Monday, February 21, 2011

COLUMN: WIsconsin Pt. 1

Last year, I went on a road trip to Missouri and stopped at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. Upon my return, I wrote a column that may have questioned the fiscal prudency of such an enterprise in the Show-Me State -- because, at least based on that afternoon's clientele, folks down there know how to eat.

I thought it was a funny column and it drew a few funny responses from folks with Missouri connections, but it also got at least one former Missourian mad enough to demand an apology for my admittedly insensitive stereotyping of an entire populace. And I did apologize for poking fun -- it wasn't my intention to mock anyone, let alone a whole state, especially given the fact that I'm a card-carrying member of the chub club myself.

Ergo, you'd think that my days of careless sweeping stereotypes were behind me. You would think. Instead, I'm about to make another one of those controversially unfair and broad generalizations, so get your letter-to-the-editor typing fingers all warmed up, coz here it comes:


There. I said it. It's committed to paper and too late to take back now. I'm sure that right now, someone somewhere is reading this going, "Hey, I'm from Wisconsin and I'm proud to be a total rude jerk-off. How dare he accuse me of being nice? Ooh, he makes me MAD..." Don't worry, I've already cleared space on my desk for your letters.

But this time, there's ample reason for my stereotyping, and it all started last week while I was still in good ol' Rock Island. I was on my way to work, driving absent-mindedly down 7th Avenue, when I noticed one of the rims on the weathered old truck in front of me. Specifically, I noticed the rim because it was near horizontal, hanging onto the tire for dear life.

"Oh jeez," I thought to myself. "One more bump and that thing's gonna go..." BUMP.

Just as I'd predicted, the truck hit a pothole and the rim went flying off, nearly defootitating some innocent Augie student headed to class. The driver of the pickup just went rolling on, not even noticing what had happened. At the next stoplight, I found myself beside the truck, so I motioned to the driver and rolled down my window.

"Hi!" I said. "Hey, just in case you didn't see, you lost one of your rims back there by the last intersection. It's probably still laying back there on the sidewalk."

I am super awesome, I thought to myself as I imagined them handing me my Good Samaritan of the Year medal in a ceremony of much pomp and circumstance. I don't know anything whatsoever about cars, but I know that some people pay absurd amounts of money for custom rims. Those dumb little circles can be super valuable, and here I was taking the time to alert the driver. I didn't expect much. Maybe a thank-you, maybe a smile, maybe an I-am-the-mayor-of-this-town-and-for-your-selfless-act-of-kindness-I-bestow-upon-thee-a-key-to-the-city. Instead, here's what I got in response. Ready?

"@#$% YOU!"

It took me by such surprise that I literally went, "Wait, what?"

"YOU HEARD ME! @#$% YOU, @#$$^%!!"

The first unprintable was an obscenity. The second, a gay slur. Awwwwesome.

I rolled up my window and kept driving. At every stoplight we hit, I stared straight ahead while I could see the redneck yokel out of the corner of my eye still yelling at me. At one point, he made as if he was going to leap out of his truck and assault my car. At another point, he leaned out and spit all over my passenger window.

The moral of the story? People suck. For the rest of the day, I couldn't shake the image of this random jerkwad irrationally screaming at me so venomously that the veins in his forehead looked like they were about to leap out his skin in a desperate and suicidal bid to escape life attached to such a schmuck. And, without bringing this column down to woe-is-us levels, it got me thinking about society.

I mean, what on Earth happened to decency these days? Common courtesy, social niceties, and just plain being human to strangers and your neighbors alike. It seems like the more and more I go through life, the less and less friendly people become. At some point, you have to start drawing conclusions. Either (a) I am so dislikable of a human being that I instantly bring out the worst in people like moths to a light, or (b) we as a people are becoming measurably schmuckier.

I'm not saying we're all at the level of irrational road rage like my newfound foul-mouthed friend, and I know there's still a lot of truly decent folk milling about out there. But think about this. How many times have you made a head nod or issued a casual "w'sup" to a stranger to have them totally ignore you? Or check out of a store and have the clerk act like it's truly paining them to wait on you? How many times have you had a stranger let a door swing in your face? Or drive past you like you're invisible when you're trying to merge or turn left through oncoming traffic? Some days, I'm lucky to get an "excuse me" if somebody bumps into me. More and more, we're losing touch with our decency.

But here's the thing. Last weekend, I surprised my girlfriend with an early Valentine daytrip to Milwaukee to see one of her favorite musicians. And I kid you not, the moment we crossed that border into Wisconsin, the weirdest thing happened: People started behaving better.

I first noticed it when driving. I hate big city traffic, and merging onto a crowded interstate gives me acid reflux. I was ready for the usual Chicago stomp-on-the-gas-or-die technique, but as I merged onto I-94 in downtown Milwaukee, I saw three different cars suddenly slow down and change lanes to make room for me. Two of them gave friendly waves, like, "Hi! Welcome to the interstate!"

I stopped at a gas station. "Hi! Welcome to Speedway! Do you have one of our discount cards? It could save you a few cents off that Coke! No need paying full price if you don't have to!"

At the place we stopped for dinner, the wait staff and bartenders grinned and danced around to the radio as if serving people was the highlight of their day. At the concert, we laughed and talked with strangers. Even the rough-and-tumble bouncers at the concert were helpful and courteous. That's when it hit me.

Maybe society isn't altogether hopeless -- maybe it's (gulp) just us. Who knows, maybe there's jerks aplenty all over Wisconsin and we were just lucky enough to miss them. Maybe the Wisconsin jerks are having a secret summit with all the skinny Missourians. Either way, it merits more investigation.

The one thing that DID grate on our nerves in Wisconsin, though, was our uninvited British guest. More on her next week.

COLUMN: Grammy Picks

It's a good thing I'm not a gambler by nature -- 2011 is NOT starting out well for my mojo.

I called pretty much ALL the bowl games wrong. I was convinced the Bears were headed to the Super Bowl -- and when they didn't, I could at least take solace in knowing that the Steelers would surely stomp the Packers into the ground. Heck, I even "guaranteed" my friends that last week's evil storm would dump over 20" of snow on us in one day. When it comes to predictions this year, I have NOT been wired in.

But there's one thing I'm known for prediction-wise, and it happens TONIGHT -- the only time of year when I turn from mild-mannered columnist into Shane the Greek. It's the annual showcase for me to demonstrate my knowledge, apply my many years of study, and impress you all with my mighty might. For tonight, dear friends, are the Grammy Awards.

Now, I realize that in some circles, folks don't routinely place heated bets with their friends about the outcome of music award shows. Actually, I realize that most forms of unlicensed gambling are both ethically and legally wrong, so I certainly don't routinely place heated bets with my friends about the outcome of music award shows. But as the fanciful and whimsical storyteller that I am, let me craft for you an entirely fictional Shane who DOES place fictionally heated bets with his fictional friends about the outcome of fictional award shows. And let's just say that fictional Shane is fictionally AWESOME at it -- and netted a sweet pot of $23 fictional bucks for winning last year's Grammy pool.

Every year, fictional Shane goes to an invite-only party on Grammy night. On the guest list, a glittering array of Quad City music nerd illuminati: record store owners, musicians, DJs, entertainment writers, concert venue employees, and a guy who once built an entirely purple room as a shrine to Prince. On the surface, it's an annual get-together of old friends over home-cooked chili and bad jokes. But seething underneath, it's a high-stakes competition, as everyone in attendance has one whole dollar riding on the outcome of the awards. Pick enough winners, and you might be able to afford enough gas to get home that night.

And, while I've only won the sweet $23 pot once, I've come super close on many an occasion. Close enough that I feel confident enough to share my 2011 Grammy picks with you all, just in case YOUR fictional friends want to have a fictional wager over one of the worst award shows of the year. Let's look at the major categories:


Nominees: "Nothin' On You," B.o.B feat. Bruno Mars; "Love the Way You Lie," Eminem feat. Rihanna; "@#$% You," Cee Lo Green; "Empire State of Mind," Jay-Z & Alicia Keys; "Need You Now," Lady Antebellum.

Who Should Win: Cee-Lo all the way. Even if you didn't think it was the best song of the year (which it WAS,) you've got to root for a tune so anti-establishment you can't even say it's name on the radio.

Who Will Win: B.o.B's too unproven and Cee Lo's too controversial. That Jay-Z & Alicia song was the jam, and Lady Antebellum made a heck of a crossover this year, but I always say if it's close, go for the most boring song of the lot -- that's why my money's on Eminem & Rihanna.


Nominees: "Beg Steal or Borrow" (Ray LaMontagne); "@#$% You" (Cee Lo Green); "The House That Built Me" (Miranda Lambert); "Love the Way You Lie" (Eminem feat. Rihanna); "Need You Now" (Lady Antebellum).

Who Should Win: About a million other songs from 2010 that weren't considered. Of THIS list, though? Eminem.

Who Will Win: Record of the Year is given to producers and artists; SONG of the Year is given to songwriters. The first step is to look for any sappy love song that's used in a movie where (a) the world's at war, (b) a boat sinks, or (c) Bette Midler learns an important life lesson (double bonus points if her character dies by the film's end.) Sadly, this year, Bette lived. Ergo, you have to go with the schmaltziest song of the bunch, and that's Lady Antebellum.


Nominees: Justin Bieber, Drake, Florence & The Machine, Mumford & Sons, Esperanza Spalding.

Who Should Win: No one, since this category's the kiss of death. Marc Cohn, Paula Cole, Debby Boone, Milli Vanilli... all once declared by the Grammys to be the great hope for our musical future. In 1976, the world saw debut records from Blondie, The Ramones, Boston, and Tom Petty. Too bad the Grammys didn't. Their Best New Artist that year? The Starland Vocal Band, makers of "Afternoon Delight," perhaps the most hated song in the history of songs. In 1979, The Cars and Elvis Costello were Best New Artist runner-ups to... A Taste of Honey, who, if I'm not mistaken, released upon the world the disco anthem "Boogie Oogie Oogie" before promptly vanishing into a puff of insignifigance. So if we're saying that Best New Artist is thereby Most Likely To Immediately Disappear, the answer is simple: for the sake of saving modern music, don't just stand there - give the award to Justin Bieber as fast as we can hand it to him.

Who Will Win: Drake, who also SHOULD win if we're judging on talent.


Nominees: "The Suburbs," Arcade Fire; "Recovery," Eminem; "Need You Now," Lady Antebellum; "The Fame Monster," Lady Gaga; "Teenage Dream," Katy Perry.

Who Should Win: A tiny band out of Rhode Island called The Brother Kite, who put out an album last year called "Isolation" that had more emotional depth and sonic brilliance than any of these records combined. But since the world's not fair, we've got to pick from these five, and the clear victor is Arcade Fire.

Who Will Win: Easy. Arcade Fire scares the bejeepers out of most mainstreamers, so look for them to take home all the alternative rock awards but not the big prize. Lady Antebellum should sweep the country categories, but their efforts to crossover to the pop world were only marginally successful. Lady Gaga's record was just a teaser for her real album out this year. And Katy Perry? Well, with apologies to Russell Brand, she's just awful. Put your money on Eminem -- Grammy voters will pat themselves on the back and call each other edgy for voting in a rap album despite it being one of Slim Shady's more boring releases.

So there you have it. I'm not saying I've picked a sweep -- indeed, there have been years where I've called every single one of the big categories wrong, so don't come yelling at me if you place fictional high-staked bets of your own by following my advice. But clearly, I'm on a roll this year -- just ask your Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers (umm...)


Some days it just doesn't pay to get out of bed.

I woke up today in a fairly optimistic mood. The weekend was spent cleaning (and, let's be honest, belatedly de-Christmasing) the house and notching another charity trivia night victory in the belt. The birds were singing, the cats were purring, and sunshine was streaking through the window. It was a "Zip a Dee Doo Dah" kinda morning. Little did I know that the soundtrack of the day should have been more like Norweigan death metal.

On most mornings, I find myself spending 2.5 minutes running into the gas station for coffee and provisions, and on most mornings I find myself getting to work 2.5 minutes late to face the evil deathstare of my boss. But on this particular day, I thought ahead. Coffee and provisions were already waiting for me in the refrigerator, and I congratulated myself on this newfound maturity and early arrival to work.

Of course, when I arrived at work, one side of the parking lot was blocked by a utility truck, ergo I had to drive the long way around to the other entrance... to find it blocked by a partially unloaded tractor-trailer. By the time I sorted out how to get IN the parking lot, I was 2.5 + 2.5 minutes late to my desk.

As I tried super hard to avoid the aforementiond evil death stare, I noticed the blinking light of my voicemail, letting me know a message was waiting. Awesome, I thought. Maybe I'd score a new sale right away. Maybe it was someone calling to say how much they loved this column. Nnnnope. Instead, it was a message from some yahoo -- excuse me, I mean, some CHERISHED LOYAL SUBSCRIBER OF OUR PAPERS -- who took offense at last week's football-related column. I'm gonna take a wild stab and guess they're a Packers fan. I'll spare you the details, but it ended with the guy inferring I would spend eternity in Hell, calling me "pitiful," and hanging up. Neat-o!

Now, there's a lot of things one can brace oneself for at 8:30 in the morning. Being told that you're destined for Hell? Didn't see that one coming. Normally, my usual response to something like this would be to sit indignantly and mutter phrases like "Well, I never!" and "The nerve!" while fantasizing about crafting the perfect incendiery vitriolic rebuttal e-mail that would likely cost me my job. But as I sat there trying to get a good mutter on, my eyes kept focusing on a few unrelated numbers and words on the homepage in front of me. Namely, the numbers "12-18" and the words "inches," "snow," and "tomorrow." Say WHAT?

As you'll recall, last week's column was about forcing my girlfriend the football-hater to suffer through the Bears' NFC Championship defeat. Well, THIS weekend Amy got her revenge by making me sit through countless reruns of "Desperate Housewives," a 100% girly show that, thanks to her, I am now sadly 100% addicted to. This would have made for a funny column of its own -- except for one thing. Because we spent all weekend plugged into reruns on Netflix, I missed the fact that Weatherpocalypse (dubbed better by someone on Facebook as The Snow-torious B.I.G.) was bearing down on the Quad Cities.

At work, as in life, we all have roles to fill, and one of the roles I dutifully perform is that of Weather Worry-Wart. If there's even a cloud looming in the sky, I'm the one to pronounce it The Greatest Storm in the History of the Midwest and spend much of the work day staring at radar screens and informing coworkers of our eminent demise. Well, here it was, a storm that really MIGHT be The Greatest Storm in the History of the Midwest, and I didn't even know it was coming. I immediately went into panic mode.

Provisions? Check. Snow shovel? Check. Rock salt? Check. Candles? Check. Flashlight? Well, it's around here someplace. In all honesty, I'd just gone grocery shopping and I'm pretty much fine for about the next 14 days of food, but my brain still wants to hoard. "Do I have enough oranges? I don't want to get scurvy!" I don't even eat oranges.

The one thing I didn't have, though, was enough Coke to see me through a possible snow-in, so after I got off work, I hustled to the drug store for some soda. On the way out, I saw the shining neon of nearby fast food and decided to buy my girlfriend and I one last pre-apocalypse meal. I called her up for input.

"Hey, I'm gonna buy dinner at [an un-named fast-food restaurant that specializes in fried chicken.] What do you want?"

"Ooh, make sure you get cole slaw!"

No problem. I pulled into the drive-thru lane and placed my order. After a lengthy wait, I made it to the window, paid for our meal, and then was greeted with this:

"Uhhh, sir? We outta chicken."

"Um, okay," I said. "Like, as in, altogether out? Like you maybe shouldn't be open or taking people's money?"

"One moment." Slam! goes the little window. Two minutes pass and she returns.

"Oh, don't worry, we found some. But, umm, we out of cole slaw."

I don't know what was more disturbing - the fact that they were out of cole slaw or the fact that they "found" some chicken. Found it WHERE, precisely? Still, I took a deep breath and settled for some corn on the cob. "Okay, sir." Slam!

Two minutes later: "Umm, sir, while I was tellin' you that we was out of cole slaw, we ran outta corn. How about some green beans?"

At this point, I just wanted out of there. "Yeah, that's fine," I said. Slam!

Two minutes later, and I swear to you I'm not making this up: "I am SO sorry, sir, but we're out of green beans."

So my last meal pre-Snowgeddon consisted of some "found" chicken, cold mashed potatoes, and some congealed mac-&-cheese, which appeared to be the only menu item actually in stock at the restaurant. Mmmmmmmmmmm.

Who knows what the future may hold. By now, you know the answer, but as I write this, the snow is just beginning to fall. Maybe the big one will miss us entirely. Maybe we're about to get a record dumping. Maybe I'll catch scurvy. Maybe the restaurant will find the rest of its lost chicken. Maybe I'll spend eternity in Hell for hoping the Packers get crushed by Pittsburgh.

For now? I'm going back to bed.

COLUMN: Da Bears

"@#$%!" I announced to no-one at all.

"HONEY!" scolded my girlfriend with a stern expression. "Stop getting so worked up! It's just a stupid game!"

There are lots of things that one can do with one's Christian schoolteacher girlfriend of outstanding moral turptitude, and hurling obscenities just isn't one of them.

But if there was ever just cause to holler out some verbal naughties, it was this. Amy was wrong - this wasn't a stupid game. This was THE game. It was barely four minutes old, and already the Green Bay Packers had mowed down the Chicago Bears' defense and strolled right into the endzone with nary a problem. It was to be NOT a fantastic afternoon in front of the TV.

I will freely and publically own up to the fact that I am an unapologetic fair-weather sports fan. You know, the kind of person that REAL sports fans despise. Apart from my inexplicable year-long fetish for NASCAR -- a character flaw for which I've apologized quite enough times, thank you very much -- I tend to shy away from sports. I'll read the occasional story and watch the occasional highlights, sure, but truth is: most games are booooring.

But once one of our local team succeeds at enough boring games to potentially make it to the BIG game? Well, suddenly things start getting a little less boring. And when I started to hear whispers of the Bears actually being good enough to make the playoffs? Well, that was when the usually-dormant testosterone in my body started waking up (look out, facial hair!) Suddenly watching the last few games before the playoffs started to take priority. Suddenly I started feeling bad for not owning a single piece of Bears outerwear except for a (shiver) Rex Grossman jersey that lives its life in shame on my closet floor. Suddenly "the" Bears had morphed into "our" Bears, and I needed to see this playoff run through.

It all led to this moment -- and of all the teams in all the world to face in the NFC Championship, the good guy Bears (OUR Bears) were up against the pond-scum devil-spawn known as the Green Bay Packers. Forget the Super Bowl, THIS was The Big Game. And for a while, I'm not sure what was worse: watching our Bears get soundly trounced by Cheesehead Nation, or having to watch the carnage with my girlfriend.

For as little as I know about the world of professional sports, when I'm with Amy, I feel like Shane the Greek. Sports aren't just absent from her radar, they're absent from the world in which she lives. Still, she knew the importance of this game AND she's pretty cool, so while I was watching the tragedy unfold in high definition, she sat on the other side of the couch surfing Facebook.

Except a funny thing started happening. Out of the corner of my eye, I kept seeing her glance up at the screen. Again... and again. Weeeird, I thought. Maybe she's getting into it. Maybe she just thinks Jay Cutler's hot. Eww. Still, she picked one heck of a bad game to gain sudden interest in football. It was pretty clear from the get-go that our Bears did NOT bring their A game to Soldier Field last Sunday. And when Cutler went out with a bum knee early in the third, it was pretty much over. But not for Amy.

"So, what's that mean?" she asked out of the blue.

"What's what mean?"

"When the man said the Bears were 3 and out."

"They weren't able to convert their third down possession. So now they have to kick it away."

"But they're losing. Why would they give it to the other team? STOP LAUGHING AT ME!!! I don't even want to watch this stupid game and I have absolutely no idea what's going on and I just wanted to know and you're treating me like I'm stupid."

"Okay, I'm sorry," I apologized. "Each team has four tries to get the ball past that yellow line. But if they barely move the ball the first 3 times, they can use their fourth try to kick it so that the other team gets the ball waaaaay down there at the end of the field."

When the Bears' second-string QB called it a day, so did all my remaining optimism. Out strolled third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie and it might as well have been a singing fat lady.

"I don't even know anything about this guy," I told Amy.

"I don't like him," she replied. "He's got a 70's porn mustache."

The substitution brought to mind many questions: What was Lovie Smith thinking? Was Jay Cutler seriously injured? And why does my Christian schoolteacher girlfriend know what a 70's porn mustache looks like?

Shockingly, Hanie brought some life back to the flailing Bears. His first outing resulted in a Chicago TD, and he was working on a second when a pass got intercepted by 348-pound Green Bay lineman B.J. Raji, whose endzone dance actually helped lessen the blow.

Amy was silent until five minutes later when she turned to me with clenched teeth and uttered, "If we lose the game because that fattypants stole the man's ball, I'm gonna be mad."

The rest of the game was entertaining -- not in its contents, but in the fact that someone was relying on ME to explain it. I got to teach about punt returns ("they kicked it out of bounds? Can they DO that?") and onside kicks ("that sounds CRAZY!") and when Hanie connected with Earl Bennett for a late touchdown run, I wasn't the one screaming the loudest.

And when Sam Shields made the game-winning pick-off to seal the deal for the Packers, I've never been prouder of my girlfriend, who stood up with all her moral turptitude and summed up the afternoon perfectly:


And then she turned to me.

"Why do you WATCH this? I'm shaking, my stomach's in knots, and I feel sick!"

"HONEY," I replied. "Stop getting so worked up. It's just a stupid game, remember?" I think I just made my girlfriend into a Bears fan. Gulp.

COLUMN: Weightwatching

Well, I was worried that the moment I turned 40, life would become an immediate downhill slide into the sweet and loving embrace of death. It's good to know that karma hasn't let me down. A tragedy of epic proportions has befallen me, and there's little I can now do to prevent the remainder of my life from being a cacophony of misery and woe. "It's a new day," indeed: My girlfriend has joined Weight Watchers.

Now, before I open up myself up to any number of lawsuits, letters to the editor, and/or lynching parties requesting my head placed on any number of sticks, a clarification: Weight Watchers is the only diet plan on Earth whose positive results I have witnessed first-hand. From what I know, it is a cherished, intelligent, and scientifically validated weight loss program. It's also an organization that appears to care about the health and welfare of its members. Plus Jennifer Hudson looks totally bangin' now, so good on them. Just so we're perfectly clear, I am in NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM criticizing Weight Watchers or any of their programs and/or members.

I just hate it when the people around me get sucked into their vortex of healthy living. Let me explain.

I know that Weight Watchers works because when I was a kid, I saw my mom lose 98 lbs. on their program. She was such the ideal member, in fact, that she was one of the finalists for Illinois Weight Watcher of the Year back in the day, and had to go give speeches and motivate other members towards their goals. I was, and still am, proud of my mom for her accomplishments.

What I wasn't figuring, though, was how her success at Weight Watchers would destroy my adolescence.

It started without any warning. There I was, sitting in front of my trusty Apple IIe, innocently attacking some orcs or something, when I felt my stomach growling. I put the game on pause, ran out to the kitchen, opened the cabinet to grab some snacks, and... the horror.

No chips. No cookies. No Twinkies, Cup Cakes, or oatmeal creme pies. At my mother's silent encouragement, Little Debbie had just packed up and moved out overnight, ending our relationship with nary a goodbye. In her place? Little circles of marginally-edible packing foam that someone somewhere had the gall to call "rice cakes." I took one bite and barely made it to the trash can.

Now, I'm not even a big fan of Rice Krispie Treats -- and that's rice held together by molten marshmallow goodness. Imagine that same rice MINUS the marshmallowy goodness (and, heck, ANY kind of taste whatsoever,) being held together by what I can only surmise to be the dark power of Lucifer.

And that was only the beginning. The lies came next. Some of the better ones:

"After a while, Diet Coke tastes better than regular Coke." LIE. Not only is Coke the world's greatest liquid and the key to my life-force, Diet Coke tastes like a horrible, horrible error at the Coke factory.

"You'll NEVER believe this sausage is made of TURKEY!" LIE. I like turkey. I like it just fine. But call a spade a spade, people. Turkey tastes like turkey. And no matter if it's cut to look like bacon or sausage or a cheeseburger, it still tastes like turkey. Don't try to fake me out. Just say, "Hey, we're eating turkey tonight." I'll go "yum!" But if you go, "we're having bacon and sausage tonight" and then present me with a deformed turkey, I won't be amused.

"If you season this baked zucchini juuuuust right, it tastes exactly like a french fry!" LIE. Either that or my mom never ever figured out how to season the baked zucchini juuuuust right, because it pretty much juuuuust sucked.

It came to a head one night when I got home from school to find the house smelling of what could only be described as a culinary experiment gone horribly, horribly awry.

"You'll love this," my mom lied. I'm not sure what she was taking out of the oven. It was green, spongiform, and quite possibly alive. "It's a celery casserole!" she exclaimed proudly.

My mom served me first and tidied up the kitchen as I sat staring at this plate of multiple greenish hues of unknown origin.

"Nope, I can't do this," I said. "This looks like puke, it smells like puke, it is NOT going in my mouth."

I don't remember exactly what followed, but it wasn't good, and probably involved finger wagging, voices going up by half octaves, and the dread usage of my full name (Mom only ever pulls out my middle name in the heat of battle.) There was no choice -- I had to eat it.

I put one forkload in my mouth, which was exactly long enough for my tongue to go, "No, no, this shouldn't be here at all." It even FELT gross. Mushy casserole mush loaded with bits of crisp, crunchety celery. You know the guy on the Food Network whose job it is to travel the world and eat incredibly disgusting exotic food? Even he wouldn't have been able to keep this nonsense down.

I started whining again by Bite #2. By the time I'd managed two or three more, I won't kid you -- there may have been tears involved. I tried swallowing without chewing and nearly died when celery began pasting itself to my esophagus. Finally my mom made her way to the dinner table with her own glop of goo. "You're so dramatic," she scolded me. "This is really good. See?"

That was when I got to watch her take a bite. And hold it in her mouth. And try to go, "Mmmmmm! See?" She tried, she really did. Instead, she spit hers out onto the plate and said, "Okay, where should we order pizza from?"

Even though my mom came to HER senses, what's to say my girlfriend's not headed down that disastrous slope? One of the best parts of going to her house is that there's usually always some kind of cookie/cake/ice creamy deliciousness in her kitchen. It's only a matter of time before I go her freezer for some ice cream and find myself staring at a box marked "Pasteurized Frozen Digestible Tofu Non-Dairy Dessert Product." Et tu, Amy?

She's already got her points counter and menu planner. The other day we went out to eat and she pulled packets of Truvia out of her purse -- just like my mom. Next, it'll be packets of fat-free salad dressing, trust me.

My life is now deja vu, but I suppose I can't complain. There's nothing wrong with taking strides to live better. And if there's one person in this picture who needs to watch weight, it's yours truly. Instead, though, I'll live in denial and continue to whine that my girlfriend's turning into my mother, despite her promise of NEVER presenting me with a celery casserole.

I just think she'd be better off focusing on REAL problems -- like finding out why all my clothes appear to be constantly shrinking and ill-fitting.


In last week's column, I had a good 'n' proper 1000 word whine about turning the dread 4-0. Little did I know just how exciting a birthday it would be.

As I was busy whining about how my life was over, forces were at work. Chief among them: my girlfriend, her family, my family, and my friends, working together to create a birthday shindig of epic proportions.

It wasn't a surprise party -- I knew about it in advance. But I had no clue how cool the end result would be. A hall was rented, food procured, the obligatory embarassing baby photos donated by my mother, and even my two favorite local bands booked. As party day approached, I had actually forgotten all about the horrors of my evaporated youth and was instead focused on having an amazing night with family and friends. That was when the evening turned into something straight out of a dream.

I was on my way to the party and, like usual, running late. I decided to defy my age by cranking the iPod up to levels that tested the structural integrity of the Beetle. I was so busy rocking out that I barely saw the figure dash across the street in front of me.

I slammed on the brakes, but it was too late. I watched in horror as my front bumper clipped the man, sending him onto my hood, over the roof, and flopping onto the pavement behind me. Minutes before, I had wondered how I would be spending my 40's. And now, thanks to my distracted driving, I now knew the likely answer: PRISON. I leapt out of the car and steeled myself for the grisly scene that surely awaited me.

But as I reached the back of my car, I saw no traumatic display of entrails. Only, in the glow of the taillights, a stunned figure sitting up unexpectedly from the pavement.

"Omigosh!" I yelled. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," came the reply. "But I need your help."

"Do you need to go to the hospital? Should I call 911?"

"No, no telephones," said the voice, now sounding a bit more familiar.

"Aren't you...?"

"Vince Vaughn," said star of stage and screen Vince Vaughn. "And you just hit me with your car."

My mind was spinning. How? Why? What on Earth was Vince Vaughn doing in the Quad Cities dashing across a deserted street after dark? It really WAS like something out of a dream.

"Can you give me a ride? I've got to meet a friend."

"Sure thing," I said. He climbed into my car and gave me simple directions to a nearby office park.

"Wait here, I'll be right back."

The people at my party might wonder where the heck I was, but when I tell them I hit Vince freaking Vaughn with my car, methinks all will be forgiven. Just then, the car door opened, but Vince wasn't alone, as a second man climbed in back.

"MATT DAMON?!?!" I said in astonishment, looking at the familiar face in my back seat.

"No, I get that all the time," he replied. "My name's Bourne. Jason Bourne."

"Matt Damon's just one of his aliases," explained Vince. "He really IS a secret agent, and we need your help."

After Vince's explanation, it all made sense. The two were in town to thwart a plan concocted by Sarah Palin and, strangely, Jimmy Carter to funnel money to corrupt members of Congress via the sale of blood diamonds from Sierra Leone. Their mission: intercept these diamonds and expose the conspiracy.

"You need to come with us to pose as our Midwest friend, otherwise it'd be suspicious for just the two of us to be travelling together," said Vince. See, TOTALLY made sense.

"Umm, I guess," I said. "Where are we going?"

"Hawaii," they said in unison. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane for Hawaii. It took forever, too. Had to have been at LEAST five minutes before we got there. We landed at Hawaii, and I drove them to a local jewelry store. In minutes, they came out fleeing with bag in hand, but something was wrong.

"We've been compromised! Head for the airport!"

By the time we reached the airfield, police were swarming everywhere. We had no choice but for me to pose as a kidnapper, holding my hostages, Vince and "Matt." My demands were simple: a fueled plane and a federal no-fly zone over Hawaii to thwart pursuit. I knew the no-fly zone had been enacted when giant lasers shot into the sky and created a green laser field over the entire island. We jumped into the plane, Vince took the pilot's seat, and we were airborne.

Once clear of danger, Vince and Jason/Matt put on chutes, told me their identities couldn't be compromised, gave me instructions to fly the diamonds to a secret base in Greenland, and parachuted away. Unfortunately, Vince Vaughn had failed to ask me whether or not I was trained to pilot a small Cessna over open water, a skill which I fear I remain woefully under-educated on. That's why I decided to bail out of the plane myself, once I saw a rescue speedboat on the horizon.

The jump was rough, but I made it to the boat and was pleased to find it captained by Cameron Diaz. But when I saw that the other occupant of the vessel was former first daughter Amy Carter, I realized I had fallen into a trap. One swift ninja kick took Cameron overboard, but Amy pulled a gun and fired, causing me to fall off the back of the boat. It was a good thing, then, that the boat had an outrigging that I could grab onto and stealthily ride all the way from Hawaii to Greenland.

It was like something out of a dream. Because, of course, it WAS, which I sadly realized as my cat jumped on my sleeping head just as I was to reach Greenland with the diamonds and hopefully beat the snot out of that evil Amy Carter. But as I sat there on my couch, laughing at the most insane dream EVER, I realized somthing. 40 might have taken away my figure, my coolness, and a little bit of my hairline, but as long as my subconscious is capable of amusing me to THAT degree, it's still a life worth living.

I'd also make a joke about how my party was kinda boring in comparison to Vince Vaughn and diamond smuggling, but I can't lie: I think the party was more fun.


The other day, I caught a rerun of the spectacularly tacky 70's sci-fi epic, "Logan's Run." Hopefully you've experienced the so-bad-it's-good flick for yourself. If not, the premise is pretty simple: In a Utopian futureworld, mankind lives a pleasurable existence under giant domes where computers cater to your every wish. It's a paradise city where the grass is green, the girls are pretty, and your weird leisure suits of the future come in a dazzling array of pastel awesomeness.

There's just one problem: When you turn 30, a little glowy light in your hand starts blinking and you get rounded up and thrown into an arena where you fly around and get disintegrated by bad 1970's special effects while all your friends cheer.

When I saw this movie as a little kid, I was HORRIFIED at the prospect of a society gone so wrong as to arbitrarily put a limit on human existence. This time around? I was like, "Eh. Kinda makes sense." I'm starting to realize that life's a big downhill slide after 30. Maybe Logan's people had it right all along. After all, who am I to deny my friends a nice fireworks display? Okay, sure, I might be dead, but I'd be spared yet another night of watching a "Billy-the-Exterminator"-a-thon on A&E.

It's time I faced a cold, hard fact. By the time you read this column, I will be FORTY years old. I couldn't even type that sentence without my stomach tying up in knots. The way I see it, by age alone, I am now officially disqualified from the primary motivating factor in my life: I can never be cool again.

Not that I ever particularly WAS cool, mind you. It was just something nice to strive for.

Forty year olds just aren't cool. Name one, I dare ya. At the very best, you can come up with some people who once WERE cool, but lost it mightily when they hit my age. Look at the evidence. Paul McCartney was a cool dude once upon a time. What happened when he hit forty? "Ebony and Ivory." M. Night Shyamalan was once the coolest film director in the world. He turns 40 and - bam! - "The Last Airbender." Brett Favre went sexting. Madonna thought it'd be a good idea to cover "American Pie." Forget Buddy Holly - Don McLean should have written a tragic hit about your 40th birthday: It IS the day your coolness dies.

The biggest problem I've got with this particular birthday? It pretty much makes me over-the-hill for ANY of the activities I enjoy doing. ANY of them. I just wrote out a list of my all-time favorite leisure activities, and every last one of them sounds patentedly ridiculous for a 40-year-old to be doing, unless that 40-year-old is an aspiring child predator. Don't believe me? Let's go through it:

#1 - VIDEO GAMES. When was the last time you saw a 40-year-old playing video games? Steve Carell's character did it in "The 40 Year Old Virgin." But it was a plot device. It was in the movie to point out what his life was lacking and make you laugh at what a sad little dweeb he was. Well I'm 40 years old and I like playing video games and I don't care what people have to say about it. Call me a nerd all you want, but doggone it, I still swear it's cathartic to get home from a long day at the office and shoot some kid in the face on "Call of Duty."

The problem with today's video games, though, is that they're not designed for the gracefully-aging 40-year-old. They're designed for the white hot reflexes of your garden variety hyperactive 12-year-old. That's why in actuality, I'm really quite horrible at "Call of Duty." By the time I've figured out how to aim my weapon, I've already taken a sniper rifle to the chest and can hear some 12-year-old laughing hysterically that I've been "pwned," whatever that means. The other day in a 5-minute round, I had 0 kills and 19 deaths. (Translation to OTHER 40-year-olds out there: That's baaaad.) I'm being edged out of my love for video games by natural selection.

#2 - DJing. I love mixing records at nightclubs. It's my primary passion in life and practically the only hobby I've ever known. Any idea how hard it is to convince a club owner that you're the best DJ in town when you're also the OLDEST? 40-year-old DJ's don't usually work nightclubs; at best, they're the guys in the lame smelly tuxes trying to teach your Aunt Edna how to do the Electric Slide at your wedding reception.

#3 - MUSIC. A terrifying thing happened to me the other day. I normally have my morning alarm clock set to the Top 40 attack of B100 or my pal Jeff James on Star 93.5. But the other night, one of my cats must have brushed the dial, because I woke up to the sugary melodic soft rock of KUUL-FM Oldies. More specifically, it was the soothing melody of "Ventura Highway" by America. And, as I lie there in bed struggling to find my brain's power button, the only thought that went through my head was: "WOW. What a great song this is." I LIKE SOFT ROCK?!?! SINCE WHEN?!?! If you EVER catch me listening to Celine Dion in a non-mocking manner, you have my full blessing to assassinate me in the promptest of ways.

#4 - AIMLESS DRIVING. Nothing clears the head quite like getting in the car with no agenda or destination and just driving. At least, it USED to clear my head. Nowadays it fills with thoughts like, "Gee, I should really add some Heet to the gas tank." "I wonder how the tread's wearing on these tires?" "Did you remember to pack your emergency kit and blanket in the event that your car breaks down?" Maturity is a FUN-KILLER, folks.

So I'm just gonna pretend this week's birthday didn't really happen. As far as anyone's concerned, I'm 39 until further notice. And based on the number of co-workers who went "WOW! YOU'RE 40?!?!" when it came up, I think I'm holding my own for now. I've still got my hair, I'm still relatively wrinkle-free, and I'm still the guy who turns the volume on the car stereo up instead of down. And if you need me, I'll be the guy in a fetal position over in the corner, sobbing and rocking back and forth, probably to the beat of "Ventura Highway." My name's Shane, and I'm in my forties.