Revolution

This column appeared Tuesday, June 19, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


If you were to select a single place as the epicenter of an American social, cultural, generational, anti-war revolution in the summer of 1968, it would be Berkeley, California.

My father was a junior high science teacher in Wichita when he was accepted for a summer-long physics/astronomy fellowship from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California.

Our 1968 Wichita existence could not have been more mainstream. Two cars in the attached garage, dozens of neighborhood baby boomers, come home when the streetlights come on, baloney on white with Miracle Whip, back-to-school clothes from Sears in the Twin Lakes Shopping Center.

In a part of town that was actually called Pleasant Valley.

Just a couple of weeks before we got to Berkeley, at what became known as the Vietnam Commencement, eighty percent of the young men graduating from Cal took an oath to dodge the draft. The students left town for the summer, leaving the radical hangers-on, hippies and summer fellowship families in the neighborhoods near campus. Our apartment was in the heart of the action on Ellsworth Street, a block west of Telegraph Avenue.

It was the summer after the Summer of Love and thousands of young people had made their way to the Bay Area to turn on, tune in and drop out. I remember one neighborhood flower child had a doobie fired up pretty much every time we saw her.

“Kansas. Groovy.”

On June 28, two days before my Mom turned 33, all hell broke loose. Some 2,000 young people rallied on campus in support of kids just like them in France, who were trying to topple De Gaulle. The crowd spilled out onto Telegraph Avenue and closed it down.

John Law freaked out. The fuzz fired tear gas and the kids countered with rocks. A full-scale street war, replete with flaming barricades, curfews, hundreds of arrests and a general civic unraveling for three days.

Happy birthday, Mom.

My Dad and I were on the balcony of our second story apartment grilling burgers when a cop pulled over and bullhorned at us to get inside, it was past curfew. We did. As the cop motored north on Ellsworth Street, we returned to the balcony.

Grilled burgers trump curfews mandated by The Man.

I guess the cop thought he was safer hollering at a couple of innocent burger grillers up on the balcony than risking his neck to quell the nearby riot.

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On our way to kids’ programs at the public library, we’d walk past Black Panthers membership recruitment rallies. They wouldn’t let me join. Something about not suffering enough economic and social inequality. How did those guys know I was from Pleasant Valley?

My father would bring home copies of the Berkeley Barb, an underground newspaper serving the civil rights, anti-war counterculture. Outwardly, my parents were straight-laced, button-down and did everything Pleasant Valley would have expected of them. I can’t say they were sympathetic to violence, but they each possessed an underlying intellectual curiosity, which they passed on to their kids.

That was the summer I started paying attention to the world around me. I would read my father’s U.S. News & World Report and then devour the Barb.

On weekends we’d cross the Bay Bridge to San Francisco or traverse the Golden Gate to Sausalito in our 1967 red-over-white Volkswagen microbus. We’d tool through Haight-Ashbury in that VW bus and look right at home, except maybe for the wide eyes, Brylcreem and Keds.

Dr. King called the war a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. Today, young people who oppose gun violence are staging die-ins and sit-ins to draw attention and protest the status quo. Today’s protesters feel it as deeply as the Berkeley hippies, Black Panthers and revolutionaries fifty years ago who sought to revolutionize the fabric of American society.

When I relive my summer of 1968, it has the feel of a Netflix documentary in my mind. Ten-year old white boy from Pleasant Valley transported to the mean streets of Berkeley, exposed to a counterculture that began a lifelong process of examining what motivates people.

Back in the safe, predictable environs of South Pleasant Valley Elementary in Wichita, surrounded by kids who looked like me, my 6th grade teacher singled me out on the first day of school in late August,1968.

“Mike? What did you do on your summer vacation?”

Gather ‘round, kids. This may take a while.

Heartbeat Away

This column appeared Thursday, June 7, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


For the next sixty days, much will be written about eight candidates for governor of Kansas. You will see precious little about the eight human beings they have deemed the best individual to guide the ship of state in the event they get hit by a truck or the King Air nosedives into no-till wheat stubble somewhere west of U.S. 81.

John Doll of Garden City, Rosemary Hansen of Topeka, Wink Hartman of Wichita, Katrina Lewison of Manhattan, Tracey Mann of Salina, Chris Morrow of Gardner, Lynn Rogers of Wichita and Jenifer Sanderson of Goodland.

Candidates for lieutenant governor, who have had the frank and candid conversation with the one who wants them, slept on it and made peace with being a heartbeat away. Each now with a deeply-held conviction that they've something to offer and confident in their ability to say all the right things, to the right people, at the right time.
 
Each brings two or more of the essential second banana selection criteria: differences in geography, gender, age, connections, personal chemistry, strong where the other is weak. The yin to their running mate's yang. If they hold a differing view on a key issue, they've rationalized that they can still sleep at night, suck it up and hope no one asks. But will be ready, just in case: "So glad you brought that up, since (insert name of gubernatorial candidate here) and I believe strongly that diversity of opinion is a strength..."

Since few voters will recognize the lieutenant governor candidates, let alone learn their names or stories, their political value needs to be summed up in an easily remembered notion: "education guru," "military service distinction," "pitched hay bales as a kid," "successful businessperson," "mayor of a Johnson County suburb," etc.

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As the message-meister for Bill Graves' successful 1994 candidacy for governor, the contours of the narrative for his lieutenant governor running mate emerged right away. "...Senate Majority Leader Sheila Frahm, who grew up on the banks of Prairie Dog Creek in Thomas County..."

If one harbors aspirations to one day be first banana, and possesses the tolerance to be a heartbeat away, serving as lieutenant governor offers an effective platform from which to dive into those waters.

There's not a lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer or insurance commissioner who doesn't get up in the morning, look themselves in the mirror and see the next governor. In fact, five of our last half dozen Kansas governors sprang from these ranks.

Plainclothes state troopers don't advance the insurance commissioner's visit to the Clay Center Rotary Club and then ferry them there in an unmarked black Suburban. The state treasurer doesn't get to hang his or her power suits in the walk-in closet of the master suite on the second floor at Cedar Crest. And that's before you get to the Constitutionally-mandated executive branch balance of power stuff. Setting policy priorities through budgets, appointing a Cabinet of competent, loyal agenda movers, the bully pulpit. Governors wield real, legitimate power that impacts our lives.

The lieutenant governor sees all that up close, from a spacious, ornate 2nd floor south Statehouse office. They generally get a couple of staffers. If the governor doesn't have them managing a Cabinet agency or chairing the Blue Ribbon Commission on The Next Crucial Kansas Concern, they can pretty much chart their own course.

When he would talk about his role as governor, Graves would very carefully and purposefully use the words, "public service," leaving the distinct impression that all this was about something more lofty and meaningful than mere grubby elective politics.     

Done right, it is.  

Five of them have a 60-day shelf life. For three, 150 days. This fall, Doll, Hansen, Hartman, Lewison, Mann, Morrow, Rogers or Sanderson will be elected lieutenant governor of Kansas.

Standby equipment in the service of you, me and our 2.9 million closest friends and neighbors.

They each bring an enigmatic, yet refreshing mixture of confidence, ego, courage and loving their neighbor. Given the uniqueness of the situation, their effectiveness as a candidate will be hard to measure. Seven of the eight will lose, but they will not be losers. I give them all credit, and with this column, more earned media than they can likely expect all summer. Unless they screw up.

They've committed to spending months appearing before crowds of complete strangers singing the praises of somebody else. To set aside personal ambition in the service of somebody else. Someone in whom they trust and believe will do us right. That seems the definition of selflessness.

Courtesy Boy

This column appeared Tuesday, May 22, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


A childhood friend sent me the link. The headline blared, “Part of the Sweetbriar Center at 21st and Amidon is being demolished.” Part of me chalked it up to inevitable change and part of me mourned a loss.

Say it ain’t so.

At the risk of coming across like John-Boy Walton, it’s not a stretch to say I came of age while working at Mr. D’s IGA in the Sweetbriar Shopping Center in Wichita.

I started as a “courtesy boy.” Sack and carry out, sweep the floors, clean up after the kid who tossed his cookies in the cookie aisle, sort and stack actual returnable glass pop bottles according to brand/size. Workers from the local Pepsi, Coke and 7up bottling plants would haul them away and they’d get used again. What a dated concept.

The place was full of characters. A brassy, 50-something Ozarks refugee with platinum hair piled high, held in place with what had to be an entire can of ozone-destroying aerosol hairspray per day. People tell me my voice carries, but I had nothing on this ol’ gal. She’d key the intercom and let ‘er rip. Imagine a female Mr. Haney from “Green Acres:” 

“MAAAKUL JAY, WE GAWD INNY MOW-ER O’ THAY-UM THREEFERDOLLER FIRST PEE-ICK MANDARIAN ORN-JIZZ?”

Translation: “Michael Jay. Have we any more First Pick mandarin oranges, priced three for a dollar?”

Ah’ll brang ‘em raht up.

From roughly ages 17-20, in the circles in which I ran, I was known as “Michael Jay.” Another column, perhaps.

To this day, I still call them “Mandarian” oranges. Cultivated and harvested in Mandaria. Governed by a strongman who stifles dissent, but he’s our strongman.

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The supermarket manager was going bald and not in attractive way. A hair transplant gone awry. A half-dozen closely-spaced, quarter-inch plugs. He tried, without success, to hide them beneath an equally cheesy comb-over. To make matters worse, a childhood accident robbed the man of a fully-formed left eyelid.

Despite all these seeming shortcomings, the guy was a ladies’ man. He’d juggle two or three different checkout girls at a time. Yes, that’s what they were called back then.

“What gives?” We’d ask the supermarket lifers working their way up the retail grocery flow chart. These guys were in their mid-to-late 20s and had all the answers.

“Sometimes women are attracted to power.”

His wife confronted him once. Right there in front of God and the courtesy boys at the express lane (15 items or less).

It was during this period that I discovered a talent for ad-libbing. Anytime an “official” announcement was needed, the call went out. Get Michael Jay. I’d get on the intercom and wing it.

“Attention Mr. D’s shoppers… for the next three minutes and three minutes only, if you’ll make your way to the end of Aisle 9, we are happy to offer a 64-ounce can of Country Style Lemonade Mix, free! Dehydrated lemonade. Just add water! And there’s no charge… all because we appreciate your business and we like the color of your eyes.”

The Mr. D’s delicatessen reeked of deep fried chicken grease. Courtesy boys who made time with the deli girls would soon begin to take on its characteristics. How come Michael Jay’s so shiny? Too much time in the deli. Some courtesy boys were more courteous than others.

Open 24-7-364. When we closed once a year on Christmas Eve, we had a tough time locking the doors. No one could find the key.

I also ran a cash register, stocked shelves and at 19 was promoted to frozen foods manager, in charge of ordering, inventorying and stocking cases of 6-ounce First Pick frozen orange juice concentrate and Swanson Hungry Man Salisbury steak dinners. With such rapid advancement at a tender age, I flirted briefly with the notion of making a career of it, but ambition kicked in and I ad libbed my way out of the Sweetbriar Shopping center into broadcasting studios and live shots.

“A lot has changed since the center was built,” read the article. “Things are different today.” But some things are the same. Young men will still come of age. The answers dawn. Layers of naïveté and inexperience are shed, in favor of knowledge and insight.

It just won’t happen as much in shopping centers.

Baby Grand Mother

I wrote this piece about my mother, five years ago, in May 2013.


Among my most vivid childhood memories is Mom playing Debussy's Claire de Lune on her baby grand piano.


Mom was born in a farmhouse near Damar, Kansas. In that time and place it seemed like the world was ending. Smarter land management solved the Dust Bowl and massive government investment in a world war took care of the Great Depression.

Geraldine May Ordway was barely a toddler when the stars/shale formations aligned and oil was struck on her grandfather Fred Bemis’s land in Ellis County, Kansas. Geology and good fortune delivered Fred’s family from the despair that claimed so many Great Plains families.

A standup guy and rock solid Christian, Fred Bemis typified his western Kansas early 20th century stalwart peers. No one needed remind him that to those whom much is given, much is expected. Fred’s philanthropy flowed through his family, church and community.

Fred’s son-in-law (my maternal grandfather) was an entrepreneur long before it was labeled. Victor Ordway liked big shiny cars and whiskey sours at the cocktail hour. He was gregarious, hilarious and generous. For her 16th birthday, Victor gave Mom a baby grand piano.

 Mom at 16 with her baby grand.

Mom at 16 with her baby grand.

Within a year of the baby grand, Mom married my Dad, whom she’d met at Plainville High. Mom worked directly from her generation’s blueprint: Raise a family.

Each generation is shackled by the mores of their time. Today the infrastructure of Mom’s generation is crumbling, but back in the day, it framed up and girded the world: A woman’s place is in the home, don’t cry over spilled milk, you can always find bargains if you look hard enough.

Engaged at 15. Baby grand at 16. Married at 17.

Didn’t take her long to realize she was not happy, but Mom stuck it out until the kids grew up. Only then did my parents go their separate ways.

We are all products of our upbringing and childhood environments. Barring some psychic change, we do what they did, we do what comes naturally as a matter of course. Her father was easy on her. She was easy on me. And I was easy on my son. Easy in the sense that we viewed our children as gifts and our upstream motivation was to spare them pain, sorrow and hardship.

Four years ago, after a lifetime in Kansas, Geri Ordway moved into an attached apartment of my sister’s home in Tennessee.

Among Mom’s many gifts is an innate ability to hang on to relationships. She makes – and then keeps – lifelong friends wherever she goes. Her connections with some of her friends span more than half a century.

Another thread in her life is a remarkable capacity and willingness to care for loved ones as death draws nigh. In ‘72, Mom was a one-woman hospice for her mother-in-law. She was there for both her parents, her Aunt (Victor’s sister) and most recently, her own sister and brother. They are both extraordinary gifts to which I suspect she doesn’t give a second thought.

Conscious or not, Mom’s sort of become the de facto Ordway family matriarch. She’s the one who stays in touch with the nieces, nephews, grandkids and their families.

My Mom is the kind of personality who draws strength from strong personalities close to her. Mom didn’t issue any manifestos. She didn’t burn her bra. She adored her father, raised her kids, has faith in God and loves her neighbor.

There are many lessons I can still learn from her. As she reminisces, I hope Mom has no regrets. Even if she does, I suspect she’d not verbalize them. I hope she realizes how her actions and intentions come from the best possible place.     

Changes in Latitude

This column appeared Tuesday, May 8, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


At the time, Tuesday, October 18, 2011 was a day like any other. I got up, went to work and came home. The sun rose and set. The autumn leaves turned from green to gold and red. That same day, on an island in the Fujian province of the People’s Republic of China, the laptop computer upon which I am writing this newspaper column rolled off the assembly line.

Six-and-a-half years later, my Dell Latitude’s days are numbered, and I will soon be forced into a geography that lies outside the boundaries of my comfort zone.

My relationship with technology was not always arms’ length. I can adapt as easily as the next man, provided the next man’s not Kanye West. In the ‘80s, I embraced the desktop computer with zeal, but my adaptation began to decelerate a couple of years ago as Kipling rang in my ears.

If you can keep your Latitude when all about you are losing theirs and transitioning to the tablet, then you’ll be a man, my son. Problem is, I couldn’t. Keep my Latitude, that is. Try this new state-of-the-art Microsoft Surface Pro, they said. It can do everything your laptop can do and more, they said. It was half laptop, half tablet and wholly confusing.

It’s either an apple or a banana. It cannot be both, my inner conformist whispered.

I learned how to type in high school journalism hunting and pecking on manual typewriters, skill trending upward for decades. I can crank 60-80 words per minute, but it’s predicated on the ability to actually push a button. The key must physically depress. Touch-screen keyboards discombobulate my rhythm and I am adrift at sea.

Kipling gave way to my father. “Find a winner and stick with it,” a lesson from childhood that stuck. The sentiment applies to blue jeans, salad dressing, and as it turns out, laptop computers.  

I struggled for a month with the Surface Pro before hoisting the distress flag. Passed it along to a millennial colleague, dusted off my Latitude and immediately fell back into happiness and well-being. It’s comfortable like an old pair of shoes. We have a history.

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On this computer, I wrote a book, designed a host of communications plans, strategic outlines and operational frameworks, sent a few thousand emails, discovered a whole new genre of alt music, wrote my father’s eulogy, shared a couple hundred actual conversations with my wife via social media and transitioned from hard copy newspapers.  

Every time I open it, I gotta blow a dog’s worth of hair off the keyboard. The touch pad fairly shines from six-and-a-half years’ worth of index finger skin oil. Many of the actual letters have worn off the keys. The little tabs holding the Caps Lock key have broken off, leaving it perched precariously.  

The hard drive spectrum screams red and is less than a gigabyte from being full. When I sign in, I find myself confronted with system-related flags prophesying all manner of electronic doom and gloom.

“… because of a problem that occurred with your paging file configuration.”

Click OK.

“Your battery is reaching the end of its usable life…”

I’m on my third battery. Click OK with a tear welling in my eye.
 
Reluctantly, I venture into uncharted waters, just to get a glimpse of the future. I want to ask the blue-shirted kid at Best Buy, “Got any 2011 Dell Latitudes?” But I know the answer. The newer laptops beckon, sleeker and skinnier.

My current working plan for the day when the blue screen of death arrives is to commandeer my wife’s Dell laptop and she’ll upgrade to new, sleek and skinny. Hers is not quite as old as mine and has keys that depress. But it’s not my Latitude.

Maybe I’ve evolved as much as I’m going to, related to information appliances. The angular distance between my comfort level and lack of tolerance for newer, sleeker, skinnier seems to have remained pretty constant. Maybe I have no latitude to expand my laptop computer horizons. Maybe Kipling and my old man were right.    

Six-and-a-half years, half a continent and an ocean away from the origin of my Latitude, I can easily pinpoint my place, in relation to the digital celestial equator. A handful of degrees north of set in my ways and a few minutes shy of willing to change.

Steady as she goes.

President Emeritus

This column appeared Tuesday, April 24, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


If someone wants to get in touch with me, it’s not hard. Text, voicemail, “Hey you,” email, swing by my office, tackle me by the ankles, a social media p.m. I suspect there are at least a dozen platforms on my smart phone (and probably another dozen with which I am not familiar) through which one can gain at least a facsimile of direct Matson access, should the need arise. Early in my career, I was mentored that perceptions are made or broken by the promptness of the response.      

So, it was with chagrin and a sense of personal shortcoming that I recently discovered not one, but two messages, left over a span of two weeks, on our landline home phone. My wife and I rationalize hanging on to the landline as an arms’ length receptacle to collect the spam and robocalls we fear would migrate to our cell phones if we were to cut the cord.

Apart from these two messages, I honestly cannot remember the last time I received a call on the landline worth taking.

The messages were from Dr. Jon Wefald. Yeah, that Dr. Jon Wefald, who mentioned he’d been reading my Mercury columns and noticed a couple of references to K-State. The retired historian wanted to get together to share some history and give me an autographed copy of his book, about his years as president of K-State. A period he not so subtly calls “the transformative years.”

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Back in the day, Wefald knew me as Gov. Bill Graves’ message guy, but my business with K-State was conducted a couple levels down the flow chart. I remember a few polite, “Hi good to see ya how ‘bout them Cats?” conversations with him as he was heading out of the governor’s office and I was heading in, but my name would never have risen to his lunch invitation list.  

As we sat down for lunch at Colbert Hills, it struck me. The skills and characteristics that led to transformative success during his years at the K-State helm, don’t just go away because he retired.

His was the generation that transformed their respective corners of the world through landline phone calls returned to people whose names and numbers were written on little slips of pink paper beneath the imprinted words, ‘While You Were Out’ by secretaries whose positions would transition to administrative assistant and then administrative professional, if not phased out entirely through attrition.

Seeds planted in the breakfast meeting, strategies developed over lunch. Tactics devised nursing drinks after work. Hand-written notes of rah-rah and thanks. Agendas moved through face-to-face relationships.

Dwindling enrollments turned around, football programs resurrected. Libraries renovated, art museums where once there were none. World class golf courses carved into Flint Hills.  

I only had an hour for lunch, lots of important things to do. Agendas of my own to move, ideas to make someone else’s. He seemed genuinely disappointed that I could not stay longer. Once again, I felt like a heel as another reality sunk in. In retirement, at 80, Jon Wefald doesn’t have as many people who listen to him as he once did. As I got up to leave, we exchanged business cards. That afternoon he sent me a very kind and thoughtful email.

If the actual transforming is the science, then the structure and process that leads to the transformation is the art and Jon Wefald is da Vinci. The moves I make today, my professional m.o., was learned from women and men of his generation, nuanced and calibrated to changing times, culture and expectations.    

A cynic might argue the landline messages, the invitation to lunch, the flattery, are all points on an arc bending toward the inevitable legacy-burnishing puff piece. It’s one of those never-spoken-aloud-yet-always-assumed ways of the world. If you invite a guy who writes a newspaper column to lunch, you have something to communicate and the columnist is your vehicle.

A more open-minded interpretation would be the man recognizes his remaining time on the planet is limited and he wants to use it doing what he does best. Doing what comes naturally. Moving an agenda through sheer dint of personality.

There’s no doubt technology is weakening our social connections. It seems hard to measure, but as a dues-paying member in good standing of the generation with one arm cradling the landline and the other in the Cloud, I can sense it. But I can also do my part to purposefully strengthen them. I can accept an invitation to lunch from an aging academician who did many good things in this community.

Transformative, some may argue. He would. Just read his book. I intend to.   

I also intend to return the invitation, take him to lunch, be polite, listen and not interrupt. Maybe someone will do that for me when I reach my golden years. Because I like to talk, too.

As for his agenda, please draw your own conclusions regarding the puffiness of this piece.

Purpler Eggplant

This column appeared Tuesday, April 10, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


“Will you work hard?” “I will.”

“Will you be on time?” “Yes.”

With that 2-question interview, I was hired for what turned out to be a job that helped shape the way I think about loyalty, fair play and what’s important.

The interviewer was Jack Fasciano, 30-something manager of Angelo’s Italian Restaurant in Wichita. I was 16 with long hair, a short attention span and my old man breathing down my neck to get a job. Now I was a busboy. Black pants, white shirt, white apron, and the pièce de résistance, a paper soda jerk-style hat with the distinctive Angelo’s graphic script in red and green letters emblazoned on each side.

Jack was first generation American, son of Angelo and Anna Fasciano. Angelo was born in Caltinisetta, Sicily and moved his young family to Wichita to build aircraft at Boeing. Neighbors and friends liked his cooking so much, he opened a restaurant, then two, then three.

Like most American immigrants, Angelo was proud of his new country. He served in the military and when he and Anna had a family, the kids got American names: Jack, Lenny and Carol. Jack’s Italian lineage was unmistakable. Olive skin, black hair, cheesy mustache. He had these way cool yellow-tinted aviator glasses, leather jackets, alligator loafers and double-knit polyester pants. To teenage busboys in Wichita, Kansas in the mid-1970s, Jack Fasciano was an Italian-American demigod.

Bussing tables is an under-appreciated art form and I wielded a creative dishrag. Glasses first, then silverware, followed by plates, cups, saucers. Swoop the paper placemats and napkins into the trash and wipe the table clean. I could do a four-top in 30 seconds.

Jack noticed. After three months he gave me a dime raise. I was now earning $1.70 an hour. The new Furr’s Cafeteria down the street was offering $1.90 to wash dishes. My newly-acquired work ethic had given way to another first-time life dynamic. Mo money. Seeya Jack.

Furr’s would not give me a week off for a church youth group retreat in Colorado. Dipping into my 16-year old reservoir of judgement, I up and quit. After realizing my error, I needed an answer for my father, so I went back to Jack and asked him for my old job. I could start as soon as I returned from my Rocky Mountain high.

“I already hired a new busboy,” Jack was unapologetic. He had a business to run. I never even had a chance to remind him of my table bussing artistry. “But I could use a dishwasher.”

Deal.

Compared to dishwashing, busboying was glamorous. You stayed (relatively) clean. You could engage with customers, flirt with waitresses, sneak the occasional slice of pizza. Washing dishes at Angelo’s was hot, greasy, back-breaking work. Lasagna tins with baked-on burnt cheese remnants had to be spotless. I remember scrubbing those tins until 4 a.m. some weekends.

Mo problems.

I wanted back out in the restaurant so badly I hatched a plan to get rid of the new busboy. I told the new kid Furr’s was hiring at $1.90 per. If I bit, maybe he would too. Meantime, I parallel-tracked Jack and told him I’d be interested in the first busboy opening he had, even if it meant a pay cut. It worked. The new kid split, and I returned to my art.

Jack didn’t have to hire me back. He didn’t have to move me back to busboying.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Jack’s long since retired, but wants back in the restaurant game for two reasons: He’s really good at it, and his former customers were literally knocking on his door, asking him to whip up some braciola or spaghetti and meatballs. Jack launched a unique venture capital raising effort. Free pizza and lasagna comparable to the level of your investment.

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I dropped in on Jack shortly after he re-opened Angelo’s. My Italian-American demigod is older today and walks with a cane. The first thing you see upon entering is a poster-sized photo of his late father, smiling, dining on spaghetti. It’s a humble little restaurant on Wichita’s east side, flanked by a storefront insurance agent and a Jiffy Lube. True to his father’s heritage, Jack reopened Angelo’s in a working-class part of town.

The aromas, the tastes, the patina of olive oil fashions an ambience that takes me back. I’m 16 again, learning valuable life lessons. Get the new job before quitting the old one. The other man’s eggplant is not always purpler. When it comes to employment, money is not everything. Impulsive decisions are nearly always wrong.

“Stay close,” Jack told me on my way out. “You never know when I may need a busboy.”

I lay claim to a very small part of Angelo’s. It will always own a big part of me.  

Data, Dopamine and Discourse

This column appeared Tuesday, March 27, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


Seems like every time I turn around, Mark Zuckerberg is apologizing for some systemic transgression. Cambridge Analytica gaining access to Facebook user data is just the latest faux pas. Woops. “Sorry ‘bout that. We’ll do better.” I’m left with the impression they’ve created a monster and are clueless about how to rein it in. It reminds me of Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, who, after inventing the atomic bomb, had profound second thoughts after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I see early Facebook founders, who are not Zuckerberg, making the media rounds, mea culpa-ing, warning of all manner of doom and gloom. I interpret their message as basically, “We didn’t mean to, well maybe we did, but we created these dopamine-driven feedback loops and they’re screwing up our society.”

Global civic discourse, cooperation and truth are the victims.

Dopamine is a chemical compound, released by nerve cells that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It enables us humans to not only see rewards, but then take conscious action to get them. For people like me, genetically predisposed to addiction, that hits close to home.

My father’s parents were alcoholics in an era when it was rarely acknowledged, much less dealt with. During his last three years, the old man opened up to me about his troubled childhood and those conversations led me to write a creative non-fiction memoir about the impact of alcoholism on generations of our family.       

Alcohol, drugs, gambling, and social media stimulate the production of dopamine. The scientists say the dopamine response is significantly reduced in people like me, leading to a need to drink more, gamble more, eyeball Facebook more, to feel a buzz. I’m no scientist, but I am a recovering alcoholic. I also have some social media accounts, so it behooves me to understand the risks. It’s been more than 25 years since my last drink, but it’s been about a half-hour since I checked Facebook.  

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I use Facebook to share these newspaper columns through my website. When I started writing them last summer, I shared them from the Merc’s site and noticed the online reaction was diminished (quantity and quality) than when I shared them directly from my website.

My gut tells me it’s aesthetics. I can include a message-driven photo with mine, and write a punchier two or three-word attention-grabbing headline. Can’t do that in the newspaper. Headlines for this column need to be 45-46 characters long, which is more than two or three words. I used to suggest headlines, but the Merc crew wrote their own, so now I leave that creative chore to the pros.   
     
I check Facebook (on my laptop and phone) several times a day. Far too many times while driving, I’ll admit. If I get hit by a truck, please, someone read this column at my funeral and share it on social media as a cautionary tale.

My second favorite newspaper columnist, David Brooks of the New York Times, has me figured out. “We compulsively check the site because we never know when the delicious ting of social affirmation may sound.”

When I wrote my book, I was encouraged by more chimers-in than not, with varying levels of publishing and social media sophistication, to set up an “author’s page” on Facebook, to seek a new audience. I’d share excerpts and blog posts about the book on my author’s page and my regular page. The same thing shared from two pages looked like repetition, so I deep-sixed the author’s page.

Again, aesthetics.

I use LinkedIn to establish my professional bona fides. It’s a non-threatening way to establish credibility in a professional relationship. As opposed to walking into that first meeting and leading with, “Uh... hang on a sec. Before we get started, please allow me to show you this PowerPoint which details my vast and extensive résumé and life experience.”

I still haven’t figured out Twitter, despite some honest sit-downs with tech-fluent millennials. My problem is I try to treat it like Facebook and its apples and oranges. At least apples and pears. I’ve been on Instagram about a year and have posted a couple hundred photos of random crap, mostly my dogs romping at Marlatt Park. I prefer the Mayfair and X-Pro II filters, which apparently make the dogs appear more lovable and me, more talented.

Again, dopamine.

The only time I go on Pinterest is around Christmas and my wife’s birthday, to carefully examine a board she has populated with gift suggestions, labeled, “Attention Mike.”

Subtle, that one.

Like Oppenheimer’s A-bombs, the Internet genie’s long out of the bottle. Like time, technology only moves one way. Before I die (unless I get hit by that truck tomorrow while checking Facebook cruising down Anderson Avenue) my washing machine will talk to my refrigerator through the Internet. Imagine that actual conversation.

Washing machine: “Uh… think maybe that egg salad’s gone south, my friend.”
Refrigerator: “You oughta know, you and your grungy boxer shorts.”

I could deactivate my Twitter account tomorrow and not blink an eye. Instagram? What about the doggie pics? LinkedIn? But, but… professional reputation management.

Facebook?

Read my column. Look at me. 

Three Dozen Things I Miss

1. Conversations with my father during his last three years.
2. My wife, after she’s been gone for 24 hours.
3. Buttons that actually depress when you push them.
4. Richard Pryor and Robin Williams.
5. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauruses.
6. Enough hair to brush.
7. Friendships from high school. Facebook, decades later, is just not the same.
8. Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum.
9. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
10. Fido and Rover, the first dogs my wife and I owned as a couple.
11. K-State weekday afternoon baseball games.  
12. Running half-marathons every spring and fall with my son when he was in college.
13. My grandfather, Victor Ordway, and his aircraft carrier-sized Chryslers.
14. Mary Richards and Murphy Brown.
15. Time management discipline the DVR took away.
16. Stress-free air travel.
17. Reading something in a hard copy newspaper that I’ve not already seen electronically.
18. The proper use of ellipses, semicolons, and the Oxford Comma.

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19. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente.
20. Using actual money.
21. Boston, Kansas, and the Steve Miller Band.
22. The total lack of ambiguity in my paternal grandmother’s Catholicism.
23. When “Breaking News” was just that.
24. Home service appointments more specific than “sometime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.”
25. A thousand points of light.
26. The easily discernable ideology of the Cold War.
27. Magic and Bird.
28. Glenn Frey, Maurice White, and Walter Becker.
29. The political middle.
30. The two-letter county designation preceding the number on Kansas license plates.
31. My father-in-law.
32. Duran Duran, Howard Jones, and Tears for Fears. “Everybody wants to rule the world.”
33. Congressional leaders with a spine. (see #8)
34. Presidents of the United States who are not narcissists.
35. Early Steve Martin comedy.
36. Eating donuts with impunity.

Scandal, Outrage and Reform

This column appeared Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


Late Sunday afternoon, the day before the Kansas Day Big Monday game with KU, as I was leaving Starbucks in Aggieville, in walked Fran Fraschilla. We made eye contact and because my mama raised me to be polite, I welcomed the coach to Manhattan and engaged him in one of those tête-à-têtes that are good for one self-serving social media post.
      
At the end of our brief exchange, Fraschilla said something cryptic about Bruce Weber that only now, weeks later, is beginning to make sense.

“He runs a clean program.”

The implication, or at least the inference I drew was that Fraschilla is familiar with many who don’t. As the lead analyst for Big 12 basketball on ESPN, I’ll chalk the man up as credible.  

A couple weeks later, news broke that the ongoing FBI probe of corruption in college basketball could turn out to be a thing. Players from more than 20 of the nation’s top programs have been implicated in all manner of alleged nefariousness and NCAA rule-breaking.

Division 1 college sports is big business, even in li’l ol’ Manhattan, Kansas. Just look at the all the new K-State athletic department capital improvements that have sprung up in the last decade, with more in the pipeline. Jon Wefald’s ‘front porch’ is beginning to look like the lobby in Trump Tower.

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musco.com

We all know the chronology of these things. First scandal, followed by outrage, then reform. Reform often occurs in direct proportion to the level and ferocity of the outrage. A cynic might say this will give coaches, university presidents and athletic directors sufficient cover to say all the right things, without being forced into difficult decisions.

Change occurs when people within a system believe the status quo is untenable. When the quantity of people reaches a critical mass, the belief can turn into action.

The NBA Commissioner is making noises about changing ‘one and done.’ Condoleezza Rice’s NCAA commission may recommend real reform. One idea has already been floated: treat college athletes like Olympic athletes, with the ability to secure representation, sponsorships and endorsements.

Here in Manhattan, we haven’t faced the problems like the ones you read about connected to the big name basketball power schools. Maybe there’s a blessing to being a small land grant in flyover country.

Michael Beasley had more pure talent than anyone I’ve seen play at K-State. We all knew he was one and done when Dalonte Hill recruited him off the mean streets of Prince George’s County. He’s had a journeyman’s NBA career, bouncing around with a half-dozen clubs in ten years. Early in his career, like many young men, Michael had his share of problems stemming from wacky tobaccy, but with parenthood, seems to have cleaned up his act.

I’ve often pondered, would Beasley’s early NBA career have been any different had he spent four years at K-State? Would three more years of guidance, direction and learning the ways of the world in a controlled environment made a difference? The notion of ‘family’ has proven an effective way to market K-State football, but only because at its core, it’s legit.

I have no reason not to believe Fran Fraschilla. (That’s a double negative. I believe Fran Fraschilla). He’s clearly more plugged in and fluent on the ins and outs of D-1 college basketball programs than me. One thing our Starbucks chat may do, is solidify Weber as my guy. I was a huge Frank Martin guy. My ears are still ringing from Sandstorm a decade ago. When Weber won Coach of the Conference his first year with Frank’s guys and then tanked, I held my tongue and Weber at arms’ length, but the trend line is headed the right way.

My brain tells me K-State will never win 14 conference championships in a row. My gut tells me we’ll make the tournament more years than we don’t. Lightning may strike, and we could see another elite eight or final four. Like the Royals, maybe once in a generation.

My heart and my experience tell me to recognize your limitations, maximize your strengths and then just be happy with them. There’s peace of mind that comes with not succumbing to the nefariousness that lurks around seemingly every corner of big-time college sports.

I love K-State basketball and I want us to win as much as the next guy. My wife and I have been season ticketholders since we married in the Asbury era. It’s a value proposition inextricably interwoven to our life in Manhattan, Kansas.

Whatever happens, all of this should be about finding the sweet spot between winning basketball games and helping young men learn, grow and develop. We’ll never win like Kansas, Duke or Kentucky. But if we can hold our head high after the other Air Jordan drops, well that’s something.

Don't Cry For Me, General Motors

This column appeared Tuesday, February 27 in The Manhattan Mercury.


I used to think my appreciation for cars was simply a stereotype. I’m an American, a guy and I like to drive fast. Turns out I can’t help it. It’s in my blood.

For a window of time in the early ‘70s, both my grandmothers drove muscle cars. At age 15 with a learners’ permit burning a hole in my pocket, I was not exactly enamored of my parents’ vehicular decision-making. A 1970 harvest gold Chevrolet Townsman station wagon and a yellow 1973 Volkswagen beetle. I cringed at the very thought of the eye-rolling, guffawing, down-the-nose adolescent peer reviews.

“Niiiiice station wagon!”

“A VW bug?”   

 Learners' permit, pride and dingo boots.

Learners' permit, pride and dingo boots.

My parents’ mothers, however, harbored vehicular preferences that transcended their children’s mundane, neighborhood norm-fitting tastes which led to blatant grandmotherly up-sucking when they would visit.

Mom’s mom, Elizabeth Ordway, motored around Plainville, Kansas in a 1973 Pontiac GTO. High performance at the bridge club and sewing circle.

“Yo Grandma, howdja like me to run down and top off your tank for you?”

During this exact period, my father’s mother got to and from her appointed rounds as a social worker in Bakersfield, California in a metallic green 1969 Chevy Camaro.

“Running low on cigarettes? Happy to fetch you some more. Maybe swing through the car wash?”  

Victoria Matson’s appreciation for wheels came naturally, too. Before the Camaro, she traversed from Point A to Point B in a 1957 Oldsmobile 88 with twin aerodynamic chrome fender ornaments up front, fashioned to look like jet-propelled rockets poised to soar into the wild blue yonder. All chrome and white outside, all red leather tuck and roll upholstery inside.

Grandma always had a six-inch magnetic statue of Jesus and an assorted saint or two positioned on the dashboard. As a little kid, I’d turn ‘em around and point them toward the broad highway and the far horizon.

Eyes front, St. Peter.

“No, no,” she would patiently counsel, turning them back around. “They’re watching over me.”

So many tendencies are embedded in the DNA of families, not all of them life-affirming. Sometimes they skip a generation.

In high school, I helped my best friend trick out his ‘69 Barracuda fastback. Back then, fledgling gearheads fell into one of two distinct mag wheel camps. Slots or spokes. Like all teenagers, I tended to make up my mind on the really crucial things like mag wheel preference based not on a host of data inputs and empirical evidence, but on something vitally more important. My best friend prefers slots? Well, me too, then.

I drove it once. Four or five of us in various stages of nodding off, returning from Yearbook Camp at Bethany College in Lindsborg. We awoke and discovered that while still southbound at Interstate speed, we were no longer on the Interstate. As though nothing had happened, with understated teenage nonchalance and aplomb, my buddy eased to a stop in the grassy right-of-way.

“Hey Matson, why don't you drive the rest of the way home?”

He didn't have to ask me twice.

When I started buying my own cars, with all this vast knowledge and experience, I tended toward the sporty. My all-time fave was a forest green ‘71 MGB two-seater ragtop with a tan interior. My chums and I had further deluded ourselves into thinking we had the chops to repair it. Our auto mechanical limitations became painfully evident at the exact moment the driveshaft dropped while doing 80 on the bypass.  

Not to get all Freudian on you but a young man’s ego and pride, much of it false, it turns out, is wrapped up in his wheels.

When I met my wife, I was driving a muscle car of my own. Fire engine red, 1989 Camaro RS, two-door beauty of a machine. Because she understood Freud and me, the Camaro was soon in my rear-view mirror. Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar. The last vestige of my wild days and mad existence. It’s been all sedans and SUV’s since. Don’t cry for me, General Motors.
 
These days, when the car show comes to City Park in the spring, I can scarcely contain my excitement.
 
Me: “Wow! There’s whole ‘nother row of sweet cars over on the east side!”
My wife (deadpan): “Yay.”

Today, as I tool around the Little Apple in my four-door 2012 Ford Escape with a piddly six-banger under the hood, the interior covered with dog hair, I’ll spot the occasional muscle car or two-seater ragtop and relive the dreams of my restless youth.
 
Nothing marks the passage of time quite as starkly as seeing a vehicle from those glory years on the streets, bearing an ‘antique’ license plate.

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 Ukraine and Russian-based separatists rages into its fourth year. Russia may covet Ukraine’s natural gas resources or they may feel threatened by 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, 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.

                                                                                                                            prairieband.com

                                                                                                                           prairieband.com

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.