Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Helping the University Avenue Holiday Lights become a permanent institution

University Avenue Holiday Lights Through a Rainy Windshield
They look great in any weather but were especially beautiful in the rain the other night. Dr. Jack Kammer's University Avenue Holiday Lights are a Madison institution that seems to have been there forever, brightening the winter darkness for thousands of people. But in reality it's only been 15 years since the now retired Madison dentist first started stringing lights on the couple hundred arbor vitae trees he bought for $8.50 apiece in the early eighties and planted along the railroad tracks that ran by his office. Over the years he has invested some $100,000 to keep the lights shining every holiday season. He tells the story in a new book available at University Bookstores, The Story of the University Avenue Holiday Lights: Madison, Wisconsin USA.
The first chapter — called, with a nod to the Pentateuch, "In the Beginning" — tells how Kammer acquired the land occupied by the trees from the Wisconsin and Southern Railroad, how he bought the trees from an Eau Claire nursery, how he planted them and "watered them profusely." Elsewhere he recounts the project's early years, when he bought incandescent lights at Menards, and he describes in some technical detail the switch to LEDs.

So what's it all about? Kammer writes that the display is a thank you to his foster mother (described movingly in a prologue), to his wife, to a childhood friend and, essentially, everyone — "every ethnic background and every religion."
To help make sure the lights outlast him, Kammer has also started a trust fund, the Shorewood Hills Trust Tree Fund. Contributions are tax deductible.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Madison dodges a weather bullet as effortlessly as Bush ducking a shoe

December Rain on State Street
The warm temperture and steady December rain Sunday afternoon and evening resulted in many beautiful scenes -- if you're a camera, or maybe the weatherproof "Forward" statue on the State Street corner of the Square. For humans, not so much, though the intrepid bicyclist seemed to be managing.

A few hours later, we could have had a real disaster. Temper- atures dropped some 40 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few hours. The weather reports predicted the rain would continue and turn into snow as the cold front moved in. We had one of those last year. Rainwater mixed with snow and pooled on our street, paving it with a layer of ice that lasted for weeks. Eventually part of it melted in spots, only to give us ice potholes that were hell on suspensions and almost impossible to drive out of if a wheel happened to fall into one while you were backing out of the driveway.

It didn't happen. Instead, the rain melted most of the remaining snow on the streets and then stopped while it was still warm. Gusty winds then dried off the streets before the subzero windchills moved in. Perfect timing.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Alone in the office at night, everything starts to look strange

Working Late in the Office
Things get strange when you're alone in the office at night. It's quiet except for the occasional odd noise you don't want to think about, the lights are out in the background, and objects your coworkers put up to make their cubes more like home -- the things you hardly notice in the daytime -- glow with a kind of hyper-reality under the spotlight of the overhead fluorescent fixture, highlighted against the dark background. They seem alive with a life of their own.

Working Late in the OfficeIn the stillness, everything feels a bit weird. You pick up the pace and maybe cut a corner or two so you can get finished and be able to leave. You crank up the iPod to drown out the sound of silence. And sometimes it feels like somebody is watching you. Poking your head up above the partition, you see that somebody is. He's pastel and furry and strangely threatening. That's when you know you've had too much coffee.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dazzling holiday lights and news of layoffs and budget cuts at the Overture Center for the Arts

Overture Center for the Arts
The ebullient enthusiasm with which Madison rushed into the construction of the Overture Center for the Arts without a lot of thinking about the underlying economics was part of the bubble economy that tanked so recently.

Overture Center for the ArtsThere was a manic rush to rebuild the downtown on a massive scale without seeming limit. There was business to be done, condos to be built, and the "condo magnet" was at the heart of it all. Now the consequences are all too clear. Now there is news of layoffs, declining budgets and reduced revenues. Overture president Tom Carto sketched out the new realities:
"It's a perfect storm in the demise of the trust fund and the financial crisis everyone is feeling right now," Carto said. "The 2009 budget is looking pretty dire. We have to respond. We're compelled to have a balanced budget. We're going to do that."

Overture expects to end the current year with a $380,000 shortfall, which will be covered with a surplus from 2007 and about $100,000 from the private 201 State Foundation, Carto said.

Carto said he and managers combed through the budget to find savings for next year, but it became clear that layoffs were unavoidable.
But, man, they sure do put on a gorgeous light show for the holidays.