Saturday, May 31, 2008

It's a Babcock Ice Cream Kinda Day

Eddie enjoys a small waffle cone with Union Utopia (vanilla ice cream with a peanut butter, caramel, and fudge). Andy opts for the orange sherbet chocolate chip. Dad, not pictured, found the Badger Blast (chocolate with chocolate flakes and chocolate swirl) much to his liking.

At first, Andy balked when I asked the boys to pose for this picture. "But it's for Nancy!" I insisted. He then complied -- but notice that his arms are folded.

The obligatory picture with the Capitol in the background. Andy resumed the arms-folded pose.

JoAnna emerges from Sojo Blau after her hair appointment.

Cindy Richard, Entrepreneur

Cindy Richard, JoAnna's sister, is a partner is a brand-new business venture.

Check it out here!

(No, unfortunately, it's not a Bastille Day catering service.)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

How I Met Shelia-Belia

Thirty years ago this July, I interviewed for one of three department head positions at the Oshkosh Public Library. The openings first came to my attention as I browsed through an issue of Library Journal while sitting at my desk at the G. & C. Merriam Company in Springfield, Massachusetts. After 2½ years as an Assistant Editor/Editorial Librarian, of feeling increasingly closed-in by a deskbound office environment, I craved a change of scene.

One of these jobs has got to be mine, I recall telling myself.

The timing of this job ad couldn’t have been more opportune. I was less than a week away from traveling to a Nelson family reunion at Lake Spread Eagle in Florence County, Wisconsin, less than a 3-hour drive from Oshkosh. (One of my Merriam colleagues waggishly asked, “Spread Eagle?! What’s that, a singles club?”) Before leaving Springfield, I scheduled an interview with Director Richard Miller, then just a month or two on the job.

I remember very little of the specifics of the interview, which included no other staff members. In fact, outside of the Administrative Assistant, I don’t recall being introduced to anyone else. The only question I clearly remember Miller asking was the final one.

“Which one interests you the most?”

He had three positions to fill: Head of Circulation Services, South Side Branch Librarian, and Head of Extension Services.

My decision was influenced by a very engaging course on outreach services taught by Wendell Wray, one of my favorite professors at the University of Pittsburgh library school.

“Head of Extension,” I replied, after a brief but thoughtful pause.

Two weeks later I was offered the job – and eagerly accepted. We agreed up an August 28th start date.

The choice of this position proved to be a rewarding one in many ways, not the least of which was the opportunity to work and become friends with Shelia Neubauer, whose retirement dinner JoAnna and I attended Saturday evening.

Shelia was hired as the secretary in Extension Services in 1971, when she was 19 years old and just a year out of high school. Her friendliness, ebullience, and, most importantly, her loyalty to the library paved the way for a very smooth transition on my part. I sensed that she had become the de facto interim department head during the summer. Although she filled this role very competently, she expressed relief to have a new boss on board, though with one reservation. Years later, I learned from one of my predecessors in Extension that Shelia thought I might not be up to the job because I was “too young”.

Just call me “Baby Face Nelson”.

You could say that Extension Services was not just a library department but also a state of mind. When I arrived, the staff had already developed a strong camaraderie, no doubt the result of Shelia’s personality, which always gave off a warm glow, and her infectious joie de vivre.

Shelia loves to tell a good story. What might take the average person less than a minute to relate will become a full-blown routine from her perspective, complete with allegretto hand motions and boop-boop-a-doop vocal inflections. One day, after a particularly involved story – this was during my first year on the job – she mentioned that she had taken a new sinus medication which she didn’t like because it made her “too squirrelly”.

LeRoy Stahle, the county bookmobile driver at the time, turned to the rest of us and, with perfect comic timing, asked, “How can you tell the difference?”

There were a number of times when the Extension staff went out together during the evening for “a few drinks”. On one memorable occasion, a giant zucchini from LeRoy’s garden accompanied us on our bar-hopping trek. It probably endured a rougher night than any of the rest of us. This is also the same night when LeRoy, very uncharacteristically, stripped down to his underwear and dove into Diana and Mike Stritzel’s above-ground pool. (Diana has been working at the Oshkosh Public Library since 1974 and has no immediate retirement plans. Mike, on the other hand, is retiring from Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac in two weeks after working there for 34 years.)

Shelia’s retirement dinner took place at Primo’s, an Oshkosh restaurant that first opened for business as Marco’s in the early 1980s. (Their fondly remembered rack of lamb remains one of my favorite entrees of all time.) JoAnna and I arrived a few minutes past 6:00, the start of the designated cocktail hour. Although set up and ready to go for a party of 45, the banquet room was deserted.

“You don’t think they changed the location at the last minute?” JoAnna asked me.

When we peered into the bar, we initially didn’t see any familiar faces – not until we took ten or so steps into this area. We greeted Rick Bowman, the recently retired Business Manager at OPL, and his wife Mary. Both JoAnna and I marveled at how great they looked. Nearly 22 years since we had last seen them, they appear to have hardly aged. Rick looks a little bit fuller in the face and, like me, sports significant touches of gray at the temples. Mary made me feel as though it was still 1986. (Of course, maybe our filed-away brain images age correspondingly without our being aware of it. But who wants to hear that!)

Rick, Shelia, & Mary

During our conversation with Rick and Mary, the activity in the bar began to resemble that of a class reunion. Personally, I felt like a nervous suitor awaiting the guest of honor, but once Shelia bounded up to us to say hello, it truly was old times again – 22 years being washed away like a defenseless sand castle. I could have almost convinced myself that a certain wedding day was just a week away.

Looking around the banquet room during dinner, I counted ten people who have worked at OPL for more than 25 years – and for 8 of them more than 30 years. And they are just the current employees. It would be interesting to learn how many large public libraries in Wisconsin – Appleton, La Crosse, Eau Claire, for example – have a similar roll call of longevity.

And here I, the Retiring Guy, think that my 8 years at OPL and 22 years at Middleton are a big deal. I’m just an Average Guy.

Shelia, on the other hand, will always be a very special person. It's very hard not to be happy in her presence.

Shelia, Paul, Diana, LeRoy, Peter

Mother's Day Brunch: A Review (of sorts)

Alice, Larry, Cindy, JoAnna, & Eddie

From the exterior, the Fawn Supper Club in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, looks like a Depression-era roadhouse, complete with gravel parking lot. The only concession to modern times is a handicapped-accessible ramp, a legal requirement for doing business nowadays. Once you step inside, the rough-hewn, pinewood paneling makes it feel, at best, as though you’ve entered a 1950s time warp. I’d guess that the Fawn has been in business for at least 50 years without the owners giving a single thought to remodeling. The restaurant’s floor plan – a sizable U-shaped bar, tightly-packed clusters of tables and chairs, and a haphazard arrangement of hot and cold buffet serving tables – leaves no room for anyone in a wheelchair to maneuver his way around. The aforementioned ramp is nothing more than a cynical appendage.

(And about that bar. The majority of people sitting there are smoking cigarettes like its still 1958.)

Eddie and I skipped the salad and soup bar and headed directly to the real food: mashed potatoes, gravy, sauerkraut*, corn dogs, potato wedges*, broasted chicken*, turkey*, ham, beef*, “southwestern” cod*, breaded shrimp*, and meatballs (in a thin brown gravy). My two trips included modest servings of the asterisked entrees. If I would have served myself a second helping of the same entree, it would have been the chicken. The beef, we agreed, came close to the realm of mystery meat. Actually, it was a mystery as to just what cut of beef it was. Cindy wondered if the kitchen help had added a few too many beef bouillon cubes to the meatballs. They were way too salty for her taste. It wasn’t just the meatballs, as it turns out. Back in Middleton, I found myself drinking a glass of water every 15 minutes throughout the late afternoon and into the evening. Salt must be the only seasoning that the Fawn uses.

True confession: I’d go back there again; it’s soooooooooooooooooooooo wonderfully Wisconsin.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Reminiscing about college summers

Andy is home from college now. He took the last of his final exams at 10:00 this morning and then helped Gretchen pack up her stuff. She must have had an afternoon final on her schedule as they didn’t leave Milwaukee until 5:00 p.m., right in the middle of rush-hour traffic through the downtown area and past Miller Stadium, where fans were already arriving to see the Brewers take on the Dodgers. Andy returned home just before I took a panful of chicken, baked to a crunchy-crusted, golden-brown perfection, out of the oven. Once again I used my own recipe for seasoned flour (one part flour, two parts corn meal, salt, pepper, celery salt, and a healthy dose of JoAnna’s Cajun-blend seasoning).

The chicken ranks right up there with the Cheez-It meatballs.

Andy and Jack on move-in day, summer 2007.

Unlike Andy, once I left home for college, I didn’t return home for the summers. After my freshman year, I stayed in Buffalo, attended summer school (to make up for my disastrous fall semester), and worked fulltime at Gleason's Restaurant, a “Big Boy”-type establishment. I did a lot of walking that summer – 15 minutes to the campus (located at Main & Bailey in my day) every weekday morning to attend a French class (plus the walk back to the apartment I subletted with a roommate I rarely saw because of my busy schedule) and 30 minutes to the restaurant (usually, but not always, managing to catch a ride home with one of my fellow workers). I had the full experience at Gleason’s: starting out as a busboy (clearing tables with speed and efficiency), then a dishwasher (my least favorite activity, but the manager wanted someone who could work uncomplainingly fast), fountain server (getting drink and ice cream orders ready for the waitresses; Gleason’s didn’t serve alcohol), carhop set-up person (taking orders over the speaker-phone system and then shouting them out to the grill line; getting the trays ready for delivery), and, ultimately, grill cook (where, during the course of the extended dinner rush, with as many as 30 beef patties sizzling in unison, my glasses repeatedly became speckled with tiny grease spots. Imagine how much oil my face absorbed during the course of an 8-hour shift.)

I spent a few weeks at home at the end of a foreshortened sophomore year. Classes ended at least a week early at UB and many other college campuses that spring when things went all surreal, thanks to the Nixon administration’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam with the invasion of Cambodia.

May 4. Four students shot to death by National Guard troops at Kent State University. (Later research would uncover the fact that there was indeed an order to shoot: “Right here, get set, point, fire!”)

May 15. Two deaths result when police open fire on students on the campus of Jackson State University in Mississippi. (Actually, one of the victims was a high school student walking home from his grocery-store job.)

And what was my biggest concern at the time? Setting up my stereo components as soon as Dad and I made the return trip from Buffalo. And maybe throwing a mild fit when, temporarily, I couldn’t get any sound out of one of the speakers. (Oh well, we all have our quirks).

I spent the summer in Minneapolis with Mardi, a friend from high school, and Bill, her extremely likeable but alcoholic boyfriend, landing a maintenance job at the downtown Dayton’s Department Store within a few days of my arrival. Bill worked as a route manager for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. By early July, I was covering for him once or twice a week when he was too drunk to drive – or talk coherently or even sit up on his own. I’d leave the apartment at 5 a.m., drive Bill’s car to South St. Paul, and deliver papers on a route for which he had been unable to find a carrier. More often than not, I’d been up all night reading anyway.

In the summer of 1970, Bill hung out with a group of friends for whom drinking was a religion and drugs were still taboo. (That’s changed a couple of years later, when Bill decided to serve two masters, at which point Mardi dumped him.) Fortunately, I worked 5-6 nights per week from 5:00 until 10:00 or 9:00 until 1:00, depending upon when Dayton’s closed. And what a great place to work. At the time, Dayton’s was still determined to be all things to all shoppers, offering a vast array of merchandise on its 8 sprawling floors. I developed the habit of arriving to work early and just wandering around the store to my heart’s content. It seems that I always ended up in the music department, though, where I contentedly browsed the album bins contemplating my next purchase.

[Here's a sample of what I listened to that summer: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10]

I stayed in Buffalo for the first two months after my junior year, though I hitchhiked the 90 miles to Warren three or four times, always making pretty good time via my thumb. Then in late July, I responded to the subliminal messages of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls”, the Mamas and Papas’ California Dreamin’”, the Rivieras’ “California Sun”, and perhaps even Lesley Gore’s California Nights” and checked out the place for myself. It started out as quite an adventure for the three of us who traveled together – 7 days on the road at a time when you saw hitchhikers at nearly every Interstate entrance ramp (and back then people actually stopped to pick up three people at a time, believe it or not) and 7 days of crashing on the beach just south of Laguna with nearly 20 other Kerouac disciples, most of whom, eerily, hailed from western New York, northwestern Pennsylvania, and northeastern Ohio.) I developed the feeling of being completely untethered. It’s a time I still recall with a sense of wonder and amazement, particularly in light of the fact that I dropped out of college for a semester to soak up the atmosphere. I am forever thankful, though, that I managed to reconnect myself to reality, as I had no future there with an incomplete education. I certainly wouldn’t have been content working in restaurants and living in cheap motels for the rest of my life.

Nevertheless -- just to be sure, I suppose -- I returned to Laguna Beach from Buffalo for an idyllic, sun-soaked summer after the first semeseter of my senior year (January-May 1972), hitchhiking on my own this time. (Easiest trip ever: I received a ride from someone delivering a Winnebago RV from Iowa to California. He wanted someone to help him drive, and I was happy to oblige.) The owners of the Cottage Restaurant, where I had previously worked, were happy to rehire me as I had been a steady, calming force in the kitchen during the late afternoon and evening hours of operation.

By early July, though, I had developed a love/hate relationship with my situation. I loved the beautiful setting and the serene, almost constant sound of the ocean surf – not to mention the daily excursions to the beach, a two-block walk from the apartment I shared with two other Cottage employees. The camaraderie among the evening restaurant staff created a easy-going, wise-cracking atmosphere straight out of a TV sitcom. But all too often I found myself unable to full enjoy the moment. It was as if Peggy Lee was following me around while singing “Is That All There Is”.

Paul's workplace: August-November 1971 and June-August 1972: two views.

Friday, May 9, 2008

From Here to Leon

Heading towards the back yard

Every year around this time, I take a series of pictures of a stretch of our yard along the south side of the house. Not that much has changed in recent years. Just the perspective of this year's pictures; they're lower to the ground.

When JoAnna and I moved to Mayflower Drive in May 1987, this yard space had just two elements: peonies and turf. Two years later, two other elements, Creeping Charlie and the Common Blue Violet, threatened to take over. I spent many hours during the summer of 1989 removing these ugly invaders by their roots. (And, surprisingly, never once did I wish we had moved into a condo.)

We have subsequently added a hodge-podge of plants. There's been no grand plan, I must confess. In fact, if you asked me to identify everything, I'd get off to a good start -- Snow on the Mountain, Black-eyed Susan -- but then I'd start to draw blanks.


(Tell me I'm not the only person who does this!)

And now that we keep the plastic labels, I still have difficult making an on-the-spot ID.

Truth be told, I've never been good with names.

(So why is it I can still remember the starting line-up of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates?)

In spite of our hodge-podge approach, by the late spring this area of the yard is quite pleasing to the eye, commencing with the white, pink, and purple puffs of colors provided by the peonies.

Heading back to the front yard

This year we switched mulch -- from Montaho shredded cedar bark to Nature's Helper premium black satin. Montaho's shredders have become increasingly toothless through the years, it seems. Some of the pieces of wood are big enough to trip over. Nature's Helper, on the other hand, initially struck me as a poor substitute. When I opened the first bag, I saw what looked like top soil. Once it was on the ground, though, it dried to a well-defined, chocolaty brown. It looks especially good after a rain.

I noted with some degree of concern, however, that Nature's Helper is a product of a company named Garick located in Cleveland, Ohio. We are nature's helper is their rather lame motto. OK. Outta Cleveland, huh? (They'll never be able to live this story down.)

Speaking of which, Cleveland should be avoided until Leon Russell is inducted into the Rock and Roll Fall of Fame. Del Shannon? Duane Eddy? But not Leon? But this rant deserves a separate post.

And maybe someday I'll tell you about the "Roll Away the Stone" parties at The Pub in Oshkosh.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

It All Comes Out in the Wash

I made a maddening discovery late Sunday afternoon. As I was pulling clothes out of the washer, I heard a thunking noise, like muffled metal, as I tossed an armful into the dryer.

Cue the Dragnet theme.

While moving the clothes around during my search, I heard the sound again, though slightly duller this time. I then felt something the size of a small bar of soap in one of the many pockets of a pair of Eddie’s cargo shorts.

If only it had been a bar of soap. But the object had quite a bit more value than that. It was Eddie’s cell phone. And, of course, all of the power had been washed out of it.

Before starting the cycle, I distinctly remembered fishing the shorts out of the tub – among the towels and boxer briefs, and t-shorts, mostly – and going through the pockets. But these were a new pair that Eddie had purchased at Penney’s the previous day, and I had missed a side pocket designed for the snug storage of a cell phone.

Actually, it probably won’t cost much to replace it. Wireless companies use these devices as a way to drain their customers’ wallets. They make their profits through a variety of “unlimited use” plans. (Don’t ask me for specifics; this isn’t my area of expertise. I am perfectly happy to vent nonetheless.) I generally go bug-eyed when I catch sight of the phone bill. (Fortunately, it’s one of the bills that JoAnna pays.)

Andy always laughs out loud when he checks the detail, what little there is, of my cell number.

“You only used your phone 6 minutes last month?” he noted, incredulously, during his most recent review.

“I’ve never had that much use for a cell phone,” I generally say.

“That’s because you never have it on,” he counters.

Which is true.

For Andy, the monthly meter runs into the hundreds of minutes. Last year, JoAnna had to adjust our plan because of all the text-messaging that Andy does.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t understand why people feel the need to have an instant connection with everyone they know. Nowadays, the concept of being unreachable is just plain horrifying to many people – the worst thing in the world.

How did we ever deal with emergencies in the days of the Princess phone?

(If Andy were to look over my shoulder right now, he would have just completed the world’s most exaggerated eye roll.)

When I was in college – uh-oh, here we go, tales from the Stone Age – making a long-distance phone call was a carefully considered act, at least for me. (And I was probably in the minority back then, too.) I don’t think I called home that often – probably not even once a week. Fast-forward to the present. Andy will sometimes call me 3 or 4 times while I’m at work – to the point where I have to tell him to stop. One of his favorite times to call is when he’s walking to and from the UWM campus.

Phonewise, Eddie definitely takes after his dad. Being temporarily without his cell is no big deal for him – hardly an annoyance.

“It’s a piece of crap,” he said, shrugging off the loss with ease. “I need a new phone anyway.”

Andy, on the other hand, would have remained in a state of high anxiety, driving his parents crazy in the interim, until he got a replacement.

In the meantime, I placed a sign on a framed photo collage above Eddie’s hamper: EMTPY YOUR POCKETS. It’s a habit he’s never developed. (But at least he places his clothes inside the hamper.) And what does Laundryman find in his son’s pockets: wallet, loose change, mechanical pencils, hall passes, class handouts, gum.

Apparently, Eddie has nothing to hide.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Paulie Want a Cracker

Thanks to Boing-Boing, I learned about a German website that compares the commercially photographed and actual appearances of 100 different products.

Here are my own, definitely amateur, efforts.

For what it's worth, Flip Sides are the best new cracker I've tasted in quite some time. It's even taken the heat off the Cheez-It box, with the following exception.

Culinary tip. The next time you make meatballs, substitute crushed Cheez-its for bread crumbs.

Tree Hugger

This picture was taken in late March along the pathway that connects Monticello with the visitors' center parking lot.