Playing in the sky

“You have to make your own fun,” Dad told me. His comment embodied both a life philosophy and the financial reality of our eastern Iowa dairy farm in the 1950s. So as often as not, our fun came from what we made rather than something we bought.

One year when the March winds were strong enough to make a skinny kid like me think I could stand on a hilltop, spread my arms and fly, Dad taught us to make kites.  He brought dowel rods to the dining room table; Mom dismantled brown paper bags. He showed us how to measure and cut, fold and glue until we had a sturdy diamond-shaped kite.

We were giddy with anticipation as we carried our kite to the field south of the house. Dad coached one of us to run with the kite while another played out the string.

Time after time, the kite swooped in the air and then nosedived into the ground.  It just would not fly. Dad stood perplexed. Then he remembered. “A kite needs a tail,” he proclaimed. Back to the house we trooped.

Mom dug an old sheet out of her rag drawer and we tore it into strips. We crafted one long strip, knotted smaller cloth strips down the length, and tied it to the end of the kite.

Back in the field, one good run, one solid gust of wind, and that kite took off, its fancy tail sailing in the wake. “Let out the string!” Dad urged. It was all he could do to leave the ball of string in my hands.

We played the kite out. It soared higher and higher. Swooping. Diving. As high as an airplane! We had made our own fun and it reached the sky.

This piece was published in the April 2009 “Fiftysomething” section of the Des Moines Register

Salute to Librarians

This coming week – April 12-18 – is National Library Week. An annual celebration of the contributions of our nation’s libraries and librarians. The theme this year: “Worlds connect @ your library.

I am personally indebted, past and present, to libraries and librarians for connecting me to the world. As a child, I climbed the steps of the Maquoketa Public Library on many a Saturday to disappear in the stacks in search of Zane Grey and the wild west or Jack London and the northern wilderness or Tarzan in the African jungles. These days, I visit libraries state wide sharing the stories of my book, Growing Up Country. In visits with people across the state, I learn how closely the worlds of people who grew up on farms and rural communities connect, regardless of age or location.

So go check out the world at your local library this week. Thank the librarians for being there, helping us all connect with our worlds.

Our stories connect us

After taking a couple of months (the really cold, really snowy ones) off, I’m back on the road again, doing readings, discussions and signing events at Iowa libraries. Three weeks ago, Maquoketa; last week, Bettendorf, this week, Clermont and Elgin.

The more people I talk to, the more I discover how common the experiences of growing up in rural Iowa are. And the most common experiences are the ones I least expected. Chickens, for instance. The smell of wet chicken feathers. The sight of a chicken with its head cut off. The fear of being attacked by a territorial rooster. The sudden, sharp, startling peck of a setting hen defending her nest. Who would have imagined that traumatic chicken experiences would connect so many people?

Whether people are 90 or 60 or 40 or 20, someone starts to tell stories of growing up in Iowa and all of a sudden memories come flooding back. Doing laundry. Milking cows. Weeding the garden. Driving tractor. One story leads to another and all of a sudden people who didn’t know each other at all are reminiscing as though they’d grown up in the same house. Sharing stories – connecting with – people about growing up in rural Iowa is one of the great, unexpected pleasures of my life these days.

Just right

Along with many millions of other residents of Planet Earth, I was glued to my TV yesterday watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama.  As a public relations counselor for more than 30 years, I listened to his inauguration speech with one ear tuned to my own reaction and the other ear gauging how the speech would be received by the media and the public.

As President Obama spoke, I listened to the structure, the cadence, the content, the meaning, the message.  I listened for the memorable sound bite.  President Obama is certainly capable of soaring rhetoric, he could stand toe to toe with Martin Luther King, Jr., but in this speech, he did not deliver the one phrase that stands above all else nor did he whip the crowd to a frenzied peak. Was this a mistake?  I believe not.
 
Our new President spoke to the world on the topics and in a manner that were most appropriate to the occasion.
  • He spoke to who he is: “I stand here today, humbled by the task … grateful for the trust … mindful of the sacrifices” 
  • He spoke to a new outlook: “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord”
  • He spoke to our pride: “there are some who question the scale of our ambitions … but their memories are short. For they have forgotten … what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage’
  • He spoke to the world of a new America: ‘we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals’
  • He spoke to our strength: “I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. … But know this, America – they will be met.’
As I watched the faces in the crowd, I saw that people were drawing from the speech, the day, the experience, just what they needed. Each person would hear the phrase that spoke to him or her. President Obama didn’t deliver one phrase for everyone, he delivered one phrase to each listener’s heart.
 
He was presidential. He was a statesman. He was true to who he is – an intelligent, thoughtful, wise man. A leader.