Monday, April 11, 2011

COLUMN: Million Dollars

I spent last Saturday night in the company of a good friend and fellow writer. And, as the evening progressed, our discussion turned towards the sorts of heady, highly refined intellectual discourse that you'd naturally expect from two literary giants.

Namely: one million dollars, and why neither one of us has managed to earn it yet.

I went to college, I worked hard for that degree that's currently sitting in a dusty box somewhere in my basement. I've paid my dues time after time, as Freddie Mercury might say. It's been no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise, I've had my share of sand kicked in my face, and now it's high time somebody ponied up cold hard cash for my trouble.

I know, there are a LOT of folks out there who have it WAY worse than me, and I'm not taking for granted the awesome job and life I've already been blessed with. But sometimes you turn on the TV and you just can't help going green with envy. Snooki from The Jersey Shore is now a multi-millionaire. That just ain't right. Charlie Sheen, before exploding and telling the world that he deserves MORE money, was making an estimated $1.25 million per episode of "Two and a Half Men." That equates to roughly $53,000 per MINUTE. In ONE SECOND of work, Charlie Sheen makes more than most of us do in a week.

So, yes, jealousy is an awful side to show, and we're truly not supposed to covet our neighbor's anything, but the painful truth is that I'm likely to be out-earned this year by the little girl who sings that "It's Frii-EEE-Day, Frii-EEE-Day" song, and I can't help but think this means that society is somehow irreparably broken.

Clearly, though, a million dollars isn't going to be falling off a tree in my vicinity any time soon (I've checked into it.) So, if I truly want to start earning mad loot, I need to get a little proactive, stop whining, suck it up, and write me a New York Times best-seller. The way I see it, I've got the skills to attempt a couple of endeavors here:

(1) I could harness my one true passion and write a non-fiction charmer celebrating pop culture in all its glory. The only problem is that it's a crowded field already and most of our celebrated pop culture writers come with a celebrated pedigree. I can't quite imagine a dustjacket about-the-author going, "Shane Brown is some dude from the Midwest who likes to sit on his couch and watch loads of TV. It's kind of sad, really."

But as much as I admire my pedigreed pop culture nerdist elders, I'm still convinced that I could do a better job. I recently picked up Rob Sheffield's acclaimed new high school memoir, "Talking to Girls About Duran Duran" (which, incidentally, in MY school would have been titled, "Getting Beat Up By Girls For Trying To Talk To Them About Duran Duran. p.s. Def Leppard Rules!")

It's a great book that uses 80's nostalgia to kick up a dustbin of forgotten memories, but I wasn't 4 pages into it when I came upon this sentence: "When 80's darlings Depeche Mode come to town, my wife, Ally, begins picking out her dress weeks before the show, even though I already know its going to be the short black one. And I know I'm her date for the show, and I know she will look deep into my eyes when Dave Gahan sings 'A Question of Lust.'"

Fine and dandy, except for the fact that any REAL 80's music nerd knows that "A Question of Lust" is one of a handful of songs in the Depeche Mode canon NOT sung by Dave Gahan, but instead by their songwriting guitarist Martin Gore. You just failed the nerd test, Rob.

(2) I could also see myself writing (or at least attempting to write) young adult fiction. Given practice, I think I'd be pretty good at this. After all, I still think like a young adult. I pretty much have the maturity level of a young adult. I should be able to speak to this demographic. I have a friend who's horribly gifted at writing young adult novels, and she's even landed her own agent. Sadly, though, to this day she remains unpublished. Her agent tells her the reason is simple: the only stuff that sells these days to the YA market is supernatural romance.

Thanks a lot, Stephenie Meyer. Because of your subpar Twilight schlock, the only way I can make a million bucks writing books is if it involves a disaffected youth, a brooding vampire, a shirtless werewolf, and loads of pensive staring. Greeeeat.

Recently, though, I read an article about a girl named Amanda Hocking. She's a 26-year-old writer of young adult fiction who, after failing to get a book deal, opted to e-publish her books for 99 cents a pop on Kindle and iTunes, and now has over 4 million dollars as a result. She seemed cool in the article, and an accompanying photo even showed her wearing the very same ironic t-shirt I have on at this very minute, so I thought I'd hop on Kindle, download one of her books, and see what the fuss was about.

"Switched," her biggest seller, is the tale of a disaffected girl who falls hard for the brooding new kid at school. All's well until brooding kid shows up at her door, informing the girl that she is, in fact, a troll. And not just any troll, but the troll PRINCESS, which means she's got to be whisked away to Troll-land in time for the grand troll debutante ball. And, of course, she's in love with brooding kid, but he's from a lower class of trolls and unfit for a princess.

On one hand, I've got to hand it to her. She just managed to merge "Twilight," "The Princess Diaries," and "Romeo & Juliet" into one book, and if that won't sell copies, I don't know what would. But TROLLS? Really? If we're that desperate for untapped supernatural characters, what's left for me to write about? Disaffected minotaur? Brooding elves? A shirtless cthulhu?

My novelist career may be a ways off yet. And it's time to stop focusing on what I don't have and start appreciating what I do. The truth is, I wouldn't trade my life, job, friends and family for a million dollars. And besides, if I really get desperate for money, I've got a backup plan: "It's Thurr-SSS-Day, Thurr-SSS-Day!"


I knew it... I KNEW it. I told you guys in last month's column it would happen, and it took less time than I'd even imagined.

Backstory: My girlfriend, as you all plainly know by now, is pretty awesome -- and one of the many facets of her awesomnity is that she really likes to cook. On many a night, she'll show up at my door with a bag or two of groceries and within minutes, we're eating home-cooked dinner num-nums.

The up side of this, beyond a full belly, is that, for the first time in my adult life, my refrigerator serves purpose. Thanks to Amy, I actually now have FOOD in my house. Usually, my fridge is little more than a repository for aging condiments and a rest stop for wayward pizza boxes. Now it's got, like, real stuff in it. And not just leftover stuff either. I'm talkin' stuff that you can combine with other stuff to make even more delicious stuff. It's an entirely new concept for me.

And a concept I've been taking advantage of, let me tell you. Having groceries around might not be the best for my waistband, but it's sure good for the psyche. This brings us to the other night, when I was home alone and got a craving for a midnight snack. Amy had been over before and made dinner, and I thought I'd spied her putting a carton of milk into the fridge. Milk and cookies before bed? Yes, please.

I sauntered into the dark kitchen, grabbed a glass, poured some milk, took a swig... and promptly spit-taked, cartoon-style, all over the floor. Something had gone drastically wrong with this milk. That's when I flipped the carton around and saw the two most evil words to ever grace the interior of my refrigerator: "RICE MILK."

Nooooooooooo! I immediately sensed a great disturbance in the Force. I opened the cupboard where Amy often stores snack treats that she brings over. I hoped and prayed with all my might that I'd open that door to the soothing blue of a Chips Ahoy bag. But, just as I'd feared, no Chips Ahoy had made this voyage from Hy-Vee. Instead, I was greeted with their bastard black sheep cousins: a bag of (shudder) rice cakes.

There was no denying it: my girlfriend was on a health kick. I quickly surveyed the contents of the refrigerator with growing horror. Polenta... some kind of gross bird-seed looking stuff called quinoa... a bag of snap-pea chips... veggie burgers... and there, in the corner of the refrigerator, lurked my multi-pound white gelatinous evil nemesis. I had been unknowingly co-habitating with tofu.

I knew it a few weeks ago when Amy joined Weight Watchers. I suppose a good boyfriend would have been supportive and proud of their girlfriend taking a pro-active stance on healthy living. Instead, I chose to focus on the various evil ways this development could affect ME. Little did I know that Weight Watchers would be a gateway diet... to a trial run at veganism.

This isn't the first time I've had to deal with the dreaded V-word. I like to surround myself with fun, arty, nerdy, creative types - and when you run with that crowd, there's a good risk of them also subscribing to the tree-hugging, salad-eating lifestyle. And I find myself the Ernest Hemingway of the bunch - gnawing on a well-cooked steak whilst my friends graze on their twigs and berries. To each their own, I say. But here's MY take on veganism:

The other day I watched a show on the BBC called "Human Planet." In this ground-breaking documentary, naturalists discover one of Earth's last uncontacted tribes somewhere deep in the Amazonian rainforest. An entire society of people, unexposed to the modern world, living undisturbed for generation after generation. Which is why someone decided that the best course of action would be to buzz them in a Cessna and scare the living bejeepers out of the poor folk.

When the plane approaches the tribe, what do you suppose happened? Did they hail the passengers and invite them down for tea and Pictionary? Nnnnope. Did they bow and worship the great shiny bird in the sky? Not hardly. As the plane flew by, those not paralyzed in fear or running for their lives stood their ground and shot at the plane with arrows, spears, and sticks. Why? Because even an undiscovered tribe of primitive humanity knows that BIRDS TASTE GOOD, even if they're shiny and made of metal.

With all sincere apologies to my herbivoric friends, we are genetically engineered to hunt and eat meat, just as cows are genetically crafted to eat six stomaches' worth of grass. We did not develop incisors in our mouth in order to better taste the savory goodness of tofu. One of my vegan friends once told me that they preferred their diet because of how "natural" it was. Well, sorry to break it to you, but if I had to come up with a list of the least natural things on Earth, I'm pretty sure tofu would be at the top.

Yes, yes, it's made of soy -- nature's wonder. But when it becomes white, gelatinous, mushy, and gross, it becomes less nature's-wonder and more I-wonder-how-this-could-have-possibly-come-from-nature. It's more like soylent white. I say we give it the ultimate test: let's hop on that Cessna to Peru, find that uncontacted tribe, and, without any directions or explanation, let's drop a big ol' brick of tofu right in the middle of their village and just see what happens. If that uncontacted tribe bum-rushes the tofu with primitive forks and hungry bellies, I'll publicly apologize to the tofu-loving masses and eat every one of my words. Just don't make me eat the tofu.

In the short term, I'll live. Amy tells me she's trying the vegan thing just for a few weeks as sort of a personal challenge. And I respect that and give her kudos for having the gumption to see it through. Maybe we'll all learn a little about how to appreciate that which we oftentimes take for granted. She has my support. And I've got to admit, tonight we just had pasta made with quinoa -- and it was actually pretty tasty.

Just don't ever insult my intelligence by calling something "rice milk." Until the day I see an infant grain of rice suckling from its mother rice's bosom, I remain unsold. Then again, when you actually sit and think about what milk is and where it comes from, it kinda makes tofu sound a little more appetizing after all. Now if you'll excuse me, my girlfriend just left so I've got some hot dogs to microwave. Man can't live on quinoa alone.

COLUMN: If I Ruled The World

People ask me all the time, "Hey, Shane, why would a legendary man-about-town such as yourself want the extra burden of writing a humor column every weelk?"

The answer, as I've said before, is quite simple:

I plan to use this column as a stepping stone to global domination, where I hope to one day rule the world with a cold iron fist. Don't worry, though -- all of you loyal readers are encouraged and welcome to sign up as my minions to one day perform my evil bidding. I'll never forget my fans.

Let's face it, the world is a bit lax these days when it comes to super-villainy. It's a niche market that I think I could really expand upon if given the opportunity. There's some stiff competition these days when it comes to power-hungry idiots, but I think I can take on the best:

* There's Moamer ("Muammar") Gadhafi Kadhafi Gaddafi, the clown prince of evil villainy. Admittedly, you've got to give the guy some style points for having a name that can be spelled 27 different ways. But as soon as he began insisting that his people actually love him but are being drugged by terrorists into hating him, he lost a good chunk of his mojo. Besides, there might not be much of him left by the time this column even prints.

* There's good ol' Ann Coulter, who this weekend claimed that Japanese folk were lucky because scientists have explained to her that radiation is, in fact, good for the skin and a cancer preventative. Evil incarnate? You betcha, but sadly too crazy to be taken seriously (I sincerely hope.)

* And lest we not forget the Right Reverend Fred Phelps and his army of nutjobs at the Westboro Baptist Church, who really should get a standing ovation of evil for forcing First Amendment supporters like yours truly to take a stand for freedom of speech, even if it means allowing this pondscum to picket at funerals. But I sincerely believe there's a difference between being a classy evil villain and just plain being an abomination. Don't worry, brother Fred, if the Hell you speak of truly exists, I imagine you'll get a real in-depth tour of their facilities soon enough.

Truth be told, my only real competition for Grade A classy and captivating evil villainy right now is Charlie Sheen, and there's no telling how much longer he's gonna hold up. I suppose if having access to gobs of money and illicit substances whilst lovelessly dating a harem of porn stars is, in fact, "winning," then maybe Chuck's got me. But there's just one thing, though. Charlie Sheen can drink all the tiger blood and declare himself a worlock all he likes, but it doesn't change one important thing: the man is an exceptionally BAD actor. And if you're gonna be famous, you'd better be good at the one thing you're famous for. Kim Kardashian, for instance, is only famous for being hot - but at least she's pretty good at being hot.

So, see? My ascention to super-villainy could work. I mean, I'm in no rush, really. While ruling the world with a cold iron fist is a lofty and impressive goal to aspire to, on the short term my couch IS pretty comfy. Plus I'd like to see who wins this season of "Celebrity Apprentice." It's good to not be in a huge rush for global domination, because it gives me time to sit back and seriously ponder the most pressing of all statements:


- For starters, McDonalds would serve breakfast all day. REAL evil is when you deny an innocent man an Egg McMuffin just because it's 10:32 a.m.

- I would barely have time to write this column, because the 21st season of "Twin Peaks" would be one of its best. It's on just after new episodes of "Lost," "Firefly," and "Freaks and Geeks."

- I would be able to have ONE day -- just ONE day -- of getting to and from work without being impeded by road construction.

- The following would be immediately and without hesitation demoted to irrelevance:

* TMZ. I love pop culture, I really do, and I like to live vicariously through celebrities from time to time, sure. That doesn't mean I need to bear witness to them walking down sidewalks, jogging, and/or buying coffee. It's bad enough that you're on my internet, but now you're on my TV, too. I'm starting to feel sorry for Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, and that's unacceptable.

* Lady Gaga. "Baby, I was born this way!" No, you weren't. You were born Stephani Germanotta, and you languished playing to seedy clubs in the lower east side of NYC until a producer came along, gave you a dance beat, and told you to act weird for the sake of weird. Baby, you were MARKETED this way. Trust me, the schtick will get old soon.

* Katy Perry. My girlfriend's gonna hate me for this one, but I'm sorry, honey. She sings like a troll and perpetually looks like a kewpie doll in pain. Aren't your fifteen minutes about up? Russell Brand, you can stay, though.

* All Quad City nightclub DJ's... okay, no, because most of them are my friends. But SOMEBODY better decide it's time for early retirement. I left my decade-long club gig last fall for another club that promptly went bankrupt. Now I can't get on anywhere because every club's booked up. Not cool. So if you're a club owner in town and want new blood in your DJ booth, let me know. I'm clearly awesome and I work cheap(ish.)

* The Jersey Shore. And I don't mean the show. I mean the ENTIRE geographic area. Apologies to the Garden State, but the sorrowful MTV show you allowed to be filmed in your confines has ruined the reputation of your coastal region henceforth for all time. It also doesn't help that my life's dream is to become a cherished novelist and I've now been beaten to the New York Times best-seller list by someone named "Snooki." (Note: I grew up with a dog named Snooki. I'm pretty sure it was smarter.) I can't wrap my head around being jealous of anyone associated with this atrocity. Hence, it must be destroyed.

The bad news is that I guess none of these requests are especially evil or villanous. I guess I'm still a ways off from becoming the next Ming the Merciless. It's okay, though. I've got loads of time to practice -- "Celebrity Apprentice" has WEEKS to go.

COLUMN: Girls (Tippy Tippy Tippy HIDE!)

Sometimes I worry about the next generation of society... mostly because it's numbnutzes like me who'll be raising them.

It's no secret that I'm weirded out by kids. As an only child who grew up in the middle of the country, I havent been around kids since I WAS a kid. I don't know how to act, walk, or talk around kids, and the only way I can relate to them is as Slightly Less Skilled Video Game Players Than Myself.

To kids, I'm an ADULT, but I don't feel like an adult. I feel like a college student who's been on one looong paid internship. But the truth is, I'm now 40 years old. I'm a homeowner. I'm supposedly responsible. By the definition of the word, I AM an adult -- and that means children should be able to look to me for guidance, influence, and as a (I can't even type it without laughing) role model. I can barely tie my own shoes, let alone teach children right from wrong. Good thing, then, that I have my practice children.

My girlfriend teaches first grade at a small private school. However, since small private schools tend to issue small private paychecks, she makes ends meet by babysitting a pair of precocious girls four nights a week. One's five and one's six. Or maybe they're six and seven now. Or five and seven. They're TINY, that's all I know. And on many evenings, the four of us get to hang out like a miniature little family.

When I'm with the girls, my goal is simply to get through the night without causing any undue permanent emotional scarring -- to them or myself. Just how easy is it to influence wee children? I found out the other night.

My girlfriend and I had planned a home-cooked dinner date at her place. Usually, the girls' Nana drops them off around 8:30 on the verge of catatonia. Amy puts them into pajamas, kisses them goodnight, and they're out within seconds. This is what initially led me to believe that raising kids is a breeze. But this night was different.

It turns out Nana had a shindig to go to, so she dropped the girls off an hour earlier than usual. And instead of being on the verge of asleep, I think Nana had them hooked to an IV drip of Hawaiian Punch all day, because the girls literally exploded through the door. One of them started screaming, "SHAAANE! AAAAMY!!" while the other just jumped up and down for little to no reason other than it sure looked fun. We looked dumbfounded as they bounced around the house like human pinballs. Uh oh.

We made the mistake of having music playing in the background. That was all it took for one of them to start doing a surprisingly adept take on the Peppermint Twist while yelling, "SHAKE YOUR BOOTY! SHAKE YOUR BOOTY!" The other one, meanwhile, had looked to the table and honed in on the gift I had bought Amy that night. She's a huge fan of all things cute and furry, and I'm a huge fan of all things kitschy, so when I spied a stuffed Easter bunny that sings "Jesus Loves Me" when you push its belly, it was a must-buy. So in less than thirty seconds, our relaxing night turned into a booty-shaking, Peppermint-Twisting jamboree with the dueling soundtrack of Amy's stereo and "Jesus Loves Me" on an endless loop.

As quick as I could, I grabbed the remote and turned on the Disney Channel. Within seconds, the girls were zombiefied in front of "Phineas and Ferb," the two best babysitters a babysitter could ask for. Even I've got to admit, it's a pretty funny show. Five minutes later, both of the girls were snuggled up to me on the couch and I was second-guessing my ineptitude. It's ridiculous to feel intimidated around kids, I told myself. They're just kids, and see, everybody's all cute and cuddly on the couch and there's no reason to feel insecure or awkward or --

"Shane?" one of the girls asked.

"What is it, honey?" I said, newly secure in my role as World's Greatest Temporary Dad.

"I love your fat belly!"

I hate children. Okay, not really. But at that moment, I was pretty much satisfied as a cat owner. I'm pretty sure my cats like my fat belly too, but they're at least mannered enough to keep their mouths shut.

"Why don't you read the girls a story?" said Amy in a perfect subject-changing moment. Ooh, good call. I grabbed the top book from their pile and started to read.

"Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide!" is the heart-warming tale of an innocent man's slow, spiraling descent into madness at the hands of sociopathic bunnies. In the book, the spritely Mr. McGreely gets his house all weather-proofed for winter when three bunnies come tippy-tippy-tippying through his mail slot. Creepy, right? So just as you and I would in such a case, he nails his mail slot shut. That's when they come in through the window. BAM! Nailed shut. The chimney? BAM! Every time poor Mr. McGreely seals one entrance, the bunnies come through another, leaving nose smudges in his tub and, eventually, "bunny drops" on his pillow. Now, I'm a sane and somewhat patient guy, but if I ever woke up to find myself snoring into a pile of rabbit dookie, I'd be killy-killy-killing some bunnies and dippy-dippy-disposing of their bodies. Eventually, poor Mr. McGreely seals up his entire house and likely falls victim to carbon monoxide. At the end of the book (spoiler alert!), he looks out his sealed windows to spring weather and the bunnies eating all his flowers.

Moral of the story? Let's see... Bunnies are evil? It's cool to drive people insane? In MY day, the three little pigs ATE the big bad wolf, Cinderella got Prince Charming, the giant fell down the beanstalk, and Jack and Diane were two American kids doin' the best they can. If the best we can teach kids THESE days is the joy of felony trespassing, I shouldn't care HOW I'm influencing the girls.

That was about the time that I passed by the bathroom. Inside, one of the girls was showering and singing to herself. And, as I caught the lyrics she was loudly belting out, I realized exactly how massive my sphere of influence was. And as I doubled over laughing, I realized just how awesome it is to have kids around in my life. Imagine you were in a vast room full of children and you had to guess which ones I helped babysit. Sounds like an impossible task, no? It turns out you'd figure it out pretty quick. They're the ones singing joyously:

"Shake my booty to and fro! For the Bible tells me so!"

I'm so proud.

COLUMN: Kopi Luwak

In these years that I've been fortuitous enough to call the Moline Dispatch Publishing Co. my home, I've only managed to accrue one major complaint about working in the newspaper industry:

All the dang news.

Don't get me wrong -- I like to be a well-informed person, and there's none better at the information game than newspaper folk. Every day, I walk in to the center of a global information hub. Well, okay, I walk to a dimly-lit corner cubicle a flight up from the hub, but still. At the press of a button, I have access to local and national news events pretty much as they occur. But occasionally there CAN be such a thing as too much news.

Specifically, I hate health stories. Sometimes, it's simply better to be happy and naive than informed and freaked out. Every time I look down, there's some new study informing us that something we do, own, and/or eat is, in fact, a silent killer of deadly deadliness. That is, until the NEXT study comes out a few months later refuting the previous study and informing us that what we previously thought to be a silent killer is, in fact, a miracle drug that will let us live forever.

Just a few years ago, scientists told us that aspirin was bad on the stomach and should only be taken sparingly. Now it's bad on the stomach but good for pretty much every other ounce of your body. Dark chocolate used to be a guilty delicacy; now it's a recommended addition to your diet. You practically need a scorecard to keep track. And now it's happening to coffee.

We all know the hazards of coffee, right? It stains your teeth, stinks up your breath, and keeps you wired on caffeine. But just this week, a new study passed by my desk. Scientists have now discovered that coffee also prevents cancer, minimizes inflammation, deters diabetes, and might just stave off Alzheimer's. So drink up, everybody!

At least that's what was on my mind when I found myself at my parents' house the other day. My mom owns one of those fancy new single-cup coffeemakers, and let me tell you, it is an absolute breakthrough in overpricing. Actually, it makes some pretty good coffee -- if you can afford the little one-shot packets of coffee that it requires. But if there's a way to screw it up, I'll find it. And I found it.

I wasn't aware of one little fact. When you stick the little coffee packet into the machine, the machine pokes a hole in it and then brews the water through thusly. No one explained that to me, which explains why I ripped the packet open before putting it into the machine. This, it turns out, is ill-advised.

My coffee came out black as midnight on a moonless night, slightly soupy, and topped with floating coffee grounds. It was pretty much coffeepocalypse. I wouldn't touch the end result; my mom, however, was braver.

"Bleh!" she said after a timid sip. "This coffee tastes like poop!"

But as I was about to find out, perhaps that wasn't me being an idiot so much as a trend-setting gourmet.

In my quest for non-stop knowledge and entertainment, one of my weekly rituals is Hollywood Babble-On, a free weekly podcast available on iTunes. It's one of the funniest hours you will ever hear, and, if you can handle the raunchy language, I can't recommend the show enough. Thanks to a recent episode, I learned about Kopi Luwak.

It is among the rarest and most expensive coffees in the world. In America, a cup of the stuff could run you around $100. It's said to be among the richest, smoothest, and most robust coffees ever made. But it's the "how it's made" part that's completely terrifying. Kopi Luwak begins its life as coffee cherries growing in Indonesia. For years, Indonesian coffee farmers have been plagued by cute little animals called civets. These adorable bug-eyed mammals (who are, incidentally, also adorably responsible for the global outbreak of the SARS virus) enjoy snacking on coffee berries.

There's just one problem. Their little civet bodies aren't fully equipped to digest and process the coffee cherries. Ergo, they pass right on through. Like the children's book says, "Everybody Poops" -- up to and including the Asian Palm Civet. It's nature, it's life, and we're adults and can handle it.

What I CAN'T handle, though, is the deranged fellow who must have been walking along one day, came upon some civet droppings, and thought to himself, "I bet this would make a MEAN cup of joe." That's right -- the civet droppings are harvested, the coffee beans are extracted (I'll leave that to the imagination,) and the end result is Kopi Luwak (translation: any two words that sound better than 'civet poop.')

Apparantly there's acids and enzymes within the innards of the civet that gives Kopi Luwak that mmm-so-good taste that you just can't get from Juan Valdez and his boring previously-undigested coffee. And since the entire population of Asian Palm Civets can only (ahem) "produce" 1000 pounds of Kopi Luwak every year, one pound of the stuff can pull in thousands of dollars, which would, were this not a family paper, cause me to write a joke involving the word "shineola."

There's good news on the horizon, though! Up-and-coming researchers at the University of Florida have developed a process wherein they can take regular old coffee beans and treat them with the same acids and enzymes found inside the digestive tract of the civet, supposedly replicating the taste of Kopi Luwak at a much more affordable price. So to sum up: the economy is faltering, gas prices are soaring, and we can't figure out how to pay government workers without entire states descending into near anarchy... yet a crack team of scientists have spent countless time, money, and resources to successfully create the world's first artificial butt, which we then use to pass stuff through to see how it tastes. And to think, some people think our generation doesn't know its priorities.

So I say, if civets are capable of "producing" the world's best coffee, why stop there? Now that we've got an artificial method of "production," let's just start feeding all kinds of food through the Fake Buttinator 2000 and see what happens. Why stop with coffee? Let's give ice cream a shot, or maybe peanut butter!

At the end of the day, I guess a LOT of stuff we put in our mouths is pretty gross. If you really stop and think about it, milk is pretty gross. Eggs are pretty gross. Bacon is pretty gross. Yet that's how I started my day today. But we have to draw the line somewhere, and my somewhere is that I simply will not eat any food that's seen both ends of an Asian Palm Civet -- not even if we publish an article tomorrow saying it's the healthiest food on Earth.

COLUMN: Chupacabra

When I first considered purchasing my own home last year, I sat back and tried to form a gameplan for every future challenge that would come my way. I thought about lawn care, snow removal, electrical problems, mortgage payments… you name it, I was braced for it. I bought my house confident and secure in my ability to handle any problems that may come along, or at least in my ability to pick up a phone and call someone overpriced who could handle it for me.

But in all of my fantasizing about lightning strikes, burglaries, and broken dishwashers, I somehow failed to form a contingency for CORPSE REMOVAL.

Have you guys seen a compulsive little show on SyFy called "Destination: Truth"? It's TV crack and I'm a junkie. Like its sister show, "Ghost Hunters," D:T features investigators who go traipsing around with video cameras and an assortment of gadgets in hopes of capturing proof of the unexplained. But instead of wandering through dark buildings seeking the supernatural, Destination: Truth concerns itself with even more outlandish creatures: from Yetis to aliens, Nessies to Leprechauns, D:T is a one-stop for mythical monster hunting.

There seems to be only one condition to the Destination Truthiverse: If you've got a bogeyman in your suburban backyard, they'll probably take a pass (which is bad news for me as you're about to read.) D:T hunts down all kinds of creepy crawlies, but only if they crawl around the most desolate, exotic, and entirely out-of-the-way places in the world.

The show's host -- a snarky, Indiana Jones wannabe named Josh Gates -- informs viewers of reports about an unusual creature terrifying the villagers of Randomtown, usually a remote island, nomadic campsite, or abandoned Chilean mountain mine only accessible by hot air balloon. The monster is usually fanged, often winged, indescribably powerful, and invariably carniverous. Then the show follows Gates and his team as they fly, drive, pedal, paddle, repel, and hike to the middle of nowhere.

Do they ever find anything? Nope -- just more of the same "OMG SOMETHING MOVED" or "I HEAR A WEIRD NOISE" that's kept "Ghost Hunters" in business for a decade now. But the show is edited in such a fantastic way that you are ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED that every rustle in the bushes has GOT to be some kind of vorpal ManBearPig ready for dinner.

This brings us to the other morning. I woke up to newly-fallen snow and set out early for some shoveling. As I stood on my porch surveying the task at hand, I happened to look down at the bushes surrounding the front of my house. "That's funny," I thought to myself. "Those twigs over there look just like animal legs." And those twigs were attached to another altogether larger twig that strangely looked exactly like a torso. And two more leg twigs… and, umm, a tail twig, and…

Ewwwww. It WAS an animal. And "was" was the appropriate word, because this fella wasn't sleeping. It was a frozen dead critter-sicle. My stomach churned as I realized this sort of thing was now my responsibility to clean up. Yes, I know, I'm supposedly a man, and both stereotype and evolution dictate that my role is to shoot cute and fuzzy animals with arrows and proudly display my kill to the tribe. Screw that. Dead animals are ucky and I'm not ashamed to say it.

But what WAS this belly-up buddy in my bushes? My outdoorsman instinct and years of classroom training took over and I performed the most exacting scientific methodology possible: I poked it with the longest stick I could find.

Now, I realize that you probably didn't pick up today's Arts & Living section with the intent of vomiting, so I'll keep this description blessedly short. My newfound former critter had brown fur, a wiry rat-like tail, and what appeared to be muscular, over-developed hind legs. It was too big for a rat yet too small for an opossum. This left only one conclusion: I was staring at the legendary chupacabra, the Puerto Rican goat-sucker of lore.

Thanks to Destination: Truth, I knew all about the chupacabra. With eyewitness reports claiming resemblances from a small bear to a kangaroo to a spiny reptile, this "mythical" creature has been blamed for mysterious vampiric livestock deaths throughout Latin and North America -- and I was positive one of them was now lying dead in my bushes. All I needed to do was see the head to bear witness to its goat-sucking fangs…

That's when it got kinda gross. This thing, whatever it was, was fully intact -- as if it were pleasantly strolling around my bushes and thought, "Well, then, here's a fine place to die." Except when I poked it with my poking stick, it rolled over -- and where the head SHOULD be, nothing remained but a skull. Two immediate theories sprung to mind:

Theory #1: I have found a mythical creature far scarier than any description of the chupacabra, and I hate to tell you all that our town may be plagued by giant death-rats with skulls for heads.


Theory #2: I should stop worrying about this gross dead thing in my yard and instead worry about whatever ate its face off. There's a good chance I was right here in my living room watching Destination: Truth while ManBearPig was right outside my window chomping on hors d'rat head.

I decided then and there what my best move would be: never speak of it again and just go about my business living a life wherein face-eating monsters are NOT stalking the perimeter of my home. Like I said, I'm confident and secure in my ability to handle most any crisis, or at least my ability to pick up the phone and call someone to do it for me.

That's why I called my dad… who graciously came over and sent my critter-sicle to Destination: Trash Can. I suppose a braver man would have handled it himself. But YOU try watching a marathon of "Destination: Truth" and then go carcass-disposing and see how much you like it. You show me on my mortgage where it says I'm responsible for chupacabra clean-up and I'll man up. Until then, I remain your humble, yet fairly wussy, homeowner.

COLUMN: Wisconsin Pt. 2

For as long as I can remember, I've had a love affair with England. For this, I blame my dad.

When I was a wee Shaneling, my folks were pretty rigid when it came to bedtime, and I routinely hated them for it. I despised bedtime, and I still kinda do. Sleep is wasted time as far as I'm concerned, and even when I was a kid, I'd do anything to avoid it. Whether it was reading a book under the covers or silently tiptoeing across the room to plug in my headphones to the stereo, I was a master at dodging my parents' maliciously-imposed mandatory deadline for day's end. But there was always ONE event for which my dad would temporarily lift my life sentence: I could stay up late with him whenever network TV aired a James Bond movie.

Ergo, James Bond instantly became the coolest guy in the universe. Not only could he defeat the bad guys, travel the world, and get the girls, but he could do it AFTER 9 p.m.! Add cars that shoot fire, pens that shoot lasers, and dudes with armored teeth and razor-edged bowlers? Nerd-vana!

So if James Bond was the coolest guy alive, my young mind postulated, then it must reason that EVERYONE who spoke with such a brilliant accent and hailed from England had to be equally awesome, right? Adam Ant dressed in warpaint and was just untouchably cool; Bananarama were the hottest girls ever; Sting had great songs AND acted in sci-fi movies on the side; the Pet Shop Boys wore trenchcoats and sounded like the future; and you could never figure out what the hell Duran Duran were up to in their non-sensical music videos, but you knew for certain it was cooler than whatever YOU were doing. And they ALL had British accents.

As I grew up, so did my Anglophilia. I discovered the treasures of the BBC, the lure of Premiere League soccer, the mysticism of Stonehenge, and the taste sensation of kidney pie. Eww. Okay, so maybe British food isn't the best, but all these years later, England is still my go-to place for pop culture. In fact, I spent over a decade running a website devoted to US fans of UK music, where I got to bond nightly with fellow Anglophiles. We'd spend our nights swapping bootleg recordings of Radio One, planning our dream British vacations, and staying up til 4 a.m. to place orders with our favorite London record stores.

Now that I've reached my 40's, I've mellowed some and come to realize that some parts of British life are shockingly less great than our own (see: Revolution, American), but I've still got a soft spot in my heart for Old Blighty and I hope that God keeps on saving the Queen for years to come.

That said, I've recently run into grievances with a couple of Brits, and their incessant taunting has tested my Anglophilia to the breaking point. It might come as heresy to some of my long-term friends, but thanks to these two rechid women, I'm thiiiiis close to chucking in my Union Jack and buying a Bruce Springsteen record.

The first is the shrill woman who yells at me on the phone every day. See, as part of my day job here at the paper, I call on our customers who've placed classified ads to ensure their satisfaction. If you've ever placed a classified in the Dispatch/Argus, we've probably spoken.

Back in the day, it was fairly easy to determine where I was calling based on the number. But thanks to our cellular world, phone numbers are assigned all willy-nilly and I don't know when I pick up the phone if I'm calling Milan, IL or Milan, Italy. Sometimes, it's a guessing game as to whether a number is long distance or not, and I have no idea whether or not to add a 1 and the area code. All I can do is hope and pray that I get it right, because when I don't, that's when SHE shows up.


Now, I'm no expert, but I would imagine that in the wide field of contemporary voiceover artists, there are LOTS of choices out there. I'll guarantee that you could get a golden-voiced Casey Kasem type to record a few polite sentences for a bargain. Explain to me, then, why our phone company opted for Nanny McPhee's evil, elderly cousin. She doesn't thank you, she doesn't apologize -- she justs scolds, corrects, and hangs up on you, all with a voice that sounds like my thoughtless and incorrect dialing has absolutely ruined her day.

But she's not the worst. No, no. That award goes to a woman whose hostility knows no limit. A woman named Garmin.

Last weekend, I surprised my girlfriend with a daytrip to a concert in Milwaukee, and Mapquesting revealed that Milwaukee is a downright confusing town with no less than 63 turns between here and there. Factor in my fear of expressway driving, and I decided that the easiest way to navigate Milwaukee was to pull an old friend out of the trunk -- my trusty Garmin GPS navigator, whose voice is that of a slightly p.o.'d Mary Poppins.

"In... 2 point 3 miles... turn... left," she ushers in mildly hostile tones.

I thought I could deal with it, but here's the thing. In the center of Milwaukee, every interstate convenes downtown in what can only be described as the graphic representation of a migraine. Nothing makes sense. Ramps spin around and deposit you onto weird roundabouts from which there is little to no escape. And, it appears that ALL of this fun was built AFTER the last update to my Garmin. As we attempted to navigate, Ms. Garmin was determined to inform me that we were not, in fact, driving on a road. And, at precisely the most confusing part of the journey, she tragically suffered a stroke in the middle of barking out non-sensical commands.

"In... point one mile... turn... RECALCULATING... in... 1.2 mi... RECALCULATING... RECALCULATING... KEEP RIGHT, EXIT LEFT, KEEP RIGHT, EXIT LEFT, KEEP RI..." And with that, her whole poor British-accented system crashed. It was the happiest moment of the trip, and I had already spotted the marquee of the concert venue in the distance.

So why is it that the same land that brought us the Sex Pistols and The Office is also responsible for some of the most annoying voices in history? And why, Garmin Co., would you think that legions of drivers would want to get directions from a British-accented school marm? My proposal is that all Garmins immediately be re-recorded with the voice of Keanu Reeves.

"Okay, dudes, are you ready? In, like, 2 miles... go right. Wait, that isn't right. Go left, right? Or is it right, left? Duuude. I am SO confused."