Silver Award for eHistory

My book A Short History of Wisconsin recently (in the last few months anyway) became available as an ebook. And it’s digital self just won a silver prize in the history category from eLit Awards, which, according to their website, recognizes the “very best of English language digital publishing entertainment.” That’s right – my history book has ceased to be just a book and is now “digital publishing entertainment.” Awesome. Thanks eLit!


Mushroom Hunter

I’ve only found one. “Found” might be too generous of a term for what happened. Tripped is probably more accurate even if it makes me sound like the klutz that I probably am.

Miraculously, the morel mushroom survived the impact with my foot, its top cut clean off the stem but still whole and undamaged. I carefully picked it up and stuck it in the netting pocket of my backpack. Please don’t get crushed now, I thought, imagining what I would do with this single mushroom when we got home from our hike.

Warm spring weather sends morels popping up through the dried leaves of a Wisconsin woods. They are a wily bunch – resisting easy detection with their brown spongy heads. Accomplished morel hunters zealously guard their mushrooming grounds. I know a few of them. “Maybe I’ll take you sometime,” says a friend. “But you’ll have to be blindfolded.” I laugh but then realize she’s not joking. Morels are the truffles of Wisconsin. Now if only I could get a morel sniffing pig…

Advice on how to find morels is plentiful. Look by dead or dying elms, they say. Old apple orchards, pine trees, old ash, or old poplar. The advice all assumes I can easily identify these trees, particularly when dead or dying. I look at pictures and study tree guides.

Ferns but no morels yet...

But out in the woods, I just walk and scan, walk and scan, hoping to spot that elusive brown cap. No luck yet. I’m not yet worthy of the shirt I spotted in the window of a Czech Village store in Cedar Rapids: Morel Mushroom Master. The store boasted a full line of mushroom lovers gear and even had two 18 inch carved wooden morels in the window.

My one morel made it home safely from the hike. I carefully washed it and then sauteed it in butter. Divided into two servings, the small slices equalled about a teaspoon of food each for me and my husband. But it was an intoxicating taste of a hunt that I’ve only just begun.

Check out this great morel mushroom poem from poet Jane Whitledge.

Making Radio

Most of my work days look like this:

I sit for hours cutting a word from here and a phrase from there; deleting the sound of swallows and licked lips (you’d be amazed how loud they are in a microphone – and perhaps once you do know, how self-conscious you become about them); searching for the perfect music and then fitting it in to complement but not overpower the voice, to emphasize a point and then fade away; and trying to make sentences I’ve cut from 10 different places sound like they flow naturally from one into the next. It’s the glamorous world of radio.

But if maybe not glamorous – there’s nothing stylish about the enormous black headphones strapped to my head – it’s certainly magical. Even after hours listening to the same paragraph over and over and over… and over… to the point that I have memorized the entire essay or interview answer (or more recently, a song), it never fails to excite me when it finally falls together. It’s just like writing the perfect sentence or finding just the right word to describe a moment, a scene, a person. It just feels… right.

Creating radio is an intimate experience, too. Radio is itself the most intimate of mediums – a voice talking to you, the listener, over the airwaves. Voices you know in a second but couldn’t identify the face of its owner. And yet you somehow feel connected. You feel that you know her.

The same thing happens in my headphones as the subject tells me a story, over and over, that I just have to get right. I owe it to her, I think, as I make the painful decisions of what is essential and what can be left behind. The soundwaves may not look so personal on my screen but most special things are hard, if not impossible, to see.

I can’t imagine the day when this will ever get old – when I’ll stop getting excited about someone’s story and determining how to share it. Sure, my ears throb after hours encased in headphones and my pointer finger aches from endless mouse clicking, but even so, the end result always sounds like magic to me.

Here a few recent radio pieces I’ve produced* for Wisconsin Life on Wisconsin Public Radio:

Count This Penny – songs based on letters of Wisconsin Civil War soldiers (love them, love this)

Stand-Up Paddleboarding (I can’t wait to try it!)

Distill America (I did the recording for this one, too)

Sugaring Season

* Many people ask me what a producer actually does. Good question. In radio, producers do a variety of things but generally book guests for talk shows, find music and sound clips, sometimes write questions for interviews, conduct interviews, and edit audio. Essentially everything but take to the microphone themselves.

Colorful Pills for Colorful People

In the 19th century, Pink Pills for Pale People offered hope. And if that didn’t work, there was always Dr. Wilson’s Blue Pills for Blue People. Or Red Pills for Pale and Weak Women.

Directions for use of the Pink Pills for Pale People

At a time when little about the human body or medicine was understood, millions of people sent away for patent medicines. These remedies were sold on street corners and in theaters, and in the pages of newspapers and periodicals. Despite the name, few were actually patented. To do so would have meant revealing the secret ingredients that made these pills, powders, and elixirs so appealing. Instead, the names were trademarked and the ingredients proprietary.

These patent medicines are what most people think of when they hear the word “quack.” Bottles filled with dangerous mixes of alcohol or opium, aromatics, and coloring, sold by charlatans masquerading as doctors or scientists preying on the innocent and uninformed. But the actual story is a bit more fuzzy.

Sure, some people out to make a quick buck sold potentially lethal remedies. But many were sold by people who truly believed in the remedies they sold. Lydia Pinkham, for instance, sold a vegetable compound for female complaints based on a remedy she had used for years that riffed on several recipes found in John King’s American Dispensatory, a popular botanical handbook. Pinkham’s remedy contained a lot of alcohol – 18% – a not uncommon phenomenon among these remedies, but it’s harder to say if she was a true charlatan. As medical historian Roy Porter has written, “The historian cannot peer into the souls of ‘quacks’ and find foolproof evidence of fraud.”

Many other proprietary remedies were sold by actual doctors. Doctoring didn’t quite pay in the 19th century what it does today (in fact, as unbelievable as it sounds today, many doctors had two jobs to get by) so some doctors came up with their own remedies to sell and support their families. Others believed they had found a truly miraculous remedy that they wanted to offer to the public. Still other doctors prescribed patent remedies to patients.

All of this is to say that patent medicines, the realm of the quack in the popular imagination, are far more complicated than they at first appear.  Right or wrong, patent remedies promised affordable relief to many people who could not afford or did not have access to medical care.