Monday, June 20, 2011

COLUMN: Bieber

Is it just me, or does this photo scream, "I have to poop!" ??

I woke up today with one clear thought in my brain:

Justin Bieber has a lot in common with the Beatles.

My girlfriend earns extra cash frequently babysitting two of the cutest girls (ages 6 & 7) ever to walk the earth. I, having never been around kids since I was one myself, greet our time together with a mix of fascination and fear. Most of the time, I sit around in an awkward display of helplessness while they run around like they've been out mainlining caffeine with John Belushi. They bounce, hop, skip, sing, run, yell, shriek, cry, jump, pounce, and cause irreparable emotional damage to my cats -- while I just sit and concentrate on NOT having a stroke.

Still, there's a part of me that desperately wants them to accept and trust me and know that I've got their back. My girlfriend loves spending time with kids, so I want to, too. That's why I'll say yes when they ask me to play house, even though they always demand that I take on the role of the family dog. And that's why I'll sit there acting like it's the most interesting in the world when they show me their new Justin Bieber magazines and tell me what his favorite color and food are. (Purple and spaghetti.)

We were out shopping the other day, and when my girlfriend wasn't looking, I slipped a DVD copy of the Bieber concert movie into our cart. Not only do I come across as Mr. Awesome for getting the girls the movie, but it gives them something to do other than bounce, hop, skip, sing, etc. Win-win, right?

That's what I thought. Until this morning, when I woke up humming the most irritating earworm of all time:

"It's like bay-bee, bay-bee, bay-bee, ohhh, like bay-bee, bay-bee, bay-bee, nooo!"

I hadn't thought of the repercussions of devoting a small percentage of my life's soundtrack to Justin Bieber, and now his evil little song is stuck on autopilot in my brain. I can appreciate catchy yet blindingly stupid music -- that's why God made The Ramones, after all -- but have their ever been lyrics more insipid than Justin Bieber's "Baby"? That's when it dawned on me, and the answer is YES, I HAVE heard lyrics just as bad:

"Love, love me do, you know I love you, I'll always be true, so ple-e-e-ease, love me do."

Think about it: A debut album full of silly, catchy, G-rated love songs. Young girls shrieking in a near-riot pandemonium. A really bad haircut. Who am I describing? Justin Bieber or 1964 Beatles? They're one in the same. Okay, maybe the Fab Four worked their way to fame playing to seedy clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool. Well, Justin Bieber worked HIS way to fame playing to preteens and pedophiles on Youtube. Was there one single music critic on the face of the Earth in 1964 who would have dreamed that four teenagers singing a song called "I Want To Hold Your Hand" would end up revolutionizing pop music for the rest of time? Maybe before we cast Justin Bieber into the abyss of worthless teenage annoyances, realize that there's a chance he could be a longer haircut, an Indian guru, and a Yoko Ono away from real artistic greatness.

But another thought just crossed my mind: Justin Bieber also has a lot in common with Shaun Cassidy. In 1977, Cassidy launched from a Hardy Boy into a million-selling cover of "Da Doo Ron Ron" and the front page of every other issue of TigerBeat. Heck, even prepubescent Shane had a Shaun Cassidy poster in my room. Any dude who could solve mysteries AND rock out was cool in my 6-year-old world.

One of my friends is a Quad City-based musician who recently, on a trip out west, finagled his way into tickets to some posh L.A. event. And the way he tells the story, he was queueing in line when he realized that directly in front of him stood an aging yet still recognizable Shaun Cassidy.

After some debate, he tapped him on the shoulder and explained that his sister was a HUGE fan back in the day. That was Shaun Cassidy's cue to turn from Normal-Guy-In-Line to Complete Lunatic. "Who the (expletive) do you think you are? Do you know who the (expletive) I am? Don't (expletive) speak to me!" Etc., etc. My friend really thought that he was about to be decked by Shaun Cassidy, so apparantly one shouldn't da-doo-dredge up the past in front of Mr. Formerly Famous.

So who knows where insta-fame and Bieber Fever will take our pal Justin? I'm not convinced that he's destined to become a musical icon, but he's got as much of a chance as the next guy. After one particular incident that happened to me a few years back, I'll never take ANYTHING for granted.

We were in Chicago to see one of my favorite bands, a criminally under-appreciated Scottish group called The Trashcan Sinatras. They were the opener for a multi-band show at the Cabaret Metro. We pushed our way to the front row and had a fantastic time. Afterwards, we weighed whether or not to stay up front for the headline act. None of us were fans, but they had a silly song called "Creep" that was getting some MTV play, so we thought we'd give them a chance. The lights came up, and this ridiculous little blonde frontman strutted on stage looking like he'd seen "Sid & Nancy" a few too many times, grabbed the mic, and sneered "'Ello! We're Radiohead!" before spending the next song strutting around stage like a peacock to some wholly unmemorable tune. After ten minutes, my friends and I walked out, proudly announcing, "Wow. They suck."

Two years later, Radiohead would release the ground-breaking album "The Bends." Two years after THAT would come "OK Computer," which Time Magazine would later declare to be one of the 100 greatest albums of all time. Radiohead are now one of the most critically-revered bands on the planet. A few years ago, I was happy to be in about the 215th row when they played an open-air concert in downtown Chicago to 75,000 people.

So don't look a gift Bieber in the mouth, I guess -- which is no problem for me, since I can't get my eyes off his magical hair. And who knows, fellow Bieber haters, maybe we're witnessing the dawn of a new American -- err, Canadian -- hero. Or maybe he'll be the flash-in-the-pan that we're all expecting. All I care about is that I made two little girls super happy by buying a DVD. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go listen to something -- ANYTHING -- that doesn't involve the word "baby."

COLUMN: Mechanic

Over the years, I've compiled a lengthy list of occupations that you couldn't pay me enough to do. After this past week, there's a new career atop that list: Auto Mechanic.

For starters, I know absolutely nothing about the inner workings of cars. I know where the gas goes. I'm pretty sure I know where the oil goes. I know that Brian Vickers is my favorite NASCAR driver and he's way overdue for another win. Beyond that, cars move by magic as far as I'm concerned.

Yes, yes, I know: the ignition ignites and causes the rotors to rotate and the pistons to, umm, pistate. But then the radio comes on and I forget about caring how the car works because I'm too busy singing along to "Baby Got Back." From there, it's all in the hands of the magical pixies that presumably live under the hood and make the car move until a little light comes on my dashboard telling me to "check engine" -- or rather telling me to tell my mechanic to "check engine" because MY version of checking the engine would be to open the hood and go, "Yep, that's an engine, alrighty."

I'm kind of okay with being clueless about cars. I mean, to each their own, right? I'm sure some of you can't beat match dance music or write a newspaper column (or, in one of my better moments, do both at the same time.) But in being an eternal noob at all things mechanical, it's pretty easy for me to get snowed over by mechanics.

I'll guarantee it's happened before. When I was in college, I had a beater car (it might rhyme with "Tord Fescort") that was in the garage more than it wasn't. And every time the car would demand service, I'd hear something like, "Well, you brought the car in for a blown headlight. Well, we replaced the headlight, but while we were down there, we just happened to notice that your flux capacitor's leakin' accelerator fluid all over the cam drive piston defibrillator. See the wear on this carburetor belt here? That means your timing chain's faulty and as a result, you're gonna need a whole new gasket bearing shaft. We can get you back up and running for, oh, $850 or so."

And invariably, I'd have to get my dad on the phone and listen to the two of them talk Martian for a while before settling on some weird automotive compromise wherein they replace only HALF the faulty stuff that they've probably just made up, and then the car would run fine until the OTHER headlight would blow out a month later and they'd find another $850 of imaginary problems.

Finally, though, I found a mechanic that, freakishly, I trust. It takes a lot of patience to work on a Beetle given that the entire engine's crammed under the dashboard, but my current mechanic's never complained once. In the five years that I've been going to him regularly, I've gotten nothing but great service, fair prices, and the patience required to deal with an automoron like myself. If I go there with a problem and he thinks I can get a better rate elsewhere, he refers me. If he thinks I can get a cheaper part on my own, he tells me how to order it. It's the kind of service that almost mandates I tell all my friends and refer anyone and everyone I can.

This brings me to last week. I thought I'd swing by the garage for a quick oil change. In addition, I'd just blown the fuse to my accessory plugs, and a roadtrip sans iPod is a roadtrip sans Shane. So there I was, waiting in the lobby, when in walked, shall we say, a less-than-pleased customer.

I'm not normally an eavesdropper -- oh, who am I kidding? Yes I am. But this guy was almost yelling, so it wasn't really a chore to get roped in. Here's what I quickly gathered:

This guy was the ex-husband. He and the ex-wife had recently bought a car from an out-of-towner for their daughter. The car had some problems right away, so they spent $250 at an out-of-town garage that was unable to diagnose the problem. Ex-hubby had to leave town for work, so the ex-wife brings the car back to the QC and to my local garage. They find the problem easily and give her the estimate. But they ALSO find an internal oil leak that was rapidly destroying other parts of the engine. They explained to the wife that the other problems wouldn't stop the car from running, but if they weren't addressed, all sorts of higgeldy-piggeldy would be on the horizon. The ex-wife gave permission to do the whole fix for a four-digit figure of some kind, and now ex-hubby was marching in livid to accuse them of doing the same kind of snow job on the wife that I'm pretty sure other garages had pulled on me in the past.

So while my mechanic was trying to talk this guy down from the ceiling, it made me think a lot about trust, and what a precious commodity it really is these days. Should I NOT be trusting my mechanic after all? If I was in this guy's situation, would I be just as livid? Should I go through life with an eyebrow raised at everyone and their motives?

After sitting there for a bit, I decided my answer would be a resounding NO. A world where you can't trust your fellow man is a world worth avoiding. Sure, you may end up getting burned once or twice by a scumbag or two, but I'd like to think that human nature isn't consistently evil, shallow, and self-serving. All I know is that in five years, I've never gotten service from this garage that was remotely suspect.

After a few minutes of almost-yelling, the guy had to pause while my mechanic took a call. That's when he spun on ME.

"I hope to hell you're not letting them work on YOUR car, buddy!" the guy said.

"Actually," I replied, "I let them work on my car anytime it breaks down. This is the first garage I've ever been to in town that treats me and my car with respect. I trust them, plain and simple. They're good guys and they do a good job."

The guy shut up (a small miracle in and of itself.) And after giving my mechanic a little more static, he left. Afterwards, I found out that the rest of the family had been in earlier and had to be forcibly removed from the premises. We both agreed that if they had to be hot, why not be hot at the out-of-town garage that charged $250 to find nothing? At least their hefty repair bill fixed the problem.

As for MY oil change and fuse replacement? My total bill was a whopping $18 -- yet more evidence that I've picked a great garage. Sometimes it just feels good to trust someone else. Here's where I'd make a passioned plea for everyone to put a little more trust in your fellow man -- but I keep losing my train of thought. I'm too busy singing along to "Baby Got Back."


When it comes to shopping, I demand immediate gratification.

We live in the age of internet commerce, and you'd think someone as lazy as me would love it. The prospect of walking five steps from my couch to my computer sounds a heck of a lot better than an afternoon spent tromping through the mall. Too bad, then, that I just can't buy something without immediately possessing it.

Some people like to comparison shop for the best deals. Not me. If I take that much time, the yucky voice in my brain -- you know, the smart, mature, and thrifty one -- starts invading my inner monologue with such awful thoughts as "you don't really need this" and "you really can't afford this." I've found it's MUCH better to surprise your Inner Responsibility with a well-timed strategy of impulse shopping and credit cards. At the end of the day, you might end up broke -- but at least you'll have a brand new Blu-Ray player to pass the time until the repo man comes.

The same goes for e-shopping. If I needed new underwear, I could quite easily hop on my computer, go to, and have bountiful amounts of skivvies delivered to my door in 7-10 days. But you know what happens when I get up from that computer? I'll still be wearing ratty undies for 7-10 days. E-commerce sucks the fun out of the quintessential shopping experience: Want -> Buy -> Have. It should NEVER be Want -> Buy -> 7-10 days of yearning mixed with a healthy dose of fiscal regret. Every time you click that "buy" button, it's like being a kid on December 15th and knowing there's an interminable 10-day wait until Christmas.

My girlfriend Amy is one of those annoying smart shopper types. She researches her purchases, clips coupons, makes lists and checks them twice. She'll walk in with bulging bags of new purchases under each arm and I'll be tempted to give her grief for over-spending when she'll proudly announce that she spent less than $20 on the whole pile. She claims I'm the one who needs the occasional lecture on over-spending, which might have filaments of truth were it not so darn fun. Take last weekend for instance.

It was Friday night, and we had just pulled into my garage. As I opened the door, I caught the most magical scent in the world wafting our way. Neighbor Russ was grilling out, and it couldn't have smelled better. I was making excuses to linger in the back yard, mouth watering -- and did I mention that we'd JUST returned with full bellies from dinner ourselves?

So when Amy asked me what we should do with our weekend, I didn't even have to breathe. "LETSGOBUYAGRILLANDGRILLOUTANDEATGRILLEDFOODANDITWILLBEGOOD!"

Neighbor Russ didn't give up any of his chicken wings, but he DID tell me that he saw a great deal on grills at a local grocery store, so that's where I pulled Amy.

"Let's take a look at the features," Amy said.

I already had: (a) It was silver, (b) it was shiny, and (c) it looked awesome.

"We should go home and do some research and see if this is the best grill for the money," said Amy. At least that's what I assumed she said. I was already on my way to the checkout line.

Five minutes later, I was proudly marching outside with my new grill. Well, okay, more like proudly sweating and grunting and almost killing an innocent family while precariously balancing a giant box on a less-than-giant dolly. That's when I got to my car and realized the first bump in the road of this impulse buy. Some thirteen years ago, I decided a Volkswagen Beetle would be a neat impulse buy. I love my car, but of the many things it's known for, space isn't one of them. One look at the box, then one look at the car, and then one ache to the head because this grill wasn't coming home in the Wonderbug.

Ever want to confuse a grocery store clerk? Buy a huge grill, then ask for a dolly to get it to your car, lug it all the way outside, then lug it BACK and tell them to keep an eye on it while you go get a bigger car. Amy's car was a tight fit, but we eventually got it loaded.

"We should go to your house and see what we need to assemble this thing," Amy said. Or maybe she didn't. I dunno. I was too busy calling up all of my friends.


Ever want to REALLY confuse a grocery store clerk? Buy a grill, leave with it, come back with it, leave with it again, then come back WITHOUT it. Next thing I knew, I was running down aisles grabbing anything grillable. Hamburgers, veggie burgers, brats, corn on the cob -- a smorgasbord of flavor just waiting to be charred and carcinogized.

Then I opened the box. Rather, once all my hungry friends were pulling up, I opened the box. It turns out that grills do not simply pop out of the box pre-assembled. It also turns out that it was a bad move to NOT have ever impulse-bought a course in Mandarin Chinese. With boxes inside boxes handily marked in hand-written Chinese, this thing was the Rubik's Cube of grills. While Friend Jason and I were on hands and knees staring at an incomprehensible array of tiny grill parts, Amy called her dad.

Within ten minutes, he was over, toolbox in hand. Within twenty minutes, parts weren't fitting right. Within thirty minutes, he was asking if Amy was out of earshot so he could appropriately curse. Within forty minutes, we had given up for the night. And within thirty minutes or less after that, dinner was served -- thanks to Domino's.

So maybe it's possible to be a TAD bit too impulsive sometimes. But this story doesn't end with pizza. Amy's dad was back over at the crack of dawn, and by the time I was even awake, my dream of a shiny new fancy grill was a reality. My friends might not have come back the next night, but it was okay -- more food for me. And when Amy's little sister told me that she was eating "the best corn of her life," I swear I almost started crying.

So, unless you're immune to the heavenly smell of cinged meat, you might want to give my house a wide berth this week. I'm going non-stop until I run out of propane or stomach room, whichever happens first.

COLUMN: End of the World

Sooo... this is what the afterlife feels like, eh? And to think, all I wanted was a Thickburger.

There I was, in the drive-thru at the Rock Island Hardee's, innocently living my carefree life, when I glanced to the right and spotted the billboard:

"BLOW THE TRUMPET... WARN THE PEOPLE -Ezekiel 33:3. Judgement Day is May 21, 2011." Or perhaps it said "judgment day." Frankly, I'm always a bit leery of words that can be acceptably spelled in more than one way. That's why I always knew Gaddafi (or Khadafi or Qaddafi or Gadhafi or Khadafy) was bad news.

The point is, I KNEW I'd forgotten something on my to-do list for this week. Buy deodorant? Check. Make mortgage payment? Check. Write newspaper column? Check. Prep for judgement day? Oh, shoot.

Now, I'm no expert on Christianity or anything, but the last time I checked, I'm pretty sure the Book of Mark tells us about Judgement Day that "of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father." Well, the Father and, apparantly, a guy in California named Harold Camping.

I've written about Harold before. He runs an organization called Family Radio Worldwide, and it's Harold's opinion that we'll NEVER know who wins "American Idol" this season. No, we'll all be far too busy dealing with the end of days. Employing some creative math and an odd quasi-literal interpretation of the Bible (something about the Noadic flood and "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years,") Camping has taken to the internet and the airwaves with the revelation that Judgement Day comes on May 21st, 2011. I even wrote it on my desk calendar a few months back: "May 21st - End of World." Its right there between Rhubarb Appreciation Day and National Old Time Player Piano Day (the latter of which may be postponing celebrations indefinitely.)

There's just one problem. May 21st was (gulp) yesterday. This column, which I'm sitting down to write on the Monday prior, won't publish until May 22nd. Which means it may not publish at all. In fact, if you ARE reading this now, I'd imagine that one of two scenarios must be at play:

(1) Camping was wrong. Surely this can't be. I mean, he already got it wrong once before when he proclaimed twenty years ago that the Rapture would occur on September 6, 1994. Instead, this turned out to be the date that Michael Jackson and Lisa-Marie Presley made out onstage at the MTV Music Awards, so I can kinda see his confusion. Camping later blamed this on a math error. Surely he can't have made TWO errors, right? I mean, what are the odds?

(2) The Rapture has occurred, and you, unfortunately, were left behind. Bummer. Of course, this would also mean that a majority of the layout, printing, post-press, and distribution departments of our paper suffered the same fate, since your Sunday issue was apparantly still delivered on-time. Frankly, I'd prefer a happier ending for my co-workers. Also interesting: it's nice to know that, even if the world DID end in a hailstorm of fire and brimstone and trumpets aplenty, we still saw fit to include an Arts & Living section in your Sunday edition for you to peruse in your apocalypse down time.

Clearly, I think Camping's claims are bogus. More so, it's tragic that his followers have basically quit their jobs and emptied their bank accounts to travel the world and spread the news. Unless, of course, he's right, in which case I'll plead a hearty "D'oh!" to whomever (or maybe Whomever) I can. But frankly I hope that every one of us gets to live a colorful and spiritual life until a ripe old age. That said, something DID happen the other day that scares me a bit. Something that might just be a clear-cut sign that the end of the world COULD, in fact, be nigh:


Those who read my column on a regular basis (thanks!) know that I'm rather pre-disposed to eating out. In fact, I could usually count on one hand the number of home-cooked meals that I consume in a year (and that includes those cooked by my mom during major holidays.) That is, until I miraculously landed my super awesome girlfriend. Over the past two years, Amy has taught me that the kitchen is NOT, as I was previously unaware, for display purposes only. She's helped me stock the fridge, cooked many a meal, and even done most of the clean-up afterwards. For a hapless and helpless man-boy such as myself, it's been a dream come true.

But last month, Amy was gone. First on a business trip, then on a vacation to visit an old friend. For almost fourteen days, I was once again responsible for feeding myself. Instinctively, my thoughts turned to my old pal Taco Bell, until I realized that a whole lot of food in the fridge would be going to waste if I didn't figure out how to get it in my mouth. Take these eggs, for example.

Eggs are fun. They're goofy shaped, you get to crack them, and you can make them in a kajillion different ways. I just didn't know how - 40 years old and eggs remained a mystery to me. But I'm a smart guy with access to modern technology, common sense, and untold resources. So I did what any intelligent person faced with an uncooked egg would do:

I googled "how to cook an egg."

Funnily enough, there's a website devoted to it. And I'll guarantee you that it's last 20,000,000 visitors have all been single guys. Still, I learned how much Pam to spray in the pan, how hot to make the stove, and when to flip. At the end, I had some not-too-bad-if-I-do-say-so-myself eggs. And that was just the start. My culinary talents soon extended to sandwiches, milkshakes, fish sticks, and beyond. By the time Amy got back, I was grilling burgers and experimenting with the best homemade sauces to accent my broccoli florets. It turns out I CAN COOK. And thus far, no flying horsemen as a result.

If only I'd discovered this earlier, I'd have been making my OWN thickburger and living in blissful ignorance of our pending doom. I'm playing the odds, though, and marinating some chicken Friday night - if the world DIDN'T end yesterday, I'll be celebrating with a full stomach.

COLUMN: Snakes

Once upon a time, the house that I now call my own was built. This was about a decade ago. And way back then, whoever owned the place cared about the lawn. Hostas and decorative bushes lined the front of the house. Hydrangeas were planted on the south side to add some floral edging. On the north side, the new home was christened by the arrival of a small Japanese maple sapling. Home sweet home.

And from what I can see, that was the last time anybody looked at or cared about the lawn of this property until I moved in one year ago.

The Japanese maple? Dead as a doornail. The hydrangeas had grown together, merged, and transformed into some kind of Optimus Prime hydrangea monster -- half taller than my girlfriend, the other half collapsed under its own weight. And as for whatever the heck these bushes out front were supposed to be? Your guess is as good as mine. The whole mess had become so overgrown with weeds that I was clueless as to what was supposed to be there and what was an opportunistic passing seed in the wind forging a new homestead. The front of my house was little more than a habitat for passing chupacabra.

Because I bought the house in mid-summer, I let things slide last year. This spring, though, it was time for a little creative editing of Mother Nature.

That's when I set forth my Yard Work Action Plan, and I've got to tell you, it was exhausting. And now that I'm an expert in yard maintenance, perhaps it's unfair to hold all this knowledge myself. Many of you are first-time homeowners yourselves, and I couldn't sleep at night knowing that I'd failed to mentor those who so desperately need it.

Therefore I will share with you all my expertise. The hard work that I put into my lawn care can be divided into three major steps:

(1) Looking out the window and assessing the situation.
(2) Picking up the telephone and calling a lawn care service.
(3) While paying careful attention not to strain fingers, sign check and hand to lawn care guy.

I told you it was rough.

My lawn guy did an awesome job. I found him thanks to an ad right here in the Dispatch/Argus, and I'll even give him a personal plug later in this column. In a whirlwind, the maple was gone, the hydrangeas pruned, and my bramble patch out front totally obliterated.

While they worked, my girlfriend and I sat inside, watching TV and feeling horribly guilty about sitting inside and watching TV. We kept the window open, though, as if to somehow be part of the action. That was when I heard this exchange from outside:

"Blah blah blah." "Blabbity blah blah, blah blah." "Blah. Blah-blabbity-bab SNAKE blah blahity." "Blah blah GET IT!"

Say whaaaa? Did I hear SNAKE?

And that, dear friends, was the moment of my lawn care retirement. I hate spiders, bugs, and bees, but I'm deathly afraid of snakes. They're abominations of nature. If you're gonna be a creepy reptile and live in my yard, at the very least you should man up and grow some legs. I sincerely thought that living in the city, the last thing you had to worry about was snakes.

I grew up in the country, in an earth-sheltered "underground" home built into a hillside. "Cave sweet cave," as my dad said. One day, my mom and I were alone in the house while my dad was at work. Earlier, he'd been working on the roof to re-seal a skylight window that hung over the house's central courtyard. I was laying on my bedroom floor, reading a book, when I heard a noise and saw some movement. I looked up in just enough time to see a very unamused garter snake fall from the skylight onto the floor some six feet away and start slithering straight at me. My scream was so loud I almost broke my larynx. The whole nasty episode ended with my mom - a fellow snakeophobe - grabbing the thing with a pair of kitchen tongs while the two of us shrieked together like banshees. It was NOT my best moment.

I went out around sunset to admire my new lawn only to find a snake (the same one? a new one?) sunning himself under the newly-exposed porch. I took a rake and tried to toss him off my land but snakes don't fling as far as you'd want them to. Instead, it landed in the middle of the yard, coiled up, rose, and tried to take a big ol' chomp off the rake. I held back my scream and instinctively flung him into the street, where he immediately slithered into a storm drain and is now probably working at great lengths and expense to figure out how to snake up my toilet to bite my butt with gleeful abandon.

I got home tonight, now constantly looking straight down as I walk, when I noticed two of my neighbors surrounding his basement window well. He had just found THREE snakes hiding out down there, including one that had somehow made it inside the first of his two window panes. This is thoroughly unacceptable. If you're good with math, that makes 4 if not potentially 5 snake sightings in spitting vicinity of my yard in a 24-hour period. And my neighbor just told me, "Oh yeah, we get 'em all the time. They'll get in your basement window, just wait."

I'm not waiting. When I moved in, my dad replaced and insulated the basement window, so I called him up at light speed.

"DAD!" I said before he could even get a word out. "Can you promise me that no snake will get through my basement window and come say howdy while I'm watching TV?"

"Well," my dad replied. "Let me ask you a question. Now, these snakes that you've been seeing... would you say they're bigger or smaller than a molecule of air?"

"Umm... bigger?"

"Then stop worrying, because I sealed that window airtight."

There are times when it's good to have absolute and total blind faith in your father, and this is one of them. I am equipped to do MANY things in this life, but running a snake ranch is NOT one of them. As I type, I'm pretty sure I can hear them outside, speaking in parsel-tongue, conspiring to bite whomever mowed down their habitat.

Which is why I name-drop as promised and remind all snakes that the blame falls squarely on John at QC Quality Lawn Care. I'm just the dude who signs the checks. But if any of you snakes insist on requesting a meeting, I'll be available the next time I step out onto my lawn. How's December sound for you?

COLUMN: Royal Wedding

As a weekly columnist prone to writing about whatever's happened in my life over the past seven days, occasionally I worry about revealing TOO much. Not that I have any particularly embarassing skeletons in the closet or lead any kind of exciting double life -- but still, I can't help but feel that some things should simply remain private.

However, there's no good way to begin this story except to admit to you all that, in the wee morning hours of April 29th, I had bad gas.

So bad, in fact, that it woke me in the middle of the night. "Ugh," I simultaneously thought and said as I zombie-walked to the bathroom. By the time it was all over (a column I'll save for the next issue of Gastrointestinal Digest Monthly,) I sauntered back to bed far more awake than I ever cared to be at 4:30 a.m. That's why I decided to turn on the TV for a few minutes in hopes of getting lulled back to sleep.

And THAT, my friends, is how yours truly got an unintentional last-minute invitation to the Royal Wedding. The TV sprung to life at the exact moment Kate Middleton was entering Westminster Abbey, and by the time I fell back asleep, she was Mrs. Prince William Arthur Philip Louie Louie Me Gotta Go And The Revolution. And once again -- with all due apologies to ladies, Britons, and Elton John fans worldwide -- I just don't get it. But I think I've narrowed it down to a few select reasons, which I shall bestow upon you as an essay entitled...

Why Shane Doesn't Give A Flying Fascinator About The Royal Wedding

(1) I'm a guy. This means that I'm biologically predisposed to roll my eyes at any event featuring dresses, flowers and hats as major selling points. I'm just not a wedding kinda guy. Don't get me wrong -- when I get married, I'm going to care a heck of a lot about dresses and flowers -- but that's only because I know the future Mrs. Me enjoys that kinda stuff. But if it's a wedding that affects me in absolutely no way, shape, or form? Watching it unfold was about as exciting as watching paint dry. I found myself viewing it not unlike a NASCAR race -- waiting for any kind of trip, stumble, or misspoken name to liven things up. Sadly, the whole affair went as smooth and boring as I'd feared. Yawn. And as for the hats? No one can ever mock me again for my beloved ill-fitting Greek fisherman's cap, because the hats and fascinators on display that morning fell squarely into two camps: (a) things that looked like dead animals and (b) things that I'm pretty sure I saw Judy Jetson wear. If THAT'S what's passing for high fashion these days, my smelly cap should land me a GQ cover any day now.

(2) It's amateur hour for Anglophiles. For years, I used to run a website devoted to US fans of UK pop culture. I've got lifelong American friends who still to this day insert words like "loo" and "petrol" into everyday conversation. I used to stay up until 4 a.m. just to place mail orders with London record shops. If anybody's a fan of British culture around here, it's me. Yet last week, Americans were coming out of the woodwork to drink tea, wave the Union Jack, and cry over two people getting married a thousand miles away. There were girls in our office that held 3 a.m. Royal Wedding parties and talked endlessly about the Middleton clan as though they were on a first name basis with the entire extended family. When I used to DJ down in the District, we joked that no regulars ever came out on New Year's Eve. Same rule applies here. Let the amateurs have their royal wedding - come see me once you own the entire Smiths discography and can act out every Monty Python sketch from memory.

(3) What purpose doth the royal family even serve any more? Maybe I'd care more if these folks actually RAN the country they're supposed to represent, but they don't. As far as I can tell, the entire purpose of the royal family is to occasionally put on royal weddings. And if that's the case, well then I say "Brava!" Mission accomplished - it was a perfectly opulent pomp and pointless ceremony to befit such a pomp and pointless monarchy. Perhaps I'd have more of a vested interest in the whole affair if the Queen occasionally, oh I dunno, declared war on Iceland or something. And then she could force her army of knights into battle -- you know, such brave souls of combat like Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Sir Ian McKellan, and Sir Anthony Hopkins... and they all have to occasionally don swords and fight Bjork. Then maybe I'd care.

(4) Hi-definition ruined the magic. I have vague memories of the wedding of Prince Charles & Diana Spencer, though I hope I didn't wake up at 4:30 a.m. for that one, too. What I remember was the same sort of spell-binding, fairy-tale, gag-me-with-a-spoon regal splendor of this one, but with a bit of a difference. With Charles & Di, it really did seem like you were watching a movie and catching an illicit glimpse of a Cinderella world you'd never be a part of. THIS wedding, though, I enjoyed in crystal clear hi-definition -- and I think it stripped the magic right off the affair. Suddenly, Westminster Abbey seemed royally REAL. It wasn't a fairy tale. It was just regular folk with the same pock marks and balding heads as you and me. We got to see the entire wedding as though we were there -- and that's no place for common folk like us.

(5) But most importantly, I don't give a flying fascinator about the royal wedding because no one asked me to come DJ the reception. You'd think the royal wedding planners wouldn't have made such a terrible oversight, but it appears they forgot to have me come play "Y.M.C.A." for the bridal party. What would be more fun than teaching Queen Elizabeth how to shake her royal fanny to the Cha-Cha Slide? And let's be honest, nothing brings out regal splendor quite like a good Chicken Dance (some people certainly had the right hats for it, that's for sure.) And tell me they wouldn't have made a KILLING from some well-timed dollar dances, no? It's all a huge missed opportunity.

It's enough to give me a stomach ache. Wait, nope, that's just gas again.

COLUMN: Celebrity Apprentice

It's no real secret that I've had a long-standing, sordid, and emotional love affair with bad TV.

I grew up on a steady diet of "Knight Rider," "The A-Team," "BJ and the Bear," and "The Dukes of Hazzard." My favorite show as a kid was a swiftly-cancelled series called "Salvage 1," starring Andy Griffith as a junkman who builds a rocket out of scrap metal and flies it to the moon to harvest space junk. (No foolin'. Look it up.)

In college, bereft of cable, my friends and I would spend hours in the dorms watching the home shopping stylings of John Cremeans aka The Late Nite Doctor of Shopology. Just the other day, I reached an "I'm-too-lazy-to-find-the-remote" mode and ended up watching an entire afternoon's worth of "Sonny With A Chance" on the Disney Channel. My girlfriend can testify that she once caught me in midst of an entire afternoon of down-with-men Lifetime movies.

In other words, I know bad TV. The denizens of the D-List have long been my life's companions. Yet there's one major pitfall of lowest common denominator television that I have, until recently, managed to avoid.

I like to split reality TV into two categories: Classy and Trashy. On the classy side exist shows that I watch without shame: "American Idol," "The Amazing Race," paranormal shows, and anything involving deadliest catches and/or ice road truckers. On the other side? The shows even MY thick skin can't sit through: The Hills, Jersey Shore, teen moms, "real" housewives, and anything involving "celebrities" dating, skating, and/or dancing around.

That said, I've recently fallen under the spell of a show I would normally throw in the trash bin: the current season of "Celebrity Apprentice."

Have you guys seen this fabulous trainwreck yet? Surely by now you know how the show works. Twelve "celebrities" compete against each other for charity in a series of blatant product placements disguised as simple marketing tasks. At the end of every episode, the task results are assessed, resulting in one celebrity being "fired" by famed entrepreneur, hair maven, and (can I REALLY be saying this?) arguable GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.

This year, though, Trump's spotlight-hogging has taken a backseat to the wondrous shenanigans of the almost-perfect cast of celebrity has-beens and wanna-bes. In the mix this year? Former "View" co-host (and mega diva) Star Jones, "Real Housewives" star (and mega diva) Nene Leakes, singing sensation (and mega diva) Dionne Warwick, possible Martian (and mega diva) LaToya Jackson... get the pattern? On the men's side, you've got doting rock god Meat Loaf, hip hop mogul Lil Jon, nefarious "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch, and the always bat-poop crazy Gary Busey.

The result is the most hysterical television I've seen all season. Just the other day, Busey's insane antics caused poor grandfather-ly Meat Loaf to scream at him like a mental patient, while the claws have come out full throttle on the women's side and evidence mounts that Dionne Warwick might be the most evil person on the planet. When the sanest character turns out to be a rapper whose biggest contribution to society thus far is yellin "Yeeeeeeah!", you know it's a show worth watching.

The whole thing's got me thinking, though -- could it be even BETTER? Could there be an even better trainwreck of a cast to torment each other and The Donald to the brink of sanity? I think I've figured out the perfect mix. If I was casting director of the next season of Celebrity Apprentice, here's who I'd go for:

* LADY GAGA - A good chunk of the tasks thrown at celebrities involve putting them into embarassing, slightly awkward situations. But is it possible to embarass someone who wears a meat dress to the MTV awards? The only downfall is that every idea she'd bring to the table would have probably been done by Madonna a decade ago.

* ROSIE O'DONNELL - Why should only the CELEBRITIES have to squirm? Rosie and Trump's war of words have been going on for years now - let's let them duke it out in a boardroom cage match and make life rough for The Donald for once.

* MIKE TYSON - In case Rosie chickens out. I just want to see Donald Trump wag his finger at Tyson's face and tell him he's fired. He might not make it out of the boardroom with both ears intact.

* BILL CLINTON - To survive in The Apprentice, you've got to give good boardroom speech, and no-one's better at covering their own butt than our pal Bill. Say what you want about his presidency, the man might just be the best debater of this generation. Plus I just want to see him have to sell ice cream or make a painting or whatever ridiculous task Trump dishes out.

* PAUL LYNDE - Because a team just isn't a team without a snarky effeminate deviant, and no one did it better than our favorite center square. Just one problem -- he's long dead. Which means we need:

* RYAN BUELL, host of A&E's Paranormal State, to communicate with the ghost of Paul Lynde and be there just in case Trump challenges the team to rid a farmhouse of a demonic poltergeist. Hey, always be prepared, I say.

* MUAMMAR KADHAFI - "Muammar, you've been Project Manager of Libya for a record 42 years, and frankly, it's a friggin' mess. Muammar, you're fired." And you thought Trump would make a BAD president, didn't ya?

* KATIE HOLMES - Because of her exceptional leadership skills and business savvy and NOT because she's super cute because I clearly don't find her attractive because I clearly know my girlfriend reads this column. But when one's girlfriend makes one too many references to having a crush on a certain local weatherman (back off, Greg Dutra,) one feels slightly justified in making a passing Katie reference.

* OPRAH - Because it'd be fun to try and watch The Donald boss around someone with MORE money than him, wouldn't it?

* CHARLIE SHEEN - Because a tiger-blooded warlock armed with violent torpedos of truth might just have the winning edge in this circus.

Ah well, a fella can dream, eh? In the meantime, my money's on Lil Jon. Actually, my money's probably on a new present for my girlfriend to make up for calling Katie Holmes cute in print. Either way, you'll have to excuse me. I'm certain there's something horrible on TV that I need to be watching.


9:02 p.m. "Man, I wish there was someplace we could go and just sit around outside for a while."

It was Saturday night and me, Amy, and my best friend Jason had just left D'alessandro's in Rock Island with full bellies and good moods -- and it just seemed like a waste to end the night. Early spring is my absolute favorite time of the year. It's that small fragile window when you can be outside without humidity or spiders or mosquitos or moths or mayflies or all that other gross stuff they call "nature."

That was when Amy pointed out the obvious.

"Umm, duh," she said. "You DID buy a house. You have a porch now."

Wow. I DO have a porch now. Growing up in the country, our patio looked out on a serene view of a massive front yard, drifting hills of pasture, and nature aplenty. It was a midwestern paradise for some, I'm sure, but I never thought about hanging out there. If I was going to be outside, I wanted to look at something more exciting than grass.

When I first moved to college, my dorm window overlooked the parking lot, and I remember spending those first few nights away from home with the lights out, just staring out and people watching. In Rock Island, people watching is a way of life. You can drive around anywhere in town and spot folks on their porches just watching the world go by. Now, I've got a porch of my own, and that's where the three of us headed as soon as we got back.

9:12 p.m. Talk immediately turns towards the giant tree that grows in my front yard. It's majestic, but is it growing out over the road too low for passing tall trucks? Amy thinks maybe. Jason and I think it's fine.

9:14 p.m. Jason is now standing in the middle of the street, holding a 5' rake over his 7' frame to demonstrate that it touches the lowest tree limb at 12'. This is a nifty science experiment, except none of us know the height of the average truck. We decide that not enough trucks run down our street to care.

9:18 p.m. Amy: "What's the verb for when you invent something and then make it?" This is the intellectual high point of the entire evening.

9:20 p.m. We are now quabbling over whether "create," "produce," or "manufacture" is the best answer to this question.

9:22 p.m. A dude walks by, swearing into his cell phone -- but we rapidly realize he's not swearing INTO his phone, but AT his phone, which has apparantly failed to send a text message of some importance.

9:23 p.m. We agree that "manufacture" is definitely best. Trouble is, I can't remotely remember why she asked this in the first place.

9:25 p.m. Our two neighbors across the street couldn't be more different. House on the Right is a bit of a fixer-upper -- collapsed porch, overgrown lawn (already?!), and blocked windows emitting dim light from rooms in which I can only assume boiling vats of soup await curious neighborhood children. House on the Left is so immaculately landscaped that dark magic MUST be involved.

7:28 p.m., Three Days Into the Future: I just went to type, "our two neighbors across the street," but it came out "our two neighbors across the hall." Parts of my brain still live in my old apartment, methinks.

9:28 p.m. We notice that behind the two houses and across an alley, there's activity in an upstairs window, but it's too far away to see anything except a blob that may or may not be in a shiny red dress. Amy lectures us that leering into a stranger's window isn't just creepy, it might actually be illegal. Point taken, but are you a peeping tom if you're too far away to even ascertain the sex of your target? It's up for debate.

9:35 p.m. A guy walks by and asks us if we have seven cents. I'm pretty sure the same guy asked me for seven cents over five years ago down in the District. I hope he hasn't been seeking the same seven cents all these years.

9:40 p.m. Red Blob keeps repeating the same motions over and over again: She steps in front of the window, and then back... and to the left. Back... and to the left. It's like watching the peeping tom version of the Zapruder film. We try not to stare, but it's the only motion at the moment, and it's red and shiny. But what on Earth is he/she doing? The cha-cha slide?

9:45 p.m. You know a car stereo is impressive when you can clearly hear song lyrics while it's parked at a gas station over a block away. A rapper ensures us that it's alright to smoke narcotics because "that's how it's supposed to be when you're living young and wild and free." I, meanwhile, wonder if I should take a Claritin.

9:47 p.m. Amy heads inside. We worry she's become bored of the porch life until we realize she's running around the house, performing every mundane task she can think of to see if ANY of them involve the back-and-to-the-left motion of Red Blob. "Maybe she's doing dishes... oddly." Are you a peeping tom if you ask your girlfriend if she knows where the telephoto lens for your camera is? The answer is a definite yes and we think twice.

9:50 p.m. Awesome! My wireless works on my porch. Amy and Jason talk about how nice nature is or something lame like that. I, meanwhile, watch highlights of tonight's NASCAR race.

9:55 p.m. The three of us are staring squinty-eyed at Red Blob when a Rock Island police cruiser drives by. The officer waves and asks how we're doing. The answer? SHAMEFULLY, that's how we do. Thank God I didn't grab that camera. Time to look at ANYTHING but Red Blob. Our choice? The black blob that appears to be hanging on the wall behind Red Blob. We are sad, sad people. But what IS that thing?

10:01 p.m. An opossum wanders across the street, onto my lawn, looks at us, and clearly says with his eyes that we don't belong here. We decide to start packing up the lawn chairs.

10:05 p.m. In a flurry of activity, Red Blob shuts the window and turns out the light. Sadly, this is the most entertaining Saturday night any of us have had in an awfully long time.

7:00 p.m., One Day Into The Future. Amy asks me what my column's going to be about. I tell her it's about our exciting night on the porch. She tells me definitely NOT to make us look like creepy pervs who like to leer in our distant neighbor's window. I tell her not to worry. I just like my porch.