Tuesday, September 29, 2015

COLUMN: Video Games

I received an interesting e-mail this week.

"You mention video games quite a bit in your column," it read. "As a fellow aging gamer, I'd be interested to know what your all-time favorite video games are."

Okay, so maybe it wasn't THAT interesting an e-mail. But it DID get me thinking all week about video games of yore.

I don't really consider myself to be a "gamer," though. I suppose I've played my fair share of video games. I spent my adolescence in the throes of geek culture, and that never really went away. I'm 44 years old and have no shame in admitting that I own an X-Box, a Playstation, and a Wii. I don't care if I'm over the hill, video games are fun.

But the ugly truth is that I generally stink at playing them. I don't think I can call myself a "gamer" unless I've got decent skills, and I've never been that good. Video games require dexterity, patience, perseverance, and reflexes -- all things I lack. When I pick up a game, I'll play it until the first time I get stuck, at which point I either (a) find a walk-through and cheat my way through, or (b) give up and move on. I like gaming, but I'm no gamer.

One thing I like MORE than gaming, though, is coming up with Top 10 lists. So gamer or no, challenge accepted, random e-mailer. For what it's worth, here are my 10 favorite video games of all time:

10. YO NOID (Super NES) - This game isn't great. In fact, it kinda sucks. It's a poorly designed Mario knock-off starring Domino's Pizza's short-lived advertising mascot, The Noid. Basically you run around and hit people with a yo-yo for no discernable reason whatsoever. But in the lean college years, it was the only game I owned ($5 used, as I recall.) My friends and I would routinely stay up half the night playing it, and this horrible game is full of some of my favorite memories. Noid forever!

9. ECCO THE DOLPHIN (Sega CD) - "The marks on your head are like stars in the sky, Ecco." It's like a new age meditation session that you can play with a joystick. Ecco's complex puzzles and laid-back vibe made for the rare game that actually relieved stress, not added to it. The day that the Rock Island Taco Bell opened, my friend Ken and I bought 30 Taco Supremes and played this game from dusk til dawn. It may have been the nerdiest night of my life.

8. CALL OF DUTY 2 (X-Box) - Here's what happens when I play a multi-player shooter: I log in, and 18 seconds later I'm shot in the head by a 12-year-old. I respawn somewhere else on the map, and 18 seconds later I'm shot in the head by another 12-year-old. It's not exactly great fun. But once upon a time, when multi-player games were simple and new, it was endless fun. I still play with some of those guys I met 15 years ago on the maps of CoD2. I call them my friends, but I don't even know their real names.

7. SID MEIER'S CIVILIZATION V (PC) - Nothing makes a bad work day disappear faster than coming home and conquering the world. Some strategy games are too complicated for an amateur gamer like me. Others are too arcade and silly. Civilization is the perfect middle ground. There's something strangely satisfying about dropping a nuclear bomb on your enemies. Never vote me into office, people.

6. EAMON (Apple II) - EAMON was text adventure gaming at its most basic ("Go north," "eat food," "attack monster," etc.) But it was also open source public domain software, and built to allow any users to make their own adventures. For me and my friends in middle school, it didn't take long until we were trading scandalous PG-13 adventures ("You are in a room. You see Jill Viane, the hottest girl in school. Command?" "KISS JILL VIANE" "You are kissing Jill Viane hard. It is super hot. Ooh baby.") And I wonder why I'm single.

5. SIM TOWER (PC) - I'm not one for Sim games, but this little offshoot where you have to build and manage a giant skyscraper has an otherworldly power on me. I swear to you, I bought this game, came home at noon, played for what I thought was an hour, turned around, and it was DARK outside. It was the first of MANY days lost to this addictively impossible beast.

4. FINAL FANTASY VII (X-Box) - Lots of video games are fun, but few are compelling. You're a good guy, there's the bad guy, yada yada. But FF7 was like playing an epic novel come to life. You laughed, you fell in love with the characters, and I'll admit it, I even shed a tear (as did most of my fellow nerds. Aeris fans stand up.) The only reason I had the fortitude to beat this game was the aching desire to find out how it ended.

3. TRACK AND FIELD (Stand-Up) - Like many kids, Aladdin's Castle was my second home, but I was so bad at arcade games that I had more fun watching others play. But when the Olympics sim Track & Field arrived, I discovered that I was shockingly good at it. Suddenly people were watching ME play, and I'll never forget it. Rumor has it that the soon-to-open Analog Arcade Bar in downtown Davenport has scored a vintage T&F machine. If that's the case, I'll be the nerd lining the top with quarters. Reservations for one.

2. ULTIMA IV (Apple II) - For my money, there's never been a more epic fantasy RPG ever, and that's pretty impressive considering it came out on floppy disks in 1985. Somewhere on my list of proudest life accomplishments, beating this game will seriously be in my Top 10. How much of an Ultima IV nerd was I? I mapped the entire gameplay world by hand on graph paper and still have it.

1. ROCK BAND 3 (X-Box) - I'm an amateur video game nerd, but I'm a PROFESSIONAL music nerd. The first time I saw one of those dumb plastic guitars, I shook my head in disgust. Two years later, I was nationally ranked and winning tournaments. The fad may be over in the real world, but in MY basement, it's still game on. In two weeks, Rock Band 4 will be released unto the world. If you need me, I'll be plugged in.  

COLUMN: Bridge

I hate change.

This isn't exactly a newsflash. It's a sentence I've uttered many a time in these pages. I've been stuck in my ways since birth. I'm pretty sure that's why my mom spent a day-and-a-half in labor before the doctors finally gave up and yanked me out into the world kicking and screaming.

There's stability in the known. There's safety in the routine. Change can be scary, and any time it occurs in my world, I'm usually the first to speak up with the worst case scenario theoretical.

I don't envy anyone who's had the pleasure to be my boss. What's that? You want to MOVE MY DESK? TO ANOTHER ROOM? Well, sure, that room might give us more workspace, but let's slow down and think things through for a second. That's seven additional steps we now have to take to reach the restroom. Assuming that the average employee takes 1.5 bathroom breaks per work day, over the course of one year, that's 2,730 unnecessary annual footsteps we now have to deal with. Did anyone consider this productivity loss when this harsh decision was made? Yeah, I'm a real hoot to work with.

I'm not saying we should constantly avoid any efforts at progress. More often than not, new means better, and the nerd in me loves advancing technology. You won't ever find me antique shopping. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted a futuristic house with the most modern offerings that science and home interior design could possibly offer. Of course, this perfect future house in my mind resembled something out of The Jetsons or Barbarella, both of which are antiques now in their own right. Still, I'm no fan of old-timey stuff.

Progress is necessary, but I often hate its cost. I didn't live in the Quad Cities until I came here for college, and even in the few years between then and now, the area has changed so much that it's almost unrecognizable. When I first moved up here, John Deere Road was still being built. 53rd Street was a cornfield. Orby was the Super Van Man, the Showcase Cinemas were in Milan, and the only "Choice" I cared to make was a delightful smorgasbord in Moline.

In just a few weeks, it'll be Homecoming week at Augustana, but that home is mostly in name only these days. Augie has changed so much since I attended that it may as well have been a one-room schoolhouse that we had to walk a mile through the snow just to skip class.

Even though I tend to detest it, change isn't a bad thing. Today's Augustana might look nothing like the school I attended just a couple decades ago, but the changes that have occurred are nothing shy of amazing. When I drive past campus every day on my way to work, I'm jealous of the kids I have to stop for at the crosswalks. Part of me wants to go back and pick up another major just so I can experience all the campus changes and new buildings for myself. But I also wish that MY Augie, the Augie of 1988, was still around, too, like an interactive museum I could stroll through and reminisce fondly about all the different ways I used to avoid studying.

And now, more change is headed our way. It's necessary change, but it's change that's going to do away with even more of my favorite parts of town.

When I was a little kid growing up in Galesburg, our family would occasionally make trips to the Quad Cities for shopping and adventure. There were THREE iconic images that I remember from these trips: (1) The Montgomery Elevator tower, (2) the big green bridge over the river, and (3) the welcoming sign of Ross' 24-Hour Restaurant at the base of that bridge. And now, all three are waving their swansong, and it kinda makes me sick to my stomach.

Of course, when I was that same kid, my favorite thing in Galesburg was the beautiful fountain in our town square. This year, that fountain got ripped out and replaced by a statue of Carl Sandberg hanging out with, for no discernable reason whatsoever, a goat. Apparently ol' Carl had a fondness for goats. Note: Not that I will ever attain a level of popularity wherein townsfolk will immediately want to erect a statue upon my passing, but should that unlikely event ever occur, please don't pose me with a Big Mac and an X-Box controller. Just because I like something doesn't mean I want it bronzed.

There's no denying that I-74 needs a new bridge over the Mississippi. If there's one unsightly antique in this town, it's that outmoded green behemoth. I don't recall the exact wording of the last outside study done on the bridge, but it was something like, "We don't THINK you're going to plunge into a watery grave, but you might want to take Centennial from now on." The lanes are dangerously narrow, there's way too few of them to begin with, and there's nothing like the terror of the Grant St. entrance and its sole strategy of "an accelerator and a prayer." The new bridge can't come fast enough.

I just wish it didn't come at the expense of giant swathes of the downtowns I've grown to love. The gas station mecca of downtown Bettendorf is already a thing of the past. I'm pretty sure the old elevator tower's gonna need to go before it's all said and done. Worst of all, at 3 p.m. this Tuesday, Ross' will be leaving their storied downtown eatery. I'm pretty sure I've eaten more lunches there than my own home, and now that building, like so many others, is becoming history.

The good news is that some people handle change better than me. In just a few days, the Ross-Friedhof family will be opening the NEW Ross' just a few minutes away on 53rd Ave. Where once cornfields stood, there will soon be Magic Mountains. That's my kind of progress.

Maybe I'm set in my ways, maybe I'm just sentimental, who knows. But a part of me will miss that green monster when it eventually departs our riverscape. It's a nightmare of a bridge, but it's kind of a pretty thing. No offense to the designers of the proposed new bridge -- I'm sure it's a fine piece of architecture -- but it looks like umpteen other bridges I've crossed before. I, for one, will miss the old girl... until the next time I get stuck waiting 25 minutes to cross the river, and then I'll curse her name and cheer on the inevitable change to come.  

COLUMN: Police

I've been too harsh on people this month. I just re-read my columns from the past few weeks, and I'm starting to sound like an angry old man.

There are some serious advantages to having a weekly pulpit like this. In real life, I'm the least confrontational guy you could ever meet. But give me a keyboard and a cup of coffee and suddenly I'm Vitriol-Man, self-appointed crusader of righteousness. Waste my time at a grocery store? You're in a column. Request the wrong song while I'm DJing? You're in a column. Be Justin Bieber? You're DEFINITELY in a column.

Truth is, I've got no right to cast judgement on the rest of the world. As I type this, I'm sprawled out on my couch in a ratty t-shirt eating a Pop-Tart and watching "Big Brother." I'm not exactly winning by the Charlie Sheen standard. I need to lighten up and spend at least ONE column on good people doing good things -- and this one involves perhaps the most maligned of us all in 2015.

I'd imagine it has to be pretty rough right now to be a police officer. Thanks to a few well-documented bad eggs, whenever the word "police" pops up in the news, there's a good chance that's it now followed up with "brutality," "racial profiling," "excessive use of force," and other phrases that usually don't inhabit the routine vocabulary of a fluff humor columnist.

This isn't my usual beat. when it comes to cops, I don't have a lot of first-hand knowledge to fall back on. As a rule, I tend to avoid run-ins with the law. Of course, that was before THIS summer, where I've now had TWO.

You might have caught a column I wrote back in June about getting suckered into a new home security system by a door-to-door salesman. This was actually a good thing, because my home needed security -- mostly to fend off any OTHER door-to-door salesmen that might come knocking. Before I knew it, I had cameras and motion sensors aplenty. If anyone so much as steps on my porch, it now pings my cell phone and I can immediately view and speak to any visitors remotely. This has proven very handy in my new hobby of scaring the bejeezus out of my mail carrier by yelling "THANK YOU" in a deep voice every time she drops off a parcel.

But with the new system comes a complicated series of passcodes and rules that must be followed to avoid setting off the alarm. "Don't worry," the guy said at the time, "You're going to set it off accidentally. Everybody does." Everybody but ME, I thought. You'd have to be a moron to trigger your own alarm.

It took me two days.

June was also the month that I went on my epic New York adventure, and my security system was installed just before departure. The day before I left, I pulled into my garage and realized that I had yet to clean out my car, a mandatory pre-trip task. So I grabbed a trash bag and set about ridding the car of fast-food detritus and other junk.

In doing so, I forgot two important things. (1) My garage door was hooked up to the security system, and (2) the ringer was off on my cell phone. So as I was cleaning out my car, my silent alarm was going off and the police were being alerted that someone was breaking into my garage. The security company was repeatedly trying to call my phone, which was in my pocket and muted.

After I cleaned out my car, I went inside, turned on the TV, and plopped down on the couch just as the police were rolling up out back. Worse yet, I have neighbors across my alley who spend their afternoons endlessly tinkering on their cars. The cops saw these guys and assumed they were breaking into my garage. While I was laughing to a "Parks and Rec" rerun, the cops had my neighbors on the ground at gunpoint. When they eventually knocked on the door, they saw me standing in front of a kitchen full of half-packed suitcases. Just like Lucy, I had some explaining to do.

Thankfully it ended up okay. Once it was established that I was packing for a trip and not a mellow burglar enjoying a sitcom break, the cops were very cool. Even my neighbors laughed off being at the receiving end of Johnny Law, although I'm told I now owe them "a pavement kiss." As it turns out, I guess everyone DOES set off their alarm accidentally.

"Don't worry about it," one of the officers told me. "We'd rather have a million of these calls instead of someone being robbed blind." I, for one, like living in a town where the police really care about the welfare of their citizens. I just didn't know how much until last week.

For the past month, I've had a team of construction experts rebuilding and painting my front and back steps. And by "team of construction experts," I mean my dad, who's been coming up from Galesburg every day in his ongoing effort to take home the Most Awesome Father Ever award for the 44th year running. The other day, Dad was painting my front porch and needed a roller out of the garage. He was surprised to find a police officer waiting for him out back.

"Is there a problem?" my dad asked.

"No," replied the officer. "I was just driving past and saw the garage door open. This isn't the usual car that's parked here, so I just thought I'd run your plates real quick."

And that's how my dad finally got busted after a life on the lam. No, I'm kidding, he's a do-gooder. But if this is police interference, they can interfere anytime they fancy. The Quad Cities is a big place. Never in a million years would I have expected an officer to know my neighborhood well enough to notice an open garage door or a strange car parked out back. That kind of diligence makes me feel safer than any security system ever could.

I'm not here to tell you there's no such thing as a bad cop. In some communities, it's a widespread problem. All I know is that I'm glad to have the ones around that I've met. It's a dangerous job, it's a thankless job, and this angry old man's grateful.


I am old.

This isn't exactly a newsflash. The evidence, after all, has been mounting for some time.

I'm no longer capable of eating unlimited cheeseburgers without consequence. Occasionally I yearn for a good nap. I no longer get carded at bars. My ankle can predict the weather. Sometimes I stay in on a Friday night and don't even feel bad about it. Grey hairs have taken up residence on my head without landlord approval. Even weirder hairs keep trying to leap out of my ears and nose like unwanted party guests. I have now seen 44 birthdays come and go.

Until now, I've done a pretty good job at ignoring the somewhat ominous fact that I'm very likely more than halfway to death. I deny my age on a daily basis and generally conduct myself like a 20-something whenever possible. I still listen to music at unhealthy volumes. I watch TV shows about superheroes and vampires and still harbor crushes on celebrities. I play video games until my hands ache. I'm as addicted to social media as your teenager is.

I don't act this way on purpose. I simply like what I like, and I'm in no hurry to change. Just because I'm middle-aged doesn't mean I have to suddenly develop a fondness for Celine Dion, soluble fiber, and early bedtimes. I spend my weekends DJing to packed dancefloors and very seldom do I have the conscious realization that I'm providing the soundtrack for a crowd that's often half my age. I never really stop and think, "Man, Shane, you're too old for this."

Until this week.

I just sat through the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards -- and for the life of me, I have NO idea what I've just watched. I've never felt more like an out-of-touch 44-year-old in my entire life. I am clearly a fuddy-duddy.

Thankfully, I wasn't alone. The next day, I logged onto Facebook to see a world of similar reactions from friends my own age. But don't worry, fellow 40-plussers out there. We can do this. We might be over the hill, but I'm still clinging onto that precipice for dear life. If we put our heads together and analyze this thing step by step, we might be able to figure this show out.

I've got my DVR primed, so let's get started.

Right out the gate, the show begins with Nicki Minaj shaking her assets to a new song with a chorus that goes, "Trini dem girls, dem a pat the pum pum." If you have no idea what that means, it's probably for the best. Suffice it to say that if you have a daughter, you probably won't want her patting her pum pum anytime soon in public.

But hey, what's MTV without a steady dose of titillation? We all lived through Madonna and the various ways she's shown off her pum pum over the years, so this is old news. Yawn. But then, like a magical long-legged goddess of unending media attention, Taylor Swift joins Nicki onstage. This is apparently a big deal because Nicki and Taylor have been "beefing," which sounds way worse than patting a pum pum, but apparently just means they've been bickering on Twitter.

This poignant show of togetherness and forgiveness speaks to the healing power of music and how easy it is for artists to overcome their petty differences and unite together for the greater good... for about 20 seconds, and then Miley Cyrus walks out. Miley, as you know, is the former child star of Disney's "Hannah Montana" who these days has been trying out a new career path as an icky slut. Naturally, MTV asked her to host.

Whereas Madonna's hyper-sexuality was all about image and desire and seduction, Miley's approach is more like, "Hey y'all, I'm naked 'n stuff!" Still, given a platform where she has the full attention of the 13-19 demographic, this could be her moment to make a real statement. There's something to be said for her in-your-face feminism and showing girls that it's cool to take charge and play by your own rules. This could be awesome.

Instead, Miley uses her every pulpit to remind us that she likes to smoke pot. Ooh, how edgy. And such a positive message to send to today's youth, too.

Some other stuff happens. Macklemore raps about mopeds, and it's actually pretty brilliant. The Weeknd proves that real artists don't need autotune. Nicki Minaj wins an award and somehow manages to start a new beef with Miley from the podium.

Then the clouds part and Justin Bieber literally descends from the sky. Justin made his reputation as a teen idol, and then trashed it by acting like a spoiled twat at every possible opportunity. This is Justin's make-or-break comeback, and he opts for a new song that seems vaguely rape-y in nature. "What do you mean," Justin asks, "when you nod your head yes but you wanna say no? Better make up your mind."

Kinda skeevy if you ask me, but I suppose shady songs have been around since Dean and Doris crooned "Baby It's Cold Outside." Justin ends his triumphant tour-de-force by openly weeping, presumably over how awesome he is. Only one man can save us now. One artist with the drive, ambition, skill, and talent to turn this whole night around. Sadly, though, Prince couldn't make it.

Instead, this is Kanye West's night, and the guy's earned it. As a rapper and producer, he's done more for hip-hop than any artist ever. If only he knew when to shut up.

Kanye had something important to convey on that VMA stage. Instead, he opened his mouth and spent 13 minutes giving the weirdest motivational halftime speech in history. Among his awkward truth bombs? (1) "We the millennials, bro!" (You're 38, bro. You're as millennial as me.) (2) "We not gonna control our kids with brands!" (says the guy whose wife has made a career out of being a brand.) (3) "Just worry about how you feel! And don't never! You know what I'm sayin'?" (No, I honestly don't. But keep yelling. It sounds passionate.)

As you've probably heard, he ended his speech by announcing his 2020 presidential bid. I don't think he's kidding. I am 100% in support of this move. I want to live in a world where there exists an actual chance to one day witness a Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Kanye West. I only hope I'll be young enough to appreciate it.

COLUMN: Nickelback Girl

Me and my big mouth.

In last week's column, I went on a full throttle rant about a woman I randomly encountered in line at the grocery store. The few moments I spent in her proximity were enough to press every one of my buttons AND reduce a hapless cashier to tears. I even invented a brand new accolade for her: the inaugural Hoover Award, for Outstanding Achievement in Sucking and generally being a horrible person.

Karma hates me. Ever since I wrote that column, I've been assaulted by potential Hoover nominees aplenty. Everywhere I've turned, someone's been there to irritate me. At first I just assumed I was suffering from a sleep-deprived short fuse, but no -- I really think horrible people are on the attack this week, and their target is me.

Just this morning on my way to work, I thought I was going to have to engage in some pre-morning-coffee street rules fisticuffs with some jerk who road-raged me from Rock Island all the way to downtown Moline. You'd think that would be enough right there to dole out my second Hoover Award, but no such luck. You see, I'd already given it out last weekend.

It appears that I have met... my musical nemesis.

You might think the term "music geek" to be a derogatory put-down. For me, it's a badge I wear with pride. After all, I've worked hard over the years to earn such a title. I've managed a college radio station, spent years clerking at record shops, attended hundreds of concerts, and I've actually had to move because my music collection outgrew my apartment. For over 20 years now, I've been moonlighting on weekends as an open format party DJ at clubs, frat houses, weddings, and raves around the area. I am music geek, hear me roar.

In order to be a successful club DJ, there are a few rules that must be heeded. First and foremost, if you want to be good at what you do, you need to check your own musical taste at the door. This is tough for me to do, because I have EXCELLENT taste in music. But I'm also smart enough to realize that no matter how much I might personally love The Brother Kite, few people outside of the Rhode Island counter-culture even know they exist.

Second, treat every request with respect and NEVER berate the inferior musical taste of your crowd (well, until now.) I've wasted countless time and money and basic life skills learning the difference between good and bad music. You just might not be as talented, evolved, or musically superior as myself. Heck, for all I know, you could be suffering from some kind of tragically debilitating mental condition whereby the music of Bon Jovi actually sounds GOOD to your ears. (If that's the case, let me know and we'll hold a fundraiser or something.)

When I'm behind the decks, my job isn't to silently cast judgement on my crowds. It's more of an unspoken job bonus. Instead, I play what folks want to hear. At the Davenport club I usually spin at, that means a steady diet of Top 40 and hip-hop. Not to toot my own horn, but I like to think I'm pretty good at what I do. She didn't think so, though. She was horrible.

Actually, she was beautiful, and that was likely the crux of the problem. As I spotted her sauntering up to the DJ booth last weekend, something told me this girl didn't hear the word "no" too frequently in her life.

"Hey," I said casually, which is DJ speak for "OMIGOD YOU'RE SO PRETTY AND YOU'RE TALKING TO ME." That's when it started.

"Umm," it began. "You need to play something other than this sex stuff."

"Excuse me?" I replied.

"You know, something that isn't all about sex and sexing people."

It must be noted, the song I was playing at the time was "Bad Blood" by Taylor Swift, which is just about the least sexy song on the entire Top 40 chart.

"I have some requests," she continued in a sing-song voice. "Do you have a pen that you could write them down?"

"I don't need a pen," I replied, pointing at my giant noggin.

"Okay, I have three requests. First, I want to hear 'Turn the Page' by Bob Seger. Then anything by Matchbox 20. And then anything by Nickelback. I need you to play them next, and in that exact order, 'kay?"

I was being punk'd, right? Any minute now, Ashton Kutcher was going to pop out from behind a wall screaming, "Psyche!" But no, she was dead serious.

I know, I know. Rule Number One. Check your own musical taste at the door. But I swear to you all, if someone were to put a weapon to me and demand that I list my least favorite musical artists of all time, Matchbox 20, Nickelback, and Bob Seger would all be in my Top 5. (If you must know, my least favorite band of all time will forever be the 80's hair metal group Cinderella. If you ever come at me with that request, you're getting kicked out of the club. Seriously.) But really, if there is a hell, mine's likely playing "Old Time Rock n Roll" as we speak.

"Question?" she asked in the same sing-song voice. "Is the jukebox on?"

"Nope," I replied.

"Can you stop playing and turn it on so I can hear good music?"

I was done playing nice.

"Look," I said to her. "Hate me all you want, but you're at a club that plays hip-hop and Top 40. If you want Bob Seger, you're in the wrong place. I don't wanna be a jerk, but I get paid to play this stuff."

"YOU GET PAID TO DO THIS?!" she replied incredulously. And that's the precise moment she won her Hoover. She is officially my musical nemesis. She is the Anti-Shane.

She returned a couple more times, but I opted for the tried-and-true DJ trick of putting on headphones and pushing random buttons until she left, presumably back to whatever weird island she hails from where shockingly attractive girls listen to shockingly awful music.

Later on, I bumped into another DJ who works down the block, and I asked him, "Hey, have you had to deal with a breaktaking blonde with the worst taste in music ever?"

"YOU MEAN NICKELBACK GIRL?" he replied at a near-yell. "SHE'S THE DEVIL!"

At least I'm not alone. Hoover Award #2, enjoy your new home. I apologize in advance for the soundtrack.

COLUMN: Cherries

Throughout my many great adventures on this big blue marble, I've come to subscribe to just one universal truth about the human existence:


Well, maybe not you. You're reading this column, so you're okay in my book. And I suppose Ghandi and Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King get a pass, too. But other than you and me and Mahatma and a few other rare exemptions to the rule, people are, by and large, quite awful. Accepting this is a great relief, because it means you're seldom disappointed when a person's true inner suckiness springs forth unexpectedly. Our world is populated by racists, homophobes, miscreants, malcontents, and Tom Cruises just waiting to shine. I don't care if you're a sandwich pitchman or a megalomaniac running for office, you're very likely destined to suck.

That's why I'm starting a semi-regular feature in this column that I like to call:

The Hoover Awards: Honoring Achievement in Modern Suckitude.

This week's winner? The woman in front of me at the grocery checkout the other day.

First off, let's just clear this up right away. Me at a grocery store is something of a rare sight to behold. After all, it hasn't been very long since I started using my kitchen for anything other than an empty pizza box storage facility. But in my ne'er-ending quest to finally grow up at age 44, I've been teaching myself to cook. Each Sunday, I pick a new recipe and give it the old college try. Or the old middle-aged try, as it were.

So there I was, standing in the checkout line with all the ingredients I needed and a cart full of other stuff I didn't. This week's recipe was something called "Island Pork" that I found online, and it was a good one because all I had to do was track down the ingredients, throw them all into a crock pot, and wait. That's my kind of cooking. The only problem was that it was already noon, and the recipe said my island pork had to cook for 6-8 hours. I didn't exactly fancy sampling the flavor of the islands at half past midnight, so I was in a rush to get home and get things crocking before it was too late.

I was going over the recipe in my head to make sure I had everything I needed when the woman in front of me suddenly started yelling.

"Wait, wait, WHAT?" she blurted out. "HOW much were those cherries?"

Prior to her outburst, I hadn't given this woman more than a momentary glance. She was on her side of the little divider stick and I was on mine, and that's about all the interpersonal relationship building I was up for that afternoon. But that didn't stop her from turning on me and going, "CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?"

To which I should have replied, "Yes. Yes, I'll believe anything in a grocery store because I have no idea how much anything is supposed to cost. Milk could be $10 a drop for all I know. I'm kinda new at this place."

The woman was trying to buy a bag of fresh cherries, and apparently had a price in her mind of what these cherries should cost. The actual price of the cherries as the cashier rang them up was roughly double what she was expecting. And she was outraged.

How did I know?

"I AM OUTRAGED!" she yelled at the hapless cashier, who was clearly still a high-schooler. "This can't be right! You need to check on these!"

You know what that meant. I stood there while the poor cashier had to get on the microphone to summon an even more hapless kid to run to the cherry section and confirm that, yes, the price was correct.

"WHAT?" she said with the astonishment of someone discovering the Earth was round. "I need you to explain to me RIGHT NOW why the price of my cherries has doubled in the past week!"

"Umm," said the poor cashier. "I have no idea, ma'am, I'm sorry."

"Of COURSE you have no idea. I bet that's what you say to every shopper as you gouge them for their last cent. Well, FORGET IT! I WILL NOT PAY FOR THESE CHERRIES! GOOD DAY!" And then she stomped off, which meant the cashier had to stand there for the next five minutes and void out this woman's entire cart of purchases.

So cheers to you, random woman of OUTRAGE! Here's what's earned you a Hoover Award:

(1) First off, you're buying fresh cherries. Let me be clear: the only acceptable use in this world for cherries is when they're followed by the words "pie," "cobbler," or whatever magical process makes them maraschino'ed. Fresh cherries taste like Robitussin. Stop it.

(2) They're "your" cherries? And you know that the price has doubled since last week? Does that mean you've got a bag-a-week cherry habit? Just say no, lady.

(3) I don't know much about grocery shopping, but I'm fairly confident that there's no secret price gouging conspiracy diabolically plotted to take advantage of innocent cherry addicts. Hop on the internet and read up on the drought in California and flooding in Pennsylvania. Cherry crops are low this year and prices are up as a result. If there IS a conspiracy, Ma Nature's the ringleader.

(4) The one person who's probably NOT a key player in the price-hiking cherry cabal is this poor high schooler working the register. Were you suddenly expecting her to scowl and say, "Curses! And we woulda got away with it if it wasn't for your keen attention to detail! Drat!"

(5) Even if you had a perfectly good rationale for your hysterics (which you didn't,) no one has ever actually ended a tantrum (outside of movies and TV) by spitefully yelling, "GOOD DAY!" That's SO sucky it almost comes back around to being awesome again.

(6) Above all other crimes of suckosity, you just set my Island Pork back by a good fifteen minutes. I, for one, was OUTRAGED!

So congratulations on your award, random shopper. I would've put a cherry on top if they weren't so pricey.

COLUMN: Raptor

When it comes to advances in security and safety, you can consider me a fan. If you want to introduce a new airbag system to make cars safer, I'm listening. If you want to design a shoe that makes my gimpy ankle more reliable, I'll hear you out. If you come knocking on my door to sell me a new home security system (like you did two months ago,) I'll likely buy it (like I did two months ago.) Time and again it holds true: If you want to catch my attention, appeal to my weenie fraidy-cat nature and I'm all yours.

In order to be the hard-hitting action hero journalist that you've come to rely on every Monday, my life is constantly on-the-go. Such is my dedication to news gathering that I seldom have time to do mundane things like, I dunno, read the actual news. Ergo, I'm a master at the hustle-bustle art of headline skimming. That's the very task I was deeply involved in today when I encountered a safety advance so new and ground-breaking that it even took me by surprise. Yet there was the headline staring me in the face on KWQC's website:

"Raptor keeping Davenport school kids safe."

Well, I'll be. All this time, I guess I just assumed Jurassic Park was fictional. As we all know, using frozen dinosaur DNA to build an army of deadly velociraptors for a tourist attraction would be a foolish endeavor destined to tragically backfire. Who would actually go through with such a cockamamie plan? No one, that's who. Clearly, science should be focused on more pressing matters -- like using frozen dinosaur DNA to build an army of deadly velociraptors in order to protect our local schoolchildren.

This could be a real game-changer. I mean, let's face facts. These are scary times we live in, and there are a good number of people out there who are clearly Up To No Good. Now, I'm no expert in psychotic villainy, but if I were some kind of sketchy creeper out to choose a target for evil, I'd probably avoid the school with the bloodthirsty prehistoric monster guarding the perimeter. I'm onboard with this one.

Imagine the savings in court costs alone. "Not guilty by reason of insanity"? Try guilty by reason of no longer having a head. Game, set, match, lunch.

Now, I know what you namby-pamby hippie types are probably thinking. "But Shane," you say, "this is dangerous. Kids could get hurt."

Well, okay, sure, somebody might lose an appendage from time to time. But in this age of advancing safety concerns, I think we need to allow for a little collateral damage now and again. If keeping our schools safe means that Little Timmy might occasionally get a leg or two removed, I think that's a fair price to pay for absolute security. Plus, hey, one day Big Timmy can TOTALLY pick up girls with his sweet I-fought-off-a-velociraptor story. Everyone wins.

Just think how many different ways having a meat-hungry dinosaur around would assist in the modern educational experience. For one, it'd be a great incentive plan for P.E. Having been one of those always-picked-last-in-gym-class kids, I speak from experience when I tell you that the powerful jaws of a velociraptor might have been the only thing capable of making me climb that stupid rope in the Presidential Fitness Test.

And just imagine the health benefits that would come into play. There's a big push now in making school lunches healthier, right? Well, if I knew that there was a hideous meat-eating monster prowling the halls, I'd probably set the cheeseburger down and opt for a delicious bait-free salad instead.

Plus, you wouldn't have to pay for a security team to constantly monitor the halls. A velociraptor would do the job in exchange for room, board, and the occasional live whole cow. The benefits here are obvious. Way to go, Davenport!

What's that, you say? The Davenport schools haven't REALLY employed a velociraptor to work security? Bummer. I knew I should have read the rest of the article.

Well then, I can only assume that when it says "Raptor keeping Davenport school kids safe," they must be referring to the raptor classification of large hunting birds. Like, say, a genetically engineered giant bald eagle or something? I hadn't really thought of that option, but I'm pretty sure if I were a kid, I'd dig having an army of eagles to do my bidding. I'm not quite sure what my bidding would BE at that age, but what girl would say no to a prom invitation that arrived via carrier falcon?

Rats. I just read the article. It's not a dinosaur OR a giant bird. What a let-down. Instead, "Raptor" is the name of a new software package that some Davenport schools have just installed. Instead of the traditional process when a person enters a school (paperwork and vetting and rigamarole,) Raptor can scan a person's ID and instantly perform a background check. If the screening clears, Raptor issues a high-tech hall pass that can then track that person throughout their visit.

In other words, it's kind of revolutionary and cool and probably the exact sort of thing that our local schools need to ensure safety. It's just not the kind of stuff that action movies are made of. Then again, I suppose if life were an action movie, the last person you'd want starring in it is your own child.

So I'll let you keep Raptor, Davenport, and I'll even applaud you for making the upgrade. Just next time, pick something with a more appropriate name, like maybe the VisitorTron 3000 or something. And if anybody out there ever DOES use frozen dinosaur DNA to build an army of deadly velocipators, give me a heads up, because this hard-hitting action hero journalist will want to be the first -- to flee in terror.


Wow, it finally happened.

After a summer full of tornadoes, torrential rain, and tropical temps, we've actually reached a week of (gasp) nice weather. As I type this, it's a partly cloudy Wednesday and the sun hangs lazily in the western sky while a gentle breeze wafts through the window. Outside, kids are playing, birds are chirping, engines are revving, and the whole world seems to be enjoying life.

I, on the other hand, am currently sitting on the floor of my kitchen attempting to craft a portrait of rapper Nicki Minaj out of rice and beans.

How do these sorts of things happen to me on a regular basis? It's not as if I wake up, roll out of bed, and think, "Gee, I hope I exhibit some weird behavior today! I'd really like to continue my path of being a lifelong social outcast who people looks sideways at. Here's hoping I'm EXTRA strange this day!" If I have one motivation that carries me through life, it's still that immature voice in my head that wants me to fit in and be respected by my peers. 44 years old and I still just wanna be one of the cool kids, I guess. But among MY peers, there's nothing cooler than Gishwhes.

It may sound like a sneeze, but Gishwhes is actually the Greatest Internet Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen. It's the brainchild of actor and fan favorite Misha Collins from the TV show "Supernatural." Every year, teams of fifteen players converge upon the Gishwhes website to view a list of 200+ items and tasks. Participants then have one week to collect as many of those items as possible. Teams document their quests with photos and video, which are then uploaded to the Gishwhes judges for approval. Each approved task is then awarded points that vary based on its difficulty level. At the end of the week, the team with the most points gets to join Collins on a week-long trek to Costa Rica.

Each player has to pony up a small fee to sign up, and all the profits go to Collins' non-profit devoted to spreading random acts of kindness around the globe. It's a fun-filled week made BY nerds FOR nerds, and as such, Collins is joined by folks like William Shatner, Felicia Day, and several other high-ranking names in the upper eschelon of geekness. Season one "American Idol" runner-up Justin Guarini is responsible for one of the more annoying tasks in this year's hunt:

"For 97 points, find American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini and pose with him to recreate the cover photo of 'From Justin to Kelly.'"

As a testament to the power of Gishwhes, it must be noted that this task was amended within 24 hours to specify, "Do NOT 'find' him at his actual home or you will be disqualified." Something tells me Justin got some unwelcome rings at his doorbell that first day.

While I am admittedly a HUGE fan of the abysmal cinematic nightmare that is "From Justin to Kelly," the odds of finding Justin Guarini strolling around the Quad Cities is pretty much slim to never. That's why you're shooting yourself in the foot if you create a team entirely located in your hometown. One of the points of Gishwhes is to unite the globe while fulfilling these odd tasks, so a good team needs to have players from all over the world. Our team has members from the Quad Cities, California, England, and Australia, and we STILL feel woefully under-represented when faced with this daunting list of tasks.

One task, for instance, is to take celebrity action figures and pose them in a compromising position in front of the actual Great Wall of China. Our team is instead submitting a picture of celebrity action figures doing unspeakable things to one another... in front of the actual Great Wall Chinese restaurant in Rock Island. We're hoping to get partial credit for creativity.

And creativity is really the name of the game with Gishwhes. Among the other tasks? Let's see... Build a dog (at least 40 centimeters tall) out of feminine hygiene products. Get a picture of with a certified Master Sommelier drinking kale juice from a wine glass. Tour a waste treatment facility while dressed in formal wear with an accompanying violinist. Convince a host or reporter from a TV newscast to fake sneeze the word "Gishwhes!" on air. Clean up a park. Build a community garden. Tweet a photo of two men kissing to Rick Santorum with the hashtag #facerealityRick. You get the picture.

Over the past week, my friends and I have dressed up like June Cleaver and vacuumed a lawn. We have created a teaser trailer for the non-existent horror movie "X is for Xylophone." We have crossed a football field using only a skateboard, two pieces of 5' rope, and a clothespin. And yes, we have now made a lifelike portrait of Nicki Minaj out of rice and legumes.

Gishwhes is the perfect mix of charitable acts, fun tasks, and crippling embarassment -- which is the one thing I'm simply not good at. The same part of me that wants to hang with the cool kids does NOT want to be made fun of by the cool kids, so when it comes to Gishwhessing in public, I'm a bit of a stuffed shirt. When I was shopping at Hy-Vee yesterday, I was recognized by a reader of this column who asked what I was up to.

"Oh, just some grocery shopping," I sheepishly replied, which sounds a lot better than the truth, "Oh, just standing here trying to determine which type of lentil would best capture the skin tone of Nicki Minaj."  

Based on the internet chatter I've been seeing, some teams take this event SERIOUSLY. People are taking time off work and traveling hundreds of miles to achieve tasks. We stand about a 0% chance of winning this thing, and I'm okay with that. After all, if I hate the humidity HERE, something tells me I wouldn't be a big fan of Costa Rica. But in the end, we're having fun, making a difference in the slightest of ways, and creating some pretty epic memories. For once, I feel like I AM one of the cool kids.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go write a script for a five-minute musical based on the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage, which I then need to have performed by professional actors on a theatre stage sometime between now and Saturday. Wish me luck. #gishwhes


Dear Whomever's Left To Read This,

We made it. By the sheer stubborness of the human spirit, we've managed to survive this past week by the skin of our teeth. From what I reckon, we were just a stone's throw away from society descending into complete anarchy and a post-apocalyptic dystopia where disagreements would only be settled by a buxom Tina Turner in the Thunderdome.

We made it eight whole days without NBC. Somehow, I am still alive.

Unless you dwell under a rock -- and a rock that must only have DirecTV, Dish Network, or a good pair of rabbit ears -- you probably know the score by now. Media General, the owners of KWQC, recently implemented a rate hike for cable companies who carry their stations. Mediacom (my cable company and very likely yours, too) responded by raising their corporate middle finger and vowing to remove KWQC from their basic cable service rather than pay out. Nasty letters were written, a whole lot of mud was flung from both sides, and a determined game of chicken started to play out.

It took eight days before anyone flinched. For the past week, KWQC has been black for those of us with Mediacom. It didn't come back until moments before I had to turn this column in. Hopefully, by the time this piece runs on Monday, we'll have forgotten all about the standoff and once again families will be gathered around the TV holding hands and watching "Hannibal."

I'm no television expert, but it seemed like both sides had a valid argument. Media General thinks it's unfair that Mediacom pays out the nose for other channels but not for local TV. Mediacom thinks it's unfair that they should have to pay for a channel that anybody with a pair of rabbit ears on their TV can get for free. I can see both sides of things. I just never thought it'd come to a week-long stalemate.

There are problems in the world, sure, but nothing could have prepared me for the long, lonely week of having my usual 164 channels cut down to a measly 163. Obviously, it was a crisis. And whenever I go into crisis mode, I take notes:

* Great. You miss ONE episode of "American Ninja Warrior" and you'll never be able to understand the plot. Frantically I've scanned the dial, but NBC appears to hold an unfair monopoly on shows involving grown men climbing on monkey bars. Bummer.

* You know the age-old philosophical question that wonders: if a tree falls in the forest and no-one's there to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, if Paula Sands is Live and no-one's there to watch her, does she still offer the same witty yet informative casual chit-chat about local events and tasty recipes? My hunch was yes, but who can know for certain?

* Like most of you, a good portion of my daily thought process is spent wondering whether or not America's Got Talent. For a whole week there, I was blissfully unsure. Now that it's back on the air, I'm pretty sure we're talent-free. Except for Howie Mandel. He's a national treasure.

* No NBC on Thursday night meant I missed all the greats: The Office, 30 Rock, Parks & Rec... then I remembered that NBC cancelled all their good shows. All any of us can do now is miss them, and I really, really do. Hint: If you want to call something 'Must See TV,' one of the prerequisities should probably involve airing shows that one must see.

* I've never seen more than a few minutes of the show, but the minute I no longer had the option to, the only thing I wanted to watch was "Chicago Fire." I turned to WGN instead to watch news coverage of an ACTUAL fire in Chicago, but it just wasn't the same. The drama wasn't heavy enough and none of the firefighters seemed to be having any clandestine love triangles that I could tell. Yawn. Maybe I should've turned to ESPN and watched the Chicago Fire play soccer instead.

* George Stephanopolous, you are a fellow liberal, a political powerhouse, and a savvy media expert. But you, sir, are no Matt Lauer. As much as "Good Morning America" tries, it will never match the blessedly banal banter of the "Today" show that I've come to rely on daily. Ask anyone I work with and they'll tell you I've been walking into the office grumpy for the past week. I just realized it's all because I wasn't being gently wooed into consciousness by the dulcet tones of Al Roker.

* J'accuse, KWQC! To add insult to injury, you've now given me horrible stomach cramps. You see, I couldn't watch "Law & Order: SVU," so instead I logged onto Hulu. That caused me to binge-watch several episodes of "Top Chef," which then caused me to believe erroneously that I was capable of cooking food myself, which in turn caused me to attempt a chili recipe that was waaaay too spicy, which appears to be the cause of my current critical levels of stomach distress. I trust I can send my gastroenterologist bills your way?

At the end of the day, losing a major network didn't bother me as much as I thought it might. It could have been much worse. NBC recently picked up the rights to NASCAR, and if they'd decided to run one of their races in primetime during the blackout? Let's just say I'd hate to have been the guy answering the complaint line once you riled up NASCAR Nation.

So, crisis averted and we get to hold off construction of the Thunderdome for now. Tina's going to be super disappointed.


Oh, hey guys. Give me just a... oof... okay. Whew, I think we're good. Sorry about that. It's a lot of work dragging out my soapbox, but doggone it if I don't feel the urge to stand on it now and again whenever I witness an act of brazen stupidity.

It was a week ago Thursday. I had just gotten home from work when my entire universe suddenly exploded in a cacophony of bells and alarms. My first step was to ensure that I wasn't having a heart attack -- thankfully, old reliable had survived the adrenaline rapids and was still treading haphazardly through the Cholesterol River. I was very much alive... but for how long? My phone bore the bad news: a tornado warning in full effect.

I looked up at the blue sky staring down from the skylight and was highly confused. One peek outside, though, told the whole story. Above me was blue, but to the West, dark clouds were gathering like Voldemort plotting a sneak attack. Yikes.

I switched the TV to local news to find out exactly what was up. According to Anthony Peoples & Andy McCray, we were staring down a double whammy. There were reports of a tornado in the Port Byron area, as well as multiple confirmed sightings of a second tornado working its way from Monmouth to Galesburg. This news made me immediately bristle.

I grew up just outside of Galesburg. My parents still live there. As I listened to the WHBF crew pinpoint the tornado's location, I instinctively picked up the phone and called home. My folks were just sitting down to dinner. They had no clue about the tornado warning or that one was confirmed on the ground within miles of their home.

I anxiously watched as the weathermen tracked the tornado's movements, and sighed in relief when it headed south of my parents. I cringed, though, as news trickled in that the tiny town of Cameron had taken a direct hit. I've been to Cameron many times and I know folks who live out that way. As the weather subsided and WHBF switched back to regular programming, I hopped online to find out more about the fate of that friendly little town. At one point, I loaded WHBF's Facebook page to see if they had any late breaking updates. That's when I saw the comments.

"This is getting old!" the first one said. "You need to get the weather off and put Big Brother on now!"

I couldn't believe it. But it was just one of a dozen comments pouring in to the same effect.

"We are missing Big Brother for something that is 50 miles away! Ridiculous!"
"Oh for goodness sakes, enough of the weather!"
"Don't you realize how important this veto night is? Put on Big Brother!"

It's as if they were holding a competition for Worst Person in the Entire World and I was staring down the entries. It's not often that I find myself screaming uselessly at a computer screen, but in that moment, I had some choice words for those folks who wrote in to COMPLAIN about live tornado coverage pre-empting their precious Big Brother. I almost wished that a torna... no, scratch that, I would never wish a tornado upon anyone. Know why? BECAUSE I'M NOT THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, that's why. (Though I'd probably be okay with a freak hailstorm denting their cars up real good.)

That 'ridiculous' tornado coverage very likely saved lives that night. The only warning a tiny rural community like Cameron had was their local TV. And guess what, their local TV is OUR local TV, even if it's 50 miles away. Maybe you were in Rock Island with me that night looking up at blue skies. Be grateful. More people live in the Galesburg/ Monmouth area than live in Rock Island. We were the minority that night.

I'm super sorry that the safety of my parents and 41,000 other people caused you to miss 20 minutes of Big Brother. Gee, WHBF, what were you thinking? "I know it's a bummer that your house got swept away to Oz and a car landed on your head, but we had to make sure that Vanessa didn't tell Audrey that Liz is secretly switching places with her twin sister Julia because then Clay's plan to back-door Jeff might fail!"

That last sentence is REAL, and you know how I know? Because Big Brother is my secret shame and I watch every episode religiously. But you know what? When I found out a tornado ripped apart a town in our viewing area, I didn't miss Big Brother for one second. And if I DID miss out, provided that I still had a house that wasn't reduced to rubble, I could've logged onto CBS.com and watched a replay anytime I wanted.

I hope there are no more tornadoes this year, but if there are, take this as a friendly reminder not to be an awful person. With that said, I sheepishly step off my soapbox and haul it back to the cobwebs where it belongs. Oh, and I hope Johnny Mac wins Big Brother.

COLUMN: Tour De France

As many of you are aware, I spend my weekends moonlighting behind the DJ booth at area bars and nightclubs. People often ask me what I love so much about DJing. Maybe it's that rush you get when you drop the right song at just the right moment and the crowd goes wild. Maybe it's the smug satisfaction of being everyone's soundtrack for the night. Maybe it's the girls who request songs in full flirt mode. Heck, maybe it's the extra spending cash.

But if I'm being honest with myself, my favorite part might just be the weird TV that's on when I get home from a gig at 3 a.m.

There are some truly crazy shows on the dial in the pitch middle of the night. Some networks just give up and switch to infomercials, but the ones with the guts to broadcast original programming 24/7 usually come up with some real gems around 3 a.m.  This is especially true of the multitude of sports channels out there.

Simple sports like football, basketball, and baseball are clearly for the day-dwellers among us. At 3 a.m., you're more likely to channel flip into a documentary about the high-stakes, take-no-prisoners world of competitive eating. At 3 a.m., you can see guys in lumberjack outfits tossing telephone poles in the air and calling it a "sport." I can't tell you how many riveting games of Olympic handball I've been able to witness thanks to my loony schedule.

And THIS month, I've been returning from the club in just enough time to catch live coverage of one of the most insane annual sporting events out there: The magical Tour de France (or, in case you speak English, Tour of France.)

Yes, nothing makes a person feel more pathetic than sitting on a couch munching on fries while knowing that halfway around the world, human beings made of pure muscle are pedaling bikes up the side of a mountain at breakneck speed. It makes me feel especially glad that I answered "sure" when the girl at Hardee's asked me if I wanted to add two Big Cookies to my order for an extra dollar.

I'd seen clips of the Tour De France before, and I thought I understood how it all worked. I was under the impression that the basic premise went like this:

Step One: You sacrifice everything fun in life and instead devote your every waking hour to become a human Hemi engine capable of leaping small mountains with a single pedal.

Step Two: You realize that your lifelong passion, drive, and sacrifice are not enough to get you up that mountain, so you replace all of your blood with oxygen and steroids and pray that no one asks you to pee in a cup.

Step Three: You pedal really fast and hope for the best.

It turns out there's a little more to it than that. As I quickly observed, taking over the lead in the race is really tough, because you're out on your own against the wind with no drafting buddies. That's why the lead changes often and frontrunners purposely drift back into the "peloton," which I can only assume is French for "a buttnard of bikes."

The peloton is like a NASCAR restrictor plate race, but if the drivers were all on the hoods of their cars bumping elbows with one another. Bikes race inches apart from one another in pack formation, a skill I'd imagine to be tough on a Kansas straightaway, let alone while scaling the Alps. Invariably, one of them will wobble and suddenly 17 dudes are flying through the air with the greatest of ease. The winner is presumably the one with the least broken bones.

Eventually, the triumph of will, pursuit of excellence, and effectiveness of illegal pharmaceuticals will produce a winner of each stage. That winner, a master of adversity and living embodiment of greatness, will then finally be able to clutch the prize worthy of such a feat: a yellow jersey.

Look, not to undermine the priceless satisfaction of a job well done, but if I ever won a stage of the Tour De France, I'd like something a little more than "good job, here's a shirt." At the very least, I should be allowed to rule over the island nation of my choice for at least a year. I just rode a bike up a mountain -- give me money, give me an X-Box, give me ANYTHING besides a shirt. I just accomplished the unaccomplishable and you're gifting me like my grandparents at Christmas?

I'm nothing if not a problem-solver, though, and I've realized a couple ways to make this whole Tour De France thing a little less stressful.

(1) I have limited experience scaling the French Alps, but I'm pretty certain that it's got to be easier doing it by car. If you're going for that wind-through-the-hair vibe, just roll down the windows. In fact, if you're looking to tour de France, just Google de phrase. There are lots of affordable vacation packages that let you see the Alps without any peloton pack-riding or back-room blood doping required.

(2) Then again, going to France seems like a bother in the first place. Why not just TELL everyone you won the Tour De France? I have a feeling the only ones who would know are the 17 other club DJ's in town who are all getting home at 3 a.m. to watch this thing. As I sit here typing, Temple's Sporting Goods is two blocks away. I could bike over there -- well, who am I kidding, it's hot out, I'm totally driving over there -- and I'm gonna guess they keep yellow jerseys in stock. If not, I just found one on Amazon for $22.73. That's a small price to pay for the thrill of victory.

Oddly, I've occasionally found myself feeling sorry for Lance Armstrong. Not TOO sorry - after all, the guy IS the world's most notorious cheater. But regardless of what he did or whose blood was pumping through his system when he did it, the guy climbed a mountain on his bike, and that's no easy task even WITH pharmaceutical assistance. I mean, you could pump me full of Lou Ferrigno's blood, douse me in gamma radiation, and then make me really angry... and I'm pretty sure I'd still collapse into wheezing pulp after the first half mile.

I'll never undermine the athletic prowess of these riders. What they do is truly incredible, especially the ones who do it clean. And having the Tour De France on TV when I come home late at night has given me a newfound appreciation for the competitive sport of endurance cycling. It's just the thing I need to put me fast asleep while I tour de couch.

COLUMN: The Watcher

The only bad part about being on vacation is that you miss out on some truly amazing news stories that break while you're away. Blink for one second and the next thing you know, Donald Trump is a legitimate candidate to lead the free world, Ben and Jen have split up, orange clearly IS the new black, and my cousins in Alabama are now living in fear of northern liberals kicking in their door and forcing them to gay-marry with wild abandon. Worse yet, for some strange reason I can't find a single episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard" OR "The Cosby Show" to watch. Hmm.

But my favorite news story of the past month comes out of Westfield, New Jersey, and sets a new bar for creepiness. Some news stories can be shocking. Some can be downright disturbing. But only every once in a while do you find a story that's SO off-putting and disconcerting that it almost comes around full circle to being impressive, just so long as it's not happening to YOU. This is one of those stories.

It first grabbed my eye because it was about a real estate deal. Being a relatively recent home-buyer myself, I know a thing or two about real estate. I distinctly remember calling a realtor, I vividly recall signing about 18,542 documents, and I clearly remember that hollow feeling in my stomach when my first mortgage bill arrived. The rest is kind of a blur.

Somewhere in that blur, though, was a home inspection to ensure nothing was tragically wrong with the property. And there's a disclosure agreement somewhere along the way where the previous owner has to tell you if the house has hidden problems like mold or termites. Or, perhaps, a deranged stalker that haunts the property and makes your every waking moment a terrifying hellscape.

That's the premise behind a million-dollar lawsuit that was filed this month out in Westfield. Maybe you've heard the story by now, but if not, let's recap.

Derek and Maria Broaddus thought they found the dream home to raise their three children when they dropped $1.3 million on a rather unassuming upscale family house in Westfield. But mere days after signing the papers, the letters started arriving.

"I AM THE WATCHER," read the first one. "DO YOU HAVE YOUNG BLOOD?"

Eww. That alone is ridiculously creepy. If I had a family and THAT letter showed up at my door, I'd have called U-Haul before I got to the first adjective. But it didn't stop there. Here are some gems from the letters that followed:

(Note: I've determined it's best to read these using the creepiest inner monologue you can muster. The one I usually fall back on sounds like Christopher Walken imitating the Cookie Monster. Give it your best shot.)

"I am pleased to know your names now and the names of the young bloods you have brought me. Will the young bloods play in the basement? I have been in control of the house for the better part of two decades now. My grandfather watched the house in the 1920's. My father watched it in the 1960's. It is now my time. Have they found what is in the walls yet? In time, they will. All of the windows and doors allow me to watch you and track you as you move through the house."

Yeah, that sets off a red flag or two. Or eleventy billion. And "The Watcher" claims to have "instructed" the previous owners to sell the house, hence the lawsuit. The previous owner's ads for the house mention the high coffered ceilings, elegant foyers, and built-in window seats and fireplaces, but strangely don't mention anything about the complimentary crazypants stalker included in the deal.

Personally, without knowing any of the real details, I have two hunches. I say that either (a) some neighborhood kids are having the most epic prank of their lives, or (b) one of the families just went to some pretty extreme measures to back out of a bad real estate deal. But for now, let's just take everything at face value and assume that this house is, in fact, plagued by a multi-generational family of diabolical peeping Toms.

My only question, then, would be this: How do you, as The Watcher, pass the torch to the next generation?

"Son, can you come here a minute?"
"Yes, papa!"
"Son, your birthday's coming up and you're on your way to becoming a man."
"That's right. I want a pony! Oh, please buy me a pony, papa!"
"Son, it's time you learned about the family business."
"Oh, hurray!"
"One day my father taught me the family business, and his father taught him. Now it's your turn."
"Ooh! I'm excited, papa! Do tell me! Oh please do!"
"Okay, son, here it is. Look out the window there. Do you see that house over there?"
"Why, yes, papa! It's a fine house!"
"Well, we watch it."
"We... watch it?"
"That's right, son. It's what we do. We are The Watchers."
"Err... okay, papa. I will watch the house. What do we watch FOR, exactly?"
"Well, it's hard to... I guess we watch it for young blood, mostly."
"I don't understand, papa."
"Someday you will, son. Someday you will."
"So, that's a NO on the pony, then?"

It just seems like a rather odd family legacy to pass down, no? I guess you should always avoid that car with the bumper sticker that says, "My kid stalked your honor roll student."

And for a guy who prides himself on being The Watcher, he sure seems to be doing a lousy job at it. I mean, I'm no expert in the field of Contemporary Watching or anything, but shouldn't you go into the project with at least a modest attempt at clandestine stealth and secrecy? After all, you're The Watcher, not The Letter Writer. This would be the equivalent of deciding you're going to stalk someone and kicking it off by waving a huge sign in front of their face that says, "I AM STALKING YOU NOW."

Yes, I know we live in a world where there is certainly no shortage of nutbag weirdos running around. And yes, I've watched enough Lifetime movies to know there's no such thing as a funny stalker. If these letters are legit and this family really is being terrorized, I don't blame them one bit for raising a stink and suing everyone they can.

But on the bright side, there might be a million dollar dream home about to go back on the market for pennies on the dollar. I don't have any kids to worry about and I'm fresh out of "young blood," so deal me in. If some sicko wants to Watch me, he can have at it. If you get your kicks peeping at a middle-aged fatty while he lays on the couch eating chips and binge-watching "Alaska State Troopers," more power to you. But honestly, The Watcher, if you really want to intrude on someone's privacy and insert yourself into their lives where you don't belong, why go to all this trouble? Just do what the rest of us do and friend them on Facebook. If nothing else, it'll save you some money on stamps.

COLUMN: East Coast, Pt. 3

How do you know that a road trip has officially become awesome?

When it takes three columns to recap, that's how. If you're just joining us, our heroes (being me and my friend Jason) have survived the boredom of Indiana and Ohio, the mountains of New York, the forests of Vermont, the coasts of Maine, and have just escaped the rather unfriendly confines of the greater Boston metropolitan area, all of which brings us to our final destination...

Thursday, 2 p.m.: Hey, look, it's a concrete jungle where dreams are made of. My mom has instilled in me everything I need to know about New York City: Danger lurks everywhere, pickpockets run rampant, and everyone will be mean to you. Paralyzed by fear, I task Jason with city driving while Siri and I work on locating our hotel.

Thursday, 2:30 p.m.: We have found our hotel, checked in, and have yet to be mugged. So far, so good. Based on the price, we are staying in a palace. Based on the cost of valet, apparently so is my car.

Thursday, 3:15 p.m.: Somewhere there is a list of My Favorite Bands of All Time. Actually, it's in the top left drawer of my basement desk because I'm honestly nerdy enough to have written it. High atop that list is the 90's British rock band Ride, a group I discovered in college who would shape my taste in music for years to come. We always said that if Ride ever reunited, we'd travel to the ends of the earth to catch the gig. 22 years later, that gig is tonight and the end of the earth is just over yonder past the Statue of Liberty. We head for the show, meeting up with our friend Stuart (who flew in rather than drove.)

Thursday, 4:00 p.m.: Once upon a time, I was one of those loser weirdos who would go to a concert hours early in order to stalk the back door like a sad puppy in a desperate attempt to meet my musical heroes and brag about it incessantly for weeks to come. That was a long time ago and I've matured a lot since then. I no longer feel the shallow need to flaunt my super-fandom in order to feed my pathetic ego. The fact that we got to the show four hours early was a mere coincidence. That we just happened to bump into the band members on the street was pure happenchance. And the fact that we got invited in to watch my favorite band of all time play a 90-minute soundcheck -- including a spontaneous cover of "Billie Jean" -- to an audience of only the three of us should be considered totally inconsequential. Except that it was the greatest night of my life and I rule SO hard.

Thursday, 6:00 p.m.: Nothing stinks more than waiting in line for a concert. Except at Terminal Five in New York City, where that line occurs on the ROOF of the venue with seats and a wait staff.

Thursday, 9:00 p.m.: The show is, as the kids say, amazeballs. The band roll through a greatest hits set that wrecks my soul. Too bad all I can focus on are my feet. It turns out my notoriously fragile hooves are no match for the mean streets of Manhattan, and they're throbbing. The good news is that I get distracted soon after by the arrival of a pack of Jersey Shore rejects, who crowd around us with high-fives and liberal use of the word "bro." As you'd expect, within minutes they start fighting one another and yours truly ends up with a beer down his front. Strangely, this seems to happen to me at every concert ever.

Thursday, 11:00 p.m.: We have been invited to the VIP afterhours, where I get to take pictures with my favorite band of all time. In all of them, I look like a soggy aching shell of a human being. But because of my shallow need to flaunt my super-fandom in order to feed my pathetic ego, I'm going to guess they'll be framed and on my wall by week's end.

Friday, 8 a.m.: We have ONE day to see everything there is to see of the largest city in America. No problem. My feet feel much better... for exactly 3 blocks, before they start aching again. Also, it is pouring down rain. We stop for a bagel at a deli wide enough to fit approximately 0.8 Shanes. There are 32 people in here. I could never live in this city, no matter how tasty their bagels are.

Friday, 8:05 a.m.: They're pretty tasty.

Friday, 10:00 a.m.: Times Square. 30 Rock. Radio City. We're soaking it all in while the rain soaks us. We get to see Billy Bush filming "Access Hollywood," then I get to explain to Jason who Billy Bush is.

Friday, 1:00 p.m.: My feet are bloody stumps, I'm sure of it, but our friends Chris and Erin have taken us to this amazing foodie paradise, where umpteen organic restaurants share the same warehouse space and every smell is to die for.

Friday, 3:00 p.m.: Did you know you can ride the Staten Island Ferry for free? I don't know what's more exciting: Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, or the seats.

Friday, 9:00 p.m.: After waiting 90 minutes for the valets to fetch my car, we are at Hamilton Park in Weehawken, New Jersey, which offers such an amazing view of the NYC skyline that we stay for over an hour. I have no idea how you could live nearby and get ANYTHING done. Later I find out it's called Hamilton Park because this is where Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr had their fatal duel. My guess is that Hamilton missed because he was too busy staring at the city.

Saturday, 11:00 a.m.: Our lofty goal today is to drive all the way home stopping only for gas. But when we see the signs pointing us to "Roadside America," we decide to pull over. It is the greatest decision we will ever make in our lives. Roadside America is a massive building wherein three generations of the Gieringer family have worked to create an 8000 square foot miniature village. There are over 4000 tiny people, 18 model trains, 10,000 handmade trees, and a limitless amount of kitsch. A feisty old lady runs the show from a control room that looks to be from the Mesozoic Era, while visitors can push buttons that operate trains, fire up saw mills, and, yes, make wee robot donkeys move their heads. I took 364 photos on this trip, and my favorite might just be the one that says "Press here to operate donkeys." The only other visitors are an Amish family, and I worry this is the only "modern" technology they will ever experience.

Saturday, 11:30 a.m.: As if it can't get any cheesier, a voice crackles, "Please move to the back of the building so that night may fall." Before we know it, the lights go down and a projection of the moon comes up. Superimposed on the moon is the face of Jesus and the Statue of Liberty while a scratchy recording of Kate Smith's "God Bless America" fires up. It is inexplicably perfect, the dictionary definition of Americana, and the very thing we needed to survive the long trip...

Sunday, 2:00 a.m. ...home.