Wednesday, November 22, 2017

COLUMN: Eclipse

"You speaks English. You deal with him, yes?"

This was NOT how I wanted to start my Sunday. After a long night spinning records til the wee hours, it was "morning" (noon) and I was on an emergency coffee run to the gas station. I usually try to avoid all forms of human interaction until the caffeine's kicked in, but no sooner had I walked in when the cashier suddenly called me in for the assist.

At the counter was a long-haired guy with his young daughter in tow, asking how to get to Illinois. 

"You're IN Illinois," I replied. "Mission accomplished?"
"Oh," he blinked. "My car robot says I need to take the Congressional Bridge to Mineland."
It was too early for Congressional bridges and people calling their GPS a "car robot." I just wanted coffee.

"We're going to the eclipse totality," he elaborated, "to experience a celestial rebirth."

I should have guessed as much. His car seemed barely capable of climbing the Congressional Bridge, yet alone making it to "Mineland," but Godspeed, brave adventurer. He was a nice guy and I hope he made it there.

I don't believe that eclipses are the harbingers of spiritual rebirth. I do, however, believe that eclipses are pretty rad. This explains why eighteen hours later, I was on the road with my best friend, listening to HIS car robot give us directions to the Show-Me State.

On TV the other night, they were interviewing astronomers and astrophysicists who were decidedly "meh" about last week's solar eclipse. As one guy put it, "The skies are filled with comets and supernovas, black holes and forces beyond our comprehension. So why does everybody get so worked up whenever one thing moves in front of another thing for a couple of minutes?"

He's got a point. We just drove for five hours in order to watch a thing we see every day cross in front of another thing we see every day. Except you can't actually watch it, because if you do, your retinas will melt. Good plan, then. But hey, in college, we once drove to Missouri and back for the precise reason of, "Hey, let's drive down to Missouri and back." This time, we actually had a proper excuse to do it.

When I told my mom that I was going to Missouri for the eclipse, she gasped in horror. "NO!" she said. "Don't be dumb. They're saying that traffic will be backed up for miles!" And they were, too. Newscasts were warning of nightmare traffic, distracted drivers, overpriced hotel rooms, and people in Carbondale willing to pay over $1000 for prime seating to watch the eclipse in the football stadium.

Here's a newsflash: When the event you're wanting to see is happening directly overhead, ANY view without a roof is going to be a prime view.

Out of mom-inspired traffic fears, we tried to stay off major arteries and instead stuck mainly to side roads, a decent plan that only brought us into the seedier Winter's-Bone backwoods of Missouri once or twice. With twenty minutes to spare, we reached our destination: the free viewing party at the Bradford Research Center of the MU College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources -- right in the middle of the line of totality.

As we got out of the car, the light was already dimming, as if a gnarly storm was rolling in. But this was no storm. No, this was the moon deciding to steal the show for a change. And then, like the flick of a switch, totality hit. Day became night, the horizon roared to 360 degrees of dancing color, and up in the sky, the sun had turned into the fire-edged black ring you usually only see in movies. Cameras couldn't do it justice. It was breathtaking.

I could handle living in eclipse totality forever, but I had to settle for two amazing minutes before the sun popped out the other side to sear our retinas. 

My mind goes back to the astrophysicist who was poo-pooing eclipses. Watching one thing block another thing shouldn't be amazing. Right now, one of my cats is blocking the view of my other cat, yet I'm not staring upon my cat with profound wonder (note: never stare at a cat with profound wonder without proper safety eyewear - they could claw out your retinas.) But think back to ancient civilizations that worshipped the sun as a god. Imagine if, one day, you're going about your business when suddenly, overhead, your god turns BLACK. That'd be terrifying. For those two minutes, I'd be sacrificing anything that moved in hopes of my sun god returning to full power.

Thankfully, I don't think anyone used the totality of last week's eclipse to stage their version of The Purge. I hope those who needed a spiritual awakening got what they were looking for. I certainly got what I needed: a great vacation day with friends witnessing something I hadn't seen since Ms. Harlan-Marks projected it into a shoebox for us in 3rd grade. The next eclipse is only 7 years away -- if you can daytrip to the totality zone, I don't promise a rebirth, but it's an impressive show regardless.

COLUMN: Big Brother

I watch a LOT of TV. Some might say I watch TOO much TV. Sometimes, I have to agree with them.

I suppose it depends on what I'm watching. Many things I can justify. When I lay there like a bump on a log zoning out to CNN, I can convince myself that I'm being educated and staying up-to-date on current events. When I'm too lazy to change the channel off the Food Network, I can tell myself that I'm picking up important tips for the kitchen. When I'm watching "Game of Thrones," I feel zero shame because, well, dragons. Dragons are awesome.

But then comes the secret shame of my summer. A show that I adore for reasons I can't begin to explain. A show that I feel guilty for even THINKING about watching, yet it never stops me. A show so idiotic you can almost feel your brain cells wasting away. A show that I'm pretty sure once cost me a relationship in order to watch. A show called "Big Brother."

Every summer, CBS gets taken over by "Big Brother." Airing 3-4 primetime hours per week, it's one of those reality shows that isn't too particularly "real" or representative of any reality I've ever known. Still, it's mandatory appointment viewing for me every week, and if I dare to miss even ONE episode, I'm in an unexplainable funk for days.

You must be familiar with "Big Brother" by now, right? It's been on the air for nineteen seasons, and I'm pretty sure I've sat through every one of them. The premise is about as simple as possible: Each season, a cast of strangers get chosen to spend the entire summer in the Big Brother "house" -- which, of course, is a TV studio where every room is wired for sound and vision and the houseguests spend every second of their summer under total surveillance. Each week, through a series of contests and votes, one houseguest gets eliminated from the competition. The last player remaining at the end of the summer claims $500,000.

The primetime shows serve as a "best of" compilation of what happens in the house each week. If you're a superfan (like me), you can also watch Pop TV every night, where they air three hours of live unedited camera feeds from the house. If you're completely unhinged, you can pay for 24/7 internet access to every camera feed in the house. This is a line I have yet to cross. I beat myself over wasting time on "Big Brother" every summer, but then I remember that there are countless people across the country who are, at this very second, glued to their computer monitors watching strangers eat cereal and paint their nails.

The original first season of "Big Brother" was actually pretty great. A true sociology experiment, the chosen cast were representative of all walks of life and a diverse array of genders, ages, sexes, and backgrounds. Over the course of the season, these strangers put aside their differences and had a blast living in front of the camera. In today's world, where our differences create more headlines than our similarities, it was heartening to see such a diverse group of people become close friends. That original cast grew so tight that they dreaded each weekly elimination. At one point, they even threatened to sacrifice the money and walk out together as friends. The winner that year was crowned begrudgingly.

The whole thing was downright heart-warming -- and, of course, people hated it and the ratings tanked. Sadly, CBS learned from their "mistake." The following season, the show was retooled. The houseguests became less friendly and a lot more devious. Friendship and fun gave way to backstabbing and drama. The once-diverse casts now look like they're hand-assembled from the Island of Improbably Attractive People. I still watch, don't get me wrong -- but it's gone from an interesting sociology experiment to a wickedly addictive low-brow trainwreck.

Most of the guys in the cast look like professional bodybuilders while every girl is a wannabe bikini model. Then they sprinkle in the stereotypes, which usually consists of: (1) one older contestant, (2) one gay contestant, (3) one married contestant, and (4) one little nerdy guy. Most houseguests are single, and televised hook-ups are encouraged. The unspoken competition always seems to be who can wear the least amount of clothing. In-fighting and name-calling are the rules of the day. This kind of manufactured drama might make for more compelling TV than watching friendships slowly blossom, but it sure doesn't make me feel any better for wasting my summers with such garbage.

I say they should just go whole hog and stick a cast together that's so diverse the house becomes a modern-day Tower of Babel. "This season on Big Brother: everyone speaks a different language!" I want to force goths to live with Juggalos, Trump devotees with Bernie supporters, Cubs fans with Cards fans, alt-lefts with alt-rights. Maybe give them some weapons. Or at the very least, several big foam bats they can harmlessly beat each other with, because that's about the only threshold this show has yet to cross.

So why do I still eat this trash up every year? You got me. My co-workers and I gleefully discuss it. We're on a first-name basis with every houseguest, and as they get evicted, it feels like we've lost a friend. People have told me time and again that I should apply to be on "Big Brother." No thanks. I couldn't hack it. Contestants on that show have to spend an entire summer NOT watching TV. I wouldn't want to be on "Big Brother" because then I wouldn't be able to watch "Big Brother."


One of the things that makes life here in the Quad Cities so wonderful is our area's shared sense of tradition. Our time-honored ways of life have created customs behind which we can come together and rally as a community.

For instance, we recently celebrated the 43rd running of the Bix 7 road race.

On a personal note, I have my own traditions that I like to observe. For instance, I recently celebrated my 43rd year of ignoring the Bix 7 road race.

Some people might just say I'm lazy and an obese couch potato. I prefer to think that I'm simply honoring a cherished tradition near and dear to my cholesterol-hardened heart.

This year, though, was a little different. Due to a vet appointment, I actually had to be awake at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. So for the very first time, I was able to turn on the TV and watch the Bix as it happened live. I now understand it even less.

I think I speak for all couch potatos when I state the obvious fact that running is torture disguised as exercise. Oh, I know. Some of you physically fit types are now about to lecture me on the exhilaration and joy that comes with the "runner's high." Here's what I say to you people: The next time you're jogging along and enjoying that euphoria of a runner's high, pull out a mirror and take a look at yourself. Trust me, that look on your face is NOT one of euphoria.

I've seen you. I'm the guy driving past in my air-conditioned car while you're jogging amok sweating through your skivvies. I've seen the faces of countless runners, and not once have I seen those faces expressing anything remotely resembling joy. Instead, it's usually a pained grimace that I see, with a clear caption that reads, "DEAR GOD, WHY AM I DOING THIS? MAKE IT STOP."

Being the hard-nosed and diligent journalist that I am (not), I've done my homework. I've conducted experiments and run tests. And I can safely say with a good degree of certainty that one can complete the Bix 7 course MUCH faster and more efficiently if one were in a car. I just don't understand why no-one's thought of this before.

Also: to get from the starting line on Brady to the finish line on 3rd Street, there's no need to run all the way up Brady, across Kirkwood, and loop back. Come on, that's just showing off. It strikes me that a much more efficient route would be to walk from the starting line two blocks due east to the finish line. I'm pretty sure that I could make that walk in about the same time it takes the elite competitors to run to near-Bettendorf and back. I don't like to brag, but I'm pretty sure with this plan, I could win this thing next year.

Really, though, who designed this course? Running seven miles is painful enough, but to start by forcing everyone to climb up a grueling hill? That's just malicious. But it turns out I really didn't know the meaning of the word malicious until the race ended and I channel flipped into the worst sports event this side of Competitive Nose Hair Plucking: The Tour De France. (Translation: The Tour of France.)   

The elite runners of the Bix look like weenies compared to Tour cyclists with their veins bulging out of their legs like an overly aggravated Bruce Banner. After watching these guys ascend the Alps on nothing more than foot power and a flimsy bicycle, I'm never complaining about the Brady Street hill ever again. I get that exercise is good for you and all, but this kind of competition has to cross the line, right? Forget who comes in 1st place -- I say anyone who survives the Tour De France without their hearts exploding out of their chests should deserve a yellow jersey.

Isn't there supposed to be some kind of acclimation process when ascending mountainous heights? I just watched a documentary on climbing Everest, and before you can even THINK about venturing to the summits of the Himalayas, they make you chill out at base camp for a week just to get your body used to lower levels of oxygen.

A friend and I once drove to Colorado on a vacation whim. I remember stopping for gas just outside of Denver, taking one step out of the car, and nearly faceplanting from dizziness. We hadn't even made it TO the mountains and I was already suffering from oxygen deprivation. There's no wonder these Tour De France guys get busted doping themselves with horse blood or whatever. Certain things are simply not for humans, and I fear racing around mountaintops might be one of them.

I suppose it's easy for me to judge whilst I sit at sea level with a cushion on my rump and a donut in my hand. At the gas station today, I met a father and son from Germany who are halfway through a three-month journey across America on bicycles. They started in Portland, Oregon and they're headed to New York City. They definitely looked a bit worse for the wear, but for what it's worth, they had smiles on their faces and told me they were having the adventure of their lives.

So maybe I should change my lazy ways and start biking and running everywhere. Or maybe I should stay here on my couch in morbidly obese judgement of you healthy people. After all, it IS tradition. 


Sometimes I think I should've gone to school for marketing.

Instead, I was a Speech major, which is kinda funny seeing as I'm one of the most awkward small-talkers on the planet. The only time I'm really good at small talk is if I'm passionate about something that I want YOU to be passionate about as well. Just ask my co-workers -- over the years, I've talked them into listening to bands they normally wouldn't, watch TV shows they normally wouldn't, and even try food they normally wouldn't. Once, I even talked one of my co-workers into adopting a stray dog that I found.

In other words, I'm good at marketing. Which makes sense, because I'm even better at being a mark.

As I type this, I'm so tired that I'm barely lucid. Why? Because I'm an easy mark. Last night, I was minutes from shutting off the TV and hitting the pillow when "Last Call with Carson Daly" came on. You know, the late show that comes on AFTER the late show that comes on after the late show? And just as I was reaching for the remote control, I heard Carson go, "...and we'll finish with an exclusive live clip from the group some are saying could be the next big thing."

That's nice, Carson, but I need to go to... wait, the next big thing? And I haven't heard of them? I don't like to be uninformed when it comes to new bands. Darn it, though, it's pretty late. I need to go to sleep. Click went the remote and off went the TV.

It stayed off for seven minutes. That's how long it took until the thought of NOT knowing the next big thing caused me to get up out of bed and turn the TV back on. I just had to wait a half hour until the clip was on. Finally, I was face to screen with the band some are saying could be the next big thing.

Annnnnnnd they won't be. In fact, this band pretty much sucked. The world is not yearning for a three-member band who barely look old enough to be out of high school playing incredibly bland surf-punk while a sea of kids mosh and stage-dive around them. "Some are saying they could be the next big thing." Precisely WHO is saying this, Carson? Their girlfriends? Their classmates? Their moms? When I was a kid, we thought our high school band could be the next big thing, too. Their 8-song repertoire consisted of reggae covers of Beatles songs and one original called "Butt Ugly Women." They never made it to the radio, and neither will this band.

But, my sleep-addled brain argued, perhaps I'm not being fair. Maybe one three-minute live clip isn't enough to fully appreciate the genius of this band that clearly "some" think are amazing. I'd better do some more research.

And THAT is why I sit here sleep-deprived today, for I was still awake at 2 a.m. last night watching clip after clip of a sucky band continue their assault of suckage throughout the internet at large. The Carson Daly clip wasn't a fluke -- they're just a terrible band. Once again, I had fallen victim to the hype machine.

I like to consider myself a human being of at least moderate intelligence. When presented with hype, I should be able to see right through it, ignore the ballyhoo, and see it for the strategic marketing campaign that it is. Nnnnnope. If something's presented to me as new, amazing, or exciting", I'll be the idiot queueing up to throw money at it. A sandwich where the buns are made of fried chicken? Sign me up! A taco inside a gordita INSIDE A BURRITO? Yes please! I once bought a new car based entirely on the music used in its TV ad campaign.

If you ask me, the undisputed local master of hype is music promoter Sean Moeller. For years helming Daytrotter and now on his own, Sean has spent great effort turning the Quad Cities into a Midwestern music mecca. He's also one of the very best people I know and I'm proud to call him a friend. But if you want a lesson in how to use hype to your advantage, look no further than Sean's Facebook account.

Two days ago, I was greeted with this message: "ANNOUNCING A HUGE BARN SHOW this Thursday. GIGANTIC news Monday. And lots more show announcements this week! Just sayin'." By the time this column prints, all will be revealed, but I'm writing this on Wednesday night, and I guarantee I get a bad night's sleep tonight just wondering about this barn show and what this "gigantic" news could be.

Odds are high that it'll be some band or artist I'm "meh" about. On the other hand, it could be a band I'm really excited about. "You've got me all hyped about these announcements," I wrote on Sean's Facebook page. His cryptic reply just now? "You should VERY much be hyped." SQUEEEEEEEE! WHAT DOES IT MEAN???

Of course, now that I'm all in, anything less than a full Beatles reunion featuring the reanimated corpses of John Lennon and George Harrison will end up being a let-down. But in my never-ending efforts to be at the cusp of all things cool, I want to know. I need to know. I have been infected with hype.

I'm just glad I'm not the only one who falls into the hype trap from time to time. After all, they say a sucker's born every minute. On an absolutely unrelated note, next week's column is going to be new, amazing, and exciting! Some say it might be the next big thing! Just sayin'.

COLUMN: Golf Classic

My name is Shane, and I'm a music nerd.

For as long as I can remember, my love for music has defined the paths and friendships of my life. Quite often, the music nerd in me speaks louder than the rational part of my brain, and I'm okay with that. In fact, the only times I second-guess myself is when the rational part of my brain supercedes the music geek in me.

Last Sunday was a toughie for me. The British band Ride was making a rare Chicago appearance. Ride is my favorite band of all time, yet I decided to listen to the rational part of my brain and elected NOT to attend. I hope this doesn't mean I'm growing up.

In retrospect, it was a smart decision. Yes, my favorite band was playing Chicago, but only as part of the weekend-long Pitchfork Music Festival. This would have meant spending $75 and driving 3 hours to stand around in the sun and heat admidst thousands of smelly, sweaty hipsters, all just to see one terrific band play a quick festival set. Painfully, my rational voice won out and I decided to stay home.

Well, not ACTUALLY stay home. I wanted to do something to take my mind off the show, so I decided upon the most un-Shane-like activity I could think of: I called up my friend Jason and we went to the final day of the John Deere Classic. If I couldn't see my favorite band on the planet, at the very least I could see famous professional athletes like, umm, that one guy. And some other guy in pink pants. And a guy named Ollie Schniederjans who exudes a confidence you wouldn't normally think possible from anyone named Ollie Schniederjans. Personally, I was nowhere near as confident as Ollie.

Prior to last Sunday, I had never been to a professional golfing event. I had never been to ANY golfing event. The closest I came was college, when I talked Jason into taking Golf 101 with me because it sounded like the class in which I would be least likely to break my coccyx. Part of the class requirement was playing a few rounds of golf on your own time, so Jason and I went to Saukie one Sunday and played... something, but it certainly didn't deserve to be called golf. It was more like a game where we'd swing at a tiny ball and repeatedly miss it. Then, every once in a while, we'd hit it -- never to be seen again. I'm pretty sure at one point we teed off at the 7th hole and ended up on the green at the 9th.

So honestly, I had no idea what to expect as a spectator at TPC. I knew I had VIP parking, and was told a shuttle would take us to the course. In my mind, I pictured a cheery, oversized, air-conditioned van with decadent cushions. I did NOT picture a rickety school bus designed to accommodate all the travel needs of toddlers and/or Fantasy Island's Herve Villechaize. Jason is super tall and built like a stick. I am kinda tall and built like a bean bag full of tapioca pudding. Neither one of us fit into this bus with any semblance of grace and it's a miracle we made it to the course before our VIP stood for Very Injured Prostates.

Once there, though, I ended up having a shockingly decent time. The course is beautiful, and as we strolled down the valley of the back nine, I was overwhelmed by the politeness of the staff, the cleanliness of the facility, and the good behavior of our fellow attendees. Right away, I learned a few universal truths:

(1) Based on unintentional eavesdropping, it is MUCH better to know nothing about golf than to think you know EVERYTHING about golf. (2) I want one of those "QUIET" signs and would like to reserve the right to use it frequently in life. (3) Why do golfers and tennis players earn respectful silence from the crowd yet Lebron has to put up with 21,000 screaming idiots every time he takes a free throw? (4) By and large, pro golfers are nice guys. Even in the heat of the final round, I saw players stop for autographs, bump fists, and toss golf balls to fans. Respect.

The only negative was at the end, when I discovered that a pleasant stroll down the valley of the back nine meant facing a mountainous uphill climb back to the bus, which became a quick reminder of just how out-of-shape I am. I didn't want our headline the next day to read, "JOHN DEERE CLASSIC MARRED BY DEATH OF FATBOY." At one point, I saw a golf cart labeled "media shuttle" and almost tried yelling, "I'm media! I'm the guy who writes the cat columns!" but I couldn't gather the oxygen.

All in all, it was a pretty good day. Better yet, I got home in just enough time to log on to the live stream of the Pitchfork fest and caught Ride's entire set from a vantage point far better than I would've had in that sea of hipsters. So what does all this mean? "I'm Shane, and I'm a golf nerd?" Probably not. I don't have any plans to trade in my concert tees for pink golf pants anytime soon. But if I have to spend a day NOT seeing my favorite band, there's a lot worse places I could have been. 

COLUMN: Cat Food

My column is dangerouly veering towards self-parody this week. It's okay, though -- I'm well aware of it and we'll get through it together.

For years, I've said that our paper is staffed by qualified and exemplary journalists -- and one guy who writes about his cats WAY too much. Caution: I'm about to do it again. But when the heat index tops 100 and I spend an entire week holed up with the cats in air conditioning, no other topics really come to mind. Heat makes me want to do nothing, and if there's anybody in my life adept at doing nothing, it's my cats. But recently I've had to enter a new reality where "nothing" suddenly requires a high degree of maintenance.

My cat Bez is in kidney failure, so keeping her healthy has required a number of dramatic changes. As I'm typing this, she's under the bed hiding. Why? Because over the past two months, I've gone from being her best friend to my new role as the meanie who takes her to the vet every few days for the sub-cutaneous fluids she needs to survive.

But that's only part of the fun. To ease the workload on her kidneys, it's been recommended that I switch her from dry food to canned.

Even though I've owned cats for years, I've never actually felt like a cat person -- until the day I had to stand at the store trying to select moist cat food. In the time-honored battle of cat vs. dog, I'm giving this one to dogs. Dogs will pretty much eat ANYTHING you offer them: dog food, people food, toilet paper, styrofoam... they're not a discriminating sort. 

Cats, on the other hand, require their owners to menu plan. "SAVORY TURKEY MEDLEY WITH VEGETABLES," "CHICKEN & CHEDDAR CHEESE FEAST IN GRAVY." Really? Do cats really care about the savoriness of their dinner? If we're being realistic and going for what cats really want, shouldn't we see cans that say "SAVORY MOUSE ENTRAILS" or "DEAD BIRD WITH FEATHERS"?

I have never once owned a cat that's given chicken one bit of interest, and I'm pretty sure cats don't consider vegetables to be food. Cats don't give a mouse entrail about the presentation of their food, so long as its palatable. And at least judging by MY cats, their palates are pretty wack.

In fact, in all of Bez's life, I've only seen her get SUPER EXCITED to eat one thing, and it's too gross to even mention. So of course I'm going to.

The other day I was headed out the door with a friend when Isobel, my OTHER cat of the very sensitive stomach, made The Bad Noise -- it was hairball hacking time. As gross as it is, there's really nothing you can do but let nature take it's course and try to keep her on the tile floor where it's easier to clean. Ew.

As she was going about the awful business of throwing her gastrointestinal tract into reverse gear, I was using the restroom for a quick second before departing. That was when I heard my friend yell.

"Omigod," he said in a panic. I knew exactly what was happening.
"Ignore it, man," I said from the bathroom.
"But... your OTHER cat... so gross..."
"I know, dude. Just look away. Tell yourself it's not happening."

Let's just leave it at that and say that any cat excited to eat THAT is not going to be especially concerned about the savoriness of the vegetables in her turkey medley.

But after trying a few different varieties of moist cat food, I've begun to understand what owning a finicky cat is like. I've tried a couple flavors where Bez will run up, take one sniff, and look at me like, "Nope. I'd rather die of starvation, thanks." The other day, I opened a can of "SAVORY BEEF FEAST IN GRAVY," and I won't lie to you, it looked delicious and smelled like stew. If I was less concerned about what cow parts actually comprised this savory feast, I could see myself grabbing a spoon. Bez, on the other paw, seems to prefer just one thing: Chicken Pate'.

Pate' is a fancy word that sounds more appetizing than what it REALLY is, which is chicken mush. In my days, I've borne witness to most forms of chicken: raw, baked, Kentucky Fried, and even contentedly clucking about on a farm. In NONE of those forms was the chicken gelatinous and/or greyish-brown. I know chicken, and you, pate', are no chicken. You certainly don't smell like chicken. But so far, it's the only canned food my cat will eat. She'll nosedive into the stuff with hearty abandon, usually just before cuddling up next to me with pate' breath.

Moral of the story? Cats are weird, but not as weird as owners who stand around in stores planning their cat's menu. If gross chicken goo can keep my cat alive longer, I'm all in. If nothing else, it makes the hot dog I'm about to eat seem especially gourmet.


(Actual cat not pictured.)

Being the hard-nosed investigative journalist that I am (not), I don't like to see this column go to waste. I'm allowed about 750 words per week, and I like to make them count. That's why this column consistently focuses on life's most challenging questions: Why are we here? Do we have a purpose? What is right? What is wrong? Where do we go when we die? How do we make the world a better place? And, of course, the most perplexing and fascinating question of all:

What do my cats do after I leave for work?

I may finally know the answer.

Last week was rough. Stress at the office, stress at home, stress from the plentiful amateur pyrotechnic enthusiasts in my neighborhood and their nightly attempts to burn down our block while sending my cats into permanent firework psychosis. I even got to experience stress in the car thanks to some passing nimrod who thought it would be great fun to cruise down River Drive shooting roman candles sideways into the windows of passing cars and local newspaper columnists. I dig fireworks, but after a week of coming home every night to Little Fallujah, I yearned for some relaxation.

And how do I relax? The mature, 46-year-old way, of course: By playing loud, violent video games. But that's when things got interesting.

I had just booted up the X-Box and was checking my ranking in Rock Band (I am now the 7th greatest singer in the world, in case you were wondering.) That's when Bez, my feline couch co-pilot, hopped up beside me. After giving her a quick courtesy skritch, my attention returned to the game. This didn't sit well with Bez, who wanted more than an absent-minded pat on the head. After a couple of head butts and a mewl or two, she hopped down, walked directly in front of the TV, turned to me, and let loose an indignant meow of displeasure... which caused THIS to happen:

"VOICE COMMAND ACTIVATED. TV POWER OFF." Poof. And with that, my TV shut off, leaving me open-mouthed, game controller still in hand.

That's right, my cat has the ability to shut my TV on and off. Worse yet, it's an ability I have yet to master.

I was once excited to learn that my new TV had voice command technology. After all, this is a milestone advancement in the world of contemporary laziness. Some may have thought we had reached the pinnacle of sloth with the invention of the remote control, but let's be honest: we as a lazy people could be doing MUCH better.

Even with the so-called "ease" of remote controls, I still have to roll to one side of the couch, extend my arm, pick up the remote, avert my gaze from the TV for precious seconds to find the correct button, and engage multiple finger muscles in order to push that button. If I want to scroll through all the channels, that can involve pushing said button like fifty times. Come on, that's practically a full-scale exercise regimen for that finger.

But with voice command technology, there's no more exhaustive button-pushing to be done. Finally, I can change a channel without averting my eyes from the screen even for a second. THIS, friends, is optimal laziness.

According to the manual, all one has to do is clearly say, "Hi, TV." This initiates voice command mode, where it responds to a limited vocabulary of commands. "Hi, TV. Power on." "Hi, TV. Volume down." "Hi, TV. Please call 911 because my muscles have ossified and I have become fused to the sofa." You know, that sorta stuff.

But of course I get the one TV that doesn't enjoy being a conversationalist. I can sit there in the basement and say "Hi, TV" 'til the cows come home and my TV usually just ignores me. My neighbors, on the other hand, probably refer to as "that crazy guy who keeps angrily saying hello to his television."

That's not optimal, I realize. But it's probably better than "that crazy guy who keeps meowing to himself." All I can hope is that no-one walked past my house at 9 p.m. last night, because after discovering the cat can control my TV, I switched tactics to, "Hi, TV. Umm... meow?"

I never did get the TV to come on. But I now know EXACTLY what it's like to have your master ignore your desperate meowing.

I'm now convinced that the moment I walk out the door, my cats high-tail it to the basement, turn the TV on, and spend the day watching Animal Planet and winning the laziness war for now. In the meantime, I have a cat wanting a belly scratch. If I'm nice enough, maybe she'll change the channel to HBO for me.