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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.