Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A 1979 interview with Mike Max & reflections on community journalism June 12, 2020

A CARDBOARD BOX, stacked in an under-the-roof storage space on the second floor of my house, holds layers of yellowed newspaper clippings. Not stories of personal value because they are about me or my family. But rather stories I wrote, as a community journalist.

In March 1978, newly-graduated with a mass communications degree from Mankato State (now Minnesota State University, Mankato), I started my multi-faceted job at The Gaylord Hub. I was the first-ever journalist hired at the small rural weekly in Gaylord, the county seat of Sibley County. Prior to that, family at the then second-generation family-owned paper covered all the editorial work.

I did everything from writing news stories and features to taking and printing photos to writing headlines to going to the printing plant and then swinging canvas bags full of newspapers into the back of a van for delivery to the post office. I learned nearly every aspect of community newspapers except selling and designing ads and covering sports. Under the guidance of a supportive, encouraging and kind editor and publisher, Jim Deis, I grew my skills and my passion for small town community journalism.

 

A feature I wrote in 1979 republished in the June 4, 2020, issue of The Gaylord Hub.

 

Forty years after I left The Hub, the newspaper still arrives weekly in my mailbox. Jim passed many years ago. His son, Joe, just a kid when I worked at the paper, now serves as the third-generation editor and publisher. And last week he republished a feature, No need for the bubble gum, I wrote in July 1979. Perhaps my one and only sports story. I interviewed the Max brothers—Mike and Marc—for a feature about their sports card collection.

I recall going to the brothers’ home in Lakeside Acres and the piles and piles of bagged, boxed and loose cards numbering some 7,000. But I didn’t remember details of that interview with the 9 and 14-year-olds. So rereading that story I wrote 41 years ago proved entertaining, especially considering where one of those boys landed. Mike Max went on to become the sports director for WCCO-TV in the Twin Cities. And more recently, he expanded to hard news by covering the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

 

WCCO personality Mike Max, up close in a photo I took in 1979. Photo by Audrey Kletscher from The Gaylord Hub.

 

But back to that 1979 feature I wrote. Here’s my favorite quote from Mike:

“I was always interested in sports. I saw packs (of collector cards and bubble gum), so I would sneak some money and buy a whole bunch,” he said.

That was despite his mother’s orders to buy “only one pack.” He would buy about eight packs, hide seven in his pocket and show his mom the “one pack” he had bought.

Barb Max said she found out about her son’s tricks, but years later.

I love that part of the story.

But I find equally humorous this paragraph from my feature:

The two plan on keeping their cards, but speculate on selling some of them if the price is right. “I’ll save them until I get real old,” Marc said. “I’ll save them until they’re worth more and more, but maybe someday sell them if I need money real bad.”

 

A section of the republished story from 1979.

 

Reflecting on that feature of four decades ago, I am reminded of the importance of community newspapers. These are the stories we are losing as more and more small town weekly newspapers, and even some dailies, are folding. Declines in advertising revenue and subscribers, rising expenses and the growth of online media alternatives have all factored into the demise of print journalism. I can’t even begin to tell you how much that saddens me. We are losing such a valuable part of our communities. The watchdogs. The storytellers. The historians. The source of information about public meetings, community events, deaths—news in general. The media is too often under attack, blamed for reporting too much bad news. Don’t kill the messenger, I say.

I will always remain grateful for the two years I worked as The Cub from the Hub, a name tagged to me while in Gaylord. There I learned and grew as a writer, always striving for integrity, honesty and balanced reporting. By far, feature writing proved the most enjoyable aspect of my work. From Gaylord, I would go on to report for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch, The Mankato Free Press (St. James bureau), The Owatonna People’s Press and The Northfield News. Some were temporary fill-in jobs, others full-time. But no matter where I worked, I worked long, hard hours at low pay to cover the community. I reported the hard news and attended endless city council/school board/county board meetings into the late hours of the night. And sometimes I wrote, too, about kids who collect sports cards. Kids like Mike Max and his younger brother, Marc.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Not your typical Valentine’s Day story February 14, 2020

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

That memorable quote from the movie Forrest Gump rings so true in life. To a point. With a box of chocolates, you can choose. You can use the cheat sheet to find your preferred flavor. Let’s call that planning. Or you can take a risk and just grab a chocolate, any chocolate.

And then you bite into the sweet morsel and it’s either exactly what you expected, a disappointment or a sweet surprise.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like that. Some days all goes exactly as we plan. Other days not so much. And then there are those days when you simply want to take the entire box of chocolates and toss them out because the “you never know what you’re gonna get” part is just too much to handle.

Yeah, this seems rather heavy to write about on Valentine’s Day. But there’s a reason. The other evening, while donating blood, I struck up a conversation with the young woman drawing my blood. I noticed a tattoo on her arm and inquired about the poetic sentence inked thereon. I can’t recall the exact wording, but it was beautiful and honored the loved one who penned it. Her brother. Today marks exactly six months since his unexpected death.

I told her how sorry I was for her loss. And then she asked if I wanted to hear the story behind her tattoo and that’s when the phlebotomist told me about her brother and how they’d always wanted to get the same tattoo and now it was too late. And then, while paging through her brother’s journals, she found the quote that now graces her arm.

He was a writer. And a veteran. I looked up his obit online. He struggled, after two deployments, to readjust to life.

As I sat on the table, blood flowing from my vein into a bag that would bring life-saving blood to someone, I considered this young woman, her brother and the loss of his life. She wasn’t bitter. She wasn’t angry. Sad, yes. Yet, she had no choice but to go on with life, she said. I admired her positive attitude in the newness of her grief.

She talked, too, about how writing helps her deal with her loss. Like me, she holds a degree in communications, is a published writer and loves writing. It was reaffirming, even in the darkness of the topic which prompted our conversation, to talk shop with someone who loves the craft as much as I do. I encouraged her to keep writing. She smiled. And I felt that in some way perhaps I’d helped her. And myself. We agreed that writing is therapeutic and that we can’t allow life to get in the way of our writing. No more excuses.

And then, four minutes and 17 seconds after blood began flowing, the collection bag was full and we wrapped up our conversation while she filled tubes and wrapped my arm in tape. I thanked her. And it wasn’t just for her work with the Red Cross.

There’s more.

As I sat at the snack and recovery table, I commented on a patriotic tattoo covering nearly the entire right arm of a blood donor. It honors those who serve, he said. And then the young man directly across the table—the father of three young children who came with his wife to donate—shared that he’s a veteran. His wife, too. She was by this time already giving blood. We thanked him for his service, which includes several deployments. I couldn’t help but think of the other vet, the brother gone.

This felt like one of those moments meant to be. Here a small group of people came together on a bitterly cold Minnesota winter evening to donate blood at the local Eagles Club. And by the time we all left, we felt a connection, bonding over tattoos and stories and a genuine care and appreciation for one another.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. But on this evening we got the choicest of chocolates. Without a cheat sheet. Without any planning or effort on our parts. Because sometimes life brings sweet surprises when we most need them.

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FYI: I welcome any chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers! Make today the day you will reach out to someone, ask a question, listen to a story, offer support, show compassion and love.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Through a SoMinn Lens August 27, 2019

 

 

AS A CREATIVE, I always appreciate the opportunity to get my work out to a broader audience. I want to share my images and words. Not because I possess some big ego. But rather I want others to view the world around them through an artful perspective. With joy. With appreciation. Through the creative lens of a writer and photographer who seeks to notice the details within the wider picture, to engage all the senses. I strive for that in my art.

My newest creative endeavor landed me at Southern Minn Scene, a Southern Minnesota arts, entertainment and lifestyle magazine. The publication’s coverage area stretches from just south of the Twin Cities metro to the Minnesota/Iowa border and from the Mississippi River on the east to Mankato on the west (although I aim to stretch that western boundary farther west toward my native prairie).

Each month I’ll craft a photo essay, accompanied by several paragraphs of text, in a column titled Through a SoMinn Lens. If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, you’ll see familiar images. And other photos I haven’t previously published here. All the copy, though, will be new with my column leaning toward poetic prose. As a published poet, I value that art form. Journalistic style writing is reserved for the occasional features I will also pen for Southern Minn Scene.

 

 

My column debuts in the just-published September issue, which you can read online by clicking here. I focus on Wabasha’s SeptOberfest, a two-month celebration of autumn. I love this Mississippi River town any time of year for its natural and historic beauty, but especially during this family-friendly event.

 

 

I also crafted a feature on the annual Germanfest at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township. That’s east of Faribault and near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. I’ve posted about that ethnic celebration several times here. I love the people of St. John’s. They are friendly, kind, and incredible cooks and bakers. The story proved an ideal fit for this food-themed issue of Southern Minn Scene. Be sure to read other writers’ food-focused stories about tasty desserts in the region to new foods at the Minnesota State Fair.

Beyond that, thank you for valuing art, whether literary, visual or performing. Today, more than ever, we need the arts. They enhance our lives, bring joy, broaden our worlds, our perspectives.

Disclaimer: I am paid for my work published by Southern Minn Scene, but not for this post.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Redefining luck as blessings March 17, 2019

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Several years ago friends posted shamrocks in my yard on St. Patrick’s Day. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2015.

 

BECAUSE ST. PATRICK’S DAY falls on a Sunday this year, I feel inclined to share with you a post I wrote for Indiana-based Christian publisher Warner Press. I’ve been blogging for Warner for nearly a year now and became the blog coordinator there in January.

This opportunity with Warner Press has blessed me in multiple ways by growing my writing ministry, faith family and personal faith and also financially.

As part of my job, I develop blog post ideas with the marketing team, then assign or write those posts. I assigned myself a St. Patrick’s Day blog post that emphasizes blessings over luck, a word often associated with this Irish celebration.

So in the spirit of the Irish, even though I’m 100 percent German, I invite you to click here and read my post, Redefining Luck as Blessings. Feel free to comment. Scroll down a bit and you will find the comments section.

And to you, my dear readers, thank you for blessing me with your presence here, for appreciating my blog, for connecting and for creating a sense of community that I value. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Insights into my blog featured in magazine article March 9, 2019

This photo shows the first page-plus of a feature story published in the spring issue of Fleur-de-lis. Nick Gerhardt photographed me in my dining room. My father-in-law, Tom Helbling, painted the winter scene behind me. The chest of drawers is a refinished Helbling family heirloom. And the chain of folded cranes were crafted and gifted to me by Sunny, a wonderful young woman from Boston. The four books represent a sampling of the many anthologies in which my writing has published.

 

EVERY DAY WE WRITE our stories. By the way we live. By what we say and do and how we act. Or don’t.

We craft our personal stories whether at a computer, working retail, raising a child… Each story differs. Each story matters. Every single person matters.

 

A selfie of Randy and me taken in September 2017 at the walleye statue along Mille Lacs Lake in Garrison. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo by Randy Helbling.

 

I am honored by the telling of my story in the spring issue of Fleur-de-lis, a lifestyle magazine published by the Faribault Daily News. Freelancer Nick Gerhardt wrote the piece which also features nine of my photos in a six-page spread. Plus Nick’s photo of me. And a selfie Randy took of us by the big walleye statue in Garrison because I am horrible at taking selfies.

Nick got my story right. He captures the essence of me as a person, a writer and a photographer in his focus on my blogging. I appreciate that. When a writer really, truly connects and understands the interview subject, as Nick did with me, it shows.

He spent several hours in my home, not only asking questions, gathering information and taking photos, but also talking shop. Although I haven’t worked in the newspaper field for decades, I can still relate to the profession and its challenges and rewards.

It is clear to me that Nick did his homework, researching my blog in advance of our interview. And it is clear to me that he fully understands my southwestern Minnesota rural background and its influence on my writing and photography. He digs into that in a section tagged “setting the roots.”

 

My husband enjoys his cheeseburger at the North Morristown Fourth of July celebration in 2016. This is one of my favorite close-up images and among those published in Fleur-de-lis. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Nick describes my blog as “a hotdish of Americana through a Minnesota lens.” I love that perspective. It accurately reflects my writing and photography style and the content of my blog. My images and words focus on rural Minnesota—Main Street, grassroots small town events, the Minnesota countryside, country churches, issues that matter to me and much more.

 

An abandoned farmhouse along Minnesota State Highway 19 east of Vesta on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. The image is published in Fleur-de-lis. The house, photographed in 2012, is now gone. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

When Nick interviewed me, I stressed to him the importance of noticing details. It is a skill rooted in my childhood. When you grow up on the prairie as I did, you notice details in that stark environment. I’ve always engaged all of my senses—not just visual. I can smell harvest, hear the howling wind, feel the bite of winter, taste sunshine in a garden-fresh tomato, see heat waves shimmering over a cornfield in July. That eye for detail weaves into my writing and my photography.

Through the decades, I’ve honed my craft, found my voice. But I’ve never lost touch with my prairie roots. Everything I write, everything I photograph, is rooted directly or indirectly in my rural upbringing. In my Minnesota prairie roots.

 

The cover of the spring issue of Fleur-de-lis.

 

FYI: Copies of the spring 2019 issue of Fleur-de-lis are available from the Faribault Daily News for $2. The issue also includes republication of my blog post, “Winter’s here, so we may as well embrace it,” illustrated by outstanding winter photos by area photographers. That post, I will note, published on January 2, long before this winter became the longest of cold and snowy winters in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When reporters cover tough topics… January 31, 2019

 

THE NEXT TIME YOU CRITICIZE a journalist or rant that reporters are nothing but a bunch of biased writers, consider this. My local newspaper, the Faribault Daily News, recently placed first in the Social Issues category of the 2017-2018 Minnesota Newspaper Association Better Newspaper Contest. For a series on domestic violence.

The award-winning series, titled “Abuse,” published over a period of a year and covered the gamut from information to interviews with survivors and their families, advocates, police and more. These were powerful pieces, written primarily by reporter Gunnar Olson but also by Regional Editor Suzanne Rook.

It is the personal stories which made this series. Emotional stories. Gut-wrenching, difficult stories. Stories that needed to be told, heard, written, read and, then, remembered.

 

 

When a reporter can take a topic like domestic abuse and violence, interview people in a caring and compassionate way, and then share those stories through dynamic writing, that work deserves recognition. By fellow journalists. And by readers. I applaud the Daily News for raising awareness, educating and connecting people to this social issue via deeply personal stories.

As a former weekly and daily newspaper reporter, I will confirm that writing stories like this is difficult. I once wrote a series on eating disorders that included interviewing a survivor and the mother of a young woman who died from anorexia. Although I kept my professional persona in place while working on the series, inside my heart hurt for every single individual I interviewed. Reporters have a job to do. But they are still human.

I often hear newspapers criticized for printing nothing but bad news. That raises my ire. Do not kill the messenger. Newspapers are not PR mouthpieces. They are newspapers. It is their job to report the news—good and bad. Features and hard news. They do not cause the bad news. People do.

Today, more than ever, journalists are under attack. For writing fake news. For not writing something they should have or for writing something they shouldn’t have. They are losing their jobs. The free press is threatened. That should scare every single person. Democracy needs a strong and free press.

Yes, I’ve sidetracked a bit. But I’ll circle back now and reaffirm how much I appreciate my community newspaper. Reporters keep me informed of local issues and happenings, of good news and bad. I am grateful for their hard work and their willingness to stretch beyond the everyday news to cover important topics. Like domestic violence.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Eleven magnetic words equal a poem January 24, 2019

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SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, I purchased a duo Tootsie Toy magnetic board/chalkboard at an Owatonna thrift shop. I didn’t need it. But I liked the vintage look and the possibilities. Those reasons sufficed to hand over a few bucks.

 

 

Along with the board came a bonus baggie of magnetic words. They aren’t original to the board but probably were thrown in because what else do you do with a bunch of donated stray magnetic words?

I finally got around to making poetry with them. Here’s my first poem, which I posted on my refrigerator:

 

 

This proved a good challenge—to use the limited words to create poetry. (Pretend a question mark ends the first line.)

 

 

As poets understand, poetry requires tight writing. A word must hold value or out it goes. Poetry writing may seem easy to those not engaged in the craft. But it’s not. Penning poems requires focused skill and much practice as one of the most disciplined forms of literary art.

Thoughts?

© 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Northfield: Reading & talking poetry January 12, 2019

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My husband, Randy, took this photo of me while I read the first of six poems at Content Bookstore.

AS MUCH AS I SAVORED sharing my poetry with a rapt audience at Content Bookstore in Northfield on Thursday evening, it was the conversation afterward that delighted me.

A young woman sitting several chairs away walked over and told me just how much she enjoyed my poems. I’d noticed her even before the readings by five Faribault-connected poets began. She sat with a small notebook on her lap, pen poised.

Turns out she’s a first-year college student in Northfield and an emerging poet. She had some questions for me. As we talked, I encouraged her first to write what she knows. And to make every word count. “Use strong verbs,” I said. “And no adverbs.”

A man standing next to us laughed. “I haven’t heard that in awhile,” he said. Then we all three laughed.

We agreed that writing poetry, because of the sparse words, is among the most challenging of writing disciplines. Yet the reward of getting a line, a word, just right, well, it’s an incredible feeling. I looked at the young woman who was, by then, nodding and smiling. She understood. And in that moment of locking eyes, she confirmed that she’s a poet passionate about the craft. Like me, she loves words and language. She possesses that spark which flames words into poetry.

I advised her to keep writing, to notice details, to engage all the senses—not only visual—when crafting her poems. Write and rewrite and submit and learn from rejection.

I regret that I didn’t catch her name or give her my contact information. But I hope that in some small way my knowledge, my experience, my advice, will encourage her to continue developing her poetic skills. Follow your passion, whatever you do in life, I impressed upon her. Write because you must, not necessarily with the expectation of becoming a famous poet. She’s considering a writing-related degree.

Then I turned my attention to the man who’d edged on the sideline of our conversation. He asked if I had an agent. “Should I?” I asked. His question surprised me, thus the popped-out-of-my-mouth response. Do poets have agents? He wondered how I’d gotten my work so broadly published. I reconsidered and shared that I’ve submitted to mostly state-wide and regional publications.

I regret that I didn’t ask his name either. I appreciated his interest in my writing and in my photography. There’s a certain joy that comes in talking shop with those who share a love of words, of writing and, especially, of poetry.

 

Special thanks to Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy for organizing the poetry reading and to Content Bookstore for hosting the event. Thank you also to poets Peter Allen, Larry Gavin, Kristin Twitchell and John Reinhard for sharing their poetry with us. Finally, to all who attended the reading, thank you for embracing poetry and supporting those of us who write it.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Just a reminder: Poetry reading this evening in Northfield & I’ll be there January 10, 2019

How many classmates can cram into a photo booth? These photos inspired a poem I wrote and will read this evening in Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

AS I PREPPED for this evening’s poetry reading at Content Bookstore in downtown Northfield, my husband asked how many poems I’ve had published. Good question. I don’t know. But my guess would be forty.

With 10 minutes to read my work, choosing poems proved difficult. I narrowed it down to six that I particularly like and that are fun to read aloud. And that fit within my time limit. From an especially painful memory of my son being struck by a car in 2006 to a recap of my 40th high school class reunion to a conversation in a grocery store parking lot, my poems reflect a range of topics. I aimed for that.

 

My poem initially published in In Retrospect, The Talking Stick, Volume 22, an anthology published by The Jackpine Writers’ Bloc based in northern Minnesota. The same poem was then selected for inclusion in an artsong project by Rochester musician David Kassler. He wrote music for my poem which was then sung by a Chamber Choir. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Early on in my poetry writing I tended to write a lot of “place” poems set in my native southwestern Minnesota prairie. I’ve expanded beyond that narrow subject now, although the prairie can still claim credit for my writing style. I write with detail. Not just visual, but detail that engages every sense. The starkness of the prairie causes one to notice everything. The howl and bite of the wind. The warmth of soil black as a night sky. The smell of rain and of barn. The taste of sunshine in a garden-fresh tomato.

 

In 2012, artist Connie Ludwig, right, created a painting (left, above my head) based on my poem, Her Treasure. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

In my poem Her Treasure, which I will read this evening, I honor all the farm women who labored upon the land by planting and harvesting from vast gardens. I honor, too, my hardworking mom in Ode to My Farm Wife Mother. That poem published in the 2017 issue of Oakwood Magazine, a literary journal printed by South Dakota State University.

 

The setting for The Talking Stick book release party in 2017, Blueberry Pines Golf Club. I’ve been published in this Minnesota anthology numerous times winning honors for my poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

I am honored and humbled to have my award-winning poetry published in a variety of places: The Talking Stick, Poetic Strokes, Lake Region Review, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride, Oakwood Magazine, Roadside Poetry Project, Poet-Artist Collaboration at Crossings at Carnegie, Image & the Word, The Lutheran Digest, Minnesota Moments magazine and probably some other places I’m forgetting right now.

My poetry is down-to-earth understandable. I’ve always written that way. If you live near Northfield, please join me and four other Faribault area poets at 7 this evening as we share our poetry. And, please, introduce yourself. I’d love to meet you.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

To write or not to write & insights on holiday letters November 29, 2018

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A holiday greeting sent to friends by Faribault founder Alexander Faribault. The vintage card was displayed at a 2017 holiday open house at the home of Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2017, photo edited.

 

DO YOU WRITE AND SNAIL MAIL a Christmas letter? Or is this mostly a Minnesota thing?

Last week I sat down at the computer to compose the annual letter I will send to 100 family members and friends. Some I haven’t seen in years. Others I see often. No matter who they are, at some point in my life, we connected and they remain important to me.

Giving and receiving letters and cards ranks as one of my favorite aspects of the holiday season. I appreciate the updates, the photos, yes, even of people I no longer recognize. We grow older, greyer, wider… But it is that advancing of age that makes me realize even more the importance of this annual correspondence. Sure, we have email and Facebook (which I’m not on) and texting and so many other ways to communicate. But there’s something to be said for a card I can hold in my hands, a photo I can stick on my refrigerator, a letter on paper that I can read and reread.

Simply put, I value the old school way of communicating with one another at Christmas. It takes time and effort to compose a letter, to wrangle a photo, to sign a card, to address an envelope. That invested time shows care. Tangible love and care. On paper.

Right about now I can hear the but Audrey protests. But Audrey, sending cards adds to the stress of an already hectic season. There’s not enough time and this is one thing I can cut out. You’re right. You can. And it’s your choice.

For me, though, the annual rite of writing a family letter continues. I’ve reduced that letter from two pages to one, recognizing shorter attention spans. I hit the highlights of 2018, although much of the bad never makes print. No one wants to read every detail of the challenges in your life. Or maybe they do. But I prefer not to share difficulties that fuel gossip and here’s what you should do reactions from those who think they have all the answers. As if all of us have ideal lives where nothing but good prevails.

These annual letters are, in many ways, carefully crafted news releases. We choose to put a primarily positive spin on the content, exercising restraint in delivery of anything negative. As long as we understand the PR perspective, we can read between the lines of those happy family vacations, those stellar accomplishments, those above average toddlers…

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling