Whad’ya Know? Retro
I had a terrible thing happen to me the other year—I turned fifty. You can imagine how hard it is for a twenty-nine year old to turn fifty. Half-empty, half-full–what do I care, it’s still half. A few weeks ago I got an offer in the mail that said, “one week left to buy life insurance.” That’s the way things were going. Naturally I raged against the lengthening of the shadows by maintaining a low-grade long term depression for most of the past year, and forbade a fiftieth birthday party which would mean the inevitable gag gifts: the Depends adult diapers, the Efferdent gift set, the Viagra bottle filled with jelly beans (or so I discovered the not-so-hard way), the little crutch that guys who can woodwork some crank out that are supposed to support your “third leg,” and the cards like “Let’s hear it for Fifty . . . Hip, Hip, Replacement!” I thought I was home free when, on the weekend of my birthday, who (pl.) of all people but my radio audience (or, as I like to think of them, people who come to see a radio show) brought me every one of those gifts, plus the playing cards (“You know you’re fifty when. . . ”), the book “50 , The Age of Wheezin’,” a voodoo doll to stick pins into my aches and pains, and a toothbrush from a dentist emblazoned “Brush ‘em while you still got ‘em.”
Amazingly, it worked. I felt much better, particularly in the Depends. This is the beauty of Midwestern humor, it brings you back to earth. This is also the beauty of having an audience; everyone should have one. Still, it is a responsibility, even if I’m not the “empty vessel” (“Fill me!”) I claim. Art Linkletter was right: people are funny. It’s just spotty. And kids are the darndest things; sometimes saying nothing at all, perhaps because they’re six months old and holding back, preferring to drool over a microphone while trying to stuff it into their faces. In the warm-up, I tell them “This is an audience participation show—it it’s a bad show, whose fault is it? Inevitably, of course, they say “Yours!” (it’s a rare audience that accepts responsibility) but, frankly, without them I’m pretty much twisting up there.
Our people come primarily from WI (including the UP, which, by rights, should be ours, anyway), Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa, with more adventurous souls showing up from Missouri, Michigan, Ohio and Azerbaijan. It was the guy from Azerbaijan , Ozzer, a student in international finance, who wondered “what the deal was with Mary in all the bathtubs around here?” referring to the common Wisconsin practice (particularly in Kenosha, where it is an art) of using the old bathtub from a conversion to bury on end in the backyard as a religious grotto. It was then that I began to think that maybe we were special. Was there a Midwestern sensibility, a worldview, a characteristically good-natured deadpanned irony? I’m no sociologist, but see if you can draw any conclusions from some of the things people have said on the show:
Duncan, from Wauwatosa, was still mourning the loss of his beloved pickup truck:
“What possessed you to sell it?”
“It didn’t run any more.”
“You could have parked it on the lawn.”
“She wouldn’t let me. The washer and the dryer are in the way.”
Ours is a surprisingly diverse crowd. Take Brian from West Bend, “not an environmentalist but a Republican” and a “logistics specialist” (truck driver) who “hauls a lot of cheese” and was in Madison for the Haitian festival. Samuel, originally from Kenya, shows how completely he has become acculturated as the city chemist at the sewage plant in Oshkosh :“I try to be friends with everybody in Oshkosh so they’ll keep flushing.” While putting up high moisture corn in his silo, John, a dairy farmer western Wisconsin paused to call in the finishing touch on a young woman’s paper on Dante’s Inferno we were helping her write on-air: “Beatrice showed him heaven and Virgil showed him hell.” Kelly got a 100% on her paper.
We own hydrogeologists, ministers and rural mail carriers. When a woman from New Glarus pulled a garlic sausage from her purse and I remarked “This cries out for a beer!” a mail carrier delivered one before the end of the show. While I can’t explain the hydrogeologists, the ministers are obviously looking for material for Sunday, and the rural mail carriers can listen on their routes, like Dave from Strum, WI, (near Osseo), who took a day off to come down and play the quiz:
“Where would you be about now, Dave?”
“Going down the hill by Craig Potter’s place.”
“Is he keeping it up pretty good?”
“He lives quite a ways off the road, so it really doesn’t matter..”
“That’s a lot for him to keep up, the Potter place—I heard he’s thinking of selling it off.”
“With a driveway like that I’d consider it too.”
“The county won’t plow it.”
“No—only if he’d leave a few more presents at Christmas.”
“That how it works with the mail, too?”
“No, you’d get it anyway. Eventually.”
You learn about jobs in my job—I mean what people really do. Shawn, a systems analyst for the DNR, admitted that meant he “watched fish grow.” A biological mass spectrometrist by trade, Chris ionizes brain molecules for analysis, but, when pinned down, reveals “it’s just dosing people with a lot of drugs and seeing what happens.” The people skills learned on the job by Ron, a paramedic with the fire department start with not saying “you idiot, what did you call us for?” Donna writes computer software programs for insurance agents: “Here is you desk. On your right you’ll see a drawer. You could put files in that.” Charles, an unusually candid pest control expert reveals that those who fail the pest control exam “get to be pest control experts,” and that “we tell our customers who are concerned about the humaneness of our job that we take the mice out alive and release them in the forest preserve. Technically we release them to another customer.” In the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky laundry problems, Susan, a dry cleaner from Medford, Wisconsin, admitted “we put the “We Did the Best We Could” cards on every other garment.’,” while her husband, a long-distance trucker, confirmed what many had long suspected: “I park at truck stops, but I eat at restaurants.”
Then there are the slices of life. Sarah, who was getting married the next day, was in the audience while her fiancé was priming for the football game in the bars along State street. Why? “My dad really wanted the wedding to be on a football weekend,” she explained. Her dad claimed he was promoting “the synergy between community life and personal life.” A heating and cooling engineer from Waukesha, Larry, grows flowers for his wife (“It works, guys!”) and “tomatoes for myself. There’s the difference between us in a nutshell.” Molly, a young woman just 30 days into living with her boyfriend wonders “Why do all bachelors have Buddhas?” when they are, in fact, Lutheran. Julie and Debbie, on a self-described “Thelma and Louise” weekend “picked up two guys on campus last night—but it was dark and they couldn’t tell how old we were.” Maternal pride was epitomized by Doris, who said of her son Ed, sitting in the audience, “he finished school, stayed out of jail and has a steady job. What more could I ask?” Dan, from Iowa, says he doesn’t play Powerball because his church, the United Methodist, “says I can’t tell anybody if I win.” Randy, a farmer near Janesville who built a cornfield maze (“a maize maze”) in the shape of the State of Wisconsin with a tower in it to look for lost souls and someone to “help people in distress, but (who) can’t handle all of your problems.” Asked the secret of being married to Janice 50 years, Cliff said simply “we pound our wrinkles out from the inside, one at a time.” And Katherine, a ten year old who showed up in a gingham dress and bonnet from “old fashioned days” at her school explained that’s where “you sit around and use slates and the teachers never compliment you.”
Richard, complaining one day that with his wife it was “Michael Feldman this, Michael Feldman that . . .” hopefully was listening when Michael Feldmann, age 10, showed up and said the name was not confusing because “lots of people don’t even know who you are.” There you go.