Sunday, August 06, 2006

Notes from a Lake

So after one more year of perspective-gathering in Madagascar, I returned home once more to the small town in Wisconsin, where I was born and bred (or is that bread? As in white?) for a little R&R – that being Reconnection and Re-evaulation. The following are some observations from my time at home that might develop yet another dimension the overall picture:

Wow, it’s a fact. I am from Lake Woebegone. Every day I think I’m relatively resigned to the fact, then something else comes along that gives me pause. Perhaps I was more prepared for life in Madagascar than I had thought.

my town likes to sleep late. This I don’t totally understand seeing as retirees (who make up about 80% of the population up here) are always complaining to me about how they can’t seem to sleep in past 5 am. You would think that that a preferred schedule would be more like what I’m used in Madagascar: all things to open early, and perhaps a nap time around noon would be in order, and then things could close in the afternoon so everybody could meet on the golf course. But alas, it is not so. Few offices/shops/businesses (besides the local eateries that serve breakfast) open before 9 am. The best explanation I’ve heard for this is that it’s due to the post office opening time of 9:30 am – no use coming to town much before the post office opens, I guess.

…one of the big highlights of this summer here was the celebration of the town’s 125th anniversary and several parts of the celebration are worth noting here. The first was the scene in the local public library when the News Review newspaper decided it would be a good idea to write an article commemorating the quasquicentennial celebration by featuring 4 local seniors, or “pioneers” of life here, none under 80 years of age.

Exhibit #1:

I happened to arrive at the library just as the four gentlemen were beginning to assemble for the interview. Here’s a general version of the conversation I (and everybody else currently in the library) couldn’t help but overhear:

[Names have been changed]

Mr. Everet "Muddy" Waters [enters library complaining at the volume any 90+ year-old is entitled to complain at] : I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be here for but it’s 11 o’clock and they told me to be here at 11 o’clock. Where’s Mike Malager? They called and told me that Mike Malager was going to be here from the paper at 11 o’clock and I was supposed to come talk to Mike Malager at 11 o’clock at the library. Something about an interview from the paper. I don’t see Mike Malager, but he’s from the newspaper and he told me to meet him here at 11 o’clock.

A younger man sitting at the computers stands up at this initial barrage and hesitates slightly, trying to decide how to approach this.

Muddy: Has anybody here seen Mike Malager? Somebody called to tell me to bet at the library at 11 o’clock to meet Mike Malager from the paper. Notices man standing by computers. Who are you? Do you know where Mike Malager is? He told me to be here at 11 o’clock and here I am but I don’t see Mike Malager.

Younger man: Sir, are you one of the men we’d like to interview about the early days in Three Lakes?

Muddy: I don’t know what I was supposed to come for – all I know is that Mike Malager is supposed to be here and I’m supposed to talk to him about something. Who are you? Where’s Mike Malager.

Younger man: Mike couldn’t make it in today, so I’m going to be doing the interview with you.

Muddy: Who are you? What’s your name? I was told I was going to meet with Mike Malager – and I’ve got Harry Devonski here along with me – he’s supposed to meet with Mike Malager too at 11 o’clock. Where’s Mike Malager?

Younger man: I’m Matt Figgoli and I’m here to interview four gentlemen about the early days in Three Lakes

Muddy: Who are you? What’s your family name?

Figoli: My name's Matt Figoli ---

Muddy: That’s not a local name. Where were you born?

Figoli: No, I’m not from here, but I work with the paper and I’m supposed to interview you about the early day in

Muddy: But where were you born? I’m here with Harry Devonski – he served 44 years on our school board, that’s a record, y’know. Where are you from?

Figoli: I live in -- [a small town about 30 miles away]

Muddy: No, son, where were you born? Figoli...that’s not a local name.

Figoli: I was born in New York.

Muddy muttering as he wanders off into the room of the library where the interview is supposed to take place, followed by a silent Harry Devonski: Figoli? that ain’t a local name. Where’s Mike Malager. I was supposed to meet Mike Malager from the paper here at 11 o’clock….

At this point I went back to greet Muddy who is a very old family friend and who was janitor at the local school (there’s only one building housing the elementary, jr. high and high schools) for something like 40 years (or forever depending on which sources you reference). I also speak with Mr. Devonski until Ed Tret and “Bud” Pulaski, the other two “pioneers” to be interviewed arrive. I know them both because Mr. Tret and I played in the community band together – he still plays clarinet there at the age of 94 (although some might debate his fine tuning skills on the high range) and Bud drove school bus for years, and although I never rode in the school bus, his wife, Beth, was librarian at the school library for as long as I can remember and she and my mom have a close-knit bond as fellow small-town librarians.

Mr. Figoli from the paper wandered back into the room as the four men assembled themselves and briefly assessed the situation. He spied the full coffee pot at the far wall, breathed a sigh of relief and began filling a cup before asking if that was community coffee. I said it was and laughed that he would probably need some. He looked quizzically at me for a moment, glanced at the four men I was greeting, then asked if I was from here. “Born and raised,” I explained, and, as a look mixed with pity and horror washed over his face, I wished him good luck and skipped out of there.

As I was on a quick errand for my mother, I didn’t stick around to see how the interview turned out, but since the article appeared in the paper a few weeks later, I assume Mr. Figoli survived his experience. As to whether I will survive mine, only time will tell.

Exhibit #2:

The Cemetery Walk.

My mother is president of our Genealogical Society. Now, apparently this cemetery walk thing is not exactly a new idea, but it was new to me, so it caught me a little off-guard.

See, the concept here is that you find gravestones of interesting/important people in your local cemetery, then track down some of the (preferably living) ancestors of those people. You ask those people about the people in the graves – learn a little of their life story, whatever, and then, you get all those people together, ask them to dress up as if they were the given ancestor and, one day, all together, have them stand on their ancestors’ graves and pretend to be them as an audience of cemetery walkers troop by and pause to hear what the re-enactors have to say. Kind of a small-time Old World Wisconsin, except that these people are trying to be real people.

Now, in the end, this cemetery walk was a big hit. It attracted more than 500 people during 2 hours on a single Saturday morning, and there may have been more had it not started pouring (the one good summer rain we got all summer until my brass quintet concert in the park almost a month later). I will also say that my father, a generally shy man with no acting training who stood on the grave of and pretended to be his grumpy Grandpa Del, was also a critical success.

[My father standing on his grandfather's grave, as he said, trying to avoid being thrown off as Del tossed about beneath him...]

But I will also say, the concept weirded me out. It still sort of does.

I’m all about preserving history and remember family stories, and I will also say as I made the tour myself (as a fully costumed 1800s pioneer woman tour-guide – yes, I willingly got roped into this one) that I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the stories and seeing all the fun authentic props people brought for it. Still, the idea of doing it in a graveyard while standing on your ancestors’ graves seems to me like something better reserved for Halloween or at least some kind of twisted murder mystery plot. I’m not one to be squeamish about cemeteries, but this just seems to be asking for its own plot twist. But I’ll leave it up to you all to make your own judgments. Chalk it up to Small-Town America.

Exhibit #3:

The Fourth of July and a barn dance that wasn’t.

These were actually both earlier in the week before the cemetery walk, but they’re worth a short note. First a general comment about the 4th of July here. Our town is known in the area for its old-fashioned, small-town celebration on the 4th. The day begins with a parade – one so big that it takes nearly every resident of the town just to be in the parade. Who watches? Only about a 1000+ tourists who come up for a taste of small-town 4th of July. There’s always a theme and always judging of the floats and it’s usually a divisive battle to see who wins the most extreme float prize each year. Either that or the bank always wins with the only commercially purchased float that hasn’t changed (except in color) through several bank corporation name changes.

Then there’s the flea market and beer tent and brat stand in the park with live music that goes until dusk when it’s time for…

FIREWORKS! This town is also legendary in the area for putting on one heck of a fireworks display. I haven’t seen much to rival it, and certainly not at the small-town level. If you don’t believe me, you come on up next year and the most you’ll lose it the price of gas to get you there and at least you’ll gain a couple of good brats.

Then there’s the barn dance.

Now, this is a first time sort of thing for our town – and in concept I’m all for it. There’s a local community-minded family that has a large “barn” that is used for storing large equipment that they offered for community use for a 4th of July week celebration. They filled the barn with stands advertising local businesses/charity groups/special interests, recruited refreshment sellers, and hired two bands for entertainment. And for a first time thing, my impression was that it was a roaring success. Lots and lots of people showed up to park on the ample lawn space, spread out lawn chairs and blankets and play Frisbee and catch in the field, wander through the exhibition hall, eat lots of food and – or so they all hoped – dance. Unfortunately, being where we are, there isn’t a heck of a lot of choice in the way of entertainment. The organizers did a good job on the first selection – a local brass band that plays a lot of 20’s music – swing and two steps and whatnot, but the second selection happened to be a heavy metal band with a high school-aged following in the area. The two bands traded off timeslots, the brass band playing inside the barn where all the exhibits were (and where nobody outside could hear them), and the heavy-metalers stayed outside where they could blast away without threatening the structural soundness of the barn. Unfortunately, the audience was mostly young families and senior citizens – none of which were too impressed with the heavy metal selections. They finally were convinced to tame it down and play some CCR and other classic rock – but still not very danceable tunes. People wandered around unenthusiastically bemoaning the fact that nobody seemed to be able to play a decent polka and get everybody up and moving. Note for next year: book a polka band as a second and have swing dancing lessons scheduled before opening time.

One other cultural note: I noticed one Black man wandering around with his (I would guess) son there. I didn’t get to talk to him, so I can only conjecture about what brought him here, but I did briefly wonder if he felt as out of place wandering around in my own back yard as I often do here in Madagascar

Home sweet home

So in the end, it was amazing how quickly I slipped back into my old life, where everybody knows my name and I feel like I should know all of theirs. Going home is a lot like putting on a favorite pair of comfortable shoes that might be a little worn around the edges and not necessarily so sexy – but they’ll get you there, and only trip you up once or twice. It’s also nice know that (at least for now) it’s there waiting for me, and that changes occur at a reasonably slow pace in the meantime.

7 comments:

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the summary....I REALLY wish I could have been there. The library story was hilarious and I could picture it all. I remember Doc and probably know the other two just don't remember them as well.

I hate to admit it but I saw better fireworks this year in Clear Lake, IA (that is Ryan's hometown.) They shoot the fireworks off over the lake from barge like things. It truly took my breath away! Did they have the annual pancake breakfast before the parade this year?

We're going "home" in October. I'll write and tell you if I get to see a football game or anything. Either way I'll share my stories and pictures from the trip.

Anonymous said...

It was exciting to come across a blog entry about Three Lakes. It was disappointing to read such a shameful commentary from someone who appears to have such little disrespect for a community and its residents; particularly its seniors.
Having been born & raised in Three Lakes, and having lived there much longer than you have, it's easy to see that you really don't know these people that you speak of at all.
And just because some businesses don't open until later doesn't mean that no one in Three Lakes is an early riser. Apparently you weren't there when businesses opened much earlier. Evidently you've never had coffee/breakfast at one of the restaurants. And given the fact that many department stores in large cities don't open until 10 a.m., I'm really not sure what your point is.
But I don't care. You have no respect or knowledge of the community you were raised in, but you're no longer here. So it really doesn't matter. But shame on you.

Anonymous said...

One more comment... that "black man" you saw in Three Lakes happened to attend school in Three Lakes at one time. Surprise!

Erica in Vietnam said...

Thank you for your interest in my posting - however, if you had read the rest of my blog, you would have understood the perspective I am writing from (certainly NOT the big city!). I love Three Lakes - and my experience in the rest of the world has only increased my appreciation and my awareness of the uniqueness of the community. I also appreciate and write with a certain amount of subtle humor (ever listened to Garrison Keillor?). I'm sorry if that didn't come across to you.

I welcome a dialogue - however, please do not post as "anonymous" if you want to have a conversation. I will delete any further anonymous postings.

Also, I would not be surprised to find out that the black man I saw in the community went to school in Three Lakes - I remember a time when we had some younger black (I can't say African American or West Indian, or Latino, or European because I honestly don't know their history) students in school and I have often reflected in my other postings that I now understand what it feels like to be at "home" in a situation where my appearance doesn't meet the status quo. THAT is an interesting topic for conversation.

And let sleepy Three Lakes enjoy their lie-in. It's not their fault I'm used to getting my coffee in a local diner these days at 5:30 am and being to work before 7. Just different - hence, I write about what others may take for granted.

Anonymous said...

Delete what you like. I don't post to have my comments seen. I posted to get a message to you, since there doesn't seem to be any email address.
I'm not sure what the objection is to "anonymous" - particularly since you identify only as 'erica in vietnam' (and there has to be more than one erica there)but, it's one of my first times commenting on a blog. And I didn't realize we had so many options.
I will continue to read your blog; mainly because there seem to be some interesting subjects and pix, and you write well.
I only wish you had paid more respect to these town pioneers (no quotes) and gave them their due. They were more than just a band player, a school bus driver, a janitor. They were/are business owners, active members in the community, veterans, well-respected human beings. I would never think of calling your mother simply "a public librarian". As you know, she is so much more. So is your father. And you have been more than "just a girl" or "just a student".
I do not think I would have minded your brand of humro as much if you had also talked about who these men really were - as human beings and as part of this great community.
You might be getting more feedback. I forwarded a link to your blog to others from Three Lakes. Maybe they will have a different take. Maybe they will recognize your humor better than I have.
Yours truly;
Anonymous

Erica in Vietnam said...

Hi! If you are new to this, I'm glad I can welcome you into the blogging community! Perhaps it is my fault also for not having a private e-mail option - I will try to fix that soon. I don't actually have a "problem" with anonymous as long as there is honest dialogue as you seem to be interested in and not simply for attacks (as so many others are victims to).

Yes, please do share my blog around. I like getting feedback - and constructive criticism - to improve my communication skills. If there is one thing I have learned, communication and understanding go far, far beyond simply sharing a similar language. Often misunderstandings arise because we assume our choice of words/actions will be perceived in a certain way by others. And sometimes that isn't the case - especially with the written word.

You are right - none of these people I talk about have been "just" anything. They are, without a doubt, the most important people of my life as they have built the foundations of who I am. But sometimes we all take snapshots - stereotypes - as a way to communicate a larger whole. As I go back and read this, I do see how it can come across as cold and clinical - but at the time I wrote it, I was being clinical and analytical - trying to compare "stereotypes" across cultures.

I will go back and change the names in this posting - the internet is just too big a place for privacy (and Three Lakes simply too small a town - I am already giving away too much). But please note, these "characters" have been very close family friends to whom I and all of the town are much indebted. If I use them to examine my life, it is only to get a better understanding of how we all fit into this world.

Erica in Vietnam said...

There - I have edited my profile to include an e-mail contact. If you click on "View My Complete Profile" under the general description on the far right of the screen, it will take you to a page with an "E-mail" option. If anybody feels more comfortable contacting me directly, by all means, you are welcome to do so.

However, I still encourage commenting on individual posts - I like transparency and open discussion. Even arguments! But no wars and no "flaming." I still have administrator privileges to remove comments or to remove the option of posting anonymously.

See you around the posts!