Saturday, April 29, 2006

A prom story

Darn you, Beth-Anne Lapsley. If I'd had even 1/10th less of a crush on you in 1987, I could have actually asked you to the prom, and I wouldn't be stuck telling the same damn story every spring.

I didn't go to the prom my senior year of high school. Or my freshman, sophomore, or junior years, either, but that seems to be less of a big deal.

And really, it's not that big a deal anyway, except that over the past 19 years, talk at this time of year always comes back around to prom season. It was still a little raw while I was in college, so I used to mutter my no-prom story through clenched teeth and duck out of the room to go watch the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The past 15 years in the news business, proms frequently end up the topic of potential-news-story conversations, like "How much are kids spending on limousines these days?" and "Can you believe how much kids are spending on limousines these days?" and even "When I went to prom, it was in my mother's 1984 Ford Escort, not one of those dang limousines". Nobody says reporters are always a creative bunch.

And my story now ends up as comic relief. I spent much of my prom night in my car in a Wendy's parking lot with Jonathan Blatt, with both of us complaining about how we couldn't get dates. (It might have been his car, now that I think of it. On the other hand, I believe they were both Ford Fairmonts, so the mental image is pretty similar). Then he went off to another friend's house to complain about the same thing, basically, while I went home and watched the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Of course, what never got said in the car was that it was my own fault I didn't have a date. I had wanted - planned - to ask Beth-Anne to the prom for roughly 786 weeks. I got to six out of the seven digits in her phone number several times before chickening out.

(It was that kind of crush. And yes, I did that enough that I still have the phone number rattling around in my memory instead of somewhat more useful information like my daughter's social security number.)

So, a couple weeks before Prom Ground Zero, I finally arrived at a plan that would involve my asking her in the hallway in between lunch and jazz band class (Do I miss high school? I do not.). And that plan was instantaneously dashed two classes before lunch, when Jeff Cohen mentioned he had asked Beth-Anne to the prom the night before - just as friends.

I spent most of lunch, if memory serves, slamming my forehead into my locker, which may account for my hairline today, or at least my inability to remember my daughter's social security number.

And I'm sure they had a fine time. I stayed friends with both of them afterwards, and my romantic life continued on that same trajectory for a while longer, as I also managed to not ask Beth-Anne to dinner or to the movies.

So Beth-Anne, I'm sorry. I still wish I'd managed to ask you to the prom. Not because I imagine my life would have turned out differently in any major way - I have a wonderful wife, the cutest little daughter on the planet, and an amusing story to tell every spring. And not because I'd rather tell a story about an actual prom experience, rather than a Wendy's parking lot story. ("...the cheeseburgers were terrific.")

I just think we might have had a nice time.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Getting out of touch with my inner Grammar Snob

First off, as I pop another Junior Mint in my mouth, I'd like to thank the people at Junior Mints for finally explaining the name of their candy right there on the box, even though their explanation doesn't, technically, make sense:
Over Fifty years ago, a new "Star" was born. Given Junior Mints' popularity at the movies it comes as no surprise that the brand was named after a top Broadway play in 1949: "Junior Miss"!
I'll note only that I'm not sure why the fact that the candy is popular at the movies has anything to do with the fact that it was named after a Broadway play. If movies hadn't existed in 1949, maybe I'd be ready to make the cross-cultural leap. Or if they had referenced the candy's popularity at "the theater", I'd be with them.

Regardless, that's the only point I'll make about this particular piece of copy writing, and so I'll refrain from pointing out the random capitalizations, odd use of quotation marks and dubious exclamation point. That's because I'm trying - really trying - to avoid being pigeon-holed as a Grammar Snob.

Back here in 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, I conducted an interview this morning with one June Casagrande, author of the very funny "Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies", which takes to task people who derive an unnatural amount of pleasure from catching the grammar mistakes of others.

I was a little concerned as I began reading her 194-page screed. First, I find myself using words like "screed" that no normal, Vanilla Coke-drinking person would work into casual speech. (Second, I drink Vanilla Coke.) And I have a long history of nailing people for errors in print.

My first college, for instance, asked me to remove myself, Felix Unger-like, from my place of residence (college, that is), ostensibly because my GPA couldn't be spotted with an electron microscope, but really because - as managing editor of the campus newspaper - I spent hours (and hours) finding every conceivable error. And then printing out the correction, cutting it out, coating it with hot wax, hunting for where I dropped it on the floor, finding it again, and sticking it on the galley. Needless to say, this left me with little time for what some people liked to call "classes".

A year-and-a-half and two colleges later, the editor-in-chief asked me to stop helping out at her paper, because I was spotting too many mistakes.

"We're not trying to be a Nobel Prize-winning newspaper," she said.

"You mean a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper," I replied.

"I think you should leave," she concluded.
Around the same time, I found a typo on the beautifully caligraphed marriage license my aunt and uncle had commissioned for their wedding. Even I cringed a little when I pointed that out.

And more recently, regular readers of this fine feature (or fine readers of this regular feature) will recall that I took the late Fred Rogers to task for naming his program "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood", rather than "Mr. Rogers's Neighborhood", which "The Elements of Style" dictates.

As June Casagrande pointed out in her interview this morning, Mr. Rogers may well have been following the AP Stylebook when he named his program, so I hereby retract my complaint, and will continue to (try to) relinquish most of my worst Grammar Snob impulses.

I will, however, continue to wonder where Mr. Rogers was coming from at the beginning of his show, and where he was going at the end.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Clearing out the backblog, vol. 1

Here at the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, we've been hip-deep in the reality that is being the executive producer of a daily interview program. This should mean nothing to you, the 19 Minutes reading faithful, except that it's been hard to post regular updates - especially this week, as we've also been filling in as the host of the show.

The upside is that our brain's memory cache has been filling up with column material. The downside is that as new stuff shows up in our mind, some of the old stuff finds itself filed in our brain's recycling bin. (We'll stop the extended Windows metaphor any minute now.)

So we're left with a bunch of stuff that could best be labeled "quick hits" - stuff that could be worth 750 words, but will end up being represented by two or three fascinating paragraphs. At the very least, they'll be easier to print out and post on your refrigerator, should you happen to want to post any of them to your refrigerator, which you probably don't.

(On a related note, who decided that refrigerators were the kitchen appliance of choice for posting shopping lists, artwork de les enfants, or tickets to upcoming baseball games? Why aren't we posting these things on our dishwashers? I can understand why they don't end up on our waffle irons, but the side of an electric can opener is just wasted space at this point.)

Anyway, this is the freshest material we have to work with.

A hypothetical: Let's say you're a guy. (Actually, for the 19 Minutes staff, this isn't really a hypothetical.) When you're a boy, say, nine years old, and you're at a sporting event, you spend roughly one-eighth of your time watching the game, one-eighth of the time dripping hot dog mustard on your t-shirt, and three-quarters of your time trying to con the players, coaches, umpires, linesmen, bat boys, the old guys sitting in the right field corner who scoop up the foul balls, groundskeepers, and photographers in the camera bays to throw you a ball, puck, batting glove, cracked bat, broken stick, pine tar rag, sweat-soaked towel, or empty bag of sunflower seeds.

This almost never comes to fruition, since a) you're not being very polite about it, b) there's no compelling reason for any of these people to throw you anything since as a nine-year old, your bribery options are somewhat limited ("Come on, I'll trade you the Pog chip that's in my pocket..."), and c) there are roughly 650 other nine-year old boys crowded around you trying to accomplish exactly the same thing.

So every once in a great while, the bullpen catcher or the backup goalie will toss a batting practice baseball or a warm-up puck into the crowd, purely for the amusement of watching 650 nine-year old boys attempt to kill each other to take possession of this sacred talisman of sports fandom worth $.49 to the team in question.

Having just packed a household and moved it across the country, I recently came across one of the few such treasures I collected in my youth - a baseball rolled across the dugout to me at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore by vaunted-yet-obscure Red Sox pitcher Allen Ripley on May 23, 1979. I know these facts surrounding this baseball, because written on it, in green ballpoint 10-year old handwriting, is the inscription: "Rolled across the dugout at Memorial Stadium by vaunted-yet-obscure Red Sox pitcher Allen Ripley - May 23, 1979." Okay, so I've added the "vaunted-yet-obscure" business 27 years later. Also, my handwriting has improved. Or at least changed.

Now let's go to another hypothetical. You're a girl. Specifically, you're a 22-month old girl at Game 1 of the first round of the AHL's Calder Cup playoffs - Milwaukee versus Iowa. You're wearing your Ottawa Senators jersey, in part because it makes your dad pleased, and in part because it's the only hockey attire you own, save for the paper hockey helmet obtained from the Frozen Four Skills Challenge a couple weeks ago.

You spend roughly half your time pointing and/or waving cheerfully at the hockey players who are busy slamming each other violently into the dasherboards, a quarter of your time eating Wheat Thins, and a quarter of your time walking back and forth in front of the three seats you and your parents occupy in the second row behind the visitor's bench and trying to get at the old french fries under the seats. In short, you are not requesting anything at all from the players, referees, equipment managers, ushers, or your fellow fans.

This means, naturally, that after the horn goes off at the end of the second period, a referee hands off the game puck to a fan sitting nearby, who of course tosses the puck to you. And it means that after the game, when you - at 2-feet-5 - want to walk through the crowd on the concourse towards the escalators roughly a half-mile away, the crowd parts to watch this miniature person wearing a hockey sweater making her way towards the exits. And then another girl - probably around 10-years old - walks over and offers you her inflatable 'cheer sticks'. And so now you're walking through the concourse, holding two inflatable sticks almost as tall as you are, oblivious to the fact that even more people are now charting your progress, watching you like the citizens of Boston in "Make Way for Ducklings". (Only instead of the man who sweeps the streets saying, "Now, ain't that nice," it's a guy in a Milwaukee Admirals jersey, holding a beer, saying "I think that's the smallest person I've ever seen.")

And so, of course, a woman wearing an Admirals staff nametag stops by and hands you a foam rubber puck, telling your parents not to worry because you can't hurt herself with this one. And so you set down one of your cheersticks and cheerfully carry the puck for a while until you hand it off to mom and re-collect your second cheerstick.

On you march, the crowd continuing to part, and cute college girls bending over to pinch your nose. And then another Admirals staffer walks up, and says, "Ah... I was looking for someone to give this puck to..." and you wind up with a brand-new game puck, too.

Again, let me stress that this 22-month old did nothing to solicit any of these items, except to look heartbreakingly cute as she went about her business at the Bradley Center.

And you know what? You are pretty darn cute.

Friday, April 21, 2006

We're Number 16! Rah!

A little insight into Milwaukee’s current sports psyche…

Yesterday morning, I walked over to the Bradley Center box office to buy tickets to the Milwaukee Admirals’ (yes, that'd be minor-league hockey) playoff game tonight against Iowa. It was 11:20, and there were about 10 people in line. It dawned on me that Bucks’ NBA playoff tickets were also on sale, which probably accounted for the brisk business on a Thursday morning. Of the 10 people in line, it turns out six of us were buying Admirals tickets, two were going to some circus that was actually going on that morning, and two were buying Bucks tickets.

Headline in today’s Journal-Sentinel sports section:

Not Much Expected of Bucks

Nice to see rampant optimism infusing a city…

(Of course, this may also have had something to do with the fact that 4th-row seats at the Admirals game cost me $9.00 each, while 4th-row seats for the Bucks-Pistons would cost $115. If they were available. Which they aren't.)

Friday, April 14, 2006

Taking a shot at sports photography

I’m going to a hockey game this evening. The Milwaukee Admirals are playing the Chicago Wolves – a game that, if it weren’t an actual minor-league match, would sound like a made-up event from an episode of MacGyver. (After which the players would kick back and take a swig out of a bottle labeled “Cola”, or perhaps “Beer”.)

But it’s a real game, and to prove it, I’m planning on bringing my camera. I’ve taken a lot of sports pictures in my life. I have no idea why. It was a habit that I thought began when started lugging my Nikon EM to Red Sox games when I was a teenager. But when we were packing things up to move to Wisconsin, I discovered a bunch of pictures from a Baltimore Orioles game in the late 70s (I’m assuming they were playing the Red Sox). They were taken from the upper deck of Memorial Stadium, using a Kodak Instamatic and its classic 126 film, which means you need a magnifying glass to verify that, the people in the 3X3" pictures are, in fact, baseball players.

The problem is – starting with the aforementioned Kodak Instamatic, I’ve never really had the right camera for shooting sports. I’ve had decent zoom lenses, but never the variety that allow for close-ups that convey any kind of emotion, the way a Sports Illustrated picture does. So what I’m left with are basically sports landscapes – nice shots of the ball in motion as the batter begins his swing, or of the football kicker just after he’s lofted the extra-point over the offensive line, or hockey players about to take a face-off. I get Lens Envy whenever I run into a professional photographer at games.

My wife and I made it to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City – an opportunity for us to practice our skills at shooting pictures of bobsledding. As it turns out, it was nearly impossible to take digital pictures of a bobsled roaring by at 85 mph, since our 2001 digital camera had a maddening delay between the time you pressed the shutter and the time the camera actually took the picture. So, until we got wise and went to the end of the run (where the bobsledders actually stopped), we got a lot of inspriring pictures of empty bobsled track. (Thrill of victory, indeed.)

So I’ve discovered that the best places to take sports pictures are at exhibition events – such as last weekend’s “Frozen Four Skills Challenge”, which showcased the talents of the best men’s and women’s college hockey players in the country. That’s because everything happens eight or nine times in a row – each competitor skates around the same cones, sprints around the same track, and shoots at the same goal. So after taking more pictures of empty ice, I could adjust my technique and gradually work my way to pictures of a skater’s heel, and finally on to the point where there was a real-live person in the frame. (The women hockey players – such as North Dakota’s Devon Fingland (above left) – who were a step or two slower than the men, were easier to capture.)

Anyway, I’ll probably take my camera to the Admirals game tonight. We’re in the upper deck, which will pose some challenges, even with my 2005 digital camera and its 10x optical zoom. So maybe I’ll see if I can dig out that old Kodak Instamatic.

You otter be doing something else

A news update, from the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters: As of Friday afternoon at 3:00 pm CDT, a full 29 percent of the hits this feature has received in the last month were from people looking for pictures of river otters. To date, we've never run a picture of a river otter (which makes this fact all the more astounding).

So to avoid any further disappointment by people who have reached this page looking for pictures of river otters, here's the best we could muster from our trip to the San Diego Zoo last fall:


And, just in case there's anyone out there using the search term "drowsy hippopotamus", here's a special Friday afternoon bonus:


A request, though -- for anyone who starts a garage band and calls it "Drowsy Hippopotamus", I'd like a credit in the liner notes.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Guardedly optimistic about DST

The 19 Minutes staff has called the Milwaukee area home for around six weeks, and we continue to marvel at quite a few things we experience every day. Daylight Saving Time, for starters. After seven years in Arizona, Daylight Saving Time took me by surprise.

Not the setting-the-clocks forward part, of course. You have to have live in a Habitrail, turned away from all forms of media, to miss the helpful reminders to set your clocks forward. I believe even Iron Chef Chinese, Chen Kenichi, took a few seconds out of the Rutabaga Battle to remind Americans to set their clocks an hour ahead.

The aspect that threw me was the part where it actually stays light later in the evening. For the first week after we sprang forward, I was continually confused by the visual cues around me – convinced it was earlier than the clock claimed. But after getting used to it, I have to give it a pretty favorable review. Not only is it nice to get home from work in daylight, but I could now get things done in the garden, should I suddenly develop an affinity for gardening.

The Milwaukee area also continues to dazzle me by its amazing proliferation of crossing guards. There are probably half a dozen schools between my house and the park-and-ride lot, and each of them has a platoon of crossing guards at the intersections nearby. These are adults wearing bright orange jackets or vests, and who carry hand-held stop signs to let children get to school more quickly and safely.

Or you would imagine that is their charge. The reality is that Milwaukee-area crossing guards are a little scattershot. Maybe it’s their training program. When I was a crossing guard, at Glenallan Elementary School (the crossing guard program against which all others are judged), Officer Barnes instructed us to wait until a group of children had reached the curb before having them all cross at once (perhaps to ratchet up the body count in the event of an accident).

The local crossing guard establishment favors a policy wherein they walk out and stop traffic to let one child cross, then head back, only to stop half-way to the curb as another child approaches, after which they stay out in the middle of the street to let a parent – fresh from dropping his child off at school – cross in the other direction. All this does wonders for the blood pressure of Milwaukee-area drivers, which is perhaps why the crossing guards want to keep any potential body counts low.

The crossing guards also are deployed at traffic lights, which seems like an interesting use of resources, considering there are already crossing guards at those intersections, in the form of blinking white guys and orange guys.

Our immediate neighborhood also features a guard known to all as “The Waving Crossing Guard”, who – not surprisingly – stands at her corner and waves at every single passing vehicle, which seems like an oddly distracting activity for a crossing guard to engage in.

And finally, this update on 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", who often rides our bus, but whom we had lost track of: She has returned to our Freeway Flyer bus, and with the temperature reaching the upper 60s, has - in fact - dispensed with her hat. As it turns out, she sports a simple pony tail. So much for the mystique. We'll now have to scan the bus for another Mystery of the Ages. Stay tuned.

Some kind of harmonic convergence or something

So the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters has relocated to downtown Milwaukee, within a few blocks of a variety of performance venues - among them, The Bradley Center, the U.S. Cellular Arena, the Pabst Theater, and the Riverside Theater. The last of these is worth noting because there's an alternative rock band called "Train" playing a concert there this evening.

I know nothing about this band, except that on a walk back to my office this afternoon (from the Bradley Center, no less), I passed the group's bus, parked across the street from the theater.

No sooner did I start thinking about the irony of a group called "Train" traveling by bus than a city bus came barreling by, with this sign above the windshield:

TRAINING BUS


That's all. Feel free to go back to your lives.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A bonsai buckeroo

You're driving down, say, Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on some Tuesday evening. You pass, roughly 173 taverns, 24 bowling alleys, and 5 Lutheran churches (hey, sometimes stereotypes are accurate). The last of these Lutheran churches is Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the parking lot is filled to capacity. You figure, "Maybe a youth group. Maybe choir practice. Maybe they're making lemon bars."

You'd be wrong.

I've recently come from an assignment at the aforementioned Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, where some 60 tiny tree enthusiasts were plying their trade. The Milwaukee Bonsai Society was hosting its annual "Group Slash" competition, and I was along for the ride.

Me, I always thought of bonsai trees as little junipers that city apartment-dwellers placed on their window panes when they got tired of looking at the little cactus garden they bought at Safeway.

Turns out that hundreds of people in the Milwaukee area alone are really into these things, and in a way that seems healthier than that whole Star Trek fancier phenomenon. Some of these folks have been working on the same tree for decades. The way the bonsai aficionados see it, their trees tell a story - a story that they've crafted by making it look as though the tree was hit by lightning, weathered by mountain winds, clear-cut by a paper company, etc.

But there was little time in the "Group Slash" for telling too complex a story. Teams of three or four (or more) people ganged up on the little trees and tried to turn them into something interesting in the span of an hour. College students, day laborers and senior citizens pulled, snipped, and wired their small plants into position. One participant was a middle school teacher whose 6th and 7th graders will hold a day-long bonsai workshop later this spring.

Some of them looked like high-elevation bristlecone pines, gnarled by years of harsh weather. Some of them looked like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, scarred (physically and mentally) by poor application of pruning shears. But in a room saturated with the heavy, sweet aroma of juniper, the enthusiasm was infectious. And the lemon bars were tasty, too.

Considering the number of plants that have come and gone from my household, it's probably a good thing I wasn't tasked to judge the evening's results. But in the end, no one got hurt and a good time was had by all.

And I got a pretty good radio piece out of the hour, which should make it to air in a couple of weeks.

Monday, April 03, 2006

First pitch of the season

Before we get on with the ceremonial first pitch, a post-script to our "Thoughts on the bus" feature: We've already lost track of 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", which means one of two things - either she's stopped taking the bus (after, perhaps, being directed to this column); or she's actually still riding the bus, only she's stopped wearing her hat, and we really don't know what she looks like.

Anyway, as you would know if you drove by Miller Park this afternoon (which you probably didn't), baseball season is underway. It's a different experience in the northern tier of the country, this opening day business. All that rhapsodic talk in baseball literature about the start of the season being tantamount to the planet's yearly rebirth is somewhat more pertinent in a place that's not green year-round.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed watching baseball for the last seven years in Arizona. There was something equally satisfying about buying sunscreen in late February and thinking about snow piling up on the pitcher's mound in Cleveland. And going to a game here in Milwaukee - in a domed stadium as we're planning to do this Saturday, will probably seem as unnatural as going to an August ballgame in Phoenix. Or an April hockey game in Phoenix. Or any hockey game in Phoenix. Or a Pes├Ąpallo game in Michigan. (You can look that one up.)

But their shared artificialities aside, there are some key differences between the Arizona and Milwaukee baseball experiences that I'm looking forward to:

Tailgating. Driving by Miller Park this afternoon, you could smell the brats grilling in the parking lot. From the Interstate. Inside a bus. What I like about tailgating is that it gives the baseball game a more momentous feel - like an actual event, rather than a two hour TV show you're attending. When I landed my first radio job, I timed my drive from Maryland to Iowa so that I could go to an Indians-Yankees game at Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium. Eight thousand fans in a park that held 80,000.

The forlorn gravel parking lot was easily the size of Rhode Island, and as I pulled up - with a carful of worldly possessions - a minivan with West Virginia plates pulled in next to me, and a bunch good ol' Mountaineers hopped out and proceeded to assemble a phalanx of hibachis. (A side note: I believe 19 Minutes Past the Hour has just made history by being the only weblog in history to use the term "phalanx of hibachis". And you were here to witness it.) It turned out to be a group of four friends on their yearly trip to see the Indians, and they thought my need to see an Indians game on my move was so cool, they added another couple of Italian sausages to the grill and dealt me in. So I like tailgating. On the other hand, I can't fault Arizona Diamondbacks fans for foregoing the tailgating tradition. For one thing, grilling out loses some of its appeal when the pavement is hotter than your charcoal. For another, management frowns on grilling out in a parking garage, anyway.

The other aspect of Milwaukee baseball that I think will appeal to me is the team's desire to have me attend its games. We attended a lot of Diamondbacks games the first few years we lived in Arizona - which was saying something, considering it was a two hour drive from Flagstaff to the Stadium Formerly Known as Bank One Ballpark. The team was good, the ticket prices reasonable, and the seats were typically 2/3-to-3/4 full. Then the Dbacks started losing. And people stopped showing up. To which the Diamondbacks responded by first, increasing ticket prices. Then, they created a multi-tiered pricing system, which included something called "Marquee Games", meaning they jacked up prices some more for games that anyone wanted to go to (which included, if memory serves, an exciting interleague series against the Tigers). Our last season in Arizona, we made it to one game.

Flash forward to last Friday. It's raining. It's 40 degrees. It's windy. I stop at Miller Park on my drive home from work - it's about 8 minutes from my house. I drag my bedraggled self to the ticket window and remark that the experience is a little different than buying tickets in my former Arizona home. The vendor replies, "Well, for people who have just moved to Milwaukee from Arizona, we have a special deal - half-price on any seats in the house."

It turns out that he was being the slightest bit theatrical - the Brewers have a special deal on at the beginning of the season, offering half-price tickets to everyone in the five counties in the metro area. But they actually seem to understand that they'll do better in the long run if they draw 35,000 fans a game paying half-price than if they draw 11,000 fans a game, and most of them sit in the bleachers. The fans might even come back again, and pay full price.

So we're going to the Brewers game this Saturday. They're playing the Diamondbacks.