Thursday, August 29, 2019

COLUMN: TikTok

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Whenever I get stalled for original column ideas, I have a tendency to fall back on some well-worn topics. You know, things like:

• Cats do cute things.
• Gee, that episode of [INSERT TV SHOW HERE] sure was crazy.
• Let me tell you about some video game you couldn't care less about.

And, of course, countless variations of my perennial go-to:

• Waah! I'm old!

This, of course, is a ridiculous assertion. I'm only 48. If you think I'm not painfully self-aware of how silly I sound whining about the passage of time, you're sadly mistaken. I know how ludicrous I sound. 48 isn't old. But it IS closer to 70 than 20, despite what my wardrobe, maturity level, or the volume of my car stereo might have you believe. That's a tough pill to swallow when I still have occasional nightmares about bombing my midterms.

I'd rather the hands of time come to a grinding halt. But if I had some kind of magical opportunity, would I want to be a kid again in today's world? NO WAY, and I just found the perfect example why. This week, on a whim, I downloaded TikTok.

I've spent the past two months bombarded relentlessly by ads for TikTok. Each ad is essentially the same thing: a picture or video of some impossibly attractive 20-something looking like they're having the most fun of their entire lives. I might not be ancient, but I'm clearly past the target demographic of TikTok. Still, curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to see what the fuss what all about.

TikTok is an app for your phone -- and by "your," I mean your CHILDREN'S phones -- that allows users to film, edit, and share short 60-second videos. TikTok also gives their users access to a vast catalog of song and movie snippets, so when handed the tools to create original content and a platform to distribute said content to a global audience, the vast majority of TikTok members use this stunning technological feat to lip-sync.

Essentially, it's a super easy way to make yourself a worldwide idiot. If I was looking for a way to feel young again, this ain't it. TikTok makes me feel older than I am, because I simply don't get the appeal. I grew up watching MTV, which at least had REAL musicians lip-syncing. I don't get the entertainment value in watching 35 strangers fake-sing to the same 30-second Beyonce clip. But I'm also not a teenager.

There's no way I'd want to be a young person in today's world. When I was their age, I was an expert at NOTHING. But just to be an active participant on social media, today's kids need to be movie directors, film editors, professional models, skilled actors, and competent dancers. I sure didn't know my good side or my best angle when I was a teenager. I'm still trying to find that magic angle today. 

Not to portray myself as a mature adult (eww gross), but it's easy for older generations to look at Instagram "likes" and silly lip-sync videos and dismiss them as childish fancy. But for today's kids, it's not so foolish. Likes and followers are currency, both socially and fiscally. The most popular users of TikTok are Lisa and Lena, twin sisters from Germany who've amassed 32,700,000 followers and counting. There aren't 37 million people who've ever heard of ME, that's for sure. And they've already parlayed their lip-sync success into a successful clothing line and record deal.

Then there's the case of Montero Hill. He was a teenager devoted to making comedy videos on Facebook, viral posts on Twitter, and homemade raps on Soundcloud. Then one of those homemade raps got picked up by TikTok for a snippet. You might know it as "Old Town Road," the #1 song in the country (and eleven other countries) right now, racking up gold and platinum sales all over the world.

So next time your kids slack off on their chores, cut them a break. They're probably exhausted from spending the whole day thinking up creative ways to lip sync to the new Drake single. Regardless of your opinion on TikTok, you've got to appreciate the effort these kids put into it. Maybe this generation will have a work ethic so intense that we can slack off and let them handle everything. Or maybe we'll carry on making all the money because we're not wasting our days lip syncing mindlessly into the lens of an iPhone. Either way, we win.

Heck, I remember making videos in high school, too. My friends and I had a video camera. It cost us $50 to rent for a weekend and weighed about twenty pounds. I'm sure everyone would love to see our hilarious hijinks, and I'll show them to you as soon as someone finds me a Betamax player and a TV with analog inputs.

I guess we should let kids be kids and fads be fads. It probably won't be long before TikTok gets replaced by something else whose appeal only our kids' kids will understand. I might think it's an absurd waste of time, but that's okay, because it's not meant for me. TikTok sure does a good job at making me feel old, but it also makes me happy and relieved to be too old for it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some Beyonce choreography to learn.

COLUMN: Waterworld

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We all owe Kevin Costner a HUGE apology.

Once upon a time, he was one of the most successful and popular actors on the planet. He wowed us in The Untouchables, thrilled us in No Way Out, and danced with wolves in, umm, Dances With Wolves (I presume. Never saw it.) With Bull Durham, he proved that old baseball players could still be loveable. With Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he proved it was possible to do a worse British accent than Dick Van Dyke. And above all else, he became a friend to the Midwest with Field of Dreams, perhaps the only movie that's ever tried super hard to make Iowa seem like a cool place to live.

Then 1995 came along and it all went sideways. Kevin Costner accomplished an extraordinary feat of cinematic achievement: one of the most expensive and most terrible movies ever made. It was a production so epic that the director reportedly walked off, the cast spent most of the production nauseous, and the non-sensical plot is riddled with so many holes it's the Swiss cheese of cinema. BUT it does have a scene where flaming jet-skis fly through the air, which is admittedly pretty sweet.

The film is Waterworld, one of the most celebrated rotten tomatoes of movie-making.

But I get it now, Kevin. It's not a terrible movie. It's a handy guideline for Midwestern survival in 2019. We all scoffed at the notion of a future world underwater. Based on our recent weather patterns, I reckon that'll be happening, what, about a week from Tuesday? Waterworld isn't a bad movie. It's a manual for surviving life along the Mississippi.

Waterworld takes place in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future (aka a week from Tuesday) where the ice caps have melted and rising waters have wiped out life as we know it. Those with the fortitude, strength, and cool enough wardrobes to survive are left to float around on ramshackle armadas fighting each other presumably out of boredom. But hidden inside this gem of a movie are wise Kevin Costner's tips for survival.

I just watched Waterworld. Well, at least the first ten minutes. I'm pretty sure that's good enough to glean the knowledge Kevin Costner wants us to have in order to survive the Great Flood of 2019:

Waterworld Tip #1: Start hoarding dirt. In "Waterworld," dirt is currency. It's the most precious commodity. Henceforth, I am using this as justification to stop cleaning my house.

Waterworld Tip #2: If possible, grow gills and webbed feet. In the movie, Costner inexplicably has them, due to "evolution" or maybe his great-great-grandfather having an unspeakable tryst with a mackerel. Regardless, they seem to come in super handy, so let's get to work on evolving, people.

Waterworld Tip #3: Stay away from anyone who remotely looks like Dennis Hopper. This seems to be solid advice for all facets of life, flood or no flood.

Waterworld Tip #4: And this one's probably just for me and a few others: Learn to swim. It seems to be important. Of course, if I grew gills, I could just stroll along the river bottom, but swimming seems like a solid backup plan to spontaneous gill growth and first-hand knowledge of what lies on the river bed. Plus, breathing water sounds painful, and breathing Mississippi water sounds especially nasty. Sewers are backing up, people. My future gills have standards.

So far, my plan is to hope my basement holds up, be thankful I live on the other side of a reliable flood wall, and not worry unless I see animals start lining up 2-by-2 to get onboard any arks. But in that event, I offer a plea to any aspiring ark builders out there: This time, can we maybe skip the snakes and the wasps? Would anyone except maybe Alice Cooper really mind? I suppose it's not good karma to advocate for taxonomic genocide in times of crisis, but would there be any silver lining to this flood better than the elimination of stupid wasps?

When it comes to ark life, I suppose my real fear should be its capacity for humans. Hard cuts would have to be made, but I think I'd make this list.. After all, a new society would need important skilled inhabitants: doctors, politicians, cooks, tradespeople, and of course the guy who DJs the mad parties once electricity gets re-invented. Of course, this would mean I'd have to bring my music collection onboard, sooo... tough break, platypuses. Let's be honest, you guys were probably a mistake the last time around. Sorry for your extinction, but we need room for records in the new world.

The worst part about spring floods is that there's little we can do except wait it out, wade it out, and help everyone affected as best we can. In the meantime, you should totally NOT rent Waterworld. Sorry, Kevin. We appreciate your input, but the BEST advice is to save your money and instead use it in help or patronage of the many wonderful citizens and businesses in the thick of it. They need and deserve our support.

COLUMN: Thank You For Your Service

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Have you ever woken up on the wrong side of life?

That was me the other morning. Instead of greeting the break of dawn with a spring in my step and a song in my soul, I instead woke with a scowl on my face and more than a few choice words for my alarm clock.

I'd like to offer an explanation for the rain on my parade, but it was just one of those mornings. I thought momentarily about calling in sick, but knowing MY luck, next week I'd come down with ACTUAL flu and need that sick time. Besides, I'm too annoyingly honest. My guilty conscience would kick in and I'd probably spend my entire Ferris Bueller adventure checking work e-mails from home and worrying about co-workers having to cover my duties. I'm so lame.

By sheer willpower and a thunderous need for caffeine, I forced myself into action and went about my morning rituals. As I began the flooded, bridge-traffic-addled drive to the office, I took stock of the situation and tried to find the good mood that I had clearly misplaced. That's when I had my brainstorm.

What's the one thing I could do to brighten my morning and reaffirm my love of life? A selfless act.

I needed to do something -- anything -- to make someone's day better. It made perfect sense, right? Give a little bit of yourself to bring a smile to someone else's face, and you're destined to fill with warm fuzzies and self-confidence. The world might be going to heck in a handbag, but a little act of kindness might just slow the descent a bit. Pay it forward, as they say.

They, of course, are mostly full of it. The ugly truth is that most selfless acts don't really exist. My motivation was entirely off kilter. I wanted to commit a selfless act to improve my SELF, and that's the exact opposite of "selfless." I was definitely looking to make someone's day better -- and that someone was ME. I wasn't motivated by helping others. I was motivated by the warm fuzzies I'd feel when I did it. Did I just disprove the righteousness of charity on my morning commute?

These are NOT the sorts of philosophical quandries one should wrestle with prior to one's first cup of coffee, so I made a mad dash into my favorite gas station for a cup of black gold. That's when I saw him -- the unmistakable fatigues of an active military serviceman. Bingo. I'd seen it done many times before, and now it was MY chance. Today, I would pay for his coffee, thank him for his service, and be graced with good karma and warm fuzzies aplenty.

I'm in awe of our active and veteran military. They are brave and valorous, whereas I am cowardly and chicken. They run towards danger, whereas I have been known to run from a honeybee. I am the proud son of two veterans, and I was raised to appreciate the sacrifice that every man and woman in uniform makes. They are our nation's heroes, and I am always thankful of their service. Today, I would make sure to let one of them know.

I patiently stood behind the serviceman in the checkout line. As he approached the counter, I could already the warm fuzzies welling. I took a deep breath, cleared my throat... and that's when a voice from behind me rang out:

"I've got his coffee! Thank you for your service!"

Wait, what? And THAT is how, on a dime, I went from paying the due respect (and coffee) of one of our nation's heroes to instead wanting to choke some random stranger for the crime of being nice faster than me. I may have looked like a patient customer in line, but inside, I was SEETHING. How DARE someone selflessly steal MY selfless act? I had DIBS, buddy. As if things weren't awkward enough, that's when the soldier, not knowing who had just bought his coffee, immediately turned around and tried to shake MY hand in gratitude, leaving me to sheepishly mutter, "While I'm very thankful for your service as well, sir, it wasn't me."

Suffice to say, no mood-changing fuzzies occurred that day. Thankfully, my co-workers allowed me a fairly wide berth to grumble my way through the rest of the day, before I got home and went to bed wishing for a do-over.

Little did I know, I'd have that chance the very next morning. I found myself at the same gas station, in the same checkout line, but with a different soldier in front of me. Better late than never, I thought. Once again, I took a deep breath, cleared my throat, and made it to "Ehhh" before I noticed he didn't have a coffee in his hand.

"Yes, I need seventy dollars worth of scratch-offs," the soldier said as I quickly ehhh-ed my way back to silence. I'm all for being selfless, but I guess not THAT selfless -- although I did thank him for his service and I hope his scratch-off party yielded bountiful results.

Being selfless feels good, but that's not why you should do it. You shouldn't need an excuse to thank a soldier or a vet. And if one isn't handy, donate to a cause or figure out any way to better someone else's bad day. They might just return the favor someday. As for me? I eventually fixed my bad mood with a small donation to my alma mater, who certainly doesn't need my help. But I earmarked mine towards my college's underfunded and underappreciated campus radio station, where even tiny donations go a mile. Once upon a Shane, that little studio was the epicenter of every good mood in my life. Helping it stay alive for others to enjoy gives me all the warm fuzzies I need.

COLUMN: Colors

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I don't want to cause any undue alarm, but I'm pretty sure I may be broken.

To fully explain, you need to understand one thing: I'm a sucker for online questionnaires.

If you're on social media, you know the drill. You'll be innocently scrolling through Facebook when one of your friends shares a viral post like this:

"Here's a fun game! Let's get to know each other better! Have you ever driven a motorcycle? (Yes/No) Have you ever been in a car wreck? (Yes/No) What's your favorite food?" And on and on it goes. They're usually posted by some distant "friend" I barely even know. But like a dummy, I'll drop everything and sit there and answer all the dumb questions like it's super important.

Identity thieves honestly don't have to go to the trouble of writing malicious code or hijacking ATMs. If someone wanted to steal my identity, all they'd have to do is friend me on Facebook and put up a post like, "Here's a fun game! Let's get to know each other better! What is your social security number? What's your credit limit? Does your pin number start with a 4? (Yes/No)" I'd probably go, "Ooh, this IS a fun game!" and happily share all of my confidential life information.

The other day, I was operating on five hours of sleep. Why? Because the night before, I was getting ready for bed and someone was like, "Here's a fun quiz! What musical do you like? What musical do you hate? What musical do you think is overrated? What musical makes you cry?" The smart option would have been to complete the quiz the next morning when I had some spare time. Actually, no, the smart option would have been to skip it altogether and do something constructive with my time.

Instead, I stayed up for an HOUR filling the thing out. Instead of sleeping, I was Googling "lists of Broadway musicals" and watching Youtube clips of "South Pacific" as a refresher. All this to reply to a distant friend who likely spent exactly ten seconds looking at my answers and going, "Hmm." And it probably wasn't even a "Hmm, those are intruiging answers." It was probably more like, "Hmm, I wonder why this guy I barely know took the time to fill this out?"

But the WORST came last month, when I got suckered into THIS viral game: "Over the next ten days, post the cover art of ten albums that influenced you." Being a music geek, this was right up my alley. BUT WHAT TEN ALBUMS TO PICK? Could I possibly narrow my favorites down to just ten? Clearly, I'd need to consult my iTunes library, my CD collection, Spotify, and perhaps a series of short debates with trusted friends. But wait, the rules didn't say your FAVORITE albums. It just said ten albums that "influenced" me. Well, that's an entirely DIFFERENT can of worms. I should probably make a pot of coffee and think about this for a while.

When you're already an OCD record store geek, "fun" quizzes like this are nothing less than life-stopping. After all, I'm the same human being who once tried to determine my 100 favorite songs by judging my entire music collection across eight categories on a scale from 1-25 and totaling the points. I'm THAT silly. I still have the notebooks filled with scores (not to mention the dumbest How I Spent My Summer Vacation story EVER.)

But the REAL head-scratcher was the quiz that popped up on my Facebook feed yesterday: "Here's a fun game! Let's get to know each other better! Leave a comment and let me know your favorite color."

Simple enough, right? But here's the thing: I don't have a favorite color. I've never had a favorite color. I don't understand how people can have favorite colors. My mind doesn't work that way. I don't find one color any more or less appealing than another. Well, except Burnt Umber. We can all agree that Burnt Umber sucks. If your favorite color is Burnt Umber, you're probably a murderer.

I have no color allegiance. I've never been "Team Red" or found myself rooting for blue. Sometimes green things are pretty. Sometimes they're ugly. They're just colors. To me, this question makes as much sense as choosing your favorite letter of the alphabet. Are you an F gal? Or are you more of a J man? I just don't find myself gravitating to a particular color based on its, err.. color.

So am I broken? Does everyone else on the planet have a favorite color? Does this mean I'm not creative or artistic? Do I not have a soul? Should I prepare a notebook and figure out how to judge each color of the spectrum on a scale of 1-25 across 8 categories? My poor Facebook friend must be absolutely beside herself waiting for my response. If you'll excuse me, I need to make some coffee. Maybe black is my favorite color.

COLUMN: Mo Bamba

Image result for sheck wes

Welcome back to the semi-regular feature I like to call: Is The World Doomed Or Am I Just Becoming An Old Fuddy-Duddy?

I'm a fairly optimistic person who tries to see the good in everyone. And I like to think of myself as fairly progressive, able to roll with the changes and see new trends as exciting instead of threatening.

But as I ponder the state of the world tonight from my Armchair of Pointless Judgement, a couple things have me on high alert. There may be signs that the world is changing faster than I can keep up, and NOT in a good way.

Exhibit A: The rise and popularity of the song "Mo Bamba" by up-and-coming rapper Sheck Wes.

Are you familiar? If you don't know it, I bet your kids do. Your grandkids DEFINITELY do. Pity them.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those out-of-touch columnists who doesn't "get" rap music. I won't ever claim that today's kids don't understand what good music is (although I'd be lying if I said the thought's never crossed my mind.) But I moonlight on the weekends as a DJ, enjoying and playing those very songs at dangerous volumes to clubgoers half my age. There's a ton of great new music out there, and I encourage all of you to seek it out and stay hip (or possibly even hop.)

But "Mo Bamba" isn't your typical chart-topper. It's pure sonic anger. It's basically the sound of a fight waiting to happen. Most songs on the charts have tempos in the range of 90-130 beats per minute. "Mo Bamba" clocks in at a maddeningly slow 73 bpm. It's a funeral dirge of aggression that sounds like it was recorded in somebody's basement on a shoestring budget. Don't believe me? There's honestly a spot in the middle where the music accidentally cuts out and they just go "oops" and keep on recording.



I'd love to share the lyrics, but this is a family publication and I'd like to keep my job. I don't know if there's a single line in "Mo Bamba" clean enough to publish. Instead, I offer you this watered-down, family-friendly lyrical synopsis:

"Hello! I'm Sheck Wes. I take pride in befriending females of questionable virtue. Where is my associate with our illegal narcotics? I compare my success to that of a professional basketball player. Have you met my brother? He has a gun, and he will shoot you with it. The music just stopped. Oh heck, shoot, darn it all! It's back now. As stated before, I'm Sheck Wes and I'm quite wealthy. I am an exceptional drug dealer (despite still not knowing the location of my associate with our drugs.) I will copulate with your beloved and you shall be none the wiser. Did I mention that I am Sheck Wes?"

That's pretty much the whole song. And look, I get it. An essential facet of pop culture is making sure it occasionally scares your parents senseless. Elvis did it with his hips, the Beatles did it with their hair, Gene Simmons did it with his tongue. Marilyn Manson made an entire career out of terrifying suburban moms and dads. Rebellion is an essential part of youth. It's why God made The Ramones.

So if "Mo Bamba" became popular with a small segment of disaffected and rebellious youth, it'd make perfect sense. But with little club play and virtually no radio support, "Mo Bamba" sailed to #8 on the Billboard Top 40. That means a LOT of people are jamming out to this song, more than just your kids. And that's weird. Maybe guns and drugs and aggression are the new norm in our America?

This brings me to Exhibit B. Last Friday was a busy one in the office, so I decided to drive my lunch a couple blocks down to one of the few riverside parks not presently underwater. As I sat there decompressing, I spotted a guy walking his dog. I should be more like that guy, I thought to myself. Physically fit. Getting some exercise. Maybe I need a dog? And that was when the guy diverted and made a beeline for my car.

"Excuse me," he said, "Do you have a light? Oh wait, I found mine, sorry."

And my new friend used it to light up what I believe is defined as a fatty chronic blunt, then looked at me and cheerily said, "Fridays, am I right?" before engaging me in small talk about the weather and floods while Cheeching and Chonging it up with carefree abandon. I could have been a cop. I could have been an undercover DEA agent. I could have been a newspaper columnist in dire need of a topic. Didn't phase him one bit. I, on the other hand, beat feet outta there to avoid returning from lunch smelling like one of Willie Nelson's road crew. Drug laws have loosened, but they aren't THAT loose.

Maybe this is the new norm we're headed for. Who knows what we have to look forward to? Maybe it's a world of angry rap songs full of explicit swearing. But how angry can we be if we're spending our Fridays wandering around stoned in public? I'm not qualified to predict the future, but however it plays out, I'll do my best to sit in my Armchair of Pointless Judgement explicitly swearing -- that I'm neither fuddy nor duddy.