Monday, October 10, 2011


I'm not the kind of person who's easily predisposed to violence.

Heck, I'm not EVER predisposed to violence. In fact, should the situation present itself, I wouldn't have the slightest clue what to "do" in a violent manner. This probably isn't the brightest thing to admit in a widely-distributed local newspaper column, but I'm not too worried about it. Unless you're a really big fan of Carmex and/or charmingly ironic New Kids on the Block keychains, there are FAR better targets for mugging out there, trust me. Besides, I might not be able to HURT you, but I can definitely scream loud and long like a wee schoolgirl.

I've seen neutered and declawed housecats with better hand-to-hand combat skills than myself. I am a pacifist, a non-arguer, a non-confrontational weenie who believes in the inherent goodness of human nature and tries his hardest to be as nice as possible to anyone and everyone. That said, an interesting thing happened to me the other morning.

I woke up in a BAD mood. A seethingly bad mood. The kind of bad mood where my only hope was to make it through the work day talking to as absolute few people as I possibly could. It had been a LOUSY weekend. The kind of weekend that has no place being discussed in a column like this because it'd just bring everybody down. And now it was Monday, and here I was, getting to work in the nick of time and just hoping to slide into my desk and nurse my coffee as unnoticed as possible.

I got onto the elevator with one of my favorite co-workers -- but on THAT morning, I didn't have favorites. I just had an aching desire to avoid eye contact and most forms of interpersonal communication altogether. I even went for the tried-and-true method of human avoidance: I took out my cell phone and pretended as though the most important text message of my life had just arrived. But all the while, my brain was just thinking three words over and over again like a mantra: Leave. Me. Alone.

No such luck.

I've worked with this co-worker for over 15 years, and I love her to tears, I really do. It wasn't her fault. She didn't know I was a posterboy for Snuffleupagus Anonymous that morning. But she DID think it was a great time to say the following:

"Wow, you sure are getting a lot of grey hairs."

Like I said, I'm not a violent person. Violence isn't even a concept in my brain. Yet at that moment, I kinda wanted to put my fist through something. Not my co-worker, mind you -- but something that would make a statement, like maybe the elevator door. In my mind, I would slam my fist into it and it would cave in like in the Hulk movies. Then I'd cut loose with a primal scream and perhaps turn all green and muscle-y.

Of course, in reality, I just stood there, put on a fake grin, and made some kind of gutteral "heh heh" that would hopefully pass for a socially acceptable response. Had I actually HIT the elevator door -- should I actually even KNOW how to "hit" something, which I absolutely don't -- the elevator door wouldn't cave in. It wouldn't even bruise. My HAND, on the other hand, would have shattered like dainty porcelain. Why? Because I'm a wuss -- and now I'm apparantly an OLD wuss at that.

Grey hair is just NOT cool in my world. I don't wanna be the old guy. I'm just not ready for it yet. It's no secret that most of my life's passions are clearly being designed for a demographic I'm no longer part of. DJ booths, indie music, video games... these are clubs that I'm no longer supposed to be a member of. At some point, I'm supposed to start thinking that video games are too violent, too fast, and too silly for someone my age. My musical tastes, meanwhile, are supposed to stop at some arbitrary year along the road of life so that I'll flock to an oldies station. Thus far, that's not happened.

I can't get around the fact that I'm 40 years old. But at least I don't think I look the part quite yet. And I know that sounds vain, which is really weird, because vanity isn't something I'm usually concerned with. I'm an out-of-shape uncoordinated oaf -- and I'm pretty much cool with that. Call me fat all you want, so long as you don't call me OLD and fat.

Why the huge concern with age? Your guess is good as mine. I've had a lot of women tell me that grey hair adds character and makes you look distinguished. But there's no "distinguished" when you're sitting around in a baggy t-shirt, eating frozen pizza, and playing Call of Duty. "Distinguished" folks go to supper clubs and discuss politics. Well, my friend and I tried that action the other night and it's just not for us. The place looked like a funeral home, the food was nearly tasteless, and any awkward conversation we attempted was drowned out by the multitude of oxygen machines attached to other patrons.

I will NOT go gracefully into that good night. Frankly, it's unfair biology that hairlines turn grey and recede from the head while new crops rise to life in your nostrils and ears. I caught myself in the mirror the other day, and the hairs that were sprouting out from my nose looked like a bad Star Trek special effect. That's why I spent a few minutes in the bathroom, diligently plucking out nose hairs (yes, I know, NOT recommended,) which of course made my nose plug up so I walked around all morning like I had a cold...

Which was PART of my bad weekend. The rest of it was when I was DJing at a downtown nightclub later that night and a customer came up and wanted to hear "something from the 80's." When I asked what song, she replied, "Your choice. Just something retro that we'd enjoy. You know what to play -- you're no spring chicken yourself."

I know, I know -- I should just suck it up and count my blessings. I made it to 40, which is more than some people even get. And while I may have "a lot" of grey hairs, grey hair is better than NO hair, and besides, they've yet to take over completely. When they do, hopefully I'll handle it with grace and dignity and a bare minimal amount of hands shattered against elevator doors. If I wanna play video games and DJ hip-hop when I'm 70, who really cares? In the meantime, I promise to shoot for sunnier Mondays and fighting the good fight against age. And if all else fails, like it did the other morning, I can go to my desk, take out a pencil, and break it in half in an act of random and senseless violence. Sure, it may have taken a couple tries, but it felt gooood.

COLUMN: Baby Fever

I'm really worried, people.

I first noticed it in her eyes the other day. I didn't want to say anything because I was too afraid of the truth. I couldn't admit it to myself, but I knew something was wrong. My girlfriend just wasn't acting herself. Little did I know that it was the beginnings of a medical crisis that could change our lives forever.

I was right. It turns out that my girlfriend has an acute case of... baby fever. This is NOT a good thing.

I suppose she's had it for a long time. For as long as I've known her, she's loved kids. I mean, she's a first-grade teacher, so she'd BETTER love kids. (Though, come to think of it, I'm pretty sure that MY first grade teacher HATED children. True story: instead of a time-out corner, if you acted up in HER class, you had to sit under a dark cardboard refrigerator box that smelled of pee. I was never a fan.)

Ever since we've been together, I've seen my girlfriend go ga-ga for babies and wee kids that she spots in restaurants. She'll sit there and make faces at them and laugh and coo and I'm fine with all this because it gives me more time to peruse the appetizer menu. As for the babies? Well, sure, I guess they're cute and all... but the minute I take a gander is the time when they'll decide to spit up or put their finger up their nose or pick up something off the ground and eat it.

I guess I don't understand why both science and religion inform us that human beings are the smartest and most superior race on the planet, yet our offspring need to endure years of training to understand that food goes in the mouth-hole and pee-pee goes in the potty. My girlfriend, on many an occasion, has made claim that my two cats are, for lack of a better word, stupid. And as much I love my cats, she's pretty much correct in her assessment. Yet even in their dumbest moments as wee kittens, my cats knew to hike on down to the litterbox if they were plotting a doodie. The only thing human babies know how to do is occasionally look cute whilst emitting disturbing amounts of disturbing things from pretty much every hole in their bodies. I don't get it.

I just sort of assumed that we'd be together for a few years, work our way into engagement and marriage, and maybe by then I'd be prepped to handle a gooey, phlegmy, urine-soaked progeny or two. But then the unthinkable happened:

One of her best friends got pregnant.

This has been a learning experience for me. Primarily, I've learned that baby-crazed females require a wide berth, a lot of patience, and the ability to develop a repertoire of sincere responses like "mm hmm" to be used often and repeatedly. But this has already gotten me into trouble -- I zigged when I shoulda zagged. I weebled when I shoulda wobbled. I "mm-hmm"-ed when Amy asked if she could throw her friend a baby shower in my basement.

A basement might not sound like the warmest, most relaxing environment for a gaggle of girls, but we're talking about MY basement. For the past year, I (and as always, "I" means my dad, who spends most of his time in indentured servitude to me) have been working tirelessly to turn my basement into a multi-media respite, a testosterone-fueled nerd paradise... the man-cave of all man-caves. It's nearly done. All I need are a few more speakers, some ethernet cable, and a couch just WAITING for a permanent indentation in the shape of my butt.

But how does my man-cave get inaugurated? By looking like the place where Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite go to purge their sugar and spice and everything nice. I walked downstairs on the eve of the party to find... lollipops. Pastel hues of pink and blue. Little ornamental cakes with little ornamental frosting. Balloons. Flowers. CUTENESS everywhere. Shudder.

I was told not to worry. While the girl gaggle was downstairs doing whatever girls do at baby showers, I was promised an afternoon upstairs of relaxation without interruption. But do you think this came to be? Nope. Not when a couple of the invitees surprised us by bringing THEIR children... which resulted in me being becoming the de facto babysitter of the gala. Little did I know I'd spend the next two hours saying phrases like, "Err, no no. We don't take the game controller and throw it at your brother, little dude." I barely survived with my sanity, and it took days before my man-cave was back to its drab neutral earth tones that bring me solace. A pile of deflating balloons in its corner still serves as a reminder of its once-hellish past.

So now it's a waiting game until my girlfriend's friend pops out her screaming, crying, adorable little phlegm factory. And she wants Amy in the delivery room when it happens. I'm praying the sight is so gross that it creeps her out a little, but I'm going to guess that it'll be a magical experience that'll take baby fever to an altogether new level. I'm just hoping that it doesn't happen on a Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday night -- because those are the nights Amy babysits for extra cash, and guess who gets to be the on-call babysitter du jour? My man-cave's destined to be a nursery before I know it.

In the meantime, the girls are a-twitter running around buying last minute baby essentials. Today at lunch, I found out she bought a car seat and a book for the as-yet-to-technically-exist human-ling. I want to be supportive, I really do. I thought long and hard about what I could bring to the conversation. I chose this:

"A book? It won't be able to read for at least four years, right? And a car seat? Already? Don't you want to wait and make sure it doesn't come out with, like, 8 legs or something? That'll be a waste of money if she has an octo-baby, I'm just sayin'."

For future reference, this is NOT the right thing to say.

Don't worry, I'm sure her friend's baby will come out with the correct number of everything and be all super-cute and make everyone gush and goo and talk in REALLY silly baby voices and cause my girlfriend to go from baby fever to baby pneumonia and then it'll be my time to put up or shut up, I guess. For now, I'm okay watching others live the baby experience. Like last weekend, when we were at this party, and there was this little guy there who clearly had just learned to walk, and he was waddling around, wearing a pair of oversized sunglasses, and came up to us with the dopiest little smile on his face and he was just the cutest little k...



I'm somewhat of an expert when it comes to the criminal justice system. I don't mean to brag, but I've seen at least 200 episodes of "Law and Order." When it comes to murder, I know how things go down:

A body is found. The victim -- a pillar of the community whose tragic death shocks the neighborhood -- is loved by everyone. Then the police investigate and discover that the victim is a philandering drug abuser with secret lives, shady business dealings, multiple spouses, a fixation on the underground world of dog fighting, and/or one, if not many, shockingly deviant fetishes. Suspicion will immediately fall on the most likely suspect, who, after a short commercial break, will always be completely exonerated of the crime. The REAL murderer is always the least likely suspect and/or best actor on the show. From there, it's up to Jack McCoy to put the criminal away while teaching us valuable lessons about morality and ethics by ending every episode with an overstated but unsaid: "we win... but at what cost?"

Reality never works that way.

The same fiery addiction for bad TV like "Law and Order" is what led me one channel-flipping Sunday to an HBO documentary called "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills." This documentary would grab me so hard that researching this case would become one of my favorite pastimes. After two decades of confusion, condemnation and frustration, the case "closed" last week in the same unjust manner in which it began -- but that's what you come to expect when you're a supporter of the West Memphis Three.

On the afternoon of May 6, 1993, a search team discovered the bodies of three 8-year-old boys in a muddy wooded creekbed in the Robin Hood Hills neighborhood of West Memphis, Arkansas. It was a tragic and horrible crime that shocked the sleepy community, and local police were eager to make an arrest.

Suspects were plentiful. Two local teenagers with a history of drug arrests suspiciously packed up town and left four days after the bodies were found. When the two were given polygraphs, both indicated deception when they denied involvement in the crime. Reports also came in from a nearby restaurant that a man had shown up covered in mud and blood and locked himself into the ladies restroom for over 45 minutes.

Instead, though, the police focused their suspicion on a local boy -- 18-year-old Damien Echols. Based on the murder scene, investigators theorized that the boys had been killed as part of a Satanic or cult ritual, and if there was one person in West Memphis who had cultivated a reputation for the occult, it was Echols.

I don't pretend to know anything about the occult, but I do know a thing or two about rebellious teenagers. When I was in high school, a teen dance club opened downtown. As one of the regular DJs at that club, I had a front row seat to the year punk rock hit Galesburg. It started with a group of kids from Peoria who drove out to the club. Within days, the craze had hit our school.

Seemingly mild-mannered teens suddenly dressed in torn clothes, safety pins, and mohawk hairdos. It was adolescent rebellion at its finest, and our newfound punks wore it with pride. One of them was my friend Brian, who decided one day that the easiest road from nerd to cool was a can of green hair dye and a Dead Kennedys t-shirt. I'll never forget the day we were at his house and spotted his mom not-so-discretely reading a self-help book, "Help! My Son Is A Punk Rocker!"

Soon, rumors swirled all over school. So-and-so is a devil worshipper. So-and-so sacrifices chickens. All I know is that it would have made an excellent Sociology 101 paper. As a fringe member of this newfound scene, I knew the truth. This was just another way for kids to tick off their parents and assert their individuality. Another of my friends announced she was Wiccan and bought a handful of spell books and candles. Today she's probably a rep for Partylite. She called herself a witch back then, but last I heard, she's living in Chicago with a husband and a doctorate.

That same teenage rebellion grabbed Damien Echols. He had long hair, dressed in all black, read horror novels, told people he was a pagan, and listened to heavy metal music. And that, apparantly, was enough for police to focus their suspicions. Within days, Echols and everyone in his circle were brought in for questioning.

Eventually, the police questioned a neighbor, Jessie Misskelley. Echols claimed they'd never met, but after being interrogated for 18 hours straight, Misskelley CONFESSED. He told police that he, Echols, and Daniel Baldwin had stalked, tortured, and killed the three boys in the woods. Arrest warrants were soon issued.

The trials were quick. Prosecutors used Misskelley's confession along with testimony of classmates who claimed Echols had bragged about the crime. A knife was found behind Baldwin's house that could have been used in the killings. Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison. Echols? Death row.

But things started not to fit. Witnesses recanted their statements and blamed police intimidation. Forensic experts proved that the supposed knife marks on the victims could have been bites from animals. Absolutely no DNA evidence from the crime scene implicated any of the three alleged murderers. As for Misskelley's confession? It turns out that he got hardly any of the facts right, and his IQ of 72 (borderline mentally challenged) made him a easy candidate for police coercion.

After the HBO documentaries aired, the public began to rally. Celebrities like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson became involved. "Free the WM3" became a rallying cry and popular t-shirt slogan. I should know - there's one hanging in my closet.

Finally, Echols' defense won the right to a hearing on the lack of DNA evidence. That hearing was to occur this coming December. Knowing that the tides might be about to turn, prosecutors made a surprise offer. On August 19th, after 18 years behind bars, the West Memphis Three walked out as free men. The condition? They had to take what's called an Alford plea: no contest to murder charges, conceding that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict while reserving the right to maintain their innocence.

The good news is that the West Memphis Three are free, something I never thought I'd see. The BAD news is that they essentially had to plead guilty to achieve it, thus ending the police investigation of the case and finding out what really happened to the boys.

It's a bittersweet ending to a bittersweet case. Do I think the WM3 murdered those boys? Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. What I've rallied against for years, though, is the way those kids were railroaded into guilty verdicts on little more than bad reputations and Satanic panic. Hopefully one day the truth will come out and real justice will be had for three little boys and three grown men. For now, I'll take the Jack McCoy ending: We won, but at what cost?

Friday, October 07, 2011

COLUMN: Labels

I like to wear a lot of hats in life -- newspaper columnist, telesales representative, disc jockey, boyfriend, son, homeowner. But despite my many interests, there's ONE pigeonhole that you can ALWAYS find me in, regardless of what particular hat I'm wearing that day:

I am a music nerd.

I blame my parents. Apparantly my mom used to take headphones, put them around her pregnant belly, and pump up the jams so that I could have a fierce little rave in utero. My folks had an 8-track player in their bedroom, and I can still picture my dad cranking Santana into floor-shaking terrain. My mom, on the other hand? Well, let's just say my ultimate point of mortification was when it hit 3:00 and I hadn't even made it out the doors when I, and the rest of my junior high, could hear my mom belting along to Barbara Streisand on the car radio.

From their love of music came my own. I was just a little kid when I got my own console stereo, and it rapidly became an only child's best friend. I was the only kid in middle school with a subscription to Rolling Stone.

But quite often, Rolling Stone would heap praise on bands that I'd never heard of, bands that weren't on the radio dial. And when my mom let me join the Columbia House tape club and I could choose 20 tapes for a penny, I devoted that entire penny to bands I'd read about in Rolling Stone but had never heard: R.E.M., The Cure, The Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, XTC, New Order, and so on. That box of tapes changed my life.

In high school, there were only two paths to follow: (a) Become a devotee of the mainstream and pick up a quick fondness for hair metal bands, or (b) embrace the counter-culture and listen to indie music. Sure, you'd be ostracized by the Bon Jovi crowd and get derogatively called a "corn chip" for reasons none of us have ever understood -- but you could live with being a corn chip because you knew you were secretly in a gang too cool for the cool kids.

Bands like Poison wrote lyrics like "don't need nothin' but a good time." Instead, I worshipped at the altar of The Smiths' frontman Morrissey, famous for refrains like, "There's a club if you'd like to go/You could meet somebody who really loves you/So you go and you stand on your own/And you leave on your own/And you go home and you cry and you want to die." Overly dramatic? You betcha. But when you're an ostracized teen in the throes of puberty, Morrissey was the only guy you wanted to turn to. Morrissey understood. Morrissey KNEW.

Some twenty-five years later, I'm not quite as depressed -- but my love for indie music has never waned. The music business is in serious jeopardy these days. With the decline of CDs and the advent of swapping mp3 files willy-nilly all over the internet, it's tough for a record label to stay in business. In order to best compete and stay viable in the market, the major labels have trimmed their rosters down to the core and put all their money on those artists most homogenized to reach the widest audience possible (see: Ke$ha.)

Meanwhile, struggling acts who don't have MTV looks or banal bubblegum choruses are ignored by the big labels. Their only hope is to get picked up by a fledgling independent label -- the little guys with no capital, no massive marketing departments, and no sales in Wal-Mart. Without indie labels, the world would have never known Kurt Cobain. Oasis might have ended up a bar band. Arcade Fire wouldn't have cleaned up at this year's Grammies.

With all apologies to the ghosts of Mr's. Holly, Valens, & Bopper, last Monday was the day that the music REALLY died.

You've heard about the riots in London, right? Well, what barely made news is that one of the buildings that got torched by rioters was a non-descript warehouse in the Enfield region. But this warehouse just happened to be owned by Sony and operated by Play It Again Sam, the #1 global distributor for indie record labels. MILLIONS of records and CDs were lost in the blaze, including the entire inventories of some of the world's most important indie labels.

I know what you're thinking: The stuff's insured, right? The answer to that is thankfully yes, but it could take MONTHS for replacement stock to arrive. Most indie labels operate on a shoestring, month-to-month basis, and cutting off all sales while they wait for restock could spell the end for some of the most cherished, ground-breaking, and under-appreciated record labels in the world. Among the labels hit by the fire:

- Rough Trade Records, the original home of the Smiths and one of the most seminal labels in the world. Home to The Strokes, The Libertines, Belle & Sebastian, and others. If you see a Rough Trade stamp on a CD, you know it's a great record.

- 4AD Records, the boundary-pushing, storied label that was home to the ethereal dreampop sounds of The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, The Pixies, and scores of other acts.

- One Little Indian, the label that found an unknown Icelandic band called The Sugarcubes and ended up making their frontwoman (Bjork) a global superstar. Paul McCartney recently left his life-long home of EMI Records and signed exclusive distribution rights of his back and future catalog to One Little Indian.

- Mute Records, worldwide home of Depeche Mode and Erasure.

- Domino Records, one of the hottest indie labels on the planet right now. Home of Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Animal Collective, etc. The brand new Arctic Monkeys single was due out this week - thanks to the fire, it'll never see the light of day.

- WARP Records, perhaps the most innovative dance music record label in history.

That's just a handful of the labels that have been all but wiped out by the fire. Without the continuation of these small companies (most so small they're run out of bedrooms, basements, and garages,) some of the greatest musical artists out there will remain undiscovered, unheard, and unappreciated.

I've never used this space before to hustle moolah, but this cause is well worth it. The Association for Independent Music has set up an emergency fund to support the labels, and they're urging consumers to hop online and make some digital music download purchases that will help these struggling companies survive until their physical inventory returns. You can go to to read about all the labels affected, learn what purchases you can make to help save the indie music industry, or just make a monetary donation that'll go straight to the labels.

Be a music nerd, lend a hand, and help teach those kids in London that the BEST way to rebel isn't with a riot. There's only one time-honored, tried and true way to rebel: Go out and buy a record that you just KNOW your parents will hate. Take it home, crank the volume to 11, and rock out.

COLUMN: Barbie

This may come as a horrible, horrible shock to many of you, but I was kind of a weird kid.

Like every aspiring nerd, I used to be crazy for comic books and constantly begged my folks to take me to Dave's Book World in Galesburg for the newest issues. But it wasn't Batman or Superman or The X-Men that I was after. No, when I was a kid, there was only ONE comic book hero for me:


My hero didn't need a silly bat suit or a bite from a radioactive spider to fight crime. No, Richie Rich fought crime with little more than keen intuition, unending amounts of cold hard cash, and an alarming sense of entitlement. Richie spent most of every issue making horrible puns about his sickening level of wealth (example: Having saved the day, Richie and his friends are riding in a convertible in a ticker tape parade while crowds of people throw spare change at his head. Caption: "Put your hard hats on, everybody! They're throwing COIN-fetti!" Cue crazy laughter from 8-year-old me.)

The moral is: You always win if you're a nice guy... but having a butler, a robot maid, and a diamond plated dollar-sign shaped swimming pool doesn't hurt, either. Richie Rich was pretty much THE worst fiscal responsibility teacher on the planet, and might be the very reason why I live near the poverty line due to spending every dollar I earn on ridiculous gadgets and toys. I hoped that with the decline of Richie Rich comics, perhaps today's youth might have a better understanding of the value of a dollar. I was wrong.

As you may know, my girlfriend frequently babysits a pair of precocious siblings, ages 6 & 8. I like to refer to them as my "practice children" -- around juuust enough to give me a taste of what fatherhood would be like, yet thankfully they return to their nana every day before I've had a chance to accidentally inflict any permanent emotional scarring.

The other day, we took the girls to Incredible Pizza. The next night, they wanted to go BACK.

"I wish I had the money to take you guys there every day," I said.
"Well, go get some!" replied the 8-year-old.
"How do you propose I do that?" I asked back.
"Go to the money machine at the gas station and tell it that you need money!" she said.
"How does that work? Will the money machine just give me money anytime I want it?"
"Yep," she affirmed. "Just go, 'Hey, money machine! Give me money please!'"

There's no learning the value of a dollar when you believe that ATM's are magic money machines that disperse unending amounts of dough to anyone and everyone in need. So if Richie Rich isn't to blame for this generation's lack of fiscal appreciation, who is? I'm pretty sure I know.

I'm lookin' at you, Barbie.

I always thought she was a nice girl. I mean, sure, she's taken some heat over the years for her impossibly hourglass figure and her perpetuation of female stereotypes, but personally, I always thought Barbie was a pretty hip chick. And I suppose Ken's a tad bit Aryan and has a slightly alarming "buddy" named Allan (Google it,) but all in all, Barbie seems to have her act together. After all, she must do SOMETHING productive with her life to afford the mortgage on that Dream House, right?

Then I checked her phone. Specifically, the toy Barbie phone that the 6-year-old brought over the other night. Aww, cute, I thought at the time. A little play cell phone that looks like an iPhone, and when you press the buttons, Barbie talks to you. Super cute, right? Until I started to pay attention to what Barbie actually had to say. These are actual lines that Barbie says to your child:

"We're going to have a blast together!"

Well, okay, Barbie. I'm down for hangin' out, as long as we keep it on the cheap. I've got a house payment due this week.

"Let's go shopping together!"


"Do you want pizza for lunch?"

Well, okay, I suppose I can buy you some pizza.

"Want to get some ice cream?"

Jeez, Barbie, aren't you a little full of pizza? I mean, you've got to watch your figure, right?

"Let's stop for a snack!"

Barbie, you might have what's called a binging disorder. I'm starting to get a little worried.

"Let's go shoe shopping!"

Umm, I just spent my last $30 on pizza and ice cream, lady.

"I know a great boutique!"

Boutiques are PRICEY, Barbs. Can't we just go to Wal...

"Let's pack for a picnic at the beach!"

We live in Illinois, Barbarella. The nearest beach is, what, the Indiana Sand Dunes? That's about $100 in gas round trip + food + expenses...

"Hotel reservations - how can I help you?"

HOTEL?! You can help me get away from this spending succubus is what you can do...

"Let's find a tour bus!"

WHO are you dating? The guy from the Monopoly board? No wonder Ken left you for Allan...

"I'm all ready for our flight!"

Barbie is the devil.

"Don't you want to upgrade to first class?"

AAAAAAAGH! RUN AWAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!

For the rest of the night, the 6-year-old waltzed around telling Amy & I that she needed to upgrade to first class, despite not having any clue what it meant. I should have told her that it meant eating her vegetables and opening a savings account.

Maybe I wasn't as weird a kid as I thought. Compared to ol' Barbs here, Richie Rich is a fiscal planner. He was just guilty of HOARDING money, not SPENDING it. I don't want to live in a world where I could surprise my daughter with a trip to Disneyworld and have her pout because I had the gall to fly her there in coach.

Thanks a lot, Barbie.

COLUMN: Bunker

Nothing on Earth heals my soul quite like a drive in the country. The rural midwest countryside is my confidant, my therapist, and my rock of stability. Sure, I love bright lights and big cities and nightclubs and theatre and hustling and bustling, but nothing beats an open road, a full tank of gas, and the complete and total lack of an agenda.

In college, I met my best friend Jason, and together, we have trekked thousands of countless and needless miles driving for the sake of driving. The trouble is, in this day and age, aimless driving is about as politically incorrect a hobby as one can possibly have.

For one, it's dreadful on the environment. I know for a fact that every dirt, gravel, and paved road within a 100-mile radius of the Quad Cities has seen my carbon footprint at one time or another. This week, we honored hordes of people riding their bicycles across Iowa, and I celebrated this eco-tastic feat by wasting an entire tank of gas driving in circles throughout rural north-central Illinois. Not good.

ESPECIALLY not good given the current price of gas. Once upon a time, five bucks could score you multiple hours of aimless driving fun. These days, it requires forethought, checkbook balancing, and budgeting a good percentage of my weekly paycheck. In this economy, it's a crazy pastime to have -- especially considering the average temp this summer has been about two degrees away from the boiling point of human blood. I've already worked my way through one a/c compressor in my car this year, and its newly-installed replacement is already getting a doozy of a workout.

But the worst part about aimless driving? We've done it too much. Half the fun of cruising around without an agenda is not knowing what's around the next bend. A crazy water tower? Historical marker? One of Ronald Reagan's seemingly endless supply of boyhood homes? But when you've been sputtering around rural Illinois for 20 years like we have, you start to memorize the bends and nothing's a surprise anymore. In order to get good and properly lost these days, I've got to drive at least 100 miles away from town, and that's quite a commitment. Put me in a car for more than two hours and muscles start seizing up, backs start going out, and the whole affair just becomes a big exercise in contemporary pain management.

Ergo, we've been spending time lately trying to RE-visit weird places we vaguely recall from drives of yore. For instance, there was one night in college that a carload of us took a study break and hit the open road. We were somewhere on the outskirts of Orion when we stumbled upon a REALLY weird building. All I remember were floodlights, barbed wire, and a clear sense of foreboding evil. The building didn't have a sign, but it didn't need one. I'd seen enough episodes of The X-Files in my day and this was CLEARLY where the government kept the bodies of crash-landed aliens. Re-finding that building was a top priority in my book. When we did, it was a bit of a letdown. In crisp summer daylight, it was a lot less evil and a lot more boring industrial complex of some variety or another. I still don't know what the heck's in that building, but it ain't Marvin the Martian. Boo.

But last weekend, we set out on an aimFUL drive to re-find quite possibly The Weirdest Thing We've Ever Seen In Illinois. It had been a rather boring afternoon of sleepy farm towns and cornfields a decade ago when we first laid eyes on it. Out of the rural blue, for about a square mile, all signs of human life dropped off the landscape, to be replaced with the ruins of bunkers, like some kind of weird abandoned Illinois militia base or something. The buildings were identical and resembled the domed habitat of Luke Skywalker on Tattooine at the beginning of Star Wars (wow, I'm a nerd.) All looked abandoned and overgrown with trees and weeds. All looked creepy as all get out. If the Blair Witch had a summer home, it was this place. We didn't get out of the car because it looked like private property and entirely uninviting and entirely unsafe, but to discover this place in the middle of rural Illinois was entirely cool.

Just one problem -- we have NO idea where we were that day, other than "the country." It was Illinois, it was east of the Quad Cities and west of Chicago, and I THINK north of Peoria. Beyond that, it could be anywhere. Still, we thought we'd give it a shot. All day long, we zig-zagged and criss-crossed around every country road in central Illinois until my iPod battery was shot and my back was crying out in pain... no luck. The place has simply vanished. Many theories abound:

* Like Season 8 of "Dallas," it was all a dream. But I couldn't dream up a place this creepy. It exists -- somewhere.

* THIS was where the government kept the alien bodies, but now we know, and now They know we know, so They moved it. My guess is to Alabama, where creepy militia bunkers are a way of life.

* It, like the rest of anything remotely interesting about central Illinois, has been mowed down and turned into a wind farm. I like the idea of wind power, but once you get past the excitement of seeing those futuristic white windmills, you start to realize how bad they wreck the landscape.

* They're not bunkers, they're all just various assorted boyhood homes of Ronald Reagan that we've yet to tour.

Someday, I WILL find those weird little buildings again and get to the bottom of it. Until then, it's just the excuse I need to waste gas and be an awful bio-consumer.

UPDATE: that someday is NOW. I never thought to check the internet, because I didn't expect Google to have much to say on a search for "WEIRD BUNKER THINGS IN ILLINOIS THAT LOOK LIKE LUKE SKYWALKER'S HOUSE." BUT when I searched for "ABANDONED MILITARY BASES IN ILLINOIS," it didn't take long to stumble upon the Green River Ordnance Plant. In business from 1942-1945, the plant made a variety of weapons (mostly bazooka shells) for our boys fighting in WWII. After the war, it closed down but was never torn down. Today, the remains are privately owned and some of the bunkers are used to store explosives to this day. DEFINITELY don't consider this an endorsement to go trespassing, because the Illinois EPA says that chemical and explosive hazards are still present, up to and including traces of cyanide and astesbos. That said, if you find yourself on U.S. 30 between Dixon and Amboy, it's worth a roadside look-see (note: We were 2 miles from there this weekend. Guess we zigged when we shoulda zagged.)

So, mystery solved. Which means I need a new excuse to continue my shameful passion for aimless driving. Wait, I'm pretty sure I saw a water tower painted to look like an ice cream cone somewhere...

COLUMN: Pampered Chef


After years of being banished away in a corner of the Arts and Living section, forced to write fluffy little humor columns, this hard-nosed journalist FINALLY has a scoop. For all of you who wanted some little drively happy-smiley-time piece about cats or my girlfriend, you're about to be sorely disappointed, for I am on the verge of some serious Class A investigative journalism here. Look out, Chris Hanson of Dateline NBC... watch your nose, Geraldo... there's a new guy in town, and I've got a story that just might benefit mankind for years to come. And I mean MANkind. You girls can stop reading - this one's for the fellas.

Gentlemen, I have done it. I have breached the dark and mysterious wall that separates us from the world of women. As I type this, I am at present deeply embedded along the front lines of danger. You may know this place as "my basement." As I sit sequestered in my subterranean den of safety, a secret gathering is occurring merely one flight of stairs above my head. I have reached the promised land. I have gone where no man has gone before.

I am... at a Pampered Chef party.

Well, technically I'm below one. But it's well within earshot, and it's happening in MY house. This is simply one of those events that guys aren't seen at. Heck, we don't even know what HAPPENS at one of them. While we guys are out doing guy things, girls of the world unite under someone's roof to buy and sell candles, baskets, makeup, "surprise" parties, and more. When my girlfriend asked if she could hold a Pampered Chef party at my house, I bristled at first. Then it was explained to me that I would actually be allowed inside at the same time as the party, and my curious journalistic nature perked up. And once I heard that mango salsa was on the demonstrator's menu, that pretty much sealed the deal.

This is a world not often witnessed by those of us holding X and Y chromosomes, but this much I can tell you: Pampered Chef is a company that makes high-end cooking utensils and kitchenware. Some of their products are truly awesome (a device that removes corn from the cob? Sign me up.) Others are just plain weird, but I'll get to that later. The point is, I've yet to see a product in the Pampered Chef line that would make a BAD addition to one's kitchen.

If only one could buy their wares in stores. But ya can't. There's only one way to buy Pampered Chef, and that's by going to a Pampered Chef party at somebody's house. Or, in other words, you have to be a woman. That's not to say that Pampered Chef specifically excludes the estrogen-challenged, but let's look at the evidence. For fifteen years, I have sat at my cubicle at the newspaper. In all those days, I can't tell you the number of Pampered Chef invites, e-vites, catalogs, and party talk that have whisked their way around me. Yet not once did one of those invites end up on MY desk. Noooooo, say the girls of the world. Why would we give an invitation to Shane? He's a smelly no-good boy, and we don't want smelly no-good boys at our parties... leaving me to sigh and head home, resigned to spend yet another evening trying to remove corn from the cob with a standard table knife.

The way I see it, the folks at Pampered Chef are missing out on a fairly sizable demographic of clients: dudes. Just because we man-folk like to hunt and fish and watch cars drive in endless circles every Sunday does NOT mean that we don't appreciate a fine piece of hand-crafted stoneware when we see it. It just might take a slightly different marketing plan to get us involved.

First off, let's call it what it is, and what it ISN'T is a party. I understand the definition of "party," for I am a learn-ed college graduate. Specifically, I learn-ed how to party at my fraternity house.

If there's one thing guys have down pat, it's your standard party elements: People. Music. (LOUD music, preferably being played by me.) Camaraderie with close (and, heck, occasionally distant) friends. Maybe some burgers on the grill. Throw some video games into the mix. You might even end up with a soothing bonfire (and, if MY frat house serves as an example, if the party was an exceptional rager, your bonfire might just end up involving one of more pieces of your living room furniture by night's end. If you wake up to a smoldering sofa, rest assured that you've just had one GOOD party.)

Girls, on the other hand, are clearly born lacking the party gene. When girls get together en masse (the scientific term is "a gaggle of girls,") they live it up with such reckless party hedonism as... brunch. Or tea. Or a book club. Or anything involving color-coordinated and seasonally-themed party decor... OR, in this case, inviting a near-stranger into your house to tell you about the wonders of a garlic press.

Wait. I just heard a squeal. I need to investigate. Be right back.

Okay, whew. I'm back. It appears that the squeal has erupted because the mangos have been properly, umm, mango-ed. Okay, so I don't know the process by which mangos go from being delightful pieces of fruit to delightful salsa, but I now know that Pampered Chef sells a product that does just that -- and only that. It is built and sold for the express purpose of processing mangos. Let's say you wanted to do the same thing to a kumquat? Sorry, no. This tool is ONLY suitable for mangos. And the girl gaggle just went "oooh" over it. I'm pretty sure I've consumed mango maybe twice in my entire life. I don't even know what a mango looks like, but I can now own and wield a tool capable of destroying one (which is good to have on-hand, just in case the Great Mango Revolution goes down.)

This isn't a party. It's a sales pitch disguised as a get-together. And as much as I actually do like their products, why would anyone want to go out of their way to get pressured into buying them?

It was about that time when Amy came down and got me -- and I in turn got my answer. At the end of the product pitch, we had a table full of mango salsa, chicken fajitas, brownies, and a behemoth fruit trifle. Everybody loves food, and the girl gaggle made quick time decimating the goodies -- but not before inviting me into their yummy world. By the time it was done, not only did I have a full stomach but a dent in my wallet -- that de-corn-erator thing will make a nice addition to my kitchen, methinks. Somewhere along the way, I may have turned on Rock Band and caused an impromptu Bee Gees sing-along. It almost felt like... a party.

COLUMN: Audition

Whenever people talk about common recurring nightmares, there's usually one stereotypical dream that always gets mentioned, right? You're back in school, there's a horrible exam, and you havent studied. I don't think I've ever suffered one of those dreams... but this past week, I pretty much lived it.

Regular readers probably know that I moonlight on the weekends as a DJ. Recent readers might even know that I've been without a gig for the past few months. That's what led me to an online job listing a few weeks ago that made me raise an eyebrow.

"CLUB AWESOME, the ultimate 70s and 80s dance club, is opening soon in AWESOMETOWN. Calling all: Dancers, DJs, MCs, Hula Hoopers, Roller Skaters, Models, Celebrity Impersonators, etc."

It's not actually called Club Awesome and it's not in Awesometown, but since I'm still waiting to hear if I got the job AND since they didn't bother advertising in OUR paper, I'm leaving the locale a mystery for now. But I can tell you that it's a new club opening up in a casino that's well over an hour's drive from here.

I blew the ad off at first. No gig is worth that drive -- or is it? A club devoted exclusively to the 70's & 80's? With hula hoops and roller skates? Sure, it's a ridiculously long commute for a gig, but my basement is chock full of musty disco records just waiting for a second lease on life.

So I applied. It wouldn't be something I could commit to doing every weekend, but if they were looking to hire a rotating staff of DJ's, I'd be happy to join the mix. Last Monday, I got the call.

"Mr. Brown? This is so-and-so from Human Resources at Club Awesome. We'd like to schedule your audition. Are you available tomorrow?"

I've never had to "audition" for a DJ gig in my life. I wouldn't even know how, and that's not me trying to sound cocky. DJ's are normally judged by how they work the dancefloor over the course of an entire night. What could I prove in an afternoon? What would the "audition" consist of? What equipment did I need to bring? What should I plan for?

"No worries," said the HR rep. "I'll e-mail you the information."

Here is, verbatim, the contents of that e-mail:

"The club will be 70’s and 80’s based, so if you can perform to the era, it would be best. We’re looking for candidates that are upbeat and really get into the character of the 70’s and 80’s. Your audition is your time to show us all your talents and enthusiasm and ability to get the crowd “pumped up”, and time to prove yourself as a Club Awesome member."

This answered NOTHING and was the same stock response they were likely giving prospective hula hoopers. Did they want a talented DJ with knowledge and mixing ability? Or did they want Fonzie to come out and go "Aaaayyyyyyyy?" Since they reworked their audition time to match my schedule, I guess I was gonna find out.

Last Thursday, I got off work and made a bee line straight for Awesometown. My instructions were to go to the employee entrance, which, after circling the casino, did not appear to exist -- so I sauntered through the main door.

Here's a handy tip: When one enters the main door of a casino, it's best NOT to bring along two suspicious duffel bags of DJ equipment. The security guards at the gate all but went Terror Alert Red on me.

"Hi! I'm here to audition for the--"
"I'm hoping you can help me find the em--"

Finally, I learned that the employee entrance was hiding on the west end of the building. By the time I hiked around the perimeter of the building carrying umpteen pounds of DJ gear, I arrived at the correct door a slimy, sweaty muckpile.

"We're expecting you," said the kid who met me. "Right through here," he motioned.

I walked into a large and mostly empty space. In front of me stood a card table. In front of THAT, a large black curtain. It quickly dawned on me that I was on a stage. A BIG stage.

Two guys came out and helped me set up my gear in record time. "Are you ready?" one said to me.

"Well, yeah, but I don't really know what I'm..."

"GO!" he yelled. Before I could even laugh, the curtains pulled back, revealing an empty theatre except for the front row, where sat a line of Simon Cowell wannabes with crossed arms and stern faces.

That's when one of them said, and I quote: "Wow us."

You had GOT to be kidding. I had no clue what I was supposed to do, how long I was supposed to do it for, or who any of these people staring at me were. I assessed the situation and did the only thing I knew how:

I pressed play.

Suddenly music was booming and I was in my element. One of the guys jumped onstage. Was he going to yell at me? Would I get pulled offstage with a giant hook? I looked up and realized the guy was filming me. Between the nerves, the lights, and the dude with the camera, there was no stopping me from being the sweatiest, ugliest guy alive.

As I slid into the second song - a nifty remix of "Afternoon Delight" I'd picked up somewhere - Camera Guy starts yelling, "Yeah! That's the stuff!" I had at least one fan. I kept going, bouncing in and out of songs as fast as I could, sweating so bad I was afraid of shorting out the equipment. After 20 minutes, Video Guy taps me. "We've seen enough."

I packed up my gear not knowing if I'd just been hired or fired or what. Afterwards, they invited me down for a chat. They said they liked my stuff and the energy that I brought, but they had questions. "Fire away," I said.

"Why do you want this job?"
"What's your background?"
"What's your going rate?"
"Do you have chest hair?"

My response was less a word than a mixture of nervous laughter and fear. I'm guessing it sounded like "S'Whaahahahaha?"

"Serious question. Do you have chest hair?"

"Is this an essential job function of your DJ position?" I asked.

"Well, we'd like you to dress in costume. Do you have a problem with that?"

I'm a chubby guy. I've got man-cleavage. Heck YES I have a problem with that.

After much more nervous laughter and some handshakes, I got out of there and laughed almost all the way home. I'm hoping if they DO hire me, I could opt for more of an 80's keep-your-chest-hair-to-yourself costume. Stick a Devo hat on my head and a "Frankie Say Relax" t-shirt and let some other hairy dude rock the open-shirted disco look. As of press time, I have no clue if I got the gig or not. I'm frankly not even sure if I want it. One thing's for certain, though: Once this place opens, a road trip to Club Awesome will be mandatory.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

COLUMN: Titanic

Indeed, sometimes there are perks to being a beloved, semi-successful humor columnist of moderate fame in the #142 market of the country. You just have to learn to know when to take advantage of them.

I first started writing this weekly column in a distant time known as "2004." That was when I received my first letter from Rick. Inside the manila envelope were some photocopied pages and a note that basically said, "Hi Shane. I'm a fan of your column and thought you might find the attached information about the Titanic interesting."

"Ummm," I thought, "ooookay." I hadn't ever written about the Titanic, nor was it a topic of much interest to me at the time. But whatever, I checked out the pages and they WERE intriguing and detailed the links of local residents and families to the famed disaster. Did you know there was a survivor of the Titanic who was en route to Galesburg at the time? Rick sure did.

From that point on, about every six months, I would get another envelope from Rick, usually containing more documents and news clippings related to the Titanic. Eventually, thanks to some back-and-forth correspondence and a mutual friend, I met Rick. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but as it turns out, he's just a normal, nice retiree who just happens to have a lifelong obsession with all things Titanic. And I'm cool with obsessions -- I've been told on more than one occasion that my passion for British music runs the gamut from "hobby" to "obsessive" to "a little bit sad and pathetic." To each their own, I say.

As soon as I read about Davenport's Putnam Museum landing a touring exhibit of Titanic artifacts and a return engagement of Jim Cameron's "Ghosts of the Abyss" documentary, I knew one Quad Citizen who had to be veeeery happy. And when my girlfriend's little sister expressed interest in going, I knew just the tour guide to call. It took a while for everybody's schedules to match up, but finally, on the last weekend of the exhibit, the three of us walked into the Putnam to meet up with Titanic Rick.

It was a good call. There were times I was convinced that Rick knew more about the exhibit than the folks who had curated it. Between his insight and the awesome collection of artifacts retrieved from the ocean floor, it was a fascinating day out and one heck of a learning experience. Kudos beyond words to my friend Rick and to everyone at the Putnam for securing such a great and rare treat. To say it got me thinking about things is an understatement, but here's a few impressions:

* If I had been onboard, would I have perished? Been a hero? A plucky survivor? I'd like to think that I'd have some kind of heroic end, but I also know myself. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have gone down in history as the guy who got shot while trying to cut through the line of women and children to get to the lifeboats, but that's only because I probably would've dropped dead of a heart attack the moment someone yelled "ICEBERG!" I'd like to think, though, that perhaps some skinny person could've used my heroic corpse as a flotation device.

* Even facing certain death, the band played on and some of the first class passengers took the time to change into formalwear for their pending doom. In a way, these notions seem elegant and courageous and indicative of a time long gone from our culture. But then I got to thinking. Most of Titanic's better-known passengers were wealthy aristocrats and socialites. INCREDIBLY wealthy, since the cost of a first-class suite was equivalent to around $85,000. I can't help but envision a boat full of braindead Paris Hiltons, Kardashians, and Real Housewives of Orange County. Perhaps the socialites only knew how to be socialites and couldn't bear to imagine a trip to the Pearly Gates without a personal attendant and imported silk at the ready.

* Staring at a pile of plain white au gratin dishes sounds like the most boring activity in the world. But staring at a pile of plain white au gratin dishes recovered from 12,600 feet under the ocean is inexplicably fascinating.

* Among the most well-preserved artifacts recovered from the ocean floor were the personal affects of one Howard Irwin. But young Mr. Irwin didn't perish in the Titanic disaster. In fact, he wasn't even onboard. While en route to the ship, Irwin was kidnapped and shanghied onto a China-bound freighter, where he was forced into servitude for weeks before escaping. A horrible experience for sure, but quite likely a better fate than had he made it onto the world's most luxurious deathtrap. His friend Henry Sutehall, who boarded the Titanic with Howard's luggage, was among the 1,517 lost at sea.

* I realized during the showing of "Ghosts of the Abyss" that I kind of hate James Cameron. Sure, he's responsible for the two highest-grossing movies of all time (Titanic & Avatar.) But does he have to be so self-important about it? "Ghosts of the Abyss" documents the efforts of Cameron (and, oddly, actor/narrator Bill Paxton, who will forever be Chet from "Weird Science") as they take 3D cameras two miles down to the Titanic wreck. But somewhere in there, it starts to feel like the star of the show switches from the Titanic herself to Cameron and his (quite literally) tons of gadgets. I'd love to remind him that he may have brought us "Avatar," but he also directed "Pirahna II: The Spawning," so he's not the essence of cool.

* If I were to die in some kind of monumental horrific tragedy, I'm not sure how I'd feel about a museum one day honoring my life -- especially if it involved thousands of people staring at my underwear through a temperature controlled glass case while a self-guided audio tour pointed out my pant size.

* Some of the most amazing artifacts on display were letters and postcards that had managed to survive the brutality of the ocean floor thanks to leather satchels. Again, though, this makes me highly concerned that one day the contents of my leather wallet could be on display for future generations to see -- and frankly, I don't want future generations to know that I'm one punch away from a free lunch buffet at Happy Joe's. I would want my horrifying tragic death to instill a sense of mystery and wonder -- which is why I just wrote a note and put it in my wallet that says: "THE DIAMONDS ARE BURIED 40 YARDS FROM JIMMY HOFFA" next to GPS coordinates of the Dispatch/Argus office basement. That'll give 'em something to write about.

All told, it was an amazing exhibit and I hope you guys all had the chance to go soak it in. I hope the Putnam Museum continues to give every one of us something to obsess over. To that effect, I'll be glad to help out in the design and curation of any future exhibits on British Alternative Rock 1970-present. I promise you the Echo & the Bunnymen kiosk alone will be worth your trip.