Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Day 80 - Obtaining a Building Permit

I have never obtained a building permit. Sure, this "I have never..." event isn't the most exciting to date, but getting a building permit from the city of Madison has been something I have been putting off for some time. With the concrete stoop on the front of my house cracked and crumbling, I needed to put together a plan to replace it. Of course, this meant I needed city approval to act on the project, which set into motion my first experience with the city permitting process. While I wouldn't normally put something so simple on my "I have never..." list, I have heard working with the local government is always a unique experience. As such, I headed to the local municipal building this morning to obtain my first building permit. Although the process wasn't as cumbersome as I had feared, the experience was something to remember.

The Municipal Building
My trip to the municipal building this morning was rather uneventful. I had to battle morning traffic briefly and maneuver around the farmer's market on a closed street directly in front of the municipal building, but otherwise the journey was easy and short. With my car parked, I fed the parking meter and began the walk toward the municipal building. As I approached, I looked over the massive grey stone building, which had very little activity on its grounds despite the busy farmer's market happening on the street in front of the complex. The plain exterior and thick walls of the building made it appear as a fortress among the businesses and high rises of downtown. Undeterred by the vacant, looming presence of the building, I climbed the two sets of stairs before the front door and entered the municipal building.

You know, it has a modern, contemporary feel
Once inside, I immediately noticed the dated interior of the building. Drop tile ceilings wound their way through the building along plain white walls sparsely populated with pictures and art. A black plastic baseboard running along the bottom of the walls met a black plastic material similar to a bathtub grip mat that covered the floors. It felt as though the entire building had been stuck in an office building time warp somewhere between the late 1980s and the early 1990s. It was strange to see the aged interior, but I can't say it was altogether shocking given the building's use as a local government facility. After a brief pause to take in the scenery I took a few steps into the building and looked around. Eventually, my eyes caught the view of a small sign tacked to a pillar in the center of the lobby. The sign indicated the city permitting office was located in the lower level of the building and presented a large arrow pointing left. I took one last look at the paperwork I had brought to confirm I had my building plans before I followed the signs directions and walked down the hallway on my left. A few minutes later, I descended a stairway and walked back toward the center of the building until I met a pair of double doors with "City of Madison Permitting" printed across them.

Continuing, I entered the doorway into an office space containing cubicles and employees that maintained the earlier late 1980s/early 1990s building motif. Upon entering the space, a woman wearing a brightly colored blouse with a Southwestern print on it greeted me. I explained my purpose for being in the office, which prompted her to quickly direct me to a nearby counter littered with old comic strips tucked beneath a large glass countertop. Behind the counter stood a man wearing pleated khakis and a button down shirt that appeared to be from the 1993 L.L. Bean catalogue. With one person ahead of me in line, I took time to wrap my head around my surroundings. The apparent 20 year gap between the municipal building and the rest of the world absorbed every bit of my attention. So much so that I nearly missed the man behind the counter calling me forward. Still working to take in every bit of my surroundings, I approached the desk and handed him my building plans. He quickly set to work without a word, reviewing the documents and typing on his keyboard. Over the next few minutes, he asked me some brief questions about the project and reviewed the plan a few more times. Then, he gave a firm click on his mouse, turned around to grab something off of a printer, and slid a building permit across the counter.

Permit in hand!
"That one's $25," the man said pointing to the permit. In turn, I quickly filled out a check and handed it to him. "Alright, you're all set," the man continued as he stared at me from behind the counter. Grabbing my papers, I thanked him for his help and started to head for the door. As I walked away the man spoke once more. "Put that in a window where it's visible. Otherwise you can get ticketed."I turned back and nodded in understanding before thanking him once more. In response, the man remained silent and looked at his computer screen. Realizing the awkward interaction was not likely to end normally, I turned back to the door and proceeded to the first floor of the building. Minutes later I was back outside and entering my vehicle to make the quick trip home before starting my workday.

Success!
Upon arriving home, I immediately posted the building permit in my front window as instructed. Although my project won't occur for some time, I figured putting the permit up now would be the safest route to ensuring I didn't lose it somewhere between now and then. With that, my first experience obtaining a building permit was over. Although I expected the events to be one to remember, the finer details of the building, the employees, and the interaction were surprising gems in my first experience with the municipality of Madison. I'm not sure how or why the municipal building and its employees maintain such a consistent theme in their building, but I'm glad they do. If they didn't, my experience obtaining a building permit would have been a drab, unremarkable event. Instead, I gained a curious and awkward experience that made for a nice little story. For that, I have to thank the city of Madison and their unique blend of interior design and city staff.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Day 79 - Volunteering at the American Cheese Society Conference

I have never volunteered at the American Cheese Society conference. To be honest, I didn't know this artisan cheese makers' conference existed until a few months ago. As it turns out, the ACS holds the conference in a different city each year, and for its 30th year the society chose to have the conference in Madison, Wisconsin. While I likely would have remained unaware of the conference under any other circumstances, research for my "I have never..." idea caused me to stumble upon information about the upcoming event and its need for volunteers. Considering volunteering at some place I have never volunteered remains an objective in my "I have never..." journey, I sprang at the one-time chance to volunteer at the ACS conference. With my volunteer shift scheduled for this morning, I biked down to the Monona Terrace and prepared for my third volunteer experience of my "I have never..." year.

After arriving at the Monona Terrace, I was surprised to see the limited indications the ACS conference would be taking place in a few short days. Although I knew I volunteered for one of the earliest shifts available during the week of the ACS conference, I anticipated more obvious signals of the organization's presence at the facility. Instead, the Monona Terrace was nearly void of any ACS effects. No signs for the event were displayed, no ACS staff walked the halls, and no displays indicated the conference was little more than a day away. The lack of any obvious ACs presence at first had me concerned I had arrived on the wrong day, which prompted me to seek the nearest resource in the buildings. Walking through the building, I rifled through my phone calendar and email in a effort to confirm my schedule until I happened upon a small information desk. Behind it, an elderly woman flipped through a newspaper to busy herself at the absence of any activity around her. Still uncertain about my planning, I approached the desk and promptly asked the woman where ACS conference volunteers were supposed to meet. Looking up from her paper, she motioned down the hallway and advised me to look for people in a nearby conference room. Relieved she seemed to know what I was talking about, I followed her directions and began walking down the long hall running along the front of the building.

The setup
I walked about half way through the Monona Terrace until I encountered a young woman busily sorting through some paperwork near a line of three tables positioned in the middle of an adjacent hallway. Tentatively, I approached the woman and asked if she was a part of the ACS, to which she replied she was. With my uncertainty waning, I introduced myself and provided the details of my volunteer shift. On cue, the woman darted into a nearby room and grabbed a large binder with "ACS 2013 Volunteers" printed on the spine.She quickly confirmed my information and gave me a volunteer t-shirt before explaining my volunteer shift would be spent preparing tote bags of information and swag that conference volunteers would receive when they arrived. While the idea of stuffing tote bags full of conference schedules and ACS trinkets for the extent of my three hour volunteer shift wasn't exactly what I was hoping for, I was happy to lend a hand in preparation for what was likely to be one of the largest ACS conferences in the history of the organization.

The swag
Following a brief explanation of the assembly of each tote bag, I set to work stuffing the bags one by one. At first, I was working alone as I walked along the table, filled a bag, place it in a box, and returned to the end of the table to begin again. I listened to the soft classical music playing in the overhead speakers as I worked, making sure to place one of each item on the table in the totes as directed by the ACS employee. This continued for some time until another volunteer appeared from a nearby room and offered her assistance in the process. Happy to have some company, I quickly walked her through the simple process of stuffing the bags before we continued working through the stack of tote bags at the end of the table. Several minutes later, two more volunteers appeared and offered to lend a hand, which quickened our pace and assuaged my fears of a long, boring volunteer shift at the ACS conference.

With the added help from the other volunteers the assembly of the ACS tote bags moved into high gear.  In nearly 30 minutes we had worked through several cases of notepads, water bottles, and tote bags, which left a massive stack of tote-filled boxes at one end of the table. Realizing we were running out of products and space quickly, I set to work preparing more cases of items for the tote bags and reorganizing the growing stack of boxes containing our completed projects. It was clear our group was finding a groove, which made the menial work more tolerable and gave us motivation to set targets for our productivity.

Progress!
As time progressed, our airy and enthusiastic spirit persisted and the group started having a little fun with our volunteer work. We chatted about our personal lives and the factors that brought us to the volunteer opportunity as we continued packing boxes full of ACS totes. Even when we were informed some items intended for the totes were found in a storage room, the group promptly collaborated on a plan, briskly adapted our approach, and refrained from letting the hang up affect our positive mood. We all knew we were there for the right reason, and we were all committed to doing our best to help the ACS prepare for the forthcoming conference. In turn, we drove to get all of the totes filled before the end of our shift. Although we knew it was unlikely we would fill the thousands of bags stacked in boxes around us, we were going to give it our all to finish the task by the end of our shift.

Much to our surprise, the goal seemed achievable as we approached 11:00. With one hour left until the end of our shift, we had whittled the cases of tote bags down to five, and we showed little signs of slowing. In our rhythm, we continued systematically filling the totes as we closed in on the goal. Then, about 30 minutes before the end of the shift, we hit a snag. After nearly completing what had seemed to be an improbable task, we ran out of one of the essential needed for the tote bags and we couldn't locate another case of the item. In turn, our progress came to a screeching halt. We were at a dead stop, and there wasn't any indication that would change in the near future.

I'm an expert tote bagger
Unfortunately, I spent nearly all of my remaining volunteer shift waiting for an ACS employee to track down another case of the missing book. With work obligations occupying my afternoon, I knew there was no way I could stay and see our task through to the end. Instead, I stuck with the volunteer crew as long as I could and broke down my earlier approach to organizing the completed cases of totes. When another case of the missing item finally surfaced, I quickly set the items up for the crew before my ACS volunteer shift drew to a close. While we didn't meet our goal, I left the Monona Terrace knowing we made more headway on the tote project than the ACS staff thought we would. Even with the hiccups, the volunteer crew remained focused and committed, which made the experience a positive and surprisingly refreshing one. I know that my efforts helped the ACS prepare a critical element of every attendee's conference experience, and that's more than enough to make me feel good about donating my time.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Day 78 - Pilates


I have never done Pilates. Like my recent experiences with other exercise routines, the idea of doing Pilates for the first time emerged as a result of my intentions to try new forms of exercise during my “I have never...” journey. With underlying intentions to break through my loathing for organized forms of exercise, I figured making new exercises a part of my “I have never...” year might expose me to a routine that would stick. Additionally, I thought I could gain a lot from my experiences learning and trying new types of exercise.  As a result, I have been making a point to try one new physical fitness genre each month, which resulted in my previous experiences with Yoga and Tai Chi. In an effort to maintain this progress with my fitness goal, I made a point to carve out time this month to try the next form of exercise on my list, Pilates. In turn, I reserved a space in a class at Madison Pilates this evening and made my way to the studio this evening.  

The studio
I arrived at Madison Pilates just before 7:00 pm tonight, unaware of what to expect from my forthcoming Pilates experience. Unlike my previous experiences with Yoga and Tai Chi, I maintained no preconceptions about the origins and effectiveness of Pilates. In fact, I knew next to nothing about the practice and method of the exercise, which left me with an ample amount of uncertainty as I crossed through the threshold of the Pilates studio’s front door. Upon entering the building, I was greeted by three women in workout gear behind an L-shaped counter. I quickly introduced myself as I approached them, which led one of the women, Cassie, to introduce herself and guide me through some preliminary paperwork necessary to participate in the Pilates class. As I filled out the paperwork I met the remaining women behind the counter, Celia and Amy, and explained my “I have never...” objectives. Excited by the idea, Cassie, Celia, and Amy stated they would be happy to help me gain the full Pilates experience and snap some photos of my efforts following my hour long class.

Reformers
Grateful for their openness, I thanked them before Cassie led me down a hallway and through a room full of strange pieces of equipment I would later learn were called Reformers. I briefly tried to make sense of the pulleys and platforms on the horizontal pieces of equipment as Cassie led me further into the building. We continued through the facility until we came to a small room with two other people lying along the length of large foam logs resting on yoga mats draped over the floor. Confused by their positions, I entered the room and looked around at the half inflated balls, rings, pads, and other apparatuses that lined the walls. I wondered what I was getting myself into as Cassie instructed me to take a position on a nearby Yoga mat, grab a foam log, and mirror the position of the other Pilates students. Despite my reservations, I followed her instructions and prepared for the class to begin.

Over the next hour Cassie guided us through a series of Pilates exercises that consistently tested my balance, dexterity, and physical strength. At first, she had us perform a series of stretching and balancing exercises while balanced on the foam log, which proved both challenging and exhausting. With concentration on working core muscles, the movements of our arms and legs required maintenance of perfect balance while lying horizontal to the ground. The feeling was altogether foreign and slightly confusing, but it was clear the exercises were waking muscles that had been dormant for some time.

Here we go!
Following our exercises on the foam log, Cassie directed us to take a position on the floor. We completed a few more stretching exercises before Cassie presented each of us with a half-deflated rubber ball which would serve as an enhancement to our forthcoming exercises. Initially, we placed the ball between our shoulder blades and completed lower body and abdominal exercises. I could feel my body starting retaliate with sore muscles and fatigue as we transitioned to another series of balancing and core exercises with the ball place between our knees. This pattern continued as we moved the ball to our ankles and completed a round of upper body movements while balanced on our tailbones. While Cassie demonstrated each of the exercises with grace, my weakened body caused me to struggle in my efforts to mirror her movements. Ultimately, I ended up looking more like a fish out of water than I did a grown man doing Pilates.

With another round of exercises complete, Cassie introduced a moderately sized plastic and foam ring for the next exercises in our Pilates class. The sight of the ring confused me at first, but Cassie was quick to explain its intended purpose in helping complete the upcoming exercises. With her instruction, we spent the next 15 minutes stretching the ring between our hands and feet to complete a regimen of exercises focusing on our upper body, our flexibility, and, of course, our core. As we progressed, my worked muscles began burning and showing signs of refusing commands from my brain. I was beginning to doubt my ability to continue as we pressed forward, using a battery of muscles to complete the complex and sophisticated movements as Cassie instructed. Just as doubt began to creep into my mind, Cassie signaled we were approaching the end of the routine, which strengthen my resolve to press on. Moments later, we completed a final round of leg exercises and brought our session to an end. As we wrapped up, Cassie led us through a series of stretches and a brief period of relaxation comparable to Yoga’s Shavasana. Relieved the session was over, I took time to recall the complicated movements and control required to get through the exercises that had occupied the previous hour. Exhausted from the experience, I could only conclude one thing; Pilates is no joke.

 My fellow classmates cleaned up and left the studio shortly after our last round of exercises. Cassie tidied up a bit before making good on her promise of taking a few photographs of me performing Pilates exercises. To my surprise, she offered to take me around the rest of the studio and introduce me to several pieces of equipment that had not been a part of our class. Interested in learning more about the increasingly complex exercise system, I happily accepted her offer, which soon led to Celia and Amy joining us to make recommendations for exercises. With all three instructors now collectively deciding my exercises, I knew I would likely be put to the test.  Based on the first few recommendations, that assumption proved correct.

Trapeze table!
Ladder barrel!

For nearly a quarter of an hour Cassie, Celia, and Amy guided me around the studio, directing me as I performed exercises that left me suspended over a trapeze table, doing sit-ups over a ladder barrel, and doing lunges on a modified, spring-loaded stool with handles. As I flexed and bent to achieve the objectives of each exercise, I compared my efforts to the earlier mat exercises Cassie led me through. With my muscles aching, I tried to find the best way to sum up the experience just as one of the instructor’s asked me about my first attempt at Pilates. “It’s like really difficult Yoga with children’s toys,” I responded, which inspired a round of laughter. Continuing, I explained the fatigue I felt in my muscles and the burning that persisted in my abdomen. “Just wait until tomorrow,” Cassie replied with a smile on her face. I knew what she meant, and I wasn’t looking forward to what tomorrow would bring.




After guiding me through a few more exercises, Cassie, Celia, and Amy walked with me to the front of the building as we prepared to call it a night. We talked briefly about my experience, which led the three of them to encourage me to continue with Pilates. I let them know them time may be limited for such a commitment as a result of my “I have never...” journey, but I thanked them for their enthusiasm and their willingness to help me gain a full Pilates experience. Understanding my time constraints, Cassie, Celia, and Amy reminded me the year will eventually be over and that I’m always welcome to join them for another class. Their hospitality and passion for their work was clear in their statements, which made me realize I was lucky to have had my first Pilates experience with such devoted instructors.

Today’s “I have never...” event was a unique experience with a surprisingly challenging and intricate form of exercise. In the coming days I know I will feel the effects of the routine Cassie guided me through during our class, and I know I will be better for it. If I choose to take on Pilates again, there is no doubt I will make the trip to Madison Pilates. With such capable and professional instructors, I would be doing myself a service by making the effort. After all, the exercise would be good for me, and being surrounded by such good people would make it easy to stick with the routine.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Day 77 - Riding a Segway


I have never ridden a Segway Scooter. For those that are unfamiliar with these vehicles, the Segway Scooter is the two wheeled, self-balancing device that permits people to travel while standing upright. In other words, it’s the laziest way to do the equivalent of walking or running that has ever been invented. Since first becoming aware of these vehicles I have maintained a curiosity about them and how they work. While I knew I would never want to own a Segway, the concept and technology used in the vehicles was enough to pique my interest. As a result, I knew I would ride a Segway if presented the opportunity, but I wasn’t about to go out of my way to make the experience a reality; until the start of my “I have never...” journey, of course. With motivation to try new things I have otherwise ignored throughout my life, my “I have never...” idea inspired me to begin looking for ways to ride a Segway scooter. Ultimately, my research efforts led me to a company that does Segway tours in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With knowledge Rachael and I intended to attend Germanfest at the end of July, I confirmed dates, checked tour availability, and bought tickets to take the Segway tour after our visit to Germanfest this afternoon. For no reason other than satisfying the slightest curiosity, I was going to ride a Segway, and I intended to put its capabilities to the test.

My Segway experience began shortly after Rachael and I spent some time at the Germanfest wiener dog races (our dog, Buddy, likes to compete… and usually win). With the races wrapped up, Rachael and I left Buddy with Rachael’s relatives, Laura and Patti, who were happy to spend some time with him while we were on our tour. In turn, Rachael and I made our way to the local Veteran’s park where the Segway rental company was located. Upon arriving at the park, we traveled down a winding road that led to the Lake Michigan shoreline. Just before the water we found a small parking lot and three small buildings with kite, bike, and Segway rental signs plastered across their faces. Realizing we were in the correct location, Rachael and I exited our vehicle and walked along the buildings until we found a “Segway Scooter rentals” sign tacked to the farthest building in the group. Continuing on, we walked through an open double-wide doorway at the side of the small brown building. A young man quickly greeted us, confirmed our reservation, and walked us through waivers needed to ride the Segway scooters. After a few minutes of discussion and a stroke of a pen, Rachael and I were ready to ride a Segway for the first time. Although Rachael’s indifference was apparent, I enthusiastically left the building and prepared to get my hands on a new and very foreign mode of transportation.

After a brief wait for the rest of our tour group, one of the employees at the rental company, Marco, walked us to a small building that contained several rows of Segway scooters. Marco explained we would first have to watch a safety video before taking to the streets on a Segway. At about five minutes in length, the video walked through a series of unlikely scenarios that could result in injury, which were explained by a man with a heavy Boston accent. The voiceover helped make the video as entertaining as it was ridiculous, which ultimately made the underlying points memorable enough to stick in my mind. Once the video was finished, Marco gave us a brief rundown of the main safety points as he prepared the Segway scooters one by one, unplugging each of them and wheeling them out to the exterior of the building. At the conclusion of his speech, Marco asked us to grab a helmet from a nearby wall and meet him outside to get some practice with the Segway before we departed for our tour.

Getting on...
With our helmets in hand our group walked to outside and gathered around a group of Segway scooters resting awkwardly against the side of the building. Rachael and I stood by as Macro powered on the scooters and offered them two the group. After two members of the group mounted their Segways Rachael gestured for me to take the next. With her encouragement I stepped forward and lined up behind the next Segway. Marco gently placed the handlebar in my hand without adjusting its position over the vehicles base. He reminded me the drive of the Segway engaged based on the handlebars position over center, which meant I needed to mount the vehicle unaided by the handlebars. Following his instruction, I promptly stepped up onto the Segway platform and gripped the handles. Adjusting to the Segway for the first time, my motions jolted the vehicle back and forth slightly as I settled it. I quickly stopped my movements and focused on finding center as the Segway jostled back and forth for a few moments and then became suddenly still. Standing perfectly balanced over the ground, I slowly leaned forward as Marco backed away from the Segway. As my weight shifted the Segway began a slow acceleration forward. Testing my method on the device I leaned back to center to stop. With the vehicle responding as intended, I again leaned forward until the Segway met a moderate speed. With the grass rapidly passing beneath me I leaned the handlebar left and right to steer the Segway, which came with relative ease. Moving my focus from the fundamentals of controlling the vehicle, I quickly became aware I was driving a Segway, and much to my surprise, I was finding it to be quite entertaining.

Ready to ride!
Waiting for the tour to begin, I cruised around the grass space in the park as the remaining members of our group mounted their scooters. After taking to her Segway, Rachael took her time adapting the vehicle, which made sense given the foreign nature of the balance and steering mechanisms that controlled the vehicle. Over time, I felt very comfortable with the Segway, which led me to ask Marco to take off the regulator feature on the scooter. He obliged and explained this was a necessary step prior to the tour, which would have us traveling at higher speeds as we traversed the city. The thought of the forthcoming event put a smile on my face as I repositioned myself on the Segway and prepared to test the unregulated speed of the vehicle. Without hesitation, I again leaned forward to drive the vehicle forward. The new pace of acceleration and top speed surprised me as I whipped over the terrain and tore down a paved walkway running through the park. With the wind rushing past me I turned the Segway and rattled back over the grass until I found my way back to the group... just in time for the tour to start.

Looking down...



Over the next 90 minutes, Marco guided us around the Milwaukee lakeshore and through parts of downtown. We cruised down public sidewalks, bike paths, and along lakeside walkways as we traveled, taking in the sights of the Milwaukee skyline and Lake Michigan. At first, I was careful to adhere to the guidelines Marco detailed before our trip, but as the tour progressed I began to take liberty with my navigation. While the majority of the group stayed single file in a line behind our tour guide, I began darting around less traveled areas, crisscrossing grassy areas, and weaving around structures we encountered along the way. Gauging my comfort with the Segway, Marco permitted my exploration of the space around us as we continued the tour. Within reason, I was free to roam, and it made the experience that much more enjoyable. Highly entertained by the experience, I continued; taking on small grassy hills and working my way through pedestrian traffic. As I traveled, one thought kept popping into my head, “The only thing missing from this experience is a frozen banana stand.”

Passing the harbor

Eventually, our tour began to draw to a close as we wound our way through a wooded path and back to Veteran’s Park. At the conclusion of our trip I remained on my Segway awhile longer than the rest of the group, making sure to soak in my last few minutes on the goofy little vehicle that had made the previous hour and a half so entertaining. While I will say 90 minutes seemed a little long for the Segway tour, I think I could have spent hours more on the Segway had I been free to take it where I please. The reality is, the Segway is a surprisingly fun way to get around. So much so that I would consider getting a few of them for our family’s lake house if they weren’t so expensive.

If it isn’t abundantly clear, I had a blast during my first experience with a Segway. The experience was a unique way to experience previously unknown parts of Milwaukee that made for a very memorable event. This is one experience on my “I have never...” journey I can easily say I would do again if given the chance and a little bit more freedom to roam. Although I never expected riding a Segway would be so entertaining, I can now say I gave it a try, and I’m very happy I did.


Rachael and I with my sweet ride

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Day 76 - Driving a Convertible


I have never driven a convertible. In fact, I’ve only ridden in a convertible twice before today. I’m not sure why, but up to this point in my life the opportunity to cruise around with the top down has been fleeting. Perhaps it is because I don’t know many people that own convertibles, or perhaps it is a result of my indifference toward gaining the experience; whatever the reason, driving a convertible has been one of those things that has never happened in the first 30 years of my life. While such an experience remained a low priority on my “I have never…” list after starting my journey, a long day of helping my brother, Ian, rebuild his deck meant I needed to find an “I have never…” event that was simple and relaxing. As a result, Ian and I decided to take a spin in his Mustang convertible this evening, which proved a nice, but chilly, way to wrap up a busy Saturday filled with travel, hard work, and some memorable moments with some family.

The day began with an early morning trip to Ian’s house located just outside of Appleton in the town of Greenville. The nearly two hour trip moved slowly as a result of the cool, overcast weather conditions and easy going weekend travelers. As a result, I arrived to Ian’s house later than expected, finding my brother and father already hard at work stripping nails from the existing deck surface. To make up for lost time I set to work immediately. I bent and pried nails consistently for several hours before taking a break to eat. After a quick lunch I set to work again, dead set on meeting Ian’s goal of stripping and rebuilding half of the deck by the end of the day. With my brother Abe arriving early in the afternoon, the rest of our work went quickly. Although we faced several challenges during our efforts, we made the most of our time together through progress, jokes, and overzealous bee extermination efforts.

The whip
Eventually, our work began to pay off as the deck came together as my scheduled departure approached. Although we had not yet met our day’s goal on the project, my father and Abe committed to staying after I left to complete what was yet unfinished. As I prepared to leave, Ian made sure I followed through with my intended “I have never…” event for the day by taking time away from the project to take a spin in his convertible. Although the temperature hovered around 65 degrees with overcast skies, Ian enthusiastically pulled his Mustang out of the garage before exiting the car and offering me the driver’s seat. In turn, I approached the car and prepared to drive a convertible for the first time.

Upon taking my position in the driver’s seat, Ian directed me through the process of retracting the convertible’s top. With a few latch clicks, a pull of the parking brake, and the flip of a switch the roof shot skyward and began folding into the rear of the vehicle. Seconds later the collapsed roof locked into place, leaving Ian and I free to enjoy the unseasonably brisk air during a cruise in the convertible. With nothing left between me and my first drive in a convertible, I pulled the vehicle onto the road and put the accelerator down… with my shades on, of course.

Cruisin'

Over the next 15 minutes Ian and I drove through the countryside on mostly empty roads. The cold air swept over the car as we drove, leaving me revitalized after a long day of physical labor. As we traveled I became more accustomed to the car, which let me settle in and enjoy the ride. With one arm out the window I sunk into my seat and pushed the accelerator down. The rush of the pavement made itself known as we continued over hills and past open fields. Despite my previous indifference toward driving a convertible, I must admit I loved the experience… even with goose bumps forming on my arms from the chilled air.

Future's so bright...
Following Ian’s directions, we eventually ended up back at Ian’s house. With our brief trip coming to an end, I pulled the car into Ian’s driveway and tucked it back inside the garage. As I exited the vehicle, I felt pleased with my first time behind the wheel of a convertible. Although the experience wasn’t the most anticipated or exciting, driving a convertible for the first time gave me something I will always share with my brother. I’m sure years from now we will talk about my ridiculous “I have never…” journey on the deck we built together, and we will rehash the experience of driving Ian’s convertible under skies threatening rain on a 65 degree day in July. That’s a story worth telling, and a memory worth keeping. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Day 75 - West Side Story


The longest introduction EVER.


I have never seen West Side Story. As a part of the ongoing goal to see one classic movie I have never seen during each month of my “I have never...” journey, sitting through West Side Story seemed to make sense. After all, the film is one of the most acclaimed musicals of all time and still claims the title of earning the most academy awards of any musical film in history. Additionally, people have told me about West Side Story’s amazing story and memorable soundtrack since I was a kid. As such, I prepared to make West Side Story an experience relatively early in my “I have never...” journey. Given today’s unseasonably cool temperatures and spotty weather, I figured tonight was as good as any to see the film. As a result, Rachael helped me track down a copy of West Side Story, and I settled to watch the film for the first time tonight.


I dance to intimidate.
When I began West Side Story I came in mostly blind to the finer details of the story. I knew the movie was an acclaimed musical, I knew it was about gangs that snapped their fingers, and I knew it was a love story. That was it. I didn’t know any more about what to expect from the film or from its underlying storyline. As a result, I began the film with an open mind and some anticipation. “There has to be a reason why everyone says positive things about this movie,” I thought as I hit play and watched as the title screen presented itself. For minutes on end I watched as the same title screen shifted colors but otherwise remained unchanged. Unaware of why this remained the case, I eventually checked to see if something was wrong with the DVD only to determine everything was in order. Restarting the movie, I immediately decided to fast forward through the remainder of the title screen. Finally reaching the opening sequence of the movie, I settled in again as the film introduced the ragtag group of young men known as the Jets. I watched as they danced their way through the streets, which apparently intimidated people given it sent blocks of citizens scurrying away at the sight of high kicks, prances, and twirls.

My immediate reaction to the sight of the opening sequence was one that would remain with me throughout the film. I found it incredibly hard to take the developing plot seriously at the sight of grown men pretending to be young gangsters settling scores with dance fights and songs. In my mind these two things were so opposite one another I couldn’t put them on the same plain. Although I understood the dancing and music was intended to express the emotion and turmoil of the goings on in the New York neighborhood in which the Sharks and Jets lived, I just couldn’t pull the idea of ballet dancing gang members together. Regardless, I stayed focus on the film and resolved to watch it to completion. In turn, I let the film progress, which led to an unraveling story of forbidden love.


Tony meets Maria

Tony sings with Maria

While the story around Riff, Bernardo, Tony, and Maria developed I couldn’t help but feel as though the struggle between societal classes and the love that crossed these bounds was somewhat familiar. As Tony and Maria’s feelings flourished and the turf war between the Jets and Sharks came to a head, I realized the story was simply a twist on the classic plot of Romeo and Juliet. This discovery prompted me to start looking at the musical through a different lens, which made the unfolding events all too predictable. Sure, the songs were catchy and the cinematography was memorable, but the plot was familiar and aged. I knew what was coming before it happened, and that never makes for a good movie watching experience.


Dance fighting with knives?!? Now it's getting real.
Needless to say, I wasn’t digging West Side Story. While I could understand why some people are drawn to the musical and film, the unlikely combination of dancing, gang wars, singing, and a Shakespearean plot didn’t appeal to me. This feeling persisted even as the plot moved to the death of two main characters and the uncertain outcome of Tony and Maria’s fate. At points I actually found myself bored by the predictable storyline, encouraged only by seeing if my predictions of the plot would come true. Eventually, the movie drew to a close with Tony’s death and a moment of unity between the gangs. In a break from the Shakespearean plot, I was actually surprised to see Maria survive at the end of the musical, but that was about the only intriguing aspect of the film I found. It may be sacrilege to some, but West Side Story just wasn’t for me.


Romeo... er Tony, bites the dust.

Tonight’s experience with the West Side Story was one of the rare instances where I didn’t take a lot away from an “I have never...” event. Maybe I didn’t approach the film prepared to look past the obvious contradictions gangsters dancing and singing show tunes, or maybe this one was just too far outside of my personal preferences. Whatever the reason, it is safe to say West Side Story will not be a film or a musical I revisit again. I just didn’t find enough to take away from the film, which limits its value to me. If anything, at least I can now say I finally saw West Side Story, even if it is likely that will not occur again.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Day 74 - Yahara Bay Distillery


I have never been to Yahara Bay Distillery. In fact, I was completely unaware this distillery existed until a recent stroke of luck caused me to stumble upon it during some “I have never…” research. After learning the distillery specializes in fine spirits and gives free tours and samples on Thursdays, I decided I would make a visit to the distillery at some point during the year. I didn’t know when, but I knew I would eventually make the trip. That is, until my original “I have never…” plans for the day fell through.

Upon learning the cooking class I was supposed to attend today was cancelled, I scrambled to find some alternative event to fulfill my “I have never…” objective for the day. At first, I struggled to develop any ideas of worth, which sent me into a state of panic at the thought of letting my “I have never…” idea fall apart as a result of a fluke event.  I realized my only hope was to try to find something, anything that could backfill the hole in my calendar of events. With the clock winding to 6:30, I knew my options were likely going to be limited, but I had no other choice. As a result, I set to work doing research on Madison events occurring tonight. I paged through lists of musical acts, announcements, and public notices hoping something would jump out. After nearly 30 minutes I leaned back and put my hands on my head. It was nearly 7:00, and I was no closer to finding a suitable solution to my “I have never…” crisis.

Resolved to find a solution, I placed one last search into a search engine and hit enter. Eventually coming across an as yet not reviewed events page, I narrowed the search field to events occurring exclusively on today’s date. The search provided a surprisingly substantial list of results, which sent me scrolling through the entries at a rapid pace. After a brief review of the first half of the page my eyes locked on a single entry at the center of the page. A sudden feeling of excitement hit me as I read the words “Yahara Bay Distillery Tour: 5-9 pm” in a small grey box on the screen.

“That’s it!” I said out loud at my discovery. Wondering why the thought had not dawned on me earlier, I shook my head in disbelief at my oversight. “Why wouldn’t a gap in my plans on a Thursday night present the perfect opportunity to visit Yahara Bay? …Duh.” I continued, talking at nothing but the open air. With my plans set, I quickly rose to my feet and prepared to leave. With Rachael gone for the night, I realized I would have to make the trip alone unless I made some last minute calls. In turn, I contacted a couple of friends, Patrick and Ross, to gauge their interest in visiting the distillery. Luckily, both were ready and willing to make the trip, which set into motion my first visit to the Yahara Bay Distillery.

Making it there
On my way to the distillery I met Patrick to carpool for the back half of the trip. With knowledge Ross was meeting us at the location, the two of us made the short trip to Yahara Bay and entered the building. Just inside the building’s door sat a small bar that overlooked a long open room lined with art. I took notice of a door at the back of the room that opened to a much wider room that clearly contained equipment for distilling alcohol. After taking a quick look around the space Patrick and I grabbed a few seats at the bar and struck up a conversation with the bartender. He was quick to help us and provide some background on the history of the Yahara Bay Distillery. One by one he covered the various spirits distilled by the company, which ranged from vodka, to rum, to whiskey, to flavored liqueurs. During his explanation Patrick and I ordered a couple of drinks, which gave us something to sip as the bartender continued his walkthrough of the distillery’s offerings. Eventually needing to serve other patrons of the establishment, the bartender wrapped up his summary after fielding a few questions from Patrick and me. With the bartender moving on to help others, Patrick and I made idle conversation until Ross arrived ready to take the distillery tour.

Taking a seat at the bar
A few minutes after Ross walked through the door, the three of us made our way through the backdoor and into the production area of the distillery. A massive still greeted us as we walked into the space, which was laden with towering containers, oaken barrels, and bottle presses. We looked around the front of the space for a few minutes until we were greeted by a man named Lars, who happened to be the distillery’s master distiller. Lars introduced himself and quickly offered to take us on a tour of the facility. Happily agreeing to his offer, Patrick, Ross, and I walked with Lars to the back of the facility. Lars pointed out the various operations Yahara Bay performs as we walked, explaining the function and purpose of each piece of equipment in a highly detailed yet easy to digest manner. As we continued it was clear Lars knew what he was doing and held an amazing passion for his work. He pointed out the company’s efforts at crafting specialty bitters, discussed the ongoing rum distillation at the facility, and walk through the filtration and aging process used at Yahara Bay. Intrigued, Patrick, Ross, and I listened on as he spoke and periodically asked questions about Lars’ area of expertise.

Barrels and barrels of spirits
Eventually, the tour brought us back to the front of the production room. We stood before the large copper still as Lars continued discussing the distillation process. After a few minutes of discussing the various types of alcohol created during distillation, Lars cracked open the still, which immediately produced a steady blanket of steam that slowly crept toward the ceiling. “We were working on a rum earlier today, so it’s still a little hot,” Lars said as he pulled back the metal still door. Fixed on the dense cloud of steam inside the dimly lit still, I continued listening as Lars explained the importance of proper distillation. He described the poisoning effects of methyl alcohol on the body, and described the importance of reducing this form of alcohol and removing it from the Ethyl alcohol to leave a pure, digestible product. “We call the nasty stuff heads,” Lars said before gesturing to a plastic jug on a nearby shelf. The jug had a cartoon face with X’s for eyes drawn onto its surface, resting just above the word “heads” spelled out in capital letters. Removing the lid on the jug, Lars invited us to take a smell of the byproduct as he described its potentially lethal effects on humans. One by one Patrick, Ross, and I took a sniff of the liquid, which smelled like a blend of rubbing alcohol and bottom shelf tequila. We made a few remarks about the contents as we stepped back toward the still. Moments later, Lars wrapped up his tour and invited us back to the front of the building for a drink at the bar. Of course, we took him up on his offer.




Looking into the still

With the tour complete, Patrick, Ross, and I grabbed a spot at the end of the bar and took our time ordering a drink. Drink in hand, we found a small table to sit at in the middle of the art gallery and spent the next hour getting caught up and talking about the news of the day. Around us a decent crowd milled about the facility, taking in the sights of the art and the distillery. In the middle of the welcoming, comfortable environment the minutes passed quickly as we chatted, which brought the night to a close relatively quickly. With the distillery preparing to close for the night, the three of us took our final sips of our drinks and walked out into the gentle rain that had started falling sometime earlier. There we wrapped up our conversations and parted ways, which ended my first trip to the Yahara Bay Distillery.

Bottles and bottles of spirits
On the ride back to Patrick’s car, the two of us talked about our experience at the surprisingly hidden facility. We quickly concluded the trip to the Yahara Bay Distillery was a good way to spend a Thursday evening and was a great outlet for trying something new. As my first trip to a distillery, Yahara Bay made the experience memorable, entertaining, and informative, which covers the base of what I would want out of such an experience. While I don’t know if I will make it back to the Yahara Bay Distillery anytime in the near future, I can say I think it is a great trip to make for anyone in the Madison area. For most people, learning about the distillation process will likely provide something new, and the crew at Yahara Bay will give a tour that defines the correct way to make quality spirits. Plus, the people there are incredibly welcoming, friendly, and committed to their craft. That alone makes it worth the trip.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Day 73 - Seeing Shakespeare/Attending Outdoor Theatre

Antony and Cleopatra
I have never seen a live Shakespeare play. Now, this may come as a surprise to many people that grew up in schools that devoted time and resources to discussing and performing Shakespeare’s works. While seeing Shakespeare may be commonplace in many school districts throughout the country, my hometown school spent little-to-no time discussing his works. In fact, drama in the Princeton school district was largely limited to an annual performance of one play, which was often a contemporary piece of drama very far removed from the classical works of Shakespeare. As a result, my exposure to Shakespeare was limited only to my independent efforts to pursue his work in my free time; however, these efforts never resulted in me seeking to attend an actual performance of a play. Given this was the case, I figured at 30 years old it was likely time to see Shakespeare for the first time. In turn, I made plans to attend a Madison Shakespeare Company presentation of Antony and Cleopatra on its opening night, which would help me gain the new experiences of seeing Shakespeare and attending a performance at an outdoor theatre for the first time.

I planned on arriving home quickly after my workday today in an effort to give me time to prepare for the play and still make its 6:30 pm start time. Unfortunately, work obligations and heavy traffic stood in the way of that effort, resulting in me arriving home a little before 6:20 this evening. Although the performance of Antony and Cleopatra was being held at Breese Field a few blocks from my house, I knew my late arrival home would make it a challenge to get to the performance on time. As a result, I rushed around the house to get ready for the evening, doing my best to juggle multiple tasks at once in my flurry of activity. Luckily, Rachael had already prepared the food, drinks, and seating we would need for the show, which helped me quickly address the few obligations I had remaining before we left. Finally ready to leave, I bolted out the front door with an armload of things and greeted Rachael and our friend, Allison, who had been waiting patiently for me. With the clock quickly winding toward 6:30, we immediately began our walk to the field, our pace quickened by my delay.

Breese Field

Our walk was brief given the close proximity of the field and our pointed effort to complete the trek as fast as possible. Arriving to the field, we promptly identified the entrance and climbed the stairs to the stadium seating ringing the performance area. After grabbing our tickets, I turned to face the crowd and locate acceptable seats. To my surprise, the seating area contained a substantial crowd, which gave us pause as we tried to isolate a free area of three consecutive seats. With the play already beginning, we focused in on a block of space near the far side of the stage and made our way to the area. Doing our best to not disturb the performance, we quietly set up our space and took our seats, finally ready to take in the show.

The audience

Settling in to my seat, I focused intently on adjusting my brain to the linguistic loops of Shakespeare’s writing. Although I was familiar with the language in his work, hearing the words acted out and spoken on the grass stage before me was a new and different experience. As I honed in on the cadence and recalled the Shakespearean lexicon, I took stock of the performance area before us. The three separate performance areas provided unique and well-constructed sets, which respectively represented Rome, Alexandria, and the open settings of palace courtyards, temples, and monuments. I watched on as the actors worked through the opening scenes of the play with surprisingly sound execution, making use of the full range of scenery spanning the width of the field.


Bonds made...

...Bonds broken

Finally finding my place in the story, I became entangled in the establishment of the plot and the independent schemes of Antony and Cleopatra’s main characters. With bonds being built and broken at the whim of personal pursuits and desire, the play quickly laid the foundation for the dramatic sequence that would ultimately lead to Antony and Cleopatra’s deaths. Intrigued by the development of the betrayals, war sequences, and cunning acts at the hands of Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra, I remained fixed on the presentation and the unraveling of dramatic sequences driven by the personal pursuits and arrogance of the play’s protagonists. With the story building, I was completely engaged and prepared for the inevitable consequences of the main character’s actions.

The last shot before sunset...
A warning of betrayal
The story continued as the tides of battles turned and roared back again, sending Antony and Cleopatra’s worlds crashing down around them. Their personal ambitions, wealth, and lives at risk, I watched as their relationship became an unpredictable array of emotions, which ultimately led to Cleopatra’s escape behind a rumor of her death. Then, in classic Shakespeare fashion, we observed Antony conclude his only just and respectable outlet to absolve his wrongdoing was to take his own life, which drove Cleopatra to make the same sacrifice before the hands of Caesar after seeing Antony’s last breaths. Although the conclusion came as no surprise for a Shakespearean work, the story’s end was as powerful as any comparable drama and left a resonant, heavy emotion lingering in the air. With Caesar’s closing words the play then drew to a swift end, leaving all of us in the crowd to ponder the meaning and value of the actions taken by Egypt’s once great king and queen.

After the final act of the show, Allison, Rachael, and I gathered our things and started our walk home. On the walk we talked about the performance, the actors, and the story that we had witnessed over the previous hours. We agreed the time spent at Breese Field was a worthwhile event on an otherwise ordinary summer evening and concluded our decision was better than alternative events that could have occupied our evening. After today’s event, I can now say I have seen Shakespeare, and I can easily say it was worth it. Although it took me 30 years, my first experience watching the work of the father of modern drama proved insightful and entertaining. As a result, I’m sure I will attend another one of Shakespeare’s plays at some point in the future, even if it is only to experience the mastery of language in his work. I just need to find the time to make it happen...