Angst at the Cineplex

This column was published Tuesday, February 13, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


My wife and I love movies and I suspect we see more than most middle class American Midwest couples. We have the refillable popcorn bucket, we’re members in good standing of the AMC Stubs loyalty program and we share a penchant to sit close to the screen.

Easier to see, duh.

We go to chick flicks, bio pics, superhero tales, romcoms, summer blockbusters, suspense thrillers, whodunits, war movies. We have not been to a slasher film since 1996, when, in our courtship era, she got up and walked out of “Scream.”

So, we were excited when we learned of the new state-of-the-art cineplex at the mall. Turns out I struggle with state-of-the-art.    

It starts with the ticket procurement kiosk, which resembles the flight control console of Jean-Luc Picard’s Starship Enterprise. I start punching and swiping screens at warp speed. It asks if I’m an AMC Stubs member. Why, yes, I am, in fact, but I wasn’t packing my membership card, decoder ring or AMC Stubs implanted microchip.

Next stop, refreshments. An elaborate labyrinth marked off by those spring-loaded canvas fence thingies, designed to herd human beings into orderly queues.
 
Cinematic small talk with the folks in front of us. “What’re you guys seeing?” “The Greatest Showman, you?” “Darkest Hour.” Eyebrows raised in mutual admiration of each other’s artistic sensibilities.

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We spill out of the labyrinth a few feet from the high school kids human resourcing the popcorn and Sour Jacks. Apparently, you wait there until called on, then trek the final dozen steps toward the goodies.

“Buttered popcorn, a large Coke Zero, large bottle of water and some Milk Duds, please.”

“This is the ticket line. You need to get in the other line.”

“Whaddaya mean ticket line? I got my tickets back there at the Starfleet console.” Tempted to ask him to apply my rewards points, but at this point, I just want my damn popcorn. Back through the labyrinth, doing my best not to make eye contact with those behind me in line. The shame is real.

When it’s our turn again, I hand the same kid my bucket. He gives me back a bucket full of unbuttered popcorn and an empty Coke cup. “Uh, ‘scuse me, but I said, BUTTERED, and this Coke cup is empty, my friend.”

Without a word, the kid points to another hi-tech station where I get in yet another line.  

Juggling a bucket full of unbuttered popcorn, shame, empty Coke cup, ignorance and our tickets, I’m eyeballing the movie going public ahead of me, so I can do what they do. Turns out you apply your own butter nowadays.

The soft drink dispensary takes me back to the Enterprise. If Captain Picard were here, he’d look at it and say, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot,” and a little 24th century glass cup of tea would appear. Back in my 21st century reality, I resist the temptation to go full on Picard.

Dirty looks from the millennials behind us in line. “C’mon, Pop, figure it out.”

By now I’m anything but refreshed, but we make our way into the theatre and sit down. In a La-Z-Boy. With a built in TV tray and menu.

“Uh, you’re sitting in my seat…”

“Whaddaya mean I’m sitting in your seat?” looking around at a theatre full of empty seats.

“They’re assigned when you bought the tickets.”

Oh.

Examine the tickets. Sure enough. We move to our assigned La-Z-Boys and settle in. Push a button and I’m supine, which, for boomers, may prove convenient if it’s a crappy movie. Except for the snoring.

The menu features some delectable offerings, but again I find myself unsure of the protocol. Wait for the waitperson? Holler out “YO! CHEESEBURGER UP IN HERE! MEDIUM WELL. NO ONIONS. DAB O’ MUSTARD!” and then trust the system?

On the big screen, ads encouraging me to buy some popcorn and Coke that I’ve already bought. The theatre remains troublingly well illuminated and naturally, I assume when the actual movie starts, the high-tech system will dim the lights.

Nope.

We’re a couple minutes into the movie, house lights burning bright. Glance around at those who today share our specific artistic tastes, wondering who among us will seek to correct this grievous error. No one moves.
 
So, I push a few buttons, get up from my La-Z-Boy, trek out to the high schoolers and inform them of the system failure. It’s not their fault. They didn’t design it. They said all the right things, worked their magic and dimmed the lights, but the damage was done. On this day, in Manhattan, Kansas, the beginning of the “Darkest Hour” was, in fact, not.

There’s no doubt we’ll return to the movies and with all this experience, next time will be easier. I mean the Saturday matinee of “Diamonds are Forever” at the Orpheum in downtown Wichita was never this hard.

Self Evident

This column appeared Friday, January 26, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


Monday will mark 157 years since Kansas entered the union as a free state. That night you’ll find me at Bramlage, cheering for Mawdo Sallah, Makol Mawien and their Wildcat teammates. I will also applaud for KU’s Udoka Azubuike, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Silvio De Sousa, and not simply out of politeness and good sportsmanship. Like me, they come from places peopled by human beings who, regardless of whether it’s declared on parchment, are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

Earlier this month, government officials in the Gambia suspended permission for rallies and other public political gatherings after clashes with opposition groups involving stone throwing and the destruction of vehicles.
 
Sallah was born in the Latrikunda neighborhood of the city of Serrekunda in the Gambia. His favorite team growing up was Manchester United. At 24, Mawdo’s older than his K-State basketball teammates and the coaches expect big things from him. In the paint and the locker room.

The Republic of South Sudan has been involved in a civil war virtually since gaining independence seven years ago. Thousands have died. A cease-fire between the warring parties appears shaky. On the list of countries from which people are fleeing, South Sudan ranks third, behind only Syria and Afghanistan.
 
Mawien is averaging 17 minutes a game for the Cats and leads the team in field goal percentage. Born in Egypt, raised in Utah, Makol’s father is a South Sudanese diplomat.

In recent years, hundreds have died at the hands of the extreme jihadi Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. In 2018, a separate conflict has erupted. Farmers who seek to protect their crops from being damaged by thousands of cattle have clashed with Fulani herdsmen. More than 70 people have been killed this month alone.
 
Born in Lagos, Azubuike grew up in the province of Delta, Nigeria. Today he leads KU in rebounding.
 
A conflict between government in the Ukraine and Russian-based separatists rages into its fourth year. Russia may covet the Ukraine’s natural gas resources or they may feel threatened by the Ukraine’s vibe of independence. A difference of opinion with Vladimir Putin over the Crimea accounts for still more bloodshed. Ten thousand lives have been lost.
 
Cherkasy, hometown of Mykhailiuk, lies on the Dnieper River roughly halfway between Kiev and Donetsk, where much of the violence has ocurred. Svi drains threes for the Jayhawks. NBA scouts describe him as a young Manu Ginobli.
 
In Angola, a new president, in office since the fall, appears to be cleaning up the nepotism and corruption of his predecessor, who held power during the bulk of the Angolan civil war which ended in 2002. That bloody conflict claimed more than a half-million lives. When De Sousa was born there, Angola was one of the last hot spots of the Cold War.   
 
On the hardwood for the crimson and blue, Silvio spells his teammate, Udoka, in the post.
 
The course of human events in each place began with a cultural, religious, tribal or ideological disagreement and led to bloodshed. On Kansas Day, that hits close to home.
 
The migration of human beings from New England to Lawrence and Manhattan was a tactic, aimed squarely at moving a political agenda. Muster enough souls within the borders of the Kansas territory who oppose holding other human beings in bondage, gin up public opinion and allow hearts, minds and consciences to go to work within the body politic. Many who disagreed crossed over from Missouri, roused rabble and in the years before Kansas became a “united” state, the violence came in waves.
 
Bleeding Kansas.
 
A New England abolitionist organizer later wrote to Isaac Goodnow in Manhattan, “Pioneers who responded to my call for volunteers for Kansas made the first self-sacrificing emigration in the world’s history.”

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We cannot choose where we come from, but we can choose where we go. I come from Kansas, a place borne of violence and bloodshed. These young men have chosen to come to Kansas. To reach for the stars, clean the glass, put a body on ‘em and charge the lane, through difficulty.

This is an opinion column, not a fact-based news article, but it happens that I hold these truths to be self-evident. It has dawned on me in recent months in my state and my country, that just because they’re evident to me, does not make them evident to all. Liberty grounded in fairness and equality cannot be taken for granted. Those New Englanders who steamed up the Kaw had it right.

I hope for the best in the Gambia, South Sudan, Nigeria, the Ukraine and Angola. I will work for the best in Kansas and the United States. On Kansas Day, I’ll be at a basketball game, pursuing happiness.

FAQ

This column appeared January 5, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


How did you come to write a column for The Mercury?
It started innocently enough though a Facebook private message. Ned Seaton: “Hey Mike, are you interested in writing a column for us? I just really like your blog.” Me: “Ned, you’re very kind, thanks. Let’s grab coffee or a meal and drill into it a bit. Tuesday or Friday work for me.”

Do you have a day job?
I like to say I manage expectations. The title is Director of Industry Affairs & Development for Kansas Farm Bureau. Men, women and families with bedrock values struggling with change. I work in that big corporate-looking Taj Mahal on the northwest corner of town.

Favorite color?
Navy blue.

Molten shoe polish goes on easier.

Molten shoe polish goes on easier.

What did you learn from your father?
Two things spring to mind, both indicative of the man. First, question everything. Second, the best way to shine shoes. Set the shoe polish ablaze before applying it.

Book that changed your life?
Ball Four by Jim Bouton. Iconoclastic big-league pitcher who has lost his fastball, holding on to his career, literally with his fingertips, writes a diary of the 1969 season. “You spend your life gripping a baseball,” Bouton wrote, “and it turns out that it was the other way around all along.”

What do you miss most about the ‘70s?
Certainly not the platform shoes or polyester.

What do you admire most about your mother?
Her ability to make friends. She has this gift of putting people at ease right away. It’s a skill I have had to force myself to learn and get better at.

What’s your best talent currently hidden from the masses?
I do a spot-on JFK. Ask my wife about the time I gave the ‘we choose to go to the moon… not because it is easy, because it is hahd’ speech.  

Most embarrassing moment?
In the second grade, my shoelace broke right as the school bus pulled up. Hopping on one foot, holding my high school aged-Aunt’s hand, I dodged mud puddles from the Rooks County farm house to the bus. All the kids on the bus yukking it up at my expense. Once on the bus, Aunt Linda repaired my shoelace, and my reputation.

How do you feel about social media?
Clearly the most powerful communications vehicle in my lifetime. Lately though, I’ve begun to wonder whether it’s the bane of our existence (another column).   

What are your politics?
I used to describe myself as a “Kassebaum Republican.” I have been proudly unaffiliated since the turn of the century.

Any pet peeves?
Just one. Drivers who fail to understand freeway on-ramps are designed specifically for acceleration to freeway speed.

Who’s your favorite actor?
Well, up until very recently, it was Kevin Spacey. These days, I’m a bit uncertain how I’m supposed to feel about him (yet another column, perhaps).

Do you have a role model/mentor?
Good question. Really don’t have one specific individual. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on professional colleagues from whom I have gleaned knowledge and insight, e.g., Dan Yunk of Manhattan, a manager of managers. From Bill Graves, I learned perspective. He’d often say, ‘people don’t get up in the morning thinking about their governor.’   

What advice would you give your 20-year old self?
Think more about others and don’t drink so much, dude. Oh, and lose the cheesy mustache.

Ever been rendered speechless?
Uh, nope.

Dream vacation spot?
The beaches of Fiji, dropping various components of technology in the Pacific en route. My Out-Of-Office Automatic Reply: “Should you need to reach me while I’m on my dream vacation, tough noogies.”

Favorite bumper sticker?
Eschew obfuscation.

High school memories?
A couple. I went to high school with Darnell Valentine, who matriculated to hardwood glory at KU and the NBA. At Wichita Heights, Darnell was a better basketball player than me. But I was a better yearbook photographer than him.

Also remember the entire student body turning out to watch a classmate “streak” across school grounds. As an intrepid yearbook photographer, I captured the moment on film. Read recently that the governor appointed that same kid to the District Court bench. Youthful indiscretion, your honor?

What do you wish you could do better?
I am not the world’s most patient human being. My wife often reminds me it's a virtue. I wish she didn't have to.

Favorite movie?
The Apartment (1960). Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray. “That’s the way it crumbles. Cookie-wise.”

First “real” job?
Overnight deejay for an adult contemporary radio station in Wichita in 1979. To this day, I retain a soft spot in my heart for England Dan and John Ford Coley.

Do you have a celebrity doppelganger?
In my teens and 20s with long hair, friends told me I looked like Barry Manilow. Later, as middle age got closer and the hairline farther away, I was told I was a dead ringer for Joe Montana. Check out the mug in this column and draw your own conclusions. I cannot croon like Manilow or check off at the line like Montana. That’s OK. I sleep well at night knowing they can’t blog their way out of a wet paper bag.

Boundary Expansion

This column appeared Friday, January 12, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


Soon after you crossed the boundary onto the reservation, it felt somehow different. Ramshackle homes in need of repair. Minimal to non-existent commerce. Dilapidated infrastructure. It felt like failure. When compared to the Kansas which surrounded the reservation, it felt a bit like despair.

It was 1991 and the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe was in a race with the Kickapoo tribe to be the first Native American tribe within the borders of Kansas to open a casino. As a journalist covering government, I got the story.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 gave tribes with established reservations the green light to develop casinos and for the first time ever, really, the tribes saw a light at the end of a desperate tunnel. I'll resist the temptation to use a hackneyed “jackpot” analogy, but they saw jobs and a consistent revenue stream.

They saw hope.

There are four Native American reservations within the borders of our state, all north and east of Topeka: The Prairie Band Potawatomi, the Kickapoo, the Sac & Fox and the Iowa.

In my reporting, I made many visits to these reservations and got to know the tribal council leaders. Didn’t take long to catch on to the notion that tribal councils are just like any governance structure. They’re as effective as the individual and collective capacity of the human beings who serve.

I built a reporter-source relationship with the then-Chair of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribal council. Soft-spoken and unassuming, George Wahquahboshkuk was proud of his heritage and excited about the opportunities a casino might bring to his people.

At first, George was reluctant to go on camera. I had to bring him around. Explained the power television could have to shape public opinion. Shared that most viewers would feel sympathy for their plight. Eventually, he agreed. The first time we put him on TV, I stressed to our technicians in charge of on-screen graphics, the importance of spelling George's name correctly. They got it half right. When George’s head-and-shoulders shot appeared on screen, the graphic read:

Gerge Wahquahboshkuk
PRAIRIE BAND POTAWATOMI TRIBAL COUNCIL CHAIR

Gerge.

Really?

An honest mistake, if not incredibly ironic. But the damage was done. When you don’t have anything, pride is everything. I called George and apologized.

It’s hard to say what motivated Congress to pass IGRA. Even though casinos were never going to give the tribes what was taken from them in the 19th century, one can imagine at the core was pure, unvarnished guilt. Not sure there’s a greater example of white privilege than manifest destiny.

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The Kickapoo tribe beat the others to the finish line, opening their Golden Eagle casino near Horton in the spring of ’96. Eventually, all four tribes in Kansas opened casinos. I don’t know enough to pass judgment on whether the tribal casinos have been a success in the state where I live and whether they have achieved any of the goals the tribal councils dreamed of in the planning stages. You can count the number of times I’ve visited them on one hand. Not really much of a gambler.  

I guess it may depend on who's defining the word, “success.” Sometimes I wonder if the tribes just traded headaches.

Last year, when I served on the task force created to make recommendations to the Manhattan school board on the mascot controversy, I thought a lot about my time with the tribes whose reservations lie within the borders of Kansas.

I’m grateful for both experiences. My knowledge about how the tribes navigated the path to casinos and my experiences with the tribal leaders who did the work helped inform my thinking in the MHS mascot conversation. Absent each involvement, my knowledge about the broader Native American experience would have been limited to John Wayne movies.

I’ve noticed that when I expand the boundaries of my own knowledge, insight nearly always follows.

"More Art than Science"

AN ACTUAL CONVERSATION is just that. Actual words my wife and I (my wife and me?) use to communicate. Verbal cross sections, snapshots of our existence. When shared via social media, they’ve sorta become a thing. Here are a few 2017 faves:

(watching Adam Levine on ‘The Voice’)
Mike: “Are mustaches coming back?”
Jackie: “Not for you, they're not.”

(perusing photos from a high school reunion which I did not attend)
Mike: “I don't look that old, do I?”
Jackie: “Only when you go to bed at 9 p.m.”

Mike: “Whaddaya call that new perfume?”
Jackie: “Nirvana.”
Mike: “Does it smell like teen spirit?”

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(after losing some weight, my jeans were riding down a tad)
Mike: “I feel like a gangsta.”
Jackie: “You look like a plumber.”

Mike: “Did you put our address in there?”
Jackie: “No, I just told them to deliver the pizza to two people standing by the side of the road.”

(restaurant breakfast reverie interrupted by the eardrum piercing wailing of a nearby small child)
Mike: “Did you scream like that when you were a kid?”
Jackie: “If I did, it wasn't for very long.”

(helping me reach a seemingly obvious conclusion to a kaput phone charger)
Mike: “Thanks. What would I do without you?”
Jackie: “I honestly wonder sometimes.”

(me going to 7 a.m. Ash Wednesday Mass, her, noon)
Jackie: “Wake me up before you leave.”
Mike: “I'll wake you up before I go-go.”

Strict Mentos protocol. Who knew?

Strict Mentos protocol. Who knew?

Jackie: “Don’t just take the orange ones, take whatever comes out.”
Mike: “Sorry, I was under the impression it was community gum.”
Jackie: “It is, as long as those in the community respect its use.”

Jackie (from the bathroom): “Hey honey, are you running hot water?”
Mike: “No.” (PAUSE) “Well... not unless you count the dishwasher.”

Jackie: “Wanna try some of this whipped cream stuff I made?”
Mike: “How does ‘whipped cream stuff’ differ from whipped cream?”

Mike: “Those’re some cute grey leggings you’re wearing.”
Jackie: “Thank you.”
Mike: “Whaddaya call those things, anyway?”
Jackie: “Leggings.”

Jackie: “I dreamed last night that you had long hair and a mustache.”
Mike: “I did… in 1990.”

Mike: “I learn through repetition.”
Jackie: “I hate repeating myself.”

Spifflicated (Book Review)

I'm grateful to my friend and fellow writer, Charley Kempthorne, for his thoughtful review of my book. It was published Sunday, December 24, 2017, in The Manhattan Mercury.


A review of SPIFFLICATED: a family memoir, by Mike Matson. Pub. 2016.  Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Watermark Books, Ellen Plumb's City Bookstore.  

To be spifflicated is to be very drunk. Since this is a family memoir by a recovering alcoholic—more than 25 years sober — of his alcoholic grandparents and his father too, though he was not an alcoholic, to be spifflicated, ossified, or zozzled (lesser levels of intoxication, according to the author) are important words. All three terms are humorous terms for being drunk, and that is key too: because though this can’t by any stretch be called a memoir of a happy family, it’s a funny book, even laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. Alcoholics usually are very good at laughing at themselves. So it is with Spifflicated.  

Yet it is a tragic story: a drinking man and his pregnant girlfriend of 19 marry, have a sometimes fun/sometimes harrowing honeymoon houseboat voyage down the Mississippi River and then go on to other adventures on a motorcycle heading to the American West. Here the man, Ellsworth, known as Ell, finds work, yet is drinking more and more, and showing himself to be utterly self-centered and even mean, carrying a bottle with him now most of the time. He works hard as a surveyor and in other construction work, is good at what he does, but more and more ignores his wife and baby boy whom he names Champ but really has nothing to do with caring for. When asked by his wife, Victoria, just when he is coming back from one of his forays, he answers sarcastically, “Sometime between now… and the end of time.”  

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The marriage gets worse. Eventually Victoria leaves and takes the growing boy with her. Her story is one of descending into alcoholism herself, working her way around the country waitressing and drinking and sleeping with strangers, one of whom beats her up and is chased from the house by the boy, now 14, who levels a shotgun at him. But the relationship between mother and son, which might have been close, deteriorates under her continued drinking and what the author calls a “revolving door” of husbands/lovers. When she marries one and moves with him to his hometown of Plainville, Kansas, she soon realizes she doesn’t care much for the town or the husband. She takes off on a pretext and leaves her son behind too.   

But there’s more, lots more, and not all of it so downhill. Champ’s story is one of salvaging his life amidst the ruins of his early childhood. It’s a remarkable story by a really fine storyteller — funny as much because the author/narrator himself sees the world as essentially comic as for any other reason.  

The author is a former journalist and the book is carefully researched so that the various settings are entirely believable — Ell working at the Grand Coulee Dam project, Victoria working in various restaurants as a waitress, Champ/Jim working in a gas station and going to high school in tiny Plainville, being helped along by a wealthy oil man whose daughter he falls in love with.

Matson knows his places and his people. It might be something as simple as a bottle opener on the wall of Champ’s ratty house in the poor part of town where he lives after his mother has departed that is memorialized as “a heavy-duty cast-iron bottle opener… screwed to the wall above the kitchen sink… in raised, relief cursive script above the business end were the words ‘Drink Coca-Cola.” Or it’s a customer in one of the restaurants where Victoria works ordering “cowboy coffee” (i.e., coffee with whiskey in it) or it’s the actual, verbatim log entries of the houseboat trip down the Mississippi by the young bride.  

The author re-creates a world in which real characters live… and we care about them. These aren’t nice people — with the exception of Champ’s father-in-law, Victor Ordway, and his daughter, Gera, but they are not unlikeable. Even Ell, at his worst when he is about to backhand his young son in order to “give him something to cry about,” even then, the writer has endowed his characters with such humanity that they are somehow forgiven by the reader as they act out their inevitable roles.     

The redeeming part of the story is the final one. In the last years of Champ/Jim’s life, father and son collaborate on reconstructing the family’s life. This is exposition, but even so, it makes for a satisfying conclusion.  

The book deserves a national audience among those interested in addiction recovery, family memoirs and general readers who love a great story. Mike Matson is Manhattan born and Kansas bred. He is one of our best, and I hope we see more memoir or creative non-fiction from him.  

Charley Kempthorne, formerly of Manhattan, now lives in Olympia, Washington, where with his wife, June, he edits and publishes LifeStory Journal. 

Contemplating Mortality

This column was published in The Manhattan Mercury, Tuesday, December 19, 2017.


LAS VEGAS – She pushes a button on the wall and the light-eliminating blackout drapes whir open. Twenty stories above the Las Vegas strip, the darkness is suddenly, jarringly illuminated. So extreme that I must shift in the chair to position the shadow of my head between the desert sun and the computer screen to see these words.

Otherwise I’ll end up typing qe;wlkjgnhg. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

I always get up before my wife. Love the woman, but our biorhythms don’t align.   

There are no coffeemakers in Vegas strip hotel rooms. The business plan was designed to force you to stake something on a contingency, so I change outa my jammies and descend to the casino. I’ll risk four bucks on a grande-dark roast-no room and call it good.

It’s early for me, late for others. I see poor souls, some single, some in pairs, roughly my age, bleary-eyed, stumbling in after a night of gambling and/or gamboling. They think they’re players. They are not. The walk of shame is not limited to gender or age, it’s an equal opportunity embarrassment. As a person in recovery, 25-plus-years sober, a thought crosses my mind.

There, but for the grace of God, go I. Literally.

Las Vegas is the place to come if you want to feel and experience gluttony and extremes. The brunch buffet, all-you-can-eat works of art on a plate. I hesitate to stick in a fork in them, they’re so beautiful. Just gimme some bacon and eggs already.

Distraction on steroids.

Distraction on steroids.

This place epitomizes the American service economy, peopled almost exclusively by human resources who don’t look like me. A woman my age pushing a housekeeping cart down the hotel corridor, dude driving a taxi, grey at the temples. My American melting pot feelings and fairness beliefs are held just a bit deeper. I try to shake off frustration with policymakers whose feelings and beliefs are shallower. Without this workforce, the Vegas economy grinds to a halt.

I wonder about their DREAMer children, think about my millennial son and ponder. There, but for the privilege of being born a white guy, go I. Because of that privilege, I have choices they don’t have.

George Strait in concert because my wife’s a fan. I’m ambivalent, but I like to make her happy. Experience him live, spend some attention and time on the man and I’m on board. He’s just a few years older than me and when I thought about him before, it was as a steady, non-flashy, country singer. He doesn’t know it, but we’ve aged together, me and George.   
 
“I was a young troubadour when I rode in on a song… I’ll be an old troubadour when I’m gone…”

Interpret the lyrics however you want, but they strike me as thinking, or in George’s case, singing, about the arc of a life. Some men sing songs about mortality beneath a spotlight in the T-Mobile Arena at the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Frank Sinatra Drive. Others write columns about it for The Manhattan Mercury.

The thrills are simpler now, the design for living more basic, stripped down. Adding value, not taking it away, to the lives of those who surround me. Tasty food, good company. Thoughts and actions aimed at those who struggle. A compelling book, a good night’s sleep. Watching my dogs romp at Marlatt Park. Grande-dark roast-no room. Good health. Physical, mental and emotional.

As the career has progressed, I have come to learn I don’t have to swing at every pitch. I have reached the point where I can be more effective not joining the conference call, but connecting one-on-one, postgame, to offer thoughts, suggestions or advice. This life is closer to the surface after a few days in Vegas.

We came here to spend time with friends, see a concert and a rodeo. This is how my wife and I vacation, always connected to events. She has us chasing the Eagles to the east coast next summer. Love that stuff, but I think I might be just as happy to go to a beach or a mountain and do absolutely nothing. When I wrote a book, a good friend loaned the use of their Lake Wabaunsee cabin. I’d arrive Friday evening, depart Sunday evening and do nothing but write. Sometimes, I pine for that lack of distraction. Maybe I pine because I’m in Vegas. This place is distraction on steroids.

Airports and airplanes tomorrow. LAS > DFW > MHK. She’ll devour a Tom Clancy novel and I’ll listen to George Strait sing a song about the heartland in my noise-cancelling headphones.

Illuminate the darkness. Throw some shade on the glare. Cancel the noise. As the years flow, seems to me that’s how I should try to spend my days and nights.

Nefarious Motives

This column appeared Tuesday, December 5, 2017, in the Manhattan Mercury.


It seems to me a bit strange that the concept of “radio and TV” would be considered historic. A heavy brass doorplate bearing those words, salvaged from the decade-plus-long remodel job of the Kansas State Capitol building in Topeka, was billed as just that.

My wife participated in the once-in-a-lifetime online auction of Statehouse historical architectural accoutrements, outbid like-minded seekers of relics of times gone by, and surprised me with it as a keepsake. An homage (or at least a nod) to the chronological component of my career when I toiled as a journalist in the Statehouse room graced by that doorplate. First floor north, beneath the westernmost staircase.

Within those confines would be found a pair of massive videotape editing machines, state-of-the-art at the time. One to play, one to record. Visual images and sounds of the art and practice of public policy creation on behalf of the people of Kansas, captured on cassette spools of ¾-inch wide videotape, roughly the size of the Grisham novel on my nightstand.

Live shots from the Rotunda on the 5, 6, or 10 o’clock news. Standups on the west lawn, the setting sun at the golden hour illuminating the frame, me in the foreground offering reportage du jour, Statehouse in the background, copper dome oxidizing. The journalism that emanated from that room with the brass doorplate was shared via a terrestrial transmitter with a finite geographic range, roughly the northeast quadrant of Kansas, and received by anyone within that quadrant who possessed a TV.
 
Today, if I wanted to, I could edit broadcast quality high definition video on the phone in my pocket. Then, I could share that video with anyone on the planet. If I wanted to. Many people do, it turns out.

More media. More messages. Less discernment. It forces consumers to work harder. Many people don’t, it turns out.

Homage (or nod)... framed.

Homage (or nod)... framed.

A half-century ago, Marshall McLuhan posited it was the medium itself that shaped and controlled “the scale and form of human association and action.” It was the advent of television that prompted McLuhan’s “medium is the message” message. He died in 1980. If he were still with us, I suspect he’d scan today’s media landscape and find a polite, non-threatening way to say, “Uh… dude… told ya so.”

It was in the space graced by that brass doorplate that I made the career decision to transition from journalism, to move, literally, to the other side of the camera and microphone as the message guy for a candidate for governor, Bill Graves. When he was elected, I moved up a story, second floor east, just down the hall from the cage elevator and John Steuart Curry’s mural of the anti-slavery Kansas icon, John Brown.

Latter-day John Browns rally around ideas they believe in. The like-minded organize into groups, many anonymously through social media. Some with pure motives, others nefarious, nowhere near ‘social,’ all seeking to advance an agenda, to influence hearts and minds.

Incendiary tweets from the President of the United States. Russians seeking to further polarize us. We allow this stuff at our own peril.

As recently as a generation ago, it was easier to pigeonhole the messengers according to medium. Media consumers went to diverse sources to scratch a specific cultural itch. The daily newspaper with a cup of coffee in the calm of the early morning. Radio on the drive to work. TV at the dinner hour.

Today, we are smack in the middle of what seems to me to be another really messy transition of media, message and culture. I’m not prescient enough to know what it’ll look like on the other side. My gut, experience and common sense tell me the notion of standalone terrestrial radio and television stations and newspapers that survive solely on a balanced content of news, opinion and advertising are on borrowed time.

Consumption habits change and evolve with technology. I can’t remember the last time I listened to AM or FM radio, and that’s where I started my career. You may be reading this “newspaper” column on a hand-held electronic device somewhere in Uzbekistan. Why, you may even be reading black words printed on cream-colored paper that was actually, physically delivered to your driveway, or if you’re fortunate, your front porch, within the finite confines of Manhattan, Kansas.

How quaint.   

Messiness provides fertile ground for those who peddle mischief and nefariousness. And this is before we even get to the conversation about whether smart phones are dumbing us down.

Plug in. Discern. Push back. Wise up.

Codell's Lament

This column appeared Tuesday, November 21, 2017 in the Manhattan Mercury.


Travel east on the Saline River Road off U.S. Highway 183 in far northern Ellis County, Kansas. You’re in the heart of the Saline River valley, surrounded on the north and south by canyons and bluffs, some more than 2,000 feet above sea level.

Not Rocky Mountains, by any means, but it tops the mental list of places I draw from to debunk out-of-state friends’ myths and preconceptions about Kansas flatness.

Past Horsethief Canyon and you’re soon at a wide spot in the limestone gravel road. The local vehicles look as though they've been dusted with talcum powder. This was once Turkville, Kansas. Founded by a handful of Tennessee Baptists in 1876 who perhaps just grew weary of Reconstruction, packed up and headed west. Among them was my great-great grandfather, the Reverend Allen Lewis King.

A mile further into the valley and head north. Uphill into the bluffs. The Saline is a meanderer. You will cross the river six times in the span of two miles. Listen carefully and you can almost hear the county commissioners in the courthouse complaining about all the infrastructure upkeep.

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Now, you’re on top of the bluff. Slow down. Take in the view. With apologies to Streisand, on a clear day, you can see Osborne County.

Further north downhill and before long, you find yourself in Codell, a hamlet of a few dozen hearty souls, tucked into the hills of the Saline River valley, nine miles downstream from Plainville on Paradise Creek. Along the way you have crossed over into Rooks County. You’re almost dead center between Denver and Kansas City. Codell’s trend line is headed south and will one day join Turkville in ‘limestone gravel road wide spot’ status. I give ‘em one generation.

A few years ago, I took a television crew to Codell for a documentary I wrote and directed on the impact of shifting Kansas populations. A wizened, craggy ol’ lifer who ambled out to see whuddup, offered Codell’s lament.

“We done shifted.”

A kid named Victor Ordway was born in Codell in 1910. Three years later, the Reverend King’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Bemis, was born in Turkville.

A century ago, Codell’s population was 175. Today, it may be half that, if you count stray dogs. Codell’s claim to fame is being hit by a tornado on the same date three years in a row: May 20, 1916-18. Victor loved to entertain audiences with the story of how, on May 20, 1919, at age 9, he climbed the highest tree in town and hollered to the heavens to ward off a fourth annual calamity.

“It worked,” he would later regale. “No tornado that day.”

Victor first met Elizabeth when she walked into his father’s general store in Codell with her cousin.

“She was the most beautiful of anyone I’d known. I knew within an instant, she was meant to be my own,” Victor would later write. Initially, Elizabeth was unimpressed. She turned him down for dates several times before finally relenting, and then only on the condition that her cousin and her boyfriend come along. They married in 1932 in the parsonage of a Baptist preacher in Hays. Three kids. My mom’s the middle one. Vic and Libby lived their entire lives in Ellis and Rooks Counties.

In the global scheme, I haven’t gotten much further. Wichita, Hays, back to Wichita, Topeka, Manhattan. As a kid in Rooks County and Wichita, I wanted Kansas in my rear-view mirror and began planning my escape at an early age. L.A., Chicago or New York. It didn’t matter. How you gonna keep ‘em on the farm once they’ve seen the bright lights of the big city?

Victor Ordway died in 1992, Elizabeth eight years later. Our family’s last human connection to western Kansas. That’s typical of my generation of Kansans.

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This land around Turkville and Codell, it’s unlike anywhere else in Kansas and I’ve been in all 105 counties. Sweetwater Canyon is a few miles further along as the Saline twists east by southeast. I went to a party there once and had one been dropped in blindfolded, one would swear the place was in Colorado or the Black Hills.

From Codell, aim for the sunset. Travel nine miles. Now, you’re roughly paralleling the Saline, on the northern slope of the valley bluffs. There’s a rambling family farmhouse on the south side of the road. That’s where Mom grew up.

Of three siblings, turns out I’m the only one who stayed in Kansas. Does everything happen for a reason? Maybe, maybe not, but often, I find myself thinking about why I stayed. When I travel to or through Ellis and Rooks County, invariably I’ll get off the highway and drive past the old home place or through the Saline River Valley.

Everyone’s family starts someplace. Trace ours to the Saline River Valley of northwest-central Kansas.

Manson Delivers

It was a setup from the getgo.

The Regional Distribution Manager (his caps) sat in our living room weaving a tale of wealth and riches. The folks knew this guy from church. Our neighborhood needed a new paper boy and it seems I was a likely candidate.

Subtly wooed.

I could pull in as much as 25 bucks a week delivering newspapers. In 1971, that was some serious coin for a seventh-grader. To earn it, the Wichita Eagle needed to be on the front porches of Pleasant Valley by 6 a.m., seven days a week. The Wichita Beacon by 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

And if I learned a little about responsibility along the way, all for the good.

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My first morning on the job was a Sunday. Up at 4 a.m. with my brand new front-and-back white canvas bag emblazoned with bright red lettering: WICHITA EAGLE-BEACON. MORNING-EVENING-SUNDAYS. The thing was friggin’ huge. It damn near swallowed me up and this was before I loaded it up with papers. At 13, I was not exactly a hulking specimen. The growth spurt was a couple years away.

Approaching the street corner where the papers are dropped, my eyes get bigger and my heart pounds faster. Anxiety creeps in. Panic close on its heels. Standing before me are four stacks of newspapers. Each up to my chin. Turns out the combined Sunday edition of the Eagle-Beacon is a behemoth, as dailies go.

Who knew?

Later, I got up even earlier and using my bicycle, strategically positioned the stacks along the route where I could re-supply without having to backtrack.

Effective and efficient.

Back then, paper boys were actually in charge of physically picking up the subscription fees. Door-to-door. “Collecting,” in the parlance of the trade.

Get up. Throw the Eagle. Go to school. Throw the Beacon. Eat dinner with the fam. Collect. Repeat.

One little old lady on the route with rapidly fading faculties was a predictable chronic pain.

“Collecting for the Eagle-Beacon.” My standard line, while leaning on the doorbell.

“What? Who’s there?”

“It’s Mike Matson, your trusty neighborhood paper boy, and I’m collecting for the newspaper.”

“Manson?”

Every week the same thing. “Manson?”

Every week I had to convince this lady that I was not a crazed California killer with a cult-like following bent on starting an apocalyptic race war. Just a 13-year old white boy from the ‘hood tryna earn a buck.

Helter Skelter, lady. You owe me two-fifty.

I threw papers for a couple of years and then moved on to higher-paying gigs. Passed the paper route on to my brother.

All yours, David. Tell the old lady over on Carlock you’re Manson’s kid brother.

Where the Lightning Meets the Pasture

This column appeared in the Manhattan Mercury Tuesday, November 7, 2017.


Bumping along in the passenger seat of my father’s white-over-green 1965 GMC pickup truck, we saw lightning strike one of our pastures across the limestone gravel road. Pop slammed on the brakes, wheeled around and sped toward the fire.

We turned cattle out on this grass. No grass meant skinny cows. My father was subtracting numbers in his mind as the bluestem burned. His hired man lived next to the burning pasture. They grabbed some grain shovels and attacked the flames.

At age six, I took it upon myself to extinguish the burning cow chips by stomping on them in my rubber-soled Keds. Sacrifice your sneakers for the good of the family farm.

Boy up.

My father was not born into farming. When he landed in Rooks County, Kansas in 1947 as a teenager, it was as far east as he had ever been. It was there he met my mother and her father, the man whom he would credit as having the single greatest influence on his life. Pop always envisioned a career on the land back in the west as a conservationist or forest ranger. After four years in the Navy and another four earning an agronomy degree at K-State, he entered into a partnership with his father-in-law and Kansas became home.    

Dad would work the cattle on horseback. No cowboy, him. He rarely wore blue jeans and I don’t remember ever seeing him in a cowboy hat or pointed toe boots. Khaki work pants, a greasy ol’ khaki ballcap and lace-up work boots.

My father started a hog operation from scratch. Built a hog house on the western boundary of our farm (downwind, thankfully) and was among the first in western Kansas to artificially inseminate swine. A little something he picked up from the land grant school.

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I remember tagging along when he was “fixin’ fence.” A freebie promotional canvas nail apron from the lumber yard with pockets full of horseshoe-shaped staple nails and a brown rubber-handled hammer that he used the rest of his life in his suburban Wichita garage workshop.

Wheat in the summer, milo in the fall, pasture grass, cow-calf, hogs. We had two horses, Ginger and Comanche, and a pony named Bucky. Me and Bucky went ‘round and ‘round. A combine. Two tractors. Implements. A three-quarter ton grain truck, a state-of-the-art navy blue Harvestore granary. Land and capital-intensive. Debt inducing. Operating loans from the bank secured on a handshake.

Pop died a couple of years ago. He knew the end was coming and used his last three years to re-connect with me. Purposeful conversations and reminiscences that led me to write a book about his troubled childhood with alcoholic parents. Talking about the farm, my father shared with me that despite the pride he took in his innovation, he struggled to get his head and heart around all the debt.

“One day, I was sitting on the tractor and I heard the voice tell me it’s time to do something else.”

I once told that story to a farmer friend who was my father’s age. “A lot of us hear that voice. Few of us listen.”

Pop’s instincts were pulling him toward more predictable economics. He and Mom had the courageous conversation, sold the farm, paid off the debts, and earned a post-graduate degree in education at Fort Hays State. In the summer of 1966, he accepted a job teaching 7th and 8th grade science at Brooks Junior High in Wichita.

At one point or another, we all hear the voice. It’s how we respond that shapes our lives. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

That’s where the lightning meets the grass pasture.

He was in his early 30’s with a wife and three small children. There may have been order to this life, but there was not peace of mind. There’s an enormous difference.

From the tractor seat of the red Massey Ferguson, the voice was telling him that selling the farm was a way to fulfill his responsibility as the breadwinner.

To step closer to peace of mind.

Theorosa's Bridge

This column ran Tuesday, October 24, in the Manhattan Mercury.


Over the next several nights, on a bridge spanning Jester Creek north by northeast of where it spills out from the Little Arkansas River north of Wichita, teenagers will be doing what comes naturally.

It’s Halloween week at Theorosa’s Bridge. Anyone coming of age in the northern environs of Wichita knows some version of Theorosa’s story. My favorite went like this:

Theorosa was a married Mennonite farm wife. She got knocked up after a roll in the hay with the hired man. When the baby arrived, she simply could not live with the shame of illegitimacy so she chucked the kid in the drink. Shortly thereafter, incapacitated by her guilt, Theorosa jumped in and drowned her own bad self.

As ghost stories go, this one’s grounded in a pretty compelling narrative.

Theorosa’s ghost roamed the creek near the bridge site when I was a teenager and there she will linger long after dark this coming week. Her malevolent spirit shows up when wide-eyed, freshly scrubbed youth from Pleasant Valley or nearby Valley Center, Park City or Sedgwick stand on the bridge and summon her.

“Theorosa... I HAVE YOUR BABY!”

I never saw Theorosa’s ghost. But on her bridge, the breathing was heavy.

When planning a visit to Theorosa’s bridge, one tended to worry not so much about the machinations of conjuring up her ghost, but about how one might be able to use these specific means toward another specific end. There were certain characteristics one would seek, when scaring up a date for an adventure to Theorosa’s bridge. Preferably, the uninitiated. I mean, my God, the circumstances alone can foster fear. I almost peed my pants my first time.

It’s Halloween. It’s dark. Then throw in the ghost story.

It washed over me this week. After a meeting in Newton, I was Wichita-bound off the beaten path on old U.S. 81. I said to myself, “Self, Theorosa’s bridge is around here somewhere.” A hard right on 109th Street and within moments, I found myself standing on Theorosa’s bridge and it’s yesterday once more.

Jester Creek never gives up her dead.

Jester Creek never gives up her dead.

Very specific sensory memories.

The sharp crack of the pull tab. Hip hugger bell-bottomed jeans. A jingle from twin speakers installed in the back dash, “The Rock of Wichita K-E-YYY-N.” Sweaty palms. The fuzziness of the swig. A whiff of Charlie perfume. The drum riff from Heart’s Crazy On You.

Working and practicing our night moves. The swagger and misplaced confidence in retelling the narrative to friends yet to experience an after dark visit to Theorosa’s bridge. REO was right. The tales grow taller on down the line.

Theorosa’s bridge is the essence of the coming of age narrative.

Its first iteration was a wood and iron structure allowing passage across Jester Creek. The bridge burned down a couple of times in the ‘70s and the most recent iteration went up in 1991. A brass plaque imbedded in the concrete parapet carries the names of the County Commissioners who, no doubt, carefully studied its feasibility and fulfilled their capital improvement strategy. I went to high school with one of their daughters. Today, I think she teaches law at KU.

Small, these circles in which we run, as middle age draws nigh.

Theorosa’s bridge was more than wood and iron back then and today, judging from the graffiti, I suspect it’s more than just concrete and rebar. Infrastructure comes and goes. Ghosts and the stories emanating therefrom, endure.

Some believe Theorosa lived, offed her baby and herself and her spirit came back to haunt any who dare tread nearby in the dark. Others, be they freshly scrubbed, or adorned with that first patina of life experience, dismiss the ghost story but take advantage of the narrative to promulgate another agenda. Or maybe just fulfill their societal expectation.

There is magic in the narrative... and in the memories.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

 

Point and Shoot

I feel a little guilty.

Lately, I’ve been taking pictures and sharing them via social media. Laudatory comments posted in their wake have me scratching my incrementally enlarging forehead. A friend mentioned it in person yesterday and I tried to self-deprecate my way out if it.

“Dude, all I do is point and shoot.”     

My first camera was a Brownie, but I was so clueless that I’d take the film spool in and out, then scratch my 10-year old forehead, wondering why my pictures never turned out. The Kodak Pocket Instamatic with idiot-proof self-contained film cartridges saved me from myself.

My father had an expensive camera and took photos of our family vacations all over the western United States. As a teacher of physics and geology, friends and family did their best to remain attentive during his seemingly endless slide carousel presentations, projected on the off-white living room wall.  

“… and here’s ANOTHER upfolded anticline basalt ridge!”

Yawn.  

In high school, I was sort of a jack-of-all-trades on the yearbook staff. Writing, taking pictures, laying out pages. Back then, fingertip photo cropping involved contact sheets, grease pencils, rubber cement and Exact-o knives.

Wichita Heights yearbook. In the bathroom, using up some remaining frames in that roll of film. 

Wichita Heights yearbook. In the bathroom, using up some remaining frames in that roll of film. 

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to be associated with photojournalists with real talent and skill. Print and video. As a political reporter at WIBW-TV, most of my subject matter was committee rooms full of people. From Don Brown, I learned not to shoot the backs of people’s heads and to search for the visually appealing component of every setting. Steve Entz, whom I hired to shoot television documentaries after we had both long since departed Menninger Hill in Topeka, taught me the moments shortly after sunrise and before sunset are “golden,” when the light is softer.    

From experience, I have gleaned these basics: Keep the light source between you and your subject. When shooting video, don’t move the camera around. Lock it down and allow the motion to move through the frame. A big part of it is right place, right time.

Digital photography makes me appear more talented than I am. My new Google Pixel phone has a sweet camera built into it, but don’t ask me specs. On a technology knowledge (say that real fast three times) scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being absolutely clueless and 10 being brain implanted cognitive artificial intelligence, I suspect I’m about a 2.5.

Maybe I do know just a little bit more than the average bear about taking pics. I still lay no claim to any special photography talent. I guess do lay claim to having journalistic instincts, honed since childhood, now that I think about it.      

We’re not quite a generation into the evolution of social media. It’s proven to be the most powerful communications vehicle to come along since the dawn of man. My father’s basalt ridge slides were limited to living room gatherings. If they want to, anyone on the planet can see a pic of my wife in her purple go-go boots.

Just like the Internet (btw, why’s Internet capitalized like the Bible?) and technology has makes everyone a journalist, it also makes everyone a moviemaker and/or photographer. It’s a better, faster, more efficient method of delivering or sharing ideas than, say, a high school yearbook.

When it’s all said and done (and we’re rapidly nearing that point with this blog entry), it’s all communication. Better tools make a better craftsperson.

OK never mind. If you wanna keep raving over my pics, knock yourself out. I’ll do my best to keep it all in context.

 

Sketchy Dudes, Ratty Cars

I probably should have called the cops.

A sketchy looking dude was slumped in a ratty car parked directly across the street. I wish I could say this occurrence is an anomaly in my neck of the Manhattan woods. Sketchy looking dudes slumped in ratty vehicles have appeared off and on directly across the street for years, causing me no direct harm.

Live and let live.     

Our ‘hood is a baby boomer, most of the houses built in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It was annexed into the city shortly before we moved in, nearly 20 years ago, allowing for city services. Before that it was septic tanks and water wells all up in here. It’s not a cul-de-sac, but it is one big loop, limiting the reasons for anyone who doesn’t live here, to be here.  

Easy to see why the developers picked this area. We’re built into a Flint Hill (actually, more of a Flint Gradual Incline). There are some massive cottonwoods interspersed that predate the houses. One of them is ours. We love it, even though the behemoth drops literally three dozen full-size lawn and leaf bags worth this time of year. Yeah, I counted.

It’s a quiet neighborhood. Smattering of professional couples, some young families with kids, a few Fort Riley families, handful of retirees. A hipster couple recently moved in down the street and painted their house mustard yellow, trimmed in burgundy. A bright, welcome change of pace from our white, beige, grey and forest green system norm. Couple of rentals, inhabited by college kids. You can tell by the out-of-county plates and occasional Sunday morning collection of red Solo cups in the driveway. (Every Cat a Wild Man).

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On neighborhood garage sale days, we empty our closets and garages of the junk that until that weekend we thought we could not live without and proceed to live without it. Occasionally, a neighborhood potluck. The retirees bring casseroles and sliced bananas congealed in lime Jell-O, the professional couples bring three-bean salad from Dillon’s and the hipsters bring hummus. 

A few years ago, a then-college student niece called while house/dog sitting, worried about some sketchy looking dude slumped in a ratty car parked across the street. Don’t sweat it, I told her. They’re harmless. I never gave much thought to why they might be there. So long as they’re not interfering with my life, it’s none of my business, really.     

About a year ago, headed home one afternoon, I pull into the loop behind the Riley County Police Department’s crime scene truck. As I near my house, I see a couple of parked squad cars, blue and red lights flashing, three or four cops in Kevlar, and some people whom I don’t recognize, handcuffed.

Directly across the street.

Yikes.

The next day’s arrest report revealed my neighbors were snagged in a dragnet stemming from a months-long investigation spanning two counties. Distribution of methamphetamine.

Ever since the bust, I’ve kept my distance, not that we were ever best buds anyway. We would exchange the occasional wave while mowing our respective Flint Gradual Incline lawns. How would I engage in small talk now? “Say neighbor, how goes the crank business?”      

Just a couple of months ago, I came home to find more squad cars with lights flashing, this time at the loop entrance, officers on foot, obviously searching for someone. A few weeks later, more cops a couple doors down, called to quell what I took to be a domestic dispute. As far as I know, these incidents are unrelated.   

Has ours become a neighborhood in transition? Lately, I find myself thinking about property values. I’m no real estate expert, but I can’t imagine felony crime directly across the street as a selling point.     

Recently we’ve thought about getting a gun. Thoughts breed discussions which lead to decisions. Still in the thinking phase, but would the thought have entered my mind, absent the series of sketchy looking dudes slumped in ratty cars parked directly across the street and the subsequent arrests?

What if I had called the cops? Looking sketchy, bad posture and driving a ratty car may be gauche, but it’s not illegal.

Since the arrests, the sketchy looking dudes slumped in ratty cars have been fewer and further between, but they’ve not vanished completely. What are they doing there? Logic, common sense and recent history lead me to some educated guesses. Where’s the sweet spot between minding my own business and squealing on potential neighborhood tweakers?

Bittersweet Symphony

We’re at the ballpark in Kansas City. The season is over and still, we linger. The Diamondbacks are bound for the playoffs and the Royals are bound for change. By now, the song rings familiar. Five key players are free agents. We can’t afford all of them. Maybe one.   

My son and I have this theory about young men who throw 100 mph fastballs in the big leagues. The human anatomy is not built for it, so these guys have a shelf life. It’s five or six years, with a year off in the middle for surgery and rehab. Then they’re done. See: Kelvin Herrera.  

It’s not a new or novel theory. It also applies to NFL running backs and forest fires. Burn hot for a finite period then fade.    

Eric John Hosmer is a big market commodity in a small market. We have watched him evolve into a big leaguer, as a ballplayer and leader of men. One minute he’s laying into Yordano Ventura for immaturity, the next he’s speaking on behalf of the entire organization paying tribute to Yordano’s life. 

Hosmer and Moustakas. Moustakas and Hosmer. Hoz and Moose. It’s hard to imagine coming to the K and not seeing these two anchoring the infield. Mike Moustakas and his legitimate, uncontrived rah-rah. Wiping sweat from his brow with the lapel of his uni. The latter-day Balboni.

Moooooose.

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Lorenzo Cain is injury-prone and will be 32 next spring. Shelf life waning. Learned our lesson, right? See: Alex Gordon. Locaine’s smile lights up the Louisiana Purchase. I will miss his talking-without-saying-anything postgame interviews.

“Def’nitely… guys are def’nitely doin’ their thang to get on base…”

Alcides Escobar is a slick-fielding shortstop who hits .250. Dime a dozen, right? Mondesi can do that, right? Slick fielding shortstops who hit .250 and an inside the park home run on the first pitch to the home team in Game 1 of the World Series? Never happen again.

We were there. Barely. I’d picked up Jackie from KCI after a day of flight hassles. Ignoring her checked bag, she sprinted from the gate and we rocketed the Ford Escape down I-29 at 3-digit speeds, reaching our seats in the nick of time.

Our own personal Royals forest fire. Heat and combustion at its apex.

These guys kept the line moving together. Tipped their caps to one another together. Celebrated in goggles together, suffered and grieved together.

Jackie and I were not going to come to this game. The Royals were mathematically eliminated last week and my heart wasn’t in it. Then she said, “This is my team and I want to see them one last time.”

Gulp, he said, lump rising in his throat. The shelf life of my remaining reluctance expired and I realized once again why she’s the yin to my yang.

We watch the Diamondbacks in their awful uniforms declare victory and depart the field. For their fans’ sake, I hope their wild card game Wednesday, like ours which ended three years ago today, begins a postseason phoenix ascendancy.

We watch our guys shaking hands and man hugging, shed a tear, but know in our aching hearts there is no shelf life to bleeding powder blue. This passion did not come cheap.

The song has become a bittersweet symphony.

Our team won the World Series in 1985 and 2015. That puts us right on track to do it again in 2045. I’ll be 80-something. My son will be about my age now. Off his own precipice. Into middle age. He promises to take me. 

Big Biological Misunderstanding

I am not allergic to anything.

Strawberries and peanuts? Bring ‘em on. I have so much tolerance for lactose that I oughta do a testimonial for the dairy farmers. If there was a way to insist on extra gluten in the bread on my Chicken Bacon Ranch Melt at Subway, you would find me at the head of that queue. Shellfish? Can’t get enough of those exoskeleton-bearing aquatic invertebrates. If only I lived closer to bodies of aqua. Ragweed, sagebrush, pollen? Gimme a coupla lungful’s. It’s like breathing fresh air.  

The women in my life, however, are not so fortunate.  

My wife, mother and sister have suffered much of their lives. As a little kid, when I went looking for my mom, I soon came to learn if I just hewed close to the trail of used Kleenexes, more often than not, I would find her at the other end, sniffling.

“Huddo, sud.” Ah, ah, ah… CHOO!

Less than exhaustive research (the first website I land on is “Allergy Facts,” published by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, a trade group of M.D.-types) tells me hay fever affects between 10 and 30 percent of all adults in the U.S. and as many as 40 percent of children. These docs estimate that more than 60 million people in this country suffer and the number is trending upward. Some estimates are than one in five Americans suffer from some sort of allergic condition.

"Huddo, sud."

"Huddo, sud."

My God, we’re surrounded by snot.

During the last couple of springs and falls, I have found myself with congested sinuses and fending off the occasional sneeze. It is, however, merely a coincidence that my symptoms emerge during the times of year the women in my life suffer the most from their allergies.

Because I am not allergic to anything.

This I believe from the bottom of my sinuses.  

My wife seeks to challenge these deeply-held convictions. Human beings evolve over the span of their lives, she says. Anatomies change, she says. Allergies develop when your immune system mistakenly identifies something like pollen or mold as harmful, she says.

My counter argument: You’re telling me that after 50-something years traversing the planet free of allergies, I just wake up one morning and have them? So, up until this point, when I ingested pollen, my body thought it was legit and my sinuses remained refreshingly unclogged?

So, it’s all a big biological misunderstanding?

My sister’s allergies were so severe, she needed weekly injections of the bugs to which she was allergic, under the guise that if you have more of it in you, maybe you’ll just get used to it. That seems counterintuitive. (Some additional less than exhaustive research: “Adjective. 1. Contrary to intuition or to common sense expectation but often nevertheless true.”)

Most of my adult life has revolved around common sense expectations. One of my fallback go-to’s in justifying points I seek to make is, “logic and common sense would dictate…”   

To combat her seasonal allergies, my wife goes through pseudoephedrine like candy. Since I get errand-running duty in our household, I’m showing my drivers’ license at Walgreen’s so often they probably have me pegged as one of Jesse Pinkman’s smurfs.

My stubborn insistence on my own lack of allergies, despite recent evidence to the contrary, troubles her. Perhaps it’s because misery loves company. Maybe it’s because she just thinks I’m full of… snot. The upshot is when she encounters me with near constant sneezing and eye watering during allergy season, her concern is tempered by a never too far from the surface I told you so.

Take these, she advises lovingly, and hands me two of her Claritin-D’s. Two days later, I’m cured.

Because I am not allergic to anything.

 Ah, ah, ah… CHOO!

Except maybe logic and common sense.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

 

A Career as a Cultural Norm

I remember that night vividly.

Just after 7 p.m., Tuesday, November 8, 1994. Kansas Secretary of State Bill Graves of Salina was sneaking in a few bites of dinner, a slice of pepperoni pizza, as he prepared to settle in for an evening of fulfilling his statutory responsibility, the orderly management of Kansas elections.

The polls had been closed for only a few minutes when into his tiny second-floor Statehouse office ambled Lew Ferguson, short-sleeved button down, loosened necktie, horn-rimmed glasses. A veteran wire service reporter, Lew bore an Oklahoma twang and a piece of wire copy declaring Graves the victor in the race for Kansas Governor.

At that exact same moment, I was a few blocks south on Topeka Boulevard, in a noisy Kansas Expocentre ballroom, elbow deep in a media horde, cameras and microphones thrust in my general direction. On a brick-sized cell phone with one of Lew’s colleagues back at the Statehouse, I was attempting to fulfill my employment responsibility as the Graves campaign media flak, to confirm what the candidate, now Governor-elect, had just learned.

“At that moment, if Lew Ferguson said I was the next Governor, I knew it was true,” Graves recalled recently. “He wouldn’t have printed it, if it wasn’t fact.”  

Lew Ferguson died late last month at 83, in his home state of Oklahoma.

As the Statehouse Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, a wire service to which nearly every newspaper, radio and television station in Kansas subscribed, Lew was the most important reporter in my world, which would come to revolve around the care and feeding of his brethren statewide, seeking stories, scoops and the inside dope.

After the pepperoni interruption, Ferguson signed his story for the Governor-elect. It remains among Graves' most cherished keepsakes.

After the pepperoni interruption, Ferguson signed his story for the Governor-elect. It remains among Graves' most cherished keepsakes.

My m.o. as press secretary emanated from the top. Graves had an innate understanding of how to successfully communicate, and had built a relationship with Lew long before the election night pepperoni interruption. My job was simple. Don’t screw it up.

Other reporters would have to settle for a Matson quote or wait until the Governor’s Friday news conference, but not Lew.          

“Be at the bottom of the stairs at 5:30. Walk with him to the Crown Vic.”

Before I became the Governor’s spokesperson, I had been one of the media horde, covering government and politics for a Topeka television station and statewide radio network. In those halcyon days before the Internet blurred the line between print and electronic media, those of us with cameras and cassette tape recorders were often viewed with disdain by our elders with reporters’ notebooks and pencils. Dismissed as pretty boys and girls, generally not taken seriously.

Not Lew. He tended to judge you, not by the medium in which you communicated, but by your candlepower.

Four years later, Graves sought re-election and with Fred Phelps the only declared Democratic opponent, then-Kansas House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer of Wichita selflessly sacrificed his leadership position and legislative seat to be his party’s standard bearer and take on the popular sitting incumbent. A friend returned to Topeka from Washington to manage Sawyer’s campaign. She recalled giving the exclusive to Lew the evening before they announced.

“He called us both nuts, but said before he left that we were doing the right thing,” she recalled. “That meant a lot coming from Lew.”  

Ferguson retired in 1999 and then the Governor (when you serve at that level, they’ll always be, “the Governor”) did something extraordinary. He appointed him to the Kansas Board of Regents, where Graves recalled, Lew’s journalistic instincts and institutional knowledge would prove invaluable in one of the most prized gubernatorial appointments.

He was the kind of journalist who would have looked perfectly comfortable wearing a fedora with a press card stuck in the hatband, hunched over a typewriter, hammering out the latest truth. To describe him as a throwback, though, does a disservice to those currently toiling in the profession. Lew cared deeply about what all journalists care deeply about. The story. Truth and fairness.

His life and professional career can be held up as an example of an American cultural norm. One that occasionally needs defending out loud. We take the First Amendment for granted at our own peril. It’s unfortunate that Lew Ferguson’s integrity and humanity stands in such sharp contrast to those today who would diminish the journalist’s role in American society. The concept of “fake news” starts and ends somewhere deep within the psyches of the closed-minded.

There are more vehicles delivering more journalism today than in Lew’s era, which makes it even more important for those of us who consume news, to do what we’ve always done. Find and stick with journalists we trust.  

As a fellow journalist and later as a gatekeeper, I trusted Lew Ferguson. He earned that trust the way we all earn another’s trust – through words and deeds. There’s no mystery surrounding what made Lew such a good journalist. It started and ended with the fact that he was a good human being.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com

Evolution of an Important Conversation

This column ran Tuesday, August 29, in the Manhattan Mercury.


Let’s start with a blinding flash of the obvious. I’m a 50-something white guy. Most people in my community and state look like me.   

I was a toddler when Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed out loud about a nation where freedom and justice would be color blind. As a white kid who came of age in the ‘70s in the middle of the country, that was enough for me. My parents believed in Dr. King’s dream, taught me to do the same and I was done thinking about it.     

Judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

Done. Check.

Last fall, under the umbrella of a leadership development concern, I managed a statewide conversation in Wichita between communities of color and law enforcement. As a 50-something white guy, I’ll admit to a little trepidation about that work, but I owned my trepidation and did a lot of listening.

What I heard was those with skin color different than mine also believed in King’s dream, but they were facing uncertainty, fear and violence from cops. The Wichita gathering came on the heels of a spate of police-related shootings all over the U.S. in 2016. In listening, I heard that King’s character content judging argument had not yet fully taken hold and that those who look like me who rest on their laurels, shouldn’t, really.

Then came my involvement in the Manhattan High School Indians mascot issue. It happened inauspiciously, lunch with a friend who serves on the school board. Over Bring Down the House Salads at So Long in Aggieville, I complimented her on the board’s political tactic of kicking the can down the road by appointing a task force to provide them recommendations.

Her response, paraphrased: Oh yeah, wise guy? You’re on the task force. I coulda bailed, (Sorry, too busy… lots of important things to do…) but lately, my inclination has been to serve.

Our work produced four specific recommendations to the school board. Are they enough to put this issue to rest, once and for all? When I look back, and then forward, I tend to doubt it. A generation from now, there will be more people in our country, state and community, who don’t look like me, and because of that fact alone, will be more enlightened. Maybe by then, today’s guardrails will have expanded a few lanes.     

Oh yeah, wise guy? You're on the task force.

Oh yeah, wise guy? You're on the task force.

At its essence, the MHS mascot issue boils down to a group of human beings who find the status quo harmful and another group who feel an affinity toward it. I don’t know how you can split that baby. But my experience has taught me that meaningful public policy change only comes about after meaningful conversation. Draw your own conclusions as to whether that is happening in Manhattan.

As a 50-something white dude in the middle of the country with my recent life experience, I have come to more fully appreciate the concept of privilege. Going in, my knee-jerk was, who, me? I live King’s dream, I love everybody. I think maybe I missed the point. It’s less overt, more subtle, not as easy to even recognize when most of the people with whom I am surrounded look like me.

Charlottesville reaffirmed my belief that we have lofty expectations of our government in this conversation, whether it’s the President of the United States, or the local school board.   

People, communities, cultures and civilizations evolve. Ways of thinking about all that surrounds us become more informed. My experience growing up in this country and in Kansas has taught me, that despite stumbles and difficulties, all things eventually point toward truth and justice.

Once we know better, shouldn’t we do better?        

Until recently, the content of their character has been an effective yardstick for me, when it comes to sizing people up. For the rest of my life, there’ll be more to it. I hope I can transcend my parents’ dreams and that my imagination will be sufficiently open to understand the differences I have with others.

Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s been back home in Manhattan since 1998. His column will appear in The Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com