Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Crowd of Cousins Is the Gift of a Lifetime

Even Grandpa looks a little overwhelmed by the pile of cousins.

The holiday season can crowd one's schedule with multiple parties on any given night, so the range of conversations one can have over the course of an evening can be very entertaining.
Yet on a recent Saturday, the juxtaposition of one conversation with the reality of a previous party seemed almost preordained.
"I have about 12 or 13 cousins," a new acquaintance told me for reasons I don't remember. "I guess that's not a small number, but we don't really know each other. That's kind of sad."
He spoke of how there was bad blood in his family at the parent level, and at a recent funeral, he and his cousins decided that when all their parents were dead, maybe they'd start hanging out.
That seemed particularly sad to me because I had come to this second party after being over at my cousin's house. While there, I hung out with about eight other cousins. Some of the cousins said something about joining them on Monday for a birthday gathering, but I couldn't because I was already going to be joining some cousins for another birthday gathering on Wednesday and then a bunch of us cousins would be getting together to see our cousin, a musician, play on Thursday.
I have a lot of cousins.
What struck me as sad about the guy's comment was not so much that he didn't know his cousins, but it's clear none of those parents made knowing them a priority. I can't imagine my life without my cousins.
Generally speaking, children of a generation are members of at least two families and maybe as many as four. Distance and family size likely define to whom we become closest (barring no family drama or ill will). My father was from Hollandale, a smalltown in southwest Wisconsin, and my mother is from Hilbert, near Lake Winnebago. They met in Milwaukee and returned to this area after they were married.
Because of that, I grew up closest to my father's side of the family. There were 10 kids in his family, three of whom died before I was even born.
That pile of kids then had their own pile of kids. There were 27 in my generation, and we've lost three because of Vietnam, a car accident and cancer. But because there's such an age gap between youngest and oldest (32 years, in fact), I consider another 10 or so around my age to be my cousins when actually they are my cousins' kids.
On what seemed to be every Sunday, we were together. We didn't live in the same town, yet we came together often for dinner or cookouts, for family celebrations, for holidays or for dancing if family musicians were playing somewhere.
Watching some of my Uncle Dave's old movies a couple years ago, we saw the same cluster of people grow up together, year by year, at what could only be called the family compound in Hollandale. Little children turned into teenagers, the sort of age where many would want to be anywhere except a family gathering, yet there was nowhere else any of us would have wanted to be.
It's only now, years later, that I realize what a conscious choice this had to have been for our parents. They understood that family was what was important and made sure we got together. It had to have taken a great deal of work for the cooks and a huge amount of patience for the grown-ups (and OK, maybe a lot of beer). We were good kids, but we couldn't have been quiet.
It's also only now, years later, that I have great admiration for my mom and for my aunts and uncles who are not related to me by blood; this was the lot they married into and became willing participants in. My mom didn't have to take us to my dad's relatives all the time. She could have chosen that we spend more time with her side of the family (and we did, quite a bit -- just not as regularly).
That's why it was ironic to hear someone bemoan his cousin experience. About an hour earlier at my cousin's house there was a moment of melancholy because I saw his family pictures and realized how much I miss my Uncle Bob and my Aunt Marie. Of course, I miss my parents terribly and all the uncles and aunts who died before them, with whom we all spent so much time.
But in missing the generation that has passed, I couldn't help but think at this holiday season what a wonderful gift they had given us. It's one that has lasted more than half a century and grows as the years go by.
They gave us the gift of each other. 

So as parents knock themselves out trying to figure out what to get their kids this Christmas, it's important to think of what lasts. Families aren't as nearby as they once were, and not nearly as large, so it takes some work. Have the little ones make cards for their cousins across the country. Open your homes to extended family when the kids come home from their college breaks. Visit the relatives instead of Disney World. Let the next generation grow up hearing the stories families pass down and help them feel they are part of something bigger. 

It's what our family did for us, and our crowded social calendars show that we can never thank them enough. 

Still hanging out after all these years.

 (This post first appeared as an essay in The Capital Times on Dec. 23, 2006)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

October in Transylvania? No trick, it's a treat

Old and new: A horse and cart head up the street while being trailed by a man with a cellphone.

To be certain, there are things to fear while walking down an unpaved lane around midnight under a nearly full moon on an October night in Transylvania.

Cow pies, mostly.

Oh sure, it was a little creepy to open and close a giant, creaky manor house gate that looked as if it could have come out of any horror movie. This one, however, was beautifully finished wood that evoked elegance and charm, not chills and screams. 

And indeed, it was interesting to meet a real count, who looked more like a well-heeled Ivy Leaguer than anyone Bela Lugosi would play. 

Because in Transylvania, reality is so far beyond -- and so much more beautiful -- than the stereotypes and the legends perpetuated by books and films. It only took one week to be reminded of what is a good rule for travel or for life: Never believe anything until you see it for yourself.


Traveling to Transylvania was pretty much a fluke of a holiday. About a year and a half ago I was on the Internet searching for something else and I found a link about a count who got his property back after the Communists were overthrown in Romania. The count, Tibor Kalnoky, turned his property in a semi-remote Transylvanian village into a place for visitors.

Half-joking, I sent the link to friends, one of whom has some weird vampire obsession. "When are we going?" seemed to be the general response. 

After a little more homework, it seemed like the ideal vacation. "Old Europe," "a disappearing way of life" and "breathtaking landscapes" seemed to be the words that popped up most. Unlike those vampires, the phrases turned out to be true.

Transylvania is a region of Romania, taken from Hungary when the borders were redrawn after World War I. With a geography dominated by river valleys and the Carpathian Mountains, it can be a skier's dream and a hiker's paradise.

It's also a place where sustenance farming is still an important way of life, and lone farmers harvesting with scythes can be seen loading hay onto their horse-drawn carts. Those same horse-drawn carts are as common on the highways there as is an SUV in the States. Village roads also become filled with cows going to and from the fields in the mornings and evenings, so watching your step is important.

That's the Transylvania that Count Kalnoky wants the world to see, which is part of why he created his guesthouses

 "I wanted to show that this country is more than Dracula, orphans and Ceausescu," the count said over dinner one night at the manor house that is the heart of his visitors' compound.

At Count Kalnoky's estate, visitors are pampered in beautifully restored cottages in what could be called an all-inclusive vacation. It's a perfect escape: no phones, no TV, no alarm clocks needed because I woke up every day to the sounds of cows mooing under my window. 

For a reasonable fee depending on the length of stay, guests get their elegant but cozy cottages or rooms, transport, all meals -- including a three-course dinner with wine -- and a variety of guided tours, hikes and other activities. 

That fee, in turn, helps to restore the properties in the village of Miclosoara (called Miklosvar by the 400 or so Hungarian-speaking villagers) and pay the wages of the 15 families employed at the estate.

"Right now we have more families working here than guests," the count joked, but later it was noted that accommodations had already sold out for New Year's.


"We are so lucky to live here," said Karsci, who accompanied us on our hike around clear, clean Lacul Sf. Ana (Lake St. Anne), Europe's only volcanic lake.

It was probably hard to imagine such enthusiasm about life in Romania before 1989, when a revolution overthrew the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Kalnoky had sneaked onto his family's estate once or twice in that time, but now is home for good. 

Likewise with Karsci, who worked in tourism in Norway and on this day was leading a group of Americans, Irish and English through the same woods he camped in with his grandparents when he was a little boy. 

A day at the lake, and a later steep climb to a sulfuric cave casually referred to as the "Stinky Cave," was the most outdoorsy choice we made for an activity. Each day, we were presented with two options, one cultural and one nature. The choice wasn't always easy. 

The medieval city of Sighisoara, with its narrow passageways and cobblestone streets, provided a great introduction to the region. The small city's skyline is dominated by a 14th-century clock tower, and the community retains much of its Saxon (German) heritage. 

Sighisoara would be a draw itself, but is also notable to tourists as the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), whose cruelties while Prince of Wallachia and family name of Dracul help create the myth that he was the original "Dracula." 

Other choices offered to guests at the Kalnoky estate include cart rides, medieval churches, an introduction to life in the village, high mountain tours, bird watching and, in the winter, sleigh rides.

One choice wasn't so tough, however. Because we were in Transylvania, there was one place we had to go.


"A farce. A farce," said Josef, who drove us the three hours from Bucharest to Miklosvar. He had been asked by one of my friends about the vampires, and he dismissed it with the sort of wave of a hand that clearly is an international symbol for "that is such a load of crap." 

Yet the tourism draw wouldn't be the same in some places without the legends that reached their zenith with the publication of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" in 1897.

It all comes to a head in the town of Bran, where an imposing castle looms overhead. It's the same castle seen in myriad Hollywood horror films. Below it, the tourist trade runs rampant, as if we've stumbled upon a Romanian Wisconsin Dells, without the water slides and go-karts.

"I like this the least," our guide Imre said of the trip to Bran. Fortunately we were there in midweek, minus the pack of tourists, so it wasn't so painful for him or us. Indeed, in the narrow quarters of the castle's interior, we probably wouldn't have enjoyed it much with a crowd, either. 

Yet like Transylvania itself, Bran Castle is nothing like it seems. The imposing exterior hides an elegant interior that resembles a vintage Hollywood mansion. It looks more like a place where Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford would have lived, not characters played by Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn.

The castle was a royal residence, a gift of the people of Transylvania to Queen Marie of Romania in 1920. She restored it in a grand manner, and her heirs lived there until forced out by the communist-controlled government in 1947. 

The association with Dracula is sketchy at best. Imre said Vlad Tepes might have been thrown into the dungeon there for a couple days.

In May 2009, the castle was returned to its owner, Dominic von Habsburg, grandson of Queen Marie. The family has kept it open as the country's first private museum and are working with the village of Bran to ensure its place in the heart of the country's tourism.

This is a country in transition; Romania joined the European Union in 2007. On the one hand, outsiders could see that as a chance to pull the country into modernity. The locals in the village we visited worry about outsiders buying up bargain real estate and small farmers having to conform to a different standard. Count Kalnoky spends a lot of time at antique fairs, trying to find traditional furnishings before bargain-hunting foreigners cart them all out of the country. 

But one thing is certain. The people there live in a land that deserves the pride they exude. As one born and raised in southwestern Wisconsin, I understand pride of place and the feeling that you live in one of the most beautiful areas the world has to offer. 

It's why the count has opened his home to intrepid travelers.

It's why our guide Imre goes out of his way to show us a spectacular view above the beautiful city of Brasov. 

It's why our guide Karsci felt so lucky to spend his day with tourists in a peat bog.

Their love of home is why I took a little part of Transylvania with me back to Madison. 

And not just on my shoes. 

This article first appeared in The Capital Times on Oct. 31, 2006. 

Bran Castle looms over a busy area for tourists.

Monday, August 12, 2013

For the Record, This Stuff Was Great

A requirement in all Catholic homes in the 1960s.

From a dusty box in a cluttered room in the corner of a well-worn second-hand shop, a nun sang to me.

So did Andy Williams. And Julie Andrews with Dick Van Dyke. With some background music from Herb Alpert.

They say smells and tastes trigger memories, but in that dusty corner of a St. Vincent de Paul deep discount store it was the images of hundreds of records that brought back the music of my childhood. But it wasn’t
nostalgia born of what my favorite records were. These were the records of my parents.

They weren’t specifically my parents’ records, of course. It is, however, probably the same store where my parents' records ended up after the house was emptied, the estate sale held and the leftovers donated. It occurred to me as I was leafing through dusty box after dusty box, that as this generation passes, so passes their music.

I’ve spent a ton of my adult life flipping through record boxes – at record shows, at flea markets, record stores and thrift stores. The record stores and shows tend to be collectibles; flea markets and thrift stores will get you stuff that people who were teens or 20-somethings in the '70s and '80s tossed a long time ago or replaced with CDs. That’s why your average thrift store is loaded with Barry Manilow, Peter Frampton, disco, K-tel collections, Yacht Rock and New Wave.

I know where old records live, and the records I saw at the St. Vinnie’s deep discount store were things I
had never seen anywhere else beyond my parents’ closets. No one donated these over the years or tried to make any money reselling them; they just kept them til it was time to shut down the household. As I saw my parents’ favorite records that day, I recalled several conversations over the years among friends about how many records our parents had in common.

“The Singing Nun”? Practically a requirement in every Catholic household. Some Andy Williams and Glen Campbell? From the TV to our console stereo, of course. A little bossa nova because everyone loved that in the '60s. A few soundtracks here and there and some wunnerful music from Lawrence Welk.

Parents like mine, who graduated from high school in the late '40s or early '50s, were in between some major musical genres. They were a little young for the big World War II bands, although that’s what they grew up
hearing as youngsters. They were a little old for Elvis, the Beatles, Motown and everything that came after.

The Billboard No. 1 song in 1949, the year my dad graduated from high school? “Riders in the Sky,” by Vaughn Monroe. The No. 1 song in spring 1950, when my mom graduated from high school? "Mona Lisa" by Nat King Cole. The No. 1 song on their wedding day in 1957? "Tammy," sung by Debbie Reynolds.

Their music was Hit Parade, not Rolling Stone. They didn’t go out for drinks and dinner and then go to a concert like we do. No, when they went out it was dinner and dancing, a beautiful concept anyone born since about 1955 simply cannot grasp.

Music was a part of their lives, but not in the fetish-y obsessive ways that began with baby boomers and has continued ever since. I don’t remember ever hearing an argument among my uncles over which bandleader was superior – Nelson Riddle or Guy Lombardo. I don’t recall anyone ever bragging about having a brand-new, still-in-the-shrink wrap Firestone Christmas compilation circa 1967.  No women in my family debated the merits of Tom Jones vs. Engelbert Humperdinck.

But I remember hearing music. Always.

These days, there’s not necessarily much of a difference between what parents and their children listen to.
There are parents who feel that introducing their children to the right music is as important as teaching them to walk. There are kids who love the Beatles or ABBA as much as they love Barney or the Wiggles. Music can be what families have in common, not a wedge that divides them.

Conversely, music changed immensely in my parents’ lifetime. My dad went from admiring Sarah Vaughan to loving Tracy Chapman. As a kid Mom loved the cowboy music of Roy Rogers, yet didn’t mind my youngest brother cranking Motley Crue in the car everywhere they went.

What I most appreciated about my parents’ approach was that music was good. Period. They never tried to tell us what to listen to, and in fact bought records for us such as the Rolling Stones or the Monkees without us even asking for them. We were too young to know what was what, but very early they created a bridge that went from their music to our music. The sound of the house changed, but music remained.

So if my parents could indulge my David Cassidy obsession, it’s worth my time to learn more about June Christy. If they could sit with tears in their eyes while listening to Sgt. Barry Sadler sing about the Green
Berets during the Vietnam War that cost my family dearly, I’m not going to chuckle too much when that song gets played in jest.

Part of me feels so sad for all those lonely records at the St. Vinnie’s deep-discount store. But you know what? One day down the road Dinah Shore, Buck Owens and the cast of “Camelot” will be joined by Smiths B-side compilations, the Stones' "Sticky Fingers" with working zippers and obscure indie bands whose stuff never did make it to CD. They’ll wind up in the same dusty place, the remnants of an owner who still couldn’t part with them at the very end.

It all has quite the makings of one interesting lineup. Tom Jones, Morrissey and Lawrence Welk all together for one legendary appearance? Sounds just wunnerful to me.

The perfect stereo for the warm tones of Andy Williams.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Comfort and Company of Strangers

 NPR host Scott Simon shared his mother's final days with the world. (Politico)

Three years ago, actually three years ago to this day, I walked out of the church of my childhood and thought, “I never have to go through this again.”

I didn’t mean Mass, although I’ve managed to avoid that since then. I was walking out of the church after my mother’s funeral and thought, “Both of my parents are gone. I never have to go through this grief again.”

It was a strange feeling of relief and it brought me a little momentary comfort. The problem was it turned out not to be true.

I used to feel a sense of relief about it. Now I just hurt for what awaits my friends and cousins.

Mother asks, "Will this go on forever?" She means pain, dread. "No." She says, "But we'll go on forever. You & me." Yes.

I thought of that experience while I read the touching tweets from National Public Radio host Scott Simon as he told the world the details from his mother’s deathbed in the past few days. He was, essentially, live tweeting the end of his mother's life the way one might live tweet a basketball game or the Oscars. On the one hand it seems odd and creepy. But if you have gone through this, you know you have so many thoughts to sort through when, ironically, life comes at you fast and furious as a life around you ends.

Simon seemingly has had to go through much of this alone. I can’t even imagine. There are six of us. And there are children. And there are spouses. And we were there.

My mother’s end came quickly. A slow road to quickly, but what was expected to be a temporary stay in a nursing home became the last place she slept. We promised her we’d never leave her alone and we never did, and none of us were ever alone with her for her final three days.

And if you think they don’t know what is going on around them, you are seriously mistaken.

I know end might be near as this is only day of my adulthood I've seen my mother and she hasn't asked, "Why that shirt?"

My mom was in and out of consciousness the last two days of her life. As she slept, I had a conversation with one of my sisters about something someone close to me had done that I thought was particularly appalling. It was something recent and raw and something I had kept from my mom because I didn’t want her to feel bad for me.

It didn’t matter. You apparently can’t keep a mom from protecting her children even when she is unconscious. Later that day I heard her mutter in her sleep the name of the person who I had told my sister about, saying over and over again, “X isn’t good to Jane. X isn’t good to Jane.”

I tried to protect her from feeling bad one last time. I failed miserably.

I am getting a life's lesson about grace from my mother in the ICU. We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?

Yet the company in the room clearly made a difference for her, even when we thought it might not.

“It’s too quiet,” my mom said in a moment of lucidity two days before she died. My siblings and I enjoy each other’s company immensely. It was clear it was OK to have a good time in Mom’s room if we wanted to. In fact, it seemed to be her preference.

That’s good, because in a weird way, we did. Little by little the whole family rolled in and my mom woke up clear as day and saw her grandchildren, two of which came from across the country. The joy on her face will stay with me forever.

We gathered up enough chairs to have a dozen or more in a horseshoe around my mother’s bed. At 1 in the morning we sat and dished and chatted and giggled, even as Mom lay unconscious. I had left my bottle of water on the opposite end of the horseshoe and asked my brother to pass it to me. Like a beer purchase at a baseball game, the bottle of water went one by one through a row made up of my entire family.

Like at a baseball game, I gave my brother a dollar and passed it back one by one among my family. My brother took the dollar, pulled out four quarters and passed them back to me.

Oh, to have gone through this alone, I cannot imagine.

I am not sure my mother understands Twitter or why I tell her millions of people love her--but she says she's ver touched.

Via social media, Scott Simon captured the beauty and the pain wrapped together in one of the hardest moments life can give us. He found some company, too, in the more than a million people who are following him. It wasn’t exploitative, it was painfully real.

And it didn’t have a happy ending. His mother died Monday night.

The heavens over Chicago have opened and Patricia Lyons Simon Newman has stepped onstage.

She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night.

I wasn’t there when my mom passed. I feel awful about that, but I couldn’t have known it would be at that moment. It’s not like TV or the movies when someone just benevolently tells you, “It’s time,” and everyone gathers like the Whos down in Whoville.

This is what looms for so many that I know. I wish I could say it’s easy, but that would be a lie. I wish I could say you can prepare, but you can’t. I wish I could say you'll do everything right, but you won't. What I can say is there can be instances of incredible beauty that will stay with you longer than the pain of the moment.

Scott Simon showed 1,244,957 of his followers that over the course of a few days. Clearly, they showed it right back to him.

Thank you for all yr warm wishes and prayers. Such love drives the world.

Scott Simon can be found on Twitter at

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Some Jokes Can't Be Covered in Butter and Sugar

Paula Deen says she can't determine what people might find offensive. (WireImage photo)

It’s supremely perfect that in the English language, “sorry” is meant as an apology and to describe something that is quite pathetic. Because sometimes, apologies are the sorriest things of all.

The latest on the sorry front is Paula Deen, whose name alone can spark arteries to harden. The queen of decadent cooking, the big-haired personification of American indulgence, not only used racist language but made herself look worse by trying to explain it.

Sure, her logic went, she used the N-word. But she used it as a joke, she said in a deposition relating to a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former employee. She also said in the deposition that she taught her children not to use that word in a mean way, as if there magically were some nice ways to use it.

This isn’t yet another piece to hang the Countess of Cholesterol out to dry. She’s just the latest in a long line of people who have this odd notion that if they take some of the rudest, most offensive notions in our culture and make a joke out them, suddenly they magically aren’t offensive anymore.

“I can't, myself, determine what offends another person,” Deen said in the deposition, echoing the same sorry words of so many before her.

In this day and age, how is that possible? I know it happens all the time, but how does one get through life without grasping that using horrible language might just possibly offend someone? Deen’s behavior doesn’t show racism as much as it shows a willful oblivion, an arrogance to never stray from your way of thinking, to never ever see beyond your small butter-slathered world.

I’m a little touchy about the Paula Deen situation. It has nothing to do with the fall of a food icon and everything to do with bringing to the fore the thing that I am ashamed of most in my life – thinking racial things were funny.

Admittedly, this is when I was in high school and not exactly an intellectual. But I was brought up in a very kind and loving household where not only was the N-word banned, so was the use of “redskin.” In grade school, there were no black kids at my school but there were Native American kids and I heard both those words thrown at them as early as the first grade. And I knew it was wrong.

I grew up in a very white area that while not being notably racist, it didn’t keep me from hearing the N-word over the years. I even remember hearing a grown-up I knew and loved talk about the election of Tom Bradley as mayor of Los Angeles, saying that although he wouldn’t want an N-word as his mayor, it’s probably good that a place that had so many of them had one of their own kind to lead them.

Taught to respect my elders, I said nothing, but I was a grade-schooler who knew that was wrong and I still remember what my whole body felt like to hear that. The horror remains to this day.

By the time I got to high school, there were a few black kids at my school. One was in my class and had a couple younger siblings, another was an exchange student from Kenya. I haven’t seen my classmate since high school, but I think of her often. This is a kid who was brave enough in gym class circa 1976 to announce, “I know everybody wants to touch my hair, so you get one chance. Today. If you want to, you can, and don’t ever ask again.”

One of the interesting parts about moving back to my hometown is reconciling my memories of what I thought was reality with the grown-up view of what likely is the truth. I didn’t think much of what life must have been like for my classmate then, but I’d sure like to ask her about it now.

And high school is where my tale of shame begins. It really begins with “Roots,” which was supposed to open our eyes about race in the first place. With me, what started as a smart-aleck remark turned into a way-too-long joke.

With “Roots” being television that gripped the nation, it was what we talked about in school, too. I spun a tale to a classmate that I enjoyed watching this with my family because it was our story, too. I said that I had black relatives on my mom’s side of the family (her maiden name was “Schwarz,” German for “black.”) and it spun from there. He realized my hair was curly – it was a perm – and suddenly believed the story. My friends and I never thought to correct him, and the fact that my favorite foods in the world were, and remain, fried chicken and watermelon only added to the hilarity we saw in this.

And from there it continued to build. There was a nickname of “Kizzy” and gifts of toys like Mammy dolls. Once we began to notice that these toys and products existed we were rather shocked – perhaps foreshadowing the less-dunderheaded adults we would become.

These were jokes but we weren’t racist, we thought. It was just in fun. No big deal.

Then I went to college. Nothing dramatic happened in that anyone discovered this and smacked me down for it; by then it was a joke that had long ended but one in which I still saw no harm. Then, in an indirect way I found myself on the receiving end of the same kind of “joke.”

I had a guy friend, a sweet guy, one with many women friends. He told me how hilarious it was in their dorm that he and some of his friends would go up to the women’s floor and “pretend” that they were boors – chauvinistic and abusive. He said how funny it was that they’d pretend they were going to attack the women and the guys even had a little name for their gang, the make-believe group of guys who thought scaring women and pretending to do them harm was nothing more than a joke.

This guy was my friend, and I know he’d never be part of truly carrying any of that out. But it hit me like an anvil on my head: It wasn’t funny. It didn’t matter if they didn’t really mean it, it wasn’t funny and in fact was rather horrifying. All these years later he is a loving husband and father to a daughter; I suspect he no longer thinks it was funny.

At that moment, I realized our little racist jokes weren’t funny either. To take a part of one person’s identity, something they value such as their race, gender or ethnicity, and turn it into a punch line is the very definition of cruel.

And that’s where I have an issue with Paula Deen and situations like hers. Somewhere along the line in life, how can you not learn something to put you in someone else’s shoes, if only for an instant? As ashamed as I remain about those jokes, I also know that light-bulb moment created the empathic adult I am today. I could never tell this tale and no one would be the wiser and my friends might like me more, but it seems important to me that people realize it’s not just “those people” who make these kinds of mistakes. It’s what happens after that counts.

Sometimes, that includes bad apologies. I’m sorry, I have trouble with apologies that include the word “never meant.” People who miss stop signs and kill people they crash into never meant to do that, yet there are pretty clear and obvious rules that someone shouldn’t do that. Paying attention to other people and their lives shouldn’t be that much different than navigating the signs and symbols that make up our everyday lives, but somehow people always seem to get a pass on that.

And that is as sorry as it gets.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Extra! Extra! Newsrooms For Sale!

Want to buy a newsroom? There's one for sale in Des Moines.

Somewhere, on the third floor of a building in downtown Des Moines, behind a security door and under relatively recent drywall or paint, there is graffiti that may stay there hidden forever.

“For a good time, call Jane. 8128.”

The wall may remain, but the reasons for the graffiti are long gone. It was put there by composing room guys, the newspaper equivalent of passenger pigeons – extinct. In a different time and a different place, the 1980s, the composing room staff pasted the articles onto a board as part of the plate-making process. With X-Acto knives in hand, they trimmed the stories at editors’ suggestion, human versions of Control X. What started out as just a phone number (mine) on a wall so they could get ahold of me one floor up in the sports department evolved into a bit of fun that I never minded even as a 20-something, since some of these old-timey guys I looked at like an uncle or grandpa.

These days, it’s not just the composing rooms that are becoming extinct. It’s the newsrooms altogether. Technology has changed what newspapers need – the printing presses can be off site, the staffs have shrunk, reporters can work from home or a coffee shop, photo staffs don’t need darkrooms anymore. Because of that – and the fact that many of them are in prime downtown real estate areas of their cities --  the classic newsrooms are going away.

The newspaper I worked at for 18 years, the Des Moines Register, has its building up for sale and will be moving down the street. The paper I worked for after that, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, has a building that sits right in the midst of downtown development around a new Minnesota Vikings football stadium and a move looms. The Washington Post building, where Woodward and Bernstein wrote stories that took down a president, is for sale.

The Register globe in the 1950s.

There’s much romanticizing of these places, and it’s not unfounded. My description of the Des Moines Register building always has been that it looks like the kind of place where Clark Kent and Lois Lane would work.There are beautiful marble staircases, with steps worn down from a century of journalists running up and down them. There is a giant globe in the lobby. Plaques of Pulitzer Prize winners (there have been 16 of them) greet visitors. Historic pages, with great headlines like “Earthquake Leaves San Francisco A Charnel House” line the hallway to get to the newsroom. Until 2000, the presses were in the building’s basement, with tall open windows from the street that allowed passersby to watch papers being printed.

It’s easy for those of us who don’t work there anymore to express shock and horror at the thought the newsroom is moving and changing. The newsroom in our minds was a city block long, with cigarette burns in the linoleum and the lingering echoes of barking editors. The reality is of a worn-down place that will never get the overhaul it needs.

Sometimes buildings wear out. Sometimes they aren’t so useful anymore. It’s sad, and I am all about preservation, but some things weren’t built to last or at the very least, they need a lot of tending.

The newsroom of my mind is a wonderful place, with a tough, crotchety editor who dreamed of one day getting to write a headline that said “Santa Found Dead In Alley.” Sadly for him, but happily for Santa, that
The newsroom of the 1980-90s.
never happened in Des Moines. It’s a place that the huge west-facing windows used to offer a free and clear view of the sunset every night and for the gorgeous ones, we’d stop what we were doing and watch. It’s a place where those same composing room guys would fill a pneumatic tube with popcorn and mark it “For Jane” and shoot it upstairs to me on a Saturday night.

But the newsroom of the real world is a place where blinds now block those windows so people can actually see their computer screens. In some ways, it's no loss; the flurry of downtown development in the past 15 years has taken away that western sunset view.

A hollow room once filled with presses.
The building and its newsroom are a place that has been retrofitted so many times for the continuous change of the industry that it’s recognizable but not familiar. It’s a place where the bathrooms are falling apart and the first newsroom staffers who show up to work post the temperature on Facebook so their co-workers will
know how to dress that day. They’ll either freeze or they’ll sweat, and indeed, on an afternoon visit there last month I went from being comfortable to wishing I had worn layers. Many of us who worked there wonder if health problems we've had were related to toxic presses in the basement.

For the people who are there and have to endure the romantic, not-based-in-reality notions of the staffers of the past, I understand how they might be tired of hearing that. I understand it every time I drive down the main street of my town, past the empty lot where my family’s home used to be.

The house has been gone for seven years now, but I still hear sadness from people on a regular basis. “Oh, it just breaks my heart every time I drive by where your house used to be,” they say.

For me, not so much. Our house, while a place filled with memories, had reached its time. Like the newsroom I love, it had been built onto and retrofitted so many times it could not take so much as another nail. An old building that had once been a Sinclair gas station circa 1932, then a pet hospital and then a photo studio with a house for eight people on top had nothing more it could give the world. With its flat leaky roof and many other issues, I think my mom would happily have swung a ceremonial sledgehammer before the bulldozers began their work if one were offered. I know I would have.

“It must be so sad not to see your house every time you drive by,” is something I hear a lot, too.

And nothing could be further from the truth. I see my house in my mind all the time. I see my sisters and me in Dad’s photo studio playing with his old Mathew Brady-like camera. I see my aunts and uncles and cousins shoved into all the rooms at card tables having Sunday dinner. I see my brothers learning to walk. I see my mom at the supper table, putting down her utensils after finishing a meal and saying, “Damn, I’m a good cook.”

The newspaper buildings will be gone, too, but not really. If anyone can tell stories, it’s newspaper people. And they’ll tell the stories of these places so well that if you close your eyes you’ll be able to see anything you ever wanted to see.

Except, perhaps, Santa Claus dead in an alley in Des Moines. And that’s probably a good thing. 

And if a bigger East Coast paper is more your preference, the Washington Post is also available.

All black-and-white Register photos used by permission and are part of an online history of the building, Tradition on the Move.

Press room photo by Andrea Melendez

A before-and-after look at Minneapolis development done by the Minneapolis Star Tribune shows green space where the Star Tribune newsroom now sits.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Mom Is Always a Mom

No matter how old you are, sometimes you still want your mom to come to the rescue.

About this time last year, I came up with what I thought was an extraordinary realization.

I knew my mother when she was the age I am now.

This, I surmised, would provide me with insight into the whole complex mother-daughter relationship thing.

It was a revelation that lasted but a few months. Soon I found that all the insight in the world did not matter. We are mother and daughter. Always have been. Always will be.


My mother, the nurse, knew that I was ill. Something wasn’t working right; she saw it in my walk.

Get to a doctor, she said, and I agreed. I just wanted to make the 275-mile journey from Mt. Horeb,Wis., back to Des Moines.

Yet the hardest call to make the next day, when it was apparent something was very wrong, was the call to my parents. What made it harder was that nobody was home and this was the kind of thing you really can’t leave on an answering machine at 10 p.m.

Mom, it’s me. I’m in the hospital, but don’t worry. I’ll call you back later after my spinal tap.


You don’t want anybody to worry, that’s why it’s such a hard call to make. You don’t want to utter those words, “Mom, come help me” because it seems as if you’ve lost control. To be 35 years old means you’re not supposed to be calling Mommy for help.

“Do you want me to come down?” my mother asked when I finally reached her.

“It’s not so bad. I just have to have a lot of tests,” I said.

“Do you want me to come down?” she repeated.

My boyfriend was here, so were my friends, I said.

“Do you want me to come down?” she asked again. She could be there by the next day.

Yes, I said. Please.

My health has always been a strange bond between my mother and me. In a family full of six children, me in the middle duo, it was about the only way to get the rare one-on-one with Mom.

There were the leg braces as a small child and the shopping trips to get corrective shoes. There was the back brace as an adolescent, which meant trips to Milwaukee for a specialist and years of doctor appointments. Those meant time off from school, afternoons at the mall, lunch in a nice restaurant or hot fudge sundaes at the ice cream parlor.

I got afternoons with my mother that my brothers and sisters never did. It didn’t make us any closer than she was with them, but I knew I was getting privileged time.

When she was on her way to Des Moines, I knew I had made the correct choice. Overnight, my health had worsened. I had been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a potentially crippling neurological disorder. The previous day, I was able to walk into the doctor’s office. Now, 24 hours later, I could barely walk at all.

Guillain-Barre is a weird thing. Who it attacks and what it attacks are random. Out-of-control antibodies attack the coating on the nerve endings instead of a virus that is already in your system, something as minor as a flu bug.

The effect is, essentially, the short-circuiting of the central nervous system. Any nerve or muscle in your body is a target, from the ability to blink to the ability to breathe. Which ones are hit is merely luck of the draw. Although the prognosis is generally optimistic, what abilities patients may recover and when are equally a mystery.

My mom knew of the diagnosis from my phone call --my doctors had  figured as much when they saw me walk into the office. Ironically, that day at work, a co-worker of my mom’s had returned a pamphlet on Guillain-Barre that she had borrowed from my mother’s files. It had just been there at the hospital for future reference. My mother needed it sooner than she thought.


I don’t remember much of the first weeks I was ill. I just know my mother was there. She slept in the bed beside me and did everything a sick person would need, everything you use a call button for to summon a nurse.

She walked me to the bathroom, clinging to me as I shuffled along in baby steps. She opened the food containers that my bumbling hands couldn’t manage and filled out menus for the next day’s meals because I could not write. She quietly ducked out of my room to give me privacy when my boyfriend or friends came by or it was time for my doctor to ask me personal questions.

She watered my flowers and complained on the rare days we didn’t get any. Yes, we. “Aw, nobody sent us flowers today,” my mom would joke.

She watched my health slip and was there when I was at my worst. My friends were supportive and my boyfriend was a rock, yet it was my mother who was the glue. She was the one who saw me at my worst. She saw things none of the rest did.

She was there when we couldn’t make the trip to the bathroom anymore and she had to lift me off the bed onto the commode. This is a woman of 64; I am nearly 6 feet tall. Her strength still amazes me.

Yet, there was always the mother-daughter thing underneath all of this. In addition to the Guillain-Barre, my doctors were searching for the virus that triggered it. My liver was not functioning properly, so there was a barrage of tests. One particular type of hepatitis test came back positive.

Whatever, I thought, more pills.

"What have you been doing?" my mother inquired.

Turns out this form of hepatitis can be sexually transmitted. My mom the nurse knew this; I didn’t. The scowl of disapproval from her is one I’ll never forget, even after someone came in 10 minutes later to say she read the test wrong and I didn’t actually have that ailment.

That didn’t matter; the damage was done.

This is how overwhelming the mother-daughter bond can be: I have lost my ability to walk, I’m struggling to breathe, I cannot eat, I cannot sleep, I drool way too much, I have excruciating back pain, I have tubes running in and out of me, I’ve lost the use of my hands and am soon to lose my ability to speak. But my biggest worry is that my mother thinks I’m a tramp.


Because my mother saw me in much worse shape than anyone else, I’m grateful she’s the one who was there when things began to turn around. One day, I took a nap and when I awoke I realized I was sick of my room. Except for, literally, lame attempts at walking down the hall, I really hadn’t been outside of it in two weeks.

Yet all of a sudden there was a wheelchair in my room and I wanted to get out. It was as if I were a small child asking a parent if I could see where they worked. I could get a sense of the happiness my mom got just from giving me a tour of the hospital. I wanted to get out of bed and sit in a chair; this was also a breakthrough that my mom was more than happy to accommodate. Little things, but big things.

She went to Wal-Mart to buy me the sweat pants I would need for my move to the rehab unit. Together we made the move upstairs and saw my new room.

It was a room in which she wouldn’t be sleeping; she went to my house instead.

Who will I call to take me to the bathroom? I asked. That’s what they pay the nurses for, Mom said. What if I need something in the middle of the night? I asked. Use your call button, Mom said.

At age 35, I was terrified at the thought of my mother not being there. And after the first day of physical and occupational therapies, she knew my days were full without her and it was time for her to go back home to Wisconsin.

I could have been a child left at the kindergarten door. I could have been a Girl Scout on my way to camp. I could have been a college student dropped off at the dormitory. I may as well have been for the way it hit me that I was on my own, without my mother.

The whole point of rehabilitation is to teach you independence. They just never specify from what.


A month later, I was out of the hospital and walking with a cane. My mom returned to spend a week with me, and it’s a trip I still kind of feel guilty about six months later.

I wasn’t the toddler who needed my mother anymore. I was a teenager hell-bent on proving my independence.

She arrived just at the time it was becoming conceivable that I would recover and be able to take care of myself. A pity she had to go through that with me twice in one lifetime.

Somewhat surly, I didn’t really say much at home. That had nothing to do with her; in six weeks in the hospital I had made a lifetime’s worth of small talk and I just felt like keeping to myself.

"You know you could say good morning to me," she said once.

"Sorry," I replied.

She left one day to go to the casino. I took my car and drove around the neighborhood. Days before, I had discovered that my hands and feet worked well enough to drive and I just wanted to get out of the house alone.

Like a teenager, I sneaked out of the house with the car when my mom wasn’t home. Only it was my house that I own and my car that I own. It was too weird.

The difference in age is this, however. I realized my rudeness in about a weekend. When you actually are a teenager, it takes about a decade.


So, yes, I knew my mother when she was the age I am now. Big whoop. At that point, my mom had four of her six children, had been married a while and as a nurse and paramedic had seen things I’ll never see in my lifetime.

And I’ve trouped through my adulthood as a single woman with choices and opportunities my mother either never had or never considered.

But a few years before my mother was this age, she gave birth to a daughter who would grow up to need her just as much at 35 as she did at 5. She is my mother and I am her daughter, regardless of age.

That has never changed. It never will. I know that now more than ever.

(This post first appeared as an article in the Des Moines Register in May 1997.)