Friday, September 23, 2016

COLUMN: Chicken

Well, it finally happened. 12 years and 595 weekly columns... and I've FINALLY managed to make a whole ton of enemies in a REALLY short time.  I've gotta hand it to the pro-backyard chicken folks in town -- they're definitely a passionate bunch.  No sooner had this column made its way to our newspaper's website than someone upped it to a local pro-chicken message board and all hell broke loose.  It turns out people who dig chickens do NOT dig being poked fun at.  They're probably too busy being poked by their chickens.

Over the past 24 hours, I've receives dozens of pieces of hate mail (along with a few letters of support), a few threats, and I came home today to discover someone had egged my back door and covered my back steps in chicken poop.  Thanks, by the way, for proof positive that chicken poop DOES, in fact, stink.

Let me use my blog to state some facts that I thought were self-evident and answer some of my favorite pieces of reader mail:

"You write articles to 'get LOLs' and not to educate and inform the public."

Yes. That's exactly what I get paid to do. In my job. As a humor columnist.

"Is this what the news has become?"

No. It is what a humor columnist is and continues to be.

"Whatever happened to: 'Who? What? When? Where? Why?'"

I wouldn't know. Perhaps ask a journalist. I am not one.

"There are no accurate facts in this article."

The only fact I presume to make in this column is that I don't like urban chickens. That's an accurate fact.

"Maybe he should go watch more Game of Thrones."

God, I wish. This wait for the new season is killing me.

"Is your column supposed to be located on the funny pages, cause it's where it's seems headed."

Yes. It is.

"Maybe you need to post on Facebook and other sites to get 5 min of questions answered before you form and share your baseless comments swaying people who are depending on you for there information. Obviously we know who not to trust next time."

If you are depending on a viewpoint humor column for information, you're reeeally going to be sorely disappointed.  And please don't ever trust me now or ever.  I'm just a humor columnist.

"Did you do any research before vomiting out your biased and inaccurate article?"

No, I did not do any research before vomiting out my biased and inaccurate humor column.

"Did you read any details whatsoever about the reasoning behind the fight for backyard hens in Rock Island?"


"Did you bother to check with neighboring communities and cities across the country who allow backyard hens?"


"Did you actually pay for a degree in journalism?"

Nope. Don't have one. Don't want one. NOT a journalist.

 "Are you aware that research generally goes hand in hand with journalism?"

Yes. Are YOU aware that I'm NOT a journalist?

"This was purely a conjecture piece. With the lack of facts and overwhelming opinions it seemed more worthy of a letter to the editor or at best a Facebook post."

Or perhaps a humor column.

"This is not a news article."

FINALLY. Someone who gets it.

Are you guys sensing a theme here?  Chicken people take things WAY too seriously.

Mixed in with all the hate mail were a few messages from other people who share some of my fears, grounded or no.  Look, I'm no expert in chickenry.  But I really DID grow up in the country, I've seen the worst and smelliest of rural farming, and I'm in no hurry to experience its tamer urban equivalent. You might think fresh eggs are worth it.  I don't.  I'm fine with the eggs I get at Hy-Vee, and if I feel like going organic, I go to the farmer's market. Both are within five minutes of my house.

Of COURSE there are people out there who have immaculate chicken coops in their back yard, take really good care of their chickens, and are generally awesome. I have no beef with them. This column isn't about them. But once urban chicken-keeping becomes the rage, the trend will make its way to idiots who WON'T take care of their chickens... and then it'll be up to the city to weed out those bad elements. There's a pit bull in an alley by my house that lives in deplorable conditions.  I know for a fact that at least 3 people have reported that dog's owners and condition to the authorities. So far, they've done NOTHING.  Forgive me if I don't put much faith in Rock Island's ability to police the chicken licenses they hand out.

And chickens really ARE mean.  At least the ones I've met.  

I'm not beyond admitting when I need to learn about stuff, and there's chicken-keepers out there eager to share their stories with me. I might take a couple of them up on it, so stay tuned.  I don't just go around hating things without reason. Except Tom Cruise. F*** that guy.

UPDATE: 9/26/16 -  It turns out the entire Quad Cities does NOT support backyard chickens and/or want to string me from the rafters.  Now that the column ran in print today, I've been steadily receiving messages of support from lots of other residents who, like me, aren't especially keen on urban poultry.  While I always suspected this to be the case, it's reassuring to know that not EVERYONE hates me.  Only, like, a portion of the Quad Cities hates me.  Still, I think that's better than Donald Trump's faring, so I'm good with it.

In the meantime, here's the column -- which was meant to be a good-natured jab at the hipster massive chicken coalition in town -- that started all the hubbub.  This is the original unedited version I submitted, so forgive any typos or run-on sentences or what have you. You'll probably be too busy hating me to notice them anyways.

Oh, this column is NOT going to end well.

In the past, when I've suffered through an especially boring week that's left me mentally muddy and bereft of any good column topics, I've occasionally turned to my friends for advice. I've even posted on Facebook once or twice going, "Hey, anybody have any good ideas for a newspaper column?" In the few times I've tried this, I've usually been greeted by the sound of crickets, question marks, or topic suggestions so indecent I'd be hitting the unemployment line by the end of this sentence.

But a weird thing just happened. Without any prompting from me whatsoever, no fewer than four of my friends have hit me up this week on Facebook saying, "Dude, you HAVE to write a column about this." When so many people I care about come at me so passionately, I've GOT to take them up on it, right?

The problem is, I don't think they're gonna like what I have to say about it.

By and large, a vast majority of my friends are, if you'll allow me to crudely stereotype, artsy-fartsy types. The easiest way to make friends is to find people with shared interests, and my interests have never been especially practical. I don't know too many bankers or businessmen. Instead, my friends tend to be actors and artists, hippies and hipsters, vegans and vagabonds. And if there's one thing that unites this motley crew of miscreants, it's, umm, apparantly now a shared desire to murder chickens.

Until this week, I would've told you with absolute certainty that I didn't know anyone who harbored a secret desire to raise backyard chickens for eggs or meat. But then last week some news stories popped up about many of our local communities, including my own Rock Island, reconsidering their long-standing bans on keeping chickens within city limits. Before I knew it, it was the prime trending topic amongst my friends on social media. For a while, it was kind of refreshing. I'd certainly rather watch people bicker about poultry over politics. But now poultry has BECOME politics. My inbox is full of petition requests: SIGN NOW TO SUPPORT BACKYARD CHICKENS IN ROCK ISLAND!

I get it, I do. Keeping your own chickens is just the next evolutionary step in urban farming. It's steampunk, it's sustainable living, it's organic. In one fowl swoop, you're damning the man, living off the grid, making a difference, saving money, and treating dinner with dignity. It's the perfect hobby for the eco-friendly artsy hipster in all of us.

There's just one problem... I don't want backyard chickens in my neighborhood. And now I'm probably gonna lose my membership card to the Cool Kid's Club. Great.

I like chickens just fine. I like them plucked, skinned, deboned, covered in Saran Wrap, and potentially even shaked and baked -- anything it takes for them to end up on my plate looking as little like the murdered remains of once-cute birds as possible. I'm all for animal rights, and I shiver when I see one of those shameful undercover videos of livestock mistreatment at mega-farms. I'd make a decent vegetarian if chicken wasn't delicious and tofu didn't taste like gelatinous plastic. I deal with my carniverous shame the best I can: by stubbornly turning a blind eye to the more slaughterous aspects of meat-eating.

I grew up in the country, and if I wanted to hang out with poultry, I'd still be out there. There are advantages to city life, and one of them is the ability to go about my day-to-day existence without bearing daily witness to the circle of life. I know what you're gonna say: "Backyard coops are for eggs, not murder!" Fair enough, but let's be honest -- once hens are past their egg-bearing years, they're not put out to pasture as much as put on dinner plates.

If one of my neighbors suddenly set up a chicken coop, I know exactly how it'd play out. Within minutes, I'd be the one going "Aww! Wookit da cute chickins!" It wouldn't take long before I'd feel guilty even looking sideways at a Chik-Fil-A. I eat too much red meat already, people. If I were to develop an affinity for chickens and paired that with my natural aversion to vegetables, all that's left would be an all-burger diet and early death. Congratulations, your backyard chickens just killed me.

Plus, chicken coops stink. That's fact. "But Shane," you say, "my great-aunt Mildred raised chickens all her life and her backyard always smelled springtime fresh!" That's because your great-aunt Mildred probably knew what she was doing. You don't. She raised chickens all her life. You watch "Game of Thrones" and wear ironic t-shirts. The day you decide you'd rather visit a microbrewery than tend to your brood, you're gonna have a funky coop in no time. My hay fever already ensures that I spend half the year in a snot-nosed, Claritin-popping stupor. I'm sure adding feathers and feed dust to the air will just do wonders in that department.

If we green-light urban chickens, please please please at least ban roosters like most other towns. I'm fine with some random clucking. But the minute some wayward rooster starts crowing at 5 a.m., it might be MY turn to try my hand at poultrycide. Sorry, Professor Plum, it was the sleep-deprived neighbor, in the chicken coop, with the candlestick.

I can't speak for everyone's neck of the woods, but on MY block, any potential chicken populace would already be outnumbered by the legions of feral cats and raccoons that roam the streets. You could step out for eggs one morning and instead find yourself in the grisly aftermath of a full-scale poultrycaust. That's no way for Little Timmy to learn about the food cycle.

Besides, chickens are kinda mean. In my limited dealings with them, they're not quite as keen on sacrificing their offspring to us as we'd like them to be. Those beaks are sharp, people. Plant a garden instead. Tomatoes don't poop, cluck, or peck you in the ankles. If you've really got your heart set on fostering some chickens, do it out in the sticks where I can continue to live in ignorant bliss of the sights, smells, and noise of modern chickenry.

Sorry, friends, that I was too chicken to tell you how much I loathe chickens. You wanted me to write about it? Ta-da. Mission accomplished. (Curtsy). See, I told you this column wasn't going to end well.


Oh, great. An existential crisis. This is clearly what my week needed.

I'm feeling something at the moment, but I'm not quite certain as to what. Either I'm (a) mad at myself, (b) sad for myself, or (c) mad at myself about feeling sad for myself. No matter the answer, it's a fairly ridiculous and selfish mindset to be in.

As I type this column, two important things are happening to friends both named Chris. In New York City, it's election day - and one of my closest friends from college is running for New York Democratic State Committee. Meanwhile, across the sea and around the world in Nagoya, Japan, another of my closest friends is mere hours away from fatherhood, as his wife is scheduled for a c-section within the hour.

These are big deal events. Milestones in a person's life. The kind of accomplishments that define someone.

So what's MY biggest accomplishment of late? What's MY milestone? Well, I finally made the move from #35 to #34 on the X-Box Rock Band leaderboards. I'm the 34th best in the world at humming into a plastic microphone on a video game designed for people half my age. AWESOME! YAY ME!

I'm not jealous of my friends. Well, okay, maybe I'm a LITTLE jealous of my friends. But I don't begrudge them their accomplishments. It's always amazing to see people I care about getting married or scoring fantastic jobs or moving to exotic places, especially when my biggest memories of these people involve sitting around living rooms, watching TV, playing video games, and generally not doing a whole lot with our lives.

But sometimes it feels like I'm STILL not doing much with my life. I'm still in that same living room, playing the same video games. (Admittedly, I now have a MUCH better TV, so don't tell me I haven't evolved.) In our clique of friends, I was always the DJ, eagerly playing records at every party and get-together. I'm still moonlighting on the weekends as a DJ, but the clique I'm spinning records for these days could be the CHILDREN of my clique.

People evolve. Life happens. And just like the small panic attack I had during my recent office move, my initial instinct to change is always to greet it with hostility and disdain. Thankfully, though, it's a brief reaction, and then I settle down while two important things happen. (1) I get excited for my friends and their milestones and triumphs over adversity, and then (2) I realize that my own life is going pretty well after all. Don't cry for me, Argentina. The truth is I really like being me.

Let's look at my friend Chris out in New York City. He's spent the past nine months knocking on doors and campaigning non-stop to become a Democratic State Committeeperson. It's an unpaid position, and kind of a thankless one at that. Out there, committeepeople are in charge of determining judicial candidates, representing their districts at state conventions, and are basically the local boots on the ground for other Democratic candidates in need of support.

Chris has made headlines in his campaign because he's running on a shoestring budget without accepting large campaign contributions from donors he might feel beholden to. Instead, he's doing things his way, and he just knocked on his 14,000th door. And his reward if he wins? He gets to start all over again, knocking on doors in support of other Democratic candidates and urging his district to get out and vote come November. Knowing Chris, I'm sure he thinks it's all great fun.

Me? I'll take a pass on the door-knocking, thanks. I know how well I respond when a stranger knocks on MY door, and I'm sure the average resident of Brooklyn has an equally short fuse. Thanks, but no thanks. Campaining one-on-one like that would require internal fortitude and patience that I just don't possess.

Then there's my OTHER friend Chris, who randomly answered an online ad for English tutors in Japan a few years back. He's now been in the Land of the Rising Sun long enough to meet, marry, and procreate with his wife. But no sooner were the couple celebrating the surprise pregnancy when she developed complications that have kept her on hospital bedrest for the past three months, leaving Chris to handle all baby-fication duties on his own. Now imagine that task while living in a country whose language you barely understand.

Had that been ME, you might as well just place me in the adjacent hospital room, because I would've had a nervous breakdown faster than you could look up the Japanese word for "crib." I'm not anti-baby in the slightest. I think kids are awesome and having my own would be the adventure of a lifetime. But let's be honest -- I can't tie my shoes, can't swim, can't snap my fingers, and can barely care for two cats. Putting the life of a tiny human into my hands might not be the best call.

So I might be jealous of my friends from time to time, but I've got a great life. I've got a job I love going to and a house I love coming home to. I might not be running for office or extending the Brown family line in any real hurry, but hey, that gives me time to DJ, play video games,  watch bad TV, and have loads of free time. Heck, my friends might be jealous of ME sometimes.

But best of all, I'm just glad to have friends. Whether they're down the street or continents away, I've got a clique I can lean on and people who make me laugh, and that's all I need in life.

As I typed this column, two important things happened to friends both named Chris. One lost his election bid, but NOT by a landslide, and he's already looking forward to the next one. The other just provided our clique with its newest member, Alana Hatsuko. Mom and baby are doing well, and we've yet to see 4 horsemen riding through the sky, so it appears Chris' spawning did NOT herald the end of days as some feared. Now to get them to move back here, otherwise that's gonna be a long commute to babysit.

COLUMN: Wal-Mart

I'm in no way, shape, or form qualified to discuss city planning. I know this because I'm really bad at Sim City.

In the popular computer simulation game, you become "mayor" of a virtual city that you create from the ground up. The goal is to grow your town into a thriving metropolis while staying within budget and keeping your little sim populace happy. Fiscal solvency is hard, and it's easy to allow your village to become rife with crime, congestion, and unhappy little sims that move away. If you do a bad enough job, you get a message that your Sim-citizens want to recall you out of office.

Usually when I reach this point in the game, I cease being a benevolent ruler and instead create a totalitarian hellscape from which no Sim can escape. If you hate living in my town NOW, just wait 'til I remove all the roads, close all nightlife, and drop minimum wage to $1 a day. An early version of the game had disaster scenarios including the local flood of '93. Your goal was to save downtown Davenport, but I found it much more cathartic to divert the floodwaters directly into the Sim homes of my ex-girlfriends over and over again.

The best I could ever muster in Sim City was turning a desolate dirt field into a barely functioning neighborhood. Still, this seems better than the leaders of Rock Island, whose primary accomplishment over the past four years has been turning a barely functioning neighborhood into a desolate dirt field.

When the mayor announced years ago that Wal-Mart was considering a new location on 11th Street, my initial reaction was, "Pfft. Yeah, THAT'LL happen." We already had the world's loneliest K-Mart on nearby Blackhawk Road, so why would Wal-Mart be any more of a success story? Still, I understood why city leaders got excited. That's a lot of inbound tax dollars to the city, so I never faulted city leaders for cheering the project on.

But I stopped cheering when the city began spending mad amounts of money prepping the space when there was no contract and no firm commitment. They levelled Watchtower Plaza, one of the most unique features of the entire 11th St. corridor. They took out the fire-damaged Town & Country Lanes, my favorite low-rent bowling alley ever. Several tax-paying businesses had to fold or relocate. And now, after umpteen contract extensions and a whole lotta talk, Wal-Mart has backed out, leaving Rock Island with a freshly minted dirt field that we taxpayers had the pleasure of spending an estimated 15 million dollars for. The mayor's blaming Wal-Mart, the aldermen are blaming the mayor, and we're the ones left reaching for the pocketbook.

Don't take what I'm about to say the wrong way. If there's one thing I hate, it's people who stereotype Rock Island as the ugly stepchild of the Quad Cities. I love Rock Island. It's been my home since 1988. Like any city, it has good parts and it has bad parts. There's a lot worse places to find oneself than the 11th St. corridor, but I think we can all admit it's not exactly Rodeo Drive. Once upon a time, when it was the only direct way to the cinemas in Milan, it was a bustling thoroughfare. These days, it's home mostly to shuttered buildings and "cash for gold"-type stores that become prevalent in economically depressed areas. The revitalization of 11th Street is going to need a team of experts, lots of meetings, and a pile of incentives to get off the ground. You can't just solve things by plopping a Wal-Mart in the middle of the mess.

Big box stores aren't a fix-all. They might be tax monsters, but they're also notoriously low wage payers. They're usually no friend of the environment. The Quad Cities is already littered with the shuttered skeletons of former big box retailers who pack up and leave the minute they can open a SUPER-big-box-store elsewhere. They hold all the cards, and that's why they can express interest in opening a new store and sit back while cities like Rock Island ruin themselves just to woo them.

Rock Island's almost as bad at Sim City as I am. When I first moved up here, the casino was supposed to be the big fix that revitalized downtown. But as soon as the casinos fought their way on land, Rock Island's was the first to hightail it out to the interstate, where the flood plain all but ensures no surrounding development. When Farmall closed, we were told that the Quad City Industrial Center would be the future of Rock Island manufacturing, but then no one moved in and it became just another decaying husk.

In the 90s, Rock Island nightlife was second to none. Blocks of thriving clubs, theaters, and eateries made The District THE place to be on any given weekend. But then the city decided to shift their downtown development towards lofts and family living while making it harder and harder for nightlife to flourish. But it was the nightlife that made people want to live in those lofts in the first place, and now The District is a shell of its former self.
So what should the city do with their fifteen million dollar weed-covered empty lot? Don't ask me, I stink at Sim City. If it was me, I'd rebuild the bowling alley, throw in a dance club and a concert venue, toss in a gaming center and a record store and I'd never leave. But if my ideal Shanetown won't work in Sim City, it probably won't here, either. Maybe its time the city went the bohemian route. Heck, lure Whole Foods to that empty lot and watch the entire neighborhood turn granola and hipster.

I don't know the best answers, but I'm not supposed to. This is why we elect officials who are supposed to know a thing or two about urban management. Rock Island leaders should have known better, and they'd better be pro-active at sorting out a new plan pronto. As I said from experience, if you let your Sims down too often, they just might vote you right out of office.

COLUMN: Rock Band Redux

It's been a bad week to be a Shane.

I'm not a huge fan of change or upheaval. There's comfort in the familiar, safety in the status quo. Change, however, is a question mark of excitement. It could be good, but it's often bad, and I prefer not to take the risk. When push comes to shove, I'd rather not be pushed OR shoved, thanks much. My natural resistance to change will try your very last ounce of patience. If it were up to me, I'd probably still be in my mother's womb, holding onto an ovary for dear life.

But against my will, a small amount of change has been injected into my life this week, and I am NOT acclimating well. Plus I'm a horrible writer, because I'm sure you're now bracing for some kind of big exciting news, and I've got nothing to offer. All I'm dealing with are a handful of mundane changes at the office that anyone with a desk job has likely been though a dozen times. But for me, of course, it's nothing less than my entire world torn asunder.

First off, my boss of umpteen years decided to up and leave the cozy confines of Castle Dispatch/Argus for a new husband and new career. Why ANYONE would leave the cherished job of overseeing the likes of ME is beyond comprehension, but leave she did, and that's a bummer because she's a lovely person. I now have a new boss who seems equally as lovely, but it's all just kind of new and different and exciting and I already need an antacid.

The real punch to the gut, though, was finding out that our entire department was moving to a different part of the office. For the past decade, I've been in the most coveted room on the floor, at a desk with a pristine window view and loads of room for my natural tendency to hoard. The room we're moving to is basically a glorified hallway with nary a window in sight and zero room for needless junk. Of course, it took a co-worker to remind me that a decade ago, I was whining just as hard about moving from our cozy little room into that "horribly large drafty room with all that oppressive natural light."

I just hate change because it's change. If we were moving into the Playboy Mansion where I'd have to work surrounded by half-naked centerfolds, I'd be the guy whining about the humidity from the grotto and the weird old guy wandering around in his pajamas. Truth be told, I'm getting along well with the new boss and I like the vibe of the new work space, but still -- it's change.

So I've spent the past week having a series of small panic attacks, going through boxes, and quite literally throwing away my life's work. Okay, so maybe my life doesn't need to hang on to faxes I sent in 1996, but it's still traumatic. How much junk did I have crammed in my desk? When they went to move it this week, it broke in two if that tells you anything. Now I'm dealing with office change, boss change, and yes, desk change.

My only solace has been coming home to a house blessedly free of change. Since I knew I was facing a week of upheaval and stress, I vowed to spend every NON-working moment indulging in that which makes me the happiest, most level-headed person I can be.

That's right -- I've been in the basement, rediscovering my love for Rock Band.

When I first heard about a video game that required you to push buttons rhythmically on a fake plastic guitar, I thought it sounded ridiculous (and it pretty much is.) But then I played it, and an obsession was born. Try as I might, though, I was pretty bad at fake guitars and fake drums. But one fateful day, sitting at home by myself, I thought it would be a laugh to pick up the microphone and learn just how bad I was at fake vocals.

I can't sing to save my life, but that's not really a prerequisite in video game singing. In Rock Band, you're judged vocally by holding the right note on the microphone. I can't sing, but it turns out I can make an "ooo" sound in roughly the correct pitch when required -- but the only way I can do it with any degree of accuracy is to "ooo" in the most embarassing, shrillest falsetto I can muster. Imagine getting kicked in the groin and then attempting to play the kazoo and you'll be close. It's a horrifying noise. It's a noise that makes cats meow in concern and leave the room. It's a noise that few outside of a VERY small group of forgiving friends and housecats have ever heard. I'm not proud of the noise.

But it's also a noise that scores MASSIVE points in the game. Before I knew it, I was racking up high scores on nearly every song, winning tournaments, and wasting an absurd amount of my time and income going "ooo" in my basement. I might sound like a baby goat in distress, but in the world of Rock Band, I'm Freddie Mercury, people.

But, you know, that was back in my carefree youth -- you know, when I was (cough) thirty-five. A 30-something playing Rock Band is only kinda pathetic, but a 40-something sneaking into his basement to go "ooo" is almost guys-in-white-coats worthy. But in a week where work has left me a stressed-out wreck, it's been the best therapy I can muster. I hadn't played in years, but thanks to this week, I'm currently ranked as the #52 vocalist in the world. I plan on stopping -- just as soon as I out-"ooo" 51 strangers. As mid-life crises go, I could do worse.

When I was cleaning out my desk, I discovered my former boss had left me her tin of spare change. On it, she wrote a simple note: "Change: you can't move forward without it." She's right, and work will soon be awesome again, I'm sure. But it's nice to know that while some things change, some things stay the same, even if that thing is a shrill "ooo" coming from a basement somewhere in Rock Island. I still love my job -- just don't ask why I've been showing up hoarse every morning.

COLUMN: Fine Art

It's no secret that our state's in a fiscal pickle right now. Any attempts to fix Illinois' budget woes have been routinely stymied by the political gridlock in Springfield, and there's only so far into the abyss we can fall before we lose grip on the rope to pull ourselves out. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Cook County, where Chicago's already fragile infrastructure is struggling to keep its head above water. As a result, Cook County keeps looking for new and exciting ways to tax its businesses and citizens. Well, they've got a new one -- and it's a doozy.

Ever wonder why concert and theatre tickets in Chicago cost a fortune? One of the main reasons is that 3% of your ticket price goes straight to Cook County's "amusement tax." It's been in place for a long time and large scale venues in the Chicagoland area have learned to live with it.

Thankfully, though, it comes with a loophole. Venues with a capacity of 750 or fewer are exempt from the amusement tax so long as the cover charges or ticket prices are for "in-person, live theatrical, live musical or other live cultural performances." The code goes on to define these live cultural performances as "any of the disciplines commonly regarded as fine art, such as live theater, music, opera, drama, comedy, ballet, modern or traditional dance, and book or poetry readings."

This is a crucial exemption. A 3% amusement tax probably doesn't have much impact on Chicago's huge concert arenas or large downtown theaters, but for a hole-in-the-wall corner bar charging $4 to see a developing band, 3% could be the very difference between success and failure.

Cities NEED small performance venues if they want culture to flourish. The Smashing Pumpkins did not one day wake up, form a band, and headline ampitheaters. Like every other band in the city, they had to make their name playing dive bars and holes-in-the-wall while honing their craft and gaining loyal fans. In fact, I remember going to shows in Chicago in the early 90s and walking out to find the Smashing Pumpkins standing in the rain, handing out flyers, begging kids to come see them play a late show down the street. For culture to thrive, small clubs need to be incentivized, not hit with a 3% tax.

But at a hearing last week, an administrator from the county's Department of Administrative Hearings (if that's not a red flag in and of itself) announced that live music venues in Chicago should not be exempt from the amusement tax because "rap music, country music, and rock 'n' roll do not fall under the purview of fine art."

In other words, Chicago has become "Footloose" as written by George Orwell.

As a result, needless tax dollars will be spent this October when the city goes to court to argue that rock, country, rap, and electronic music do not constitute their definitions of "music" and "culture." They're even trying to collect BACK amusement taxes from previously exempt small clubs, to the tune of around $200,000 per venue -- a fee which would easily bankrupt small clubs that subside from one show to the next.

This is some terrifyingly Draconian Frasier-Crane-style nonsense.

Let's look at the dictionary. Google defines fine art as "creative art, whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content." Mirriam-Webster goes simpler: "A type of art that is done to create beautiful things."

So, Hearing Administrator of the Department of Administrative Hearings, who are you to tell me what IS and ISN'T beautiful? Everybody has their own tastes. I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would rather listen to industrial machinery than attend an opera -- industrial machinery might at least have a beat I can groove to. But that's just MY taste -- you might dig an opera or a classical recital, and that's just dandy. But don't for a second try to tell me that Beethoven is somehow intrinsically more beautiful than Brian Wilson.

If rock, country, rap, and electronic music shouldn't be exempt from the amusement tax, then why does the exemption exist in the first place? To benefit Chicago's numerous small corner bars featuring live opera every weekend? Because those don't exist. Where do you draw the culturally "fine" line between a "live poetry reading" and a Lil Wayne show?

They're also going after venues featuring performances by DJs, claiming that the art of mixing records doesn't fall "within any disciplines considered fine art." This makes me want to raise a finger in salute, and I'll leave it up to you to guess which finger. I'm a weekend DJ myself, and I'm not conceited enough to call myself an "artist." But log on to Youtube right now and look up any video of DJ Q-Bert or Cut Chemist in action and tell me that's not art. I remember being at a warehouse in Cedar Rapids at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night as DJ ESP Woody McBride brought me to tears with a DJ set.

Again, that's just me. You might hate rap music or dance beats. That's cool. I think the most beautiful band in the world is the British group My Bloody Valentine. My mom once heard them and truly thought my stereo was broken. To each their own -- that's what art's all about. As long as someone out there finds it beautiful, it's fine art and that's fine by me.

That's why, come October, several small venues will be challenging this ridiculous ruling. According to the Chicago Reader, they're coming to court armed with witnesses that run the gamut from DJs to musicologists, all to make the obvious argument that music is, well, music. Remember when you were a kid rocking out to your favorite record when suddenly some adult started yelling, "Turn that garbage off! You kids today don't know what REAL music is!" Remember how MAD that made you? How your mom and dad had NO business telling you what is and isn't music? Well, the government shouldn't be in that business, either.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go put on some fine art by The Clash and turn the volume to 11. Trust me, it's gonna sound beautiful.

COLUMN: Enter the George

Have you guys been watching "Stranger Things" on Netflix?

The critically acclaimed show about a ragtag team of 8th graders taking on inter-dimensional aliens has been winning the hearts of fans and critics alike. It's a total throwback that conjures "E.T.," "The Goonies," and all those deliciously bad horror flicks from the 80s that remain near and dear to my heart. It's not the best TV show of all time, but it certainly makes you nostalgic for the days when you used to care what the best TV show of all time was.

Any show with nerd heroics is especially satisfying for me since I've been down that path myself. When my parents bought me an Apple IIe in middle school, I'm sure they had the best of intentions. Little did they know, it was the gateway to a world of dungeons, dragons, science fiction, and endless ridicule from the popular kids.

I was nerd before nerd was cool, and I had the requisite pack of nerdy friends that I hung with through middle school and junior high. Chief among them was my friend George. He and I had a long friendship built predominantly on two things: (1) Our shared love of long-winded RPG video games, and (2) George's never-ending attempts to make me a fan of heavy metal. On any given weekend, you could find the two of us gathered in front of a computer screen, busily slaying orcs while Iron Maiden blared in the background.

As time went on, our clique drifted apart. George got accepted into the prestigious Illinois Mathematics & Science Academy, while I discovered dance beats and DJing. We still stayed in touch, but George's post-doctorate work in artificial intelligence and machine learning took him from California to New York, Florida and beyond. I just always assumed that one day, the massive pulsating contents of his brain would either save or enslave all of humanity.

Instead, it brought him to my house last weekend.

George is currently inbetween gigs and holding court at his parents house in Galesburg, in the same bedroom where we once defeated a pirate horde, descended into the Stygian Abyss, fought our way to the Codex of Infinite Wisdom, and heard those words every aspiring nerd dreamed of, "Congratulations, thou hast completed Ultima IV." The other day, George called to see if I wanted a guest for the weekend, and I couldn't have been happier to invite him up.

This was a big deal for me. It's not often that I get to see any of the old nerd clique, let alone have the chance to introduce them to my current friends, who were most eager to meet this King of the Nerds I'd been telling stories of for years on end.

But what exactly does one DO when two worlds collide? I spent four years at college listening to my big-city friends berate the Quad Cities daily. Listening to them, you'd have thought we were all trapped in Hayseed Alley with little to do but watch the river roll by. Truth be told, there's a LOT of stuff to do in the Quad Cities, and this was one of our most option-filled weekends of the year.

We could have gone to the John Deere Classic. We could have gone to Doc's Inn to see the Too White Crew. We could have gone down to the District and had our faces melted off by bass at Patrick Rifley's Digital Circus. We could have driven out to the greatest concert venue in the world, Codfish Hollow, to see legendary indie chanteuse Jenny Lewis. We could have watched the most epic tug-of-war in the USA. We could have gone to any number of theaters, comedy clubs, arcade bars, or dance floors at our disposal.

Instead, we ended up at a hog confinery.

After George arrived, the two of us met up with my friends Jason and Dianna for some outstanding Mongolian barbecue. Dianna surprised us all by showing up in a new car that she'd just bought that day.

"Want to take it around the block?" she asked as we left the restaurant. Aimless drive? Heck yes.

As we hopped in her car, somebody mentioned the meteor shower happening that night. Instantly, Jason had his phone out and was accessing an app that points you towards nearby light-pollution free zones for ideal stargazing.

Driving towards darkness, I mentioned having seen Jupiter hanging out by the Moon a few days prior.

"I'm so out of touch I can't even remember whether Jupiter or Saturn is closer to Earth," Jason said.

"My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas," replied Dianna.

"WHAT?" we all said in unison.

It turns out it's a mnemonic device I'd never heard of. My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.

"Shouldn't it be my-very-educated-mother-just-served-us-nothing?" asked George. "Pluto's been uninvited to the party."

"Technically," I said, "the whole thing's poor grammar. Shouldn't it be 'my WELL-educated mother'?"

Jason looked at me with a smirk. "Only if you want a planet named Wenus."

It started with giggles, then soon the whole car was bouncing with laughter. Within minutes, we were pondering if men are from Mars, would women still be from Wenus? Likely not. At some point, I led the car in a sing-along of "I'm your wenus, I'm your fire, what's your desire?"

Eventually, we found our dark sky, which most certainly did NOT involve pulling off and trespassing at some kindly farmer's hog confinery without said kindly farmer's knowledge. Many laughs were shared. George, never one for the outdoors, saw his first ever meteor. It was nothing shy of perfect.

The Quad Cities has a lot to do if you look hard enough. But I'll trade it all for a night of immature laughs with real friends. George and I were outcasts 20 years ago, and maybe my friends and I are still outcasts today. If that means more nights like this, score one for the outcasts.

COLUMN: Olympics

You want me to write a column? NOW? You can't be serious. I'm a little busy -- the Olympics are on (duh.)

Like most of you, I'm a little preoccupied enjoying these two infrequent weeks when we, as a nation, come together and really, truly care about swimming. Days from now, I won't give swimming a second thought until 2020. I don't even know HOW to swim. Yet here I've sat, night after night, cheering on the very sort of intimidating jocks I once feared in high school.

It's easy to enjoy competitive swimming, though, when our country seems preternaturally amazeballs at it. Some of these swimmers look to have more muscle strength in their shoulders than I do in my whole body -- and that's just the GIRLS. I'm pretty sure Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte could pick me up and throw me like a gelatinous shot put if they felt like it.

I don't even understand how one goes about commanding their body to do these tasks. Take gymnastics, for instance. I guarantee I couldn't even stand up straight on a balance beam without tumbling to my near death, let alone jump and twirl and flip and such. Obviously gymnasts are physical powerhouses who've spent years honing their bodies into fat-free balancing machines, whereas I can't seem to take my trash out without risk of ankle breakage.

But let's pretend for a second that I was in peak physical condition. Let's say that instead of this fat gut, I had abs of steel and muscles I didn't even know about. Even I were physically capable of the act, I still don't understand how you can tell your body, "Okay, this time when you jump on the big spring, I'm gonna need you to do two somersaults and something called a half pike twist, 'kay? Oh, yeah, and be sure to stick the landing." My brain would just start laughing at me. Maybe I'm defective.

I've found that it's easy to root for Team USA AND at the same time feel just a little bad for yourself. I've now watched kids half my age wearing newly acquired jewelry as proof that they're the best athletes in the world. I've had twice their time on Earth and I've never been the best of anything (though if they ever introduced the sport of competitive procrastination, I might be in that medal hunt.) It's easy to get depressed watching Olympians be great.

That's when you have to remind yourself that, "Oh, that's right, I decided to have a LIFE instead." No one woke up an excellent gymnast. These kids have trained for hours every day for years on end. Some of them have been born and bred into champions, and it's the only life they've ever known. I'm sure it's pretty awesome to be a gold medalist. But you know what else is awesome? Knowing what happened on "Big Brother" last night. Knowing what a cheeseburger tastes like. Having a cushion of your couch with a perfect indentation of your butt in it. I'll never be an Olympian, but I've also never had the displeasure of getting up before dawn to train for ANYTHING, and that's a win as far as I'm concerned.

It's fun to root for Team USA as they swim, run, and tumble their way to victory, but if you're only paying attention to the popular sports, you're robbing yourself of the best Olympic fun: the weird sports that only make their way to our TV sets at 3 a.m. when normal people have gone to bed.

For instance, there's rugby, the sport for folks who just don't think football's violent enough. Rugby's making its first Olympic appearance since 1924, and I can't get enough of it. I also have NO idea what I'm watching, but who cares. It's kind of like football, in that there's a ball and the players have feet. But it's also kind of like a complicated game of hot potato, because players are constantly making lateral or reverse passes to one another.

But then once you think you know what's going on, the announcer says the word "scrum" and suddenly everybody dogpiles around the ball in a brutal orgy of confusion until the ball shoots out under somebody's legs and play resumes. There's tackles just like football -- except in football, the players wear protective gear and helmets. Rugby equipment appears to involve little more than a t-shirt and socks. Hop online and watch any of the kajillion videos labelled "Awesome rugby hits!" and you'll routinely see dudes bloodied and unconscious. This is not a sport for people who enjoy keeping their teeth.  

But it still doesn't hold a candle to my all-time favorite Olympic event: competitive genital crushing, or as the Olympics call it, team handball. I wrote about it four years ago, and I wrote about it four years before that. I won't stop writing about it every four years until everybody realizes how amazing it is.

When I think of "handball," I think of the game you play on racquetball courts when you forget your racquet. Or perhaps the setting you put your 70's Pong game on when you're playing solo. But no, team handball is a far more satisfying sport, though "ballsball" would be a more appropriate name.

Imagine hockey, but without the sticks or puck. Instead, players run around and toss what looks to be a malnourished soccer ball. Using keep-away style passes, players advance the ball down a small court. Once in range, one player will eventually leap up and whip the ball at lightning speed in the immediate direction of the goalie's nether-regions. Occasionally, the ball will miss their genitals and instead land in the net, earning a point. The winning team is the one with the most points or the goalie still capable of bearing children upon conclusion of the match. I'd say this game is nutty, but that seems way too obvious a joke.

So when you watch these last few days of the Olympics, don't just stick to primetime coverage. Hop onto NBC's website and catch some rugby and handball. Check out the excitement of the dressage competition or the thrill of competitive trampoline. As for me, I'm headed to the basement to do some training. On the off chance that Guitar Hero becomes a recognized sport in 2020, I want to be ready.

COLUMN: Shattered Glass

Sometimes I feel thoroughly unqualified to be an adult. Sure, I can dress myself (wrinkly), feed myself (unhealthily), and house myself (messily.) But beyond that, I worry about my ability to thrive on this fast-moving marble. This week, I discovered I can't even take a sick day properly.

It started with a scratchy throat -- the sure sign of a nasty cold on the horizon. This was my cue to start dosing heavily on zinc, elderberry, and Vitamin C. If I get on this regimen fast enough, sometimes I can stave off a cold entirely. This time, I wasn't so lucky. I spent most of last weekend feeling downright icky, and I walked into work on Monday a toxic phlegm factory.

You ever have one of those colds where you're not quite sure if it's bad enough to go home sick? On one hand, it's nice to spend a day in bed recuperating. On the other hand, I'm bound to feel miserable whether home in bed or sitting at a desk, so why not suck it up and work through it? And then I realized that I'd just spent fifteen minutes staring at my hands and getting nothing accomplished.

So, rather than stay at work and spread cooties, I raised the white flag of surrender and headed home early.

I had the day mapped out in my head. I don't know about you, but when I get a cold, I get HUNGRY. Once fed, I would then retire to the bedroom, get under the covers, and while away the rest of the day in a warm and comfy Netflix haze.

I pamper myself when I get sick, so forget eating healthy and smart. Instead, I hit a drive-thru and brought home the mouth-watering, artery-clogging monster known as the Baconator. I opened the bag to get that satisfying whiff of cholesterol-laden goodness... and then realized I couldn't smell a thing through my plugged sinuses. I took a bite... and then realized I couldn't taste a thing either, thanks to the zinc tablets I'd been sucking on for days straight.

Bummer. Without the ability to smell or taste, this was the one time I could've downed a kale and spinach smoothie without being completely revolted. Instead, I ate a burger that should come affixed with a surgeon general's warning and I didn't even get to enjoy the Baconation. Ah well, no time to dwell on calories. I had a date with a blanket and my good friend Netflix.

I carried my provisions into the bedroom, took a stupefying amount of cold medicine, pulled back the sheets, crawled into bed snug as a bug in a rug, pressed the power button on the remote, annnnnd... nothing. Of course it would be a sick day when the batteries go out on my remote control. Thus began a 30 minute odyssey of tearing my house apart looking for fresh batteries.

After rifling through every drawer I could think of, I was about to abandon hope when a voice came into my head. "You're an adult," Confident Shane said. "You hardly EVER take a sick day and you shouldn't let a lack of batteries spoil your plans." Confident Shane was right. Thanks to my internal pep talk, I threw on some shoes, drove to the nearest gas station, bought batteries, came home, changed back into sweats, crawled back in bed, changed the batteries in the remote, pressed the power button, annnnd... nothing.

That's when I realized the remote, and its original batteries, were fine. Duh, I had unplugged the TV when we had that lightning storm a while back. I finally got it powered up, crawled back under the covers, hit the Netflix button, and was suddenly greeted with a screenshot of "YOU ARE NOT CONNECTED TO THE INTERNET."

By this time, the cold meds were kicking in pretty good, so I was a little fuzzy. But through that fuzz, I remembered that a couple months back, my parents wanted to test the strength of their newly-installed wi-fi. And me being the good son had taken my Samsung wireless adapter to their house to help them gauge their reception. And that's where it remained, on the back of THEIR DVD player, in THEIR living room, fifty miles away in Galesburg. Argh.

"Okay," said Confident Shane. "You might not have Netflix in the bedroom, but you DO have a DVD player. Just grab some discs and let's do this sick day right." Downstairs to my DVDs I bounded. I don't know whether to chalk it up to pickiness or the cold meds, but 45 minutes later, I finally settled on a movie. I brought it up, put the DVD in, breathed a sigh of relief... and then rapid-fire sneezed, like, 14 times.

This, in turn, caused my cat to FREAK OUT. One minute, she was asleep on the bed (WHERE I SHOULD BE!) The next minute, she's up and running concentric circles around the bedroom like a lunatic. But apparently she wasn't used to the entertainment center being open, because before I knew what was happening, she ran head-first into the open glass door, which promptly exploded into a million billion glass shards while I stood there in confused horror as it rained cats and glass everywhere. The only one MORE confused than me was poor Izzy, who disappeared in a feline flash.

It took me 90 minutes with a broom and vacuum to get all the glass picked up. All the while, I was worried about my cat, who I couldn't find ANYWHERE. Only I could take a sick day and kill a cat in the process. Eventually I called my friend Dianna, and the two of us spent an hour tearing the house apart, but still no cat. I brought in my friend Jason, and the THREE of us spent another half-hour searching before we finally found her cowering behind the basement entertainment center -- shaking, terrified, and hissing, but thankfully unhurt.

Eventually we got the cat calmed down, the glass thrown away, the house back in order (kudos to Dianna), and I finally got to snuggle up in my sick bed... at 8:30 p.m., some three hours after I would've gotten home had I stayed at work. I can't even do a sick day right. On the bright side, my cat does not rest in peace, though my entertainment center rests in pieces. And yes, I'm still sick, so forgive me while I go lay down and try real hard not to mess it up.      

COLUMN: Corn Sweat

I have to be honest with you guys. I have nothing to write about this week.

One of the primary requirements of observational humor is that one needs something to observe. Sadly, the only thing I've observed this week are my muscles wasting away while I lie on my couch waiting for autumn to rescue us from this Godforsaken heat.

Forgive me for heading into Captain Obvious territory, but it's been really warm these past two weeks. Concerned-for-my-personal-well-being warm. Wondering-how-my-shoes-aren't-melting warm. And I'm fed up. I'm done with summer. Bring on jacket weather, weenie roasts and autumnal allergy attacks. I'll contentedly sneeze myself stupid if it means escaping this plague of humidity that's settled over our neck of the woods. Our very sweaty neck of the woods.

Whenever it gets this hot, it invariably becomes the topic of small talk. And without fail, there will always be one person who says, "Yep, I finally gave in and turned the air on last night."

If you're telling me that story, I might respond with a nod or a look of acceptance on my face -- but on the inside, I am judging you. If you're the sort of person who lives in the Midwest, has air conditioning, can afford air conditioning, yet waits until the heat index tops 100 to turn on said air conditioning, you are a weirdo-pants. My air conditioner has been running since April. It IS jacket weather inside my house and will remain so until the outside climate feels more like air and less like a swimming pool.

The other night I was driving home, a/c on blast, outdoor temps so hot that I couldn't believe people weren't randomly bursting into flames, and what did I pass? A jogger. I AM JUDGING YOU. Any time the local weather guys choose to include the word "oppressive" in their forecasts, it's time to stay home.

But even when I'm sitting in air conditioning with a cold drink in my hand, summer finds ways of ticking me off. When relief finally does come, it's usually in the form of severe thunderstorms and tornado warnings that seem to always coincide with head-of-household competitions on my guiltiest of pleasures, "Big Brother." "The person that I've nominated for eviction is ... BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE HAS ISSUED A SEVERE PATIENCE ALERT FOR SHANE BROWN. IF YOU ARE NEAR SHANE BROWN, SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY. HE REALLY WANTS TO KNOW WHO GETS KICKED OUT OF THE 'BIG BROTHER' HOUSE, BUT INSTEAD I WILL VERY SLOWLY TELL YOU ABOUT A CLOUD 100 MILES AWAY THAT MAY OR MAY NOT BE DOING BAD THINGS OVER A TOWN YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF." I swear it's a conspiracy.

And it is! An agricultural conspiracy, it turns out. The other morning I was watching the "Today" show when Al Roker started discussing the heat in the Midwest. He mentioned the cone of high heat and humidity that had formed over the our area.

"This excessive humidity is caused by a natural phenomenon called 'corn sweat.'"

CORN SWEAT? Seriously? I'm a fairly educated guy, and I've lived in the Midwest for 45 years. But until this week, I never had encountered the term "corn sweat" in all my life.

"Corn sweat" sounds like the kind of tall tale an 80-year-old farmer would tell his buddy down at the five-and-dime. "You be careful out there, Jasper. There's some mighty corn sweat goin' on today." But, as it turns out, corn sweat is a real thing -- except scientists call it evapotranspiration, the natural process by which water evaporates from plants into the air.

Plants suck moisture out of the ground, and some of that water escapes through their leaves into the air. When you have a state heavy in agriculture, the amount of escaping water is impressive. According to the National Weather Service, in the state of Iowa alone, crops can account for up to 56 billion gallons of water ascending into the atmosphere each day. That's the equivalent of 84,793 Olympic-size swimming pools just floating in the Iowa air on any given summer day.

So we really DO owe all this humidity to sweaty corn. And this means there's an easy solution. The way I see it, all we have to do is send up a fleet of crop-dusters and have them spritz out a delightful mist of Arrid Extra Dry over the entire area. Think about it. If Secret is strong enough for a man but made for a woman, it'll probably do hunky-dory on corn, too.

And let's admit it, as food goes, corn is kinda boring. But imagine the culinary excitement if corn came coated in your favorite Axe body spray! The shopping experience would be MUCH more tantalizing if you could choose between mouth-watering flavors of Excite, Harmony, Peace, Anarchy, Black Chill and Ginger Musk.

"But, Shane," you say, "wouldn't seeding the clouds in Axe body spray cause toxic chemicals to rain down on us?" Fair enough -- but I, for one, am OK with it. Remember, I'm safely inside my climate-controlled, HEPA-filtered home. I'll be just fine when antiperspirant falls from the heavens. But if you're the idiot out jogging in this humidity or the weirdo who only runs your a/c when the heat index tops 108, you're very likely in need of an aerial assault of Paris Romantic Rose or Hawaiian Citrus Breeze. I'm doing humanity a favor here, people.

Until then, I remain your faithful couch-bound air-conditioned hermit. Wake me up when pumpkin-flavored stuff starts appearing on shelves.


This weekend was educational. I learned a good many things.

I learned that I make a lousy caregiver. I learned that Iowa is often larger than I realize. I learned that strokes are awful. And most importantly, I learned that I might be getting a little too old to rave.

Fresh out of college, I supported myself for a time by promoting all-night dance parties that were all the rave in the early Nineties. If you or your child spent much of that decade in baggy clothes with baggy eyes, that was probably my doing. Sorry 'bout that. Actually, no, I'm not sorry. There was nothing as electric as finding an unsuspecting empty building and then testing its structural integrity by filling it with teenagers and bass bins. At over 100 raves around the Midwest, the promotions group I co-founded brought love through sonic chaos.

I look back at those days fondly, and I apologize for nothing. Nowhere else could you find a more disparate group of kids coming together without judgement, bullying, fighting, or drama -- all for the shared love of pulsing dance beats shoved into one's earholes at a ridiculously unhealthy volume. Back in those days, promoters treated one another with respect, and we did our best to maintain a great relationship with all the nearby party planners. So when the guys who used to throw raves up in Cedar Falls announced a reunion party, complete with one of all my all-time favorite DJs (Chicago'S "Mystic Bill,") I had to be there.

Just one problem: I'm old, and so are my friends. Most of my former party animals now have families and priorities and better things to do at 2 a.m. than rupture their eardrums to the sweet bliss of house music. I wasn't about to make the drive solo, so as a last ditch effort, I posted to Facebook to see if anybody wanted to tag along. I was shocked and surprised to immediately hear from my friend Kev.

There used to be two major rave promoters in the QC: MY group, and Kev's group. We weren't besties or anything, but the healthy competition between our groups constantly pushed us to throw the best events we possibly could. A true Midwest rave reunion would be incomplete without him, so who better to accompany me to Cedar Falls?

But here's the thing. One year ago, my friend Kev suffered a massive stroke. You might even remember the benefit we had for him last year. I'd heard tales of the progress he's been making, so when he texted me his address, I was more than happy to be his chauffeur for the evening. But little did I know that the address in question was to a neurological care facility where he was now staying, and checking him out meant signing a form assuming responsibility for his well-being.

This is marginally intimidating, because I often have difficulty assuming responsibility for my OWN well-being, let alone another human being. That's why their next warning made me gulp a little: "Kev tells us he plans on getting drunk tonight. Now, we can't legally stop him, but keep in mind that he's on some pretty serious meds, so don't let him go TOO crazy." In hindsight, I should have really asked for a precise definition of "TOO crazy."

Life can be unfair, and strokes are pretty high on the grand chart of unfairness. Kev was once a brilliant graffiti artist, and tragically the stroke cost him the use of his drawing hand. Despite the challenges, though, he's still the same Kev. He might move a little slower, he might not find all the words he wants, but he's the same mischievous troublemaker as ever. I learned this the hard way, when we stopped at a gas station and he excused himself to go to the restroom, but instead came back with a freshly purchased 6-pack that I wasn't certain he should have.

Eventually we made it to Cedar Falls, and the venue was perfect -- an unused farm building in the middle of nowhere literally pulsing with house music. Kev and I might be aged ravers, but so was everyone else there, and the love we felt walking into the place was palpable. It was great to see old faces, and everyone was elated to see Kev back in action. Still, I was a bit worried. The two of us were never THAT close, yet I'm pretty sure my signature on that form made me his legal guardian for the night. Happily, I talked him into leaving the 6-pack in the car so I could monitor what "TOO crazy" meant.

For the record, "TOO crazy" equals three beers. No sooner had Mystic Bill brought the crowd to a frenzy when Kev tapped me and simply mouthed, "Uh oh." Seconds later, those three beers made an unfortunate re-appearance in the most unpleasant of ways. It was time to get him home. I pulled the car around and a group of us quickly got him loaded in.

I was in a near-panic. Way to go, Shane. Legally in charge of someone, and now that someone was on the verge of passing out in my car. I really didn't want my first experiment as caregiver to end in an emergency room. Thankfully, mere minutes after we pulled out, Kev rallied. In retrospect, I think his problems may have owed more to the relentless sound and dancing lasers than the three beers.

"Sorry," Kev said as we set sail for home. "Stroke... sucks."

Like I said, it was an educational weekend. I learned that getting home at sun-up in your 40s is a little harsher than it was in my 20s. This may have been my last all-nighter. But I also learned that nothing makes me feel more alive than standing outside in the middle of nowhere at 2 a.m., staring up at the sky and letting music fill my soul. The only thing better was getting a hug and a thanks from an old friend. Strokes might suck, but Kev's not letting this one win, even if I'm there to help screw it all up.

COLUMN: Pokemon Go

It's been a trying week. Every time I turn on the news, it's the same thing being played out over and over: Needless fighting. Actions that don't seem to make any sense. Frustrated people taking to the streets.

Yep, Pokemon Go is one heck of a game, eh?

I like to think I'm fairly relevant when it comes to most matters of pop culture... but if there's ONE thing that instantly makes me feel my age, it's Pokemon. I just don't get it, and I don't think I'm meant to. Perhaps this is because I'm not NINE, which seems to me the ideal target audience for Pokemon. At least that's what I thought, but now everyone with a cell phone is out there playing Pokemon Go. I'm now the old guy who yells at neighbor kids to get off his lawn. No, really. I just looked out my window and two teenagers were capturing Pikachu or whatever in my front yard, and I just yelled at them. I'm THAT guy.

"Pokemon," which is Japanese for "GIVE US ALL YOUR MONEYS," was created by a guy named Satoshi Tajiri in 1995. What started as an idea for a video game quickly morphed into a media empire of console games, card games, cartoons, movies, and even a theme park. The franchise is centered around fictional creatures called Pokemon, which humans catch and train to battle one another for sport. As you train your Pokemon, they become more powerful, develop new abilities, and become harder to defeat. There are, to date, 729 different varities of Pokemon, all of which play into the game's primary motto, "Gotta catch 'em all!"

I don't really know if those kids in my yard were capturing Pikachu, but that's the only Pokemon I know by name. Pikachu is an asexual rouge-cheeked yellow creature that looks like the result of an ill-advised love tryst between a cat, a pig, and Snuggle the fabric bear. If it has any attack moves, I'm pretty sure it hugs its enemies to death and smothers them with cuteness. I've heard the name Charizard, too. I think it might be one of the more advanced Pokemon, but who knows? Your child knows, that's who. Wait, let's look it up online.

"Whereas its pre-evolutions Charmander and Charmeleon are ground-bound lizard like creatures, Charizard resembles a large traditional European dragon. Despite the resemblance, Charizard is explicitly a Fire/Flying-type, not a Dragon-type, except in its 'Mega Charizard X' form; however, it can learn Dragon-type attacks." Thanks, Wikipedia, that clears things right up. But any kid into Pokemon will have an encyclopedic knowledge of this stuff, and who knows, maybe it's teaching them math or something.

I assumed it was all a dying fad until last week, when Pokemon Go showed up for download. This game uses your cell phone's GPS and camera lens to insert Pokemon into the real world. To be successful at Pokemon Go, you have to actually get up and walk around outdoors. If you want to train and battle the Pokemon you've captured, you have to feed them "candy" and then find "gyms" and "Pokestops" that are based on real world locations. Those places serve as hubs where players can meet up and hang out. If you've gathered too many of a particular species, you can discard them in exchange for "candy" where I presume they're then virtually euthanized in a virtually humane manner.

So to recap, you're catching animals, confining them in cramped spaces, bulking them up, and then training them to fight one another against their will. So you're essentially teaching your kids all the fundamentals of dog-fighting, except with Pikachus instead of pit bulls. Neato.  

The game is a free download, but of course you need Pokeballs to store the Pokemon you collect, and you need lures to draw wild Pokemon to Pokestops, and all those extras require real money, presumably because Satoshi Tajiri needs another mansion to house his mountains of cash. Despite it being a giant fiscal suckhole, I suppose it's kind of a cool idea for a game. The real world integration is a fun novelty, and anything that gets your sedentary butt up walking around can't be a bad thing.

Well, except when it IS a bad thing. Like when the gamemakers had to apologize this week for putting a Pokestop at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Or the guy who caught a Pokemon atop his grandfather's casket at the funeral home. Or when driving home every night becomes a bad Driver's Ed sim film, with one foot hovering over the brake to avoid the idiots darting into traffic to catch invisible monsters.

Still, I wanted to know what it was like, so I downloaded Pokemon Go for myself the other day. Here's what it's like: you fire up the game, set up a user profile, create a character (I am "MichaelVick99",) and then you're immediately faced with your first challenge: a message that says "Server Busy. Try Again Later." This was my favorite part of the game.

Eventually, I made it onto the server and into the exciting world of Pokemon. Of course, by this time, night had fallen and I wasn't about to go hunting for Pokemon through the back alleys of Rock Island at midnight. But no worries, because as I spun my phone around, little did I know there was a Charmander IN MY LIVING ROOM. I grabbed my Pokeball, took careful aim, and captured my first Pokemon! HOORAH, I WIN.

Catch 'em all? Nah, I'm good. There are days when I have a tough enough time taking care of two cats, so I don't need the resposibility of a virtual zoo, thanks. I'm good with my Charmander. I've named him Fluffy. There's no point training him, coz then he could evolve into a Mega Charizard X, and I'm pretty sure my homeowner's insurance does NOT cover incidental damage from European Fire/Flying-type pets.

So that's the end of my Pokemon adventures. It's way too complicated and I'm fairly confident I can think of 729 things I'd rather be doing than catching 'em all. Besides, this game just came dangerously close to causing me to get actual exercise, and that's not cool. I'm having a trying enough week as is.

COLUMN: Cord Cabinet

Wow, men and women are different.

In the grand pantheon of column topics, this is about as original and creative a topic as airplane food, but I hope you'll indulge me, because this is a feel-good column. Well, I'm gonna feel good at least. This week is all about vindication and the smug satisfaction of self-righteousness that can only come from proving that I'm NOT as weird as I once thought.

I'm typing this column in the living room of the house I bought six years ago this week. I owe it all to my then-girlfriend at the time. If she hadn't prodded me for months non-stop, I'd likely still be living in the same dingy apartment that I called home for almost two decades. Let's not mince words: my apartment was a dump. The neighborhood was scary, the appliances barely functioned, and the only thing worse than the black mold in the walls were the bugs and mice that occasionally crawled OUT of them. For a fresh college graduate trying to figure out life, it was perfect. Twenty years later, it was just kind of sad. So big props to my ex for kicking me in the butt and making me meet with a realtor.

When it came time to move, I gladly let her take the lead. She was great at organizing stuff and big on making lists, whereas I was big on smiling and nodding and doing what I was told. I distinctly remember the day she was making a plan of how to best move the contents of my kitchen. That's when it happened.

"I just need to take a look and see what's in these cabinets..."

It was like a slow-motion film. I remember leaping up and running to the kitchen yelling, "NOOOOO! Don't open thaaaaaaat--," but it was too late.

With one pull of a handle, she had stumbled upon perhaps my greatest innovation in bachelor life: Shane's Cord Cabinet. Just to the left of my sink was a seldom-used cabinet that served one purpose: To save, stock, and store every extra audio-video cable, power cord, and wire I had ever collected over the years. But you NEVER opened the cord cabinet unless you were primed and ready for a Level 5 cord-valanche. She was NOT ready, and was now standing knee-deep in a twisted knot of surplus cables it had taken me years to amass.

"What... is... this?"

"My cord cabinet!"

"You need a cabinet full of cords?!?!?!"

Heck yes, I did. What if I suddenly got nostalgic for, say, my Sega Dreamcast, but oh no, where are the cords? Why, they're right here, in the cord cabinet. Or let's say you have a stereo you need hooked up, and the stereo is in Rock Island but the speakers are in east Silvis. I'm pretty sure I've got enough speaker wire to pull it off, right here, in the cord cabinet. It was practicality at its finest, people.

"But where are all your kitchen tools?"

"Right there," I said, pointing at the microwave. "The only tool I need."

Let's just say that when we set up shop in my new house, the cord cabinet was no longer in full effect. And that was fine, because now I've got a basement with loads of storage for cords, cables, and geekery aplenty. In the meantime, my ex set up the kitchen the way I guess kitchens should be, and I haven't really changed things since we broke up. But I've never lived the cord cabinet down.

"How's the house?" one of her friends asked me recently. "You got a new cord cabinet?" That's when it dawned on me that the cord cabinet has now become legend. I bet her friends now know me as "that one guy you dated who had the cabinet full of cords." I don't get the big deal, but shame on me for being practical, I guess.

Flash forward to present day. I thought I'd use the holiday weekend to get a little deep cleaning done around the house, and I decided to tackle one of the kitchen cabinets I seldom get into. I knew it contained my colander and some napkins and stuff, but I'd never really dug through it since my ex and I split and I never really paid attention to what was lurking in the back of it. Well, now I know.

There, in the back of that cabinet, taking up about as much space as my dreaded cord cabinet ever once did, were... buckets. Specifically, TWENTY SIX plastic pastel buckets, with flower handles. Each of these buckets is big enough to hold about half a Pepsi. I have no idea WHAT they are, I have no idea WHY they are, and I have no idea why they've been idling in my cabinet for half a decade.

So I believe the lesson here is that a cabinet full of cords is plainly ridiculous, but a cabinet full of tiny pastel buckets is somehow a kitchen essential. The only thing I can reckon is that she once threw a baby shower for one of her friends, and maybe the theme was delightfully colored novelty buckets? I have no clue. And if it WAS for the baby shower, why not throw these useless things away afterwards? What possible repurposing can one do with twenty-six pastel buckets? Where does one even go to BUY twenty-six plastic pastel buckets with flower handles? Was there a clearance sale at Pointless Girly Stuff R Us? These are questions I fear men are not meant to know the answers to.

The oddest thing is I can't bring myself to throw them away. I mean, they're perfectly good plastic pastel buckets, I suppose. Maybe one day my roof will spring twenty-six leaks and I'll want to gather the rainwater in an aesthetically pleasing manner? Maybe I was missing something, so I brought some of my guy friends over and showed them.

"Why would anyone need a cabinet full of tiny buckets?" one asked. We all shrugged.

"Maybe you could use it for a drinking game or something?" another offered. We all just kinda stood there clueless.

With any luck, my ex will now be known amongst MY friends as "that one girl you dated who filled your cool cord cabinet with pink buckets." Of course, that still leaves me as the guy with the cabinet full of pink buckets, and that's a situation I need to rectify.

And I will... right after I play some Sega Dreamcast. Don't worry, I know EXACTLY where the cords are.