Tuesday, July 31, 2012

COLUMN: Science

Science is neat, isn't it?

I've long been fascinated by man's ability to explore planets, build robots, invent vaccines, and discover the fundamental building blocks of life. Then I learned that it usually involved the extensive use of math and I became substantially less interested.

Still, it's amazing how a little research, experimentation, and I'm going to guess the use of square roots and maybe pi can help us solve the most perplexing questions of our existence, such as:

• How was the universe formed?

• What is the meaning of life?

• How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

(Answer? On average, 508. See http://gwax.com/content/tootsiepop.html. God bless the internet.)

• What lakes should I definitely avoid swimming in this summer?

(More on that later.)

And, of course, the most important question plaguing mankind for centuries:

• What does outer space smell like?

We now have an answer. According to an investigative piece on the insanely addictive LifesLittleMysteries.com, outer space smells like... metal. More specifically, arc welding. Now you know.

Thanks to science, we're now able to follow Gene Roddenberry's dream of exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no man has gone before... and taking a big ole whiff of it.

There's just one problem with smelling outer space. If you were to take a cruise up to the great beyond and open your capsule window for a refreshing breath of deep space, the lack of oxygen would kill you dead. Plus I've watched enough bad sci-fi special effects to know that depressurizing your spacesuit turns your body inside out in the grossest of ways. So when your average astronaut goes out on a spacewalk, all they can smell is the comforting plastic-y goodness of a spacesuit interior.

But, says LifesLittleMysteries, when those astronauts hop back aboard the space station, apparantly their suits REEK of outer space -- and it's apparantly NOT sugar, spice, and everything nice. Unless, of course, you're a weirdo astronaut who digs weird smells. The article quotes a blog from NASA astronaut Don Pettit:

"The best description I can come up with is metallic; a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation. It reminded me of my college summers where I labored for many hours with an arc welding torch repairing heavy equipment for a small logging outfit. It reminded me of pleasant sweet smelling welding fumes. That is the smell of space."

Call me crazy, but I think if you use words like "pleasant" and "sweet" to describe arc welding fumes, perhaps you've logged one too many miles in orbit, Don. That said, if you're trapped onboard a space station for long periods of time, maybe anything that doesn't smell like YOU is enough to be "pleasant." In space, it turns out, you sweat CONSTANTLY. In zero gravity, there's no natural convection. That means your body heat never rises from your skin -- which means your sweat factory turns on and never shuts off 'til splashdown. And since that sweat never evaporates, you're just basically sitting in a gooshy layer of your own filth the whole time (see also: last Monday.)

But on a scale of 1-to-gross, stinky space doesn't hold a candle to our next story, which comes from the world of biology, the cornucopia of grossness. I like to scan news headlines throughout the day; it makes me feel like I've got my fingers on the pulse of the world. But every once in a while, you hit a story that makes that pulse defibrillate a little bit. Such occurred the other day when I stumbled upon THIS gem:


Umm... okay, THAT'S worth clicking on. Things that eat testicles are a scary enough concept as is; but if we live in a world where testicle-eating creatures have to exist, I'd like to hope that they're as far away from ME as possible. Like the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. Or Middle-Earth. Or Narnia.

But no, no. These little miracles of nature have made a home in Lake Lou Yaeger in the town of Litchfield, Illinois. Litchfield has a tourism website that says, and I quote:

"Our 1200+ acre lake offers the best in boating with 45 miles of beautiful shoreline, 8 miles long and 1/2 mile wide. Skiers slash the blue waves, swimmers play in the cool water, and sunbathers enjoy the beach area."

...and, apparantly, evil giant fish lie in wait to nibble on your nether-regions.

I'm not kidding. This is a real news story. The fish is called the pacu. They sport human-like teeth, weigh up to 55 pounds, and in their native (you guessed it) Papua New Guinea, they're lovingly known by another name that I don't even think I can say in a family newspaper. Let's just say that several men have met their maker at the teeth of a pacu. I'll spare the details, but let's just say that when the pacu parties, it really knows how to have a ball. Or two.

So how did this heebie-jeebie monster fish end up in Lake Lou Yaeger? The only possible answer is that some nimrod dumped his aquarium of exotic fish into the local lake. Call me crazy, but I'm a firm believer in not allowing human beings to own any animals that can kill human beings. A good rule of thumb? If there's something in your house that can be prefaced by the word "exotic," it's bad news. Ask Seigfried. Or Roy. Or Tom Cruise in "Risky Business." If you own a tarantula or a snake or a piranha, you're not cool. You're over-compensating for your lack of cool. Suck it up and go get a cat like the rest of us.

The intriguing thing, though, is that all of the articles on the Lake Lou Yaeger pacu ponder how to go about removing them from the lake. Now, I'm no science expert. We've established that. But let's look at the facts. If the fish in the lake feed on testicles, how about, oh, I dunno, removing the testicles from the lake? Sorry to sound all Chief Brody, but GET OUT OF THE WATER, GUYS. No testicles equals no food equals no more pacu, right?

Oh. Maybe not. It turns out that while pacu enjoy them as a tasty snack, human testicles are not exactly a staple of their food diet. Instead, the pacu feeds primarily on nuts. Real ones. Stop snickering. But just as I trust that one day science will provide us with a sweat-free, rose-scented outer space, so too will science allow us to de-pacu Lake Lou Yaeger. I have no idea how they're gonna pull it off -- but it probably involves fractions. And maybe a cosine or two.

COLUMN: Wedding Chaos

(Not pictured: Sweaty Shane playing Rock Band.)

I've been moonlighting as a DJ ever since the glory days of buying my first mixer (Radio Shack - four "D" batteries required) and wiring my friends' home stereos together on a wing and a prayer. If you see me at a party, dance, rave, club, or bar, there's a pretty good chance I'm on my way to or from the DJ booth. But there's ONE place you will seldom see me in control of the music.

I hate DJing weddings. This is dumb, because mobile wedding jocks can make $1000+ in one night, but it's just not my thing. Between lugging heavy PA equipment around, dealing with neurotic brides, and worrying that equipment failure could destroy somebody's special day, I'll take a pass, thanks.

That said, I'm also a sucker for a friend. And when my friend Toni asked me forever ago if I'd DJ her wedding, I said sure. I knew she and her future hubby were on the tightest of budgets, so I told her if she could find a PA system for me, I'd show up and do my best to make it a party. Just one problem: "it" was in Cedar Falls, IA. No worries, though: I could just hop online, get a nice hotel room, maybe something with a hot tub, and make a relaxing mini-cation of the weekend.

That was before I discovered that apparantly, in the greater Waterloo/Cedar Falls area, hotel rooms are an endangered species. Not only were there hardly any rooms available, but the ones I DID find were NOT cheap. Bye bye, hot tub. Ah well, at least I could relax after the gig with a first-run movie or something.

I got there with JUST enough time to check in, throw my travel bag on the bed, and get to the venue. Cue shock #1: Instead of your traditional reception hall, this place was more like a creepy old house, complete with crusty antiques, life-size dolls that peered into your soul, and creaks and groans that would make the Ghost Hunter guys salivate.

Shock #2 was the temperature. I was expecting to walk through the doors into a blast of air conditioned awesomeness. Instead, I walked into a blast of hot yuck. It must have registered, too, because all it took was one raised eyebrow for an employee to apologize and tell me that they'd just fired up the a/c. Nifty, but by the time I'd lugged all the gear in and set up, I was a soaked, sweaty, gross mess of a human being with NO time to change.

When I DJ, a bring a modern digital setup involving laptops and MIDI controllers and mixers aplenty. But the easiest way to handle the dinner portion of a wedding? Make a playlist, plug in the trusty iPod, and hit shuffle. This went smooth. Guests arrived, the bride and groom did their toasts, and dinner was served. Things were perfect. And then it exploded.

Or at least a transformer did. With a polite little bang, suddenly the ballroom and stage were without power. The ladies who ran the house had no clue what was up, so I grabbed a flashlight and checked the circuit breaker boxes - nothing tripped. And since that concluded my electrical expertise, we called the local power company. 30 minutes later, a worker showed up.

"The problem," he told me, "is that no one's touched this stuff since the 1900's. They're gonna need an electrician."

"You guys," he concluded with the grace and poise worthy of the day's blessed event, "are screwed."

I was busy noticing two other issues. The first was that it started to feel like something BAD was going on in my stomach. The second was that it was rapidly getting hotter. The property manager confirmed my worst fear: the air conditioning was out, too.

Some rooms, though, still had power, including a small foyer where they'd set up an X-Box and Rock Band to entertain guests. I grabbed my friends Linn and Harry and forged a plan. Fifteen minutes later, the bride and groom had their first dance as man and wife to "Somebody to Love" by Queen -- as performed rather poorly by the three of us on Rock Band.

As the song started, I leaned over to Harry and asked, "Did you set it to 'no fail' mode?"


Gulp. That meant if one of us screwed up and hit too many bum notes with our fake plastic instruments, the song would stop and the X-Box, along with the 150+ invited guests of the wedding, would boo us. This didn't help the sweating. In the end, we scored three out of five stars, but made it throught the song to a round of applause -- well, maybe they were applauding the bride and groom, but I soaked it up regardless.

Soon after, people starting leaving, the temperature got unbearable, and I packed all my gear up in a sea of sweat and ick. I got to my car, drove two blocks towards the hotel, and got a phone call - "Power's back on." I'm going to guess that a few Cedar Falls residents may still be wondering why they pulled up to an intersection to see a sweaty guy banging his head against his steering wheel in frustration.

Seeing as how most of the guests had left, we decided to just call it a night, and I got back to my hotel room by 8 p.m. -- pretty much the exact moment when the something-bad in my stomach turned into a something-worse. I'll spare you the details, but let's just say the Clarion Inn might still be rueing the day that I ever booked that particular bathroom.

The room was next to the pool and reeked of chlorine. The TV had NO first-run movies as advertised. A wedding in the hotel was sending "oonch-oonch-oonch" beats through the walls. I took the best course of action I could muster up: I grabbed my clothes bag, hopped in the car, and made it back to Rock Island by midnight.

So if you're keeping score, then yes, I drove 148 miles to press play on an iPod, then spent $89.99 + tax in order to assassinate a defenseless toilet.

Thankfully, Toni and her new hubby had a fun night despite the chaos, plus they'll have a heck of a wedding story to tell people for the rest of their lives. Just as I've now got a story to explain beyond a shadow of a doubt why I'm touched by your offer but will NOT be DJing your wedding.

COLUMN: Exercise Bike

My bike under construction... some assembly required.

In order to ensure a top-notch newspaper column from yours truly, two important events need to occur each and every week.

#1: Go out and do stuff.
#2: Write about it.

Well, as it turns out, #2 is a tad bit difficult to accomplish when #1 consists of little more than sitting around in my climate-controlled house praying that the air conditioner holds up for another week.

I realize this is pretty much THE most Captain Obvious sort of statement I could possibly make, but it's HOT out. We're not talking "hey-it's-a-little-warm" out. We're not talking "pass-me-the-SPF-20." We're not talking "be-sure-to-stay-hydrated."

This is, like, END OF DAYS hot. The kind of hot that makes Al Gore go, "Told ya so." The kind of hot where you don't even want to take your lunch hour because the half-block walk from the office to the car just seems unbearable -- but should that lunch be raw, you can at least rest in the knowledge that you could, in a survivalist situation, just grill it up right there on the sidewalk.

The other night, I came home from work to discover that some schmuck had shattered a bunch of glass in the alley right behind my garage. The time it took to grab a broom and sweep the glass into a dustpan was, oh, I'd guess about eight minutes. By the time I made it in the house, I was drenched in sweat from head to toe. I swear to you, I've taken showers that were less wet. It's official -- this summer is gross.

This is putting a serious crimp on my original plans for the summer, which involved hopping on my bike, starting up a workout plan, shedding around 125 pounds, developing large muscles throughout my body, then going down to the beach to kick sand in the face of wimpy kids. Or at least trying to get enough exercise that I might live to see cooler weather.

But I'm pretty sure that sometime in this past week, I've managed to sweat out ALL of my summer motivation just trying to get home from work every night. In this climate, taking a breath is exercise enough for me. You know those people you still see out jogging even in weather like this? You might look at those nimrods and applaud their dedication and motivation. I look at those nimrods and applaud the fact that I'm not one of them. This is dangerous hot -- sitting around and worrying about the heat is all the cardio I'm willing to risk in these temps, thanks much.

That's why sitting in my basement right now in a kajillion unassembled pieces is the latest addition to Casa Del Shane: a recumbent exercise bike (some assembly required.) And after having owned my very own piece of home workout equipment for approximately 8 hours now, I'm beginning to understand how the exercise regimen works.

Step One: Walk to the basement. Step Two: Take note of the recumbent bike sitting in hundreds of pieces. Step Three: Pick up assembly manual that appears to be written in Swahili with helpful diagrams crafted by the ancient Egyptians. Step Four: Give up in frustration, grab the nearest heavy object, and throw it across the room in anger. Viola -- exercise.

Eventually, though, one day soon -- at the future thanks of my father, a man who can apparantly read both Swahili AND ancient Egyptian yet strangely can't find the power button on your standard remote control -- I will have myself a device that should allow me to get a moderate level of exercise without leaving the air conditioned confines of my house or having to deal with any of that pesky nature stuff whatsoever. Thumbs up.

And I didn't skimp on quality either. You might think an exercise bike should be little more than a pair of pedals and something to hang onto, right? Wrong. That's when you stop having an exercise bike and start having a future fancy clothes hanger. Nope, I wanted to ensure that I actually USED this bike -- that's why I had to buy a model juuust pricey enough to make me feel reeeeally guilty if I let it sit around.

In this case, the extra dough I had to cough up pays for something called "iFit" technology. Since it's still in a billion pieces, I'm not exactly sure how it works yet, but I know it involves the use of Google Maps, which will allow me to plot out a fake route anywhere in the world and thus be treated to images from Google Street View as I fake bike through fake neighborhoods. And seeing as how the bike also changes resistance based on the incline of your map route, and estimating my current level of physical conditioning, I'm going to guess that I'll be doing a lot of biking through fake... Topeka. Or anywhere flat. I hear fake Omaha's lovely this time of year.

If that's not enough, apparantly if I don't bike up to proper workout levels, Jillian Michaels comes on my screen and presumably calls me a wussie or something. THIS is the kind of motivation I need.

Note: This is NOT an encouragement for wayward thieves to rob me, either. The bike may be cool, but it also weighs roughly 150 lbs. Getting it DOWN the basement stairs was challenging enough - if you can get it back UP the stairs, you don't need an exercise machine. You're doing just fine on your own. Leave the bike for wussies like me.

So, Mother Nature, for now I have the upper hand. I'd sure prefer it if you cooled things down a little bit before birds start spontaneously combusting and we discover at what temperature dirt melts... but as long as the air conditioner gods don't let me down, if you need me, I'll be in my basement getting all slim and iFit.


Ladies and gentlemen, it's truth time. You might know me as this paper's amiable humor columnist, but there's a dark side to my moon. Truth is, my life is constantly tormented by an indescribable evil -- a soul-consuming blackness that haunts my days and nights like an ever-circling vulture of doom. It is only through the triumph of human willpower and my indefatigable spirit that I somehow find the fortitude to perservere against all odds.

The evil that I speak of is, of course, Tom Cruise.

Always have I hated him, from the moment he slid into frame in his "Risky Business" undies. Who on Earth was this cocky kid with a mouthful of teeth strutting around like he owned Hollywood? Maybe I just despised him because that same scene propelled my absolute least favorite song in the world, Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll," to the top of the charts.

I wouldn't make the same mistake with Cruise's next star vehicle, "Top Gun." I didn't go see it. In fact, I've never seen it to this day, which I think puts me in the minority of all humans on Earth. But I don't need to see it to envision how annoying he must be in it. And sure enough, it too came with a song -- Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" -- that will clearly be on infinite repeat in my future hell. Now he's in "Rock of Ages," a movie that glamorizes pretty much every song I hated as a teenager. That's how obnoxious Tom cruise is -- even his SOUNDTRACK sucks.

So I've always hated Tom Cruise -- but never did I suspect that this irritating actor was, in fact, my arch-nemesis. Not until he married Katie Holmes, that is. That's when it stopped being annoying and got personal.

For those uninformed, Katie Holmes is the former star of "Dawson's Creek," a well-to-do socialite, a devoted mother, and my eternal soulmate. She just doesn't know it yet.

Ever since I channel-flipped into her smile on an early episode of "Dawson's," I knew I'd found my celebrity crush for life -- and it's a crush I've harbored come hell, high water, or overly-toothy spouses. Being a Katie Holmes fan is not without sacrifice. I'm pretty sure I shattered all my street cred back in the 90's -- there's only so many times you can tell your friends, "Oh, dude, I'd love to hang out... but 'Dawson's Creek' is on" before your masculinity gets called into question. Then there's all the dubious movies I've had to sit through over the years -- she might be my soulmate, but she sure can pick some lousy roles. I bought "First Daughter" on DVD, an act that should merit a date right there.

Then it happened. Just like Lex Luther discovering Kryptonite, the evil Tom Cruise discovered MY weakness. Before I could even curse his rotten name, there he was, jumping on Oprah's couch like a lunatic, pledging his love for my celebrity crush. I watched through clenched teeth as TomKat got married, had a daughter, and looked authentically happy in photo after photo. Eventually, I came to accept that this was my "Empire Strikes Back" -- an awesome fantasy, but in the end Darth Vader chops my hand off and sells my princess into slavery. Eventually, I accepted their (cough) love and even went so far as to find myself a (gasp) real life girlfriend for a while there.

But just as "Empire" birthed a happy ending in "Return of the Jedi," so too do I get a chance at a second act. Last week it was revealed that there IS, in fact, a God -- Katie Holmes has filed for divorce from Tom Cruise and the Evil Empire (legal note: all Evil Empires appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real Evil Empires and/or Churches of Scientology is purely coincidental.) Upon hearing the fateful news last week, I believe that I uttered merely ONE word:


You hear me, world? I CALLED DIBS. Just like the WNBA, I got next. Ummm, soooo, anybody got any ideas on how a chubby geek from the corn belt can land a top-tier socialite actress on the rebound?

My first thought was simple: the internet. All it took was one public plea from a soldier to Justin Timberlake to get him to go with her to the Marine Ball. And just a while back, some nutty girl with an acoustic guitar wrote a song for Jason Segel and within a week, he was whisking her off as his date to some awards show. So it's NOT impossible.

That said, I don't have a lot going for me. I'm not a brave national hero, nor can I play guitar or sing a cute song. And if it's true that a camera adds fifteen pounds, I think I've done a good enough job at pound-adding as is, so I'm probably better off sticking with a NON-visual method of wooing, thanks much.

I guess my best hope is just to put this column out there in the world and pray that it somehow works its way to Katie. Weirder things have happened. Maybe one of you has a friend who has a friend whose cousin is Katie's masseuse or something. Of course, the BEST way to ensure she sees this column is to somehow get picked up by the Associated Press so that it runs in newspapers all over the country. Strangely, though, it turns out that the AP doesn't usually find open love letters to celebrities written by aging losers to be especially newsworthy. Drat.

So I figure the only real chance to get this column found by AP search engines would be to include absolutely statements so false, damaging, and scandalous that they take notice. Of course, doing so would be tantamount to libel and could get me sued in a heartbeat, so I absolutely wouldn't be able to say things like TOM CRUISE KNOWS WHERE JIMMY HOFFA IS BURIED or make any kind of inferences whatsoever that TOM CRUISE IS SECRETLY AN ESCAPED ALIEN FROM AREA 51.

Instead, I'm just gonna say: Katie Holmes, if you read this, you deserve better than Tommy the Tooth. You deserve an overweight middle-aged newspaper columnist who makes JUST enough spare income to afford "First Daughter" on DVD. C'mon, we have so much in common. You like to smile. I like to leer at your smile. YOUR best friend is Posh Spice. MY best friend is a guy named Jason who sometimes likes spicy food. You're gonna be a guest judge on Project Runway. I recently guest judged national anthem singers for the River Bandits.

So just hop on a plane -- you probably own one or two, right? -- and head on out to Rock Island. Suri can play video games and torment my cats, Posh and Becks can take the guest room when they visit, and I promise you there'll be no paparazzi hiding in the bushes -- seeing as how I don't have any bushes, and even if I did, all it takes is 10 minutes in this midwestern heat for the average New York paparazzi to incinerate. Whaddaya say, Katie? Dinner and a movie? I promise it will NOT be "Rock of Ages."

COLUMN: Xanadu

My friends have been telling me for years that I take on too many projects in life. At any given time in my life, I'm usually balancing between one and three extra "hobby" projects -- and that's in addition to my two jobs AND this weekly column. I'd like to say I do it because of my ambition and work ethic, but that's not the case.

No, my motivator for extra projects is usually jealousy. At some point, I'll go somewhere and witness someone doing something relatively cool. Then I'll witness that person receiving accolades for said task. THAT'S when the little voice in my brain says, to paraphrase:

"Hey, nimrod. You could do that, too, if you set your mind to it. In fact, you probably could do it better. And you know what will happen when you do it better? People will love you MORE than that other guy." Shallow as heck? You betcha -- but for a lazy oaf like me, I'll take ANY kind of motivation.

Of course, many of these projects never get revealed to the rest of the world and never see completion. I'll catch a musical on TV, and there'll be the voice: "You could write a musical." And then, despite the fact that I can't play a note of music or carry a tune on my own, I'll sit around for the next week trying to hum my way to greatness. It never works, but I'll never stop trying.

At the moment, I've been obsessing about two projects that I CAN pull off.

Project No. 1 was a must-complete. About a year and a half ago, one of my best friends packed up and moved to Japan. He told everyone at the time it was because he wanted to challenge himself and explore his love for Asian culture. I secretly suspected it was because he wanted to explore his love for hot Asian girls. Well, he explored one (although the fact is that she's actually from Brazil -- long story), and then he MARRIED her -- and proceeded to make a series of international calls with the sole purpose of guilting me into flying out there for his wedding reception.

Now, my hatred of air travel is known far and wide, but even MORE problematic was the fact that I didn't have $2,000, which was the price of the cheapest flight I could even find -- and that came complete with a half-day layover in Nowheresville, Saskatchewan. So no Japanacation for me.

Instead, I set up all my DJ gear in my basement, recorded a few hours of mixes straight to mp3, and thanks to the mighty power of the internet, I DJ-ed his wedding reception from half a world away. It was the next best thing to actually being there, PLUS I now can brag that in one weekend, I had gigs in East Davenport AND Nagoya. Awesomesauce.

Project No, 2 has been a bit more involved. The District Theatre is, as you're reading this, in the midst of their production of the stage musical version of "Xanadu." Originally conceived as a romantic-fantasy vehicle for Olivia Newton-John, the movie version of "Xanadu" is a living testament to the tacky excesses of 1980, and it pretty much single-handedly sounded the death knell for the disco era. SO bad it was, in fact, that the annual Golden Raspberry Awards were created that year for the sole purpose of publically declaring the awfulness of "Xanadu."

Naturally, it's one of my favorite movies of all time.

And now there's a stage-play version that lampoons and celebrates the kitsch of the original. It is a party unto itself, and when I found out the District Theatre was putting it on this month, I knew I had to be involved. That's why I got ahold of DT founder Tristan Tapscott and offered to handle the music for the preshow and intermission.

Instead of seeing my column last Sunday, you might have caught the words "Shane Brown is on vacation this week." A more apt description would have been, "Shane Brown would really like to write a column this week. Instead he's in his basement, buried up to his armpits in disco records. Don't ask."

I know this isn't going to do much for my coolness or machismo, but hear me, Quad-Cities: Disco music got a bad rap. In the grand pantheon of popular music, disco will forever be the doormat, filed somewhere in cultural relevance between boy bands and hair metal.

But I say disco should be celebrated. In its heyday, I was 9-10 years old. It was the first time I started paying attention to the radio, the first time my mom let me buy records, and the first time I really started liking music. Dare I say it? I might not have become the music geek I am today were it not for the Village People.

Disco has shocking staying power, too. When you listen to the pop of the '80s these days, it sounds like antique music. Most of this can be blamed on the tink-tink-tink sounds of primitive drum machines powered by computers that could barely handle Pac-Man. But when it comes to disco, there's no tink-tink-tink. KC had a Sunshine BAND, and Kool had a GANG. Those were real instruments, and they sound like real instruments today.

Disco music was POSITIVE. I'm sick of turning on the radio and listening to whiny long-hairs get angsty about their suburban lives. Where's the joy? Disco music had JOY. Granted, it was likely joy fueled by cocaine orgies, but joy nonetheless. They were stayin' alive; they were family; they will survive; and that's the way (uh huh, uh huh) they liked it. Nothing bad ever happened in a disco song, unless you count the time that Donna Summer left a cake out in the rain (bummer).

I'm pretty sure I know the REAL reason why disco died: the dancing. The songs might have been boss, but the moves were RIDICULOUS. Did a time really exist when people watched "Saturday Night Fever" and thought Travolta was the essence of cool? Wow. (And if you think THAT'S bad, be sure to watch the awesomely awful sequel, "Staying Alive," in which a spandex-clad Travolta appears to defeat the devil with little more than his crotch.)

Disco dancing sucks, but disco itself rules. And while I probably bit off one project too many this month, I haven't had this much fun in ages.

You have two more weekends to catch "Xanadu" at the District Theatre -- and I promise you will never see a better musical involving leg warmers, roller skates, and bad Australian accents in your life. Until I write one that's better, that is.

COLUMN: Kitten Wrangling

My Isobel meets a very pregnant Daryl the Feral

I think it'd be neat, at least once in life, to be a genuine hero. Who among us wouldn't want at least ONE minute of pure unadulterated greatness where people give you medals and Barbara Walters wonders what kind of tree you'd be if you were a tree. The problem is, I just don't know if I'm cut out to be a hero. I don't exactly have the kind of skill set that lends itself easily to heroism. You don't often hear someone yelling, "Omigod! We're all gonna die! If only there were someone around to write about it in a snarky manner!" I'd also like to think that I'm relatively good at my weekend DJ job, but no life has ever been saved with a well-timed Justin Bieber remix. But this week, I'm at least a junior hero.

The whole thing was really my fault to begin with. About six months ago, I noticed a feral cat sneaking around the backyard. I know you're not supposed to feed strays, but this one had the sad-eyes thing down to an artform. I couldn't resist sneaking it a little food. Well, cats aren't exactly dumb, and this one -- Daryl the Feral, I called it -- was no exception. It didn't take long before he was waiting every night when I got home from work. Worse yet, a quick survey of the neighbors revealed that ol' Daryl was running the sad-eye racket up and down the block for multiple meals.

But one day, I noticed Darryl was getting kinda fat -- fatter than Fancy Feast. This cat was less Daryl Strawberry and more Daryl Hannah -- and she was in a family way. Well, how can you turn away a PREGNANT cat with sad eyes? So I -- along with most of my neighbors -- kept right on feeding her. But one day she DIDN'T show up, and I knew we had to have kittens somewhere. This thought made me go "awww" until I happened to look out my front window the other day. There was Daryl, running across the street for her nightly sad-eyed begging, but a few paces behind, FIVE itty bitty kitties were following -- and they were NOT looking both ways before crossing the street. Had it not been for a passing driver to be quick on the brakes, I would have witnessed a kitten holocaust.

There is absolutely NO way I could bear willing witness to kitten carnage in front of my house. It was time for action. That action was to call up my friends, Dispatch/Argus reporters Lindsay Hocker and Anthony Watt. Lindsay & Tony are animal lovers and she's volunteered for years at area shelters, so I knew their expertise would come in handy.

I quickly learned two interesting facts about kitten rescue missions:

(1) Kittens don't exactly WANT to be rescued. In my mind, we'd go over to that porch and kittens would jump into our arms with purrs and cuddles and wordless thanks. Yeah, not so much.

(2) A kitten rescue operation quickly draws an awful lot of unwanted attention. As we baited live traps, we were joined by a surplus of neighbors and passers-by, all of whom thought themselves experts at the task. One neighbor just dove onto the porch in a bare-handed rodeo- style attempt at kitten wrangling, while another good-hearted passerby insisted that kittens only respond to "ocean whitefish, unless they're West End kittens, coz they wouldn't know the difference." (Drum roll.) This same good-natured fellow wandered around the yard while making a noise that can only be described as "wooooooop," because presumably that's how one lures kittens on his home planet.

Instead, we opted to put out some live traps baited with -- well, okay, I went to the store and got some ocean whitefish, because maybe Woop Guy was right, who knew. Anyways, we set out the traps to no luck, other than accidentally catching Daryl herself, who was less than thrilled about the experience. Instead of sad eyes, it was ANGRY eyes, hisses, and claws aplenty. It wasn't our intention to nab mom, but while we had her, we might as well get her spayed and avoid The Great Rock Island Cat Uprising o' 2012.

In the meantime, rodeo guy had corraled ONE kitten. But at the night progressed, that was all we could snag. We were doing a GOOD thing here, right? So why did I feel like the hunter who killed Bambi's mom? Instead of saving five kitties, we rescued ONE but left four without their mom.

One of the 5 kittens now at Moline Animal Aid

The next night, we returned with reinforcements. Within hours, we'd managed to catch three more kittens, along with a hapless neighborhood stray -- a cat I have now named "Durrrr" -- who managed to walk into the same trap TWICE. I'd like to say the kittens were super happy about the situation, but they were more like little whirling dervishes of tiny teeth and claws. For obvious reasons, I named one "Bitey," but Lindsay was set on "Cupcake." We compromised and dubbed him "Biteycakes."

But the unspoken awfulness was that one got away. And when I woke up the next morning to find no kitties and empty traps (well, except for Durrrr again,) all I could do was hope that #5 had been caught by a neighbor. I wandered out one last time across the street, stopped, looked around, and about had a heart attack. Not two feet from my shoes, there sat #5, looking up at me like, "'Sup, dude?" But before I could even breathe, he shot like a rocket into the brush. I raced home, called up the Kitten Posse, and for the first time in my life was able to direct quote the movie "Short Circuit": "NUMBER FIVE IS ALIVE!"

Lots of things happened this past weekend. Gumbo Ya-Ya. Race for the Cure. Fun, excitement, summer weather. I couldn't tell you about ANY of them, because we spent the ENTIRE weekend searching for the world's most elusive kitten. By this time, the mission at hand had superceded such notions as property lines and trespassing, and to ALL of my neighbors, I issue a sincere apology for creeping around your yards. Time and again, we'd spot the kitten, get within an arm's length, and lose it. This was no mere feline -- this was the Golden Snitch of kittens. Time and again, our traps would go off and we'd find no bait and no kitty.

By Sunday night, we were spent. Our trespassing ways had merited our first police call (SORRY!) and earlier that day, I'd already dealt with Animal Control thanks to the accidental catching of a less-than-amused raccoon. But the officer had given me one tip. Rather than bait the traps with wet food, he recommended we use sardines tied to the trap with wire. That way, Houdini Kitty couldn't just reach in for a snack without setting off the trap.

That night, I set out some sardine traps, and within the hour, I heard meows. After SIX days of trying, I caught the Golden Snitch.

I guess I feel kinda heroic in the end, even though most acts of heroism don't involve hissing raccoons or trespass warnings. As you read this, Daryl the Feral is at the shelter recovering from surgery and will soon return to the neighborhood that misses her. One of my friends has decided to adopt the Golden Snitch. And there are now four adorable kitties -- including my pal Biteycakes -- at Animal Aid Humane Society in Moline waiting for a hero like you.

COLUMN: Car Trouble

It's no secret that I love my car. By now, I think I've written 2 or 3 columns touting its awesomeness. But this week? I kinda feel like the kid at the end of "Old Yeller." It might be about time to put the old girl down.

When I first heard that Volkswagen was redesigning the Beetle, I was in. It took almost a year on the waiting list, but I ended up with one of the first five New Beetles in the QC. It was cool, speedy, and a massive head-turner.

A decade later, times have changed. I'm now told that I drive a "chick car." (I suppose the in-dash flower vase doesn't help.) And my chick car's get-up-and-go got up and went. At 150,000 miles, she still gets the job done, but not without a few complaints. Top it all off with the awesome body modification my front grill received courtesy of one unlucky raccoon, and she's just not quite the head-turner of yore.

I first knew something was up last week on my way to work. One might think my first tip-off would have been the high temp warning light that was coming on, but it had been doing that on and off for the past year, and the guys at my regular garage told me I likely had a faulty sensor. No, the real tipoff was when black smoke started rolling out from under the hood. That couldn't be good.

Instead of driving it to work, I wheeled it straight to my favorite garage. I swear I heard the mechanics groan as I pulled in. See, your average engineer, when designing a car, usually tends to leave a little room up front for, y'know, the engine and stuff. Not the Germans. To them, the engine appears to have been an afterthought. The New Beetle has a cool design but an engine block about the size of a glove box. As a result, it's NOT an easy car to work on.

Still, they dutifully took a look and let me know it was a doozy of an oil leak. That was the GOOD news. The bad news was that it required a dealership fix.

I hate hate hate taking my car back to the dealership. There hasn't been a time that I've taken my car to the dealer garage without them finding additional "critical safety issues" with the car.

I like my car, but truth be told, I have absolutely no idea how it runs. For all I know or care, the engine could be comprised of an elite team of magical hamsters. When it comes to the inner workings of cars, I am completely ignorant. That ignorance opens the doors for me to get seriously taken advantage of. A mechanic could open the hood, poke around for 10 seconds, and tell me that the dilithium crystal in the flux capacitor needs a new horcrux, and I'd be forced to just nod and let them "fix" it. Not that I don't trust my dealership, but one thing I've learned about owning a neat little German car is that neat little German replacement parts do NOT come cheap.

I now have a new appreciation for the phrase "don't blow a gasket," because I now know when you DO, it costs around $300. Clearly, Beetle gaskets must be hand-crafted by a guy named Dieter from Dusseldorf and flown in at great expense.

And remember that high temp warning light my mechanic said was probably faulty? Well, either that, OR maybe it was because there was a huge hole in one of my hoses and the car was completely out of coolant. Not that it would have mattered, because the water pump didn't work anyways. And if gaskets are made by Dieter, water pumps must be made of solid gold and hand-forged from the very fires of Mount Doom itself, because one of THOSE puppies added 1200 bucks to the mix. And hey, while the water pump's out, I'd better get a new timing belt.

Oh, and while they had the car up? They noticed a loose tie rod, and that's a -- you guessed it -- critical safety issue. I still don't know what a tie rod IS -- did Darth Vader fly one in Star Wars? -- but I do know it's very integral to the car running in a straight-ish, NON-suicidal manner.

By the time it was done, my estimate was in the neighborhood of $2600 -- a nice downpayment on a new car. But I wasn't gonna find one overnight, and I sure wouldn't get any trade-in for the Wonder Beetle as long as said wonderment was being provided by a thick plume of black smoke. So after some soul-searching and credit-limit-checking, I just shelled out a fortune to once again save my baby.

At least the dealership was nice enough -- after I batted my eyes, begged, pleaded, and threatened to drop into a fetal ball -- to give me a loaner for the estimated 8-14 day fix.

That's why I've spent the last week driving around a 2012 VW CC Turbo. Yowza. I'd forgotten what it was like to be in a car where the gas pedal throws you back into the seat -- which, by the way, is leather and heated. And while I might not know how anything under the hood works, I can testify that the nav system, hands-free phone, iPod dock, dual air, and satellite radio all work just fine. And if the mighty fine folks at Volkswagen want to thank me for the free advertising with one of those bad boys, I wouldn't say no. (Of course, I'd probably be fired, but my onboard GPS could direct me to the unemployment office in both luxury and style.)

Do any of you anthropomorphize your cars? Because when the time came to give that sucker back to the dealership, I envisioned it like a sad puppy crying that it's new owner was returning it to the pound, all so I could get my stupid old crummy Bee...

That was when a weird thing happened. I saw my car in the lot. My banged-up, ragged, decade-old, grill-less Beetle. And suddenly it wasn't the CC Turbo that was the wee puppy. It was my baby, and it was wagging its imaginary tail. Getting back in that car was like getting a part of me back. I knew every creak and groan. I basked in its lousy acceleration. I don't care how rough my car is, it's still MY car -- and if I can nurse some more miles out of it, so be it.

So if anyone asks me if I'm getting a new car -- the answer's yes. Piece by piece. Just ask Dieter.


If you're a regular reader of our papers, you've probably heard the name Russ Scott already a few times this week. Russ was managing editor of the Dispatch for 25 years before his retirement in 2007, and last weekend we lost him at the criminally early age of 69.

When I first read the great piece that our Jackie Chesser & Joe Payne wrote about Russ' life last week, I did a double-take at that retirement date. 2007? It couldn't be. It seemed like just last year we were joking around on break, but I guess it's been almost half a decade since he's sauntered these halls.

Other writers here are far more qualified to talk about Russ and what he meant to all of us here at the paper. He and I never worked closely together. We weren't even on the same floor. But I can safely tell you one thing: If it hadn't been for Russ Scott, you wouldn't be reading my words here every week.

My first dealings with the Dispatch/Argus came many years before I actually worked here. Right out of college, I'd temporarily made a name for myself as a local promoter of raves -- those underground all-night dance parties that were all the rage for a hot minute or two in the mid-90's. As such, I got to experience fifteen minutes of fame as a newsmaker rather than a writer, and one of those benefits was an interview request from Sean Leary, the former entertainment editor of this very paper.

Through that interview, Sean and I became fast friends through our shared love of pop culture, off-color humor, and a HUGE amount of jealousy on my part. My life revolved around music, TV, movies, books, theatre, and offering my strong opinions of all of the above. So did Sean's -- but he got to earn a living at it. All I did was irritate my friends.

A few years later, raves weren't paying the bills and I needed to get a "real" job. That was when I noticed an opening in the Dispatch's advertising department. Despite having ZERO experience, I somehow got the gig, and sixteen years later, I'm still here.

I loved my advertising job (and still DO), but the jealousy never went away. I still dreamt of a day that I could try my hand at writing, and when Dave Barry's retirement left us without a humor column, I decided it was time to strike.

I went home, wrote up a couple sample columns, and submitted them uninvited. A few days later, I got an encouraging yet definitive rejection letter. My writing showed promise, but there just wasn't a place for me. I couldn't exactly blame them -- after all, I was just the weirdo kid from the advertising floor who still dressed like a college student. A few months later I tried again, and was met with the same response.

I was bummed and put the idea to bed like so many other pipe dreams. It was around that time that I found myself on break one day with Russ Scott. At the time, Russ was working on syndicating his own column on his great love of poker playing. We got to talking about writing and I told him about my failed efforts at crafting a column.

"Oh, I wouldn't give up," he told me. "Everybody gets rejections. Did you ever try submitting those samples to the Leader?"

I'd never thought about that. At the time, The Leader was our ground-breaking weekly paper that went out to the Iowa half of the Quad Cities, and it had its own dedicated editors and writers. I sped upstairs and threw together a hurried e-mail Michael Romkey, then editor of the Leader. It was less than an hour later that I got the phone call. Six days later, my first ever column debuted. Like most awesome things ahead of their time, the Leader eventually closed up shop -- but by then, my column had also been picked up by the Dispatch/Argus. I wasn't privy to that meeting, but I heard later that one of my biggest advocates was Russ.

I credit a lot of people for allowing me to come into your homes every week -- Sean Leary was the inspiration, Mike Romkey was the risk-taker... but Russ Scott was the catalyst that stopped me from giving up, and I owe the guy SO much. But that was the thing with Russ -- he was always around to lend a hand or ear no matter who you were.

I don't know what it was about the guy, but he could put even the most socially awkward person instantly at ease. Maybe it was just because we shared so many breaks together, but he and I struck up a friendship early on that I'll carry with me for all my days.

Behind that easy-going smile, though, was a consummate journalist. In his early days working at the Herald-Dispatch in his hometown of Huntington, WV, he was lead reporter when a plane crash in 1970 claimed the lives of nearly the entire football team at his alma mater, Marshall College. The tragedy was eventually turned into the movie "We Are Marshall," and when Russ was invited to the premiere of the film in Huntington, his resulting stories for the Dispatch -- if you're a QCOnline digital subscriber, look them up from December of 2006 -- are among the greatest pieces of journalism you could ever hope to read.

The last time I saw Russ Scott was last March at the visitation of Brian Nelson, another Dispatch colleague taken from us WAY too soon. Despite the somber occasion, Russ looked good and was exactly the familiar and friendly face I needed to see during such a rotten time.

Like I said, others can eulogize him far better than I. There are those who knew him as a co-worker, a boss, a colleague, a father, a grandfather, and one heck of a poker player. I simply knew him as one of the nicest guys I've ever had the pleasure to talk to -- and if there's a better way to be remembered, I'd like to hear it. I just hope one day there's an extra seat for me at his poker table.

COLUMN: Addiction

I like to think of myself as an optimist. I enjoy seeing the good in people, the perfection of an imperfect world, and the light of a better tomorrow. But boy, there are days. Days when all I see is a world full of morons, a pointless existence with the only comfort being that our generation of idiots are at least slightly less idiotic than our offspring will inevitably become.

Coincidentally, these feelings usually occur when I'm channel-flipping through the television dial.

There's a school of media critics who only seem to be able to agree on ONE thing: that "reality" television is the worst thing to happen to entertainment in the modern era. I tend to disagree with that assessment. I think that there are two distinct levels of reality television: GOOD stuff... and then stuff that's so bad you fear for the future of mankind.

The GOOD stuff? Though played out, I have no problem with "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race." Same goes for So You Think American Idol's Got The Voice and all those talent shows. I'm a sucker for all the paranormal shows and anything involving the busting of myths, trucking of ice roads, and warring for whales. I'll even begrudgingly throw in "Celebrity Apprentice," which I justify on the sole account that I watch it incessantly and it makes me laugh (even if it might be making me dumber.)

Then there's the OTHER stuff. Wealthy people being wealthy, bitchy people being bitchy, and housewives being anything but real. Throw in Gene Simmons, Heidi & Spencer, some teen moms, Kate Gosselin, a hoarder or two, and you have officially reached the bottom of the barrel.

But wait, America. Congratulations, because you've finally done it. You've ripped the bottom right off the barrel and dug some three to four feet underneath to find a previously unexplored level of slime. I'm pretty sure I've just seen the worst you could possibly come up with.

I speak of TLC's latest hit reality series, "My Strange Addiction."

Once upon a time, TLC stood for The Learning Channel. Nowadays, the channel has as much to do with education as MTV does music. And nowhere is it more obvious than "My Strange Addiction." Each show spotlights a "regular" person or two with a, y'know, "wacky" addiction. Like EATING GLASS. Or fingernail polish. Or couch foam. Or how about the guy who has romantic feelings for his car? Or the girl who spends all day smelling her doll's head? Roadkill collector? You betcha. Urine drinker? Sure thing!

This whole show leaves me without words, which is bad when you're paid to come up with 'em. Let's just start with an initial theory -- if you appear on this show, one of two different explanations must be at play. Either:

(1) You are SUCH a sad and pathetic attention-seeker that you would literally be willing to drink your own urine in order to achieve your fifteen minutes of fame, or

(2) You have a serious problem and should probably be getting serious help instead of screen time.

Instead, the show spends about 80% of the time near glamorizing these poor people and their dangerous behavior. I'm not a mental health expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm pretty sure I can tell you that if one of your five food groups is a SOFA, you have outstepped the boundaries of a wacky addiction. You, my friend, have a serious behavioral disorder that should require immediate professional intervention, no?

In the handful of episodes that I've seen, that intervention DOES occur, but not until the fleeting moments of each show. And, again, I am no mental health expert -- but if I were ever tasked with counseling someone who compulsively eats laundry detergent, I would probably try to come up with advice slightly more pro-active than "you should keep a journal," which I heard the other day. Yep, that'll help:

"Day 1. So I woke up and ate some more laundry detergent. Mmm, love that detergent.
Day 2. Another fine day of eating laundry detergent.
Day 3. What should I have for dinner? I know! Laundry detergent."

I don't get it. But maybe that's because I'm no expert.

In another episode, I saw a "professional" tell one of these addicts that they should embark on an exercise program. I am also no medical expert -- but if I encountered a person who compulsively ate jagged glass for a hobby, I just don't think "jog it off" would be the prudent advice. If anything, I would probably tell them to sit VERY, VERY STILL for as absolutely long as possible.

Plus, do you really think that it's a good idea to take someone with such an extreme disorder and make them an instant celebrity? The last thing this poor woman needs is to lose her ability to go shopping without a half dozen people pointing and going, "Isn't that the lady who drinks her own urine?" I mean, come on. Even if she were to go on to cure cancer, we're all still going to think of her as "that lady who drinks her own urine who also happened to cure cancer when she wasn't drinking her own urine."

This show is just plain awful. It's the modern version of a tacky carnival freakshow. We might as well just skip the pretenses and call it "Cavalcade of Weirdos." It's not on the air to help document, understand, treat, or educate people with a plight. It's on the air for one reason only: To allow us to point at our TVs and go, "DID THAT LADY JUST EAT HER COUCH?!?!"

We're supposed to be a smart society. We as a people should be above this show. The new season of "My Strange Addiction" starts later this year. Let's give it the best season premiere possible: By watching ANYTHING ELSE. Besides, if you're truly in the mood to watch the real life stories of the desperate and/or deranged, that's what the Kardashians are for.