Monday, April 24, 2017

COLUMN: Mom Clean

ince I'm the guy who usually writes about fluffy inconsequential stuff, I try not to ever bring up the secret shame I've lived with my entire life. It's just too somber for this column.

You see, I was born without the neatness gene. (Insert gasp here. I'll wait.) But pity me not, Quad Cities. Don't treat me any differently. I'm just like you -- except that I'm really, really bad at keeping my house clean and tidy. Curse the gods for this unlucky hand I've been dealt!

What's that, you say? There's no such thing as a "neatness gene"? Well, how ELSE can you explain that, despite the best of intentions, I can never seem to keep my house as clean and tidy as I'd like?

Honestly, I've made great strides. I remember having to run at my dorm room door full speed just to push enough debris aside that I could squeeze in. My first apartment was little more than an empty pizza box storage facility.

But when I bought my house, I made a concentrated effort to live like a decent human being in a manner that couldn't legally be declared a biohazard. As far as I'm concerned, it's been a resounding success. But this isn't a story about MY concern. This is a tale of my amateur neatness skills being put to the ultimate test by the ultimate critic. That's right, my MOM was coming up for a visit.

My mother has no shortage of neatness DNA. She acts laid-back and casual, but stick her in a messy house and see how long that lasts. She'll ask for a sponge within minutes. I can't tell you the number of times I've popped home for a visit to have my mom apologize for "such a huge mess," when not ONE thing was out of place and I'm pretty sure you could've performed sterile brain surgery on ANY surface in that house.

I love my parents, and we are a super tight family. I just tend to love them more when I'm the visitor instead of the visitee. But they were coming up so my dad could do some free yard work, so I wasn't about to complain. I was about to clean. There's MY version of clean, and then there's MOM's version of clean -- and I had some serious work to do.

Thankfully, my parents know well enough to give me plenty of lead time. Every day last week, I came home from work only to get to work. But the more I cleaned, the more disgusting things got. Instead of making headway, I was unearthing dust bunnies and cat hair and all sorts of things that go "yuck" in the night.

"I should put this in the junk drawer" gave way to "wow, I need to clean out the junk drawer" which gave way to weird little piles of junk being dispersed throughout the house. Every time I moved something, an undiscovered herd of dust bunnies would make a break for it. And those dust bunnies were nothing compared to the dust manatees lurking above my ceiling fans.

Eventually, and with the help of some friends, the place was clean. Not just clean -- but dare I say it, MOM clean. It even smelled springtime fresh. Two days later, I left work to meet my parents at my house. Thankfully, I beat them by about five minutes, which was just enough time to walk in... and scream.

Here's what I reckon happened. I went to work Monday morning. My cats woke up, took one good look around the immaculately clean house, and decided the best course of action would be to hold an immediate vomit war. My perfectly clean living room floor was covered in hairballs and indescribable nastiness. Instead of smelling springtime fresh, it smelled like recycled Cat Chow. I didn't even have time to be grossed out. I just opened a window, grabbed a can of carpet cleaner, and got to scrubbing.

By the time my folks showed up, I had it all cleaned up. Victory! Perhaps that neatness gene didn't skip a generation after all. My mom stepped in the house, took one look around, and said, "It smells weird. Why is your window open and the a/c on? You weren't born in a barn. Did you let a newspaper sit on your porch all day long? That's just a giant neon sign to thieves that says, 'I'm not home! Please come rob me!'"

Win some, lose some, I guess. She's a tough cookie to impress. I just think I'll always be her little kid and she thinks it's helpful to lecture. Often, it is. And honestly, it doesn't matter. I got to spend time with my parents, I got some free yard work out of the deal, and I'm left with a house that's the cleanest it's been in months. It may not have passed the mom test, but my friends will be speechless.

COLUMN: Walleye

Last week, I wrote about something downright fishy: my newfound love of seafood as a quick dinner. For a kitchen novice like myself, you really can't ask for an easier meal to prepare than throwing some fish into the oven for a bit. *BAM* I'm suddenly one of those fancy chefs who says things like "BAM!"

It was a fun experiment until I accidentally brought home a salmon filet that came with shiny, scaly fish skin still attached to it. That was the end of my brief love affair with seafood. I'm no vegetarian, but I prefer to live my life in awkward denial that the meat I consume was ever once actually part of a living and/or swimming thing.

The responses to last week's column have been fun. As it turns out, I'm not the only one skeeved out by food that looks too alive. One reader told the story of being on a first date at a fancy restaurant and ordering some gourmet fish entree only to have it arrive at the table with fish head still attached and hollow dead fish eyeballs staring up at her. I could never do that. I have few rules when it comes to eating, but having a meal watch you as you eat its corpse? In the words of the legendary Hall and/or Oates, I can't go for that (no can do.)

But then I received an e-mail I was already half-expecting.

"You can't handle one little piece of skin on salmon?" it read. "How did you react the first time your dad took you fishing?"

I guess I'll let you know -- as soon as my dad takes me fishing. I'm expecting it to happen around the 5th of Never.

Sorry, gang. I don't especially want to hurt a worm, let alone any wayward fish that I might dangle it near. I know there's probably a lot of you who hunt and fish and if that's your thing, I guess that's great. Just keep me out of it.

If you hunt and fish for sustenance, I get it. It's the circle of life and all that. But if you fish for "sport," you confuse me. I don't get what's "sporting" about tricking a fish into biting a hook. When I think of "sport," I think about competition with clear winners and losers. To me, fishing should only be considered a sport if every time you reached for a beer, you stood a small chance of running a hook through your hand before being pulled underwater by a couple of fish out enjoying a relaxing day of "sport humaning." At least give the fish sharp teeth or some kind of fighting chance.

But I recently discovered that's already been happening.

My friend Jason and I have but one pact. Every spring, when the first weekend of decent weather arrives, we drop what we're doing, get in the car, and spend a solid day driving around aimlessly in the boonies. There's never a destination or plan in mind -- we just go where the road beckons. This year, we ended up north of the Quad Cities along the banks of the Wapsi.

It was a great drive. The recent rains had left the area a soggy mess, which was fairly bad for people but pretty great for the rest of nature. We spotted everything that day from wild turkeys to herds of deer to a pair of trumpeter swans leisurely floating about the flood plains.

At one point in the drive, we decided to stop at a public access area to better appreciate nature. Well, Jason wanted to appreciate the nature. I mostly needed to heed its call. So I was off doing my thing when I heard Jason yell, "Whoa!" Business sorted, I returned to find him staring at a pile of aquatic carnage. There on the ground lay about a half-dozen dead fish, smelling especially ripe in the spring sun.

That was a grody enough find, but then I looked a little closer. These fish had TEETH. Sharp teeth. Dangerous looking teeth. The kind of teeth I would only expect to find in the moat of a James Bond villain. Instead, these were fish that looked to have been recently plucked from the Wapsi. I'm pretty sure if I ever were to go fishing and catch one of those monsters at the end of my line, I'd let the fish keep the worm, the hook, the pole, AND the rest of the river.

After getting home and doing some research, I'm pretty sure what we saw was a pile of dead walleye, named because their eyes point to the sides (and, presumably, because when you see those teeth with your eye, you run in a panic until you smack headfirst into a wall.) Why someone left this pile of perfectly dead demontoothfish alongside the river is beyond me. I suggested that maybe a carniverous Sasquatch left them as human bait, and then we left in a bit of a hurry.

That episode was enough for me to change my stance on sport fishing. If you want to head along the Wapsi and fish for those prehistoric toothy buggers, have at it. The world needs less teeth like that in nature. I just logged onto the internet and looked for videos of people walleye fishing, and the first one I clicked ended when the fisherman got bit so badly it turned into a "here we are at the emergency room getting stitches" video. That, friends, is the true sporting life. If you want to battle one of those vorpal beasts, you'll get no argument from me.

Just please don't ask me to cook it.    


Does your brain occasionally replay your worst memories? Mine does, and there's usually no warning when it happens. I could be in a great mood, let my mind wander for a second, and *BAM* there's the day my cat died. Or the day I flunked that test. Or the time I got fired from that one job. Or the time I got dumped. Or the OTHER time I got dumped. Or, of course, the worst memory of all: the time I discovered that Chili's discontinued their Margarita Grilled Tuna.

It was a total fluke the first time I ordered it. I was in one of my "perhaps I shouldn't purposely try to kill myself with every meal" moods where I forego my preferred choice in favor of something marginally healthier. I wanted my baby-back-baby-back, but instead I opted for the Margarita Grilled Tuna. Little did I know I was ordering what would become my favorite meal to date. One bite of that marinated tuna on a bed of Mexican rice with a side of black beans and I was in heaven. They still make it at Chili's with chicken instead of tuna, but it's just not the same.

That was the first time I'd ever had tuna in any form that didn't involve mayonnaise and pickle relish. I did NOT grow up in a seafood-loving home. The only time my mom ever put fish on the menu, it was usually followed by the word "sticks." And let's be honest, fish sticks are seafood in the same way that French fries are vegetables. You're just dunking them in tartar sauce instead of ketchup.

In a way, I'm kind of glad that Chili's discontinued their margarita-grilled tuna, because it made me get familiar with cooking fish at home for the first time in my life. For a while there, I was hellbent on replicating that recipe, and I'm proud to say I've come pretty close. But that wasn't the end of my fishy experiments.

Ever since I learned I could grill tuna with relative ease, I've been trying my hand at other fish. It turns out it's fairly easy to grill salmon or throw a couple pieces of tilapia into the oven. Toss in some lemon pepper or some dill, and suddenly I had the culinary confidence of Gordon Ramsey. Hmm, I thought to myself, perhaps I'm a naturally gifted seafood chef.

This false notion lasted about three weeks. If I'm a gifted seafood chef, it might help my cause if I lived by a sea. In the grand midwest, my fishy experiments are limited by what I can buy at the store, and my best choice that day was a bag of frozen salmon. "Cool," I thought. I took the bag home, filled the sink with water, dropped the bag in, defrosted a half hour, took out the first piece of salmon, and nearly retched all over the kitchen.

I expected to be holding a neatly trimmed salmon filet. Instead, I was holding what was clearly a chunk of dead fish, complete with its dead and scaly fish skin still attached. In an instant, things became way too real. I'm okay with being a naturally gifted seafood chef, provided the seafood comes to me neatly trimmed, deskinned, deboned, and in no way looking like it once led a carefree and song-filled life under the sea with little mermaids.

Why do people prepare fish this way? We don't leave tails on cheeseburgers or beaks on fried chicken. Fish skin is just too carnal. I prefer to live in constant denial that the meat I eat was ever once part of a living thing. This is the down side of seafood. Can't we enjoy the food without seeing its scales or cracking its legs and dipping it in butter so that we can suck out its meaty leg goodness like monsters?

When you think about it, some of our carnivorous habits are straight out of a horror film. As midwest dwellers, what do people from the coast always tell us? "You haven't had seafood until you eaten it fresh!" Eww. Why should fish taste better when its freshly plucked from the ocean? By this logic, fish should taste its very best when still alive and swimming. Have bears had it right all this time when they stand in the middle of the river, devouring salmon as they swim by? Gross.

This would, however, explain sushi -- a delicacy I've never been able to understand. Sorry, but a decorative seaweed wrap and delightfully geometric rice cube doesn't change the fact that you're still consuming raw, slimy fish. I, meanwhile, am the guy who just stood in front of his oven saying, "I hope I'm not undercooking this salmon."

A while back I was at a nice restaurant and ordered the ahi tuna, but the waiter looked at me weird when I asked them to make sure it was cooked through. When the waiter brought out food for our table, he said, "Here's your steak, ma'am, which our chef says is medium rare... and here, sir, is your ahi tuna, which our chef says is ruined."

Ruined or no, it was super tasty. I'm not giving up on my quest to learn about an entire corner of the food pyramid I've never had the pleasure of consuming until now. But if it comes with scales, eyeballs, heads, claws, or shells, I'll take a hard pass, thanks. I'll leave that stuff for the times I let my mind wander and *bam* remember that time I held a dead scaly fish torso in my hand? Ewwwwwwww.

COLUMN: Cursing

Sometimes I wish this wasn't a family newspaper.

It's great that our product appeals to all kinds of readers, and we take care to be inclusive to folks of all ages. It's just that sometimes I wish we could publish an adults-only version. Don't get me wrong, I'm in no hurry to tell you intimate stories of my torrid sex life (mostly because that would require me having a torrid sex life.) And I'm well aware of the fact that nothing would kill our subscriber base faster than a nude pictorial of yours truly.

No, I sometimes want an "adults only" column for one reason and one reason only: I like to swear. I know, I know. It's uncouth. It's awful. It's lowbrow and shameful. But sometimes, I just can't help myself.

We're an advanced society, and yet there are words in our language that are taboo and forbidden to use in polite conversation. That's kind of a ridiculous realization. Outside of saying the name "Voldemort" at Hogwarts, the idea of "forbidden words" seems counter-productive.

After all, what's more exciting than something FORBIDDEN? No one would have cared about the lambada had it been called "the fun dance." Instead, some marketing genius dubbed it "the forbidden dance" and a fad was born. I remember my folks coming home from a PTA meeting and telling me that I couldn't listen to Blondie because their music promoted bad virtues. I left that sit-down knowing only one thing: Blondie was suddenly my favorite band of all time. Forbidden is enticing.

Sometimes it's the only thing capable of adequately expressing an emotion. If you hit your thumb with a hammer, saying "ouch" just doesn't cut it. I was home alone the night I broke my ankle, but that didn't stop me from creatively expressing my feelings on the matter to my empty house, the open air, and two very confused cats.

But the more you curse, the more likely those forbidden words start unnecessarily slipping into conversation. When "I'm going to the store" turns into "I'm going to the [expletive] store," you've got yourself a problem. I'll be the first to admit that sometimes I slip. I was out with friends once and telling a story that I must have peppered with some salty language. I didn't even realize until one of my friends sheepishly pointed it out, but a table of kids was right behind me. I felt like an odious scumbag. Don't curse, kids. It isn't cool.

It is, however, occasionally very funny. The REAL reason I wish this was a 21+ publication is that I recently bore witness to a couple of the greatest instances of public swearing EVER. I wish I could tell you all about it, but I can't, because I'm a respectable member of society. So I'll just have to tell you SOME of it.

I was waiting in line at a gas station last week, and their night clerk is fantastic. He's a scrawny little guy with a thin command of the English language, but that doesn't stop him from going toe-to-toe with any troublemakers who might come through the door. That night, one such hoodlum wandered in. No sooner had the guy stepped foot inside when the clerk bounded out screaming. "You are banned!" he yelled. "Get out of store, you _____________!"

I wish I could tell you the contents of that blank. Let's just say it was funny enough for me to start choking. Like I said, the clerk wasn't great at English. So when he went to swear, he just spewed out every curse word he knew, in the most non-sensical manner you could imagine. Accidentally, he just created my new favorite insult, comprised almost exclusively of random naughty words assembled together randomly. It was ridiculous, magical, and scary enough for the bad guy to beat a hasty retreat.

Days later, I found myself at another gas station, filling my car at the pump. Another customer had gone into the station to prepay for some gas. The clerk told him to pull around to the pump adjacent to mine, but before he could, another car swept in and started putting the prepaid gas into his own car.

"Hey!" said the poor guy. "I paid for that gas. You need to go to another pump. Do you hear me? Now I have to go inside and straighten this out. All because you're a doodie-head."

(Note: He did NOT say doodie-head. It was something far more colorful.)

When he found himself being ignored by the gas thief, the exasperated guy just stood there (not) yelling "doodie-head" over and over.

"Doodie-head! Doodie-head! Do you know what that is?! That's when your head... is made of doodie!! That's you. You're a doodie-head!"

I don't know if I'd ever heard an insult that required immediate definition. I wish I knew how it played out from there, but I beat feet out of that escalating road rage-a-thon wishing I could somehow figure out a way to write a column about it.

Good thing we're a family friendly paper.

COLUMN: Treasure Found

Oh wow, guys. I may have found my true calling. If anyone has an opening for a full time Treasure Hider, my resume is now padded with experience.

If you haven't been reading my column lately, let me get you up to speed. About a month ago, I wrote a column about Oak Island, an unassuming piece of land off the coast of Nova Scotia long-rumored to harbor lost treasure. The island's current owners are employing an arsenal of modern technology in attempts to find the fabled cache once and for all. That's pretty cool, but also kind of sad. A mystery like Oak Island shouldn't be solved with ground-penetrating radar. It should be solved with a whip and a fedora and outrunning giant balls through tunnels.

As technology blossoms, our world loses more of its mystery. I, for one, appreciate a little mystery in my life. Hence, I jokingly proposed that a million of you send me $1. I would then take that million bucks, hide it, and leave clues throughout my columns for future generations of treasure hunters and dreamers to pore over. If I ran the world, the world would be awesome (for a week, until all of society collapses because I don't know the first thing about running a world.)

What I wasn't counting on, though, was a handful of people taking me seriously enough to send me dollar bills. Three of you mailed me $1 with no return address. So, being a man of my word, last week I took those three dollars and hid them somewhere in the Quad Cities. I then offered a series of clues in last week's column and a challenge for anyone of brave heart and mind, or at least anyone really bored, to seek and find The Lost Three Dollar Treasure of Shane Brown.

Grand kudos, then, and a well deserved tip of the fedora to Andy Denton of Moline, who went treasure hunting with his wife Madonna, their children Elena and Eli, sister-in-law Mary Schaecher, and niece Claire. Together, they are now three dollars richer. This is awesome for a number of reasons: (1) My clues must not have been as bad as I feared, (2) I was directly responsible for some springtime family fun, and (3) most importantly, I can now officially brag to people about "that one time I gave three dollars to Madonna." Great job, guys.

As for the clues? I went with what I know best: music geekery.

Clue #1: "Lonnie Donegan, 1956." In 1956, skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan released his biggest hit: a cover of Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line." The treasure was hidden in Rock Island.

Clue #2: "Dookie 1:4." If you grabbed your copy of Green Day's seminal album "Dookie," you might discover that Side 1, Track 4 is the song "Longview." The treasure was hidden at Longview Park.

Clue #3: "Be Mice Elf'ed." In 1969, Sly and the Family Stone released one of their funkiest tunes ever. You can probably sing along to it: "I wanna thank you, for lettin' me, be myself agaaaain." The actual title of that song is "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin.)" But notice the past tense in my clue: "Be Mice Elf'ed." I was trying to get you to put the artist in the past tense, too. Sly'ed. As in, "slide." The treasure was taped to the back of a slide in the playground.

Of course, I'm no real expert at hiding treasure, so my clues unintentionally held some red herrings. I hope nobody got "Rock Island Line" and went to the train tracks. Worse yet, one poor reader e-mailed because he got the Sly Stone reference but then spent the whole day peering under every stone at Longview Park, for which I humbly apologize and at least hope he appreciated the exercise on a beautiful spring day.

I learned some important things about treasure hiding, too -- mostly that there's NO way to act innocent when you're skulking around a playground at dusk with an envelope and a roll of duct tape. I spent less time writing the clues than I did rehearsing how I'd possibly explain all this to a cop.

When I drove through Longview Park that day and spotted a good half dozen people sleuthing about, I felt like a god. Well, for about ten seconds. Then I kinda felt like a pervert. Grown man, cruising slowly around a playground, leering at strangers? Not my best look. "What's the problem, officer? I just want to see if anybody wants my hidden treasure." It's probably a miracle I didn't need the $3 for bail.

Only I knew the location of those three precious dollars, and I tried not to let the power go to my head. I only cackled like a supervillain once, I swear. Okay, maybe twice. The point is, I hope it was as fun for you as it was for me. Based on MY level of glee combined with the e-mails I've received, I'm pretty sure we're going to have to make this an annual event. With more time to prep, we'll have better clues and maybe a better reward. Heck, I'll chip in a fourth dollar myself if need be. It turns out that the one thing more fun than a little mystery... is making some of your own. You have a year to prepare.

COLUMN: Treasure Lost

Earlier this month, I wrote about my growing obsession with the mystery of Canada's Oak Island.

A good number of people firmly believe that the innocuous landmass off the shores of Nova Scotia hides treasure beyond our wildest dreams. Researchers have found evidence to suggest that British troops buried untold amounts of gold on the island as they fled from defeat in the Revolutionary War. Signs and symbols related to the Knights Templar have been found on and around Oak Island, which has some speculating that it could be the hiding place of the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant.

Or Oak Island could be as empty as Al Capone's vault. But maybe there really is something amazing hidden for centuries on an otherwise non-descript piece of coastal real estate. It's like our very own North American Temple of Doom, except it's less a temple and more like a stinky swamp. Still, what's not to love about a mystery this epic? Who among us hasn't dreamt of being Indiana Jones at least once in our lives? I'm all for getting to the bottom of this treasure.

So, too, are the current owners of Oak Island: a pair of treasure-hunting brothers who've turned their treasure-hunting exploits into "The Curse of Oak Island," which just aired its third season on the History Channel. The Lagina brothers are committed to getting to the bottom of the Oak Island mystery -- literally. They've bored holes and hired divers to descend to the lowest depths of the Oak Island netherworld in search of riches. They're attacking every inch of the island with ground-penetrating radar and metal detectors. They're using better and better technology in hopes of putting the Oak Island mystery to rest.

That's kinda cool... but it's also kinda sad. In a way, I don't ever want a definitive answer to the Oak Island mystery. I want to hear every theory and tall tale about pirates and knights that Oak Island has to offer. If the Laginas have their way, Oak Island will soon be another mystery solved before future generations get a crack at it.

A little bit of mystery makes life interesting. But as modern technology answers more and more questions, fewer mysteries abound in our world -- and that's a bummer to the kid in me who still dreams about pirates and treasure. What's to become of our fantasies once they're visited by a dude who can run a radar over them and go, "There's $34.10 and a pop can from 1962 down there." I want future generations to love dreaming about treasure as much as I have.

Earlier this month, I offered a solution. "Everybody send me $1," I wrote. "If a million of you contribute, we've got ourselves a treasure. Then, we hide it for future generations to find. We could construct elaborate clues, maps and ciphers. A hundred years from now, our offspring could be tuning into the History Channel for a new episode of 'The Curse of Shane Brown.'"

A fun idea, sure. What I was not expecting was the four of you who took me seriously. That's right, I have since been mailed $1 by four different readers. One had a return address which I used to refund the money; the other three did not. If I'd have known it was THIS easy to get you to send me free money, I'd have done it long ago. In fact, I tell you what. Everyone send me a new car. If a million of you contribute, we've got ourselves an armada of cars. (Now four of you actually send me new cars please.)

But I am nothing if not true to my word. That's why I'm officially launching THE LOST TREASURE OF SHANE BROWN. This is NOT a joke. At great personal time and expense, I have hidden a treasure trove of the remaining THREE DOLLARS somewhere in the metropolitan Quad Cities. If you can find it based on my clues, the three dollars are yours. Spend it wisely (I recommend 300 gumballs.) If you e-mail me proof of finding it, you'll also enjoy the fame of being mentioned in a future column.

I'm really not kidding. I've hidden the three dollars out there in the wild. You could find it and be three dollars richer today. First, some rules:

(1) If you spend valuable time and personal resources in search of the treasure expecting to find MORE than three dollars, you will be VERY disappointed. I really DID just hide three bucks along with a note.

(2) Hunt at your own risk. This is MY treasure, not the paper's. If you fall into any of the imaginary booby traps that I most certainly did NOT set up, you cannot sue the paper. In searching for the vast $3 treasure, should you get bit by a radioactive spider and develop unwanted superpowers, I would prefer you not sue ME, either, although you're welcome to the $13.65 currently in my savings account.

(3) My vast $3 treasure horde is hidden outdoors on public property. Do not trespass anywhere. This hunt does not give you open permission to dig up your neighbor's lawn.

(4) In fact, you don't need to dig anywhere. There is no need to destroy, deface, dig, and/or disrupt ANYTHING. This is the most earth-conscious, property conscious, and pretty much the lamest treasure hunt EVER.

That said, here are all the clues you need to the exact location of THREE WHOLE DOLLARS:

Clue #1: Lonnie Donegan, 1956.
Clue #2: Dookie 1:4
Clue #3: Be Mice Elf'ed.

That's it. Go find the treasure horde. As long as I'm around, and as long as strangers keep sending me dollar bills with no way of returning them, there will still be some mystery in life. Godspeed, brave adventurer.

COLUMN: Art Institute

I'm not writing this column just to brag that I saw "Hamilton" last week. Well, okay, maybe a little.

"Hamilton" is, of course, the most coveted Broadway ticket of the past couple years, and a friend of mine invited me along with her family to see the Chicago production. There isn't a font large enough to express my thanks.

It had me a little nervous, though. When you spend more than a week's paycheck on a ticket you have to buy almost a full year in advance, you darn well don't want to miss the performance. Ergo, we left for Chicago last Wednesday at 8 a.m. to allow plenty of time to deal with any unexpected hurdles, snafus, or hold-ups that life could have thrown our way. Thankfully, it was a snafu-free trip -- other than we now had hours and hours to kill before the show.

We decided to spend the afternoon coming to terms with a horrible and ugly truth about myself.

I've always considered myself to be a loyal supporter of the arts. It's pretty much all I'm good for, honestly. I'm not especially talented in the arts, nor have I ever considered myself to be an artist. But I'm darn good at appreciating them. I love going to live theater. I watch an unhealthy amount of movies and a downright alarming amount of TV. I read my fair share of novels. My love for music defines my life, my hobbies, and my friends. I'm a lousy entertainer, but I'm nothing if not a great entertainee.

Or so I thought. It turns out my life might be a total lie. Truth be told, there's one aspect of pop culture that's never truly popped for me: the visual arts. Try as I may, I just don't have an eye for paintings or photography or sculptures. I've never been able to appreciate still art the way that others can, and my lack of depth in that arena is my real secret shame.

Nowhere was that on better display than last week, when we decided to spend our pre-Hamilton time at the Art Institute of Chicago.

For hours, we wandered around those hallowed halls amidst one of the most impressive collections of art in the world. There I was, surrounded by definitive masterworks from the greatest artists the world has ever seen: Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Dali, Warhol. And when my brain was presented with some of the most acclaimed pieces of art ever created, here's what it thought: "That's pretty neat."

"Pretty neat." I'm sure that's the response Jackson Pollock was going for when he was declaring, "I am Nature!" and pouring his tortured alcoholic heart into abstract impressionistic masterpieces. I bet in the back of his head, he was thinking, "Maybe one day, a chubby dude from Illinois will think this is pretty neat." I stared at the canvas and wanted to feel his pain. I wanted to understand the statement he was trying to make. Instead, I thought the paint splatters were pretty. I'm a horrible, horrible person.

I'm sure some of it stems from my total inability to produce art of my own. I can't even draw stick figures that don't look horribly deformed, so don't ask me how Monet can beautifully replicate the Waterloo Bridge on a foggy day. It's magic as far as I'm concerned. And hey, it's pretty neat.

So it continued, from one pretty neat painting to the next. At one point, a guided tour passed us and I eavesdropped as they stopped before some presumably famous painting of steam pipes. "You can really feel the claustrophobic oppression of the industrial revolution, can't you?" remarked the tour guide. Nnnnnnnope. Just looked like a slapdash painting of some pipes to me. I'm horrible.

Finally, we got to the game-changer. "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," by Georges Seurat. Now THIS I know to be a great piece of art. Why? Because Ferris Bueller told me so. It's the central piece in the montage of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" when they go to the Art Institute. Just like Cameron in that movie, I wanted to lose myself in the details of the piece.

It's an example of pointillism, which basically means it's comprised of tiny dots of color that form patterns that become the image. And it's a HUGE painting. "This thing must have taken forever," I thought to myself.

And it did. It took Seurat three years to make. Good deal for Seurat, then, that critics love it. For every acclaimed painter in history, there must be scores of unacclaimed ones. Imagine spending three years on a painting that nobody cared about. In the grand scheme of things, if I were Seurat, I guess I'd rather hear "pretty neat" than have someone say "this sucks."

In the Seurat room, though, I did spot something impressive. At the far end of the room sat a young woman on a bench, staring intently at one of the paintings. It was only then I realized what she was doing. In her hands was the only artist's tool I've ever familiarized myself with -- an Etch-A-Sketch. I moved behind her and it was a near-perfect replication. I may not have any idea what I'm doing with visual art -- but let's see Picasso try THAT. Pretty neat, indeed.

So there's my secret shame. Hours at the Art Institute and the thing that wowed me the most was a $17.99 children's toy. Maybe someday I'll find a painting that moves me as much as a David Lynch film or a Cocteau Twins album. Oh, or "Hamilton." Did I mention I got to see it? And that it's super amazing? Not that I want to brag or anything...

COLUMN: Oak Island

Oh, joy. It seems I've finally caught that cold that everyone's been raving about.

On the plus side, I've been using this down time to make my way through some of the more ridiculous fare in my Tivo queue. You know, secret shame shows where psychics chase ghosts, nerds hunt Bigfoot, survivalists eat bugs, and aliens abduct people willy-nilly.

But my FAVORITE ridiculous reality show of late is the stuff dreams are made of: The History Channel's "Curse of Oak Island."

It's a documentary series, now concluding its fourth season, that follows the exploits of treasure hunters as they search through a small 140-acre island off the coast of Nova Scotia. If you buy into the legends of Oak Island, you can easily understand the lure.

The story goes like this: Back in the 1800s, a group of teenagers on the mainland spotted torch lights on then-uninhabited Oak Island. Curious about what they'd seen, the boys took a boat out to the island the next day, where it's said they discovered evidence of a dig site. The boys tried to dig up the site, and at ten feet, they found a layer of log planks. At twenty, another. This continued until the ninety-foot mark, when excavators found more log planks and a stone tablet with strange symbols carved in it.

Supposedly, when translated, the tablet read, "Forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried." But when the tablet was removed, the pit suddenly filled with water like some ancient Indiana Jones booby-trap. And that's just the tip of the Oak Island weirdness. There's also an oddly-shaped swamp that could be man-made, and all throughout the island, large boulders have been laid out in what seem to be geometric patterns. What it all means, no one knows -- but treasure hunters have spent centuries working on the mystery.

So what even IS this treasure? There's a new theory in every episode. It's the pirate booty of Captain Kidd. It's Spanish gold buried by pirates, or the Spanish, or the British. It's the lost jewels of Marie Antoinette. Some think it's where the Knights Templar buried the Holy Grail and/or the Ark of the Covenant. Some experts think there's clues in literature suggesting the island holds the lost works of Shakespeare. Basically, if you can dream it, it's surely buried on Oak Island.

And now it's a reality show. Every week, we see them digging, diving, and drilling their way to minimal results. This season, they've been boring holes near the original dig site and shoving a hammerclaw down arcade-style to see what they can grab. If you ask me, it's a rather carnal way of going about things. I'm just waiting for the claw to pull up one-fifth of the Ark of the Covenant or the last page of "Romeo & Juliet II: Capulet Hard With A Vengeance," now reduced to rubble by their slapdash drilling.

Instead, they pull up nothing. Well, NEXT to nothing, because they always find juuust enough to merit a future season of the show. This year, they've unearthed buttons, coins, and weird pieces of man-made metal at depths where no man-made metal should naturally be.

Is it cheesy? Sure. Is there a chance that there's nothing on Oak Island but shards of metal and broken dreams? Absolutely. But the kid in me loves it. I'd kill to have been one of those boys, staring out at sea watching torchlights where no people are supposed to be. It's "The Goonies" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Da Vinci Code" rolled up into one unassuming Canadian island. I'm all for it.

But this got me thinking. As science blossoms and our global village becomes even closer, what's to become of our tales of legends and treasure? Will future generations ever get the thrill of wondering if Bigfoot is real or buried treasure remains hidden? As our technology grows, our mysteries shrink. That's a bummer, because mysteries make life interesting. I don't know if I believe in ghosts or Bigfoot or legends, but I love the words "what if". Will our children's children ever know that joy?

I say we make sure they do. Here's my plan. Everybody send me $1. If a million of you contribute, we've got ourselves a treasure. Then we hide it for future generations to find. We could construct elaborate clues, maps, and cyphers. If we put our collective heads together, we could make better puzzles and booby traps than those boring old Knights Templar. A hundred years from now, our offspring could be tuning into the History Channel for a new episode of "The Curse of Shane Brown," and a whole new generation of treasure hunters could be poring over my old columns looking for clues. (Which reminds me: "XJ9. 7 degrees north to the square root of X.  U2's third album. Poop emoji. Miss Diana Ross." Clues or nonsense? Who's to say?)

Of course, if a million of you sent me $1 each, I'd have a million dollars -- and the only thing more fun than a treasure hunt is not having to hunt for it. Maybe the REAL treasure of Oak Island is simply giving us something to watch in-between nose blows when we're home sick.

COLUMN: Christy

When I first started as a Telesales Rep here at the Dispatch-Argus -- you know, in the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and we chiseled the paper out of granite -- it was essentially my first real job out of college.

Sure, I'd spent a year behind the counter at a record shop, and worked third shift at an answering service for a bit, but the Dispatch was my first time ever stepping into a professional office setting. And it was a little scary.

Salespeople, as a rule, generally have strong personalities. And when you put a room full of strong personalities together, it can be intimidating, especially to a perennial slacker like me. When I first started, sometimes I'd sit at my desk listening to all these Type A personalities milling about and think, "What on EARTH am I doing here?"

And then I met Christy.

Christy Cravens sat at the cubicle across from mine, and was one of the folks tasked with showing me the ropes. By the end of my first week, it felt like I'd known her my entire life. Christy loved to talk, and it didn't take long for me to learn all about her family, her kids, her problems, and her absolutely unfiltered take on life. This was a woman who had one of the biggest hearts I'd ever encountered, and without her encouragement and friendship, I don't know if I'd still be sitting at this desk today.

That big heart gave out last week, and Christy left us all WAY too early. I only worked with her a handful of years, but I hope she knew what an lasting impact she had on those of us lucky enough to know her.

She wasn't always easy to work with. She could be crass, she swore like a sailor, and she often let her emotions get the best of her. In other words, she was human. In fact, she was one of the most human humans I've ever met. I don't know anyone who wore their heart on their sleeve quite like Christy. There wasn't an ounce of fakery to that woman. And if you ever got on her bad side -- and we all did from time to time -- she'd let you know, and in no uncertain terms.

But if you were her friend, she was fiercely loyal. If my car was in the shop, she was always there to lend a ride. If I was having a bad day, she'd call me at home that night to let me vent my frustrations. Some nights when I'd leave work after a snowfall, I'd find my car locks de-iced and my windows brushed clean. One autumn, when one of our co-workers purchased her first home, Christy drove her kids all the way from Rock Island to Colona just to make sure there'd be trick-or-treaters ringing her bell. She was THAT kind of a friend.

She could even be loyal to a fault. One afternoon, I got back from lunch to find Christy passionately defending a co-worker to our manager at the time. Before any of us could react, the discussion escalated into a monologue of highly colorful vocabulary and helpful suggestions as to where certain opinions could be shoved. Then she stood up and marched off, never to return. Our office was never the same.

She never knew it, but Christy taught me more about sales than any seminar or book ever could. She taught me that you don't have to pander or be fake or schmoozy to close a deal. Just be yourself, be a friend, and be honest. I used to listen to her on sales calls, and when she was talking with one of her regular clients, she knew everything about that person and their families, kids, and pets. She wasn't doing it just to close a sale. She was genuinely interested in these people and their lives and just wanted to be their friend.

For Christy, though, nothing was as important as family. Whenever she'd bring them into the office, she was never not smiling. Back then, her kids were grade schoolers. A decade later, I was getting lunch when I saw a familiar face wave to me from a passing car and realized Christy's daughter was now old enough to drive. This summer, I'll be DJing her daughter's wedding reception -- and if I know Christy, she's already negotiated a deal with St. Peter for a front row seat.

Seasons change. People come and go from your life. That's just the way things work. But if you're lucky enough to meet one or two whose memories stay with you forever, you've beat the system. I'll never forget the walking force of nature that was Christy Cravens. She taught me that it's okay to be myself. She showed me that it's okay to stand up for what you believe (except maybe with a few less f-bombs.) She showed me what true friendship is. Christy's heart may have given out too early, but her lessons and legacy will be in ours forever.


(Okay, not my house. It didn't hail anything like this. But it sounded like it did.)

Here's a fun game to play. Let's see how many times Shane drifts asleep while writing this column. At this point, I'll be lucky to make it to the end of this sentence before waking up to a blank Notepad screen and a pool of drool on my keyboard. I'm so tired that it just took me a couple seconds to think of the word for tired.

Have you ever been so full you couldn't sleep? Spending a lazy Super Bowl Sunday with friends was great, until I realized my blood-queso level was such that I could be declared legally cheese-toxicated. I ended up spending half the night digesting away my fat-shame while watching reruns of "Finding Bigfoot" until I THINK I finally fell asleep. I can't say for certain, because the next thing I knew, my house was being rattled by pulsating thumps and flashing lights beaming in through the blinds.

Great. For years, I've talked about how cool it would be to see a UFO. And now, on a night when the only thing I craved was sleep, THAT'S when the aliens show up to abduct me. I peeked out the window to see what my close encounter of the annoying kind was. No aliens, but instead it was a techno-spewing party bus, dropping off drunken neighbors from some kind of Super Bowl shindig.

I can't say for certain how I even made it into work the next morning other than it involved a wing, a prayer, and a LOT of coffee. My only plan that night was to come home and fall asleep nice and early. In the meantime, time for more "Finding Bigfoot."

One episode turned into two... which became three... and then four. Eventually, I looked at the clock and noticed it was midnight. Oh man, I'm an idiot. I needed to shut the TV off and go to bed.

"But," said a little voice in the back of my head, "What if they find Bigfoot?"

If there's one thing you can be sure of about the TV show "Finding Bigfoot," it's that they NEVER FIND BIGFOOT, because Bigfoot doesn't exist. Also keep in mind I was watching a three-year-old rerun. Had the intrepid investigators of "Finding Bigfoot" found a Bigfoot three years ago, it probably would have made the news. But instead of listening to logic, I kept watching until the "Finding Bigfoot" team failed yet again to find Bigfoot.

Finally, I could shut the TV off and get to...

MEOW. MEOW. MEOW. Nooooo. And it was coming from my bathtub. This could only mean one thing: storm's a-brewin'.

One of my cats is terrified of thunderstorms. She's lived through dozens of storms, and the big scary thunder has yet to harm a hair on her head. This doesn't stop her from spending even the gentlest of rainstorms in the bathtub, shaking and meowing like it's the end of the world.

I suppose it's nice to have such an advance weather alert system in the house. She's usually meowing a good fifteen minutes before I even hear any thunder. And the poor thing's terrified, so I feel bad for her when it happens. But as the meows continue unabated, compassion gives way to annoyance which gives way to a seething white-hot rage where I dream of drop-kicking kitties across the room -- if only I could dream, which I can't, because the cat won't shut up.

But just when I was rethinking my love of felines, the rain gave way to hail, and suddenly I was the one shaking. My house has skylights, and when hail starts up, it sounds not unlike the Apocalypse.

"This isn't so bad," I tried to tell myself. "It only SOUNDS like every one of my skylights is about to shatter. They wouldn't ACTUALLY shatter, right? Oh, God. What would I do if a skylight shattered? I'd need a tarp of some kind, right? I don't own a tarp. How do you affix a tarp to a roof? Have I even climbed a ladder in my life? Tomorrow I need to go to Lowe's to buy both a tarp and a tarp-to-shingle affixing device of some kind. Does Lowe's have a tarpaulin department?"

These are the things that keep me up all night. Well, that and hail and meows. Eventually, I drifted off to a relaxing dream in which I lived in a house with a solid glass roof. Well, solid until Bigfoot crashed through it, hungry for the blood of an overweight nerd in dire need of a tarpaulin.

This went on until exactly 6:32 a.m. That's when the jackhammering started.

I can only imagine what kind of hell I looked like stepping out on my porch to a sea of concrete dust and the loudest noise I can imagine (and I've seen My Bloody Valentine live in concert, people.) Bad enough, apparently, for the construction guy to stop what he was doing and come over.

It turns out the creepy house across the street is even creepier than I thought. It's now been condemned and scheduled for demolition. Step one of this process is to disconnect the sewer, which is conveniently located underneath the pavement of my street. This will likely be the first of many loud noises in my immediate future.

"Is the place really that bad?" I asked the construction guy.

"Oh yeah," he replied. "It's falling apart and the whole house is overrun with cats."

In the past two days, I've gone from worrying about Bigfoot to aliens to hail to tarpaulins and now the only thing keeping me up late is the thought of scared homeless kitties. I may be a sleep-deprived walking ghoul, but I'm a ghoul with tuna who's a sucker for a sad-eyed meow. Here, kitty kitty...

COLUMN: Political Stress

It's been a rough couple of weeks.

This is NOT a political column. I am not a political writer. I know that many of you are probably yearning for political wisdom and democratic insight from the guy who usually writes about cats and video games, but I'm afraid you'll be big-ly disappointed here. I just don't have it in me. I think I speak for both sides of the fence when I say we could all use a little breather at this point.

Remember when news used to occasionally include stories NOT about politics? Back when the Iowa caucuses were heating up, I distinctly recall thinking to myself, "Ooh, election season! This'll be exciting!" It feels that that "season" has been raging for about 3 years now. Every time I pick up the paper or turn on the TV, I have to steel myself for whatever blood-pressure-raising headlines await. I'm sick of worrying about politics. I miss the good ol' days of worrying about everyday household items that could secretly be killing me ("find out more... after the break!")

I miss the innocent days of social media, when you could log on to Facebook and see pictures of your friends' dinner or their babies that you have to comment "aww!" on, even if you secretly think they're kinda funny-looking. Nowadays, my Facebook feed is little more than people complaining about Donald Trump, people complaining about people complaining about Donald Trump, or people complaining that Facebook is full of people complaining.

I'm not going to pretend for a minute that I'm one to rise above it all. I might not be a political columnist, but if we're friends on Facebook, you already know that I'm just as prone to semi-informed spontaneous political rants as you or your weird uncle. To that end, I like Facebook. When I read something in the news that infuriates me, typing up a daft Facebook manifesto is way more relieving than squeezing a stress ball while making disapproving glances at my cats.

I have friends on both sides of the political fence, and I'm generally okay with their social media rants, too. But one of my friends just posted a soliloquy about how terrible all the political posts are. Last week, some girl I barely remember from high school "unfriended" me. I know a couple people who have quit Facebook altogether because they're tired of reading about politics.

Personally, I don't get it. Yes, it can be frustrating to scroll through argument after argument about how awful and/or great the state of our nation is. But still, these people are my friends (or, at the very least, snobs from high school whose ongoing hair loss is now fun to monitor.) I'm not going to "unfriend" any of them unless their posts turn racist or offensive. I might vehemently disagree with their views, but it's still encouraging to see people caring about the future of our country instead of just turning a blind eye.

To me, the answer seems simple: if you don't want to read about politics, don't. It takes 1.5 seconds to press that arrow key and scroll past someone's post. If I'm not in the mood to read political diatribes, I don't. Easy peasy. I may love my wacky uncle down in Alabama, but I ignore 92.3% of the garbage he puts on Facebook. I'm not going to banish him to the Land of the Unfriended. No bridges are going to be built if you only surround yourself with like-minded people.

Still, though, I get it. It can be draining when the only thing in the news, on social media, and at the watercooler is politics, politics, politics. You've got to hand it to President Trump: People are NOT ambivalent about the guy. Everybody has an opinion, and we could be looking at four solid years of non-stop arguments. So for now, let's all take a deep breath and think about something OTHER than politics for a few seconds.

Like cats. My cats don't know or care that Donald Trump is president. All they want is food, water, and to be skritched under the chin from time to time. Or music. Music is good. My favorite band, Ride, is putting out a new album this year, so that's pretty awesome. After a finale that blew my mind, NBC just renewed "The Good Place" for another season. David Bowie and Prince can only die ONCE, so I guess we've got that going for us?

The point is, there's good in the world, and you don't have to wear rose-colored glasses to see it. If you hate what's happening in government, do something about it. Start a blog, protest, run for office. Be proactive. If you like what's happening, do the same. Whatever you do, just do it respectfully. Social media wasn't created to make it easier for us to yell at one another from a distance. If we utilize it the right way, we might just be able to start dialogue that could bring us closer together. If we can be civil about things, maybe we can even show our Commander-in-Chief that there's better things to do at 3 a.m. than send hate tweets to Saturday Night Live.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have cats to pet and video games to play.

COLUMN: (Not) Finding Bigfoot

I'm not one to endorse products -- unless, of course, it involves secret handshakes and lucrative payoffs exchanged in subterranean parking garages on moonless nights. Disappointingly, no company has yet to offer any bribes in exchange for my high-profile celebrity endorsement. This time, though, I don't even need payola.

I recently got a Tivo box -- and I have absolutely no idea how I lived without one (though, if I had to guess, I'd say "more productively.")

Similar to a DVR, Tivo lets you record TV shows and play them back at your leisure. But on my old DVR, you could only tell it to record a certain channel at a certain time on a certain day. But with Tivo, you just enter the name of a TV show and it finds every instance of it across all channels. It'll even record re-runs if you want.

Thanks, science. Finally an excuse to NEVER leave the couch.

Thanks to Tivo, I've been able to catch up on all the news about the grumpy-faced orange-haired monster that's been on everyone's mind lately: Bigfoot.

I've mentioned my obsession with the show "Finding Bigfoot" before, but truth be told, I've only managed to catch an episode here or there. Thanks to Tivo, I came home the other night to no fewer than 43 episodes of "Finding Bigfoot" just waiting to be binged. That's almost two solid days of 'squatchin'.

Spoiler alert: They don't find Bigfoot. They never find Bigfoot. They never find anything -- but it's still amazing entertainment. For the uninitiated, "Finding Bigfoot" follows a similar format as all those other ghost, UFO, and monster shows out there. Each week, a team of investigators follow up on sightings of the elusive Sasquatch, a giant ape-like creature said to roam the American wilderness. Sasquatch are elusive primarily because they don't exist -- but don't tell that to our intrepid team.

Every episode follows the same storyline: The team gets sent a grainy video of something large and invariably out-of-focus moving through the woods. They travel to where it was filmed, where Ranae (the skeptical one) immediately debunks the video as a hoax or a bear. Matt (the believer) then refutes Ranea with broken logic like, "This ISN'T a bear, and since no other mammals that large live in these woods, you DEFINITELY saw a Bigfoot." Cliff (the guy who nods enthusiastically) nods enthusiastically.

Then they interview any locals who want fifteen minutes of fame with their personal I-saw-a-Bigfoot story. Finally, they set out on a night investigation where the team wanders through the woods making absurd howls and listening intently for a response. At best, they might hear a coyote or a tree branch snapping somewhere in the distance. Every episode ends with them finding nothing, but with a voiceover that says, "Based on what we found [nothing], we can safely say that there are DEFINITELY Squatches in these woods!"

Do I believe in Sasquatch? Nope. If they were real, you'd think we'd have at least stumbled upon some Bigfoot bones by now. But I love this show just as I love Ghost Adventures, UFO Files, and all the other umpteen paranormal shows currently pushing my Tivo to its limits. There's just something captivating about people wandering the woods at night. Who cares about Bigfoot? If they just called the show "Four People In The Woods At Night," I'd still watch.

It seems like most of the encounters they investigate happened during the day, yet the team always searches at night, presumably because it looks way cooler. There's nothing exciting about watching nerds wander through the woods. But when the sun goes down and the night vision cameras come on, then they're nerds wandering through CREEPY woods, and suddenly it's 1000x better.

The psuedoscience is on full display. One minute, they'll say something like, "We don't know much about Sasquatches, other than they exist," and not five minutes later, one of them will offer up a fact like, "Sasquatches knock on trees to alert one another to their location." Really? A Sasquatch told you this?

There's something magical about the unknown, whether it's ghosts or aliens or imaginary apes running amok in the woods. I might not believe in Bigfoot, but I would LOVE to be proven wrong. If the "Finding Bigfoot" team ever, well, finds Bigfoot, I'll be cheering the loudest of all. Maybe living in the corn belt without much untamed wilderness nearby has made me jaded to the Bigfoot legend. But our area isn't immune to Squatchin'. The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization website lists one Class A encounter in Rock Island County and two sightings in Scott County. Bigfoot could be among us as I type.

So if you've ever seen a Bigfoot squatchin' around your property, and especially if you've got some creepy woods we can go walking through at night, e-mail me. Me and my team of expert Bigfoot hunters [or whatever friends I can talk into it] will investigate [and most likely lovingly mock] your claim. Well, once winter's over. We're not savages.

Besides, that'll give me JUST enough time to make it through these 59 episodes of "Ghost Adventures" Tivo just taped for me.


I suppose it's no secret that I'm often the least professional person in the room. And that goes for pretty much ANY room, up to and including my living room when I'm home alone -- my cats walk with an air of sophistication that I will NEVER possess.

Don't get me wrong, I don't go through life with complete amateur incompetence. It's not as if I'm running around unshowered and belching (as much as I may yearn to.) I know how to properly behave in the office. Still, if you did an informal poll of my co-workers and asked them which of their colleagues would be most likely to start a work e-mail with the phrase, "What up, dude?", I think I might know their answer.

I simply treat everyone the same way that I treat my friends, because that's how I want folks to treat ME. You can still be polite and friendly without acting like a stuffed shirt or employing some phony "work voice." I've had bosses over the years who've tried to turn me into someone I'm not, and it never sticks. If I actively try to sound formal and measured, it comes across as insincere and phony.

I'm not the guy who says, "Please hold for one moment, ma'am, while I access that information." I'm more likely the guy to say, "Hang on for just a sec while I check things out." Am I unrefined or loutish? I just think I'm being myself, and I vastly prefer it to phony professionalism. At least I THOUGHT I did until the other day.

I had recently discovered that my TV provider had a cheaper option that could save me some big bucks off my monthly bill. The bad news was that it required new equipment, which in turn required a dreaded in-person visit from their technicians. So after being given the always-fun two-hour appointment window, I found myself at home on a Tuesday afternoon waiting for their crew to show up on my doorstep. And boy, did they ever.

I'm perfectly fine with people who take a more casual approach to their jobs. I am, after all, a card-carrying member of the casual club myself. But admittedly, there's a few things that even I had come to expect from the folks who work for my TV provider. Like, perhaps, anything that indicated they work for my TV provider. A handshake might be nice. At the very least, maybe a "hello" would be in order. Instead, I opened my door to find two scruffy-looking twenty-somethings in hooded sweatshirts and jeans.

"Dude," one of them said by way of introduction, "Did you know you had a weed scale in your yard?"

Ummm... what?

"See?" he said, pointing. "Over there in the grass. Weed scale. Might still work, too."

Before I could even process what was happening, they were walking past me into my house. WHAT IS HAPPENING, my brain screamed. All I could think to do was step outside and grab the item they had been pointing at on my lawn. Sure enough, it was a small battery-powered scale, the kind apparently used for weighing less-than-legal substances, likely dropped on my lawn by one of Rock Island's classier passerbys.

For a good few seconds, I had no earthly clue what was happening. Are these the technicians? Or just two random dudes who saw a scale in my yard and assumed I was the resident Pablo Escobar of the neighborhood? Were they about to be seriously disappointed that the only drugs I keep in stock are Imodium and Advil?

I jumped back inside and was never happier to see a complete stranger aleady dismantling the back of my TV. They WERE the technicians.

"Hey," said Guy #2. "While he installs, I need to see your line in. Which way to the basement?"

"Umm, there?" I said, pointing to the stairs.

WAIT A SECOND. I've seen this. It's the classic con, right? Two "technicians" show up to the door of the elderly victim. The first guy distracts the mark while the other guy goes downstairs and robs him blind. I couldn't let EITHER of these guys out of my sight -- except that I already had. The only thing I could think to do was stand halfway down the stairs, which of course meant that I was letting BOTH of them out of my sight. Sigh.

"Nice security system," Guy #1 said. "What all does it cover?" OMG. Seriously?

"EVERYTHING," I said, lying. "Every door, window, nook, and cranny of this house. It even dials 911 if I give it a voice command." (No, it doesn't.)

It turns out he was NOT inquiring how to murder me. His TV company also sells security systems, and he was just comparing. For what it's worth, the Weed Scale Bros turned out to be talented techs, and they had my new gear up and running in no time, for which I'm grateful. Also, they turned out NOT to be drug-seeking street hooligans there to rob me, for which I'm even more grateful.

As they left and I sat there confused yet impressed by their great work, a voice crept into my brain that said, "But would it have killed them to put on uniforms, get a decent haircut, shake my hand, and maybe acted like decent human beings?" Then I washed my brain out with soap, pretended that I DIDN'T just complain about someone else's workplace professionalism, and let us never speak of this incident again.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some Imodium to weigh.