Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lin's Recycling

The first time I met Lin, I wondered what an elderly Oriental woman was doing in our alley at 6 in the morning. She felt as though she owed me an explanation, so without my asking, she asked if i would mind if she collected the metal cans from our alley containers. I told her that as long as it didn't mess up the alley, it was OK with me. Over the years, Lin has come to our alley hundreds of times. Almost every day. Very early in the morning, and always very quiet and considerate. She lays the container down on its side, and then, on her hands and knees pulls out the aluminum cans, quietly. She even straightens out the row of containers when she is done. There are other scrap collectors who come and go in the neighborhood. They are usually noisy, dirty, and leave a mess when they're done going through the containers. We used to have a man in his early twenties who pulled a coaster wagon behind him with a boom box blasting away at Hispanic rap music, as if the clanking and rooting weren't enough noise for us.

Lin is always very meticulous about keeping the area neat. She usually wears rubber gloves to protect herself. In the winter she is bundled up in a brilliant yellow snowsuit. We've had an ongoing conversation over the years. Lin always knows how the scrap prices are doing. If she sees me in the alley, she always waves, and sometimes comes over to talk awhile. One day she told me she collected scrap because it was good for her blood sugar, and she loves getting exercise and being outdoors. She has grandchildren who are in grade school.
I feel good about having Lin as a part of my neighborhood. I save the cans out separately, and do what I can to time it out so that the scrap is going to be there when she arrives. Since she's usually the first one there early in the morning, that's not too difficult. And I tell the neighbors about her -so they don't chase her off. I let them know how conscientious and regular she is. I'm sure if Lin saw something amiss in our alley, a breakin, or someone hurt, for example, she would get help. Because she cares about the neighborhood she serves. And we care about Lin.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The American Farmer

Back in the early 1980s, I worked as a night clerk in a Best Western Motel in Watertown, Wisconsin. Midnight was my starting time, and I'd get off of work at 8 am. Except for coffee with the cleaning ladies at 5:30 am, I'd usually be working alone quite a bit. I used to draw pictures in pencil on scratch paper to keep myself entertained, and I stuck them up with Scotch Tape in hidden spots around the front desk, because great art is meant to be shared.

My first character, (before the ducks stole the show) was The American Farmer. He was inspired by the patriotic lectures Eddie Albert used to give on the TV show Green Acres, one of the greatest television shows ever made.
The American Farmer was a plain man who enjoyed the simple pleasures of farm life. He and his wife kept all the holiday traditions as best they could.The American Farmer is always a good neighbor, putting his own projects and concerns aside if necessary.
A part of the American Tradition:

.... and meeting the needs of his herd
Working with government agencies to better meet the needs of America
and staying abreast of the latest technological innovations
well, you know what the farmer said when his dog died..... "Never done That before."

I hope these turned out legible on your computer. Tomorrow my head will not be hurting so much, and I'll be back to writing. A word of advice: If you are climbing up a ladder, and try to move a steel door closer arm by hitting it with your forehead, you will not necessarily develop Super Powers from the impact. This is not the movies. This is Reality, like on TV.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

How Would Chopin Say It?

The most important thing about Polish pronunciation is that there is no hope of ever doing it right -- if you're not Polish. The Polish language was developed with but one objective in mind: for the Polish to correct non-Polish people who are trying to pronounce it.

Take something as simple as those wonderful cabbage rolls they always make in the church basement. Here in America, they call them "pigs in a blanket", probably based on their appearance, because they don't usually contain pork. A meat-loaf-y mixture of hamburger, spices, onions and rice is rolled up into a cabbage leaf, and the whole thing simmered or baked in tomato sauce. Nothing compares. Dare you to have one and not ask for another!

If the Germans would make a dish like cabbage rolls they would find a straightforward way of describing it, so they know what's for supper, or Abendessen, as they call it - the Germans have a practical way of hitching words together until the meaning is clear. They'd come up with something like "cabbage" = kohl, und "roll" = roll, so cabbage roll would be something on the order of "Kohlenrollen" or something equally melodic. What my Grandpa would say would be much more to the point. "EAT YOUR DINNER AND SHUT UP!" or, if it was something he really liked, he'd say "NOW, FRESS!" (feed). And we did.

But leave it to the Polish to argue about endlessly about how to say it until the food gets cold. They call it Golabki. But don't think from reading that word that you can talk about it with the Polish. Oh, no! They don't say "go LAB Key" or "Go LOPP key" Heavens no. It's pronounced "Ga WHUMP key", and if you don't say it right, they are willing to work with you until you get it right, and the Golabki is cold, and everybody else starting on dessert.

Their names are much worse. When they arrived to this great land on Ellis Island they were given perfectly good phonetic spellings for their names, by immigration clerks with infinite patience. But then, they must have changed the pronunciations just for the sake of being Polish, because they weren't used to words that you could sound out. "Zew" is now pronounced "SHEF". "sie" is sometimes spelled "zie" and it is pronounced SHAY.

If a Polish American were ever on "Wheel of Fortune" and Vanna asked if they wanted to buy a vowel, they'd say "Naw, what for?"

The Poles have an inborn LOVE of correcting people's pronunciation. "No, not WIZH-wah-TAY, it's WIZH-wah-TSEE!" -- and the word you're trying to pronounce is spelled C-G-Z-Y-X-P-R-Z.

I've worked with the Poles, and around them for almost ten years, now, and survived. I love them, actually, and adore their cooking. They have in turn accepted me as "pretty good for a German, but he must be a little hard of hearing."

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Coyote Goes to Church

I have been threatening to get a tiny camera that I can carry with me. Sometimes I see such unbelievable things, that I'd need a photo to validate my story. I don't have a cell phone, but there must be some little camera I could put in my pocket for these constant Kodak moments. For now, you'll have to take my word for it.

This morning started out almost normal, for a church morning. I'm the organist at a Polish National Catholic church in Milwaukee. I hadn't received my hymn list via email, so I was thinking I might have to improvise with a medley of Beach Boys tunes. But the hymn list was in the bulletin, so I quickly arranged the notes, and we started.

About 10 minutes into the sermon, there was some activity below. I looked down, and there was a brown chihuahua heading down the center aisle of the church, running and barking. The owner, a tall blond-haired lady in blue jeans, following after the dog, apparently oblivious that they were in a church during a service. The lady finally realized where she was, and walked up to Father, who was, as I mentioned, giving the sermon. He stopped, and talked to her, off-mic. Coyote, the chihuahua, meanwhile went sniffing around the altar. The lady repeated an affirmation that Father gave her. After this impromptu confirmation, the lady called her dog, Coyote, and the two of them, now saved, headed back down the aisle and out the door.

Minutes later, Coyote comes trotting back down the aisle, followed by the lady. Second thoughts? This time the tone of events was a bit more agitated. When she reached the front of the church, the lady said, loudly "Coyote, take the stand!". This lady was, apparently, still out on the town from Saturday night. As before, the chihuahua went trotting dutifully around the altar, sniffing and barking. But this was now some sort of hostile hijacking of the service. The lady was gesturing and railing loudly at Father. After a few seconds, Father said, politely "I'm giving a sermon, now. It's time to go."

At this, the altar server got up to block the lady's entrance to the altar area, repeating Father's suggestion that it was "time to go". The visitor, now outnumbered, decided that it was time to go. She called to her dog, Coyote finished his reconaissance, and she and Coyote stomped out of the church.

pokojowy z wami

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Closing Time - Marian Has Left the Building

I believe that public libraries have outlived their usefulness. Spare me all the howling and the Norman Rockwell clattering about Main Street, USA. You're only showing how long it's been since you paid more than lip service to a public library. Marian the Librarian has retired, and Donna Reed never worked there - that was a figment. I have been to Main Street, and it's not like that any more. (never was, actually, but that's a different story)

Do you know what happens in the Milwaukee public library system, when a child does not return a book? NOTHING. There are no fines, no charges for lost materials, no attempts to recover the materials, NOTHING. Why? A librarian told me: "They're trying to encourage the children to read, to get books into the hands of the children, and it 'sends the wrong message' when a library requests responsibility of the kids, and asks them to return what they have borrowed." So, what's the next child in line going to do, if the book is not on the shelf, but, instead is in an abandoned Walgreen's bag on the sidewalk two blocks from the school? Never mind, I've seen what happens when you've been 'sent the message' that you don't have to repay what you borrow. Can you say "Fannie & Freddie?". Message received. Can you even read the books you leave lying around in the public way? Welcome to the new slave stratum.

The library organizations have become bloated bureaucracies, unaccountable to the people who are paying their salaries. The selections are made by agenda-driven indoctrination committees. Titles are selected by the same rulers-of-the-world that are turning out the illiterate geniuses by the hundreds from the public schools. And the people at the desk are crabby and don't want to help you. So, if you like the weight of an old cloth-bound book in your hand, and the feel of a crumbling old page as it gives up its wisdom to you, forget it! There's nothing like that at the public library any more. Go look.

In fact, there's nothing at the library that I couldn't find on amazon & ebay for pennies. And Google and Gutenberg are trying to get everything that was ever in print scanned and digital, in most cases searchable, so, for research purposes what can a public library find that can't be dialed up on a $50 used computer, or even a cell phone for that matter? Nothing!

There was a movie version of the first Stephen King novel, "Carrie". A girl has telekinetic powers, and she goes to the library to do research. An extended closeup of the hands going through the typewritten index cards in the library's wooden card catalog drawer. It was very quiet. You wanted to leave the show-house and go to the library and research something.

I remember the Watertown Public Library of my childhood, with those yellowing volumes on wooden shelves, with duck-tape reinforced spines (they didn't call it duck tape back then, and it was maroon or black) with the titles and Dewey Decimal numbers hand-written on the backs in white ink? And Mrs. Roberts at the desk, keeping an eye on you that you didn't bring in food, or just sit there talking with your friends. Remember how nice the inside of a an old book smelled?

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gruel 101

The following is an excerpt from a play I wrote in 2002, called The Last Murder at the Renaissance Faire. The play was written as the last of a trilogy of plays which can only be described as shameless pandering to audience demands, in other words, Givin' 'Em What They Want. We noticed the popularity of murder mysteries, parodies of local news, and medieval story lines and costumes. So we made something that had all three. We presented, using a cast of thousands, lavish costumes, and original music, what we billed as a Renaissance Murder Mystery. The series was received enthusiastically by our audience. Of course, people got killed -- but you gotta expect that in the Renaissance, it wasn't safe like nowadays. But, fortunately, with the aid of one of the great minds of the Milwaukee Renaissance, Leonardo Devinski, the mystery of who was doing the killing was always solved by the end of the play.

Although it takes place in the Renaissance (on the 3rd day of the Renaissance, to be exact), many of the characters bear an uncanny resemblance to people we meet in our modern world.

In this scene, the crowd of gullible and useless peasants gathers to gawk at a show staged as a part of a local entrepreneur's spectacular entertainment for the masses - Taff Vision - Where Weather Cometh First!

Taff (offstage voice)
Next – a Moment with Lady Martha. (lute theme)

How to feed thy men-slaves to keep them strong, and yet subservient. Today’s Moment with Lady Martha – Gruel 101.

Clyde (wanders into Martha's space, oblivious to the audience)
Thou art truly a comely lady. Wouldst that I could work for thee in thy mansion!

Meanest thou that?

(Clyde nods, Martha gestures, two of Martha's men attach manacles to Clyde, drag Clyde off the stage. As the struggle subsides offstage, Martha’s men bring out, on cue a bowl, with a cloth covering it, plastic insects, box of wheat, a wooden spoon, and a small plate.)

Canst always use another slave.
(imperiously shouting) For truly can I devise chores for a thousand men. . . (thunderclap sfx)

(regains composure, lute theme) But back to gruel. After a hard day of toil, there’s nothing like partially warmed gruel to settle a man into his place. Wholesome gruel hath its secrets. Verily do I always start out with the remaining gruel from yesterday. It addeth a mellow flavor. Check for spoilage . . . (Lifts cloth, sniffs, grimaces, shrugs.)

Good enough for the menservants. We stir the mixture gently, and blend in some more grain, but not too much. The good thing about gruel is that it multiplieth -- shouldst thou have guests, or another slave be added unto thee -- a little water canst thou add. Voila! More gruel!

Verily hath there always been some lively debate about the insects in the wheat. Some would let them be – truly they do add a zesty crunch to the batch. However, I usually pick out the larger ones, especially the beetles. (picks large beetle out of batter) These can be dipped in ordinary candle wax to make adorable scarab ornaments! And gristle -- a bit of gristle goeth a long way, hesitate not to experiment – thy servants are verily grateful for the variety. My gruel do I usually serve with a tiny sprig of rosemary, just for color.

Gruel – ‘tis a Good Thing.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Only Bernie Knows -- The Ballad of Bernie Madoff

Today, the first time i'm uploading a video, hope this all works.

This is from a concert that took place in our theater on the afternoon of June 13, 2009 - a whole room full of people having fun on a Saturday afternoon. A.L.'s unabashed sincerity has won over thousands of people in his long musical career in Milwaukee.

His band, One Lane Bridge, on this day includes Kathy Ratzberger, on guitar and backing vocals, and Rami Espinosa on electric guitar. That's A.L. himself singing lead and playing guitar.

Most of the songs A.L. sings in his shows are his own - Only Bernie Knows is one of his compositions. He wrote this song while watching live news coverage on a cable channel of Bernie Madoff's sentencing. We recorded this song twice. The first time I was laughing too hard to get near the camera. This is the second recording.

If you should have trouble seeing the video, the YouTube address is

A note to the ASCAP "fun police". This is an original composition, performed by the composer, produced for video with composers' and performers' permission, and uploaded with the permission of the composers and performers. ASCAP has nothing to do with this. Move along, thugs!

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

God's I-Pod

Long ago, the week after I graduated from 8th grade, I got a call from Mr. Richter. the principal of the grade school. Would I like to serve as accompanist for opening services at Vacation Bible School? Up until then, I had always, since 4th grade, been the official class accompanist. St. John's was a parochial school - they were forever having little devotions and prayer intervals at various times of the day - that's why St. John's students were so far behind in science and math by the time we got to high school. Each classroom had a piano, and I worked for free, so it was a pretty handy deal for them, since most of the teachers didn't have any musical background.

I never turned down a job, and this two-week session would accommodate my lawn-mowing hours. So, I met with Mr. Richter to learn the details. He was leaving on vacation the same week that Vacation Bible School opened, so I'd be on my own, answering directly to Pastor Kay. And the other thing, he mentioned in passing - since the church didn't have a piano, I'd have to learn to play the church organ. I was momentarily paralyzed. The church organ! A huge pipe organ, about six times as big as a piano, with two huge banks of brass pipes, and an air pump in the basement about the size of a garbage truck. Mr. Richter told me the organ was an awful lot -- an awful lot like a piano. Just like a piano! Sure it was. How could it be like a piano -- cripes you even needed a key to start it! I wouldn't even have to learn the pedals at first, there were octave couplers to "fake it" from the keyboards. I had always admired Mr. Richter's organ playing -- he always got more out of the church organ than anyone else, so I trusted his word that I could learn to play the organ within the remaining week. Every day that week, I went over to the church and practiced, using the pointers Mr. Richter had given me. Overwhelming at first, but the organ had "preset" combinations, so very soon I was able to "dial up" the same sound combinations the congregation was used to.

The service selections were already pre-determined, but the prelude and recessional music selection was up to me. I came up with a whole list of favorites from Mr. Richter's books. There were some very old, leather-bound yellowing books of songs in German. And, my favorite, there was a book Mr. Richter used on occasion called "Great Hymns of the Faith" - hundreds of familiar hymns, and these were hymns that, although familiar to everyone, were not in the Lutheran Hymnal. I thought it would be good for variety if I used a lot of these. Emotional favorites, such as "The Old Rugged Cross", and "Ivory Palaces". And charismatic, peppy hymns for recessionals, which were sure to send the students marching out joyously and vigorously, such as "Shall We Gather at the River", and "Bringing in the Sheaves". So, when the time came, I was ready.

A little hesitancy at first, but by the end of my first service, I was feeling confident. It was the largest group I had ever led in hymns, so the phrase timing was a little different than in a classroom. And the recessionals filled the church with joy, and sent the students marching off to the classrooms, just as planned. After the second day's service, Pastor Kay called up to the organ loft that I should meet with him in his office after the service. Of course, since I was doing so well, he wanted to congratulate me.

On arrival in his office, Pastor Kay launched into a lecture about the Rich Musical Heritage of the Lutheran Church. He asked who had chosen the selections for my incidental music. Not wanting Mr. Richter to steal the credit when he got back from vacation, I proudly told Pastor Kay the truth - that I had chosen the numbers myself. He asked to see my itinerary -- I handed him my notebook. He read over the Coming Attractions, with an amused look. "Bringing in the Sheaves???" he hooted. "BRINGING IN THE SHEAVES!!!" Admiring my own genius, I explained how I saved the peppy ones for the recessionals, the better to march the students out quickly.

Back to the Rich Musical Heritage lecture, this time, though, his tone was darker, and laden with messages between the lines. I might want to consider -- in fact that anybody who wanted to keep working in this man's church would consider -- using selections taken from the Rich Musical Heritage of the Lutheran Church. How much it would please the Lord if we were to present the works of Bach, for instance, rather than some of the more "modern" selections which appealed shallowly to the emotions, and not to the true workings of the soul. What a shame if an organist at St. John's would disregard the Rich Musical Heritage of the Lutheran Church in favor of 'pop' music.

So, that was it. God didn't like, "Bringing in the Sheaves". And even if he did, he liked Bach better. I was somewhat surprised that God would not be tapping his almighty toes to "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name", given the chance. After all, Bach was already dead, and God could have him play something for Him anytime He wanted.

The rest of the two-week session, though, I reached for the old leather-bound books on top of the organ. Although I couldn't read German at the time, I could tell by familiarity that some of the pieces were by Bach. And there were no further summonses to Pastor Kay's office, so I assumed that these dirges were what he and God wanted to hear. I'm sure if I could go back and find that old book again, the title on the leather-bound volume would translate to "God's Greatest Hits."

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Day in My Shoes

Ever wonder what it would be like if everything that was going to go wrong in a week would all go wrong on the same day? Start the day out with a headache. An equipment delivery waiting on the dock on arrival, leaving no time for coffee -- coffee may have helped at that point.

skip the next paragraph if you don't like listening to detailed whining about work

Then find out that a miscommunication from the distributor suddenly puts you three months behind in equipment warranty extension registrations. These have to be entered manually from our database to the manufacturer's. And due to some damaged or defective Java application on the website, the program only accepts one warranty application per login. So, after each piece of equipment, I had to completely shut down the all sessions of the browser, and re-log the session.

Well, as a result of all this mandatory logging out of the computer, I couldn't maintain a decent Tweet presence. The few times I was able to log in, the talk seemed to be dominated by shoes, and by the next time I was able to look, the tweets had gravitated to feta cheese vs goat cheese. A perfectly logical transition, lady shoes >> smelly cheese >> but without me to point out this brilliant insight, the talk drifted quietly back to shoes. A silenced smartass deprived of his soap box. I'll get you back, ladies! Yes, tomorrow the shoes will be on other feet!

Upon arrival at home, I had minutes to get over to the meeting of the local Business Association. I came in late, and the item my wife and I were concerned with, a proposed mandatory Business Improvement District, was not on the agenda. Perhaps all of our opposition has paid off. A statement by one of the officers summarized the mood. He said that those who came to the meeting to voice opposition perhaps did not belong there. So, having re-read Alice in Wonderland, I considered it again. Slowly, now: anyone who voices disagreement is not welcome at the meeting? OOOOkeydokey! Future meetings should proceed a lot more smoothly without all that discussion getting in the way. We'll just all vote "yes" to everything. After all, why waste time discussing an issue if everybody is on the same side? Next time we bring the pitchforks and torches. A perfect way to end the day.

No, wait, i almost left out the good part: after I told my wife about the meeting, she said "Let the Drinking Begin!" All those in favor - say "AYE!".

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Surviving the Frolics - Shredded Oldies

"something happening here... what it is ain't exactly clear" - s.stills

This morning, Monday, July 13, 2009, the same morning that the Fabulous Las Vegas Sign was vandalized by graffiti , in the eerie 6 am stillness of Milwaukee's Kinnickinnic Avenue, the remains of a murdered music collection was found scattered in the road. Senseless acts abound. The crime must have been commited in the early morning hours, as the traffic had not much disturbed the remnants of the massacre.

The sun rose on the glittering shards of audio cassettes. Nearly a dozen cassettes were mutilated and strewn over a half-block long section of Kinnickinnic AvenueAs a lover of all types of music, I can't help but wonder, why the ritual killing? If the music wasn't wanted, or the cassette defective, why not sell it, give it away, throw it away? Why mutilate and litter? What was it about this music that raised so much hostility, that it had to be not only destroyed, but, completely subdued, humiliated and defeated.
Was this some strange new ritual in connection with the South Shore Frolics? Hours before this heinous outpouring of anti-musical hostility, the South Shore Frolics had concluded, mere blocks from the site of destruction.

The Bay View South Shore Frolics is a traditional celebration dating back to the smoky, smelly cave people who used to dwell among the cliffs of Lake Michigan. When not frolicking lakeside, these inhabitants can be found on the freeway in their over-sized pickup trucks, and SUVs without turn signals, elbowing smaller vehicles around, and listening exclusively and loudly to Hate & Run AM Radio. They are proud of what they are not, for that's really all they are, to paraphrase Don MacLean. The traditional perception of the word "Frolic" in proximity to the appelation applied to South Shore "frolickers" is a frightening juxtaposition of opposites.

The three-day festival is free, that is, you don't have to pay to get in, but not free in the same sense as "land of the free". One Frolic evening, when I was still new to the area, I went down to the lakeside, and was about to sit down to enjoy a concert by the Milwaukee Policemans' Band, taking a seat in the back row, on one of the backless wooden benches set up in front of the stage. A fat, slobbering sow-like woman, with the down-turned mouth of a shark, approached me, and barked "you can't sit here". Noting that there were no signs or barricades, I asked, "Are the seats reserved?". "NOT FOR YOU!" she practically screamed, wiping the drool from the corners of her shark mouth with the back of her fat, red hand. Out of courtesy, I got up, and out of belligerance, I remained standing directly behind the seat for about 20 minutes, while she glared at me with her angry red sow-eyes. When the band took a break, I wandered elsewhere, to see what else the Frolic Experience had to offer for free. Rally 'round the flag, boys!

They have a parade. It's not like a 4th of July parade, which is full of community organizations, local bands, and patriotic sentiment. This parade is run by the Bay View Lions, a closely guarded clique of, well, Lions. Community organizations who want to be in the parade must pay an entry fee. And yet, some in the parade are on the payroll. Where is the fine line drawn between entertainment and community service? Only the Lions know. The Frolics parade leaves the street of the parade route littered with wrappers, bottles, flyers, melted popsicles, and baby diapers. The people living on the parade route are free to enjoy the parade for days afterwards.

There is a hillside overlooking the South Shore Beach. It is on this incline that the Frolickers set up their bed-blankets, stake out their little squares of public park, and experience on Saturday -- and again on Sunday, the Atomic Fireworks. It's a traditional fireworks display, only deployed much lower than usual from the beach. The explosions seem closer, blindingly and deafeningly closer than a traditional fireworks display, the closeness emphasized by the audience's elevation on the slope of the hill. From the stage, a master of ceremonies "narrates" the Atomic Fireworks, commenting on each rocket's red glare, and encouraging the audience to "Put Your Hands Together" for the benefit of the show's sponsors.

After three days of beer, a parade, and two sessions of Atomic Fire Works, it's not as surprising that some South Sider, eyes bleary with frolic, would commit this vicious attack on a cassette collection. Perhaps it was his own collection, and he was purging it of the music Unfit to Frolic By. What were his criteria? Seen in the holy light of the Frolic Fires, some things must be sacrificed, left shattered in the street for the early light of dawn to discover.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Summer Job - 1974 - Young Dimbulb at Work

The following post was written 4/19/8, before Excelsior, and never before posted.

I put myself through college by working part time jobs during the school year and full-time factory jobs in the summer. 1974 was my favorite. I was distanced somewhat from the family reality by the hours of my factory grinding and polishing job. I began at 4 and got home about 1 am. So I slept later, and was excused from the family supper ritual of arguing, doing dishes and stagnating in front of TV. Not getting “sucked in” to family duty obligations was liberating. I still took my grandfather for coffee, and kept things up around his house, and worked in Dad’s garden a lot, but largely led my own life, because I wasn't there when the rest of them were.

At the factory, I’d report to my workbench, a fork lift brought pallets of parts, I did the required operation on them, and then wrote ‘em up and released them. I was ‘way over rate, and so I kept some parts in reserve, to turn in when I was falling behind, to bring it up to 100%. There was a lady, I forget her name, who took me under her wing and showed me all the tricks of making rate, and how to run machines I had no experience on, belt sanders, pneumatic grinders. But mostly, I worked alone. It was a noisy enviromnent, so we all wore earplugs. It was dirty, so we usually wore goggles. And still, it was so pleasant. My own workbench, my own parts, responsibilities, the ability to turn in a satisfactory job, I don’t know what was so pleasant about it, but I look on it as a very happy summer.

And I had to join the machinist’s union. To this day, I don't like unions, preferring the liberty of being rated on my own accomplishments, but on the 2nd shift, union membership was nothing more than paying dues by payroll deduction, no meetings, no grievances, petitions, etc. So, having little choice, I let them have their money.

The machinist’s union card was a great tool for pissing off the liberals in political discussions at college. My conservative views ran counter to the standard college indoctrination kneejerk solutions to the world’s problems. I believed such heresies as: Since they company is paying you, you should do whatever work they give you. And: What’s good for the company is good for you in the long run. And this final horror: because the company pays you, and you should be grateful for the privilege, not whining.

So, when necessary, we’d compare credentials. Answer the question: what did you do last summer to put yourself through college? Usually, when some self-proclaimed workingman's hero was pontificating about identification with the oppressed working class, they would cite when pressed their experience as a part-time dishwasher job in the student union cafeteria. On such occasions I’d hammer out my Machinist's Union Card, and tell them that this was a genuine worker they were talking to, in case they had any questions about how the working class feels on any issues. It confused them so that a card-carrying common person from the working class should possess a work ethic so strong. I used to wear my work shirts around the dormitory, with the real oil stains on them.

Yes, that summer taught me the pleasure of the privilege of being allowed to work, and taught me lessons that are with me to this day.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009


I want this to be a matter of public record, in case Marsha ever comes to finish me off after all these years... Just kidding, Marsha. Marsha, the girl next door, is responsible for some of my most vivid early childhood memories - and some of my direst childhood nightmares. Just how can I remember so vividly things that happened to me when I was merely 4 years old? When you are in a state of panic where your metabolism threatens to pop your eyes right out of your skull, the senses become heightened. The minutest details are recalled with crystal clarity. That was life with Marsha. She lived next door. Marsha was two years older than me, and never let me forget it. She ruled me by absolute holding-your-breath terror. She would never tattle every little thing to her mother, or worse, to my mother. Nawww... that's for sissies. If we lost the hammer, we knew that her father would find me directly, and cut off my ears.

"He cut one of my ears off once, you know. Look, you can see where it grew back..." Wide-eyed, heart in throat, I looked, and, sure enough, her ear was all grown back, just like she said. So, I didn't know if mine would grow back as well as Marsha's had -- I would take no chances. And, as if I needed further convincing, we went and asked her father about it. "Well, if you use a sharp enough knife, so it cuts real clean, then it would grow back" he stated matter-of-factly. He picked up a knife from his work bench and looked at it absently. They must have had a secret signal - he'd collaborate anything she was trying to pull off. Later on, a person could observe that a wry sense of humor is inherited, but, at the time, I knew one thing: I never wanted to cross any of Marsha's rules, and i *never* wanted to meet her father in a closed room without a ready escape route.

We lived in a new neighborhood on the edge of town. Marsha's house had been there before mine was built, and she'd reminisce about when it used to be a farm, and they had horses, cows and a lion. We could venture out of town just by going beyond the end of the back yard. It was a wild and wonderful wild place, singing with frogs, birds and fireflies, and fragrant with milkweeds, grass, and wildflowers. I remember when Marsha took me on a botanical tour of the untamed wilderness. She showed me how to open a milkweed pod, but you had to be careful, because they could slam back shut and take off your fingertip. We walked through some golden-rod "And these are the Ickle Ockle bushes - they move around when you're not watching - LOOK" And I looked behind me, and, sure enough one had already moved behind me, about to close in, and do - what? Close call. I was amazed that she knew the names of all the wild plants. Pointing to the rag-weed - These are so poisonous, if you just touch them, you'll get lockjaw, and you won't be able to talk, to tell anybody what's wrong with you, so they'll just take you to the hospital and give you shots, and maybe you'll die"

And we came upon some beautiful orange tiger-lilies. I thought we should pick some and take them back to our parents. "I tried that once", she said casually, "...but a whole swarm of bees started following me, and I had to drop the flowers so i could run faster." I was so grateful that she had saved me from being stung to death.

So many other dangers lurked in our dangerous neighborhood on the edge of Watertown. I would not have survived without Marsha there to warn me of seemingly innocent things that were truly deadly. "Gypsies - " she whispered - "they *STEAL* people". They drove around in those trucks with the wicker furniture in back that turned back to snakes if it got wet. And, overhead, flying so high you could hardly see them, but they were there - eagles. Eagles could swoop down silently, grab you by the shoulders and carry you away. By that time, I had seen the Wizard of Oz, and I knew for a fact that fear of being carried away was a legitimate concern.

Then, one day, Marsha outgrew me. She was busy with Nancy Sanquist from across the street, because now, at the age of 11, they were grownups, doing girl stuff, and I was still a kid, and a boy to boot. So, I started hanging around with Tommy Rutlin, and Lee Schumacher. We built tree houses, and paved endless secret paths through the tall grass.

But, after a few years, when we were both teenagers, Marcia and I would still visit, but by then we were at the age where we tried to act older than we really were. Marcia's piano playing inspired me to take up music. She introduced me to the Beatles - I first heard "Hey, Jude" on her radio.

We grew up. We moved away. She's a social worker in Madison, now, and I'm an office manager and church organist in Milwaukee. We run into one another once in awhile at funerals. We both made it to adulthood, safe now from eagles, gypsies, and the threat of the Ickle Ockle bushes. I think of that on warm summer nights when the fireflies are out.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Going Postal with Norman's Computer

All that was left was the logistics. The computer was safely packaged in a padded carton to withstand any drop-kick challenges that may be issued in the back of the postal station. At that time of the evening (6:15 pm) there is only one post office open in Milwaukee - The Airport branch. I don't know how they did it, but all the forces of heaven and hell seemed to be unified in their one objective - keep that package from being posted.

First there was the road construction. Howell Ave is the main artery to the airport, and it was 3/4 ripped up. one lane was drivable, one was OK, and two were totally gone, just a gouge in the dirt. So, a 10-minute hop took 30 minutes. We have overcome worse. But the worse, it turns out, was yet to come.

The post office parking lot was full - it overflowed into an industrial lot next door, so now I had to carry the 30-lb sucker to the door of the post office. No further than the door, because that is where the line was starting. Of course, they were following the standard Convenience Prevention procedures they have adopted in recent years. With three stations to process customers, of course, two of the windows were shut down for employee breaks, and the remaining station had a family permanently applying for a passport, an extremely time-consuming process. Correction -- the man and wife were applying for the passport. The three children were chasing one another around the lobby, climbing on TOP of the lobby counters, and walking back and forth, squealing like animals, and getting sticky finger prints on everything. All of the customers now had something in common - the hope that wherever this family was going with their passport, that they would STAY THERE FOREVER.

Then I heard the crinkling plastic. The lady behind me, very large, and very tattooed, was holding a small packet of envelopes in her hands. But her hands, both of them, were encased in plastic food-service gloves. What was it in those envelopes that she didn't want to come in contact with? Was the Anthrax fad coming back into vogue? Then, she began coughing, a very sickly slobbery cough from the depths of her entrails. So, perhaps she was protecting the letters from herself. So, perhaps after our interminable wait in the post office line, we would all go home and collapse on our death-beds, the swine flu finally triumphant. When one has lots of time to think, one has thoughts.

Then the three children came squealing by, again, getting more adept with practice, and faster once they were familiar with the topology of the various counters in the lobby. Someone whispered very loudly, ooops, i guess it was me... "use....a.....RUBBER". someone must have heard, judging from a sudden fit of throat-clearing around the lobby.

At last the parents solemnly swore, and the slow service resumed at the solitary window, and eventually we all got our packages turned in, except for one man, the man in front of me in line. He said the most wise thing I heard the entire night. "I don't have any more time, I need to apply for a passport." And without waiting for a stupid look from the postal clerk, he left.

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Tom & Mikes Computer & Tropical Fish Store

my friend norm needed a computer. allow me to expand on that. my friend since the first day of first grade, went to HS and college together, he stood up for my wedding, I played organ for his, THAT norman. He brought in the old one last time he came to Milwaukee. It had given good service, but now its 4g (as in 4 gigabytes, less than one DVD's worth of data) HD was being overloaded by Windows, Java, Office, updates, email archives, etc., and could no longer find room for its print buffer. I cleaned it up, temp files, compressing, taking out unused apps, and we got a little over a quarter of the HD back (that's only 1 GB). He took it home, and it worked again, but all the Windows updates saw the available space as an opportunity to make up for lost time, and by the end of the next week had filled up the HD again. Time for Tom & Mike's.

Tom & Mikes is the latest incarnation of a loose organization of computer enthusiasts who had been around since the DOS days, back when Phil Katz still walked the earth. Their store is in a huge strip-mall space on Milwaukee's south side. The glass windows which line the walls are usually fogged up from the fish. The fish! And in winter, if you wear glasses, you can't see at all, because of the oppresive humidity. As you walk in, there is a small 'museum' of old computer equipment maintained by Gordy Kraemer, one of the pioneers of PCs in Milwaukee. There's a Commodore, an Apple IIe, various tape drives, 7" floppy drives. A very good collection, nostalgic for those born before the WWW was invented by Al Gore.

The showroom isn't very much, because the stuff gets sold before they have a chance to set it up. Best to call ahead. Tell him what you want, and they'll give you choices. Last year's technology for sure, but how many people wouldn't find last year's technology would be an improvement on what they have. My specific work order for this trip had been "My friend Norm needs a computer to do emails and word processing, and he doesn't have much of a budget." Tom said, "how about a Gateway 3Ghz, 1/2g ram, 300 MB HD, DVD burner, XP, $269?". I called Norm, Norm called Tom, they made a deal, and I offered to scoop it up and ship it. I suppose if I wanted to dicker on the price, he would have thrown in a few fish. But this was a computer that, except for the ram, is better than anything I've ever owned. And cheaper. Keep yer sushi, just throw in one a them ergonomic keyboards, and a new USB mouse.

I got the machine home, the next challenge was to package it for safe shipping to Madison. The Magic Selladuck Ebay Shipping Center was a little slow because Ebay sales are on a short furlough until the end of the summer, and I had been using the workbench to mix mortar for some glass block replacements last week. As I was taping the completed carton, I noticed that some of the mortar from the glass block had stuck to the sides of the box. White powder - Post Office - not good - I could be spending the rest of the night in the waterboard room! I took a damp cloth and wiped the mortar off. But, this dampness prevented the tape from sticking. You do what you gotta do. It was an hour and a half since i had left work. But now, all that remains is dropping it off at the post office. Little did I know what an ordeal that would be...

continued tomorrow - we go postal.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Refugees From the Burning Bacon

In a hardworking suburb just south of Milwaukee, one of the mainstays of the local economy is Patrick Cudahy, a meat-processing industry famous for its sweet-apple wood-smoked bacon. In fact, the suburb bears Patrick Cudahy's last name. And last night, July 5, 2009, countless employees of Cudahy's main industry found themselves out of work. A grease fire in the bacon-processing area of the plant burned out of control, forcing evacuation of the entire plant. Twenty hours later, the flames were still reaching skyward through the broken roof. Propane and ammonia tanks were in danger of exploding, so police and fire departments were ordered to evacuate the residences within a one-mile radius of the plant.

Although there were no fatalities during the first 24 hours, the displaced residents faced an alien and uncertain existence inside two area high schools, or they were forced to take shelter elsewhere. Four of these residents were cats. This is their story in pictures.

Faith, Bob, Maddie, and The Black One were slammed into spacious cat carriers, two by two, just like Noah's ark. Portable Litter Boxes, extra boxes of cat litter, and large jars of Gourmet Cat Food were crowded into Jessie's PT Cruiser. There was still some room left in the car, so Jessie stuffed a small grocery bag full of clothes for herself, as well. She headed for her mother's house, an apartment above a small private theater on Milwaukee's South Side. For the next eight hours, a remarkable ordeal of survival - the four of them feasted and napped in the theater's green room, hosted by the ever-gracious Syd, who lives there permanently.

Maddie decided she liked it just fine in the carrier, and never emerged, staying glued to the back wall as if by duct tape.

Ever concerned about security, Syd checks Bob for contraband. Bob's long hair would make it easy to conceal a listening device. What happens at Syd's place stays at Syd's place. Let's keep it that way.

The Black One decides that under the desk is the best place to weather out this ordeal.

Faith hides out next to the mirror, so she can admire herself.

Syd samples some of the gourmet cuisine his guests have brought with them. He discovers a whole new world of unaccustomed flavor. Have they been skimping here on the cat food budget?

An uneasy moment. Syd (r) is gracious but firm.

In the end, the best thing for us all would be to all take a nap, and then when we wake up we can have more of that expensive food.

By 7:00 pm on Monday, July 6, 2009, the residents of Cudahy were all allowed to return to their homes, all safe and sound. The bacon plant will never be the same. The cats all took a nap and forgot the whole thing

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Day

I'm glad the neighborhood parades are still going on. Don't you wish we could somehow share these with other countries - This is USA - this is what we're really like. This is why we celebrate Independence Day!

We have a 4th of July parade that goes right by our place.

One feature I never could understand was the countless groups of community organizations. Picture this from the curb: a car goes by slowly, a sign taped to the side of the car says "Bay View Parents of Human Kids" followed by a half-block long herd of adults walking in the road. That's all they had in common, dressed in street clothes, with no wardrobe attempt to unify the group, they didn't even march to music, or march in rows, they just walk in the road. Film it, and replace the sound track with a solemn narrator: "Bay View Parents of Human Kids were marched off to the camps without incident this morning".

Then there were the performing groups. "Children Whose Parents Have Paid for Baton Lessons". First the obligatory car, this time with an open trunk with a boom box. Then follows a small herd of children in expensive looking uniforms, carrying batons. They are walking along, talking amongst themselves, you'd expect one to pull out a cell-phone and start talking. No reaction, either to the music, or any acknowledgement that there are people lining both sides of the street watching them - just the sullen walk in the street. Then, after the uniformed kids, somewhat mixed in with the 'marching unit' are the Parents Who have Paid For Their Children's Baton Lessons. See above.

This sort of "marching unit" is what I always thought of when I saw this parade. But this year was different. I had just gone down to Steve's on the corner and was returning home with my coffee. A dancing 6 ft bratwurst almost made me spill my coffee. Judge Konkel was riding on the back of the red convertible, alone this year. I paused in front of our place to look at the rest of the parade, remembering when I used to ride with Judge Konkel playing patriotic music on my accordion.

A man in revolutionary war garb walked by, playing patriotic tunes on a concertina. A man on a unicycle was juggling three balls, red, white, and blue. He never dropped one, and, believe me, Kinnickinnic Avenue is no place to be riding a unicycle, even during a parade. And then a children's baton group came by, they were marching in rows, and performing a routine in unison, in time with the music. Highly unusual.

And then came St. Lucas. First the Lutheran band, a very enthusiastic marching unit dressed up like old Germans in white shirts und braun shorts. There was even a banjo in the band. And then, a Lutheran dog, following the band. He was a very large dog, and the parade was marching too slowly for him, so he would periodically sit down, and wait awhile, then pick up the march again. And, then, just about everybody in St. Lucas Lutheran Church came by. Full width of the street, almost a block long. The entire congregation must have turned out for this. All in electric blue St. Lucas shirts. And, although they marched in rows, each was doing a different thing. Some were handing out pamphlets for youth groups, some for other outreach organizations. Some were throwing candy to the audience, and there was a little girl handing out american flags to people. The whole congregation together. It was beautiful, and everyone was made a little happier from their brief contact with St. Lucas. Why can't organized religion always work like this?

Next, the star of the entire parade. A lady, i'd say mid-20s, in a sparkly white baton twirler suit, marched alone, without music. She had a baton which she threw 2 stories in the air, and always caught it. Sometimes she'd wave to people while the baton was in the air, and sometimes she'd do a cartwheel right on the street. But she would always just blithely grab the baton without even looking up, as if it had always been there waiting for her to grab it, and she would bow and start her next routine, to wild applause. And smiling all the while. That's what I wanna be when I grow up.

Happy Independence Day!


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