Saturday, December 29, 2012

RIP, Mahal

The sudden death of Mahal -- Milwaukee County Zoo's 5-year old orphaned orangutan -- has hit us hard.

Since his arrival in Milwaukee, my wife and I have enjoyed visiting the zoo and watching him grow. He was a  treasure.

If you have lived in Milwaukee the past 5 years and haven't seen and watched Mahal play behind his glass, you really missed a zoological treat. Mahal was precious. He was funny, person-like, cute, energetic, curious and a real ham.

We've been zoological members nearly the entire time he's been alive. Just Christmas Day we considered going to the zoo. I recall saying, "I haven't seen Mahal in a while. I miss that guy!"

That was only four days ago. How I wish we would have went.

There were many times we would visit the zoo and just watch Mahal for an entire hour. We'd struggle unsuccessfully to snap a photo of him -- he was always on the move! Getting him to sit still for a picture was nearly impossible. He was every bit as curious about the world around him as any 5-year old. He'd hang from a branch upside-down and smile at his admirers. Or bury himself in straw then suddenly pop out in an effort to surprise his surrogate mother, MJ. We would all laugh.

People would watch him for a bit, but I couldn't resist telling them the story: Mahal was rejected by his biological mother. He was flown to Milwaukee with the hope that Milwaukee's female orangutan, MJ, would care for and raise him. And care for him she did! Wherever Mahal went in their home, MJ was close to follow. Always prepared to protect him from peril and admonish his trespasses -- MJ was the ultimate guardian.

Such a good mother she was too. She will be devastated.

Watching MJ and Mahal was not only fun, but it was educational  It was hard not to watch their interactions and see human-like caring and nurturing. They are intelligent creatures, not your normal feces-tossing furry primates. They are deliberate, delicate and intelligent beings, exhibiting the same care for each other as us humans do. Their behavior fascinated me, and I learned from them.

I hope, somehow, MJ can carry on and maybe even adopt another parental rejected infant. If there can be an upshot, this will be it.

Mahal, you were special. You were more than a zoo animal in a cage to us. You exhibited youthful exuberance and innocence in its purest form. That's why it was such a joy to see you. You will be forever missed --greatly, and to be remembered eternally.

Thank you for showing us the best that we humans can hope to be -- innocent, pure and playful.

RIP, Mahal.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Root, Root, Root for the Home Team

Courtesy of Sobelman's Pub & Grill, we went to the Milwaukee Bucks game last night. It was great to win the tickets on short notice and we were excited to go to the game--I've had more than normal interest in the Bucks this year. They have an exciting team. Plus, I cut cable TV--if I want to see the Bucks, I have to either go to a bar or the arena!

Unfortunately though, the Bucks laid an egg. Maybe it was the previous night's overtime victory over the Celtics in Boston that wore the team out. They played lethargically. Brandon Jennings was only 3 for 13 shooting. Yeesh. That's terrible.

Regardless, here's the thing that disappointed me: fans streaming for the exits with six and half minutes to go in the 4th quarter with Bucks only down 10. C'mon. I've seen enough basketball games to know 10 points is not an insurmountable deficit to make up in six minutes. Heck, I've seen 10 points made up in less than two minutes.

I'll never forget Game One of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals in New York, Reggie Miller amazingly scored 8 points against the Knicks in the final 18.7 seconds: a 3, followed by stealing the inbounds pass and another 3 to tie the game and 2 free throws, erasing the Knicks' 105-99 lead and stealing the game 107-105. That was great.

And you know who missed it? All the fans that didn't stick around to the end. 

Why do people do this? My take is if you are ever going to attend an exciting sporting event, a come-from-behind victory in the final minutes is going to be the most memorable one. Sure, more often than not you will still leave disappointed that your team lost, but every once in a while you'll experience a great comeback.

Very seldom do I leave a game before it's over. And over the years, I've been treated to a couple great games. 

Lastly, if we are fans, shouldn't we support our team till the end? I mean, fans streaming towards the exits six minutes before the game's end doesn't send a very good signal to the team, does it? Maybe us fans could influence a game's outcome by energetically supporting our team and imploring them to play well. But no, instead we mumble obscene epithets about overpaid millionaires and stream for the exits.

I think that's too bad. It's jaded. And I'm not going to be a fan that way.

Go Bucks! Shake it off and return to winning form against the Nets on Wednesday night!

Thanks again, Sobelmans, for the tickets too!

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Top 12 Albums of 2012

2012 was a great music year for me. Not only did I break some personal ground and get involved with a band and play music in public settings (pubs!), but I also listened to a TON of new music, mostly thanks to cutting cable television and subscribing to rdio. (Seriously folks. Cut cable TV from your life. You'll miss it only a little, but gain so much more.)

My top 12 albums of the year, with a few short notes on each, follow. You'll notice a decidedly hard rock bent to my favorites. Why? I missed good, loud, shake-a-fist in the air Rock and Roll the past few years. Too many pop artists or shoe-gazing, acoustic troubadours seem to have populated the music landscape the past few years. This year a few new bands picked up the Rock and Roll torch and carried it. Not only new bands, but a few veterans got back in the game with solid records too.

So without further adieu, here's my top 12 albums of 2012!

Hands down, my favorite album of the year is Japandroids' Celebration Rock. Spatial, soaring, melodic, jangly, driving -- all of my favorite rock adjectives apply to their debut album. I love it.

Exactly the opposite of Japandroids are Swedish sisters First Aid Kit making music Americana music reminiscent of Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. Different however, in their beautiful harmonies. The Lion's Roar's  "Emmylou" is my favorite song of the year. It's just gorgeous and pays homage to four great American artists too.

The Smashing Pumpkins roar back with Oceania. This album has no filler. It's Corgan and whatever company he's with back at what they do best: big, loud, expansive arena rock. I think it's fantastic.

Bob Mould, a long-time veteran and founding member of Hüsker Dü and Sugar, returns to brilliance with Silver Age. Might the "silver" in Silver Age refer to the color of his hair? Matters not. Bob returns to the spotlight and gets me to pull out all of my old Hüsker Dü and Sugar albums and reminds me why I fell in love with his music 20 years ago (or more!) in the first place.

Green Day. No kidding. The veteran punkers return to making short(ish), punk-pop songs that are a punch in the gut. I loved their Grammy winning rock and roll opera album American Idiot, but it's cool to see them kind of say with this album "Step aside, youngsters. Let us show you how it's done." I've never heard the band tighter and punchier and if it weren't for one song ("Kill the DJ"), this album would be pop rock perfection.

I hesitated putting The Lumineers' tremendous debut album on this list for fear that, reminiscing about the album, their irresistible tunes would be stuck in my head again until March 23rd. No matter ... it's worth it! "Ho Hey" or "Flowers in Your Hair" may be the songs that introduced many of us to the catchy Americana sounds of The Lumineers, but songs like "Stubborn Love" show me that this band is much more than 2 minute catchy melodies. In fact, I was so consumed by "Stubborn Love" mid-Summer that I easily listened to it over a hundred times while learning to sing and play it on my guitar.

Alabama Shakes' Boys and Girls is probably my most listened to album on this entire list. It actually took a little while to grown on me, but once it did, it's hold was unbreakable. It's mainly due to the powerhouse vocals of Brittany Howard. Watching YouTube videos of her captivated me. Such energy and sheer vocal strength. The day tickets went on sale for their late November show in Milwaukee went on sale, I snagged a pair. A few months went by and I nearly forgot why I was so determined why to get tickets to the show ... then I saw it. Wow. Ms. Howard blew me away. And the band was tight. I saw a few good shows this year, but this one is hard to top. I'll see them again at the drop of a hat.

This was first big album of 2012 for me.  Erika Wennerstrom of The Heartless Bastards has an unmistakable voice and the band employs meaty, fuzzy guitar riffs not unlike Keith Richards' finest. This is a great "roll the windows down on a warm summer day, crank to 11 and drive around the country" kind of album. Unfortunately I saw them at Summerfest and was disappointed. The music was perfectly played, but their stage presence was non existent. Someone should check the Leinenkugel's stage -- maybe they're still nailed to the floor in the same place. Still, a wonderful album.

For me, a highlight of 2012 was meeting Kristian Matsson -- The Tallest Man on Earth -- on the street outside of the Pabst Theater last Summer. The ironically named artist is not tall, but he is ENORMOUS in sound. Not only was his one-man show enthralling, his 2012 release There's No Leaving continued his songwriting and guitar mastery that dominated his earlier releases. I'm a huge fan. Kristian's future releases will continue to be day-of-release purchases for me.

Only within the past few weeks have I discovered and fallen for this album. An indy supergroup of sorts with members from Deer Tick (and/or Middle Brother), The Black Lips, Los Lobos, Dead Confederate and Six Finger Satellite, this album has a real Devil-may-care attitude. It swaggers and has a gritty honky tonk feel. I've been spinning it a ton the last month of the year instead of listening to Christmas music. "Hungover and Horny" may not be a Christmas tune, but it sure has got a toe-tappin' beat!

My favorite band of the new millennium -- The Avett Brothers -- released a new album after a nearly 5 year wait. It was worth the wait. It's stellar.

Hospitality's Hospitality sounds like nothing else on this list. Listening to it, one could well expect to forget what year it is. It has a bit of retro Brit-pop and Brook-pop sound (the band is from Brooklyn) with a lot of space between instruments. Listening with headphones, one can clearly hear the bass in the left corner of the room, the guitar in the right, and the vocals and drums right in the center.

It's hard to know when to stop listing albums I enjoyed last year. Others include Divine Fits, King Tuff, and Of Monsters and Men. These artists' albums also were played with heavy rotation.

I hope 2013 brings another year of great new music and a year from now I'll be listing my top 13 Albums of 2013!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Song Reader. Genius.

What an awesome idea!

There are many great musicians in the world -- some I know, but unfortunately, many I've yet to discover.

One, however, I do know - and you do too, I think - has done something positively unique. Yet you're likely to ever hear of it. Especially on the radio.

The artist? The incomparable Beck.

The project? "Song Reader." A sheet music book of Beck's songs, only he isn't giving us, the listeners ... er, readers ... the opportunity to hear his version of these songs. Nope. He is leaving the audible portion of his work up to interpretation by other musicians - professional and amateur alike.

Genius. And a visit to the website for the album -- -- is where one can go to hear others' versions of Beck's written work.

It's reminds me of the Irish pub sessions I take part in: amateur musicians sitting is a circle and taking turns playing their interpretation of songs, Irish or otherwise. is a little like a virtual campfire sing-along.

How cool will it be for us (me, a self-proclaimed "hack") musicians  to record these songs at the tempo, tone, and style that we think sound best? Piano? Guitar? Cello? Will we match the sound that Beck had in his mind? Or will we bring a completely new twist to the melody he dreamt?

I don't know. But I do think his idea to release an album without sound is one of the purest, fresh musical ideas I've heard of in long while. I'd like to get my hands on that book, my guitar, a recorder and let my creative juices flow. After recording a song, I'd love to heat others' interpretations of the same.

Updated (Jan 3. 2013): I see the Portland Cello Project recorded all 20 songs from Song Reader and posted them to their Soundcloud site.

The following videos are a great example of the project. Numerous artists perform and upload Beck's Old Shanghai. I particularly enjoy the Seattle Rock Orchestra's interpretation!

Monday, December 10, 2012

You Know What Fish Do in a Fishbowl, Right?

Traveling, I'm always on the lookout for a unique place to dine and have an adult beverage. In Waco, Texas, I see this place called "Trojan Cork & Keg." By name alone it sounds like a place that I'd probably like. I mean, I like spirits aged in kegs and bottled with corks. However, a quick review of Yelp and I see "84oz fishbowl filled with the perfect blend of alcohol and mixers and blue in color to make it look like a real fishbowl!" and "My favorite, however, has to be their infusion shots."

Thank you, Yelp, for making my decision for me and guess what? Tonight I'll dine instead at the Holiday Inn Northwest Bar & Restaurant. I saw they had beers on draught, hamburgers and HDTVs. That's all this weary business traveler needs.

And I'm usually pretty adventurous guy, but I have no desire to have a drink that looks like a fishbowl nor do I ever care to try an infusion shot. Not today. Not ever.

Call me old fashioned.

Hey, an old fashioned. Now there's a tasty cocktail!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Who's Preserving Whom?

My wife and I went out exploring on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. Leaving the house with no particular direction, we somehow would up on Milwaukee's south side and drove past a place in the shadow of the Greendale's Crystal Ridge Ski Area: The Timberwolf Preservation Society (map).

Driving past, we said, "What the heck is that?" With only one way to find out -- we turned the car around and pulled into the preserve.

Our first 5 minutes on the the grounds may have been the most interesting. A fellow cloaked in Packers gear immediately told us that no photography was allowed and that we should stay away from the fence as Washo -- the Alpha male -- was agitated.

Inside of a small building we handed a lady $5 each as our guide suited up for the walk around the preserve. 

Exiting the building, Mr. Packer kept waving us to keep moving. Standing about 15 yards from the cage Washo and Loki call home, we quietly discussed the preserve with our guide. Silently, the Packers-garbed fellow kept waving us to move farther away from the fence. Any further away and we would have been back to the parking lot!

Our guide moved as along to another row of fenced cages where we weren't permitted to get any closer than 10 yards. Again, she kept talking about the wolves being agitated. 

We were the only ones visiting the preserve. I failed to see how we were agitating the wolves any more than the busloads of student groups that visit there on occasion. And I asked what was going to happen if the wolves became agitated. Were they going to hop the fence and attack us or what?

Apparently they'll just stress out and pace around a lot. And if one wolf does this, the other wolves will too.

Finally the wolves' keeper approached us. Moments earlier we saw her feeding large chunks of chicken jerky to the wolves. She would also reach through the fence and scratch their backs with vigor. 

She explained that she had been with the five sibling male wolves every single day of their 11 years. Just a few days after they were born she was bottle feeding them, and since then has been the only one allowed to clean the animals' fenced pens and inspect the wolves. She makes certain to wear the same clothes, clean herself with the same soap and use the same shampoo so that her scent is always familiar to the wolves.

One time, the guide explained, that the keeper had returned from a public event to which she wore mascara. Upon entering one of the wolf's pens, the wolf approached her, sniffed her, sniffed her face, and then proceeded to take its front teeth and gently, systematically remove the mascara from her lashes.

No way would I ever let that happen! I'd be outta that pen faster than you can say "Big, bad wolf!"

It was clear to us that this place does care about their wolves, but after leaving, and having a chance to ruminate a bit, we wondered, what are they preserving there? The timberwolves? Or their own little hobby? Call it a "preserve," charge visitors $5 and use patrons' dough to help feed your pets. I mean they've got 5 male wolves, all brothers separated by fences, with no chance of procreating -- I don't see how this is preserving the species. 

Maybe 45 years ago, when the preserve was founded, it made sense. Timberwolves then, were greatly endangered. However today they have been successfully reintroduced and are again roaming Wisconsin and Minnesota's northwoods. In fact, there's enough now that there even is a hunting season for them. 

My thought is that this "preserve" has run its course. If may have helped successfully preserve the species during their leanest times. However, today it serves little purpose as an amusing hobby for its proprietors. And it does seem to be a rather inhumane way of treating this noble, albeit fierce, animal.

Let the 5 wolves currently captive live out their lives and call it a day for The Timberwolf Preservation Society. No need to pen up anymore wolves.

That's my opinion, anyway.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

It's a Zero-Zero Ballgame!

Watching the Badgers throttle Nebraska reminds me of a funny story. It brings a smile to my face every time I think of it.

I played football all throughout high school. Every team I ever played on was pretty good. In fact, my Junior year we went to the Wisconsin State Finals and played at Camp Randall only to fall prey to a powerful opponent with a beast of a running back (I still hate you, Deforest).

Being a good team meant we heard certain things from our coach with regularity. One of coach's common halftime sayings was "Okay, boys. It's a zero-zero ballgame. Now let's go out there and execute!"

The reason he would say that is, we usually went into the locker room at halftime with a nice lead. "Zero-zero ballgame" meant that we should not rest on the first half's success, but approach the 2nd half like the game was tied. Stay focused, execute the game plan and, when the game was finally over and we were victorious, only then could we relax and celebrate.

I had a teammate who wasn't one of my favorites. He was a bit goofy and, when we were younger and I was a lot smaller than him, he would bully me. I never forgot his bullying and even when we were older, similarly sized, and he stopped picking on me, I still resented him.

For the sake of this story, we'll call him Johnson.

During my Senior year we had a problem with one of our opponents. So much so that we went into halftime down a considerable amount. I can't remember how much we were down, but it was probably about 13 points.

Anyway, in the locker room, Johnson starts yelling at his teammates, "Okay guys. It's a zero-zero ballgame!"

The coach hears him and shouts for all to hear, "Shut the hell up, Johnson. We're getting our asses kicked! We're down by 13 points and we got to go out there and play some catch up ball!"

Man, did I snicker. I took the game and our deficit pretty seriously, but when I heard that, I couldn't help but crack up. 


What a dumbass.