Monday, December 21, 2015

COLUMN: Best of 2015 - Music

It's time for my annual indulgence, people.
Let's just call it my own special holiday tradition. It's that magical week when the guy who usually writes silly columns about cats suddenly fancies himself a music critic. But you see, this is the one time of year when I can validate my life as a pop-culture junkie. Some people accuse me of wasting my life listening to music and watching endless TV. No, sir. What I'm doing is highly important research for this, my annual picks for the 10 best records of 2015.

10. Grimes, "Art Angels": Canadian singer-songwriter Claire Boucher has been making esoteric electronic-based albums full of beeps and bloops for years now. What's always eluded her, though, are decent tunes. Finally, with her fourth record, she's brought a pop sensibility to her wild experimentalism, and the results are magical.

9. Avid Dancer, "1st Bath": I almost skipped Avid Dancer's set this year when the band opened for BORNS at a Daytrotter gig in Davenport. I'm glad I didn't, because Avid Dancer was the highlight of the evening. This is indiepop with heart and a laid-back West Coast vibe that's enjoyable from start to finish.

8. Cheatahs, "Mythologies": With the reunions of heralded bands like Ride, Lush and Swervedriver, 2015 was a renaissance for the blissed-out wall-of-sound genre called shoegazing. While most of the attention's been placed on the reunions of bands of yore, groups like Cheatahs are carrying the shoegazing torch to a new generation of fans. With every release, this multinational band oozes more and more confidence. Great stuff.

7. Blur, "The Magic Whip": How great a band is Blur? Great enough to record a comeback album on a whim and have it be one of its best. Blur called it a day back in 2003, but occasionally the band re-forms for festival appearances and quick tours. Last year, Blur was set to headline a major festival in Tokyo, but the event was suddenly canceled, stranding the group in Hong Kong for a week. Bored, band members set up shop and recorded the majority of "The Magic Whip" in five days. You'd never know. It's a welcome return from a group so beloved that fans just won't let it split up for good.

6. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, self-titled: In today's music scene, bearded folkies playing acoustic guitars come a dime a dozen. Rateliff, who plays in the Quad-Cities frequently, was always a bit of an exception. With heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics and a fiery stage intensity, he's always been captivating. But this year, he dropped the folk, picked up a horn section and reinvented himself as a whiskey-fueled soul belter — and the world took notice. "S.O.B." might be the most depressing feel-good single of the year, but you just can't listen without a smile on your face and a stomp in your step.

5. a-ha, "Cast in Steel": One day, a-ha will get the respect they deserve. Most people dismiss the band as the Norweigan pretty boys who brought us the falsetto fiesta known as "Take On Me" back in the '80s. In the U.S., a-ha frequently and erroneously gets called a "one-hit wonder." In the rest of the world, though, the band has enjoyed a lengthy career. So lengthy, in fact, that they've split up, reunited, split up AGAIN and now reunited "one last time" for a 10th album — and it's a career highlight full of the same majestic torch songs and baroque balladry that true fans have cherished for decades.

4. Robin Guthrie & Mark Gardener, "Universal Road": OK, so it's probably a given that I'm going to love an album that involves the frontman of my all-time favorite band (Mark Gardener from Ride) pairing up with the guitarist of my second all-time favorite band (Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins). These guys could record synchronized belching and I'd be first in line to buy it in every format. But this record lived up to my every expectation and then some. Guthrie's always been capable of sonic atmospherics that speak directly to the soul, but Gardener's knack for a good hook takes that beautiful noise and transforms it into coherent dreampop for the ages.

3. Kendrick Lamar, "To Pimp a Butterfly": Just when I was afraid that commercial hip-hop had irreversibly fallen through a dumbed-down rabbit hole of trap queens and assorted whips and nae-naes, Kendrick Lamar showed up and saved the game. "To Pimp a Butterfly" is unapologetically urban and pulls no punches in its representation of modern black culture. It's a record of empowerment, accountability and triumph, without an iota of compromise. If you care about commercial viability, you don't release a single called "King Kunta" that references Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." Kendrick Lamar is the smartest rapper in the game now, and THIS album should be the new blueprint.

2. Belle & Sebastian, "Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance": On the other side of the word "unapologetic" come Belle & Sebastian, the Scottish band that gives the word "precious" a reason for existing in the dictionary. Always in danger of veering into self-parody, the band has made a career of crafting pop songs so delicate and fragile that you fear their CDs might disintegrate in your hands (or at least run away if you speak to them in a harsh voice). This new record, though, ditches Belle & Sebastian's traditional dour pop in favor of synths, dancing and a word I never thought I'd use to describe the twee-est band on the planet: fun.

1. CHVRCHES, "Every Open Eye": When the sampling synthpop trio CHVRCHES arrived on the scene a couple years ago, it was a breath of fresh air. Most electronic bands try to match hard-edged beats with some over-the-top shrieker. In Lauren Mayberry, CHVRCHES found a singer capable of carrying the necessary angst without any posturing or faux rock-goddess pap. The end result was emotionally charged thumpers you could relate to. Rather than changing the formula for album No. 2, CHVRCHES just upped the game and came out with a perfect record of pop gems that stay in your head for weeks. It's clear now that this little band with the awkwardly charming singer has its sights set on global stardom. No other record came close to No. 1 this year. That's a musical wrap for 2015. Next week, I'll share my picks for the year's best TV.  See you then.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

COLUMN: Weiland

I strive to be a music fan of the highest order, but I'm about the least rock-n-roll person out there. I've never thrown a TV out a hotel room window. Not once have I driven a limousine into a swimming pool. I don't bite the heads off bats, and I've never demanded a bowl of green M+Ms.

Here's the thing, though. Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to meet dozens of musicians, and one thing rings true: No matter what kind of pedestal we put them on, most rock stars are just regular people who happen to be good with a tune. By and large, they act like any of us would if we suddenly had tour busses, adoring fans, and a seemingly endless amount of money. There's no such thing as a Rock God. Not anymore, at least.

Last week, we lost Scott Weiland. The former frontman of the Stone Temple Pilots was found dead in his tour bus to no one's real surprise. Weiland had a long history of addiction, arrests, and rehab. Sadly, his is an extreme tale of rock excess and the trappings of fame.

Weiland's ex-wife composed a letter published this week by Rolling Stone. In it, she asks people not to glorify Scott's death.

"We are angry and sad about this loss, but we are most devastated that he chose to give up," she wrote. "Let's choose to make this the first time we don't glorify this tragedy with talk of rock and roll and the demons that, by the way, don't have to come with it. Skip the depressing T-shirt with '1967-2015' on it -- use the money to take a kid to a ballgame or out for ice cream."

This makes sense. There's nothing dumber than "I hope I die before I get old." It's not better to burn out than fade away, and there are definitely better heroes out there to idolize. We shouldn't glorify his death -- but that doesn't mean we can't celebrate his life. Weiland may have been a lousy person, but he was one hell of a rock star... who, as it turns out, once tried to kill me.

The year was 1998. It was a Saturday morning when my friend Rockin' Rick Thames called. At the time, Rick was music director of Planet 93.5, and he was calling with an interesting proposal. That day just happened to be the Q101 Jamboree in Chicago -- the king of Midwest summer music festivals -- and Rick had a pair of backstage VIP tickets with our names on them. I'm pretty sure I was at Rick's house before he hung up the phone.

A slew of great bands played the fest that year, and my goal was to meet every one of them. Rick's goal was to press some flesh and solidify some of his industry contacts, so the first person we met was a label rep who worked with radio stations around the country. This poor guy looked stressed the minute we saw him, and we soon found out why. His main job that day was to play artist liaison for one Scott Weiland, and he had his hands full.

"Scott is... fragile," he told us, which is the polite way of saying, 'Scott's a crazed junkie in a downward spiral and God help me, I'm in charge of him.' We wished him luck and spent the rest of the afternoon filling autograph books and dining on complimentary backstage snacks. When Weiland's set rolled around, Rick's friend let us watch from the side of the stage, where the VIPs turned out to be myself, Rick, and actress Minnie Driver (who, for the record, is one of the nicest celebrities I've ever bumped elbows with.)

Then a side door opened and there he was, Scott Weiland in the flesh. He didn't look great, but it didn't matter. The minute the guy took the stage, he transformed from a gaunt husk into a consummate rock star. This was Weiland's first solo tour, and he was using the opportunity to reinvent himself into a Bowie-fueled glam hero. For those forty minutes, I was sold. He and his band played with such intensity that I was truly scared to be that close to the guy.

At the end of the set, they stormed offstage and had to walk right by me. As he passed, Weiland stuck out his hand and gave mine a hearty shake.

"That was amazing, Scott," I said.

"You really think so? Thanks, man!" he said, slapping me on the back before disappearing into the backstage throng of well-wishers.

The rest of the night was spent gathering more autographs and soaking up as much great music as possible. Eventually we bumped into Rick's label friend again, who looked even more haggard than before. "We've lost Scott," he said in a panic. "We think he's out there somewhere," he said, motioning to the massive crowd.

Rick said, "Hey, let's beat the traffic and head out now." As much as I wanted to be there for every last second, I owed this whole day to Rick, so I agreed. As we made our way through the sea of cars, suddenly Rick yelled, "Look out!" and I found myself diving for cover.

Security at the festival had been driving around all day in a small armada of golf carts, and it was one of those very carts that had almost just run me down. As I picked myself up, I looked at the cart, which was now doing 2-wheeled donuts in the lot feet from us, and it wasn't being driven by any security guard. Instead, there was a familiar face looking back.

"BUY MY ALBUM!" yelled a crazed Scott Weiland from behind the wheel of that miniature motorized monster. "BUYYYY MY ALBUM!"

This was nothing less than a felony cart-jacking in progress. We stood transfixed as Weiland drove off and then back again, precariously avoiding parked cars by inches. "BUYYY MY ALLLLLBUM, ALL OF YOU!"

His antics began drawing attention, and as he zoomed past us a final time, it was "A Hard Day's Night" come to life. There was Weiland in the cart, then a pause, and then a horde of screaming fans chasing him over the horizon as a circle of red police lights converged in the distance.

"That, my friend," I turned to Rick, "is rock-n-roll."

It's cliche to wish that Scott Weiland rests in peace. Frankly, I don't want him to rest. I hope he's up there with Layne Staley, Andrew Wood, and Shannon Hoon, raising some heavenly hell. The pearly gates better not have any golf carts sitting around, that's all I know.

COLUMN: Superheroes

I've been fighting a particularly nasty sinus cold for the past week.

This alone isn't especially column-worthy, but it does explain why I've spent the past week laying low in a haze of antihistamines and Netflix, mindlessly watching the few remaining TV shows that I had yet to binge on. This led me down a road I usually manage to avoid, and a genre of entertainment that I tend to ignore.

Take away my nerd credentials if you want, but I've never really cared for superheroes.

When I was a kid, I definitely went through a comic book phase. I still have hundreds of 'em boxed up someplace. Don't get any ideas to steal them, though, because they're not worth squat. Serious collectors treat comic books like fragile works of art, sealed away in protective plastic and handled only when necessary. MY comics, on the other hand, look like they've been through a war. Most are ripped and torn, dinged and dented. Many have water damage because I used to enjoy reading in the tub. I was never a comic collector; I was, however, a faithful comic reader.

When I went to the comic shop, though, I'd skip right past all the assorted Super, Spider, Bat, and X Men and instead go straight for MY favorite: the "poor little rich boy," Richie Rich. Years later, these comics are appallingly awful. Basically they're just page after page of lousy puns and this wealthy child lording his family's billions over his friends. Why this captivated me as a kid is beyond my comprehension. How it didn't warp me into some kind of money-obsessed, day-trading racketeer is probably just sheer luck.

Even as a kid, I remember thinking that the idea of superheroes was just unrealistic. In reality, of course, the odds of getting bitten by a radioactive spider and developing web-slinging powers are about on par with the odds of becoming a child trillionaire who eats hot dogs in the shape of dollar signs. So I have no good reason why I shied away from superheroes. I just can't ever picture myself identifying with one, unless Stan Lee up and creates Sinus-Man, who fights off evil with the power of Super-Phlegm.

This makes me officially out of touch, because a few years back, superheroes experienced something of a renaissance. Directors figured out a way to tell superhero stories without the inherent corniness that plagued the early Superman and Batman movies. New flicks starring Spiderman and the X-Men came out and were really quite good. Robert Downey, Jr. breathed life into Iron Man. Christopher Nolan came along and turned the Batman saga into nail-biting, Oscar-worthy cinema.

Nowadays, hardly a month goes by without some new superhero saga hitting screens both big and small. Even lesser-known franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man are finding hungry audiences and cinematic success. Marvel has a dozen superhero movies in development right now, and DC's not that far behind.

So why now? What is it about this day and age that sends people to their TVs and movie theaters to watch folks with superhuman abilities? I don't know if I have all the answers, but after a week spent binge-watching Arrow and The Flash, I'm starting to understand the appeal.

More often than not, superhero stories come down to one defining universal trait: good defeating evil. These days, our world could use a little more of that. You watch one of these movies and you leave feeling GOOD about humanity. We live in an age of deep conflict. All around the world, passionate wars are being waged over concepts that we don't even fully understand. Sure, you can easily point to extremist groups and yell, "VILLAIN!" But what makes it tough is that even nutbag groups like Daesh don't THINK that they're being villainous. In THEIR minds, they're the good guys and WE'RE the villains. Using their horrifying logic, they somehow think that terrorism is HEROIC. They're not recruiting members by holding up signs saying, "Come join Team Bad Guy! EVIL FOR THE WIN!"

Superhero stories leave no room for argument among sides. The bad guys are irrefutably bad. They're self-aware of their villainy and they revel in it. The Joker cackles menacingly. Lex Luther revels in his greed (he probably read too many Richie Rich comics as a kid.) They reduce all conflict down to right vs. wrong -- and right ALWAYS wins.

Of course, if you start to dig deeper, you realize that it's not all that cut and dried. Batman is a definitive good guy, but at his core, he's only really motivated by vengeance and is just kind of a huge bummer to be around. The Green Arrow doesn't even have any superpowers -- he's simply a vigilante who's pretty good with a bow. The Hulk is basically a straight-up monster that other superheroes have to aim at the bad guys and hope for the best.

There also doesn't seem to be a whole lot of consideration in these new superhero offerings as to collateral damage. Back in the day, if Superman had even scratched Lois Lane, he wouldn't have been able to live with himself. Compare that to the Avengers, who in THEIR first movie basically levelled all of Manhattan while fighting the good fight. Batman used to secure bad guys with a "BIFF!" and a "POW!" Today, The Flash collapses skyscrapers just to go back in time to fix his own family drama. Arrow leaves a trail of dead henchmen a mile long every time he runs for coffee.

The simplistic superhero message of good over evil is about to get even MORE convoluted. Next year's "Batman vs. Superman" will pit good guy against good guy. The new Captain America movie will see the Avengers square off against one another in a civil war. Worst of all, the upcoming "Suicide Squad" presents a moral sticky wicket when the government blackmails a handful of supervillains to do their bidding. The line between good and evil is becoming grey even in our entertainment escapes.

We don't need a gray area. We need to be able to leave theaters with the smug satisfaction of knowing that good will ALWAYS triumph over evil. That there is a clear right and a clear wrong, and your own moral compass will lead you down the path to heroism or villainy. If only there were some movie out there that could break it down so simply, to cut through the rhetoric and the grey areas and give us a Good and a Bad. A team to cheer and a team to boo. Heroes and villains. A light side and a dark side.

I'll see you in three weeks for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." It really IS what the world's waiting for.

COLUMN: We Are Your Friends

I'm about to do something that I think might make me very, very mad -- and you're all coming with me.

There's nothing cooler than discovering a movie that may as well be about your life -- plotlines you can connect with and characters you can sympathize with. When it's done right, it can be magic. But when a movie gets it WRONG, it's unbearable. How many times have you gone to a flick and watched a scene play out like this:

"Oh no! We only have twenty seconds to stop this computer program or the bomb will explode!"
"No problem," says the computer expert. "I just need to hack into the mainframe server and re-route the guidance system!"
As the music swells, our hero then taps eight random keys, presses the space bar twice, and saves the world.

Whenever this happens in a movie, my techie friends won't shut up about its ridiculousness. If you're an evil genius and your evil computer can be defeated by pressing the space bar a few times, you need to return your supervillain membership card pronto.

Movies have the magical ability to hold a mirror to your life, but sometimes its a funhouse mirror thats skews your world into an unrealistic, watered-down mess. And it may have just happened to me.

The film is called "We Are Your Friends." It may just be the first ever major motion picture about nightclub DJs. I've been moonlighting as a nightclub DJ since high school, so you can imagine such a movie peaked my interest a little. But the flick flopped. Worse yet, my few DJ friends that saw it told me it was a disgrace to our profession and reduced us to the worst stereotypes imaginable. I made a vow to never watch it, but now it's available On Demand and I'm SUPER curious. So I'm going to use THIS column as my excuse to watch. As the movie plays, I'm going to journal some thoughts and we'll find out together if it's as bad as my friends claim.

Needless to say, MASSIVE spoilers ahead.

0:02:04 - We have just met Cole Carter. Cole is a DJ, and we know this because he wears comically large studio headphones everywhere he goes. Cole is played by Zac Efron, who looks like no DJ I've met. As a rule, we don't have chiseled abs, tanned skin, and a personal trainer under our employ. Most DJs look like me: Pale-skinned, baggy-eyed, and roly-poly. We hang out in basements, pull all-nighters, seldom see the sun, and subside on a diet of Hot Pockets and caffeine.

0:03:30 - Not Cole. In fact, Cole likes to go jogging in the morning. But we are reminded that he definitely IS a DJ, because he goes jogging with those gigantic headphones on. Hey, here's a fun fact: know what happens when you sweat while wearing a pair of those huge headphones? The foam in the earpieces falls apart and black ooze drips down your face and neck. Not that that's ever happened to ME or anything (cough.)

0:04:42 - "If you're a DJ, all you need is a laptop, some talent, and one track." Shut up, Cole. If you're a DJ, all you need is a laptop, controllers that cost way more than the laptop, years of practice, business acumen, encyclopedic knowledge of pop music, and every track you can get your hands on. If I roll into a gig with less than 50,000 songs on my hard drive, I feel unprepared. Don't believe me? Step up to a packed dancefloor and see how far that laptop, some talent, and one track gets you.

0:09:21 - Cole and his buddies are sitting around drinking before the club. One of them says, "This is my favorite part of the night. It's the moment before the moment." I'm clearly doing something wrong, because my "moment before the moment" usually involves running through the house searching for the right adapter, making sure I grabbed that new Justin Bieber remix it took me an hour to find online, and racing to the club at the last minute.

0:09:45 - Cole and Co. walk into the club for his big DJ set. None of them are carrying any equipment. No one is struggling to bring in a flight case that weighs as much as a small adolescent. He doesn't even have his laptop with his one track.

0:10:12 - Girl at DJ booth: "Can you play 'Drunk in Love'?" Cole: "Absolutely not." Okay, that's 100% real. That girl is at every party ever, and she always requests the wrong song at the wrong time. Don't be that girl.

0:27:00 - Cole teaches us about song tempos and BPMS (beats per minute.) Don't get me started.

0:37:31 - Cole is being mentored by a famous DJ. "Get your head out of that laptop and start listening to the real world."

0:44:45 - Famous DJ has a girlfriend who we are not supposed to recognize as the hot model from the Robin Thicke video. She tells Cole he has an "acute sense of assemblage."

0:50:30 - Famous DJ takes Cole to a festival in Vegas, where Cole repays him by stealing his Robin-Thicke-video girlfriend, because occasionally movies require plot.

1:11:30 - OH NO! Cole's buddy overdoses. There is much sadness. Cole even takes off his headphones.

1:20:40 - Cole goes for a jog and finds his sound, which is fairly impressive since he's got those headphones on again. He hears things like a roofing gun, the sizzle of power lines, and wind chimes, all of which he records with his iPhone, which is how all big songs get made.

1:24:00 - Cole spins at a big festival, starts dropping his weird samples, and they magically transform into a musical opus. The crowd goes wild. Presumably Cole becomes a megastar and everywhere across the country, people are lining up at DJ booths to request, "Umm, do you have that one song with the roofing gun and the wind chimes?"

It could have been worse. I could go on for hours about the things this movie got right and wrong, but there's really no point. This flick isn't even really about DJing. It's about a kid from the wrong side of the tracks with a dream, some talent, and a pack of idiot friends. Even though he gets sidetracked by a girl and watches one of his friends die, his passion perserveres and he triumphs in the end. In other words, it's a note-for-note remake of "Saturday Night Fever." It might not be my cup of tea, but at least I didn't have to suffer through any disco.

COLUMN: Opening Bands

(Avid Dancer... who are awesome.)

I witnessed something pretty cool the other night. And after the week our world's had, we could all use a dose or two of "pretty cool" right about now.

Two days after I wrote last week's column, the senseless attacks in France happened. I wish I knew what to say. I have family on the outskirts of Paris, and I thank God they're all okay. If you're looking for someone to make sense of this incomprehensibly needless tragedy, you probably shouldn't turn to the guy who normally writes about video games and cats.

All I can offer you is one simple fact: In the history of the world, nothing good has ever come out of hate. That's not rocket science, it's just common sense. Hate simply breeds MORE hate, and nothing positive ever gets accomplished through negative deeds. After hours of CNN-sponsored despondency, I needed a break -- so I hopped on social media to see what my friends were up to.

This was a big mistake. If you think hate runs rampant in the real world, you should see how fast it gallops around Facebook. I was expecting messages of sympathy, support, and condemnation for those who carried out the cowardly attacks. Those were there, don't get me wrong -- but in order to see them, I had to wade through some of the most hurtful, backwards-thinking, phobic, outright racist and downright stupidest rants I've ever seen. Like I said, hate breeds hate.

I needed to get away from it all before I started to lose faith in humanity. I needed to do SOMETHING to prove to myself that our global village is more than a never-ending cycle of hate piled on top of hate. Life and joy and happiness can't be extinguished by a handful of hate-mongering scumbags. I walked out of the house, got in my car, and drove myself to a rock concert.

Last weekend was another major coup for the Quad Cities: We were the only medium-sized market to score a stop on the tour itinerary of singer-songwriter BØRNS. Critics and fans alike are calling him the next big thing, so to catch him touring on the cusp of fame was a real treat.

Of course, this was all due to the musical renaissance that the QC is experiencing thanks to Daytrotter, the Davenport-based website that draws bands from across the country to their downtown recording studio. Over the past year, Daytrotter founder Sean Moeller has been leveraging his website's popularity to get us some truly remarkable local shows. Bands that can sell out mid-sized venues in Chicago are now routinely playing coffeeshops and theaters in the Quad Cities. It's a beautiful era for a music nerd like me.

As I walked into the show, I couldn't help but think about Paris. I thought about those other music nerds who just wanted to go see the Eagles of Death Metal rock the Bataclan on a cool Paris night. I took note of the emergency exits and envisioned myself running out if I had to. But that was the last I thought about terror that night, because then I saw friends. I saw a merch table. I saw a band getting ready to take the stage and felt that familiar tingle of expectation run down my spine. If the goal of the Paris attackers was to make us too afraid to enjoy a concert, they failed miserably.

But that wasn't the best part. Initially, I debated whether or not to get there early enough to catch the opening band. I have a love/hate relationship with opening acts. Sometimes, you luck out and catch an opener who are brilliant. Once I went to Chicago to see the band Doves. We got there crazy early and ended up in the front row when the opening band took the stage.

"Man," I remember yelling in my friend's ear, "For an opener, these guys are pretty good."

That band was The Strokes, and two months later, they were on the cover of Rolling Stone.

More often than not, though, you're stuck having to sit through an inexperienced band lacking in tunes who play for fifteen minutes past their welcome. I get it, though. Every band has to start somewhere, and I'm nothing if not a music supporter. So I arrived that night in time to catch the opener, and I'm so glad I did.

They were an L.A. band called Avid Dancer. And when they took to the stage, the coolest thing happened. The crowd ERUPTED. At first, I wondered if people thought they were BØRNS. But no, it was just a crowd glad to see a great band and eager to let them know. After each one of their songs, the crowd screamed, clapped, and hollered. Earlier this year, I drove to New York City to see my favorite band Ride play their first American show in over a decade, and THAT crowd wasn't as appreciative as the kids in the Village Theatre were to see a band they'd never heard before.

For their part, Avid Dancer ate the attention up. Within minutes, a group that I would presume to normally be stoic onstage were smiling, dancing, and rocking out. Frankly, I ended up preferring them to BØRNS. At one point, the singer grabbed the mic and tried to explain that they were used to playing shows where the audience would just glare at them in judgement.

"We've got two songs left," he said. "But honestly, I'd rather just stop now and come party with you guys for the rest of the night. You're amazing, Iowa!"

It was a feeling umpteen times more powerful than hate. Maybe the crowd was instinctively reacting to what had transpired in Paris. Maybe the crowd just knew they were lucky to get a show this good in the Quad Cities. Maybe it was just the natural reaction of a pack of music nerds to a really, really great band. Either way, that sea of kids jumping and screaming for a group they'd never heard of was just what I needed to feel good about humanity again.

If terrorists really do hate our way of life, I kinda feel sorry for them -- they're missing out on one great way of life.  

COLUMN: Trivial

(Kitchens of Distinction. They're a real band.)

Ooh, yikes. It's that time of the week again already?

Let's see, umm... How 'bout those Bears, everybody?? Oh, that's right, they kinda stink this season. Hrrm... you know what I hate about airplanes? Good, because I sure don't... Wow, this is not going well. Oh, I know -- MY CATS DID THE CUTEST THING TODAY! Wait, no, I just wrote about my cats last week. Darn it.

Truth is, I've got nothing for you people this week. You see, I've been a little distracted by some trivial matters.

For over a decade now, charity trivia nights have been all the rage in the Quad Cities. What started as a monthly effort by the town of Bluegrass to raise money for their community center has now become the go-to fundraiser of choice for many a fine organization. If it's a Saturday night, you can rest assured that somewhere in the Quad Cities, teams of 8 are gathering for fun, frivolity, and the chance to finally do something with all that useless knowledge in their brains.

This kind of timewaster is right up my alley. Under most circumstances, I'm not an especially useful person. When it comes to general life skills, I operate somewhere just above the minimal line of basic human survivability. I know how to get out bed, put on clothes that kinda-sorta match, place food in my mouth, and make my way to work. Beyond that, everything else is kind of a dice toss.

Some people are filled with what we call know-how. MY brain, on the other hand, is filled more with know-what. My father, if given the right materials, can use his brain to build a house -- whereas I, if given the right record collection, might be able to use my brain to recommend some good house music. If a comet right now were heading on a crash course towards Earth and humanity could only cherry-pick a few people to survive in an underground bunker and rebuild society, we'd naturally want to stock it with builders, laborers, scientists, doctors, and ridiculously smart people. I don't think anybody would go, "Hey, we need that one guy who's really good at watching TV and making snarky comments about Phil Collins."

But when I'm playing at a charity trivia night, something weird happens: I become, at least on occasion, useful. It's that one shining moment when a lifetime of pop culture consumption comes in handy. As it turns out, usefulness is kind of a fun sensation to experience now and again, so you can frequently find me at area trivia events. Worse yet, I'm usually on that one team that everybody hates because we usually win most of the events we enter. Our captain, the unsinkable Kim Crandall, invites players based on their specialty. On any given night, our team has a history buff, a sports buff, a geography buff -- and if I'M there, my job is to handle pop culture. Challenge accepted.

So a couple years ago, I got a crazy idea in my head. If PLAYING in trivia nights is great fun, emceeing one has to be DOUBLE fun, right? Since then, my friend Linn and I have offered our services as trivia hosts on a variety of occasions -- not just running the night, but coming up with all the questions ourselves. Our most recent one was a private event for City of Moline employees this past Thursday. Except I need to break the fourth wall here a little. I'm writing this on Wednesday night, and our trivia night hasn't happened yet. I'm hoping it goes/went well.

Coming up with 100 well-rounded trivia questions is a lot harder than I ever expected. It definitely makes me appreciate the folks who do these events regularly with success. I'm only responsible for coming up with half the questions for ours, and it's been enough to about do my head in.

The challenge is coming up with a well-rounded mix of questions that aren't too easy but aren't too tough, and making sure those questions cover a wide enough range of topics to engage players of all ages, sexes, and interests. This is no easy task. In a perfect world, I'd have 100 questions about British indie shoegazer music, 1990 to present, and I could ask classic questions like, "Name the socially conscious band responsible for the anthemic 'Quick As Rainbows'," at which point you'd all go -- say it with me -- KITCHENS OF DISTINCTION.

What's that? You've never heard of the critically acclaimed UK rock group Kitchens of Distinction? Well, I guess that explains why Moline was left off their 2014 reunion tour. Along with, well, all of North America. But that's my point - I can't just write questions about stuff I know, because it might not be the stuff you know. And the stuff YOU know might not be the stuff I know... you know?

So my entire week has been spent banging my head against the wall trying to come up with questions that are fun but not impossible. Nothing ruins a trivia night like a crazy hard category, or questions that are little more than multiple guess: "How many M&M's are produced in factories every day? Is it (a) 360 million, (b) 340 million, (c) 440 million," etc., etc. (For the record, it's B. Don't say I never teach you people anything.)

I think we're gonna be okay. So far, I've got a sports category, a music category, and a TV category. This weekend, I drove around town taking pictures for a "Where In Moline is This?" category. As for my fifth, I'm thinking about a category on famous crime scenes, like O.J.'s house and the Jon Benet Ramsey house. Oh, and just as a public service announcement, never Google "famous crime scenes" should you wish to retain the contents of your stomach. Just sayin'. Did I get the right mix? I guess I'll find out tomorrow/four days ago.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a Powerpoint to create. I need some music to relax. Where'd I put that Kitchens of Distinction CD?

COLUMN: Murder Cats

In the grand list of hobbies you can pursue in order to most effectively show the world that you're something of a jackwagon, nothing does the trick quite like owning a dangerous animal as a pet.

You know the type. Everybody's got one weird friend who keeps a snake or a tarantula in some glassed-off habitat in their bedroom, and lording over this potentially lethal creature is that person's crowning achievement in life.

I'm a strong believer that a person's home should be a palace of escape and recharge. The best part about your home is that it's YOUR home. Within those walls, you call the shots. You don't have to prove anything to anyone. You don't have to put up any fronts or act any certain way other than whatever you want to. If you want to spend your evening in a ratty t-shirt and baggy jeans sprawled out on your couch writing a newspaper column while watching "Survivor" and eating cold Chinese leftovers, that's my -- I mean, YOUR -- prerogative.

I suppose, then, if your idea of inner peace is feeding frozen rodents to a fanged reptile, I guess that's your prerogative, too. But I can't imagine being able to truly escape and recharge knowing that I was sharing my inner sanctum with a carniverous predator.

So what exactly IS the appeal, then? It's not as if these creepers show you any affection. Spiders aren't waiting for you at the door after a long day's work -- and if they ARE, you need to RUN. Pythons don't snuggle up with you at night. If taming danger is the only lure, why not just keep tuberculosis germs and anthrax spores as pets?

I, on the other hand, have normal pets: two housecats who love me as much as I love them. Two housecats who cuddle and purr and play, who mewl and meow and beg for tummy rubs. Two housecats who have my back at all times and would never sit around thinking of ways to kill me. Or so I thought.

If a new research study is to believed, my adorable fur babies care for me about as much as your weird friend's pet python cares for him. I, too, am sharing my inner sanctum with carniverous predators. Mine just happen to be cuter.

Thanks, Journal of Comparative Psychology, for wrecking my domestic bliss.

The study in question comes from researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the Bronx Zoo. They set about comparing the personality traits of the common housecat with those of various large and dangerous wildcats. The researchers rated feline behavior based on the five big human personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.

According to what they observed, domestic housecats share most of the same traits as wild African lions, just on a smaller scale. The traits that most govern our feline roommates? Dominance, impulsiveness, and neuroticism.

To which I say, with all due respect, DUH. I could have told you that.

From MY research, I can tell you that my cats spend their days doing two things: sleeping and fighting. Bez is the alpha of the house and demands to be at my side most hours that I'm home. Should my other cat, Isobel, try to interrupt, Bez will raise all her fur up, issue a hiss or two, and sometimes chase her off into another room. Don't feel bad for Izzy, though. Any chance she can get to sneak up on Bez, she'll pounce, bat her in the head a couple times, and run off gleefully. Dominance is a never-ending struggle at my place.

Are my cats governed by impulsiveness? Well, let's see. The minute that I walk in the door, Bez usually flips on her back and starts issuing meows like her entire life hinges upon the immediacy of the next available belly rub. This causes me to drop everything I'm doing, bend down, and issue about three solid skritches -- until she suddenly bristles, looks at me like "how DARE you, sir?" and nips angrily at my hand like I'm some kind of date pet-ist. Impulsiveness, thy name is Bez.

As for neuroticism? Come over some night at 2 a.m. and I'll show you. That's about the time Izzy will jump out of a dead sleep, run concentric circles around the living room and then upstairs, jump on the teeny tiny ledge two stories up and then proceed to taunt death with a series of weird howls before casually coming downstairs like nothing's happened whatsoever. Neurotic is indeed the proper adjective for my cats. It would be like me jumping up from my desk in the middle of the work day, screaming into the air for thirty seconds, and then sitting back down nonchalantly. If humans acted like cats, we'd be locked away in padded rooms and observed by the Journal of Comparative Psychology ourselves.

So, yeah, my cats are dominant, impulsive, and neurotic just like African lions. But that doesn't mean they're evil and plotting my demise. After all, that would be kind of foolish, and I don't raise dumb cats. They need me. I'm the Food Giver, Water Giver, and the Poop Taker-Awayer -- and based on meow-expressed feedback any time I slack off on my duties, they're well aware of the services I provide.

Maybe I've become one of those insane cat people who invents personality where there is none, but I swear my cats know when I'm having a bad day. If I'm upset or stressed-out, they hover around me. They let me pet them longer than usual. If all I am to those cats is a food-giver that they constantly have to resist the urge to kill, why are they both laying on me while I type this very sentence? Their food and water bowls are full and the litterbox is clean. Their needs are met. There's a zillion warm spots in this house they could curl up in. So why is one in the crook of my knee and the other draped across my feet? Is it because they like me? Or is it because they don't want to be bothered to walk very far when they finally decide to murder me?

If my cats were as big as lions, I'd reckon that, yes, they might try to eat my face off at some point. But honestly, I think the more interesting question is this: If giant humans existed, would lions flop on their backs and demand belly rubs from them? We can argue the murderous intent of cats until the cows come home (and the cats presumably kill them.) At the end of the day, I don't really care if my home is full of carniverous predators, as long as those predators purr when I scratch behind their ears. Try THAT with a snake and see what happens.

They don't even HAVE ears.

COLUMN: Collins

We live in a turbulent age. Sometimes, it's tough to stay positive in a world so prone to hostility and confrontation. Hatred can be found just about anywhere if you look for it. The news brings us tales of racism, sexism, homophobia, and ignorance on almost a daily basis. In many places, fighting and violence are the new norm. Heck, they were the old norm, too.

But every once in a while, a threat comes along that must force us to unite. A perfect society should be enriched by cultural differences, not torn apart by them. Only this way can we as a global village unite together and fight to preserve our way of life when something truly devastating is unleashed upon the land. One such threat is upon us now, and it's time we ignored our petty differences in order to rise together and secure a world that we can be proud to one day hand off to our children.

I speak, of course, of the recently announced un-retirement of singer/songwriter Phil Collins.

For far too many years, Phil Collins has plagued our fragile Earth. With his non-stop cavalcade of saccharine love ballads and milquetoast Motown covers, it's a wonder we survived the 1990s with our brain stems still intact. Thanks to some purported hearing loss (maybe he couldn't hear how awful he'd become?) and a desire to spend time with his children, the Collins threat was neutralized in 2011 and a grateful planet cheered.

Sadly, an interview in the new Rolling Stone confirms our darkest fears: Collins rises. Somewhere right now, in a mansion in Miami, he's building a recording studio and plotting his return. Obviously, this could bring about a new dark age in human history. Or worse yet, it could bring back the Nineties, and no one wants that.

When the Rolling Stone interview went public last week, an audible gasp of despair could be heard from sea to shining sea -- with one exception. Listen close, you can hear her cheering somewhere in the background behind that din of booing. It's your great aunt, and she's the only one happy about the return of Phil Collins. It's only a matter of time before Collins springs forth with his legion fanbase of everyone's great-aunts, hell-bent on once again taking over our airwaves with sappy ballads about lost love and social injustice. We must remain vigilant if we're to escape this fate.

Okay, in the interest of journalistic fairness, once upon a time, Phil Collins wasn't so bad. In fact, I'll go as far as to say he was pretty cool. As the founding drummer of the rock group Genesis, he was there for that band's amazing years. But that was when Genesis used to be fronted by Peter Gabriel. Back then, the band would dress up as druids and sing rad songs about snakes and ravens and supernatural castration. ("The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway," people. Check it out.)

But then Gabriel left and Collins took over as frontman. For a while, Genesis were still pretty great, despite taking a much more mainstream approach to things. The "Abacab" era put forth some amazing tunes that still get play on my iPod today. Collins took his first solo turn around this time with the "Face Value" album and the inexplicably amazing and super-creepy "In the Air Tonight." Who among us HASN'T air-drummed to the bridge of that song?

For well over a decade, we all loved Phil Collins. The guy could do no wrong. When the Live-Aid concerts happened, he played at the show in England and then hopped a Concorde to drum for Led Zeppelin hours later in Philadelphia and the whole world cheered. He even played a con man called Phil the Shill on "Miami Vice," and that was the epicenter of cool in the Eighties.

But somewhere along the way, things went a little wonky. "Sussudio" happened. "Invisible Touch" happened. And then, from the mozzerella-filled depths of Cheese Swamp, the ballads sprang forth, each one cheesier than the last. And they were inescapable. For a while in the early 90s, you couldn't turn on a radio or change a TV channel without running into one of Phil's vacuous slow songs predestined to put a quick stop to ANY good time it might possibly encounter. If there is a hell, mine has an elevator playing "You'll Be In My Heart" on infinite repeat.

Rumors ran rampant. Whether true or not, a story hit the press that Collins divorced his wife via fax. His 1994 move to Switzerland was seen by some as an effort to live in tax exile, which would be pretty hypocritical for a guy who once scored a #1 hit with a song about the world's homeless problem. The man we once loved became the pop star we loved to hate. The Guardian called him "un-stomachable" and the Daily Telegraph dubbed him "the most hated man in rock."

And now he's back, most likely to soon grab the brass ring as the most hated man in adult contemporary easy listening. We must remain strong. He could pop up anywhere. I'm foreseeing a new greatest hits album, maybe an exclusive at Target. I'm sensing an in-depth interview with Michael and Kelly. He could even step foot in the iWireless Center. My mom might want me to buy her tickets. My hard-earned money could one day contribute to the theme for "Tarzan 2."

Some people think that Phil Collins isn't dangerous. Some people think that Phil Collins should be legally available for recreational use. Those people are naive. While it's true that there are no documented cases of anyone fatally overdosing on Phil Collins, the truth is that Phil Collins is a gateway artist. What happens to your child when Phil Collins no longer satisfies the need for vapid balladry? Do you want your child moving on to Celine Dion or Michael Bolton? It's all a downward slide; before you know it, you're a (gasp) Richard Marx fan.

Just say no, people. Unless he starts un-sucking, this is one un-retirement I'll be un-enjoying.


It's no secret that the State of Illinois is in a real fiscal pickle these days. Thanks to some monstrous debt and political gridlock, Illinois has been operating without a budget for months now. While the battle wages in Springfield, parks and museums have closed, nursing homes haven't been receiving their Medicaid payments, and now it looks like November pensions are up in the air.

Heck, even lottery winners have been receiving state-sponsored IOU's instead of winnings. Just last week, experts downgraded Illinois' credit rating to a status just a few points above "junk." In the world of fiscal reputations, some states are Macy's and Microsoft. Our state is more like a really mediocre garage sale after all the good items have been picked over. Things are really bad.

But they're about to get better. Illinois seems to have a new plan designed to get things back on track and alleviate the crushing debt that's crippling our fair state.

That plan, it appears, is to make ME pay for it all.

Last month, my friends and I drove up to Chicago. 2015 has seen some pretty monumental events, but none more so in my world than the reunion of the British shoegazer band Ride, whose 1990 album "Nowhere" will always be my pick for the greatest piece of recorded music of all time ever.

Back in June, some of us traveled all the way to New York City to witness Ride's first reunion gig on these shores. So when they finally announced a show in Chicago, going to see them one more time was a no-brainer. It was an amazing night. All my old college friends met up beforehand, traded stories, and spent a care-free evening acting like the rebellious music geeks of yore. It was everything I wanted it to be, with one glaring exception.

When I was in my twenties, going to Chicago and back in the same night was no big deal. But the older I get, the longer that stretch of I-88 becomes. With steely-eyed reserve, I grabbed a cup of coffee and we bravely ventured onto the lonely late-night Illinois Tollway System.

Speaking of being in my twenties, once upon a time the tollway used to be affordable. There are four toll plazas along I-88, and for years they were always 95 cents, 95 cents, 40 cents, and 40 cents. But then two things happened.

The first was iPass. Rather than wait in line for tolls, cars with an iPass can now cruise on through while presumably some kind of space laser dealy scans your car, finds your iPass, deducts the toll amount from your account, and hopefully doesn't make you sterile in the process. The other thing they did was raise the price of the tolls dramatically, especially if you're like me and don't have iPass.

I get to Chicago maybe twice a year, so I've never really prioritized getting an iPass. The result is that the toll plazas that were once 95 cents are now three dollars and some odd change. Without an iPass, by the time you get to Chicago, you've donated almost ten bucks to the tollway gods.

It was 3 a.m. when we rolled up to the Dixon toll plaza that night. The majority of the plaza is monopolized by iPass lanes, so we pulled off to the one "Cash only" lane, rolled down the window, fumbled for the wallet, and... nothing. The lone booth, usually occupied by a scowling person who invariably looks like they hate their job, was empty.

Instead, a sign hung from the door that we tried to read in our semi-lucid state of caffeinated consciousness. It said something like, "Toll booth is unmanned from 2-5 a.m." That was all I made out. There were no obvious directions about what to do. There was no basket to dump money into, no envelopes to take and mail later, and no discernable instructions about what to do when your toll plaza was sans tolltaker.

"Well, what on Earth are we supposed to --"

"AAAAOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOGGGHHHHAAAAAAA!" said the horn on the gigantic semi truck behind us. HE had discernable instructions for us, and those instructions were to get the (expletive) out of his way. So we did just that, and kept on driving home.

"Weird," I thought at the time. "I guess if they want their money, they'll mail me something."

The letter came this week. I knew what it was the minute I opened it and saw a grainy little mugshot of my car. They want their money, sure enough. ALL SIXTY EIGHT DOLLARS OF IT?!?!?!

It turns out that when you blow a toll, even one that's unmanned without any clear instructions, you owe for the toll PLUS a $20 penalty. News to me. Even bigger news was my letter's claim that this was my THIRD offense, the prior two dating back to 2012. Say what?

I DO have a vague memory of being in Chicago a few years back, getting super stymied by heavy traffic and road construction, and being unable to merge into the cash-only lane. I'll own up to that one, despite it being completely by accident. As to the second infraction? Hand to God, I have no memory of it.

Had the Illinois tollway system informed me of these unpaid tolls in, say, 2012, I would have ponied up promptly. Instead, I'm just now finding out that I owe $68 to cover all three tolls and their accrued penalties. Upon reading the fine print, it turns out that your first two infractions aren't pursued, but they're not exactly mulligans either. At the point of your THIRD infraction, they come after you for all three. Failure to pay at this point results in additional fines per infraction, and then when you hit your fifth blown toll, they come for ALL their money AND your license.

I'm not one to purposely break the law. I don't even remember the second violation, and the third came thanks to an unmanned toll booth that I didn't know the procedure for. Thankfully, I have an opportunity to contest these charges. Yes, pleading my case is as simple as taking a day off work and appearing in a Chicago-area courtroom on a Tuesday in December. So if I want to fight my $68 toll charges, I just have to put $30 worth of gas in my car, spend $20 MORE dollars on tolls, and lose a day's wages. How handy.

Methinks I have no choice but to pay the piper, even though I really don't care for the tune he's playing. Part of me wants to spend $60 to ship them 6800 pennies in spite, but I suppose I'm better than that. I like roads that pay for themselves, and I've always supported our tollway system. I just didn't know I'd be the one actually SUPPORTING it. I'm all for Illinois fixing their budget woes, but I'd prefer that fix to come without tollway extortion.

So the next time you're on your way to Chicago, don't even THINK about missing one of those tolls -- not even when your view is obscured by the dust cloud I'm kicking up while I toodle my way across the state on any toll-free back road or gravel path I can find. I think I've given Illinois enough of my money for a while.

COLUMN: Space-Time

In the grand pantheon of all things geeky, I really only consider myself to be a low-level minor nerd. That said, I do admit to having at least a working familiarity with the standard tropes of science fiction. This is a bummer, because it means I know what's next.

Here's the part of the story where I have to convince you all that the world is ending. And knowing science fiction as I do, this won't be an easy task.

I've read enough books and watched enough bad late-night movies to understand that whenever the apocalypse is nigh, it's usually just ONE spunky do-gooder who ends up in the know. This do-gooder will then try earnestly to get everybody to believe him, but no one ever does. It's sort of like the story of Chicken Little, except with fewer lies and more hellfire and trumpets and flying horsemen.

Since no one usually ever believes the spunky do-gooder, it's then up to him to single-handedly thwart the coming apocalypse and save all of mankind.

Frankly, I've got better things to do. After all, Rock Band 4 came out last week. Even a spunky do-gooder's gotta have priorities, people.

But I am fairly certain that the world's on the brink of catastrophe. I've seen the evidence first-hand, and the only conclusion I can possibly draw is that the End of Days is just around the corner. If it happens before I'm able to gold-star all the songs in Rock Band 4, I'm going to be inconsolable, not to mention very likely dead. Neither of these outcomes is optimal.

Based on the expertise that I have attained by watching the movie "Interstellar" that one time, I'm pretty sure someone has managed to rip a hole in the space-time continuum. You all know the continuum, right? It's the fundamental building block of any good time travel movie. In order for a person to quantum leap their way through time, you need to first think of time as a fourth dimension that's just as tangible as length, width, and depth.

Now, and I realize this is some heavy Stephen Hawking type stuff here, but if you could somehow harness this fourth dimension via a flux capacitor or magic hot tub or what you will, you could theoretically fold time like a piece of paper. Then you just hop in your Delorean, drive past the clock tower, and bust your way to the future or back to the past.

This opens up a big ol' can of wormholes, though. If you travel back to yesteryear, your actions in the past could forever alter the course of history. You could go to the stone age, accidentally step on an anthill, and return home to a world ruled by Nazi dinosaurs. And if you open a hole through the space-time continuum, you'd better have a means to close it back up, otherwise random events in history could just fall through the hole willy-nilly and wreak havoc -- which is exactly what's happening.  
Don't believe me? I have clear evidence that the fabric of space-time is collapsing:

It's 2015, and we are in the throes of a presidential election featuring Clinton vs. Bush. Just the other weekend, Ross' Restaurant was selling Rossburgers for $.50 each. The Cubs are in the post-season. And all of this is happening while we patiently await the new seasons of The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Full House. Clearly, something is amiss.

Now that we've opened the Pandora's Box of Minkowski space anomalies (thanks, Wikipedia), it's just a matter of space-time until all of reality breaks down, chaos reigns over all, and our entire existence is doomed. Before you know it, up will be down, right will be wrong, and McDonalds will be serving breakfast at midnight. Wait, THEY ARE!

Evidence of the complete and total corruption of reality swirls before us:

(1) Donald Trump is running for president. Of the United States. And people are taking him seriously. He's actually leading in the polls. How else can you explain this other than science fiction?

(2) Meanwhile, Kanye West has announced his intent to run for president in 2020. Of the United States. And people are taking him seriously. Well, at least Kanye is taking Kanye seriously, and that's scary enough for me. Granted, it WOULD be pretty awesome to finally hear a State of the Union address that rhymed. If Kanye DOES win in 2020, I hope he considers me for the pivotal role of First DJ. After all, there's no international turmoil that can't be solved with some dope beats, yo.

And if you need further proof that our very sense of reality has run amok:

(3) This week, Playboy magazine announced that in 2016, they're going to cease running nude photos in their pages. Whew. On behalf of grateful men everywhere, thank you, Playboy. Finally we can read your insightful and important articles without all of those pesky naked women getting in the way.
Truth be told, I'm not even a semi-regular reader of Playboy. I'd like to blame it on my high intelligence and refined moral compass. Naw, in truth I can be as crass as the next guy. I've just never been especially titillated by statuesque high-heeled escapees from Planet Silicon. I prefer my fantasies a little more homespun and a lot less airbrushed.

But there's one small segment of our population who no-one's thought about: our flash-in-the-pan celebrities. With Playboy insisting on such liberal ideas as clothing, where will D-list celebrities turn when their last hope of relevancy is to parade around topless? Think of the Tiffanys, Debbie Gibsons, and Drew Barrymores of tomorrow.

The ball is now in your court, world. I'm just a spunky do-gooder playing Rock Band 4 in my basement. It's up to you people to set things right and save the time-space continuum. I don't know how, but if the movies are correct, I think you're supposed to send Arnold Schwarzenegger back through time to kill someone. Do it for our future generations. Do it for the kids. Do it for future First Lady Kim Kardashian so that she always has a pictorial opportunity to fall back on.


Sometimes I wish that newspaper columns would come with a soundtrack. If they did, this week's would DEFINITELY be "We Are The Champions." If you own it, go ahead and press play right now - I'll wait.

I'm just happy to be here. It's a been a harrowing lunch hour, but with inner strength and sheer determination, I have survived. Today I stared death in its ugly little face and somehow perservered to write another day. It only took 44 years, but today, I am finally a man.

Until now, I really didn't know how to gauge whether or not a lunch hour was especially interesting. I finally have that litmus test. It's official: If someone asks you if you need medical attention, it's safe to assume that you're having an interesting lunch hour.

Sixty minutes isn't a lot of time to unwind and decompress, but I like to make the most of every lunch hour. Today's plan was simple: Swing into a drive-thru, pick up some unhealthy comfort food, and make like the wind for my house. If all goes well, this would give me approximately 22 minutes of couch dwelling time to eat, relax, watch a sitcom, and scritch a cat or two before returning to work. It did NOT go well.

I turned into the parking lot of my favorite fast food eatery, pulled up to the ordering station, rolled down my window... and out of nowhere, a honeybee flew in, landed on my chest, and stared up at me with clear murderous intent. Forget Freddie or Jason or Leatherface; in MY world, there's nothing more terrifying than bees.

It's 100% irrational, this I realize. Well, in my case it's 80% irrational, since I'm allergic to bees. When I was a kid, I stepped on a bumblebee nest and was stung three times. Next thing I knew, I was gasping for air and being rushed to the emergency room. But I also used to swell with hives anytime I went near honey, and now I can eat it with no problem. So there's a good chance that I've entirely outgrown my allergy -- but I'm in no hurry to test that theory. Whenever the news tells a heartbreaking story about the mass die-offs of bee populations, I'm the one standing up cheering.

It doesn't matter how many years I've got under my belt. It doesn't matter how mature I may or may not be. Bees will always scare the bee-jeepers out of me. Having a crippling fear is embarassing enough, but the way I act when there's a bee around is truly indescribable. All it takes is one brief fly-by and suddenly I'm prancing around like a ninny with my heart racing and sweat pouring. Usually I have enough self-awareness to not look like TOO much of an idiot in public -- but that all flies out the window a minute I see a bee. I guess that's when the real me comes out, and the real me is an 8-year-old girl.

So how does an 8-year-old girl handle things when a bee flies into the car and lands on her(his) chest? Not well. The response, as it turns out, is to freeze completely and have an internal breakdown. All I know is that I couldn't move and a noise started emitting from my mouth that I was in no way, shape, or form responsible for.

I'm not even sure if I can explain it. If I had to spell it, I'd go with something like, "Gaaaaaahhhhkftpfgaaaaahhhhhk." If I had to describe it, I'd tell you to go online and look up videos of badger mating. All I know is that it wasn't pretty and it was 100% beyond my control. It took a fast-food worker to snap me out of it.


With every ounce of willpower in my body, I was able to go "Gaaaahhhhk - number one with a Coke - thphgaaaaakk" and advance my car to the window. As I pulled up to the window, my travelling companion finally flew off my chest and over to the passenger side, giving me just enough time to throw the car in park, roll down the windows, and leap out for my life.

"Sorrythere'sabeeinmycar," I blurted to the drive-thru worker.

"Oh, we thought you were having a stroke," she said with a laugh.

"Me too," I replied.

She made me feel a little less insane, but our banter made me take my eyes off the bee and I hadnt seen it fly off. Summoning the greatest inner strength I could, I re-entered the car, rolled all the windows up, and headed home, crisis averted.

Or not. Two minutes later, I glanced to my right, and there like a demon ascending from Hades, my bee friend was emerging from the passenger window well it had apparently crawled down. I lowered the window, crumpled up my fast food bag, and hurled it at the bee. I'm not one to vouch for my own marksmanship on a regular basis, but magically it hit the bee dead on and I watched it flail out the window while I hit the gas and left it in my dust.

The only thing left to do was pull the car over and try super hard to not have a heart attack. I was ashen-faced, covered in sweat, high on adrenaline... but alive.

Later that night, I was on the phone with my parents and recounted my narrow escape.

"So you'll be pleased to know I'm 44 years old and just as terrified of bees as when I was a kid," I summarized.

"Are you kidding me?" my mom replied. "Don't you remember when you were 12 and a bee flew in the car and you opened the door and tried to jump out? If I hadn't grabbed your shirt collar, you would have been killed. This time, you stayed cool and managed to pull the car over. That's progress, I'm proud of you!"

Well, gosh, Mom, if you put it that way, I guess I'm proud of me, too. Of course, the real truth is that I couldn't have removed my seat belt without disturbing the bee, otherwise I might have tucked and rolled my way down 18th Avenue without a second's thought. Instead, I'll ignore that and take today as a small victory for maturity and one man's triumph over nature.

COLUMN: Estate Sales

I have a friend who hosts estate sales for a hobby. I'd imagine it's one of the most interesting pastimes a person could possibly have.

If you have a loved one who's passed or moved away and you need a house cleaned out, my friend and her team will come over, go through everything, price all the items, and then run the estate sale for you. Her knowledge of antiques and their market value is astonishing. It doesn't matter if it's a wicker chair, milk jug, handkerchief, or odd Christmas ornament. She can take one look at it and usually tell you when and where it was made, what it's worth, and what you can expect someone in our area to pay for it.

A lot of people are addicted to estate sales, and I can see why. Beyond the lure of bargain hunting, there's something kind of exciting about seeing someone's entire material life laid out in front of you. I think it's human nature to be a little bit voyeuristic and inquisitive, and there's a certain thrill in being allowed to snoop through a stranger's life to see how they lived it.

At the same time, it's important to treat an opportunity like this with the reverence it deserves. The sad reality is that an estate sale often means that someone is no longer with us. I doubt that any of us collect material goods in the hopes that one day a horde of strangers might rifle through them. I've been to a few estate sales early in the morning when they first open, and it can get ugly. I have no interest in gathering with other hardcore bargain hunters like vultures, fighting for position in line, and racing through a house to claim dibs on someone's prized possessions.

But my friend tipped me off to this one. According to her, there was a decent music collection at this sale, and she told me I should probably stop by. I suppose that when my inner music nerd comes out to play, I turn into one of those prize-hungry vultures myself. Personally, I like to think that I'm repatriating any musical treasures I might find back into the caring hands of a true music fan. I'm no vulture, no sir. Instead, I'm SAVING those records from the vultures. At least that's what I like to tell myself.

My friend said it was the home of an elderly woman -- let's call her Jane -- who had passed away. My first glance around the house could've told me as much. The front room was filled with the kind of small collectibles that hold residence in all of our grandparents' homes. A few dolls, some dusty books, a metric ton of delicate glass figurines, and china sets way too fine to ever actually use.

It made me feel like even more of a stranger. This wasn't my stuff. Heck, it wasn't even my KIND of stuff. I can respect this woman's possessions until the cows come home, but I'm just not one to appreciate antiques. I wouldn't want a home full of delicate breakables, because I'd spend half my life worrying about breaking them. Part of me just wanted to gingerly ease my way outside.

The only antiques I care for are twelve inches wide, made of vinyl, and spin at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute -- and finally I found a box of them. Next to that was FIVE boxes of CDs and DVDs. It was mostly the standard fare that I call MMML - Music My Mom Likes. There was a wide selection of Streisand and Josh Groban. Both Neils (Sedaka and Diamond) had a strong showing, and I'll be honest, I didn't know Mac Davis HAD so many albums out.

Then I spotted the first anomaly -- a pristine copy of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." I smiled, imagining sweet old Jane polishing her figurines while the guitar solo of "Brain Damage" wailed behind her. That was followed by a few other surprises: The Police, Michael Jackson, Will Smith. Maybe Jane was a little cooler than I was giving her credit for.

"Oh, duh," I thought to myself. "I bet these belonged to her kids."

But then I saw something that made me stop in my tracks. In front of me sat not one, not two, but THREE John Barrowman CDs.

You're probably going, "Who?" And you're absolutely dead on the money.

In America, few people have heard of John Barrowman. In England, he's a household name. In addition to being an accomplished stage actor on London's West End, John Barrowman is most well known for playing the beloved Dr. Jack Harkness on the legendary British sci-fi show Doctor Who and its spin-off, Torchwood.

There are a few litmus tests I use to determine someone's worthiness as a human being, and being a fan of Doctor Who is a biggie. It's a show truly for the nerdiest of nerds, and it takes more than a passing fan to be familiar with Barrowman, let alone own three of his CDs, which were only ever released in the UK.

Then I looked at her DVD collection, and there sat the entire Torchwood box set in all its glory. Next to it, the box set of a little-known British drama called "The Last Detective," a show that stars another Doctor Who alum, Peter Davison. This woman wasn't just a passing fan. Still, the voice reminded me, these probably belonged to her kids. That's when I saw it, right there on the cover.

"To Jane, with love, Peter Davison."

That sucker was SIGNED. This wasn't any average elderly lady. This woman was a full-on Whovian. There's no way to know for sure, but I reckon she went to a convention and stood in line for hours to get that autograph. I've always wanted to go to a convention and stand in line for hours to get somebody's autograph.

I no longer felt awkward being in Jane's house. Jane was my people. Suddenly I wasn't sad that people were wandering around divvying up Jane's stuff without a thought in the world. Instead I was sad that I never got to meet Jane. I bet we'd have gotten along great. Not only did I pick up a few CDs, but I even wandered around and took a second look at the other stuff again. When I went back by the table of collectibles, I saw something I'd missed the first time: a collectible TARDIS, Doctor Who's time-travelling spaceship. I wonder how many people wandered through that house and wondered what was up with the weird guy staring at the figurines with a wide grin on his face.

Here's to you, Jane. I hope you led a life filled with love and happiness and all the fictional time-travelling space aliens you wanted. I hope it was okay that I invaded your privacy and pilfered some of your stuff. Rest in peace, and please know your Torchwood box set will be well cared for.