Excerpt: John Roach’s ‘While I Have Your Attention’

Roach celebrates 25 years of writing
Excerpt: John Roach’s ‘While I Have Your Attention’

Madison Magazine columnist John Roach celebrates 25 years of writing with a second compilation of his favorite and most provocative columns from 2003 to 2018. His first book was “Way Out Here in the Middle,” a compilation of 51 columns that originally appeared in Madison Magazine from 1993 to 2003. The following excerpt proves why he’s the magazine’s provocateur.

For the past 25 years, writer and storyteller John Roach has held court on the back page of this magazine. With musings on everything from politics, religion and sports to family and cabin life and his many obsessions – music, technology, books, weather and his hometown of Madison – Roach has entertained and occasionally enraged readers with witty and astute observations on life as he sees it.

Writers are like neurotic cats you cannot herd but must somehow move in the same general direction, which in my case was the printed pages of Madison Magazine, where I served as an editor for 15 years. If you know John Roach even a little, you know that he does not care to be herded in any direction. He is Irish; therefore, he is hardheaded. Which is why the back page of a magazine was – and is – the singularly best position for his column. The column was called “Out There” when my predecessor Doug Moe introduced it in 1993. You never, ever knew where John was headed, and that was half the fun. The other half was his uncommon way with words.

I had a litmus test for the quality of John’s columns. They were at their best when I had wiped away a tear, felt a butterfly in my stomach, winced or laughed out loud by the time I’d read the last word. Of course, there was the occasional phone call to John after I finished reading a particularly, shall we say, opinionated piece that challenged a specific person, place, thing or idea.

“Do you really want to say that?” I’d ask. “Yes,” he’d answer, touching off an argument that I almost never won.

An editor’s job is hard. Damn hard. It also is incredibly rewarding. You get to coach, counsel, teach, learn and grow with some of the smartest, funniest and most passionate people on the planet. John is all of those and then some. I’d add bighearted, even though he may be loath to admit it.

I once asked John how he comes up with his column ideas. “Easy,” he said. “You wet your finger and put it in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.” Fortunately for the readers of Madison Magazine, the wind is rarely calm.

John Roach is as endemic to Wisconsin as Badgers and brats; to Madison as State Street and Vilas Park; and to the Northwoods as lake sunsets and the call of the loon.

Here are three excerpts from John’s inimitable columns. They, along with 54 of his greatest hits, are compiled in a new book, “While I Have Your Attention,” which I had the joy of editing.

When Art Goes Bad
March 2006

Now that football has ended and we are free of the usual distractions that accompany every season, it is time to turn our attention to the venereal piece of concrete someone stuck at the west gateway to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. It stands in front of Camp Randall and offers us the one finger salute every day.

I am referring, of course, to the odd stack of fossilized footballs cutely dubbed “Nails’ Tales.”
This sterling example of public art gone bad was erected (pardon the verb) late last fall, after several months of flawed work by the sculptor, UW grad Donald Lipski.

When I first saw this oversized ode to bat guano, I was aghast. I am sure that Mr. Lipski has done some wonderful sculptures in the past. This isn’t one of them.

How could anyone approve such a poor artistic effort? How could anyone choose to honor a program and place that has done so many things right by commissioning something that offers stunning testimony of how to do things dreadfully wrong?

September 2010

Margaret, our middle child, came to me in the late afternoon.

Perhaps I should have seen it coming then, but she betrayed no artifice.

“Dad,” she said. “Mom needs a wine cruise. The activity is too much for her.” This was not a request. This was a directive.

Truth is, things were a little crazy.

Our three children and 20 of their closest friends had joined us for the annual Fourth at the Lake. The youngsters are in fact adults, recent college grads turned working stiffs. This makes the weekend both jailbreak and marathon. Many of the kids are Badger alums, and thus magna cum social. The weekend is a nonstop parade of beer pong, singing, guitar playing, short-attention-span iPoding, charades, fishing, bonfires and an hour of sleeping in any spot where they happen to stop moving when the sun comes up.

White on Rice
October 2017

In the past week, we were forced to watch khaki-clad white boys waddle down the street in Charlottesville, Virginia, with $3.99 Home Depot Tiki torches held preposterously above their empty heads. After their rally for white supremacy, one of them killed a white woman with his car, which seems grossly off-strategy for a white superiority movement.

Let us set aside, if possible, the sheer hatred and ignorance of their cause. Let’s forget their self-pitying whine of white oppression so pathetic in its weakness.

And let’s forget, for the moment, that not one of these guys has presumably ever satisfied a woman.

Instead, let us imagine the awful place America would be if their sick wish came true.

Let’s imagine, for an unbearable moment, that America was as white as a neo-Nazi pot roast tailgate in a Chick-fil-A parking lot. Mayonnaise would be our national fruit. Everything we eat would fit between white bread. Our dancing would be arrhythmic and asexual. High school kids would form committees to not have a dance because it would be just too awkward.