CO-Victory Garden

Over the past couple of days I’ve stopped and erased numerous responses to posts on social media.  The posts that are getting me fired up are those making fun of and/or minimizing the whole pandemic situation.  I know that it’s not fun to be scared.  I know that it’s not fun to have to alter our behaviors.  I know that canceling spring break sucks (still deciding when and how to tell the girls that this is a very real possibility).  But minds and hearts aren’t changed in comments sections, so I wrote this instead.

Most Americans never had to make a personal sacrifice on behalf of the common good.  No ration books.  No blackout times.  Except for the few times that services were limited due to brief government budgetary shutdowns, I can’t think of many.  So we aren’t used to the idea of curtailing our own freedoms and pleasures for the benefit of some shadowy, ill-defined public good.

I was hugely inspired by reports on how German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, framed the issue to her country’s people.  She delivered a  message of reality tempered with reassurance, caution mixed with concern for the common good.  It was, I think, just right.

So, instead of being embarrassed and apologetic about social distancing measures, I suggest that we treat them as a badge of pride–something akin to the Victory Gardens of WWII.  Back then, Americans were encouraged to plant these small vegetables plots both to help with food supply, but just as much to encourage morale as the country rallied to defeat a common enemy.  In that case it was Hitler.  In this case, it’s an exponentially dividing virus that’s, well, going viral.  We need a COVID Victory Garden.



So, to that end, I give you the CO-Victory Garden.  Instead of planting seeds, I will plant positive behaviors.  I will wear this badge as a symbol of my willingness to do whatever it takes, as defined by reasonable sources such as the CDC, to #flattenthecurve.  As of today, here’s what you have to do to plant your own CO-Victory Garden:

COVictory Garden


  • Obtain information from reputable sources, such as the CDC.
  • Encourage best practices in my own home, including handwashing upon arriving home and daily disinfection of frequently handled items, such as doorknobs.
  • Stay home when sick.  I will call my doctor or public health office with questions about what to do if I am sick, rather than overburdening urgent care and emergency department waiting rooms.
  • Keep a few weeks’ supply of necessary items on hand and avoid hoarding, to ensure that essential supplies are available to everyone.
  • Observe travel and gathering restrictions.
  • Not whine if my personal or social life has been negatively affected by the cancellation of an entertainment event that I was looking forward to.  I’ll be sad quietly and try my hardest not to blame others for something out of their control.
  • Support businesses that employ best practices.  If I am able, I will not pressure small business owners for refunds for COVID-19 related cancellations, as they are likely struggling financially.  Many of their hourly workers are struggling as well, so I will try to be empathetic as I make decisions.
  • Check in on already socially isolated people in my community.


If I can figure out how to, I’m going to change my profile pics to that cute badge that my brother, Patrick Bier, whipped up for me over lunch.  It will serve as a sign that I’m quietly doing my part.  I’m neither overreacting nor burying my head in the sand.  Who’s in?


Staying on Brand

Evidence of Dad’s return to normal.  Riding at The White Stallion Ranch a few months after “The Incident”

Here’s a funny story that I’ve had sitting in drafts since this summer.  I had to wait until I knew everything was going to be OK, and it seems like it’s safe to share it.  See, this summer my dad had chest pain and ultimately ended up with a stent, but no serious long term damage.  He’s been back to normal for some time, but the whole incident is very telling.  As one of my siblings noted, the management of the entire affair was completely On Brand for Dad–Tom Bier Brand.

Brand coherence point #1:  Driving.  So, he had chest pain, identified it as something that he, as a former paramedic, would have sent to the E.D.  Great first step!  He avoided the popular habit of people in our family of ignoring warning signs such as, well, periodic crushing substernal chest pain, or a progressive numbness of the entire lower leg, or that horn growing out of the top of their head.  You know, subtle things like that.  The Tom Bier Brand (T.B.B., hereafter) takes medical issues seriously.

But not so seriously that they would compromise a far more important facet of the TBB, car driving.  Driving and automobile maintenance is dad’s primary love language.  He happily made the multi-hour drives to and from campuses with whatever frequency we kids deemed necessary.  There would be a few of sentences exchanged, and then we sat in silence while dad listened to AM sports radio out of Chicago.  WGN is my happy place.  He’d usually say a few more things before dropping us off, slip us some cash, and turn around immediately for the drive back home.  And we knew that we were loved.  Same with checking the cars’ oil, and inquiring about how the car’s running.

The man just loves driving.  After he retired, he started driving for a buddy’s limo company.  After the company folded, he continued driving a private stable of clients.  The Tom Bier service ranges from a drive to and from the airport, a drive to local meetings and appointments, and acting as a designated driver to allow for two martini lunches.  He even used to drive an elderly woman’s car down to Florida for her every year so she could tool around locally.  He’d drive down, stay for a day or two, and she flew him back home, the reverse occurring in spring.  He doesn’t “charge” anything, per se, but people pay just whatever they feel is appropriate. Because the drive itself is actually the reward.  Be it a car, a limo, or a riding lawnmower, the man just likes to be behind the wheel.  Listening to sports radio.

So it was a completely on-brand move that he chose to drive himself to the hospital.  Oh, don’t worry, he wasn’t alone, mom was there.  She was just in her usual spot in the passenger seat.

TBB coherence move number one:  drive at all times, including when you may or may not be having a heart attack.

Brand coherence point #2:  Devotion to youth sports in Southern Wisconsin.  So, dad’s a three-season official, and has been for as long as I can remember.  He just loves to be in a uniform, be it umping grays, or reffing stripes.  He officiates so frequently, that his uniforms need to be washed nearly nightly, and a fresh uniform is pretty much always hung to dry on the downstairs shower.  (This is due to Jan Bier Brand identity, all laundry must be air-dried for fear of shrinkage).  The night of the incident, Dad umped a double-header, and then went out for pizza and beer with the fellas afterward.  It was a typical summer night, one in which dad would have been unavailable for any other social engagements due to needing to keep those young athletes in line.

Could the chest pain have been due to the double header?  He claims he felt fine during, TBB.  Could it have had something to do with the pizza and beer?  Well….

Either way, it remains a fact that before ANY of his five children knew about his hospitalization, the corps of Southern Wisconsin sporting officials had been alerted so as to find subs for his upcoming games.

TBB coherence move number two:  hospitalization comes second to youth sports officiating.  Especially of double headers, obv.


I hope that this little review serves as inspiration for all of us to not only develop a personal brand, but then slavishly remain devoted to it at even the most trying of times.  I’m still working on the kinks of my brand, but I think it has something to do with sarcasm, inappropriately-timed comments, and leggings.





A Flame In The Manger

My annual holiday gift to you all.  All my best to you and yours. –Angie

manger scene 1manger-scene-2

For years, my parents christened our one-acre front lawn with a set of those plastic Nativity figurines frequently seen huddled together during the holiday season.  When I was younger, the novelty of having a complete set—two lambs and a camel along with the full cast of characters, including a shepherd—was enough to keep me feeling special.  As I got older, I comforted myself that, because ours were vintage, displayed in a tasteful hay bale barn, and illuminated from above with a floodlight rather than garishly from within, my family narrowly escaped being hopelessly tacky;  we instead rested firmly in the camp of whimsical nostalgia.  Regardless of the taste level, the annual appearance of the gang on the front lawn was something that provided a sense of continuity and, no matter the chaos going on inside, a sense that a certain Christmas serenity still reigned.

It was my senior year of college that everything changed.  There were only a few days left of the term, and I slogged through finals with the promise that a comfortable, familiar Christmas on County A awaited me in a few short days.  Mom and I were wrapping up our once-weekly call that Sunday night when she offhandedly mentioned, “Oh, and the Manger Scene burned down the other night.”

Coming as it did, across the phone line to my dorm room a couple hours’ drive away, my mother’s comment seemed even more incongruous.  True, we certainly did edit our traditional Sunday evening calls down to a skeletal minimum.  On my part, this was to spare her the details of the questionable choices that I made during my last year of undergrad—a decision that she was more than happy to go along with.  This approach formed the crux of her parenting after age 12:  don’t ask any questions that you don’t want to know the answer to.  On her part, the lack of foreshadowing and leaving out of key details was more routine.  She never has been very good at foreshadowing things.  Dropped in your lap like an unexpected squirming baby, her pronouncements were often without context and, similarly, without clear instructions on where to proceed next.  Luckily, it took very little to get her going, relating the story that now exists as a legend.

Apparently, they set the manger scene set up a few days before.  My brother Patrick–he would have been around 8 at the time–added some theatrical flair to the proceedings and had the magi approach from the east, set to arrive on Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas.  Every morning, he trudged across the acre-wide lawn in his boots and hauled the three statues several feet closer to the scene.

It was a typical weekday night, and they were settled down in the family room for the evening.  A bright floodlight swept across the back of the family room as a sheriff’s vehicle swung into the gravel driveway.  They immediately assumed that this had something to do with the family’s newest driver, my sister Louise, who already had one hit and run incident to her credit since getting her license in September.  (Fear not, the victim was the bumper of another car in the parking lot at dance).  They hustled to the kitchen door and stepped into the crisp, semi darkness of a winter night on the Wisconsin prairie.  The only light came from the manger scene, the dusk to dawn light having been ritually unscrewed to provide center-stage billing to the front lawn tableau.  The light seemed a bit brighter than usual.  And it was throwing off heat.  And crackling.

The nativity scene was completely engulfed in flames.

The sheriff’s deputy exited his vehicle, glancing perplexedly from the Biblical inferno to my dad in his then-uniform grey hooded Janesville Fire Department sweatshirt.  Oh, have I forgotten to mention that he was the Janesville Fire Marshal at the time?  Must have slipped my mind.  The young deputy glanced nervously between the two and asked the only logical question:  “Sir, are you aware that your Christmas scene is on fire?”

An interesting question.  Perhaps my parents just were tired of that particular decoration and couldn’t see taking a trip to the dump.  Trash burning was not uncommon in the township, and who needs a burn barrel when you have a snow-covered front lawn as a fire ring?

His mind already reeling ahead to the implications of this very public display of the fire dangers inherent in Christmas light displays, Dad rubbed his furrowed brow and asked, “Sheesh, please tell me that this hasn’t been called in.”  He was answered by the crackle of the deputy’s radio coming to life.  Oh, it had been called in.  And heavily discussed by all on duty firefighters that evening.  Dad told the deputy that he had things under control;  no, a hose truck wasn’t needed, and PLEASE don’t say any more than you need to about this on the radio.

As the deputy drove away into the quiet night, Dad wearily pulled on his barn boots and walked over to the fire.  He unplugged what proved to be the inciting culprit:  a 50+ year old extension cord festooned at various points along its length with electrical tape.  Using a piece of scrap lumber, he knocked the haybales apart, attempting to dissipate the now roaring blaze.

Flame in a Manger

Haybales really can go to town, once they get started.  They burned for several hours and smoldered into the night, long after my parents went to bed.  In the morning, all that remained was a charred circle in the center of the lawn, melted plastic lumps marking the former positions of the holy family and their retinue.  Unfortunately, it didn’t snow again for several weeks.  County A is a fairly heavily traveled road, and between the dispatch radio and the road’s usual traffic, word of the incident spread quickly.  I think that Dad took the ribbing in stride, and several poems commemorating the incident were delivered to the house, all set to familiar Christmas tunes.  The best was clearly, “A Flame In a Manger.”  The lyrics were stuck to the fridge with a magnet until they grew faded and stained, eventually thrown away some time the next summer.

Thanks to Patrick’s flair for the dramatic, the wise men rode out the fire safely east of the manger itself.   It took a couple of days for him to give up on the project, and for awhile, the three plastic wise men were seen to be slowly approaching the burned patch of grass little by little, inching their way through the blowing prairie winds toward the greasy plastic discs on the lawn of my childhood home.


The next Christmas, Mom went out and got a new set of figures at the Farm and Fleet, but things were never really the same.  The manger scene’s magical allure was diminished somehow.

As I sat in my college dorm room listening to the unlikely tale, the Bier family manger scene shifted subtly and permanently, from magical holiday set piece to classic drinking story, requested by my fellow alumni every year in December, when we all wistfully long for the familiarity of home.

Long Division

It’s a commonly accepted fact that my dad was not a big fan of school.  Who knows why?  Probably something to do with the fact that he is the true embodiment of a kinesthetic learner, and the nuns didn’t exactly cater to that learning type in 1950’s Catholic elementary school.  By college his desk was famously filled with empty peanut shells, instead of the tools of learning.  His hand always looks a little funny when gripping a pen.  It belongs on a kid’s shoulder, a steering wheel, or a ball of some variety.  Nonetheless, he usually was in charge of board-related teaching for us kids.  We had one of those magnetic letter sets, and he’d sit us down and go through phonetics, all of the versions of the -at family, etc.  Similarly, he’d write up sample math problems for us to solve on a big chalkboard, back when writing on a big chalkboard was, in and of itself, fun.

magnetic ABC

Naturally, then, when I came home at the beginning of fourth grade panicking over having forgotten long division, he stepped up to the plate.  He drew out a long division problem on the chalkboard, carefully cased the problem in the standard upside-down-L shaped bracket, and proceeded to confuse me with an explanation of long division that was completely foreign.  I had no idea what the man was talking about.  And as he tried variations of the same explanatory model that he learned back in the day, I grew increasingly furious.  I wasn’t usually the kid who got mad about homework.  I never really needed much help, either, I just enlisted them in order to push me over the top, from the A zone to the A+ zone.  But that night, as we lay on the rust-colored family room carpet and sweated it out, I was flummoxed.  I tried to capture an elusive memory of how we began to learn long division the previous spring, and I couldn’t.  Because he kept blathering on about some other version of long division that made Absolutely.  No.  Sense.

long division

You might think this memory made me sympathetic to the tears that were shed the other morning over my own fourth grader’s long division homework. As a series of upside-down-L-bracketed problems stared up at us from the sheet of paper, the tension mounted.  You see, she used new words for long division, words that I ignored when the parent sheet came home the other night.  Words like “area model” and “standard algorithm.”  I ignored my own parent homework at my peril, and I paid the price.  Fortunately for me, I am a parent during the time of explanatory YouTube videos, so we eventually hashed it out.  But the homework paper bore the telltale scars of angry eraser slashes and tear splotches.

I won’t go into the typical lament about how “new math” is “bad.”  I don’t think it’s bad–it’s just different.  And trying to talk about math using a different set of words and concepts?  Not going to work.  Just ask my dad.  He didn’t have YouTube, and I’m fairly certain that my tear-splattered chalkboard wound up cracked over his head, Anne Shirley like, a sacrifice at the altar of that cruel goddess, fourth grade long division.