My Saturday

 

(Eagle River, WI Dec. 2005) It was on this uneventful Saturday of my own when details of a book I’d been reading kept coming to mind. Saturday, was the latest by Ian McEwen. He’d written Atonement which introduced me to his elaborate writing style, full of vivid descriptions and deep, deep thoughts.

Saturday was an unexpected stream of consciousness diatribe of one man’s day, a nondescript Saturday in London, at some undefined time after 9/11. The book’s 289 pages take place on that one day. I compared his musing to my uneventful Saturday and couldn’t help observing that both days were nothing but a chain of nothings. A series of small events that became the sum total of the day. They meant a lot or maybe meant nothing at all.

I got up late. Late for me anyway. About 8:00am. I had errands to run. McEwen took about forty pages to describe his main character’s morning complete with inner thoughts of the lack of security since that fateful September day in America. My day was simpler.

I left the house and made the rounds in Eagle River from one place after another. My stops were a matter of a few blocks apart. I felt guilty not walking to the beauty shop to pick up some makeup, then to Radio Shack for a new phone battery. Turned out I had to order a new phone since they no longer made that phone or battery. Ah, technology!

Then to the bank for deposits slips and the post office for stanps. I actually walked from the bank to the post office, they’re so close. I was home again in less than forty-five minutes. Ah, what a simple life I have. I’d have had to add another twenty pages to match McEwen’s musing full of contemplation of the value of an uncomplicated life.

Bud joined me, going to the bookstore and grocery store. McEwen would have mined my inner thoughts for twenty pages about the Chai tea I travel to get at a certain store and how it haunts me that I am so fortunate to have this tiny comfort whenever I want it, when most of the would is in shambles and shouldn’t I weigh the sociological underpinnings of that purchase? Wow! That was quite a McEwenism!

McEwen, of the huge vocabulary and ambition to describe fully, completely, every thought and nuance of each person in his story, fills me with envy. But, alas my prose is matter of fact, terse and to the point. His descriptions require concentration and attention. At times, intertwined in his sentences, I forget what he’s seeing and where he is. Then I get it. He brings me up to speed with a punch.

I’d love to be able to describe as he does with his main characters, Rosalind and Henry, the hidden gradations of my own relationship. While I want to say that Bud drives me crazy with what he calls “messin’ with you“, I know McEwen would build the action up to a fevered pitch and glue the reader to the page. But for me it’s just another routine activity. Bud is what is called “high touch.” In fact, he can’t seem to keep his hands off me. He sneaks up and jiggles me in obvious places that might make a woman feel loose and slack. But it’s endearing. While this is delightful and I’d hate not to have it, there are times it’s completely annoying. How would McEwen express that?

We set off for the four block walk to the movies with a half hour until show time. Let me try to describe that in my McEwen wanna-be style. The six to eight inch snow that fell on Tuesday is, by Saturday, still holding onto the tree limbs which are full of white and fluffy balls. Several large evergreens carry so much snow that the bough reaches the ground so you want to hold them up, relieve the pain they must feel. We walk briskly. The air is calm, no wind and little traffic. We walk in the middle of the street for part of the way. The theater is on the main street, mostly uncrowded now that the tourist season is past.

There are more people at the theater than I’d expected. But then, silly me, Harry Potter is also playing. After all the children and families disappear into Hogwart heaven, we are two of ten people in our theater. It’s the opening weekend of the Johnny Cash biography, Walk the Line. Bud adores Johnny Cash. There’s a scene where Johnny’s teasing June, offering her a peanut and at the last minute he pops it into his mouth. So close to a ritual Bud and I have, I lean over to him and say, “uncanny, isn’t it?’ He agrees. McEwen would let go an ocean of prose to describe the intricacies, the give and take power struggles that have dominated our relationship.

After the movie we walk across the street for a sandwich. The place is nearly empty since its only 4:00. A man comes in with a young woman who helps him navigate an older woman into her seat. As the young woman leaves, she reminds him to call when they’re ready for a ride home.

Apparently it’s a son who is not so young himself taking his aging mother (Lily, I hear the waitress call her) out for a holiday dinner. He makes a big deal of ordering her a drink. She agrees to a beer but he seems to feel she should have wine and orders her a White Zinfandel. It is the holidays, after all. He gets her a straw, which she uses. Then he attempts to propose a toast and it’s clear the woman is oblivious to what is taking place. It’s sad to see him try so hard. McEwen would have a great time with this touching scenario and I’ll bet he would convey these thoughts and feelings better than I am.

We end the day by walking home and settling in for a customary evening of reading and listening to classical music. McEwen’s characters, on the other hand, are terrorized by a petty criminal who breaks into their house. The crisis is resolved well and Henry is left feeling not so safe after all in his quiet tranquil neighborhood.

What’s the moral of the story? What did the author want to convey? What was I supposed to get from this? Here was Henry, worrying a lot about distant terrorists and the threat they pose, when he was vulnerable to this menace on his own street. Does this mean we need to focus on our day to day existence and to things closer to home? Or maybe it means we aren’t safe anywhere.

Whatever McEwen’s agenda is, I’ve decided this little essay of mine is a far cry from his voluminous work. But then, maybe Saturday started out as a short essay about the meaning of life. For all I know, War and Peace began as a letter to the editor about the travesty of war. Perhaps The Old Man and the Sea was originally an article on the dangers of fishing alone. So, maybe I should keep adding to this humble little work and develop it into something large and meaningful.

 

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Brains

 

What does it mean to have brains? We seem obsessed with the notion and idolize people who are brainy. Well, that whole concept took a turn when I read a book called: Driving Mr. Albert; A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain (Michael Paterniti, The Dial Press, 2000).

The book title must be taken literally. The author, a professional journalist, actually did travel across the country with the doctor who possessed Albert Einstein’s brain. It was carried in a Tupperware container.

The doctor, a pathologist named Thomas Harvey at Princeton Hospital had performed the autopsy on Einstein when he died in the 1050’s. Dr. Harvey claimed Einstein’s son gave him permission to study the brain. So he removed it during autopsy. After storing it in his office for some time, he became paranoid that it would disappear or be misplaced, so he took it home and kept it there for forty years.

Now he wanted to give the brain to Einstein’s granddaughter who lived in California. So off they go in a rented Skylark with the Tupperware container in the trunk. What an unlikely match, a young, struggling journalist, and this old academic who took possession of Einstein’s brain, oh so many years ago.

The trip itself was an ironic comedy of strange people, odd places and unusual, unknown facts about brains in general. And then some facts about famous brains in particular. We heard about Lenin’s brain and others that have been preserved, stored, cut up, hidden and sometimes taken out at conferences and fondled.

Parts of the book were strangely funny. Like, the woman who arranged for Dr. Harvey to talk to a group of high school students and parade the brain around in front of them. Or, the man in China, who idolized Einstein and had plans for an Einstein Museum; he took the journalist out for a night on the town complete with karaoke. A visit with the writer William S. Burroughs who is rather eccentric himself was another funny moment.

Then there were the somewhat sickening moments. The vivid description of the autopsy process including the moment when the brain was exposed and then removed. The smell of the formaldehyde. The gelatinous pieces of brain as they quivered and vibrated when the Tupperware was repositioned for a better view. Yuck!

Toward the end of the book, mention was made of a Canadian scientist who published findings about Einstein’s brain: “Einstein’s interior parietal lobe, the region that governs mathematical ability and spatial reasoning is 15% larger than normal, while his Sylvian fissure is much smaller than average, suggesting an interconnection of neurons that may have allowed the scientist’s brain to work more effectively.” Where did she get this data? Did Dr. Harvey lend her the brain? What does this really tell us?

Throughout the book were biographical tidbits regarding Einstein’s life. He was married twice, had several children and perhaps a love child. He died overwrought with doubt that his theory was indeed complete and worried it would not hold up over time. Guilt that he encouraged President Roosevelt to develop the bomb. All in all, he was not a happy person. Driven by his work. Never really in love.

The scorn I felt for Dr. Harvey throughout the reading was tempered only slightly when it became apparent the mere possession of the brain held a gargantuan meaning for whoever bears this burden. When Plan A, granddaughter in California, didn’t work out, Dr. Harvey passed the brain on to his successor at Princeton Hospital. The new curator seemed equally encumbered by the weight of his load.

What I could not get over was the lack of respect for a human being who had died. Einstein or not, this was a man who was not treated well. For someone whose brain we revered so, we certainly didn’t give him the deference he deserved. Whatever great thoughts were going on in the brain of this ingenious man, those attributes left him when he died. The physical brain did not contain the essence of the man.

Talk about having something take on a life of its own. Well, that’s Einstein’s brain. The fact that the doctor never did a lick of research or study on the brain was amazing in itself. What did he think he would glean from it anyway? Its interesting the value we put onto things especially when there’s no way we can hold onto or capture them. Ah, mankind. We are such a funny, sad species.

 

 

A Visit With the Bard…Sort of

 

In late September, 1999, I visited Stratford, a small, idyllic town in southwestern Ontario dedicated completely to theater. This trip, with my friend, Mary and her adult daughters, was like traveling back in time, a visit to another world.

The Stratford Festival which began in 1953, as a modest annual Shakespeare festival had grown to a season of nine plays running in repertory from May through November. The 1999 acting company, comprised of slightly more than ninety actors, was enrolled in either their classical theater training program or their academy for life-long learners. They performed a variety of plays in one of three theaters.

Seven days a week, anywhere from four to six plays were scheduled at 2:00pm or 8:00pm at the Festival Theater (1,836 seats), the Avon Theater (1,083 seats) or the Tom Patterson Theater (487 seats).

It was a nearly full house for each play we attended. During our trip we saw: The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pride and Prejudice, The Alchemist and West Side Story. Five plays in three days! Grueling but fun.

This was a four day bus tour arranged by the drama department of a local liberal arts college. Half the bus passengers were students and the other half people who had heard of the trip and signed on. The first day, the ten hour bus trip began well before sun rise and ended with just enough time to unpack and get to the theater. We stayed at the Queen’s Inn, a 150 year old landmark hotel located in downtown Stratford. Accommodations were lovely.

The next morning, we thought it imperative to seek out a coffee shop. There on the main street, we found Balzac’s (how apropos). The names of many stores were a derivation or combination of theater related terms or a noted actor or character.

We leisurely sipped, chatted and watched the cadre of local gentry and international travelers streaming in and out. I wanted to ask each one what was their story. We were certain we’d rubbed shoulders with actors we’d possibly see performing later and stage hands we wouldn’t see. In spite of the noise and bustle, we emerged refreshed and ready to see all we could cram into the time available. Shopping or lunch was carefully scheduled around the play bill.

Even though it was late September, the weather was mild enough for comfortable walking. And walk the town we did. The five blocks to the Festival Theater was a breeze with each street lined by old, beautiful, predominantly brick homes all with impeccable gardens. We meandered along the shore of the Avon River, leaves in full color. Swans swam close to the bank. One was walking near our path and allowed us unbelievably close before squawking off frantically.

Entering the theater, felt like a scene from Shakespeare in Love, hurrying to our seats as the lights dimmed. Just part of the huddled masses of common folk, suspending our busy day to be awed by the tension, moved by the emotion. Since I’d never been to Broadway, I lacked the experience to compare, but the actors were phenomenal, the productions superb.

Before, after and between plays we headed for town in search of bargains, coffee or local delicacies. The downtown reminded me of Door County with its myriad of specialty shops, friendly sales people and slow pace. The exchange rate made each find all the more appealing. We visited the Shakespeare store, various other theater related gift shops, a Scottish clothing store, several garden shops and some art and book shops. Most unusual, was the “Growling Gourmet,” a bakery for dogs.

The only challenge involved the travel itself. And that’s on two counts. First, the distance, the schedule and just the time it took was wearing. We had mechanical problems on the way home and ended up, for several hours in the middle of the night, stranded in an all-night coffee shop waiting for bus repairs. But, these things happen. We were quickly on the road again and home on schedule.

Second and most disappointing, the behavior of some of our travel companions left something to be desired. I assumed because they were college students, enrolled in a drama class that they’d be enthusiastic and rather the scholarly type. Not so. Instead, they were a bit unruly and not too sensitive to the needs of their fellow travelers. I was embarrassed by their thoughtless behavior toward the staff at the all night coffee shop we imposed upon; I was disillusioned when many of them skipped plays due to compelling card games, sleeping off hangovers and other hanky-panky.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip and a first time experience that we’d repeat for several years. But we’d opted away from bus and group travel to finding a better way. Next time, we’d drive and once take the Lake Michigan Car Ferry across which would cut our travel time in half.

Each year, as planning began with the selection of the plays we’d be seeing it was exciting to think of that time when our lives would be suspended. We’d enter the exciting world of theater. Who was it who said “all the world’s a stage?” Oh right. That was Shakespeare. So, each year we got to walk on that stage, the village of Stratford, and pretend. A grand pleasure for a few short days.

 

 

Creative Collaring

 

nikki 002(Bessemer, Mi. 1999) My Siberian Husky, Nikki, was leading a second life filled with intrigue, reaping a bounty of untold riches. It took all my creative instincts to find a way to protect her from herself. Though I knew she’d probably never forgive me, I had to do it.

We lived at a ski resort located in the Big Snow Country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Being about 10 miles from Lake Superior, we got 200 to 300 inches of snow every year. That’s every year! A skier’s paradise.

It was also a builder’s paradise, which was why my husband, a building contractor, and I lived there. We were the only year round residents on the wooded cul du sac a half mile from the main lodge. The other homes on our road were ski chalets, rented by the week or weekend during ski season.

Besides skiers and builders, this location was also perfect for Nikki. The surrounding woods were her playground. Huskies are known for being runners, but Nikki was good. She always came home. And she loved the snow.

I still laugh as I recall her antics when I’d let her out on snowy mornings. She’d put her snout down into the 12 to 18 inches of newly fallen, lake effect snow; then she’d run at full speed, spewing a snow-plow-like spray as she buzzed the length of the driveway. Each day after work, I’d release Nikki for her check of the neighborhood. But I had no idea what was really going on.

I became aware of Nikki’s clandestine life in a round-about way. The owners of the house next door called asking for a favor. Most ski houses were owned and maintained by private individuals who lived in far away, big cities. They’d purchased these second homes as an investment and rented them through the ski resort rental association. The next-door owners asked me to see what utensils and glasses their house needed before the next season started.

While checking the cupboards, I noticed the bulletin board hanging in the hallway. It was usual for owners to put bulletin boards and guest books in their houses to promote area activities and give renters an opportunity to comment on their stay. That was good PR.

On this bulletin board, there were lots of pictures. Among them were lots of pictures of Nikki. My Nikki. There she was, cuddled up near the fireplace being hugged by a couple of young children as though she were a part of their family. Another showed Nikki shaking off the snow. Yet another of her on her hind legs, begging for a morsel. She was having a ball!

The guest book was filled with renter’s comments about the friendly dog who visited daily throughout their weekend or week long vacation. One guest even recommended to future renters that the friendly dog who comes by really likes ice cream. So, be sure to keep it on hand. No one had to tell me how friendly and loving Nikki was. I knew this very well. But the ice cream comment surprised me. I always thought her favorite snack was popcorn. Whatever.

Now I was worried. What if, though she had a collar on, someone decided to take this lovely, friendly dog home? Then I remembered the times I’d stood out on the porch and called for her, gave up, went in and then ten minutes later tried again. Finally, after I’d called a few more times, I’d hear a far away door slam and soon Nikki would magically appear. Now it all made sense.

But there are six ski houses on this road. Does that mean she makes the rounds to each of them? Knowing Nikki, this seemed likely. I knew I had to do something.

nikki 001I went to see Helen, who owned a local leather and gift shop. She suggested making a leather tag to attach to Nikki’s chain. It was an oval, flat piece of leather, approximately two by four inches. On it Helen pounded the words: PLEASE DO NOT FEED OR TAKE INSIDE. I felt a bit devilish putting the tag on her collar. Sometimes it’s hard to be a good parent.

Right away, I was pleased that Nikki showed up promptly when I called; there also were no more mysterious doors slamming. Then one day, Nikki returned with a little surprise for me: a piece of notebook paper rolled up in her collar.

The hand written note said it was so great that the owner cared so much for this beautiful and friendly dog. In a world where people let their dogs run wild, here was one owner doing the right thing. The writer thanked me for reminding them to honor my wishes. Vindication. I no longer felt guilty for spoiling all her fun.

 

So our life went on as usual. Nikki continued to make her rounds of the neighborhood, always coming home right away. After she was no longer with me, I kept the tag and draped it over a frame filled with pictures of her many poses.

I knew Nikki would be my last dog due to the massive hair shedding Huskies are famous for which activated my allergies. Whenever I look at the tag, I’m always reminded of the many challenges of taking care of Nikki. And of how lucky I was to have had her in my life.

 

 

Follow Your Bliss

 

(Cedarburg, WI, 2002) The meaning of life was aptly addressed in a quirky situation comedy, Dharma and Greg. The characters are the epitome of balance in a couple, where the strengths and weaknesses of one person dovetail with those of the other, creating an illusion of perfect symmetry.

Greg, a Harvard graduated attorney from a conservative, wealthy family, works as a district attorney. Dharma, daughter of two hippies still living “the summer of love,” is a yoga instructor and most definitely a product of her upbringing. They meet, fall in love instantly and marry the same day. Their trials and tribulations as they adjust to married life are handled in a hilarious and entertaining way. But there’s more depth to this story.

A recent episode involved the dilemma faced by Greg. With Dharma’s encouragement, he suddenly quit his high stress job. Follow your bliss, she shouted, insisting if something doesn’t make you happy, then you need to find what does and pursue it.

Greg realizes, now that he has time to sit back and think, that he’s always wanted to be a cook. So, he promptly goes out and tries to get a job as a chef. After many rejections, he becomes a fry cook in a small mom and pop diner. He loves it and is having the time of his life; his parents think he’s gone crazy and Dharma’s parents praise him for rejecting the corporate lifestyle.

Then Greg’s dad sadly reveals he always wanted to cut hair but put it aside because he had responsibilities. Later, Greg’s mother reveals her long forgotten dream of being a dancer. After a few days of slopping the hash, Greg realizes he misses his old life when he sees that following his bliss won’t earn him an adequate living. Then too, after several days, the newness has worn off and this has become just another job.

The idea of following your bliss is intriguing and I couldn’t help but try to make some enduring sense of the story. It does seem that every one of us, at times, think our job is tedious, stressful and unrewarding. A nurse I know asserted that all jobs end up feeling like you’re on a tread mill. Even the intricate job of the surgeon, she noted, must on some level, begin to resemble an assembly line.

Working by Studs Turkel, a classic sociological examination of how people feel about their jobs, came to mind. Though originally published in 1972, it reads like today. It’s amazing how the plight of the telephone operator quoted then, sounds like the predicament of today’s data entry clerk. No one back then seemed to really like their job. No one seemed very challenged. Same as today, I fear.

So what are we to do? Maybe we need to become more realistic about what work is. Long ago I decided my job was what I did to earn the money that paid the bills, allowing me to have a good life. The fact that I like my work is perhaps a bonus.

My husband doesn’t like his job. But he follows his bliss through several very demanding and all engrossing hobbies that completely fill his time away from work. He is never happier than when he’s out in the barn working on a restoration project. Or visiting junk yards looking for old parts. Or on one of his perpetual road trips in search of abandoned machinery. His job provides the money to support this bliss.

I’ve always wondered if this labor of love would become drudgery if he had to do it for a living. Would my gardening become a chore if I had to weed and hoe each day to put food on the table? Would writing become a burden if I were forced by economic realities to do it day in and day out?

A recent letter from a friend who works in a book shop (one of my secret dream vocations) hit home. I’ve always thought it would be so great to have a job like that since I love to read and feel so alive in book shops and libraries. Wow, to be able to spend entire days there! To find that hard to locate book for a customer or to turn a child on to reading. But to hear her talk, it’s stressful, either too busy or too slow and sometimes boring. She warns me it’s not as challenging and rewarding as I might think.

The biography, So Far, So Good…, tells the story of Wall Street broker Roy Neuburger, now ninety four years old and still working every day as he has his entire life, trading in stocks and making still another fortune. But his passion as a young man was to be a painter. He tells how he went to art school and found out, as a painter, he “was no damn good.” So what to do about this passion?

He went on to use his money to collect art and build a gallery in Purchase, New York which houses the paintings of many famous artists. He followed his bliss by promoting and helping starving artists. This has paid off royally by the increased value of paintings he owns done by then unknown, now famous artists. But it isn’t about money, says Neuburger. He just loves art.

Perhaps Greg could use the money he makes as an attorney to buy a restaurant so he can dabble in his passion. Maybe Greg’s dad could teach a class in a barber school and share his talent with young people just starting out. His mother could use her time and money to sponsor an ingénue who’s unable to study dance without financial assistance.

Much in the style of the Carlos Castenada books and other new- age writings, we are told the journey rather than the destination is the important thing (all paths lead nowhere, so enjoy the path). So, “follow your bliss” may be just part of the message. Perhaps it has less to do with what kind of work you do, possibly more to do with the real person you are.

 

Sociology of the Run-By

 

(Skagway Alaska, June,2004) I wish I had a dollar for each hour I’d spent trailing along with my railroad obsessed husband, chasing trains, riding trains, waiting for trains. Don’t get me wrong. I had fun trying to keep up with his obsession. And, that’s the definition of a rail fan: obsessed. Which naturally led to the multitude of railroad-oriented trips we’d undertaken.

From Wisconsin and Upper Michigan locations, to Canada’s Agawa Canyon. From the steam trains of Colorado to New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Cog Railway. Then there’s our west coast search for every Shay locomotive still in existence. It’d been a bumpy ride. Our most ambitious trip occurred in June, 2004 when we rode a steam train out of Skagway, Alaska.

The trip was billed as a “steam extravaganza” specifically designed for rail fans. We began in Vancouver, British Columbia with a short plane ride to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, then on to Skagway.

Today, Skagway is a stop for cruise lines, so the train’s main function is tourist day trips. Skagway’s year round population of 800 can swell to up to 6,000 depending on how many ships arrive each day. The livery stable and general store of times past has been replaced by a Starbucks and gift and jewelry stores. The train is Skagway’s past history and its present day economic base.

Our tour group consisted of about fifty people with several world travelers in our midst. One man, from England, had taken recent trips to South America, Cuba and Russia, just to ride trains. We had travelers from Ireland, South Africa and many Canadians among us.

The first morning we all lined up at the depot and waited for the train to arrive. Men of all sizes and ages, and more women than I expected, waited in equal anticipation. There was enough picture-taking equipment among us to open a photography super store.

Then No. 73, the last Baldwin narrow gauge locomotive built in 1947, rolled into the station. It was a regal beauty, huffing and spitting bellows of smoke. The plaintive howl of a steam engine whistle is heart stopping. This railway, the White Pass and Yukon Route was built for the 1898 Klondike gold rush and No. 73 depicts that era.

Steeped in history, the old engine huffed and bellowed smoke as we climbed to the highest peaks on that sunny, mild morning. Throughout the trip, we stopped for “run-bys,” a new experience for me. The run-by is a scheduled stop, so anyone who wants to, can get off the train and find a photogenic spot. This results in a unique collection of humanity, frozen in time, in highly unusual places, standing on rocks, ledges, cliffs, whatever terrain is nearby. Then the train is backed up and, as it comes forward, an authentic picture is captured.

At each stop, almost everyone disembarked for the run-by. Here’s where the sociology comes in. I found there were rules and rituals connected with this activity. With great respect, each found a spot where they had a good picture taking vantage point but also that didn’t cut out the next fellow.

And thanks to technology, there’s yet another addition to this ceremony. When someone’s videotaping, not only must photographers not block anyone’s view, but they have to be silent so the tape doesn’t pick up idle conversation. Authenticity, again. I wondered what kind of punishment this society would invoke if its rules were broken.

My shutter finger twitched. I felt like Margaret Mead, discovering a foreign culture and began snapping pictures like mad. Of the picture takers! I captured dress, behavior patterns, roles and habits. The hallmark of a well-defined social order. My specimens had no idea their activities were being observed and recorded.

The most dramatic incident occurred at a stop near a tunnel built into the mountainside. There was a several hundred-foot high mountain on one side of the tracks and a several hundred-foot drop-off on the other side. Everyone disembarked on a level 20 by 20 foot plateau carved out on the drop-off side. Amazing. Here’s a spot on the side of a mountain, filled to capacity with people gripping their cameras and waiting.

During the run-by maneuver, I found there were expectations even for me, one of the lone passengers remaining on the train. I was gently warned not to wave or even look out the window. I was supposed to be an ordinary passenger on a train, looking down as if reading. I took my pictures well before the train began moving then sat back dutifully and became the imaginary passenger.

The train backed up and as it came forward through the tunnel, cameras snapped wildly. The train then backed up to the plateau, everyone boarded and on we went to the next stop. Each run-by operation took several hours. I wondered what regular train passengers would think of this. To them, a colossal waste of time. To rail fans: heaven.

We spent three full days on trains, visiting remote spots in the Yukon and Alaska: Carcross, Lake Bennett and the top of the world (Barrow). The run-by’s were plentiful, the scenery beautiful, lakes and streams pristine. But what remains my most vivid memory is being immersed in a complex social system in a land far, far away.

Woman School

 

(Cedarburg, WI, 2001) My husband, Bud, had a hero named Roger Welsch who for twelve years was a regular on Charles Kuralt’s CBS Sunday Morning. His segment was called: “Postcards from Nebraska.” Roger was a tractor collector and a rather ingenious writer. The main thesis of his books was the love of old tractors, their care and feeding, how to enjoy your shop and other strictly guy issues.

It’s a rare writer who can take a special interest and weave it into a television and book career. He wrote about life’s little happenings, made them interesting, laughable, and sometimes poignant. Maybe I had a hero too.

The titles of Roger’s past books are worth mentioning: Old Tractors and the Men Who Love Them, Old Tractors Never Die and Busted Tractors and Rusty Knuckles.   Roger Welsch invaded my home again when Bud returned from a trip to the book store grinning like a kid on Christmas morning. A new treasure! Roger had outdone himself. His latest tome: Love, Sex and Tractors.

With this book, Roger had taken a new tack: the fine art of maintaining a healthy relationship with your spouse and family, saving plenty of time to work on tractors and holding court in your shop. The new twist was Roger’s insistence that women, his wife included, had received covert training at something he called WOMAN SCHOOL.

He was certain his wife was a full tenured professor of the school. It seemed WOMAN SCHOOL taught secrets from the inner sanctum of the ladies’ room. Seminars included: “Giving Driving Directions from the Passenger Seat,” “Packing a Purse,” “Confusing the Idiots,” and “Unreasonable Demands.” According to Roger, all women had attended and graduated from the school, but were loath to admit its existence.

This book was Roger’s attempt to correct the imbalance and create a MAN SCHOOL. He concluded that “women will hate this book, not because they are excluded, not because it’s crude and insensitive, but because it challenges the exclusivity of gender training.”

So, I’d read it and Bud was happy I’d finally found something which also interested him. And I learned a lot. The most important thing was that there were other tractor nuts out there who acted, thought and talked just like Bud. I guess I’d always known that. After all, we’d spent years chasing across the countryside in search of old tractors; I’d spent hours listening to Bud’s side of a long phone conversation either from Clarence in Montana, Irwin in California, Herman in Iowa or Max in Saskatchewan.

Roger compared his venerated Tractor Hauling Trips (THT) to the Native American vision quest and insisted that heaven on earth is the Golden Moment of Departure (GMD) when he and his buddies hit the open road, smelled freedom and went out to haul a rusty, old tractor home. I found I could relate to this. Bud and I had often gone on THT’s (except ours were tractor hunting trips) and we also felt exhilarated at the GMD.

Writers are often encouraged to find their niche and Roger had done just that. With great success. In fact, he was so inspiring, I’d thought of writing a book dealing with the woman side of the tractor thing. I could call it: Women Who Love Men Who Love Old Tractors. Or Ten Ways Grousers Spark Up Relationships. Or, Manifolds of the Heart. Or, The Kama Sutra of Tractor Restoration. Something along that line.

Roger’s insights gave Bud and me a common language and a few more inside jokes.          So, as we headed off to Antigo to a tractor auction (hoping to see an Allis Chalmers M) we’d experienced together the GMD as we began our THT. We’d also decided to reveal to one another the secrets of our respective schools. No telling what the results could be. Will he become more sensitive? Will I become more tractor-savvy? Who knows.

 

Hijacked

DECEMBER 09 Round Robin Essay

 

(Eagle River, WI Fall, 2009) Since moving to my new home in a small north woods community, I’d been looking for a volunteer opportunity. Finally, I thought I’d found it and worked last year in a holiday toy give-away program.

Parents filled out an application that included their children’s wish list. Donations were solicited then the program shopped for the requested presents; toy donations from local programs and businesses were received. Such as, Kohl’s Department Store gave what they’d received from their toy drive. Toys for Tots had an excess that came our way. Kindness for Kids did likewise. The community was very generous.

At the actual event, held at a local church, small groups of parents came in throughout the day and were given points to spend on gifts for their children. After an explanation of the program, a volunteer shopper helped parents choose gifts and they could have them wrapped.

The number of gifts for each child was dependent upon each child’s needs and how many donations were received. The event was a huge success. Over 225 children were shopped for and the parents were ecstatic to be able to give their children hand-picked presents. A real strength was that it put the selection and gift giving into the hands of parents themselves.

The public agency where I worked collected the applications. Anyone could sign up and the program determined who was eligible. Our agency’s past problems with the eligibility issue convinced us we’d found a perfect match. Then I, as a private citizen, donated a full day to the actual event, signing people in and giving them the point coupons as they arrived. The program seemed a win for everyone involved.

Now in the second year, the program leader had sent written materials describing the program’s mission and announced the group would meet the next week. When reading the materials, I became concerned about the new direction the program seemed to be taking.

The program description was “to follow God’s example in giving parents the gift of faith in Jesus which is what will help them in every desperate situation including Christmas pressures.” The mission was described as “a Christian outreach celebrating Jesus as God’s gift to us.”

Public agencies need to be vigilant when making decisions on what programs can be supported. And, how they can be supported. Following a discussion with my Director, we decided I would go to the meeting, find out about the changes and express our concerns. We both agreed we could not be involved in what was put forth in these written materials.

The group leader began the meeting by saying she was sure about the new mission of the program. She explained the importance of spreading the word of God and wanting to return to a “keep Christ in Christmas” theme. The group shook their heads in agreement. She recalled the year before when people were ready to do their shopping, that she had given them what she called her “spiel.” She was excited about doing the same this year.

I had an instant flashback of her “spiel” and was uncomfortable once again. It began as a short welcome to each group, describing the generosity of our community, the program’s goals and then a short synopsis of what to expect when they did their shopping.

But as the day progressed, the “spiel” evolved into a lengthy explanation, including her statement that she had prayed to God and he heard her and how fortunate the parents should feel that God had blessed them. By the end of the day, her “spiel” resembled a sermon at a revival meeting and barely mentioned the process of shopping.

This year they planned to give one toy to each child instead of several as they’d done last year. And they wanted to give each child a Bible. One toy and a Bible. Though the leader was aware that her “spiel” made people uncomfortable, she declared, with a glassy eyed gaze, that she felt compelled to continue her ministry. That was the most important thing. The group agreed wholeheartedly. All but me.

I told the group that our secular agency worked very hard to serve the entire community fairly. I wondered out loud, how non-churchgoers or non-Christians might feel about coming to such an event. In fact, would they? I stated that I’d also noticed a high degree of discomfort while the “spiel” was being delivered last year. It wasn’t clear to me why she felt it imperative to express her religious motivation. Isn’t that a private and personal thing? That seemed to go over everyone’s head.

I didn’t think our agency could participate, I said. My Director and I had discussed this, I said. Silence ensued. She had no answer to my question regarding respecting differences, accommodating all. I left the meeting, knowing this volunteer experience was over for me.

A few days later, the group leader called my Director and he agreed that we would continue to accept applications for the program.   Political correctness reigns. In my view the program has been hijacked by people who are ignoring its goals and promoting their own agenda.

Is this a bait and switch? Let’s say it’s a toy give-away program. That way we get a higher attendance. But our real agenda is to spread the word and bring people into the fold. I did notice on the sign up sheet, in very small print, there was a statement that the program was Christian-based. The group leader said she thought this statement was sufficient as a declaration of their intentions. “Won’t people realize what they’re participating in?” she asked.

My other concern, and equally important, was for the donors. It’s always essential that the wishes of donors be respected and honored. I wondered if donors were being fully informed.

After not attending any other meetings, time approached for the program to kick into high gear. The group leader called unexpectedly, saying she wanted to see me. When she came to my office, she asked “are you with us?” I said no. She didn’t ask for an explanation but she did mention something interesting. The pastor of the church where the event had been held last year was not going to allow the program to take place there. The pastor, she said, was not comfortable with the program’s new mission. So, for that, I felt a bit validated. She went on to say they had already lined up another location and seemed nonplused by the whole thing.

Some may think I’m overreacting. I know this is just one little program in one little town. But it’s all part of a larger issue for me. We live in a society that is increasingly being taken over by religion and faith. I’ve read articles justifying the murder of an abortion doctor. Politicians are being banned from communion for doing their job as legislators. Business meetings often begin with a prayer. Some may say these are extremes and not that common. Or these are small things and that I’m making a big deal about nothing. I just don’t want to ignore or minimize this and then wake up some day living in a restructured version of Iran. There are a few things I know for sure. A really neat program has been hijacked. I did the right thing by taking a stand. And I’m searching for another community volunteer experience.

Melodramatic Readers

Published in the Lakeland Times, September 25, 2009

(Presque  Isle, WI. Fall, 2009) Intrigued by a newspaper ad, announcing a performance by the Denim ‘n’ Dessert Readers’ Theatre in Presque Isle, I called to get information. The woman on the phone was enthusiastic and welcoming. The show was on Friday and after the performance, coffee, dessert and wine would be served. So, my husband and I drove from Eagle River to Presque Isle in search of some entertainment, a sense of small town community and dessert. We found everything we were looking for and more.

The program was billed as “a madcap farce in the finest and funniest tradition of the melodrama.” The plot synopsis included a blizzard, a nefarious scheme and the hapless bumbling of a string of colorful, well meaning characters. There was the obligatory fair maiden, the crusty but honorable lumberjack, the heroic Mountie, the villain you’ll love to loathe and a sawmill blade.

We arrived in town half an hour before curtain time and decided to follow the slow progression of cars going up the hill, in what we figured must be the way to the community building. Where else could all these people be going? The friendly woman handing out programs, the one I’d talked to on the phone, greeted us like old friends. Just as she had predicted, over a hundred and fifty people were there. I‘d been skeptical. How could there be that many people in such a small town who’d come to a play. But there they were.

She related that the theater group had started in someone’s garage but as the size of the audience kept growing, they had to find a more accommodating venue. The program said they were established in 2004 with the goal of “providing a non-competitive environment for actors of all ages to engage in theater…and to provide the surrounding communities with a source of free, family style entertainment.” Sometimes they’d have a dinner, sponsored by the local Lions club. For the dinner, there was a charge, but otherwise they survived on donations.

As the 7:00 hour approached, the room filed to capacity. Judging from the volume of noise and voices, everyone was well acquainted. Since this is a reader’s theater, the actors had not memorized their lines but held a small book from which they read their part. The book created a slight barrier when the lumberjack wanted to take a swing at the villain but couldn’t until he’d shifted the book to his other hand. The jokes were almost continuous, from the Mounties’ spangled underwear to the gender bender innuendos by and about the man/woman with no memory.

The program followed the melodrama format to a tee with most lines expressed in the most purple prose you can imagine. I expected Dudley Do-right (of Bullwinkle and Rocky the Squirrel fame) to swoop in to assist Roger Upright in capturing the romantic passion of the fair Nell. This community has some courageous people who aren’t shy about dressing up in outlandish costumes, saying and doing silly things and giving their community the gift of fun.

After the show, the crowd lined up for dessert, all homemade. The donation basket placed on the dessert table appeared to be overflowing. And that’s not the only thing overflowing. We left that night, full of warmth and appreciation.

Whenever we’re out of this area and I’m asked where I live, I describe our home in a small northern town. The ooh’s and aah’s commence. It seems everyone has, hidden in their brain, this imaginary and wonderful vision of life in a small town. That vision is something nearly everyone craves and so few think they will ever have. For us, that vision is real. As we drove home that night, not on a lighted and busy freeway but on a wooded and serene country road, we felt fortunate all over again. And that delicious brownie helped too!

Just another “First”

Published in The Girlfriend Connection, Autumn 1999.

 

In 1999, my special group of women friends added another ritual, just one more to be folded into our well established highlights and celebrations. We’d gathered at Trish’s new home for a lovely lunch, complete with china and linens. A fresh flower from her garden was wrapped into the napkin which meant, I was informed, that this was a very classy event. We felt filthy rich in the comfort and camaraderie of the day.

After lunch we’d moved to the living room to get down to business, celebrating the purpose for our gathering. This was a monumental milestone, I realized, one that would become more common for us as the years passed. Relish this first one, I told myself. This is big, really big.

Pam was the first of my friends to retire! I had flashbacks of all the milestones of life that I’d held as precious memories. Now it’s a new phase: retirement.

We’re a fun and fun-loving group of women, proud to be young at heart, acting and feeling more youthful than we actually were. We’d get together once a month for “girl stuff” at a local sports bar. Betty, our unofficial leader, had been my college roommate back in the early 1960’s. We’d reconnected ten or so years ago and I’d merged with her group of friends, joining them for monthly get-togethers, summer vacations and fall week end trips. Our summertime stays in Door County were the foundation and our bond went deep.

Betty kept meticulous records of our adventures, a diary that helped us remember all the important things that happened at the Louievilla in Fish Creek. Like, what year did we inaugurate the bean bag tournament between the “giants” and the “munchkins” at the AC Tap? Or, when did we stack up all the empty bottles against the front door to warn us if “Barbara, the stalker,” a much too friendly stranger, had followed us home.

Or, was it Ginny or Patti who felt sorry for all the people trying to find last minute parking for the fireworks; so they’d opened a parking lot in the front yard. No. It was Pam who so proudly offered the $12.00’s in parking fees to Betty. Betty worried that the owners of the house would find out and evict us. So much for Pam’s entrepreneurial endeavor.

But on this more sedate day, we watched with delight as Pam, a third grade school teacher, retiring after 33 years, opened her gifts. A newsletter had been written that cleverly described each item and how it would be essential to Pam as she transitioned to retirement. Each gift was silly, funny, touching or poignant. Or, all of those things. Pam covered her face with the card and cried.

I was momentarily saddened. This is what we have to look forward to, the first of many other retirement parties to follow. I’m not ready for this. It’s too soon.

But Pam was the best example of happy retirement I could think of. She’d been sensible and frugal, worked hard, taking advantage of her pension and retiring at age fifty-five. Still healthy and vibrant, she bubbled over with all the plans and the things she wanted to do and would do.

Obviously, she’d given this a lot of thought. I was at first surprised, and then not, when Pam said she might even consider substitute teaching. “Not for at least two years,” she laughed.

As I listened I began to feel envious. The freedom. The choices. Then I felt uplifted. Soon, I too will be where she is. I watched Pam’s beaming face and looked around at the others who were sporting equally vibrant looks. Imagine what we have ahead of us!

 

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