Friday, May 31, 2013

Day 19 - Watching a Drive-in Movie

I have never been to a drive-in movie theater. The idea of watching a movie outdoors has always appealed to me, but, until now, going to a drive-in movie was just one of those things I hoped would occur some day. I knew I would likely enjoy the experience, but I was never motivated enough to go out of my way to find a drive-in movie theater and make it happen. After a break in the week long period of rain we recently endured and a little motivation from my ongoing focus on trying new things, today provided a chance to finally see a movie in an outdoor theater.  As a result, I put my plans to experience a drive-in movie into motion, and checked off another "I have never..." event from my list.

Following another hectic workday, I made my way home this evening and got prepared to make the 55 mile trek to the Big Sky drive-in movie theater outside the Wisconsin Dells. Having made plans with some friends, Patrick and Angelica, I waited for them to arrive by relaxing a bit in my backyard. While earlier weather forecasts had called for overcast skies and the threat of more rain this evening, the weather broke during the afternoon in a very noticeable way. The sun was shining, clouds were few and far between, and the temperature was nearly perfect in the mid-70s. It was clear tonight would be an amazing night to watch a drive-in movie.

Shortly after Patrick and Angelica arrived, we packed up our cars and headed north toward the Big Sky drive-in theater. The drive proved the perfect setup for the night's experience as a heavy, golden sun slowly sank closer to the horizon with each mile we logged. In time, we arrived at the drive-in theater as dusk set in, and we finalized our choice of movie with a few quick calls back a forth out our driver side windows. With the choice of a Fast and Furious 6/Hangover III or Epic/Star Trek Into Darkness double feature, we chose to watch the former. Although the Fast and Furious franchise is not a series of films I generally take interest in, I figured the choice was the better of the two. Additionally, Patrick and Angelica expressed a clear preference for the Fast and Furious/Hangover combo, which made the choice easy to make.

Ready for the show
After paying for our tickets we drove in to the theater and found two parking spaces in the second row of the fanned drive-in "seating." With our vehicles side by side, Patrick, Angelica, Rachael, and I started unloading the goodies we had brought with us and started making plans for how we wanted to watch the movie. We all agreed it would be best to make the most of the green space to the right of our vehicles, so we situated some folding chairs and blankets in a small semi-circle facing the blank aged white rectangle that would serve as our screen. Over the next few minutes, each of us periodically disappeared to pick up a few items from the "snack bar" located at the center of the property. A few burgers, some nachos, a little cotton candy, and some drinks later, we were geared up for the show to start.

SNACKS.
Minutes passed as the sky darkened and the sounds of night began appearing in hushed tones. Then, without warning, the blank white screen came to life with color. The quality of the picture against the aged surface was surprisingly good and, after some tuning and volume adjustments, the audio coming from our car speakers proved decent enough to make it a good show. Fast and Furious 6 began as I expected, with a quickly developing plot, a lot of action, and, of course, fancy cars. As the movie pressed forward, the predictability of the plot and the gratuitous amounts of fights and explosions reminded me why I usually avoid such movies; however, I was determined to make the most of my first drive-in movie experience, so I tried to keep up with the references to previous events in the franchise and to stay interested in the development of the story.

About 45 minutes into the movie I realized my efforts to feign interest in the happenings before me weren't working as I had hoped. I had attempted to "fake it until I make it" regarding my interest in the Fast and Furios storyline, but it simply wasn't working. Although this may serve as a highly negative occurrence in any other cinematic experience, my fading interest actually facilitated one of the best moments of the night. Disinterested in who Vin Diesel was fighting or racing at that given moment, I leaned back in my chair and looked upward. The sky had turned pitch black with the night, ushering in an abundant display of stars that wrapped all around us. I slowly glanced across the night sky before bringing my sight toward the horizon at the back of the drive-in property. Against the backdrop of a periodic luminescence caused by lightning in clouds miles away fire flies danced through the air high above the green space below. With a slight smile on my face, I also took notice of the gentle breeze blowing through the air and the sounds of the leaves rustling in response. The audio of the movie ever present in the background, I was intrigued at how the natural surroundings seemed to enhance the viewing experience. Being among the summer air, the stars, and the trees added a certain degree of depth to the entire experience and, although I wasn't necessarily into the movie, I found myself thinking about how much I liked the experience. In that moment I realized I had put off watching a movie at a drive-in theater for far too long.

The Hangover III... Just begging to be watched.
We remained outside for the rest of Fast and Furious 6, which ended about as I expected after the early plot developments. Unfortunately, the movie ran much longer than any of us prepared for, and several members of our party were finding it hard to stay awake. With our group fading fast, we decided to pack away our things and head home for the night just as The Hangover III was starting. While we did not get to see both movies, my first time watching a movie at a drive-in movie theater was a great experience. The ability to sit outside on a beautiful summer evening and still enjoy a full cinema experience made me feel like the drive-in theater was time and money well spent; even if I didn't necessarily enjoy the movie we saw. As a result, I know I will make trips to the drive-in theater a more frequent occurrence in the future. I just hope my next visit will include a movie that I can actually get into.


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Day 18 - Playing Poker for Money

I have never played poker for real money. Although I previously learned to play the game and I've spent some time playing a hand online for fun, I have never played cards in person with real money at stake. My avoidance of such a scenario was largely the result of inexperience and an aversion to gambling that has been with me for most of my life. As someone with a historical tendency for little-to-no luck, I have never been one to accept the idea of accepting the risk of losing money on a whim. While I understand some skill is required to play poker successfully, the idea of betting on an unknown hand has never appealed to me. Despite these perspectives, I chose to give the idea of playing poker for money a chance tonight. As I expected, the experiment served only to leave me with less money in my pocket and more reasons to avoid gambling altogether.

The night began with an invite to play poker at the home of my friend, Justin. Upon arriving around 6:45 this evening, we chatted and waited for a few other people to arrive. In time, the room filled to around seven people, and we began to make plans to play some hands of poker. A few of the visitors were not interested in playing, so we narrowed the crowd down to four players and headed to the poker table in Justin's garage. I sat down on the near side of the table and quickly ran through what memories I had of the poker rules I acquired years earlier. I handed over the obligatory $20 buy in as chips were cast across the table. Once I received my share of the chips, I gave a quick count to confirm my holdings and stacked the chips in a manner that seemed most appropriate. I was fully aware my efforts to do so revealed my inexperience, but I was committed to playing the game regardless of my more apparent weaknesses. As such, I centered myself and prepared for what was likely to be an undesirable gambling experience.

Just as I found an appropriate balance in my stacks of chips the cards started flying. Before I could recognize what was occurring, we were in the middle of our first hand. As I tried to gain my bearings on the game before me, chips were striking the table as bets were being made. Turns moved quickly, and caught me off guard as I was still trying to make decisions on my next move. I immediately felt as though I was in over my head, but I remained focused on trying to make the most of the experience.

Taken by Justin's four year old son: The poker crew

The first few hands of the game were uneventful. There were no big bets and no surprises as the cards fell from one dealer to the next. Nervous, I sat waiting for the first big bet, which came shortly after I dealt for the first time. Playing cautiously, I folded on an unfavorable hand while the rest of the players bet higher. Money was trading hands rapidly, which reinforced my feelings on gambling and made me feel altogether uncomfortable. On the next hand I decided to follow suit, and I made large bets on two pairs of eights and tens. The hand carried on for some time as the other players increased the pot and challenged my position. Finally, it was down to me and one other player, Jeremy, who seemed aggressive in his betting strategy. Mistaking his enthusiasm as a sign of weakness, I went all in on my two pairs. The river proved to support my opponent as he showed a straight, which wiped me out completely. My first buy in to a real game of poker resulted in me losing all of my money in the first 15 minutes. I was green, and my game showed it. Disappointed, I sat out the next few hands and contemplated whether I wanted to buy into the game for a second time. The rest of the crew continued on, providing me pointers and encouraging me to give it another try. Resistant at first, I began to analyze the method used by each player as they played their hands. They made it look easy, which bolstered the idea of reentering the game. These thoughts led me to the local ATM to gather more cash for a potential second buy in, which I knew in my heart of hearts was a foolhardy move to make.

Cash in hand, I ultimately bought in for a second set of chips. I reassessed my approach as my holdings were doled out to me by another of the players, Colin. Hopeful I would redeem myself, I began to focus less intently on the cards I held and more on the signals and mannerisms of my opponents. Doing so proved beneficial in preventing me from losing any substantial amount of money on any given hand we played, but I eventually found myself with a dwindling stack of chips that had been slowly eroded away by my opposition. As my money ran out, I became less and less interested in the game before me, and I found myself looking for an outlet to end my gambling misery. As I expected, I was at last stripped of my last chip from my second buy in, which led to my exit from the game and my indefinite exit from playing poker for real money.

Tonight's blog post is brief and somewhat undescriptive. Perhaps it is a result of my losing $40 in a matter of three hours, or perhaps it is because the idea of gambling has always made me uncomfortable. Regardless, I took one important lesson away from tonight's experience: I will never gamble my money away on a poker game ever again. While I believe I may be able to become a more effective poker player with time and practice, my first experience playing poker for real money only fortified my perspectives on gambling. Mainly, the lessons gained about the apparent physical and monetary sacrifices necessary to make playing poker a profitable endeavor showed me gambling is no more than a loser's game.

Like my effort in playing poker tonight, my "I have never..." event for today proved a complete bust. As a result, I'm doubtful gambling of any sort will appear again in my "I have never..." events over the next 11 months. To me, it would be foolish to throw good money after bad when there are so many other things as yet undone that would prove a better use of my time and money. I learned a lot from today's experience, but unlike other days in the "I have never..." journey, I have no intention of giving today's "I have never..." event another try. This one simply wasn't for me. Unfortunately, $40 was a lot to spend to learn that was the case...

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Day 17 - Volunteering at WPT

I have never volunteered at Wisconsin Public Television. As a part of my "I have never..." challenge, I made the decision to volunteer once a month at an organization I have never volunteered to help in the past. Several weeks ago my search for organizations and events to meet this goal led me to Wisconsin Public Television's upcoming annual auction. When I learned I could volunteer my time working the phone bank at this event, I happily signed up to help an organization I love by fielding calls from interesting people in front of a live camera. That choice was a wise one.

Before getting the chance to work my volunteer shift this evening I had to get through my first day back to work following an extended Memorial Day weekend. The workday proved challenging as hundreds of emails greeted me upon arriving at my office. I spent the majority of my workday getting caught up and attempting to prioritize the seemingly endless piles of work appearing at my desk. By the end of the day I was exhausted and reconsidering the idea of following through with my three hour volunteer shift. However, I knew I couldn't back down after making my commitment, and I wasn't about to let a temporary case of fatigue stand in the way of my "I have never..." challenge. As a result, I made my way to the WPT studio and spurred myself into a more enthusiastic state of mind.

This stimulation proved vital to getting through the first part of the volunteer shift, which entailed a detailed, yet highly unstructured, training session on the appropriate ways to answer the phone and fill out auction slips. For twenty minutes we walked through acceptable verbiage for answering the phones, necessary questions and documentation to ensure bids were placed properly, and the layout of the television studio. The experience cast doubt over my choice of volunteer opportunity for the day's event and made me contemplate the likelihood of my WPT phone bank shift living up to my expectations. My hopes dwindled further when I saw a half of a dozen hands shoot up into the air when the instructor opened up the training session to questions. I stared at my table in disbelief as questions piled up and people began to rattle off hypothetical scenarios with little-to-no chance of ever occurring. In that moment I thought about how my fellow volunteers efforts, although well intended, were only serving to make the simple task of answering phones into an unnecessarily complex and overwhelming process. Eventually, an experienced phone bank volunteer reassured those asking questions by indicating many of the questions would answer themselves once the volunteers hit the studio floor and gave the process a try. Somewhat convinced, those hesitant and questioning volunteers relented, and we were guided to the WPT studio.

The studio
We wound our way through hallways and passed stacks of production equipment packed full of cords and cables before we arrived at the physical location of the auction. The space was surprisingly small and packed with a flurry of activity. The few people in front of the camera almost appeared to exist in a quarantined, peaceful space wrapped in invisible boundaries as the production crew, camera operators, and auction runners scurried around the behind the cameras. Auction items quickly moved in and out of the studio, production assistant arms flailed to give direction, and auction runners hurried from one place to another with stacks of paper in their hands. Meanwhile, the on auction's MC casually discussed sponsors and auction items feet away as he moved in the calm, untouched space around him. As someone that had never been in a live television studio before, the contrary nature of this activity amazed me. I knew live television broadcasts were highly coordinated events, but the physical involvement of the staff gave me a new respect for the process and inspired motivation as I took my seat at the phone bank.

Minutes passed as I waited for my first phone call to ring in on my phone. I began to feel slightly nervous as phones began ringing all round me. I shuffled the papers around my area and moved my phone to keep my hands busy. Then, suddenly, my phone rang. I sprang into action and easily guided my caller through the bidding process as if I had done it a thousand times. The local phone bank captain confirmed my first auction slip was flawless, giving me the nod of approval and a quick thumbs up. My confidence building, I began to get more comfortable and become more aware of my surroundings. After a few more error free calls, I was starting to have fun talking with my callers in an effort to make the make their experience enjoyable and to make most of my volunteer experience.

Bank shot...
Nailed it!
In time, my neighbors began to show the same degree of comfort in their roles. We started chatting between calls and keeping tabs on whose caller was "in the lead" on the items up for auction. A feeling of amity was apparent among our phone bank team, which gave each of us encouragement and helped us stir up plenty of laughter. The hours came and past in what seemed a matter moments as idle time was fleeting and spirits remained high. There was no doubt we were making the most of our volunteer efforts and doing the best we could to keep the bids rolling into WPT.

Eventually, my volunteer shift drew to a close at 9:30 tonight. I was the last of our group to receive a phone call, and I actually found myself thinking I would be happy to stay and take more if needed. The number of people filing into our recently vacated phone bank positions made it obvious there was no such need. As a result, I made my toward the phone bank coordinator as he guided the rest of the group out of the studio. I found my way back through the winding halls of the building, and thought about how taken aback I was at the amount of fun I had during my WPT volunteer experience. I decided then I would gladly volunteer at the WPT auction again if presented the opportunity, and I would do everything in my power to convince my friends and co-workers to accompany me on my next volunteer shift.

Feeling assured in my volunteer effort and my commitment to putting together a volunteer team for next year's WPT auction, I leaned into the exit door of the WPT building with a smile. The sound of heavy rain rushed into the building as the door swung open toward the city sidewalk. A sigh nearly escaped my lips at the idea of a sixth day of rain, but the sense of accomplishment and feeling of ardor still fresh from my WPT volunteer experience restrained my initial response. I felt good and nothing was going to take that away from me. Heartened by my feelings I walked into the rain undaunted and made my way down the street. "I'm on to a good thing here..." I thought as the rain drops came to rest on every inch of dry space covering my body, "I'm on to a good thing, and this is only day 17."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Day 16 - Milwaukee Art Museum

I have never been to the Milwaukee Art Museum. The reason I addressed that fact today was because of a consistent theme in the "spring" of 2013... terrible, wet weather. For the fifth day in a row, nature gave us the gift of unseasonably cool temperatures and rain on a day my "I have never..." plans required good weather. As a result, I started running through my options for a backup and came upon number 159 on my ongoing list, visiting the Milwaukee Art Museum. I didn't know what to expect for exhibits, but I thought the experience would, at minimum, let me see some amazing architecture given the museum's status as one of the most iconic buildings in the Midwest. Although travel would be involved, a trip to the museum fit around the other obligations I had for the day. So, I grabbed my camera equipment and packed up for a trip to Milwaukee for the second time in three days.

Prior to leaving town, I visited my friend and talented hair stylist, Rebecca, at her new place of employment, Studio Z in Monona. As a bonus "I have never..." for the day, I got my first haircut from Rebecca at this new location. Based on my first experience, Studio Z is a well-run business employing some very talented people in a range of fields. For my fellow Madisonians, I highly recommend checking this place out. The staff is friendly, the services offered are wide ranging, and you walk away with a really good haircut.  Seriously, check it out.

Once my haircut was done, I hopped back in my car and headed straight for Milwaukee. The drive to the museum seemed unusually long as a result of a high volume of terrible drivers traveling highway 94. Although I saw several cars wander onto rumble strips and abruptly switch lanes uncomfortably close to the front of other vehicles, the drive to the museum was rather uneventful. When I arrived to Milwaukee I easily found my way to the museum, but I was, at first, afraid the museum was closed. The surface parking lots were nearly empty and the museum property was void of any foot traffic. The absence of such activity seemed slightly eerie as I slowly pulled my vehicle past the front of the building and made a turn toward the underground parking. Relief washed over me upon noticing a museum employee staffing the parking toll booth. Knowing my trip was not in vain, I entered the underground lot and parked my car very near the entrance of the building and readied myself for a trip through the museum. Although it was obvious it was a slow day for the museum, the thought of unoccupied museum space was a welcomed thought.

This alone was worth it...
I entered the building and climbed a set of stairs toward the museum's front desks. When I reached the top, the beauty of the main hall's white stone floor and arched glass ceiling stopped me in my tracks. I had seen photos of the museum's interior in the past, but the grandeur of the physical building before me caught me off guard. I was already enamored with the museum and I had yet to buy an admission ticket.

My fixation on the architecture around me made the museum employee chuckle a bit as she helped me purchase my admission ticket. Shortly thereafter, I had my pass to amble through the building, but I chose to spend a few more minutes taking in the sight of the awe inspiring sloped walls at the heart of the building. In time, I realized I had to get moving if I was to experience all of the exhibits in the museum. So, I took a quick look at the map the employee at the front desk handed me earlier and made my way down the long, spacious hallway separating the museum's entrance from the main exhibition spaces.

The first exhibit I encountered at the end of the hallway was a broad collection of antiquities from various eras of Western and Middle Eastern history. An Egyptian sarcophagus, Greek sculptures and pottery, and late medieval metal work lined the walls and shelves in the space around me. Passage into the next room revealed intricate metalwork, tapestries, and rudimentary, yet highly complex, pieces of clockwork. A table stacked with crystal glass served as the centerpiece for the room. The whole of the glass collection appeared illuminated from within as light poured through the transparent curved and linear forms of each piece. After taking in the various displays around me, I noticed a doorway to the left and right of the room. On the left I saw rows of paintings with Victorian themes.  On the right I noticed more modern works including paintings, sculptures, and mixed media. As a fan of the more classic forms of art, I veered left and began walking around the gallery.


For the next 45 minutes I walked through room after room of painted and sculpted works from the 13th century on. Subject matter ranged from people working, to religious scenes, to portraits and scenes from the wilderness. Each work told a unique story, which kept my mind occupied as I glanced around the room. I continued on, reading several of the placards next to the paintings to learn more about their background until I encountered a massive painting laden with religious symbolism dated to the 15th century. I walked as close as I could to the towering canvass and took note of the vibrant colors that remained after all those years. I was surprised at the smoothness of the paint, but I took note of my periodic observation of narrow lines moving through the paint and across the canvass. "Those brush strokes are 600 years old" I thought as I realized what I was seeing. I don't know why, but that moment hit me and stayed locked in my mind as I continued through the remaining rooms filled with Renaissance era works.

Eventually, I found my way back to the room containing the table of crystal glass and walked toward the modern art fixtures opposite the galleries I had just left. Minimalism, Expressionism, and Abstract styles could be seen in the majority of the works, with classic Pop Art and Surrealist pieces making periodic appearances. The exhibit almost seemed a contest between simplicity and complexity, which made me think of the breadth of art and creativity in our lives. With that in mind, I found my way back to the first room I entered after leaving the room with the crystal glass and decided to to dabble with creativity myself. I received some awkward glances from passing security guards as I manipulated my museum map and camera lens to serve as a temporary prop for my camera. After checking a few settings and lining up the shot, I took the below photo.

Fun with art!

After taking my self-portrait, I continued to the second story of the museum galleries, which included art from around the world. Room after room was filled with African art, ancient Chinese art, more European art, and modern and American folk art. The variety delighted me as the theme of each room provided an entirely new form of visual stimuli. The gallery space was surprisely empty, which gave me free reign over the rooms full of African relics, mid-century American photographs, Abstract European art, Chinese pottery, African paintings, handcrafted American folk art pieces, and deconstructed modern art pieces. I walked deeper into the second floor exhibition space accompanied only by the clicks of my foot steps on the smooth stone floow. Eventually, I rounded a corner to find several rooms of Georgia O'keefe paintings that reeled me in for the better part of 20 minutes. After my stay among O'keefe's works, I continued on to a room seemingly designated to a theme of struggle, which contained my favorite painting of the day, "War."

"...What is it good for?"

I wandered around the museum awhile longer looking at yet undiscovered works and revisiting some of my favorites from the day. Soon I was approached by a security officer who greeted me with a casual smile and the customary whispered message, "the museum is closing in 15 minutes." I politely said thank you and started walking back toward the room of antiquities that had greeted me when I arrived in the gallery space earlier that day. I was about to start walking back down the long hallway to the museum lobby when I noticed a small room tucked in one of the corners. I entered and was moved by what I saw. The room was designated solely to an ongoing "Veterans Book Project" seeking to gather the thoughts and accounts from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Somber quotes were printed on the walls, and books containing the stories and words of veterans from both wars laid in stacks on the tables. I rounded the table to find a piece of plastic holding notes from museum visitors offering encouraging words, gratitude, and individual thoughts on the contributions and sacrifices made by the members of our Armed Forces. After yesterday's "I have never..." event, I was happy to see someone trying to acknowledge our veterans much the same way I had the previous day... but on a much, much larger scale.

Good stuff
I spent the rest of my time in the museum looking through the materials in the "Veterans Book Project" room. With notice the museum was officially closing, I made my way back to the museum entrance to find the dreary weather had turned from rain to mist and fog. I knew my chances to get a good photo of the museum's exterior at "full sail" were dashed. As a result, I made my way back to my car and started the drive home.

My experience today was unexpected, but it was a great way to spend an afternoon. Although I feel the Milwaukee Art Museum could stand to gain a little more exhibition space, the art contained in the museum was wide ranging and interesting. Today I encountered several works I had always wanted to see in person and was exposed to many more with which I had never been familiar. The only consistent theme between them all was fascinating beauty and boundless creativity. After my first visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum, it is safe to say I will find myself visiting again. The creative feeling that comes from spending an afternoon with art is always welcome, but the architecture alone is enough to lure me back for another visit.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Day 15 - Writing a Letter to a Veteran

I have never written a letter to a United States war veteran. As has been the theme of late, unseasonably cold weather and rain prevented me from following through with my original "I have never..." plans for the day. Additionally, my backup plan fell through when I found out the Wisconsin Veterans Museum is closed on Memorial Day (makes sense, right?). I knew I wanted to do something to recognize the true meaning of today's Memorial Day holiday. As a result, I began searching for local events or volunteer work honoring our veterans. After hitting several dead ends in my local search, I turned to a broader scope of research. Eventually, I stumbled upon the website for "A Million Thanks", an organization devoted solely to honor the men and women of our Armed Forces. At the top of their website I noticed a "send a letter" link. Clicking the link led me to a page that described the letter writing campaign run by "A Million Thanks" and explained how the letters received go to active duty soldiers, injured soldiers, or veterans in need of some support. I immediately knew I found my "I have never..." task for the day, so I put pen to paper and began writing down my thoughts on the commitment and sacrifice made by every member, past and present, of our Armed Forces.

As I started writing I began thinking about all of my friends and relatives that have served. Although I have thanked each of them individually for their service in the past, I wanted the letter to reflect the depth of gratitude and respect I hold for those active duty soldiers and veterans that are closest to me. I thought about each of their lives and the sacrifices they had made through their service. I recalled memories of their time away and remembering how I used to dwell on the fact that the fear and the absence I felt as they were fighting thousands of miles away paled in comparison to what they faced each day. I thought about those now departed and about the stories I heard from my friends and family members that had returned from the battlefield. I thought about what it meant and about how I could never fully understand their benevolence, their willingness to put it all on the line, in their commitment and service. The words flowed onto the page, doing everything they could to express the sense of gratitude consuming me.

The letter

I wrote without end until I felt I had, in the slightest way, conveyed some sense of thanks for the work and the commitment made by the soldier or veteran that would ultimately receive my letter. Although I knew I will probably never know where my letter ends up, I was writing to all soldiers and veterans; to those I know and those I never will. I wrote wishing every veteran could read my words and know the gratitude I have for everything they have done for this country. Before long, the page was full and the words spilled onto the opposite side. In time, the letter drew to a conclusion and was ready to be sent.

I read the words once more before folding the piece of paper and tucking it into an envelope with the "A Million Thanks" address already scrawled on the outside of it. I stared at the envelope for a few moments as it rest on my desk waiting to be mailed. I was gripped by the uncertainty of who would receive the letter and by the humbling sense that words on a piece of paper just weren't enough to truly thank them for what they have done. However, I knew I was likely doing more than most people would think to do on a holiday that has become more synonymous with summer fun and grilling than it has with honoring members of our Armed Forces. In turn, I readied the letter for the outgoing mail and decided that, while I did not know who will receive the physical letter I wrote, I would post the text of the letter here for any and all veterans that come across this blog.

To those of you I have thanked before and to those of you I never have, this is for you:

"Dear Veteran,

I’m writing you from my home located in Madison, Wisconsin on a dreary, overcast day with the temperature hovering around 56 degrees. While I’m accustom to such weather amid the waning days of autumn, its presence today comes as an unwelcome surprise given the time year. You see, today is Memorial Day, the “unofficial start to summer” for many, a reason to get out the grill for some, and, most importantly, a day to remember those who have served our nation.

The latter reason is why I write you today. While I’m ashamed to say this is the first time I have written a letter to a veteran, today has always been an important day of recognition and gratitude in my life. I have never had the experience and distinction of serving, but I’m lucky and honored to know many people whose courage, selflessness, and love of country drove them to that higher cause. Friends and relatives, some here and some departed, chose to be among the few that protect the many, and like you, made amazing sacrifices to defend and preserve everything it means to be American.

For that, I’m eternally grateful and moved to my core. I thank you and every veteran for everything you have done for all of us. While I will never fully understand the sense of purpose and altruism that led you into the service, I can acknowledge the heart, drive, and undying commitment to that noble cause that is at the foundation of every man and woman in the Armed Forces. From that, it is apparent this nation, and everything it stands for, is because of you. We are better because of you. We are stronger because of you. We are at liberty and stand as that beacon of light for all others because of you. You give meaning to independence and what it stands for in the United States of America. That’s more than anyone else has ever done for this nation.

The words “thank you” cannot fully express the appreciation I have for the work you have done and the commitment you have made. Know that your service and sacrifice carries invaluable meaning to me and many other Americans across our nation. On this day, Memorial Day, you and your brothers and sisters in arms deserve endless recognition for your service. Although I know it may be some time before it reaches your hands, I hope this letter helps express my gratitude for your service. We are indebted to you for everything you have done, and for that, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

- Caleb M."

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Day 14 - Attending a Bio Dome Wedding


I have never been to a wedding in a bio dome. This was not an event originally on my "I have never..." list, but I was happy to take up the opportunity when Rachael let me know one of her cousins was getting married at the Mitchell Domes in Milwaukee. Although I had never met Rachael’s cousin or his bride to be (Rachael has a total of 20 uncles and aunts… who each have a minimum of two kids), I figured attending a wedding at such a memorable place was an event I shouldn’t miss. My intuition proved correct.

Dan and Audra
Although I had visited the bio domes in Milwaukee when I was much younger, visiting them today felt much like the first time. Over the years I had forgotten about the minor details of the domes, which meant much of the experience felt very new to me. Upon arriving we spent some time wandering through the rain forest dome. The dome itself was much smaller than I remembered, but it was full of life. The dense foliage, the variety of colors present in the flower blooms, and the sounds of exotic birds demanded attention at every turn. I was happy to oblige as the environment offered ample opportunity to experience new things; a cornerstone of my ongoing “I have never…” challenge. 

After taking some photos of rare plants and foreign birds in the rain forest dome, Rachael and I headed toward the desert dome. We met her brother, Dan, and her sister in law, Audra, as we exited the rain forest dome. After a brief conversation, the four walked through the desert dome pointing out the stranger sites, commenting on the interesting choice of design in some areas, and having a few laughs.  Eventually we met the exit of the desert dome and crossed a tile hallway into a location called the “show dome.”

The “show dome” was lined with rows of flowers on either side of walking paths and around a pool of water. On the right side of the dome chairs were set up in rows facing a white gazebo.  We were clearly in the right location for the wedding. So, we worked our way toward the seating area and found good vantage for the ceremony, which was scheduled to start within minutes of our arrival.

The ceremony

We spent a few minutes talking with Rachael’s father, his fiancĂ©, and other family members before the wedding started. After a few minutes of chitchat the ceremony began and the wedding party, which included the bride and groom’s dog, filed in from opposite sides of the dome. The ceremony was unique in that in contained elements of the groom’s Wisconsin background and elements of his bride’s Indian heritage.  The groomsmen all wore traditional suits and ties found in most American weddings and the women each wore the traditional Sari dresses found in Indian weddings.  Although different from most weddings I have attended in my life, the two seemed to balance each other well, which was a trait obviously shared by the bride and groom.

The happy couple
The wedding ceremony was brief but heartfelt, with the bride and groom exchanging vows they had written for one another. Their words were filled with humor and an apparent love for one another, which made it easy for a stranger like me to support them in their big leap and wish them well on their forthcoming journey together. After the ceremony the guests moved the bio dome lobby for a few drinks as the wedding party took photos.  We were treated to Indian appetizers that were all new to me.  I was racking up new experiences with each bite I took, which added depth to the day’s event and gave me plenty of new reasons to love Indian food. The blend of flavors and spices was magnificent in each food that came before me, and we had yet to eat dinner.

When the wedding party was done taking photos we quickly transitioned to dinner, which was an Indian themed buffet full of foods I had never tasted. Although I have eaten Indian food in the past, the available choices for dinner blended familiar spices and ingredients in new ways.  There wasn’t a single menu choice that was bad, as I learned after trying them all. We were treated to a chocolate and red velvet cake after dinner had ended, which was followed by a few brief speeches and some dancing…

Dinner... So good.

Rachael, Dan, Audra, and I took another walk around the domes prior to engaging in the post-dinner festivities.  By this time night had fallen and the domes began lighting up with a variety of colored lights.  T  Each of them was beautiful enough to be worthy of their own entry in my ongoing adventure, but I was lucky enough to experience them all at once.
he “show dome” was ringed with multi-colored lights that altered the very appearance of the flowers scattered across the ground. The desert dome was lit with a pale blue light that rained down on the cacti, and the rain forest dome glowed blue and green from the lights penetrating the humid air.

The illuminated dome

Once we worked our way through the domes for a second time the four of us grabbed a round of drinks and worked our way toward the dance floor. While Rachael opted out of the madness that was about to ensue, Dan, Audra, and I started a tornado of goodness in a space occupied by about five other people.  For the next hour we danced until coats were removed, buttons came undone, and ties began headbands. We were in the zone, and nothing could stop our intense grooving. As the day drew to a close, so did the majority of the festivities. A sweaty mess, I told Rachael I was ready to call it a night, and we started our journey home.

Groovin' 

The night’s events are still fresh in my mind as I write this entry on the ride home. Being able to attend a wedding in such a unique place like the Mitchell Domes is something I never expected to do, but I know I was lucky to be a part of such an event.  Much of the experience was surreal in many ways, yet its beauty was worthy of a couple of John and Ferah. This event was one for the books.  I just hope there are plenty more like it to come over the next 351 days.

Heading home...

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Day 13 - Grilling a Steak

I have never grilled a steak. Of all the things on my "I have never..." list, this was the one that drew the most statements of disbelief and looks of disappointment from my group of friends. In fact, the majority of them found my inexperience with throwing a slab of choice cut beef onto a searing hot metal grate to be a form of sacrilege against manliness. As a result, I knew I needed to make room for grilling a steak early in "I have never..." experience, and the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend seemed the perfect time to give it a go.

Bring it.

To prepare for this evening's event, I went to our local grocery store late this afternoon to pick up the necessary items for the task. Upon entering the store I was greeted by rows upon rows of fruits and vegetables stacked in racks sprouting from the concrete floor. This seemed a good place to start considering I had not planned any aspect of the meal prior to that moment, and I knew I had to cook something to accompany the main course.

I began floating around the produce section trying to pinpoint the perfect side for the meal. I perused the items before me thinking, "Steak... Steak... What goes with steak?" as my eyes darted from one display to the next. My inexperience with cooking such a meal was apparent then, and I knew I had to keep things simple. "Steak and... potatoes.  That works." I thought as I stood motionless in the center of the produce section. I quickly text Rachael to confirm we had potatoes at home as I continued thinking. "What goes with potatoes?" I thought as I approached the back of the produce section.  Just then I received a response from Rachael confirming we had potatoes at home. As my eyes pulled away from the phone I immediately focused on packages of mixed bell peppers. "...Peppers!  Yes!" I thought as I grabbed a package from the open cooler that divided the produce section from the rest of the store. I thought a second longer as I took a few slow steps toward the edge of the barrier before me. "Asparagus! I always see asparagus with steak in advertisements and stuff!" popped into my head at that moment forcing me to double back and find a bundle of the vegetable. I was on a roll, and the only thing left to do was find my main course.

I walked to the back of the store and stared at the rows and rows of meat lining the glass coolers. Knowing red meat is not my forte, I looked over the various choices for several minutes. Eventually, one of the employees asked if I needed help. I politely advised him I needed a few minutes, realizing I likely looked as confused as a child trying to learn algebra for the first time. I rifled through the names of various steaks I knew were popular, and landed on a row of 12 ounce angus rib eye steaks that were advertised heavily for the holiday weekend. The employee, who had been following me as I wandered up and down the aisle, approached the counter again and asked me if I had made a decision. "I'll take two of those..." I said pointing with a hint of uncertainty. "Any in particular?" he shot back on queue. Unprepared for his question, I lifted my brow and lightly shook my head. "Um, you know this stuff better than I do. Just give me the two you would take home for your family, I guess." The employee smiled and nodded,  "No problem." A few minutes later I was on my way out of the store feeling like I was wading deep into something I was underprepared to tackle, but that wasn't about to stop me from trying to cook a steak for my very first time.

I arrived home and promptly began preparations for the meal. I lit the grill, and, with Rachael's help, I had the potatoes and peppers in a grill-ready foil pack in minutes. The asparagus soon followed suit. I placed the foil packs on the grill, went back inside, unwrapped my steaks and set them on a plate. Rachael came outside with a bottle of Merlot and poured two glasses. Everything was in order. I just needed to wait from the opportune moment to throw the steaks on the grill.

Grillin' it, and grillin' it, and grillin' it well

After some time, the charcoal briquettes were white and the grill was ready. Both foil packs had begun to steam telling me the vegetables were done cooking. It was time to commit. So, without hesitation I threw the steaks on the grill and crossed my fingers. I remembered getting the advice "four minutes per side" as a guiding rule for cooking steak when I previously discussed this entry on my "I have never..." list with a friend.  As a result, that's the time frame I used for my effort, and after eight minutes I was ready to see how successful my attempt had been. With a little salt and pepper as the final touch, I removed the steaks from the grill and piled them onto a large plate with the steamed vegetables. I was surprised at how good everything looked, and I was hopeful my cooking experiment would turn out well.

Boom.
The first cut into the steak confirmed that hope. I had successfully cooked both steaks to a nice medium.  The first bite was tender and juicy, and the vegetables, although a little overcooked, complemented the steak well. For a first attempt, I nailed it and it felt damn good. For some time Rachael and I ate and drank, recapping the events of the day and talking about our plans for the next few. Delighted at my effort, I ate the whole of my steak and vegetables. Rachael wasn't about to take on that quantity of food, but she was pleased with the meal and offered me compliments on my effort. I cooked a steak for the first time, and somehow, I had made it look like I knew what I was doing.

It is not likely cooking steak will become a routine part of my thin cooking repertoire, but it is nice to know I can now say I conquered one of the "badges of manliness" that is sewn into the very fabric of our society. The next time I'm presented the opportunity to cook a steak I will be able to come at it with confidence and will likely be able to pull it off...  I cooked a steak. That's another one off of the list. I have nothing left to do but keep this thing rolling.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Day 12 - Simm's Place

I have never been to Simm's Place. People may not know the name off hand, but many Madison residents recognize Simm's Place as the small tavern that stands in the parking lot of the local Oscar Mayer plant. Since moving to Madison, Simm's Place has always been a curiosity to me. Resting behind a fence in the shadow of the towering Oscar Mayer building, I always wondered if it was a bar specifically for those that worked at the factory. Upon learning it was open to the public, I knew I wanted to stop in for a drink at some point. When I heard recently the tavern may soon shutter its doors for the last time, I knew I needed to make that stop a priority. As a result, a visit to Simm's takes its place as an "I have never..." event early in my journey.

Simm's Place

This evening I decided to stop by Simm's Place shortly after 8:00 pm.  When I arrived to the bar, I entered through an old screen door hardly capable of closing completely. The bar was dimly lit and occupied by little more than a dozen people. I was immediately struck by the interior of the building, which harkened to a bygone era. Wood paneling lined the walls, and a long, horsehoe-shaped bar wrapped in a marbled olive green laminate ran the length of building's back half. Advertising printed on tin and banners displaying brands of beer covered the majority of the space on the walls, and a small pool table took its place in the only free space left in the building. It was cozy, and although the doors were open on a chilly summer night, it felt warm to me.

I grabbed a stool little more than half way down the bar and was greeted by an older woman tending the bar. She went only by the name "Bev" and was clearly adored by the customers speckling the interior of the building. Her hair was silver with age and her bifocals rested squarely on the bridge of her nose. Despite her age, she carried with her a glow and a degree of kindness that was immediately apparent in her words and her smile. She was quick to help me and was happy to grab me a drink. After ordering a beer I took a few moments to absorb my surroundings. The water stained drop tile ceiling, worn bar stools, and tarnished bar fixtures showed the tavern's age, but the lot of them added a degree character that can only be gained with a thorough history. Soon, my first drink was gone and Bev, unprompted, was quick to hand me another.

As Bev opened another beer and set it in front of me, she started talking to a couple at the end of the bar that had made her acquaintance in years past. In short order, they worked through common threads before delving deeper into conversation. Before long, I was listening to Bev tell the man at the end of the bar about her 36 year career at the Oscar Mayer plant. She explained how she knew the man's family members that had previously worked there and told stories of her various jobs throughout her tenure at the plant. I felt lucky to hear her stories, all of which seemed to fit comfortably within the walls of Simm's Place.

In time, the couple at the end of the bar left for another obligation, and I spent some time talking to Bev about her experiences. Her openness was welcomed as we covered topics ranging from her history at Oscar Mayer, to the more revelrous days of Simm's Place, to discussing the life experiences Bev had in her time. Bev maintained a strong wit and a jovial spirit in our discussion. Her laughter was resonant, filling the room with an air of hospitality. When I told Bev of my "I have never..." idea she was quick to say, "You only live once!" and begin listing off ideas of experiences that could help me fulfill my journey. It was clear I was among good company.

Simm's patrons
Eventually, Bev invited me down to the other end of the bar which remained occupied by about eight customers left from the dwindling crowd of patrons. She grabbed me another drink and introduced me to each of the people by name. They welcomed me and instantly treated me as though I was a regular at the bar. I talked with several of the patrons for some time after Bev was quick to explain to them my goal for the year. Shortly thereafter, each of them began chiming in with ideas for my "I have never..." project. In particular, a woman named Lisa who was seated closest to me provided a series of ideas based on her experiences and her own list of things she wanted to do in her life. She was well versed in cinema and was chalk full of ideas that had never crossed my mind when I compiled my "I have never..." list.  She, and another man next to her named Dale, made sure to interject personal experiences and humor in our chatter of various topics, which gave depth to our discussion. For the better part of the next hour I listened to people around the bar trade stories and fill the small building with roars of laughter. I could have stayed among the company in Simm's place indefinitely, but the next day's obligations and a clock approaching midnight meant my first, and potentially last, experience at Simm's Place had to draw to a close.

Bev and I

Simm's Place is one of those extraordinary places that feels like home the first time you visit it. The people that frequent the establishment seem incapable of on holding ill will against anyone and go out of their way to make sure any patron of the establishment feels welcomed. I'm glad I made it to Simm's Place when I did. Had I delayed my visit, I may not have had the chance to meet the amazing people that call it "their place" before the tavern closed its doors for the last time. The experience I had tonight is one that makes me feel lucky. Sharing in the stories, laughter, and companionship that fill Simm's Place can make anyone recognize the value in the little things we encounter each day. Such company is rare and is more than enough to make it easy to recognize time well spent.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Day 11 - Reading a Book in One Day/Crime and Punishment

I have never read a book from start to finish in one day.  That stated, doing so was not my original plan for today.  After all, I had the full day off of work and there were plenty of outdoor activities I was eager to check off of my "I have never..." list. However, the persistence of the rainy weather that began last night made it nearly impossible to follow through with any outdoor events this morning. As a result, I put into motion an alternative "I have never..." plan to tackle reading a classic novel in one day.  As an added bonus, I chose to read a novel I had never read before today's challenge.

Crime and Punishment
Shortly after deciding outdoor plans were out of the question, I spent a few minutes of the early morning hours combing through the rows of books lining the shelves of my office bookcase. After some consideration of my available choices, I landed on Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a novel I had always intended to read but never made time to do so. I grabbed the book from the shelf and weighed the feasibility of reading it all in one day. Flipping to the back page of the novel revealed the number 408 printed in the upper right hand corner of the last piece of aged, off-white paper.  "I can do that," I thought as I nodded my head in approval. In turn, I tucked the book under my arm and grabbed a glass of water from the kitchen before I found a comfortable place on the couch and began reading.

At first, I found it difficult to stay focused on my task. I'm not usually one to read fiction, which posed some challenges for me. Additionally, I found myself checking the clock to measure my pace every few pages, which served more as a distraction than a help. Each time I did so I would silently work through the math of pages to time passed and create an estimate of the time I would finish reading while trying to read the words on the pages before me. I found myself re-reading passages as their contents became lost in my efforts to crunch the numbers, which obviously served only to hinder my effort. I took a deep breath and convinced myself to avoid the clock. I made a pointed effort to concentrate on the content of the story, which had just been set into motion by the protagonist's internal battle between living a life of poverty and dependence or choosing to commit a violent criminal act in desperation. My concentration centered on the events unfolding in the book, and I finally began to find myself getting lost in the story.

The pages started to fly by as Rodion, the main character of the book, acted on his desperation and immediately began to struggle with the weight of his actions. I found myself envisioning the scenes laid out in each paragraph as Rodion, wracked with guilt, struggled to face each day, fell ill, and sought an outlet to ease his self-inflicted misery. The perspective of the story, told in third-person from the criminal's point of view, was new to me. Dostoyevsky's words described the emotions Rodion was going through in such a manner I could almost feel the anxiety, remorse, and fear that riddled his mind. At next glance, I was stunned to see two hours had passed in what had seemed like a matter of minutes. With my concern about my reading pace removed by my involvement in the story, I continued to press further into the book knowing my choice for today's "I have never..." event was a good one.

My view for the majority of the day

Hours passed as I remained engaged in the unfolding drama of Crime and Punishment.  I was intrigued by Rodion's slow decline into internal isolation and questionable mental stability as the traces of humanity left in him strived to right his wrongs through good deeds and personal reflection. I was wrapped up in the words on each page as they built on the plot and made a clearly deranged criminal seem human. About half way through the novel I realized I had failed to acknowledge a feeling of hunger that had likely occupied me for several hours. I then realized it was the middle of the afternoon and I had yet to eat lunch. I moved to prepare something to eat, placing the book in locations that made it easy to read all the while. Once prepared, I ate with one hand as to not prevent me from continuing the story. After finishing my meal, I set my plate on the table in front of me and glanced out one of the dining room windows.  Unbeknownst to me, the dreary weather had broke at some point during the day and the sun was shining brightly. For the rest of the afternoon I rotated between positions in my house and in the backyard as I continued reading.

Nearing the end... At least I had some company
Before I could acknowledge the time again, Rachael arrived home from work. She was courteous in trying to avoid distracting me as she immediately caught on to my objective for the day. Several more hours passed as I remained locked in my reading position and Rachael milled about the house taking care of the chores I should have addressed throughout the day. At last, I reached the final pages of the novel as dusk faded to night. Crime and Punishment left me heavy hearted at the torment, misery, and loss felt by every character in the book, but I reveled in the fact that I read the book, cover to cover, in a single day. Check that one off the list!

I'm sure I will encounter opportunities to do what I will now refer to as "marathon reading" in the future, and there are more than a few books I have in mind for such and event. That said, my first experience reading a book in one day left me with some mixed feelings. While I'm glad I finally read Crime and Punishment, I feel like completing this task in one day proved an inefficient use of my time.  After all, I lost track of hours at a time, overlooked the basic need for food, and failed to recognize the beautiful weather that appeared at some point today. In addition, I feel slightly conflicted about sitting on my ass all day when there are plenty of other things I should be doing. Sure, I gave my brain a solid workout and became slightly more "cultured" from the experience, but I feel like I can accomplish these things without committing the better part of a full day to reading one book. As a result, I think I will leave marathon reading for long flights and sick days going forward. That way I can still get in a good read every once in awhile and retain my ability to act like a normal, responsible, and showered human being.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Day 10 - Eating Durian Fruit

I have never tried Durian fruit.  For those of you who are not familiar with this tropical "treat", it is widely known as the stinkiest fruit on the planet. While people that have tried it consistently state the taste is a semi-sweet flavor far removed from the smell, every person and resource that discusses the fruit struggles to describe exactly how Durian smells or tastes. Descriptions range from the worst smelling and tasting food ever to a natural delicacy that one must learn to appreciate. The enigmatic nature of the Durian was enough to piqued my curiosity, and when I learned a local Asian foods store had the fruit in stock I decided to pull the trigger and experience Durian for myself.

Durian fruit
Over the weekend I made the trip to the food store to confirm they had Durian available for purchase. After a few minutes of searching, I found the Durian in the store's small but extensive produce section. The Durian was awkwardly piled in a cardboard box lifted off of the ground by a small wooden pallet. The football-eque shape of the spike laden fruit made it nearly impossible to stack neatly, which meant only a few of the fruits fit in the container. The picking was slim, but it was the only choice I had if I was going to taste the Durian fruit. Upon further inspection, I was surprised to find each fruit covered in a light frost. Interested to learn why this was the case, I asked one of the store's employees if the fruit had been frozen. He explained the Durian is frozen for shipping, but that this process is mainly intended to minimize the fruit's aroma instead of maintaining its freshness. In response, I raised my eyebrow and let out a concerned yet captivated "Hm." The employee then proceeded to point out a tag connected to each Durian that said "keep frozen at -18 degrees Celsius" and explained I would understand if I decided to take one home. The man nodded and smiled before walking back to his work sorting and stacking products in the store. Intrigued, I committed to trying Durian as a part of my "I have never..." journey. Knowing it would take several days to thaw the large fruit, I bought one that day and took it home.

After freezing the Durian for a day I moved it to my refrigerator to permit the fruit to thaw. As the hours passed it became obvious the fruit's aroma was becoming more pungent each time I grabbed something to eat or drink. At first, the smell came across as a faint blend of musty basement and spoiled milk, but it began to change as the fruit thawed more. By the time I arrived home from work today, the Durian had started to develop a fuller scent closer to a blend of natural gas and rotten fruit wrapped up in dirty socks. The smell was enough to make me furrow my brow... and I had yet to cut into the thing.

Here we go...
After this initial experience, I was anxious to follow through with my Durian experiment. Perhaps driven by some kind of aberrant curiosity, I was actually a little excited to see exactly how bad the Durian would smell once I cut it open. I knew the only way to find out was to take the next step in the process. After preparing a knife and a cutting board, I donned some oven mitts and readied myself for the first slice into the fruit. Now, I realize the middle of that sentence may confuse some people, but having been physically wounded by the Durian's spikes a few days earlier, I heeded the advice of a Youtube video on cutting Durian and protected my hands during the process.

I grabbed the knife with the flower print mitt wrapping my right hand, turned the fruit on its side, and began cutting. There was no change in the aroma at first, but seconds later I was hit with a waft of the Durian's interior. The earlier scent of dirty-rotten-gas-sock-fruit doubled in intensity as I continued cutting. I expected it to get worse as I sliced further down the fruit's side, but I was surprised to find that the smell had reached a plateau. It smelled bad, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.

How do you like my mitts?
"The worst is over," I thought as pried the Durian open. I glanced at the yellow fruit resting inside the pointy husk and removed the oven mitts from my hands. Without hesitation, I picked up a fistful of the fruit and gave it a closer inspection. Perhaps lulled into a false sense of security after the scent had peaked, I decided to go all in, biting off a mouthful of the Durian. In the first moment the light, semi-sweet flavor and creamy, nougat-like texture of the fruit didn't seem too bad... until the fruit's trademark aroma hit the roof of my mouth.

That's when it hit me...
The scent immediately augmented the taste and sent my senses into overdrive. I had a mouthful of awful, and I didn't know what to do with it. I forced out a few quick coughs as I attempted to swallow the gob of Durian hovering on my tongue. When I could only force a portion of the fruit down, I knew I had to abort the taste test the only way I could. I lunged toward the sink and spat out the remaining portion of the Durian as quickly as possible. Despite my efforts to cleanse my mouth of the repulsive taste, I could feel parts of the fruit stuck to the roof of my mouth and the top of my tongue. I had no choice but to force down what remained. With a wince and another muffled cough I swallowed the remaining fruit in one hard gulp. The taste lingered immediately thereafter, which drove me to open my mouth, stick out my tongue, and grunt in disapproval. I squeezed my eyes shut and shuddered as the aftertaste continued.

As the taste lingered, I rolled my tongue in my mouth and looked up and Rachael, who stood feet away, camera at the ready. "Do you want to try it?" I asked cautiously. After a brief moment of consideration Rachael replied, "Sure" and started walking toward the fruit. She wisely took the slightest nibble of the yellow, pasty Durian. After letting the taste settle for a moment she said, "It's not that bad... If you have nothing else to eat, I guess."  I nodded in agreement with the last portion of her remark and expressed my desire to bring the Durian experiment to a close.

"What about the dogs?" Rachael asked as I started stacking the remaining pieces of the fruit. I grabbed one more chunk of the Durian and slowly lowered my hand toward the ground. Baxter and Buddy, our Dachshunds, approached my hand in anticipation. Once they caught a whiff of the Durian their eyes widened simultaneously and they began lapping at the creamy gob of fruit.  They were in a state of bliss as they began inhaling one of the stinkiest pieces of food they have likely ever encountered. In seconds Buddy tugged the fruit out of my hand and onto the floor. I moved quickly to pick it up and stop the Durian frenzy that was about to ensue. A look of disappointment crossed the dogs faces as they both sat down in a desperate attempt to win my favor and win back the Durian. Being a good father, I threw them both one more little piece before tossing the remaining Durian into a trash bag and walking it to the curb.

"Something unbelievably stinky we can eat! Yesssss!"

I immediately noticed the lingering smell of Durian hanging in the air as I walked back into the house.  The smell permeated each room I entered and maintained equal intensity regardless of my position in the house.  The persistence of the odor made me understand why public possession of Durian is illegal in some countries and left me hoping the smell would soon dissipate.  Two hours after my experience with Durian, a trace of the scent remains in my house. To be clear, this stuff stinks.

My experience with Durian will undoubtedly stay with me for quite some time. Although the fruit is not something I will ever seek as a seasonal treat, I'm happy I was able to experience one of the most infamous foods on the planet. Despite the awful taste, I must say I would likely try fresh Durian if I ever found myself in the fruit's native Thailand and was offered the chance. However, I wouldn't expect the experience to be much different than the one I had today. The Durian fruit's scent makes it incredibly difficult to notice the more tolerable aspects of its taste, and I assume this wouldn't be much different with a fresher fruit in a different part of the world. That aside, after today's "I have never..." event I must say I think the Durian fruit is worth trying. If nothing else, putting yourself through the Durian taste test lets you get some ridiculous photos and gain one hell of a story to tell about an otherwise typical experience.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Day 9 - Attending a City Council Meeting

I have never been to a city council meeting.  Although I generally care about the goings on in my community, I have never had a reason to attend such a meeting.  More specifically, I have not encountered any local issues about which I felt passionate enough to make my voice heard, and I have maintained very little interest in witnessing the procedural intricacies of city government in action. As a result, attending a city council meeting was never high on my list of priorities. Despite this indifference toward city council activities, I knew attending a common council meeting would be a good opportunity to experience something new for my ongoing challenge. Additionally, I knew it would be nice to have a relatively motion free "I have never..." event following yesterday's biking adventure. As a result, I made plans to attend today's city council meeting, and prepared myself for the thrill of a lifetime...

After completing my workday, I immediately headed to city hall in downtown Madison. I entered the building, grabbed a summary agenda off of a nearby table, and found my way to common council meeting room. The room was a moderately sized hodgepodge of legislative desks and theatre seating in a conference room motif.  The setup seemed a little odd to me as the citizen seating sat tucked in the front corners of the room facing outward toward the opposite side of the building.  With the council seated facing the mayor's raised desk at the front of the room, the citizen seating required craning of the neck to see and hear the activity in the council chambers. Shortly after I determined the best position from which I could observe the proceedings, the mayor called the council into session.  Within minutes of the meeting starting one thing became obvious to me:

Democracy is... cumbersome.

The first thirty minutes of the meeting were spent recognizing the 100th anniversary of a local corporation, the 50th anniversary of a local elementary school, and a recently departed Madison police officer. While the recognition of each person or group had touching moments, I began wondering what I got myself into as I paged through the more than 100 topics that littered the pages of my agenda.  At the pace the meeting was going I figured I would be lucky to get home before midnight.

Democracy in slow motion...
The methodical pace of discussion and debate continued as the council opened up a public hearing on a proposed west side development. One by one, proponents and opponents of the development approached podiums on either side of the mayor's desk. Each of them expressed their opinions on the proposed project through prepared statements or off the cuff remarks. Although the process took time, it was interesting to see the passion with which each person spoke. I heard of the tax benefits the project would provide, the concerns about the project's residential density, and the concerns for safety voiced by parents that knew the development would bring much heavier traffic to their now suburban neighborhood.  Citizens, experts, and businesspeople expressed their thoughts on the project, each presenting their interpretations of a previously developed neighborhood plan as support for their contrary opinions. Ultimately, the people wishing to speak each had their turn, which gave the council members opportunity to express their thoughts on the project.  In total, the process took more than an hour, after which the council moved to a vote and passed the proposal.

The full agenda...
I took a deep breath as I realized we had only moved through a handful of topics on the agenda some 90 minutes after meeting began. People began to file out the meeting room doors in droves, leaving me and a few other people in the gallery. At that time I considered bailing on the remainder of the meeting, but I decided to take one last glance at the agenda topics in case something appealed to me. Just as I began to estimate how long it would take to cover all of the topics on the agenda at the current pace, I saw the mayor motion to a member of the council. The councilman approached the front desk and walked up the ramp to meet the mayor at his chair. They whispered to one another briefly and proceeded to swap positions. I sat puzzled as I watched the mayor gather his belongings and walk toward the door. I leaned in my chair to peak out the interior windows just in time to see the mayor walking through a pair of elevator doors. I struggled to make sense of this occurrence considering so many topics remained on the agenda, but before I could make sense of what happened the council acted on a series of quick motions and approved all but two of the remaining agenda topics. With a proverbial snap of the fingers the council pushed through more than 100 new ordinances, permits, and other matters of city business. I was stunned as the meeting moved from a snail's pace to light speed, but I was happy to see things moving along.

In the final minutes of the meeting the council took time to discuss the dissolution of an outdated and unattended committee and a trial of alum injections to decrease phosphorus contaminants in a city pond.  With no citizen input, the council asked questions of experts and debated each topic with their peers in an effort to draw independent conclusions. Finally, the group made decisions on both topics and moved to adjourn the meeting. Two hours after the meeting had started, the gavel fell and the remaining attendees began heading for the doors.

Madison: Brought to you by monotonous,
archaic procedures since 1848
I started running through all of the tedious aspects of what I just witnessed as I found my way back to the building's entrance. I concluded that the meeting was about as boring as I expected, and I started to think it would be the last time I would ever attend such an event. However, I quickly questioned that line of thinking as my initial thoughts on the experience faded.  My disdain for the process was replaced with consideration of the importance such a forum plays in the development of the community around me. Despite earlier thoughts of dismissal, I realized that I would certainly sit through another council meeting if I felt as passionate about a local issue as the citizens I saw take the podium throughout the meeting. That feeling was reinforced as I crossed the threshold of the exterior city hall door and looked around at the streets and buildings around me.  Crossing Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard I thought about how all of the monotonous, archaic procedures I witnessed during the meeting made everything around me possible. That takeaway along was worth the time I spent at tonight's city council meeting.