Monday, March 27, 2006

Thoughts on the bus

Reason #907 why I hope my 21-month old doesn't grow up too fast: She thinks it's really, really cool that I ride the bus to work. Sylvi loves buses. The "Hippopotamuses of the Vehicle World", she'd call them, if she could manage the verbiage. She can't quite manage that, though, so she's content to point out the car window and exclaim, "Bus! Bus!" whenever a bus goes by (or a garbage truck, for that matter).

So I'm riding the bus to work - or, rather, two buses. There's the humble, regular old surface street bus (the Number 76, to use the hepcat bus lingo), which connects me to the "Freeway Flyer", which looks suspiciously like the humble regular old surface street bus, only it goes on the freeway and takes me downtown.

The whole bus concept has taken a little getting used to. I'm not a complete novice to public transportation - I did ride Metro, the Washington, DC, subway system quite a bit growing up. But on the subway, you at least have the ability to figure out where the next stop is going to be. And it's not up to the riders to determine whether the train is going to actually stop. So at least until I got used to where the heck I was going (and more importantly, what that place looked like), I would perch over the "stop" cord for the last 10 minutes of my trip, certain I was going to miss my stop. Even then, someone else always beat me to the cord-pulling thing, blocks before we actually reached my destination.

Besides that, it took me weeks to figure out when to actually show up at the bus stop. The bus schedules in Milwaukee - as in most large cities, I'd imagine - don't actually list all the stops. Rather, they tell you when the bus will be at a few noteworthy stops, and it's up to you to extrapolate when you need to show up by the side of the road. This, of course, requires you to know at least a little about where the stops are, and what the traffic is like at a given hour. For a few days, I was varying the time I'd leave home. As it turns out, if I leave my house at 6:55 am, I get to work at 7:35. If I leave at 7:02, I get to work at 8:25. If I leave at 8:00, I also get there at 8:25, but only because it means I've missed my last bus and I've gone home and talked my wife out of the car for the day.

But riding the bus has also posed some other local adjustment questions, like: How long do you ride the same bus every day before you start to acknowledge the other people who also ride the same bus every day? People like the Guy With the Grey Hair and the Dark Moustache, who appears to teach at one of the colleges; the Woman With the Grey Overcoat; and the Woman Who Probably Has Her Hair Done Very Nicely, Only She Wears a Knit Hat On Top of It Somewhat Precariously, So We Never Actually See What It Looks Like. There aren't a lot of great conversation starters on the Freeway Flyer (provided, like me, you refuse to start yammering about the weather), so I'm inclined to wait until something unusual happens ("Hey, Guy With Grey Hair and Dark Moustache! I see the Woman Who Probably Has Her Hair Done Nicely has apparently purchased a new hat...")

I'm also interested in another phenomenon that's appeared on Milwaukee buses: Transit TV. A TV network even more inane than the CNN Airport Network. It's an interesting concept, though - TV monitors in buses, showing weather forecasts, recipes, commercials for predatory loan places, roundtable discussions of what the Woman Who Probably Has Her Hair Done Nicely's hair actually looks like - but the execution is pretty weird. On one hand, they show word puzzles of the "Wheel of Fortune" variety, with challenging answers like "Spatula". Then, they hit riders with a movie trivia question about "Monty Python's Life of Brian", followed by a 'Who Am I?' puzzle about Guglielmo Marconi. All this leads me to wonder: Who do the programmers think is riding Milwaukee buses? Are the people getting the Marconi question really going to head out to the car title loan place? Are the kids causing trouble on the buses going to stop what they're doing when they figure out the answer to _PAT_LA?

Maybe I'll bounce these questions off the Woman in the Grey Overcoat.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Home is where the house is

Author's note: The following was jotted down Sunday night on the back of a random sheet of paper I found in my blazer, composed after my seatback was up, and my tray table in its fully upright and locked position. It turns out the other side of the paper contained my notes from introducing the Capitol Steps when they performed in northern Arizona last year. That fact has no bearing on anything that follows.

I'm at 28,000 feet, in a Midwest Airlines Boeing 717. Nice spanking new airplane with big leather seats, free chocolate chip cookies, the whole works. It's a nice evening for flying. A little rough air (that proverbial "light chop" the pilots are always referring to, but not a cloud in the sky between northern Virginia and southeastern Wisconsin. And even though it's too dark to make out any landmarks, the spiderweb pattern of each set of city lights is distinct enough that I can figure out where we are - and right now, that place is just past Detroit.

I'm flying home to Milwaukee, which is odd, given that I've just left Washington, DC, which was my home for the better part of two decades. Odd, too, because the Milwaukee area has been home for the better part of four weeks. I have to consciously remind myself that I'm at the end of the trip, not the beginning.

The pilot's just come across the PA system, noting we're over central Michigan. He points out - marvels, really -- that it's such a clear night that we're still some distance from Lake Michigan, but he can already see the lights of Milwaukee, far on the other shore. My seatmate and I are looking out the right side of the plane, but it's not hard to imagine the skyline of Milwaukee, reflected in the calming evening water of Lake Michigan.

This is my first trip "home" since moving to Wisconsin last month. And though I'm not there yet, I'm thinking the landing at General Mitchell International Airport won't have the same level of intimacy flying back to some previous homes had. Flagstaff, Arizona, and Massena, New York are about as spiritually different as you can imagine, but their airports had two key similarities - parking lots that were a) free; and b) small enough that you could spot your car as you came in for a landing, thus saving you the trouble of trying to remember where you'd parked a week ago.

I had a love-hate relationship with Flagstaff, but it was home for the past seven years. When my wife and I moved there in 1999, it took almost no time to feel like a comfortable pair of jeans, already broken in. The problem was - like a pair of jeans - over time, it got small. Not claustrophobia-inducing, just small enough that it was harder to hide the imperfections. Bad Chinese food, an overbearing landlady, no place to buy decent donuts - and that's before you include an underfunded education system and 95 freight trains blasting through downtown every day and night.

But it was hard to pick up and move away from clean air, clean water, 310 days of sunshine a year, and a six-minute commute to work -- and that's before you include terrific friends, a terrific job, and even a terrific pediatrician. And the comfort of returning home to a too-small apartment with a too-large (and too-ugly) couch, where the two loves of my life sat watching "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood".

The couch is still in Flagstaff. The loves of my life have moved on to a new couch and, truth be told, a new TV show of choice. But the new couch is in a new house, in the city that's reflected tonight in Lake Michigan.

So, Milwaukee. It's nice to be home.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Finding Cortez

First of all, an apology from the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, where we experienced the joy of an electrical system in an 81-year old house. We experienced plenty of windstorms back in Flagstaff - sometimes with 50 mph winds. None of them ever resulted in a power outage, nor affected our computer in any way. Meanwhile, back in Wauwatosa, we had 25 mph winds the other day, which not only knocked out our phone, cable, and internet service, but also zapped our power, and fried our hard drive. Two days and plenty of IT support later, we're back.


There's an interesting magazine/website that focuses on pieces of writing on scraps of paper people have picked up off the streets. (So, in a sense, the wind is really a friend to undiscovered writers.) The concept is that there's a lot of unintentional-yet-authentic prose floating around in the ether.

I discovered that a while ago in a stint in the adminstrative assisting arts I pulled in between college and my first reporting gig. I started as a one-day temp in an obscure office at Georgetown University - until the person for whom I was filling in never bothered showing up again. That left me to comb through her computer files to finish the variety of projects she had left undone. That was when I discovered a treasure trove of heartfelt letters she had written to a relative, detailing a heartbreaking variety of medical concerns and relationship issues involving her family, all written in the style of Appalachia. It was as though I had stumbled onto the draft manuscript of an unpublished Lee Smith novel.

(Naturally, I took it upon myself to archive all of the letters, including a few unfinished works. I'd do something more with them, but tragically, I don't have access to a computer with either a 5 1/4" floppy drive, or that's still running WordStar IV.

So when the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters moved into its vintage bungalow, I had high hopes for what we might find. Immediate rewards came in the form of a box in the garage with a bunch of VHS videos from the previous homeowners' collection - though my excitment was tempered a little by the sketchy taste they displayed ("For Love or Money"? Really? Someone bought that?)

Running shorts left in the laundry chute weren't much of an addition, nor the several dozen cans of paint in the work room, even though many appear unopened. I was rummaging around, looking for hooks in the work room, when I discovered an even less-promising archive of broken pieces of window glass and mirror. It was under that collection that I discovered the one piece of leftover prose: A sheet of notebook paper, with adult handwriting. It starts with this fascinating insight:

5. Cortez Watcher of the skies
It goes on to pose an obvious follow-up:

1. A person who discovers the soldier
What's wrong/why is he there?
But from this somewhat unpromising start, it builds to a rousing conclusion, which could have been copied from the files of a former Georgetown employee:

She tempted and misled him, made him think she loved him. Then she left him in his sleep. That the lady [of] his affection has made him powerless towards her, but her merciless nature ensures that she will abandon him.
Very dark, for a piece of notebook paper found underneath shard of glass. It's enough to lead the 19 Minutes staff to wonder about the circumstances surrounding the departure of the previous owners. If nothing else, it might explain the athletic shorts left in the laundry chute.

Friday, March 10, 2006

A scoop almost on par with mint chocolate chip

The radio show I produce is not really in the business of getting scoops, unless you count the odd trip to the ice cream place two floors above. We're an interview show, sort of a Milwaukee version of NPR's Fresh Air (and yes, I'm aware that sounds vaguely implausible). Our role is generally to put the day's news in context in a thoughtful and expansive way.

That said, we're not above the notion that it's exciting to be ahead of the curve. Our interview with Danielle Trussoni ran this morning, just as the news was going out that her book, "Falling Through the Earth", was destined for the front page of this Sunday's New York Times Book Review.

What the Times review won't say (because, hey, it's not a radio program) is that for someone who lived as tumultuous a childhood as one could imagine, Trussoni is startlingly... normal. Smart. Articulate. Introspective. Candid. And an engaging interview - especially for someone who had never given a radio interview before.

Anyway, the At Ten interview is archived here.

And tomorrow, I'll be back to writing about pizza and comically bad press releases.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Before it falls through the cracks...

...a plug for an upcoming interview:

Sometime ago in this space, I noted one of my favorite aspects to life in Public Radioland - interviewing people with something to say. I've also noted my least favorite aspects, such as interviewing musicians who manage, despite my best interviewing efforts, to segue the conversation from harmonica technique to the Zapruder film. Since those posting, the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters has taken up residence in the offices of Milwaukee Public Radio, where I'm now the executive producer of a program that exists basically to interview people with something to say. Sometimes I get to do the interviews, such as one that'll air on Friday.

If you haven't heard of Danielle Trussoni's book, "Falling Through the Earth" yet, you will soon. (Come to think of it, you did just now.) It's a compelling memoir of a childhood turned on its end by her father's experience as a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War. The book is at times heartbreaking, and at other times bitingly funny.

Trussoni, who survived an existence that could easily have crushed her, went on to an academic career at the University of Wisconsin and at the Iowa Writers Workshop. And then visited Vietnam, where her seminal experience in the same tunnels her dad explored 30 years before eventually led to the memoir - and led to her eloquent appearance in the Milwaukee Public Radio studios (where, let's face it, all roads eventually lead to).

It's a book worth reading, especially in a climate in which thousands of Americans are returning from war. And hopefully, an interview worth streaming. Stay tuned.

The final DVD in the Tosa Move set

(By the fifth installment in the mini-series, even the most dedicated 19 Minutes readers are tired of the recaps at the start of each episode. We'll keep this one short: Left Flagstaff. Car broke down. Got ear infection. Car towed, fixed. Ate sweet rolls in Albuquerque. Had uneventful trip through Bible Belt. Watched plenty of late night Olympics coverage. Reached Wisconsin. Successfully bought house. Received free candle, plus 12 copies of mortgage officer's business card, in case we suddenly make a lot of friends in the area who also want to buy houses.)

Onward. Or, forward, as the Wisconsin state motto would note.

Thursday, February 23rd, 1:45 p.m. For my 37th birthday, not only do I get a house with beautiful hardwood floors, but all our possessions show up. Well, all of them except for our framed ketubah, which is a Jewish marriage certificate - or in our case, a Jewish-Lutheran marriage certificate, signed by the Unitarian minister who performed our ceremony. Our mover thinks he accidentally left it in Flagstaff with (really) a group of wardrobe boxes. He promises to replace it if he can't find it, and I imagine the ordeal of sending it around the country, so each of the people who signed it can re-create their signatures.

8:30 p.m. We return from our dinner out, put the car in our very own garage and go inside.

8:45 p.m. I head back out to the garage to bring a few things in, only to discover that the garage door opener no longer, well, opens the garage door. It does make a fine little humming noise, however. I enlist the services of my father-in-law to try to get into the garage.

10:00 p.m. Our breaking-and-entering attempt stretches into its second hour. There's no door to the garage, so we're trying to go through a window. After several hundred exhaustive attempts to hook the latch with a wire inserted behind the jamb, we meet with success. Our exuberance is tempered somewhat when the window moves only around an inch or two, revealing that it's also secured with a chain lock. The maximum security leads me to conclude the previous owners either used the garage to store a jaguar, as a meth lab, or to shoot porn movies. I recollect the story the next morning at work and a co-worker suggests the owners were probably concerned about the safety of a snowblower. Anyway, judicious use of a screwdriver gets us into the garage a few minutes later. I retrieve my toothbrush from the car and go back inside.

Friday, 7:30 a.m. The exhaust fan in the bathroom does an uncanny imitation of the humming noise made by the garage door. I celebrate my new status as a homeowner by going to work.

6:00 p.m. Our mover calls from the road to report our "Kabbalah" has turned up back in Flagstaff.

Saturday, March 4, 10:30 a.m. The 19 Minutes staff gets set to spend its first unstructured weekend in the Milwaukee area with some unpacking, some shopping for a new sofa, and perhaps a trip to the Children's Museum. We settle for Children's Hospital, as 20-month old Sylvi breaks her leg enjoying the wonder of our beautiful hardwood floors. She spends the weekend in traction before getting her cast on Monday morning. We'd heard good things about Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, but hadn't necessarily planned to investigate the place so quickly.

The negative aspect to the leg situation is that it's a big bummer for the next five weeks.

The positive aspect - aside from giving us a chance to catch up on our episodes of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" and "The Backyardigans" - is that an immobile 20-month old is a 20-month old that isn't getting into the semi-unpacked boxes of cleaning chemicals, crystal bowls, and razor blades that are all over the place. And she'll stay away from that garage door.

[Roll credits. Preview tonight's "Late Show". Insert half-screen shot of TV anchor telling us what fires or car accidents we'll learn about on the evening news. Cut to loud commercial for furniture store promising No Payments Until 2018. Fade to black. Exit stage left.]

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Tosa Move wraps up, almost

Regular readers of this feature (and the five of you know who you are) will recall that the 19 Minutes household departed Flagstaff, Arizona, bound for a new home in the Milwaukee area a couple of weeks ago. Even casual readers (the other 17 of you) will likely remember that the 19 Minutes car broke down less than three hours and 150 miles after leaving, adding an unscheduled three-day, two-day stay in scenic Gallup, New Mexico (a prize that, to my knowledge, hasn't ever been offered on "Wheel of Fortune"), and yielding an enjoyable opportunity to meet two tow truck drivers, the repair staff at University Motors VW in Albuquerque. Concurrently, we (by which I mean "I") came down with an ear infection. Back on the road, we survived our stops in Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and Cedar Rapids, and pulled into Brookfield, Wisconsin on Wednesday afternoon.


Thursday, February 23rd, 9:00 a.m. Our credit union's website in Arizona claimed that the credit union was a member of a network of credit unions, meaning any of the members could access our account and cut us a cashier's check. In theory, this was a great concept, since that meant not having to physically carry the downpayment on our house (a gazillion jillion dollars, to be exact) with us across the country. I was a little leery, though, since our credit union tended to be the kind of place where policies differed depending on which teller you saw (there was the teller, for example, who insisted that there was a 7-day waiting period before any deposited check was available for withdrawal. This of course means that in Arizona, it's easier to get a gun than it is to withdraw money from the bank, which I guess is not really a surprise. But I digress.)

Anyhow, still (for some reason) the optimists, we trooped over to the nearby credit union, where we figured out immediately that we were no longer in Arizona. Not only were we the only people in line, but the tellers knew exactly how to accomplish the transaction, and got us our check expediently, which was relatively important, since we were scheduled to close on the house in approximately two hours.

10:45 a.m. Unload the hotel room and repack the roof carrier one more damn time.

11:00 a.m. Arrive at the nondescript, modern office park where the title company, or closing service, or whatever the random financial people call it, plans to situate us in a nondescript, modern conference room with a healthy supply of ballpoint pens and Pepsi products. Fortunately, the conference room looks out on a big atrium with a fountain, which means that 20-month old Sylvi can run around outside the with Grandpa Gary (who's come out for just this occasion) while being able to peer through the window, and possibly see her dad pass out.

11:45 a.m. We'd heard a lot about closings (see, for example Dave Barry's "The Ritual Closing Ceremony" from the book "Homes and Other Black Holes), and were prepared for an inscrutable and never-ending stream of documents to be set in front of us for our signatures. As it turns out, the most complicated form is the one in which we have to provide our signatures for each rendition of our names. This is disconcerting, because I've never signed "Mitchell Teich" without my middle initial, and I've never, ever signed "Mitch C. Teich". I consider asking for a blank sheet of paper to practice, but decide that might sound a little fishy. We survive this form and the others and are done within a half-hour. It takes a little longer to finish because the previous owners of the house, sequestered in an adjacent conference room, have to run out to the bank. We consider suggesting the credit union in Flagstaff.

12:00 noon. We meet the previous owners of the house, who are a little low-key about the whole experience, but seem like nice enough people. We exchange awkward handshakes, and they turn over 32 random keys and the Three Ring Binder of House Information, which includes the newspaper ad from when they bought the house. They head back to their conference room, and my wife chases them to find out what all they keys go to. We call our mover, who has been hanging out with friends in the area, and he reports he can be at our house in 90 minutes. Our mortgage officer gives us a commemorative candle, which is a decent trade for us handing over a check for a gazillion jillion dollars.

Also, I suppose, we get a house.

Be sure to stay tuned for the final installment in "The Tosa Move". Which key appliances will cease working within 8 hours of our moving in? Did the previous owners have decent taste, or are there rooms covered in paint that appears to have been sneezed out of an alien being known as the Great Green Arkleseizure? And will the 19 Minutes staff get to spend an entire weekend at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin within 10 days of moving here?

Be sure to set your Tivos for the ultimate episode of The Tosa Move.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Now, back to our program

Previously on "The Tosa Move":

The 19 Minutes household steals out of Flagstaff, Arizona in the dead of mid-afternoon on a Thursday. Not that dramatic, but with 310 days of sunshine a year, Flagstaff's not that dramatic a place.

Three hours later, the wheels come off the move - metaphorically speaking, anyway - as we break down in Gallup, New Mexico, home of not one, not two, but zero Volkswagen repair shops. Our car is subsequently towed to Albuquerque, and we follow a day or so later. The Jetta wagon makes plenty of noise as it's winched aboard the tow truck, but I don't notice as my right ear has blown its alternator, too, or at least become infected.

The car is fixed by mid-day Saturday and Sunday, we're on our way across eastern New Mexico and into Texas, concurrently crossing into the Central Time Zone, otherwise known as "The Land Where the Daily Show Is On at 10 pm." We'll be back with tonight's program after these words from Mounds and Almond Joy:

[We'll pause while you hit 'fast-forward' on your Tivos.]

Sunday, 3:00 p.m. The western part of the Texas panhandle looks a lot like the eastern part of New Mexico, except for two things: There are vast ranches with nothing on them in Texas, whereas in New Mexico there were just vast areas of nothing at all; and the Texas panhandle also features an enormous cross in the town of Groom, which -- depending on whom you believe - is either the largest or second-largest free-standing cross in the Western Hemisphere. It's definitely the largest cross in Groom, Texas, and seems to broadcast a message like: There might not be much else here, but at least we gave you something to look at for the past 8 miles, which is more than we can say for Vega, Texas..."

Sunday, 3:25 p.m. We're all getting most peckish. Amarillo looms in the distance. The promise of 72-ounce steaks, or at least a Quizno's beckons. We're two miles from town, and more than four hours out of Albuquerque. Check the back seat. Sylvi has just fallen asleep. Opt for the Arby's drive-thru, and keep heading for Oklahoma City.

Sunday, 5:00 p.m. We're into Oklahoma. Last time we drove through the state, it was on the way out to Arizona, on a hot and humid afternoon in early May when the air seemed improbably thick - almost chowder-like. Our first thought was, "Gee, it'd be hard to imagine tornados coming through this part of the country." Hours later, we were in Albuquerque and a slew of F5 tornados tore through Oklahoma. We decide to keep our weather thoughts to ourselves this time.

Sunday, 6:30 p.m. It doesn't work, as the first (and, as it turns out, only) crappy weather of the trip greets us a half-hour or so outside Oklahoma City. It's spitting snow and sleet. The roads are merely wet, so the driving conditions wouldn't normally have been too bad, but unbeknownst to us, we're arriving just in time for the annual convention of Tractor Trailer Drivers Who Have Never Seen Snow, and so we barrel into Oklahoma City, slowing down for the trucks that are doing 9 m.p.h. in the left lane, and trying to get out of the way of the other trucks, which are doing 130 in the right lane, or perhaps in the shoulder.

Sunday, 7:30 p.m. We arrive at the Crowne Plaza in Oklahoma City, thanking our lucky stars that we Pricelined a room off the beaten path of the 18-wheelers. It's roughly 7 degrees out, and the parking lot is full of slush and ice. We ask the desk clerk when it stopped snowing and she replies, "Oh, Friday morning, I think." The room is exactly what we needed after eight hours in the car - a comfortable bed and plenty of room for Sylvi to bounce off the walls. By this, her fourth straight night in a hotel, she's named an honorary member of The Who for her ability to trash a hotel room within 45 seconds of arriving.

Sunday, 8:00 p.m. We're hungry again. Within shouting distance of our hotel are two options: Hooters, which sort of appealed to me in a humorously surreal way (I mean hey, four days of melodramatically horrible moving experiences followed by dinner at the Oklahoma City Hooters -- come on, that's beautiful) and which Gretchen nixes immediately; and Sonic, which would normally be okay, except the last thing you really want to do after eight hours in the car is eat in your car. So we ask the desk clerk what the bext pizza delivery place in the area is. "Domino's," she replies. You only live once. We call Domino's and prepare for dining thrills.

Sunday, 8:45 p.m. Much to our surprise, the local Domino's isn't half bad. Sylvi scarfs down almost three full-size slices herself, which is less of a surprise considering the calories she's burned tearing up the hotel room for the past hour.

Monday, 2:35 a.m. Sylvi barfs up nearly three full slices of Domino's Pizza. We enjoy the comfort of the Crowne Plaza's bed by sitting up until 3:30 watching the Sesame Street 25th Anniversary Special on DVD. And nothing says 3:12 a.m. in Oklahoma City like "Happy Tapping with Elmo".

At this rate, the story will never make it to Wisconsin, so I'll note there wasn't much of interest on our trip from Oklahoma City to Kansas City - except for gas prices under $2.00 and a rest area with picnic shelters shaped like teepees (something that probably wouldn't fly back in northern Arizona). There also wasn't much to report from our Kansas City-to-Cedar Rapids drive or, for that matter, the Cedar Rapids-to-Milwaukee leg.

So when we return, we'll flash forward to Wauwatosa, Wisconsin: Will the local credit union, as claimed, be able to access our account in Arizona and cut us a check for a zillion dollars in time for the closing? And will our protagonist, as expected, pass out cold when the closing agent starts putting random pieces of paper in front of him for his signature? And - most importantly - what kind of swell gifts will the mortgage officer bring to the closing?

Admittedly, this isn't much to hold your attention, but tune in anyway, as we wrap this up and get back to making fun of poorly written press releases.