Wednesday, December 24, 2014

COLUMN: The Best of 2014: Music

I get to wear many hats in life, but the one that fits the comfiest is that of Shane Brown, Music Nerd. Listening to music isn't a hobby for me; life is a hobby and simply something to do while I'm NOT listening to music. Growing up, I carefully read every major critic's year-end picks and chose my own, pretending that people cared about my opinion. Well, now I've got my own newspaper column where I can share my year-end picks and continue to pretend that people care about my opinion. I call it the annual indulgence. With that, my picks for the 10 best albums of 2014:

10. FUTURE ISLANDS - Singles - A year ago, Future Islands were just another veteran indiepop band slugging it out on the touring circuit. Then one fateful booking on Letterman turned them into overnight viral video sensations. There's just something compelling about the confident awkwardness of Samuel Herring's crazy dancing, chest pumps, and earnest bravado set against a musical soundscape that would fit right into just about any John Hughes flick from the 80s. When he growls like a metal madman, you can't help but be a fan. It's just like Dave said, "I'll take all of that ya got!"

9. DAVID MAYFIELD - Strangers - With his third album, David Mayfield proves he's more than the clown prince of Americana. Known for his life-changing live shows that weave musical showmanship with unapologetic goofiness, Mayfield's silly charm only occasionally masks the fact that he's a real virtuoso at guitar picking. He might be a nutball onstage, but Mayfield's always taken his records seriously. "Strangers" runs the well-tread path of heartache to heartbreak, but with a steely resilience that renews the spirit.

8. PAUL HEATON & JACQUI ABBOTT - What Have We Become - In my lifetime, there's never been a more subversive critic of society than British singer/songwriter Paul Heaton. First as lead vocalist for the Housemartins and then as frontman of The Beautiful South, Heaton has spent the past 30 years sending songs up the global pop charts with his biting wit. For his new project, he's reunited with Beautiful South vocalist Jacqui Abbott for an astonishing return to form. Pop music shouldn't be this smart.

7. WE NEED SECRETS - Melanchony and the Archive - I spent my college years devoted to the indie rock genre of shoegazing. In those days, bands like Ride and My Bloody Valentine crafted overproduced masterpieces of swirling guitars and vocals melted together into a blissed-out haze of raucous reverb, sonic dissonance, and  speaker-shredding walls of sound. Shoegazing fell out of favor fast when grunge came along, but a new class of bands have picked up the torch, The standout of this year's crop is We Need Secrets, who figured out the My Bloody Valentine sound AND how to twist it into a great record. It's a huge feat made even more astonishing given the fact that We Need Secrets is one guy named Chad who made the whole album by himself at home.

6. RUN THE JEWELS - Run the Jewels 2 - It's the only hip-hop album you need worry about this year. Pump it out of a speaker standing next to a jet engine and I swear to you this record would win. It's the sound of pure molten angst and an unrelenting assault that cannot be ignored. El-P's trademark production style is hard at work here, and every track features a less-is-more idiology where the beats come fast and loud over minimal abrasive staccato samples and loops. Taking no prisoners and offering no excuses, this is the kind of record that should burn to the touch.

5. TAYLOR SWIFT - 1989 - This just might be the riskiest record of 2014. When Taylor Swift went full-on pop this year, she had to know that she stood a chance of losing her entire country fanbase forever. But this is no regular pop album. Well, it might have been back in the mid-eighties. While other mainstream artists tried their hand at dubstep, house, or hip-hop in their constant battle for relevancy, Taylor Swift instead went retro with a dose of vintage keyboards and straight ahead verse-chorus-verse songcrafting. The result is her first record that stands up to scrutiny deeper than guessing which celebrity each song's about.

4. JAMES - La Petite Mort - Usually when a band reunites after some time apart, the resulting record ends up being forgettable at best. This is the first full-length record in six years from the Manchester band James, and shockingly, it's one of their all-time best. The band sounds as vital today as they did in their heyday, with Tim Booth still capable of belting out life-affirming rallying cries against repressed moralities and oppression. The world is a better place with this band in it.

3. MARTIN CARR - The Breaks - By now, my friends have to be tired of me championing Martin Carr. Heck, Martin Carr's probably tired of me championing Martin Carr (we're Facebook friends, and I'm not above the occasional public fanboy worship.) But he's my favorite lyricist of all time, and I doubt that'll ever change. At every stage of my life, I'm happy to have his songs to turn to for inspiration. After a few years absence, "The Breaks" is like reconnecting with a dear friend. Sonically, it's a triumphant return to form. In a perfect world, he'd be a mega-star who I wouldn't be able to harass on Facebook.

2. ALVVAYS - Alvvays - Molly Rankin is one generation removed from The Rankin Family, Canada's beloved first family of Celtic folk. But there's a heck of a musical highway separating the folk harmonies of The Rankin Family and the fuzzy surf-pop of Alvvays. It's the sound of sun-drenched summers as heard through the haze of distant memories. Rankin's singing style might be deadpan, but it cuts through the guitar wash with tales of lost love and life's follies. It's not exactly an original construct (see the Scottish band Camera Obscura if you like the Alvvays sound,) but it never fails to put a smile on my face.

1. BLEACHERS - Strange Desire - When Jack Antonoff unleashed this beast of a record back in July, I said at the time it'd be hard to find anything better in 2014. Nothing else came close. Music fans might better know Antonoff as the guitarist of Fun, but I prefer to know him for Bleachers, his 80's-inspired synth-driven side project responsible for the catchiest songs of the year and the death of my overused iPod Classic. Antonoff doesn't have the vocal chops of Fun's Nate Ruess, but a record this inspiring doesn't need a good singer. This is smart music for smart people, with singalong anthems about insecurity and twisted feelings. It's a therapy session set to music, and screaming along was all the therapy I needed this year.

Next week? My picks for the best TV of 2014.

COLUMN: Savior

Eavesdropping is a very bad thing to do. It's a violation of privacy, an unethical and self-serving act and a well-recognized societal no-no. It also can be a lot of fun.

This was going to be my annual column in which I list my year-end faves. That will have to wait, because some accidental eavesdropping just brought me BREAKING NEWS of potentially apocalyptic importance, swear to God. Not that any of us should ever swear to God, because that's probably worse than eavesdropping -- and if what I overheard is accurate, we all might want to try a little harder than usual to get on God's good side right about now.

I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but it was practically unavoidable. All I did was walk into a gas station to get some soda. Two ladies were positioned smack in the middle of the soda aisle, deeply engaged in conversation. Well, one of them was doing the conversing, while the other just stood there listening. They paid me no heed while I opened the case and grabbed a Coke, and for those glorious 20 or so seconds, I was within earshot of a truly epic monologue.

Here is, verbatim, what I heard during that soda reach:

"... It was excruciating, so I went to see the savior. He didn't want to help me at first, but after I told him how bad things were, he gave me the healing word of God. Every night as I go to bed, I've been chanting it. It's been a week now, and I'm already off ALL my meds ..."

Go ahead, read it again if you want. Soak it up and feel free to start forming the same questions I immediately did.

I suppose the easy reaction would be to dismiss this as the delusional ramblings of a lunatic or cult victim. But this woman didn't strike me as being especially crazypants. She was good-looking, professionally dressed and carried herself in a dignified manner. So hey, let's give a statement of this magnitude its due consideration. If you're going by the absolute loosest definition of the term, I am a "journalist." Ergo, I should document and report the news in a fair and unbiased manner, so let's dissect this info piece by piece.

1. "... It was EXCRUCIATING." I never found out what this poor lady's malady was, but it has to be physical, right? Having the Centennial Bridge closed all summer was fairly excruciating, yet not once did I feel the need to turn to spiritual guidance and/or healing to overcome it. I just took the government bridge. So let's assume there's a genuine physical ailment at work that caused this woman to go to ...

2. "... see THE SAVIOR." Here's where the real struggle begins. First, I'm not quite sure whether this deserves a capital S or not. I'm only aware of one Savior, and He is about to turn 2015 years old. I don't know a lot about the Second Coming, but isn't it supposed to heralded by trumpets or horsemen or a bolt of lightning? At the very least, wouldn't it be trending on Twitter? Thanks to the Information Age, I know what Miley Cyrus had for dinner last night; I find it hard to believe that I wouldn't know about the end of days. And yet, this woman didn't say she went to see "a" savior; she said went to see "THE" savior, spoken with a "Highlander"-esque "there-can-be-only-one" conviction. But weirder yet, her savior ...

3. "... didn't want to help me at first." This isn't great evidence for the Second Coming being at hand. Nowhere in the Bible do I recall Jesus being especially reluctant to assist people. I don't recall any stories about lepers being made to wait because someone was in a mood. "Gee, I'd love to help, but I'm a little preoccupied at the moment. I dunno if you've heard, but it IS my birthday in a couple of days ..." No, that's not any savior I'm familiar with.

Still, what reason would I have to doubt the overheard conversation of a complete stranger in a gas station? So, purely for the sake of argument, let's presume this lady speaks the truth, and a savior of some kind walks the Earth, makes his presence known only to a small collective of folks prone to socializing in gas-station soda aisles, and has a bit of an attitude when it comes to his basic job duties. If we force ourselves to buy into this much of the story, then we can further believe that this savior gave the woman ...

4. "... the healing word of God." This is a little more up my alley. I'd love to believe that there exists in this world a single word that, if chanted for a week, makes all your problems disappear. Is anything like this even fabled to exist? (I confess, my knowledge of religious lore is mostly limited to those items preceded by the words "Indiana Jones and the.") I just didn't hear what the word WAS. There are only so many ways you can reach for a soda in slow motion before it becomes obvious that you're eavesdropping, and I'd used up my window.

But then it hit me: There's a simple way to prove or disprove the existence of said word. We simply get a whole bunch of people together, and we divide up the dictionary one word at a time. Everybody takes a word, chants it for a week, and we see if anyone gets healed of whatever ails him or her. It could be a time-consuming project, for sure, but maybe we'll luck out and the healing word of God will be "aardvark." Admittedly, though, I'd feel a bit shortchanged if it turns out the divine answer to life, the universe and everything else is to chant the word "aardvark" for a week. As strange as life is, though, it just might be appropriate.

Of course, when I excitedly told Friend Jason of the plan, he countered by pointing out that nothing I overheard stipulated that the healing word of God was English, or was even a word in the context of which we know a word to be. Bummer. Still, though, I think we should all chant "aardvark" every night for a week just to be safe.

In the end, I have no idea what the heck I overheard. Maybe it WAS the delusional ramblings of someone deranged. Maybe it was some new religion that we're all unfamiliar with. Heck, maybe it was the real deal and a handful of gas-station enthusiasts are way ahead of the curve. Either way, it all comes down to hope.

Hope in a brighter future. Hope in our fellow man. Hope in holiday magic. And sure, hope that a savior will come along and give us a word that magically makes everything better, even if it's just for a little while. I'm pretty sure that word already exists: Christmas.

Happy holidays to all, and to all a good aardvark, aardvark, aardvark.

COLUMN: Taco Holidays

Just two days ago, a co-worker asked me what I was going to write about this week.

"Ugh," I replied. "I have absolutely no idea. I haven't done anything interesting at all lately. Truth be told, I'm kinda stumped."

"Well," she reminded me, "it IS Christmastime. Aren't you supposed to be writing heartwarming holiday stuff?"

Valid point. This IS the time of year when columnists around the world put pen to paper and churn out untold amounts of tear-jerky yuletide schlock. I guess I'm supposed to be writing about Christmas shoes and chestnuts roasting on open fires and tidings of comfort and joy and that kinda stuff. Honestly, though, I'm a little tapped out at the moment. The only Christmas shoes I have are the same orthopedic ones my doctor's had me wearing since I broke my ankle, and the one time I tried a roasted chestnut it tasted more like roasted dirt. I guess sappiness just doesn't come easy to my repertiore.

But hey, I'm a professional respected columnizer. It shouldn't be too hard to come up with something maudlin and cliche enough to bring a tear to everyone's eyes, right? I just had to sit down, stick a tap in the ol' sentimental tree, and start churning out the sap. And that was exactly my plan, just as soon as I went out and grabbed a burrito. That's when it all went to heck.

It's no secret that I love fast food. Without it, I'd be forced to eat healthy stuff all the time, and let's face it - life's too short for vegetables. Besides, history has proven time and again that fast-food drive-thru lanes are the magical vortices from which all comedy springs. Usually, I'm okay making the round trip around the outside of a restaurant, especially if French fries are the payoff. But last night, I wasn't up for pomp or circumstance. I just wanted a burrito, and quickly.

And because fate hates me, I pulled in to see a line about ten cars deep in the drive-thru lane. Not cool, but I still joined in. This wasn't my first time at the rodeo, and I knew I had a three-car window to bail out of line if we were truly stuck. Odds were good there was just a dude at the front of the line ordering a gross of tacos for his extended family and it was temporarily holding up the parade. Sure enough, we soon started moving and before I knew it, I was at the menu. Now let's see, what should I...

"WELKUMTACOBDLKJFEZZZGHH HIHOWAREYOU!?!?!?!?!?!" screamed the speaker as a wine glass shattered somewhere in Iceland.

Fast food places should really know better. Rule #1: Don't scare the regulars. Our blood runs thick with guacamole and sour cream. One rogue fright to the heart and you could lose a customer. And what's with the hi-how-are-you? I'm not here for idle chit-chat with a talking menu. I'm here for a burrito.

"I'm good, thanks," I socialized back to the inanimate speaker. "I need a smothered burrito with a Pepsi and a side of nachos."

Pause. Long pause. Too long of a pause.


"Nope. Smothered burrito. Pepsi. Side of nachos."


"Nope," I replied, other than whatever sauce one presumably smothers a burrito with.

Pause. Long pause. Infinite pause. Guess I'll pull around. Eventually I made it around to the window, where I was greeted with a blank stare from a rather vacant teenager. He looked at me. I looked at him. He looked at me some more. I looked at him back.

Prior to this moment, I thought I had mastered the basic art of the drive-thru. But never before had I encountered a fully motionless employee. What's protocol in this situation? Did I need to greet him in his native hi-how-are-you tongue? The only possible explanation to this scenario is that I had pulled to the window at the precise moment that Dr. Sam Beckett just happened to Quantum Leap into this kid's body and he was now adapting to the situation in order to sell me tacos without blowing his secret identity. But eventually he spoke.

"You had the three tacos, right?"

"Nope. Smothered burrito, Pepsi, nachos."

"Oh, right, right. Need any sauce?"

"No, man, I'm good, thanks," I replied as my helpful sales associate slammed the drive-thru window in my face.

Three minutes (not that I was counting) later, he re-appeared, bag in hand.

"Here you go. Need any sauce?"

"No. Man. I'm good."

"K," he said, shoving the bag and my drink at me all at once. Then he closed the window, turning around and leaving me holding the food, the drink... and my money, which I had yet to pay him.

I waited. And waited. And then the car behind me honked, because THAT guy had witnessed me procure my food and my drink and presumably now assumed I was just lounging in the drive-thru and enjoying the scenery. Eventually, I rapped on the outside of the window to get my new friend's attention.

"Ummm?" said he.

"You forgot to charge me for the food. I thought you might want some money?"

"DUDE," he said as if someone finally shook him awake. "I am SO sorry. Gosh, I'm just out of it tonight. Thank you so much, man. You could have driven off and then my drawer would have been off at the end of my shift and I would've been in serious trouble."

"No worries," I said as he handed me change. "Happens to the best of us."

"Seriously, I can't believe you were honest and waited to pay me. That's awesome. It's like a Christmas miracle."

And that right there, friends, is the sappiest thing I have to offer this holiday season. Christmas magic, with a side of nachos. Be nice to your fellow man, even if the voice inside your head is swearing and calling him names. We all have days when our drawer's going to be off at the end of the night without some help. One of these days, it just might be you. In our topsy-turvy world, a little patience can go a long way. Christmas isn't the only time of the year to find some inner kindness, but can you think of a better time to start?

You may begin your sentimental yuletide weeping... now. And that's exactly what I did when I got home last night and opened my bag to find four tacos, a Mountain Dew, and twelve packets of sauce.


Sometimes I sit back and wonder if I'm missing out on life by not having kids.

That's when I usually remember that I'm laying on my couch eating a Twix, playing video games, and listening to music at an irresponsible volume. And then I have my answer: "No, I think I'm pretty good as is." Still, whenever I log onto Facebook and invariably see someone's predictably adorable infant doing something predictable adorable, I occasionally catch myself going "aww," and that scares me a little.

I'm barely equipped to care for my two cats, let alone a human child. And let's face it, when compared to human children, cats are WAY more intelligent and responsible. Even the wee-est of kittens knows how to groom themselves and whereabouts to poo. There's no school clothes to buy, no valuable life lessons to impart, and no bad examples I could possibly set for my cats. They seem just as fine with a lazy couchbound life as me.

But the older I get, the more my friends keep popping out offspring, and the harder it gets to relate to their new lives as parents. Heck, a couple of my friends are already GRANDparents, a concept that blows my mind entirely. Worse yet, as a NON-parent yet someone who's been unwillingly pulled into an age of responsibility, I'm faced often with an entirely new dilemma: What to do when I witness bad parenting by someone younger than myself?

Last week, I told you about the recent roadtrip a friend and I took to the town of Galena. I didn't, however, tell you about lunch.

On the advice of some Galena shopkeepers, we found ourselves in a small eatery on the edge of downtown. I guess it was more of a bar than a restaurant, but their lunch menu was outstanding and the place had a quirky charm despite being nearly empty. The only other customers were a pair of twenty-somethings and a hyper 3-year-old who presumably belonged to at least one of them, though you wouldn't have known it based on their behavior.

The couple were deep in conversation and one hundred percent oblivious to what their kid was doing. I wondered if perhaps the sign outside had said "Bar / Restaurant / Child Care Center," because it was clear these two were completely off the clock from parenting. While they had a relaxing lunch, their kid was toddling all around the place like a caffeinated dust devil.

At first it was a fun distraction watching this little Weeble wobble all over the restaurant completely unattended. At some point, though (the point of pastrami being set in front of me,) I got distracted from the distraction in order to focus all my attention on the sandwich at hand. My friend and I were strategizing our shopping plans when suddenly a look of horror came over her face as she stared past me and over my shoulder.

"Oh no. That kid's totally gonna do it," she said.
"Do what?"
"Just look. Wait for it."

I tried my best to non-chalantly spin around in my seat, as if turning completely away from my companion was a perfectly natural thing to do on a lunch date. But she was right. It was too good not to miss.

Behind me, the toddler had come across a shiny brass railing that lined the row of tables at the front of the restaurant. She was captivated by this railing, and you could tell by the look in her eyes what was about to happen.

Lllllllllllllllllllick. Llllllllllllllllllllick. Clearly, this toddler had a taste for the finer things, and taste them she did, from one end of the railing to the other and back again. Once upon a time, one of my cats spat a dead mouse onto my chest while I slept. Up until this moment, that was the grossest thing I had ever witnessed. But this girl sucking face with the railing had just stolen the crown.

The bar was definitely quirky, but it definitely was NOT clean. This didn't stop our new friend, who swiftly moved from the railing to a table leg in a serious effort to lick every square inch of furniture in the place. My friend and I just stared in a trance of heebie-jeebies. That's when Mom spotted us.

Now, imagine this scenario. Just prior to making eye contact with the child's mother, she had caught a glimpse of us staring at the corner in revulsion. But as her eyes moved to the corner to follow our gaze, that was the precise moment her daughter stopped French kissing the home decor and instead was standing there like an innocent cherubic angel. An angel that my friend and I clearly found abhorrent by the look on our faces. Mom spun back at us with eyes flaring and shot me a look told the whole story.

"How DARE you look at my child with disdain! A pox on your family!" her face seemed to say.

With age comes responsibility. Young Shane might have laughed the whole thing off, but Wise Old Shane felt he needed to explain himself, which I proceeded to do through facial expression in reply.

"No, no," said the look I attempted to shoot her back. "You just missed it, but moments ago, your daughter had her tongue on about 40% of the furniture in this establishment, and it was a bit off-putting. My sincere apologies to you and your beautiful daughter." That was at least what I TRIED to convey with my eyes. But by the look of shock on mom's face, I failed spectacularly.

With growing horror, I realized what I had just done. In my attempt to silently alert mom to her daughter's activity, I wisely chose THIS method of communication: First I looked at mom. Then I looked at the kid. Then I looked back at mom, stuck out my tongue, and licked the air a couple of times while staring at her knowingly. In hindsight, I'm pretty sure people have gone to jail for less. That's right, in a heartbeat, I went from "jerk eyeballing my child in judgement" to "skeevy pervert making vulgar gestures of an unspeakable nature."

Needless to say, the couple high-tailed it out of the bar... as did we, in the OPPOSITE direction. I want to be a responsible adult, I really do. But perhaps I'm better suited to a life of video-game playing and litterbox-changing. A life where maybe I'll still go "aww" when I see you post cute pics of your kids online -- and a life where the only wisdom I can impart onto tomorrow's generation is to try the place with the great pastrami next time you're in Galena. Just don't touch any of the furniture.

COLUMN: Galena

Why is it that my best stories always have to start with an embarassing confession?

It only happened out of boredom, I swear. As much as I love my job, it had been one doozy of a workday. By the time I made it home, all I wanted to do was execute an awkward bellyflop and hand my brain over to the TV for a few hours. But what to watch? I was caught up on all the shows I cared about, and my Netflix queue didn't hold any allure that night. Then I noticed it.

Netflix had added a show I'd always been a little curious about but never seen. After all, I've got some stereotypes to live up to. I'm a guy, so I'm supposed to enjoy shows about cops and fights and car chases and action. I'm a nerd, so I'm supposed to enjoy shows about swords and aliens and outer space. I'm a writer, so I'm supposed to enjoy highbrow shows about zombie-hunting meth cooks who work at ad agencies in the Sixties.

I'm not supposed to like "Gilmore Girls."

Last week I decided to use up a few of my remaining vacation days of the year. I didn't expect to spend most of that vacation in the fictional town of Stars Hollow with my new friends Rory and Lorelai Gilmore. But after innocently clicking on the pilot episode, I proceeded to binge-watch the first five seasons of "Gilmore Girls." My only regret is knowing that I'm near the end.

"Gilmore Girls" was a flagship show of the former WB network and wove the tale of a single mother raising her teenage daughter in small town Connecticut. But if you ask me, the REAL star of "Gilmore Girls" was the fictional town of Stars Hollow itself, which the show never fails to present as anything less than the most idyllic place on Earth. With its small-town charm, quirky townsfolk, and welcoming atmosphere, I didn't feel too guilty about taking a week-long faux-cation to an entirely imaginary destination.

But by Friday, I wanted the real deal. The longer I sat in the front of the TV, the more jealous I became of fictional characters and their made-up, non-existant town. I wanted to feel the snow crunch under my feet as I walked through the Stars Hollow town square. I wanted to eat at Luke's Diner, wave to Miss Patty, and stay at the Dragonfly Inn. I needed small-town charm. There was only one option. I called a friend, and within minutes, we were on our way to Galena.

Tourism is a crucial source of income for towns up and down the Mississipppi, and no place takes more lucrative advantage of its small-town charm quite like our neighbors to the north in Galena, Illinois. Over the past 30 years, Galena has transformed itself from a shuttered mining town into one of the premiere tourist destinations of the Midwest. Nestled in the rolling hills and mounds of the northern Illinois river bluffs, Galena has something for everyone -- especially if everyone loves lead mines and Ulysses S. Grant, who called the place home for a spell. More than anything, Galena's known for its charming downtown of tourist shops and restaurants. It's the perfect daytrip getaway for anyone craving a small-town fix.

Or so I thought. Then I noticed a few crucial differences between Galena and Stars Hollow.

For one, winters are a lot less magical here. Almost every episode of "Gilmore Girls" has a scene where folks exchange witty banter while casually strolling down the snow-covered lanes of Stars Hollow. I wanted the same experience, so I leapt out of the car in downtown Galena ready for some primo repartee. Then the wind hit my face with an icy gusto and I could barely breathe, let alone banter. Someone clearly forgot to inform the townsfolk of Stars Hollow that winters are cold, or perhaps everyone on "Gilmore Girls" suffers from a tragic condition where they can't feel cold. I was in the epicenter of small-town charm and all I cared about was getting indoors as fast as I could.

Good thing, then, that Galena has no shortage of shops run by friendly folk who really want to sell you stuff. If "Gilmore Girls" is to be believed, every shop should be run by a colorful character full of quirky allure. The first place we entered fit the bill, as the shopkeeper immediately greeted us with an awkward invasion of our personal space and a measured cadence more suited for a funeral home.

"Have you ever tried flavored pasta?" he asked in a hushed monotone. "Go ahead, smell it through the bag."

"Interesting," I replied. "Is it th..."

But by the time I could get another word out, another customer had walked in and he was upon them, leaving us to fend for ourselves amongst the noodles. As we browsed, I realized not only was the shopkeeper hitting up every customer that walked in, but he was repeating the same thing on an infinite loop. "Have you ever tried flavored pasta? Go ahead, smell it through the bag." Was this a shopkeeper or a pasta-selling automaton? It was more down-home creepy than down-home quirky.

If there's one thing I'm a sucker for, it's homemade sauces, jams, and jellies -- and Galena is in no short supply. But upon closer inspection, more often than not the fine print on the jars reads "made FOR Galena" instead of "made BY Galena." My guess is this means those sauces aren't made with love in Grandma Galena's kitchen as often as they're made in some faceless GramKitchCorp's industrial sauce-vat factory and merely packaged locally to look "homemade."

Maybe small-town charm can't be achieved through tourism. After all, I've yet to see an episode of "Gilmore Girls" that focuses on the tourists. They must be there -- someone's got to be staying at the Dragonfly Inn -- but you sure don't see them on the show. Maybe it's just tough to experience small-town charm unless you live in that small town. Or maybe real small towns don't provide a team of Hollywood screenwriters gifted at crafting charm.

It might not have been Stars Hollow, but our daytrip to Galena was amazing regardless. The robot pasta guy's pumpkin linguini is to die for. If you're a dedicated shopper, you can find the real homemade goodies -- and I don't care if a jar of sweet potato butter is made in someone's kitchen or someone's factory as long as it's yummy. Plus it was just a short drive from Galena to Breitbach's in Balltown, IA,  where we closed out the night with ham steaks cut larger than the plates they're served on, and that's all the small-town charm my stomach needs.

If anyone needs me, I'll be in Stars Hollow for the next fifty or so episodes.

COLUMN: Concrete

If there's one thing that's guaranteed to make my blood boil every year, it's the kickoff of the holiday season.

Once upon a time, the words "holiday season" referred to those precious few days that kids are off on winter break. Stretching from a few days before Christmas until a few days after the New Year, it's a magical time for family, gift-giving, and cheer. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

Or at least it was. Thanks to the ever-hungry open maw of big business, the holiday season now runs for roughly a third of the year, and it's diluted and drained almost all the magic right out of the holidays. The four seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter have been outmoded by capitalism, and it's high time we just went ahead and changed our calendars to the new corporate reality of our THREE midwest seasons: (1) Oppressively Hot, (2) Abusively Cold, and (3) Those Months Where We're Too Busy Buying Stuff To Care About the Weather -- or, as I like to call it, Thanksmasoween.

The evidence is clear: It's mid-November and Mix 96 is already blaring non-stop Christmas tunes. The Hallmark Channel has already switched to 24/7 Christmas movies. Our area's premiere holiday event, the Festival of Trees, wraps up every year before we've even changed our calendars to December. As far as retailers are concerned, Halloween is essentially Christmas Eve, Christmas is a 55-day shopping spree, and Thanksgiving is just that meal we grab on our way to stand in line for the take-no-prisoners melee combat arena of Black Friday. We should all be ashamed.

My annual whining about the consumerism of Christmas is about as traditional as chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but this year I feel just a tad bit guilty about it. I guess I need to come clean about something. It's mid-November... and I've already had my Christmas. This year, my wonderful parents skipped pomp, circumstance, and the entire month of December to surprise me with my gift super early. But they had good reason, I promise. This year, I received the best gift of all. The gift... of concrete.

I suppose in the Quad Cities, a gift of concrete isn't that odd, given the local popularity of Isabel Bloom sculpture. No offense to the fine folks who make and buy those figurines, but bulbous cement children hugging each other really isn't my style. No, this was concrete of the flat and functional variety.

My house doesn't have much of a back yard. There's just my garage, and then some space next to it. Well, a few weeks ago my dad asked me if I'd like that random space converted into an additional parking slab, to which I replied, "Heck, yes!" And, since it needed to be poured before this week's cold weather set in, there was no time to wait. It was now or never. Well, it was now or spring, and I'm both impatient and greedy.

My parents must think that I host frequent Gatsby-style shindigs at my house and therefore must be in constant and dire need of additional parking. I didn't have the heart to tell them that I hardly ever have friends over, and when I do, there's abundant street parking. But there's a far better reason than parking to convert some of my yard into extra parking: less yard.

I have a love-hate relationship with nature. As in, I love to hate it. Lawn and yard maintenance is for the birds, so the less yard I have to maintain, the better. In a perfect world, every square foot of my land would be a concrete slab. Bye bye, weeds. Hasta la vista, lawnmower. See ya, creepy garter snake that I saw in my yard two years ago and I'm pretty sure lies in wait for me to this day.

So as I went to work the other day, a team of concrete guys rolled in with shovels and wood and cement magic, all under the watchful eye of my dad, who drove up for the occasion. The result is awesome, and a lot bigger than anticipated. This thing is less parking slab and more like a slightly-smaller-than-regulation basketball court. I'm not kidding when I say you could now creatively fit five compact cars in my back yard. Maybe it IS time for a wild-n-crazy fiesta at the International House of Shane.

The only down side is that I came home from lunch that day in just enough time to see one of the concrete guys nonchalantly trying to splice my cable line back together. Not cool -- but also not their fault. Cable lines are supposed to be buried 6-8 inches underground, and my guys barely broke ground before accidentally severing mine. To their credit, though, the cable company was out straight away and ran all new lines, so no major nightmare. If I've got to choose between hating nature and loving the internet, I'll take the internet every time. I'd probably be perfectly cool being a castaway provided the desert island had high-speed broadband and decent wi-fi. Communing with nature is challenging enough, but having to do it without knowing who Taylor Swift is dating would just be too much to bear.

The real winners of this early Christmas, though, are the freeloading tenants of my back yard. About six inches from my property line, my neighbors have a walnut tree that hangs over my yard and parts of my house. That tree is home to about a half dozen black squirrels, including my arch-nemesis, the infamous Mr. Poofytail (named by a neighbor, mind you. I prefer some other choice names.) For three years, this squirrel has thrown some serious shade my way. Between his nasty noises ("Thpf! Ffft!"), the walnuts he purposely drops on me, and of course the fateful morning that he peed on my head, there truly is REASON as to why I detest nature.

The rodent workday usually involves shaking branches until walnuts fall on my roof with a mighty thud before rrrrrrolling off into the yard. Then they take the walnuts onto my back steps and thwack them against the wood until they break open. (Squirrels are a lot smarter than most people give them credit.) Every morning, I open my back door to bountiful piles of walnut detritus on my steps.

But it didn't take my acrobatic buddies long to discover that concrete is harder than wood, and now all they need to do is knock the walnuts onto the concrete and most of them bust open on contact. The end result is that my new parking slab is now covered in nut shells and looks like the floor of Steve's Old Time Tap, and my nefarious plot to thwart nature has instead lent it a hand.

All in all, though, I love my new Yuletide concrete, and earlier tonight I used it to back a car full of groceries right up to my door. That's precisely seven less steps I have to take with every bag, and that, my friends, is nothing less than a Thanksmasoween miracle. Happy holidays, whenever you choose to start celebrating them.

COLUMN: Wallenda

Its no real secret that I've got a pretty high threshold when it comes to bad TV.

I've survived entire episodes of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." I can be entranced by grown adults trying to find Bigfoot. Heck, just last night I sat through almost four hours of CNN analyzing, re-analyzing, and over-analyzing the Republican takeover of Congress -- and, thanks to Nik Wallenda, it was only the second dumbest thing I watched on TV this week.

Nik Wallenda is the seventh generation of the Flying Wallendas, a family of acrobatic circus performers known for their death-defying highwire acts. And I guess that's what Nik Wallenda is: a professional death-defier. Or maybe it's death-defyist, I'm not sure. All I know is that Nik pops up every so often to attempt outrageous stunts that leave us breathless and cringing and for some reason it's supposed to be entertaining.

Worse yet, for some reason, it IS entertaining, and that's what scares me the most.

If there's a gorge, canyon, skyscraper, or pod of hungry sharks, Nik Wallenda is probably sitting in his living room right now figuring out a way to sling a rope across it and go for a stroll. He's already walked across the Grand Canyon and strutted over Niagara Falls like it was Saturday in the park.

Last week, he was in downtown Chicago -- more accurately, 600 feet ABOVE downtown Chicago -- tightroping from skyscraper to skyscraper for a Discovery Channel special. I was glued to the TV -- but for the life of me, I have no idea why.

Is Nik Wallenda an engaging figure worth rooting for? Not especially. He's got a slight holier-than-thou arrogance, which I suppose one earns once you've walked over the Grand Canyon on a two-inch wire. But his cockiness drives me batty. Mere seconds after setting foot on the wire, he was amiably chatting with the hosts about the weather and the view. If you're going to perform feats of superhuman balance, at least have the courtesy to do it silently.

So I must enjoy the spectator sport of tightrope walking then? Absolutely not. With my crippling fear of heights, I get woozy just watching, even if I'm 200 miles away with my buttocks safely gripped in the folds of a comforting couch cushion. My stomach was churning the whole time, and when I looked away at one point, I caught my reflection and realized I was wearing a face contorted with anxiety. On a scale of 1 to "Pretty Little Liars" in terms of favorable TV experiences, this event was somewhere between 0 and a rerun of "Cop Rock."

So then I must have watched this show for its inherent educational value. After all, that's why we all watched Felix Baumgartner's near-space freefall, right? That guy's a global hero and all he did was hop on a balloon and then fall out of it. But it was an impressive fall, and a fall for science. Felix Baumgarter fell 24 miles and broke the sound barrier. To compare, last winter I fell three feet and the only thing I broke was my ankle. Clearly, his is an educational scientific achievement worth watching.

But walking across two skyscrapers isn't educational in the slightest. Everything I learned from Nik Wallenda I'm fairly sure I already had down pat: Skyscrapers are tall. Tightropes are hard to walk on. Chicago is a rather windy city.

So let's recap. I don't care for Nik Wallenda the person, watching the guy nearly gave me a panic attack, and I didn't learn diddly from the experience. Yet experience it I did, glued to his every move. Why?

There can only be one explanation: A teeny tiny part of my brain must have wanted him to fail. There's no other logical answer, is there? I thought I was a fairly nice guy. I've never wished death on anyone before, not even Tom Cruise. There's people I dislike, sure. But I don't ever want anyone to DIE. That's horrible. But how else can you explain my desire to watch this nonsense? Do I need serious help?

All the facts are there. What did I play with as a kid? An Evel Knievel cycle. There's another idiot who made a career out of simply remaining alive against the odds. What do I watch religiously each and every Sunday? NASCAR. And what do I say when there's NOT a huge devastating wreck that collects half the race field? "That was a boring race." I can recall times when I've taken a NASCAR potty break only to come running out the bathroom with my pants around my ankles because I heard an announcer shout, "TROUBLE!" Clearly I'm a sicko.

And this begs an even LARGER question: why on Earth would the Discovery Channel air a potential snuff film and market it as family entertainment? They must have been pretty confident Wallenda would survive his latest stunt. After all, they stuck his young worried children right at the finish line for a front row seat.

But even if they had the greatest faith in Wallenda's nimble feet, this was live TV -- which meant they had to have a contingency plan in place. The announcers mentioned that they were on a 10-second delay to avoid showing anything horrifying, but What if Nik had hopped on the wire and just gone, "Hey guys, the weather's not too bad up here and view is just amaaaaaaaaaaaa-- (splat)"?? Ten second delay or no, that's now a 90 minute special reduced to two, and then what does Discovery do? Is Mike Rowe going to come out on a street sweeper and show us the most macabre Dirty Job ever? Family entertainment, my fanny. If I had kids, I sure wouldn't want to explain to them how the silly man fall down go boom.

Maybe I'm not sick and depraved after all. Maybe we all just get thrills watching people defy death. That's why every kid my age had that Evel Knievel wind-up cycle. That's why we skydive and hang glide and bungee jump. That's why we go to the circus and to air shows and to Rolling Stones concerts. Watching others cheat death makes us feel more alive. All I know is that after seeing it from both angles, I'm pretty sure I prefer downtown Chicago from the ground floor. After all, six hundred feet in the air is WAY too high up to spot a Bigfoot.

COLUMN: Negative Ads

This Halloween sure was fun and spooky, eh? But now that it's over and done with, why is my television still trying to frighten me?

Once we hit November, I assumed all the scary shows would stop. But every time I channel flip, I'm greeted by one well-crafted monster story after another, each designed to remind us of an unspeakable horror that threatens our very way of life: Joni Whatshername. Or that Bruce guy. Or Mike and Cheri and Bruce and Bobby and Dave and I'm pretty sure there's something about an evil marionette in there, too, but I'm still kinda confused about the puppetry angle.

I'm an avid watcher of television, and what television says in no uncertain terms is that every candidate running for every office is a very bad person whom we should all be very afraid of. I have half a mind to spend this election day at home cowering in fear.

Polls open in hours, and all the candidates are rolling out expensive last minute ads to plead their case. There's just one problem: None of them are pleading THEIR case. Instead, they're just telling us how horrible and wrong their opponents are. When everybody's wrong, who's right? When did politics devolve into a non-stop diet of fear tactics?

Look, I get it. This is a mid-term election. It's not especially glamorous. It's a concert with a bunch of opening acts and no headliners. And maybe the only way to get people to the polls is by scaring their pants off with a cavalcade of attack ads warning us of a world where the "wrong" person wins.

It's a sound strategy. But it only works if we know who the "right" candidate is. I hardly know a thing about the platforms of anyone running this midterm. All I know is that Neil Anderson is an "extremist." Joni Ernst "isn't someone we can trust." Bruce Rauner "victimizes the elderly." Bobby Schilling wants to "take our jobs overseas." Cheri Bustos "profits from foreign investments." Pat Quinn is "under investigation." With Mariannette Miller-Meeks, "there's no happy ending."

Oh, and then there's my personal favorite from over in Iowa. Apparantly Bruce Braley once characterized Sen. Chuck Grassley as a "farmer," and Joni Ernst has the video to prove it. But her attack ad takes this normal video footage and adds an eerie green night-vision filter to it, making it look like ghost hunters just descended into some clandestine Democratic cabal instead of a boring mid-day fundraiser.

I simply refuse to believe that we are a nation of sheeple that requires a barrage of ads to make up our minds. This is why money really DOES win elections, because only the candidates with the deepest coffers can afford this ridiculousness.

I'm not a political writer. I'm the guy who writes about cats and Taylor Swift for a living. But I do have personal political leanings, and those leanings led me to one of the biggest mistakes of my life: a few years back, I donated some money to a political candidate.

It wasn't much. Over the course of the campaign, I made a total of three donations, adding up to less than $100 total. But it's haunted me for years now. If you think the political ads on TV are overkill, you should see the ones I get now that they have my e-mail address.

Every day, my inbox is full of requests for money. Over the past SEVEN days, I've received exactly 293 e-mails from politicians, PACs, and parties begging for campaign donations. That's just ONE week. Had I not deleted them routinely, by now I'd have e-mails in the TENS of THOUSANDS. And the tactics they use are as varied, underhanded, and manipulative as you'd expect.

One e-mail this week has a subject header that says, "It's Over. Zero Chance. Goodbye." Of course, when I opened it up, it told me that Candidate X had zero chance of winning the election... unless I contributed $5. I have e-mails that thank me for my support and e-mails that chastise me for not having donated more.

I even get e-mails from celebrities. My close friends Susan Sarandon and Carole King have "personally" written me in the past week on behalf of candidates they support. I received an e-mail yesterday from Joe Biden touting "BAD NEWS!" just seconds after receiving one from Cheri Bustos saying, "GOOD NEWS!"

Of course, I could unsubscribe from these mailers any time I want, but I can't bring myself to do it. I'm so appalled at the influx that I want to witness where it goes from here. If I'd have unsubscribed, I wouldn't have received an e-mail the other day from Barack Obama himself telling me that if I contribute a minimum of $3, I would be entered into a sweepstakes to be a personal guest at the White House.

Quite honestly, I would really hope that the leader of the free world has better things to do with his day than hang out with a guy who writes about cats and Taylor Swift for a living. And if I were to win that sweepstakes, I'd tell that to his face... just as soon as I finished taking selfies in the Lincoln Bedroom and bragging about it on Twitter.

My favorites are the e-mails that say "You're Our Only Hope" or "It's All Up To You!" That better not be the case, because if somebody's campaign is hanging on MY $3, they're in for some seriously bad news. If it were REALLY up to me, there wouldn't be ANY political ads on TV or clogging up my inbox. I'd ban them all... and then... then we cou... (static)


Let the terror end. Halloween's over.

COLUMN: Death Curve Pt. 2

When it comes to Halloween, I've only got ONE rule: Creepy is awesome, but scary is awful.

I love getting good and properly creeped out. If I channel-flip into a show about ghosts or aliens or unexplained weirdness, I can get lost for hours. If there's a campfire, I want to be the one roasting S'mores and hearing about things that go bump in the night.

But there's a difference between creepy and scary. Getting the willies is awesome, whereas having a guy named Willie chase you with a chainsaw is not. There's nothing fun about going to a movie where you're just waiting for the inevitable bogeyman to jump out and murder your face. That's not entertainment; that's just practice for the heart attack I'm already destined to have. No thanks.

So if I hate being scared more than just about anything else in the world, why did I spend tonight in an abandoned graveyard being stalked within an inch of my life by a hellspawn were-cat? It's a story that begins with your everyday harmless run-of-the-mill Death Curve.

If you're looking to get creeped out, you can't do much better than the legendary Cambridge Death Curve. In 1905, a woman named Julia Markham murdered her seven children with an axe. Afterwards, she slit her own throat, set her home ablaze, and later died of her injuries. It remains one of the worst murder-suicides in the history of Illinois -- and it happened just south of Cambridge right in our backyard.

While any sign of the Markham family and their unspeakable tragedy has long been swept from the land, multiple witnesses have reported seeing the apparition of a pale woman dressed in white roaming the fields along the curve of the country road where the Markham house once stood. It's a superb ghost story and the kind of place you just yearn for an experienced paranormal investigator to check out.

Instead, you get me. Last weekend, out of sheer professional journalistic curiosity and not at all because we were bored and I thought it might make for a fun column, I grabbed my best friend Jason and we took a roadtrip to the Death Curve. Our first stop was the nearby Rose Dale Cemetery, where Markham and her children lay in unmarked graves.

And stop was about all we did, because a prominent sign informed us that the cemetery was only open from sunrise to sunset. I decided this column wouldn't sit so well next to a headline of "Local Columnist Arrested for Creeping Around Creepy Cemetery At Night Quite Creepily," so instead we headed out to the Death Curve, where much excitement happened.

Except that it didn't. If you didn't know the back story, the Death Curve could be just another turn on just another country road. There's nothing especially spooky about the cornfields or the roadside, and there was nary an apparition in sight. The legend claims that Markham's ghost makes a repeated beeline from the house to Rose Dale Cemetery, but that would mean her path would go straight through the living rooms of at least two neighboring homes. I, for one, would be really ticked off if my view of "Ghost Hunters" kept getting blocked by a ghost.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result, so I have no good explanation as to why I returned to the Death Curve earlier tonight. I just thought maybe it was worth another look-see. But this time, I brought along Sharon Wren, a correspondent for this paper who originally hails from Cambridge. We met up with her pal Rhonda, and this time we made it to Rose Dale with some arguable few moments of daylight remaining. It turns out the Markham grave is no longer unmarked. After research revealed its location, someone placed a small teddy bear figurine on the site. It remains to this day, weather-worn but steadfast.

Townsfolk often leave additional tributes to the Markham family, including Rhonda's friend Vicky, who once tied a pair of bracelets to the teddy bear in memory of the troubled family. Other than a brief mention about it on Facebook, she barely acknowledged the act. Months later, while wintering in Florida, Vicky received an anonymous Christmas card in the mail.

"When you get a chance, drive out to the cemetery and look at Julia Markham's grave," it read. "Keep up your good work and I'll do mine." Attached was a Polaroid of the grave, where a swan and a Christmas tree now accompanied the teddy bear. The note was signed, simply, "The Spirit." To this day, Vicky has no idea who the mysterious caretaker is. That's creepy, and I'm a fan. Then Rhonda spoke up.

"As long as we're ghost hunting," she said, "have you been to the Blue Light Cemetery?"

I was up for an eerie adventure. The Blue Light Cemetery (NOT its real name) is apparantly known to locals who claim a blue orb can be seen at night floating amidst the tombstones.  But what I didn't know is that the Blue Light Cemetery isn't just IN the middle of nowhere. No, it IS the middle of nowhere. It is the place from whence nowhere was born. It is a remote country graveyard at the end of a minimum maintenance road with no signs of life anywhere. You don't have to worry about this place closing at sunset. This was a place seemingly beyond laws. Even Chainsaw Willie would think twice about entering after dark.

And the girls just strolled right on in as I nervously tailed behind going, "Ummm...?" The silence would have been deafening, were it silent. Instead, all you could hear was the non-stop whipping of a nearby wind turbine, louder than it should be, as if the entire cemetery was a David Lynch production. With the advent of solar-powered memorial lights, blue orbs and dancing shadows were everywhere. And that's when the meowing started.

It was nowhere and everywhere, all at once. The sound of a displeased cat rising from the ether, meowing with a sense of haunting urgency. This wasn't creepy, it was downright scary. At least, it was to me. The girls, on the other hand, immediately went, "Aww, kitty!" and started bounding through the graves by the light of their cellphones in search of our feline friend.

I, meanwhile, decided it would be a far better plan to stand petrified in fear and take stock of the situation. Scariest graveyard I'd ever seen? Yep. Absolutely no idea where I was? Correct. Poor night vision? You betcha. Driven here by a complete stranger? Absolutely. No cellphone signal? Affirmative. Being stalked by a disembodied meowing hellcat? Check. Did I just pee a little bit there? Yep.

An hour later, I was back home and thankful to be among the living and the cats WITH bodies. Is there a lesson to be learned in all this? Even at the site of unspeakable tragedy, corn still grows and life goes on. There's power in the past, whether it's a horror no one can forget or a graveyard full of names we should remember. Life can be creepy and life can be scary, but as long as someone's got enough spirit to bring us teddy bears and swans and Christmas trees, we may just be okay. Happy Halloween.

COLUMN: Death Curve Pt. 1

I love my house. Have I said that enough over the past couple years?

I was Halloween-level terrified at the prospect of owning my own home. Before, I was perfectly happy spending the remainder of my days throwing money at a landlord and proudly wearing the title of Tenant For Life. But it was my then-girlfriend who kept needling me to get my own place, eventually blindsiding me with a full-on realtor intervention.

I don't miss the needling one bit, but I don't exactly hate the outcome. I'm typing this in MY living room in MY house (just don't tell MY cats, because I'm pretty sure they think it's THEIR house and I'm just the human servant who came with it.) I even lucked out and found a place I can afford that's barely a decade old.

There's only one problem with owning a newer home: there's a seriously disappointing lack of ghosts.

I like to think of myself as somewhat an expert on the paranormal. This is because I watch both of the paranormal reality shows on TV. There's SyFy's "Ghost Hunters," where plumbers try to communicate with the undead, and there's "Ghost Adventures" on the Travel Channel, where douchey frat guys try to pick fights with the undead. Both are entirely ridiculous, scientifically implausible, and completely compelling and addictive. There's no logical reason to believe in any of it, but I've never let logic stop me before.

After watching countless investigations, though, one thing becomes painfully obvious: For a location to be good and properly haunted, it needs to be super old, extra creepy, preferably abandoned, and almost always has to feature some sort of tragic back story of murder, death, and sadness.

My place doesn't come with any of that. It's just too new. The only tragedy that's occurred in my house was the day the internet went out for six hours. To my knowledge, only a couple people lived here before me, and neither of them appear to have been brutally murdered. Based on the mail I get, I do believe one of them owes money to a collection agency, but the spirit world doesn't seem to care so much about fiscal responsibility. As much as I like a good ghost story, I'm just not going to get one here unless this house was unknowingly built atop an ancient burial ground or something. So far, that seems unlikely. My sump pump has yet to burp, let alone issue any shrieking cries from the pits of Hell.

My house is ghost-free. Good thing, then, that one of the most purportedly haunted locations in Illinois is just a few miles away.

Ever hear of the legend of Death Curve? If you live near Cambridge, you probably do. At its surface, it's a local ghost story like any other. Most small towns have them. You know, a weird local legend with an ever-evolving backstory that gets handed down and scared up from one generation to the next.

But here's the thing about the Death Curve of Cambridge: It's roots are real. And real spooky at that.

Our own Stephen Elliott wrote about it for this paper back in 2007, and even came across the original article that was published in the Rock Island Argus on a fall day back in 1905. That was when terror came to Henry County.

Julia Markham, her husband Clarence, and their seven kids all lived in a farmhouse tucked away down a country road just southwest of Cambridge. But on Sept. 29, 1905, something went horribly wrong. That morning, while Clarence was toiling away in a nearby field, Julia Markham grabbed an axe and murdered all seven of her children, aged 5 months to 8 years, before attempting to slit her own throat with a butcher knife.

When her suicide attempt failed, she went inside the house, doused the entire place in kerosene, and lit the home ablaze. When neighbors saw the smoke and rushed over, they found her crawling out of the house badly burned and bleeding from the neck. When the authorities arrived, Julia Markham confessed to killing her seven children before finally succumbing to her injuries.

According to a 1905 article in the Cambridge Chronicle that Stephen Elliott dug up, a postman then discovered a suicide note left in a nearby mailbox.

"Dear Clarence," it read, "This is to say goodbye to you. Some give their souls for others, and I will do this for my children... they will all die happy in the arms of Jesus. I will meet them there and someday you will join us, too."

Julia Markham was buried in the nearby Rose Dale Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Her children are buried beside her, their bodies all in one adjacent grave. As for Clarence, it's said that he was "nearly prostrate" upon returning home to find the carnage. He eventually moved away from the Cambridge area and is said to be buried somewhere near Bishop Hill.

Now THAT is one authentically sad and creepy tale, and the Markham family tragedy remains one of the worst murder-suicides in Illinois history. The former site of the Markham home is now known as the Cambridge Death Curve. Several locals claim to have stood on the site and witnessed the translucent glowing image of a white-clad woman wandering through the nearby fields. Some say it's the ghost of Julia Markham, visiting the fields she once tended. Others believe it's Markham attempting to make her way to her children at the cemetery down the road.

One thing's for sure -- enough folks have claimed to witness the apparition that it merits a professional investigation by real paranormal researchers. Too bad I don't know any. Ergo, I did the next best thing: grabbed my friend Jason and last weekend, the two us headed out to Cambridge and spent midnight at the legendary Death Curve.

Did we see the ghost of Julia Markham? Make contact with the other side? Get stopped by cops wondering just what two grown men were doing parked on the side of a country road in the pitch middle of the night? Find out next week, same spooky page, same spooky newspaper.

COLUMN: Twin Peaks

Well, it's official. It's time to start taking better care of myself. Goodbye, trans fats. So long, listless nights on the couch. Farewell, assorted vices (I'm talking to YOU, doughnuts.) It's high time I start unclogging arteries and deploying long-vacationing muscles.

A new leaf needs to be turned. For the first time in a long while, I have an inarguable reason to live: Twin Peaks is coming back.

It's no big secret that I fancy myself somewhat of a television aficionado. If there's a show out there, I probably watch it, or have at least watched it ONCE and offered an unfair and unsolicited snap opinion as to its worthiness. My mission is simple: consume everything, form immediate and polarizing opinions on it all, and then pronounce judgement, usually in a most rabid and vitriolic fashion, to the eternal amusement (and often annoyance) of anyone around me.

There are shows that are good (Parks and Recreation) and shows that are bad (anything that involves stars dancing in any fashion.) There are under-rated shows (Pretty Little Liars) and over-rated shows (Mad Men.) There are shows that critics hate yet I love (The Newsroom) and shows that critics love but I just don't (Breaking Bad.) There's even shows I can't begin to justify my obsession with (thanks for the wasted summer, Big Brother. #teamzack #fruitloopdingus.)

But it all had to start somewhere... and for me, that somewhere was Twin Peaks.

It probably just came down to good timing. Growing up, I watched pretty much whatever my mom watched, which was mostly generic family sitcoms and the occasional episode of "The Love Boat." My dad usually ignored television entirely unless there was a war movie or a James Bond flick on. When I finally got my own TV, it served mostly as a 24/7 dedicated window to MTV. But once I got to college, I hungered to watch something left-of-center that matched my newfound independence. "Twin Peaks" was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Quite simply, there has never been a weirder, wackier, more immersive or compelling show on the air. "Lost" came close, but you got the impression with "Lost" that the writers were mostly making it up as they went along (which, if you read the interviews, wasn't far from the truth.) "Twin Peaks," on the other hand, was a fully-formed head-turner from start to finish.

At face value, it was a plotline we've seen countless times: In a small town brimming with charm and quirkiness, the FBI is summoned to help solve the murder of a popular cheerleader. As the investigation gets underway and clues are discovered, it quickly becomes clear that behind the smiling facade of Twin Peaks hides a world of danger, darkness, and deception.

But this was no run-of-the-mill murder mystery. This was Twin Peaks, where the owls are not what they seem and where haunted woods, alien abduction, and spirit possession were the order of the day. If you made it through the surreal dream sequence at the end of the third episode -- inarguably the strangest five minutes ever aired on a major primetime network -- you were either a diehard fan or you had absolutely no clue what was going on... or both.

Twin Peaks was the brainchild of David Lynch, a man The Guardian once dubbed "the most important director of this era." Especially gifted at making art out of the mundane, Lynch could take something as simple as a ceiling fan and, with the right lighting and sound effects, turn it into the embodiment of evil. Television would never be the same.

Neither would I. For the first time, I had discovered a TV show that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time I heard the theme music. Every episode was a party in our dorm room, and the remainder of the week was often spent rewinding and re-watching for clues. My roommates and I hung on every last word in hopes of appreciating the series on some kind of higher Lynchian level.

I bought up all the books, listened to the soundtracks, went to the conventions, you name it. For the two years it was on TV, it was the single thing that best defined my life. But the party couldn't last forever. Some say that Twin Peaks jumped the shark in its second season. I say it was just trying to find its footing. Either way, the show was prematurely cancelled and quickly wrapped up with a slap-dash ending that yielded more questions than answers.

These days, Lynch is better known for his outspoken advocacy of Transcendental Meditation and the foundation he runs in hopes of spreading TM to the masses. On more than one occasion, I've made the drive out to Fairfield, IA to hear Lynch speak at the Maharishi University of Management. A couple years back, I actually got to meet him. I thought it was one of the greatest moments of my life. Until this moment, that is.

Last Friday at precisely 11:30 a.m. EST (Nerd Alert: the same time that FBI Agent Dale Cooper first arrived in Twin Peaks,) the usually dormant Twitter accounts of Lynch and Twin Peaks co-producer Mark Frost went live with the same message - a line of dialogue stolen directly from that mind-bending Episode 3 dream sequence: "THAT GUM YOU LIKE IS GOING TO COME BACK IN STYLE."

About the only thing weirder than the Ep. 3 dream sequence was the series finale dream sequence, where Agent Cooper comes face-to-face with the (ghost?) (spirit?) (soul?) of the late Laura Palmer. I wouldn't dare spoil it and try to explain it (not that I could,) but ONE line of dialogue is super important: At one point, Laura looks at Cooper and nonsensically says, "I'll see you again in 25 years."

Truer words have never been spoken. 25 years have now passed since "Twin Peaks" first aired on ABC, and the official news hit this week: it's coming back. Nine new episodes, written by Lynch/Frost and directed by Lynch, are coming to Showtime in 2016. Or, as I believe I said when the news reached me, "Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!"

Someone at work had the gall to say to me, "Not until 2016? Lame." Look, an event of this magnitude is going to require at least two years of solid prep work. There's watching and re-watching to do, forums to join, plotlines to predict, and rumors to debunk. I was a crazy Twin Peaks fan BEFORE the advent of the internet. Nowadays I can log on and argue theories with other online superfans 'til I'm blue in the face.

All I know is that I can't get blue in the face now, at least not prior to 2016. Life is for living, or at least until they cancel my favorite show for a second time. In the meantime, I'll be over there on the treadmill. That gum I like is coming back in style.


I have vague memories from the 1980's of my mom being a firm believer in the "science" of biorhythms. Supposedly, every person on Earth goes through cycles of physical, emotional, and intellectual well-being. And if you can accurately determine a person's biorhythms, you can theoretically predict whether they're going to have a good or bad day based on these cycles.

It might be a big unproven pile of pseudoscience hocum, but it worked for my mom. I remember she actually owned a little device called a "biorhythm calculator." If memory serves, you entered your birthdate into this thing and it would spit back a sequence of numbers you could use to view where you were at on your physical, emotional, and intellectual biorhythms.

These cycles are said to overlap one another constantly, so if you happened to be in a timeframe where all your biorhythms were united at the lowest ebb of their cycles, the little calculator would make a terse little "boop" noise and warn you that were at a "physical- critical" juncture. Presumably, these are days when it's best to just stay under the covers and try your hardest not to die.

Well, all I can say is that 2014 should have come with a warning "boop." This year simply can't end fast enough. 2014 is the Year of Living Physically-Critically.

Everyone I know has been having an epically lousy year. Mine started in January when I fell on the ice and broke my ankle. Just as I was getting back on my feet, one of my best friends suffered an attack of diverticulitis that resulted in a lengthy hospital stay. The timing was great, too, because she ended up in the same hospital as my closest work colleague who needed emergency abdominal surgery. As soon as THEY were fine, my other best friend took a tumble off his bike and broke his collarbone in multiple places. I'm pretty sure the only people having a good 2014 are surgeons.

But nothing holds a candle to what happened to my friend Paul. 2014 just plain HATES him.

I've known Paul Legrand and his brother Chris for ages. If you've ever been to a rave, rock show, roller derby, or record store in town, you probably know one of them, too. Heck, all you have to be is from the Quad Cities and you likely know Paul. He's just about the most outgoing human being I know. I can't tell you the number of times we've all been out somewhere and one of us will realize, "Wait, where's Paul?"

Then we'll spot him, completely oblivious to his surroundings, chatting wildly with whatever stranger had the pleasure of standing next to him in line. Once or twice we've lost him entirely to the company of passersby. That's just the kind of guy he is -- big-hearted and willing to befriend just about anybody he bumps into. His best friend, though, is his 8-year-old daughter Cadence, the light of his life.

But even the biggest-hearted among us isn't safe from the Year of Living Physically-Critically. On July 4th, Paul was helping his girlfriend move an air mattress when he lost his footing and fell backwards down a flight of stairs, suffering a traumatic head injury. He had to be airlifted to University of Iowa Hospitals, where he was placed in a medically induced coma and underwent a series of surgeries to stop the bleeding and swelling on his brain. For a while, it wasn't looking good.

I'll spare you the full sob story, because he's doing a LOT better now. He's awake, alert, and is now at a rehab facility in Ankeny where his motor skills are slowly but surely returning. He's wobbly but walking, and the last update I received came complete with pictures of his trademark grin while shooting hoops in the rehab gym. He's still having some problems forming words and speaking, but he can mimic the words of others and definitely lights up when he recognizes friends. Most importantly, he's still with us and living proof of the mind's miraculous ability to heal itself.

But here's the real jaw-dropper: This isn't the first time he's been through this. Fourteen years ago, Paul was in an automobile accident and suffered almost the identical brain injury. He was left in a deep coma and wasn't expected to survive, let alone make any kind of functional recovery. He proved his doctors wrong and rallied against impossible odds over a decade ago. This is a guy who's already had to re-learn to walk and talk once in his life, and now he has to do it again.

I like to think of Paul as my personal addiction specialist, in that he works at Co-Op Records and knows my credit card number by heart. Having a job at a record store is the dream gig for any music geek, but he doesn't earn a lot and he doesn't have insurance. As you'd expect, the cost of a lengthy hospital stay and subsequent rehabilitation is monumental.

That's why some friends of his -- myself included -- are trying our best to raise some funds and help offset the ever-growing pile of bills heading his way. On Friday, October 24th, we're going to hold a trivia night at The Rock in Coal Valley. Anyone can attend and bring a team of up to 8 players for some friendly competition and fundraising. Admission is $10 a person, plus we're putting together some truly great raffles and silent auctions generously donated by all kinds of area businesses.

Yours truly is cooking up some of the questions and I'll be on-hand to help emcee and make the night a fitting party for a great guy. So if you've ever yearned for an opportunity to meet a middle-aged chubby newspaper columnist with crippling social anxiety, now's your chance.

I realize that bad things can happen to good people, especially in this Year of Living Physically-Critically. There are always worthy benefits in town trying to raise money for any number of great causes. Is it a little unfair that I get to use my weekly platform to advertise an event to help one of MY friends in need? Probably -- but nowhere near as unfair as the hand that my friend Paul's been dealt, so please forgive me if I don't especially care about fairness right now.

If you can make your way out for some fun trivia and door prizes, I'd love to meet you. For more information or to sign up a team for the event, stop by or call Co-Op Records in Moline at 309-764-5888, or fire off an e-mail to If you can't make the trivia night but still want to contribute to Paul's Fund, the staff at Co-Op will be happy to accept your donation and ensure that it gets straight to Paul.

Thanks for caring, and for God's sake, be careful out there -- we've all still got 3 more months of 2014 to get through.


I've spent recent columns reminiscing about my favorite aimless getaways of 2014. True Midwesterners know that even the most docile of backroads can lead to a world of adventure if you've got a full tank of gas, some good tunes blasting, and no agenda whatsoever. But I failed to mention my favorite getaway of 2014 thus far, because it wasn't aimless. It had a purpose. A loud purpose.

There's no sense in hiding it, so let's get the ugly truth out of the way: I'm a NASCAR fan. Yes, I realize it's essentially a character flaw. Certain aspects of NASCAR Nation go against nearly everything I stand for. I'm a blue-state liberal who aspires to be a card-carrying member of the counter-culture, but strangely there's nothing I love more on a Sunday afternoon than watching cars turn left for hours on end.

I have vague memories of watching races on TV as a kid, but it didn't become a passion until I started my side gig as a DJ. On most Saturday nights, you can find me in the wee hours at some club trying desperately to hang onto my youth with every beat. Ergo, most Sundays you can find me feeling like my real age with my brain running at half speed. And what's better for a half-speed brain than watching cars drive around in circles?

If only my zeal stuck to Sundays. When I started visiting NASCAR websites, I knew I might be more than just a passing fan. When I started listening to NASCAR Radio, I knew I was hooked. But when I started calling in to argue with a guy named "Chocolate" on a show called "Tradin' Paint"? Heaven help me, I just might be a mega-fan.

But there's one thing this mega-fan's never done: attended a Sprint Cup race in person. I've been to a handful of Nationwide races, but never the big leagues. And every year when the Sprint Cup makes it's annual stop at the Chicagoland Speedway, I look to the east with longing and start bugging all of my friends to see if anyone might fancy a sensory assault of burning rubber, jet dryers, and the body odor of countless strangers.

But this year, I just happened to call home first. And I just happened to mention the upcoming race to my mom. And that's when I heard my dad in the background saying, "Heck, I'll go with him if he wants."

WHY did I never think of this before? I'm a lousy son.

I lucked out to get a friend for a father. It's good to know I've got someone in my camp who will ALWAYS have my back, and I couldn't imagine a better dad anywhere on Earth. No foolin'. That said, he and I are fairly different people. I like books, computers, music, and air conditioning. My dad prefers a toolbox, 2x4's, and all that gross nature stuff. But we make a good team: Dad knows how to fix stuff, and I know how to call my dad when I need stuff fixed.

I'm proud to be his son, and I know he's proud of the man I am. But sometimes I feel bad that he didn't get a kid who shared more of his interests. Well, it may have taken him 43 years, but the old man finally ended up with a son he could take to a sports event.

Except it was vice-versa. How weird was it that I drove? I don't think that's happened since driving lessons 25 years ago. We left the Quad Cities on Sunday morning at about the usual time I go to bed on most Saturday nights, and it's a good thing we got an early start. We might live in a blue state, but it turns out the Land of Lincoln has a fair share of NASCAR fanatics. We barely made it to the greater Joliet area when the traffic backed up. For the next two hours, it was bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go to the track. We were about to see cars take the straightaway at over 200 mph, but for a while there, I would have been happy to see one go 20.

It was a quarter mile walk from the parking lot to... another line, where a sea of humanity was routed through one tiny gate and some seriously over-worked friskers. Then we were in, and it was just a matter of finding our seats.

Unlike most sports events, the best seats in NASCAR aren't up front, unless you fancy getting covered in black ick and having your eardrums sucked inside out. Instead, you want to be as high up in the grandstands as possible, so you can see all the action. That's where our seats were, which was awesome. Except that we had to GET to them. I didn't really factor in the four flights of stairs to get to the BOTTOM of the bleachers and then the infinite hike up to our seats. By the time we reached the oxygen-deprived heights of row 61, I was a sweaty and wheezing mess of ick. Dad, on the other hand -- a man with so many pins and plates that I'm pretty sure we could legally declare him a robot -- was all smiles and sunshine.

I was so exhausted I could barely consume my bacon-covered cheese dog.

But was it ever worth it. An awesome race made even awesome-ier as a first-hand witness, it was a brilliant way to kick off the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- and I couldn't have picked a better co-pilot. Dad ate it up with glee, even elbowing me once or twice when he spotted a good duel before I could.

I think I've now made my dad a NASCAR fan. My mom dutifully taped the race (because she was just SURE she'd see us in the stands,) and when my dad got home, he watched it all over again and called me excitedly when he spotted our car in the parking lot. The next week, he called me again to get my take on the New Hampshire race after it ended. I think he might have even found a favorite driver in rookie Kyle Larson.

There's a secret spot in the corner of my brain where I keep my favorite NASCAR memories. Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500... Watching Tony Stewart pass a dozen cars in less than a dozen laps for the win... standing with my friend Dianna in the rain for hours to meet Brian Vickers... but nothing will ever beat seeing my first Sprint Cup race sitting next to the best guy I know.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

COLUMN: Aimless Drives 2

Ye gods. It feels like summer's just gotten underway and it's already time to start looking back at it with fondness. I don't know who pushed the fast forward button, but I'm not a fan. Worst of all, my opportunities to flee the Quad Cities on epic summer roadtrips turned out to be few and far between in 2014.

To me, nothing says summer quite like shirking all responsibilities and heading into parts unknown with absolutely no agenda, planning, or forethought. But there wasn't much shirking to be had this summer, and it was mostly because of my empty passenger seat. A good roadtrip calls for a good co-pilot, and my friend Jason is the best in the business. Together, we've spent decades combing the back roads and cornfields of the Midwest looking for adventure (or, more usually, looking at cornfields and wondering where the adventure is.)

But just as this summer was starting to kick into gear, Jason went out for a bike ride and ended up breaking his collarbone. For him, it was a summer of pain management and couch dwelling. For me, it put my chances of any good road trips in serious jeopardy. With no other recourse, there was only one thing I could do: find a girl foolish enough to date me. Clearly, she had no idea what she was in for.

The new girlfriend and I recently found ourselves with a couple hours to kill on a Sunday afternoon, so I suggested we take a quick country drive. Now, when I said we had a couple hours, that's exactly what we had: two hours. She had a slew of errands to accomplish later that day, and I had... well, okay, I had nothing to do. But what happened next I simply can't explain.

We headed out east on a back road and before too long found ourselves in Geneseo. Now, this is nothing against all of you lovely Geneseoans who read our paper, and I love you all dearly... but your city hates me. Every time I visit, there's roughly a 60% chance that I end up getting stopped by your police. When I was a college freshman, one of my very first aimless drives found me insanely lost and driving circles in Geneseo at 2 a.m. desperately looking for the interstate home. I ended up getting pulled over for "acting suspicious" that night, when in truth all I wanted was to find my way back to Rock Island and my comfy dorm bed.

I don't know if my plate got tagged in their system as "suspicious 2 a.m. guy" or something, but ever since that night, if I'm in Geneseo and pass a cop, I either get pulled over or followed closely out of town. I guess that's what happens when you're a sketchy, ne'er-do-well bad element troublemaker such as myself.

So if I ever accidentally find myself in Geneseo, my usual goal is to find myself out of Geneseo as quickly as possible. Which we did, by continuing east. The two of us got to talking, having a few laughs, and the car just kept going east. I may have been behind the wheel, but that didn't mean I had any real vested interest in where exactly the car was taking us. At least not until my girlfriend said, "Ooh, it's getting late, we'd better get back." And I had to be the one to tell her that we were about five minutes away from the western suburbs of Chicago. Whoops.

This was not good. No errands would be run this night. Even if I found a main road home, we were still looking at about a two hour return voyage. Only one thing could overcome the disgusted glare I was getting from the passenger seat. Only one place could allow me to save face and not be the jerk who stole Sunday. And as I rounded the corner trying to navigate the abyss of the western suburbs, I found it.

"Surprise!" I said. "I took you to IKEA!"

Ikea is heaven -- if your idea of heaven is mid-priced minimalist Scandinavian furniture and home accessories in a building roughly the size of four Wal-Marts combined. The big-box-store-hating small business crusader in me knows that I'm supposed to detest Ikea, but I just can't. Ikea is magic.

"Hi!" said the greeter with Christmas morning levels of enthusiasm. "Welcome to Ikea! Can I get you a bag?"

Then you're torn loose into the giant showroom, where every item for sale has its own charming Swedish name. It's Kivik the sofa next to its good friend Poang the footstool. And look over there, it's Datid the self-cleaning oven, hanging out with Knyck the napkin holder. Everything's affordable, decent quality, and comes in tiny boxes with assembly manuals full of cartoons of chubby little smiling Swedes. While you're there, you can stop for a dinner of Swedish meatballs, and on your way out, you can buy frozen herring and all the fifty-cent hot dogs you can eat. I've honestly taken worse vacations than Ikea daytrips. It may have been 10 p.m. by the time we got home, but the memories are forever -- just ask Chosigt, my new ice cream scoop.

The world righted itself two weeks later, when my best friend finally felt good enough for an escape. I wish I had the room to tell you all about it, but suffice to say that in true Shane & Jason fashion, a simple country drive ended up involving an art show, a castle, the Red Baron Stearman Squadron, funnel cakes the size of Texas, and perhaps the creepiest backwoods gravel road we've ever discovered (and if you don't believe, head to Mercer County and find 300th Street.)

There might not have been many escapes this summer, but the ones that happened were pretty great. I'm just not ready for it to end. There's not a single bone in my body that yearns for cold and snow and ice and figuring out where my long-sleeved shirts are in the back of my closet. If it HAS to be autumn already, let's hope it sticks around for a long and mild while.