So much Fun

I'm laying in a Third Ward apartment in Milwaukee. The Harleys are roaring by on the streets below. My ears are ringing. And the excitement of the day is keeping me from falling asleep any time soon.

I've been lucky to have a lot of great birthdays in my lifetime. But today may hold up as one of the best.

Say it with me: Dreams came true tonight.

As always, I'll start with some background ...

Kates and I got a late start on planning our vacations this year after all the excitement of the spring died down. We didn’t come to a consensus until just a couple weeks ago that the week of July 4 would be our best window – between softball games, summer school, visitors to our house, vacation bible school at our church and my work responsibilities.

All along – the spring ritual that it is – I was tracking Summerfest’s lineup announcements. Rare as it is, this year’s lineup left me unimpressed. There were more bands this year than in past years with which I had little familiarity. Several bands on the docket this year I’ve seen multiple times – Barenaked Ladies and OAR to name two – and had little interest in seeing again. … Except for two: The Go-Gos are playing July 3 and Guster is playing July 4. I've seen both previously, but would love to see them again.

Then there was toniiiiiiight. Fun at the Marcus Amphitheater. I was bummed I had to miss them at Summerfest last year, having a sense they were on the verge of going big. Sure enough, they did and most nights I heard one of their songs on the radio – or watched them on the Grammys – I was left thinking, What if. …

Kates and I discussed trying to work the Fun show into our summer vacation plans. But it was so late in the game I figured we had little chance at getting good seats. I had a number of responsibilities at the university that, I figured, would make it tough for me to leave. And I had played up the experience so much in my head that I had begun to doubt I’d even enjoy the show.

We decided to forego Fun and begin our vacation June 28.

Until …

I received a text from Orrin Tuesday afternoon …
Kelli got two free tickets to Fun this Thursday night at the Marcus Amphitheater. They’re yours if you want them!
Oh. My.

The gears in my brain started churning. How can we make this work?

With plans to start our vacation and be away from work Friday, I’d already begun working ahead. But finishing my projects an extra day earlier, not to mention getting excused from Thursday’s university board meeting, was going to make it tough.

Tuesday evening, I finished a draft of my news release for the board meeting. Wednesday, I finished a couple items I needed to write for the president and my cover story for our alumni magazine. At around 8:30 Wednesday night, I emailed all of the documents to my boss for her to review and then dialed her number to explain the situation and request starting my vacation leave a day early. Almost simultaneously, Orrin called Kates to confirm the tickets were ours and talk details.

We were gonna make it work.

So Kates and I got the girls to bed and went to work packing for our trip. We made it to bed about 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

Five hours later, we were awake again. I badly needed to mow our lawn because rain prevented me from doing it earlier this week, and it would have been past our knees had I left it until we return in nine days. So I woke the neighbors and mowed our lawn, while Kates finished packing our suitcases inside.

At 9 a.m. we were on the road, and, oh, what a trip it was. We couldn’t have asked for a better drive with two kids under 5. We made no stops until a rest area in Iowa for lunch and bathroom breaks around 11:30 a.m. Another stop for gas and caffeine around 2:30. And on to Wisconsin. …

Our only hiccup occurred around the I-88 interchange in Illinois, which we missed, causing us to spend a good 45 minutes trying to turn around and get back on track because the Illinois tollway system holds motorists hostage and allows only limited exits or stops. Before driving through Illinois make darn sure you’ve made your food and bathroom breaks and you know your route.

Faye slept for most of the drive, and when she wasn’t asleep she was peering over at her big sister in wonder. Phoebe watched movies and played on her LeapPad before we spent the afternoon hours making song requests for Kates to play on the iPod. We must have listened to Phoebe's favorites “Home,” “Some Nights” and “Good Time” – we declared “It's always a good time” as the motto of our trip – a few times each.

We made one more quick restroom stop beyond the Wisconsin border and arrived at our destination – Kelli’s and Orrin’s apartment in Milwaukee’s Third Ward – about 6:50 p.m. We made it. Orrin and the grandparents were waiting at the curb to meet us as I pulled up to the unloading zone. …

Then I got another gift. We had planned to unload our things and then I’d search for some parking – knowing it wouldn’t be easy in downtown Milwaukee, during Summerfest. But before I could turn the car off, Orrin saw something and said, “Um, you might want to keep the car on for another minute.” I followed Orrin’s finger pointing to the car behind me, which was leaving its parking spot.

Divine intervention.

I put the car in reverse and backed up about 10 feet into a free parking space. From there, we unloaded our belongings and headed upstairs to the apartment. We ate leftover pizza for supper, left the kids with the grandparents and walked the two blocks to the Summerfest grounds.

The night was perfect.

* * *

We were easily amused by the ticket takers, bartenders and others who told us to “Have fun.” … We did have Fun.

We entered the Marcus Amphitheater and found our seats while the second of the opening bands, Walk the Moon, wrapped up its set. Family of the Year played before them. I hadn’t heard of either band, nor did I care to hear from them tonight. We waited patiently as they finished. During the break, Orrin and I headed to the VIP section – a perk that came with our tickets – for a round of beverages.

Fun took the stage shortly after 9. And as the show hummed and thumped along, it far exceeded my expectations. Enough that it might just be the best show I’ve seen.

Here’s an excerpt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s review

A string of hit anthems launched by the massive "We Are Young," two major Grammys for best new artist and song of the year, and now another first Thursday night at the Marcus Amphitheater. Looking out at the near-capacity shed, frontman Nate Ruess announced, "This is the biggest show we've ever played in our whole entire life."

You have to think more blockbusters are lurking down the road — fun. writes and plays fist-pumping anthems made to order for giant amphitheaters. Ruess claims he writes most of his best stuff during middle-of-the-night bathroom breaks. You have to think he's a man of turbulent dreams. These are big bursting tunes, part rock opera and part pure Broadway greasepaint. Ruess talks a lot about the hip-hop influences in the "Some Nights" album but what these ears hear is a whole lot of Queen.

Listen to those clarion horns in "One Foot." Or even better, that bombastic singalong in "Carry On." If the Mormon Tabernacle Choir does a fun. cover album, don't be surprised. And because of deadlines, we didn't even hear the biggest firecracker of all, "We Are Young."

None of this, incidentally, is meant as a put-down. Rarely has a band been as aptly named as fun. A spirit of playfulness pervaded the music. It was there in that toy piano line in "All Alone" and the nursery rhyme cadences of "At Least I'm Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)."

And if that weren't enough to dismiss the suspicions of pretense, there was Ruess himself, a nonstop bantam dynamo who was clearly having a ball. Little wonder that the Marcus crowd was up on its feet and singing along much of the way.
The reviewer says he heard a whole lot of Queen. But I kept thinking Electric Light Orchestra, Supertramp and a little bit of Rolling Stones. Even Ruess’ stage presence resembled pieces of Mick Jagger.

They opened with the pounding “One Foot” and then “At Least I’m Not As Sad” – one of my personal favorites within the Fun catalog. I was thrilled to hear it live – Emily Moore singing the interplay with Ruess’ lead vocals and all.

We’ve been playing all of these songs around our house for the last year, and there were only a couple I didn’t recognize from the first one or two notes. Throughout, I was impressed with how well the group was able to replicate its studio sound on the live stage. The band, the harmonies and Reuss – it all sounded so fantastic.

And those elements were backed up by some stunning visuals both on screen and in the crowd. There were flashing lights. Images flashing on a huge screen behind the band. And confetti explosions.

Each song built on the power and momentum of the one before it, inching closer to the hits everyone came to hear. Every song sounded new and fresh, and I could count every one of them as a highlight of the show. “All Alone,” “Why Am I the One” and “All the Pretty Girls” sounded even better to me live than their album counterparts.

Around the midway point, a familiar trumpet melody began. I looked at Kates and said, “This is a cover! What is this? I can’t think of it!” Then, Reuss broke in, “I saw her today at the reception …”

Another highlight. And an addition to my favorite live covers.

The crowd roared at the sound of the opening drum beats of “We Are Young.” Kates and I grabbed each other’s hand, and the sing-along commenced immediately as a group of stage crew members tossed 16 glow-in-the-dark beach balls – eight from each side of the stage – onto the crowd …

The band capped their set with “Take Your Time (Coming Home).” Near the end of the song, Reuss raced up the aisle just a few feet from us, security guards chasing after him to hold back the crowd. He disappeared for a few moments in the crowd near the top of the amphitheater’s lowest tier. Then, he raced back down, security guards chasing after him again, and jumped back onto the stage with an exasperated look that sort of said, “Whoah, I can’t believe I just did that, but it was really fun!”

The band left the stage – and would you believe some people in the crowd did, too!? Blasphemy.

When the band returned a minute later, cell phone lights began popping on in the crowd. Reuss remarked what a beautiful sight it was and told us to hold on because there was going to be a place for those lights in a few minutes. He paused and then sang the opening lyrics for “Some Nights.”

They segued into “Stars” for the finale. The cell phone lights reappeared and danced above the crowd. I believe it's the coolest thing I've ever experienced at a concert.

We didn’t know until Reuss noted that tonight’s show was the kickoff of their summer tour. He stopped at several points during the show, overcome with the appreciation of the crowd, to take in the awesomeness of the scene.

It did strike us when he gazed on the capacity crowd and proclaimed it “the biggest show we've ever played in our whole entire life." You would think venues like “Saturday Night Live” and their jaw-dropping Grammys performance were bigger.

It doesn’t matter. We were thrilled to be a part of it.

The set list:
1. One Foot
2. At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used to Be)
3. All Alone
4. Walking the Dog
5. Why Am I the One
6. All the Pretty Girls
7. It Gets Better
8. Barlights
9. Carry On
10. The Gambler
11. You Can’t Always Get What You Want
12. We Are Young
13. Take Your Time (Coming Home)
14. Some Nights
15. Stars



Oh, Blackhawks, you've captured my heart again.

What. A. Game. Last night.

Full disclosure ...

I turned on the game at the start of the third quarter after I had a meeting and the girls were in bed.

I saw the Bruins take the lead, and yet I couldn't look away.

1:16 left in regulation. The Hawks score.

No sooner had the TV analyst mentioned the possibility of another overtime in what has been a series of overtimes and said the words, "It hasn't happened yet ..." the Hawks took the lead with 58 seconds left.

At 1:17, the game was considered over. The decibel of the Bruins fans was rising. A Game 7 was staring the Hawks in the face ...

Then the Blackhawks crushed their dreams and reclaimed the Stanley Cup for Chicagoland.



The Evolution of Dance and other video hits

So I stumbled on to this video today as I was reading through a highlight list of the best and most popular videos ever posted to YouTube.

It's a great list, by the way, that brings back a lot of memories of viral videos over the years. I still love the sneezing panda, but the list is missing two notables -- the JK wedding dance and OK Go's "Here It Goes Again."

How had I not seen this until now!? ... This is classic and quite entertaining.

Oh, and by the way, included on that list was Gangham Style. As of tonight, I can say I've finally watched the video that ruled the charts last fall.


"I'm No Angel," an SNL classic

Greg Allman's "I'm No Angel" got a random play on the iPod this morning. ...

Hearing that song will forever remind me of this Saturday Night Live skit. One of my all-time favorites ...


In a rut

Whoah, I’m in a rut. I’ve lost my fire.

Since finishing my degree this spring I seem to have lost much of my mojo to do anything productive during my downtime other than watch TV and play video games. I suppose eventually I’ll get to the projects I said I was going to resume, but right now it’s not happening. My inspiration is lacking.

I remain productive in my day job, but the added stress of my graduate work is gone. There’s a void and I can’t seem to figure out how to fill it.

I was rolling at such a high speed throughout the winter and spring, pushing out graduate papers, conducting research and compiling my portfolio. And then, all of a sudden, it was over.

In the run up to the final presentation, I kidded that this might happen. But it really did – now that’s over, I truly don’t know what to do with myself.

I’m the guy who always seems to have his next move planned. I’m not used to this feeling.

* * *

The same can be said for our softball team. For being the defending league champions, we are not playing like it this season.

We’ve been plagued by inconsistency. Caused by forfeits, injuries and rainouts. Last week, both of our games were canceled by rain, prompting Coach to send a text to our team, instructing us to start building an ark with our bats – a few extra cubits in height to accommodate indoor batting practice – and use the cows to fashion leathered gloves.

And those rainouts came in the midst of a five-game losing streak. Our bats went silent – one of the guys said we were “Royals-ing it,” pre-George Brett at hitting coach. Our defense was average, but when the opponents placed balls in the holes, the runs stacked up and we lost a couple of those game by 10 runs.

I’m not hitting well, either. Most of my at-bats lately end with me shooting line drives straight to the shortstop that are caught for outs. Or towering fly balls caught by the outfielders.

Ah, but the losing streak ended tonight, in the second game of a doubleheader. We frustrated the opponent with our patience at the plate, racking up base runners on walks, and some timely pops that knocked in the runs.

Better yet, we did it with an out-of-the box defensive setup. With only nine players tonight, we put four guys in the outfield and three in the infield. I shifted between the second baseman’s spot and the shortstop position, depending on the batter.

I went 1-for-2 with two walks and two runs scored in the win. I didn’t swing my bat to get those two walks, prompting the opposing catcher to snarl at me after the second walk, “Geez, why do you even bring a bat to the plate!?”

We frustrated the other side so much that a couple of their players refused to shake our hands after the game.

Hopefully, we’ve turned the corner. The playoffs are coming and since we’re out of contention for the regular season title, we’ll be aiming for the tournament title.


Homeward bound

I'm sittin' in the airport terminal, got a ticket for my destination. Mmmm ...

I'm leaving Los Angeles this morning after what has been an amazing week of exploring the city and connecting with some really awesome university alumni doing some really awesome things. The Photographer and I caught up with people managing e-commerce at a popular shoe and accessories company, producing movie trailers - including the man responsible for the "Inception" trailer, producing apps and games for The Jim Henson Company and writing for Disney. All of them, inspiring.

And the city. It's interesting after spending several days in a place how the streets and sights become familiar and you begin to engrain yourself in the area. You begin to get comfortable and at times sort of forget it's not home. ... Beyond that, it's been amusing to drive the streets, see the signs and pass locations of places I grew up hearing about in Beach Boys songs and rock n' roll documentaries -- places like Doheny Drive, Santa Monica Boulevard, the Hollywood Bowl, Hawthorne, Pasadena and Laurel Canyon. 

After our long day Wednesday, we got a good night's sleep and a hardy hotel breakfast. Thursday morning, we made our first foray into Hollywood to visit a trailer production company, where we interviewed an alumnus - and got a neat preview of a few noteworthy films due out in the next year.

From there, we headed north to Santa Clarita, a Los Angeles suburb, to meet an alumnus who has had success in the radio business and now runs a company that produces promotional spots and sound effects. 

With our work complete for the day and a free Thursday night, The Photographer and I ventured to Anaheim. I wanted to capture one of my baseball dreams - seeing an Angels game at Angel Stadium. Better yet, the Angels were playing the Dodgers, the team I adored growing up. 

Like all of our destinations throughout the week, we were within 30 minutes of the stadium. But - against rush hour traffic - it took us about 90 minutes to get there. We found the game on the radio and listened to it until arriving at the parking garage sometime during the third inning. There, we got our first good view of the stadium and began the walk to find seats. Breath-taking ...

Unfortunately, the cheapest tickets available in the stadium were going for $42 and on the third deck of the stadium. The Photographer and I didn't like it but after the time it took us to get there, we decided to suck it up and make the best of.it. Besides I had some graduation gift money to spend, and I was chasing a dream.

The cost of the ticket pretty much knocked out my hope of purchasing a souvenir rally monkey - which by the way would have set me back another 30 bucks. I love my baseball, but the ridiculous prices make me want to scream, and these days that's limited my spending to buying the ticket and rarely anything else. In days past, I might have bought an Angels cap to add to my collection of hats representing Major League cities I've visited. This time I didn't even bother looking at the price tags on the caps. Aye.

We traveled three sets of escalators and found our seats behind the left field foul pole. Immediately I began taking in the stadium, gazing at all the features I've seen for years during Angels games on TV. I would have enjoyed the view no matter where we were sitting. ...

We settled into our seats in time to see Ramon Hernandez hit a home run over the left field wall and tie the game at 2-2 for the Dodgers. ... The Rally Monkey made his first appearance around the sixth inning, jumping around on the jumbotron to the roar of the crowd. There was a comical scene from The Bachelorette, too, in which the monkey hopped from a limousine and the latest bachelorette - I don't know their names - was babbling about how cute the monkey was while it jumped and clapped.

And, oh, the crowd. The upper decks were filled almost entirely with Hispanic families, couples and youth. I had known the Dodgers and Angels are quite a draw for that population, but seeing their enthusiasm for the game only enhanced the experience. The Angel red and Dodger blue in the stands were evenly split, and when one of the teams made a good play or took a base, that team's fans were quick to fire friendly jabs at the opposing fans.

After the seventh inning stretch, we took a walk to explore the stadium further and find a different view. We settled into a couple seats on the first base line for the final inning.

The Angels closed it out with a 3-2 win, and the fireworks blazed into the air behind center field.

As we left the stadium, we headed to the main entrance because we missed it on the way in. Outside, we took in more of the stadium features while a collection of fans made noise behind the Fox Sports set as a pair of analysts were doing the post game show.

Back at our car we sat in the parking garage for more than an hour, waiting for traffic to clear. Then it took us just 30 minutes to get back to our hotel.

By my count, Angel Stadium is the 11th baseball stadium I've visited. It's the 12th if you count Milwaukee County Stadium, which no longer exists (Click here. See No. 15.).
A good night.
* * *

Our Friday was packed with interviews, and none of them disappointed.

First, we hit the home of a young associate film producer. When he greeted us at the door and let us inside, The Photographer asked, "What fraternity did you kick out to get this place?" He hit the nail on the head. ... The home was decorated with dark wood paneling and wood floors. There was a pool table in the dining room, surrounded by bookshelves supporting vintage film equipment and other props. The living room had a piano and a built-in hutch filled with wine glasses. There was no doubt it was the home of a bunch of young artists. As he gave us the tour, the producer told us how the house had been passed down among grads of a certain film school, and his roommates now include several musicians, including a couple guys who play with Josh Radin. Pretty cool.

After the interview, with about an hour until our next meeting, we headed up the hill to the Griffith Observatory for a better view of the iconic Hollywood Sign, not to mention the city. Amazing.

Next up, The Jim Henson Company, where we met an alumna who produces apps and games for children's programming. She was another wonderful interview with an inspiring passion and energy for what she's doing. Adding to the fun, we graduated from the college at the same time and share some mutual friends to this day, but only knew of each other at the time we were going to school. As with all of our interview subjects throughout the trip, it was fantastic to establish that connection and hear about the great work my peers are doing.

We received a wonderful tour of the Jim Henson lot, which formerly was the home and work space of Charlie Chaplain. Many of the buildings where he worked and shot film are still standing and in use. We also got a peak inside the screening room, a green screen set. And it turned out some scenes from the latest Muppets movie were filmed on the lot. I need to see that again.

Finally, we headed over the hill from Hollywood to Disney Channel's offices in Burbank to see a writer/editor. This stop was made more fascinating for me by the fact that it was a home base for a lot of the TV shows Phoebe watches on an almost non-stop basis -- Phineas and Ferb, Sofia the First, and Jake and the Never Land Pirates, among them -- and the person we interviewed is responsible for promoting some of them. Had I interviewed him a few years ago, it would have been just another interview for me, and I would have had almost no idea about the show he was talking about. Show posters and illustrations dotted the walls, and a few youth bikes were parked in the hallways as remnants of a summer programming campaign.

* * *
With all of our interviews complete, we took the rest of the night to explore Hollywood. First, we headed for Hollywood Boulevard ...

In a nutshell, I thought it was overrated, but I enjoyed the experience nonetheless. I enjoyed seeing the Walk of Fame and reading the names of stars - from Tom Hanks to Fleetwood Mac to Winnie the Pooh to -- whaddaya know -- Alice Faye.

And I enjoyed seeing the theaters - the Chinese Theatre and the Dolby Theatre, formerly known as the Kodak Theatre. And, of course, the Capitol Records building.

The fronts of the theaters were crowded with impersonators and costumed people performing, getting their pictures taken and trying to earn some extra bucks. We saw Batman, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Spider-Man, Tinker Bell, Michael Jackson and Chewbacca, to name a few. ...

The rest of the strip was filled with guys pushing bus tours and storefronts of all varieties -- T-shirt and novelty shops, cigar shops and hookah lounges, and a handful of other outrageous things that are a blur to me now.

For dinner, on the recommendation of the young film producer we visited in the morning, we tried 25 Degrees at the Roosevelt Hotel. Our producer friend claimed they serve up the best burgers you've ever tasted. ... I ordered the No. 1 and it was glorious. If I've had a better burger, I can't recall it. 

And the fries. Without a doubt, those were the best fries I've ever tasted. Lightly fried in vegetable oil and sprinkled with salt and thyme. I'm not one to take photos of my food, but there was so much food beauty in front of me, I couldn't resist. ...

After dinner and after walking the remainder of the strip, the night was still young. The Photographer and I were eager to continue our exploration. So we hopped back in our car and drove up the hill, along the narrow and winding roads, through picturesque California neighborhoods, until we came to the Sunset Ranch.

We parked our car and hiked the trail for what seemed like miles and hours. Had I been wearing hiking shoes and not my loafers, we might have hiked further. As the sun began to set, we took in the breath-taking views of the city and the surrounding landscape once more.

We reunited with our car, and the sky was dark by the time we returned to the bottom of the hill. After stumbling upon and driving around a couple studio lots, The Photographer was intent on returning to Hollywood Boulevard, thinking there was going to be some outlandish nightlife. Though I had little interest in going back, I obliged ... But only after crossing one more stop off my list. 

The Troubadour. I've been fascinated with its place in pop culture history ever since Kates and I caught the "Troubadours" documentary last year. I discovered we had been in its vicinity for most of our time in L.A., and I was determined to make a drive-by at the least.

The Photographer parked the car at a Walgreens one block over, and I walked up the street and along the parkway to get a better look and soak in the scene for a few minutes. So much music history ...  

Eventually, we headed back to Hollywood Boulevard and parked the car in a seedy valet lot, trusting the car -- and our equipment -- would be there when we returned.

Hollywood Boulevard wasn't any more exciting to me the second time around. And the obnoxiousness The Photographer expected to find on a late Friday night was absent. But there was an impromptu bike parade that seemed to stretch for miles. ...  

As we head home now, I'm fulfilled. It was a fantastic trip.