Bel Air vs. Barracuda. Bel Air wins

Bel Air BarracudaDon’t get me wrong. My dad, when I was a young kid, knew how to have a good time.

He was a military veteran, so he was well-acquainted with the local Legion and VFW clubs, and I suspect more went on there than saluting the flag. There were also rumors of a late-night, bowling-alley melee once upon a time, when we traveled to tiny Ellis, Kan., to visit his brother.

But, most often, responsibility beamed off my father like radio signals from a 2,000-foot-high transmission tower in your back yard.

When I was 12 or 13 years old, I tagged along with Dad as he went shopping for a new family car. Unexpectedly, I fell in love … with a shiny, bright-yellow Plymouth Barracuda whispering my name from the local care dealer’s showroom floor.

“I could one day be yours, Mark!” it murmured in a sultry, smoky, female voice that only I could hear.

“Dad, this is the one!” I said, trying to appeal for this former farm boy’s need for speed. “Wouldn’t this be cool?”

There might have been just the tiniest sparkle of unrestrained excess in his eyes, but it couldn’t have lasted much more than a nanosecond. He didn’t need to explain.

Too yellow. Too sporty. Two doors.

No, the Weber family of five this day would be blessed with a brand new, five-door, s#@%!-brown Chevy Bel Air station wagon about as sporty as the calf-high black socks my dad would wear with summer shorts.

Yes, I would go on to inherit the Brown Beast, occasionally drive it back and forth to Bemidji State – until one frigid winter when someone actually stole its battery – and would still be piloting this chick repellant during my post-collegiate journalism career. I finally sold it to a pair of Norwood, Minn. lads. I think they were going to use it as a duck blind.

Turns out, the “daring” gene is recessive in the Weber clan. My current mode of transportation is a 14-year-old, four-door Honda Accord with 190,000 miles and rust creeping upward from below.

I hear they’re doing remarkable things with the human genome, and may soon isolate this particular gene. There is still hope for the Weber lineage.

Appreciation for what firefighters do

The Salina Fire Department in 1932. My grandfather, William Eckley, is pictured in the top row, second from right.

The Salina Fire Department in 1932. My grandfather, William Eckley, is pictured in the top row, second from right.

One of the many things we take for granted is the extraordinary service of those responsible for our public safety.

A reminder of this is the impending 50th anniversary of the Eden Prairie Fire Department, whose members routinely put their lives on the line to protect from harm the thousands of people who live and work in my community.

The department begins observances of its golden anniversary on March 16, and to its 95 paid, on-call members we can only say, with gratitude that falls short with these two words: Thank you!

Many thanks to you on a personal level, from this resident of Eden Prairie the past 33 years. Many thanks on a professional level, for the access and eyewitness view you allowed me as a local newspaper reporter from 1979 well into the 1990s.

Perhaps I have a greater-than-normal attachment to the work of firefighters because my maternal grandfather, William Eckley, was one.

On display in my house is a framed photograph showing members of the 1932 fire department in Salina, Kan., where my grandfather lived for many years and supported his family both through firefighting and carpentry.

Of course, my grandfather would have been familiar with the dangers of firefighting. That year, 1932, would have concluded with the Dec. 31 death of firefighter Ray Craig, who was age 44 at the time, married with two children. The 16-year veteran of the Salina Fire Department died of an apparent heart attack while working at a house fire on that date, according to records of the Kansas State Firefighters Association.

This would have also been a difficult time for my grandfather because Kansas was about one year into the Dust Bowl era, when severe drought and erosion would create a seemingly endless series of “black blizzards” in the U.S. and Canadian prairie areas.

On top of it all, the U.S. in 1932 would still have been mired in The Great Depression, the deepest and longest lasting economic downturn in U.S. history. Unemployment would reach 25 percent, and recovery would not begin until 1933.

All of this, I suppose, adds to my appreciation of the firefighting men and women who are not conscripted into life-threatening and life-saving public service but choose in difficult times to do so, often for many, many years.

I hope you know that what you do is valued and appreciated.

The Grateful Fed tour? Eggs-actly!

The Grateful Fed on tour, and one of the worst selfies ever.

The Grateful Fed on tour, and one of the worst selfies ever.

Never under-estimate the power of food in building long-lasting friendships.

One of the former work colleagues I’ve stayed in touch with, over recent years, is Angelo Gentile. Angelo and I worked together in publishing Edible Twin Cities, a magazine that celebrated the local-food movement in the Twin Cities. Angelo was also the driving force behind “Edible Twin Cities: The Cookbook,” published in 2013.

It wasn’t a very profitable endeavor, and becoming knowledgeable about local and sustainable food required a steep learning curve, but it was loads of fun while it lasted.

Angelo and I have moved on to other fields of work and occupations, but food still ties us together. If you imagine every friendship having a foundation, and all the foundation building blocks joined by mortar, then I guess our “mortar” would be eggs, toast, and bacon.

And that’s because Angelo and I have formed the Grateful Fed Tour – yes, that’s Fed and not Head – and embarked on monthly excursions to breakfast spots across the Twin Cities. One at a time, we are visiting small hole-in-the-wall or off-the-beaten-path cafes for a monthly breakfast and genial debate and discourse.

Good food isn’t the point, although some of it’s been great. We’re not writing reviews, not starting a club, not spending much time plotting our next plan. No heavy lifting, you might say. And no companions; just us. It’s a bite to eat and a friendship renewed.

But somehow it seems solid to me. And just enough. (Although pairing up for an occasional Twins game might be alright, too.)

It’s very Midwestern of us not to tell each other we look forward to these meet-ups. I guess I’m saying it now.

A childhood activity rooted in Mom’s blind faith

A Cub Scout patch from many years ago.

A Cub Scout patch from many years ago.

I don’t have a lot of keepsakes from my childhood, but one of the items tucked away in a dresser drawer is a Cub Scout patch from when we lived in Sauk Centre, Minn.

This is a patch I would have worn near the pack number, sewn on the arm of a long-sleeved blue shirt that was always accompanied by a yellow neckerchief. I think Cub Scouts wear pretty much the same outfit – sorry, uniform – these days, which in itself is pretty remarkable.

What I remember from those Cub Scout days in early grade school is hazy at best – making a craft project out of Popsicle sticks in a neighbor’s basement, and trying to put on some kind of elaborate “show” in our own driveway.

What more clearly stands out in my memory is the fact that my mom was a den leader, one of a couple of adult supervisors of 8-10 headstrong boys with short attention spans. I can only imagine what that was like. The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind.

Having now raised our own boys, and knowing what they were like at about the same age, I can appreciate the patience my mom must have had. And, for what? On good faith that structured involvement such as the type promoted by Scouting would somehow, in some way, help me develop into a better person, I suppose.

I can’t say for certain that Scouting accomplished what my mom hoped it would. I moved on to Boy Scouts for a brief taste of what it had to offer, and I think I had mixed feelings about it the entire time. She probably did, too.

But I thank her for giving it her best try, and for playing one of those tried-and-true “mom” roles that make the world a better place.

I kept the patch, so it must have meant something after all.


In it for the long run

The author: In it to win it? Let's just say in it to finish.

The author: In it to win it? Let’s just say in it to finish.

If I can remain injury free, sometime in 2015 I will compete in my 40th running race.

It will likely be a 5K (3.1 miles), and I will cross the finish line quite a while after the first runners have completed the route, chugged a couple bottles of water, and had their breathing return to normal.

And that’s OK, because I’ve found benefits well beyond a medal or some other prize: the satisfaction of completing a goal, doing my best, and living healthier than I otherwise would.

Which makes me an advocate for research that examines the health benefits of regular exercise and especially running. After all, when you think about it, running was probably key to mankind’s evolutionary success. (It’s a long story, but one worth checking out – as in reading Christopher McDougall’s bestseller book, “Born to Run.”)

Unfortunately, there is bad news from the world of running: Federal funding has come to end for one of the greatest studies of all time, the National Runners’ and Walkers’ Health Study, which has produced a treasure trove of health-related research data, including 65 peer-reviewed articles over the past 20 years.

This study, which set out to identify the many ways that running and walking affect our health, has been nothing less than landmark, resulting in valuable knowledge of how running and walking – and how much of each – help reduce heart disease, arthritis, and other maladies that take years off our lives.

But funding from the National Institutes of Health has stopped just as thousands of participants have reached their 70s and 80s, meaning we are on the brink of some life-extending knowledge.

And that makes so compelling the recent Wall Street Journal commentary suggesting that the running industry is the logical player to step in and perpetuate the study, at a cost of less than $1 million a year. (See “A Study That Can Help in the Long Run,” by Kevin Helliker.)

We’re not asking for a lot here. The National Sporting Goods Association reported, for example, that the sale of running/jogging shoes in 2012 – just shoes, mind you, and not all of the other apparel associated with running – totaled $3.04 billion.

C’mon, Nikes of the world. Pony up. A study that perpetuates the notion that more exercise is better can only help you.

Take it from someone whose closet floor – littered with years’ worth of high-end running shoes – is evidence.


I like my beer to be local

The lobby of Badger Hill Brewery, in Shakopee.

The lobby of Badger Hill Brewery, in Shakopee.

One of the things I really enjoy about the ongoing craft-beer boom is the unique and creative taprooms that are springing up all over the Twin Cities area.

I like to imagine I’m entering the modern-day equivalent of a speakeasy – minus the police raids and mob ownership of yore, of course – when I patronize an industrial-area or garage-like craft-beer taproom.

Craft brewers – usually defined as small and independent beer producers – are finding ways to use dormant spaces like these to set up their beverage laboratories as they aim to serve people interested in exploring new flavors and varieties.

Locate and enter a nondescript industrial building located near a Shakopee glass factory, for example, and you are in the taproom of Badger Hill Brewing, with its gleaming, stainless steel pipes, tanks and other brewing vessels on the other side of a huge, glass wall.

Sip on a High Road Everyday Ale while you imagine that on weekdays, working inside that brewery-under-glass, are a family of mad doctors in lab coats, concocting not monster mash but brew mash. “Dr. Beerstein, phone call on line 1,” you picture them announcing over the PA system.

This is the ambiance of your typical craft-beer brewery these days.

Yes, there’s a renaissance in beer brewing, and it’s happening in our own back yards. U.S. beer sales overall may be in decline, according to a recent article, but the glaring exception is in craft beer, which has 2,700 breweries and new ones almost every week – 1,000 new brands launched last year, many with higher-than-traditional prices. Americans are drinking less, but are choosier about what they’re drinking, it seems.

Minnesota is no stranger to this trend. According to the Brewers Association, for the year 2013 Minnesota ranked 17th nationwide in number of craft breweries. But it ranked 10th in barrels of craft beer produced per year, at nearly 368,000, helped no doubt by the exceptional Summit Brewing of St. Paul.

This not only has led to small startups like Badger Hill, but also new and magnificent brands and taprooms like Surly Brewing’s.

And here’s one more impressive spin-off to the craft-beer boom: the announcement this month (February 2015) that the 168-year-old Rahr Corp. is planning a $68 million expansion of its malt manufacturing facility in Shakopee, largely because of the craft-beer craze, which is expected to help cause a 5 to 10 percent increase in demand for malt, a beer ingredient, over the next decade.

Drink unique and flavorful local beer and create jobs in the process: Now, there’s an economic stimulus I can get behind.


Three formulas for creating compelling stories

It sounds old-school, but to earn media attention, get to know the media.

It sounds old-school, but to earn media attention, get to know the media.

Because I have a 35-year history in community journalism, I’m often asked by my newer acquaintances and associates – including folks from business and other non-profits – about the secret to “telling your story” and getting noticed by the media.

Most often I urge them to get to know their audience, and in the case of gaining the attention of journalists, to get to know the writers and editors who make decisions about what is covered on TV and radio and in newspapers – and what is not. There’s no substitute for a personal connection with a journalist.

The other important thing to do is to frame your story so that it sounds interesting, compelling. Really, that’s the key challenge – to stand out in the daily clutter of information that bombards us all.

To that end, there’s no sure-fire formula on how to successfully engage an audience and gain favorable press, but here are three tried-and-true story themes that have been enormously successful for others. They are based on suggestions in a book titled “Made to Stick,” which is about why some ideas survive and others die. I highly recommend it.

In each of these cases, remember to not focus on how great your company or non-profit is; instead, focus on how great your clients, employees, donors, and volunteers are.

You will be inspiring and entertaining your audience – and possibly even catching the eye of major media — if your “story” fits in one of these categories:

1) David vs. Goliath Stories. These are stories about overcoming great odds, similar to the Bible story about tiny David using a slingshot to defeat the enormous warrior Goliath. Stories about ordinary people who have overcome obstacles to do great things serve to inspire people. These stories make us think we, too, can be the hero.

2) Good Samaritan Stories. These are stories about people who develop a relationship that bridges the gap – racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, or otherwise. Doing so is a challenge for all of us who like to “play it safe,” so to read about someone who has made the extra effort to connect with others … well, that’s a great motivator.

3) MacGyver Stories. Named for the resourceful TV action-adventure hero who could solve complex problems with everyday materials – such as duct tape or a Swiss Army knife – these stories are about people who have made mental breakthroughs. In other words, they created a solution without the benefit of great resources. These stories suggest that anything is possible.

If you have a story to tell in one of these three categories, you are already interesting and compelling and simply need the right vehicle to get the message to a larger audience.

Here is a bonus tip for finding and framing stories that are sure to connect with the public and the media. It’s offered with tongue in cheek, because it doesn’t work for everyone. You can never have enough …

4) Dog Stories. Seriously, when in doubt, find a cute dog story that somehow connects with your company, your non-profit, your employees, your customers. It’s something of a mystery why stories about dogs acting like humans – a dog warning her sleeping master to get out of a burning house, for example – are so appealing. Some experts think it’s because a dog’s ability to show a range of emotions – love, anxiety, curiosity – tricks us into thinking they possess the full range of human feelings and abilities. In any case, if you can find a story about how you are connected to the canine world in an endearing and meaningful way … well, tell the world as fast as you can!

Your Monday motivation: How to savor the here and now

Spending time outdoors as the fall colors peak: This is one way to live in the moment.

Spending time outdoors as the fall colors peak: This is one way to live in the moment.

Living in the moment is a challenge for those of us who are habitually looking ahead.

But occasionally you need to slow down your galloping mind, or as the latest issue of Real Simple magazine suggests, “Freeze time from time to time.”

The magazine recently asked a number of people from different walks of life about how to “Be Here Now.” The following is one of the bits of advice that is timely for us, as we witness the seasonal beauty of changing foliage. Advises Annie-Marie Vaduva, 36, a naturalist:

“Spend 30 minutes at the park or any outdoor space on a regular basis (every day or a few times a week) without listening to music or talking on the phone. Just sit there. At first you might struggle, because your brain is still busy with human problems: work, relationships, habits of the mind. Eventually nature will draw you out, and you’ll become part of the rhythm of your environment

“The better I know a place, the faster I can settle into that state of mind. My memories are triggered (Oh, I remember this spot. It’s where the squirrel got drunk eating a fermented orange and then confronted a hawk!), and I’m challenged to connect my past experiences to the present. After spending time in nature, I see the cycles of birth, death, and renewal happening daily, weekly, and seasonally. This routine helps me accept these cycles and find peace as they happen.”

As you go through the paces of your day, take a few minutes to just … relax, ponder, and express gratitude.

Your Monday motivation: When you reach a goal, celebrate

Marathon finish: worth celebrating.

Marathon finish: worth celebrating.

As a runner of meager abilities, I envy those who can run a marathon and dedicate themselves to the weeks and weeks of training necessary to finish 26.2 miles.

Yesterday, nearly 8,850 runners finished the Twin Cities Marathon. For some of them, it was just another in a long list of marathons. For others, it was the end of an epic, once-in-a-lifetime struggle.

St. Paul Pioneer Press photographer Ben Garvin captured many of the finishers, and their close-up reactions to reaching that noteworthy goal is inspiring to me.

Never let an accomplishment pass without celebrating and giving gratitude.

How an abacus changed my life

The author and his least favorite math tool of all time: an abacus.

The author and his least favorite math tool of all time: an abacus.

Looking back on your life, have you ever thought of a particular event as being a turning point? An abacus, much like you see in the photo here, was part of a turning point for me.

I was introduced to one of these ancient counting devices in the second grade, in the middle of the school year, when my family moved to yet another new town.

(I lived in four towns before the end of second grade – and there would be another move after that. No, we weren’t hoboes or fugitives. It’s just that my dad worked for a national company that moved him from place to place as he worked his way up the corporate ladder.)

Anyway, back to the abacus. Not only was I plunked down in a new school, in a new town, but I was now in possession of a classroom math tool I had never seen before, one that classmates were already using with ease. Their fingers were flying over the beads as they worked out second-grade math problems – counting ones, tens, hundreds, thousands – and throwing their hands in the air with correct answers for the teacher.

Boy, did I struggle. And feel stupid. It made me so frustrated – so very frustrated – figuring out how to use this contraption and catch up with my classmates that I believe it left a few mental scars. In fact, I think it contributed to my eventual interest in words more than numbers, creativity more than logic, language more than science. And, more than three decades in journalism.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: What I am today – good or bad, complete or flawed – I owe in small part to those colorful, awful little beads.