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

Helping the blind to read

My mother had macular degeneration, a disease that destroys straight ahead vision but leaves peripheral vision. She could no longer sew or read or see the faces of people right in front of her. But fortunately, we found the Iowa Department for the Blind. The tips they shared, including the use of puff paint to mark stove and washing machine dials, microwave buttons, and radio & TV remote controls, allowed Mom a quality of life in caring for herself in her own home that she’d have lost without them.

The biggest blessing of all, though, was Talking Books. The Department for the Blind provided the player and librarians quickly learned Mom’s preferences in books and authors – biographies and Louis L’Amour. Books arrived in her mailbox and when Mom was finished, she returned them to her mailbox in the postage paid mailers. She was never without a book to ‘read.’ And her reading resulted in weekly book discussions between us.

When I published my book Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, I was fortunate to be able to read it for the Iowa Department for the Blind Library, thereby making it available to everyone with low vision.

During the process of reading my book for their library, I learned that tens of thousands of Iowans qualify for the services of the Department but only a few thousand use them. That’s a shame. The services are free. The quality of life bestowed, priceless. If you know someone with low vision, don’t hesitate. Give the Department for the Blind a call.

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.

Failure worries dog life insurers

“Failure worries dog life insurers”  This was a headline in the Des Moines Register yesterday.  When I read this, I thought that with all the economic woes the country is facing, the failure of people who insure dogs just could not be high enough on the list to be the lead on the business page.  I launched into reading the article fully prepared to tsk and cluck and shake my head at a country so flush we can have dog insurance.  I also thought of the two Mastiffs my son and his wife keep and wondered if they have insurance for their animals.

Several paragraphs into the article, I couldn’t find anything about dogs.  I went back to the beginning. Maybe in my haste, I had read past the point.  All the way to the end. Still nothing about dogs.
 
I read the headline again.  I have been known to misread headlines.  But no. It said “Failure worries dog life insurers.”  
 
I read it again and again.  Finally. Finally. Finally, I realized dog was the verb. Worries was the subject!  I didn’t exactly slap my head, but I had to laugh.  “Hey, David,” I called to my husband. “Listen to this!”  We had a good laugh over my misread of the headline.  
 
I love a day that starts with a laugh.  And I’ll take a good laugh when I can get one. Even at my own expense. That headline is a keeper.

One new idea every day

When I published my memoir, Growing Up Country, my goal was to implement one new marketing idea every day.  With marketing I was finally in my comfort zone! After 30 years in marketing, I knew that even the best product in the world wouldn’t sell one unit if no one knew about it.

I was reasonably successful with that lofty goal and book sales showed it.  Now that I’ve had books in hand for over a year, I’ve backed off demanding ‘one new idea every day,’ but the week doesn’t go by that I don’t think about getting in front of people with my book somehow.
 
My latest marketing approach is to look for opportunities to write about childhood or farm memories. As we Boomers age, nostalgia is a natural and more media are responding to this interest. My book mention comes in the descriptive author tag.  Just last week, I wrote such a piece for the Des Moines Register’s fiftysomething insert.  Titled “Playing in the sky,” my recollection was about Dad and Mom helping us kids build and learn to fly kites. 
 
Whether this piece will result directly in book sales or not remains to be seen.  But what I do know is that having my name and book title in front of my target market pays off over time.  A gentle reminder.  

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.

Using the right equipment

People tell me writing a blog should be easy. After all, they say, I’m a writer. But from my perspective, being a writer makes it all the harder. I know how much I labor over the words in the articles I write, in the book I published. To spend precious time writing something that I don’t have to write … well. At the same time, I keep tripping across little things – having these little experiences – that I just know I’m supposed to notice, and write about. Today the little thing is YakTrax.

 
I’m a walker. Almost every day, regardless of weather, I head outside for a walk. Mother nature has thrown down the gauntlet this winter in Iowa, rotating ice and snow on a weekly basis. But I am not deterred. If the Alaskans and Norwegians can survive and thrive in all that snow, so can I. 
 
My theory is it’s all in being prepared, having the right equipment.  A face mask against the wind. Mittens that let me expose my fingers without freezing my hands. Still, before my husband came home with YakTrax, I resigned myself to the treadmill at winter’s first sign of ice. Walking every step afraid I’d fall just wasn’t worth it. But once I slipped these little gizmos made of rubber and metal coils over the soles of my shoes, I found I had traction. I could step out with confidence. I didn’t worry about falling.
 
In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about how important it is for writers to have the right tools in their writing kits.  Perhaps writing a blog will be like YakTrax. One more piece of equipment I’ll discover lets me step out with confidence.