Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Adventures in 2008

Everybody I talk to keeps telling me to have a happy new year. I was half kidding, but I think I alarmed a Madison Police Sergeant on the phone today when I shot back, "New year?!? Why?What's wrong with the old one? What's the hurry?"

The truth is, while it's had its share of ups and downs, and barely a stolen couple of seconds to catch my breath, 2008 has been a fantastic year. I realize how lucky I am in this -- that things have gone to hell for a lot of folks, and that's certainly not something I've been immune to or isolated from. But looking back on it all, I'm able to view each month and pick at least one thing new or exciting from each one, and that's a damn good feeling.

It's weird, too, how mired I'm becoming in adulthood. This is the conclusion of my first full calendar year beyond a university setting, and I'm happy to report my head is still above water. 2008 saw me stand up at a wedding for the first time, move on to my second "real job" and purchase my third set of motorized wheels. But even though I'll be 24 in March, a glance back at the past 12 months proves I'm not yet allowing adulthood to consume me, and I like it that way.

January


When 2008 began, I was covering government, courts and cops for the Portage Daily Register, which I maintain is one of the finest small market papers in the state. I'm all too familiar with some of the dregs of the newspaper world that get published, but the company and management behind the PDR go out of their way to keep fresh, talented blood pumping through their offices, and it shows.

I began at the Register first as a summer intern, then continued as a part-time reporter and fulltime student, then finally became a fulltime reporter upon my graduation in May of 2007. But by the end of that year, the 45-minute commute from Madison to the office was starting to wear on me, and I heard about a chance to get back into broadcasting, so I started looking into it.

That didn't keep me from enjoying my final month at the paper. In fact, the day in January when U.S. Senator and penultimate role model Russ Feingold paid a visit to our office may be among my favorites of all time.


My admiration for Wisconsin's junior senator is well-documented, so I'll skip the fanboy noise and stick to the issue. As an editorial board, we got to spend two hours grilling Feingold on topic after topic, ranging from the upcoming presidential election to government wiretaps to NAFTA. After the session, he hung around and we chatted a little. The Senator and I discovered that one of his Washington staffers used to babysit me when I was eight, and I tried one last time to get him to run for President.


I'm still holding out hope for that last part.

February




It was 2:30 in the morning on a January Friday night, and I had just gotten back from the bars when that little tickle started in the back of my neck. That little tickle told me I ought to check my email.

I logged on, and at the top of my inbox was an email from WTDY's news director Tara Arnold, telling me they had decided to hire me on as a reporter and news anchor. I sat for a moment in stunned silence, then started whooping and hollering and tearing up and down the hallway of the two-bedroom flat I shared with my buddy Clinton (pictured on left) at the time.

Then I composed myself, rapped on his door and informed him we needed to go on a vacation.

I booked us on the Carnival cruise liner Sensation sailing a short route from Orlando to the Bahamas. We actually paid more for airfare than the cruise itself, sneaking in under the wire by booking it with about a week and a half to spare. That's the beauty of last-minute cruising -- if they're just trying to fill rooms on the boat, you'll pay less than you would to stay in a Motel 6, and all your food is included.

Our buddy Dan (pictured on right) snagged a room on the same cruise ship, and through some alignment of the planets, we survived serious flight delays and an extra layover in Atlanta, literally the last people to board the ship seconds before they pulled the ganplank up. But the vacation was great and amazingly cathartic. When we arrived at ports of call, our routine was simple and standard -- hail a cab and state, "beach, please."

It was a much-needed escape from the icy hell that Wisconsin became in 2008, breaking snowfall records left and right.

March



Of course, no vacation lasts forever, and I certainly didn't want ours to. I was damn excited to start at WTDY, and I jumped in head first.

With the presidential primaries a hot contest in Wisconsin, February was a busy month to start work in... then again, I haven't had a boring month yet. March rolled around, and I started covering regular shifts as an on-air news anchor. It felt good to be back on the air.

I also had the dubious honor of meeting the King of Sleaze himself, Jerry Springer. I interviewed him before he gave a presentation at the Orpheum, and to this day, I'm not sure how I feel about the man. Does he have some interesting political ideas? Certainly. But can that forgive the 10 points he knocked off America's collective IQ as the host of the trashiest show on television? The jury's out.

April


The snow hadn't even completely melted when I first dragged my old 1982 Yamaha Virago 920 ("Shiela," I called her) out of my garage on Chandler Street, but I didn't care. After the worst winter ever on Wisconsin's books, I was officially stir crazy, and I needed to ride...perhaps a little too much.

Hindsight is always 20-20, and I learned a valuable, albeit expensive, lesson that April afternoon. When a motorcycle sits out through a cold winter, it can be tough to get it to turn over that first warm afternoon. I sat pretty heavy on the starter and produced a couple loud backfires before I had sucked all the juice out of my fresh battery. But rather than put the battery back on the charger and wait for a warmer day when the engine would be more prone to turn, I opted for more desperate measures.

Jumper cables at the ready, I wired my running car to the bike and thumbed the starter, which whined impressively to life again. I swear, I was half a cycle of the pistons from having her running when a loud pop and a noticeable curl of blue smoke announced I'd fried the starter on the bike.

I sold the Virago to a gearhead who fixed her up and got a hell of a deal in the process. I used the proceeds and most of my tax return to buy a 1996 Suzuki Intruder. "Felicity" treated me well all summer long, and I'm already getting a little crazy just thinking about the open spring roads.

May


For everyone who knows Diana and Marcus, their marriage was a long time coming. Everybody was happy to hear it, but no one was surprised when they got engaged. I had the privilege of being one of several guys to stand at Marc's back when he took his vows, and it was a solemn honor we took almost as seriously as planning his last night as a bachelor.

In light of the five years' expectations leading up to the wedding itself, and the fact that Marc is almost unflappable as a human being, we decided the element of surprise had to factor heavily into our festivities for the evening. We set a date, and I informed Marc he was to arrive at my house at a set time to "report for duty." I wouldn't share any more information than that.

We allowed him to get the impression we had an early dinner followed by a round of local bars in store for him, and when he arrived that fateful Saturday afternoon, I told him the rest of the crew was waiting at an unnamed location within walking distance. We set out sauntering down the street, only to have our peaceful afternoon shattered by the squealing tires of a rented black SUV that came tearing down the street.

A couple of masked groomsmen jumped out, sporting a little weaponry as well, and informed Marc he was being kidnapped. A young family walking down the street stared in shock as we stuffed a winter hat over his head and face and loaded him into the vehicle, then tore off down the street.

We drove for about two hours before we let him take his blindfold off... and that's really about all I'm allowed to disclose about the events of Saturday, May the 24th. We had him back, safe and whole, almost 24 hours later, and the ceremony and reception in June were really quite lovely.

June

I'm still not exactly sure precisely when it was that Strutt, Alissa, Clinton, Jeff, Parker and my jam sessions in the basement on Chandler Street coalesced into something that could be defined as a "band." Looking back as a historian at the Facebook message board exchanges between us, I would say it really took shape sometime in the month of June when we started work on a few originals we now have in our lineup.

"Common Swift" has played a backyard, a coffee shop and a bar so far, and then we promptly recused ourselves from the public eye to piece together a demo disk to pass off to a few bars around the Madison area. We're also in the midst of doubling the number of original tunes we bring to the table, and hope to be back out performing for people instead of microphones again sometime later this winter.

But mostly it's a lot of damn fun.

July

If I take one lesson away from 2008, it will be what my good buddy Cam taught me in July: when it comes to rehydrating after heavy physical exertion, energy drinks and power waters are no substitute for a good, cold beer.

Counterintuitive, but true.

I've known Cameron since the sixth grade. We've canoed the boundary waters together, we've ridden the New Mexico highlands on horseback, but racing with my formidable D3 nationals steeplechase champion pal was one adventure I had never planned to undertake.

That all went out the window when we finally bit the bullet and signed up to race in Madison's 2008 Paddle and Portage. I've always wanted to run in a race, and this city is home to a number of strenuous competitions of note -- the Iron Man triathalon, the Crazylegs Classic -- but none but the P&P have ever really appealed to me.

I blogged about the experience at the time, but looking back, it is one of the year's prouder achievements. I'd like to do it again, if Cam doesn't find a partner in better shape than I. Weakest link though I may have been, we did relatively well for first timers, and a little extra training and a little better luck next time around ought to do us some good.

August

The most difficult part about transitioning into the working world for me has been the growing disconnect I feel with the natural world. While some people go to a church to get closer to God, there's nowhere I feel as spiritual than as far away as possible from the buildings and roads built by man.

Whereas I used to find time regularly to get out away from the city lights and revel in nature, staying abreast of the day-to-day activities of Madison's newsmakers leaves little time for quiet contemplation and solitude. Thankfully, my spiritual vaccuum hadn't quite peaked by August, when my Dad, my Grandpa and I fled the civilized world to the northwoods of Ontario.

Following an ugly dispute with my old management company and the move from the near west side to the near east side, and amid a hectic work schedule, that trip likely saved my sanity.

September

If the greatest week of August was one of quiet solitude, September peaked with a weekend of raucous revelry. After my hometown of Monroe's infamous "Cheese Days" festival, I've already marked my calendar for Cheese Days 2010 with a sense of wistful impatience.

In the span of two and a half days, I introduced a dozen friends to another dozen old friends, played a backyard rock show, caught up with my family, stayed up almost to sunrise two nights in a row, listened to live blues and traditional Swiss music in the same 15 minute span, purchased untold volumes of cheese and beer and regrounded myself in Wisconsin tradition.

One of the weekend's highlights was a visit to the Minhas Brewery (call it what they will though, I'll always know it as the Joseph Huber Brewery) to drink from the wellspring of one of my favorite beers. From left to right, Adam, Larry, Tim, Emily, Joe and Pete accompanied me on the tour of Berghoff's proud home, the oldest operating brewery in the state of Wisconsin.

I felt like Charlie in the chocolate factory, giddy as a kid on Christmas.

October

I don't want to say October was all business, but it was a near thing. Tim, Aaron and I really began to buckle down on our job putting together a submission cut of "Your Signs" for the Wisconsin Film Festival's "Wisconsin's Own" category. There were a number of gorgeous afternoons I would just as soon have been outside on the motorcycle enjoying a stunningly mild autumn, but instead, the lion's share were spent with a member of the cast stuffed in my makeshift recording booth, Tim curled up with a script and notebook in a chair or on the floor rocking back and forth, and me hunched over the controls, steadily intoning, "Take it in three, two, one" -- thousands of times.

I'm damn proud of the work we've done on this project in the waning months of 2008. By first converting my closet into a gerry-rigged ADR studio, and then utilizing my entire apartment as a foley studio for several weeks, I was able to contribute some valuable depth to the experience of watching the film. Aaron has worked miracles with his editing, and Tim's dedication to every aspect of the project continues to go beyond anything I've ever seen in a human being.

We turned in our submission cut on December 1. We're awaiting word on whether we'll be accepted, but in the meantime, we're now down to working on the nitty-gritty details of our final cut.

November

Like the morning of September 11, 2001, like the afternoon Brett Favre made his retirement speech, people discussing the night of November 4, 2008 will always preface the conversation with the question, "Where were you?"

No matter your political persuasion, you can't dispute the palpable electricity that ran through our country on election night. Almost everyone I talked to on New Year's Eve mentioned Barack Obama's election as one of the high points of their year. Branton (left), Ben (right) and I discussed it in particular as 2009 rolled in, as we met late that night on State Street in the midst of the gleeful pandemonium that ensued.

It's a night I hope to tell my kids and grandkids about someday.

December

Yes, I neglected my blog in the waning months of 2008. It was an emotionally draining year, and I needed some time to get back in touch with the concept of "me-time" before I went pelting headlong into another year. Please don't "dismantle the fan club," Jessica.

So what did I do with all that time I didn't spend writing? I mostly tried to get out and have fun, seeing a handful of dear friends I hadn't spent time with in ages. My buddy Dalto came back to Wisconsin from what's become a permanent stint teaching in inner-city Houston. BK made the journey back to Madison from California, where he's a software guru for Cisco. The parade of faces has been almost endless, in fact, and it's gotten easy to mix up who's told me which ridiculous new story of some fabulous, alien place.

There was a lot of digging out to be done in December, what with the extreme snowfall we're dealing with once again. But in order to keep from resenting the outdoors this winter, we've taken to the ice of Monona Bay for occasional broomball matches again this winter. Not a week after the ice spread across the lakes, we organized our first pickup game, and seeing as one person suffered a bloodied lip and another was rendered momentarily unconscious, we considered it a roaring success.

We're playing again this Saturday afternoon. Anyone with a winter jacket and a broom is welcome to attend.

I spent a good chunk of time with my family as well over the holidays: my parents, my 16 and 20-year-old sisters, both sets of grandparents, and my aunt. It's been a year of healing for the family, and spending the holidays together was as much fun as it was a blessing. I'm lucky to have them, and I really do cherish the time we spend together.

And I swear to god I'm doing to dynamite the singing holiday clock my mom hangs on the kitchen wall at Christmas time.

So what does 2009 hold? Well, it'll be hard-pressed to top 2008, but I'll take it in stride for what it's worth. I'm having way more fun than any gainfully employed adult ought to, and I hope it continues through my 24th year on this planet. I'm hoping to sneak in a trip to someplace warm in February, to keep from finally losing my patience with Wisconsin's climate and running off to the Cayman Islands. I'd also like to try a "motorcycle odyssey" to someplace remote this summer, with just a tent, a pair of jeans and a leather jacket to get me across the country, just for the stories I'd have to tell.

That, I think, is one of the biggest blessings of 2008 -- the health and happiness of the people I love, and the stories we now have to tell as a result.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Final Push

I know this has not been the most interesting month in terms of my limited blog entries, but the month of November has been FAR too interesting for me. With the holiday this week and a December 1 deadline bearing down for our submission to the Wisconsin Film Fest, I just wanted to make it clear that I haven't abandoned this blog, I haven't stopped responding to emails and I haven't fallen off the face of the planet.

I'm just concentrating every fiber of my being on an amped up work schedule, the final push to polish this project we've been working on for three (or four, I can't even remember any more) years and keeping myself in semi-healthy, functional non-homicidal order.

I've pushed a lot of side projects... well... even further to the side this past month to concentrate on Your Signs. Tim, the project's mastermind, and Aaron, our editor, have let it consume their lives, but it's looking and sounding better than I could ever have imagined it would prior to the editing process. We're all looking forward to having them back in the real world.

So I'm going to disappear from the blogosphere for the next week. There's no hope I as a producer and sound designer can match the effort they've put in at this point, but I'm going to do everything I can to support them in this, their hour of need. You can follow sporadic progress updates from Tim on his Myspace page. The blog posts are clearly a little harried and caffeine fueled, but then again, so is Tim these days.

Also, I'll leave you with an exerpt from the column I wrote when I worked for the paper. Know that it would make my life about eighteen times simpler to skip Thanksgiving with the family this year, but it's time that I value too much. I'll skimp on sleep instead.

From: http://portagedailyregister.com/news/local/25ed7637-11b7-55bb-8638-b224477c4d20.html

Giving Thanks For Great Cooks in the Family

A lot of my peers, both college undergraduates and recent graduates, dread this time of year.

For students, Thanksgiving serves as that lonely island of complacency shining hopefully between the pre-turkey midterm rush and the last push toward finals in December. Many recent graduates, on the other hand, approach the family-oriented holiday apprehensive of the uncomfortable questioning they surely will have to face at the dinner table: "Who do you like in the presidential race?" and "When are you going to get a job?" and "What, exactly, did you major in?"

That's not me, however, and not just because I'm already gainfully employed. I love Thanksgiving, and I love being with my family on Thanksgiving.

Now here's where your typical holiday newspaper column would delve into a hot chocolate-fueled tug-at-your-heartstrings soliloquy about how the holiday season brings out feelings of gratitude, puts life in perspective and helps people appreciate the good things they have. But I'm going to be perfectly frank.

I come for the food, and it just so happens that the family I give thanks with every Thanksgiving is comprised, largely, of kitchen prodigies.

My parents agreed to host my dad's side of the family for Thanksgiving this year, but I will be trekking up north to visit my mom's parents tonight and Sunday. Not only does that make me a good grandson, but it means I'll have sampled the culinary prowess of both sides of the family this Thanksgiving weekend.

Now my aptly-named Grandma Cook is 81 years old, and I told her when I asked to come visit this weekend that I did not want to be a bother and would be insisting on taking her and Grandpa out to eat at some point. But I have a feeling I could show up at their house completely unannounced and she would greet me with a plate of cookies.

I don't know how she does it, but it's like she's magic, and all I can do is bask in her wizardry. Luckily, the Weis side of the family is similarly gifted.

Thanksgiving with the Weises is a process that begins weeks in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday itself. My mom spearheads the whole project, working with all the organizational aptitude of a four-star general to coordinate the movement of vast quantities of mashed potatoes, string beans and gravy to arrive in a precise, timely formation on the dining room table.

Mom prepares a good deal of the oh-so-vital side dishes herself, including loaves of her infamous cranberry bread. The cranberry bread is so deeply and emotionally equated with the holidays in my mind that I check Mom's oven before I check the calendar to see if it's Thanksgiving or Christmas.

My dad and grandpa, on the other hand, lead the charge on Thanksgiving's most crucial front, the preparation of the bird. As a child, I watched them baste turkeys, I watched them grill turkeys, I watched them roast and glaze and fry turkeys, and the results have been stunning each time.

But the remarkable part is that they manage to prepare the turkey so masterfully solely in the intervals between quarters of Thanksgiving Day football. It's a skill I can only hope is inherently genetic.

And then there is Grandma Weis, my very own matron saint of flaky baked goods. This loving woman has, for 22 years, spoiled me and ruined me with her pies, to the point that someday, if I find a woman to marry, it will be with the caveat that I never will be able to say in all honesty her baking is "the best I've ever had."

Grandma Weis rolls out her full arsenal of pies for Thanksgiving Day, but the no-brainer response for which to choose has always been her apple pie. It is, in a word, "aaaawwwwgh."

"Aaaawwwwgh," by the way, is pronounced properly by letting your head loll, rolling your eyes back into your head and drooling copiously.

So yes, I went into Thanksgiving Day after a brief day-long fast with the express intent of gorging myself silly on platefuls of amazing food until I'm flat on my back in the dining room, groaning as the beagle licks food off my face. It's a plan that allows little time for rumination, and it's not until the day after Thanksgiving that I really have a chance to weigh what's important about the holiday.

Still giddy from the tryptophan, I can be honestly grateful for the good things in life. I really am blessed, in that I have a loving, supportive, healthy family I get to spend time with.

And every last one of them can cook up a storm.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bloodbath

I didn't need a reminder that the economy was fucked -- I've got friends who have been laid off over the past month, other friends with a degree from a World Class University that can't find decent work, if they can find anything at all. But I got a reminder this week anyway.

The past three weeks have been hell on me. Covering the Madison Halloween Celebration, the election and subsequent pandemonium, the sixteen-hour city budget sessions and the more streamlined county process, it's all been really exciting, and my brain hurts from having learned so much.

But adjusting my sleep schedule by eight hours on a bi-weekly basis has left me with a permanent case of jet lag, the approximate jet lag of travelling from Paris to Chicago, and I haven't even left the Dane County area. So when I got the call to get into work three hours earlier than I'd been assigned yesterday for a staffing meeting, I was a little too punchy to fully comprehend what was happening around me.

It's sinking in now.

Midwest Family Broadcasting announced a big staffing shake-down yesterday, a good chunk of it on our radio station. Of course, "it's the economy, stupid," and these kinds of layoffs have been particularly prevalent across all the media in the past year, but that does nothing to prevent the shell-shock and survivor's guilt that follow a bloodbath like this.

I'm going to take the departure of two of our news staff, Tim Morrissey and Erik Greenfield, pretty hard. I know the standard broadcasting procedure for dealing with layoffs on air is to omit any mention of the departed personalities and pretend like they never existed for at least a year, at which point it becomes acceptable to occasionally mention them nostalgically. But this is my space, and it's grounded in the reality of my life and what these guys meant to me.

When I joined MWF, Erik was the first person in the building I connected with. We're both relatively young for broadcasters, and we both got our starts at small-town radio stations in Wisconsin. We're also both capable of carrying on a conversation composed entirely of quotations from "The Simpsons," which generally left the other newsies utterly lost when they tried to join in our conversations.

I even look up to Erik quite a bit. He's got an amazing steel trap of a mind, and can spout off trivia like names and statistics as if he's reading them off Google, which is what most of us do.

And then there's Morrissey, who's been in broadcasting since the days when it entailed standing at the top of a tall hill and yelling. He's logged decades with MWF alone, and has worked in cities all over the country.

As the penultimate grizzled veteran news anchor, it would have been easy for Tim to kick back, enjoy his bountiful vacation time, log his hours in what we all assumed was a secure gig and let the rest of the station tear itself to pieces around him. But Tim was a mentor to everyone in that news room, to me in particular. He told me very early on he was "going to take a serious interest" in bettering me as a broadcaster, and he wasn't kidding.

Guidance, suggestions, verbal (and deserved) slaps upside the head, wry realism... Morrissey is good for all of that, and I know few people who are as adept at delivering a kernel of truth picked from a heap of bullshit as Tim Morrissey. If this is indeed the career I'll be spending my life at, he had a hand in shaping it, and if not, it was a pleasure to work with him anyway.

Both Erik and Tim are friends that I respect the hell out of, and I have no idea what I'm doing still in the news room while they've been cut loose. It boggles the mind. Another broadcasting veteran told me this morning, "You're the future of this operation."

Okay. Now what the fuck does that mean? They could have canned me and I would have been moved into a storage unit with a backpack on my shoulder and a ticket to Europe in my hand inside a week. Morrissey's got retirement to think of. E's got a house payment.

These are tough damn times.

Monday, November 17, 2008

County Budget: Hour 4


As the meeting winds down, there have not been very many more surprises. There has, however, been a sense of deja vus to some of the debates that have taken place.

A bloq of half a dozen supervisors have put forward about as many amendments looking to cut out proposed borrowing for environmental initiatives. This includes funding for geothermal heating systems, $2.3 million for a communal manure digester and right now, millions to be put toward county land purchases.

"I expect the vote on this to be similar to the last one," chairman Scott McDonell said, "if not identical."

Supervisor Kyle Richmond accused that bloq of supervisors of going after environmental projects specifically. Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz defended their actions, saying they weren't "targeting any one group of programs, we're targeting borrowing."

The last vote on an amendment to the Dane County Conservation Fund, the one targeting $4 million in land acquisition funding, failed on an 8-27 vote.

County Budget: Hour 3


Following the conclusion of the two crowd-pleasers, the county board chambers have emptied out considerably. Two people remain seated in the galleries.

County executive Kathleen Falk's spokesman Josh Wescott commented offhand to me earlier that, ironically, the heavy firefighter presence in the room earlier may have violated the building's fire code.

The county board completed and approved its operating budget without much contentious debate, and is now rolling through county government, department by department, and amending the 2009 capital budget. The issue of whether or not to hire more communicators for the Dane County 911 Center was not broached during this time, as it was addressed in a prior committee meeting. The county opted to get in line with a consultant's report and hire nine additional communicators, instead of the originally-proposed six.

Supervisor Bob Salov also just proposed the creation of an ad hoc committee to study the need for interoperable radios in the county.

County Budget: Hour 2


Choosing to tackle both big issue votes in one fell swoop, the county board has now diverted from the operating budget to the capital budget for the sake of addressing the concerns of the firefighters and EMS personnel in attendance.

Supervisor Bob Salov introduced the motion, which would allocate $680,000 to purchase interoperable radios for fire and EMS departments throughout the county. This is on top of $12 million the county is looking to borrow in order to upgrade radio towers and other infrastructure to become interoperability-compliant.

The amendment would purchase aproximately 15 upgraded radios for every department in the county -- not enough to fully equip any of them. The county comptroller estimated the measure would increase the capital budget by 1.6 percent.

Departments nationwide are facing the same dilemma before those in Dane County following an FCC mandate issued several years ago that all emergency responders utilize interoperable radios by 2013, which are more technologically advanced and utilize a universal set of frequencies that allow different departments to work together and talk to each other in emergencies.

Small emergency departments are having trouble ponying up the cash for the upgrades however. On top of the millions it will cost the county to upgrade its infrastructure to become compliant, some county supervisors would like the county to contribute hundreds of thousands more to buy the radios in bulk and create a pool for city, village and town emergency responders to share.

"Let's let the county take that first step and then... let's get together and let's talk some more," Supervisor Ronn Ferrell said. "Here's some money, it's not all of it, but it's a portion of it. We're willing to go this far, now you have to come back to us and we have to work this out. That's the message we need to send."

Other supervisors argued beginning work on infrastructure upgrades should be the county's focus for the coming year. With the deadline to upgrade still several years off, they say there's time yet to look for other options.

"We don't need these radios at this time," Board Chair Scott McDonell said. "We need them before this shift to the new frequencies happens."

The amendment failed on a 14-22 vote.

County Budget: Hour 1


This may be one of those most well-attended local government meetings I have ever covered. The galleries on both sides of the chambers are packed full, and attendees are standing in the wings and at the back of the meeting room.
All totalled, there are at least 150 people in attendance.

"What a beautiful display of democracy we have here tonight," noted Supervisor John Hendrick, who will be chairing the operating budget deliberations.

The county supervisors, for their part, appear to be a little taken aback by the overwhelming attendance at a meeting without a public hearing for attendees to sound off. The throngs of observers are primarily fire and EMS workers lobbying for the county to fund radio upgrades mandated by the federal government, and activists in support of an amendement that would re-route funding from the Sheriff's Department to a program to support immigrants.

The firefighters' presence was no surprise to me. In fact, as I was packing up to leave the office, I heard multiple pages go out over the scanner on various jurisdictions' frequencies to encourage attendance at the meeting.

But the activists' presence was more unexpected, as it was predicated on a previously unannounced amendment to the operating budget. Supervisor Al Matano introduced it as the board's first order of business, and called it a means to "express our concern to the sheriff in a way he would hear...Nothing speaks like dollars."

Matano and several other supervisors have previously expressed displeasure with Sheriff Dave Mahoney for cooperating with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement division in turning over the identifications of illegal immigrants sheriff's deputies encounter.

The motion failed on a 6-30 vote. There was then five minutes of commotion as the activists in support left the room. Several of them joined in a chant on their way out the door, prompting Hendrick to call on the Sergeant at Arms to "enforcement some order, hopefully without calling the police and certainly not the Sheriff's department."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Badger's Eye View

Not much to say this afternoon, but thought I'd share the view from where I'm sitting.

The press box.


UPDATE: I know it's generally considered uncool for a reporter to get excited about things... there's that whole been there, seen that grizzled newshound archetype to live up to... but damnit, I was a Badger before I was a reporter, and I had fun filling in for our sports reporter today. Watching Bucky rally to beat Minnesota 35-32 and being on the field for the celebration put one helluvan exclamation point on a pretty long week.

Having met Tom Oates today, I'm pretty sure he would call me a rube if he read this...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Budget 15:41

As of 2:07 AM, the city of Madison has a working budget for the year 2009 after 15 hours and 41 minutes of discussion.

Through the amendment process, the council added $465,000 to the levy tonight, for a grand total of $165.3 million. For the average Madison homeowner, the property taxes they pay will increase 3.3 percent.

The property tax levy will be 8.29 percent higher than it was last year, but Alder Judy Compton was still encouraged, in light of prior projections that the levy could increase between 12 and 15 percent. She called the council's efforts "heroic."

The budget passed 16-4, with Alders Brenda Konkel, Satya Rhodes-Conway, Marsha Rummel and Robbie Webber dissenting.

"It's going to have a big impact on people throughout the city," Konkel said, "and there's just no way I can vote for a budget that increases the bus fares."

Alder Brian Solomon, who co-sponsored the failed amendment to prevent the bus fare increase, was displeased, but voted for the budget. He said, ultimately, it's still up to the transit commission whether or not fares will actually increase.

"We did not pass a bus fare increase," Solomon said, "We just passed a $642,000 deficit to Metro."

Alder Tim Bruer spoke at length about the 2010 budget, and the challenges he expects the board to have to overcome next year. He maintains the city comptroller's office paints a more dire picture for what's to come.

Budget Meetings: Hour 15


More nuts and bolts in what is definitely to be one of the final hours of the 2009 budgeting process. Most of the city staff and members of the public have packed it in and gone home, but the city council presses on.

The late hour is deifnitely beginning to show. The mayor stepped away from his seat during the bus debate, and has allowed Tim Bruer to fill the seat since then. But Cieslewicz has started eyeing it up again, now that Bruer's started to get on one of his topical pun rolls.

I always seem to enjoy those way more than most in attendance, but I'm a little alarmed myself at how funny I'm finding them right now. The punchiness is setting in.

Budget Meetings: Hour 14

After almost two hours of debate, the City Council voted 12-8 to go ahead with Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's plan to raise Metro bus fares from $1.50 to $2.00, thus generating $240,000 dollars to put toward the Metro reserve fund.

Along with that plan, the council also voted to do away with the city's Clean Air Action days, which have in the past encouraged people to ride the busses whenever atmospheric conditions are such that dangerous amounts of particulate matter are present in the air. Alders and the Mayor agreed that the Clean Air Action days did not significantly increase bus ridership on those days, so the council opted to pocket the $40,000 dollars anually budgeted to fund free bus fares on those days.

Among the hours of heated debate, Mayor Cieslewicz took the stand himself in defense of his plan, which generated almost half of the public comment received at the first night's budget meeting.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Budget Meetings: Hour 12

Brenda Konkel tells me she's been following along with my blog as the meeting has been proceeding. That has to be a little weird for her, if not kind of amusing... kind of like if Bret Bielema were to listen to the radio commentary in that headset he wears on Badger game days.

One of the money saving measures Mayor Dave Cieslewicz put forward in his proposed 2009 budget was to cut four positions from the streets division and, as a result, trim the city's large item trash pickup from weekly to bi-weekly.

However, members of the council voted to reinstate the $231,000 in funding, not necessarily to maintain large item trash pickup service, but to maintain the other services those staff members provide. Streets Superintendent Al Schumacher explained those staff are crucial to leaf pickup and snow cleanup, and any cuts to his department could lead to delays in snow removal in the midst of a big winter storm.

A fifteen minute recess will preceed, hands down, the hottest topic on the agenda -- the increase in bus fares from $1.50 to $2.00.

Budget Meetings: Hour 11


During a brief recess, a couple alders and staff told me they think the mayor plans to run through the entire operating budget tonight. That would be impressive, but it would also mean a late night.

Right now, the council is sinking its teeth into Amendment 25, put forward by Alders Brenda Konkel, Julia Kerr, Marsha Rummel and Brian Solomon to implement a recycling program in city parks. The program would require $50,000 a year to hire a couple of seasonal employees to maintain the recycling containers and buy up some recycling carts to stock in city parks.

Most alders seem to view the amendment favorably, and city Parks Supervisor Kevin Briski and Streets Superintendent Al Schumacher have both spoken out strongly in favor of it. But alders like Joseph Clausius contend adding the program as a budget amendment is the wrong way to go about it, and think it ought to be addressed at a later date.

In response, Alder Brian Solomon at 9:21 amended the amendment to require the program to pass through the Parks Commission and come back before the City Council before being implemented.

But Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, with his strong record on environmentalism, surprised many in the council by speaking against the recycling program. He said, having spoken with Recycling Coordinator George Dreckman, there is a lot of concern that, too often, people in parks will dump regular trash in with the recycling, causing problems down the line for waste management.

"I think there ought to be a different ethic in our parks," Mayor Cieslewicz said. "I think it ought to be, 'Don't throw it away in our parks, pack it out of our parks.' That's the more environmental ethic."

In an 11-9 vote, the motion passed, meaning Madison will begin to take the steps needed to implement a parks recycling program, hingeing on a future council vote to approve it.

In the council chambers, there are a few eyelids beginning to visibly droop.

Budget Meetings: Hour 10


Things have cooled down a little bit, and the city council is moving along through some nuts and bolts amendments to the operating budget.

The board passed an amendment to provide more $23,000 dollars in funding to the Madison Affordable Housing Trust, and overwhelmingly voted down an amendment to dissolve the Capital Revolving Fund, which makes grant money available to property owners looking to make facade improvements to certain buildings.

In spite of the mayor's enthusiastic support of the Madison sister city program, he asked the council NOT to overturn his decision to cut half its funding, and they agreed. Also, the council voted down an amendment that would have removed language from the budget warning of a massive funding cut for Madison's public access channel WYOU in the 2010 and 2011 budget years.

Perhaps most perplexingly, the council voted in favor of adding $60,000 to the budget to provide paid sick leave for hourly city employees. That they voted in favor of the funding is in itself not perplexing -- but Alder Brenda Konkel grilled a city human resources manager on the subject as part of the amendment discussions.

Apparently, the city has voted to provide similar funding for the past three or four years, but the human resources department has never actually made the money available to employees. City employees still get no paid sick time, and the money has just been replaced in the general fund.

It seems human resources directors have simply been unsure what specifications to use when administering paid sick leave to hourly employees, and rather than asking alders for guidance, have simply been avoiding the problem for at least three years.

Konkel expressed subdued outrage at this, and Alder Lauren Cnare and others pledged to take legislative action to make paid sick leave a reality for hourly city employees.

Budget Meetings: Hour 9

Alder Mark Clear, hoping to speed the evening along, moved to lump eight amendments to miscellaneous appropriations into one and place them on file.

It backfired.

An hour later, the council is embroiled in a very heated, very personal debate that occasionally focuses on the appropriations themselves, but more often than not has turned to allegations of "wastefulness," "grandstanding" and "holding the city council hostage." The debate is taking place largely along the council's invisible party lines, ironically with more "conservative" alders accusing the more "liberal" council members of making unnecessary cuts for the sake of showboating.

Those same conservative alders spent a grand total of twenty minutes on the council floor telling other alders they were wasting time.

A number of council members in the middle already seem exasperated by the debate.

"I'm disappointed with the way this evening is starting out," Alder Julia Kerr said. "We're all equals here... I really hope we would refrain from chastising one another and focus on the job."

Amendments 4, 16, 18, 22, 23, 24, 34 and 36 were placed on file at 7:01.

Budget Meetings: Hour 8


Late night last night -- the Council finally recessed at 12:34 in the AM. Things already look to be shaping up late again tonight, and it just seems like it's going to be a late night for me in particular. When I showed up, the seats in back -- the only ones near audio hookups, which we radio folks need and are usually reserved for press -- were all taken, mostly by city staffers. The mayor's spokeswoman suggested I use a folding chair as my workspace. I went out into the hallway and grabbed an eight foot table and set it up in a heavy traffic walkway instead. If I have to suffer, everybody has to suffer.


The city council dived back into its budgeting process a little late at 5:40 this evening, as a number of alders (and reporters) were delayed in their arrival by heavy fog. Immediately off the bat, the council acted on a substitute motion on Alder Brenda Konkel's proposed amendment 15, which would have deleted all funding for Madison's brand new Fire Station #12 on the west side.

Construction of the station actually began earlier this month, with an official groundbreaking ceremony held earlier this week. Konkel says she proposed the original amendment in response to a Wisconsin State Journal editorial criticizing the mayor's decision to include the station in the contentious 2009 budget, but made the motion to place it on file because she couldn't support the amendment herself.

Fire Chief Debra Amesqua, seemingly incensed by the suggestion of delaying work on the project, used the ensuing discussion to rail against the notion the city ought to delay opening the new fire station. She said the project has been years in the works, and the fire department has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing equipment and training the personnel to staff the station.

Westside Alder Paul Skidmore said waiting was not an option for a part of town where fire response times can range up to 20 minutes.

Following discussion, the board voted unanimously to "place on file" amendment 15, effectively guaranteeing the $1.3 million needed to run the new fire station in its first year. Fire officials expect to complete construction and open the new fire house next summer.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Budget Meetings: Hour 6

This is becoming traumatic. One of my stalwart colleagues is clearly beginning to suffer, and I can't say I blame her. I feel the same, but it's clear the madman at the helm of this ship plans to ram her straight through the capital budget in its entirety before he yields.

Coming up on 11:30, the Council is now locked into an intense debate over whether or not to cut $1.2 million for a parking garage downtown until they reach a decision on where to place a possible hotel downtown.

Up until now, they were moving along rather briskly. The Council passed TIF-funded expansions to downtown road reconstructions that will have no impact on the overall budget. Then a spirited debate preceeded the rejection of a $250,000 cut of all the funding to be put toward the development of a Central Park. Overwhelmingly, alders wanted to continue to support the park project in its initial stages, in spite of Alder Jed Sanborn's insistence that it was a luxury that ought to be backburnered until a better budget year.

Budget Meetings: Hour 5

After shooting down a proposal for a $50,000 Neighborhood Traffic Management plan and $50,000 in pedestrian improvements for major streets sponsored by Alders Robbie Webber and Brenda Konkel, the Council is on to the flip side of the coin: the proposals to delay road improvement projects on the city's periphery.

It's already gotten personal. Alder Paul Skidmore accused some members of the council for attacking his and other residents' decisions to live on the outskirts of town, rather than the central city.

Meanwhile, City Engineer Larry Nelson made it very clear he felt the option of delaying the road projects was foolish. He said that decision would jeopardize federal funding already secured for the projects and gum up the works of "environmentally vetting" each project.

Webber, for her part, vehemently defended delaying the projects, calling them a "freight train" the council never had a chance to stop early in the process. She says, in light of the budget circumstances, this is the year "it's appropriate to delay these plans."

The latest manifestation of the age-old battle between downtown and outer neighborhoods continues...

...and goes to the outskirts at 10:18. The motion to delay the road projects failed, 5-15.

Budget Meetings: Hour 4

I can't believe this passed. For parking enforcement to have technology this advanced against us regular folks who try to park in the street... It's like they're bringing a nuke to a knife fight. Mark my words: I'm going to war with parking enforcement.

As of 8:30, public comment has ended. After a ten minute recess and pizza shared by the alders, they're on to the capital budget amendments, and the first item on the agenda is already piquing quite a great deal of interest.

Alders Mike Verveer and Robbie Webber co-sponsored an amendment that would allocate an extra $147,000 to a Vehicle Borne Photo Enforcement project that would equip two parking enforcement vehicles. They call them "auto-chalking" devices, but they're much more complicated than that.

It sounds like the system would automatically record the valve-stem position, license plate information and general car description of every vehicle on the street as the patrol moves through the city. Later, when the jeep moves down the same street, it will compare the information it gathered before to the current information, and automatically target vehicles in violation of parking laws.

Police Chief Noble Wray says the system can allow parking enforcers to issue tickets on scene or keep rolling and log the information away to issue a ticket by mail. Remarkably, he says it also recognizes and tags vehicles that have been reported stolen or had Amber Alerts issued for them.

In response to lagging ticket collection revenues, Alder Robbie Webber says it will help make parking enforcement more efficient in their jobs. She says it's easier and more accurate than manually leaning out of the jeeps and chalking tires to see how long cars are left on the street.

"This measure will absolutely pay for itself," Verveer said.

The amendment passed with only a handful of dissenters.

Budget Meetings: Hour 3

Public comment continues as we move into the third hour of the budget hearings.

Looking ahead to the Capital Budget, it's evident that the weeks since the Mayor released his budget have been a time of drawing battle lines for Madison's alders. Most of the amendments come from two diametrically-opposed factions of Alders.

Alders Robbie Webber, Brenda Konkel and Marsha Rummel all alternately have a hand in a smattering of amendments that would delay seven major road projects by a year, for a combined savings of $3.7 million in 2009.

Meanwhile, Alders Jed Sanborn, Judy Compton and Thuy Pham-Remmele are behind an amendment that strikes $100,000 worth of funding from the Renewable Energy Project. Sanborn, Pham-Remmele and Alder Libby Monsonmade a bold move to remove $250,000 from the budget that was intended to jumpstart the Central Park project between 2009 and 2011. And it was Sanborn, Pham-Remmele, Monson and Alder Michael Schumacher who got together to quash $120,000 from the municipal art fund, which has already drawn protest from several members of the public tonight.

Budget Meetings: Hour 1

Feel like an impromptu civics lesson? Feel free to follow along with my coverage of the City of Madison budget hearing process. Our radio station is launching a new project, but the material I create for it is not available to the general public yet. So I figure, why not share that coverage in a venue where it might get seen by one or two people instead of none... Enjoy!

Also, my friend Kristin Czubkowski from the Cap Times is keeping a minute by minute liveblog of the hearings, if you're die hard enough to follow along. But read MY blog first, because it will irk her somewhat if you do.

So it begins.

The city council led off its budget hearing innocuously enough this evening. Following the 22-hour, three night budget "marathon" of 2007, the council altered the rules governing the hearings a little bit. The game plan is to take all the comments from members of the public in one fell swoop tonight. Once that is out of the way, the board will make what progress it can on the capital budget, or one-time expenditures on items like equipment and facilities.

Right now, there are 28 proposed amendments to the capital budget as it was put forward by the Mayor. The council will go through those and vote them each up or down before proceeding to the operating budget, where there are 45 amendments on the table.

So far, nearly a dozen members of the public have sounded off on budget items; ranging through everything from funding for the arts to the Central Park plan to solar systems. The big topic, unsurprisingly, has been the plan to raise bus fares from $1.50 to $2.00, and the feedback has been exclusively negative.

By the look of the public seating area, we're in for plenty more speakers before the council gets their turn. Most of the alders have water bottles, coffee mugs and snacks at their stations along with the usual clutter of notes, binders and laptops. As I understand it, we'll be here until 10:30 or so, and likely the same time tomorrow night. The progress made between now and then determines how late the meeting goes Thursday night, when the board is slated to FINISH whatever is left of the 73 amendments.

Everyone's settling in for the long haul.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Turning the Corner


I don't have enough time before I have to go to work to adequately describe the emotions I'm feeling this morning, and it would take me a lifetime... generations... to come to terms with the fervor and elation I encountered on State Street last night. All I can do is try to provide a snapshot.

On my way home from work, I swung by State to just kind of get a feel for the downtown and campus reactions to Barack Obama's winning the presidency. I'll be honest as well: after spending the evening in Republican headquarters, I was looking for a few celebratory high fives as well.

I was overwhelmed by what I found.

As I arrived, a spontaneous parade was rending its way down State Street. There were thousands of people, people marching toward the capitol for no reason other than they had no where else to go, but they couldn't go home. They were too elated.

People were standing on the sidewalks chanting. People were running up to strangers and hugging them. People were waving flags, wearing them like capes, wrapping up in them like they were warm, comfortable blankets. High fives were inescapable. Everybody was grinning and laughing. Black folks and white folks were standing arm in arm and just yelling for the hell of it. I'm pretty sure most of them were strangers prior to that night.

My buddies Ben and Branton showed up on the street, and Ben burst into tears immediately. He admitted the waterworks had been going all night.

It was an exciting night for me, and for anyone who takes their love of country and progressivism seriously. For Ben, Branton and me, it marked the end of eight long years of gritting our teeth at misguided foreign policy decisions, an economy fueled by rampant greed and some of the most Paleolithic social beliefs seen in the White House for decades.

Eight years, and we were pushed to the brink. I can only imagine how it felt for the black men and women on the street. They had been waiting for last night a lot longer than eight years.

"This is the first time that the American flag has meant something to me," one young black woman named Maya said. "Today, for the first time."

She was weeping openly.

"I can remember looking up to this as a little boy," a black man, Zack, said with tears shining in his eyes under the street lights, "as a little kid, thinking it was impossible. And this...and then it happens. And it happens!"

"This is our moment," another guy yelled, darting in through a small, growing crowd of people who wanted to tell me their stories and grabbing the proffered microphone. "This is our generation's moment right here!"

He then informed me, "I'm gonna hug you now," and wrestled me into a bear hug as the crowd started to chant, "Yes we did. Yes we did."

And yeah, I guess we did.

It's going to be very easy to be very giddy for the next couple of days, but I hope that the enthusiasm I saw on State Street last night NEVER wears off. One battle is won, and soundly, but the work is only just beginning.

Last night was the night we turned the Titanic, but righting her will take a wholly different struggle. There will be no overnight transition. Our nation is in bad shape, and it will take more than the enthusiastic supporters who rallied in the streets, in the bars, in their homes last night to restore our country to what it once was, and then better it further.

That... that belief that there is no end to the quest for self-betterment... That is the America we were raised to believe in, and that's what we have to remember as a nation striking out for these next four years, and, indeed, the future of our America.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

My Favorite Holiday

Honestly, it feels more like a party than election day.

Here in Madison, nobody's somber, nobody's out to just do their civic duty. Everybody's out with a purpose, and everybody feels good. On my way to work, there was a man on ten-foot stilts dancing at the corner of East Wash and Paterson holding a sign for Obama. Outside of Fitchburg city hall, there was an accordian and tuba duet set up playing oom-pa-pa music. Every other block on Fish Hatchery road are people waving signs and balloons.

Everybody is smiling.

Happy election day.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Back Off My Vote

Honestly, I'm a little sad that I voted early. If I were going to the polls tomorrow, I would be just ITCHING to take a swing at the first overzealous votary, fascist thug or state Attorney General who tried to step into my way.

Four years ago was the first time I ever got to vote in a Presidential election. As we all know, that didn't turn out so well, but at the time I cast my vote, it was honestly the most excited I had ever been about anything political.

One of my favorite sayings is that, "If you're not pissed off, you're not paying attention." In November of 2004, I was paying attention and I was very, very pissed off. I was not pleased to be mired in a fledgling quagmire we had been told was a "Mission Accomplished," I was alarmed with rising corporate irresponsibility and I was deeply concerned about the declining state of the middle class.

Four years later, not much has changed -- certainly not our President. The heinous brew that was the state of our nation in 2004 has sat for four years, and it has stewed, it's fermented and ripened like a neglected trash can.

When I cast my vote in 2004, I did it with the giddy little thrill of a middle schooler flipping the bird at his least favorite science teacher. But when I turned over my absentee ballot this year, I was solemnly satisfied and calmly defiant. I won't say I was quite confident, but I felt pretty darn good.

Suffice it to say, had anyone tried to prevent me from doing the civic duty every American should take a maniacal pleasure in, violence would have ensued.

More than the reports of our esteemed Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen and his cronies hanging around polling places like the Hamburglar trying to steal people's votes, the fact that there are people who take their right to vote as seriously as I do makes me glad Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney is assigning some of his community deputies to stop in at polling places and make sure there is no undue interference being put before voters. I sincerely hope more sheriff's offices in the state are following Mahoney's lead, because the last thing we need after the past eight years is an election day marred by disenfranchisement and violence.

Mahoney told us at the radio station that the County Clerk, Bob Ohlsen, and a number of town and village clerks asked him to have deputies check in to make sure everything was going smoothly. He said, between the state Republican Party assigning intimidating poll watchers to stand guard and the Attorney General dispatching his goon squad to do the same, many clerks are worried help will be needed to chase away potential usurpers.

"We will not be precluding people's free speech," Mahoney told Sly, "but we will not allow people to disrupt the voting process and to stand in the way and intimidate those individuals who come out and exercise their right to vote."

Mahoney said he himself does not expect there to be any serious trouble in Dane County, but his deputies will be watching out for it if there is. Personally, I love the thought of dispatching the authorities to intimidate anyone who was thinking about trying to intimidate voters.

The mental image of J. B. Van Hollen getting dragged away from an inner city polling place in cuffs is just as sweet.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Take the Candy and Run

Sometimes, I just long for the Halloweens of my youth.

This isn't to say I haven't thoroughly enjoyed each of the successive five Halloween celebrations since I moved to Madison. I've partied up and down State Street, as far West as Walnut Street and as far East as Butler Street, as far South as Vilas Avenue and as far north as...well, Lake Mendota, I guess.

Yes, we jumped in.

You see, each celebration has been unique in its own way, with wild, scarcely believable, individually unique stories to accompany them. Sure, I will refuse 'til my dying day to call Halloween on State that ridiculous term they coined for it, but I will attend, wear a costume and laugh myself stupid.

But in spite of all the fun there is to be had in this town on the closest Saturday to October 31, I will never accept Madison as the end-all-be-all of Halloween. That honor is reserved for Monroe, my hometown, and the carefree innocence of Halloween when I was young.

And by carefree innocence, I really mean unsupervised, unfettered, unbridled mayhem.

I believe I was 13 or 14 at the time of the tale I will now impart. I was at that stage in every boy's life when he begins to learn who he is as a man, and it was slowly dawning on me that I was somewhere between a hellion and a criminal mastermind.

I wasn't alone. Like every neighborhood in the Smalltown Midwest prior to the invention of the Playstation, ours was inhabited by a roving band of troublemakers. I won't name any names, because like me, a number of them have gone on to lead rather legitimate lives. But I will say, at my age now, I would have been terrified to live in the midst of the subdivision that was our adolescent playground.

Halloween rolled around that year, and half a dozen of us assembled in somebody's garage to lay our evening's plan for battle. We were at that age where, were we to ring a doorbell and exclaim, "Trick or treat," eyebrows would rise. All of us were too young to drive, but too old to play the cute card. Yet not a one of us was willing to let a favorite holiday pass by without "earning" "our share" of free candy from the neighbors.

So we schemed. And after we schemed, we went into the house and got on of the guys' kid brother, "Donny," who was all of 10 years old and dressed up in one of those big, plump pumpkin costumes. We told Mr. and Mrs. Donny we would take him trick-or-treating so they could stay in and sit by the fire, and they thanked us with a plate of brownies.

Then, after promising Donny an equal cut in the action, we waited.

By about eight o'clock, the neighborhood was primed for our scheme. It was dark, the number of legitimate trick-or-treaters was dwindling and neighborhood denizens were beginning to settle into their couches for a couple hours of primetime before bed. We struck out, a half dozen black-clad wraiths and one pumpkin, cute as a button, with a light-up trick-or-treat bag.

The first home must have had no idea what hit them.

"Mrs. Johnson" was a pleasant woman in her early fifties, and a teacher at the high school. I imagine she was just plopping a few marshmallows into her hot cocoa, because it was a chilly night, when the doorbell rang.

"Oh my," she likely called to her husband in the basement. "Must be one last trick-or-treater at the door."

On her way to the front entrance, she grabbed the large bowl of Halloween goodies perched on the bannister, only half depleted after an entire evening's worth of ghouls and goblins. Ours was a fairly middle class neighborhood, and a trick-or-treater could always count on the neighbors to have about ten times more candy on hand than they actually needed. And they always did.

Opening the door, Mrs. Johnson glowed down at the round, rosy-cheeked little pumpkin standing on her doorstep. "Trick or treat?" Donny bellowed, grinning up at her with an innocent 10-year-old's imperfect smile.

"Aren't you just adorable," she cooed automatically. "I'll tell you what. Just because it's getting so late, I'll give you two candy bars."

"Thank you!" Donny blurted, just as we had instructed him.

Mrs. Johnson furrowed her brow and glanced at her watch, then allowed her eyes to dart about the front yard. It was a dark, moonless night, and she could have sworn she had heard snickering in one of the hedges out front.

"It's getting kind of late," she cautioned Donny, eyes still narrowed. "You ought to go straight home."

"Thank you," Donny rapped out again, and turned to leave. With one last glance around the yard, she began to swing the heavy door closed, until she heard Donny cry out.

From the hedges, from the street and from the side of the house, black-clad figures swooped in on the bouncing little pumpkin, surrounding him and knocking him to the ground. His legs kicked impotently in the air from within his costume as the teenage hooligans pried at, then wrested the light-up candy bag from his arms.

Within moments it was over, leaving the 10-year-old laying in Mrs. Johnson's front yard, the faint echo of a sniffle emanating from within the Day-glo pumpkin costume.

"Are you all right," screeched Mrs. Johnson, tearing out across the front yard to Donny's aid. She helped him sit up and saw there were tears running down his face.

"Th-th-they t-t-took my c-c-candy," he stammered between sobs.

"Well, we'll just see about that," she said, leading him back to the front porch and disappearing through the front door. Mrs. Johnson reappeared at once with a plastic shopping bag, into which she unceremoniously dumped the remainder of the candy dish and three unopened bags of individually-wrapped chocolates.

"Now here you go," she said, patting him on the head, "and you walk home quickly and carefully, do you understand?"

"Yes ma'am," Donny said, his tears dried and the grin shining once more. "THANK YOU."

We met the kid halfway down the block, high-fiving him for his performance and dumping the loot into a pillow sack. That pillow sack, which we stashed in a nearby sewer grate, became our base of operations for the next hour and a half, as we terrorized neighbor after neighbor with what would forever after be known as the Pumpkin Con.

We must have run that bit on over a dozen people. By the time we headed home for the night, we had amassed enough loot for each of us to carry home our own full pillow sack, and Donny got a double share.

And it's true what they say: candy won is sweeter than candy earned.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Car Did It


Today, gentle reader, I would like to call your attention to a case study in Wisconsin being the weirdest state in the whole of the Union.

Attached to this blog post, you will find the image of a screen capture I took while doing some research on a story today. It is part of the rather lengthy RAP sheet of one Brian J Britz, which you can find using the state of Wisconsin's CCAP. Specifically, this screenshot refers to the Milwaukee County case numbered 2000CV009662, which just so happens to be something of a mystery.

Not only does this file list none of the details regarding the charges or sentences that were brought against Mr. Britz in 2000 (rather, this one specific case in 2000...Mr. Britz was in court multiple times in 2000), but it lists as his co-defendent a 1990 Oldsmobile Regal.

Whatever it was Mr. Britz was charged with, his accomplice was a car.

Now it's not that I don't find Mr. Britz's recent exploits interesting. While the original story (link above) credits him with achieving his 10th DUI, there was some speculation later in the day among various sources that it may have been his 11th, or even his 12th, and even in Wisconsin, most people get it figured out by their 5th or 6th.

But to have committed a crime and been aided or abetted by an automobile...that's something I just don't see in my usual day-to-day diggings. I must admit this story has captured my imagination and rivetted my curiosity, and I am vowing now to find more answers.

Also, there's the matter that Oldsmobile never manufactured the Regal line -- that was a Buick model. A quick run of the VIN on Carfax returns the car as a 1990 Oldsmobile Regency, another unfortunate line from that same time period. It's surprising the car was even still running when 2000 rolled around, but I guess it just adds to the enigma.

Until I can get my open records request into the Milwaukee County DA's office (and wait several months for a reply), however, there's nothing to stop me or anyone else from wildly, irresponsibly speculating what this absurdity of a CCAP case entry might mean. It certainly opens up a number of questions.

First and foremost, did the Milwaukee County District Attorney's office seriously charge an inanimate object with a crime, or is this more like something out of Stephen King, where the car was possessed by some kind of evil spirit and went on a killing rampage?

Was the Regency given a jury trial, or did it take a plea deal? What happened to it after its time in court? Was it locked up in a salvage yard until it paid its debt to society? Is it free now? Was it put to death in the smelting chamber?

I think it's likely from the Regal/Regency discrepency that this case involved some kind of identity fraud on the part of the car, Mr. Britz or both. Perhaps the Regency was an illegal immigrant... rrr, import... and Britz arranged to have it smuggled into the country via Great Lakes container ship, though how he would be clever enough to accomplish that in the midst of racking up ten (or more) DUIs goes beyond my comprehension.

I would certainly be interested in any other theories there might be as to what this is all about, as long as they're not boring and grounded in fact.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

JB = pwned

Far be it from me to partake of an internet meme, but... well...


Sometimes I just can't resist.

In case you didn't hear, Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi pulled the trigger and removed the judicial bowel obstruction that was J. B. Van Hollen's lawsuit. Read all about it in the Wisco State Journal.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Good Ol' (McCarthy) Days


In our country, there's a war that has been raging for centuries.

The stakes are high, the factions too numerous to count and the skirmishes frequent, but there are no visible casualties -- at least not recently. There likely will never be a final victor, yet the battle rages on to stake a claim on what it means to be "American."

Over the past decade, I've grown used to the Rush Limbaughs, the Sean Hannitys and the Bill O'Reillys of the world. I have no time personally for these snake oil salesmen of freedom, who pay lip service to the "Ideals Our Country was Founded On" while using their views on what constitutes "American" as a cudgel to bludgeon the opposition into submission. I believe these men and women pose a danger to those very ideals through the damage their single-minded simplicity has done to what passes for a modern discourse in this country, but that damage is not irreparable, and I think their relevence is beginning to fade.

But more dangerous to those ideals than the talking heads are the American leaders who not only stake a claim on what it means to be "American," but seek to persecute those who don't follow in their views. Here in Wisconsin, our collective memory tends to glaze over half a decade's history when Senator Joseph McCarthy is mentioned. Let's face it: his reign of terror is about as much a point of pride as Hitler's rise to power is to Germany.

Well, there must be something in the Great Lakes water supply, because once again a Midwestern member of Congress wants to investigate those who aren't "American" enough for her tastes.

In an interview with Chris Matthews on Hardball, Republican Representative Michele Bachmann told Matthews the media ought to investigate members of Congress and out those with "Anti-American views." She repeatedly conflated being un-American with leftism and liberalism, inferring that Presidential candidate Barack Obama and other leaders in Congress subscribed to those "Anti-American views."

Anti-American? What the hell is that? Do they hate apple pie? Do they watch soccer instead of baseball? Or maybe they're anti-American like those pesky members of the media who eventually started asking questions after the nation went to war in Iraq.

Bachmann's ridiculous assertions -- firstly, that any one person is even qualified to define what it means to be American, and secondly, that holding a certain line of political views can make anyone un-American when the very principles our country was founded on necessitate a broad, free marketplace of diverse ideas -- are unfortunately not as extremist as they ought to be. Indeed, one of the candidates for the second highest office in the country has been parroting the same load of rubbish at rallies around the country.

Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who ought never be allowed to run for any office more crucial than dog catcher, told a crowd, "Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists..."

So there you have the first two parts of what it means to be Anti-American. If you look at your country and see anything that's less than perfect, or if you've ever carried on a civilized conversation with someone that could be characterized as a left-wing extremist, you're Anti-American.

Following Palin and Bachmann's logic, the very framers of our constitution were Anti-American, in that they sought "to form a more perfect Union." "More perfect" denotes less than perfect, and no real American would ever go so far as to suggest America comes up anywhere short of infallible. And the framers certainly kept the company of some lefty radicals.

Maybe that explains the disdain Americans like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have had for our constitution in recent years. But by these standards, I'm anti-American as well, and that doesn't sit well with me.

You see, I love my country too much to let cretins like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rush Limbaugh steal the notion of "love of country" out from under me. I'd wager they couldn't figure out how to properly fold the American flag between the three of them.

I have a number of ideas I think could help America become a better country. Yes, this means I think it has shortcomings. The beauty of America comes in surmounting those obstacles as we have in the past, with hard work and cooperation. Turning a blind eye to problems by being "wild about America," as Bachmann put it, does nothing to improve our condition.

Sometimes it takes radical thinking to solve problems, and sometimes it doesn't. I keep friends who could constitute radicals on either side of the political spectrum, and I feel I am a stronger American for it. Anyone who would spurn an idea or individual offhand is unfit to lead, and that makes the whole debate about the William Ayerses, the Reverend Wrights, completely irrelevent.

I don't know what constitutes being "American," but I know it requires a good deal more open-mindedness than Michele Bachmann exhibited when she told Chris Matthews, "On college campuses...you find people who hate America, and unfortunately these people have positions teaching in higher learning, but you'll find them in all walks of life."

The only people who have anything to fear in an open marketplace of ideas are those whose beliefs run skin deep. And nobody who seeks to better our country as they see it is Anti-American.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Depths Update

In reference to my earlier post from today about the sleazy robo-call:

Wisconsin Republican Party Spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski told our radio station: "I guess I wouldn't call it an attack. I think that it's a responsibility for John McCain and Govenor Palin as well as the Republican Party to put the questions out there. Let the voters decide. But they can't decide for themselves if they don't have the information, and it is our job to get the information to the voters."

Spoken more like Fox News than a thinking, rational human being. Note the two exclude each other completely.

Next up: Wisconsin Democratic Party Spokesman Alec Loftus, with a slam-dunk rebuttal that will finally get these mouthpieces to shut the hell up: "That's interesting. I don't think we have any comment at this time, but we'll call you if we do."

Loftus, get the hell off your lazy ass and shut these toolbags down. Obama ballsed it out and addressed the issue head-on in his debate last night, so you can too.

This is an opening. Use it.

Uncharted Depths

Republican National Committee?!? I know I don't hold high expectations for you, but WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!? NO. BAD. INAPPROPRIATE. Do I have to rub your nose in this before you'll learn?

This is the latest robo-call going out to Wisconsin residents from the rightie camp. We got a couple of callers who told us about it before one intrepid listener called in with a recording off his answering machine. It first aired on (insert requisite plug) Sly's show on AM 1670 WTDY.



I'm tied up with a busy day at work. Hopefully I'll have time to post on this later. In the meantime, work this around the blogging community so somebody else can make the uproar it deserves.

Unacceptable.

***4:25 update, also posted above***

Wisconsin Republican Party Spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski told our radio station: "I guess I wouldn't call it an attack. I think that it's a responsibility for John McCain and Govenor Palin as well as the Republican Party to put the questions out there. Let the voters decide. But they can't decide for themselves if they don't have the information, and it is our job to get the information to the voters."

Spoken more like Fox News than a thinking, rational human being. Note the two exclude each other completely.

Next up: Wisconsin Democratic Party Spokesman Alec Loftus, with a slam-dunk rebuttal that will finally get these mouthpieces to shut the hell up: "That's interesting. I don't think we have any comment at this time, but we'll call you if we do."

Loftus, get the hell off your lazy ass and shut these toolbags down. Obama ballsed it out and addressed the issue head-on in his debate last night, so you can too.

This is an opening. Use it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Falling Off the Wagon


Well, way to go Wisconsin, I hope you're happy. With the latest Quinnipiac University polls showing Wisconsin going to Barack Obama by a solid 17 point margin, and less than three weeks to go before election day, many of the pundits have officially taken Wisconsin out of the "undecided" category.

For shame. I thought you knew better.

You could have been more racist, like Missourri, West Virginia or North Carolina. You could have been more noncommital, like Ohio, Indiana or Nevada. You even could have been more clueless, like our neighbors in Minnesota, which is only leaning Blue. But no, you had to go and swing 17 points in Barack Obama's favor, slipping from battleground to conquered ground, and now you're just out of luck.

There's an old saying that holds particularly true in Wisco: why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? Barack Obama knows he's got Wisconsin's dairy in his hip pocket, so now, we get backburnered.

I'm being completely facetious, of course. The fact is I'm actually so excited about the new numbers, I'm actually allowing myself to get a good feeling about November's election. While it is by no means in the bag for Obama (I doubt neither the Democrats' collective abilities to bollox it up, nor the Republicans' willingness to sink to as-of-yet uncharted lows in the final weeks of election season), I took an as of yet unprecedented step in my life this evening.

Following dinner, I cautiously hung a Barack Obama cling on my front window, then allowed myself a moment to bask in... well, the audacity of my hope.

What I find so damn disappointing about Wisconsin's swing to the Obama camp is that it does knock us down a little ways in the order of importance among other contested states. In 2004, Wisconsin went to John Kerry by a mere four-tenths of a percentage point. As a critical state tottering on the precipice of common sense and mass delusion, we were treated to a massive rally that packed West Washington Avenue for blocks, featuring John Kerry himself and 80,000 supporters from all walks of life.

This afternoon, as a critical state that has stepped back from the edge of madness, assessed the drop and built a house in the valley instead, we were treated to a rousing pep talk that packed the capitol steps, featuring... John Kerry... and some college kids...

And I had high hopes, too, for the late October rally I had pictured in my head for this year. I'm sorry, but after the 2004 let-down that followed the single most exciting event of my adult life to date, I was thrilled by the idea of replacing that memory with one of Barack Obama, his preacher's voice booming across city blocks, whipping the crowd into a delirious frenzy and shaking off the icicles of despair that have accumulated these past eight years.

So if you get a phone call from a pollster in the next couple of weeks, you tell them you're undecided. Because Obama's speech at the Kohl Center in February was fantastic -- it's the kind of thing that will keep you talking until the November 4th election. But a Barack Obama speech in the 2008 election home stretch could be something to tell your Grandkids about someday.

We still have a lot of work to do to bring Wisconsin in for Barack Obama -- like Kerry said at his rally today, vote early, and then TALK TO PEOPLE about who they're voting for, or whether they're voting at all -- but we've covered a lot of ground as well. And damnit, we deserve to be in on the celebration in the final days before what will hopefully be a long-sought turning point for our country.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Last Chance to Shine


This entry in my blog details the most aggravating day of the fall, followed by the most extravagant.

Saturday:

First of all, I ought to be shot.

Saturday very well could have been the last beautiful day we'll have in Southern Wisconsin for six months for all I knew, and certainly the most beautiful day we've had in almost a month. Villain that I am, I took a young man in his prime and made him spend the body of it sitting in a closet lined with blankets, with all sound from the outside world drowned out in headphones as he stared at a small screen that showed him snippets of the same video clips over and over and over and over.

Had I been Eric Plantenberg on Saturday, I would have shot me. As it was, I wanted to shoot me anyway for keeping myself inside all day, and I wasn't the one stuck in a closet. But this guy troopered it out, and he deserves mad respect.

Eric's the leading man in The Big Film We've Been Working On, and with a fine cut pieced together, it's my job to fix the dialogue that didn't take the first time around. For that, there's the highly repetitive process known as ADR, which we sort of managed to pull off at my house.

Basically, lacking any budget at all, I took a little utility closet in my one bedroom flat and lined it with blankets to reduce noise bleed and echo. I ran a microphone from the closet into my digital recorder, and a computer monitor in from my laptop. Somehow, I managed to find room in the closet for Eric and a chair, set up some speakers to output from the digital recorder, and we were able to roll tape.

I was really happy with the final product we had. The audio is as clean as if we'd recorded in a full-fledged recording studio...so clean, in fact, we'll probably have to muddy it up some so it doesn't stand out from the rest of the audio when we dump it into the mix.

But I must have counted down, "3-2-1," I estimate, somewhere on the order of a thousand times. We bagged 138 lines, at an average of 7-8 takes a line, and it took us a good six or seven hours to finish it. I was happy with how productive we were, but nursing a hangover and sleep deprived as I was, I was mostly just a crotchety bastard by the end of the day.

Sunday:

Contrast Saturday, cooped up inside with a grudge against the world, against Sunday, and it's like I had a bipolar weekend. As a rule, I'm convinced there's something magical about the last day before winter sets in, and I'll usually go out of my way to spend it outdoors if I have a hunch the end is near.

My buddy Kyle and I gassed up the bikes (read: motorcycles) Sunday and headed southwest into Green, Iowa and Lafayette Counties. If you've never been into this part of the state before, know this: there's nothing there, save a few small towns and the rolling hills and valleys of the driftless region, marred only by the snaking ribbon of Highway 151.


View Larger Map

For the sake of scenery, we avoided main roads like 151, choosing instead to improvise a route along the more rural roads. Let's face it: they're more peaceful, they're prettier and they're a lot more fun to ride. Leaning into turns, climbing, banking, falling, weaving, it's probably the closest I can ever get to being a fighter pilot with my political views, my conscience and our nation's political climate.

We chose Darlington because Kyle said he had a friend, Silas, whose family had a farm down there. He said we were invited to drop in, take a look around and maybe grab a bite to eat. I have some rural roots myself, and I never shy away from the chance to get a bit of shit on my boots.

Turns out, the family had a "farm" there, and a gorgeous one at that. Silas's parents are very well-established in the Darlington community. His mother is the Lafayette County District Attorney, and his father is part owner of Lafayette County's Memorial Hospital. While the "farm" did have livestock and crops, this was no plant-the-proceeds operation struggling to get by. It was an estate, a rural paradise, and we were welcomed with open arms and a healthy dollop of small town hospitality.

Silas's mother greeted us in the kitchen, clad in denim bib overalls and a red bandana. As she cooked (we offered to help prepare the meal, but she said everything we could have helped with had already been done), she told us the household had been living off its own produce for the past couple of months. For the basics, they still had to rely on the grocery store in town, but the only thing in the meal we ate that hadn't been raised on their land was the rice and the spices.

The meal itself was divine. Silas fried up a hamsteak the size of a boogey board, then divied it up on a serving plate. Another friend of his, an Indian grad student, whipped up some authentic curry that I could have eaten by the pound had it not been for the polite company. Some rice, fresh greens and home-bottled sparkling water topped off the setting.

As we were carrying plates out to the picnic table, the phone rang. With a glance at the caller ID, Silas's mom shrugged off the phone call. "It's about the campaign," she said nonchalantly, referring to her own bid for re-election as DA. Clearly, this was a family that feels the way I do about the last day before winter sets in.

Silas's Dad, an MD, "came in from the fields" for dinner as well. He had been out working doing some trenching on the land. After dinner, the young twenty-something contingent of our troupe walked the back pasture, looked at the cattle, hiked down along a crick and scoped out a four-ton oak that had blown down in a wind storm and needs to be removed. When I left, I was heartily able to say I was pleased to have made their acquaintance.

The day began with next to no expectations. By the time I put the bike in the shed for the night, I had ridden 150 miles through gorgeous autumn countryside, met some good honest hard-working people and fallen in love, again, with the state I've grown up in.

Now, as winter closes in, I'll find new reasons to despise it, but I'll never really be able to hate living in Wisconsin. I think that's part of the beauty that is life here. The lows are pretty damn miserable, as last winter's record snowfall will exhibit, but they only serve to elevate the already dizzying highs... higher.

I miss summer already.