Friday, November 20, 2020

COLUMN: Walk the Block

I've gotta be honest. I've had a bad couple of weeks.

It's all just getting to me: the election drama, the post-election drama, the isolation of social distancing, and the sudden onset of darkness before I leave the office every day. I've been talking to myself, talking to the cats, and talking to any deities that might fancy listening. This year is just an ugly quagmire of sadness. My days are mostly spent going to the office, working in near silence, then coming home and binge-watching sitcoms in an attempt to remember what comedy feels like.

Call me maudlin if you want, but I've lost my mojo.

I figured out something that helps, though.

For the past week, whenever I've needed a break from the cubicle, rather than slinking to the breakroom or playing on my phone, I've instead been doing something rather out-of-character: I've been taking walks. Nothing exciting, mind you. Just a stroll around a block or two, but it's been nothing less than revelatory. There's nothing wrong with getting a little fresh air and a leg stretch or two, but it's more than that.

It's been over a year since we closed our East Moline office and moved to downtown Davenport, and I've barely explored the area beyond our parking lot. Getting out and seeing humanity in motion, even from a safe distance, is a reminder that the world is still here. We might not be congregating for Thanksgiving celebrations, we might not be hanging out with friends in bars and restaurants like we normally would, but we're still around.

When you take the time for a leisurely stroll, you notice things you don't catch when you drive past in a blur or have your eyes glued to a cell phone.

Things I've appreciated this week:

- The outdoor downtown murals. It's like our very own hieroglyphics. Proof positive that art and people and magic flourish. A block away, I spy a different kind of art in the form of a wall tagged with graffiti. Yes, it's defacing someone's property, and sure, it's kinda tacky. But in those lowest moments of seeing spiked pandemic numbers and wondering if we'll figure out a way to perservere, I've been reminding myself that someone figured out a way to scale a building, cross a roof, and hang upside down over the edge with a can of spray paint just to make that tacky accoutrement to an otherwise non-descript wall. We're nothing if not determined. 

- The Bix statues. Okay, so maybe this is a bit self-serving, since our company is the primary sponsor of the Bix 7, and the statues honoring the annual road race are at the edge of our parking lot. But those statues are really impressive up close. I've driven by them countless times, but never actually walked up to them. Turns out I was missing the best part: the sidewalk of engraved stones, where sponsors and donors can have custom messages paved right into the footpath.

As someone who routinely stares downwards when walking around, this was a great discovery. There's everything from birthday shout-outs to memorial tributes to what even appears to be a brick sponsored by Nike. It kinda makes me want to sponsor one, were I independently wealthy and/or skilled with a chisel and a plucky DIY attitude. But if I ever sponsored a brick somewhere, I'd want a non-sensical message to confuse future generations as much as possible. Imagine this sea of heart-warming bricks and then right in the middle is one that reads "PUT SOY SAUCE IN CHOCOLATE MILK. TRUST ME. IT'S YUMMY." Or, I dunno, "COMMEMORATING THE GREAT ARMADILLO UPRISING OF 1982." Or, simply, "MMM BOP." I mean, if you're going to leave a legacy, it might as well be one that makes people go "What the...?" or get a lousy Hanson song stuck in their head against their will.

Better yet, I should sponsor a brick that just contains a bunch of non-sensical conspiracy symbols, like a pyramid and one of those all-seeing eyes and an ankh or something. Just the perfect amount of mystery to send future generations on a wild goose chase for absolutely nothing. Or I just sponsor HALF a brick with the message "IF TREASURE YE SEEK, HEAD THREE CLI--" and then purposely leave the rest blank. Just because I want humanity to survive 2020 doesn't mean I don't want to drive them insane.  

- The new downtown YMCA. Man, it looks spiffy. If it feels like nothing is progressing in 2020, peep an eyeball at that construction. 

- The raucous ruckus that can only be a train crossing the Government Bridge. Normally, that noise would drive me around the bend. But in the middle of a pandemic, it's a symphonic reminder that things carry on. 2020 might be a weird year, but trains still run and cars still drive. Goods and services still need to get from Point A to Point B. It's a horrible, beautiful noise.

- Downtown lofts. There's a ton of them, and they're pretty cool from the outside. I like my house, don't get me wrong. But it'd be pretty cool to live in a converted loft with huge windows and a roof you can chill out on. 

- THE SKY. Have you guys looked UP this week? Every night, I leave the office to darkness, which is repellent and depressing and an annual adjustment I hate to make in ANY year, let alone one of frustration and sadness and scary times. But if the sky is clear, you can look up right now and see Jupiter and Saturn hanging out by the moon. You can see Mars red and brilliant to the east. COVID might have the world in its clutches, but not the universe. 

Tonight when I got off work, I just stood there for a bit in the parking lot, staring at the sky. For all we know, one of those dots a kajillion miles away could have another dot rotating around it full of eight-legged spider-monsters living their best spider-monster lives. Maybe they don't have to wear masks or socially distance or vote one spider-monster into office while a different spider-monster claims its rigged. Maybe they're just having fun and patting each other on the back (or whatever the spider-monster equivalent to a back is.)

We're in the home stretch on this thing. Vaccines and hope exist, even if they're hard to see right now. If 2020 hits you hard, don't worry. Well, you probably SHOULD worry a little. But then take a breath, put on a coat, walk around the block, and see the world continuing to thrive and survive. if you look hard enough, you might just be able to find something to be thankful for this year. 

Friday, November 06, 2020

COLUMN: Ceiling Bobcats

Crazy week, eh?

By the time you read this, we may know who our next President is. At the time of writing this, I still have no clue. Last I checked, the entire election now hinges on the voting preferences of Wayne Newton, the dudes from "Ghost Adventures," and one Mary F. Smith of 342 Briar Lane, Beaver Springs, Pennsylvania.

In times of turmoil and stress like this, many of you naturally turn to experts for advice, leadership, and a steady hand. And by "experts," I'm obviously referring to your local media's resident humor columnist. I humbly recognize my vital role in our nation's stewardship and your overall peace of mind. This burden weighs heavily on me. I've been hitting the Cheez-its pretty hard this week. 

I fear, however, that I don't at the moment have much to contribute to our nation's discourse. I'm sure you're all collectively disappointed. I've spent the past 24 hours staring at CNN, at times cheering and at other times considering Canadian real estate. I'm not sure what to think, feel, or say -- which is why I went to bed early last night. Optimistically, I thought perhaps my subconscious would sort it all out. Maybe I'd have a relevant dream that could provide answers and wisdom to bestow upon you all.  

Well, I had a dream, alrighty. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, but perhaps we can analyze it together and glean insight and understanding to our current plight.

(I'm not kidding. This really WAS the dream I had last night:)

Like many of you, I've struggled with accomplishing chores and duties in our "new normal" of 2020. In yesterday's dream, one of those duties was to attend a beauty pageant. Not COMPETE in said pageant, mind you. I simply had to attend and be in the audience. Somehow, for some reason, it was mandatory.

This particular pageant was in Maine, and even in my dream, that's a long way to travel. Thankfully, others in town had also been selected for the pageant audience. Specifically: my best friend, a co-worker, an advertising client at work, his wife who I went to high school with, the clerk at my neighborhood gas station, and my ex-girlfriend's little sister. This was the literal definition of "dream casting."

So the seven of us set off on a cross-country road trip to Maine in a rickety old school bus, Partridge Family-style. Admittedly, if I were ever forced to go to Maine, this would be a pretty pimp way to get there.

But to complicate matters, due to COVID, all roadways in Dreamerica had been turned into westbound one-ways. Going east was simply not an option. So the only possible way for us to get to Maine was to head west to Seattle, cross into Canada, and then drive back to Maine.

The next thing I remember, we were pulling into a small town in Montana to stay the night. Bad news, though -- all the hotels in town were booked. Well, all except ONE: the brand new hotel owned and operated by actor Tony Danza. As Tony took our bags, we marveled at our room, which was a two-story warehouse loft complete with mid-century modern furniture and dangerous gaping holes in the floor.

The seven of us were really excited... until we discovered the horror within. Tony must not have invested much in fumigation, because the room was infested -- with ravenous bobcats. But not your run-of-the-mill ravenous bobcats you often find in your standard celebrity-owned Montana hotels. No, these bobcats could walk upside-down on the ceiling and hang like bats.

Suddenly, my random roadtrip dream turned into a hellish nightmare of me and my acquaintances slowly being stalked and murdered by ceiling bobcats. Just as one of the hanging felines had me cornered, I awoke -- shaking, heart racing and covered in sweat. I was terrified -- for about three seconds. Then I just started laughing.

I didn't want to forget anything, so I grabbed a piece of scratch paper and scrawled "CEILING BOBCATS!" before falling back asleep. When I woke to the alarm clock, thankfully I remembered everything -- because the only thing scarier than that dream would be waking to an unexplained piece of paper that said "CEILING BOBCATS!" Sadly, I do NOT know the outcome of the pageant.

I have no idea what any of this means, but it MUST be full of important symbolism and hidden insights, no? Thankfully, the internet has a surplus of dream analysis websites. According to the ones I visited today, dreaming of beauty pageants means I'm feeling competitive. Dreaming of a bus symbolizes a desire to fit in. Dreaming of hotels indicates insecurity. Bobcats represent bad news and betrayal. And dreaming of the ability to walk on ceilings is supposed to mean I've reached a limit psychologically. 

So what are the takeaways here? It's obvious, duh. The election has me feeling very competitive and wanting to fit in with what is currently 50.4% of the popular vote. But I definitely have insecurity about the outcome and the potential for bad news. And I'm pretty sure we've ALL reached our psychological limit with campaign season and 2020 in general.

Sadly, there are no internet resources as to the dream symbolism of Tony Danza, but I'm pretty sure it means I should lay off the Cheez-its before bed.

Hopefully all that helps. It's the best my subconscious can offer. Whichever way Mary F. Smith votes, I hope the election or the results don't stress you out TOO much. At least we get a break from political ads and fundraising pitches for a couple years until it starts all over again. For now, I wish you all a good night. Don't let the ceiling bobcats bite. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

COLUMN: Horror Lessons

Like most of our holidays this year, Halloween 2020 seems much less Halloweeny than usual -- with one glaring exception.

Every time I turn on the TV this week, some random horror movie's been playing. This is NOT what our psyches need right now, is it? This year's been horrifying enough, thanks much. I don't need to augment all the endless fun of 2020 with a cavalcade of slasher flicks. When I turn the TV on in our "new normal," I don't want death and dismemberment. I mostly just wanna laugh and be reminded there's still good in the world.

Yesterday, I flicked on cable in search of a dumb escapist comedy to take my mind off things. Instead, I was greeted with some ill-fated teenager losing his head, quite literally and quite graphically. I changed the channel in a heartbeat, so I'm not sure if it was Jason, Freddie, Michael Myers, Leatherface, or Pinhead. I suppose I'm just grateful it wasn't CNN.

But I'm nothing if not a TV junkie, which means I've spent much of October channel flipping through countless summer campers meeting increasingly gruesome fates. I didn't think it was affecting me until the other night. I had a horrible nightmare that someone was breaking into my home. I woke up in a cold sweat shaking and sat up in bed to discover an intruder lunging at me with a knife. That's when I woke up AGAIN, this time for real. When your subconscious starts writing twist endings to your nightmares, it's high time to either shut the TV off or switch it to the Great British Baking Show, where the most terrifying thing you'll experience is dough that doesn't rise (the horror!)

Still, subjecting oneself to dumb horror movies isn't without its merits. I'm pretty sure these films can teach us all some valuable life lessons in 2020:

* Never ever split up from your friends. "Social distancing" does NOT mean "I should walk home through these dark woods alone." You have not improved your odds.

* Stay away from dolls. They're bad news. I've never seen a movie where a doll comes to life and saves the day. Even Pinocchio was a liar.

* Don't ever pick on nerds or losers. You never know who might be harboring telekinetic powers, homicidal tendencies, or both. Leave them be.

* When it comes to real estate, research before you buy. If the previous owner left because they wanted a split-level in the suburbs, you're probably fine. If the previous owner left because the walls occasionally drip blood, that might be a red flag. Also, be sure to check that your dream home wasn't built atop a former cemetery.

* Speaking of cemeteries, don't ever bury your pet in one. It might not end well.

* If you heroically kill a homicidal maniac, KEEP KILLING THEM. They're not dead. They're never dead. If you turn your back in jubilation, you're toast. If you're lucky enough to escape, KEEP RUNNING. Trust me, they're RIGHT BEHIND YOU.

* Should you find yourself in an encounter with a space alien, they are NOT there to make friends and impart upon you the wisdom of the galaxies. They're most likely there to eat you. You should run.

* And if one of those aliens gets too close, be wary. That rumble in your tummy a few days later might NOT be indigestion. You might not need a Tums. You might need an interstellar OB/GYN, stat.

* If your television starts speaking to you DIRECTLY, it's troubling. Go to the light.

* Stay out of the water, like, always. Even the shower. Actually, especially the shower.

* The job market can be tough. But if your choices are between sewer maintenance or becoming the lone caretaker of a mountain hotel during the long snowbound winter, opt for the sewers. Actually, I take that back. Opt to remain unemployed.

* If you seek advice from a kindly bartender and he encourages you to kill your family, you're probably in that mountain hotel and should leave pronto.

* When a clown offers you a balloon, just say no. Especially if you meet said clown in the sewers mentioned above. Leave sewer clowns be.

* ALL children are evil, even the cute pale ones who live in the corn. Avoid children at all costs. If you're unfortunate enough to have birthed one, it wants to kill you. If you've adopted one, they're secretly 40 years old and also want to kill you. If your child has an imaginary friend, it is NOT imaginary and it DEFINITELY wants to kill you.

* If YOU are a child, you may want to ensure that your mother is not a jackal. Trust me, that's a bad omen. Also, no matter how annoying your mom gets, avoid mummifying her and placing her in a rocking chair upstairs. It creeps out the neighbors.

* NEVER be the one who says "I'll check it out." Scary noises are scary for a reason. Stay in bed.

* But DON'T fall asleep.

* And remember, there is NEVER a good enough reason to spend the night in an abandoned mansion, no matter how much money you're being promised or how cool your TikTok videos would be. 

Follow that advice and you'll probably be safe. You'll also probably be a neurotic paranoid isolationist afraid to leave your house -- but aren't we ALL this year? As for defeating the REAL horrors of Halloween? Well, that's up to each of us on Tuesday. Happy voting and be safe. See you on the other side. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

COLUMN: The Crabbening

Nothing surprises me in 2020. 

We've spent the past umpteen months skipping from one horror show to the next, whether it's pandemics or derechos or murder hornets or fires or a presidential election that may never end. I hate to say it, but I'm beginning to get jaded by horrible news.

I literally saw a headline the other day that an asteroid is going to come hurling precariously close to Earth next week but is "highly unlikely" to hit us. In 2020, I don't put much stock in "highly unlikely." But honestly, I didn't even bother reading the article. There's not much I can do in the event of an asteroid strike except hide in my basement, count my blessings, and play video games until I run out of air, power, or patience. I'll just be super mad if we put up with all this campaigning only to have the world end on the eve of Election Day.

The other day, President Trump sent out a tweet that just said "GIANT RED WAVE COMING!" In THIS year, I honestly didn't know if he was predicting a Republican win or warning that the Gulf Coast was about to be decimated by a blood tsumani. Don't put anything past 2020.

That's why I was only moderately surprised this week to stumble across an article with a headline that, in any other year, would raise a few red flags. In 2020, it was just another Tuesday:


Well, of course it is. In the grand scheme of 2020, evolving into crab-monsters seems perfectly on brand.

This was a news story I couldn't resist diving into. 

According to a study published by the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (who are undoubtedly the life of any party whenever the DJ throws on "Rock Lobster,") I quote: "Although enormous morphological disparity is observed in the internal anatomy of the crab-like taxa, reflecting the fact that the evolution of the crab-like habits was indeed convergent, various corresponding dependences are found across the different lineages between the external characters of a crab-like habitus/morphotype and inner structures."

Okay, I have no idea what that means.

But the basic gist is that they've discovered at least five different species of non-crab-like crustaceans that have evolved crab-like features in order to survive our changing world. Clearly, evolution likes the cut of a crab's jib -- and there could be a future where our children's children's children's children might one day be born with pincers, antennae, and a bad attitude. Slowly but surely, we may all be turning into crabs. Science even has a term for it: carcinization, or as I like to call it, "The Crabbening."

One of the major arguments I always hear on climate change is that we don't to destroy the world for future generations. But if those future generations will likely end up being crab monsters, should we really care? I'm not saying we should start chucking plastic willy-nilly out our car windows, but I'm not quite as motivated to recycle for the sole benefit of my future great-great-great-grandcrab.

The more I think about it, though, there could be some definitive advantages to turning into a crab monster. 

- Pincers would be great (except maybe at the urinal.) Just the other day, I wasted eight full minutes of my life trying to open a hermetically-sealed packet of parmesan cheese. Don't be fooled by the tragic story of Edward Scissorhands -- pincers would be handy. Imagine a future world where you no longer have to shush someone in a crowded theater. I think your point would be made more effectively and efficiently if you could just reach over and snip their arm off.

- And if you're the unfortunate talkative theater-goer who gets their arm snipped off? No worries, it'll grow right back. Crabs lose appendages like I lose my car keys, and they just grow new arms and legs to replace them.

- Speaking of arms and legs, you'd have four pair of them. That's a plus. First off, drum solos would be at least twice as epic. Jugglers would actually hold my attention. We would all make amazing goalies. I could go to a ballgame and do The Wave entirely by myself. I could vogue WAY better than Madonna. 

- We would not have teeth in our mouths, but we WOULD have teeth in our stomachs. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing, but I'd kinda like to experience it for a quick minute or two.

Of course, like all evolutionary advancements, there might also be some hiccups.

- You could potentially bear 100,000 children. On the plus side, though, you wouldn't have to raise them. Just drop some eggs in the water and hope for the best. That should alleviate the burden of child care expense considerably. 

- At least once a year, your skeleton would fall off. I'm not sure I like this idea, and I'm not quite sure how long you'd have to crawl around as a pile of goo waiting for your new skeleton to harden. But it would definitely offer a new and novel excuse for calling in sick to work. "Sorry, boss, can't come in. I'm molting."

- We would all taste delightful with lemon juice and some creme fraiche. That's troubling.

For now, I guess I'm content with my boring human body, my mere two arms, and my lousy interior skeleton. If we're all turning into crabs, it probably won't happen overnight. But please, everyone, knock on wood -- let's not give 2020 any ideas.     

Friday, October 16, 2020

COLUMN: Cologne

Facebook thinks I smell. The worst part? I may have just proven them right.

It's unavoidable: if you want to enjoy social media, you have to deal with ads. Facebook doesn't connect the world out of the goodness of its heart. It's a company, and companies have to make money. When you scroll through your social news feed, every third or fourth post is going to be a pitch for some must-have good and/or service. 

Most of the time, I'm perfectly fine with advertising. Look at all the ads on this page right now. Those ads pay my bills. I've never found them cumbersome or an unwanted burden. Some of them might not appeal to me, but some perk my interest. Businesses need to reach their audience, and consumers need to know about products and services. If you think people don't care about ads, I invite you to come down here and man the phones the next time there's a delay in getting grocery coupons out - those days are like Def Con 1 in our office.

But ads on social media bug me a little. Facebook doesn't just serve you sponsors, it serves you sponsors it thinks you NEED. It's called targeted advertising. Do you think it's a coincidence when you post something on social media about baseball and then ads for baseball gear start popping up in your feed? Nope. Every move you make on social media is being monitored by algorithms and tracking software. Each time you post, some little robot somewhere is looking for keywords and trying to determine if you're a match for their product. Sometimes it's awesome. Sometimes it's less awesome.

About two weeks ago, I starting seeing frequent ads on my Facebook feed for a company that makes high-end soaps. Specifically, they make manly soaps for manly men that smell of rugged outdoors and whatever manly dudes are supposed to smell like (presumably motor oil and campfires.) Their ads are always videos starring scantily-clad women advising that the key to a successful relationship is to smell like a forest.

The other day, I stopped on one of the videos to marvel at its ridiculousness. I watched as they "interviewed" a girl enamored with her boyfriend because he used soap that smelled of pine tar. This was obvious because they were being "interviewed" while nude in the shower together. The dialogue consisted of them saying perfectly normal things that perfectly normal couples always say while being interviewed in the shower, such as, "Oh man, mid-lather, this stuff is excellent!" And, of course, "Time for a sniff test, gimme your beard!" 

Then it happened. As I chuckled at the screen, my hand slipped just a little bit, and before I could do a good slo-mo "noooooooo," I accidentally clicked the mouse.

Suddenly, I was on the soap company's website. Worse yet, Facebook saw me do it, and their algorithms did, too. Sure enough, its one week later, and I now can't scroll anywhere on Facebook without someone trying to sell me random forms of musky man-soap -- and worse. As I type this, I'm presently staring at an ad for a product specifically designed to -- hmm, how to say this politely -- freshen one's nether-regions with "an enduring scent of mint and mandarin." 

Many of life's questions have kept me up late at night over the years. None of those questions have ever been (1) "How do I get my naughty bits to smell like minty oranges?" Or (2) "How do I get that scent to ENDURE?" 

Because I clicked on that one fateful link, Facebook now presumes I roam the land reeking like a hot dumpster fire in need of professional scent assistance. The truth is, though, they might be right.

It was Sunday and I was home and bored and in dangerous possession of both high-speed internet and a little bit of fun money. That's when I remembered I was completely out of cologne. I am not a big cologne guy, but I like to keep a bottle or two around for rare occasions when I care more about my personal appearance than the usual level of "well, I can't go to work naked." Over the years, I've owned dozens of stink bottles, from old spicy drugstore fare to highfalutin stuff that costs more than a paycheck. My go-to is usually Drakkar, a scent that's probably uncool these days but harkens back to a younger, goth-ier Shane of yore.

But I was bored and felt like mixing it up, so I decided to do some online shopping. But how to buy cologne online? You can't exactly scratch-n-sniff a computer screen, and I'm not gonna be the guy who catches COVID because he took his mask off to inhale test strips at the perfume counter. Surely there had to be well-written descriptions of colognes somewhere, right? Sure enough, I found helpful summaries right away, such as "this is an alluring scent for a night out, with subtle hints of sandalwood and bergamot." Sounds nice, especially if I knew what sandalwood or bergamot smelled like. I don't even know what bergamot is. I don't even know how to pronounce it.

I ended up relying on a couple reviews and picked a cologne with high ratings and one enthusiastic recommendation that "if you like Drakkar, you'll LOVE this."

Yesterday, it arrived in the mail. I happened to be home for lunch, so I opened the bottle and spritzed precisely TWICE, once on the neck, once on the wrists, and headed back to work feeling like a cool guy.

I may have felt like a cool guy, but I smelled more like an industrial accident at a lavender factory. Those two spritzes were about 1.5 too many. I sat at my desk and realized Parfum du Shane was quickly permeating the entire office. It was making my eyes water. I ran to the bathroom and tried to wash it off, but no dice. The scent and I had merged into an unbreakable lavender monstrosity. I've never been more grateful that my co-workers were wearing masks and keeping social distance. I don't think it had much to do with COVID that day.

Much like the famed Sex Panther in "Anchorman," I'm putting my new cologne under lock and key until I feel the need to ever commit mass lavender-icide. Until then, I might just remain scent-free. Except for south of the border, of course, which will be minty orange fresh. You'll just have to take my word for it. No sniff test required.  

Friday, October 09, 2020

COLUMN: Debate

I wish I remembered more from college. The older I get, the more I feel like I'm forgetting knowledge I once paid a good deal of money to acquire.

When I was younger, I was convinced that I was destined to be the next Casey Kasem, spinning Top 40 hits on-air for years to come. Yet here it is, decades later, and I've yet to make even ONE long-distance dedication. But collegiate Shane was convinced his future was in radio. At Augustana, that meant becoming a Speech Communications major. That's right, I am officially trained to speak.

In all honesty, I probably attended (well, at least sometimes attended) college at the absolute worst time. When I was at Augie, the internet was in its infancy. If I remember correctly, we had one shared computer in a common room of our dorm that was hooked up this new-fangled thing called the World Wide Web. When I bought my first PC out of college, I went overboard and loaded it up with ONE gigabyte of memory. "That's crazy," my friends said to me at the time. "No one could EVER fill an entire gigabyte!" 

I learned a great deal about radio at Augustana -- all of which was made irrelevant five years later with new tech. I'll let you guys in on a secret: radio stations today are pretty much run entirely on autopilot. Disc jockeys aren't jockeying any discs. Many just sit in front of a microphone waiting for a computer screen to display "TALK NOW" and giving them a timer until the next song starts. Sometimes when you hear a DJ on the air, they recorded their voice days earlier. I was once driving to the mall listening to a DJ friend of mine on the radio and then bumped into him at JCPenney's five minutes later.

I, on the other hand, went to school to learn such valuable skills as how to splice a reel-to-reel tape together -- so if see one of those in an antique store somewhere, I'm your guy.

But there was a whole lot more to a speech major than playing around on the radio. I had to take classes on small group communication, interpersonal communication, political communication, communications ethics, etc. I had to read seriously heavy textbooks full of complicated theory and endless discussions on the science of communication and how the way we communicate impacts society, understanding, and even human thought. It was pretty interesting stuff -- most of which I've forgotten completely. 

Every once in a while, though, bits of Comm Theory class come creeping back into my brain -- and nothing draws them out faster than watching debates.

Why we're even having debates at this point is beyond me. If there exists such a thing as an undecided voter by this point, I'd like to meet them. This election has polarized our nation. I don't know anyone who's not either reeeeeeally onboard the Trump train or reeeeeeeeeeally hoping it derails. No one I know is sitting around going, "Well, let's see what they have to say before I make up my mind." Instead, the debates have turned into popcorn viewing, a spectacle for the sake of spectacle.

Marshall McLuhan was a philosopher and media analyst popular in the 1950s-1960s who some thought a crackpot. In actuality, he ended up being a little ahead of his time, having invented the term "global village" and predicting the internet way before it was even a glimmer in Al Gore's eye. He's the guy who pops up in "Annie Hall" with his catchphrase diss, "you know NOTHING of my work." I can't begin to simplify all of McLuhan's theories (mostly because I've forgotten them, never understood them in the first place, and "I know NOTHING of his work,") but he's most famous for his assertion that "the medium is the message" - that WHAT we say isn't half as important as HOW we say it.

A good example of this was the first televised presidential debate: Nixon/Kennedy, 1960. Polls taken after the debate show that folks who listened on the radio overwhelmingly thought Nixon won it. Folks who watched on TV thought Kennedy was the clear victor. Why the disparity? Because Kennedy came to the stage a young man oozing with confidence and plastered with stage makeup. Nixon refused to wear makeup and ended up looking like a sweaty ghoul on camera. For folks watching on TV, it didn't matter what either candidate said. It mattered more how they looked and acted.

That's why the first Trump/Biden debate last week was so infuriating. As polarizing as that performance was, I doubt it changed many minds. In fact, it probably just made us double-down on our candidate of choice. Biden supporters thought Trump's constant interruptions were reprehensible. Trump's fans probably thought it was great fun. No one watching went, "Hey, that plan makes sense, I'll vote for THAT guy." I never heard any plans. I just heard insults and frustration and name-calling for an hour. If you watched it on TV, I'm sure it was entertaining. But try reading a transcript of that debate without losing your mind, I dare you. There was no substance. The medium was the ONLY message.

This column will run long after tonight's debate has ended and been talked to death by analysts, but mark my words. I bet the stories in the news today won't focus on the content of the debate. I'll guarantee the star of the discussion will be a flimsy plexiglass divider [Update: And maybe a fly. And maybe pinkeye.]

I might have a diploma saying it's my specialty, but I'm sick of the talking -- and the arguing and the tweeting and the eleventy-kajillion e-mails I get every day from candidates begging for money. I just want it all to be over. Do I have an outcome I'm rooting for? You bet I do. But mostly I just want it to be over. You know, when you're playing Scrabble and your rack is full of crummy letters, you're allowed to lose a turn, re-draw, and hope for something better. I think we've all lost a turn in 2020. Maybe it's time for some new letters. 

Friday, October 02, 2020

COLUMN: Search & Rescue

Nature and I have a long and well-documented understanding: It stays outside, I stay inside, and we get along great that way. Nature is fine and pretty and I admire it every day when it comes up as the screensaver on my computer. That's as close as I usually like to get to the great outdoors. Getting lost in nature's beauty can be relaxing and life-affirming, provided I'm in a car with air conditioning, a kicking stereo, and the windows rolled up so none of that pesky nature can accidentally get in.

But last week, I broke my peace accord with nature for a few harrowing minutes.

I had just walked in the door from a long workday when the phone rang. The voice on the other end was 95% static, but I was able to make out a few key words:

"Thunder... LOST!... not kidding... sunset... HELP!" And then the phone went dead.

Everyone needs a best friend. I've known mine since we were randomly assigned adjacent dorm rooms in college. I can't even really remember how we started talking, but talk we did. After a hard day of (skipping) classes, I knew I could return to the dorms for hours of laughs and time-wasting. When you're away from home and experiencing real life for the first time, it can be intimidating. To find a kindred soul to share those experiences is fortunate and irreplacable. For more than two decades, he's been my BFF, closest confidant, and the only human being I know tall enough to change the light in my garage without a stepladder.

That phone call was a sea of static, but we've been friends long enough for me to recognize the chopped-up voice on the other end -- and to know when he was legitimately in trouble.

I'm no nature boy, but my best friend is. My idea of relaxing is bad TV and Cheezits. His is a hiking trail, often in the pitch middle of nowhere. On many weekends, my text messages of "I'm bored, wanna grab lunch?" are frequently replied with, "I would but I'm on a hill somewhere in Wisconsin." In all those years, though, none of his hikes have EVER resulted in a phone call like this.

I was flummoxed. What does one do with this information? You can't exactly call 911 and go, "Help, I think my friend is lost... somewhere. I presume the Midwest. Find him please." 

Still, I thought back to all the times I've relied on him for the most ridiculous of assistance. The time he came over at midnight just to help me change the battery in a chirping smoke detector. The time he stayed up all night talking me off the ledge when I got dumped. He's changed more tires on my car than I have. He's made me laugh harder than anyone else on the planet. He's my best friend, and we're always gonna be there for each other.

But at that precise moment, I had no idea where "there" was. Then it hit me. I definitely heard the word "thunder," but there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I knew exactly where he was: Loud Thunder Forest Preserve. My friend was legitimately lost in the woods. Before I knew what I was doing, I was in my car heading towards parts unknown.

But what exactly was I going to do when I got there? I wasn't even sure what was happening. All I had were six words to piece together, and the best I could reckon was, "(Hi, I'm out at Loud) ..Thunder.. (and I'm) ..LOST!.. (and I'm) ..not kidding.. (that monsters come out after) ..sunset.. (and I'm presently being eaten by a Sasquatch, so) ..HELP!"

If there's one human being who knows a thing or two about nature, it's my dad. I fumbled for the phone and called the parental team from the car. This was probably a mistake. Dad wasn't the loudest voice in the conversation.

"DON'T YOU GO OUT THERE," lectured my mother sternly as if she didn't know me, "YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS IN THE WOODS AT NIGHT! LET THE PROFESSIONALS HANDLE THIS!" But who, pray tell, are the professionals in this matter? I wasn't exactly passing any 24-hour Acme Professional Friend Rescue establishments. The only plan I had was to go out there, find his car, and start honking my horn until he wandered out of the woods or a "professional" came by to arrest me for disturbing the peace.

Thankfully, that was when the phone rang again with slightly better reception. Sure enough, he had headed down a trail, somehow lost it, and had no idea where he was. But at least he was able to tell me a couple of landmarks before the phone went dead again. 

So naturally, I arrived at the forest preserve, immediately spotted a recently snapped twig, and tracked the trail over several ravines until locating the victim. I then banged two rocks together and made a campfire before foraging for mushrooms and carving an arrowhead to procure much-needed protein before using the stars to navigate our way to safety and the arduous reintegration with a society that's long forgotten the simple ways of nature folk like us.

Or maybe not. I DID, however, call 911 and talk to a bemused operator who promised to send a deputy. Meanwhile, I was such an expert tracker that I couldn't even find his CAR in the labyrinthian parking lots of Loud Thunder. I did, however, find a park office, who quickly summoned a ranger. It turns out my friend's landmarks were invaluable to someone who WAS capable of surviving in nature longer than fifteen minutes.

"I know exactly where he is," the ranger said. "I'll have him back here in a few."

But just as he turned for his truck, a sheriff's cruiser pulled in with a familiar and relieved face in the back seat. And how, you ask, was a deputy able to rescue my misplaced associate in no time at all? He sat in a parking lot and honked his horn until my friend wandered out. Perhaps I'm better at this search-and-rescue stuff than I thought.

For what it's worth, everyone couldn't have been nicer. "The last time a fella got lost out there," the ranger said to my friend, "we couldn't find him until 2 a.m., and it was a hot night. He was a dehydrated mess. And he wasn't built like you. He was more like -- your friend here."

Thanks, man. I get it. Captain Fatpants to the rescue. 

As we thanked the night's REAL heroes and turned to walk away, someone turned to me and asked, "Oh man, does this mean I'm gonna be in the paper tomorrow?"

"No, absolutely not," I reassured. We were past deadline. I knew it'd be at least 2-3 days.