Friday, December 28, 2018

COLUMN: Post Malone


This is going to be a difficult column to write.

Wait, that sounded ominous. That's the kind of intro you use when you're quitting or if there's some horrible secret from your past about to be revealed. This is NOT the case (I hope.) No, this will be a difficult column because I'm about to come to the defense of someone I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to hate.

Ever since my parents presented me with a second-hand record player at probably too young an age, I've been a music junkie. I have no talent to make music, but it turns out I'm fairly gifted at listening to it. Over the years, my collection has grown from big to really-big to I-clearly-have-a-problem to hmm-time-for-a-bigger-house.

Some people get on the internet to argue about politics. I'm usually there to argue about music. My favorite t-shirt says "Your Favorite Band Sucks." My second favorite says "I listen to bands that don't even exist yet." I proudly grew up on a diet of artists like The Smiths who once pleaded for us to "hang the blessed DJs, because the music they constantly play says nothing to me about my life."

For years, I've revelled in critical attacks of bands that dumb down the musical landscape, from the despicable bro-rock of Limp Bizkit to the faux earnestness of Creed and the steaming pile of mediocrity that is Nickelback. But many critics have now set their sights on a new target -- and for once, I'm not jumping on the hate train.

In fact, I may just be a fan of Post Malone.

If you don't know 23-year-old Austin Post, then your kids probably do. Both his albums sit towards the top of the Billboard charts, and the rapper/singer's been selling out shows around the globe. His fanbase is as huge as the disdain of his critics. Last week, the Washington Post ran a claws-out piece that called him a "rhinestone cowboy who looks like he crawled out of a primordial swamp of nacho cheese," and that's about as nice as it gets.

The arguments against Post Malone go something like this:

(1) Post Malone has nothing to say. This is absolutely true. The guy had a #1 hit this year with a song about a new watch and how shiny it is (seriously.) Most of his songs are about cars and jewelry and girls -- in other words, he's just like all the other artists on the Top 40. Not every musician needs to be Radiohead or U2 and make some grand statement about the human condition with every release. There are times I want to hear challenging music that questions our world, but there are other times when the only question I want answered from my car stereo is who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp.

(2) Post Malone songs are nothing but one hook repeated over and over. This is also true -- and kind of amazing. The average Post Malone song reduces the verses to a quick whisper that just gets you to the hook without delay. But here's the thing: by and large, they're GREAT hooks that get stuck in your head for DAYS whether you want them there or not.

(3) Post Malone isn't very talented. I don't even think Post would argue this. Part of his appeal is that he's an average dork who made it big. He doesn't look like a pop superstar. He looks like any of the dudes I used to play Dungeons & Dragons with. He's an everyman with an okay voice who makes decent songs and spends his success on stupid stuff like cars and ill-advised face tattoos. There are worse crimes.

(4) Post Malone is a culture vulture. The thinking here is that a dorky white guy from the Texas suburbs has no business making hip-hop. That's just kind of unfair. I've always thought of music as a cultural uniter, not a divider. He's not pretending to reinvent rap music, and I've never seen him dishonor the origins of hip-hop. Pop music has a time-honored tradition of thieving from various cultures (do you really think the Beach Boys hung out on the beach?) Maybe he'll expand to other genres in the future. Maybe he won't even have a successful future and THIS right now is his fifteen minutes of fame. Who knows?

Music aside, it's hard to hate on Post Malone because he seems like a genuinely nice guy. Critics rip him and he laughs it off. Instead, he goes on talk shows and takes Jimmy Fallon to lunch at Olive Garden. He's a funny dude, and it's nice to have a chart-topping artist who really seems to be enjoying his moment without any pretense.

So yeah, I'm going to neglect my duties as an elitist music snob and give Post Malone a pass -- which is fine because it gives me more time to hate on Nickelback. Maybe you disagree and can't stand Post Malone. If that's the case, look on the bright side: One of the fastest ways to become uncool is to have random middle-aged newspaper columnists gush over how cool you are.

Sorry, Post.

COLUMN: Litter


When I sit down to write this column, there's only one rule I try and give myself: BE POSITIVE.

I'm not remotely qualified to discuss the problems of the world. I'm barely qualified to discuss my cats. There's enough depessing news in the world, there's no need for me to add to it. A high percentage of daily life is utterly ridiculous -- if you don't stop to appreciate the silly side of life, you're not really living.

I've always believed that humanity is innately good. You see it every day. Maybe it's a stranger holding a door open for you. A driver yielding the right-of-way. A friend enduring yet ANOTHER cat story. We're all in this absurd life together, so let's make the best of it.

But THIS week, it's been tough to stay positive.

We've had mentally disturbed people mailing bombs and gunning down innocent faithful in Pittsburgh, and that's the kind of awful you just can't wrap your head around. Obviously, the folks responsible have more than one screw loose, so I don't know if we CAN understand or if we should even bother trying. All the while, our leaders condemn the "terrible, terrible thing what's going on with hate in our country" and then seemingly contribute to it.

I've never shoveled poop in my life -- but I think I'd prefer THAT job to being the White House press secretary, no matter WHO'S in office. Remember the days when the government would call press briefings to actually brief the press? Nowadays, the press secretary's job is less news conveyer and more news spinner.

I feel bad for Sarah Huckabee Sanders sometimes. Her entire job is to defend and rationalize a vast number of indefensible tweets and gaffes while reporters bait her into MORE gaffes through a barrage of slanted and leading questions. I wouldn't take her job for a kajillion dollars (unless I got paid upfront and didn't have to return the money the first time I told someone precisely where they could shove it.)

I tried to escape news the other day and opted to peruse social media. Within minutes, I found myself roped into a war of words with someone trying to DEFEND the area teacher who got caught partying in blackface. Wow. You don't understand what the big deal is? Once upon a time, people didn't understand the problem with Amos & Andy either. At worst, it's racist. At best, it shows wickedly poor judgement. Neither are qualities I want in a teacher, sorry. 

I needed an escape, so I stepped off the information superhighway to go wait in line for deliciously awful fast food. And there I was, patiently chilling in the drive-thru lane, when the car ahead of me rolled down its windows while both driver and passenger began chucking trash out onto the ground. It was a straight-up litter party with bags, cups, and debris everywhere.

Is this REALLY where we're at as a society? Does our town matter THAT little to people that they can dump detritus on the ground in full view of strangers with nary a pang of guilt? I'm no angel. I'm sure I'm leaving a shamefully sizeable carbon footprint in my wake. But never in my WILDEST delusions would I just start heaving trash out the window.

I almost took a stand. I imagined picking up their trash while giving them the stinkeye. But then I also imagined a gigantic dude getting out of that car and starting a rumble. Although it's probably the most appropriate spot for me, I'd prefer not to die in a drive-thru lane. "Here lies Shane, He Sure Liked Tacos." So I wussed out. Actually, I yelled "Are you SERIOUS right now?" but I doubt they heard. When I got to the window, I told an employee about the trash dump, and she replied with an "okay" that clearly indicated she couldn't care less.

So it's been a tough week to be Up With People, but I haven't lost hope. There's still good out there. And if sometimes you can't see it, prove it to people. Keep holding doors for strangers. Don't hate or offend people. Don't make the world your dumpster. And if you REALLY want to be positive? VOTE. When you make your voice heard AND get a free sticker out of the deal, everybody wins.

COLUMN: A Billion


By the time you read this, someone somewhere is a newly minted lottery BILLIONAIRE. I bought a ticket. They say the odds of winning are less than getting struck by lightning twice in your life. I haven't been struck by lightning even ONCE yet, so the way I see it, I'm due.

Whether it's me or not, I'm sure we've had a Mega Millions winner by now, and all of us have had our pipe dreams duly shattered and are back to earning the incomes of mere mortals. But I'm writing this column a full week ahead of time. In MY current reality, we still have two days until the drawing and there's a ticket in my hand. The possibility currently exists that I'm days away from being a billionaire.

A pretty THIN possibility, sure, but a possibility nonetheless. I'm no physicist, but I guess I'm sort of like a walking version of Schrodinger's cat. But this time, it's Schrodinger's Lottery. Since the outcome depends upon a series of random balls ping-ponging around, and since said outcome has yet to be determined, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that right NOW, the ticket in my pocket is both a winner AND a loser, since it hasn't been observed in one state or the other. I am, in this moment, both an inconsequential average earner AND a billionaire with enough money to literally shape the destiny of the future.

That's pretty sweet.

I know, a columnist writing about the lottery is about as played out as a comedian riffing on airplane food. But this is no normal lottery. This is a BILLION dollars. If I won a million dollars, I would jump up and down, scream til I was hoarse, and probably die from shock. If I won a BILLION dollars, I'm pretty sure I'd just start laughing. That's a comically absurd amount of money for one person to possess.

If I won a million dollars in the lottery, I might take a vacation to Bora Bora. If I won a BILLION dollars, I might be able to BUY Bora Bora. I can't even wrap my head around that kind of money. Whoever wins this prize could create foundations and charities that could SERIOUSLY help the world. You could fund scientific studies that could eradicate any number of horrible diseases.

...OR...

There are some who say that laughter is the best medicine -- and I'm pretty sure I can come up with some HILARIOUS ways to blow through a billion dollars.

For instance, I'd buy up as much New York real estate next to Trump Tower that I could. Then it's just a matter of constructing an identical skyscraper. Except mine would be ONE floor taller. And I'd name it something like "The Obama Spire," just to see Trump's face grow another shade of orange. Love him or hate him, wouldn't you want to see THAT Twitter-storm? Of course, we may want to wait until he's OUT of office. When I said I wanted to reshape destiny, accidentally causing World War III via temper tantrum wasn't what I had in mind.

Maybe I'd track down Tommy Wiseau. You know about "The Room," right? Universally accepted to be perhaps THE single worst movie of all time, "The Room" is SO bad that viewing it is one of life's great pleasures. Wiseau is the astonishingly untalented writer, director, financier, and actor behind this most rotten of tomatoes. It's said Tommy spent eight million of his own money making "The Room." Imagine what could happen if he spent $100 million of MY money on a sequel. Sure, some characters didn't make it out of the original alive, but I guarantee people returning from the dead wouldn't be the least crazy thing in "The Room 2." The world needs to see Tommy Wiseau interacting with CGI dinosaurs, I'm just saying.

And speaking of incredibly talentless people, I'd say it's about high time I record my debut album. I might not have a lick of musical talent, but when has that ever stopped someone with $1.6 billion in his wallet? With fancy producers and some auto-tune, I can probably make a banger or two. And if not, I know how it'll sell regardless. Paul McCartney's headed our way next year. Macca could SNEEZE on a record and countless Beatle completists would line up to buy it. I just need to find out how much Sir Paul charges to record sneezes. Sample it, loop it, rap over it, top the charts, date Taylor Swift, dump Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift records a hate album about me, and finally I attain my dream status as a certified Hollywood Bad Boy.

Oh, and as for Paul McCartney: if I won the lottery, Paul would be staying for a SECOND night at the TaxSlayer Center -- I mean the Shane Brown Is Awesome Center -- and THOSE tickets wouldn't go for $200 a pop. REAL Beatles fans don't have that kind of disposable income because they're already in debt with basements full of 180-gram Japanese import vinyl records. Instead, I'd give all the tickets away for free, provided you score high enough on the giant Beatles trivia quiz that I'd publish in this very paper.

The news has spent all week going back and forth telling us how great it is to win the lottery but then how TERRIBLE it is to win the lottery. For every happy winner, there's horror stories about lottery windfalls leading to murders and lawsuits and bankruptcies.

So maybe it's best that I don't win the big payout. After all, if I could ever beat THOSE odds, I'd suddenly start being REALLY afraid of lightning.

COLUMN: Jill Johnson


Well, it's that time of year when columnists like me are supposed to regale you with spooky tales of haunted happenings. The thing is, I'm fresh out.

My house doesn't seem to be a supernatural hotspot. It's devoid of tragic backstories and doesn't appear to have been built over any ancient burial grounds. The only things that go bump in the night around here are cats.

But something a tiny bit terryifying DID happen last weekend. I was moonlighting at a DJ gig when one of the employees came up to chat.

"Hey, one of my best friends went to school with you," she said.

This is a somewhat ghastly thing to hear. If you guys think I'm nerdy NOW, you should've peeped me back in my school days. There's no way I could've left a good impression.

"Ooh, I bet she told you I was crazy nerdy," I replied.

"Actually she said you were really cool and nice. Do you remember Jill Johnson?"

Wow. Talk about a blast from the past. It's good to know that I was cool -- when I was ten, because that's the last I ever spent quality time with Jill Johnson. At some point, we ended up on different sides of the district map, so we only ever went to grade school together.

I actually knew that Jill ended up in the Quad Cities. She came up to me once at another DJ gig and introduced herself. I didn't recognize her, but she knew ME right away, which confirms my fear that I apparently look like a taller and fatter version of my ten-year-old self. Regardless, it was good to see her and harken back to old memories.

But Jill Johnson and I can never share my MOST vivid memory of her -- because it never happened.

Do any of you remember your first real nightmare? The very first time you had a dream SO scary you woke up in a cold sweat shaking? A dream so awful you spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, afraid to go back to sleep? A dream that you can't forget, not even 40 years later? There aren't many things in my life that I'm capable of keeping secret -- but I've never told ANYONE about this dream. Mostly because of how stupid it was.

I was in third grade when it happened. Here's the dream: One of my classmates was secretly an alien trying to take over the world. The ONLY person who knew about it, naturally, was ME. And like the plot of SO many bad monster movies of yore, absolutely no one would believe me. Meanwhile, all of my friends were being turned into alien zombies. Heavy bummer.

If this WAS a bad movie, it'd be up to me to step up and somehow stop the alien menace. Except that I couldn't. Instead, I spent the entire dream hopelessly afraid and unable to change fate as more of my friends became mindless slaves at the hands of the evil alien. An evil alien named Jill Johnson.

Creepy, right? But I left one part out. In the dream, I knew that Jill was an alien because I accidentally saw her in her TRUE ALIEN FORM -- which looked identical to Olivia Newton-John's Sandy at the end of "Grease." Slowly but surely, Jill the Alien turned our entire student body into Evil Zombie Sandys.

We all know "Grease," right? It's the movie musical that teaches us we can woo the boy/girl of our dreams if we simply change every aspect of our personality and find some hot pants. Sandy's a goody-goody who's in love with Danny, who's a baddy-baddy. At the end (spoiler alert,) Sandy shows up in a wicked perm and a leather jacket and she and Danny go together like rama-lama-lama-ka-dinga-ka-dinga-dong. Some say it's one of the most sexist movie plots of all time. Others argue it's a feminist manifesto. And at least one eight-year-old thought it was 100% alien.

I suppose Freud would tell me this dream was symbolic of a young man's search for understanding of the alien nature of blossoming sexuality. Either that or too many Cheetos before bed. But I was in THIRD grade, and I'm pretty sure at that age, girls were just boys who had cooties. I could probably debate the deep meanings of this dream forever. I've certainly pondered it numerous times over the past 40 years.

The only thing I know for certain is that it had nothing to do with Jill Johnson. I don't ever recall her auditioning for the role of Sandy the Hot-Pants-Wearing Nightmare Alien. She's an innocent party in all this, which is why I'm not using her real name. In reality, she was -- well, she was cool and nice, as I recall. I like bumping into her, and on those rare times we DO talk, I hope she can't tell that a small part of my brain is always worried that she's going to start singing "Summer Nights" and eat my face off.

If I want a good Halloween fright, I don't need a house full of ghosts or alien lights in the sky to get creeped out. I just need a bad musical and the name of an old classmate. For now, I'm putting this column and this nightmare to bed. Here's hoping I don't spend the next eight hours being chased by a hatchet-wielding Man of La Mancha. 

COLUMN: GPS


I love technology.

If I had a nickel for every column I've started with those words, I'm pretty sure I'd have at least thirty-five cents by now.

But it's true. Some people are thrilled by antiques and flea markets and crusty old items from yesteryear. Not me. I don't marvel when I see a relic like a butter churn. We as a species have evolved beyond churning our own butter. I await a future where butter is brought to me at the push of a button from either a robot maid or a highly advanced system of pneumatic tubes.

I vowed long ago that I would forever stay at the top of my technological game. I wonder if my parents ever said the same thing? My dad is amazing. He built the house I grew up in from the ground up. He designed the blueprints, captained the construction team, and saw the project through to completion. He cannot, however, figure out how to turn on a television, play a DVD, or find the power button on a computer. My mom, on the other hand, loves computers. She has a home PC that rivals mine in processing and memory, complete with a multi-speaker surround sound system. She uses it to check the weather and play mah-jong. I've explained iTunes to her at least two dozen times. She "doesn't get" Facebook.

But against both desire and determination, I think I'm starting to reach that stage myself. Every time some new piece of tech comes along that's supposed to make my life easier, I find myself weighing the benefits of an easy life against the amount of time and patience it takes to learn and understand it. I steadfastly believe that I am neither fuddy nor duddy, but I'm starting to get fed up with keeping up with technology.

Case in point: You guys know I DJ on the side, right? Well, one of the lines on my high-tech DJ controller is acting up right now. The tech support section of their website suggests that I update the firmware, which seems like sound advice. I just need to learn what "firmware" is and how one goes about updating it. They also recommend that I install the newest version of my DJ software. No problemo, I thought, until I logged on to discover that the software I use is so old they don't even MAKE it anymore. In the three years since I bought my "top of the line" gear, everything's become outmoded and outdated.

At some point, we should get to put a cap on tech evolution and take a breather. Do we really need 5G televisions? I mean, 4G's are plenty enough G's as far as I'm concerned. Technology is cool, but sometimes it's more trouble than it's worth.

Last week, one of my favorite bands was playing the Windy City. I was meeting up with old college friends at the show, but I had to face a long solo roadtrip to a club and neighborhood I'd never been to. The Old Shane would have pulled out his trusty map and familiarized himself with the route beforehand. But not NEW Shane. Not technologically adept Shane.

Instead I did what anyone under 30 does now: I punched the address into my smartphone and put complete blind faith into an annoying little robot voice who tells you where to turn. At first, this made for a relaxing and confident drive up without a care in the world. In fact, Google's guidance system comes with real-time traffic avoidance, which was neat. It told me right out the gate that I-88 had traffic backups and recommended I take I-80 to I-55 instead. Cool, right?

Well, until I got to Joliet, when it told me that I-55 had backups and I should take I-57 instead. Well, okay. And then I got on I-57 and it told me there were immediate backups and I should take the next exit -- which was four lanes over at rush hour. I simply had to risk life, limb, bumpers, and the death glares of a half dozen drivers as I merged my way over to Google's handy shortcut.

A shortcut that involved driving for twenty minutes through, shall we say, some of the more murder-y parts of southern Chicago. I wasn't exactly positive that I'd be murdered at any second, but it was certainly a bit more murderish of an area than I ever cared to be in.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if I had my choice of waiting in traffic for a few extra minutes versus finding myself at stop lights where people literally come banging on your windows yelling "GIMME SOME MONEY," I now know for SURE which one I'd pick. But Google didn't care that it just sent me on a scenic tour of burned-out warehouses from the nightmares of Snake Plissken. Google only cared that I shaved seven minutes off my commute.

And that's the problem with new technology. Sometimes the cost outweighs the benefits. Is an easier life worth the effort? Should I be satisfied with my current non-smart refrigerator or should I upgrade to one pre-installed with Twitter and Facebook? (Which seriously exist, apparently for those of us who don't want to access leftovers without losing immediate access to the public thoughts of Kanye West.) For now, I'm still trying to stay as high-tech as possible, within reason. I don't have any offspring to explain the new Facebook to me in twenty years, so I need to have game. But next time I go to Chicago, I'm using a paper map like some butter-churning fuddy-duddy.

COLUMN: Ham Candy

(Yep, that's an ACTUAL PHOTO.)

There are a lot of things in life that I don't want to be.

I don't want to be murdered. I don't want to build any type of city on rock and roll. I don't want to be nominated to the Supreme Court. And perhaps more than anything, I don't ever want to be one of those people who posts pictures of their dinner to social media.

You know the type, right? "I'm so much better than you because I made perfectly plated pecan-crusted salmon with mango chutney and capers!" Look, it's not tough to best me when it comes to food. I have no idea what chutney is. I don't even know what a caper is. Truth be told, I barely know what salmon is.

I'm not so great in the kitchen. Fairly early in my adult life, I discovered that it's far easier to sit at a table or drive past a window and pay strangers to cook and serve me lunch. And dinner. And sometimes breakfast. This, however, is not exactly the healthiest way to live. At any given point in time, there's a strong possibility that I am legally taco-toxicated. It's probably a good thing for everyone involved that there's no breathalyzer to test for blood-salsa levels.

But a couple years ago, I set about to change things. I started learning about some of these weird devices in my kitchen like, umm, a stove. I went grocery shopping. I bought cookbooks. Well, truth be told, my friends sort of threw cookbooks at me when I told them I was going to "wing it." I even cracked open a few of those dusty tomes my mom passed down (sample sentence: "When your husband gets home from a hard day's work, he DESERVES a hot, tasty meal!")

It wasn't always pretty, but I daresay I've made some giant culinary steps. I can grill fish. I can bake chicken. I can roast potatoes. Someone came to my last party just because they'd heard about the food (and presumably didn't show up just to laugh at it. I hope.)

Last week, though, I discovered it's possible to become a little over-confident in one's cooking ability. Last week was a big oops. An oops big enough to send me back to fast food while I re-evaluated the progress of my life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you inadvertently create a toxic bio-hazard. Plates had to be DESTROYED, people.

I know what you're thinking. I probably attempted a recipe well beyond my skill level, right? Something complex with multiple steps and foreign ingredients requiring an experienced delicate touch. I wish.

Instead, I ruined a HAM STEAK.

That's kind of impressive. It takes a certain level of skill to improperly cook something that comes PRE-cooked. I might be lousy at cooking, but I'm clearly awesome at blunders. The worst part? I still don't exactly know what I did wrong, but I'm blaming Youtube.

You name the recipe and there's a kajillion videos on Youtube to help you. I found over 50 different videos alone on how to cook ham steak, which is notable considering all you have to do is warm it up, and even that's optional.

But Chef Shane wanted to elevate his ham steak game, so I found a video that seemed super easy to follow. Cook the steak until "it browns nicely." Add some pineapple juice, brown sugar and dry mustard to the leftover juices, let it caramelize, and then pour your delightful glaze over your delightful steak, presto bango.

Well, I cooked that ham steak like a champ and it didn't brown one bit. Either I'd discovered a race of heat-resistant pigs or I was cooking too low. So I turned up the heat and kept at it until I finally gave up some fifteen minutes later and plated my decidedly NON-brown steak.

Then I added pineapple juice, brown sugar, and mustard. A few minutes later, it started bubbling just like the video, so I let it caramelize for a minute and then poured the glaze over my steak. At this point, things looked pretty good. I suppose my first clue something was amiss was when I touched my knife to the ham steak and heard a noticeable "clink."

Somehow, some way, in the two minutes between pouring the glaze on the steak and attempting to eat it, the entire concoction had solidified into a hard blackened plate of nightmares. Instead of a succulent and juicy ham steak, I'm pretty sure I had just invented ham candy, and let's just say no one would turn up at a party to sample it (at least not without a pickaxe.) I tried my best to chisel and scrape away the smellier and/or more carcinogenic parts of my meal, but it was a lost cause. All that's left now are some photos that are blurry because I was laughing too hard at my ineptitude to hold my phone steady.

Maybe one day charred ham candy will be a delicacy and I'm simply waaay ahead of the curve. Or maybe I just royally botched it. But I'm not giving up. After a few days of self-doubt, laughter, and a LOT of carryout tacos, yesterday I attempted a casserole that came out so perfectly, I took a picture and put it on Facebook without hesitation.

I guess if there's one thing I REALLY don't want to be, it's a quitter.

COLUMN: Racing Mowers


Well, it's official. Summer's over.

All we have now are a few blissful weeks of crisp autumn air before ice scrapers come out, coats come on, and meteorologists start talking about the dreaded "wintry mix." I suppose the only thing to do now is sit back, reminisce, and take stock of those random moments that made summer special. In 2018, I have a clear favorite.

It must have been mid-July-ish or so. As is lazy Saturday custom, my friend Jason showed up at my door and we set off in search of anything to do or see. Usually this involves whining about having nothing to do before getting sidetracked in conversation and then eventually we'll look up and find ourselves 100 miles away and road-weary. On this Saturday, we set off in a vaguely northwestern direction and eventually landed in the uninteresting back country of Iowa.

You're a fine state, Iowa. You have, after all, "Fields of Opportunities." But on this particular day, we had journeyed well beyond the opportunities and found ourselves in nothing but fields. This was Nowheresville -- and, as it turned out, Nowheresville was having their county fair.

Now when I say "county fair," I'm sure images come to mind. Carnival rides, food vendors, happy families, et cetera. Right? Not in Nowheresville. As we drove past, all I could see were parked cars surrounding drab exhibit halls and sale barns. In Nowheresville, even their fairs are boring.

That is, until Jason yelled, "STOP! STOP! TURN IN!"

This generally means one of two things. Either (1) Jason had spotted something amazing, or (2) there was a bee in the car and I was seconds away from veering off the road and killing us both. Thankfully, this was the former.

Along the back edge of the parking lot, I hadn't noticed the primitive drag strip or the dozen or so trailers unloading their racers. But these weren't cars. These were souped-up, heavily modified LAWN MOWERS -- and we just happened to arrive at pre-race qualifying.

As we walked up, the noise was deafening. Once upon a time, these beasts were simple garden tractors. Now they were customized monstrosities of polished chrome, elaborate pipes, and nary a muffler in sight or sound. 

Why do people do this to these poor mowers? I suppose I understand the desire to be able to mow your lawn in 3.8 seconds, that's perfectly understandable. But I'd reckon none of these beasts had seen grass in quite a long time. It had to have taken HUNDREDS of man-hours to customize these mowers, and for what? This one day of the year when you get 30 seconds of muscle-mowing fairground glory? That's much of a payoff. Only later did I discover that there are racing LEAGUES for these things, and some of these guys are probably taking their Franken-mowers all over the midwest.

The one thing missing, though, were spectators of any kind. Only a small set of bleachers was set up for qualifying, and the only people around were drivers and their families. In fact, the only thing truly being spectated seemed to be the two of us. It didn't take long before we realized that many, many eyes were turned our way. We clearly did not belong.

"What if someone asks us what we're doing here?" Jason whispered under the roar of the engines.

"Simple," I replied. "We put on our best Italian accents and explain we're with Ferrari Motors, Lawn & Garden Division, and we're obviously here scouting for talent."

The stares didn't stop. It became clear that everyone in Nowheresville knew everyone else in Nowheresville -- except the two of us. It was unnerving. I checked to see if my fly was undone or something -- nope, all good there. But it still felt like some Invasion of the Body Snatchers scene where someone was about to point and yell "OUTLANDERS!" and then they'd all turn and point and scream and come at us zombie-style. I was plotting an escape route when Jason nudged me.

"Dude, hand on heart!"

"Whaa?" I started to reply, but then I heard it, too. Never mind the craziest sporting event I'd ever seen. Never mind that there were less than a dozen people in attendance. That didn't stop Nowheresville from bringing out a teenage girl who, behind all the engine noise, had begun a humble a cappella rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

So there we were, standing in the middle of the parking lot, hands on hearts, given a brief respite from the Stranger-Danger staredown thanks to the stars and stripes. We gave the song the respect that it deserves -- while also silently stepping back towards the car.

"Oh, say can you see" (Step back.)
"By the dawn's early light," (Step back.)

Two seconds after respecting the Home of the Brave, we were in the Car of the Chicken, beat-feeting out of town before the Nowheresvillagers grabbed pitchforks and hopped on Husqvarnas that could likely outrun my Hyundai. I'm all for seeing lawn mowers that go zero to sixty, but I'd rather do it in a town that DOES cotton to strangers.

In the meantime, the only thing I'm fixing to modify are some pumpkins. Hello, fall. Good to make your autumnquaintance.

COLUMN: NASCAR fail


You shouldn't ever feel guilty about harboring a guilty pleasure. I've got tons.

I know I'm a nerd, but a nerd with some fairly advanced pop culture credibility. I love esoteric and thought-provoking TV shows like Twin Peaks and Mr. Robot -- but I also religiously watch Big Brother. I love dark movies with detailed character studies -- but I've also seen "Bridget Jones' Diary" like fifty times. I thrive on left-of-center artists that push the boundaries of contemporary music -- but I also own the entire discography of Debbie Gibson.

There's nothing shameful about liking something you're not supposed to. Well, unless that something is illegal. Don't murder people, even if you like to. That's a no-no. But other than criminal activities, I say embrace your guilty pleasures and wear them with pride.

Except my guilty pleasure is dying off, and if quick action isn't taken, it might not be ANYONE'S guilty pleasure for much longer.

I like NASCAR. I can't explain why. I've never been able to. I realize it represents pretty much everything in life that I'm supposed to hate. Whether it's fair or not, there's a stereotype of people who like NASCAR, and it's not pretty. Just listen to the folks who call in to NASCAR talk radio and you'll know what I mean. The scarier takeaway here is that I sit around and listen to NASCAR talk radio. It is my guiltiest of pleasures.

I know there's plenty of great NASCAR fans out there, so please don't think I'm trying to tear you down. I am one of you -- and like me, I'm sure you hate the unfair stereotype that most NASCAR fans are uneducated drunken hillbillies. That's just not true. I mean, look in the stands at any NASCAR event and you'll find... well, you'll see a wide variety of... err, no one?

I just watched the 25th running of the Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR's most iconic races. By and large, the stands were empty. No matter how positive the announcers sounded and even though they completely ignored the attendance, there was no hiding the empty seats around the track. In fairness, this year's Brickyard had to be rescheduled to a Monday after a weekend rainout, but still. Do you think Soldier Field would be empty if the Bears had to push back their game by a day? No chance.

The ugly truth is that fans are leaving NASCAR in droves -- and as fans leave, so are the sponsors. And when sponsors dry up, teams dry up. Last week, Furniture Row Racing announced that they're ceasing operations at the end of this season due to a lack of sponsor commitment. And Furniture Row is the home of defending Monster Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. If a championship team can't stay afloat, how are the others going to make it? Imagine if the New England Patriots went belly-up and gave Tom Brady a pink slip.

Strangely, though, as NASCAR flounders, they have yet to consult with ME as to how to fix things. Which is a shame, because I have the answers.

For starters, let's put the S back in NASCAR. Today's top level cars are far from "stock" -- they're aerodynamic racing machines that require a team of highly-paid engineers to perfect. I visited the Hendrick Motorsports complex a while back and it looked more like a science lab than an auto garage. The teams that routinely win are always the teams with the biggest engineering budgets. The new cars might be technical wonders, but racing was a lot more fun when it was souped-up cars you could actually see at a dealership. I'd rather see the best drivers win instead of the best pocketbooks.

Speaking of drivers, it'd be nice if they had some personality. Over the years, NASCAR has made a commitment to making their events family-friendly, and that's great -- but not when it's at the expense of racing. In order for NASCAR to captivate fans, it needs good guys to root for and bad guys to boo. It needs cars that bump and tempers that flare. NASCAR recently had a changing of the guard with the retirement of several older drivers who mostly couldn't adapt to the new high-tech cars. This new crop of drivers are talented, promising, smart -- and super boring to watch.

It's sad to say, but NASCAR's only saving grace right now is Kyle Busch. Most fans hate Kyle Busch. He's an egotistical jerk with a short fuse and a win-at-all-costs attitude. Best of all, he's a skilled driver who wins a LOT. Earlier this year, Busch and Kyle Larson were fighting for the win at Chicagoland. On the last lap, Busch intentionally spun Larson to take the win. Grabbing the checkered flag to a cavalcade of boos, Busch found the first camera he could and mimed cry-baby tears. The outrage was palpable -- and fantastic. Hating Kyle Busch is incredibly fun.

Today's combination of safety, science, and engineering is impressive, but it doesn't sell tickets. Nobody wants to see a race where elite cars get a half-lap jump on the rest of the field and everyone else politely drives in circles for three hours. I'm not saying NASCAR needs more wrecks -- if you're one of those people who goes to a race for the thrill of seeing a driver get injured or worse, you're pondscum. But now that the cars and tracks are MUCH safer, why not let drivers bang it out a little while balancing the technology to give all 42 of them a shot at winning? Once races get exciting again, fans will get emotionally invested and they WILL come back.

I know first-hand that NASCAR's not for everyone. My friends come over and I try to show them an amazing last-lap pass that I've recorded and their eyes roll before I can even grab the remote. But for a lot of us out there, Sundays wouldn't be the same without cars turning left all afternoon. Here's hoping they can figure it out before I have to find a new guilty pleasure. I hear pro wrestling's still a thing, right?

COLUMN: Late


Dear Boss,

I'm sorry I was 25 minutes late for work. Trust me, there's a simple explanation.

I am nothing if not NOT an investigative journalist. And I have carefully utilized my non-journalism degree and lack of investigative skills to uncover a very real conspiracy that runs so deep I might not even be able to convert it into an award-winning screenplay. I hope you people can handle the shock of what I'm about to reveal to you.

Why was I late for work? Because there exists a massive anti-Shane conspiracy involving (I'm pretty sure) the Hyundai Motor Company, Circle K Convenience Stores, The Iowa Interstate Railroad, Apple Computers, The Illinois Department of Transportation, and the passionate libido of a man known only as "Bill." 

As you may know, our office recently relocated to our new home near the East Moline riverfront. I reside in Rock Island. Allowing for my daily stop for caffeinated provisions, it takes precisely 22 minutes to get from my garage to the office parking lot.

Or so I thought. As I backed out of my garage, I noted that I'd left my driver side window cracked. This was noted when it started raining on my face. I generally prefer to make my daily commute free of facial precipitation, but when I hit the "up" button, my window instead made a noise like "gronk" and proceeded to roll DOWN.

My power windows occasionally go a little wonky when it's humid out, and the only way to fix it is to pull over, open the car door, and force the window back into position. Easily accomplished, but I was now sopping wet AND a minute behind schedule. No problem, I can make it up at the gas station.

Or so I thought. Every day when I stop for gas, I'm greeted by the same friendly clerk who has my morning coffee already rung up by the time I get to the counter. THIS day, though, I walked in to see a new clerk I'd never encountered before, who was on the phone with the regular clerk who was running late, and there was much dialogue and explanation to be had. Don't get me wrong, I love that place and everyone who works there, but I was now running FOUR minutes late. A challenge, but one I could handle.

Or so I thought. My car basically drives itself to work. Take the one way around Augie, left on 7th Ave., left on 44th St., annd... TRAIN. Grr. I come from Galesburg, land of trains. I know there's no avoiding trains. They simply make you late and you just have to deal. So as I sat there growing ever more tardy, I simply took solace in the passing graffiti alerting me that "Bill Loves Sweet Pea." Aww.

Five minutes later, I was rolling again, now on pace to be nine minutes late. That's bad, but not awful, and I was in the home stretch.

Or so I thought. Let's get one thing clear: no one asked ME if I wanted a new bridge across the Mississippi. Sure, the old I-74 bridge is a crumbling narrow deathtrap, but what's a trip to Iowa without fearing for your life at least once? I'm a fan of progress, but when progress closes River Drive without warning for God-knows-how-long, I'm less than enthusiastic.

So, too, were the other 30 cars impeded by the sudden detour. So now I was stuck deep in traffic and the only way out was to cut back to the one-way, which meant running into the SAME train AGAIN. In case you were wondering, Bill continues to love Sweet Pea. As I sat there now 14 minutes late, I realized I'd better call the office -- which I would have, had I not left my phone sitting on my couch back at home. I suppose one could argue that I'm more to blame here than Apple, but I wasn't the one who made the iPhone sleek and black and easy to blend into my couch. J'accuse, Steve Jobs!

With the train passed, I just needed to get up to the one-way and haul butt to work. Except the train had caused gridlock in all directions and it took SIX light changes to move three blocks. By the time I got to East Moline, it was too late. I turned to the office in JUST enough time to see the crossing gates go down.

And THAT, friends, is how I got stopped THREE times in one commute by the SAME TRAIN. As I sat there, looking at my office just past the boxcars, I wondered what Bill and Sweet Pea were doing just then. I'd like to think that Sweet Pea dumped Bill later that night because he showed up late after getting stopped by the very train he had just graffitoed. You suck, Bill.

And then, as the last car passed, I saw it. Just there, in the corner, was one simple piece of graffiti: "BILL RULES." I hope my co-workers didn't hear me cursing Bill from a block away, but it's a distinct possibility.

So THAT, boss, is why I was late. It's clearly a Bill-helmed masterplan. I guess I'll be setting the alarm a little earlier. I bet Bill gets to sleep in. Hey Sweet Pea, if you want to date a REAL man, give me a call. Just don't expect me to be on time.