My Big Brother

me-steve-shep-1963I cried at my big brother’s wedding in 1974. I was newly 12 and he was nearing 20. I cried because he would be moving away. Granted, he was moving only to the next farm, a short jaunt across the field, but still. No longer would he be living in our family’s home, in the room just across the hall from mine. I was reminded of this last week, upon the occasion of his 43rd wedding anniversary. As they say, time flies.

Back then my big brother farmed with our dad. At first he milked cows on the farm where he lived. But soon a bigger barn was built on the home place, and both dairy herds were combined. Then I again saw my big brother every day, as we worked together on the farm.

For the record, he worked at a far greater rate than I did. He was a farmer and I was his kid sister, and not all that adept at farm work. So I forgive him for that one time he said I should have been a boy — “Larry” rather than Laura — because maybe then I’d be more useful. However, I guess he didn’t mind my inability too much, because he didn’t even yell at me that time when he was teaching me how to rake hay and I nearly knocked him off the Allis-Chalmers tractor, as I learned the importance of the clutch.

Overall, he looked out for me. When I was in 8th grade, he lent me his roller skates so I could practice before a class trip to the town roller rink. His skates were a little big, but they fit good enough that I could learn to keep my balance as I skated laps across the cement floor of our machine shop.

When I fell out of the hay mow and landed, screaming, on the barn floor, he ran to my side ready to offer aid, along with Dad and the veterinarian, who happened to be in the barn at the time. Luckily I was bruised but not broken, and needed no special care from the vet or other medical practitioner.

Otherwise, we milked cows and baled hay and fed calves and scooped silage and whatever else needed to be done — just being a farming big brother and his kid sister.

Then I left home — first for college, then a job, then marriage and graduate school, and a career at Iowa State University. For nearly 29 years I’ve been making a life in Iowa with my husband and kids, some 340 miles away from my big brother. But I keep coming back to the farm. And big brother and his family always welcome me home. Guess he’s still looking out for me.

For that I thank you, big brother. I hope you had a happy anniversary. I’ll see you again on the farm, and soon.

Laura Sternweis

Girls Who Wear Glasses

glasses-girlI’ve been one of the girls who wear glasses since I was 8 or 9 years old. That’s when the good Sisters at Catholic school discovered I could not see what they were writing on the blackboard. So they moved me to a nearer-the-board seat in my third grade classroom and recommended me for vision screening.

I failed the in-school vision test and soon found myself at my mother’s optometrist’s office, where I received my first pair of glasses.

I came of glasses-wearing age in the 1970s, a time of plastic frames in an assortment of both mod colors and earth tones. I selected frames based on fashion, and my mother verified with the doctor that my selection could accommodate my requisite lenses, as they approximated Coke bottle bottoms (the euphemism for thick lenses at the time). Throughout the ’70s and ’80s as I kept up with fashion, my frames kept getting bigger, and thus, my glass (yes, they were glass) lenses kept getting heavier.

So I appreciated when lighter-weight plastic lenses became available. As technology continued to develop, even my former Coke bottle bottoms could be transformed into not only lighter but thinner plastic lenses that by the late 1990s could be adorned with thin metal frames.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve usually needed a stronger lens prescription every two to four years to accommodate my changing vision. And over the years I’ve become less concerned with frame fashion, instead opting for function. My first question to each glasses salesperson is, “What frames will work with my lens prescription?”

That again was my first question to the sales rep last week, when on my 55th birthday I selected frames for a new pair of bifocals (excuse me, “progressive lenses,” so called for all you older Baby Boomers who can’t accept your increasing age or diminishing eyesight). I chose not from the designer frames section (too expensive) nor from the discount rack, though I wish I could have purchased low-cost frames. Luckily I found suitably functional frames at a middle-of-the-road price point.

I don’t mind wearing glasses; I like to see clearly. I’m not interested in contact lenses. I don’t even like eye drops, so why would I willingly put little plastic disks into my eyes? So a girl who wears glasses I will continue to be.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. For the record: It has been my experience that boys do make passes at girls who wear glasses. More so in my 20s. Now, not so much — except for that one guy to whom I’ve been married for nearly 29 years, which suits me just fine.

Book Junkie

“The Bitch Is Back” was the last book I finished reading in 2016. “The Millennial Mindset”* was the first one I finished in 2017. The latter was a research account from two professors of communications and public relations on just what those Millennials are thinking. The former featured eloquent commentary from women in midlife, sharing, as the editor states, “the wisdom of enlightened middle age and about happiness.”

millennial-bitch-booksAs you may have gathered from the two book titles, I’m a nonfiction reader for the most part. I read about culture and politics, humor and home decorating, among other things. I read for my amusement and education, sometimes at the same time.

Full disclosure: I’m a book junkie. At any given time I’m working my way through about a dozen books or so, picking up whichever one sparks my interest.

I’m also cheap. I support my habit by frequenting two libraries — my local public library and the research library at the university where I work. I visit their “new books” shelves nearly every week, checking out whatever grabs my attention.

Occasionally I buy books. Sometime I even pay retail. But I am more likely to acquire them used, via library book sales.

I read online as well, but it just ain’t the same. I want to hold the book in my hands, feel the paper, smell the ink, and keep my place with an odd bookmark.

Midway through 2006 I started keeping track of the books I read. I’m a list maker and a goal setter. My goal is to read at least 24 books a year. For a book to make the list, I have to have read it cover to cover. No skimming.

In case you’re interested, here’s my 2016 book list. If you need something to read, I recommend them all!

  • We’re Just Like You Only Prettier: Confessions of a Tarnished Southern Belle, by Celia Rivenbark
  • Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, edited by Joanne Cronrath Bamberger
  • Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
  • Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, by Carol Bodensteiner
  • You’re Going to be Dead One Day: A Love Story, by David Horowitz
  • Country Living American Style: Decorate, Create, Celebrate, by Hearst Communications Inc.
  • The Jesus Cow: A Novel, by Michael Perry (fiction)
  • The Bee Cottage Story: How I Made a Muddle of Things and Decorated My Way Back to Happiness, by Frances Schultz
  • Absolutely Beautiful Things: Decorating Inspiration for a Bright and Colourful Life, by Anna Spiro
  • 300 Cottage Style Decorating Ideas, by Better Homes and Gardens
  • Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-Seven Women Untangle an Obsession, edited by Elizabeth Benedict
  • Hurts Like a Mother: A Cautionary Alphabet, by Jennifer Weiss and Lauren Franklin (fiction)
  • Sarah’s Seasons: An Amish Diary and Conversation, by Martha Moore Davis
  • Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression – by Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), (A Posthumous Manifesto by the Editor in Chief of Charlie Hebdo)
  • The Atheist’s Bible: An Illustrious Collection of Irreverent Thoughts, conceived and edited by Joan Konner
  • Lovable, Livable Home: How to Add Beauty, Get Organized, and Make Your House Work for You, by Sherry and John Petersik
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo
  • The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between, by Kaya Oakes
  • Downtown Chic: Designing Your Dream Home, from Wreck to Ravishing, by Robert and Cortney Novogratz with Elizabeth Novogratz
  • Campus Sketches of Iowa State University, by Velma Wallace-Rayness (1962 edition)
  • After You, by Jojo Moyes (fiction)
  • The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All over the Place (parody), by Jennifer McCartney
  • The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, by Gil Troy
  • Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, by Michael Kinsley
  • Difficult Conversations: Craft a Clear Message, Manage Emotions, Focus on a Solution – by Harvard Business Review Press, 20 Minute Manager series
  • Who Is Hillary Clinton? Two Decades of Answers from the Left, edited by Richard Kreitner
  • The Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes
  • My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem
  • Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger
  • Leading through Language: Choosing Words That Influence and Inspire, by Bart Egnal
  • Blue in a Red State: A Survival Guide to Life in the Real America, by Justin Krebs
  • 101 Reasons to Love the Packers, by David Green
  • The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, edited by Cathi Hanauer

Laura Sternweis

*The complete title is “The Millennial Mindset: Unraveling Fact from Fiction,” by Regina Luttrell and Karen McGrath.

Scrappy Little Tree

Twscrappy-tree-croppedenty-eight years ago a last minute, scrappy little Christmas tree earned a special place in my heart.

My husband and I were newlyweds and 1988 would be our first Christmas together. That December he was a soon to be laid off landscaper, as his employer prepared to shut down for the winter. I was in graduate school and earning only a small stipend. We had no money to buy a Christmas tree and had planned to go without.

However, a few days before Christmas on one of his last landscape jobs of the season, my husband and his coworkers cut down a large, overgrown evergreen shrub for a client. As he examined the downed greenery, my husband decided the topmost five feet would make a passable Christmas tree. So with the client’s and his employer’s permission, he brought it home.

We didn’t have a Christmas tree stand, so we put the little tree in a bucket of water, with a blue blanket filling in as a tree skirt. (Think Linus and Charlie Brown’s Christmas story.) We had only a half a dozen or so Christmas ornaments between us, but we hung them on the little tree, along with two crocheted snowmen, some fabric flowers, a beaded necklace, and a “Noel” banner. In our final stroke of ingenuity, we took one of our remaining wallet-sized wedding photos, taped a string to it, and hung it on the tree as well.*

Ever since that first Christmas, we’ve always found a way to have a Christmas tree. Sometimes we’ve gotten them for free from a friend with a woods to clear, but more often from a more usual route — a cut-your-own tree farm or a grocery store’s tree lot. Our ornaments have ranged from kid-proof plastic to heirloom glass. Over the years the trees have all been lovely. But that first scrappy little tree still has a memorable beauty all its own.

Laura Sternweis

*We have hung that wedding photo on every Christmas tree we’ve had, every year since.

Past Christmas Present: 6 Volumes!

6-volumes-croppedIn 1968 I received over 10,000 words for Christmas. They were packaged as “The Golden Book Illustrated Dictionary.” As a first grader who had only recently learned to read, I was awestruck. There were six volumes! And they featured “many hundreds of space-age words,” according to the authors. (This was the 1960s, after all.) I eagerly took in all of those words, as well as the “3,000 pictures in full color.”

When I was a kid, I always could count on getting three presents from Santa — clothes, a toy, and a book. Under the guise of Mr. Claus, my parents made sure that each of us seven kids received these three gifts every year. Although the clothes and toys I received would be outgrown– sometimes quickly, given a physical or developmental growth spurt– the books never really were. Because through those books I developed my love of reading. That is the gift for which I am most thankful.

Laura Sternweis

Past Christmas Present: What a Doll

walking-doll-croppedA duct tape collar keeps her head from falling off and her legs are strapped together, never to walk again. Other than that, my 50-year-old dolly is in pretty good shape.

I got her from Santa for Christmas 1966. A Mattel “Baby First Step,” she really was something special. When the crevice in her back was loaded with two D-cell batteries and her “on” switch was flipped, this doll could WALK! She was amazing.

I took good care of her, so much so that the following year, when I took my dolly to kindergarten for show-and-tell, my teacher said she still looked brand new. However, I played with her a lot back then, and as will happen with well-played toys, eventually she played out. Her walking mechanism broke, her legs came loose at the hips, and her plastic-shoed feet deteriorated. I got older and dolly was dismissed, forgotten at the back of the closet.

One Christmas in the mid 1980s when my dolly and I were in our 20s, my mother went on a doll rejuvenation spree — cleaning and redressing several of my sisters’ and my dolls, including my formerly walking dolly. So I reclaimed her, and she’s been back with me ever since.

Today you can find Baby First Step dolls online, even new in the box for upwards of $150 on ebay. Those poor dolls. They were never loved like my dolly. Mine’s not for sale. She’s a precious memory marker for me, not only at Christmas, but all year long.

Laura Sternweis

Music Lessons

studio-fenceAll that remains of my music studio is a fenced-in lot between two taverns. I’m not sure how long it’s been gone from my old hometown; I’m guessing several years at least. The location surprises me now. Back when I was 8 years old, I never noticed the drinking establishments serving as beer-sign laden bookends for what had been an unassuming brick store front. As I approached the studio each week for my piano lesson, I was focused on getting to the keyboards inside.

The front room was the show room, with an assortment of pianos and electric organs on display. If I arrived early for my piano lesson, I was allowed to plug a pair of headphones into one of the organs and play until it was time for my lesson. Then I’d head to the lesson room just beyond the show room, to show Mr. Piano Teacher how well I had learned whatever songs I’d been assigned.

I played from Robert Pace “Music for Piano” and “Skills and Drills,” as well as from “easy” piano books featuring 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s pop tunes. Mr. Piano Teacher had taught me to read music and I diligently practiced the songs as written in the books. But I preferred to play the music I heard on the radio, in church, or from my parents’ record collection. I discovered early on that I could listen to a song and then play a reasonable facsimile of it on the piano. These were the songs I learned not by notes on paper, but by ear and, as I prefer to say, by heart. And lucky for me, Mr. Piano Teacher encouraged me to build this skill.

I took lessons from him for about a year and a half. Then he moved his studio to another town. I continued my musical education with other teachers for two more years, but it wasn’t the same. The other teachers preferred their students to learn piano by book rather than by heart. By that time I knew I wasn’t that kind of student. I’d had enough of uninspiring teachers and boring drills. I still wanted to play piano, but I wanted to do it my way.

So I did then, and I still do. Besides those old pop tunes, I play classic country, gospel, 1970s Catholic folk Mass songs, polkas, and waltzes. I collect and play old sheet music, garnered on the cheap from my public library’s used book sales. And I still play the songs that I know in my heart — from the radio and church and old records.

I am not an accomplished pianist. But I’m an OK piano player. I lean more to easy Cs and Gs than multiple sharps and flats, and my song choices are decidedly low brow. Now that I think about it, the location of my music studio is not so much a surprise as it is a revelation. I consider myself lucky to have learned my music lessons between two taverns, because now I have a story to tell.

Laura Sternweis

Still With Her

womancardDuring sixth grade in Catholic school, the day arrived when we girls were to watch “the movie” — the exposé on menstruation and our burgeoning womanhood. In preparation for this motion picture event, the boys got to set up the film projector. In 1974 our teachers accepted and acted upon the notion that boys could do technical things like setting up film projectors — because they were boys. Girls, on the other hand, could not — because they were girls. However, we girls were allowed to set up and take down the folding chairs in the church basement, which served as the film viewing room.

We must have set up the chairs, because we did indeed watch our movie. But as I recall, we girls were angry that we weren’t allowed to set up the projector. Sure, the boys always got to set up projectors or any other cool technical device. But this was our movie. So we rebelled by not taking down the folding chairs after the screening. We went back to our classroom without being helpful or kind.

Well the Holy Water hit the fan that day. Sister Principal was one ticked-off nun. She and the teachers couldn’t seem to understand why we girls were upset. I imagine we were punished, although I don’t remember how.

I never liked being told that I, or any other girl, couldn’t do something simply because of being a girl. Didn’t like it when I was 12, don’t like it now that I’m 54. So in 2016 I went door to door for one very qualified candidate for president. I caucused for her. I made phone calls in my county for her. I donated to her national campaign. (Yes, I am proud to have my Woman Card.) And I voted for her.

This time the presidential glass ceiling did not completely break. But it came damn close. And eventually someone will break through.

I’m still with her and every other her who wants to do what others say can’t be done. Because today girls of all ages can run their own movies and chase their dreams, whatever they may be.

Laura Sternweis

One Good Halloween

halloween-1966A store-bought mask and a plastic pumpkin used to be all a kid needed for Halloween. At least that was all this kid needed in 1966. I was 4 years old when I embarked upon my first Halloween adventure.

I don’t recall whether I had given my mother any indication of what I wanted to “be” for Halloween. And I can’t confirm whether I had any input into the selection of my final costume. Most likely my mother chose the blue-haired nurse mask and plastic pumpkin I ended up with from a sale rack at the local dime store. But it didn’t matter. I was going trick-or-treating for the first time, tagging along with my older sister and her friend, a neighbor girl who lived just down the gravel road and up the county highway from our farm. I felt quite grown up to be going somewhere and doing something with the big girls.

We were three farm kids going house to house in the small town where my sister’s friend went to school. I imagine it was exciting to hike in the dark, collecting candy contributions for my plastic pumpkin. (This happened 50 years ago, so an exact account of the evening is unlikely.) However, I do recall one lady asking us where we were from, because she didn’t recognize us. When my older sister and her friend told the lady that we were country kids who didn’t live in town, she yelled at us for trick-or-treating in her neighborhood. But otherwise, the local citizens didn’t mind giving us candy.

When I was school-age, I went trick-or-treating once or twice with a grade school classmate. But most Halloween nights, like other nights, I was home on the farm, helping milk our dairy cows. Halloween just wasn’t that big of a deal for me.

Today most kids seem far more into Halloween than I ever was, with elaborate costumes and industrial strength candy bags year after year. That probably was true back in 1966 as well. I guess I’m just unlike most kids. One good Halloween is enough for me. A blue-haired nurse mask and a plastic pumpkin selected by my mother sustained me then. The memory sustains me still.

Laura Sternweis

My Sentimental Iron

iron-croppedWhen blue sparks start flying out from the electrical cord, it’s time to get rid of your iron — even when it’s the iron your mother gave you for Christmas in 1985.

I wanted an iron for Christmas that year. I had just moved in to my very own apartment, the first time I’d ever lived alone. I was looking forward to no more roommates with boyfriend issues or annoying habits. But no more roommates also meant no more roommates’ irons to borrow. So I made my request, and my mom came through with a name-brand steam iron, nicely wrapped for me under the Christmas tree.

That iron was a workhorse, ably de-wrinkling my good clothes after each trip to the laundromat. It remained a hardworking steam iron until 1988, when I moved from Wisconsin to Iowa as a newlywed. Shortly after we were settled in our new apartment, my husband accidently knocked my iron out of the bathroom storage cabinet, breaking the water reservoir. No longer could it hold water without leaking. I was in graduate school at the time and didn’t have extra money to buy a new iron. And besides, my mother had given me this iron. So my steam iron became a dry heat iron. It still removed the wrinkles from my good clothes. So I kept it and used it. Until sparks flew out of the cord in October 2016.

I guess two months shy of 31 years isn’t a bad life span for a former steam iron. I got my mother’s money’s worth out of it, and then some. Last week I bought myself a new steam iron. We’ll see if I get 31 years out of this one.

Laura Sternweis