"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, December 23, 2011

A very merry Christmas here in Whoville

We in Morris are kindred with Whoville in spirit if not in the nature of our town skyline. A dominating feature of our skyline all my life has been the old (1914) school building. The old school campus was once a focal point of community life but is now as cold and dormant as the Titanic at the bottom of the sea. Now we read that the City of Morris is prioritizing the idea of razing it - an inevitable development to be sure, but puzzling in some ways. Why is it the city's issue? Why not the school district's? What happened to the "green community" that was supposed to take over on the old school property, to considerable fanfare? A design for that actually won an award. Perhaps that community and similar dreams belong in a world like Whoville - just as fantasy-inspired.

Animation is a great tool for communicating about Christmas. Historically it has reached out mainly to kids. In recent years it seems to have developed a broader appeal.
"Saturday morning cartoons" were a big deal when I was a kid. Today we have the Cartoon Network. Just by accident I discovered the "Grinch" special - yes, the original one with Boris Karloff's voice - on that network. I was able to catch most of it and found I could anticipate just about every line.
Such is the nature of our favorite Christmas specials. They become embedded in our minds. They define the season almost as much as family togetherness. We aspire to a Whoville-like Christmas spirit each year.
I remember being on the St. Cloud State University campus and listening to "Alvin and the Chipmunks" Christmas songs played over a P.A. system and heard over essentially the whole campus. You might say we were "big kids." Maybe I should have paid more attention to my studies.
Today the SCSU administration is trying to pound down any images of frivolity associated with the campus. It's called "re-branding." I don't think the Chipmunks' singing would be consistent with that.
When I was in high school here in Morris, a group of us learned how to use the reel-to-reel tape recorder in the MHS band room in such a way that we could record our own "Chipmunks" music. We recorded "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." I believe someone played the duck call on that.
Our percussionist was someone who today teaches meteorology at St. Cloud State. A little frivolous behavior didn't hurt him any. Today he helps us deal with the weather. He might guide Santa Claus.
Back then he was busy helping do "covers" of such "classics" as "Yummy Yummy Yummy." I played the trumpet on that one.
We even got one of our "interpretations" played on the Morris radio station with only the grudging approval of the owner. The owner slammed the door to his office after being in on the consultation with us. Let history record that "Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain" was played on KMRS.
I remember going to the "Grinch" movie at the Morris Theater. This was the re-creation of the animated classic and had live actors. I went with the right attitude, wanting to be entertained and inspired in the Christmas season. So I basically enjoyed it against my better judgment.
Today the critics seem to agree with my better judgment. The classic should have just been left alone. Whoville really cannot be re-created outside the Dr. Seuss-inspired realm.
The greatest Christmas story is "A Christmas Carol." This book in its time actually helped to prop up Christmas itself.
I was delighted recently to discover the original classic book by Charles Dickens at our Morris Public Library. It was part of a display of Christmas books easy to observe as one entered and exited.
Kudos again to our wonderful chief librarian, Melissa Yauk. We can always count on our library to reach out in such dynamic ways.
The original book probably isn't for everyone. There is archaic language in many places. This is another country in another time with a lifestyle much more basic. Of course it can be viewed as fascinating in that sense.
If you know the basic story line - most of us do, I suspect - you can wade past some of the dated and confusing language and still enjoy immensely.
I read the chapter "Marley's Ghost" and promptly had a dream about ghosts that night. I'm writing the first draft for this post on the morning after that experience, aided by a mug of the usual steaming instant coffee to ensure I'm attuned to reality.
The ghost in my dream didn't take me back to my past. Perhaps the apparition could have taken me back to my print media days, back when that medium was hale and hearty and not scared and defensive every single day. We just heard of another big newspaper company - Lee Enterprises - going bankrupt. It owns the Winona paper among many others.
The Morris paper is now owned by a chain. For most of my career it was not. For most of my career it was an easy-going place where everyone didn't have to watch their back.
The newspaper business isn't alone in becoming more stressful and less secure for common working folk.
Family businesses that had a basic humane sense - never mind many of them were run by apparent skinflints - have given way to a cold new reality.
It's easy to be cold when you're distant. Today many businesses are simply local satellites for a big company that only considers the bottom line and next-quarter profit goals from a distant office.
The old skinflints look downright benevolent. Because they lived here, they connected with everyone. They were invested in the community. You might see their pictures along the rows of "past commanders" at the local Legion club. Every town had patriarchs like this. Yes, they were nearly all men.
There was a time when they were a focus for considerable grumbling from the common folk. That seems to be gone now. They're seen as pillars now, having been largely displaced in the local business ecosystem by those distant executives who ruminate Scrooge-like on profit margin. Those execs toss a few scraps to employees.
And when employees make an issue of something, like in the Target company regarding working on the night of Thanksgiving, the behemoth company through its surrogate the Star Tribune (recipient of ad money) scolds, saying such employees should "be thankful they have a job."
Who said anything about the employees not being thankful having a job? They just want to see some sensibility.
Many of those execs might benefit from visits by those three ghosts of "A Christmas Carol." They ought to spend some time in Whoville.
The ghost in my dream was hanging around out-of-doors. It was along Green River Road which used to be one of my jogging routes. Now I have an excuse not to resume jogging! A fair amount of my jogging was done at night.
Perhaps the idea of an outdoor ghost sprang not from "A Christmas Carol" but another book I checked out recently from our library. Reading "A Voyage Long and Strange," an excellent book by Tony Horwitz, I came across a Viking saga in which a woman, seeking to use an outhouse in the middle of the night, "found her path blocked by ghosts."
These people gave us the Runestone.
"A Christmas Carol" has been burned into our consciousness by many adaptations. I doubt that many of us have attempted to read the original classic. I can understand foregoing it based on the archaic language. But I still recommend it.
It starts out "Marley was dead, to begin with."
I was fascinated to see that only a few sentences in, Dickens goes off on a tangent. He had just used the expression "dead as a door-nail." Then he muses in a very long paragraph on that expression itself - a classic "aside" and we've only begun reading. This is the type of thing bloggers are accused of doing.
If it's Dickens it must be genius, in the same way "Strawberry Fields Forever" is considered a classic (by John Lennon) even though if I had written such a thing and submitted it as a demo, it would be rejected with choice cusswords.
What an interesting world in which we live.
In my newspaper days I looked forward to ambling over to the Met Lounge and having two or three Tom and Jerrys, free, on Christmas Eve Day. The place was filled with sweaty working and professional people.
In those days the Morris newspaper was still twice a week, making for a more intense and deadline-filled work week. The newspaper also provided a much better service to the community than today. Today it survives mostly as a legacy institution that older people cling to.
Lee Enterprises knows what's happening.
The newspaper here is owned by a chain out of Fargo. It wouldn't surprise me if, after the holidays, there is some sort of dramatic announcement that will have fewer people working at the Morris operation. Publishing once a week instead of twice is a dramatic reduction. If you're math-challenged you should know that's 50 percent.
The atmosphere must be dead at that office for much of the week. They didn't need to bother moving to Pacific Avenue (where we got a wonderful view of the vacated UBC building). Today a newspaper hardly needs an office building at all.
Of course, it's a short step from that to realizing we don't need a newspaper at all. Indeed we don't. The news we need in our daily lives is moving online with each passing day. And you don't need to pay for it.
Newspapers were probably just entering their malaise when I left. I left under duress, complaining of overwork - an assertion I'm sure management would pooh-pooh. It's easy for them to say.
We had that proverbial "new website" - I believe the more precise term is "iteration" - and it was being talked up as if it would be a big new division of the business. As such it would require a lot of additional work. We'd be selling ads for it. My, what a dynamic new dimension.
I don't doubt for a second that a website can be dynamic. They are nothing if not dynamic. What I questioned then, showing prescience, was whether a website for newspaper content would really enhance a newspaper's business performance or do just the opposite! The virtual world is on a whole different level from print.
For a newspaper to go "online only" is ridiculous because where would the money come from? I'm sure news can go online only, just not from newspapers.
Has the Morris paper made strides since my departure?
You can judge for yourself. The customer is always right. The customer is now being asked to pay $1.25 for the paper at a store. So, advertisers, that can only mean fewer eyeballs.
This is a business where, let's face it, people are increasingly scrambling for the lifeboats. Tech advances are causing "creative destruction" that is felt disproportionately by print media. The Borders chain is a victim.
The Draconian pressures I felt might be appropriate for some probationary employee recently out of college - a young person with resilience about such things. It's not appropriate for someone in his 50s.
I think most working people understand what I'm talking about without elaborating further.
My newspaper job was the only thing that defined me in the whole world. Other employees had their families. I had my newspaper job.
I realize the lot of working people is getting worse all the time. So I have lots of company. Hats off to Ed Schultz (MSNBC) for the trumpet he's sounding.
All I can do is carve out a very small niche in the journalism world with "I Love Morris." It's in my DNA.
And merry Christmas.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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