The Cubs, my childhood rebellion

The Cubs are about to play in the World Series for the first time since 1945, and I can’t help but think about my dad. Not because he was a Chicago fan; quite the opposite, as evidenced by this fuzzy photo.

As a staunch Cardinals fan, he allowed me to go against family tradition and get a blue hat. In fact, I’m pretty sure he bought it for me.

Hand-me-down Andre Dawson cards from my cousin and a 7-year-old’s obstinate personality were all I needed to swear allegiance to the Cubs. Enough to argue with my highly religious grandmother about my “hatred” for the Cardinals (“You’re NOT allowed to hate anyone, Katie”). Did I know or care that Chicago was reliably terrible and had not been to the World Series in five-plus decades? Of course not.

I wish I could find that Cubs hat, but not because I want to wear it and pretend that I’ve been a faithful fan for the 24 years since that photo was taken. There’s something comforting — bittersweet, even — in childhood rebellions, a time when we believe anything is possible. Even the Cubs winning a World Series.



At the 2014 finish line

The 2014 Chicago Marathon, like it says.

The 2014 Chicago Marathon, like it says.

I don’t post kid or pet photos, but I do occasionally prattle on about running. It forces me out of bed at unreasonable hours, costs more money than I’d like to admit and (sometimes) fills the need for competition. Yes, just like the aforementioned.

So, to close out 2014:

1 marathon
(my first, in Chicago in October)

In the middle of the pack in the Chicago Marathon (photo courtesy of sports action pro Adam Gerik, who also insisted I wear the hat).

In the middle of the pack in the Chicago Marathon (photo courtesy of sports action pro Adam Gerik, who also insisted I wear the hat).

1 number of dogs who beat me in a 5K.
Her name was Katie. I wish this was a joke.

2 pairs of Brooks Adrenaline shoes

3 half marathons

The Peoria Marathon half in May, with Journal Star colleagues Thomas Bruch (left) and Shannon Countryman, who are both faster than me.

The Peoria Marathon half in May, with Journal Star colleagues Thomas Bruch (left) and Shannon Countryman, who are both faster than me.

16 total races

At the Morton Pumpkin Festival 10K, trying not to get passed at the finish.

At the Morton Pumpkin Festival 10K, trying not to get passed at the finish.

485 total miles (which seems low, but proves you don’t have to run 40 miles a week to do a marathon).

Here’s to a few more finish lines in 2015.

Still standing after the marathon. Success.

Still standing after the marathon. Success.



Something for the reindeer


Chopping carrots at 1.m. on Christmas Day seems a logical place to find solace. It’s a tradition I seem to have forgotten – until very recently.

Like many children, my sister and I left cookies and a glass of lukewarm milk out for Santa as we headed to bed on Christmas Eve. And as extra insurance, there was a push to include carrots for his reindeer.

I now realize, of course, that all of those magical years, my parents must have dutifully ground up (or eaten?) those carrots and cookies, leaving obvious crumbs behind, along with a note. The barely concealed handwriting, which I can still see, was either my mother’s careful script of half cursive or my father’s no-nonsense all capitalization.

I’m alone for Christmas this year, part of the unfortunate circumstances of a newspaper job and illnesses that have kept my small family apart. Slicing carrots for a stew, made for one, was all it took to bring back happy memories.

I hope there are children out there this morning who will get that same note from Santa. Forgotten amid the excitement of presents, it might still be there – years later – when they need it most.


Good to the last drop


At this very moment, on a refrigerator shelf below the carton of organic strawberries, I have 30 cans of Perrier lime mineral water.

It seems I have become the word my parents threw around with such disdain.

A yuppie. Who drinks canned mineral water from France.

Mon Dieu.

It happened innocently enough. Buy a pair of Sperrys. Maybe some vegan, cruelty-free shampoo. Delight in restaurants billed as “farm to table.” Find yourself ordering “vintage” items from Etsy. Vow to never buy another computer or phone without that alluring apple logo.

Coffee is my last line of defense. I’ve yet to attempt a pour-over. I don’t roast my own beans or own an espresso machine priced like a used car.

In my kitchen, the simple drip coffeemaker, an elixir for my guilty soul. A box of FSC certified compostable, unbleached, totally chlorine-free (TFC) filters sits nearby.


The land down under

Rear Window, sans Jimmy Stewart

Rear Window, sans Jimmy Stewart

Fruit Cake introduced himself at 7 a.m. on a Sunday by playing guitar in my bed.

Directly above my head. To the radio. Through the ceiling.

A very unprintable scream brought the Gin Blossoms rendition to a halt. We would meet many times again, through the wooden beams of a 1800s-era carriage house.

So began six years as a downstairs apartment dweller. The median age of my last three buildings stands at 117 years. With character and charm come creaky, thin floors. Renter beware – and be prepared to hear everything, including pieces of the most uncomfortable conversations.

This particular neighbor’s nickname was taken from his beat-up sedan in the parking lot, license plate FRUTCKE. There were no signs, however, that he was interested in culinary arts. His passion was playing ’90s pop and country tunes along with FM stations, usually just as dawn had faded.

With a move two years later, I failed to warn the next tenant. Maybe they’d enjoy karaoke as an alarm clock.

After a period of calm, the Princess and the Pea began his reign. He introduced himself in person and seemed normal enough. Maybe we’d be friends.

But Princess was delicate. The slightest noise left him sleepless, terrified, simply inconsolable.

My movie tastes were the last straw. He called in a uniformed army.

Nearing midnight on a Sunday, the war began with a knock at the front door of the 1929 fortress. The officer appeared sheepish. Standing less than 30 feet from the thunderous racket, he had to ask.

“Do you have the television on?”


“We’ve had a noise complaint from a neighbor in the building.”

“Oh, we know who it was.”

The movie silenced and the offenders seething, a tell-tale creak of feet was heard on the floorboards above.

The offensive film? “Independence Day,” perhaps? “Scarface”? Explosions and warfare? Obnoxious musical?

Try 1948’s “The Naked City.”

With film noir now part of my permanent record, I’ve recently retreated a safe distance of two blocks. The neighbor above doesn’t yet have a nickname. And, so far, 1875 has been a decent year.


Send in the clown

2000 meets 2014, and the student becomes teacher.

2000 meets 2014, and the student becomes teacher.

I’m staring out at a jury of 20-year-old faces. These guys are armed with hoodies, yawns and misbehaving, multicolored Macs.

My voice has wavered. The gathering can sense my desperation. I stumble over words and cringe at computer errors. My Hail Mary at humor is met with silence. I’ll gulp my water, bang on my laptop as if it’s a shield. Is anyone awake out there? The clock doesn’t seem to budge.

Exactly a decade after graduating from college, this is how I am spending my Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

Most would simply pull out a photo album or visit with old roommates to commiserate about classes, house parties and old flames. By chance, I became a (temporary) professor.

“Dead Poets Society,” this is not. This professor isn’t a PhD; she’s a denizen of newspaper night work. They simply call her Katie. Or, in most cases, nothing at all.

COM 323 – Newspaper Editing and Design – is held in the same Bradley University classroom that convinced me to become a copy editor. The banks of hulking, sweating Power Mac G4s are long gone. Same goes for those pesky Zip disks and the days of hard-wired Internet.

It’s now been made clear: The last 120 months walled away behind a desk have left me ill prepared for teaching. My head was filled more with AP Style rules than ease in front of a crowd. Put mildly, copy editors are a strange bunch. We often don’t play well with others; coffee flows as freely as criticism. Negativity is in abundant supply, and it might be the lack of sunlight. Profanity doesn’t even raise an eyebrow.

But change? That’s when we lose our bluster. (Expletive).

Smile! Tell a joke! Something about Comic Sans! You’re losing them even further.


I’ve contemplated showing a movie. “Page One,” perhaps?

Have you kids seen “All The President’s Men?” Yes, Robert Redford used to be young.

What about “The Paper”? I don’t care that it’s dated, I still have a working VCR somewhere.

“Network” is my last try. Broadcast is still journalism, right?

“Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamned amusement park!”

And as I’m finding, so is teaching.



Mile by mile


“Why are you running?”

The tiny girl, about 5 years old and peering from the sidewalk, was barely audible through the mid-March wind. I saw a flash of confusion on her face as I breezed past, with no time or concrete answer to give.

For the next five miles, the question lingered.

The author's happiest finish line photo, from May 2013's Run River City 25K.

The author’s happiest finish line photo, from May 2013’s Run River City 25K.

I pondered the three, ragged pairs of running shoes shoved under my bed. There were the 22 races in 2014; 130 miles against the clock. I considered my first half marathon – exactly one year ago – followed by three more in the subsequent months (because, why not?). And there was the marathon, my goal for the coming year that left me terrified.

The calendar of 5Ks, 10Ks and four-milers became packed, as did my closet with
t-shirts from each race. It was a quiet source of pride, this act of dragging myself from bed after several hours of sleep, to line up with a crowd and see how many I could pass before the end.

Competition is addicting. Some might say it’s inherited.

*     *     *

Predictably, my father was a sports nut, most at ease during the weekends in a battered Cardinals hat. Saddled with two daughters, he did his best to impart a love for baseball, the NFL and various pastimes that involved feats of throwing and catching.

The efforts were mostly wasted on me.

Track was the first organized sport where I found any success. After giving up gymnastics and  dismissing any notion of softball or basketball, simply running – one step at a time – held appeal. I was just stubborn enough to keep going.

My middle school’s track consisted of the uneven, square perimeter of sidewalk that surrounded the building. The last quarter was uphill, where we did sprints to the shouts of the math teacher who served as our coach.

When I developed a case of shin splints from striking that concrete, my father took me to get my first pair of proper running shoes. They were plain, white Reeboks, with extra cushioning in the heels. These shoes were nothing fancy, they kept one, undersized 12-year-old going.

*     *     *

The field for the 800 meters wasn’t crowded – maybe three other runners brave enough to take on two laps around the Peoria Stadium track. After the first 400, the other feet had faded behind. I couldn’t hear the crowd, only my labored breathing and those Reeboks on the spongy surface.

When I crossed the finish line, I could see a familiar shape in dark suit and tie, waiting at the edge of the track. I don’t know if he cheered aloud for me, but I can still see him standing there, shaded from the sun.

That would be the only meet in which my father would see me compete. He was gone the next year, at age 45.

I gave up running in the years after, with other sports to occupy that space. There were no more races for another 15 years. Then as a 30th birthday loomed, the urge returned, to be scared and free at the same time. The miles spent alone with pavement allowed time and distance like no other. And not a run goes by without thinking of those who will never meet me at the finish.

Everyone has reasons – inspiration, vanity, health, awards, camaraderie, competition. I’m not running for something as much as I am running because of something.

I’ll be doing that marathon in October in Chicago, along with 45,000 other runners.

Thanks for the shoes, Dad. I haven’t forgotten.


A crumby love story


“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

J.D. was my first love.

I’d flirted a little with Ray. William S. was the one parents recommended, and he seemed stuffy in comparison. Charles was an old friend, nothing more.

The battered collection

The battered collection, minus one on permanent loan.

At 14, I’d never been properly introduced to Earnest. William F. was too dour, and Kurt wouldn’t come until later.

J.D. was different. Banned in serious circles and nearly all school libraries, he came into my life through the wisdom of a teacher and a permission slip. And for a brief time, I was entranced.

We sat alone, late at night, when the house was hushed and the only light could be seen filtering under my bedroom door. I traced many a line under his words, wanting to digest everything and smiling at perceived secrets and comical moments.

I never really outgrew J.D. But the relationship ran its course – there were others to meet, others to revere and explore. There would be other loves.

But every so often, I’ll take those memories off the shelf and rediscover the pencil marks. The guy still knows me pretty well.

“I live alone (but catless, I’d like everybody to know).”

– Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction


My name is GASTKA

White keyboards, the height of newsroom technology.

White keyboards, the height of newsroom technology.

Just call me GASTKA.

Computer systems play the name game. And in a newsroom, the place of profanities and personalities, some of those monikers are bound to stick.

Such is the case with a few of the naming conventions of an ancient Harris pagination set-up abandoned a decade ago. In those days, it was Windows 95 and giant monitors. No survivor of that period has escaped without the need for glasses.

Each employee’s sign-on consisted of four letters of their last name, followed by two of the first. In my case, that was GASTKA. It rolls off the tongue with an Eastern European flair that my French-derived surname cannot.













With the exception of three, those were all names thrown around in the sports department. Some remain employed there – and still find those aliases yelled across the department or used in conversation. Sports has a different language, and the time I spent there while in college made me mildly fluent.

The current nom de guerre, KGASTON, seems predictable in comparison.


Katie: An Introduction


Longtime journal devotee
tries ‘website thing’

That’s the suggested headline for this story. The dateline? Peoria, Ill. AP Style will be strictly enforced, thank you.

As a newspaper copy editor, I’m more accustomed to the idea of paper-and-ink publishing. So it should come as no surprise that I have a stack
of journals spanning the last several decades, starting with a
heart-shaped book – matching lock included – and bubbly, cursive script.

It’s time to try something new.

I’m coming out of the box. Just don’t ask me to give up my typewriter.