Tuesday, September 27, 2011

COLUMN: Fireworks

Part of the fun of having a regular newspaper column is that, for a few fleeting moments each week, I get to feel like a bonafide influential member of the counter-culture. If the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword, then so shall I wield it as a sounding board for America, having a laugh at The Man whilst righting the wrongs of societal oppression.

But Hunter S. Thompson I am not. I'm not a sounding board for the counter-culture. I'm just a pudgy 40-year-old guy who likes to write about laundry and cats. Truth is, I don't really have a rebellious bone in my body. I've never been in real trouble with Johnny Law and I've never stuck it to The Man.

In fact, my entire criminal record (other than a speeding ticket or two) can be summed up on two fingers:

(1) Galesburg, 1987. Me and my friend Will were cruising the strip in my car on a Saturday night when we spotted a friend of ours pass us in the other direction. We decided to turn around to catch up, so I hooked a right into the nearest driveway. That driveway just happened to be Galesburg's largest downtown cemetery. The little paved drive was too narrow for a quick turnaround, so as I struggled to find a route out, I didn't even notice the three police cruisers that quickly peeled up to block our exit. It turned out the cemetery gate we turned into was supposed to be closed at night, so the police were rather concerned to find it open, let alone us toodling about inside. Unbeknownst to us, the cemetery had recently been hit with a plague of vandalism, so the cops naturally assumed we were up to no good. Thankfully, my friend Will set them straight:

Cop: What are you boys doing in here?
Friend Will: Umm... looking for a friend.
Cop: And is your friend dead?

Eventually, we got out of there with a warning, but if any graves were discovered vandalized come morning, they'd be paying us a visit. When I told my dad what had happened, we had to restrain him from jumping into the car and keeping armed watch over the broken cemetery gate for the rest of the night. Luckily, everything must have been A-OK, because we never heard back.

(2) In college, I was in a fraternity. A part of me would like to think this was because I was a fun and hedonistic party animal. Truth be told, I'm pretty sure I only got in because I was THE only skilled DJ on campus and they needed free labor. While my buddies would do what you'd expect them to do at frat parties, I'd be the sober dude in the kitchen, playing records on a ramshackle sound system hooked up to the real party happening two rooms away. It was a glamorous job.

Well, flash forward a few years after graduation, and I got an urgent call from the then-president of my frat. They had a party scheduled that night and their DJ had just called in sick. Even though I was an alumni, they knew I still lived in town and convinced me to come lend a hand. As I walked into the house, a couple kids were walking out. They told me they were from out-of-town visiting friends on campus and asked me how to get to Taco Bell. Despite balancing a couple crates of records and nearly throwing my back out, I stood there and gave them directions.

It turns out they weren't from out of town. They were undercover police. Ten minutes after I started playing music, the house was full-on raided by a dozen or so uniformed officers. Worse yet, old alumni Shane turned out to be the only one of legal drinking age in the whole house. It was NOT my best moment. Happily, a VERY lenient judge threw out most of the charges and to this day, the only real blight on my record is a $50 fine paid for "Frequenting An Unlicensed Liquor Establishment." Moral of the story: When a house full of drunken college kids asks you to DJ? Don't.

So that's it. Those are my only times running afoul of authority. Not exactly the kind of savory rap sheet that one wants from one's underground folk hero. I suppose I could play it off like those were the only times I've been CAUGHT, but truth be told, I'm a relatively boring, law-abiding citizen. But come every 4th of July, I can't help but think about one instance when I operated a tad bit outside the rules.

I speak, of course, about the hypothetical time a decade or so ago that me and hypothetical Friend Jason might have hypothetically purchased some hypothetical fireworks in Wisconsin and brought them back across the border. In the grand pantheon of criminal masterplans, this was NOT a genius move.

For starters, when one makes the conscious decision to brazenly break the law, one should probably pick a law that doesn't involve launching illuminated signal flares into the night sky. You can't exactly shoot off fireworks stealthily. It's pretty much a homing beacon that says, "Attention law enforcement! We are doing something naughty. For your ease in arresting us, we provide a convenient trail of light and smoke."

For another, we hadn't exactly thought the plan through. At that point in our lives, both of us lived in apartments. How, exactly, would we find a locale suitable for sending explosives into the night sky?

Which is why, on that hypothetical night, we ended up on an isolated gravel road some ten miles south of town in an area so pitch-black you could barely see the fuses to light them. In the event that we DID end up blowing off a finger, we had NO CLUE where the nearest hospital was, let alone the nearest town.

And we darn near ended up needing one. Amongst our hypothetical contraband was a small disc with a fuse. Like I said, it was way too dark to see any instructions, so like the nimrods that we were, we just set it down and lit the fuse to see what would happen. Answer: the disc shot up about five feet in the air like a bounding mine, hovered, and then began violently shooting out wicked projectiles in all compass directions while we dove for our lives. Why would anyone invent such a nightmare and why did I buy it? Either (a) we set it up wrong, or (b) there's a Chinese plot afoot to kill and/or maim as many Westerners as possible.

Clearly, we were hypothetical IDIOTS, and had we not run from that death contraption like ninnies, we'd be missing eyes to this day. Don't follow in our footsteps. We could have hurt ourselves, or worse yet, set some poor farmer's fields ablaze. There are people out there kooky enough to become licensed at handling fireworks, so let them run the risk of losing a finger or two. Of course, I offer this warning several days AFTER your 4th of July celebrations, so it's probably too late. But that's just the kind of rebel I am, I guess.

COLUMN: Flood (albeit a tiny one)

(Not my basement, thank God.)

"I need to show you something in the basement," said my girlfriend. Uh oh.

My mind raced. What possible scenarios could be afoot? I've seen my share of horror movies and I know when someone wants to show you something in the basement, it's seldom a good thing. It's usually more like, "Let me show you... THIS CLEAVER," and that's when the music starts going "WEET! WEET! WEET!" and someone says "redrum" and it all goes higgeldy-piggeldy.

But hey, when a cute girl says she needs to show you something in the basement, I suppose it's worth the risk of running into a hockey mask-wearing psychopath. Maybe "I need to show you something" is code for some subterranean PG-13 SMOOCHY SMOOCHY TIME, and I, for one, do not rescind invites to smoochy-smoochy time.

But her voice didn't sound smoochy-smoochy. It sounded serious, if not scolding. It was the kind of "let me show you something" that one would say to one's dog before going, "Look what you did! BAAAAAD Shane! BAAAAAAAAAD Shane!"

I started to panic. The night before, I had been down there doing laundry. My girlfriend doesn't have a washer or dryer at her place, so I let her use mine (and if all of MY laundry gets done in the process? Bonus.) But the night before, I had needed to wash some stuff, so I threw a load in -- and I bet I screwed something up.

Once upon a time, laundry was a simple task. My old apartment complex had a washer/dryer that I'm pretty sure pre-dated the invention of fabric. It had 3 settings: hot, warm, and cold -- and warm was broken. But that was okay, because I'm a boy, and Boy Laundry is simple, logical stuff. If it's white? Hot. If it's not? Cold. Easy peasy. But now that I've got my own house with its own washer and dryer, there's like 28 different settings and none make sense. As God is my witness, I'm now 40 years old and haven't the slightest clue what "permanent press" is.

And that's me handling Boy Laundry. On those very few times that I've been tasked with Girl Laundry, it's a mind-melting free-for-all. Half of her clothes pile is unidentifiable (hat? legwarmer? timing belt?), and the other half I have no clue if you're supposed to wash it in cold, hot, or warm. Maybe all her clothes call for the little setting that's simply indicated with an asterisk that I presume must mean "magic." Plus, ALL of her clothes feel so dainty that you half expect the fabric to crumble in your hands. How can I expect it to survive a wash cycle?

Ergo, I usually just leave her laundry in a pile and do mine instead. It's not that I don't want to help out, I just don't want to hit the wrong button and cause half my girlfriend's wardrobe to shrink or fall apart. As I walked down the basement stairs, I was envisioning her about to show me a dryer full of pink tidy whities or a wardrobe newly resized for Barbie's Dream House.

Instead, we got downstairs and she pointed straight down. Uh oh.

If you're a regular reader of this column, you'll know that I've spent the better part of this past year finishing my basement. And by "I," I mean my dad, whose vision of retirement might NOT have included indentured servitude to his incredibly grateful son. What was once a concrete slab floor is now a paradise of waterproofing, foam, pads, and carpeting. The only spot in the basement left untouched is the small area housing the furnace, hot water heater, and drain... and as I looked down at that tiny concrete oasis, I saw a small pool of water on the floor. Uh oh, indeed.

Above it run most of the pipes for the house, so I started feeling around to find the leak. That's when I noticed with some horror that the small pool of water didn't seem to be coming from above, but rather cascading out from underneath the carpet. BIG uh-oh.

I looked across the basement and there was my culprit. Against the back wall, the washing machine may have looked innocent, but even from far away, I could see it's catchpan brimming over with water. The leak was rapidly turning half of my basement into the Tide With Bleach Alternative Sea.

I raced over and shut off the water flow to the washer. The carpeting underneath was soaked to the bone and water was running under the carpet to the drain across the basement -- directly under the 30 or so cardboard boxes of unimportant junk I had yet to unpack from the move.

"Nooooooooooooooo!" I said as I started grabbing boxes and running to high ground. Happily, we noticed just in time to save such prized possessions as my Sega Dreamcast and Casio keyboard (whew.)

As a Congrats-For-Buying-Your-First-House gift, my dad had handed down a space-age wet/dry vac that had, until now, been sitting in the corner looking like R2D2's meaner cousin. I pulled it down, plugged it in, and set forth trying to suck the standing water out of the washer's catchpan. Just one problem: I was uninformed that this particular wet-dry vac had TWO places to attach the hose: one to suck and one to blow.

Sure enough, I stuck the hose in the catchpan, turned the vac on, and blew out an epic tidal wave that all at once showered dirty sudsy water all over the ceiling, walls, boxes, and anything else declaring residency in my basement, up to and including one of my cats who might need lifelong therapy from the double shock of the vacuum noise AND instant shower. Home improvement is NOT my thing, people.

Eventually I got the hose sorted out and sucked up as much water as I could. Then my dad drove up and had a meeting of the minds with my girlfriend's dad, who just happens to be an appliance repairman. I can't say how it went, since I was at work, but between my dad's inquisitive nature and her dad's knack for detail, my girlfriend reports that she now knows more about the internal workings of a washing machine than anyone EVER needs to and that I "owe her bigtime."

For now, it seems fixed, and the fate of my carpet now lies in a cat-eating industrial fan and a dehumidifer that's getting a serious workout. At least, thanks to Tide with Febreze, this is the nicest-smelling flood one can imagine. I'm lucky because I know basement flooding is a way of life for many Quad Citians, and my drama was pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. Still, the next time my girlfriend says she needs to show me something in the basement, I might just run from the house screaming, even at the risk of smoochy-smoochy time.


They say that once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget.

Dear "They,"
Love, Shane.

When I was a kid, I loved to ride my bike. Well, okay: when I was a kid, I loved sitting in air conditioning watching HBO and playing Ultima IV on my Apple II. But every once in a while, my parents would mandate that I unplug myself from the information superhighway and go (gasp) play outdoors.

As far as I was concerned, the outdoors was little more than a hot and humid sanctuary for snakes, bugs, bees, things that suck your blood, and things that just plain suck. Quickly, I discovered my favorite outdoor pasttime was riding on my bike -- that way, if any of that pesky nature decided to come a-callin', I could get on my bike and just pedal away to safety. As a result, I pretty much lived on that bike whenever I went outside.

But I also had an over-protective mother who assumed that since her son was now in possession of wheeled transport, he would immediately ride it into traffic kamikaze-style. Let's not, at this point, forget that I grew up on a 50-acre lot off a tiny paved road in rural Galesburgian nowheresville, and the nearest thing that could even be loosely defined as "traffic" was about 1.5 miles away from the house. Still, my mom felt it best that I not be allowed to ride my bike on the "hard road" without parental supervision. This meant I had to stick to the gravel driveways, yards, and hills of Brown Manor.

The upside of this dilemma was that I actually kinda got pretty good at off-road biking. I would set up mock courses and hold time trials. I could take downhill corners at wicked speeds and live to tell the tale. On our farm, I could ride circles around my friends. For a while there, I actually had leg muscles.

Then I turned 16, got my driver's license, and that was the very last time I ever climbed aboard my bike... until now.

To put it mildly, I'm sick of my ever-expanding belly. I've now reached the age where I can no longer sit on my couch, watch TV all day, and expect to maintain my socially acceptable slightly chunky figure. Over the past five years, I've gone from out-of-shape to clinically obese to Fatty McButterPants. My official wake-up call was when I had to recently go buy pants at a Fat-Dude store, and that's not cool.

(And, FYI, if you own a Fat-Dude store, why would you employ a sales clerk who looks like he just stepped out of an ad for Men's Fitness? I had to talk to this guy and be like, "Hey, can I have the key to the fitting room to try on these pants?" but what I FELT like I was saying was: "ME LIKE COOKIES! FATTY NEED KEY SO HE CAN TRY ON SMALL TENT WITH LEGHOLES! CAN YOU HELP FATTY FIT THROUGH DOOR?")

Obviously, me and exercise are not the best of buddies, but something needs to be done before the news of my death includes the phrase "the body had to be extricated from the house with a crane." That's when it hit me: Once upon a time, I'm pretty sure I actually enjoyed bike riding. Let's give it another shot.

I had mentioned to my mom a few times that I'd like to get my bike up here, and every time she'd say, "I'm not sure if it'll fit in the car, I'll have to talk to your father" before swiftly changing the subject. I recently figured out that it was her same over-protective streak flaring up, and her belief that the entire Quad Cities is one big "hard road" for me to get killed upon. So the other day, I circumvented Mom and went straight to Dad.

"Sure, I know right where it is! Let me tune her up and I'll bring it with next time we visit!"

Two weeks later, my Schwinn Sidewinder, looking good for her age, was sitting in my garage.

Eagerly, I jumped aboard... and almost fell headfirst onto the pavement. This did NOT feel right. For one, it was SO FAR OFF THE GROUND. HOW did I ride this thing as a kid without the constant fear of death? The bike was tall, the pedals were tiny, the tires incomprehensibly narrow... this wasn't an exercise tool, it was a deathtrap. That's when I looked up and saw a kid whistling to himself as he pedaled past me with no hands and not a care in the world. I CAN DO THIS.

I took the bike to the grassiest section of my lawn. "No," my girlfriend chided me, "get out here in the alley."

"Nope," I said. "I need a better cushion than concrete right now."

Bravely, I pushed off, made one full rotation of the pedals, weebled, wobbled, and ALMOST fell down. I turned around and did it again. And then again. And again. After a few minutes, I was marginally convinced that I could keep the bike upright, so I took it onto pavement. It's a good thing there's seldom traffic in our alley, because I weaved from one side to the other, but somehow I kept the bike afloat. The only drawback is that, in tuning up the bike, my dad must've gotten grease on the brake pads, because every time I hit the brakes, it makes a noise like a Canadian goose being horribly, horribly violated. But I stayed upright.

After a couple days of back-and-forthing in the alley, I finally got brave enough to go on my first bike ride with my girlfriend. We just rode around the neighborhood, I'd say a total of maybe ten blocks. By the time I got home, I was covered in sweat from head to toe and my hands were numb from gripping the handlebars as tight as humanly possible. Worse yet, I climbed off the bike and... how do I put this in a family paper... let's just say it felt like I'd just been on the losing end of a fight with a rabid feral proctologist, and my particular losing end needed an extra couch cushion for the next 48 hours.

I walked up the back steps to the house. Well, no, I guess I didn't. I got TO the back steps, I know that. And my brain definitely issued the command to my legs to step UP the back steps. But my legs just kind of plodded forward in a non-vertical manner and I almost fell face-first onto said back steps. Eventually I made it to air conditioning and recovered.

And then I did it again. And again. And again. And when I get done writing this column, I'm gonna go do it yet again. I'm up to about 20 blocks now before I think I'm about to die, so we're making progress (although I really DO need to look into getting a padded seat - how on EARTH did I not spend my childhood walking funny?) Once I get a little less wobbly, I'll try the bike path down by the river. Heck, maybe I'll even bike to work one of these days.

So maybe the adage is right and you DO never forget how to ride a bike... there's just a slight learning curve for the coordinationally-challenged. Wish me luck... and please, if you're driving and see a sweaty mound of fat cycling in front of you, give me a wide berth. I'd hate to prove my mom right.