Friday, June 28, 2013

Mankato Area 77 Lancers having another great year

Of course, I'm biased. But I feel like I wouldn't be doing my job as a Lancer dad and Parent Board member if I didn't tell you this.

If you have the chance this year, I'd advise you to do what you can to see the Lancers perform. The show is amazing.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: no group of kids works harder than these kids do when they're preparing for their short competitive season. And it's truly a delight to see just how far they can come with dedication and hard work. They'll be at the North Mankato Fun Days Parade in July. This weekend they'll be in St. Cloud, Osseo and Alexandria (the Big One.)

So ... I've taken roughly 5 bajillion photos so far this season. Here's a small sampling.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Everyone should get a chance to meet Alyssa Sandeen ... and her dad

Good news came today.

One of the Mankato area's celebrities, Alyssa Sandeen, got the news she'd been waiting for. A new donor heart was available, and it was going to go to her.

Now, as I write this, it's still early. It's about 3 p.m., and I was told by her father that she was heading into surgery now. Dad also told me that he'd told her there was still time for something to go wrong.

What? Something could still go wrong?

Yes. And the fact that he had the courage to tell her that is the mark of amazing father.

The Sandeen family has been through a lot, more than any family should have to endure. I can't imagine what the girl's mother has been through.

Part of me, though, can imagine Christopher Sandeen's ordeal. Don't get me wrong. I AM NOT saying I know what he's going through. Only a fool would say that about a family that has had to endure multiple organ transplants. But Chris and I have one thing in common. We both children we'd do anything fore.

I've had the pleasure of talking to him several times over the years about Alyssa's ordeal. Each time he tells me how he's handling the possibility of losing his daughter, I think about my own kids, and wonder how well I'd be handling it. And I thought about that today when he told me what he'd said to Alyssa when she called him.

It would have been really easy for him -- or any dad -- to just be elated, to share in Alyssa's joy that FINALLY, after so many months of waiting, she'd be getting a new heart. But it takes a real dad, in that moment when it'd be more fun to rejoice, to still do what you need to do. He still wanted to protect her, didn't want her to get her hopes up too high only to have them crushed. She needed a dad to hear what she had to say and be supportive. But she also needed a dad to remind her the fight isn't over.

So when you read the stories in the coming days about Alyssa, be happy for her. If you're the kind of person who prays, pray for her. But don't forget her parents. They've been through a helluva ride. Any parent could see that.

So I raise my glass to Mr. and Mrs. Sandeen. So should you.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Kindness like this always makes me smile

Listen, I won't keep you long but I thought that since I was so very public about the whole vandalism thing, I
better be just as public when something nice happens, too.

Yesterday I received a letter at my home from Dennis Hood. (Some of you might know Dennis from the local youth football league or from Oak Terrace Assisted Living. Good guy.) His letter, which is shown just to the right of these words, says a lot about this community.

If you haven't heard, the Lancers organization experienced a little vandalism the other day. Whoever it was damaged our trailer, which is now in the shop getting repaired.

In the days following the incident, people have been so supportive of the organization. I've been in a position the last few years to have a close-up and often behind-the-scenes view on the group and have been able to see just how hard all these kids work to make their show come together. So the support we've had in comments at local events, postings on Facebook and in emails has left all of us within Lancers humbled.

Sure, I realize there are people who may not be thrilled with the Lancers or think we're something to laugh at or make fun of. But what this incident has shown me is that most people in this community are behind us and supportive. And Mr. Hood's donation was one more piece of proof of that support.

Thanks, Dennis. I know you weren't looking for public recognition. But I thought I'd use it to show how great the community has made the Lancers feel since this happened.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

An open letter to the vandals

Dean vandals,

I don't know why you did what you did. I don't understand why you would punch a hole into the 77 Lancers trailer, or rip off the sponsor decals, or hang color guard poles from the basketball hoop. I'm not sure what's going on in your life to make you hate the Lancers, or where your parents have been the last few years when you should have learned that this is definitely not cool.

But I'm not going to judge you. I would, however, like you let you know a few things you might not have known about the kids who march in the 77 Lancers.

I know them pretty well. My daughter is one of them, of course, as I've stated here many, many times. She's the hardest working person I've ever met. But she's just one of 85 kids who are some of the most committed you'll ever meet. I'm sure you've met some of them.

They've been meeting off and on for the past few months, but really it's been the last week that they've gone from knowing nothing to learning an entire drill. These kids spent a week of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m practices working extremely hard to get as good as they could get. Sore feet, sore shoulders, sun burn, aching knees. And they do it all because they love to perform for the community.

The night before your little vandalism party, they were competing in the Lake Crystal Duck Days Battle of the Bands, going head to head with their arch-rivals from Park Center. They came together as a group, each section doing its part, all parts working in harmony, or as close to harmony as they could get (they are, after all, still learning, still working hard, still getting better). True team work. When it was done, there was joy. They'd won. They hugged. A few of them cried. They applauded for the other bands. And when it was over and all the other bands had cleared out, the Lancers stayed behind and cleaned up the awards area. Why? Because along with learning to be a good marching band, they're learning how to be good citizens, and learning what it means to be a source of positive energy.

How many of you were participating in this vandalism last night? How much team work did it take to pull this off? How rewarding was it to do enough damage to our organization that we needed to call the police, and will likely have to spend hundreds, maybe a thousand dollars to fix that trailer (a trailer that hauls uniforms, instruments, water, etc. to all our parades.)? Are you proud? Did you finish what you'd done and step back and say, "Damn, we're good, and we worked really hard for that, we're proud of what we've accomplished" ???

No. Of course not.

Like I said, I won't judge you. But I will judge your actions, and I think what you did was ... sad. Our kids will move on without missing a beat, of course. A little vandalism isn't about to dampen the spirits of 85 kids who are focused on working as a team and doing their very best. If what we saw in the parking lot this morning was your best, well then ... wow. I wish you the best of luck.

Our Lancers are off to Owatonna this morning, Waconia this afternoon, Hutchinson tomorrow and a bunch more before they head out to Traverse City, Mich. for the National Cherry Festival.

Everywhere they go they represent the community with pride.

How do you represent your community?



Monday, May 20, 2013

Sad closure for one of my favorite stories

By the time I met Judy Roe, it was already too late.

I met her at a dinner table at Path Stone Living, an assisted-living and nursing home facility near Sibley Park in Mankato. I'd been invited by her husband, Jim Roe. I'd been interviewing Roe for a lengthy feature story about his life and the disease that had come to figure so prominently in their marriage: Lewy body dementia. But by the time I came into her life, she'd already progressed to a point where she was unlikely to remember me or our meeting.

Readers of The Free Press might remember her story. After all, Judy Roe had the kind of story that isn't easily forgotten. Why? Her disease was characterized by the kind of hallucinations that might make you wonder if instead she was experimenting with recreational drugs.

She'd see rhinos walking down the street, or a band playing in her living room. One minute she'd be fine, the next she see a room full of people and wonder aloud how she was going to manage to feed them all. It's the kind of thing you might laugh about. But there was nothing funny about the toll Lewy body dementia took on Judy and her husband, Jim.

When I opened my paper this morning and turned to page B2, I saw the face I'd sort of been expecting to see for a while but was hoping I wouldn't. Judy Roe died over the weekend. And all I could think about was Jim.

When you do the kind of long-form, narrative feature story that I did on Jim and Judy, you get to know a guy pretty well. I sat with Jim for many hours, painstakingly going over every bit of the journey he'd been on as he cared for a spouse with such a demanding, infuriating disease. And what I learned about Jim is this: Judy -- who grew up in my childhood neighborhood and went to my high school, St. Paul Johnson -- was one lucky woman.

I remember very well one moment Jim and I shared while sitting in his kitchen. He was telling me about a time when Judy sort of called him out on a few instances when he'd gotten impatient with her. In fairness to him, it was getting tough. She was spending less time being the wife he'd known since he was 17 and more time struggling to get a hold on reality. The hallucinations were becoming more frequent, and he was doing all he could to maintain some semblance of their normal life, yet still do everything in his power to be everything for her.

Still, her comment rattled him. But that's the kind of guy Jim Roe is.

In the days and weeks following the publication of that two-part series, I've had a lot of people stop me at the grocery store or coffee shop and tell me how much they admire Jim. People who were a member of his congregation when he was pastor at Belgrade Avenue Methodist Church, his friends, even people who'd never heard of him. His courage and devotion to his wife and her care, they all say, was inspiring and extraordinary.

His story is one that doesn't get told much in today's media: the story of the caregiving spouse. It's a lot easier to tell a story about someone suffering from an illness than it is to turn the lens to the side a little to see the ones who are providing support, the ones who are often giving up a lot so that their spouse may suffer a little less.

Not that Jim would ever say he gave anything up. I'm quite certain that, if you asked Jim today, he'd tell you that spending a life with Judy made him the luckiest guy on earth.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What was once a bittersweet anniversary is becoming a little less bitter every year

May 15.
This pic is a little old, but it's one of my faves of Sam & me.

For me, this day holds enormous signficance.

On this day, in 1997, I got a visit from my wife in the Free Press newsroom that changed my life forever. She'd driven all the way from Amboy to tell me, because tragic news like this isn't the kind of thing you phone in.

My dad had died, she'd said.

Now what?

The next few weeks were a blur. The next few months were a blur. Eventually I figured how to be a guy with a dead dad. But on the anniversary of his death ... well. Anyone who has lost someone knows there's something about that day that makes everything worse. Somehow the pain from that moment when I found out came rushing back through the ether of time and slapped me around for a few hours. Anniversaries can take an event that happened years earlier and make it feel like it's happening all over again.

Then came the anniversary that took all that nonsense of reliving the pain and put a period on it.

Samuel Robert Murray, my son, was born May 15, 2000. On the anniversary of the worst day of my life came one of the best things in my life. He tumbled into existence mid-day, a free spirit like his father, a perfect little reminder that the circle of life goes on.

I won't drag this on an on with melodramatic prose. Instread, I'll just say this directly to my son: I know you had nothing to do with when you'd be born, but I want to thank you anyway. You'll never know how magnificent this gift was that your arrival gave me. Thank you, thank you, thank you Sam.

Now go clean your room. And practice your saxophone. And don't play too much x-box tonight.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I'm hoping Scott Nelsen's inspirational story can inspire me

One of the great things about my job -- no, the single greatest thing about my job -- is the fact that nearly
every day I get to meet someone new.

And not just meet them. But get to know them. Have them tell me their story in the way they want to tell it. Typically when I meet someone these days on the Health and Wellness beat, I'm meeting people who have inspiring stories to tell regarding the most important thing in their life: their health.

I got a chance to meet a guy the other day who reminded me that, even when you're going through stressful times, perseverance and hard work and dedication and determination -- those things count for something. Those things can get you through it, and get you where you want to go.

If you've already read my story from last week's Health&Fitness section in The Free Press about Scott Nelsen, thanks for reading. If not, I urge you to go back and give it a read. Scott, in addition to being one of the nicest guys I've met in years, has a great story to tell. He's lost 140 pounds and a has a run streak going right now that has reached 282 days and 1,077 miles.

After meeting Scott, I was in awe. I've been an on again/off again runner for years, and one of the things I've always struggled with was consistency. Sure, I've had my share of injuries (rolling my ankle on a walnut, rolling the same ankle a few months later on a tree branch). And my kids' schedules sort of make it so that there are some days when squeezing in a run would be almost impossible -- driving to Waconia for a Lancers parade, then off to Rochester for a baseball tournament, etc.) So I'm resigned to not being able to put together a streak like Nelsen has.

But that doesn't mean I can't put together a lifestyle that involves running 4-5 days a week.

And so I'm back to being a runner, for now. If Scott can do it, there's no reason I can't. And there's no reason you can't, either.

Monday, April 29, 2013

A farewell to a piece of local journalism

Recent developments here at the Free Press have prompted me to think back to a specific day in the fall of 1995 ........

It was a fall evening and the sun had just gone down. I was the "night reporter," which meant it was my turn to work a shift later into the evening to make sure we were covered if a dead body showed up somewhere, or if someone's life memories went up in smoke in a house fire.

But on this night, things were quiet. The "squawk box" -- our nickname for the police scanner -- was silent. Whatever I had to do that night was done, and it was time for a cigarette. Yep, I used to smoke back then, and when I did, I usually stepped out back to the loading dock area. On this night, however, I decided to smoke on the sidewalk just outside the front door on 2nd Street.

The evening was warm. There was a little bit of daylight left. And as I took a drag, I looked up at the building and saw the letters on the side spelling out the words to my dream: The Free Press. At the time, I was still not officially full time. I was filling in for Sherry Crawford, who was our police reporter at the time. She was on a leave of absence, taking a few months to figure out if she really wanted to be a reporter anymore. I was here at the right time. They needed someone to take her place for a while, and I needed a chance.

Except, to me, this wasn't just any old chance. It was THE chance. The Free Press was the ONLY place I wanted to work. I'd spent a couple years working at my college newspaper, reading The Free Press and trying to figure out a way to get my foot in the door. This was the community I wanted to live in, and through my work at the college newspaper, I'd figured out without a doubt that I was going to be a journalist. I'd seen "All the President's Men," I was sold on the idea that this was something I could do that not only fit with the one thing I was OK at (writing), but also had the potential for being noble. I loved the idea of being one of the watchdogs, of holding government accountable, of unearthing wrongdoing and malfeasance, and telling the stories of the people of my community.

So as I stood on the sidewalk that day and looked up the nameplate on the building, I thought of something a college buddy told me. He'd recently landed a job in Duluth, and said that, a few months prior while he was in a similar situation at the News-Tribune, he soothed his anxious mind by meditating on a mantra, something to the effect of, "I will get this job, I will work at The Free Press." I did that. Smoking my Camel cigarette, staring up at the building, I uttered those words, and swore I'd leave nothing to chance, take every assignment, do whatever my editors told me to do, make sure they'd be loathe to let me go even if Sherry Crawford decided she wanted to come back (which would have been awkward because I'd pretty much moved into her desk.)

A few weeks later, I was hired, and I was the happiest I'd ever been. I was going to work for a newspaper I respected. The newsroom was full of people I looked up to. I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to work in this building.

I share this story because the Free Press newsroom is on the verge of a major transition that, in some ways, turns a corner unlike others we've turned (at least that's how I see it.) And it's about to become a much different place than the one I dreamed of working at.

One of the key components of newsrooms is what's known as the copy desk. Back in the day, the folks on the copy desk proof-read stories, wrote headlines, used funky tools such as photo wheels and pica poles to magically produce the words and images you'd see in your morning paper. In more recent years, those same folks became paginators. Those funky tools gave way to computers, which did all that work faster, and the paginators spent most of their time using computer software to do what used to be done by cutting and pasting.

A funny thing happened, though, over the last 10 years. The newspaper industry, to put it mildly, has been forced to evolve. As reader habits change, all news organizations have had to adapt, and we are adapting by shifting more focus to our online presence and trying to find new revenue streams. We've also been hit hard by declining advertising, and it's been decided that one of our company's strategies will be shift some of our operations elsewhere.

The thing about those paginators and the pagination process is that it can be done anywhere. As more of the work becomes digitized, it becomes less critical where you are when you're doing it. It didn't take the industry long to figure out that, when a company owns many newspapers, consolidating some of the functions can be cost effective.

Reporters sort of need to be in their community (for now, least ... who knows when the industry will decide someone in Alabama or India can cover Mankato.) But the people on the copy desk? It's been decided that people in Traverse City, Mich., will be doing the paginating for many newspapers. This means the copy desk as we know it will be no more in a matter of days.

This makes me a little sad. The copy desk figured prominently in my romantic vision of what a true newspaper was. When I completed an investigative piece or some kind of hard-hitting crime story, it felt good to send that story to my editor and on to the copy desk, where they'd give it that all-important final read. More recently, as I've written longer feature pieces, I'd look forward to seeing how the folks on the copy desk designed it all, fusing together words and images into something beautiful. They've done nice work for a number of years. Hell, a number of decades. We've had a copy desk for almost as long as we've had a newspaper.

Over the last few years the size of the copy desk, staffing wise, has shrunk. But we still had five people back there. The writing was on the wall, though. We've know for several months that this was coming, and the people who work on the copy desk have been worried about their jobs, nervous about how many of them would retain them. Two of them left before they got laid off. A third was laid off. The remaining two will see their jobs change dramatically. All are good people who I have enjoyed working with.

Technology changes everything. In fact, coinciding with this change is the long overdue arrival in our newsroom of new computers and new content management software. It's pretty slick. We've been trained in on it and, staring soon, we'll be using it. It's exciting, I'm not gonna lie. And the company had to do something. It is, after all, still a business that exists to -- above all else -- make money. When money isn't being made, change is absolutely necessary.

Forgive me if I'm torn. We've lost something at the Free Press. We're still a good newspaper and the people who work here are hard-working folks, whether it's the newsroom or any other department. We'll continue to do good work. But for the moment, it feels a little sad.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

If you see her coming, please be careful; that's my baby in that car

Honestly, part of me wanted her to fail.

Any parent will understand this. Anyone whose ever watched something slowly slip away will understand. With each milestone -- each license, each new grade, each birthday -- is one more indisputable sign that the little girl whose hair I used to put in pigtails when she was two is growing up.

But who was I kidding? This is a kid who rarely fails, who rarely leaves anything to chance, who practices things dozens, hundreds, thousands of times to make sure she's giving herself the best possible chance to succeed.

So I knew that when the day came when she'd take her driver's test, she'd pass. Most kids pass, of course (this is far from a towering achievement.) But it's an achievement that is possibly more important to a 16-year-old than any other. It means freedom. It means going to the mall when you want. It means not having to wait for Dad to finish reading the paper to run over to a friend's house. Freedom.

And for some parents it's a day of cheering. It means that, instead of hauling the boy off to baseball practice, we can toss her the keys and say, "Here, you do it." And I probably will, too. But I'd give every convenience back and then some if there was some way to keep her from growing up.

Readers of my blog might remember something I wrote a year ago or so, back when we first started the process of learning to drive. We'd go up to the big parking lots at Minnesota State University and just drive around, really slowly, for a while. I remember when we pulled in, switched seats, and she sat behind the driver's wheel. She looked terrified, like she thought the wheel was going to jump out and bite her if she moved too quickly. Now that seems so long ago, and so many hours driving around town with my little girl.

She probably didn't see it this way, but I saw every one of those times as a gift, an hour to hang out with my favorite girl, listen to her laugh and talk about all the funny things that happened at school that day. To her it was time spent learning how to drive. To me it was ... I don't know. It's hard to put into words, really. And now it's over. She's not likely to want to just go for a drive with Dad anymore.

When I'm with her, I feel like she's safer, like if a car careens out of control in our direction, I can somehow do something to stop it from hitting her. But as I sat here today worrying about her driving alone, I realized that there was never anything I could have done to stop that careening car. And there's nothing I can do to stop her from growing up, either.

So I'll leave you with this: Look out for my little girl you guys. I'm sure she'll be looking out for you.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The annual rite of spring: baseball tryouts, and the wait for the team lists to be posted online

I found myself Sunday night sitting on the couch, staring at the television screen, daydreaming about simpler times.

No, I wasn't lost in the season premier of "Mad Men," although I was watching it.

Instead, I had one eye on the television screen, and another on my son. He was sitting a few seats away, fretting, waiting nervously, hitting refresh on the laptop browser, which had pulled up a website for Mankato Area Youth Baseball Association.

It was tryouts weekend. The boys had done all they could do on the field -- they'd taken their cuts in the batting cage, shagged fly balls, fielded grounders. And now all that was left to do was evaluate the players and post the results online.

By the time Sunday night rolls around in this scenario, the boys are at the mercy of the coaches and the individuals doing the evaluating. They can only hope they'd done enough to impress people. Of course, some stuff is out of their hands. You can never know what bargaining goes on behind closed doors, how much bias there is in the mind of the man with the clipboard, or how often a decision is made about a kid based not on what happened on the tryout field but on a coach's gut feeling. (My guess is that there might be a little bit of that, but not much.)

So they wait for the posting of the teams. In Mankato, traveling baseball is the realm of something called the Mankato Royals. So my son, like dozens of other kids in the Mankato area Sunday night, was watching there website, waiting for the posting of the results, hitting refresh every few minutes, desperate to see what team he was on, and fearing he wouldn't even see his name at all.

This is the place where I return to my "simpler times" idea.

Years ago, when he was playing T-ball or in-house baseball, there were no tryouts. You didn't have to go prove yourself or stack yourself up against other kids and have your skills judged. (Cue the opening guitar notes from John Fogarty's "Centerfield." Put me in, coach!) You just showed up and played the game you loved. Kids played every position. It didn't matter who won. Parents were chill, sitting in lawn chairs and not getting angry at the umpires. And when it was time for the next game to start, you cleared the field, hopped in the car and headed for Dairy Queen --  Blizzard or DillyBar, it didn't matter, it was a great night. Right?

Now the stakes are huge. If you don't know much about Mankato youth sports, here's a primer. Traveling teams are kingmakers on the spectrum of who is cool and, more importantly, who isn't in the halls of a middle or elementary school. And making a Royals team is about as good as it gets, status wise. It's all the kids talk about at school. There's a running dialogue of who made AAA, which kids don't belong there, and can you believe so and so made it and so and so didn't? They question the results, wonder about the wisdom of the coaches, express curiosity about the motives of the people who put the kids on their respective teams.

Parents text each other and send e-mails. Some parents, the ones whose kids didn't make one of the three traveling teams, have a rough few days ahead of them. There are tears. There is rage. Some of it is justified, most of it is not. Sometimes these parents take it upon themselves to confront the system, to call or email or even show up in person to get answers about why their kid didn't make it. It's sad, really.

Having said all this, I believe tryouts are good for our kids.

We've had tryout results nights in our house that have been sheer elation. The first year Sam tried out and made a AA team was one of the best nights of his life. We've had some that have been the opposite. We've had some tears. We've had some anger. And it's on those nights, I believe, that my son has grown more as a person. And isn't that more important? To the kids who make the top teams every year, I tip my hat to you. You're really good ball players, the best in Mankato. But I'd offer this: the lessons learned after you've struggled to make a team and failed will serve them better in life than the good feelings someone has who always makes a team. I'm not trying to take anything away from those kids. In fact, I'm guessing any kid in Mankato, if given the choice, would rather have the physical gifts that would make it easy for them to make the top teams than to have to struggle. And many of their parents would probably want the same thing.

But from where I'm sitting, I'm actually really happy with how the tryout experience has gone for my son.

Like his father, Sam wasn't blessed with the body of an elite athlete. Short in stature, he's had to work hard to be as good at baseball as he is. That hard work has paid off for him. There hasn't been a year that he hasn't made a traveling team. And with the exception of one year, he's had fun every year. And, in addition to the success he's had, he's had some setbacks. Last year he played his first year of A traveling ball after two years of AA. He was disappointed. He felt he'd failed. Then, something beautiful happened. He had the most fun of any of his years of baseball. He played ball with a great group of boys, they won tournaments, and all the parents got along. He made new friends, and learned a few things about some kids he thought he knew better. It was a great year.

This year, he's back on that A team. And like last year, he was disappointed initially. But he got over it quick, and he's excited for another year of baseball.

Trying out for a traveling baseball team has taught him the value of working hard, in dealing with adversity. It's taught him that, when things don't always go your way, you must choose how to proceed. When life throws you a curve ball, you have to figure out how to adjust. In Sam's case, it looks like he's adjusting splendidly. And that's a great skill to have in life.

I hope some other kids, and their parents, can learn to adjust, as well.