Family, Personal

Memorial Day — Utah Style

Memorial Day in the Washington, D.C. area meant a sea of flags waving brilliantly through Arlington Cemetery.

It meant Rolling Thunder motorcyclists descending upon the nation’s capital to bring public attention to prisoners of war and those missing in action.

And, it meant one of our favorite traditions of gathering with friends on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol for the annual Memorial Day concert.

There is nothing quite like a Washington, D.C. Memorial Day — especially sitting on the lawn of the Capitol, listening to patriotic music and then watching an array of fireworks light up the city from the Washington Monument.

Utah, however, has its own style of Memorial Day.

The first year we lived here, I took my mom to the cemeteries about a week before Memorial Day to place flowers on the graves of our relatives. It was a sweet, tender tradition that she’d kept up her entire life. I didn’t realize then that I’d be needing to decorate her grave the following year!

Last year, after she died, I went to the grocery store and saw massive amounts of mums lining the sidewalks leading to the grocery stores. I wondered why mums were out so early. I thought they were fall flowers. (Obviously, I’m not always very observant.)

As it got closer to Memorial Day, my sister, who lives about three hours south, said, “Don’t forget to decorate the graves now that mom’s not here to do it.”

I had so many questions. I hadn’t paid attention to all the details of this new job.

Whose graves? Where do I get the flowers? How do I keep them from blowing over in all the Utah wind? How do I find all the graves?

“You know all the mums you’ve seen everywhere? Those are the flowers you buy,” she said. “You take them to all the family graves. And you go to the dry cleaners and buy hangers, straighten them out, cut them into two pieces, and shape them like hooks. The hook end goes in the plant and the other end goes in the ground. That keeps them from tipping over in the wind.”

We were such Memorial Day rookies last year that we actually went on Memorial Day. The cemeteries were packed. It was hard to drive on the streets and parking was scarce. Some families took lawn chairs and had picnics near their family graves. There were reunions everywhere as family members met and reminisced. This was something we’d never seen before.

So that’s why mom went earlier in the week, I thought.

I realized too that I hadn’t paid close attention to the locations of all the graves as I drove my mother to the cemeteries. So, Doug and I did a lot of looking at maps, calling relatives, and traipsing around, trying to find our family graves.

We vowed to be better prepared this year. So, as soon as we saw the mums for sale, we bought them. My brother got in on the tradition and gathered up and “built” (his word) the hangers to secure the plants to the ground. Then, last Friday, we went to the graves. It took some time to find them all but we did it.

And, I have to say, it was a sweet, new tradition. I felt more connected to my family and my Utah roots.

We did a lot of reminiscing — remembering how mom threatened to haunt us if we ever put plastic flowers on her grave, and how she took a watering can and a broom to clean off the debris around the headstones. I realized how much I never noticed about this family tradition.

As you know if you’ve been reading my blog, it’s been a year of loss. So, we had a couple more graves to visit, including my mom’s and my older brother’s. But there was something tender about going to these family graves and honoring them — their lives and legacies.

As I saw all the flowers, flags and wreaths on all the graves and the crowds of families gathered together to honor their ancestors, it reminded me of the power and lasting love of families.

It was not be like seeing the Rolling Thunder motorcyclists roar down the DC streets.

It wasn’t like seeing 14,000 flags waving at Arlington Cemetery.

And, it definitely wasn’t like listening to a concert on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol or seeing the fireworks burst over the city.

It wasn’t a national celebration on a grand scale this year. But, it may have been a little more personal, intimate and sentimental than other Memorial Days I’ve celebrated.

So, while we paused to honor the armed forces who have protected us on the world stage and on the front lines, we also paid tribute to the family members who have loved and protected us on the most basic level of the home front.

It made me deeply grateful for both.

Change, Friends, Personal

Funeral for a Friend

Yesterday, I was telling Doug about how I spent my day — at a funeral for a friend, Kay Banks Robbins, and then at a luncheon with some of my childhood friends. He said, “That sounds like a blog.”

Thanks for the idea, Doug.

Kay Robbins Banks

Kay was one of the funniest people I ever knew. She was a quiet presence in the room, but with one comment, she had us all in giggle fits. We laughed and cried our way through her beautiful funeral.

There’s something about childhood friends you just can’t replace.

Lisa Whelchel

I remembered Kay performing a hilarious parody of Olympic sportscasters when we were about 12 years old. She was a one-woman comedy act using the funniest voices and accents to announce events like the shot put and synchronized swimming.

The stories of her pranks are legendary. As her sister said, “she was usually close to the center of every prank.” For example, it was so thoughtful of her to place visual aids in the high school library books, like a piece of bologna in the “B” section of the dictionary. 

As we sat reminiscing at lunch at a restaurant on Main Street of our hometown, I thought of a quote from one of my favorite writers.

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.”

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You can’t go to a funeral for an old friend or have lunch with friends you’ve known since elementary or middle school and not think about the person you used to be. Even if you want to forget, they will remind you!

While we told stories about our great friend, Kay, we pulled up old photos that triggered some great memories.

One of the photos I found recently was the one below of our high school Booster Activity Club.

The Booster Activity Club. I’m the third from the right on the middle row

Can you picture this lovely group of formally dressed teenagers wanting to be in this club so much that they would endure a 1970s high school version of hazing?

Yes, we pushed pennies down the middle of Main Street with molasses slathered on our noses to help the pennies stay put.

We wore blindfolds and and swallowed what we thought were goldfish. (They turned out to be slimy peaches, but we didn’t know that until after we swallowed.)

And, we did all of this voluntarily.

As I left our day together, I thought of all these funny Main Street memories, and I thought of how much we will miss Kay, how there will forever be a hole in our group of friends.

We will miss her laughter, stories, friendship and fun, but we will never forget her.

We will remember the stories her children shared at her funeral like how she accidentally used cooking spray for mosquito repellant and how she was known as the Mary Poppins of Utah because she created fun and adventure everywhere she went, and she was practically perfect in every way.

We will remember her as one of our lifelong, forever friends.

When they carried Kay’s casket out of the chapel, one of my friend’s reached over and held my hand as our eyes filled with tears.

I thought about all the years that have passed and all the things that have changed in our lives, yet there we were together as if nothing had changed at all.

At the end of our luncheon, a man came up to our table and said, “I don’t know who you are but I can tell you sure have fun together!”

It reminded me of this meme…

Religion

Thank you, President Nelson

In our Church’s semi-annual general conference in October, our prophet President Russell M. Nelson issued a challenge to the women of the Church.

President Nelson

He asked us to read The Book of Mormon before January 1st and to prayerfully study it with full purpose of heart. He also asked us to mark each verse that speaks of or refers to Christ.

I took on this challenge and it was one of the best experiences of my life. And, guess what? Christ is mentioned on almost every page. I nearly marked every verse in the book.

I finished reading it December 6th while still in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I wrote in my journal: “After I finished the Book of Mormon, I held it in my hands for a few minutes, not quite ready to set it down and walk away. I developed a new relationship with it. It occupied so much of my time here, and became my beach hobby, my past time. My goal was to finish it before going home.

“When I closed the book, I kept it close for a while, feeling its power, sweetness and goodness. It felt like Christmas to me — like holding the Christ child in a soft-backed little blue book that an ancient prophet named Mormon compiled.

“It felt like Christmas spirit all typed up, bound and published for me to savor, treasure and relish. It felt like a fire on a cold night, a soft handkerchief wiping away a tear, a hug from God saying, ‘It’s all going to be okay — whatever you’ve been through, whatever you’re going through and whatever is ahead of you, it’s all going to be okay.'”

I took a few minutes to write my feelings in the back of the book, and then I put it down on a table and just stared at it. Without it in my hands, I instantly felt lonelier somehow — filled, inspired and deeply joyful, but like my time with it was over too soon.

I discovered Christ on nearly every page — thousands of times in hundreds of ways. His many titles explain his many roles and purposes. The verbs associated with him explain his power in our lives.

While reading, I started to write a list of all the verbs associated with Christ, but the list became too long.

Some of them included in just the first few chapters tell so much about the character of Christ.

He loved, he went forth, he healed, he cast out unclean spirits, he was lifted up upon the cross and slain, he descended out of heaven, he came down and showed himself, he covenanted, he visited, he saved, he took away stumbling blocks, he grieved, he gave strength, he showed his power, he ministered, he protected, he delivered. The list goes on and on.

If you had asked me to explain the Book of Mormon before meeting this challenge, I would have said something like… it is a book about an ancient civilization, and a man named Lehi and his family and how they left Jerusalem and went into the wilderness; and how some of the family remained righteous and some were wicked… It is about how Christ visited them and taught them his gospel.

That description seems so inadequate and even convoluted to me now. After marking every reference to Christ, now I would say simply the book is about Jesus Christ.

I would agree with our first prophet, Joseph Smith, that, “The Book of Mormon is the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”

I am grateful for the prophet’s challenge, for the opportunity to power through the Book of Mormon within a couple months, focusing on Jesus Christ, his life and teachings. It made for one of the sweetest Christmases of my life, and left me with a new love of the book that has defined my religion since its publication in 1830.

Thank you, President Nelson for issuing an inspired challenge and for the fulfillment of the blessings you promised would follow. You promised that “changes, even miracles would begin to happen.”

I think the change and the miracle I have experienced is knowing Christ in a different, better way; understanding his gospel on a deeper level, and seeing that the power of the Book of Mormon lies in the fact that it is a book that is ALL about Jesus Christ.

I wonder what this new, bold prophet will challenge us next. He told us to buckle up for more to come, “Eat your vitamin pills. Get some rest. It’s going to be exciting,” he said.

I can’t wait. If the blessings are anything like the ones I felt from accepting his Book of Mormon challenge, there are more good things to come under the leadership of this energetic 94-year old prophet.

If you’d like a copy of the book, let me know or request one here.

beach

A Hallmark Christmas in the Making

Our early December in Avon, North Carolina has had the charm of a Hallmark Christmas movie.

There are a few exceptions, of course.

…We didn’t end up here accidentally.

….We’re not snowed in or trapped here by inclement weather. 

…We didn’t start out hating Christmas or each other.

…We aren’t estranged from anyone.

But it has had all the smiles, warmth, and spirit of a good Christmas movie.

Imagine the scene — a remote fishing/ surfing village on a sandbar in the Atlantic Ocean — almost as far out as you can go on a little strip of sand.

All the tourists have gone home.

Many of the small shops and local restaurants have closed for the season.

Most of the beach houses around us are vacant.

We are usually the only two people on the beach.

There are no malls, no Santas, no professionally decorated trees, houses or excessive light shows in sight.

No snow, no crowds, no hustle or bustle.

Just the ocean, a few select cafes and speciality shops, Doug and me.

When we go to dinner, we are usually the only two people in a modest, dimly lit, locally owned restaurant.

We linger over dinner and watch the sunset while listening to the quiet hum of Christmas music.

And we talk about Christmas — not about what gifts to buy or how to keep everyone entertained but about the Christ child.

Last night, Doug said, “Sometimes when I think about the story of Christ’s birth, I get emotional wondering what it was like in heaven when God sent that little baby to earth. Were they joyful? What was happening there when the Christmas story unfolded here?”

We wonder about that for a minute and realize that we are feeling the Christmas spirit envelop us in this cozy little spot by the sea.

We think the warmth of the environment and the laid back vibe allow for it and even seem to invite it.

We start imagining coming back another year with our family for a simple, scaled-back Avon Christmas.

We imagine all of us leaving the hubbub of our normal Christmas celebrations — the parties, the shopping, the rushing from here to there, the decorating — all of it.

We dream of Christmas here in this quaint, quiet little village where conversations about Christ and the real meaning of Christmas come easier because there is time for conversation and contemplation.

We are not in a hurry to go anywhere, do anything. It’s a luxury we don’t always enjoy in December.

We imagine our family exploring the beach with us — finding shells for ornaments, and decorating a live Christmas tree from the tree lot down the street while listening to Annie and Josh sing Christmas carols while playing their ukuleles.

We imagine them coming with us to walk the streets in the little seaside town of Manteo, NC where Christmas lights are strewn randomly across city streets and where Christmas decorations consist of street lamp lights in the shapes of anchors, fish, and stars.

We imagine a day trip on the ferry to Ocracoke where we just enjoy the sights of the sea and then browse through the surf shop as the only customers of the day.

We imagine taking the ferry back and savoring the sunset, the water splashing up onto the ferry, and the cold wind on our faces. 

We imagine it because it’s been our experience for the last few weeks and we want to share it.

We feel like we have been living in a Hallmark movie where everyone feels restored, happy, spiritually fed and content just sipping on a hot cup of cocoa and appreciating the peace and beauty of the holiday season.

We imagine all of this being enough for Christmas — maybe more than enough.

We’ll be leaving this piece of paradise in a few days and returning to the excitement of a traditional Christmas with all the fun of shopping, presents, lights and baking, but for now, we are soaking up a different kind of kickoff to the holidays and dreaming of doing it all again next year.

Advice, Memoir, Relationships

The Gratitude Letter

To many of my friends and family, my husband Doug is known as Mr. Happy.

He has a degree from University of Pennsylvania in Applied Positive Psychology.

 

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He has fun finding new ways to apply the principles of positive psychology in his consulting work and even in our family.

Since it’s November, the month we celebrate gratitude, it’s the perfect time to share an experience I had with a positive psychology “intervention” called The Gratitude Letter.

thank-you-515514_1920Basically, you choose someone who has made a positive difference in your life and you write him or her a letter explaining a specific thing they did that made a difference and how it affected you. Then, you visit that person, read them the letter, and give them the letter before you leave.

I chose to write my letter to my brother, Kelly, who had been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and given only weeks to live.

kelly & cambree

I confess it was a little awkward. I explained the rules of the game and made him sit quietly and listen to me while I read the letter aloud to him.

Let’s just say sitting quietly and listening wasn’t his greatest strength in life… but he did it. He gave me a few minutes of his complete, undivided attention.

In the letter, I wrote about our mutual dislike for each other as teenagers. My mother said that during those years, “the tension was so thick, you could cut it with a knife.”

I remember that tension well. So did he.

After high school graduation, he went off for a job in Wyoming and I went off to college.

architecture-3124331_1920One day, I went to the mailbox in my college dorm and found a letter from him.

I stared at the envelope for the longest time trying to imagine what he would write in a letter to me.

I took it to my room, opened it carefully with equal doses of curiosity and wariness.

I was shocked to read a very kind, warm letter from him. He said he loved me and missed me. He asked me how I liked college. He told me about his job, his life, his friends.

Did you catch that part where he said he loved me and missed me?

I just sat on my bed and cried. I couldn’t believe that after all those years of barely speaking to each other, he took the time to write me a letter and to tell me he loved and missed me.

The next time we were both home for the weekend, he drove me to Terry’s Drive-in on Main Street of our hometown and bought me a Coke, took me for a ride, and wanted to know everything about my life.

That letter and the Coke run to Terry’s changed everything between us. It was like all the years of anger just slipped gently away and we became best friends like we were before junior high and high school transformed us into uptight angsty teenagers.

I told him I was grateful he had the courage to write me that letter and for all the healing that took place after that.

He smiled and said he had forgotten about writing me the letter. He couldn’t remember what initiated the change in our relationship.

To me, it was crystal clear. He initiated the change and I was forever grateful.

He said, “If you had a tear reading the letter, I can only imagine the tears I had writing it.”

It was a sweet moment and I was glad I did it.

I’m especially glad now since he died a few days later.

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In this month of Thanksgiving, who could you thank?

Give it some thought and make it a goal to write, deliver and read a gratitude letter to someone who made a difference in your life.

It might surprise you what a difference it will make in your life now.

I’d love to know how it goes…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family

He’s as free as a bird now…

In mid-July, my older brother, Kelly, ended up in ICU. A few weeks later, he left with a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis and days/weeks to live.

As we reeled from this news, just a few months after my mom’s unexpected death, Kelly said, “Here’s how this is going to go down.”

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Kelly giving my daughter Annie some of his old fishing gear

Then he told us all how he wanted to spend the last few weeks of his life.

“First, there will be a no-sadness, no-mourning zone around me. I’ve had a good life. I have a lot of good memories. We’re going to reminisce, laugh and remember the good times. We’re not going to cry and be sad. My goal will be to make everyone around me laugh and smile until I roll out of here.”

And, that’s exactly what he did.

He wanted me to help him get his affairs in order, write his obituary, stay positive, and make him my mom’s favorite family meal — cheesy meatloaf, baked potatoes, and salad. 

My brother Mark asked him if he was afraid. He calmly said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I’m pretty sure about where I’m going. I’m just a little nervous about what it’s going to take to get from here to there.”

Luckily for him, it didn’t take much.

He lived about three weeks after coming home from the hospital, and then died peacefully in his sleep.

So, in that three weeks, he entertained us with his endless stories, jokes and funny memories.

He also had time to tell us exactly what he wanted in terms of his end-of-life services.

He wanted an outdoor celebration of a life well-lived, not a solemn, sad funeral in a church.

He wanted a catered lunch in the canyon, a live rock ’n roll band playing Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and everyone sharing happy stories and good memories.

 

bird animal freedom fly
I’m as free as a bird now…

He also wanted us to share his real life story, not the  varnished, polished, perfected, version of his life.

He wanted people to know his life wasn’t easy, but that he “played the hand he was dealt.”

He was dealt a pretty tough hand, including a leg amputation that left him disabled and wheelchair bound for the last 12 years.

For an avid fisherman, hunter, outdoorsman and builder, learning he would spend the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair was a devastating blow.

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Even with that crushing news, however, he never complained.

In the beginning, he cycled through his share of sadness, grief, and shock, and even had a significant heart attack not long after the amputation, but he took it all with remarkable courage, optimism, and characteristically good humor, even to the point of always sporting one red converse high-top sneaker as he signature shoe style.

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He epitomized the life Hunter Thompson described when he said, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, worn out, and loudly proclaiming… Wow! What a ride!”

That was Kelly.

Life is definitely not the same without him. It is quieter, less fun, and a lot more lonely.

Kelly and I were Irish twins — just 10-months apart. We spent our lives explaining that even though we were in the same grade all through school and just happened to look very much alike, we were not twins.

And after all those years of saying, “No, we’re not twins,” I have an inkling of what it must be like for one twin to lose another and to feel like a twinless twin, like you’ve lost a part of yourself.

christmas

While my religious beliefs assure me that he is in paradise, resting from his troubles, cares and sorrows,  I don’t think he’ll rest for too long. In fact, I’m sure the heavenly angels weren’t quite ready for him when he skidded into heaven and started reporting on the wild, rambunctious ride that was his life.

I bet they haven’t had a quiet, dull moment since he got there. 

And, lucky for them, because we sure miss him down here …

 

 

Community, Memoir

Mourning the loss of local newspapers

I have a new cause.

I want to revive small town newspapers.

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I know that’s beyond my capacity, and that hometown papers are quaint relics now,  but I wish I could wave a magic wand (or hit an old typewriter key) and restore them in all the small towns across America.

The demise of these papers has left a void that large newspapers (also sadly failing) and social media can’t fill.

Social media doesn’t create or sustain a sense of community like a town newspaper.

Scrolling through a Facebook feed and seeing an occasional, brief newsy post does not come close to holding a newspaper in your hands and reading about everything happening in town.

Now, keep in mind, I majored in journalism back in journalism’s heydays, right after Nixon and Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein. Back then, strong, robust, independent newspapers were the norm.

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Every town had its own newspaper. Seems quaint now — like back in the “olden days.”

If you can imagine it, we even learned about things like “objectivity” in journalism classes.

It was drilled into our heads that reporters should tell both sides of a story.

We learned the difference between news stories and opinion pieces.

Yes, it was a different world then.

While a student, I spent a summer as the editor of The Springville Herald, my hometown newspaper. Then, I became the editor of the university’s student newspaper — The Utah Statesman.  

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Yes, that’s Geraldo Rivera back in the 70s, teaching us about journalism as the institution of social change.

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This is how The Statesman looked back in the 70s. 

I loved the newspaper world — all of it.  I loved the concept of gathering news, trying to present it fairly, and making the university or the town seem smaller, more intimate, more unified by keeping people informed about what was going on where they lived and worked.

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After college, I worked in the press department for U.S. Senator Jake Garn from Utah. One of my favorite parts of the job was traveling around the State of Utah, visiting small-town newspaper editors. It gave me a sense of not just what was happening, but what mattered to people in different parts of the state.

It was always abundantly clear by these visits and by reading the different papers that what people cared about in Beaver, Utah was different than what mattered to people in Tremonton. Each different newspaper captured the essence of its people, its geography,  challenges, and unique personality.

After I quit working on the Hill, my mom always gifted me an annual subscription to The Springville Herald. I loved when it showed up in my mailbox.

I loved knowing about everything happening in my hometown —  who was celebrating a first birthday, who was getting married, the issues before the town council, who won the local golf tournament or football championship, which couples were celebrating big anniversaries, and who was running for office.

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This is a photo from The Springville Herald of the football team — Snow Dairy — that my dad sponsored and coached. My dad is in the upper left corner. My brother, Kelly, is #62 in front of him.

Since my mom passed away a few months ago, I keep running into old family friends who didn’t know she died. They all say, “I miss The Springville Herald. That paper always kept me updated on things like that.”

I miss The Springville Herald too — and all the other newspapers that have folded. I miss the local flair, the feature stories that capture the flavor of a town and its people.

When I worked at The Springville Herald, I wrote a feature story about a local character named Ivan Tryfonas. I called him “the town crier” because he roamed the town keeping everyone informed about what was happening.

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“At a glance,” I wrote, “Ivan looks as though he could fill a doorway with ease and take on the biggest of athletes without hassle. But, Ivan uses his strength to work for the betterment of the community.”

His size and omnipresence on Main Street often made him an intimidating figure in town. But, the article personalized him, and helped people see the gentle side of someone they may have feared.

I heard he couldn’t stop smiling after that article was published. He died five years later of a heart attack. I’m glad I captured his one-of-a-kind presence in our hometown.

Personalizing a man like Ivan is just one of the benefits of a local newspaper. I always liked reading about the new businesses, art exhibits, and plays in town. All of that often seems to go unnoticed now. A banner across Main Street hardly does the same thing as the full story and photos in a newspaper.

Some towns have tried to make up for the loss of newspapers by putting a few local stories in a newsletter that’s tucked in with the city bill. But, that hardly serves the same purpose, and is of no worth at all to those who pay their bills online.

When we first moved to Herndon, Virginia, there were at least three newspapers — The Observer, The Connection and the Times. They made our town tucked into the sprawling Washington, D.C. suburbs seem homey and unified. It gave us a separate identity from the broader D.C. metro area. But, one by one, they all went out of business.

You can still get a taste of the value of old newspapers, by visiting newspapers.com.

You’ll be surprised at the gems you can find there. (It is primarily a genealogy site.)

I found the actual story about Ivan and a lot of stories about my family — including a story about my parents’ wedding that described my mother’s dress in great detail and even listed everyone in her wedding party. These are priceless gems.

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Yes, I’m mourning the loss of newspapers.

I know it’s unrealistic to hope for a revival of  small town newspapers, but an old journalism student from the 70s can hope and reminisce, right?

Anybody with me on this?