Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Gone for Good

I have abandoned Google's Blogspot for a new writing home at www.dustinchristopher.com . Please follow me there and update your links and RSS feeds accordingly.

Dustin Weis

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Things Afoot

And ten days into July, I still haven't touched the blog for the month. I apologize. There's a lot I want to write about, but I've been scheming, and it's likely I'll have a couple of announcements to make on Monday.

Thanks for checking in.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The L Word


I heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend that another media outlet in town is going to axe some more hard-working folks this week because of the GlobeEcDown (and thanks to the newest member of the Madison-area media, Christie Taylor of the Baraboo News Republic, for introducing me to that delightfully tacky abbreviation!). The rumor mill got to churning today that Channel 3 has scheduled staffing meetings for later this week, and around a half dozen people aren't expected to make it back from those.

Even when you're talking about a direct competitor, you never like to see a bloodbath in someone else's house. But in this case, Channel 3 is our "media partner," a concept that's helped understaffed newsrooms in radio and television stay abreast of all the news of the day by counting on each other to catch what might slip through the cracks. I've collaborated with a lot of the staff at 3, and I hate to see any of them catch it in the face.

If the rumors are indeed true, a few folks will pack up their desks this week in that already bare bones news room, and the harried remainder will be left to shoulder those work loads.

Then, for the next several weeks, the city's newsies will spend every spare moment looking over their shoulders for that axe it seems is chasing after every one of us. When meeting each other in public, conversations will begin, "Hey, how are you holding up," and end, "Well, good luck. Hopefully we'll see each other soon." Journalists will cross their fingers and hope that their numbers people, holed up late at night trying to eliminate the red in the budget, don't happen to glance over at a headline about media layoffs and get any bright ideas.

For once, I hope the rumor mill got it wrong.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Weekend: Accomplished

They say idle hands do the devil's work. I don't know who "they" are, but they'll get theirs eventually.

At any rate, I'm finding myself shocked more and more often at the declining amount of the devil's work my own hands are doing. While I'd like to write that off as a growing degree of maturity, I think it would be more honest to say I'm just keeping busier than I've ever been. And while there's a lot of work in there, both in the job and the blog and the band and whatever side project has captured my fancy, I find that same crippling work ethic has now affected the way I play.

Take this weekend for example, which consisted of non-stop enjoyment spanning three distinct regions of Wisconsin and approximately a half hour of idle time that was not spent asleep. The weekend started at 3 PM Friday, when I snuck out of work early (to make up for accrued overtime) and swung out to my friendly, locally-owned motorsports shop to pick up the bike, which now sports a brand new set of tires and brake pads (in preparation for Cam and my planned "motorcycle odyssey" later in July, which will take "motivated recreation" to a whole new level).

I rode the bike to my buddy Ben's, where we loaded up the car and booked it out to Miller Park watch the Brewers beat up on San Francisco. While I've seen the Brewers play in other venues, it was my first trip to Miller Park, so we didn't exactly hold back in terms of enthusiastic tailgating. I was duly impressed by the stadium and its amenities, and plan to make a few more trips out this summer if possible.

We ducked out of the stadium, drank another beer in the parking lot, and embarked for Madison. I got home, cleaned up, and passed out in short order.

Seven hours of coma later, I was up and prepping for a trip on two wheels to Shawano. I figure if Cam and I are going to ride cross country later this summer, I'd best start getting my motorcycling muscles into shape (yes, you have them, no you don't know you do until you use them and they hurt like the dickens the next day). I also wanted to get a good idea of the bike's overnight cargo capacity, so I packed very light... only what I could fit in the saddle bags.

I dodged stormclouds the entire 150-mile journey to Shawano, where I was promptly drenched as I entered town. Unfazed, I polished off the final half mile of the trip and pulled up at my buddy Tim's parents' house, where a hot shower and some good people were waiting for me.

We didn't hang around the Lundt household for long, as we had a movie screening to get to. Yes, that project I stressed my balls off on intermittently for three years finally hit a big screen at the Your Signs world premiere in Shawano, Wisconsin. Give it time, there'll be a screening in Madison. We debuted to a packed house and some positive feedback, and then it was time to celebrate the occasion in healthy Wisconsin fashion -- with a backyard cookout.

We ate, we drank, we were merry, we ate some more. We got a campfire going and sat around rehashing old war stories until the dead of night. Then we passed out wherever happened to be convenient. We woke up, made some breakfast, and I got a chance to spend some quality time wrestling with my Godson (he's a half-grown black lab puppy that will be able to take down a zebra when he reached maturity). Then it was back onto the bike for the return trip to Madison.

It was after I returned that I finally took the first breather of the weekend. After I unloaded the bike and collapsed on my couch, I watched some PGA golf while I caught up on the news. But the respite was short-lived, as I mounted up again to hit the south side for band practice.

Following three hours behind the drum kit, I could have called it a night, but a few of the bandies and I agreed it would behoove us to catch the (lucky for me) rescheduled Rhythm and Booms fireworks show. Of course, I wasn't about to ruin my weekend by getting stuck in traffic on the north side, so we watched from the pier behind our keys player's apartment on Langdon Street. Not surprisingly, Jeff wasn't the only resident to have had this idea, and I'm pretty sure we were just a few hundred pounds away from sending that pier and the forty or so people on it into the drink.

So here I am, and the clock on my computer reads 11:08, and I honestly can't think of anything else I would have liked to have accomplished this weekend. Plans are already coming together for next weekend's holiday, and they sound every bit as enjoyable and exhausting.

The problem is, I'm beat from having relaxed so hard. With a full week's work to accomplish in four days, when do I make time for resting up?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Man Pants

It's not often, but there are times when I finish reading a press release from the Madison Police Department and I just have to throw my head back and laugh.

We're lucky here in Madison to have a former reporter of Joel Despain's caliber working as a spokesman for our police force. One of Joel's greatest strengths is his knack as a story teller, and there are times when it shines through in something like a police press release, which is generally intended to be bland and to the point at best. I've seen some from other departments come across my desk that almost require a cryptographer to decipher.

But the Madison press corps got a good chuckler from Joel today. As with most of them, you have to read between the lines to get the joke.

Incident report for Case#2009-182844
Released 06/24/2009 at 11:51 AM by PIO
Joel DeSpain
Incident Type
Injured Person
Incident Date
06/23/2009 -
3:08 AM
400 block West Doty Street
Female, white,
5'6", 115 lbs., with curly, red shoulder-length hair, slender build, wearing a red sundress.
Male, age 21, MadisonVictim suffered multiple
abrasions to his back, including two cuts requiring 11 stitches. He also had a bruised chest, a cut lip, and a sore nose.
On Tuesday, a 21-year old Madison man came into the Central District to report a battery that happened around 3:00 a.m. that morning. He said he was at a downtown house party, sitting on a porch, when a woman started dancing and taking her clothes off. The victim said he - and others - laughed as they watched the disrobing. As he chuckled, another woman, clad in a red sundress, slapped him across the face, saying, "You don't know who you're dealing with." The man backed up, sat on a railing, and continued to guffaw at the striptease. Suddenly, the woman responsible for the slap "rushed" the victim - knocking him off the railing. He says he fell more than six-feet onto concrete. The woman descended with him, landing on his chest. Friends cleaned him up, and he discovered his back was bleeding profusely. He ended up in the emergency room, and wishes to pursue charges against the assailant. She has not been located.

By the time I finished reading this story, I had nearly fallen out of my chair. I have no idea how the police officer that took this report was able to keep a straight face.

If this 21-year-old "victim" has any motive other than getting a phone number in wanting to file charges against this "assailant," I'd like to sit him down and have a talk about finding him a decent pair of man pants. I mean that. I don't know any self-respecting member of the male gender that would come forward to police to admit he'd had the crap kicked out of him by a girl.

Based on the "victim's" description, we're not talking about a bruiser here. Girls that are 5' 6" and 115 pounds don't play for the women's hockey team. With the red hair and sundress, guys should have been lining up around the block to get cracked in the jaw by this young lady.

Let's face it, there's a fair chance this guy got exactly what was coming to him. As a member of the male gender, I'm realistic enough to admit that 3 AM at a house party is not when most guys are at their most gentlemanly, and I find it hard to believe this guy was half the "victim" he makes himself out to be. I say good on this mysterious red-clad firebrand for being able to lay down the law with the punk.

But for this guy to take his pitiful, fabricated story to police is an unprecedented level of weak. There are certain unspoken rules all men should abide by. You never hit, push or otherwise lay an ungentle hand on a woman. If a woman takes a swing at you, you get out of the way or you take the hit. There's no excuse for fighting back. And if a woman gets the upper hand and bloodies you up a bit, you sure as hell don't tell anyone!

That's what I find so baffling about this story. So the guy needed a few stitches and will probably be the butt of a running joke among his buddies for a while. Dragging police in the matter won't solve either of those problems. In fact, it will likely prolong the humiliation, first when his buddies see the police report, then when some media attention is paid to it. If they actually catch the young woman, that will reopen the wound, as will any court appearances to follow.

I can just picture this guy, tears streaming down his face, describing to a jury the "brutal beating" he sustained at the hands of the five-foot-six pixie in a red sundress. Call protective services! He's going to need protection from this monster!

I've got to think that this guy was just a little concussed when he made the decision to take his story to police, and didn't think ahead to the guffaws that would follow any time one of his buddies mentions "that time Jimmy got his ass kicked by a girl."

So let that be a cautionary tale to any young men who haven't learned these lessons yet. Fiery things can come in small packages, and while there are times they will bruise your pride, you're just going to have to man up and get over it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

WSJ Creates a Monster

I have a beef with Dean Mosiman from the State Journal. I'm not alone in this, either, as I'm pretty sure most of the city government has the same beef this week. It's the kind of beef you would have if there was a grease fire burning in your kitchen, and someone came along and helpfully poured five gallons of gasoline on it.

The Madison City Council has its share of talkers, and they speak with varying degrees of eloquence, tact and relevance to the subject at hand. But when one of our fair city's leaders is recognized by the mayor to speak during a meeting, there's no reaction as universal among the rest of the alders as when Alder Thuy Pham-Remmele takes the floor.

Typically, they know they're in for a roller-coaster ride of dead-end logic, inane questions, incoherent invective and split-second mood swings when Pham-Remmele takes the floor. While I typically respect a leader with spunk, which Pham-Remmele has in spades, her wildly unpredictable behavior in meetings evokes memories of second-grade report cards -- the phrase "does not play well with others" fails to do her spiteful demeanor justice.

If someone had been keeping a tally of minutes "wasted" on the council floor so far in this new term, Pham-Remmele would have lapped the rest of her colleagues combined, twice over.

So when I saw Dean Mosiman's article in the State Journal Monday, entitled "Ald. Pham-Remmele Speaks Her Mind, No Matter the Cost," I had a hunch he had doomed those of us who attend city council to some fresh horror at Tuesday night's meeting. If I had to guess, I would say Mosiman feels no guilt for doing this, as he wasn't stuck in attendance at the meeting himself.

But the danse macabre we witnessed outpaced even my own expectations. It's painfully indicative of a wildly out-of-control martyr-in-training with serious and dangerous delusions of grandeur.

Her self-image as a folk-hero of the southwest side reinforced by Mosiman's article, and riding high on a wave of fluff publicity-induced pride, Pham-Remmele proceeded to take the council floor and unrelentingly wield her alder's privilege like an ice pick, ramming it deep into the ears and eye sockets of everyone in the room.

During the questions segment of a motion to build a relatively non-controversial 700-foot segment of bike path across a green space in her district, Pham-Remmele unyieldingly held onto the chair's recognition for more than 60 jaw-dropping minutes. A one-woman circus, she first interrogated several of the registered speakers on the proposal, with all the gusto of a lawyer cross-examining witnesses in a high-profile murder case.

I'm not exaggerating here. For a blow-by-blow running narrative of the exchange, you can see citizen-blogger-extraordinaire and former Alder Brenda Konkel's post on the meeting.

Next, Pham-Remmele turned her new-found expertise as grand inquisitor on the city's staff, and the city council's chambers gradually devolved into chaos. As Pham-Remmele repeatedly pitched inane or unrelated questions at the city's legal, engineering and parks experts, it became clear she was trying to make a point of some kind, though I'm not sure she even knew what she was driving at.

If the point was supposed to be that she was doing her due-diligence as alder, as portrayed in Mosiman's story, her attempt utterly backfired. Asking city staff to repeatedly explain to her how restrictive land covenants work, or precedents of alder privilege, or who she should address with questions about the project only served to prove she either had not done her homework with regards to the proposal, or else is completely unable to grasp the finer details of her job.

I certainly wasn't able to penetrate the murky depths of her motivation, and neither were the other 18 members of the council in attendance. It almost seemed Pham-Remmele was staging some kind of unfeasible filibuster. At any rate, several other city leaders agreed with me the outrageous grandstanding was both unwarranted over such a petty project and out-of-character for someone who famously told other alders to "stop hogging the microphone" during last year's budget proceedings.

Several of her neighbors on the council floor excused themselves from their seats so their reactions to her tirade would not be seen by the city channel's cameras.

In small doses, Pham-Remmele's eccentricities can be pretty amusing as she careens perilously along the line that divides logic from borderline schizophrenia, bouncing from topical rebuttals to obtuse observances and back again. Lines from Tuesday night's rambling coup comparing the plight of residents in her district to that of Native Americans rank right up there with her infamous, incoherent tirade against Madison's certification as a bicycle-friendly community, captured in infamy on Youtube for all to see.

But after 45 minutes of "The Thuy Show," the other alders started getting restless. Again, I'm not exaggerating here when I say there was an active effort among the city's leadership to lure as many alders as possible into the hallway in an attempt to break quorum and temporarily shut the meeting down.

When freshman Alder Steve "the Gunslinger" King moved to call the question (close discussion and vote immediately) on the issue, it was a testament to either the principles or the masochism in the room that the motion failed, albeit barely, after city staff explained to Pham-Remmele what exactly it means to call the question. With the floor still open, the city council was in fact treated to an encore presentation from Pham-Remmele, as she monopolized their time for another ten minutes to urge them to vote against the proposal.

The motion passed, 18-1.

So thank you, Dean Mosiman and the Wisconsin State Journal, for an evening of entertainment on par with watching a quartet of yowling, rabid west-side coyotes disembowel a herd of vocal cats. Whether Thuy Pham-Remmele's charade will be enough to undermine every bit of positive perception you tried to build for her is yet to be seen, but rest assured this is not the last time she will prove her ineffectiveness as a city leader in full view of the public.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Under Cover Budgeting

One of the more frustrating parts of my job is that my schedule is often at the mercy of politicians and policymakers, and they are NOT notorious for being punctual. Most of the time that's okay, because I'm not notorious for being punctual either.

As a great man once wrote, and then I bastardized, "A reporter is never late. Nor is he early. Instead, he arrives precisely when he means to."

However, when a city council debate has stretched on for hours and everybody wants their turn to talk, but nobody's really saying anything and it's getting on toward my bed time, I can occasionally get a little peeved. As much as I would sometimes like to, I can't bail out when the policymakers get long-winded, because then we don't get the story. And so, I'm stuck.

But I would rather be stuck in a sixteen hour budget hearing than be stood up by my elected officials. Unfortunately, it seems Wisconsin's state lawmakers have opted to combine both approaches, and it's more than just an annoyance for reporters. It's bad for every Wisconsin citizen.

I've only been the direct victim of our state legislature's heel-dragging once this year, and it made me want to pick a legislator at random and punch them in the face. I was assigned to cover a portion of the Joint Finance Committee's hearings on the budget. The hearing was scheduled to begin at 10:00 in the morning. I figured given the legislature's record of late, I could show up at 2:00 and catch plenty of action.

I was wrong. The JFC had not yet convened at 2:00. I spent two hours of my afternoon sitting in their chambers waiting for them to get underway before uttering a string of cusswords a nearby lobbyist thought was directed at him and storming out of the capitol.

That hearing didn't happen on that particular day. It was rescheduled for noon the next day. It finally got underway at 5:30 that evening. I didn't care. Our news director had decided to rely on secondhand sources for the remainder of our state budget coverage. With only two bodies in the newsroom on afternoons, I think she made the right call too. It certainly wouldn't have been a good call to halve our news coverage strength and wrack up overtime to cover one story that might not have even happened.

The problem is that if pulling coverage on the state budget proceedings was the right call for our newsroom, it was the right call for a lot of other newsrooms as well.

And the delays in addressing the budget aren't because State Sen. Fred Risser has gotten turned around wandering in the wrong wing of the capitol. Every minute the start of these meetings is delayed is a minute lawmakers are caucusing, doing the nitty-gritty work of negotiating a budget behind closed doors instead of in open session where the public and their watchdogs can follow along with every step.

How did Wisconsin's state budget wind up with plans to allow illegal immigrants to get proxy driver's licenses attached to it? How did a 75-cent monthly fee on cell phone users get the thumbs up, and how did it become okay for oil companies to pass on some of their tax burden to regular folks at the pump? Gosh, I really wish I could tell you, but those decisions were made without public or media oversight in a closed caucus.

That leaves 132 grown-up children unsupervised in a $62.2 billion candy store, and that should be enough to alarm any Wisconsin citizen, politically ambivalent or not.

And if by chance a member of the public had wanted to sound off on a particular budget item, they'd have had to hang around the state capitol for a couple of days straight, waiting for the body to convene at its own leisure. That's no way to involve the citizenry in government.

There's a reason lawmakers are required to give the public notice listing exact start times well in advance of any kind of meeting. Wisconsin's closed caucus system violated the spirit of those laws, and it needs to go.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Our Wisconsin Heritage

Several years ago, I may have had a hand in what we'll call the "creative redecoration" of a handful of signs leading into a small town in Wisconsin. No, this is not that story. I've got to wait a little longer to make sure the statute of limitations puts me in the clear on that outrageous little stunt.

However, the next time I'm feeling that mischievous, I've got an idea in mind. Wisconsin needs a sign on our southern border, something that makes all the northbound flatlanders on a Friday afternoon shift in their seats and look at each other uncomfortably. Something along the lines of, "Wisconsin: Come for our beer, brats, cheese and football, stay for our serial killers!"

"Live like you mean it" eat your friggin' heart out!

There have been some creepy bastards that have gone on epic reigns of terror in this state, but everybody knows that Plainfield's Ed Gein wins the title of "bull goose loony" without a fight. The guy was the inspiration for an Alfred Hitchcock movie, for frig's sake!

My appreciation of the morbid, the macabre, the absurd and the profoundly irreverent is well-documented, so when I got word that there are some filmmakers from Appleton working on a project called "Ed Gein: The Musical," I probably got a little more excited that would be considered healthy. The potential for hilarity is almost endless.

But watching the trailer they've released with a co-worker, we couldn't help but squirm. I understand the filmmakers are striving to be "historically accurate," but without some element of more blatant farce, I can't see sitting through an entire feature-length presentation of this. It's just... uncomfortable!

Here's the trailer. Judge for yourself.


The holy men and women who have impressed me in my 24 years have been few and far between, but there are a handful. During today's Madison Police press conference, I added another to that list -- Pastor David Smith, who spoke both as a community leader and a black man about the senseless killing of Karamee Collins Tuesday night.

Pat Simms rolled tape, so I don't have to futz around myself to upload his speech. There's more, but these were the best parts

I hope Smith's cause resonates with the southwest side and gathers some steam. He closed his speech by calling on other members of the clergy to join him. I hope something comes of it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Corral Ain't Okay

Apparently, the big fad among young people around town is to indiscriminately blast everyone and everything in sight at the slightest provocation. I'm a little alarmed, mostly on account of the fact that I myself am something of a young person (though feeling less and less so after reading this week's headlines), but I didn't get the memo.

Well there's that, and then there are the bullets whizzing all over the side of town I work on.

You'd be hard-pressed finding anyone to argue that the drive-by shooting of 17-year-old Karamee Collins last night wasn't senseless. Sadly, you could find about 20-30 people, by police estimates, who would argue the recent string of nine shoot-em-up-don't-hit-shit gun crimes aren't outrageous, reckless, and foolish beyond belief.

But they're just idiots... 20-30 heavily-armed idiots with terrible aim who spray dozens of rounds willy-nilly around Loreen Drive as kids are coming home from school.

Police haven't be able to figure out for sure what's at the root of all this senseless violence, but there are some pretty good theories. When a 17-year-old is shot, it's likely he was shot by other 17-year-olds over whatever petty dramas 17-year-olds get fightin' mad about. The theory about the nine shootings is that there are four groups of people duking it out in a ridiculous Romeo and Juliet scenario spun rapidly out of control, to the point where they think it's become acceptable to walk down the middle of Allied Drive shooting the windows out of random apartments as a means of exacting revenge.

So brace yourselves. Now that we're in the midst of a spike in gun crimes, the old hot air machines will be firing up shortly to deafen us with insipidity. The anti-gun nutjobs will begin crying these tragedies could have been prevented by stricter gun control. The pro-gun nutjobs will start screaming a concealed-carry law would keep these thugs cowering in their basements instead of shooting up our streets. Both sides will lose all connection with reason.

And if the people of Madison are scared enough, they'll listen to whoever's solution is most outrageous.

I'm going to hazard a wild idea and say the guns are not the issue here. Guns are simply tools, a means to an end. People were killing each other for millennia before the first human had the idea to propel fragments of metal at other humans using a mix of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur. Having more guns on the street will not lessen violence. Having fewer guns on the street will not lessen violence.

The shootings in Madison are a product of a problem with our society. This isn't a problem that's caused by television, or video games, or rap music. Those are all just symptoms of the problem.

The problem is there are some segments of our population that are so far out of touch with their humanity that they can momentarily justify using a gun, or a knife, or a bat to solve their own, smaller, insignificant problems. They've lost sight of the big picture of humanity as a whole and allowed themselves to become just a caricature of what they see on television and video games and rap music, because it's all they've let themselves know.

The young people who shot Karamee Collins didn't do it to protect their own lives. The 20-30 heavily-armed idiots running around the south side could lay down their arms and safely live out the rest of their days.

These criminals are acting out of line because of some perceived, irreconcilable wound to their pride, a pride which they've let become bigger to them than the sanctity of human life. And they'll suffer for it, but not before they exact even more suffering on the people around them.

But this problem of people losing touch with their humanity, it's not just limited to poor black neighborhoods on the south side. It runs through every strata of society. It lead a handful of Enron execs to try and steal billions of dollars from their employees. It lead two students to slaughter thirteen of their teachers and classmates before ending their own lives. It even lead an entire democratic nation into an immoral war. And the ends never justify the suffering that accrues along the way.

Collins was Madison's first murder of the year after a particularly bloody 2008, an inevitability given the way bullets have been flying. As my mom used to say, I guess it was only a matter of time until someone got hurt. But when I open the newspaper tomorrow or Friday and see police have released a "motive" in Collins's murder, I'll be hard-pressed to overcome the feeling of dread that will well up in me.

I know no matter what these foolish kids thought gave them reason enough to kill Collins, it will make me want to cry for them.

Monday, June 8, 2009


I just finished rifling through my closet, looking for laundrables and something to wear to my cousin's wedding this weekend (a northern Wisconsin wedding, mind you, meaning whatever I wear had better be beer-proof), when I realized I haven't worn khakis since I was a newspaper reporter.

They're still there, hanging toward the back where I left them about a year and a half ago, a reminder in three shades of tan how completely I detest khakis. I don't like the way they feel. I don't like the way they ride. I don't like the half-assed way they try to be both casual and formal at the same time, because they fail utterly at both. I kind of like the color, but only in a shirt or a jacket -- NOT pants.

I don't miss my khakis at all, ever. I do occasionally miss working for the newspaper.

The similarities and differences between being a newspaper reporter and a radio reporter, the appeals and the downsides, are the material for a book, not a blog post. But what occasionally gets me longing to get out from behind the mic, more than glancing at khakis in the closet, is the desire to take a really juicy story that comes across my desk and sink my teeth all the way into it. There was little as satisfying in my old job as being able to break a story down into its component parts and reassemble a dozen divergent narratives into one cogent storyline.

Poring over stacks of documents and recorded interviews, drawing time lines or illustrating action sequences, they're all ways of loading pellet after pellet of fact into a shell, resulting in a shotgun blast of information to the consumer's face that should leave them with few -- if any -- questions.

Conversely, reporting for broadcast is like sniping with an automatic rifle. Each story has to be delivered in a quick, precise, neat little package before you move quickly to deliver the next. It doesn't carry nearly the stopping power of a newspaper article, but given a sufficient volume of stories, it serves to lay down an impressive cover fire.

Yes, it's a little absurd I find it so easy to compare delivering the news with shooting the news consumers. Chew on that for a while.

My long-forgotten point is that every once in a while a story comes along that gets me yearning for the time to rip it open in detail, and last week, my friends Jen McCoy and Shannon Green at the Portage Daily Register got to write that story. If I were still working in the Portage office, I would have dropped whatever I was doing to have a hand in covering the saga of the "Food Fight Five."

If you haven't heard the tale yet, it's quick and dirty. In their final days of the school year, four sophomores and a super senior at Portage High School decided to instigate a classic food fight in the lunch room. The fray was short-lived, but apparently served to coat the floor and the fighters in foodstuffs. The offending students were lead off to the Principal's office, where I'm sure they received "a good talking to," and that's where this story should have ended.

Except it didn't.

School officials called in the cops, who came and dragged the kids downtown in cuffs on charges of disorderly conduct. One account of the story I read said the students were given a standing ovation on their way out, and while I'm sure that cheered them somewhat, it doesn't exactly justify the hands-on approach that was used.

I say this as someone who knows and has worked with a good number of the police and school officials involved, but seriously -- lighten up a little, guys. It's not like the kids strapped rows of hot dogs to their chests and claimed to be wearing bombs. They hucked a little food around the cafeteria and made a mess. A punishment befitting the crime would have had these kids on hands and knees scrubbing the mess up, not in a containment cell downtown while the janitor did the dirty work. I guarantee not a one of the boys would have complained that a day's janitorial duty was out of line as far as punishments go.

I respect the hell out of the fact that even when pressed, the boys have not been willing to say they'd go back and do anything differently. My blog's title, "It's All About the Story," can be correctly interpreted several ways. Long after these kids have started losing their hair and settled into "responsible" jobs, they'll have the tale of the time they were hauled out of Portage High School for throwing some yogurt around to baffle their co-workers or laugh about over a beer.

Detective Lt. Mark Hahn of the Portage Police Department, who I would fathom from personal experience was something of a hellion himself when he was in high school, told the Daily Register, "Anything minor like that can escalate into a larger problem... Some kids were upset because of the food on them."

To which I'm obligated to respond, "They deserved to get food on them!" By all accounts, the Food Fight Five conducted themselves in a manner befitting the deeply-rooted traditions of the food fight. In accordance with the Treaty of Chicken Kiev, the instigators of the fracas declared from a place of prominence, vociferously, "FOOOOOD FIIIIIGHT!" before any foodstuffs were indeed hurled. This allowed noncombatants and civilians ample warning to seek cover.

Besides, any high schooler who's convinced him-or-herself he or she is so mature as to actually get vocally upset upon being plastered with a tray full of taco salad should be skipped back four grades and forced to try high school again, but with a sense of humor and withOUT such a material dependence this time around. They're just clothes, and you're only in high school once.

Portage High School Vice Principal Brian Seguin told the Daily Register, "A vast majority of comments from other kids was it was inappropriate that it happened."

Well, DUH! Of course it's inappropriate, and by definition then, fun. As mentioned, there comes a time when you can't get away with nearly as much fun as you can at that age. Miss your chance to sling grub when you can't be charged as an adult, and you'll have to wait until you're stuck in a nursing home and are old enough to blame it on senility.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Settle Down

Maybe the biggest advantage of bringing in an outsider to run the Dane County 911 Center is that he won't have been mired in this kerfuffle since the beginning. Sometimes, it takes a view from outside the building to tell if you've got a kitchen fire or a full-blown house fire on your hands.

John Dejung officially assumed the mantle of 911 Center Director this week, and I'm hoping my initial impressions are accurate. I only had about 20 minutes or so to meet Dejung yesterday, part of which was spent in a press conference-style briefing with other reporters, but he struck me as very level-headed, coolly competent and completely nonplussed by the size of the dynamite sandwich chunk he's bitten off to chew.

His resume certainly inspires confidence, but what I really took heart in was that in his first day on the job, he did what many other local officials haven't been able or haven't chosen to do -- he drew a line between what constitutes good, common sense 911 policy and what's just looking for something to scream about.

I asked Dejung whether the policy regarding non-emergency calls at his award-winning 911 center in Minneapolis would have yielded a different result in the sad but overly-politicized death of Farrell Kurlish last March, and what I got -- a straight answer -- floored me.

"This is perhaps going to sound flip, but, frankly, the operators that talk with residents on the phone aren't clairvoyant. Sometimes they have to deal with what they have to deal with, and unfortunately, once in a blue moon, there are things that can come along and bite you... It's very unfortunate, and an opportunity to look at procedures and policies and beef them up where they need to be beefed up, but frankly in Minneapolis I'm not sure that would have been avoided."

I always appreciate a straight answer, but coming from a guy that exudes an almost Mister Rogers-like sense of safety and security, I left the meeting feeling pretty confident that John Dejung is not another Joe Norwick. The underlying message to be taken away from all this, at least for the time being I think, is "Everybody chill the hell out. JD's got this thing."

There's just one thing I find disconcerting about John Dejung, and that's the eerie resemblance he bears to Dane County Supervisor Matt Veldran. The two men met for the first time yesterday, and I felt a chill run up my spine when they faced each other and shook hands. Veldran said something like, "I'm not on the 911 oversight committee, I just had to stop out and meet this guy everybody keeps saying looks so much like me."

It was a Kodak moment, and there I was without my camera. But honestly, judge for yourself. That's Dejung on the left and Veldran on the right.

John Dejung and Matt Veldran -- separated at birth?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Outta Town

I spent $25 on a Wisconsin State Parks season pass this weekend. I'm pretty convinced it was a wise, worthwhile investment.

This time of the year gets to be intoxicating for me, as the weather finally becomes consistently tolerable. In two weeks' time, I've watched the skin on my arms grow consistently darker with the beginnings of a summer tan. While I'm cooped up for 45 hours a week in a studio, almost every spare moment since mid-May has been spent outdoors, hiking, riding, running or fishing.

I'm giddy to know that I can finally soak up the outdoors again. I feel like it's my 21st birthday again and I'm on State Street, but I'm almost certain there's no way to get overserved on a Wisconsin summer.

Saturday marked my second trip to Devil's Lake near Baraboo in as many weeks, and I figured if I keep up at this pace, I'll get my money's worth out of a season pass. It's only 25 bucks, compared to seven for a day pass, and I have no doubt I'll make at least three more trips to a state park by the end of the year.

The problem is I have to make them in my car now, because I can't transfer the pass to my motorcycle. It's kind of a dumb system, but I wouldn't have anywhere to stick a season pass on my bike anyway. That much said, now that I have a season pass, I won't feel bad about maybe skirting the system with my bike a bit, just because they aren't as accommodating of motorcyclists as they could be.

Regardless of my personal vendettas, Devil's Lake is a rare treasure, and we're lucky to have it. But as I hiked up the Balanced Rock trail this weekend, I couldn't help but wonder -- how is it some drunk hasn't pushed that damn thing over yet?

Natural wonder or not, Balanced Rock (pictured above) is like a beacon of temptation. It beckons the 12-year-old boy in each of us, much the same as a sheet of bubble wrap and a rolling pin, or a magnifying glass and an anthill, or a gasoline puddle and a book of matches, or that sculpture in front of Camp Randall and a giant condom.

So I figure with the thousands of people who visit the park a year, there's got to be a drunk guy or two each year who figure they can muscle that rock off its perch and start it rolling down the slope toward the lake. That begs the question, how is that thing fastened on there, because unless they just keep helicoptering it back into place every time some ass pushes it off, it doesn't look like anyone's succeeded yet.

Anyway, it's clear I'm delirious from exposure to fresh air and sunshine, but I'm glad to have had the chance to hike somewhere in the ballpark of six miles this weekend (that's NOT counting vertical, either). I'm hoping to log even more miles this summer at some of the other state parks I haven't visited yet.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Who Ya Gonna Call?

I know the Dane County 911 Center has become the political kickball de jure over the past year, and I'm very glad of the shortcomings that have been exposed and addressed to some degree. But I'd like to take a moment to try and draw a line between what constitutes a legitimate gripe and what's just piling on.

By now you've read the tragic story of Farrell Kurlish, the 32-year-old man who was found dead in his car last March, poisoned by a carbon monoxide leak. The story has generated quite a bit of controversy, because the vehicle sat out on the street idling for seven hours after a neighbor phoned in a complaint to the 911 center's non-emergency line.

Mind you, this was a call to the center's non-emergency line, and if you read the transcript of the call, at no point does the caller indicate there was any kind of problem that required police intervention.

Call taker: "Police and fire."
Caller: "Yeah, there’s a pickup truck that’s
been idling in front of my house for one half-hour. Is that legal?"
Call taker: "Sure."
Caller: "Hmm?"
Call taker: "Yeah, sure."
Caller: "In the street?"
Call taker: "Uh-huh."
Caller: "Holy (expletive), what’s the town
coming to?"

And at that point, without any further ado, the caller hangs up. With that 20-20 hindsight we always hear about, yeah, it might have helped to have dispatched police officers to the scene immediately. But what the 911 Center's biggest critics are trying to say is that, based on those 35 syllables of information from the caller, the 911 operator should have sent help, or at least followed up on the call.

Now, none of the news stories that I've seen so far (that I haven't written myself) make note of the fact that this same 911 operator, Nathan Waite, was in fact commended for his performance in the line of duty as recently as January, when he gave instructions on birthing a premature child to a father parked on the side of a snowy road near McFarland. At the time, county officials hailed Waite as the hero who saved the day by keeping his head, making sure the panicked mother and father on the other end kept their heads, and calmly talking the husband through procedures as delicate as using a shoe lace to tie off an umbilical cord.

I myself covered the press conference that was thrown together by County Executive Kathleen Falk's staff as an election loomed against a foe who had made the 911 center a key issue. While I'm not surprised that the County Executive has not arranged a press conference in his defense, I did get a chance to meet Mr. Waite and chat with him briefly.

Nathan Waite is competent, humble, young and kind of quiet. I certainly don't see him as being "complacent," or lacking "the appropriate attitude of concern," to quote the internal investigation into the matter. In fact, I posit he reacted in exactly the right way.

My tax dollars pay Nathan Waite's salary, just the same as they pay for the police officers that patrol our streets. As such, in no way do I want either 911 operators or police officers wasting time responding to calls about every vehicle left running in the street. Following that logic, there should be a police response every time a garden hose is left running, a door is left ajar or a dog is heard barking in the distance.

Nathan Waite is a very busy man with a lot of important duties on his plate who was reacting to a stupid question from a person who was at best lazy and at worst an imbecile. The caller to the non-emergency line didn't say anything was wrong. She didn't sound like she was under duress. She certainly didn't open her front door and walk the thirty feet to the idling car and peer inside to see if everything was all right, which could potentially have saved a life.

The caller simply peered out a slat in the blinds and did what misanthropic old ladies are prone to do -- she complained to the first person who would listen. You can ask any 911 operator, and they will tell you the non-emergency line is a source of more useless complaints than Charter Communications' customer service.

Now I agree with Police Captain Carl Gloede that some kind of written procedures should be implemented to sort out non-emergency calls that might have some kind of urgent nature to them. It certainly could have helped in the Lake's Edge Park murder last fall.

But trying to link Farrell Kurlish's death to a failure on the part of the 911 Center is akin to kicking an opponent when they're down. Whatever political point or progress critics of the 911 Center are trying to make gets lost, especially when hard working civil servants like Nathan Waite get dragged into the fray to have their reputations tarnished.

I hope Waite sticks it out through the coming weeks of punishment and retraining he's going to be put through, then goes on to become a supervisor at the 911 Center. Maybe we can even talk him into running for County Exec.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Defense Mechanism

I was just sending my end of the day wrap to the boss, having just landed at home after a long day in the field, when the magnitude of what I was a part of today hit me like a ton of bricks.

When I got paged out to cover the massive police sweep of Hoyt Park early this afternoon, I guess I went into the story with my "happy ending" sights set pretty low. Let's face it -- Steven Weber, the guy police were searching the heavily forested, cave-ridden, 27-acre park for, had already murdered his ex-wife before going on the lam. When cops found his truck at the park this morning, the best case scenario we could hope for was that they would find him alive and he could be tried for his heinous act.

From there, the possible scenarios got grimmer. Police could find Weber dead by his own hand, which they eventually did, but at least the situation is resolved now and no one else has been hurt. But police could also have found nothing, leaving an armed and dangerous fugitive on the loose. Or, there were the nightmare scenarios, where Weber could have elected to take a hostage or shoot it out with the cops.

So yeah, I went into my work day today with some low expectations.

Nothing that happened today could undo Francie Weber's murder. Nothing could erase the years of domestic abuse that lead up to it or the impact it had on the couple's children. As a reporter on a breaking story, I have to accept the old facts and focus on getting the new ones straight so I can relay them to the public. I have to push the tragedy that has already unfolded out of my mind long enough to do my part to keep it from turning into a bigger tragedy.

Duty is a fine defense mechanism, though anyone who's seen me in a tense situation will tell you I rely just as heavily on a dark sense of humor which sometimes verges on inappropriate. I get that from my Dad, who once quipped, "This is great, I've always wanted a convertible," as paramedics cut away the roof of the car that was literally wrapped around him, mangled when another vehicle ran a stop sign at 70 miles an hour and broadsided my Dad in his driver's side door.

In a standoff or other "hurry up and wait" situations like today, there's ample time to yuck it up with cops and other reporters stuck at the same scene. There's nothing disrespectful intended in it, and I opine that there's nothing wrong with it if it's done discreetly and without crossing the line. Many in law enforcement and the press share that same strong defense mechanism, I've learned, and as they say, misery loves company.

For instance, I was part of a cadre of press and cops that spent 15 minutes or so delighting in the predicament of a pizza delivery driver this afternoon who had a delivery assigned to him within the police perimeter and couldn't get the deliveree to answer his or her cell phone. After all of our snickering and goading, the driver actually took us up on our offer, and we bought the pizza off him on the cheap and tipped generously.

Eating Glass Nickle pizza out the back of Channel 3's news van was as surreal as it was hilarious -- and necessary too, because most of us hadn't eaten in quite some time.

And as long as we're on the subject of food, I found something else to be particularly heartening today. I eventually settled on a vantage point a little further down the block, with another police officer and a few other reporters, and we spent most of the afternoon camped on that corner. Elation is the best way to describe the reaction when a neighbor brought out, first, a tray of drinks and, later, a plate of elaborately constructed ham sandwiches.

The random generosity of the kindly woman who lives next to Capital City Church on Blackhawk Avenue felt, at the time, like the stuff of legends.

But it was at that corner that I met Madison Police Officer Jxxxxxk, who had been on duty since 5:30 in the morning. After sharing that corner for only a couple hours, we were delighting not only in speculating what grim scenarios might be unfolding in the hills and houses to our west, but also in ripping on each other relentlessly.

When a series of loud pops echoed out of the bluffs around 6:35 PM, Jxxxxxk instinctively dropped to a crouch, hand on his gun butt, and I drew pen and microphone with equal ferocity. The moment passed, and we determined the sound was gas canisters discharging in the park's caves, designed to smoke a suspect out of hiding.

But that's the way the mechanism is supposed to work. It doesn't interfere with the job, it just keeps you from losing your head while you're doing it. If we had spent the day focusing on the horrors of a repeated domestic abuse case taken to the final extreme, we'd have been miserable, and not very capable of doing our jobs.

So I survived the day with nothing more harrowing than a serious sunburn, and Jxxxxxk eventually got home to his three kids. And this is where the tough part begins, because now we have to turn the defense mechanisms off.

We have to do that because to neglect to do so does a disservice to the two people who weren't dead three days ago but are now. It's disrespectful to their families, for whom the real suffering is only just beginning. And leaving those defense mechanisms on all the time is not healthy for us, could in fact choke the humanity out of us eventually, turning us into the worst incarnations of our respective professions.

Tomorrow, back in the shelter of the news room, we start the task of asking the bigger questions. Why did this slimeball Weber think it was okay to beat on his wife and kids the way he did? Why was he allowed out on a measly 500 dollars bail after he was charged with one particularly awful case of domestic violence? How many other Webers are there out there committing atrocities we don't even know about?

And how do we stop this from happening?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Good Intentions, Some Cement

I have to preface this piece by saying that, in the so-called "war" between bicyclists and motorists in the City of Madison, I am a neutral party. I am Switzerland. I'm the freakin' Red Cross. I'm convinced that if you people all just stopped hating on each other, we could all get to where we're going in one piece/peace. But no matter how you try, none of you is going to convert me to your side. As a motorcyclist, I sympathize with both sides, but I also see where both sides are out of line.

Even with that established, there are those who will try to paint what I say next as "anti-bicycle," but here goes:

Madison's "Ride the Drive" event, as planned, is an absolute disaster waiting to happen.

In case you haven't read the mayor's proclamation, "Ride the Drive" is an event, based on similar events in other cities, where people are supposed to "leave their cars behind to experience some of Madison's most scenic byways a whole new way -- via bicycle, skate, stroller or foot." In other words, for six hours on August 30, the city plans to close down a handful of major thoroughfares so people can take non-motorized traffic on them, and they want this to be a regular thing.

Okay, cool, it's a warm fuzzy feeling for the whole family, except it's going to hamstring east-west traffic in a city that doesn't move north and south. If you look at the map, the proposed closures are in green, and the proposed "detour" is in pink. By closing East Washington Avenue and John Nolen Drive, the city is effectively limiting traffic in and out of its densest center of population and commerce to ONE route. In the case of Gorham Street, the recommended westbound detour, traffic is limited to ONE LANE because of construction.

Now, granted, the event will take place on a Sunday morning, from 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM -- not exactly high traffic time. But on a typical Sunday morning, with all routes across the isthmus open, I've observed traffic on Gorham Street backed up several blocks due to the construction, from Broom Street to Wisconsin Avenue or so. If the city takes away John Nolen Drive and East Washington Avenue as an option for motorists traveling east to west, that will triple the traffic volume on Gorham.

It's not that closing major arterial streets to allow people to walk and bicycle on them is a bad idea -- it's just a bad idea for Madison. The proposal here is based on an event they host in Chicago on Lake Shore Drive called "Bike the Drive." Chicago, as you know, is that city of 3 million people situated to the south on the shore of Lake Michigan.

It is not a moderately-sized city planted smack dab between two lakes on an isthmus less than a mile wide. If Lake Shore Drive is closed, motorists have any number of options to detour it. In Madison, drivers will have one detour -- two, if you count the 25 minute drive around Lake Monona.

So what's the big deal? Can't we deal with a traffic hell for six hours on a Sunday morning? Normally I wouldn't take issue with a bunch of folks getting outside to enjoy themselves on their non-motorized-transportation-of-choice, and on the weekends I generally tend to leave the car parked and walk or take a bus anyway. Under different circumstances, I might consider joining in on the "Bike the Ride" festivities. But this isn't a typical Sunday morning.

Sunday, August 30 2009 is the last day for students to move into their downtown dorms and apartments before fall semester classes start at the University of Wisconsin. As anyone who's ever lived downtown or any parent who's ever helped their student move in knows, it's a day of pandemonium as thousands of stressed-out people from both coasts try to navigate U-hauls down streets they've never seen in their lives.

Gorham Street and University Avenue will already be a construction mess for this day, and there's nothing to be done about that. But adding more road closures, bicycles and strollers running right through the heart of that campus mess (yes, Lake Street between Sellery and Witte Halls, the two largest dorms on campus, will be closed as well) to the recipe is inviting the perfect storm. It's a bad idea.

I live along Gorham Street. I can attest to the fact that it's a main route for ambulances en route from parts east to any one of three hospitals located in the city's core. If Gorham is backed up all the way to Tenney Park, I don't even want to fathom what's going to happen to the poor sap who has a heart attack in Maple Bluff, unless the city has a speedboat they can equip as an ambulance.

This isn't about bikes versus cars. This is about something that could be a neat event in a unique city, but because of flagrant disregard or blatant oversights on someone's part, could stand to deadlock Madison on what's already one of its most hectic days. And for an event designed to "invite Madisonians to consider adding non-motorized means of travel to their daily lives," pissing off thousands of motorists doesn't seem like a very diplomatic way to further those ends.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reveille's a Bitch

Someone needs to invent a cell phone that activates a recording device when it rings at godawful hours of the morning, because I'm pretty sure I mutter some of the most toe-curlingly vulgar, colorful words that have ever been strung into a sentence when mine goes off at 4:00 in the AM. I just can't be sure, because I'm not nearly coherent enough to remember.

Technically, I think my first wakeup call came at about 3:45 AM, four hours earlier than my alarm clock was set. But at full volume four feet from my head, my cell phone ringer wasn't even jarring enough to disrupt my REM patterns. The second call penetrated a very vivid dream I was having about yelling at the Monroe School Board (see last night's post) and dragged me reluctantly to a state of semi-consciousness.

At that point, I was trying to determine whether I'd really heard my phone ring, and trying even harder to convince myself it was just a part of the dream. I was weighing the effort it would take to check my phone versus the probability that it was actually an important call when the bastard rang again, and I shot out a misguided arm to snap it open.

"Yahisduzzy," I croaked.

On the other end, my boss, Tara, was full of her typical pep, but a little perplexed. "Uh, is Dustin there?"

I was far too bamboozled to grasp the fact that my slurred growl was completely unrecognizable as me. Likewise, I had nowhere near the wits about me needed to shoot back a witty rejoinder like, No, this is his secretary, Dustin stepped out to run some early morning errands. Instead, I just enunciated, slowly, "No, I am me."

And that was how I came to find out I would be watching the sun come up in Columbus this morning.

In case you hadn't heard, an impressive feat of deafness to be sure, a warehouse at Columbus Chemical Industries blew up last night, and then burned for half a day before there was nothing left to combust. All the common sense and firefighting protocols I've ever heard indicate fire officials on scene did the right thing by pulling away and letting the fire run its course. Because they didn't know which caustic chemicals were fueling the fire, emergency management decided to evacuate an area around the site, and all bajillion of the emergency response agencies on scene today deserve some serious props for their role in what could easily have been a much worse situation.

So, granted, there was some drama to the situation, but I still couldn't help but laugh when Pat Simms from the State Journal raised an eyebrow at the collection of reporters representing every newspaper, radio and TV station between Milwaukee and Madison assembled at the 9:00 AM press briefing, and said, "What are we all doing here?"

Not that anybody's complaining, with every newsroom I know of short on staff, but it's been a slow news year.

In spite of being not quite with it, I had a helluva morning in the trenches riding a lucky streak of "gets" that could have lasted all day, if I had stayed. The first four "just folks" I spoke with in Columbus were a former member of the fire department willing to reminisce about the days when they ran fire response drills at the plant, a plant employee who had been laid off a week earlier (who I still suspect started the whole thing), the fiancee of a firefighter who had come home in paper clothes after his turnout gear had been confiscated as hazardous materials during the decontamination process and a woman who lives a half block from the plant itself and witnessed the whole thing.

But then again, that's small town Wisconsin. Steve Walters is the one who taught me the best stories about a disaster or crime scene won't be found at the scene itself, but in the cafe, restaurant, bar or gas station down the street.

The one negative on the day, other than having to get up at 4:00 AM and the fact that a warehouse blew up, happened as a result of me being a complete dope, so I can't really complain. Sleep-deprived as I was, I set my notebook on the roof of my car as I loaded up my bag and my laptop case, then climbed in and sped off down the road.

It wasn't until I was talking "the fiancee" that I realized my microphone hand was occupied as it should be, but my notebook hand was notably empty. A brief panic ensued during which my tactile memory was clicking enough to tell me I set it somewhere at shoulder height, but not specifically where. I ran up and down the gas station, checking on top of the dryers in the bathrooms and the shelves stocked with soup and Doritos before that last synapse fired.

I found the notebook not 20 feet from where I had parked earlier, flattened squarely in the middle of the road with a massive tire tread mark running diagonally across it. Honestly, the tire that did the flattening was more than a foot across, so for the sake of The Story, I'm going to say it was a fire truck that hit it, but I really don't know.

I do know that the fire truck scored a direct hit on the wire coil that binds the pages together, so taking notes on any other page than the one headed "N4335 Tempkin Rd" is next to impossible. With no one injured in the fire itself, this strikes me as the day's biggest tragedy. That notebook was only halfway through its useful lifetime!

What a sad, sad waste.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sharpen the Axe

Why is it that when a small town school board is looking to trim some funding from the extra curriculars, they go straight for the throat of the district's strongest arts program?

I've often pondered this particular rhetorical question before, but I think I found my answer tonight. I was in my hometown Monroe ("Give me cheese or give me death." - Arabut Ludlow, not quite verbatim, circa 1873) helping a group of locals make a case to spare the district's band program from having its instructors cut from four to three.

Without getting into too much background, but putting that cut in perspective, there were five band directors in the district six years ago when I graduated with the Monroe High School Class of 2003 (Motto: "Hey, this whole Iraq War thing won't last more than a year or so, right?"). In the face of the last round of cuts, the district's dedicated core of professionals maintained the program as one of the envies of other schools in the conference.

But with two of those professionals retiring this year, there's a movement on the school board to replace them with just one teacher. And when one of the people I was speaking against the cuts with asked the question, "How many of you were in band?" of the school board, my jaw dropped.

Not a single one of them raised their hands, or even flinched.

So we each had a turn speaking our piece. I rambled on a bit as I tend to, and expounded the values and applications of the band program in the real world speaking as a recent alum now working as a semi-productive member of society. There were about a half dozen of us who spoke, but what said volumes more were the 60-70 people, mostly high-schoolers, who packed that board room.

Whatever decision the Monroe School Board makes, they'll have to do it knowing that those kids, my little sister Taylor among them, are looking over their shoulder. And good on 'em, too, for taking an ownership role in the future of a program that literally touches more than half the kids who pass through that school district.

And if the school board doesn't have the first-hand experience themselves to understand the value of the band program, then I hope they take account of the fact that the eyes of Monroe's voters are looking over their shoulders as well. Not that a lack of first-hand experience is an excuse for throwing the arts into a wood chipper any time the budget gets tight.

Mike Shuda, the guy who organized "the resistance," is my case in point. Shuda admitted off the bat, as he addressed the board, that he never took an interest in band when he was a student. But since he became a parent, his daughters have all participated in the program with escalating vigor, his youngest with the most fervor of all.

So when Shuda heard the program his daughter cherished was in jeopardy, even though he didn't quite understand it himself, he did the research and then did something about it. He did what the school board needs to do: analyze the situation, and then do what's best for the kids.

I don't know where the Monroe School District should look to cut the funding they need to cut, but I do know this: the arts have done their time as the budgetary whipping boy for too long while athletics have skated by unscathed.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hail to the Chief!

When City Council President Tim Bruer steps in to run the city council meeting, you know a party can't be far away.

Yes, those are liquor bottles -- 200 ml of Jack Daniels and a half liter of really bad vodka, to be precise. No, unfortunately, Bruer didn't bring them to the meeting himself. A member of the industry lobbying corps set them down as visual aids to make a point that is now lost in the sheer hilarity of seeing a pair of liquor bottles positioned in such a manner.

Unfortunately, the liquor baron carried his visual aids off with him when he was done. Perhaps he would have had better luck keeping this ridiculous prohibition on selling cheap liquor in small amounts from passing if he would have left them... in front of every alder's work station.

...Though the press corps would probably appreciate it more.

If I get bothered enough, I'll post on this later, but I think the ban is a terrible idea. And if it means liquor bottles will mysteriously appear more often, I think the mayor should turn the reins over to Tim Bruer every meeting.

***Update*** The item on banning the sale of cheap liquor in small containers was referred to a later meeting. The council wasn't happy about it, but they bowed to pressure from the industry to work together on a (hopefully) more productive solution. Some alders were so cheesed, they made veiled threats about liquor license renewal time. We'll see how it turns out.

Monday, May 4, 2009


With swine flu threatening an almost indubitable apocalypse within weeks, I figure those of us in the general public had best get started on our pre-ordained roles in the planet's last hurrah. And whether it's reuniting what's left of the human race into a ragtag coalition just scraping by, pillaging and looting the weaker survivors or dying an unspeakably awful death somewhere along the line, each of us is fortunate enough to have decades worth of accumulated source material to pull helpful notes and tips from.

I'm talking, of course, about three of the greatest stories ever told about the end of the world, two novels and one a movie. I don't know what I find so fascinating about the annihilation of the human race, but it just so happens it's one of my favorite fictional subject matters, and I consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur of works about the end times.

Before you ask, no I have not read the Left Behind series. Yes, I'm perfectly comfortable living out the rest of my life, short though it may be, without crossing that one off the list.

But I feel works like Stephen King's The Stand, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer, and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead are must-read (and view) material, even when there's not a final reckoning at hand. They're death by biology, natural disaster and zombies, respectively, so spending a weekend boning up on these classics basically prepares you for all the realistic possibilities.

Because, let's face it, as such bastions of entertainment, cannot we also assume they're factually sound enough to hold water in the event of the real deal?

I say I've got five points of advice gleaned from these works that I'm willing to stake my life on, and anyone who wants into my compound of survivors had best think likewise. The lessons to be learned from these works could spare us fatal mistakes and years of toil.

1. Buy a handgun. And then a rifle. And then a flamethrower. And then stock up on plenty of ammunition.

On a less-crucial note, it wouldn't hurt to know how to use all those things, but I understand money can be easier to come by than time. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that anyone can pick up a firearm and learn to use it effectively and safely as soon as the first bad guys come storming in.

And there will be plenty of bad guys in the post-swine flu world too. After an engineered version of the flu killed off 99.4 percent of the world's population in The Stand, a maniacal incarnation of Satan himself mobilized society's surviving evil element to attempt genocide on the gentler denizens of North America. In Lucifer's Hammer, a cannibalistic band of Army irregulars, criminals and religious zealots terrorized the Californian countryside, alternately conscripting or eating the innocents they encountered until a well-organized coalition of survivors and Boy Scouts (sidenote: befriend a Boy Scout) routed them in a bloody counter-attack.

Shaun of the Dead had zombies. The application of firearms explains itself.

But even before you fire a shot, you'll find your arsenal useful. The societal breakdown that inevitably prefaces any endgame scenario effectively reduces social interaction to a "might is right" set of circumstances, and those who invest the time and energy stockpiling foodstuffs, water and petrol will invariably find themselves robbed and stranded by armed brigands, if they're lucky.

If you think post-Katrina New Orleans was an ugly situation, just wait until concepts like "FEMA" and the "National Guard" lose their relevance to otherwise good, but desperate, people.

2. Have a designated fortress or stronghold in mind. As mentioned in step one, for all the survival preparations you make, there will be someone lazy looking to mooch off you or just take what you've got, and without a headquarters that enables you to keep them out and your stuff in, you can make a go of it on the streets and roads for a little while, but you won't make it in the long run.

The size and complexity of your compound really depends on your longterm goals (sidenote: set short- and long-term goals shortly after apocalypse, adjust as needed). If you feel comfortable in being as ambitious as the heroes of The Stand, settle on a small city somewhere with a favorable climate and natural defenses like mountains and get to work rebuilding the infrastructure and, eventually, a society. Boulder, Colorado is already taken, so don't think about it.

Others, like the characters of Lucifer's Hammer, might set their sights a little lower and settle for surviving the post-apocalyptic winter. For them, a mountainside ranch and a nearby town elevated above the tsunami-caused devastation of an asteroid strike was the only obtainable option, but had the advantage of being farmable and providing abundant natural game. The strength of their stronghold was in the type of people they allowed in, welcoming farmers and engineers but turning away many others.

And of course, you can't concentrate on surviving the winter if living through the night is in question. For the Shaun of the Dead crew, a neighborhood pub provided limited protection, stockpiles of food and plenty of drink. Then again, a number of them were eaten by zombies.

Personally, I've had my stronghold picked out since high school, when a group of friends and I laid plans for any worst-case scenario. If we're unable to meet up in our exodus from the city but you, gentle reader, still want to join our band of survivors, you can look for us at a certain low-profile ranch home on a rural farm road, set amongst the rolling farm fields and fed by a creek in northwest Green County.

But of course, we have to get there first. Hence,

3. Mobility is life. In a rural setting, it's crucial to patrolling the countryside for danger and foraging for supplies. In an urban area, a set of wheels lends you the added benefit of separating you from the dangers of the streets and alleys and allowing you to quickly escape dangerous situations. And if your stronghold is 45 miles away, like mine is, the notion of walking that far with your supplies in tow is just silly.

What are you trying to do, after all? Go green? Save the planet? Mission failed. And luckily, with tens of millions dead, supply and demand dictates you should have no trouble appropriating an automobile suitable to your needs.

But they will be unique needs, to say the least. The potential pitfall in procuring transportation is that, when the world ends, so do the services we take for granted like snowplowing, road maintenance and repair garages. While a Toyota Camry will last you decades in the pre-apocalyptic world, it can't mount a snowy incline, offroading around a patch of washed-out roadway or backed up traffic is out of the question and the first technical failure will strand all but the most skilled of mechanics.

As such, The Stand and Lucifer's Hammer each outline the same two diametrically-opposed schools of thought, the simpler of which is riding a motorcycle. While limited in terms of cargo and passenger capacity, the maneuverability and ability of a bike to surmount obstacles is surpassed only by its badass factor. The simplicity of an engine connected to two wheels via a drive shaft or chain means proper maintenance can keep one running long after a more complex piece of machinery would break down beyond repair, and most intermediate-level repairs on a bike are simple enough for an untrained gearhead to attempt.

Being as I own a motorcycle, I think I would tend toward that option, but for those more safety-conscious or not wishing to hibernate through the winter months (sidenote: snowmobiles could be a good idea as well), there's another option. That option entails going out and finding the most monstrous, solidly-built, gas-guzzling four-by-four you can dig up, filling her to the brim with supplies and striking out. A winch, a light bar and auxiliary fuel tanks will extend the usefulness of your new beast, but as gasoline will be an even more limited resource once the refineries stop churning, it would be best to embark on journeys in your post-reckoning tank only in times of dire need.

And of course, Shaun of the Dead demonstrates how your stepdad's Jaguar can be used as a passable battering ram... for zombies, nonetheless. And as long as we're on the topic,

4. Leave your tragic, crippling psychological flaws at home. And I mean that. Surviving without prepackaged food and electricity is going to be hard enough without unresolved daddy issues popping up at inopportune moments, like when the survival of the damn species is hanging in the balance.

Decades from now, the survivors of H1N1 influenza are still going to have nightmares about the horrors they witness in the next month. Post-traumatic stress disorder is just one of the hazards associated with being an Omega-man or woman, and nobody's saying coping is going to be easy.

So I like to think the sheer exertion of staying alive will force the Harold Lauders out there to shy away from their homicidal ego-mania, the Harvey Randalls of the world to move beyond the overwhelming guilt they'll feel for cheating on there soon-to-be-dead wives, but I've read too many books and seen too many movies to really believe it. Not even Shaun's best buddy Ed could stop, well, fucking everything up, and they had to deal with zombies!

Things are going to be ugly , and I'd just as soon spend the rest of my life as the lone survivor (sidenote: stock up on spare reading glasses) rather than devolve into a 30-page character development arc when I could be doing something important like bringing the power grid back online or whatever. And how's someone who can't kick a drug habit when there's work to be done supposed to have the fortitude to deal with the obliteration of the human race as we know it, Nadine Cross?

So steel yourself for the end. Honestly, if you can't stand watching the majority of your friends and loved ones die in agony without losing it, we're probably better off without you in the new world anyway. Which brings us to our next point...

5. If you can't handle post-apocalyptic life, consider dying in the first wave. Warring hordes. Cities populated with corpses. Crapping outdoors. There's a lot that's going to be unpleasant about the day after Judgment Day, and unless you're willing to commit to the full time job of surviving, you might want to save yourself the effort and make an early exit.

That part, thankfully, is much easier to achieve than survival. When the H1N1 virus takes a fatal turn, just make yourself an easy target. Do not wash your hands. Do not wear a face mask. Do not obey quarantine notices. Make your way to the nearest hospital and stake out spot as "greeter," exchanging hugs with victims as they're carted into the emergency room. You'll feel good about your new proactive role, they'll feel a little better and with any luck you'll both be dead within a week.

Going in the first wave will guarantee you a hospital bed, a sympathetic medical staff and a hale supply of morphine to get you through your last 24 hours. You'll be one of the lucky ones that gets to skip out on the storm of funerals that's sure to precede the breakdown of society, although your friends and loved ones will probably have to sit through yours.

So if you don't have the stomach to witness the end of the world as we know it, leave the struggling, the starvation and the panicked riots to those of us suckers with a foolish, bullheaded urge to push on in the face of certain doom.

Hope the tips here help make your end of days a once in a lifetime, successful event. Happy apocalypse, everyone!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Block and Roll

Now that, my friends, was one helluva Mifflin Street Block Party.

I was absolutely thrilled, as I tooled around the best unprompted celebration in the midwest this weekend, microphone in hand and occasionally nursing a brew, to see everything I found disheartening about last year's block party on the mend. Even though the overall attendance was higher this year, arrests dropped through the floor. Instead of (just) staring out over the crowd and pounding beers, party-goers meandered between the food carts or danced to the live music.
Police, for the most part, played the role of peace keepers and let the party happen.

Having a main stage as a central focus is exactly what the Mifflin Street Block Party needed, and as a WSUM alum, I could not be prouder of the UW's student radio station for taking a leadership role in making it happen. In my time as a leader at WSUM, fronting the main event at what is arguably the most beloved annual celebration for UW students was something we could only dream of. The station, founded in 2002, was too young. Now, they're revelling in every ounce of credit they have due them after an uproariously successful first bout as the patron saints of the block party.

The fact that the organizers who simultaneously brought city-sanctioned music, focus and porta-potties back to the block party made their way through every bit of red tape the city could throw at them in nine days is a testament to what this event could become. I'm not talking about something gated, stamped and bled of all its verve like (don't say Freakfest) Halloween on State Street.

Instead, many of the organizers, and I as well, hope to see Mifflin grow to its former glory. Certainly I don't want it to become a violent clash between war protesters and police again -- in fact, I'd prefer it if there wasn't a war to protest at all. But if one stage with DJs can succeed, what about another stage full of local rock acts, and another stage featuring hip-hop artists, or reggae, or indie.

It took a whole lot of people to get the block party headed back toward these ends. Alders Mike Verveer and Bridget Maniaci tried group after group, looking for one viable enough to front the money and expertise to make it happen. WSUMers, particularly general manager Dave Black, engineer Matt Rockwell and station manager Jenny Underwood, turned their full focus like a sharply-honed tool on bringing every puzzle piece together in breathtaking time. Mayoral aide Joel Plant and dozens of other city staffers exercised patient wisdom in helping, guiding and, eventually, green-lighting the entire fiasco. David Coleman and Ny Bass from DCNY Pro helped pull it all together through promotion and organization. Central District Police Captain Mary Schauf was just as involved every step of the way as she was on the day itself, exhibiting a dedication that was topped only by the discretion with which her officers acted throughout the course of the block party.

All in all, it was truly a Mifflin Day Miracle, and I'm more excited than ever to see what next year's block party will bring.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Wondering what else I've been up to lately? Check out my band Common Swift's blog for an update on the release of our first EP and the aftermath of our tour in La Crosse last weekend. Also, there are pictures up on our myspace page of the tour and the ensuing pandemonium.

God, but there's a lot going on right now.

Press Corpse

I don't find it particularly funny that I already heard this phrase once today. In reference to a different time but a similar situation, someone once said, "Would the last business out of Wisconsin please hit the lights?"

Today, it's starting to feel like "Would the last member of the media out of Wisconsin please hit the lights?" would be more appropriate.

My dislike of Clearchannel is well-documented, but until today, it wasn't personal. It may have been moral, political and professional, but they had never before done something directly to me or a friend of mine. Of course, in the current news climate, I guess it was only a matter of time.

Jason Fischer is a younger guy like me, and worked for the company for several years, first at their Milwaukee affiliate and then here in Madison at WIBA. He primarily covered their nightsides, meaning we saw each other at a lot of city council meetings, county functions, school board hee-haws and the other miscellaneous news nuggets that happen in the hours after normal people get to have their dinner and call it a day.

As the reporter for WIBA, Jason was my primary competition, but that didn't stop us from hitting it off right away. Perhaps it's a self-defense mechanism in a hostile environment, but cracking wise becomes a way of life in the back row during five-hour city council meetings, and Jason I have been jokingly reprimanded by the Mayor himself for "appearing to have way too much fun" during serious budget sessions.

He's sharp, brutally competent, positive in a pinch, well-read and now... unemployed, thanks to the Clearchannel corporate masters in San Antonio.

He's not the only one. As I understand it, Clearchannel gutted the WIBA news room this morning, leaving only a couple members of the morning team. I don't know who all went, but there were a lot of veterans in that news room. You don't need a lot of veterans, though, when your plan is to have Madison act as a "spoke" for a larger regional "news hub" that pipes the news of the day out to cities hundreds of miles away.

Call me naive, but I can't to this day believe that Clearchannel's business model is still legal.

So to take a quick tally, this reduces the City Hall Press Corps to two and a half people, tops. Kristin Czubkowski from the Capital Times can be found reliably in the back row at all hours of a city council meeting and at most important committee meetings as well. I seldom miss a city council meeting, save when I have to fill in on the early morning shift (the one that starts at three AM).

And of course, there's Nick Heynen, the nightside reporter from the State Journal, who shows up at meetings when there's not something else more pressing happening on the scanner. Somewhere out there, Dean Mosiman is floating in the aether gathering his information in mystical ways only a city hall vet can, but we don't see him at council meetings.

If there's blood, guts or tears, the TV stations might stop out, and they will now outnumber the regulars. If there's a campus-related issue, the student papers will send a reporter and a shooter each, and THEY will now outnumber the regulars.

I texted Kristin about Jason being let go, and she echoed my own sentiments: "Clearchannel has no idea what it's given up. Idiots."

And she was more right than she knew, because to the people thousands of miles away who made the decision to let Jason and his co-workers go, the newsies they fired today were nothing more than names on a spreadsheet. That's another danger of massive media ownership in America, and as more names fall off the front of media row, I get more concerned about the future of our country.

In 2003, the American people were unwittingly lead into a war in part because the national press corps didn't ask the right questions of our elected officials, and an angry punk rock band called Anti-Flag wrote a song about it called the "Press Corpse" that, in part, inspired me to become a reporter.

In 2003, ad revenues were fat and juicy compared to today, and the press's ranks were likely once-and-a-half to twice what they are right now. I feel safe in saying Anti-Flag hadn't seen anything yet.