"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, February 26, 2010

St. Croix Falls theater kerfuffle fascinates

Setting aside an evening to see a movie is a special thing to most people. So when the experience is marred by screw-ups at the theater, a little venting is appropriate.
In the old days, you'd pick up the phone which might bring two-way communication and some discomfort. In the Internet age, a one-way message with punch can be delivered with a simple click of the mouse. No interaction needed, so just follow your impulse.
The recipient is in a like position when and if he/she decides to respond: no meaningful interaction or give-and-take necessary - no opportunity to bridge a gap, just click and reply, and in incendiary tones if the spirit moves you.
And the spirit definitely moved Steve Payne, vice president for Evergreen Entertainment LLC of New Brighton. Payne did what many of us fear doing in an unguarded moment. He got frustrated and basically told a customer to take a flying leap. While we can all understand the susceptibility to snapping like this, I think we can better relate to the theater customer who launched this whole episode.
Movie aficionados are coming down on the side of Sarah Kohl-Leaf of Taylors Falls. Sarah was part of a group having an unpleasant experience at the St. Croix Falls Cinema 8 in Wisconsin. We are in an age in which it's a snap to locate the appropriate party online with whom to lodge a complaint and send it with that proverbial click. Most businessmen actually appreciate this. They'd rather hear customer complaints, even if some groundless ones are in the mix, than not to hear them. Payne didn't want to hear from Kohl-Leaf.
I'm writing about this partly because I've had my own experiences contacting theater managers with complaints. I should note immediately that a prudent person would not consider me a chronic complainer. And also, that my communications with the parties in the theater business were amicable, not comparable to the now-quite-celebrated incident involving Kohl-Leaf and Payne, the latter acting like quite the "pain."
I communicated twice with the management of Midway Cinema 9 in Alexandria. (I think it was "8" at the time, and e-mailing was still somewhat new.)
As I stated at the outset of this post, a night of theater-going is considered almost sacred by movie enthusiasts, and we demand that the experience be comfortable. We're paying for it, Mr. Pain, I mean Payne.
The first time, I had driven to Alexandria to see the movie "Timeline" based on the Michael Crichton (RIP) book. I had read the book. Crichton was a marvelously gifted researcher and storyteller even if his writing technique wasn't particularly brilliant. For example: "Genarro sighed." How often do any of us really "sigh?" It's a writing cliche and one that Crichton was prone to, as pointed out in an op-ed piece when "Jurassic Park" was all the rage. Crichton actually said that he made no claim to being a great writer. His books were page-turners because of his remarkable ability to research and speculate on where new scientific inroads were taking us - an enlightened or perilous path?
"Timeline" the book was in the end monumentally disappointing because it didn't deliver on the promise contained in the first one-third or so of the book. If the book's quality could be measured by a line on a graph, that line would dip slowly downward through the last half of the book. And the hope for a "payoff" at the end i.e. a fascinating and/or surprising twist, didn't come close to happening. Instead there was a banal type of ending for a time travel movie. But Crichton was a genius.
So how did the movie "Timeline" go over? In the eyes of the critics, not very well. I eagerly went online to digest various reviews, like from Roger Ebert, and was disappointed. But none of this diminished my enthusiasm for seeing the movie when it came out. So I made the trip to Alex to see "Timeline" on its opening weekend at Midway Cinema 9. There were problems immediately. There was a high-pitched tone over the soundtrack. After just 3-4 minutes the picture disappeared off the screen and an employee who was standing at the rear of the theater announced the obvious: technical failure.
I don't point fingers just because of this. But the lights had never been dimmed, so I suspect the theater knew all along it was going to be a no-go. In the meantime they wanted to make sure they got our money. Instead of a refund we got passes. "Timeline" was written on the pass so I suspected the pass might have to be redeemed for this particular movie.
Thanks to e-mail I got this matter straightened out with the manager in an agreeable way. The pass could be redeemed anytime. I still have a quibble because I would have preferred a refund.
I eventually watched "Timeline" on DVD and liked it.
A later problematic experience at the Alex theater had me visiting to see "Cold Mountain," the Civil War movie showcasing Nicole Kidman and other luminaries. But, of all things, the Alex theater website was off on the starting time by ten minutes. I could have hurried into the theater and maybe caught the start, but I would have had to bypass my usual large Pepsi. I left the theater and subsequently sent another e-mail.
This time the manager communicated that the person who normally updates the website had maternity commitments. Fine, life can get complicated, I reasoned. But I told him that "if you do nothing else on your website, you must get the starting times right."
He sent me another pass.
So I can relate to the experiences of Kohl-Leaf at the St. Croix Falls Cinema 8 in Wisconson. She had two complaints, one that I'm indifferent about, and the other where I sympathize 100 percent. First, the theater would not accept debit or credit cards. The ATM in the lobby was out of cash. Since I'm an old-fashioned cash-on-hand person, I can't really relate to this snag, so let's move on.
Kohl-Leaf's other complaint was truly persuasive in that I can't imagine how theater management could be so stupid.
"Within the first five to ten minutes, a woman came into the theater and announced that eight people were in there who weren't supposed to be in there," Kohl-Leaf was quoted saying in the Star Tribune.
Staff members flashed lights and caused disruption in their "shakedown."
I remember once being annoyed by a simple paging of someone for a phone call at a theater in St. Cloud. It only took a couple of seconds but I still remember it today. How long ago was this? I was seeing "Jaws" when it was current.
So I imagine that Kohl-Leaf and her whole party were furious.
For crying out loud, the theater management ought to know that less damage is done by just letting those eight people sit through this stupid movie ("Shutter Island") than to irritate everyone by trying to ferret them out. Maybe this is an example of the flaws of chain ownership. You get "managers" who are really toothless employees and they're more concerned about covering their asses in a situation like this, than with showing overall good judgment.
Stuff happens.
Kohl-Leaf vented her disappointment with an e-mail. The executive on the other end reacted with such venom that he actually used a Dick Cheney line in responding, the one about doing something to yourself that would be anatomically impossible.
Other expletives followed.
"I honestly didn't think it was the vice president (of Evergreen) who sent it," the Star Tribune quoted Kohl-Leaf saying.
In the age of social media, the likes of Payne can be skewered and quickly. And this has happened, dramatically.
I wouldn't object to Payne if he had just expressed a normal level of human frustration, maybe let down his guard a bit in relations with customers. But behaving like Dick Cheney (who dropped his bomb with Senator Patrick Leahy)? That's an abomination.
Can you imagine the kind of e-mails that patrons of the Morris Theater could have dispatched back in the days when your shoes would stick to the floor? I can't see Bob Collins (RIP) sitting in his office reading e-mails. I can imagine him coming down the aisle with his notorious flashlight, though, ready to give hell to any rambunctious young person (who might be engaged in mischief like throwing jawbreakers at the screen).
Different times, different modes for getting along.
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Civil War painting that inspires thoughts

I once exchanged e-mails with a humor columnist for a Civil War reenactors magazine. Humor is to be found in connection with any hobby, even one inspired by perhaps the most grim chapter in American history.
I met this fellow, who went by the pen name "Jonah Begone," in the early days of the Internet when its game-changing nature (in the world of communications) was just beginning to dawn on me. My jaw dropped one evening when I noticed he had taken a rather lengthy e-mail I had sent and presented it on a page within his website, dressed up with graphics in fact.
"Can he do that?" I thought to myself. Well, yes he could, and I came to realize the (really magnificent) free-for-all the world wide web is.
I got no flak as a result of this episode, even though I had a rather provocative sentence about how a certain Civil War author, from a writing family, may have had his first book ghostwritten. I had grounds for this suspicion but I didn't really wish to share this in a public way.
Mr. Begone had caught my interest because he wrote an absolute thigh-slapper about limited edition Civil War art. Such art was quite the genre at the time I discovered it, with new works being turned out continually by a circle of accepted artists in the field. It's an exclusive club, requiring initiation so to speak. Not only must you have the artistic touch, you must have tremendous knowledge of 19th century details.
At the time I followed the genre, the artist who seemed at the top of the field would shoot anyone out of the saddle who painted the tiniest detail out of whack - perhaps the wrong-shaped belt buckle. "Jonah" parodied this obsession, asserting that art is judged primarily by the emotional reaction of the viewer. An obsessive litmus test for accuracy really pertains more to "illustration" than "art," he astutely pointed out.
Hollywood was hopeless for many years, throwing together superficial symbols of that war and taking off with a (most likely) insipid plot. That was Hollywood then. It's more enlightened now as with the World War Two movie "Saving Private Ryan." I suspect that the Greatest Generation (dubbed by Tom Brokaw) is mystified about how such a realistic portrayal of war can be "entertainment."
Times change, just as with the advent of the Internet and how it is dramatically changing our lives. Mr. Begone was struck by a Mort Kunstler painting that showed Confederate generals in a church pew that also included a couple of children. The generals were on the verge of being summoned to major battlefield commitments. In church they were seeking divine guidance and inspiration to further their cause (which would have preserved slavery had it succeeded). Oh I know, the southern cause was more nuanced than that. But the church scene showed the seriousness in the southern mood - how the antebellum southerners wrapped their cause in righteousness.
But what struck Mr. Begone was the children in Kunstler's painting. "Wait a minute," he thought, "do kids really look this serious in church?"
He wrote that the one mood he associated with children in church is boredom. I laughed reading that. I suspect that we all remember when going to church seemed as much a chore as anything. At an age when we couldn't really internalize things.
I suspect we were mostly relieved to get home and take off the formal clothing. We were hard-pressed to stay quiet and attentive for an hour. We knew that church stood for the highest principles, but we puzzled over whey this weekly ritual was needed to remind us of it.
Well, lest any of us get complacent about it, Pastor Todd Mattson of First Lutheran Church reminded us all Sunday about the importance of going to church. This is a stock sermon, like the one about stewardship, that pastors pull out once in a while. Pastor Todd informed us that the First Lutheran rolls included 950 members of whom only a third attend church on a given Sunday.
"We're in good company," he said, as this is a typical state of affairs. "Two-thirds of the church membership doesn't attend, so how do we increase participation?"
This falls into the category of "preaching to the choir," of course, because he was speaking to the people who were actually in church.
I would point my finger at the parents who don't require their kids to attend church. This seems to be a generational thing. Us "boomers" when young would dutifully attend on Sunday, often sitting with friends in the pews instead of our families. We feigned fulfillment but for many of us (boys mainly?) it was compulsory, imposed by our parents. Our independent judgment might have been different, but we followed our elders' example for better or worse. I remember sitting next to a peer once, us getting the giggles and then being scolded by the grandfatherly visitation pastor as we exited the service. Today a pastor would be ill-advised scolding anyone who took the trouble to simply come to church.
"Pastor Todd" as we call him, does magnificently with a youth performing group called "New Wine," but I wonder to what extent he nudges these young people to attend Sunday services. I see almost no evidence of their participation.
So, are U.S. churches headed the way of their European counterparts, where the Sunday service has deteriorated to an almost vestigial state? This was discussed one morning on the "Morning Joe" TV program on MSNBC (popular to cite on "I Love Morris"). The panel noted how a typical U.S. church service is coming to be dominated by "white haired older people."
There are some very young families drawn into the fold too, Joe said, but that wide swath "in between" is woefully underrepresented. Those people in the middle fighting their week-to-week battles to cope, as represented by metaphor in the comic strip "Hagar the Horrible," figure that the ideals presented in church are beyond them. That's my theory, anyway, and I've been there.
The Greatest Generation that came out of World War Two to create our storied middle class kept stress at a manageable level. The idea was to work a 40-hour week and look forward to quality time with friends and family. They would joke about "knocking off early" on Friday.
Attending church on Sunday was a part of that whole credo. Boomers came along and cast some skepticism. My former boss says that "our generation never took to churchgoing." We had a tough time reconciling the church ritual with some of the horrible realities of the world as we were growing up. We were supposed to support our church missionaries who could hopefully find some converts to Christianity in the Third World. At the same time that the U.S. military, under our imprimatur, was inflicting unspeakable horror and deaths in Indochina and experiencing like misery and death. . .
So we drifted. The New Left thrived for a while and then sank like a rock as the boomers became "yuppies." Then they flocked to the stock market like lemmings in the go-go days of the 1990s.
Now I suspect many boomers are struggling, partly because of sheer age slowing us down (which we swore would never happen). And partly too because of technology advancing faster than we can adjust, relative to the young people of today.
Maybe the answer is to attend church again. Maybe it's a home base from which we can start over. Maybe we should reconsider all those church trappings that we once saw as "irrelevant" (a term that itself was born in the boomers' young heyday).
Maybe we should try to make church relevant again. Maybe we should look at the children in Mort Kunstler's painting and try to show rapt attention again. Maybe there is hope for us as we advance in our graying years, following the example of our parents. Maybe getting up for church on Sunday is the right example to follow, and Pastor Todd would surely appreciate it.
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

We probably all have an accent, eh?

All through the Winter Olympic Games, we've been reminded how Canadians tend to say "eh."
Baby boomers like me think immediately of the SCTV comedy team of Bob and Doug McKenzie (stage names). The habit probably isn't as pronounced as suggested by popular entertainment. Gee, popular entertainment wouldn't promote stereotypes, would it?
The movie "Fargo" brought certain Minnesota (or Upper Midwest) mannerisms to the forefront. Like the inoffensive, sing-songy voice and noncommittal air. "Fargo" seemed within bounds in how it presented these traits, although I had reservations about this movie for other reasons. Subsequent movies weren't quite so fair. The company owner in "North Country," the movie about gender discrimination in Minnesota's Iron Range, was a caricature in how he spoke and acted. He came across as a dunce. And he got his clock cleaned in the end.
Meryl Streep, an iconic actress for our times, slipped into a disappointing stereotype in "A Prairie Home Companion." She spoke in an exaggerated sing-songy voice. As an actress she failed to seem genuine this time. Streep for the most part is brilliant, and her job in "Mamma Mia!" helped make the movie one of the best ever, in my view. Which brings to mind: Who would have thought the "movie musical" could have a resurgence? The genre simply needed updating, it turns out, with music that appeals to the boomers. Now I'd like to see the same approach with a movie showcasing Paul McCartney post-Beatles. It would have to be post-Beatles, stamping McCartney as the true iconic performer that he is, away from the eccentric and idiosyncratic John Lennon.
One of the more perplexing questions for boomers to ponder is: How would John Lennon have changed with the times had he lived? Would he be in the mainstream artistically and culturally now? Would he still be with Yoko Ono? I would hope "no" is the answer to that last question. Would he be on "Larry King Live" with short hair and a temperate demeanor?
Because Lennon seemed bigger than life, I would want the McCartney movie/musical to be independent of Lennon's influence in any way, shape or form. I think "Venus and Mars" (from McCartney's lengthy "Wings" period) would be best for the opening scene, accompanied by some surreal scenes setting up the storyline. Soon we'd hear "Band on the Run" and "Jet," putting us back where we were in the mid-1970s, probably up to no good, drifting and putting off our life's aspirations.
There was one "Bob and Doug McKenzie" movie: "Strange Brew." I consider it a comedy classic with only a couple of minor flaws. It had a field day with the Canadian stereotypes. The expression "eh" is noteworthy for its inclusive, consensus-building intention. "Eh" might mean "you certainly must agree, right?" or "please don't be contrary."
Minnesotans have their own way of discouraging contrariness. It's the expression "heck of a deal." Here in Morris you might encounter someone on the street and they'll say "You know, that Riley Brothers thing, that's a heck of a deal, isn't it?" Or, "you know, Coborn's closing, that's a heck of a deal, isn't it?" Or, "you know, the Hancock bank going under, that's a heck of a deal, isn't it?"
We've had a lot of "heck of a deals" lately, come to think of it. What does this Minnesotan remark exactly mean? Well, it means that you are aware and informed and want to indicate that you care, but you are cautious about expressing a specific opinion. An opinion might bring unpleasant conflict.
The company owner in "North Country" seemed so saccharine with such mannerisms, but it quickly became clear that he was a piranha with his intentions toward people. This irony echoes something I heard said once on behalf of people in the eastern U.S., people seemingly prone to being temperamental, rude and hyper. These people seem largely of southern European stock. They might flip the bird at a minor misjudgment when driving a car, according to the image. Abrasive as these people can seem, "they'll be the first to drop everything and help you if they see you're in trouble," this advocate said.
The moral of these stories: Appearances can be deceiving. Stereotypes can be misleading. And speech habits can be merely superficial.
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Friday, February 19, 2010

Scott Wolter shares on Kensington Runestone

I attended the presentation by Scott Wolter on the Kensington Runestone Monday night at the Morris American Legion Club. He appeared as a guest of the Norskfodt Lodge, Sons of Norway, of which I am a member.
President Barack Obama describes himself as a "mutt" and perhaps I am too: half Norwegian and half Swede.
In my previous post on the Runestone, I described it as being like a "siren song" that can draw you in with its irresistible intrigue, and then leave your decaying remains behind as it becomes nigh impossible to reach any resolution.
By writing a second post on the subject, I may be succumbing to the "song" again as I did in the early 1980s. After sifting through incredibly tantalizing details and background suggesting authenticity, I ran into an orthodoxy of skepticism, entrenched in academia and sanctioned historical circles, that looked upon me and those like me as if we were deranged.
I wrote two letters to the editor of the Star Tribune. I received one nice but unenthusiastic letter back (from a subordinate who probably had it dictated to him, because this was in the days before personal computers, meaning that people weren't habitually seated at keyboards).
My contacts with a University of Minnesota-Morris professor were especially humbling. Healthy skepticism is a good thing. Lively debate is something to be lauded. Both sides have to listen well. I have listened to all the skeptical arguments with interest and respect. They are compelling arguments but mostly based on circumstantial evidence. It is possible to get a murder conviction on circumstantial evidence. It is interesting but not outright proof.
Am I the only person capable of listening to both sides with respect? Well, I think not, and the audience for Wolter's presentation seemed respectful, rational and restrained. A show of hands indicated belief in the Runestone's authenticity (i.e. that it wasn't done as a turn of the century Scandinavian prank). No hands went up when Wolter asked for skeptics to identify themselves. I was going to raise my hand but I was afraid he might quiz me in front of everyone. And it has been years since I have done serious reading on the topic. I am capable of being a skeptic just as "Zelig" transformed himself in the Woody Allen movie of the same name.
I am a skeptic in the same sense that I'm an agnostic and still go to church (First Lutheran in Morris).
Embracing authenticity in the past has gotten me hurt. By entering the fray again, I should perhaps be like Odysseus and ask to be tied to the mast of his ship when passing by the island of the sirens. Skepticism has to be shown if you want to exude an air of credibility with certain people.
Wolter gave his presentation soundly and so you might wonder: Is this the last word? We should be so lucky. He has academic and scientific credentials, which I'm sure he somewhat self-consciously puts forth to try to fend off naysayers (the same way science fiction writers put academic degrees in parenthesis after their names on bylines, making sure they'll be taken seriously).
No need to worry, Mr. Wolter, I listen seriously to what you say just like I can appreciate Star Trek. But did northern Europeans "boldly go where no man has gone before" in the 1300s? I stopped taking notes halfway through Wolter's speech, not because I dismissed him but because I felt I was watching "National Treasure" again. It's highly compelling but seems like borderline fiction.
"How can you argue with it?" an entranced listener might ask.
Well, there is a way. I might suggest that Wolter's speculative interpretation of data is like connecting the dots in a random sea of data to reach a predetermined conclusion. Maybe. But maybe his theories are 100 percent valid.
We learn that it wasn't even the Vikings who came here in that bygone age. It was some post-pagan sect. So a whole set of images associated with the Runestone gets blown out of the water. There's the Big Ole statue in Alexandria, not to mention the nickname of our state's NFL football team.
We learn that the celebrated "mooring stones" weren't used for mooring boats after all. They were marking devices.
When data doesn't exactly fit Wolter's theories, he tries to rationalize those deviations, instead of admitting there could be an alternative explanation.
If the Runestone was in fact a land claim marker, was it actually used for that purpose subsequently or just left behind? Why would land claim markers be necessary in such wild, virgin country where the natives weren't governed by the framework of laws characterizing Western civilization?
Wouldn't it be all these people could do, just to survive out here? Would you be interested in documenting events for posterity on a big rock if you were on the other side of the world, presumably struggling for mere survival as those "explorers" must surely have been? What are the odds that a buried rock of this kind would be found by 19th Century farmers, considering the vastness of the land?
Again the subject tears you apart, and maybe this is why Alexandria itself is so conflicted with its image: Is it a true "micropolitan" city or just a summer resort town?
If Wolter's theories gain steam, a whole raft of images will have to be erased from the area's iconography. That's too bad, in a way, because I kind of enjoyed all the Hagar the Horrible stuff.
Wolter wants politicians (state lawmakers) to get involved. Yeah, that'll solve things.
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The recycled cry for new sports stadiums

A new sports venue captivates us like a shiny jewel. The venue it replaces, meanwhile, can seem old as yesterday's newspaper. Considering the immediacy of communications in the year 2010, that expression could perhaps be changed to "old as today's newspaper."
But isn't it troubling when the old stadium can be remembered, in our lifetime, as something shiny-new?
I remember interviewing then-State Senator Roger Strand about the apparent necessity of having the Metrodome go up. At a certain point, an air of inevitability sets in. That's the way these things go. After all the cries of "let those rich bastards build it themselves," we grit our teeth and in the end we beam and gawk at the new facility.
I have long held the theory that new stadiums are like the need for periodic remodeling in the restaurant business. Perhaps it's subconscious on the part of restaurant customers, but they expect remodeling in the way any change of scenery refreshes. And so it goes in the sports world too.
But I don't consider myself too terribly old, and I still remember when the Metrodome was a fresh new "pride and joy." People touted it then as a necessity. It would buoy U of M football recruiting. Outstate fans would be heartened not having to worry about the elements postponing games.
We always knew there were some defects, like too few aisles, poor sight lines for baseball and inadequate luxury boxes. Actually I couldn't care less about that last one, but again the "experts" are telling us it's important.
Because the vacuum cleaner that is big league sports (as in vacuuming up money) stays on maximum setting, it seems. . .
And us knaves who buy general admission seats are supposed to care. The knaves end up joining the new stadium bandwagon because we know it's futile to stay skeptical, and it's a guilty pleasure to be excited about an opulent new stadium.
Not that anyone ever described the Metrodome as opulent. But for all its defects, Minnesotans have felt a persistent affection for it, a bit understated perhaps but always perceptible. We could always count on games being played and under predictable conditions. What a night-and-day difference from having an outdoor facility like the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.
I was preschool age when the old "Met" was built. Its purpose was to attract major league baseball and it succeeded. It wasn't built to last forever. Clark Griffith, son of original Twins owner Calvin, described the Met as a "bucket of rust" at the time it closed. The state's sports moguls knew the wheels could turn and we could get a new stadium built. And so it goes now with Zygi Wilf and the Vikings turning up the volume with hints that a new stadium is needed for pro football. Again there seems an air of inevitability.
From my layman's perspective, I have to wonder why separate stadiums are needed for the Gophers and Vikings. It's questionable whether the new Gophers facility is even living up to its billing. A front page article in the Star Tribune last fall was about a troubling lack of fan support from the U student body. And what I'm most curious about is whether football recruiting will fall back into a funk there due to the "negative recruiting" other institutions can do, based on our weather.
It seems the Gophers were lucky in their first season at TCF Stadium, not having any debacle days with sleet, gale force winds or the like. The Gophers were highly disappointing in their years at the Dome, contradicting the rosy speculation by then-coach Joe Salem about how moving indoors would promote greater on-field football success. You really have to be wary of propaganda when these new stadium drives pick up steam.
I remember Bert Blyleven, Twins TV analyst, getting disgusted during a game at the Metrodome when an infielder lost a pop fly in the roof, and saying "that's not baseball." He said this in the context of the new stadium debate. Mr. Blyleven and others in his (privileged) position would never have made a comment like this during the drive to build the Dome. But every few years the impulse builds to do something new and give fans that "change of scenery" as per the afore-mentioned norm in the restaurant business. Call it "new car smell" or some such thing.
I imagine that this spring our jaws will collectively drop when the new Twins Stadium is unveiled. Outdoors. Am I the only one who remembers that back in the days of the old Met, many members of the national media made offhand comments dreading the weather here? I remember a football broadcasting crew plugging the upcoming week's televised game, perhaps a playoff game (i.e. late in the season when it's definitely cold) and Johnny Unitas making such a remark with clear irritation in his voice. It seemed clear he just didn't want to come here, even if he could stay in the Skyway system.
Barbs of this type seemed to disappear completely when the Dome opened. I have long felt relieved over that. Now I'm starting to worry that the tenor of comments will reverberate again with revulsion at the cold or nasty weather that we've learned to live with. We may start feeling defensive again.
The new football stadium in Dallas has set the bar higher in that sport. A huge video screen there is reportedly just as big an attraction as the action on the field. I've read that opulent new stadiums are considered urgent to build in the NFL now, because it's harder to get fans to come to games. It's harder because the TV viewing experience at your home has gotten so much better. Many people would rather just stay at home. So now the push builds for a new, presumably opulent and state of the art facility for the Vikes. It would probably have to have a retractable roof. Its cost would be enormous.
And this push is building when the economy has storm clouds all around. Having three separate state of the art facilities for the Gophers, Twins and Vikings seems excessive, almost with a Sodom and Gomorrah feel about it.
People are suffering, losing their jobs and health care, and as U.S. Senator Chris Dodd pointed out Wednesday morning on the Joe Scarborough program (MSNBC), the very fabric of our society is showing stress. Fewer marriages, more out of wedlock births etc., he pointed out. So I look at the new Dallas stadium and almost wonder whether God has some sort of punishment in store for us.
I have micro (local) as well as macro examples of how the "new facility" push can manifest itself. I remember when Morris was positively brimming with pride over the new high school varsity gym unveiled in 1968. I was probably at the first varsity basketball game there. (No gender reference is needed because back then, basketball equated with "boys.")
I remember being at a few games when the Tigers played at the old, now abandoned gym-auditorium. It was necessary to leave those surroundings, but I wonder if we abandoned the 1968 gym prematurely. And it really has been abandoned, for serious varsity purposes, due to most of the bleachers being taken out.
When another new gym was built here in 1991, it was ballyhooed for a short time but then seemingly forgotten. The 1991 gym seems big enough for serious varsity purposes, but, at least when I made my rounds there, it had only token bleachers. Enough for gymnastics, perhaps, but not a prime spectator sport. Then I became truly befuddled when the community seemed convinced that a super new gymnasium complex was "necessary" a few years back. Thus we got our new "elementary school" which really was far more than an elementary school. Opulent? Yes. Excessive? I think so. This applies to the new gyms, new concert hall and new football field.
The go-go days of the '90s when the economy seemed so buoyant, was like an elixir causing all of us to cry "build new" and we got the RFC in part due to this. Now the RFC is on its knees, it seems, needing to scrape up more funds.
Big Cat Field seems to serve the University of Minnesota-Morris well, along with the Minnesota State High School League for its late-stage playoff games. But not the Morris Area Tigers. Attendance appears to have fallen off because there's a desolate atmosphere at night out there on the fringe of town, the elements can be felt in an uncomfortable way, and fans are more or less forced to sit on their fannies rather than mill around and socialize. The latter activity seemed paramount at the old Coombe Field. Now it's gone with the wind, along with cheerleading and maybe even band music. The Morris Area High pep band seems to make itself scarce for whatever reason.
Money? It usually comes down to that, just like with that clarion call we now hear - that drumbeat for a new Vikes palace at a time when our social fabric is showing unmistakable stress.
-by Brian Williams, former Morris Area High sports scribe - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kensington Runestone tantalizes, frustrates

The Kensington Runestone is a siren song.
I would guess that anyone who scratches the surface of this tantalizing topic starts to develop emotions. You can start waving the banner for authenticity, which is a tempting thing to do because it's so good for the collective self-esteem of West Central Minnesota residents, not to mention Scandinavians. Many do not fall into this camp though. People who feel the instinctive skepticism of academia often fall into the other camp: the naysayers.
The naysayers are influenced by the overwhelming circumstantial evidence against the stone's genuineness. So overwhelming it can make you want to laugh. And to be determined not to be done in by Scandinavians' notorious sense of humor. No one wants to be suckered by that. We'd be lucky if the biggest challenge of the famous stone was in trying to distance ourselves from that sense of humor.
The biggest problem, in fact, may lie in the fact that some people of strong academic leanings have joined the authenticity camp. The schism adds to the siren song element. Can't any consensus be found here?
Many years ago I wrote a newspaper article about one of these highbrow individuals, a linguistics specialist from Cornell (yes, "the" Cornell) no less, who was a personal friend of then-UMM administrator Bettina Blake. The Runestone became a compelling subject in my life for a time.
The siren song gained volume as I became convinced that the authenticity arguments outweighed the contrarians. And I felt that with time and further analysis, all the old ambiguity and snowball fights between the two camps, as it were, would recede and we could all celebrate the subject together.
Nope. I have become convinced that Alex's big rock falls into the category of "Fortean Phenomena." I learned this term back when I used our wonderful Morris Public Library for its books rather than its computer stations. I learned that the term refers to things or creatures whose existence seems almost certain, but that last baby stop toward certainty stays elusive as if through destiny. We were never meant to know, as with the Lake Champlain monster and such.
Gorillas were once thought to be the product of an overactive imagination until their existence was confirmed. As for the Runestone, it seems to be a 400-pound gorilla of frustrating mystery.
I did a check and found that I had discarded the 2-3 books on the Runestone I once owned, probably donating them for the library's summer sale. Evidently I didn't want that siren song pulling at me anymore. The believers go to such great lengths talking about how characters in the stone could not have been generated with the existing knowledge of Runes at the time (at least out here). But how much certainty do we have about that "existing knowledge?"
The skeptics, including luminaries at the Minnesota Historical Society, don't want any new "documentation" offered up. Their eyes get glazed over and their comments become reflexively dismissive, driving those in the other camp virtually nuts. No wonder I want to let go of this subject.
Why am I writing about it now? Because tonight (Monday) I am attending a club meeting where the featured speaker has written with great conviction about the stone's genuineness. What club is this? Is it a group that can be counted on to weight the evidence objectively? Dispassionately? It's the Sons of Norway. Rats.
Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of the pro-Runestone spin, because for several years the only TV channel our neighborhood could (reliably) get was KCMT-Alexandria. I learned that the Alexandria area had come to tie its image to the intrepid pre-Columbus travels of the barbarian-like Vikings.
Various things were named accordingly (e.g. Our Lady of the Runestone Church), and one came to realize that Alexandria had a vested interest in trying to convince the world that real Vikings, not those prancing on a football field, settled in our area.
In high school I was a "ringer" on various nights with the Kensington High School pep band (under the baton of the late Walt Sarlette) and the mascot for this team was a classic Viking. They chose an obese boy whose temperament actually struck me as quite passive. And the school's sports nickname? Yes, the "Vikings."
Of course, Kensington High School is no more, as the population drain in the Great Plains has forced dramatic consolidation. Schools have gone through several rounds of retrenchments. Today there is a West Central Area School - doesn't say much about where it's located - and I believe the vestiges of Kensington are in there. But no more "Vikings." Gone with the wind.
It's hard to let go of the Runestone and its hoped-for place in the pantheon of true history, in light of how iconic images in West Central Minnesota are tied to it.
An admission of fraud could never be swallowed, at least not all at once. That scenario would remind me of the joke that was popular when Alex Haley's "Roots" and the miniseries it spawned were all the rage?
"Did you hear about Alex Haley? He just found out he was adopted!"
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Friday, February 12, 2010

Morris Area School leaps forward with website!

On Wednesday night I was delighted to do something on this site that I had delayed for a reason. I placed a link to the School District #769 site on this site.
I hadn't previously done this because I considered that site behind the times in its approach. Previously it was one of those stagnant, billboard type of sites that was typical of the early, developmental stages of the world wide web. It was a reference type of site and pretty skeletal even in that regard.
In the early days of the web, any type of site looked impressive. As with anything connected to the new communications universe, progress has been rapid. A reference-oriented, billboard type of site is no longer good enough to cut it. I had been frustrated by District #769's tortoise-like pace in coming to the realization of this. I had e-mail exchanges with two school board members in which I shared my views and got no arguments from them.
I rationalized that schools can be a little slow adapting to change because of their inherent structure: a bit bureaucratic and with contracts involving professional associations - I won't say "unions" - so you can't just boss people around and say "do this." So I've been setting the bar fairly low in looking for constructive strides with the school website.
Well, life can bring an eye-opening surprise once in a while. So on Wednesday night, during my allotted one hour of time at a computer carol at our wonderful Morris Public Library, I made the discovery of the improved school website that was much more than a facelift.
My delight isn't just based on the obvious improvements, it's based on how the school now clearly embraces the right philosophy for online public outreach. There is a statement on the site that "a site is never finished." With the old billboard approach, the site might sit basically unchanged for an entire year. Now it's going to be fluid with information of current interest. There will be incentive for parents and other members of the community to visit regularly.
Besides being informational it will be promotional. You can't underestimate the importance of that in situations where the school strives for more financial resources. (I could tease the school here and say "when isn't that the case?")
The school is interested in "strategic planning" now. It's a pretty catch-all term, basically suggesting a sharpening process, and I can't think of anything facilitating this better than the new website.
Until recently I would have considered a blog post upbraiding the school administration pretty severely on the former website. The administration has now "deprived" me of that venting opportunity, so I don't need to consume a large mug of heavily caffeinated coffee as I compose the choice words to nudge those people at the top!
Instead I'll smile and say "great job" but with an afterthought of encouraging vigilance with the website, always being proactive by thinking of ways to connect better with the school's constituencies and the public at large.
Teachers - the most important resource the school has - should be fully on board with this. There are legitimate issues like to what extent students' names should appear on the site, as in reporting news of school activities. This is worthy of discussion. But I feel that with time, as the Internet becomes ever more mainstream and privacy issues almost impossible to guard anyway, these concerns will wane and news will be reported in an unbridled way.
Some fascinating books will someday be written on the history of the web, with those early days looking so quaint (as with the Alta Vista search engine). Early-on in the development, the web was known as a hangout for conspiracy theorists and snake oil salesmen. There were cliche lines like "you can't believe what you read on the Internet."
Oh, there's still lots of garbage online, probably more than ever, but the mainstream uses are burying all that in a system facilitated by search. The Internet is just a "place," and just like in our physical world, there are blighted areas that can never be eradicated. But we all find our niche and move on. And we are moving on from an old (legacy) media world that is shrinking and must increasingly be pushed to the periphery. No longer must we delegate communications to an elite professional sliver of our population, a sliver with the privilege of having access to a printing plant, for example. Or at the macro level, depending on three TV networks to sift through and decide what the day's news is. . .
Supt. Scott Monson should consider writing his "newspaper column" on his own terms, meaning that it wouldn't originate as a "newspaper column" at all. It could be presented as a blog which is what you're reading now, and linked to the school website. No need to shut the local newspaper out, of course, so the paper could still be free to come to the site, copy and paste Monson's latest offering and publish it for people willing to get ink on their fingers to read it.
The "dead tree" newspaper people will gnash their teeth some over this, because they will lose their exclusivity. Well, here's my little violin.
In the spirit of strategic planning, allow me to advise Supt. Monson that his constituencies are increasingly going to look for school news and promotion online, whether it's on the school website itself, independent sites (e.g. of booster groups) that have the imprimatur of the school, or totally independent sites (like this one).
One of the most visible aspects of school life is sports. There is a regional site called Pheasant Country Sports that does a decent job of facilitating this, but in terms of Morris Area content it's spotty. Ken Gagner has been an eager beaver and gotten his MA-CA GBB team covered there. His industriousness doesn't surprise me. Even on the old stagnant school website, Gagner had some of his programs linked in an almost anomalous way, as other programs were not similarly represented. I had a brief conversation with him once - I actually reached him by dialing a wrong number - in which I complimented him on this, but it seemed to make him nervous. Because he knew what I was implying: School staff needed to move full-bore into the new communications frontier. And that might require some work.
Teachers need to negotiate for new work burdens to be assumed. That's fine, but I hope teachers have a spirit of being receptive to the new communications frontier. I think they will because it's empowering. It's really in line with their own parochial interests. And it's not as if they haven't done a lot of this type of work before. Prep coaches famously "spoon feed" local newspapers with written summary pieces that are very close to being a finished product. Same for theater directors and others. Now these individuals can publish directly to the web if they choose, getting more credit for their work.
What about Pheasant Country Sports? Outside of Tiger girls basketball, the coverage of Tiger/Storm sports seems pretty spotty. I actually do not endorse Pheasant Country Sports. I have frequently made the point that sports reporting could be managed at the grassroots level. I have personally taken many photos for the Morris Eagles Baseball website which is a grassroots effort. And easy as pie.
The Alexandria school gives an ideal example of how prep sports can be showcased right from the source. Just click on "Cardinal Connection" on their site and you can appreciate this textbook example. Alex has actually been doing this for several years, going back to when it was a true novelty.
What reservations do I have about Pheasant Country Sports? It has too many of the recognizable spots of the old media: delegating to a gatekeeper editor (Craig Olson) and an expectation there will be "sponsors" (advertising). Here's a thought: If advertising is really an expected component of this, all the more reason for schools to set up the coverage themselves. They could sell advertising for sports coverage on their own sites. It could be a revenue source! It's not far-fetched, because didn't the school open the door for advertising on sports game programs a couple of years ago? I don't see the programs because I don't pay to view Tiger athletics.
In the fall I get a glimpse of Tiger football from the outer periphery of Big Cat Field. And hey guys, there's a significant issue looming in terms of fan turnout for Tiger football at this still-new facility. It appears to have gone down over time, with a low point having been reached for the Tigers' playoff game against Minnewaska Area. So the point is, you really have to look at PR issues and be proactive with the website in this regard.
Our local radio station would be happy to link to anything you do. The radio station's website is free and open. My experience with the newspaper website is that there's a log-in barrier, at least much of the time, and the sports coverage is spotty. If it has improved lately I wouldn't know it, because I've stopped going there. I refuse to log-in to read on any website. And based on what I've learned, there are many others out there like me.
As for the ink-on-paper newspaper, there's only one of them each week now, down from the historical two (when it was hard enough trying to keep people happy), so there's an element of futility trying to keep up with coverage expectations.
We live in a communications age marked by instant gratification. It's the way of the world.
District #769, by dramatically improving its website, has put aside the need to vigorously discuss this issue during strategic planning, because the issue is being addressed so well. Congratulations and feel free to click on the District #769 link on the right-hand column of "I Love Morris."
-Brian Williams - Morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Newspapers' decline opens fresh perspective

What is a newspaper's true standing?
In a nutshell it has none. It does have the freedom to print whatever it wants. It's a no-brainer thanks to the First Amendment. A newspaper enjoys some special access thanks to the traditional position it has held, cultivated over years of pre-Internet news dissemination, when our options were severely limited.
The people who talk today about the important role held by newspapers and how we can't let them die, ought to step into a time machine and go back at least 15 years. You'll get smoke blown into your face if you walked into a restaurant. A newspaper-dominated information universe is just as odious, I feel.
The First Amendment protects me also with this humble site. If I were to ask you for a quote for my blog, you might be hesitant or want to know more about me. But why should you be any more open with a newspaper? Papers have an agenda and they aren't generally interested in the innocent and boring. Well, the larger papers aren't. But do we even need to treat the smaller papers as anything special?
Local "news" is the kind of stuff that can make certain people squirm. One might ask, at a fundamental level: Is a community newspaper an intrusion into privacy? Does it invade our personal space? Do we really need to know that a young man whose last name is common in the area is in trouble for a sex crime? Do I need to learn this through a screaming headline?
And does another headline have to scream at me that a local clergyman has sadly been caught for a serious human failing and has the law coming down on him like an anvil?
Law enforcement people handle these things. Newspapers do little more than stoke the gossip mill, and it's ditto with mundane news like speeding and seat belt citations. The district court "news" could go online under the direct supervision of people at that office, in the same way funeral homes take responsibility for obituaries. These entities do the work with tender loving care. Not like a bat out of hell at a newspaper office with one eye on the clock. Why can't the people who bow at the newspaper altar consider that latter image?
In the last years of my "dead tree" newspaper career, I definitely noticed the public retreating from wanting attention in the paper. They'd sound prickly on the phone. Whereas people in the past might have been flattered to get a call from the paper, that sensation has faded along with the perception that the local paper is special or entitled.
The budding online world, by contrast, empowers people and organizations to share information with target audiences on terms they set in a bottom-up communications model. It's a liberating and less-intrusive information ecosystem, not to mention eco-friendly. The latter dividend is most certainly impressed on us in looking at the current Morris newspaper, in which the ad circulars for Alexandria business alone are an abomination. Sorry, but I don't do that much shopping in Alexandria.
Why talk to a newspaper reporter? It's a fundamental question. Is this reporter certified in some manner? Could he/she have been hired off the street? The First Amendment is a right, but it doesn't bestow any special status on these people. So often they're in denial and talk like it does.
You know who isn't mesmerized by calls from newspaper people? The University of Minnesota. The University is well-known to be averse to the legacy print media. It's my understanding that the U has a policy for its employees that if you get a call from a reporter, you refer that person to your supervisor. The U would say this is just a matter of proper procedure, while reporters smell evasiveness. I side with the U on this one. I think the Clem Haskins academic cheating scandal hardened this stance.
When the Minnesota Daily tried to do an article on the effects of proposed budget cuts on various departments within the U, they ran into a stone wall and tried crying "foul." This was maybe two years ago.
What special status did the Daily enjoy that empowered them to go poking around in a way that might put the venerable U on the defensive?
There is a lot at stake with the University packaging its image in an optimal way in the year 2010. I might add that Jesse Ventura and Mark Yudof, for all their differences in their roles as governor and U president, respectively, would do a "high 5" together on the points I'm making.
It is not a civic obligation to talk to a reporter. It is a risk. The reporter may be distracted by personal problems and be working at a harried, probably unreasonable pace. Why is the reporter's "deadline" your problem? It isn't.
I told my former boss not long ago that the Brian Williams he knew then, in the newspaper trade, was an anachronism. Whereas I might have won some admiration for being frenetic in my work pace, sometimes trying to be two places at once for example, this was no longer a work model to be emulated.
What the U of M knows vividly is that the reporter will be assembling material from his/per perspective which definitely is not likely to mirror the U's. Nothing in the U's stance is contrary to the First Amendment. It's all about entitlement, and the newspapers don't have any. Hey, maybe I do!
This site, "I Love Morris," reflects the guiding credo of the new online media: "Do what you do best and link to the rest." I trust the news sources I'm linking to. They sure make it easy for me.
Local institutions are making strides joining the new and evolving information ecosystem. But it's still a work in progress. "Hyperlocal" is exciting and people need to tune in. Our local public school district has recently improved its website but I'd still like to prod them to go further. More on that later.
Paul Gillin of Newspaper Death Watch states, with some hyperbole I feel, that Watergate was the worst thing to ever happen to the U.S. newspaper industry. He argues that Watergate made reporters feel like they should be celebrities. There is a nugget of truth in that, but the industry's implosion really isn't so dramatic. As with all things in business, it's evolution.
I read "All the President's Men," the Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein treatise on their career-making episode (Watergate), about three years ago during my first winter being unemployed. It was a paperback that I had purchased back when it was current, but had never gotten around to reading. Maybe seeing the movie (twice) gave me less incentive to read. But the book was an eye-opener from the standpoint of the quaint world it revealed, a world in which, if you called someone and said you were a reporter with the Washington Post, or knocked on their door and said the same, that someone would likely be awestruck. Might even ask you in and offer you a cup of coffee. I remember that world and it had some charm, definitely, but it was also a world full of sexism, smoking and drinking, and naivete on the part of many toward politics. Everyone used caveman typewriters.
I remember at St. Cloud State University during the mid-1970s, I saw an article in the campus paper ("Chronicle") that had a quote attributed to "a high SCSU administration source." I think this writer probably saw "All the President's Men" twice (or more) like I did. We were deluding ourselves. We were never that important.
Incidentally, that attribution reminds me of a book title from the late humorist Art Buchwald, a book no doubt penned in the same era: "Getting High in Government Circles." (Art announced his own death in a video recorded shortly before, but it got little TV play, probably because it seemed creepy. It was really funny, the way Buchwald intended.)
"Background. . .off the record. . .cloak and dagger. . ." Who cares? Is this any way to get government accountability? No, and the powers that be, like at the University of Minnesota, came to realize this. Take off your capes, newspaper people. Heaven help us if our institutions can't cultivate their own channels of accountability. And they seem to be doing this. The blogosphere probably helps because it's an "on the record" conversation, not merely whispers.
The fading away of our ink-and-paper newspapers warrants a nod of acknowledgment and little more. Let's all harness what's new.
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Monday, February 8, 2010

With a little inspiration from Red Green. . .

"Now if you'll excuse me. . ."
That's the line that set ups the final gag in many episodes of the crazy Canadian show "Red Green."
The line sets up the demo for whatever how-to idea Green was lamely but humorously presenting. And then all heck breaks loose of course.
I'll borrow the line to set up my next 3-4 posts here on "I Love Morris," posts which will get into media issues. I have a background in this but I don't want visitors here to think the site has become an excuse to vent, spout, pontificate or whatever on the media and how the "dead tree" aspect of it, by all pertinent evidence, is fading. ("Dead trees" equate with newspapers of course.)
That's a downbeat angle so before continuing, let's enjoy Red Green's first winter poem, circa 1989, apt considering that the calendar is indeed at midpoint of the snowy time of year.
It is winter
The bear sleeps
Not alone like me
But with many other bears
In some dark den
I bet that doesn't smell too great

Bits of evidence surface constantly as to the new direction that tech is taking us i.e. away from traditional media. Newspaper vending boxes are increasingly rare.
I recently had a couple of unusual adventures seeking the Star Tribune Saturday edition, which is the only one I typically deem necessary to buy during the week. I have access to publicly available copies otherwise.
Weekends are no longer business as usual for the state's most prominent and historically credible newspaper. No longer does the Strib market a "Saturday" paper per se at the newsstands. It's called "Early Sunday," but the paper seems conflicted on just how to package and market this animal.
On a recent Saturday in Morris, the west side Casey's store, a bastion of life in an otherwise quiet, sleeping community in the early hours, had the new Strib but without the circulars that were supposed to be included. The Sunday circulars are supposed to be in with the "Early Sunday" paper available Saturday. It's promised at the top of page 1.
The helpful clerk insisted I accept a refund and he took the stack of remaining papers off the stand.
Then on Saturday, Jan. 31, the quest was more troublesome because the Saturday paper, or whatever you want to call it, simply eluded me. This might seem like a mundane annoyance to many of you, but as a media maven I'm troubled. Here's how I told the story in an e-mail to media writer David Brauer of Minnpost:

Hello Mr. Brauer - Another perplexing Saturday here in western Minnesota figuring out how the Star Tribune is handling its new weekend arrangements, sans a "Saturday" paper per se.
At 8:15 a.m. I stopped at the local grocery store - we only have one now since Coborn's closed - and saw the green vending box was empty. No big deal, so I went inside the store where they have a courtesy counter with newspapers. I pawed through some Star Tribs and couldn't find any with today's date. So I asked a checkout gal and she said she thought the papers hadn't arrived. Strange.
So I headed over to DeToy's Restaurant where I found another empty green vending box. There's a chair at the counter inside where they stack any house papers that have accumulated - sometimes customers just leave theirs - and it was "no dice" trying to locate a Saturday (Early Sunday) Minneapolis paper. I saw another customer come in and paw through papers on the chair, obviously looking for the current one.
It was in vain that I had my reading glasses with me. I take a little extra time for breakfast Saturday and the waitress automatically brings a pot of coffee. Without a paper I just sat there getting intoxicated on caffeine.
I left the place at 8:50 and noticed that still-empty green vending box. I then returned to the grocery store and learned "still no paper." This is highly irregular. The store and restaurant are the hotspots for people traffic in town, so if they didn't have the papers you could be sure they were nowhere. I came back into town at 2:50 to visit the library, where I am now, and before coming here I stopped at the grocery store out of curiosity and still saw no papers, but I also asked. And I was told that the papers had come but they were gone! In other words, way, way too few papers were dropped off.
I wonder if the Strib is discouraging us outstaters from buying that Early Sunday edition, and trying to induce us instead to buy the "real" Sunday paper. I have always taken for granted being able to obtain a Minneapolis paper reasonably early in the morning, any day of the year, and now that this assumption is no longer in place we've taken another baby step to getting out of the habit of relying on newspapers, I feel. - Brian W.
(end of quoted e-mail)

On the day I'm typing this post, Saturday, Feb. 6, all is right with the world for getting my expected Saturday (or Early Sunday) Strib, but now there's a new shock: The new University Register of the UMM campus, so new there was a bundle still wrapped up at the entryway to City Center Mall, didn't even include coverage of the Joseph Basel alleged Louisiana espionage caper.
Joe Basel is a recent University of Minnesota-Morris graduate who left a big imprint here with his political activism. Now it appears that it's activism Donald Segretti-style. Remember, fellow baby boomers? Wasn't that a pleasant chapter?
The Basel caper (with three accomplices apparently led by James O'Keefe) was covered above the fold on page 1 of the New York Times. The Register apparently weighed the matter differently. With influence from UMM's administration? Who knows. As a boomer I'm always suspicious, always on the lookout for that proverbial 18-minute "gap in the tape."
Actually the temperate, safe stance of the Register is a breath of fresh air compared to what the Counterweight (the Fox News equivalent) brought to the campus. Basel was tied in with that. Hopefully the legal system will now declaw him.
There was another Saturday surprise! This was when I saw what appeared to be a veritable pile of ad circulars for Alexandria businesses stuffed in with the Morris paper that came out that day. I felt like uttering an expletive. Aside from the fact that no one here is going to be influenced by these circulars, it's a mountain of waste.
If my upcoming posts on the media seem tiresome, take a hiatus and trek elsewhere on the web - maybe visit James Lileks.
"Now if you'll excuse me. . ."
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Friday, February 5, 2010

Super Bowl parties have an air about them

"Stay souped for the Super Bowl," a media announcer once said in a blooper. And then he added another blooper: "I mean, stay stunned for the Stupor Bowl."
If you aren't stunned (or souped) by the suspense of the game, maybe a little alcohol in the refreshments will do it. I would guess the extent of alcohol in Super Bowl party drinks is much less than in the days when the Minnesota Vikings played in four Super Bowls. Back then, social drinking was fashionable and DWIs didn't have the disastrous consequences of today.
I remember watching the Minnesota Vikings play the Pittsburgh Steelers in a dormitory lounge at St. Cloud State University (Shoemaker Hall). The campus was within easy walking distance of so many bars, I'd have a hard time listing them all. We're wiser and safer today. Or you might say "what were we thinking?"
The Bill Brown fumble (on a kickoff) stands out from that Super Bowl vs. the Steelers. Of the four Super Bowls the Vikes played, this one afforded the best chance to win. But it wasn't meant to be, just as it wasn't meant to be for this year's Vikes to make the big circus at all.
So we'll be watching the Saints play the Colts in this year's Super Bowl. Many of us will be at parties where bowls of crunchy snacks, bratwurst and cold, alcohol-free refreshments will be left and right. By day's end we'll feel drugged and most certainly will sleep soundly, perhaps with visions of next year's Vikings playing in the Super Bowl. (If Sly Stallone can keep making "Rambo" movies, Brett Favre can keep playing quarterback.)
I read a couple years ago how the kind of snacks people consume at Super Bowl parties have an unintended and unpleasant consequence: flatulence. This article stood out for me among the sea of predictable, frivolous and vapid feature coverage of Super Bowl weekend in the media.
So it's on that note that I share a favorite joke about the health complication that one hopes can be confined to private situations. This is one of those jokes that used to flow through people in work channels, perhaps photocopied multiple times. Today it's all electronic but the fun is the same.
Here it is:

"There was a young man once with a passion for baked beans, although they had a rather unpleasant side effect with him. He met a young lady and fell in love, whereupon he realized that she would stand for none of this and that once he got married, he'd have to sacrifice the beans. Then one day he was driving home and his car broke down. He parked it and decided to walk, whereupon he passed a diner where the aroma of freshly baked beans overwhelmed him. He figured he could have some and then walk off any ill effects, so he ordered three big servings. He putt-putted his way home, where he was greeted by his wife, who informed him that she had a wonderful surprise awaiting him, but she'd have to blindfold him. She led him into the dining room and sat him down at the table, his blindfold securely on. Then the phone rang and she said she'd be back in a couple minutes. In the privacy of the room, the young man had some unfinished business so he lifted up a leg and "let fire," followed by some other blasts until there was a real "prize winner." He grabbed his napkin and fanned the air to disperse the ill effects. Then his wife returned and said "I have the most wonderful surprise for you tonight." She removed the blindfold, whereupon the man was treated to the sight of several of the couple's closest friends, all seated around the dinner table next to him - guests for dinner that night."

Enjoy the Super Bowl!
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Funerals, memory and mystery - Part II

(Note: My recent post, "Funerals bring people together," focused on the bonding and reminiscences prompted by the passing of a loved one, and how we delicately balance sadness with the celebration of life. Today I look at the speculation prompted by the specter of death: What lies ahead, and the questions we ask - questions that seem common from kids and older people alike. Universal and perplexing questions. . .)

Death impresses on us the finite and fragile nature of life. Despite the certainty we typically project, we ponder while at funerals the finality of death in the only context we can: the unknown. And ponder the afterlife - its form, whether it exists at all or follows the heaven-hell dichotomy that most of us have heard about from the ministerial pulpit all our lives.
Many of us pretend we're quite convinced we know the answers. But I'm reminded of how "The Great and Powerful Oz" handed out his tokens to the leading characters of the "Oz" story at the end: He told the lion he really had no less courage than his peers, the scarecrow that he had no less intelligence and the tin man that he had no less heart.
Indeed, many doubters, agnostics and seekers among us have no less certainty, deep down, about spiritual truths than the lifelong churchgoers.
The great Civil War historical novel, "The Killer Angels," by the late Michael Shaara, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, had a fascinating few paragraphs in which rugged, grizzled generals pondered their mortality in an almost childlike way. Death surrounded them. the book focuses on the Gettysburg campaign which happened not long after Chancellorsville, the latter recorded in history books as a Confederate victory. But the Confederacy could ill-afford battlefield losses even in victory. Attrition was sinking them. And the gray-clad generals who were still alive for Gettysburg had lost close friends/associates in the horrible recent confrontation. So they pondered death. One of them wondered, as he weighed the afterlife: "Will I see my friends? What age will they be?"
In the Civil War the invading army almost always lost because most Civil War battles were technically stalemates. The development of the rifled gun, replacing the smoothbore, made armies so deadly with their force that they essentially shot each other to pieces. Finally the invading force simply had to leave, to get home, lick wounds and resupply.
People in the prime of their lives draw the biggest crowds for their funerals. Tony O'Keefe RIP of Morris was a prime example in our recent past. It was almost futile trying to get into Pedersen Funeral Home for the reviewal, such as the crush of people. God rest your soul, Tony.
I often think it's sad that people who live to a quite advanced age cannot do nearly as well drawing a turnout for last rites. So many of their contemporaries have passed on. They and their accomplishments might be largely unknown to the community's young adults. My uncle Howard Williams' funeral in Glenwood fell into that category. Howard lived into his 90s and had made Glenwood and its development his life's passion, using his gregariousness and fiscal acumen as a banker.
This isn't really to "complain" about the relatively low turnout for last rites. It's understandable. All those contemporaries of Howard were presumably waiting in heaven to acknowledge his arrival. But what age would they be?
We all remember the first funeral we attended. For me it was the funeral of my grandmother Hilda Ohlson in Brainerd. But perhaps more vividly etched in my memory is the funeral for a Viet Nam War casualty, also in Brainerd. This young man was a friend of the family, the son of the sister of my mother's best high school friend (Brainerd High Class of 1942).
The deceased, who we always called "Dickie," was adorned with his U.S. Marine uniform in the coffin. There was talk that he was shot at point-blank range, perhaps by someone he trusted. As in the roiling Middle East/Persian Gulf region today, U.S. soldiers cannot be certain at all times whom to trust among the native citizenry, even those in uniform. We heard that Dickie had sent a letter to "his girl" not long before his death, expressing doubt that he would live much longer. He was truly in the lion's den in that conflagration. And he ended up in a coffin with his skin of purplish color. Purplish. I remember it like it was yesterday.
I have long suspected that this troubling scene was one reason I became a cynic/skeptic in later years, reluctant to take the word of authority figures on the adjudication of issues. That war was an abomination, a gaping wound in the developing consciousness of the "boomer" generation as it matured.
David Halberstam RIP wrote about "The Best and the Brightest" laying the stage for that war. I cannot think of that title without also remembering a Doonesbury takeoff on it: "The Worst and the Stupidest," which I believe the cartoonist was attaching to the cadre of people around Richard Nixon.
May God rest your soul, Dickie.
People die older than they used to. A gentleman I know at the Morris Senior Center told me about his bout with skin cancer on his forehead - the problem seems to be under control - shook his head and said "people used to die from stuff like this all the time."
What a blessing people can live longer, even if their final rites might only attract a Gideon's band of mourners. And what a blessing that wars of the scale of the Civil War and Viet Nam are relegated to the bookshelves, where generals can wonder "How old would they be? (of their fallen comrades)"
I once had a co-worker, Howard Moser, who was convinced that the afterlife would be like the play "Our Town," in which we would be seated in a circle discussing the adventures and misadventures of our mortal lives. We laughed about that. How old would everyone be?
I never knew my late uncle Howard as a young man. We have all probably had relatives like that, whom we can only pigeon-hole at a certain age or in a certain role. What kind of a young man was Howard? Or boy?
Would I discover this in heaven?
I once had a teacher who laughed about the idyllic, heavenly scene in the clouds, where presumably you'd be handed a harp "whether you liked music or not."
One thing about that idyllic picture and its counterpart with the fires burning in hell: syndicated cartoonists have gotten tons of mileage out of this. But how illuminating is it? How did it originate? The same way as Santa Claus in the red suit? Perplexing.
I remember the funeral for a musician friend once, held at my church of First Lutheran in Morris, where the presiding clergy (not Cliff Grindland whom I wrote about in my previous "funerals" post) spoke of the afterlife with a touch of doubt and uncertainty. I remember these exact words, spoken by this minister who liked his cigarettes pretty regularly: "We don't know. . .but we can hope."
How could those words cross his lips? One big asterisk that could be placed next to these rites was that they were in the Jimmy Carter malaise period, give or take a year. It was a time when conventional wisdom had it that everything was open to question. There were no absolutes, certainly no absolutes as set down by Western orthodoxy.
The residue of the Viet Nam experience hadn't settled into the background yet. Civil rights in the Deep South remained problematic. And we had witnessed the exit from office of a criminal U.S. president. How could we as a society be certain of anything?
Such was the disillusionment, young people drifted away from mainstream Christianity. In Morris, the older generation recognized this and began a turnaround with the "Young Life" organization which had no ties to established denominations. When I wrote a feature on this group for the local newspaper, the smoking pastor derided me by saying I had "plugged" them.
Eventually the traditional denominations got resuscitated. American ideals in general enjoyed new buoyance, largely through the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan. All was right with the world. But I could never dismiss the purplish skin of my fallen acquaintance from those rites in Brainerd in the mid-1960s.
More tangible reminders of the tragic war period could be gleaned with a visit to the Viet Nam War Memorial in the nation's capital, where, as my mother did once during a motorcoach tour that I sent her on, you could hold a piece of paper over the name of a deceased loved one and rub with a pencil.
In the big scheme of things, life goes on.
I remember my cousin Tom who had clergy credentials through a fundamentalist strain, officiating at final rites for my uncle Andy (yes, Andy Williams) in Glenwood. Tom, of Duluth, gestured toward the casket and said "This is just a body. Andy is gone."
Gone where? And how old would he be?
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Should Pro Bowl be put out of its misery?

There should be some kind of pill a person can take for the first weekend without real NFL football.
The NFL weakly plugged a gap by scheduling the Pro Bowl a week before the Super Bowl. The Pro Bowl is the butt of so many dismissive comments, I won't try to coin an original one here. Let's quote Mike Barnicle who on Monday morning's "Morning Joe" program on MSNBC said: "I'd rather watch ice bowling than the Pro Bowl."
There must be some type of meaningful incentive in players' contracts to show up and play in that exhibition. But it's still not good enough for Bryant McKinnie of the Minnesota Vikings, who got "dismissed" from Pro Bowl doings due to not showing up for practice. Either McKinnie thought the Pro Bowl was a charade or he was still nauseated from the way the Vikings lost to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game.
The Pro Bowl isn't even a true all-star game because it doesn't include players on the two teams set to play for the league title - this year the Saints and the Colts. So it's almost an indignity, by definition, being part of it, right? It's obvious the players don't go full speed in the Pro Bowl, partly if not mainly because they have to be careful to avoid injury, which can be catastrophic to a pro football player.
The Vikings once had a receiver named Gene Washington, not to be confused with a later star of the same name who played for San Francisco, and as I recall the purple-clad G.W. got hurt in the Pro Bowl and had the course of his career affected. In his prime, Washington was a reason why Joe Kapp, Minnesota's first Super Bowl quarterback - there were only two - rose so high in the NFL firmament.
Later, the charismatic Kapp, whose passes could sometimes be mistaken for punts (or wild ducks), signed with New England and quickly faded. His jump pass started looking more like a playground move. And speaking of costly all-star spectacles, my memory informs me that Harman Killebrew of the Minnesota baseball Twins was hurt in a costly way in the 1968 All-Star game, I believe while making a stretch play at first base.
It was kind of a blessing, Harmon, 'cause '68 was the year of the pitcher anyway. Frank Howard of the Washington Senators incredibly hit 44 home runs that year. Had Frank stepped into a time machine and fast-forwarded to 1998, and been given some of the "juice" that we now know propelled Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, my God, he would've buried them in the home run race.
And what could Killebrew have accomplished with a little "juice?" He'd be "The Killer" indeed, even against Sandy Koufax (the Twins' nemesis in the 1965 World Series).
No, the Pro Bowl cannot plug the gap in the NFL's two weeks-long hiatus leading up to the Super Bowl. And I have never really considered the Super Bowl part of the "true" NFL season anyway, partly because of the circus-like atmosphere that pervades. And partly because the NFL simply isn't as much fun when there are only two teams left in the running. The height of NFL interest is when you can tune in to ESPN's Sportscenter on any Monday and have a whole montage of NFL stories, gossip and anecdotes presented for you.
The Super Bowl seems more like a shrine to the excesses of American capitalism, than a true championship event. How many of the participants, do you feel, are relieved when it's all over? Who would want to be under a microscope like that? Oh, if the money is right. . .
But apparently the financial incentives were not enough for McKinnie to stick it out for the Pro Bowl. Now the NFL needs to think of incentives for fans to stay interested in the game through the four quarters.
After the Super Bowl? It seems like a wasteland. Not the kind of wasteland that Newton Minnow famously talked about relative to the medium of television (during the reign of Gilligan's Island and similar vapid stuff) but the kind of wasteland marked by "trashsports" (i.e. contrived sports events), and when I was young, "ABC's Wide World of Sports" with Jim McKay (called "Jim McKook") by Mad Magazine.
I remember trashsports when Archie Manning showed up one year, with some other NFL players, and they did things like trying to throw a football into a net attached to a golf cart.
I remember Manning, patriarch of the famous Manning football family in its prime today, because he casually smarted off to a TV moderator. At one point he said right into the microphone: "The only reason I'm here is that my contract requires it."
Today the players' contracts probably prohibit that kind of smarting off, given how the corporate world governs all of that. Consult your manual.
The World Series of Auto Racing was touted as a post-NFL season attraction in those days. Borrowing that term from baseball was an abomination. Truly there was a "dead zone" in the sports entertainment calendar, and basketball and hockey seemed no antidote.
The NBA was very weak in the 1960s and early '70s for some reason. Hockey? Periodically I'd try to develop an appreciation for the sport but I found it no more engaging than curling.
I felt the need for pills coping with that sudden void.
At age 55 I'm wise enough to see it all coming, but there's still a thud of recognition. And how long is it 'til NFL training camps open?
-Brian Williams - Morris Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com