Thursday, September 12, 2019

Joe, I wish I’d known you

This is a bit of a “cheater” post as it was entirely written by someone else (i.e., Joe’s three daughters whom I’m never had the good fortune to meet). Joe strikes me as a bit of a Frank Galbraith character (of Cheaper by the Dozen fame)—the type of guy who was extremely amusing to read about but maybe a little challenging to live with. But I still wish I’d had the pleasure to cross paths with the man.

May we all earn an obituary as reflective of our lives as Joe did. Here’s to you sir!

Joe Heller Obituary

Joe Heller made his last undignified and largely irreverent gesture on September 8, 2019, signing off on a life, in his words, “generally well-lived and with few regrets.” When the doctors confronted his daughters with the news last week that “your father is a very sick man,” in unison they replied, “you have no idea.”

God thankfully broke the mold after Joe was born to the late Joseph Heller, Sr. and Ruth Marion (Clock) on January 24, 1937 in New Haven, CT. Being born during the depression shaped Joe’s formative years and resulted in a lifetime of frugality, hoarding and cheap mischief, often at the expense of others.

Being the eldest was a dubious task but he was up for the challenge and led and tortured his siblings through a childhood of obnoxious pranks, with his brother, Bob, generally serving as his wingman. Pat, Dick and Kathy were often on the receiving end of such lessons as “Ding Dong, Dogsh*t” and thwarting lunch thieves with laxative-laced chocolate cake and excrement meatloaf sandwiches. His mother was not immune to his pranks as he named his first dog, “Fart,” so she would have to scream his name to come home if he wandered off.

Joe started his long and illustrious career as a Library Assistant at Yale Law School Library alongside his father before hatching a plan with his lifelong buddies, Ronny Kaiser and Johnny Olson, to join the Navy and see the world together. Their plot was thwarted and the three were split up when Joe pulled the “long straw” and was assigned to a coveted base in Bermuda where he joined the “Seabees,” Construction Battalion, and was appointed to the position of Construction Electrician’s Mate 3rd class.

His service to the country and community didn’t end after his honorable discharge. Joe was a Town Constable, Volunteer Fireman and Ambulance Association member, Cross walk guard, Public Works Snow Plower and a proud member of the Antique Veterans organization.

Joe was a self-taught chemist and worked at Cheeseborough-Ponds where he developed one of their first cosmetics’ lines. There he met the love of his life, Irene, who was hoodwinked into thinking he was a charming individual with decorum. Boy, was she ever wrong. Joe embarrassed her daily with his mouth and choice of clothing. To this day we do not understand how he convinced our mother, an exceedingly proper woman and a pillar in her church, to sew and create the colorful costumes and props which he used for his antics.

Growing up in Joe’s household was never dull. If the old adage of “You only pull the hair of those you love” holds true, his three daughters were well loved. Joe was a frequent customer of the girls’ beauty shops, allowing them to “do” his hair and apply make-up liberally. He lovingly assembled doll furniture and built them a play kitchen and forts in the back yard. During their formative years, Joe made sure that their moral fibers were enriched by both Archie Bunker and Benny Hill.

When they began dating, Joe would greet their dates by first running their license plates and checking for bald tires. If their vehicle passed inspection, they were invited into the house where shotguns, harpoons and sheep “nutters” were left clearly on display.

After retiring from running Bombaci Fuel, he was perhaps, most well-known for his role as the Essex Town “Dawg Kecher.” He refused to put any of his “prisoners” down and would look for the perfect homes for them. One of them was a repeat offender who he named “A**hole” because no owner would ever keep him for very long because he was, in fact, an a**hole. My Dad would take his buddy on daily rides in his van and they’d roam around town with the breeze blowing through both of their fur. He never met a dog he didn’t like, the same could not be said for the wanna-be blue bloods, snoots and summer barnacles that roamed about town. His words, not ours. Well maybe not exactly his words as those would been much more colorful.

Joe was a frequent shopper at the Essex Dump and he left his family with a house full of crap, 300 pounds of birdseed and dead houseplants that they have no idea what to do with. If there was ever a treasure that he snatched out from under you among the mounds of junk, please wait the appropriate amount of time to contact the family to claim your loot. We’re available tomorrow.

Joe was also a consummate napper. There wasn’t a road, restaurant or friend’s house in Essex that he didn’t fall asleep on or in. There wasn’t an occasion too formal or an event too dour that Joe didn’t interrupt with his apnea and voluminous snoring. Besides his beloved wife, Irene, and brother, Bobby, Joe was pre-deceased by his pet fish, Jack, who we found in the freezer last week.

Left to squabble over his vast fortune, real estate holdings and “treasures” are his three daughters Michelle Heller (Andrew Bennett) of Newton, MA, Lisette Heller (Lenny Estelle) of Ivoryton, CT and Monique Heller (John Parnoff) of Old Lyme, CT. He relished his role as Papa and Grampa Joe to Zachary, Maxwell and Emily Bennett, Megan, Mackenzie and Ryan Korcak, and Giovanna and Mattea Parnoff and hopes that he taught at least one of them to cuss properly.

Left with decades of fond and colorful memories are his siblings Pat Bedard of Madison, Richard (Pat) Heller of Oxford, and Kathy Heller of Killingworth, sisters-in-law, Kathy McGowan of Niantic and Diane Breslin of Killingworth, and 14 nieces and nephews.

No flowers, please. The family is seeking donations to offset the expense of publishing an exceedingly long obituary which would have really pissed Joe off. Seriously, what would have made him the happiest is for you to go have a cup of coffee with a friend and bullsh*t about his antics or play a harmless prank on some unsuspecting sap.

If we still haven’t dissuaded you and you feel compelled to waste your hard-earned money to honor his memory, donations may be sent to: Seabee Memorial Scholarship Association, PO Box 667, Gulfport, MS 39502.

A celebration of his life, with Joe laid out in all his glory, will be held on Thursday, September 12, at the Essex Fire Department, 11 Saybrook Road, from 4-7. A light dinner will be served as Joe felt no get-together was complete without food. None of his leftovers or kitchen concoctions will be pawned off on any unsuspecting guests. Feel free to be as late as you’d like as Joe was never on time for anything because of the aforementioned napping habits. Joe despised formality and stuffiness and would really be ticked off if you showed up in a suit. Dress comfortably. The family encourages you to don the most inappropriate T-Shirt that you are comfortable being seen in public with as Joe often did.

Everybody has a Joe story and we’d love to hear them all. Joe faced his death and his mortality, as he did with his life, face on, often telling us that when he dropped dead to dig a hole in the back yard and just roll him in. Much to his disappointment, he will be properly interred with full military honors (and maybe Jack) next to his wife on Friday, September 13, at 10:00 am in Centerbrook Cemetery.

The family is forever in debt to his neighbor, Barry Peterson, for all of his help in recent years. We couldn’t have done it without you. Sorry, Mom, Lisette and I did the best we could to take care of him and keep him out of your hair as long as we could. Back in your court now. To share a memory of Joe or send a condolence to his family please visit Arrangements by the Robinson, Wright & Weymer Funeral Home in Centerbrook.

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Yesterday my husband and I were driving through bucolic Western Wisconsin (AKA the Driftless) in search of someone to build a shed for us. We have a very small, rustic cabin in this beautiful part of the state and our property was hard hit during floods both this summer and last.

Side note: If you’ve ever wondered why it’s possible for “100 year floods” to hit so darn frequently, check out this overview from the experts at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

We’d built our own shed in the past, but after having it wash away last year (the power of water is truly amazing—I am talking about an entire shed and everything inside of it) it seemed like it was time to open the checkbook instead of the toolbox.

The local hardware store directed us to an Amish shed builder who might be able to help. As we drove through the rolling hills south of Coon Valley, it truly felt as if we had stepped back in time. Sure, I’ve often seen the horses and buggies driving along the side of the highway—or, sometimes, people walking along the road, which is pretty terrifying when you’re driving at 60+ miles per hour. But this was the first time that I’d driven by the farms where those Amish farmers and their families lived.

I didn’t take any pictures as that seemed invasive and unfair—would I want someone lingering outside my house taking snapshots of my yard? After a few wrong turns and stopping at farmhouses and on the road, we found someone who might be able to help us with a shed.

I’m sure I was romanticizing the lifestyle of the people whose paths we crossed yesterday. I have no desire to live on a farm and the day-to-day reality of their lives isn’t one that I’d likely enjoy. But there was something a bit magical about the small puppies and shy children who lingered in the yards as we drove up. And the hard-to-place lilt of the people we spoke to made me wonder if English was a language they only spoke among outsiders like my husband and me.

Will we get a shed? I guess we’ll find out eventually—apparently there will be a phone call at some point, or perhaps a letter. There was no email follow-up, no exchange of business cards or URLs. But there was a handshake and a “you betcha” that I’m guessing will suffice if we’re patient.

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Shop thrift and save the world

Sure, that’s a little bit of an overstatement, but keep reading.

I initially started “thrifting” because I’m parsimonious and it was a cheap way to scratch the fashion itch—oh, look, jeans you can cut off for boyfriend shorts for $4.

But as I became a bit more educated about the realities of how clothing is made in our world today—especially fast fashion—I started to see that thrifting wasn’t just about saving money (after all a t-shirt from Wal-Mart can often be just as cheap).

That thrifting could actually lessen the impact of the millions (and millions) of cheap shoes and t-shirts we make and toss every year. And, even more important, that thrifting made me think about the impact cheap fashion has on the people who are being paid way too little to make it.

Thrifting could help me stop being part of the problem. (And, bonus, let me buy something unique that every third person wouldn’t be wearing this summer. I’m sureRebecca Light, one of the owners of the Good Style Shop would definitely agree!)

I won’t pretend to be an expert on this topic, but here are two people who are—check them out.

James Ferrett, the founder of Ethical Trade Company. His company sells fair trade products from developing countries such as Nepal, Haiti and Cambodia. It’s his way of trying to make a dent in the reality that 35 million people around the world are victims of modern day slavery.

Elizabeth Segran. She’s written a variety of articles about how cheap clothes are hurting the environment and people. This Fast Company article is a good place to start.

What can YOU do to make a difference?

Educate yourself (see above). Then buy accordingly.

Stop buying stuff just to buy stuff. Do you really (really) need another cheap black t-shirt, pair of jeans, flip-flops, etc.? I admit to having any number of things in my closet that wouldn’t stand up to the “need” test, and that Marie Kondo would find plenty to jettison, but I’m trying to do better.

Consider shopping thrift–but do it mindfully. Don’t just load up on a bunch of stuff you won’t wear/don’t need, but consider at least checking out a thrift store the next time you need to buy. I’ve found some great buys at my local St. Vinnie’s and it feels good to support people in need with your purchase and keep things out of a landfill.

I do recognize the likelihood of that perfect white blouse is pretty limited and that you won’t have the luxury of the same style of jeans in three sizes to find your perfect fit. But try thrifting and see what you discover—you might be surprised!

Two of my favorites–thank you Rethreads!

Learn to mend—and do it—or recycle/upcycle. I say this as someone who would rather sew an entire new thing from scratch than fix a hem (only sort of exaggerating), but if you’ve ever thrown something perfectly good because it needed a little repair, reconsider! Plus, in this time of ripped jeans and personalized style, maybe that pair of jeans is just a fashion moment waiting to happen. Check out this book for ideas.

You can see I hate to mend!

That’s my two cents for today. And the next time you run into me, ask me if I’m wearing anything thrift (very likely!) or newly repaired (ok, less likely but you never know!).

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A few weeks back friends were visiting and we all decided to give a virtual reality game a whirl. The game in question takes you to the top of a 100-story building where you walk out on a plank and “jump” to your doom.

The ” ” are the key there—as you’re not really supposed to jump.

Guess someone forgot. The result, sadly, was a set of lovely knee braces (which do not come in your choice of stylish color options).

Such a sporty look!

As I’ve been recuperating from my “exuberance” over the past few weeks, I’ve had time to ponder virtual reality. It is truly amazing to me that even though one part of my brain processed “you are wearing ridiculous goggles and standing on the floor,” another part said “jump at the end of this gangplank.” How did a cheapy VR tool, that wasn’t very realistic, trick my brain like that?

You can find some good insights here which I am considering at my leisure.

Virtual reality has lots of amazing uses—check out this article for an overview of everything from treating anxiety to training doctors–and I appreciate its value as both a tool and a fun way to play a game or experience an alternate reality.

A good friend just sent me a link about how virtual reality might help deal with my pain. There’s a certain irony there but, hey, it might work! Now, where are those goggles?

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Did you know that each and every day more than 200 children, teens, women and men are trafficked right here in the city of Madison?

That’s a number that’s pretty hard to fathom. And one I would have found hard to believe just a few months ago. But that’s before I met Det. Roger Baker of the Madison police department.

Baker is a member of the Dane County Coordinated Community Response Team for Human Trafficking and specializes in cases involving human trafficking and missing exploited children. Det. Baker was a vital resource to me, and a group of women from my church, Our Lady Queen of Peace, when we decided to host an educational event on sex trafficking. Thanks to Det. Baker we were able to connect with exceptional resources including:

  • Tyler Schueffner, coordinator of the Briarpatch Street Outreach Program
  • Tracy Scheffler, the founder of 5-Stones Beaver Dam, a group that helps to educate youth and adults on trafficking. 
  • McKenzie, peer specialist and victim advocate at Project Respect who shared her personal experiences as a trafficking survivor. 

During the event we learned about the underground nature of trafficking today—there isn’t a “red light district” per se because recruiting and sales are occurring online and on social media. We also learned what traffickers look for in their victims. Runaways are particularly vulnerable, but kids hanging out alone at bus stops and malls who seem lonely or angry are also likely targets. And a distressing level of trafficking occurs through peers. Our speakers also shared signs that could indicate someone is being trafficked: for a list, please visit the Polaris website.

I’m heartened by the number of concerned citizens who joined us and the variety of non-profits who were on hand to share information and provide opportunities to volunteer (more on that below). Det. Baker stressed how critical it is to build coalitions: trafficking is a huge problem that no one entity can tackle on its own. 

One person at the event, pointed out something that made us all stop and think:
That for each attendee in that room, there was a person being trafficked that night. Right here in Madison.

This is a reality we all need to be aware of and one that’s not going away without a lot more education and effort. 


If you see something, say something.

Call 9-1-1

Or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888

For victim assistance, call Project Respect at 283-6435, ext. 14

A big “thank you” to the speakers and organizations who made our event possible. 

And another big “thank you” to Hannah Anderson for sharing our story on NBC15 (you’ll have to click through–I fear I couldn’t get the video to load). 


Don’t miss SlaveFree Madison’s upcoming film series. Complete details on their calendar.  


Want to learn more or looking for ways to get involved? These local groups would love to hear from you



Every Daughter


Lutheran Office for Public Policy in WI

Multi-Faith Coalition Against Child Sex

Project Respect

Sinsinawa Dominicans Against Human Trafficking

Slave-Free Madison

Zeteo Community


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Friday, November 30, 2018

I won at Christmas Movie Bingo

Ok, I don’t mean to brag, but I recently dusted the competition in a spirited game of Christmas Movie Bingo (more on the rules below—you’re dying to know, right?).

Like apparently millions of other across this great nation (who have access to Netflix, Amazon Prime or the Hallmark Channel), my family and I have embraced the much maligned film genre of Christmas movies. Sure, they’re cheesy. Sure you can figure out the plot in about five seconds. And, sure, it’s 90 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.

But Christmas movies are also lots of fun. And, guess what? This year you’ll have more options than ever before if this is the way you like to spend a Friday night.

According to today’s Wall Street Journal, The Hallmark Channel knows exactly what we love to click on and is releasing 22 new Christmas Movies on that channel, plus 15 on their Hallmark Movies and Mysteries Channel this year alone (I don’t get those channels but am hopeful they’ll cross over to my streaming services in the future).

And Netflix has wisely created a sequel to last year’s runaway hit, A Christmas Prince. (Apparently Netflix tracked viewership and found 53 viewers watched the movie every day for two weeks—who are these people?!?). The cleverly named, A Christmas Prince: A Royal Wedding comes out today. But I’ve already promised my far-flung children to wait for their holiday arrival to watch it. I promise not to have an unfair advantage for that movie’s bingo game! 


What’s the appeal? Christmas movies are basically the comfort food of TV: the whole family can watch them together and you can count on a happy ending (which is, of course, an appealing alternative to the news headlines).

So, go ahead. Put aside the cynicism, pop some corn and gather your loved ones near. 

Rules for Movie Bingo

  1. Select cheesy movie
  2. Watch 10 minutes and pause.
  3. Have each participant choose eight items they believe will happen in the movie and use these to create your bingo card (see sample below)
  4. First person to fill their card wins!

(And only some of the above card got me the win in The Princess Switch so don’t cheat and use my guesses).


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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

What do libraries mean to YOU?

I recently started reading Susan Orleans’ latest, The Library Book. Her memories of the power the library had for her as a child—as a place where she first experienced autonomy and could delight in both a free treat and special time with her mother—got me thinking back to my own childhood library experiences.

Like Orleans, I grew up in a house where there wasn’t a lot of money to buy books—the times when we could order something from the Scholastic school book order were thrilling indeed! But my mother always made sure we had books to read and if memory serves she was on a first name basis with all of the children’s librarians.

Orleans was in Madison last week, thanks to the Madison Public Library and an incredibly generous bequest from a local library lover, Helen Matheson Rupp. Her amazing $3.4 million donation to the library made our evening with Orleans possible (including—hooray!—a copy of the book) and recently funded improvements to a local library and a librarian to oversee their teen section.

As expected, Orleans was funny and smart and her book—which chronicles the Los Angeles central library, the destructive fire of 1986 that provides the story’s framework and all things library in general—is quite fascinating.

If you haven’t stopped by a library of late, put it off no longer! The “shh, quiet” atmosphere of my childhood has largely been replaced by a busy feeling of community, but the sense of wide-ranging possibility that only a book can offer remains. Enjoy!

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Has it been a scary week in the world of international news—or is the planet still largely spinning on its axis? You might rely on things like NPR, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal (or, more globally, the BBC) for your answer. I like to rely on People magazine.

Wait, wait, hear me out (and don’t judge that a subscription is actually delivered to my home each and every Thursday—I’m taking advantage of credit card airline miles and will fully confess that it makes a nice addition to my lunch!).

Because I actually do experience a little moment of “ahhh” when the cover story is the Royal Family. I mean, sure, there were plenty of things that went wrong this week (the impending hurricane, tariff worries, flooding are just a few), but if how Meghan is handling the pressures of royal life makes the cut for “biggish news,” things are sort of alright.

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One of my daughters just introduced me to Grandma Eileen. 

This lovely, feisty 100 (or I guess she’s 100 by now) year-old woman is just wonderful (as long as you don’t ask her the secret to living to be 100 or 101 years old). I won’t even attempt to tell you about her as she does such a lovely job all by herself.

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Where were you in the summer of 1983? I was an about-to-be college senior, enjoying one last  burst of freedom before heading into the stress of finding a job and figuring out what post-college life was all about. And, I just learned, 1983 was also the summer the band Toto had a big hit with the song Africa. I remember it as one of those ear worm songs that everyone knew but didn’t particularly like (though considering that it was a #1 hit for the band, I guess someone did).

I was a bit bemused to open this morning’s paper and see this song is currently enjoying a second life thanks to Weezer, a band that’s typically occupied a fringe position in popular music (and whose song, Feels like Summer, was a favorite around our house last year). But, surprise, surprise, their remake version is now #8 on the “adult Top 40 radio stations with a bigger audience” (which is quite a long and specific way to describe a station). Who knew?

Apparently the boys in Toto are just as bemused as I and confirm the song was  a bit of nonsense whose success took them all off guard. (And for more on Weezer’s embrace of all things Toto and the overall embrace of all things ’80s, check out this delightful article on Esquire).

Here’s a little something to kick your day off, whether it also creates a trip down memory lane or not. Enjoy.


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Knowledge junkie. Raconteur.

Vicky Franchino

I love to learn about new things. And I love to tell a good story. Let’s get together and tell yours!

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