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.

COLUMN: Aimless Drives 1

I love summer in the Quad Cities... but the thing I love most of all is getting in a car and driving as far away from them as I can.

Nothing beats a good aimless drive. All it takes is a full tank of gas and a fully stocked iPod and I'm the happiest of campers. Just point me towards the nearest country road, destination be damned -- if you know where you're going, that means you have an aim and it's no longer an aim-LESS drive. The fun isn't getting there, it's IN the getting there, and it's even more fun if you have absolutely no idea where "there" even is. The only rule? The GPS stays OFF, only to be used in the most dire of emergencies.

While solo voyages can definitely be recharging, having a friend along for the ride is vital. That's where Jason comes in. For over 20 years, we've terrorized the back roads of the Midwest. We first met in college and bonded over our shared love of gravel terrain and the moderate sense of adventure one achieves when you have absolutely no idea where you are. Through thick and thin, he remains my best friend and co-pilot. We are the Lewis & Clark of the Illinois/Iowa rural road system.

Too bad, then, that 2014 has been the worst year for aimless driving since the State of Illinois was foolish enough to hand me a license.

It started on SUCH a good note, too. Just as cold weather was erupting last fall, I took the plunge and bought a new car. For the first time in a half decade, I now own an automobile that I feel safe taking to parts unknown without the nagging fear of suffering a catastrophic breakdown while in "Deliverance" country.

I was all set for a carefree 2014 of roadtrips aplenty. But then in January, I took another plunge -- this one on a rogue patch of ice in my back yard. I ended up with a cast on my ankle and my butt on a couch for the remainder of the winter. For a while there, the only thing I could drive around aimlessly was a knee scooter to my kitchen and back for icepacks. Even though the cast came off in early spring, it's been only recently that I've found myself able to sit in a car for long stretches without my ankle flaring up.

As summer kicked off, I finally started feeling like myself again -- in just enough time for Jason to wipe out and break his collarbone. Apparently the revised list for aimless driving essentials should be a full tank of gas, a full iPod, AND a full bottle of calcium supplements, as 2014 has rapidly become The Year of the Broken Bones. Without a co-pilot and navigator at the ready, the thought of roadtripping lost its luster, and we now find ourselves on the verge of autumn with shockingly few escape attempts under my belt.

That said, there have been a few note-worthy voyages to reflect on.

The first was short yet bountiful. After an uncommonly stress-filled day at the office, I had just picked up the new girlfriend from downtown Davenport for what I hoped would be a relaxing dinner. Davenport had other plans. I instinctively headed for the Centennial Bridge and then remembered it was closed. I turned towards the Arsenal and of course the span was open. I drove to one of my favorite Davenport restaurants and it was shuttered. Clearly a conspiracy was afoot. I turned left and the road turned right. I turned right and the road was barricaded. Left was right, right was wrong, up was down, and I suddenly found myself in dire need of escape and serenity. Eventually, we decided dinner could wait, pointed the car towards the nearest cornfield, and crossed our fingers that we'd end up somewhere fun.

Somewhere turned out to be Cable, Illinois -- a town not exactly synonymous with fun. Ending up in Cable takes skill in and of itself, because one has to look pretty hard to even FIND Cable in the first place. I've only ever made it there by accident. No main roads lead to Cable. Cable is a town that doesn't want to be found, and its few residents prefer things that way. Weirder yet, I just happen to know a couple of those residents.

Harry Cleaveland and his wife Kaycee live on the outskirts of Cable. The Cleavelands run Harry Bees Honey, the best local honey you'll ever taste -- and you should totally take my word on that even though I'm allergic to honey and can't eat it. But it sure LOOKS pretty good. Harry and Kaycee are awesome, and their weird crazy neighborhood is a menagerie of llamas, bees, three legged dogs, and roughly 5% of America's feral cat population.

More importantly, it is also the home of one Augustus Cleaveland, Harry and Kaycee's 1 year old -- who is inarguably the cutest baby on the planet. If you have a baby and you think it's cuter than Gus, you are wrong. When compared to Baby Gus, your baby is hopelessly butt-ugly. Gus' cuteness knows no limit. It's probably a good thing that they live way out in cable, because if they released Baby Gus unto an unsuspecting populace, millions could die from toxic cuteness overload.

Strangely, though, toxic cuteness overload is JUST the remedy for a stress-filled day. For the next half hour, I let Gus show me his favorite new game, a complex and sophisticated endeavor called Hand-You-A-Pen-Then-You-Hand-It-Back-To-Me. The rules seemed fairly straight-forward: First you hand Gus a pen. He smiles. Then he hands you back the pen. He smiles again. Then you hand the pen back to Gus. He smiles again. Then he hands you... well, you get the basic idea. The winner is EVERYONE because it's adorable.

What I didn't mention is that the entire time we were fawning over Gus, two sad-eyed mewling kitties were skitching up my leg, desperate for attention.

"Every visitor gets to take home 1-3 cats as a parting gift!" Harry encouraged.

The worst part is that in this nirvana of cuteness, I actually considered it for a second. Then I considered throwing the cats into the air as a distraction while we stole off into the night with Baby Gus. But as my girlfriend pointed out, even cute things poop, and my two cats provide plenty of that nonsense as is. So we left empty-handed yet full-hearted, safe in the knowledge that there's no day bad enough that can't be fixed by kittens crawling up your legs while babies hand you pens.

It may have been short, but it was the perfect waste of both time and gas that I needed. And it was only the first successful escape of the season. Where else would we head? More tales of adventure next week.

COLUMN: Privacy

I like to think of myself as somewhat of an armchair technophile. If there's a trendy new gadget or gizmo, I need to own it. Quite honestly, I've been avoiding Best Buy because I know I'll take one look at those new 4G televisions and suddenly life will be inadequate until I own one. But, as it turns out, I'm lagging. I thought I was on top of my technological game, but not so much. It's embarassing to admit in public, but I've clearly been neglecting an important and crucial element to modern cyberspace living. I guess I have to own up to my dark and shameful secret:

I'm 43 years old and I've yet to take even ONE naked selfie. I am SO behind the times.

If you're the kind of person who loves a spirited debate on the hotbutton topic of online privacy, you've been having a banner month. Usually I log onto Facebook every day and roll my eyes at my conservative uncle's vitriolic posts about his right to bear arms. Instead, THIS week I've been rolling my eyes at 26 or so of my friends arguing about actress Jennifer Lawrence's right to bare arms... and bare breasts and bare butt, as it turns out.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The fun really started about a month ago when Facebook launched a new chat app for mobile devices called Facebook Messenger. Within days of its arrival, a viral post swept through cyberspace warning users that by accepting the terms and conditions of this new app, you were giving Facebook open access to your phone's camera, photo gallery, microphone, and more. Within days, a rallying cry to delete the app was everywhere on the internet.

Except it was a big load of hooey. Well, kind of.

Yes, Facebook Messenger DOES access all of those elements of your phone. But it needs to. If you use Messenger to send a photo to a friend, it needs to access your camera. If you want to talk to a friend on Messenger, it needs access to your microphone. It's no different than any other app that performs similar functions.

But I get it -- blindly agreeing to fine print can be scary. I don't know one person who's ever read the ominous iTunes terms and conditions. For all I know, Apple might now own my soul. But do you really think Facebook wants to eavesdrop on your conversation? Something tells me Mark Zuckerberg has $25.3 billion other things to worry about besides that pic of what you had for dinner last night. If Facebook wants nefarious access to a half dozen pictures of my cats and a grainy video I shot at the Green Day concert two years ago, fine by me. I don't care about my online privacy because I try not to do anything too private online.

And that brings us to this week. Unless you're a cave-dweller (and clearly a cave without wi-fi,) you've probably heard that a hacker broke into the online accounts of a number of female celebrities, gained access to their digital photos, and released a treasure trove of their private home nudie pics unto the world.

Do I feel bad for these celebs? Sure. Their privacy was invaded by a cyber peeping-tom and I hope the little dweeb who did it gets busted. But at the same time, I have to listen to logic. And logic tells me one important fact: If you don't want naked photos of yourself leaked to the internet, then maybe you shouldn't have taken naked photos in the first place. But apparantly you can't say that, especially not if you're a guy -- because then you immediately get accused by your feminist friends of slut-shaming and they tell you it's a person's right to take pervy pictures of themselves if they so choose. I don't disagree. I'm not here to lay blame; I'm simply here to be astonished.

Last week, the Huffington Post ran an opinion piece called, "Nude Photo Leaks Are The New Slut-Shaming." Let me quote this article: "At some point, we all have to admit out loud what we all already know: that probably 85% of women have taken some kind of 'scandalous' photo of themselves and sent it to a guy. Or girl." EIGHTY-FIVE PERCENT?!

If that's the case, I have DEFINITELY not been getting the right party invites. Is this figure even remotely accurate? Have I been living in some rose-colored Pleasantville while 85% of the world's been getting freaky-deaky? Do I and everyone I've ever dated fall into the world's most boring fifteen percent? Most horrifying of all, is there really an 85% chance that nudie pics of my own mother could be floating around somewhere? Clearly, I'm never sleeping again.

All I know is that I'd probably be more sympathetic towards the efforts of the Huffington Post if they hadn't run their article called "Jennifer Lawrence's Leaked Photos Remind Us How Awful The Internet Can Be For Women" precisely TWO stories away from a photo spread of bikini-clad movie stars entitled, "Celebrities Emerging From Water, Because Hey... It's Labor Day!"  

In all of my days, I have been sent ONE 'scandalous' photo from a girlfriend. It was shocking and funny and cute and sexy -- for about 5 seconds. Then it was awkward and embarassing and my only instinct was to immediately delete it before anyone on Earth ever saw it again. I lose my car keys on a daily basis; imagine what would happen if I were to lose a naked pic of my girlfriend. I don't want THAT kind of responsibility, thanks. Meanwhile, If I ever tried to take a scandalous selfie, I'd just end up with a blurry mess from laughing so hard at the sorry state of my naked form. I take bad enough photos with clothes ON, people.

For me, the real headline of the day should be something like, "Maybe Taking Naked Pictures Of Yourself Isn't The Best Idea After All, Especially If You're The Star of The Hunger Games." But hey, I guess I'm just an old behind-the-times fuddy-duddy living in a modern world where everyone now trades naughty selfies like handshakes. As for me, I'll be off in the corner somewhere, uploading pictures of my cats and my dinner to the most boring 15% of the world.

COLUMN: Routine

Someone said the craziest thing to me the other day.

"Shane, you need to break your routine more often."

Routine? ROUTINE?! Who does this person think she is?

(Actually, she's the girl I've been dating for a month. But that's another column for another day.)

Let's get back to the issue at hand. Routine? ROUTINE?! Clearly this girl doesn't know me as well as I thought.

I am the opposite of routine. I am gonzo, lady. I march to the beat of a different drum. I am a trend-setter and a go-getter, a leader and not a follower. I take no prisoners, forge my own path, and roll with the changes. When necessary, I've even been known to occasionally damn the man. I am unconventional, counter-culture, and the maker of my own destiny. I am a special little man (at least that's what my mom always told me.)

I do what I want WHEN I want. And if I want to come home every night and do nothing but watch TV, that's not a routine -- that's me flying by the seat of my pants. It's just that the seat of my pants REALLY likes watching TV. There's nothing "routine" about it. One night I could be watching "MasterChef," the next "Pretty Little Liars" or "True Blood." That's just how I roll. Okay, so maybe half the time it's "Big Brother," but that's CBS' fault for putting that stupid show on so often.

I'm not routine. I'm just honest with myself. Occasionally, you've got to weigh the entertainment value of your life against that of fictional vampires, and sometimes those pesky vampires are gonna win out. Let's face it, I might march to the beat of a different drummer, but I also don't have a team of scriptwriters to ensure that my life is a constantly balanced and compelling mix of action, scandal, romance, and laughter. "Shane's Lunch Hour" will never be nominated for Best Drama. My life does not star Matthew McConaughey (nor does it feature Katie Holmes in a scene-stealing supporting role, despite all of my best efforts and constant wishing.)

There's only one part of my life that I'll admit to being routine, but it's a routine born of necessity, not choice. And it's a routine that the Quad Cities currently seems to be conspiring to thwart.

I am not a morning person, and that's a crass understatement. If I had a say in the matter, I would never experience mornings. In a perfect world, I would wake up by the crack of noon and spend at least an hour or two hiding under the covers until it was good and safely mid-day. Some people reach the height of productivity at 8 a.m. and embrace the day with zeal and gusto. I'm usually at the crest of my productivity around 1 a.m. That's usually when I get the urge to tackle 5-6 long-term projects while the responsible voice in my head screams at me to go to sleep.

I usually wake up every day around 9:15 or so. This is a bit of a problem, mostly since I have to be at work every day by 8:30. Getting dressed and somehow making it in to the office while still technically asleep isn't recommended for amateurs, but I've had some twenty years to perfect the skill and I'm fairly confident in my abilities. The key to it all is a well-oiled, time-tested, and carefully managed routine.

My alarm goes off precisely at 7:23 every morning. This gives me exactly 67 minutes to get to work. The first two of those 67 minutes are spent sitting up in bed and booting up the brain in safe mode -- you know, just the basic files and drivers required to start my operating system. Then I reach for the remote and hopefully click on the TV in just enough time to hear Greg Dutra tell me what the weather's going to be.

I then allow myself exactly seven minutes to soak in the witty banter of Matt Lauer and Al Roker before heading into the bathroom. When I finally DO wake up at 9:15, I usually find myself well-groomed, wet-haired, and smelling springtime fresh, so I can only presume that I use this bathroom time to shave and shower, but who's to know for certain?

It takes me exactly 11 minutes to get dressed, take a Claritin, feed the cats, and find my wallet and car keys. This leaves me a perfect 20 minute window to get from my house to the office, including a brief stop at the gas station to procure the essential morning coffee. It's a perfect system -- except when it's not.

This summer, the Quad Cities is doing its absolute best to ruin my morning routine. It's been a multi-tiered attack that starts with the closing of the Centennial Bridge. Thankfully I don't have to mess with Iowa during the work day, but I do have to mess with the crazy traffic backups resulting from folks waiting in line to either slowly roll across the Government Bridge or test their fate on the white-knuckle thrill-ride of I-74.

The temporary closing of Centennial is awful, but simultaneously blocking Rock Island's 7th Avenue is downright immoral. I have no idea what they're doing over there by Augie, but it involves shovels, angry looking guys holding signs, and what I can only presume to be the lost treasure of the Sierra Madre. And because I'm clearly less than awake every morning, I forget about it each and every day until I get there and realize the road's closed.

As if that's not enough, I'm also pretty sure The Man has now positioned agents inside every gas station between my house and the office. Usually, I can dash in and out in seconds. THIS week? I've been caught behind people filling their pantries with convenience store junk food. Or my personal favorite, "I need ten dollars in gas... and 74 instant lottery tickets, which I will now choose one at a time in as slow a manner as possible." Yesterday, a clerk left me waiting while he went to the restroom. I can't win.

The morning routine has to stay. It's the only way to keep me gainfully employed. As for the REST of the day? I'm kicking routine to the curb. Today, I went to a DIFFERENT greasy spoon for lunch. And I ordered BREAKFAST FOOD at lunchtime. Clearly, I'm living on the edge. I'll have it out with anyone who thinks I live my life to a boring, humdrum routine -- just make it quick, I've only got a half hour 'til "Big Brother" starts.