How to Beat November Doldrums

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a view from our window

I don’t know about you, but I struggle to keep my spirits up in November. The cold, damp, dreary weather reflects my foul mood.  I am surrounded by germs a go-go at the school where I teach. The bacterial infection that I seem to breed within my bone marrow attacks every November leaving my body inflamed with a scratchy throat, stuffy nose, tight chest, achy joints and pounding head.

From my attic window, my bird’s eye view of the countryside reminds me to celebrate each season. In the foreground, spindly naked, tree branches bend low in the north wind. Barren fields line the auburn earth, and white caps dotting silver-colored Lake Geneva send chills down my spine. In the distance, the snow-patched Alps loom like a figment of my imagination. Layers of billowy clouds in various shades of grey roll overhead like waves on a churning sea.

With gratitude on my lips, I focus on the positive to help endure the November blues.

  • Birthdays. My beloved son was born 23 years ago. My treasured niece also shares a November birthday.
  • Basketball. Hoop season begins! I can follow my favorite teams again.
  • Harvest. Though I would have trouble growing dandelions, I grew up in a farm rich community and now live beside vineyards, orchards and fields.  Every year, I marvel at the harvest and admire the men and women who work the fields to fill our tables.

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    the fields in autumn with the Alps in the background

  • Thanksgiving. A table laden with turkey and all its trimmings is always a reminder to be grateful for family, friends, and mother nature’s bounty
  • Walk. I lean into the wind on my way to school feeling blessed for the ability to move my limbs. Each step I take I remember to be grateful to have a job.
  • Family. My husband lovingly shows his support by creating a program to keep track of my schedule when I start a regime of antibiotics and anti-viral again.
  • Voices. Once so rare due to cost, long distance phone calls, now offer a lifesaving link. Occasionally, old friends surprise me, my sisters ring regularly, my Big Kids Skype-in and as reliable as a church service, my parents call every Sunday. Support seeps through the lines in the voices that sustain me.
  • People. The best way to avoid a self-pity party is to focus on someone else. I help edit my senior student’s essay, reassure a distraught parent via email, and mail a sympathy card to a friend to acknowledge the pain of her loss.
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take a walk on the wild side

When your health falters, bad weather hits and the sad, dark days of late autumn bring you down – go for a walk, reach out, connect, engage, and share gratitude.

What keeps you going in November?

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The President’s Coach – From Eureka College to Capitol Hill

A great coach is worth his/her weight in gold. But coaches rarely make a mint or garner front page news unless they coach on campuses making major marketing bucks or if they are involved in some scandal. That is why the story of my grandpa, Coach Mac, a small college coach and the small town boy, Ronald Reagan, who he mentored at Eureka (1928-1932) is so inspiring to coaches everywhere.Coach Mac's plaque

Consider the odds that the son of a tenet farmer in Oklahoma would find his way to Eureka College, a  private Christian school tucked in the Central Illinois’ cornfields between Peoria and Bloomington. There, Ralph « Mac » McKinzie became a legendary athlete and coach.

No one recorded statistics on the hundreds of lives Coach Mac guided during a coaching career at Eureka, Northern Illinois University and Wartburg College, Iowa, that spanned seven decades. How incredibly unlikely that one of his prodigies would go on to become our 40th President.

Coincidence? Maybe, but not to those who knew my grandpa. Coach Mac, a simple, hardworking man demanded high standards and in his gruff, awe-inspiring voice could resurrect the dead in fiery, halftime talks. He set such a fine example that those who played for him wanted to do right by him.

In later years, my grandpa kidded that Reagan had more talent as a sports commentator talking with broomstick at halftime, than throwing blocks during a game. And Reagan, in his self-deprecating humor, often said that though he never became the football star he dreamed of, he learned more lessons on McKinzie Football Field at Eureka College than anywhere else in his life.

« Whatever I am today, » President Reagan announced during a halftime interview of a Big Ten game on national TV in 1981, « I feel Coach Mac had an awful lot to do with it. »

Coach Mac recognized when a boy needed the team more than the team needed the boy. After his freshman year, Reagan wanted to quit football and college, but Coach Mac, known for backing words with actions, walked Reagan to the president’s office to secure a work/study scholarship. Reagan returned to campus to play football, at starting right guard, and to graduate.

From broadcasting to Hollywood to the White House, Reagan never missed an opportunity to publicly thank my grandpa for the role he played in shaping his life. Coach Mac instilled a strong work ethic and a fighting spirit. Reagan never gave up. After he lost the first election, he ran again, and won.

Another not so famous former athlete, who my grandpa guided, was my dad, Jim McKinzie, who went onto influence the lives of countless other athletes (including me and my sister) in his 33 years of coaching at Sterling High School.

As an athlete, I was blessed with exemplary coaches. In addition to my dad and grandpa, I was shaped by Phil Smith at SHS and Jill Hutchison at Illinois State University. In a continuation of the family legacy, I went on to coach my son and daughter at the American School of Paris and International School of Geneva. My daughter had the good fortune to play for Shirley Egner at University of Wisconsin-SP where she was adopted into the Stevens Point community before going on to become the first doctor (pediatrician) in our family.

A coach’s imprint is everlasting, like a stone thrown in a lake, setting off a ripple effect. One life influences another one that goes on to impact a hundred more. Great coaching can’t be measured and not every good coach will have the opportunity to glow in the limelight of a national championship; however, a coach’s worth shines far beyond the record books. Like Coach Mac and Reagan, relationships between coaches and athletes can last a lifetime.

In 1962 at my grandpa’s Northern Illinois University retirement testimonial banquet, the keynote speaker, Ronald Reagan said, « We should wait until after the season, then look at the coach’s record in the hearts and minds and characters of the young men associated with him to see what their contribution has been in later life. The noblest work of man is to build character of other men. By this standard, no one is more deserving of retiring an undefeated champion, than Ralph McKinzie. »

Yet grandpa never really retired. True to character, Coach Mac returned to Eureka as assistant coach, where he donated his salary back to the college, until his final days.

In the real game of life, the only record that really matters has little to do with the final score. Small town coaches at small time schools make major differences in a noble way.

The story of Coach Mac and President Reagan is an endearing reminder to coaches at each level of every sport that even during a losing season, a coach’s influence goes beyond the game. Win or lose, ripple after ripple, great coaches make for a better world, one athlete at a time.

Jim and Lenore McKinzie celebrate Eureka’s 8-2 season and the commemoration of The Coach and The President plaque on McKinzie Football Field

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A Family Affair – Marie’s First Marathon

Image 1_copyToday it is hard to fathom that there was a time pre Title IX (1972) when running, like most sports, was considered unladylike and females were not allowed to join in. I grew up dreaming of one day running a marathon: alas, injury thwarted that goal, so I was especially thrilled that my niece became a runner. No one cheered louder (long distance) when on Sunday, October 20th, Marie stood at the starting line of her first marathon, the IMT Des Moines Marathon 2013. This blog is dedicated to her and to all those marathoners out there.  Run, run, run for those of us who can’t.

What compelled you to train for a marathon?  When I ran on the varsity cross-country team in high school we handed out water at the Twin Cities Marathon. I thought those marathoners were insane but SO COOL!  It’s been on my bucket list ever since.  I missed competitive sports, so to keep the up with my competitive side I need motivation and racing is just that. In June, I ran a half marathon with my cousin, Kayla, and her husband, Steve. As soon as we crossed that finish line she said, ‘We’re signing up for a marathon.’ I thought she was nuts.  But here we are.. marathoners.

What all does marathon training entail?  It is a huge time commitment to training that includes a combination of easy run, speed workout, tempo pace, and then gradually building up to 15, 16, 17, 18, 20 and 21-mile long runs.

What motivated you to maintain your rigorous training schedule?  I was NOT going to be that lameo, who didn’t finish something I set out to do.  If I didn’t train there was no way I would cross that finish line. My friends rarely saw me; I didn’t go out on weekdays or weekends. This marathon became my life.

What kept you going in the marathon when you knee started hurting and you got tired? I didn’t train for 4 months for nothing. I never had any pain while training so when my knee started throbbing after mile 10, I was P.O.ed, but I kept going because NOTHING was going to stop me.(I even texted my mom for Advil and I NEVER take drugs!).  Kayla and I actually ran faster in our last 10k than our first 10k.

Why do you like to run?  I get a runners high crossing the finish line!  Running is my ‘me’ time, I get to think about whatever I want, whenever I want, OUTSIDE!

Completing a marathon takes a huge commitment from the athlete, but Marie credits her family with having the biggest impact. Family – aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, sibling and especially my mom and dad – showed support by biking with me, bringing water, telephoning with encouragement, sending text messages, offering a massage gift card and nine Carlsons cheered us on throughout the whole 26.2 miles. Image 3_copy

What advice would you give anyone thinking about running a marathon?  ANYONE CAN DO IT!  SERIOUSLY.  Yeah, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  And my biggest accomplishment (including college).  BUT if you train for it, you can do it.  A lot of the training is physically draining but most of it is mental.  If you can stop saying you ‘can’t’ and start saying ‘I can’, you will!

What have you benefited from most from your sport?  Running a marathon was my dream.  And I lived my dream. Yeah, I had a lot of help, BUT I RAN IT!  Nobody picked me up and carried me, I ran the whole thing on my own two feet.  After college I was just bumming around and not exercising.  Now I have a pretty good reason to get off the couch and exercise and feel good about myself.

Future goals?   Kayla and I wanted to finish it in under 5 hours; we ran 26.2 miles in 4 hours, 38 minutes.  I just wanted to run a marathon; now I want to run another. John Pupkes, also a marathoner, was the first person to run with me on a long run at the cabin and has encouraged me from day one! I will run the Twin Cities Marathon with him this fall and make it in under 4 hours.

Image 2_copyAnything else you would like to add?  WELL. I CAN’T WALK NORMAL. I have never been in so much pain.  I’ve never been through childbirth of course, but this is pretty darn painful.  My knee feels like it is tearing apart and my ankle feels broken.  BUT I’m going to run another one and another one and another…  OH AND I COULD NOT HAVE DONE WITH THIS WITHOUT MY ENTIRE CARLSON AND MCKINZIE FAMILY!

Run Ri Ri Run!

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Amplatz Children’s Hospital Nurses Encourage Bravery in Kids Fighting Cancer

Nat's white coat ceremony  11-17-07 009At the end of a work day, like many teachers, I am emotionally exhausted. Students come to my door in tears filled with worry about family members battling cancer, failed chemistry tests, and the big bully in the lunchroom. Weary from my own my health battles, I often wonder how I will find the energy to keep giving. Then I receive a surprise call from my daughter in Minneapolis, a pediatrician, who recounts her work week at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital.

What could be more discouraging than children battling an evil disease that destroys their dreams? Rich, poor, black, white, Muslim, Jew, cancer does not discriminate. No one grows up on easy street anymore.

When U of M Amplatz Children’s Hospital opened in 2011, it was designed to help kids heal as painlessly as possible by offering patient and family centered care. Staff wear colorful – orange, magenta, turquoise – scrubs and the bright, customized private rooms are spacious enough to allow families to stay to help the healing process.

The positive energy of the place can be seen in nurses of  Unit 5, who took time before and after hours to shoot a video with nearly 70 staff members dancing to « Brave » by Sara Bareilles, as a way of encouraging their patients.

“We know these kids, know their stories and what they’ve been through,” the nurses say, “but for other people to see how amazing they are and to be affected in the same way just means so much to them, and we hope it continues to inspire other kids.”

Their little video went viral with over 300,000 viewers. Our daughter abhors the limelight, so she ducked during the filming, but she jumped right on the band wagon promoting it.

When Nathalie’s aunt asked for ideas for birthday and Christmas gifts, Nat suggested that in lieu of gifts, we could make donations to Toys-for-Tots , or to Make a Wish, which grants wishes for kids with cancer and other life threatening illnesses.

“A lot of the kids I take care of have had wishes granted by Make-a-Wish, which is a big deal for them and their families,” Nat says.

To the doctors, nurses, families, and children at Amplatz and elsewhere fighting in the face of a despairing disease, as we say in France, « Bon Courage ! »

To my dear daughter, Happy Birthday! May you find the strength to do what you do best : easing children’s pain, calming distraught parents, and encouraging co workers.              .

To the rest of us who think we are weary from our job raising children, think again. We share a privileged role. Whether we are helping kids string together words one syllable at time or battle disease cell by cell, like the Amplatz’s staff implore each of us – teachers, coaches, counselors, parents and grandparents – take time to hug a kid today.

« Be courageous, be brave, be strong

Stay fighting, stay positive, stay courageous

Support the fighters, admire the survivors, honor the taken

Never ever give up hope»

Children are priceless. Each day is a gift. Kindness costs nothing. Positivity perpetuates. Hope prevails.

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WNBA Seattle Storm Superstar Inspires NOVA United Seniors

Simone_Edwards, Seattle 2006

Simone Edwards 2004 Seattle Storm WNBA Champion

During the National Senior Games one woman towered above the rest, only she wasn’t on the court, she was on sidelines coaching ladies half her size and 3 times her age. Simone Edwards, 6’4”, a.k.a. Jamaican Hurricane of the Seattle Storm 2004 WNBA championship team, coached the NOVA United team and spoke on behalf of the National Senior Women’s Basketball Association.

“Every night I heard my mama crying and praying over me and my 3 brothers. We grew up so dirt poor in Kingston, we couldn’t afford new shoes,” Simone said. “I stuffed paper in my old ones to fill the holes. I swore that if I ever make it outta there, I’d help Mama and the kids back home.”

Simone, who never played basketball in high school, would go on to create the Simone4Children foundation to assist economically disadvantaged children in Seattle and Jamaica.

Spotted at a track meet by a scout, Simone was offered a scholarship to play at Seminole Junior College in Oklahoma. She recounted how bizarre it felt for a black girl to be living in the “land of cowboys and Indians.” One day when she walked out of the gym, she fell to her knees thinking that the world was coming to an end.

“Mama, the Lord done had it now. He’s shooting at us from heaven! I’d never seen hail before.”

Simone left the Wild West and moved to the cornfields at the University of Iowa to play for Vivian Stringer.

“I won Kodak All-American honors, and when I saw the award, I said ‘you gotta to change the name. If Mama see this, she gonna kill me. I’m not American, I am Jamaican!’”

Simone also went onto play overseas in Israel, Italy, Spain, and Hungary.

2012 All NOVA

NOVA United Senior Women’s Basketball Players

“I love teaching the game,” said Edwards. “I was given the opportunity to get a scholarship, play basketball and learn from the best coaches in the world. Now, I take the knowledge I gained throughout the years and give back by teaching the game.”

Over our dinner at the National Senior Women’s Basketball Association social, the former assistant coach at George Mason, confided in me, “I love coaching these ladies best. It’s not like coaching young girls that think they know it all. These women never had a chance to play growing up; they want to learn.”

Simone’s link to NOVA United was through one of the most unassuming connectors of all, Helen White, co-founded NOVA United Senior Women’s Basketball Association a nonprofit organization that promotes senior women’s basketball in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, DC and West Virginia. White was selected as Humana Hero Athlete of the Month last April; however, she prefers to spotlight her teammates. In Cleveland, Helen coached NOVA United’s 70+ team to a third place finish in the AA flight.  Her 60+ team won a silver medal in the AA flight. She played in Women’s 60+ Pickleball Singles tournament and earned a silver medal as an unknown underdog and came through the loser’s bracket to meet the #1 seed for the gold.

Helen and Pat McKinzie

With Helen White HUMANA Athlete of the Month
NOVA United & NSWBA

But for all her athletic accomplishments, White is best known for her selfless promotion of the game and fitness for seniors. For an encore, she completed her master’s degree in sports management with emphasis on senior sports and fitness at George Washington University before her sixtieth birthday. And now White will also be remembered for connecting the Jamaican Hurricane – the NOVA United ladies self-proclaimed worst nightmare and biggest fan – to the NOVA United Team.

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Coach McKinzie, A College Ball Field, Teammates ‘til the End of Time

Coach Mac - 1950

Coach Mac – 1950

Anyone affiliated with sport knows that team connections can last lifetimes; lessons learned on the field have an everlasting impact. I witnessed this with the teams I played for and coached. However few teams can compare to the extraordinary bond created by the 1950-51 back-to-back Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship baseball team that my grandfather coached at Northern Illinois University.

At that time no one could imagine that seven decades later those same ball players would stay in contact, reuniting annually to play golf, swap stories over a meal and commemorate their time as Huskies playing baseball for Coach Mac. “The tradition has gone on for 40 some years,” Grant Cummings, an outfielder, said, “We have been getting together for so long no one can remember when we held our first of the first reunions.”

“We revered your grandpa,” Bill Eiserman, First Team All Interstate Athletic Conference catcher and captain, told me. “We won a lot of games, but he taught us that being a good person is more important than winning. He built character.”

“He taught a lot of lessons,” Bill continued. “But that was the greatest. I tried to impart that in all the teams that I coached. Everybody loves to win – not every team has the talent to win – but everyone can still take that valuable lesson away from the game.”

McKinzie, a seven time Hall of Fame Coach served as head basketball coach where he also won 3 state conferences in 8 years, before becoming head baseball coach. He also served as tennis, track and field coach, as well as an assistant football coach and athletic trainer at NIU from 1940-63. Though he officially retired from NIU in 1963, he continued coaching football into his nineties at his own alma mater, Eureka College.

Every year until my grandpa’s death at the age of 96, my dad, a dedicated son also part of that team, made sure Coach Mac made it to the annual baseball reunion.

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NIU-baseball-team-1950-51

Once a year the guys rally past personal setbacks, the loss of loved ones, and limitations due to declining health, to gather in celebration of not so much their ol’ double plays and home runs, but to honor the memory of the coach who shaped their lives and the camaraderie that developed under his leadership.

“Every spring we drove down to New Orleans for a tournament, stopping to play games along the way,” Cummings told me, a trip that I found remarkable for that time period.

“I wasn’t a drinker,” my dad said, “so I ordered a coke on our night out on the town. The guys still razz me; my coke cost more than those fancy cocktails everybody else was drinking.”

Typically, college stadiums are named for big-time alumni donors. My grandpa, son of a tenet farmer, lived modestly even donating his coaching salary back to Eureka College in his later years. He never made a fortune coaching, but he sure made friends.

In the late 80s, fueled by Bill Eiserman, Jack Brumm, Bud Nangle, former SID at NIU, and including the support of my grandpa’s Eureka College football player, President Ronald Reagan, the 1950-51 NIU team instigated naming the NIU baseball diamond, Ralph McKinzie Field. Mike Korcek, who can still recount the win-loss record of every team during his tenure as NIU’s sports information director, and Cary Groth, one of the first female large college athletic directors were also instrumental in the process.

On May 8, 1993, at the dedication ceremonies, my dad threw the game-opening pitch. “Poor Bill scooped my pitch out of the dirt,” my dad said and chuckled. “Bill kept me from looking bad, my pitch never made it cross the plate. I was an outfielder, not a pitcher.”

NIU Hall of Fame induction 10.10.2007 Front-Kranz, Moreno, Brumm, Neukirch, Giudici, Meath, Leon, Eiserman Back-Davis, McKinzie, Wasco, Cummings, Stap, Bedrosian

NIU Hall of Fame induction 10.10.2007
Front-Kranz, Moreno, Brumm, Neukirch, Giudici, Meath, Leon, Eiserman
Back-Davis, McKinzie, Wasco, Cummings, Stap, Bedrosian

My grandpa won countless honors; the NIU baseball field and Eureka College football field bear his name. But accolades aside, what made my Coach Mac proudest, was seeing what kind of men his players became.

Each member of the 1950-51 NIU team became successful in his own field, as high school and college teachers, coaches and athletic directors and exemplary civic leaders in business and education.

My grandpa also played a key role in my life. I miss him to this day, so I find comfort knowing his name lives on in the hearts of his former athletes.

These ol’ ball players have done him proud in turn by serving their family, community and country. The field may bear Ralph McKinzie’s name, but it carries the spirit of the 1950-51 ball team.

Athletes that step up to the plate at NIU today have no idea who Coach Mac was, still I hope that my grandpa’s moral standards seep into their souls through the diamond dust on that field of dreams.

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