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?