Monday, June 30, 2008

Out of the Doorway

I haven't even had a chance to really react to the apparent capture of one murder suspect, and there's already another new body to take the last one's place. This is nuts.

I have to go help a buddy move, so I must be brief this evening. But the top three things on my radar screen remain Joel Marino's alleged killer, finding ANY answers at all about Kelcey Fike's murder in Nebraska and, now, the Marcus Hamilton murder. And like any reporter worth his or her weight in gasoline, I've got plenty of questions about each.

Firstly, if we had to have another murder in Madison, I'm glad it wasn't another "stranger homicide." Call me insensitive, but I'm not the only one who breathed a sigh of relief when police said Hamilton's murderers were there simply to get him. Be it gambling debts, be it a personal grudge, be it a gangland hit, those two thugs were killers on a mission. It still rankles me to see this sort of thing turn up in my town, obviously, but this isn't the sort of random violence that could be waiting in some back alley for my little sister.

I hope police get it sorted out quickly, and I hope the thugs get put away forever. But if the cops don't catch these two guys, at least we know they're not out there waiting to strike again. They're long gone, and probably won't set foot in Wisconsin ever again.

With regards to Adam Peterson, who is now being held here in Madison at the Dane County jail, District Attorney Brian Blanchard has me absolutely baffled. They have their suspect in custody. They've managed to extradite him to Madison. They've got DNA evidence tying him to the murder weapon. Rumor has it they even have a confession out of him. So why the secrecy?

The State Journal (link above) says Blanchard has ordered the Minnesota search warrant that allowed police to obtain Peterson's DNA sample to be sealed. It strains logic, because by the time Peterson makes his initial appearance in court sometime this week, they will have had to update the criminal complaint and most likely release that information that way. They have to. The criminal complaint as it stands right now is incredibly weak; or as a certain Madison newspaper reporter leaned over and said to me at the press conference Friday, "A defense attorney with half a brain could drive a truck through this thing."

One almost begins to wonder if Blanchard doesn't just have a flare for the dramatic. I've begun to suspect he has designs on marching into court this week to trumpet fanfare and pulling his case out of a top hat with a flourish of his cape. Anything less, any leaked bit of information, would really ruin that final effect, you know?

Whatever. More details HAVE TO come out when the Peterson case hits court. It's the way it works. I can live with that. What's really irking me is that TWO WEEKS have gone by since police found my old high school acquaintance Kelcey Fike dead in a burned out trailer. Since then, they've said it's a murder. They haven't said peep beyond that, that I can tell in the vastness of the internet. In fact, as of tonight, if you google her name, MY POST from a week and a half ago is the first hit that pops up.

That should tell you something right there if the half-crazed incoherent ravings of an overstressed radio anchor draw more hits and links than any of the reports coming from media outlets to the West. The Kearney Police haven't told the papers or the broadcasters out there anything, so they've got nothing to work with. I presume most of the media outlets have just written the story off. Trust me, it takes a lot of effort to build a decent story when the authorities won't cooperate.

It's a sin I've been guilty of myself...hell, I'm guilty of it right now, but I have a full time job in a market hundreds of miles from the crime scene to blame for that. Of course, I would lay good money the media outlets in that neck of the woods are understaffed and over-worked, like they are everywhere.

In my last post on the subject, I said I wouldn't be able to work on this story because of my personal connection to it. I take that back. The more I have to sit idly back while the information lockdown continues, the more I wish I was out there digging on it. I want to do it for her friends and family, so they can have some damn closure...not an end to the nightmare, but at least the segueway to the next part.

An annonymous commenter on my previous entry about Kelcey said it better than I can. They wrote: "Sometimes the police are far too closed lipped about facts that could help families to heal--especially when the departments in many cases never solve the crime anyway. Perhaps it is healing that we need in this society, healing and more love. But without any sort of closure all the secrets breed is hate and anger."

Kearney Police have scheduled a press conference tomorrow, bright and early. It sounds like Kelcey's parents will be there, as well. I hope to God the police have something to say that helps them... and her brother John... and my friend Sarah, who grew up next door to her... and every other person who knew her in Monroe.

I've had enough of hate and anger.

And in case you were wondering, I have other interests that don't involve things as black and morbid as ongoing murder investigations. For instance, tomorrow, there's a new Alkaline Trio album coming out that I hope to review on this blog...

...okay, bad example of how I can be not black and morbid... But in spite of it all, I'm still excited about the new album.

Friday, June 27, 2008

on the way out the door

Wow... I'm just heading out to the press conference, and this comes out. This is bizarre.

PS, I opted to bypass the tie for sanity's sake. It's going to be a long enough day already.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Eat, Sleep and Breathe it

In light of everything that's happened the past couple of weeks, I guess it makes sense we were due for some good news. But as I head into tomorrow's press conference, I would just like to state for the record how godawfully tired I am of the words "murder," "homicide" and "slaying."In fact, with the number of high-profile killings I'm trying to keep my finger on the pulse of, I'm going to have to create some new synonyms or risk appearing inarticulate.

Madison Police announced today they have a suspect in custody for the murder of Joel Marino. I couldn't be happier at this news, and if it turns out to indeed be the killer, an entire corps of detectives deserves a barrage of back slaps, a standing ovation and a staggering round of drinks. The Capital Times is reporting they tracked the suspect down by poring over mental health records, through which they found a man who matched a suspect seen the day of Marino's death. A detective personally made the trip to Minnesota and interviewed the man, who, supposedly, admitted to killing Marino.

If this turns out to be legitimate, the sheer amount of grunt police work that went into this find is staggering. I am in awe of the lengths to which Madison's detective corps went for this case, and they are indeed a credit to the badges they wear.

With that much said, I can't help but take note that, even on what should by all accounts be a turning point for the Madison cops, the relationship between the press and the police is as strained as ever. Indeed, the press release that kicked the entire Madison media body into action late this afternoon was almost antagonistically simple.

Officer Mike Hanson didn't write much -- about half a page, in fact -- and what he did say was short, vague and to-the-point. In a nutshell, it read, "We've arrested a guy somewhere in Minnesota, we're extraditing him, and we're not saying anything else until the press conference tomorrow." And as any reporter in town will tell you, the department has been on information lockdown ever since.

I understand the need to get a whole lot of work done by tomorrow morning. I applaud the men and women who are still hunched over their desks as I type this in my flannel pants and the comfort of my own home. But isn't that what you hire a guy like Joel Despain for? Isn't the point of paying a public information officer having someone to act as the lone go-between for the police and the press so the cops can grind away at work while only occasionally fielding questions from someone who's already caught up on all but the latest developments?

Funny thing, that, actually. In what can simply be described as one of the most enviable occurences of fortuitous timing in public relations history, Joel Despain has been on vacation for a good week or two. A number of other regulars at the Madison Police Department have been filling in for him, including Officer Mike Hanson, Officer Howard Payne and Lt. Jerry Tomczak. I don't think any of them knew what they were getting into when they volunteered for that duty.

But back to the issue. Half a million people (excepting, I guess, the radio DJ who walked into our newsroom today and asked who Joel Marino was) in the Madison area have been thirsting for answers in an information dessert for months, and the police this afternoon handed them a shot glass of Tang and said, "We'll get you another round tomorrow."

In the mad flurry of phone calls I made after we received that email, I ended up on the horn with Minneapolis Police Department Sgt. Jesse Garcia. He was incredibly helpful, to the extent he was able, at least. In the span of a half hour, he dispatched a dozen phone calls to determine the suspect was NOT, in fact, arrested in Minneapolis. Yes, we were very strapped for leads.

When we touched base later, after the initial frenzy had settled down, we had a moment to chat. Garcia mentioned he had been on the phone with a few Madison police just to make sure this case was not one his department should be aware of. He even kidded me a little, "It doesn't sound like they want to talk to you right now. You've been too rough on them."

It's a universal misperception that hits reporters the most. When one newspaper, radio or TV station reports something, the perception quickly becomes, "It's the media out to get us..." As in, "every one of you bastards with a press pass."

In this case, I personally was guilty as charged, so I laughed about it. I explained that, yes, a number of us in the media had taken some pot shots at the police administration for what I still consider to be an overzealous approach to controlling the information about these stranger murders. I told him about Kelly Nolan, who turned up dead a year ago, and how her family, friends and neighbors still don't even know how she died.

I expressed my belief that an informed public is a public armed to defend itself -- maybe even help police catch the perpetrators -- and he agreed with me. "Yeah, it sounds like they could really do a lot more to work with you guys on this," Garcia told me.

He explained to me that his desk is located in the Minneapolis Chief of Police's office. He is privy to attend meetings with the Chief, and they work very closely with the press to release as much information as possible. When I told him how Madison Police Chief Noble Wray subverted public information officer Joel Despain by keeping him out of the loop early in the Brittany Zimmermann case and going around him to announce a week into the case her door had been broken down, Garcia was bemused.

"That doesn't sound very effective," he said.

"It's a miserable way to play the game," I agreed.

"Should it really be a game though?" he asked, then caught himself. "I mean, I guess it kind of is any way you play it. But aren't the police and the press ultimately in it for the same reason?"

He's right, we agreed. After all, I could be making a whole lot more money as...well, just about anything that's not a reporter, but I chose this line of work for now as a means to better society as I see it. "Knowledge is power," and I want to protect the public, just as the police do in their own way. Sometimes the means to that end differ between the media and the authorities, but those differences are out of control in Madison.

Granted it's skewed, but from my viewpoint, the police started what's become a bitter, even spiteful tug-of-war game with all the facts as a rope. The harder we pull, the harder they pull back, to the point where we're picking battles over some pretty petty issues.

So tomorrow is a big day for Madison's police department. The men and women who have helped bring this suspect into custody still have a lot of work ahead of them, but they'll finally get some of the credit they're long overdue.

The police administration has a chance to shed a whole lot of information on a case that has, quite frankly, been scaring the crap out of people for far too long. It's certainly possible they'll simply hand out another vague page of information and spit out a few useless soundbites, but I'm hopeful this press conference will mark a new information modus operandi for the Marino case, if not the unsolved murders altogether.

One thing's for certain: I'd probably better wear a tie to work tomorrow.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

a Little Shaken Up

Bad news travels fast, they say. That's how it worked out that it took me a year to find out my old classmate Kelcey Fike had moved out to Nebraska, and only about a day to find out she was dead.

Murdered, actually, is what they're saying now. Authorities arrived early Tuesday morning and found her home on fire, and so for a couple days they allowed the story to persist that it was an accidental death. But in a press conference on Thursday, the Kearney Police said that's not so much the case. Apparently, autopsy results show the cause of death to have been something else entirely.

Of course, the police are playing it tight-lipped with the details. Quite honestly, they haven't said shit, and for Kelcey's friends back here in Wisconsin, it's maddening.

A couple of months ago, I invested a good deal of effort in lambasting the Madison Police Department for their reprehensible lack of transparency in the unsolved murders of Kelly Nolan, Joel Marino and Brittany Zimmermann. In fact, this Monday will mark a year since Kelly Nolan was last seen in the State Street area before turning up dead in a swamp south of Madison weeks later, and her immediate family -- the people she lived with and loved -- still don't even know how she died.

A lot of people pointed out -- and fairly, might I add -- that as a member of the media, I'm inclined to take the approach of full disclosure. They maintain I think the police should release any pertinent detail, consequences be damned. I know that's not true. In fact, when I was working on a very high-profile murder case in Portage a year ago, I'm still very proud of the decisions I made with Jason Maddux, our editor, Ed Treleven, reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, and WSJ state editor Phil Brinkman about which information was fit for publishing and which was simply titillating conjecture.

I also think the Portage Police Department was very professional and very fair in the manner they chose which information to release and which to repress, in that case. They're a goddamn bastion of "right-to-know" prowess when contrasted with Madison lately.

It's been my fear since I started in this line of work I would end up on the other side of the reporter's notepad. A wise, albeit fictional, man once said to a doctor, "You ought to be shot. Or stabbed. Lose a leg. To be a surgeon, you know? Know what kind of pain you're dealing with. They make psychiatrists get psychoanalyzed before they can get certified. But they don't make a surgeon get cut on. That seem right to you?"

That was how I felt last night when I found out Kelcey had been murdered: numb like I'd been shot. We went to the same church, we sang in the same choir and, most notably, we dicked around in Mr. Bennett's eighth-hour Stagecraft class together -- the source of my most vivid Kelcey Fike memories. And then when I graduated, she became one of those people I always wished I had kept in better touch with.

It seems very distant now, and I don't think I had talked to her since I graduated high school five years ago, excepting a few Facebook wall posts. Her death, for me, is just a taste of the kind of pain I document in other people as a reporter. I'm incredibly unsettled, distracted even. I'm a little scared, a little vulnerable, a little wistful. But mostly, I want answers, and quite honestly I want to see the person that did it to her flayed alive. I want to see them writhe in pain, terrified of death and overwhelmed with remorse for the heinous crime of snuffing out a life as vibrant as Kelcey's.

I've heard second-hand that Kelcey's brother, John, and her parents are in agony -- obviously. I can't do anything but wish them the best and hope there are quick answers to the questions burning inside them.

It's the doubt that's the worst. I feel like I need answers before I can accept this as the actual truth. Right now, it seems too surreal to be fact, and I can't see myself acknowledging it until I know much, much more about what happened. I can't see how people like the families of Kelly Nolan, Joel Marino and Brittany Zimmermann have made it this far with as few answers as they've gotten.

I'm sure of this: I'm glad I'm not working closely with this story as a reporter. The authorities in Kearney, Nebraska had better think long and hard about how they approach the information surrounding Kelcey's death this weekend, because there are a lot of people just hanging, waiting for answers.

I wouldn't be able to handle working on this story. I watched the video (link above) of the press conference in Kearney, and if I had been there, I would have been hard-pressed NOT to knock that smug facade off Police Chief Dan Lynch's face. I'm not a patient person, nor do I have much stomach for the standard "we're not going to talk about" it bullshit. I would have had to excuse myself from the room or face officer assault charges for grabbing that bungler about the throat and screaming "She's not just another body, you pig!" into his face.

Lynch told reporters, "We have several suspects...we're trying to work it down." Hopefully that means they'll have someone in custody shortly, and they'll be able to answer more questions. In the meantime, I hope Kelcey's laughing somewhere at what a fuss all of us are making over this whole thing.

I did spend a half hour this afternoon digging through an old box of photos I have. I was sure I had a good one of Kelcey in there somewhere, something I had taken in Stagecraft my senior year in high school. As I flipped through dozens of photos, my stomach dropped through the floor with dread as I found pictures from that class. I knew I was coming up on it.

Then, suddenly, there she was, standing among a saw-dusty set shop in jeans and workboots. The lighting in that back room was terrible, and as a result, the camera's flash lit her up brighter than everything else. She looks vital, very much alive, and her smile jumps right off the polyethylene.

I had to show it to Clinton, my roommate and best buddy, who was closer to her than I was. He nodded slowly. "That's a nice picture," was all he said.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Madison $100, Dusty 0

I think it's safe to say I really enjoy living in Madison a good two out of every three days. Other times it's just allright, and in winter it can be downright miserable.

And then there are days like today, when I'm a hair's breadth from torching city hall and sabotaging the Tenney Park locks so all 9,740 acres of Lake Mendota blow through earth and concrete to wipe the isthmus clean off the map. Any day I run afoul of Madison's parking enforcement division is generally one of these days.

I think I should preface the rest of this piece by saying even in my darkest hour, I would never do anything to deliberately cause harm to a fellow human being in a situation where someone's life was not threatened, and I certainly consider acts of domestic terrorism and mass destruction reprehensible faux pas at best and out-and-out despicable at worst.

That much said, it will take every fiber of my willpower to keep me from sparkler bombing the next parking enforcement jeep I see on the street. Judge me if you will, but if you had a hundred dollar parking ticket hanging on your bulletin board, I doubt you'd feel any different.

Admittedly, I did park in the handicapped stall that's located right IN FRONT of the Madison Municipal Building - parking enforcement headquarters. In hindsight, it's likely I couldn't have picked a worse place to park in a handicapped spot in the entire city, but I wasn't exactly aware I was doing it.

I've been riding the motorcycle to work all week, which up to this point, had saved me maybe 10 or 15 bucks in gas. That's a moot point now, but another glorious thing about being on a bike is that, if someone isn't using the entirety of a parallel parking spot, you can pull into the unused portion and park there.

So when I arrived at the Dane County Board of Supervisors meeting this evening, I was thrilled to spy an open sliver of a spot directly across the street from the City-County building the meeting was at. There was a gray van parked there, but I pulled in behind it. I didn't notice the handicapped tags on the van. I didn't notice the handicapped parking sign. God only knows if there was a little old lady in a wheelchair getting out of the van, I wouldn't have noticed because I had a goddamn meeting to get to.

Now I'm not generally the type of jerk who parks in handicapped stalls. That's something I generally check for when I am parking a vehicle. But when I'm parking in a stall that is already occupied by a vehicle, I guess I generally assume the spot is fair game.

Ignorance of the law is no defense against it, I get that. Not seeing the sign is a mistake anyone can make, albeit a one-hundred dollar mistake in the City-of-the-Perpetually-Offended. And if I had in some way inconvenienced someone who had a deserved right to that spot, I would take a deep breath, clutch my manhood in one hand and my wallet in the other and pay the fine without complaining.

But WHO in HELL was I inconveniencing by using up the remaining three feet of that parallel parking spot? When I emerged from that horrid meeting three and a half hours later, the same gray van was parked in front of me, so it's not like any passing disabled motorist even got the impression the spot was claimed. And what other use was there for the remaining space I took up? After all, I find it highly unlikely a paraplegic motorcyclist was going to come along and park there.

And for that matter, a HUNDRED DOLLARS?!? ONE HUNDRED FUCKING DOLLARS?!? There are families that spend less than that on groceries in a given week. What gives the City of Madison the right to charge a HUNDRED dollars for any parking offense? Say, for instance, some poor working schlub making minimum wage can't afford to rent an apartment with a parking space, so he makes his way down to the municipal building to shell out 21 bucks for the "privilege" of parking in the street with a residential parking pass...

...And I swear to God, this has got to be the only city in the FREE WORLD where one has to PAY to park on the SIDE OF THE STREET...

Anyways, Johnny Parkingpass isn't used to driving around downtown because it costs a DOLLAR-TWENTY-FIVE an HOUR to park at a meter, so he tries to avoid it. He pulls up in front of the municipal building into the ONLY FREE SPOT on the block and doesn't see the sign because he can't afford glasses.

Pressure sensors under his 1988 Chevy Celebrity trigger an elaborate camera system that scans his vehicle for a handicapped tag. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the municipal building, lights flash and a klaxon sounds. A man with a raspy voice in a dark, smoky room checks his bank of television screens, then activates the headset mic that wraps around the contour of his head -- "We've got one."

How does the city afford all the gadgetry? BECAUSE WE HAVE THE HIGHEST PARKING FINES PER CAPITA IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE! (please note, this is an unresearched claim, but it's probably true)

A garage door rattles up, flooding the municipal garage with blinding light, and the jeep's tires smoke as it speeds out into the day. One quick corner and she's there, the meter maid from hell. She's armed with an AK-47 and a hand computer, the latter of which she brandishes with a calloused, quick, cool hand. In a moment it's over, and there's nothing to betray her visit but the lingering smell of burnt rubber and an envelope that reads "City Treasurer."

When he comes out, Johnny Parkingpass is at a loss. He's got a hundred bucks in his wallet -- his last hundred bucks, and he needs it to buy his sick daughter's medicine. His cheeks flush with shame, and he weighs his options. He'd kill himself, but he's afraid of heights and he can't afford a gun. Poor Johnny Parkingpass.

God I hate this city so much right now.


God bless you, Columbia County. I think it's safe to say that after the year you've had, you are the weirdest county in Wisconsin.

Why's she smiling so much in that mugshot? I'll tell you why...because she had COCAINE in her you-know-what... Hell, it made me smile. That makes this woman a hero!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Head Above Water

I think I know what it feels like to be dead now.

Last week was a long one, which would explain the very blatant lack of posts recently. We were pretty busy in the newsroom just trying to keep our heads above water -- pun completely intended.

For those of you who were unaware -- and yes, when we threw a barbecue beer bash Saturday night, we did in fact confirm that there is at least one person in this part of the state who was painfully unaware there was a national-disaster-scale flooding event taking place right out her own back door -- but much of the area I used to work in was under water this weekend. And while I would have loved to do more in-depth coverage of a story that got so much national attention, I would have hated trying to commute to Portage amid the traffic fiasco that resulted from closing the interstate.

Not that the State Patrol had much of a choice. I'll admit, when I heard they were shutting down the main traffic artery between the Twin Cities and Chicago, I-90-94 from Madison to Wisconsin Dells, I at first suspected a state overreaction. Based on some of the calls we got from listeners, I think a lot of people got the same impression.

But when I actually did some live in the field reporting last Friday, I got the chance to take a look at the situation firsthand. I drove up to Portage via Highway 51 and started with a quick tour of the East side of town. I found what I expected -- a lot of standing water on lawns and roads in the lower end of town sandwiched between the Wisconsin River levy and the Fox River headwaters.

The Fox skirts the northeast end of Portage, and that was where I really started to get a feel for the gravity of the situation. The river was inches from overtopping a bridge I drove over as county crews laid preparations to close it off. Accordingly, I didn't spend much time on that side of the bridge before turning back, but I did stop to watch as a resident along Highway 33 dragged possessions across his front yard with an aluminum fishing boat. He didn't seem to be in a talking mood.

But it was the view I got of the interstate that really made an impact. Headed the opposite direction, highway 33 meanders south of Portage along the edge of the Baraboo River Marsh before crossing first Interstate-39 and then Interstate-90-94 just miles after they split from each other. A Columbia County Sheriff's deputy was stationed just prior to the 39 overpass to keep anyone from entering the interstate or going any further down 33, but I told him Mike Babcock had told me I needed to see what was going on down the road, so he let me past.

A note: if you ever need to get anywhere in Columbia County, just tell them Mike Babcock sent you. It's basically bulletproof.

Anyway, I was pretty shocked when I crossed over I-39. Looking out from the bridge, I could see massive pools of water the size of football fields covering each lane. It was kind of unsettling, knowing that I drove over that bit of roadway at least twice daily for the two years I worked in Portage. But if I was shocked there, I was floored when I got to the I-90-94 overpass two miles down the road.

Driving down 33 with water lapping at the road's shoulders the whole way, I had to temper my gusto and slow down, lest that shimmer on the road 100 yards ahead turn out to be actual water rather than heat rising from the pavement. But when I got to the overpass, I had to stop the car, just so I could get out and lean against it. I couldn't believe what my eyes were showing me.

Four lanes of reinforced concrete, the finest modern technology in roadbuilding the free world has to offer, were swamped as far as the eye could see. I kept turning and looking south off the bridge to where the interstate wasn't covered in water, just to reassure myself that what I was viewing was indeed once a familiar sight. It was rattling to realize mother nature can overwhelm something as mighty as an interstate as easily as water running off the table from a spilled glass.

I took a few minutes just to come to grips with what I was seeing, then leaned over the side of the bridge for a closer look. Yup, there was water down there too, and two to three feet deep by the looks of it. I grabbed a stone and chucked it sidearm, only to shake my head when it splashed down below me. This was no mirage.

I heard a bird chirp, and the eeriness of the environment hit me like a bag of sand. I have stood on that overpass several times in the middle of the afternoon, each time to try and assess how best to approach an interstate traffic accident we'd caught wind of on the scanner in the newspaper office. The screaming of the traffic is drowned out only by the roar of every semi-truck that passes, and the resulting din is so overwhelming, casual conversation is next to impossible.

But standing on that overpass Friday, I could hear a bird chirping. I could hear a good deal of water rushing to the West, where the Baraboo was running over 200 yards of Highway 33 five feet deep. I could hear the grass in the marsh to the East shooshing in the wind, I could hear the plip of the pebble I threw in for good measure and I could hear waves breaking against the cement median barrier.

It was probably the first time in 50 years somebody who wasn't blind and deaf could have described that particular intersection of roads as "peaceful," and it gave me the willies. One of my favorite books is Stephen King's "The Stand," and it instilled in me a morbid set of expectations for what the end of the world would be like. That's as close as I hope I ever come to experiencing them.

But I did have time to ponder, in a week crammed full of 25 hours worth of overtime, on my drive back to Madison that afternoon. Northbound traffic on Highway 51 was packed bumper-to-bumper with weekenders trying to navigate backroads that were hit-or-miss when it came to closures, and I watched them from the southbound lane and chuckled, a little bemused. The interstate, like many of mankind's feats, seems mighty until something like last week happens.

Then, all the sudden, everything we can muster seems to pale in comparison to nature's raw fury. A few well-placed, concentrated downbursts of water, and that system we pride ourselves so highly on comes down like a house of cards.

I will say this, having been plugged in and in-studio most of the weekend. After all the well-deserved flack they took during last February's interstate debacle, the Wisconsin State Patrol did a stand-up job making lemonade out of piss in what could easily have escalated into a similar situation. They were always a step ahead of the floodwaters, and when the situation forced them to create detours to the detours to the detours as it did several times, they were unblinkingly decisive. The only fair criticism I've heard leveled is that they cut people loose from the Interstate where it was closed without an established detour, but the logistics of providing directions to thousands of motorists to navigate innumerably varying routes in a minute-by-minute -- pun intended -- fluid situation are staggering. I commend them for their effort and their success.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Jazz 1, Nature's Fury 0

Here's why I love jazz... and the Isthmus Jazz Fest, and the Memorial Union.

In the midst of the atmospheric equivalent of shock and awe yesterday, I popped on down to the Union to catch some of the show. I left right after the first tornado warning of the afternoon (there were several), and after a great set from Clamnation, Ben and I were waiting for the next band to come on when staff from the Union came in and informed us that, once again, there was a tornado warning.

As I'm sure they didn't want to be held liable if the windows blew in and sliced us all to ribbons, they herded us out of the Rathskellar and into the trophy room. It would have been an unpleasant, uncomfortable situation, had it not been for three musicians from Get Down Mister Cat.

Instead of parking on top of a pitcher and riding the storm out, as most of us were content to do, the band's ukulele player, trombonist and percussionist set up at one end of the trophy room and played a ten-minute impromptu jam session to take people's minds off the fact they were crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in a windowless room as the four horseman of the apocalypse rode past outside.

It was just a jam session, and a simple one at that. There certainly wasn't room for a drum set, and so the percussionist, true to his breed, made due with a drummer's brush and a Memorial Union lunch tray. It was only a few minutes until the storm passed and everyone was herded back into the Rat, but they were entertaining enough to whiz past.

But the performers from Get Down Mister Cat didn't see any reason to let Mother Nature rain on their parade, so to speak. Like any good musicians, they came to play. No stage, no amplification, no set list? No problem.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Barack FTW!!!

Yesterday was the kind of day that gets you contemplating the business end of a razor blade here in southern Wisconsin. Whispers grew to rumors, rumors to cries of dismay. Those cries of dismay were answered by General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner yesterday morning, and he confirmed the worst: Janesville's General Motors assembly plant, in operation since 1919 and GM's oldest, will be boarded up and shut down by 2010.

It's terrible news. Janesville was the last working city between Chicago and Madison. Seriously, all one needs to do for a preview of what's ten years down the line for Janesville is scoot a little further south along I-90 to Beloit, or even a little further to Rockford. 2700 people are losing their livelihoods. In all likelihood, that number is closer to 10,000 when you factor in their family members that depended on those union jobs to get by.

Those people aren't going to hang around for the ambience. They'll go where the work is, if they can find it, and unless something fortunate happens, Janesville will round out a trifecta of ghost towns along the I-90 corridor.

So until Barack Obama's speech last night, I was feeling a little down and out. Watch it and judge for yourself. Can one man single-handedly prevent the closure of the Janesville plant? Not a chance. But is this a guy that working people, moderates and progressives can all get behind to end the economic policies that lead to this closure? An experience I had this weekend convinced me that's so.

As a reporter, one of the toughest skills I've had to master is the ability to withhold judgement on a person when they say something that strikes me as awful. Be it county board members or guys in the farm fields, I've heard some of the most hateful things I've ever heard on the job, and it IS my job to keep smiling, keep jotting notes and try and empathize.

So when Kyle and I sat down at the bar in Rio next to a guy in overhauls this weekend as part of the inaugural Dive Bar Project voyage, I was more prepared than Kyle when the conversation turned to politics. I was also able to keep my food down when the guy said, "Ya know, my Dad would be spinning in his grave if he knew I was going to be voting for a nigger this fall."

Maybe I've finally broken my brain, but I can't help but see through the racial epithet to something maybe just a little positive beneath it. This man, who I won't name, works days for an agriculture company and nights tending bar at a rural hole-in-the-wall. He meant everything he said, including "I'm no idiot. This John McCain's nothing more than a George Bush three, and I'm tired of being lied too."

Maybe it took the collapse of an institution like the Janesville plant, but people might finally be seeing through the rhetoric to the true effect the current administration's policies are having on our country.