Tag Archives: featured

Ralston Fourth of July Volunteer

July 5, 2017 by

Ralston, Omaha’s neighbor just south of Q Street, has a population of less than 7,300 for 364 days a year.  On Independence Day, the town’s Fourth of July celebration brings in approximately 40,000 people for its parade, fireworks display, and other events. Chamber of Commerce volunteer Dennis Leslie has been key to keeping it all running smoothly for years.  And the semi-retired local businessman loves it.

“The past three or four years I’ve been manning the phones on the Fourth of July in the (chamber) office,” he says. “Fielding questions like ‘When are the fireworks gonna start?’ ‘What time does the parade start?’ [and] ’Where can I park?’” Leslie knows the answers to all those questions and more. He also collects and tracks raffle ticket money that other volunteers hand in throughout the day, and helps out in any other way he can. In the past, he’s even worked on setting up the parade grandstands. The Chamber of Commerce staff (an office of two) say they rely and lean on him on the holiday, and throughout the year . . . even when he’s out of state.

“He probably knows more than I do,” says Tara Lea, former president of the Ralston Chamber, which presents the parade and other events. When she started at the chamber four-and-a-half years ago, Leslie had already been a dedicated volunteer for more than a dozen years. Besides putting in a 12-hour day on the Fourth of July, Leslie has been a person the chamber could tap to be at before- and after-work meetings, to assist with events, and to, well, haul stuff.  Leslie has worked for the moving company Chieftain Van Lines, located on Ralston’s Main Street, for more than 40 years.  Back in the 1970s, before his volunteering officially began, he helped out at the Fourth of July parade when it was still growing by being in it.    

  “They (parade organizers) actually called to see if we wanted to put a couple of our trucks in the parade. So two of us spiffed up our tractor trailers,” Leslie says. “We were the last ones to go through the parade.”

Leslie (who remains a vice president at Chieftain) spends less than half of the year in the Omaha metropolitan area. During the colder months he’s “out of state, southerly.”  But even when he’s not in Ralston, the chamber calls him, and he calls the chamber at least once a week. 

“This is a fun group.  Absolutely fun people,” he says. “[Even if] I’ve been gone for five months, I show up to the chamber luncheon…and it [is] like old home week seeing everybody.”

His volunteering passion was discovered when a former Ralston Chamber official asked him to join and help out.  He hadn’t thought of being a volunteer earlier because “[no] one ever asked us to be.”

And just like a dedicated volunteer, he says he can’t imagine not helping out, seeing people he likes, and supporting his community.  “Why not?” he says.  “It’s a good time.”

Visit ralstonareachamber.org for more information.

An Authentic Skid Mark?

An art collaboration by Bill Sitzmann and Nicholas Wasserberger
Design by Derek Joy
Models Nicholas Wasserberger and Kaleigh Moynihan

Kaleigh Moynihan’s An Authentic Skid Mark worn throughout

With love to Zoe Kuhn, her brothers Ian and Ollie, and Kim Darling

 

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.

Long Live the Reuben

June 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like a typical Midwestern child, Christian Mackevicius grew up outdoors. He was a daredevil with the skateboard, a leader in sports like football, and a patient angler and golfer.

However, his childhood was different in one aspect. Some of his earliest memories come from his time helping in a bakery.

Christian, 21, is one of many in the Mackevicius family who has worked in the Lithuanian Bakery in South Omaha or the deli located in central Omaha, the Lithuanian Bakery & Kafe.

His grandparents, Stefanija and Vytautas, started the original Lithuanian Bakery in 1962.

After they immigrated and settled in South Omaha, neighbors and friends began asking to buy loaves of bread from Stefanija. She was soon selling 20 loaves a week. Lauri Mackevicius, Christian’s mother, says: “Someone turned her into the health department. ‘That’s against the law,’ they said. You needed to have a permit. That’s when the bakery actually started.” 

The family refers to the original South Omaha location as the “factory,” where bread and pastries are made. The cafe is the place to go for sandwiches and lunch (at 74th and Pacific streets).

“My earliest memories were just coming to work sometimes,” Christian says. He would tag along with his mother, Lauri, to her first downtown bakery; however, that location didn’t last long, only a few years. “I remember going there as soon as she was starting it; I was only 3 or 4,” he recalls.

As he got a little taller, a little stronger, he was tasked with taking out trash or helping out whenever he was in the bakery. By about age 15, he was officially an employee at his mother’s more recent venture, Lithuanian Bakery & Kafe. Christian’s father, Alfonsas Mackevicius, took over the factory with his two brothers.

The wiry young man can be found at the cafe these days, with a friendly smile behind the counter. His slender build belies years growing up with the family’s famous Napoleon tortes being served at every special occasion. “I started eating a lot of torte when I was little. I loved it! As soon as it started being a part of every occasion,” Christian pauses and then smiles, “I don’t eat that much of it, actually.”

Christian started working in the kitchen, learning to make the perfect sandwich and how to properly prepare his mother’s egg salad recipe. It was satisfying to hear the customers’ approval. “I just liked seeing people smile when they got the food,” he says.

The most popular sandwich he serves up is the Reuben, which many consider to be a Lithuanian sandwich. The Reuben is believed to be an Omaha original, created by local Lithuanian-born grocer Reuben Kulakofsky, who introduced the sandwich to regular poker games and eventually the menu at the old Blackstone Hotel.

Christian proudly explains the key to his Reuben is the Lithuanian sourdough rye bread, made at the family’s factory. The Mackevicius family keeps the sourdough culture in wooden containers, a grandfathered practice no longer allowed in bakeries.

He still works in the kitchen, if he’s working in the mornings. There are salads and soups to prep, meat to cut up. When his dad delivers pastries from the factory at 8 a.m., Christian begins readying for the first customers.

His sweet spot at work, though, is in the front of house. He’s a natural when it comes to making the customer happy. He casually chats with regulars; many have been coming to the bakery for years.

Alfonsas Mackevicius has watched his son settle into his own pace at the cafe. He recognizes his son’s laid-back yet outgoing personality helps him connect with customers. “He’s really personable with customers,” Alfonsas says. “He pays attention to their needs.”

Christian juggles work with school. He’s a junior studying for a business degree at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. During the school week, he’ll head to the cafe once his classes are done for the day, arriving in time for the lunch rush. It’s a tough balance, but not due to his job.

“Since I’ve been working here so long, I don’t look at it like a job,” he says. “It’s like clockwork. It doesn’t put that much stress on me.”

After a long day of class and clearing tables, Christian usually can be found fishing at the lake near his parents’ house. It’s almost a daily ritual. “He grew up on water his whole life. It’s just a natural thing to do,” Alfonsas says. “I taught him the basics, and he took off learning stuff on his own.”

Christian may continue working at the family business after he graduates. But he hasn’t decided. Taking over his mom’s deli is an option for the future. He’s the third generation working at the Lithuanian Bakery, but only one of his cousins has taken that path as a career. Most others, including Christian’s brother and sister, punched some time on the clock at the bakery in their youth but have moved on.

“All of our kids have worked in the bakery at one time or another,” Alfonsas says of his and his siblings’ children. He says his daughter, who’s now a nurse, still helps out sometimes when his wife needs it.

Lauri says Omaha’s Lithuanian community was once anchored in South Omaha. Now, the original immigrants’ descendants have moved across the metro area. St. Anthony’s Church used to offer services in Lithuanian when Christian’s grandparents lived in the area. But the pastor, and much of his Lithuanian-speaking population, has passed away.

“There’s still a good sized Lithuanian community. We have a dance group, a women’s club, and a men’s club,” Lauri says. “But in terms of how it used to be, it’s a lot smaller.”

Christian is the youngest of his generational cohort and doesn’t seem concerned about a declining Lithuanian community in Omaha. His oldest cousin is now a parent. “There’s a whole other group coming up in the business,” he says.

Visit lithuanianbakery.biz for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Eat ’Em If Ya Got ’Em

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

To quote Monsanto’s 1970s propaganda: “Without chemicals, life itself is impossible.” The multinational agrochemical/biotech corporation is ostensibly in the business of helping farmers grow food. So, let’s just say, “Without food, human existence goes kaput.”

Okay, we need water, too. Oh, and oxygen. We gotta breathe, right? Food, water, and oxygen are three legs supporting the stool of life for us hunter-gatherers. Yes, we are hunter-gatherers. Although we do sport better clothes and haircuts thanks to the domestication of sheep and the invention of scissors, don’t let it fool you. In the geological sense, mankind has barely stepped from the Paleolithic Age.

You see, in the old days, we humans clumped together in small bands and clans as we wandered from one unmapped rock to another uncharted ravine. Oxygen was plentiful since most of the super-volcano eruptions were distant memories, and thanks to a few hundred-thousand comet strikes, the planet was positively soaked in water. We’d be on the move all day, always on the lookout for a bite to eat. Turn over a mossy rock and, by golly, some tasty bugs were revealed. Perhaps a bit tart, but with a satisfying crunch, they were proto-chips with dip included.

Pull up this scraggly plant and we are rewarded with a high-fiber edible root. Munch on this glistening leaf, add an odd berry and bean, and we’re good to go. Some scaly lizard sunning on a ledge might offer a good target for a well-thrown stone, and meat is on the menu. A scraggly prehistoric chicken could be snared and consumed. “Tastes like snake,” said Ug.

Nowadays, we hunter-gatherers have automobiles, so we can range farther than before, but nothing has fundamentally changed. We breathe—the air occasionally laced with hints of Febreze. We drink water—mostly now from plastic bottles—easier to carry than a tanned animal bladder but harder on our whale friends in the ocean. We eat.

We are no longer wandering blindly. Google Maps can guide us from the now-precise coordinates of the old rock visited by our furry ancestors to that ancient ravine, converted to a food court. Instead of turning over an old rock, we ask our electronic clan-mate Siri, “Where’s the nearest restaurant?” and a long list of eateries scrolls out on the screen.

Some of these locations even have salad bars, so we’re back to foraging leaves (this time from behind a sneeze-guard). More than a few places serve bugs. Well, OK, they serve shrimp. Did you ever look at a shrimp? It’s an underwater bug. There’s no denying it. If you spotted a few shrimp crawling around in your garage you’d call Terminix right away. Me, I’d be thinking, “Where’s the garlic?”

Yes, we modern hunter-gatherers now have a global reach. Thanks to technology, trade, and transportation, my clan and I have eaten bugs (shrimp) from Thailand, roots (carrots) from Canada, leaves (lettuce) from Mexico, and beans (chocolate) from Africa. We’re still on the same daily trek from waterhole to waterhole, only now we read Yelp reviews online. We watch Anthony Bourdain downing a bowl of soba on Okinawa. We are so connected to virtual experience that we are disconnected from real experience.

Here in America, we are in the Land of Plenty. Food is taken for granted by most. We have lost something in the bargain. We no longer experience the simple pleasure of putting something strange in our mouths, chewing, and hoping against hope that it doesn’t kill us. Food has lost a bit of its old sense of adventure.

It’s lonely at the top of the food chain.

This column was printed in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Otis XII hosts the radio program, Early Morning Classics with Otis XII, on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

A Fresh Homemade Kitchen

June 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Out of all the genius quotes from world-renowned architects and designers, Kylie Von Seggern’s favorite comes from a celebrity chef.

Her profile on Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture’s website lists the words of Anthony Bourdain as her favorite quote: “Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them—wherever you go.”

The mantra manifests itself throughout the architect and interior designer’s professional work and private life.

Von Seggern prefers adaptive reuse to high-profile mega projects, and she embraces community engagement and activism. Her responsive ideology is likewise evident in the renovation of her home in the Hanscom Park neighborhood.

Kylie Von Seggern

While house shopping in 2015, she wanted to find an older home with built-in character. That’s exactly what she found in her current residence, built in 1908.

The previous owner had lived there for 50 years. The warm gray interior featured dense wood trim, exquisite detailing, and the creek of wood floors. It was the perfect combination of good bones and room for updates.

For the interior remodel, she proposed “more of a modern upgrade” than a total overhaul. The kitchen, however, lacked the rest of the house’s inherent character.

She recently renovated the kitchen to achieve a crisp, airy gathering space. She replaced the limited cabinetry and floors. But she kept the kitchen’s existing plaster walls.

For Von Seggern, the kitchen is important because everyone is always there—regardless if there’s a party or not. Part of the reason stems from her roommate being a chef.

Throughout and beyond her home, Von Seggern’s approach to design and architecture resonates with creative culinary instincts: Like a great homemade meal, “It tastes so good because you made it,” she says. 

Growing up in Lincoln, design-oriented interests eventually led her to the architecture program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

While at UNL, she participated in a 2010 study abroad program to Guatemala where she learned vernacular cinder-block building techniques.

In Guatemala, she began hypothesizing the duplicitous meanings of a home. Von Seggern ultimately realized, “Not everyone wants a McMansion,” and more importantly, “functionality over aesthetics” takes precedence.

She also studied abroad in Germany before completing her degree in Nebraska. With such international experience, her attraction to the Bourdain quotation becomes obvious. The preceding sentence of the full direct quote is: “If you’re [young], physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel—as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to.”

She began working at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture after completing her Master of Architecture in 2013, and she began lending her voice to local architectural advocacy efforts as a volunteer at Restoration Exchange Omaha.

Von Seggern’s volunteer work allows her to have a direct impact in Omaha while developing skills in navigating city bureaucracy and finding ways to remain responsive to older architecture instead of reactively always looking for the new.

Back in her home on the edge of Hanscom Park, her kitchen is a perfect example of her finding this balance on her own terms.

Visit alleypoyner.com/kylie-von-seggern for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Rachel Halbmaier

May 24, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Rachel Halbmaier is a woman with ideas, and she has the ability to convey these ideas in a way that makes people excited for what will come next. That’s why the former director of events and promotions for Lincoln’s entertainment district The Railyard is Greater Omaha Chamber’s Director of Riverfront Development for Missouri Commons. The job, which she accepted in February, is to oversee the activation of the riverfront area by increasing its usage for community events.

“I was uniquely qualified,” she admits, referencing her time in Lincoln. That position demanded that she plan and execute events while juggling the company’s social media and traditional promotions, and manage the staff of the Railyard Ice Rink and the Railyard Ambassadors.

“I have a lot I want to accomplish,” she says.

Donn Seidholz, chairman of the steering committee for Missouri Commons, revealed that more than 40 resumes from around the country were received for the position. “Clearly she was the heads-and-tails best pick,” he says. “She was absolutely the best choice for the job,” he says, adding that her “passion, excitement, and enthusiasm are infectious. We’re thrilled with Rachel.”

“We needed someone who could share the passion to activate the riverfront,” Seidholz says.

Halbmaier envisions events at the riverfront that will draw locals, and also compel people to travel here to attend. “We’re going to bring people together to make memories,” she predicted.

“I’d love to see a world-class festival down there, but I’d also like to see the space activated Monday through Friday as well. Maybe a music festival, or a food and wine festival. Or a triathlon, or a fashion show on the bridge, or maybe a pop-up dog park,” Halbmaier mused, overflowing with ideas on how to activate the available space. “I want to enhance what’s already there.”

Relationship-building is a critical part of this position, and she anticipates spending her first year connecting with community leaders and other people to understand what the riverfront can become while also fueling support for development. Growing up in Kenesaw, Nebraska, and attending school in Lincoln means that she didn’t necessarily have ample experience with the riverfront, but that is not an obstacle for her. Seidholz praises her proactive work ethic, stating, “She didn’t wait around for us to tell her what to do or who to meet.” Seidholz laughs and says that just when he thinks of someone with whom Halbmaier should meet, he finds out Halbmaier has already reached out to him or her. 

Her coming goals for the riverfront include bolstering the bond between Omaha and Council Bluffs, and “getting people down there and making them feel welcome.” Seidholz says Halbmaier can accomplish “just about anything,” and “has the full, undying support of everyone on the committee. The support has been unbelievable from Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert.” This strong support, coupled with Halbmaier’s relentless drive, will most likely result in some great things to come for the riverfront.   

Visit omahachamber.org for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Woman-Owned Small Business Program

December 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“To be considered economically disadvantaged, the woman must meet three economic criteria: personal net worth must be less than $750,000 annually, adjusted gross income averaged over the last three years must be less than $350,000, and personal assets must be less than $6 million.”

-Lisa Tedesco

Have you ever considered that the U.S. government is the world’s largest customer? The government buys a wide variety of products and is required by law to provide opportunities for small business owners. Fortunately for women entrepreneurs in Nebraska, this massive opportunity is made easier thanks to the Women-Owned Small Business Program.

The program, which is implemented and administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration, authorizes contracting officers to specifically limit or set aside certain requirements for competition solely amongst WOSBs or economically disadvantaged woman-owned small business, according to the administration’s website.

The WOSB program ensures a level playing field on which small business can compete for federal contracting opportunities.

“The program is still new enough that we haven’t seen quite the impact the program has had in Nebraska, but we predict it will continue to provide contracting opportunities for woman-owned businesses, particularly in those businesses and industries typically owned by men,” says Kathleen Piper, deputy district director of the Nebraska District Office of the Small Business Administration.

Other services offered by the SBA include contracting education and assistance, business development, and various business trainings for women wanting to start their own business.

“We have seen a trend of businesses being started by women that have traditionally been owned and run by men, particularly in construction and construction trades, cyber security, engineering, and facilities operation management,” Piper says.

Lisa Tedesco, lead business opportunity specialist at the SBA, says that in order to be considered for the program, a woman owner must be a 51 percent owner who controls the business on a full-time basis and be a U.S. citizen. “To be considered economically disadvantaged, the woman must meet three economic criteria: personal net worth must be less than $750,000 annually, adjusted gross income averaged over the last three years must be less than $350,000, and personal assets must be less than $6 million.”

Tedesco says there is no formal process for self-certifying as a woman-owned small business or an economically disadvantaged woman-owned small business: “Since it is a self-certifying program, the WOSB simply uploads the documentation providing eligibility into an SBA system, where it is housed if and when a contracting officer must verify eligibility prior to a WOSB award.”

“Starting a business is exciting, it can be financially rewarding, and it offers women a great deal of flexibility, but it is also risky, time-consuming, and a lot of hard work,” Piper says.

“The SBA and its network of resources partners (SCORE, the Nebraska Business Development Center, and REAP Women’s Business Center) exist to help business owners get free counseling, gain access to contracting programs, and obtain capital through SBA Guaranteed Loan Programs,” she explains.

Piper says Nebraska is full of opportunity for aspiring business owners. She mentions a robust lending community coupled with low interest rates that make this a good time to start a business.

She says that Nebraska’s business landscape is rich with things like excellent universities that are involved in world-class research with potential for new business and job growth. There are also multiple government contracting prospects thanks to the Offutt Air Force Base and United States Strategic Command, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and other federal agencies buying goods and services for delivery locally and around the globe.

“Business ownership is a journey, and it is one that women do not have to take alone,” Piper says.

If only self-made Omaha business owner Melissa Stephens of The Cordial Cherry had contacted the SBA, she says she would have saved herself a lot of time and money. “I’ve problem-solved a lot on my own, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I probably should have reached out to an organization like the SBA just to help me adjust,” Stephens says.

During her journey to bring Omaha exquisite and unique chocolate-covered cherries, Stephens discovered having passion for her craft is absolutely necessary. “It’s not all roses and daisies every day. In fact, more often than not, it’s discouraging,” she says.

Stephens says it’s crucial to have resources and guidance like those provided by the SBA.

Her years of creating her own support system of friends and family helped her in her business. “I think any time your business requires you to adapt, having that guidance helps you avoid pitfalls that cost you both time and money,” she says.

Luckily for Nebraska women entrepreneurs, a support system—in the form of the SBA and the WOSB Program—is just a mouse click or a phone call away.

Visit certify.sba.gov for more information.

wosbp1

Elizabeth Byrnes

November 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…Toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

-Elizabeth Byrnes

Tucked away in a discreet supply room at Ralston High School, beyond the steel lockers and crowded classrooms, Elizabeth Byrnes is stocking nonperishable goods.

While classmates hurry to first period at 7:30 a.m., Byrnes shuffles paperwork, counts inventory, coordinates volunteer shifts, and organizes pick-ups and drop-offs for the school’s food pantry.

Byrnes is not your typical teenager. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old cheerleader who gabs on a smartphone and loves to shop at American Eagle. But this 5-foot-6-inch brown-eyed beauty takes her community service seriously.

So when she saw a sign last year advertising the school’s free food pantry, titled the R-Pantry, Byrnes decided to check it out.

“I didn’t know it was needed,” she says.

On that particular day, she visited the small closet of a lecture room where teachers had been operating a makeshift pantry that allowed students in need to shop anonymously for food, toiletries, and other supplies inside the high school.

Roughly 60 percent of students at Ralston Public Schools receive free or reduced-rate meals.

To create a healthy pantry, teacher Dan Boster says the Ralston High staff noticed the need and donated nonperishable items and the seed money—roughly $800 worth—in exchange for casual dress days.

“Once the pantry was created, we handed it off to the students,” says Boster, who also serves as National Honor Society adviser and oversees the pantry project.

Byrnes acquired the larder responsibility and has helped it evolve from the small closet of a lecture hall into a spacious supply room with large tower shelves brimming with food as diverse as artichoke hearts, fruit snacks, and granola bars.

Byrnes has grown the one-person operation to having 70 volunteers on deck to assist when needed. She has presented before the Ralston Chamber of Commerce when soliciting for donations and has advocated and made Ralston High an official Food Bank of the Heartland donation site.

She describes the families who utilize the pantry as living break-even lifestyles, existing paycheck-to-paycheck, with little left over for simple luxuries such as lip balm or toilet paper. Students from such families experience a lot of stress and anxiety over where their next meal is coming from, she adds.

“I saw how education is extremely difficult to get, especially if there’s a need in the household,” Byrnes says. “Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

Food insecurity—which means that people lack access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle—can be invisible, she explains. “Not knowing if there will be dinner on Friday night or lunch on Saturday.”

The R-Pantry idea is a positive response to a really challenging situation: student hunger. It is not the ultimate solution, but it is a start.

“I have so much respect and admiration for these students who are asking for help to support their
families.”

Byrnes excels in calculus, biology, and creative writing. She serves on DECA, is a class officer, and participates in National Honors Society. She enjoys running, hiking, and playing with her two dogs—Sophia and Jack.

Byrnes credits her family for always influencing her to do what’s best and help those in need. Dad (Robert E. Byrnes) is a doctor. Mom (Mary Byrnes) is a mortgage banker. Brother (Kent Keller) is a police officer.

“Her empathy for people runs very deep,” her mother says.

However, the driven teen doesn’t always communicate well with mom and dad, jokes her mother: “She was never one to seek glory. We didn’t know how involved she had been in the pantry until she was recognized. When she made homecoming court, we didn’t know about it until people began congratulating us.”

Mom adds, “She moves through life as if this is just a job. Helping others is just what she does.”

Byrnes plans to attend a four-year university next year and major in biology. She’d like to someday become a cosmetic dentist or dermatologist.

Byrnes encourages other young people: “If you see something you could change or help out, don’t be afraid to jump in there. You could change someone’s life with your one small action.”

The R-Pantry at Ralston High School (8969 Park Drive), is open on Fridays after school until 4 p.m. To volunteer, contact the school at 402-331-7373.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

Fighting Misogyny

October 14, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The undefeated Wilson fights her second career match at the Ralston Arena on Friday, Oct. 14.

20161012_bs_8935-edit

“Fighter” is a very connotative word. People hear it and think of large, brutish men knocking each other out for money. They think broken homes, difficult childhoods, and a last resort. Women are an afterthought, usually in the form of the devoted and completely dominated girlfriend or as the victims of domestic violence. The occasional person, when prompted, remembers Ronda Rousey’s infamous loss to Holly Holm—or how hot they both are. Typically, people respond so negatively to the idea of women in combat sports that I don’t even bring up the topic. Upon mentioning an upcoming fight or my training for the first time, the initial question people usually ask is not where do I train, or what’s my record; they ask what my boyfriend thinks of it. The readiness of this question, of the mindset that prioritizes the manner in which I relate to men as the most important part of my identity, is a big part of the reason I fight. The implication of that question answers the usual follow-up question of how I got into mixed martial arts.

I had my first cage fight in January of this year, at 110 pounds. I invited only four people outside of my team to watch, three of them women. I defeated my opponent via unanimous decision, meaning the fight went the full three rounds but the judges agreed that I was dominant throughout. It felt like a victory for not only myself and my team, but for all the skinny little girls around the city who are constantly being told they are too small or cute to get into any sport rougher than tennis. Afterward, I felt a little better equipped to handle the frequent instances of random men deciding to follow me on a run or asking me to get into the car as they drove by. My only battle wounds were bruised knuckles and a small bump to the left of my eye that quickly faded into a minor, reddish bruise. I loved having the visible symbol of my victory on my face. In part, because combined with the right amount of “resting bitch face,” it seemed to deter creepy strangers from approaching me in coffee shops or while walking down the street. 

But I wasn’t quite able to wear even my minor injuries, symbols of a well-earned victory and a major milestone in my life, with pride like the male fighters can. I remember my boyfriend coming out of his first fight, his only loss to date, with a badly broken nose and blood in his eye. Everyone’s first assumption was that he had been in a fight; I know because strangers approached him, excited to talk about how he had engaged in the most masculine of sports and emerged in reasonably good shape. Where he was met with excitement, I was handed cards with hotline phone numbers from sympathetic gas station employees who didn’t believe my story. For the week or so that my bruise was noticeable, any boy I happened to be walking around with that day was on the receiving end of accusatory glares, head-shaking, and lots of poorly muffled whispers. Outside of the martial arts community in the area, it was like my victory was something I should have hidden behind closed doors. Apparently, even after all those days of getting up at 5 a.m. to train and then spend hours at the gym, I still looked like an easy target. It wasn’t my first time being silenced about something I was proud of. Gradually, I realized that MMA will not change how most people see me, but it has changed how I see myself. 

During the month leading up to my second fight—this one at 115 pounds—I still encountered the stereotypical ways that women are perceived in relationship to the word “fighter.” But impositions of societal norms were not my concern during that time. Four weeks out, being a fighter means nothing about gender roles; it means constantly eating. Specifically, it signifies the consumption of a constant stream of protein shakes, eggs that I am beginning to accept will never taste good no matter how many different ways I cook them, supplements, vegetables, and what feels like gallons of water. I have put on close to 10 pounds of muscle since my first fight, in order to be able to cut a few pounds of water to make 115 pounds before weighing in, and then rehydrating back to a heavier weight the night before the fight. Beyond my diet, being a fighter means balancing the commitments of a full-time student working toward a double major, an internship, and a job while doing everything I can to win in the cage.

As a junior in college, fighting means training at an offensively early hour so I can get all my studying done before morning classes, so I can get school and work knocked out before maybe having time to eat an actual dinner, all so I can focus on working out and night training. It means trying to get to bed around 10 p.m. so my body can recover and I can do it all again the next day with a little more weight added to every lift and a little more of a push to get my 3.57 GPA up to a 3.6. It means discipline, and making adjustments when I need to study. I love my routine right now. I love training and then letting whatever Jiu Jitsu or kickboxing techniques I learned simmer in the back of my mind while I study, then letting my brain process information about Renaissance Europe and sonnets while I lift. My interests in academia and in sports complement each other, and I have heard the same from other fighters—contrary to the myth that fighters tend to be uneducated.

With all of these things considered, people wonder why I would choose to be a fighter. I grew up playing softball and soccer, and have no formal background in combat sports. I am attending college on full academic scholarships and do not fit the stereotype of a cage fighter. So why would I, at 19 years old, decide to add cage fighting to my resume alongside mission trips and semesters on the dean’s list? I guess I can see how on the surface the choice might seem a little incongruous, but to me mixed martial arts is the most natural thing in the world to pursue. The long answer as to why I fight is that I live in a world where I once didn’t get hired because I wasn’t “willing to consider leaving my boyfriend” (according to the man who was interviewing me). With such experiences in mind, I don’t get how becoming a fighter could be anything but a logical course of action. In a world where women are still considered annoying if they speak, people listen to me when they see MMA on my resume. The short answer is that I like it, just as I like soccer and softball. The sport fits my personality.

20161012_bs_8903-edit

Random men still follow me and yell rude comments if I’m downtown at night. Realistically, I don’t think there’s much I will ever be able to do about that. Even as I’m writing this, there’s a boy I’ve never met at the table behind me yelling “hey” every time I stop typing, but no matter if they’re a heavyweight (205 pounds and up) or a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, almost everyone I have encountered in the MMA community has shown me nothing but respect. Yes, I train ground game and standup with men, but I have never had another fighter follow me to my place of work, stand outside the door, and yell for the girl in the dress. Even if I do look like an easy target, instances of disrespect I have experienced in this most “masculine” of sports are nothing compared to the disrespect I get from men on the street on a daily basis. I think there’s a lesson there, with regard to our society’s skewed perception of what it means to be masculine. The guys I fight with are not the same guys who are treating women like inferior beings on the street or in their relationships.

The fundamental message that fighters fight to convey is simple: “I will not be dominated.” To me “fighter” is not a word synonymous with troubled home life or hyper-masculinity or misogyny. To me it means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, even-tempered—I think all of these words describe most fighters better than whatever people think of when trying to come up with reasons I shouldn’t be one. With all due respect to those trying to look out for me, I don’t see how it’s unsafe for me to be locked in a cage with another woman my size compared to how dangerous it is for me to walk down the street. Or to, in general, be a woman who physically exists and takes up space in the world. Silencing my interests won’t fix the real problem.

“Hey” boy just invited himself to have a seat at my table. He has started talking to me despite having been pointedly ignored for at least ten minutes and the fact that I am obviously in the middle of something. I am not polite in response. I have no interest in being dominated by a culture that puts women in boxes and has taunts at the ready in case they try to fight back. I have no interest in being quiet about my sport in order to protect people from a discomfort that I’m guessing doesn’t compare to the discomfort of a 14 year old having her ass grabbed by a stranger. I don’t care if it’s “inappropriate” for me as a “young lady” to be excited to get into a cage and physically beat another girl. I’d rather autonomously lock myself in a cage than be folded neatly into a gender role. I don’t care what your perceptions are of what it means to be a fighter, or what you think it means to be a size 0 and 20 years old with blue eyes. As my coaches and training partners are constantly reminding me, I’m not here to apologize. I’m here to dominate. 

Visit http://ralstonarena.com/events/detail/dynasty-combat-sports-dc-50 for more information.

“Fighting Misogyny” was originally published Friday, Oct. 14 online at omahamagazine.com.   

Doctor Blues

October 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sebastian Lane, at just 2 years old, strummed on the clear nylon strings of a plastic yellow guitar. At age 3, a naked Lane head-banged atop his toy chest, curly black hair whipping around his face as he jammed on his guitar while “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix played on the stereo. Eyes scrunched and head down, he mastered his “guitar face.”

Two years later, clutching that same toy guitar, Lane waited until his father lifted him so he could peer into a coffin. He rested the guitar and a note next to his grandfather’s body.

Miss you. Thanks for the guitar.

sebastian-lane-1Lane’s grandfather, Jimmy Rogers, died from colon cancer in 1997. In his career, Rogers had electrified old Chicago blues. His old-style boogie beat influenced legends like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimmy Page. Lane remembers him as a larger-than-life figure who laughed, cuddled, and talked
to him.

But in that moment, next to the casket, a dualistic passion sparked into Lane’s life—blues and medicine.

He grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He ran around eating gumbo while blues masters such as Lazy Lester, Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters visited his father, Jimmy D. Lane, and grandpa.

Lane’s father, Jimmy D. (himself a Blues Hall of Famer), continued Jimmy Rogers’ legacy, picking up the guitar to jam with musical geniuses: Mick Jagger, B.B. King, Van Morrison, and a host of others.

“Music is hard. It can be a long life of struggle,” says Jimmy D.

Growing up, Lane knew his father’s struggle. A good show, or a dry spell without gigs, could mean Lane and his younger brother were either wearing new clothes or depending on hand-me-downs.

When an opportunity came to be a musical director at Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kansas, Jimmy D. moved the family away from the mean streets of Chicago.

“My father basically said, ‘I choose you and your brother over being famous,’” Lane says. “And I’m so grateful for that.”

Jimmy D. never pushed his sons into the business. Lane picked up guitar playing on his own, practicing the same song for hours and hours until he could pick up patterns. He messed around with bars and chords. Jimmy D. showed his son some licks, but Lane’s skills came from a good ear.

Bash, as his friends like to call him, was well into learning the guitar by fifth grade. He won a talent show for “Sweet Child of Mine,” in a Slash rendition on the electric guitar. His tone soon became a mix of upbeat blues and nasty rock.

His fascination with medicine lingered. Ever since his grandfather’s passing, Lane wanted to understand how cancer spread, how it worked, and how it could be cured.

During a job shadow his senior year of high school, Lane saw an interventional cardiologist inject contrast that showed coronary arteries on a live X-ray. “Wow, that’s so cool,” he thought.

Lane decided to major in pre-med at Hastings College. He was the first in his family to attend college, and he wanted to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. School wasn’t easy, and Lane had to work four jobs while studying and playing music on the side. He bartended, worked for a telefund, did shows on weekends, taught guitar lessons, and started a band called Ambur Lane.

After taking his MCATs, Lane stayed in Nebraska and is now a second-year medical student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Lane says the program is the most difficult and time-consuming thing he’s ever done.

Yet he finds time for community and musical commitments. He’s a mentor for diversity awareness. “It is important to open people’s eyes to at least represent the dynamics of a population,” he says. And he still dedicates an hour or two to music each day, sometimes more. “It’s a struggle to balance your love and passion with playing guitar and medicine,” he says.

There is a complementary duality to his musical and medical passions. His nimble fingers fly over the maple neck of his Fender American Standard Stratocaster, and they move just as rapidly when throwing sutures.

In spring of 2015, Lane worked in Los Angeles with Capitol Records for various artists, which allowed him to interact with creative individuals who “got him.” In medical school, the situation is similar in his conversations with like-minded intellectuals.   

“Would I be happy playing music every day? Hell, yeah. Would I be happy practicing medicine every day? Hell, yeah,” Lane says, brown eyes suddenly wide and serious.

Music gives Lane a chance to de-stress and keeps his mind clear. In addition, Lane believes music, like medicine, heals.

When he finds time, Lane will play with his `90s cover band, 22 Days Short. His biggest love, however, is still the blues. When he is with the Sebastian Lane Band, he can be himself.

Like the old masters in Memphis and Chicago playing in dark corners of hole-in-the wall bars, Lane often showcases his blues at The 21st Saloon at 4727 S. 96th St.

“With blues, no rules, you know. It’s authentic. It’s in my DNA. It’s who I truly am,” Lane says.

He hopes someday to play with the big dogs.

Can Lane out-shred the old man?

“He’d like to believe he could,” Jimmy D. says, laughing.

Visit facebook.com/sebastianlanemusic for more information. Omaha Magazine.

sebastian-lane-2