Thursday, December 15, 2011

Observations From 21 Years of Iowa Life

The sun sets  over the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. Not a pig or cornstalk in sight.

In Iowa, I learned to speak Italian. In Iowa, I learned an appreciation for contemporary art because of a tremendous museum that specializes in it. In Iowa, I learned to play field hockey from Olympians.

But the most important thing I learned from living in Iowa for a big chunk of my adult life is this: Look beyond the stereotypes; nothing ever is what it seems.

This week, Atlantic magazine published a massive essay, the snappily titled "Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life,"  by a University of Iowa professor who conveniently is teaching in Michigan right now. Not a native Iowan, he felt compelled to explain this place to others since it plays such an important role in the political process. Its caucuses are the first-in-the-nation decision in an election year, a situation that pretty much ticks off the other 49 states.

Once the professor’s essay hit the Internet, the gloves were off. My friends, Iowans by birth and by choice, let their rage fly as did people throughout the state and nation. Snarky T-shirts are already on the market. The poor professor, whose $100,000-plus salary is paid for by the people he just characterized as meth-heads who love pig manure and are going to die alone, just doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.

It takes thick skin to live in Iowa; it seems to be targeted for this kind of mockery more than similar rural states -- and there are many of them. It takes even thicker skin to not be from there and choose to stay there. People look at you as if you are insane.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it. They have corn there. They have pigs there. There are no pro sports there, yadda yadda yadda.

Iowans know what’s there. What drove most of them so crazy by the Atlantic piece are the sweeping generalities with which the place was described.

“Elevators in rural America raise and lower grain, not people,” went one phrase.

Yes, when I went to the top of the 45-story Principal Financial Group's headquarters in Des Moines about 15 years ago, I remember cursing the fact that People Elevators had not yet come to our part of the world.

“Almost every Iowa house has a mudroom, so you don’t track mud or pig shit into the kitchen or living room,” went another well-turned phrase.

In 21 years, I had seven different residences and not one mudroom. Not even in the Victorian home I owned that was so beautiful a national magazine came in and did a photo shoot there.

I learned to love Iowa, but I left. Despite the joy I have with where I live now, leaving Des Moines is a decision I will question for the rest of my life. I didn’t dislike it, I think I just became restless the same way I had when I left the small town of my birth, another perfectly fine place that I just felt compelled to leave because that’s what life was telling me.

I left Iowa with friends I will keep forever and an understanding that every place is someone’s home. You live in Indiana? I'm not going to make fun. You're moving to Walla Walla, Wash.? I'm not going to snicker.

I came to love Iowa, to love Des Moines and they became my home. I learned that way too many people have a way of judging every place, and learned it’s irritating to be on the receiving end of it no matter where you are.

That knowledge served me well after I moved to a small town, my hometown no less. I see the quizzical looks of people who wonder why I wouldn’t want to be in a city, and then follow with a patronizing, “Oh, it’s where you grew up" comment, as if that means I didn’t have the nerve to leave.

These days, I think it takes nerve to stay. Some of the bravest people I know live here: gay couples who live their lives openly; people who open businesses on the faith the customers will come; volunteer firefighters and rescue workers who always know that the person they're pulling from a burning building or twisted wreckage could be a friend or neighbor.

Perhaps there's a reason I found my greatest happiness in the kinds of places most people disdain. Perhaps there’s a certain smugness to knowing you know what is good even if other people can’t figure it out. Sort of like digging that band no one else has heard of yet.

Maybe it’s a topic I’ll discuss with my Iowa friends the next time I visit. While we’re sitting in their mudroom, of course.

In Iowa, they have funky art. And tall buildings with elevators -- that carry people.

Friday, December 9, 2011

They Called It Puppy Love, and It Still Hounds Us

The face that made so many girls swoon, so many moons ago.

Today is Donny Osmond’s birthday.

I don’t point that out because I am throwing a party for him later and expect him to stop by. I just point it out because I know it.

It’s the same way I know that David Cassidy’s birthday is April 12 and Susan Dey’s is the day after Donny Osmond’s. I wish I didn’t know this, but I do.

I have a weird Rain Man-like quality for remembering some numbers, but I know in this case I am not alone. On this day every year, inevitably, one of my friends will comment that it is Donny Osmond’s birthday. We just know. If one of us dies on Dec. 9 some day well into the future, someone, somewhere will say, “Wow, she died on Donny Osmond’s birthday.”

In the case of David Cassidy and Susan Dey, we were helped in this knowledge by a Partridge Family album cover that had all their birthdays on it. In the case of Donny Osmond, it probably was just puppy love.

The things we loved as teeny-boppers have a way of following us through the decades, for better or for worse. I’m a little perplexed by the women my age or older that you see screaming at oldies concerts performed by the former object of their affection, but still.

I learned how to spell Albuquerque because Keith Partridge wanted me to point him in that direction. I thought the bluest skies I’d ever see would be in Seattle because Bobby Sherman said so. I thought there couldn’t be anything better in all the world than maybe one day singing and dancing with my brothers and sisters and cousins because that’s what Donny, Jay, Merrill, Wayne and Alan and Michael, Marlon, Jermaine, Tito and Jackie and sometimes Randy did.

And of course I thought they were all so cute and I wanted to meet them and of course if they just met me, they would love me, too. It's something young girls have felt from Elvis to David Cassidy to New Kids on the Block to 'N Sync to the Bieber.

I once spoke to a child psychologist for a story I was writing about that phase of life for young girls. Those posters on the wall, that love of a stranger far away, that 10-year-old form of desire for what can best be described as an abstract concept is actually a good thing, the psychologist said. Girls start feeling that earlier than boys do, the psychologist said, and the teen idols are a good target for that energy since the boys they know can’t be bothered at that age.

And if you’ve ever been to a concert of any teen idol, you can see why boys that age would – and should – be terrified.

Now I see these former idols as a happy memory of childhood, something that I loved the way I loved my Spirograph or Boxcar Children books. The difference is, these are real people with real lives.

And real birthdays, that we no doubt will remember for the rest of our lives. 

Sadly, the world never got to learn the birthday of the other Chris Partridge.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Little Bit of Old School

The old school building in Mount Horeb. (T. Hegglund photo)

“I want to run through the halls of my high school. I want to scream at the top of my lungs.” – John Mayer, singing a song I can’t stand.

Movies do it, songs do it, websites like do it.

They focus on the nostalgia people supposedly carry for high school. That just brings up one big question in my mind:

High school?

It’s not just that high school can be a treacherous place, but recent events made it clear to me that when people have wonderful memories of school, it’s grade school.

An old school building in my town, something that in 1918 was built as a K-12 and now just has first- and second-graders, is shut down for a year because it is being gutted on the inside and renovated. I had the chance to go in it with the local historical society to see if there was anything we wanted to take before the proverbial wrecking balls started swinging.

How much did I want to see this school? I took the day off of work to get inside it and explore.

Strangely, people didn’t think that was weird; most people I know were jealous. They, too, wanted a look at the school they hadn’t seen in decades before it looks entirely different.

I posted photos on Facebook; they were shared and spread like wildfire so much that a woman I know in Colorado who is from my town said her 90-something mother had told her there were pictures floating around somewhere on “the computer” of the old school.

Other people’s enthusiasm for seeing the inside of the place made me think of two things. For starters, what a lost opportunity this was for somebody to make some money off all the old alums by offering tours. But mostly, the overflow of affection for this school made it clear that while high school can be a horror for most, grade school could be something to love.

It’s grade school our brothers and sisters marched off to when we were left at home wondering when we, too, could go. It’s grade school that is so important that our parents must take our pictures the first days we attend. It’s grade school when we get recess and take milk breaks twice a day. At least in Wisconsin.

We were clean slates when it came to grade school. Learning and reading and writing were something we couldn’t wait to do. And often we LOVED our teachers, as if they were the most wonderful beings on the face of the Earth. I recently bumped into my third-grade teacher, introduced myself and got a sort of sideways arm around/hug that could only come from a woman who is used to hugging people much smaller than she is. Hugs are de rigeur in the grade school world. High school, not so much.

Grade school was not perfect, to be sure. Kids very early on can recognize “the other” and for some the teasing starts at a mercilessly young age. I know I think back to the kids who already were ostracized at a young age and wonder whatever became of them. (Courtney Love, a talented but troubled soul, once commented that she was the target of that heinous “germs” game kids liked to play, and probably still do.)

In my community, part of the affection for the school stems from the building itself. It has a beautiful setting and exterior, but had a goofy design inside that was probably screaming to be gutted and renovated decades ago. There were a couple classrooms where you had to go up about five stairs and then down about five stairs just to get to. Back stairways wound around to various rooms and offices. I always felt sorry for the kids on crutches.

People who had to send their kids to school here nowadays have way less affection for this building than the natives, and I understand that. It was a mess, it had hazards and was built at a time when people thought disabled kids shouldn’t be out in public, much less at a public school.

That made for quite a divide when it came time to decide what to do about the school. I expressed my affection for the building and was smacked down with a “Oh, you’re one of THOSE people,” from a young mom in my neighborhood. Indeed, many people who wanted it saved probably hadn't seen the inside of it for decades. Something had to be done.

For the record, I just didn’t want the building razed; it didn’t much matter to me if it remained a school or not. It sits on the crest of a hill with a beautifully landscaped “campus” that can be seen from my neighborhood six blocks away. Part of the town was built around it. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its Prairie School design came from noted architects Claude & Starck, and if those names don’t ring a bell perhaps the names of their friends and associates Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright do.

Preservation never comes without a furious debate, and the school was no exception. It will remain the same on the outside, it will be completely different on the inside and nothing anyone does will ever change the memories of those who once loved being inside that school so very much.

So yes, I want to run through the halls of my grade school. Especially once they get all those funky staircases out of there.

Stairs that must have shaken every time dozens of children went up and down them.

The fate of this beautiful vintage tile, in a hallway by the gymnasium built in 1941, is unknown.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tackles, Turf Toe and Tears

 The writer on the left, getting tips from the kicker on the right.

(Wanting to write about the most important thing in Wisconsin right now -- Recall? What recall? The Packers are 10-0 -- my thoughts go back to a few Novembers ago when I was hanging out at Lambeau Field with the Packers themselves. This story first appeared in The Capital Times in 2008.)
What makes a woman cry? You'd be surprised.

It's not the umpteenth viewing of "Beaches," nor the theme from "Titanic." It's not the sight of her youngest child walking across the stage at graduation.

No, it's sitting amongst 330 women and having your number called as the winner of an autographed Green Bay Packers football, still smelling of the felt-tip markers from the signatures of the players who just scribbled on it.

That's how serious the women are about the game and their favorite team at Football 101, the annual women-only clinic hosted by the Green Bay Packers at the end of November.

My friend Patty is one of those serious football fans and somewhat sheepishly asked me if I wanted to go. She needn't have worried. A chance to go to Green Bay to run through drills with actual Packers and hear their take about life in the NFL? A no-brainer.

"Sign me up," I told my friend.

The biggest misconception about sports is that it's a guy thing. But women love sports. Maybe not in the same proportion as men, but certainly with the same passion. And it's not just about who's cute, although there were a few whistles in the Lambeau Field banquet room when Packers equipment manager Red Batty held up Aaron Rodgers' pants during a demonstration on the team's gear. My guess is that wouldn't happen if he were talking to the Rotary Club.

That passion is why chairs were jam-packed into that banquet room for the first part of the 10th annual event, which is typically a sellout.

"Have you been here before?" asked the woman sitting next to me.

I hadn't, I replied.

"Oh, you are going to love it," she said. She certainly did; she was the one who about two hours later won the autographed football and had to dry her tears of joy.

Football 101 begins with players, their wives and others with team connections discussing what they do and take questions.

After Batty's fascinating presentation ranging from what players wear and why or how they stay warm, six players' wives spoke, followed by their husbands. And before anyone thinks this was a giant sporty "Oprah" show, the cheesiest question came when emcee/linebacker Brady Poppinga asked the wives how they met their husbands.

No, the women in the crowd couldn't be bothered with such trivial matters. One woman asked a player to differentiate between the nickel package and the dime package and wanted an explanation of the Cover-2, a defensive alignment. Another wanted to know the difference between a regular formation and the slot formation. The leverage penalty was another topic for discussion.

People magazine, this was not.

Another asked center Scott Wells about the changes in the facemask penalty this season; Wells didn't know the penalty had been changed.

"When my facemask is grabbed, no one cares," he said.

As interesting as those sessions were, the real highlight of Football 101 is the drills. From Lambeau, we marched across the parking lot to the Don Hutson Center to learn first-hand from the Packers. If any of them were bummed to give up a Saturday teaching mostly middle-aged women the finer points of football, it never showed.

When I was a kid, we had the biggest backyard around and drew kids from all over town to play football there. So I once was confident enough in my skills to enter a Punt, Pass and Kick competition when girls just didn't do that kind of thing.

But that was back when elephant pants were cool and gas was 39 cents a gallon. Now, I just hoped I wouldn't trip on something and burn my chin on the artificial turf.

The first drill, not so bad. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson talked us through a rushing drill in which we had to high-step through the ropes just like the pros. I did not trip. These days, this is how I measure success.

Then, it was on to kicking. Mason Crosby taught us about the sweet spot on the ball - which, if hit squarely, provides the best results - and gave us an extra-point demonstration. Then it was our turn. I took a few steps to the right to come in as a left-footer. Such detail was hardly necessary; I stubbed my toe on the approach and the ball dribbled weakly off the tee. Shame, yes. Turf toe, maybe.

Shortly afterward, a huge cheer went up in that corner of the facility. Someone had made an extra point.

"Must have been one of the young ones who played soccer in high school," a 50-something woman in my group said.

Next up: defense. What Wells didn't know about facemasking he made up for in blocking schemes. He gave a detailed presentation on the three-point stance, the team's formations and how to bowl your way past someone. That might have come in handy for those who went shopping the day after Thanksgiving.

What I flubbed on the extra point, I made up for as a receiver. Routes taught by James Jones, Ruvell Martin and Jermichael Finley all resulted in caught passes on my part, with the players doing the throwing. And I rather enjoyed taking out the tackling dummy after running Poppinga's drill.

It's been a long time since I spent a Saturday tossing around a football, and it certainly never crossed my mind that I'd ever toss one around with a Packer. But for $65, I got great memories, some cool stuff and a great day in Green Bay.

Unfortunately, I also got a sore left foot from the worst kick ever and a few extra aches and pains the next day. That's all right. I may not be able to kick and it might take me a while to come up out of that three-point stance, but at least I knew months ago that the NFL had changed the facemask penalty this season.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Homegrown Hero

Mildred Fish while a student at the University of Wisconsin. (UW Archives photo)
Shortly after I graduated from high school, I took a trip to Europe. Among the places we visited was the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

There were many things to disturb anyone about the place: the sign that said, “People were hanged from these beams,” the towers that were everywhere and the buildings that were the real thing, not part of a movie set.

Yet the thing that haunted me most from that trip wasn’t from the camp itself. It was afterward, when we grabbed some sandwiches at a shop, sat in a beautiful park in the Bavarian town called Dachau and ate lunch just a few miles away from where so many horrors took place.

“How could they not have known?” I thought to myself of the people who lived there, and it has bothered me for decades since. I was horrified to think that people accepted what was going on and the na├»ve, youthful optimist in me couldn’t imagine that people were so awful as to not do something about it.

So it was with great relief about humanity that, decades later, I learned about Mildred Fish-Harnack and the Red Orchestra. Not only was there a relief that indeed there were average citizens in Germany trying to undermine the Nazis, but also pride that one of them was a native of Wisconsin.

Mildred Fish-Harnack, a Milwaukee native, was the only American woman executed under the direct orders of Hitler during World War II. She was originally sentenced to 10 years in prison; Hitler instead ordered her guillotined.

It was only relatively recently that I learned about Mildred, her husband Arvid, whom she met at UW, and another German woman who also attended the University of Wisconsin, Greta Kuckhoff. I was given the book “Red Orchestra” almost by happenstance and eventually interviewed its author, Anne Nelson. Nelson’s book references the Wisconsin connections to this group, as they met to discuss issues of the day while students in Madison and reconnected in Berlin years later.

Their vast network, including Arvid Harnack working at the Reich’s Economic Ministry, tried to get word out to the Allies about Nazi plans. Ultimately they were found out and many of them were executed, although Greta Kuckhoff served her sentence and survived to old age.

It’s a story few know about because, among many reasons, they gave information to the Soviets as well as Americans and the name Red Orchestra was given to the resistance group by the Nazis who had branded them Communists. In the post-World War II world it was worse to be a Communist than it was to be a Nazi and the story of the Red Orchestra was nearly lost to history. When the University of Wisconsin’s alumni magazine did a story on the university’s connection to these brave souls in 1949, it triggered an FBI investigation of the school as potentially harboring Communist sympathies.

Slowly, their story has come to light. In the 1980s, the Wisconsin legislature declared Sept. 16 as Mildred Fish-Harnack Day in the state. The hope of that declaration was that on each Sept. 16, Mildred’s birthday, schoolchildren would be taught something about her and the work of her companions.

World War II and the Holocaust continue to fascinate people, and deservedly so. Much of the fascination stems from the madness of Hitler and the horrific things that happened. But I also think part of the fascination stems from people wondering about themselves, what they would have done in a similar situation.

Would I have turned in my Jewish neighbors? Would I have tried to escape? Would I have given information to other countries? Would I have tried to help? Would I have stood up against what I believe is so wrong?

In this day and age, when people will throw their own co-workers under a bus to ensure job security, those are tough questions to answer.

In the Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Sign of Four,” Sherlock offers an observation from British philosopher Winwood Reade as to what makes mysteries both easy and difficult to solve.

“While the individual man is an insoluable puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty,” Holmes says. “You can never foretell what one any one man will do but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to.”

So that’s what it comes down to for all of us: to be an insoluable puzzle or a mathematical certainty.

If only, my dear Watsons, it were as elementary as it sounds.
. . .

This post was originally written to coincide with the broadcast of a Wisconsin Public Television documentary, "Wisconsin's Nazi Resistance: The Mildred-Fish Harnack Story." It can be viewed online at

Two books have been written on the subject. “Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler” by Anne Nelson and “Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra” by Shareen Blair Bysac.

In Berlin, there is now a German Resistance Memorial Center. Part of that center is the former Plotzensee prison where Mildred Fish-Harnack, her husband and fellow resistance members were executed.

The University of Wisconsin Archives has a webpage dedicated to the life of Mildred Fish-Harnack.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Whose House? Our House.

The "Burns Farm" in rural Iowa County, Wis.
My house will never be my own.

And I don’t mean I will never own my house outright, although the chances of me paying off this mortgage in my lifetime are right up there with being chosen as the next Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model.

Even if I manage to cough up that much money in my lifetime and truly own this place, it will never be my house. It will never be Jane’s House, it will never be the Burns House.

No, this will always be the Schlub House (pronounced shloob).

I moved back to my hometown three years ago. I had walked down the street that is now mine untold times as a kid because it’s on the way to the swimming pool. Yet I didn’t really know anyone who lived on this street. I learned that, though, the second I started looking at a house here. I heard it over and over, including from my realtor when we first looked at this property:

“Oh, it’s the Schlub House.”

I told my mom what house I was looking at.

“Oh, the Schlub House,” she said.

When I moved in, I’d tell people I lived next to the old church, thinking that was a landmark enough.

Oh, the Schlub House,” would be the response then.

This house belonged to Adolph ("Bud") and Eleanor Schlub for many decades, although it’s not who I bought it from. It’s a house that feels like someone’s home, beautifully crafted throughout with a few goofy built-in quirks that clearly show somebody wasn’t thinking “resale value.”

I had never heard of the Schlubs before, but now I hear stories that make me smile. My neighbor across the street tells me that on warm summer nights, he and Adolph would raise their beer cans in a toast when they both were sitting on their porches winding down at the end of the day.

A former teacher of mine was at my house to pick up some portions of a project we were doing together and he told me that his wife grew up in the house that is next door.

“When we were dating, we always had to be very careful about what we were doing on the porch because we could always see Bud watching us from next door,” he said.

My family home is gone; an empty lot now sits where we grew up, where my dad had his photo studio and my siblings and all the neighbor kids had spirited games in the big lot out back.

Yet so many other homes in this town have retained the name of a previous owner. I had coffee with a relatively new resident to town and I asked him where he lived. He gave me the name of the street, a block from mine, and said “the Smith House.”

I didn’t know who the Smiths were, but after he described the house to me I said, “Oh yea, that’s across from the Schmit House and up the street from the Gullick House.’  

People have ways of trying to ensure their immortality – donations that lead to plaques or naming rights for an auditorium or stadium. But sometimes, all it takes is being part of  your community and creating a home that is yours and will remain so long after you are gone.

There is no Burns House in my town and perhaps there never will be. Yet north of a speck on the map called Hollandale, Wis., about 20 miles from here, there’s a farm that sits atop a hill on a winding country road.

It’s the farm my Irish immigrant great-great-grandfather purchased and worked, a place that stayed with some part of the family until the 1940s.

“They still call it the Burns Farm around here,” said my aunt on a recent drive through the country. I had never heard that before and it still makes me smile to think of it. 

So I accept that I live in the Schlub House and think of Adolph when I sip a beer on my porch on a hot summer night. And while I don’t have a pile of children to raise in this house, I like it because it’s a warm welcoming place that has often hosted friends, family and happy holidays.

I like to think the Schlubs would be pleased.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Lutefisk Report

Just a quick tally on the day at Vermont Lutheran Church:

Bites of lutefisk: 2
Utterances of the word "yuck": 0
Utterances of the words "what is this?": 1
Moms of high school friends seen on site: 2
On a scale of 1 to 10, the need for a nap after: 43

It's very jiggly. That's what I would say about lutefisk. It's very jiggly. I don't know if the Norwegians have a special utensil for it but neither a fork nor a spoon seemed to work very well for this jiggly food. Kind of reminded me of the time my cousins and I decided to play baseball with a pan of finger Jell-O one of our mothers had made.

But even so, a lovely day at a lovely church. A few illustrations:

The gorgeous church:

And yes, we had to wait in the church until our very non-Norwegian name was called amongst the Olsons, Tollefsons, Haglunds and Larsens. There was, however, no playing of religious films as in the childhood of George H.:

On to the main event: The Lutefisk, which one day soon will star in its own horror film: "It Came By The Plateful":

Of course, it wasn't all lye-soaked fish. Tasty meatballs, tasty gravy, taters and the highlight of the day, lefse:

And you know, even if we were required to watch religious movies beforehand, it would have been worth it for this:

All in all, it's a great day when you can eat church lady food in a church basement without having had to go a funeral first:

For any further questions about lutefisk, I'd like to refer you to the Lutefisk Hotline. The number is on this placemat:

Stay tuned. Coming later this fall or winter: The Meat Paddle Report.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Food Is Food, and That's No Lye

 Lutefisk and lefse
Takk skal du ha
Hollandale High School
Rah rah rah

News that I was headed to a Lutefisk Supper sparked pretty simple reactions from friends and family alike.





Yes, really.

These things are legendary around here. At the one I’m going to Saturday at a little country church, they expect to serve more than 1,000 plates of lutefisk (and lefse, rommegrot or, for the less daring, cookies). And, presumably since I will be in attendance, not everyone there will be named Ole and Lena.

Lutefisk and lefse are such a part of life here in Wisconsin (and other places) that they even got integrated into a cheer my dad said they used to chant at his old high school. I used to think my dad was pulling my leg, but others have said they heard that cheer, too.

I profess no love of lutefisk, because I’ve never eaten it. Can’t say that I’m much looking forward to it, because a recipe I have for it from a new book of Norwegian family recipes called “Gudrun’s Kitchen” goes something like this:

This recipe is an old-fashioned way of making lutefisk that must be started about four weeks in advance …

5 pounds dried codfish
1 cup of washing soda (lye)
3 gallons boiled cooled water

Special equipment: cheesecloth, enamel pot for boiling lutefisk (aluminum will turn black).

All righty then. Rachael Ray this is not.

I haven’t had lutefisk, but have had or been around many other Norwegian things. Lefse, a pounded potato flatbread that looks kind of like a tortilla, is one of my favorite foods in all the world. Krumkake, a waffle cookie, is as delicious as it is beautiful.

Other things, not so much. Many people I know love herring. My dad used to eat that and something called Sotsuppe, but my sisters and I as children tastefully referred to it as “elephant boogers” from either the tapioca or raisins in it. We grew up in a household where dammit, you cleaned your plate, but Mom gave us a pass on many of the Norwegian things my dad would bring home.

So why go to a Lutefisk Supper? The adventure. The tradition. And even if I hate it, it is somebody’s tradition.

Because, really, all food is cultural. Some countries eat brains, other people might eat slugs. I’m adventurous enough that in England years ago I told my then-boyfriend – a born and bred true Cockney – that if he bought some jellied eels, I would try them. He never did, but he could whip up tasty things such as Oxtail Stew, Bubble and Squeak or Toad in the Hole and took me to marvelous Pie and Mash shops.

I tried Pig’s Feet in Paris, just because. And because of that, I would not recommend it. I’ve eaten octopus in Italy, which tasted fine but it was weird seeing those suckers sticking out of the batter. Made it look as if I was eating a window decoration.

Face it: Your disgusting dish is somebody else’s comfort food. I mean, if you’re not American, would you really ever eat a hot dog?

Years ago, I spent an entertaining afternoon with Nebraska folklorist Roger Welsch, who is a regular on the CBS Sunday morning show. He had written a book called “Digging In and Pigging Out: The Truth About Food and Men.” He talked about how it’s good to tell people about tasty things like roasted goat but not to brag about it too much while you are sitting at a tavern while the goat is roasting because you come home and find the roasted goat missing.

But he also spoke lovingly about how his mother was a cook for a rich family who would then turn around and make delicious food out of the leftover pig parts for her own family.  He felt sorry for the rich people who had to eat ham and pork roast, because they never got to eat his mother’s Jaternice. This traditional Czech dish is one of my all-time favorite recipes to read; no writer ever wrote a first paragraph as brilliant as 1 Hog head, preferably scalded, not skinned. Who could resist reading further?

For now, I’ll pass on the hog head, scalded or skinned. But if anyone wants to invite me to a Czech Supper, I’m game.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

We Had Joy, We Had Fun ...

OK, I dare you to look at this picture and not smile.

Doesn't matter if you hate sports or think baseball is boring. You will smile, I know you will.

You'll particularly smile when you learn the guy on the left, the one with the Air Jordan hang time, is 41 years old and the oldest player on the team. But at the same time, you don't even have to know the team or the players to love this photo. Yes, this photo by David J. Phillip of the Associated Press is about a victory, but it is also about pure unabashed unadulterated joy.

I love sports. I make no apologies for it. And to those who are too cool for school and offer that whole "opiate for the masses" pablum, I tend to answer that sports did far more to advance racial and gender equality in this country than any institution ever could. But that's a topic for another day.

For now, the topic is joy. Today it's the Milwaukee Brewers and all those fans in the background. Tomorrow it will be somebody else and the day after it will be somebody else.

Joy is so fleeting in our lives it's a wonderful thing to celebrate it when we see it. The joy of this moment will pass as soon as tomorrow's game begins, but this photo will make me smile forever.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The More Things Change, the More They Change

Not too many people would compare the Netflix disaster to a former dance hall in a tiny town called Pipe, Wis., but I’ve been thinking about that old building a lot lately.

Because lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the frenzy of things changing faster than we can keep up with them.

And I don’t mean this in a cranky “get-off-my-lawn” kind of way. But just this week, I go away for a few days and Netflix becomes Qwikster, the entire college athletic landscape hung in the balance of some superpowers’ choices and I’m about to start my sixth job in six years (with the same company) because of the constant, exhausting change of the media landscape. And then, before the week is out, REM has broken up and “All My Children” goes away. (Facebook changes don’t count; that’s not news.)

So I think of the dance hall.

I think of the dance hall because my mom pointed it out on a road trip up north a couple years ago. There a building stood, worn by the weather and seemingly void of any human activity for decades.

“That’s where we would go to dances,” my mom said. We were on a trip to celebrate her birthday, to see the farm she grew up on, the house in town her family eventually moved to, to eat at the supper club her cousin opened 50 years ago and to attend Mass at the church she attended as a kid. It was a Memory for Mom trip, and the stories were flowing.

My parents both grew up in towns of about 200 or 300 people. Those are the kinds of places that are specks on the map now but were communities unto themselves in my parents’ youth. Towns of 200 or 300 had businesses. They had Main Streets. They had a store or two or three. They had dances. They had a life unto themselves that is gone in so many of these places.

As much as the stories were flowing on our road trip with Mom, I didn’t ask the follow-up question, setting aside my reporter skills because I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer and I wanted to keep the memories upbeat.

“What is it like when everything you knew and loved is gone?”

I don’t mean people. That’s a whole different adjustment. And I don’t mean youth or energy. We all lose those.

I mean the things. The everyday things you think don’t really think about, just the things you love, you do, you share with people and one day are gone.

You know, like the video store. The record stores. The book stores big and small. A good old conference rivalry like Nebraska and Oklahoma. All those newspaper co-workers, those people who together we would change the world, kick some butt, do great work, raise our children together, grow old together but now mostly aren’t even in the same city anymore or even the same profession because it all changed before our very eyes.

It’s all part of life, I know. But lately it seems this stuff keeps coming fast and furious.

Yet I take comfort in the inanity of the Netflix CEO’s non-apology apology and the fact this company announced a wacky plan to split off, without even having a website ready for its new ancillary business. It was like it was just somebody’s idea the night before. Over too many beers. Or too many cans of New Coke.

I found it comforting that seemingly smart business people, with a company that has been pretty much batting 1.000 for the last few years are stumped, too. If things are changing too fast for the folks at Netflix to have a clue, I don’t feel so bad myself.

So I’ll take comfort here in the small town in which I grew up, which is very much alive and kicking. And I take comfort that it’s Homecoming at the high school today.

That means there’s a dance. I have no reason to go to the dance. But all in all, I’m sure glad it’s going to be there.