Archive for the ‘TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus’ category

Cocktail Revelations

October 15, 2018

I’ve been working on and off for months on a major writing project. I think it will be a big thing. But, sorry, this story has nothing to do with it. Nope, this one is all about the pleasures of drinking Boulevardiers and fat-washed martinis with your friends. Also in reading  Kingsley Amis’ earnest defense of social drinking in his magnum opus, Everyday Drinking. Not to mention I report on the good Oxford scholars who emphasize the “social” in social drinking:

Dear readers, put down your phones! Science says you should drink with your friends. Seriously. I have in my hand the printout of “Functional Benefits of (Modest) Alcohol Consumption” written by seven Oxford University researchers. They say that drinking with your buds at the local pub may be linked to an improved sense of well-being.

Okay, that’s not exactly a big surprise. But confirming the obvious is what college professors sometimes do. And I know you’re thinking what I’m thinking: Just how do I get a piece of this research money? But the investigators also found, according to Oxford publicists, “that people who have a [pub] that they visit regularly tend to feel more socially engaged and contented and are more likely to trust other members of their community” while those who don’t “had significantly smaller social networks and felt less engaged with, and trusting of, their local communities.”

Yes, it’s the fellowship (and sistership) of drink.

Oh, there’s so much more in my story. Including revelations that could  change your life! (Or not.) Go here for more.

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Questions for Candidates

May 7, 2018

Not long ago, the Wisconsin Policy Forum released a seriously wonky and widely ignored paper on levy limits. Even the mention of this arcane tax issue would send most people scurrying to FaceBook for relief. But while the topic is boring it is also important.

Since 2006 Wisconsin has dampened the state’s high property taxes by limiting  municipal property tax increases to the rate of new construction in the community. At first, the consequences were muted because virtually all parts of the state were enjoying a building boom. But very quickly, the WPF researchers found, the state was hammered by two recessions, and new development was “increasingly isolated, with relatively few communities experiencing even modest growth.”

This core truth was the starting point of “The Two Wisconsins” series I wrote last year for Isthmus. It  highlighted how a vast swath of the Dairy State is still mired in recession. I followed up with a recent column that argued the state’s gubernatorial candidates need to be challenged on how they would help the state’s left-behinds get on their feet.  I wrote:

The heart of the Wisconsin gestalt in 2018 … is the economic chasm dividing the state. Simply put, the good times celebrated in Dane County, the Milwaukee suburbs, the Fox River Valley and a few other lucky communities are not shared in the forgotten precincts of rural and inner-city Wisconsin….

Lost in the huzzahs of Wisconsin’s record-low jobless rate and other benchmarks of success is the stubborn fact that the recessionary downturn that took hold at the turn of the century never ended for the state’s left-behinds. Too often, these are neighborhoods of troubled schools, dead-end or non-existent jobs, broken dreams and lots of drug overdoses.

The candidates need to be judged on how they would create broad-based Wisconsin prosperity.

To see how I lay out the issues, please go here.

I’ll Drink To That

February 27, 2018

I’ve always liked the camaraderie of sharing a good drink with friends and family. It’s one of life’s pleasures. Work hard, take care of business. You got to do all that. But these off-duty moments while sharing casual talk and small intimacies are experiences I savor.

All the better I can report, Dane County is in the midst of an unprecedented burst of creativity in brewing, distilling and winemaking. Lots of  opportunities, in other words, for folks like me to share the fellowship of an adult beverage.

As I wrote in an Isthmus cover story:

Just go strolling on Madison’s near east side. Late this fall I was out walking the dog one night when I stumbled upon — in a tucked-away industrial court — the brand new $1.2 million State Line Distillery, 1413 Northern Court. Glory! Founder John Mleziva even allows dogs in the tasting room. (And quite the room it is: An artfully designed space with weathered barn lumber and a great piece of abstract art representing whiskey making by Madison’s Leslie Smith III.)

As Fred Swanson points out, a Madison “Beverage Row” is busily taking shape on the east side. A 15-minute walk from State Line sits the Old Sugar Distillery tasting room, 931 E. Main St., which offers a full sampling of its whiskey, rum, brandy and specialty spirits. Or how about perambulating to Bos Meadery, 849 E. Washington Ave., for its fermented honey drink? As for craft breweries, you can’t swing a dead cat on the east side without hitting a growler: I count 10 eastside craft beer tap rooms.

Drive a little farther out and you find Dancing Goat Distillery in Cambridge and Driftless Glen Distillery in Baraboo. And if you head south or go west in Madison and Dane County it’s more of the same. Lots of brew pubs, a smattering of distilleries and more wineries than you would think possible in our cold climate.

Hey, it’s a good thing. And not just because Wisconsinites enjoy a good buzz. Whether it’s a distillery, brewery or winery, all of these makers are idiosyncraticspecific in their missions, and forceful in staking a claim to the Wisconsin terroir. Yeah, it gets down to our identity. And when you consider how so much of small town Wisconsin didn’t share in the economic recovery, and is losing its best and brightest young people to big cities, championing local identity seems no small matter.

Brian Cummins, who founded Great Northern Distilling in Plover, near Stevens Point, makes this case. He points out how Great Northern is one of six beverage makers in the Central Wisconsin Craft Collective producing beer, wine and spirits — all within a 30-minute drive of one another in Point, Plover, Amherst and Rosholt.

Take the tour. They’re proud of their work.

“We’re part of the new creative community,” says Cummins, underlining how quality of life goes up for everyone in a region when there are such artisan producers. “It’s something to point to that makes their towns unique.”

Creative placemaking is what keeps young people in the community, he adds. “For us in central and northern Wisconsin, we need to maintain our millennials. It just can’t continue to drain to Minneapolis, Madison and Milwaukee.”

 

To read more (and to learn how a great tasting event called Distill America has led the way), please go here.

Wynonna to Kamasi: Favorite 2017 Shows

January 9, 2018

I’ll just spill it out…some the musicians whose concerts I enjoyed most in 2017:

Jon Dee Graham. Steve Reich. Herb Alpert and Lani Hall. Wynonna. Hayes Carll. Frank Catalano and Jimmy Chamberlin. Yo-Yo Ma and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Alejandro Escovedo.  Andrew Cyrille and Bill McHenry. Sinkane and Bassel & The Supernaturals. Kahil El’Zabar and David Murray. And most of all: Kamasi Washington.

As I explained in my annual Isthmus roundup:

Somehow I saw around 100 live shows near and far in 2017. That’s a record in the 12 years I’ve been chronicling my annual listening habits. What follows are my 16 favorite nights.

To be upfront, these impressions are a fan’s notes. I’m not a critic or a musician and have less technical musical knowledge than your typical four-year-old Suzuki violin student. But I love being in the musical moment, and I have wide tastes. Like other concert nerds, I’m willing to travel for tunes; so you’ll see some shows are within hailing distance of Madison.

To get the full 5,000-word treatment, please go here.

Big Ideas For A Startup Culture

January 9, 2018

Yikes, I’m late in posting this story from October 2017.

Consider it a postscript to my two-part series on the “Two Wisconsins”. In researching how Wisconsin might create a vigorous 21st century economy I sat down with startup maven Troy Vosseller. He had  strong, specific ideas. The piece begins:

The question put to the venture capitalist was: How do you juice up the Wisconsin startup scene when the state is judged the absolute worst in the nation for fostering new businesses?

Troy Vosseller, 32, who’s a sure-footed Madison entrepreneur, was in an expansive mood as he held forth on the evils of non-compete clauses and Wisconsin’s bad-news rankingfor startups by the entrepreneurial-focused Kauffman Foundation.

He also made a forceful case for upgrading and expanding UW-Madison’s computer science program, arguing that Wisconsin is critically short of tech talent.

We were in the temporary Gorham Street offices of gener8tor, the new-business incubator Vosseller runs with partner Joe Kirgues and others to nurture the ventures they invest in. Next spring, gener8tor moves up to Madison’s signature spot for startups — the new StartingBlock complex on East Washington Avenue.

“I can’t name a single venture-backed startup founded by any ex-employee of the Wisconsin Fortune 500 companies,” he tells me. These companies include giants like Rockwell Automation, American Family Insurance, Northwestern Mutual, Harley-Davidson and Johnson Controls.

“Yet if you look at robust startup ecosystems like Silicon Valley’s it’s extremely common. You have people who, say, worked at Yahoo who have a great idea, leave their job to create their own company, have their ex-manager who made a lot of money in her own startup invest in theirs, and later the company is bought by Microsoft or who knows who.

“The virtuous cycle continues in those ecosystems,” Vosseller explains. “It’s commonplace. Yet here in Wisconsin I can’t think of one example [of a startup spinning off from a major corporation]. This speaks to a cultural risk-aversion we have, but some of the blame also rests with corporate restrictive covenants.”

Ah, yes, the non-complete clauses that Epic employees face when they leave the Verona campus and have to cool their heels.

To read more, please go here.

Wisconsin’s “Left Behinds” Are Ignored

October 14, 2017

The Badger State’s celebrated comeback from the Great Recession has been incomplete. I argue in the first of a two-part series in Isthmus that rural Wisconsin and inner-city Milwaukee remain mired in economic and social pain:

Call it “the two Wisconsins,” as the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance presciently did in 2006 when the nonpartisan budget group documented Wisconsin’s split reality even before the Great Recession soundly fractured the state economy into winners and left-behinds.

Today, while Dane County booms and the bigger cities in the Fox River Valley and western Wisconsin prosper, the rest of the state is largely mired in a downturn that is a recession in all but name.

Wisconsin is not alone. This dichotomy is also America’s story, as the Economic Innovation Group, a centrist research group in Washington, D.C., first documented in May 2016. The EIG study — widely ignored and fraught with political implications, as pundit Harold Meyerson has argued — detailed how painfully limited the economic recovery from the Great Recession (the magnitude of job destruction earned its adjective) was compared to post-recession periods in the early 1990s and early 2000s.

“The 1990s recovery was powered by small counties, small cities, rural areas. It was very much a grassroots recovery where the entire U.S. landscape experienced a blossoming of enterprise,” says Kenan Fikri, EIG’s research and policy manager.

The early 2010s’ recovery was brutally asymmetrical. By the time the U.S. economy pulled out of the recession, the split was extreme between America’s prosperous and left-behind counties.

So it is in Wisconsin. My story tries to define the problem and suggests that our political leaders have yet to come to grips with it. You can read more here.

pat mAcdonald’s Long Game

June 26, 2017

For years, I’ve thought pat mAcdonald (that’s his idiosyncratic spelling)  is a musician of lasting merit. The kind whose recordings will be played 50 years from now and whose songs are a good bet to be revived decades from now by musicians not yet born.

Last summer, when I was having a casual drink at the Weary Traveler in Madison and chatting with bartender Josh Harty, who’s a stellar singer-songwriter in his own right, I learned that mAcdonald  had a bad case of cancer.

That’s when I decided I had to profile him. I wanted to shine a light on his work.

Here’s how my story started in Isthmus:

Oh, he’s lost a few things during 40-plus years of living the Bohemian life of a musician. For instance:

— That Mussehl & Westphal musical saw, the renowned Cadillac of musical saws. The young Pat MacDonald bought it in 1974 in Fort Atkinson from Clarence J. Mussehl himself, then a nonagenarian and long-ago vaudevillian, who tossed in a free lesson.

— That autographed album the great country tunesmith Billy Joe Shaver gave him in Nashville in 1973 after hearing MacDonald’s demo songs at singer Bobby Bare’s music offices: “To my friend Pat MacDonald: the last of the great songwriters.”

This scrawny long-haired troublemaker from Green Bay was all of 20 at the time, knocking around Madison, making music to survive after an unsuccessful try at drug dealing. His future was not yet clear.

At some point in the intervening decades of countless moves — including his 1984 journey from Madison to Austin with wife and musical partner Barbara Kooyman in their soon-to-be celebrated band Timbuk3, and later his sojourn in Barcelona, to lick his wounds, after their marriage and band broke up — he lost the damn saw and his records.

But not much else, it turns out. “I’m kind of a pack-rat,” mAcdonald says over coffee recently in Sturgeon Bay, in picturesque Door County on Lake Michigan. “Who could throw out a Christmas card that was sent with love?” We’re at his 18-unit retro cool Holiday Music Motel, an improbable but genius choice as a base camp for a cultural shaman like him. And, yes, note the typography of his moniker. Tired of the habitual misspelling of his last name as “McDonald,” he now labels himself pat mAcdonald.

Who’s to argue with this single-minded artist? Especially when in the space of 24 hours I meet three musicians who, trusting their instincts, packed up from good lives in San Francisco, New York City and Madison to be part of mAcdonald’s creative circle in this out-of-the-way port city.

These artists — and a whole bunch more from across the country — will be front and center at the Steel Bridge Songfest June 8-11 that mAcdonald puts on annually in Sturgeon Bay. (For details see page 18.)

“This place is like a dream incubator,” bassist and longtime Madison blues stalwart Tony Menzer tells me. It’s late night, and he’s packing up after backing a powerful blues singer named Cathy Grier at the Stone Harbor Bar across the street from the motel. Menzer put in 10 years with Clyde Stubblefield and 15 years with the Westside Andy-Mel Ford Band. Three years ago, at mAcdonald’s invitation, Menzer bailed from Madtown and moved his music equipment business from a Madison storage facility to a rambling warehouse showroom that mAcdonald and his investors own next to the motel. But I digress….

It’s legacy that weighs on pat mAcdonald’s mind, and we eventually get around to the spook in the breakfast nook. It’s not just that he turns 65 in August, but that 2016 found him confronting Stage 4 cancer — non-Hodgkins large B-cell lymphoma — and 10 months of on-and-off chemotherapy that exacted its own toll on his body. He’s now in remission and getting stronger.

That face-off with cancer — “It’s hell going through that shit,” he says matter of factly — has compelled him to not just put his creative work in order but to advance it, while there’s time.

To read more, please go here. Alternatively, the story can also be found on the No Depression website. I also wrote about mAcdonald in a recap of my favorite concerts .

 


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