Friday, May 03, 2013

COLUMN: Idiocracy

Vladimir Zwoyrkin and Philo Farnsworth aren't a likely pair to be found sharing the same space in the annals of history.  One was a Russian transplanted to Pittsburgh, the other a Mormon with a small lab in California. But they DID have a shared dream. Farnsworth built a photocathode tube able to focus a visual image onto a layer of photosensitive material, resulting in an electron image capable of being multiplied via a positively charged detector. Zwoyrkin saw Farnsworth's invention but envisioned a different model where cathode ray tubes could be used to both create and display images. These two men, working on opposite ends of the country, laid the blueprints for what we know today as television.

Zwoyrkin and Farnsworth had different approaches to their work, but they did share one important thing in common:  Not once did either ever utter the phrase, "...and with this discovery, it is my distinct hope that one day, mankind will be able to harness this technology to enjoy watching bearded rednecks make duck calls."

Have you ever seen Mike Judge's brilliant satirical movie, "Idiocracy"? In it, a man and woman are accidentally frozen alive and revived in the future. When they awaken 500 years later, they discover that, thanks to the dumbing down of pop culture, the world is populated exclusively by morons. In this future world, the top-rated TV show is the aptly titled, "Ow! My Balls!"

"Idiocracy" was released in 2006 and supposedly took place in the future world of 2505. In the real world, it's now 2013, but as I scan the TV dial these days, I'm scared that we're already broaching "Ow! My Balls!" territory. Everywhere I look, there's some new "reality" show seemingly intent on dumbing down America. Once upon a time, A&E stood for Arts & Entertainment Television. Now their programming consists of Duck Dynasty and Stuff People Watch While Waiting For Duck Dynasty. Once upon a time, MTV showed music videos. Now I'm pretty sure all they air is a 24-hour montage of drunk girls fighting. TLC WAS The Learning Channel. As I sit here typing, it's currently devoting an entire show to a man who owns 8000 bottles of mustard and is conquering his obsession with something called "ketchup therapy." The only thing I'm learning is that cable is a waste of money.

Where did it all go wrong? I'm not sure, but I have my suspicions. If I had to trace back the dumbing down of this generation's idea of entertainment, I'd say it was a three-pronged attack: American Gladiators, America's Funniest Home Videos, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Once we started sacrificing scripted programming in favor of embarassing home videos, dudes fighting each other with giant Q-Tips, and Jim Carrey talking out of his hindquarters, culture was doomed.

Back in my day -- you know, when we had to walk a mile barefoot through the snow to watch "Fantasy Island" -- if we enjoyed a particular celebrity, we tuned in to watch a show they starred in. But nowadays its not enough to watch celebrities act and sing. Nope, now we need to watch them dance, work for Donald Trump, swap wives, and dive into pools. When that's all over, we can switch to "TMZ Live," which is pretty much 30 straight minutes of celebrities trying to walk away from cameras in a hurry.

So why get all worked up over this? After all, bottom-of-the-barrel entertainment has been all the rage for the better part of a decade now. But I just read an article that proves we're about to eat THROUGH the bottom of the barrel and descend to an as-yet-undiscovered subterranean level of trash.

Familiar with the DIY Network? Once upon a time, it was an educational home improvement channel with hands-on shows that guided you through the pitfalls of home remodeling and restoration. Their programming was top-notch, but there was just one problem. In their hurry to make quality television that actually stood a chance to educate folks, they neglected to include even ONE D-list celebrity. Tsk, tsk.

That all changed a couple years ago when "The Bronson Project" debuted. The one thing better than a home improvement is, of course, a home improvement show starring TV's Balki Bartokomous -- and, because the world sucks, the show was a ratings triumph. This was followed last season by "The Vanilla Ice Project," where our favorite washed-up rapper was back with a brand new invention: the remodel of a mansion -- and, presumably, if there was a problem, yo, he solved it. More specifically, his "team" did. He pretty much stood around and checked out the hook while his DJ revolved it. The ratings, naturally, were gold.

This week, the DIY Network announced its new shows currently in production. First up? "Vanilla Ice Goes Amish," where our hero joins an Amish colony in order to stop, collaborate, listen, and raise a barn. Then there's "The Rev Run Project," where the chubbier half of Run-DMC updates his family home (spoiler alert: it's tricky.) And yes, a third show wherein Hall & Oates fix up an old farmhouse.

Look, folks: It's my JOB to sit around and think up funny stuff, and I'd never be able to come up with a premise as ridiculous as a Hall & Oates fix-it show. But maybe this is a cash cow I need to learn to ride. If the key to success is merely matching up a mundane activity with a washed-up musical act, it's high time I launched my OWN network. I'll call it Crummy Recording Artists Performing on TV, if only it had a catchy acronym. Here's some ideas I'm mulling over for programming:

• HVAC Maintenace with Air Supply - They might be all out of love, but they're rife with knowledge about energy efficient ways to heat your home.

• Preparing for the LSAT with DJ Jazzy Jeff - Okay, here's the situation, your parents have you worried about your law school examination. Perhaps a nice refresher would do you some good. Well, maybe you shouldn't... yeah, of course you should.

• I'm Alright, You're Alright: Self Esteem Building with Kenny Loggins.

• Cooking Meat Loaf with, umm, Meat Loaf - Duh. It's cold and lonely in the deep dark night, but I can see paradise by the oven light.

• The Captain & Tennille + 8 - Let's see how much love can keep them together when they're paired with 8 precocious orphans.

I'd share more, but they're MY intellectual property. Plus "Welcome to Myrtle Manor" starts in a minute, and I am NOT missing that. You know, so that I can continue to report on the degradation of modern entertainment. Not at all because the trashy girls are super cute. No sirree.

COLUMN: Albania

The Republic of Albania is a proud nation on the banks of the Adriatric Sea in Southeastern Europe. Rife with unspoiled beaches, breathtaking mountain views, and ancient architecture, Albania is a vacationer's dream. Whether it's a lost weekend in the honeymooner's city of Sarande, a panoramic drive down the Rreshhen-Kalimash Motorway, or an educational getaway to the Gjirokaster National Folklore Festival, there's something for everyone in the rich culture and colorful heritage of Albania.

And the cuisine...?  Oh, don't get me STARTED on Albanian cuisine! Umm, really, don't get me started, because I have NO idea what Albanian cuisine is like. But thanks to this past weekend, it's officially NOT for lack of trying.

Truth is, I'm a food bigot. I try to be worldly, I really do. My favorite music comes from England, my favorite car comes from Germany, and my favorite fly definitely hails from Spain... but when it comes to food, I am a flag-wavin', red-blooded, red meat consuming American.

What can I say? I like my food simple and free of surprises. If I could live on a diet of hot dogs and cherry pie, I probably would. If it looks weird, I'm not eating it. If I can't pronounce it, I'm not eating it. I'm just not very adventurous when it comes to trying food that's outside my comfort zone. I'm a basic staples kinda guy -- flour and sugar, bread and butter, ketchup and mustard, cake and ice cream, cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys. Occasionally I'll be brave and eat some tuna. I have enough adventure in my life as is; I don't need to eat things I can't identify in order to feel alive.

There's just one problem: It turns out that a simple red-white-&-bland diet where Pizza Hut is considered "ethnic food" is actually really, really bad for you. It's not exactly NEW news, but a study came out last week that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a Western diet high in red meat and high-fat dairy literally takes YEARS off your life. It's becoming clear that I need to start being brave.

It's not like I'm afraid of exploring. There's nothing better than setting off with a tank full of gas, a car full of friends, and a mission to get as lost as possible. Some of my greatest stories have come from aimless driving, and the first good weather weekend of the year is always reserved for taking the first back road out of town. In 2013, that day was last Sunday. It was early when the phone rang.

"Hi, how are you?" came the voice of Friend Jason.
"Bored. How are you?" I replied.
"Also bored. Shall we?"
"We shall."
"I'm on my way."

With those pleasantries out of the way, it was just a matter of grabbing the iPod and hitting the open road. The day's adventures took us in a northeasterly direction into the blissful weirdness of rural Illinois. It was a delightful way to waste a day. We shared many a polite wave with passing farmers, saw some spectacularly terrifying lawn ornaments, visited a picturesque country cemetery, took a wrong turn and ended up trespassing onto a private club, marveled at a huge wind farm, and there may even be a chance that if you were driving along a back road last Sunday, you may have caught a glimpse of two grown men laughing hysterically as they stood in a country park attempting to launch a kite. Not that those two guys were us, because we're far too macho and mature for something THAT silly and DEFINITELY way too cool to have a Spongebob Squarepants kite at the ready in the trunk of the car.

But the real highlight came when hunger kicked in. Our eyes were peeled for any weird little restaurant with a lot of character. Enter Amboy, an unassuming rural community in Lee County. That's where we saw the sign, and brakes were screeching within seconds:


That's right, I have now traveled to the exact junction where pizza meets Mexico meets Albania. And heck, why not? I like tacos, I like pizza, and I'd never heard a bad word about Albania in my life. Maybe it's like peanut butter cups -- you know, when good things come together to make greatness. "You got Albania in my pizza!" "You got pizza in my Albania!" It was time for dinner. Or kho ishte koha per darke, as they say in Albania.

Pizza Junction might be my new favorite place in the world. There's barely an inch of wall that's not covered by odd pieces of history. Above the clear ceiling tiles, someone had placed decorative bird statuettes, most of which had fallen on their sides, creating the sensation of eating just under some kind of strange bird apocalypse. The menu sadly told us that Mexican cuisine was only available on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but I was feeling adventurous and we wanted to try Albanian food. Whatever that was.

The Albanian portion of the menu was plentiful. Lots of interesting sounding dishes with virtually no explanation as to what they were. The waitress came out and we hit her with questions.

"We want to try something Albanian! What's good?"

"Umm, I dunno," was her reply. "Nobody orders that."

"What's an Albanian beef roll?" Jason asked.

"Umm, I dunno," was her reply. "Let me go check." She returned a moment later. "It's the same as our regular beef roll."

"I want the Albanian baked beans and Albanian sausage," I chose.

"Umm," she said. "Let me go check." She returned another moment later. "We don't have that."

I began to wonder if by "Albanian," they were referring to the haute cuisine of Albany, New York. In the end, at least I TRIED to be adventurous, so it's a baby step. I ended up with a plentiful  salad, an amazing cup of vegetable beef soup, a large baked potato, and a giant ham steak slathered in pineapple sauce. It was HEAVEN, and I'm pretty sure it set me back all of seven bucks. Friend Jason, meanwhile, enjoyed an American-yet-apparantly-also-Albanian beef roll, and it turned out to be a gyro-type pita thingamajig that he spoke highly of as well. So if you're ever in the Amboy area and hungry for, well, pretty much ANYTHING, head for the Junction.

American or not, the food was amazing -- and even though I still know nothing about their cuisine, I can now find the country of Albania on a map, so I can't say the day wasn't educational. My health might fail from eating like an idiot, but if that starts to happen, I now know I can convalesce along the curative beaches of coastal Velipoja in scenic Ada Bojana. See you there.

COLUMN: Allergies

The other day I was channel flipping and accidentally found myself in the cable TV dead zone. On the dial, there lies a dangerous terrain of unwatched channels that exists just east of Comedy Central and just west of HBO, as though we care about anything that happens between "South Park" and "Game of Thrones." These are the networks no one watches or cares about. These are the networks that occasionally actually try to (shudder) EDUCATE you about stuff.

A couple days ago, I accidentally landed on one of these channels -- the Home & Oprah's Discovery Health Geographic or some such -- in just enough time to hear an announcer state that "the human body is a magical and complex creation." Well, if the human body's magic, mine just learned some awesome new tricks.

Chief among them is the magical trick of ALLERGIES. When I was a kid, I had bad allergies. I don't exactly remember suffering from them or anything, but I DO remember trips to the doctor and being forced to try assorted nasal spritzes and such. Then I hit puberty and magically I was fine.

Well, now I'm hitting middle-age and they're magically back with a vengeance. Here's how it works: I proceed throughout my day as usual. Then without rhyme or reason I feel the slightest tickle in my nose. And then the sneezing begins.

I don't understand people who can control their sneezes. I just don't get how it's possible to pull it off without your brain exploding. There's a girl I work with who sneezes and it sounds like this: "Fiw." When I sneeze, it sounds like this: "AAFWCHAWAAAAA!" I have no control over this noise. It's just what happens when a sneeze does. If I tried to cap off AAFWCHAWAAAAA and turn it into a Fiw, I'm pretty sure my eyeballs would pop right out of my head.

Hence, I'm cool with AAFWCHAWAAAAA. There's just one problem. These days, I don't just AAFWCHAWAAAAA once. No, I'll sit there and rapid fire sneeze over and over again while trying desperately hard not to bite my tongue off somewhere between the FW's and the CHA's. I'm not kidding -- my record of late is 26 sneezes in a row, and scarily, THAT happened behind the wheel on my way to work. So if you were almost mowed down by an out-of-control Volkswagen the other morning, I am truly and sincerely saafwchawaaaarry.

The ugly truth is that my hay fever has returned -- and the fact that every aspect of my life is coated with a thin layer of cat probably doesn't help matters much. Still, I resist going to the doctor. I have friends who regularly go to allergists, and the entire process sounds completely medieval and horrifying. We live in the modern era, and as such, I should be able to open an app, wave my iPhone in front of my face, and have Siri tell me exactly what I'm allergic to and phone in a prescription to Walgreens for something I can take (preferably one of those nifty melt-in-your-mouth strips) to make it all better.

Instead, according to my friends, when you go to an allergist, the first thing they do is strip you down, smear a bunch of toxic stuff all over your back, and wait to see exactly which of their cooties make you break out in hives. Let's say this primitive test proves that you're allergic to cats. Your NEXT step? Why, just visit the doctor on a regular basis and let them inject you with tiny amounts of dead cat until your body gets used to it. Umm, thanks, but I'll live with the sneezes and a lifetime dependency on Claritin.

But a funny thing happened to me this week. I woke up feeling fine and made it to the office in a reasonably good mood. The sun was out, birds were chirping, springtime was in the air... and my nose started tickling. Sixteen aafwchawaaaaa's later and it was all over. My sinuses were throbbing, my eyes were watering, and my head was stuffy. Yuck. But wait -- why was my throat scratchy? Where did this cough come from? And why was it suddenly SO COLD in here?

And THAT is how I went from perfectly fine to perfectly sick in less than five minutes. This is a magic trick I wish I hadn't learned. I'm now in Day 3 of the gnarliest, grossest cold I've had in recent memory. Over the past 48 hours, I have gone through 2.5 boxes of Kleenex. My head weighs more than your average anvil, I haven't been able to taste anything since Tuesday, and my voice sounds like a cartoon. I'm typing this in my pajamas with a chest smeared with Vicks and Kleenex shoved up each nostril. I am bringing sexy back, people. On the plus side, my nose can now pick up extra work lighting the way for Santa's sleigh.

Worse yet, when this thing hit, I had ZERO food in the pantry. This meant I had to make the worst trip of all: sick grocery shopping. There's nothing like strolling through a grocery store trying to act cool and non-chalant while trying to hide the fact that you're more toxic than the Contagion monkey. Naturally, then, this is when I bump into EVERYONE I KNOW at the store, and even a couple kind folks who simply wanted to shake my hand and tell me that they enjoy my column. In return, I probably gave them the plague.

If this is the "magical" part of the human body, I've cast the wrong spell. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to fall deep into a Benadryl haze so foggy I won't care WHAT channel my TV's on. Until next time, aafwchawaaaa.

COLUMN: An Open Window Into My Soul

On Easter Sunday, I road-tripped home to spend the afternoon with my folks. Or, more accurately, to spend the afternoon as my mom's personal bad taste liaison, since I walked in the door and was immediately tasked to load up her new mp3 player with a vast array of the world's worst music. On the positive side, I've learned that I possess the inner strength and fortitude to survive the extended discographies of Kenny G, Barbra Streisand, and Michael Bolton. May the gods of good music have mercy on my soul.

But the visit itself wasn't as revelatory as the drive down. What I failed to mention is that all this came on the heels of a rather sleepless Saturday night, so the last thing I wanted to experience was the mind-numbing lullabye stretch of I-74 between here and Galesburg. Ergo, I decided to spice things up by traveling the entire journey via back roads. Aimless country driving is the most cathartic activity I know and my favorite way to recharge the battery of the soul. Give me a well-stocked iPod and a full tank of gas and I'll give you my idea of heaven.

The route I took was a travelogue of adolescent memories. There was the small-town grade school I attended as a kid... the bridge I used to drive out to and throw rocks off when I needed to think... the ditch I landed my Plymouth Horizon in when I first learned what happens when you drive too fast on fresh gravel... and hey, there's the dirt road I used to take my high school girlfriend down when we wanted to complete our homework and hold Bible study sessions and any other completely G-rated wholesome activities you can think of.

I should have enjoyed my backwoods cruise down many a memory lane, but a funny thing happened. It turns out that, despite my best intentions, I did NOT take the world in a love embrace, fire all of my guns at once, and explode into space. Instead of the bliss of the open road, my mind held other thoughts:

Whoa there, slick. You're going way too fast. Don't lose traction. No one knows that you're on this bumpy gravel road. What if the car breaks down and you can't get a signal on your phone? Your parents would be worried sick. You should have checked your oil. When was your last oil change? These rocks are probably doing a number to the underside of the car. What if one of them flies up and hits the windshield? P.S. That music's too loud, turn it down.

What's happened to me? I've dreaded this day, but it appears that my 42-year fight is over and I need to come to terms with it. My name's Shane, and I'm... I'm... a responsible adult.


Getting old sucks. The only reason babies cry is because they're too young to realize just how good they've got it. When I was a kid, I yearned for the freedom of independence. But it turns out the freedom I craved just gets stymied by the responsibilities of independence and/or the guilt that comes with being smart enough to know better. I know I sound ridiculous whining about this -- I'm sure many of you are parents who could give me a lecture or two about what REAL responsibility is. Truth be told, my only main obligation is making sure I wake up and get to work on a daily basis, but even THAT comes with its own peculiar set of challenges... which brings me to yesterday.

8:22 a.m. - I stride into the office eight minutes early. As someone who's admittedly a little challenged in the responsibility department, this feat alone should be worthy of celebration. And, of course, it turns out my boss is out sick and no one notices.

8:28 a.m. - As my computer boots up, I stare at the Windows logo and it hits me like a brick: The night before, the house was stuffy and I had opened the window over my kitchen sink. I had NO recall of ever closing it. My security system has a broken glass sensor but not an I-casually-removed-the-screen-and-wandered-on-in sensor. Yikes.

9:10 a.m. - The work day is progressing smoothly. I, however, have already envisioned at least twelve different scenarios of assorted imaginary bad guys breaking into my house and robbing me blind. One of them has an eye patch and speaks with a Hungarian accent.

9:45 a.m. - In the grand scheme of things, my cats are capable of little more than sleeping and meowing. One of them frequently confuses Kleenex for food. Yet in my head, I have now imagined a  scenario where they have collaborated to remove the screen from the open window (opposable thumbs be darned) and are now cavorting about the streets of Rock Island where they have presumably already turned to a life of crime and it's all my fault.

10:20 a.m. - A revelation: I don't remember shutting the window, but I DO remember refilling the cats' water bowl before I left for work. If the window had been open, I would have been met with a cold draft while doing so. Surely I would have noticed, right?

10:40 a.m. - I just remembered I once made it all the way to work before realizing I was only wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Never trust what I do and don't notice before I've had my morning coffee.

12:20 p.m. - Surely my neighbors would spot someone shimmying through my kitchen window, wouldn't they? And if someone DID break in, they'd have to go out the same window, because if a door opened, then the alarm would go off and I presume ADT-trained ninjas would swoop in and save the day, right?

3:05 p.m. - Someone just called me. I assume they wanted something newspaper-y. I wasn't paying attention - I was too busy in my CURRENT waking nightmare where I come home from work and get jumped by a conspiracy of neighbors, thieves, ninjas, and cats -- all of whom were just waiting for an open-window opportunity like today. And then my poor parents will have to hire Liam Neeson to save me, and the whole thing's just gonna snowball from there.

By the end of the day, I worried myself into a massive stomach ache. And I'm sure there'll be other stomach aches down the road, because I fear I've merely tested the waters of what it's like to have REAL responsibilities. Maybe one day I'll have PEOPLE to worry about instead of an open window or a broken-down car. Adulthood is a long and slippery slope. I might be a little late for the ride, but I'm getting onboard regardless -- just so long as the destination never turns me into a fan of Kenny G or Michael Bolton.

(And yes, the window was closed and locked when I got home. No ninjas. Liam Neeson can stand down.)