Brauned out

So Major League Baseball has suspended Ryan Braun for the remainder of the season, and he's pretty much admitted his transgressions in the proverbial statement without mentioning specifics.
“I realize now that I have made some mistakes,” Braun said in a statement. “I am willing to accept the consequences of those actions.”

Braun also apologized, the way they all do. But few cheats in baseball have played the con as aggressively as Braun, before and after his failed test in the 2011 playoffs. Like the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, Braun worked hard on his image. He wanted us to think he was pure and always did everything right.
Gag. I've let this simmer all week.

The prospect of Braun being suspended has been the talk for several weeks. During our family breakfast Sunday morning, Braun's alleged wrongdoing were a topic of conversation, too. None of us were sure to make of the situation, considering Braun's denials.

Then, just as we arrived back in The 'Ville Monday evening and were settling in back home, the news broke.

Braun suspended for the rest of the season.

What a letdown.

I can't think of another pro baseball player I've admired so highly since... Cal Ripken, Jr. Until Braun broke into the majors in 2007, I had gone years without turning on a ball game just to watch a single player, the way I did in the days of Yount, Brett, Ryan, Hershiser, Sandberg and Ripken. Braun became my guy for this era. He played the game the right way, or so it seemed, without a lot of show-boating. He never whined -- he just played and produced. He did so much to raise the Brewers.

Even when the allegations of Braun's use of performance enhancing drugs surfaced in 2011 -- and he vehemently denied them, threw the sample collector under the bus (a standup guy from one of our stomping grounds, by the way), and won his appeal -- I trusted and defended him. Like so many others. ... After he won his appeal, I posted a celebratory tweet, and then got blasted for it by the University president -- an avid Detroit Tigers fan -- who believed Braun to be the cheat he really is.

Now, Ryan Braun's legacy is forever tainted.

The Brewers' glorious postseason run in 2011. Tainted.

All the times I've stood up and cheered for Braun. Tainted.

Phoebe's Braun T-shirt. Tainted. 

What a  letdown.

(Updated 09.25.2013) Good reads ... 
a Ryan Braun latest All-Star to get long suspension for PEDs
a Brewers' owner committed to keeping Braun
a Selig, Former Brewers Owner, and Braun Have Milwaukee Talking
a Matt Kemp thinks Ryan Braun should be stripped of 2011 MVP award
a Yanks Voice Support for Rodriguez, and for Efforts to Rid Game of Doping

a Wait ‘Til Next Year: Milwaukee Brewers


A Royal day

Well, today didn’t go anything like the way I planned.

Suffering from the hangover of our glorious weekend, I was up at 6:30 a.m. and getting ready to head to work when I received a text from The Boss.
Check your email about a trip to the Royals today and let me know ASAP if you’re interested.
I checked my email and found a message forwarded to a group of my colleagues from one of our marketing professors. She had planned a trip to Kauffman Stadium for some of her sports management students. They planned to visit with members of the Royals’ front office staff and then catch the night’s game. … And she had a few spots open because some of her students decided not to go.

Nearly breathless, I woke Kates and told her about the offer.

How could she possible say no?

She smiled and said I could go.

I replied to The Boss’s email. “Um, yes, please!”

And with that I changed out of my usual office attire and into something more casual.

We did what we could to focus and get some work done this morning. By 11 a.m., we were hitting the road to Kansas City. The sun was shining, and it was a perfect day for a ball game.

We were greeted by  the Royals’ coordinator of tour and educational programs. He proceeded to lead us through the .390 Club, suite areas and press box and impressed upon us the importance of ensuring fans leave the ballpark with smiles on their faces despite the team’s losing ways. He shared with us how the Royals work to market its product – the team draws its fan base from six states: Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas and Oklahoma – and increase revenues while enhancing the fan experience. There are T-shirt Tuesdays, student nights, bobbleheads and plenty of other promotions. Some 350 television screens throughout the ballpark display advertising and promotions before, during and after games, which alone lead to some 2 million impressions each year in Kauffman Stadium.

From the tour, we moved into an executive conference room, where we heard more insights from the Royals’ director of community relations and its marketing coordinator who talked about the strategy behind giveaways and community events as well as traditional advertising and social media.

We heard from one of the Royals’ senior advisers to the general manager, who has had a long and successful career in Major League Baseball, scouting and singing players from some of the league’s top franchises over the last 30-plus years, including the Braves and Phillies. He was the guy who drafted Scott Rolen, one of the greatest third basemen of his era, for the Phillies – and he was the who drafted J.D. Drew, calling the debacle that followed “a year-long root canal.” A debacle I remember well.

We heard from the assistant general manager, too, who was part of the Royals’ front office during its successful run in the 1980s before leaving Kansas City to help build the Braves’ dynasty of the 1990s. He also had stints with the Brewers (where he helped lay the building blocks for the Brewers’ rebirth but was let go during the Selig-to-Attanasio ownership change), Dodgers and Reds before returning to the Royals.

We listened to them discuss the organization’s philosophy and strategy related to player and personnel development. They didn’t hide that they put in long days and rarely get time away when the baseball season is underway, especially now as the trade deadline is looming. This week, they told us, they’re spending nights around a conference table with every team’s 40-man roster taped on the walls, discussing trade possibilities and analyzing video footage of players.

All of it was so fascinating to me. Hearing them speak so passionately and confidently about their work and the organization, it was easy to forget about the Royals’ losing ways.

One other note: There were a surprising number of swipes at former Royals ace Zack Greinke and his unwillingness to be a team player. At the same time, there was some praise thrown at Miguel Tejada for being a quality team player and veteran leader in the clubhouse, which I thought was interesting to hear, considering his not-so-stellar past.

After our exclusive with the Royals execs, the senior advisor took us into the box seats to watch the Royals take batting practice – something the Royals now charge for fans to watch (… which I think is disgusting from a fan’s perspective, but I get the Royals’ need to find revenue streams.)

I took the most delight in watching newly installed hitting coach George Brett throw batting practice and work with the guys. His passion and focus on making them better hitters was all over his face. … Also not lost on us today was the fact that it is the anniversary of the infamous pine tar incident.

Eventually, the Royals’ batting practice ended, and we watched as the Royals core – including Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas – headed into the dugout just in front of us with George trailing behind. The stadium gates opened and fans began filtering into the seats. We started heading to our seats, stopping for some food at one of the concessions stands along the way.
We settled into our seats beyond left field and basked in the joy of watching a major league ball game.

Oh, what a game it was.

Hosmer got the Royals started with a home run to right field in the first inning. But the Orioles are tough this year and took a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning. When the Orioles added another run in the top of the eighth inning, the Royals’ prospects of winning the game weren’t looking good, and some of our crew suggested we start heading home. … Luckily The Boss is as much a baseball fan as I, and said we were staying.

Things started getting good when Hosmer hit a no-doubter bomb for his second home run of the night – with a runner on base – to tie the game at three.

Then, in the ninth, David Lough hit a ball up the middle that bounced off second base for a single. …And on the next pitch, Alcides Escobar smacked a ball deep to center field. Almost everyone in the stadium seemed to think the ball was going out, but it bounced off the wall instead. Lough scored and the Royals players tore out of the dugout to pile on Escobar in the middle of the field – as the crowd went absolutely wild.

The excitement was so high we almost didn't want to leave. Of all the baseball games I’ve attended through the years, this was arguably one of the most thrilling finishes I’ve seen.

What a day.


Images of a wedded weekend

As if one Wisconsin vacation wasn’t enough this summer. We got to do it again this weekend. For the second time in three weeks. This time for my cousin’s wedding.

It was another glorious trip filled with wonderful memories and special moments with family.

After a night of packing and preparation that lasted until 1 a.m.  – typical – we awoke around 7 a.m. Thursday morning to the sounds of Faye's crying and were on the road around 9 a.m. Interestingly, we were driving up on Kates birthday, just as we did on mine three weeks ago.

As it was three weeks ago, the drive was a pleasure, and the girls are becoming road trip pros.
Phoebe watched movies and colored. Faye slept, and we barely heard a peep from the back seat. In the front seat, Kates read a book and I had some Fun – the good vibes of their Summerfest show are still fresh in my soul – going on the iPod.

We made our first pit stop for lunch around 12:30 at a rest stop outside of Des Moines. We caught a nice breeze as we ate a picnic lunch under one of the gazebos. Kates had fixed sandwiches for us. The sun was bright, and Faye was completely content sitting on my lap. ... After lunch, the girls enjoyed working their legs, wandering the park land. Faye was overjoyed to practice her new walking skills.

Later, we made brief stops in Dubuque and Dodgeville, where we stopped at a McDonald’s and Phoebe explored the Playland.

We mused at the scenery as we drove through the Wisconsin bluffs, along the river and over the steel bridges. And arrived at The Farm around 8 Thursday night. The girls went to playing. And I popped in Field of Dreams as Kates put them to bed.

* * *

Friday morning, we headed to one of my old stomping grounds, Lake Mills. We met my parents and Joel’s family at Rock Lake.

It was a picture perfect summer day at Bartel's Beach.

Almost immediately, the nostalgia of my childhood living near the lake rushed back. The swimming lessons I hated. Riding bikes down Ferry Drive. Canoeing and motor boat rides on the lake. Ice skating on it, too.

I had forgotten just how beautiful and clear a lake it is.

And, of course, there's the serene beauty of the mill pond across the street.

After swimming for a couple hours with the kids, we headed downtown for lunch. We grabbed Phoebe some Subway on the way, but the rest of us had one thing on our mind. Hamburgers, cooked fresh American Legion stand.

To the locals, they're called sliders. And I couldn't describe them any better than my friend Frannie in Washington, who posted this to my Facebook wall after I posted the photo above.
Sliders are a fictional burger in these parts. People out here just don't understand the pure joy of grease running down your chin after the first bite, or the brown paper bag drenched in grease, or the sheer genius of putting them in the freezer to enjoy on a blustery winter day. 
Yep. Pure joy.

After our lunch, we enjoyed the surroundings of the city park. The kids ran from one corner of the triangle to the other. Kates and Stephanie took off on tour of the antique and craft stores surrounding the downtown block. Grandpa took the kids on a walk around the park perimeter. And I went on a walking tour, admiring my favorite buildings on the block and reminiscing a little more.

Many summer days and nights spent running, biking and sitting around the veterans monument ...

The large, old trees throughout the park ... 


The old-time signage that -- for the most part -- has hardly changed since my childhood ... And businesses that occupied Main Street. Anna Marie's Pizzeria. The country store where I bought so many packs of my first baseball cards. And Heimstreet's pharmacy, where I bought many, many more ... 

A lot of haircuts here ...

The historic library where I participated in many summer reading programs and performed several piano recitals.

And the architecture that surrounds the entire block ...

Eventually, we returned to the lake and swam for a couple more hours.

For dinner, Joel led us to The RodeSide Grill, a country diner off the interstate between Lake Mills and Madison. The food was delicious and the girls enjoyed their coloring. It was the perfect day to wind down what had been another vacation day filled with warm memories.

* * *

Saturday was the wedding day.

As usual, I was antsy to get everybody going in the morning. And, as usual, we barely made it out of the house on time. ... We had an hour drive from The Farm to the church in Madison, and we made it with about 10 minutes to spare. We barely had enough time to greet our family before we were being ushered into the sanctuary for the ceremony.

Kates wasn't sitting for much more than a minute before Faye started squirming, and Kates carried her out. We didn't see them again until after the ceremony. ... In the meantime, Phoebe sat beside me, wanting a play-by-play explanation of every step of the wedding. After all, of the several weddings she's attended with us, this was the first of which she had any understanding of what was happening.

Phoebe was comparing all of it to her knowledge of Disney fairy tales, and to her the bride was Cinderella.

When is the bride coming? ... Soon. Just wait.
Who are those other people? ... Those are the bridesmaids and groomsmen.
Why are they lighting that candle? That's the Unity Candle.

And the most important question ...

When will they kiss?

Finally, the couple kissed, and the post-wedding activities commenced. Our large extended family, which has grown further the last few years to include so many significant others and children that I've lost count, crammed the steps of the altar area for a family photo. We posed for a few more small group photos. Then we were off to our hotel for the evening.

Continuing the fairytale theme for Phoebe, the hotel -- with its grand atrium stretching several stories tall and skylights -- was a castle.

We passed the downtime between the wedding and the start of the reception by settling into our room and enjoying some snacks. As more of our family members arrived, we joined them around the bar and did some catching up. ... The party soon moved to the other side of the atrium, where we had a bounty of appetizers, and Phoebe and her cousins romped around the fountains and stairways. ... And from there, we moved into the ballroom for the dinner and dance.

As almost all wedding dinners go, the food was delicious. ... Kates and I decided I should have a side job DJing weddings because I own every music track played during the dinner portion, from Joshua Radin's "I'd Rather Be With You," to Ingrid Michaelson's "The Way I Am," to Uncle Kracker's "Smile." All great songs. ... When Faye started fussing during the traditional wedding toasts and slideshows, I  took her to the back of the room and rocked her to sleep for a short nap. It was one of those awesome Daddy's moments I cherish. ... Phoebe and Sophia had their picture taken with the bride, aka the princess, and then they watched in awe with a couple of their cousins as she shared a dance with her father. ...

We danced the night away, and had so much fun doing it. It was a classic big-family wedding reception, and being able to take the dance floor with Phoebe and Faye was a daddy-daughter experience I had long looked forward to. The music hopped as the DJ mixed the hits of the day with other wedding party favorites.

Faye bowed out for good a little before 9 and Kates took her up to our hotel room with Phoebe, too. Kates and I both knew, though, that Phoebe -- always wanting to be part of the action -- would change her mind once she got to the room. Ten minutes later, Kates texted me, "Phoebe wants to come back down. Can you come get her?" I went upstairs and escorted Phoebe back to the party. Just as cookies and pizza were being served.

Phoebe and I danced and conversed with aunts and uncles and cousins until almost 11 before calling it a night. For good.

* * *

It was almost 10 a.m. Sunday before all of us were out of bed and presentable enough to meet the family downstairs for breakfast. We enjoyed more conversation with each other as Phoebe, Faye, Sophia and Fred got in some more play time.

We headed to the zoo for the afternoon, but that adventure was cut short. We had seen a good number of the animals, and Phoebe and Kates had just finished a ride on the carousel ...

... when the sky let loose with a torrential rain. We'd promised Phoebe she could play on the playground after her carousel ride, but all we could do was wait inside the carousel house until the rain let up. When it did -- maybe 15 or 20 minutes later -- we headed for the car as fast as we could. The rain picked up again as we navigated Madison and it was so hard at times as we traveled the rural highways to my parents home that it was difficult to see the road.

Somehow, we arrived safe and sound at my parents and settled in with them to catch the end of the Brewers game, which they lost. Then, Dad and I went out to pick up a pizza for supper.

Eventually, we were returning to The Farm for one more night of sleep before traveling back to The 'Ville today. We saw a rainbow as we closed in on The Farm, but Phoebe and Faye were far asleep and missed it.

It was a fun weekend with so many wonderful images to savor.


A mid-summer classic

With all of the distractions off the field this season -- Biogenesis, the debate about renovations to Wrigley -- and lack of winning by my teams -- the Cubs and Brewers are terrible -- I'm not finding a whole lot to stake to my archive of baseball memories lately.

Even the All-Star Game seems to be more of a chore as the years go by. With both managers on a mission to play every player who makes the team and MLB's tinkering to draw more attention to the game, it doesn't seem to hold the charm it once did. Blame it on the cynicism that comes with my aging and experience. 

I watched the Home Run Derby Monday night. As usual, I was rooting for Prince Fielder, but that didn't work out this year. So thank you ESPN for finally teaching me how to pronounce Yoenis Cespedes' name.

And I'll remember Tuesday night's All-Star Game for three things ...

Prince Fielder's triple. I watched him leg out extra bases again and again as a member of the Brewers, and the big man showed off his base-running skill again Tuesday ...

And Mariano Rivera's final All-Star Game appearance. Truthfully, I've never been a huge Mariano fan, but the spectacle of the game and the response he drew from the New York crowd was pretty awesome.

Watching this year's festivities also brought back some good memories of my glorious fun in Kansas City last year.

Good reads ...
a For Fans at Home Run Derby, It’s Back, Back, Back to Their Youth
a World Series home-field edge back in hands of AL
a Rivera's tribute latest, and greatest, of its kind
a Yankees’ Rivera Spends His Goodbye Tour Saying Hello
a For Rivera, an Ending to Savor
a All-Star MVP hardware fitting close for Rivera
a Power, Pirates and pitching lead top 10 storylines of second half


End game

Days have passed and the ending still stings. Tonight, as we were dropping off our respective kids at our church for Vacation Bible School, three of the guys and I gathered and were rehashing it once more.

Our softball season came to an end Thursday night in the semifinal round of the playoffs. Had we won, we would have played a doubleheader, with the championship game as the nightcap.

It wasn't meant to be.

We lost the game 15-12, but the final score doesn't begin to tell the tale of the epic battle, which played out similarly to our quarterfinal game. Except, this time, we were on the losing side this time.

For starters, Coach moved me to second base for the night. I wasn't thrilled about it and would have much rather been at my usual shortstop position, but I'm a team player. As it turned out, I didn't touch the ball on defense, but there were a few pivotal plays down the stretch that involved ground balls toward the shortstop. I can't help but wonder whether the outcome might have been different if I was playing there. Maybe not ...

We put up one run in the top of the first inning to take an early lead. My first at-bat came in the second inning, and it ended with a strikeout when I whiffed at a pitch to end the inning. It was my first-ever strikeout in my two years of playing in the city league.

Then the floodgates opened for the other team as they scored 10 runs over the next two innings. There were multiple at-bats that resulted in line drives to the outfield, with the ball taking a hard bounce and traveling over the head of the outfielder trying to glove it. On three occasions the ball bounced over the fielder's head. The ground is so hard and dry right now from a lack of rain that it was causing the ball to do funny things all night. And our outfielders - arguably the best in the league - were baffled.

Oh, but we came back. We scored eight runs in the top of the fourth to get within one run. Then, we came back with three more to tie the game and take the lead, 12-10, in the fifth.

And I finally found my hitting stroke. In the fourth, I came up with two outs and the bases loaded. I stroked a line drive over the shortstop that rolled to the outfield fence and cleared the bases to keep the inning going. In the fifth inning, I did it again. I scored both times, too.

The excitement ended there, though. We held the opponent to one run in the bottom of the fifth. But they came back with four runs in the bottom of the sixth.

Our batters went down in order in the top of the seventh and that was the game.

It was fun while it lasted. ... And I'm already looking forward to next year.


Winning ways

Hooooooolyyyy cow.

That’s all I can say after tonight’s softball game.

While I was enjoying some Fun at Summerfest, our team lost the regular season finale. We finished the season with a 5-7 record and got the eighth and lowest seed in the playoffs.

Last Tuesday night, our team opened the playoffs and played the kind of ball we’re capable of playing. The guys won the game 18-3 in 3½ innings on the strength of a nine-run first inning and some awesome defense.

And that meant we moved on to face the No. 1 seed tonight in the quarterfinal round.

We played a 6 o’clock game. The temperature app on my phone said it was 95 degrees outside and it felt like 104. The game was a battle and we gave it everything we had tonight. My legs were Jell-O when it was over.

But the good news? Here’s the line score …
Us   000 431 3 - 11
Them 016 010 0 – 8
That’s right, we were behind 7-0. Our defense faltered in the third inning. We booted ground balls. … And I suddenly lost my ability to grip the ball at shortstop. On two consecutive plays, I fielded ground balls cleanly, but couldn’t get a grip on the ball and threw it away both times. On the second play, I went into a slide and soaked up a ground ball hit to my right – it was beautiful – but when I popped up to throw out the lead runner for a force at third base, the ball sailed over the third baseman.

But then our bats came alive. In the top of the fourth inning, we found some holes, got on the board and caught a few breaks in the form of dropped balls that let us back into the game. We did it again in the fifth inning. And when our opponent scored a run in the bottom of the fifth to retake the lead, we matched it in the top of the sixth. In our final at-bats, a dropped fly ball in right field helped us score the go-ahead runs.

I wish I could say I contributed to the offense, but my hitting woes continue. I went 0-for-3 tonight. I hit fly balls to left field in my first and final at-bats. In my second at-bat I slapped a line drive that was just low enough for the shortstop to make a nice catch on it.

At the same time our bats warmed up, our defense clicked, too. I found my grip on the ball and notched several putouts, including the start of a double play.

If we could get through the bottom of the seventh, the game was ours. We got the first out on a strikeout, but then we gave up a walk and a couple singles that loaded the bases.

Midway through the game, I moved up in the infield, off the edge of the dirt to a position in front of the basepaths. The move paid off in a big way when the fifth batter of the final inning hit a laser line drive toward the middle. I reached to my left and snagged it for the second out. Huge. Had it got through, it would have been a game-changer.

The next batter hit a towering fly ball and our slugging center fielder caught it for the final out.

There was great celebration on the field. And now it all comes down to Thursday night.


The American Way of Birth ... and Bieber

So I caught this headline in The New York Times over the weekend ... 


We had the luxury of having very good health insurance when Phoebe was born.

With Faye, not so much. A year later and we're still paying off the debt we incurred during her birth.

In other news ...

As we drove through Iowa yesterday afternoon, on the way home from our vacation, an SUV passed us with a proclamation scrawled on its rear window that read "Wisconsin is coming for you Bieber!"


Later, as I settled in last night, I began taking notice of some of the Twitter chatter that confirmed the one and only Justin Bieber was performing in Des Moines. And he was running a bit late.

Curious, I clicked on the review this morning to read the full story. Frankly, I think his music is terrible and he's got a lot of growing up to do ...

But as a father of daughters, I look forward to the day, as the reviewer wrote ...
I’m a 34-year-old dad. For now my daughter happily listens to whatever we play for her. But I know that in 10 years I might be at a concert like this, not because it’s my job, but because my daughter wants to see the show more than anything in the world. The music snob in me hopes that never happens, but the realist in me knows it’s likely. Everyone has a Justin Bieber in their life. For some it was N’Sync, for others New Kids, or Leif Garrett, or The Monkees. It’s an important period in every kid’s life. 


Summer vacation 2013

We're back in The 'Ville tonight after a glorious 11-day vacation to our beloved Wisconsin. The kind of fun we had and the time we spent with family these last several days makes it especially hard to leave the state that has such a special place in our hearts.

It was a much-needed week of relaxation and solitude with no connection to the outside world. Staying up late and sleeping in. The days flew by.

The pace slows. We get caught up in the special moments, and time seems to stop.

The images imprinted during the week are priceless.

Now, it's back to the routine things, and I'm catching up on all of the news I missed while we were away. Homer Bailey pitched a no-hitter. The Celtics hired my doppelganger Brad Stevens, and it's the end of an era in Boston. And, tragically, 19 firefighters died in a fire fight in Arizona.

I've posted my reflections of Fun and Guster at Summerfest. Here's the story about the rest our travels ...

* * *

When we left for our vacation, Faye was still our baby, but we've returned with a full-fledged toddler who is walking and starting to build her vocabulary. The transformation began last Friday night, when we landed at my parents' place.

Faye had been pulling herself up, standing freely and climbing things for weeks, but she hadn't shown interest in taking any steps. Friday evening, however, I got her waddling while she held onto to me by one hand. I had a sense she was feeling stronger and more confident and said, "She's going to be walking tonight."

As we settled in and played with the girls, I stood Faye and slowly pulled away from her grip. She took a few tentative steps and eventually lunged for Kates sitting a few feet away from me. We did it again and again, and a few minutes later she was pushing herself up and walking on her own. It's one of the most amazing things to witness, and I was thankful my parents could be a part of it.

I was also thankful for another birthday cake. This time in the form of cupcakes. ...

* * *
We headed for The Farm Saturday afternoon. Kates and the girls fell fast asleep as we drove the hour north. As Phoebe's lullabies played on the iPod, I couldn't help but feel pride and total content as I looked at the girls sleeping in the rearview mirror.

As is tradition, we counted the eight barns from the interstate and pulled on to the gravel driveway of The Farm. The sun was bright. The air was breezy. As always, any cares we had were wiped away when we stepped from the car.

Phoebe went right for the porch and the vintage Fisher-Price toys. She had been looking forward to playing with those toys for days.

She also mined the video library for all of the Disney animated classics and stacked them up on the coffee table in a specific order she planned to watch them. First, all of the princess movies -- "Cinderella", "Sleeping Beauty," "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast," "Pochahontas." Then, the animal movies -- "101 Dalmatians," "The Fox and the Hound," "The Lion King."

Kates and I tried to launch our Harry Potter marathon, but only managed to watch three of the seven films. And I missed No. 2 Thursday night because I went to Summerfest.

* * *
Sunday we attended one of the country churches down the road and went to the park afterward. Phoebe played on the playground. ...

And Faye just enjoyed the breeze in between practicing her walking. ...

All week,
Faye fell asleep
nearly every time
we traveled
in the car. ...

Sunday night, we cooked burgers and hot dogs over a fire and s'mores, too.

* * *

Monday, we played outside. ...

Monday night, Great Grandma P joined us for dinner. And Faye figured out she could pass off her food to the dog.

* * *
Tuesday, we drove to Wisconsin Dells, met Jessi and her kids, and took a boat tour ...

Then, we went to the outdoors-iest McDonald's any of us had seen for lunch. ...Where Phoebe broke down upon learning the painful lesson that inserting a quarter and playing the claw game doesn't always result in a toy.

Tuesday afternoon, Phoebe explored the farm yard with Grandpa and played on a hay bale. 

That night, we watched "A Little Princess" with Phoebe. It was a little scary for her - with the mean house mother Mrs. Minch, the images of war and the missing father - but she said afterward she liked the movie.

* * *

After a low-key, lazy day Wednesday, Kates' parents took her out to a play at the American Players Theatre for an early birthday present. Her dad purchased the last three tickets for the show, so I stayed back at The Farm with the girls. I cleaned the kitchen after our supper and then drove the girls into town so Pheebs and I could get some dessert at Dairy Queen. After I put Faye to sleep, Phoebe and I stayed up watching "Pinnochio" until the others came back.

* * *
Thursday was the Fourth of July. While I got my Guster fix, Kates, her parents and the girls headed to Uncle Rod's and Aunt Helen's for a picnic.

* * *
Friday morning, I left Milwaukee to rejoin everyone at The Farm. As I parked the car in the driveway and stepped out, I could hear Phoebe's excited screams inside. "Daddy's here!" Then she burst out the door, running barefoot at full speed across the front lawn, and nearly tackled me with a hug. Best homecoming ever.

That morning, Grandpa had taught her how to bale hay.

Friday evening, Kates and her mother headed back to Wisconsin Dells for some shopping. In the meantime, Grandpa and I took the girls to the Dells for an outing of our own. We took them to Timbavati Wildlife Park.

First, Phoebe took her first-ever go-kart ride. She was vnervous going in, and it went well for a few laps. Until she turned too sharply, crashed her car into the side rail and got stuck, prompting the track attendant to bail her out. After that, she just wanted out of the car.

Next, we took a vintage train ride through the yard for up-close views of ostrich, zebras, kangaroos and camels. Halfway through the journey, the train stopped in front of a herd of deer -- and a yak -- as they grazed in the yard. We armed ourselves with some carrots prior to the train ride, and the deer wasted little time strolling up to our train cars for a snack. At one point, Phoebe had three deer stretching for the carrots in her lap.

Later, Grandpa S. and I convinced her to take a ride with me driving the car on the advanced course. She agreed to it and loved it, shouting at me to go faster as we cruised the curves and hills. Having Phoebe riding next to me and seeing the glee on her face was priceless.

* * *

Yesterday morning, we left The Farm and started the first leg of our return south. We ended up in Lombard, Ill., last night for a visit with our old friends Ray, Leah and Audrey.

Lombard was having a carnival. And the hot menu item was "The Heart Attack," a plate piled high with greasy homemade chips covered with melted cheese and bits of bacon. With Kates' and Leah's assistance, we devoured the whole thing.   

After eating, the girls rode the carousel ... 

And when we returned to the house, they rode the tire swing ...

It was a memorable vacation.


Guster 'nother night at Summerfest

A few weeks ago I was listing to my library of Guster music and mourning the idea that I was going to miss Summerfest again this year. And now, here I am, having just finished a second night of this year's Big Gig.

With Guster.

I ventured back to Milwaukee on my own this afternoon, driving the two hours across the state to get here. Once again, Orrin and Kelli provided me with a ticket to tonight's festivities and a place to rest my head before I head back to The Farm tomorrow morning.

It was good. ... It's been wonderful being back here again, and so many of the memories of our glorious 2011 summer vacation in the Third Ward have come back.

As I approached the Summerfest gates this afternoon I heard a band playing Chicago's "Make Me Smile" -- one of my all time favorite songs -- blasting from the Miller Lite Oasis, horns and all. Immediately, I thought, That's where I'm heading.

I walked up to the stage to find a classic rock cover band, aptly called The Tons O' Fun Band. They followed "Make Me Smile" with another Chicago hit, "Beginnings." Other than the brass section murdering the classic instrumental section that makes the song's finale, this band's sound was pretty decent.

Compare Chicago's original, to this ... 

I walked the rest of the grounds to see what else I might be missing and soon returned to hear Tons of Fun dole out "Superstition," "Play That Funky Music White Boy" and "Power of Love." Eventually, the band ended its set with "25 or 6 to 4." Turns out the band includes Terry Luttrell, the original lead singer for REO Speedwagon.

When I began walking the grounds again, JoJo's Martini Lounge caught my attention. There, a simple outfit called Jesse's First Time was doing more classics. I heard them do "Suite Judy Blue Eyes," "Mrs. Robinson" and "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'."

After grabbing a cheeseburger at Miss Katie's Diner, I stumbled on the Comedy Sportz tent and caught a couple sketches. In one, the comics selected a little girl from the audience -- she was maybe 4 or 5 years old -- to supply the sound effects for their skit. She was adorable and the crowd loved her no matter what sounds came out of her mouth.

Then I settled into my spot at Guster.

Matt Pond was on the stage. A bunch of douches smoking cheap cigars moved in around me. When Matt Pond finished and his groupies moved out, I promptly moved to a better spot. Closer to the stage. At the center of the seating area.

It barely hit me that it was the Fourth of July until I took notice of the people sporting red white and blue around me. There were a lot of T-shirts with slogans like Team USA and 'Merica, bandanas and hats. The Rush T-shirts also were out in full force with that certain band playing at the Marcus tonight. I wore my blue Milwaukee Air Guard T-shirt and my red baseball cap with a "G" that on this particular night stood for Guster.

They say Summerfest has something for everyone. I've seen so much over the years that the outrageous fashions and people watching hardly fazes me anymore.

ZZ Ward opened for Guster as a co-headliner. I hadn't heard of her before tonight, but clearly she had fans in the crowd, especially the ladies who seemed to know every word.

Her souful rock sound, fused with R&B and hip hop elements, reminded me of Toby Lightman. But her non-stop wide smile and long blonde hair, capped with a fedora, reminded me only of Taylor Swift. Not to mention her multiple songs about breakups.

She led the crowd in a sing-along on "Home," and she played a mean harmonica on "If I Could Be Her." She had the crowd thoroughly rocking on her last song, before an encore of "Blue Eyes Blind." I really enjoyed hearing and watching her perform.

Next up, Guster ...

There was a disappointedly small crowd. Which sort of makes me wish I had tried to see Barenaked Ladies at the BMO Pavilion at 8. But I've seen BNL twice, and by not seeing them a third time, I got to see a new artist in ZZ Ward, so it's all good. (Check out this entertaining backstage interview with Barenaked Ladies at Summerfest.)

Guster's performance did seem to start a little slow tonight, but that's forgivable. They're touring this summer with Ben Folds Five and Barenaked Ladies -- oh, how I'd love to see one of those package deals -- and lead singer Ryan Miller made light of the fact they're used to playing 40 minutes each day, making it "the easiest tour ever." After Guster performs, he told the crowd, he goes backstage and eats cheeseballs. Tonight, they had to play "a real concert."

And those of us who showed up were thankful for that.

Here's one of my favorite Guster tunes, "Manifest Destiny."

Soon enough, the Guster boys were buzzing through their songs, three minutes at a time and cutting across most of their albums from "Goldfly" to the most recent "Easy Wonderful," chipping fan favorites from each. By the time they rolled into "Do You Love Me," the show had turned into a good 'ol Summerfest party with beach balls being bopped above the crowd, dancing on benches and smiley people singing everywhere you looked.

Brian Rosenworcel was the usual dynamo on the percussion, while Miller, Adam Gardner and Luke Reynolds took their turns on guitars and keyboards. Miller put on a harmonica for "One Man Wrecking Machine."

Gardner pleased the crowd with his trumpet solos on "What You Call Love" and the epic "Ruby Falls" -- also one of my favorite Guster tunes. ...

And "Happier" gives me chills every time I hear a live version of it and the crowd sings along.

It was classic Guster.

For the encore, Miller started it off by giving the crowd a choice: "Parachute" or "I Spy." Judging the crowd's noise level on each choice, they went with "I Spy."

Saving the best -- sort of -- for last, Miller yelled "We're going to play this once, and you will never hear it again!" Then Rosenworcel stepped to the center mic at the front of the stage and belted out Katy Perry's "Firework." His vocals were atrocious, but no one cared because it was the Fourth of July and Guster was doing its thing.

The setlist
1. What You Wish For
2. Manifest Destiny
3. Architects & Engineers
4. Homecoming King (Capped with a quick take on the theme from "Chariots of Fire.")
5. Demons
6. One Man Wrecking Machine
7. What You Call Love
8. Come Downstairs and Say Hello
9. Do You Love Me
10. Happier
11. Ruby Falls
12. Ramona
13. The Captain
14. Barrel of a Gun
15. Hang On
16. Amsterdam
17. USA Rap/This Could All Be Yours

18. I Spy
19. Satellite
20. Airport Song
21. Firework