Zaftig: Chapter One


The other day, my nine year old spent 15 minutes sobbing in the car.  For the sake of her privacy I won’t report her words verbatim, but suffice it to say, it was a meltdown over how she looked. I was heartbroken.  On reflection, I was amazed that this didn’t happen sooner. She made it to nine, nearly ten, before this particular inner monologue started up in her.  Far later than it took root in me, or in most women I suspect.  

I attempted to coach her through the moment.  The breakdown did not respond neatly to the previous trope I employed whenever conversations about the state of one’s body came up.  “Does your body do what you want it to do? If so, great. That’s all that matters.” This had worked for many years, but now I had to switch up my tactics.  As I mentally scrolled through articles on the topic, I simultaneously stomped out all of my own inner critics that longed to take the easy way out and join her in wallowing sorrow.  Instead, I decided to write a series of essays on my own body image journey. (Thanks, therapy!!)

Before I begin, a disclaimer:  My parents did a kick-ass job. Upon reading this, mom and, to a lesser extent, dad will start blaming themselves. Guys, this is so much bigger than either of you!  You did an above average job with the five of us! Look how differently we all turned out! You clearly were encouraging each of us to be our own best selves! Quit thinking that this essay has anything to do with you.  You are just minor, supporting characters. So just calm down. This is but one of the many ways you screwed me up and made me the complicated, therapy-supporting citizen that I am today.  I hope to succeed as spectacularly.

Chapter 1.  The unclear roots of the thing 

I don’t feel like doing a bunch of research on how girls form their body images.  I’m sure it’s terribly complex and there are entire journals devoted to the subject. I can only report what I know.  

Around the house?  I guess my mom and her sisters and girlfriends were concerned about their bodies and weights.  I remember a lot of conversation about avoiding a cantaloupe belly, which was their euphemism for what has come to be know as FUPA.  You know, the usual stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary. Mom didn’t have a lot of diet food around the house, no Diet Rite or Tab. But she was a bit of a whole grain freak for most of my childhood.  Let’s just say she stocked carob and we ate tofu before it was cool. So I did develop a bit of a “feast or famine” attitude toward coveted sweets and soda. Sweet cereals were especially intoxicating, and I still have a fascination with the milk / cereal management dilemma that can lead to massive amounts of cereal consumption in one sitting. But, again, nothing overtly problematic. Just the usual background noise. 

 In the ether?  I grew up in the 80’s.  All the women seemed to be wearing leotards, including Jane Fonda on the cover of the LP that mom had to guide her home exercise routines. I remember Special K.  This was the days of the tagline, “Thanks to the K you can’t pinch and inch, on me!” and a lady in a leotard or bathing suit would pinch her thumb and finger together along her waistline and –oops!—be unable to encounter even a tiny pinch of flesh.  Haha! I always was able to pinch an inch, as are most humans. One time, a goofing-around uncle went to tickle my five year old tummy and teased, “Pinch a foot! Pinch a foot!” This had to be insignificant, right? I mean, it’s just a coincidence that I remember it. It was just more background noise, right?

jane fonda

Around this time I developed the habit of dealing with my anxiety with food.  No matter the worry–school, friends, nuclear war with Russia, the fact that we will all die eventually, what’s that bump on my cheek?–food solved it.  Food is very effective at temporarily numbing feelings. That’s why so many of us turn to it so religiously. It works so good! Because mom was health obsessed, (only for about the first three of us.  For the last two, it was off to the races with sugar cereals and Little Debbies. I’m just saying.) there was no typical junk food in the house. So I would turn to less obvious choices. Baking supplies like sweetened coconut, handsful of raw nuts, and raw sugar.  Of course, because this was all definitely weird and off limits, I scarfed it in secret. And then I felt worse about myself, got all anxious, and eventually…well, you get the idea.

So guess what?  Eventually I was able to pinch an inch.  And I clearly remember the first time that this bothered me.  It was summertime, and we were running around in our bathing suits.  I guess I was about eight or so, in my royal blue tank with pink and orange horizontal stripes.  I walked into the family room, dutifully draped a beach towel over the coveted recliner and flopped down to watch some Price is Right.  And a fold appeared in my belly. Had it ever been perfectly flat? Probably not. But I saw the fat, and I grabbed it, and I hated it. And I the Slim Fast commercial suddenly made sense.  No one had to create a curriculum to teach me to hate my belly fat. Life was my curriculum, and I was a dedicated student.

Halcyon Days

Last night I was chatting with some friends about good our lives were in college.  Those were halcyon days.  On reflection, I do recall a little bit of stress thrown in the mix as well.  So today I went ahead and located my planner from senior year.  I flipped it open to a random week in November and was amused.  While the number of items per day generally approximates my life nowadays, the items were so DIFFERENT!  Reading the spiral bound book was instructive and humbling.  Let’s take a look, shall we?


lawrence planner i

My organizational prowess really took off at Lawrence University.  I was an early adopter of the daily planner, faithfully purchased every year at Conkey’s Bookstore, which tragically closed in 2009.  I would continue the paper calendar habit for years on a National Gallery of Art planner, before finally going digital.  That is, until I’ve recently discovered the joy of bullet journaling…


lawrence planner ii

I hadn’t yet mastered color coordination…

Monday:  Highlights include a note to get some beer for Elena.  Do I recall Elena?  No.  Do I know what this had to do with the associated comment, “paper?”  No.  Oh, well.  Happy to have helped, Elena.

There were classes–physics and developmental biology–and note to meet with my advisor, Nancy Wall.

I met Mike for dinner.  It was so much easier to get together with friends then.  Younger readers might be amused to see that we had to plan such things in advance.  IT WAS 1997.  THERE WERE NO CELL PHONES.  You could leave a message on your friend’s landline dorm room phone and hope that they would call in to check messages, but generally we had to plan things in advance.

Not that cell phones have made it easier for me these days.  If I don’t get a dinner on the calendar weeks in advance these days, the kids’ stuff engulfs all spare moments and my husband will claim not to have known about the event and be committed to playing video games that night.

Tuesday:  Breakfast with Chris–ditto the meal planning comments above.  Lawrence University was a residential campus, and most people ate in the cafeteria.  Now there’s something I miss:  Three meals a day prepared by someone not me–who also did the dishes!  And back then I could do things like get together for breakfast–because I didn’t need makeup to look like something other than a bleary-eyed person recently emerging from a mining disaster.  I probably literally woke up 5 minutes before breakfast on that day.

Other highlights of the day include the fact that I was still attending actual, legitimate meetings at 10 p.m.  Nowadays my husband and I argue about who has to stay awake to pick up the kid at 9:30 from dance.  Other highlight:  the word aerobics.

Wednesday:  This day give me anxiety for my younger self.  Look at all of those appointments!  True, one of them was a four-hour happy hour, but still!   Four hours of beer…these days, two glasses of wine and I’m either asleep or crying over a movie on the Hallmark Channel.  1997 version of me?  I finished up happy hour and then went to work the front desk of the residence hall from 9 p.m. to midnight.  Vital tasks there included selling tokens for the washing machines and renting out the TV/VCR combo.

Thursday:  What is this focus group at 8:15 a.m., and how did I possibly pull it off?  Why I am meeting with eighth graders?  I worked two jobs that day–touring prospective students and working in the writing lab. There were FOUR evening meetings back to back.  When did I actually study?  Did Bobbi and I meet at 5:30 to go to aerobics?  All of the answers are lost to the mists of time.  Except for the aerobics thing, because I got a pair of hot pink Avia leggings that say YES, there was aerobics.

Friday:  Well here’s a fun thing that I can’t do anymore:  wander a block and a half across campus, likely dressed like a slob, and see a performance by Diana Krall.  I remember that one–she sang a song that included the phrase “Peel me a grape.”  I can’t even remember if students had to pay for those tickets…

The weekend:  Busy, and closed out with meeting Anne in the library Sunday afternoon.  I loved Sundays–sleep in, meet your friends in the cafeteria for brunch to review whatever had happened the night before, and then go study in the library for the afternoon.  Once in the library, you could be sure where your friends could be found when a break was needed, as we all had our favorite study carrels.  Other break options included checking one’s email on the DOS-BASED TERMINALS BECAUSE THERE WERE NO CELL PHONES.  Sometimes I napped in the library, the smells of the stacks filling my nostrils.  Halcyon days, indeed…


Now, the same girlfriend with whom I was reminiscing about college pointed out that my planner is not at all representative of a norm, because I was (am) an enormous nerd.  But I’m happy that I saved it.  It’s hard to believe that I once was that person…but if given the chance and access to that obsessive planner?  I feel like I could slip back into her life pretty easily.

A Flame in a Manger


Note:  Merry Christmas.  A re-post of a perennial favorite.


For years my parents had been christening 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 had 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.

manger scene 1

I must have been photographing this particular moment, as only mom, dad, Katie, Louise and Pete are pictured.

manger scene 2

Louise with vintage (read–really old and chipped) Mary and Jesus.

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 was making 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’d gotten the manger scene set up a few days before.  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 had 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 however.  And 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 you 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 wearily asked while rubbing at his furrowed brow, “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 pulled away into the quiet night, dad wearily pulled on his barn boots and walked over to the fire.  He unplugged what proved to the 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 the now roaring blaze.  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 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.”

I didn’t quite believe my mother until I saw the evidence for myself.  And for those of you who have heard the story before, perhaps you didn’t believe it either.  But while dad put out the flames, mom had the foresight to document the proceedings for posterity.  Thanks mom!

Flame in a Manger

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.  One good thing, though, they didn’t need to purchase new wise men.  You see, the year of fire brother Patrick–he would have been around 8 at the time– had added some theatrical flair to the proceedings and was having 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.  At the time of the fire, they were still far enough to the east to have been saved.  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 lawn little by little, inching their way through the blowing prairie winds toward the greasy plastic disc on the lawn of my childhood home.


The Ol’ Deer Snare

Last weekend the girls stayed at my mom and dad’s.  Staying at Grandma and Grandpa’s is always an interesting experience.  In addition to the treats that are only available there, being in your parent’s childhood home unaccompanied makes for prime snooping time.  When I was little, overnights meant staying up late to watch bowling over a dish of ice milk.  I could stumble across books my mom read as a child, or toys my dad played with, or leftover adolescent residue in their bedrooms. My own parents have moved from my childhood home, so my and my siblings’ childhood detritus has been neatened up a bit.  Still, the Fischer Price farm set is available for my girls, just as when I was a kid, and the same recycled crafts are dragged out for Grandma’s instruction. This time, the gals and Grandma produced pom poms.

The girls also learned about Davy Crockett;  my parents figured out how to use the DVR.  In addition to catching up on Monk and Gunsmoke, they recorded a couple of the Disney Davy Crockett classics.  Growing up, my entire family was well versed in Davy Crockett, thanks to my brother Pete.  The kid was obsessed.  He had a fake coonskin cap and musket by age four, and was devoted to the movies.  We saw all of them multiple times, having recorded them onto VHS during Sunday night Disney Family Movie time.

Dad chose to introduce the girls to the classic, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, featuring such seminal scenes as the trick shootout with Davy’s nemesis, Mike Fink, and the battle with the injuns, now shockingly inappropriate.  The best scene, though, is when Mike Fink sings his personal anthem, Mike Fink, King of the River.  Dad queued up the scene, and he and I joined in the singing, much to the girls slack-jawed amazement, complete with saucy hip twitches.

After I’d gone, they must have really dug into the Davy Crockett lore.  Most notably Pete’s penchant for setting deer snares to try and catch my mother.  After supper, while mom cleaned up in the kitchen, Pete donned his coonskin cap and fashioned snares out of jump ropes.  Then he and my dad would give each other the signal–the old hoot owl–and shimmy on their bellies into the kitchen to set the snare behind mom at the sink.  She was required to pretend not to notice the grown man and child slithering loudly on the linoleum behind her.  We girls would have been in the other room, studiously ignoring the proceedings. When the signal was given, mom would somehow step into the jump rope snare, fall dramatically to the floor, and be strung up.  I can’t remember what usually happened after that, but God bless her, right?  I can’t stress enough:  THIS HAPPENED REPEATEDLY!

So this morning, I opened the bathroom door and stepped neatly over the jump rope lying on my bedroom floor.  I’m used to unexpected debris magically appearing in otherwise clean rooms. Then I noticed my 8-year-old attached to the end of the rope, looking at me with a look of malignant disappointment.  Noted.  The ol’ deer snare had been resurrected.

When I came down the stairs I noticed another hot pink loop of rope at the bottom of the stairs.  Shoving aside my thoughts of lunches to be made and time running short, I made my way down, paused dramatically in the snare, and fell victim to the newest iteration of Davy Crockett, kind of the wild frontier.  


Summer Feet

“They feel too small!” exclaimed my 8 year old, complaining over the gym shoes that were actually a size too large.  “Give me back my sandals. It’s only the first day of school, nobody will care.”


Growing up, back to school shoe shopping was a rare treat.  The Bier kids were allotted two pairs of shoes each: a pair of athletic shoes and a pair of “nicer” shoes.  Additional, activity- related shoes were acquired second hand. Some classmates might see an additional pair of shoes or two throughout the year depending on sales and whims.  I, however, knew that those two September pairs were it, so they better be good.


As much as I loved those back-to-school shoes, putting them on was a mournful rite.  We spent summers largely barefoot, a pair of flip flops tossed in the heap by the back door.  These were reserved for those occasions when actual footwear was required: church, the once-per-week trip into town to the library, or a visit into the barn.  Otherwise we marauded the yard in barefooted glee. Our feet were uniformly black by the end of those summer days. Mom may not have always had the energy to force full baths on all of us kids, but every summer night concluded with us perched on the side of the bathtub for a footbath, transferring our grime to the black bathwater.  My soles grew tough, and by the end of the summer I was able to run across the gravel driveway without missing a beat. Those free summer feet rebelled against the new, stiff, back-to-school shoes. They were smothering, way too tight. Rest assured there’s no way they were ACTUALLY too tight. Mom made sure we all had a full thumb’s width of space at the toe, all the better to guarantee a full season’s usage on the rapidly growing Bier brood.  



Hiding away those summer toes might as well have occurred alongside corset application.  My feet felt stiff and choked. After a few days, the feeling of the ground faded away, dampened by thick soles.  My toes got used to their sardine-can existence and stopped straining to stretch. My summer tanned feet began their inexorable slide into the soft, pinkish pallor of February.

The easiest decision


Mom and me at medical school graduation in 2002

Almost four years ago now, I retired from medicine at age 37.  It feels like I should be saying this in front of a group to whom I’ve pledged anonymity.  “Hi, my name is Angie.  I’m a recovering physician.”

I’ve already told this story countless times to people whose responses range from confusion to concern, pity to envy.  I contemplated whether a public admission is even necessary, or is it simply more self-satisfying hubris?  The other day a friend sent me an essay written by a woman who had retired from medicine at 37.  I haven’t been able to read it–I think it’s something about wanting to get my own story out there before I become an accidental copycat.  So here goes!

The facts of the case are as follows:  I went to medical school straight out of college, where I met my future husband.  We then moved to Arizona where I completed a residency in pediatrics and practiced at a clinic for two years before we returned back to Wisconsin.  Then I joined the faculty at the Medical College of Wisconsin and practiced as a pediatric hospitalist, taking care of kids ill enough to require hospitalization.  I flatter myself that I was pretty good at the job, and I especially enjoyed the teaching duties that came along with it.  I was doing well and had garnered some awards and leadership positions during my six years there. During this time we had two children, and we managed to hobble together a two-physician life with the help of nannies and family and luck.  I grew increasingly disenchanted with my work, and I assigned most of that feeling to the world of academics.  So I left and joined a local general pediatric clinic–the BEST clinic imaginable in all honesty.  Wonderful coworkers and patients, just really everything.  And I remained gnawingly unhappy.   And I retired.

I realize how lucky I was to have been able to indulge in contemplating my dissatisfied feelings, let alone acting on them.  Were I not married to someone bringing home a nice salary on his own, there’s no way I could have retired.  I would have been trapped by my student loans, which we only just recently paid off.  I totally get that I was lucky to even be able to see leaving medicine completely as a viable option.  But as soon as it reached that level of viability, my decision was simply.  It was getting to the point of not worrying about who I’d disappoint / what others would think / loss of identity that was the hard part.  After that, the decision was easy and the path forward clear.   And I have a lovely spouse who greeted my decision with “you only live once” and has never once made me feel guilty about it.

Since quitting medicine, every few months I’m contacted by a colleague from a past stage of my career.  They are generally going through some turmoil surrounding their medical life, and they want to talk it through.  I think they want my practical opinion and advice.  But I think that I also serve as a living worst case scenario–I quit the thing entirely and emerged intact.  It’s like they are wanting to touch the nail holes to confirm that I am, in fact, still alive;  wanting to prove to themselves that life after admitting disillusion with medicine is possible.  Awhile back yet another female medical colleague contacted me to hash through her moderate dissatisfaction with her medical career.  I had NO IDEA that was the purpose of our lunch date;  I didn’t see it coming from her.  Usually the calls I field are from women my age (for interestingly, all of the advice-seekers have been women).  However, this colleague is probably about 10 years my senior and childless.  Two of the most common denominators of the typical conversation were absent, and she is REALLY REALLY good.  I didn’t see it coming–either her malaise or need for my perspective.  Even the most stalwart have these moments, I’ve learned.  Medicine does that to a person. If she found use in my thoughts, then they are worth publishing.

Before I launch into my lessons, let me reiterate that the field of medicine remains a noble profession that is truly rewarding for many, my husband included.  His role as a physician is vital to his sense of self, as it is for so many of the best.  I simply wasn’t cut from that same cloth.  Further, I do not mean to discourage ANYONE who is truly called to that life and profession–for medicine is both.  I mean, instead, to allow space for anyone needing it to contemplate some of these Big Questions.

Here’s my thoughts about the process of entering medicine in general, at least in the U.S. system:

  1. Once a person has matriculated in medical school, there’s no looking back.  The competition to get in is so fierce, the classes are so rigorous, the peers so singularly focused.  There is no time–either literally or metaphorically–for a medical student to pause and query:  “is this path I’m on leading to a life that I really want?”  Which is too bad because…
  2. The degree of debt that most students take on to complete their medical training necessitates that they practice medicine for at least 20 years.  The repayment schedule is such that a move into a similarly-well paying entry-level position in another field is virtually impossible.
  3. Most 22-year-olds have no idea what they really want in 15 years, the time when the reality of life as a physician (following the years of schooling and residency) truly sets in.  It is challenging to try and introduce the topic of work life balance and delayed child bearing to this age group, especially when they are immersed in the culture of #1.

Here’s my lessons about myself in particular, with thanks to a particularly skilled therapist:

  1. I went to medical school because I was very good at school and had little confidence in anything else about myself.  Believe it or not, I fell rather thoughtlessly into the decision.
  2. I ignored many warning signs of my poor fit and developed unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with them.  However…..
  3. I met my most important people through these life decisions and, therefore, wouldn’t change them for anything.
  4. Medicine is an especially difficult profession to emotionally manage if you are a people-pleaser by nature.  And paradoxically we pleasers make especially good providers.

If people are at all interested, I plan to break down in an occasionally amusing fashion some of those numbered items above.  It’s hard to admit things like this, but at least now I can go read that essay my friend shared with a clear conscience!

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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