The Meaning of Bier

I’ve mentioned my correspondence with Stephan Bier, a former Ketzelsdorfer who now lives in Berlin.  He publishes on the history of the area and has been someone with whom I’ve been lucky enough to correspond.  Before the family trip to the homeland, one question that I hoped to have answered was, “where does the name Bier come from?”  Many from this side of the pond have suggested, joking only to a degree, that a predilection for the beverage may have something to do with it.  Indeed, even when the family was newly arrived and largely destitute, their small gatherings always included a small keg, in addition to music and card games.  These activities are still cherished by the Valentine Bier progeny to an almost universal degree, as far as I can tell.  In fact, the eventual homestead now boasts what is essentially a small private club in what used to be the pig barn, known as “Bob’s Man Cave.”  The Biers, they love their beers.

So at the risk of upsetting the familial apple cart, I proceed.  Once again, I owe thanks to John McSweeny for translating the following from Stephan’s February message:

You asked me where the name Bier comes from.   I confess that I asked myself the same question for quite awhile.  My parents (ordinary people) also did not know the answer, just as they could not explain how we had come to the Bohemian-Moravian highlands so long ago. [However], these puzzles were already solved by clever people before me.  In the book “Ketzelsdorf: A place of pilgrimage in Schönhengstgau“ by Otmar Embert (a teacher in Ketzelsdorf), Franz-Sales-Press, Eichstätt and Vienna, 1984, there are some explanations. (To be specific) there are some explanations of the names on pages 192-194. This book primarily concerns the old Ketzelsdorf residents and is only available in a small edition.

In anticipation of the question of those more scholarly than myself, this book is out of print and I can find no obvious source of a copy in my online searches.  I’d be happen to be proven otherwise to any potential sleuths.  Fortunately, Stephan transcribed the portions of mutual interest:

Origin and Meaning of Some Ketzelsdorfer Family Names

Old German names: In pre-Christian times, the Germans took a single name which was closely related to (the everyday life) of the old Germanic culture and which originally was taken exclusively from the German vocabulary. These ancient names continue to exist in many current family names. However, in the course of centuries most (of the names) have become transformed such they are difficult to recognize. For example, the current family names come (from):  

Here follows a list of such old-Germanic derived names until we come to . . .

Baar, Behr, Bier = Bear (Considered by the (old) Germans to be the king of the forest).

I mean, what else is there to say?  Our Biers, the ones who left from Ketzelsdorf, historically acquired their surname from the king of the forest.  Hopefully, this highfalutin’ derivation will provide some solace to those who will part with their stein only reluctantly.

Stephan goes on to include some information on the arrival of the Biers to their neighborhood of Ketzelsdorf and neighboring Schönhengstgau towns:

Baar – Bier. The earliest bearer of the name Baar is Gierg Par, who appears in Schöffe in 1532.  The name Bier does not appear in the early days of the city (of Ketzelsdorf) but we do find a Merten Bier in 1600 in Hemersdorf.  The [eventual] strong distribution of the two names Baar and Bier in neighboring Ketzelsdorf, which was already a part of Bohemia, is striking.

Are there Biers roaming about whose name DOES derive from the beverage to some degree? would seem to suggest so, explaining that the origins of the surname Bier are several, including:

“German and Jewish (Ashkenazic): from Middle High German bier ‘beer’, German Bier, Yiddish bir, a metonymic occupational name for a brewer of beer or a tavern owner, or in some cases perhaps a nickname for a beer drinker. South German: from the short form of a personal name formed with Old High German bero ‘bear’. Northern English and Scottish: variant of Byers.”

A colleauge of John McSweeny’s at the University of Toledo reviewed the evidence, and seems to agree.  According to Dr. Bernhard Sulzer

It seems to me that the name “Bier” as it is used today and has been used earlier has at least two roots, either from bier (beer) as in the drink or from bero (bear) which, according to a site I found, was derived from the Old High German word bero for “bear” and used especially in Southern Germany and quite likely, in the parts that were once the Sudetenland.


So, my dears, the bear didn’t turn into the drink.  Rather, Bier seems to have come to us via two historic paths: one originating from the drink and one from the animal.  Maybe you will be slightly disappointed, but I know one person who will not be:  my brother Pete, who sports a tattoo of a bear on his back.  It is of a size that he once told me that the head is “about the size of a melon.”


bear by david creighton-pester

From Pinterest, by David Creighton-Pester

The morning drive

This morning while driving to the library, I turned right on a green light.  The opposing traffic was, appropriately, stopped at the light.  I would never have noticed this unremarkable fact, save for an unexpected movement that caught my eye.  The car at the front of the line waiting in the intersection was occupied by an older man in a sensible four door, gray sedan, a fact I noticed only when he began to open his driver’s side door. For a brief moment I considered the possibility of a Chinese Fire Drill-type situation involving his small fluffy dog in the passenger seat.  He didn’t get out though. He leaned out the door, hocked up a big loogie (official medical term), leaned back in pulling the door behind, and went on about his business.  And I was suddenly back to the front seat of Grandpa Bier’s car, on the way to St. Mary’s School.  

Grandpa Bier drove me and whatever of my siblings were at St. Mary’s to school every morning, except for when he and Grandma were in Florida. During that 6-8 week stretch we were forced to rely on my mother and were uniformly late.  Grandpa’s routine was strictly punctual, and after dropping us outside the doors at the bottom of the hill, he would go to mass.  If there was a Kindergartner in the mix that year, he’d hang around the parking lot and drive them home after the morning session.  If there weren’t, he’d go to the Janesville Oasis for a coffee. Years later my youngest brother, Patrick, recreated this scenario before heading to high school, and his morning coffee klatch somehow received recognition as an official high school club, The Breakfast Club.


Sadly, neither the Janesville Oasis itself nor it’s iconic giant cow remain 

Anyway, the driving provided an invaluable service to my mother, his daughter-in-law.   I believe he maintained his presence as a morning fixture int he gravel driveway until mom started driving the kids to school herself.  This coincided with her return to the parochial school teaching force and swift ascent to the barely secular title “Sister Jan.”  When Grandpa drove, I always rode in the front seat because I was oldest and age restrictions played to part in seating assignments.  In fact, some of my happiest car memories as a grade school were spent perched on the armrest between two adults on the front bench seat.  But when Grandpa drove, I occupied shotgun an experience of intimate proximity and uniformly stony silence.

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Grandpa and Grandma Bier and me during my grade school glory.  Taken on the occasion of my first communion.

There was no idle chit chat in the morning drive;  apparently that was saved for coffee time.  Instead, Grandpa waged a years-long battle, attempted to secure a clear reception of WGN news out of Chicago.  He clearly entertained the belief that the static was not due to distance or broadcast strength.  Rather, it had something to do with the heating system.  This belief manifested as frequent shifts between gentle adjustments to the tuning dial and violent slams of the hot/cold control lever back and forth in an attempt to clarify what was never more than spotty reception at best.  He’d pause occasionally:  to retrieve a toothpick from the trim over the window, to yell at squirming miscreants (almost uniquely confined to  the time when we also drove our cousins to school, a.k.a, “The Karl and Tim Era,”), and expectoration.   Whenever we reached a stop sign or stoplight, he’d predictably open the door and produce a generous loogie, a sound that echoes clearly in my memory.  My dad figures that his prodigious phlegm production had something to do with his history as a smoker, a persona that I have no recollection of as he quit right around the time of my birth. Probably his slow decline into various stages of heart failure didn’t help much either.  

I don’t recall him every saying “have a good day” or “I love you”. His drop off procedure in front of St. Mary’s school was a thing of beauty, a no-nonsense slamming on of the brakes signalling that we’d better all bail and bail quickly before he lifted his foot again, distracted by his ongoing warfare with WGN radio.  We’d catch up with him later at mass, which we schoolchildren attended on Wednesdays.  We were encouraged to disperse among the regular attendees, a group of 20-30 mostly retirees.  For a good 15 years, Grandpa’s entourage included an ever-changing cast of characters with various shades of blonde hair and the Bier cheeks.  During the handshake of peace I’d get my hug and remember that, despite the strangely-punctuated silence of the car trip an hour or so ago, I was his Dolly.


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Show Choir: it’s a thing

A couple of weekends ago, I took the girls along with my mom to see a high school show choir performance.  What is show choir, you ask?  It’s a singing / dancing / costumed extravaganza the comprised the heart of my high school career.  This particular performance featured two groups from Janesville Craig high school and two from my show choir of record, Milton High School’s Choralation.  Since then, I’ve had all sorts of conflicting emotions;  indulge me while I  unpack a few of those items and shake out some universal truths.


Milton Choralation:  ballad position, some things never change.

The show choir kids appeared to be the same as I remembered, but with perhaps slightly more modern hairstyles. While performing they were, as a group, emotive and in your face and completely guileless.  While audience-ing they were rapt, supportive, and locked in various stages of platonic and non-platonic embraces in the semi-darkened auditorium.  These were My People.  Whenever I counsel kids going through a tough peer time in school, I always emphasize the importance of finding Their People.  Their People may not be everyone else’s people, and Their People may not be the popular people. Worrisomely, Their People may not exist at their current school and they will have to hold out for the hope of finding Their People later on.  I suppose this is a version of the “it gets better” mantra. Fortunately, My People did exist, and they existed in show choir. We shared the need for the drama, the glitter, and the joy of creating something as a group that brought people to their feet and to tears.  All while spending inordinate amounts of time draped all over similarly minded people in countless auditoriums, gyms, buses and rehearsal rooms.  Finding one’s People should be somewhere in the Maslow Hierarchy;  oh wait there it is in the yellow band.  I knew I was right.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.  Finding one’s People is somewhere in the yellow-green zone, I think.


As much as I’d like to think that I had no pretense about those being truly, honestly My People, that would be crediting my adolescent self with far more self confidence and self awareness than I actually possessed.  I had other People too, or should I say other versions of myself.  It was a small school, so many of these tribes necessarily overlapped–both for me and other.  In fact there was always drama about athletes’ schedules when they found themselves participating in the dramas, musicals, and show  choir competitions. I seem to recall a lot of soccer players in show choir… Anyway, there were other versions of myself, too, and the other big version of my high school self was the hyper-academic version.  There were plenty of smart, academically successful kids in the arts programs, as I recall.  However, for me academically successful was actually skewed to mean being The Best.  I found myself caught in the vicious spiral of “successful kid must do approved academically successful things with their life,” like take all of the hardest math classes and declare academically successful career plans.  I learned this lesson early on and it stuck.  So, these two versions of myself were somewhat at odds, at least in an adolescent mind longing for approval and success.  The one area that I could safely guarantee success was academics.  I still wonder, if I would have felt more successful in show choir, might I have been open to exploring other facets of my personality, those that thrived on things other than pure academic achievement and recognition?

But I wasn’t successful in show choir, at least not the way that I wanted to be.  Oh, I was successful–as the piano player.  I was, and still am, a dynamite choir accompanist.  Thanks to early piano instruction by a nun hell-bent on turning me into the next version of herself–a working church musician–I could play four staves of parts and switch between that and the accompaniment line, no problem.  But I wanted to sing and dance and wear frivolous shoes, which is no surprise to anyone that’s known me then or sense.  As I frequently reassure my eldest daughter, people like us with no filters are destined for a lifetime of memorable public displays.  I think I’m really nailing this parenting of a preteen thing, by the way.   But back to show choir—I tried out to be an on-stage performer twice, which is what I secretly, fervently desired. The first time I was passed over and gladly took the role of pianist just to get a seat at the proverbial table. But the second time? I was hurt to not be listed on the choir director’s door.  I had done OK in my audition. My voice was never going to be picked out for a solo, but I could carry a tune, and I could move. So why not me? I screwed up my 16 year old courage and confronted the choir director with that very question.  He basically said, it’s the piano or nothing. So I chose the piano again and didn’t audition a third time.  People told me that it was because he didn’t want to lose me as an accompanist, which makes sense logically, but since when do teenagers think logically?   I knew the real reason that I wasn’t chosen:  I wasn’t attractive enough to don the red sparkly dress, I was simply too horrid to look at.  My adult brain knows that this is simply ridiculous, but on some reptilian level, I think I still believe it.  So, my senior year, I knew all the steps, all the songs. When a girl unexpectedly left to move to another district, I was sure it was my chance, to be slotted into her emergently vacant spot.  I can’t remember if I offered the idea or just quietly hoped.  Probably the latter;  he cast someone else.  To make matters worse, the replacement then got to dance two numbers with my boyfriend.  Insult to injury.

Looking back on the whole thing as an adult, the lessons are almost trite in their obvious simplicity. I can see now how important it is to not push kids too hard toward who we believe / hope / wish Their People are.  And calm down, mother, you never overtly did that.  In fact, I actually remember you daring to disagree with Sister Mary, the St. Mary’s school principal, when I suggested in sixth grade that maybe I wanted to be a cosmetologist rather than a lawyer and she rebuked me.  That took guts, mom, she was scary, with her helmet of iron gray curls and sensible shoes.  Ultimately, thought, the Sister Marys of the world, coupled by a few rejections in other areas as recounted above, left me firmly seeking my future People in the camp of intense academics.  But that’s a story for another day.

In my opinion anyone who comes through high school and identifies those years as the best of their life?  Something’s dramatically wrong there.  The search for one’s yellow band on the Maslow Hierarchy shouldn’t be easy or complete by 18.   That being said, while far from my best years, those were good times.  For a time, I found My People. So, seeing the show choir was bittersweet.  But the sweet must have outweighed the bitter, because I’m currently composing an email to the Franklin high school choir director to see how I can help support this district’s fledgling show choir.  Because I know that some kids need that home for them and their people.



I have a love-hate relationship with March.  I love that it’s the month that heralds the slow transition into spring.  Like the final slog up a really steep hill, we just have to get through it.  And the climb through March’s ambivalent days isn’t all thankless toil.  There’s robins and foolhardy crocuses and newborn lambs.   Morning and evening commutes and drives to and from school can finally be completed in the daylight.  The earth emerges bleary-eyed into the shocking brightness of it all, the dirty snow melts away, and we remember what our world looks like stripped bare.  It’s all kind of exhilarating and hopeful, isn’t it?  

But all that earthen nudity and shocking sunshine makes me a bit panicky as well.
From the purely practical standpoint, the seasonal shift adds countless items to the list of things to do.  For example, after the recent snow melt the item “pick up random shovels, sleds and debris buried in drifts” was added to mine.  Then there’s all the “get the yard ready for the next iteration of life in Wisconsin.”  For six years we lived in Arizona, and it was sooooo easy.  A change in seasons usually just meant bringing out or putting away one’s jacket.  There was no complete turnover of the yard and equipment required to maintain it at that given calendar moment in time.  I begin to panic over all of the “I’ll get these things done over the winter” tasks that I never got to.  Repainting rooms.  Sorting through paperwork.  Completing that first novel.  Taking up knitting.  Reading Important Books.  All of these tasks will, be inevitably left to wait until I’m forced indoors once again at the turn of fall into winter.  

And spring begins so quickly–I always try and notice it happening but, like the passing of any of the seasons, I never capture it exactly.  Being someone who mourns over the passage of time with real, visceral, gut-wrenching anxiety, the change of seasons can be difficult!  The other day my youngest came to me during the night, worried about the fact that some day she would die and that she didn’t want her life to move so quickly.  Girl, I feel you.  Those are big worries for a little person.  I should know, because I had them at that age too, coupled with a complicated concern for limbo and eternity born out of Catholic education.  I wish I could tell her that these preoccupations get easier, but they don’t.  They just get more manageable and predictable.  Spring is tricky.  Focus on the perennials.  

But would I give it up?  Absolutely not.  Those years in Arizona slid together too quickly, without the bittersweet mile markers of  seasons marching visibly onward.  So bring on the tulips and the crocuses, bring on the spring rains that scour the salty crust from the Wisconsin landscape.  I’ll only get so many springs in my lifetime, and I intend to do my best to wring the essence out of this one.  And those piles of indoor projects will just have to wait patiently in the corners once again.  The lion of March is prowling at the door.

Valentine Bier Family: What came next?

On this Valentine’s Day, I’d like to pick up the thread of the story of the Valentine Bier family.  I started weaving this story a year ago, in honor of Valentine Bier’s nameday and birthday, with an introduction to the patriarch of the Bier family in southern Wisconsin.  After several more installments, we left Valentine transplanted to a meager existence in Rock County, and his wife and children newly arrived from Ketzelsdorf to join him.  Then I was distracted by the Bier trip to the homeland and related topics.  For today, I’d like to pick up the thread of the family’s story where I left it.  Valentine and Catherine were reunited at the train depot in Janesville after almost a year apart.  He was meeting his youngest daughter, Amalia, for the first time.  They climbed onto a lumber wagon and began their journey home.

They arrived in the fall of 1882, and that winter the family lived in a two-room shack on the property of the farm on which Valentine was employed as a hired hand.  The farm was owned by Al Husker, and the building in which the family was to be housed was a two-room shack previously used as a woodshed and rummage room.  In the Memoirs of Father Charles, who was 3 at the time,

The walls were not plastered, and a single layer of siding boards, not too well matched, was all that kept out the wind and weather.  The larger room had two small windows and was used as kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom.  Into it were crowded a small kitchen stove, a table, a cupboard, two rough wooden benches, and a bed.  The smaller room had no window at all and was used as a bedroom.  There was no plumbing in the shack nor any household convenience whatsoever.  —  Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse.

When my mother and I drove to the site, we found that a farm house sits on the north side of the road, and an open expanse of prairie to the south.  The winds through the ill-matched siding must have been fierce.  In order to fit into the tiny space, the two older children, John and Frances, were housed with other families where they worked to earn their keep, of course.  They were 11 and 12.  Valentine worked long hours and was seldom home before well into the night.

Inked1891 Harmony_LI

The Al Husker Farm straddled Wilcox Road in between Harmony Town Hall and Vickerman.  The pond just to the north is now on the grounds of Camp Rotamer.  1891 Plat, Courtesy of the Charles Tallman Archives, Rock County Historical Society.

The following fall of 1883, Valentine rented a few acres south of Milton where the family lived for 4-5 more years in the small farmhouse.  I don’t know the name or owners of the farm on which he worked, but on those few acres he raised the cash crop of the day:  tobacco.  He did so on half shares, meaning that 50% of whatever he earned from its ultimate sale went right back to the landlord.  As the meager amount that he earned from this enterprise wasn’t enough to support the family, he also hired himself out to other farmers at a rate of 75 cents per day.  The family’s principal income, however, depended on the labor-intensive tobacco crop.  Fortunately, much of the tedious work could be done by Catherine and the children.  In Father Charles’ words

The price paid for the leaf tobacco at the time was about 5 cents per pound. and the average yield per acre was about 1500 pounds.  This amounted to about $75 per acre of which half was paid to the landlord as rental. — Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse

Around this same time, the two eldest children began to formally work out of the house as hired hands.  John worked for a local farmer for $10 per month with only Sundays off.  All of his earnings, save for what it took to keep him fed and clothed, went back to the family and allowed Valentine to invest in farming equipment and a few cows and to steadily increase his farming enterprise.  Similarly, Frances’ work as a hired girl was equally arduous and brought in $1.50 to $2.00 per week.  Valentine set aside the money she earned and after three years was able to buy his first team of horses with it.  Without John and Frances’ sacrifice of, essentially, their childhoods, Valentine may never have been able to break out of the cycle of subsistence or tenant farming.  Neither of them were able to formally go to school, save for a few months to learn English upon first arriving.


Edward, John, Louis, Frank & Charles Bier

Neither John . . .

Jiru-Bier Women Four Generation Portrait

nor Frances had the luxury of a gradually exit from childhood, nor did they ever really learn English.

During the time on this small farm, there were several joyful arrivals.  The first was the birth of the third to last child, Caroline, in September, 1884.  She is described from suffering from some form of epilepsy, and I suspect that this may have contributed to the fact that she never left home.  Far from being an invalid, however, later diaries show her as an integral member of the family, devoted to helping Catherine run the household as children and eventually grandchildren passed through.  The other arrival was that of Catherine’s mother and two brothers, Johanna, Frank, and Florian Jiru in 1885.  They had also become dissatisfied with life in Ketzelsdorf.    Frank was accompanied by his wife, Anna Hanauska (sister of Frances Bier’s eventual husband, Wenzel Hanauska) and baby daughter, another Johanna.  They all joined the Valentine Bier family in the tiny rented farmhouse, and for awhile there were 12 people under the tiny roof.

This only lasted a short while, however, as Valentine transferred his brood to a larger rented farm, the Lime Borden farm on the southeast side of Milton.  Frank Jiru and his family stayed behind in the small rented farm that they vacated, and Florian and Johanna Jiru stayed on with the Valentine & Catherine Bier family–Florian for a couple of years and Johanna for the rest of her life, about 20 more years.  The Lime Borden Farm had a relatively palatial 8-room farmhouse, along with the usual farm buildings and a tobacco shed.  Despite the better setup, however, the three years spent there were far from profitable, as the summers were all quite dry and the prices of farm products including tobacco were quite low.  When my mother and I drove by the place, on M-H Townline Road just west of Vickerman, it looked quite rocky as well.  It doesn’t seem as though the three years spent on the Lime Borden Farm were remembered very fondly.

Inked1891 Milton_LI

The Lime Borden Farm is just to the East of the area now occupied by and ethanol plant outside of MIlton, Wisconsin. 1891 Plat Map of Milton Township, Courtesy of Charles Tallman Archives, Rock County Historical Society.

Father Charles specifically recounts a few of the more harrowing incidents that occurred during this stretch of time that are best quoted directly in his words:

In the spring of 1886 while Father was doing work in the fields, the horses were accidentally frightened an ran wildly into a barbed wire fence.  The better one of the team was cut so badly that it seemed impossible to stop the flow of blood.  My parents were both in great distress and well I remember how they cried aloud to God to help.  As soon as father was able to quiet the animal sufficiently, mother pressed some rags into the worst of the wounds till the bleeding gradually stopped.  Incidentally, this was the valuable mare that was being paid for by my sister Frances with the wages she was earning while working as a hired girl for the family from whom father had bought the mare, and it took almost three years of this service to pay this sum in full.  –Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse.

Can you imagine, working for three years just to pay off off a mare?  And what if it had died–she still would have had to keep working for the debt alone!  No wonder they invoked prayer!

The second incident involved Valentine attending a turkey raffle and winning a few birds.  Apparently these events differed from today’s meat raffles in that the turkeys were still alive rather than in a freezer.  As he was walking home with them, some jealous fellas jumped him and ended up injuring one and killing the other turkey!  And this is why we can’t have turkey raffles (or anything nice, kids.)

While Valentine toiled away and fought off turkey muggers, the children still at home started school at the Vickerman School, a short walk from the farm.  Yet, this wasn’t all sunshine and roses.  As the only Catholics at the school, they were automatically outcasts.  This was made worse by the fact that they didn’t speak any English and were quite visibly poor.  Eventually the other children let Charles and Frank and their siblings play with them, except they never got to be the blindman in “blindman’s bluff,” as they didn’t own their own handkerchiefs, and the other children didn’t want Bier germs on theirs.   Kids being perhaps unintentionally mean is a problem across the ages, I suppose.

So what happened next?  Did the venture on the not-terribly-profitable Lime Borden Farm do them in?  Stay tuned…


Olympic-level dedication

bob costas

Bob Costas in Sochi before they found him some subs to protect us, the viewer, from the horror of his conjunctivitis.


Today is the first day of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.  I love the Olympics, specifically marathon Olympic viewing.  I love immersing myself in sports that I don’t even think about during the intervening four years, briefly becoming a luge-obsessed freak.  I love the familiar voices of the play-by-play announcers and color commentators.  I loooove Bob Costas (what am I going to do without him this year?  It was bad enough when he had that eye situation last time).  I love the pre-packed bits of biographical information designed (uniformly successfully) to make me cry.  I love that it only feels slightly slovenly to take to the couch for a one to two week period.





The first time I truly dedicated myself seriously to Olympic viewing was, I think, during the Seoul summer games of 1988.  I would have been 12, and my younger sister Louise around eight or nine.  Because it was summer, we had nothing to do except gorge on the Olympics, and gorge we did.  We pulled out the sofa bed in the TV room and slept down there so that we could watch the official telecast from beginning to late-night end, well after everyone else had gone to bed.  And we tried to wake up for any special during the night broadcasts.   I remember the mental focus required to tune in for a 2 a.m. broadcast of Greco-Roman wrestling, but our goals were clear:  complete knowledge of the Olympics as related to us by Bob Costas and the folks at NBC.  

Our dedication to Olympic viewing continued through our childhoods, although I don’t recall another occasion when we were able to devote such single-minded focus to the games as that summer of ’88.  Since then we haven’t always been able to watch the midday live telecasts of events, the more unedited, exciting broadcasts with announcers that have become friends (I’m talking about you, Tim Daggett).  Despite this limitation, all primetime broadcasts were taken in, regardless of what usually-coveted sitcoms they came up against.  Sorry, ALF, the Olympics are on.

My senior year of college, the winter Olympics occurred in Nagano. While other 21-22 year-olds were pursuing more age appropriate activities like dating and excessive drinking, I was holed up in my dorm room, devoted to the evening broadcasts as viewed on my tiny TV-VCR combo.  Occasionally a friend would join as we sat across my dorm room bed and ignored our homework together.  Oh, and at the same time I was working on a cross stitch for a soon-to-be-born cousin.  Just to complete the completely ridiculous, pitiable picture.

nbc olympics

My key to Olympic obsession

Since then, professional-level Olympic viewing has become simultaneously easier and more overwhelming.  Now that NBC broadcasts over several channels, one has to really stay on top of one’s game to make sure an early-round curling match doesn’t slip by unnoticed.   Similarly, there will be moments where clutch decisions regarding a choice between channels must be made.  And it’s hard to know when to stop one’s obsession–online supplementary content is essentially limitless, which is why I avoid it.  Too many choices are a problem that I like to avoid.  I tend to bookmark a few key sites including broadcast schedules and leave it at that.  Just a little tip from a professional.  It leaves my hands free for needle crafts.

Which raises the question:  is it really the Olympics that I love, or the televised version of them delivered neatly packaged to my couch?  And is the distinction even worth teasing out?  If I ever have the chance to be at an Olympics live and in person, I will OF COURSE snap at the chance.   But I know I’ll be missing something if I do, and my couch is so comfy, the afghan so soft…   So my key channels are “favorited,” some websites bookmarked, Louise is on speed-dial, and a new cross stitch selected.  I’m ready.  Are you?

pyeong chang olympics


If I hadn’t been me

The other day, my 8 year old was having anxiety about who she would be if she’d never been born.  She’s never been one to present me with easy “worries before bed” topics.  One summer when she was around four, every night she worried about dynamite blowing up the house.  I could only calm her down with the white lie that dynamite ONLY works on boulders, such as in train track construction.  As she’s gotten older, things have become a bit more nuanced, but still quite challenging.  So I wasn’t exactly surprised by the nature of this most recent concern.  And strangely, I knew just how to relate–because as a kid, I had the exact same preoccupation:  if I wasn’t me, then who would I be?

I wonder if there’s a name for this particular obsession?  It gets to the heart of what it means to be human, what makes one unique in the cosmos, and the fleeting and illusory nature of consciousness.  Big thoughts to be having as an 8 year old.  While I remember having them at that age as well, for me the question didn’t exactly come out of the blue.  Rather it came from a book by Dr. Seuss that my Grandma Bier had, a big, hard covered picture book about a magical land that you go to on your birthday.  

happy birthday to you

Disturbing Dr. Seuss book

The book is probably intended to make kids giddy with with wild fantastical nature of a land all for you, but it mostly stressed me out.  I didn’t ever want to be whisked away from my bed by an odd, slightly bird looking yellow man only to go to a land of  very circuitously constructed aqueducts.  There was a line in the book something like “if you hadn’t been you, what would you be?…..You might be a bag of old dusty potatoes.”  Now that shook me up.  First, if I could be a bag of potatoes, that indicated that potatoes might be sentient, and I couldn’t even beginning to wrap my head around that.  Also, the idea that me-ness might be transmutable? No thank you, Dr. Seuss.  


Imagine this, but hung in an unheated laundry room and you’ll get the general idea.

When I was little, the potatoes were hung in one of those wire baskets in the laundry room,  an unheated lean-to attached to the north side of the kitchen.  The basket also served as an improvised hanging area for dad’s umpiring uniform shirts.  Those potatoes led a fairly forlorn existence, and every time I caught sight of them, I thought of that stupid book.  What if I were the potatoes?

So I knew we were in trouble when my daughter came to me with a particularly disturbing book to read last night:  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.


Sylvester and the very concerning pebble.

In this shockingly award winning book, a donkey named Sylvester discovers a pebble that grants his wishes, and he accidentally wishes to become a rock.  Then he’s a sentient rock for OVER a YEAR until he luckily is turned back by a series of deus ex machina style plot twists.  He’s a rock out being snowed on day in day out while his parents cry at home.  GOOD LORD HOW WAS I READING THIS TO HER?  I tried to focus a lot on the more ridiculous aspects of the book, so that she wouldn’t realize just how disturbing the notion that you (or in this case, a donkey) could just turn into a rock version of themselves.  It just makes the whole potato proposition all  the more probable.

There’s a couple of lessons to be learned here.  One, children’s books can really freak people out, so let’s treat lightly, OK.  Two, treat your potatoes well.  And three, welcome to the world of lifelong existential angst, oh daughter of mine!