Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bowled Over by 'Tradition'

A decidely lo-fi Black Friday ad in Mineral Point, Wis.

It began, as so many things in my life do, as a search for good cheese. 

Somehow, though, it turned into a perfect escape on day in which so many people escape into a certain kind of crazy. Suddenly, there’s been no more perfect way to spend Black Friday than to wander the main streets of some of the area’s loveliest towns.

Strangely, though, I get the more popular option. It’s not for me, but I’ve had a unique view at it and can’t say it’s all bad. People fighting over a slow cooker is pathetic, people getting injured is tragic and people waiting outside for days embarrasses me as a human being.

That’s why on last year’s Black Friday, I had the day off and drove the opposite way from the mall. It wasn’t a concerted effort to have the anti-Black Friday (or, as I’ve come to call it, Lo-Fi Black Fri), it was indeed a trip to buy cheese. November is release time for the famed 15-Year Cheddar made by Hook’s Cheese Co. in Mineral Point, and it makes a nice gift if you can afford to splurge.

Cheese purchased, I looked around and saw the inviting decorations in town and stuck around for a while. Mineral Point is a town I’ve been to hundreds of times in my life, but had never seen it at the holidays. It was settled by Cornish lead miners in 1827, amazingly early for a Midwestern community. To this day it remains a slice of England in an area surrounded by German, Norwegian and Irish settlers. To be there around Christmas kind of felt like being in a Dickens village; indeed Main Street there is called High Street, as is the case in English cities and towns.

That getaway was a perfect tonic to how I had spent the previous two Black Fridays: at the mall, at 5 a.m. or so.

The life of a journalist is one where you end up places you’d never imagine yourself to be. The mall on Black Friday would be right up there with, say, an Amana Colonies restaurant eating wienerschnitzel with Ashton Kutcher or a murder scene. For two years, however, I was a retail reporter and this was my gig.

The tough part of being a retail reporter was that I hate shopping more than almost anything in the world. I understand that covering retail would have appeal for many of my friends and colleagues, but to those I know who hate sports, I said, “Imagine if you walked in to work one day and now covered college football.” They usually turned pale at the thought.

Yet on a human level, covering Black Friday was fascinating. At the soul of most journalists is a curiosity about what people are doing and, most importantly, why. Black Friday provided the perfect opportunity to learn about both.

And it was a fascinating revelation. Beyond the strange sight of people around me lugging around sale-priced shop-vacs was the sight of families together. I’d interview people who were here from all over the country because they were visiting family and this is what they did together the day after Thanksgiving.

I bumped into acquaintances or high school classmates and met their moms, sisters or daughters. I saw groups of families in matching T-shirts, for whatever theme they chose for the day. I didn’t see very many children. I saw a mall full of people who utterly understood what they were doing was ridiculous, but found a goofy sort of fun in it all.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing this holiday season about the people who have to work on Thanksgiving and a lot of judgment about the people who choose to go shopping. I feel bad for those who work on holidays, particularly a cousin who works at a department store.

At the same time, though, you have to ask the question: Is this really taking away family time? You eat, you nap, you watch football … then what? A lot of these folks are at the mall, but they are with their families.
Black Friday crowds not a problem.

Several Christmases ago, after the presents were opened and the meal eaten and the dishes done, my family decided to go bowling. It seemed so un-Christmas that we called to make sure an alley was open. When we got there, we were stunned: The place was packed. At each lane, there was a group of people who looked enough like each other that you knew that this was a bowling alley full of families. We got in there just in time; about an hour later, we started hearing announcements that so-and-so’s lane was open. There was a waiting list to bowl at 10 p.m. on Christmas Day.

This year, I avoided the mall again and chose another small town to wander. It’s tempting to feel smug and superior about such choices, but I’ll reserve judgment.

After all, you may not ever see me at the mall on Black Friday, but somewhere in the basement near my holiday decorations is a bag with a 12-pound ball and some size-9 shoes. 

I'll have them ready. Just in case.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Poll Workers and Church Ladies: A Winning Ticket

Why would this guy want a fake I.D.? To vote, of course.

If early exit polls are any indication, I may be the only one at my polling place on Tuesday.

Suddenly, early voting has become all the rage. My friends are giddily announcing on Facebook that they voted, they’re already proudly wearing their “I Voted” stickers and Michelle Obama’s sponsored Twitter feed tells me that voting early “is easy.”

I never realized that voting the regular way was so difficult.

Some people wanting to vote early even lined up before offices were open, as if they were waiting for a new iPhone or Peter Frampton tickets circa 1977.

Believe me, I’m thrilled about the enthusiasm for voting. When it comes to casting a ballot, I turn into Anthony Michael Hall in “The Breakfast Club.” You know, the guy who has the fake I.D. so he can vote.

I’m happy people have the options to vote early or absentee. But as long as I don’t have a conflict that will keep me out of my local community center on whatever Tuesday I need to be there, I will show up there in person to cast my ballot.

It’s not because I don’t have faith in the system that is allowing early voters, it’s because I have such faith in the people who are there at my polling station. And if I didn’t get to vote I wouldn’t see them, and that would bum me out as much as my candidates not winning.

Every time I go to the polls, I see the mothers of high school classmates, or women whose children I or my sisters babysat. My mom worked polls, too, and even helped local nursing home residents fill out their absentee ballots if they couldn’t vote in person.

“It was so tempting not to cheat with the blind ones,” my mom said a few years ago.

But of course she never would.  None of these women would. Because there’s an honesty and integrity they bring to this, the same way this generation brought honesty and integrity to so much community service in the decades before.

When I see my mother's generation still working the polls, it makes me wonder about my own generation. Will we be sitting in those same seats one day soon, doing our part for democracy? Does a lack of people my age in certain roles mean community service has declined or has the way of serving one’s community changed?

Across the U.S., membership in service organizations has gone down. In 2008, the Jaycees of Janesville, Wis., disbanded. This is no speck on the map; this is a small city of 65,000 people. The Masons, so creepily portrayed in films such as “The Da Vinci Code” or “National Treasure” have seen their U.S. membership tumble from 4 million in 1959 to 1.5 today, USA Today reported. The Elks and Rotary clubs also report declining membership, while the Lions recently announced a bump in membership after years of decline.

And while polls and surveys can vary wildly to measure how religious Americans are these days, a 2010 religious census said only 48.8 percent of Americans belong to a church. A Pew Center study from this summer says 19 percent of Americans claim to have no religious affiliation, the highest mark ever. The Catholic parish in which I was raised has two Masses on the weekend, down from four when I was a kid.

Beyond religion, there is a role churches play in a community that cannot be denied. Fewer church-goers means fewer Church Ladies and that makes me wonder who will be preparing all the wonderful Church Lady food for future generations. At the church luncheon after my mother’s funeral, we were all served marvelous food by her peers, not younger members of the parish. It was clear that there isn’t a new generation of Church Ladies waiting in the wings to slather butter on ham sandwiches and whip up a mean bowl of Jell-O. Indeed, it seems criminal to me that I only get good, tangy German potato salad when somebody dies.

This isn’t to say men and women under the age of 70 aren’t serving their communities. I’ve gone to many fundraisers organized by people my age and younger and most small towns are bravely served by volunteer firefighters and EMS squads. 

But sadly, because of technology, laws and the march of time, the generation that has served us so well at the polls is going away. There’s already confusion for poll workers because of changes in election laws and court challenges to the changes in election laws that take some new rules out of the process but put some other new ones in. Add to that the potential for having to check out someone’s smartphone to confirm their identity from an online bill receipt, and many of these poll workers are bowing out.

Part of what angers me about all the meddling with voter laws is how some people imply that poll workers aren’t doing their jobs. To me, questioning the process is like insulting Mrs. Schulz, Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Roth, Mrs. Hefty, Mrs. Fargo and my buddy Ken, a peer who is trying with middling success to get more people our age to work the polls.

One day, when my job doesn’t create a conflict to participate, I’ll be there at a table handing out the ballots. But for now, I’ll get my ballot from the people I’ve known all my life, people who have helped create the wonderful community in which I so proudly live.

They’ve done their part. Let’s make sure we whipper-snappers do ours, too.

You just know all these Church Ladies had awesome potato salad recipes.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Monuments to Life, Not Death

A living room with a view -- of the cemetery. (Cyril Burns photo)

Not very many kids came trick-or-treating at our house.

To a young child, logic never prevailed. My sisters and I never realized it was because there was a gas station on one side of our house, a dentist on the other, an alley in the back and a highway across the front.

We didn't exactly live in a residential area.

That would have made great sense when trying to figure out why there were few knocks on our door each Oct. 31. But what made the most sense to our young minds was what we saw out the kitchen window every time we did the dishes -- the cemetery.

We thought kids were afraid to come to our house across the highway from Mount Horeb (Wis.) Union Cemetery, but we couldn't imagine what was so frightening about the place. It wasn't full of dead people, as our friend liked to point out. It was full of people who used to live.

My parents subtly introduced us to life solely by taking us on walks through the cemetery. There was the teen-age boy who was the first person buried in the cemetery in the 1800s; it wasn't uncommon for kids that young to die of diseases that are easily cured now, Mom said. There was another teen-age boy who died of a heart attack playing basketball; from that we learned that life is full of the unexpected -- good or bad.

Sometimes our parents or baby sitter would stop at the graves of people they knew and tell us something about them. Not every single one, of course, but it gave me the feeling that to every headstone there was a name, to every name there was a life.

But they weren't always deep, introspective walks through the cemetery. On the contrary. The place was a great playground. Plastic flowers everywhere, rabbits and gophers tearing up the ground. And in case you're curious, granite tombstones are a lot easier to climb than marble ones. It sounds disrespectful, but I think I would rather have children climbing all over my gravestone than adults weeping over it.

We never noticed the cemetery. It was just always part of the background, the piece of land between our house and the Johnsons'. We just took it for granted that it was there, which sometimes got in the way of decorum.

There was that fall day when I was in our driveway and I heard a sound like a shotgun. I thought it was either a car backfiring or these neighbor boys of ours hunting for rabbits in the cemetery. So I screamed, "Ugh, you got me," as loud as I could as I feigned death upon the family car.

My sister turned ashen and informed me there was a military funeral across the road. We bolted into the house as fast as we could and later found out from my father, one of the American Legion military shooters, that nothing noticeably odd had happened at the funeral.

Embarrassing, yes, but I chalk it up to the foolish days of  youth. I was 25 at the time.

Seeing funerals going on was odd. Granted, funerals aren't generally an invitation-only affair, but it still seemed strange having such a private event going on across the road.

When most people look out their kitchen windows, they see children riding by on bicycles or mail carriers traipsing up the sidewalk. Not  us; even if we didn't mean to, we'd still see the most grief-stricken moments of people's lives. Seeing this usually came with a hint of guilt, even if it was an accidental glance. It was like stealing a moment of their privacy, but they didn't know it.

Friends visiting after school would stare out the window at people visiting the graves. This is where I would get a little testy.

Look who's there, they'd say.

It's none of our business, I'd respond, and find us something else to do.

On vacation in Europe years later, my companions were spooked by the cemetery right under our hotel window in Salzburg, Austria. I thought it was great, especially when we checked it out the next day and found out Mozart's family was buried there. On a New York vacation, my friends and I did just about everything we wanted to do except see graveyards. Some people thought it was morbid to even connsider that as part of a vacation.

Cemeteries are not like notches on a stick, counting off who has died. They are not to be feared. They are monuments to life.

This post originally appeared as an essay in the Des Moines Register.

The ghost is across the street from the cemetery: During this summer's drought the outline of the family house that was razed seven years ago returned.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Wanted: Town Character

Barney and Andy had to deal with Otis, the town drunk, but they did so with neighborly kindness.

I miss Santa

I don’t mean the guy who busts into your house and brings you a few things from your Wish List each December.

The Santa I miss certainly had a white beard, dressed in red and had a pointy red cap.

He also walked the streets of my town all summer long, in shorts with red and white striped socks, while also making appearances at just about any public event that took place here. He cut quite the figure at the Lions Club bingo tent at the local carnival and his red hat could be seen popping out of the crowd at a school concert. Someone started a Facebook page dedicated to him.

But as quickly and randomly as the man everyone in town called Santa arrived, he also disappeared.

And no one I know seems to know where Santa went.

I miss Santa.

Santa was the latest in a not-very-long line of people you could best describe as Town Characters. I say it’s not a long line, because Santa’s predecessors held their titles for an awful long time. And it always seems when one went away, another magically showed up. It was as if somewhere, unknown to the rest of the world, there was a job board for Town Characters and it announced when and where there were openings.

We have an opening now in my town.

Every town and city has not just the local “characters” but people who are consistently there – in the background, on the street corners. What movies get wrong with extras is having different people in the backgrounds; they should have the same people there in the background, just like they often are in everyday life. Some are indeed characters, others might have drinking issues that label them so tactlessly as the town drunk. Others might be people with physical or mental disabilities that put them on a different path than most. But they are there, always there and part of the community, too.

When I lived in Des Moines, there were three: I called them Running Man, who was often seen running down the street in jeans and long-sleeved shirts; Waving Man, who stood on street corners and waved at everyone who drove by; and Box Man, who wandered the city always carrying a box.

On a recent trip back to Des Moines, I was pleased to see that Waving Man is still there, waving away at those who drive by. Many of my friends refer to him as “Mr. Happy,” and also delight in seeing him day in and day out.

Box Man wasn’t so much a character, it turns out, as a man with a mission. A friend of mine saw him at a baseball game and chatted with him. Turns out Box Man spent a lot of his spare time in search of cans and bottles, taking advantage of Iowa’s 5-cent deposit law. He made as much as $3,000 a year, just returning cans and bottles. My friend wanted to write a story about him; Box Man didn’t want the IRS on his case and politely declined.

Sometimes all it takes is a conversation with the Town Characters and you might find out there is a story there. I bumped into Santa at a garage sale and found out he had been an antiques dealer, and he was able to point out to the garage sale host that the candlesticks she was selling were more valuable than the dollar she was asking for. He also told the story of needing a heart operation a few years back and how upset he was that the doctors were going to have to trim his beard.

“I need the beard,” he said he told his doctors. “The kids call me Santa.” But alas, they shaved the beard anyway. It grew back and Santa was back in business.

It’s probably easier to be a Town Character in a small town, particularly one such as mine that sort of welcomes eccentrics more than many other small towns.

But it’s not a special tolerance that likely makes a small town a better place for those who walk a different path; it’s just that in the small town, we might know who these people are and what their stories are.

I thought of this the other day as I was out for a morning walk. I encountered Benny, who I often see walking the streets and roads of my town. Benny’s not that much older than me, and I believe he was seriously injured in a car accident years ago when I lived away. He’s not a town character so much as a recognizable figure to anyone who lives here.

On the bike path, Benny came toward me flashing a cross and saying, repeatedly, “She said see me in heaven. She said see me in heaven.”

In a bigger city or another place, I might have been a little afraid and avoided him. Instead, I looked closer at the cross Benny showed me, made from twigs glued to a piece of metal. He turned it over, and there was a thermometer.

Benny pointed to the sky. “She said see me in heaven,” he said, shook my hand and waved as he walked away.

Benny’s just a guy around town, looking forward to seeing someone someday in heaven. For now, I’m looking forward to meeting the next Town Character, whoever he or she may be.

And in this town, it’s a pretty good gig. You might even get your own Facebook page.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Leave This Iowa Girl A-Lo-Lone

Des Moines cartoonist Brian Duffy sums up how many feel about the media beating Olympian Lolo Jones has taken.

 Dear Rest of the World:

How many times do you have to be told? Do NOT mess with Iowans.

Another season, another smackdown of Iowa. You’re not sure what I’m talking about? First there was University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom’s stereotype-laden hackjob for the Atlantic magazine. Now, for the latest, just check out the coverage of Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones.

Now, you could make an argument that none of this “let’s hate her ’cause she’s beautiful” coverage has anything to do with Iowa. But that’s where you would be wrong. Lolo is a Des Moines native, who as a high schooler worked at the bagel shop up the street from me and is way faster on the track than she ever was at that bagel shop. She is also the most beloved Iowan since Andy Williams and taking a swipe at her is like taking a swipe at the whole state. Iowans in the social media world have gone as berserk over this as the national sports media has.

And what a swipe it has been. Over the weekend, the New York Times’ Jere Longman wrote a piece questioning Lolo’s worth in relation to her athletic achievements. She sold out, Longman said, because of how she talked about her own personal story and because she cashed in on her looks with a few racy magazine photos. Somehow, in Longman’s world, Jones should have said no to the offers that came her way and let her hurdling speak for itself.

You can make an argument that the Olympic hurdler has, indeed done this. That Outside cover earlier this year made me cringe, mostly because it was so unnecessary and it’s a freaking ugly dress. Telling your life story to strangers and the world? I’d say I don’t understand why people do that, but here I am writing a blog.

This is how the celebrity machine works, and Lolo Jones is just the first in a long line of athletes, actors, singers, dancers to have done that, not to mention victims of heinous crimes that get national attention and eventually TV movies of the week. Discretion is just not part of our culture.

I’ve long been uncomfortable with the way female athletes are portrayed in the media. They have a tendency to think that skin sells, at the same time feeling as if they have the right to show their fit bodies. They do, but it just perpetuates the kind of coverage that never seems to end. They have the power to change it, but, being female athletes, probably need the money.

Holding up Lolo Jones as the poster girl for doing this is frightfully unfair. It’s like slamming Justin Bieber for being a part of the machine that throws out fresh-faced boys – and products with their face on them -- to be devoured by screaming girls. Lolo is just the latest in a long line the same way the Bieber is in a long, long line of teen idols. It’s the nature of the business.

I wish more female athletes would put their foot down about this; I wish Lolo Jones had said “no” to Outside magazine. The rest? If you follow her on Twitter, you know she is an outgoing, funny person who puts her life out there and, like many in social media perhaps overshares – and did this well before most of the world even knew her name.  

It’s a long, long line of female athletes who have opted for the “looks sell” route and somehow have never come under the radar of the New York Times for doing so.

High jumper Amy Acuff, swimmer Amanda Beard and beach volleyball player Gabrielle Reece have all been on the cover of Playboy. Softball star Jennie Finch turned down Playboy but said yes to Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Soccer darling Abby Wambach graced the cover of ESPN magazine’s annual Body Issue, the same annual collection of nudes that is part of the criticism against Lolo Jones. For the record, ESPN also features men, including NFL players Adrian Peterson and Rob Gronkowski, and I have heard few complaints about that.

Want to buy a house? Call Suzy.
And here in Wisconsin, runner Suzy Favor Hamilton has been cashing on her looks and personal story for almost 20 years and no one seems to think that’s a bad thing. The three-time Olympic distance runner even had a swimsuit calendar of her own in 1997 – three years before she fell during an Olympic 1,500-meter race, a fall she later said was deliberate because she knew she couldn’t win. Along the way Favor talked about her depression and eating disorders and her brother’s suicide, which of course the media lapped up. These days, she is a motivational speaker.

Suzy Favor Hamilton also sells real estate in Madison, Wis., but has in fact made a career out of being Suzy Favor Hamilton. And what’s wrong with that?

Yet Lolo Jones is somehow held up as the one woman in the world who has chosen to do this heinous thing. Go figure.

Many other media outlets are coming to Lolo’s defense or at least presenting a fair look at the rivalry among the U.S. women hurdlers and the role played in that rivalry by the attention paid to Lolo Jones. The snarky sports website Deadspin has taken to calling her, with a virtual tongue in a virtual cheek, “mortal enemy of the New York Times Lolo Jones.”

Lolo Jones has really done nothing to create any enemies, and that’s part of what Iowans love so much about her. There’s always a sense of pride when the rest of the world is paying attention to one of their own because Iowa is a big small town bordered by two big rivers.

Iowans like it when people like one of them.  But it might get ugly when people don’t. Just make sure you never, ever mess with Andy Williams.

Lolo Jones greets the hometown fans at the Drake Relays in Des Moines.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sisters Don't Have to Do It For Themselves

Winning together has to be much more fun than trying to outdo the other. (Getty Images photo)

Sometimes with sports, you wish some statistics could be frozen in time.

The Miami Dolphins’ perfect 1972 season that included a Super Bowl title would be one, because so many people hate the team that has come closest to breaking it, the New England Patriots. Babe Ruth’s beloved home run record was a ghost that haunted Roger Maris and Henry Aaron. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s rivalry was so splendid that it would have been perfect had it stopped when they were tied in head-to-head victories, but it did not.

And over the weekend, another set of stats emerged to create a bit of perfection. When Serena Williams won Wimbledon, she tied her sister Venus for a fifth title there and the two of them then went out and won their fifth doubles championship on the hallowed lawn of southwest London.

It’s as it should be, evenly divvied up for a pair of sisters whose achievements don’t seem to be all that appreciated by the culture that has watched them grow up and dominate their sport, yet manage to be close and loving siblings.

Oh, the public grasps that they win tennis trophies and are great at what they do. But the notion of two sisters rising and dominating at the same time is seen more as a curiosity or a bit of trivia than the magnificent achievement it truly is. Maybe they’ve just been around so long we take it for granted.

Think about it. What if Tiger Woods had to mow down his own brother to win any of his championships? What if LeBron James had his brother willing to take a charge as he went in for a monster dunk? Would Leon and Michael Spinks ever gone on to boxing glory if they had to fight each other? The lifelong feud between sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine includes one winning an Oscar over the other or one being chosen for a role over the other, but that’s not truly a one-on-one competition.

Yet eight times when Venus or Serena sought a Grand Slam championship, the pinnacle of her sport, she had to vanquish her sister who was standing over on the other side of the net.

This is beyond my comprehension. I am one of four girls born in successive years. Because of the way the birthdays fell, my younger sister was actually two grades behind me in school but I was never in high school without at least one sister always there. Same thing for Girl Scouts, band, camp, school plays, any sport, pretty much any activity. These days, we even share friends.

I have the most in common with my sister who is 14 months older than me. We share similar interests, have chosen a somewhat similar line of work and look enough alike to have been mistaken for each other. If we were to play cribbage, backgammon or even H-O-R-S-E, I would want to kick her ass to Sunday (I am, after all, the younger.) But if there was something she wanted more than anything in the world and I was the one who stood in her way, I would absolutely crumble.

Our parents raised us as this little cluster. They sort of had no choice, but it’s how they did it that resonates with me. Gifts were games all four of us could play. If one girl had a friend over, we all got to invite a friend over. Once when we were little, one of my sisters found a dollar at the local bowling alley. My father took it up to the counter, got change and gave each of us a quarter to play pinball.

I suspect the Williams sisters were raised much the same way – that family, your sister(s) are what come first. Maybe the reason their combined success and strong relationship are taken for granted is because of a wee bit of sexism; girls and women aren’t so tough as to hate each other, of course they’d be friendly rivals.

Because of that patronizing view, the sisters’ parents don’t get near the credit they deserve. Earl Woods was seen as a wise mentor to his successful son; Richard Williams and Oracene Price have always been perceived as a little odd. Granted, Richard Williams has said and done a few goofy things and it is always a treat to see what Oracene’s hair is going to look like, but the proof of their success as parents is right there for the world to see.

Two sisters. A whole heap of trophies. Victories over each other. Victories teamed up with the other. And a whole lot of love.

Serena lost in the first round of the French Open earlier this summer. Venus lost in the first round of Wimbledon. Their days of head-to-head competition may be over, and that’s probably a relief for their parents.

But the two are headed off to London soon in search of a third gold medal in women’s doubles. Commercialism and fierce competition have always been part of the Olympics, yet the ideal of the Games is something much higher-minded – that of building something greater through the experience and not just the victories.

It’s a lesson the Williams family has been teaching us all for a long time.

All for one and one for all, right down to the clothes we wore.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bracing For a Whole New World

Playing for a school team, and winning the school's first-ever trophy for girls' basketball.

(This post originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Wisconsin State Journal.)

For those who care about women’s athletics, there has been much to celebrate about the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX.

Luminaries and legends have gathered together throughout the U.S. Sports Illustrated and ESPN dedicated coverage to the events of June 1972. That’s when Congress passed a law mandating that institutions that received federal funding had to offer equal opportunities to males and females. That opened the door for interscholastic athletics for girls and women.

For me, the effects of it were monumental. I played sports and became a sports writer, traveling the U.S. covering many events that wouldn’t have even existed without Title IX. Dreams I didn’t even know I had came true because of Title IX.

I am far from alone in that regard; any woman who is over 40 and has played sports likely feels that way. Yet as Title IX has seeped into my consciousness again in recent months, I’ve come to realize how the timing of it could not have been any more perfect for who I was and how I would grow up to look at the world.

Title IX passed when I was finishing fifth grade; it more or less went into effect the following year. Somewhere between sixth and seventh grade came the news that there was going to be a girls’ basketball team at our local high school.

This news was beyond big for me. I inherited a love of basketball from my mother, who didn’t play for a school team but loved the sport nonetheless. My friends and I, in the dresses we were required to wear to school back then, shot baskets at recess. I’m proud that the first activism in my life was to pass around a petition in about third or fourth grade to ask that the girls get the gym before school, too, because the boys would never let us play. We got Tuesdays.

So the news that one day my friends and I would be able to be on a school basketball team was the most joyous thing we could imagine.

Unfortunately, at about the same time, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. The curvature of my spine was severe enough that surgery was a possibility, but a brace was another option. Even this lesser option, this clunky brace, would clearly impact my life.

“Can I still play basketball?” I asked the doctor. He said I could be out of the brace an hour a day, so that would work for a basketball game. There was really nothing stopping me from playing with it on, either, except hurting someone else who might ram into me. This amazing opportunity to play basketball was out there in my future and by god, I was not going to miss out.

So in the weeks leading up to seventh grade I was fitted for the brace – a leather ‘girdle’ with two metal bars in the back and one metal bar in the front that all screwed together with a piece that went around my neck. The day I got the brace was the day Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match; the two will always be merged in my mind.

In seventh grade, when you’re just starting your tortuous teen years, going to school wearing something like that should have been horrific, and believe me it was no picnic.

But I could play basketball. I might have been encased in metal from hips to chin, but I could still play basketball. As awful as this was, it didn’t take away the thing I loved most back then, and that was basketball and sports.

I continued to wear that brace in high school when I got to finally be on a team. Sometimes I practiced with it on, I always took it off for games. I could whip in and out of the thing like Houdini escaping his chains, maybe even quicker. Doctors said I couldn't do gymnastics so I spent that portion of gym class off in a corner shooting baskets instead.

I don’t think much about my brace when I think of my teenage years; in fact when I see pictures from back then they are kind of jarring to me.

But I’ve come to realize that by being able to play sports at a time when I needed them, I gained not just opportunity but a way to look at life. Wearing that brace stunk, but it didn’t take away what I loved most. It was a wonderful lesson to carry with me into adulthood, through a crippling bout of the neurological illness Guillain-Barre Syndrome, through an adventure with breast cancer, through family trauma. These weren’t fun, but I knew they didn’t take away everything.

So I thank Title IX for the chance it gave me to play sports. But it also gave me the chance to learn how to recognize and cling to what is good. And that has been the gift of a lifetime.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Turning Into Dad, and That's Not So Bad

A happy man, even with his daughter trying to crush him.

The funky cowlick that makes a center part look like a hockey stick has always been there. The clomping rhythm of my feet going up the stairs came a little later. The desire to never have to leave my town, though, is pretty much the thing that cinched it.

At an age when most women worry about turning into their mother, I have turned into my father.

It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a strange thing to realize. For starters, my dad wasn’t what you would call a regular guy. While most dads might yell at their kids for not going to sleep at night, my dad had his own way of taking care of the problem. He’d sneak around the back of the house, go onto the deck, quietly open a screen, pop his head into the bedroom I shared with my two sisters, growl and make his dentures go in and out. That pretty much scared us into submission.

My dad was also someone who noticed the little things around him; it’s what made him a superb photographer, which was his profession. He’d make us stop what we were doing to look at a particularly beautiful sunset or listen to a chirp that made it clear a certain bird was back for the spring.

And it was the little things in which my dad took the greatest joy. Like the little town in which he was born and the little town where he and my mom settled and where I was raised, the same town I live in today. He knew everyone and they knew him, a facet of his personality but also the nature of his business of shooting weddings, families, babies and high school seniors.  He had his morning coffee crew at the local diner and his Lions Club bingo tent to man.

He never wanted to leave this place. After he served his time in Korea, he rarely crossed the state line of Wisconsin ever again. “I already saw the world,” he told me once, and he was just happy to be home. Still, I lived in Iowa for 21 years and maybe one visit would have been nice. But, I’d tell my friends, my dad’s head might explode if he crossed the Wisconsin border.

His reticence to leave home became a joke in the family. My mom wisely gave up after a while and just started going places without him. When my sister got married in Atlanta, he had no choice but to go. One of my siblings was there with a camera to snap a picture of my dad in the car the moment the family crossed the border from Wisconsin into Illinois.

Years ago, it was a joke. Now, I get it. What a wonderful thing to feel that where you are is the best place in the world. For years, my head could never get around that because it’s a big old world out there and I wanted to see it. But in a world where people are constantly on the go and always thinking the grass is greener somewhere else, my dad was utterly content with where he was. What a lucky man.

I’m starting to get that, and this is where I’m becoming my dad: I never want to leave this place. I’m having a hard time planning a summer vacation because I just kind of like hanging around here. I have a well-stamped passport and I wonder if it’s ever going to get stamped again. I’m content; I love where I live.

I was somewhat helped in this regard by having two consecutive summers of health issues that kept me home from work a lot. It’s during that time I discovered that my little town is a completely different place during the day than it is at night. Where the streets are relatively quiet after 6 p.m., they bustle during the day. Because I was home so much I began spending time at a local coffee shop. Now I have my own coffee crew and rarely get to read my newspaper there because I see so many people I know.

Where in the evenings the businesses are closed and Main Street is quiet, during the day I can walk down the street and wave at all the business owners through their shop windows – to Mary Jane, to Karla, to Peg, to Donna, to Henri, to Mo, to Rebecca, to Julie, to John.

Once I had to go back to work five days a week, I suddenly did not want to. I realized, like my dad had so many years ago, that this was the place that brought me comfort and I didn’t want to leave it.
But you have to make a living, so I make the 25-mile trek each day, down Main Street in my car instead of on foot, through the five roundabouts that make up the eastern exit out of this town. When I work a regular day shift, it’s a trek where sneezes mark my departure and my arrival. I’m one of those people who sneezes at the sun, and to leave town facing east in the morning and to return facing west in the evening creates an interesting driving challenge in a town with five roundabouts.

I see the sneezes as the bookmarks to note when I leave and when I return, but they’re not really necessary. Because all I need to know to make me smile is that I am home, and I have my dad to thank for that.

A beautiful place. Who would ever want to leave?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

For a Good Time, Try the Morgue

In this 1937 photo about hard times at Christmas, editors clearly didn't think the happy kid on the right fit in. The lines drawn on the photo show that he was cropped and retouched out of the picture, and that the two kids in the middle were the ones to focus on.

There’s nothing like a good morgue.

Oh, I don’t mean the kind where it’s cold and clammy and toes have tags on them. It’s a dated newspaper term for what is now politely called “the library,” but a good morgue is as much of an adventure as the one in “Night Shift” was.

Long before there was the Internet to give us random things to stumble upon, there were newspaper morgues. Looking for some routine background on a prominent woman you are interviewing? You just might find some clippings from the 1960s that report the death of her first husband, written in the euphemistic manner of the time but leaving little doubt it was quite the scandal. Looking for a generic Christmas photo? You just might find a shot of grubby-looking kids from decades ago, made to look as pathetic as possible by the sensationalistic photographer who took the photo.

Looking for a copy of a photograph shot by your dad, a freelancer for the local daily? You just might find your parents’ 1957 engagement announcement.

Nowadays, this is all digital. A couple clicks of the computer can land you a photograph or story that’s been published since about 1990. Other archival services can give bring newspapers from as far back as the 19th century to your computer (or perhaps later in older parts of the world), although you pretty much have to know what you are looking for.

But a good, thorough newspaper morgue might just include most of the photographs that had been published in the paper for almost a century. Many are in the shiny black and white that was the hallmark of news photos for many decades. A good morgue might include envelope after envelope of clippings that were saved according to topic and neatly filed away. There also might be celebrity files, movie files, TV show files, school files, church files.

A 1951 photo about hypnotism.

Newspapers varied on what they kept and, sometimes, how they kept it. One newspaper I worked at kept everything, even promotional and news photos that never ran in the paper. Legend has it when Lee Harvey Oswald was named as the suspect in JFK’s murder, the paper was one of the few to publish his mugshot because someone had saved one that had come across the wire service when Oswald had been arrested in New Orleans the previous August.

The random things that were in the files of that newspaper were matched only by the random method in which they were organized. If you wanted to find the file for Cher, you had to look under “A.” You know, for “Allman, Cher,” because she had been married to Gregg Allman for all of three years. If you needed a photo of Julius Erving, you had to look in the “J” file. You know, for “J, Dr.”

Tom Jones lives in the old files, dancing with Lulu.
The need for space and, let’s face it, shrinking staffs have seriously impacted what many papers do in this realm these days. Sometime in the 1980s, the paper I now work for transferred most of its images to the Wisconsin Historical Society but also threw away tons of negatives. One day about five years ago I asked a grizzled veteran photographer where I might find images or negatives from the Milwaukee Brewers’ 1982 World Series. He started to tell me what happened, then walked away in tears.

Yet there is still some superb randomness in what is left in our files at the paper. While the files of old stuff at other papers were amusing on their own, it occurred to me that because this is where I grew up, my family might be among the old stuff in my own newsroom.

My father was a freelance photographer in the 1960s for The Capital Times, the paper I came to Wisconsin to work for. I looked through the files to see if maybe I could find a photo or two shot by him, or at least a clipping of an article for which he had done the photography.

Engagement photo.
There were no traces of the photos he had shot, but I found a goldmine nonetheless. Even large daily newspapers used to print much more social, family and military news than they do now, and because of this I found a few surprises.

A decade before my father shot photos for the Madison newspaper, his picture was in it as prom king of his high school. His first photo credit in the paper was likely the one of my mother, which ran with their engagement announcement in 1957.

There were other clippings – of my dad and uncles going to and thankfully returning from war. There was a photo of an uncle on trip to Scotland, wearing a kilt even though we aren’t Scottish. Other clippings told sadder stories of my family, such as one about my cousin who was missing in action in Vietnam and the memorial service held for him nine years later.

One topic can lead to another until you realize you could get lost for days in a place like this. And at least with this kind of morgue, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Once there was an engagement, clearly, the paper had to update its files.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Mystery Field of the Invisible Farmer

A motel and farm field, circa 1950.

All these years later, the motel is still there -- and so is the farm field.

On any farm field, the signs of life come gradually. Tilled soil one week, pokes of green a little bit later, soon a full crop swaying in the wind and then the hustle and bustle of harvest.

Yet there’s one farm field where the signs of life have always intrigued me. Because beyond the work of Mother Nature, I have never seen a human being working this field.

That wouldn’t be so uncommon in a field out in the country, you might not catch a farmer on his or her tractor or combine every time you drive by. But this field is in the midst of the town where I grew up, more or less across the street from where our house once stood. Yet I’ve never seen anyone working that field in nearly 50 years.

The crops come up. Someone plants them. Someone harvests them. I say it’s the work of the Invisible Farmer, others suggest perhaps it’s the Vampire Farmer because there is a cemetery right next to the field.

In this day and age, it would be easy enough to find out. A quick Internet check of the tax rolls would provide the name of the property owner. Then again, this is a small town; I probably could walk to the hotel across the street and ask the owner if he knows.

He probably does -- he might even own it himself -- but I like the mystery of the place.

After harvest at the mystery field.
The field is about the size of a football field, if that. Small fields like this aren’t uncommon in my neck of the woods. This is hilly terrain in southwestern Wisconsin; some farmers find patches where they can and plant a crop. It’s a far cry from corn as far as the eye can see when you drive along places such as Interstate 80 through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois or Indiana.

It’s not the size of the field that intrigues; it’s the location. The field has been there for decades, maybe even a century, and likely was once on the edge of town. The village has grown up around it. The field’s border to the west is the cemetery; its border to the east is a bike trail that was once the railroad tracks. Right on the other side of the trail, however, is a strip mall with a big grocery store and beyond continues more development that includes franchise restaurants and stores. The town grows; the field remains.

Over the years, there were always rumblings of what might happen to the field. When I was a kid, there was a rumor that a McDonald’s was going to go there. When you’re a kid, it’s exciting news that a McDonald’s is coming to your town, much less across the street from your house. Now, as an adult, I really don’t care that we have a McDonald’s at all and I’m grateful it’s not in that field.

The mystery field butts right up to a subdivision.
I’m not sure how long that field will hold on; no doubt the Invisible Farmer is battling the inevitable pressures of development. What you can’t see about the field as you drive by is that it goes up over a hill, back down and right up against a subdivision. It’s the fate of many fields in the Midwest, and if you’ve never seen a farmer cry, watch an elderly farmer talk about the development near his field in the marvelous documentary, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John.”

So much change has come in my lifetime to my old neighborhood, which once had more homes than businesses. An empty lot sits where my house was, as various developments are planned and then fall through; a crazy busy convenience store replaced what used to be the home of a guy named Wild Bill. Other homes were replaced by fast-food restaurants and the cemetery that once was an acreage of strangers is now dotted with people I once knew.

But the field survives. And like the mystery of the Invisible Farmer who works this field, the fate of it remains to be seen.

In this 1908 postcard, the cemetery and the field are the town's eastern border (left center).

Friday, March 30, 2012

Face It: We Are Who We Are

Seriously, these are high school students? They were, in 1935.

I looked at the photo and saw the faces. They were all faces of people I know, or knew once upon a time. And in those faces I saw women who are a few years older than me, not that much but certainly a difference that will never change.

And it was a picture of a bunch of fourth-graders.

I’ve always been intrigued by the way time and vision play interesting tricks on your brain. The way the years can melt off the face of someone you haven’t seen in decades or can add years to make a group picture of Girl Scouts look like the 50-something women they are now.

It doesn’t always just happen with people you know. Time and fashion have a way of making people from the past look surprisingly old to younger generations. Maybe it’s the cat-eye or granny glasses, the suit jackets or the old-fashioned hairstyles – looking at an old yearbook is akin to looking at a book filled with grandparents, even if these people are only 16 years old.

This magic is what people miss when they skip their class reunions. Even if you don’t like the people, it’s an almost supernatural phenomenon to look at a room full of strangers and within a few moments see the faces of people you have known your entire life. Bit by bit your brain puts together the pieces, making you realize if that is Joe then that must be his buddy Jim but how could it be Jim because it looks nothing like him? And then, little by little, it looks just like him.

At our 25th class reunion, I had a good friend of mine tell me that everyone said she looks exactly the same.

“I’m not sure how to feel about that,” she said.

“Feel good about it,” I said. “They see you, and that’s a nice thing.”

I don’t really have that conundrum. Some people were born with the face they keep their entire life; I am not one of those people. At that same class reunion, I was chatting with a group of friends until one of them looked at me and said, “Do I know you?” Friends I've made since high school never believe it’s me if they see my high school graduation picture.

I have an old photograph of my sisters and me when we were about ages 2, 3, 4 and 5. It was on the wall at my parents’ house and I have had a copy of it on my wall for years. In the decades that the photo has been on my wall, no one – not one person – who knows me but not my sisters has ever been able to pick me out of the photo. My sisters have characteristics in the photo that they keep to this day. Me, not so much.

It hasn’t helped, either, that throughout my life my hair color has just had a mind of its own. I have a fourth-grade photo of me, as blonde as can be. In photos from fifth and sixth grade, I’m practically brunette.

It swung back enough that when I returned for my sophomore year of college, a friend of mine didn’t recognize me after I cut my hair over the summer. “My friend Jane has long blonde hair,” he said. “You have short dark hair. What happened to my friend Jane?”

By moving back to my hometown, however, my anonymity has been somewhat shed. I may have a face that changes with the seasons, but there is one constant to it – it is the face of my mother.

This was never more apparent when I stopped by a local dress shop just before closing time and happened to find the perfect outfit for an upcoming event. I had just been out for a walk and didn’t have a checkbook or credit card on me and I asked the shop owner if she could hold it for me until the next day.

“Sure,” she said, pulling out a piece of paper to write down my name. “Which one are you?”

Not “what is your name” or “where do you live.” No, she knew I was one of the pack of girls who used to sit by her family at church. “Of course I know who you are,” she said. “You look just like your mother.”

There are worse things to hear in life, that’s for sure. If it’s not me that people see, but instead see my mother, that is something I can face just fine.

Girl Scouts, circa 1970.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Green, Green Grass of Home

This way to home.

The statement was as innocuous as you could imagine, but it was still a kind gesture coming from an airport customs agent.

“Welcome home,” the agent said.

The greeting didn’t come at O’Hare or Newark or Dulles or any U.S. international airport through which I have cleared customs over the years. The welcome home came from a customs agent in Dublin, Ireland.

Indeed, I was home. My name kind of gives it away, but not entirely. Years later, I still smile to think of the warm, almost personal, welcome I got returning to the homeland.

Strangely, it’s not my only “homeland.” Like most Americans, I’m not one thing, I’m a mutt. I’m probably more German than Irish, and even a bit more Norwegian than Irish. Yet it’s not just St. Patrick’s Day that makes me and my family celebrate our Irish-ness.

Still, I’m not sure what it is.

Maybe it’s the name, which isn’t even officially our name. A great-great grandfather was born in Galway a Byrnes and was buried in Wisconsin a Burns. Over the years, people have told me when they see the Scottish/English spelling of my name that I am not Irish.

“Well, maybe my ancestors were actually English and Protestant but they claimed to be Irish Catholic to make their lives easier here in the 19th century,” I respond. That usually shuts people up, if they have the slightest notion of human history.

My family is fortunate. We remain in the place our immigrant ancestors came to more than a century ago from Ireland, Germany and Norway.

Yet we cling to the Irish.

Maybe it’s the religion. We grew up Catholic and that was the core of who we were, too. But we’re also Catholic on the German side, although my mom moved away from her family and they are about two hours away. The Norwegians? Let’s just say those are the Lutherans who are buried in that other cemetery in the town of my paternal relatives' birth.

Maybe it’s the stories. We tell them with great abandon. A few years ago, I was at a conference and gave some remarks. Afterwards, an African woman I had met there said to me, “You’re Irish, aren’t you?” I said yes, but it was nothing recent, that my family had been here about 150 years.

“No matter,” she said. “Your people. They can tell stories.”

Strangely, we don’t know our own story. I often thought it odd that in a family of storytellers, in a family that had been here for so long, we only have stories that go back to about the 1920s.

But I found my answer on a visit about 15 years ago to the cemetery outside Hollandale, Wis., where generations of my father’s family are buried. I visited the graves of relatives I knew, and checked out graves I had probably been shown as a kid belonging to relatives I never knew.

The latter graves all had something in common: 1918. The influenza epidemic took out a generation of my family, leaving my grandpa orphaned at a young age and the rest of us with not one story about the generations that came before.

On my same trip to Ireland, I spun that sad tale to an Irishman I had just met. He listened, looked at me and said, “So do you get the shots every year then?”

Maybe it’s the humor. In the blackest of times my family has been able to laugh. We’re the kind of people who have fun at funerals because yes, it’s a drag somebody died but oh, we love each other’s company.

Before I knew my family was from Galway, I got lost there. If you’ve ever been to Galway City, you’d realize that’s not a difficult thing to do. But I like to think now that it was a cosmic event, as if fate were making me spend more time in a place that we were just trying to drive through on our way to somewhere else.

My family isn’t the type to pass through a place. We left various countries and have tended to stay put in the places where we settled so many generations ago. Now I want to go to Galway again and instead of cursing the unspecifically marked intersections and roundabouts to nowhere, I want to just stop a moment and take it all in.

Because I’d be home. And maybe I’d even be welcome.  

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Right Stuff, and So Much of It

It's a delightful surprise to find things like this, but what to do with it?

Boxes are only piled one or two high, so it can’t be that bad. Then again, there are a lot of two-box piles sitting around my basement these days. 

It’s a thin line between history and hoarding. While I know very well where I sit on that line, it’s a challenge to make sure it goes in the right direction. 

About a year and a half ago, my mom died. She was worried about all the pictures in her basement and we had gone through some things together. But in the final weeks of her life she fretted about those pictures in a way I thought was kind of odd. 

And then, after she was gone, I opened the boxes. 

My family has a lot of pictures and I knew that. My father was a photographer, so we have more family photos than most families from that era have. In the 1960s and 1970s, cameras weren’t the common household item they are today and parents weren’t as interested in recording every moment of their children’s lives.

A kindergarten field trip to see Santa.
But my dad was there with his camera. Not just for the professional reasons such as weddings and babies and graduations. He was there with his camera when our Girl Scout troop marched in parades, when my kindergarten class visited Santa at the bank, when my little brothers helped make curds at the cheese factory of a friend of his, when we rode horses at my uncle’s farm and for every birthday party one could imagine.

That’s what I knew was in the boxes. What I found wasn’t just the family photos, but essentially a complete archive of my family’s history. It took my breath away.

There were scrapbooks my mom put together when she was in grade and high school, complete with programs from school plays or basketball games. There were two framed religious plaques honoring her First Communion. There was a copy of a children's Christmas book from her big brother, with the words, “To Betty Jane: From Eugene” written inside. 

Hollandale High School rah rah rah!
There were my father’s high school letters won in a variety of sports for a school that does not exist anymore. There were mementoes of Army days and even a few letters between my parents, something about picking out a couch just weeks before they were married.

Moving on through their lives turned up seemingly every handmade card we kids – all six of us – made for them. Little bunnies with cotton balls for tails that say, “Happy Easter To Mommy and Daddy.” Tulips created with crayons that signify a Happy Mother’s Day, with or without a proper apostrophe.

Cotton tail still in place.
The most amazing find was a bag that contained every card my parents received when my oldest sister, their firstborn, arrived in 1959. It was a wonderful snapshot of a moment in time – who was alive then in our family, who was alive then in our town and who my parents’ friends were at the time.

It was a treasure trove and I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t find that stuff celebrating my birth. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

It was an easy “first edit” to go through the stuff – if I didn’t know the person, I threw the photo away (sorry, Mom’s high school classmates.) Negatives could go because technology means we can always scan the prints. The first edit was done in my mom’s basement in the weeks after she died. It’s time to dive back in.

My left foot
This is where the hard choices will come, and I already unexpectedly face a conundrum. Just the other day I found something I missed the first time around: the stash of stuff that accompanied my entry into this world. There’s a beautiful birth certificate, complete with my footprints, and a birth announcement in my mother’s handwriting. Best of all is a little pink bootie that served as an invitation from the local bank to start a savings account. It’s still in the envelope addressed to my parents, postmarked two days after I was born.

We’re fortunate in my community that we have a strong historical society that is interested in collecting the everyday minutiae of life as well as things of obvious historical value. So while the historical society has my dad’s photo collection, I also gave them my mom’s library card. They’ll get the pink bootie, too. Eventually.

I have friends whose parents who were hoarders and had to take care of those households when their parents died. My mom had a lot of stuff but it doesn’t come close to qualifying as hoarding – even I could understand the significance of nearly every item she saved. 

I always wondered where I got my love for history; it didn’t seem to be a passion of any sort for either of my parents. Now I know.

My parents didn’t hoard, but they had a way of hoarding history. They saw the value in the story of our lives. That makes for way too many boxes in my basement and I still have no clue what we're going to do with most of this stuff, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A little bootie to help a little girl baby sock away some savings.

The little bootie was still in the envelope sent from a bank that no longer exists.
Considering the safety of this would-be baby toy, it's probably best it was left in the original envelope.