Monday, March 12, 2012

COLUMN: Anthem

For as long as I can remember, I've only had one modest wish in life:

To someday possess enough power to crush the hopes and dreams of the innocent in a display of pure malice and unbridled fury.

Well, it only took 41 years, but this weekend, my wish came true -- all thanks to the fine folks with the Quad City River Bandits organization. This past weekend, the Bandits held open auditions for national anthem singers for the 2012 baseball season, and guess who they picked to be one of their celebrity judges? (Hint: it wasn't Paula Sands.)

That's right: lil' ol' me. Well, and a handful of other colorful media folk. Truth be told, I couldn't believe it when I got the invite. I'm about the furthest thing from a "celebrity" you could possibly imagine. As I type this, it's a Sunday afternoon and I'm laying on my couch in a dirty t-shirt eating a microwaved burrito and watching NASCAR. I'm not exactly living the celebrity dream.

Still, it was a seriously cool invite and one that I couldn't turn down. After all, I'm a giant music nerd. Who wouldn't want the opportunity to become Simon Cowell for an afternoon? Let the other celebrity judges be all namby-pamby. Not this guy. I'm a journalist. My JOB is to tell it like it is. And if that meant informing some would-be aspiring singers that they suck eggs, so be it. They'd thank me one day for my honesty, I'm sure of it.

Just one problem: I'm a hopelessly nice person. And let's face it, if I were forced to sing a cappella in front of a firing line of judges, I'd be lucky to get the noise "eep" out, let alone a whole song. Just conquering your nerves and showing up to this thing was enough to merit a gold star in my book.

My fellow judges were all super nice people, too: Jay Kidwell from WHBF, Mark Manuel from WOC, and around half of Wicked Liz & the Bellyswirls. I'd guesstimate that we auditioned around 20 singers during my stay. They had to come in one-by-one and belt out the anthem while we stared them down. Most were decent, a few were downright great, and no one was truly awful.

That said, when one comes to an audition to sing the national anthem, one might want to take the time to get to know the words first. On more than one occasion, "O'er the land of the free" became "FOR the land of the free," at one point the broad stripes and bright stars were seen through "a pair of lost fights," and one person watched the flag gallantly streaming "over ram's parts," which I think infers that we're a country of devil worshippers so that's no good.

In the end, though, there were some real stars who ought to send shivers up your spine this summer at the ballpark. And honestly, EVERYONE did a better job than I could've, so I didn't really have a bad word to say the entire afternoon. But when you're trapped in a room with nothing to listen to but "The Star Spangled Banner" over and over again, you start to overthink the song a little bit.

For one, why did we choose an anthem that only about 10% of the nation's populace can sing without sounding like Roseanne Barr? You've got to have an octave-and-a-half range just to get through the thing. It's an awesome song that never fails to fill me with pride, but don't ever ask ME to sing it, because I'm simply not capable. You'd think that Francis Scott Key would have picked something a tad bit easier to set his poem to, but I suppose it would lose its grandeur a tad were it sung to the tune of "Mary Had A Little Lamb."

Instead, Francis Scott Key set his poem, then called "Defence of Fort McHenry," to the tune of an old British piece called "The Anacreontic Song." It was originally the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th century London gentleman's club. The original lyrics were full of lines about "intwining the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus' wine." In other words, it was basically a drinking song, said to be so challenging that if you could sing it, you could have another round.

In today's world, we blow a cultural gasket every time P. Diddy steals a hook from an 80's tune for his next rap single, yet the entire tune of our national anthem was blatantly pilfered. Had this happened today, the Anacreontic Society would have sued us for copyright infringement, the RIAA would sue us for file sharing it, and Youtube would have mandatorily muted any videos of us singing it. Of course, before the "Banner," the closest thing we had to a de facto anthem was "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," which is itself stolen from "God Save the Queen" -- though in that case, I think it was less rip-off and more England-can-bite-us.

And why does our anthem end in a question? "O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?" Basically, it can be paraphrased as such: "Once upon a time, there were some good brave folks who were in a battle. I wonder if they won?" The image of our battered flag proudly flying through a hail of explosions is stirring and powerful, but shouldn't it end with "...and then we kicked their butts" or something a little more definitive than a question mark?

That was when I looked up the ENTIRE lyrics of "Defence of Fort McHenry" and the question gets answered. Did you know there are four verses to the "Star-Spangled Banner"? The other three make it clear there was butt-kicking aplenty going on. What happened to our enemies? The third verse explains:

"Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Wow. Now THAT's a verse that would be outstanding for patriotism, not so good for tourism. I think we should switch over to the third verse every time our anthem gets played at the Olympics -- imagine the intimidation factor if America were to celebrate every gold medal win by mean-mugging the other countries while singing about sending them all to their gloomy graves.  

However, in the family-friendly confines of Modern Woodmen Park, methinks the traditional first verse will continue to do just fine. And I hope we did just fine helping to choose the next set of performers for this season. So just remember, if you're at the ballpark this summer and a singer wows you with their version of the anthem... you're welcome. And if you need my expertise to pre-approve any of your other entertainment needs, just say the word. I work cheap.

COLUMN: Bowling

Look out, "Ace of Cakes." There's a new team on the block.  Linn's lovingly handcrafted birthday cake.

Sometimes I get so caught up in the full-throttle, heavy metal, hustle-bustle, high society life of contemporary humor column-ing that I forget about my real passion in life:


And frankly, it's unfair to all of you. I know what a treat it is to witness my well-toned body as I publicly athleticize to and fro throughout the Quad Cities. For some time now, I've been denying you all this chance to observe my skilled form and athletic prowess.

Well, NO MORE, I said to myself last weekend. It was time to give back to the community. It was time to inspire the masses with my God-given agility, grace, and style. That's why I found myself walking into Milan Lanes on Saturday night.

Actually, it was because of my friend Linn's birthday, but I digress. The point is, I am an expert at the complex sport of bowling. I know this because I have bowled an incredible FIVE times in my life. That's five times more than I've ever played lacrosse... or rugby... or Australian Rules Football (which might actually also be rugby for all I know.) Truth be told, outside of the horror of grade school P.E. classes, I'm pretty sure it's the only sport I've ever played of my own volition -- at least, until the I.O.C. eventually gives in to my demands and recognizes Guitar Hero as an Olympic sport.

Until then, I shall settle for bowling -- a sport I last attempted in methinks 1992. But it was Linn's birthday party, and for some ungodly reason she wanted to spend it amidst the sounds of rolling balls, crashing pins, classic rock, and, well, whatever the mass consumption of adult beverages by a giant room full of strangers sounds like.

Me, I was concerned. The potential for Shane-centric embarassment at any event focused around the holding and throwing of heavy objects is usually rather high. And among the attendees of said birthday party? Not one, but TWO of my ex-es. That's all it took for me to have visions of getting my fingers stuck in a bowling ball and accidentally throwing myself halfway down Lane #3 while a wide cast of friends, formers, and strangers point and laugh with glee. Not good, Brown.

Step one, I supposed, was procuring a ball. It turns out that, when waltzing into a bowling alley so late on a Saturday night that it's technically Sunday morning, ball selection is NOT what you would call top-notch. I walked over to the much-picked-over shelf o' balls and checked out my few remaining options. I picked up the first one I saw... and it nearly pulled my arm clean out of the socket. Too heavy. I needed something a little more... helium-based, perhaps.

The next ball was just as heavy and impossible to lift, BUT then I noticed an alarming fact: it was pink... and had finger holes half the size of mine. I was holding (barely) a GIRL'S ball, and it still felt like it was about to sever my arm at the shoulder. I'm starting to
think that there are people designed to hold large heavy objects, and there are people designed to sit in chairs and clap for the other people. I think I know what camp I belong in.

Thankfully, though, there are also people like my friend Mark -- but I'm about to call him a fellow wuss, so maybe I should give him a fake name. Okay -- I meant to say my friend "Marque." I like Marque, if for no other reason than he's a fellow wuss. Case in point: Both of us were recently invited to a mutual friend's bachelor party. Both of us eagerly accepted the invitation and thought it'd be great fun -- until we discovered that the plan involved an afternoon of paintball. Within minutes, both of us had invented excuses to cancel. Until Nintendo comes out with Wii Paintball, I'm good with having missed the paintball craze, thanks.

Marque and I are kindred spirits in our wussiness. That's why it surprised the heck out of me to see him putting on his own bowling glove while pulling his very own bowling ball out of his very own fancy bowling bag.

"Dude," I said, "you own your own ball?"

"Sure," he replied. "Wanna try it?"

I picked it up, ready to once again feel tendons crying out in pain. Instead, I gasped. It was lightweight. It was manuverable. I'm not capable of much in this world, but I was pretty sure I could point this thing in the right direction and send it down a lane. This was my perfect bowling ball. Thankfully, Marque allowed me to share.

I've always heard that one of the best ways to handle a high-stress task is to close your eyes and visualize the process before you proceed. Sure enough, if I closed my eyes, I could picture that ball rolling down the lane to a 10-pin strike and the cheers of beautiful women everywhere. Just one problem. What I couldn't visualize was what on Earth I did to make that ball roll straight. I had no idea what my body was supposed to do, so I just winged it. I took a few steps, cocked back the ball, and shot it down the lane. 7 pins -- not bad, and I picked up the spare on the 2nd shot.

I did notice, though, that bowling balls are generally supposed to ROLL down the lane, right? Mine more skidded than rolled. Somehow I was putting backspin on the ball so that it was simply glancing its way toward the pins. Something tells me this was not PBA form. Frankly, as long as I wasn't falling on my butt and people weren't openly pointing and laughing, I didn't care. And I especially didn't care when Amy -- formerly of Shane + Amy and a fellow guest at the party -- got up to bowl. She, too, had an interesting bowling form, which involved more of an underhanded throw of the ball resulting in a WHAM as the ball fell to the lane and somehow made its way to the pins. Hey, whatever works.

At the end of the day, I had fun, even if: (a) my ex-girlfriend ended up beating me, (b) I was stuck wearing bowling shoes so small that I now know why the chick from "Black Swan" went psycho, and (c) despite using equipment so lightweight you could theoretically play dodgeball with it, I still find myself coating my shoulder liberally in Biofreeze some 3 days later.

I guess that's the price you pay when you're an athlete like me.

COLUMN: Random Chaos

There's nothing more boring than a life that's trapped by routine. Too much of our daily existence is played out by rote rituals that slowly but surely turn us into human automatons. It's my firm belief that one needs a steady dose of random chaos in order to truly live life. There's just one problem: I'm really bad at random chaos. I make a pretty good automaton.

I don't deny being a bit of a sloppy person -- anyone who walks past my desk would likely think that I worship the God of Random Chaos. But if truth be told, I require a whole lot of ritual stability in my life in order to accomplish most goals. This past week, I've been working on a project chock full o' random chaos, and it's about done my head in.

I've been on vacation for the past week. Actually, I've been on STAY-cation, just hanging around the house in order to get some much-needed stuff done around the place. After a year and a half of slow-moving work, my dream of having a finished basement is finally a reality. We put up walls, we built a floor, we made a drop ceiling, laid carpeting, created storage... there was just one final touch that needed completion this week.

It's no secret that I'm a bit of a music nerd. In my younger days, my friends and I made a hobby of being semi-professional band stalkers. It wasn't enough to just GO to a concert -- we needed to meet the artists that ruled our lives. From knowing our way around backstages to researching what after-show clubs touring bands preferred, we wouldn't stop until we'd tried every trick to get an exclusive meet-and-greet with our musical heroes. Just one problem: Shockingly, it turns out most musicians aren't real keen on being chased by a pack of chubby, starry-eyed nerdy dudes. The best we could usually hope for was an awkward "you're-so-cool" fanboy moment and hopefully a quick autograph. Lame? You bet. But as a result, I've collected a pretty cool pile of memorabilia over the years.

Now, it's at this point where I once again have to issue a plea to the general public: Now that I've told you this, please don't rob me. While it's true that I've amassed a nice collection of photos and autographs, their resale value is pretty much nil. I tend to like weird indie bands that nobody's ever heard of, so don't break into my crib expecting to find U2 or Jay-Z's autographs. One of my prize possessions, for instance, is an authentic autograph from Les "Fruitbat" Carter, the guitarist for everybody's favorite band, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine. Now, had you lived in England around 1990, Carter USM would be an impressive name to throw around. These days, the only person on Earth who might be impressed by a Les "Fruitbat" Carter autograph is Les "Fruitbat" Carter, and even that's a maybe.

Still, I'm proud of my eccentric little collection. I've also now got a groovy new stairwell heading into the basement with empty walls. Ergo, I thought, how cool would it be to frame all this memorabilia and put it along the stairs like I'm the Clive Davis of obscure and outdated British indie rock? THAT was my goal this week.

I learned several interesting things over my vacation. For one, I learned that I should have dropped out of college and become a framer, because I don't know if there's a service on Earth with a higher markup value than custom framing. I went out and got some quotes and to get all of my stuff framed would have cost me over $1000 easily. The only way I'd pay that kind of money is if the frames were made of solid gold and the glass blown from the eternal fires of Mt. Doom. Instead, I bought a handful of cheap $3 frames that did the trick without looking too tacky. But then came the hanging part and that's when my brain ground to a halt.

I had a few autographs hung up in my old apartment, and it was no big deal. That wall was square, so I just measured it, measured the frames, did some math, and figured out the perfect amount of spacing between each nail. But here? The stairwell wall is basically an ascending triangle, and I had to try and figure out how to put up a couple dozen frames of differing sizes and shapes while keeping things somewhat evenly spaced. It was a logistical nightmare.

After two days of struggling, I called the one person I can rely on when a project exceeds my abilities: my dad. Not only did he build the house I grew up in, he also pretty much single-handedly finished my entire basement for me. Within hours, my parents were over and my dad was standing in the stairwell, tape measure in hand. Whew. If anyone could throw up some random nails in a wall, it'd be my dad, right?

I now know where my need for order comes from. Dad made some measurements, issued some "hmm" sounds, and then pretty much just proceeded to stand there. It turns out my dad can't work with random chaos too well, either.

Suddenly I had flashbacks. When I was a kid and my dad was working on plans to build our family home, my mom had a hard time visualizing the floor plans. That's when my dad stayed up all night and built her a perfect scale model of what is now our house -- out of Legos. The man never travels anywhere without a level and a tape measure. He is a rock star of organization and measured perfection.

There was talk of drawing it all out on paper. My mom wanted to tape off a section of the floor and build a rehearsal wall. I just stood there in awe of the fact that three adults couldn't figure out how to hang a bunch of 8"x10" frames. Then I heard a "bam bam bam!" I looked down and my dad had hammered a nail into the wall at complete random.

"Gotta start somewhere, eh?" he said with a grin.

The next two hours were among the most bizarre of my life. We'd hang a frame, then my dad would ask where we should hang the next one. Then the three of us would argue over what placement looked more random. Then my dad would ask me questions I never thought I'd hear from my old man, such as "which would you rather have at eye level, Echo and the Bunnymen or Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine?" I thought it'd be a fun game just to see how many times I could get my dad to say "sex machine." (It was.)

After an eternity, it was done. And doggone it if that stairwell doesn't look great right now. So don't ever say that Clan Brown can't do random chaos -- all it took was a little arguing, a little teamwork, a sex machine, and a hammer.

COLUMN: Whiskey

Sometimes I find myself in the oddest of situations -- and it's usually due to this very column.

On most weeks, I try to be a good little faux-journalist and have my whole column loosely outlined in my head before I sit down to write it. But then there are those dreaded weeks when I sit in front of a blank laptop screen cursing the fact that nothing interesting and/or funny ever happens in my life. That's when I usually e-mail my friend Linn.

There are days when my biggest accomplishment is shifting my weight from one cheek to the other. My friend Linn, on the other hand, usually has eight or ten things crossed off her daily to-do list before I've even woken up. She's also the founder of the Quad Cities convivium of Slow Food USA, a grassroots movement that promotes healthy food, local produce, and environmental conservation.

In other words, she puts me to shame. On many nights, I'll call her up with a simple, "Hey, whatcha doin' tonight?" and be greeted by something along the lines of "Oh, not much. Picking up some produce from my farming co-op, then teaching a class on how to can your own eco-friendly salsa while saving dolphins from Japanese poachers and conserving our nation's wetlands. How 'bout you?" And that's when I'll try desperately to come up with a story that DOESN'T involve eating ice cream while watching "Two and a Half Men" reruns on cable.

But that's also why I rely on her for column ideas during doldrum weeks. Hence, the e-mail I sent her earlier today:

"Hey, no clue what to write about this week. Make something funny happen to me."

Two minutes later, I got her reply:

"Well, later tonight I volunteered to help bottle some whiskey. Want to help?"

Just like that, my column writes itself. HECK YES, I want to bottle some whiskey. Wherever one does that at. Come to think of it, is that even LEGAL? Is Linn leading me into some illicit Slow Food bootlegging operation, where some overall-ed Uncle Jesse type guards his still with a shotgun while we carefully try and pour homemade rotgut into cartoon jugs that say "XXX" on the side?

No such luck... but I DID just spend an educational and entertaining evening with the folks at the Mississippi River Distilling Company up in Le Claire. This small family operation has been turning heads of late with their quality liquors, made slowly and to perfection in their small distillery. And when a batch is ready to be bottled, they gladly accept volunteer help in getting the job done.

This is an extra super scary task for me, since I'm not exactly what you'd call well-versed in the world of adult beverages. In fact, here's everything I know about whiskey: (1) It's brown, and (2) it smells almost as bad as it tastes. No offense to you whiskey aficionados out there, but it's just not for me. Still, that's not to say I'm not capable of bottling the stuff.

The Mississippi River Distilling Company is one heck of an outfit. Yet another new piece to the puzzle of awesomeness that is Le Claire, the folks at MRD are winning accolades and kudos nationwide for their home-cooked creations. The interior workings of the place look like something straight out of Willy Wonka, but THIS candy is for adults only. Vodka, gin, bourbon... and tonight's seasonal specialty: rye whiskey, stone-ground the old-fashioned way at De Immigrant windmill in Fulton and aged to perfection over new charred oak right there at MRDC.

Suddenly, though, the realization hit that I wasn't just there to marvel at the process - I was there to complete it. Within minutes, we were set up in an assembly line fashion. The whiskey gets poured into bottles, corks get hammered in, then the bottles get numbered and sealed (Linn's job,) and then it came to me. MY job was simple enough: put the bottles in boxes, stamp each box with a sequential number, tape each box shut, and carry it over to a pallet without dropping it and causing Whiskey-geddon.

I got handed two devices that everyone knows how to use: a number stamper and a tape gun. Everyone's had experience with these, right? Everyone... except Little Lord Shaneleroy, who apparantly has lived his entire life in a cocoon of zero life experience. But I didn't want to be the stupid guy in the room who didn't know how to use simple office equipment, so I nodded at the appropriate points and tried to make any affirming gesture that DIDN'T outright say, "Dude, you are leaving the success of your company in the hands of someone who has never held a tape gun and is almost wholly devoid of common sense."

I had no clue what I was doing. But I started packing bottles, stamping boxes, and taping flaps shut like a true pro. Well, maybe what a true pro might look like AFTER imbibing a few bottles of this stuff. Truth is, within five minutes, I'd managed to coat my hands in stamping ink while using the tape gun to rip off what I'd estimate, based on the pain, to be a fairly important portion of my arm hair. Everyone else in the line was smiling and joking and having a grand old time. Me? I was breaking a sweat simply by trying my best NOT to look like an absolute ninny.

Eventually, bottles start backing up at my station. Others occasionally jumped down to lend me a hand. All I could do was make jokes about how the tape gun hates me. Truth is, I HATE THE TAPE GUN. I mean, we're living in the 21st century now, and you're telling me that we can't invent self-sealing boxes in this day and age? Instead, I'm fighting tooth and nail with a tape dispenser that seems hellbent on doing everything it can EXCEPT dispense tape, and when it finally DOES, it protests by making a noise like "SQUOOOOOOONK" while it begrudgingly seals each box shut.

Eventually, though, I sorta got the hang of it. I filled, stamped, squoooonked, and palleted around fifty boxes -- no whiskey was spilled, no lives were lost, and the guys called for a pizza break at the PERFECT time for me offer excuses about deadlines and leave to come write this.

So what did I learn on this week's odd adventure? (a) I am NOT cut out for assembly line work, (b) tape guns are clearly a tool of the devil, and (c) the folks at MRDC are really nice and I appreciate the experience. And just remember, Quad Cities:  The next time you're sipping a smooth glass of Windmill Rye Seasonal #3 and you think to yourself, "My God, this tastes as though it was counted, sealed, and boxed with fiery yet careful passion and concern" -- you're welcome.

COLUMN: Do the Shane!

If you missed my column last week, it was all about how difficult it is for a cool guy like me to hang out unnoticed in a dance club without being constantly harassed and mauled by hot women.

If you READ my column last week, you'll know I'm lying and it was really about how hard it is for an uncoordinated nerd like me to act natural at a dance club. This is a particularly painful awkwardness for me, given that I spend every weekend in dance clubs moonlighting as a DJ. But after years and years of mixing records and trying my absolute best to keep dancefloors packed, being in that awkward environment is second nature these days. Still, sitting down last week and writing a column about it led me to a revelation that I'd never really contemplated before:

Dancing is weird.

No offense to any of you aspiring black swans out there, but dancing really IS fairly abnormal behavior. Is it a natural impulse that just occurs when we hear a good tune? I mean, I like cheeseburgers, but you don't see me doing the hokey pokey every time I cruise past a drive-thru.

Clearly, shaking a tailfeather has to be lodged into our DNA somewhere. Hence: weird. No other species has the propensity for doing the hustle. I, for one, would rethink being a cat-owner the minute my feline houseguests busted out with Lambada: The Forbidden Dance. But just like a cat is born with the knowledge to lick itself clean, we humans must be born with an inherent yearning to do the macarena.

Every so many years, we seem to stumble upon a previously uncontacted tribe of people living contentedly in the dark rainforests of someplace-or-other -- and even though these folks have never been touched by modern society (but don't you worry - we'll get them iPhones and have them playing Angry Birds before nightfall,) the one thing our cultures invariably end up having in common is a penchant for banging on drums and dancing the night away.

So let's say we are a species hardwired to boogie and genetically predisposed to watching D-list celebrities do the tango in fruity costumes on TV every week. The question then must become: WHY? Is it a primal appreciation of the human form? A bio-mechanical response to music? Or is it our version of peacocking in an effort to attract the opposite sex?

Any way you look at it, it's bad news for an uncoordinated, two-left-footed klutz like me. If you must know, I'm not immune to performing the occasional Shane Shuffle when a good tune comes on - but my booty only shakes under the prerequisite conditions of an empty house with blinds drawn and nary even a cat in sight (they JUDGE, I swear it.) My version of dance probably looks more seizure than sexy. Besides, I'm a chubby guy, and the only place for chubby dancing is if you're going "Numa Numa" on Youtube.

In a way, I lucked out. My formative teen years were spent in the 80's -- the one decade that required NO dancing ability. You didn't need rhythm to dance to Devo -- as long as you could pogo up and down, you were good (bonus points if you could mime a whip crack.)

As the 80s moved on, so did me and my friends -- into the world of goth, industrial, and alternative dance music. Here, too, was a collective of people and music that didn't so much care how you danced as long as you looked the part.

You danced to goth rock by staring downwards, swaying about like an addled zombie, and looking really, really depressed -- for YOU were one of the smart ones. You knew that the only human beings who understood the real anguish and pain of life were you, your friends, and Robert Smith of The Cure. It didn't matter how you danced, because dancing was meaningless because life was meaningless. THIS I could handle.

You danced to industrial and electronic music by stepping and flailing your arms like a slightly ticked-off robot. Why? Because the jocks with their Bon Jovi and their shopping malls didn't understand the unbridled aggression, anger, power, and raw sexuality pouring from your muscle-less frame. This was mostly due to four nerds from Basildon who realized that if they started wearing leather pants and singing vaguely controversial songs about underage deviant nookie, they'd certainly gain a following of underage deviant FANS. Thus begat Depeche Mode. Sample vaguely controversial lyric: "Pain, will you return it? I'll say it again. Pain." And any band with an accent posh enough to rhyme "pain" with "again" was inherently cooler than anything on the radio. THIS I could handle.

Nowadays, though, it's an entirely different game -- and frankily, I'm happy to be too old to play it.

The modern dancefloor is a complicated beast requiring far more skill and coordination than yesteryear. You need moves and you need soul. If that's not challenging enough, now there are entire dances you need to learn. Some are kinda cool (the Jerk), some are less cool (the Dougie), some don't appear to make any sense whatsoever (the Cat Daddy,) and some are just downright goofy-lookin' (the John Wall.) All are too complex for my motor skills.

There's one bit of good news, though. I've discovered someone else with dance moves as bad as mine: Cahron "JayAre" Childs, the most talented rapper in Cali Swag District, the trio originally responsible for the Dougie dance craze. Go to Youtube and look up a video called "Cali Swag Teaches You How To Dougie." In it, the group shows off the Dougie dance steps -- except JayAre, who stands awkwardly to the right and looks like he's sweating bullets just figuring out how to sway to the beat. THIS is what I would look on the modern dance floor.

JayAre's got it figured out, though. His verse on "Teach Me How To Dougie" starts like this: "Back of the party, I don't really like to boogie, I'm just trying to get bent and meet a thick redbone," which of course translates to "I might be a good rapper but I can't dance to save my life, ergo I'll just do my best to look cool and steal your girlfriend while you're showing off your lame moves, dude." JayAre's my new uncoordinated hero - a guy who can't dance who made millions off a song teaching people how to dance. My next mission is clear: "Do The Shane." I just need to invent some moves and hire some people who can, well, do them. Who's in?

COLUMN: First Dance

Well, now that I'm officially newly minted as a single guy, I suppose I've got two choices: (1) Become an asexual hermit who collects cats and whose sole hobby is scaring away neighbor children, or (2) try to remember how to (gulp) DATE again. Clearly, becoming a hermit is the easier option.

I remember the very first time that I danced with a girl. And yes, as you may have guessed, it was forced.

At my junior high school, the epicenter of our social calendar -- well, the ONLY event on our social calendar -- was the annual cafeteria sock-hop dance. To prep us for our first mating encounter with the other sex, for one week our P.E. classes turned into hardcore dance lessons. Our gym teachers were two horrid little troll brothers we were made to call Mr. Bob and Mr. Bill. Even at our young age, we could tell that Mr. Bob & Mr. Bill were likely not so hot with the ladies, and you could read their disdain of this week on their faces. But it was their task to teach us man-boys how to slow dance -- in the form of the dreaded box step.

Keep in mind this was the height of seventh-grade awkwardness. Hormones were making all of us a complete wreck. Girls went from being icky to enchanting virtually overnight, and the idea of dancing with one of them was perhaps THE single most exciting concept in the entire world... which meant it was Mr. Bob and Mr. Bill's job to take all of the magic out of it. Instead, we spent what seemed like an eternity staring blankly at overhead projectors, diagrams, foot patterns on the floor, and learning how to count "1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2" like our life depended on it.

In retrospect, I think it was pretty obvious that Mr. Bob & Mr. Bill wanted us so focused on 1's and 2's that we might temporarily forget that our nether-regions were about to be the closest they'd ever been to shether-regions. There would be no forgetting.

At the end of the week, gym class went co-ed and we were paired off with (gasp) actual girls. Mr. Bill set the romance in motion as the DJ for the hour, courtesy a Close-&-Play record player and a beat up Styx 45 on an endless loop -- "Babe" on one side, "Come Sail Away" on the other. (True story: Once "Come Sail Away" hit the rockin' part in the middle, Mr. Bill would lift the needle and just re-start it back on the slow part. Our sensitive pre-teen hormones clearly couldn't handle the unbridled fury of a Tommy Shaw guitar solo.) And then, over the Styx, there'd be Mr. Bob on a megaphone going, "ONE! TWO! ONE! TWO! ONE! TWO!"

I didn't care about the song. I didn't care about the box step. I didn't care about the megaphone. What I cared about is that, by the blessings of the divine, I'd been paired up with June Vianni -- drum majorette, bassoon player, and the love of my preteen life. Only one problem: I was the nerdy, chubby, last-picked-in-gym-class guy, and she was, well, a horrible person. I'll never forget that moment as long as I live.

(Iiiii'm ONE! saaaaailing aaaaaaway TWO!)

Her hands touched my shoulders,

(ONE! Set an oooopen courrrrse TWO! for the virrrrgin seeeeeea.)

my hands touched her waist,

(Cause Iiiiii've ONE! got tooooo TWO! beee freeeeeeee)

we looked at each other,

(Freee ONE! to face the liiiiife TWO! that's aheaaaaad of me)

the scent of her perfume was driving me wild

(On booooard I'm ONE! the captaaaaain, so clii-TWO!-iiimb aboooooard)

and she whispered those magical words:

(We'll search ONE! for tomorroooooow, on ee-TWO!-eeev'ry shoooooore!)

"Move your hands another inch and I'll kill you, fat boy."

All of this, of course, was in preparation for the big sock-hop that weekend, where the boys would lurk in one corner of the cafeteria and the girls would lurk in the other. Eventually the popular kids would get enough guts to ask a girl to dance while everyone else pointed and excitedly mumbled. All of this, of course, was lost on the nerd contingency -- we were ostracized to a third no-man's corner of the cafeteria, drinking free pop, not even seeing a girl, and arguing over whether or not a Level 5 Paladin could survive a +1 fireball spell from a Level 7 Cleric.

Still, the excitement surrounding that night never escaped me. Despite being a social leper, I went to every dance. I loved the electricity in the air, the loud music, the lights, the girls, the magic. Of course, I also couldn't dance to save my life -- but I always DID have a pretty decent sense of rhythm, even if I couldn't convey it to my feet. This led me to the ONE place at a dance that I could feel comfortable -- the DJ booth. School dances begat teen clubs which begat frat parties and now nightclubs, where I've been moonlighting as a DJ for most of my adult life. But a sock hop this ain't.

Some things are still the same. The girls have their own corner, aka the dancefloor. They flock there en masse, wearing as feasibly little as possible, and dance and giggle in front of mirrors. The guys have their own corner, too: the bar. I like to divide the guys into two sub-species: those who can dance and those who can't. The guys who can dance will eventually take to the dancefloor and try to pull off b-boy moves that they're super proud of but actually just kinda look like N*Sync. These guys walk around with the utmost swagger and confidence, yet you just KNOW they had to spend HOURS in their bedrooms practicing in front of a mirror to look that cool. Amusingly, they're usually too busy showing off their mad skills to actually get anywhere with the ladies.

The guys who CAN'T dance, meanwhile, have but one recourse: build up enough liquid courage until they eventually saunter onto the dancefloor, find some innocent girl, and then try to dry-hump her to the ground in any kind of vaguely rhythmic manner. Does this EVER work, guys? Because I have NEVER seen a girl respond positively to this kind of nonsense.

"Tell us again how you and Mama met, Papa!"

"Well, son, I was at a dance club, and I noticed your mom on the dancefloor acting real slutty. So I went up and started grinding on her, and the rest was history."

Meanwhile, the love songs of yesteryear have been replaced by choruses of "Call me Mr. Flintstone coz I can make your bed rock, girrrrl." I'm waiting for Roberta Flack to come out with "The First Time Ever I [EXPLETIVE] Your [EXPLETIVE]." I don't care what the song is, if you listen closely enough, I'm pretty sure you can still hear Mr. Bob shouting, "ONE! TWO! ONE! TWO!"

The music may have changed, and the dancefloor these days might look less sock-hop and more Cinemax After Dark, but it still comes down to the same thing: awkward guys being captivated by pretty girls that smell good. And as long as that electricity's still in the air, I'll be happy to be the guy providing the soundtrack. And who knows, maybe one day a girl will stroll in who'll be impressed by my wicked mastery of the box step. If that fails, I'll start readying the cat collection.

COLUMN: Depressed

Hiiii, everybody. How are you all feeling? Are you doing okay there, little buddies? You wanna talk about it? I mean, I don't wanna criticize or single anybody out, but you just seem a little... depressed. I'm worried about you.

Heck, I'm worried about ALL of us. Here I was, going about my business and trying to slog through another January of cold temps, setting suns, and snow shovels when I just happened to read that tomorrow is officially The Most Depressing Day Of The Year.

This particular bit of festive January cheer comes to us courtesy of the late lamented Sky Travel Channel, who apparantly thought it would be a grand bit of fun to distract travellers from their irrational fear of flying by instead filling them with hopeless thoughts of despondency.

According to Sky Travel, the third Monday after the first week of the new year can scientifically be determined to be The Most Depressing Day Of The Year. This nugget of wisdom came to them courtesy of educator Cliff Arnall at the prestigious Cardiff University in Wales. Of course, later it was revealed that Arnall was merely a part time tutor working for a continuing education program called The Centre for Lifelong Learning who at one point held classes on the Cardiff University campus. Following this logic, incidentally, I am henceforth to be known as Shane Brown, Transportation Facilitator with the U.S. Government, owing to the fact that (a) I own a car, and (b) have driven said car across the Arsenal Bridge a couple times.

But why bother attacking Cardiff University educator Cliff Arnall on his sketchy credentials when it's way more fun to attack his pseudoscience instead?

Arnall came to the famed Blue Monday discovery by using the following formula:


Where W = winter weather, D = your total amount of debt, d = the Christmas debt you can afford to pay, T = the time that's passed since Christmas, Q = the time that's passed since failing your New Year's Resolutions, M = your low motivation levels, and Na = the feeling of a need to take action.

It's just that simple.

Never mind the fact that most formulas provide things like, oh, equations. And units. And mathematical sense. Instead, I'm just going to assume that I don't know nearly as much about contemporary theoretical psycho-mathematic pseudoscience as a part-time tutor at a continuing education center in Wales. It's probably because I don't have a cool Welsh accent where I get to roll my R's.

So let's push logic aside and just assume that our Welsh friend Cliff is correct. That weather and debt and motivation have collided into a maelstrom of maximum suckiness that will make tomorrow the definitive Most Depressing Day Of The Year. Frankly, I'm all for it. If we have to have a most depressing day of the year, let's just get it over with right now. That leaves over 11/12ths of the year 2012 that are now guaranteed to suck less than tomorrow -- and that includes December 21st, 2012, when the Mayans may or may have not correctly predicted the end of the world. So if the world DOES end, it might suck -- but not as much as tomorrow will*.

(* If tomorrow's even correct, that is. See, there's another school that believes the true Most Depressing Day of the Year is the third Monday of the year, regardless of when the New Year falls. For THOSE people, Blue Monday was last Monday -- the very day that I'm sitting here writing this column now. And I've gotta say, the only thing I've felt today is mild hunger. And I suppose a little repulsion, but I WAS watching the Republican debate. Thus far, though, no depression.)

Ergo, I think we should be prepared for the Most Depressing Day of 2012 to strike us tomorrow. You have been duly warned. But don't worry, I think we can beat Cliff and his mandated quagmire of depression. All we need to do is take away key aspects of his formula and the whole thing collapses like the nonsense that it is.

#1 - You know the easiest way to avoid the guilt of failing a New Year's Resolution? DON'T MAKE THEM. They're designed to fail and make you depressed. You're going to improve your life because you WANT to improve your life, not because some arbitrary date is telling you to.

#2 - It appears the driving struggle behind Arnall's formula involves your motivation level vs. your need to take action. The way around this is simple: NEVER AGAIN FEEL A NEED TO TAKE ACTION. This takes time and practice, but let me tell you from experience, it can be done. Take last night for instance. I went to bed two hours late. Wanna know why? Because getting off the couch to walk to the bedroom seemed like too much of a chore. THIS, my friends, is the concentrated power of laziness, and it's something I excel at. Let's face it, a good depression takes WORK to muster up, so just become TOO lazy to get depressed. I'd help you with this, but frankly, I'm too lazy. Just join Netflix, the rest should happen naturally.

See? With a little bit of effort and hard work, we can pull together and get through this. By the end of tomorrow, we may all be lazy, lifeless, unmotivated, obese, disheartened, debilitated, and dull... just don't call us depressed.

COLUMN: Caucus

"And I'll take with me the memories,
To be my sunshine after the rain,
It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday."
-Boyz II Men

Relationships are fickle, fragile things. One day, it can feel like the most natural, exciting thing in the world. The next day, you could wake up to discover they've moved on without you... to New Hampshire.

Farewell, 2012 Republican presidential contenders. We hardly knew ye. The Iowa caucuses are history, and now so is New Hampshire. By the time you read this, the last men standing will be wooing an even newer legion of debutantes under the moss-covered trees of South Carolina while Iowa returns to its usual state of being completely ignored by the rest of the world. Iowa is old news. Two weeks ago, it felt like it was the ONLY news.

Caucus season always drives me a little batty. The whole thing just seems to reek of insincerity -- and I'm not just saying that because I swing to the left while this season's crop of candidates leapt to the right. It bugs me when the Dems strut around Iowa for months, too. All the countless hand-shaking, speech-giving, and suck-upping just comes across as pandering after a while, especially when you just KNOW that the last place most of these candidates want to be is kissing babies while being force-fed local pork in Nowheresville, Iowa.

You couldn't pay me enough to run for a top level political office. The pressure, scrutiny, and high-powered microscopes that today's candidates get put through is nothing shy of ridiculous. Practically every week there was a new Iowa frontrunner, and that person led until they said or did something embarassing, and then it was on to the next guy.

Let's imagine if I, immediately following the handing-in of this column, had a change of heart and became immediately active in politics... so much so that 10 or 20 years down the road, I decide to run for office. Even if I were to become the best debater (ha!) and baby-kisser in the world, I'd lose. Know why? Because some yumnutz would pull out THIS column and Fox News would suddenly have it in a headline, "'You Couldn't Pay Me Enough To Run For Office,' Said Brown In 2012, Showing Clear Lack of Vision." In these days of cyber-stalking, paparazzi, and fact-checking, you need to be Presidential from birth.

There's only one thing I hate more than enduring the presidential stumping season, and that's having to endure it from one state away. It's kind of like if your next-door neighbor threw a party, and you could look across the street and see that it's a super lousy party, but you're still mad that you weren't invited. For weeks, I've heard my Iowa friends talk about how annoyed they were by political phone calls, and I'm sure those calls would drive me bonkers as well, but there's still a voice in the back of my head inexplicably saying, "No fair! I wanna be annoyed, too!"

But alas, we live in Illinois, a state where most political decisions come courtesy of a small northeastern piece of lakeside real estate of which we are NOT members. Ergo, we're left to kiss our own babies and live the political process vicariously through our friends across the Mississippi. As much as I love to hate our neighbors' caucus season, there are a few things I will genuinely miss for the next four years:

• I will miss the Magic Mountain Watch. As every aspiring presidential candidate knows, it is ideal to cram in as many photo shoots at iconic small-town haunts as possible -- and here in the Quad Cities, there's no better backdrop than the lunch counter at Ross' Restaurant, where many a candidate tries to stop and make small talk while not gaping in horror at the yummy-but-not-for-amateurs Magic Mountain. This year, Newt Gingrich made the Ross' stop, as did Ron Paul (who I missed by mere minutes!) as well as an entire news crew from Holland sent to basically explain this weirdness to Europe.

• I'm candidate impartial when it comes to Republicans, but I just have to say that I'll definitely miss seeing East Coast businessmen trying desperately to look at home in the Midwest. Love or hate Gingrich or Mitt Romney all you want, you've got to admit the two of them look about as comfortable in a cornfield as I do in a gymnasium.

• Every election season, there's always ONE journalist who comes to Iowa and writes a piece that paints every voter in the state as a backwoods gun-owning tractor-pull enthusiast. This year, that piece came courtesy of a U. Iowa professor who wrote an essay in The Atlantic that makes the average Iowan out to be slightly less intelligent than your average brick wall. Sample sentence: "There are few billboards along the washboard-bumpy, blacktop roads that slice through the countryside, only hand-drawn signs advertising sweet corn, cattle, lemonade, or boar semen." Now, I've done my fair share of aimless Iowa countryside driving, and I can safely attest that I've never come across a single sign for boar semen. If I had, it would very likely be my Facebook profile pic for a good long while.

As annoying as it can be, I hope our democratic campaigning process never changes. Reading a candidate's position papers will never be as powerful as seeing that candidate in the flesh. And as long as they're hitting the campaign trail, I think Iowa's a fine state to start it in. It's a perfect slice of Americana and the folks are generally good-natured and caring.

My favorite story of this election season goes back to Ross' Restaurant: When that Dutch news team went to edit and file their story, they discovered their hotel's wi-fi was out. Not knowing anyone in town, they called the only people they could think of: Ron and Cynthia Friedhof, the owners of Ross'. Minutes later, the entire Dutch crew was welcomed into the Friedhof family home, where the crew worked all night to complete and file their report on time. THAT'S the can-do helping hand Midwest that I want our future Presidents to see first-hand.

COLUMN: Best of 2011 TV

The one good thing about suddenly finding oneself single is that I've been able to dedicate considerably more time to one of my favorite pursuits: sitting around feeling incredibly sorry for myself while watching an absolutely unhealthy amount of television.

In fact, I've watched so much TV this year that I feel compelled to turn it into a Best of 2011 list, if for no other reason than the Golden Globes got it ALL wrong this year. Besides, I wonder if it's possible to write off one's cable bill if one claims one watches TV for one's job?

So, without further adieu, these are MY picks for the ten best TV shows of 2011:

10 - Destination: Truth (SyFy). There's no denying the cheeziness of the premise: A snarky, low rent Indiana-Jones-type leads an expedition of explorers on a weekly quest to capture evidence of ghosts, yetis, Nessies, and Bigfoots aplenty. But its host Josh Gates' ability to mix over-the-top sensationalism with quirky humor that makes D:T the best "reality" show on TV.

9 - South Park (Comedy Central). How is it that Trey Parker & Matt Stone can run around winning Tonys and taking Broadway by storm, yet still produce television's most biting and spot-on social commentary in the form of four trash-mouthed cartoon fourth-graders? With most episodes created in less than a week's time, South Park is a thing of magic.

8 - The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central). Every television show has its ups and downs, but there's never been a nightly show with the consistency, class, and belly laughs of The Daily Show. I spend my workdays in a true media hub, soaking up the daily news as it breaks... then I get to come home and watch Jon Stewart skewer it mercilessly. If you can't find the humor in life, it's not worth living.

7 - Louie (F/X). Louis C.K. has always been one of my favorite stand-up comedians, and his short-lived HBO series "Lucky Louie" showed promise but was hindered by its strange sitcom format. C.K.'s new series, shot more like an indie film, fits his scathing sad-sack humor like a glove. Interspersing a fictionalized version of his real life with small-room stand-up, this cheaply-produced series gets laughs without pandering or fearing to tread on controversial subjects.

6 - Glee (Fox). Yep, I'm a straight guy who likes "Glee" - sue me. It's a feel-good forward-thinking quirky series that takes an honest yet fun look at some pretty serious social topics -- and with great tunes to boot. What's not to like? With half the main cast set to "graduate" and possibly leave the show at the end of this season, NOW is the time to catch Glee at its finest before it jumps the shark.

5 - Homeland (Showtime). I'll admit it, I tuned in to the premiere of this show simply to see Claire Danes crash and burn in a role beyond her ability. Instead, I was wowed by her portrayal of a flawed yet caring CIA officer who becomes convinced that a recently released American POW has been brainwashed into an Al-Qaeda terrorist. With more twists and turns than Mandy Patinkin's beard, this thoughtful and well-written thriller is the surprise hit of the year.

4 - Greek (ABC Family). 2011 was the farewell season for this fantastic sleeper show. What could have been a lame family-friendly version of "Animal House" instead was an edgy and addictive coming-of-age serial, mostly at the hands of the show's fantastic young cast. Predictable? Sure, a little. But fans of the show couldn't wait to see Cappie and Casey drive off together after graduation.

3 - The Vampire Diaries (CW). Let's get one thing straight -- "Twilight" this ain't. Okay, sure, maybe every single member of the cast hails from the Island of Improbably Attractive People, and maybe the main theme of the show is a romance between a human and a vampire. And, sure, there are werewolves, too -- but that's where the teenage schlockiness stops. The thrills are massive, the plots addictive, and the writing (from Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson) makes this series waaay more than just another teen soap.
2 - Fringe (Fox). It's an absolute crime that the best sci-fi thriller on television -- and maybe one of the best in history -- is lost in the void of a Friday night timeslot. Seemingly always on the verge of cancellation, Fringe (now it's in fourth season) continues to push the boundaries of time, space, and reality while being the most groundbreaking show to air since Lost. A word to new fans, though: don't start watching now without catching up on old episodes or you will have NO idea what's happening. I watch every episode religiously and STILL don't know what's happening half the time... but it's the most fun ride on TV.

1 - Parks and Recreation (NBC). What started as The Office's ugly stepchild has spent the last three seasons becoming the most consistent gut-buster on TV. While The Office has floundered this season with poor writing and a much-missed Steve Carell, Parks & Rec has flourished with the funniest cast and best writing on TV. Who wouldn't want to live in central Indiana, marry April Ludgate, go into business with Tom Haverford, and go out for a steak (or two or five) with Ron Swanson? With that, I conclude my two-part look back at 2011 with a "sayonara, sucker!" and a finger stuck in the air (I'll let you pick which one.) Some years are best left in the dust, and 2011 was one of 'em. Here's to a prosperous and awesome new year full of higher highs, fewer lows, a ladder for every pitfall, and surplus amounts of quality television to live life vicariously through.