The DAC is a great place to be

My June 27, 2012, column from the Mille Lacs Messenger.

Monday through Friday, Michael rides a van from his home near Garrison to the Mille Lacs County Developmental Achievement Center in Milaca. In addition to learning life skills and community skills like shopping and banking, Michael goes to work. “I clean the bathrooms at the county courthouse, Embers and the post office,” he told me last Tuesday, when I spent an hour visiting with DAC clients and telling them about my job at the newspaper.

Back home Michael likes to ride his bike, write songs and watch TV, and he collects pop tabs for the Ronald McDonald House. “Because there are sick children out there who need the pop tabs,” he told me.

My visit to the DAC came at the invitation of Adelle Wilke and Pam Rittenour, the teachers of the class I visited. They introduced me to a fascinating and friendly group of students.

Cindy, of Milaca, has been coming to the DAC for 36 years. Before we had been properly introduced, I called Cindy by name. “How do you know my name?” she asked.

“From church,” I said, and a big smile crossed her face. She is a regular attendee at Trinity Lutheran in Milaca, where your favorite editor is a not-so-regular attendee. Staff at the DAC help Cindy work toward goals like writing letters and crocheting.

“In the work room I’m doing hearing aid kits,” Cindy said. DAC clients perform a variety of paid jobs in the work room, including assembly of Rexton hearing aid boxes.

Rachel comes all the way from Rice, Minnesota. “I like to unload the dishwasher, and I like to vacuum, and I like to make boxes,” Rachel said. She cleans the Mille Lacs County Highway Department building.

Kim lives in the high rise in Milaca. She likes a lot of things about her time at the DAC, including letter writing, learning living skills, working on goal sheets, and preparing food in the blender.

It’s not all work at the DAC. Staff plan regular parties and dances, including an annual picnic in August, complete with live music, at the Milaca bandshell. And at 2 p.m., everyone takes a snack break — even the newspaper reporter.

I’ve always been impressed with the DAC since visiting there for the first time back in the ‘90s. Former director Fred Hoffman brought his big laugh and spirit of fun to the building, and reviews of his replacement, Rod Peltoma, are equally positive — which is saying something, considering the shoes he has to fill.

The generous spirit of the students and staff balanced out the usual criticisms and stressors I encounter at work.

I don’t get a lot of hugs at the office, so John’s arm around my shoulder as we posed for a photo came as a welcome surprise.

As I was packing up my things, Cindy said, “Don’t worry if you forget something. I’ll bring it to church.” It was such a thoughtful gesture that I felt bad that I wasn’t there to greet her on Sunday.

I ended up with a net gain of positivity for the week, which is rare for me. The laughter and smiles and John’s hand on my shoulder were like a transfusion, drawing out my cynical old blood and injecting something clean and pure.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

Don’t say goodbye; say ‘see ya later’

My column from the June 20, 2012, Mille Lacs Messenger.

If you’ve enjoyed the Messenger during the last 30-some years, thank Kathy Saumer Jackson.

Jackson, who retired a couple weeks ago, was the second-longest-serving employee of the business, next to Paulette Paulsen (who also deserves your thanks — but that’s a different story).

Kathy came to the Mess in 1977, two years after Dick Norlander bought the paper from Fred DeCoursey. Back then she was a typesetter — a job description that doesn’t really exist anymore, since most copy comes in already typed.

In the early days, Kathy typed on an IBM Selectric. The copy was cut into columns and pasted up on flats, then sent to the printer where it was photographed and transferred to metal plates used in the offset printing process.

After she’d been here a few years, Kathy was required to master the Apple 2 computer, which she did with few complaints or meltdowns, as well as software programs like PageMaker and Quark (versions 1 through 9, which we still use today).

Kathy was the one constant in the edit department, which refers to those of us who deal with the news side of the paper, rather than the advertising side.

She worked with editors Dick Norlander, Jay Andersen, Jim Baden, Joel Patenaude, Jon Tatting, Mike Kallok, Kevin Anderson and yours truly, as well as reporters and assistant editors named Krahn, Simons, Peterson, Olson, Gustafson, Coppernoll, Ziwicki, Bednar, Becker, Clark, Gibas and Passons.

Countless interns have learned more from Kathy than from said reporters and editors.

During the years 2001 to 2007, Kathy was the edit coordinator (and often de facto editor) of the paper, as Patenaude, Tatting and Kallok went through the revolving door at the Messenger.

Editors piled things on Kathy’s desk, and Kathy calmly and competently laid them on the page, cleaned them up and sent them out the door or over the Internet to the printer.

Simply put: If it weren’t for Kathy, this place would’ve fallen apart a long time ago.

We’re going to miss her, but it’s time for Kathy to concentrate on her gardens, her mom (Ollie), her husband (Tom) and her kids and grandkids.

We love you, Kathy, and don’t be a stranger.

See you in Sardegna?

My wife and kids and I are also saying goodbye next week to Eleonora Mannu, a young woman who joined our family in August of 2011.

Ele is an exchange student from the Italian island of Sardegna in the Mediterranean Sea.

Diane and I moved into our daughter’s room to give Cedar a sister for a year, and the experience has been enlightening and entertaining for us all, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Ele participated in the swim team and color guard, and she went through graduation ceremonies in May. She went to concerts, parties, Valleyfair and the Mall of America (several times).

We drove to Grand Marais in the fall and to Iowa for Christmas, and the girls flew to New York with Diane and my sister Becky, to Seattle on their own at the invitation of some friends, and to Chicago, again with Becky as chaperone.

Sunday night we had a graduation party for Ele, where she said a tearful goodbye to Grandma and Grandpa Bond and Aunt Becky.

Next Tuesday we’ll take her to the airport and shed a few tears ourselves. I’m sure Cedar will start saving for a trip to Sardegna — and maybe Diane and I will tag along.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

My short but happy life as a missionary kid

The other day I bit into a lemon and was transported to Bangkok, Thailand, in 1972, and a glass pitcher of lemonade fresh squeezed by our maid, Saiyud.

We had heard about all the sacrifices made by missionaries, but so far it wasn’t too bad. We had a maid who baked coconut meringue pies and donuts with chocolate frosting and who cleaned the house so my mom could work in the mission office. She also snuck her boyfriend into her spartan quarters at the back of our gated home — a practice that drew remonstrance from the missionary ladies who had hired her to keep our house.

Among the other sacrifices I made: deep-sea fishing during weekends at the Baptist camp on the Gulf of Siam, a world-class education with classmates from dozens of countries at the International School of Bangkok, and trips to every tourist attraction in the area, from the temples with their various Buddhas (golden, emerald, reclining) to the canals or “klongs” that poor Thai people used as highways, markets, toilets and bathtubs.

The only real sacrifice was living with the poisonous snakes that showed up in the alley and the tokay geckos that clung to the screens and woke me with their blood-curdling calls.

We were only there for a year, as opposed to the lifelong missionaries who only returned home on furlough every four years.

My dad had been hired to revise the curriculum at a missionary language school. He was not your typical missionary. He thought missionaries could learn as much from the unsaved masses as they could teach them through “witnessing” (which he sometimes called “witlessing”). He was more interested in saving bodies from suffering on earth than in saving souls from hell, but he still believed the Bible and the teachings of Jesus were good news for people around the world.

I, however, was your typical missionary kid, and at the Southern Baptist church in Bangkok, I was told in no uncertain terms that my friends were bound for hell if I didn’t convince them to ask Jesus into their sin-stained hearts.

Not just the Thai kids, who swam naked in the klongs and lit candles for the Buddha and draped orchids over shrines on street corners, but the Americans too — Catholics, Lutherans, or the “unchurched” — all doomed unless I intervened.

The pastor of the Southern Baptist church looked like Moses, who in those days looked like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, and each week he commanded the sinners to come down the aisle, repent of their sins, and give their lives to Christ, as the congregation sang “Just as I am, without one plea” or “I surrender all.”

I’d been born again, but part of me wanted to crawl on my belly to the altar like a snake because I knew I’d been unfaithful. If I’d really been born again, wouldn’t I have dared to be a Daniel and risked the lions’ den to bring the guilty to repentance?

I never went forward, but each week in Bangkok, in my heart of hearts, I vowed again to bring back the lost sheep for Jesus.

One day in the lunch line, I found myself standing next to Tim Simmons, an Army brat from who-knows-where, and I heard the still, small voice and saw my opportunity.

Needing an ice-breaker, I asked him, “Do you go to church?”

“No,” he replied.

An awkward silence, and I knew I was finished.

A trusty steed and smiles to spare

My column from the June 6, 2012, Mille Lacs Messenger.

People must enjoy seeing an old guy ride around on an old bike.

In an impromptu tour of Sauk Centre on Memorial Day weekend, I received more cheerful smiles, nods and hellos than I’ve compiled in years.

Sauk Centre, of course, was the model for Sinclair Lewis’ Gopher Prairie in the novel Main Street, which made small town America a symbol for all things phony, drab and artless. To me it seemed like a great place to live, with the Sinclair Lewis campground on Sauk Lake, and a dam and river to fish beside, and a cafe called the Ding Dong — apparently because it sat by what used to be railroad tracks and is now a bike trail.

It’s ironic, perhaps, that part of my bike tour took place on the Lake Wobegon Trail, named for another fictional small town created by another Minnesotan, but this one symbolic of all things down-to-earth and profound in their simplicity.

Also ironic is the Sinclair gas station on the Original Main Street, just down from the Main Street theater, the Main Street office complex, the Main Street cappuccino joint, etc. The people of Sauk Centre apparently embraced the man who made their town famous, even though it was at their expense.

This was our third Memorial Day weekend in Sauk Centre, where my wife participates in a horse show every year. Diane has a fancy Morgan mare that she likes to ride in circles in hopes of winning a blue ribbon.

She was done for the day but had some grooming to do, so I set off on my bike. On the way back to the fairgrounds, I saw two boys who had laid their bikes in the grass tucked up under the Lake Wobegon Trail, where their dads had probably sat tucked up under the railroad bridge. They smiled, too.

If you’ve ever been to a horse show, you know that horse people spend more on their trucks and trailers than many of us spent on our homes. Seriously. And you will not be surprised to hear that as I pedaled back through the fairgrounds, our truck and trailer stood out as the worst by a country mile. Seriously.

My wife paid more for her fancy Morgan mare than we paid for the whole rig, though that’s not saying much, since the Chevy and the trailer were each $1700. We also spent more on food and drink than we did on lodging. We were the only ones who pitched a tent.

I’m not much of a horse person. I sit in the bleachers reading a trashy romance and taking pictures and videos whenever it’s Diane’s turn to ride.

Or I go for a jog on the Lake Wobegon Trail. Or a bike ride on my own trusty steed, a red Schwinn Speedster, which I bought for less than 1 percent of what the truck and trailer cost —  15 bucks — but which has become my most prized possession.

I spotted it on Craig’s List along with its companion girls’ model, a Schwinn Breeze, and couldn’t believe my luck. The bikes had been ridden sporadically and stored in a St. Cloud garage since they and the garage were new, about 50 years ago. The old guy who sold them to me was moving. His wife had Alzheimers, so they were off to assisted living.

Hopefully, the wife and I, 49 this year, are a few years away from that fate. She’s got more blue ribbons to win, and I’ve got more smiles to compile.

As I pedaled like mad to pick up speed on the hill descending toward the fairgrounds, I realized why the Main Streeters were smiling.

The old guy was grinning like a school boy.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.


What a long two weeks it’s been!
It began with a toothache, the worst ever, the kind of pain that blots out everything. I wandered around the house holding ice to my cheek, or held ice in my mouth until my face went numb.
Then back it came, again and again.
The next morning I went to the dentist, thinking my crown had failed, resulting in an abcess. They took an x-ray and found nothing. The dentist suggested I’d been grinding my teeth.
The pain continued through Memorial Day weekend, but I found some meds that reduced it, but didn’t eliminate it. Tides of pain still rose and fell, and I tried everything to cope — sucking on bread, chewing gum, swishing water around in my mouth. To varying degrees of success.
On Monday I told Bob at work about my problem, and he said he had recently experienced the same thing and been diagnosed with a sinus infection.
It was an a-ha moment, and sure enough, the next day I felt congestion in my sinuses and a low-grade fever coming on. And thankfully the tooth pain was gone.
Diane told me sinus infections are usually viral and pass within a couple weeks, so I waited it out without going to the doctor. It had been a week since the toothache started, so I hoped for improvement on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
The fever continued and congestion got worse until Monday, when I awoke feeling worse than I had in years. I went to work, finished up early, and went to the doctor, who gave me a prescription for Augmentin and suggested I use steam and Sudafed to loosen up the congestion.
Which I did, all day Tuesday, feeling horrible. Ibuprofen brought the fever down, but I had a constant dull pain in my head, and foul discharge from my nose.
It was no normal cold, with a runny nose and watery eyes. It was thick, nasty stuff that wanted to stay put.
I went to bed hoping the antibiotic would kick in and I’d awake today feeling better.
I didn’t. In some ways I felt worse. I searched the Internet and found horror stories about sinus infections lasting weeks or months, and not responding to antibiotics.
I spent the morning bent over pots of hot water, trying to breathe in, then blowing out the evil infection as the steam loosened it up.
Between treatments I read, and finally, just before noon, it happened.
I felt like myself again. My sinuses were relatively clear. My ears were no longer plugged. The dull headache and fever were gone.
Unbelievable relief.

Black bean burgers

Got a brainstorm reading runner’s world, which said veggie burgers are great for fiber but lack protein. I’ve never ready liked the veggie burger mix from the coopbut have always liked black beans. The black bean burgers had at restaurants have been disappointing, largely due to the consistency. I had some black beans I’d cooked from scratch so I thought I’d mix them with the veggie burger mix. I added a little water and mashed the beans with a fork. The result was outstanding, and I think they may even hold up on the grill.

Minnesota in June

Got up and went out on the porch with coffee, then was joined by Diane. After an hour of visiting, sunbathing, and eating homemade bread with marmalade and Sardish cheese, went inside and it was 8:30 a.m.
Minnesota in June is paradise.
Leif’s up sleeping. Cedar and Ele are off to Chicago with Becky.
Tonight we may go sleep at Becky’s after having dinner with friends in St. Paul. All is well.