Monday, June 29, 2015

COLUMN: East Coast, Pt. 2

What's that, you say? You want to hear MORE about my recent East Coast vacation? Well, ouch, twist my arm, why don't ya? Okay, if I remember correctly, we left off last week in...  

Sunday, 7 p.m.: VERMONT. Have you ever been lost in the woods? If so, you know what it's like to be in Vermont. We have no idea where we are or what we're doing, so we turn to the GPS for nearest hotel recommendations. It gives us hotel listings in Montreal, Canada. Wow, we are NORTH. Sadly, we are also lacking passports, so we look to the map and head towards the capital city of Montpelier assuming it will be rife with hotels.

Sunday, 9 p.m.: Montpelier, as it turns out, is rife with nothing whatsoever. It is the capital city of Vermont, yet is roughly the size of Geneseo (and I'm pretty sure Geneseo has more hotels.) We end up in a town called Barre before we find anything with vacancies. 

Monday, 9 a.m.: The continental breakfast at this hotel comes complete with a do-it-yourself waffle-making station. It also comes complete with a jaded and bitter hotel employee whose job is to stand by the waffle station and sternly exclaim, "YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!" whenever anyone touches the device. When not tasked with berating us, she stands with arms crossed staring while we eat. I'm pretty sure we're being graded on our breakfasting ability. I hope I pass the audition.

Monday, 10 a.m.: We have succeeded in leaving the hotel in the wrong direction and are now lost among the woods and trees. It appears we may have to give up and start life anew in Vermont. On the positive side, we have discovered a granite quarry with a visitor's center where we learn all about the history of tombstones and Vermont granite, all of which is interesting and educational information that I promptly forget before we've even left the parking lot. What I do remember, though, is that the quarry was also used for pivotal scenes in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, and that's pretty sweet. 

Monday, 1 p.m.: We are standing in what the natives call a "sugar shack." From the outside, it looks like your run-of-the-mill barn. The interior, however, looks more like Willy Wonka's nightmare. This stainless steel behemoth is what takes tree sap and turns it into syrupy maple goodness. I never thought I'd become a syrup snob, but after one taste of 100% pure Vermont maple syrup, I'm filing divorce papers on Mrs. Buttersworth the minute I get home.

Monday, 1:30 p.m.: Vermont people are kinda scary. Right now the rugged woman in the sugar shack is telling us how badly their area was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, but when the National Guard arrived to assist, the family told them, "Nah, we're good, we're Vermonters." Note to self: Remember to make friends with some Vermonters.

Monday, 3 p.m.: Here's what I can tell you about the great state of New Hampshire: It's raining, it's cloudy, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm getting bedsores from sitting in the car for four straight days.

Monday, 6 p.m.: We have been driving through central Maine for what feels like eternity, and I have yet to see one telekinetic prom queen, rabid St. Bernard, zombie pet, or sewer-dwelling clown spider. Stephen King's Maine is a LOT more exciting than this one. We haven't even seen a moose, despite hundreds of signs telling us to watch for them. Maine moose must be fairly stealthy.

Monday, 9 p.m.: Bar Harbor, Maine. Any farther east and we'd be underwater. My friend Jason and I celebrate our arrival at the Atlantic Ocean by indulging in an expensive gourmet lobster feast, wherein we discover that neither of us really likes lobster all that much.

Tuesday, 9 a.m.: You know those picturesque images of ocean waves battering rocky shores that you think can't possibly exist in the real world? They're ALL taken here, in Acadia National Park. Spending the day in the most beautiful place I've ever been is tempered only by the rain that pours down on us all day. Still, this is the Maine of my dreams. I contemplate killing Jason in order to see if Angela Lansbury shows up to solve the crime. 

Tuesday, 7 p.m.: Portland is a fun city, and we waste a couple hours playing our new favorite game: "Fisherman Or Hipster?" Everyone has a beard, a knit cap, and a vintage coat -- it's just that some appear to do it as a lifestyle while others do it as their life.

Wednesday, 11 a.m.: Following the coast south, we're back in New Hampshire and stumble upon Odiorne Point State Park. The guard at the gate is a long-haired kid who noodles on an acoustic guitar while telling us to check out the tide pools. As we leave an hour later, we notice there's been a shift change and it is now a DIFFERENT long-haired kid noodling on an acoustic guitar. Life in New Hampshire doesn't seem too bad.

Wednesday, 1 p.m.: Salem, Massachusetts: a town rife with history and legend is now rife with ghost tours, psychics, and troubadours in Colonial gear who speak in old-timey accents even when they're processing your Mastercards. 

Wednesday, 4 p.m.: It's official: I hate Boston. I'm sure that you all have Bostonian family and friends who are all wonderful people, but they must've stayed home this afternoon. Traffic was a nightmare, parking was even worse, and everywhere we went was crowded, fast-paced, and obnoxious. In movies, Boston Common looks gorgeous, and it is -- except it's full of joggers, bikers, walkers, and a sea of humanity, and I'm clearly in everyone's way. I swear I even got honked at by an angry duck.

Wednesday, 4:30 p.m.: Seeking shelter from the chaos, I retreat into the Bull & Finch Pub, better known as the exterior location of the TV show Cheers. These days, it's a gift emporium that sticks the Cheers logo onto anything sell-able while the "everybody knows your name" theme song plays on an endless loop. I ask the clerk if she hates the song. "You... have... no... idea," she tells me through clenched teeth while I back away slowly.

There's only one more destination to go before we call this vacation a day. If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere. More on that next week. As God is my witness, animatronic donkeys WILL come into play. 

COLUMN: East Coast Pt. 1

When I was in college, my friends and I obsessed over the British shoegazer band Ride. Upon their breakup, we made a vow that if Ride were ever to reunite, we would drop whatever we were doing and travel anywhere in the world to see them play. Well, here it is, umpteen years later, and the Ride reunion of our dreams is upon us. There was just one problem: the only U.S. stop on their quickie reunion tour was New York City. But hey, a vow's a vow -- so we all made plans to go. I've never actually seen the movie, but I assumed this would be our "Big Chill," just with a better soundtrack.

Rather than fly out and back, my friend Jason and I decided to drive it, turning the concert into a perfect excuse for a 9-day scenic exploration of New England. I knew it would be an epic and column-worthy trip, so I brought a travel diary with me as a public service to any of you who might one day have to make good on a 20-year-old vow to drive halfway across the country on a whim.

(By the way, as it turns out, most of my friends bailed on our sacred vow because they have kids and lives and stuff. Lamers. And more to point, no sooner had we secured tickets when Ride suddenly announced a full U.S. tour in the fall which will bring them a heck of a lot closer than NYC. Ah well, a vow's a vow.)

Friday, 9 a.m.:  Armed to the teeth with caffeine, Claritin, and way more luggage than 2 people should need for a simple roadtrip, Jason and I depart the Quad Cities. To celebrate the occasion, I have made a wicked playlist full of all the music we listened to in college.

Friday, noon: Come on, Indiana. Is it not enough that we're forced to drive through your terminally boring state? But no, you're actually going to CHARGE us for the honor? Sadly, this is the first of MANY a toll road we would encounter.

Friday, 2 p.m.: It turns out the music we listened to in college is kinda grating these days. We kill my playlist and opt for satellite radio the rest of the trip.

Friday, 3 p.m.: My apologies, Indiana. I take it all back. You are a super exciting state compared to the great expanse of central Ohio.

Friday, 4 p.m.: I didn't expect my first view of Lake Erie to be accompanied by screams of terror. But this is the Sandusky marina, and even from a mile away, you can hear the high-pitched shrieks emanating from the roller coasters of Cedar Point. We contemplate going in, but decide that we'd prefer the contents of our stomachs to remain IN said stomachs.

Friday, 6 p.m.: We are in the land of boat people. Sitting on the deck at Quaker Steak & Lube (a chicken wing joint to rival B-Dubs) in Vermilion, Ohio, it is painfully evident that more folks have floated here than driven. In Vermilion, driveways are secondary to slips, and the laid back vibe is kinda perfect.

Friday, 10 p.m.: We make camp for the evening at an inn with a red roof in suburban Cleveland. As I lay me down to sleep, I'm reminded of the last epic roadtrip I took with friends. That first morning, I woke up fully rested to find my friends sleeping in cars and bathtubs to escape my snoring. I was hoping I'd magically overcome the affliction, but one look at Jason in the morning said otherwise. "Did I snore?" I asked. "No," he replied, and for a moment I felt relieved. "It sounded more like you spent the night fornicating with a flatulence machine." Yikes. It is decided separate hotel rooms will be the way to go for the remainder of the trip. It's a small price to pay for not having my best friend hate me.

Saturday, 11 a.m.: We have found the Alleghany National Forest. Or, as I like to call it, East Dubuque. Don't get me wrong, they're pretty and all. But anyone who's been north of the Quad Cities knows what a tree-covered hill looks like.

Saturday, 3 p.m.: Bradford, Pennsylvania brings us our first random find: the home and museum of Zippo lighters. Celebrating a fire ignition device in the middle of one of our nation's grandest forests doesn't seem like the sort of thing Smokey the Bear would approve of, but we roll with it.

Saturday, 5 p.m.: When we heard Ithaca had a beautiful waterfall worth checking out, we didn't expect to find it smack in the middle of the Cornell University campus, and I certainly didn't think I'd have to cross a stomach-turning suspension bridge in order to see it. If I had to walk across this thing on the daily just to get to class, I'm pretty sure I'd end up with a minor in Contemporary Vomiting.

Sunday, 10 a.m.: "Hey, here's a good idea. Let's gorge ourselves on the complimentary hotel breakfast to the point that we can't move and then go explore the upper Adirondacks," said no one ever. Also, someone failed to inform Lake Placid that it's spring. It is FREEZING up here, and all I brought was the lightest of light jackets. But it's too beautiful to be anywhere else.

Sunday, 2 p.m.: For only $40, you can whiz down the bobsled track from the 1980 Winter Olympics. For $0, you can say "No thank you."

Sunday, 4 p.m.: We have driven to the almost-summit of Whiteface Mountain, where you can look out upon the entire Lake Placid region, which we did for approximately 38 seconds before losing feeling in our extremities. I instead opt for flirting with the cute yet jaded hipster girl working the summit gift shop. She seems WAY over it. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Canada. On a 36-degree sleeting day, you can barely see in front of you. Still, it's pretty spectacular.

Sunday, 6 p.m.: Now we're talking. I watch "Destination Truth" and "MonsterQuest," so I am familiar with Lake Champlain and the sea monster they call Champy purported to lurk in its briny depths. We decide to take a ferry across the lake and see for ourselves. As I feared, Champy is clearly intimidated by my monster-hunting prowess and decides to stay hidden. Bummer. Worse yet, we're now in Vermont.

Where do we go from here? And I believe last week I promised something about animatronic donkeys? More on that... next week.

COLUMN: Trekking Poles

The more observant among you may have noticed that I took a vacation week last Monday.

Usually, this is my cue to tell you what I was REALLY doing with that "vacation" week. On more than one occasion, I've used it to sit by a family member's side at the hospital or to attend a friend's wedding or to finally tackle some time-consuming home improvement project. More often than not, though, I usually spend my "vacations" sitting around the house in a week-long state of boredom. For someone whose favorite pastime is a long and aimless drive, I sure don't take advantage of my vacations well. It was high time I fixed all that.

I didn't.

I'm starting to wonder if I'm just lousy at vacating. This time around, I tried to overcompensate for all those wasted vacations of yore. This time, I would try packing 3-5 vacations worth of activities into a mere week-and-a-half. Well, It's now that week-and-a-half later, and I've just made it home -- exhausted, sick to the bone, road weary, and desperately needing another vacation to recover from my vacation.

But man, did we vacate.

Like most things in my life, it all started with music. Namely, the music of ONE band: Ride. Yep, I know -- you've probably never heard of them. Don't feel bad, they were never exactly a household name. But for a few magical moments in the early 90s, they were the greatest band on the planet. Back in college, my friends and I tracked their every move, bought every CD, and worshipped them as musical gods. Like all good things must, though, our Ride eventually came to an end in 1996 when the band split up. At that time, my friends and I swore a sacred pact: If there ever came a day when Ride would reunite, we would travel ANYWHERE to see them.

That brings us to earlier this year. It was a blessedly mundane work day when suddenly I heard the distant ping of Facebook alerting my cell phone to an incoming message. But then it was followed by another and then another and then 2 more. Facebook was blowing up with messages from my old friends, all with the same newsflash: Ride were back. All the original members, all the old songs, and only one U.S. stop on their brief reunion tour. The pact was affirmed, tickets were procured, and it was a done deal. I was headed (gulp) to New York City.

After some quick discussion, an action plan was formed: My friends and I, now spread all over the U.S., would converge upon NYC this June and meet up for some lunching followed immediately by some rocking. Amongst the posse was one other Quad Citizen and my co-pilot on many a previous misadventure: my friend Jason. Rather than fly in for the show and quickly return back, the two of us hatched our own plan. With a full vacation week to kill, we decided to drive instead of fly and spend a few days checking out the East Coast.

Sure, I suppose a New England roadtrip is best taken in the fall than in the spring, but when would we have a better excuse to check out a corner of the country neither of us had ever been to? The possibilities were limitless. Maybe we'd meet a pair of cute Ride-obsessed girls taking an equally ludicrous roadtrip. Or (spoiler alert) maybe we'd end up with an Amish family in rural Pennsylvania taking turns pushing a button to operate tiny animatronic donkeys while a crusty recording of "God Bless America" played out of unseen speakers. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First I had some preparation to do.

Jason and I make good travel partners, with one glaring exception. While I prefer sitting in an air-conditioned car and driving through nature as though it were a captivating 3-D movie, Jason strangely prefers to occasionally step outside and interact with said nature. His ideal vacations usually involve hiking and camping and biking and other action words that end in -ing. I just prefer to relax and soak up some sights and generally be even lazier than usual. But compromise is the name of the game, and if I wanted company on this mission, I had to face the fact that I might actually have to (gasp) walk around a bit.

Not only am I inexcusably out of shape and ill-suited for most outdoor adventuring, I'm also nursing an ankle that's not been in the best shape since the Great Fall-n-Snap of 2014. The idea of a little brisk mountain hike was a bit worrisome. And when I worry, I Google. And based on the results that popped up for "hiking bad ankle," the answer was clear: TREKKING POLES.

Let's be honest: I have zero experience with any kind of trekking that doesn't follow the word "Star," but everything on the internet said that trekking poles were the safest way to hike with wonky ankles. The poles provide extra stability and support, plus they're perfect for poking at any dead things we find along the way. That's why I took a shopping trip to Active Endeavors the other day trying desperately to hide the fact that travelling to Active Endeavors was far and away the most active endeavor I'd had in a long while.

It turns out there are umpteen varieties of trekking poles, some so expensive that I could've more affordably hired someone to do my trekking for me. Eventually, I left with what I think are a decent pair of poles that come complete with one set of tips for trekking and another set for "Nordic walking," which will come in super handy the next time I decide to go walking in the Nord.

With these poles in hand, I imagined myself trekking right up the side of a mountain with ease -- until I actually tried using them. It's tougher than you think. You hang on to them like ski poles, but as you step with your left foot, you plant the right pole. Right foot, left pole. From a physics viewpoint, it makes perfect sense... but it's also completely against my instinct, which is to plant the same foot and pole at once. I thought I might be broken, so I took them to work and my co-workers all had the same problem. With some practice, I finally got the hang of it, but I still have to focus way too hard on defying instinct and the end result looks as if I'm learning to walk for the very first time. Still, I'd rather look like the weirdo on the hiking trail than be the guy extricated by a helicopter from the hiking trail.

So how did it pan out? Did I get to use my trekking poles? Did I go walking on any Nords? And how did I end up operating robotic donkeys with the Amish? Tune in next week as the travelogue from hell begins.

COLUMN: Security

I have a vivid memory of my friends and I in grade school putting pen to paper in order to sketch out our "dream homes." The end result would always look something akin to one of Dr. Evil's lairs as designed by fifth graders.

Our dream home was usually entirely underground in a charming catacomb style, yet large enough for all the necessities of an ideal fifth grade existence: An underground movie theater, regulation size bowling alley, multiple video arcades, a fully functioning McDonalds, a secret robotics lab, a dungeon for our dragons, and ample parking for our submarine. You know, all the comforts of home.

Each upgraded version of this Fortress of Nerditude would be more complex than the last, but one thing was always of vital importance: security. The site of this subterranean dream abode would of course be in the absolute pitch middle of nowhere, and its exact whereabouts would only be known to a select handful of elite invitees: our close group of friends, Luke Skywalker, the members of KISS, and Bill Buckner (when he was a Cub and still capable of fielding a ground ball.)

But should some unfortunate uninvited soul stumble upon our secret domicile, they'd be in for a world of hurt, because our number one priority was security. Every entrance would of course be guarded by moats filled with sharks and piranha, and that's only if someone first made it through our outer perimeter of razor-sharp barbed wire and our holding pens of rabid wolves. Worse yet, if that someone were a gross cootie-filled GIRL, she would naturally be incinerated by our bullet-proof laser cannons. In fifth grade, you could NEVER have enough bullet-proof laser cannons.

The fifth grade me would be highly disappointed, but I fear my interest in advanced subterranean architecture has waned over the years. While I did finally procure my dream home, it's sadly lacking in the bullet-proof laser cannon department. Worse yet, it's located in a proper neighborhood, complete with neighbors, passersby, and presumably na'er-do-wells up to no good. I've even let (gasp) girls come over.

My goals may be a tad more realistic these days, but my concern for security has never waned. Coming home to a burgled house would be awful. I don't own a lot of stuff, but the stuff I DO own is fairly important to me. But even worse than the potential thieving of my things is the notion that someone could potentially invade my turf. This is the one tiny piece of real estate on Earth in which I am king. (Well, I suppose for the next 26 years, the loan division of Wells Fargo is king. But I'm still Prime Minister.) If I want to come home from work and sit around in my underwear eating cold Hamburger Helper while watching "Supernatural," I can. It's my house. You're not invited unless I say so.

Odd, then, that an uninvited guest has finally caused my domicile to be a little better protected.

It was a few nights ago, and by random happenchance, I was sitting around in my underwear eating cold Hamburger Helping while watching "Supernatural." That's when the doorbell rang. I knew what all my close friends were up to that night, so it couldn't be one of them. That meant one thing: a door-to-door salesman. I decided to pursue the mature path of action and remain absolutely motionless while hoping he'd go away, which he eventually did. But this guy was no amateur -- he came back a few minutes later and tried again.

"The nerve!" I thought as I threw on pants and bounded to the door. "I'm gonna give this guy a piece of my..."

And that's when I opened the door, saw the logo, and immediately realized this guy was from a home security company and worth hearing out.

I've been lying to you, dear readers. Over the years, I've made more than one passing reference to "arming my security system and heading out for the evening." Truth is, I've never had a home security system. I wrote that in case any of you fine folks felt like robbing me blind. The closest thing I had to security were some leftover ADT stickers from the previous owner. For years, the sanctity of this home has relied on those stickers, a wing, a prayer, and a deadbolt lock.

Those days are over. Despite being appallingly aggressive, this salesman was offering a fairly good deal -- and on a whim, I took him up on it. 30 minutes later, a tech guy showed up -- and now I've finally got those laser beams I once dreamed of. Okay, these lasers don't exactly incinerate people (sadly, the authorities frown on that kind of thing.) They do, however, comprise an awesome motion detector that calls the cops the second you walk through my house without an invite. My doors are protected, my windows are protected, and I now have enough hidden cameras to shoot "Paranormal Activity 7" in my living room, except the ghosts would set off the motion detector lickety-split.

If you so much as step on my porch, you're being filmed and I can watch you from my phone in real time. Who needs Skype? If you want to video conference me, just ring my doorbell and I'll see you. Remember that tornado warning we had a few days ago? I was first informed of it by my HOUSE, which alerted me a full four minutes before it came on TV. As security systems go, it's pretty cool.

I'm not being cocky, though. Where there's a will, there's a way -- and no security system is flawless. So I continue to beg of you not to rob me. TRUST ME when I tell you that unless you're into some really needy cats and/or obscure British indie bands with absolutely no resale value in North America, you're going to be woefully disappointed with anything you haul out of here. Plus, I have no life, so I'm home a LOT. I'm not saying I could defend myself against a ninja cat burglar, but my loud and high-pitched shrieks of terror could cause long-term damage to your hearing, and that'd be a bummer.

Plus, I'd hate for you to fall into the piranha moat. As I recall from my fifth grade fantasies, it doesn't end well.

COLUMN: 50 Shades

Ladies, we need to talk.

I thought I'd finally been around long enough to have you estrogen-addled people figured out. Okay, sure -- some things, such as your inexplicable love of baskets, your unquenchable need to cover toasters in cozies, and the general appeal of Ryan Gosling -- will forever remain a mystery. But for the most part, I thought I possessed at least a basic understanding of what makes your gender tick.

I was wrong. As it turns out, I don't know the first thing about women. This was made painfully evident when I recently snuck my way into a demographic that few men have had the guts to enter. I have come face-to-face with the fantasies of the female mind, and the entire experience has left me shaken to my very core.

That's right... I finally watched "50 Shades of Grey." And boy, do I have questions.

I'd always been a little curious as to what the fuss was all about, but I had to bide my time to find out. I wouldn't allow myself to be seen hoisting a copy of the E.L. James novel up to the counter at Barnes & Noble. I'm curious, sure, but I've got standards. Same thing with the movie. Come on, did I really want to be the 44-year-old single guy showing up at the theater like, "One, please!"

It's the same reason I couldn't bring myself to buy the DVD. "Yes, mister video store clerk, I'll take the unrated version if you please, because I'm a SUPER weirdo pervert." But once the movie showed up on pay-per-view and I could watch it with no one being the wiser? THAT was when curiosity got the best of me. Now that I've seen it, I kinda wish I'd gotten the best of curiosity.

"50 Shades of Grey" has been called everything from sexy to scandalous, erotic to extreme. Entertainment Weekly said it was in "a class by itself." Huffington Post called it a "sad joke." One thing's for sure: The world ate it up -- to the tune of over 100 million sales and counting. And let's just call it like it is: the prevailing stereotype, whether right or wrong, is that women are responsible for the VAST majority of those sales.

"50 Shades" is the story of Anastasia, a milquetoast English Lit major who gets roped (no pun intended) into interviewing Christian Grey for her school newspaper. Grey is a young and successful business tycoon, and we know this because he wears a suit, sits at a desk, and owns a shiny helicopter. He is also, I am told, super hunky. During the interview, he's kind of a creepy jerk. This never changes throughout the film.

After the interview, they have a meet-cute (except it's more like a meet-creepy) at the hardware store she works at. For reasons unknown, she's smitten. I'd like to think that the first-person narrative of the book (which I've never read) might contain explanatory lines such as "I'm smitten because ________," but I somehow doubt it. All I know is that there's no discernable reason in the film version as to why this girl would fall for such an egregious jerkwad (other than the aforementioned super-hunkiness.)

More meetings follow until he whisks her off in his shiny helicopter to his evil penthouse lair, and that's when the red flags really fly. There are at least a dozen moments here where any rational human being would go, "Hey, wait a second. You're super creepy." I may not be a whiz at romance, but I'm pretty sure that whenever someone says, "It's important that you know you can leave at any time," you should probably leave at THAT time.

Or how about when Grey demands that she sign a non-disclosure agreement upon entering his home? Personally, that strikes me as a home not worth entering. Clearly, this is a home that is up to no good. People don't draw up non-disclosure agreements because they're afraid of the world finding out how super fun and awesome they are.

Sure enough, he eventually takes her down a creepy hallway and unlocks a creepy door.

"This... is my playroom," he says.
"Like your X-Box and stuff?" she questions.

And yes, younger readers, that's exactly what lies inside. His X-Box. And stuff. And for pretty much the rest of the movie, they play X-Box. They play X-Box a LOT. They play X-Box so much, in fact, that you occasionally worry about the structural integrity of the playroom. Eventually, the film turns into pretty much any flick you'd see on Cinemax at midnight, except for the fact that those movies at least have some semblance of plot.

First off, wouldn't a "playroom" of this nature require some serious labor? Maintenance and upkeep of a well-stocked and fully functioning penthouse sex dungeon clearly must involve a staff of handymen, interior designers, and God help the poor housekeeper. And you're going to tell me that every one of these people abides by their confidentiality agreement and no-one goes running to TMZ about the weirdo millionaire pervert? I don't buy it for a second.

But let's pretend that I do. Ladies, and I'm being serious here, is this REALLY the sort of thing that you fantasize about? Because this is really the sort of thing that I laugh about. Have I been going about this dating thing all wrong? My first dates usually involve, I dunno, dinner and a movie. I certainly can't recall a single one that involved a riding crop in any capacity. Do I need a rethink? Because I just don't know if I could pull off creepy-perv convincingly.

Imagine me sidling up to a girl at a club and saying (real lines from the movie), "I have rules. If you follow them, I'll reward you. If you don't, I'll punish you. You want hearts and flowers? That's not something I know." If I tried that, I'd be picking my teeth up off the floor ten seconds later.

If you find this kind of stuff titillating, I guess I'll catch you titil-later, 'cause this is just NOT my scene. I can't do 50 Shades of Grey. I fear the best I can offer eligible bachelorettes is 50 Shades of Brown (wait, that sounds WAY worse.) But don't write me off entirely, ladies. After all, my house has a playroom with an X-Box, too. Except mine really DOES have an X-Box in it. I might be incapable of an "erotically-charged masterpiece," but I AM willing to punish you... at Guitar Hero. Dibs on first song!

COLUMN: Naked Final

I am not a deep thinker.

The other day, I was asked to join a book club... and politely declined. I felt bad about saying no, but book clubs just aren't my scene. It's not that I don't enjoy reading -- my Amazon Kindle account can certainly attest to that. And it's not that I don't have time -- frankly, I should be grateful for any excuse to shut the TV off these days.

The truth is, I don't want to join a book club because I'm certain I'd have nothing to contribute.

As a rule, symbolism and allegory and everything that makes "great art" great just flies past me. To me, a good story doesn't have to be something that speaks to the human condition on eight simultaneous allegorical levels of understanding. To me, a good story has some laughs, some heart, and maybe a car chase or two.

Most of my friends are artsy intellectual types. As such, they flock to artsy intellectual stuff. I have friends who are way into black-and-white foreign films that make zero sense to me. I know people who actually enjoy opera. I, on the other hand, thought that "High School Musical 3" was a little better than "High School Musical 2" but didn't hold a candle to "High School Musical 1."

You get where I'm coming from? Maybe I don't recognize art that speaks to the human condition because I don't especially care about the human condition (unless you're talking about MY sorry condition when the alarm clock rings at 7:30 a.m. on a Monday morning.) I yearn to be sophisticated, profound, and worldly -- but it's just not my nature. Some folks pick up the paper and carefully study local and world news of great importance. I tend to pick up the paper and carefully study whether or not Garfield still hates Mondays.

But I've come to discover that there ARE occasional advantages to going through life as a shallow simpleton. It turns out that when you don't really care about seeking out deeper meaning from art, it's a lot easier to distinguish true art from pretentious pap.

I once attended a performance of a piece written for "koto and trashcan." Imagine a room full of art lovers in rapt attention while one guy expertly played a koto (which was admittedly kinda cool) while another guy climbed a stepladder and flicked pennies randomly into a metal trashcan. To many in attendance, this was high art. To me, this was a guy who figured out how to be cool by flicking pennies into a trashcan.

I might not appreciate high art, but I sure know how to be amused by it. I just got done reading a wire piece headlined, "Nude college final causes parent outrage," a story I came across out of sheer journalistic curiosity and not at all because I have a Google news alert set up for the words "nude" and "college." It turns out there's a visual arts class being taught at UCSD called "Performing the Self," whatever that means. And the final exam in this class happens to be a performance-art recital where all of the students are expected to perform... in the nude.

This graded final exam is called "The Erotic Self." Explaining the class to the blog Inside Higher Ed, Associate Professor Ricardo Dominguez said that "the prompt is to speak about or do a gesture or create an installation that says, 'what is more you than you are.'" Already I like this guy's commitment to his pretension.

"The students can choose to do the nude gesture version or the naked version," he went on. "The naked gesture means you must perform a laying bare of your 'traumatic' self, and students can do this gesture under a rug or in any way they choose - but they must share their most fragile self... the nude self gesture takes place in complete darkness, and everyone is nude with only one candle for each performance... a student may decide to focus on their big toe, their hair, an armpit, as being a part of their body that is 'more them than they are.'"

That's right, Californians. Your tax dollars are officially hard at work training tomorrow's leaders in the fine art of naked armpit gesturing.

My shallow simpleton mind has LOTS of questions here, so let's try to break it down. These students are learning how to "perform the self," and a key part in doing so is to writhe around naked while other college kids watch. Nope, nothing skeevy there. I don't see how parents could possibly have any issues with this sort of activity.

First off, if this is an upper-level class in your field, I have to ask: What exactly IS your major? Are you going for a B.A. in Advanced Douchery? Contemporary Snobbery? If this is your hipster idea of fine art at its most sophisticated, I'm pretty sure I want to punch your face.

Weirder yet, this isn't just any old performance, it's an EXAM. You're being GRADED on your public nudity. How exactly does THAT work? How is some professor able to judge your "most fragile self"? Isn't art different things to different people? Who's to say what's art and, in this case, what's a giant steaming pile of naked cow poo? What's a more realistic artistic statement: someone who flops around naked on stage for five minutes or someone who grabs a candle, holds it up to their armpit, and yells, "Smell it! SMELL IT! IT'S MORE ME THAN ME! INHALE MY TRAUMATIC SELF!"

Clearly, I'm missing something here. To me, this sounds like little more than an ideal way for a pervy teacher to check out the student bodies of his student body. But don't worry, it's not actually THAT weird. Why? Because during the "gesture," the professor's nude, too. And that certainly doesn't take an already questionable exercise and make it twenty times skeevier, nooooo.

To his credit, the professor claims to have held the same nude final for eleven years without complaint, which means that either his former students are too scarred for life to ever speak of it again, or perhaps the deep art of naked armpit gesticulation is above and beyond comprehension by shallow simpletons like us.

All I know is that if that if the attainment of true artistic depth is as simple as shaking your nether-regions in front of a judgemental middle-aged guy, then let me tell all of you aspiring female artists about the one-on-one independent study class that I'll be teaching throughout the remainder of the summer. It's called -- umm, lemme think here -- Interpersonal Intimacy Behavioral Studies 101. Classes will help you self-actualize your inner expressionism, which will then be judged during a final exam where we will make out on my couch to the music of Marvin Gaye.

I think we can all agree that's better than any book club. Maybe I'm deeper than I thought.

COLUMN: Psychics

I know what you're wondering, Quad Cities, and you're right. There IS something different about me this week. I bet you're thinking to yourself, "Why, that Shane seems like a new man. It's almost as if he's attuned himself to the Aquarian Age." And you'd be correct.

I am a huge fan of all things weird and wonderful. If it's unexplained, mystical, or magical, I want to learn all I can. A world without wonder is a boring place to be, and I think it's naive to assume that science has given us all the answers. You might think it's silly, but I fully believe in the benefits of meditation. I know first-hand that elderberry syrup cures the common cold. Researchers estimate that over forty billion planets in our galaxy contain the basic building blocks of life, and it seems incredibly short-sighted to believe ours is the only one with tenants.

But I'm also a realist. I find it a little far-fetched to believe that my future destiny depends on what astrological sign I was born under. I've never been healed by a crystal and I've yet to harness the power of the pyramid. I don't believe that Bigfeet roam the wild or monsters swim in the depths of Loch Ness. In order for me to truly buy into metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, I need to experience it first-hand. So when the Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Expo rolled through town last weekend, my attendance was mandatory.

This was the second year of the expo, and it's rapidly becoming my favorite annual event. If you want to get socked in the head with weirdness, this is the place. Over 60 vendors showcase every kind of alternative science under the sun. It's a nerd paradise, and you don't even have to dress like a superhero to fit in.

Let's be completely honest here -- it's a great time, but a lot of the booths run a fair bit north of believability as far as I'm concerned. I know folks who have used hypnotherapy with great success to quit smoking and lose weight, but a hypnotist who claims he can cure AIDS and augment your breast size? That's a stretch. When I was a kid, I had a rock tumbler and thought polished rocks were pretty cool, but I never knew that driveway gravel was a tumble or two away from becoming "healing stones" with "positive energy" and a $20 price tag. But half the fun is wandering around and figuring out which vendors you believe in and which ones are total bonkers.

But who cares about believability? Everywhere I looked, people were having fun. Psychics were hard at work doing readings and crystal sales were through the roof. Everybody was having a blast, and that's really what it's all about. I made an immediate decision: I needed to find the kookiest vendor there was, shut down the naysayer in me, and give it a shot. It didn't take long to find him.

The expo was dominated by two top-selling products: crystals and pyramids. Crystals are purported to have healing properties that bring focus and direction to your aura and energies. Pyramids are supposed to harness and focus these same energies into powerful positivity. So what's the only thing better than crystals and pyramids? You guessed it: a pyramid made out of crystals.

This vendor created a man-sized pyramid out of copper piping that was hollowed out and filled with crystal fragments. For $1 a minute, you could sit in the middle of this contraption and let the combined properties do their job, which was purportedly nothing shy of a miracle. "You will move into a state of multidimensional consciousness," the vendor promised. "As you attune to the Aquarian Age, you will manifest all that you see and need physically and spiritually to live in unconditional love and bliss."

"How does it work?" I sheepishly asked.

"I have no idea," the vendor explained, or rather non-explained. "It just does." I was sold.

I was directed to the center of the pyramid and told to sit. What I assumed to be a stool was actually a bucket, and inside that bucket was a GIANT crystal. "Just as the pyramid draws in the positive energies," he explained, "the crystal draws out the negative." Let the metaphysical enema commence!

"Cover your lap with this cloth," I was told. "Close your eyes and we'll begin."

Fun fact: A didgeridoo is an Aboriginal woodwind that looks like a tree trunk and makes a sound like an elephant passing gas. I mention this because he suddenly grabbed one, aimed it at my skull, and spent the ten minutes aurally assaulting me.

An immediate realization washed over me. No, wait -- that was just spit. As it turns out, the fabric spread on my lap, which I assumed to be some kind of mystical prayer cloth, was in fact a catch rag for didgeridoo spittle, which shot out at alarming frequency. Sure enough, I looked at the stand upon which the instrument had been resting, and there at the base was a pool of what can only be described as didgeri-drool. I didn't know if I was about to be transported to different dimensions, but I could only hope that all of them had invented Purell.

About five minutes in, I noticed I was sweating -- a LOT. By the time it was done, I was dripping like a marathon runner. Quickly it was explained that my perspiration was a sign of becoming attuned to the Aquarian Age as the negative energies were expelled out of my body. Personally, I think it had more to do with the full-on panic attack I was experiencing upon the realization that a small crowd had gathered to watch a guy blow a didgeridoo into my face for ten minutes.

"What were the multiple dimensions like?" my friend asked as we walked away. All I could really tell her was that they smelled kind of minty.

Am I a changed man? I guess who's to say. I've never been attuned to the Aquarian Age before, so I don't really have anything to compare it to. It certainly didn't hurt anything other than my wallet, and now I know what it feels like to be on the spittle-soaked receiving end of a didgeridoo, so I can cross that off my bucket list. But the whole experience got me thinking.

I don't necessarily believe in everything I experienced that day. I don't think crystals harness your aura into focus. I just think they're rocks that are pretty. But based on the sales I witnessed that afternoon, others sure believe in their metaphysical properties. And if you feel better off and a more positive person because you're carrying a crystal in your pocket, then, in a sense, crystals DO work. If you feel more focused when you're underneath a 3D triangle, then bully for pyramid power. If it makes you feel better, why question it?

Take it from me -- I am, after all, freshly attuned to the Aquarian Age.

COLUMN: Facebookery

It hasn't been a great week to be a humor columnist.

More often than not, the success of this column hinges weekly on whether or not anything funny happens to me over the past seven days. The problem is, I'm kind of a boring guy, and this has been one seriously boring week. Other than work, eat and sleep, I didn't do a whole lot other than zone out in front of the TV. I thought there was potential when a friend called with a dead car battery and I went charging into the fray with jumper cables like an inept rescue brigade, but alas - no crossed wires, blown engines, or fatal electrocutions to report.

It's okay, though. Whenever I have an uneventful week, I can usually just turn on the news and gain inspiration from world events. But given the happenings of this week, that's a fairly tall order. The horrifying earthquake in Nepal was a tragedy of global proportions, and there's nothing funny about the events in Baltimore. Like I said, it's a lousy week to be a humor writer.

But look on the bright side: If you're a racist homophobic shallow-minded hate-mongering d-bag, you're having a BANNER week.

I have a kajillion "friends" on Facebook. 20% are people I truly care about and call my friends. The rest is a hodge-podge of distant family, loose acquaintances, friends of friends, classmates, colleagues, and crushes. I have contacts from all walks of life all over the globe -- guys and girls, Republicans and Democrats, indie hipsters and aging conservatives. I have friends who move exclusively from one big city to another, and I have branches of my family tree that never see the outside of rural Alabama.

After staring aghast at my computer screen for far too long, one thing's for sure: It is NOT a small world after all. Over the past week, I have seen posts that have been a veritable travelogue of hatred, from shockingly offensive to outright racist, maddeningly ignorant to profoundly stupid.

Some of it I was ready for. I had a feeling the Alabama clan wouldn't be too understanding about the Bruce Jenner thing, and I was right on the money there. Every time I refreshed my screen, my news feed was a cavalcade of transphobia. I tried in vain to admonish one of my cousins for his poor choice at humor and immediately got called (true story) a "libtard" by one of his friends. Swell. I was also prepped for the inevitable groundswell of racism to poke up the minute rioting broke out in Baltimore, and some of my "friends" sure didn't disappoint. The whole thing was just sad, really.

The one I wasn't ready for, though, was a public post from an old classmate that read, and I quote: "I can't believe Facebook is asking for donations to help Nepal. I've got enough bills to worry about as is." Seriously? I mean, there's stupid and then there's just evil. I kept waiting for his friends to tear him a new one, but when the comments rolled in, here were the first three: (1) "Amen, brother." (2) "I don't even know where Nepal is." (3) "Why would I give money to communists? #FixAmericaFirst." There are no words. For the first time in my life on Facebook, I unfriended someone.

But almost as bad as the online hate-mongering has been the OTHER side of the coin. The only thing worse than willful ignorance is watching the overly-engaged politically-correct among us work themselves up into a tizzy over every last Facebook comment. Most of the idiotic comments I read were posted just to bait others into an argument. This, of course, just draws in more idiots, which in turns draws in more righteous indignation, and the whole thing just feeds into an ugly and entirely pointless brouhaha that brings out the worst in everyone.

I don't want to live in a world dominated by ugly offensive hate speech. But I also don't want to live in a world where you can't crack a smile or call people out on their self-righteousness without fear of upsetting the self-appointed morality police among us. We're in danger of becoming SO politically correct that no one wants to say anything because someone somewhere might take offence. The minute that happens, all progress is over. We lose dialogue, and without dialogue, there can be no change.

Nothing that's happened this past week has been a cause for jokes. The devastation in Nepal is nothing less than horrifying. But the fact that an entire country lay in ruins while average America seems WAY more concerned about the gender preferences of an ex-Kardashian-in-law? That's kind of absurd. The ongoing civil unrest in Baltimore is indicative of a national issue that needs immediate reform. It's not funny in the slightest. But watching the cable news networks fumble over themselves in hopes of a juicy story? It's open season on mockery as far as I'm concerned.

If you put 100 journalists on a street corner in an impoverished and disenfranchised neighborhood, light it up with floodlights and camera flashes, and kill two hours going, "We're worried that a riot may break out," you know what's going to happen? A riot's going to break out. I'm watching CNN as I type this and just heard a reporter say, "The police are looking for anything that might incite the crowd." You know what's going to incite the crowd? Having CNN there. Report the news all you want, but stop sensationalizing it. As I type this, it's been over 48 hours since any sign of rioting, but Anderson Cooper's still standing out there in a flight jacket being the cable news equivalent of that annoying Facebook friend trying to bait people into pointless arguments. Will it stop?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. It's going to stop because people are, by and large, good. There's no more resilient a civilization than the Nepalese -- I mean, I hate stereotypes as much as the next guy, but let's face facts: these people exist on limited oxygen in the harshest climates on Earth. We climb Mt. Everest and turn it into a once-in-a-lifetime reality TV special; they climb Mt. Everest and call it an average Tuesday. Nepal will rebuild and the world will help. Eventually, CNN will tire of standing on a street corner and Baltimore will return to measured civility. We, as Americans, will work towards bridging racial and economic divides and bringing about real reform. We're not a great nation for nothing, and don't forget it.

Most importantly, with shared respect, clear heads, and meaningful dialogue, we can once again return Facebook to its real purpose: the sharing of funny cat videos. After this week, I could use a few.

COLUMN: Record Store Day

There are certain times in life when I am convinced that I'm an abject failure as a human being. Thank goodness I've got my music collection to fall back on.

Even in my darkest moments of self-doubt, I find redemption in knowing that I am very, very good at listening to music. I might not know how to cook a meal, but I can make you a mean mixtape. I can't keep my shoes tied for more than thirty minutes at a time, but I can school you at music trivia. I might forget my wallet on a near-daily basis, but I never forget my iPod. It's more than a hobby, it's a lifestyle.

Ever since I bought my first album with my own allowance money ("Ronco Presents: Hit Explosion '78!"), I discovered that it's hard to find a problem in your life that doesn't get at least a SMIDGEN easier with the right soundtrack. Over the years, my music collection has gone from decent to big to "you may want to see someone about your hoarding problem, Shane."

I'm okay with this -- "music geek" is a label I wear with pride. But based on what I've seen this past week, I'm starting to wonder if I'm even a failure at being a geek.

Last Saturday was Record Store Day, the annual high holy day for audiophiles everywhere. In addition to deep discounts and epic sales, it's also the day when artists release limited-edition must-haves that make collectors drool and empty our wallets in unison. There were live bands and long lines at both Co-Op Records in Moline and Ragged Records in Davenport. I spent the majority of the day inside both stores, digging through crates of records with my fellow music nerds, with just one thought in my mind:

What's so special about vinyl anyways?

I say this at full risk of losing ALL my audiophile cool points. There's probably a posse of Captain Beefheart fans mounting up to ransack my house and take away my music nerd membership badge, but I can't help but say it: I'm just not a vinyl guy.

Every year on Record Store Day, limited edition collectibles flood the market -- but 98% of them are vinyl records, and I just don't get the appeal. One of the big draws this year was the release of Bruce Springsteen's back catalog remastered on vinyl for the first time ever. That's pretty cool, I guess -- but I already own the entire remastered Springsteen catalog on CD. What do I need the record for?

Looking at the phenomenon from a strictly scientific point of view, vinyl is an outdated and flawed format. Records are cumbersome, take up shelf space, weigh a ton, and are vulnerable to a host of assorted damages from mishandling. If you leave a vinyl album on its side or in the heat too long, it'll warp. If you don't treat it with kid gloves, it'll get scratched. Good record players need to be weighted and balanced. Cartridges and needles have to be constantly maintained and replaced. It's a fragile commodity in a harsh world.

Technology evolves for a reason, and I'm a firm believer in newer=better. Cumbersome records gave way to portable cassettes. Fragile cassettes gave way to durable CDs. Each technology is an improvement upon the last. (Except, of course, for 8-track tapes. No one understands 8-track tapes. They're the bastard stepchild of the music industry, and I can't explain their temporary popularity. I blame the Seventies.)

I could understand the appeal if records sounded better than a CD, but by and large they don't. I've got a Japanese vinyl import of Led Zeppelin's "Physical Graffiti" that sounds miles better than any CD, but to know it, you need a high-end record player that's going to take full advantage of the format. But most kids these days just have some cheap plastic close-and-play turntable with all the high fidelity of a cheap boombox.

I'll admit, sometimes crystalline sound quality backfires. One of the first records I owned as a kid was the Dave Clark Five's "Glad All Over." I bought it for a quarter at a yard sale and the thing was beat to heck. You put the needle on the record and your ears were greeted by a din of scratches and pops. But then, over the top of that static fuzz came those drums. BAM! BAM! BAM BAM BAM! Primitive, tribal, unholy banging that heralded a wall of sound straight into your soul, scratches and all. It was the sound of raw danger incarnate, which is exactly what rock and roll should be. If you listen to the CD remaster of "Glad All Over," it sounds positively neutered in comparison.

In all honesty, there's one big reason why vinyl collecting has come back in style, and it goes back to evolving technology. Remember how I said newer=better? Well, I kinda lied. Just as vinyl gave way to CD's, CD's in turn gave way to mp3's -- and other than their handy portability, mp3's suck. Compressed digital audio files don't sound anywhere as good as their previous incarnation. Plus, where's the thrill in going to iTunes? There are no crates to dig through, no daytrips to find that elusive gem you're hunting down, no plastic to unwrap. Heck, there's not even an album cover to stare at. There's just a button to click, and buttons aren't fun unless they're the kind that say "Sex Pistols" and come pinned to your denim jacket.

And now it's worse. Even online mp3 sales aren't what they used to be. Nowadays, all you have to do is pay a monthly fee to Spotify and suddenly you've got access to the same collection it's taken me thousands of dollars and decades of searching to amass. No fair. That makes you a music consumer, not a music fan. You can visit all the "clouds" and rent all the music you want. I prefer having a collection that's actually fun to collect, thanks much.

Still, if someone gives me the choice, I'll opt for a CD over a record almost every time. That said, I couldn't help but fall into the trap a little bit during Record Store Day. Of Montreal released a live album that's ONLY available on vinyl, so that was a must-own. I love the band Ride and they put out their greatest hits on limited RED vinyl? Ooh, I had to own that. And what's this? The Happy Mondays' "Pills n Thrills n Bellyaches" remastered on vinyl for the first time ever? I sort of felt obligated to pick that up. Before I knew it, I was heading home with one healthy stack of records.

I'm still a CD guy at heart, and I don't see that changing. My confession beter not take away my street cred as a top-notch music geek. Hopefully I'm still in the club. Geeking out is the one thing I'm always really, really good at.

COLUMN: Interpals

 There's a chance that I am a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person.

Last week, I shared the story of my nerdier-than-thou friend Esteban (not his real name) and his ne'er-ending quest for love. Well, except that his quest may have just ended. Esty recently met a girl online who promptly showed up at his doorstep with no job, no plan, no money, and with her two kids in tow. After visiting for 3 days, they moved in together.

That was last week. Since that column ran, she's now proposed marriage -- and he's considering it. "In many ways, she is the lady I've always been searching for," he tells me. "I believe that I love her, and I may well marry her even before two months have passed." Keep in mind that they are NOT yet romantically involved, but instead are, in his words, "friends, formally." But he's certain her affection for him will grow with time.

I'm just hoping my friend doesn't end up on a milk carton before it's all over. This girl is playing him for everything he's worth, and I fear he's about to lose everything, up to and including his heart. I've done everything in my power to point out the many ways in which this relationship (or lack thereof) is abnormal, but he doesn't want to hear it. After SEVERAL back-and-forth e-mails that have pushed the limits of our friendship, all I can do now is wish him well and let things play out.

I should be worried about Esty (and I am,) but it's interesting to note that worry was NOT the first thing I felt upon hearing his news. Instead, my first instinct was to immediately throw MYSELF a pity party. I'm awful. As worried as I am about my friend, I couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy. I mean, at least Esty has someone in his life, even if she's an evil succubus about to wreck him.

I'm not saying that I yearn for a strange woman to show up on my doorstep with a taxicab of baggage. I'm rather content in my current state of bachelorhood. I have amazing friends and an amazing life. But sure, sometimes I'm struck by the notion that it might be fun to have someone to share these adventures with. My usual mindset is something like, "Ah well, if it happens, it happens." But every so often, when that hint of jealousy shows up, I'm prone to doing dumb things -- usually involving the internet and dating sites.

I've had personal ads at one time or another on all the major dating websites. They've never panned out, and the list of horror stories runs deep. On OKCupid, I met a nice girl who stood me up for our second date on account of her being committed to a mental institution. On eHarmony, I spent umpteen hours filling out their intricate personality profile only to receive an e-mail telling me that no-one in their global database matched my personality. On, I met a hot prospect with nearly identical tastes in music and TV. Our first date was exciting -- until she had two drinks, disrobed in my car, and demanded that we get freaky-deaky right there on the streets of the District in broad daylight. Mine is a life of red flags.

I've given up on finding my soulmate online. The odds are just way too slim, and frankly, I've got better things to do with my time. Sure, If said soulmate were to walk up and say hi, I'd gladly hear her out -- but frankly, I'm sick of looking. But when Esteban dropped his bombshell news, I found myself giving it another shot -- but on my own terms.

This time, I stumbled upon a site devoted to finding international pen pals from around the world. This felt more my speed. There's no pressure to be a small talk savant when all you're looking for is a pen-pal. Maybe I didn't need a soulmate. Maybe I just needed a new friend that I could share some funny stories with from time to time. That might be just what the doctor ordered. And if it's international pen-pals I could choose from, there was only one country to take a look at.

Ever since I can remember, I've been a massive Anglophile. I bet it started when my dad let me stay up late whenever a James Bond movie came on TV. 007 was cool and staying up late was SUPER cool, so England must be the coolest place EVER, right? Years later, I've yet to prove that theory wrong. And hey, is there ANYTHING on Earth sexier than a girl with a British accent?

I skipped the profile building and went straight to the search options. It turns out there are a LOT of British girls on the site, many of whom were actively looking for American friends to share stories with. I immediately picked out the three with the best taste in music and sent them a quick greeting rife with awkward small talk.

The next morning, I awoke to three replies in my inbox, each full of equally awkward small talk in return. Huzzah, let the pen-palling commence! The only thing I still needed to do was create a profile, so I typed a little about me, listed off some favorites, and threw up a couple quick selfies. That night, I got home from work and pulled up my account... to find that all three girls had BLOCKED me. No explanation given and no way to contact them to ask why.

There could only be one possible answer: something in my newly-created profile made them all go "eww." I checked - nope, no typos. It wasn't as if I meant to say "I like long walks along the river" and accidentally typed "I like to murder puppies and collect the nose hair of strangers" or anything. And gee whiz, I know I'm not Ryan Gosling or anything, but I'd like to think that my picture isn't SO ugly as to make women halfway across the globe recoil in horror. This is not good.

The next morning was worse. For a split second, I was ecstatic to see five new messages waiting for me. Then I read them.

"Hello! My named Julia and I live from Estonia. You is very handsome man! I like to very much visit America for marriage and sexing you! Write back fast! Kiss! Kiss!"

So let's assess. Apparently all it takes is one photo and a list of my favorite movies to repulse every woman in England, but at least I can rest in the morale-boosting knowledge that a vast contingency of Eastern European mail-order brides still consider me a hot commodity. I guess it's the small victories that count. Please, no one tell them that I'm a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad person.

COLUMN: Succubus

I'm 44 years old and still single... but you don't see me crying about it. That's because I live alone and do all my crying in private.

Seriously, though, I'm okay with my life. Sometimes I might get a twinge of loneliness, but for the most part I'm cool with it. It's not like I'm some hopeless loner shut-in. I've had a lot of relationships -- some great, some not-so-great, but I wouldn't trade any of them for the world. It's those experiences that have shaped me into the loveable neurotic I am today (except, apparently, for the "loveable" part, since, as we've established, I'm 44 and still single and live alone.)

There are perks to single life, though, and these are gift horses I do not look in the mouth. I can play video games without a single disapproving look. I can eat what I want when I want, and I can watch whatever TV shows I fancy. My income goes to me and me alone. I have no school clothes to buy and no college funds to save for. I'm not saying I'd run away if a soulmate came strolling into my life, but I'm kind of content riding solo.

Too bad I can't say the same for my old friend Esteban Thistlewaite McPoopypants. (Note: Some names in this piece may have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.)

Esty (as his friends DON'T call him because I made up the name) and I weren't cut from the same cloth, but you could probably find us on the same shelf at the fabric store. From an early age, it was clear that the both of us preferred holding computer keyboards to footballs, and we quickly bonded over our shared geekery and the shared humiliation of being the last two picked in gym class. Somewhere along the way, though, I managed to develop a basic level of social skills. Esty, though, not so much.

Rather than normal high school, Esty went off to some accelerated academy for gifted students (like the X-Men for nerds, except that the X-Men are kinda already for nerds.) The single smartest person I know, Esty only recently joined the job force, having spent the past umpteen years going from his Bachelor's to his Master's to his doctorate to his post-doctorate to now, where I'm pretty sure he legally holds the title of Wizard Genius. His specialty field is in artificial intelligence, and I've always had a suspicion he chose that path in order to one day build a robot girlfriend.

He moved to the other side of the country, and I couldn't begin to tell you what he does for a living. I asked him once, and the resulting e-mail was two pages long, of which I understood about two sentences. Esty's doing work that will either save the world or enslave the world, I'm just not sure which. He's scarily close to TV's Sheldon Cooper, but he's also one of the kindest people I know and I'm proud to be his life-long friend.

Whereas Sheldon Cooper spends every episode of "The Big Bang Theory" running from romance, my friend Esty instead spends much of his life leaping towards it. Every one of his e-mails usually details a new masterplan at finding love. This puts me -- 44-year-old still-single me -- in the unique position of doling out relationship advice. I've tried my best over the years to help him with everything from online personals to unrequited crushes on co-workers. But nothing could have prepared me for this week.

There's a new girl in Esty's life. Let's call her Susie Succubus. Apparently Esty and Susie met online and have been trading e-mails for some time. This week, Susie traveled across the country to meet him (cue ominous music.) And she wasn't alone. Her two teenage children (who I'll call Red Flag #1 and Red Flag #2) were along for the ride.

Odd, for sure, but not unheard of. I once met a girl online and she drove halfway across the country to meet me. Ours was NOT a love connection -- but hey, no harm in Esty trying the same approach, right? Then I got the second e-mail.

According to Esty, Susie and her kids have been living in a non-ideal abusive situation, plus she's got some health woes (chronic Red-Flag-#3-itis, I fear) that keep her from working. So she packed her car, grabbed the kids, and stole off in the middle of the night to meet Esty with no game plan and no future. Not good.

The third e-mail was several days later and several degrees more alarming. "I've bought her an RV and given her about $2000 in spending cash." Oh no. "All of this is likely to make it sound like I'm being taken advantage of, and that is a possibility I can't entirely discount." Ya think? "She has in mind to eventually take the RV to the Dakotas, where she hopes to find work given her skills in farming." Oh dear.

Before I could even craft a response, he followed with another e-mail. Susie has now informed him that the RV requires repair, and until these are made, she and the kids are just going to move in with him to "see if a relationship can blossom." Shy of getting in my car and roadtripping on a rescue mission, I'm not sure what I can do to fix this.

I am about the least qualified person to issue relationship advice, but I'm fairly confident when I predict this will not end well. My only hope is that it doesn't end with a Stone Phillips narrative on Dateline NBC.

I suppose I've heard of weirder love stories. Who knows, maybe Susie is on the up-and-up, and my friend will finally have the relationship of his dreams -- with an RV-driving unemployed migrant farm worker and her two children that she yanked out of school in order to drive cross-country and move in with a stranger. I don't know why I'm worried.

Methinks Esty's about to learn a hard lesson. I can't just write him back and tell him that he needs to end this ridiculousness now. If I bust his bubble, he's so lovelorn that he might just ignore me altogether. He's geniunely happy right now, and that doesn't happen often. But I just KNOW he's going to come home and find his house empty, his bank accounts wiped, and her, the kids, and the RV halfway to Fargo. All I could do was write him back, wish him luck, tell him to be careful, and recommend that he hide all of his financial documents pronto.

Any way it plays out, the next few e-mails should be seriously interesting. If you're the praying type, throw in a word or two towards my friend, would you?

Meanwhile, because the world revolves around ME, the worst part of this whole story is the realization that I can't even get a girl to SCAM me, let alone fall in love with me. This sent me down Pity Party Lane the other night, which always ends with me vowing to be pro-active at romance. As you'd expect, it did NOT go well. More on that next week.