I’m Sad About Robin Williams

I was driving down a freeway, alone, when I heard of the death of Robin Williams.

A flash of foreboding hit me when I heard his name on the radio. Then I gasped when I heard “has died” and gasped again when I heard that it was an apparent suicide.

It was a somber drive home.

Robin Williams and Peter O’Toole were my favorite dramatic actors, but Peter’s death last year was neither shocking nor tragic; it was the end of a long, illustrious life. Robin’s life was far too short.

He may have been more known for his comedy, and he was indeed funny and often endearing, but Robin Williams was never my favorite comedian. He tugged at my heartstrings in Awakenings; in Dead Poet’s Society, he filled my heart, then ripped it open and filled it back again. He was fabulous in Good Will Hunting. These are three of my all-time favorite movies.

And as much as some of my friends make fun of Patch Adams, it was a lovely and inspirational performance in a movie that admittedly does some stupid things (like make up a fake love interest to replace a real platonic friendship) and leaves out a lot about the real Patch Adams.

Of Robin Williams’ dramatic and semi-dramatic movies (Good Morning, Vietnam is both comedy and drama), the only one I don’t like is Seize the Day. This is weird for me, because his “seize the day” message in Dead Poet’s Society was so strong, so poignant, that I had to pause my VCR and go find something productive to do in order to seize the day and enjoy it. I ended up cheerfully cleaning the bathroom. When I saw the movie Seize the Day (which preceded Dead Poets Society), I thought it would be about finding good things, but it was more about finding bad things. It was nothing but sad.

That’s how I feel about Robin Williams. Nothing but sad. I don’t feel happy to have enjoyed his humor; I don’t feel fulfilled to have enjoyed his beautiful dramatic portrayals; I don’t feel compelled to watch a bunch of his movies or revisit Mork and Mindy; and I don’t feel fortunate to have had him around for 63 years. I just feel sad.

I feel sad that this creative, gifted, sensitive, clever man is dead, that he was so troubled that he took his own life. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to truly enjoy a Robin Williams movie again, whether comedy or drama. I know eventually I’ll watch some of his movies I haven’t seen, and re-watch some of my favorites, but it will never be the same, but it will never be the same. I still shy away, for example, from watching “The Neverending Story: The Next Chapter,” a movie I like, because I get sad over Jonathan Brandis, the talented young actor who hanged himself. The sadness poisons my enjoyment of the movie.

Suicide makes me sad. I didn’t know Robin Williams, and I don’t know much about celebrities in general. I like actors and other celebrities for what they create, and what they put into it. I’m sad that Robin Williams was sad. I’m sad he had alcohol and drug problems. I’m sad so many celebrities have issues with alcohol and drugs. I’m sad they are marketable one day and gone the next. I’m sad they are known for abusing drugs and alcohol and being sad. I’m sad that we laugh at Lindsay Lohan; I saw her cry on David Letterman one night and that’s the Lindsay I see now: A troubled young woman whose troubles are news and whose sadness is lost in it all.

Although I don’t follow celebrity news, when an actor dies I often wish I’d known more about them. I wish I’d known Robin Williams was a voracious cyclist. That’s so cool. I also wish I’d known he loved video games and that he named his daughter Zelda after my favorite video game of all time, The Legend of Zelda. I also didn’t know much about his alcohol and drug problems. My love of Robin Williams was confined to the movies, and that does make me sad in retrospect. But even though I didn’t know these things, there’s something else that sits heavy in my chest: All those sad characters.

I see pictures in my head of his sad, dark eyes, his downcast gaze, his grim mouth. Character after character, movie after movie, sadness after sadness. “One Hour Photo.” “The Final Cut.” “Dead Poets Society.” Even “Good Will Hunting.” Even “Patch Adams.” And it’s not confined to the comedies. My son put on “Hook” the other day, in which Peter begins the movie as a miserable man. “Mrs. Doubtfire” may be hilarious, but the backstory of a failed marriage is heartbreaking. The comedy of “Good Morning, Vietnam” is haunted by the drama of war and death.

My heart aches for a stranger, and for those he left behind, the family and friends who loved him and were crushed by this terrible loss.

I didn’t read much about him in the first few days after his death. I knew what I needed to know, for the time being. Later, I started reading articles, and comments by other people who also didn’t know him. I didn’t leave any comments. I didn’t know what to say.

Some people said Robin Williams was selfish for taking his own life. Others said that’s an unfair label and we can’t know what drives someone to do this. Most of the arguments were heated; some were civil. And I can see both sides, to an extent. Of course we don’t know what drove him that night, to so doggedly pursue death; we can’t know what the tipping point was or what he was thinking and feeling (apparently there was no note, which dismays me). We don’t know if he had control or lost control.

But suicide *is* selfish. It’s self-centered. It’s self-absorbed. It’s about self. I don’t mean that as negatively as it sounds; even when someone in terrible pain, with a terminal illness, commits suicide with the support or assistance of loved ones, it’s a selfish act, and sometimes it’s important to be selfish.

But suicide is an act that can bring real harm to many people who are left behind. I’m sympathetic to people who suffer emotionally, and I’m sympathetic to people whose suffering leads them to take their own lives. But I’m also sympathetic to those who are left behind. I just don’t know if the suffering of one person outweighs the suffering of all those who loved that person.

I was seriously depressed in January 1998. There was no particular reason, except perhaps that it was January. I’d say I hate January with a passion, but I have little passion in January. It’s a cold, bitter, deadly month, and it’s just the start of the bitterness. People with seasonal depression in Minnesota have a long wait for things to get better.

I was working as sports editor for the Crookston Daily Times, the smallest daily newspaper in Minnesota – so small, in fact, that I was the entire sports department in a three-person newsroom and doubled as system administrator.

That month I didn’t go to any games. I still covered them; I called coaches, got stats and quotes, wrote the stories, designed the pages, and went home and shut the door of my apartment a block from work. I got by with file photos (or no photos). I was concerned, but I had no energy or drive to change. One day as February hit, and there was a game in town, it occurred to me that I was going to go to it. Just like that, it was over, albeit a little tentatively. And then I was fine, more or less.

The next fall, I got nervous as I felt the winter gloom approach. I didn’t want a repeat of the previous year, so I went to my doctor and got antidepressants. January went by without any more fuss than usual, and I didn’t take the drugs very long.

Since then, I manage any depression I have. This isn’t to say that I think everyone should be able to do this. This is fueled by things that are important to me, in particular the privacy to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself; the freedom to go about life without drawing more attention to myself than I wish; and my desire for simplicity. I’m also very literal; I never suffer from unrealistically negative self-judgment, because it doesn’t make sense. And I’m pragmatic. It makes sense to me to categorize and manage depression to the point that it’s rarely even a thing. It’s something I do pretty well, and it leaves me more open to good things than if I didn’t.

People deal with depression in various ways: Drugs and therapy and meditation and physical activity and massage are great, but I’m also a big fan of “faking it”: Watching comedy; doing something fun; and smiling when you don’t feel like it.

Smiling releases endorphins in your brain that make you feel happier, especially if you smile with your eyes. It’s science. I heard this on the radio a couple of years ago and I tried it out in the car; I could physically feel the difference when I smiled with my eyes. It’s a trippy physical-emotional feeling, and it feels good. It’s certainly better than feeling depressed, even if it doesn’t take away whatever made you feel lousy. It might, though, put you in a frame of mind you couldn’t reach on your own.

Losing a loved one is painful, but in the case of suicide, it’s sort of like losing a loved one and his murderer in the same person. I don’t know how someone can get through that without going through some pretty deep pain and anger relative to the act of suicide. I’ve always held the view that, outside of terminal illness/physical suffering, I would never put my friends and family through that, no matter how much emotional pain I felt. I just don’t feel that I could give myself more importance than the entirety of a bunch of other people I care about and who care about me. No one can predict the future, and I don’t mean to suggest that my convictions make me better than anyone else, but that view is intensely important to me.

I do sympathize with those who kill themselves; I can only imagine the pain they go through to get to the point where ending their lives trumps everything else. But what purpose is served in criticizing this selfish act of someone in pain, when we didn’t even know him? Who are we to mock and sneer at him? The selfishness makes me sad, not angry or bitter.

It makes me sad for Robin, for what might have been if he had instead reached out at that moment, looked outside of himself for help, and it makes me sad for the anguish of his family and friends. They are all victims of suicide.

I am just a fan; an admirer; someone who wished this layered, complex, funny, deep and lovely man had found a way to stay in this world and overcome what made him leave.

photo credit: !efatima via photopin cc

Relay for Life Honorary Chair Jim Ferden focuses on hope

When cancer survivor Jim Ferden gets the chance to talk to a person who has been diagnosed with cancer, his message is one of hope.

“It’s not a death sentence by any means,” he said, adding that a positive attitude is important. “Every day, they’re making progress.”

Ferden, 52, will serve as honorary chair for the East Polk County Relay for Life, which will begin at 6 p.m. Friday, June 27, at the Fosston football field. He will speak during the opening ceremonies and walk in the Survivors Lap that follows. The gates open for the relay at 5 p.m.

His 17-year-old son Micah has been a member of the Grace Relay team in Erskine for the past couple of years, and Ferden himself attended the Relay for Life for the first time last year.

“It’s a great fundraising opportunity,” he said. “Someday, hopefully we won’t need it.”

Ferden said it’s important to have regular medical exams, including the colonoscopies, mammograms and prostate exams that are recommended as people age, and to take potential symptoms seriously, such as the unexplained bruises that were among symptoms he dismissed.

“That taught me a good lesson, to pay attention,” he said. “They can do so much with early detection.”

Ferden has twice been diagnosed with hairy-cell leukemia, first in 1997 and again in 2004. It’s an uncommon type of leukemia, with fewer than 2,000 cases diagnosed each year in North America and Europe. The name comes from the “hairy” appearance of the cancerous cells under a microscope.

His first diagnosis was sparked not by cancer symptoms but by a herniated disk in his back that became unbearable. At the hospital in Fosston, tests showed something else was wrong, and he was sent to Fargo.

“The pain in my back saved my life,” he said.

Ferden was treated at Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, where he received chemotherapy for a month. His wife, Carla, stayed home at the time with their two children, Emily, then 2, and Micah, then 6 months, so he was able to recover at home. They lived in Glyndon, Minn., then, but have since 2006 lived in rural McIntosh on the farm his grandparents homesteaded in 1911.

“I was lucky,” he said of his diagnosis and treatment. “I only had to do chemo. A lot of folks have to do both chemo and radiation.”

Jim and Carla celebrated 23 years of marriage June 8, but in 1997, they weren’t sure if they were going to share another anniversary together. It was a year of challenges for other reasons, too. While home from the hospital in March, Ferden spoke to his godfather and cousin, Kermit Ferden, on the telephone one night, and learned the next day that Kermit had died for a heart attack. Carla’s aunt, Milly Hamre, died in May, and her father, Sam Hamre, was diagnosed with cancer in November.

“1997 was a pretty rough year,” Ferden said.

Ferden still gets six-month checkups with Dr. John Leitch, who has been his doctor at Roger Maris Cancer Center since the beginning. Leitch in 2004 diagnosed the return of the cancer.

“The second time around was not anywhere near as big of a deal,” Ferden said. “We caught it early, and the technology had changed. I was only out of work for three weeks. Some people thought I was just on vacation.”

Ferden, who has been a bank manager with the FDIC for 29 years, received chemo at home through a picc line, with the medication housed in a fanny pack. He spent no time in the hospital except a couple of days because of an allergic reaction to the medication.

In last year’s Relay for Life, Ferden walked in his first Survivor’s Lap, where he discovered that he and Jerry Slough shared something besides being school board chairmen (Ferden chairs the Win-E-Mac School Board, while Slough was the Fosston School Board chairman).

“In all our conversations, it never came up that he was a cancer survivor,” Ferden said. “We walked together, told each other our stories.”

Slough’s cancer had been caught early, and his treatment seemed to have worked well, said Ferden, who was shocked when he found out his friend and colleague died in December.

“His cancer came back with a vengeance. … That’s probably one of the things I for sure am going to think about while I walk, to remember him.”

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Neighbors’ fun helps fight cancer through Relay for Life

A group of Union Lake neighbors has put fun and fundraising together in the fight against cancer.

The neighbors gather every spring for a party at the home of Gary and Maxine Walter, where they take part in an auction whose proceeds go to the East Polk County Relay for Life, as a donation to the Grace Lutheran team from Erskine. The Relay for Life will begin at 6 p.m. Friday, June 27, at the Fosston football field.

Gary Walter holds up a University of North Dakota jersey as auctioneer Will Dekkers gets the bidding going.

Joann Kuntz ended up with a pair of fancy bloomers at one of the auctions.

Auction items at the party are brought by the residents.

“Neighbors get together, enjoy each other’s company, and do something that’s worthwhile,” Gary said. “It’s so enjoyable. We look forward to it every year. … “It enhances our lives.”

“Everybody comes with the idea that, ‘I’m going to spend $100,” Maxine said. “It’s a great cause, it’s easy and it’s fun.”

The spring auction has benefited Relay for Life since 2008. The first two years, the proceeds went to the Red Lake County Relay, but since most of the neighbors are from Polk County, they switched to the Polk Relay in 2010 and started donating to the Erskine team, the Grace Lutheran team.

“The first time they gave it to us, it was a complete surprise,” said Nancy Jenson, who had been the team captain for about 15 years until Andrew Hanson took over this year.

“Nancy cried the first time we gave her money,” Gary said.

“They handed us this envelope in church with all this money in it,” Jenson said. “At the time, I thought it was a one-time deal, but they kept doing it.”

The amounts have risen each year: $1,000 in 2011, $2,005 in 2012, and $2,150 in 2013.

The Union Lake group show that anyone can find a way to contribute,” Jenson said. “They’re just a group of ordinary people. In one fun evening, they manage to do something pretty powerful and raise this much money for a wonderful cause. … You don’t have to join a Relay for Life team, you don’t have to put a lot of effort into it; you can just do your own thing, whatever that might be, and make a difference in the lives of people who are fighting cancer.”

“I’m very glad that they do what they do and they’re willing to donate for Relay for Life,” Hanson said. “It’s awesome.”

Participants start to show up for the spring party at about 5 p.m. and enjoy a potluck supper at 6. They then move to the garage for the auction, which starts promptly at 7 p.m. and ends at about 9:30.

“What really goes are baskets,” Maxine said, noting that they can go for twice their monetary value. Paulette Moe makes beautiful baskets, she said. Homemade items are also big, such as Helen Birch’s $65 coconut pie.

“We bring anything we want,” Maxine said, even gag gifts. Some items are wrapped as mystery gifts, and could be expensive or worthless, or somewhere in between.

“It could be a dead mouse,” yet bring in $40 or $50, Gary said.

“I brought a book by (conservative television host and author) Glenn Beck and sold it to (former Democratic Sen.) Roger Moe for $20,” Gary said.

“Everyone knows it’s going for a good cause,” Gary said.

In addition to donating popular woodworking pieces to the auction, Mark Berberich also acts as sheriff, fining people at will. Last year, he issued fines for being too sexy, parking too close to the dog kennel, improperly draping an electrical cord, and grabbing a beer from the refrigerator without asking. He even handcuffed a woman who kept hugging people.

“We enjoy each other and have a lot of fun,” Maxine said. “We bring something we think someone will want to bid up. Every year, more gets added.”

“We get together to eat and have a good time,” Gary said. “Everyone looks forward to it every year.”

Kenny Beauchane sports a sombrero won in an auction.


Cancer affects all

Cancer affects virtually everyone, directly or indirectly. Of this group of neighbors, 10 people are cancer survivors: Pat Beauchane, Mark Berberich, Hans Halvorson, Rita Kenna, Paulette Moe, Nona Noyes, Judy Roelofs, Lorraine Solheim, Rita Trandem and Maxine Walter.

“Cancer affects everybody, every family,” said Maxine, who got an early warning of her thyroid cancer through a screening and was successfully treated. “I was very lucky.”

The members of the group also know people who have lost the fight.

“Linda Briss (who died Oct. 30, 2012, at the age of 67) fought cancer for nine and a half years,” Gary said. “We took turns taking her to Grand Forks for dialysis. She had a great sense of humor.”

The Walters encourage people who want to help raise funds for Relay for Life to “start with an idea,” Maxine said. “It doesn’t have to be what we do. … We are so thankful for our good health. It feels like a blessing to be able to raise some money to help the organization. So many people are afflicted with this disease. There are many, many things you can do.”

“Once you get something started … it takes on a life of its own,” Gary said.

Jenson has a favorite quote, by anthropologist Margaret Mead, that she said can be applied to those who fight against tough foes like cancer: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

“When you think about finding a cure for cancer, it’s overwhelming, but there have been many advancements made … in part supported by things like the Relay for Life,” Jenson said.

For more information on Relay for Life or to volunteer or donate, contact Hanson at 218-687-2063 or aehanson@gvtel.com.

Gary Walter peers into a mystery bag as he stands next to auctioneer Will Deckers.

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Remembering Brad Swenson, One Year Later

One year ago today, I walked into Brad Swenson’s apartment and found him dead, still in bed, at the age of 57.

There was no indication he knew what was happening; he was lying on his back, his sleep apnea mask still on his face. If he had been in distress, he would have pushed that mask away, because he hated the darn thing. I’m glad he was unaware, because he would have thought dying really sucked after all the other crap he’d gone through.

I cleaned his apartment out after he died, and I found half a dozen advanced care directives, none of them filled out. He was one of the few people I know who I think would have wanted pretty much any means necessarily to be taken to prolong his life, as I think he would have wanted to live no matter what. Not because he was afraid of dying, but because he enjoyed living, and while he didn’t have a healthy body, he had his mind, and he used it.

Brad, who was most recently political editor and opinion page editor for the Bemidji Pioneer, worked there for most of his adult life. We are not related, by the way; one of my first assignments for the Pioneer was to cover a political forum for the 2004 election. Brad covered one forum, and I covered the other. Someone later cooed, “Isn’t it nice that Brad and his wife are working together?” We got a kick out of that.

Brad found out he had diabetes at the age of 30. More than a decade later, his failing kidneys forced him to undergo three days a week of dialysis, which he worked in around his schedule. He was an old-school journalist who worked long hours, insisted that things be done right, and always appreciated a free meal. He lived for his work. Journalism, and writing in general, formed much of his identity.

The rest, a lot of people know, but a lot of others don’t.

Here are some things that Brad Swenson enjoyed, in no particular order except for how they come into my head. It is by no means expected to be a complete list. I’m sure I forgot lots of things, and there are plenty I don’t know. But I know some, so here goes:

Star Trek Enterprises in a row

Star Trek. He was a huge Star Trek fan. His kitchen cupboards were topped by starships, he owned hundreds of Star Trek books, audio books and movies, and every year he bought the Hallmark Star Trek ornament. I found in his belongings a Star Trek script he wrote with a friend, who I’ve been working on locating to see if he wants it. I haven’t read it yet, come to think of it.

Itasca State Park. Brad loved going to Lake Bemidji State Park, but he had a special place in his heart for Itasca. He loved to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi, have a nice meal there, and take in the beauty of his surroundings. He collected plates and cups from the park, usually buying one item each year. He was super-happy last year to get the chance to go to the park, when a good Samaritan gave him and another guy in a wheelchair an outing to Itasca. I’m glad he got that trip.

Norwegian stuff. Brad enjoyed his Norwegian heritage. He got involved in the Sons of Norway a few years before he died, and somehow found himself doing the organization’s newsletter. He took the job seriously and enjoyed it very much, although issues with his arm and hand meant he was a true member of the hunt-and-peck club, so he eventually started using voice-to-text software.

As a good Norwegian, he loved going to the Syttende Mai celebration each year. Last year, the celebration fell at a time when he was just starting to be able to put more weight on his broken leg, so I was able to take him in my car and push him in a regular wheelchair (he used a motorized one most of the time, but it was not portable). He had a great time that night, listening to famed Norwegian pianist-accordian player Knut Erik Jensen, and having a delicious meal. He bought a CD from Jensen on the way out, as well as Arland Fiske’s latest book.

Books. Brad loved to read, and he loved to own books. He had dozens of books he never got the chance to read. Not surprisingly, many were about politics, government and history, as well as science fiction. He had books by local authors such as Fiske, Kent Nerburn and Annie Henry. I kept his autographed copy of Henry’s book; I agreed with him that she is one impressive woman with great stories and great passion.

I also have “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist” by Laurie Hertzel, who was a reporter in his native Duluth, at the Duluth News Tribune. I met her last year during the Bemidji Library Book Festival, and I wish I’d grabbed that book so I could have had it autographed for him.

I wish a lot things about Brad, in terms of the experiences he missed out on. If I had known he had so little time left, I would have tried to make sure he got to do some of the things he really wanted to. But I guess I’d always thought in the back of my mind that if Brad died, he would go slowly, with some warning. He made it through his first ordeal of 2011, when he was taken to the hospital with astonishingly high blood sugar and a blood infection and whatever else, and barely pulled through. Then we moved him from his trailer to Northland Apartments, a senior citizens’ apartment building, where he was recovering with a walker. Ten days into that, he fell and broke his leg — on my birthday, June 6, the day before he was to return to work. Back to the hospital, then to rehab, then to the nursing home. Eventually, he made enough of a stink that they let him go home with his electric wheelchair, which he rode all over the place. Pioneer photographer Monte Draper captured a photo of Brad in that chair, bundled up against the cold and snow, looking determined to make it home.

He went to many places in Bemidji in that chair, and when he couldn’t, he took the bus. I occasionally walked with him to nearby Walmart and hung his grocery bags on the back handles of his chair. One trip I took photos of him with enough bags to fill the trunk of a car.

But back to the list …

Food. There was no questioning Brad’s love of food. He loved a good steak, with a good cocktail. That’s what he had the night before he died, which makes me happy. He also loved klub (potato dumplings), especially if it had a piece of ham tucked into the center, and lefse.

Enjoying a hot dog at a BSU hockey game. Note the BSU jersey and UMD hat. That was a tradition for Brad.

His weakness was sweets: mini doughnuts from the carnival, cookies from Raphael’s, Rice Krispie bars, candy, you name it. He could never tame his sweet tooth, which hurt him both in terms of weight and diabetes. He was sheepish and defiant about it at the same time.

Rotary. Brad was a proud member of the Sunrise Rotary Club and was very active in Rotary, both locally and in his travels to regional meetings. He loved every minute of his Rotary involvement and was very supportive of his club. He also enjoyed being a member of the Ruffed Grouse Society and displayed several beautiful grouse prints he either bought or won through the organization.

Awards. Brad was an award-winning journalist, and he enjoyed it. It’s always fulfilling and pleasant to be honored for your work, and he was honored often. His proudest moment was winning the Premack Graven Award, which gives special recognition to a journalist for contribution to excellence in the journalism profession. It was the most prestigious of the three Premack awards he received from the University of Minnesota Journalism Center. He also received the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s Herman Roe Editorial Writing Award and was named Ag Communicator of the Year by the Minnesota Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau award was presented in New Orleans in a trip that brought him great joy, along with a love for Community Coffee.

Minnesota Newspaper Association awards

Politicians. Brad enjoyed dealing with politicians his entire adult life. People often encouraged him to write a book about his experiences, but he said he wouldn’t remember enough of the details. We said it would be enough to remember the people themselves — what he got from his interactions with Sen. Paul Wellstone, for example. He talked often about interviews he had and the stories (yes, often plural), columns and blog posts he could get out of them. He was a political expert, and former Sen. Frank Moe once told me that he would often turn to Brad for information, because he figured if anyone would remember, it would be him. Brad enjoyed his relationships with local politicians, and as a political reporter he was one of a dying breed in small-town newspapers.

TV. After Brad’s first broken leg, he eventually retired from the Pioneer. He broke the leg again during physical therapy, which was a frustrating setback for him as he was getting closer and closer to walking again. And there would be one more break, and one more stint in the hospital and nursing home, caused by an accident with his electric wheelchair when he fell asleep at the wheel.

Why, you might ask? I blame TV, somewhat facetiously. After his retirement, he had the chance to see all the TV shows he missed when he was working nights. He had favorites like the Mentalist, NCIS, The Big Bang Theory, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Criminal Minds, etc., and would watch reruns late at night as well as his prime-time shows. He would fall asleep watching these shows, and would forget to put his sleep apnea mask on.

I can understand why you might not want to put the mask on when you weren’t ready to go to sleep, but it became a vicious circle, because he was so tired from the lack of good sleep, that he’d fall asleep relatively quickly. I had been noticing that he’d doze off during conversations at night during visits, which reminded me of the times before his sleep study when his head would bow at work and snoring would commence. Like others who have used a mask for sleep apnea, the difference was amazing once he started getting a good night’s sleep.

People. Brad was so interested in people. When I spoke at his funeral, I told the story of how I dragged my mom along to a visit with him one day at Nielson Place. She protested, saying she didn’t know him, but I said we’d only stay a few minutes and she could take a look at the nursing home, which is beautiful.

We ended up staying an hour and a half and had a great visit. “Brad is so *interesting*,” she said after that visit. And he was. He was really interesting, and could talk for hours. Part of that is because he was also really interested in the other people. He wanted to know what made people tick, how they got to their conclusions, what their experiences were. He didn’t necessarily gush over people, but he admired them just the same. I never heard him wish anything bad on anyone, and he said a lot of good things about a lot of people.

At his mother’s funeral several years ago, he thanked his Pioneer family. At his own funeral, his aunt Florence reiterated that we were family to him. And we were. He was an only child without relatives that were nearby, and he took a lot of joy in the work relationships he had.

In Brad’s last year, I spent a lot of time with him, visiting, watching TV, helping him clean his apartment, setting up his medications. I knew he enjoyed company, so sometimes I would take my laptop there and do some freelance writing while he watched TV. I figured that’s what I’d be doing at home anyway, so I may as well do it over there.

The day he died, my granddaughter and I had spent the afternoon swimming and then headed over to Brad’s for a visit in the early evening. Jada liked to visit Brad; she’d drag us into the craft room at the apartment building or get him to give her a treat from his fridge. Once, we played The Settlers of Catan with him.

He hadn’t answered his phone, so I was a little concerned, but he didn’t always carry it when he went around the building. And on Sundays, he often went for afternoon coffee downstairs. The manager let me in when he didn’t respond to being buzzed at the door.

I’ve never found anyone dead before. it wasn’t really traumatic at the time; I didn’t even know he was dead at first. I just knew I couldn’t wake him. I kept thinking, what if I’d gotten there sooner? But the  paramedics later said he’d been gone for quite a while. One of the hardest things was calling people and telling them the bad news and feeling their pain and disbelief.

I should have written a blog post after that, but I didn’t. I was kind of numb over the whole thing and just set to cleaning up and packing stuff. I meant to write; I had all sorts of ideas in my head, but they just blurred in the aftermath. In fact, this is the first blog post I’ve written since a few weeks before Brad’s death. Until now, the top image on my blog has been my granddaughter delighting in an attraction at the Beltrami County Fair in 2012. It’s been a tough year. First Brad, then my ex had a stroke, then I had shingles, then my dad had a fall and landed in the hospital and nursing home, and then I ended up moving in with my parents to help them. And too many funerals for too many people I cared about. Even this month, I’ve gone to two funerals.

Anyway, the cleaning and packing was therapeutic for me; I like to help, and it was meaningful. I respect the sentimental value of things, both in what they mean to others and what they meant to the person. I kept some little things to remember him by, like a nesting doll and his Roger Moe bobblehead, and then there’s the tiny plastic Garfield and Ode (Brad was a Garfield fan) who still ride in a little cubbyhole in my car, just beneath and to the left of my steering wheel. I’m reminded of Brad when I see them. That’s what they’re there for.

The night before he died, Brad went out with our friend Betty and her husband and daughter to the Peppercorn, where Brad had steak and Long Island tea. He had a great time, and before he went to bed he talked to one of the apartment building managers, who said he was in good spirits. I’m glad he enjoyed his last night, and that he spent it with people he really cared about.

But it remains weird and sad that he’s gone. I was so used to going over there for coffee anytime I felt like it. He was always glad for the company, and the talks were always good. We laughed a lot, shared some grumbles, and I ate way too many Rice Krispie bars and drank way too much coffee.

Just before Christmas, my son, Nick, and Jada and I had Christmas dinner and opened gifts with Brad. I sneaked into his storage locker down the hall and dug out his tiny Christmas tree and decorations and set up the tree. He was so surprised! He said he hadn’t set it up for 20 years. We had a really nice time.

Shortly before he died, Brad did an interview for a story he never got the chance to write. It was going to be an in-depth freelance article for a client other than the Pioneer. He was excited to expand his freelance writing career; he was looking forward to continuing the work he loved. He knew he still had something to offer.

Someone told me after he died that she didn’t think he had a good life; she didn’t think he was happy.

She was wrong. Brad had a great life. It could have been so much better, and a lot of people would have thought that kind of life would suck, but every day, Brad maneuvered himself into his clothes and slid himself out of bed and into that wheelchair because he had a life that meant something to him and he wanted to make something out of it.

Can’t we all relate to that?

I miss you, friend.

Carnivals: Always more fun with kids

This looks like happiness to me. I think that face is worth the seven bucks for the kid bungee ride at the Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival.

That’s my 10-year-old granddaughter, who just missed Monday’s storm when she went home with her mom (my daughter had a windshield wiper ripped off by the wind on the trip home). Jada had an armband for the rides Sunday, and on Monday we did the bungee rides and a few carnival games.

Whee! I bet that is a blast.

This is always one of her favorite rides:

And who doesn’t like bumper cars?

I haven’t done this since I was a kid myself. If carnivals had more rides like bumper cars and Ferris wheels (why don’t I see many Ferris wheels anymore at small carnivals?), I might buy an armband myself.

I’m not much for rides, though. My best friend in high school used to drag me on the Tilt-A-Whirl over and over, which just made me dizzy, and I hate scary rides. The Scrambler is about as scary as I go, and that’s pretty tame even by Jada’s standards.

One ride that makes the armband easily pay for itself is the giant slide, which kids go down over and over again. They must get a lot of exercise climbing all those steps!

I couldn’t get a very good picture of her in that lane, and she said it was the fastest one. No clue if that was accurate or not; I never saw her in any other lane!

The two little girls below were really cute in their patriotic red, white and blue outfits. I wondered if they had been in the Grand Parade earlier Sunday.

We arrived with minutes to spare for the start of the parade, and we ended up walking way past the Courthouse because Jada wanted to get candy quickly and then move on to the rides. :)

Sunday was miserably hot. One of us carried a big drink of water and the other carried a 2-liter bottle of water that we used to cool off with. At one point, Jada just dumped some over her head. There was a short break in the heat as the sun went behind a little cloud. You can see just how short of a break that was, as that was the only cloud of any size in sight.

That about sums up “I’m hot!”

Despite Monday’s storm, the carnival got back on track for Tuesday and Wednesday, ending with the traditional Fourth of July fireworks display.

I don’t know what happened — maybe they accidentally got the fireworks out of order — but the finale ended up not at the end. After the familiar burst of fireworks, another four or so bursts came along and then the display just ended. It was a little confusing, as I was wondering if the finale was a mini-finale and there was going to be a REALLY big one at the end. :)


This burst was one of the “bonus” ones that came at the end.

As usual, the night drew lots of people of all ages, and kids were swinging the light-up swords their parents bought them at the waterfront.

Jack Hittinger, the Pioneers’ new sports reporter, stopped over to watch the fireworks. We were laughing over the little girl behind us who kept saying “That one almost came over here!”

I love fireworks. This is my second display of the year. The first was at the Erskine Water Carnival, which has a super-awesome fireworks display for a town of fewer than 500 people.

I suppose that for many people, the Fourth was not so much a holiday but a day off from paid work to do cleanup work. But I hope those of you who were busy all day still found a little time to see a firework or two.

— Laurie

Thoughts from Bemidji’s harrowing storm

This tree at Diamond Point Park presents a triangle.

I took a drive through parts of Bemidji today, because I hadn’t had a chance to see much of the effects of Monday night’s storm, which we at the Pioneer experienced as more of giant sheets of water rushing toward the window we were peering through, rather than trees toppling. That night, we were struggling to put a paper together, which we ended up doing in the publisher’s kitchen because we had no power at the Pioneer. I was glad to be a part of that; those seat-of-the-pants adventures that combine camaraderie and accomplishment are rare and memorable.

Then the next day, I did all my interviews downtown, learning more about what happened between the carnival and downtown, and then headed to work to finish out a 14-hour workday, so I didn’t see firsthand the extent of the damages that day either.

So today, I did a little stop-and-go driving, checking out Library Park, Diamond Point Park and Nymore.

Tree snapped off in Library park.

Yes, Diamond Point Park is closed, but that isn’t keeping people out. I saw dozens of people taking photos in the half-hour or so that I was there, some standing on the sidewalk, others walking around in the park, sidestepping the occasional branch. They were quiet, just taking in the devastation.

Seeing tree after tree just tipped over has a sort of science fiction feel.

The bench looks fine, considering the devastation next to it.

I had a nice visit with Chris Christensen and his friend Alisha Barnett. Chris, who grew up here, lives in Rochester, Minn., but also has a place between Bagley and Bemidji. Alisha is from Iowa. They just came into town today, not realizing what they would find, and headed for Diamond Point Park. That was an effective introduction to the storm’s power. Alisha said the most powerful message for her was how the trees were ripped from the ground.

Chris was shooting photos and video and planned to look around for more to see. He has started his own business, Chris Christensen Video Production (www.chrismakesmovies.com). I checked out some of his videos; they are pretty sweet.

This house and yard in Nymore looks like it was really hit hard.

The trip through Nymore was about what I expected, from what I had seen from the photos Monte had shot for the Pioneer, but it’s always different to see it firsthand. Some of the fallen trees are still lying on houses and garages; others have been cut up and stacked on the curb to be hauled away next week.

It made me think not just of damage, but of danger. These trees could have caused injuries, even death. Noemi Aylesworth told me yesterday that branches were stabbed into the ground like arrows, and were so firmly planted they were difficult to pull out.

I talked to Noemi, owner of the Cabin Coffehouse and Cafe, yesterday for my downtown story, Noemi lives in Nymore, as does her son, her daughter and her in-laws. All lost trees Monday night. Noemi said her son had a tree in his house, her daughter had a power line on her garage, and her in-laws had a tree on their garage. That is one busy family now.

Here’s a house in Nymore where trees were spared. The trees obviously had some importance, with one holding a swing and two others a hammock.

Another thing that comes to mind when I see all the trees down is the loss of favorite trees, whether in one’s yard or in a favorite place to go. Roy C. Booth is mourning the loss of his favorite tree in Library Park, a tree he would lean against to read.

Brenda Mayer, who was at the carnival with family when the storm hit, lost 30 trees at her home, including one that crashed into her living room. After they waited out the storm at Toasty Beavers, they drove home. Her dad, who lives next door, had told her, “It’s not good,” but didn’t convey the extent of the damage.

Brenda’s sister, Karen Fuller, showed up later.

“When I got there, she cried,” Karen said. She added that it felt like Brenda done what needed to be done (including calling her insurance agent and leaving a message at 8:15 a.m.) and she could finally relax and let it all out.

At Keg ‘N’ Cork, I chatted with a couple from Fargo, Chris and Ray Rohde, who were staying in a townhouse at a resort on Cass Lake. Unfortunately, they were still without power there, so they came to Bemidji to see Bemidji Woolen Mills.

“It was incredible,” Chris said of the storm. “Nothing I’d ever want to go through again.” At the resort, she said, “everyone pulled together.”

At Lake Bemidji State Park, it was a different story. “We were very, very lucky and had virtually no damage,” Sue Olin, the assistant park manager, told me Tuesday at noon. “We’ve been getting a lot of calls this morning,” she added. “We’re looking forward to a busy holiday.”

DNR foresters and firefighters were busy assessing damages on state forest roads Tuesday, said Greg Vollhaber, assistant area forester. At noon Tuesday, he said 10 foresters and three seasonal firefighters were at work, opening roads as best they could. A helicopter was also assessing damage, he said.

RandiSu Tanem, chairwoman of the water carnival, said a tree had fallen on a trailer owned by the Jaycees. They’ll have to fix it, she said, but right now they can’t afford it.

This afternoon, I stopped by the Pioneer to retrieve the cell phone I’d forgotten there last night when I charged it. While I was visiting with Kayla and Jack, we heard thunder and walked outside to see ominous clouds, but none of the green haze that was around before Monday’s storm. Bemidji, fortunately, was on the edge of it, but I read later on the Pioneer website that today’s storm knocked out power to hundreds of people in the Red Lake, Kelliher, Turtle Lake and Waskish areas.On this final day of the water carnival, the fireworks will cap off the festivities in Bemidji. I have to break with my tradition of going to opening night at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse (which I love, partly because of the after-party where I can visit with actors and other theater lovers), because I also love fireworks.

Best wishes to all those cleaning up from the storm. Be well.

— Laurie

Encourage, inspire yourself

I left the house and wanted to remember some files off my 120 GB hard drive and onto my 1 TB external drive, so I left myself a note in Notepad on my computer screen:


Then, for fun, I followed with:


And then I kept going, but became serious.

By the time I finished, I had a whole list of inspirational phrases.

And by golly, it felt good. (I just wrote “by golly” — I feel like Jack Handy.)

I read through that list a couple of times, and it made me smile a little, in the way one smiles when a friend or colleague or relative says encouraging, helpful, kind words that brighten your day.

It occurred to me that we don’t often look to ourselves for inspiration. Sure, we may do the Loreal thing of saying “I’m worth  it,” but to me that always sounds a bit hollow, like you’re announcing it outside yourself.

If you’re saying it to yourself, I guess it should say “You are” rather than “I am.”

Sure, it gets a little weird, but you know what I’m saying, don’t you?

If you’re talking to yourself, you’re already distancing from yourself a bit to make the comments, so “you” is, well, you, but, like, you2. No, not the band. That’s U2.

Look, it’s basically just being as nice to yourself as you are to the people in life to whom you are closest, the people to whom you would say glowing, encouraging things.  Except with yourself you can be more bold and direct, even over the top, because you won’t look at yourself like you’re weird. Hopefully.

We all need reassurance from time to time — reminders that we are worthy, memorable, even special human beings who bring something good to this world.  We get these from people who respect and care for us, those who make us feel warm and fuzzy and stuff. Then there are books with inspirational phrases, but I never really feel those mean much of anything. They’re not really directed toward anyone — I mean, Robert Mugave could be reading!

But if you’re saying them to yourself — heck, even if you read them to yourself out of the book, or write them down for yourself — there’s more to it. You’re actually jumping on your own bandwagon, but instead of shouting out self-praise from the parade, you’re speaking internally. I like it. It feels good. Even if it’s a little over the top.

My list included some glowing phrases, a friendly push to do more personal writing and to organize my apartment so I can try to become an eBay seller, and a reminder that I should write more blog posts …


Or so I said.

I ended with “GO FORTH AND … DO STUFF.”

So try that out, won’t you? Tell yourself, as though you were another person, what a great person you are and how much you deserve. Then gently encourage yourself to take the steps to accomplish some of what you dream of.  Little dreams, big dreams, whatever.

If nothing else, maybe it will make you feel warm and fuzzy and stuff.








‘The Full Monty’ closes Paul Bunyan Playhouse season tonight

The cast of "The Full Monty" at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse: From left, Paul R. Coate, Paul Reyburn, Dan Lundin, Ryan Parker Knox, Shaun Hamilton and Zach Curtis. (Photo: Monte Draper/Bemidji Pioneer)

There’s only one night left of delightful romp at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji. Tonight at 8, these guys will dance and drop their drawers for one last time in “The Full Monty,” which will also be the end of the Playhouse season and the final performance for Artistic Director Zach Curtis.

This is a beautiful ensemble production, and it was cool to see the Playhouse spice it up. Mary Knox Johnson’s pre-play chat with the audience was even part of the fun!

I noticed lots of women in the audience, some even more “seasoned” than I am. Many of these women, I imagine, would choose not to go to a stripper bar to watch the bump and grind, but this is different. It’s more playful than raunchy, and as far as I know, we’re seeing actors who don’t normally take all (or most) of their clothes off on stage.

I just noticed that tickets are sold out for the finale, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, keep your eyes open. You won’t want to miss the fun at the end. More clever than I had even expected.

On the way out Thursday night, I heard one woman tell a friend that maybe they should come back Friday to get a better look. I wonder if they did! :)

I love that this played in Bemidji to such happy, healthy crowds.

Now can we do “Rent”? That would be awesome in the beautiful Chief Theatre.

Thank you, Paul Bunyan Playhouse, for giving me a full season of delightful theater that culminated in such a stunning production.  I LOVE YOU!!! :)



What? I have a blog?

John Middleton, Leigha Horton and Tim Hellendrung are lousy neighbors in Ben San Del's "Minnesota Middle Finger" at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. The two remaining performances are Friday and Saturday at the Theatre in the Round.

If I had written all the blog posts I meant to over the past year, I would have been a prolific blogger. There would have been posts about wonderful plays, delightful concerts, county fairs and city carnivals, and all sorts of things weird and wonderful. I might have imparted words of wisdom that I’ve since forgotten. And yeah, there probably would have been a few cat posts, but to be fair, I usually mock the cats rather than gush over how cute they are. Cats really don’t need any boosts to their self-esteem.

It’s not that I’m lazy; it’s more that I lack discipline. I procrastinate to the point that things don’t get done, which is why I added a $25 late fee to my rent payment this month after  I drove around for days with the check in my car.

I have the best of intentions. If had more oomph behind my intentions, I would be wandering around my lovely neat apartment in my size 10 jeans (I’d say 8, but let’s be realistic).

Also, I over-extend myself. At any given time, I’m helping someone or other with something or other — my parents, my kids, friends, co-workers. I’m a chronic helper, often to the detriment of stuff I need to do in my own backyard. Don’t get me wrong; I love doing it. I’m at my best when I am being helpful. If my job description was “bringing sunshine to the lives of others,” I would be all over it. But when I go home, the clouds hang over my own stuff. :)

Then there’s my computer. It beckons to me. Facebook wants to tell me everything my friends are doing. Article links link to article links. Plants vs. Zombies, Osmos and Peggle peer out from the desktop, chanting “Play meeeeeee.”

The blog posts go undone. But instead of my usual hapless whining, I’m vowing to start posting regularly, if only to post snippets from time to time. And after a busy August, I think I’ll do one of those “30 Days of” (movies, photos, whatever) Facebook things. I hate to commit to much of anything, but sometimes doing what you hate turns out good.

I don’t expect to post daily on a regular basis, but I might try to get close to that for the next week or so, since I’m spending the weekend at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, where I’m fortunate enough to be close friends with a Fringe regular whose show, “Minnesota Middle Finger,” is phenomenal. Ben San Del and I worked together as reporters together in 2003 in Crookston and I’ve followed his career from journalism into stand-up comedy, storytelling and theater.

I saw “Minnesota Middle Finger” last weekend and will see it again Saturday. It’s an incredible show with an equally incredible cast depicting three lousy neighbors stuck in a house under 100 inches of snow at what appears to be the end of the world.

I had seen John Middleton in Joseph Scrimshaw’s 2010 Fringe show “The Damn Audition,” and a few weeks ago was in Minneapolis for a Tim Minchin concert (more on my favorite comedy rocker in a future post) and caught John in “Street Scene” at the Minnesota Theater Garage. I had seen Tim Hellendrung in back-to-back Fringe shows (both of which earned him top honors as male performer in the Fringe), in 2009 as a nasal little kid in “Sideways Stories from Wayside School” and in 2010 in “Speech!” Both were perfect for their roles in “Minnesota Middle Finger” and a delight to watch. (Actually, it was reading John Middleton’s blog posts at http://minnesotaplaylist.com/magazine/column/johns-blog that made me remember how much I enjoy doing this.

I’d only seen Leigha Horton once, in “See You Next Tuesday” during last year’s Fringe. Her character was completely different from Flo in Minnesota Middle Finger, so it was harder to know what to expect, but she’s absolutely charming. And in the climactic scene, she just erupts.

I wouldn’t mind seeing this show more than once again, but I can’t. It’s on again tonight, Friday and Saturday and I won’t be back in Minneapolis until Saturday.

For last year’s Fringe, I took a week off work, but I didn’t ask for the time off in time this year, so I’m limited to back-to-back weekends, as I live four hours away. I really miss not being there during the week. The pace is a little more relaxing, the after-parties less crowded.

The Fringe is the coolest thing I have ever seen. And I’ll write more about it later. I’m off to see “The Full Monty” at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji. It starts in 25 minutes and I have a second-row seat. I’ve heard awesome things about this show, so it should be a way to cap off the season. I’ve loved all four of the other Playhouse plays, and I still think it’s awesome that Ryan Parker Knox is in every production this year and lists his residence on Facebook as Bemidji. :)

Wherever you are, enjoy what you’re doing …