Politics and Family in the Land of Beer, Brats and Cheese …

Barack Obama consults his campaign itinerary and looks at my little brother.

“How the heck do you pronounce the name of this place?”

My brother pauses for a moment, and decides to answer with candor:

“Well, white people pronounce it “Ruh-SEEN.  Black people say “RAY-seen.”

Barack gets that slightly puzzled look we’ve all seen so often now on TV.

“Ok, thanks.  That’s … helpful.”

The town President Obama and my brother were referring to is Racine, WI.  It’s about 65 miles from Janesville (the ostensible home of Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan) and roughly 40 miles from where I’m sitting right now.  (Little Bro is not currently in politics, but was the former WI governor’s press secretary during Obama’s 2008 campaign.)

Hubby and I have been spending this week at a lakefront McMansion in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

I had nearly forgotten how peaceful Midwestern summers can be.

Powers Lake - view from house (Lake Geneva, WI)

view from the McMansion

The only catch? (besides the mosquitos)

We’re sharing the house with my entire family — all 15 of us (including five flaxen haired little monsters children).  If this were a reality TV show, it would be some strange combination of The Simpsons, Family Feud, Survivor, and Yo Gabba Gabba.

The adventure starts with our drive from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to the Flatlander-Cheesehead (Illinois/Wisconsin) border at about 10pm Tuesday night.  Hubby is famished, but I am morally opposed to (and physically disgusted by) fast food.  We see few other options.

Right after we pass another vetoed McDonald’s, Hubby spots his mecca:

The Brat Stop in Kenosha, WI

He slams on the brakes and does a U-turn.  I whine a little as we swerve into the parking lot, but what can I really do?  We’re in Wisconsin, and avoiding bratwurst and cheese here is like going to Italy and trying to stick to a carb free diet.

If you’re not from the area, you may not realize that “brat” is not the term used for high maintenance housewives and spoiled children; in Wisconsin it’s pronounced BRAHT and is shorthand for “bratwurst.”

We enter the Brat Stop and I’m immediately transported back to my high school days.  Every appetizer on the menu is deep fried (how many ways can you fry cheese?), the beer choice is seemingly unlimited, and house wine (the only available option) costs just $4.50 a glass.

The bar is humongous with at least a dozen large screen TVs blasting the day’s sporting news.  Most of the guys sport baseball caps and tattoos; all drink beer.  The woman next to me must weigh about 300 pounds, which would stand out pretty much anywhere — except for here.  In the restroom, a poster of one of the place’s most loyal patrons (think Norm from Cheers) pleads for donations to help cure his liver and bowel cancer.

And yet … the place is packed.  Late on a Tuesday night.  People keep eating their brats and deep fried cheese.

Hubby enjoys his brat.  I steal a few potato chips and stick to my house Chardonnay.  I’m actually quite enjoying myself (I feel so thin here!), and am tempted when Hubby offers to buy me a souvenir t-shirt.

But somehow, even though I’m rapidly approaching Cougar-dom, I can’t quite bring myself to wear a shirt promoting myself as a “Brat Stop.”  (And I can’t help but wonder if Senate candidate Todd Akins would link the wearer of such shirt to an “illegitimate rape” should a guy take advantage?)

The next day, back at the McMansion, the plumbing goes out.  Nothing brings a family together more quickly than having to work out an emergency toilet plan.  Brother-in-law does the only sensible thing and hightails it back to Chicago, leaving my sister and their baby to fend for themselves.  My two brothers and their families quickly disappear too, leaving poor Mom to nurture Sister through her crisis-of-the-day.  No one knows where Homer Simpson Dad went.

Hubby and I do the only thing we can think of to help: we buy a bunch of wine and host a tasting for the family. By the time the plumbers finally arrive to pump the family sludge out of the basement, we are all buzzed and happy again.

I don’t know if our actions were correct, and I really doubt that blogging about my relatives will endear me to them.  But what I do know is this: families are complicated, complex, and messy.  Even for those of us with “happy childhoods” and “fully functional” adult relationships.  (Tolstoy was wrong?)  Our families force us to face again and again all those issues we convince ourselves we’ve left in the past.

But for those of us who are lucky, our families are the people who know us the best in the world and hold up the clearest mirrors.  In most cases, our families didn’t choose us and we didn’t choose them — and for me, that makes the love I feel for my relatives the most remarkable gift of all.  They know I don’t eat “brats” and that I’ve been a “brat” in one way or another most of my life.

Somehow we manage to love each other, warts, scars, and all.

But I haven’t finished the Obama story.  “So which pronunciation of Racine did Obama choose? The black or the white? ” I ask my brother.

My brother didn’t remember (or wouldn’t tell me).


Question:  Which pronunciation of “Racine” would you have chosen in Obama’s situation?  Do you feel that getting along with your family is similar to politics?  Have you ever gone on vacation with your family as an adult?  Tell me all about it …