Friday, January 25, 2013

COLUMN: Best of 2012 - Music

Ah, the end of the year. The time when a highly-refined intellectual like me takes a moment to pause, reflect, and most importantly, pretend that my pretentious musical tastes are better than yours. It's still my favorite column of the year to write. Take 'em or leave 'em, behold my picks for the Ten Best Albums of 2012:

10. The Raveonettes - Observator - The Danish duo of Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo have been making fantastically fuzzy pop records for a decade now, but never on an emotional scale like "Observator," their stunning seventh record. Wagner's decision to treat his clinical depression with a week-long bender in California might not have been a smart move by any stretch, but it inspired a record that revels in forlorn haze andmelancholy.

9. Ringo Deathstarr - Mauve - The ridiculously amazing Texan band with the world's most ridiculous name return. Never a band to concern themselves with originality, Ringo Deathstarr occasionally take critical heat for their perfect mimicry of classic UK bands like My Bloody Valentine and The Primitives. Their answer? Raise a middle finger to the haters and turn it up louder. They still evoke My Bloody Valentine, but this time paired with a dose of Sonic Youth inspired noise rock that sounds like it was recorded in the basement of an imploding house.

8. Paul Weller - Sonik Kicks - In the 1970s, Paul Weller topped the British charts as frontman of the groundbreaking mod/punk band The Jam. In the 80s, he deftly meshed soul with new wave as leader of The Style Council. In England, he still packs arenas and is as almost as revered as McCartney or Bowie. The difference, though, is that at age 54, Paul Weller's releasing some of the most innovative and ground-breaking music of his career. "Sonik Kicks" finds him exploring electronic psychedelia, Krautrock, and progressive folk  without losing his vintage soul roots. The resulting sound is fresh, new, and impossible to believe that it's his 23rd studio album.

7. The Primitives - Echoes and Rhymes - 2012 has definitely been the year of reunions, but none made me smile quite like the return of the Primitives. When I was in college, I had a wall-sized shrine to their singer Tracy Cattell on my dorm wall. She was the epitome of cool, and the Primitives' ultra fun brand of indie pop (remember "Crash"?) was the soundtrack to a good chunk of my upbringing. The death of original bassist Steve Dullaghan resulted in a pair of reunion gigs and now a brand new album of obscure girl-pop covers that proves twenty years hasn't dulled their sparkle. Welcome back.

6. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light - It would be easy to dismiss Spiritualized as a one-trick pony: gospel-tinged blues rock with recurring themes of drugs, religion, and redemption performed by a notoriously difficult sonic perfectionist. But Spiritualized frontman Jason Pierce does his one trick SO WELL that you can't help but be amazed, especially considering the array of illnesses and on/off opiate addictions that Pierce readily owns up to. But despite the morose subject matter, most of Pierce's songs end on a positive note, with hope for redemption and salvation. "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" is his most accessible record in a decade and the surprising feel-good album of the year.

5. Young Prisms - In Between - The cover art of "In Between" features someone racing gothically through a dark woods, and it's the perfect image. In fact, if I ever found myself racing gothically through a dark woods, THIS is the record I'd want on my iPod. Existing in a perfect haze, San Francisco's Young Prisms have managed to ignore trends, scenes, and traditional song structure in favor of a washed-out soundscape that plays like a Cure album put through 100 reverb pedals. Call it ethereal, dreampop, shoegaze, or whatever you fancy... I call it the sound my brain makes when I'm in a quiet room. It might not be the BEST album of the year, but it's definitely my favorite.

4. Ultrasound - Play for Today - It's no coincidence that the opening song on "Play for Today" says: "We crashed and burned, but we've returned." In 1998, Ultrasound were hailed as one of the most exciting new bands on the planet. THEN they released their debut album, and critics weren't kind, saying it was too full of ambitious swagger for its own good. As a result of the bad press and infighting, the band was kaput in less than a year. But in 2011, they reformed for a benefit gig and decided they still had more to say. "Play for Today" picks up right where they left, with the same epic confidence and over-the-top rock swagger. Imagine if Tenacious D took themselves seriously and you'd be close. In a perfect world, they'd be filling arenas.

3. Taylor Swift - Red - What happened to you, Taylor Swift? Last I checked, you were a cute teenager releasing harmless pop-country radio fluff to generic America. Sometime in the past year, though, you grew up. Sure, "Red" is still an ode to a year's worth of failed celebrity dates and young love gone awry, and yes, there's definitely a fair share of catchy radio fodder courtesy Top 40 svengali Max Martin. But instead of innocent verse-chorus-verse sappiness, "Red" blooms with an unexpected confidence and maturity that a 22-year-old shouldn't possess. The album's opener, "State of Grace," wouldn't sound out of place on a U2 record. "Red" might be about as country as Snoop Dogg, but who cares? There's clearly a lot more to this girl.

2. Fun. - Some Nights - So how did the world fall in love with a campy indiepop band from New York City? It's really all due to "Glee," who used FUn's anthem "We Are Young" during a pivotal scene. Downloads went through the roof, and suddenly we had the least likely chart-topper of the year (well, until a certain South Korean rapper came along.) But there's no denying the greatness of "We Are Young" or the entire album that followed it. It's a odd melange of Queen, Fleetwood Mac, show tunes, and auto-tune, all held together by the soaring voice of Nate Ruess, who can go from torch song to hip-hop with the pinache of Freddie Mercury and the gravitas of Les Mis. It shouldn't work, but it somehow does, and the world's a better place for it.

1. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange - Any talk of Frank Ocean that's come up this year inevitably starts with his sexuality. On the eve of the release of "Channel Orange," Ocean confessed that the inspiration for much the album stemmed from his unrequited love towards another man. For a guy poised to make millions, this was a courageous and unprecedented move to make, especially in the notoriously homophobic and unforgiving world of hip-hop. But WAY more impressive is the album itself. I don't care if he digs guys, girls, cats, dogs, or purple pandas from Pluto -- this is a record for the ages. Full of complex, heartfelt musings on greed, fame, excess, and yes, unrequited love, "Channel Orange" is the most intelligent R&B record you'll hear this side of Marvin Gaye, and easily the Album of the Year.

My picks for 2012's best TV come next week.

COLUMN: A Tree for Rose

I've been spending the past few weeks in desperate search of that elusive Christmas spirit. You know the stuff -- those warm fuzzies you get when lights twinkle and carolers sing.

These days, it's been hard to recapture that magic. The world's greatest holiday has turned into a three-month exploitation of commercialism and greed. I've got my lights up, but the twinkle just isn't what I remember. I've tried everything, but maybe the Christmas I remember is just that -- a memory.

But this week, I learned the most important lesson of all about Christmas. Holiday magic isn't something you FIND -- it's something that, if you're lucky enough, you're GIVEN. If you don't believe me, just ask McKenzie.

McKenzie is a 9-year-old who lives in Moline with her Grandma Rose and her 8-year-old sister. Rose has full custody of the two girls, and has worked tirelessly on third shift supporting the family.

Rose decided to start 2012 by throwing out her Christmas tree.

"The thing was seventeen years old and showed its age," she explained. "I figured that when it got close to the holidays this year, we'd go out and buy a new tree. But that was before I got sick."

A few months ago, Rose was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. She doesn't know how much time she has left.

"I wanted to get a new tree, but when it came time, I was too sick," Rose elaborated. "Depression set in and it just got bigger and bigger and louder and louder."

The girls' Aunt Tammie tried to help. "We put a tree up at our house, and I told the girls, 'With Grandma not feeling good, this can be YOUR tree, too."

It was around that time when McKenzie was picked to participate in the annual Kids and Cops Holiday Shop program. Sponsored by the Moline Police and funded through various businesses in town, each year five children from each of Moline's elementary schools get chosen for the day-long celebration that concludes with a food party at the Butterworth Center.

But the centerpiece of the program is a shopping spree at Wal-Mart. Each child receives a $75 budget to spend on gifts for their family and themselves, AND a police escort to accompany them on the trip. McKenzie got paired up with Officer Sean Hoover.

"It was my first time volunteering," explained Officer Hoover, "and I didn't know what to expect. I had to be nagged into doing it, and now I'm so glad to have been a part of it."

The officers I spoke with recounted stories of past years, when some of the kids had to be gently nudged to spend more on their families than themselves. One recalled having to get a child to fess up that their mother in fact probably would NOT like a Transformer for Christmas. That was before Officer Hoover met McKenzie.

"I asked her what she wanted to buy first. She already had it planned out."

McKenzie herself explains it best.

"I knew right away what I was going to do with the money. I was buying a tree."

Officer Hoover did a double take. He reminded her that she could buy anything in the store that she wanted. Did she really want to spend her money on a Christmas tree?

"She told me that her grandma was really sick," he recounted. "She knew her grandma wasn't going to be around much longer, and they hadn't had time to get a tree. She knew it would take up most of her money, but she didn't care."

The two of them walked over to the Christmas trees and Officer Hoover watched as McKenzie picked out a $45 beauty.

"It even came with lights!" McKenzie gushed. "I was psyched."

With the remaining money, McKenzie bought a present for Rose, a present for her sister, a present for the neighbor boy, and a $5 Barbie for herself.

"I kept myself in a budget," she said with a smile. I asked her if it was hard to keep track of her spending while she was shopping. "Nope!"

When McKenzie got home, she burst through the doors.

"I expected to see her walk in with an armful of toys," said Rose. "Instead, she walked in and said, 'Mom, I took all your worries away. I bought you a tree.' I said, 'a WHAT?' The officer told me she was bound and determined to leave with that tree. It was all I could do not to break down crying in front of her."

"Christmas is my favorite holiday," McKenzie tells me at warp speed. "It has lights and decorations and presents and I got to sit by the policeman and it was cool and I got this tree and it's super pretty and I'm not putting any tinsel on it because tinsel is ugly."

The family set the tree up and had it decorated within minutes. It commands a corner of their living room and features a host of ornaments made by the girls and their classmates. But that's not where the story ends.

It didn't take long before the story of McKenzie's tree echoed through the halls of the Moline Police Department. "It was hard not to notice," explains Officer Hoover. "I was the only volunteer leaving Wal-Mart with a tree strapped to their car."

Eventually word got to a generous Moline police officer who didn't want to be interviewed for this story and wishes to remain anonymous ("He likes his reputation as a hard-a**," one officer said to me with a wink.) But when he heard the story, he wanted to help. He began making calls to track the family down, but all he had was her first name. That was when a maintenance worker happened by his desk -- and miraculously, that worker was the girls' Aunt Tammie.

"I wasn't trying to eavesdrop, but I heard him on the phone trying to track down a girl named McKenzie whose grandma had cancer. I was stunned and shouted out, 'That's my niece!'"

The officer, against Tammie's protests, immediately handed her $50 and explained that he and his wife wanted to pay for the tree.

"It was such a generous and gracious gesture," Tammie said. "I told him it really wasn't necessary, but he was insistent."

The only person NOT happy with the gesture -- AT FIRST -- was McKenzie.

"Aunt Tammie called me and said that a police officer wanted to buy the tree," she said. "I said NO! I bought the tree, and no one's gonna buy it back and take our tree away after we decorated it pretty!"

Instead, the family used the money to let the girls buy new dolls for themselves, and without prompting, they wrote letters of thanks to the anonymous officer.

Christmas comes in all shapes and sizes. In one Moline house, this year it comes in the shape of a tree.

"It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," says Rose with a smile. I'm pretty sure she's right. That Norway Spruce at Rockefeller Center better look out -- there's a new tree in town. And as far as I'm concerned, this one lights up all the Christmas magic I need this year.

COLUMN: Take It All

I'm becoming predictable in my old age. Every morning, I stop at the same shop and order the same coffee. Every summer, I will invariably complain about the heat and the bugs. And every December, I will stop at nothing in search of that elusive Christmas magic that Young Me found so easily but Old Me seems to misplace more and more. Last weekend, I was pretty sure I had it.

It was just a simple afternoon of shopping. I was wandering aimlessly through the mall when I stumbled upon none other than Kris Kringle himself, and a line of kids eager to dole out their wish lists to the Roly Poly One. Santa looked to be in fine form, and then I caught the expression of the little kid on his lap. He was aglow with Christmas magic. You didn't have to be a mind reader to know that this kid was having THE greatest day of his little life.

A little later, I was sitting at the food court and noticed a fellow walking by who -- well, okay, let's be honest: I noticed him because he looked a lot like super-skeevy adult film star Ron Jeremy, and that's NOT who you expect to bump into over the holidays (unless, I suppose, you're Ron Jeremy's mom.) But then I noticed than Ron-alike had a Mrs. Ron-alike, as well as two cute children who thankfully looked nothing like porn stars. Not that I know what many porn stars look like, coz I don't. Cough.

THE POINT IS... they were all happy. And smiling. I don't think Ron-alike ever STOPPED smiling. He smiled as he helped a lady with her bags. He smiled as he talked to his kids. He smiled as he ordered food. THAT right there is Christmas magic at work. Sometimes it's just as simple as people being in good moods for little to no reason whatsoever. I've been the one whining about a lack of Christmas spirit in the world, when this family was smacking me in the face with it. I, meanwhile, was just some creepy dude lurking in the food court staring at strangers. Not cool.

My last stop was downtown Le Claire, a town carefully and meticulously managed to look like a tourist's version of the perfect Christmas. And guess what -- it works. Window shopping their small businesses while a light dusting of snow gently fell was like stepping directly into a Norman Rockwell painting. By the time I got home, I was in the zone. Gone away was the bluebird and here to stay was a new bird. I was in danger of my heart growing three sizes that day, and for once, it didn't have to do with cholesterol.

So thank goodness NBC came along hours later to ruin everything.

As a rule, I root for the National Broadcasting Company. When I think of my favorite shows through the years, most of them hail from the great studios of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. When I was a kid, you couldn't beat Knight Rider or The A-Team. Everyone watched Family Ties and The Cosby Show. St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues were unbeatable dramas. And, of course, it was the home of the two coolest shows in the world: Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman. As I grew, so did NBC. Cheers was great; Frasier was greater. Friends and Seinfeld defined a generation.

Lately, NBC's fallen in popularity but not quality. The Voice is the most entertaining reality show on the dial, while 30 Rock, The Office, and Parks & Rec are arguably the funniest shows of my lifetime. So I'm a fan. But this fan just turned fair-weather, because NBC just debuted the tackiest, most tasteless, mean-spirited, ill-timed fiasco I've ever seen on national television:

I'm talkin' to you, "Take It All."

Please tell me you saw this atrocity. Actually, please tell me you DIDN'T see it. Right now, there's someone sitting at a desk somewhere who decided it was a GOOD idea to green-light a weeklong game show TWO WEEKS before Christmas where the end goal is to cheat, manipulate, and bilk your fellow players out of lots and lots of money. Classy.

Here's how it works. Like most game shows, the contestants are a carefully cast coterie of over-the-top characters who are whittled down from 5 to 2 via a series of games akin to The Price Is Right blended with a white elephant gift exchange. The final 2 contestants then make a decision: "Keep What's Mine" or "Take It All." If both choose the former, they each get their earned prizes and everyone's a winner. If one person picks "Take It All," they get the other's prizes as well as their own. And if BOTH players pick "Take It All," each player wins NOTHING and everyone goes home empty-handed.

The episode I just watched pitted a middle-aged woman against a guy who was a dead ringer for Santa Claus. At the very end, the two got to face each other and give little heartfelt speeches about faith and trust and family and warm fuzzies... and then the cards are flipped to reveal Santa picked "Keep What's Mine" while the middle-aged woman chose "Take It All," thus bilking Santa out of roughly a quarter million dollars.

"Congratulations!" yelled a smiling host Howie Mandel. Congratulations? Seriously? On what? Proving that human nature is inherently evil? On giving me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach? On making me swig Mylanta while fearing for the future of our planet?

The following night featured a minister proudly telling the audience in a pre-shot clip that he also held a Ph.D in Psychology so he knew how to read a person and manipulate them. That was just before the contestant who told the world that she hoped her pregnancy could land her a sympathy win. That was just before I shut the TV off and vowed my "Take It All" watching days were done.

Really? Is this what we've come to? THIS is today's holiday entertainment? I'm the guy who always rolls his eyes at cheezy traditional Christmas specials, but right then and there I found myself yearning to hear Linus' speech or see anything in Claymation. Look, I know it's not a perfect world. I'm a realist. Sometimes life sucks, sometimes people lie, and sometimes cash rules everything around us.

But folks, this is the time of year when we're all supposed to come together as one and, at the very least, pretend for a few days that we like each other. That's all I ask for. Come January 2nd, NBC can live-air people knife fighting over dollar bills for all I care. Just leave Christmas alone.

After all, some of us are searching high and low for holiday magic. And don't you worry -- I found it. Details next Monday.

COLUMN: TV Lessons

It's no secret that I'm a media junkie.

Clearly, I spend my workdays embedded in the world of print media. I spend my weekends moonlighting in dance clubs, bathing in a sea of music media. I'm never in my car without an iPod and radio stations both terrestrial and satellite. My smartphone is always in my pocket and I am never more than 10 seconds away from the internet.

I Facebook, I tweet, I blog. I am LinkedIn, Soundclouded, and Kindled. Other than the six or seven hours that I'm forced to sleep every night (a process I prefer to think of as "recharging my internal receiver,") I am a non-stop media sponge.

But more than any other medium, I am hopelessly addicted to television. When I get home from work, I usually pick up the remote control before I take my coat off. No matter what I do when I get home, no matter what room I'm in, the television stays on. If I'm making food, there's a TV on. If I'm doing laundry, there's a TV on. Most nights, I'm recording one show while watching another. I can't fall asleep unless the warm glow of a hi-def screen is somewhere in the background. As I type this, Pat Sajak and Vanna White are flipping letters on the TV I can barely see with my peripheral vision. I'm typing in a window that's minimized to 30% of my laptop screen while Adrian Monk is busily solving a murder via Netflix on the other 70%.

These days, television is my best friend and truest love -- and not a cheap date, either. Lo def, hi def, HBO, Showtime, Hulu, Netflix, DVDs, DVRs, pay-per-view... I'm starting to think heroin might be a more fiscally responsible habit. But heroin doesn't have 150+ channels, Jon Stewart, MTV Hits, or "Dawson's Creek" reruns at the push of a button.

But I've started to notice an alarming trend lately. A lot of my former pretentious friends from college are now pretentious adults, raising an entirely new generation of pretentious offspring. And a good number of these friends keep taking to Facebook to brag about what great parents they've become... because they've rid their homes of television altogether.

Clearly, these people are crazy and need my help.

It's the same argument over and over again: Television is the boob tube, and watching it on a regular basis turns your brain into mush -- which, of course, would put MY brain at the consistency of figgy pudding at this point. Their solution? Some sort of inhuman bastardized Zen New Age-y way of tortuous life: getting rid of television altogether. This, it is argued, leads to a bigger wallet, a stronger family, and children who are free from the bombardments of mass media and thus brimming with intelligence, creativity, and a passion for life.

To which I say: Let's see how far life's passion gets them when they enter 1st grade and discover they're the only kids in their school who don't know what a "Spongebob" is.  

Look, television isn't the great evil, unless you're feeding your children a diet of "Two and a Half Men" and Honey Boo-Boo. Sure, there's a lot of junk on TV, but there's also a lot of great programs that can feed the mind and ensnare the senses. Take it from me, someone who keeps Netflix on his cell phone (you know, in case of emergencies.) TV can be a great educational tool. I've learned many universal truths from my boob tube -- things my parents never bothered to tell me about. For instance:

• DON'T TRUST ANYONE. I've been watching a lot of "Monk" reruns lately, and it's clued me into something very valuable. Nearly every episode starts the same way: Two perfectly normal people are hanging out together, having fun... and then WHAM! One of them murders the other like it's no big whoop. Murderers come in all shapes and sizes. Terrorists, too, which we all know from "Homeland" and "24." You're never safe.

• WEIRD NOISES INSIDE YOUR HOME are not to be dismissed as the house settling. Or your HVAC system. Or your cat. For I watch TV, and I know that when my house creaks, it's clearly the spirit of my long-lost Uncle Hank trying to communicate with me ("Ghost Hunters") or perhaps trying to attack me ("Paranormal State") or maybe he just wants his watch back ("Haunted Collector.")

• WEIRD NOISES OUTSIDE YOUR HOME are not to be dismissed as neighbors. Or a car backfiring. Or your cat again. There's only one explanation: you have a Sasquatch infestation. "Finding Bigfoot" tells us that 'Squatches are real, numerous, enjoy loud music, apparantly hate cameras, and most importantly, have mating calls that sound exactly like chubby rednecks wandering through the woods on a goose chase.

• VAMPIRES ARE TERRIFYING. Unless, of course, you're a spunky waitress and/or a sullen teenage girl with little to no personality. In that case, the vampires will fall in love with you. Anyone else needs to keep a stock of silver ("True Blood") or vervain ("The Vampire Diaries") or at least have a cute friend named Buffy handy at all times.

• FOOD IS OVERRATED. Time and again, I have watched both Top Chefs and Master Chefs create appetizing dishes that make professional conoisseurs like Gordon Ramsey retch. Clearly, they're trying too hard, especially when all you need to do is watch "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" to discover that the greatest food on Earth is s'ketti 'n' butter.

• IF YOU'RE EVER CHEATING ON YOUR WIFE with another man's wife and the husband comes home, DO NOT HIDE IN THE CLOSET. You might be fine. But maybe your cell phone will ring and the husband will open the closet and confront you but it's okay because he's actually gay and his boyfriend shows up and you call home but a man answers so you race home but get a speeding ticket and your wife explains that the man was Twan who's out of jail but really it was the police officer and then you pull your gun and accidentally shoot Twan and Rosie the neighbor comes over and before long your house is full of pimps and little people. I saw it on IFC. Don't get "Trapped In The Closet."

• THIS SHOULD WHET YOUR APPETITE is totally the answer to this puzzle on "Wheel of Fortune."  WHY aren't they getting it?  What's wrong with these people?  Argh, that's it.  I give up.  Need to change the channel.

COLUMN: Token Annual Grumpy Christmas Column

I can't believe it's happening again.

Every year, I approach the holidays with a child-like sense of wonder and anticipation. And every year, the holidays return the favor by raining upon me a shower of doldrums, dilemmas, and a delightful disdain for my fellow man that usually takes almost a full year to forget about. This routinely causes me to write at least one bitter, angry Grinch-like column every December that attacks the holidays and brings everybody down like the huge no-fun-nik that I really am.

"Not so this year!" I exclaimed to two rather confused cats. No, 2012 would be different -- and not just because some crusty Mayans decided to end their calendar before we even make it to Christmas this year. I just made a pact with myself. I said, "Self, here's the scoop. No one wants to hear some sad sack tell them how miserable the holidays are. THIS year, I'm finding that elusive Christmas magic no matter what."

Christmas magic exists -- just ask the kid Me. Once upon a Yuletide, all it took was a twinkling light or one whiff of pine for the air to become tangibly electric. Next thing you knew, reindeer could fly and bearded strangers could be breaking-and-entering into your residence without fear or repercussion. It's the most wonderful time of the year, said kid Me.

Adolescent Me loved the holidays, too, once he discovered that a piece of mistletoe could get you a peck on the cheek from even the cutest girl in class. College Me would sit around with his friends and talk about how traditional holidays were SO passe and just another tool for The Man to keep us down... but then I'd walk back to the dorms, feel the snow crunch under my feet, and be secretly giddy for the sight of tinsel and the sounds of caroling.

That Me still exists -- I know he's in here somewhere. But that Me was also convinced of the inherent goodness of human nature. Nowadays Me isn't so sure. I'm trying my ABSOLUTE best to avoid Grinchiness this year, but the holidays are doing their best to crush my Christmas spirit before its even been fired up.

As I write this, it isn't even December yet, and I'm already sick of the holiday season. Last time I checked, October was for Halloween, November was for Thanksgiving, and December was for Christmas. But thanks to commercial greed and our ever-expanding consumerism, we've turned three holidays into a three month long holi-daze, where each celebration just sort of blends into the next and we're left with an ugly slog of Thanksmasoween weirdness.

Most stores transformed their displays from Halloween to Christmas overnight on November 1st. Thanksgiving has pretty much ceased to exist; we might as well just call it Black Friday Eve. If this keeps up, twenty years from now, Christmas sales will start on the 4th of July. Even the Festival of Trees, the Quad Cities' greatest Christmas event, starts and stops before you've flipped your calendars to December. It's just not right.

I love working at a newspaper, because you can read all the heartwarming news about the holidays. Like the dude who pulled a GUN on a guy for cutting in front of him in a Black Friday shopping line. Or the pictures of the freezing nimrods who ignore Thanksgiving altogether to wait in line for two days for discount electronics. Or the melee that broke out in K-Mart when people started pushing and shoving just to get the best deals. Look, I love holiday sales -- those advertising inserts help pay for this very column -- but I just don't get the economics of Black Friday deals.

Sure, you're going to get a handful of people who'll help build the holiday hype machine by waiting in lines all night long. But I'd like to think that the good majority of us would rather spend Thanksgiving relaxing over some turkey and football. And seeing those Black Friday shoppers doesn't make me want to go shopping the next day. Instead, it makes me think that all the stores must be fairly well picked over by now and I should wait a couple weeks until they get restocked.

And if Black Friday isn't enough for us, now there's Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and what I can only assume to be Terrible Realization Tuesday, Overdrawn Wednesday, Emergency Loan Thursday, and Fiscal Cliff Friday.

My last line of defense when I feel like my Christmas spirit is waning is to, quite literally, start decking my halls. After
years of apartment life, one of the most exciting aspects of being a new homeowner is that I can hang Christmas lights to my heart's delight. It's become my favorite part of the holidays.

How much of a part, exactly? Six hours worth. That's how long my lights stayed up this year before some jerkwad attacked them with wire cutters and left me with a porch of Christmas carnage and fire hazards aplenty. What kind of a scumbag do you have to be to vandalize Christmas?

I swear I'd have been LESS mad to have come home and found all my lights stolen. I'd still call whoever did it a jerkwad, but at least then I could envision a Little Timmy Jerkwad somewhere whose Christmas was brightened thanks to his thieving dad and my lights. And it's not like I had some neon-bright robot Santa or something that required self-defensive destruction in the name of good taste or anything. These were just a few understated strings of lights hung around my porch. Whoever did this really was a heel, as cuddly as a cactus and as charming as an eel. You're a mean one, Mr. Jerkwad.

I'm not giving up on my pact. And with a couple of splices and some electrical tape, my lights aren't giving up, either. One of these days, I'll find that holiday magic. I already found an animatronic duck in a Santa cap that sings "Freebird" at Walgreen's, so if I can't have a holly jolly Christmas, I'll at least have a tacky wacky one.  In the meantime, I'll have to satiate my holiday spirit the only way I know how -- by winning the $550 million Powerball when they draw it in ten minutes.

(Post-script:  I lost that, too. Bah, humbug.)

COLUMN: T-Swizzle

I remember one of the biggest fights I got into with my ex-girlfriend like it was yesterday.

We were driving her little sister up to church camp in Wisconsin, and all the way up there, I'd been subjected to a barrage of sugary teenage pop music that had already worn through my last nerve and was grating at the very core of my soul. After two hours of this puerile sing-along nonsense, I'd reached the breaking point.

"Say, honey," I asked. "Is there any chance we might be able to change CDs to something a little less, umm, sucky?"

My girlfriend looked at me incredulously. "But you said you liked Taylor Swift!?"

"Oh," I explained, "Yeah, I really like Taylor Swift. Just not her MUSIC."

Note to self: In the future, if one wants to keep one's girlfriend from becoming one's EX-girlfriend, one should probably keep any crushes one might happen to harbor for barely legal, leggy pop-country superstars to oneself. On the lighter side, I didn't have to worry about any more boring small talk for the rest of trip. And above all, that insipid CD -- which, it turns out, was from MY collection -- came out of the player.

So am I a total skeevy pervert for thinking that Taylor Swift is SUPER cute? Okay, so maybe she IS half my age, and, I suppose, had I been more, umm, "busy" in high school, I could theoretically have a daughter her age and be spending my days worrying about whether or not any 41-year-old men were leering at her.

But think about this. Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones dated an 18-year-old when he was 61. Anna Nicole Smith married an 89-year-old. Demi Moore has 16 years on Ashton Kutcher. Martha Raye was 75 when she married a 42-year-old. Hugh Hefner dated 20-year-old TWINS. At the same time! And we all know how well all of THOSE relationships played out, right?

The point is, it's possible. Sure, people would talk. And there'd be paparazzi. And the unforgiving press would probably call me a dirty old man and I would read that and it would hurt and I would be sad and then I would look up and realize I'M DATING TAYLOR SWIFT and the rest of the world can bite me.

You might laugh, but you don't know how close it came to being true. You see, Taylor Swift and I had a moment.

A couple years ago, Taylor played Moline, and yours truly was tapped to review the show. Now, country music isn't really my thing -- in fact, it's pretty much the exact opposite of my thing -- but, c'mon, it was Taylor Swift, so I accepted the assignment with glee. When I got to the iWi and picked up my review tickets, I was stunned to see the ticket attached to a meet-and-greet pass. The gods had spoken, and the gods wanted me to meet Taylor Swift.

Now, I don't know if you've ever been to a meet-and-greet with a major label artist, but it's not as magical as you might think. I've been lucky enough to attend a few, and they all usually work the same way: ticket-holders are taken backstage, lined up like cattle, and paraded quickly and efficiently past the artist, who's usually surrounded by a team of managers and security. If you're lucky, you get about twenty seconds to make awkward small talk while a manager takes your picture, and then you're paraded far, far away. Sometimes you get a cookie. It's entirely awesome.

As I took my position in the cattle line, the goal was simple. I needed to make country superstar Taylor Swift fall hopelessly in love with me, and I was going to have 20 seconds to do it in. No problem, right?

I knew what it was like to botch a meet-and-greet. Once I found myself in a similar cattle line to meet the band Oasis, a group I spent most of the 90s worshipping as rock gods. I knew that their singer Liam Gallagher had a penchant for being a jerk, so I figured my best approach would be spending my 20 seconds making fun of corporate meet-and-greets.

"Hi Liam," I said. "Thanks for taking the time to do this. Do you guys have to put up with these stupid events in every town you go to? That's got to get old real quick."

That's when Liam Gallagher looked up at me and said, and I quote: "If you don't like it, mate, there's the door." Fail.

So I knew what NOT to say. Instead, I had to come up with something cute, and quick. "What's a country superstar like you doing with a nerd like me?" No. "I can't wait to hear what songs you'll write about ME." God, no. Umm... ummm...

And like that, it was my turn. And there she was. Now, there's two things you need to know about the real Taylor Swift. First is that she's really nice and really cute and pretty much perfect. Second is that she's TALL. Like, really tall. Taller than me. And there she was, all shiny and cute and tall and signing my CD and someone's taking our picture and this was it. I cleared my throat...

And that's when Taylor Swift gasped. Not at the beautiful words that came out of my mouth. Not at my manly physique. No, instead Taylor Swift gasped because a kid two spots behind me in line figured out the PERFECT way to get her attention: he passed out, cold, onto the floor. Needless to say, Taylor ignored me and went racing to this kid's aid. The last thing I saw as I was led out of the room was this kid coming to as his head was being cradled on Taylor Swift's lap. Well played, kid. Well played, indeed.

It's okay, though. Taylor and I will have another moment. At the rate she goes through boyfriends -- and if she's true to the words of her hit single and will, in fact, never ever get back together with any of them, like, ever -- eventually I'll be the only guy left that she hasn't dated. I'm a patient guy; I can wait.

In the meantime, to be fair, recently I bought her new album "Red" -- and it's good. REALLY good. Maybe even one of the best records of the year. It's confident without being pretentious, edgy without losing its appeal, and a statement of maturity from a songwriter with a huge career ahead of her. Which is a good thing, because it's gonna take some serious songwriting skill to pull off her future hit single, "Stay Away From Me, Chubby Old Newspaper Guy (Restraining Order)."

COLUMN: Fiscal Status

It's a bad time for my Uncle Mitch. He's spent the better part of the week yelling at us through cyberspace that America is, quite literally, going to hell for re-electing a Kenyan-born Socialist Muslim president intent on destroying our society and taking away his guns. It's riveting stuff -- by which I mean I want to put rivets through my brain every time I log on Facebook.

I suppose if our President really IS hiding a secret socialist agenda, it'd probably be bad for the world at large... but what about yours truly? I barely have a political bone in my body, but I keep hearing that one of the principal components of socialism involves the redistribution of wealth -- and as long as that wealth gets redistributed MY way, I'm cool with it.

I'm not complaining. I've got a job that I'm excited to get to every day, and that's more than many folks can say. I'm got a house, a car, a seemingly endless supply of cat food, and a well-used Netflix subscription. As far as I'm concerned, I'm living high on the hog. That said, if you're the kind of person who's less concerned with job satisfaction and more focused on a lifestyle that requires narration by Robin Leach, journalism might not be the career path for you.

Truth is, as grateful as I am for my current fiscal status, I've watched some of my best friends work their way up to the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of the 1% club. I know I'm not supposed to get jealous -- in fact, I think I'm supposed to sit on their lawns and hold protest signs against their very nature -- but occasionally I get a twinge.

Last weekend, I went to a concert at a casino in Chicago with one of my closest friends from college -- let's call him Phineas J. Moneypants, Esquire. Once upon a time, we were broke dorm-dwellers fighting over spare change in the cracks of couch cushions. Today, he's a successful divorce attorney with a thriving practice, a staff of employees, and I presume a golden mattress lined with hundred dollar bills ripped directly from the pockets of big city love gone wrong. It's okay, I occasionally sleep on money, too -- just the other day I was taking a morning shower when no less than seven cents fell off my thigh. Score!

Phineas suggested that we all meet up at the casino steakhouse for a quick bite to eat before the gig. Sounded good to me, until I decided to check out the steakhouse's online menu in advance.

They had a impressive array of steak, that's for sure -- the cheapest of which was $32. And their signature steak? "Grass-fed American Wagyu" for the low price of $59. Now, I don't know what a "wagyu" is, but for 59 bucks, it had better be on the endangered species list, come when I call it, and stuff itself with rubies before serving. Sorry, but I simply refuse to pay sixty bucks for anything that goes in one end and out the other. And did I mention that Phineas is a VEGETARIAN?!

And that was JUST the steak, mind you. Side dishes are to be ordered separately and priced individually. "Corn," for instance, was an additional $7. Not fancy-schmancy corn-ala-something-French. Just corn, presumably in a bowl. Last I checked, seven bucks buys you 27 ears of corn at the farmer's market. This better be wagyu corn. Heck, it better be the world's rarest corn, grown in the enchanted forests of Narnia and harvested by overpaid fairies only on a full moon during Leap Day. It had better taste like magic. I'll tell you one thing it better NOT taste like, though: corn, because I know what corn tastes like, and it sure doesn't taste like seven bucks plus tax and tip.

Is that what the wealthy do these days? Pay three times the normal price for stuff just for fun? If that's the case, I'm gonna move to Chicago and open up the world's first Wagyu gas station, "for the gasoline conoisseur." Yes, we realize that it's $9 a gallon, sir, but this is GOURMET fuel.

I'd already maxed my budget on ticket and travel expenses, so I put the kibash on the triple-digit meal and told Phineas I'd meet him at the show. I was embarassed to admit I couldn't afford the grass-fed finer side of life, and Phineas was embarassed to have assumed that I could.
I thought we'd put our fiscal differences behind us -- until AFTER the show. That's when Phineas decided he was up for a little post-concert gambling. As we walked through the casino, we were reminiscing about concerts and bands and girlfriends and dormitories and it was ALMOST enough fun for me NOT to notice when he walked up to an ATM and withdrew ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS -- you know, "fun money."

I cannot, in good or bad conscience, withdraw $1000 from the ATM. For starters, I would sincerely hope that my bank would forbid it and/or immediately call to report suspicious activity on my account. But that's beside the point, because there isn't enough money in my account to even make it a possibility. If I take out more than $20, I usually have to stand there and do long division to make sure it's even feasible.

"Dude, have fun. Relax. Gamble for a few minutes."

"Okay," I said. I reached into my pocket, grabbed my remaining $5, stuck it into a slot machine, pulled the handle five times, and lost all my soda pop money for the ride home. "There. That was super fun, you're right."

I give Phineas too much grief. If I made his moolah, I'd probably waste it all on poker and fancy food, too. If it wasn't for the 1%, the rest of us 99% would have nothing to protest, the Kardashians would be really boring people, and none of us would be able to experience the priceless entertainment of Donald Trump's Twitter account.

Besides, if I really want Phineas' kind of money, it should be getting redistributed my way any day now. Just ask Uncle Mitch.

COLUMN: Emergency Room

I try to be, for the most part, by and large, a nice guy. As it turns out, this is not a recommended move.

I've never heard a girl go, "Wow, you're such a nice guy. Please allow me to bear your children." Not once has anyone said to me, "Hey, Shane, you're such a nice guy. Here's a million dollars." Whitey's has yet to invent an ice cream that says "calorie free if you're a nice guy." Nice guys get no love. Nice guys can, however, get into a whole mess of trouble. Trust me on this one.

On most weekend nights, you can find me in a dance club, manning the DJ booth until the wee hours. The other day, it was 2:30 in the morning and I was on my way home. Still riding the high from a great night behind the decks, I decided to reward myself with a late night donut stop. It was there I found myself, precariously balancing a handful of glazed goodness, when my phone started ringing.

2:30 a.m. phone calls are never good news. But when that call was coming from my recent ex-girlfriend, I knew it had to be something big. Amy's a big fan of yoga, and even teaches it nowadays. I've always told her that some of those yoga positions looked inhuman and dangerous to me, but it's hard to be taken seriously when you're giving exercise advice while laying on the couch drinking Coke. Well, it turns out I might have been right all along.

After an evening yoga class, Amy went to bed and woke up with crippling pain in her hip. Since I was the only number on her speed dial most likely to still be awake at 2:30 a.m., she called to see if I could take her to the emergency room.

Some people might have issues rushing to the beckon call of their ex. For me, it was a no-brainer. Like I said, I try to be a nice guy. Honestly, if Satan himself showed up at my door asking to borrow a cup of sugar, I'd probably give him the whole bag AND my mom's secret recipe for toffee cookies.

True story: Once a repairman showed up at my house to fix my TV. Upon seeing my music collection, he remarked about a few rare pieces that I owned. Without hesitating, I quickly [ENSURED THAT HE HAD PURCHASED SAID RARITY HIMSELF] and [MADE HIM A LEGAL BACKUP COPY OF SAID RARITY FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY.]

Amy might be my ex, but she's no Satan and she's a lot cuter than your average TV repairman. So I dropped everything I was doing, raced over there, left my prize donuts on her counter, and took her to the ER. And it's a good thing I'm a nice guy, too -- otherwise, I'd tell you all how her bum hip made her walk like an escapee from the "Thriller" video.

When we got to the ER, it was completely empty. "Whew," I thought, "this should take no time." 'No time,' in case you were wondering, is just over three hours long. While Amy was poked, prodded, and x-rayed aplenty, I was left in the World's Most Boring Waiting Room, where the only entertainment was a microscopic TV airing a marathon of whatever the show is that features fabulously wealthy people getting married in fabulously wealthy ways. Joy.

THEN the doors opened and it got interesting. In walked an ambulance driver and her fare for the evening -- a gentleman who was admitting himself voluntarily for some kind of psych evaluation. And they had just shown up at the WRONG hospital.

I'm a nice guy -- which means I have to make an important disclaimer here. I know that mental illness is no laughing matter. I have friends who have been touched by mental illness, family who've been touched by mental illness, and if you've ever seen me around the presence of a bee, you'll know that I've got my own set of issues. An estimated 1 in 4 adults suffer from some form of mental disease, and they deserve our love, patience, and support. Unless I think they're going to eat my face off.

While the we-came-to-the-wrong-hospital dilemma was resolving in a bureaucratic braintrust of nurses and phone calls, no one paid attention to the patient. Imagine if you will a large and empty waiting room... and this poor fellow chose the seat directly across from me -- all the while staring me down, scowling, rocking, mean-mugging, and generally looking like the only thing he wanted to do voluntarily was attack me with malice and extreme prejudice.

What does one do in a scenario like this? I didn't want to stand up and move -- that would be a jerk thing to do and might incite the guy. I couldn't draw the attention of the nurses no matter how hard I tried. "It's okay," I kept telling myself, "If you have to be attacked, it might as well be IN an emergency room." There was only one choice. For upwards of 20 minutes while this guy was inches away literally growling at me, I watched that TV show. I watched the heck out of it. I saw what a $14,000 floral arrangement looked like. I saw wedding dresses that cost more than my annual income. My eyes NEVER left the screen. I'm not even sure if I blinked. Outside? Nice Guy Shane. Inside? Sheer terror, surviving only by repeating my mantra, "Donuts.. donuts.. donuts."

Eventually, they sorted out the bureaucracy and my new friend was begrudgingly led away. The desk nurse turned to me and said, "Oh wow, that might have been dangerous there." Outside, Nice Guy Shane said: "Heh heh. Perhaps, yes." Inside Shane, meanwhile, was screaming. "YEAH, CAPTAIN OBVIOUS? DO YA THINK? GRAB THE DEFRIBILLATORS, I'M PRETTY SURE I NEED 'EM!"

Finally Amy came out. Diagnosis: Torn muscle. I told her she needed to ease up on the Downward Dogs. I raced her home while visions of donuts danced in my head. Got her inside, turned to the counter... and discovered that her roommate had woken up in the middle of the night and ate all of them. ARRRRRRGH!

It's okay, though, because I'm a nice guy. I sincerely hope that Amy's hip gets better. I sincerely hope that my troubled growling friend gets the help he needs. And I sincerely hope that somebody brings me a #@^$&*% donut.

COLUMN: Bachelor Tips

Congratulate me, Quad Cities. I have now been a bachelor homeowner for over a year. Seeing as how I'm still alive and the house is still standing, I consider that a win.

I've owned my home for a couple years now -- well, technically, I suppose Wells Fargo owns roughly 39/40ths of my home, but they've graciously allowed me to stay here as long as I pay them every cent I earn until I'm in my mid-70s or so. At first, this home-owning thing was a snap. Why? Because I had a girlfriend to fall back on. It was a lovely partnership: she enjoyed cooking and cleaning, while my interests lay more in the fields of eating and making messes.

But that was yesterday, when love was such an easy game to play. I've now been flying solo for just over a year, and I have yet to do anything that would cause the house to explode. The way I see it, this makes me somewhat of an expert at bachelor life. I now manage to keep a house tidy enough that I don't try to hide the interior from the pizza delivery guy. That's why I'm introducing a new semi-regular feature to my column...

Shane's Handy-Dandy Tips For Bachelor Living. These are for YOU, single guys:

• When purchasing milk at the store, always buy see-through jugs instead of cartons. This is to avoid those pesky times when someone reaches for the milk in your fridge, sees that the date is "Nov 1", and takes a big swig -- before you can step in and tell them that the expiration date was Nov 1, 2009. Helpful piece of bachelor knowledge: Year-old milk turns CLEAR.

• When it comes to storing left-overs, ALWAYS use aluminum foil. Saran-Wrap is a tool of the devil. Only women know how to work Saran Wrap. When WE try to do it, it rips off in weird strips, gets stuck to itself, goes all stringy, and turns into the unsolvable Rubik's Cube of kitchenware.

• They now make refrigerator bags with little labels on them so you can write down what you're storing. This is handy for those times when you pull the bag out of the nether regions of your refrigerator months later and go, "Eww! What WAS this?!?!?!" Now you'll know. Remember, one man's mold is another man's antibiotic. If Alexander Fleming had kept a tidy fridge, we wouldn't have penicillin.

• Here's one from the apartment days: If it's -20 outside and your abode has a lousy radiator, it is possible yet not recommended to open your oven door and turn your kitchen into a giant space heater. It is POSITIVELY not recommended to this immediately upon waking prior to one's morning coffee. You see, there could be a chance that you turn your stove on by mistake instead of your oven. And there could be a chance that you've left some Tupperware sitting on that stove. And there could be a chance that you're in the middle of your shower when you look up and see black smoke rolling through your apartment. And there could be a chance that you set off the fire alarms in the entire apartment complex while you're wet and naked and trying to figure out how to stop plastic from smoldering. And you could have to endure a very harsh lecture from the fire department while you still have a head covered in shampoo. Not that I'd know anything about that first-hand. Cough.

• The "three-second rule" of dropped food does NOT apply if you are a cat-owner. If that hot dog makes contact with your floor for even 1/10th of 1 second, it will act as a magnet for any and all loose cat hair in the area. And while loose cat hair is arguably LESS disgusting than the actual contents of your hot dog, it's still really revolting.

• As a bachelor, your living space most likely smells like a finely crafted melange of sweat socks and stale pizza. Strangely, girls do NOT find this appealing. But girls have found the answer and guys need to embrace it. I'll proudly admit it: I own THREE Scentsy burners in my house. There is no funk that cannot be overcome by melted scented wax. Your nose will thank you for it, trust me.

• In the event of Def Con 4 -- otherwise known as "when the parents come to visit," I opt for the tri-Scentsy experience above, augmented with some carpet deodorizer, three open tubs of Citrus Magic placed strategically through the house, and a liberal spritzing of Ozium. This should sort out ALL the funky smells in your house. Of course, there's a marginal chance that you'll die from toxic fume inhalation, but should this happen, rest assured your corpse will likely smell springtime fresh.

• Mankind -- or at least bachelorkind -- really needs to focus their efforts on self-cleaning clothes. Laundry is my absolute least favorite thing to do on the planet, unless you count "being stung by bees" as a thing. But in a way, mankind has already accomplished this mission, thanks to the most innovative and important scientific advancement of the 21st century: Febreze. With some strategic Febrezing, as my friend Nathan says, yesterday's pants can be today's pants.

• Color sorting is for sissies. Just throw it all in the washer, press the button, and take your chances. Stick with black underwear and black t-shirts and you'll never have to worry about something turning pink in the wash.

• Lastly, my friend Rick recently shared an innovative cooking tip. Let's say you're slaving away in front of the stove and you've got your hands full yet you need to steady your skillet. Rick has the answer: Simply insert the handle of the skillet into your bellybutton and let your fat work for YOU for a change. Or maybe my friend Rick is a little strange. I wouldn't know because I've never "slaved away" over ANYTHING in the kitchen in my life.

How about YOU? Know any good bachelor housekeeping tips that get the job done while presumably making girls of the world cringe? E-mail them to me at and I might share them in a future column. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some Febrezing -- I mean, some LAUNDRY -- to tend to.

COLUMN: Freefall

As many of my regular readers know, my lust for global fame occasionally exceeds the confines of this weekly column. It's not that I don't appreciate my current popularity status, a level known in the ancient language as Togwwtoc Biapaps (That One Guy Who Writes That One Column But Isn't As Popular As Paula Sands.) I'm grateful for my small corner of fame, but let's face it -- the Quad Cities are dreadfully lacking in paparazzi. How am I going to use this column to springboard my meteoric rise to super-stardom followed by my embarrassing fall from grace followed by my triumphant and career-crowning comeback?

I need to figure out a way to fast-track worldwide infamy... and thanks to this past weekend, I may know just the trick.

Do you ever get that feeling when you're lying in bed, perfectly relaxed, perfectly quiet, allllmost asleep AND THEN OMIGOD! YOU'RE FALLING! YOU'RE FALLING! YOU'RE... back to lying in bed and everything's fine, other than you've just suffered a near heart attack? Science calls it a hypnagogic myoclonic twitch, which is science for "we have NO clue why this occasionally happens, so we're just gonna give it a cool name."

If you've experienced this phenomenon, you know how terrifying it is to suffer the sensation of freefall for a half second. Now imagine that feeling lasting for just over four minutes -- and that MIGHT be what it's like to be Felix Baumgartner.

If you don't who Felix Baumgartner is, you clearly don't read the rest of your newspaper. Last Saturday afternoon, the civilized world came to a near standstill to watch Felix board a balloon-powered capsule, float to the outer reaches of the atmosphere, and jump. In his two hour ascent and four minute freefall, Felix Baumgartner became the first skydiver to break the sound barrier, complete the highest altitude skydive in history, and clock the fastest speed ever achieved during a skydive.

I don't know about you, but I was glued to Youtube watching the whole thing go down. I've got to admit, though -- it was a fun yet hairy experience. More than a part of me was convinced the only record I'd witness would be discovering just how high a human being could bounce. Miraculously, though, Felix pulled it off. The way I see it, this yields one of two conclusions:

(1) Felix Baumgartner is a super-hero among men. His bravery pushed all known boundaries, gave us invaluable scientific research, and serves as a testament to mankind's triumph over the world in which we live.


(2) Felix Baumgartner is a nutbag. I mean, come on. The guy went up so high that I was half afraid he'd jump out and float up instead of fall down. He travelled 24 miles at over 600 miles an hour. Sane people don't do that sort of thing. That's the rough equivalent of going from here to Geneseo in four minutes flat -- without a car. Dude crazy.

I'm not sure which school of thought I belong to, but it really doesn't matter. You see, Felix Baumgatner showed me one other important truth last weekend. Felix Baumgarter proved that it is fully possible for one man to become instantly really, really famous -- simply by falling. This is good news for me, as I FALL A LOT. If falling is all it takes to become super famous, then look out, paparazzi -- I'm a-comin'.

Yes, blessedly born without the cumbersome burden of coordination, I am wonderfully gifted at falling. I did it on my basement stairs just last week. A month ago, I fell in the shower. Winter's coming soon, and that means I'll have countless opportunities for zany pratfalls on the ice.

Look at what Felix needed in order to fall: a space capsule, a $250,000 custom-made balloon (actually TWO of them, because the first one was ruined in a failed attempt,) a corporate sponsorship from Red Bull -- the list goes on and on. Felix needed a whole lot of help to fall. Well, two summers ago, I tripped and fell over NOTHING on a smooth piece of sidewalk all by myself, and I did it so expertly that I broke my foot in a manner so rare that an orthopedist told me he usually only sees that type of injury from windsurfing or snowboarding. I'm so skilled, I did it by merely WALKING. Did Felix break anything in a cool and/or rare manner during HIS fall? Not so much. Talk about underwhelming.

Side note: Just because I don't NEED a sponsorship in my quest for fame doesn't mean I won't ACCEPT one. I'm talking to YOU, Red Bull. You're clearly a pro-active company. You saw something in Felix and you went for it. And how did he re-pay you? "Waah, I need a space capsule!" "Waah, I need a fancy balloon!" "Wahh, I need a parachute!" Well, Red Bull, I don't need any of that expensive garbage. The only thing THIS guy needs to fall is a can-do attitude and my God-given lack of coordination. And if you give me a bunch of money, I can trip and fall like no one you've ever seen -- and the minute I touch down on the ground, as soon as I stop swearing and provided I did not concuss myself into unconsciousness, I will shout it proudly from the pavement: "RED BULL -- IT GIVES YOU WINGS!"

Felix Baumgartner is clearly pretty good at falling. Trust me when I tell you I am GREAT at falling. And if falling is all the new rage, then say hello to your klutzy new posterboy, America.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

COLUMN: Tipping

I'm pretty sure that, once upon a time, everyone on Earth held a meeting to decide exactly how the world should work -- but I wasn't invited. Or maybe I was too busy watching a "Monk" marathon on Netflix. Either way, sometimes I feel entirely unqualified to live an unsupervised life.

It's not that I'm wholly inept or anything, but so many scenarios in life seem to involve a set of protocols that other people know like instinct while I stand in hopeless confusion and go, "Uhhhh...?" That's when the eyes lose contact, the stammering begins, and instead of WATCHING reruns of "Monk," I start acting like Monk instead. Never was there a clearer example than last weekend.

You've heard the phrase "Lazy Sunday," but no one lives the dream quite like me. Thanks to a DJ gig the night before, I was up and raring to go at the crack of noon. And by "go," I refer to leaning over, clicking the remote, and spending the next three hours watching 43 cars turn left at Talladega. After rooting for about ten different drivers and then watching all ten of them crash into each other on the very last lap, there was nothing left to do but sigh and start thinking about food.  

I was flying solo that afternoon, but I still wanted a decent dinner, so I called one of my favorite restaurants and placed a carry-out order. I sauntered up to the to-go counter and handed the smiling employee my debit card. But as I went to sign the receipt, it all went to heck... because despite placing a carry-out order, and despite being at a counter reserved exclusively for carry-out orders, the receipt I was signing had a blank spot for the tip.

Umm... what does one DO in this scenario? Am I supposed to leave a tip? And if so, how much? It's not like the guy had to do a whole lot of work. In fact, I'm pretty sure his entire role in this process was to walk three steps to get my food and walk three steps to hand it to me. What's proper etiquette in this scenario? I KNEW I shouldn't have erased Miss Manners from my speed dial.

I could leave a small tip, but if etiquette is to leave 15%, wouldn't that make me out to be a jerk? I could leave 15%, but maybe you're not expected to tip a carry-out order? Would the guy make fun of me in the back room like, "Look! Some idiot tipped me for a carry-out order!"

Ergo, I should just not tip at all -- but what if you're SUPPOSED to? Why else have the line on the receipt? The kid might only have to walk six steps to get me my food, but I'm sure a disgruntled food service employee could get a whole lot of spittle into my food in those six steps. Argh. What should I have done? (For the record, I tipped 15%. I'd rather be called an idiot than have a garnish of spit in my food -- an act which probably NEVER happens, but thanks to MY brain, requires constant vigilance to avoid.)

I hate leaving tips. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not some miserly penny-pincher. If anything, I'm usually guilty of OVER-tipping. But what I hate is that, thanks to the rules of etiquette, we've forgotten the point of leaving a gratuity in the first place.

I'm a firm believer in rewarding a job well done. In a perfect world, a gratuity should be just that -- a sign of gratitude and recognition for exemplary customer service. A tip should NOT be something determined by an etiquette rule that mandates you should leave 15% at all times always. Who came up with 15% anyways? As far as I'm concerned, a relaxing dinner should NEVER involve math.

When I go out to eat, I play it by ear. If I receive good service, I leave a good tip. If I receive great service, I leave a great tip. If I receive great service AND the waitress is cute, sometimes I leave an embarassingly high tip -- because, as we all know, the best way to woo a girl out of your league is to give her an extra six dollars. (Note to self: avoid Hooters.)

Some things, though, immediately leave a bad taste in your mouth. Like when you pay for an $13 meal with a $20 and the waitress gives you back seven $1 bills. Worse yet are the restaurants that come complete with "cute" incentives to tip.

There's a sub shop in Davenport that keeps a tip jar next to the register. But instead of saying "tips," the jar says, "Beer Money." And whenever someone contributes, the employee at the register has to yell, "Hey, beer money, guys!" to the other employees, who then all have to loudly express their gratitude. It's cute, I suppose, except for the fact that most of the employees look to be about 17 years old. If I'm truly giving them "beer money," I'm pretty sure that's technically contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and I prefer my pastrami without a side order of a Class A misdemeanor, thanks much.

It doesn't take a therapist to get to the bottom of my neurotic obsession with tipping. I know exactly how it started. Until I went off to college, I led a fairly sheltered life. A life in which my mom would take me to the hair salon and pay for it herself. When I was finally on my own, I found a stylist I liked and went to her for years -- until one day when I paid with a credit card and saw that fateful blank space for a tip on the receipt. Until that moment, I had NO clue it was customary to tip your hair stylist. I'd gone to her for YEARS and had left her nothing. I was mortified. It's a wonder she never shaved "JERK" into the back of my head. Sorry, Kathy.

That's why I live in constant fear of NOT tipping when I should. I don't ever want to discover that I should have been tipping the clerk at the drugstore for the past thirty years. Of course, by admitting this, now ANYONE who helps me with ANYTHING could stand in front of me, cough, and hold out their hand -- and I'd probably start apologizing profusingly while handing them money.

Clearly I need help -- so if any of you have an international book of protocol for all public interactions and occasions, I'd love to borrow it. I'll probably even tip you for the effort.

COLUMN: Carol the Feral

I was taught by my parents to be kind to animals of all shapes and sizes (except, of course, snakes, who can pretty much suck it.) I'm starting to think, though, that when it comes to THIS aspect of my upbringing, my folks just may have been broken a little bit.

YOU might not know the house I grew up in down in rural Galesburg, but just ask ANY animal within a 20-mile radius and they could probably point you in the right direction. Some of you might have bird feeders at home. Well, my parents have the Walcott truck stop of animal feeding stations, complete with a variety of tiers, structures, and menu options aplenty.

Every day, my folks eat breakfast in full view of an avian feeding frenzy that might even throw Alfred Hitchcock for a loop. You know those weird birder people who go broke traveling the world for their "big year" of seeing how many species of bird they can stare at? Little do those sad people realize that all they need to do is hang out in the Brown family dining room for a half hour. Just open the curtains and congratulations -- you've seen every bird that's ever existed ever.

As if that's not enough, wait about twelve hours and open those curtains again. The birds will be gone, but the zoo arrives, and you'll be witness to a round table forum of raccoons, opossums, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, mice, skunks, groundhogs -- you name it. It's nothing to find a deer gently grazing on the edge of the patio. Heck, one morning I opened the window to a pair of cows staring me down. Okay, maybe that was less to do with the feeders and more a nearby farmer with a broken fence, but you get the picture. My folks do everything in their power to get nature to come right up to the windows and say howdy -- and they passed this on to me as a new homeowner.

But here's the thing. Sometimes nature is smarter than we are.

You may remember my feral cat saga from earlier this summer. My neighborhood is rife with stray and feral cats, but none come cuter than the little midget cat I came to call Daryl the Feral. Little Daryl was braver than most of the neighborhood cats despite being half their size, so I decided to set some food out for him one day. This turned into a nightly ritual, until one day when I noticed that Daryl was looking a little chubbier than the handful of Cat Chow I was providing should afford.

That's when I realized my spunky little buddy was actually a homeless teen mom, and Daryl the Feral became Carol the Feral. And sure enough, lurking in the shadows a few paces behind Carol was a skittish, scraggly, ugly little bugger that must be Dad. Well, I wasn't about to stop feeding an expecting mom, so I gave Carol a safe and well-stocked yard. She repaid me earlier this summer by giving birth to five kittens in my hydrangea bushes.

It wasn't long before this squadron of kittens starting dashing out into traffic, so I assembled a posse of my friends and we spent the better part of a week rescuing kittens. This was no easy task, as kittens aren't exactly fans of being rescued. By the time it was done, I had blown out my knee AND In the process managed to trap a menagerie of unexpected guests, such as (a) a raccoon so vicious I had to call Animal Control to avoid it ripping off my face, (b) a neighborhood cat that I officially named "Durrrr" after ousting him THREE times from the same trap, and (c) Carol herself -- an accidental catch, but it allowed us to take her in to get fixed and vaccinated.

In my brain, I imagined Carol thanking me for rescuing her children and wanting to live inside with me happily ever after. In reality, Carol wasn't real happy that I stole her kids, trapped her in a cage, and surgically removed her lady parts. Instead of purrs, I got hisses and claws and a cat that clearly did NOT want to become someone's pet.

Ergo, when I got her back from the vet, I let Carol back outside and vowed my days of feral cat feeding were over. I was resolute in my decision -- for almost a week. That's how long it took Carol to show up at my back door sad-eyed, hungry, and offering a hoarse little meow that clearly said, "Please, mister, I'm so tiny and helpless."

Just as my parents can't stop feeding the entire animal populace of Knox County, I can't stop feeding Carol. Every morning, she greets me at my back steps. Every night when I get off work, she's there. And she eats a LOT - or so I thought.

The other night, I got home from work to the usual sad eyes and hungry meows. But an hour later, she was back at the door scratching for MORE food. Umm, okay. Maybe she'd had a rough day, so I refilled the food bowl. But on this night, I just happened to decide to make a taco run a few minutes later. When I opened the back door, suddenly it all made sense.

There was Carol, but she wasn't eating. She was just laying around. Instead at the food bowl, there was Dad, who I hadn't seen in months. Next to Dad? Why, it was my old friend Durrrr. Next to Durrrr? Some ragamuffin cat I'd never even seen before. Next to HER? Two tiny little kittens. ALL were gathered around my food bowl, taking advantage of my hospitality.

I thought I was helping one sad little cat in need. Instead, I've fallen victim to a neighborhood pack of feline grifters. It's a classic scam -- send the cute one up to beg while her entire gypsy family waits in the wings. Over the past three days, every time Carol's turned up at the door, a closer inspection reveals an army of cat eyes lurking in shadows and corners.

It's official: I'm the creepy cat guy of the neighborhood who's been accidentally feeding half the strays of Rock Island. Thanks, Mom & Dad, for raising me to be an animal lover. Some good that got me. Next time I see a bug, I'm stepping on it with malice and glee.