Archive for the ‘TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus’ category

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.

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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 .

 

You Must Remember This, cont’d

January 22, 2017

In December 2013, I wrote about a Madison biotech company facing an investigation from the Food and Drug Administration over a dietary supplement that supposedly bolsters memory recall. Three years later, Quincy Bioscience has been sued by the Federal Trade Commission and the New York attorney  general on a related complaint.

My Isthmus story begins:

Quincy Bioscience, a Madison biotech company that has struck gold in the dietary supplement business, is facing a potentially ruinous lawsuit filed by government regulators.

The Federal Trade Commission in conjunction with the New York state attorney general is seeking to shut down sales of Prevagen, which is a costly over-the-counter supplement the company says improves brain function, including memory.

The supplement’s key ingredient is a synthetic version of a jellyfish protein called aequorin. Quincy has patented it and promoted aequorin as supporting a sharper mind and clearer thinking.

“A clear-cut fraud” is how New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman described the supplement in a press release. Through its advertising and TV infomercials, Quincy was preying on vulnerable senior citizens, he said, adding: Prevagen is a product “that costs more than a week’s groceries, but provides none of the health benefits that it claims.”

The FTC and Schneiderman want the court to issue a permanent injunction against the sale of Prevagen — which is Quincy’s core product — and to order the company to refund more than $165 million in Prevagen sales to consumers.

To read more, please go here.

Favorite Concerts of 2016

January 1, 2017

Well, hey there, here’s my 11th annual roundup of favorite concerts for Isthmus.

I got around in 2016. Upwards of 80 shows in Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond. I listened to jazz, alt country, rock, classical, experimental — none of it was the stuff that dominates the music charts.

And sometimes I just I stumbled into a felicitous and serendipitous musical moment:

Harris Lemberg’s weird but enjoyable surf/instrumental band, Compact Deluxe, at Tempest (Jan. 22). Jim and Mike Blaha of Shadows in the Crack raising the roof at Mickey’s late one night (Oct. 28) with their noisy twin guitars. Madison’s grande dame jazz singers — Gerri DiMaggio, Jan Wheaton and Lynette Marguiles — trading choruses and killing on “Summertime” at Genna’s (July 23).
Or walking through Atwood Fest (July 31) with my dog Blue and hearing keyboard monster Jimmy Voegeli with horns and thinking: I gotta see this guy more often. Or 15 minutes earlier, breaking into a big smile hearing Jane Lee Hooker — an all-female southern soul band out of New York — rave up, howl and seize the music that may be the last redoubt of male privilege in the music world: southern boogie.
Or poking my head into the Harmony Bar music room (Dec. 8) during a fundraiser for a sick musician at the exact moment “Westside Andy” Linderman unloads a perfectly sculpted harmonica solo that stops me in my tracks.
There’s a lot of good music out there.

You can read about my favorite shows at the Isthmus website.

My older roundups are here: 2015, 201420132012201120102009200820072006.

Death Of A Friend

October 28, 2016

Memory is mutable. It fades. Grows fuzzy. Plays tricks. Disappears. Writing is one way to hold on to meaning. Sometimes for dear life. I wrote this remembrance of David Medaris in a red heat after learning of his death.  I could close my eyes and see and hear David. As if he was there. I’m glad I got it down. The piece begins:

Isthmus has always been a collection of odd and compelling characters. None more so than David Medaris, who began writing for the paper as a West High student and who spent almost three decades as the listings editor and then a staff writer.

I was editor. David was David, which is to say he cut his own path. As the arbiter of listings, he functioned like a human algorithm. He precisely sorted and summarized hundreds of disparate and often recondite events that poured into the paper each week. No monk in a priory had a more exacting system of categorization.

David lived and breathed by his rules. Yet, paradoxically, he was also an exuberant, free-range thinker. He spied life’s complicated facets like a jeweler with a headlamp. Here was the reporter who would ponder endless questions for a story. David had to know. He had to understand. He was immensely curious about life and people. There was a sense of wonder and pleasure in comprehending both the mundane and the profound.

He also had a little sign on his desk: “Just tell the story.”

That was David: Painstakingly diligent, yet the faraway flutter of a butterfly in the Amazon might set him off on an intellectual ramble in the Isthmus lunchroom. He took delight in it.

His death Oct. 18 at age 57 after many years of beating back brain cancer was like a kick in the guts to his friends. His love affair with his wife, Michana Buchman, Isthmusassociate editor, was something any of us would want in this life. He always spoke of her with a tone of awe and respect. If only all of us could be so considerate of our partners. Now he’s gone.

To read more, please go here. The layout includes a marvelous portrait of David by the great photographic team J. Shimon & J. Lindemann.

Time For Madison To Think Big

October 26, 2016

I’ve written  about development in the Madison area since Pluto was a pup. Lots of stories on land-use plans, on the convention center battles, even the siting of the  MATC main campus. Stuff so old you can’t even find them in an online archives.

Those stories provide the background for me arguing in this Isthmus cover story that Madison needs a comprehensive recreational and economic plan for improving access to Lake Monona along John Nolen Drive all the way  from the Blair Street intersection and  Law Park to the South Beltline.

I write:

Today’s tech-fired boom in Dane County, which owes so much to [Judith] Faulkner’s Epic Systems’ breakout business in electronic health records, is the sort of transformative moment that comes once a century for a community. The overriding question: Can Madison make the best of it, including capitalizing on the intersection of Lake Monona with the city?

Not just downtown either [by building a terraced park over John Nolen Drive]. But reimagining a 21st-century John Nolen Drive all the way up to Quann, Olin and Turville parks to the Alliant Energy Center to the South Beltline and to the overlooked neighborhoods of south Madison.

“This is the next big piece,” says Rob Gottschalk, a planner with Vandewalle and Associates who has studied the John Nolen corridor. “The central city has grown and matured to the point we can now start focusing on the corridor.”

Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, gets it. So does Dane County Board chair Sharon Corrigan, her colleague and south-side Supv. Sheila Stubbs, County Clerk Scott McDonell, as well as business leader Susan Schmitz of Downtown Madison Inc.

“It’s a game-changer,” Schmitz says of the recent waterfront connection proposed for Law Park by the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup. “Improved access is on everybody’s list for the downtown.”

Like Gottschalk, Brandon, who served on the advisory board for the Vandewalle study, argues for a comprehensive game plan for the full corridor, including the Alliant Energy Center. “There is tremendous opportunity to create connectivity and economic development,” he says.

Indeed, a forward-thinking strategy for the county-owned 165-acre Alliant campus should be a key community challenge, as he, Corrigan, McDonell and Stubbs all argue. Surrounded by parks and the Goodman Aquatic Center, Alliant is the linchpin of 400 publicly controlled acres in a fragmented and sometimes impoverished part of town.

Pulling it all together in a comprehensive plan could simultaneously enhance lake access and recreational opportunities at Olin and Turville parks, strengthen Dane County’s convention and exhibition business at the Alliant complex and further economic growth along the South Beltline and in struggling south Madison.

All of these goals — celebrating the lakes, creating jobs, fighting poverty — rank high on just about everyone’s list of community goals, Brandon points out.

I freely admit this is an ambitious undertaking that would take decades to achieve. But the planning has to take place now. That’s the rub. Otherwise shortsighted, piecemeal development will go up “and then you’re stuck with it for the next 40 or 50 years,” as Gottschalk told me.

In other words, a great opportunity will be lost.

To read more, please go here.

What Would Tommy do?

April 19, 2016

Last fall I had lunch with a friend who covered Wisconsin’s Capitol when Tommy Thompson ran the state for 14 years. By the end, he said, Thompson had tired of the constant grind. Only when Thompson talked about his plans for the UW System did the old fire return
That stuck with me. A few years earlier I wrote a Capitol piece for Milwaukee Magazine that discussed the politically surprising partnership between the Republican governor and  liberal-minded UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala in launching a huge and transformative building program for the university.
Times have changed. Today the Capitol and the university see one another as an unreliable partner. I write:

The disharmony stems in part from the tensions of a generally liberal-minded university working with a decidedly conservative state government. Further exacerbating the relationship is the obliqueness of UW System bookkeeping and the Republican belief it hid a huge slush fund. (This became a key factor in the GOP-enforced tuition freeze and UW budget cut.) Add in the troubling geographic complaints that the UW System is Madison-centric and shorts the rest of the state and Milwaukee in particular.

UW advocates, in turn, are reeling from the $250 million UW budget cut, the four-year tuition freeze, the stripping of tenure protection from state statutes and Gov. Scott Walker’s surprise attempt in an earlier budget to bowdlerize the “Wisconsin Idea” that guides the UW’s mission to the citizenry.

All this makes for an unpleasant stew of missed signals, aggravation, suspicion and wheel spinning. Not to mention a nagging sense that the state as a whole is grievously hurt by the failure of the pols and profs to make nice.

Once upon a time it was different. Governors, Democrat and Republican alike, would tap top UW talent to serve and help run their administrations. Over the past 40-plus years this included Govs. Patrick Lucey, Lee Dreyfus, Tony Earl and Tommy Thompson deploying such UW luminaries as David Adamany, Walter Dickey, Ralph Andreano, Charles Cicchetti, Steve Born, Kenneth Lindner and Donald Percy in government service.

But under Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and now Scott Walker, a Republican, a new dynamic has emerged — governors ignoring the UW’s best and brightest to rely almost exclusively on their loyalists and apparatchiks to set policy and run the huge army of state employees.

More than one UW person I talked to spoke approvingly (if not longingly) of the Tommy Thompson era. That’s when an activist Republican governor with Hamiltonian ambitions for a greater Wisconsin found common ground with the university to unleash a major expansion of the UW System, including several billion dollars in campus construction.

How did he do it?

“I realized the university had to be my ally,” Thompson, 74, explains matter-of-factly, as if he were addressing a Poli Sci 101 class. “I had to make the university much more responsive to the needs of Wisconsin. And I said to myself I have to do it in a collegial way, because I don’t have the political power to do it alone. I’ve got to make sure the university understands I’m going to be its best friend. And for that friendship — quid pro quo — they’re going to help me build every part of this state.”

You don’t hear talk like that anymore in Wisconsin. An obvious question calls out: What would Tommy do to improve the sad state of campus-Capitol relations?

To find the answer, please go here.

There are two sidebars with the story. (The whole package is about 5,000 words.) The first reports how Thompson, a life-long UW booster, will be honored at UW-Madison’s spring commencement. The second details how the state’s failing efforts at economic development ignore the recommendations of UW researchers.

 


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