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?