Happy Times

It is a Halloween tradition of this blog to post something ghoulish. This year’s contribution comes to you thanks to the pwesident, coronavirus, my mother, and the latest book on my reading list.

While looking around for the next book to start, I first landed on “Factfulness” in which a cheery Swedish sociologist tries to convince the world that it really isn’t in a handbasket heading towards hell. In fact, all sorts of statistics show that in many issues  – infant mortality, overpopulation, girl’s education, extreme poverty, etc etc. – things have been improving for decades. After four or five chapters of this optimism, I found myself getting increasingly irritated. It all just didn’t jibe with my dark sense of the current world.

In an act of uncharacteristic perversity, I put “Factfulness” down and picked up this one instead:

I say perversity, because the other half of my brain has been feebly attempting to tune out all the sources of my constant low-grade anxiety. I no longer obsessively track the number of coronavirus cases in my home state. Now that my vote has been sent off (and officially received!), I try to tune out the daily political outrages from Twump & Co. I purposefully attempt to put myself into “travel mode” – that wonderful, peaceful state of mind I have whenever I am on the road with its blissful acceptance that “whatever happens now happens” and all will be good.

So, it is a strange time to pick up a book that “travels” back to a time and place of particular misery, desperation, death, insanity, tragedy, etc. in Wisconsin history. It is as if this choice is the ultimate anti-antidote to my current efforts to tune out. And yet, it has been strangely cathartic.

The actual physical book has a history of its own. It first spent about a decade on my mother’s coffee table. Over the years she asked me a multitude of times if I had read it, but I had never done more that pick it up, flip randomly through it and scan some of the pictures. She never stopped recommending it and so I eventually “borrowed” it. That was about 15 years ago. In the time since, it has switched from collecting my mother’s Wisconsin living room dust to collecting my Austrian library dust.

A few days ago, I dusted it off and cracked it open.

It’s the strangest thing I have ever read. There are no page numbers or chapter titles. It has three sections, but I see no real thematic reason for having them. Other than a loosely followed year-by-year chronology, there is no apparent organization in the selection and placement of the pictures. In between the years, there is a section of photographs that seem to bear no relation to the texts that precede or follow it. Here is a small sampling of ones that caught my attention:

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The text sections consist of snippets of newspaper articles, records from the state insane asylum, and short book excerpts by contemporaneous Wisconsinite authors. It is just a relentless piling on – like a mountain of carcasses outside a slaughterhouse – of suicides, murders, arson, epidemics, deadly snake oil cures, bank failures and economic ruin, commitments to insane asylums, looting vagabonds, religious delusions, and infant-sized coffins. Apparently, this period of economic depression in Wisconsin history (1890 – 1910) was a particularly bad one.

The high level of early voting has led Michael McDonald, the University of Florida professor who administers the U.S. Elections Project, to predict a record U.S. voter turnout of about 150 million, representing 65% of those eligible to vote, the highest rate since 1908.

By the time I finished the book, the year 2020 suddenly didn’t seem quite as bad. Now I know that there was at least one era in which life was nastier, more brutish and generally shorter. Coronavirus is awful but imagine how much worse it would be if it afflicted children first and foremost – the way many diseases of that period did. The Time of Twump has often made me feel something like despair, but lately it also seems to have set off the largest voter participation since  . . . well, since 1908 – as I just read yesterday.

It’s Halloween, which means there are just three more days until the election. I think I will be able to get through them, too, without throwing myself into a cistern or setting someone’s barn on fire.

My Ghoulish Menagerie

It just occurred to me that I am surrounded by ghoulish pets (and ex-pets).

First there is the black cat in the basket next to my laptop who I have long known to be possessed by the devil. Then there is Dog Four at my feet, who just had a growth removed from her head and now looks a bit like Frankenstein.


To my left is my latest crochet project – a recreation of the deformed, quickly deceased chick I hatched in an incubator. His bulging right eye earned him the name Quasimodo. (I made this stuffed animal at the specific request of my sister, who will then give me back the evil bat I made in summer.)


And finally, just outside my office door are the three dead and dried out creatures we discovered while cleaning out our basement yesterday.


It also just occurred to me that it is October 31st and therefore a good day to share all of this with you.

Happy Halloween, everyone!


Spooked in Timely Fashion

Appropriate to the date today, I had a really creepy experience in a truly haunted house.

The backdrop to this story is that  – suffice it to say – “two people I know” recently bought a house from an old lady. Part of the sales negotiation was my people agreeing to clear out all the stuff she wanted to leave behind. She was, after all, old and alone, so it would have been hard for her to arrange the move and more importantly, it would have taken her longer than my people were willing to wait.

So hands were shaken, deeds and contracts signed, etc. etc. and finally, a day or two ago, they were handed the keys. They went excitedly (I assume) to their new home, unlocked the door, stepped inside, and . . . were immediately floored. Every room was still furnished and every closet and cabinet still filled to overflowing with . . . “stuff”. The beds had used sheets on them and there was dirty laundry on the floor. The closets were full of clothes. The refrigerator and kitchen shelves were full of food. The breakfast dishes were still on the table. There were 1000’s of dusty books, 100’s of worn shoes, stacks of old magazines and newspapers dating back to the 60s. Packages with the remainders of every prescription medicine the lady and her deceased sisters had taken in the past three decades filled up many a cabinethoarders1. There were toiletries and cosmetics and cleaning supplies and papers galore. And there was soap. Hundreds of bars of soap, mostly lavender – its aroma greeted them each time they opened a closet door . . .


They were overwhelmed. There was no way they would spend the next month going through all of this . . . “stuff”. They ordered a huge dumpster to be set up outside. Yesterday, The Removal of the Hoarded officially began. My people went from shelf to shelf and just swept each one’s contents into a crate, toted it outside and emptied it into the container. They did this all day long. And they were still not even halfway done.

hoarders3When I saw this picture on a cell phone last night, I thought, “How could they?!” There could be all sorts of still useful or recyclable things in there. Maybe an antique or two! Maybe some of those books were valuable!

Today my husband and I visited them and toured the house. At first I kept on the lookout for hidden treasures and did see this or that item of interest. My people kept saying “Take anything you want! PLEASE!” But the more I saw, the creepier it seemed. All the little souvenir trinkets. The boxes of buttons and gloves. The face powders. The photo albums and letters and diaries . . . And there were surprises. Like a human skull and a handgun – both of which looked very real to mhoarders4e. After a half hour, I didn’t even want to touch any of it anymore, much less take it with me.


I have been on something of a house de-junking mission lately and this experience added a little fire behind that intention. I pictured someone having to go through my house and figure out what to do with all the crap in it. Would my treasures all end up at the bottom of a dumpster, smothered by books and half empty shampoo bottles and obsolete electronics and framed pictures of questionable taste? And now I should pick out a few items from this house to add to that future pile of . . . “stuff”? I didn’t think so.

My people seemed almost distressed that I hadn’t taken anything, so I searched for an item, ANY item, that didn’t repel me. In the basement, I chanced on an old “Lesekasten” – a pseudo-game for kids back in the 30s or 40s to help them learn the old Austrian alphabet. I thought it might make a nice present for my colleague Ann who teaches German.

“That’s all!?” my people asked. “Are you sure you don’t want to take more? Maybe the skull?”

I was sure.

I not only had this old alphabet box / future present, I also had my something to write about for my Halloween blog post. And no one I know will ever have to tote either one of these to a dumpster someday.



Spooky Dolls

I’m not sure why – maybe because Halloween is just around the bend – but I just returned from a wild, three-hour virtual ride: It started off innocently enough with a saunter down Memory Lane, but then took a detour onto the Donner Party Cannibals’ Trail over the Rockies before finally diving into the sick and twisted pits of Google Images. This post was supposed to be an homage to my Grandma, but somehow turned into an exploration of Barbie-induced rage in the dark psyche of the internet. Here’s how it all started:

ragdollMy reunion with The Gingerbread Man last week got me thinking about the other treasured gift from my Grandma still in my possession. When my sister and I were young, we each got a homemade rag doll for Christmas along with different costumes: princess, gypsy, ballerina, 60’s mod . . . We loved these dolls and played with them all the time. My own daughters inherited them, and they liked them a lot too, but somehow it wasn’t the same.

They were never all that into playing with dolls in general. Even so, year after year, thanks mostly to the magic of manipulative marketing, they put the latest Barbie swag at the top of their Christmas wish lists. I hated Barbie. She was boring and materialistic. Barbie needed stuff. Barbie needed a horse. Barbie needed a car. Barbie needed a palace. Barbie needed a Ken. Her only talents were wearing clothes and losing shoes. Without bendable knees, she couldn’t even sit in a chair. She couldn’t stand on her own.

I would question the girls about their wishes – “Are you sure this is what you want? It doesn’t seem to me like you ever play with your Barbies.” Unfortunately the messages of the TV commercials spoke louder. So the Barbie house was bought and wrapped and put under the tree. It was grabbed and ripped open and the gazillion pieces strewn about. The coveted Barbie bathtub was found and promptly filled with water and the Barbie Bubble Bath added. The doll was submerged. And then . . .

Disappointment. Somehow it wasn’t nearly as cool as it had looked on TV. I mean, once the smiling plastic stick is in the tub, what else is there to do?

It’s really no wonder that girls use Barbies like cudgels to pound on things. That Barbies routinely they get their limbs twisted into weird positions and their heads torn off. Their hair gets matted or chopped off and their faces get drawn on in permanent ink. They end up lying around the house, cold and naked, or are left to drown in the now-cold and slimy bathwater.

I once listened to an NPR program about how kids play with different types of dolls. Rag dolls, they said, were treated like friends and equals. They slept in the same bed, had tea parties, and became confidants or vessels for projected emotions. Baby dolls, on the other hand, induced role playing with the child slipping into the role of caretaker. The dolls were fed, bathed, diapered, wrapped up, sung to . . . And Barbie dolls? They tended to bring out a child’s aggression. It had something to do with that permanent smile.

(Although, as an aside, I do have to add a creepy memory here of my elder daughter trying to force feed her Baby Born. It was the kind that you could give water to with a special baby bottle. The liquid would drain through the baby and come out the other end, wetting its special $2 Brand name disposable diaper. Of course this got old fast, so my daughter tried feeding the doll something more solid. It was really hard to press into the tiny mouth hole so she went in search of a sharp pointy instrument to help her stuff the food in. Gruesome.)

I started searching the internet to see if I could find the study I had heard about on this NPR program and that is when things started to get really dark.

patty reed doll

The first page I found was called “10 Freaky Dolls You Don’t Want To Play With”.  It immediately caught my attention because #10 was “Patty Reed’s Doll”. The author explains . . .

“. . . Patty, eight years old, was traveling to California in 1846 with her family and other pioneers, a group known to history as the Donner Party. As you may well already know, this group of travelers became snowbound and turned to eating bits of leather, mice, old bones—and, finally, each other.”

I know from my older sister – who is our family’s genealogy expert – that we are the direct descendants of someone who was in the Donner Party and that we have direct ancestors named “Reed”. It made me wonder if this very doll witnessed the addition of cannibalism to my gene pool. The question distracted me for an hour or so as I rummaged through the thousands of pages of my sister’s genealogical research. I finally gave up and returned to the original quest.

The search terms I tried out led me into the internet world of Barbie rage. Images started popping up of “Average Barbie”, “Barbie at 50”, “Plus-size Barbie”, “Bald Barbie” , “Divorced Barbie” . . . I remembered joking once about how the company should bring out a “Shoe Fetish Barbie” or a “Bulimic Barbie”. I wondered . . . .

Sure enough.

There was one final image that ended my foray into this topic. It was a Barbie kneeling on a kitchen floor with cleaning supplies around her. I thought, “That’s funny!” but then noticed that what she was mopping up was a big pool of blood. I looked more closely and then finally saw it: Ken’s decapitated body hanging on the wall and his head stuffed sideways into the open fridge.

I confess, I actually started feeling just a little bit sorry for Barbie. She may be a disappointingly empty-headed, strange-bodied, rage-inducing, useless, soon-to-be-garbage piece of smiling plastic, but, . . . hey, . . .

. . . at least she’s not a cannibal.