The frost crystals had barely melted off the leaves when the humidity rose to 110 percent. It was June 1977 and the air was hot and thick. Bell-bottoms curled and polyester leisure suits suddenly seemed like a bad idea. In this nook of nowhere, spanning quadrants of farm fields speckled with bars and churches, I was brought into the world — and, it seemed, not without a purpose.
Extended family came to visit, armed with Midwest delicacies: casseroles and slow cooker recipes that even Campbell’s couldn’t have concocted. Desserts carefully crafted from cereals were limited only by one’s imagination and the General Mills product line.
My 7-year -old sister carefully eyed up the goods and allowed VIP admission to those with chocolate-based treats, not yet sure how she would manage the dubious task of having a younger sister.
Local beer, Milwaukee’s Best, flowed freely from the taps. Towns were named longingly after their European counterparts: New London, Krakow, Luxemburg, Denmark and Belgium. Rod Stewart and Andy Gibb blared from radios and 8-track players — the last hope of an actual British Invasion.
My childhood was, by all intents and purposes, perfectly normal. I was a Girl Scout, went to church, inattentively babysat the neighbor kids, flogged pizzas for fund-raisers, waitressed at a chain restaurant and participated in school sports. But come age 15, I was running out of things to do at a very rapid pace.
As if being from the agrarian countryside wasn’t enough of a buzzkill, I was raised Catholic — which only exacerbated the already limited hope of inspired fun and feminine adventure. The misogyny was so thick you could cut it with a knife. It was a B.S. structure I saw coming from a mile away. I remember sitting in church at age 8, thinking it seemed extremely convenient that a woman birthed and raised Jesus and he got all the credit. And clearly, a higher power would have picked out a better wardrobe for his/her modern day disciples, procured palatable wine and traded communion for French petit fours.
I had lots of ideas for the Catholic church. Sadly, none of which found an audience.
I waitressed at Shoney’s, manning service for the infamous Sunday buffet where carbs of every order were offered to tide patrons over for the next four hours of pre-Packer tailgating. The overzealous owner, Shawn, trained us to sell Tropicana orange juice like it was Dom Perignon. At the time, Red Lobster was Green Bay’s virtual French Laundry, so I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.
In high school, you could be in one of several sports. If you didn’t fit the bill of mid-American life driven by football, basketball or baseball, you were S.O.L. Fortunately, I was on the pom pom squad — a sport created to help women sweat while remaining in the confines of their preconceived gender roles. Social conservatism ruled, because who could afford to live outside of the box? Outliers were not welcome here.
My goal was to move as far away as possible, never get married or have kids, and savor the immense freedom and opportunity that I could feel was right around the corner. My classmates were on to me and I was voted “most likely to move the farthest away.” I was also voted “most likely to have the most number of spouses.” To date, I have had the least.
Green Bay didn’t have enough people to merit a census count, but it somehow managed to wrangle its own NFL team and it wasn’t about to let it go. Locals lived and died for the Packers. Green and gold dominated wardrobes the way cheese and potato chips dominated the tops of casseroles. Watching football wasn’t just something to do — it was the only thing to do. It was and is Wisconsin’s raison d’être.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Midwest. It’s home to the friendliest, nicest, most genuine, down-to-earth people in the world. But as my writing coach says, no one wants to hear about the village of the happy people, so I’ll stop there.
I’m very grateful for my parents, family, friends and grounded upbringing. I wouldn’t change it for the world. But it was definitely time to get the show on the road.
It was killing me to find out what was behind door #2, and it appeared from pictures that every place outside of here was more exciting. Not to mention, I never really fit in in the first place. A gluten-free, dairy-free, non-sports lover born on the Midwestern axis of beer, cheese and Packers? All traits punishable by law, I was born treasonous.
Spain: My Gateway Drug
During my junior year of high school, the chance to go to Spain with a group of students from Milwaukee came up. It was a no-brainer. I would have jumped at the chance to go to Detroit. Selective, I was not. I was Spanish student of the year, three consecutive years in a row. (Full disclosure: I was the only person in the class for the last two years.) I wasn’t sure what to pack for the trip, so I grossly over-packed. My suitcase weighed more than I did — a rookie error that I did not repeat. I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited as hell.
Landing in Madrid was surreal. It was the outside world I had always imagined. The country mouse finally got her chance at city life.
I felt like Margaret Mead uncovering western civilization. I had only read about culture, art museums, theater, music, traffic, public transportation, ethnic foods, diversity, things to do, a community, buildings and architecture. Seeing it all in a foreign country instantly confirmed what I had been missing. Travel meant a chance at seeing the way the other 99 percent lived. Wine, disco piscinas, hot Latin guys, limited chaperones and being with other travelers — where had I been? I lived on adrenaline the whole trip. I loved everything.
Variety. Interest. Culture. Fortunately, from my current position, everywhere in comparison was unbelievably exciting. Nothing was taken for granted. I was armed with the ability to create my own fun in almost any circumstance. It was pure validation that there was so much more out there to see and do. This trip was my gateway drug.