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.