Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Ford, not a Lincoln

Well, we didn't actually see Gerald Ford at Dunkin' Donuts this morning, but walking into the Dunkin' Donuts, we did see the headline in today's paper that the former president had died last night.

There's really not much to add, except that it's vaguely interesting to think that we may have written the last blog post referencing the erstwhile Mr. Ford while he was still alive. Even if it was an offhand reference involving strange-looking people at a donut shop.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Rex Hamilton lives

We're at work in the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, today. There are apparently few other people at work in downtown Milwaukee, because our bus ride in from the 19 Minutes Suburban Satellite Office took only about 15 minutes over city streets.

The trip in to work also included a stop at Dunkin' Donuts, which brought to mind the following two ruminations:

  1. The apostrophe at the end of the word "Dunkin'" is kind of an anachronism in today's chain-store environment. A welcome anachronism for grammar enthusiasts, but an anachronism regardless. It's as though the store was originally called "Dunking Donuts", but someone decided, "Whoa, we better make this sound more conversational!" Of course, it also makes one wonder why the name of the store isn't "Dunkin' Do'nuts", given that "donuts" is a variation of "doughnuts".
  2. The clientele at our Dunking Doughnuts of choice this morning was, shall we say, a little offbeat. Some might have paused to consider whether there was a hobo convention going on at the nearby Midwest Airlines Center. Others may have considered it the best sighting of Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln since a 1988 spotting we remember from the men's room at a service area on I-95 in Maryland. More remarkable, perhaps, was the fact that there were three or four people at the restaurant this morning who could have been shooting for the Lincoln look, and - as far as we could tell - these people were not connected in any way except a mutual interest in doughy treats. Anyway, it got us to wondering whether there are normally that many odd ducks at the donut shop, but today, they represented a much higher proportion of the clientele at large (say, 95 percent) than on a typical weekday morning.

I'm thinking of stopping by tomorrow, just in case Gerald Ford is there.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Call me an artificial sap

So there's this odd foreign object taking up real estate in our foyer these days. It's bushy and almost green, and in all seriousness, I have no idea what it's made of. It has a bunch of lights embedded in it, like so many CNN correspondents within a Sylvan Army. And what will soon be my daughter's annual December haul is strewn underneath it, atop a round red piece of felt at the object's base.

Yeah, it's a Christmas tree.

After never giving trees much thought through a Jewish childhood and early adulthood, and successfully skirting the issue through the first six years of an interfaith marriage (thanks, largely, to an apartment too small to accommodate anything larger than a ficus tree), I was prepared to weigh the arguments on either side of the debate this year.

But I got sick, and between CT scans and holiday shopping, I figured I had successfully circumnavigated the Christmas tree debate for another year.

Then, the package from my father-in-law arrived mid-week. Contained within was a well-loved, artificial Christmas tree, and three strands of multi-colored lights. My wife called me at work to apprise me of our foyer's new tenant.

I thought about it for roughly four seconds.

"Sounds great," I startled myself by saying. "I'll help you with the lights when I get home."

Somewhere inside me, I knew I was eventually going to have to decide whether having a tree was actually going to be an issue, or just another in the long list of Things I Hope To Avoid By Inaction.

I choose not to make it an issue. Yeah, part of me agrees with writer (and like me, transplanted Milwaukeean with a daughter and non-Jewish partner) Lauren Fox, who wrote in the New York Times, that "a Christmas tree is the last lost battleground of the secular Jew." Part of me worries that it's a slippery slope from here... next stop - Vacation Bible School!

But most of me looks at my wife. My Lutheran wife, who knows - and recites in Hebrew - the blessings when we light the menorah at Chanukah. Who taught our two-and-a-half year old the words "Baruch Ata Adonai" so she can join in saying the Chanukah blessings. And I think: You know, neither one of us is especially religious. But she's embraced this part of my tradition to the extent that she knows almost as much about it as I do. (For example, the first Chanukah blessing translates to, "Blessed art thou, o Lord our God... something something something... Chanukah." And, she knows that we light the menorah from right to left, as Hebrew is read. Or we light it left to right, despite how Hebrew is read.)

So rather than - passively - not minding the tree peeking out the window at us as we cruise up the driveway, I'm planning on fully enjoying the experience of one of her traditions.

And, as a side benefit, it's helping me feel that much more Jewish. Like, when I wandered into the Christmas section of Walgreen's to look for our tree's one ornament (an Eastern Bluebird with an authentic Cornell Lab of Ornithology chirp), and had to ask a salesclerk whether I had, in fact, located a Christmas tree ornament, or whether I had picked up one of those Christmas knick-knack decorations whose purpose was never explained in Hebrew school. Also, as a 37-year-old Christmas tree novice, I had no complaints with the fact that each of the strands of lights was approximately 730 feet long and managed to knot - and reknot - itself with every turn of the tree. Whereas an authoritative gentile would have ceased whistling "Sleigh Ride" and taken the name of someone's lord in vain.

So that's my rationale.

As for the string of lights in the window over the Christmas tree... well, they just look sort of nice.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I guess there is something out there for the person who has everything

I used to actively enjoy shopping for gifts. I thought I had a knack for finding gifts that were uncommon (say, ice skates for my future wife), yet fit the recipient well (such as a CD of The Four Bitchin' Babes that my mom really connected with). With a few exceptions (and here I'm thinking of the calendar featuring photos of outhouses that I once gave my dad. It was an artistic calendar - the pictures were nice, but still, they were outhouses...).

But somewhere in the past few years, gift-buying has become less enjoyable. Part of the reason probably has to do with a little math that goes on in my head while I'm shopping (Well, let's see - that CD boxed set equals exactly one-and-a-half mega-packs of Pampers, minus a bottle of zinc tablets...), but I think a larger part of it is that there's too much stuff out there. The ice skates, for example, were purchased over the internet back in the days when e-commerce was a little like wading through the tiny display ads in the last few pages of the New Yorker - there wasn't necessarily that much out there, but occasionally, you ran across a real find.

In Milwaukee, though (as in all large cities), there's so much out there that it's hard to isolate the gifts that will make a real connection to the recipient. Ten years ago, finding a pasta machine (especially in Potsdam, New York) might have represented a remarkable achievement. But my office in downtown Milwaukee is directly below a Linens-n-Things which not only carries pasta makers, but probably 12 different brands and varieties (the left-handed pasta maker, the pasta maker that makes elbow macaroni, the forged steel left-handed elbow-macaroni pasta maker, etc.).

Granted, there are disadvantages to being in a place with not enough stuff. When I lived in northern New York, the options in my little town were somewhat limited, so holiday shopping involved a three-hour roundtrip to Ottawa. And for the seven previous holiday seasons, my wife and I lived in Flagstaff, Arizona, where there was exactly one of every store, and each of those stores had exactly one of every item.

I do have a few friends who, each year, make something both creative and thoughtful for the people on their holiday gift lists. And that's a strategy I could employ as well, provided my friends and relatives are hoping for a) toast, or b) copies of blog posts, printed and framed.

Anyway, this year's holiday shopping wasn't too bad, really. I thought my wife and I came up with some clever ideas that I hope will fit their recipients (figuratively, and in some cases, literally). But that unique gift idea eluded me, until I read the New York Times. And darn if the perfect gift idea hasn't already been taken:

Please Let It Be Whale Vomit, Not Just Sea Junk

Fortunately, there are still 370 shopping days until next Christmas.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

News from the Coincidence Blotter

...And finally tonight, we have news that the leader of the Milwaukee Junior Accountants Club has been arrested:
A 16-year-old Milwaukee girl was arrested for disorderly conduct at Mayfair Mall at 8:24 p.m. Dec. 2 after she returned a third time after being kicked out of the mall twice that same day. She had been booted from the mall for disorderly behavior and profane language. When the officer handed her the citation, she exclaimed, "Oh, wow, my boyfriend got a ticket at the mall here a while back for the exact same amount."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Several notes in search of a theme

A few things on the 19 Minutes radar screen this afternoon, none of which is really worth more than a paragraph or two (and boy, that portends great things for those of you who keep reading!)...

Wauwatosa currently smells like feet, as though a train car full of old sweatsocks derailed, and the authorities forgot to mention it to the citizenry. It's hard to actually ascertain where the smell is originating, aside from being in proximity to both the railroad tracks and the Menomonee River. I initially thought it was coming from my car, but it seemed unlikely that my car would choose only to smell near railroad tracks or a river. As far as smells go, it's not as bad as the Thomas Edison Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike. But it's a shade less pleasant than my college locker room after a baseball game - except on days when our locker room was shared by middle school wrestlers, which still ranks as one of the Top 10 Worst Odors of All-Time.

Also, it's been mentioned by several readers that last week's unlikely appearance by Plato at a southeast Wisconsin bus stop shelter may have been connected to a phenomenon known as, which encourages people to catch-and-release books, and then chart their progress on the Internet. After perusing the site, I'd be inclined to agree - though the book was in funky enough shape that I didn't get close enough to see a Bookcrossing sticker. Regardless, it doesn't explain the story's other details, such as the "Pixie Power" backpack.

And then, there's this news from London's Financial Times:

European credit markets notched up a new record on Tuesday, after the spread on the so-called “Crossover index” – a basket of credit default swaps on risky European corporate bonds – tightened to its lowest level, implying that investors are now more relaxed than ever about default risk.

I would comment on this development if I had any idea what it meant.

Finally, if your plans call for you to spend any time drinking barium in the radiology department at Froedtert Lutheran Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin, keep an eye out for my dignity, which apparently went missing yesterday morning. Actually, you could do much worse than to be taken care of by the staff there (Renee and Mary were far more pleasant than the barium). On the other hand, the experience of standing around a hospital waiting area, wearing a hospital issue gown, watching "The Price Is Right", as doctors and visitors and painting crews shuttle by, is not something I've seen mentioned in the literature on Crohn's Disease. It was, however, a welcome respite from the smell of feet.

Friday, December 08, 2006

And now, this word about System Parking, Incorporated

You're driving around downtown Milwaukee. It's early in the morning, say, 7:25 or so. You're in the vicinity of the historic and charming Pfister Hotel, and you're looking for a parking space. Then, on the corner of Jefferson and Mason Streets, you spy a surface lot. A large sign reads:

Parking: $2.00/first 1/2 hour
$1.00/each hour
There are lots of spaces, and it's directly across the street from the hotel where you're due in five minutes for a meeting. Looks like a great place to park.

Don't do it.

Don't park there.

Because when you emerge from your meeting, an hour later, System Parking Incorporated will have placed a sign by the lot entrance (not the entrance by which you entered the lot, mind you) that reads
"Early Bird Special: In before 9:00, out after 2:00 - $6.00"
You won't think this sign applies to you. "After all," you think, "I'm not leaving after 2:00. An hour will cost me $3.00 to park. It's not the greatest bargain in the world, but about what I'd expect to pay. I mean, the lot isn't kept up especially nicely, but I suppose it's better than parking my car in the Milwaukee River."

And yet, System Parking, Incorporated interprets the sign to mean, "If you park here before 9:00 a.m., we'll charge you $6.00." The friendly and helpful parking attendant explained the policy further as follows:

"Hey, man, it's six degrees out. Read the sign. Either pay the six dollars or we'll send you a ticket."

Ah yes, that'd be the sign, posted after the cars were parked there, at an entrance facing away from the hotel, in apparent conflict with the two other permanent signs posted on the lot.

"But what else bugs you about 'System Parking, Incorporated'?" you ask, provided you're still even reading.

We're glad you asked. System Parking, Incorporated is, naturally, the kind of company that doesn't print its phone number on its receipts, yet conveniently has a website in which the "contact us" feature is disabled. We did learn, however, that its chairman, Thomas Phillips, is a member of something called the International Parking Congress, a legislative body which we're definitely going to have to lobby.

In the meantime, as you continue to circle the block, looking for parking near the historic and charming Pfister Hotel, allow me direct you to a different Parking System: the meters on Jefferson Street.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

"68th and Milwaukee": The Movie

So if I were a Hollywood screenwriter, this morning’s wait at the bus stop would have resulted in the following opening scene from a yet-to-be-made movie:

The setting: A suburban bus stop. It’s an arctic morning, the sun palely shining through the columns of exhaust rising from the cars waiting at the stop sign. In the background, cars come and go from the dry cleaner. A crossing guard helps children cross the busy intersection.

Our protagonist, a mild-mannered, friendly, and follicly challenged journalist - whom we’ll call “Mitch” - waits at the bus stop, periodically tucking his head into the collar of his jacket, figuring thart breathing lint will somehow be more enjoyable than breathing the air at +6F.

A few seconds pass, and an older woman approaches. Our hero hadn’t noticed her as she walked up Milwaukee Avenue, but suddenly, there she is. She’s a little disheveled, but smiles innocuously. After a closer examination, though, our protagonist notices some unusual details: She’s wearing sweatpants. They’re in good condition, but they’re sweatpants nevertheless. She carries a backpack. But it’s a kids’ backpack, and reads “Pixie Power”. At the bottom of the backpack, a sticker is affixed, reading, "When Christ Was Born".

He smiles back at her, and the following dialogue transpires:

WOMAN WITH BACKPACK: (smiling) I’m going to leave this book here.

MITCH: Okay.

The woman smiles and sets down a paperback book on the seat in the bus shelter. A bus pulls up with an electronic sign reading “Pius XI High School”. The woman gets on the bus and disappears.

Our protagonist walks to the other end of the bus shelter and examines the book:

“The Dialogues of Plato”
He has no idea what this scene means.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Jeep... tent... boom.

Big explosion in Milwaukee this morning. I imagine it's one of those scenes that'll be relegated to the "Cool Fire Footage From Around Our Nation" segment of the local news elsewhere, but the explosion, subsequent fire, and aftermath have all played out in a compelling way in the news in southeast Wisconsin today.

The 19 Minutes staff happened to be about a mile from the plant that blew up at the time it blew up this morning. We were on a city bus and heard (and felt) a really loud thud that momentarily drowned out the song on our iPod ("Sleeping Satellite" by Tasmin Archer, and God alone knows why that's lodged in our memory). Around the bus, no reaction. Everybody continues reading their Stephen King novels. We figured it was a snowball hitting the side of the bus.

Shortly thereafter, a truly impressive number of emergency vehicles went speeding by in the opposite direction. In a testament to our frighteningly dubious newsgathering abilities, it took until 2:30 this afternoon for us to connect the thud with the emergency vehicles with the explosion.

Actually, perhaps the most compelling graphic of the day came from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Seismic Center, which charted the shockwave from the blast:

What it did not chart, was the shockwave from my hand smacking my forehead after figuring out the thud from this morning's bus ride.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Living life as Page 2F instructs me

I don't really put much stock into what horoscopes say. Okay, any stock. But I did think it was interesting that my horoscope on Friday, the day after I found out I have Crohn's disease, read:
"Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20): Let your gut feeling be what leads the way today."

Friday, December 01, 2006

Where I'm at (besides Wisconsin, that is)

I’ve been away for awhile. I feel bad that I haven’t at least checked in to let you know what’s going on. The truth is, I just haven’t felt up to it - mentally, anyway. As for my physical well-being, I wasn’t really sure.

But the moral of the story is that sometimes hypochondriacs actually are sick. Gene Weingarten covered that topic pretty thoroughly in his book, “The Hypochondriac’s Guide to Life. And Death.”, in which he chronicles his lifetime battle with hypochondria, which basically ended when it turned out that he actually had a chronic disease, Hepatitis C.

And as the 11 faithful readers of this column will likely recall (yeah, right), the 19 Minutes staff has been a long admirer of the hypochondriac lifestyle, having believed to have had any number of fatal conditions, including heart attacks that have lasted two weeks, any number of strokes, cancer, etc.

Of course, at the core of it all has been years of intestinal distress, which on good days I ascribed to having a nervous stomach; and on bad days, well, I ascribed it to having any of a number of diseases. And in retrospect, there have been plenty of bad days – including about nine months’ worth in the late ‘90s, when I dropped around 35 pounds and had roughly zero energy for long stretches. And I wasn’t really very happy. I’ll spare you the more gruesome details, but basically, my body decided it wasn’t going to digest certain foods. (“Uh, thanks, Mitch, but I’ve decided not to convert this food into anything. Thanks anyway….”)

And yet, I got better. And progressively more content with life. Leading me to believe that it was depression making me feel sick. For the last eight years or so, I’ve felt pretty good, except for the occasional stroke, diptheria bout, bubonic plague, etc., all of which – amzingly – my physical exam failed to catch.

But for the last couple of months, I’ve been a little off my game. It was a stressful move to Wisconsin, I have a much faster-paced job than before, raising a 2 ½-year-old takes a lot of energy. It seemed to make sense that I was having a little trouble adjusting. And, of course, my digestive system decided it was having trouble adjusting to the land of beer and bratwurst, too.

So I didn’t really think too much of it, except for the hypochondriac in me, who figured he was dying.

My latest physical came and went. My blood pressure was a little high, which it somehow always manages to be in a doctor’s office. My heart rate was good, and showed no signs of the 17th heart attack I’d had, just that morning.

Then, my blood work came back, and there was something screwed up. Really screwed up. My doctor ordered a retest. You know something’s seriously bad when your doctor calls with test results at 7:00 in the morning, which she did. Anyway, she thought a colonoscopy was in order, given my history of intenstinal infortitude. She thought it should be done within a month and a half, which she meant (I think) as reassurance that I wasn’t about to drop dead, but which naturally gave me 6 weeks to obsess over what it could be.

And obsess I did, especially over Thanksgiving in Minnesota, which for many people was about food, and for me was about agonizing over what kind of food would be least likely to kill me. Even better (from an anxiety standpoint) was the knowledge that waiting for me at home in Wisconsin was the prescription equivalent of a toilet plunger, designed to get me ready for an unpleasant procedure.

That was yesterday. The medical team chatted with me for a little while before they went in to look for the lost miners.

“How long have you had these symptoms,” the resident asked.

“Um, well, let’s say 15 years,” I replied.

“Huh,” he said.
And, as has been the case several times before, I really enjoyed the experience of sedation. I remember vague glimpses of my interior on a TV monitor. And some time later, I ate a muffin and had a brief conversation with the resident. I remember almost nothing about the conversation, except that they’d figured out what’s wrong with me.

Crohn’s disease, as it turns out. Pretty long-standing Crohn’s disease. In fact, probably long-standing enough to explain almost every digestive issue I’ve had for 15 years or more. Apparently, the patty melt at the Perkins Restaurant in Coralville, Iowa did not give me food poisoning after all, and I sincerely apologize if I’ve dissuaded anyone from eating there since 1991.

I’m sure I’ll blog more about the disease itself in the coming weeks or months. I’m still learning about it, myself. Suffice it to say that it’s an auto-immmune disease. Suffice it to say that my body has essentially been trying to systematically eliminate my intestines. (Which you probably would too, if you knew what I had eaten in the last couple decades.) Suffice it to say that you wouldn’t enjoy it very much.

But after 15 years of worrying, it’s actually a major weight off my shoulders - to know that all I have is this auto-immune disease for which there is no cure, varyingly successful treatments, and which will cause me periodic discomfort for the rest of my life. And really, that’s not so bad. I don’t intend to let it kick my butt.

And so, with a lighter heart, I'm back.

Now will somebody please tell me what the deal is with Michael Richards?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

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A very interesting election night, both in Wisconsin and around the country. That was generally a positive thing, except that the real-life radio program we produce was doing an election post-mortem. This required us to be at work around 5:45 this morning, and led us to think that there's something to be said for an election where the results are a foregone conclusion by early evening.

So, that said and with about 1 1/2 hours of sleep, a few notes from yesterday's elections:

First, a note to both losing and winning candidates. If you don't have something interesting to say in your concession or victory speech, just thank your supporters, congratulate your opponent, and let the band go back to playing Dixieland tunes. Here in Wisconsin, Republican Mark Green lost the race for governor, and delivered a concession speech that sounded as though it was either cribbed from the internet, or taken from "The Idiot's Guide to Running a Political Campaign". ("I especially want to thank my wife, [insert name], and my kids [if any], who have endured [length of campaign] with a father in absentia..."). Some minutes later, Democrat Jim Doyle delivered his victory speech, replete with platitudes copied from the same book ("...And so I say it is time to move [name of state, Congressional district, or village] forward, while preserving the way of life that we in [name of state, Congressional district, or village] have worked so hard to maintain...").

Despite working in radio, the 19 Minutes home office followed most of the returns via the television, which yielded its usual ADHD moments, as the commentators referred to graphics on the top of the screen, while a completely different set of graphics scrolled along the bottom. Our favorite scrolling result was a ballot issue in the town of Oconomowoc, which for at least a half hour showed the "No's" leading the "Yeses", by 1 vote to none. This with 9% of the precincts reporting. You know, if I'm an election official, and I've only seen one vote, I might wait to enter it into the computer.

We also enjoyed watching the national results scrolling along the bottom of the screen, featuring the last names of candidates in races we knew nothing about. Our favorite candidate last names: "Duck" (towards a daffier future), "Weed" (it's hard to run a law-and-order campaign when you're named Weed), "Goodlatte" (a great name for a Congressional coffee house), "Bugler" (Wake up, New York!), and of course the Republican running for New York's 16th Congressional District, who is named Ali Mohamed, but who of course is listed as "Mohamed, Ali". (The Greatest gathered around 4% of the vote.)

And this news from Iowa: We're glad we stayed awake in class - Dave Loebsack becomes our first former college professor to be elected to Congress, defeating 30-year incumbent Jim Leach. Equally as noteworthy as the result was the tone of the campaign, which (as noted by sources such as the Los Angeles Times) was probably the politest in the country. Considering the tone of the campaigns just one state over, we kind of miss Iowa. We also thought Chris Matthews's reference to Prof. Loebsack on MSNBC as "the guy in the crew neck sweater" was a little overly snarky, especially given the blazer he wears in his campaign photo.

We'd also be happy if more TV ads struck a tone like this one for South Dakota Democrat Stephanie Herseth (who, I'll grant you, had a pretty secure reelection bid). She also has the spiffiest campaign t-shirts on the hustings, narrowly beating out this one..

Regardless, it should be an interest next couple of years. I personally plan to get the next chapter of American political history underway with a nap.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Microsoft Thought Police on patrol

This has nothing to do with anything (as is the case with this whole feature, I suppose), but for various reasons, I ended up on the main MSN page this morning. I've never really spent much time there, but it didn't surprise me to note the list of the "Most Popular People Searches" (nor did it surprise me that this list included Saddam Hussein, Madonna, and Sacha Baron Cohen).

On the other hand, I was somewhat interested to peruse a list MSN provided of "Suggested Searches". Why these searches are suggested is not disclosed, nor am I informed whether these searches are somehow, through some kind of Microsoft proprietary software, directed specifically at me. But it is interesting to consider the five "Suggested Searches" on the MSN list:

  1. New Life Church
  2. Self-aware elephant
  3. Travel terrorism
  4. New Zealand icebergs
  5. Head lice

So okay, I can understand the inclusion of New Life Church on the list. They've been, somewhat comically, in the news lately. And, well, "self-aware elephant" might be an unusual way to research the GOP's introspective nature during this campaign season. And who can argue with looking up "travel terrorism"? I mean, it's always good to take precautions, even if my longest journey in the last few months has been to an apple orchard outside Racine, Wisconsin. (I mean, hey, you never know what's in that plastic bag between the Honey Crisps and the Empires.) But the last two kind of puzzle me. New Zealand icebergs? It's been almost 15 years since last I went to New Zealand, and even then, my concerns about icebergs were limited to whether they'd somehow impede my attempt to buy U2 tickets. And finally, of all the potential search terms MSN could have suggested, "head lice" seems odd. Unless my computer really knows something I don't.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Quaking in my oatmeal

I have arrived at the conclusion that if I am ever to pull a Halloween prank, I will use oatmeal. No toilet paper in the trees. No egging the front door of a house. Just cooked oatmeal, dribbled on an (in)appropriate surface, and left there to dry.

This conclusion reached me this morning, as it does every morning I skip my early morning stop at Dunkin Donuts, and instead settle into my cubicle with a freshly irradiated bowl of oatmeal.

I’d recommend the Quaker corporation’s Maple and Brown Sugar variety, but that’s only because that’s what comes out of my microwave after a minute and 38 seconds. I have no idea whether cinammon, or French Toast-flavored oatmeal would have the same effect.

But as I say, I come to this conclusion every day I eat oatmeal. It doesn’t hit me as I eat the oatmeal; rather, it strikes me about four hours later, when I remember the mostly empty bowl is sitting on the desk surface behind my chair. At that point, it’s too late to clean it by just blasting it with hot water in the sink, and much sponge work and elbow grease ensues. If I’m especially recalcitrant, the oatmeal will have spent a full workday hardening, and my departure for the afternoon bus will be delayed while I consider my various cleaning options – which almost always results in my adding water to the bowl and sticking it back in the microwave, figuring it’ll either rehydrate the oatmeal and make it easier to remove, or the water will get hot enough that it will scald the offending oat flakes into submission.

This is all somewhat important to consider as the weather gets cooler. I am not a year-round oatmeal guy. As with hot coffee, I wait until the weather has sufficiently cooled to the point where the warm food (or drink) is a nice relief.

(I’ve never really understood the line of reasoning that says a hot beverage – say, coffee – should be the default setting in the morning, rather than a cold beverage – say, Dr Pepper. Frankly, I quite enjoy the sensation that a nice, cold carbonated beverage makes, as it burns off the colonies of film that have taken up residence in my mouth overnight.)

So with the cold snap that has settled in (and which we, in Milwaukee, refer to as “fall”), it’s getting to be oatmeal season. And oatmeal – well, it sticks to the bowl. Given my propensity for putting off cleaning the bowl, I’ve tried branching out to something less sticky.

I like grits, for example. Even the instant ones. In fact, I once was at a somewhat cozy-but-not-altogether-agreeable breakfast place in Damariscotta, Maine and ordered grits. “Oh,” the waitress said, as though to discourage my choice, “they’re just instant ones.” As I recall, she succeeded in talking me out of the grits (new rule of thumb: never order grits in a restaurant north of Maryland), despite the fact that I don’t think I could tell instant grits from, well, slow-cooked(?) grits. I don’t even know if I’ve ever had non-instant grits. Regardless, eating grits – at work – more than once or twice a month seems like it come become an affectation, like getting a “Dukes of Hazzard” desktop theme for my computer.

I’ve also given Malt-o-Meal a shot, but even when I tried the chocolate flavor, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was eating wallpaper paste, or driveway caulk, and always wound up with ¾ of a box left uneaten in my pantry. In fact, there may be one there now.

That gives me another Halloween idea.

Monday, October 30, 2006

And you can bet the Great Pumpkin won't show up, either

This time last year, my then-17-month old was preparing for her first ever Halloween. She entered a costume contest (as a stadium vendor) and won, and then we shuttled her around to the homes of several of our friends so they could kvell over her other costume (a cow, which should have foreshadowed our move to the Dairy State).

So being a newcomer to southeastern Wisconsin, I was unaware that the Traditional Halloween Paradigm was in need of improvement.

By “Traditional Halloween Paradigm”, I mean the part that goes like this: It’s October 31st. You check your calendar. Ah… Halloween. If you’re a kid, you head out after dinner for trick-or-treating, hitting your immediate neighborhood, and – if your Halloween intelligence is reliable – more distant houses, which – although they’re on the periphery of your neighborhood – are handing out especially prime treats (say, full-size Snickers bars, or perhaps Lik-m-Aid).

If you’re a parent of younger children, you walk along with your kids and their friends, lurking on the curb. You’re ostensibly there to make sure the kids say “thank you” after collecting the treats that they’ll one day need Lipitor to counter. Realistically, you’re there to make sure everything is above board at those weird houses where they ask the kids to come into the kitchen to get candy.

Otherwise, you stay home and try to read, or watch TV, knowing that you’ll be interrupted every 3½ minutes by would-be licensed characters, or would-be pirates, or would-be Richard Nixons.

It’s really not that complicated.

And yet, here in the Milwaukee area, someone decided that it was a system that needed to be more complicated. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Friday published a list of 94 different municipalities and their trick-or-treat hours – from my town of Wauwatosa (1-4 pm on Sunday), to the city of Brookfield (5-7:30 pm Tuesday) to the town of Oconomowoc (4-7 pm Sunday for the Arrowhead/Stone Bank School District, and 6-8 pm Saturday for the Oconomowoc School District).

So not only do you have to know which day your municipality is holding trick-or-treating, but you have to keep track of how long it goes on (and Brookfield residents, be advised – knock on the door at 7:33 pm, and candy will not be given out).

And if that wasn’t complicated enough, within Wauwatosa, several neighborhood associations (including ours) have their own designated times for trick-or-treating – complete with sign-ups, a special candle to display in your window, and fees for the privilege of handing out candy.

My wife’s theory is that all these schemes were dreamed up by new stay-at-home moms who missed the excitement of writing memos at work, and thus needed to exert some level of bureaucracy on their new reality.

It was confusing enough that we went out for a walk yesterday afternoon without stopping to think if the ramifications. Sylvi had already gone trick or treating the day before, at the zoo, where nothing says animal conservation like a small packet of Runts handed out in the Reptile Building. And so we set out, pulling Sylvi along in her wagon. We got three houses down the street before someone came running out, holding a bucket of candy. Quickly, she was joined by the man from the next house down. Never mind that neither had a special candle in the window, and that our daughter’s only costume consisted of her fleece jacket and sunglasses (yes, she decided to go as “cool” for Halloween this year).

Of course, both homeowners also noted that she was the first kid to come by during designated trick-or-treat hours, which means that either everyone else is also baffled by the New Halloween Paradigm (a theory backed up by at least one other Milwaukee-area blogger), or - more likely - that in Wisconsin, a televised Packers game always trumps trick-or-treating.

Or maybe everyone was home, trying to figure out what “Lik-m-Aid” is.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Inconspicuous consumption

Wow. That was melancholy. Remind me to go lighter on the Lunesta.

Back to our normal wackiness.

Okay, I'm still trying to figure out the Milwaukee dress code. I've lived in a variety of places in the last decade, and the last couple of stops, at least I knew where I stood.

In Washington, DC, I never quite managed to pull off the standard look. That look was: boring. I didn't own enough gray suits, nor enough black shoes to match my fellow professionals. And I didn't mind that, really. I thought the tweed blazer, solid color cotton shirt, screw-ball tie, and khakis gave me a distinctive-yet-approachable look.

My boss thought I needed more expensive-looking pants. I thought that would have necessitated ironing them, so the better solution was to move to Flagstaff and go back into public radio, where the only occasions that required wearing a tie were a) interviewing a US Senator, or b) going to a funeral. There were some optional tie occasions, too - there were people that managed to wear both ties and Birkenstocks to weddings, say. But I could safely wear a flannel shirt and jeans to work and look like roughly everyone else in town.

Like I said, I'm still trying to figure out the Milwaukee thing. It's still public radio, so my one gray suit stays in the closet, but so do my flannel shirts. But the real problem can be summed up by a recent workday:

My schedule included a trip to get the car registered, followed by my typical public radio workday, followed by an extremely atypical appearance at a charity fundraising reception and dinner.

This came on the heels of a lecture and dinner with a bunch of academics and out-of-town journalists the previous week in which I was the only male not wearing either a jacket or a tie, making me feel vaguely like someone's kid brother who'd been invited along.

So despite the fact that the fundraiser promised to serve chili, I wasn't about to fall for the underdressing trap. I dutifully threw on my DC wardrobe - khakis, dark blue Oxford shirt, blazer, semi-nice shoes. I threw a tie in my briefcase as security. (My briefcase, of course, doesn't conform to DC standards. But that is a topic for another day.)

Anyhow, I was a little overdressed for the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles, especially among the various teenagers who were there for their driver's tests. But, you know, I probably wasn't the first person ever to stop in at the DMV on his way to work. However, the DMV had issued me two license plates, which is one more than my Arizona-born car could handle, so I went off in search of a front license plate bracket...

...meaning I probably was the first person ever to stop in at Blain's Farm & Fleet on his way to work - at a public radio station, anyway. A lot of Blazers in the parking lot, but not a lot of blazers in the store. As much as I've tried - and regardless of what I've worn - I've never succeeded in being able to hold my own in any place where auto parts are sold. I'll go in to buy a couple of quarts of oil, and someone will ask me whether I want 10W30 or 5W30, and I'll be exposed as a fraud. Of course, Farm & Fleet didn't have any license plate frames, so they did their best to send me to a place that I'd look even more alien - a salvage yard. I'm not sure how Milwaukeeans are supposed to dress for a salvage yard, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the blazer-and-khakis ensemble. They referred me to a VW dealer, either because they didn't have any license plate brackets, or they figured I'd feel more at home there.

So after three hours of license plate excitement, I made it to work - the one place I feel relatively inconspicuous. I check my e-mail. At the top of the list is one from the woman who invited me to the fundraiser. It includes the following note:
I am wearing jeans, so feel free to be casual!

Did I mention that I don't get the Milwaukee dress code?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Where did that captive audience go?

It used to be that I loved the sound of my own voice. Or at least I relished the idea of getting up in front of people and having them listen to me for a few minutes. Or, say, an hour. Or two.

In middle school, we would go to assemblies, and there would be some problem with the Eisenhower-era PA system, and as our principal - donned in his white belt and white patent leather shoes – struggled to get the microphone working, I would joke with my friends that that was the perfect occasion to try my stand-up routine. (What would have been included in my stand-up routine at age 13 is anyone’s guess. References to "Super Freak", probably.)

I kept up this kind of thing throughout high school. I have this recollection of being on a van ride back from a jazz festival in Williamsburg, Virginia, and maintaining a running commentary, including invented folk tales and an entire mock radio broadcast of a completely random (and fictitious) baseball game between the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners. I also have a recollection that it was at the request of others in the van that I kept this up for the entire ride.

[Mitch’s note: On the other hand, the van ride happened almost 20 years ago, so I concede the story might be one of those events that are, at best, exaggerated, or at worst, apocryphal (like, say, the part about the monologue coming at the request of someone else). I checked in with the only person I still know who was on that van ride and who survived my possible five-hour monologue. She reports a vague recollection of the event, but no lasting emotional scars from being subjected to it.]

All this is to say that few were surprised when I got into radio 15 years ago today. My thinking was that – as long as I was going to be talking all the time, I might as well get paid for it.

The problem is, after you’ve been talking into a microphone, in a darkened studio for so many years, the prospect of talking in front of people whom you can actually see becomes less appealing.

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to moderate at an event at a local bookstore. It was a reading and discussion of the book based on NPR’s “This I Believe” series. Basically, my role involved getting up and making one vaguely humorous reference to the day’s Badgers football game, thanking everyone for being there, telling them to check out the station’s website, and then introducing the first speaker.

It went fine – the NPR groupies were out in force, and were perfectly happy to hear what I had to say for the 3 ½ minutes I was at the front of the room.

But after a decade-and-a-half of interviewing remarkable and occasionally newsworthy people – people who have interesting stories to tell - I’ve started having this nagging worry that people are expecting me to have something interesting to say, or at least to speak with a level of gravitas that seems to come naturally to many of the people on the other side of the microphone.

The truth of it is, I’d still be more comfortable making up a pretend baseball broadcast in a van on Interstate 95. Or at least in a place where my listeners don't have the option to change channels.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Playing arts

Here at the radio show I produce at 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, one of my first tasks after I came on board - before I was even getting paid - was to help hire an arts producer. I undertook this for several reasons - first among them, because the station sought to enhance the arts content of the program. But more importantly, it was because I was afraid that if we didn't hire an arts producer, I would be forced to do most of our arts interviews.

I have nothing against the Arts (with a capital "A"). In fact, arts coverage is one of the areas that makes our program stand out. In the past, I've been only too happy to attempt to correctly pronounce the names of classical composers on the radio. The thing was, most of the composers weren't alive enough - and none of them was in the studio - to correct me.

Here in Milwaukee, our interviews go on at some length, giving people with an ample arts background plenty of time (and, potentially plenty of ammunition) to expose me when I'm in over my head.

So we hired this arts producer. And she does a terrific job, what with her background in being able to pronounce the names of foreign composers, and painters, and other people with more artistic talent than me. Alas, she took the job with some expectation of being able to go on vacation. Which she did last week, leaving me in the position of interviewing actual people who knew what they were talking about. This worried me somewhat.

I've never had a great deal of aptitude for fine art. Not that I don't appreciate it. (As a matter of fact, one of the art interviews I conducted last week was with a photographer whose work actually caught my eye enough that I pursued the interview myself.)

But my problem is in figuring out the vernacular with which to ask intelligent questions. I've never been able to use terms like "dynamic of form" in a sentence the way art critics do. (In fact, I'm not entirely sure what a term like "dynamic of form" even means.) The problem was that my early exposure to art consisted of half a dozen middle school field trips to the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, where the tour guide would speak to half a dozen enraptured future artists about abstract sculpture and 47 antsy non-future-artists who were anxious to go eat freeze-dried ice cream at the Air and Space Museum. ("Hey! It tastes like ice cream, but it feels like styrofoam! Cool!")

So years later, I know that a painting like this:

Is, artistically, superior to a painting like this:

But I'm hard-pressed to explain exactly why.

I did, however, learn enough from my middle school field trips to know that Vincent Van Gogh, who painted the former picture, would be jealous of the guy in the latter picture.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Driving me... to Wisconsin

Before we get on to today's festivities, I'd first like to thank the National Weather Service for keeping us in Severe Thunderstorm Warnings for each of the past three nights, thus making me reluctant to turn the computer on and post to this blog, lest this turn into our last-ever posting. As it turns, out, it's our 300th.

I’ve been thinking a lot about driving lately. Partly, that’s because I have a sister who’s on the cusp of getting her driver’s license. And partly, it’s because I’ve had a driver’s license for 21 years now, which means that the little laminated card that once was the gate key to the then-exotic world of alcoholic beverages could, itself, now go out and drink.

But mostly, I’ve been thinking about driving because, well, there are a lot of cars on the road in Wisconsin. (Big surprise, that.)

Now in the 21 years I’ve been driving, I’ve lived in six states and one territory. And after each move, I’ve come to the conclusion in each place that the drivers in that locale are the worst drivers in the world. After seven months in Wisconsin, I’ve again come to that conclusion.

Bear with me, as I break down the habits of the drivers with which I’ve previously been acquainted, in sentences that feature syntax nearly as tortured as in the sentence you’re currently reading. We start with:

Maryland. Okay, perhaps not all the drivers in Maryland were the worst drivers in the world, but I was driving there, and I was certainly one of the worst drivers in the world. The highlight of my early driving career was getting my ’78 Ford Fairmont wedged against a support post in a parking garage – so tightly that I couldn’t move it backwards or forwards. A thoughtful passerby (really, a guy who was stuck behind me) came over and politely suggested that I turn the steering wheel.

Iowa. I went to college in Iowa, and my classmates from nearby states such as Minnesota and Illinois insisted that the letters "I-O-W-A" on the license plates stood for “Idiots Out Wandering Around”. Actually, I never thought the drivers there were all that bad. The only concern was that they would lose control of their pickups in their haste to wave at you as you drove by the other way. This was a concern that most veteran Iowa drivers assuaged by developing the “Wave-With-Two-Fingers-While-The-Other-Three-Hold-The-Steering Wheel” technique. Even older Iowa drivers modified the wave further by – instead of using their hands – making an almost imperceptable nod to you as you drove the other way.

Minnesota. I’m still not sure exactly why Minnesota drivers were the worst in the world. They spend a lot of time talking about the concept of “Minnesota Nice” there. And most of the drivers I encountered were relatively polite. But apparently, the police in every small town and hamlet throughout the state were convinced that drivers in Minnesota were awful. How else would you explain the police cars, poised at the village limits in each of these towns ready to pull me, er, all the bad drivers over?

New York. I lived in northern New York. Way north of “Upstate”. Way, way, north of New York City, where the drivers are so bad, it’s too obvious to write a paragraph about them. In my part of New York, the drivers were horrible too – but largely because the climate was such that you constantly had to swerve to avoid pieces of vehicles that rust had decayed so badly that they were falling apart right in front of you. Also, we were right on the Canadian border, which meant I, er, some drivers, occasionally forgot whether they were looking at the “kilometers per hour” or “miles per hour” part of the spedometer as they headed for the border to buy donuts.

Washington, DC. Dupont Circle. Chevy Chase Circle. Cars with diplomatic plates. And drivers, as Dave Barry once termed it, driving according to the traffic laws – of their own country of origin.

Arizona. The problem with Arizona drivers rested in the 300+ days of sunshine per year. All that sunshine (and in Flagstaff, the pleasant temperatures and clean air) apparently results in a pleasant, glass bubble-like sensation as many people drive there. This means that – unlike on the Washington Beltway, when you can be pretty sure they guy in front of you just intentionally cut you off, thanks to the handy gesture he also made – you’re never quite sure whether the driver of the car next to you notices, you, the stop sign, or even the road itself. On several occasions – really – I was driving up the one-way street to my house when a car would come wandering down the wrong way. The other drivers, rather than doing what a normal driving being would – namely, lean on the horn until drivers in surrounding states were aware of what was going on – calmly, pulled over and got out of the way, smiling a smile of blissful Arizona sunshine.

Finally, this brings us to Wisconsin. (Or rather, Wisconsin.) Now I’ve noted before the odd habit that some drivers in the area have – attempting to break the sound barrier between stop signs on the stretch of road in front of my house, a distance of exactly one block. But a recent trip across the state has clued me in to my other favorite (note heavy sarcasm) aspect to the Wisconsin driving experience. Apparently, drivers here believe they are possessed with super powers. You’ll be driving on, say, a stretch of Interstate 94, in the vicinity of, say, the Wisconsin Dells, or perhaps a famous interchange which rhymes with “Parquette”. You’ll be coming down a gradual decline and see, stretching in front of you, a veritable field of red brake lights. In many parts of the country (even in Arizona), this is generally a signal to slow down and wait for the cars to begin moving again. In Wisconsin, however, the belief apparently is that if you maintain your 65 mph until the very last instant, there is some possibility that the field of stopped cars in front of you will suddenly levitate and make way for a smooth sailing experience right past the Dells, or that famous interchange, or wherever.

I have come up with only one other theory to explain this. Tailgating. More than anyplace else I’ve experienced, we have this tailgating culture here. And largely, it’s seen as a good thing. You can drive down I-94 past Miller Park during afternoon rush hour and actually smell the brats grilling in the parking lot – even with your windows closed. People here tailgate before the bank opens. And so, I imagine that many drivers, having heard of tailgating used to describe a driving habit, naturally assumed this behavior was positive as well.

And so I understand why Wisconsin drivers are the worst in the world, I think. My only hope is that when one of them finally rear-ends me, they’ll also offer me a brat. With mustard and sauerkraut, please.

Monday, September 25, 2006

As a matter of fact, I can believe it's not butter

Say what you want about this country, but By God, we continue to to blow away the rest of the world when it comes to one key measurement: Plastic Food Storage Containers.

Now I realize the Swedish folks at Ikea have a multitude of food storage options (which go by names like "Urk" and "Delp" and perhaps "Rodnunging"), all of which cost $3.00 and are piled in huge barrels conveniently adjacent to the cash registers, but the numbers pale in comparison to what you'll find at American malls, in stores like Linens-Containers-and-Beyond.

Here in the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, the only thing that distinguishes our lunch today from what we brought with us in middle school is our spiffy Lock & Lock sandwich-shaped, hermetically sealed plastic container. (While we're at it, have you ever heard the word "hermetically" used in conjuction with any other word besides "sealed"? This is a situation that needs to be rectified. I'd take suggestions, but this feature is hermetically edited.)

And that's about the simplest thing on the market. The Tupperware folks have their own well-known version of the sandwich transporter, which accompanies less well-known products such as the carrot or celery holder, the Holiday Snack Canister, and (really) the Kimchi Keeper.

At the same time, our sandwich transporter is probably the most sophisticated plastic container we have at the home office. We've long been subscribers to the "Why Only Use the Margarine Tub For Margarine?" School of Food Storage. This has led to some entertaining moments, like in the brief time period in Flagstaff when we had enough room for our real-live dining room table, and we invited some real-live grown-ups over for dinner (that is, friends who we didn't ask to eat on the couch) and prepared, among other things, some real-live homemade bread.

So, of course, one of our dinner guests asked for butter, at which point I retrieved the tub labeled "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter", only to have the dinner guest report, "This looks like some kind of meat!" (And wouldn't you know he was a vegetarian.) On the upside, at least it was taco meat, and not butter 23 months past its expiration date. The downside is that no one's ever asked us to make bread again.

And so yesterday, it happened again - my wife went to butter her bagel with leftover macaroni and cheese. Fortunately, she didn't mind. Better still - it gave us a great idea for dinner.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Important news update

Alas, as predicted, 19 Minutes fell short in last week's Milwaukee blog poll, losing out to the perky Marine.

Having lost out on our latest shot at fame (or, perhaps, infamy), we're back to our important mission of keeping you, the 19 Minutes reading public, informed of important world events. So we're pleased to present the following National and International Headlines, which came across the newswire this morning:

  • Bush to Engage Skeptical U.N. on Mideast
  • Israel to Withdraw All Troops By Weekend
  • Muslims Want Further Apology from Pope
  • Feds Seeking Source of E. Coli Outbreak
  • Toshiba to Recall Sony Laptop Batteries
and, of course, the the story that will no doubt lead tomorrow's New York Times:

Whether the rest of the world is happy with Scarlett Johansson's curvy figure, is, I would imagine, even more predictable than whether the perky Marine would win last week's blog contest.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Somewhere, Mr. McFeely is blushing

It was a noteworthy day on the real-life radio show produced at 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters. The host of our program interviewed award-winning author (and Wisconsinite) Jane Hamilton, who has a new book out. Our arts producer scored an even bigger coup, interviewing Alan Alda, whose memoir is out in paperback. Me, I got to tour a rubber and plastics factory.

Actually, I didn't mind the task. I've always been the kind of person who will notice a random object - or a piece of an object, and marvel that there's a factory someplace that produces it. Like, there's someone who goes to work everyday, and his or her job is to manufacture the wooden handles for the miniature crash cymbals that a two-year-old girl might play in an effort to emulate Pittsburgh Symphony percussionist Tim Adams, who appeared on an episode of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood". (In fact, I happen to know just such a two-year-old girl.)

My daughter, in fact, also seems to share in my curiosity about how things are made, at least in the context of Mr. Rogers. She's far more interested in the "Picture Picture" segments on the show in which Mr. Rogers visits the Cheerios factory, or we learn how pretzels are made, than she is in the "Neighborhood of Make Believe". (This is fine with me, because something's always bugged me about King Friday, Neighbor Aber, and X the Owl.)

So today's segment, as hosted by me, could have been titled, "How Obscure Little Rubber and Silicone Parts Are Made". The company's president took me on tour of the plant, which gave me the opportunity to use words like "extruder" in a desperate attempt to sound knowledgable.

The high point of the morning - of, perhaps, my entire radio career - came about halfway through the tour. We had just looked at some round rubber objects which turned out to be the sleeves that fit on the end of a stethescope to keep it from feeling cold on your chest. (Next on Mr. Rogers: A Picture Picture video, "How Sleeves that Fit On the Ends of Stethescopes Are Made")

The next stop was at an impressive-looking form press. The plates came together around the liquid rubber, and when they separated, they revealed probably fifty small, yellow, cylindrical rubber pieces. A factory worker cheerfully pulled each one of the still-steaming hot parts off the machine and placed them in a bucket. She then cleaned off the plates with a blast of compressed air, and started the process over again. It was impressive in an industrial way, and from a radio standpoint, was the first opportunity to collect some really interesting natural, or "ambient" sound.

As I watched the process playing out again, I turned to the company president, tape rolling.
"So what are these parts being made on this particular machine?" I asked.

He thought for a half-second. "Oh, these are the drain plugs for colostomy bags," he replied.
I'm thinking I might give X the Owl another try.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Turning it on and Packing it in

It was a day I had looked towards with some casual interest since the moving truck pulled into our Milwaukee area driveway and dropped off our belongings seven months ago:

Our first Packers Sunday as Wisconsin residents.

Mind you, I’m not claiming to be a life-long Packer Backer, nor am I at the point where I’m jumping on the Green Bay bandwagon (though, given the past couple of seasons, no one could accuse me of being a fair weather fan). In fact, I’m not even a huge football fan – it tends to fall below baseball and hockey in the pantheon of Sports That Keep Me Up At Night. I’m a New England Patriots fan, but I don’t own any Patriots clothing. (Well, maybe a hat. Or, two hats. Okay, two hats and a t-shirt.)

But after living in Arizona for seven years, where I once was able to buy football tickets half an hour before kickoff – at the stadium box office­ – I was kind of curious to see what the impact of Packer football would be on the rest of day-to-day life on a Sunday in Wisconsin.

My first indication – I went out to get bagels just before 9:00. Cruising up Bluemound Road on the western edge of town. In a charitable, Sunday-morning-and-there-are-no-cars-behind-me-sort of way, I stopped at a crosswalk to let people cross the street to get to church. Naturally, they’re all dressed nicely, but I couldn’t help but notice there’s an awful lot of green-and-gold in the average wardrobe. And perhaps more polo shirts with Green Bay “G”s than you’d see in other parts of the country.

But things were pretty subdued aside from that – a few Packers references on business signs with slide-out letters, plenty of flags flying from cars.

I had hoped to cruise the supermarkets while the game was on – you can tell how sports-mad a city is by how empty the potato chip aisles are in the grocery stores during game time. [When we lived in Arizona, my wife and I once had a going-away dinner for a friend that had the audacity to take place the night of the 7th game of the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees. (If you can imagine.) The dinner ended mid-evening, but being pre-Tivo, we didn't want to go home and turn the TV on in the middle of the game. So we went to Target to shop for toothpaste. Not only were we just about the only ones in the store, all the TVs in the electronics section were tuned to the game, so we spent the time trying to talk to each other loudly enough to drown out the sound from the other end of the store. But I digress.]

Anyway, my wife and I got involved in an exciting afternoon of Crawl Space Insulation Repair and then it was just about time to kick off. So I grabbed my foam cheesehead – a going away present from my Arizona colleagues – and plopped myself down in front of the TV, for the first time as a proud resident of Packer Nation.

And then I watched the game. And then I dusted off my Patriots hat.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Votes and more votes

First, a reminder that anyone who hasn't yet voted for this fine feature (or hasn't voted using all 17 of their alternate e-mail addresses) for Milwaukee Blog of the Week has a few more days. At least I think it's a few more days. As previously noted, I have no idea how the hardworking staff here at 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters came to be nominated, so I'm also a little fuzzy on the groundrules. In any case, if you're still waiting for the right moment to cast your vote, now's a swell time to surf over to MKE Online and click on the appropriate buttons.

After that complicated ordeal, if you're still in a voting mood - or if you need more voting practice before the upcoming general election - another popularity contest worth a web stop is the Quill Awards. I'm a mite turned-off by its self-description ("The Quill Awards pair a populist sensibility with Hollywood-style glitz and have become the first literary prizes to reflect the tastes of the group that matters most in publishing-readers."), which seems to be a cover for giving writing awards to Anderson Cooper, Rachael Ray and Dr. Andrew Weil.

But it turns out that in my other - public radio - life, I've interviewed four authors with books nominated for Book of the Year: Sara Gruen (for "Water for Elephants"), David Maraniss ("Clemente"), Christopher Moore ("A Dirty Job"), and Catherine Gilbert Murdock ("Dairy Queen"). And I can say without question all four of their books are eminently worth reading.

[Mitch's note: Well, strictly speaking, I can't guarantee Maraniss's book is a great read. Someone on my show's staff (no one has copped to this) booked the Maraniss interview, and then didn't mention it to anyone, nor did the publisher send a copy of the book. As a result, David Maraniss and an author escort showed up early one afternoon, and no one was expecting him. Fortunately, a) Maraniss was very understanding; b) he had a copy of his own book with him; and c) he was willing to wait 15 minutes while I at least looked through the table of contents and some of the chapter headings. Fortunately, too, I had been watching a Brewers-Pirates game the night before which had gotten boring enough that the announcers had launched into two innings' worth of Roberto Clemente trivia, so his career was fresh in my mind. But I digress.]

Anyway, they're all worth voting for in their respective categories. Both Moore and Gruen are nominated in the "General Fiction" category - "Water for Elephants" was a page turner with a fun ending and and got plenty of hype, but I'd probably go with "A Dirty Job", because it introduces the concept of the "Beta Male", a concept that fits the 19 Minutes lifestyle pretty well.

Unless you have a teenaged girl in your household, you may not be familiar with "Dairy Queen". (It's nominated in the "Young Adult/Teen" category.) And that's a shame, because of the four - it's the one that had the most lasting impression. The book - which is about a Wisconsin farm girl who wants to play high school football - is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. And the narrative voice is a refreshing, authentic departure from the usual wisecracking, precocious teen protagonist. It's a good read, though I will confess to feeling a little sheepish about getting on the bus and pulling out a book adorned with a tiara-wearing cow on its cover.

I have no recommendations for the "Romance" category, though I was interested to read that one can now get Harlequin Romance books delivered directly to one's cellular phone. I can only wonder about the impact this will have on other genres. For example, the impact of the tiara-wearing cow might be minimized on a 1"X1" cell phone screen.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

"I feel like I could blog all day!"

Here at 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, we're deep in the middle of our latest Midlife Crisis. (In fact, we've decided it will be easier to have one, constant, on-going midlife crisis until we're around 45. We'll let you know when it's over.)

This current crisis, however, was precipitated by the realization that we've made it to age 37 and no one has called, asking us to endorse their product. This realization hits us every morning on the bus, as we cruise past the billboard featuring former Milwaukee Brewers baseball player Gorman Thomas, plugging something called the "Sleep and Wellness Center" ("I feel like I could play ball again!" the smiling Thomas is supposedly saying, as though the only thing between Gorman Thomas staying in his 19-year-long retirement and his returning to pro ball is a good night's sleep. Although, given the Brewers' recent 10-game losing streak, signing a 55-year-old lifetime .225 hitter might actually be a savvy move. But we digress.)

The point is, here's a guy who hasn't played in a baseball game since 1986, and he's still being asked to endorse products. So I figure there must be plenty of companies providing products and services out there that would be only too happy to hire me as their celebrity endorser.

My first thought was to flash back, Gorman Thomas-like, to 1986. Twenty years ago, I was just starting my senior year of high school, which would make some kind of acne medication an obvious fit - though if I wanted the billboard to read "I feel like I could go back to high school again!", I'd probably want to endorse a product that would actually clog my pores. So I've tried to narrow down my options.

The main consumer good I purchased my senior year of high school was the Szechuan Beef at Chin & Lee's, a hole-in-the-wall take out restaurant in the Kemp Mill Shopping Center in Wheaton, Maryland. It was a remarkable food, and the perfect alternative to the school lunch, provided I remembered to take it out of my locker before it fused to my Trapper Keeper. More remarkable, though, is that a) the place still exists, with basically no change in decor in 20 years, and b) the place still exists, with basically no change in the price of the Szechuan Beef in 20 years.

On the other hand, a hole-in-the wall Chinese restaurant - even one that's lasted for more than two decades - seems unlikely to pay the six-figure endorsement deal that a blogger of the 19 Minutes stature would command. So a more viable option would seem to be approaching the Ford Motor Company to belatedly endorse my 1978 Ford Fairmont:

"Hi, I'm Mitch Teich. Father. Radio professional. Blogger. Driver. Sure, I take the bus to work. But as I cruise down Interstate 94 first thing each morning, I can't help but think how much more fun it would be in my 1978 Ford Fairmont. Vinyl front bucket seats. Three working cylinders. And plenty of room for catchy bumper stickers on the back. The '78 Ford Fairmont. Rescue yours from a junkyard near you. And for a limited time, get 75 cents in Customer Cash when you bring 15 aluminum cans with you. Tax, title, and license highly recommended."

If that doesn't work, I'm seriously thinking of approaching Dunkin' Donuts about Liquid Donut.

We'll try not to attach this to our feelings of self-worth...

...but for whatever reason, this fine feature is one of five nominees for Blog of the Week at MKE Online, the web arm of a spiffy weekly lifestyle publication printed by the swell folks at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Your chance to anonymously voice your full support for the efforts of the whole 19 Minutes staff is here:

We're not sure, but winning the award might just lead to that 19 Minutes movie deal we've been coveting.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The 19 Minutes Cacaphony Orchestra

I’ve never really been a fan of noise. I realize there’s a certain irony in that, given that in my daily life, I produce a radio show – which means that, in essence, I produce noise for a living. But it’s a public radio show, and is thus given to muted tones, and calm conversation – occasional interviews with opera singer-types notwithstanding.

I work downtown, so there’s a certain expectation that it’ll be noisy during the day. Milwaukee, I believe, actually has a Department of Jackhammering that deploys a crack squad of jackhammerers across the downtown area each day to ensure the city’s decibel needs are met.

But in the evenings, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is a symphony. Unfortunately, it’s often one of those symphonies that insists on playing music by modern composers less interested in melodic lines than they giving audiences an aural view of their clinical insanity. Around our house, there are several key contributors to the nightly cacaphony:

Harleys. I’m going to write this carefully, because I don’t necessarily need the wrath of the Harley-driving universe descending on this space. And hey, I have no issues with the motorcycles themselves, or most of the people that ride them. They’re all spiffy, and I’m sure I would enjoy myself if I ever traded in the Volkswagen for a Harley. Okay. Fine. So then, the issue is the complusion among some of the riders of these fine pieces of motorcyclical engineering to drive them very, um, loudly down the street. This typically happens around 9:15 pm, which, coincidentally, is about the same time I’m rocking my two-year-old, as we talk about – in her words “things to think about” as she falls asleep. We talk about zoo animals, and we talk about all the things she likes to play with, and the people who love her very much, and “PPPHHHHHWWAPPPPPPPPppppp…ppp…” we have to start over after the motorcycle goes by, on its mission of attaining the highest possible speed in between stop signs, a distance of exactly one block.

But eventually, the cycles and their riders head off to other important missions, or to wake up other two-year-olds, and I head off to bed myself a short time later. My wife shows up after a little while, and we drift off to sleep with windows open to a pleasantly cool Wisconsin evening. This is a mistake, because without fail, around 1:00 am, the local raccoons throw a nightly dinner party in our neighbor’s trash can. They clank bottles, and rummage through things, as the raccoon bouncer shrieks at the local chipmunk population to go find their own dinner party. This usually goes on for an hour, until the raccoons get on their Harleys and go to their subsequent engagements.

And then all is quiet for a five or six hours. Unless it’s trash day.

But noises have irritated me for a long time. I bombed out of my first try at college. Ostensibly, that was as a result of having a GPA so small as to only be visible with powerful magnifying devices. And that was because I never went to any of my morning classes. But I would submit that the reason I never went to any of my morning classes had to do with noise:

I would head off to bed with the best intentions around 10:00. My roommate, Pat, would get home at roughly 11:30. He would invariably try to go about his business quietly, but would invariably make the following three sounds each night, which would invariably be spaced just far enough apart that they would wake me up, and keep me awake long enough that I wasn’t in the mood to get up the next morning for a political science class at which the professor insisted on using the word “Aristotelian” to describe himself:

First, he would get out the slice of pizza he had purchased at 7-11 on the way home from wherever he went every evening (I would guess a girlfriend’s house, but I was never really sure). He would attempt to eat it quietly, but – inasmuch as he’d generally consumed a couple of beers earlier in the evening – he never quite succeeded. If it had been 19 years later, the raccoon bouncer next door would have kicked him out.

Some minutes later (just long enough that I’d start to drift back off to sleep), he’d perch by the window and light a cigarette. Or rather, he’d try to light a cigarette. Pat apparently purchased his cigarette lighters at the Bic Rejects Shop, because the lighter would never work, despite 17, 18, 26 attempts. This was followed by a (muted, public radio-style) swear word, after which he would rummage through his flannel shirts, looking for a pack of matches. The smoking itself was relatively quiet, if not odor free. But this is a rant about noise, not smell.

Finally, pizza consumed and cigarette smoked, Pat’s last remaining task was to brush his hair. I’ve never had long enough hair to relate to the need to brush one’s hair before bed. But it was 1987, and Pat had pretty long, wavy, guitar player-in-a-heavy-metal-band-style hair. And he had a metal brush. SSSSSHHHHHHHIIICCCCCK. SSSSSHHHHHHHIIICCCCCK. SSSSSHHHHHHHIIICCCCCK. SSSSSHHHHHHHIIICCCCCK. It took him a looong time to brush his hair.

And before I knew it, it was 7:15 am, and my alarm went off. And I would shut it off and go back to sleep, merrily working my way towards flunking out and losing much of my hair.

Pat, on the other hand, went on to make the Dean’s list and, I’m told, graduated with honors.

7-11 pizza, however, appears nowhere to be found.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A little something to the tune of "Walk, Don't Run"

[Editor's note: Initially, I was hesitant to swap material between this space and my other fine feature. Then, I decided that hey, it's my blog and I can do whatever the heck I want. My apologies if you surfed over here from "Small Things Considered" in search of fresh material. Hey, the headline's new, anyway. And while we're at it, so is the Editor's Note...]

So, I went out for a walk this morning. I did this with some trepidation. Not because there was anything especially scary about the walk, although I never know what might happen when I spook the rabbits who have apparently taken up residence in our backyard. No, the trepidation has more to do with image.

Yes, for all the world, I look like I really ought to be jogging. In fact, every six months or so, I kick myself into gear and decide I'm going to go out running again. I tell myself, There's nothing to it. Just run a couple of blocks today. Then add another block tomorrow. And another couple of blocks the next day. Before I know it, I'll be running a mile or two every evening.

The trouble is, I hate running. I always have. Even while I was playing baseball in college and in the - relatively speaking - best shape of my life, I couldn't stand it. The difference then was that I was capable of doing it (it's amazing what having a coach shouting at you will do for your motivation). Nowadays, I run those first couple of blocks and instead of coach shouting at me, it's my legs, bellowing, What the hell are you doing to us? Did we do something to upset you? We thought baseball practice was over 14 years ago. At least take us to batting practice when this is over.

But Tosa is a jogging kind of place. At least it seems to be in the evenings when I get home from work. There is always a steady stream of nauseatingly fit-looking people cheerfully bounding by our house. And I worry that walking amongst them, even briskly, will raise all sorts of questions like, What's the deal with that guy? Doesn't he like to run? I've considered buying an enormous knee brace just for the sake of image.

I realize this is stupid. I realize that no one cares whether I'm walking or running. It's about my lungs, and heart, and legs - not the people running by my house at 7 pm.

And that's why I went walking first thing in the morning. And as it turns out, at 6:15 am, Tosa is a walking kind of place. I passed probably a dozen people, getting their blood moving in a somewhat slower fashion. Some of them were less than 103 years old, even. No one seemed anxious to break into a faster gait.

Except for the rabbits, who all seemed like they were in a big hurry.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Yilidans for a Brighter Tomorrow

I haven't given up on my dream of being named Ambassador to Yilida.

Yilida, you'll recall, is the mysterious homeland of a genre of AA batteries that power an spinning, light-emitting, and seminally entertaining toy called a "meteor storm". It's a toy that graced the boxes of the 19 Minutes Playroom for months until the batteries finally ran down, at which point we opened the battery compartment to find two AA batteries labeled:

Made in Yilida

We wrote about this enigmatic place, and the exotic images conjured up by its self-described distinction, "Town of the Wire Nettings".

But lo these many months later, we still had not been able to pinpoint an exact location for Yilida on the official 19 Minutes globe. Fortunately, our previous post was able to provide the missing puzzle piece for a fellow Yilidaphile, who related the following e-mail correspondence with the makers of the Meteor Storm:

Having learned the NAME of my toy loaded with batteries from the global superpower motherland of Yilida, I Googled "'meteor storm' toy" and found a toy store selling it that identified it as a product of Schylling Toys.

Schylling has contact info so I wrote an email with the results we all longed for.

From the web page Ms. Goodwin sent me, I googled "Tanjiang Highway 325"
It led me to pages referring to this road near a city named Kaiping, which is part of Yilida's full company name. Fairly safe to assume then that Yalida is somewhere near Kaiping in Guangdong province about midway between Guangzhou and YangJiang along National Highway 325, the gray line connecting those two cities. (

From: William Jacobs
Sent: Tuesday, August 22, 2006 10:17 AM
Subject: "Meteor Storm" batteries

Dear Schylling Toys,

I hope you can help clear up a mystery for us.
A Schylling Toys "Meteor Storm" LED toy of ours ran out of battery power and the original "Wanshifa" batteries shipped with the toys are labeled "Made in Yilida"
Can you possibly tell me where Yalida is. There is growing interest in the too-much-time-on-our-hands community.

Bill Jacobs

On 8/22/06, Jennifer Goodwin wrote:

Thank you for your inquiry - the batteries should be labeled Made at Yilida; that is the name of the manufacturer, as can be found at . I hope this closes the case for you, and I hope you enjoy the English translations on their website as much as I have.

Thank you again for choosing Schylling,

Jennifer Goodwin, Customer Service
Schylling Associates

It turns out our correspondent is actually running for County Council in the former 19 Minutes stomping grounds of Montgomery County, Maryland. We'd be tempted to endorse his candidacy, except that:

a) We're reluctant to throw out the years of objectivity 19 Minutes has worked so hard to maintain, and
b) We're worried he'll use politics as a stepping-stone to land the Yilidan Ambassadorship before we can secure it.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Road trip

Saturday, 11:00 am. My wife, daughter, and I made the trip up from Milwaukee in exactly and hour and 20 minutes. We're driving through the gates at Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, site of this weekend's Generac 500 auto race, a race that I'd wanted to see ever since I'd first heard of it, roughly five seconds before we passed through the gate.

Actually, the real reason we're here is to meet up with my father-in-law, whose Mazda club is having an annual get-together at the race course. (I'm also aware that, technically speaking, it's a rotary engine club, but all the engines involved happen to be inside Mazda hoods. And since I'm ill equipped to discuss anything engine-related, except on the topic of "things that might go wrong with your '85 Subaru", we'll stick to the Mazda description.) Anyway, my father-in-law has secured a pass to drive his RX-7 on the race course, and offered me the chance to ride shotgun. And as we drive through the gates, I'm debating whether to chicken out. After my one previous experience at a race track, I'm not so worried about my father-in-law's driving as much as the other yahoos who may have turned out for the event.

Saturday, 11:05. I'm feeling better already. In contrast to the crowd that showed up for last month's Craftsman Series race in their beat-up Cutlasses and Ford Rangers, the parking lot in Elkhart Lake is full of Audis, BMWs, and Jaguars. It strikes me that the drivers of these cars are less likely to drive 6 inches off our bumper than the NASCAR crowd. If this group wanted to kill me, they'd more likely use an ice pick or a poison-tipped umbrella. Still...

Saturday, 11:15. We meet up with my father-in-law, whose RX-7 is already parked in the line of cars that are going to go out on the track. There are at least a hundred cars in the queue, including such atypical race cars as a Chevy Cavalier and a VW Golf. (Now, don't get me wrong: I used to drive a Golf for several years, and it was fun, comfortable car. I'm just saying in a race between the '87 Golf and a parking meter, you'd probably do best to feed your quarters into the meter.) With so many cars in line, it strikes me that the track is probably concerned about safety. I decide to go ahead and do it.

Saturday, 11:30. Father-in-law goes off to the "drivers' meeting" with the other hundred or so drivers. No idea what they're talking about, or what directions they're getting. Meanwhile, my wife is running a "passengers' meeting" of her own:

"DO NOT DISTRACT MY DAD," she directs me.

"Not even to change the CD?" I ask.

"DO NOT TOUCH THE STEREO," she retorts.

"I wonder if he's bringing any food along," I say.

Meanwhile, our two-year-old has settled into the passenger seat of "Grandpa's race car" and takes some convincing before she extricates herself. I consider whether any Grand Prix drivers have won a race while driving with a child safety seat in the back.

Saturday, 11:45 am. It's post time, but there's a launch delay (and a mixed metaphor, to boot). I consider that if anything goes seriously wrong, it's actually my fault. My father-in-law, who lives in Minnesota, bought the car from a guy in Maryland seven or eight years ago. At the time, my wife and I were living just across the DC line. We did the scouting report on the RX-7, which meant that the original test driver... was me. And as previously noted, my car mechanics expertise is limited to figuring out how to program the presets on the stereo.

Saturday, 11:55 am. A few minutes late, we roar out on the track, behind (by my count) 17 other cars. Okay, we don't exactly roar. It turns out the first lap is a practice lap (as opposed to the other laps, which are, apparently counted in our permanent records), which means we're cruising around the four-mile-long track at an average speed of 15 mph. This is okay, because at 15 mph, I'm not too concerned when my father-in-law checks his GPS unit.

Saturday, 12:03 pm. Somewhere up ahead, the pace car accelerates. And so do we. We are actually roaring around the track. My actual role in this affair is to take pictures. And so, top down, windows down, baseball cap on my lap, car flying around turns, I'm fiddling with my father-in-law's camera, trying to figure out how to keep all the pictures from looking washed-out on a brilliantly overcast day in August.

Saturday, 12:10 pm. Okay, I've got the washed-out issue solved. Now, the question is how to take pictures that don't just look like we're driving down the highway. Because even at 80 mph, a guy driving a car looks pretty much like a guy driving a car. I decide that, hey, the top is down - I can lift the camera over the windshield and get a shot of the hood, the track, and a little of the track ambiance. At 80 mph, this is trickier than I bargained for.

Saturday, 12:20 mph, er, pm. My father-in-law handles the RX-7 pretty impressively, and the engine does have a delightful roar as he blasts it up through 3rd and 4th gear. It's a "sports car commercial" feel, rather than a "feeling of imminent death" that I imagine would be generated by a trip in a stock car around a mile-long oval. Still, there are plenty of drivers who seem like they're taking out a year's worth of rush hour frustration on the Road America track, including a Volvo driver who barrels by us on a straightaway that's not very long (or straight).

Saturday, 12:30 pm. The VW Golf is still behind us, which is - if nothing else - a morale-builder. We tend to blow him away on the straightaways, but he manages to creep up on us at turns. My father-in-law notes he thinks we've hit 90 mph, but to his credit, he's paying more attention to the track than the spedometer. I consider turning around and taking pictures out the back of the car, but to my credit, I don't.

Saturday, 12:40 pm. There's a hill on the last straightaway that leads up to the start-finish line. It's both an exhilerating and worrisome feeling to fly up that hill at 85 mph - exhilerating because the speed really is a celebration of what an automobile can do; worrisome, because one of these laps will be our last lap, and I'm a little concerned we'll fly over the crest into a forest of red tail lights and I'll regret that the car my father-in-law asked me to test drive wasn't a Sherman Tank.

Saturday, 12:43 pm. The checkered flag goes out with plenty of warning time, and we don't end up becoming permanent parts of the track (Roadkill America?). I emerge from the car with a new appreciation for performance drivers, for the rotary engine, and for sports photographers. And as I walk to where my wife and daughter have been watching, a thought comes over me. Next year, I take the Jetta Wagon on the track. With the car seat.