Friday, July 05, 2013

COLUMN: Country

It always amazes me when I see people who look perfectly comfortable in their surroundings. I don't know how it's done. I think I'm just naturally gifted at being really, really awkward.

Some folks are photogenic and warm up to a camera. Others float through life with an aura of comfy coolness. But look in the background of those pics. That's where you're bound to find that one accidental photobomb who looks horribly ill-at-ease. You know, the guy with the weird expression that says "I don't belong here" mixed with "I may have spiders in my pants." The guy so out-of-place that you'd swear he's been Photoshopped into the situation directly from his home world of Weirdtopia? That's usually MY role in life. I bring the awkward, and I bring it hard.

Nowhere is that more evident than when you stick me in the country.

It's no big secret that nature and I tend not to get along very well. Winter's too cold, summer's too hot. If it's icy, I'm bound to slip in it. If it's green, I'm bound to be allergic to it. If it's an insect, I'm probably terrified of it. If it's a bee, I'm terrified AND allergic. Rain makes me wet, snow makes me shiver, and the sun gives me a rash. As far as I'm concerned, there are about two good weeks of weather all year and the rest is for the birds.

I suppose, then, that I should gravitate towards big city life. After all, if there's one thing that keeps Ma Nature in check, it's a concrete world. Pollen doesn't grow on blacktop, and that pesky sun stays at bay thanks to all that sweet smog. It's paradise on Earth, right?

Well, not quite. I also hate sharing space with lots of people -- and sadly, they've yet to invent a lightly populated metropolis. Big cities might have tons and tons of neat stuff to do, but that also means there's tons and tons of people DOING that stuff. The traffic is insane and half your life's just wasted getting from A to B. Maybe I just need to stay in my living room forever and find a job where the only interaction I have with society is when the pizza guy rolls up.

But sometimes, I surprise myself.

It was late on a Friday afternoon when my friend Linn called me at work. I had zero plans for the night and was looking forward to a beached-whale evening on the couch. Linn had other ideas. In fact, she had an extra ticket for the Barnstormer concert at Codfish Hollow that night. A few minutes of peer pressure later and I found myself in a car on my way to (gasp) nature.

Everyone should experience a Barnstormer show at least once in their life. Codfish Hollow is a farm hidden in rural Maquoketa, and for a few weekends every summer, it transforms into one of the most unique concert venues in the Midwest. Upon arrival, guests park in a pasture. From there, it's just a game of dodge-the-cowpies to get to the hayrack ride that takes you down the winding treacherous road to the Hollow.

At the farm, you're free to roam the grounds, view the art installations, and check out the live music, which happens no-frills style in a barn that's almost entirely free of any air circulation whatsoever. You usually end up witnessing some of the greatest musical moments of your life, but you do so while sweltering elbow-to-elbow with hundreds of the sweatiest, smelliest hipsters you could possibly dream up. It's not just nature, it's every aspect of nature that I hate, all tied together in a sweaty, stinky bow.

Then why do I love it so much?

On the way there, I was Joe No-Fun. I was the guy insisting we bring lawn chairs. I was the guy sucking down Claritin and covering my body in Deep Woods Off. I was the guy complaining about EVERYTHING. Then why was I also the guy who stepped out of the car into the middle of a cow pasture to feel entirely at ease? Suddenly I didn't care about anything. The stress of the work week, the worries about whether we'd left something at home, the fear of looking awkward around others... it just melted away.

I guess when your biggest worry is whether or not you're about to step in cow poo, you really don't have much to complain about. It was fun being with friends in that pasture, it was fun on the hayrack, and it was fun being sardined inside that God-forsaken oven of a barn. I wasn't just dealing with nature, I was actually (gasp) enjoying it. Okay, when a bee flew by me, I still ran away like a chicken, but I did it without screaming like a little girl. That's a triumph.

By the end of the night, I had some serious un-Shane-like activities under my belt. I hung out in the sun. I hiked. I played horseshoes (Note: anyone who thinks horseshoes is a wussy sport needs to have a chat with my right shoulder. It's two days later and I still feel like I pitched a no-hitter over the weekend.) I poked a hornet's nest. I tromped out into the middle of a field of fireflies to check out the Supermoon. And at the end of the night, when the skies opened up and rain poured down, I welcomed it. I was a sweaty, smelly mess -- and I kinda loved it.

Anyone who knows me wouldn't believe how much fun I had in the boonies. But there's one thing that a lot of people don't know about me: I grew up in the boonies. A 50-acre farm, to be precise. Well, not a FARM by definition, I guess, because we didn't farm it. My folks just liked the country -- and so did I. I remember days of hiking around pastures trying not to scare the bulls. I remember eating wild raspberries off the vine in our woods. I remember playing in the creek when a rough green snake swam between my legs -- and at the time, I thought it was COOL instead of terrifying. I remember swingsets and bike rides and dirt and sweat and bugs and clouds and stars and grass.

At some point, I lost touch with country me. I'd estimate it to be about the time I discovered video games. Country me didn't stick around long that weekend, but it was nice to make his acquaintance again.

I'm certainly not made for the country, but I'm not made for the big city, either. I guess I'm both Donnie AND Marie -- a little bit country AND a little bit rock & roll. I'm more of an in-between, and I guess that's why I like it here in the Quad Cities. We're big enough to never be boring but small enough to escape down a gravel road when the need arises.  

So maybe I'll always be the awkward guy who never wholly fits in. But I'm okay with that -- they call it a HAPPY medium for a reason.

COLUMN: Cat Mayor

Somebody asked me the other day why I've never considered running for political office. I'm pretty sure the maniacal laugh I responded with was answer enough.

For one, I know there's video of my college years out there somewhere, and I'm pretty sure TMZ could have the footage online by the time I even set up a podium for my first press conference. Thanks, but I prefer my life relatively scandal-free, thanks.

And I suppose there's the small matter of me not really knowing a thing about politics. I like to think that I'm plugged in and fairly well-rounded in my political leanings, but that's hooey. Truth is, if it's not on the front page of this paper or the first ten minutes of "The Daily Show," it's usually out of my loop or over my head. Besides, I'd like to think that you people deserve someone in control of your fiscal future who's capable of doing simple math without having to count on his fingers.

More than anything, though, I don't deal well with confrontation. If I get a negative comment on a performance review at work, my stomach ties up in knots, I pace around the house, and can't sleep for a week. When you run for office, random strangers end up hating you just because your favorite color is either blue or red. I can't take that kind of pressure. Not many people could.

That's why politicians are an entirely different breed of animal. And in Mexico, they're actually an entirely different breed of animal.

July 7th is election day across Mexico. And in the eastern town of Xalapa, the leading candidate for mayor is an orange-eyed black and white kitten named Morris. He might only be 10 months old, but he's already got 110,000 Facebook followers and a successful line of campaign t-shirts that read "YES WE CAT!" According to the Associated Press, Morris stands a fair chance at winning the election behind his campaign motto, "Tired of Voting for Rats? Vote For a Cat."

A witty way to protest a political system rife with corruption? You bet... But then I got to pondering. And you know what? When it comes down to it, I don't know if you could come up with a candidate better suited for a mayoral position than a cat. Think about it:

• Food shortages would never be a problem. There would be NO greater concern to a cat administration. I'm pretty sure my cats can tell you exactly how many pellets of cat chow are currently in inventory based on one shake of the bag alone. You run low on food and there'd be heck to pay at the next city council meeting.

• Civic defense would be a way of life. My cats have two primary motivations in life. Food is first. Second is making sure of what's going on Outside, and specifically making sure that Outside never comes Inside and that Outside knows that Inside belongs to Inside. Occasionally Outside will send a feral ambassador for a back porch screen door summit. It never goes well. My two indoor cats appear to mostly hate one another, but they will forever remain a unified front against Outside.

• Cat Mayor would NOT play by the rules. Cats have no rules. "Don't claw the furniture!" Cat Mayor laughs at you. "Don't jump on the kitchen countertop!" Cat Mayor does not compute.

• Cat Mayor would be a tough negotiator. Last week, I fell asleep on the couch. Silly me forgot to ask my cats' permission first. Worse yet, I had the unmitigated gall to nap my way through dinnertime. BAP. Zzzz. BAP. I'm pretty sure I'm asleep but I'm also pretty sure there's a paw hitting my head. BAP "Mrow." BAP BAP "Mrow." "SHUT UP STUPID CAT!" BAP. "Mrow mrowwwwwwwwr." Guess who won?

• Cat Mayor would take things to new heights. The other day, I watched one of my cats confidently climb the stairs to my loft bedroom, nimbly jump onto the tiny precarious ledge of the loft, and instantly lose her balance and tumble off. But before I could even go "OMIGOSH" and run to her aide, she managed to push off of the staircase handrail, do a mid-air 360 ollie, land in a forward somersault on the couch one full story below, and casually look over at me like, "What? I TOTALLY meant to do that."

• Cat Mayor would know how to command attention and clean up his own messes. There is no worse noise on Earth than that of a cat hacking up a hairball. And when that noise invaded my slumber at 4 a.m. the other night, I was duly grossed out. Yet my naive little semi-conscious brain thought, "Don't worry. It'll stop soon," and I attempted my best to sleep through it. That was when the simple realization hit me like a horror movie: THE NOISE IS COMING FROM ABOVE YOUR HEAD. Sure enough, I was asleep on the couch and my cat was inches above me on the backrest about to vomit directly onto my face. How I summoned the fortitude I will never know, but in the blink of an eye, I reached up, grabbed the cat, and blindly heaved her as far away from my head as I could. I heard her safely land and hack up what I'd reckon to be a level 5 biohazard. The next morning, the floor was spotless. I'm not asking any questions.

• Cat Mayor can turn on the charm. I'm pretty sure if an axe murderer stormed into my house and chopped me into itty bitty pieces, my cats would still put on the big sad eyes, flop over, and mandate a belly rub. If the axe murderer had FOOD, new alliances would instantly be formed. It's like any good business relationship: you scratch MY back, and I'll... demand that you keep scratching it.

• And lastly, Cat Mayor wouldn't need a fat cat donor when Cat Mayor IS a fat cat himself.

Pshaw, you say. Surely, Shane, there's no way a town could survive with a feline mayor. I'm being ludicrous, right? Right?

It turns out our friends in Xalapa are behind the times -- especially if you've ever been to Talkeetna, Alaska. It's a small village and tourist destination at the base of Mt. McKinley. Oh, and for the past 16 years, it's been presided over by a tailless cat named Stubbs, the duly elected mayor of Talkeetna. And, according to various news stories written on Stubbs over the years, his approval ratings remain high to this day. Sure, he sleeps a lot, and he definitely sheds more than your average mayor, but during his reign, he's kept taxes low, checks in with area businesses on a daily basis (especially the ones serving food), and isn't afraid to interact with tourists.

So, Mayor Pauley, you can rest in the knowledge that I'm not coming for your title any time in the near future. I cannot, however, speak for either of my two housemates. I'm pretty sure one of them is giving me a stump speech right now. Either that or she wants food. Either way, I have to go.

COLUMN: Newton

I believe that everyone on Earth has two sides: the person we want others to perceive us as, and the person we actually ARE. I'm not exactly sure about the person who I actually AM (I like to think of him as a work in progress,) but I most certainly know the person I'd like to be perceived as.

He operates on an entirely higher plane of cool that some can't even comprehend. He's funnier than the average bear, but he's also just a little bit aloof in that distant and mysterious way. He's a well-traveled ladies man who loves exotic food, cutting-edge music, avant-garde art films, and you just KNOW he has a library full of classic literature in his house. He is equal parts Holden Caulfield, Jack Kerouac, and Robert Downey, Jr.

The real me is a teeny bit different. I'm only funny if you give me a laptop computer and an indefinite amount of time. I'm not aloof -- I'm just too shy to talk to you. I'm afraid of airplanes and I can't hold eye contact with a pretty girl. My definition of exotic food is Taco Bell, I secretly enjoy the music of Chris Brown, my favorite movie is "Twister," and the largest library in my house is the stack of water-logged Entertainment Weeklies I keep by my toilet.

Holden Kerouac Jr. I ain't.

No matter how much I yearn to be the coolest guy in the room, it'll never happen. I'm just me. A guy who's afraid of bees and bugs, routinely breaks out in heat rash, hates to get his hands dirty, and sleeps with socks on. A guy who doesn't know how to change a tire or swim or snap his fingers or keep his shoes tied.

And, yes, a guy who loves NASCAR.

I know, I know. I can't explain it either. I'm a card-carrying liberal Democrat who drives a European car laden with bumper stickers supporting both Obama and the Human Rights Campaign. I should hate NASCAR.

But I can't help myself. I don't know if it's the speed, the excitement, the danger, the strategies, or what. All I know is that I like stock car racing, and not just a little. It's one thing to tune in to the races, but I read the blogs and follow the Twitter feeds. I call in to NASCAR talk radio. I'm currently in a close second place in my NASCAR fantasy league (yes, they exist.) And, every once in a while, if I'm feeling especially brave, I go to a race.

Maybe you spent last Saturday racing for the cure or gumbo'ing your ya-yas. Me? I was in Newton, Iowa for the Dupont Pioneer 250 NASCAR Nationwide Series race, where I learned many truths about the reality of being a NASCAR fan:

* Fellow NASCAR fans are, by and large, really nice people, occasionally to a fault. We got to the race early and got stuck in line next to a guy with clearly nothing better to do than make 150 new friends. Talking at roughly the volume of a stock car to absolutely anyone daring enough to make eye contact, we learned all about the murders in his hometown ("They'll git the guy, mark my words, what with the D&A and all. With D&A, they can go back and check out what George Warsh-ington was up to if they wanted!") We learned about his daughter's neck goiter (she's doing much better.) We learned that his wife was running late (and/or packing up her earthly belongings and heading for the hills whilst the getting was good.) Still, I'll take THAT guy over the usual beer-spilling frat-boys I end up next to at most rock shows.

* Iowa Speedway workers are, by and large, really nice people. We were concerned that we'd miss the autograph signing, so the staffer at our entrance unlocked the gate early, searched all of our bags early, and scanned all of our tickets early, all so we could run straight to the autograph line when the time came.

* NASCAR drivers are, by and large, really nice people. We made it to the autograph session and managed to score a couple of the much-coveted admission wristbands. I got to meet Brian Vickers, Elliott Sadler, Trevor Bayne, and a dozen other drivers. ALL of them were unbelievably nice. I couldn't help but think of the hours I spent in college trying to meet my favorite musicians only to discover they were arrogant twits.

* NASCAR sponsors really enjoy giving away free stuff. Fill out a quick survey from Sprint and get $5. Fill out a quick survey from Chevy and get a free t-shirt. On an entirely unrelated note, I hope Mr. Bud Weiser enjoys his Chevy brochures, and if a certain rival publication starts receiving telemarketing calls about their cell phone service, it should be dismissed as coincidence.

* Thanks to the sponsor trailer, I know for sure that Dupont Pioneer products yield "good, clean corn." Not that bad dirty corn we're all used to.

* I should know that if I'm ever out of my element and having a good time, it's bound to rain on my parade. And it did, quite literally, as the skies let loose during the introductory parade of drivers.

* If you think stock cars are loud, try sitting in the second row when they bring out the jet dryers. I've long since destroyed my ears on a steady diet of dance music over the years, and even a grizzled vet like me was sitting there with earplugs AND my fingers in my ears every time those wheeled deathmobiles rumbled by.

* Whoever sings that "Rain is a Good Thing" song is a liar.

* How does the Iowa Speedway make up for an eventual rainout? Apparantly by encouraging felony drunk driving. "BEER FOR THE ROAD?" shouted umpteen vendors at us as the crowd headed dejectedly to the parking lot. Many took them up on it. Turns out it was okay, though, because I'm pretty sure you could have passed out drunk, gotten a good night's sleep, and waited out the hangover while still in line to leave the parking lot. There's a chance I might still be there now.

Maybe I don't really like NASCAR. Maybe I just like waiting in line after line, all capped off by some extra waiting in the parking lot to get the heck out of Newton and head home while resisting the urge to bump-draft traffic on the interstate.

Holden Kerouac Jr. would NOT have been amused.


Sometimes it's good in life to take a break, sit back, and focus on that which matters the most: Pop music.

I am an unabashed music nerd. It is my hobby, my passion, and I'm pretty sure it's the reason I exist. My life-long love of audio has shaped my friendships and my existence.

And this week, it's shaped my column.

Eight hours ago, I was in my car headed for the office. Like every workday morning, my iPod was blaring away on random shuffle. Some people keep their mp3's meticulously sorted by genre, mood, artist, etc. Not me. I have 12,000 songs loaded into my iPod, and I think it's more fun to just throw them all together into a random hodge-podge. When I press play, I don't know if I'm going to be met by a lush ambient soundscape or slammed with soul-scraping European techno.

Today, however, I was hit with a classic: "Triad" by the Byrds.

It's a song I first discovered one day while absent-mindedly stocking shelves at my old record store job. I was swept away by its dreamy melody and hazy meandering. It's a perfect pastiche of 60s psychedelia and JUST the song I needed to gently ease my mind into another work day. Then, for the first time ever, I paid attention to the words.

For someone who claims to be one of the area's leading listeners of music, it turns out I have a bad habit of zoning out song lyrics altogether. There are tunes out there deeply imbedded in my heart that I couldn't BEGIN to tell you what they're about. I might know the vocal line, sure, but only phonetically. In-a-gadda-da-vida, anyone? Shoot, I can even croak along to "99 Luftballoons" even though it's in German. Sometimes a tune's so good that the artist could be singing about murdering puppies and you'd never realize it.

You do it, too -- admit it. What classic rock fan hasn't screamed along with the radio in their car to, "A modern day warrior, mean mean stride! Today's Tom Sawyer, mean mean pride!" Does ANYONE know what that song's supposed to be about? Rush wrote it, and I'll bet THEY don't even know. Half the song's indescipherable, but it doesn't stop us all from singing along. "Exit the warrior of today's top soil who gets high on YOU and some space invaders get right on through the prison of your YOUTH!" Or something like that. Who cares, it's still awesome, right?

When in doubt, I just assume that the artist is far more poetic, talented, and expressive than I'll ever be, and the true meaning of the song is just too deep for we mere mortals to comprehend. Unless, of course, the song in question is "Gangnam Style," in which case the correct response is to simply shut up and dance.

Analyzing lyrics is for suckers anyways. Sometimes it gets you into more trouble than it's worth. I was a huge fan of medieval fantasy books as a kid, and back in middle school I heard this song on the radio one day. It was a majestic tale of elegantly dressed paladins on a seemingly endless quest to win the hand of the fair maiden. I imagined gallantry and swordplay, dragon-slaying and valor. I went to school the next day and told my nerd friends about this great song of medieval chivalry.

Then I found out that the Moody Blues song in question was "Nights in White Satin" and NOT, in fact, "KNIGHTS in White Satin."

Which brings us to "Triad."

I missed out on the 60s, so I'm not exactly an aficionado when it comes to The Byrds. That said, they're one of those bands that pretty much EVERYBODY respects. They sang jangly, thought-provoking folk songs that didn't just reflect their generation, they helped shape it. You know, "there is a season, turn, turn, turn," and all that. The Byrds were one of the first pop bands to be more thought-provoking than hip-shaking.

So when I heard the lush psychedelia of "Triad," I assumed it was some introspective song about soul-searching and getting along with your neighbor or some such. With a name like "Triad," I figured it might even have some kind of Biblical allegory.

Well, I was right on both counts. It's DEFINITELY about getting along with your neighbors... in the Biblical sense.

It turn turn turns out that what I thought to be an innocent little 60s head trip is, in fact, a relatively lame plea for group nookie.

"You want to know how it will be / Me and her, or you and me / You both stand there, your long hair flowing / Your eyes are alive, your mind still growing / Saying to me what can we do now / That we both love you / I love you too and I don't really see / Why can't we go on as three?"

Yowza. My iPod's made me do a lot of things over the years, but this might be the first time in history that it's actually made me BLUSH on my way to work. Where was Tipper Gore when THIS stuff was on the radio, eh? I don't seem to recall The Byrds showing up on any PRMC hitlist. You'll burn an Ozzy Osbourne album but jangly ol' Roger McGuinn's free to sing about getting his polyamorous jollies any time he fancies? A time to kill, a time to heal, a time to laugh, a time to weep, and when that's all done, apparantly a time to getcha-getcha freak on.

As I continued listening, it just got ickier.

"We love each other, it's plain to see / there's just one answer that comes to be / sister lovers, water brothers / and in time, MAYBE OTHERS." Now, I enjoy when my mind paints a colorful picture of something -- unless that colorful picture is of David Crosby being someone's "water brother." Ew. I'm pretty sure I just got cooties.

Of course, nowadays Britney Spears can ride the same topic matter to the top of the charts and Lil Wayne could out-offend this track in his sleep (which, coincidentally, is how I think he records MOST of his material.) But this isn't the music of the ADD-addled shock-and-awe 2010's where a song like A$AP Rocky's "Problems" can reach the Top 40 chart with no fewer than 81 vulgarities in 4 minutes.

No, this is a song that's now 46 years old. So next time your grandmother tells you that you're going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks for that Marilyn Manson CD in your collection, I know JUST the song to start humming back at her. After all, if listening to a Judas Priest album can turn you into a devil worshipper, then maybe listening to "Triad" at one point turned your grandma into... EWW. DOUBLE COOTIES. Sorry I brought it up.

The worst part about all this is that now "Triad" is stuck in my head on auto-repeat and I've found myself singing along to it randomly all day today. So if you're out grocery shopping tonight and stumble upon a chubby 42-year-old warbling off-key to himself about orgies, I'm not crazy, I promise. I'm just a music nerd.

COLUMN: Couscous

I've been called a lot of things over the years, but "party animal" has never been one of them. If I had to choose between a life of being constantly surrounded by friends vs. a lifetime of isolation, I'd probably choose the latter... and maybe a good book or two.

Don't get me wrong, I love my friends to pieces and my life would stink without them. But I grew up an only child, and I learned from an early age how to appreciate a vast amount of quality alone time. I've just never been one to put on a party hat and race to where the action is.

But if I'm the one THROWING the party, it needs to be legendary.

It started in junior high. As the only kid in my clique lucky enough to live on a 50-acre farm, shindigs of varying size were a natural occurrence at my place. Whether it was water balloon tag in the summer or epic sledding parties in the winter, my house was a primary destination for weekend fun. There were cows to terrorize in the pasture, creeks to jump in the woods, and computer games to play when we realized we were all a bunch of nerds who preferred virtual nature to the real thing.

In high school, I was far from one of the cool kids, but it didn't stop our ragtag posse from throwing envelope-pushing parties as often as possible. Some were stunning failures (it turns out our "Strobe Light Only" party was less cool and more retina-damaging.) But some, like our epic senior year scavenger hunt, will hopefully live in Galesburg party infamy.

Speaking of infamy, if you asked anyone who went to my college at the turn of the 90's to name their favorite weekend destination, I'd wager a whole week's pay that over half would mention my old frat house. What looked like a standard dilapidated dwelling on the outside hid a nearly full-functioning dance club on the interior. With the kind of creativity that could ONLY stem from enterprising college students, the kitchen would transform into a DJ booth, the living room a dancefloor, and the basement...? Well, some secrets are best left OUT of the mainstream media, thanks. I'm not claiming it was smart, I'm not even going to claim it was entirely legal, but good gravy it was fun.

In case that last paragraph didn't sully your impression of me entirely, here's where I tell you that AFTER I graduated college, a friend and I supported ourselves for a couple years causing measurable damage to your children's hearing by introducing rave culture to the Quad Cities. It was as simple as finding a space, hauling in the best sound and lights and DJs that we could possibly afford, and letting the beat drop from sundown to sunup. But what looked like a dangerous slice of counter-culture on the surface was actually a serious business model, complete with permits, licensing fees, uniformed security, and profit margins.

So I guess when I sit back and think about it, this only-child loner DOES have a knack for entertaining. Ergo, when a friend suggested that I throw a get-together at my house over the Memorial Day weekend, I was down. My house, after all, has all of my requirements for a Grade A hootenanny: lots of open space, a decent stereo, and a soundproofed basement that ensures no neighbors come a-knockin'.

What sorts of trouble would we get ourselves into? Memory loss? Public nudity? Farm animals? NOTHING's off the table for this party veteran, am I right? (High-five.) And sure enough, by the end of the night, my friends and I had taken things to a new level of untold debauchery. Forget the amateur nudity, skip the farm animals, and ignore all rules. That's right -- we went straight for the hard stuff.

We got our couscous on.

It turns out there really IS an age when a night of thumping bass, animalistic hedonism, and next-day regret starts to sound LESS appealing than a good meal with pleasant company. I guess that age is 42. It's apparently time to put me out to pasture, because I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening with little more than a kitchen full of good eats and a living room full of good friends.

No scandalous drama ensued. No one got especially naked. Worse yet, I didn't realize until everyone had left that I hadn't even turned on any music. WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME??

Instead, I cooked. That's the one hobby I've picked up in middle age: learning what this room with all the stoves and sinks and refrigerators is for. In my old apartment, it was the Empty Pizza Box Storage Room. Now that I've got a house, and especially one with a machine that washes the dishes for you, I'm realizing that I'm not entirely inept at cooking.

It's one thing to grill out some burgers. That was Old Shane. New Shane (or, more appropriately, Older Shane,) left the burgers and brats for an afterthought. First I grilled out an array of vegetables with a balsalmic maple glaze, packets of dilled summer squash, fanned potatoes, and yes -- a summer salad of fresh cilantro, cucumber, and couscous. Guess who's been watching the Food Network?

I now know what it's like to party it up as a 40-something, and it actually involved me saying the words: "Sorry there's no room in the fridge right now - my broccoli is marinating." Somewhere as we speak, Spuds MacKenzie's rolling in his doggie grave.

This is not to say, however, that Shane's Culinary Shindig 2013 was without any envelope-pushing excitement. Presumably in response to my intentions of consuming vegetables (an act which goes entirely against nature,) nature in turn replied by unleashing Weatherpocalypse on us roughly five minutes after firing up the grill. Most of my masterful grilling ended up taking place under a raincoat and galoshes. And if anyone asks, all the dishes I served were "basted in a reduction of hydrogen and oxygen" and not "covered in rainwater" and that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

I guess you'd have to ask my friends if it was a good time or not, but I'm going to call the night a success. I got lots of compliments on my handiwork, no one appears to have been struck down by e.coli, and I made it through recipes more difficult than my usual peel-back-foil-stir-and-continue-microwaving frozen meal prowess. And heck, I'm still a party animal, because guess what? After everyone left by the polite hour of 11:30, I decided to take a relaxing bath. And yes, I'm proud to admit there was nudity involved. High five!

COLUMN: Cicadas

The internet. It is the single greatest technological advancement of our lifetime. It has redefined the way we communicate, consume, inform, interact, and distribute videos of cute animals worldwide. And it is the Last Temptation of Shane.

I am somehow lucky enough to work for a great company in the newspaper industry that hands me a paycheck every week for a gig that is, more often than not, authentically fun to go to every day. That said, there's a bit of an expectation at play here.

In exchange for said weekly paycheck, the aforementioned great company (did I mention how GREAT they are?) expects me to spend 40 hours each week doing tasks that are, by and large, newspaper-y in nature. With the internet at one's desk, this can sometimes be a challenge. It turns out dancing cat videos are not especially newspaper-y.

I'm happy to report that, with the appropriate levels of self-control and dedication, it IS possible to go 40 hours in a week without downloading a bootleg movie, posting to Pinterest, or checking on the well-being of Lindsay Lohan. It's just that those hours are slightly sadder than all the others.

After years of time-wasting temptation, I've carefully learned how to live WITH the internet at my desk without living ON the internet at my desk. It's still vital for my job that I have routine access to the 'net, but Facebook and Huffpost headlines must wait until break time. My phone, meanwhile, secretly vibrates in my pocket whenever CNN has breaking news or Amanda Bynes does anything especially crazy. It's a daily struggle to stay out of the rest stops on the information superhighway, but it's an addiction I can control.


Every once in a while, though, a headline comes along that's a little TOO tempting to resist. I was just on Yahoo doing a search that was truly authentically newspaper-y when I saw it. One little headline that stopped me cold and instantly made me forget about doing ANYTHING productive.


This is NOT the kind of headline one should just stumble onto while looking something up on the internet.  This is the sort of headline that needs to be delivered in primetime, preferably by Tom Brokaw, and quite possibly followed by the words: "RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!!"

Once again, my enjoyment of the warm weather season has been cut off at about 3.5 weeks. That's how long it usually takes for me to read some horrific news story reminding me that nice temperatures are merely a smoke screen for any number of gross plagues, from bees and mayflies to mosquitos and West Nile.  It's not even June yet and I'm ready for the killing frost.

Thankfully, though, this particular epidemic doesn't really affect us -- apparantly the zombie sex-crazed cicada hordes are, for now, only terrorizing the East Coast.  I was pretty flabbergasted by the details, though.

We live in the Midwest, so we're familiar with the nightly summertime chirping of cicadas.  But these aren't NORMAL cicadas.  No, we're talking about MAGIC cicadas -- or at least those belonging to the genus Magicicada.

Cicadas spend most of their lives in their larval stage, squirming around underground and living off the juice of tree roots (mmm... tree juice.)  Your run-of-the-mill cicadas do this for a couple years before crawling to the surface and sprouting wings.  But magicicadas spend SEVENTEEN YEARS underground before popping out out en masse for what amounts to the grossest spring break ever.

These teenage cicadas have one thing on their mind -- and it's not G-rated.  Their chirping -- which is cicada for "hey, baby, how youuuuu doin?" -- can reach up to 94 decibels.  That's the audio equivalent of standing 15 meters away from a freight train. Correction: a sex-crazed freight train. They don't sting or bite or carry disease, but they'll routinely fly into your hair or, if you're especially lucky, they might attempt to mate with your leg.

The party only lasts for just over three weeks. That's how long it takes for the adult cicadas to pop out, get their freak on, lay eggs, and give all of us the heebie-jeebies... in other words, the entire lifespan of a cicada is pretty much equivalent to ONE good episode of  "Jersey Shore" -- except in THIS version, there's 500 million Snookis.

That's right, estimates of this year's East Coast brood have emerging cicada numbers possibly going into the trillions. The TRILLIONS. That's right, your geology teacher lied to you.  The earth is now officially composed of the core, the mantle, the crust, and the apparantly unspoken layer of SLIMY CICADA LARVAE patiently waiting for their pornographic moment in the sun.

After the three-week orgy, mom and dad drop dead while hatching larvae head underground for their chance to creep out our children seventeen years down the road.

There's NOTHING about this process that's not super gross and pointless in my book.  Whether its the notion of sharing my living space with a trillion horny Jurassic houseflies or the crunching under my feet of the resulting cicada holocaust, I'm sufficiently creeped out.  Thank gosh it's confined to the East Coast.

Except that it isn't.  North America is subject to 23 separate broods of these Magicicada.  Brood XIII is known as the "Northern Illinois Brood" and its ground zero is right here in river city, folks.  Somewhere under our very feet at this very second, prepubescent cicadas are sucking down tree juice and lying in wait.  Its next emergence is scheduled for 2024, and if East Coast Brood II is any example, it should be record levels of ick.

We have eleven years to prepare for the sexy onslaught.  If you need me, I'll be on the internet learning how to stop it. Or possibly researching real estate in Iceland. Maybe they have something newspaper-y there I can do.


I am not a morning person. When that alarm goes off at the start of a work day, it's everything I can do to pull myself out of bed and somehow muster the strength and intelligence to shower and clothe myself. I like to ease my way into conscious thought, and that's where the Today show comes in handy. If there's one thing you can count on to be safe viewing for a brain struggling to shift out of neutral, it's the cheese-laden banter of Al Roker.

But Al had a trick up his sleeve for me the other day. Instead of being in the safe confines of 30 Rock, the Today show had sent Roker on the road to visit the winners of their recent "Wake Up With Al" contest. On this particular day, Al was broadcasting from a farm in central who-knows-where. While he gave the forecast, this winning farm family stood to the side awkwardly cheering like the world's biggest fans of weather.

Well, all of them except ONE kid, who stood in the back, desperately hoisting his homemade sign high enough for the cameras to pick up:


Lucy Hale, for those uninitiated, is the doe-eyed star of TV's "Pretty Little Liars" and the crush of many a teenage boy. And, clearly, a person with better things to do at 5 a.m. on a Wednesday morning than watch Al Roker milk a cow.

This trend of publically begging celebrities for dates is getting under my skin. It all started a couple years ago when a soldier returning from the Middle East posted a video on Youtube asking actress Mila Kunis to the Marine Ball. The video went viral, made its way to Kunis, and she accepted the offer. Suddenly this Marine had a date with one of the hottest actresses on the planet.

Within the week, another Marine had a date with Justin Timberlake. Betty White had to graciously decline an offer. Taylor Swift ended up taking a fan to the Academy of Country Music Awards. Last spring, an enterprising high school senior almost ended up going to prom with a porn star, all due to the miracle of the internet.

It's ridiculous and it needs to stop. Because I'm super jealous.

Look, if there's anyone around here who knows a thing or two about celebrity crushes, it's this guy. I've paid my dues. I've seen all 128 episodes of "Dawson's Creek," and if I can't figure out a way to ask Katie Holmes out on a date, neither should you. I've devoted past columns to my fan worship of Katie Holmes, and I'll admit it -- I've thought to myself, "Y'know, this newspaper reaches a LOT of people. What if somehow one of my columns were to get into HER hands? Maybe she'd be so touched by my gentle love of her body [of work] that she'd call me up...?"

But that will never happen, because luck is never on my side. Two weeks ago in this column, I mentioned a TV show I stumbled into about a guy obsessed with mustard. Two days after it published, I got an angry e-mail from the mustard guy. Heaven forbid one of my columns ever makes its way to the love of my life, but it finds it way to Colonel Mustard no problem. Greeeat.

These open pleas to celebrities would never work for me. First off, once you crest 40 years of age, you lose the cuteness factor. An enterprising teenager begging to meet Mila Kunis is charming; but when you're a chubby, socially awkward 42-year-old, you cross that not-so-fine line from cute to creepy. Plus at my age, there's no special events left to invite a celebrity TO. I'm way past prom and there's no military balls in my future. Methinks the campaign would lose its effectiveness if my lead were "Katie Holmes: Will You Go To Happy Joe's With Me?"

Plus it's pretty clear that the real key to successfully wooing a celebrity is to have a good sob story at the ready, and I'm fresh out. These soldiers returning from war are national heroes. The kid who went to the award show with Taylor Swift is a cancer survivor. I don't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as that kind of greatness. The most heroic thing I've ever done is feed a stray cat. The only way this viral video thing could POSSIBLY work for me is by a tour de force of creativity, showmanship, and YOU, Quad Cities -- especially if you Quad Cities happens to own a digital video camera, 'cause I sure don't.

It doesn't have to be anything grandiose. I'm thinking something low-key yet hard-hitting.

FADE IN: WHITE. A blinding white, the kind you never thought possible. The camera pulls back to reveal we've been zoomed in on one of TOM CRUISE'S TEETH. As we pan further back, we realize it is a photo of Cruise taped to a dartboard. The camera swings around to reveal AN INFINITE NUMBER OF QUAD CITIANS, all lined up with darts in hand.


EXT - RIVERBOAT. Me on deck, looking virile and handsome via special effects [someone in town can do that, right?] An original song fires up. It is entitled "Katie Holmes, You Are The Sunshine Of My Life So Come Have Some Taco Pizza With Me." [There's 385,000 of us - surely if we put our heads together, we can write the greatest song ever.] It will be performed by Suzy Bogguss, Lissie, Wicked Liz, Konrad, a reunited Tripmaster Monkey, a reanimated Bix Beiderbecke, and remixed by Radcon. The ladies will swoon.


INT - DAV. SKYBRIDGE. This is the hip-hop break of the song that showcases how hard and street tough I am. Of course, I can't rap either, so we'll need Calliko, Grendel, and anybody else in town who can spit 16 bars. Of course, those bars are required to be about how hard and street tough I am.


EXT - KONE TOWER, 180 FEET UP. As my voiceover suavely invites Katie to Happy Joe's, I bungee-jump from the top of the old Kone testing tower. [And by "I," of course, I mean a stuntperson. As we've already proven, I'm far too virile, handsome, hard, and street tough for such a risky move.]


FINALE. As I walk past Modern Woodmen Park, I drop to my knees in one last James Brown-style plea. If we time this with the 9th inning of a Bandits game, fireworks will explode all around me. Credits.

If it works, I'll convince her to make a sequel to one of her movies and I'll make sure you all get parts. ("First Daughter 2: First Daughterer.") Of course, since things never go my way, I'm sure Katie would see our finished product and go, "Hmpf. Nerd." while that farmer kid will probably end up marrying Lucy Hale. Life is unfair. I blame Al Roker.


If you happened to have read my column last week, you'll know that technology and I haven't been getting along so well. In the course of last week, I somehow managed to break not one but TWO laptop computers, my computer workstation, my iPod, and the circuit board that runs my entire car. Either the machines are about to take over or I've ticked off a robot god somewhere.

This is an odd situation for me to be in, because I'm usually the guy running TOWARDS the latest technological advancement, not away from it. I've never lived in fear of technology one day making me obsolete. But I now fear a worse fate may have befallen me: technology is making me look old and uncool.

As many of you are aware, mild-mannered newspaper columnist Shane Brown leads a double life. When the weekend arrives and the sun sets, you can usually find me moonlighting as a DJ at an assortment of nightclubs around the area. This wasn't a hobby I just happened into -- this was a hobby born of necessity.

I love dance clubs. Always have, always will. Thumping bass beats, crazy light shows, cute girls... what's not to love? There's just one problem: I can't dance to save my life. I look as natural in a dance club as a beach ball in a snowstorm.

Apparantly when I was a pre-toddler, I started walking before I learned how to crawl. This is a bad thing, since babies use the crawling phase to develop motor skills. But I didn't care about motor skills back then. All I cared about was getting to my parent's stereo as fast as possible. Who could blame me? It had lights, it made noise, and it had that big black platter that just spun round and round.

My mom likes to tell the story of her friends freaking out when a barely-able-to-walk mini-me came toddling through the living room with an album in my hand.

"Sherry!" they'd yell at my mom. "He's gotten into your stuff and he's about to touch the stereo!"

"No worries," my mom would reply. "He's just putting on a record."

That's right -- I was DJing in diapers.

My love for music never waned, and my years playing drums in marching band taught me the importance of a good beat. By the time I got to the age when girls miraculously began getting cured of their cooties, I was already something of a dance music aficionado. I just did that aficionad-ing while seated motionless. If I was feeling especially funky, maybe you'd see a toe tap every so often. To this day, the only dancing I do is in my basement with doors locked and blinds drawn, and I'm pretty sure most people would mistake it for a seizure.

When my hometown opened its first teen dance club, my world changed. One step into that place, one whiff of the fog machine, and I knew I was home. The shiny floors and fancy lights made the place come alive like my wildest dreams. And the music? OH, the music. So loud you could feel it in your chest like it was rearranging your own heartbeat. Home sweet home, other than my inability to do anything but stand around awkwardly hoping against hope that I somehow looked cool.

Then it hit me -- there was one place at a dance club where a motionless person could fit right in: the DJ booth. I could hang out in this Eden every weekend AND pick all the songs AND get paid? Every weekend was Christmas.

Back in those days, if you were a DJ, you didn't have to worry about being cool -- you were too busy worrying about being a DJ. Records had to be bought, equipment had to tracked down, and mixes had to be practiced to perfection. Having the hottest music meant routine trips to Chicago and even staying up 'til 4 a.m. to place overseas orders with your favorite London record shops. DJ's weren't cool. We were nerds who were slaves to our passion, and all we had was hope for a day when DJs finally got notice and respect.

Well, that day is now, and let me be the first to tell you: it stinks. It may have taken a couple decades, but the mainstream world is finally starting to warm up to modern dance music. Suddenly DJs are showing up on the Top 40 charts. Guys like David Guetta and Calvin Harris are becoming platinum artists. Tiesto earns $250,000 to spin tracks for two hours to an arena full of people. To compare, last weekend a guy handed me $2 to play Journey.

At the same time DJing came into vogue, it also became a LOT easier to do. Thanks to new tech, instead of spending countless time and money tracking down all the hottest tunes, they're just a download away to anyone who wants them. Instead of lugging pounds of equipment to every gig, all you need now is a laptop. Instead of night after night practicing the skill of beat-matching, you can buy DJ software that does it for you. Go look up a video of Steve Aoki, one of the top tier DJs in the world. 10% of his set is spent actually mixing. The rest of the time, he's jumping around the stage like an over-caffeinated breakdancer.

And now it's gotten even worse. Traktor is one of the top names in DJ software, and this week they released their very first DJ app -- for smartphones. For a $4 download, you can now pull out your iPhone and do everything that used to take me a carload of equipment. I used to be able to hide my rhythmically challenged nerdiness behind a wall of gear. Thanks to modern technology, now I can just stand there furiously tapping on a cell phone looking super-duper awkward for the whole club to see. Thanks, technology!

Suddenly DJs are no longer the pasty-faced chubby nerds of yore who only came out of their basements for gigs. Swedish House Mafia look more like Swedish House Models, and have you guys actually SEEN Bauuer, the guy who came up with the Harlem Shake? Dude looks like an Abercrombie catalog. Some of these new DJs can even (shudder) dance. The era of nerdy DJs is over.

The odds are stacked against me. Try all I might, I'll never be the cool guy at the club. I'm fat, I can't dance worth a lick, and I'm now officially closer to 50 than 30. Yet the passion remains. When I walk into a club, the hairs on the back of my neck still stand up. I still love being blinded by strobe lights, the smell of an oily fog machine, the feel of headphones around my neck, and that magical rush when you mix into just the right song to send the crowd over the edge. As long as there's a club willing to put their trust in an aging nerd, I'll do my absolute best to fill that dancefloor, even if I have to do it with a phone in my hand. I have no choice -- it's my passion.

COLUMN: Destroyer of Technology

I'm not one to enjoy the thought of my dear sweet mother making whoopie in her heydey, but you've got to hand it to the woman:  her timing was ideal.

For a wee little nerdling like me, could there have been a better era to be born into? I was six years old when my folks took me to the theater to see "Star Wars," and it was just the beginning. I saw ALL the geeky greats in the cinemas of Galesburg: Close Encounters, E.T., Tron, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Never-Ending Story, Willow, The Dark Crystal, Beastmaster, Goonies, Gremlins, Weird Science, The Lost Boys... other than the occasional wedgie or two, it was the salad days of dorkdom.

And it didn't stop with movies. In the early 80's, it seemed like the entire WORLD was made of science fiction. The radio blared Gary Numan and Devo and A Flock of Seagulls and it sounded like the future incarnate. TV's greatest hero was a talking car. I had a Dungeons & Dragons character named Fokstarr (which, admittedly, in retrospect sounds less like a hero and more like a Belgian bisexual T-Rex cover band, but I digress.) At any given time, at least ten different galaxies required saving down at the video arcade. People clearly dressed like they were from another planet.

As a product of the 80's, It's no surprise that I spent a good chunk of my childhood fantasizing about slaying orcs, conquering planets, and having magical superpowers. I just never expected that one day I really WOULD develop a superpower, and I'm pretty sure it's an EVIL one at that.

I am Shane, Destroyer of Technology. The story I am about to tell you is 100% true.

It all started last weekend. Like most Saturday nights, I was moonlighting as a DJ at a relatively popular nightspot in the Village of East Davenport. Not to brag, but I was, as they say, in the zone. Mixes were coming fast and furious, I was throwing down tunes I didn't even know I had, and the crowd was eating out of my hand. I was giving that bar a vital pulse: oonce, oonce, oonce, oonce, oonce, oooooooo-nnnn-cececece-k-k-k-kkkkkpft.

And THAT was how I gave the vital pulse of the bar a massive coronary. Or, rather, my gear did.

Once upon a time, owning a mobile DJ system meant carrying around a half-ton flight case full of CD players, turntables, mixers, and amps -- not to mention crates of records and books of CDs. Thankfully for the structural integrity of my spinal column, life's a bit easier in the digital age. All of the controls I need are now right there on a laptop and all of my songs on a portable hard drive. When it comes to music management, most computer experts will tell you that Apple-based systems are usually more stable and reliable than a PC, so when I made the jump to digital, I bought a MacBook to run the whole thing.

There's just one problem with using a Mac to DJ: when it DOES break down, this PC guy doesn't have the SLIGHTEST idea what to do. And at that moment, on that Saturday night, at the height of the club's business, my MacBook just... stopped. For reasons I still can't explain. And all I knew how to do was stand there, eyes blinking, awash in surprise, while 200 clubgoers all turned and stared like I'd just won the idiot sweepstakes.

It's ok, though -- I'm a smart guy and I always come prepared. My trusty iPod was in my pocket. I pulled it out, plugged it into the board, and listened as I hit play and it went "wuhhhhk-k-k-k-k-k," sending echoes of feedback across the bar. That's right, at the precise moment that my MacBook died, so did my iPod. So if you walked into a bar a couple weekends ago and heard some ear-shattering feedback followed by a VERY frazzled-looking chubby guy furiously attempting to reboot a computer, congratulations: you've witnessed the Shane Brown DJ Experience.

The next morning, I awoke with a mission: to figure out what caused my DJ system to brick the night before. After breakfast, I turned on my PC to see if I couldn't find the answer online. Annnnd I sure couldn't find the answer online. Why? Because my PC's hard drive had crashed. If you're keeping score, that's now TWO computers and one iPod in one weekend.

I needed serious help, so I grabbed my computers and my iPod and set out in my car to find a geek squad, Apple expert, DJ tech, or basically anyone willing to hug me. And I made it all the way out of my garage. That's when I realized I had no heat, air, stereo, speedometer, or ANY controls on my dashboard. I meekly pulled the car back into the garage and spent the rest of my Sunday rocking back and forth on the couch waiting for things around me to break.

Suffice to say it was NO surprise to walk into work Monday to hear, "Our computers are down!"

"Of course they are," I replied. "I'm here."

It's clear that I have some kind of evil technology-killing superpower. I'm not quite sure why it chose THIS week to manifest itself -- I don't recall angering any gypsies, walking under any ladders, or feeling especially cursed. But if you value your electronics, you should give me a WIDE berth for the time being.

It's now a week later and I've managed to fix some of my technological carnage, though I still have no idea what caused my DJ system to crash -- so I bought some shiny new cables and a four-leaf clover and am hoping for the best. I'm just a little miffed that after decades of yearning for some kind of awesome superpower, the one I get ends up destroying everything around me that's fun. But I just realized it might have advantages. If there's one thing bad movies from the 80s have taught me, it's that one day, Skynet will become self-aware, machines will go on a killing spree, and all of humanity's hope will hinge on a guy named John Conner. But he had to mount an ARMY to destroy the machines; all I apparantly need to do is try to turn them on. So maybe I'm a hero after all. Or maybe it means that Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to jump out and kill me at any moment. I'm going to need to research this some more.

Anyone have a computer I can borrow real quick?