Tuesday, April 07, 2015

COLUMN: Fictional Deaths

[SPOILER ALERT: This column contains some rather crucial spoilers of classic and well-known movies and TV shows. If you're the type who lives under a rock, has no idea how "Old Yeller" ends, and might one day be interested in experiencing this thing you've heard about called "entertainment," you might want to skip this column. This is your only warning.]

Ah, writing time -- my weekly oasis. For a few minutes, I can forget the random troubles of the day and do nothing but try to poke a little fun at life for a while.

Too bad, then, that all I can think about this week is sadness, heartache, and despondency.

One of my closest friends works for a website (not affiliated with this paper) that posts obituaries from around the country. Her job is to provide write-ups when famous folks die and post topical quizzes and blogs about the dearly departed. It's honestly not as depressing as it sounds. This week, she's working on an article that required some help from Facebook Nation. At least, I HOPE she's working on an article, otherwise maybe she IS becoming a little too death-obsessed for her own good. Here was her post to Facebook:

"What's the saddest fictional death you've ever read/watched?"

This innocent question has currently garnered 147 replies and umpteen arguments. For some reason, I got caught up in the thick of things. For the past 3 days, all I've been able to think about are imaginary dead people -- not exactly a recommended pastime for sunshiny spring days.

I was in the shower yesterday and suddenly was like, "OH! When that one intern died on 'E.R.,' it was SO sad!" I was on my way to work today and suddenly, "DUH! Romeo and Juliet!" I was eating lunch when I realized E.T. died for a hot minute before he turned on his heartlight or whatever, I wonder if that counts?

I'm an entertainment junkie. My TV's always on, my phone's loaded with e-books, and I'll watch almost any movie you put in front of me. But sad movies are not my idea of entertainment. Becoming enamored with a beloved character only to watch them shuffle off this mortal coil isn't my idea of a good time. If I'm going to visit imaginary worlds, I prefer them full of laughs, where the guy ALWAYS gets the girl in the end, and where the only people who die are sincere baddies who meet their demise with a well-timed quip from Arnold Schwarzenegger and/or Bruce Willis.

But every once in a while, I'll accidentally watch a weepie. I'll channel-flip into something, assume it's some innocent romp, and suddenly somebody's belly-up and I'll be sitting there with a quivering lip, emotionally scarred for life. I've been thinking all week about the saddest fictional deaths I've ever been duped into witnessing, and I've narrowed MY list of soul-destroying tragedies down to the five most horrifying:

#5 - M*A*S*H* MASHES MY SOUL - Writing a situation comedy has to be tough when the situation is war. Laughs at a mobile military hospital must be few and far between, but the creative team behind M*A*S*H* found the solution: Make a super funny show that's occasionally tempered by moments of tragic gravitas. When beloved Col. Henry Blake finally got his ticket home, America cheered... until the final minute, when it's learned his chopper was shot down with no survivors. That's when America bawled into their TV dinners and 4-year-old me accidentally learned about the horrors of war.

#4 - FIGURE SKATING ALWAYS ENDS IN TEARS - Sports movies should only ever follow one plot: Underdog stinks at sport, someone makes an inspiring speech, there's a training montage, and then worldwide glory. But find me a figure skating movie that doesn't involve blindness, crippling injury, or worse. The biggest offender? Try the made-for-TV schlock-fest "Champions: A Love Story." I caught it on a boring college weekend back when my TV only got 3 channels. It started pleasantly enough with a fish-out-of-water hockey player getting paired up with an aspiring figure skater. At first they're awful (check.) There's a speech (score.) There's a training montage (yessss.) They even fall in love (double bonus!) They're gonna win nationals... until a plane crash kills the hockey guy, devastates the girl, and tears my heart out. They should rename it "Champion: A Horror Story Coz The Other One Dies."

#3 - WALT DISNEY: FRIEND OF CHILDREN, MURDERER OF MOMS AND DOGS - Everyone loves Walt Disney. Well, everyone but Old Yeller. And Bambi's mom. And Mufasa. And the thousands of soldiers that Mulan kills willy-nilly. Look, Walt, it's possible to create an endearing character who triumphs over diversity WITHOUT making them an orphan in the beginning of the flick. With the slightest tweak of the script, Bambi could have had the EXACT same adventures without losing his mom. Instead, the movie has become synonymous with tragic death. If you can watch Bambi yelling "MOTHER!" without getting that knife-through-the-gut shudder, you have no soul.

#2 - BUFFALO JUST AIN'T WORTH IT - When wee Shane woke up on a Sunday morning once and saw a movie about a pack of misfit kids at summer camp, I was in. These sounded like my people. But this wasn't "Revenge of the Nerds." No, this was a movie called "Bless the Beasts & Children," about weak nerdy kids at camp who are straight up tortured by their peers. It's ok, though, because the kids bond together and perservere. And when they hear about an organized buffalo kill happening near their camp, they hatch a plan to stop it and save the poor creatures. When their plan goes awry, as most plans do, the main kid drives a truck into the herd to stop the slaughter -- and gets shot in the head. The End. Roll credits. Seriously. I remember it plain as day because it was the first time a movie made me cry. My mom came in to find me fetal on the couch vowing never to eat meat again. At least, not until lunch.

#1 - SIMPLY THE WORST. Okay, there's sad and then there's downright emotionally crippling. Only one movie deserves this title, and it's a nightmare called "Bridge to Terabithia." Loner boy meets eccentic girl. They hang out in the woods and dream up an imaginary world to escape the harsh reality of their eccentric loner lives. Kindly teacher invites the boy to a museum, and he selfishly doesn't invite the girl along. Then he comes home to discover that the eccentric girl drowned in a creek. The rest of the flick is non-stop grief including the kid wondering if the eccentric girl is trapped in Hell and that it's all basically his fault. There might be more after that, but I couldn't hear over the sounds of a grown man BAWLING in his living room. NEVER let your kids see this snuff film unless you've got a nest egg saved up for psychologists. I'm still scarred by it and I was 40 when I watched the thing.

Did I miss anything good? E-mail me if I did and we can all spend this first week of great weather mired in the traumatic after-effects of what someone decided to call "entertainment." Until then, I'll be binge-watching "Friends" until I get out of this funk (and YES, I'll be skipping the one where Ross' nana dies twice.)

COLUMN: Work Party

I'm a little worried, all. It appears that I've painted myself into a corner. By the time you read this, I may very well have made a complete and total donkey out of myself while in the presence of some people whose opinions matter to me a great deal. This is highly troubling.

As you probably know, I wear a variety of hats in life. Chief among them is my day job hat here in newspaper-land. I've sat in the comfy confines of Castle Argpatch for over 20 years now, selling ads and writing columns all the live-long day with a team of co-workers I respect, admire, and am privileged to call my friends.

But when the sun sets and the weekend comes out to play, I put on a slightly different hat. For almost 30 years now, nearly every weekend of my life has involved a dancefloor, turntables, CD players, a laptop computer, and the heartbeat of my life thumped out in bass beats for hours on end. I am DJ, hear me roar.

It's the yin and yang of my life, and I can't pretend to know how to survive without one or the other. The day job allows me to be intelligent, creative, and a contributing member of society. The DJ gigs let me cut loose, be artistic, and make enough money to support my music collecting habit. One job makes me feel like a mature adult. The other makes me feel forever young. It truly is the best of both worlds.

There's just one problem: my worlds are about to meet for the first time ever.

In the microcosm of media advertising, we're hustling all year long -- but the holidays are far and away our busiest season. We can't ever fuss with throwing an office Christmas party when we're knee-deep in special sections, last-minute gift guides, and getting everyone's pre- and post-holiday ad campaigns taken care of. That's why we're just now getting around to throwing our annual department-wide shindig.

We reserved a banquet room at a local hotel and, as I type, we're mere hours away from showing downtown Moline how we party it up print media style. I'm not saying we're a wild bunch, but who knows -- we could be sitting around waiting for bail money to come through by the time you read this. Honestly, I don't know if I work with a bunch of party animals or not, because any time my co-workers go out, I'm usually a guaranteed no-show because I'm racing to whatever DJ gig I've booked for that evening.

But this year, I just happen to have the night off. Well, I DID have the night off. I'm not sure how it all came about, really. I recall people talking about the employee party and someone asked what we were doing for entertainment, and that's when I chuckled and said, "You should totally have me DJ the thing ha ha ha." Except I don't think anyone else heard the sarcasm in my voice or the pointed "ha ha ha" at the end. One thing led to another, a sound system was procured, and apparently I'm DJing my own work party. Weird.

This could be very fun... or VERY bad. After thirty years of sacrificing my weekends to the dancefloor gods, it's not like I get butterflies in my stomach as I walk into a DJ gig. I'm fairly confident in my ability to rock a party with relative ease. But when that party's full of daytime co-workers who I respect and admire? I've got to admit, I'm sweating it out a little bit here.

Let's look at the facts: I'm perhaps the most awkward person I know. I'm inept at small talk. I'm bereft of gossip at the water cooler. I don't make eye contact with people. I look down when I walk. I bump into people in hallways. I can and frequently do trip over nothing. Sometimes I recall jokes at the absolute worst times and start laughing like a lunatic while walking by myself. I do a pretty mean job at coming across weird all on my own; the last thing I need to do is bomb a DJ gig in front of these people who accept my eccentricities and strangely still consent to be my colleagues and friends.

Most of you are probably reading this and thinking, "What's the big deal? All he's got to do is stand there and push a button or two, right?" Bringing a real dance set is a little more complicated. When you're behind the controls, you're running the entire vibe of the party. You've got to be able to read the crowd, know what they want to hear, know what songs work well together, know how to alter tempos in order to make seamless transitions, etc. There's nothing like mixing the perfect song at the perfect moment and seeing a dancefloor spring to life. It's why I can't retire from my hobby; that high's just too good not to chase. But to get that divine moment, you need the right demographic -- and my co-workers are NOT it.

We're a fun group, but we're also a real-life Benetton ad. It's an even mix of guys and girls, young and old, rockers and rappers, and I'm even pretty sure they might be some (shudder) country fans in the mix. I'm never going to bring them together with music unless Lady Gaga releases a new song tomorrow called "Advertising Reps Are Awesome (Say Hey)." I do not work with a pack of club kids. No one is going to care about the awesome trap bass mix of the new Drake single I scored. None of them know who Drake is. There will be no twerking.

The way I see it, I've got three solid strategies: (1) I up the ante and take my reputation from weird to potentially dangerous. I'm thinking a night of German industrial techno mixed with some light death metal and well-timed snarls should do the trick. (2) I play my usual mix of contemporary hip-hop and edgy club tracks, make everyone miserable, and act bored like I'm above this entire scene whenever somebody complains. Or (3) I just throw on "Brickhouse" and see what happens.

I'm going with the latter. With any luck, it just might be fun. Maybe an epic party will develop. Perhaps it'll be an event unrivalled in the pantheon of employee shindigs, culminating in my co-workers hoisting me onto their shoulders, parading me around the room, and declaring me the King of Awesome. Or maybe it'll be kinda boring. Either way, no worries -- my friends will stay my friends either way. Plus, I just got booked for a wicked late-night gig afterwards. The minute our work party ends, I'm driving across town and hitting the decks at a club fifteen minutes later.    

They might not be the easiest hats to get on and off, but I couldn't imagine wearing anything else.

COLUMN: Refrigerator

I would make a really lousy witness to a murder investigation. Actually, I'd be a great witness -- if you were the murderer. You'd probably get off scot-free. I'm pretty sure you could hack your best friend to bits right in front of me and it wouldn't register on my radar. I'm starting to notice that the older I get, the less observant I've become.

I blame a perfect storm of complacency and multi-tasking. I'm happy and lucky to be spending my 20th year in this comfy office chair -- but after two decades of the same 9-to-5, I can navigate to and from the office entirely on auto-pilot. Some of my co-workers must think I'm an anti-social weirdo because they'll say "hi" and I'll go, "Umm, huh?" The truth is that my brain is just twelve other places -- what songs do I need for my DJ gig this weekend? What should my column be about this week? Do I need to buy cat food?

But there are drawbacks to multi-tasking. Case in point, my dad called me last week. My dad who lives fifty miles away in Galesburg, mind you. He asked me how construction on the new Rock Island police station was coming along.

"Oh," I said, "Yeah, I think they broke ground on it."

"Umm," my dad replied, "I saw on the news that the framework's already mostly up. They've done a lot more than break ground on it."

Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal -- the construction of municipal service buildings isn't something that usually turns up on everyone's radar -- but the new Rock Island police station is being built about two blocks away from my house. I drive past it almost every day, and when last I paid attention, it was a big empty space. I am becoming Mr. Magoo.

If you happened to catch my column last week, you might have read about my recent bout with a nasty flu bug. It was gross and yucky, but thankfully it's done. I'm back to my old self, and I think I'm even done whining about it in print. All at once, my fever broke and my appetite returned. To celebrate, I immediately went to the fridge for a cup of yogurt that I was waiting to eat until I thought my stomach could handle dairy.

But it wasn't until I had grabbed the yogurt, opened it, and swallowed a bite before I noticed two things. (1) This yogurt was room temperature. (2) This yogurt had stopped being yogurt some time ago and was well on its way to becoming an altogether new life form. I really need to learn to be more observant.

A quick inspection confirmed that my trusty refrigerator wasn't refrigerating a thing, and was more like a large storage box for rotting food. Greeeeat. Weirder yet, my top freezer was still working, and the fridge was making its usual contented hum as though everything were just hunky-dory. A mystery was afoot.

That's when I heard a voice in my head -- and it was the voice of Ron, our harried IT specialist here at Castle Argpatch, with his favorite all-time phrase: "Did you try rebooting?" I went downstairs, tripped the circuit breaker to the kitchen, and fired it back up. No luck. And that, friends, concluded the extent of my home appliance repair know-how.

Good thing I just happen to know an excellent repairman. Awkwardly, though, he's also the father of my ex-girlfriend. My ex-girlfriend, incidentally, who just got married to some human being who isn't me. Happily, we're all on good terms, so I didn't think twice about picking up the phone and leaving him a message.

The next call I made, though, was to my FAVORITE dad, to get his take on the situation. Without hesitation, he thought it was time for a new fridge. He had just read an article that pointed out recent advances in energy efficiency that have now turned any refrigerator more than four years old into a power-sucking antique by comparison. Rather than fix the fridge, he urged me to hop online and window shop for a new one.

Quickly, I learned two important things. (1) Refrigerators are ridiculously expensive, and (2) my refrigerator sucks. I mean, it doesn't even have a carbonated water dispenser. What kind of hideously antiquated backwoods life have I been living?

Okay, sure, nothing sounds grosser than a glass of carbonated water, and I'd never ever use that function unless there was a second nozzle that dispensed Coca-Cola syrup, but it's the principle of the thing. There really isn't much one can do to differentiate one refrigerator from another -- after all, it's just a cold box. That'a why the only thing appliance makers can do is keep adding needless toys -- and if there's one thing I like, it's needless toys.

I never realized the position I've been putting myself in. It takes exactly 14 footsteps for me to get from my back door through the kitchen and to the laptop computer sitting on my couch. That's 14 long, arduous, internet-free steps I have to take multiple times each day. 14 steps where I have ABSOLUTELY NO CLUE what Kim Kardashian is doing. Just imagine how many celebrity tweets I'm missing out on just because I have to travel these lonely 14 steps.

Well, thanks to new refrigerator technology, those days could be behind me. Yes, finally they've come out with a smart refrigerator that's wi-fi enabled and has a screen on the fridge door with 24/7 access to Facebook and Twitter. Whew. No more 14 steps of being disconnected from the cybersphere for THIS guy. Now I could finally grab the mustard without missing any important communiques from Lindsay Lohan or Donald Trump. Thanks, science.

Of course, I also don't have the $4000 required for a wi-fi enabled smart fridge. The only thing I can really afford is a standard boring two-door Box o' Cold, and what fun is THAT?

Instead, I had my ex's dad come over, where he popped the back off the freezer and showed me the intricate inner workings of the modern refrigerator. I wanted gizmos and gadgets, circuit boards and insane electronics. At the very least, I expected at least one magical pixie singing the Snow Miser song. Reality's a bit of a let-down. The back of your average freezer consists of an evaporator coil, a cheap little fan that circulates the cold air down to the fridge unit, and a wee little heater that kicks on sporadically to keep things defrosted.

It should NOT, however, be encased in a brick of ice, which was my fridge's problem. We alleviated this with a highly technical portable heating tool -- made by Revlon. That's right, I had to call a professional to blow dry my freezer with a hair dryer. Once the iceberg dissipated, though, it was quickly determined that the thermostat had gone bunk, which was a 5-minute fix that spared my pocketbook about $3900.

Now I just need to drag my lazy, unobservant butt off the couch to go buy some new groceries and I'll be set. The good news, though, is that if you were planning on murdering anyone tonight at Hy-Vee, I'll be the one absent-mindedly stepping over the corpse of your enemy while daydreaming of carbonated water and checking Facebook on my phone.


Here's hoping this week goes a little better than the last one.

Seven days ago, I wrote a column about the new Fox show, "The Last Man on Earth," pointing out a few of the show's obvious plot holes and then wondering aloud how I'd fare if I found myself the lone survivor of a global pandemic plague. I now know the answer: I wouldn't. I wouldn't fare one way or another because I wouldn't survive.

Over the past week, it's become crystal clear that humanity better not count on me for any kind of world-saving purposes or expectations. At best, maybe humanity could count on my corpse to be a solid weight-bearing anchor to help shore up the casualty pile. Perhaps scientists could constructively use my remains as a kind of cautionary tale. You know, "How NOT To Live If You One Day Might Like To Survive a Zombie Apocalypse" or something like that.

I got a handful of compliments on that column last week -- which is kinda funny, since I don't especially recall writing it. The truth is that I may have been writing about surviving a world-ending virus, but in reality I was trying to survive a potentially Shane-ending virus. Happily, I'm still among the living. Last week, I wasn't so sure.

As part of our company's wellness program, every year the hospital rolls its Mobile Van of Needles and Torture into our parking lot and offers flu shots at a discount. Or maybe they're totally free, I'm not sure. For all I know, they could be giving every employee who gets a flu shot a free car. Anything that's on that company memo after the word "shot" is a total mystery to me, 'cause that's where I stop reading. Sorry, but needles just aren't my scene and I'm in no hurry to pass out in front of my co-workers and have them all discover what a true ninny I really am.

For the most part, though, it's a non-issue... because I don't get the flu. I'm one of the least healthy people I know, but influenza is one virus that strangely seems to give me a wide berth. It's almost as if the virus takes one look inside my body and goes, "This one's wrecked already. Let's just keep floating around and see what else comes along." It's like when you're on a roadtrip and you come upon a place that looks like the Bates Motel. It might be an okay establishment. Heck, you might even get a good night's sleep there. But odds are pretty good you're going to keep on driving because you just KNOW there's bound to be a Holiday Inn with free HBO a few miles up the road.

Truth be told, I may not be the healthiest guy around, but I make up for it in paranoia. I'm the guy with the giant bottle of Purell on my desk. I wash my hands umpteen times a day. There's a bottle of disinfectant spray hiding in every room of my house. I take elderberry syrup at the first sign of a sniffle.

But last week, I didn't have time to think about sniffles. It's been a bad month for our spunky little work team. We're a close-knit group, so when one of us suffered a tragic loss, it was awful. When it happened a few weeks later to a second co-worker's family, it was almost unbearable. But we know how to support each other, so we've spent the past month short-handed but headstrong. But I guess when it rains, it pours -- and a couple weeks later, one of our group came down with a stomach ache that resulted in major surgery. Thankfully, she's going to be just fine (amen), but it's made us all the more short-handed for the time being.

So I had no time to think about sniffles, which is probably why I didn't notice them when they started up. By the time I realized I had a tickle in my throat and the makings of a wicked cold, I was already past the point of elderberry and Purell. It was okay, though -- I'm no novice at dealing with the common cold, so I stocked up on cough drops and headed back to work the next day to tough it out. It went fine at first, until I stood up at breaktime. I was perfectly okay -- the room, on the other hand, was spinning out of control. And why was it so COLD?

A half hour later, I was home under the covers and under protest. This was just a stupid cold, I could have worked through it, and I was gonna prove it. That's why I indignantly marched myself to the bathroom, grabbed my thermometer with disgust, rolled it across my forehead with vigor... and discovered I had a fever of 101.5. Whoa. Okay, I really WAS sick.

First off, let's back up. Yes, I've got one of those fancy infrared thermometers that you roll across your forehead. My parents thought it would make an awesome holiday stocking stuffer, and my parents were ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. I love silly gizmos, and any gadget that allows me NOT to sit still with a mouth full of toxic mercury is alright in my book. The only GOOD thing about getting the flu was that I finally had an excuse to play with the thing incessantly. A week later, I'm pretty sure I've irradiated my brain with so much infrared that I'm expecting to develop superpowers any day now.

It wasn't long before the fever gave way to body aches, queasiness, and some really icky stuff that we're all just better off pretending never happened (what happens in the bathroom stays in the bathroom, I say.) I knew it was bad when I said to myself at one point, "It hurts to watch TV. I'd rather just lie here in silence." THAT'S when you know Shane Brown is good and truly sick.

Thankfully, I've got a good support team. My friends all called to make sure I was okay, including my co-worker recovering from surgery calling from her hospital bed to make sure I was okay (?!) Meanwhile, the endangered species of healthy co-workers held down the fort at the office without complaint. And when you're sick with the flu for the first time since being a teenager, having a chronically over-protective mother is suddenly a GOOD thing. Her near-hourly phone calls and pleas to drive up with chicken noodle soup somehow made everything MUCH easier to cope with.

Eventually, the fever broke, the coughing subsided, TV became my friend again, and I made it back to the office a few days later. But does that mean I'm having a better week? Not if today was any example. More on that next week.

COLUMN: Last Man on Earth

Last weekend, I was home in time to watch the premiere of the new sitcom, "The Last Man on Earth." The Fox network has been running teasers for this show for months now, so I was kind of excited to check it out. Of course, whenever any network describes their own show as "quirky," it's a red flag. Sometimes it pans out, and quirky means just that. But more often than not, "quirky" just means "weird" and "not funny."

In this case, the quirkiness comes directly from the plot itself. "The Last Man on Earth" is exactly that -- a show about the last guy left after a virus has wiped out everyone else on the planet. That qualifies as quirky in my book. Better yet, the show ended up having some truly funny bits and I'm curious enough to see where it goes from here.

I have a friend who has a hard time watching any show that isn't "believable." I have no such problem. I'm not looking for some divine truth out of my television habits. TV shows are meant to entertain -- and let's face it, real life is hardly ever entertaining. If they put out a show called "Guy Eats Cereal for Breakfast, Sometimes With a Banana," it would be entirely believable -- and entirely unwatchable. As long as it makes for an entertaining plotline, I'm fully willing to suspend disbelief and watch even the most implausible of shows.

At least, I thought I was. But when I was watching "The Last Man on Earth," I couldn't help but get hung up on a few little holes in the plotline that make no sense.

First off, we're given no real specifics as to the end-of-the-world event that caused this near extinction of the human race. The show simply starts with a message "The Year 2020 (One Year After The Virus)." We meet our Last Guy, Phil (played expertly by SNL vet Will Forte.) Phil is driving around the country in a tour bus looking for other survivors, ticking states off his map, and gathering an impressive menagerie of souvenirs from his travels.

Phil's Earth is entirely empty. We see him driving down lonely highways, abandoned downtowns, and vacant shopping malls. It's as if the rest of the human race just *poof* disappeared. But they didn't -- there was a "virus" of some kind. But unless this was a virus whose only symptom is that it instantly evaporates you into dust (like the majestically awful 80s movie "Night of the Comet,") this just doesn't make sense.

In the real world, if everyone were to suddenly die of a fast-moving virus, the streets and buildings would be riddled with corpses, no? The stench of decay would make it nearly impossible to enter a city, let alone live there. But I'm okay with this Fox fallacy -- "the stench of decay" is just not a phrase that works with any kind of sitcom, so I'll suspend disbelief and just assume that in THIS show, every infected person's final act was to politely and hygenically dispose of their own bodies in the earth-friendly manner of their choice.

But did this mysterious apocalyptic virus ONLY affect humans? Most viruses tend not to jump from mammal to mammal, which means most animals should still be around. And remember, the show tells us it's been a YEAR since the virus broke out -- by now, city streets should be overrun by packs of marauding wolves and feral dogs. The cow population alone would have grown exponentially. The skies should be rife with vultures. This is about as nice and stress-free an apocalypse as you can imagine. Phil's got it fairly good.

And that's an understatement, considering that Phil can magically drive a tour bus across the country and back again without seeming to worry one bit about gasoline. Sure, there's a kajillion gas stations along the way with full tanks to fill up at, but I would assume that the end of the world would likely mean no power anywhere, including at the gas pumps. It's never explained just how Phil fills up the tanks of his tour bus -- maybe he's some kind of petroleum expert or a former Texaco employee who knows how to circumvent powered pumps to get his own fuel. After all, this IS the same guy who played MacGruber, so he's a smart cookie.

But even if he knew how to manually fill a gas tank, the process would have to be arduous and time-consuming at best. So why on Earth would you choose a gas-guzzling tour bus to travel across the country in? Methinks a Prius or perhaps a bicycle would have been a far better choice.

Faults aside, the show got me thinking, though. What if a world-ending virus really DID occur, and what if I were Phil? What if I were the last man on Earth? How would I handle things? And for this end of days theoretical, I prefer to choose an apocalypse FREE of zombie hordes, if that's okay with you. Zombies are just kind of a drag, and let's be realistic here: I move way too slow to outrun most anything, and I'd be zombie chow by first nightfall. That said, I read an interesting article this week where a group of Cornell researchers tried to use statistic mechanics to determine the safest spot in America to hide from a zombie plague, and their answer was high in the Northern Rockies. Makes sense, but if I had to choose between living like Grizzly Adams or dying like zombie chum, I think I'd fare better as a member of the undead.

In a lonely world sans zombies, though, I'm pretty sure Phil had the best idea: travel as much as possible. I would want to make sure I was good and truly alone. Plus, imagine the fun things you could do. I could go to Charlotte and drive Jeff Gordon's car. Go to the White House and sit in the Oval Office. The first place I'd head would have to be Area 51 to see what all the fuss is about. Plus hey, maybe the aliens we've been keeping out there know how to stop the virus.

Eventually, though, I'm sure I'd want to settle down. Phil chooses his hometown of Tuscon. I'd pick somewhere a little smarter... and higher up. I'm thinking the visitor's center just above the tundra line at the top of Pikes Peak. It's not the Northern Rockies, but that'd still be one heck of a climb for a zombie to make. Same goes for feral dog packs or murderous cow herds. Plus I was there on vacation once, and the view was pretty epic, so I could spot any campfire for miles.  

And when Katie Holmes shows up as the last WOMAN on Earth, we can begin our destiny of repopulating the Earth. Sure, it might take some stamina (and the complete and total suspension of all disbelief ever,) but I think I'm up for the challenge.


We live in an age of great technological advancement, and I'm okay with that. Heck, I HAVE to be okay with it or I risk losing street cred and my long-standing membership in the nerd club -- and let's face it, I've paid my fair share of dues to that particular organization and I've grown quite accustomed to its lifestyle. Why stop now?

The problem is, I'm starting to reach the age where technology is advancing faster than I can keep up with it. This is somewhat worrisome. I never want to be the guy saying, "You kids today and your new-fangled whatzits with their plinking and their plonking!" If you ever hear me utter the word "contraption," you have permission to take me out back like Old Yeller.

I dig technology -- and more to the point, I trust it. That's probably naive of me, which I'll realize the first time my identity gets stolen by a 12-year-old in Botswana. But nothing irks me quite like seeing members of my own generation automatically presume that every new piece of technology hides a nefarious underbelly that's somehow out to get them.

The other day, my social media feeds starting blowing up with incendiary reaction to a news story that had just gone viral. Within minutes, a parade of friends and acquaintances were pulling out their soapboxes and exploding with vitriol as if all of their basic human rights were being violated at the same time.

Admittedly, it was a scary headline: "YOUR TELEVISION COULD BE SPYING ON YOU!" That's some fairly ominous Orwellian spook-talk, so what's it all about?

Well, here's the scoop. "Smart TVs" that directly connect to the internet are all the rage these days. If you have one, you can instantly access services like Netflix and Hulu. You can check your Facebook right there on your TV. You can share pictures and music. I love my Smart TV. It even features voice control -- if I want to change the channel, I can either reach for the remote OR I can just say, "TV! Change to channel 4!" and it will. That's some pretty sweet sci-fi age-of-tomorrow kinda stuff if you ask me.

There's just one tiny issue. It turns out that smart TV's are actually kinda dumb. Voice recognition takes some serious software, and it's more than the tiny processor inside your TV can handle. In order to decipher my voice, my TV has to send it to a braintrust somewhere out in cyberspace. That's the only way it knows whether I'm requesting a channel change or just yelling at a passing housecat. The whole process is instantaneous and makes total sense to me.

This DOES mean, however, that your smart TV is constantly monitoring and recording your voice for analysis. And if it can record your voice without you knowing, what else can it do? My TV recommends shows for me based on my viewing habits, so it must be taking notes on what I watch. Some people think this oversteps the boundaries of privacy.

Me, I couldn't care less. I don't think the Samsung Corporation is eavesdropping on my every conversation with diabolical intent. Even if they WERE, they'd be super bored. Its not as if they're going to overhear me hatching plans for world domination. At the very worst, some guy in a cubicle has the unenviable job of listening to me go, "Who's a pwetty kitty? YOU'RE a pwetty kitty!" And if they're tracking what I watch, that's fine by me. I've always wanted to be a Nielsen family and help support the shows I like. If I controlled the ratings, maybe "Parks and Rec" would still be on the air.

But speaking of "Parks and Rec," it was during that show's finale that my Smart TV overstepped its bounds. The two of us are officially having relationship issues. It can spy on me all it wants. It can listen to any conversation it wants. Heck, it could pop out a hidden camera and take candids of me on the couch if it wants to. But don't -- and I mean DON'T -- come between me and my favorite TV show, especially on its farewell episode.

It was an ad break just like any other, when on came an inocuous ad for a new Toyota Camry. I have nothing against Toyota Camrys. I even darn near bought one a year ago when I was car shopping. But a few seconds into the ad, suddenly my screen was cut in half, and on the left side of the screen appeared... a pop-up ad. On my TV.

"WANT TO SEE MORE OF THE BOLD NEW CAMRY?" it asked. Not especially.

I hate pop-up ads on the internet. In fact, I employ a pop-up blocker on my laptop just so I don't have to deal with them. But a pop-up on my TV? That's just an egregious miscarriage of technology.

Worse yet, it didn't go away. Suddenly my show was back on and I was only seeing half of it, until I managed to fumble for the remote and close the pop-up window. Not cool, Smart TV.

Later that night, it was ME hopping on my internet soapbox to figure out how to stop these ads. Eventually I learned that they stem from a built-in app called "ShopTV." I opened ShopTV to see if there was a way to opt out of receiving pop-ups, but I got distracted by the only sales pitch tackier than a pop-up taking over my TV.

Guess what ShopTV is full of? "Did you like the lamp that was sitting on the table in this week's episode of 'Scandal'? Click here to buy it!" "Did you like Aria's dress tonight on 'Pretty Little Liars'? Click here to buy it!"

I remember getting irked when there was an obvious product placement on a show, like if a character reaches for a Pepsi or a bag of Doritos. Now, it appears the entire shows are just long commercials with occasionally entertaining plots. Frankly, this sort of a future scares me a lot more than Samsung recording my voice.

I have nothing against advertising. It serves a purpose. Heck, it pays for this paper. Advertising plays a vital role in a free market society, and that role is to give me a surplus of strategically timed bathroom breaks. But if TV becomes one giant ad, why bother ever leaving the bathroom?

I guess there's only one thing left to do. I have seen the future, and that future is capitalism. I just need to figure out how to capitalize on it. If ShopTV is the future, I need to create a TV show that serves NO purpose other than selling as many tie-in products as possible. Here's my idea: a romantic sitcom starring an adorably mismatched couple who meet cute... inside the Mall of America. She runs a jewelry store, he test drives cars for a living. Will romance blossom? Who cares, no one will be able to see the screen for all the pop-ups in front of it. Sure, I might go down in history as crafting the worst TV show ever, but I'll still sleep well, especially if my bed is lined with cold hard cash.

COLUMN: Staycation

When it comes to following trends, I'm usually a step or two behind. I'd like to think it's because I'm a strong, assertive, independent person who makes his own rules. A leader, not a follower. I march to the beat of a different drum.

Of course, the truth is that I'm only bad at following trends because I'm usually so wrapped up in my own head that I often don't even know what the trends ARE until they're already yesterday's news. Let's face it, the only reason I march to the beat of a different drum is because I usually show up too late to get the sheet music.

The older I get, the less I seem to care about fads -- and for someone like me who's meticulously built a life identity around the mass consumption of pop culture, this is a hard pill to swallow. I don't want to morph into some out-of-touch fuddy-duddy who's set in his ways, but hey, sometimes I like my ways just fine the way they are. For instance, I have no idea what makes yogurt "Greek," and I'm in no hurry to find out. Your kids might listen to dubstep, but it's the first modern music trend that's made me legitimately want to yell "turn that racket down!" I prefer to hold music and movies in my hand rather than on a cloud somewhere in the ethers of cyberspace.

But all hope is not lost. I can still latch onto a trend and take it for the occasional test drive. I know this because I recently participated in a trend so hip and modern that it didn't even make it into a dictionary until 2009. I'm hip and I'm happening and I know this because I just took a STAYCATION. That's right -- while you chumps were at work last week, I was spending a glorious no-expenses-paid five days and five nights at the luxurious House of Shane in scenic Rock Island, Illinois.

Oh, and it pretty much sucked.

I really DID need a break. Normally, I'm one of those weirdos who loses unused vacation time at the end of each year simply because I forget to take it. I'm far from a workaholic, don't get me wrong. But if I'm not roadtripping or planning something fun, what's the point of taking time off? I'd rather keep those vacation days handy in case of emergency. Thankfully, my life tends to be emergency-free. But last week, I needed to unwind.

Unwinding is supposedly the central theory behind a STAY-cation. Grandiose trips and global adventure can be massive amounts of fun, but they aren't exactly free from stress (just ask the look that was permanently plastered on my dad's face throughout most of our family trips.) Spending a plan-free week at home sounded like the perfect opportunity to relax and maybe knock out a couple of projects around the house. In retrospect, though, I'm now convinced that "staycation" is just a word invented by people too lazy or broke to take a real vacation.

Here's how I spent mine:

Monday morning was a great feeling, sleeping in without a care in the world. Here it was, a whole week to do whatever I... (Ring. Ring.) "Hello? What's that? Oh, hi, Mom. You and Dad want to come up for a visit? Tomorrow? Of course I'd love to see you! Nooooo, it's not a bother..." I love my parents, I really do. They spoil me rotten and they always have my back. I enjoy spending time with them. I would just prefer if that time were spent anywhere other than the interior of my house.

For a bachelor, I don't think I do too bad a job at keeping my house tidy. As long as the trash ends up in the trash within 24-48 hours of it becoming trash, I consider it a win. But my version of tidy and my MOM's version of tidy are a wee bit different. So my first day of relaxing Staycation 2015 was spent shopping for cleaning products, scrubbing floors, suctioning up cat hair, and trying to remember NOT to mix the bleach stuff with the ammonia stuff together. By the time it was done, you could gag on all the springtime freshness... but Monday was wasted.

Tuesday morning was a great feeling... until I remembered that my parents were arriving any minute. The whole morning was spent spot-checking the house and trying to look comfortable in such an unnervingly tidy setting. Eventually they arrived, we had a nice visit, and I'm pretty sure the house even passed the Mom inspection. But Tuesday was wasted.

Wednesday morning was a great feeling, sleeping in without a care in the world... until I realized I'd overslept to the point of giving myself a headache. My plan was to get out and explore the Quad Cities. After all, there's an entire nine-to-five world out there that I usually miss out on while I'm at work. My first stop was Best Buy. I walked in looking for a movie to watch later that night. I walked out with a Playstation 4. I'm not quite sure how it happened.

Some guys hit a mid-life crisis and buy a sports car. In comparison, a video game system is a far more fiscally responsible choice, which is what I've been trying to tell myself all week. I called a friend and told him to stop by after work for some full-scale immature geekery. Then I turned the thing on and realized I needed to download an upgrade. It came bundled with a free game, except the game wasn't actually THERE. Instead, it was hanging out on a cloud (grr). Estimated download time? 6.5 hours. Instead of geeking out, we spent most of the evening staring at a progress bar: 20%... 21%... 22%... And so Wednesday was wasted.

Thursday morning was a great feeling, sleeping in without a care in the world. Except that I was super bored and kinda yearning for something to care about. Instead, I opted for binge-watching Netflix until nightfall. Curse you, Gilmore Girls. Eventually, at 10 p.m., I gave myself a stern mental lecture about wasted opportunity and set out to hang with some friends. Minutes later, I was in a packed club. Minutes after THAT, I was back home. It turned out the only friends I wanted to hang out with that day were, in fact, the Gilmore Girls. And so Thursday was wasted.

Friday morning was an awful feeling, realizing it was the last day I could sleep in without a care in the world. Except that I had a DJ gig that night, and I still needed to do lots of prep work. Ergo, my final day of staycation was spent downloading and organizing music, until I had to leave for the gig, where I had a girl actually come up at one point and request that I stop playing so that she could hear the jukebox. Ouch.

The final stats if you're keeping score:

Total number of projects around the house completed: 0
Total money wasted on a stupid video game system: too much.
Total number of Gilmore Girls episodes watched: 27.
Total number of days before my house got messy again: 2.

Staycations are for the birds. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some Greek yogurt to try 'cause I'm trendy like that.

COLUMN: Weekend Fail

I should've known better.

I've lived in the midwest all my life. I'm well acquainted with Illinois winters. Still, I couldn't help but get excited when the calendar revealed I was staring down an entirely free weekend. No jobs, no commitments, no obligations, no spectre of responsibility whatsoever. I could kick back, relax, and do whatever I wanted. And the Super Bowl to boot? I was in heaven.

Except that I wasn't, which heaven reminded me by pooping down a foot of snow on my head.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. First up was a snow-free Friday night, and what better way to spend it than with my best friend Jason. The plan was simple: grab some food and throw caution to the wind. A thriving nightlife of bars, clubs, bands, and girls beckoned. Where we'd end up was anybody's guess. Except we didn't end up anywhere

See, I'd forgotten one important plot twist to our 20+ year friendship dynamic. Without fail, if you put the two of us in a car and factor in hunger, we will NEVER come to a consensus on where to eat. Suddenly every restaurant option in the Quad Cities will sound utterly abysmal. Eventually, one of us will say "I'm in the mood for _________," and whatever the blank is, the other will have eaten there for lunch that very day. Hence, we end up driving around forever in a fruitless search for some elusively perfect eatery that simply does not exist.

That's exactly how it played out Friday when we drove from Rock Island to Silvis and back again before settling on a neighborhood bar & grill because it was the only place still open by that point. It was all good, though. Maybe big sports on a big screen would be the perfect way to get properly fired up for the night ahead. That's why I was super mega excited to walk in, look up, and be treated to the hustle-bustle, take no prisoners, breakneck adrenaline spectacle of... women's golf. Greeeat. And that's not me being sexist -- it's me being golfist. If watching people whack balls and slowly walk after them is your thing, groovy. Me, not so much.

By the time food was consumed and golf was adequately spectated, we'd lived all the nightlife either of us cared to, so Friday was kind of a wash. Saturday I had plans with another friend to binge-watch some of the shows piling up on my DVR, but the weather had already caused her to cancel. I knew I was at the mercy of the snow gods on Saturday; Sunday, however, was a different matter.

I wasn't planning on letting a little thing like an overnight blizzard put a damper on the Super Bowl. As long as the plows were out, I was certain to have a house full of friends for footballery, finger food, and some dip recipes I found online.

How dedicated was I to the task? Enough to set my alarm for 8 a.m. Sunday to fire up the crock pots. Good move, because I was up and awake for almost eight whole minutes before my neighborhood lost power. Now, I'm no master chef, but I'm fairly certain that crock pots work best when they're turned on. Also, a critical part of Super Bowl parties is, in fact, the Super Bowl, and not just sitting around in darkness taking guesses as to what's happening. None of this mattered, though, because one look outside told me that no houseguests would be arriving. I stand firm in my belief that Rock Island has the greatest snow removal team in the QC, but as we all know, on Sunday the snow won.

It turns out my house is disturbigly silent without the comforting hum of my fridge and air purifier harmonizing throughout the day. I'm pretty sure I could hear my own arteries clogging. I used to think that my cats were adorable little creatures; now I realize they're slurping, licking, sniffing noisemakers that I've thankfully been able to drown out until now.

My thermostat has a battery backup, so I could watch first-hand as the indoor temp lost a degree or two every 20 minutes. My living room descended from t-shirt weather into an overshirt, sweater, and jacket. But the cold wasn't the worst villain of the day. That prize went to my smoke detectors. As it turns out, they also have a battery backup, which was news to me since I've never touched them. And guess what happens to a bunch of stale batteries when they're suddenly tasked with job duties?

"BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!" screamed the noise that was everywhere all at once and continued every fifteen minutes thereafter. Once upon a time, someone built this house. And that someone at some point decided it would be a grand idea to mount the smoke detectors on the ceiling. Given that hot air rises and all, I suppose this is wise in principle. The problem, though, is that my house has vaulted ceilings -- and even the simplest of battery changes requires nerves of steel, aerial agility, and a magic beanstalk to ascend into the heavens.

I was fresh out of magic beans, but I did have a ladder. My dad bought it for me, and it's one of those compact jobs that looks like a stepladder but magically transforms into Optimus Ladder Prime if you have the necessary doctorate in physics required to figure the thing out. Based on its weight, I'd reckon it's made of pure lead, spare cannonballs, and gravity.

I managed to get it in place, but I'll be darned if I could figure out how to extend it. My neighbor came over, fiddled with it a bit, and left with the same dumbfounded look that I'd been wearing for well over an hour. Spare the waterboarding; if we REALLY want bad guys to talk, just send them over to my place. After one hour of beeping, I was hysterically laughing. After TWO hours, I was nearly crying. By the third hour, I was out in the garage, sitting in my car just praying for one of those lady golfers to show up and slice a ball through either the smoke detector OR my brain. Eventually I lined the bedroom door with towels and duct tape and vowed never to enter again.

Seven hours later, my power came back on, the beeping stopped, and my sanity came back in just enough time to watch Pete Carroll lose his. I even had time to make one of those dips, which might have been good had I not misread a teaspoon as a tablespoon and accidentally created a dip of essentially raw basil suspended in mayonnaise.

As soon as the roads became passable, a friend more physics-minded than myself sorted out the ladder situation and changed the battery. Eventually I got the taste of basil out of my mouth. And pretty much the minute I got back to work, I put in a vacation request for next week. For once, I might just be able to kick back, relax, and do whatever I want.

I probably should know better.

COLUMN: Country Music

Forgive me, Quad Cities. I'm not really myself at the moment. Something happened the other night that's left me deeply unsettled and emotionally scarred.

It was a rare Saturday night off, so I spent it like so many others, playing at a charity trivia night event. If you're even just an occasional trivia player, you probably know (and probably hate) the one team that shows up at nearly every event and usually stomps all over the competition. Well, those ragtag trivia nerds are my friends, and quite often I get recruited to tag along as their go-to expert on inane useless pop culture knowledge.

On this night, there was a familiar music category where a short snippet of a song was played, and then teams had to identify each song by both artist and title. Over the course of the night, I was correctly able to name all ten of the songs -- and it's left me a broken shell of a man. Was it because I was struck with the sudden realization that so much of my life and brainpower has been wasted over the years in pursuit of meaningless pop culture? Nope, that's something I've come to terms with long, long ago. No, the truly disturbing part is that three of those songs I was correctly able to identify... were country tunes.

This is clearly unacceptable.

There's few things in life I take pride in, and my complete and total ignorance of country music is one of them. I don't want to know about country music and I certainly don't want to listen to country music. In my world, country music doesn't exist at all.

I call myself a music nerd, but some people get it twisted and call me a music snob instead. Frankly, I don't get what they're on about. It's not my fault if the music I listen to happens to be awesome and the music everybody else listens to happens to be God-awful. It doesn't bother me in the slightest. Your horrible musical tastes are entirely your prerogative.

The truth is, I'm really not THAT much of a music snob. I've spent almost thirty years moonlighting as a DJ at clubs and parties around the area. I've got a pretty high tolerance for most kinds of music. The random shuffle of my iPod routinely drives my friends batty, because it'll jump willy-nilly from avant-garde experimental noise-pop to Taylor Swift to Jay-Z to Neil Diamond. That's just how I roll.

But there's no place on my iPod for country music. I accept that different people like different kinds of music. But I'm also fairly certain that, given adequate resources, I could scientifically and mathematically prove the awfulness of country music. I'm still working on the formula, but the principle is based on a loose equation involving the number of times a song references a pickup truck multiplied by the singer's fondness for mud and/or dirt divided by the number of times the word girl is pronounced "gurl."

But for the past couple years, I've been DJing at a bar that requires me to occasionally sprinkle a few country songs into the mix. No problem, I'm a professional. I can handle this. But here's the thing about these modern country songs: they're awful, but they're also awfully catchy -- and now some of these tunes have had the gall to follow me home from the club and get stuck in my head. I fear they may soon be taking over. If anyone sees me out buying a pair of boots, please dispose of me Old-Yeller-style at your earliest convenience.

Years ago, I wouldn't have dreamt of playing country music at a DJ gig. It just didn't happen. In my day, you had to pick musical sides as part of your cultural identity. In my high school, you either listened to the radio, or you listened to metal, or you were one of the weirdos like me who found solace in outcast bands like Depeche Mode and The Cure and The Smiths. But even in the small town that I grew up in, I didn't know a single kid who listened to country. That was just the music your parents liked and you had to put up with on car trips. I remember on more than one occasion getting on my high school soapbox and telling people that country music would die out in a generation because no one our age listened to it.

But then it all changed. First Garth Brooks came out of nowhere like a cowboy Springsteen, filling arenas and flying around on wires and proving you could be country AND cool. (Well, kinda.) Then came the line dances and CMTV and American Idol and just like that, country stars started fighting it out with rappers for the upper eschelon of the Top 40 chart. Nowadays, you've got Luke Bryan and Florida-Georgia Line covering hip-hop songs in concert and giving shout-outs to Drake and T-Pain in their songs. They haven't just crossed over, they built a multi-lane bridge right over the chasm.

So what is it about this twangy stuff that people like, anyways? I know a few country fans here at work, so I asked them. And universally, the response was the same: "Country music tells a story." I like a good story, too, so I started listening to the lyrics of these songs I was playing at the club. Sure enough, there's a story to be told. Of my five most requested country songs over the past couple of years, #1 is about drinking. #2 is about drinking during the day. #3 is about drinking on a boat. #4 is about drinking on a plane. And the fifth one, sort of inexplicably, is about chicken-fried steak, but it mentions beer, too, so hey.

"what's that one country song?" a girl requested just last weekend. "You know, the one about trucks and partyin'?"

"All of them," I replied. "They're all about that."

But then I thought about my five most-requested hip-hop songs at the moment. #1 is about butts. #2 is about large butts. #3 is about drinking. #4 is about shaking your butt while drinking. And #5 is about something called uptown funk, which I presume involves both butts and booze. I guess rap's about the same as country, just with fewer trucks and more, umm, tailgates.

Of course, the only thing I really accomplished with my in-depth lyrical analysis is that I can now sing along with all these country songs, as I discovered while absent-mindedly crooning along to "Drunk on a Plane" at Hy-Vee the other day, a move that could've single-handedly destroyed my street cred had anyone noticed. Good thing I didn't just own up to it in a widely-distributed newspaper column.

So I guess that's it, then. I'd better accept that country music's here to stay, and that I might even (shudder) LIKE some of it. If anybody asks, though, I'm simply expanding my knowledge base so I can crush all you people at trivia.

COLUMN: Naked Guy

(Pic courtesy Todd Mizener, The Dispatch/Rock Island Argus)

Ah, column writing time. Hmm, how to use my allocated space to change the world THIS week?

A serious journalist would dissect last week's State of the Union address. Or I suppose I could enter the national debate on "American Sniper." Perhaps it's time for a transformative hard-hitting essay on the state of race relations. Maybe I should finally unleash my revolutionary multi-step plan for comprehensive socio-economic reform.

Or maybe I should listen to all the people on Facebook and write about the naked guy. I knew I shoulda kept my online yap shut. But it's too late now. Changing the world will have to wait.

Downtown Moline plays host to a sea of colorful characters, not the least of whom are my amazing co-workers here at the Dispatch/Argus. But recently a few of us lucky ones have encountered a new colorful character -- a flesh-colored one.

The first time it happened was last fall, and I just missed it. I know this because I returned from lunch that day to a gaggle of giggling co-workers all telling me, "You just missed it!"

"Missed what?" I asked with a full belly and bewildered gaze.

"NAKED GUY IN THE ALLEY!" came a half dozen responses. Apparently while I was on my lunch hour, a guy came sauntering down our back alley 100% free of the cumbersome burden of clothing. I guess he marched around the area for a bit rather purposefully while bellowing something about the end of the world. Eventually, he made his way to one of Moline's busiest streets where he was quickly nabbed by police, who safely and efficiently whisked him off to whereever one takes afternoon nudists.

In retrospect, the weirdest bit wasn't the naked guy stomping through downtown. No, the weirdest part was my immediate disappointment to have missed it. "Aw, nuts," I recall thinking at the time, "I always miss the good stuff."

It wasn't until a few minutes later at my desk when I thought it through. "Wait a sec," said the normal part of my brain that doesn't crave the unwanted and unwarranted spontaneous view of a stranger's nether-regions, "I'm kinda GLAD I was at lunch. Eww."

That was the last we saw of Naked Guy. I know what you're thinking -- and you're right, it IS tough to get through the holiday season without any good indecent exposure. Somehow I soldiered through -- until this week.

It was the end of a challenging workday and I was headed to my car. My brain was multi-tasking: What to have for dinner? What's on TV tonight? Do I need cat food? And that's why I almost screamed when one of our photographers squealed up in his car, rolled down his window, and excitedly said, "NAKED GUY!"

I could only hope he was talking TO me and not ABOUT me. I can be absent-minded for sure, but I was pretty certain at the very least that I was wearing pants. The only response I could muster: "Again??"

Sure enough, I looked down the alley that led to our parking lot and there he was -- a one-man fleshy flash mob pacing around in his birthday suit. And yes, this particular suit had seen a fair share of birthdays indeed. Our employee lot is big. There's plenty of room there to hold any kind of naked parade you fancy. But because karma hates me, this particular naked parade was marching in circles around MY car. Greeeeeat. Cautiously, I took a few steps forward until our trouser-challenged friend turned my way and started yelling something about Jesus and the end of the world.

Now, I might make light of the absurdity of the situation, but please don't confuse kidding for mocking. This guy wasn't just recreationally streaking on a balmy January evening. It was pretty clear he was suffering from something fairly profound and needed help beyond what I could offer. It was also pretty clear that I wasn't making it to my car without an encounter I'd prefer not encountering. That's when I picked up my phone and called 911.

"What's the nature of your emergency?" asked the operator.

"Clothing," I explained, "or lack thereof. There's a naked guy wandering around downtown Moline who needs some help."

To their credit, the first responding officer was there within SECONDS, not minutes. It was a female officer, who looked about as thrilled by the prospect of touching this guy as I did. Thankfully, backup was right around the corner, and back up is exactly what I did while the officers did their job with impressive ease. The guy resisted at first, but within minutes, they had him calm, covered, and in the back of an ambulance. Hopefully he's getting the help -- and the pants -- he needs.

Of course, me being the absurdist I am, I couldn't help but ponder things when I got home that night. Wouldn't it be just my luck if he was right? What if the world really WAS ending? What if my last thought ever on Earth was, "Man, I shoulda listened to Naked Guy?" After all, karma DOES hate me. But if that were the case, I can think of an even worse scenario:

What if, right this very second, the big guy in the sky appeared before me, right here in my living room, and spake unto me thusly: "Bad news, Shane. I'm ending the world, right here and now. But you can stop it if you head out, sound the trumpet, and get as many people to believe you as possible. Oh, and one other thing... I'm gonna need those pants."

Granted, those wouldn't be the actions of any loving god I choose to follow, but if you believe the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, you know that He can be a bit testy at times. I think I'm pretty safe in saying that, should this absurd scenario ever happen to me, I'm pretty sure I would single-handedly be responsible for the end of days. I'm not sure if anything, up to and potentially including a divine order from above, would get me to wander about town wearing only a smile. Nope, just can't do it.

If I could find a way to bathe with clothes on, I'd do it. The dressed version of me isn't much to look at; the naked version can't be an improvement. And it's not because I'm a chubby guy, which I am; I'm pretty sure that even if I had abs of steel, they'd stay hidden under a loose t-shirt. It's just how I roll.

Thankfully, I'm going to assume that any higher powers up there have better things to do than torture me with my own nudity. And I'm pretty sure the scenario I invented is nothing more than the plot of the 1977 movie "Oh God," except I'm not John Denver and I'm not wearing pants. And if that's not a world-changing image to leave you with, I dunno what is.

COLUMN: Ankle Redux

I've heard it all my life: "You need to grow up!" "When are you going to learn some responsibility?" "Act your age!" "You're so immature sometimes!" Well, it was exactly one year ago this week when I decided to do an act of pure brazen responsibility -- and it landed me in the hospital.

I remember it fairly well, because it was the night of the 2014 Golden Globes and my voice was hoarse from cheering Amy Poehler's win for Best Actress. While I suppose it could be argued that having such a vested interest in a television personality that you've never met isn't exactly a cornerstone example of maturity, let's just ignore that for now, because I'm about to prove to you just how mature and responsible yours truly can be.

The awards were long over and I was getting ready for bed. I was in the process of powering down the living room when I glanced towards the kitchen and saw it: a single bag of overflowing trash, and it was garbage pick-up day in the morning. A voice spoke up in my head. It was Irresponsible Shane, and he's loud.

"Screw it," said he. "Just dump it in the bin tomorrow and let it rot for a week."

Then that awful voice of reason -- the one that exists entirely in my mind yet coincidentally sounds a lot like my mother -- piped in. "Shane MICHAEL," it said. "Take out the trash right this minute!"

Fine. This would be the night that responsibility would win. Call ME lazy? Call ME immature? I'll show YOU. I don't care if it IS 12:41 a.m., I'm taking the trash out because THAT'S the responsible thing to do. As I steered the waste bin to the edge of the curb, I had a swagger in my step and a pride in my gait. I could have easily shirked this responsibility and no one would have even been the wiser. But not me. I'm a go-getter who's taking the high road.

But no one told me there was ice on the high road. About two feet from the edge of my alley, there was a teeny patch of black ice formed by my gutter run-off. I didn't notice it until I was already falling. My feet went flying out from under me as I dropped to my knees. My left foot landed perpendicular to the pavement as if I were a ballet dancer ready to do the weirdest Nutcracker you've ever seen. Then my butt caught up with the rest of me and landed square on my left foot. Something bent, I felt a pop, and then everything sorta went white.

I prayed it was just a sprain. Somehow I managed to hop back into the house, and -- after finding no ice in the freezer -- employed impressive MacGyver-like tactics and duct-taped a bag of frozen peas to my foot. I woke in the morning and immediately knew it was no sprain. My foot was black and blue and my ankle had grown a cankle and the cankle had grown a goiter and the bag had opened and peas were EVERYWHERE and the cats were incredibly confused and THIS IS WHAT RESPONSIBILITY GETS YOU, PEOPLE.

Hours of fun and X-rays later and it was confirmed: my late-night sidewalk breakdance had resulted in a double break to my left ankle. The orthopedic surgeon, being the orthopedic surgeon that he was, immediately wanted to start surgering things. I asked him what it entailed and he said he'd simply screw a metal plate and I'm pretty sure he said other words after that but that's when things went white again. My other option, and the one I chose, was to cast it up and it'd probably heal just fine but I might have problems down the road.

Well, it's now been one year down that road, and so far so good. There are certainly times when my foot still aches a bit -- I used to enjoy sitting on my feet sometimes, and those days are done. Occasionally when I'm driving, my ankle will just spontaneously start throbbing, but it's thankfully short-lived.

There is, however, one side effect that the doctor didn't warn me about: I'm now hopelessly and entirely TERRIFIED of ice. This is super great news because I didn't have enough irrational fears in my life as is, and now I feel like a much more well-rounded phobic. It's no secret that I'm a bit of an uncoordinated klutz. This I can't help; it's more birthright than immaturity. Every winter, without fail, I will find ice, fall down, and go boom. But fall down and go SNAP is an experience I'd prefer never to replicate.

The other day, I was leaving the office with a co-worker after our recent snowfall. As we walked to our cars, we were in the middle of a dialogue (that was in no way, shape, or form about work-related stress because we love our jobs and are above petty gossip, whining, and complaining) when suddenly she realized that our dialogue had turned into her monologue. That's because she was walking like a normal human person while I was 50 yards back, cautiously inching along like an octogenarian.

"REALLY?" she said to me incredulously.

"Don't worry," I shouted back. "If you slip and fall, I'll be along in three to five minutes to give you a hand."

Once upon a time, I looked at snow as a winter wonderland, not an ankle-snapping icy deathtrap. As a stocking stuffer this Christmas, my folks got me a pair of slip-on ice cleats. Basically they're just pieces of vaguely shoe-shaped rubber covered in tiny spikes. You stretch them over your shoes and presto, you've got the traction of a mountain climber in seconds. Or so I thought.

It turns out they don't stretch quite so easily. I have an average shoe size, but I'm pretty sure these cleats are designed for oompa-loompahs. The first time I tried putting them on, it took roughly 20 minutes and a majority of the skin off my index finger. Easy-on, easy-off these ain't.

Yes, they added much-needed traction and allowed me to walk like a standard 44-year-old. Getting places was awesome, but once you were IN those places, it's another story. I choose to plead the fifth and not say anything to incriminate myself, but let's just say if you happen to be in an area Walgreen's and notice a path of tiny holes stretching from the door to the cat food aisle, I WAS NEVER THERE. Worse yet, my local gas station lines their floor with cardboard in the winter months, and every step I took sounded like a hail of gunfire as I aerated their makeshift flooring.

So I learned a quick lesson about not wearing the spikes inside, but I can't get the things off and back on without a fight. Changing shoes is an option, but that means I get to take a Bag o' Muddy Shoes with me everywhere as a fashion accessory. So those are my options: Either I become Shoebag Shane or I walk around in the snow like there's a stick named Winter firmly wedged in a place where the sun don't shine. OR, maybe I'll man up, act my age, and choose the responsible mature option: stay indoors until spring.


"Hard work is its own reward," my dad often used to say to me. "You can't beat the satisfaction of a job well done."

At least, that sounds like something he probably would have said to me. I wasn't paying attention. After all, there were video games that needed to be played.

But it turns out there really are weirdos out there like my dad who thrive on the satisfaction of a job well done. I'm just not one of them. My personal philosophy is that there's a far deeper and richer satisfaction than what stems from a job well done, and that's the satisfaction one achieves from a job well avoided.

I suppose I'm one of the laziest people alive, I'll own up to that -- but only when it comes to jobs I don't want to do. I work in sales, I write this column, I DJ on the weekends, I help run a website, and I frequently host and emcee trivia nights. Those jobs aren't the problem. It's all the little jobs in-between those jobs that I could do without.

You know, cumbersome trivial tasks like laundry. And dishes. And cooking and cleaning and eating and sleeping. Those are the kind of things that can really interfere with a person's existence. For the most part, I've had a fair amount of success over the years circumventing, bypassing, simplifying, and altogether shirking many of life's most basic responsibilities. For instance, it turns out that laundry is a far more bearable task when you can do it in your own basement while standing in front of a hi-def TV. Washing dishes is considerably less taxing when one owns a machine that does it for you. Bills are easier to pay when they're automatically withdrawn from your account every month. I can handle this modern life stuff.

But no task fills me with quite as much disdain and dread as the notion of lawn care. It turns out it's tough to get motivated to care for your lawn when you don't care ABOUT your lawn. In a perfect world, every square foot of land I own would be covered in precious, maintenance-free concrete. We live in a modern world where science lets us carry telephones in our pockets and music on a cloud and you're telling me we can't develop a strain of grass that grows to a height of two inches and then stops? Maybe this life isn't as modern as I thought.

Until science catches up with us, we as a people must continue to mow our own lawns. Or, in my case, me as a person must hire someone to mow my own lawn. I picked a guy who advertised his service right here in our classifieds, and it was a great call. He's been doing great affordable work -- until last month, when he rang to inform that his day job was transferring him out of state.

Happily though, he sold his entire client list to a different lawn care company who will be taking over this spring. Huzzah, I hope. But he posed an even more interesting question in his farewell call to me: "Oh, and these guys do snow removal, too. Do you want me to put you on their list?"

Wow, I'd never given much consideration to paying out for snow shoveling. I'm not exactly made of money, and it's not like my arms are broken. But the prices were affordable, and hey, who am I to turn down a new and exciting way to advance my laziness?

"Sure!" I told him. And that was that. Snow removal was officially one less thing I had to worry about.

"Except," I added, "can you have them ONLY come if it's more than two inches?"

"Will do," he said.

Which brings us to last Sunday, when we all woke up to the inaugural winter wonderland of 2015. From what I could ascertain, it looked like about two inches of freshly fallen snow on the ground. Would my new snow removal team show up? I was too lazy to have written down their number, so it was anyone's guess. I decided to give it a couple hours.

Eventually, I figured it was time for action. I dragged myself off the couch, hopped in the shower, threw on a few layers of clothes, dug the trusty snow shovel out of the closet, and was putting on gloves when a pickup truck pulled up out of nowhere. Out jumped a whole team of guys in a whirlwind of shovels and snowblowers. It took them less than five minutes to completely clear my walks and driveway.

"Wow," I said to myself, still holding the shovel in my hand. Those guys just took care of all my shoveling duties in record time, and they did an impressive job. It was fast, it was practical, it was... a huge bummer.

This made no sense. I had just been relieved of my duties but felt no relief. Instead, just a tinge of disappointment. Don't tell anyone because I've worked really hard at cultivating my reputation as laziness incarnate, but I think I might actually enjoy shoveling snow. It's the one time I can enjoy being outside without all of that pesky nature getting in the way. There's no snow snakes to avoid and no snow bees to sting you. Plus it's just plain fun to play in the snow, I don't care if you're 4 or 44.

I thought long and hard about cancelling my new service. There's few times in my life that I actually enjoy manual labor, so I'd better embrace it, no? Thankfully, those crazy thoughts only lasted for two days. I'm now finishing this column on Wednesday night, and yesterday it dropped another five inches of snow on us. But it also dropped about thirty degrees, and, as it turns out, my newly-realized zeal for snow shoveling loses its lustre when the mercury drops to it's current holding pattern of eleventy billion below zero with a wind chill factor of minus Infinity Instant Death.

I didn't stop to admire their handiwork when I got home. Frankly, I don't care what the outside of my house looks like at the moment, because my new plan is to not exit it again until mid-May or so. So I'm officially UN-bummed about losing the task of snow removal, but should we ever get less than two inches of snow and the temperature rises back to a level hospitable for human life, listen carefully -- you might just hear somebody whistling while he works.

COLUMN: Best of 2014 - TV

There are some who say I watch too much TV. Something about blah blah early death if I don't get off the couch and do something with my life yada yada. So why do I risk health, sanity, and friendships for a life in front of the boob tube? Why, for YOU, dear readers. I do it for because I know you patiently wait all year to read my picks for the best television shows of the year. At least, this is the lie I will continue to tell myself as long as they let me keep doing this silly list.

The Best TV I've Watched in 2014:

10. BIG BROTHER (CBS) - For years now, Big Brother has provided a delightful public service by choosing twelve vapid and dim-witted strangers and removing them from society for an entire summer while a grateful nation applauds. These houseguests usually represent the worst of every ethnic, racial, and social stereotype imaginable, and forcing them to live together under the constant eye of the camera invariably brings tears, in-fighting, and the worst artificial drama that reality TV can afford. It's also one of the most addictive things on TV, and this year's crop of contestants couldn't have been more entertaining. When I think back on my fondest summer memory of 2014, it might just be this insipid show.

9. SILICON VALLEY (HBO) - HBO's freshman comedy started off a little wobbly, but won me over with its smart writing and lovable cast. Scoring comedy heavyweights like T.J. Miller & Kumail Nanjiani was a brilliant move by exec producer Mike Judge, but the real star of the season was Christopher Evan Welch's brilliantly awkward turn as venture capitalist Peter Gregory. Sadly, Welch died during filming, but Judge's stewardship should see the show on towards greater things. "The Big Bang Theory" should take notes; THIS is what geek humor really is.

8. ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN (CNN) - As someone who's fascinated by the world but seldom gets to see any any parts of it outside the midwest, I usually find myself jealous watching travel shows. With Bourdain, it's less jealousy and more gratefulness, as no other host has ever provided such a realistic look into foreign lands simply by wandering around and eating for an hour. Bourdain's made a career out of being a foodie, and it's easy to see why. His sardonic wit, ease of communication, and seemingly inspired ability to find the "real" culture behind the meals he eats offers us more insight than any guidebook could dream of.

7. NEW GIRL (FOX) - It took a couple seasons for New Girl to find its feet, but now that it has, every episode is pure joy to watch. Not since "Gilmore Girls" has a show been able to succeed on little more than rapid-fire repartee, but it's the calling card of this exceptional sitcom. Apart from the lightning-fast conversation, very little actually happens on an episode of "New Girl," and it should stay that way.

6. THE NEWSROOM (HBO) - Critics were never kind to Aaron Sorkin's cable-news drama, and its farewell year was no exception. With controversial plotlines about rape, the internet, and the sanctity of media, Sorkin never fails to push buttons. A lot of people hate this show with a fiery passion, including people who's opinions I cherish. But the way I see it, it takes a special kind of show to get those sorts of people riled up enough to push those buttons in the first place. Even if you don't agree with Sorkin's politics or the occasional way he handles the feminist perspective, you've got to admit it's compelling TV and you're watching it. The world needs Aaron Sorkin, even if it's just to hate him.

5. PRETTY LITTLE LIARS (ABC FAMILY) - Yes, it's a soap opera written for tweens. Yes, it's got one of the silliest plotlines ever attempted. But here's the brilliant part about Pretty Little Liars: It knows how ridiculous it is, and it just plain doesn't care. A critic for the L.A. Times once nailed it when she wrote that PLL is "one of those shows that manages to mildly, and perhaps unintentionally, spoof its genre while fully participating in it, and that's not a bad thing at all." The result is an addictively mind-bending mish-mash that runs the gamut from teen romance to slasher flick and back again, while somehow managing to be one of the most compelling mystery shows of all time.

4. GRACEPOINT (FOX) - When Fox announced they were putting together an Americanized version of the hit BBC murder mystery series Broadchurch, I really wasn't expecting a shot-for-shot remake using almost the exact same scripts.  They might as well have just dubbed some phony American accents over the original and saved themselves a lot of trouble.  But as good as the original was, the American remake just might be better, thanks to top-notch performances from Michael Pena and Virginia Kull as grief-stricken parents trying to cling to their fragile marriage during the height of tragedy.

3. GAME OF THRONES (HBO) - About the only good thing that came out of my broken ankle last year was that I finally started watching Game of Thrones.  I shouldn't have been so late to the party.  What's not to love about a non-stop whirlwind of sex, death, betrayal, and dragons? Come on, that's pretty much the four food groups of awesome.  Join the fun, pick a favorite character, and then become emotionally scarred when George RR Martin kills them off without a second thought.

2. PARKS & RECREATION (NBC) - The shortened farewell season of Parks & Rec starts in just a couple weeks and will wrap up before the end of winter and then I will be sad for the rest of time. Parks & Rec might just be the swan song of the smart sitcom, which has been eschewed in recent years for broader family fare and yet more police & medical procedurals.  Thank God for DVD's and reruns, because a life without Ron Swanson is not a life worth living.

1. THE VAMPIRE DIARIES (The CW) - I know, you don't believe me.  I'm supposed to write about Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy or The Walking Dead.  Just trust me on this one.  Only one show has romance so heartbreaking you want to scream at the TV. Only one show has central characters capable of as much villainy as heroism.  Only one show mixes drama, action, charm, and humor with this much ease. And the only ones watching this only one show are your teenage daughters and one chubby newspaper columnist.  Do yourself a favor and give it a shot, you'll be surprised.  After a couple meandering seasons, The Vampire Diaries scaled back this year and managed to rediscover the relationships that made it such a gem to begin with.  Just go watch it before you scream at me.