Cynthia Voelkl was in a tough spot when she started her blog, The Sandwich Life, in 2006. "I just needed an outlet," she says. "I was in a lousy job situation, my dad's Alzheimer's was really starting to show, and it just wasn't a good time."
So, what started as an online mom's group when her eldest son was born turned into something more personal. "I remember posting on that [mom's] board once, 'Somebody else better post or I'm going to feel like I'm blogging." And I was like, 'Well, I suppose I could.' It had never really occurred to me. And so that was really it."
Since then, she's lost her father and sister; her husband, Ernie, has endured health problems; and her two spirited young sons have been a challenge.
Voelkl's posts are intensely personal, detailed forays into her family's daily life. "It started as a way to update my sisters and a couple friends," she explained. "So, then they would nag me if I wouldn't post often, and then it's grown into something where it's really cheap therapy."
Her blog gets its name from the Sandwich generation, those folks who are feeling squeezed between the demands of caring for elderly parents and young children at the same time. "My sister ... was on the faculty at Clemson University, and her field of study was geriatrics," she said. "She used to talk about how 'the sandwich generation' was something of a misnomer because most people don't have young children and elderly parents.
"But she would use Ernie and I as an example in her class of 'they really are' [members of the sandwich generation] because we had kids late. And the boys were pretty young [when I started the blog], and, yeah, I was definitely feeling the sandwich life."
Voelkl, the assistant director of the Japan House on campus, finds that writing for an audience helps her stay focused. "I've never been able to keep a journal to save my soul," she related. "But there's something about writing for even an imaginary audience, or even my sisters, that somehow doing that made it satisfying."
In addition to the therapeutic aspect of writing the blog, Voelkl has found that it has other benefits. "We've reconnected with lots of old friends, and now we have friends in town that I've made through [The Sandwich Life]," she noted. "It's slowly grown where I have more readers. Like anybody that blogs, I love it when people leave comments or stop us somewhere and say, 'I really like your blog,' so that's satisfying."
Since so much of the content is not uplifting, Voelkl frequently evaluates her purpose for the site. "In the last year, when I've written some really depressing posts. I'll think, 'Why in the hell would anybody want to read this?'" she said. "And then I'll stop, because that's not why I do it. If I really thought about writing for people, what they wanted — that's really not what I do at all. It's really just to let it out.
"The stuff we've gone through in the last few years, the older I get, the more I realize, everybody's going through this. If not now, they have, or they will. Losing family, cancer, irritating children, and Alzheimer's, we all get it at one time or another. I think that's why people do respond to it sometimes."
Voelkl — who received her bachelor's degree from UIUC and lived in Ann Arbor and Chicago before returning to Champaign in 1994 — has deep roots in the C-U music community. "Ernie was in a band for a while, and he worked at Record Service [while I was in college], so we just knew everybody in the music scene at that time," she recalled. "We left in '85. He's worked at record stores all his life, and I worked at most of them, too. We're just sort of oriented towards music."
As a result, she's stayed in contact (or reconnected through her blog) with a lot of the musicians from that era, like the Vertebrats. "We've reconnected with [Vertebrats frontman] Kenny [Draznik] through the blog, and he comments all the time. They've been so supportive, with my father and everything. It's a really tight-knit group."
The Vertebrats figured prominently in The Sandwich Life's early days. "I started the blog almost exactly three years ago, and that fall, there was a Vertebrats reunion, and I wrote about it," Voelkl said. "When people google 'Vertebrats,' [they find the article], and that's how we reconnected with a lot of old friends."
Cynthia Voelkl has taken The Sandwich Life from its beginnings as a "so-called mommy blog," in her words, to something that is relevant to the larger C-U community. Here's to hoping for brighter days ahead for her and her family.