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.