Would it be so bad if everyone had a purple yard?

This time of year I like to imagine what it would be like if everyone let their yards turn purple like mine is right now.

There’s the creeping charlie in bloom in the front yard (you’ll also see redbud tree blossoms, which are more purple than red, which is fine with me):


And the wild violets in bloom in the backyard:


I guess I can’t help but speak up for the purple weeds because they are free, low-maintenance, and don’t grow as fast or as tall as grass so need less frequent mowing. And when you do mow you get to experience the fresh fragrance of the violets.

But I suppose I should find it embarrassing to post photos of the weeds in my yard, especially when I have nice flower gardens in my front yard.

So to end this post with some semblance of normality, here’s a photo of some intentional purple, in the form of phlox, in my front yard:


An early morning lawn mowing debate

The sound of a mower cutting through the lawn reaches into the windows, drowning out the sound of birds. It’s spring.

I have always viewed the sound of a neighbor’s mower in two ways–a small comfort for a season I enjoy and the tiny urging that my own lawn must be mowed.

At 50 I have become one of those men who pays too much attention to their lawn.  Not that it always shows.

But this is not six in the evening when a meal awaits the family at the end of a long day.  It is six in the morning and one of our nieghbors is mowing their lawn– LOUD!

For some this is a grumpy start to the day.  While some assert that it is not such a bad way to wake up others claim it is TOO EARLY TO MOW THE LAWN!

In the wake of this lawn debate I am silent because I have been guilty of mowing earlier than nine in the morning once or twice.  I have never been brave enough to mow at six in the morning.

From my kitchen window I marveled at the guts it took to do it.  Part of me had to hold back from going out myself to join the culprit.

But no worries–my family would tie me to a chair before they let that happen.

I cause enough shame to our teenagers mowing and raking in sandals, socks and shorts.

Not to mention that I often shovel at two or three in the morning when only a fox moving down the center of Winnequah Road keeps me company.  I will NOT be allowed to have us known as the house that mows at six in the morning!

But as the debate went on I began to wonder about those loud blowers of snow that begin to sound around six  on winter mornings.  Are they any worse than a mower at that time in the spring?

And I wonder which was louder… the early morning lawn mower or our debate about it?

By seven-thirty as we all were leaving the house the debate was over.  Our neighbor who mowed at six in the morning was forgotten by all–but me.  I could not help but think as I left the driveway how great his lawn looked at the start of a spring day.

The Breakfast Club: My favorite anti-bullying curriculum

Because Wisconsin schools now have to adopt policies against bullying, and the state must provide free anti-bullying curriculum, I’ve been reflecting on how bullying affected my life as a child.

As a Gen Xer, the best way for me to think about bullying is to talk about the best “anti-bullying curriculum” of my generation…The Breakfast Club.

The movie was released in 1985 when I was a freshman in college. It’s about five high school kids who have to spend a Saturday in detention together.

On the surface, the kids each fit a certain stereotype and seem very different from each other: a criminal, athlete, princess, basket case and brain.

If you’ve never seen this movie, this short lunch scene will give you a glimpse of what the characters are like:

The movie was wildly popular and my friends and I quoted lines from it for months. Even 25 years later, if I say “Mess with the bull and you get the horns” to a college friend, it gets a laugh. I watched the movie on Netflix instant viewing last night and was amazed at how many lines I still knew and how well the movie has aged.

The reason the movie resonated with us so much is because the movie perfectly captured what high school life was like. The movie understood us.

Whenever I talk about the movie with another Gen Xer we inevitably discuss the question, “Which Breakfast Club character were you?”

In my case I was a mix of the Anthony Michael Hall character (the brain/dork) and the Ally Sheedy (the basket case) character.

The movie was therapeutic as well because it also helped us see beneath the tough exterior of bullies.

The person that bullied me in junior high and high school was much like the Emilio Estevez athlete character, right down to being a wrestler.

Of course when Bender, the criminal character, teases the jock character by saying that all you need to be on the wrestling team is a “lobotomy and some tights” I laughed and immediately wished I could have used that line with my bully back in high school.

But near the end of this movie the jock character lets down his guard and talks with shame about the act of bullying that led to his detention and said he engaged in that behavior because of anger toward his father. He hated how his father pushed him in sports.

While watching that scene I felt what I never thought I’d feel toward the boy who bullied me…empathy.

At the end of the movie, the essay the brain character wrote for detention is read out loud. It says that by the end of the detention they realized that each of them was a criminal, princess, athlete, basket case and brain combined.

Or as the athlete Emilio Estevez character said earlier in the movie, “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it.”

Getting to that place of understanding is the key to overcoming bullying. I’m grateful to John Hughes for helping my generation in that regard and am hopeful that the new policies in Wisconsin will help this generation.

Reflections on Bullying and “When We Were Kids”

While we were growing up our parents told us how well off we were. It often started with a ‘WHEN WE WERE KIDS…” statement.

While we listened to their tales of walking miles to school in the snow and cold we felt lucky–although we also walked miles in the cold and snow. We were better off than our parents had been when they were growing up, it seemed. That gave us, and our parents, a sense of comfort. I am not sure that is still true.

A recent school board meeting here in Monona included the topic of bullies. I am well versed in the topic of bullies. When I was in school I attracted bullies. But somehow the bullies these days seem different than the ones I dealt with.

For nearly a decade now this new brand of bullies have been on the horizon. We had student shootings at schools. Those shootings were caused we were told, in part, by bullies who made the lives of the shooters terrible.

More recently we have had a rash of students ending their own lives because they are not able to deal with the bullies. At times adults have even become involved, using the computer to bully teens to their death. After these deaths the bullies continue.

This past winter after a high school girl in Boston ended her life the bullies wrote bad things on her ‘memory page’ for her friends and family to read.

In February I had an email from my high school reunion site. I had no desire to connect with anyone from high school but the email took me there. It pulled me in. I found myself writing a few messages to people. They wrote back. The best thing that happened was that I was able to write long overdue ‘thank you’ notes to people who I needed to thank.

When I was in high school I was lucky because of the proximity of my locker to Terry Mullin. His locker was next to mine. Terry was on the football team. As bullies punched me and kicked my books down the hall, or poured chocolate milk over me, Terry and other members of the football team stood up for me. One of them was always looking out for me it seemed. That made life bearable.

This winter the email from my high school allowed me to thank Terry Mullin. It prompted me to write to other members of the football team. Their messages back to me were great. I wrote to the drama club because people in that group helped me along the way also. All winter we enjoyed new relations as fifty-year-old men and women. By early spring I had a whole new version of my time in high school.

As I watched the Monona School Meeting on television with my teenagers we talked about my experience and the experience they are having–that they see others having. In the end we wondered if bullies were really that different now or not.

Too often these days it seems there is not a Terry Mullin or football team, drama club or others, there for the students the bullies target. Perhaps that is the biggest difference from then to now.

By having a meeting that includes the topic of bullies Monona seems to be taking a step toward encouraging people to stand up for the victims bullies target. I like that idea, embrace the thought that at fifty a student here in Monona might be writing a thank you to someone who made their life during high school bearable. If this conversation continues our kids have the opportunity to have it as good as we did.

A duck walks into the Monona Community Center…

Do you think he signed up for swimming lessons?

Of course this reminds me of that old “A duck walks into a bar” joke. Here’s a video that is a fun take on that joke, using a lemonade stand instead of a bar. A teenager made this video using drawings he made in Paint and it’s very popular on YouTube (well over 7 million views) and my kids like it too:

Photo credit: Tom Mulroe

Is it possible to love Monona too much?

During the recent economic downturn the country has endured I have experienced a foreclosure without having gone through one myself.  A family I know lost their home this year, in part due to their great love of Monona.

From the time I met this couple they have expounded upon the great virtues of Monona, while never living here themselves.  When they lived in Madison they were more visible than many local residents are.

Four years ago they made the mistake of moving away from Madison to a town forty-five minutes away.  That put them on the road each day back and forth to their great love–Monona.

Their church was in Monona.  The children went to school in Monona.  All of the sport activities their children were engaged in were in Monona.  As jobs were lost and bills began to mount they took comfort in Monona.

After a difficult year this family has settled–not in Monona.  Situated west of Madison they still have a great love for Monona.

Knowing them and ‘living through’ their ordeal with them these past months I have been given a gift.  Through their eyes I have come to see the city of Monona the way one does when entertaining out of town visitors.  Often the hosts wonder why they do not do all the fun things they did when guests were in town all of the time.

I spent this year enjoying the parks and the lake more, grateful for the schools and filled with wonder over the simple things like taking a walk through the streets of Monona.

As summer approaches I am filled once again with the great things offered here in Monona.  This year I intend to enjoy them even more–through the eyes of people who lost nearly everything for their love of a place I am lucky enough to call home.

Swinging Was Respectable on Front Porch

Today is the anniversary of the death of humor columnist Erma Bombeck, who was one of my greatest inspirations as a writer (for more about her, see the Erma posts on my Kitchen Table Wisdom blog).

Today I will post a column of hers from September 22, 1994 as a tribute. This column isn’t one of her funny ones but it talks about the front porch and what it used to mean, which I think is fitting, given the name and vibe of this blog.

I also like to think that Monona still has a little bit of that community feel she describes at the end of this column:

Swinging Was Respectable On Front Porch by Erma Bombeck

In a world where people fear who is hanging out in the shadows of automatic-teller machines to withdraw from you what you have just withdrawn and put signs in their car windows, “Don’t bother to break glass. Everything has been stolen,” I was cheered to read that the front porch is coming back.

After World War II, all activities moved to the back of the house. Owners put in barbecue grills, patios and pools; and then they built a fence around it so no one would see what a good time they were having.

For those of a generation who can’t imagine the function of the front porch, allow me to fill you in. It was a place that had a swing that squeaked. There was a roof over it so that when it rained you could swing back and forth and listen to the sound of it falling and smell the fresh earth. Kids left their bicycles and wagons on it so people wouldn’t trip over them on the sidewalk in the darkness.

After dinner, parents had their coffee on the porch to watch the parade of people taking walks. Sometimes they stopped to get caught up on the news of the neighborhood.

For daters, the front porch was the place where you kissed, shook hands and promised to call. (I swear to you that’s the truth.)

We lived in a different world back then. We could never have imagined a time when you pulled the blinds and hid behind them at dusk. We could never have imagined forgoing all that drama going on outside with kids and neighbors to sit in a dark room and watch Kukla, Fran and Ollie on a 10-inch screen.

The porch was another room. I can remember my mother on a stepladder washing it down with a sponge every spring. There were flower boxes and a table to hold the lemonade. There was a welcome mat.

The four of us — my mom, dad, sister and I — talked about everything. We talked about dad’s job, our school, mom’s day, when we were going to get a dog. We watched stars. Sometimes we argued. A newsboy ran through the neighborhood one night shouting “Extra!” Wiley Post and Will Rogers had been killed in a plane crash.

More than any other topic of conversation these days is the state of the world and its people. What’s happened to us? Our cars have alarms and clubs on the steering wheel. Our doors have deadbolts and are lighted up like nuclear sites. We’re afraid of other adults and their children. We all want our old world back, but we don’t know how to get there.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s a path that leads to a front porch. It was more than just a place; it was an arena for learning how to act and how to trust and how we belonged to a group of people more important to us than ourselves.

Hmmm… a new use for Crocs?

While making the park rounds during spring break when we had all that warm weather, I noticed that a couple of the Monona parks have a layer of black rubber pieces underneath the playground equipment.

So that set me to thinking, of course.

Using this rubber is a cool idea because it provides a soft surface without the mess of sand or the slivers from wood chips.

Then I noticed my daughter’s purple Crocs while she ran across the rubber chips and I thought: why not chop up used Crocs and use that as an alternative to the black rubber?

Crocs wear out quickly and don’t make for good hand-me-downs.

It would be a way to keep Crocs out of the landfill… and out of closets.

The kids would love the colorful array of rubber on the playground.

Anyway, just yet another silly idea that has popped into my head while spending time at the Monona parks.

The Other Tom Mulroe

Tom Mulroe is dead.  The news traveled to Monona last week. It was a surprise to me.

The year I was fourteen I was named Carrier of the Week for the local newspaper I delivered in Oak Park, a suburb outside Chicago.  After my name and photo appeared in the paper I became aware of another Tom Mulroe my age who lived a few blocks away from me on the other side of Austin Boulevard–in Chicago.

Prior to that my father was the other Tom Mulroe for me.  I am his junior, named after him.  When he died a few years back friends in Oak Park thought at a glance that it was me–then realized it was my father.

Over the years I have heard about what the other Tom Mulroe is doing. During college we ended up both being friends with a co-worker of mine.  I heard that he married young and had a large family, did not move too far from the area where he was born.  Out of high school he did odd jobs.  The last I heard he sold sinks–was quite good at it.

Three years ago this Christmas we spoke on the phone.  I talked about Monona, where I live.  He was eager to bring his family here, to a place he said that he felt sounded like heaven to him.  A town in Wisconsin by a lake. It was the type of place he’d like to retire to he said.

Time passed.  We both were caught up in our lives.  He never made the trip.

At fifty he died last week.  The news came to me here in Monona over the phone from my mother, who was aware of the other Tom Mulroe through me.

In the midst of all this I became aware a few weeks ago of a book called THE OTHER WES MOORE by Wes Moore.  It details the lives of two men who have the same name.  I was reminded of the other Tom Mulroe then, just prior to hearing he had died.

The truth is there are many other men named Tom Mulroe.  My teenagers put my name on Google a year or two ago and found them.  The one I knew was not one of them.  I intended to talk about that over the phone with him when we spoke again, or if he ever made it to Monona–a place he perceived from our conversations to be heaven.

Encounters of the “Public” Kind

Like all towns, Monona has a fair amount of public people who reside in it.

Recently I was told that I was rude because I did not introduce some people who I was with to a public figure who I am neighbors with.

We were at a park near our home when this happened. The public pereson in question was juggling three small children on playground equipment. It struck me as odd that I might have been rude for not introducing the people who I was with to this public figure.

If you live long enough you more than likely find yourself in the path of a public person. Long before we were married my wife and I encountered Oprah Winfrey on a street in Chicago. We kept walking, although I would have enjoyed meeting the woman attempting to get into a car.

On a train to Boston from Chicago, when we were wearing a rut in that portion of the country, we sat in a cafe car alongside John Madden who was reading. He is famous for a fear of flying. We ignored him.

This has become a pattern. I never considered it rude or questioned it, although our teenagers felt like we missed out the summer of the election when we saw our current president riding bikes past us with his wife and children during a visit to Chicago.

The year we were married Rose Kennedy turned 100. We were living on Cape Cod. All of Hyannis Port was flooded by people attempting to get a glimpse of the big Kennedy Party that July.

We had lived a few doors down the road from the Kennedy Compound long enough to come to ignore it and the sightings of United States royalty.

I went to the beach that Sunday to avoid the crowds determined to ‘encounter’ a Kennedy. That was when I bumped into Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Alone on a stretch of sand I later learned the Shriver Family owned, I was annoyed by their appearance. Who were these people who were suddenly a part of my solitude on an isolated beach I had made my own since living there?

I felt invaded by the couple with a young child in their arms who laughed and took photos, not recognizing them in my bothered state.

As I was leaving, my time alone on the shore ruined by these people, they were also leaving. On Cape Cod large green flies that bite are a part of the summer landscape. Salt boxes are positioned near the shore to attract them but they still can be a presence. This is when I realized who the couple I was bothered by were.

‘Wicked flies,” the man said in a voice that could only belong to Arnold Schwarzenegger. I nodded then left after a few moments of local small talk that never included my disclosing to them that I knew who they were.

Later when I told people this story, as all of Cape Cod talked about the chaos the birthday party for Rose Kennedy had caused, I was surprised when I was told I should have demanded an autograph and taken photos.

I was known in those days for always having some sort of camera with me. A woman my wife and I know, who is like a mother to us, said I had more grace than to do that.

It turned out Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger were the ones with grace since I was on a beach they owned and was invading their private moments.

I had the same feeling then that I did recently when I was told that I was rude for not introducing the people who I was with to the man in the park with his children.

Is it rude to ‘ignore’ a public person or perhaps ruder to not ignore them?

Would I want to be approached while I was with my children at a park?

If I had made the introduction I suppose the camera phone might have come out earlier than it did. A photo of the man and his children would have been taken instead of my ushering us to the parking area–on with our day.

I suppose I was a bit rude because I excercised a bit of control over the situation from my end. But then isn’t that what all of us do during our inevitable encounters with public people–one way or another?

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