Treehuggers, Femmes, Monsters, and…Gratitude


Rather than abandoning some stories that did not manage to get written (passive voice intended), I decided to do a columnist’s (my preferred mode of insight delivery anyway) move and offer some facts and commentary about several unrelated things. Perhaps I’ll even find some threads to tie them together.


(Is it okay if I call people that if I’d also probably be called one? I don’t know. But it worked for the title so I’m going with it.)

I meant to write a story about one of the most famous environmental activists in the world speaking at UW Oshkosh.  Annie Leonard is the CEO of Greenpeace USA and before assuming that post in 2014 made a name for herself via The Story of Stuff, which she released in 2007, and the twelve spinoff films (thirteen if you count the Spanish version of The Story of Stuff) that she created, which tend to focus on various problems with our “materials economy” and their potential solutions. The original has been viewed nearly 5 million times on YouTube alone.

Her visit to Oshkosh and UWO is noteworthy for several reasons. First, she is one of the most well-known keynote speakers to be featured at the Earth Charter Community Summit, which has been held annually at UWO since the university became one of the early signers of the Earth Charter in 2001. Secondly, it was made possible in part due to a grant that UWO students were awarded from the Green Fund, “a student-run committee funded through students’ segregated fees to implement sustainable projects for campus initiatives.” Finally, it was a highlight of one of the first major initiatives undertaken by the new Sustainability Institute for Regional Transformations (SIRT) housed at UWO. SIRT has a mission to “engage stakeholders from Wisconsin and beyond to build healthy communities, inclusive economies, and ecologically sound environments through inquiry, education and action” and one of the ways it does so is through organizing events like Earth Charter in the fall and Earth Week in the spring.

I attended a luncheon for UWO’s Provost’s Summit on Teaching and Learning that was also happening that week and included a panel on “Teaching the Art of Citizenship” featuring Leonard along with UWO professors David Siemers (Political Science), Christie Launius (Women’s and Gender Studies), and Steve Szydlik (Math), with Jim Feldman (Environmental Studies) as the moderator. Our hometown talent offered plenty of interesting insights and Leonard proved to be a very engaging speaker as she laid out six key outcomes that, as an activist and employer, she thinks students should gain, including a sense of both their own agency (autonomy and individual power) and interdependence, and how fulfilling working for positive change can be.

She also provided some striking statements, such as that the level of threat from climate change as being debated by serious climate scientists is now way beyond whether it is real or human-induced and more about whether it’s “catastrophic” or “existential” (meaning continued human existence is seriously in question), but also that if we don’t address racial and gender inequality, and other fundamental drivers of society/environment dysfunctions, then we’ll perpetuate the very systems that have nearly taken us over the cliff.

Annie Leonard at the 17th annual Earth Charter Community Summit at UWO

I was not able to attend her keynote speech at the Earth Charter banquet, but many others did; it was a sold-out event, with nearly 500 students, faculty/staff, and other area residents in attendance.

Brad Spanbauer, a lecturer at UWO and staff member of it Sustainability Office, helped organize Leonard’s visit. “I think Annie spoke eloquently and directly about the issues at hand, and really provided a great framework, or even a task list of how to tackle the issues surrounding the environment, democracy, activism and their intersection,” he said. “I really liked the examples of some common narratives that she used in her talk, because I feel that everyone in the audience, including the students, could relate to these stories that are perpetuated by our society – and how often we are not critical enough of those narratives.”

She spoke perfectly to the the questions that lie at the heart of the general education program–particularly the intersections of sustainability and civic engagement,” said Feldman, who was also struck by Leonard’s argument that “We need to change the story. We need to stop thinking about jobs vs. the environment and find ways to tell stories about protecting nature and people at the same time.” Further, according to Feldman, Leonard stressed that 

The very thing we need to do to face the triple crisis of equity, sustainability, and democracy is exactly the thing that research shows makes us the most happy–not buy stuff, but build community, work together on big projects, get involved and engaged. The research shows that after your basic needs are met, it is working together in a community that leads to happiness–not buying new stuff. 


Speaking of buying stuff, my wife Courtney surprised me a few weeks back with tickets to the Violent Femmes concert at the Grand Oshkosh, one of six shows on their mini “Viva Wisconsin” tour of theaters in the state. A nice surprise but also kind of a no-brainer to see this band at our best local venue.

The only other time I had seen the Femmes was at Woodstock ’94, and in the haze of memories from that experience I remember their set as also being a total surprise. After doing some quick research, I was able to confirm that this was, in fact, an unscheduled set that took place after Sheryl Crow wrapped up her show. I recall that it was after midnight and my friends and I had already started the long walk in the dark to hopefully find our tent again in the sea of thousands of other tents, when we heard the familiar intro to “Blister in the Sun”, after which screams erupted and we flocked back to the stage with many others. An article recapping the day of music from the Poughkeepsie Journal at the time argued, “the only disappointment was the Violent Femmes, whose set was totally flat and unenergized. They led off with the usual crowdpleaser ‘Blister in the Sun,’ but it never reached out to hook in the audience. But by that time it was 1:30am. Maybe they were just tired.” I certainly was, but what I most remember is the bassist playing conch shells and the Femmes being great.

The Viva Wisconsin tour happened once before, back in 1998, with largely the same itinerary–including a stop at the Grand–and same motivation: to shake things up, have some fun, and make some money while being able to drive from show to show, to enjoy the beauty and regional quirks of Wisconsin beyond their hometown Milwaukee, where they’d continued to play occasional gigs.

I didn’t know for sure that they would still be good, but I stream Radio Milwaukee most days and they had been playing music that I liked from a new Femmes album, so I figured it would be. And in any case, my wife and I finagled a babysitter and set out to make a fun night of it. It got off to a slightly rough start.

We planned to have dinner downtown before the show but got out of the house a bit late. Courtney yearned for cheese curds from Ruby Owl, but there was not a seat to be found there so we headed across the street to Bar 430. A few minutes later, we did something very rare for us: the walk out. We’ve given the place enough chances to realize that their food is consistently really good, but their service has been consistently bad, and on this night, with a show starting soon and hanger starting to set in, when we were not offered anything (no cleaning of the table, menu, water, nothing) after several minutes, in a joint with several empty tables, we made a b-line for the door and back to Ruby Owl to see if our luck had changed. Alas, it hadn’t, so things were getting tense. We decided to try Manila and though the fellow Femmes-goers we ran into there warned that the service had been slow, our server was great, and all was well that ended well.

When we arrived at the Grand, the venerable venue was buzzing with excitement. We snagged a couple beers from Karl in the lounge and then made our way to our seats, which were in the front of the balcony, about in the middle. We remarked on how nice the new seating, with little tables with built-in drink holders is, and then settled in for the opening set, which was already underway. Milwaukeean Brett Newski, who refers to himself as a dork rocking nomad, was playing a solo set of punky indie folk rock tunes, with effects pedals helping produce a larger sound and zany, self-deprecating humor directed at a crowd that was obviously there for the main act. Radio Milwaukee had been playing songs like “Dead to Me” by Newski in relatively heavy rotation, and I liked what I had heard, so I was interested in his set. While I wished he would’ve had a band backing him (because the radio songs did), he displayed strong musical chops and, perhaps more importantly, won the crowd over with his wit and showmanship on songs like “Bro Country,” with which he managed to get hundreds of people who had never heard it to sing along. He seemed to enjoy it as well.

“Oshkosh Grand was the coolest ‘time warp’ venue I’ve ever played,” said Newski. “I looked up at the classic balcony and thought I was going to see Abe Lincoln or something. I bet Abe Lincoln would’ve been a big Violent Femmes fan.”

Newski added, “The last time I visited Oshkosh, I was playing collegiate basketball at UW-Eau Claire. I got dunked on…So, this visit opening for Violent Femmes was much better. If you were there, thanks for rocking.”

A highlight for Newski and his audience had to be when Femmes frontman Gordon Gano joined him onstage to sing some harmonies and play violin on his song, “In Between Exits”. Newski would later return the favor during the Femmes’s set; the collaborative spirit and friendly vibe of the show was refreshing and enhanced by the intimate feel of the Grand, despite its relatively large capacity.

Opener Brett Newski joined by Gordon Gano

Soon it was time for the Femmes–featuring original front man Gano and bass player Brian Ritchie, new percussionist John Sparrow, and young sax player Blaise Garza– to begin and they did so in festive, cheeky fashion, marching down the center aisle of the theater and playing a variety of instruments in a zany punk parade that eventually led them to the stage, where they launched into an unfamiliar song that sounded pretty fresh to these ears and got a rousing ovation from a crowd that was enjoying what had to have been one of the most party-like atmospheres in the recent history of the Grand.

The response was even greater, of course, when they followed the opener with “Kiss Off” and “Please Do Not Go”, favorites from their self-titled 1983 debut album, which is amazing as much for the quality of the songs by what was a new and inexperienced band at the time as for the fact that it went from being a largely unnoticed underground album to a platinum-selling soundtrack for subsequent generations of young people and staple of their high school dances, keggers, and dorm parties, likely into the present (though it’s been a while since I attended such an event and don’t Snap or even Tweet, so I can’t be sure).

Early on, most people on the main level stood up, and some danced in the aisles on the most well-known numbers (including, presumably, two women who we overheard claiming they had been kicked out for dancing when we were back Ruby Owl after the show, finding seats but sadly no curds, as the kitchen had closed). “I thought it was really cool that something that came out when I was five,” said Courtney, “produced a big room full of people, with half of them singing along, word-for-word to songs from that album.”

Though they did play nine of the ten songs from Violent Femmes (including “Blister in the Sun”, of course, but also “Add it Up” as their final encore, which brought down the house and surprised me, as I’d forgotten about this gem in the midst of their string of other staples from that record), their other primary hit, “American Music” (from 1991), and several songs that go back two or three decades, this wasn’t just a nostalgia fest, as they played “Memory“, a catchy new tune, and several other tracks from their most recent recordings, 2016’s album We Can Do Anything and the 2015 EP, Happy New Year.

The Femmes in their goofy glory, as seen from our perch in the balcony

The set highlighted not only their trademark darkly comedic lyrics and deceptively simplistic arrangements, but also the wide range of styles they employ, from acoustic punk, to country, bluegrassy gospel, and jazz inflections, to harder rock with bursts of the violence alluded to in their name. The band seemed to be having a great time, which isn’t always the case, but when it is, it seems to be infectious to the audience as well.

Sparrow was clearly thrilled to be stand-up drumming at the front of the stage with these Wisconsin legends, and though Gano generally let his distinctive singing and playing of several stringed instruments do the talking, at various points a big grin broke upon what was otherwise a relatively serious, boyish mug. Given that nostalgia was dripping from the ceiling, and because of Ritchie’s physical characteristics and that while he displayed music excellence he seemed a bit less enthused about the whole thing than the others, the words Spinal Tap crept into my brain on multiple occasions. “Ah, who cares?” I told myself. “Even if there is some of that, they’re still doing their thing, we’re all still doing ours, and people are having fun, so just enjoy it.” So I did.


I also really enjoyed Halloween this year. Why is this worth including in this rambling column? I’ll tell you.

Halloween is a holiday that I have not been very enthused about since I could ramble around almost my entire Iowa hometown trick-or-treating without fear as a kid, or at least since that one year in the early 2000s when Courtney and I, in our dating days, went to a costume contest party in my Madison apartment building dressed as eggs-over-easy and huevos rancheros, respectively.

Once I became a parent I just soured on it a bit. I guess it was due to all the candy and commercialism, though this has, of course, polluted all of our major national holidays and traditions at this point. In any case, it hasn’t been something I’ve looked forward to.

I’ve noticed my attitude changing over the last couple years, however, and I reflected upon it this year in particular. While our older daughter went off to a different neighborhood to fill her plastic pumpkin along with some friends, our younger daughter elected to dress up as Dorothy but stay home and hand out candy instead. She and I were in charge of not only staffing the door, but also carving and displaying the jack-o-lanterns, and we ended up being pretty proud of our orange owl and white owlet.

It was fun interacting with the kids and their parents, and some older youth and even adults who seemed to be unabashedly trick-or-treating for themselves. A bit odd, but with my renewed appreciation of the ritual already activated, I didn’t mind. While the store-bought masks (particularly the overly creepy ones) that cover faces and lack of effort on the part of a portion of the participants left something to be desired, I was impressed with the creativity involved with many of the costumes and the cheer and politeness displayed by most who came to our door. One crew of boys, perhaps 10 or 11 years old and all in relatively clever homemade costumes, really cracked us up. First, one who I think was dressed as a businessman or something, said in a smart-aleck, too-polite fashion, “I hope you’re having a fine evening, sir.” Then his friend, dressed like an elderly gent with a white moustache, cabbie hat, and cane, said, “Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas!” (sorry older readers, this wasn’t politically correct, necessarily, but it was funny, and delivered sweetly). The smart aleck then, with earnest excitement in his voice said, “Is that an albino pumpkin?” And finally, a straggler from their group called out as they were leaving our flora-dense yard, “I almost tripped over a flower!” There were a number of other cute and hilarious moments that made for a truly enjoyable evening.

Halloween in a new light

What really struck me, though, was something I’ve written about previously: free, public events like this are underrated for their importance in encouraging social interaction amongst all kinds of people. Based upon the sample of people who came to our door alone, one could conclude that this is a relatively diverse city. While it is not, our neighborhood is diverse compared to Oshkosh as a whole. Yet, people from different racial/ethnic categories or social classes don’t necessarily interact regularly in meaningful ways around here, either.

In the grand scheme of things, Halloween trick-or-treating is a strange phenomenon by American standards, given that we are one of the most individualistic and private property-oriented societies in the world. Middle or lower class, black or white, people are allowed to and even encouraged by many to walk into and across people’s yards with the realistic expectation that they will be treated well and even given a treat to take with them. There is also something life-affirming about the fact that all kinds of people are having this shared experience in our neighborhood and throughout our divided land. I now appreciate Halloween maybe even more than I did when I was a kid for these reasons. I just wish these shared experiences and inclusive social interactions were more common.

Common Threads(?)

As I walked home from my office at the university along the river walk yesterday evening, the bracing cold both enlivened my senses, helping me crystalize how I would conclude this piece, and convinced me to stop at Becket’s to warm up before the second half of my walk. I also thought I’d try to finish and publish this sucker. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do so because of a wi-fi connectivity issue, but fortunately for me, my ladies were all off at an activity, so I had the luxury of hanging out for a bit without guilt. It was taco Tuesday and happy hour, so I enjoyed some Oso Nitro Milk Stout and a couple delicious tacos while chatting with a former student who works there along with some other folks. It was a great pit stop before I made the brisk walk the rest of the two miles home. I was then quickly off to band practice, so wrapping this up had to wait until today.

Tomorrow is another American holiday, of course, but I’ve been thinking about gratitude since Monday evening, when our whole family was back at the Grand, joining with a couple hundred others for the 8th annual Inter-Faith Festival of Gratitude. This was our first time at this unusual and enjoyable event that featured comments, songs, amazingly-resonant bowls being gonged, and collective meditation (or at least the attempt) from people of all kinds of ethnicities and religious backgrounds, including Presbyterians, Mormons, Quakers, Lutherans, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and even Eckankars, a word I’m pretty sure I’d never come across before. Reflecting upon this experience caused me to find the common threads in the disparate topics I decided to write about above.

There is lot that could be complained about in our world right now or in terms of what our city is lacking. Instead, I’ll quote the Beastie Boys, from a song my college band covered a couple months before the Femmes played Woodstock:

…What’s gone wrong in your system?
Things they bounce like a Spaulding
What’d you think, did you miss your calling?
It’s so free, this kind of feeling
It’s like life, it’s so appealing
When you’ve got so much to say it’s called gratitude
And that’s right

…What’s gonna set you free?
Look inside and you’ll see
When you’ve got so much to say it’s called gratitude
And that’s right

I’m grateful for the events, places, and people that Oshkosh does offer. Recognizing the good things is freeing. And that’s right.


Photo Credits:

Earth Charter/Annie Leonard by Michael Van Vonderen/UW Oshkosh

Brett Newski with Gordon Gano of the Femmes by Ty Helbach Photography

Violent Femmes photo by Courtney Van Auken

Halloween photo by Paul Van Auken



About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He is currently living in the central city of Milwaukee while on sabbatical and among other things is writing about Oshkosh through the lens of his experiences there.

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