TT with HD: David Wahlberg
[Ed. note: David Wahlberg writes for the Wisconsin State Journal.]
HD: Welcome to the teeter totter!
DW: It's good to be here.
HD: Alright, let's actually get some tottering motion. Is that going to work for you?
DW: It works for me!
HD: So you drove all the way from Wisconsin, all the way from Madison?
DW: I did. I took the six-and-a-half-hour drive--through horrid Chicago, and wasted six dollars and forty cents on toll booths.
HD: Yeah? Is it possible to go around the toll road?
DW: I think it is, but I think you have to go to like Peoria--somewhere quite a ways away from Chicago. Or you can take the ferry across from Milwaukee. Which, I think, ends up in Muskegon. But I figured that was kind of far away from Ann Arbor. And I think the ferry is kind of expensive, too. So I just suffered through the big city.
HD: Did you contemplate taking the train at all--Amtrak?
DW: Mmm, I did not. I guess that would have been an option, too.
HD: Yeah, is there service directly to Madison? I would think there'd be some kind of service, either that's a bus to Chicago and then ...
DW: ... yeah, there is a train--I forget the name of the route--but I think it goes from Chicago all the way out to Seattle. And I don't know if that hooks up with one from Detroit or not, but. There isn't actually a station in Madison, but there is about a half an hour north, so I guess that could have been an option.
HD: So you feel pretty comfortable living in Wisconsin now, do you?
DW: I do, yeah.
HD: I was going to say, you exhibit all the signs of being a petty and cruel cheese-head.
DW: [laugh] Is it the cheese curd crumbs on my shirt? Is it my beer hangover?
HD: You have a hangover this morning?
HD: Or do cheese-heads have sort of a perpetual beer hangover?
DW: That is a good question. Yeah, I think maybe they do. I'm not sure if I'm enough of a cheese-head to really be qualified to answer that yet--after two years. Give me two more.
HD: It's only two years you've been there?
DW: I've been there two years. As of September, yeah.
HD: But for some reason I was thinking maybe you grew up around there?
DW: I grew up just outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, which is ...
HD: ... see, which for me, Minnesota and Wisconsin are just those big northern states that are pretty much all the same.
DW: They're pretty similar. Minnesota is more Scandinavian and stoic, and Wisconsin is more German and fun. It's more sort of the beer culture and more taverns.
HD: Well, speaking of beer culture, are you planning to go to Oktoberfest tonight?
DW: I had not heard of it til now!
HD: Well, I'll put that on your radar then. Tonight, as well as, I think, tomorrow. Down outside of Arbor Brewing, the street's going to be closed down, they'll have the tents and German music.
DW: It's like I've never left Wisconsin!
HD: It'll be a little micro Oktoberfest of sorts.
DW: Okay, well, good to know! I did not know about that.
HD: So is there anything that you're definitely planning to make sure and do, or you just hanging out with friends, people you used to know here?
DW: I'm pretty much just hanging out with people I used to know, I'm staying with some friends who live on 7th Street. And I saw some people from the Ann Arbor News last night. And I'm just kind of hanging out. Just a little road trip.
HD: So is this the first time you've been back since you left Ann Arbor?
DW: No. I left Ann Arbor in January of '02, and I know I was back in early '05. And I was back once or twice in the very early time after I left, too, because my partner, Rigo, was still living here. But I think January or February of '05 was the last time I was here.
HD: Okay. So enough time has passed that you probably have noticed some things that are just obviously different as you drove into town? Or not?
DW: Mmm, a little bit. I mean I haven't done a lot of exploring yet, because I just got here yesterday afternoon. But the first thing I noticed was different was the Zingerman's Roadhouse. So that was something that I hadn't seen before.
HD: Yeah, that's right, on the way into town, too.
DW: Our old house is now green. I noticed that.
HD: Oh, so you drove right past the ...
DW: ... yeah, I drove by. And it has Tibetan prayer flags.
HD: But you had to make a point of driving by your old house, that's not on a main ...
DW: ... I did, although it's just off the main drag and right on the way to where I was going anyway. So I thought, Well, let's just take the side road and check it out.
HD: So they painted it green?
DW: They painted it green.
HD: So did you knock on the door and say, What the hell?
DW: I didn't knock on the door, because there was somebody sitting on the porch, and I just felt it wasn't my place to say anything. I just felt like driving by.
HD: [laugh] But see, it is your place, because you're leaving town! I mean if the interaction goes badly, you know, you're only going to be here a couple more days.
DW: That's true, but I just felt like it's their place, and I just wanted a little quick look, and I got that, and that was fulfilling enough.
HD: So did you bring along either of your dogs?
DW: I did not. No, the dogs are back home in Madison with Rigo. But both of the dogs are from this area. One, Dexter, who's nine, was from the Southeast Michigan Humane Society, or the Wayne County Humane Society. And then Riley, who is seven, is from the Washtenaw County Humane Society.
HD: Washtenaw County ... uh, Huron Valley?
DW: Or Huron Valley Humane Society. Which you might know something about.
HD: Yeah, I might know something about that. So have you gotten over the fact that those people cut in line in front of you to see that one puppy? [Ed. note: Details are now blurry due to the passage of time, but on HD's watch at the Huron Valley Humane Society, some people who were probably undeserving of a puppy's affection wedged their way ahead of DW in the puppy adoption process.]
DW: No, I have not.
HD: So you're still holding that grudge?
DW: I'm still holding the grudge, but I'm also still really liking the dog that we got.
HD: Instead of the one you would have gotten ...
DW: ... instead of the--I don't remember what, I think it was a Chocolate Lab. But I can't imagine living life without Riley, the dog that we have!
HD: Mkay, well, that's good.
DW: He's great.
HD: Well, something new that we have here in Ann Arbor, very, very recently--certainly after you left--is a dog park.
DW: I heard something about that. I haven't seen it yet. Tell me about that.
HD: Well, I don't know that much about it. It's way the heck away from town. You know where the Recycling Dropoff Station is?
DW: Platt [Road] and down towards the movie theater? Showcase?
HD: That sort of general direction. South of town basically.
HD: There's an area on top of an old landfill, I think. And that's the area that the County and the City finally decided that they were going to make a dog park out of. But, you know, it's been a long time coming. I guess if I had a dog, and I had no place to run the dog off-leash--which I guess I don't here really, if I had a Lab and I tried to run it here in this back yard, it'd be pretty tight--I guess I'd be as frustrated as the dog people are here in Ann Arbor. But it's finally on-line as best I know.
DW: That's good.
HD: Thing is, you have to register and there's a 35-dollar fee, I think--it might even be 50. Some number of dollars that struck me as ...
DW: ... that's going to keep some people away maybe?
HD: Mmm, I dunno. I think that for people who were really advocating vocally for it, I suspect it won't. Because they want to see it get a lot of use. Because the more use it has that you can document, the easier it is to make the case that you need to keep that kind of amenity, that the community is really valuing it, and that it needs to be kept up and maintained. Though I don't know what there is really to maintain in a dog park.
DW: There's a lot of poop to pick up. Although people are supposed to do that themselves.
HD: Yeah. So do they have dog parks in Madison?
DW: They do. A lot of people compare Ann Arbor and Madison, and they are similar in ways, and I think Ann Arbor has some strengths more than Madison and visa versa, but one of Madison's strengths is definitely dog parks. They have, I think, maybe four bona fide off-leash dog parks within the city and then maybe four or five in the county--which aren't too far away form the city.
HD: So do you use them?
DW: I do! We actually live about an 8- to 10-minute drive away from what most people view as the nicest one. So I or Rigo take our dogs probably at least twice a week--usually every Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes during the week, too. It's just wonderful. It's about 100 acres and there's hiking trails, and there's hills, and there's big views of the rolling dairy countryside ...
HD: ... so you can see cows?
DW: You can see cows, and you can also see--is it sheep? There's another animal that I've seen on one of the fields, and I think it's sheep.
HD: So this doesn't sound like it's just a dog park. Is it just a general park that also has the added [bonus] that you can take your dog off leash there?
DW: Yeah, although I rarely see anybody there who's not there with a dog.
DW: Because there's other parks that people could go to, if they just wanted to hike or whatever. So it's pretty much a dog park. But it's nice, because you can actually go on a hike and do a nice 45-minute, hour walk while exercising your dogs. So it's great.
HD: Without anybody yelling at you to get your dog on a leash.
HD: Because, if you go to The Arb or if you go over to Bird Hills, you can do a hike with a dog off-leash, and you'll typically encounter people with dogs off-leash. And the vast, vast majority of them that I've ever encountered are well-behaved, mindful dogs that are not jumping up on you and not really bothering anybody. So people essentially use the parks as off-leash ...
DW: ... anyway, yeah.
HD: Which I don't have a problem with. But there was an incident I noticed in the police blotter a couple of weeks ago. I guess the guy who had the dogs objected to being photographed by the person who was there just hiking around. So I guess there was some kind of 'interaction'.
DW: Oh! So somebody was hiking and felt like taking photos and just happened to include this guy and his dogs?
HD: No, I think it was somebody who was hiking and objected to the fact that this guy had several dogs off leash, and told the guy that he should put them on a leash, and when he didn't, he took some photographs, and I guess the dog owner may or may not have--allegedly--shoved the camera into the person. I dunno, it was just a police blotter report ...
DW: ... you can read many things into it.
HD: You can read a lot of stuff into it or out of it.
DW: Assault with a camera!
HD: Or something like that. Well, the newspaper you work for, as a part of its online presence has a Dog Blog.
DW: Mmmm. You're right! Good on'ya! I knew that we did have such a thing. I didn't realize it was still going.
HD: Apparently it is. I didn't really look at it that closely to see when the most recent post was or to see what people were talking about. I just noted that, Wow, the newspaper has dogs as one of the specific dedicated blog topics that it runs.
DW: Well, I believe that started as one of the reporters there, Chris Martell, her children were leaving the house, so I think she was having sort of an 'empty nest' moment-slash-crisis. And so this eventually led her to get her first dog. Which I think she had never viewed herself as a dog person before--she'd always had cats, she wasn't sure about having a dog. So she wrote a story I think, enlisting the help of others, what sort of dog should she get, and all that stuff. So this led to the Dog Blog. I think she ran it at first and I'm not sure if she still is, or if it's more of a communal thing now.
HD: So is that--the online version of the newspaper--is that something that takes additional amounts of your time as a reporter, or does that happen just automatically--where you file your stories and then it magically ...
DW: ... that is a really good question and it's one that a lot of people are talking about a lot at newspapers these days. Yeah, it does take more time, and we don't really get more resources to do it. So we're stretching ourselves in a new way, but we feel like we have to, to stay afloat. And I think in some ways, it's good. But I worked on an online component to one story I did a few months ago, and it probably took the better part of a week, maybe three or four work days, just to do this one online component. And you don't even have a sense of how much people are actually using it versus actually reading your story. So it's sort of a new world we're uncertain of.
HD: So they don't give you like a log of how many people are clicking through off of links that might be embedded in the story or anything like that?
DW: From what I understand, the science of that is still kind of new. Apparently it's pretty good at seeing where people click, but not how long they stay on there. So it's hard to know whether people are just looking at it and saying, Yuck! and moving on to the next thing, or if they're spending half and hour reading it, absorbing it, printing it out, or whatever. I may be wrong about that, but that's what I've been told, that the software to learn about that is still in its formative stages.
HD: Something kinda cool I noticed, is apparently readers can vote to determine which story is actually going to be on the front page?
DW: Yes! Yeah, that is something else that we debate a lot.
HD: So do you ever campaign, like send messages to your entire email address book saying, You know, there's a story I have that's in the running, I'd like to see it on the front page, for god's sake, vote for it!
DW: I do it all the time and I always end up the runner-up.
DW: And I just don't know what to do about that. I need to come up with a better strategy. No, I actually haven't done that. Because I'm not sure if I would really feel any better about my life or about my work, if I was selected as the Reader's Choice versus not selected.
HD: So in the printed edition is it marked, is there like a slot that's the Reader's Choice front page story? Or is it just put there somewhere on the front page without a further explanation that this is the one that the readers chose?
DW: Well, what we do is--and this started maybe a year or a year and a half ago--by the middle of the day, they have a general sense of some of the main stories that are likely to be in the paper the next day. So they post, I think it's three or four options on our website between noon and four o'clock or something like that, each day. People can vote during that time period, and then whichever story wins is theoretically supposed to appear on the front page the next day. Sometimes, if everybody picked Paris Hilton, and there's tons of really important national and international news or local news, sometimes we'll put a re-fer, put sort of a 'presence' to the Reader's Choice story, and then actually run it inside. So a little bit of 'cheating' but the general purpose or intent is still the same..
HD: So the kinds of stories that you write, aren't by definition going to be like typically front page stories, I wouldn't think, are they? From what I've looked at, like there was the grant to study ALS that the University was recently awarded, there was that story. And then there was a story about a nurse who was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the University hospital. So it's medical, science-y, health, that sort of thing?
DW: Mmm hmm.
HD: So it's not politics, it's not 'front page' type stories? Or am I wrong about that?
DW: So are you wondering how often I'm a Reader's Choice? And if I'm bitter about it because I'm not chosen, is that what you're getting at?
HD: Yeeah, [laugh] well, I don't know.
DW: It's a fair question! Well, you're kind of right. Although I don't mean to sound defensive or anything, but actually quite a few of my stories do run on the front page. And it's mostly because the State Journal and other papers, or most papers today, I think, are really into what they call 'centerpieces'. They want a main presence on the page with photos and graphics to draw people in. And medical stories tend to lend themselves to those. Because you can get photos of real people, patients going through something ...
HD: ... oh, yeah, patients and doctors, that are easily recognizable as, Oh, that's a doctor! Or that's somebody lying in a hospital bead, yep, I know what that is.
DW: So I think for that reason, quite a few of them do end up on the front page. But more because of the visual presence and maybe the personal side of the news that serves as an alternative to the more straightforward politics and government and things like that.
HD: So does health care and our health care system as it relates nationally, say, to the presidential election coming up, is that part of what your beat is defined as?
DW: A little bit, yeah. Obviously, Madison is the state capitol, so the state government and health policy that occurs at the state government level is something I try to keep a lookout for and something I try to write somewhat about. Although our state government people write about it, too. Wisconsin, not unlike Michigan, has been going through an arduous budget battle, and we are actually the state that has gone the longest without approving a budget. Although we don't have the ...
HD: ... wait up, you guys don't actually have a budget in place right now??
DW: We don't.
HD: Okay, so I think in Michigan we're required to?
DW: Right, well, we don't have the stick hanging over our head that you do, that the government shuts down if you go a certain amount of time without one. We don't have that, which is probably why we're going longer than most states, because there's nothing like that that to kick us into gear. So they've gone since July 1st without a budget. And one of the main issues that held that up is a universal health care plan that was proposed by the Democrats that the Republicans didn't like. And just a couple of days ago, the Democrats decided to give that up in hopes of trying to bring the budget together.
HD: So what was 'universal' about it?
DW: Oh, okay, now I wish I hadn't brought it up, because I didn't really write about it that much! I mean, I wrote about it at the beginning and then the government people did more of it. But basically it was going to require employers to pay a certain amount, a tax to cover everybody and to pay into a pool, and then ...
HD: ... that's enough for me to say, that is going to be unsuccessful politically and also probably practically. I mean, John Edwards, his 'universal' health care plan starts with that basic step as well--that you put as much as the burden as possible on employers. And I think that's just basically not going to work, from my point of view. I mean politically it won't work. And even if you can get it through, it's not the right solution. We need national health insurance, period.
DW: Yeah, I mean part of what was driving it at the state level is that most people feel like it won't happen on a national level for at least a few years. And I think there were some kind of incentives to encourage states to experiment with some ideas. But yeah, I agree, that this plan in Wisconsin would have pretty much eliminated the insurance industry from the whole thing, and as much as that ultimately might be the best way to do it, I just don't think it's going to go anywhere, if you don't have them on board somehow.
HD: Well, listen, you got anything else on your mind that you want to get off your chest and onto the totter?
DW: Well, how do you think Ann Arbor has changed since I left?
HD: Gosh, I dunno, you said 2000 and what?
DW: Well, I pretty much left in '02, so about five and a half years ago.
HD: Hmmm. Wow, that's hard. [laugh]
DW: Well, Pfizer left.
HD: Oh yeah. Well, there's a huge one.
DW: That was a biggie. Google came.
HD: Yeah, Google came. I don't think there's a palpable impact yet. Yes, well, you can see the sign--have you seen the sign, yet, the Google sign?
DW: I haven't. Because I haven't been downtown.
HD: Outside on the McKinley Towne Centre. So you can certainly tell from that, that there's a presence, but whether--oh, I think this might be the arborist that's coming up. Bill, is that you?
DW: So we should wrap up?
HD: Well, we don't have to wrap up. He's monkeying around with the fence. Do you need to remove those? Hi!
BL: Hello! We're a little late!
HD: Do you need to remove those fence panels?
BL: I don't think so. I'm waiting for the rest of the guys to guide me.
HD: If you do, I think they'll pop right off, there's pins.
BL: Yeah, it looks easy enough.
HD: That's Bill, the arborist. He's going to trim the branches above the teeter totter.
DW: The walnut tree!
HD: Yeah, that walnut, that one branch there, and some off the maple. What I hope is there'll be enough clearance through the canopy that I can fire a rocket from the teeter totter post straight up through the canopy and shoot video from the rocket so that I can have an aerial view of the teeter totter.
DW: That would be good. A birds-eye view of the totter. A rocket's eye view!
HD: So Step One was to get the arborist in here to clear out some of the branches. I mean, that's my ulterior motive. There's other good reasons why the branches need to be trimmed out, but I'm hoping that the end result will be a hole through the canopy.
DW: So have you experimented with attaching cameras to rockets?
HD: No, but there's some local people online who have some experience with it, and they've documented their efforts, so I'm hoping to eventually recruit some of that expertise.
DW: Wow, and then you could do it other places, like over the Stadium during football games.
HD: Hmmm, well, that's a possibility. But for me, you know, it's all about the teeter totter. I'm not really interested in other locations.
DW: You don't want to branch out, okay.
HD: Okay, well, listen thanks for coming over to ride the teeter totter!
DW: Sure. It was my pleasure. I wish Madison had something as great as this.
HD: Well, you know, for people you know in Madison, who you know are traveling to Ann Arbor, you should tell them to drop by the teeter totter.
DW: Alright, I will.