Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why (at least) one Madisonian has to leave the country to be able to live with her spouse

Joey and Gabi, Married at Last
Joey Johannsen (left), a long-time Madison resident with friends and family in this part of the country, will soon be quitting the job she loves, selling her truck and her home and moving to Europe to be with her spouse -- Gabi Helfert, right. I wrote in this post last month about the marriage in Dubuque of these friends of mine (who met, indirectly because I posted a photo of a bridge on Flickr).

Not only does Wisconsin not recognize gay marriage, but neither does the federal government -- especially when it comes to immigration policy. If they were a heterosexual couple, Gabi could easily get a visa for living and working here. At the same time, their marriage is recognized throughout the European Union. It just isn't a problem there.

As it is, they communicate by Skype between visits and prepare for Joey to move to Rotterdam. Check out this article by Pat Schneider in today's online Capital Times. It discusses their situation, as well as the broader issue of passing immigration reform for gay couples. There's also a cool photo by Mike DeVries of the two of them teleconferencing by Skype.

Ideally, Gabi and Joey would be living in Madison, which they love. Gabi's English skills are better than Joey's Dutch (though she's working on it), and in moving to Europe, Joey would leave behind a lot more family members than Gabi would the other way around. But Joey is the one who has to move. It just doesn't seem fair.

The Big Chill: Daily newspaper journalism drowning in the icy waters of indifference

Forget the usual suspects. What's destroying newspapers isn't mainly the Internet, social media or other innovations. It's not the sheer youthful fecklessness of the Facebook generation. It's indifference. Readers realize their newspaper has become irrelevant to their lives. They stop caring and they tune it out. Or -- and this amounts to the same thing -- while they may still browse the website, they refuse to pay for what they once bought gladly. This casual, icy indifference is numbing and hard to reverse.

I was reminded of this by writer Mimi Johnson's cry from the heart about her journalist husband Steve Buttry's reluctantly leaving his newspaper. He had given his heart to newspapers for decades, but newspapers did not love him back. Johnson tells a sad tale that's being repeated all over the country as newspapers downsize, "right-size," reorganize and lay off some of their best and most experienced people. Others, like Buttry, leave the profession voluntarily, because they can't bear what's happening to it.

Especially poignant was her account of how her household's relationship with the daily newspaper had changed even before her husband jumped ship.
You see, he was not the first in our family to give up on newspapers. Last summer, in the midst of a temper tantrum at our local paper, I told Steve I would not allow any newspaper into our home. Not the city paper, not any paper. When he laughed, my rage subsided enough for a rueful smile. We both knew I was addicted. I grew up reading the Des Moines Register. As a four-year-old, I would stretch out with the paper, picking out the words I could identify, longing for the day when I knew enough of them to understand the whole story. When I did, I loved reading even more than I dreamed. Poring over printed words became my daily ritual. I didn’t even mind when the ink rubbed off on my hands.

Steve and I both knew my newspaper ban wouldn’t last. But it did. There weren’t even any withdrawal symptoms. I changed a lifetime habit overnight and it didn’t hurt a bit. Every morning I turn on my laptop and catch up with the news. At first I wondered if I’d stay as well informed. That seems na├»ve now. I am better and more quickly informed. I no longer rely on an editor to pick and choose what news I will read. My news is no longer a day old. The only limit is the time I will give it. I hit links off my Twitter stream. I troll newspaper web sites. I visit all-digital news sites. Newspapers have cannibalized their product to make ends meet for so long, I’ve lost nothing in the way of quality. If a web site has a paywall, I move on. I can always find someone else who’s willing to give me the story for free. [Empasis added.]
This was in a journalistic household (Johnson also started out as a reporter). If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere -- and it has, countless times. It doesn't take much -- spurred on by nothing more than a whim, a fit of pique, or a chance decision about which bill to pay -- one family after another changes a lifetime habit overnight, and it doesn’t hurt a bit. Each time it happens, another daily newspaper sinks a little more deeply into the icy waters of indifference.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Six-wheeled, rolling testosterone road rage confrontation on Monroe Street

Sometimes you're just too startled by something unfolding in front of you to pull the point-and-shoot video out of your pocket to document it. This was one of those times. I wish I had the video, with sound effects.

I was near Trader Joe's when I heard a car horn blaring steadily from far away. It sounded as if it were up by Edgewood. It sounded like a car alarm. I was thinking the usual irritable thoughts like, why the hell do people have to pollute an entire neighborhood with noise every time somebody brushes against their precious vehicle? Then I realized it wasn't a car alarm. It was a moving car, getting closer and louder.

As it drew closer I saw it was a large minivan. Was the horn broken? No. The driver was a big, middle-aged guy with a round face and an idiotic, angry grin, and he seemed to be pressing down on the horn with all his enraged might.

The cause of his wrath was visible right in front of him. There was a bicyclist in the middle of the one eastbound traffic lane in front of him, going about the limit (it's a long downhill run, and he was pedaling hard) in a place where people usually drive at least ten miles over. He was tall, young, and the absolute archetype of everything that would trigger a bike-hater's rage: expensive bike with racing wheels, helmet, black Lycra shorts andred and black racing shirt.

Two cultures in direct conflict and neither willing to back down: The driver kept steadily pressing the horn at maximum volume, following the biker just a little too close, enraged that somebody was blocking his constitutional right to speed.

For his part, the bicyclist clearly did not want to ride in the parking lane and risk being sideswiped by a car, or have a door from a parked car open in his face at 25 mph. So he rode right down the middle of the traffic lane, where the only way to get past him was to drive right over him. Even the angry driver was unwilling to do that, so he vented with his horn. Could the biker have pulled over and let traffic pass? Sure. Did he feel like it? No. Was it because the driver was being such a jerk? Maybe. Or maybe the bicyclist was a jerk too.

The bicyclist kept turning around and gesturing angrily -- probably obscenely from the look of it -- at the driver. The driver just held down the horn. They proceeded like this for nearly a mile, locked together in mutual testosterone rage, all the way to Regent and Monroe, where one or the other must have turned at last and the honking stopped. Wow.

Lucky nobody was hurt. The bicyclist could have hit something or someone as he kept turning around to taunt the driver. The driver could easily have rear-ended him if the biker had stopped suddenly. Neither seemed to care.

Have I ever ridden down the middle of a traffic lane, slowing traffic? Yes, but only in a tight space where it's unsafe to be at the side of the road, like the old Park Street underpass or similar situations. Otherwise I yield to traffic -- and use a bike path when I can.

That's what was so ironic about this little drama. The city of Madison and the federal government spent a lot of money constructing a beautiful bike path, the Southwest Bike Path, that makes for a great ride downtown and parallels Monroe Street its entire length. Why not use it?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The sitcom that dare not speak its (real) name

When CBS turned the popular Twitter page Shit My Dad Says into a William Shatner sitcom for next season, they posed a conundrum for themselves and other language prudes like the New York Times -- what to call the show and the Twitter page that inspired it. Can Captain Kirk really talk shit? Apparently not.
The biggest surprise on next season’s CBS schedule is a sitcom tentatively called “Bleep My Dad Says,” not just because its title disguises an expletive, but because it was inspired by a page on Twitter.

Yes, the anyone-can-make-media spirit of the Web has made it to prime-time network television, and probably not in the form Internet tycoons would have predicted. The CBS show inspired by a popular Twitter page — whose actual name is decidedly more profane than the “Bleep” title — is an old-fashioned, multicamera, studio audience comedy . . .
The book is also clothed in euphemism in publishing circles. The publisher calls it Sh*t My Dad Says, which at least makes it pretty clear what the title is. This is apparently much too explicit for the NYT, whose best-seller list shows it as **** My Dad Says, thus giving Justin's Dad a near infinite vocabulary of possible four-letter swear words.

It's a real tempest in a teacup for delicate sensibilities. Maintaining an elevated tone in newspapers and on network television sort of made sense when they were, or at least thought they were, arbiters of what constituted acceptable public discourse. But those days are long gone.

At a time when vernacular, spoken English and written English are rapidly converging on the web, these rearguard actions by self-proclaimed language police just seem hypocritical and ineffectual. And funny.