Wednesday, November 28, 2018

COLUMN: Sekai No Owari

As many of you know, I am nothing if not an obsessive music nerd. And I've found a new obsession.

The majority of my music collection is taken up by dark atmospheric indie bands -- the kind of music that's usually only made for record store clerks and people who wear turtlenecks unironically. But I also appreciate the value of a good pop spectacle. One night I might be in a dimly-lit bar watching some intense beardo bear his soul with an acoustic guitar, but the next night you might find me having just as much fun in the cheap seats at a Britney Spears show. What can I say? Sometimes you want to hear artistic emotional music that touches your soul, and sometimes you just wanna see Gene Simmons spit fire and waggle his tongue.

So when I stumbled across an article recently that read, "2018's Biggest Music Spectacle Is A Band You've Never Heard Of," I was intrigued. And now I'm obsessed. You should be, too. Allow me to introduce you to the magic of Sekai No Owari -- the biggest pop band in Japan.

I've always had a soft spot for Japanese culture. I've got a friend who moved to Nagoya a few years back, and every so often, I'll get a care package full of Japanese goodies both amazing and incomprehensible -- and I love it all. This is, after all, a country where you can go to the corner store and buy corn-flavored Kit-Kats. A country that recently developed a robot you wear on your head that feeds you tomatoes while you jog -- because we all want to run while wearing a robot arm and fresh produce on our heads like a Terminator Carmen Miranda.

No country does pop music like Japan, and no pop band is quite like Sekai No Owari. They're a 4-piece band featuring Fukase on vocals, Nakajin on guitars and drums, Saori handles piano and accordion, and then there's DJ Love, whose only job appears to be creeping people out. No one has ever seen DJ Love's face -- he hides in public 24/7 behind a smiling clown mask. Already this band is awesome.

But it's Sekai No Owari's live shows that have people talking. A full orchestra dressed as mummies? Check. Inflatable trains that drop LED bracelets onto the crowd that sync up with the band's light show? Check. Onstage waterfalls? Sure. Pillars of fire? Absolutely. ANIMATRONIC LIFE-SIZE ELEPHANTS? You betcha. The band stopping mid-set to fight ninjas? Most definitely.

I've seen some good shows in my day, but I don't ever recall Bono fighting ninjas or Michael Stipe riding an animatronic elephant. Kiss only WISH they had this level of spectacle.

But as good as the live shows are, the songs themselves might even be better. In true J-Pop fashion, every tune is bubblegum pop that's been overly polished, overly produced, and fully orchestrated into little pop symphonies. Each song is a major-chord feel-good lovefest, and that's something woefully missing lately from the American charts. Earlier this year, Lil Uzi Vert went to #7 in the US with a song that goes, "All my friends are dead / push me to the edge." Sekai No Owari, on the other hand, recently had a Japanese chart-topper about falling in love with a 200-year-old magical snow fairy.

See for yourself. Just check out the video for "Honoo to Mori no Carnival." The lights come up as Fukase walks through a door into the woods, where he stumbles upon the rest of the band. DJ Love shows up playing a tuba because of course he does. And the subtitled lyrics read as such:

"The emergency exit of 'Cosmo Panic' in Yokohama / that's the entrance to the party"
(Okay, awesome. Secret parties are rad. What is it? A rave? An underground casino?)
"When you open the door, you will see a giant tree / This place is called Treeland."
(Sooo... not a rave then.)
"Here you are a superstar!"
(I'm a superstar in Treeland? I always suspected as much.)
"Tokyo Fantasy / Mummies are dancing too"
(You sure this isn't just Studio 54?)
The wizard said this to me: "You have to keep this love a secret, because if you don't, this girl's life will be in danger."
(Wait, what wizard? What girl? Am I a girl in this scenario? Why would you take me to a carnival where I could get killed?)
"'Please take me to the party' / You look at me with your sad eyes."
(No, what I said was 'Get me the hell out of this party, I don't trust those dancing mummies.')
"As I was staring at the robot at the bar, you started to get upset with me."
(Damn straight I did. Take me home... unless the robot wants to feed me tomatoes first.)
"Surrounded by people, I gave you a kiss."
(GREAT. Didn't you listen to the wizard? NOW MY LIFE IS IN DANGER."
"And now it's time for you to take the stage!"
(This is less "Tokyo Fantasy" and more "Spooky Tokyo Hell Dream.")
"I've decided to stay with you, my love, forever."
(And now I have a stalker. Just great.)

And, hand to God, at this point in the video, the band drop what they'e doing and launch into a zombie dance routine.

Clearly, Sekai No Owari are the best thing ever. And now, according to Wikipedia, they're working on an English language album and plan to conquer America. They've already conqurered my heart. If there's one thing our Top 40 charts need right now, it's a proper dose of fun. If there's six things our Top 40 charts need right now, it's robots, wizards, mummies, Treeland, 200-year-old snow fairies, and a tuba-playing DJ in a clown mask. I beg of you, go directly to Youtube and indulge.

Thank me later.


COLUMN: Assassin

Throughout my fake career as a fake journalist, I've experienced a lot of milestones.

I can still remember the very first sample column I ever submitted... and the rejection letter that soon followed. I remember what it felt like to see my picture in the paper for the first time. I remember my first fan letter just as I remember my first piece of hate mail. I remember when a guy from Missouri showed up at our office after I wrote a less-than-enthusiastic recap of an unpleasant roadtrip I took to the Show-Me State.

And now, I'm pretty sure I'll always remember the first assassination attempt on my life.

It was last Wednesday, and I was just getting back from a trip to the vet. There I was on my back steps, keys in one hand and cat in the other, when it happened.


When I first bought my house, my dad was eager to make some improvements to the place. One of the first things he did was install an outdoor floodlight next to my back door. When you're standing on the back steps, it's mounted just beside my door, roughly at eye level. When turned on, it does a pretty good job illuminating my tiny yard. When turned off, it does nothing -- except for last Wednesday, when it exploded.

All I heard was a huge bang, and then felt glass shards hitting my face, my hair, and covering my entire back steps.

Despite how savagely cool I may look in my photo, I am not an especially street-smart individual. I am neither well-read nor experienced in the inner workings of the modern floodlight. One thing I can say with confidence, though, is that they're NOT supposed to explode in your face, especially when they're off. I've never seen a caution label that reads: "WARNING: May spontaneously combust at any time, scaring you within an inch of your life."

There was only one possible scenario that sprang into my head: GUNPLAY. Either someone just did a really good job shooting at my floodlight or a really bad job shooting at me. Either way: SHOTS FIRED.

I refuse to believe that our world has devolved to the point that random acts of terror and violence are the new norm. I still believe in the power of goodness. But bad things CAN happen, and who among us hasn't wondered how we'd react in a God-forbid sort of scenario?

I now know exactly what I would do. I would, in fact, scream "WHAT THE FAAAAAAAA" in an octave I didn't know I was capable of, and then I would awkwardly dive into my house like a lame overweight action hero being chased by assassins. Then, once my hands stopped shaking, I would avoid all windows (you know, in case it was a SQUAD of assassins,) and then I would call 911 and tell them I thought I was just shot at.

"Do you, umm, have any enemies?" the operator asked me.

Good question. DO I have any enemies? Hmm. That fella from Missouri was awfully steamed. Urban chicken-keepers sure hate me (long story). There's my 5th grade gym teacher, but I'm pretty sure he's dead. That pretty much only leaves my mortal enemy, Tom Cruise. I'd like to think he has better things to do than take up sniper positions outside my house.

"I don't THINK so?" I replied.

To the credit of the Rock Island police, an officer was at my door in less than two minutes. In fact, SIX officers were there. And as they searched the back of my house for bullet holes that didn't exist, all I could do was apologize.

"No worries," one of the officers replied. "Better safe than sorry. I would've done the same thing." I don't think he would have done EXACTLY the same thing -- the artistry of the belly-roll-dive I performed shall forever be mine and mine alone.

The exploding floodlight, though, remained a mystery. Then it hit me -- on the head, literally. My neighbor owns a walnut tree. The tree, in turn, owns most of the airspace over my yard. And every year, a team of black squirrels farm that tree for every scrap of walnut they can get. And they HATE me. Every day, I open my back door to a sea of cracked walnuts while squirrels scamper up the tree and chirp at me angrily. If I stay out there too long, they'll drop walnuts on me -- or worse. Let's just say you haven't lived until you've had to clean squirrel pee off your head at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday.

Do I have enemies? I have a whole furry family of them, and I'll bet one of them dropped a walnut directly onto that floodlight while I was standing next to it. Those adorable little assassins have officially crossed the line, and I'm through playing. If you were driving by this morning and saw me yelling angrily at a tree, I promise I'm not insane. I just have a treeload of enemies that need eviction. My guess is they're from Missouri.

COLUMN: Fair Pt. 2

Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods. David Beckham. That Ken guy who won a bunch of money on Jeopardy. Scoot over, because I'm about to join you in the hallowed halls of immortal greatness.

As readers of last week's column know, I recently attended the Mississippi Valley Fair for the first time in, oh, about 25 years. The sights, the sounds, and especially the smells of that place will stick with me for a while (even though I've showered, like, 20 times since then, I swear.) But as any professional fair-goer knows, the REAL thrill of the fair isn't in the rides or on the stage. It's the cutthroat competition.

You haven't fully experienced a county fair unless you've wandered through its exhibition halls to see the myriad of competitions raging on. It's all there: the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the greatest floral centerpieces in all of Scott County. You think winning a boxing match or a car race is tough? Try growing the best beet in east central Iowa, losers.

By the time I made it there, some of the biggest battles had already been waged. Blue ribbons adorned everything from green beans to quilts to model cars. And suddenly, right then and there in the middle of the exhibition hall, I had a flashback.

It was me back in grade school -- and one drawer of my dresser was filled to the brim with shiny blue ribbons and pins. Some were from activity fairs at school that I earned basically by showing up. Some were my late grandfather's photography awards. More still came from my great-grandmother's fair wins. All told, there were probably two dozen ribbons of various colors, sizes, and statures. And sometimes, when I was alone in my room and feeling extra important, I would take every one of those ribbons, pin them to my shirt, and play a little game that I liked to call "I Am The Greatest Person Who Ever Lived Ever."

The gameplay was simple: I would walk around my room with my amazing technicolor dreamshirt, and all of my stuffed animals would be really, really impressed by my many ribbon-winning accomplishments. A few of the luckier ones might even get my autograph.

Forty years later, I am mature, grounded, and fully self-aware that a meaningful and happy life can be had without ribbons or recognition. And as I wandered around the exhibition hall staring at all those blue ribbons, only one thought crossed my mind:

I WANT THEM. I WANT ALL OF THEM. Sure, you don't need ribbons for your life to have meaning. BUT I BET THEY'D HELP. And I bet two dozen of them would look JUST as good pinned to my shirt as they did when I was 8. My cats would be SUPER impressed.

So that's it, then. I have almost one full year until the next fair. That's plenty of time to learn how to bake, sew, pickle, quilt, craft, draw, farm, and paint my way to greatness. My goal is simple: WIN ALL THE RIBBONS NEXT YEAR. ALL OF THEM.

Sure, there are a few hurdles I'll need to overcome between now and then. I'm not quite sure what those hurdles ARE, because I didn't bother looking at the rules. I suppose I could do research, but that comes awfully close to real journalism, which I try to avoid in this column whenever possible. I do know that if I really want to win ALL the ribbons, I'll have to somehow pass myself off in certain categories as being both over 65 AND under 14 years of age, which is admittedly a challenge. But by then, I figure a convincing costume should be no problem, since I'll be a master sewer and craftsman by that point. I also might have to move to Iowa, but one doesn't become The Greatest Person Who Ever Lived Ever without the occasional sacrifice.

Some categories might be tough to win. I saw one where you apparently make dresses for little girls. I don't know the first thing about dressmaking OR little girls, and I'm pretty sure asking random children on the street to try on dresses is generally frowned upon by society. I also can't practice growing blue ribbon vegetables in the winter unless I install an elaborate grow light set-up in the basement, and nothing spoils the winter holidays quite like a SWAT team descending on your house. Of course, it might be worth it to see their faces when they bust through my basement door to find a secret grow lab full of radishes, corn, and green beans.

I'll also need to carefully study the difference between good things and bad things, because at the fair, I often couldn't tell the difference. At one point, I got to witness blue, silver, and red ribbon bales of hay. Sincere apologies to all you professional hay balers out there, but to MY untrained eye, every single bale looked identical. Frankly, I think the whole category might have been a sham, because when I was there, they were using the blue ribbon hay bales as free food for the blue ribbon goats.

Which reminds me, I need to go buy some goats. I've only got a year to get them trained up. If a tap-dancing goat isn't deserving of a blue ribbon, I don't know what is. Plus, even if I fail and I don't become The Greatest Person Who Ever Lived Ever, I'll still have a yard full of goats, and that's a pretty decent consolation prize.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have things to pickle. Greatness calls.

COLUMN: Fair Pt. 1

Did you see "The Late Late Show" last week when my favorite shiny-veneered super-villain, Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, convinced talk show host James Corden to join him in a skydiving adventure? I couldn't help but wonder what I would do in the same situation. While it's true that I've often yearned to see Tom Cruise take a flying leap, I wouldn't ever opt to join him.

Some people are thrill-seekers. I'm more of a thrill-avoider. Occasionally newspaper columnists get chances to do cool stuff like climb construction projects or fly with the Blue Angels. Those are amazing opportunities, to which I would say: "HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. No."

You might have your own definition of the word "thrilling." My version goes like this: "Ooh, my Amazon order arrived a day earlier than expected. How thrilling!" "This DVD has an extra commentary track? Thrilling!" "McRib is back? I'm thrilled!"

So why, then, did a self-confessed thrill-avoider recently find himself walking through the gates of our area's week-long home for cheap thrills? For the first time in 25 years, why would I purposely go to the place where stomachs churn, hearts burn, and the agonizing screams of the tortured fill the night sky?

I'm not sure, really, other than the constant month-long reassurance that "EVERYBODY'S GONNA BE THERE... THE GREAT MISSISSIPPI VALLEY FAIR!" The jingle lies, people. "Everybody" was not there. I wandered that whole place, and I can assure you from first-hand experience that Katie Holmes was NOT there. I checked.

But yes, I did it. I came, I saw, I ate funnel cake.

Now, I'm not gonna take any cheap shots at fair-goers, that's lazy journalism and it's dead wrong. I saw people of all walks of life, so I'm not about to issue any unfair stereotypes. I will say that I felt somewhat in the minority because the clothes I opted to wear that evening included sleeves. But hey, if you've got a side-body that you're not afraid to show countless strangers, go for it. Sleeves aside, the fair unites us all under one common cause: To eat horribly unhealthy food and then try super hard not to vomit it back up while being strapped to mechanical torture devices.

I may have approached the midway with the wrong mindset. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "I ate a big lunch today. All I really need is something light to nibble on." I should have realized that "something light" doesn't exist at a fair -- and if it DID, someone else would find a way to throw it in a deep fryer and cover it in powdered sugar. I saw a vendor offering something called "Chicken on a Stick," which seemed like a nice little kabob-y thing to snack on. Then he handed me -- with TWO hands, I might mention -- what appeared to be 70%-80% of a whole chicken, deep fried to hell and back, attached to a popsicle stick that was clearly for ornamental purposes only. Fair food is NOT for amateurs.

I loved it all. There were angry-looking tigers, friendly-looking wolves, high-diving pirates, giant robots, and countless exciting ways to separate me from the contents of my wallet. At the far end of the midway, there was a wonderful exhibit devoted entirely to horse poop. Well, and the horses that made it, I suppose. But if I had to guess based on smell alone, I'd say the poop was the real star of the show.

In all honesty, I was there for one reason and one reason alone: to spend some quality time in a stable full of goats. I love goats, and I simply don't have enough of them in my life. In the grand agricultural animal kingdom, goats are far and away the best -- mostly because I don't understand them. They're strange creatures that look like the result of an unholy tryst between a bull terrier and the aliens at the end of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." I'm not quite sure why anyone keeps goats, unless you're looking for a less efficient source of milk, a less efficient garbage disposal, or a less efficient lawn mower. Still, I love them to pieces. I hear that "therapy goats" are a real thing these days, and I will gladly sign up for goat therapy any time, any place.

That leaves us with the rides, and I wisely left those to a younger generation. Once upon a Shane, I greatly enjoyed the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Scrambler, but recently I was at a park with some friends and felt my stomach drop out while I was on a simple playground swing, so I think my whirling and scrambling days are behind me. As for the crazier rides that take you airborne, upside down, and round-and-round, I truly think the only reason one willingly goes on those is to test courage, challenge gag reflexes, or respond to a dreaded double-dog dare.

The crown jewel of this year's show appeared to be a flashing mini-rave of a ride called "GENESIS," where riders strap in to be hurled violently in sideways circles. And speaking of hurling, the only guy who looked more miserable than the riders was the poor soul tasked with cleaning up the after-effects with a spray bottle and a roll of paper towels. Let's just say it wasn't an ideal ad for the "quicker picker upper."

All told, I had a pretty fair time at the fair. I might be too chicken for the rides, but I wasn't too chicken for chicken-on-a-stick. Plus I got to pet a goat, and hey, it was pretty thrilling. Maybe I'll go again in another twenty-five years. I double dog dare myself.   

COLUMN: Pretty Woman

A friend of mine confessed something shocking the other day. Somehow, some way, she's lived her entire life having never seen "Star Wars."

In a way, I find this sad. She's not just missing a movie, she's missing a cultural touchstone that's shared and celebrated around the world. I bet you could go to the farthest corner of Mongolia and still find nomadic shepherds who could quote Yoda.

In another way, though, her achievement is kind of impressive. "Star Wars" is fairly omnipresent. It must be somewhat tough to avoid. Kudos, friend. You must be really committed. The Force is strong with this one.

I don't really think of myself as a film buff, but I probably qualify. If you spend as much time on a couch as I do, you're eventually going to see your fair share of movies. If I'm bored enough, I'll watch just about anything. But just like my "Star Wars"-hating friend, there exist a pair of movies that were massive cultural benchmarks of my era that I've never watched, nor do I ever intend to. Maybe I'm just being stubborn or an elitist movie snob, I dunno. I just truly think I'm a better person for having never sat through them.

The first is "Top Gun." My hatred of Tom Cruise has been well documented over the run of this column, but that's mostly due to his temporary betrothal to my ultimate celebrity crush, Katie Holmes. But even before he had the gall to sully the good name of my future wife, I was never a big fan. "Top Gun" just never interested me, and I guess I just never got around to seeing it. I don't even really know what it's about, other than a bunch of guys who fly planes super fast and I presume that Tom is the superest and fastest of them all. And then Berlin sings a song about taking my breath away. Yawn.

The other classic film of our era that I've never seen is "Pretty Woman." That almost changed this weekend.

Last Saturday, I was working on my laptop with the TV on in the background. TBS was airing a cavalcade of harmless romantic comedies that I'd seen a kajillion times over. All of a sudden, though, a new movie started and it wasn't until I spotted Julia Roberts that I realized I was absent-mindedly watching "Pretty Woman." I shoved my laptop aside for a second and stared at the screen.

Do I even know what this movie's about? Richard Gere's a fancy business guy and Julia's a prostitute and I guess they fall in love, right? So it's basically just a skeevy version of "My Fair Lady," except instead of awesome timeless songs, all you get is Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love" and Go West's "King of Wishful Thinking," two of the blandest chart-toppers ever released unto the world. Is there anything redeeming about this movie? I hit the "INFO" button on my Tivo to read its capsule description. Hand to God, this is what it said:

"PRETTY WOMAN (1991). George hires a bar girl, Mimin, who looks the same as his co-worker he killed to cover up the disappearance and resign from her job. However, Mimin decides to stay after seeing the vice president who saved her a few nights ago."

Wait... what? Richard Gere's a murderer? Julia becomes a businesswoman? Who's this vice president and what did he save her from? And what kind of a name is 'Mimin'?

One of two things was clearly afoot: Either (1) Tivo seriously screwed up, or (2) "Pretty Woman" is a WAY more interesting film than I ever knew.

It took some investigating, but I finally figured it out. Richard and Julia's "Pretty Woman" came out in 1990. But in 1991, ANOTHER "Pretty Woman" was released -- this one a low-budget drama from Hong Kong. Tivo had simply switched the two descriptions by mistake. (Why a Cantonese movie has leads named 'George' and 'Mimin' remains a mystery.)

But seriously, how AWESOME would that plot twist have been? There's nothing set in stone that says a light-hearted romantic comedy can't end in a moment of horror. Imagine a 90-minute movie where Richard and Julia meet-cute, fall in love, and do all the boring things that happens in every romantic comedy. Finally it culminates in a passionate kiss, after which Richard Gere pulls Julia Roberts close to him, leans into her ear, and whispers, "I killed my co-worker. She looked just like you." A look of terror spreads over Julia's face. A Roxette song starts playing. Credits.

Now THAT would be a movie to remember. Imagine a crowded theater full of date-nighters all going, "WHAT THE...??" in unison. THAT, friends, would be a movie I'd endorse. Moral of the story? I dunno -- prostitution is bad? The world is terrifying? Life is like a box of chocolates except when one of the chocolates gets murdered and replaced by another chocolate that looks exactly like it?

But no, instead of a cool movie full of murders and Mimims aplenty, this was just the boring "Pretty Woman" we all know and love. Except I didn't know it. So I watched a few minutes, got bored, and changed the channel into a Star Wars flick that was just starting up.

Good ol' Star Wars. No Tivo confusion to be had there. Just a good guy, a bad guy, a Wookie, and best of all? In a galaxy far, far away, there's no sign whatsoever of Tom Cruise.

COLUMN: Earwigs

Forgive my crudity this week, but I'm afraid I need to trash talk a little.

Modern living is amazing. In my lifetime alone, we as a people have made some pretty tremendous Jetsons-like leaps of progress. I remember tube TVs that proudly picked up three local static-filled channels. I remember when records weren't "vintage" and was simply the way music came. I remember when my family was at the cutting edge of technology because my dad had a "portable" pager that was still too big to fit in most pockets.

It seems hard to fathom, but once upon a time, I survived quite easily without a phone that could stream movies, play music, keep tabs on our President, or assist angry birds in swine genocide at the push of a button. The future is here, and it's pretty amazing.

But at the same time, we're still a good distance away from proper Jetsons-level cool. Where's my jetpack? My flying car? I look outside and see no people-sized pneumatic tubes that can whoosh me to work and back. Science and technology have given us many blessings, but I'm pretty sure if we all put our heads together and focused, we could really make some historic leaps and bounds in modern laziness, people.

For example: we should have a WAY better system for handling our trash.

Landfills, global warming, carbon footprints, climate change, litter, paper vs. plastic, recycling, composting, environmentalism. These are all words that important journalists should focus on. Thankfully, I'm not one of them. I'm just tired of having to bag my trash up and take it out to the bin, over and over and over again. This is counter-productive towards my aspiring goals of laziness. 

Taking the trash out takes manhours (or at least man-minutes), motivation, and exertion -- three things that I can personally live without. I just took out a bag of trash and I'm pretty sure I missed at least two important television commercials that some poor corporation spent good money on. Taking out the trash is unfair to capitalism and the free market. Plus, it's horribly hazardous to your health. The last time I tried to walk my trash out to the curb, I fell and broke my ankle and had to spend the next six weeks in a cast.

I know what you're thinking -- Shane, didn't that happen, like, four years ago? Yes, yes it did. And that, friends, was indeed the last time I took my trash out to the curb. How my trash has gotten there since is completely beyond me. I like to think of it as one of those mysteries of science that perhaps we'll never be able to explain.

Or maybe I just have a VERY nice neighbor. All I know is every Monday, I wake up, my trash is already out at the curb, and I'm not asking questions. I don't know if someone's being nice or if someone just wants to use the excess space in my bin for their excess trash. Frankly, I don't care. I'm just grateful.

Still, though, I'm pretty sure there's room to be a little lazier. My trash might magically make its way to the curb every week, but I still have to go to the effort of bagging it up and putting it in the bin. I thought I could handle this simple task -- until this week.

Last Sunday I had a couple bags of trash that needed tossing, so in a fit of pure unadulterated motivation, I put on shoes, walked the trash down the back steps, opened the lid of my trash bin... and screamed in horror.

I hate taking out the trash -- but I hate bugs a whole lot more. And when I threw back the lid of my trash bin, I would approximate somewhere around thirty earwigs became airborne, landing in my hair, on my arms, on my shoes, and just generally everywhere you don't ever want earwigs to land.

Now, I'm a grown adult. I know fully well that earwigs don't ACTUALLY crawl into your ear and lay eggs -- but they sure LOOK like they do. In the grand pantheon of insectdom, earwigs are fairly harmless. That still doesn't mean I'm in any hurry to have dozens of the pincer-waving montrosities rain down on my head. I hope none of my neighbors heard me yell, "Gaaaaaaak!" and dance around in horror in my back yard. It wasn't my best moment. Don't worry, the denizens of my surprise earwig condo have since been evicted with extreme prejudice, but just imagine how many important television commercials I missed for THAT.

I'm just saying that if technology stepped up, I could put broken ankles and earwigs behind me for good. How? Don't ask me, I'm no scientist. Maybe some kind of hygenic hole in the floor that you toss garbage down and it disappears forever and ever, no questions asked. At the very least, you'd think I could purchase and install some kind of sassy, back-talking robot maid to handle waste management with skill and comedic one-liners aplenty.

I don't like to trash talk, but we need to step it up if we wanna be as cool as George Jetson.

COLUMN: Alien Hunting

As I type this, it's 9:30 at night. I'm sitting alone in my car, just me and my laptop, in the parking lot at Schwiebert Park in downtown Rock Island.

Why I am writing a column in such a peculiar locale and not in the usual position of lying sideways on my couch with a cat precariously balanced on my shoulder? Simple. I'm on a stakeout for UFOs. Duh.

Scoff all you want, people, but it's happening. A couple days ago someone uploaded a video to Youtube showing a creepy white light hovering unnaturally in the sky before it appears to ascend vertically into the clouds. The video was purportedly shot by a truck driver, and it was supposedly filmed somewhere just south of the Quad Cities.

Last night, a friend of mine captured grainy cell phone footage of two green lights he saw travel across the horizon, hop the Missisippi, and disappear somewhere over the Rock Island horizon. It appears the Quad Cities is rife this summer with unidentified flying objects. This is entirely unacceptable.

My whole life I've wanted to see something cool like a UFO in the sky. I've been on countless roadtrips, umpteen aimless drives, and more wasted hours than I care to admit staring wistfully at the night sky, and I've yet to catch even the tiniest glimpse of any wayward alien tourists. Now people in the Quad Cities are spotting genuine unexplained lights in the sky, and none of these people are ME. This is super unfair.

I am a firm believer that we are not alone in the universe. The odds are just too stacked against it. We're standing on merely one of eight (sorry, Pluto) planets that orbit our sun. Our sun is but one of 250 billion stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy is but one of 100 billion galaxies that we've been able to identify with the Hubble telescope. On the big map of the universe, we are less than a pinpoint. We are less than a molecule dancing on the head of that pinpoint. You simply can't tell me that out of the infinite abyss of the endless universe, we're the only ones with enough common sense to grow legs and stroll out of the ether.

Maybe there's life on one of Jupiter's mysterious moons. Maybe the nearest life is a kajillion light years away. Maybe that version of "life" is little more than a lump of moss chilling on some space rock somewhere. Or maybe that "life" is a race of sentient space wolves who've mastered interstellar travel. We literally have no idea.

The internet is awash in UFO videos, and I'm enough of a dreamer and/or idiot to watch them all. Most are fake, silly, and easily explained -- but a few of them are genuinely creepy and maybe, just maybe, the real deal. Perhaps it's the military testing new technology, maybe it's E.T. waving hello, or maybe it's those space wolves looking for an appetizer. Who knows? The only thing I'm sure about is that I'm not letting a UFO go unseen by me tonight. I'm here for the long haul, eyes skyward.

9:45 p.m. Nothing yet, but I feel all kinds of Fox Mulder cool. Truth be told, if I DID see a UFO, I'd probably just freeze and pee my pants, but for now, I feel like a cool FBI alien hunter.

9:55 p.m. It's a good thing I'm NOT with the FBI, because the kids in the car over there are passing around what does NOT look like a normal cigarette.

10:05 p.m. OMIGOD I CAN'T BELIEVE IT! LET ME GET MY CAM -- no, wait, that's just an airplane.

10:10 p.m. I will never not love the way the downtown WHBF aerial tower looks at night. It's my Eiffel.

10:15 p.m. NO. FREAKING. WAY. I TOTALLY SEE A -- oh, that's just Jupiter.

10:25 p.m. I'm starting to think I look less like a cool FBI alien hunter and more like a weird middle-aged creeper hanging out by himself at a park after dark. If a cop asks me what I'm doing, I'd better have an answer that isn't "looking for aliens."

10:35 p.m. Okay, so the "long haul" I was in for turned out to be roughly 45 minutes. I'm now back home, safely sideways on my couch with a cat on my shoulder. It turns out my desire to see a UFO is tempered only by my desire to NOT be seen as a park creeper. Plus I'm pretty sure I saw ANOTHER park creeper there, and I'm pretty sure he had dibs.

So if you see an eerie light in the sky, don't tell me about it. I'll be mad jealous. Just put it on Youtube and I'm sure I'll see it soon enough.

COLUMN: World Cup

WHOO! Oh man. How are you guys holding up? Is anybody even still conscious enough to read a paper today? I've barely recovered from such an exciting final match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. That was intense!

Well, okay. I'm writing this in advance, so I have absolutely no idea how yesterday's final match turned out. Let's just say that [FRANCE OR CROATIA] really deserved that win after playing such a hard-fought game against [FRANCE OR CROATIA]. Even though [FRANCE OR CROATIA] didn't end up with a win, they can be proud to have even advanced far enough to play a team like [FRANCE OR CROATIA].

The World Cup is exciting stuff, folks. Every four years, top athletes from around the world gather in the spirit of competition, sportsmanship, and a united desire to kick each other in the shins as hard as they possibly can. Occasionally, one of these formidable athletes will miss a shin and instead kick a ball into a net. This is called a "goal," or "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL!!!!" for short. I've watched enough matches to know that goals are important, but not so important that a preliminary game can't end in a 0-0 tie, which shows you right there JUST how exciting of a tournament it can be.

The World Cup is a grand spectacle. There's only two problems: (1) We live in America, and (2) the sport they choose to play is soccer.

I know, I know. Shut up, footie nerds. I'm well aware that soccer has made some serious inroads in American culture over the past decade. Major League Soccer teams presumably exist because I've heard of them, and major U.S. networks are now even starting to carry British Premier League matches on the weekends. Soccer in the U.S. is probably the most popular its ever been right now, which means it's now our nation's favorite sport just behind football, basketball, baseball, hockey, NASCAR, golf, horse racing, pro wrestling, pumpkin chucking, hot-dog eating contests, and whatever American Ninja Warrior is.

YES, I'm kidding. There's a lot of people out there who love soccer. They just tend not to live in our country. Even the most ardent American fan of soccer has to admit that, while popular in the states, soccer isn't exactly a way of life over here like it is in most parts of the world. Still, I like soccer. Watching it makes me feel worldly and sophisticated. It looks like it'd be great fun to play. I'm just not entirely sold yet as to whether or not it's great fun to watch.

I'm well aware that I'm NOT remotely qualified to comment wisely on soccer pros and cons. The only sport I watch regularly is NASCAR, which is (a) a character flaw that I'm well aware of, and (b) a sport that many sportspeople don't consider a sport. Other than racing, the only sports I tend to watch are: baseball (when the Cubs are in the playoffs,) basketball (when the Bulls are in the playoffs), football (when the Bears are in the playoffs,) and yes, World Cup soccer (when England are in the tournament.)

Why do I root for England? Well, it's tough to root for the U.S. when we didn't even qualify this year. If you've got to adopt a team to root for, you can't do better than England. When it comes to droughts, Team England is basically the Bill Buckner of World Cup soccer. When they're predicted to do well, they do awful. When they're not expected to dominate (like this season,) they always come thiiiis close to glory before mucking it all up in the end.

England is a soccer crazed nation. When the World Cup rolls around, their pop charts fill with soccer anthems -- and even the ANTHEMS can be depressing as all get out. Probably the most recognized UK soccer anthem is a song called "Three Lions." You can hear thousands of fans chanting its "football's coming home" chorus every time Team England takes the pitch. But the rest of the song pretty much just bemoans their team's reputation for failure. "So many jokes, so many sneers, but all those oh-so-nears wear you down through the years... Three lions on a shirt, Jules Rimet still gleaming, thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming." It'd be like if Wrigley blared a song called "Fail Cubs Fail" after every loss.

But if you thought the party in Chicago was insane when the Cubs won, I promise you we'll be able to HEAR the Brits screaming the day that Team England eventually wins the World Cup, and it WILL happen one day. But it definitely won't be this year, after last week's heartbreaking loss in the quarterfinals. Instead, we ended up with France (a team I don't especially care about) vs. Croatia (a team whose country I couldn't even point out on a map, other than "somewhere by Russia.")

Honestly, though, I enjoyed the matches I saw this year. If you've got to pick a sport to support, you could do a lot worse than soccer. I recently read an article about other sports as old as soccer that didn't quite catch on. Let's just say it's a good thing. Many were weird variations of tennis and baseball. A truly alarming number involved the use of live roosters, often as, err, the "ball."

So if you're a fan of soccer, I hope you enjoyed this year's World Cup. Maybe next time we'll have a Team USA to continue England's disappointments. If you're NOT a soccer fan, just be happy that we weren't all tuning in to watch organized chicken homicide. I just hope you didn't miss out yesterday when history was most definitely made by [FRANCE OR CROATIA].

COLUMN: Ready Player One

Over the years, I've amassed a fairly decent movie collection. But in today's age of streaming media, I've been buying fewer and fewer Blu-Rays lately. This week, though, I had to make an exception.

When Ernest Cline released his novel "Ready Player One" back in 2011, it became one of my fast favorites. Spielberg's film adaptation earlier this year was equally awesome. I saw it in the theater, and I've now been watching it on repeat viewings at home this week. With a fun nerdy plot and non-stop references to the 1980s, it's the kind of movie custom-made for a pop culture geek like myself. But I also discovered that after you watch it umpteen times, you can easily get lost daydreaming about Cline's world.

"Ready Player One" is set in a not-too-distant future where global warming and overpopulation has plunged much of the world into poverty and slums. As a result, most people instead spend their days in the OASIS -- a virtual reality universe where you can live, love, work, and play from the confines of your dilapidated shack. Strap on some VR goggles, plug yourself in, and suddenly you're anywhere you fancy. You could climb a virtual Mt. Everest or drive a virtual Batmobile -- the possibilities are limitless. The virtual currency inside the OASIS is valued more than real world money. Even if you live in a real world shantytown, you could be a mansion-owning millionaire in the OASIS.

If you want to know what happens, watch the movie or read the book. I recommend doing both, since they're quite different from one another.

But it's made me ponder: What if the OASIS really existed? What if there was a virtual world that we could escape to any time we fancied? Where would I go? How would I live? What would I do with my time?

If I had to pick the ideal virtual location for my virtual mansion, my mind immediately goes to mountains. I have no idea what makes tall stacks of ground majestic and beautiful, but nothing wows me like a good mountain vista. I think having some kind of Stanley Hotel-type mountain fortress with spectacular virtual views would be my first choice.

Then again, I know a guy who just went to Colorado and crashed his mountain bike to avoid running into a rattlesnake. If I had my global pick of locales, I think I'd rather live someplace without venomous and/or beclawed wildlife. Even in a virtual world, I'm enough of a weenie to be virtually afraid of virtual snakes and cyber-bears. I sincerely doubt the existence of Bigfoot, but in an imagination-fueled world where anything's possible? I'd be surrounded by robo-Sasquatches by sunset.

My next pick, then, would be ocean-side. Nothing centers me quite like staring out over an infinite sea. Going to bed with the sounds of waves crashing against craggy rocks would beat the heck out of any white noise machine the real world could offer.

Hmm, but once broke my foot walking down a sidewalk. I should probably avoid craggy rocks. I can't swim in the real world, so what makes me think my virtual avatar would fare any better? I don't want to be the first virtual corpse to wash up on a virtual beach. It'd be safer to set up virtual residence somewhere land-locked. Maybe I should just settle for, like, a river or something.

A desert? Too virtually hot. A medieval castle? Too virtually cold. I suppose it really doesn't matter WHERE I virtually live, as long as I have a massive mansion that I could deck out any way I saw fit.

Then again, in all the virtual worlds and virtual homes in "Ready Player One," I never once saw a virtual maid. I don't want to exhaust my imagination building a massive virtual dream house only to spend all my virtual time having to virtually clean the place. Plus, unless I round up a virtual girlfriend, which is virtually unlikely, I'd be stuck by myself in some echoey mansion that, knowing my luck, will be virtually haunted.

No, I'd probably be better off in a small simple imaginary home with a nice TV and a couple of virtual cats.

In other words, if I had access to a virtual world where I could live anywhere and do anything, I'd probably live in Virtual Rock Island, in a house identical to my own, sitting on a virtual couch playing virtual video games and watching movies about people who live in other virtual worlds.

And something tells me, as long as I had access to virtual Harris Pizza, I'd get along okay. Virtually.


I'm never here to dispense gross-out humor, mostly because I'm easily grossed out myself. I prefer to eat my cookies rather than toss them. But we are human beings, and we need to admit that a lot of things human beings do are inherently gross. That still doesn't mean I want to think or write about it. When it comes to matters of basic bodily functions, my general rule of thumb is: Whatever happens in the restroom stays in the restroom -- unless it needs to be flushed far away from said restroom. Whatever you do in there is your own business.

Of course, some restrooms are public, and that's where it gets sticky (hopefully not literally.) Whenever I go into a crowded restroom, I do my very best to stare at my shoes and pretend I'm the only one there. But if you're being gross, sometimes it's hard to ignore you. And yes, that goes for you, green-shirted guy from last weekend. Don't think I didn't see you shuffle past me in the restroom, do your duty, and then go high-five your bro's -- without washing your hands.

Lately, I've had the misfortune of noticing another trend in the bathroom. It's disgusting, but we need to dive into this one just a little bit. I promise I will do my very best NOT to gross you out, but we need to have a quick, tasteful heart-to-heart -- about saliva.

Saliva shouldn't be gross. Most animals produce it, and with all due apologies to John Merrick, we are nothing if not animals. Saliva helps us chew and swallow, lets us taste food, fights germs, and prevents our teeth from decaying. Birds use it to make nests. Cats use it to groom. We let our dogs slobber all over the place without a care in the world. Heck, when we find someone we like, one of the first things we try to do is mix saliva. It's a part of life.

Then why is it so disgusting to watch someone spit on the ground? I swear to you, nearly every time I'm in a public restroom, some dude comes in and hocks a wad of spit on the ground or in the urinal or toilet. I first started noticing it a few months ago, and now I can't NOT notice it. Any time my public bathroom space gets invaded, I brace myself for the inevitable hack-n-spit, and it usually ALWAYS happens.

And it's not just bathrooms. Pay attention the next time you're out on the weekend -- you're bound to catch some guy spitting on the ground like it's no big thing. I swear to you all, if you go to the gas station by my house, you can look at the parking lot and see clear evidence of spitters of yore. Everywhere I go, spittle can be found.

Maybe I shouldn't say anything? Is it some testosterone-fueled guy thing? Am I betraying the man club by complaining here? Nope. I used to work with a couple girls who I'd see spitting on the ground every time their shift ended. Spitting is a hobby of equal opportunity crassness. Just try it in Singapore. If you get caught spitting there, it's a $1500 fine.

It isn't the grossness of spitting that worries me, though. What worries me is that I clearly must be broken.

I've never once felt the urge to spit on the ground. I'm pretty sure I've never done it. I'm not even sure I know HOW to do it. It's just something I've never had want nor need to do. I've never once thought, "Man, I could sure use a good spit right about now." Am I just being civil? Or is there something wrong with me?

The other day, I brought up this nonsense to a close friend.

"Can you believe how many people these days just spit on the ground?"

I was expecting one of our usual we're-better-than-everyone-else moments. Instead, he replied, "What, you've never just spit on the ground?"

"No!" I said, aghast. "Do you?"

"A few times a day, I guess," he replied to my shock and horror. "So what do you do when you feel the need to spit?"

As God is my witness, I have never felt the need to spit. If my nose gets plugged, I blow it. If my throat gets a tickle, I clear it with a cough. None of these events have ever made me want to spit, publically or otherwise.

This is worrisome. I just read that the average human produces between 2 to 4 pints of saliva per day. If apparently everybody in the world is spitting theirs out on a regular basis, WHERE IS MINE GOING? Am I going to keel over of acute saliva intoxication? It's no secret I've put on some unwanted weight over the past few years... OR HAVE I? Maybe I'm just carrying an extra hundred pounds of unused saliva. It wouldn't surprise me -- people have often told me that I'm full of spit (or something like that, at least.)

COLUMN: Ladies Night

For as much time as I spend with them, my electronic devices certainly don't seem to know me very well.

You may have read my recent discovery that Facebook thinks my top interests include "ice," "cod," and "gay bars." My Amazon Echo ignores me until I start screaming "Alexa!" at it like a scolding parent. And now I've discovered another technological wonder that doesn't understand me in the slightest: Netflix.

For the past few weeks, every time I log onto Netflix, it's been constanly recommending that I watch an unending stream of dumb cringe comedies. You know, movies where nerdy losers do embarassing stuff and I'm supposed to find it endlessly funny.

Why is it funny to watch the embarassment of others? America's Funniest Home Videos has been on the air since the dawn of time, and it's basically nothing but people falling on their faces, taking shots to the groin, or dancing like nobody's watching (or filming.) And it's usually pretty funny. WHY?

Embarassing moments are great fun to watch -- unless they happen to you. I still remember that one time when I gave my crush a necklace for Valentine's Day and she responded by yelling "Eww!" and pretending to vomit. I'm pretty sure I'm still emotionally crippled from that moment and I'm also pretty sure it happened when I was ELEVEN. To this day, if I'm daydreaming and an embarassing memory pops up, I'll literally hear a voice in my head going, "LET'S CHANGE THE SUBJECT."

I'm an adult now, and at my age, you're not really supposed to care what others think of you. But let's be honest -- there's a small part of my brain that keeps a 24/7 vigil worrying if people are secretly pointing and laughing at me behind my back. This is pretty silly considering my silly job is to write a silly column that I sincerely hope you all point and laugh at.

Some might say I have a lack of self-confidence. I say I have an over-abundance of self-awareness. Specifically, the awareness that my particular self is prone to moments of extreme embarassment.

Take the other day, for instance. I was leaving work on my lunch hour and heading out to my car. Being the important deep thinker that I am, I was reflecting on a work problem I had just solved, wondering how I could fix another, curious where the nearest mailbox was so I could mail a card to my dad, pondering how long it takes mail to get from East Moline to Galesburg, complaining internally about the weather, reminding myself to stop for gas, and trying to decide what I wanted for lunch. That's when my thoughts were rudely interrupted by two immediate realizations:

(1) There was a very attractive woman walking just a few paces behind me that I hadn't noticed, and
(2) I was singing. Out loud. Loudly. With both volume and passion.

It also must be noted that I can't sing. Well, apparently I CAN sing -- just very, very, VERY poorly.

The fact that I was subconsciously singing out loud was embarassing, sure, but explainable. I am, after all, a huge music nerd with 30 years of DJ experience who works part time at a record store for fun. I've been exposed to a whole lot of songs over my years, and music is constantly going through my head. The average human brain can store roughly 2.5 petabytes of memory. That's 250,000,000 gigabytes -- the ultimate flash drive. Each of us has the capacity to remember literally hundreds of thousands of songs -- and I reckon I'm about out of room.

And out of those hundreds of thousands of songs swirling around in my subconscious, the jukebox in my brain chose that day and that hour to select: "Ladies Night" by Kool and the Gang. And not just any PART of "Ladies Night," mind you. No, the moment that I snapped to and realized I was having an a cappella solo karaoke jam session while in close proximity to another human was just one moment AFTER I had just emotionally and entirely subconsciously belted out, "Mmm, SOPHIS-TI-CA-TED MAMA! Come on you disco lay-day!"

Strangely, my attractive new friend did NOT offer me her number. All I could do was sheepishly mutter, "Excuse me," while trying to walk professionally to my car as though I hadn't just staged an impromptu one-man salute to disco in the parking lot. 

I'm pretty sure she pointed and laughed, if only internally.  But who knows? Perhaps my reassurance that she was a sophisticated mama was just the boost of self-confidence she needed to make it through the day. Maybe I was doing her a public service.

All I know is that I got to my car and strangely didn't feel like I wanted to curl up in a ball and hide forever. Instead, I just laughed a whole lot, which felt way better than shame. I'm an embarassing weirdo a lot of the time, sure. But I think I'd be disappointed in myself a little if I wasn't. When I worked in downtown Moline, there was a guy who would walk his dog around the neighborhood, always with a pair of headphones on, and always belting out songs like he was auditioning for American Idol. And you know what? That dude always had a smile on his face.

Life's too short to spend it constantly worrying what others think about you. If some girl thinks I'm a weirdo because I had an uncontrolled disco moment in a parking lot, oh well. If Facebook thinks I'm a fan of cod and gay bars, let them. If Netflix is convinced that I like stupid teen movies... well, Netflix is probably right -- those movies are awesome.