Monday, May 21, 2012

COLUMN: Lightning

I like storms.  But that's the funny thing about verbs -- once you get used to their present, they go all past tense on you in a hurry. It turns out storms are harder to love once you're a homeowner.

Every since I was a little kid, I've been fascinated by weather. When I would get asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my common answer shifted like the wind between weatherman and DJ. What can I say, rock and roll won out -- especially when I found out that weather forecasting wasn't so much magic as it was interpreting math & science - yuck.

Still, I've always been one of those idiots who runs outside to look at a storm rather than hides in the basement from it. I pretend to have good pop culture sensibilities, but my true friends all know that my REAL favorite TV show is "Storm Chasers" and my REAL favorite movie is "Twister." Mother Nature can occasionally be destructive, ruthless, powerful, and awesome -- and I want a front row seat.

Part of it stems from my upbringing. I grew up in one of those earth-sheltered homes that was all the rage in the 80's.  Only one wall in the house was exposed to the outside world -- the other 3, as well as the roof, were protected by solid earth. Cave sweet cave. The house was designed for energy efficiency, but a nice side effect is that it's earthen casing makes it virtually storm-proof.  We knew a family that lived in a similar house who casually woke up to find that an F3 tornado had passed over their house in the middle of the night and they slept through it. This kind of protection leads to a misleading feeling of invincibility when it comes to storms.

I need to remind myself that my CURRENT house sits ABOVE the ground.

A couple weeks ago, my friend Linn was over -- and absolutely NOT because we were watching "Vampire Diaries" because we are both far too old and wise to get hooked on a TV show clearly designed for teenagers. So just picture us doing something else -- sipping tea or what-have-you. Well, after the show, err, TEA got done, we flipped over to catch "Parks & Rec" -- but no dice.

Instead, I was staring at a clearly excited Greg Dutra -- my favorite LMWKLLFS (Local Meteorologist Who Kinda Looks Like Fred Savage.)  And Greg had just hit Stage 3 on the intensity scale. Some people use fancy radars or Fujita scales to measure storm power. After watching years of local storm coverage, I've created my own sure-fire measurement system that I call the Swails-Kastor Scale of Potential Awesomeness:

Stage 1 - If a meterologist breaks into programming yet is seen with a tight collar and carefully ironed tie, there is NOTHING to worry about. Perhaps a nice drizzle.

Stage 2 - If the tie is loosened or the collar relaxed, we could be in for trouble. Watch for hail and wind damage.

Stage 3 - If the tie is off or the collar unbuttoned, seek shelter ASAP because the weather guys are getting WAY too excited. Here's where you hear phrases like, "We're seeing good rotation," as if any rotation is "good."

Stage 4 - If the jacket AND tie are off? You might not make it through the night.

When I was a kid, it seemed like the local weather staff's most accurate form of prediction was to stick their head out a window and look for flying cows. These days, every station has their own MegaSuperDopplerAction 3000, where skilled professionals can now look at an array of impressive yet incomprehensible flashing blips and somehow ascertain that a Mr. Ronald Smith of 1332 West 13th Street is 18.5 seconds away from a one-way ticket to Oz.

And that's what we were seeing that night. Instead of "Parks and Rec," it was a storm cell, complete with tornadoes and wind and hail and ominous flashing blips. I wasn't impressed. It was at least 50 miles away and things still looked good outside. "Feh," I said. "I'll believe it when it shows up."

My friend Linn, on the other hand, is a weather worrier -- and all it took was ONE announcement that it was headed our way for her to start putting her shoes on and me, in turn, to start calling her a wuss. She split for home and I was left with nothing to do but watch the endless weather coverage on TV.

Eventually the excitement ebbed. The storm was reaching Rock Island, but the warnings were cancelled and TV went back to regular programming. I logged onto Facebook to see all my friends typing an assortment of clever variations of either "I like storms" or "I hate storms." I chimed in with "The Dutra just rocked this storm coverage like a boss." Those would be the last words I would ever type on my laptop.


There aren't enough all caps in the world to express how loud it was. All I knew was that several things happened in those .005 seconds:

Sparks flew out of my laptop. It felt like I had joy buzzers in my hands. Everything electronic in my house poofed out of existence. I jumped three feet in the air. The cats jumped about seven. Every smoke detector in the house went off at once, then magically stopped ten seconds later.

It's probably not the smartest move upon surviving a lightning strike to immediately run outside into a massive lightning storm, but I needed to make sure the house wasn't on fire. Once I was sufficiently soggy and confident that I wasn't about to turn into Shane Flambe, I came in and assessed the damage.

Despite owning a whole house surge protector, the hit tripped over half my circuit breakers. And, after resetting them, a few things didn't come back on. Like my laptop. And my TV. And my other TV. And my Blu Ray player, other Blu Ray player, cable box, DVR, X-Box, air conditioner and thermostat. Yikes.

So my world for the past two weeks has involved claims adjusters, insurance reps, repair guys, and more bureaucracy than you could shake a stick at -- not that you COULD shake a stick at it, because "it" appears to be located in a call center in India.

The moral of the story? I'm still working on it. My guess is it's something like "be afraid of storms." Or "don't call your friend a wuss lest karma will bite your butt with lightning." I'm gonna go with the easy answer: "Greg Dutra is a mystical seer who should be feared at all costs. Don't call him Fred Savage or he'll send the weather after you."

COLUMN: Werewolves, Pt. 2

Are you still reeling from my newsflash last week?

If you missed the party, here's the scoop: WEREWOLVES ARE IN CARBON CLIFF.

At least that's what the Rock Island County Historical Society would have us believe. It was at a trivia night a few weeks ago at the RICHS that the question was posed: "What Rock Island County town is known to be inhabited by werewolves?" The answer was Carbon Cliff, and the volunteers at the RICHS had the "proof" in some antique news clipping or historical journal.

Of course, when I returned to the Historical Society a few days later, no one could find the source of this Carbon Cliff werewolf lore -- which probably means the whole thing's a load of hooey. OR it means that I've stumbled upon a secret society sworn to protect the decades-long secret of wolven atrocities walking among us.

I was hoping that my shocking expose last week would have netted me a Pulitzer by now, or at least a phone call from the National Enquirer. They must have misplaced my number. But this lack of national interest got me to thinking.

Maybe I need to get in the thick of things. After all, Geraldo didn't just report about Al Capone's vault -- he took a sledgehammer to the sucker and crawled right in. Of course, Geraldo didn't find a dang thing in that vault, but he also didn't have the potential of opening up a vault of werewolves. The only way for you people to take me seriously is if I put my money where my mouth is and head out to Carbon Cliff to see for myself.

You've heard of the book and soon-to-be-movie "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," right? I can one-up that. I am Shane Brown, Werewolf, err, Finder-Outer-About. And last weekend, I grabbed my friend Linn and we cruised into Carbon Cliff looking for any signs of things that go grrr in the night.

You might, of course, wonder why we decided to do this on a Sunday afternoon. Well, rest assured that it had nothing to do with the fact that Sunday afternoons are boring and we needed something to do to kill time. No, no -- we had scientific reasons for an afternoon werewolf hunt. I just need to think up some, hang on.

Okay, I've got it. First off, anyone who's seen the Twilight films knows that the full moon thing is hogwash -- those annoying shirtless kids can just wolf out any old time they fancy. But let's for a minute assume that our Carbon Cliff creatures are your more traditional full-moon werewolves. Well, the night prior was a full moon. In fact, it was the much-touted SUPERmoon. So ask yourself this: What's easier to slay, a pack of ravenous monsters running amok all super-wolfy? Or a pack of hungover humans with bellies full of innocent villagers the next day? I pick my fights wisely.

We were barely in town for minutes before the evidence began piling up:

- You can barely drive a block in Carbon Cliff without seeing a basketball hoop -- and, as any fan of "Teen Wolf" knows, werewolves love to hit the courts.

- A business on the edge of town called ALL FUR FUN. "Dog grooming," my fanny. It's clearly a rec hall for wayward werewolves. Carbon Cliff resident and assured non-werewolf Rebecca Springer tells me she's been there twice during business hours only to find a sign saying "back in 5." Hmm.

- A prominent sign on one of the main roads announcing "CHILDREN ALONG PAVEMENT"?? Come on, werewolves, we all know you need a place to dump the carcasses of your victims, but there's no need to advertise it.

The proof was all around us, but I was still surprised when we rounded a corner to find ourselves face to face with a real life werewolf.

Well, maybe it was a were-spaniel. But one look into its eyes and you could see its demonic fury. But I could also see its humanity and regret for its evil ways -- why else would it tie itself up on a leash in its own front yard? Only one reason: to save its fellow man from its wanton bloodlust. Suddenly I felt sympathy for this creature, born into a hideous double life beyond its control. I knew what I had to do.

"Attention, were-beast!" I shouted at the monster. "Your truth has been revealed! It is my sworn duty as a top-notch journalist to warn the public of your menace. However, I am not without sympathy. Perhaps there is a way that humans and shape-shifters may live together in peace. I am willing to cease my plans to head up a mob of angry villagers if you promise no more harm to befall humans. Do you accept these terms?"

The beast looked at me intently and distinctly said, "Yep." Or maybe it was "yip." Still, it understood. I understood. You're welcome, Quad Cities: I just brokered peace between humans and werewolves.

When I got to work on Monday, I was stunned to open an e-mail from one Bill Hintz, Village Trustee of Carbon Cliff. Now that the cat was out of the bag, the truth could finally be set free.

"I thought I'd put yours and residents' minds at ease," he wrote to me, "While werewolves have been around hundreds of years, we passed several ordinances banning this type of noctural activity. It hasn't been without its challenges, however. Do you have any idea what it costs to supply the Rock Island County Sheriffs Dept. with silver bullets? It can be a strain on Village finances, but we've managed to perservere even in these difficult economic times.

"In all seriousness, you should make a visit to the lower Village sometime and look at our green street initiative. Village President Ken Williams and the board have worked long and hard to bring this project to fruition. Moreover, having the streets under construction has been somewhat stressful for our werewolf populace. Home deliveries have been difficult if not impossible for them."

Carbon Cliff, it's good to know your government officials are working hard (and have a pretty good sense of humor.) And speaking of Carbon Cliff Village President Ken Williams, it turns out you might know him better from his earlier days as an actor on the classic Acri Creature Feature monster movie showcase -- where he portrayed Beauregard the Werewolf.  Gulp.

COLUMN: Werewolves Pt. 1

It's a good thing you people have me around.

I absolutely love my weekly piece of real estate here in the Arts & Living section. But what happens when a seemingly mild-mannered humor columnist gets the chance to transcend? What would happen if yours truly had an exclusive story about a terrifying menace that threatens our very way of life?

Ladies and gentlemen, alert that Pulitzer dude, 'cause I'm about to leap into the big leagues with a headline that will rock your socks off and re-arrange the world as you know it. Hang on tight, I'm about to get all Geraldo up in this piece. Like the Terminator once said: Come with me if you want to live.


Wrap your brain stem around THEM apples for a hot minute.

Our story begins a couple weeks ago. As you may know, I'm a big fan of fundraiser trivia nights, so when I heard about one being presented by the Rock Island County Historical Society, we were in. My team walked through the door with our usual confident swagger... until we realized that the event was 100 questions about Rock Island County history. A quick look around the room verified a considerable number of grey-haired competitors who had likely lived a lot more of Rock Island County history than any of us. By the end of the first round, our strategy changed from "winning and high-fiving one another" to "averaging better than 50% and not getting laughed at."

We didn't win that night, but we DID have a lot of fun -- until out of nowhere, when this question was asked under the category of "Local Lore":

"What Rock Island County town is known to be inhabited by werewolves?"

Ex-squeeze me? Werewolves? Mythical lycanthropes, right here in river city? Denizens of the full moon only stoppable by silver bullets? Apparantly so, and the correct answer turned out to be Carbon Cliff.

Now, reflect if you will upon that question for a moment. "What Rock Island County town IS KNOWN TO BE inhabited by werewolves?" NOT "What area town was once rumored to have been inhabited by the preposterous notion of..." No, she definitely said "IS KNOWN TO BE" inhabited. As in: they're there right now, and we KNOW it. Somewhere, there is proof. And it's happening in the here and now. Creatures of the night walk among you, Carbon Cliffians.

This, I realized, was the sort of breaking news that demanded immediate and professional coverage. So as soon as I finished playing trivia, stopped for a bite to eat, went home, got some sleep, went to work, came home, DJ'ed at a couple bars, hung out with friends, watched a NASCAR race, slept a few more nights, sat down to write this week's column, realized I was completely out of ideas, then recalled the werewolf story, I knew it was time for action.

The good news is that I'm somewhat of an expert on werewolves. I say this because my ex-girlfriend dragged me to every one of those "Twilight" movies. From careful analysis of the films, here is what I've painstakingly learned about the contemporary werewolf:

(a) They possess incredible agility, travel in packs, and are ferocious hunters with lightning-fast speed.


(b) They are also super hunky, have lousy taste in women, and apparantly don't own any shirts.

My work was cut out for me. My first stop was a visit back to the Rock Island County Historical Society to find the original source of this information. Now, the staff at the RICHS are all incredibly nice, incredibly helpful volunteers, and watching these poor folk scour the archives for proof of the existence of werewolves is a memory I will take with me for the rest of days. One polite volunteer even turned to me at one point and said, "You DO know that werewolves are fictional, right? They don't REALLY exist." Or that's just what she'd like me to believe. The end result? They found NO source evidence as to the origin of the Carbon Cliff werewolf lore. Or that's just what they'd like me to believe.

Occam's Razor tells us that, when faced with multiple possible explanations, the simplest is usually correct. Well, the way I see it, there are two potential scenarios here:

(1) The werewolf thing is a load of hooey once postulated by simpler people who lived in simpler times, or

(2) With nothing more than my keen journalistic instincts, I have stumbled upon an evil and long-standing conspiracy wherein generations upon generations of a secret society have infiltrated the Rock Island County Historical Society in a never-ending struggle against media, investigation, and society in order to, at any cost, hide the precious secret that the seemingly innocent village of Carbon Cliff is, in fact, a breeding ground for half-human, half-wolf hellspawn atrocities that prowl our moonlit nights with malice and malevolence.

I think the correct answer is clear: RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! WEREWOLVES WALK AMONG US!

The "volunteers" at the historical society that day spurned my attempts at discovering the truth, but they eventually told me to return the next day and ask for a volunteer named Lois, the person who created the questions for the trivia night. Poor Lois -- to think what the werewolves will do with her when they discover she slipped and revealed the truth of their hidden existence.

Still, I returned the next day and met up with Lois, who turned out to be a wonderfully nice woman who definitely does NOT deserve to be eaten by werewolves. And when I asked her about the source of that trivia question, I finally had the answer I needed:

"I don't really recall," she said. "That's just a strange little trivia nugget I picked up along the way. I must've read it somewhere once, and I'll try my best to remember where."

There you have it, Quad Cities. WEREWOLVES ARE IN CARBON CLIFF, and we know this to be true because a nice lady named Lois might have read it somewhere once. WHAT MORE PROOF DO YOU NEED?!?! Where do we go from here? How do we handle this menace? These are questions I'm still unequipped to answer.

All I can tell you is, if you find yourself with strange bite marks and feel a change coming on at the next full moon, do NOT -- I repeat, do NOT -- make a move on the chick with the vampire boyfriend. She WILL turn you down, and that's a were-bummer.

COLUMN: Fringe

It's funny that the class I cared the absolute least about in college is the one that's stuck with me the longest.

The neat part about a liberal arts education is that you're forced to take a little bit of everything. The goal, they say, is to spit you out a more well-rounded individual. This meant I got to take weird cool classes like Cultural Geography and the History of Propaganda. I got to write term papers on truly bizarre topics like the theological symbolism of "Thelma and Louise." I wouldn't trade my liberal arts education for the world (though if given another shot, I might try actually ATTENDING class on a regular basis.)

But there was ONE class that was especially rough for me to roll out of bed for every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a trimester: Intro to Philosophy.

Philosophy was one topic I'd never really explored prior to college. I'd like to think of myself as one of those creative, bookworm-y types who'd fit right in with the goateed coffeeshop crowd. Truth be told, I'm more of a shallow, short-sighted realist. To me, life's interesting enough without having to stop and ask questions like, "Am I here?" "Why am I here?" "What is here?" "Why is here not there?" At 8 a.m., my
deepest thoughts are more like, "Am I awake?" and more importantly, "Why am I awake?"

In my opinion, there are only three sorts of people who should concern themselves with philosophy:

(1) Folks who spend their entire lives in homes that smell of fine mahogany whilst discussing the contents of their vast libraries, and most likely doing so with German accents.

(2) Folks who spend their entire lives in silence just a-thinkin' atop Tibetan mountaintops.

(3) Folks who spend their entire lives in Bob Marley t-shirts who liberally insert words like "whoa" and "dude" into conversations just loud enough to be heard over the infinitely long Grateful Dead songs playing in the background.

As annoyed as I was with the class, I was also truly amazed that we could spend an entire hour debating whether or not a chair was real. Vague abstract questions only yield vague abstract answers, so most of our amateur philosophical discussions would end with a profound, "Hmm, that's sure something to think about, alright."

Still, no other class made me feel more "collegiate." I MUST be smart, because only smart people waste their time pondering the nature of being, right? I just couldn't ever imagine a scenario, though, where a job interviewer would ever look me square in the eye and go, "Your resume looks solid. You're a perfect fit for our company... IF you can tell me whether or not this chair is real."

Twenty years later, though, I find myself coming back to some of those same discussions, all thanks to one of the most confounding, innovative, and downright weird shows ever to grace network TV -- Fox's much loved but seldom watched "Fringe."

If you're unfamiliar with the show, it's a hard one to sum up in a paragraph. (Very minor spoilers ahead.) "Fringe" revolves around a secret branch of the FBI who deal with all things weird and wooly: think "X-Files" but without the aliens. Instead, "Fringe" gives us the possibility of a parallel dimension -- a second equally real world where the twin towers still stand, coffee beans are extinct, and every one of us has a doppleganger who may or not be anything like our twin selves.

If that's not weird enough, this past season introduced the concept of multiple timelines -- infinite different realities that play out in different ways based on our actions. Let's say your phone rings. If you get to it time, your future proceeds in one direction. If it goes to voicemail, your future goes a different way. Every decision that you make in life creates the possibility of multiple realities branching out from that moment. I just made a typo while I was writing that last sentence -- if I hadn't noticed and taken the time to correct it, would my life now be any different? If I wasn't home right now writing this column, maybe I'd be killed in a car wreck. Or maybe I'd be at the grocery store meeting my soulmate.

It got me thinking about what Alternate Shanes might be doing in alternate timelines this very second.

I had a pretty serious girlfriend when I was in college. What if we'd stayed together? I could be parents to teenagers by now. In THIS timeline, I still like to pretend that I'm a college student. In THAT timeline, I could be sending my KID to college. Unless there's another timeline where college tuition gets chopped in half, I'll pass.

Maybe there's a timeline where I decided not to come back from my vacation to Colorado a decade ago. In that timeline, maybe I'm a fitness buff who rides mountain bikes and rock climbs and has girls falling over him. Or me. Or whatever. But I can't imagine a timeline where I'm NOT so scared of bees and bugs that I'd be willing to hang out in nature for extended periods of time.

Better yet, maybe there's a timeline where I didn't give up on drum lessons in junior high because they were too hard. Maybe in that timeline, I'm a rock god instead of a guy who plays Rock Band on the X-Box. Then again, no matter the timeline, I'd still be 41 years old, which would mean I was probably a rock god a decade ago and I'm now fighting it out with Screech and Dennis Rodman for screen time on "Celebrity Rehab."

The truth is simple. If there indeed are millions upon millions of timelines going on right now based on the general decisions I've made, my guess is that all but a handful of those Alternate Shanes are sitting right here with me on this couch watching "The Voice" and being thankful for our shared collective weird little life.

Weirder yet, when "The Voice" got done, I channel-flipped to Discovery Science where a pack of quantum physicists just offered the theory that time as we know it is an illusion, and that instead of moving through time, we're really moving through an infinite number of static universes stacked together like a pile of photographs.

Like ol' Professor Whats-his-name showed me, "Hmm, that's sure something to think about, alright." But only for a few more minutes -- "South Park" comes on at 9.


Let's see, where was I...? Oh, yes. Death.

Last week's column was a big question mark as to whether or not I would manage to stave off the Grim Reaper for yet another week. Well, rest assured, dear reader, that I am writing this from the comfy confines of my living room sofa... and while my idea of heaven might well be sitting on a couch talking about myself for eternity, I'm pretty certain this is NOT the afterlife. All signs point to the fact that I've survived last week's brushes with death.

It all started with the heart attack I nearly had when I happened to catch a profile view of myself last weekend in a full-length mirror. "Out-of-shape" I can handle. "Chubby" I can manage. "Chunky" I can live with. But I am no longer those adjectives. At age 41, I am now just plain FAT. I will not stand for this... mostly because standing hurts my feet and back nowadays.

I need to make changes in life. My love affair with Coke Classic needs to come to an end. I need to start consuming meals that don't automatically come with curly fries. I need to burn more calories than those expended when one shifts one's weight from the left buttock to the right.

And it's going to start with me dragging my trusty 10-speed out of the garage. It's time to hit the bike.

There are 3 primary reasons why bike riding is my favorite form of exercise in the whole world:

(1) Bike riding is MOBILE. Some people enjoy communing with nature. I prefer fleeing from it. Yes, the world is a magical place full of green grass and warm sunlight and sweet little chirping birds. But it's also full of weirdos and snakes and bees and mosquitos and a vast assortment of God's creatures that buzz, bite, slither, and sting -- and frankly, the quicker I can pedal away from that nonsense, the better.

(2) Bike riding is DANGEROUS. I grew up out in the country, where the only thing you had to fear on a bike was a rogue piece of gravel. Never in my life have I had the chance to ride a bike on city streets with city people and city cars and everyone trying to share the same strip of city blacktop. In town, there are rules of the road, and it's not just about obeying them but having faith that every other distracted, cell-phone wielding nimrod behind the wheel does the same. Why, then, is this a GOOD thing? Because there's nothing like injecting your life with a little fear to make you totally forget that you're exercising and that exercising sucks.

(3) Most importantly, you can do it SITTING DOWN. Look, I'm not trying to get buff or anything. Those gym-obsessed guys you see with bulging biceps look about as uncomfortable lugging around their muscles as I do lugging around my gut. No thanks. I'm just looking to burn some calories and shrink my midsection, not get Buns of Steel. I'm quite happy with the Buns of Marshmallow I'm currently graced with.

So with the optimism and pride that naturally accompanies a positive step, I set out the other day on my inaugural bike ride of the season. I know how shamefully out of shape I am, so I figured a quick ride from my house down to Schweibert Park and back would about do me in for Day 1. But the minute I got on that bike, I was transformed. I was no longer the fat guy. I was Mercury! Or Hermes! Or whichever one has the little wings on his tennis shoes! Suddenly I understood Christopher Cross when he sang "Ride Like the Wind." I was one with the bicycle. Man-machine.

I got to Schwiebert Park and decided to head along the bike path for a ways. And then another ways. Eventually, I looked around and couldn't believe I was in downtown Moline. The pounds had to be MELTING off. I decided I'd better take a rest and head back before it got too late. I sat down on a riverfront bench... and then reality hit.

My lungs were burning. My legs were shaking. My heart racing. I had overdone it. I could feel the muscles in my legs tightening up with every minute. I knew I had to head back.

Instantly it felt like I was pedaling through caramel. A flat tire? Nope -- flat muscles. I was hosed. This must be what it feels like for an athlete to hit the wall -- but why did my wall have to be a good five miles from home?

They say everything's a learning experience. At that moment, I learned why I was able to make it to downtown Moline without much of an effort. The whole way there, I had a steady breeze pushing me right along. Now I was staring at it in the face. Instead of Christopher Cross riding like the wind, now I was Bob Seger running against the wind. Or cycling against the wind. But I don't know if you could call what I was doing cycling. No, this was more like wobbling against the wind.

How slow was I progressing? Let's just say on the way back, I was passed multiple times -- by joggers.

Then I remembered my secret weapon. In my front pocket lurked my trusty iPod. I'm a music nerd, so music would lead me home to victory like the Chariots of Fire theme, right? I plugged in, popped in my earbuds, and hit play.

Now, something to know about my iPod. It has ZERO organization. When I hear a song I like, I transfer it to my iPod where it sits with 8500 other songs in a state of constant random shuffle. I have everything on it from punk to hip-hop to indie rock to hardcore techno. My iPod's job is to inspire me and pick the music that best suits my mood. Here are, I kid you not, the first four songs it chose that day: The Smiths, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," Radiohead, "Go To Sleep (Little Man Erased)," Jackson Browne, "Running On Empty," and The Beatles, "I'm So Tired."

Eventually, after chugging for miles to a soundtrack of non-stop gloom and doom, I made it home just before dark with legs barely capable of making it up my back stairs. I spent the rest of that night writing last week's column and trying super hard not to die. The next day, walking hurt. The day after THAT, just plain existing hurt. Eventually it subsided so I can go try to kill myself AGAIN this weekend. I'm not giving up, and I still plan on working off a good chunk of this gut this summer, but man -- if this is what healthy feels like, just wheel me over to the Twinkies and let me go in peace.



Dear Vast Legions of the International Shane Brown Fanclub:

Your hero has fallen.  If you're reading this, there's a pretty good chance it means that someone's finally broken in and found my lifeless body spread out on the bed where I've barely been able to move since yesterday.  The Shane must be dead; long live the Shane.  Oh, and if that's the case, please alert Mr. Lloyd Webber -- he can begin work on my musical post haste.

But I figured I owed you, my dear followers, an explanation as to my sudden demise.  So, in my last act prior to covering my body in a fine layer of Biofreeze and epsom salts, I take to my laptop one final time.  If only... I could... lift... it.  Ow.

Like many a good story, my tale of woe starts on a Saturday night.  I was handling a fill-in DJ gig at a sports bar in the Village of East Davenport.  The crowd was fun, the vibe was relaxed, and I was having an all-around excellent night -- with one glaring exception.  Every time I turned my head to the left, I was greeted with... a full-length mirror, and the repeated hammering realization that WOW, I AM FAT.

I've always been a bit on the chunky, paunchy, and/or big-boned side of things, and I'm pretty much okay with that.  Long ago, I made the conscious decision to forego a life of rock-hard abs and chiseled muscles in favor of television and food that actually tastes GOOD, and frankly, I think the world's a better place for it.

I have zero coordination.  Two summers ago, I broke my foot tripping over NOTHING on a perfectly clear sidewalk.  Nobody wants to see me exerting myself -- I'll sacrifice my health to save society from that view. I hate nature, I hate working out, and I hate watching what I eat. I'm just not cut out to have a cut body.

Yes, yes, I hear you, annoying healthy people out there:  The human body has evolved over millions of years into the perfect machine that it is today.  We are a product of lifetimes of hunting and gathering and generally being sweaty and gross.

Well, here's how I look at it.  In the days of yore, some of us were born to hunt and some of us were born to gather.  But SOMEBODY had to hang out, man the cave, track the inventories of meat and wood, schedule the virgin sacrifices, and pray for the yellow Sun God not to smite us all. I've seen the cave drawings, which means somebody had to MAKE the cave drawings. That's probably where MY ancestral line comes from. Even in primitive times, somebody had to be the data entry clerk.

So I'm okay with being a little bit pudgy.  I will never be The Situation. I'm more like The Reality -- and the reality is chubby.

But a funny thing started happening a few years back. I made zero changes to my lifestyle and diet, but suddenly more and more pounds kept appearing. It was as if I turned 35 and my metabolism threw itself a retirement party and sent me a postcard from Boca Raton.

This was a scenario that demanded immediate action... and that action was to start buying baggier and baggier clothes. At some point, though, shirts stop looking like shirts and start resembling tents. There's no more hiding what's been happening to my midsection. I have progressed to a state that can now be described as both roly and poly. My neck looks like I have wedged a comically large doughnut in my throat.

The other day I went to Old Navy to get some pants... to realize I've outgrown the stocked store sizes. Last time I checked, there is no Fat Navy. Instead, I ended up in the "big and tall" section of a mall store, buying pants alongside other chubby dudes as we acknowledged each other with sheepish nods that said, "Yep. It's come to this."

Still, though, I have the magical ability to ignore reality. Don't look down in the shower. Don't notice that I'm wheezing and sweating from climbing two flights of stairs. When I brush my teeth and check my hair in the morning, I still see the college-sized Shane staring back.

But standing in that club being forced to catch glimpse after glimpse of my full profile in that mirror? Ugh. It's REALLY time for action. I want future articles to be written about me that use words like "genius" and "beloved" and decidedly NOT words like "extricated with a crane."

I also need to be realistic, though. I am, at heart, a weak-willed and spineless excuse of a human being. There's no way I'm going to wake up tomorrow and completely redefine my life through diet and exercise. There's not enough positive thinking in the world to get me to willingly eat a rice cake. I'm pretty sure skim milk is really just white water. And I'm sorry, but I CAN believe it's not butter.

If I'm gonna do this -- and I WILL -- it's going to take baby steps and gradual changes to both diet and exercise. For me, that first step was to hop on my bike today and go for a ride on the riverfront. Which, unfortunately, may have just killed me. Should I survive the pain currently leapfrogging out of muscles I didn't even know I had, I'll have more on that next week.

COLUMN: Mayfield

As a card-carrying music nerd, there's nothing like going to concerts and hearing artists create music live before your ears. I love everything about concerts -- except for actually being there.

The truth is ugly. If I'm at a show -- especially one that I've spent loads of money on ticketsand/or travelled half the day just to see -- I can be assured that within minutes of my arrival, my personal space will be invaded by any of the following:

• The hippie dancer. Be it emo, screamo, rock, roll, hip or hop, she will find me. I could be at an OPERA for all it matters. There WILL be an annoying girl in a sun dress reeking of patchouli who will whirl, twirl, and express her deep love and admiration for music through the magic of interpretive dance. She will also land at least three inadvertent punches to my kidney before it's all over.

• The professional alcoholic. It's not a concert, it's just a bar with a really, really expensive cover charge. This guy will usually park himself directly in front of me and then spend the entirety of the show pushing and shoving his way to and from the bar, usually while trying to balance 2-4 beers, 1-3 of which will end up down my shirt by night's end.

• The conversationalist. It is the emotional peak of the show. The performer takes center stage to give us a hushed epic that exposes the frailty and wonder of their art. It commands our attention. Or at least that's what they want us to think. You, sir, are smarter. You know that what the artist really wants is for you to scream "FREEEEEEBIRD!" over and over again while high-fiving your friends.

• The American idol. Because I did NOT drive three hours and stand in line for another two in order for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear my favorite band. In fact, I came all this way to hear your karaoke version of their greatest hits, which is truly inspiring since I wasn't previously aware that a worse singer than William Hung existed. Congratulations on your showmanship.

These people flock to me like I am the Messiah of Irritation -- but over the years, I've become fairly good at drowning out my surroundings and just trying my best to enjoy the show.

And here's where it for once works in my advantage to be a fan of odd, eclectic indie bands. When you go see a mainstream act play at an arena, you're but one in a sea of potential idiots. When you're seeing some struggling band play a club that barely holds fifty people, you've got a better chance at actually enjoying the gig sans idiots.

Or so I thought.

Last weekend, I went to see The David Mayfield Parade play the Community Stage at the River Music Experience. If you're a regular reader of this nook of the newspaper, you might remember that I chose the David Mayfield Parade as my 2011 Album of the Year, so this was a gig I was seriously looking forward to. And if you've ever been to the Community Stage at the RME, you know how small of a place it is. Intimate gig, intimate crowd, amazing band. Win win win.

Unless you're me. Let's set the scene: Doors for the show opened at 7:30. I entered at 7:40, by which time every available seat in the room was taken. Suddenly I became VERY conscious of where I was standing. I'm a chubby guy, and I'm also 6' tall. Every single place I stood, I realized I was blocking the view of someone sitting down behind me.  Not cool.  The only place I could stand and NOT obstruct people was in the way back of the venue where MY view was obstructed.

Instead, I opted for a spot at the front of the bar, where if I performed a patented lean-n-slouch, I could have a clear view of the stage and not spoil it for the folks behind me.  Then HE showed up.

As if I turned on my homing beacon for freakshows, in walks the only dude at the show taller than me.  And where does he decide to stand?  Directly in front of me.  And once the music started, the swaying began.  It was small at first, but continued to grow and grow in both speed and distance.  Within minutes, the guy was a cross between Joe Cocker at Woodstock and Axl Rose circa "Welcome to the Jungle."

And as I stood there, I realized that due to this nutbag's sway-a-thon, I was seeing the concert with my left eye... then my right eye... then my left eye... then my right eye.  The whole thing was making me queasy.  The last thing I needed was for that guy to go home and write a heated newspaper column about how much he hates it when strangers at a concert vomit all over his back -- so I had to move.

I took a couple steps to the right and breathed a sigh of relief as the equilibrium reset itself in my brain.  This lasted about 10 seconds, until some dude behind me unlocked lips with his girlfriend long enough to go, "EXCUSE ME?! You're blocking my view!"

I wanted to yell in his face. I wanted to tell the dude that maybe he should stop mining his girlfriend's tonsils and stand the heck up like the other 95% of us. That maybe he should cut a guy some slack, especially a guy who's been looking forward to this show for months.  That maybe I'm not such a nice guy after all.

That's what I wanted to do.  What I did do was sheepishly apologize and try to execute another lean-n-slouch maneuver against a nearby pole that hopefully obscured no-one's view while silently praying that I wasn't giving myself the ultimate souvenir of permanent spinal damage.

Everything was hunky dory -- until the David Mayfield Parade took the stage.  From that point on, I have no clue what I did.  The show was so good I eventually forgot all about where or how I was standing. For all I know, I might have been dancing, spilling drinks, yelling and singing simultaneously.  No one scolded me again, so I must not have been TOO obnoxious.  All I know is that it was one of the best concerts I've seen in a looong time. So RME, please hurry and bring him back -- and if it's not too much trouble, if you could you construct a VIS (Very Important Shane) section of private front row seating, that'd be swell.

COLUMN: Reception

Only someone as steadfastly shallow, selfish, and self-centered as myself could figure out a way to turn one of the best days of the year into one of the most depressing. What can I say? I'm gifted. Mr. Brown, pity party of one, your table is ready.

To begin with, I'm pretty sure I'm a little bit stupid. Regular readers of my column know that I moonlight on the weekends spinning records at night clubs around town. Take it from me, this is a FANTASTIC hobby. It is NOT, however, a lucrative one. Pretty much every penny I earn doing club gigs is spent on more music and more equipment in order to keep getting more club gigs in order to spend more on music and equipment.

There's only ONE way to make serious bank in the DJ game: Weddings. And, as a general rule, I'm not a fan.

First off, in order to DJ wedding receptions, you need a lot more equipment than a couple CD players and a laptop. You need a full-on PA system with speakers and amps and lights -- and constantly lugging that stuff in and out of venues is a chore. About 15 years ago, I was DJing a wedding and hauling in a rig when I felt a "pop" and suddenly couldn't move my back from its current position. I ended up having to corral a wedding guest I was friends with and having her find all the songs I needed while I sat nearly paralysed in front of the mixer. Good times.

Then there's the whole dealing-with-the-bride-and-groom thing. Yes, it's their special day. Yes, you need to listen to everything they say. BUT, as a general rule, they're totally clueless when it comes to what their family and friends want to dance to. True story: I once DJed a wedding in Chicago where the bride and her family wanted loads of classic rock. The groom and HIS friends, however, only listened to aggro German pre-techno industrial dance music. They wanted me to "work it together." At any given point during that reception, 50% of the crowd thought I was insane. In case you ever wondered if it's possible to smoothly mix Eric Clapton into Einsturzende Neubaten, that'd be a no.

Wedding DJ's make an INSANE amount of money. The professionals who come in with their own rigs and lights and tuxedos can easily make over $1000 in a night. That's serious cash. But the stress of managing the equipment, the schedule, the requests, and the overall happiness of two people and their family and friends? That's when a hobby becomes a full-on second career, and that's exactly what my life DOESN'T need at the moment.

So when most folks come to me looking for a wedding DJ, I usually refer them to some of my friends who do amazing jobs. But when the request comes from one of my friends, it's hard to say no.

I've known Harry Cleaveland for years. Harry used to own Gameology, the MMORPG center in Rock Island. If you don't know what MMORPG means, congratulate yourself because it means you're NOT a giant nerd who wastes large portions of your life playing video games. Harry's
fiancee Kaycee is an absolute sweetheart, and when they asked me to DJ their reception, I couldn't say no.

There's parts of wedding receptions that I really love. Since Harry and a good chunk of his groomsmen were all closet nerds, I couldn't resist announcing the bridal party to the theme from "World of Warcraft." And when it came to dollar dances, where the poor bride and groom are awkwardly trapped on the dancefloor forEVER, I opted instead to make 'em laugh by throwing in "Muskrat Love" and Debbie Gibson's "Lost In Your Eyes" to the usual mix of slow song schlock.

All in all, it was a beautiful night, there was magic in the air, everything went according to plan, and I was proud to help seal the deal between two of the most awesome people I know. There was just one problem:

Once upon a time, Harry and I were both shopping for rings at the same time. His story had a happy ending; my relationship fizzled out like stale soda pop. And while I loved seeing him start the next chapter of his life, I couldn't help but sit in that DJ booth and wonder why MY fairy-tale romance was cancelled mid-season. When we called for single ladies to catch the bouquet, a theatre full of people produced exactly THREE candidates. Is NO ONE single any more?

After the reception, I got to see my other married friends make plans for brunch the next day. Before my last girlfriend, I barely knew what brunch was. Nowadays I miss brunch. I have no problem going to a restaurant by myself, but a fancy brunch solo? Just can't do it, and that sucks. You make enough sacrifices when you revert to bachelorhood -- bacon and sausage and french toast shouldn't be on that list.

Instead, I went home whiny, watched TV mopey, and fell asleep sulky. When I woke up, my first thought was brunch. After the obligatory "I-hate-my-life" meditation, I opted for defiant proactivity, and started calling my friends until I forced one awake long enough to mandate a brunch date. We got to the restaurant with about twenty minutes to spare and I proceeded to brunch like few have brunched before. It was a mean brunch full of purpose and vigor. I had never before thought it was possible to eat a sausage SPITEFULLY, but I made it happen.

And then, because karma runs my life, a magical thing happened. I got sick. Really, really sick. I'll spare the details, but suffice to say most of my evening was spent de-brunching. And while I was spending quality time in the bathroom, I started to realize what an idiot I'd been.

I have it good. I'm whining about my sad little single life while some people literally don't have a pot to... well, to do what I was doing. I've got a great life full of great friends and great fun, and if I can't hang onto a girlfriend, well, that's THEIR misfortune, not mine. I refuse to give up on love or life. Pity parties are part of life, but make sure they're a SMALL part. I might be down but I'm not out.

COLUMN: Stick Shift

There's a lot of things I imagined I'd be when I grew up: writer (check), DJ (check), meteorologist (before I realized math was involved), astronomer (even more math), Supreme Ruler of Earth (give it some time)... but "driving instructor" was never one of 'em.

A very good friend of mine has been on a bit of a self-empowerment crusade this year, and set about completing a "30 by 30" bucket list of sorts - thirty things she wanted to accomplish prior to turning 30 next month. It turns out she did pretty good and was able to cross 29 things off her list at a record pace.

The final item? Learn to drive a car with manual transmission. And with me being the only stick shift owner on her speed dial, I got the call. Who better to teach the fine art of driving than myself? After all, I enjoyed Driver's Ed so much in high school that I took it TWICE.

Why, you might ask? Well, I blame one of two scenarios. Either:

(1) I was a really, really bad driver.


(2) It was a complicated conspiracy theory that was equal parts: (a) the school realizing months into the semester that I was in fact five days by age ineligble to take the course, which resulted in them kicking me out of the class two weeks before the finals and only allowing me to remain AFTER my parents came down to school and raised an unholy hissy fit, and (b) the fact that my teacher was, in fact, a spurned suitor of my mother when they were both in high school (both true.)

Either way, it resulted in a big fat F on my report card, which at the time was a horror of inconsolable proportions, but in fact was the greatest thing that ever happened to me because that lone F stopped me from getting into my first college of choice BUT caused me to instead choose Augustana which brought me to Rock Island and, in a round-about way, into your homes every Sunday. Plus it also caused my mild-mannered mother to, upon finding out my grade, roll down the car window and chuck my driver's ed textbook at my teacher with full force, which might just be the most awesome potential misdemeanor that I've ever seen in my life.

Truth be told, it was all probably because I was a pretty bad driver, and with one good reason:

My folks owned a stick-shift. My dad's a patient guy, but after the fourth or fifth session of me doing my absolute best to grind the gears clean out of the family Nissan, I'm pretty sure I'm the direct reason why the man is bald today. I just absolutely did NOT take to driving a 5-speed. It was enough of a challenge to get my right foot to work the accelerator and brake, so adding a left foot and a clutch to the mix was just plain inconceivable. By the time I'd finally figured out how to pass the class on my second go-around, my folks had given up on the Nissan and bought me a junker -- but a junker with automatic transmission.

Fast forward to 1998. The junker had gone to wood-grained heaven, as had the ATE (All Terrain Escort) that followed it. Pretty much the day that VW announced the New Beetle, I was on the waiting list for a shiny black automatic Wonder Bug. In the meantime, I was relying on my dad's backup car -- a Chevy Blazer from the Mesozoic Era, complete with doors held together by pop rivets, a rockin' 8-track player, and a family of mice that would run across your feet while driving. I was desperate, and when the dealership called to tell me that my black automatic would be months off but a white 5-speed could be mine that day, I perked up.

"One problem," I told my salesman, "I can't drive stick."
"I'll teach you," he promised.

Unbelievably, he was true to his word. That night, we spent hours in the dealership lot while I ground the gears off one of their demo cars until I got it. Later, I took my new Beetle to the parking lot of Black Hawk College and practiced starting and stopping until sunup. That weekend, I took it to Chicago and got caught in rush hour - a "crash course" if there ever was one.

I'm still not the world's best stick shift driver, but I make do. So I figured hey, I can teach a friend, right?

Reality hit as we drove out for Lesson #1. I wanted her to avoid embarassment, so we went FAR out in the country until I found a lonely and blessedly straight gravel road. But as we headed into the great wide open, I realized I had absolutely no clue how to explain what I was doing.

In fact, what WAS I doing? I had no clue HOW to drive stick, I was just DOING it. This would be like trying to teach someone how to breathe. Just then we reached an intersection and I tried to focus on being able to explain how to downshift. Let's see - clutch, shift, blennnd the pedals, clutch, shift, blennnd the pedals, clutch, shift, blennBA-BUMP KRRR THUD!

"This," I explained, "is how easy it is to kill the engine if you're not careful. I did this on purpose to show you what it feels like."

First lesson complete. Better yet, she bought it. I think. Eventually I found the ideal training road, gave a few quick instructions, and we changed seats. I braced myself for the shock of the engine dying while she carefully put the car in gear, gave it some gas, and... took off smoothly like a pro. I had her stop and try it again. Car goes into gear, annnd... another perfect start.

"Okay," I said, "Now try putting it into second gear."

Clutch, shift, annd... perfect into second gear. Then we went back to first, stopped, restarted, stopped again, restarted again. It carried on for a half hour. Not ONCE did she kill the car. In fact, her shifting was smoother than mine. Within minutes, we'd gone from 1st to 5th, gravel to highway, up and down hills, forward and backwards. This can mean only one thing:

I AM A MASTER EDUCATOR. Clearly, my interpersonal communication skills have seamlessly merged with my love of NASCAR, transforming me into an expert in the command of motor vehicles -- and proving once and for all that the '87 Driver's Ed faculty of ol' GHS can pretty much suck it. So if you need someone to expertly teach you how to bond with your car, let me know. My rates are high but clearly worth it. I'll even teach you how to change a tire -- just let me know in advance so I can learn how to do it first.

COLUMN: Manilow

Well, that's just greeeat. I should've known this week was too good to be true.

There I was, cavorting to and fro in the gorgeous weather outside without a care in the world... while little did I know an evil Shane doppleganger was running around the Quad Cities trying to ruin my street cred.

Look, it's no secret that I'm the coolest person alive, right? I mean, why else would you be reading this column? If you were to make a list of the Top 5 coolest people in the world, it'd probably go something like:

#5 - The dude from the Dos Equis ads
#4 - Bill Nye the Science Guy
#3 - Chester Cheetah
#2 - Fonzie
#1 - Shane.

Coolness this intense doesn't just happen overnight. Such an epic ranking requires endless prep work, measured finesse, and near-constant vigil against threats to one's reputation. The minute you let your guard down? WHAM -- that's when you get an evil doppleganger showing up.

I'm trying my best to run this wicked and incredibly uncool imposter out of town -- but until then, the only thing I can do is humbly apologize for his shameful, shameful actions.

For instance, Quad Cities, if you've ever seen me around town and mustered up the courage to come say hello to your idol... only to find yourself talking to a stammering, red-faced, socially awkward weirdo who can barely make eye contact, it's clear that you've met my evil doppleganger.

If you were driving to work one day and found yourself getting cut off in traffic by some jerk in a Beetle who might have looked a lot like me, and then that jerk almost swerved into you because he was too busy futzing around with his iPod to watch where the heck he was going, CLEARLY you were dealing with my evil doppleganger.

But most importantly -- and I must make this perfectly clear -- if you were at last week's Barry Manilow show and you noticed someone who looked EXACTLY like me there, it was DEFINITELY my evil doppleganger.

I wouldn't be caught dead at a Barry Manilow concert, right? Think about it. Remember that cool list above? Well, it's got a flipside. Right now if you had to scientifically determine the LEAST cool things on Earth, it would clearly go:

#5 - The smell of burnt popcorn
#4 - Jesse and the Rippers
#3 - Urkel
#2 - Chlamydia
#1 - Barry Manilow.

If I had been at the Barry Manilow concert, which is of course mere theoretical postulating because, as I mentioned, it absolutely positively wasn't me and that's my story and I'm sticking to it -- but if it WERE me at the Barry Manilow concert, I would probably use the excuse that I was there with my parents as a birthday surprise for my mom. Good excuse, too, since I've heard that the evil doppleganger coincidentally enough was there in the company of my parents.

My folks lead what some might call a sheltered life. Were it not for their occasional forays into civilization for Wendy's and Pizza Hut, they'd be one bear cub away from leading what some might call a Grizzly Adams life.  They're pretty much perfectly content to live out on the farm with few friends and few social activities, and that's by design.

They're far from corn-fed backwood yokels, but it's still occasionally fun to take them out to "big city" entertainment.  Like when we were (theoretically) standing in line for the show and my mom turned to me and said, "Don't forget to put your cell phone on silent. We don't want to disturb the show."

"Umm," I (theoretically) replied, "At the iWireless Center, it's probably not gonna matter a whole lot."

Or when the ushers walked down the line handing out glow-sticks (huzzah!) and sadly informed the crowd that Barry wasn't accepting gifts tonight.

"Well," said my mother (theoretically), "I guess this means my underwear's staying on."

It's at this point that I began to worry about my poor dad.  Or theoretically worry, because as I've said, I'm clearly way too cool for a Barry Manilow concert.  My dad raised me on a steady diet of Chicago, Santana, and rock & roll -- and I'd expect forcing HIM to sit through a Barry Manilow concert would be akin to, well, forcing ME to sit through a Barry Manilow concert.

Except that I also grew up with my mom, who raised me on a steady diet of Barry, Barbra, Neils (Diamond & Sedaka), and any other cheezy singer you can think of.  And while cool Shane would have scoffed at all of these, Evil Doppleganger Shane may have picked up an alarming early fondness for classic Manilow that's strangely survived all these years.

And had I been at last week's show, despite it being filled with Vegas-y schmaltz -- and despite current Barry being a tad bit older, wobblier, and perhaps a little more plastic than the Barry of yore -- I might have actually had a fantastic time reliving all those songs of my youth.

My mom might have even run the gamut from smiling to laughing to crying and ending up with a hoarse voice from screaming so much.  And even my dad might have assessed the whole thing afterwards by saying, "I gotta hand it to him. That was a hell of a performance."

All of which should easily merit a Son of the Year Award, which I will accept with gratitude on behalf of my evil doppleganger.  In the meantime, all I can do is promise you, dear reader, that I will do everything in my power to keep my evil, uncool body double at bay... but no promises.

After all, Neil Diamond might come back to town one of these days.