Wednesday, October 23, 2013

COLUMN: Mr. Poofytail

I've made no secret over the years of my fear and loathing when it comes to nature. Some people might equate sun with fun. I usually equate it with sweating, sunburn, and the ever-present fear of death by snake bite, bee sting, West Nile Virus, Lyme Disease, and/or quicksand pit.

But as much as I'm an unapologetic enemy of nature, I remain to this day a diehard supporter of animals -- at least those that can be classified as either cute and/or fuzzy. I grew up in the country, and as far back as I can remember, my parents always had feeders set up to turn our yard into a five-star restaurant for most of the animal kingdom. Flick open the curtains and it'd be nothing to see hummingbirds, mice, raccoons, opossum, groundhogs, deer... you name it.

Over the years, we've seen quail, turkey, hawks, foxes, coyotes, and even runaway cattle in our yard. Of course, this also meant the danger of occasionally witnessing the circle of life break out right before our eyes, but we had an even stronger force of nature: my mom. Usually before any kind of carnal bloodbath would erupt, she'd be scrambling to the patio door, yelling "Hey! Everyone play nice!"

I proudly carry my parent's values, and I'm an ardent animal supporter, even if I offer that ardent support from an air-conditioned living room. If I can help the welfare of animals, I'm down. Well, except snakes, which are less animal and more like hellspawn limbless atrocities. And bats, which are just flying rats with fangs. And bees. And spiders. Pretty much all insects. And anything that's NOT especially cute and/or fuzzy.

And now, I've discovered another animal who's just lost my ardent support. An animal whose tyrannical nature is the definition of evil incarnate. An animal that plagues our fragile earth and threatens our very way of life. An animal named Mr. Poofytail.

One of the things I first loved the most about the property I would eventually come to own was the canopy of shade provided by the large majestic tree in my neighbor's yard. But not knowing a single thing about nature, I had no idea at the time that the large majestic tree spends half its year producing large majestic walnuts -- and my house becomes the world's most boring game of pachinko. At least once an hour, I can expect to hear the THUD of a walnut hitting the roof, then the slow roooooooolllllll as gravity takes it down to the throngs of eager squirrels that have made my back yard their personal walnut paradise.

It was my neighbor who named him. We were gabbing by her back porch one day when a black squirrel darted across the lawn, looked me square in the eye, went "Fk! Tk tk thpf!" and ran up the walnut tree. "Aww," my neighbor said, "Look at Mr. Poofytail!" His tail might have been poofy, but his dead hollow eyes were a sign of what was to come.

Later that night, I was greeted at my back door by the usual evening assemblage of feral feline grifters all giving me the sad-eye treatment. They know a sucker when they see one, and every night I fall for their tragic little meows and set out a pile of cat food for them to scavenge. I had just poured them a fresh bowl when I first got whumped on the head.

Ow! What the...? Ow. Ow ow. Weighty pieces of walnuts were falling onto my noggin. I looked up. There, perched directly over my head, was Mr. Poofytail. I sidestepped. Above me, Mr. Poofytail sidestepped as well and continued his reign of walnut rain. "Why, you little...," I cursed up to the heavens. "Fk! Tk tk thpf!" he swore back.

The next day, all was forgiven. Surely that squirrel hadn't been aiming for my head purposely. Squirrels are cute and fuzzy, and I love cute and fuzzy. There's no way a squirrel could be that mean.

And then I stepped outside. There he was, munching on a walnut at the tree base. "Awww," I said to myself. That's when Mr. Poofytail saw me, chucked the walnut into his mouth, raced up the tree, positioned himself directly over my head, and spit the walnut out almost square into my eyeball. Tk tk thpf, indeed.

So if you happened to be driving through Rock Island last week and saw a strange man staring skyward screaming obscenities at a walnut tree, I apologize for my filthy mouth, but I'm at war with a filthy squirrel.

This week, though, I thought things would be over. The walnut tree had shed its load for the season and Mr. Poofytail had nothing left to chuck at my head. Or so I thought. Two nights ago, I got home from work to the usual suspects already in line at the Hungry Cat Cafe. This time, though, no walnuts and no worries. I can just stand out here, pet my favorite ferals, and... and... and why is my head WET? More importantly, WHY IS IT WARM? Why do I hear FK TK TK THPF??

And that was the day I got peed on by a squirrel. "ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!" I screamed up at the tree. So if you happened to be driving through Rock Island the other day and saw a strange man grabbing walnuts and angrily throwing them up into the tree from whence they came, all I can say is that war is hell.

The cat coalition seemed far less interested in my head-o'-squirrel-urine and more concerned as to why I wasn't making with the Cat Chow. "Did you SEE that?" I yelled at them. "If you guys climb that tree right now and eat that squirrel, I promise you I will grab a ladder and rescue you." No takers. I guess it's a dog-eat-dog, squirrel-pees-on-human, cats-remain-indifferent world.

The battle lines have been drawn. As I sit here typing this, he's out there somewhere, probably plotting his next move or drinking lots of liquids. Just know I'm coming for you, buddy. Me AND my army of well-fed cats. At my next dinner party, I want my guests to rave about my poofy-tail soup (hint: the secret ingredient is VENGEANCE.)

My parents will be so proud.


People occasionally ask me why I bother keeping so many irons in the fire. After all, I have a solid full-time 40-hour-a-week gig here at the paper, plus I write this column every week, review occasional plays and concerts, and emcee at a handful of charity trivia nights every year. So with all that on my plate, why on Earth would I still hang onto my weekend job as a DJ at area bars and nightclubs?

The answer is simple: It keeps me young. Or so I thought.

Growing up in Galesburg, I wasn't exactly what you'd call a dance club aficionado. Back then, my knowledge base pretty much consisted of "American Bandstand," which was a tad weak in the coolness dept. when you were a cocky teenager who'd already discovered a world of music distinctly outside and to the left of the Top 40 charts. But when we heard about a teen nightclub in Peoria, my friends and I agreed it was worth a scouting party.

That place was the Peoria branch of the legendary Stage 2 -- and by the time a single beat reached my ear, my life was changed forever. There were lights. There was fog. There were guys I wanted to be and girls I wanted to be with. And good happy heaven, there was music. Loud music. Dangerous music. Beats you could feel in your chest. It was pure liquid excitement, and I never wanted to leave.

Instantly, dance clubs were my drug, and I was an addict after one quick hit. But two simple truths came to me right away:

(1) I can't dance. Not even a little bit. I can't even nod my head to the beat without looking like I'm having a seizure. My brain belongs in dance clubs. My body? Not so much.

(2) Even though I respected and worshipped the DJs at those early teen clubs, I was pretty sure I could do a better job.

When a teen club came to Galesburg my senior year, I trailed the owners like a lost puppy until they had no choice but to hire me. I would have worked for free. I would have paid THEM to work there.

When I'm in a DJ booth, I might still be the same nerd as always. I might still be a socially awkward, uncoordinated oaf of a human being who can't even look girls in the eye. But you're in MY house, and I'M in control. Turntables may have given way to CD players which have now given way to laptop computers and mp3 controllers, but as long as there's a crossfader and a button that says PLAY, I fit in.

I've been doing this schtick for a few years now, but what's not to love? There's still the same lights, the same loud music, the same excitement, and the same beautiful girls. So last Saturday, when one of those beautiful girls came up to request a song, I was there to help. I just needed to finish a quick mix...

"Excuse me," interrupted my dancing queen. "Sir? Can I request a song, sir?"


It hit me like a ton of bricks. Every night, I stand there staring at a sea of club kids twerking the night away, feeling entirely in my element and fitting in. And I guess I do fit in -- like an adult chaperone. Like the same way the old bouncer guy at the door fits in. I no longer fit in like a cool guy. I fit in like a staff member. Like a "Sir."

Driving home, I was reflecting on my newfound "Sir" status when another truth struck: I am now the same age that my parents were at the time I was graduating high school. And at the time I was graduating high school, there was no one on Earth less cool than my parents. From my perspective, they might as well have been 3400 years old. One time, my friends caught my mom singing along loudly to Barbra Streisand and I was forever mortified. Now I'm the same age, singing along to the radio and potentially mortifying everyone half my age.

I still feel like the same guy who moved into the second floor of the Erickson dorm at Augie. I still feel like the same guy who bolted to a teen club in Peoria when my parents thought I was at a friend's house. I've just been that guy for a loooooong time. Once upon a time, I played music for some amazing people. Now I'm running risk of playing music for their children. That's right -- I'm the guy helping your innocent daughter twerk like Miley Cyrus. I'm a step away from offering them a butterscotch and telling them how my generation had to walk a mile in the snow barefoot for a good twerk. If you come up and request a song and see a dish of Werther's Originals at the booth, you have my permission to kill me.

When I was in high school, I first started getting into edgy British indie dance rock. It was the sound of the counter-culture. It was the only music that mattered, and simultaneously defined both the person I was and the person I wanted to be seen as. So when a friend of mine recently told me about a movie in theatres with a soundtrack full of the same groundbreaking indie rock that got me through college, I knew I had to experience it first-hand.

That movie was "The World's End," and its soundtrack is nothing shy of amazing. It's as if they stole my iPod to make the thing. It's perfect -- except for the fact that it soundtracks a film about a group of sad sack 40-somethings trying desperately to recapture their youth. The music that mattered to me is about as relevant to today's club kids as Miley Cyrus' twerking is to yours truly.

Maybe I'm no cooler than my mom was twenty-five years ago. But let's be honest - me being uncool isn't exactly a newsflash. But as long as I walk into a club and still feel that beat hit my chest, still feel that same excitement wash over me, and still feel like I fit in, I'm not going anywhere. Yes SIR, DJ Grandpa's here to stay.

COLUMN: Robo-Dad

I've always told people that my dad's a superhero. Now he's finally got the equipment to prove it.

Some of the more eagle-eyed among you may have noticed last week that my usual half-page of narcissism was missing from your Monday paper. Instead, sitting next to that decade-old photo of my somber face was a notice that I was on vacation.

I'd like to tell you I was somewhere super cool. Maybe I finally got to take that long-overdue trip to England. Maybe I was driving up the eastern seaboard, checking out lighthouses amid fall foliage. Perhaps I was with a special someone and whisked her off on a romantic getaway. No such luck.

Instead, I was "on vacation" in a surgical waiting room in Peoria. Not exactly tops on Zagat's list of recommended getaways.

Don't worry, everything's fine in Clan Brown. In fact, things are better than fine -- my father is now the proud new owner of a titanium shoulder. And we're not talking about a little rotator cuff or something. Nope, he had a full-on Total Shoulder Arthroplasty. Or, in layman's terms, I'm pretty sure my dad is now at least 8% Robo-Cop.

My father has always been the most active human being I've ever known, so when he started complaining about his shoulder, it was a bummer. His inhuman tolerance for pain has always been legendary in my family -- I've been there when he's come down from his workshop with a gushing wound asking for a Band-Aid and some Bactine while my mom and I look on in horror. By the time he actually got around to seeing a doctor about his shoulder, the damage was already done. Osteoarthritis had wasted his joint away, and the pain he felt was from bone-on-bone contact. The operation was a necessity if he wanted to remain active.

I didn't want my folks to go it alone, so last week, I drove down to sit with my mom while Dad went under the knife. Now, as God is my witness, I swear to you that on one fateful aimless drive, I somehow managed to take backroads and get from the outskirts of Moline to the outskirts of Peoria in forty minutes. I was already running late, so I figured I'd try to replicate the trick. No dice. When you're out driving amok on rural country lanes with no destination or worry, it's the most relaxing thing in the world. But when you're doing it to beat the clock, it becomes a nightmare of speed limits, frustration, and phantom deer behind every curve.

By the time I made it to the hospital, I was prepped for the icy "you're-late" glare of my mom. Instead, I didn't miss a thing. Not only was the surgeon running behind, but the actual event was dragging on much longer than anticipated. Growing up in Galesburg, I was used to a laid-back hospital waiting room where friendly nurses give you updates and pastries aplenty. These days, and in a much larger city, a surgical waiting room feels more like a busy airport terminal, as large unsympathetic video screens list each patient's surgical arrival and departure (and hopefully it's the GOOD kind of departure.)

Meanwhile, every family is given a pager that vibrates to let you know that your loved one is in recovery -- or possibly that your table is ready at the Olive Garden. Sadly, when our pager finally buzzed and we were led into a room to meet with the surgeon, there was a disappointing lack of never-ending salad and breadsticks.

For what it's worth, the surgeon was a really good guy. He explained that once they got in there, they found Dad's shoulder to be in even worse shape than they'd thought. The extended time in the O.R. owed to removing bone spurs and having to reshape his worn-out shoulder socket -- but in the end, it was a success.

"Do you guys have any questions?" he asked.

"Now that my dad is partially made of metal," I inquired, "will he be required by either law or moral imperative to fight crime and/or thwart evil-doers?"

The surgeon didn't miss a step.

"Not for the first two weeks," he said with a smile. "After that, maybe some light thwarting."

Our biggest worry was how Dad would handle coming out of anaesthesia. He's had a couple of operations before, and it's never been pretty. A few years ago, a routine back surgery led to a full day of projectile vomiting combined with a lengthy soliloquy about sentient smoke detectors taking over the world. This time, we were ready for the chaos. Instead, we entered my dad's room to find him alert, joking, and already asking for food.

The nurses had told us they'd be coming in routinely to perform "neuro checks" - you know, "who are you," "where are you," that sort of thing. By the time they came in to do the first check, my dad was busy telling me the difference between igneous and sedimentary rocks.

"Umm," the nurse said, overhearing. "Neuro check all good. Is he a geologist or something?"

"Nope," I replied. "He's just awesome."

As you'd expect, Dad's shoulder was in a sling, but no sling I'd ever seen before. It was basically an armrest that immobilized the shoulder via a bizarre series of straps and buckles that criss-crossed his entire torso multiple times. The entire contraption looked less like a sling and more like something Lady Gaga would wear to the Grammys. It looked freakish, but it was also obvious that it wasn't on right.

Instead of resting on the immobilizer, Dad's arm was rolling off to the side. We summoned a braintrust of nurses to readjust the thing, but it became clear that none of them had ever worked on this particular beast before. I was reassured when one of the nurses went over to a computer and confidently started researching the problem... until I glanced at the screen and saw that she was simply Googling the word "sling." Umm, really?

The internet's a wonderful and magical resource of facts. You know, facts like our President is a Socialist Muslim, Bigfoot is real, Tupac is alive, and Nigerian princes want to give each of us $3.2 million dollars on a semi-regular basis. Am I wrong for at least wanting her to go directly to

Eventually, though, it all got sorted out. The nurses were super nice, the sling got adjusted, and Dad was as comfortable as anyone in his predicament could be. Better yet, the estimated 3-5 day hospital stay turned into ONE, as he was discharged the next morning. The only down side was that due to some prostate problems (likely from a thankless career spent aboard vibrating trains,) narcotics were out of the question. Basically they ripped the poor guy open, tore out his shoulder, replaced it with metal, and sent him home with a wing, a prayer, and some Tylenol. But as my dad himself said, it's better to be in pain at home than cooped up in a hospital bed.

The doctors are convinced that after a few months of physical therapy, my dad should be back to 100%. I, for one, can sleep easier. He might not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound quite yet, but he's the only superhero I'll ever need.

COLUMN: Miss, Pt. 2

I don't know about YOU people, but today I'm celebrating. All week long, I've received mountain upon mountain of evidence leading me to a singular conclusion: I'm not as shallow, selfish, and malajusted as I once previously thought. Huzzah! Well, okay, I'm still shallow, selfish, and maladjusted -- but it turns out I'm in good company.

I love advances in our society. I'm not threatened by technology, I adore playing with new gizmos and gadgets, and I enjoy marvelling at the world as it turns and evolves. Ever since I was a wee tot watching the Jetsons with glee, I've waited patiently for the day when I, too, could revel in a universe of robot maids, treadmill sidewalks, saucer-shaped houses, and sprockets aplenty.

There's just one problem: For as much as I crave the future, I sure do hate change. There's comfort in the familiar, and my particular familiar is particularly comfy. But you can't change the inevitable. People will come and others will go. Bands break up, TV shows end, businesses close, relationships fail, and life goes on.

That's why last week's column was a lament to some of the sadly late and especially great things that have come and gone in my life. From Chess King to Stage 2, "Lost" to "Twin Peaks," it was my best attempt to eulogize my favorite pop culture nuggets of yesteryear. At the end of the column, I invited you guys, the readers, to tell me the things that YOU miss. I wasn't expecting over a hundred replies. It turns out I'm not the only one with a fetish for the past. Among the things YOU guys miss the most:

• Over 20 of you said the same thing: SATURDAY MORNING CARTOONS. I guess I never really realized that Saturday morning cartoons went away. That's because I seldom realize that Saturdays still have mornings. As soon as I lost a mandatory bedtime and realized that late Friday nights are WAY more fun than early Saturday mornings, I began a lifelong career of starting my weekends at the crack of noon. But once upon a Shane, I remember kicking myself if I missed even a second of Plastic-Man.

A couple weekends ago, I found myself with a rare Friday night off from my second job. I decided to kick back and watch some movies, which I did -- for about 5 minutes. That's how long it took me to accidentally fall asleep on the couch. Next thing I knew, it was 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and I was awake and rarin' to go. I decided to turn on the TV and see just what Saturday morning cartoons looked like these days.

Annnnd... they don't. They're just gone. No Smurf Village. No Hall of Justice. Johnny wasn't Questing, Scooby wasn't Dooing, and nary a Ninja Turtle could be found. In their place? A weird sea of infomercials, political shows, pre-pre-pre-game sports, and some bizarre syndicated shows that look to be designed for the exclusive purpose of horrifying children. Have you ever seen the creepy acid trip known as "LazyTown"? I swear to you, it makes H.R. Pufnstuf seem NORMAL in comparison. I feel bad for kids these days. I feel worse for their parents. Saturday morning cartoons were like employing a free babysitter every weekend.

• Multiple people mentioned DER WEINERSCHNITZEL on 23rd Avenue. As an Augie transplant to the Quad Cities, I arrived shortly before it closed, but heck, I miss everything about the days when Avenue of the Cities was known just by a number. Der Weinerschnitzel, Sharky's, Blockbuster Video, a Sears outside of a mall, and wasn't there a TV store with a really weird dome thing on it? I was too busy unnecessarily driving repetitively to notice.

• Big props to Deb's in Milan, the Five Point donut shop, Uncle Roscoe's Polo Club, and mall stores like County Seat, Hal's, and the wonderful quarter-sucking world of Aladdin's Castle. The way-back machine keeps going with nods to The Semri & Memri drive-ins, the Strand, the Hiland A&W Root Beer stand, and the list goes on and on. Also a couple mentions of classic hops at the YMCA and the basement of the Rock Island City Hall. I remember attending ONE flashback sock hop at my junior high down in Galesburg. The only memories I took from that night? (1) Girls instantly became both magical and terrifying, and (2) your socks get really filthy when you spend an entire night with no shoes fleeing from girls.

• Two places that pre-dated me but I wish I had the chance to experience: Mad Hatter's in Davenport (I've heard some great stories,) and going even further back, I went green with envy over an e-mail I received from Dick Jennings recalling waiting in line for a listening booth at Van Goor's Record Shop in downtown Rock Island.

• TV shows you guys missed the most include All in the Family, Night Flight & Friday Night Videos, My So-Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks & Geeks, the Acri Creature Feature, and the days when MTV actually stood for Music Television. But the most mentioned show by a country mile? American Bandstand.

• My favorite local radio newsman, Phil Roberts, chimed in to say the thing he misses the most is Gizzard Tuesdays at all area KFC's. Phil's a weird guy. I just wanted an excuse to type the word GIZZARD repeatedly. What IS a gizzard, anyways? Do we have one?

• I wish I could mention everything else. I had impassioned pleas to revive everything from Sassy Magazine to tight-rolled pants. I give big props to the folks who most miss my old frat (Zeta Omega Omega forever!), my old rave promotion company (Exstasis forever!), and one of my former professors who strangely claims to most miss ME and my crazy friends sitting in the back row of class making his life a living hell.

So here's to the past. I'm glad we ALL occasionally resist change. I only hope the future's so awesome that one day down the road, we'll be reminiscing about how great tomorrow was.

COLUMN: Miss Pt. 1

It's been a bummer of a week in Shane-land.

When it comes to TV shows, everyone has their own personal favorites. I have friends who would risk their lives rather than miss a minute of "Breaking Bad." I know people who can tell you the extended biographies of every character on "Game of Thrones." So many teenagers are into "Pretty Little Liars" that discussion of this year's season finale nearly broke Twitter.

As for me, there's only been one show lately that's consistently rocked my socks off on a weekly basis: AMC's "The Killing." I don't know what it is, but something about this unapologetically dark crime drama just clicked with me. For the past three seasons, I've relished its world of rainy Seattle days and tortured nights. To date, it is the only television show I've ever set a reminder on my smartphone to watch.

Which, naturally, means that it was just cancelled today. Apparantly compelling plotlines and critical acclaim don't mean diddly when no one watches, so yet again, one of my favorite thing disappears into the mist. That's why I've spent the past few hours watching old episodes, wondering what the future of the show would have held, and wishing that I ran the world (or at least the entertainment industry.)

This, like my many other pipe dreams of world domination, got me thinking. Evolution is unavoidable. Into life, things come and things go. And sometimes, all I want to do is stick out my bottom lip and whine about the things I miss. So tonight, I present to you a shortlist of the Things I Really Miss and Wish Still Existed:

- "Twin Peaks." I'm pretty sure the reason I like "The Killing" so much is that it brings back memories of David Lynch's magnum opus, my favorite TV show of all time. The murder of Laura Palmer was only the introduction to a wonderfully deranged world of sawmills, spirit possession, and the place where pies go when they die.

- Stage 2. Bettendorf's late great under-21 teen dance club was the single most important catalyst of my future music nerd-dom. Life-long friendships were formed in dark corners and circular dance floors. Of course, if it still existed today, I'd be 20+ years too old to get through the door, but I'm pretty sure that if you sit in the parking lot that now inhabits its hallowed space, you can still hear the strains of Depeche Mode's "Somebody" and the sobs of overly-dramatic teen girls running to the bathroom to lament some lost love.

- Mixtapes. Today's generation will never know the fine art of carefully hand-assembling a 90-minute montage of the perfect songs in the perfect order, let alone the divine wait to see if the girl you handed it to appreciated your carefully executed musical spell. My recipe? A delicate sonic entree that's 60% "I'm the most evolved music fan of all time," 10% "the Debbie Gibson song on here proves how ironic and whimsical I am," and 30% "PLEASE DATE ME. LIFE IS MEANINGLESS WITHOUT YOU." And it worked almost every time.

- Chess King. Life just isn't the same without rayon and bolo ties. Some might argue that's a GOOD thing, but not me. I shopped at Chess King so much I used to get Christmas cards from their corporate office. The 80s were a magical time, and I've still got the silver suit hanging in my closet to prove it.

- The Me That Was Once Small Enough To Fit Into The Silver Suit Hanging In My Closet.

- "Yo! Noid." I thought it'd be fun to have a Super Nintendo in my dorm room, but college budgets being what they were, the only game I owned for it was this lame Mario knock-off featuring the short-lived mascot for Domino's Pizza. As a result, a measurable percentage of my college life was spent in its throes, mostly with a quizzical expression as to why a pizza mascot armed with a yo-yo was being constantly chased by spear-wielding bad guys that all resembled Jimmy Durante.

- "Lost." If it was up to me, the passengers of Oceanic 815 would still be on that island, rocking out to Driveshaft and Geronimo Jackson with the Dharma Iniative and polar bears and smoke monsters aplenty. In fact, in my mind, they still ARE -- the ending of "Lost" was SO lame that I prefer pretending the final season never happened.

- Being Lost. Few things bring me joy quite like a loaded iPod, a car full of friends, and a voyage down country roads into the unknown. The problem now, though, is that we've done it SO many times that it takes a roadtrip of at least 100 miles to get good and properly lost these days.

- A Car I Could Trust To Go 100 Miles Into The Country Without Breaking Down. Sadly, company policy prevents me from accepting gifts of any value from readers or advertisers. That said, if I were to wake up one morning to find a hybrid in my driveway and a set of keys in my mailbox, I guess I'd just have to chalk it up to fortuitous luck, no? [Editor's Note: NO.] [Shane's Note: Dang.]

- Raves. Because everything's better with lasers, I always say -- especially dimly lit warehouses with throbbing house music played at horribly unhealthy volumes.

- Tommy McGivern. If you barhopped the Quad Cities anytime in the last quarter century, there's a good chance you had a cool one served with a smile by the legendary Thomas McGivern. Tom's bartending skills were rivalled only by his epic storytelling. I never got to go with him on one of his legendary Canadian fishing trips, but if you were fortunate enough to hear him recount it, you'd swear you were right there in the boat by his side. Two weeks ago, we lost the greatest joke-teller I've ever known, and I can only hope that as we speak, St. Peter is waiting patiently to hear the punchline.

How about you? What fads, trends, tunes, or tales of yesteryear do YOU miss the most? Send in your pop culture eulogies to I'll round them up in my next column and try to give them the memorial service they deserve.



There are certain things in life that I am uniquely qualified to handle. Need a DJ? I'm your guy. Want to know 13 different methods of varying legality to download a song? Call me. Overcome by the urge to lose badly at Pop Culture Edition Trivial Pursuit? I'm here to help. But when it comes to pretty much anything else in life, I'm an abject failure. Now I've discovered another thing I'm decidedly bad at.

Dateline: Tuesday. It began like most tales from my life: on the couch. Tired from a busy day at work, I had just plopped down for some late night TV time before bed. Just a carefree, gentle drift into slummmmberrrr... and then I looked up and saw the pterodactyl.

Things got blurry after that. A cat hissed. Someone screamed... probably me. A coffeetable got knocked over. Hyperventilation. Next thing I knew, I was standing in my kitchen, holding a pillow for dear life, and trying my absolute best to make sense of the previous fifteen seconds.

Was I awake? YES. Was I under the influence of hallucinogens? NO, unless someone spiked my Raisin Bran. Had I just been attacked by a prehistoric bird in my living room? YES. Well, maybe. Okay, so perhaps it wasn't a pterodactyl, and maybe it hadn't attacked me so much as flown around my ceiling. Come to think of it, I hadn't exactly seen feathers.

It was a bat. And it was flying around in my house. And I don't seem to recall inviting it in.

I am an educated person with a liberal arts background, and therefore I know a few things about bats. They are mammals. Their poo is called guano. They navigate using sonar. Oh, and they are hellspawn winged-rat atrocities with a wanton bloodlust for human flesh. I carefully assessed the situation and implemented an immediate action plan, which was to run outside yelling something that sounded like "EEEEEEEEEEE!"

I had enjoyed my time as a homeowner, but that was all over now. My house had a new landlord, and he was furry and airborn. There was nothing left to do but find a hotel and start life anew when I saw my neighbor's kitchen light flick on. I bet he wishes now he hadn't come down for that midnight snack.

"RUSS!" I whisper-yelled. "HELP! I HAVE BATS IN MY BELFRY!"

Note for the future: This is probably NOT the phrase you should utter when you'd like your neighbor to take you seriously whilst wandering into their yard sock-footed at 12:03 a.m. holding a pillow like a weapon. Luckily, Russ was MY neighbor and this sort of thing was par for the course.

Minutes later, he and I were cautiously bat-hunting our way through my house. For an hour straight, we searched walls, shelves, nooks, and crannies, but nary a bat, vampire, or Ben Affleck was to be found. I did the only thing I could think of: whine about it on Facebook. It didn't take long for friends to start chiming in with advice.

Chief among them was to "open all your doors and windows and turn off all the lights." Which I presume would allow me to forget about the bat because I'd be too distracted by all the spiders, mayflies, feral cats, serial rapists, and whatever else might decide to creepy-crawl on in while my castle gates are open to all of nature. No thank you.

If you're unafraid of bats, talk to me again AFTER you've Googled them. If you're lucky, you'll find sentences such as, "If the bat was present in the room of a sleeping person, the bat should be captured and given to government officials for rabies testing." It was clear I would never be sleeping again. All I could think to do was grab the cats, seal us in the bedroom, and hope the bat was on the other side of the door. Then it was a pleasant night of staring at the ceiling and jumping with every creak of the house.

The next morning, there was no sign of my nocturnal friend. It was time to call backup. My dad can do anything, so that must include hand-to-hand combat with flying mammals, no? He met me at my door, butterfly net in hand. Two hours later, though, he proclaimed my house bat-free. Had I dreamt the whole thing up Donnie Darko style? But just as my parents were heading back home, my friend Dianna came over and immediately asked an important question: "Does your ceiling fan normally have ears?"

Sure enough, there was my batty buddy, sticking his evil little pointy ears out to keep tabs on us all. A quick phone call brought dad back in a hurry, and he and Dianna performed an impressive catch-and-release while my mom and I waited downstairs by the door. You know, to open it and let the bat out, and NOT so that we could run for our lives. That's our story and we're sticking to it.

I guess some people are uniquely qualified to rescue bats and return them to the outdoors, while others are uniquely qualified to flee in terror. I now know which camp I'm in -- I believe the fans of Twilight call it "Team Jacob." At least werewolves probably KNOCK before invading your house.

(In all seriousness, though, we were probably ALL pretty stupid this week. Bats really ARE a prime carrier of rabies, and since I didn't summon a professional to grab my bat buddy and assess its health, I now get to spend the next month watching my cats VERY carefully. Don't fool around with bats, kids. We've all got interesting life stories, but I'd like yours to have a happier ending than Old Yeller.)

COLUMN: Sally Kay

Last Sunday, I woke up at 9 a.m., rolled over, and went back to sleep 'til 11. Watched a movie, then walked down to the gas station for coffee. Came back and watched another movie, then hopped in the shower, met up with a friend, and watched another movie. Got home in just enough time to see Miley Cyrus embarass herself in front of the nation. Threw a load of laundry in, ate some dinner, and watched another movie.

All told, it was the most productive and exciting Sunday of recent memory.

What's happened to me? Once upon a time, I'd like to think that I had a life. I never stayed home. I was always on the go. I did stuff. I challenged myself. I was interesting. These days, I do little more than sit on my couch while life ebbs slowly away.

Is this what maturity's supposed to be like? I used to make fun of my parents for being homebodies and now I've become one. I had just about convinced myself that a non-eventful life went hand-in-hand with adulthood... when I got an e-mail from Sally.

Dos Equis got it wrong -- my friend Sally Kay is the most interesting person in the world.

The year was 2000. A friend of mine was getting married and there was much hoopla in the air. Or maybe it was just humidity. We were in a gorgeous reception hall smack in the middle of a suburban Chicago state forest. Everything was magical except for one fatal flaw: The venue had no air conditioning, and they'd decided to get hitched on the 9th of The Month When Earth Was Attacked By The Sun.

Other than climate control, no expense was spared. The food was stellar, a Beatles tribute band was on-hand, and yours truly was in charge of DJ duties. That's where I was, ghastly and smelly, more sweat than human, when I first saw her. Sally Kay was one of the bridesmaids, and she was the whole package. A wee pixie of a girl, she came in with a smile that could stop time and a laugh that made you want to hug strangers.

THEN we started talking. This girl was a rare breed indeed: someone who actually knew more about cool music than me (gasp). She laughed at all the right jokes, listened to all the right music, and at the end of the night, as we sat in the grass behind the venue not caring that we were both sweaty hot messes, it was the closest I'd ever felt to zen. I was a smitten kitten.

Which meant, of course, that I'd never see her again. After the wedding, I went back to Rock Island and she went back to Kansas. True to her word, she soon sent me a mix of her favorite bands. I did the same, and that was it. We never spoke again. But when I saw her pop up on Facebook a while back, I friended her and found out why she drifted away so quickly.

It turns out she really DID drift away -- on a boat.

While I've been sitting at a desk worrying about finances and learning to enjoy the daily rapport between Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, here's what Sally Kay's been up to:

After college, she moved to Slovakia for a year and a half. Then she came back to New York City for a while before finding a writing job in Budapest that led her to Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Slovenia, Romania, and Hungary. From there, a six month trip to South America turned into a year. Afterwards, she took a job crewing on a boat in the Bahamas that then traveled to Mexico. Then she spent the next six months backpacking the U.S. before finding a cheap flight to Thailand. After a year in Asia, she went to Australia where she joined another crew that dropped her off in South Africa.

These days, she's on a boat that just sailed up the length of the Erie Canal and is now leaving Detroit this weekin hopes of becoming the first Japanese catamaran to  circumnavigate the globe.

I, meanwhile, have been watching "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." Sally probably doesn't even know what a Honey Boo Boo is. Or a Snooki. Or a Miley Cyrus.

At this point, I don't know whether to be jealous or grateful. It would be amazing to travel. I'd love to see the world from a vantage point other than the pages of National Geographic. It would be mind-bendingly awesome to experience different cultures and discover just what it is that unites us all together on this big blue marble.

But then there's the realist in me. The me that feels awkward walking into a Chinese restaurant, let alone China. The me that has a hard time falling asleep in any bed that's not my own. The me that enjoys sitcoms and couches and food I can recognize. The me that gets a little wobbly in the knees after more than a few minutes on a boat.

For Sally, it's not just the dream of a lifetime -- it's rapidly BECOMING her lifetime. Onboard the Umineko, her current ride, she's in charge of the galley and tells me it's a daily adventure.

"The biggest difference," she wrote me, "is that if you don't have an ingredient or a piece of equipment, you can't just run to the store to get it. It might not even be at the next marina. Often you have to rig makeshift gear or get creative with substitutions. And, of course, do all of this while the boat's rocking back and forth on the high seas."

Not to mention the fact that you're trapped on a tiny boat with a small crew for months on end. It would do my head in. How's she manage?

"I thankfully have never gotten claustrophobic on a boat," she explained. "Catamarans actually have quite a bit of space, and you can always go on deck and see the vastness of the ocean. Still, maybe you should ask me that after the passage from Panama to the Marquesas."

Which I plan on doing just as soon as I find out what a Marquesas is. I have no clue, but I'm going to guess that it's someplace a heck of a lot more interesting than my living room.

So I will avidly try to keep in touch with my friend Sally Kay, the girl that got away. Far, far away. And every once in a while, I'll pine to be onboard that tiny boat, living a life of adventure and excitement with the most interesting person I know. I'll never be that courageous, but I think her life will always be a constant reminder that there's a world outside my living room that I should make a concentrated effort to see more of time and again... well, as soon as this episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo gets over.

If YOU'D like to live vicariously alongside Sally and her adventures, I strongly urge you to check out her blog, She'll be updating on the Umineko's attempts to circumnavigate the globe while sharing fun and easy recipes perfected on the voyage.

COLUMN: Debbie Gibson

I really thought this week's column would write itself.

For a neurotic like me who thrives on self-deprecation, nothing could be better column fodder than opening my mailbox to find an invite to my 25-year high school class reunion. The prospect of thrusting myself back into that throng was simultaneously terrifying and exciting. And when I got the offer to DJ the thing, it upped the ante to an altogether new level of terrexcitement.

You see, a long time ago in a Galesburg far away, I was a (gasp) nerd. Uncoordinated, socially awkward, desperate to fit in, last picked in gym class, and pretty much the kryptonite to anything that might ever be considered cool. I'm pretty much that same guy today, just with fewer dodgeballs being chucked at my privates on a routine basis.

I was never in with the in crowd. Don't cry for me, though, Quad Cities -- it wasn't all bad. Once the cool kids learned that I could DJ, I got my fair share of party invites. And besides, I had my ragtag group of fellow outcast friends who I wouldn't trade for the world, and we had our fair share of fun. I had four really close friends in my graduating class, and if all of them were to show up, this reunion would be epic.

Which means that they didn't. Mark couldn't get the day off work from paramedic duties in Kansas City. Brian's wife was on a trip to Japan and left him in California with the baby. Bruce was in Chicago, probably hanging out with Cyndi Lauper or Blondie or some other awesome 80s hero that he strangely always seems to meet (but at least I'm not jealous except that I am.) Will, who's now a teacher down in Burlington, DID show up with his wife, and it was fantastic to catch up, especially since we'd fallen out of touch over the years.

Still, these were not good odds. Me, my date, Will, his wife, and a sea of people who really didn't care a whole lot for us in 1988, let alone now. This could be a serious soap opera moment. Would we be ostracized? Would the jocks still be the jocks and the nerds still be the nerds? Would old rivalries flare up? Did anyone bring a dodgeball?? No matter how it played out, it would make for an excellent column.

Except that it didn't. It was, to sum up, excruciatingly uneventful and pleasant. What I thought would be a ball of stress turned into a fun, low-key night with old friends. Will and I had a blast. I got to catch up with some folks I'd completely forgotten about. Everyone was nice, no one was an embarassment, and it was a decent night out. The real star of the show was the food. Two of my classmates opened up a barbecue joint in town, and no joke, it's the best BBQ I've ever eaten (and I've eaten my share.) Free plug ahoy: C&R's Smokehouse in Galesburg -- it's worth the drive.

My favorite part of the evening, though, was just getting the opportunity to dust off some 80's records that I'm embarassed to love. I learned how to mix in the era of "You Spin Me Round" and "Oh Sheila" and it was great to give those old tracks some legs again. And above all else, I finally had the chance to once again loudly and proudly rock some Debbie Gibson.

I took a lot of heat in high school for my Debbie Gibson obsession. After all, I was the guy who wasn't afraid to play the Sex Pistols at school dances. My favorite bands at the time were The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order, and the sorts of music you're supposed to listen to while you wear black and watch each other's ankh necklaces glimmer in the candlelight. But goth tendencies or no, I've always had a penchant for good dance tunes -- and when I first heard Debbie Gibson's "Only In My Dreams," I declared it one of the best songs of all time ever.

Of course, my hipster alterna-goth friends gave me insane amounts of grief, but I didn't care. I'll defend that song as long as I live. None of her other singles were ever that catchy, but I remained a fan (mostly just to spite my friends.) I covered a wall of my room with Debbie Gibson posters and a Debbie Gibson calendar and held my ground. To this day, I've bought every piece of music she's ever released.

So when I played "Only In My Dreams" at the class reunion, it hardly surprised anyone. But when I got a Facebook message a few days later from one of my old classmates, the news surprised ME. Debbie's coming to Chicago, and soon. My first celebrity crush is coming to a convention called The Hollywood Show, where -- for a nominal fee, of course -- you can meet and greet your favorite celebrities. Provided, of course, that your favorite celebrities include any of the following:

Debbie Gibson, Kristy and Jimmy McNichol, Mackenzie Phillips, Barbara Eden, Ken Kercheval, Bill Daily, Tippi Hedron, 2 of My Three Sons, the kid who got his tongue stuck to the lamppost in "A Christmas Story," The Landers Sisters, Greg "BJ and the Bear" Evigan, the guy who designed the "I Dream of Jeannie" bottle, Dennis the Menace, and a reunion of the film cast of "Jesus Christ Superstar." I know, I know -- so much starpower under ONE roof, right?

Even I had to admit that Debbie's star had faded of late, but I didn't realize it had reached twenty-bucks-for-an-autograph sorta levels. After all, we're talking about the star of "Giant Shark vs. Mega Octopus" AND "Mega Python vs. Gatoroid." Surely she deserves a better fate than posing for photos with rabid Greg Evigan fans, no?

I'm not one to be immune to the lure of fame. Part of me still wants to write the Great American Novel and have arenas full of people come to see me DJ. I'd love to have a home in the Hamptons where I could throw lavish parties with my executive chef and have an executive driver to make sure Lindsay Lohan gets home okay.

But if the flipside of fame means that twenty years after THAT, I'd be shuffling from one convention center to the next, charging people forty bucks for the privilege of meeting me while sitting at a table alongside the "Gangnam Style" guy, the "Charlie bit me!" kid, and, heck, probably STILL Greg Evigan? Maybe fame isn't so awesome after all.

I was worried that my class reunion would make me feel old and ostracized. Instead, it made me feel blessedly like a normal joe. I didn't feel OLD until I learned that my favorite teen idol now hocks her photos for forty bucks. But a part of me will always have a soft spot for Debbie Gibson, and I hope she revitalizes her career and has a wonderful second act. Just don't let it start for another couple weeks -- I don't want her autograph price to go up just yet.


After 42 years, I finally thought I had the hang of this only child thing. Whenever I tell people that I grew up without brothers or sisters in a country house miles away from any other kid, I'm amazed that the phrase I hear the most is, "Oh, I feel so sorry for you!" Those people are nuts.

As far as I'm concerned, I had it good. Being an only child rocks. I had all the attention, all the love, and all the presents. I never had to share. I never had to watch someone else's favorite TV show. I've never had a wedgie, wet willie, or purple nurple in my life.

Decades later, it's just as awesome. MY house is the only one that gets dad's full home improvement attention. I have no brothers-in-laws or sisters-in-laws that I have to pretend to like. And I STILL get all the presents. I wouldn't trade my upbringing for anyone else's, ever.

I think people must assume that I spent my formative years sitting in a lonely room watching paint dry. Not true -- mostly because I've never painted anything in my life except for Dungeons & Dragons miniatures, and that paint dries QUICK. I didn't have any siblings or any friends in the neighborhood, but I didn't need that nonsense. I had my imagination.

I am told that I had an imaginary friend, and his name was Mervy. I'm not really sure what caused our friendship to wane, but it must have been one evil spat, since I've cast all memory of the poor fellow from my brain. But if you really want to see me squirm, put me in the same room as my mom and ask her about Mervy. She remembers Mervy like they were old college buddies. I have zero recollection, and I'm the one who made him up.

I do, however, remember the cars. When I was a kid, I had a fetish for Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars. Some people collect those cars and leave them in their packaging in hopes that the price will inflate and they'll one day be able to retire thanks to a plastic Corvette. Not me. I had those suckers out of the box before I even got home, and I'd play with them until they were chipped, beaten, and tireless. Each one had a distinct personality. And I don't mean I came up with little imaginary drivers for each of them. No, it was the cars themselves that had personalities -- and who needed siblings when you had a drawer full of anthropomorphic cars?

My cars had better things to do than race down a track. No, not when there were crimes to be solved. That's right, my cars were detectives. Well, when they weren't being superheroes. Or hypnotists. Quite often, this mean mini-van would steal Princess Datsun and it would take a ragtag team of family-style sedans to save her. And so many of my childhood memories may have floated off into the mist, but I will ALWAYS remember the summer when, against all odds and wagers, all 70 of my Matchbox cars qualified for Wimbledon.

The point is, I was never bored. There's no real down side to being an only child -- well, except for the small problem that I never learned how to live with anyone else ever.

I've had blessedly few roommates over the years, and each time it's ended in tears. My freshman year roommate was a high school friend who ate all my food and slept with his eyes open. My sophomore year I lived in a triple with two of my best friends. By the end of that year, one of them had hurled a bottle of Palmolive at my skull and the other hasn't spoken to me since. My junior year roommate was an exchange student from Greece who ground his teeth so loud you'd have thought a wild badger was amok in our room.

Cohabitation has been the death knell to every relationship I've ever had. That's when love takes a back seat to pet peeves. She might be my soul mate, but it doesn't change the fact that I HATE THE WAY SHE BREATHES. STOP BREATHING LIKE THAT. IN... OUT... IN... OUT... YOU'RE DRIVING ME CRAZY, what with all the free air you're just imbibing willy-nilly and this irrational thought that you get to have HALF of MY bed. Just... just... honey, we need to talk.

I spent almost two decades since college in an apartment to myself, and now I've got a whole house to myself. Last week, I played host to one of my best friends and his wife, who were in town on a visit from Japan. For 8 days and nights, they stayed right here at the International House of Shane, and it only took about 2 of those 8 days before I kinda wanted to hurt somebody.

It wasn't their fault in the slightest. I love both of them dearly, I'm so happy they came for a visit, and I can't wait until the next time they do it again. I just had to tell myself things like, "Hey, don't get irrationally mad about the fact that you can't walk naked out of the shower into the closet to pick out clothes. It's no big deal." And who cares that they always left the toilet seat cover down or accidentally let the sloppy joe leftovers sit out overnight or left congealed bacon grease sit on my stove all week or inexplicably used 14 rolls of toilet paper in 8 days? Not this guy. My friends are awesome and we all had a blast.

So when my friend Stuart needed a place to stay when he comes next month to run the Quad City Marathon, I gladly offered my house. And when my friend Kelly called to say she's coming next month on a business trip, I insisted she stay at my place. Because I'm an awesome friend and I love having houseguests and I am in no way a spoiled, self-centered isolationist forever scarred by my inexperience at sharing and cohabitation. I am a well-rounded only child who's perfectly fine with houseguests.

Mervy's the one who hates them.

COLUMN: Chris & Fabi

We've got it pretty good. The U.S. is an amazing country, and the Quad Cities is a pretty great place to live (just don't ask me on those days when it's either 105 or -5, or when I pull into the drive-thru of the local Taco Bell and am told they're inexplicably "out of meat.") But I think we sometimes get in a rut and fail to appreciate the great things about daily life in this land we call home.

I've had an interesting reality check this week, and it came in the form of a week-long houseguest and her very first trip to America.

One of my oldest and dearest friends bummed us out a few years back when he accepted a teaching job in Japan. He explained it was finally his chance to capitalize on his Asian Studies major and embark on a fulfilling career path of adventure in a foreign land. I was pretty sure he just wanted a solid opportunity to go mack on cute Japanese girls.

It turns out we were both right. Indeed, he moved overseas to a fulfilling career that he loves. And sure enough, he promptly hit on a cute Japanese girl. Interestingly, though, she turned out to be Brazilian. He speaks English, she speaks Portugeuse, and neither are especially fluent in Japanese. Yet somehow it works, and that girl is now his wife. Last week, my friend made his first return visit to the States and brought the missus along for the ride, which means I've had a front row seat to a foreigner's very first experience in America.

My goal for the week was shallow, self-centered, and simple: I would show off the absolute best we had to offer. She falls in love with the Quad Cities and I get my friend back stateside, especially since I'm now worthless at video games without him to get me past the hard stuff. I had my work cut out for me.

My first reality check happened mere minutes after I'd picked them up. "Well, this is officially your first day in America," I turned to her. "You're in Chicago. What would you like to see first? Willis Tower? Wrigley Field? Lake Michigan?" Her answer? "Wal-Mart." Congratulations, America, this is your new international legacy.

Her most exciting discovery in America appeared to be watermelon. Apparantly in Japan, watermelons come the size of cantalopes and cost upwards of $20 a pop. By the time they left, she'd indulged in watermelons, a carton of watermelon juice, watermelon gum, potholders that LOOKED like watermelons, etc. I will never look a gift watermelon in the mouth again. After this week, I might not even look at a watermelon again.

Prices on most items blew her mind. Japan sounds like an expensive place to live. According to my friend, CDs are well over $20, a DVD can run twice as much, and Playstation games are upwards of $75. But I guess it's give and take. His income is taxed at a flat 5%, and a recent visit to a Japanese dentist ended in six filled cavities, two crowns, and a bill of less than $100.

We tried our best to take her to as many American eateries as we could. We got thumbs up to: Taco Bell ("tasty!"), Arthur's ("mmm!"), Buffalo Wild Wings ("super tasty!"), Hu Hot Mongolian Grill ("super tasty!" AND three photos upped to Facebook), and Whitey's did its job and left her speechless. The only two places that DIDN'T cut the mustard? May the gods of pizza have mercy on my soul, but sorry, Harris was a strike-out ("TOO SPICY SAUSAGE!") And you know those delicious rolls at Texas Roadhouse with the cinnamon butter? She couldn't even get through one bite. ("NOT tasty. Butter should NOT be sweet!")

Worse yet was when I needed a snack and fixed myself a PB&J in the kitchen only to realize she was staring at me as though I were eating toejam. "Peanut butter with JELLY? That is CRAZY!!!!" She wouldn't try it. For what it's worth, I wouldn't try the bag she brought of something called "Tasty Squid Snack!"

She was incredibly sweet, shy, and soft-spoken for the entire visit, until one evening we had stopped at a gas station when she cried out so loud the whole store turned. That was the moment she discovered the magic of the Big Gulp. "This is a glass?" she asked incredulously. "In Japan, we would call this a BUCKET!" MANY photos ensued.

One day, I took a shortcut home. "Sorry," I said, "This is kind of a bad part of town." "You don't know what a bad part of town is," she replied scoldingly. Later that night, she showed me photos of homeless camps and a famous video from her hometown of Sao Paulo. In it, you see a guy pull up to a pharmacy and run in with a gun. While he's robbing the place, someone else comes along and steals his getaway car. When the confused robber runs out with bags of cash and no car, HE gets robbed at gunpoint by another thief who makes off with the cash. "THIS is a bad part of town." Fair enough.

I spent the week trying to tell her how awesome America is, she spent the week trying to rally for the Land of the Rising Sun. "You should come to Japan," she told. "In Nagoya, Japanese girls love American men. You could meet girls who want to date you, you could meet girls who want to marry you, or you could meet girls who will take jewels in exchange for [expletive.]" Umm. Hmm.

Eight days later, they were off again. Since all we did was eat and shop, I'm pretty sure she now thinks America is a gluttonous country full of all-you-can-eat rabid consumerism, and heck, maybe she wouldn't be far off. Still, I think we win if for no other reason than we prefer Harris Pizza to Tasty Squid Snack. I don't know if they'll be moving here any time soon, but she DID just update her Facebook status to: "Leaving the midwest. A magical place and I hope to see you all again soon."

Maybe sooner than she thinks, once I find a plane ticket and procure enough jewels.

COLUMN: Gun Control

I tend to avoid hot-button topics like the plague in this column.

That's not to say I don't have opinions. If you'll let me, I'll talk your ears off about politics, gay marriage, violent video games, or whatever you fancy. Just not in the newspaper.

We've already got an editorial page full of folks WAY smarter and far more qualified than myself to talk about the ways of the world. If you wanna read about stuff like that, go there. If you want funny cat stories, I'm your guy. Besides, I'm shallow and pathetic and crave your undying affection at all costs. I don't want to say the wrong thing and lose any of my precious fanbase. I'd rather stick with my trusted rule of thumb where the only people I stand a chance of upsetting are dog lovers and Tom Cruise fans.

That said, occasionally something comes along that inspires me to take a stand for what I believe in. And this week, that something was the taste of cold steel.

It was Thursday night and I was heading home from an especially exhausting day at the office. My brain was fried and I was running on auto-pilot. It was only by a last-minute burst of synapses that I remembered I was dangerously low on toilet paper at home, so I altered my path to head for the nearest drugstore.

I reached a stoplight just as it turned red. At the time, There I sat, sitting first at the light to go straight, when a car pulled up alongside me in the left-hand turn lane.

When it comes to cars, I know precisely: nothing. Here's a list of ones I could pick out on the street: VW Beetles, PT Cruisers, Hummers, Mini-Coopers, and the Batmobile. Beyond that, as far as I'm concerned, all you other people drive the same vehicle.

But this car was different. It was fancy. It was dark blue and shiny and had tinted windows and a spoiler and looked like the sort of thing that people would inexplicably pay big money to see Vin Diesel drive on the big screen. It was a head-turner, and I was a head-turnee.

So there I was, brain in neutral, waiting for the light to turn green, checking out this fancy car with its fancy tinted windows. That's when the fancy tinted window on the rear passenger side opened a crack... and out popped the double barrel of a shotgun, pointed directly at my head.

There are times in life when moments occur that allow you to find out what kind of a person you REALLY are, and this was one of them. A million thoughts could have coursed through my brain at that moment. I could have been a hero and thrown my door open, jumped out, opened the back door of the fancy car and wrestled the gunman to the ground. At the very least, I expected to have my life flash before my eyes and reflect even momentarily on the people and places I love.

Instead, here was the only thought my brain provided: "Well, this just figures." I'd been in whiny mode all week. Whining about long work days, whining about money, whining about friends, and here I was, potentially my very last thought on Earth and using it to whine about dying. I suppose I am nothing if not consistent.

If you've ever wanted a solid wake-up call when you're zoning out, try having a gun pointed at your face. I didn't know if my would-be assassin was a random stranger or a well-planned attack by a legion of vengeful Tom Cruise fans -- all I knew was that I didn't want my legacy to be police searching my house in vain for clues about my demise. "Everything looks normal, Captain, except for the fact that he was totally and completely out of toilet paper."

So I did the only thing I could think of, which was also a pretty stupid thing: I gunned it. I threw the car in gear and went into the intersection blaring my horn. Thankfully, the driver of the oncoming car was less brain-dead than me and managed to swerve to a stop before t-boning my passenger side. And, as THAT driver was justifiably flipping me the bird, I turned back to the fancy car in just enough time to see the rear window all the way down, a small child holding what was clearly a plastic toy gun, and the driver of that car pointing and laughing hysterically like it was the funniest thing in the world. I, meanwhile, considered it a personal triumph that I hadn't wet myself.

I fumbled for my phone to call the cops, but it was pointless. I didn't get the guy's plate number, he was already halfway to Moline, and what could I have said? "The car? It was, umm, blue. And shiny. The driver may have been Vin Diesel." Instead, I continued to the drugstore parking lot while having a nervous breakdown.

I'm not anti-gun. It's a freedom afforded by our constitution, and I get it. I grew up with a few in the home (although I think my dad would probably die rather than point any of them towards anything with a heartbeat.) I have an uncle who keeps a ready bag by his door for the day his militia comes calling. Skeet shooting looks like great fun. I just know guns aren't for me. I can barely operate a remote control. If I owned a gun, I'd shoot myself in the leg in no time.

What I AM anti-, though, is the prevalence of guns in our culture. I certainly don't like realistic-looking ones being pointed my way, even if they're toys. And I really don't like that my irresponsible response was to dart into traffic and potentially cause someone ELSE to get hurt.

It's a good thing I avoid hot button topics like the plague, or else I'd be tempted to tell you that I've never understood why anyone other than undercover cops should have a need to carry a concealed weapon. It's a good thing I don't like to ruffle feathers, or else I'd probably tell you that you don't need a semi-automatic military-grade weapon to hunt Bambi or protect your home. It's a good thing I'm a humor columnist, or I'd tell you the saddest truth, which is that we now live in a world where I see the barrel of a gun from a passing car and no longer assume it's just a toy.

Instead, we'll just all have a laugh at how a 7-year-old with a plastic gun almost made me pee myself.

Friday, October 18, 2013

COLUMN: Carlos Danger

Nothing stinks more in this line of work than having a boring week.

My amazing job allows me to recount stories about the weird inane things that I'm lucky enough to encounter while meandering through life. Even if I'm having an awful week and something hideous happens, the silver lining is that it usually makes good column fodder in the end. But what about those weeks when NOTHING happens, good OR bad? For the past seven days, it's been so hot outside that I've done nothing with my free time but sit on the couch and zone out to bad TV.

Good thing, then, that the world has taken care of things this week and brought the funny in droves.

It started with mankind's greatest cinematic achievement of all time: SHARKNADO. How anyone survived this white-knuckle thrill ride to a hellscape of unimaginable horror is beyond me. My friends and somehow I made it through the terror with nothing more than the clothes on our backs, a steely resolve, and an abundant supply of gummy sharks.

When I first learned that Syfy was adding to their canon of disastrously bad disaster movies with something called "Sharknado," I was elated. Potential plotlines swam through my head faster than a dozen sharknados. Let me guess, a tornado strands a party boat of college students on a deserted island where their own means of survival is swimming across shark-ravaged waters with the help of TV's Tom Wopat? Maybe a tornado strikes a top secret military facility, releasing their man-eating combat robo-shark (also played by TV's Tom Wopat) onto an unsuspecting public?

It turns out I was being WAY too creative. The real plot of Sharknado is as simple as its title: a tornado forms in the ocean (which actually makes it a waterspout but "Sharkspout" sounds lame) and sucks up an infinite number of sharks, flinging them into residential California where they chomp on as many beachfront suburbanites as possible. And the only man who can stop them is Steve from "Beverly Hills 90210," who at one point (spoiler alert) chainsaws his way out of a shark's stomach after being swallowed whole.

They've yet to create a word to duly express the awesomeness of this movie. There was never an explanation as to why 1000 sharks were just hanging out off the California coast in the first place, no explanation why these sharks seemed to care more about biting people than the fact that they were asphyxiating out of the water, and no explanation why the school bus of trapped kids was being driven by Cousin Oliver from the Brady Bunch. In short, it was the best thing ever.

For about a week. Then Geraldo had a birthday. Once a respected investigative reporter for ABC's prestigious 20/20, Geraldo Rivera has spent the past 25 years or so systematically destroying any shred of credibility he once had. Whether it's breaking into empty bank vaults, getting his nose busted by Nazi skinheads, or accidentally airing the secret locations of American troops in Iraq, Geraldo's nothing if not efficient when it comes to ruining his reputation.

Now he's turned 70, and what better way to celebrate than by tweeting a nearly naked photo to a world now incapable of un-seeing it. I suppose it's commendable that the guy's in pretty good shape for 70, but still, he's 70. This was pretty high on my list of unnecessary sights to ever behold. Thank God he's wearing a towel, but it's a towel hanging about six inches way too low and in serious danger of almost exposing the world to a vault I don't EVER care to see the insides of.

Being a fat guy, I guess I can't relate -- but even if I went on "The Biggest Loser" and got myself down to fighting form, I really don't think my first response would be to drop trou and go, "WHOO! CHECK ME OUT, WORLD!" I choose to live my life in a mature manner of utter denial of my appearance and trying desperately hard to NOT look down while in the shower. Dear Santa, please bring my friend Geraldo a pair of cover-alls... and I do mean cover ALL.

So Geraldo definitely got the award for best naked selfie, a title he proudly held for about four days. That was before the world was introduced to its newest superhero. A legend who single-handedly revived my faith in comedy and gave each of us a reason to live through an otherwise boring week. My new favorite person on Earth: Carlos Danger.

I first became aware of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner when a sex scandal forced him to resign from office. Believe it or not, I kinda felt sorry for the guy. Back in 2011, Weiner took a picture of himself in all his, umm, Weiner-ness. He meant to send the pic to an internet hottie he was chatting up, but instead tweeted it out to the general public. Not good. I blame Microsoft. After all, they're the ones who put the "REPLY ALL" button so darn close to the "REPLY" one. Still, not a smart thing to do, Weiner, especially when you've got an innocent wife at home.

That said, where does it say that pervy philanderers can't do their jobs well? Charlie Sheen seems to be doing okay. And this sort of thing seems to happen to European politicians constantly, but over there, they go "tsk, tsk" and find the nearest rug to sweep it under. Weiner screwed up bigtime, but he seemed contrite about the fiasco and I supported his recent decision to run for New York City mayor. Mostly because I don't live there.

But earlier this week, ANOTHER sex scandal came to light. Even after the guy resigned from Congress in disgrace, he kept right on sexting internet girls and sending them pictures of his Anthony Weiner. It got worse when I read a transcript of his texts, which I don't recommend unless you WANT a case of the cooties. These texts take you on a magical journey to an entirely new realm of skeevy. And not the kind of skeevy hidden under a brown paper bag in your gas station's magazine rack. No, these are the kind of gross comments you would immediately assume were written by a 14-year-old boy in the throes of puberty.

Best of all, he was sending all this icky nonsense to girls... using the alias "Carlos Danger." Let that sink in. Carlos Danger. Try to say it without laughing. If there aren't at least five garage bands out there now named "Carlos Danger," I'll be horribly disappointed. Carlos Danger is NOT the name of a sexy internet lover. Carlos Danger sounds more like the guy Starsky & Hutch call on to infiltrate the barrio drug trade. Maybe I'm stating the obvious here, but why bother inventing a cool sexy porno name when your REAL name is Tony Weiner? I'm just sayin'.

So please please please, New Yorkers, do the country a favor and elect Carlos Danger as your next mayor. I shy away from politics in this column, but I strongly endorse anyone named Carlos Danger as mayor of any town I don't live in. It'll come in REAL handy on those boring weeks when we have nothing else to laugh at. Take it from me, your loyal columnist, Pedro Peril.

COLUMN: Nunchucks

I have a friend who takes great pride in the fact that he is a self-proclaimed "freak magnet." It's his assertion that all things weird, wacky, and random just seem to gravitate his way and happen before his eyes. Over the years, he's born witness to riots in shopping malls, seen Santa Claus (or someone dressed as such) trolling for pornography, witnessed a new mother feeding her infant baby soft drinks, and was once kidnapped on a first date.

This doesn't sit well with me.

You see, I've spent 42 years of my life carefully developing my swollen ego and shallow sense of self-importance, and my egotistical brain would like to think that the world revolves around ME. Ergo if there's a freak magnet in the house, it should be yours truly, thanks much. It's MY assertion that my friend gets the pleasure of witnessing occasional weird and cool stuff in his life mostly because he's lucky enough to be friends with me. Or maybe he just hangs out at too many shopping malls. Either way, he's no freak magnet. Or so I thought.

Then last weekend happened. Let me set the stage. It was a Friday night and, for once, I was plan-free. That's why I found myself in the car with Friend Jason, driving around the Quad Cities aimlessly in search of something to do. After a fruitless hour wasting gas and watching other people clearly having more fun than either of us, I was out of ideas. In desperation, I flipped my phone open and sent a message to Facebook-land:

"HELP! BORED! Anybody doing anything worth doing?"

At first, the replies were sporadic. Then two messages came in. The first was from my friend Celeste. She was at an area pub with her hubby and some mutual friends and wanted us to pop by. The second was from my freak magnet friend, who was equally bored and wondered what we were up to.

As a general rule, I'm not much of a bar-hopping kinda guy. Unless the place has an empty DJ booth in need of beats, I'm usually more at home IN my home than in some random loud bar surrounded by inebriated yahoos. But since my house was busy winning awards for Mostest Boringest Place in the Whole Wide World Ever, I gave in. Within minutes, Friend Jason and I were on our way to meet up with the Freak Magnet and head for the pub.

I was bracing myself for the worst. Drunken smelly louts peacocking their machismo. Cute girls absolutely ignoring me like usual. Me not being able to hear anybody over some obnoxious unending song that'll either be Phish or a band trying to sound like Phish. Maybe someone will invite me to play darts or pool so that an entire room of strangers can bear witness to my absolute and total lack of coordination. Good times.

We got inside the door and immediately spotted Celeste and her friends. As we walked over, a tap on my shoulder introduced Freak Magnet, who arrived mere footsteps behind us. That's when Celeste came up.

"You got here just in time," she said. "...for the nunchuck battle."

Okay, maybe my friend IS a freak magnet after all.

Rock Island is a great town, but sadly, I've found it to be somewhat lacking when it comes to contemporary spontaneous outdoor ninja warfare. Not any more. Within minutes, a car pulled into the lot and out popped two honest-to-gosh ninjas. Well, they had ninja t-shirts on at least. And they were formidable dudes with equally formidable names: Jimmy and Cookie, henceforth known as Rock Island's elite roving ninja strike force.

I've seen at least two or three kung fu movies in my day, so I figure I'm somewhat of an expert when it comes to ninjas. And if there's one thing we experts know about ninjas, it's that they're stealthy little buggers. You know, you're walking down the street minding your own business, and then WHAM ninjas jump out of the darkness and proceed to ninja the heck out of you. They're all about invisible covert stealth -- which is why these guys were packing nunchucks with flashing rainbow-colored lights on the ends.

I also don't seem to recall the part in any of those kung fu movies where the ninjas did their ninja-ing to a boombox cranking Michael Jackson's "Rock With You," but that didn't stop Jimmy and Cookie. What followed was a full exhibition of nunchuckery to an entirely bewildered crowd, but it didn't take long for them to win us over. I was rooting for Jimmy, but sadly it was Cookie who took home the grand ninja prize... of a different t-shirt. Before it was over, another dude nearby up and started breathing fire. I couldn't make this stuff up.

Now, just in case you DIDN'T watch those three kung-fu movies that I did, nunchucks are basically two small wooden clubs connected at one end by a chain. In actuality, I fear I know precious little about martial arts weaponry -- but I do know, in the grand scheme of things, that nunchunks look difficult to master.

Sure, I get the advantageous combat strategy of smacking somebody upside the head with a wooden club, but what if you MISS? I'm no physics major, but I'm pretty sure that thrusting one of those sticks forwards means that eventually it's going to reach the end of its chain and double back on the thrustee, no? I'm fairly sure the most impressive feat of nunchuck mastery is somehow doing it without the chucks coming back and racking you in the nuns. I'm not exactly in the market for having a baby, but I don't want to take the option off the table via wooden club, either.

But most impressive of all was that nunchucking happened, and happened randomly in front of me, without fanfare or a calendar of events. Just your run-of-the-mill, no-warning, no-nonsense neighborhood nunchucking. I won't tell you the name of the bar, because in reality, mixing alcohol with combat weaponry probably isn't considered safe, smart, or too particularly legal. But Cookie and Jimmy appeared to be employing at least a modicum of safety, and I don't think rogue ninja battles are commonplace at this otherwise fine and legal establishment that probably never even knew its parking lot was playing host to good-natured urban melee.

It was just a crazy night, and that's precisely what I love about the Quad Cities. You never really know what's on the menu. Maybe my friend really IS a freak magnet. I'll have to settle for being one of the freaks.

COLUMN: Chicken Roulette

I've always been a big fan of games. I'll admit it: I own a visor that only gets worn for Monopoly. I've skipped classes and called in sick to work [note: PRE-Dispatch/Argus, of course] for the express purpose of playing video games. I once hosted a session of the card game Rack-O that lasted for 10 straight hours. An epic round of Rail Baron once cost me a dear friendship. And if you've ever participated in a charity trivia event, I have probably beaten you. Badly.

I take gaming seriously, but we may have just crossed a new threshold: I've invented my own game. It's full of risk, reward, strategy, and, above all, suspense. A game where the agony of defeat might just be all too real a turn of phrase.

It all started with an empty wallet. You ever have one of those weeks where every bill comes due in one masterfully spontaneous symphony of suck? That was me last week. Top it all off with the sudden expense of a flat tire and presto -- say hello to Broke Shane.

I'm not a big fan of making a dollar stretch -- all you have to do is look at my bank account to discover just how bad I am at it. (Note: Please do not ACTUALLY look at my bank account. One of my friends had her identity stolen last week by a thief in Maine. It doesn't sound fun, and trust me when I say that stealing MY identity at the present moment wouldn't even score you enough gas money to GET to Maine.)

It was a long week 'til payday and I had to put a stop to the wallet bleed, so I came up with a plan. Rather than waste money eating out for lunch every day like usual, I needed to brown bag it for a bit. That's why I went to the grocery store and invested my remaining coin in a big bag of frozen chicken breasts. I got home and threw it into the crock pot at 4 p.m. By the time it hit midnight, I had a pot full of tender chicken that pulled apart with ease. Bachelor cuisine at its finest, and I could survive off this stuff for days.

When I first left home a kajillion years ago, my mom made sure to impart upon me an encyclopedia worth of cooking tips -- of which I believe I remember about three. One was, "Don't put food in the refrigerator until it cools." I honestly have no idea why this is. It wasn't something awesome like, "Don't put food in the refrigerator until it cools... OR IT'LL EXPLODE!" Maybe putting hot food into a cold fridge wrecks the taste, or maybe it makes food spoil faster. I have no idea why you're not supposed to do it. I just know my mom told me not to, and that's good enough for me.

So I took the chicken out of the crock pot and set it in a storage container to cool down for a few minutes. And then I fell asleep.

If cats could talk, I'm sure I would have been their #1 topic of conversation on Monday. They sure seemed intrigued as to why I woke up in a start at 6:30 a.m. screaming, "OMIGOD! CHICKEN!" and bolted for the kitchen. It took me precisely thirty seconds to put a lid on the chicken and throw it in the fridge, but had the damage been done? I had just taken a ten-dollar investment and let it sit out on the counter for six hours.

And that, my friends, is how I invented the new high-stakes game I like to call... CHICKEN ROULETTE.

There's another nugget of wisdom I recall from my mom. It was something like, "Chicken is really good for you... EXCEPT WHEN IT KILLS YOU." My mom really hammered this one home. I don't know if she just assumed that her idiot son would immediately start feasting on raw chicken like sushi or what, but thanks to her frenzied warnings, I usually leave poultry cooking to the professionals.

It might be finger-lickin' good, but if those fingers touched it in its raw form, you will surely die of e.coli. This is why every time I grill chicken, I end up cooking it down to a shriveled little carcinogen that's probably just as toxic.

But what of cooked chicken that's accidentally left out all night? I guess there comes a time in every bachelor's life when he has to look deep within himself and ask the question: Am I too chicken to play chicken with some chicken?

I assessed the situation. The potentially funky poultry passed both look and smell tests (because, as we all know, bacteria is always day-glo orange and stinky.) Also, I keep my house so cold it's practically a refrigerator in here anyways. And I've eaten so much crummy fast food over the years that I may have built up a tolerance to most standard variations of food poisoning. Or maybe I've wrecked my system on so much bad food over the years that one iota of salmonella could kill me dead. A sick day from work might be nice, but projectile vomiting might put a damper on the holiday.

I opted for my favorite game show tiebreaker: I phoned a friend. Many of them, in fact. Answers ranged from: "YOU DIDN'T EAT IT, DID YOU?" (a vegetarian friend who I think is just horrified by chicken in general) to "just chase it with some vodka and that'll kill all the bad stuff" (a fellow bachelor) to "I don't THINK it'll kill you. You'll PROBABLY be fine" (my mother, surprisingly, but note the disclaimers.)

Sometimes, you've just got to bite the bullet. Or, in this case, the chicken. Over the past 48 hours, I've now played chicken roulette four times. As I type, there might be a listeria rave in my gastro-intestinal tract. So far, so good... but I'll admit that my stomach seems a little wonky right now. I'm hoping it's just from all the worrying. It turns out chicken roulette might be full of suspense, but not in a fun way. I don't really recommend it as a party game, unless you're up for answering "so what did YOU do this weekend?" with "Oh, not much. Well, other than killing all my friends."

I shoulda stuck with Monopoly. I just hope this chicken doesn't stick with me.

COLUMN: Visitations

Death stinks.

I realize a sentence like that is about as revelatory and headline-worthy as other such breaking news items like "the sky is blue," "the Earth is round," and "Tom Cruise is simply awful."  Still, it must be said.

This past year has been rife with people in my life passing away, and most of them before their time. Not that I'm a big fan of that phrase, because really, is it ever anyone's "time" to depart this realm? If I had my druthers, and my health, I'd be perfectly okay with remaining alive until further notice, and I'd reckon most of you feel the same. The great beyond might be a much better place, but I'm honestly in no big hurry to find out. I've always been one to resist change.

But even more unfair than our inevitable demise is the fact that as we get older, more and more people that we care about are taken away from us. It may be an unavoidable fact of life, but it still stinks. If there's one place on Earth I hope I don't set foot in the foreseeable future, it's another stinkin' funeral home.

Last week, I wrote a column about how, in most social situations, I'm incredibly gifted at being incredibly awkward. Nowhere is this on display more clearly than when I have to attend a visitation. By the time I'm in the door, I'm already stammering and breaking out in an uncontrolled sweat. In weird situations, my usual defense mechanism is to crack jokes and look for humor in the situation -- but, as a general rule, the interior of a funeral home is, by and large, a joke-free zone.

Instead, I'm left to somehow fend off the sadness and try to stammer out words of compassion, encouragement, and support for family and friends, all while trying my absolute best not to sweat all over them. It's an entirely awkward and uncomfortable experience. But this is probably a GOOD thing. If you're the sort of person who's completely at ease and comfortable at visitations, you are most likely a Class A weirdo-pants. Or you are a funeral director. And, honestly, to dive into that career path by choice, you might still be at least a SMALL bit weirdo-pants.

But it's not as though I learned funeral awkwardness on my own. For that, I had a coach.

When I was a kid, my great-grandmother suffered a debilitating stroke. My memories of the woman are a bit cloudy, but what I recall was everything you'd want a grand-grandmother to be: a chubby, smiling, boisterous lady who earned my affection through a non-stop supply of hugs and candy. A resilient woman, she went on to survive the stroke in a vegetative state for over a year. I may have just been a little kid at the time, but even then I knew how awful it was to see this vibrant woman connected to life support.

I don't remember much about my great-grandma's funeral, but I do remember what happened a few months later. My dad was out of town when my mom was reading the paper and suddenly stood up.

"Go put on some nice clothes," she told me. "We need to go to a visitation."

My mom had spotted an obit in the newspaper, and the deceased was my great-grandma's former roommate from the nursing home. She and her family had been nothing but nice to us during our time together, so my mom wanted to return the favor by paying respects.

There was just one problem. As we rounded the corner to join the receiving line, I saw my mom ever-so-slightly go from sad to panic. She looked at me. "IT'S NOT HER."

Sure enough, my mom had the name wrong. It turns out my grandma's old roommate was alive, thriving and surviving. Instead, we were in line to express our condolences to the family of a total stranger. "Follow me," my mom whispered as we exited the line and tried to sneak out unnoticed. We would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for that pesky funeral director who stepped in-between us and the exit.

That's when my mom showcased something I'd never seen: her acting skills. Yes, my mother -- the light of my life, the woman who taught me everything, the person I looked to for strength, guidance, honesty, and wisdom -- quickly assessed the situation and came up with the best and most mature possible strategy: fake crying. "I just need a moment outside to collect myself," she told the funeral director, hand to her face, pretending to sob.

You would think a funeral director would point us in the right direction, perhaps even open the door. You'd think a funeral director would know when to back off and let someone in fake grief fake-grieve in private. Not THIS guy.

"Here," he motioned. "Let me take you to one of our quiet rooms where you can have a seat and reflect. How did you know the deceased?"

"No, no," my mom said awkwardly. "I just need to step outside."

I might have been little, but I knew comedy gold when I saw it.

"Mom, it's okay," I said. "Let's go to the quiet room. You need a tissue."

I'm pretty sure my hand still hurts from the death grip she put on it, but it was worth it to watch my mom squirm her way out of this mess. Eventually Mr. Overly Helpful turned away and we stealthily scuttled off into the night. As I recall, it took an extended layover at Pizza Hut for my mom to get properly un-mortified and lose the red from her cheeks.

You'd think we would have learned our lesson. But some twenty years later at my grandfather's funeral, the minister was not on his A-game. At one point, he told us that my grandfather was likely being embraced by a whole clan of Connors. Comforting, except that my grandfather's family was the COOPERS. Knowing my grandpa's beloved short fuse, my mom and I both simultaneously pictured him yelling at a heavenly room of strangers, "WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE? GET AWAY! SHOO!" which made us both inappropriately start to giggle mid-funeral. Which we both tried to cover up... as fake crying. What can I say? I guess I learn from the best.

In the end, there's no point in feeling awkward at visitations, because it's an awkward time for everybody. Last week, I lost a friend -- but instead of feeling awkward, I found myself surrounded by her family and sharing the love for a lady who touched many lives. Earlier this year, another friend of mine died who was a big theatre buff. Her visitation included show tunes and a beautiful enlarged photo of her -- dressed in zombie gear crawling out from behind a tombstone. It was the exact way she'd want to go out, and that's the important part.

So here's to you, Rose, Peggy, Brian, Russ, Leevon, Kenny, Ruthie, Jesse, my cousin Jenni, and everyone else gone too soon. Leaving you might have been awkward, but knowing you  was a pleasure.