Sunday, May 31, 2009


On an April night in 2005, I stood outside the Westin River North ballroom overlooking the Chicago River. It was a crisp night, but I was comfortable in just a sports coat with a shirt and tie.

As I smoked a cigarette – a habit I have since quit – I eyed the buildings, the bridges, the people floating by on a river tour boat. I thought to myself, “It won’t be long now. Soon Chicago will know my name.”

That sounds a little psychotic looking back now. In reality it was hopelessly naive. I was basking in the glow of having won a Lisagor Award for a series of stories I did for the Sun about pressures facing today’s high school athletes.

In my mind the Lisagor was my ticket to bigger things. Surely, the Tribune would be calling Monday morning, offering me my dream job as a sports takeout writer. I guess we all know how that worked out – for me and the person who last held that position.

But that’s not what this blog post is about. It isn’t about me bragging about the Lisagor, either (OK, maybe it is a little). It’s about that project and burnout.

I never envisioned my initial idea turning into a three-part series with sidebars each day. I didn’t envision interviewing nearly 30 people, or taking six months to complete it. I just wanted to do a story about how today’s athletes were specializing in sports much earlier than in the past, and that maybe that trend was leading to high levels of burnout.

At first I planned this to be one story. I was right. It ended up being one story – a sidebar to the third part. Everything else mushroomed from that nugget.

I was driven to complete the project by forces I don’t always understand. It’s happened with several stories since then, too. Something about a particular topic will stoke my interest enough that I don’t care how long it takes, or how much writing I have to do, I’m going to tell that story to the best of my ability.

As my time at the Sun went on, I became less and less motivated to tackle those projects. By the end, I hardly wanted to do any story that was going to take more than a couple days to complete.

It became clear I was suffering from burnout. All the signs had been there, but I didn’t recognize them despite having done research on the subject five years ago. I had no motivation despite seeing some pretty interesting topics come my way.

This really began sinking in last week. How it took this long, I still don’t know. But when I was exchanging e-mails with my former sports editor, it hit me. He was offering some stories for me to do on a freelance basis. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I just don’t want to write for a newspaper right now.

That’s not entirely true. I’m still trying to pitch ideas to the Tribune, but I’m doing that for two reasons. One, I want to be able to write on my resume that my work has appeared in the Tribune. And second, I’m not pitching sports stories.

I’m trying to broaden my portfolio of clips. Two weeks ago I did some freelance work for an employee newsletter at Good Samaritan Hospital, thanks to a woman there who used to work at the Sun. I’m hoping that blossoms into more work from her, but also from other hospitals.

It’s not the most exciting writing, but neither was a lot of what I did for the Sun. Plus, these tend to be well-paying assignments. I enjoy the challenge of writing in a different style and for a different audience.

My goal is to build more of these assignments together and eventually have enough to declare myself self-employed. Freelance writers today can’t rely on magazine and newspaper assignments for steady work. So by branching out to the health-care industry – and hopefully soon into the corporate world – I’m taking positive steps toward making a living as a writer.

At the same time, I’m recovering from my burnout. I’m sure some day I’ll want to re-enter the journalism world ready to tackle the next project. As long as the journalism world is still there, that is.

It’s all I can ask for at this point. I no longer stand overlooking the Chicago River thinking I’m going to conquer Chicago. I no longer care how many people will know my name. I simply think, “I’m going to make a living as a writer in this city.”

It’s a scaled-down version of my original dream, but it’s enough to make me happy. For now.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Weekly Musical Interlude

I've lost track of how many, so I'm just going to start calling these Weekly Musical Interludes.

I'm kind of bummed because one of my favorite live bands, The Felice Brothers, is coming to Chicago tomorrow night. But Kristin and I aren't going. One of the deals with being unemployed is that we have to cut back on our live music budget.

Doing that in the summer is kind of tough because so many bands tour during those months. But this summer is going to fun anyway because of all the free live music available.

We're going to hit the Taste of Chicago twice (June 27 for Bloodshot Records Day and July 4 for Booker T & the Drive-By Truckers). Then we're hoping to get up to Green Bay in August to see Slobberbone play a reunion show at the Oneida Casino. (We already bought tickets to see Slobberbone in Chicago, so that is one of the only shows we'll be paying for in the near future.)

Anyway, you probably didn't need to know all that. Here's a video from the Felice Brothers, singing one of my favorites from them, "Frankie's Gun." Enjoy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reminiscing already

Earlier tonight I did something I never thought I would – I paid to watch high school girls soccer. It was a sectional semifinal doubleheader featuring four of the five schools I covered over the past six seasons.

I feel a bond with the coaches and many of the players, and I want to see how the season plays out. As my time away from the Sun grows, I’m sure I will lose that connection. But for now my curiosity was enough I drove to Bolingbrook, about 30 minutes from my house.

I always enjoyed covering girls sports because female athletes tend to be more open and honest than their male counterparts when it comes to interviews. Female athletes just seem to be more real. They don’t normally try to hide behind some tough exterior. They show more of their personalities and their emotions.

One of my favorites is Rachel Bostick, a senior at Waubonsie Valley, for just that reason. [I know I’m not supposed to say I had favorites, but screw it, I don’t work for the newspaper anymore.]

I first interviewed Rachel – that's her in the photo above wearing No. 20 – when she was a freshman, just after she scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Providence Catholic. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I do remember it was like pulling teeth to get her to answer my questions.

I looked up the story tonight just to find out if I actually quoted her in the story. Sure enough, I did.

“It doesn’t matter who scores, it just matters that we finish,” Bostick said that afternoon. “I think teams have noticed that (Kylee Rodriguez) is scoring so they are marking up on her. That made it easier for us to score.”

Not a bad start, and better than I remembered. In the ensuing years Rachel turned into a quality source, my version of a go-to player.

She also played basketball for Waubonsie, so I talked with her quite a bit since our first conversation on a soccer field in Lemont. Enough that I’ve also gotten to know her dad, Dave, who took me aside before a basketball game last winter.

He told me how much the players enjoy seeing their names in the paper, and how much the work I did meant to them. It made me feel good, even though I hate to think of my work being reduced to just getting kids’ names in the paper.

Rachel often had her name in the paper. And she usually had something unique to say for a story, especially if she was talking about one of her teammates. Rachel was perfect for features on other players. Like when I wrote about two standout Waubonsie freshmen basketball players for a playoff preview.

“I don't think they ever were freshmen,” Rachel said of Keiera Ray and Tami Morice. “They talk about being nervous before games, but it doesn’t show on the court, ever.”

I’ll probably never interview Rachel again. It’s possible I won’t interview any high school athletes again. Soon I won’t know any of the players on the teams I used to cover.

I'm sure there will be times I'll miss that. Tonight was one of those times.

Internet love

I've discovered a cool thing about writing a blog -- you never know who is reading. I came home tonight to find a comment to an earlier post from Curtis. He told me that he learned about my blog from a link on the Puck Daddy blog on Yahoo! Sports.

So I checked it out and sure enough, Puck Daddy gave me a plug. Thank you, sir.

Here's what he wrote:
Paul LaTour is a newspaper writer who was laid off, and is now blogging about unemployed life. Check out his Bob Probert tale, and please do give the rest of it a read. Interesting, though depressing, stuff.
In the spirit of sharing audiences, please go check out Puck Daddy's blog. Lots of good stuff on there for us hockey fans.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Me and Rickey Henderson

There was another time plexiglass provided a nice barrier (if you read my previous entry you’d know what I’m talking about here).

Near as I can figure -- thanks to help from the best baseball site ever -- it was during the Twins' magical 1991 season, a game against their archrival during this period, the Oakland A’s. At the time Rickey Henderson patrolled left field for the A’s, as he was this night in the Metrodome, which used to have this ridiculous plexiglass wall about the regular wall to cut down on the home runs.

Rickey was arrogant. Rickey was annoying. Rickey was standing right in front of me for most of the game. I decided it would be fun to annoy Rickey for a change.

So as he jogged out to his position to start an inning, I noticed there was a Rickey Henderson fan club sitting in the section to my left. Rickey looked up to them and nodded. He then looked my way. I was standing on the stairs. I motioned as if I was going to tip my cap to him. But at the last second I saluted him the Johnny Cash way.

Rickey didn’t like that. Rickey began shouting at me, grabbing at his crotch. I couldn’t hear what Rickey was saying, but it sounded like something involving my mother.

To which I replied, “My mama? My mama? No, YO mama!” I did that while also grabbing my crotch. Did I mention I had been drinking? I’m not sure why I feel that’s an important detail to add here, but there it is.

Now Rickey was mad. Rickey motioned for me to come down on the field. Rickey must be dumber than what I’ve heard if he thought I was actually going down there. I’m fine behind this plexiglass, thank you. I appreciate the offer, though.

The game resumed, and I continued to ride Rickey. At one point he tried for one of his snatch grabs and botched it, allowing the Twins to score. Later he struck out swinging with runners in scoring position. When he returned to the outfield I mimed striking out. Rickey, again, didn’t like that. I wondered, why does Rickey keep looking at me if I’m pissing him off?

Somewhere in the night I had to make a pit stop at the Metrodome troughs. While standing in line, someone asked, “Are you the guy that’s got Henderson so pissed? What did you say to him?”

I told him what had happened. Soon people in the bathroom were patting me on the back and cheering. That can be uncomfortable considering the circumstances. Talk about stage fright.

Anyway, the game eventually ended. The Twins won in 12 innings. Rickey had stopped looking my way, so my fun was over, too. I didn’t have to meet Rickey on the field, or outside the stadium for further discussion.

I doubt Rickey thought too much about me or that night ever again. But I obviously have.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Me and Bob Probert

As each day passes, the notion of being a working sports journalist fades. It’s not a bad thing. What I find returning is my passion for being a sports fan.

Through my whole career I’ve had it ingrained in me that I was no longer a fan. I couldn’t be and expect to do my job properly. I had no problem with that. While I still cheered for my favorite college and professional teams, I slowly found that the results of the games meant less and less to me.

This is coming from a guy who was a pretty hardcore fan of the Twins, Vikings and North Stars (never much cared for the Timberwolves). How hardcore? You tell me.

Opening round of the 1992 Stanley Cup playoffs. Game 6 of the North Stars-Red Wings series. The old Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., where the North Stars used to call home before Norm Green stole away with them to Texas.

Somehow I managed to get tickets directly behind the teams’ benches, sort of in the middle, but closer to the North Stars players. I soon noticed that if I stood up I could yell over the plexiglass. This came in handy during a scrum in front of the benches that involved Red Wings thug Bob Probert.

As the scuffle continued, I stood to voice my displeasure with Mr. Probert, who was a bit of a goon to say the least. I believe I said something to the effect that perhaps he was a piece of excrement. Or something like that. It’s really not important right now.

Anyway, with the words barely out of my mouth, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a Detroit player, water bottle in hand, pointing it at me. I ducked behind the glass just in time to avoid a spray of water.

Unfortunately, the North Stars equipment manager was directly in front of me. The water hit him full force. He was not happy. He pounded the glass and yelled at me. I sheepishly apologized, thinking the whole time security was about to haul me away.

I survived somehow. But the Stars didn’t. They lost 1-0 in overtime and then lost the series in Detroit. They played one more year in Minnesota before moving to Dallas. They are now dead to me.

This wasn’t the first time plexiglass saved me. Good lord, no. But you’ll have to wait for my next entry to find out what happened between me and Rickey Henderson.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Vacation time's over ... and then depression sets in

Back when I was working – How long has it been now? A month? – I often dreamed of all the things I would do if I didn’t have to work.

All the books I’d read. All the fiction I’d write. All the walks I’d go on with Kristin. The mornings I’d spend working out. The evenings I’d spend sitting on our patio, relaxing in the cool spring air.

I’d revamp my resume. I’d get a Web site going. Heck, I’d learn to create my own Web site. I’d learn to play the guitar.

Oh, the plans I had.

As I complete my fourth week of unemployment – yes, I had to look at the calendar to make sure – my list of post-Sun accomplishments is barren. I’ve done none of the things I dreamed I’d do if only I had the time.

That realization sank in this week. Maybe it was the rainy, dreary weather. Maybe it was my ever-growing frustration with my unemployment benefits. Maybe it was listening to Steve Earle’s new album, Townes, too much.

The late Townes Van Zandt wrote some of the most darkly beautiful songs ever composed, including this one. Listening to Earle’s tribute album isn’t exactly uplifting, but I found it comforting nonetheless.

Whatever the cause, I’ve been fighting off a heavy dose of depression in recent days. I fear I’m drifting too far from a sense of purpose in my life. As bad as conditions were at the newspaper, I still had a purpose every day.

Some of those days that purpose wasn’t very stimulating – writing stories about games so parents and grandparents could fill their scrapbooks. That isn’t exactly the type of journalism they make movies about.

But those other days, the days when I found a story subject especially inspiring, those were the days that made everything seem worthwhile. I can’t explain it because I don’t know exactly why a good subject made me feel better about myself. But it did.

A few jump out. Brian Muniz, the former drug dealer forging a new life as a quad rugby player. Tom Schlegel, the Neuqua Valley assistant football coach who succumbed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma but not until after showing everybody that life is good no matter what. Casey Deegan, the 30-something guy with Down syndrome who took up skydiving so he could be just like his dad.

Those were among the stories that touched me. And I tried to relate them to the readers as best I could.

At some point at the Sun, writing became difficult. The very act of writing paralyzed me. I worried about whether or not I was doing a good enough job. Was this story as good as one I wrote last week, last month, last year? Was I using the right word here? I began to wonder, what kind of writer are you if you don’t want to write?

All that returned to me this week. Then as the weekend began, the cloud of self-doubt began lifting. It certainly was related to the warmer, sunny days we had Thursday and Saturday. But it was more than that.

It happens every time I sink into those pits of writer’s block – or whatever you want to call it. Eventually I do write something and I like it. Maybe it’s a sentence. Maybe it’s just a word that fits so perfectly. If I’m really lucky it’s an entire story.

It turns out this entry is what began lifting me up. It’s certainly not my best piece of writing, but it felt good. I like the way it reads. I’ve come to find this blog serves a purpose for me, even if it’s not truly My Purpose.

I still haven’t finished reading a book since I became unemployed. I haven’t written much of any fiction. The Web site is still a ways off and the guitar is gathering dust next to the TV.

But I don’t think I can say I haven’t accomplished anything anymore.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It's Boss time!!!

Today has me headed off to see Bruce Springsteen at the United Center. I'll leave you with one of his classics. See you soon!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hockey time

I've been kind of busy lately, believe it or not. So I haven't had time to do a true update for a while. I'm getting ready to watch Game 6 of the Hawks-Canucks series, so I thought this would be an appropriate time to post this video. It's not the best quality, but it gets the job done.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Musical Interlude, Part III

It's a day early, but Saturday night deserves a little extra hype. So here's a video by Ozomatli from its appearance on Austin City Limits a couple years ago. Enjoy the video and the weekend!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

It could have been worse ... much worse

I consider myself pretty fortunate my layoff didn't come as a surprise. For months I prepared for the inevitable, even though I had a pretty good feeling I would survive all but the most drastic cuts (i.e. the paper folding -- hard to keep your job when there's no paper to put out).

Still, I looked everywhere for signs the end was coming. The first was the announcement the Sun would be sharing a newsroom with the Aurora Beacon-News, its sister paper in the Fox Valley Publications branch of the Sun-Times Media Group.

A FVP restructuring put members of the Beacon in every role of authority in the merged newsroom, which also included editors and designers from the Elgin Courier-News. We no longer had an advocate in upper management. The restructuring quickly hit the Sun sports department.

Within weeks of moving into our new digs, we went from a seven-person staff with a part-time clerk to a three-person staff with no part-timers. Thankfully at that point nobody lost a job. The clerk resigned, three editors were reassigned, one writer became the new sports editor and another shifted over to the Web staff.

The next scare came earlier this year when talk surfaced the Sun was to undergo a redesign similar to the one the Courier had just had. Layoffs followed the Courier's process, including cutting its sports staff to one editor and one writer.

It seemed apparent to me the same thing could happen at the Sun. We didn't cover as many high schools as the Courier, so why would we have a larger staff? In the convoluted way of thinking that infests today's newspaper industry, it actually made sense to me.

So I prepared to be "that guy," the one who would be cut. My colleague, Patrick Mooney, showed far more aptitude to the changes undergoing in the industry. I became the dinosaur, ideologically clinging to the antiquated notion quality mattered. If I was the one in charge, I would keep Patrick and lose that LaTour guy, who by the way, always seems to be arguing and fighting any proposed change.

Then came word the company declared bankruptcy -- which would have been much better if Michael Scott had been the one delivering the message -- and the plan to cut 15 percent from employment throughout the chain. Funny how this managed to be accomplished without the Beacon losing a single full-timer. But I digress.

The rest is already known. I made it clear I wouldn’t be opposed if I was included on the list of cuts. They took me up on it. And now I’m unemployed.

Which brings me to why I’m writing today. Last week the Baltimore Sun, which is owned by the Sam Zell-run Tribune Company, announced more layoffs. At least three members of the staff found out via cell phone calls while they were covering a baseball game at Camden Yards, walking distance from the Sun’s office in downtown Baltimore.

Columnist David Steele recounts his last day here. It’s worth reading, if only to discover how cold-hearted and spineless some editors are in this industry.

I say “this industry” as if I’m still a part of it. But I’m an outsider now. It’s another reason I feel fortunate.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Links added

I've been a little lazy in regard to updating my blog. I've got a couple things I'm working on for posting, but nothing is ready yet.

So I added some links to the right of the page. These are many of the sites I visit on a regular basis, especially, where I waste entirely too much time lurking. Some of the conversations are enlightening, but most are ridiculous back-and-forth flame wars. Some threads, like this one, are both.

What was cool about the thread I linked is that it was about an Esquire cover story written by Chris Jones, who used to frequent quite a bit before this particular thread went bad. That's a shame because those of us learning narrative journalism on the fly could use a resource like Jones.

Sorry there wasn't much meat to this today. But I've got to go. Time to cook dinner for Kristin and get ready to meet friends for the Blackhawks game.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Check out another blog

Former Chicago Tribune sports writer Melissa Isaacson recently started her own Web site with a blog. She was among the 53 people cut from the Tribune during another round of layoffs there April 22.

Isaacson just won a Lisagor Award last week from the Chicago Headline Club for her remarkable story about losing both her parents to Alzheimer's.

After reading several of Isaacson's posts I began wondering why the heck I'm even bothering. Then I remembered something I came across the other day. I can't find the exact passage, but it had to do with writers letting go of their insecurities about their work. It can be crippling to think about the many great writers out there and realize you are not among them. No matter what you write, or how good you think you are, you always come across somebody whose work you feel is better.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't write. Each person writes for their own reasons. Some are just better at certain aspects than others. Find your strengths and utilize them. Find your weaknesses and improve them.

So go check out Isaacson's site if you're interested.