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.