Happy National Hug a Newsperson Day to you!

In case you didn’t know it, today, April 4, is National Hug a Newsperson Day.

It’s a day you’re suppose to open your arms wide and show your appreciation to newspeople, including the owner of your local weekly newspaper.

National Hug a Newsperson Day was obviously invented by someone in the news biz. I didn’t know it existed until my two editors sent me separate emails of a press release from an organization called National Today. The first thing I wanted to do was give each of them a hug, they obviously needed one.

In the blah, blah, blah of the release it said, “Let’s face it — it can be hard to keep up with the news all the time. And that’s why newspeople are so important. We love them all, from the writers that make us look forward to reading their articles to the news anchors who are entertaining (or cute) enough to make us want to tune in every week. They all deserve hugs.”

Maybe I’m just too crusty these days, but I’m not feeling the lovin.’ That’s because it’s a tough time being in the news business.

The hours are endless, the weekly cycle of news is constant and there is always another story to be told. We play catch up with technology, teach ourselves how to use Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook — and just when we think we’ve got a grasp on social media something new comes along.

We’ve got computers that crash, reporters who crash (close to deadline) and drivers who crash the company vehicles.

We field complaints of all kinds … about the actions and inactions at city hall … about the lack of transparency with park boards, school boards and city clerks … from parents of players who think their kid’s photo is not in the paper often enough … from the town drunk who doesn’t appreciate his or her name in the police report. (I’m uncertain if towns have just one town drunk anymore.)

There are ambulances to chase, blimps to chase (not in years), even good news sources. Unfortunately it seems no one wants to go on record so we’re spending more time having to verify what’s been said, even rumored. Because one of the first things we were told at journalism school is, “If your mom says she loves you, check it out.”

It doesn’t help to have our president telling the nation that journalists are guilty of fake news. I suppose when you’re called out on some of the hateful comments Donald Trump has said, using the fake news excuse is an easy cover.

The only fake news we print appears in the issue before April Fools Day. Yes, the article about a Wilmington man protesting Illinois’ high taxes by making Hobo Hooch was untrue. Still, we had three people call wanting to participate in the Hobo Hooch tasting. One caller, a lady with a raspy voice, became silent when I told her it was an April Fool’s article.

“Well sonny you got me with that one,” she laughed. “I really wanted to try that hooch.”

It was a call that made my day and renewed my love of my job.

I work with some smart people who know and care about their community. I’m lucky to have them. My fear is that one day in the future I won’t be able to keep them because publishing a newspaper is expensive. It requires subscribers and advertisers. And it seems we have fewer of both.

Some advertisers believe social media will bring them new customers. They’re forgetting about the power of the press, that hyper-local news product that has more longevity than a here-and-gone post on social media. Social media is great for building customer loyalty, not so great for luring new customers.

I pray that newspaper advertising stays that way.

Because our product is so filled with news, people are willing to steal for it. Yep, we have a reader who weekly drops $1 in a newsrack box and takes four or five papers instead. I know it happens, I have them on video.

I won’t be expecting a hug from that person unless they want to pay me back weeks worth of stealing.

Let me finish by telling you that newspeople, at least those who print, don’t want to be hugged. We just want  readers, people who appreciate the product and the effort to keep you informed. We love people who subscribe to our product. It’s the way we connect with our community, keep its pulse and believe that people care.

Keep your hug and become a subscriber. Thanks for readying.

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Frustration over high taxes creating some liquid assets

A local man’s growing frustration with paying Illinois’ high taxes may turn him a profit.

It started last September when Ron Gruca, of Wilmington, had an abundance of grapes from his backyard vineyard.

Gruca said he was just fooling around the house that day when he came across the real estate tax bill. After much consternation he returned to his harvest, gathering eight large bins of grapes.

“The whole time all I kept thinking about that tax bill. Instead of calling it ‘The Land of Lincoln’ they ought to call it the ‘Land of Stinkin…stinkin taxes that is,” Gruca said.

Gruca referenced a recent report by WalletHub that ranked Illinois 51st in the nation in terms of states that are tax friendly. The report found that Illinoisans spend 14.89 percent of their annual earnings on state and local taxes. That’s $8,299 per median household.

“That’s enough to make ya go broke,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where you can’t afford to own a home unless you have two jobs to pay the taxes.”

That’s when it hit him, Hobo Hooch.

Gruca was going to be a man who lived off the land, with or without a home, and for starters he was going to make his own wine. And with friends like his, he knew he had better make a bunch.

“I did some wine making in the past and had a couple of batches that turned out,” he commented. “It’s not that hard as long as you get the fermentation and the timing right.”But this time he experimented, aging the crushed grapes in old wooden barrels, nurturing it with sugar and yeast, while maintaining its temperature around 85 degrees. What he got was better color and tannin extraction.

“It’s my best stuff yet, no doubt about it,” he said as he poured this reporter a sample.

It’s aroma is delicate. A  sip reveals its silky texture with fruit complexity. There are hints of black cherry, licorice and tobacco with a bourbon finish. It’s actually quite good, good enough to make you want a longer pour.

“I’m calling it Hobo Hooch because if you live in Illinois with its high taxes they’ll turn you into a hobo,” he said. “It’s a catchy name that rings true. Right there on the label it says, ‘A poor man’s blend fit for a King!’ My goal is to make it affordable for every adult.”

His first batch, which he intends to release April 1, has aged seven months. He has a second batch still in its barrels gaining character. He intends to call batch #2  “Hobo Hooch CT.”

Why the C and the T?

“It stands for ‘Card Table’…take too many sips and your legs will fold under,” Gruca quipped.

His goal is to bottle it up and send it to Governor Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate leader John Cullerton with a message to fix the tax mess.

“I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, if I was elected to go to Springfield, it would be the first thing I would fix,” Gruca said. “And then I’d sip a little Hobo Hooch.”

Anyone interested in sampling Hobo Hooch can call 815-476-7966, ext. 209 and ask to be put on the Hobo Hooch tasting list. A future tasting date has yet to be determined.

Getting the mail can be such fun

I discovered the other day just how fun it can be to get the mail.

That may seem like an oxymoron, with the recent delivery of property tax bills, but getting the mail brought me so much delight because I knew my Bride was waiting for an important letter.

It was driver license renewal time for my Bride and, being the excellent driver that she is, she was invited to renew by mail without having to visit a Secretary of State facility.

She bragged about receiving the royal treatment, having no tickets on her record resulting in by-mail renewal. I, on the other hand, will likely have to give a week’s notice to the DMV so they can schedule me with the strictest instructor.

The Queen certainly deserves the privilege. I’ve never seen a driver who cruises with so much caution. She’ll creep up to a stop sign, wave any other motorists through, make certain her turn signal is on and crawl through the intersection.

She’s like that little old lady on her way to church, only worse. In fact that little old lady honks at my Bride for driving too slow.

But that’s okay, that’s why I love her because she does her best to do things right.

So I was surprised when her driver’s license had not arrived in the mail by her birth date. The Queen is not the type to procrastinate when obeying the law.

“What am I going to do? I can’t drive without my license,” she said with frustration.

I assured her that the state likely received her payment and if she got pulled over by a police officer she could explain her dilemma. That wasn’t good enough for her so she insisted that I give her a ride to work.

“Oh, come on,” I reasoned, “the state has more important things than worrying if you received your license on time. Go ahead and drive to work.”

So she headed out the door that morning with anxiety in her step. Deep down I think she wanted to blame me if she got caught without her license.

I’m sure it became the last thing on her mind once she got to the office, a newspaper office can do that to you. Unless your the publisher’s wife who got arrested for driving without a license and your name ends up in the police report. Boy, I would never hear the end of that if it happened. Now I was worried.

We survived another Monday at the office and headed for home. I beat her there because I take the faster route while she travels the slower side streets.

No sooner had I parked in the driveway and got out, I could see her coming down the street. I waved her off as she steered for the mailbox.

“I’ve got the mail,” I hollered as she approached, and I reached to open the box. Sure enough, there was her letter from the Secretary of State’s office.

I beckoned its arrival by swinging it into the air. The Queen grinned with relief that her license had arrived. As I walked up the driveway I opened the letter intending to reward her the license.

Instead, concern flashed across my face as I read the letter aloud.

“’Dear Mrs. Fisher,

We regret to inform you that your license is not being renewed at this time…,’” I said.

“’Even though we have taken into consideration your excellent driving record, we have concluded that your license must be revoked…”

She stopped in her tracks and said, “WHAT? I can’t believe this. What reason did they give for not renewing my license?” she demanded.

I held up a finger indicating that I was still reading. I hesitated long enough to cue her impatience.

“It says here they are not renewing it because you lied,” I declared.

“That’s crazy, lied about what?” she asked.

“It says you lied about your weight,” I said as serious as I could.

“I upped it by…” she started, then realized she was being fooled.

That’s when I held up her license. She slugged me on the shoulder saying that wasn’t funny. And I’ve kind of been in the dog house ever since. To stay out of trouble I’ve been letting her get the mail ever since.

He loved being a butcher

  When I moved from Iowa to Wilmington nearly 37 years ago, the best piece of advice I was given was to always be on good terms with the local butcher.
   Naive as I was, I asked my father why the meat man?
     “Because when you’re friends with the meat man he’ll see that you get the better cuts of beef,” George Fisher said with a smile.
        It was sage advice I came to appreciate when I met a butcher named Barney who worked the meat counter at what was then Hickory Creek Supermarket. Barney, with his friendly demeanor, was easy to like because he did more than sell meat. He built relationships.
      Sadly, those relationships came to an end with the sudden news that Barney Faletti, owner of Faletti Meats, had died in his sleep.
      A phone call from a friend Monday morning ended in near tears. Barney was that likeable, the type of store owner who would ask you about kids and grandkids, and then ask if the hunting or fishing was any good.
       He’d admit to sneaking away from the store on opening day to hunt with his son and grandkids. Or leaving early to watch his granddaughter play ball, or perform at school. But more often than not you could find him back at the store carving what would become someone’s dinner that night.
  Barney left Hickory Creek to start his own meat market, and he made it a success despite strong competition. His became the unique shop where you could buy a wedge of quality blue cheese for sprinkling over tender ribeyes, or order a pound or two of homemade Italian sausage, apple-smoked bacon or get extra thick pork chops perfect for grilling.
      But it wasn’t the quality meat that kept customers coming back. It was the friendship and trust.
        Some of my best stops there were first thing in the morning, before the store officially opened for the day, when Barney would be in back room shooting the bull with buddies. They would sip coffee and share doughnuts while debating worldly issues.
If you walked in you weren’t an interruption, just part of the discussion. Friendly fellas like Red, Merle, Hank, Mike and Junior would razz Barney and each other in good fun. If you stayed long enough you’d weed out bits of local history from tales told about some of the best characters in town.
       The discussions were entertaining and I only wish I had taken more time to sit in on them. Because now, Barney won’t be there with his friendly smile and short laugh. Instead he’s up working the meat counter in the heavens and the Good Lord is about to place his first order with Barney.
My advice to the Almighty is to stay on good terms with the meat man.

Join the 17 Club during 2017

A new year brings opportunity for new beginnings, but if you’re like me, personal resolutions don’t last.
Instead, I present 17 things that might help you accomplish something during 2017. On Dec. 31, 2017, if you feel no different, don’t blame me, at least your community and its people will benefit.
1. Start by giving $17 to your local food pantry. It’s an amount that won’t break the bank and cheaper than two beers with tip at Wrigley Field. Braidwood, Coal City, Gardner and Wilmington each have a food pantry stocked with more volunteers this time of year than items on their shelves. If you don’t know where it’s located in your community, shame shame. In Wilmington the easiest way to give is to stuff dollar bills into a Christmas Elf box that are in stores until Saturday.
2. Write 17 letters. Is it work? It sure is because the task of letter writing is a dying art. Your recipients know that and will appreciate the time you spent putting your thoughts on paper.
Start by sending one addressed to Illinois leaders Governor Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate leader John Cullerton. Tell them to stop acting like a bunch of school children and pass a state budget. Wait, don’t call them a bunch of school children because that’s not fair to school children.
Then each month write a letter to a former teacher, coach or someone who was a positive influence in your life. That’s 13 letters so far. The final four should be addressed to a man and a woman serving in the military, also to a firefighter and lastly to a police officer, all individuals willing to put themselves in harm’s way in order to serve. Tell them you wish you were as brave as them.
3. Donate 17 hours to charity. If you adopt the philosophy that you’ll never feel good about yourself until you do something good for someone else, then volunteering comes easy. Get involved with an organization, be it a church group, food pantry, community service group or other, even if it requires contacting a church in an area hit by natural disaster in another state. Volunteer a day or two of labor because that’s exactly what one group did when Coal City was hit by a tornado. We should learn from that generosity and build upon it.
4. Attend 17 community dinners. They aren’t hard to find, just follow this newspaper. There are spaghetti dinners, roast beef suppers, pancake breakfasts, soup and salad events and more. Most are inexpensive and serve up a better meal than I could ever cook. You’ll support a community group and walk out with a full belly.
5. Talk to a 17-year-old, if you can get one to put down their smart phone. They’re pretty bright kids, so talk to them. Tell them, hell yes, when we were their age we were confused about what was going to happen after graduation. Then tell them, hell no, there isn’t a bit of good worrying about it.
6. Collect 17 of something. It doesn’t matter what you collect, it’s the adventure that motivates you. Collect rocks, coins, stamps, leaves, sea shells, beer cans, Star Wars characters, bottle caps, wildflowers or even insects. Just collect something to get you outdoors looking.
7. Take 17 photos of wildlife. Drive a country road or drive through one of the area’s state parks, or recreation clubs, with the best camera available. Be on the lookout for wildflowers and wildlife, including raptors, waterfowl, songbirds, squirrels, rabbits, deer, pheasant, even a skunk. Set a goal of 17 different subjects because it might take that long before you capture one worthy of framing. That’s the fun of it, getting that one photo you can hang in your living room knowing that you shot it in 2017.
8. Spend 17 seconds next to a speeding train. That’s about how short it took for an Amtrak to blow through Braidwood the other day. Better yet, get 16 other friends to join you standing at the crossing at Main and wave to passengers on the train. They’ll really think Braidwood is a friendly town.
9. Spend 17 minutes a day walking. Get serious about it. This is your time, away from kids, your spouse, the office. Pump your fists in front and breathe hard through your nose. Do it first thing in the morning or after work. It will clear your mind, relieve stress and get your heart rate going.
10. Devote 17 minutes to reading. Turn off the TV, ignore social media and read a book. Make it a habit before you go to bed and you’ll sleep more soundly. Thankfully, the staff at your local library can recommend a good book.
11. Give up 17 food items. Eliminate one item each month from January through July to build the willpower to make it two items each month from August through December. This is about sacrifice like giving up soda, French fries, fresh pizza, homemade dinner rolls, steak, hamburgers….wait a minute, these are all the things your publisher likes. Let’s just skip this one.
12. Talk to a 17-month-old. Toddlers at this special age are innocent and delightful. If you’re lucky enough to be a parent or grandparent of an infant at 17 months, I envy you. Spend as much time as possible coddling them because when they turn about 25 years old they want to move back home and have you cook their meals when you get home from work while they watch the Kardashians.
13. Mentor a child. Every one of us has the ability to do it. You don’t have to be wise or rich to be a mentor, just be honest and give good advice.
14. Run with the bulls. You don’t have to travel to Pamplona, Spain. Instead, run with the bison at the Midewin National Tallgrass Park near Wilmington. The trailhead that loops around the bison pasture is located east of Route 53, north of the Iron Bridge. The ideal time to run the trail, at least for 17 steps, is late April to mid May when they are calving. I can’t tell you how many locals who have admitted they have yet to visit this local attraction.
15. Enjoy the little things. I bet there are 17 simple things in life worth enjoying: Gazing at the stars, walking barefoot on a beach, sitting around a campfire, petting a pooch and more. Living life to the fullest doesn’t require major expense or travel. See out the little things in life that are practically free and repeat them often.
16. Work less hours. I can hardly believe I’m typing this, but in 2017 I’d like to work fewer hours per week. As a business owner I feel the need to go to the office seven days a week. Sadly, I see other local business owners who work more hours than I. Maybe it’s time to stop the madness and let others do the work. That’s why I’m leaving number 17 up to you. Fill in the blanks.
17.

Things I’d change in the doctor’s room

I’m getting tired of pulling  down my pants.

No, I’m not a perv, just a overworked newspaper man who’s had two surgeries in the past three weeks for kidney stones. I suspect the first time they didn’t get all the stones the first time because they didn’t see them through all the ink in my system.

So my twice-a-week routine the past four weeks has been to walk into the doctor’s office, unzip and drop my pants.

It became so habit-forming that during my last visit, after being escorted to an exam room, I walked in and did it automatically.

“What are you doing?” the nurse asked as I stripped down to my boxer briefs.

“I’m in a hurry today so I’m getting ready for the doctor,” I replied.

She informed me that they were needing just my blood pressure and temperature. “So you can pull your pants up,” the nurse chuckled, “unless you want me to use an old thermometer to take your temperature somewhere else.”

In a flash my pants and belt were up and buckled tight.

I’ll never forget when and where I was when kidney stones first interrupted my life. I was on assignment in Champaign, IL covering Wilmington’s football team during the Class 3A state championship.

Like most Wildcat fans, I was on a natural high that day when Wilmington ran out of the tunnel onto Memorial Field. The ‘Cats had reached the pinnacle newspaper men live for and the discomfort building in my abdomen wasn’t about to get in the way.

At half-time I headed for the men’s room for a potty break. Standing there, in the warmth, felt good until something didn’t feel right. Suddenly I felt a piercing pain, flow was interrupted and then a burning sensation.

Damn, I’m catching a fever, I thought as my back and legs were suddenly riddled with aches and pains. After a cold sweat, I gathered up my photo equipment, regained my composure, and shot the rest of the game. Thankfully, I witnessed the game-winning kick that gave the Wildcats their first football state title in school history.

My little incident in the boys room was history too, I thought, as later that night, after covering the 10 p.m. pep rally back at the school, I felt fine.

The Monday after Christmas, pain was back with a vengeance. If I could have bottled it up and inflicted it on some terrorist group I would have. Instead, I went to the doctor’s office for an MRI and was told two stones in my kidney were too big to pass without surgery.

That began a four-week run of more doctors visits. I’ve been spending oodles of time in waiting rooms often thinking about how I would improve things. Here are some suggestions:

• Install a barber’s chair. I would gladly pay to have a haircut while waiting for the doc. Imagine scheduling your appointment and showing up early knowing you can get a haircut too. A corner in the waiting room for a pedicure and nail job might would be nice too.

• Get rid of the magazines. My belief is they just harbor disease. Sick people read them and picking them up only means they’re spreading illness.

• Turn the TV channel. On three occassions while waiting, the station was turned to the Maury Show. I don’t need to know who is the father of someone’s baby is and how many other kids are confused who is their real daddy.

• Put a label on the gown for patients. I slipped mine on wrong, with the front open like a robe, rationalizing that they were going to be working on my front side so that’s the way it should be worn. It was a slight embarrassment for a guy who seldom goes to the doctor’s office.

• Stop asking so many questions. It feels like interrogation. By the time I answered all the non essential questions, I’d forgotten the questions I meant to ask.

• And then there’s that question they hate to ask but do, “Do you feel threatened by anyone?” I wanted to respond with, “Just my wallet, with the amount of spending my wife and daughters do.” Or better yet my wallet threatened by how much this surgery is going to cost.

• Pay nurses and assistants well. They are caring, kind people who front questions and concerns of often scared patients. I was impressed with their professionalism and organization. While it sometimes seemed they were in short supply, I saw how busy they are accommodating so many people.

Here are a few tips in general

• If you’re offered a pain killer, take it. Thinking you can just tough it out isn’t the smartest decision. I found that out between my first and second procedures. The tough guy attitude on pain didn’t stick around the second time.

• Don’t always follow other people’s advice. I had someone suggest what he did for his kidney stone. He bought a 6-pack of beer, drank it and flushed it out on his own. While it may have saved him medical expenses, I got drunk on beer #3 and went straight to bed. Woke up with a headache too.

• My last tip is take someone bossy with you. My lovely bride gets pushy with me at times so I was eager to let her loose at the hospital. She insisted on answers, from the doctor and staff, and got them. She knows more about my medicines than I do, researching them online. She discovered that a daily prescription I take, written by a different doctor months ago, has side effects of causing kidney stones. After explaining her finding to the urologist we now have some place to start preventing this from happening again. Got to love her for that.

Judges award photo first place in state contest

A MOMENT TO REMEMBER - Aaron Romberg of Plainfield finds a moment of solitude to visit his father’s grave at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, IL on Memorial Day. I took this photo while on assignment for Memorial Day ceremony.  I snapped the photo feeling maybe I was violating a moment of privacy in a public place but Romberg  was cool with it and gave me his name. It was published in the paper that week and I almost forgot about it until the Illinois Press Association's annual editorial contest. Submitted in photog contest and judges awarded it first place among general news photo entries. A lesson learned that sometimes the best photos can be found away from the main event as people show their emotions when they feel they're somewhere private.

A MOMENT TO REMEMBER – Aaron Romberg of Plainfield finds a moment of solitude to visit his father’s grave at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, IL on Memorial Day. I took this photo while on assignment for Memorial Day ceremony. I snapped the photo feeling maybe I was violating a moment of privacy in a public place but Romberg was cool with it and gave me his name. It was published in the paper that week and I almost forgot about it until the Illinois Press Association’s annual editorial contest. Submitted in photog contest and judges awarded it first place among general news photo entries. A lesson learned that sometimes the best photos can be found away from the main event as people show their emotions when they feel they’re somewhere private.