the mohair cloth upholstery. This car should serve one purpose and one purpose only: to allow ZZ Top and their team of supermodels to kidnap you and teach you the ways of love and rock-&-roll.

And there's some serious life left in the old girl, even if there was no radio or air conditioner ("Air conditioner?" Franklin said. "It's got 4 of them! Just take it over 40 mph and roll any of them down.") As we tore down the highway, I was amazed at the speed and smoothness, and the Bells were the most gracious hosts imaginable.

As we pulled into the Palisades, our caravan was faced with a wicked uphill drive to the lookout bluffs.

"The engine works too hard when you go this slow," explained Franklin as he downshifted into first gear.

"Then go faster!" said Constance playfully. "We've got twelve cylinders. Might as well use all of 'em."

High atop the bluffs of the Palisades State Park is a viewing platform that offers one of the most breathtaking scenes of the Mississippi you'll ever find. I almost got to see it, too, before our day suddenly turned into a weird re-run of "Lassie," complete with age-appropriate cars.

"The... dam... is... breaking...!" said the breathless woman running up to us.

Reports had come in that a dam along the Plum River was failing and we had precious time to get south of it if we didn't want to be stranded in a flood plain. I know very little about classic cars, but I do know that they're not exactly known for their flotation capabilities, and as much as I enjoyed my time with the Bells, I didn't fancy starting life anew with them in Savannah for the foreseeable future. Besides, you haven't seen anything until you've told a hundred antique car buffs that a flood's en route. Before that poor woman had caught her breath, everyone was in their cars hightailing it for high ground. As we drove south down Highway 84, the water was already encroaching the road. An hour later, 84 was flooded out, but we beat it. Score one for the mighty Lincoln-Zephyr.

We ended up at a country restaurant, eating a wicked buffet and talking shop. By the time we left, I felt like I understood the classic car enthusiast. It's not about wasting your time on a hunk of metal. It's about preserving the past, admiring the craftsmanship of the old days, and getting together with similar-minded people for fun and a shared passion -- some of which may have just rubbed off on me.

Thanks, Bell family, for a great day of education, fun, and hey, even a little danger. Who else wants to kidnap me?