Thursday, January 31, 2008

The effects of secondhand smoke on state legislators

I am still hopeful that Wisconsin will join the tide of other states moving to ban smoking in public places, including taverns and clubs, soon. But I am extremely dismayed by today's news that a heavily compromised version of the bill offered by Senate Democrats has been rejected by anti-smoking groups.

I don't blame them for thumbing their noses at the offer. What I'm dismayed by is the compromised version of the bill. Sen. Roger Breske (D-Eland) made the offer, backed by your friend and mine Majority Leader Russ Decker (heavens do I miss Judy), that included a delay of the law for taverns until July 2011 (anti-smoking groups wanted it to go into effect in 2010 for bars and 2009 for all other work places). It also included a provision that would have prohibited any community from enacting separate legislation to ban smoking prior to the state-wide effective date.

In a word: lame.

But what really got my hackles in a tizzy was a statement by Breske, when he claimed that the argument that secondhand smoke is a hazard to non-smoking patrons was "hogwash." His reason for believing that? "I'm still alive."

Good for you. But I find it unacceptable that one of our elected leaders seems to harbor such disdain for mountains of scientific evidence to the contrary. Have some statistics, courtesy of the EPA and the NIH:

  • EPA has concluded that exposure to secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer in adults who do not smoke. EPA estimates that exposure to secondhand smoke causes approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths per year in nonsmokers.
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke has also been shown in a number of studies to increase the risk of heart disease.
  • ETS is a human lung carcinogen, responsible for approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths annually in U.S. nonsmokers. ETS has been classified as a Group A carcinogen under EPA's carcinogen assessment guidelines. This classification is reserved for those compounds or mixtures which have been shown to cause cancer in humans, based on studies in human populations.
  • There are conclusive published studies that indicate increased risk of lung cancer in nonsmoking women living with smoking husbands or working with smoking co-workers.
Need more convincing? Check out this fact sheet from the American Lung Association.

I can't believe anyone in this day and age, with access to libraries, the internet, and even television, would have the brass ones to make a ridiculous claim like "secondhand smoke doesn't hurt people." In public. As an elected official.

I think the original plan--bars get until 2010, everyone else gets until 2009--is plenty of time for people and places to adapt. Plus, the fact remains that our two nearest neighbors, Minnesota and Illinois, currently do having smoking bans in place, so the argument that crazed Wisconsin smokers would flee across the borders for their nic fixes is pretty ridiculous, unless we expect them to drive all the way to Iowa or Indiana.

There are arguments to be made about the potential negative economic impact such a ban might have, but ultimately, the more states that follow suit, the less of an issue it'll be. And in the end, this is another instance of something coming down to how we think about and treat the general health of our fellow citizens. Sorry Mr. Breske, but your argument is hogwash.

Bowl of your choice

I'm not a huge Packers fan, but I will admit to being disappointed that they didn't make it to this years' Super Bowl. It was especially hard to watch their final, slow wreck of a game after seeing them wipe the floor with the Seattle Seahawks in the previous, snow-covered match up.

So, despite the possibility of a history making season for the Patriots, I'm just not that interested in the big game this year. Sure, like a good media whore, I'll tune in for the famous commercials to see if Go Daddy brings us more scantily clad boobs, but when it comes to the real action, I'll be changing the channel...to PUPPY BOWL IV!

Because, as it turns out, I'm not immune to the mind-crushing adorableness of puppies running amok in a tiny stadium. I know, it's sad, but really, I dare you to watch it for a few minutes and not get totally caught up in the whole ridiculous thing.

Thank you, Animal Planet.

(h/t the slack daily)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The other great polluter

I have been a vegetarian since my junior year of high school. The decision and the change was actually pretty easy for me to make, which is just one reason why I don't really go out of my way to brag or proselytize about it. See, I never really liked most meat. Growing up, I was that oddball child who loved her strained carrots and peas, but when it came to meat--say, the perfectly delicious to the rest of the world steak that my dad cooked up--I would more often than not take a few bites before wadding it up in a napkin and discreetly discarding the thing. We didn't get dessert if we didn't clean our plates.

I did like turkey and chicken, so it took me a couple of years after my initial decision before I was able to fully cut them out of my diet. That and the omnipresence of chicken stock in pretty much everything. Seriously, vegetable soup? Chicken stock.

Anyway, I've been meat free for many years, and my reasons for it have evolved over that time. At first, it was because I didn't like the stuff and because, y'know, cows were treated pretty badly and stuff. Now, it's because of those things and because the way in which we get our meat has become one of the biggest sources of pollution in the world.

My good friend Mari recently pointed out a really well-written and very informative piece about this very subject in the New York Times. You can read the whole thing here, but I'd like to bring up some of its finer points:

The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons.

...the president of Brazil announced emergency measures to halt the burning and cutting of the country’s rain forests for crop and grazing land. In the last five months alone, the government says, 1,250 square miles were lost.

...if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

...about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption...

Agriculture in the United States — much of which now serves the demand for meat — contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In Iowa alone, hog factories and farms produce more than 50 million tons of excrement annually.
If the cruelty exhibited toward animals by most major production facilities isn't enough to deter us from over consumption, perhaps the sheer waste and destruction resulting from these practices would be. It's an intriguing argument, especially as more and more people are taking the threats of environmental degradation more seriously.

I have never been an "all meat is murder" advocate, though I certainly understand why some people might be pushed to such a place. Modern techniques for growing meat are atrocious and unhealthy. Ultimately, however, I do believe that some consumption of animal products is good and necessary. Hunting certain species keeps their populations in check, and meat in general, when raised and prepared in a more natural manner, is perfectly healthy. Plus, a lot of people really seem to enjoy the stuff.

The real issue at hand should be just how much meat we consume (if we so choose to consume it) and then, stemming from that, how and where we get it from. Massive feed lots, where the animals are stuffed in by the thousands and pretty much expected to be sick, where the enormous amounts of waste are drained into the local water supplies, should be disgusting and unacceptable to everyone.

Plus, by improving the way we treat and raise feed animals and also the way we treat and use their waste, we tackle an important and oft-overlooked facet of the pollution problem. By growing more crops for human consumption instead of animal feed, we can decrease the amount of forest land that's cleared and help to decrease the number of people who go hungry in the world.

It seems like a no-brainer, but the dominant culture, at least in the United States, still holds that we should eat large quantities of meat. And so long as we don't have to see where it comes from, what toll it's taking on the land and air, and so long as the prices don't spike, too many folks will go on not caring. That's why it takes education and legislation, and we should be pushing for both tactics by cutting back and speaking out.

I've been heartened to see a small but steadily growing movement toward free-grazing, free-range animal husbandry in this country. When, recently, I attended a cheese class at Fromagination (highly recommended, by the way), I learned that the makers of Wisconsin's famed Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese, the fine folks at Uplands Farm, use what's called "intensive rotational grazing" with their cattle:

The pasture is subdivided into separate paddocks that the cows are moved through in a rotational manner. They get fresh pasture at the optimum stage of growth each day. The pasture, along with a small amount of grain, makes up their summer diet.
The cows are also allowed to stay with their calves for the first six months, which is nearly unheard of in major factory farming operations.

You can find an extensive list of other Wisconsin farms that raise grass fed, pastured and free-range animals at EatWild.com, too. It's mighty encouraging to see that the list is so long.

Still, the main producers of beef, pork and poultry are huge corporations that will be hard to convince to make fundamental changes to the way they do things. It needs to be done, though, and it's high time we all started to take the problem seriously.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Playing in the snow at Donald Park

Back when I wrote about my adventures at Indian Lake Park, Brad V. of the blog Letters in Bottles recommended I check out Donald County Park, too. Interestingly enough, I'd passed the trail head a number of times while on the way to visit friends who lived out in the country beyond Mt. Vernon, but never realized what it was.

Thanks to Brad's tip, I remembered to suggest going to check it out when me, The Boy and my sister, who was out visiting for the weekend, decided to go snowshoeing on Saturday.

Donald Park has two trail heads - the main entrance along Hwy. 92 called Pop's Knoll and an equestrian access point along Hwy. G. We headed to the Pop's Knoll entrance, only to find ourselves confronted with a decidedly unplowed driveway with a closed gate. According to the signs, though, the park was open. We grumbled about the lack of plowing, but decided to check the equestrian entrance to see if we could get in that way. It, too, was unplowed, but that entrance is just a stone's throw from "downtown" Mt. Vernon, so we parked along the street and just walked up to the trail head.

It was nearly a perfect day for the trek, with the temperatures finally rising above zero and into the twenties with almost no wind. On top of that, because of last week's snowfall and the park's somewhat off-the-beaten-path status, the landscape was relatively unmarred. We spotted just two other sets of snowshoe tracks. There isn't any cross country skiing in the park, either, so the rest of the snow was flawless and sparkling.

From the equestrian access point, the hiking trail goes down through the woods and alongside some low bluffs before emerging into the middle of a wide open field. We marveled at the quiet beauty of the place, also taking a moment to catch our breath, and then headed out across the expanse. The trail disappears into woods again before veering right and crossing a low wooden bridge that spans a small creek. Covered in snow as it was, the crossing made for quite the picturesque vista. I snapped a few pictures before we went ahead.

By that point, we'd gone just over a mile and a half and were feeling a little worn out. We were further encouraged to turn around and head back when we realized that our trail was about to run alongside a snowmobile trail. A group of them were whizzing noisily up and down the track, breaking the wintry silence we'd previously been enjoying.

So we turned around and made the trek back. By the time we got back to the car, we were all pleasantly exhausted and ready to eat. We drove back into town and stopped at Java Cat, my favorite place for gelato this side of the Atlantic.

Overall, I'm very glad to have been tipped off about Donald Park. I definitely intend to go back in the spring or summer to do some proper hiking and exploring, as the park contains much more than what we saw on our snowshoe outing. It's a lovely space, with rolling hills, woodlands and trout streams, and close by to the very tiny, very cute town of Mt. Vernon. Heartily recommended.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Massacre begins tonight!

If you haven't already seen the buckets of press about it, "Massacre (The Musical)" has its world premiere tonight, 8:00PM at the High Noon Saloon. I'm shamelessly plugging the heck out of this because 1) it's a super fun, super indie horror musical comedy, 2) I helped create the soundtrack and did some grip work on it and 3) my band, Aporia, is playing after the screening. And hey, the whole evening will only cost you $5, a portion of which will go to benefit Second Harvest. Good times, all around.

Read all about it!

Today's issue of the Wisconsin State Journal features a big article about it on the cover of their Art section. You can read it online here.

This weeks' issue of the Onion's AV Club (in Madison) features an article about it, too.

This weeks' issue of the Isthmus also includes a nice article about the premiere. I wrote an article for their online edition, if you care to read it, here.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Tree Forts of Our Lives

Long, long ago, in a land not so far away (the far western suburbs of Chicago, that is), there lived a young girl called Emily (that’d be me) who loved, more than anything, to spend her days outside, exploring and hanging out with her friends.

Summer, fall, winter and spring: every season had something to offer. When the snow came, the plows followed, and they pushed great heaps of snow into small mountains behind my home, and I’d dig and pack and scrape them into ice fortresses. When the snow melted it formed rushing rivers in the gutters and trenches of my neighborhood, and I’d wade through them pretending to be an intrepid explorer, crafting small boats from tinfoil and sailing them through the rapids. In the summer, when school was over and there were no other obligations, I would team up with my friends to build tree forts all throughout town.

One fort went up in a tall, skinny pine tree in my front yard. Another was built in a nearby forest preserve. But the crowning achievement, a collaborative effort between a whole gaggle of local kids, was built in the most perfect tree fort tree ever, in the woods that lined the bike path separating an old subdivision from a vast wasteland that would soon be a new subdivision.

Me and my two best friends stumbled onto the initial construction of the fort one day early in the summer. Someone had built a very solid platform into the strong, supportive branches of the tree. We approached the thing in awe, admiring the sturdy design and thrilling over the future building possibilities inherent therein. And since the fort was on public ground—nestled into a thin strip of woods between the path and the new subdivision—it was, according to the unwritten rules of neighborhood kids, fair game.

Nearly every day that followed saw me and my two friends returning to work on the fort. In addition to our own additions—walls, ceilings, rope ladder, a pulley system for hauling things up the tree—we could see that others were also putting work into the thing. It was shaping up to be the very best fort in town, and it needed a name that reflected its glory. The three friends played on a cul-de-sac league street hockey team with an undefeated record, and so they decided to name the fort after the team: Fort Black Cat. The name was fierce, sleek, and totally rad: they loved it.

Some days, when my two friends were otherwise occupied, I would go to the fort on my own. Sometimes I’d work on it, adding a support board here or a spy hole there, but sometimes I’d just lie down on the floor of the first level (for there were three levels, you see), Walkman playing Bjork’s first solo album, eyes trained on the canopy of leaves and the blue sky overhead. I’d think about all sorts of things: the crush I’d had on my best friend for so many years, new songs lyrics for our punk band, how much junior high sucked and how much I looked forward to college, whether my mother would ever get well again, and how cool Sarah McLachlan and Ian MacKaye were.

Your typical rambling thoughts of an adolescent tomboy, I suppose.

I looked forward to those days as much as I did to the days when me and my friends would hide in the branches for hours, working, spying on passing cyclists, and waging guerilla warfare on other nearby forts.


These other, far less glorious structures were sprinkled all along the path. Some were the sole domain of the kids whose backyards they sat in. Others were similarly operated by a collective. None were as magnificent as Fort Black Cat. There was one fort, however, that had attained its own sort of mythical status, one not earned for its strategic location or expert construction, but for something that held far more power over the teenaged mind. It was known only as the Porn Fort, and its walls were covered with clippings from various pornographic magazines.

We had first discovered the Porn Fort quite by accident. We were out exploring the woods, looking for bits of trash that might be useful for our own fort, when the foreign base loomed up in front of us. It was two “stories” tall and built almost completely free-standing, one side simply leaning lightly against a very put-upon looking tree. The bottom floor was empty and unremarkable, save the small ladder that led up through a hole in the ceiling that let out into the top floor. It was a bit of design genius: there was no way to see the interior of the top level from outside, you had to climb up through the hole to get there, and as your head rose through the floor, your eyes were suddenly inundated with the fort’s impressive gallery of filth.

It would have been a far more popular place to visit had it not been for the foul tempered shitheads who watched over it like pubescent hawks. They were high school freshmen, and therefore far more imposing a foe than any of our fellow middle school peers might have been. So it was that our first visit to the fort was our last, both because its owners happened upon us gawking and threatened to kick our butts and because, about a month later, someone’s parents found out about it and tore it down.

But what did we need the Porn Fort for, other than to assuage our curiosities? We had Black Cat, and no other fort around could match it.

By the time summer came to a close, our fort had become the crowning jewel of tree forts, a real work of tree fort art, born of blood, sweat and a few tears. We were so caught up in the initial euphoria of the thing that, at first, we hardly noticed that it was becoming less fun just to hang out there. Building it had giving us purpose and drive, but now that it was finished, what more was there to do? We could sit inside and watch the bulldozers in the nearby field as they prepared the way for the new housing development. We could play cards, scare off other kids, and have little picnics. Eventually, though, the initial luster wore off, and as the school year began and then progressed, we just forgot to go out to the fort at all.

When winter had come and gone, and spring was beginning to drown the world in melt water, I realized how long it had been since I’d gone to check on the place and decided to go back. I rode my bike to the hidden path in the tree line, followed it over the low mound of dirt and into the clearing under the tree that held the fort—only there was no tree, no clearing even. The bulldozers had cleared the woods on that side to make way for the backyards of the new homes that had suddenly sprung up there. The fort was gone.

High school came and went with its usual combination of drudgery, drama, good times and bad times. My mother passed away. My band broke up. We moved to another state entirely and I started all over for two years before leaving yet again for college. I never built another tree fort, but I always thought about it. I still do. And someday, maybe when I have kids of my own or maybe just for my own shits and giggles, I will build another tree fort. And I will give it a totally awesome name, like Fort Skull or Fort Puma or something. Still, I’m not sure anything could ever live up to Fort Black Cat, and all the memories associated with its time. I’m not sure that I mind.


…for D. and A.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The bigger story, plus picking nits

It feels like a cop-out to simply post a link to someone else's article without adding much in the way of your own thoughts on the subject, but sometimes there's really not much to add. Sometimes the article just sums up my feelings so well that all I need to do is point at it and say, "Yeah, that's it."

"Economic Disaster Longtime Coming" via Firedoglake

Meanwhile, stateside, the Assembly just passed the emergency contraception bill, with 16 Republicans bravely splitting ranks to vote yes. Save a somewhat predictable dick move by Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) that will keep the bill from going to the governor's desk (where it will likely be signed) until the full Assembly reconvenes in February, final passage seems likely. This is great news.

As a side note, there was one quote in the article that grabbed my attention:

The director of legislation for a group that opposes abortion and birth control, however, said in a statement that those who voted for the bill "flouted both their moral duty to protect pre-born children and their legal duty to protect conscience rights." Matt Sande of Pro-Life Wisconsin said the vote "is cause for great frustration and anger in the pro-life community. This is a day that will be long remembered."
Pre-born? That's right up there with pre-pregnant, which is how our wonderful CDC now categorizes every woman, regardless of whether or not she ever intends to actually have a child. The term is so loaded, so presumptuous, that it becomes nearly impossible to speak out against it for fear of immediately being called a baby hating whack-job. Look, health guidelines for women should simply encourage all of us to be, y'know, healthy, for our own sake. If we then choose to become pregnant (or just do so by accident), it stands to reason that we'll already be living a lifestyle conducive to a healthy pregnancy. But to call all women "pre-pregnant" is to essentially call us nothing more than baby machines, whose main duty to the country is to produce future citizens (whether the message is intended or not).

Screw that noise. And screw this "pre-born" nonsense, too. If you want to debate the issue of abortion, please do, but don't couch it in such ludicrously loaded terms so that you can launch substance-free attacks against anyone who disagrees with you.

P.S. Besides, terms like "pre-born" and "pre-pregnant" sound way too much like "pre-clear," which is what those wacky Scientologists call everyone who hasn't paid them lots of money yet. Do you really want that association on your back?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Put down that plastic!

Ah, it seems like it was just yesterday when plastics were still the future. These days, you'd think the stuff had grown horns and begun spouting blasphemies, based on the way more and more cities and retail chains are treating the stuff.

Truth is, certain kinds of plastic are dangerous. They don't break down in landfills, and many of them require nonrenewable petroleum in their creation. Madison's Commission on the Environment voted overwhelmingly in favor of taking up a plastic reduction bill this year, one that would ban plastic grocery store bags in general and plastic water bottles at public events. Already, several cities, countries and companies have joined in the effort to reduce overall plastic usage:

  • San Fransisco - first city in the nation to outright ban the use of plastic shopping bags.
  • Australia - working to ban plastic bags.
  • China - recently announced an outright ban on stores handing out free plastic bags.
  • Ireland - charges a tax of 15 cents per bag, a move that has allegedly reduced plastic usage by 90% and has "raised millions of euros in revenue."
  • IKEA - charges 5 cents for each plastic bag, giving portion of proceeds to American Forests.
  • Whole Foods - just announced that it will use only offer customers recycled paper and reusable bags, getting rid of plastic all-together.
Madison calls itself a progressive city, and this move would help us live up to the name. As you can see from the above list, a plastic bag and bottle reduction plan wouldn't be as bizarre and infeasible as some of those in the opposing camp might have us believe. It would be part of the very welcome and much needed green revolution that's slowly but surely taking hold worldwide.

It'd be a first step in the right direction, anyway. We use a heck of a lot of plastic, so there's a long way to go yet. Don't be discouraged, though:

Contact your alder in support of the ban!

Sign the Plastic Reduction Petition to press the EPA for action on this issue!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Who's watching the local races, anyway?

The rumblings and general chatter about the race for District 5's County Supervisor position have officially begun, and contrary to what most people probably thought (if they thought about it at all) just a couple of months ago, it looks to be an interesting and close contest. The decision will be between freshmen UW student Conor O'Hagan and senior UW student Wyndham Manning. Both seem to be fired up about the race, both bring experience in student government and other organizational positions to the table, and both are definitely left-of-center politically. Manning, however, has the benefit of a few more years on campus under his belt, while O'Hagan boasts a fresh pair of eyes.

I don't live in District 5 anymore, having thrown off the shackles of my student days and moved to greener pastures over in District 6 (which will feature a race between incumbent John Hendrick and challenger Mark Schmitt), but I'll still be watching that race with some interest.

Full list of candidates for the board here.

Already there are allegations flying back and forth between supporters of the two candidates. Whoever ends up getting elected will be taking over for Ashok Kumar, who has garnered his fair share of scrutiny for his board meeting attendance record and his accusations of racial bias against some of his critics. Any connection to Kumar, perceived or real, will likely be met with a great deal of criticism and scorn, especially from the more right-leaning side of campus.

A few bravely anonymous voices in the wilderness have even gone so far as to accuse Manning of being Kumar's "hand-picked" successor, while others claim that O'Hagan is the newest tool of the UW Democrats. Raucous debates about Kumar, especially, and now the two new candidates as well have gone down over at the Critical Badger, who has made it his mission to cover this race extensively. A quick thumbing through CB's archives will bring up a great deal of content concerning Kumar, the UW Dems, Progressive Dane and UW Republicans. It's not unbiased, but it's certainly interesting (read the latest "interview" with O'Hagan and the comments left for some insight into this battle).

As with a lot of Madison politicking, it all seems to boil down to different visions of what it means to be a Democrat, and/or a progressive, and/or a liberal. There's a great deal of infighting between those seen as the "establishment" (UW Dems, for instance) and those who call themselves the "outsiders."

I fully support continued and ardent debate over the path and policies of the left-leaning parties and people in this city (and beyond), but I don't wish to see us eat our own. We must be honest with ourselves when we make mistakes, and hard working when we identify a worthwhile goal. Unfortunately, that's a hard task when egos and ambition get in the way, which is the case all too often when it comes to politics. I'm hoping this race doesn't get too bogged down by it, but I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, January 21, 2008

How local your politics

"All politics is local." - Tip O'Neill

Just how local they should be when it comes to issues of national and foreign policy, though, is the question being taken up by our state government. The Republican dominated Assembly recently passed legislation that would allow cities and villages the option of refusing citizen's petitions if the issues they raise don't relate to local governance. This was spurred on by the many anti-war petitions that were brought (24 of 32 of which actually passed) by residents in various locations around Wisconsin last year. The measure is not expected to pass the Democrat held Senate.

Still, the bill does bring up an interesting issue: should individual citizens have the right to bring and vote on measures having to do with issues that effect more than just their towns?

Dave Zweifel at the Capital Times thinks that they should, and argues his case in an opinion column in today's issue. The comments section is almost entirely full of people arguing against him, and they bring up some fascinating points.

Zweifel:

Anyone who thinks that a war that has already cost this nation more than a half-trillion taxpayer dollars hasn't affected the treasuries and services of local governments deserves a medal for naivete.

True, there is no direct action a local government can take to get Congress or the president to change course. But if enough local citizens are able to express their views on ballots throughout the land, perhaps the message will finally get through.

Commenter OnWisconsin:

It prevents a highly organized but small group of local zealots from wasting a communities time and money grinding an axe about a national issue.

Keep in mind that this cuts both ways...today the Iraq war but maybe tomorrow anti-abortion votes or prayer in school, for example.

Commenter Judy:
Our country's citizens have the privilege of voting in our politican's [sic] to public office! It should end there, and we should then lead our private lives, and let them do the jobs we appointed them to do..If they don't, vote for someone else next term!
First, I'm amazed that anyone would see voting as a privilege and not a right. The right to vote is one of the most important tenets of our society. Many of our ancestors fought for, and sometimes died for, this very right: first in the American Revolution, then again in the Civil War, the women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and so on and so forth. We are still fighting to make sure everyone who is eligible is able to cast their vote, struggling against those who would still seek to disenfranchise and intimidate citizens, even now in the 21st century.

Second, while I can wrap my head around the argument that such a bill "prevents a highly organized but small group of local zealots from wasting a communities time and money grinding an axe about a national issue," what it seems to come down to, yet again, is the right of all citizens to have a voice and influence, even if just in a very small dose, on the direction of their country.

Comparing those who would bring a petition to officially make a position known to those who would bring a petition to actually change state and national laws is also erroneous. They aren't the same thing in the least. If an anti-abortion activist wanted to bring a petition to their local government stating an opposition to the practice, they have every right to do so. The petition wouldn't (and shouldn't) change the law, but it would put it to public record just how many people in that town were for or against such a statement. That sort of record can be a handy reference point for future policy makers, too.

We should be encouraging people to take a more active interest and role in local politics. And by local, I mean global. They are, after all, inseparable.

Cold, cold, cold

My deepest sympathy to you hardcore Packers fans, especially those of you who actually braved the sub-zero temperatures to watch the game in person at Lambeau. Yikes.

Me? I watched the game from the safety of a warm house. But I also had the distinct displeasure of helping to change a flat tire in the parking garage on E. Mifflin late Saturday night, while the mercury was hovering somewhere around negative bazillion degrees. Me and The Boy had just gotten out of seeing the Mercury Players Theatre production of "The Pillowman" (which is really good, and you should see it) when we discovered that one of his back tires had gone limp. That led to quite the frozen ordeal, but we did eventually make it home safe, where we then slowly reacquired feeling in our various appendages.

That little episode, coupled with a handy suggestion from the Daily Mitzvah, prompted me to head over to the Keep Wisconsin Warm website and make a donation. Because I recognize that, in the end, I'm damn lucky to have a warm home to go back to after such an adventure. It has been ridiculously cold this weekend, and I can't imagine not having the proper heat and shelter to get through it in. Please consider donating to the cause, too.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Hypocrisy as violence, plus escapism

Griper Blade has an excellent post today about the hypocrisy of some of the people who are the most vocal about "supporting the troops." Apparently Bill O'Reilly has been up to his usual windbaggery, pulling statistics out of his loofah-loving arse and refusing to take responsibility for any of his lies. Even worse, the head of a major national charity that purports to serve veterans has been shown as quite the fraud, with only 25% of the money they raised actually going to help veterans and kick-backs paid to top military brass for promoting said charities. I can't sum it all up better than GB did, so I urge you to check out the post for the illuminating and disgusting low-down. In my opinion, this kind of hypocrisy is nearly if not just as bad as committing real violence against the very people who've sworn to protect us.

Meanwhile, in balmy Wisconsin, everyone and their uncle seems to be gearing up for the big game on Sunday, understandably ready for some pleasant distraction from the sub-zero temperatures and bleak national news. If your whole weekend won't be filled with Packers (or Giants) related mania, there are a few other fabulous events going on around town that you could check out:

TONIGHT - Mercury Players Theatre presents the opening night of "The Pillowman" by Martin McDonagh. I happen to have the inside line on the quality of the acting ensemble, and the play itself sounds like a good one. "A writer of ghoulish fables gets dragged in for questioning when a series of murders seem to be echoing his stories."

Immediately following the performance there will be an after party next door at the Mercury Lounge, featuring the mad rock stylings of the 'tain't (full disclosure: this is my current side project), and 2-for-1 drinks at the bar with a ticket stub from the play.

SUNDAY - Two totally awesome events, one of which you can go to and still catch the game later that night! Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School will be taking over the High Noon Saloon from 2-5PM with their regular slate of drinking, drawing and debauchery.

That night, starting at 7:00PM, Wis-Kino hosts its regular monthly screening of short films at Escape Java Joint. Optional theme is "Cool/Uncool Presence" (whatever that means).

Thursday, January 17, 2008

An important message then, and even more now

On this day in 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his farewell address to the nation as president. He (and his speech writer) included some very prescient, slightly jarring, and very important messages in that speech, and it seems to me that its content becomes ever more important as we face the conflicts of our day. Have a look for yourself:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

...

Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

During the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many fast frustrations -- past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of disarmament -- of the battlefield.

Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent, I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war, as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years, I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.

...

To all the peoples of the world, I once more give expression to America's prayerful and continuing aspiration: We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its few spiritual blessings. Those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibility; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; and that the sources -- scourges of poverty, disease, and ignorance will be made [to] disappear from the earth; and that in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.

That damn hippie!

But it is that message and those goals, greater than Eisenhower or any one person's presidency, that we should continue to aspire toward achieving. I find it interesting that a man who fought a world war and lead what was then the most powerful country on the planet would understand and give voice to such a message, especially in the midst of one of the most oppressive and fear-mongering eras in our nation's history. Those words coming out of the mouth of a long-haired activist in the late 60's would have been written off as idealistic nonsense and not the words of a respected president. And it should be noted that our current leadership seems to have absolutely no understanding of the warnings issued by Eisenhower (and others). We have come an awfully long way to slide so far backwards.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How is this OK?

Mike Huckabee, a fairly recently legitimized candidate for the Republican nomination for president of the United States of America, recently made the following statements to a crowd of supporters in Michigan:

"I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that's what we need to do, is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards, rather than try to change God's standards."
How is that an acceptable thing for a candidate for the highest office in the country to say/want? May I reiterate something that I think might just be relevant?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Ring familiar? Yeah, that's the first line of the first amendment to the Constitution. I happen to believe that it's pretty damn important, and one of the core standards that has helped our country to become one of the most prosperous places on Earth. There have always been those who have worked to dismantle these, our most fundamental rights, but it seems to me that these efforts have increased quite a bit in recent decades. Huckabee may just be the next logical progression of this type of religious fanaticism, but I can't be the only one to draw parallels between that kind of rhetoric and that of the radical Islamists calling for the establishment of a worldwide Caliphate. Apparently Huckabee and his ilk don't quite catch the (horrifyingly ironic) similarities.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Raise the minimum wage AND bring on universal health care

The Wisconsin Senate may very well be on the cusp of passing a comprehensive and much-needed minimum wage hike today, but it's looking like the bill will face a very tough, up-hill battle to pass through the Republican wasteland of the Assembly. Whether it ever makes it to Gov. Doyle's desk is very much in doubt.

The bill would "raise Wisconsin's minimum wage each year based on inflation" and would also "immediately increase the minimum wage from $6.50 to $7.25 an hour."

Powerful interests, including the state's largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, are against it.

Twenty-three other states have minimum wages higher than Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Of those, 10 allow for increases based on inflation.

I think I understand where the opposition comes from, especially on the part of small business owners. It is a great added expense, and they're already strapped for cash by skyrocketing health care costs for employees. In fact, according to a 2006 survey by the WMC, the top business concern facing companies in Wisconsin was listed as "health care costs." Not regulation, not taxes, not litigation, but the astronomically high price of providing some kind of health coverage to your employees. If the Republicans in this state really were as pro-business (and pro-small business, especially) as they claim to be, they would have actually supported and passed the Healthy Wisconsin bill that had been attached to the (extremely tardy) state budget.

Instead, there was a great wailing and gnashing of neo-con teeth, claims that it would put an undue tax burden on the citizens of this great state, and near apoplexy over a provision to subsidize care of illegal immigrants.

And so the great burden of providing health insurance continued to be heaped onto the shoulders of Wisconsin businesses. In a rational world, they'd be the banner carriers of universal health care, but for some reason many of the leaders of various business related associations seem hell-bent on opposing anything the Democrats introduce, even if it is good for them.

Thing is, I suspect that business leaders would be far less opposed to minimum wage hikes if they weren't already hemorrhaging money for health care.

Let's be honest, it makes absolutely perfect sense to raise the minimum wage in tandem with inflation. Think of how much gas prices have gone up in recent months (we're averaging $3.07/gallon), which has in turn caused the price of food to rise as well. How do we expect workers to be able to afford to contribute to the economy if they can't buy even basic things like food and gas? It's all connected - provide a universal health coverage program because it's the right thing to do and to take the burden off businesses, and those businesses in turn can afford to better pay their employees, who can then afford to contribute monetarily to our consumerist economy.

Setting a minimum wage is absolutely the right thing to do. Claiming that it won't actually help those people working entry-level and low-paying jobs is a load of bull, especially when related issues (i.e. health care) are taken into account and dealt with in some reasonable fashion. Left to their own devices, companies are notoriously bad about providing fair compensation for labor. You've only to research what the labor climate was like prior to federal minimum wage laws to see what I mean.

(h/t to Waxing America for covering these issues extensively in recent posts)

Monday, January 14, 2008

The conundrum of Allied Drive


For many years now, Madison has struggled to both recognize and deal with the problems facing the Allied Drive neighborhood. The area of housing between Verona Rd. on the west and Seminole Hwy on the east has been described as everything from "troubled" to "the ghetto of Madison," though I think the latter phrase is a gross overstatement. Still, the neighborhood has been somewhat plagued by violent crime, drug offenses, gang activity and tends to be populated by mostly lower income and Section 8 renters.

Part of the problem seems to be downtown Madison's unwillingness to acknowledge the problems that face Allied Dr., at least until fairly recently. Fitchburg, the "city"* against which the neighborhood borders closely, especially seems to want nothing to do with it. It's gone so far as to refuse to support connecting a road between the neighborhood and Fitchburg, as was originally asked for in the multi-million dollar city of Madison redevelopment plan. Some folks have even gone so far as to accuse Fitchburg of "elitism and racism" because of it, and as inclined as I am to agree, that really does remain to be seen.

It has been interesting to watch the redevelopment plan unfold, both from the rosy-hued perspective of the city government and from the more reasoned point of view of the residents.

While the redevelopment plan's focus appears to lie primarily on creating Section 8 housing, residents are calling for more focus on a wide-variety of housing and, perhaps even more importantly, programs in the area that offer economic and cultural opportunities and things like job training (Paul Soglin has made some good arguments to this effect). Plus, there remains the hard fact that many families don't even qualify for Section 8. Where would these people go once they're forced out of the neighborhood by that filter?

In the end, shouldn't we be working to diversify our neighborhoods? Instead of packing nothing but low-income residents into one area, might it be more helpful to offer affordable housing in various places all over the city? Cloistering these folks into one or two specific zones smacks of isolationism and fear that their very presence in your neighborhood might lower property values or bring in the criminal element. Which is a little bit reactionary and bigoted, don't you think?

I don't think anyone would argue that Allied Dr. doesn't need help. The problem lies in figuring out just what kinds of projects and strategies would be most effective in achieving that goal. Listening more closely to the people who actually live in the neighborhood would help, and considering adding more than just housing, and one kind of housing at that, is crucial, too. But you have to make sure everyone has a place to live, instead of just undercutting what's there now and not providing alternatives.


*Downtown Fitchburg - it's a state of mind!

Crystal Buffali Treat the Shabelles

Most clever post title ever, right?!

I had a blast this Saturday night. It was my first time playing out with the Buffali, who I've been practicing with for a couple of months in anticipation of being their gig drummer. I've been a fan of their music for a number of years, ever since my regular band, Aporia, played a few shows with them at the Portal Cafe (Orpheus rest its soul). Clare and Andrew, the core of the Buffali, are both incredibly accomplished musicians and fun, friendly people to boot. They (happily) decided to add drums and sometimes electric guitar to their line-up, and I was extremely flattered when they asked me to audition and then gave me the thumbs up. Dan of the Augusteens rounded things out on said electric gee-tar, and I personally think the whole thing adds up to one killer sound (regardless of what the TDP reviewer says).

This was my first show at the Crystal Corner Bar, and I have to say that I was impressed. Compared to the other bar venues I've played in town, the Crystal definitely gets top marks. The removable stage itself ain't all that grand, but they have a decent sound system, a very competent sound guy, and a groovy atmosphere. The icing on the cake, however, was the band green room (probably normally their break room) in the basement, where they'd provided us with a cooler full of water and beer, and also with a safe, quiet place to store coats and use the bathroom. That's a rare commodity when it comes to playing bars.

The place was pretty packed when the show started, which was very gratifying to see. The Shabelles kicked the night off with their super catchy brand of motown/classic pop. It was my first exposure to them, and 1) I'm always psyched to see other lady drummers, especially talented ones and 2) I loves me some smooth saxophone playing.

We were next, and though I was a little nervous about my first gig with them, the Buffali came together pretty well and put on what I thought was a good, fun show. I had a blast, anyway. It has been a loooong time since my only duty was to hit things with sticks, and though I always miss singing, it was somewhat refreshing to have such simplified responsibilities. The only downside to the show, and this applied to each band, was that the vocal mikes were a bit muddy--you could hear the singing, but the lyrics were fairly inaudible. Which is a shame especially for the Buffali, because half the fun of their songs are the lyrics. Ah well, can't win 'em all I suppose.

I came down from the show high and listened to a few songs by the headlining band, the Treats, who were great fun. Good, solid rock n' roll, with a front man/guitarist who was supremely entertaining to watch. One of my favorite things in the world is watching artists bliss out with their craft.

As I had to get up early the next morning, we (sadly) took off before the end of their set. But it was a great night, and it felt good to play out again. Now we're looking forward to making the trip to Minneapolis next month for a show at the Whole, a venue in the student union at the U of M which, I'm told, is a pretty great place to play.

Bonus: my regular band, Aporia, has a big show coming up on the 27th, playing in support of the premiere of "Massacre! The Musical" at the High Noon Saloon. Expect a full post/plug for that event just prior to the date, and mark your calendars!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Snowshoeing Indian Lake

One of my favorite county parks is Indian Lake, located just off Highway 19 near the town of Marxville and just north and west of Madison. It's a short drive (or longer bike ride) to get there, and it's a decent sized space with a lovely little lake, forested slopes and plenty of trails. During warmer months, the hiking is great. Come winter and a decent amount of snowfall, like we had this December, and it's a fantastic place to cross country ski or snowshoe.

A couple of weeks ago, we chose the latter activity and, with some borrowed shoes, headed out for an afternoon of hiking through the beautiful, powdery snow.

The trails are relatively well-mapped, but be sure to bring your own color print-out of it, as the posted maps along the trails at the park tend to be washed out and hard to read. There are several difficulty levels available, as well as trails marked specifically for snowshoeing (in addition to skiing, usually). Tip for those of you not wanting to be jerks: don't walk/snowshoe in the middle of the groomed ski paths. Stick to the sides or blaze your own trails.

Heck, half the fun of snowshoeing is being able to wander off wherever you want to go, unfettered by the beaten path or thigh-high snow drifts. I'd never been snowshoeing before and discovered that it was great fun to be able to set off into the woods, high above the tangle of the forest floor and surrounded by the snow-silent woods. The other nice thing about Indian Lake is that, unlike the UW Arboretum, it's not usually packed with fellow travelers. We passed on average of one or two skiers (and no other snowshoers) every ten or fifteen minutes, all of whom were very friendly and polite. Everyone just seemed happy to be out and enjoying the great conditions.

The real jewel of Indian Lake in wintertime, however, is the warming house: a small, one-room log cabin built at the very end of the yellow loop (or very beginning, depending) and at the top of the park's modestly sized sledding hill. Inside the warming house are two long tables and a wood-fired stove that's kept roaring all day long. Without a doubt, one of the best feelings in the world is coming in from activity in the cold and sitting down in front of a warm fire with a thermos of hot chocolate (which we'd brilliantly thought to have brought along). The only things we didn't think to bring were sleds, which would have been a nice way to end our trek. A group of children were having a grand ol' time bombing down the hill on everything from the usual plastic discs or planks, to at least one traditional toboggan and a few inner tubes.

So I found that I really enjoyed snowshoeing, and am now on the hunt for a pair of my own. And I think that, as soon as the snow builds back up again (knock on wood), another trip out to Indian Lake is definitely in order.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Smoke up, Decker

Man, Russ Decker really isn't looking to redeem himself for his support of the Video "Not A Priority" Competition Bill. Instead, he's trying to gut the statewide smoking ban to the point at which it becomes useless. Way to go, jerk:

The Democratic leader of the state Senate said a proposed smoking ban isn't dead yet, but he wants changes that would allow smoking rooms in taverns.
There are 22 states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico that have smoking bans that cover restaurants and bars: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Washington. The most important ones to note in that list are Illinois and Minnesota, both states that border Wisconsin. So the "but if we ban smoking people will just take their business across the border!" argument is pretty much a crock of shite.

Plus, the really good reason for a smoking ban is that it's the right thing to do, because smoking is nasty and causes real harm to everyone in the area, not just the smoker.

Look, I'm a musician who sometimes plays in bars and clubs and a social kind of person who likes to hang out at said bars and clubs. I'm sick and tired of having to decide whether or not I'm going to expose myself to smoker's Fumes of Death when I want to go out and/or play a show. Thankfully Madison already has a smoking ban (hallelujah!), but I have no desire to cloister myself away within the borders of this city for ever and ever, amen.

So PASS THE FREAKIN' BAN ALREADY! Hell, if France can do it, I think we can manage, too.

(h/t Jesse Russel at dane101.com for his insightful opinion piece about all this, plus Kyle's comment)

P.S. On a somewhat lighter note, this is one of the side effects of smoking. Seriously, it's science:

Weekenders

It's Friday night, and you feel a'right, but what to do?

Do yourself a favor and check out the CD release party/concert for A Catapult Western at Cafe Montmartre tonight, 10:00PM. My bias here is pretty minimal, as I only played drums for them over the course of about four rehearsals before we mutually decided that I was in too many bands and I went on my way. Still, they make excellent music, and are definitely one local band to watch.

Here's what the masses have to say about their debut, self-titled record:

Considering the novel draw of spaghetti-western scores, alt country, and free form indie rock, musicians were bound to start combining all three. Not all will prove as graceful as recently formed Madison band A Catapult Western. Sharing members with another ambitiously odd local act, Strange Talking Animals, ACW diffuses its vocal layers, viola, guitar, piano, and assorted other keyboard sounds through a slowcore haze. Even when it pushes into more straight-up, rocking country sounds, skewed guitars, and synths fend off genre clich├ęs. - The Onion AV Club
If you're looking for something to do come Saturday night, you're in luck! I have one fine recommendation for you, and this one comes with a big ol' heapin' helpin' of bias.

Madison's favorite indie-pop duo return, now with drums (that'd be me) and electric guitar! It's the Buffali, sharing a fabulous bill with the Shabelles and the Treats, this Saturday night at the Crystal Corner Bar (1302 Williamson St.) starting at 9:00PM. Seriously, you should come. We're going to rock you right out of your underpants. I mean, look at me in that photo up there. Can't you just sense the cool? Or maybe that's just the reflection from my pasty leg...I can't be sure....

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Travel Tales: Stumbling Onto the Ultimate Pizza

I want to tell you a story. Do you have a minute? It's a pretty good one, I promise.

Once upon a time--actually, late May of 2006--me and The Boy saved up our pennies and had ourselves a totally excellent adventure. The itinerary was Rome for three days followed by a ferry ride to Croatia, where we would be staying on an island called Korcula in an apartment we'd rented with three other friends. It was an amazing trip: we were able to squeeze in a side trip to Pompeii (where my inner history dork positively wallowed in the scenery), we explored the Eternal City, discovered how beautiful the Dalmatian Coast is, walked the entire length of the walls around the city of Dubrovnik, and ate seafood caught fresh from the Adriatic (a novelty for us landlocked Midwesterners).

Still, one particular adventure stands out the most: our quest to eat pizza in Naples, the Holy Land of pies. This is the story I want to tell, in the hopes that it will lead one of you to find this same pizzeria some day so that you, too, might know true bliss.

On our second day in Rome, The Boy and I met up with Cory, a friend of ours from back home who had been traveling abroad solo but was coming with us to Croatia. We decided to take a day trip to see ancient Pompeii, and to get there by train, it's necessary to go through Naples. I had recently read the book "Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she extols the heavenly virtues of Neapolitan pizza, and so I suggested that we stop in the city for lunch. Everyone enthusiastically agreed.

The book had given the name of one pizzeria in particular, but once we actually arrived in Naples, I realized that I had forgotten to get directions to or even write down the name of that place. Undaunted and ever the plucky traveler, Cory approached a young man on a taxi scooter just outside the train station and proceeded to ask for recommendations. He broke the ice by offering a cigarette--the international friendship currency. Thing is, Cory didn't speak a lick of Italian and the young man spoke very broken English. Still, they gamely engaged each other in a round of charades and two word sentences, eventually leading Cory to believe he'd understood something resembling directions to a good pizzeria.

We set off on foot, something that many guide books and seasoned travelers had warned against in this, the city of purse-snatching "centaurs" (guys on scooters who drive by and take what they can from you) and other hooligans. Still, we took some comfort in being in a group and in the fact that none of us were wearing Rolexes.

Our path took us straight down a major thoroughfare, past gangs of uber fashion conscious Italian youths, gobs of street vendors and the noise of construction. Finally, we reached the turn-off we were pretty sure our guide had indicated to us. It took us back into a working-class neighborhood full of narrow, cobblestone streets, colorful flags hanging between buildings, limoncello vendors, and people going about their day-to-day business. Caught up as we were in the sights and sounds of the back streets, we soon realized that we had no idea where we were going anymore.

As The Boy and I discussed our options, Cory disappeared. We found him down and across the street, surrounded by a throng of emphatically gesticulating men. Our first thought was that he was being mugged, and so we circled around from two directions, The Boy looking for some large blunt object he might be able to use as a weapon, and me just trying to figure out what was really going on.

As I closed in, it became clear that Cory and the men were engaged in some kind of discussion, and by the time I finally walked up beside him, I could hear him repeating "pizzeria! pizzeria!" while the confused Italians repeated back, "piazza? piazza?"

Before taking the trip, The Boy and I had divvied up language duties one to the other: he would learn basic Croatian, and I would attempt basic Italian. Now was the time for my extremely shaky skills to shine! I actually understood where the gap in communication lay, and so I put my hand on Cory's shoulder to stop him, turned to the men, and managed to say "Pizzeria molto bene?" (roughly: "very good pizzeria?").

The men burst into a chorus of understanding, waving their arms and hands in the air as if to say "Why didn't you just say so?" I was hard-pressed not to start laughing at how stereotypical it all seemed. But they were more than happy to recommend a good place to go. They kept repeating the words "Cleen-tone, Cleen-tone, il presidente!" which was at first baffling, but I just figured the name of the place was "The President" and they were referring to our last decent example of such a thing as a way to make themselves clear. We thanked them, and the merry band of Italian men saw us on our way.

And just where they said it would be, we found Pizzaiolo del Presidente, a place that would soon become my food Mecca. It would also turn out to be one of Naples' most famous pizza destinations, its profile significantly raised when, in fact, President Bill Clinton had paid it a visit back in '94. Because of it's somewhat remote location, however, the restaurant stays relatively tourist-free (except for the three of us, of course), and is a favorite amongst the locals.

We took our seats, and each one of us ordered an individual pie. Normally, I can't even come close to finishing a whole pizza, but I took this to be one well deserved exception. If you ever find yourself lucky enough to be eating at a pizzeria in Naples, do yourself a favor and don't share. I had the traditional margherita (fresh tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and oil), The Boy had his with "buffalo" mozzarella, and Cory had some similar incarnation. None of the pies vary by more than two ingredients. Why mess with a good thing?

I can't begin to describe how amazing they tasted. The crust was phenomenal--they prepare it in secret, and it cooks in pretty much 30 seconds flat--all light and flaky and bubbly and ohmygodI'mgoingtocrythisissogood! We ate in stunned silence, occasionally exchanging awestruck glances and uttering simple things like "wow" and "oh my God" until we finished. Our only regret was that we couldn't take more with us for the road.

Since then, every pie I've ever eaten has been, at best, a sorry approximation of that glorious of that Neapolitan masterpiece. That's really the only downside.

The moral of our story is that it's always worth wandering off the beaten path, and that asking the locals for their recommendations is the way to go. Hold on to your purses, but don't be afraid to put yourself out there, too. And for the love of God and all that is holy, if you're ever remotely close to Naples, eat the pizza!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Poetry for the mad masses

Mayor Dave has just announced that Fabu Carter-Brisco has agreed to serve as Madison's newest Poet Laureate, a position that was recently formalized by the Common Council by adding it to the Madison Arts Commission. Fabu is the city's third Poet Laureate since the program was started back in '77 (thanks Soglin!).

I wanted to express my congratulations to Fabu on receiving the honor and my thanks to the city for making it an official position.

Perhaps I'm a bit biased, but I firmly believe that the arts are a vital part of any community, and positions such as Poet Laureate are important facets of keeping the arts visible and viable. There is a part of me that longs for the days when being a patron of the arts, in the sense of actually hiring people to create works of art on a full-time basis, was a perfectly normal and respectable thing for a person of means to be. It's just not as easy to make a living doing something like writing poetry, songs or stories, and that's a shame.

Anyway, my dreams of being a kept artist aside, I thought this was a positive piece of news and wanted to make sure to share it.

And that's it for me today. The nasty cold bug that's been making the rounds has finally found its way through my defenses, and I intend to spend as much of my evening as possible in blissful slumber.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The crazy past, present and future of Ron Paul

Oh my. Oh my, my, now this is juicy. Normally, I'm not a terribly big fan of The New Republic, but one of their reporters, James Kirchick, has gone and done something that quite a few people have been chomping at the bit to do for quite some time: he's dug up old editions of Ron Paul's newsletter. You know, the one that included bits about blacks being inferior? The ones that Ron Paul didn't really want anyone to see during his dark horse run for the Republican nomination? Yeah, those.

Thanks to the resources of the libraries at the University of Kansas and our very own Wisconsin Historical Society, Kirchick was able to find and now publish these rambling newsletters. It will be very interesting to see how Paul's most rabid followers, many of whom claim to be liberals, react to the things written about in these newsletters. Kirchick explains:

...with few bylines, it is difficult to know whether any particular article was written by Paul himself. Some of the earlier newsletters are signed by him, though the vast majority of the editions I saw contain no bylines at all. Complicating matters, many of the unbylined newsletters were written in the first person, implying that Paul was the author.

But, whoever actually wrote them, the newsletters I saw all had one thing in common: They were published under a banner containing Paul's name, and the articles (except for one special edition of a newsletter that contained the byline of another writer) seem designed to create the impression that they were written by him--and reflected his views. What they reveal are decades worth of obsession with conspiracies, sympathy for the right-wing militia movement, and deeply held bigotry against blacks, Jews, and gays. In short, they suggest that Ron Paul is not the plain-speaking antiwar activist his supporters believe they are backing--but rather a member in good standing of some of the oldest and ugliest traditions in American politics.

The article (and the excerpts from the newsletters) is well worth a close reading. Among other things, they and Paul's own public actions point to his support for the Confederacy (and possible continued support for secession), his bigotry toward blacks, Jews and homosexuals, his view that the end of apartheid in South Africa was the "destruction of civilization," his hatred of Martin Luther King Jr., his admiration for former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, David Duke, and the list goes on and on.

Any half sane person should have already been able to see through Paul's bullshit, but once a person has had the opportunity to peruse his archives, I see no further excuse to support him or his candidacy. Unless you're a racist, homophobic, xenophobic clod, that is.

Look, I understand that some of Paul's more public positions against the war and such are very appealing. But please do a little research before you throw your full, zealous support behind the man...or anyone for that matter. No one's perfect, sure, but there's a spectrum of decency that people fall on, and Ron Paul is pretty damn far down near the bottom. Even you crazy hardcore libertarians can do better.

Feeding off tragedy

Truckers bringing blankets to people in need. Others running to get help, calling ambulances, and just generally bringing news and comfort to those in worse straits. Those are the sorts of things that give you warm fuzzies even in the midst of a bad situation like the multi-car pile-up on I-90 this Sunday. Those are the sorts of things I saw.

And so it is especially disconcerting when you then hear about people taking advantage of the situation, working hard to ruin those silver linings.

Channel3000 is reporting that a number of the people effected by the crashes on Sunday are being bilked out of large sums of cash by the towing companies.

Keslie Werner, of Monona, wrote that she was appalled at an even higher towing charge. Werner said her family boarded a bus after being stuck for six hours, only to have their car towed to Prairieland Towing in Sun Prairie."When my husband called, the person answering the phone stated that the charge for the tow was $695," wrote Werner. "After explaining that his car had no damage, he was told that the owner agreed to reduce the fee to $200."
No damage to your car, forced to leave it on the road so that you can spend the night in a warm bed instead of the cold interstate, and the damn towing company is still trying to charge you hundreds of dollars? That's just dirty pool.

If you're not going to comp the tows, the decent thing would be to at least offer a substantial discount. That Werner's husband was initially told it would cost nearly $700 for the tow is unacceptable. Had he not mentioned that the car was not damaged, they would have happily fleeced them. Profit over people is never acceptable. Not only is that bad morals, it's bad business to boot.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The demise of the King Club

There's been a lot of chatter recently about a perceived lack of live music venues in Madison. As a musician, I don't necessarily agree--we've actually got quite a few options for a city of our size. Yes, it would be nice to have a few more mid-to-small sized venues that actually had decent sound systems, but overall, we're not super hard up.

I read today that the King Club is closing its doors, only to reopen sans live music (except for Clyde Stubblefield's weekly "Funky Drummer" gig, thankfully). Part of me is sad to hear it, especially since it means that a number of great live acts and organizations will now have to find new homes (IndieQueer and MadCabaret, for instance). The other part of me, however, isn't all that surprised.

See, every single time I've played at the King Club, something has been wonky. On one occasion, they double-booked the evening, forcing the touring act we were playing with to find a different venue at the last second and thus losing a good chunk of audience. I'm told that this wasn't an uncommon occurrence, either. A number of other local musicians have told me similar stories of double bookings.

Every gig I've played or gone to see has started an hour or more later than was advertised. In at least one instance, this made it so that I couldn't actually stay to watch the show.

It seems that better management might have helped keep things alive and well at the King Club. Their dedication to local acts was great, but showing a little more respect toward those local acts would have been even better.

I'll be curious to see what new format the King Club reopens in. And I do hope that another similar capacity venue, friendly to local music and with better booking operations, opens its doors soon.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Of fog and multiple car pile-ups

I just walked in the front door of my house (6:15pm), a full 5 1/2 hours after leaving Chicago. Normally, this little jaunt takes something like 2 1/2 hours.

We had just crossed over into Wisconsin when the fog set in. At first it wasn't very bad, but then, rather suddenly, it thickened into a white soup that reduced visibility down to about three car-lengths. I slowed down to 35 mph and left several car-lengths between me and the vehicle in front of me. And thank God for that, because a few moments later, a wall of stopped vehicles loomed up immediately in front of us. I hit the brakes and veered off onto the left-hand shoulder to make sure no one hit me and that I didn't hit anyone. Thankfully, the cars immediately in front of and behind me were all able to stop without incident, but just a few seconds passed after we stopped before we started to hear loud screeches and bangs just behind us.

One after another, probably four all-told in our immediate vicinity, vehicles were colliding. It's one of my least favorite sounds--that brief squeal of tires followed immediately by metal and plastic slamming into each other.

And then we waited. I jumped out and found a bare bush off in a field to pee behind, then tried to catch a glimpse of what was stopping us. But the fog was too thick, and the line of cars just went on as far as I could see. Soon enough, dozens of emergency vehicles began to whiz by in either direction. It became clear that they'd completely shut down the south-bound lane so that ambulances and the like could get to where they needed to be. People were getting out of their cars to seek out information, some making sure others were OK--the trucker in front of us brought blankets to one family in a car behind us.

After two hours of sitting, the state patrol was able to clear enough of the crashed cars behind us so that we could all pull y-turns and head south in our north-bound lane, eventually crossing over into the actual south-bound lane and then getting onto Highway N. We could see that this was where they were diverting all of the interstate traffic (which was waaaay backed up), and I don't suspect Stoughton has ever seen that kind of traffic on a Sunday night before.

Finally, after yet more tense, foggy driving, we made it home safely. I'm checking the news now and it looks somewhat grim. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that the injuries were all relatively minor, and that no one was seriously hurt or, God forbid, killed.

In closing, FOR GOD'S SAKE, IF IT'S FOGGY WHEN YOU'RE DRIVING, SLOW THE HELL DOWN! And may you all be safe and sound tonight.

Channel3000's coverage of the pile-up
(update) NBC reporting 2 killed in the accident

(later update) I'm starting to realize how incredibly lucky we were. Looks like we were at the very back of the miles-long line of cars crashed and backed up, which is why they were able to clear the cars behind us and let us turn around. Crazy things is, we hit the wall of vehicles around 3:15pm, and I'm told the original accidents that started the whole thing happened around 2:30pm. That's a long accident.

I'm incredibly thankful to be home at all, while many of my fellow motorists are stuck in motels and such tonight. My thoughts go out to the families and friends of people who were injured, and especially of those who were killed. What a shitty night.

Friday, January 4, 2008

An open letter to Barack Obama



Dear Mr. Obama,

I watched and listened to your Iowa victory speech last night with great interest and optimism. You (or your speech writer) hit the nail on the head when you said, "I know you didn't do this for me. You did this because you believed so deeply in the most American of ideas: that in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it." Because while you yourself are an inspiration--your story, your ideas, and, so far, your actions--the reason you won the Iowa caucus has less to do with Obama the man than it does with Obama the idea.

We the hopeful optimists of this country have endured eight years of demoralizing defeats. We have been tricked and forced into unjust wars. Our leaders have passed laws we did not want and ignored us when we called for laws that were needed. The beauty and sanctity of our own home, our planet, has been repeatedly violated and desecrated. Those who were supposed to guide our country into a more prosperous and secure 21st century have instead used their powerful positions for their own personal gain, ignoring some of the most important and basic tenets of our Constitution. They laughed at the idea of checks and balances, of those who would hold them accountable for their misdeeds, doing all they could to shelter some of the most heinous lawbreakers our government has ever known.

Our leaders have destroyed our beloved country's reputation worldwide, reigned down terror and bloodshed in our names, killed many and turned even more against us. In what was perhaps the greatest betrayal and most disgusting act so far this century, they used the events of September 11, 2001 simply as a means to grow their power and influence.

So it is from these catastrophes of governance that we the weary people of the United States turn to someone like you for guidance, for help finding the light again. This is no exaggeration, no hyperbole, no attempt at melodrama for the sake of getting attention. We really are at our wit's ends. And we really, really need a leader who will help bring about the change that's so desperately needed not just in our own country, but world-wide.

I have no illusions about you being a perfect human being or even a perfect politician. Even our greatest leaders were riddled with the faults of humanity: infidelity, prejudice, infirmity, etc. But it was their ability to relegate those things to their private lives alone, keeping them far away from how they made public decisions (or perhaps as motivation to make those better public decisions), that made them great. Most importantly, it was their recognition that one person alone does not an effective government make. Understanding that no one person can know everything there is to know about anything, they brought a whole team of talented and dedicated people with them to the White House to help out. And they listened.

What we need now is a whole new team, individuals uncorrupted by the habits and influences of past administrations. Part of the problem with the current president is the unsettlingly large number of former Nixon administration officials still serving under him. If ever there was more proof of people not learning from past mistakes, the Bush White House makes it difficult to remember.

Mr. Obama, if you would be our next president, I can only plead that you never forget the promises you make to the hopeful, exhausted people who will put you there, that you never forget where you've come from, and that you always remain willing to put in the extra long hours and effort to make sure every voice gets heard and that the right thing gets done.

We are more than ready for change. We demand it.

Best regards,
-Emily Mills
Madison, WI, USA

P.S. Please come to Wisconsin. I'd like the chance to hear you, and the other candidates, speak before this whole thing is said and done. We will happily bribe you with cheese that is far superior to anything California can produce.
The Lost Albatross