My Astronauts

This column was published Sunday, July 14, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


In July of 1969, while friends and neighbors all throughout the ‘hood were upgrading to color television, my old man clung stubbornly to our behemoth black-and-white analog, around which our family room was positioned. Pop in his harvest gold vinyl La-Z-Boy, Mom at her sewing table, cutting on the bias. Me, elbows on the shag, eyes riveted as Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Excursion Module.

Mine is a generation that assumed the prone position before the almighty Zenith as astronauts strapped themselves into a tiny capsule and blasted off into outer space with a half-million pounds of rocket thrust at their backs.

Too young to remember Mercury and ‘Godspeed, John Glenn,’ but as NASA and I grew up, I became a Project Gemini true believer. When all systems were ‘go for EVA’ and Ed White became the first American to walk in space, I remember thinking if this doesn’t work, the man will be legitimately and literally lost in space.

Ed White, Gemini IV. June 1965. Courtesy NASA.

Ed White, Gemini IV. June 1965. Courtesy NASA.

Back then, the question arose: Are astronauts heroes?

Seems to me heroism, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. This beholder is not certain that space work was any more – or less – heroic than schlepping through the jungles of Southeast Asia, M-16 in hand, battling Communism. Do dominoes fall in outer space?

Guns, butter and “Go, flight.” The America of my youth wanted it all.

I built models of the Saturn 5 rocket, complete with detachable Service, Command and Lunar Modules. Framed color photos of astronauts and their Gemini Titan II launch vehicles graced my bedroom walls. A toy space capsule into which my foil space-suited G.I. Joe would fit, remains among my most treasured boyhood Christmas gifts.

Memories of Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection come back as a bright line milestone. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to fly to the moon, then took turns reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve, 1968.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth…”

With Neil Armstrong’s Apollo XI spacesuit, last weekend in Washington, DC.

With Neil Armstrong’s Apollo XI spacesuit, last weekend in Washington, DC.

Seven months later, when Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind, my parents’ generation marveled in wide-eyed awe, while mine took it in stride. With the sum total of an 11-year lifetime of space program experience, it was exactly what I expected. The video images of Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon 50 years ago this month was the generational equivalent of the photo of the sailor kissing the girl on V-J Day in Times Square in 1945.

As one who built a career practicing the art and science of perception management, I remain impressed by the ahead-of-its-time public relations of America’s space program. Effective movement of hearts and minds starts with a great story, followed by vehicles to deliver it. Vehicles like live color television broadcasts from outer space, glossy 8 by 10s of astronauts and their rocket ships, suitable for framing, neatly cocooned in cardboard so they won’t bend in the mail, sent to any kid with the temerity to ask for one.

Presidential speechwriters who recognized that this president, of a new generation to whom the torch had been passed, was ideally suited to lead us into a new frontier. To lay down the gauntlet. To choose to go to the moon. Not because it was easy. Because it was hard.

It was the perfect geomagnetic storm. The emergence of mass media, genuine scientific exploration and a generation of Americans who were not convinced when LBJ and Nixon said we were winning in Vietnam. When they were eleven, our parents had war bonds and victory gardens. We had Tang, Teflon and scratch-resistant lenses. We believed in Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

I don’t know if we need heroes today, but I’m pretty sure we need purposes and tests. Broad, lofty, poetic ones. We need spacecrafts named Eagle, Enterprise, Challenger, Intrepid and Yankee Clipper, or their equivalent. We need to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of God.

America’s space program allowed me and my generation to transcend our parents’ monochromatic expectations and come to better realize the vastness of human potential. In living color. These days, when the moon is full, I sometimes find myself gazing up at the Sea of Tranquility with a genuine sense of ownership. I had faith in the mission and bought into the dream. All systems were go.

I’m so grateful I got to experience the American space program at such an impressionable age. It clearly left an impression.

Post-Apocalyptic

This column was published Sunday, June 30, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


I was born in Manhattan, two months after the Soviets launched Sputnik, accelerating fears that Khrushchev might, in fact, bury us. Two years later, the ranch house my father built in rural Rooks County after graduating from K-State, had a sub-basement below the normal basement, complete with four bunks and canned peaches.

The Commies launched Sputnik during the International Geophysical Year to one-up everyone else on Earth, but especially us capitalistic, monopolizing aggressors in the decaying west. I.G.Y. was a vehicle for scientific types spanning the globe to participate in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena. (Donald Fagen waxed rhapsodic about I.G.Y. in 1982).

Because the aerospace industry was a logical first strike target, the Kansas of my youth was chock full o’ subterranean Intercontinental ballistic missiles. Titan 2’s ringed Wichita, Atlas E’s surrounded Topeka. Atlas F’s hemmed in Salina.

As a young deejay in Wichita in 1979, I got the duty to record the government-approved messages for the Emergency Broadcast System. Not the “If this had been an actual emergency” test language, but the genuine, actual ‘It’s been real, dude’ message.

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The script started ominously. “This is not a test.” The rest was official language that basically amounted to:

“If you’re still alive and listening to this radio station, hang in there. Despite the unfortunate circumstances related to the end of the world, you remain an essential cog in your country’s doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. Oh, and don’t eat the peaches if the cans are rusty.”

Whether I want ‘em or not, I have the ‘child of the Cold War’ bona fides.

I don’t recall anyone in my Cold War-era orbit being particularly fatalistic about the potential for atomic annihilation. Probably has more to do with the conservative, ‘government-knows-best’ tendencies of those within my orbit. My orbit was in Kansas, after all.

Our sub-basement was only a couple years old during the Cuban missile crisis. I’m too young to remember it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my parents laid in a few more cans of peaches and like everyone else in the western hemisphere, breathed a sigh of relief when Jack, Bobby and Nikita pulled the world back from the abyss.

Chalk it up to timing or serendipity, but I’ve always harbored a strange fascination for a very specific entertainment genre of my times. The post-apocalypse. In no particular order, some of my faves:

The Stand. Stephen King’s classic. Survivors of global death virus have the same dreams and form two camps: Good takes a stand against evil. Vegas gets nuked. Good wins and sets about rebuilding civilization in the People’s Republic of Boulder, Colorado.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute. After the northern hemisphere’s wiped out, an American Naval officer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie) buys some time by surfacing his sub in Australia.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In the movie, Viggo Mortensen makes his way to the coast with his young son, born after the ICBM’s flew: “The child is my warrant.”

The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens get along famously as the last two people on the planet until Mel Ferrer comes along.

Common themes throughout. If the unimaginable occurs, no one wants to suffer alone. We’ll struggle along, but we won’t thrive again until we hook up with fellow sufferers. We made it. Whew. Our very survival is our common bond.

I was a young upwardly mobile professional when Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative saber-rattling hit close to home in The Day After:

“This is Lawrence, Kansas. Is anybody there?”

In real life, when I’m smart enough to look for it, I see a sense of the spiritual when people seek and find other people in times of crisis or strife. In post-apocalyptic fiction, I don’t have to look so hard. It’s not in an elliptical low Earth orbit. It’s right in front of me.

Not to get all Kierkegaard on you, but post-apocalyptic existence forces human beings to find the meaning of life. Faster.

I mean, when you’re knee deep in the rubble, who cares if you’re wearing designer shoes?

Trailer Cat Mike

This column was published Sunday, June 16, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


Today, when you encounter a baby in the United States, chances are better than even the child will be named Olivia or Milo or Amelia or Asher. Their parents are quite likely named Brandon or Jessica or Andrew or Ashley.

Toward the ebb of the baby boom generation, pick any dozen of us at random and it is a virtual certainty you will find a Mike, Debbie, Steve, Mary, David or Julie.

I was never the only Mike in my class/peer group/clique.

Over the years, teachers, scout leaders, other assorted and sundry authority figures used variations of my name to distinguish me from this vast sea of omnipresent Mikes: Matson, Mike M., Michael, Mike Matson, Hey You.

As I grew older and expanded my circle, Mikes remained ubiquitous. You cannot swing a dead cat in my generation without popping a couple of Mikes. We Mikes were born, grew up, came of age, lived, loved and learned, together. We many, we happy many, we band of brothers.

In my late teens/early 20’s, my best friend was named Mike. So, my homies hung a new tag on me. Since we each sported long hair, wire frame glasses, polyester and platforms, maybe they encountered difficulty telling us apart?

He got to remain Mike. I became Michael J., indicative of the era. Think Saturday Night Fever characters: Double J, Bobby C. Since my middle name is James, I guess Michael J. made sense.

As a dues-paying member in good standing of the aforementioned like-minded clique, I raised no objections. Groupthink occurs organically when you travel in packs. Harmony and conformity trump conflict and critical evaluation of alternatives.

I guess it could have been worse. They could have called me Robby Benson.

Blue Valley trailer court this week. I saw no cats named Milo.

Blue Valley trailer court this week. I saw no cats named Milo.

At the time of my birth, my parents and then two-year old sister lived in an 18-foot trailer (you couldn’t really call it a “mobile home,” it wasn’t big enough) in the Blue Valley trailer court just north of Allen Road in Manhattan. My father was earning a degree in agronomy on the G.I. Bill, during the Bob Boozer era at K-State.

EMAW.

Joining us in our expansive portable palace was a cat.

Named Mike.

You can see where this is going.

Hold that thought.

My sister, Viki Beth, my parents’ firstborn, has the distinct honor and high privilege of being named after our grandmothers, Victoria and Elizabeth. Our younger brother, David, can trace his name to a righteous King of Israel, acclaimed warrior and musician. An Old Testament hero. A freaking Psalm writer, for God’s sake. Literally.

Me?

(Meow).

I can imagine the conversation on the day of my birth at what was then the Riley County Hospital.

Mom: “He's so adorable, our little bundle of joy. What shall we name him?”

Dad: “Hmm... I kinda like that trailer cat’s name.”

Not sure whatever became of Mike, our cat-in-a-trailer. Perhaps he escaped the cramped confines, fell in with a peer group of like-minded felines named Debbie, Steve, Mary, another Mike or two, and lived the rest of his days and nights, happily roaming the Blue River floodplain with the pack, munching on mice and leftovers tossed in Blue Valley trailer court trash cans.

Harmony and conformity.

I do know that shortly after my birth, we became a dog family.

I try not to take it personally.

The Murky Middle

This column was published Sunday, June 2, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


Nature takes its course in Kansas. Winter snow provides needed moisture for a dormant wheat crop. In the summer, the wind blows hot and dry out of the south, the combines roar to life and we swell with pride, deep in the heart of the Breadbasket of the World, carbs be damned.

We tamed the wild prairie, our forebears busted the sod and our middle-of-the-country work ethic, independent-minded, neighbor-helping-neighbor agrarian culture was immortalized.

Along the way, we came to appreciate the occasional extreme blizzard or ice storm. They only occurred once every generation. After all, it’s good for the crops and a healthy agricultural economy anchored stability and predictability.

As goes the farmer, so goes the Kansas county seat.

Somewhere along the four-lane freeway with wide shoulders made possible by a healthy ag sector, the winter blizzards and ice storms came deeper and more often. The spring and summer storms morphed from an occasional outlier from sunshine and good weather, to the norm. High over Kansas, warm air rose and collided with cold air aloft. Not just once or twice a month.

Every. Single. Day.

We were not alone. The average temperature on the planet rose. The depth of our caring enough about it to warrant action ebbed and flowed, depending on political consensus (or lack thereof), awareness and motivation.

My sense is this subject is culturally generational. I recycle and have planted my share of trees, but the chances of me trading in the Ford Escape for a Prius are slim and none, and Slim just left town, dodging tornadoes. Ford’s bringing back the Bronco in ’20 and I want one. Yeah, I said it. Solving this problem may get easier after we selfish Boomers finally ease on down the road.

If climate change means more damage caused by more thunderstorms, tornadoes, snow and ice, we will need more financial and human resources. Full-time, year-round municipal pothole patrol. At what point do local governing boards begin to think about allowing for a hotter planet in their budgeting process? When does the increased allocation for climate change-related remediation become commonplace, like public safety and fire prevention?

Less ozone, more outlay.

Judging from the bond issues and sales tax hikes being mulled in City Halls across Kansas, clearly not this year. I suspect that until as a society we evolve into a new normal to pay for potholes and flood cleanup, bond issues and creeping sales taxes are little more than band-aids.

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Probably about the time we started busting sod, we mere mortals bought into this notion that we can tame nature. A few generations later, downtown Manhattan was inundated by a flood in 1951 and our answer was to build Tuttle Creek Lake. Nature will take a man-made course.

Sometime before the autumnal equinox, the flow of the bottleneck of the ever-wider Missouri River at Waverly will likely rise to a point where a consensus decision deep within the bowels of the Army Corps of Engineers bureaucracy will become imminent. The Tuttle floodgates will open, the Big Blue will get bigger, and much of the upper east side of Manhattan, Kansas will be deluged. Neighbors will help neighbors.

Fall will come. Seven home football games mark the beginning of the Second Post-Snyder Period. If you live out of town, please come to them all. Spend money. You can’t have too many Win the Dang Day hoodies and throw blankets. Order Peanut Butter Pretzel Blondie Sundaes all around after dinner at LABCO. Fill your tank before you leave town.

I wonder if future historians, a few generations into the My God This Planet is Hot Epoch, will look back, scratch their heads and contemplate why we didn’t do more. They may question why, collectively, we bounced around so much.

We’re caught in the murky middle, seemingly without clarity or direction. Why was the most environmentally aware president in my lifetime succeeded by the least? Toyota will sell more Priuses to drivers motivated to make a difference. I’ll still covet the new Bronco. Ford would not bring it back if they didn’t have a pretty good sense there were still a lot of people just like me.

Maybe those future historians will determine that as people moved around, as the number of farmers dwindled and farms got larger, our middle-of-the-country work ethic, independent-minded, neighbor-helping-neighbor agrarian culture evolved over the generations from reality, to a feel-good message, to a fading, distant memory.

And that while living in the midst of the change and witnessing the evolution all around us, we struggled.

Grace Note

This column was published Sunday, May 19, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


When I hear the music, I close my eyes and see my 30-something mother, leaning into DeBussy’s Clair de Lune on her piano in our blonde brick trimmed with avocado green house in a Wichita neighborhood actually called Pleasant Valley. Hazel eyes behind gold wire frame glasses focused like laser beams on the notes, staffs and clefs, lifting whichever hand from the keys least necessary to prevent the flow of the melody for the split-second needed to turn the page of the music.

It’s nighttime in my memory. Clair de Lune, French for moonlight. She’s had this piano half her life.

Mom was just a toddler on the farm in Rooks County, when her mother’s father struck oil in the bottom ground north of the Saline River between Plainville and Hays. Geology and good fortune delivered the family from the fate which befell many of their Kansas neighbors in the basin of the Dust Bowl.

Courtesy: Dave Anderson.

Courtesy: Dave Anderson.

The oil provided a ledger sheet line of freedom and flexibility most folks just dreamed about in the dirty 30s and it gave Mom’s parents the ability to tangibly encourage their daughter’s gifts. So much so, that as she approached 16, her parents presented her, not with a new 1952 Packard convertible, but with a road trip to Kansas City.

Top floor of the Jenkins Music Company downtown. The elevator doors open, revealing a shining sea of pianos. Fifty or 60 pianos spread across the showroom floor, high above Paris of the Plains. Her parents nudge her toward them. Choose the one you like, and it’s yours.

Like a kid in a candy store, my soon-to-be 16-year old mom tickled a little boogie woogie on this one, a smattering of Bach (tempo rubato) over there, and because she worshiped Judy Garland, a few crescendoed bars of Over the Rainbow here. Mom settled on a Steinway Model D baby grand piano. High gloss polished ebony with a mirror-like sheen. Ivory keys manufactured during an era when society just assumed that’s what elephants were for.

Ensconced in the corner of her parents’ rural Rooks County living room and there it would remain until my father graduated from K-State. We built a ranch house across a pasture from Mom’s folks and moved the piano into another living room corner. When my parents sold the farm and we moved to Wichita, the piano was carefully cocooned in packing blankets and shipped three hours southeast.

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Because that’s what they did in the 70s, a couple of our neighbors came over to lend a hand. After wrestling it into the house, both neighbors struggled to keep their respective corners of the piano aloft. Brand new to these parts, desperate to keep the ‘pleasant’ in Pleasant Valley, Pop jury-rigged something for his corner, slid over and rescued the neighbors.

There was nothing ‘baby’ about this behemoth.

A piano bench chock full of sheet music. Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, the works. My sister was proficient at Neil Young’s Heart of Gold. She would pound out the steady bass register chords with her left hand and finger the melody/harmonica part with her right. My piano-playing skills never escalated above the first half-dozen notes of Bennie and the Jets (all the same – one chord x 6). No one in the family could match Mom’s musical chops.

The piano survived one more move before my folks went their separate ways. On her own, my mother preferred smaller domiciles, so hard choices were made, and her beloved Kansas baby grand transitioned from an instrument that brought happiness and joy to a memory. Mom told me recently she cried when she sold that piano and still misses it.

She’s a Garland purist, so deep is her devotion that when she learned of the upcoming biopic featuring Renee Zellweger as Judy, Mom responded with her generation’s equivalent of “meh.” Then there’s her eldest son. I can’t wait for this summer’s Elton John biopic. Taron Egerton as the Rocket Man burning out his fuse up there alone.

Mom’s all Judy Garland, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. Her kids are all Neil Young, Elton John and Stevie Nicks. We come by it naturally.

Mom will turn 84 this summer. Born with an ear and a heart for music, in the middle of a hot Kansas summer wheat harvest on the High Plains. Somewhere behind the moon, beyond the rain, where the clouds were far behind her, in the midst of a Great Depression. Mom lives these days and moonlit nights with most of her life behind her. I hope the memory of her baby grand brings her as much contentment as playing it did.

Death's Survivors

This column was published Sunday, May 5, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


Later this morning, my wife and I will journey east by south, descend a couple hundred feet in elevation and end up in the Marais des Cygne valley of Osage County. There, in a high school gymnasium-cum-hallowed space, the friends and family of Jill Casten will celebrate her life.

Felled by cancer at 38.

One of the dynamics of the forward march of time is it seems like people die more often. They don’t, really. It’s just that as nature takes its course and as the circles of life move inexorably forward, I’m at the point in my own cosmic chronology when it seems like it happens more frequently.

Dying, I mean.

We buried my wife’s brother-in-law last weekend in Neosho County. Killed in an accident clearing trees on the farm where he grew up, Mark Neely was 63. He had just retired from his day job, and like many rural Kansans of his generation, intended to spend more time with his family and cattle.

I don’t offer these personal obits to elicit sympathy. I do it, because it dawns on me that death forces introspection and introspection forces just the opposite: Thoughts, feelings and actions about and toward others.

Mark’s daughter, our 27-year old niece, will spend the rest of her life without her father. There will always be a hole in my niece’s life where her father once lived. I can’t fill that void, but I can take her to dinner a couple times a month.

Jill was a close, personal friend of my wife, who had known her for two decades. What started as mentor-mentee evolved into something much more symbiotic. When she learned of Jill’s death, my wife told me she sat down on our living room floor and cried. Our dogs, who sense sadness more acutely than some humans, came over and licked away her tears.

Jill touched lives all over Kansas and the country. So many, that her high school gym was the only venue big enough.

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For me, Jill was a professional colleague. Her office was next to mine and we would routinely invade each other’s space to brainstorm. Jill had this knack, an innate talent to make others’ ideas better. I walk by her empty office and wonder who will fill my idea improvement void. Then I realize that’s a pretty self-centered thought and my second thought is better. I can be sympathetic to my colleagues whom Jill mentored and within our system, I can offer to shoulder some of her load.

It strikes me that the depth of an individual human beings’ grief lines up in direct proportion to the depth of their relationship with the one who died. I will miss Jill Casten and Mark Neely, but their losses will be so much harder on my loved ones. The voids created are massive. When I plumb their depths, I can see no bottom. It is infinite. The loss cannot be measured or defined.

The essence of my spiritual awareness is that through belief in and acceptance of the death and resurrection of the son of God, the rest of us can be reconciled, and the end game is salvation and eternal life. Put me down for that, please.

If I do the right thing on Earth, I’ll get to Heaven. Which is infinite. It cannot be measured or defined. Hence, spiritual. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Because I love my wife and my niece, I will always try to do right by them. All that I can. It won’t come close to filling their voids, but that’s not the point. The point is that death offers the opportunity for the living to do just a little bit more. Death and void bring emotional political cover to do what we should be doing anyway.

So, the tears will flow. The sadness will linger, but eventually abate. We will deal with the grief and loss. In the throes of it, perhaps just on the far side of the Marais des Cygne valley, will come a deep and meaningful recognition that some voids will never be filled. That we loved and lost for a reason. That there is a plan for each of us. That Jill and Mark have gained that which we cannot define.

And that for those of us who survive, those of us closer to the surface, in the heart of this Kansas spring, our task is certain and just. To make things a little bit better for those still struggling in the void.

Joe College, er... Joe Tech School

This column was published Sunday, April 21, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


I am a college dropout. I am also a technical school graduate. Not surprisingly, the two are intertwined.

People spend their time and energy on things that have value in their lives, and I always managed to find something I valued more than going to class.

My career aspiration as a teenager was to be a Major League Baseball play-by-play announcer. At the time, there were 24 of those jobs on the planet, so I figured I would start low and work my way up. What did Keynesian macroeconomics have to do with the infield fly rule? How was sitting in a lecture hall listening to a windbag professor drone on about the nationalist spirit of post-revolutionary France going to help me identify the hanging slider?

A perfect storm of emotions got me out of college and into tech school. Impatient, in love and cocksure. I was following a girl from Wichita to the Twin Cities. Five years before Tom Cruise got down to risky business, I had the strong sense that Brown Institute in Minneapolis could use a guy like me.

Courtesy: Bruce Browning

Courtesy: Bruce Browning

Tech school not only taught me the basics of an industry, it’s where I began to refine a set of soft skills that I have carried with me since. Broadcasting is nothing if not precise, and the seed for the art and science of time management was planted.

In tech school, my God-given gifts were revealed, much quicker than they ever would have been in college. The ability to communicate, to use the written and spoken word in such a fashion that it impacts those on the receiving end, whether I was adlibbing a weather forecast on the radio or helping repurpose a statewide advocacy organization to be relevant in the face of massive demographic and cultural change.

My tech school education landed me a foot-in-the-door job running master control for midnight-to-dawn movies at a TV station in Wichita, which led, six months later, to an announcer’s job at a connected radio station, which led to a radio/TV news job in Hays, which led to more and better broadcast journalism gigs, which led to politics, speechwriting, which led to advocacy and systems work.

It took a couple of years before realizing the notion of landing one of only two dozen jobs calling balls and strikes on the radio for a big league ballclub wasn’t realistic. Plus, by then, I wanted to stay in Kansas and Denny Matthews wasn’t going anywhere.

For too long, it seems our society has defined success based solely on going to college. Today we face mounting workforce needs. Parents, mentors and school counselors can share the good word that many well-paying, in-demand careers do not require a bachelor’s degree. The pathway to happiness and success need not always run through a university.

In the fourth quarter of last year, 56,000 jobs went unfilled in Kansas. Imagine the economic impact of filling those if people had the needed skills. Of course, we badly need doctors, engineers and accountants. What we don’t need are those who spend ten years finding themselves, living on student loans, only to finally graduate with a degree in Precambrian Anthropology and $100,000 in debt.

Instead, we need them to learn a trade, fill jobs in our economy, earn some money, and then maybe later they can make an informed choice to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program when they know what they want out of the experience. 

Arguing this line in a community whose main economic driver is the propagation of college degrees may border on blasphemy, but the paths available for achieving successful careers should not be limiting. On-the-job training, apprenticeships, technical schools – and universities should be in the mix. Would I recommend my path to young people today, seeking a post-high school direction? Without a doubt, especially if, like me at the time, they’re facing a perfect storm, or even variable cloudiness.

Am I the white-collar tech school graduate outlier? Possibly, but maybe it takes a few outlier examples to help illustrate this fact. I am a living, breathing, column-writing, taxpaying example of how to construct a rewarding career, completely unencumbered by a college degree.

Young people going straight to work or attending a tech school out of high school are not a failure. Just the opposite. Kansas needs young people pursuing all paths if we are to meet our future needs. 

There’s no shame in being a college dropout. In fact, if you haven’t already picked up on this notion, I’m rather proud of it.

Transcendent Rex

It’s no wonder the song sticks with me. The timing and the title hit me right where I Iive. Released in June 1975, the same month I left home, a week after graduating high school, six months before my 18th birthday. Over the years, ‘That’s the Way of the World’ by Earth Wind & Fire sort of defaulted to a personal theme song. Like my father before me, I took pride in making my own way.

Plant your flower and you grow a pearl.

In my haste to escape a domineering father, a pair of high school chums and I moved across town into a swinging bachelor pad and proceeded with wanton abandon, to fulfill what I perceived society expected of me at that age.

During the last five years, I’ve invested a lot of time, burned a lot of energy, and climbed high on the Matson family tree. Since some of the branches showed signs of disease, I was determined to examine the roots. Once I got there, I looked only backward.

Through sheer will and independence, my father, Champ, closed the door on a shitty childhood and re-booted his life. The day after he graduated high school, Champ was on a train bound for San Diego and Navy basic training.

After some trial and error, heavy on the error, I managed to surpass Champ’s understanding of why his parents were the way they were. In his case, and mine, the sins of the father were not to be visited upon the son, because we cut our fathers loose and built some brick walls. At the end of Champ’s life, he and I were able to remove a few bricks.

My son, Scott, has transcended my shortcomings and is more empathetic, a much better listener and a quicker study. An anecdote from when he was about four: I was light on cash. Scott looked at me like I’m six kinds of idiot, “Well, let’s just go to the bank and get some more.” Through experience, my son has been quick to size up system norms and boundaries, and then apply that knowledge to achieve his desired ends.

The birth of Rex Michael Matson offers an opportunity to turn around in the tree and look forward.

Rex’s first chapter begins with a harrowing birthday, transcending traditional, template-driven OB/GYN expectations of a dozen hours of labor. Eager to escape the confines of the amniotic sac and begin crafting his own narrative, Rex’s head began to pop out before Mom even made it to the delivery room.

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Rex is a happy, healthy baby, born nearly two decades into the 21st century. All things being equal, he’ll graduate high school in 2037 and will live to see the 22nd century. I was privileged to be in Scott and Amanda’s living room this weekend, when, at nine weeks, Rex offered his first real smile to Mom and Dad.

A child is born with a heart of gold.

I drove home from Denver today and blue-toothed EW&F and other music of my coming of age. By the time I reached the border, it hit me that if I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know.

So, I don’t. Anymore. Claim to be a wise man. I do have experience, and what I hope is a pretty good handle on the way of the world, which nearly always traces upstream to human motivation. Once I figured that out, the way of the world learning curve plateaued a bit.

When he graduates from high school, Rex may join the Navy, or he may move across town to an apartment with some chums. But if he does either of those things, it won’t be because he wants to get away from his father.

If my grandson is anything like those who came before him, who share his last name – and he is – Rex will go beyond and above the limits each preceding generation has created. We created them, so we can change them.

It seems like the space around our heads and hearts gets bigger with each passing generation. Rex’s parents are two of the most loving human beings I know.

I have faith and confidence in young Rex. Gather courage, question everything, lead with kindness.

Take you high and higher, to the world you belong.

Crowdsourcing

This column was published Sunday, April 7, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


Social media post at 5 a.m.: “Deadline for my next newspaper column is 36 hours away, and I’ve not a clue about what to write. Crowdsourcing ideas.”

Former state lawmaker/Kansas Regent: “How you learned from a mistake, governing should be from the middle, an act of kindness you saw by someone who didn’t have to.”

CEO of state government idea-sharing outfit: “When in doubt, always write about a dog.” Three likes.

Magazine publisher: “36 hours? Plenty of time. Aren’t you a journalist? Ha!!” Three likes.

Junction City school board member: “Oh, the winter we’ve had.”

Lobbyist: “It’s admin appreciation month. How about showing appreciation for employees outside of one month?”

Retired Kansas newspaper publisher: “This is the life I’ve experienced for the past half century. It’s why old writers go nuts.” Two likes.

Former state lawmaker/Kansas Regent (again): “Oh, or baseball.” Two likes.

Newspaper publisher: “Truth is, many of have this problem in our lives. We have to make it up as we go.” One like. From the aforementioned magazine publisher.

Kansas tech school president: “Hope is a four-letter word. Use it.”

6th grade girlfriend: “Writers block.”

Local non-profit champion: “Your heroes growing up and your heroes now.” One like.

Retired trade group honcho: “How about we’re all colluding in some ways?”

Insurance company foundation exec: “I agree on the baseball comment!! (with two smiley faces).

Current professional colleague: “Be in the moment. Show true joy. Express yourself. Insanely quick rebound time from something negative.”

Children’s advocacy exec: “This kid who won free food for a year and gave it away to the Manhattan homeless shelter.” Two likes.

Another newspaper publisher (son of the retired one above): “Throw in an eclectic mix of trivia questions. Always makes for good reading.”

Chautauqua County cattle rancher/fellow columnist: “As I approach my 500th weekly column, I feel your pain.” One wow.

High school chum: “How the Shockers (were) the only Kansas college team still playing in April.”

Utah editorial writer (former Kansan): “You can write a column about how hard it is to write a column. But you can only do that once.” Two likes (one of them mine).

Guy from my Leadership Kansas cohort: “How your peace of mind is inversely proportional to your expectations.”

Then there was a wordy exchange between a self-described “retired liberal feminist social worker who loves KU” and a longtime Kansas GOP operative about health care politics, eloquently confirming why I studiously eschew such debates on social media.

Retired corporate p.r. exec: “Contrary to popular opinion, Mick Jagger is not immortal. This cannot be good for the rest of us.” Two likes and a haha.

Leadership Kansas dude again: “But obviously Keith Richards is.” Four likes.

Topeka art gallery owner: “Baseball. Stories of the good guys who played. Things they did off the field. Great friendships that started on the field.”

Hutchinson merchant: “The power of consulting your network.” Two likes.

New Mexico public radio exec: “What’s the matter with Kansas? Wait, sorry, that’s been done. How about, how to push through obstacles?”

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Riley County Commissioner: “How about the obvious power of procrastination, both the pros and cons?” One like.

Media company marketing director: “How about Bill for President 2020. #emaw”

Former TV news rival: “Or, how about the 25th anniversary of the Kansas Legislature legalizing the death penalty?”

Fellow author/blogger: “My last-minute columns tended to be nostalgia with some sort of tie-in to the present. ‘Today is my dad’s birthday...’ and I went from there.”

Childhood next-door neighbor in Pleasant Valley, the Wichita neighborhood where I grew up: “The pleasant valleys of your life!”

Banker: “Thirty-six hours out and you’re already thinking about it? Have me beat.” One haha.

Non-profit entrepreneurial system pro: “Following, cuz ditto.” Smiley face and smiley face with tears of joy.

Small-town Kansas mayor: “Life of a small-town mayor!”

One-time Topeka political operative: “Why otters are so darned cute.” Smiley face with tears of joy.

Development manager: “Springtime in Kansas, it’s been a long, long wait!”

U.S. Army medic: “Yeah, otters. I know you can wax poetic about otters. That’s my vote.”

Retired radio general manager: “Why I always gain weight during March Madness.”

Creative services company owner: “Just list these answers. You’ve got your column!” Me: “Srsly.”

The Grubbiness of Expediency

This column was published Sunday, March 24, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


There’s danger in being a former journalist. The danger is you know more than the average news consumer about the judgment calls and other practical realities that, while a crucial part of the news reporting process, are not easily discernable in the final product.

Because of my days and nights in the trenches gathering, writing and reporting news, I can’t consume it without the additional layer of knowledge and experience that came with having actually produced it.

Every morning, I consume four or five online newspapers. Every morning I encounter more and more of this:

“The State Department declined to comment.”

“A spokesman for Bolton did not reply to a request for comment.”

“The RNC declined to comment.”

When I encounter these non-responses, I lapse into reporter mode and rhetorically ask the next logical follow-up question, “Why?”

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Problem is, when you’re on the record with a journalist, everything you say is fair game. When all you say is you don’t want to talk, that’s what will get published and news consumers are left to draw their own conclusions about motivation.

In every newsroom, the very pragmatic aspect of the decision-making process is an innate understanding that every day, there’s a hole to fill. My daily newspaper will not deliver 16 blank pages of newsprint to my driveway. I’m not going to flip on the 6 o’clock TV news and have the anchorperson stare back at me for 30 minutes.

I’m reminded of a day when I toiled in the journalistic vineyards and was chasing down two stories, either of them, had they borne fruit, newsworthy. I’d gotten word from a source that the Attorney General of Kansas was to be indicted on perjury related to a sexual harassment case against him. Meanwhile, at the exact same time in the Kansas House, a cabal of restless conservative Republicans were plotting a leadership coup against the sitting House Speaker, a fellow Republican who did not share cabal ideology.

All day, I’m working sources, on the phone, in person, chasing two separate stories. The courts and legislative coup plotters are confirming nothing, much less commenting. Restless cabals, regardless of their ideology, traditionally don’t telegraph their coup-plotting moves. Sort of goes against the whole reason for plotting.

The clock’s ticking closer to 6 p.m., the assignment desk is breathing down my neck to fill the hole. Part of my duties was to work up a ‘bump tease,’ words the anchorperson says out loud, urging viewers to hang on through the commercial break. Only half-kidding, I turned in this:

“The Attorney General was not indicted. The Speaker of the House was not ousted. We’ll be back with more stuff that didn’t happen… right after this.”

My argument was an Attorney General not indicted and a House Speaker un-toppled are not news. The countervailing argument descends from the loftiness of editorial judgment of what is and is not news, into the grubbiness of expediency. Gotta fill the hole. Every day.

In a live shot from the Statehouse, I went on TV and filled my 90-second hole by regurgitating a day spent chasing two stories, neither of which panned out. Was it news? Did viewers gain new knowledge, allowing them to develop informed opinions? Did we fill the hole? No, I hope so and without a doubt.

Later In my career I switched sides and became a spokesperson. When approached by the media, I made it a point to say something, anything, even when I didn’t want to. Motivated by a fear of reading, “the spokesman had nothing to say,” I spoke, especially when it was bad news. Effective spokespeople can always deflect, obfuscate or rage against the machine, in the service of the system that signs the paycheck.

I do not believe the increasing spate of not talking when approached by journalists is pushback against a fundamental American Constitutional right, but I will admit to worrying that those not commenting may be using the ill-informed and incredibly dangerous sidetrack of “fake news” as cover for not talking.

My experience leads me to believe that there’s rarely a time when ‘no comment’ leaves the news consumer with a positive feeling. I’ve also learned that few of the bits of news I consume each morning are Pulitzer-worthy or even the way it’s taught in J-school. The hole filling, remember?

We will form opinions and draw conclusions. It’s human nature. It’s why we consume news.

A couple of careers ago, Matson covered politics and government for a Topeka TV station. Later he served as spokesperson for a governor of Kansas. His column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury.

100 Tacos

This column was published Sunday, March 10, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


My wife and I failed to eat dinner before the K-State men’s basketball win over Baylor a week ago, so postgame, we slid into Taco Bell. I stayed in the car, she went in. Twenty minutes and a new definition of “fast” food later, she emerged.

It took a while because the place was jammed with a few dozen green-T-shirted college kids, feeling no pain, apart from the pangs of hunger that tend to occur, as a matter of course, after a day of drinking. I’d been reminded it was Fake Patty’s Day earlier, when police barriers in front of the dry cleaners in Aggieville delayed a reunion with my lightly-starched Oxford button-downs.

After a dozen years, Fake Patty’s Day has long since become a thing. A reason for college-aged people to gather together in one centralized geographic area, break bread or cheesy gordita crunch and enjoy a cereal malt beverage or ten. When I was 19, I think we called it, “Thursday.”

It’s easy to chalk up partying to excess as a rite of passage for the college-aged. Most people learn from such experiences and make purposeful life decisions and choices reflective of that growth. Then there are a handful of us who struggle. A handful of us, who, because of genetics or just bad luck, become addicted and migrate, as a matter of course, into a downward spiral, often punctuated by heartbreaking loss. My own recovery experience began more than 25 years ago.

This is not a column about recovery, though to assume there are no problem drinkers among the universe of Fake Patty’s revelers, is naïve. The same equation doubtless applies to any collection of college-age young men and women, anywhere in this country. The experts say seven percent of the American population may be problem drinkers.

Because the excess is magnified during Fake Patty’s Day, the opportunity arises for some young people to engage in courageous introspection. If they surface at all, those thoughts tend to come the next morning and are often in direct proportion to the level of excess. If they’re anything like I was at that age, there may already be a nagging inkling that maybe they tally up among the seven percent.

With the benefit of hindsight, when I reflect on 20-year old me, I rationalized my excesses by telling myself I was normal, tacking to the middle of the mainstream. By developing a personal narrative that I was simply living up to societal expectations of young Americans, I drove myself deeper into denial.

The dichotomy of Fake Patty’s Day is it offers the opportunity for everything we want our children to experience when they go away to college: Camaraderie, learning the ways of the world, developing lifelong friendships, navigating complex systems. Trial and error. Having some fun.

Deep into my youthful college-age experiences, I didn’t stay up nights thinking, “Gee whiz, maybe I should modulate my intake because it may affect my behavior and one day, I may grow up to be a member in good standing of the Greater Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce Business Advocacy Committee and my actions today may reflect poorly on my decisions then.”

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After the early moralizing, hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth, I get the sense our community has evolved over the dozen years of Fake Paddy’s Day. Green T-shirts fly off the shelves and we bring in extra cops from other communities. Taco Bell stocks up on the sour cream and Aggieville is contained with barricades.

Social media has given law enforcement a chance to manage expectations. Infusing humor, btw, is a stroke of p.r. genius. RCPD: “There is no best way to finesse your way out of a ‘urinating in public’ citation. Just utilize one of the many port-a-Johns throughout Aggieville.”

During our postgame Taco Bell experience, my wife estimated she saw a hundred tacos being prepared while waiting in line. In 20 minutes in one fast food restaurant. That’s a lot of tacos. And a lot of sales tax.

Let’s embrace Fake Patty’s Day. Let’s own it. Let’s monetize it for the good of the community and let’s continue to allow young people to learn by making choices and decisions. We’ll live with the few who lose their chalupas supreme on our front lawns. The tradeoff is the greater good. Young people finding their way. The creation of wealth, in the Keynesian sense. A college town living up to its bona fides.

Fake Patty’s Day appears to be here to stay. Our community’s regulatory systems have adapted. If this day, or any day of excess leads any individual, college-age or otherwise, to new personal insight, it seems like that’s always a good thing.

As a matter of course.

Matson is the author of Spifflicated, a creative non-fiction memoir chronicling generations of his family’s struggles with addiction. His column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

Destiny's Child

This column was published Sunday, February 24, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.


Her ascension to the governor’s office coincided with my start as a television news reporter covering Kansas politics and government. I had covered her successful 1990 campaign for a statewide radio network and was switching over to TV.

Covering Joan Finney’s campaign, I got to know her as a person. At one point she shared, “It's my destiny to become governor of Kansas.”

She really believed that.

Joan Finney came of age as a staff hanger-on to longtime Kansas GOP stalwart Frank Carlson, during a time when the expectations of women in those roles didn’t get much beyond running the mimeograph machine or making the coffee.

She ran for the U.S. House in ‘72 as a Republican and lost. When her former GOP mentors tried to block her from running again, she quit the party, turned Democrat, carried a chip on her shoulder and never looked back.

Getting mic’d up for an interview at Cedar Crest with the meanie reporter.

Getting mic’d up for an interview at Cedar Crest with the meanie reporter.

Finney was an old school pol, who thought if she just operated like Frank Carlson did in the ‘50s and ‘60s, she would succeed.

She struggled as governor. She had difficulty connecting with legislators of both parties, who scoffed at her claims of destiny. The result was finger-pointing, name calling and not getting much public policy enacted.

Once, after a live shot in the Rotunda, during which I wouId report on the debacle du jour, she cornered me on her way out of the Statehouse.

“Oh, Mike, why do you have to be so mean?”

Mustering up my best Cosell-esque call ‘em like I see ‘em, I tried to engage her. “Governor, it’s not mean, it’s journalism. It’s my job.”

On occasion, Finney would invite reporters to her houseboat on Lake Perry. After knocking back a few cocktails she’d expound on her vision to fulfill her destiny. Joan Finney was a devout Catholic who enjoyed her libations, her gambling and believed in predestination.

For all her macro-communications challenges, Joan Finney had the most effective one-on-one connection with voters I have ever seen in a politician.

We would be in Baxter Springs or Osborne or Randolph or Spearville. Invariably, she would connect with those she liked to call “her people.”

“Oh, Myrtle, bless your heart. How are Frank and the children?”

The first couple of times, you would chalk it up to coincidence. But it happened all the time. Without fail. Everywhere we went. She had campaigned successfully statewide for state treasurer four times before running for governor. She got to know a lot of people. It also made her the poster child for political name ID. Clearly, Kansas voters recognized the name on the ballot.

She had a special place in her heart for the downtrodden. She felt Native Americans had gotten a raw deal and became the best friend of the four tribes with reservation land within the borders of Kansas. Her staff also lent a hand to the tribes as they maneuvered the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which paved the way for tribal casinos.

One year, she moved the Kickapoo pow-wow off the reservation to the south steps of the Statehouse, dressed in full tribal regalia and joined in the dancing.

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After her inaugural address, I recall she made it a point to purposefully walk down the southwest Statehouse sidewalk to the statue of the Pioneer Woman, bow her head, whisper a prayer and then offer a salute. Three decades later, I remember those symbolic gestures, each meant to convey a message. What was I saying about macro-communications challenges?

It takes a little ego to believe you can be elected governor. At what point does ego transform into destiny? Is one person’s destiny, the next person’s ambition? Seems to me that’s an equilibrium each individual has to find between themselves and their Creator.

Joan Finney found hers. So, I guess in that sense, she fulfilled her destiny.

Time Management

This column was published Sunday, February 10, 2019 in The Manhattan Mercury.


“Oh, time! The beautifier of the dead, adorer of the ruin, comforter and only healer when the heart hath bled. Time, the avenger.”

--Lord Byron

I wrote this column more than a week ago.

The words you’re reading now were strung together on a drizzly, foggy Groundhog Day morning in the relative quiet and solitude of the Manhattan Public Library, comfortably ensconced between the reference section and the administrative offices. I’m at that 4-top table on the second floor. There’s a massive floor-to-roof window facing south, affording a generous view of the parking lot and the comings and goings of Saturday morning library patrons.

I could really go for a cup of coffee but have learned through time and experience that the writing of newspaper columns and coffee shop din don’t mix, so I’ll trade the caffeine jones for the creativity that tends to flow in relative quiet, also learned through time and experience.

Outa the library by noon. 12:30 at the latest.

Outa the library by noon. 12:30 at the latest.

Under normal circumstances, I’d brew a pot of Strong Enough To Walk and write from the comfort of the overstuffed easy chair in the living room, but we have a guy doing some interior wall repair/painting and he likes to manage his time knocking out a few hours on Saturday mornings.

When she was a pup, our youngest dog chewed a few chunks of drywall and we finally grew weary of living in a house with a few chunks of chewed drywall. The work is part of a long-term plan, which ends with a move. That time arc starts with a dream and ends with living in the country. Somewhere along that arc, the wife-husband conversation will get real and we want to have the house ready to sell.

My wife’s been out of town on business most of the week and assuming no delays, wheels down at MHK is 1:43 p.m. It’s a little after 10 a.m. right now. Before airport spousal retrieval, in addition to writing this column, I have a couple of errands to run, and I visualize the clock.

The grocery list in my pocket reads, “coffee, coffee filters, Kleenexes and trash bags,” so before the airport, I’ll need to allot some time for speed-dating in the paper products aisle. Twenty minutes should do it.

My car looks as though muddy dogs have romped throughout, owing to the fact that muddy dogs have romped throughout. Start to finish, that’s a 30-minute cleanup. Working the clock backward, I’ll want to be at the airport at 1:30, give myself roughly an hour for the errands, which means I need to be done here at the library somewhere between noon and 12:30.

The deadline for this column is 5 p.m. Wednesday, but I have a day job, this column is a side gig and when I examine the calendar for the coming week, blocks of time available for creative column writing are non-existent.

Tomorrow, we’re in Miami County for a family baptism, then it’s home for the Chiefsless Super Bowl, so Sunday’s out.

By the time you’re reading this column, we’ll be weekending in Chicago, something we simply would not do, absent twice-daily direct flights from Manhattan. Without that convenience, the cost/benefit analysis of weekending in Chicago will always come down heavily on cost, light on benefit.

All things being equal, we land at 3:04 p.m., this afternoon. Then it’s back home (in 15 minutes) to manage another 168 hours. This week will feature the installation of new carpeting and all the time-driven logistics tacked on.

Part of the home improvement schtick is minimizing, so using Facebook Marketplace, I’ve attempted to part with some stuff. Thought I had a TV sold, until the buyer agreed to three separate times for pickup, only to miss all three. I don’t have time for these kinds of shenanigans, so I cut her loose and re-posted the TV.

Only then, did I contemplate the socio-economic status of those who buy their TVs and furniture on Facebook Marketplace. Next came thoughts about the lives led by haves and have-nots in our community and the fact that the haves have time management frames of reference and proficiencies that the have-nots simply have not.

What I perceived as poor time management skills, may not have existed at all. Then I felt crappy. Especially, since a mantra to which I try to adhere is, ‘do the next right thing, do the next thing right.’ I failed on the TV transaction.

Byron and his latter-day counterpart, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders, were wrong. “I thought that time was on my side, but now it’s time the avenger.” I don’t need to take vengeance or exact satisfaction from the clock. I do need to recognize not everyone sees it like I do.

The Real Education

This column was published Sunday, January, 27, 2019 in The Manhattan Mercury.


We were not exactly friends in high school. In fact, a generous description would be arms-length rivals. Grant Overstake was chorus and madrigals, I was orchestra and pep band. He was varsity football and spring musical lead, I was let’s cut Algebra 2 class and go pound some 16-ounce Budweisers. Grant was newspaper, I was yearbook. As fledgling teenage journalists, we trudged two similar, but very distinct paths at Wichita Heights.

While our yearbook faculty advisor encouraged a healthy spirit of competition with the newspaper staff, I’ll cop to not getting that deep or much past high school one-upsmanship. This manifested itself in short-sighted decisions. When the time came to select photos of the newspaper staff for inclusion in the yearbook, our goal was to find the most unflattering poses.

Sorry, Grant.

Out in the real world, we both pursued journalism, Grant as an ink-stained wretch, me wrestling the then-industry standard 1-inch videotape cassette decks, lights and cameras of TV news.

Not really surprising, I guess, that we each evolved into authors. His The Real Education of TJ Crowley is a young adult novel, drawn from Overstake’s own upbringing and surroundings in the heart of the civil rights struggle in 1968 Wichita.

What happens when what are perceived to be clearly defined and understood social boundaries are blown through by someone who doesn’t look like us?

My book, Spifflicated (a 1930’s slang term with dual meanings, the first translates to “plastered,” the second, to stifle, suffocate, ruin), is a creative non-fiction family memoir based on three years of purposeful conversations with my father at the end of his life about his troubled childhood with raging alcoholic parents. Spifflicated spans a quarter century (1931-1956) in Kansas and points westward.

Each book, at its core, is about dysfunction. TJ powerfully illustrates the dysfunction of racism, traced upstream to individual closed hearts. Spifflicated is based on an illness that centers in the mind and is characterized by self-driven thinking that results in choices that can destroy families.

The “cure” for each starts with awareness, which can open the door to willingness to change.

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This month, we marked the 51st anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appearance in Manhattan, three months before he was gunned down in Memphis, six months before the story of TJ unfolds in Wichita.

In Manhattan, in January 1968, King told a packed Ahearn Fieldhouse that “…somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” I interpret that as change requires action.

Ordinances designed to prevent discrimination served as the impetus for a black family to move in next door to TJ in northeast Wichita in 1968. Meanwhile, across town where I lived, white kids, including my younger brother, were bused to schools in black neighborhoods and vice versa.

Fair housing laws and busing were the city commission and school board’s tactical answers to a larger communal strategy of integration, obliterating decades of separate but equal justification and rationalization – upended by a legal action that also had its origins in Kansas.

Fifty-one years later, people who look like me and Grant Overstake remain overwhelmingly the majority in Kansas, though as our society evolves, that trend line is descending. In fact, studies indicate within half a century, Kansas will be a majority-minority state with people who look like me and Grant comprising less than half our population.

The definition of the word, ‘majority’ won’t change, just 200 years of knee-jerking to deeply-ingrained collective assumptions.

I wrote Spifflicated for a broad general adult audience, but also for a narrower band of those who have experienced the heartaches that accompany addiction. That band is much wider than I imagined, based on feedback I’ve received.

In my book, I seek to illustrate the self-destructive behaviors of addiction through the lives of those from whom I sprang, whose DNA and blood I carry. It’s passive, in the sense that if a reader recognizes troubling traits and wants to do something about it, they’re free to knock themselves out. In fact, that’s the only way it works.

Grant Overstake’s book takes that a step further and builds in an action step. His target audience is “young adult,” generally recognized in the book publishing game as teenagers. Grant tells a compelling story, but he also wrote TJ to serve as a resource, to reach those young adults in the classroom and foster a conversation about race and social justice.

Every Kansas teenager should read The Real Education of TJ Crowley, for lessons on how it used to be, but more importantly, for the opportunity to realize how their thoughts and actions can shape the Kansas and America of the future.


Matson’s column appears in The Mercury every other Sunday. You can find his Spifflicated: A Family Memoir and Grant Overstake’s The Real Education of TJ Crowley at mikematson.com and grantoverstake.com, respectively.

Open Letter to Gov.-elect Kelly's Staff

This column was published Sunday, January, 13, 2019 in The Manhattan Mercury.


One of the first things I did when I sat where you sit was to mount a one-person crusade to subtly influence the way Kansans perceived the person they had elected. In news releases and anything official, I would capitalize the ‘G’ in ‘governor,’ AP Stylebook be damned.

At high noon tomorrow, the executive branch of Kansas government changes hands. After the Inaugural address, and before you don the formal duds for the Inaugural ball, you’ll settle into your new Statehouse digs. People will return your calls promptly. The Governor’s office is calling.

Your boss’s job is daunting. Governing a state founded amidst massive cultural change that finds itself on the first or second wave of another one, albeit less bloody, fueled by changing demographics and all their accompanying downstream complications.

As much as you admire and respect her today, as Gov. Laura Kelly grows into the job, your admiration and respect will deepen. She has a constituency of 2.9 million souls, you have a constituency of one. Your job is to help her succeed. It’s not a cult of personality, but she’s all that and a bag of chips.

Stay in-state for official gatherings. Shortly after taking office, a Cabinet retreat at an Oklahoma resort owned by my guys’ father-in-law became our first media poopstorm. On the upside, it did spawn the name of the Governor’s staff summer softball team: No Retreat.

Position a couple of colleagues in the House chamber to “spontaneously” start the clapping after the applause lines in the State of the State. If you can swing it, plant a couple of strategically-placed “woots.” Script them. Make certain their voices carry.

It’ll take six or eight months to find a staff rhythm. If you haven’t already, you will soon develop the ability to read the Governor’s mind. This skill, above all others, will be key to your success. You will have 99 problems, but the Governor ain’t one.

Push for more staff meetings at Cedar Crest. It is a lovely home and you’ll enjoy telling your friends you just got back from a high-level meeting there. You could tell them more, but then you’d have to kill them. BTW, it’s the Governor’s residence, not the governor’s mansion.

John Steuart Curry’s  Tragic Prelude  graces the wall just outside the Kansas Governor’s office.

John Steuart Curry’s Tragic Prelude graces the wall just outside the Kansas Governor’s office.

While everything you do will be tinged with politics, resist the temptation to push the envelope on partisanship. You’re Democrats in a Republican state. You will find the sweet spot between politics and policy.

When traveling to western Kansas, go to places besides Dodge, Garden and Hays. Pay purposeful attention to the 96 counties you did not carry.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. You serve at the pleasure of the Governor. When he was Governor, Bob Bennett was known to fire staffers by sending little notes which read, “you no longer please me.”

Revel in the ceremonial trappings. You’ll soon learn proclamation signings are a pain and they chew up the Governor’s time, but they’re also an efficient way for the Governor to connect with her constituents. Without ever leaving the office.

Be elsewhere when they’re casting about for an Easter Bunny for the Easter Egg Hunt at Cedar Crest.

Bring your family into the uniqueness of what you’re doing. One of my most treasured keepsakes is a photo of my then 9-year old son, sitting wide-eyed behind the Governor’s desk.

If the Adjutant General says it’s an emergency, it is.

You’ll develop a special relationship with the Kansas Highway Patrol. Plainclothes troopers comprise the Governor’s security detail, advance the trips and drive the vehicles. These men and women would take a bullet for the Governor. Seriously.

After leaving office, my guy would joke that he knew he was no longer Governor when he climbed into the passenger seat of the Crown Vic and it didn’t go anywhere.

It will be all too easy to get on the wave and simply ride it for four or eight years. Find a way to get knocked off, spend some time on the beach, admiring the vastness and grandeur of what you’re doing. My office was just down the hall from the Governor’s office, proper. I would hustle by John Steuart Curry’s Tragic Prelude dozens of times a day and not give it a second thought.

I came away from the service you’re about to enter with a fully built-out sense that Kansas will always be home. That I would spend the rest of my life here. That whomever has the courage and fortitude to stand for election and win deserves to have the title of their office capitalized. Today, when I return to the Statehouse and stand before Curry’s mural, I think about my service then and reflect on what it really means to be a Kansan.

The necessity to purposefully recognize the honor and privilege of serving your home state at this level. At this time in history. For these scant few years. For this Governor.

The time will flee, all too quickly.

Take some time to tingle.

Matson served as Communications Director and Press Secretary for Gov. Bill Graves. His column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury.

Mike Matsons of the World, Unite!

This column was published Sunday, December 30, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


OK, I admit it. I have a Google Alert set for my name. It’s not that I’m so full of myself that I think there will be dozens of occasional Internet postings about li’l ol’ me. It stems from earlier career responsibilities when I was charged with speaking publicly on behalf of individuals and systems.

There was a time when it was not uncommon for me to speak daily to a dozen assorted news reporters, editors and/or assignment desk jockeys. Google Alerts seemed a quick and efficient way to keep track and manage accuracy.

Today, the only time I get a Google Alert pertaining specifically to me is when one pops up indicating this column has been posted online by the Merc. Even that is hit and miss. The Merc posts all the columns, to be sure, but I’m only Google Alerted about said posting maybe one in every six or eight columns.

So much for Google Alert accuracy.

An unintended, positive, or at least entertaining, side consequence is I get to learn what other Mike Matsons with online presences are up to. I receive regular updates on many of my namesake counterparts.

One Mike Matson, for instance, is a hotshot investment banker type who regularly weighs in on various and sundry medical technology/diagnostics stock opportunities. I was recently alerted and linked to a rather lengthy online q and a involving Wall Street Mike Matson.

“…just wondering if some of the growth acceleration that we’re seeing here… transseptal needles and things like that, which made me think of some of the structural heart procedures, TAVR and Watchman and then complex PCI as well, radial, these kinds of secular growth trends within the cardiology space – how much of your business is exposed to these trends and is that helping your growth?”

That’s a particularly penetrating question, Matson.

Judging from his website, his office is just south of the Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan.

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On the other side of the country, we find Mike Matson of Mike’s Phat Frogs, an Orange County-based dealer in amphibious creatures. Apparently, there’s an entire reptile collecting cottage industry alive and thriving in North America with people trafficking in frogs, snakes, salamanders, newts and other miscellaneous slimy beasts. Like any such marketplace, I suspect, there are some charlatans and it turns out my man, Mike Matson of Mike’s Phat Frogs, may be one.

All manner of consternation and woe has been posted after dealings with Mike Matson:

“… this guy FLAT OUT LIED to me.”

“I did speak with Mike Matson at the Phoenix Repticon back in May. I distinctly recall him saying that his Madagascar Hognoses were farmed.”

“I emailed this Mike Matson guy about hedgehogs. He doesn’t even have the damn animals but will ORDER them for me once I pay for them. He really is the scam artist they are all saying!”

Then there’s Mike Matson, an elected alderman in Davenport, Iowa, who toyed briefly with the notion of parlaying his municipal government fiefdom into a run for governor, before encountering the cold, hard reality of a statewide crusade.

“What has become apparent in my travels is that my grassroots campaign will not raise the millions necessary to run a highly competitive race.”

The dreams of Des Moines die hard, Alderman Mike Matson.

Then there was Mike Matson, militant Texas secessionist fugitive from justice who rode like the wind to make it to the border of Mexico, only to be gunned down by John Law in the rugged terrain of west Texas.

Lest we forget Mike Matson, the outdoor enthusiast, who wrote some travel books about hiking in Utah. I’ll encounter him occasionally during online transactions involving my own book. I should send him a note, “Yo Matson, I’ll buy your book if you buy mine.” Perhaps I could pass along some suggestions for his future book titles, like “One Foot in Front of the Other,” or “Meandering to Moab.”

Then there’s me, mild-mannered columnist for a great daily newspaper in the middle of the country. Opining every other Sunday from my modest domicile on the upper west side of the other Manhattan. Keeping an eye on my namesakes spanning the continent. Fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice and reputation management.

Trendy Clothes or Offshore Banking?

AN ACTUAL CONVERSATION is pretty much what the words indicate. Actual words uttered by my wife and I in real life, real time. Verbal snapshots. When shared via social media, they’ve sorta become a thing. Here are a few 2018 faves:

Jackie: “Tomorrow before we leave town we have to swing by my office and pick up an apple pie.”
Mike: “Is it already made?”
Jackie: “Yes. Otherwise it wouldn’t be an apple pie.”

(Singing a few bars of ‘Uptown Funk’)
Mike: “That’s a catchy tune.”
Jackie: “It is when someone else sings it.”

Mike: “What’s the difference between onion rings and onion strings?”
Jackie: “One is rings, one is strings.”

(Culling her accessories/bling collection, dangerously close to bedtime)
Mike: “I can help you along if you like.”
Jackie: “No, thank you.”

(She whomps up real whipped cream in this hi-tech CO2 cartridge-powered gizmo)
Jackie: “Hey, do you want to learn how to make it?”
Mike: “Nah, if you get hit by a truck, I’ll just go back to Reddi-Whip.”

Mike: “I have the skills to be subtle.”
Jackie: “No. You think you do, but you don’t.”

(Sporting a week’s facial hair growth)
Jackie: “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll watch every game of the NBA Finals with you, if you shave.”
Mike: “You win.”

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(On the phone, walking me through an online transaction)
Mike: “It says the credit card is from a banana republic. Where’s the bank, Panama?”
Jackie: “It’s the clothing store.”
Mike: “Oh.”

(Shopping for duds)
Jackie: “My stuff’s cheaper than yours.”
Mike: “What’s that tell you?”
Jackie: “You’re higher maintenance than me.”

(Following my Obama impression)
Mike: “I need to work on it. I’ll hone it later this month when you’re on the road.”
Jackie: “It’s not getting better. Time to move on.”

(Reminiscing about careers)
Mike: “I was a damn good reporter.”
Jackie: “Is there anything you weren’t good at? Like being humble?”

(Strains of Salt-N-Pepa’s 1993 classic ‘Whatta Man’ wafting through the car)
Mike: “You prolly think about me when you hear this song.”
Jackie: “What is this song?”

Mike: “I could be wrong.”
Jackie: “You are wrong.”

Jackie's Retinue

From my bride of two decades I have learned many things, not the least of which is the value of friendship. Like so many things in our life to come, I would learn this by watching her.

The wedding itself was on a weekday evening. Driven by the calendar, a Bowl game and a host of other factors, we exchanged vows before God, family and friends at a poinsettia and holly-festooned St. Isidore’s Catholic Church in Manhattan, Kansas, at 7 p.m., Wednesday, December 23, 1998.

Her initial thought was a big church wedding, with a retinue of bridesmaids and corresponding groomsdudes. Upon learning this, my first thought was, gulp, not sure I have enough friends close enough willing to comprise a groomsdude retinue. Because my first thought was Vegas or City Hall.

In and out. Wham, bam. Not so much.

Family’s a given at weddings. But friends often have logistics and priorities that don’t include us. Or so I thought.

Her two best friends on the entire planet whom she wanted desperately to stand up with her, were each prevented, owing to challenges created by the latter throes of pregnancy. Michelle was under doctor’s orders not to travel and Dea was actually giving birth at the exact moment Jack E. McClaskey was walking his youngest daughter down the aisle.

Twenty years later, the bride flanked by her erstwhile bridesmaids at her mother’s funeral in Girard, Kansas. (Dea on the left, Michelle on the right).

Twenty years later, the bride flanked by her erstwhile bridesmaids at her mother’s funeral in Girard, Kansas. (Dea on the left, Michelle on the right).

Jack’s youngest grew up with Michelle in Crawford County. Big hair, head banging, Armaggeddon it, fast talking their way into the Frontenac bars.

Dea entered her life in high school. From opposing corners of Kansas, they side-eyed one another warily from arms’ length, competing against each other in FFA. They would bond as undergrads at K-State.

Even without Dea and Michelle, she still wanted a retinue. I can get two, I told her. My 13-year old son was to be my best man regardless and I could probably press my younger brother into groomsdude service. Anything beyond that is a crapshoot.

She knew my loner tendencies, but my inability to scrounge up a retinue of groomsdudes was, perhaps, her first confirmation in real time. It also provided an opportunity for her to do what comes naturally. Give. I would give on Vegas/City Hall. She gave on the retinue.

One maid of honor/best man. One bridesmaid/groomsdude.

Friendship requires cultivation and maintenance. Cultivation and maintenance require time and energy. At the time, I would blame genetics for my lack of friend cultivation. My old man was a loner, as was his before him, I was later to discover. I could count the number of close friends in my entire life on one hand. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Twenty years later, I watch her cultivate and maintain friendships. She collects people and friends like I collect dog hair in my 2012 Ford Escape. You can’t swing a dead cat in Kansas without hitting a friend of Jackie McClaskey. I often refer to those whom she has mentored as the Jackie McClaskey Young Leader Collection.

I have learned to adapt being her plus-one. I have tried to move beyond my lonerness. Genetics was just an excuse.

Michelle and Dea each gave birth to daughters twenty years ago. Maggie, Majken and their siblings adore Jackie.

Today, when our friends’ children matriculate to Manhattan, K-State and inevitably, Aggieville, I give them my business card. Here’s the number to call when you can’t call mom and dad. It’s what friends do for each other. And for their children.

Next generation retinue.

I learned this from my bride. It’s among the many reasons I am even more ape-shit-banana-cupcakes over her today, than that Wednesday night two decades ago.